Chapter Seventeen



"Needa? It can't be."

The painful disbelief on Admiral Piett's face hit Mon Mothma like a wound. While she searched for something comforting to say, General Dodonna said quietly, "I'm sorry, he hasn't really left us any room for doubt."

Piett's hospital room had turned into an impromptu conference chamber. The room was small enough that Dodonna, Rieekan, Calrissian and Mon Mothma had difficulty crowding into it without accidentally elbowing each other or stepping on each other's feet. It was made even more cosy by the presence of Dr. Tomczyk, who hostilely eyed the senior staff and looked ready to boot them out at the first sign that his patient was getting fatigued. For now, the Admiral was sitting up with no apparent difficulty, and adrenaline and shock seemed to be keeping him fully awake. He ran a hand over his forehead and through his hair, then shook his head. "What was he doing in the launching bay?"

"Trying to arrange his escape route, apparently," sighed Mon Mothma. "Commander Antilles had been working on a back-up plan for sending a Lambda strike force to Coruscant." Time enough later, she thought, to deal with any repercussions of that. Though from Antilles' shame-faced look as he'd admitted it to her, he was already giving himself enough grief over it that any other disciplinary action might be extraneous. "Needa'd found out about it and volunteered to be one of the pilots."

General Calrissian added, "he must have figured out that Security was closing in on him. Maybe he'd have skipped out when the team got to Coruscant; maybe he'd have vanished before then. Looks like we're not going to know, at this rate."

"You want me to talk with him," said Piett.

"You've known him longer than any of the rest of us," pointed out General Rieekan. "If anyone's got a chance of getting through to him …"

"You tried negotiating already?"

There was a shrug from General Calrissian. "Sure. Captain Needa's got nice, simple demands. We let him off the planet without taking any action against him, and when he's a safe distance away he'll let Madine go unharmed. We try to stop him, and Madine's dead. Actually," Calrissian added thoughtfully, "I think his exact words were Ôand I'll fry the General's toupee'. I do imagine he plans to fry the rest of him, too, though."

Piett frowned at the three Generals and Mon Mothma. "If I talk with him, do I have anything to offer?"

Nobody answered.

"Great," the Admiral said bitterly. "Negotiate with no bargaining points. I'm glad you give me the easy jobs around here."

"Can we afford to let him go?" Mothma asked the others.

Dodonna seemed to be studying the floor. "I'm beginning to wonder if we've got any choice."

Piett sighed. "Okay. Let's see what he has to say."

Dr. Tomczyk shouldered his way over to the bed to supervise setting up the portable com-unit, as if afraid that the assembled Generals and Head of State would break something. When the com was safely installed on the bed tray, General Calrissian keyed in the code for the Lambda. A moment later, the interior of the shuttle's cockpit appeared on the screen. Captain Needa was tinkering with the controls, and said without looking up, "just a second. Just checking to make sure weapons are on-line."

"Angus," said Piett.

Needa started a little as he looked up at the screen, then plastered a big, fake smile on his face. "Grisha!" He exclaimed, with overdone chumminess. "So, they're using the Ôget his old friend to talk with him and make him feel guilty' trick."

Piett sighed. "Yes. That's it. Angus, what the hell are you doing?"

"Escaping. Or trying to."

"But -- but why? Why do it to begin with?"

Needa shook his head. "Oh, no. I'm not the kind of villain who tells all his plans to the heroes so they can save the day. I'm the kind of villain who escapes with his skin intact."

"Angus, for Gods' sakes --"

Piett's old friend suddenly looked very serious. "Look, Grigori, I'm sorry. I didn't mean all this to happen to you." He went on, belying his statement that he wasn't going to explain himself, "it wasn't a fiendish plan. I found out your code by accident and figured I'd use it as a cover, I didn't expect your Rebel buddies to start witch-hunting. How's the ulcer?"

"Terrific," snapped Piett. Damnation. A man is your friend for years -- hell, for decades -- and then he goes and does this. If I were Darth Vader, Piett thought, I'd teleport into that shuttle and strangle him. Or go back in time, grab him by the scruff of his neck, and shake him till he agreed not to betray the Rebellion. "You owe it to me to tell me," he said, the cold anger in his voice surprising him. It certainly seemed to surprise Captain Needa. "What did you do it for?"

"For? For credits, of course. Betraying the Empire after twenty years of service doesn't do much to build up your retirement money."

"You never had any retirement money."

"And," Needa went on, "it may have escaped your notice, but I'm not a big fan of Lord Vader."

"But he --"

"I know what he did." Needa leaned closer to the com-link. "I'm sick of him getting away with everything. I'm sick of everyone treating him like his circuits are made of gold!"

"He still spared your life, because he knew you were a good officer. He didn't deserve this from you."

Needa's eyes widened and he gave an angry snort. "Oh, poor Lord Vader! You see what I mean? The man makes your life a hell, and now you think he's some kind of angel. Firelord, Grigori! You had nightmares just from thinking he was going to strangle you. What kind of dreams do you think someone has when he has strangled them?"

A twinge of guilt hit Piett. He remembered Needa's limp form as the Captain was dragged away after his near-death experience with Vader. He remembered how it had felt to try and keep his face and voice calm, and report to the Dark Lord, while his oldest friend was strangled in front of him. And he remembered Needa in the medbay afterward, when Piett went to visit him, closing his eyes and whispering "I don't want to talk about it."

Needa always wanted to talk about everything. But they'd never talked about this.

"Look, Angus," Piett said suddenly. "Come out of there and let Madine go. I'm sure we can --"

"Oh, sure! The Rebs are just going to pat me on the head? 'It's okay that you've betrayed us and killed our security chief and kidnapped our General, all is forgiven?'" Angus sighed. "Chat time's over, Grisha."

"All right, all right. What do you want?"

"Same as before. I get off Omean alive, with no one following me, and I let Madine go when we reach a neutral planet. And everybody's happy."

General Rieekan said from the side of Piett's bed, "let us talk with Madine."

Needa shrugged. "No problem. Hey, Ensign Madine, the bigwigs want to talk with you." The grin on Needa's face as he said that added the implication that "bigwigs" was yet another toupee joke.

A very pissed-off looking Madine, with his hands restrained together in front of him, joined Needa in the com image. He had a black eye and blood had dried around a cut on his lip, but otherwise he seemed intact. "Don't negotiate with him," the General said fiercely. "Don't let him get away with this, it's not worth it."

"Noble, isn't he?" put in Needa. "Makes me just want to cry. 'Bye, guys. Let me off the planet or you've got yourselves another dead hero." He cut the transmission.

The others were all looking at Piett expectantly, as if he could somehow solve all their problems. Piett sighed again. "I don't think he's bluffing. He hates Madine. If he thinks he's not going to make it out of this alive, he'll take Madine with him."

"So what the hell do we do?" asked General Calrissian

He didn't get any answer.



Three days.

He'd been lying here on display for three days now. There were another four days to go, unless Palpatine lost interest and decided to terminate him ahead of schedule.

Somewhere along the line would supposedly come this attempt to rescue him, but Vader thought, I'm not holding my breath for that. The humorousness of that thought coming from Darth Vader occurred to him, and he suppressed a groan. I really must be getting bored, he thought, I'm laughing at my own bad jokes.

He tried to remember if anyone had ever told him not to hold his breath waiting for something, in all the time he had been Darth Vader. Most of the people he associated with wouldn't have dared to mention breathing in the Dark Lord's presence. But he thought he remembered … oh, yes. Someone had said that to him, a very long time ago. When they'd been installing his new respiratory system, and the timing of the comment had caused Vader, his doctor, and the man who had said it to all laugh so hard that Vader nearly overloaded the system before he could calm down.

The man who had said it was Palpatine.

Vader sighed. Palpatine, but back in the days before Vader thought of him as "Palpatine". Back when they were still close enough friends to call each other "Diam" and "Darth".

Actually it had taken quite a while for Senator Diam Palpatine to break himself of the habit of calling his friend and co-conspirator "Anakin". They'd had some bad moments when Vader was afraid that Diam would give the whole game away by calling him "Anakin" in public. Vader had stopped acknowledging his old name, and wouldn't pay the Senator the slightest bit of attention unless he called him "Darth". It had annoyed Diam no end, but it got the job done.

Damn. It was a long time since he'd thought back to those first days and months of figuring out how to be Darth Vader. He wished he hadn't thought back to them now. Remembering made him feel Ð well, there was no other way to put it. It made him feel lonely.

Those days had been fun. There'd been hard work as well, getting used to his partly mechanical body. But just the freedom of having legs that he could walk on again, and a respiratory system that was under his control … compared with the crippled existence he'd thought he'd be forced to endure, life as Darth Vader had seemed to hold infinite promise.

And there'd been the fun of plotting the shape they wanted the future to take. Holed up in Diam's country house and working out, step by step, the path by which they would lead the Jedi Order to ruin. Creating the script for the drama in which Diam Palpatine was to become the saviour of the galaxy. Oh yes, it was fun. He remembered them giggling, for gods' sakes Ð well, they'd been rather drunk at the time; it was before Vader had decided to rely entirely on infusions for his sustenance Ð as they schemed how best to knock the Jedi Order onto its damned sanctimonious collective ass.

He wondered when it had changed. When did they stop being two friends getting drunk together on alcohol and power? When had they become no longer "Diam" and "Darth" but "My Master" and "My Friend"?

Gods damn it. He had to stop thinking about this. He had to stop, as his mother would have said, crying over smashed sandcastles. Diam Palpatine wasn't his friend anymore; hell, that Diam Palpatine barely even existed in the creature that was now the Emperor. If he let himself keep moping over what used to be, he'd just have a harder time crushing the Emperor, if he ever got the chance.

But the memories were still nibbling at his mind.

He did remember a moment when he'd realised that things had changed.

It was when he'd come back from that long campaign in the Riidara Sector, expecting as usual to be granted an audience with the Emperor. It had then been three days before Palpatine had deigned to see him. And when Vader was finally admitted, Palpatine had wanted to talk about nothing but the Force. About what it was like for Vader, what he saw and felt when he used it. And about the Force-enhancing drugs that Palpatine had his scientists working on.

He remembered watching Diam's familiar yellow eyes and thinking that they didn't look familiar at all any more. Seeing the distant gleam in those eyes and wondering just how many Force-enhancing drugs the Emperor had been trying out on himself.

That time, Palpatine had offered to share the drugs with Vader. He hadn't been very happy when his old friend suggested that the drugs might not be a great idea. In fact, Vader remembered, Palpatine had accused him of sounding just like Obi Wan Kenobi.

The next week Vader was sent on another mission, to wipe out the crime empire of Baccara Chovitza. When he came back from that one, the Emperor didn't offer to share his drugs again. He had, however, taken great pleasure in proving that his strength in the Force was now even greater than Darth Vader's.

Ha, thought Vader. What a boost for the galaxy-wide anti-drugs campaigns. Palpatine could be their poster child. 'Hey kids, don't do drugs or you'll look like Emperor Palpatine'. Of course, Vader himself didn't have much room to talk. He could be the poster child for the Ôdon't drink and fly' campaign.

So where are we now, Vader asked himself. What became of the senator and the young officer who first met in a bar, and drank themselves under the table bitching about the Jedi?

One of them is drug addict and rules the galaxy, and the other has fucked up his last chance to build a relationship with his family and is under sentence of death.

No. Gods damn it, no, he couldn't let himself do this. He was back to where he'd been when Darth Vader was first created. Flat on his back and drowning in self-pity.

He owed it to himself not to do this. To himself, and to the Diam Palpatine who had been his friend.

In his mind, he could hear Diam's voice on that day it had started. He could see the Senator pacing up and down in the hospital room, see the near panic on his face, hear the desperation quivering behind his words. "Anakin, don't do this. Please. Don't make me lose the best friend I've got."

He could hear his own bitter voice as he demanded, "why? I've lost me, why shouldn't you?"

It was after the eighth or ninth time he'd tried to commit suicide, lying there in his hospital bed. Diam had made him promise not to try again, until he'd had a chance to talk Anakin out of it. So far Diam hadn't been having much luck.

"Dammit, Anakin!"

"'Dammit, Anakin,' is not much of an argument."

"No, dammit, listen to me. It doesn't have to end like this."

He remembered his fury surging up, tempting him to annihilate himself in one blast of power and take Palpatine with him. "You try it!" he'd yelled. "You think I'm being so damned selfish, you try living like this! Try knowing you'll never be able to move again without a room full of machines to help you! Try knowing you've thrown your entire life away, and the galaxy has seen you do it, on the godsdamned evening news!" His voice got quieter. "You know what everyone's going to see when they look at me? They'll see my eye leaking down my face. They'll see my ribs sticking out of my chest. They've watched it all on the News of the Galaxy while they were eating their suppers!"

The pain of it had become so much a part of him, it was almost comforting. "And you know what else they'll see?" he whispered. "Even if I get to the point where I don't look like a monster any more? They'll see a drunken loser who used to be the Hero of the Republic until his wife walked out on him and he flew into a building." He wanted to laugh or cry, but instead he just spat out, "so much for the great Anakin Skywalker."

Palpatine grabbed a chair and set it next to the bed. He sat down, leaning close to Anakin, with a desperate eagerness on his face. "Okay, here goes. You promise to stay alive long enough for me to tell you my plan?"

Curiosity more than anything else made Anakin say, "yeah. I promise."

"What if Anakin Skywalker were dead? Then he could be a hero again. And you could have a second chance."

"Diam? What are you talking about?"

Diam grinned. "The same thing you've been talking about. With a twist. Let's say the galaxy believes that Anakin Skywalker's died. Everyone feels all mournful and noble and says nice things about you. You're enshrined as a hero. The End. Meanwhile, you're actually in hiding at my house. I hire Dr. Hadasht to keep working on those prosthetics plans she was developing. We build you a new body. You can wear a mask, so nobody knows who you are. And hey presto. Goodbye Anakin Skywalker, hello man of mystery. No more Jedi trying to control you, no more having to work inside the chain of command. You'll have the chance to do everything you couldn't do before."

It was such a crazy idea, Anakin had started laughing. "That's it. You've gone insane."

"No," Palpatine said quietly. "I haven't."Anakin decided that Diam had been reading too many comic books. That was the only universe in which this idea of his would work. "We'd never pull it off without being caught. Anyway, you don't know this Ônew body' idea will work. You're making it up."

"Fine," joked Palpatine. "If it doesn't work, then you can kill yourself." He glanced down at his clasped hands, then looked up again, suddenly deadly serious. "Anakin, listen. I'm going after the Jedi, whether you're alive to help me or not. I'll do it without you if I have to. I don't want to do it alone, but I will. But don't you want to be here for it? Don't you want to see them fall? Don't you want to be the one who pushed them over the edge?" His voice got so soft that Anakin almost couldn't hear it. "Don't you want to see Obi Wan Kenobi's face, when everything he believes in is gone?"

A sudden sound jolted Darth Vader back to the present.

Sound? What the hell? There weren't any sounds. The display case prevented all sounds from reaching him. Unless the Emperor had come back for another round of playing games with Vader's mind.

There it was again. A creaking that seemed to come from the display case itself. As if something had grabbed it by the corners and was tearing it apart.

His pulse rate jumped, and he cursed himself for getting so caught up in his memories. He fought to see whatever might be happening outside the case, but his eyes couldn't pierce the Great Hall's dimness.

One of the long sides of the display case snapped loose from the other three sides, and tumbled onto the marble floor. The case's ceiling and the three other sides were simply yanked into the air and hurled across the Hall. Vader heard them faintly as they clattered to the floor, a startlingly long distance away.

There was a popping sound and his left wrist started to tingle. It took a moment for him to realise that the restraint around that wrist must have been opened. As the other restraints followed, the lights around the Hall's ceiling suddenly glowed into life.

For a few seconds he could only blink against the light. He was struggling to sit up, his body still so numb that it might as well not have been there. He managed to push himself into a sitting position. Then he did feel something. Someone's fingers, brushing across his forehead. A sensation as if someone had leaned over him and their hair had swept over his face. And then their lips, pressed against his cheek.

"Father," Leia whispered, her face still pressed to his. "Oh, Father."

He still could barely feel his arms, but he reached out and clutched her to him.

It could only have been a few more seconds before they let go. His eyes had adjusted to the light, and he saw her now as she stepped back from him. It had been only three days since he'd seen her, but he thought she looked different than he remembered. She was thinner, he thought, and paler, and she was wearing a black outfit that reminded him incongruously of the uniform of the New Forces. But her shy little grin as she looked at him was glorious. He wasn't sure that he'd ever seen her looking so happy. Certainly, she'd had few enough reasons to smile that way at him.

"You're still attached to this thing," she said, suddenly business-like again. "Is it -"

"The infusion tubes," he told her. "In my back. You can undo them, it's all right."

"It's okay to just pull them out?" she asked, stepping behind him.

"Yes, don't worry. The sockets will close automatically."

He heard the faint wheeze as the infusion units shut themselves off. Cautiously he shifted himself off of the platform where he'd been lying for so long, a little worried that his legs wouldn't hold up beneath him. So far they seemed to work, although for safety's sake he clutched onto the edge of the platform. One of his booted feet bumped against the side of the display case that Leia had torn off first. He saw her glance down at it, and the plastisteel sheet skidded across the floor, out of their way.

What was it Palpatine had said about Leia? That she was proving to be an apt pupil?

Leia reached out to support him as he planted himself more firmly on his feet.

"Tell me quickly," said Vader. "What's happening?"

"Your friends have launched an uprising," she said. "I don't know how many are involved. There've been some explosions. There's fighting in the corridors, between Palace Guards on our side, and Imperial Guards and stormtroopers against us."


"He's all right. That is … physically he's all right." That would have to do for now; her expression showed that they would do a lot of talking about this particular question. "I saw him just now in the corridor, with the Palace Guards and General Mulcahy."

"Mulcahy." Vader smiled at the name of his successor as Commander of the New Forces. Gods damn, the man must be eighty if he was a day. It offered some encouragement to a mere fifty-something like Vader, even if he did still feel like his body was in a different solar system.

Vader looked to the foot of the platform, on which stood the pedestal displaying his helmet, mask and lightsaber. He crossed to the pedestal, pleased to note that his legs did seem to be doing what they were supposed to. He snapped the lightsaber to its place on his belt, as he did so glancing at Leia and noticing that she wore a lightsaber on her belt as well. When he picked up his mask, his numbed hands fumbled and he nearly dropped the thing. He leaned back against the display platform, taking a steadying breath. He tried to focus on the simple task of putting on his mask, but unless he waited for his nerves to wake up, it was going to be hellishly awkward.

He studied Leia's beautiful face, knowing how rare it would be to look on her without his mask intervening.

"Leia," he said quietly, "help me put this mask on."

She nodded. "What do I do?"

"It's fairly simple, if your hands aren't asleep. It fastens onto the breathing mask – yes, that's right. And then on to the neck piece Ð there. Then the helmet just slips over it-- "

She settled the helmet on his head, and it clicked into place.

My Gods. He was almost himself again. Now there was just the little matter of not being able to feel one damned wisp of the Force.

He looked at his daughter, and was relieved to see her smiling bravely up at him. His reappearance in full Darth Vader mode had not, after all, caused her to flee screaming from the room.

She gripped his arm, and he reached over to clasp his hand around hers. "Let's get out of here," Vader said.

Then a familiar voice seemed to roll at them from all corners of the room, and drape oozingly around them.

"My friends," said the voice. "I believe you've underestimated me. Again."



Another explosion shook the corridor. The emergency lights winked out for a moment, then faded back into existence, seemingly dimmer than before.

"One thing's for sure," Han muttered, "they're gonna have to do a lot of repair work around this palace."

So far they had encountered no one except one little waste disposal droid, that squeaked in apparent fright when it saw them, but kept skittering along the hallway in the direction opposite to that in which Han and Chewie were going. If it had been a more advanced model, Han would have blasted it to stop it from informing anyone of their escape. But these little rubbish droids had no ability to send out-going communications; they could only receive messages that told them their next assignments. Han was a little worried, though, by the haste with which the droid was trying to get away from whatever he and Chewie were heading toward.

All of the doors they had passed were stuck in the open position, just like the door to their cell. At first Han had been a little worried about that, too, wondering whether they were going to get inundated by a rush of fellow escaping prisoners. That could be good, since it would provide a distraction from Han and Chewie. But he'd had some experience with large-scale prison escapes, and he didn't like them much. There were always bound to be some nutcases involved who were more interested in tearing their fellow prisoners limb from limb than in escaping efficiently like good, sensible sentient beings.

But thus far, no other escapees had appeared. The few rooms that Han had cautiously glanced into seemed to be offices, and were just as uninhabited as the corridor. The majority of the detention cells must be on another level, maybe one that hadn't suffered a power outage. Han's chronometer told him it was after 2130, which would explain why there wasn't anybody in the offices. Even Imperial employees had to get off work sometime.

Han and Chewie rounded a corner, and nearly ran into an Imperial officer with a blaster rifle.

Han and the officer both yelled, and Han levelled his own rifle at the other man's chest. He didn't fire, though, because the second he'd seen them, the Imperial had flung down his gun and thrust his hands up in the air. "Don't shoot, Solo!" the man shouted. "We're on your side!"

"We" consisted of a group of men a few paces behind the officer. About twelve, probably, Han thought. Most of them were in civilian clothes, but there were three in the armour of stormtroopers. All of them held blaster rifles, and the civilians had blaster pistols and other weapons holstered or jammed into their belts. So far the other men had frozen, and made no move to drop their weapons or to fire. They were waiting, Han figured, to see what he did to their leader.

"Who the Hell are you?" Han demanded.

The officer swallowed, but said in a steady voice, "Lieutenant William Iddims. I was one of Lord Vader's staffers here in the Palace before he defected."

"And these guys?"

One of the men in civvies, with a Corellian accent a Hell of a lot thicker than Han's own, answered truculently, "we were all members of Lord Vader's bodyguard. When he switched sides, we lost our jobs or were demoted Ð those of us who weren't executed."

"So why should we trust you?" snapped Han.

"Because we're not shooting at you?" suggested Lieutenant Iddims.

Chewbacca growled that he had a point.

"Unh-hunh." Han lowered the rifle a little, but didn't take his finger off the trigger. "What's going on around here?"

"We're in the middle of a palace revolt," Iddims said. "To rescue Lord Vader. Moff Nevoy sent us to free you two."

"Who's Moff Nevoy?"

"Moff of Coruscant. He's leading the revolt. Can I pick up my rifle now?"

"Hang on a second. What about Leia Organa and Luke Skywalker? You know anything about them?"

Iddims nodded. "They're being freed as well. I think General Mulcahy's team went to fetch them. If all goes well, we'll be meeting them at Landing Bay Four."

Han sighed. "Okay," he said, finally removing his finger from the rifle's trigger. "You watch yourself though, pal. Remember Wookiees don't like it when people shoot their friends."

"I'll remember," Iddims said dryly, retrieving his blaster.

"What now?" Han asked.

"That way," replied Lieutenant Iddims, nodding his head in the direction Han and Chewie had been going.

They set out again, at a cautious but steady pace. Two of the stormtroopers and two of the guys in civvies hung back to bring up the rear, putting Han, Chewbacca and Lieutenant Iddims near the centre of the group. Han eyed Iddims warily, still half expecting the man to whirl around and blast him. The Lieutenant had a thin, somehow scholarly looking face that seemed at odds with his nose which had certainly been broken, maybe more than once. Noticing Han's scrutiny, Iddims glanced over and asked, "how'd you get out of your cell? The power outage?"

"Yeah. It opened the door. How'd you know who I was?"

"Seen your wanted posters. And you're the only person in this palace who'd be running around with a Wookiee."

"Good point." There was another distant rumbling, and the corridor around them seemed to shudder. "What's with all these explosions?"

"This wing of the detention block's right under Imperial Guard Headquarters. That's where the worst of the fighting's going on." Iddims gave an appreciative grin as he said, "we bombed the place as an opening ceremony for tonight's festivities, but a lot of the Red Idiots are still alive and fighting."

"And we're walking toward them?"

Iddims shrugged. "Only way out except for the sewers."

After a few more turnoffs into branching corridors which assured Han that if Iddims and his buddies dumped them they'd be irretrievably lost, the men at the head of the procession halted. Two of them, Han saw as he caught up, were removing a panel from the wall. The resulting opening was about five feet wide, but only reached to partway up Han's thigh. The men who'd opened up the passageway switched on the lights on their blaster rifles and crawled into the hole.

The decidedly displeased note to Chewbacca's growl reminded Han that Wookiees didn't like enclosed spaces. To be scrupulously honest, Han didn't like them much either. But this wasn't that enclosed, right? And he sure wasn't going to sound worried about it front of Lieutenant William Iddims.

Han jerked a thumb toward Chewie. "He wants to know where we're going."

"It's a service hallway for the droids," said Iddims. "Best route to take if we don't want to walk into the middle of the shooting."

Han eyed the hole. "You're telling me the droids have to unscrew that panel every time they want to use the hallway?"

"No, it's got sensors set to recognise the droids and open up for them. We figured it'd take less time to pry it off than to make ourselves fake droid recognition codes."

The sound Chewie made next was more like a howl.

"There aren't any garbage chutes in there, are there?" Han asked suspiciously.

Iddims shook his head. Lord Vader's former bodyguards were steadily crawling into the wall and disappearing.

"There, you see, pal?" Han said to Chewie. "We haven't made you wear restraints and pretend to be a prisoner, either, what more do you want from me?"

Chewbacca's growl told him, you go first.

Han gave a shrug. "Fine." Everyone was inside the passageway now except for him, Chewie, Iddims, and the four men behind them. Reminding himself that this passage was, after all, a lot bigger than the nooks and crannies he had to crawl around in whenever he fixed the Falcon, he got to his knees and scrambled into the hole. Lieutenant Iddims was right beside him.

As he shuffled along on his hands and knees, Han glanced back to be sure that the still quietly grumbling Chewbacca had indeed followed him. The Wookiee was so much taller than the rest of them that he was having to worm along on his belly. "You okay, Chewie?" Han asked.

Chewie's only answer was an aggrieved-sounding wuffet.

The man in front of them was one of the three stormtroopers. Well, this is fun, Han thought. Crawling through the Imperial Palace with a stormtrooper's butt in my face. Don't let anyone tell you Corellians don't know how to have a good time.

There had to be something more interesting to think about than stormtrooper's armoured rear ends. And other than the fact that his hands and knees were starting to hurt. Of course, chief among the most interesting things to think about was the fact that he might be about to see Leia again. But the thought of her being somewhere in this exploding palace made him just plain scared, so he wasn't going to think about that, either. He asked Lieutenant Iddims, "so what'd you do as Vader's staffer?"

"Well, there were a lot of us, but I was one of the guys who went through the complaints files and decided which ones should be passed on to Lord Vader."

"Complaints?" Han echoed incredulously. "People complained to Darth Vader?"

Iddims gave a brief chuckle. "No, not directly. Not usually, anyway. There'd be some really ballsy person every now and then who'd want to go straight to the top, but that didn't happen too often. No, what we did was go through the complaints that were sent to other departments. The ones we figured Vader wanted to know about, we sent on to him."

"So what if you figured wrong?"

"He'd strangle us," said Iddims, in a tone that made it sound like a joke. With Vader, though, it probably wasn't. "Nahh, he never did that unless you really screwed up. Like if you were accepting bribes or telling pretty girls you'd forward their complaints if they slept with you. He did strangle one guy who did that. It was pretty easy to figure out which files to send him, anyway. Anything that had to do with the efficiency and welfare of the troops, or that really made the Empire look bad, Lord Vader would want to know."

The Empire always looks bad, Han thought. That's the whole point of the Empire. But he just asked, "like what?"

"Well, like the last big project I was working on before Vader left. There was this lady on Nisivin who started a petition to have shields installed in the TIEs, after her son got killed as a TIE pilot. Vader was actually already working on adding shields to the TIEs, but anyway, the governor of the Nisivi Sector had this lady arrested. Luckily she didn't get executed or anything, Lord Vader would really have been pissed off about that. So anyway, I found the appeal request on this lady's sentence, and passed it on to Lord Vader. He got her freed and sent the governor to the spice mines. And I got to write the letter offering the Empire's apologies and telling her Lord Vader was giving the shields installation project his personal attention."

"So do all the TIEs have shields, now?" Han asked. They sure hadn't seemed to in the last battle they'd fought against the Imperials.

"No, only a few prototypes. When Lord Vader defected all of his pet projects got scrapped."

Gods, thought Han, ain't this all warm and fuzzy. Next thing, Iddims would be telling him about Lord Vader distributing Firelord Day presents to widows and orphans. Still, though, it was nice to know that not everyone who'd worked with the Dark Lord lived in deadly fear of him. It boded well for Han's chances to be part of a decent family life with his almost-father-in-law. Presuming, of course, that they all lived long enough to try it. And presuming that Leia could ever be convinced to stop hating her father.

Let's see, is there anything us guys could do to convince her? He couldn't think of much, except for family bonding techniques like him, Luke and Darth sitting around watching bryasha and drinking beer. But that sounded more like a sure way to get Leia to disown all three of them. He shook his head, banishing their potential family sitcom to some point in the misty future.

"You liked working for him?" Han asked Iddims.

"Yeah, it was a good job. Kind of scary sometimes, but that just helps you operate at peak efficiency, right?" They crawled on without speaking for few moments, then Iddims asked, "has he strangled anybody since he joined the Rebellion?"

"Not that I've heard of," said Han.

"Shit. Now I really want my old job back."

As they crawled, the hallway had seemed to be sloping gently upward. The ascent was so gradual that Han thought he might be imagining it. Now the guys in front of him slowed their crawl and finally stopped. He heard faint sounds of metal against metal, and figured the first two guys must be opening the other end of the passage.

The light changed, from darkness illuminated by their blasters' emergency lights, to the pale glow of an evening sky. The noise level changed as well – quite abruptly, as something apparently exploded on top of them.

In seeming slow motion, Han saw the men around him clapping their hands to their ears, and trying not to smash into the walls as the shockwave slammed against them. Han was knocked down and found himself staring at the floor of the passageway, half an inch from his nose.

As the explosion subsided, he could hear shouting voices and the sizzle of blaster fire. Occasionally the firing was interspersed with the louder humming of blaster cannons, and the wail and thud of torpedoes.

"Lieutenant," hissed one of the men in front of them, though he hardly needed to worry about being quiet. "You ought to see this."

Lieutenant Iddims crawled toward the opening, followed by Han. The other men crouched nearer the walls to let them pass.

"Holy shit," whispered Iddims.

They were looking out at an open courtyard, above which the sky of Coruscant spread in a lavender glow. Ordinarily by this time of the evening, the pyramid-shaped solar lights at the edges of the courtyard would have already switched on. But perhaps this evening they were confused by the explosions blazing around them. Han squinted, trying to make out exactly what he was seeing. Across the courtyard, the building that should have stood there was transformed into a jagged ruin. Han saw human figures sheltering behind a large chunk of rubble, and in the white gleam of an explosion he saw that they were aiming a blaster cannon. Aiming upward.

He glanced up, and wanted to flatten himself against the floor again.

It was hard to tell in this light, but from the silhouette it looked like the ship above them was a skipray blastboat, and it was only about fifty metres above the level of the courtyard. Its pilot had it dancing away from the fire that soared out of the cannon below.

Han wondered how many men were in the skipray. If they had a gunner as well as a pilot, he should have been able to get a fix on the men and the cannon, and blow the whole lot of them into a collection of crumbs. But Han knew that skiprays could be operated by one man, in an emergency. If there was only one guy in there, maybe he was just trying to keep himself alive.

"We can make a run for it across the courtyard," Han suggested. "They should be too busy shooting at each other to notice us."

"No," said Iddims. "My job is to get you two out of here alive." He turned to his troops and ordered, "this route's too dangerous; start heading back."

Han was about to protest. He really didn't want to crawl all the way back through that damn passageway, and if he knew Chewie, the Wookiee was contemplating ripping Iddims' kneecaps off right about now.

Then Han decided that Lieutenant Iddims was absolutely right.

The skipray had leaped out of the cannon's range, then sped down for another pass. Whoever was in there might not have the luxury of aiming, but he seemed determined to empty his entire complement of concussion missiles into the men on the ground. They scattered, several of them not fast enough. There was still one man at the cannon, and he fired at the speeding blastboat. The next second the man and the cannon both disappeared in flame.

"Shit," gasped Han, "the poor bastard hit it!"

The cannon's last shot had seared right into the blastboat's cockpit. It didn't look like the cockpit had been breached, but something was certainly damaged. The blastboat wavered uncertainly in the air, then reeled, flipped upside down, and started to fall. To fall right towards the wall with its droid service hallway where Han Solo was crouching.

"Back!" yelled Lieutenant Iddims. "Now!"

This time Han plunged into the passage at a crouching run; he hit his head on the ceiling a couple of times, but it was a damn sight faster than crawling. He saw that Chewie had moved over to the side of the passage to let the others get past him, and as Han reached his friend he shouted, "gods damn it, Chewie, come on! Move your furry ass!"

Chewie roared something obscene back at him. Then the blastboat hit. Han, Chewbacca and Iddims were suddenly thrown together in one jumbled heap, the Wookiee trying to protect the two smaller humans from the impact of the crash.

It took a few moments of lying there in the smoke-thickened darkness for Han to decide that he wasn't dead. Whether he was injured, though, was another question. It'd be just his luck if Chewie had crushed all his internal organs in trying to save him.

He could still feel the blaster rifle in his hand. Cautiously he felt around it till he found the emergency lighting switch, and flicked it on. That didn't help much at first, since the rifle was under the three of them. Han eased the blaster out from under the pile, hearing as he did so a groan from Iddims and a snarl from Chewbacca.

Amazing, thought Han. I don't seem to be broken. He looked back to what had been the opening of the passageway, and couldn't see much of it. From what he could see in the light of the blaster, it looked like the skipray had landed right in front of the hole. There was an open corner that just might be big enough for a human to squeeze through, but Chewie sure wouldn't make it. Anyway, Han didn't fancy crawling around a blastboat that had just crashed. The damn thing was probably burning, and Imperial vessels had a disconcerting tendency to self-destruct when their computers decided they were critically damaged.

He looked around at Chewbacca and Iddims, both of whom were disentangling themselves from the heap.

"You all right? Both of you?" Han asked.

Chewie gave an affirmative growl. Iddims didn't say anything at first. The Imperial was scowling at his right arm, which, Han noticed, hung at a rather weird angle. "I think my arm's broken," Iddims commented, in a tone that sounded more annoyed than anything else. He shook his head impatiently. "Doesn't matter, I'm left-handed anyway."

Han said, "I thought you said this was the way to not walk right into the shooting."

The Imperial officer with the broken arm grinned at him. "Looks like we need to find another way out."



A potted fern was incinerated next to Luke's head.

Luke ducked down further behind the overturned peach-coloured sofa, and fired his blaster. He hadn't even bothered to aim, just wanted to keep those stormtroopers on their toes. He resolved to do better on his next shot, though. After all, blaster power cells didn't last forever.

General Mulcahy's team had regrouped behind the meagre shelter of a circular couch with ferns growing out of its centre. Several of them had managed to shove the peach sofa over next to the circular one, though one of the soldiers had been killed in the process. Another two had died in the race across the huge open space, before they could reach even this rather pathetic cover.

Their opponents were a group of stormtroopers, who had followed the same strategy and sheltered themselves behind the matching group of sofas at the other side of the Great Hall's door. To distract himself from being scared spitless, Luke tried to imagine what the sofas would think about this, if sofas thought. Must be quite a contrast to the scenes they usually witnessed. What did people usually do around these sofas, he wondered. Exchange desultory small talk while sipping cocktails, when there were receptions in the Great Hall? Actually he didn't even know what the Great Hall was used for, but receptions and banquets seemed like a good guess.

Luke fired again, more carefully, and saw one of the stormtroopers clap an armoured hand to his shoulder and fall back. Luke couldn't tell, though, if the man was badly hit or just singed. He wondered why the stormtroopers seemed to have thrown in their lot with the supporters of the Emperor. He would have thought at least some of them preferred Vader to Palpatine. Maybe only the most fanatically loyal stormtroopers got stationed in the Palace. Or maybe those stormtroopers who hoped the uprising would succeed were just lying low. After all, since there were stormtroopers on the Emperor's side, any troopers with Rebel leanings might get themselves killed by friendly fire. Luke wouldn't blame them at all if they were hiding under their beds till all this was over. At the moment it sounded like a very alluring option.

He wondered how long they had before loyalist reinforcements turned up and blasted him, Mulcahy, and their handful of surviving Guards. Damn it, if only he had the Force he could tear the blasters out of the stormtroopers' hands, or explode them, or --

His thoughts were interrupted by running footsteps, yelling, and one hell of a lot of blaster fire.

The firing was so intense that the stormtroopers' sheltering couch and fern trees were all but obliterated. As the blaster fire was succeeded by a strange empty silence, Luke stood up cautiously, grimacing at the sight of white-armoured corpses sprawled around the remains of their couch. It wouldn't have bothered him in the old days, but since the founding of the New Alliance, he'd spent a year working with former stormtroopers. The armour wasn't enough, any more, to make him forget that those were human beings lying there dead. He swallowed back a wave of nausea and told himself, better them than us.

Anyway, he could agonise about all this later, if he survived.

No one else seemed unduly worried by their opponents' demise. He heard cheerful, if urgent, voices, and turned to see their rescuers striding across the open space toward them. Luke recognised Moff Nevoy at the head of fifty or so soldiers, most of them in the black of the Palace Guards but a few, like Nevoy, wearing grey-green uniforms instead.

"Osheen," General Mulcahy called jovially, struggling up from behind the couch. "Come to join the party?"

"You old maniac," Nevoy complained as he reached Mulcahy's side, though he couldn't keep the relieved grin off his face. "Do you know what it does to my blood pressure, seeing you run around in a war zone?"

Mulcahy snorted. "You just need to watch your cholesterol."

Two of Nevoy's soldiers had walked toward the Great Hall's ominously closed doorway, to the point Luke had reached when the forcefield stopped him. They were running hand-held monitoring equipment over the area, but from their dissatisfied frowns when they turned back to Nevoy, the monitors hadn't told them anything they wanted to know.

"I'm sorry, sir," said one. "There's no trace of any technological origin for this. I don't know what -- "

"The Emperor's causing it," Luke interjected. "He must be. Leia's in there, she got in with no problem, but none of the rest of us can reach the door."

Nevoy nodded. "Lord Vader's in there as well. And I wouldn't be surprised if our beloved Emperor were too." He sighed, then said to Mulcahy, "I've been in contact with Dr. Hayashida and his team. They made it to the other entrance of the Hall, but now they've run into this same forcefield. Looks like His Majesty's got the place surrounded."

"What's Hayashida doing now?" asked Mulcahy.

"I told him to try and rendezvous with us here."

"Good. If dear Palpatine is in there with him, it's a good bet Lord Vader's going to need a doctor."

"Doctors won't do any good if we can't get to him," pointed out one of the Palace Guards. "Do you want us to try firing on that forcefield, sir?"

Nevoy looked far from happy with any of his options. "I suppose it's worth a try." He glanced at Luke. "What do you think?"

Luke was so surprised at being asked, it was a moment before he could formulate any words. "Yes … it's possible, if the Emperor's doing this with his mind, then enough sustained fire might force him to work harder, distract him …" Distract him, Luke's mind finished miserably, from whatever he's doing to Leia and our father. He gave a helpless shrug. "Then again, it might not do anything at all."

"I guess we have to find out." Nevoy raised his voice and commanded, "everybody move back. Get to maximum range." As the troops moved warily away from the Great Hall's entrance, Nevoy and Mulcahy assigned details to stand guard at the various other entries to the huge open corridor. When the majority of their men were ranked along the wall farthest from the Great Hall, Nevoy stepped away from them and ordered, "nobody else fires until I give the order. I'm going to take the first shot."

My gods, realised Luke, he's afraid that forcefield will make the blast bounce back at him. And there was a very good chance that it might. It sounded like just the sort of detail that Palpatine would like. Luke opened his mouth to yell at Nevoy not to fire, but the Moff had already taken the shot.

The beam of red blaster fire sliced across the vast room, until it reached that space before the door. Then the light seemed to spread, briefly swelling into a glowing cloud before it dissipated and vanished.

Luke didn't think he was imagining the fact that the men around him heaved a collective sigh of relief.

Nevoy stepped back into rank with the others. He cast a resigned, rueful look at Mulcahy and Luke, then he ordered, "fire at will."

The men obeyed. The air in front of the Hall glowed red. As he fired with the rest, Luke struggled to feel something, anything of what was going on. Any hint that the Emperor's forcefield might be weakening. But he couldn't sense anything. He thought bitterly, there might be a whole damned legion of Dark Jedi behind that door, and I'd never know till they reached out and crushed my brain.

They kept firing, and the wall of red light held.



Vader felt Leia's fingers tighten around his arm. Father and daughter gazed around the Great Hall, searching for the source of the Emperor's voice.

At first the voice seemed to bounce off of every surface in the chamber, making Vader wonder if Palpatine was even really there. Then they saw him.

The familiar dark-robed form was standing on the long balcony, smirking down at them. He shook his head and said in a regretful, patronising tone, "you Skywalkers. You really do just never learn."

Palpatine was suddenly not on the balcony. For once, he hadn't been as showy as he might have been, and did not float down from the balcony to the floor. He just winked out of sight, and reappeared an instant later on the same level as Vader and Leia. He stood below the balcony, partially in shadow.

"What?" he mocked, "no threats? No stirring words?"

They said nothing.

He went on, "I am disappointed in you, though, my dear apprentice. After all we've talked about, everything you've experienced, to think that you would still cling to your pathetic Light Side …"

"None of us here are on the Light Side," Leia said impatiently. "Since we're all on the Dark Side together, how about you just let us go?"

Palpatine laughed. "I will say one thing for you Skywalkers, you are always entertaining." He took a step closer toward them. "What do you intend to do? Fight me? That won't be very easy, will it, Lord Vader? Have you shared with your daughter the little fact that you can't yet sense the Force? It shouldn't be very long, it only takes about four hours to regain one's sensitivity after exposure to the drug." A slow grin grew on the Emperor's face. "Unfortunately, my friend, you do not have four hours."

Not taking his gaze from the Emperor, Vader threw his thoughts inward, fighting to regain even the tiniest handhold in his grasp of the Force. It felt like he was attacking a huge pile of boulders, throwing each one aside only to find another beneath it, and another. He heard his breath coming faster and louder than usual, and saw the Emperor's beaming smile.

"No fun, is it, my friend?" Palpatine inquired. "Not having any sense of the Force, when everyone around you has it. So, My Lord. What do you intend to do? Throw your puny self against my power, with no hope of victory?"

"Do I have a choice?" Vader asked. For the hell of it, he threw a challenge into his voice. At the moment there wasn't much else he could do to challenge Palpatine.

"No, my friend. I don't believe you do. It will be very amusing watching you."

Beside him, Leia ignited her lightsaber. Vader almost cursed, and wished he had told her not to do that. In his experience, it was an almost invariable rule that whoever initiated combat was going to lose. Obi Wan had struck first, before Vader cut him down on the first Death Star. Luke had made the first move in the duel when he lost his hand and went tumbling down the Cloud City maintenance chute. But then, he thought, what difference does it make? Barring a very large number of miracles, we're going to lose anyway. Just now, random statistics about Jedi combat hardly seemed to matter.

"Well, my dear girl," said Palpatine, apparently discarding any interest in Vader and turning his smirk on Leia. "Let's see what you can do."

Leia raised the glowing green lightsaber, but did not strike with it. Instead, as near as Vader could tell, she must be casting her hatred at the Emperor. Palpatine took an involuntary step backward, and for a moment there was an expression of annoyance and surprise on his face. Then his smile was back. "Oh, my sweet young apprentice," he mused. "What do you think you can accomplish? Do you really think your hatred is stronger than mine?"

Vader wasn't sure how he knew, but something about Palpatine's expression told him the Emperor was still focused on countering Leia's attack. Vader seized his own lightsaber, ignited it, and lunged at the Emperor.

It felt like hitting a mass shadow in hyperspace. He was hurled backward, flying across the room and smacking into the side of the platform that had held his display case. As he lay there groggily trying to rebuild his senses, Vader thought he knew how Han Solo must have felt when he stepped into that banquet room on Cloud City and found himself staring at Darth Vader.

Palpatine must have picked up his thoughts. "Quite a learning experience, isn't it, My Lord?" Palpatine asked cheerfully. "Now you know how the ordinary mortals felt, every time your thoughts closed around their throats."

"You're setting yourself up as the champion of ordinary mortals?" Vader grated.

"No. But it is fun seeing you learn a lesson."

Leia hadn't let herself be distracted from the Emperor, even when her father was tossed across the Great Hall. As she glared at Palpatine, Vader could almost sense the anger and feral hatred she was flinging at her opponent.

Or, could he actually sense it? No, he decided after probing his feelings again, that was wishful thinking. All he could sense was the fact that he'd just been thrown across the room.

"I'm afraid, my dear," Palpatine remarked to Leia, "you'll have to do better than this. We're not putting on much of a show for your father, just standing here thinking at each other."

Vader started to get to his feet, though he really didn't know what he thought he could accomplish. The second he made a move toward Palpatine, he'd probably end up doing another flying Darth Vader stunt.

In the next moment he realised that Palpatine's intentions were a good deal more elaborate.

Something was prying Vader's fingers loose from around the hilt of his lightsaber. He tightened his grip, desperately willing his hand to retain its hold. He clutched so tightly that it would have hurt, if it had been his original hand instead of a prosthetic one. It made no difference. One by one his fingers were dragged off the hilt. With a strength that would have broken a hand with ordinary bones, his hand was wrenched open and the lightsaber sailed free of his grasp.

He gave an incoherent yell of fury and tried to leap at the Emperor, not caring if he did just end up flying through the Hall again.

Palpatine's yellow eyes turned on him. Leia yelled something and lunged, slashing her lightsaber toward Palpatine's head. Vader's lightsaber, crimson blade still lit, soared across the Hall into Palpatine's waiting hand.

Several things seemed to happen at once.

Before she could reach the Emperor, Leia was hit by a wave of power that sent her staggering back. She fell, hard, but almost as soon as she hit the floor, she was scrambling to her feet again. The same wave slammed into Vader and he found himself once more flat on the floor. He struggled to sit up Ð and could move no farther. His legs seemed glued to the floor; he thought he would have more luck crawling out from under a crashed AT-ST. Tentatively he raised one hand into the air above him. Inches away from his head, his hand stopped. The air around his hand was cold and thick, as if he was trapped in an invisible bubble of half-frozen jelly. He tried to shove his hand further into it. The coldness oozed slimily around his fingers, but his hand did not move.

Vader jerked his hand out of the freezing nothingness. While he made another futile effort to wrench his legs off the floor, his gaze was riveted to Leia and the Emperor.

With Vader's lightsaber in his hand, Palpatine turned to meet Leia's next attack.

For a moment it looked like an ordinary lightsaber duel. The blades met, red quivering against green. Then that first contact was broken and Leia swung a blow that, if it had connected, would have sliced the Emperor in half. Palpatine stepped backward and let the lightsaber slide out of his grasp.

The crimson blade sprang forward to parry the blow, as if it were still directed by Palpatine's hand. Vader saw Leia's startled expression as she found herself duelling only a lightsaber, with seemingly no one wielding it. And Emperor Palpatine stood back and smiled.

Gods damn it to hell, Vader raged at himself, don't just sit here! There has to be something you can do Ð

Palpatine was using too much power. How long could he keep this going, using the Force both to hold Vader immobilised, and to direct Vader's lightsaber against Leia? At some point he had to weaken, he was expending his energy on too many fronts.

But it would do them no good at all, if he only weakened after Leia and Vader were dead.

Do something!

Vader turned his gaze inward. Don't watch, he ordered himself. Leia's fight is her own. You have your own duel to fight.

He had to move. Had to.

He turned every sense, every nerve, to the task of detaching his legs from the Great Hall's floor. He heard his heart thumping in his ears, and the slightly altered whirr of his chestbox as it adjusted to his heavier than usual breathing. If he'd still been an ordinary human, he would have been sweating. As it was, he could hear the clicks and hums as his suit's environmental controls worked to compensate for the increase in body temperature.

For a moment he saw only blackness before him. His senses whirled as if Palpatine had thrown him again, this time tossing him far enough to break loose of Coruscant's gravity. His legs had not moved.

Fine. So he wasn't strong enough to free himself from Palpatine's control. But perhaps he was strong enough to regain his own access to the Force.

Four hours, eh? He thought. All well and good, "my friend", but you've never tried your drugs on Darth Vader before.

A momentary glimpse of Leia's face, as she fought against the disembodied crimson lightsaber, threatened to disrupt the concentration that Vader was struggling to establish. His daughter's face held determination, rage and fear in equal proportions. He closed his mind to the image. Leia is strong, he told himself. "The Force runs strong in our family," she will be strong enough to do what she has to. Now you must be strong enough not to fail her.

As he sought the calmness and serenity that he needed, he felt like a novice receiving his first training in the Force. Only this time he was his own teacher. The voice telling him to cast aside all other thoughts, all doubts, was his own.

His eyes were still open, but he did not see the fight going on in front of him. He saw an image of himself, standing in space, gazing calmly at the stars as they glimmered around him. One star moved tentatively closer to him, then nestled into the palm of his black-gloved hand. Then that image was replaced by a succession of others, coming faster and faster. The moment in his TIE fighter outside the first Death Star, when he felt that amazing surge in the Force from the Rebel pilot in front of him and almost, almost realised who the pilot was. Anakin Skywalker in the training room of Obi Wan Kenobi's school, brandishing his blue lightsaber in his hand while he yelled something at Kenobi. Luke, sweaty and mud-caked in the swamp on Dagobah, staring into the cold darkness of a cave and asking what was in there. Leia, smiling faintly as her thoughts exploded some creature that clung to the ceiling above her, and then watching as its blood dribbled down the walls. Anakin at age ten, building a fort out of sand in front of the Skywalkers' farmhouse, then staring as the sand slipped between his fingers and something within him told him that, out there in the desert, his parents were dead.

In his mind, he thrust his hand deeper into the sand, knowing that what he needed was there, just out of reach.

A yell of rage jolted him into the present.

Leia had been forced down to one knee. As Darth's eyes focused on the scene, he saw his lightsaber strike hers with such strength that the green blade was sent spiralling out of her hand. It hit the far wall, beneath the balcony, and lay on the floor, its blade still glowing. Vader saw Leia glance at the lightsaber to call it back to her, all the while trying to scramble away from the red saber that still bobbed mockingly before her.

The green lightsaber leaped, and started to sail back toward Leia's grasp.

Then the red blade swept downward, in a curving blow.

Leia's scream of fury and anguish burned through Vader's mind, as the Princess clutched at her severed right wrist which no longer supported a hand.


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