Dark Emperor (PG)

By : Brendon Wahlberg

Archived on: Tuesday, April 17, 2001

A six part story about Palpatine. It takes the Dark Empire comics series into account. The six parts are: Ebony and Jade; A New Enemy; The Hand of Fate; The Emperor Eclipsed; The Power of the Dark Side; Emperor's End. It has been edited to fit with Episode I.
Part One: Ebony and Jade

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

It is a dark time for the galaxy. The ruthless Emperor Palpatine has established a galactic empire upon the ashes of the Old Republic, and destroyed the Jedi Knights.

But the ruling Master of the dark side is dying. If an infant Rebellion has no chance to end his crushing reign, death itself waits for a final victory.

The Dark Emperor also faces threats from his past. The Sith Lord who serves him covets his throne, and a Jedi once thought to be dead has resurfaced to claim a brutal vengeance...

It was in the hanging gardens of the Imperial Palace that Lord Darth Vader first spotted the face of the Jedi Knight he had once killed. His sighting of Ashka Boda happened purely by accident. As a rule, the Dark Lord never came to the oppressively green and humid area, where every step he took meant brushing clinging fronds away from his black durasteel mask. He was there against his will, at the Emperor's command, leading three Ho'Din master botanists on a tour of all the Palace gardens.

In contrast to Vader, the aliens were in their element; the Ho'Din loved to be surrounded by plants. On their homeworld, they created huge and beautiful gardens containing plants found nowhere else in the galaxy. They had come to Imperial Center to negotiate a trade for new rare plants to take home, in exchange for plant-derived medicines only they could supply. The plant species they wanted were rare because of the Emperor Palpatine's admittedly aggressive colonization policies. The only surviving examples of many important organisms now grew in the Emperor's gardens, after the destruction of their original ecosystems. Vader knew that his Master would take the Ho'Din's stock in trade from them by force, if he could. However, only the green reptilian Ho'Din themselves knew how to extract the wonder drugs from their environment.

As a result of his unwanted duty, Vader was in a foul mood. He glared up at the slender, rubbery aliens, trying to put some fear into their dark, bulging eyes and their wide, lipless mouths. But the botanists remained as expressionless as Vader's mask. Their violet-scaled, snake like tresses squirmed incessantly as they stared over Vader at the bountiful flora around them. Vader seethed inside, finding it intolerable that the visiting aliens towered a full meter over his head. It was frustrating to lose the advantage of height that he usually enjoyed. No doubt that was part of the reason for the Emperor's assignment that Vader guide the Ho'Din. The Emperor, a short man, usually made Vader kneel; now Vader understood how he felt. Another reason for the assignment was probably a simple reminder of who was in authority, that even the Dark Lord of the Sith was subject to Palpatine's whims.

Vader looked around for an experienced garden supervisor, upon whom he could pass off the pointing, chattering botanists with their unceasing flow of comments and questions. He simply did not know the answers to most of their inquiries, and he reasoned that if he could find someone who did, he could entice them into letting him go without word of it getting back to the Emperor. If he had to respond to another question about this genetically altered herb, or that unusual sweet-smelling moss, he thought he might indulge in a little display of the power of the Force.

It was at that moment that he saw the Jedi. In the middle distance, coming around a vine covered wall, was an older, mostly bald man, wearing a loose brown sleeveless robe. He froze for a long moment as he made sudden eye contact with the Dark Lord. Vader's visual enhancement system zoomed in on the man's face. The Jedi had squinting slate gray eyes, surrounded by wrinkles and shadowed by his sun baked brow. His mouth was open in surprise below his sharp, straight nose. Only a few wisps of white hair remained at the sides of his head. His large, rough hands clutched at his soil stained clothes as he stared back at Vader with equal intensity.

Then the Jedi bolted and ran, disappearing into the foliage in an instant. Vader did not react immediately; he was too surprised. He knew the man he had just seen, thus he was certain that the man should have been dead. Dead at Vader's own hands. The man's name had been Ashka Boda, and he had been one of the Jedi that Vader had personally slain during the great Purge well over a decade ago.

It was a truth he kept only to himself: Vader recognized Ashka Boda because he remembered the face of every Jedi he had killed. He had memorized each face so he would never forget the price that was paid to win Palpatine's vision of a New Order for the future...the price of his former Jedi brothers' lives. In fact, he could even dimly recall the pain he had felt at the time, as he killed each Jedi Knight. But it was a distant memory, viewed through a hardened soul, and the sight of Ashka Boda caused him no fresh pain. Of all the emotions he might have felt at seeing one of the Jedi returned from the dead, his one cold feeling was that he had unfinished business to resolve. Even during the Purge, he had been able to bury his feelings under the conviction that Palpatine's promised order was needed, that the Jedi were fools to oppose it and to support the corrupt Old Republic. The killings were necessary combat. He had given each opponent a chance to join the Master and live. He had dueled each Knight fairly when they invariably refused. None had been his match. All of them had died. And Ashka Boda had been among the dead, Vader was sure.

The Ho'Din were oblivious to what had happened. One of them was bending down to the Dark Lord to rasp in Basic, "Lord Vader, would you happen to know the location of the D'ian Orchid Vines from Sen III? We have heard of their famed sweet aroma, a scent potent enough to-"

Vader's moment of surprise was broken. The Ho'Din gasped and backpedaled as Vader's red lightsaber blade snapped into existence right in front of his small green nose. "I regret that this tour must be canceled," Vader boomed sarcastically. "I have the Emperor's business to attend to." With that, he moved swiftly into the maze of vine-covered walls and pillars where Ashka Boda had vanished.

"Cod ee say oo pay a loto!" one of the astonished Ho'Din said, reverting back to his native language.

"Sate Pestage ray indee pako a gammon!" His companions shook their head tresses in indignation, staring after the Dark Lord.

Vader quickly discovered that his moment of hesitation had cost him his quarry. Boda was gone. Reaching out with the Force, Vader confirmed it. The Jedi was no longer in the garden at all. Vader made his decision quickly. It was enough that a Jedi was loose on Coruscant, but this one seemed to hold the secret of immortality itself. If that was true, then a dangerous game was beginning, and another important player now had to enter it. He knew he had to inform the Emperor immediately.

Sequestered within the jagged dark towers and walls of his Castle near the Palace, Darth Vader dismissed his Noghri guard and activated the holographic communication platform he used to speak to his Master. There was a blank period of waiting, as usual, during which Vader composed himself in the proper kneeling position, down on one knee, with his face lowered.

The first image to appear was not that of the Emperor, but instead that of his Grand Vizier, the wizened Sate Pestage. "Greetings, Lord Vader," Pestage said politely. "It is my unfortunate duty to inform you that the Emperor cannot be disturbed at this time. He is in a deep meditative state, and he expressly asked me to deal with matters on his behalf, as they arise. How may I be of service to you?"

Vader rose out of his kneeling position, and leaned towards the hologram. He hated dealing with an intermediary when he had such urgent news to convey. He resolved to cut through the bureaucracy as only he could. Lowering his voice to its most sinister level, Vader addressed the Grand Vizier. "Your instructions do not apply to me. I will speak with the Emperor immediately. It is a matter of great importance. If you should decide to be an obstruction to me in this, then we shall find out how much the Emperor will miss your services...when he awakens."

Pestage's normally serene face betrayed the smallest twitch, a relative victory for Vader. The Grand Vizier's next words were merely a face-saving gesture, Vader knew. "I am certain, Lord Vader, that our Master requires both of us to serve him. Very well, I shall inform the Master of your request presently. But before I leave you, there is the small matter of a complaint I received from a group of Ho'Din dignitaries this morning. Perhaps you would care to shed some light on this-"

Vader abruptly cut off the transmission, wishing he could see Pestage's face as he did so. The elderly Grand Vizier annoyed Vader with the way he pampered and protected the Emperor. It was satisfying to face down the shifty old courtier for once. The true measure of Vader's victory was in the gratifyingly short time it took for the face of Palpatine to waver into the space in front of him. The Emperor's hooded face was much larger than Pestage's had been - it towered over the Dark Lord who once again knelt before it. Vader was used to this display of his Master's towering ego, and paid it no notice.

Palpatine spoke first, glaring down at the Sith Lord. "What is so important, Lord Vader, that you need to defy my orders to tell it to me?"

Vader raised his head to meet the Emperor's bright yellow eyes. "I have seen a Jedi, my Master, in the Palace itself. What is more, he was one of the Jedi I personally killed during your Purge. His name was Ashka Boda. Somehow, he has survived his own death, and come here for reasons unknown."

The Emperor's annoyance was replaced by a look of grave interest. He said nothing for a long moment, during which Vader studied his Master's looming face. Palpatine's reaction was all the proof Vader needed that he had done the right thing by bringing the matter swiftly to his attention. Of course, any Jedi sighting was a matter for great concern. The current belief was that all of the Jedi had been killed, some by Vader, some by Palpatine, and the rest by Imperial forces. Still, it was always possible that some were in hiding, waiting for the right time to emerge. The presence of a Jedi in the Palace itself was disturbing proof of that. There was no telling how much harm he could do while free; the Emperor would certainly want him dead or captured.

There was also the more subtle issue of Ashka Boda's mysterious survival of death. Vader was well aware that the secret of immortality was of great interest to his Master. The reason was as plain as the Emperor's withered face. Palpatine's flesh was twisted and sagging around his devious eyes and his hateful mouth full of blackened teeth. The dark side of the Force gave great power, it was true, but as time went on, and the Emperor needed more and more of that power, the price he physically paid for it became higher and higher. Vader, too, had paid a price for his use of the dark side, but as his power was less, so was the cost. He never looked at his face anymore, but he was sure it was nowhere near as ravaged as his Master's. Vader's true price had been the loss of his body and his humanity - his imprisonment in a black durasteel shell. In the last year, Palpatine's deterioration had become extreme. Looking at the Emperor, Vader could tell that the ruler of the galaxy was dying. If there was any secret of defying death to be found, Palpatine would surely want it.

Vader had had to weigh this fact when he decided to contact the Emperor. He knew that not informing his Master might bring costly punishments. On the other hand, it was not in Vader's best interests to serve an immortal Emperor. Palpatine had promised an order for the galaxy that Vader had believed in, and fought for. That promised future was now, and Vader's frank assessment was that the promise had been broken. The Empire that had arisen to replace the Old Republic brought more chaos than it did order. There was too much destructive conflict, by far, to suit Vader. The Dark Lord never let any of these thoughts leak out to his Master...they were far too dangerous. Palpatine must never know that Vader held closely guarded desires to take over the Empire and correct its course. If he knew, Vader would die.

The Emperor's physical decline had given Vader hope that the throne would be vacant before long. It would be an easy solution...and there could be a smooth transition to Vader as Emperor. However, the potential knowledge of Ashka Boda threatened that hope. Vader had already decided that Boda had to die. How and when would depend on how the Emperor played things. Vader forced himself to be patient and to wait for his chance to destroy Boda and his secrets.

For now, Palpatine was giving his reply. "You've done well, Lord Vader, to bring this to my attention. Come to the private audience chamber tonight, and we will speak of our plans to deal with this Jedi. Until then, my friend," said the Emperor with a sudden fatherly smile. The hologram faded away, leaving Vader alone.

Vader stood in satisfaction. So, the contest began. The Sith Lord vowed that he, personally, would decide where it ended.

In his meditation chamber, Darth Vader prepared himself, body and soul, for the trial to come. Advanced biomonitors fine-tuned his vital functions and adjusted his body chemistry for maximum endurance and energy. His bionic systems enjoyed a recharge, while the direct neural patching that controlled them was checked by medical sensors. The life systems control computer on his chest underwent a full self-diagnostic. Meanwhile, his helmet was suspended by a robot arm above his pasty, deeply scarred head. His eyes, however, were closed and his mind was with the Force, remembering...

More then a decade ago, during the campaign to destroy the Jedi, Vader had come to the home of a Jedi named Ashka Boda, in a slum district of the only spaceport on backwater Utapau. It was late in the campaign; most of the Jedi were defeated already. The grand battles were over. Now, all that remained was to finish off the impotent remnants of the Order. Boda was one such remnant. His name and location had been taken from the main Census Computer on Coruscant. All indications were that he had not fled, and was simply staying where he was.

Vader left his squad of Stormtroopers behind as he entered the wretched dwelling of Ashka Boda. Word of Vader's arrival had apparently not affected the old Jedi; Vader found him just finishing a simple meal in the one-room second floor apartment.

Boda didn't get up as Vader's huge form filled the apartment's doorway. "I've been expecting you," he said, his voice weak, as he wiped a corner of his mouth. "And I'm ready. Go ahead. Do what you came to do. Do what you must do."

Vader paused in the doorway, studying the seated man. Boda seemed to offer no threat. Just the opposite - he seemed to be a broken man, devoid of resistance. "Are you so eager to die, old man?" Vader asked.

"I am ready to die," Boda said. He held up his large, empty hands. "I have no lightsaber, so I cannot duel you. I gave it up long ago. It brought me the ultimate grief, and I will never hold it again. You, however, could cut me down where I sit..."

Vader stared at him, considering. It went against his nature to kill an unresisting man. Still, this was a Jedi, and he had his orders. Eradicate the Jedi. "If you have nothing to live for," Vader offered, "why not give yourself to the dark side? Turn and serve my Master, and claim a new life for yourself."

"No," Boda said wearily. "It wouldn't bring back what I've lost - what I destroyed myself. Besides, I would be betraying the memory of my brother if I served your Emperor. It would make a mockery of what he died for. No...just take my life, as you have been ordered to. It might even be a mercy for me, to reach the end."

Vader nodded, looking closely at the old man's face, recording it in his memory. Not the first, and not the last one to die. Simply the next. He reached out one black gloved hand and made a clasping gesture. The Force flowed at his command and surrounded the old man's heart. Ashka Boda doubled over as his heart was grasped hard inside his chest. He fell from his chair as the heart stopped, collapsing onto the stained floor. Then his last breath left him.

After a minute, Vader walked over to the sprawled body and examined it. He took out a small scanner and held it over the corpse. There were no life signs. Suspicious of a deception, Vader probed with the Force to detect any hidden life within Boda, but he found none. This was not a hibernation trance. The old man was dead.

Vader noticed that the body did not fade away as sometimes happened with the Jedi. This did not disturb him. Fading was a function of being particularly close to the Force on the light side. It didn't always happen, particularly if the spirit was tainted. Boda's evident despair suggested that he had done something terrible in his lifetime. Finally, Vader left the body where it was and went down the narrow stairs to the front of the dilapidated building. He strode past the cluster of Stormtroopers surrounding the decayed facade, gesturing to the building as he gave a single command. "Burn it." The white armored soldiers hurried to comply...

Vader awoke from his memory trance as his mask and helmet clamped firmly into place once more. He felt physically refreshed, and clear in his purpose. He was certain that Ashka Boda had died that day on Utapau, yet there was obviously more to the man than he had seen in that dingy room in the spaceport. Nevertheless, it didn't matter what powers or secrets the old man had. When Boda had seen Vader in the garden, he had run, proving he was still no warrior. Vader had no doubts. He had killed Ashka Boda once...he could do so again.

The man who had caused such consternation for Vader had indeed fled at the sight of the Sith Lord. Boda had no desire to confront Lord Vader, not with so much at stake. It would be a pointless battle, because Boda's real target was the Emperor Palpatine. He had learned a lot about Vader over the years, while he worked at the Palace as a gardener. He knew the Dark Lord was just a servant, in thrall to his Master, who was the true evil. Vader was not an opponent to be destroyed, just an obstacle to be removed. Boda would spare Vader if he could, and he did not want to risk Vader killing him before his plans could come to fruition.

Boda knew it was endgame for Palpatine and himself. The moment Vader had seen him, Boda had known his time of planning and plotting was over. And was that so bad? He had been preparing for years upon years. Perhaps he had needed a small push to finally act.

Vader's sighting him had been a mistake, a chance encounter. The Sith Lord never visited the gardens, so Boda had always managed to avoid Vader by keeping to the gardens of the Palace and of his rooftop home. Avoiding Vader had been important - Boda was grateful to Vader for his second chance at life, but he knew Vader wouldn't feel the same way. But it was now over and done - he had been discovered and now he had to be ready. The Emperor would send Vader after him, Boda reasoned. The Dark Lord was Palpatine's Jedi-slaying machine from the Purge. Boda had decided to deal with the Sith Lord here, in his own greenhouse home, where his plants would give him an advantage. Once Vader was out of the game, it would be time to go to Palpatine and deliver the Emperor's long overdue death. It was going to be glorious. Years and tears of patient work had filled the Palace with explosive material. It was a colossal bomb waiting to go off. And it would, once Boda was sure that he and Palpatine were inside it. So they could die together...

Boda walked along between the rows of Bafforr trees under a wide glass sky, working out the details of his defense in his mind. His home was a vast greenhouse atop one of Imperial City's skyscrapers. The glassed-in food producing facility had been built around the original penthouse apartments to help feed the huge metropolis, but years ago, Boda made the place his own. Using the Force, he had convinced the original owners to sell it to him cheaply, and now it was his own garden, where he grew the exotic plants that he enjoyed more than the company of people. Here, he grew giant carnivorous plants, moving vines, and exploding fungi. They protected him well. Here too, were his beloved Bafforr trees, sentient creatures that spoke to him in their unusual way, warning him of danger and removing his loneliness. And best of all was his sweet-smelling Phelarion moss, a soft, gray-green species that filled every nook and cranny, soothing Boda's anxieties away. He was truly at home, and he knew his home would fight with him.

Boda looked to be about sixty-five years old. His hands were large and rough with calluses from many years of gardening. The many wrinkles near his eyes were shadowed by his thick brow. Boda perpetually squinted from long years of looking at the sun. He had a patient, calm demeanor, gleaned from contact with the peace of slow growing things. Boda's simple, sleeveless brown robe was worn loose in the style of the Jedi. It concealed a lightsaber that was never taken out when someone might see it. His clothes and shoes were dirt-stained, old, and worn. He had a gruff voice, but he rarely used it, preferring the silence of the gardens and his private thoughts of Palpatine's defeat. It was best that he stayed solitary. People tended to feel uneasy around him, they sensed that there was something strange about him despite his ordinary appearance. Boda did not want to be noticed, so he stayed alone.

But he hadn't always been alone. Once, he had lived with his brother...a brother with whom he had disagreed deeply and passionately. It had, in fact, been a disagreement to the death. Just thinking about it made the whole memory start to replay itself in Boda's mind. It was a powerful memory, with strong emotions attached to it. Boda couldn't resist it, and it took him back, back to Naboo, where this had all started...

"No, Vantos, I...won't allow you to go through with this," said Ashka Boda. He gasped with exhaustion as he clambered onto the broad ledge next to his also tired brother. Vantos Boda looked at him, panting and incredulous. The brothers were standing on a rock cliff face, full of protruding ledges and natural stone stairways. The base of the cliff was a considerable distance below them, and even further up above them was the lonely house where the child of Vantos' vision lived alone with his father. Vantos had insisted on approaching the house this way in order to avoid being spotted on the wide mountain road. His plan was to scout out the house unobserved, wait for a chance to catch the child alone, and then kill him quickly with a lightsaber.

Wiping the sweat from his forehead, Vantos spat, "You can't be serious! Ashka, you disgust me. How can you do this to me now, when we're both so deep into it? I thought I had you convinced. Why did you come all this way with me if you were going to back out at the last second?"

"I never said I agreed with you, Vantos," Ashka said with weary anger. "I could never condone the murder of a child. I came with you so I could be at your side, in case you abandoned your evil goals -" Vantos growled, but Ashka ignored him. "Yes, evil, Vantos. Don't try to fool yourself. You're on the path that leads to the dark side. I don't want to lose you...but if you do this...you're already lost. I want you to understand me very clearly. I'm not 'backing out' and letting you finish this alone. I'm...I'm going to stop you right here. Whatever that takes."

Vantos looked steadily at his brother. "Oh, I understand you, Ashka. You're threatening me, your own brother. Would you kill me if you had to? Is it worth that much to you? Listen to me. It doesn't all have to happen this way."

Ashka didn't reply. He held Vantos' gaze with his own, his eyes full of dread.

"You'd kill me," Vantos continued, "and let that child live. He'll grow up, and murder trillions! Do you want to live with that? All those deaths will be on your head. You talk about the dark side...that child is going to be the greatest Master of the dark side that ever lived! He's going to destroy our order - wipe out the Jedi. He's going to build a machine that can shatter an entire world! He's going to bring down the Republic and become the Emperor of a galaxy in chains. But I have a chance to prevent all that. I was given the vision for a purpose. The Force itself wants me to be the savior. Just like it says in the Journal of the Whills! 'And in the time of greatest despair, there shall come a savior, and he shall be known as the son of the suns.'" Vantos choked out the words. "Ashka, what is the life of one child, set against so many billions? What is my life, even? If I had to die for this, I would. Even if...even if you have to..." Vantos looked away from his brother's eyes.

Ashka adopted a pleading tone. "These arguments didn't persuade me before, and they won't now. Listen to reason, Vantos. This child, this Espaa Pestage, he is only a child. He hasn't done any of the things you're talking about. The Republic and the Jedi Order are fine! What you say doesn't make any sense. No one child or adult is going to be able to do all those things. Remember what our Master taught us when we were training? She said you could try to see the future, but it wasn't set. Anything could change it. This vision of yours could be the stuff of fantasy."

"No, Ashka," Vantos said, his voice hollow. "This was no hazy glimpse of the future. This was a full, clear vision, in such detail that...that...Ashka, there is enough horror stored up in what's coming to drive you insane if you could see it. The Force itself doesn't want it to happen. The light side let me see what's ahead because it needs me to stop it."

"What if your vision wasn't from the light side?" asked Ashka. "What if the dark side wants you, and the way to claim you is to have you murder this child? Master Dina taught us there is no turning back from the dark path. And in the end, it will destroy you!"

Vantos folded his arms across his chest. "I know what I saw, and what I felt. I have to do this now, for the sake of the Republic. I am it's sworn protector, and this is my duty. Don't stand in my way. Go home Ashka, before one of us gets killed."

Ashka's only response was to draw out and ignite his lightsaber. He held it firmly in the ready position.

Vantos shook his head angrily. "That was a mistake, brother. Of the two of us, I've always been the better swordsman by far. I usually beat you, and I know all your weaknesses." Vantos ignited his own weapon and slowly set the silvery blade against the twin beam in Ashka's hand. The blades flashed and jumped slightly as they made contact. A crackling hum filled the air.

Ashka and Vantos squared off on the ledge. The stone platform was only six paces wide; beyond that was a nasty drop. Ashka began to sweat from his anxiety. Vantos seemed tense but collected, his expression cold. Ashka made the first move, swinging swiftly at Vantos' head. The blow was neatly blocked, and Vantos forcefully pushed the blade down and away from him. Ashka took a few careful steps backward, the drop-off to his right side. Vantos held his position, his stance defensive. They traded several more blows, but each time Ashka attacked, Vantos seemed to know how his brother would strike. Vantos' blade was there to block Ashka's, even as Ashka decided where to aim. A low side swing was blocked low, a high thrust was dodged. Ashka spun and struck high again, but Vantos swiftly ducked. Even a series of wild swings was avoided, as Vantos jumped away. Ashka quickly grew frustrated. Vantos was fighting a purely defensive battle, but it seemed effortless. Ashka was, in contrast, quickly running out of energy. It had already been a long climb, and once he tired too much, Vantos would move in to disable him, and continue up the cliff. A sense of rapidly dwindling time overcame him. With dismay twisting in his gut, Ashka put reckless force into his next blow. Vantos seemed to anticipate it yet again; he stepped backwards and completely dodged the attack.

"Bad move," Vantos grated, "you always did overextend."

The exhausted Ashka had leaned too far into his stroke. Vantos' downward return stroke hammered Ashka's weapon out of his hand. At the same time, Vantos took full advantage of his brother's momentum to trip him and shove him at the edge of the ledge. Ashka fell hard, his legs slipping over the side as he struggled to get a handhold. His desperate fingers found a purchase, but it was all he could do to avoid plummeting down the cliff face. His legs swung in the air below the ledge.

Vantos watched him impassively. He shut down his lightsaber and hooked it to his belt. "I'm sorry Ashka," he said, "but a fight was what you wanted. You were being a fool. Don't you understand? I saw the future! I even saw our fight! I tried to stop you, but you wouldn't listen. Hang on as best you can. I'll be back for you, as soon as I'm finished. If you fall...just remember the healing techniques Master Dina taught us."

"But Vantos -" Ashka protested.

"This is my victory," Vantos cut him off. "I wasn't expecting to win like this, but I did. You may never thank me for it, but what I'm going to do...I'm doing it for you, too. I'll see you when it's done."

As Ashka Boda held doggedly to the ledge, Vantos Boda turned and began climbing higher, his back to his struggling brother. Ashka knew Vantos was lost to him. Drawing on the Force, he used precious seconds to bleed away his fatigue. His questing feet found a protruding rock below the ledge on which to gain a foothold, and he held still, breathing evenly. Though it made him slip a bit more, he lifted one hand from the rock and opened his palm towards his fallen saber. The weapon clinked and rolled into it, impelled by the Force. A glance towards Vantos verified that his single-minded brother was still ignoring him, but that Vantos had almost climbed out of range. Ashka took a few slow, deep breaths, then gritted his teeth and acted. Pushing up with his other hand and his legs, he raised himself enough to activate and throw his saber, guiding it with the Force. Immediately, he lost his purchase on the ledge, and fell back into open space. For a moment, he glimpsed the silvery saber spinning towards the unprotected back of his brother. He didn't see it hit, but as he fell, he heard an agonized cry that he would remember for the rest of his life. His brother's death cry.

Then Ashka struck the rocks at the bottom of the cliff. His body rolled a good distance down the slope, but Ashka's awareness had been smashed out of him, and he didn't know it.

Ashka awakened the next morning to the feel of another's probing hands on his head. He blinked in the bright sunlight, focusing on the long, thin face of a young man bending over his own in concern. Ashka could feel the caked dried blood on his skin shift as he made a pained face. He didn't try to move his limbs yet, not until he could check them with his Force sense. He tried to speak, grunted airily, and cleared his parched throat to try again.

"I'm...Ashka Boda...My...my brother," he rasped, "is he...dead?"

"Your brother," repeated the lanky stranger. "Yes, I see. That explains the body up on the cliff. I'm sorry, but yes, your brother is dead."

Ashka moaned quietly. So. It was true. His brother, his training partner...his only family...was dead. Swift fragments of memory came to Ashka - the two of them burying their parents, learning the Force with Master Dina...he and Vantos roaring drunk and laughing. All of it...all of it gone, now.

"I found him when I was out looking for my son," the stranger said. "He's disappeared, and I'm very worried about him. I was combing the cliff side - Espaa likes to go there alone - when I found the body. He had been killed by a lightsaber. Was he a Jedi? Are you?"

"Yes," said Ashka slowly. "Both Jedi. I...killed him myself. He was going to kill your son. Had to stop him." Ashka began to cough painfully.

The stranger grimaced, and took a small flask from the pocket of his vest. Carefully, he tipped the contents into Ashka's mouth. It was water. Ashka drank gratefully.

"My son?" the man was saying. "What would your brother want to do that for? Do you know where Espaa is? Is he all right?"

"We...didn't see your son. I'm sorry." Ashka closed his eyes. "Vantos had a vision...that your son was going...going to turn to the dark side and kill many people. He thought it was up to him...to stop it before -" A jolt of pain shot up Ashka's leg, and he winced.

"Did your brother have anything to do with that woman from two days ago?"

"Woman?" said Ashka, confused. "What woman? We didn't see anyone else."

"Listen," the man said, "my name is Sate Pestage, and I live here alone with my son. My wife Gemsaa died just before the new year...she was a Jedi healer, but she couldn't save herself. Espaa is all I have left of her. A woman, robed in black, came to our house...she wanted to take Espaa away, to 'fulfill an important destiny'. Of course I wasn't going to let him go away with any total stranger. I told her to leave us alone. Are you sure you don't know anything about that? I think she came to my house last night in secret, and kidnapped my son. I have no idea who she was. I'm terrified I won't see my son again. I thought Naboo was such a safe planet to live on."

As Pestage spoke, Ashka felt a cold feeling of failure settle over him. He felt like he was physically plunged into a chilling shadow he knew would never lift until he died. Some sort of dark side adept had come to this world of Naboo, to this place, to find the same child that Vantos foresaw becoming a dark side Master, a dark Emperor who would rule the galaxy. Had Vantos been right? Had Ashka killed his brother, only to allow the dark side to claim its prize? Ashka's confusion and remorse overwhelmed him. He slipped once more into unconsciousness as Vantos' words echoed in his head..."Do you want to live with that? All those deaths will be on your head..."

The memory faded out as Boda leaned against his Bafforr tree, letting the peace of the entire grove flood over him. His fight with his brother would always be a difficult memory, but that was in the past. The only important thing to learn from it was whether that long ago vision had been the truth. Boda sighed. How very, very true it had been...

Boda was certain that the boy of the vision, Espaa Pestage, was the same person as Emperor Palpatine. Yes, the name was different, but it was probable that he had changed it to avoid anyone learning about his past. The proof, to Boda, was the devoted service of Sate Pestage to the Emperor. It was almost...fatherly.

Many years after that day on Naboo, it was revealed that the Sith order, long thought to have vanished, had returned. Boda knew then that the dark side adept who had taken Espaa was a Sith. If Espaa had in fact trained with the Sith, it would explain his dark side powers. But somewhere along the line, Espaa must have surpassed his teacher, for now he reigned supreme and the only publicly known Sith Lord was his servant. He had also fulfilled most of the prophecy of the vision. He had assisted in the destruction of the Republic, he had engineered the fall of the Jedi Order, and he had become a tyrannical Emperor. True, he had not built a machine that could destroy a world, but considering his build-up of Star Destroyers, could such a device be far behind?

It didn't matter how many years had gone by, or how much evil Palpatine had accomplished or not accomplished. What mattered, finally, was that justice had to be served. Only Palpatine's death could make up for the injustice of that long-ago day when brother had killed brother. And justice would come, soon, bringing a cleansing fire with it. Boda was ready for it to burn away his pain as well.

The tallest spire of the Imperial Palace, and thus the tallest point of any building on Coruscant, contained a small transparisteel room known as the Emperor's observation deck. This room was shaped like a cylinder with see through walls, and was bare except for a throne that could rise up through the floor from the room below. The Emperor liked to sit here and view his planetary domain, reflecting on the knowledge that it was all his own. He might lay claim to distant worlds on the rim, but Imperial City was something he could touch and truly possess.

It was a magnificent sight this evening, as usual, and it served to distract Palpatine from his growing fears about his physical decline. The sun had just set, and two pale moons were visible, hanging in the dusk sky. The dimming light revealed a world surface made up, not of land, but of buildings, with cathedral like clusters of skyscrapers rising from a vast plain of rooftops, public squares, and spaceports. At the rooftop level, the narrow spaces between buildings looked like long roads from the Emperor's perch, but were actually dim canyons where windows and travel tubes were aglow, descending into darkness like the light starved lower levels of a dense forest.

The city extended from horizon to horizon, a world of densely packed structures that blended into each other from the vantage point of the observation deck. The buildings that stood out from that height were the colossi, structures that rose above the rest like castles on a field. Among these were the towering walls of Monument Plaza, an enclosed park where one could touch the bare rock of a mountain peak without going far south to the Manarai range, as well as view many statues of the Emperor himself. Palpatine's gaze also fell on the mushroom shaped Senate building, with its carved stone statues. Once, it had been one of the grandest structures on the planet, but now the Palace cast its shadow completely over it. The Emperor smiled as he looked down on where he had once served as a Senator. Ah, how the mighty have risen, he thought. He moved on, revolving his throne to look for the sprawling University of Coruscant with its millions of students, all studying Imperial-approved subjects. There was the Imperial Justice Court, where his laws were enforced, and the giant cube of the Imperial Security Operations building, where the agents of the New Order congregated. And there was Lord Vader's dark castle, built atop the ruins of the Jedi Temple, a brooding structure that suited its owner. It was the only large edifice without a multitude of surface lights. The Emperor took in the city glow that arose from everywhere else, smiling with satisfaction.

His eyes automatically skipped over certain areas of Imperial Center; they ignored the segregated alien sectors, and did not pause where the decaying underworld of Coruscant could be glimpsed. Instead, they tracked upwards, to the constant stream of ships flying all around against the shimmering green and red night sky auroras. It was beautiful, but he had saved the best for last. Palpatine rose from his throne and walked to the window. Looking straight down, he could see his masterpiece below him, his world, his Palace. It had been built over the ancient Presidential Palace, reconstructed, enlarged, and enhanced according to his design. It was a hybrid cathedral and pyramid made of polished gray-green rock and sparkling mirror crystals, beautified with marble and carvings based on old Sith symbols. The structure was never dark, and at night, it was lit up as if the sun had been trapped in a hollow glass mountain, a fortress of light with tapered spires and fragile looking towers rising from every conceivable surface. The Palace was Palpatine's monument to himself. He loved to gaze at its majesty, which reflected his own. His world contained treasuries and prisons, computer centers and war rooms, libraries and residential areas, vaults and studies, audience chambers and throne rooms. Most importantly, his world contained himself. But...for how long?

As they inevitably did, Palpatine's thoughts returned to his problem - his accelerated, unstoppable aging. For now, he owned this magnificent world, but bleak death waited in the shadows, marking time until it could steal all of this away. He couldn't bear the thought of another person ruling his Empire when he was gone. But what could he do? He was the victim of a hideous irony. The very power he had used to rise so high was now destroying him. It came down to this: Palpatine needed the dark side more than it needed him. The dark side eventually consumed its champions, so hungry to destroy life that it swallowed even its greatest servants. According to his studies with the Sith, if a great dark side adept died, his spirit would be forever lost in the howling chaos of the dark side itself. With that waiting for him, there was only one thing he could do. He had to find a way not to die at all.

So far, he had produced no solutions. And so, he lived with his fear every day. It was like a crushing weight, insubstantial as the air, heavy as the Palace itself. He strove to deny his fear, to bury it deep inside. Fear was slavery, and Palpatine was a proud servant, not a slave. He knew he richly deserved the power granted to him. As he expanded his Empire, he generated fear, anger, and aggression across space, feeding the dark side on a galactic scale. His gift to the darkness was the chaos that was ironically called the New Order. All he asked in return was that he be spared. But his withered flesh held the answer to his plea - the dark side was indifferent, unconscious, amoral, relentless.

Palpatine was not ready to admit defeat. If there was a way to find, he would find it. He would continue to follow every lead. This strange Jedi Vader had spotted...now there was a possibility. Vader had sworn that he had killed this man, and yet, here he was at the Palace. Of course, it was possible that Vader was wrong...or even - dare he think it of his faithful servant - deceiving him. But something told Palpatine that that was not so. A tremor in the Force...a chill across his soul...the Emperor's instincts were rarely wrong. This Ashka Boda was important. He knew things...secrets that he would soon give up to Palpatine in the interrogation center. Perhaps the secret of surviving death itself. He shivered with anticipation. With immortality and his own dark genius, there would be nothing he could not accomplish.

He turned away from the windows. It was time to go and meet with Lord Vader. His servant would then go out and bring Ashka Boda to him. And, just to make certain that Vader carried out his mission properly, he was going to assign the Dark Lord a partner. Vader's role in this matter was still ambiguous, his connection with Ashka Boda not fully clear. Boda was too important a prize to risk killing...prematurely. And so, it was time to unveil his new and precious tool. His own creation...the new Emperor's Hand.

The main audience chamber was a wide corridor with a scooped out floor. Platforms for Imperial guards lined the walls, alongside computer duty stations. Right now, as Darth Vader passed below these platforms, they were empty. This was to be a private meeting. At the far end, wide steps climbed up to the throne. Part way up these was a platform for projecting holograms. The ceiling was extremely high, with long light panels running vertically up the walls. Behind the throne, and to either side, were circular windows, divided by spoke like polished bars. The bars were joined by small curved pieces at odd intervals, giving the impression of a round web. A fourth such window was positioned high above the throne, dominating the room. Vader reflected that very few people existed who understood that the shape of each window was the Sith symbol for chaos.

Vader's Master sat waiting in the throne at the top of the stairs. After Vader had climbed to just below eye level with the Emperor, he stopped and gave a small bow from the waist.

"Welcome, my friend," said the Emperor. "We have much to discuss." Palpatine smiled at his foremost servant. Vader trembled slightly. The Emperor was an intense concentration of dark side power, like a black flame burning. Ever since Vader's new life began, he had craved his Master's presence. Being by his side was like being warmed by a fire, or cooled by a breeze. It filled up his hollow core with purpose. Vader guessed that his Master was transferring some of the Force's energy to him, perhaps as a reward for service. He straightened and replied simply, "What is thy bidding?"

Palpatine leaned forward in the throne. "I have taken your reports of a Jedi here in the Palace very seriously, Lord Vader. It is a matter that greatly disturbs me." The Emperor paused. "But I find your assertion that this Jedi has returned from the dead to be...questionable."

Vader bristled, and Palpatine continued soothingly, "I do not question your word to me, my servant. However, it is possible that you were somehow deceived." He smiled at Vader, then waved a wrinkled hand dismissively. "But that is a secondary concern. We are agreed that any Jedi is a threat that must be dealt with at once."

Vader nodded. "Yes, my Master."

"Good. In the past, you have served the Empire well in hunting down Jedi Knights. I command you to do so again. I wish you to capture this Ashka Boda and bring him before me. Then I will question him personally. This should be well within your capabilities, so long as he is merely a Jedi. After all," the Emperor chuckled dryly, "you have killed him before."

Vader did not reply. Had he spoken the angry words on his lips, he would have been punished for his insolence. Instead, he controlled his emotions and waited.

The Emperor stood, clasping his hands together between his enormous sleeves and looking down at Vader's helmet. "And yet, it is never wasteful to be cautious, Lord Vader. The Jedi might be more than he seems, as you believe. And so I have decided that you should be accompanied on this mission by an assistant."

The announcement took Vader completely by surprise. He took an involuntary step back down the stairs. In that one terrible second, his fierce pride had been cut to the quick. That his Master should think that he was not capable of handling Ashka Boda by himself! In his surprise, Vader did not notice the small figure that slipped into the chamber via one of the semi-hidden side doors. The newcomer walked nimbly up the stairs to stand by Palpatine's side. The Emperor placed a fatherly hand on this person's shoulders, his black sleeve draped around her small body.

"I would like you to meet Mara Jade," said Palpatine. "She is to be Emperor's Hand and your partner in capturing Ashka Boda."

Vader stared at Mara Jade in anger. His indignation spiraled out of control as he realized she was just a girl, a teenager. Usually so careful in the presence of the Emperor, Vader, for once, lost his patience with Palpatine. "Is this to mock me, Master?" he rumbled harshly. "I swear to you that what I said about Ashka Boda is true. There is an unknown danger, and sending a mere girl..."

Palpatine's yellow eyes flashed, silencing the Dark Lord. He pointed a crooked finger at Vader and addressed him. "Perhaps I did not make myself clear, Lord Vader! You are acting like a young fool who speaks before he thinks. This young woman is my personal assassin, a trained agent. I demand that you treat her with respect." Palpatine turned abruptly away from Vader and returned to his throne.

Mara Jade remained standing, the picture of discomfort, looking unsteadily at Vader. Vader took the opportunity to examine her closely. She was short and thin in her black body suit. Her short-clipped hair was deep red with bright gold highlights. Her emerald green eyes seemed too large for her small face. She seemed at once competent, because of the combat training evident in her stance, and vulnerable, because of the naivet? evident in her eyes. She did not seem afraid of either Vader or the Emperor, but she did seem embarrassed by how the meeting had begun.

"Your reaction to Mara Jade," the Emperor spoke up pedantically, "is the reason she will make an excellent assassin. Her victims will not suspect a 'mere girl', either. But that assumption will be their last mistake, for Mara has been trained well." Palpatine stared at Mara as he spoke. With his attention on her, she straightened with pride and abandoned Vader's face to look at the Emperor with gratitude. "Mara was raised here on Coruscant," he continued. "I took a personal interest in her education, keeping in contact with her and seeing that she had the best teachers. She is also a capable pilot, and knows many of the latest fighting forms." Palpatine placed one hand on his chest. "Even I have been her teacher. She has a minor sensitivity to the Force, which I have nurtured. It gives her an advantage as an assassin. I also think, Lord Vader, that there is much that she could learn from you."

Vader felt incredulous at this turn of events. There was a Jedi to be hunted down, and the Emperor wanted to send an adolescent to do it? And yet, Vader was not being mocked. There must be a very good reason for Palpatine to do this. Vader vowed he would find out what it was. He looked at his Master. The Emperor was watching him, with his jaw set and his mouth a thin line of displeasure. Vader could not afford the Emperor's displeasure, not now, and not ever. No one who directly defied him had ever survived the experience. Vader answered in the only way open to him. "It shall be as you wish, my Master."

Palpatine still glared at him. "Very good, Lord Vader. Given time, you will see the value of my new agent."

Mara Jade breathed a careful sigh of relief. She had sensed a possible confrontation building, and she was glad it had not materialized. She very reasonably did not want to see her Master angered, and she did not want to be unable to work with her new partner. Palpatine's authority had carried the moment, but it would not be a permanent solution. Once she was alone with Vader, she would have to prove herself against his strong doubts. It was not going to be easy, but Mara didn't allow that to destroy her enthusiasm. This was her first real mission for the Emperor. She had only been recently declared his Hand. In her new capacity, she was going to expose traitors, assassinate the Empire's enemies, and spy for the Emperor. It was a source of great pride and joy to her to serve the man she thought of as her father figure. Her new identity filled her with zeal for her duties. She knew she could not let him down on her very first assignment, and that meant working successfully with Vader.

Mara had noticed that her Master had not told Vader everything about her. He had omitted the specific Force skill that made her most useful to him. She was a powerful receptive telepath, and could receive the Emperor's thoughts across light years. When he communicated with her, she could see his face and hear his words. She even felt his emotions. In this way, he could talk to her with an immediacy that made her more effective at carrying out his will than any other field agent. She wondered if Palpatine wanted Vader to know about that. She hoped there was a good reason to keep secrets from her partner. She really did hope to learn from the formidable warrior, and did not want to give him any reasons to mistrust her. Things were off to a bad enough start as it was.

The Emperor decided that Vader was going to comply concerning Mara Jade, and he relaxed a fraction. He needed Vader to cooperate in this. It was for the Dark Lord's own good. Palpatine had been wondering about Vader's ambition lately. With his physical decline, it was obvious what Vader might hope to gain if the throne was empty. They had not discussed it openly, but no doubt both of them knew Ashka Boda's potential knowledge of immortality would benefit only Palpatine. Vader might be tempted to destroy Boda outright, destroying any knowledge he might have. If Boda's means of surviving death required special preparation or equipment, then he would be helpless against Vader's treachery. Palpatine would have to kill Vader in punishment, and he did not want to do that; Vader was too valuable. With Mara Jade along, Palpatine could watch over Vader through her. He could then be sure of Vader's loyalty and good behavior.

The Emperor did have the ability to view Vader from afar through the Force, but there were two drawbacks to this. First, despite what he had instructed Pestage to tell his callers, Palpatine had not been spending his time in meditation. He had been extremely busy trying to research a cure for his malady. He simply lacked the time to observe the Dark Lord constantly. Second, if he should see Vader betray him, he could do nothing about it from a distance. No, using Mara was his best option. It would be a subtle way to keep tabs on the Sith Lord, which was also a necessary aspect of the plan. If Vader knew he was openly mistrusted, he might conclude he had nothing to lose, and act rashly. He might, for example, kill Boda, go into hiding until his Emperor died, and then try to take the throne with all of his dark side strength.

The plan served another purpose as well - he habitually tested all of his agents, especially the Emperor's Hands, by throwing them into the action and seeing which ones were the strongest...which ones survived. Palpatine had high hopes for Mara Jade. In Vader's hands, she would be tested to her limits.

The Emperor looked pointedly at each of his two servants. "Go then, and work my will. I want the Jedi brought to me alive, by whatever means are necessary. However, the operation is to keep as low a profile as possible. We do not want it known that the Jedi are on Coruscant. The people understand that their vile sect is gone forever...so let it remain. And if this Jedi you seek is somehow immortal..." the Emperor smiled, "Mara Jade should be able to keep him dead long enough to bring him before me."

Darth Vader and Mara Jade bowed to him, the Emperor observed, but not without giving each other a wary sidelong glance. Oh yes, the Emperor cackled softly, this is going to be an education for both of them.

The main Palace computer center had two unusual visitors the next morning. Though many of the techs on duty wanted very much to inquire who the pretty young girl with the red hair was, the fact that she was accompanied by Darth Vader himself discouraged every one of them. Mara Jade felt their eyes on her anyway as she seated herself at an operator terminal of the powerful Imperial mainframe. Vader stood behind her, his attitude distant and superior. He had been like that all morning, since they met up in the Palace. It bothered her, of course, not to be taken seriously. Maybe now, when he saw her in action he would begin to show her some respect. She was the Emperor's Hand, after all.

"All right," she said, concentrating on the keypad in front of her. "We're going to find out what we can about Ashka Boda. There has to be something about him in the system. He couldn't live in, or even visit such an information-dense world without leaving some trace. Now. Where do you want to begin, Darth?"

Oops. Mara felt a wave of hostility from her partner at the familiar use of his first name. "May I call you Darth?" she said lamely.

"You may call me whatever you wish," he grated. "How you refer to me is of as little importance to me as your unnecessary assistance on this mission."

Mara stiffened. Her naturally heated pride began to steam inside her. The Emperor himself had ordered the two of them to work together, and Vader knew it. She turned in her swivel chair and found herself staring into the blinking chest plate of Vader's armor. Setting her jaw, she looked up into the sinister angles of his mask.

"Lord Vader," she said, holding her voice steady, "it wouldn't hurt you to stoop to the level of assisting a novice such as myself. We are temporarily assigned to work together. I know I don't have your respect...yet. But I'm working on it. You have my respect, but I think you're wrong about my being useless. I can help with this capture. But if you don't help me, I will be useless." Tensely, she waited, not taking her eyes from Vader's mask. The seconds ticked by, as she became acutely aware of his slow, mechanized breathing.

"There is some fire in you, young one," he said at last. "Very well. You will have your chance. But understand one thing. While we are on this mission, you are working for me. I will give the orders, and none other." Not even the Emperor, was the unspoken warning. "You will do as I say unquestioningly. If you can remember that, you may survive your first assignment."

Mara swallowed hard, unwilling to be intimidated, but feeling it nonetheless. She nodded once, without argument, hoping not to lose her unexpected headway. "It will be as you say...my Lord."

Vader broke their eye contact first, and turned his attention to the computer terminal. Relieved, Mara also returned to it.

"Try the name Ashka Boda in the planetary census to begin," said Vader.

Mara entered the commands. "As I expected," she said shortly. "No such name appears anywhere."

Vader considered this. "He was working in the Palace gardens when I saw him. If we cannot find his name, we will find his face. Bring up the work files for all Palace staff connected with the gardens. Include maintenance staff, decorators, sculptors, supervisors, suppliers, botanists, and geneticists."

Mara entered the new search parameters. "This may take a while," she said when the file appeared. "There are thousands of people here."

Vader moved closer to the screen. "No. I can speed things up considerably. Instruct the computer to display the identification photos of all personnel in the file at a rate of four per second."

Mara did as she was told. Faces began to flash rapidly on the screen. Mara couldn't follow them all - they seemed to blend into one face that constantly changed its features. A minute passed this way, with Vader staring intently at the screen. Suddenly, he reached out with one gloved hand and froze the display on a brutish looking alien janitor. Scrolling back several faces, Vader settled on an older man with a furrowed brow, squinting eyes, and an unfriendly expression. "Is that him?" Mara asked.

"That is the Jedi," Vader said firmly. "He is brazen to hide out in the open like this. He is either a fool, or he has reason to be confident. Perhaps he is simply overconfident. He would not be the first such Jedi I destroyed."

"This says he's been using the name Vantos Coll," Mara read from the screen. "And...I don't believe it! He's been working at the Palace as a gardener for eleven years! What could he have been doing all that time?" She shook her head. "I've got a bad feeling about this. All right...Here's his place of residence. It's the top floor of a residential complex in grid 265 North, Square 3A. It's a converted greenhouse level. I can call up the plans in a moment...Here. It's a group of penthouse apartments that had a food production facility built around them. It was in service for sixteen years, but then it became private property. This lists the owner as Vantos Coll. That's it. It looks like we've got him."

"Knowing where a Jedi is and having him in your grasp are two very different things," Vader said.

"But we have all the pieces now," insisted Mara. "Think of this as an assassination, but with a capture instead of a kill as the final goal. You've exposed him at the Palace now, so chances are he won't come back here again. He'll go to where he feels the most secure - his home, hoping that his altered identity will throw us off. He can't be sure if we know who he is, or not, so he'll wait this out for a few days, to see what happens. This means he'll be at a known location, at a known time. That's most of what you need to kill someone. We can cut off his escape routes, and take him where he's alone. The only question in my mind is what sort of weapons to use. Usually, instant death is the desired outcome...I'll have to find something creative for an instant capture. I'll check with my contact in the Bounty Hunters Guild. I'll need something swift and sure that can be used at a distance. But for just one old man, it shouldn't be a problem."

Mara hoped she sounded professional. She was in her element now, and she wanted to impress the Dark Lord with her knowledge. Starting to plan the attack restored some measure of her confidence. She believed in herself and in her role as the Emperor's assassin. She eliminated enemies of the Empire, and this Jedi was an ideal example of that. Wiping out their order was one of the Emperor's greatest achievements, but the job wasn't quite finished. It was a great honor for Mara to help complete it. She liked to think she could change history for the better, in a way no army could. Eliminating the last Jedi was a wonderful beginning for her.

"Is that what you think of Ashka Boda?" Vader demanded. "Just one old man? Then there is a lesson for you to learn before you even leave this room. Do not underestimate the power of the Force. That is what we will be facing on this hunt. Your own overconfidence could kill you."

Of course Mara knew about the Force. She was a sensitive herself, able to sense any danger that might come from a Jedi's powers. And with Vader there, even those shouldn't be a threat. The Emperor had taught her that the dark side was stronger, and Vader was very strong in the dark side. "I'm sure you're right," she said diplomatically. "But you'll be there to make sure that doesn't happen, won't you? I'm in your expert hands, Lord Vader." Mara dared to smile at him.

"Impudent youth," Vader said, clearly frustrated. "Do not assume that just because you are in my hands, I would not let you fall...if necessary. The Emperor knows that sacrifices must sometimes be made. Take care that you do not become one."

The Emperor's Hand swallowed dryly.

Mara hurried along the secret tunnel running from the Palace to Lord Vader's Castle. It had been a long day of planning and preparation, and the time for their assault on Ashka Boda was at hand. They had studied the layout of the building and the rooftop greenhouse, and Mara had taken the time to outfit herself completely. She was ready for anything.

When she was halfway there, she received a mental message from the Emperor. His face hovered in the air before her, a vision only she could "see". First, she picked up a feeling of reassurance and encouragement from him, then she began to receive his thoughts.

--- My dear Mara Jade...I see you have done well in preparing yourself, but the true test lies ahead. You must follow my instructions carefully, as regards Lord Vader. I have much to devote my attention to, so you will be my eyes to watch him closely.

--- Watch him, my Emperor? I'm not sure I understand.

--- I need you to see that he follows my orders to take Boda alive. I fear that his accustomed level of aggression when dealing with the Jedi will get the better of him. He may, in his zeal, destroy this Jedi outright.

--- But why would he disobey you?

--- Very well, Mara Jade. You deserve to know the truth. I do not believe this Jedi is truly immortal. Such a thing has never been achieved by any servant of the Force. I believe he once escaped Lord Vader, and that Vader reported him as dead, hoping he would never surface again. Now that he has returned, Lord Vader wishes to correct his mistake and cover his shame. If Boda is dead, he can never tell anyone of how Vader once let him go.

--- If he isn't immortal, them why do you want him for questioning?

--- Where there is one Jedi still alive, there may be more. I must learn what he knows about other survivors. The security of the Empire depends on it. That is why I have sent you, my servant.

--- I see...I will do my best, Emperor.

--- I know you will, Emperor's Hand. You will let me know if there are any signs of disobedience. I will be ready to hear you if you call to me. We will speak again soon.

Palpatine's face faded out as he left Mara's mind. She stood alone, frowning. This was just what she did not need. It was already a complicated mission, and now she had to serve as a spy, too. Of course, she was trained for spying, and she had shown some aptitude for it, but this was Darth Vader they were talking about. Mara hoped Vader would behave properly. She didn't know if she could handle another enemy on this trip...especially one so damned powerful.

Vader nodded as Mara Jade strode briskly up to him. She was exactly on time. Checking her over, he saw that she was well equipped for the mission, in her own way. Vader preferred not to carry devices and weapons, save for his lightsaber. His very life was dependent on an internal technology, and to balance this, he avoided external technology whenever possible. Instead, he relied on the Force. Mara Jade, evidently, relied on weapons.

"Well, assassin," he demanded, "what equipment have you deemed necessary?"

Mara posed confidently in her jet black skinsuit, giving him the inventory. "Modified slugthrower with neural inhibitor darts," she began, patting a blaster like weapon in her right leg holster. "Wrist laser gauntlets," she continued, holding up her slim arms. Then she took a large twin barreled rifle from her back. "Prax energy rifle: a rapid fire blaster and a grenade launcher. But instead of grenades, it has electronet canisters." Indicating her equipment belt, she concluded, "One magnaharness, some syntherope, and a medpac. Plus a good old fashioned throwing knife."

"Do you believe your equipment will save you?" Vader asked her.

"I believe in myself," she said seriously. "The rest are just tools of the trade."

Satisfied, Vader gestured for her to follow, and they walked off into Coruscant's underground.

The mid levels of the city's architecture were gloomy and ugly. Decay was evident here, in contrast to the gleaming top world. Exposed supports and enormous pipes dominated the scenery. Vader found the industrial landscape distasteful, but he knew it was attractive when compared to the dark and feral levels deeper down. Looking at the mold, rust, and flickering lights, he wondered about the infrastructure of the planet he would inherit. Perhaps, once the Rebel conflicts died down, resources could be diverted to improving it. It might even be possible to reclaim much of Coruscant's lower regions.

This was also where the transport and delivery thoroughfares were. Long tubes, tunnels, railways, and pipes moved resources, food, and water to where it was needed in the vast metropolis. It had been Mara's idea to use the produce movers to approach Boda's building in secret, rather than flying in on a conspicuous shuttle. Because Boda's rooftop greenhouse had once been one of the thousands that grew food for Imperial Center, the food transport network was still hooked up to his building. By riding in an empty produce bin, they could pass under the city to the sub levels of Boda's skyscraper. There, they could access the two freight lifts that rose up the sides of the building and provided the only ways in or out of the greenhouse level. A satellite report had revealed someone moving around in the greenhouse, indicating that their quarry was at home.

It was a good plan, and it fit Vader's personal needs as well. Vader now suspected that the real reason for Mara's presence was to watch over him for the Emperor. The fact that there were two lifts would give him an excuse to split up their team, in order to cover both entrances at once. He hoped to temporarily lose Mara Jade, so that he could finish off Boda alone. Perhaps he would claim that Boda jumped from the roof to avoid capture, and without any witnesses, that would be that. The Emperor might suspect the truth, but without proof, Vader would be safe.

The only unknown factor was Boda himself. How had he survived when Vader had stopped his heart, all those years ago? And how could Vader stop it from happening again? And what had Boda been doing for eleven years? It was a disturbing set of questions. Yet, if Vader could simply have Boda dead, the answers could never be found for all he really cared.

The swift ride in the temperature controlled produce bin took Vader and Mara steadily north, giving the girl a chance to check all her weapons carefully. Vader watched her as she verified the charges on her blasters, examined her dart gun and grenade launcher, and adjusted her wrist lasers. He had to admit that despite her youth, she was a formidable figure. If Vader had ever had a daughter, he would have wanted her to be as competent as this girl was.

"The Jedi may have powers you are unprepared for," Vader commented as she finished.

"So you keep saying," Mara replied. "Tell me what to expect, then. We've got time."

"Indeed," Vader said, trying to ignore the automatic and probably unconscious lack of respect the teenager displayed. It would be a pointless waste of time to correct her every time she failed to address him properly. "I can tell you some few things, but only hard experience can teach you the true intricacies of the Force. Although the Jedi limit themselves to the lesser skills of the light side, Ashka Boda may have many ways to defend himself. He could tear that rifle out of your hands at a distance. He may sense your approach and be ready with his lightsaber. With it, he could stop your blaster fire or reflect it back at you. He could try to touch your mind and manipulate you into making a mistake. Remember, the Jedi have no code against killing in self defense."

Mara thought for a minute, then shrugged. "All right. It sounds like it's crucial that I get the drop on him. That's okay. I'm good at that."

Vader gave her a hard stare. "I will do the fighting where Ashka Boda is concerned," he said. "You will be my back-up. Do not forget who is in command here, Mara Jade."

"I won't forget, Lord Vader," she said with a facial expression that said, how could I possibly forget? Vader ignored that as well.

The produce bin finally stopped in a dusty, unused storage area beneath Boda's skyscraper. Rusting carts sat still on their tracks, and trays rested on unmoving belts. Silence greeted them as they stepped out into the former warehouse level. It was lit only by a set of fading overhead glowstrips, but Vader sensed no one waiting in the semi-darkness.

"Very good," he said. "We are alone here. Your plan was most useful."

"Thank you, Lord Vader," Mara said. "The freight lifts should be accessible from this level. I see one of them over there, I think. The other one will be on the far side of the warehouse."

"I will take this lift," Vader told her. "I will wait exactly fifteen minutes for you to reach the other lift, then we will both go up at the same time. Once we reach the greenhouse level, we will disable the lifts, cutting off Boda's escape. We will each move in from our points of entry until we meet in the middle. I do not want you to underestimate Boda, but my prediction is that he will be hiding from us. I think that there will be little fight in this Jedi. When I first met him, he allowed me to stop his heart without resistance. Then, in the Palace garden yesterday, he ran from me."

"Now you tell me. After all that talk about how dangerous a Jedi can be."

"I do not want you to take anything for granted," Vader insisted. "He will be trapped within that greenhouse. We must assume he will fight, and be ready to defend ourselves."

Mara nodded. "All right. Is there anything else?"

"Remember that I will be doing the fighting, if it comes to that. Once he is defeated, some of your devices may be useful. Now go. I will meet you on the roof level."

Mara trotted off into the gloom, lighting her way with a lamp mounted on her rifle. Vader waited a few minutes, until he could no longer detect her, even with his enhanced senses. Then, long before the promised fifteen minutes had elapsed, he stepped onto the large elevator. Locking off the lift's access to the other floors of the skyscraper, the Dark Lord began his ascent to the roof.

"The Sssith Lorrrd isss coming," said the rustling voice of the Bafforr trees. Boda startled out of his meditation, a tightness in his chest instantly replacing his calm. Vader was on his way. Boda gratefully stroked the smooth pale blue trunks next to him. The many Bafforr trees in the enormous greenhouse were his early warning system. Just below the earth which he had layered deeply on the rooftop, their intertwined roots allowed them to communicate and to assemble a group intelligence. Beneath Boda's hands, the tree trunks hummed. He felt their gift, a soothing mind-touch that swept away his anxiety. Boda rose from his soft, mossy resting place, and breathed deep its sweet smell.

"Thank you," he said to the trees.

Using rustling branches and leaves, squeaking and twisting twigs, and creaking trunks, the trees were able to create an eerie voice to reply. "We ssserve you, Masssterrr.."

Yes, Boda thought, the trees loved him for now. He had been careful not to stain himself in the one way that mattered to them - to become a killer. Sadly, he reflected that once he had destroyed the Palace with Palpatine inside it, the trees would reject him forever. Provided, that is, he still lived, which was all too unlikely.

Now. To his plan of action. Boda placed his hands on the trees and spoke to them. "Where is the Sith Lord?"

"Sssouth liffft," said the grove.

All right. That meant Boda could still escape via the north lift. He only had to delay Vader for a short time. The plants would help him to do that. Besides being able to tell him what was going on in the huge greenhouse, the trees were also able to pass on Boda's instructions to the animate vines and other defenses. "Have the vines, the fungi, and the flowers work together to stop him from advancing as long as they can," Boda commanded.

"It will be ssso," rustled the trees. This quivering passed from one tree to the next, moving away from Boda into the distance, towards Vader. Boda hated to sacrifice the plants, but he had no choice. He turned without a thought for his possessions in the apartment at the center of the greenhouse, and headed for the north lift. With Vader occupied here for a while, it was time for Boda to go and see Palpatine.

Darth Vader stepped off the roomy lift and emerged into a scene of bizarre wonder. It was as if he had arrived on a lush alien planet. Instead of the duracrete floor he expected, there was an expanse of gently curving earth. Thin blue trees with black leaves grew all over, and a carpet of gray-green moss covered most of the ground. Vader stared at low, flat, meter wide mushrooms, enormous orange flowers, and tough looking vines hanging between the trees. He took a few tentative steps out onto the springy ground, peering out into the greenhouse. There was no sign of Ashka Boda. Vader growled a curse. There were a thousand hiding places here, and a riot of life to confuse his Force senses. Angrily, he turned back, ignited his lightsaber, and slashed the turbolift controls. Then he stalked out into the garden, ready to hack his way to Boda if necessary.

What happened next took him totally by surprise. Several of the trees rustled briskly, although there was no wind. Abruptly, two of the giant mushrooms exploded. The concussion knocked Vader from his feet, and his lightsaber was jarred from his hand. Thick vines began to curl around his limbs of their own accord. Hurriedly, he reached out with the Force to reclaim his saber; it flew to him only to bounce off of the vines that had bunched around his hands. More and more vines reached out of the trees to wrap around his body. With his formidable strength, Vader tried to tear himself free, but the vines simply stretched, giving freely where he heaved. Now they began to drag him along the mossy ground, towards one of the grotesque, giant orange flowers. As he slid closer, the petals opened to reveal a gaping mouth like hole, lined with waving tendrils. Enraged and unable to concentrate, the Sith Lord was pulled up and into the carnivorous plant. With humiliating ease, it took him into its maw and wrapped its petals protectively around its still struggling prize. Vader had been completely engulfed.

Now this is an unwelcome complication, thought Boda as he stood in front of the north lift. It had already begun to rise towards his level before he arrived at it. Someone else was coming. But who? Could it be the Emperor himself? Boda had prepared for just such an eventuality...but no, it couldn't be. There would have been a very large disturbance in the Force, and there was none that he could sense. Boda quickly left the lift and hid behind a large cluster of giant mushrooms to wait.

The lift arrived, and the opening doors revealed a young girl dressed in black, carrying a large rifle. Did Vader have help? As he watched, the girl turned and fired a silent wrist laser beam into the lift controls, obliterating them. Then she moved out into the garden in a low crouch, silent on the soft moss. She quickly found cover and waited, listening. Yes, she was no doubt hunting him. She was an assassin of some kind, despite her youth. Now what was he going to do? Vader was delayed behind him, but Boda knew it was only a delay. Vader would come, and Boda would have to deal with both of them. He began to feel panic at the thought of his decade-long plan failing without even threatening the Emperor.

Then, the idea of threatening the Emperor combined in his mind with the idea of avoiding facing both hunters. Boda clutched at the sweet-smelling moss beneath his knees. Yes...he could still win free of this trap. He had only to defeat the assassin; then, if his understanding of Vader's character was correct, he would be able to leave. If not, this would be the end for him...

Mara Jade crouched, waiting for any sound from the garden. She was reluctant to enter the possibly dangerous environment, despite her agreement to meet Vader in the center. The array of alien plants changed matters, adding to the unknown risks.

Mara considered the situation. Boda was somewhere inside, which meant he was now trapped. Vader was there, too, and he stood a better chance of flushing Boda out. She decided to wait, and act as a backup as instructed. It was unlikely that Boda would be aware of Vader having a partner, so perhaps he would run in her direction, towards the lift.

A tiny noise alerted her to the presence of someone not far away. Her Force senses confirmed it. There was a human nearby, hiding among the plants. It could only be Boda. She gripped the Prax energy rifle, using its telescopic sight to check the Jedi's position. Through a gap in the mushrooms, she spotted a piece of his brown robe. Then she used the scope to look for any sign of Vader. She found nothing. Somehow, this man had eluded Vader...or perhaps he had approached her as the lesser threat. That was his mistake. She was on her own now, and Boda was hers.

Mara began circling through the trees in a wide arc around his position. She stayed low, using the trunks for cover. Then she paused, checking Boda's position again. He hadn't moved. Very good, she thought. We can finish this nice and easy. Just hold still...

She aimed and fired an electronet canister from the grenade launcher. It arced out, trailing a thin control wire. Mara thumbed a switch, and the projectile erupted into a web of sticky fibers covering a two meter spread. Boda spun and moved to the side with more speed than Mara would have thought possible for an old man, but he was still ensnared on half of his body against the mushrooms. The webbing was immediately electrified with a strong current from the guide wire. Boda thrashed about, trying to free himself. The next moment, the mushrooms he was next to exploded violently, startling Mara and hurling Boda and the net in two different directions. Mara dropped the rifle and quickly drew the dart gun from her leg holster. Running at the momentarily stunned Boda, she went to her knee with practiced ease and pumped several darts into his body. Each one contained enough neurotoxin to cause paralysis for ten minutes. Boda jerked at the impacts, tried to rise, and fell face down on the moss. He lay there, unmoving.

Wary of a trick, Mara activated her wrist lasers again, and walked slowly towards the Jedi. Keeping one laser aimed at all times, she removed the magnaharness from her belt and shook it open. The restraint employed micro magnetic fields to lock its bands in place around the captive's arms, hands, legs, and feet. Boda didn't move as she came closer and closer. Sorry, old man, thought Mara. It's nothing personal. The Emperor wants to see you, and one just doesn't turn down his invitation.

Boda lay still as the assassin approached. The neurotoxin darts had pierced his skin, but he was by no means helpless. Already, he was in touch with the Force, using the power to purge the poison from his body. He could feel the filth leaving him, moment by moment, taking the paralysis with it. The assassin's slow pace served him well; he was almost fully emptied of the toxin by the time she crouched warily over him. She bent to attach some kind of restraint harness to his neck and torso, but Boda had recovered enough mobility to roll away from her, sending the harness flying. His opponent was good - she controlled her surprise. No more than a second later, the hot beam of a wrist laser burned into the ground where he had been and began tracking towards him. However, it was too late for the girl...Boda reached out with the Force and choked her.

Mara felt the invisible fingers of the Force close around her throat. The sensation was full of the distinctive chill ferocity of the dark side. Impossible, she thought through her shock. He's a Jedi. Isn't he? In a few moments, the frighteningly strong, crushing grip combined with her lack of oxygen, and Mara Jade blacked out.

Darth Vader was surrounded by a wet, suffocating blackness. He was held tight by a fleshy yet fibrous womb - the interior of the carnivorous plant. He did not suffocate; as soon as his life support system found itself unable to take in oxygen, it closed its intake valves and turned on his closed system reserves. Vader continued to breath normally as he pushed his rage to the back of his mind. He needed to think clearly in order to escape.

One advantage to his location was that the imprisoning vines had loosened all over him. He could open his hands and begin to move again. He guessed that the vines were being eaten away by the foul liquid that he lay in. Doubtless it was some sort of digestive acid. He was safe in his armor for the moment, but how long would it take for the acid to eat through those portions of his clothing that were not durasteel plated? He did not want to lose the few remaining parts of his body that were human and not machine.

Vader strained with his cyborg limbs, and with a satisfying wet ripping sound, the vines shredded, freeing his arms and legs. In response, the plant cavity fiercely contracted, crushing him back to immobility again. The Dark Lord's anger took control once again. It roared in his mind, and with it flowed the power of the dark side. The Force was with him. No oversized flower was going to withstand the potency of that weapon. Vader imagined what he would do if the plant was a normal flower at his feet; if it offended him, he would rip it from the ground. Size was unimportant to the Force. He gathered his will around the entire monstrosity, and began to raise it up with himself inside.

The great organism shuddered as it rose. The plant was helpless to stop what was happening. The earth in which it was planted was only a few feet deep, so its root system was shallow. Those roots tore up in a shower of soil and moss as the carnivorous creature hung helpless in the air. The violence of its uprooting had mortally wounded it; the flower convulsed and went limp, its underside in tatters.

Finally, it settled back to the ground. Although it was dead, the plant bulged outwards where it lay, until the black, slime coated form of Darth Vader burst forth from the bloated pod behind the collapsed flower. Vader stepped from the corpse and shoved futilely at his soaked, acid burned uniform. With a thought, he summoned his saber from the ground, up into his hand. Its searing red blade stabbed forth, and, still furious, he hacked the remains of the dead flower apart. The light blade hummed and moaned as he moved on to the vines, severing as many as he could find. Many of them withdrew, snake like, to safety among the deeper foliage. With broad, slashing strokes, Vader hewed the nearest blue trees down as well, hearing as he did so an eerie sound of inhuman pain. Finally, he stood in a cleared area, safe from further attacks.

He returned his attention to Ashka Boda and Mara Jade. What had happened to his partner? Vader hoped she was not fighting Boda alone, or worse, being consumed by one of the garden's monstrosities. He felt a sudden concern for her, and he wondered at it. He tried to tell himself that his Master would be displeased at Vader losing his new agent, but a deeper part of him quietly insisted that Vader himself would regret her death. Despite his initial doubts, Vader had seen something of a warrior in Mara Jade. It gave them an unlooked for sense of connection. But there was more to it than that...Vader had realized that they were in the same dangerous position in life. They were both servants of the Emperor, the most difficult Master in the galaxy. The thought gave him a rough sort of empathy for her. Besides, the only one who would really be served by friction between Vader and Mara would be the Emperor. Palpatine wanted all of his servants to be at odds with each other, worrying what each other was up to, so they had no time to plot against him. Perhaps it could benefit Vader, after all, to have an ally where the Emperor was concerned. He would consider it, once Ashka Boda was dealt with. Vader hurried off into the garden after his prey.

Boda wasted no time tightly tying up the assassin with her own syntherope. Leaving her securely bound on a bed of Phelarion moss, he hurried to the environmental control box next to the lift. He swung down the cover and rapidly punched a code into the numeric keypad: 52-5197-7, the override for the heating system in the greenhouse. Then he entered a new temperature command - one very much higher than the normal one. A temperature hot enough to set off the explosive organism growing all over the vast room...Boda's treasured moss.

The gray-green plant was an obscure organism from the outer rim planet Phelarion. Among the various rare and dangerous plants Boda had discovered and cultivated, the moss was the most innocent looking and the most destructive. The reason lay in its biochemistry. In its cells was an enzyme that could catalyze the breakdown of a complex high-energy molecule in the cytoplasm. The enzyme was only catalytic at highly elevated temperatures, but then the reaction was intensely exothermic.

The whole phenomenon was a part of the plant's reproductive cycle. It multiplied through the distribution of heat resistant spores. An animal would eat some of the moss, and the plant cells would heat up in its stomach. In the resulting explosion, the animal would blow up, scattering spores and other organic material to fertilize the ground nearby. Taken out of the context of its normal reproductive cycle, the moss still exploded when heated too much in the open air. In fact, the blast was even more violent, involving deadly flames as well, and it could set off a chain reaction with any other Phelarion moss nearby.

Boda had discovered the organism through his hiring a pair of interplanetary scouts - they brought him a sample of the moss and the spores from one expedition, and he paid them well for these curiosities. Boda had realized at once that the Phelarion moss represented a weapon that he could hide out in the open...a weapon that could destroy the Emperor and his undeserved palace. For years, he had been cultivating the moss, distributing the spores by hand and making more and more of it. His job as a menial gardener took him all over the gardens of the huge Palace, and he had placed the moss everywhere. The Emperor like having exotic plants around, so it had been easy for Boda to introduce the moss to his supervisors as a new decorative touch. Its sweet smell, softness, and pleasant color made it a natural success for not only the gardens, but also the beautification of the Palace in general. Wherever there was a corner that could use a green touch, the maintenance free moss would appear. After years of this process, the entire Palace was ready to go up in flames. All it needed was a little heat...

The possibility had always existed that Palpatine would somehow discover Boda and come to his greenhouse to destroy him. It was a small possibility, admittedly, but Boda had wanted to be prepared just in case. So, he had blanketed his greenhouse with Phelarion moss and installed a heating system override. Now, his home itself was a bomb, just like the Palace. If the Emperor had ever come there, he would have met the very same death that awaited him at the Palace.

Boda could already feel the air getting hotter. In just ten minutes or so, the entire rooftop would go up in a flaming concussion. He had that long to get away. Darth Vader, however, would soon be upon him. He could feel the Dark Lord coming. Vader would never let him go, unless Boda could convince him that something else was more important...such as the life of this girl. Boda's entire hope now rested on his assessment of the Sith Lord. If, as Boda hoped, Vader was a warrior with honor, he would not pause to duel Boda while the girl, his partner, was in danger of dying. When Vader went to rescue her, Boda would flee, in order to preserve his last chance to destroy the Emperor. If Vader chose to fight him...there was only one outcome then. All three of them would die in the fire. Leaving the girl tied, Boda ran towards the approaching Sith Lord, racing to intercept the man who held all their lives in his black gloved hands.

Vader saw the running form of his quarry approaching him, and he stopped his own advance, his lightsaber ready. The Jedi came around a cluster of the same kind of smooth blue trees Vader had cut down before, and stopped, panting, facing Vader across a clearing.

Vader waved his light blade through the air, and made a summoning gesture to his opponent. "Come to me, Ashka Boda. There is no more running to be done. I do not understand how you still live after our last meeting, but that is not important to me. Once, you asked me to kill you, and to do it quickly. Today, I will give you your wish once again. Defend yourself, or do not. The end will be the same." Vader began advancing on Boda, all his senses focused on the attack.

"Wait!" cried Boda. "You don't understand at all! I'm not Ashka, and I don't want to fight you! Stop - listen to me!"

Vader did not stop, and Boda desperately pulled out his lightsaber, extending the silvery blade. "Don't you want to know what happened to your partner - the girl?" Boda shouted as he backed up. "If you want to save her, there's very little time!"

Vader stopped. "What do you mean?" he demanded in a low voice.

"She's behind me, back at the north lift," Boda explained hurriedly. "There's going to be an explosion. She'll die unless you get her out of there in time. It's either me or her. Why don't you let me go, Vader? My business isn't with you, it's with your Master." Boda held his lightsaber low and non threateningly. "What's it going to be? What's your decision? Whatever it is, you have to decide quickly."

Vader hesitated. Boda was right there in front of him. He could attack, and perhaps kill the Jedi right away. It would be all over, and he would never have to worry whether the man had any secrets or not. But if Mara Jade's life really was in danger...Vader knew that her preventable death would be to his own dishonor. On this mission, she was his responsibility. If she had faced Boda alone and lost, it was the result of his miscalculations. The moment stretched out, as Boda and Vader faced each other in the rising heat.

Mara Jade came back to consciousness and immediately gasped for breath. The air was hot and stifling, and sweat was pouring down her face. She was firmly tied, and alone, she realized. Her equipment had all been removed. Boda was gone, and there was no sign of Vader. Afraid and confused, Mara did the only thing she could think of. She mentally called the Emperor.

Palpatine answered quickly, his expectant face floating in her mind's eye. He accosted her demandingly.

--- Well? Have you captured the Jedi? What happened? Where is Lord Vader?

--- I'm so sorry, Master. I let you down. I almost had him, but he overcame me and left me tied here. He got away.

The Emperor's irritation came through to her with sickening clarity. His reply was cruelly curt.

--- I am disappointed. Lord Vader had best not be taking advantage of your absence...for his sake and yours. I will send someone to assist you in time. We will speak about your performance when I see you in person.

Abruptly, Palpatine's presence left her. Mara put her sweaty face down on the bed of moss, which was no longer soft. It had turned a brittle, ugly brown. It suited her. She did not deserve softness - she had failed in her first mission as Emperor's Hand, and there probably wouldn't be a second one.

Darth Vader made his decision. "Very well, Jedi. You win, this time. But this does not change anything. You are merely postponing your death. I will find you again, and soon."

"I'll probably be dead before we have a chance to meet again," said Boda. "This is the second time you've given me another chance to deal with your Master, and I won't waste it. Good-bye, Sith Lord."

Boda turned and ran off into the garden. Vader let him go, and set out for the north lift.

Drawing energy from the Force, Boda ran at full tilt for the side of the building. His beloved Bafforr trees and other plants seemed to streak past as he raced the clock to safety. Time was as short as his breath. He cursed his aged body - it was so limited! It had never fit him well anyway, like a scarf that was on too tight, or a shirt one size too small. But it was all he had. Panting, he reached the glass wall that surrounded the greenhouse. The panorama of Imperial City was spread out before him, a crowd of skyscrapers and a stream of flying craft above them. The sun was setting, creating a thousand shadows on the architectural landscape beyond the thick glass. Boda lifted his lightsaber, and sliced into the window in front of him. With several wide strokes, he cut out a large hole in the transparent wall, letting in the wind and noise of the endless city.

The Bafforr trees behind him rustled in alarm. "You arrre leaving," they said.

"Yes," Boda replied, not turning around. He couldn't look at them.

"Will you be coming back to usss?" asked the grove, sensing that something was very wrong.

Boda swallowed hard. He was going to miss the trees. They had been his only friends for so many years. "I - no, I won't be coming back. I have to go and destroy that great evil I told you about."

"Yesss. The darrrk one. What will become of usss?"

"You...you don't have much time. The Sith Lord just couldn't be stopped. In order to save myself, I...I...the Phelarion moss is..."

"We fffeel the heat," the grove said. "And the mosss will brrring ffflamesss."

"I'm sorry," said Boda. "I wish it could have been different. I know you've served me well, for a long time. I have one more thing to ask of you. I need the vines to lower me out the window. There's not much time left...otherwise, I'll die right here."

Boda wondered if the trees he had betrayed would help him. They rustled in response, a vigorous sound made by dozens of them at once. Several of the thick vines snaked out and wrapped around his chest and shoulders. "Good-bye, masssterrr," the trees said. "Live forrr usss." Then the vines lifted him out the hole he had made and began to lower him gently down the side of the skyscraper.

Boda saw a drop of several hundred stories below him, but the vines did not let him fall. When he had descended five stories, the tough vines reached their limit. Boda took his lightsaber and cut his way into the nearest window. He used his legs to push away from the side of the building, then swung back neatly into the hole he had made. He was in an empty, quiet residence hallway. With another slice of the saber, he severed the vines, and began to run down the hall in search of an elevator.

Vader found Mara Jade right where Boda had promised. She had been tied with syntherope, but seemed otherwise unharmed. As he approached, she looked up, groggily. Vader had noticed the rising heat, but it had not penetrated the temperature-controlled suit he wore. Mara was sweltering. Vader was relieved to see her uninjured, but perversely upset to find no explosives nearby. Had Boda taken him for a fool? Maybe there was no bomb here.

Without warning, the ground around him erupted, blasting stones, tree trunks, and soil into the air. A great wash of flames swept over him as he fell protectively over Mara Jade. The explosions did not stop there - instead, they intensified. All over the garden, a fireball of enormous proportions was building. Debris rained down hard on his armor as Vader scooped up Mara and sprinted for the open lift door. He rushed inside with her and pounded the closure button. The doors hissed shut against a wave of heat and fire, and a sound of thunder that went on and on. As Vader held on to the groaning girl, the lift shook hard. The interior lights were snuffed out, and the lift went into a sudden free fall.

Vader braced himself against the wall as the lift plummeted, experiencing a vivid thought of what the impact more than two hundred floors below would be like. He had to get both of them out of there immediately. Drawing his lightsaber, he reached up to cut a large hole in the roof of the lift, shoving the falling severed section to the floor next to him. Then, getting a tight grip on Mara, he gathered the power of the Force and leaped straight up. His powerful jump took him through the hole, and he landed on the roof of the lift, breaking smoothly into a run as he did so. He crossed the distance to the side of the shaft and jumped up at it. Vader slammed into the shaft wall as the lift continued to fall away. He protected Mara from the impact, taking it all on his prosthetic armored right arm and leg. His bionic hand clamped onto a rung of the shaft's maintenance ladder and refused to let go. When he finally stabilized, he looked down to see the lift disappear into the darkness until it hit bottom with a terrific crash. Distant rumblings sounded from above as well, signaling the end of Boda's rooftop home, and probably a considerable amount of the skyscraper itself.

For a long moment, he hung on the ladder, not moving. He was covered in slime and dirt, his cape had been partly burned, and he was disturbed at the narrow escape. Mara hung in his grasp, moaning in fear. Boda had escaped cleanly, and both of them had barely survived the aftermath. As Jedi hunting missions went, Vader thought ruefully, this one certainly could have gone better.

It did not take long for Vader to climb the ladder to a maintenance access hatch, which opened onto a hallway on the seventy-third floor of the building. The area was clogged with people, but even if they had not recognized the Dark Lord from the HoloNetNews, they would have cleared space for the imposing figure as he strode down the hall. Mara Jade had been untied, and had come back to herself. She walked briskly in Vader's wake. Taking an elevator (which emptied of people as if by magic), they descended to the fiftieth floor and the main building offices. Citizens continued to stream around them. The building was being evacuated due to the fire and the explosions which had collapsed the top ten floors. The offices were already empty, and Vader went straight to a HoloNet terminal in one of the cubicles.

"What are we doing now?" asked Mara. It was the first thing she had said since Vader had rescued her. She was wracked with shame, but Vader had not criticized her. Instead, he had simply led her along purposefully. In a way, she wanted to be chastised. She had failed her mission. Instead of capturing Boda, he had captured her, and she assumed that this had caused Vader to lose Boda as well.

"Now," he said, "we contact the Emperor. He will need to know what has happened. Then, we must continue searching for Ashka Boda."

"We?" asked Mara. "You mean I'm still a part of the mission? After what happened up there?"

"You may yet be of some use to me," Vader said dryly. "And do not berate yourself too much for what happened. I, too, underestimated Ashka Boda and his defenses. It was my mistake to separate us, not yours. Perhaps together, we might have succeeded."

Mara was stunned at this generosity, but she did not argue with it. "For what it's worth," she said, "you were absolutely right. Boda's Force powers were what caused me to fail. I had him pumped full of neurotoxin, but somehow, he got rid of the poison. Then he choked me with the Force....wait! I had almost forgotten that! He used the dark side - I could feel it! He's no Jedi - he's a dark side adept. We were wrong about him all along."

Vader's posture showed his surprise. "A dark side adept," he said wonderingly. "What does this mean?" Vader paused in thought. "He also told me that it was I who gave him a second chance at life...but he said his name was not Ashka. There is indeed more to this than I have guessed. We must consult with the Emperor at once."

Vader turned to the HoloNet station and, after a moment of examining it, pounded it in frustration. "It is useless. The explosion must have damaged the connection from this building to the network."

"I know another way to contact the Emperor," Mara said hesitantly. She felt gratitude towards Vader for what he had done, and she wanted to turn it into trust between them. She was no longer sure of the truth of what the Emperor had told her about Vader and Boda, but she was sure that Vader was treating her with more respect than Palpatine had. "I'm a strong projecting and receptive telepath...and I'm closely attuned to his mind. I can call him, and he'll hear me, whatever he's doing."

Vader stared at her, considering. Perhaps he was deducing why he had not been told about this before. Mara strongly suspected that there was a deficiency of trust on the parts of both Vader and his Master. Theirs must be a very strange relationship.

"I have received his thoughts at a distance as well," Vader said, "but I am rarely successful in sending my thoughts to him. His mental screens are formidable, and he does not like interruptions. Very well. Contact him, and tell him that Ashka Boda will be coming for him. I will wait in the next room."

Mara nodded as Vader moved away. She realized that he was in fact aware of the undercurrents here; he was preventing the Emperor from sensing him, so that Palpatine would not realize that Mara had revealed her talent. She concentrated on her connection to the Emperor, and soon, his face appeared to her. He was highly agitated.

--- Where are you, Mara Jade? I was just told there was an explosion in the building where you were. Where is Ashka Boda, and where is Lord Vader?

--- I got away in time, Master. Lord Vader rescued me. But it meant he had to let Boda go, in order to save me. He's...he's nearby, trying to find out what caused the explosion.

Mara glanced at the doorway nervously, hoping her cover story would be believed, but the Emperor wasn't even interested in such details. His anger was plain to Mara. She blanched at the heat of it.

--- Curse Lord Vader! He had the Jedi in his hands, and he let him go?

--- Yes, but -

--- It seems that both of my servants are suffering from incompetence this day! Vader will pay for his foolish choice. Must I capture Boda myself?

--- But Emperor...it was to save my life. I would have died...

--- Young fool! This matter is more important than you realize. You have no idea what is at stake! A life far more important than yours hangs in the balance!

--- Master...Ashka Boda...he...he might be coming to find you. Lord Vader told me -

The Emperor's mood changed like lightning.

--- So! The Jedi is going to come to me? Excellent! I wonder what he hopes to accomplish by coming here? If you are correct, then I can deal with him myself. Perhaps your failure will be of no consequence after all. I must prepare a welcome for our fugitive...and so I have no more time for you right now. Return to the Palace with Lord Vader as soon as you can...

With that, he faded out, leaving Mara alone with her crushed feelings. Her Master would have wanted Vader to sacrifice her! What was so important to him about this Boda that he placed so little value on her own life? Slowly, her self-esteem began to bleed out of the ragged hole in her spirit.

Vader walked back in to find her sitting dejectedly in a swivel chair. "Well," demanded the Dark Lord. "What did he tell you?"

"He...he just cut me off. I didn't even have a chance to tell him that Boda is a dark side adept. He was just...furious that we let Boda get away. He thought...he thought you should have let me die instead."

"It is no worse than I expected," Vader said calmly. "The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am. Let him discover Boda's true nature for himself. I plan to follow him to the Palace. Perhaps I will reach him before he gets there. He and I have unfinished business to conclude."

"What does he want with the Emperor?" Mara asked.

"Like many others before him, he plans to put an end to our Master, even if it means dying himself."

"Does he have a chance? Can't we stop him?"

"If Ashka Boda reaches the Emperor, he will find him more than ready. I have little faith in his chances..."

"So what is he," Mara demanded, "a madman? Is he just going to stroll past a legion of guards, hoping to get to the throne room, when Palpatine knows he is coming?"

"He may indeed be mad," said Vader thoughtfully, "but I do not think he is a fool. He dealt with us in his garden with great cunning...and there is the matter of the explosion he caused. Such destruction in the Palace could alter the situation a great deal."

"What was it that exploded?" Mara asked. "Could you tell?"

"It seemed to be the ground itself," Vader said. "Perhaps an organic weapon of some kind, among his exotic plants."

Mara quickly put the pieces together. "He worked in the Palace for eleven years, as a gardener. If he had an organic explosive all that time, he could have put it anywhere. Maybe he plans to use it against the Emperor - it could be why he was so confident."

"Let me try to recall," Vader said. "The Force will enhance my memory. I believe I saw one of the organisms in the greenhouse elsewhere..." He fell silent for almost a minute. "I have it," he said finally. "When we were in the greenhouse, I saw a gray moss all over the ground. The same moss was in the Palace gardens where I saw Ashka Boda. The Ho'Din botanists asked me what it was, but I did not know."

"All right, maybe that is the explosive," said Mara, "but how does he set it off?"

"The most obvious change in the room," observed Vader, "was the increased temperature."

"Right, but how could he apply that much heat to the Palace? It's climate controlled."

"He will have a way," declared Vader. "Our dark Jedi is almost as devious as the Emperor himself. Let us be on our way immediately."

As the enormous structures of Imperial Center cooled under the darkening sky, Vantos Boda boarded an express travel tube for the Palace. Behind him was a small pocket of chaos and destruction. A flower of fire had bloomed among the cold steel towers, marking the irrevocable severance of Boda's past. His home of the past decade was gone - all of the trees and plants, his rooms, even the ancient Holocron that had been passed down to him by his Master Dina. He himself had barely escaped the building with his life. The tube car sped on, uncaring, delivering him to all that remained of his life - a short and violent future. It would be a fitting end to his unhappy career as a savior.

Boda's encounter with the young female assassin had left him shaken. To subdue the girl, he had been obligated to use the dark power. It sickened him to partake of the same strength that sustained Palpatine, but he had no choice. The healing peace of the light side was forever lost to him. Boda was not even certain when he it had turned away from him. All along the way he had been sure he was acting for the right reasons, serving the universal good. And he still believed it.

First had come the vision, which had given him his mission as a savior. He had foreseen the awful fate of the galaxy in the hands of the Emperor to come, and he knew that there must have been a purpose in his having had that vision. He had been chosen, chosen to change that future. An ancient passage from the Journal of the Whills had spoken to him when he had consulted that treasured text. The Journal was a huge collection of stories and prophecies, histories, and legends. It contained the words of kings, Jedi, philosophers, and scientists. Before the Empire, the Journal of the Whills never stopped growing. It was added to by the greatest minds of each generation. Now it was just one more book outlawed by the New Order. Vantos had believed the Journal contained everything that was important in the culture of the Old Republic. Somewhere in its pages, he knew, he would find the reason for his being chosen. The passage he had found told him that he was to be a savior in a time of despair - the Son of the Suns. There was very little said about this prophetic figure, but Boda knew it was himself.

There were terrible difficulties in store for the Son of the Suns. Besides the vision of the Emperor, Vantos had also foreseen his fight with his own brother, Ashka. Worse than that, he had hazily foreseen his own death at Ashka's hands. If that happened, Vantos could never alter the future. And so, he had delved deep into the lore of the Jedi for a way to prevent his own death, all in the name of fulfilling his destiny. He had to find a way - otherwise, why had he been shown the vision? Boda began to believe that perhaps it was part of the fate of the Son of the Suns to overcome death itself in order to be the galaxy's savior.

In the depths of the Holocron, Vantos had discovered the secret of lingering after death by using a spirit anchor. A spirit anchor was someone familiar to become attached to, in order to avoid the natural passage into the next realm. It was a power used by a few ancient Jedi to complete their unfinished business before passing on. He hoped against hope that he would not have to use it, but to his dismay, everything had unfolded just as in the vision. As soon as Vantos had tried to change the future by killing the boy, Espaa, his brother Ashka had opposed him. Suddenly, Vantos had found himself acting out the events of his vision. The duel unfolded, and at the end, Vantos died by his brother's sword. But he was not extinguished. At the moment of his death, he attached his essence to his brother's life, lingering with him, watching him for decades as an invisible energy form.

It had been a prolonged limbo, an unfeeling suspension between physical life and the spiritual oneness with all life that a true Jedi passed into. Then finally, the chance he had waited for had come. Darth Vader came for Ashka. When the Sith Lord stopped Ashka's heart, Vantos' spirit had returned to life by inhabiting the body and restarting the heart. Ashka's troubled soul had departed forever, leaving the body free for the Son of the Suns to take it and make his triumph over death. The key had been another power recorded in the Holocron - the ability to transfer a life from one body to another. It had been presented in the record as an act of questionable morality, but what choice did he have? In combination with the power of taking a spirit anchor, the skill of life transfer had saved him.

Vantos had arisen in his new body, retrieved the Holocron and his lightsaber, and fled Ashka's burning apartment. When he emerged into the world, he found his worst nightmares realized. Just as the vision of his fight with Ashka had come true, so had his vision of the dark Emperor. Vantos had nearly despaired, then. Why show him the future at all, if he couldn't change it? He overcame his severe doubts by convincing himself that he was still chosen, still a savior. He was still meant to destroy the Emperor before he could fulfill all of his evil, such as the building of a machine able to destroy planets. Vantos moved to Coruscant, right to the home of his enemy, and took a job as a humble Palace gardener. While maintaining greenery throughout the immense structure, Vantos had patiently laid his plans. He placed the Phelarion moss wherever he could, and slowly, he made ready the Emperor's doom. But years followed years, and somehow, Boda did not act. He had come to love life, after so many years of being effectively dead. The plants gave him peace, and he became less and less interested in bringing it all to an end.

Only one thing tormented him - the loss of the light side. When Vantos had awakened in his new body, the only part of the Force he could touch was the dark side. Where once serenity had resided in him, a core of anger now burned. He resisted it, using it only when he had to. Boda knew what price the dark side exacted, and he did not want to become ensnared in it beyond hope of redemption. But to achieve victory over Palpatine, Vantos knew he would have to use the dark side...and use it well. He practiced his new powers reluctantly, gaining skill in them year by year.

Vantos smiled sadly as he continued his ride in the tube car. It was so very ironic to him that the Sith Lord had thought he was Ashka. Yes, he outwardly looked like Ashka, but his brother could never have done what Vantos had done. Ashka was too weak. He had died in his weakness, unwilling to go on. It took strength to achieve great things, and Vantos was strong...strong enough to defeat Palpatine now, using the hateful dark powers against him. He would only have to immerse himself in the darkness for a short time, to keep the Emperor occupied until the Palace came crashing down onto both of them. He would give his final service on behalf of the light, and he knew his reward would be acceptance back into its embrace in the end.

For now, it was time to take the next step. His Phelarion moss needed heat, and there was an excellent source of heat floating serenely in orbit around the planet. Boda peered out the window of the speeding tube car at the starry sky. Up there, unseen, was one of the huge climate control mirrors that focused sunlight on the poles, making them more habitable for humans. It was piloted, Vantos knew, by a low ranking naval trooper who had made an error punishable with the lonely, tedious assignment. The mirror was a kilometers-wide reflector with a very small control station attached. The latter contained a few entertainment systems, an autochef, and a cramped observation bubble for the pilot to squeeze into among the computers. Vantos was expecting the man to be bored, unhappy, and a little tired, thus easily manipulated by the Force.

In preparation for this day, Boda had learned as much about him as he could without arousing suspicion. Ensign Handli was as close to being a failure in the Imperial navy as a man could get without being discharged. The mistakes he made turned out not to be disasters by the slimmest of margins. The Ensign's wealthy uncle, however, had a large influence as a major military supplier based on Coruscant. He had persuaded the Navy to retain the young man, but had not argued when they replied that his nephew would have to "ride the mirrors" for a while. Both parties agreed it was a good discipline for Ensign Handli. What they had really done was to supply Boda with the ideal tool.

Vantos smiled in his cushioned transit seat. He let his mind reach out to the void of space beyond the atmosphere, to find the mind of the foolish young pilot of the mirror station. Handli was there in his claustrophobic chair, staring at the scintillating planet below with eyes glazed over. He concentrated on Handli's thoughts, smoothly taking possession of his will, compelling him to trust what he was going to be told, to believe, and to comply. Then he implanted a series of commands into the Ensign's mind, which would seem like prearranged orders to him. Handli nodded at the viewport, and began to adjust his attitude control rockets, gently tilting the vast reflective surface towards a new set of coordinates. He then keyed new parameters into the focusing controller. As the mirror turned, fiber cables retracted into the control station, pulling the thin, silvery fabric inwards, narrowing the beam of reflected light. Handli was unaware of just how narrowly he was adjusting the beam, blindly programming the mirror to redirect the sun's energy into a tight shaft of baking heat. When the mirror was properly focused and oriented, it was going to aim that shaft right at the Imperial Palace...and all the Phelarion moss in the gardens.

There were certainly more impressive ways to travel to the Palace, thought Vader, looking doubtfully at the poorly designed interior of the public airbus. The vehicle moved slowly, and it seemed to be designed to fit in the maximum number of passengers with the minimum of comfort. But it was the only transport that Vader and Mara had been able to appropriate at the scene of the destruction of Boda's home. Vader had claimed the ponderous, graffiti-covered bus in the name of the Emperor, as its driver flew hesitantly up to the stop. Mara had taken the driver's seat, ejecting the rude, scruffy pilot, and Vader had advised all of the passengers to wait for the next airbus. No one had argued. Finally, Mara had flown them out of a crowd of medical shuttles, security floaters, and fire fighting platforms, and aimed the bus southwards.

In the distance lay the glowing mountain like Palace. Boda, or whatever his name was, had probably headed in that direction as well. Vader had believed the man when he asserted that his real business was with the Emperor. Palpatine had many enemies...he just did not take many of them seriously. Vader made a point of not underestimating his foes. Boda's strength was in his cleverness, and he had had a very long time to plan. Vader respected the subtlety of Boda's approach even as he disdained the man's apparent cowardice. Boda had run from Vader twice, now, for the purpose of continuing a sneaking, secretive plot. It was unwarrior-like, and unbefitting a former Jedi. Vader intended that he not escape again. The Dark Lord was going to find him, and somehow prevent him from falling into the Emperor's hands...permanently.

There were troubling complications, however, associated with the organic explosive itself. Vader was still unsure how Boda meant to trigger it, assuming it was going to be used at all. Their ideas concerning the alien species of moss and a heat source were only theories. Vader's instincts, however, told him they were correct. His first Master, Obi-Wan, had taught him to rely on those instincts. Right now, they told him that Boda was coward enough to assume he would lose to the Emperor in a direct confrontation. Furthermore, Boda would feel the need for a huge advantage to offset his weakness, like a massive explosion capable of killing the Emperor. Boda's own words had revealed that he was expecting to die. All the facts fit. The conclusion was that Vader's opponent was suiciding by walking into a death trap...one set to catch the Emperor as well. Vader now had to eliminate Boda, not only before the Emperor could claim him, but also before he did serious damage to the Palace.

How could he stop the explosions from happening? Vader reasoned that the explosives would have to be spread all over the Palace, so they could not be quickly removed if discovered. It seemed the only option was to prevent them from getting hot in the first place. Vader had checked his armor's computer memory after their escape from the greenhouse. The temperature had reached one hundred and twenty one standard degrees at the moment of the explosion. The Palace was indeed climate controlled, and its heating systems would not reach so high a temperature. Vader stared at the distant peak of lights where the Emperor waited. How else could such heat be applied?

Then he saw it. His helmet's light-amplifying visual sensors picked out a hazy column of light rising up at an angle from the Palace itself. The beam was emerging from the upper half of the pyramidal collection of towers. It was hard to notice against the blaze of illumination from the Palace itself, but it was there, and it was getting brighter. Vader switched to infrared viewing, and confirmed his suspicions. His readouts told him that the heat content of the energy beam was growing as it narrowed. The pace of these changes was quite slow, but measurable. Suddenly, Vader understood that the beam wasn't going up - it was coming down.

"He is using the orbital solar energy transfer satellites to heat up the organic explosives!" Vader said suddenly and loudly.

Mara Jade jerked the controls in surprise and the airbus swerved momentarily. "What?" Mara exclaimed. "He's using what?"

"The orbital mirrors. He is redirecting and focusing solar energy onto the Palace, to create another explosion like the one in the greenhouse," Vader said. "Only this one will no doubt be much larger in scope."

Mara was shocked. "He can do that? But...we can't let the whole Palace be destroyed. That would kill tens of thousands of people!"

"Evidently, Ashka Boda does not care about that," Vader replied. He thought for a moment. "I believe we must separate once again. It is not your place to confront a dark Jedi. I will face him myself."

"Are you going to kill him?" she asked, hesitation in her voice.

By now, both of them knew the reason for the question, and Vader chose his answer carefully. "I will do what is necessary to protect the life of the Emperor," he said.

Mara evidently could find no fault with that. "What do I do?" she asked.

Vader pointed at the night sky above them. "You must take a fighter and destroy the orbital mirror. Perhaps the process can be stopped in time. I presume you know how to pilot a TIE fighter?" Mara nodded. "Good. We will land on the roof of the Imperial Security Operations Building. They will have a fighter available there. Are you authorized to obtain such equipment?"

"It won't be a problem," Mara assured him.

"I will proceed to the Palace, and try to find the dark Jedi. With the Force on our side, we should be victorious. The Emperor placed his trust in us to resolve the problem of Ashka Boda. We will show him that it was not misplaced."

Mara seemed grateful for the vote of confidence. Vader knew she had been out of her league before. Hopefully, she would be successful tonight, and restore the Emperor's faith in her. Aside from the real importance of her task, Vader personally wanted her to succeed. His unaccustomed compassion flowed from his understanding of what it was like to have Palpatine as a Master. Once Vader had overcome his resistance to her helping him, he had seen some of the bravery and determination that she must have needed to rise as high as she had. He knew Mara's fall would be just as far as her rise, when the Emperor judged her. He didn't want to see her destroyed like that - it would be too graphic a reminder of the abyss he himself hung over.

Soon, Mara landed the airbus on top of the enormous ImpSec building. She leaped out of the pilot seat and ran down the steps to the roof. Vader took her place at the poorly maintained driver's controls, and lifted off again the moment Mara was clear. He could see her out the window being surrounded by security forces, but he knew she would be able to handle herself.

The Sith Lord aimed the sluggish public vehicle at the Imperial Palace, swearing by the Force that when this was all over, he was going to find this particular airbus, and remodel it with his lightsaber. The bus was unimpressed by his threats, and as it crawled towards the Palace, Vader could physically sense the dwindling of precious time.

Mara held herself steady and proud as she faced a stern and haughty Captain of Imperial Security. She was surrounded by Stormtroopers, and her ride had just departed. She knew she must look like a mess, with her weapons lost, her hair filthy, and her black skinsuit ragged with tears. But she faced the Captain's sneering disdain, holding on to her dignity as if it were a rope, and she, suspended over a chasm. She was still the Emperor's Hand, at least for now. As yet, there were no real consequences to Palpatine's displeasure with her, and she intended to take full advantage of her position while it lasted.

"What have we here?" asked the Captain of Security in clipped tones. "Were you kicked off of that bus, or is this some sort of prank? Either way, you'll regret your choice of destinations. This is a restricted area, and the penalties for trespass are very harsh indeed."

Mara looked him straight in the eye, her own expression as grave as she could make it. "Don't be mislead by my appearance, Captain. I'm an agent of the Emperor on a vital assignment. I need a fueled TIE fighter released to me at once."

Some of the Stormtroopers emitted muffled snickers. The Captain frowned at them, then glared down at Mara. "This is not amusing me. You are in serious trouble here. Now tell me your name and show me some identification at once. I don't have time for this juvenile nonsense."

Mara smiled tightly. "I'll show you some identification. Give me your data pad. Program it to accept the security code for the Emperor's covert agents. And do it quickly. The Emperor will not be pleased if you delay me."

The Captain continued to frown deeply, uncertain now what to make of this. After a few moments, he grumbled in irritation and punched a few commands into his data pad. Reversing it, he handed it to Mara. She took it gracefully, and quickly entered her security code, which identified her as the Emperor's Hand. The security program confirmed her code, and flashed its acceptance on the small screen. She handed it back to the Captain with a small flourish.

He stared at the readout, then stared at her. Abruptly, his resistance crumbled. "Very well...this seems to be in order...and it instructs me to supply you with whatever you shall require." He stared straight ahead, looking over the young assassin's head to avoid her satisfaction filled face.

"A fueled TIE fighter, as fast as possible," she repeated. "Fully charged weapons, of course."

One of the Stormtroopers in the back quietly commented, "She could use some clothing, too..."

"And a vacuum-sealed flight suit," Mara added to the Captain. "In my size." She smiled in the trooper's direction.

The Captain briskly gave the orders, and ImpSec personnel scurried to make her fighter ready. He stayed with Mara while she waited, a grain of suspicion remaining in him. She pretended not to notice as he called up her detailed image on his datapad, and checked her identification numbers against the list of rogue agents. Finally, he sighed. "What is your mission...what did you say your name was?"

"I didn't say," Mara replied. "And my mission is classified. However, I can tell you that you did the right thing here. What I'm doing is very important."

"Yes, well," he said uncomfortably, "it's not the usual kind of occurrence around here, Miss..."

"Just call me the Emperor's Hand," Mara said with a small smile.

After what felt like a long time to Palpatine, his holocomm received the signal he had been waiting for. He peered eagerly at the image of one of his red armored and robed personal guards. "What is your report?" he asked immediately.

"My Emperor," the guard said, "a man exactly matching the visual data we were given has been seen approaching the Palace. He was observed riding a tube car on line twenty seven. At the fiftieth grid exchange, he boarded a car on the Imperial Palace line. He should arrive in thirty minutes."

"Good," replied Palpatine. "The Jedi is on his way to me, as Vader thought. I wish there to be no impediments to his journey. I am instructing you to have the Grand Corridor cleared. This will provide a path from the visitor center, through the Grand Corridor, to the assemblage auditorium throne room where I will await him. The Jedi is not to be interfered with, provided he follows that path. From the time he enters the throne room, I will take charge of him. There are to be no interruptions or communications. That is all."

"Your orders are clear," the red guard said. "We hear you, and obey." The transmission terminated, leaving Palpatine to feel pleased at the efficiency of his guards. The officer had not hesitated for a moment at the daunting command to clear the Grand Corridor. It was a huge task, but he had no doubt it would be done before the half hour had elapsed.

The Emperor was also pleased with his upcoming meeting with the mysterious Jedi. He hoped Boda would present a challenge. It had been far too long since he had been given the chance to destroy a Jedi. Thus, he was not overly disturbed that events had unfolded as they had. Yes, it would have been better if Vader could have captured the Jedi for him. But Vader's participation had held the worrisome risk of betrayal. Now, however, the Jedi was going to come directly to him, as if considerate of Palpatine's inability to personally hunt him down. It was going to be a very satisfying night, with a Jedi to vanquish, and the prospect of learning of a way to cheat death itself. It was time to get to the throne room and prepare to meet the immortal man himself. Palpatine felt hungry for it.

Vantos' tube car finally reached its destination at the Palace Visitor Center. He disembarked with a small crowd of people and walked warily out amongst the news and propaganda screens, the holographic tour advertisements, and the statues of the first leaders of the Empire. Palpatine's statue was among the latter, sculpted in white marble and made to show him as a young man. Boda ignored the automated tourist help stations and headed for the corridor marked: To the Grand Corridor. His eyes shifted nervously as he watched for Palace Guards or Stormtroopers to notice and approach him. If he had been reported to the Emperor, then surely his arrest was imminent. At stake was how Vantos would spend the remaining time before his death. Would he be free to try to find the Emperor, or would he be held prisoner by a guard until the explosions started? He wanted to be there with Palpatine when the Palace collapsed, so he could be sure the Emperor died.

Boda kept walking, trying to look inconspicuous among the other tourists. It was not easy; the others all appeared more wealthy than Vantos. The crowd he was following moved onto a transparisteel walkway between two towers of the Palace. Standing in the middle of this bridge, he could look up at the incredible slope of the main body of the Palace. He looked high, past level upon level of blazing lights, to the very top of the pyramid. Up there, open to the sky, was a row of hanging gardens that went all the way around the perimeter. Several levels down was another garden, also extending around all four sides of the Palace. Below that, another garden, and so on down the outside of the structure. The gardens formed a series of concentric squares when viewed from above. Each one contained generous amounts of Phelarion moss. These outer gardens would be the first to explode. From the gardens inward, Boda had grown his organic weapon on every level, at the bases of statues, around indoor trees, among stones in decorative natural displays, next to flower beds, and on multilevel fountains. In addition, there were hidden quantities of the organism, packed into forgotten storerooms where only Vantos tended them. These deposits formed the basis for a chain reaction of explosions that would occur as the fires spread inwards.

Boda had planned for the destruction to spread downwards as well. One of his commands to the mirror pilot was to move the energy beam down the side of the Palace, detonating more garden levels and setting off more chain reactions. If all went as planned, the Palace was going to fall in on itself like an imploding wedding cake.

Vantos squinted as he stared through the lights of the Palace, looking for the beam of light and heat from the mirror. He couldn't see it, but he knew it was there. It would be narrowed and trained on the top garden levels, providing the heat to initiate the exothermic reaction. Vantos imagined the moss beginning to stiffen and darken to brown, as the heat was concentrated on it.

He suddenly looked around him, and was disconcerted to find the transparent bridge empty except for himself. The other tourists had moved on, and Boda felt vulnerable in his solitude. Uneasy, he hurried along the bridge and down the hall leading to the Grand Corridor itself. As he moved briskly along, he saw no other tourists, nor did he see any Palace staff. His discomfort grew when he realized that he could hear his own footsteps in the silence. The constant background noise of the complex had dwindled away, and he had not noticed it while he daydreamed about the explosives. Gone were the murmuring voices, the intercom calls, and the tramp of feet. A chill settled over Vantos as he walked the last few steps to the entryway to the Grand Corridor.

As he emerged into the vast thoroughfare, his suspicions were realized. The Grand Corridor was empty. It was a trap, set for him by the Emperor. Palpatine was expecting him after all.

Normally, the Grand Corridor should have been teeming with people. The hour of the day was irrelevant. One could find, at any time, info-runners, bureaucrats, advisors, diplomats, ambassadors, droids, administrators, dignitaries, Stormtroopers, Royal Guards, and tourists filling the enclosed canyon in the thousands. Now, the kilometers long hall stood vacant. No one moved beneath the uncounted banners representing every world in the Empire. The promenade balcony level was deserted, and the gray granite pillars were the only things standing as far as Vantos could see.

Even so...he could sense life all around him, hidden and silent. The Emperor's Royal Guard, perhaps? Boda hesitated in the doorway. He knew it was a giant snare, but did that matter? He was still going where he wanted to go. In fact, the Emperor was making it easier for him. Palpatine must want him very badly, Vantos realized. But for what?

Setting his jaw, Vantos stepped out into the corridor and began to walk purposefully along it. His footsteps sent waves of color through the vibration sensitive Ch'hala trees as he went by them, but each tree settled back to inactivity when he was past. Vantos marched towards the main public throne room, where he predicted the Emperor would be. It was a symbol of Palpatine's authority, and it was a main destination from the Grand Corridor. Up on the balconies, he sensed the watchful eyes of hidden guards looking down on him. He suspected they would do nothing, so long as he walked along the intended path, so he took their noninterference for confirmation of his goal. The guards also meant that there would be no retreat; he was in the trap, and so be it. The Emperor did not know that Vantos had set a trap of his own, and by the time he realized it, it would be too late.

After walking for several minutes, Vantos reached the ornate entryway to the assemblage auditorium where the Emperor listened to petitions and made decrees to large seated gatherings. A quick extension of his Force senses told him what he needed to know. The Emperor was there. Boda felt his presence like a bloated black storm cloud gathering in the distance. He winced at the level of power he sensed there. Why could I not have killed you as a child? he lamented to himself.

He knew the throne room was a cavernous auditorium, with the throne on the lowest level, which was reached by descending in a single turbolift. The spectators sat on the various levels of audience decks, which were rows above rows of platforms containing thousands of benches. These decks were entered via a multitude of doorways, according to rank and social status, with the most important people sitting on the lowest levels, closest to the Emperor. Vantos decided to avoid the turbolift, and entered the doorway to the lowest audience deck; he was, he decided, a very important person on this night. After taking the stairs and emerging onto the deck, he paused among the marble benches. About ten meters below him, the Emperor's throne sat at the top of a stepped platform at the far end of the immense room. Behind the throne, a wheel shaped Imperial symbol was carved into the wall. Above the Emperor's seat, a prism poured a rainbow of light down from the ceiling. The throne itself levitated above the dais, and in it was seated the Galactic Emperor.

Palpatine was all robed in black, with a hood that hid his face. His voice emerged from the hood as a sharp near-whisper, but the perfect acoustics of the room carried it clearly all the way to Vantos. "Welcome, Jedi," said the Emperor. "I have been expecting you. We have much to discuss, you and I, concerning your purported immortality."

So, thought Boda, that is why I am so interesting to the Emperor. It is not every Jedi who comes back from the dead.

"I've been looking forward to meeting you also," replied Vantos. "I've waited a very long time for it, in fact. But I should tell you right now, that I'm not here to talk. I've come to kill you...Espaa Pestage."

Palpatine rose from his throne and partly cast back his hood, his teeth clenched in rage. "How did you learn that name?!" he demanded. The colors of the spectrum played on his pale face and tight fists. He was suddenly off balance, his former confidence marred. No one was supposed to know of his childhood name. The Emperor himself only vaguely remembered his origins, because they meant little to him as the chosen servant of the dark side. His true origin had come at the moment of that choosing. Yet, somehow this Jedi had intimate knowledge of him, and sounded certain of what he knew. Palpatine didn't even allow his own biological father to be so certain. When, as a Senator of the Republic, Palpatine was approached by the aging Sate Pestage, he had accepted Pestage's offer of service to him. He had never expected anyone to discover his origins, but because Pestage had, it was important to keep him close by. Unexpectedly, the old man had no motivation aside from service, and he eventually became Palpatine's trusted Grand Vizier. But their relationship was never acknowledged. There was no place for it in Palpatine's life. The old man had unobtrusively tried to find proof that Palpatine was his son, but he had failed utterly. The Emperor had buried his past too well.

The intruder seemed calm. "I'll explain it to you, Highness," he said. "We have time."

"You have only as much time as I decide!" snapped the Emperor. "You were a fool to come here. Now your life is in my hands, and I have already personally destroyed a hundred like you."

"Oh, surely not exactly like me, Espaa. I'm not a simple Jedi like they were," replied the intruder slowly. He was keeping his distance at the far side of the room, one level above. Palpatine sensed that the man might be playing for time. He decided to allow that. He wanted to converse with the man for as long as possible. If matters erupted into a fight, the intruder might not survive to be interrogated. Any information he could extract without torture was desirable to the Emperor.

"Then tell me, Ashka Boda," said Palpatine in a low voice, "what kind of Jedi are you?"

"Let's start with my name, Highness. It's not Ashka, it's Vantos. Ashka was my brother."

"And my name, Vantos Boda, is Palpatine. You may call me Master for the time that remains to you."

"I beg to differ, Highness, because I know otherwise. You see, I've come close to destroying you in the past, when you were just a child. Your name was Espaa then, no matter what you changed it to." Vantos strolled closer, moving slowly, keeping a row of solid marble chair backs in front of him. He was peering down at Palpatine. "I also think, Emperor, that time has not been kind to you. You are a long way from the boy I tried to kill. I wonder if your health is satisfactory?"

Anger boiled up within the Emperor, but he contained it. He refused to be manipulated by this old Jedi. "I can see that your youth is gone too, old man," he said calmly. "And do not take my apparent age for a sign of weakness. It is merely the price I have paid for my power. Against that power, you cannot stand, and your advanced years will merely bring your end more quickly. Now...why don't you come down here, where we can talk more closely. Do not be afraid. I will not destroy you until I have satisfied my curiosity."

"I'm quite content to be up here for now," Vantos said, sitting down on a bench. "But I do want you to know why I am here to kill you. I was chosen by the Force to fulfill a special destiny...to be a savior...to be the Son of the Suns."

"I am sure I have never heard of that title," said Palpatine, "and Lord Vader described you merely as a victim, one he disposed of easily years ago."

"He has me confused with my brother, I think," said Vantos. "I'm not at all sure why," he smiled slyly. "I was always meant for greater things than Ashka. A long time ago, I had a vision that concerned you. Yes, you. I foresaw...all this." Vantos indicated the throne room. "All the evil you've done. I tried to kill you as a child, but I failed. My brother stopped me. He...killed me in cold blood. Otherwise, all this...would never have come to be. No Emperor, no Empire. I would have been the Galaxy's unknown savior. But, thanks to Ashka...

"Still, I never gave up. I even came back from the dead to keep on trying, because I can still make a difference. I can still be a savior. Today, after all these years, I have another chance to end your evil reign."

Palpatine listened intently, scowling. He was deeply disturbed that this man had come so close to killing him as a child. It disgusted him that he had been so...vulnerable. But that was the past, and right now, he needed Boda's secrets in order to save his own life for the Empire's future.

"You returned from the dead?" prompted Palpatine. "Are you immortal then, as Lord Vader believes?"

"I'm afraid I cannot be of much help to you there," said Vantos. "I only came back once, and it is by no means certain I could do so again. Does the subject interest you...personally?"

The Emperor cursed silently. Vantos was coming too close to understanding too much. The damnable Jedi was too crafty, much more so than Palpatine had expected. Whoever he was, he was also clearly a fool with delusions of grandeur. He was too mysterious as well. Vader had sworn that this man was Ashka Boda, but now the Jedi claimed to be Ashka's unheard-of brother. And did he have the secret of immortality or not? Palpatine forced himself to reason it out. Perhaps there was a way of taking a new body after one's death. If that was true, then this Vantos might have taken over his own brother's form. The theory explained Lord Vader's assertions, and more - it might offer Palpatine some real hope for his own affliction. However, it was becoming clear that Vantos was not going to divulge anything important voluntarily. It was time to end their conversation, take the Jedi down, and proceed with a more efficient form of questioning.

"It is such a pity, Vantos Boda," he said with mock sadness, "that your life's work has to come to nothing." Palpatine walked steadily closer to the Jedi. His voice was laden with sarcasm. "I have enjoyed our conversation. It is an uncommon pleasure to speak with a Jedi in these times. However..." His withered hands slowly lifted. "This audience is at an end."

Palpatine allowed all his fear for his own mortality and all his anger at this mocking interloper to ignite the power of the dark side within him. The raging energy burst forth from his hands and sprayed out as searing blue-tinged Force Lightning. The surging bolts climbed instantly up to the defenseless Vantos Boda, hungry to rip the life energy from him. What happened next stunned the galactic ruler. Boda spread his arms wide, and seemingly absorbed the Force Lightning. Then he thrust his arms forward and hurled his own stream of writhing energy down at the Emperor. Frozen in surprise, Palpatine almost failed to defend himself. His reflexes saved him, as the power of the Force formed an energy shield to shunt away Boda's attack.

"Dark Jedi!" hissed the Emperor, raging. "A dark side adept! I should have known a Jedi would not approach me like this. But I am deceived no longer! Now you will meet your true Master, old fool!"

Without warning, a severe tremor shook the throne room. A deep rumbling filled the air. As the floor and walls continued to shake, Palpatine fought to keep his footing.

Vantos had ducked out of sight among the benches above, but his voice could still be heard over the muffled booming. "It's the end!" he cried triumphantly. "The end at last, for both of us 'old fools'!" The fallen Jedi laughed coldly, and in that moment, the Emperor realized Vantos Boda was insane.

In one area of the gardens of the Palace summit, directly under the beam of concentrated sunlight, the overheated Phelarion moss exploded with sufficient force to crack the polished stone. The explosion raced around the entire garden, as more and more moss ignited. Those looking at the structure from a distance saw a fireball swell up and engulf the entire peak. Great sections of marble, crystal, and gray-green rock shuddered and fell away from the eruption, cascading like an avalanche into the tapered spires and stylized towers below. As the flames penetrated inwards, more of the organic explosive reached the critical temperature and blew up before it could burn. A deep, rumbling concussion flowed over Imperial Center, as the peak of the Palace was weakened enough to collapse. The Emperor's observation deck rocked back and forth, then plummeted with the rest of the top few levels into a billowing cloud of fragments and flames.

Imperial citizens died by the thousands in the space of a minute. Entire residential towers were smashed at their bases, and tipped ponderously over to fall down the Palace slope. Advisors and military personnel alike were crushed as ceilings came down, one upon the other, like a collapsing house of cards. Flaming debris dropped into the next several rows of gardens open to the sky, and touched off more explosions. The destruction of the upper levels of the Palace proceeded vigorously, but so far, the great bulk of the complex was untouched. The effects, however, were felt all through the Palace. Walls and floors shook, banners fell, statues tipped over, glass shattered, and all types of administrators and staff scurried bewildered, looking for cover.

Multiple levels below the center of the destruction, The Emperor listened in shock as his world was assaulted. Fine dust fell all around him, as the shaking throne room's roof began to feel the strain. He looked up for Vantos Boda, and saw that the man had vanished or hidden. He hesitated, then decided to be cautious, and started for the turbolift across the floor.

And there was Boda, blocking the way, hands raised aggressively, his face stretched by his bared, clenched teeth.

Palpatine readied himself for a battle, ignoring the explosions and tremors filtering down from above. He opened himself completely to the Force, and it leaped at his call. Relentless and hateful, the power of the dark side was with him. Pulling destructive energy into himself like a black hole, the Emperor advanced on his new enemy.

Ensign Handli had everything under control. He confidently prepared to shift the mirror's coordinates once again, as ordered. That was when he noticed the TIE fighter. The small Imperial ball-shaped ship with its large flanking solar panels was aimed straight at him, and coming in fast. His scanner readouts showed that its weapons were powered up as well. A sudden fear stabbed at him. What was going on? Was he under attack? What had he done this time, and who had found out about it? In the face of his fear, the lingering traces of Vantos Boda's influence evaporated. It was as if a fog had suddenly lifted from Handli's thoughts. He was suddenly able to think clearly. His eyes fell on the mirror's settings and he was immediately aghast. What had he done, indeed! The focusing apparatus was dialed to an absurdly tight setting. He didn't remember doing it, but he must have. And the coordinates! At that moment, his mirror was sending a baking shaft of energy down to the Palace itself! People could be getting burned down there, or worse. The Emperor would order his execution! Handli panicked. He had to turn it off immediately. Desperately, he began to press buttons and turn dials, almost at random. He stared wildly out at the approaching TIE fighter. Could it be the Emperor's punishment, so soon?

Handli screamed as the TIE fighter's twin laser guns shot a sudden stream of green bolts at his viewport. The mirror control station exploded around him, and the terrified Ensign's final sight was the beautiful scintillant planet below him, with nothing but open space between them.

Mara Jade watched through the polarized lenses of her black helmet as the mirror control station was vaporized. Now, the mirror could not be turned to do further damage to the Palace. The pilot's death was unfortunate, but Mara had decided that he was either Boda's partner or a tool of Boda's. Either way, he had to die. And she was the Emperor's Hand. A killing in the service of the Emperor was merely her job. Now, Mara had to eliminate the enormous mirror itself. This particular reflector was twelve kilometers in diameter, yet it was made of a silvery fabric only a fraction of a millimeter thick. It dwarfed her tiny fighter as she sped towards it.

Mara's gloved hands tightened on the fire controls as she let loose a series of laser shots at the shining surface. The lasers punched a group of small holes into the fabric, but had no overall effect on the reflective surface. She realized that there simply wasn't time to shoot down the mirror that way. Then Mara glanced out her cockpit window, and her eyes fell on the thin edges of her vertical solar panel wings. Each wing is a little like a dagger, she thought, and the mirror is one huge piece of cloth. Smiling, she realized she could slice it apart.

Responding to her rigid control, the TIE swooped in low over the long flat fabric surface. Another adjustment, and the fighter dropped closer to the silvery sea, causing the leading edges of the solar panels to initiate long, straight, twin tears. The rips lengthened rapidly in the TIE's wake, until Mara reached the edge of the mirror. She quickly reversed course, and commenced making a new set of slices at another angle. As the fabric parted, tension on the support cables was unevenly released, and large sections of the mirror were pulled out of alignment. After a few more passes, the formerly carefully oriented fragile construct was a wreck, its tattered remains unable to focus any sunlight at all.

Mara spun the TIE fighter in a brief victory roll, and dove down towards the atmosphere. Below her was the Palace and her Master. Mara's worried tension returned as she wondered in what shape she would find either of them.

The Emperor was heady with the power coursing into him. He focused it deep inside, sharpening it against the stone core of his fury. Then he extended his hands like knife blades, and thrust them at Vantos Boda. The telekinetic attack was meant to stab Boda's brain within his skull, incapacitating him in an instant. But Vantos merely stood in place, continuing to block the way to the turbolift. The Emperor's eyes narrowed. It was impossible, unless... His danger sense rang wildly in his mind, warning him of another attack. He pivoted, and caught another shower of dark side energy bolts on his Force shield. Vantos was still up on the audience deck, striking down at him, and the figure blocking Palpatine's way was merely a Force-generated doppelganger, meant to distract him.

After releasing the Force Lightning, Vantos ducked back into hiding among the seats. Palpatine gritted his teeth, his yellow eyes blazing. Boda's foolish game of hiding had become intolerable. All thoughts of leaving vanished, as the Emperor raised his pale hands and rose from the trembling floor. His trailing black robes and sleeves gave him the aspect of a dark angel as he lifted himself ten meters to the audience deck. He landed gently among the polished marble benches and began to look for his enemy.

He was outraged that a darksider would approach him like this. All of the others acknowledged him as their Master, even Vader, the Dark Lord of the Sith. It was one thing to have a brave but foolish Jedi after him, and quite another to have an inferior dark side user trying to best him. Among dark side adepts, there was always the potential for battles over supremacy. Palpatine had forbidden them amongst his own students. The penalty for challenging each other or himself was death. This Vantos Boda was apparently ignorant of the natural order. Palpatine would find great satisfaction in teaching it to him.

Beneath the Emperor's outrage, however, lurked a certain uneasiness. Vantos Boda knew of some advanced and potent Force skills. At least one, the ability to absorb Force Lightning, was unknown to Palpatine. Where had Boda learned it? The thought of a more knowledgeable Force user taking his power and his throne from him inspired a wave of unwelcome fear. Could Vantos be more powerful? It was impossible, and yet...

There! A movement among the seats - Boda's hiding place. Palpatine unleashed a storm of Force Lightning at the location. Vantos Boda was driven out and back down the aisle, but once again, he took the energy into himself. How was he doing it, the Emperor wondered, and how much of it can he take?

Another shuddering boom shook the room, causing both men to flinch. Vantos ran up a flight of stairs to the next level, and faced the Emperor below. "The explosions are my doing!" he shouted. "There was always more to my plan than just attacking you one on one. That was too risky! Instead, I'm bringing the whole Palace down on you! I don't expect to get out alive, but I'll be here when you get buried!"

As Vantos gloated, the Emperor wrapped his mind around a huge marble bench. Wanting only to bludgeon the smile from Vantos' face, he raised it from the floor and telekinetically hurled it at his enemy. Vantos seemed to blur for a moment as he enhanced his speed with the Force. The heavy stone bench crashed into the space he had just vacated, shattering other seats and sending stone chips flying. In the confusion of the impact, Vantos ducked out of sight once again.

Palpatine could hear Boda's words coming from an indeterminate location on the second level. Some kind of auditory illusion was involved, making the voice hard to pinpoint. "Highness, there's no use fighting this. The Force itself wants you gone. I was chosen by the Force to do it, that's all. It's time for it to happen, so you can't avoid it. It's your destiny, and mine. I came back from death itself for this. Do you think I would have left you a way out?"

"You took your brother's body, didn't you?" Palpatine shot back. "Is that the behavior of a servant of the light side?"

"So what if I did? He was dead already, so he didn't need it any more. That didn't harm anyone."

By now, the rumbling above them was steady, and getting louder. Palpatine extended his senses outwards to see what was happening, and he was appalled at what he found. The Palace was on fire at it's peak, and the upper floors were collapsing onto one another, driving a shock wave of destruction down towards the throne room.

"Servant of the light side indeed!" Palpatine cried hastily. "You have deceived yourself, Vantos Boda! Do you think I do not understand? The dark side has you! You think you are a savior, but that is only the sense of self-importance that the dark side gives to its servants. You were never able to prevent the future you saw. It all happened just as your vision told you it would. I have seen the same kind of visions, old fool, and I know they rightfully predict my victory! You were never meant to change any of it! The dark side showed you that vision to seduce you, and now it has you, totally!" Palpatine lowered his voice dangerously. "I will give you one chance to keep on living, so listen carefully, Vantos Boda. Serve me, your rightful Master in the dark side, and I will not destroy you. Surrender your knowledge to me, and I will not torture it out of you. Resist me any more, and die."

There was no answer. Palpatine closed his eyes and concentrated. He did not need to see Vantos directly in order to attack him. He thrust out his arms and sent a wide wave of terrific pain rushing in Boda's general direction. Vantos screamed in agony, but didn't emerge. The Emperor was torn with indecision. Should he stay and try to capture Boda alive, or leave the throne room? He was surely in danger if he stayed - the collapse of the room was imminent. But Boda was valuable to him. Palpatine now knew that Boda had the secret of transferring his life essence to a new body. If Boda died, that would be lost. He decided he had to risk it, and attempt to subdue and capture Boda before leaving.

Vantos was sobbing somewhere above him. "Only now do you begin to see yourself," said Palpatine as he walked up the stairs. "You are no savior...you are only a killer." It was clear to him that Boda was nearly defeated, perhaps from the attacks, or perhaps even from the Emperor's cutting words. Good. There was a good deal of both left to give him. Preparing another bolt of Force Lightning, the strongest yet, Palpatine continued his verbal lesson. "Reach out with your senses, murderer. Let the Force be your eyes, servant of the dark side. The Palace you are destroying is full of Imperial citizens who have done you no wrong. They appeared in no prophetic vision, yet they are dying right now by the thousands, at your hands. Come, Vantos Boda. Follow me, now. There is no shame in serving the greatness of the dark side! Only admit what you already are. You cannot say you serve the weakness of the light side - you cannot! Come and kneel before me, and I will remove your pain." The Emperor moved among the high-backed benches, closing in on his crying adversary.

Vantos thought he might be going mad. He sobbed in his confusion, hating the Emperor's words. He was the Son of the Suns! He did not serve the dark side! He was only using the dark powers to accomplish the light side's goals. Surely, when it was done, his spirit would return to the light side's oneness. He would be welcomed back, even in death, to the belonging that he had once felt.

But Palpatine's words raped his convictions. Boda was unable to resist opening the Eyes of the Force to see the Palace above him. The dead were everywhere. Bodies...crushed and mutilated bodies, burned bodies, broken bodies by the thousands. He had never imagined this, never! He had thought the end would come quickly for Palpatine and himself, but he had not reckoned with the sheer size of the Palace. His Phelarion moss was working, but the collapse of the immense structure was taking much longer than he had expected. He and Palpatine were still cursedly alive, and there was time, damnable time, to see the terrible dying of all the other victims of his plan. With the anger of a mob, the victims seemed to tell him the same things the Emperor was saying...Killer! Murderer! Servant of the dark side!

Vantos wailed as he lay where Palpatine's wave of pain had made him fall. He was evil! No...it was impossible! He had been chosen! But his dead brother's words came back to him unbidden..."What if your vision wasn't from the light side? What if the dark side wants you, and the way to claim you is to have you murder this child?" Murder this child. Murder. Murder. Murder! Thousands of murders happening above him. Vantos had become the thing his beloved Bafforr trees would have hated utterly. He was no savior, after all. He was only a killer.

Emperor Palpatine stepped into view next to him. Vantos saw the ruler's black robe and boots through a curtain of tears. He had lost. It didn't matter any more what happened to Palpatine...nothing Vantos did would ever serve the good. He stared at his hands. For years, they had nurtured life in the gardens...for years, they had helped things grow. Now, they were the hands of a common killer.

"I'm going to take you with me now, my servant," the Emperor said quietly. "This will be painful, but that, too, will be an important lesson for you."

Vantos heard the crackle of dark side lightning begin to arc between Palpatine's fingers, but the next moment, a louder sound overwhelmed it. The ceiling of the throne room cracked open from a gigantic impact on the next level up. Great chunks of rock fell everywhere, breaking the marble seats and bouncing down onto the floor of the auditorium. The rainbow-lit throne was covered in rubble and crushed to the ground. Palpatine lifted his arms and released the dreadful lightning he had prepared for Vantos. Writhing electric blue power hammered the falling boulders apart. Many of them exploded into harmless showers of small stones, but the Emperor could not stop all of them. He was beaten to the floor and quickly covered up by the heavy debris. Vantos luckily escaped the worst of it. Several large pieces of the ceiling hit the bench he was cowering next to, tipping it on top of him. Instead of crushing him, the bench back was stopped by the next row of seats, leaving Vantos in a protective stone tent while the wreckage of the ceiling pummeled everything else.

Less than a minute later, it was over. The shaking stopped. The last boulders had fallen. There was silence.

Vantos coughed at the swirling dust and wondered. Something was wrong. The explosions had stopped...but why? The chain reaction should be continuing, as the mirror satellite ignited moss all the way down the side of the Palace. There was enough of it to carry the destruction all the way down through the rest of the Palace below him. He expected to die in the kind of ruin a great earthquake would produce. Instead, the ceiling had come down, and that was all. No fireball racing in from the Grand Corridor. No explosions blasting the floor out from under him. Something had failed! And he was still alive! And the Emperor...

Vantos saw the Emperor's body half buried in the rubble nearby. He was unconscious, but evidently still breathing, still alive! Neither of them had died, while thousands of others had been killed instead! It was horrifying, and intolerable. Vantos choked on the dust as he pulled himself out from beneath the fallen benches. This could not be how it ended. Palpatine could not live on. He looked at his filthy, bleeding hands. All right then...if he was a killer and no more than that, he would go over to that fallen, pinned man and kill.

He clambered over the rocks and hunched over the Emperor. A single thought possessed his mind. I will kill you, kill you with my own hands. Pushing away the black hood, Vantos dug his fingers into the age-ravaged throat. A thrill of horror went through him as he saw the naked head of Palpatine. The bald skin was cracked with seeping fissures that looked like they reached to the bone. Black, worm like objects nestled in the wounds, shadow-fragments of Palpatine's power that stopped the progress of his decay. Boda grimaced, and looked away from them, then forced his attention back to the mechanical process of strangling his prone foe. Die, he thought, Die...so that my life can have some small meaning...

Darth Vader entered the ruined throne room while cloaked in Sith magic. He was silent and invisible in the shadows, and it took him only moments to find the room's two other occupants. There was the dark Jedi at last, but the Emperor had fallen before him. It was unthinkable, but there it was in front of him. Boda was trying to choke the Emperor to death - a crude and cowardly method. Vader had been correct about this man. He was killing a helpless opponent, without courage or honor.

For a frozen moment, Darth Vader considered what he would do. Boda would die, that was certain, but what of his Master? Vader had been hoping for the Emperor to die, so that he could take the throne. But the Royal Guards knew Vader was here - he had met them in the Grand Corridor. He had found it difficult to convince them not to follow him into the throne room. The Guards were held back only by Palpatine's direct orders, and they had been on the verge of defying them. If the Emperor died, and Vader failed to stop it, they would accuse him of being an accessory to the murder. Under those circumstances, he would not take the throne without a great deal of opposition. Vader was not well liked in the Empire, and he knew it. The best way to overcome the opposition and take the throne was to have it officially given to him by the dying Emperor himself. And Palpatine would die soon enough, without the secrets held by Boda to help him.

But he would not die today.

Vader stepped out of the shadows, seeming to emerge from thin air. "Boda!" he boomed. "I have come for you!" His black cape billowed out around him as he took four swift steps towards the Emperor's body, activated his crimson lightsaber, and hurled it blazing through the short distance. The lightsaber made a circle of red and white glare as it spun three times through the air. The blade stabbed into Boda's breast, and the man threw up his arms, impaled. He gave a strangled cry as the saber fell downwards, slicing him apart as it dropped to the broken stones. Boda's corpse fell back onto the ruins of a marble bench, as the weapon flew neatly back to Vader's hand. The Dark Lord deactivated it, and clipped it to his belt. For a long moment, Vader stood silent, breathing mechanically. It was over at last.

The morning light shone through the circular webbed window behind Palpatine's throne in the undamaged audience chamber near the base of the Imperial Palace. Vader and Mara stood in the soft glow, where they had met two nights before, having been summoned before the Emperor. It had been a long night, and both of them had forsaken sleep to remain in the thick of the chaos left by Boda's attack. Vader's armor and cape were still in disarray, and Mara still wore her black flight suit, which was at least two sizes too large.

Fire fighting teams had swarmed over the Palace all night, and now that the sun had risen, towering Construction Droids ponderously removed the rubble. One of the forty story high machines could be seen through the window behind the Emperor, removing and recycling shattered building materials.

Vader decided that his Master looked none the worse for wear, despite all that had happened. Palpatine even seemed to be in a generous mood, which made Vader suspicious. Given that his orders had been disobeyed, his Master could have been angry. Or, given that his life had been saved, perhaps his Master had little choice but to seem grateful. Vader could rarely fathom the Emperor's mercurial temperament.

Vader himself was quite satisfied. He had killed Boda without bringing down the Emperor's wrath, and kept the man's knowledge from being revealed. At least the status quo had been preserved, as well as his chance to inherit the Empire.

"Lord Vader, Mara Jade," the Emperor addressed them. "I have summoned you here to discuss the events surrounding the dark Jedi's attack. I assure you that the damage done to my person was of no consequence...thanks to you, Lord Vader. But what happened to me reflects our lack of knowledge of our opponent. Although he was far from being immortal, he had considerable power. The price of our ignorance has been much destruction and loss of life. And because even I found this foe to be a challenge, I am forgiving you both for your considerable mistakes. See to it that you perform with more competence in the future, however." The Emperor managed a smile. "There, you see Lord Vader? I can be reasonable...from time to time. And who is more deserving of my good graces than the servant who saved my life, and the servant whose actions saved most of my Palace? In the end, you have both served me well."

Vader and Mara bowed to their Emperor. The Dark Lord was relieved at the speech, yet he sensed a certain artificial quality to it. Surely, the Emperor must be experiencing some frustration at having been outmaneuvered by Vader. If so, he was hiding it well.

"Lord Vader," said Palpatine, "I wish you to organize a study of the species of moss that Boda used as an explosive. See to it that we learn where it came from, and whether it can be used as a weapon. Perhaps it can be genetically engineered to be useful to us. After all, we must salvage something from this disaster."

"Yes, my Master."

"And Mara Jade," Palpatine continued, "remain here with me to discuss an additional task I have for you." He turned to Vader. "You may go, Lord Vader."

Vader glanced at Mara. She seemed to be full of pride and satisfaction at receiving the Emperor's thanks. No doubt, being restored to his good graces had been an immense relief to her, as it should have been. Just as Vader's positive and negative actions had balanced out, so had Mara's, saving her career as Vader had hoped. Satisfied that he had achieved what he wanted with both the Emperor and Mara Jade, the Sith Lord turned and descended the stairs. He walked down the long hall to the turbolift, leaving behind the throne he hoped someday to claim.

When Vader was gone, the Emperor leaned in close to speak with Mara. "I know you are in need of rest, Emperor's Hand, but I require you to return to Vantos Boda's home, and seek out an important object."

"But Master, it was destroyed," said Mara. "Nothing was left."

"The object I have in mind would have been very valuable to Boda, and he would have stored it in a safe place. It is a Jedi artifact, a recording device that would contain certain knowledge...knowledge that would be very useful to me."

"But what makes you think -"

"As I was fighting Vantos Boda, it was clear to me that he had access to a number of lost secrets of Jedi lore. Such secrets are often recorded in ancient devices known as Holocrons. Search the wreckage of his home, and stay in contact with me. Look for a smooth cube or other geometric shape, covered with writing or carvings. If you find such a device, you must bring it to me at once."

"All right," said Mara uncertainly. "I'll see what I can find."

"I have the utmost faith in you, my dear Mara Jade," said Palpatine.

Three days later, the Emperor smiled triumphantly over his prize, the Jedi Holocron of Ashka and Vantos Boda. Mara Jade had found it in the ruins of Boda's greenhouse, in a force field-protected box. The Holocron was a cube made of precious gems. Ancient writings could be seen on its surface in the right light, and it had a slight glowing blue aura at all times. It felt warm in his hands, and he knew that with a thought, he could bring it to life, summoning the holographic gatekeeper, Bodo Baas. Baas was an interactive teaching entity, able to answer Palpatine's questions about the Jedi lore stored within. Although the holographic alien had amusingly called Palpatine "dark one", the thing had cooperated well enough.

The Holocron contained teachings concerning Life Transfer, the power to move one's spirit into another body. This was surely what Vantos had used to inhabit Ashka's body. Palpatine was further amused that the holographic Jedi Master who imparted this knowledge referred to it in the gravest sense as a power of the dark side. The Emperor had laughed out loud at that.

Palpatine had spent a day studying the new power, until he decided how to use it. Although it could be employed to enter another's body and drive out the consciousness within, he had no desire to take another's body. He wanted his own body, and he wanted it to be young again, and not dying. The key, of course, was to combine the knowledge with the science of cloning. Already, Palpatine had experimented with creating a clone of the former Jedi Master Jorus C'Baoth. He had learned that the clone could inherit the same Force sensitivity as the original...but what good was a clone of himself if it was not himself? But now that he could transfer his actual essence into a new body, he could conceivably transfer into one of his own clones. His new body would have the same vast Force sensitivity he had come to depend on, and it would be a chance to recapture his youth and vitality.

For the first time in over a year, Palpatine felt the fear lift from him. He was going to live! He had accomplished what no other dark side adept ever had. He had outsmarted the destructive irony that brought low the dark side's greatest servants. Let the power exact its price! From now on, it would be nothing to pay! He could claim ever greater rewards, while simply using up a series of replaceable physical bodies. It was wonderful to imagine.

The Emperor owed a great debt to Ashka and Vantos Boda. It was a pity he could never thank them. Ashka, especially, had wished him well when Palpatine was only a child. As for Vantos, he had fulfilled his mission from the Force after all, though it had turned out to be serving the dark side by supplying Palpatine with the Holocron. And even if Vantos had felt a certain hostility towards Palpatine's reign, the best revenge was, as always, to live well.

He was going to do so for a long, long time...

Sate Pestage finally finished meticulously cleaning the dust and broken glass from his austere quarters in the Palace. A housekeeping droid could have done it for him, but he preferred to do it by hand. It gave him something to occupy his thoughts while his Master remained in isolation from him for three days. His only other option was to face the hordes of inquiries regarding the Emperor's health after the Palace explosions, and he just couldn't do that. Beyond issuing a statement that the Emperor was unhurt, there was nothing he could tell them, and their worried questions only made Pestage focus on his own worries.

Pestage had been afraid of losing his Master to an unstoppable physical decline for the past year, and now, to make matters worse, a dark Jedi had struck at Palpatine in the throne room itself. Pestage's spies had ferreted out the name of this Jedi...Ashka Boda. Besides a deep outrage, Pestage also felt a nagging sense of recognition of that name. He finally placed the memory as dating back to the traumatic day when he had lost his son. He had saved the life of an injured Jedi named Ashka Boda on that same day. Was it really the same man, who now repaid Pestage's kindness with this horrific violence? If so, then Pestage regretted what he had done. He would never have rescued the man, had he known it would someday endanger his Master, his Emperor, his...son. He would have left Boda as broken as the rare vase in his refuse bin.

Pestage realized that Boda's return gave him another piece of evidence that Palpatine was in fact his lost son...but as usual, it was not proof. There was no proof to be had, despite all of Pestage's efforts. But the Grand Vizier refused to let that fact undercut his loyalty to the Master. There was no proof because the Emperor simply did not want Pestage as a father. He wanted him as a Vizier, and that was enough...because Sate Pestage knew the truth in his heart. He would stay by his Master's side however he could, and as long as he could. His greatest fear was that he would live to see his son die before he did.

As Pestage poured glass shards into the waste container, he heard his comm signal beckoning to him. He found it to be a message from the Emperor, a single line of text glowing on the screen. The few words made Pestage's heart beat fast with sudden gratified relief.

They read:

Everything is going to be all right, old friend.

Pestage understood what they meant. The Emperor was going to live, and Pestage was going to stay by his side for the rest of his life. Pestage's eventual death would separate them someday, but part of him would live on in his Master. Exhaling a great tension that had held him for three days, Pestage fell back onto his bed, arms outstretched, a large smile on his wrinkled face.

Vader turned from his worktable where he was adjusting his lightsaber, at the hesitant knock on his door.

"Come in," he said, already aware of who it was. The door swung open, and Mara Jade entered the small room. She was wearing some kind of formal gown, the color of her eyes. It made her look older, which was probably the intended effect. She had come, perhaps, from an Imperial function where her youthful beauty would be on display. It was part of her cover, Vader knew, to be seen as one of the Emperor's female trinkets, rather than as an assassin and spy. Mara shifted nervously in the fancy dress, trying to find the words to begin.

"You wished to see me, Mara Jade," Vader prompted.

"Yes...I realized I never thanked you for saving my life."

"It was my duty," Vader replied with a slightly impatient tone. "Nothing more."

"But it meant a lot to me, obviously...and I took it as a sign that you cared about my well being, and my future. So I came here to ask you if...whether I can continue to learn from you."

Vader's reply was curt. "The answer is no, assassin. We were instructed to work together, but that assignment is now over. We each have our separate jobs to do for our Master. And I have no time to entertain a student."

"Entertain!" Mara said, hurt. "You still think of me as a child, don't you? I thought I earned your respect while we were after Boda."

"You have my respect. Mara Jade. What you do not want is my wrath. Never forget what I can do to those who displease me...Emperor or no Emperor. Let Boda be your reminder. Right now, it displeases me to repeat myself. I work alone, and I take no apprentices. Is that clear?"

Mara stiffened. "It's clear, my Lord. I'll be going, now. I'm sorry to have disturbed you." She turned, and walked out of the chamber, not bothering to shut the door.

Blast Vader, Mara thought as she left. Treating me like I'm so far beneath him now. The encounter had soured her satisfaction at having been a heroine a few days ago. She had been a fool to march into Vader's Castle like that, expecting so much. Still, she regretted that he would never be her teacher. There was something almost noble about him, that she wanted to understand better. And she had seen the value of having an ally where the Emperor was concerned. What she had learned about her Master was all unpleasant. He was an unpredictable and dangerous man to work for, as Vader seemed to know well already. Mara knew that she and Vader were both Palpatine's tools. Separate, they were weaker than they might have been together. She saw Vader, and recognized the bitter chains of his long servitude. She wondered, then, what her own service would lead her to. Would she be haunted with regrets, as Vader was? Mara prayed she wouldn't. The path ahead of her was a long and dangerous one, and regrets would only weigh her down.

Darth Vader gripped his lightsaber as he watched Mara Jade leave. The weapon was one he had constructed at the beginning of his service to the Emperor. Mara was in that position now, but Vader knew he really could not help her. Despite Vader's honest respect for the young assassin, he was a loner with his own agenda, and she was his Master's tool who told Palpatine everything. He could never trust her not to compromise his plans. He regretted the necessities that kept him alone and unable to admit anyone else into his dangerous game of ambition, but he had no choice.

For now, Vader still had his goals intact. He was no closer to gaining the throne, but with Palpatine dying, and Boda dead, at least he was not forever prevented from it. However frustrating, the status quo was better than failure. The Dark Lord of the Sith held on to his fragile hopes, and tried to put Mara Jade out of his mind.

Part Two: A New Enemy

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

As the Galactic Emperor finds a way to immortality, a galaxy in the throes of civil war faces death on a gigantic scale. A new battle station, capable of destroying an entire planet, ensures that the Empire will rule by fear.

Palpatine is secure in his belief that he has no enemies left to threaten him. But on an obscure rim world, the son of the Emperor's greatest servant is stepping onto the galactic stage.

Guided by the force, Luke Skywalker carries the power to throw the Emperor's meticulous plans into chaos...

Palpatine was the undisputed Master of the whole galaxy, and he had no enemies left. His piercing yellow eyes gazed from a face mostly hidden by a deep black hood. What could be seen of that visage was severely etched with age, the eyes sunken into cavernous sockets surrounded by withered, mottled skin. The forehead seemed oddly misshapen, and the mouth was a rictus filled with ragged nubs of teeth. But that mouth was set in a wicked grin, and the eyes burned with a hungry fire.

There were some, of course, who thought of themselves as his enemies. The irritating Mon Mothma and Bail Organa, for example. This was their foolish conceit. They were nothing, as were the pitiful insurrectionists who had of late been calling themselves the "Alliance." To the most powerful dark side Master who ever lived, these were not enemies. The Jedi, weak-willed practitioners of the impotent side of the Force, were dead and gone. Knowing that they could have threatened him, Palpatine had unleashed his Dark Lord of the Sith to hunt them down. As if to prove their inferiority, many of the Jedi had practically set their necks to the blade. Disheartened by the fall of the Republic, they had not even resisted. A few fought or ran, only to be overcome by the brute force of Imperial technology and the relentless, merciless pursuit of Palpatine's servant, the fallen Jedi, Darth Vader. The bravest had brought the fight to his own doorstep; these Palpatine had personally annihilated. The Purge had taken a great deal of effort, but with the Jedi exterminated, Emperor Palpatine had no enemies left.

Anyone seeing Palpatine in his private meditation chamber, deep inside the Emperor's Citadel on the dark side world of Byss, would have noticed the frail manner in which the ruler of known space clutched at his gnarled walking stick, and concluded that this man did indeed have an enemy - death itself. But he would be wrong. Palpatine felt death approaching. It felt like it had the first time, and although this was going to be his second death, it was impossible to become accustomed to such a thing. There was the sense that the very fabric of his tissues would soon be torn apart by the energies he daily channeled through them. He knew that if he were to die in truth, and lose his last physical form, he would be forever lost within the howling chaos of the dark side itself. It would claim him for its own as he had claimed the galaxy. Here on Byss, however, Palpatine could laugh at death. For he sat a stone's throw from his clone vat chamber, where a dozen clones floated suspended in nutrient tanks. He had come to Byss to die. And to be reborn.

The Emperor would erupt in blue energy, leaving a shattered shell behind. Then, thanks to his knowledge of cloning, and dark side lore from the Holocron of Ashka and Vantos Boda, he would enter one of his own mature clones. When he opened his new eyes, he would have a strong, young body once more. The dying was painful, and the transition unpleasant to be sure, but a little suffering was a small price to be paid for immortality. The very thought of his new body made his grin widen, and a dreadful cackle emerged from deep within his throat. Most people who heard that laugh immediately found good reasons to be elsewhere.

The Emperor's Grand Vizier, Sate Pestage, was merely used to it. Pestage stood waiting silently at the threshold of the small room, still as a statue. He had come to confer with his Master, but he would not emit a whisper until the dark and glorious one acknowledged him. Pestage was a wizened figure of a man with ancient, craggy features. In some ways, he seemed older than the Emperor, and his emaciated form was lost in his voluminous bejeweled robes. Nonetheless, Pestage was tireless in his service to the Emperor, and acted as his personal assistant in all things. He prepared meals, managed affairs, and scheduled the day's events. Now Pestage simply stared at his Master's decrepit form in sorrow. Pestage may have been old, but he had an aura of stubborn health around him. Palpatine radiated only decay.

It pained Sate Pestage to see the dark one thus diminished. His Master's discovery of a way to cheat a premature death had been a great relief to Pestage, but then they had learned the harsh truth that the new body would only last a few short years. Already it was time to take another. Pestage gave silent thanks to the Force that the citizenry of the Empire did not see their sovereign this way. To the rest of the galaxy, Palpatine was a middle aged, charismatic figure with a commanding presence. Of course, this image was the product of the finest holo-technology. When he was thus afflicted by the aging, the Emperor did not make public appearances, delegating the day-to-day running of the Empire to his most trusted advisors, such as Chief Advisor Ars Dangor. Dangor made all the public addresses and Pestage acted as an intermediary in all communications with the Emperor. Only a tiny handful of beings saw Palpatine as he really was, beings such as Darth Vader, the Sith Lord, and Mara Jade, the Emperor's Hand. It was a strange affliction to deal with, to be sure. Aside from his trusted inner circle, no one must see the impossible changes in the Emperor's appearance. His mastery of the Force had to be kept a secret from the Empire as a whole. This led to some odd situations. Sometimes, Palpatine had to use a personal holographic projector to disguise his sudden great youth, or great age. For example, Bevel Lemelisk, the designer of the Death Star, had seen the Emperor in his aged state. After Palpatine's rebirth, he would have to meet with Lemelisk while holographically concealing his youth. Helping to maintain these deceptions was one of the ways in which Pestage faithfully served his Master.

Palpatine slowly turned to face the Grand Vizier. "What is it, my friend," he said quietly, beckoning to Pestage. The galactic ruler had a voice full of eerie sibilance that would seem appropriate issuing from a sepulcher. That voice, Pestage knew, could change from gleeful satisfaction to blackest menace in the space of a moment. Now it was calm, almost gentle. "Is the proclamation prepared as I have ordered it?"

Pestage took a step into the room, robes whispering, and held out an ornamental datapad. On its small screen, a short paragraph was illumined.

His Imperial Majesty has decreed that the current emergency involving armed terrorists spreading death and destruction throughout the galaxy requires the temporary institution of martial law. The regional governors will now have direct control over their territories, allowing them to take the necessary steps to put a swift end to these cowardly and criminal attacks that threaten the families of every law-abiding citizen.

For the duration of the crisis, the Imperial Senate will be in recess. Reports that criminal activities have been supported by members of the Senate are being fully investigated. Rest assured that the terrorists will soon be brought to justice, and stability will reign throughout the galaxy.

The Emperor finished reading and nodded in satisfaction. This proclamation would complete his New Order. There would be no "recess," of course. With the disbanding of the Senate, the last vestige of the "Old Republic" would be expunged. No political opposition to the New Order would be possible. The impassioned speeches of Senators such as Leia Organa could influence public opinion, and those voices must be silenced. Mon Mothma had brought this on herself, giving Palpatine the perfect excuse. She had gone too far, openly declaring against him and then orchestrating the theft of the data on project Death Star. Vader was even now on a mission to recover that information. Mothma was beyond reach for now, but at least her accomplices in the Senate could be stripped of power. One day, though, the Emperor mused, he would find her...and teach her the true meaning of fear.

The proclamation also formalized the Tarkin Doctrine. Now, each system would be kept under control through fear, a potent weapon indeed. The Death Star had been completed in the Horuz system and was very nearly operational; it would soon become the symbol of the New Order. When Palpatine next opened his eyes in the clone vat chamber, they would gaze upon a galaxy totally under Imperial power.

"You've done well, Sate Pestage. The phrasing is excellent as usual. Let Ars Dangor make any revisions he feels necessary, and make this proclamation public as soon as possible." The Emperor grinned blackly and handed back the datapad. He moved to sit in his throne like chair with some difficulty. "I will not make any more decisions until after I am young again."

Pestage nodded.

Palpatine pointed a crooked finger at him. "I wish nothing to disturb my meditations. I must have peace for the transition. When my time is near, I shall call on you to assist in my preparations."

Sate Pestage bowed deeply. "Yes, my Master," he intoned, and quietly left the Emperor's chamber. Moving through the labyrinthine halls of the Citadel, Pestage reflected that he was a free man for the next several days. His Master's meditations were trance-like, and Palpatine neither ate nor carried out any activities, weakening himself to the point where he could simply will the transition. Pestage would help his Master to his bed, then leave him in complete isolation for that most private of experiences.

The Grand Vizier did not pretend to understand the workings of the Force, but he knew his life would be empty without the glory of his Master to light his universe. Even to be away from him for a few days made Pestage feel a little hollow. Perhaps he would visit the combat arena as a diversion. There was a fight to the death between a Wookiee and a Gundark this afternoon. Perhaps. But he would stay close to the Citadel, just in case he was needed.

Palpatine was at one with the Force. His frail physical form was left behind, and his mind roamed the galaxy. His galaxy. He could feel its life and death energies, and through his connection to the dark side, he could savor the strength that was his reward for service. For the Emperor himself was only a servant. All of Palpatine's efforts were directed towards the creation of a galaxy where the emotions of a thousand million worlds would feed the dark side with anger, fear, and aggression. He called it his Dark Empire to be. Certainly, he loved the personal power he received as the foremost user of the dark side, and he had every intention of holding that power eternally. Together, he and the dark side would rule every living being.

Fundamentally, the dark side was chaos, entropy, a destructive force ever held in balance against the light side. But the dark side hungered for dominance, and Palpatine gave it a chance to have that. He had no illusions; the dark side would consume him, too, if he let it, but that would never happen. He would serve it for always, and everything else would serve him.

Through the Force, the Emperor could communicate with others such as Vader across huge distances, though he sometimes preferred to use the holotransmitter for the way it created a huge image of his form to intimidate the viewer. Often, he could "see" what was happening where he turned his mental gaze, an ability which had given him a huge advantage during his rise to power.

Now he sent his mind in search of the Death Star, and the familiar presence of his servant. By now, Vader should have recovered the Death Star technical data and returned to the battle station to act as the Emperor's representative. Tarkin had been given a free hand in using the Death Star, but anyone with power needed watching, no matter how loyal. Vader made an excellent watcher, and in turn, he was watched by his Master.

It was with some surprise that he located the Death Star in orbit around the jewel-like world of Alderaan. He could "see" the enormous sphere floating against the starry blackness of space. The Emperor was not in awe of any technology. As he had so often told Vader, the Force was the true power in the universe. But he did find the Death Star to be beautiful. It was merely a means to an end, but it was a lovely and impressive means to an end.

Palpatine sent his mind into the station, reaching out for Vader while keeping his servant unaware of his presence. Vader was in the command center, with Tarkin and the young Senator (former Senator now, he reminded himself) Leia Organa. It took an extra effort to focus on Vader, since there seemed to be a strange echo of the Dark Lord's mental signature present. The strain of the approaching transition was evidently beginning to take its toll on him, leaving his Force senses impaired, Palpatine decided. After a moment, Palpatine adjusted, and could view the proceedings with more clarity.

Tarkin began to speak, with a crisp superiority. "Princess Leia, before your execution I would like you to be my guest at a ceremony that will make this battle station operational. No star system will dare oppose the Emperor now." Palpatine felt that he had chosen Tarkin well. Another man might have his own power in mind, rather than the Emperor's. Palpatine wondered what young Senator Organa had done to deserve execution.

Now Organa spoke back with a haughty defiance evident in her stance and tone. "The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers."

Palpatine smiled. Anyone could speak with defiance when they didn't see quite how much trouble they were in; Tarkin was holding back something devastating. Now, with a horrible politeness, he decided to reveal it to her. "Not after we demonstrate the power of this station. In a way, you have determined the choice of the planet that'll be destroyed first. Since you are reluctant to provide us with the location of the Rebel base, I have chosen to test this station's destructive power...on your home planet of Alderaan."

Palpatine felt the shock in the young woman. So, she was a Rebel agent! It was more proof that he was right to disband the Senate; it had become a viper's nest of Rebels. Curiously, he also felt shock in Vader. His servant did not like this development. But what of it? What was the Death Star for, after all? Through the influence of Bail Organa, Alderaan had become a hotbed of sedition. Better to have it gone.

Organa had begun to babble futile protests. "No! Alderaan is peaceful. We have no weapons. You can't possibly-"

But Tarkin let the mask of civility drop. Beneath it was the face of the Imperial War Machine, cold, hard, and merciless. "You would prefer another target? A military target? Then name the system!" He moved menacingly towards her, and she retreated, only to come up against Lord Vader. Tarkin spoke in a low voice. "I grow tired of asking this. So it'll be the last time. Where is the Rebel base?"

"Dantooine," Organa seemed to crumble. "They're on Dantooine."

"There, you see Lord Vader, she can be reasonable," Tarkin gloated. "Continue with the operation. You may fire when ready."

"What?" shouted Organa.

Tarkin let his amusement show. "You're far too trusting. Dantooine is far too remote to make an effective demonstration. But don't worry. We will deal with your Rebel friends soon enough."

"No!" protested Organa, but it was, of course, too late. The Death Star gunners efficiently prepared the prime weapon to fire. Palpatine held his breath as immense beams of force emerged from the Death Star's superlaser, joining to form one awesome shaft that stabbed once at the core of the planet Alderaan. But he never saw the explosion of the planet, for at that moment, a stunning and wholly unexpected surge of power hit the Emperor like a tidal wave, washing away all conscious thought. In his private chamber in the Imperial Citadel on Byss, Emperor Palpatine lay prone on the cold floor, limned in dark fire, his yellow eyes burning like twin suns.

Sate Pestage responded to the biomonitor alarms immediately, crossing the Citadel in minutes. He pounded the door release of the meditation chamber, expecting to find his Master overcome by disaster, and was completely taken aback to find himself staring into the face of an erect and apparently healthy Palpatine. The Emperor's face was dominated by a savage smile, and he seemed full of vitality.

"Don't be concerned about me," the Emperor rasped, reaching out a reassuring hand to Pestage. "I am in no danger. Something has happened to me that I have not foreseen! It changes everything - I must understand it."

"Master," Pestage stammered, "it is well that you are safe...When I heard the alarms, I was in conference with Lord Vader...He wishes to speak with you. Should I transfer his signal?"

"No, Sate Pestage." Palpatine seemed highly agitated. "Delay him while I consult my Holocron." He was already heading for his bed chamber, moving with a new strength that amazed the Grand Vizier. Pestage bowed and the door hissed shut.

Once he was alone, the Emperor reached towards an ornate stand on which rested a smooth cube that softly glowed blue. He took the Jedi recording device in his gnarled hands, caressing the ancient writings on its elegantly tooled surface. The Holocron felt warm and alive. Deep within the object, organic crystals awakened. He felt a light touch on his mind as the Holocron sensed his surface thoughts and summoned the knowledge he required. There was a shimmer in the air, and a hologram of a somewhat grotesque alien with claw like hands and an exoskeleton appeared above the cube.

"Dark One," the hologram spoke. "Listen to the words of Bodo Baas, the gatekeeper, and learn the story of the Sith sorcerer, Gant Feer. In the bleak days when Exar Kun was made the Dark Lord of the Sith, Feer was one of the fallen Jedi under his command. Feer was both depraved and ambitious. It is thought that he alone had access to certain terrible secrets of Sith magic, and he used them without Kun's knowledge. Feer captured Jedi and ritually murdered them. Each terror-filled death weakened the light side and strengthened the dark side. But one Master escaped to tell the tale, and so we know that Feer boasted of being able to feed on their dying energies, absorbing strength through his link to the dark side." Bodo Baas paused. It was hard to tell from such a face, but the monster seemed reluctant to speak to him. When it resumed, it seemed to look right at him.

"Gant Feer did not live to enjoy his gains. Exar Kun noticed how powerful his underling had become, and destroyed him. Feer's secrets died with him. Take heed, Dark One. To take life from the death of others is possible, but it may bring ruin in unforeseen ways." With a steamy green glow, Bodo Baas dissolved.

Palpatine sat silently in thought. As Alderaan was shattered, he had felt a huge surge of power flowing into him through his connection to the dark side. At that moment, he had been unprepared for it, too surprised and stunned to move or think. But while it was happening, he had felt like he could have done anything, anything at all. An entire world, teeming with life, had died in terror! If the story of Gant Feer was any indication, such an event would have strengthened the dark side. At one with the Force, Palpatine had been filled with that power, though it had passed through his grasp like a gale force wind. He thought he knew how to prepare himself for the next time, how to keep himself from being overwhelmed, and how to turn the power to his own ends. He might even use the power to find a way to overcome the problem of his vulnerable clone bodies. With that much power, he could even make a new body for himself...a perfect one...an invulnerable one. He laughed suddenly as he realized that this gave the Death Star a wonderful new purpose.

Gently, he replaced the Holocron. He sometimes felt that, though it was just a recording device, it was subtly against him. There was the way it called him "Dark One," for example. That it had warned him against pursuing this course did not surprise him. It did not matter. There was always a danger. The chance of a victory over his affliction was worth any risk.

Palpatine crossed to his personal HoloNet terminal and activated it. The screen showed the stark black mask of Darth Vader. Vader was alone in his meditation chamber on the Death Star. Palpatine acknowledged him with a slight nod. With head bowed, Vader spoke in his deep, machine-enhanced voice. "My Master, the destruction of Alderaan..." Vader was shaken. "There was a great disturbance in the force. I fear for the consequences of using the Death Star in this way. Destruction on this scale could bring chaos to --"

The Emperor silenced him with a gesture, frowning. As usual, Vader's perception of matters was lacking in insight. The Sith Lord thought of the dark side as the means to bring his kind of order to the galaxy, but, here he balked at the means to achieve that end. "You will understand in time, my servant. The destruction of Alderaan has made me stronger. When you find the Rebel base, it must be destroyed with the Death Star as I make my transition. Nothing will be beyond my new abilities. I shall rule the entire galaxy, and you shall ever be at my side."

Vader said nothing, but Palpatine knew he would always obey. This fallen Jedi circled the Emperor's evil majesty like a moth around a candle flame. He needed the Emperor's darkness to fill a void inside him, but he could never come too close, lest he be consumed.

"I sense that something else troubles you, my servant," Palpatine urged him.

With his characteristic bluntness, Vader said, "My old Master, Kenobi, is here on the Death Star. He has come to face me. When last we met, the advantage was his. I fear he must be the victor again."

Now it was Palpatine's turn to be surprised. Kenobi! That cursed Jedi, still alive! So he had escaped the Purge and stayed in hiding for twenty years. Now he dared to show his face. Such audacity must be punished. The killer of Palpatine's old servant, Darth Maul, would finally be punished. "Kenobi will meet his long overdue destiny today. Whatever foolish errand has brought him out of his hole will be his last. Together we will crush him, my servant."

Vader radiated trust. "And what of the Rebels who came with him? They have the Death Star plans and they may escape the station."

"Let them go," the Emperor said with a smirk. "They shall lead the Death Star directly to the Rebel base. Now go and meet Kenobi. His time has come."

Vader bowed deeply as the Emperor terminated the signal.

Vader stood silently in an empty hallway of the Death Star. Dim memories of his defeat at Kenobi's hands sent a chill of foreboding through him. There had been a devastating blow that ripped through his defenses, and a fall into searing lava. The memory of that agony gave his hate a keen focus. He had been reborn from that death, reforged in that furnace. Now he would pay his old Master back in kind. The old man appeared from a corridor as if flowing from the shadows. Vader's lightsaber was already glowing redly in his hand.

"I've been waiting for you Obi-Wan. We meet again at last. The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but the learner, now I am the Master."

Kenobi wasted few words, igniting his own saber and taking up a classical offensive position. "Only a master of evil, Darth."

With that, they were upon each other, trading lightening-fast blows. This was an elegant combat between two masters. Each strike was carefully controlled, and the warriors spun with an economy of motion that belied the complexity of their attacks. Kenobi seemed suddenly to be under increasing strain, as though an invisible weight were pressing down upon him. He shook his head and blinked, trying to clear his eyes.

"Your powers are weak, old man," Vader taunted, aware that the promise of the Emperor was being fulfilled. Palpatine was somehow able to cloud Kenobi's mind at this distance. He had grown strong indeed!

Kenobi seemed to come to terms with his fate at that moment, and he serenely said, "You can't win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine." Angered at Kenobi's calmness, Vader struck more wildly, slicing into the corridor walls. The two warriors, failed teacher and fallen Jedi, moved next to blast doors leading to the hangar that housed the captured freighter that Kenobi had arrived in. Vader could see the guards running to his defense, and he knew that Kenobi would indeed meet his death in moments, one way or another. Suddenly, across the hangar, a motley crew of Rebels and droids made a break for the freighter, taking advantage of the Stormtroopers' distraction. Kenobi spared the Rebels a glance, and seemed to come to a decision. He lifted his sword away from Vader's and closed his eyes. Without hesitation, Vader sliced his old Master cleanly in half. The empty cloak fell to the deck, followed a second later by the old man's lightsaber.

Vader probed the cloak with a booted foot, conflicting feelings of triumph and fear filling him. A fierce firefight had erupted in the hangar. Vader stood calmly as his troops were cut down. The blast doors shut suddenly, leaving Vader alone in the silent corridor. Vader strode to a comm panel to inform Tarkin that Kenobi was dead. He would pass on the Emperor's instructions that the other Rebels were to be allowed to escape. A homing beacon had been hidden aboard their ship, and they could easily be followed to the Rebel base itself.

There was a muffled roar from behind the doors as the freighter made a fast takeoff and plunged out into space. Vader picked up Kenobi's lightsaber, and hooked it to his belt. The Emperor would want it for his collection. Kenobi's ending left him feeling strangely hollow. Somehow he sensed that, despite all appearances, the conflict between Kenobi and himself was not over at all.

Once again, Vader knelt before the image of his Master. "It is done, my friend," the Emperor soothed. "Kenobi has become one with the light side forever. His spirit will fade and be gone. There was no possible anchor to hold him. You have done well, my servant. The last of the Jedi died today."

"I saw his face, my Master," Vader replied cautiously. "He did not have the look of one who has lost his battle."

"It is nothing," the Emperor assured him. "merely the false pride of an old man. I shall leave you now, my servant. I must become one with the Force to prepare for my rejuvenation. Go now, and do my bidding. When you see me next, I will have triumphed over this frail flesh."

Vader arose, intoning with satisfaction, "The Rebellion shall meet the same end as Kenobi."

Palpatine was at one with the Force. His body rested in his bed, beside the softly glowing Holocron. That body had come near to the end of its usefulness. Soon, the destruction of another world would fill him with strength. He would will his own death at that moment, becoming absolutely at one with the dark side, existing as formless energy. He would bring that power to his new body, transforming it into an indestructible thing, the perfect vessel for his new level of dark side mastery. The main problem with the clones was that they were copies, one step removed from the protecting energies of the force. Thus they were more vulnerable to the depredations of the dark side. But now he thought he could remake his body, literally rebuilding it out of dark side energy, using one of the clones as a template. With such a body, he would be the dark side, and nothing would be able to stop him. His spirit trembled, even as his body lay in a trance. The moment was approaching.

Across the galaxy, the Death Star was about to come within firing range of the fourth moon of Yavin, a jungle world that teemed with life. The Rebels on the moon had put up a fight, of course, but all they had to throw against the station were a few dozen antiquated one-man snub fighters. It was pathetic. But then, the Emperor well understood the weakness of inferiors.

Vader was in his own prototype fighter, leading his TIE wingmen against the X-wings, indulging in target practice on the inexperienced Rebel pilots. Tarkin waited confidently in the command center, not even thinking it necessary to send out the swarms of fighters that were his to deploy. It was hard to get a clear sense of what was happening through all the chaotic emotions filling the area. Rebel pilots screamed in terror as Vader's laser bolts inexorably found their targets. Imperial troops milled in confusion as Rebel attacks blew apart surface installations. Gunners radiated excited concentration as they wielded their powerful turbolasers against the darting Rebel ships. The Emperor savored all these feelings.

But on the command deck, calm reigned, and Palpatine was able to focus on the Grand Moff. Tarkin turned as his aide announced, "Rebel base, thirty seconds and closing." Grim satisfaction radiated from the Grand Moff. Palpatine shared his feeling. This was the fruition of long-cherished plans.

The seconds ticked by. Racing across the Death Star surface, Vader was closing on the last few Rebel ships. The Emperor sensed his servant's determination, but knew it would all be academic in a few seconds.

"The Death Star has cleared the planet," came the announcement at last.

"You may fire when ready," said Tarkin crisply.

"Commence primary ignition," pronounced Tarkin's aide. The Death Star's prime weapon roared to life, preparing to deal death in an instant. Palpatine readied himself for the transition, opening himself fully to the Force. At that moment, an unexpected spark came alight in the darkness - someone was using the light side of the Force! It was impossible, but unmistakable. The Emperor's mind reeled with sudden confusion, but it was too late to change anything.

"Stand by," the words filtered through the energy waves building around Palpatine's body.

"Stand by."

The last thing Palpatine sensed was the Grand Moff Tarkin's crystal clear feeling of triumph. Then the Emperor's body was torn asunder, erupting in cold blue fire. His spirit went plummeting into a fathomless abyss that was everywhere and nowhere. But instead of the incredible strength he expected to feel, there was devastating loss. Something had happened to cast a pall of horrible weakness over the whole of the dark side. His essence wailing in dismay, Palpatine fought to reach his clone body, pouring into it with a desperate lunge. His new eyes shot open, and even as he choked out the nutrient solution that filled his mouth and throat, he reached out with the Force. What he felt, or did not feel, filled him with rage. The Death Star was gone as if it had never existed. His own senses and abilities were noticeably diminished. His new body was young and strong, of course, but he felt like he was touching the Force with gloves on. He fell to his knees as the vat door slid up and away. The able hands of Constable Mon reached out to steady him, but he pushed them aside. He was trembling with hate. Someone would pay for this outrage! The whole galaxy would pay. And first to suffer would be those who had failed him.

By the time night fell on Byss, the five moons shining beautifully on the ornate towers and sprawling complexes of the Imperial Control Sector, the HoloNet had delivered the awful details of what had happened at Yavin. The dread Death Star had been vaporized by a single shot from a Rebel X-wing. The pilot had hit a thermal exhaust port with a proton torpedo, against impossible odds. The Dark Lord of the Sith was reported missing or dead. The base on Yavin was untouched, and worst of all, news of what had happened was being spread throughout the galaxy by the cursed Rebels. Alliance propaganda touted the genocide at Alderaan and the destruction of the Death Star as final proof of the Empire's tyranny and the Alliance's cause as freedom fighters. This would have little effect on the firmly held inner systems, but the outlying regions might be swayed. The time for retribution was now.

Palpatine blamed the defeat at Yavin on the incompetence of his officers. It was fortunate for those who had served on the Death Star that they were dead. The designer of the battle station, Bevel Lemelisk, would soon wish that he was dead with them. There must be a greater military buildup than ever before. Rebellious worlds would be snuffed out. He did not need a Death Star to reduce a planet to rubble. The new Super Star Destroyers would suffice. There would be a sweeping shakeup in the command structure of the Imperial forces. He needed someone he could trust implicitly in command. Someone ruthless and absolutely loyal to him. Someone of the highest competence. He needed Darth Vader.

But first he would have to find the Dark Lord. Palpatine knew his servant was not dead. He would have felt it. Somehow Vader had survived, perhaps by escaping in his fighter before the station had erupted. So for several hours, the Emperor searched the space around Yavin. The Death Star continued to burn. Vast sections of radioactive wreckage formed a loosely held together orbiting graveyard, littered with incinerated, flash-frozen corpses. Slowly, the gravity of the gas giant would claim the remains, swallowing them without a trace. Not a spark of life remained.

No! There was something, very faint...In a decaying orbit, a crippled fighter with curved wings floated, dark. Within it, Vader was in a hibernation trance, conserving the minimal remaining life support. Immediately, Palpatine contacted his agents in the fleet and directed an assault shuttle from the new Yavin blockade to rescue Vader. Within a few days, Vader would once again stand before him, ready to do his dark bidding throughout the galaxy.

Vader and the Emperor were alone in the throne room on Coruscant. Strong and commanding in his youthful body, Palpatine stood over his kneeling servant. The Sith Lord was full of anger, humiliation, and a sense of failure. He clearly expected to be punished.

"Rise, Lord Vader," said the Emperor in ringing tones. Vader rose to regard his Master with bowed head. Palpatine was clad in a severe black uniform with the Imperial symbol at his breast, and over that, a flowing cape with a high flaring collar. Vader towered over his Master, as if to give the lie to their relative authorities. The Emperor's face was now unlined and full of regal assurance. Vader's face was forever hidden behind a grotesque mask meant to inspire fear. But it was Vader who felt the fear as he awaited his judgment.

"Tell me of what happened," said Palpatine, his voice calm.

"The Rebels escaped," Vader replied, "leading us to their base as planned. As we began to orbit Yavin, they came out to meet us in one-man fighters. It seemed the last defense of people who fully expected to die. I instructed tactical to do an analysis of their attack. When I saw that their target was the equatorial trench, I realized that these were not suicidal madmen. They were desperate, but they had a plan. I ordered the Grand Moff Tarkin informed and mobilized my personal TIE fighter squadron. Several fighters broke away from the main group and flew into the trench. I pursued them with two wingmen. We destroyed several ships, and one Rebel fired on a thermal exhaust port, proving my theory correct, but the shot was too difficult. Tarkin did not send out reinforcements, but by then there were less than five Rebel ships left."

Vader paused. The source of his shame was to be told next. The Emperor simply prompted him, "Go on."

"Three X-wings made a final attempt. I destroyed one ship, and the second was damaged and fled. We closed on the leader. He was an uncanny pilot, and my targeting computer lost its lock again and again." Vader stared full into the face of his Master. "It was then that I felt the impossible. The pilot was using the Force and it was strong in him. Then I knew that what had seemed folly was great cleverness on the part of the Rebels. A Force user, I knew, could make the shot. No wonder the Rebels had designed this strategy, with such a one among them. I fired again when I had a lock, but somehow my shots only hit his droid. I felt the presence of Obi-Wan, trying to interfere with me, but he was too late. The Death Star was ready to fire. The Rebel pilot must have stopped focusing on evasion because all at once my targeting computer had a firm lock. But at that instant, as if ordained by the Force, my attack was broken." Filled with anger, Vader had to stop for a moment. The repetitive sound of his mechanized breathing was the only sign of life within his rigid armor.

"That accursed freighter dove at us in a collision course. One wingman was shot down, and the other panicked, striking my ship and ending my defense of the Death Star. Out of control, I spun into space. The next thing I knew, the Death Star was gone and over a million Imperial lives were lost." Vader waited, seeming to prepare himself for his Master's response.

"Your thoughts are focused on how I will punish you," Palpatine said. Vader stiffened even more. "You think you failed to save my battle station. Perhaps I will cut off your hand...that would be a fitting payment for your failure, don't you think?"

Vader's mind reeled in sudden confusion. He wasn't sure he had heard his Master correctly. Both of his arms and hands were prosthetic, and losing them would only mean that the cybernetic specialists would have to replace them. It was no punishment at all.

The Emperor spoke into the silence to reassure his servant. "I do not blame you for what happened, Lord Vader. If Governor Tarkin had treated the attack with proper seriousness and deployed the Death Star's fighter defenses, that freighter could not have gotten through. I cannot punish him for that, but I can punish others in the command structure. I want them all to hear the rumor that even you were a victim of my wrath. For if you are not safe from my anger...then who is? As for the Force user you sensed...he is of little concern. Obi-Wan Kenobi obviously engineered the whole thing. His cowardly death was a distraction to allow his pilot to escape. But that is as far as it goes. This debacle was a freak event. An untrained whelp can be no threat to us, now that we are prepared. There will be a new Death Star, my servant. While it is under construction, I shall assemble the greatest strike fleet ever known. It shall contain the first of the new Super Star Destroyers and you shall command it. Your duty will be to hunt down and destroy the Rebel Alliance. I know you will not fail, my faithful servant." The Emperor smiled benevolently, but Vader was still clearly troubled.

"I have not told you the worst of it," the Dark Lord said. "Kenobi's plans ran deep. I told you that I felt the Force in the pilot, but I also knew at that moment that the boy was my son."

Palpatine was incredulous. Sudden fury radiated from him. "Son?! I never knew Skywalker had a son! What treachery is this?"

Vader immediately fell to his knees. "I did not know myself. But I could not be mistaken. I believe Kenobi raised him hoping to present a threat to us."

"Well his plans have failed," the Emperor grated, glowering at the ebony helmet before him. "He will never become a Jedi. We ensured that when we destroyed Kenobi. He did not foresee his own end. This changes nothing. We shall find and crush the Rebels as planned."

"Yes, my Master." Vader hesitated. "Even so, I wish to find him and put an end to him. It does not make sense to ignore even a small threat. Surely...this is the lesson of the Death Star."

Palpatine considered Vader. There was some very subtle difference in him, feelings running just beyond Palpatine's reach. But the Dark Lord had been through a great deal recently. It was surely only the strain affecting him. Palpatine spoke firmly. "Young Skywalker, if that is his name, can be no threat to our might. But he is no doubt with the Rebels, and if you wish to destroy him, you may do so when you crush the Alliance. Now go, and work my will."

Vader arose and left, black cape billowing. Palpatine put his momentary unease aside. He could trust Vader implicitly, for Vader was entirely his, body and soul. The spirit of Anakin Skywalker was as lost as the very limbs of the cyborged giant who went out to plan the Empire's revenge.

Everything proceeded according to the Emperor's design, as he was so fond of saying. As three swift years passed, the galaxy felt the full might of the Empire. Vader's strike fleet pursued the Rebels across the galaxy, never giving them a chance to establish a permanent base. Rebellious worlds were swiftly punished and their resources were fed into the Imperial war machine. Palpatine's vision for the galaxy was becoming a reality. Vader seemed obsessed with finding young Skywalker, but that did not seem to interfere with his search for the main Alliance forces. The new Death Star took shape around the forest moon of Endor.

Then, one day, Vader sent news that he had located the main Rebel base on Hoth, and was proceeding with his full armada against it. The clever Rebels received a lucky break, however, when the fleet admiral brought the entire fleet out of hyperspace too close to Hoth. Had the fleet remained out of scanner range, it could have used the cover of the system's asteroid field to remain hidden until it was too late for Hoth base to react. Instead, the Rebels were alerted and had time to raise a planetary shield that Admiral Ozzel had not guessed they possessed. The end result was a needless and costly ground battle. Sacrificing many lives in a delaying action, the Alliance managed to allow the escape of its command group. It was a rout, but it was not, frustratingly, a final victory for Vader.

Then Palpatine received reports that Lord Vader had committed the entire strike fleet to the capture of one Rebel ship, the freighter that had ended his defense of the first Death Star. His obsession had finally gotten the better of him. There was a scattered, demoralized, and defeated remnant of the Alliance out there among the stars, and the time to finish them was now. There was no time for foolish hunting games. Vader must be brought to heel.

The Emperor stalked angrily through the corridors of the Palace, and his court stayed well clear of him. This made it easy to hide his aging beneath his voluminous hooded robes. His second clone body had aged at an accelerated rate as expected, and it seemed to him that the decay might even have become faster this time. But he liked to maintain appearances. It pleased him to let his people see him and know exactly who their Master was.

Palpatine strode into the Palace's main communications room, a hive of activity. Imperial Navy officers eyed him expectantly. He knew they were angered over Lord Vader's summary executions, and that they felt that the Dark Lord was completely out of control. To mollify them, Palpatine had decided to reprimand Vader in public, thus avoiding a mutiny in the strike fleet. At the same time, he would remind Vader of his responsibilities towards finding the Rebel fleet.

As the Emperor entered, the officers all knelt to him, bowing their heads. A nervous technician worked the communications station, and began the job of contacting the Executor. His fingers stumbled on the switches and he glanced up, sweating, expecting to be disciplined. But no one was watching him. All eyes were on the Emperor, who had suddenly and silently collapsed onto the gleaming deck, to the open-mouthed shock of the entire gathering.

Sate Pestage tended to his Master in the Imperial Medical Center. An entire wing had been cleared to treat the mysterious affliction that had overtaken the Emperor. The resident doctors were baffled when they were told that they would not be needed, but they were easily dealt with. The Rumor Control office would soon have the matter in hand.

Pestage knew that his Master was in a vision trance. It had happened before in his presence, and he knew that all the Emperor needed was rest and privacy. Palpatine lay on a bed, occasionally whispering, eyes shut, his mind clearly elsewhere. This time, though, Pestage found himself disturbed. He knew his Master well, and impossible as it may have seemed, Palpatine was evidently afraid of what he was "seeing"...

A young man stood before the Emperor, clad in black. It was the son of Skywalker. The Force was with him, and he had become a Jedi. He regarded Palpatine with defiance.

The Emperor was falling. He was filled with fear and surprise, and screamed all the way down. His body was ripped asunder by a collision with gigantic energy discharges. His life force was swallowed into the dark side, but this time, it was different. There was no immediate rebirth, only a terrifying chaos with no end...

Palpatine was afraid. Somehow, these two visions were linked, both part of the same possible future. A future in which he would die.

The Emperor's eyes flew open, startling Sate Pestage. The Grand Vizier had begun to sputter an inquiry as to his Master's state when Palpatine sat up and cut him off. "Contact the Executor immediately. I require a conference with Lord Vader. Send the signal to me whenever it comes in."

"A moment, Master," said Pestage uncomfortably, "If you are well, I must tell you that Prince Xizor has been trying to contact you while you were indisposed. He has requested an audience with you. I did not know what to say...he is a criminal of the basest sort..."

"Yes, he is," said the Emperor tersely. "But we will use him for his transport fleet as we construct the new Death Star. Tell him that I will see him now. But if Lord Vader's communication comes in, I want to speak with him immediately, no matter what."

"Yes, of course, Master," said Pestage.

And that was that. Without another word, Palpatine hurried from the room, leaving Sate Pestage gaping.

"What is thy bidding, my Master?" asked Vader, on bended knee. Before him was an enormous hologram of his Master's hooded face.

"There is a great disturbance in the Force," said Palpatine.

Vader cautiously responded, "I have felt it."

Palpatine sternly stated, "We have a new enemy. Luke Skywalker."

So, his dark Master had finally come to understand how it was. Perhaps the great tremor in the Force had finally convinced him. Something important had happened while Vader's forces had been sifting through the asteroid field for the Millennium Falcon. What it was, he didn't know, but all at once, his son had become significant to the Emperor. Respectfully, he intoned, "Yes, my Master."

"He could destroy us," said Palpatine. Vader tried to hide his surprise. His Master must feel that his son was a threat indeed! Vader had, for three years, cherished hidden plans deep inside him, plans for his son. He knew he must downplay the boy's importance.

"He's just a boy. Obi-Wan can no longer help him."

But the Emperor was adamant. "The Force is strong with him. The son of Skywalker must not become a Jedi."

Vader knew this meant death for his son. The son of Skywalker. His Master would not even acknowledge the boy as Vader's own, believing that when Anakin had "died," every last vestige of the man was gone from Darth Vader. But something did remain, something he himself did not fully understand. He wanted his son to live, and rejoin him. Now Vader played his hand. "If he could be turned, he would become a powerful ally."

To his surprise, the Emperor agreed. "Yes. Yes. He would be a great asset. Can it be done?"

"He will join us, or die, my Master." Vader felt relief as the hologram faded. He did not understand why the Emperor suddenly feared that his son might become a Jedi. Could the boy have found a Master? It did not matter. He would be the boy's Master. He would show his son the true nature of the Force. He stood and moved to the doorway. There was much to be done.

After he finished his audience with Prince Xizor, Palpatine sat in his throne, pensive. He wondered what the outcome of their new course would be. He had agreed to Vader's suggestion because there had been a third vision in his trance: he had seen Luke Skywalker kneel before him, pledging servitude. My father's destiny is my own, Skywalker had said in the vision. Vader had been absent in the vision, but perhaps that was for the best. Vader had become...uncertain, of late. It may be time to replace him, with another Skywalker. Perhaps this new possible future, in which Skywalker knelt to him, would negate the other one, in which the boy was responsible for his death. The strange feeling was that he did not know. It excited him, this uncertainty. He had a new enemy, for the first time in years. He looked forward to their meeting. There was much to be made ready for that meeting. Much to be done. Thinking upon it, the Emperor laughed.

Part Three: The Hand of Fate

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

It is a time of decision for the force. The Jedi Nexus of fate approaches, drawing the Emperor together with the enemy who could destroy him.

Blinded to the future, Palpatine searches desperately for a way to ensure his own victory when he faces Luke Skywalker.

But the Emperor's greatest blindness may be towards the threat of his most powerful servant, as Lord Vader begins to question his loyalty to his dark master...

Emperor Palpatine, Master of the dark side of the Force, made no effort to hide his satisfaction as he strode across the throne room floor towards the two combatants. One of them was Luke Skywalker, a young man clad in austere black. He was holding his humming lightsaber blade at the throat of his vanquished enemy, Lord Darth Vader. Luke had given in to his anger at last, and he was astonished at how easily he had beaten the Dark Lord. Luke panted, barely containing his rage as he warily watched the approaching Emperor. The blade in his hand drifted perilously close to Vader's gasping mask. The once mighty Sith Lord was reduced to abject terror, trying in vain to crawl away from Luke.

Luke saw Palpatine through a haze of anger. The Emperor was a surprisingly small man, hunched with age and clasping his wrinkled hands together. "Good!" Palpatine said, his withered features stamped with lust. "Your hate has made you powerful. Now, fulfill your destiny and take Lord Vader's place at my side!"

Luke looked at the fallen Sith Lord, once his most deadly foe, now completely at his mercy. He looked at his prosthetic right hand, gloved in black, and remembered that Vader had cut his real hand off when they last met. Not only that, Vader had also tortured his friends and delivered one of them to the ruthless crime lord, Jabba the Hutt, perhaps never to be seen again. And those acts barely began to scratch the surface of Vader's black deeds. If he put an end to this evil being, he would only be giving the galaxy the justice it cried out for. Luke suddenly recalled another man who had once been helpless before a lightsaber blade, and what Vader had done to him. Then he made the decision that felt right and just. He reversed his grip on the lightsaber he had made with his own hands and swept it through the torso of the Dark Lord, crying "For Ben Kenobi!" Vader died screaming, cut in half in a heap of seared gore.

Luke turned his back on the smoking corpse and faced the Emperor. Palpatine was nearly beside himself with glee. "Well done, my young apprentice! Now, come and kneel to me, and pledge your loyalty."

Luke didn't move. The Emperor smiled at Luke, but it was the smile of a crafty predator. "You cannot turn back, now, young Skywalker," he chided Luke. He held out a wasted hand, beckoning. "I shall raise you to such heights of power that your name shall forever eclipse the name of Darth Vader."

Luke walked over to him, and with a grim set to his features, knelt deliberately at the Emperor's feet. "Lord Vader's destiny is my own," Luke said with finality. Without warning, Luke moved. "Now you die!" Luke shouted, stabbing upward with his lightsaber at Palpatine's defenseless, robed body. The bright green blade did not find its mark, however. Even as the thrust began, the saber was deactivated by a proximity sensor hidden on the Emperor's person. The pommel of Luke's weapon thudded ineffectually against the Emperor's chest, and the galactic ruler lurched backwards. Palpatine saw a flash of crimson behind Luke, then the point of a force pike bloomed from Luke's chest. Luke was lifted from the floor, impaled on the long weapon of a hulking Imperial guard.

Luke had known he would not leave the throne room alive, but to have failed in his one chance to kill the Emperor...it was too much despair to bear. Drowning in his pain, Luke was dimly aware that his lightsaber had returned to life. Knowing death was near, and desperate to end his physical and mental torment, he managed to turn the weapon onto himself.

The red robed guard let the room's second corpse slide from his force pike and slump to the floor. He regarded his Emperor silently. Palpatine stared thoughtfully at Luke's body for a long time. Then, noticing the guard, he dismissed him distractedly.

The bland voice of Sate Pestage, the Emperor's Grand Vizier, interrupted Palpatine's introspection. "My condolences, Master, on the loss of your servant," said Pestage, glancing at the bodies on the floor."

Palpatine looked at Pestage bemusedly, searching his timeworn face for a hint of the sarcasm he thought might be behind the statement. There was nothing but a wizened serenity in Pestage's expression.

For his part, Pestage knew his Master was experiencing a period of great stress, and he meant his presence to be soothing. Therefore it was with relief that he saw Palpatine calmly beckon to him and begin walking. Together, they went out into the halls of the Imperial citadel. They met no other person as they strode along in silence, for this part of the citadel was the Emperor's private sanctuary. There were times when Pestage worried a great deal about his Master. Like the day, four months ago, when Palpatine had collapsed into a vision trance in front of most of the fleet Admirals. The glorious one had foreseen his own death, and despite his reliable means of overcoming that particular affliction, he had been afraid. Seeing fear in his Master had shaken Pestage. Palpatine was the foundation on which he built his life. He could not imagine what he would do if that foundation were taken away.

Equally worrisome was the Emperor's accelerated physical decay as the ravages of the dark side became ever more harsh. For Palpatine was demanding more of the Force than ever before. Pestage had seen his Master spend a great deal of time in his meditation chamber, trying, he suspected, to see the future. This ability awed Pestage, but for once, it did not seem to be working. Palpatine always emerged in a rage, flailing his fists and cursing his 'blindness'. He exerted more and more power, and his apparently futile efforts took a fearsome toll on his body. Only once had Palpatine given him any explanation, and Pestage had not fully understood. A great nexus was coming, the glorious one had told him, and the strands of probability were too much in flux to follow. But whatever barriers there were did not stop Palpatine from trying, and Pestage had begun to wonder if his Emperor would actually destroy himself.

Then, one day, Vader had returned with a prize. The Emperor had received his servant with a curious coldness, but once he discovered what the Sith Lord had brought, Palpatine had seemed rejuvenated. The prize had set in motion a series of frenzied preparations, as the Emperor immediately saw in it another means of gaining the information he sought - the probable outcome of his meeting with Luke Skywalker.

The prize had also made possible the contents of the room that they now entered. It was a large chamber, filled with row upon row of man-size tanks. The Emperor moved to the nearest one and wiped away the moisture beading on its glass surface. He stared at the face behind the glass with a searching intensity, but its eyes remained closed, its hair floating in the gentle currents of the nutrient bath. Sate Pestage suppressed a shiver. It was the face of Luke Skywalker.

The Constable of Homunculi, Rollo Mon, stepped out of the shadows, his enormous head ornament casting bizarre shadows in the sharp green light illuminating the entryway. The Emperor turned to him, his hand still resting on the tank.

"Prepare him," commanded Palpatine.

Three months earlier, Darth Vader was striding through the nearly empty halls of cloud city. Behind him, struggling to keep up, was a surgeon droid clutching a foot long cylindrical tank. They hurried past vacated apartments and hollow, silent casinos. Only Stormtroopers marked their passage by saluting, their rifles held casually due to the lack of any threat. For the once thriving luxury resort was now in the hands of the Empire. Any citizens not able to evacuate in the exodus initiated by Baron-Administrator turned Rebel Lando Calrissian were rounded up and forcibly deported. Those with questionable pasts had gone to Imperial prisons, as had some of the innocent, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Vader and the droid moved quickly into the lower levels of the city. The graceful sculptures and rich decor gave way to the gritty, exposed machinery of the Tibanna gas mining facility. Here and there, the squat, grotesque Ugnaughts scurried about, continuing the task of running the enormous machines. For them, one human master was much the same as any other, provided they were paid and not mistreated. Now the valuable gas, useful for antigrav devices and blasters, would go to the Empire, that was all. Finally, the Sith Lord reached the bottom of Cloud City and entered a small control room.

Vader stepped through a cloud of steam, suddenly appearing in front of Lieutenant Pralt and his work detail. Pralt backed away before he could catch himself as the huge armored figure loomed up before him like a sculpted gargoyle. "Report, Lieutenant," demanded Vader.

"My Lord," the officer stammered, straightening himself. Pralt knew of Vader's reputation for anger, and he feared to give the Dark Lord even partial bad news. But over the past few days, a strange story had circulated through the ranks. A week ago, when the Rebels had escaped both Cloud City and the Executor, Vader had failed to execute Admiral Piett, or anybody else. Instead, he had gone to meditate in his private chamber for three days. When he emerged, he had ordered a work detail to search the lower levels of the Cloud City reactor shaft for an unspecified object belonging to the Rebel, Luke Skywalker. Rumor had it that the Rebel had faced Vader high above and survived. His bravery bolstered by these tales, Pralt swallowed once and steadily reported, "My Lord, we have located what seems to be a lightsaber, but it lies in a rather difficult location." At least, Pralt assumed it was one of the old Jedi weapons. Its resemblance to the object hanging at Vader's belt gave the Lieutenant a bit of confidence.

Vader was already moving past him. "Show me," he commanded in a deep, mechanically amplified voice that was full of a surprising eagerness. Pralt signaled his men and the team led Vader and the silent droid into a narrow access corridor.

"Brace yourself, my Lord," Pralt warned as he opened the heavy door at the far end. Instantly, fierce winds swept into the tiny hallway, challenging the search team to stay on their feet. Vader stepped out onto the balcony beyond as if in total calm. Above the Dark Lord towered the enormous reactor shaft, a breathtaking open space glittering with distant lights. Below him, a mere hundred feet down, was the great sphere that terminated the shaft. It was studded with pressure release hatches that opened in response to the strong, shifting winds that coursed through the shaft. Vader stared at them as they rhythmically opened and closed, giving transient views of the bottomless drop to Bespin. Then, his electronically enhanced vision picked it out. Lying at the bottom of the giant bowl, between two restlessly opening hatches, was a lightsaber. Wrapped tightly around the weapon was a severed human hand.

Vader could only attribute the miracle before him to the workings of the Force. While in meditation, he had been disturbed by thoughts of the hand. He had had a strong feeling that it still existed, and that the Emperor would want it. So he had come in search of it, trusting in the Force, and there it was. But it was not the pathetic bit of flesh that quickened Vader's pulse - it was the silvery pommel of the old Jedi weapon clutched in the stiff fingers. His lightsaber. Returned to him after some twenty years. It gleamed invitingly from below, somehow calling to him.

Pralt's voice broke into his fascinated contemplation, and Vader was startled to find that he had been leaning partly over the railing towards his prize. "My Lord," Pralt shouted, shivering in the cold and struggling to be heard over the howling of the wind, "if that is what you seek, I doubt we could send a man down there to get it. It would be too dangerous. Any attempt to retrieve the object could dislodge it and send it out one of those hatches."

Vader didn't respond immediately. Turning away from Pralt, he raised his arms to the immensity of the shaft. "It will be your good fortune, Lieutenant, to witness a demonstration of the true power in the universe," Vader said, managing somehow to be heard over the wind. Pralt felt nothing at first, then his skin began to crawl. The winds in the reactor shaft had begun to diminish. Pralt's men backed away nervously, but Pralt stood rooted to the spot. Slowly, inexorably, the swirling air quieted, then became still. One by one, the pressure release hatches below hissed to a close, until they were all shut. Vader gestured again, holding out a hand towards the lightsaber below, and it rose up to him majestically, settling gently into his outstretched palm.

Pralt shuddered in disgust to see the severed hand up close; its cauterized stump of a wrist and its ice-covered fingers clutching the saber even in death made Pralt unconsciously reach for his own right hand, as if to make sure it was still attached. Vader gestured to the surgeon droid and it clumped up, holding its cylindrical vat. The droid pressed a switch on the container and the top hissed open. Vader pulled the hand from the saber and immersed it in the reddish Bacta solution. He attached the saber to his belt, and turned to Lieutenant Pralt. "Good work, Lieutenant," he said simply. Then Vader strode away, the droid in tow, leaving Pralt and his men gaping. They stood there for a whole minute, not moving, until finally the chill winds began to return, urging the search team back into the warmth of the corridors.

Alone in medstation seventy of the Executor, surgical droid 2-1BV had finished the treatment of the last blaster wounds from the Bespin battle. The mighty Super Star Destroyer was moving away from the gas giant and aiming itself at Coruscant, the dark heart of the Empire, the Imperial throne world. Beevee turned to the wall stasis unit where the hand of the human Rebel was stored. With no other commands to obey at the moment, he clumped over to the unit and opened it. Removing the Bacta cylinder, Beevee examined the readouts on the container. The hand was perfectly preserved. It had been frozen during its stay in the reactor shaft, and the Bacta was acting to keep the tissue in a healthy state. In fact, Beevee noted clinically, the hand could even be reattached to the original owner with little loss of function, were he available. But no doubt the owner would have a prosthetic replacement by now. A droid hand, of sorts.

Beevee's photoreceptors regarded his own hand. It was so very different from the human hand in the tank, consisting of three grasping claws at the end of a stark metal rod. It enabled him to manipulate sophisticated surgical instruments and heal the wounds incurred by the vulnerable organics. Once, on a previous assignment, the old droid had seen two young human lovers sneak into his infirmary. They had not even noticed him as he stood motionless among the diagnostic equipment. They had done many things with their hands that Beevee knew he could never do. His cold, sharp edges could never gently caress a soft cheek or smooth hair away from a warm forehead. He wondered if the Rebel whose hand this was did such things with a human female. He wondered if there had been much pain when the hand was cut off. Pain was something Beevee clinically responded to, but it was not something he could feel himself. If a lightsaber took his hand off, he would merely have impaired surgical capacities. Then his manipulator would be replaced. Like the Rebel's hand. He wondered if the Rebel's new hand could feel the skin of another person's face.

Internal sensors warned him of the approach of a new patient, a captain who had broken an ankle by tripping into a service well. Beevee quietly replaced the Bacta tank and didn't give it another thought as he prepared his instruments for the simple operation. A moment later, the Executor made the jump to hyperspace.

Emperor Palpatine was at one with the Force. Lines of probability stretched out before him as he turned his mind towards the future. The farther he looked, the more the lines branched and the more they tended to flicker or fade. The focus of his attention lay on a very strong line that led to a confusing jumble resembling a tangled ball of twine that kept changing shape. It was the nexus of fates in which he met Luke Skywalker. The fates of himself, Skywalker and Vader were tied up there, and he absolutely could not see whether any of their lives continued past that point. He knew the meeting was inevitable. It seemed to Palpatine that Skywalker's path met Vader's first, and then both joined his own at the nexus. But when the Emperor tried to penetrate that nexus, the awful result was always the same.

It was the mental equivalent of leaping into a whirlpool. He was swiftly rendered helpless, trapped in a chaotic storm of visions. They went hurtling past his mind's eye, leaving only fleeting impressions.

A black-clad Skywalker called his lightsaber to his hand and with a lightening move, burned Palpatine's head from his shoulders...

A passive Skywalker made no move to ignite his lightsaber as Vader moved in. Vader was saying, "If you will not fight, then you will meet your destiny." Luke did not resist as Vader cut his son down...

Vader and Skywalker suddenly put aside their fierce duel and marched towards the Emperor, seated defenseless on his throne. As one, they treacherously murdered Palpatine...

Vader was dead, killed by the Emperor himself when the Dark Lord had encouraged Luke to try to kill the Emperor. Now Palpatine was hurling Force lightning at Skywalker too, leaving the boy writhing in agony, begging to serve him...

Skywalker was holding his blade at Vader's throat, hate filling his face, dark side power coursing through him, ready to commit patricide...

The variations were endless. The Emperor's mind was assaulted by the nexus, threatening him with destruction. If he did not break out of it, in mere moments, his consciousness would be pulled in a thousand directions at once. It took even more power than the last time, but Palpatine managed to win free, awakening with a sickening spinning sensation on the floor of his meditation chamber. Fear and anger coursed through him. It was impossible for him to see the shape of things to come, but he required absolutely to know. So much was at stake - everything he had created so far. His Empire. Palpatine clenched his fists, gazing ruefully at the progressing ruin of his flesh. He could not continue these ordeals and survive. He doubted that he could rescue his consciousness from that nexus and make it into a new clone, were he to perish from the stress it caused him.

Suddenly a call signal demanded his attention. He stood painfully and moved to his terminal. He saw that the Executor had returned and was in orbit around Coruscant. Vader wanted to have an audience with him. Vader. The Emperor's anger burned even more darkly. Yes. He would see Vader. And learn what the traitor had to say for himself.

Sitting on his throne awaiting Vader's arrival, the Emperor knew he had finally come to regret the day he had made "Lord Vader". When Anakin Skywalker had turned to the dark side, so long ago, that had been well. Palpatine had thought he would be an extremely powerful Sith Apprentice, after a string of failures such as Darth Maul. But just when Anakin had begun to discover his power, he had foolishly faced his old teacher, Kenobi, and had wound up so grievously wounded that the only way to keep him alive was to cyborg him. At the Emperor's order, his limbs were replaced, increasing his stature considerably. He was encased within an armored life support system that compensated for the loss of his lungs. Palpatine's dark side adepts had taken Anakin into their care, helping him to recover and adjust to his new body. They had created a fearsome mask that resembled the war helm of a legendary Sith hero. Anakin was given a new name in the Sith tradition, Darth Vader, and was raised above the adepts to Palpatine's side as a Dark Lord of the Sith. At the Emperor's command, he used his powers to hunt down the Jedi. The Jedi were no easy prey, but eventually, they were all destroyed. With his main task accomplished, Vader had become the Emperor's servant, keeping order in the new Empire. That was when Palpatine's troubles began.

Vader had been a Skywalker once, and too many of the traits of that line remained in him. A fierce individuality, a quickness to anger, a certain recklessness, and very great strength in the Force all combined to make a servant of unquestionable value but perhaps too much power.

Palpatine had used Vader as his foremost agent. Vader eventually became the most visible symbol of the Empire. His mask, his stature, his voice, and his powers presented an image that struck fear into most people. They obeyed him, and thus obeyed Palpatine. They did not fear their Emperor, though in reality, they most certainly should have. In Vader, the Emperor had an instrument through which he could project something of his true self, while retaining an image of relative benevolence for himself.

Also, Palpatine admitted to himself, it was simply satisfying to have beside him a living symbol of his victory over the Jedi. Anakin had been one of the brightest and the best of the Jedi, and now here he was, twisted and corrupted, every last trace of goodness eradicated from him. As Vader, he was strong in the Force, but he kneeled to Palpatine, debasing himself and groveling at his Master's displeasure, and taking his only sustenance from his Master's praise. Yes, it was better than having a dead Jedi, better by far.

A few years ago, the Emperor had seen the first signs that all was not well with Vader. When Vader had met and killed his old teacher, then discovered he had a son, old, long unfelt connections to the past had stirred in him. It became worse when Vader was given command of the fleet and he used it to indulge his obsession with finding his son. At the time, Palpatine had swallowed his doubts, and perhaps that was a mistake. For, when Vader had finally caught up with his son, his true colors had shown at last.

The Emperor had agreed to try to turn Luke Skywalker, and Vader had agreed to be the one to do it, or else kill the boy. Vader laid a complicated trap, placing Luke's friends in danger, knowing that the boy would feel their pain and come to their rescue. It worked perfectly, and before long, the boy, full of bravado, faced his father with ignited lightsaber. As he had done so many times before, Palpatine had used the Force to watch his servant. He was keen to take the measure of this boy who inexplicably figured so strongly in his own destiny. As the battle unfolded, Vader tested the boy, urging him to draw power from the dark side by encouraging the emotions that would open him to it. The boy resisted, but by the time he realized he was out of his depth, it was too late for him. That fierce Skywalker determination kept him fighting on, though Vader was by far his superior. Palpatine had been certain that Vader would be forced to kill the boy. The Dark Lord had bludgeoned his way through Luke's defenses and sliced off his right hand. He cornered Luke, leaving no way out but to turn or die. Then had come the moment that Palpatine even now recalled with dismay and rage. The moment of betrayal.

There is no escape, Vader had told Luke, Don't make me destroy you. You do not yet realize your importance. You have only begun to discover your power. Join me and I will complete your training. With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy. Treachery! Their combined strength! By the dark side, it would never be. Vader belonged to him! Skywalker was his! It would never be. But betrayal had followed treachery. Vader revealed his identity, and although the boy reacted with anguished disbelief, Palpatine had thought he felt the assertion touch something deep inside Skywalker. Vader had felt it, too. Search your feelings. You know it to be true. Luke. You can destroy the Emperor. He has foreseen this. It is your destiny. Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son.

Remembering the words, Palpatine began to shiver with anger. Indeed, his visions of Skywalker's threat to him had opened Vader's eyes to the possibility of Palpatine's vulnerability. Now Vader planned for there to be two Sith in power, as before - himself and his son, a fulfillment of destiny as he saw it.

But there was much to the notion of "destiny" that Vader did not grasp. He would learn that to covet Palpatine's power was to earn death. From the moment of that betrayal, the Emperor had begun to plot the destruction of Darth Vader. His plan had a great symmetry to it. He would mold events such that one Skywalker would kill the other, and in that act, turn to the dark side and replace him at Palpatine's side. He would use Vader's great hope as the very instrument of his murder, and corrupt the son as he had corrupted the father. It was the perfect destiny for both of them.

Except that nothing was certain anymore. The boy was strong, and he had made his servant strong. It would be a risky endeavor. After long decades of being above risk, the Emperor did not like it at all.

The great throne room doors opened, and Vader strode in, preceded by Sate Pestage, flanked by six Imperial guards, and followed by, of all things, a droid. Vader completed the long walk to the throne, then knelt at the Emperor's feet. This was a ceremonial audience, and Pestage was wearing full dress regalia. Pestage formally announced the presence of the Lord Darth Vader and his request to report to his majesty, the Emperor. Palpatine had designed this formal meeting to remind Vader of his place, and besides, the formality helped Palpatine to mask the anger he felt towards Vader. It would not do to let Vader know how he felt before the moment of his revenge. Even so, Palpatine waited nearly a full minute before acknowledging Vader with a cold sounding, "Rise, and report on the events at Bespin."

Vader stood. If he was put off by this ceremony, he did not show it. Instead, he went along with it. He handed a datapad to Sate Pestage. "Your majesty," Vader intoned, "I have confronted and fought the young Rebel Force user, Luke Skywalker. I found him to be formidable, but his skills were undeveloped. He has enhanced physical abilities, the power to levitate objects, and reasonable skill with a lightsaber, but little else. What success he had in eluding me was due to a certain raw talent, perhaps inborn in him, as well as considerable good fortune. He resisted my attempts to turn him to the dark side. Kenobi must have prepared him for this before he died. The battle was ultimately one-sided, and when he was pressed to the last, he chose to leap to his death. His companions in the Millennium Falcon rescued him, and his current location is unknown. I am able to resume my search, but first I have brought something to you, your majesty. During the battle, Skywalker lost his right hand. I have recovered it for you. The Force gave me a sense of its importance." He waved a black gloved hand, and the medical droid, Beevee, came forward with the Bacta tank.

Palpatine had been stewing while listening, his anger growing hotter as Vader presented an account that omitted his betrayal. He was tempted to accuse Vader on the spot, but he sensed that Vader would only deny it. He had lied about Luke Skywalker's Force potential; Palpatine knew it was high. He would certainly lie to save his own life from a sentence of death for treason. But when Palpatine saw the hand, his rage evaporated. Here was an opportunity indeed - one that could tell him the future in a safe way. The Emperor actually smiled. "Well done, Lord Vader. The hand will be very useful indeed! But now I wish you to suspend your search for young Skywalker. Your new orders are to assemble as much of the fleet as possible at the new Death Star at Endor. Then you will oversee the final stages of construction. Moff Jerjerrod must be encouraged to complete the station on schedule. At the very least, the superlaser must be ready when I arrive at the station. Go now, and do my bidding."

Vader bowed deeply, and left. The Emperor sensed his frustration at the orders. Beevee remained behind holding the tank. The droid looked intimidated by its surroundings. Palpatine turned to Sate Pestage. "Summon the Constable of Homunculi and Ars Dangor immediately. Return this droid to the command ship and bring the hand to the clone vat chamber. I shall wait for you in the conference room." With that, Palpatine left the room, leaning on his twisted cane.

Beevee was relieved to have the hand taken from him, and as he was escorted from the throne room, he reflected that he was glad he was not a protocol droid. There was much about human interactions that quite bewildered him.

The Emperor gestured for Rollo Mon to take a seat at the large table where he, Ars Dangor, and Sate Pestage were gathered. Rollo Mon bowed to the other men at the table politely. He rarely saw them, as he was reclusive and habitually immersed himself in his work. Sate Pestage was a stick thin man who bore the weight of his uncounted years with a spry endurance. He wore a roomy cassock that glittered with rare gems from his homeworld, Naboo, and he was quite lost in the gaudy garment. Its wealthy appearance contrasted with Pestage's face, which had the stamp of an ascetic on its weathered features. He looked utterly at peace. Ars Dangor, the Emperor's advisor, looked almost like a mirror image of Palpatine. Unlike most of the advisors, Dangor chose to garb himself in the fashion of the Emperor himself; stark black robes with a deep hood. Dangor had that hood removed now, and his widely spaced eyes gave his hot stare a disconcerting aspect. He wore a constant leer on his thin lips, and he had a towering reputation for ruthlessness. While Pestage dealt with Palpatine's personal matters and acted as an intermediary in communications, Dangor made public addresses and ran the Empire day to day. Dangor dealt with all the "little pictures" while Palpatine dealt with the "big picture", and Pestage dealt with Palpatine.

Rollo Mon himself was a short man who compensated for his lack of height with an almost absurd head ornament that nearly doubled his stature. He smiled nervously with his uneven teeth and sat down abruptly, unsure of social graces.

When all were seated, Palpatine rose. He was looking very old, and Rollo Mon well understood the reason. But the Emperor's eyes glittered with enthusiasm as he began to outline the reason for their gathering. "My friends, welcome. Lord Vader has brought us the means to clone our elusive enemy, Luke Skywalker. The Force has shown me that I will confront him soon, but the outcome remains unclear. I am sure you can appreciate the need for more information." The other three men murmured their agreement. Dangor displayed agitation at the mere mention of Skywalker's name, and Rollo Mon leaned forward in excitement, pleased at the notion of a new challenge. Looking at Rollo Mon, the Emperor continued, "I wish to clone Skywalker and test him, to see what he will most likely do when he comes before me. I need the clones soon. Can it be done?"

The Constable was in his element. "Yes, your majesty. If you don't need the clones to be stable long term, the standard growth term of one year can be shortened to as little as two months. The clones should remain sane for long enough to test them. Of course, they won't really be this Skywalker, but we can do better than we did with Bevel Lemelisk's clones. We'll have to implant them with very detailed false memories if they are to behave realistically. Recent advances in memory conditioning allow coherent experience construction to be carried out while the clone is still in the tertiary growth phase, so that the decanted product is already identity established. The margin for error depends on the quality of the information we possess on the subject -" Rollo Mon realized he had left his seat and was pacing. Embarrassed, he took his seat and concluded quietly, "What background do we have available?"

The Emperor turned to Ars Dangor, who held up a datapad. "Here are the ISB reports on Luke Skywalker, collected from the battle of Yavin to the present. Our agents have been busy, and there is much information here. But the basic outline of what we know may be summarized as follows. Dangor activated a holographic display above the table. The identimage of Luke Skywalker, a moisture farmer of the rim world, Tatooine, shimmered into view. "The subject grew up on Tatooine, in the care of Owen and Beru Lars. Records are poor on such worlds, but we are sure they were not really related to him. It is very likely that the old Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi, was also in hiding on Tatooine, and that he helped to raise Skywalker. Kenobi must have instructed the boy in the ways of the Force. Skywalker is not a common name in the outer rim territories, and it is believed that his actual father was the famed Jedi, Anakin Skywalker, who also originated from Tatooine. Since Kenobi and Anakin were close friends, it is easy to imagine Anakin giving Luke into Kenobi's care before his death some twenty years ago. The subject would then have an inborn aptitude for the Force, which must have been nurtured over the years by Kenobi."

Dangor looked at Palpatine, whose face was unreadable. He suspected that the Emperor already knew far more about Skywalker than the ISB ever would. "Shortly before the Battle of Yavin," Dangor continued, "two events occurred that may have strongly impacted the subject's personality and motivations. First, Lord Vader's search team killed the Lars family. Second, Vader killed Kenobi right in front of Skywalker. Therefore the subject is probably revenge motivated, especially if you take into account an unverified report that the subject's childhood friend, one Biggs Darklighter, was killed during the Battle of Yavin. After the battle, Skywalker was a hero in the Rebellion. His feat in destroying the Death Star probably gives him an exaggerated view of his own abilities. The death of the Jedi, Kenobi, left the subject without a mentor, so it is probable that his skills have not greatly improved since then. It is well known that Lord Vader has an obsession with hunting Skywalker down, probably to avenge his defeat at the Death Star. It was Lord Vader's conviction that Skywalker was present on Hoth, but his whereabouts were not confirmed until several months later, when Lord Vader confronted him on Cloud City. The subject escaped and remains at large. He is viewed as a significant threat due to his Force skills and his probable vengeance goals. Personally, I think his importance is exaggerated. With all due respect, your majesty, you and Lord Vader have destroyed Jedi Masters in the past. Why is so much attention being devoted to this young man?"

The Emperor's frown was like a knife edge. "I know him to be a threat, Ars Dangor. You know nothing of the workings of the Force. Events are in motion which have been predestined. Where the Force is concerned, a man's own power is as nothing. When I face Skywalker, he will be a Jedi. So long as the Force is with him, he is not to be underestimated."

Dangor stood and bowed. "Your majesty, I ask your forgiveness. I do not presume to question your judgment."

"It is given." Palpatine turned to Sate Pestage. "Lord Vader is to be a part of the confrontation with Skywalker, but I do not wish to involve him at this point. You will recruit an actor to play his part. Outfit him convincingly, and prepare the throne room for the encounters. Only a single guard need be present. The clone and the actor are to be armed with specially modified lightsabers that I shall provide." Palpatine paused, then looked at Dangor. "Leave that report with the Constable. He will find it most useful. The real confrontation will occur on the new Death Star, where we shall destroy the cursed Rebel fleet and their Mon Calamari allies once and for all. Make certain that the throne room is completed there, and ensure that its view of the battle area will be unobstructed. As for the trap itself, information about a large Imperial construction project will be leaked to the Rebels. The Death Star plans will be copied and transferred from our secure vaults to Imperial Intelligence on Bothawui, via a seemingly defenseless freighter. The Rebels will take this freighter, and pay a convincing price for capturing the plans. Information concerning the shield generator and my own presence on the battle station has also been planted, and within a month, it will be 'discovered' by a Rebel cell we have identified on Aargau. Lord Vader is currently assembling a large fleet at Endor, in secret. The Rebels will suspect nothing. The trap will close around them, and they will realize that the bait is beyond their grasp. Then the Alliance will die." Palpatine gave a little laugh. "That is all for now. You are dismissed."

Dangor and Pestage rose and filed from the room, leaving the datapad behind. Palpatine gestured for Rollo Mon to remain. When they were alone, Palpatine leaned close to the diminutive Constable of Homunculi, whom he had trusted with his life many times in the past, and whispered to him. "There are a few other things to add to the clone's memories, that I must tell you of..."

Assembling the fleet, however secretively, was not fitting work for the Dark Lord of the Sith. It was properly delegated to Admiral Piett, and that was exactly what an irritated Lord Vader had done. Now he was alone in his meditation chamber, its black hemispheres fitted together like the shells of a Calamarian Deep Bivalve. With the chamber sealed, and the atmospheric pressure lowered, Vader could breath even without his mask. He liked to have it off from time to time, to be free of its confines.

The mask was held by a robot arm above his head, which was a pasty white from decades of being hidden. A long burn scar ran down the back of his skull, the souvenir of his violent encounter with Kenobi before the mask was created. There were no mirrors in the chamber.

Vader was absorbed in studying his old lightsaber. It felt very strange to hold it again after so long. He guessed Kenobi had taken it, then saved it, and given it to Luke. But why? It was an age-old Jedi custom to have an aspiring Jedi construct his or her own lightsaber. Why had Luke not done so? Now it was back in his gloved hands. What a strange road it had traveled.

He caressed the weapon, remembering how he had constructed it. Its power cell and hand grip were one unit, which was surmounted by an activation lever. Higher up the weapon were its controls, blade length and blade intensity adjustments. The emitter matrix was half shielded by a graceful arc of metal that housed the internal access lever. Vader's hands paused there. Something was different - the lever was raised higher than he remembered it. Had it been bent, or was something underneath preventing its proper closure? With a gentle twist, he used the lever to disengage the tiny circular access plate and peered within. He saw it immediately. A tiny recording chip was affixed to the rear of the emitter matrix.

Vader was mystified. He removed a delicate instrument from a nearby stand and used it to extract the magnetized chip. He rotated his seat to face his viewscreen and placed the chip in a reader. It was an old chip, of outdated design, but the reader should still be able to handle it. He waited. Long moments later, the screen flickered to life, and Vader found himself looking into the face of Obi-Wan Kenobi, some twenty years younger than the old man he had killed on the Death Star. That was in itself a surprise, but little could compare to the shock he felt when the image spoke. "Anakin...," it said.

Two decades earlier, Obi-Wan Kenobi was alone in his starship, breaking orbit from Horuz, fleeing the ruin of his greatest friendship. His body was beaten and his heart was broken. He ached all over from the wounds he had incurred in his narrow escape from the dark side adepts. Kenobi was barely able to complete the coordinate entry for the jump to hyperspace that put that evil world of tragic loss behind him forever. Space outside the viewport flared with starlines, but Kenobi did not see them. He was desperately trying to attune himself to the Force, seeking solace for his pain. Gradually, he began to feel at one with the great energy field that bound that galaxy together. He was no longer alone, but in touch with life all around. He felt pain, but now it was shared. He was given healing as well. Kenobi's grief became bearable and he was able to meditate. His trim brown beard framed a mouth that formed an enigmatic almost-smile. The Force was still with him, and now it showed him something.

Within his trance, he saw a black armored figure with a ghastly pale visage that he recognized despite its wasted state. It was Anakin, and he was holding what Kenobi knew to be the very lightsaber he had taken from their battlefield on Horuz. The Force whispered to him, it seemed, of what he must do, and its importance. Still in his trance, he nodded. A minute later, he emerged gently from the meditation, and arose to cross to his message recorder. Some part of the burden felt lifted from his shoulders, and he knew that the events of the past day would only really come to their conclusion on the far off day seen in his vision. He had no guarantee that what he saw would come to pass, or that anything would come of it, yet he had to try. Composing himself, he faced the recorder and turned it on.

"Anakin," he said, "If you are hearing this, then what I have foreseen has come to pass, and you are still alive, but in the grip of the dark side. I cannot decide if I hope you still live or not...I left your body on Horuz, hideously burned. I question whether you could survive."

"But if you still live...my friend -" Kenobi's voice caught. "I am sorry...for everything. When you were my student, I saw your anger at what was happening to the Republic. But I ignored it. I thought you would be able to control your feelings and work to save what was left. I was confident in the teachings I'd given you. But I didn't see what was happening until it was too late. You fell under the influence of Palpatine, and instead of fighting to save the Republic, you embraced what he wanted to put in its place."

"Oh Anakin, Palpatine showed you so much power - more than you ever knew existed. Power to impose order on a chaotic and corrupt society. It was the power of the dark side of the Force, and it seduced you. As your teacher, I should have helped you to face the dark side during your training - helped you to deny it. I failed in this duty, and Palpatine was the first to show it to you. Palpatine is so much more than he seems. As he gains more power, my fear for the galaxy grows. When I saw what he had done to you, I resolved to confront you, and to try to turn you back. When at last you left Palpatine's presence, and went to Horuz, I followed you. I didn't know why you were you were going, I only saw my chance to get through to you."

"The moment I saw you, waiting for me on that ridge near the pits with anger in your heart, I realized you had known I was following all along. I was shocked by how you had changed, by how far gone you were. You didn't listen to my appeals to our friendship, or to my pleas that you remember your wife Padme, who still loves you, despite everything. Nothing got through. I think Palpatine had warned you that I was going to try to take away your power, so that all you wanted was to fight me and be rid of me." Kenobi hung his head in sorrow. It was all so fresh, still an open wound in his soul.

"I taught you all you know about lightsaber combat. You couldn't have won. I...didn't want to hurt you...but you attacked with such ferocity that I had no choice. To save my own life, Anakin, I had to strike you down. It was the hardest thing I ever did. I saw you fall from the ridge, into the pit...I would have come after you, tried to help you, but at that moment, I felt a devastating attack through the Force." Kenobi's face was full of rue. "Too late, I realized why you had come to Horuz, and how foolish I had been to follow you. I had stumbled onto the lost Monastery of the Sith. Palpatine knew where it was, and he sent you there to study the old lore. He must have hidden dark side adepts stationed there as well, and I knew I could not stand against them alone. I fled. I barely escaped with my life, using all the power at my command. Maybe they saved you...If I had not been attacked, I would have tried to save you." Earnestly, he leaned towards the recorder. "Anakin, hear me. If you still live, it is not too late. Palpatine gave you power, but he took so much more. Things of infinitely greater value. Your friends, your wife, all that is good and loving in a man's life that makes it worth living. Let go of your hatred. The dark side can only destroy everything it touches. Turn away from it."

Kenobi sighed deeply. "What am I doing? This is probably for nothing. If the dark side has you, then the man who was my friend is dead. I must face that fact. I will never forget you. I will miss you, Anakin...good-bye."

Unable to take any more, Kenobi slapped the recorder switch off. Smoothly, it ejected the finished chip. He stared at it for a long time. At that moment, he felt a deep regret that his old Master, Qui-Gon, had ever called Anakin the "chosen one", had ever taken him from slavery on Tatooine. Then he reached for his friend's lightsaber, finally letting himself cry as he did so.

Darth Vader sat very still as the screen went blank, the message finished. He stared at the glassy surface, disturbed at it without knowing why, until he realized with a start that he was looking at his own face, dimly reflected on the blank screen. He turned away, made acutely uncomfortable by the sight. His thoughts were in turmoil, and he tightly clenched the lightsaber in his gloved fists.

Without understanding why, Vader had a strong, clear memory of his son leaping to his death rather than joining him. He was filled with feelings he could no longer name.

Vader hastily punched the control keys next to him, and his black mask and helmet descended over his troubled face, sealing against his armor with a hiss. Now there was only the angular breath mask, an iron face that never showed weakness of any kind. Safe in his fortress, Vader began to feel better. He told himself that there was no conflict inside of him as he took the chip between his black gloved machine fingers and crushed it into fragments that fell glittering to the deck plates.

Two and a half months later, Emperor Palpatine sat in the throne room on Coruscant, waiting for the fourth clone of Luke Skywalker to enter. So far, the project had been frustrating, and he had learned little, but he thought that this next encounter might be the breakthrough. In any case, he sensed that time was running out. All too soon, the real moment would be upon him. Palpatine reflected on the many variables involved in this testing. Skywalker was a complex individual. Ars Dangor's report had contained little real knowledge of the boy's psychology. The truth about Luke's father had not been in it at all. Where it had discussed Luke's feelings about Vader, it had concluded that Luke must want him dead. The first clone had been created according to the report, to satisfy the Emperor's curiosity, and sure enough, he had killed Vader. But Palpatine had been unsatisfied. The act had not held the passion required for turning Luke to the dark side; the clone had killed out of a sense of justice. Luke must feel the anger and hatred, he must let the dark side empower him to kill his father. Finally, he must become his father.

Besides, despite Palpatine's inability to penetrate the nexus, he could see the events leading up to it with unusual clarity. He saw Skywalker coming to Vader of his own free will, hoping that his father could be turned. He knew the boy had great compassion for his father. It was a strange aspect of Luke, but the Emperor knew it could be the boy's undoing. If the boy couldn't kill his own father, then Vader would destroy him. No matter what Vader felt about his son, he could not defy the Emperor's direct command. If Luke was driven in the end to kill his father, then he would belong to the dark side, and to Palpatine.

The boy's fatal compassion for his father was incorporated into the second clone. The clone had solemnly entered, accompanied by a replacement stand-in for Vader. The Emperor had welcomed him, and asserted that he was now the clone's new master. The boy had resisted, but as before, Palpatine had "revealed" to him that the Rebel fleet had been lured into a trap around Coruscant, and that it was being destroyed. Viewscreens had even been set up to simulate the battle, and with growing anguish, the clone had cried out for it to stop. But of course, it did not, and Palpatine had crowed over the end of Luke's allies. He had taunted Luke for his helplessness, and urged Luke to take his anger out on him. As the first clone had, this one had finally tried to move on Palpatine. The stand-in for Vader had intervened and placed himself in Luke's way, and Luke had begun a reluctant fight. While the first clone had fought aggressively, the second, in his compassion, fought purely defensively, angling around for a chance to rush the Emperor. He didn't get the chance. The false Vader cornered him. Then, to Palpatine's disgust, the actor had balked at actually killing the boy. The Emperor had been forced to go over to them and finish both of them with Force lightning.

The third clone had been accompanied by a ruthless Royal Guard in the Vader role. But the change was to no avail. The clone could not be goaded into attacking Palpatine at all. He had watched as the fleet was "destroyed", and Palpatine could tell that the boy's helplessness had paralyzed him. Putting the fleet in danger was not a sure thing to push Luke over the edge. Irritated, Palpatine had ordered the clone destroyed.

Then the Emperor had felt he was at an impasse. He needed Luke to enter into combat with Vader, but there seemed to be insufficient impetus for Luke to give in to his anger. It was Sate Pestage who finally solved the problem. The Grand Vizier had pointed out what Vader had already learned; the real Luke Skywalker had felt the pain of his friends, Han Solo and Leia Organa, from across space, and tried to come to their rescue. He had been close to them for three years, and would most likely lay down his life for them. Why not simply put them in mortal danger? Palpatine had cursed himself for not seeing the obvious. Of course, when Skywalker came to Endor, he would be accompanied by his friends. Yes, that was the key, he was sure of it. Imperial databanks were searched for images of the Princess-Senator and the Correllian, and then the Emperor was ready.

Now he waited, alone, for the fourth clone. His guards were absent. He had learned from the first encounter that their presence was not a good idea. The far doors opened, and Vader entered with Luke. This time, one of Palpatine's dark side adepts was standing in for Vader. He was an admirer of the Dark Lord, and he knew Vader's mannerisms well. They came up close to his throne, and Palpatine smiled. "Welcome, young Skywalker. I have expected you. You will complete your training with me, my young apprentice."

Luke was defiant. "Obi-Wan Kenobi was my Master, killed at the hands of your servant. He would never turn to the dark side, and neither will I. I came here to try to save my father from you, but I'll die before I join you."

"Oh, no, my young apprentice," the Emperor corrected Luke. "Your hopes for your father are empty. He will never go with you. He is forever mine. As for you, young Skywalker, there is much for you to learn. I will show you the true nature of the Force, and you will serve me."

Luke stood firm. Palpatine knew he was nurturing the planted hope that the attacking Rebel fleet would either contrive to aid him somehow, or else destroy the Palace and put an end to the Emperor's reign. "None of this matters, your Highness," Luke protested. "The Rebel fleet is on its way here now. The Imperial fleet has been lured away from Coruscant and this Palace is defenseless. Both of us will die. You'll never have the chance to turn me." Luke turned to face Vader. "Father, come with me now. We can escape together. Leave this place and your cruel Master." Luke was getting anxious. Vader didn't move a muscle.

Palpatine stood and crossed the dais, looking down mockingly at Luke despite his smaller stature. "Your father can never be turned, my young apprentice. As for your fleet, it will never penetrate Coruscant's planetary shield." The Emperor's voice went sickeningly soft. "You think I am mistaken, don't you." Palpatine laughed mirthlessly. "In fact, the Imperial fleet is poised to arrive via hyperspace at any moment, trapping your Rebel fleet and destroying it. We are in no danger, boy." Palpatine leaned in very close to Luke, speaking in a low voice. "Perhaps you are counting on your friends to disable the shields." He was pleased to see Luke begin to sweat. Smiling, the Emperor reached to trigger a control on the arm of his throne. Luke was startled as an enormous wall screen lit up. On it was the security camera transmission from deep in the bowels of the Palace. Luke could see the furtive shapes of Rebel commandos scurrying for cover as a patrol of security guards passed by. The image moved into a tight focus, and Luke gasped audibly as the faces of Han Solo and Princess Leia came clearly into view. "Oh, yes, my young apprentice. I know of your friends' mission. I lured them here, after all. They have been a thorn in my side, and now I shall enjoy torturing them. Perhaps I shall let you listen to their screams." Palpatine laughed again, and Luke's hands clenched.

Suddenly, on the screen, two dozen heavily armed Stormtroopers came up behind the commandos. Han Solo spun and fired, blindingly fast, but he wasn't able to stop several troopers from wounding him terribly in the arms and legs. He dropped to the floor, his heavy blaster spinning into the shadows. Leia screamed and fired frantically, but she, too, was swiftly taken down. Luke couldn't tell if either of them was still alive. Then the screen image changed to a view of the space around Coruscant. Rebel ships were careening madly away from the dimly visible planetary shield as dozens of Star Destroyers came screaming out of hyperspace to array themselves like a giant net around the Rebel fleet. Without warning, hundreds of turbolasers spoke fiery death into the void as swarms of TIE interceptors descended upon the Rebels. Luke watched helplessly as the Alliance ships were cut to pieces. Explosions bloomed in the darkness, and the dying began in earnest.

"It is the end for the Alliance, my young apprentice," The Emperor told Luke. "There is no hope left for you. Your friends are now in my power. I will see that they are a long time dying. You may beg me for their lives. Perhaps I will give them to you, If you serve me... if they survive."

Luke could stand no more. He ignited his lightsaber and shouted, "Father, stay back, this isn't your fight." He moved up onto the dais, menacing the Emperor. "Maybe you'll trade your own life for the lives of Han and Leia," Luke said fiercely. But Vader was already moving. Igniting his own weapon, he chased after Luke and drove him away from the Emperor.

Luke defended himself easily, his green blade blurring in the air. "I'm not here to fight you, Father," Luke grated. "You don't have to fight me. Together we can defeat the Emperor, you know that."

But the man playing Vader would hear none of it. "The Emperor is my Master. Now he is yours, too. The only chance for you is to serve him." He attacked, more aggressively. "I tortured your friends on Cloud City, and now they will be mine again. Leia Organa will scream a dozen times for every minute that you deny your destiny. I will kill Han Solo before your eyes. The Rebel Alliance is dead and soon, your friends will die, too!"

Luke was hard pressed to fend off Vader's attacks, but his anger had been growing. His rage began to show on his face as the room seemed to spin before his eyes. Vader pressed the attack, his blade flashing blindingly against Luke's again and again. The wall screen showed a huge Rebel cruiser annihilated in a billowing fireball. The image shifted, and Han and Leia appeared again, screaming as they were shot over and over. The Emperor laughed, long and loud in Luke's ears.

Luke's anger was suddenly alive in him, a clamoring thing writhing in its desire for destruction. And the dark side answered its call. Luke felt strength pour into him, and he easily beat Vader's blade aside. He had been so wrong about his father. There was no good left in him. If Vader now stood between him and the Emperor, then he would have to fall. Look at him! The Dark Lord of the Sith, retreating before me. You won't escape, Vader - you die now! You didn't deserve the power you had. Now, mine is greater! My father...I hate the day I ever learned I was your son! No - don't try to run - it ends here! Yes! On your knees! Down! Down on the floor! A fitting place for you to DIE! Luke suddenly found himself with no one between Palpatine and himself. The hate was singing in his ears, a red haze was before his eyes, and a bloody taste was in his mouth.

"Good!" the Emperor cried out. In his triumph, he cared nothing for the dark side adept he had sacrificed. "Well done, Lord Skywalker! Your father is dead at your own hand, and you are now my servant. It is exactly as I have predicted. Come and kneel before your Master."

Luke could not focus his thoughts. He was oddly surprised to find Vader dead at his feet. His lightsaber fell from his fingers, forgotten, striking Vader's helm once before clattering to the floor. He was aware of an overwhelming urge to go to the Emperor, and do as he asked. He remembered feeling differently, but his anger at the Emperor no longer seemed important. He stepped over Vader's body, and went to kneel before Palpatine. A vast emptiness had opened up inside him, and much to his pleasure, being near the Emperor filled up that void.

But Palpatine's attention was no longer on him. The Emperor was walking away, talking to himself. "So will it be when we meet, young Skywalker. You will be mine...soon...soon."

Luke was confused. What was going on? Hadn't he knelt as asked? What more did he need to do? What was his Emperor saying? His confusion was in no way diminished when Palpatine left the room altogether, and six red robed Imperial guards came in to kill him.

Palpatine felt much better. The future was still closed to him, but now he felt confident that he knew exactly what Skywalker would do. He tested no more clones. One day, six months after the Emperor's vision trance in which he had seen his own death (which now seemed like a faded, bad dream to him), a message came from Lord Vader. Sate Pestage delivered it personally, because a curious item accompanied it that was to be delivered directly into the Emperor's hand. It was a lightsaber.

Pestage reported that the fleet was assembled at Endor, and that the Death Star's prime weapon was ready. Vader had arrived on the Death Star, and had made the station ready for Palpatine's arrival. As the Emperor had commanded, Vader had assigned a legion of the Empire's most elite Stormtroopers to guard the bunker on Endor that housed the shield generator. All was in readiness, and Palpatine received the message with satisfaction.

But the lightsaber puzzled him. Vader had said in his message only that it had once belonged to Anakin Skywalker. It was a gift, Vader had said, to place in his Emperor's personal collection. That was all well and good, but the why of it eluded Palpatine. Finally, he concluded that Vader had had the lightsaber since Cloud City, and that he had decided that this vestige of the man he had once been did not belong to him anymore. He had sent it to Palpatine, as a statement that Anakin was no more, and that the weapon belonged with those of other vanquished Jedi. It pleased him, but he had other, more important matters to be concerned with. Vader was already dead, anyway. He just didn't know it, yet. Palpatine gave the weapon to Sate Pestage to be stored away, and didn't give it another thought as he prepared for his journey to Endor.

Darth Vader paced the command bridge of the Executor, staring at the unfinished Death Star. It floated above the green moon of Endor, its vast surface full of gaps. Roughly an entire hemisphere gaped with exposed superstructure that trailed off into space, awaiting completion. One section that was fully finished was the huge circular dish of the prime weapon. Vader knew it was ready even now, and that in the near future, it would bring death to entire worlds. Vader shuddered. Even for him, there were atrocities that went too far. When Alderaan was destroyed, what Vader had felt in the Force had shaken him deeply. So much destruction had unbalanced the Force itself, and threatened the very order of the galaxy that he cherished as an ideal. The Emperor had been pleased; it had made him stronger. Somehow Vader saw, as Palpatine did not, that the Force was a single entity with two aspects. Perhaps it was because he had belonged to both sides in his lifetime. Greatly weakening one side of the Force must, in the end, weaken the whole thing. The Emperor's audacity in constructing a second Death Star was ultimately self-defeating, but Vader could not allow it to be used.

He did not dare any overt sabotage; he could not defy his Emperor to that extent. The answer had come to him in the form of the Emperor's orders that the shield generator was to be guarded by the group of elite Stormtroopers from which the Imperial guards were chosen. Vader used the Force to cloud the minds of several officers, and arranged for a legion of new recruits to be deployed on Endor instead. They didn't even remember what they had done afterwards. It was very easy, but also risky. He had to hope it wouldn't be discovered by Palpatine, and he knew that the ultimate result of his action depended on the resources of the Rebels. But it was the most he could do. He already knew the Emperor's trust in him was failing. Why else had Palpatine allowed Prince Xizor to have temporary power on Coruscant? The ordeal of defeating the crime lord of Black Sun was meant to test Vader's loyalty under duress. Vader had passed that test, but a far greater one awaited him now. And he was disloyal, in his heart. The only question was, how much of that disloyalty did his Master perceive?

Vader leaned wearily against the wall as gazed at the station. Soon, he had been told, he, the Emperor, and his son would all meet there. The thought depressed him. He had hoped that he could persuade his son to join him, that together they could be powerful enough to do what Vader could not do, and transform the Empire. Now that Luke was to be delivered to Palpatine, that would never be possible, if indeed it ever had been.

Vader also felt old. Ever since he had seen Kenobi's damnable message, he had been acutely aware that he had lived two lifetimes, both of which had exacted their price. He had the feeling that for him, the end was near, though he could not say why. Perhaps he would welcome the end, when it came. His only regret would be the boy. His son. What would he become in the Emperor's hands?

Luke continued to stir conflict within him. His son belonged to his old life, and though he wanted very much to bring Luke into his new one, Vader understood that it could never be. He had made his choices long ago, and it was too late for him by far. Obi-Wan had been wrong to think differently.

A flicker of pseudomotion among the stars caught Vader's attention. He knew without checking that it was the arrival of the Star Destroyer "New Order", one of the Emperor's personal transports. He felt his Master's presence like a signal fire on a nearby hill. He craved its heat, and despite himself, he longed to go and be near it.

Even before the recognition signal had been received by the flagship, Vader announced, "The Emperor has arrived. Prepare a military salute. I will receive him on the Death Star." Admiral Piett hurried to obey as Vader turned on his heel and swiftly left the bridge, his black cape flaring. Vader felt a curious calm, a peace that came with the certainty that whatever the outcome, the end of the game was at hand. He hoped that the Force would be with him.

As it has been told in detail in the Journal of the Whills, The Jedi Nexus finally arrived at the moment that Darth Vader stepped into the throne room with Luke Skywalker and entered the presence of the Emperor Palpatine. The Force itself took part in the events that followed. As he faced a dark side Master who had slaughtered a multitude of great Jedi in the past, Luke Skywalker was not simply an untested Jedi student. He was the agent of the light side itself. For too long, the balance of the Force had been upset. The dark side had taken too much, destroyed too much. In that room, the balance was restored.

By now you must know your Father can never be turned from the dark side, the Emperor told Luke. But he was wrong. The light side of the Force had acted in a way Palpatine had never foreseen in any of his visions. It had manifested in Luke's courage to face his father, and opened the eyes of a man long since blinded by the darkness. Thus was the paradox that had troubled Palpatine finally resolved. As he had thought, a barely trained youth could not be a threat to him, but that same youth awakened and inspired the man who could be.

It was Darth Vader who fell before the lightsaber of his enemy, but when Luke renounced the dark side's offer of power, and turned away from killing him, it was Anakin Skywalker who climbed to his feet. The words of his son filled his ears. I'll never turn to the dark side. You've failed, your Highness. I am a Jedi, like my Father before me. The words became truth. When the enraged Emperor unleashed the full power of his hatred on Luke Skywalker, searing him with blast after blast of Force lightning, Anakin had fulfilled his destiny. Although he had not known it, his son had been more to him than the hope of taking the Emperor's throne and freeing himself from servitude to Palpatine. His son was the path back to his old life, the chance to reclaim himself. The agony of facing his son's death, and with it, the loss of that chance forever, drove out the seductive whisper of the dark side at last. Standing by the Emperor's side in his accustomed position of trust, he had lifted his Master and hurled him into the violent energies of the seemingly bottomless core shaft.

The Emperor was falling. He was filled with fear and surprise, and screamed all the way down. His body was ripped asunder by a collision with gigantic energy discharges. His life force was swallowed into the dark side, but Palpatine, having foreseen this moment, was ready.

His essence easily reached the small room at the base of the throne tower on the Death Star, where he had hidden a single clone body. A person like the Emperor did not ignore his visions. Months ago, a terrifying vision of his death had started him on this course, but he had been determined to outwit his seeming destiny. He knew that if worst came to worst in his meeting with Skywalker, he would not die so far from Byss that he could not reach one of his clones. He poured into the clone with relief. Somewhere above him, he was sure, Luke Skywalker was still alive. That must be changed.

He forced himself to wait patiently as the decanting mechanisms activated at a touch of his mind, but it took a supreme effort. The Emperor was still full of searing anger. Everything had seemed so close to success. Vader had brought his son to the Death Star as a willing prisoner. Young Skywalker had reacted to all of Palpatine's manipulations as expected. The boy's friends and the Rebel fleet had all fallen neatly into the trap. With everyone he cared for in mortal danger, Luke had given in to his anger. The final push had come when Vader made the stunning discovery that one of the lives at risk was Luke's own unsuspected twin sister. Palpatine hadn't even planned it, but Vader had gone too far by threatening to turn the sister to the dark side as well. Luke had called on the dark side in his desperate need for power to crush his father, who could not ever be redeemed. The boy had clearly been about to kill the Sith Lord. Palpatine had felt the hate in him, seen the blade at Vader's throat. Somehow he had resisted. How was it possible? Luke's unexpected words had infuriated the Emperor. You've failed, your highness... Upon hearing that, Palpatine had decided instantly that the boy must die as painfully as possible. The Force lightning had come forth with a vengeance, fueled by burning rage.

That rage still coursed through the Emperor as the nutrient bath level swiftly dropped. He realized where he had made his mistake. He had known Vader was treacherous, but he had thought the Dark Lord to be too weak to be a threat. He had been completely absorbed in the punishment of the boy when Vader made his move. Vader had always wanted Palpatine's power. He had taken his chance to kill his Master and seize that power for himself.

Palpatine wasted no more thought on Vader. He knew that the Force lightning had struck enough blows to end his one time servant's life for certain. Vader had been paid in full, but Skywalker, he sensed, had survived. It was time to finish what he had begun. The clone vat smoothly opened. The youthful Emperor stepped out of the tank and into the cramped storage room with murder in his yellow eyes. He shrugged on a robe to cover his nakedness. The sparks had already begun to arc from his fingertips.

Suddenly, there was a deafening thunder and the floor leaped away from his bare feet. The heavy clone tank crashed without warning onto his legs, crushing him to the deck. Bewildered, the Emperor reached out through the Force with his inner sight. What he saw stunned him. The deflector shield was gone, and the Rebel fleet was no longer trapped. He felt his carefully laid plans fall to dust, including those concerning his own survival. The Super Star Destroyer, Executor, had plunged into the Death Star like a titan's arrow finding its mark in the belly of the beast. That had rocked the station, and now the Rebel fleet had begun a close range bombardment of the Death Star's unfinished side. Rebel fighters were inside the superstructure, heading for the main reactor.

There would be no time for vengeance. Skywalker would have to wait for another day. Palpatine used the Force to thrust the massive tank away from himself, and gazed at the ruin of his legs. He easily controlled the pain, but he knew he would not walk out of the room. There was no time for healing. With the Force, he opened the door to the hallway, where chaos reigned. Officers and Stormtroopers ran in all directions, following or giving futile orders, or simply panicking. Palpatine spotted Moff Jerjerrod stumbling by in a daze, and called out to him.

Jerjerrod entered, sweating, his eyes darting crazily about until they fixed on Palpatine. He saw a young man who lay on the floor, his robes in disarray, his otherwise naked form slicked with yellow-green fluid. "Who are you?" he stammered.

Palpatine now regretted having chosen such a weak man as the Death Star Commander. He needed help, and he knew he would have to mind control the fool to get it. In a moment, Jerjerrod's face went blank, and he stooped to help the Emperor to a standing position. Together, they stumbled into the corridor. With the Moff's help, Palpatine reached a comm panel. He swiftly keyed a sequence that would send a coded message to his Grand Vizier. Sate Pestage would know what to do to prepare for the future. Now he had to ensure that there would be a future.

Despite his precautions, he was very far from Byss now. To reach another clone, his essence would have to travel vast distances through the nether-realm while fighting the dissolution of the dark side's chaos. Such a journey might take too long to survive. But his studies with the Holocron had taught him about spirit anchors, how a consciousness could retain its individuality while entirely within the Force, provided there was a living mind to cling to. He planned to use one himself, to make sure he survived until he could reach Byss. It was no sure thing, but it was his only chance. He knew just the person. There was an operative named Mara Jade, code named the Emperor's Hand. She had the power to hear his call from anywhere in the galaxy, and he needed that ability now. He reached out with the Force and found her. The link was established in a moment, and just in time.

Deep inside the station, the main reactor was exploding. Emperor Palpatine's last thoughts were of hatred for Vader and Skywalker, and of the vengeance he would one day have. Then the Death Star erupted with cleansing fire, bringing Palpatine's Empire to an end.

It was over. Palpatine, Luke, and Vader had gone through their personal crucibles and emerged forged into new shapes. Vader had lost his life, but won back his soul. Luke had lost his father and his innocence, but gained maturity and become a Jedi at last. The Emperor had lost everything, but somewhere within the dark side of the Force, he lived on as a hatred that would not die. He knew he would try to live again in one of his clones, and return to menace the children of Anakin Skywalker once again. But for the present, the light side had triumphed.

The newborn New Republic was removing its forces from Endor. The threat of the Ssi-Ruuk had been countered, and now the weary freedom fighters could begin to return to their homes and undertake the monumental task of creating a new government. Mon Mothma wanted to leave Endor the way it had been before the Empire had moved in, pristine and unspoiled. A few Ewoks had decided to go adventuring in space with the former Rebels, but most of them bid farewell to their new tribe members and went back to their primitive lives among the lofty tree villages.

The lights of departing starships dotted the night sky of Endor as one particular Rebel said his last good-byes to a place he might never see again. Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight, gazed sorrowfully at the burned out funeral pyre of his father. The starlight of the clearing dimly showed him that there wasn't much left of Darth Vader's body, only blackened, melted armor. A far greater absence was felt in Luke's soul. He had regained his father for such a brief time, then lost him forever. That made it much more painful, somehow. It was time to say farewell.

Slightly embarrassed, Luke spoke into the night softly. "Father. Anakin. I know you're at peace in the Force now. I think I saw you with Ben and Master Yoda, that night after I burned your body. I hope that was the right thing to do. You were turned before the end, but I felt your body should be freed from the machine that kept it a prisoner." Luke looked up at the stars. "I know you came to see Leia. She told me you wanted her forgiveness. It's a hard thing for her to forgive or forget. But she told me a while ago that she had made her peace with you, and that you would know it. I wonder if you can hear me? I wondered why you appeared to Leia and not to me. I'm sure you had your reasons, but there was more I wanted to say to you." Luke's voice trailed off. He stood there for several minutes, letting his silence convey the rest of what he felt. He turned to leave, his face full of disappointment. Luke was startled to find himself face to face with the glowing apparition of his father, standing at the entrance to the clearing. Anakin was dressed in plain gray robes, and as before, he appeared as a gentle faced late middle aged man. He was smiling at Luke.

"Have you - how long have you been standing there?" Luke demanded.

"I've been watching you, my son. I'm very proud of you, and of your sister. I meant to see both of you, Luke, and here I am. It was given to me to see and speak with each of you once only. I asked forgiveness of your sister. As for you, my son, I want to tell you about the Emperor."

Luke was pleased and saddened at the same time. "If that's all the time we can have, we should make the best of it. The Emperor is dead, what more is there to say about him?"

Anakin's face was troubled. "You can't be sure of that, Luke. I was very close to the Emperor. He was strong in the dark side, but it made him weak in the flesh. I don't think this was the only time he died."

Luke couldn't believe what he was hearing. "What do you mean, Father?"

Anakin spread his spectral hands. "I saw him become very old several times while I knew him. Suddenly, he would be young again. He never told me how he did it, but I suspect he used a clone of himself to regain his youth. If he is able to do so again..." Anakin let his hands fall.

Luke shuddered. Palpatine had been so evil, so powerful. Only his father's intervention had saved his life in the end. He doubted he could survive another encounter.

"However," Anakin tried to reassure him, "the Emperor always went to a mysterious location in the core worlds in order to be rejuvenated. It may be that he could not save himself here at Endor. He may be dead forever. For now, at least, the galaxy is free of him."

"You're free of him forever, Father," Luke smiled.

"Thanks to you, my son," said Anakin. "Somehow you knew there was good in me when the Emperor didn't know, and I myself didn't know. How could you tell?"

"I'm your son," Luke said simply. "I had to believe in the good in my father if I was to have any hope for the good in myself. Besides, once I accepted the truth that you were my father, I thought back to how on Cloud City, you could have killed me. But you didn't. There must still have been something of Anakin in you."

"It was a near thing, my son. You took a terrible risk. I would have killed you, had the Emperor commanded me to. You came close to killing me, too. Such is the power of the dark side. Never underestimate it, my son."

"I did come close. Too close." Luke remembered the moment all too well. The dark side had responded to him so quickly and powerfully once he had opened himself to it. "It was your threat to turn Leia to the dark side that pushed me over the edge. I'm not sure how to put this... I loved her, Father. I saw her image and followed it across the galaxy. I wanted her to be mine, to love me back. But she fell in love with Han, and then I learned she was my sister. I know she can never be mine, but I still love her, even now. I couldn't bear to think of her going through what I was going through. But in the end, when I had you at my mercy, when the Emperor was calling out for me to kill you, what held me back was this." Luke held up his prosthetic right hand. "I saw your severed hand, bionic like mine, and I realized that a vision I saw during my training was coming true. If I continued down the dark path, I would become Darth Vader. The hand that Vader cut off saved both of us."

Luke couldn't help but recall the horrible attack of the Emperor that had nearly killed him. "You saved my life, too, Father. The Emperor would have killed me then and there."

"The Emperor's hold on me was strong, Luke. I had to obey him, no matter what. Even when I realized he wanted me dead. When you and I fought, He didn't aid me with his powers. On the contrary, he clouded my mind as he once did to Obi-Wan. That, combined with the power given to you by the dark side, was enough to seal my fate as your victim. You withheld, but still I went back to my Master's side. I needed his presence to replace the emptiness of all that I had lost because of him. He knew that, and thought his hold on me was absolute. But then I saw you dying, and Anakin was reborn. I realized that what I felt for you was love, an emotion I had forgotten. Palpatine's hold on me was broken. I suddenly saw him, not as my dark Master, but as a small, twisted old man, full of spite and cruelty. And this foul creature was killing my son. I knew what I had to do. Though it killed me, I had to save you."

"Father, how did the Emperor come so close to winning? He seemed to know me completely, before I even arrived. He knew exactly what would tempt me to the dark side."

Anakin replied seriously, "The Emperor could foresee many things. Before our battle, he told me that you would turn to the dark side if all you held dear was threatened. Your friends, and the Rebel Alliance itself were to be in mortal danger, driving you to seek the power you couldn't find in the light side of the Force. He did know you, and so he would have won, except that he did not know me."

Luke smiled grimly at the irony. Palpatine had kept the instrument of his own destruction by his side for twenty years. His overconfidence had been his weakness after all. A man who had been one of the Jedi had avenged his kind against their conqueror in the end.

"Yoda tells me that your destiny is a great one, Luke. He says that restore the Jedi you will. Excuse me, that you will restore the Jedi. I believe in you, my son. One day, you will be a Jedi Master. Through you, the Jedi will return."

Luke smiled at his father. Anakin had begun to fade away. " I must leave you now, Luke. Be strong, and believe that someday, you will find love. The Force will be with you, always."

"Good-bye, Father," said Luke sadly. Luke's father shimmered and was gone, leaving Luke alone in the quiet starlit clearing. And you shall always be with the Force, Father, Luke thought. Deep in his heart, he knew the Jedi had already returned.

Part Four: The Emperor Eclipsed

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

The Emperor is presumed to be destroyed with the Death Star at Endor. The throne of a galactic civilization stands empty.

But Palpatine survives within the mind of the Emperor's Hand, Mara Jade. Grand Vizier Sate Pestage must bring her to the planet Byss in order to restore his Master.

Now a new threat arises, as a powerful Imperial advisor plans to claim both the vacant throne and Mara Jade for himself...

The Emperor's Grand Vizier, Sate Pestage, knew his Master was dead before anyone else in the Palace. The message that appeared on his secure HoloNet terminal left no doubt in his mind. Once he had decrypted it, using codes known only to the Emperor and himself, Pestage knew the Empire had lost its dark center. Like the gigantic black hole at the center of the galaxy, Palpatine had been the hub around which every destiny in the Empire revolved. Now, without him, the Empire would spin out of control, heading for disaster. Pestage should have been filled with despair. He had found his life's meaning in his service to the Emperor. Without that purpose, the emptiness would surely swallow him. But the Grand Vizier could afford neither despair nor oblivion. It was entrusted to him to turn defeat into victory, to salvage order out of chaos, to restore hope. Palpatine, his Emperor, was depending on him.

Pestage reviewed the contents of the message once more, as puzzled by its cryptic lines as ever.

My old friend, the fact that you are reading this means that the worst has come to pass. I have reached the nexus I feared, and have not survived. But you must not surrender. If ever you have been my servant, you must serve me now. You must bring Mara Jade to the Citadel on Byss. No one, not even Jade, must know the reason for the journey, but if you succeed, I will be restored. The Empire is in your hands.


With one bony finger, Pestage touched the erase key. He knew that no one else must see the message. Bad times were coming. Now, a power vacuum existed, and someone would rush to fill it. No one had the right to the throne except his Master. Not even Pestage himself could claim it. But those who would steal the throne would also kill to hold it, and that meant Pestage's life was in danger. Doubly so, if the usurpers knew of this message. Not that Pestage understood it. Palpatine was dead, somewhere near Endor. He had gone to face Skywalker, and that had led to the ultimate ruin. He had taken a clone with him, but evidently, that had not availed him. Pestage knew enough about the Emperor's cloning-based immortality to see that there was no salvation for his Master, so far away from Byss. Without proximity to a clone, Palpatine was surely lost. Yet, he would trust that somehow, appearances were deceiving, and that there was hope. He would trust in his Master, and he would trust in the Force.

Suddenly, Pestage felt very old, very alone, and quite overwhelmed. He regarded his own frail frame.

"It isn't fair," he muttered. "These weak bones cannot bear such a great burden. I must restore you, when you were all that kept me going... what have you done? You've staked all on an old man, whose only strength is his love for you. Well it may not be enough. But I...I will die trying to save you, if need be. There is no other way for me."

Pestage hung his head. Now, he must deliver the terrible news of the Emperor's fall to Ars Dangor. He did not look forward to that duty in the slightest. Dangor was not a man who took bad news well.

The Emperor's Hand, Mara Jade, was the second person in the Palace to know that Palpatine was dead, and the only one to see him die. She was standing alone in vast and ancient Manarai hall, in front of a huge window that displayed the breathtaking panorama of the distant Manarai Mountains. She could look down on the sprawling Imperial City that filled the valley, ocean like, its metallic waves breaking against the severe rock of the faraway peaks. The city heaved with activity, but high above, Mara had sought out this serene and empty place for her much needed meditation. She had been tormented by anxiety and guilt for days.

She was afraid that something terrible was going to happen, and most of all, she felt that it would happen because her last mission had failed.

Mara had been summoned into her Master's presence just weeks ago, by a mental command. She had made her way to his private chambers. She knew that every courtier who saw her pass by, saw her beauty and concluded that she was Palpatine's pleasure toy. That misconception, that underestimation, suited her just fine. It made her job that much easier. For Mara Jade was in reality the Emperor's Hand, a special operative who took care of the tasks that couldn't be handled by a legion of Stormtroopers. She was an assassin and a spy, a versatile extension of Palpatine's will. He had trained her in the dark side of the Force personally, and she could hear his mental commands from anywhere in the galaxy. That last ability made her very special to the Emperor, for she often ventured into places where communication was impossible, to work his will with an immediacy and an effectiveness that was impossible for other operatives to achieve.

When she reached Palpatine's rooms, Mara slipped inside with a slight swaying of her graceful hips, for the benefit of an advisor who was waiting at the Emperor's door. She saw a spark of outrage in the advisor's eyes, that he should wait even longer while the Emperor dallied, and then she was inside. Palpatine's rooms were sparsely decorated, and despite being well lit, had a sense of shadowiness to them.

"Come, Mara Jade," said Palpatine from a side chamber. She found him in a tiny gallery of Jedi artifacts and lightsabers, each one representing a vanquished foe. "I have a mission for you, one well suited to your talents." She stood very close to him, and he placed a fatherly hand on her red-gold hair. In a sense, he was her father. Mara's parents had died when she was very young, and she remembered very little of them. Palpatine had brought her to Coruscant, and she had grown up there, thinking of the Emperor as her father figure, despite their infrequent contact. When she came of age, he had revealed his special plans for her, and she had been overjoyed. She had experienced a rocky start as his assassin, but her many successes won so much praise from him that they had eventually formed a strong working relationship. Ever since then, it had been her pride to serve as his agent, rooting out his evil enemies and bringing an end to their schemes. And now, here was another chance to do just that.

"What do you need me to do?" she asked eagerly.

"I have told you of how Lord Vader secretly proposed an alliance with the young Jedi, Luke Skywalker. Despite Vader's poor judgment, I desire to retain him as my servant. Therefore, temptation must be removed from his path. Vader must not see my hand in this...that is why I have chosen you, my faithful assassin. The Jedi must die, because alone, Vader will not dare to assert his independence, and matters will return to normal. But there is another more important reason for your assignment. I have told you of my visions concerning Skywalker," Palpatine said quietly. "You know that I believe I will face him, and that there is some...uncertainty surrounding the outcome. I fear that the Force itself conspires against me. But you and I, my dear Mara Jade, you and I will cheat fate. We will deny destiny. Skywalker will never trouble me if he dies at your hands.

"I have intelligence that Skywalker is going to Tatooine to rescue his friend, the Correllian, from the local Hutt crime lord. You will take full advantage of this knowledge, and find him on Tatooine. There you will see that our young Jedi meets a premature death." He smiled at her warmly, conspiratorially. "I leave the details to your capable mind."

Mara Jade was filled with feelings of determination, pride, and anger towards Skywalker. Anger that such a young terrorist could give the slightest vexation to her beloved Emperor, let alone threaten him. "As you command," she said with conviction, "so shall it be done."

Mara had traveled to that forsaken dustball and infiltrated the grotesque slug's "Palace" as a dancer named Arica. How it had disgusted her to perform for that drooling monstrosity! But apparently her lithe figure and shining hair had delighted the Hutt from the moment he saw her. It was degrading, but it was a good cover. She had waited, biding her time among the sick menagerie that thronged the Hutt's fortress. Then, finally, a few days later, Skywalker had shown up, walking into the Palace with arrogant self-confidence. Mara had almost been able to take a shot at him, but she had been stopped by Jabba's employee, Melina Carniss. Carniss had suspected her of wanting to kill Jabba! As if she would have wasted her time on such filth. Mara had escaped Carniss, but by that time, Skywalker had already killed Jabba's pet monster and earned the Hutt's personal hatred. The Jedi was to be executed at something called the Pit of Carkoon. Suddenly everything was spinning out of control. She had deduced that Skywalker must have a hidden lightsaber, and that the bloated Hutt might not be able to overcome the Jedi. She was sure that unless she came along to make sure Skywalker died, he would escape.

So she had asked to go with Jabba on the sail barge. But somehow, Jabba had an inkling of her true motives. Wanting Skywalker for himself, he had dismissed her without explanation. She had even tried to use her Force skills on him, to no avail. And so, the sail barge and its prisoners had left without her. A day later, Bib Fortuna had made his way back to the Palace, the only survivor of what was to him an astonishing debacle. Jabba was dead, Boba Fett as well, and the Jedi had escaped. Mara had been consumed by a helpless rage. Fortuna, already busy with his bid to take over the organization, did not even notice when she left.

She returned to Coruscant in disgrace, but she was the only one who knew it. The Emperor had already left to go to Endor, where he planned to trap the Rebel fleet. He had not even contacted her, or acknowledged the failure of her mission. He had been forced to go and face his fears and it was her fault. Worry and a sense of doom hovered around her for several days until she finally came to the ancient hall to practice the meditation skills that Palpatine had taught her, to try to find some escape from her deep unease. She reached out to her Master, calmly and carefully, but his mind was closed to her. She could not sense him. Then, just as she was settling into a meditative state, letting the Force flow through her, a vision of Palpatine hit her like a silent explosion. Her eyes jerked open, but the view of the distant mountain range was utterly blotted out by larger than life figures that floated before her; they seemed more real than the room she was in. The Jedi, Skywalker, and the Sith Lord, Darth Vader, were standing in front of a seated Palpatine. Behind her Master, a circular window looked out on the stars. A moment later, she saw Skywalker gesture commandingly at Vader, and they both moved together to attack Palpatine with their lightsabers. To slaughter him. She saw his face between their grim forms as they closed the gap. He was looking directly at her. Such a sense of betrayal was in his yellow eyes - she gasped at his look of rage and terror. In his last seconds, a crystal clear message came through to her, so strong she could have sworn he was there in the room with her.

"YOU WILL KILL LUKE SKYWALKER!" It was his last command. Vader and Skywalker cut him down without mercy, and the vision ended. Mara Jade crumpled to the floor, unconscious.

Emperor Palpatine knew he wasn't dead, but then, he wasn't exactly alive, either. As the Death Star began to erupt, he reached out through the Force to find Mara Jade's mind. It was his only choice, given the pressing need for a swift escape. Finding it, he established a special link between them, through which he could use her as a "spirit anchor". A moment later, the Stormtroopers and officers around him screamed in final terror as simultaneously, a fireball devoured the air in the corridor and the floor vanished, opening a gate to an inferno. Palpatine's pain was all-consuming, but very brief. His clone body was vaporized. He felt his consciousness stretch out, impossibly thin, bridging the gap from Endor to Coruscant. With a violent snap, he hurtled into the mind of Mara Jade. He huddled around the Force-sensitive node in her brain, trying to regain coherence of perception; the brief journey had been enough to leave him severely disoriented. For an eternal moment, he had been exposed to the dark side's chaotic force of dissolution. If it had been able to claim him, he would have been swallowed into its madness for eternity. But now, Mara Jade's living, organized mind provided him with a shield against that chaos. He was safe.

But something had happened that he hadn't expected. Most of his dark power had been stripped from him and left behind in space near Endor. Mara Jade's mind simply could not contain it. Additionally, his state was nothing like what he had expected from his studies on spirit anchors. It was different on the dark side, he now learned. He wasn't entirely within the Force while retaining his individuality. This was more like a kind of possession. Worse, it was a kind of imprisonment. Palpatine was a guest who couldn't survive leaving.

And so, diminished, shorn of his form and power, and almost defeated, the former Master of the dark side of the Force clung to Mara Jade's mind as he slowly came back to himself.

His main goal now was his restoration. He had not panicked at the end, that was critical. Instead, he had sent a message to Sate Pestage, which would hopefully convince the Grand Vizier to bring Jade to Byss. There he could leave Jade's mind and reenter one of his clone bodies. Even as he had made the transition into her mind, he had created a false vision of his death for her, calculated to make her blame Skywalker for his murder. Palpatine still wanted revenge, and he still felt Mara Jade was best suited to carry it out. But she must have the complete conviction that the boy must die. From his position within her mind, Palpatine would do his best to encourage that belief. Skywalker had an unfortunate talent for making allies out of his enemies, and that must not happen with Mara.

Even though he had lost, the game was not over. The Emperor's power was merely eclipsed for a time, and before long, he vowed, his name would once again inspire fear throughout the galaxy.

Still dwelling on his feelings of inadequacy, Sate Pestage knocked softly at the door of the Emperor's chief advisor, Ars Dangor. He had walked slowly through the ornate halls of the Palace, staring disconsolately at what he perceived as a terrible emptiness. The advisors and government officials he passed knew nothing of the disaster that had occurred. They went on about their business in blissful ignorance, and the vast body of the Empire continued to lumber along, not realizing that it had been decapitated. The news sat like a hot stone in Pestage's gut. He had to share it or it would sear his innards. The first person who had to be told was Dangor, who took care of so many of the day-to-day details of running the Empire. After Palpatine and Pestage himself, Dangor had the most power in the government. He would know what to do to prevent a panic. All too soon, news from the surviving military elements at Endor and from the Alliance forces would pour in. The government on Coruscant had to be prepared lest the blow shatter it.

The door opened, and for an irrational moment, Pestage thought he saw Palpatine, miraculously returned from the dead, standing there cloaked in a black robe with a deep hood. But young hands reached up to pull the hood back, revealing the face of Ars Dangor. Unlike the other advisors, Dangor dressed in a manner similar to Palpatine.

Not catching Pestage's disorientation, Dangor smoothly asked, "To what do I owe the honor of your presence, Grand Vizier?"

Recovering, Pestage replied, "Chief Advisor Dangor, I need to speak with you privately, about a very grave matter. May I come in?"

"Enter," said Dangor, and stood aside, beckoning with his robed arms. Pestage entered a suite of rooms that, unsurprisingly, mimicked the asceticism of the late Emperor. He faced Dangor, uncertain of how to begin. How to put such a calamity into words?

Dangor waited patiently, and after a few moments, Pestage said the only thing he could. "Palpatine is dead, and we must prevent the Empire from collapsing."

Dangor stared at Pestage, speechless. Long moments passed. The chief advisor looked stricken, but his thoughts were racing. Palpatine - you fool! Curse you and your reckless obsessions! Skywalker. Endor. We are lost, unless... "He died at Endor?" Dangor demanded. "He was killed by Skywalker? No - it doesn't matter how. He is dead... I warned him not to pursue this course. I warned him. He put himself at risk in an unfinished battle station, just to capture a boy! We should have finished the Death Star and wiped out the Rebellion planet by planet. This didn't need to happen...He didn't need to die..." I wasn't ready, he thought. I must contact Ysanne Isard at once. We must move very quickly now. But first, to put on as good a face as possible...

Dangor turned away, trembling in his robes. "I never really thought he would die, you know. Even when he became old, he was somehow able to regenerate, to reclaim his youth. I thought I would be able to serve him for the rest of my life - longer, if he shared his secrets with me...I would have been content."

"Chief Advisor," Sate Pestage urged, "The reason I came to you first -"

"Yes, Sate Pestage. The Empire must not fall." Dangor began speaking rapidly. "You were right to say that. It needs an Emperor. A strong person must be placed on the throne as soon as possible, someone whom the people know and respect. We must convene an emergency meeting of the advisors, the Moffs, and COMPNOR, to deal with the crisis of leadership. Fear not, Sate Pestage, we will come through this with the Empire intact. I shall see to it immediately. We will have to contain the information flowing in from Endor, and assemble as much of the fleet as we can here at Coruscant. CompForce must discourage any potentially treasonous acts by those who would take advantage of the situation for their own advancement. There is a great deal to do. And so, Grand Vizier, we must both keep our hopes intact even as we struggle with our despair. Go in peace."

And before Pestage knew it, he had been ushered out into the hall. What had really happened in there? He had expected some sort of outburst from Dangor - the man was infamous for them. Instead, he had seemed grief-stricken. But, he had spoken like someone who had guessed what was going to happen, and who was somehow prepared. I warned him not to pursue this course. What was Dangor up to, to send Pestage away so quickly? Something about Dangor's little speech was nagging at the Grand Vizier. Dangor had seemed too ready to deal with the news, and if that was true, then... a strong person must be placed on the throne...I would have been content... Of course. It was clear to Pestage. Dangor planned to be the new Emperor himself.

Pestage hurried back to his quarters, his thought in turmoil. Dangor as Emperor! He could not allow it to happen. But did he have any power to prevent it? And would he be placing his life in danger if he tried? Dangor had a well-earned reputation for dealing ruthlessly with his enemies. Right now, Pestage's life was not his own. His Master depended on him for his very survival. When he reached his rooms, he sat down at his private terminal. Palpatine kept records of everything, and Pestage was Steward of the Emperor's Personal Archive. Documentation of his most secret communications was contained therein. There was a great deal of information that could aid Ars Dangor immeasurably in his bid for power, and so he must not have it. Pestage keyed in a long and elaborate code that permanently closed the archives. Now, no one could have access to the Emperor's secrets. Only Palpatine knew the code required to reopen them.

Pestage sat back and breathed slowly, trying to calm down. He simply had not expected this, but in retrospect, it was predictable. Well, there was little he could do about it for the present, so he had best turn his efforts towards finding Mara Jade. Where would a secret assassin, known to no one, be in the event of her Master's death? Pestage hoped desperately that she had not learned of the events at Endor and left Coruscant for good.

Even as Sate Pestage wondered where Mara Jade might be, she was secure in a hospital bed in the Old Republic Hospital not far from the Palace. She had been found unconscious in Manarai Hall, with dangerously low brain activity. She had been brought to the Hospital for treatment, and now she was recovering in a private room, the danger past. Fast asleep, she shifted, tossed and turned, clutching at the blankets and mumbling. "Skywalker...you killed him...kill...kill you..."

Deep inside her mind, Palpatine was fashioning nightmares for her.

Mara could see the throne room on the Death Star, but the only clearly visible areas were the throne and the steps before it. The far walls were lost in the mist, and the window behind the throne looked out on absolute blackness. The throne was facing away from her, and she could see a dark figure standing behind it in the shadows, a barely visible silhouette against the window. She was aware of a low hum, then the dark figure raised a lightsaber, illuminating its face. It was Skywalker, and his face was a mask of sadistic pleasure. He put a bloody hand on the throne and slowly rotated it to face Mara. She felt a stab of ice in her vitals as she saw the occupant of the chair. It was Palpatine. Skywalker had dissected him.

Atop a burnt stack of his limbs sat his head, severed and facing directly at her. An odd grouping of lightsaber wounds marred his face like a charcoal sketch. She could almost see a pattern in them. Then Skywalker spoke, showing his enjoyment by indicating the body parts with a flourish. "Amazing the things you can do with a lightsaber," he said. Then he pointed to a large black heap at the mist's edge. "That's Vader, or it was. We attacked the Emperor together. He couldn't defend against both of us at the same time, so he struck down the greater threat. Poor Vader. He wanted to share ruling the Empire so much. He never knew that I used him, that all I wanted was for the Empire to fall. I thought this would be a fitting tribute for him, though." Skywalker indicated the burn marks on Palpatine's face.

Suddenly Mara could see how the burns resembled the lines of Vader's breath mask, and she cried out in anger. Palpatine's dead, staring eyes held her own, seeming to accuse her. I will never rest until he is dead, they seemed to say.

With one swift step, she seemed to close the distance to Skywalker's side in an instant. He froze in surprise, as if seeing her for the first time. She lashed out with her hand at his throat, bringing him to his knees, choking. Mara calmly picked up his fallen lightsaber and activated it. "You killed him, Skywalker," she said grimly. "Now I'll kill you."

His left hand was the first thing to go.

In her hospital bed, Mara Jade's tormented expression smoothed out and shifted to a small tight smile.

When Mara Jade awoke, she had a splitting headache. She didn't dare to sit up, but she turned to face the Emdee droid that stood by her bedside. "Just relax, Mara Jade," the droid soothed. "You were found unconscious in Manarai Hall, in the old section of the Palace. You almost slipped into a coma, but you seem to have recovered from your trauma. I can find no further signs of trouble. When you feel up to it, you may leave. I do suggest you seek out the advice of a specialist. We could not discover the reason for your trauma, and it may recur. And now, citizen, I have other patients to attend to. I wish you well." The droid glided away.

"Thank you," she called after it. Mara lay still, thinking about her situation. She could still vividly recall her vision, and fragments of nightmares flitted through her memory. They had all been of killing Skywalker. He wasn't dead though. Not yet. She knew she had to do something about that, but right now, she was in no shape to do anything. Her Master was dead. And what was she now? Where could she go? No one knew her, no one knew what she did. No one knew of the power she had possessed; they all saw her as the Emperor's lovely companion. In a twinkling, she had lost everything. Maybe the only meaning left to her was to fulfill Palpatine's last directive, to kill Skywalker. Well, she would try, but she had to be realistic. He would be no easy target, and it might take her years to find him. She might as well leave Coruscant, even though she had no idea where she might go.

But first, she would get rid of her headache. She began to try to channel the Force to ease her pain, and was astonished to discover she couldn't sense the Force at all. The walls of her tiny room seemed like true boundaries. She couldn't sense anyone or anything beyond them. It was like losing a basic sense like eyesight or hearing. Enhanced perceptions she had come to take for granted were completely gone.

Now Mara Jade began to despair. She felt awful. Palpatine was dead, and now she had lost the Force, too. Had her abilities all depended on his being alive, somehow? She felt violated, robbed. The Emperor's greatest gift to her had been torn from her. Without the Force, how could she ever hope to defeat, let alone find, a Jedi? She brooded for a long time, and finally decided that she would indeed leave Coruscant. Perhaps that would stop her nightmares of the Emperor's death. She would take one thing with her that the Emperor had owned. In his chambers was the lightsaber that had belonged to Skywalker's mentor, Kenobi. She would go claim it and make her way to the starport. With that weapon, Skywalker's death would be that much more satisfying.

Sate Pestage was just finishing instructing a team of ISB agents to track down Mara Jade and bring her to him, when he received a summons and a notification from Ars Dangor that the advisors, the Moffs, and COMPNOR's select committee would be assembled within two hours. Pestage knew it was necessary to organize their response to the fiasco at Endor, but he would just as soon not be directly involved. Evidently, Ars Dangor felt differently. If Dangor was going to announce his candidacy for leadership, he would want Sate Pestage's vote of approval in front of the other advisors.

Well, he wasn't going to get it. The Empire could survive without an emperor until the true Emperor was restored. Pestage would attend as required of him, but he was anxious to get back to the task of locating Mara Jade. He chose his most somber looking garment, one with only a few jewels along the hem, and began to get ready. Hopefully, the ISB agents would be successful while he was occupied.

Mara Jade fumed as she waited in Ars Dangor's office, under guard by a CompForce soldier. She had left the hospital, finally, but before she could reach Palpatine's suite, she had been cornered by this oafish trooper. "Excuse me," he had said, halting her and consulting a datapad. "You are Mara Jade, is that correct?"

She had seen no point in denying it. "Yes, what is it?" she had snapped.

"I have orders to escort you to the office of Chief Imperial Advisor Dangor for a private meeting. If you would please come with me?"

She had complied, not wanting to make a scene, and ended up here, sitting in Dangor's office for the past hour. She turned once more to the guard, who was without doubt a poor conversationalist. "What is this all about?" she asked for the fourth time. "Where is the Chief Advisor?"

"I've told you, I don't have that information. The Chief Advisor will be here to see you shortly." He stared at the far wall, saying nothing else. Mara tried to bore a hole in his head with her eyes, but instead, she felt as if she had a hole in her head; her headache had not relented, but she had grown somewhat used to it. A few minutes later, Dangor arrived, wearing that black robe similar to Palpatine's. She regarded him with respect but not awe.

"Mara Jade, my dear, I'm sorry to have kept you waiting, but this is a very busy day. Thank you guard, you may leave." Once the guard was gone, Dangor motioned for her to take a more comfortable seat on a small couch.

"What's this all about?" she asked, sitting.

"All right then, we'll get directly to the point." Dangor stood in front of her. "I'm going to tell you something that only a few hundred people know at this moment. The news will reach the whole planet within another day, but hopefully we'll be ready for that. You see, our great Emperor has fallen. He is dead in battle with the Rebel Alliance. Someone needs to take his place, and I feel that person should be me -" Dangor looked at her in concern. "Are you unwell?"

Mara had been reacting with convincing surprise at the news of Palpatine's death, but when Dangor had mentioned his being the new Emperor, her headache had intensified severely. She had grimaced and put her hands to her temples. "Yes, I'm all right, just a headache I've been having. Really. Please, go on...so, my Lord is dead?" Mara fought back the pain and put on a solemn expression.

"Yes, well," continued Dangor, "the Emperor would certainly want his throne to pass to one he trusted as much as myself, who was so much like him, and who he had groomed for power for so many years. If I am chosen, and the throne becomes mine, I want you to know that you will not have to leave. I know how you served Palpatine, and I would like to retain you in that capacity."

Mara looked at him in surprise. How did he know about the Emperor's Hand?

"You are quite a prize," Dangor went on. "Very lovely indeed. I can see why Palpatine enjoyed you so much, and indeed, I have admired your beauty for a long time. With great power comes great loneliness, and someone like you would be wonderful for helping me to avoid that." Mara was at a loss for words. Her mouth opened, then closed, her eyes wide. "You don't need to decide at this moment, my dear," Dangor said, "but you would be wise to say yes. Hard times are on the horizon, and I can give you protection and wealth. Think about it. I shall see you in a few hours. Until then, Mara Jade." Dangor gave a little bow, smiling, then called for a guard. "Please escort this woman to my quarters and keep her there to await my return. Mara Jade, I have business to attend to, but I look forward to the pleasure of your company." With that, the would-be Emperor strode purposefully from the room. Mara was relieved to see him go. If he had stayed, she might have thought about killing him.

Ars Dangor found it uncomfortable to look Ysanne Isard, the Director of Intelligence, directly in the eyes. One of her eyes was an icy blue, the other, a volcanic red. He had always prided himself on his reputation for ruthlessness, but this woman truly gave him pause. He suspected that she could just as easily get rid of him as help him gain the throne. Still, it clearly suited her plans right now to have Dangor take command. He wondered how long that would last. Perhaps she even wanted the throne for herself. Dangor knew that the Emperor's inner circle would be against letting a woman rule over them. They were too much like the Emperor himself with all his prejudices. Thus, Ysanne "Iceheart" Isard would find it difficult to overcome their resistance. The straightforward conclusion to draw from this was that Isard was going to help put Dangor on the throne, and then try use him as her puppet. Well, she would find that it wasn't that simple. Palpatine had seemed like a puppet to the men who gave him power, but they quickly learned the true nature of the man to whom they had given control. Isard would have to learn the same lesson about Dangor.

"Everything is ready," said Isard. "They are assembled in the Hall of Address waiting for you. If you use the information I have given you about our departed Emperor, everything should be fine. Just make sure that you deal with Sate Pestage as I told you to. We can't have any rivals confusing the issue at this point."

"Must he really die?" Dangor asked. "I have served with him for a long time. Perhaps he could serve me now. It would be a pity to -"

"He has to die. Otherwise, there will be no end to the trouble he'll cause for us. He has already sealed the Emperor's archives, just to thwart you. Don't let foolish sentiment interfere with necessity."

"I understand the difference," said Dangor tersely.

"Good. I want this to go smoothly. All right. It's time to go and claim your rightful throne, Chief Advisor Dangor."

"I'm ready...Director Isard."

As she walked with the guard to Dangor's rooms, Mara's Jade's head was spinning. Her headache was terrible, and Dangor's conception of her was suddenly degrading and humiliating to her, despite all that she had done to contribute to it. She wanted to get out of the Palace, to slip away unnoticed with Kenobi's lightsaber. For now, she would have to play along with Dangor's conceited game. It couldn't be any worse than dancing for the Hutt had been.

The guard let her into Dangor's chambers, then closed the door, no doubt stationing himself outside. He was a CompForce trooper, fanatically loyal to the New Order. His kind always overdid everything.

Mara stared at the sparse furnishings and austere decor. It was a cheap imitation of Palpatine's rooms, she realized. Palpatine had tolerated Dangor's imitation, valuing him for his competence and loyalty, but he had never really thought of the Chief Advisor as being very intelligent. Mara knew that her Master would never have given so much power to anyone with the ability to ever be his rival. She had no doubt that, if he were alive, he would be fairly angry that Dangor even thought he was fit to rule. Mara's headache worsened, and she groaned a little. She noticed the computer terminal in one corner, and, one hand held to her head, she sat down at it. One thing was for sure, she wasn't just going to sit in here doing nothing. She would see exactly what the Chief Advisor was up to.

Mara accessed the Palace security cameras, using the access codes taught to her by Palpatine. She scanned through several dozen scenes before one arrested her gaze, a huge hall full of people. It was the central Hall of Address, where Ars Dangor traditionally delivered speeches on behalf of Palpatine to be broadcast to the galaxy over the HoloNet. She recognized the uniforms of the COMPNOR leadership, the militaristic ranks of the Moffs, and the riot of multicultural fashions worn by the hundreds of Imperial advisors. An empty podium faced these rows upon rows of the Empire's elite. Something major was in store; no doubt she was about to see Dangor's bid for power.

The crowd continued to murmur with anxiety. She could pick out several discussions focused on the rumors of the Emperor's death. Then a hush fell over the assembly. Dangor entered, his resemblance to Palpatine rather eerie under the circumstances. He seemed to be using it to his full advantage; he moved like Palpatine and kept his hood over his face. When he reached the podium, he waited for total silence. He pulled back his hood, and his gaze touched each of the major groups present. When he spoke, it was with the practiced, ringing tones he had perfected in countless addresses in this hall.

"Honorable Moffs, the Select Committee, the Advisors of the Imperium, and the Emperor's Grand Vizier, welcome." Now, Mara Jade noticed Sate Pestage seated near the podium, looking uncomfortable.

"This is a day of great sorrow. What you have heard is true. Our Emperor is lost to us. The Empire is bereft of its guide and Master. Emperor Palpatine created this mighty galactic government. He built it, he shaped it, he brought it to a level of power and glory that rivals even the Old Republic of legend. Palpatine truly was the Empire. With his great leadership, he forged an awesome future for all of us. But that future is now in question.

"Today, we must ask ourselves, can the Empire that Palpatine created live on without him? Can a new Emperor take up his mantle and lead us onward? Many of you will think, no, he can never be replaced. He should never have needed to be replaced. He was eternal. Well I tell you, no one of us is eternal. This day was inevitable. Nature dictated it. Some of you may believe that the cursed Rebel Alliance greatly hastened the coming of this day, that by their treacherous murder of Palpatine, they stole from the Emperor and from us many decades of his wise rule. I am here to reveal to you that his rule was neither wise nor apt to last.

"This is the Emperor as you knew him." Dangor produced a hologram of Palpatine as a commanding, middle-aged man, no longer young but still strong. "This is the Emperor as he really was." The holo was replaced by a very recent image of the Emperor. He was, of course, terribly aged, his flesh deeply ravaged by the toll the dark side had taken on him. Most of those present had never seen him like this. Exclamations of shock and disgust filled the hall. Even those who knew joined in the outrage, for now, their fear of the Emperor was gone. It took quite a while for order to be restored. But eventually, the huge crowd turned to Dangor for an explanation of this revelation.

"He lied to you all about his age and his health," Dangor's voice boomed. "He had one foot in the grave already when he died, but he never told you. He wanted his power to be absolute up to the end. But the end...the end was something he brought on himself!

"He was obsessed with the Rebel Alliance. Despite the fact that they could never have defeated the Empire on their own, he was consumed with the desire to wipe them out completely. He created an elaborate trap to lure them to their final destruction at Endor. He also hoped to kill the famed Rebel, Luke Skywalker, another of his obsessions. But Palpatine was the architect of his own failure. He placed himself at risk on board an unfinished battle station. His only protection was a defense shield, and reports from Endor tell us that the Rebels easily destroyed that. He was destroyed along with all those on the Death Star, once his inherently suicidal plan reached its fruition. The Imperial fleet was crippled, and Lord Vader has died as well." Mara noticed several people looking relieved at that news.

"Did Palpatine know he was going to die? Did he want to take his Empire with him? Did he mean for us all to go down as well? Did he gamble so outrageously because he knew he was going to lose it all anyway?" Dangor paused to let all of this sink in. Mara saw that Sate Pestage was ashen faced at what Dangor was doing. It was all a lie, but it was infinitely more believable than the truth. Palpatine had created a lie himself, to screen his true nature from the galaxy. Dangor was taking brilliant advantage of that. Now Dangor spoke into the complete silence.

"There is a question we have not yet asked. What of an heir? Is there an heir to the Empire? A son or daughter to inherit his power? Even a chosen successor, designated by Palpatine to take over when he was gone? Was there even a procedure set up for choosing a successor? The answer is no! There is no heir! No one to be the successor! Or, if there is, the information is sealed in the Emperor's Personal Archive. I have tried to look there. It would be of utmost importance to me to see Palpatine's designated heir placed on the throne according to his wishes. But the archive has been permanently closed! The information in it, which alone could tell us who Palpatine might have envisioned as his heir, is denied to us. We can only conclude that there was never meant to be an heir. Palpatine meant for the Empire to die when he did.

"And who among us, since Palpatine is dead, has closed the archive? Who is assisting the dead, deceitful ruler in dealing this comprehensive death blow to the Empire? It is none other than Palpatine's Grand Vizier, Sate Pestage! The man who saw Palpatine as he really was, and helped to keep his secret. Who filled the senile Emperor's ears with encouragement for his fatal obsessions and support for his ruinous policies! Who even now sits guilty among us, ready to finish the job that Palpatine started, to see that the Empire completes the fall to its doom!" Mara looked on with horror. Dangor was totally in command of the assembly. And the old man whom he somehow saw as a rival for the throne was helpless before his poisonous assault.

"Sate Pestage, as Grand Vizier to the fallen Emperor, you are accused of treason to the Empire. You used you position of intimacy with the Emperor to shield him from any views that may have dissuaded him from his path to destruction. The advice of Palpatine's advisors, such as myself, fell on deaf ears because you deafened them, because you kept our voices from being heard."

And here Mara Jade saw the emotions of the crowd shift firmly against Sate Pestage. It was a masterstroke by Dangor, for in truth, many of those gathered hated Pestage for that very reason. Whenever any of them were commanded to contact Palpatine, or desired to speak with him, they often had to wait for hours, on bended knee. And the only face they saw, the only voice they heard during those humiliating vigils was that of Sate Pestage. Pestage, who passed on his Master's wishes to them, and who guarded his Master's time by deciding who would gain his ear and who would not, became the natural focus for the hate born of that humiliation. The advisors, the Moffs, and the COMPNOR officials could all share in the feeling evoked by Dangor. And, truth be told, their shock at seeing Palpatine so old still coursed through them, and they focused their distaste for that vision of decrepit weakness upon the similarly aged form of Sate Pestage.

Angry mutterings began to sound out everywhere, and Dangor allowed them to grow. Then he turned on Sate Pestage and channeled the accusation of the assembly at him. "Do you have anything to say in your defense? You have been accused of treason, and the penalty is death."

Pestage slowly stood. Mara marveled at his dignity and bearing as he faced Dangor. He must have seen how he was being set up, how he was being eliminated as the one person who might have claimed executive power in Dangor's place. But he didn't show any signs of anger on his suddenly serene face. Pestage spoke softly, so that most of the audience couldn't hear it. The security microphones picked up his words, however, and Mara heard him say to Dangor, "You have betrayed our Master. One day, you will pay for your crimes. I will not deny your accusations, for I did indeed seal the archive. The Master's secrets are not for such as you to know. Nor will I accept death at your hands. I choose exile from Imperial space, as is my undeniable right under law. I shall never return to your Empire." Then, Pestage walked out of the great auditorium. As he reached the door, he was joined by waiting CompForce soldiers who took his arms. He did not resist.

Dangor was disoriented. His "script" for the proceedings was disrupted. He watched Pestage go with troubled eyes. Then he seemed to come back to himself. He faced the gathering once more. "The traitor has admitted his acts with his own voice. He has chosen exile from the Empire, never to return." Voices of protest rose up to him. Chief among them was the loud cry of Tarn Gemillian, the advisor from Hadden Four. He clearly wanted Pestage to face execution, and he was trying to rally others to press the issue. But Dangor could not allow distractions from his main purpose. Those who wanted an execution, including Ysanne Isard, would have to be satisfied with an exile.

"No! Listen to me - it is his right under the law. That will be enough justice. Let us give no further thought to him. Now we must turn our minds to the future! Despite the worst Palpatine and his Vizier were able to do, we still have a chance to preserve the Empire. We need a new leader - a strong leader who can run the Empire well - who is known and respected - a leader who can be trusted not to hide in the shadows in this time of crisis. There is no heir! One among us must be chosen. The time for that choice is now."

Dangor waited. All depended on the next few moments. He had revealed the truth to them, alerted them to danger, rooted out a traitor from their midst, and stood before them like a vision of the Emperor they had thought they knew, and had believed in. Would they accept him as Palpatine's replacement? Then, several of the advisors stood, and one of them called out, "Will you lead us, Ars Dangor?" Dangor still said nothing. Several more advisors rose. They began to call to him, "Dangor, you must lead us! You are the only choice!" The advisors were the easy part. He already led them. But then the Moffs and the Grand Moffs began to stand. Perhaps they realized that if one of them were to try to claim power, the others would fight him for it, no matter who he was. They added their voices to a growing chant, "Dangor! Dangor! Dangor!" The number of standing people steadily increased. Then, even the COMPNOR officials stood. Their loyalty was, after all, to the New Order, and they would go along with any means of preserving it. Before long, the entire gathering of several thousand people was standing and chanting. It was deafening.

Mara was stunned. And then the chant became, "Emperor Dangor! The Emperor!" Dangor gave a deep bow, and Mara felt such a black anger build up inside her mind that she lurched away from the screen and fell to her knees. A violent surge of hatred coursed through her, blotting out any rational thought. She stiffened, and finally all thought left her as her consciousness went spiraling down into blackness.

Ars Dangor, the new Emperor, left the Hall of Address and hurried back to his quarters. He was heady with excitement. The throne was his! The adulation of the people would be directed at him alone! Of course, he also knew he would have to face the harsh realities of the crisis, but why shouldn't he be allowed a moment of triumph? For years he had run the day-to-day business of the Empire. Now he had the true power that went with that responsibility. He had earned this. True, the business with Sate Pestage had not gone exactly as planned, but the old man was still being exiled. Isard would see that it accomplished the same thing...Pestage was still out of the way. Dangor hadn't been comfortable with killing him anyway. Death was such a harsh solution to a problem.

Dangor reached his quarters, and the guard by the door bowed to him. Now why was there a guard-? Oh yes. Mara Jade was inside waiting for him. What a perfect way to celebrate his victory. She would certainly be his now that he actually was Emperor. Dangor licked his lips in anticipation as he dismissed the guard and opened the ornate door. "Mara Jade," he called, "I've come for you, as you knew I would."

Mara Jade was inside the new Emperor's chambers, but she was not seeing them as they really were. All around her were Palpatine's things, and they were all spattered with his blood. Cradled in her arms was her beloved Master, dead in a pool of his own vital fluids. Palpatine's wounds were horrible. They had been made with a lightsaber, that was clear, but they were designed to make his death a slow one. Indeed, she had found him while he was still breathing.

"Mara Jade," he had whispered in his agony, "It was the Jedi, Skywalker. It was Skywalker." He had coughed up a great deal of blood, and even more had spilled from the terrible open wound in his stomach. He was so very old and frail, so weak and helpless. He had managed to tell her of how Skywalker had found him weaponless, how the Rebel had toyed with him, cutting him first on the leg, then the chest, stalking him around the room as he bled in his terror. The final cut had left him to die slowly. He had finally died in Mara's arms.

Suddenly the door opened. Someone was invading Palpatine's rooms. A robed figure stepped in. It was the Jedi, Skywalker. "Mara Jade, I've come for you, as you knew I would," he said. He walked over to her. "I am Emperor now. I have taken the throne." He smiled. "Now it's your turn."

Mara leaped to her feet. She snarled at the arrogant Jedi, so secure in his ability to kill her as well. That wasn't going to happen. She had no weapons, but her bare hands would suffice. She lunged for Skywalker, catching him by the throat before he could bring out his lightsaber. He looked just like he had in Jabba's Palace, but now his boyish looks were suffused with shock and fear. Her hands were still covered with Palpatine's blood as she pressed her fingers deeply into his flesh. Skywalker choked, struggled, pleaded in gasps. "-no-ah-ah-wha-you-do-ss-sss-sto-" But Mara used all her skills as an assassin, countering his struggles and pressing home the death he deserved. "You killed the Emperor," she hissed into his face. "You've earned this, Skywalker!" The Jedi had begun to turn purple. He barely managed to rasp, "-y-you-m-make-m-mis-take-ah-", and then he had no more breath left for words.

Then a strange look came over Mara Jade's face, and she suddenly grinned wickedly. Her voice deepened and became more sibilant as she bore down mercilessly, finally, upon Skywalker. "Oh no, Ars Dangor, you will find that it is you who are mistaken, about a great many things."

At last, the man in Mara Jade's iron grasp died, his throat crushed. He sprawled at her feet. Mara Jade staggered back and turned to the body of her Master. "I have avenged you," she said, and then she stared in surprise as the corpse and all the bloodstains dispersed like smoke. She spun to look at Skywalker's corpse, certain that she was in another nightmare, but it hadn't vanished. It had changed. Now she saw the dead, bulging eyes of Ars Dangor staring at her. She had just murdered the new Emperor.

Mara checked his body to make sure he was dead, and to dispel any doubt that it was an illusion. She felt dizzy. What was happening to her? Normally, she was able to adapt to swiftly changing situations, but this was too much. Her headache still tormented her, she was unsure of what was real, and now, she realized, she was in a world of trouble.

The entire crime must have been recorded by Palace security cameras. Palpatine monitored all the rooms of his advisors. Even now, security might be on its way to take her into custody, or even kill her on sight. She had to flee. She forced herself to take stock of her options. One thing was certain, she needed to leave Coruscant. After that, it was possible that she would be hunted, so she would have to change her identity and go into hiding. Her first task was to get out of the Palace and find a ship to steal or stow away on. That would be facilitated by her knowledge of the secret passages of the Palace, and of the security systems. She could come and go like a ghost, and they would never suspect her of being able to do so.

She decided she would take two things with her. One was Kenobi's lightsaber. The other was going to be tricky, but she felt she owed it to Palpatine. She was going to free Sate Pestage from his undeserved imprisonment and see that he got to go anywhere in the galaxy that he wanted to. He had served Palpatine faithfully to the end, and it was justice that he not be mistreated and exiled, without honor, to Wild Space. Now that Dangor was dead, Pestage might not even get the privilege of exile; in the chaos about to descend, he would probably become just another casualty.

Mara tapped into the Palace security systems through Dangor's computer, and disabled the cameras on all nine floors of the advisors' wing. Swiftly, she left Dangor's quarters and hurried towards Palpatine's rooms. From there, she would have access to the secret ways.

Behind her, the body of Ars Dangor lay very still, his hot stare definitely beginning to cool.

Sate Pestage shifted uncomfortably on the hard slab that was the only furniture in his cell. He regarded the bars that imprisoned him. Beyond their super dense material was a sterile, empty corridor. He had had no visitors since he was deposited roughly here by the CompForce troopers. The former Grand Vizier was alone with his dismal outlook. The thing that tortured him the most was how he had failed Palpatine. His Master had placed his only chance for restoration in his hands, and what had he done? He had failed to find Mara Jade and he had underestimated Ars Dangor. Now there was a new Emperor, he was sure, and he, Sate Pestage, had only avoided execution by choosing exile. Exile would take him to Wild Space, where he wouldn't survive long. He would be as far from Byss as it was possible to be and remain in the galaxy. He would never see Palpatine again.

Now, for the first time since he had received the Emperor's final message, Sate Pestage felt despair. Even when he had known Palpatine was dead, he had not given in to despair, for he had to believe in the crazy hope that his Master could be restored. He had clung to that, avoiding facing reality. But events had defeated him. Now, that cruel reality was his only companion. Sate Pestage was alone in the universe.

Twice before, he had felt thus bereft, but those times had been many years in the past. He had lost his beloved wife, a Jedi healer, to a disease even she could not heal. Even today, as he thought of her, he still felt a pang from the loss of his Gemsaa, so long ago. His son, his only child from her, sadly had not reminded him of her. Gemsaa had been so full of light. Her powers in the Force as a healer had been widely known and revered. But her son, Espaa, had been more at home in the shadows. He had been a serious child, who shunned other children and seldom laughed. Even so, Pestage had loved Espaa, for the child was all that was left of his bright Gemsaa. One day, even that was taken from him; he was bereft a second time when a dark stranger arrived at his home on Naboo to ask for his son. He had refused, and despite that refusal, the stranger had taken Espaa, stealing the boy in the night. And Pestage had been alone in the universe. What did it matter to him, that the stranger had spoken of his son's "destiny"? He had known only his loss.

He could not quite recall what had kept him going during those bleak years. He wished he could remember, for he needed that something now. He did remember what had brought him back to life. He had found Senator Palpatine of Naboo, and found his life's work in the service of his awesome Master. It was the meaning of his existence. A meaning that was now gone.

Bootsteps in the hall intruded upon his misery. A group of four CompForce troopers marched into view, followed by a man dressed flamboyantly in metallic blue. It was Tarn Gemillian. Sate Pestage didn't get up. Gemillian looked scornfully at him.

"So, Grand Vizier. I see that your fortunes have fallen somewhat of late," Gemillian gloated. "You will no doubt be able to recall a certain day, several years ago, when you disgraced me in front of the Emperor. I told you that someday our positions would be reversed. I told you that someday, you would pay. You probably didn't ever think that day would come to pass. But the late Ars Dangor has given me that gift, and so here we are." Gemillian smiled meanly. "Grand Vizier, your expression betrays you, even as you sit in silence. You didn't know Ars Dangor was dead." Gemillian shrugged his shoulders. "The new Emperor's reign was a short one indeed! A young woman named Mara Jade strangled him in his own room. She is being hunted, of course, and she'll be executed, but the damage is done. Dangor was the only chance we had to fend off riots and destruction here in the city. There will be many dead before the morning comes. I don't think you had anything to do with that. But there is still the old score that I have to settle with you. Who will notice one more death, especially that of an old man, and a traitor to boot?" Gemillian stepped close to the bars and looked straight into Pestage's eyes. "Have you nothing to say? Nothing? Well then. This is good-bye. You may have thought you were clever, choosing exile, but I cannot allow that. So sorry, old man.

"Guards. As soon as I am gone, kill him." Gemillian gave a small bow, and strutted out of sight.

Still Sate Pestage did not stand, or even turn away. He had accepted his own death already. There was nothing left in life for him. He looked steadily at the troopers, as they fingered their blasters. Suddenly there was an electric hum, and a bright blue bar of light flashed among the soldiers. They screamed and fell, revealing a young woman with red-gold hair. Her green eyes glittered in the sharp glare of an ignited lightsaber, held ready for further combat. But no other troops appeared, and she relaxed a fraction.

"Grand Vizier Pestage," she said, "I've come to escort you to freedom."

He stared in wonderment at the vision of redemption before him. Joy flared within him, burning as brightly as the Jedi weapon held by the young woman. "I would be pleased to accept your kind offer, Mara Jade, Emperor's Hand," he said tremulously, "but there is the small matter of my confinement." He gestured at the bars.

Mara looked steadily at him for a moment, her eyes shining. Then, with two sweeping strokes of her lightsaber, she severed the bars, top and bottom. They fell with a clatter to the floor, and Pestage gingerly stepped over them and into the hall.

"What did that man have against you, anyway?" asked Mara.

Pestage frowned. "A few years ago, on his homeworld, the Rebel Alliance was making great progress in winning over the sympathies of the planetary government. Had the Emperor known, he would have punished Hadden Four with a fleet of Star Destroyers, but Gemillian didn't want to lose his vast land holdings. So he hid the information from the Emperor. I merely informed the Emperor of the truth. Gemillian never truly had the ear of the Emperor again, having been shown to be a liar."

"Why keep him on at all?" Mara wanted to know.

"The Emperor liked there to be rivalry and scheming among his advisors. Gemillian was very good for that. So why waste good talent?" Pestage said simply.

Mara let the matter drop, and led Pestage to a secret door at the far end of the cell block. "Sometimes the Emperor would use this door to come here to interrogate his prisoners privately," Mara explained.

"Yes, I know," said Pestage. "It was very thoughtful of him to have planned for our escape like this."

Together, they vanished into the dimly lit corridor, sealing it invisibly behind them.

Mara Jade and Sate Pestage descended into the tunnels far below the Palace. Imperial City had been built up like rock strata upon the structures of days gone by, so that going down was like going back in time. Soon, they passed beyond the gleaming, modern corridors with artificial light, and entered halls of stone where the only light was the glare of Mara's lightsaber. Now and then, they saw creatures in the shadows that resembled Womp rats the size of Nerfs, but these were evidently scared of the light and quickly vanished into their hiding places. Mara hurried along, followed by a puffing Sate Pestage, who was pushing his scarecrow like body as fast as it would go.

"What...what are we rushing for?" Sate Pestage breathed heavily, "surely we would never face pursuit down here!"

She turned, realizing for the first time how he was struggling to keep up. "I'm sorry, Grand Vizier," she said, "we can rest a moment. I'm not worried about being followed. I'm worried about them closing the starports to...to keep me from escaping." She paused, looking pained.

"Tarn Gemillian told me that you killed Ars Dangor. Is this true?" Sate Pestage asked softly.

"Yes, it's true. But I don't know how it happened. I didn't mean to do it. I didn't even know I was doing it...but then he changed, and he was dead, and - I think I'd better start from the beginning, huh?" Mara put a hand to her temple, and, not facing Pestage, told him the story. "It started for me yesterday, when I saw the Emperor die." Pestage peered at her in surprise. "I was in Manarai hall when I saw it in a vision. Lord Vader and Skywalker turned on him and killed him. It was awful. He looked at me, and he looked so betrayed. He told me I had to kill Skywalker. I blacked out, and had nightmare after nightmare of doing just that, in so many ways...so many ways. As for Vader, I think he's already dead. He was dead in all my nightmares...that must mean something. When I woke up, I had a splitting headache, and my ability to sense the Force, to use it in any way, was gone. I've had to deal with that loss, the loss of the Emperor, and on top of all that, I can't help but feel that it was all my fault." She started to weep softly. Pestage put a wrinkled hand on her shoulder. She turned to him, and said, "I had the chance to kill Skywalker on Tatooine. I was sent there to do it, and I failed. I failed. And now he's dead."

Pestage felt the deep hurt of this young woman, and he knew he could help with at least part of it. "It wasn't your fault," he said gently. "The Emperor must have known he might die, and he had a message prepared in advance to send to me if it happened. In it, he told me to get myself to a safe place, and to see that you were safe as well. He knew it wasn't your fault, and he didn't blame you. Palpatine's death was something he chose to face. You had no part in it. Now...you were telling me about Ars Dangor."

"Well," she continued, "Dangor sent his men to get me while I was still pretty messed up. It turned out he wanted me for his pleasure. He thought I was Palpatine's lover, and because he was going to take the throne, he wanted to claim me, too. I felt degraded, but not enough to kill him. I was sent to his rooms, where I broke into the security systems. I watched the meeting where he set you up, and took you down. Again, I was angry, but not that angry. But when he was actually declared Emperor, I felt such a rage that...that I blacked out. Then - this is the really strange part - I thought I was having another nightmare. Palpatine was dead at my feet, and Skywalker came back to kill me, too. This time, I strangled him with my bare hands. After he was dead, I could see that he was really Dangor. I wouldn't have killed him. I only wanted to escape from him and leave the planet. I don't know what's wrong with me." She looked into Pestage's eyes. "You don't know what it meant to me, when you called me Emperor's Hand. I was feeling like no one knew who I was anymore. It - it just meant a lot to me." She took his hand, holding it warmly.

Pestage was thinking furiously. Something incredible was beginning to dawn on him. There was Palpatine's order for him to bring Mara to Byss, the nightmares and headaches she was having, the blackouts, and her hatred of Dangor when he became Emperor. He didn't know how it could have happened, but he suddenly understood that he was in the presence of his Master. Palpatine existed within the mind of this young woman.

"What you did meant a lot to me, too, Mara Jade," he told her. "You saved my life, and I owe you more than you will ever know. But there is something else I need to ask of you. There is a world in the Deep Core called Byss, where the Emperor has a stronghold of those loyal to him. I would be safe there. We both need to escape, we are both fugitives. Would you help me to reach Byss? Perhaps you, too, can find a home there."

"I'll take you anywhere you need to go. That was part of my plan. But how are we going to get off planet?"

"Don't worry about that, Mara Jade. I know of the ideal transport. The Emperor's personal shuttlecraft is in a docking bay near the Palace. If you can pilot it, it can get us free of Coruscant."

She clasped Pestage's hands firmly with her own. "Can I pilot it? Does a Wookiee live in the trees? Let's get out of here!"

Pestage smiled at her, and they moved off in a different direction, sharing hope like the first taste of food after a long fast.

Emerging from the secret ways late that night, the fugitives found themselves in a quiet docking bay, empty of other people. Before them, a Lambda class shuttle crouched like a white bird with its wings folded. Sate Pestage motioned for Mara to stay put, then he walked up to the open boarding ramp that beckoned invitingly.

"Sate Pestage, Grand Vizier, code SGW0027, deactivate defense systems." He turned back to Mara. "It's all right now, we can get on board."

She climbed the ramp, looking nervously around her. "What would have happened If I had been alone?" she asked.

"You would now be dead," Pestage told her. "This ship is equipped with the navicomputer programs necessary to penetrate the Deep Core, and the recognition signals for bypassing the Hyperspace Security net. It would not do to let those things fall into the wrong hands."

Mara followed him into the cockpit of the little craft. She immediately began activating the ship's systems and monitoring communications from Imperial City. "I'm getting some information you should know about," she said to Pestage after a minute. "There's a total blackout on HoloNet transmissions, and traffic to and from Coruscant has been prohibited. That might slow down or even prevent any pursuit from the ground, but listen to this. A lot of the surviving Star Destroyers from Endor have returned at Dangor's orders, and are now in orbit. There are a lot of very angry, very confused Captains up there demanding to know what's going on down here. And no one's answering them. Imperial City doesn't want the news from Endor to get out until they're ready for it. Things haven't fallen apart yet, but they could at any moment. We'll have to fly right through a fleet of Star Destroyers to get away from Coruscant -"

"And they could easily capture us or shoot us down, depending on their mood, which is no doubt poor," finished Pestage. "Don't worry - I said this ship could get us away from here and it will. The Emperor has given us a little insurance."

Mara finished her preparations. "All right, Grand Vizier, here goes nothing. You'd better know what you're talking about."

The shuttle rose up, wings unfolding into a triangular configuration, and shot out of the bay into the night sky of Coruscant. The city spread out below them like a glittering tapestry. Mara pushed the shuttle for all the speed she could coax out of it, and, as she had guessed, nothing rose up to intercept them. Driving towards the upper atmosphere, Mara powered up the weapons systems. Her scanners registered no less than twelve Imperial Star Destroyers directly above her. Her skin prickled as she pictured their hundreds of turbolasers locking onto the tiny craft. Sate Pestage was completely calm. He touched a switch with his long, thin finger, and sat back in his seat, smiling slightly.

The shuttle continued to climb, leaving the atmosphere behind. The stars became sharp pinpoints of light as they came within visual range of the enormous wedge shaped cruisers. Mara fought the urge to turn and flee. The seconds passed excruciatingly slowly, as the Star Destroyers seemed to grow until they blocked out the stars. Finally, they hurtled past the fleet, at a distance of less than ten kilometers from the closest Destroyer.

Then the Imperial ships with their hot white engines were dwindling behind them, and they were in the clear. Mara let out a whoop of relief and called up the coordinates for the hyperspace journey to Byss.

"You see," said Pestage, "this ship broadcasts a code that tells the computers of any other Imperial ships not to fire, and not to lock on a tractor beam. Palpatine never wanted to be in danger of becoming the victim of a quick and easy coup by an ambitious admiral while he was traveling in such a tiny vessel as this. So, they may have tried, but they couldn't shoot at this shuttle. We were perfectly safe."

Mara stared at Pestage as the stars out of the viewport flared into starlines. "I've got to hand it to you," she said with admiration, "this is some rescue."

Sate Pestage awoke in his tiny makeshift bunk on the shuttle to the sound of Mara Jade's screams. She was clearly in the grip of her nightmares. Pestage was hesitant to approach her, recalling what had happened to Dangor. Why do you torment her so, my Master, he wondered silently, looking sorrowfully at the restless form of the young woman. She tossed and turned, seeming to grapple with the air. She struck at nothing, and slumped down into a dreamless sleep once more.

Pestage waited a few minutes, then, judging it to be safe, he gently prodded her awake. Groggily, she looked at him, grimacing in pain. She still had her headache. "Are you all right, Mara?" Pestage asked her.

"Not really," she said, "I can't say I'm in any way right." Her eyes had a haunted look. "I may never be all right again. I can't shake this headache, I feel so empty, cut off from the Force. And the nightmares...I can remember that last one. The Emperor was dead, and Skywalker had his head on a sort of pike. I come in, and he doesn't seem to think of me as a real threat. He just sort of laughs. And this time I have this really wicked knife. I throw it, and it hits Skywalker in the eye. But he isn't dead. He comes at me, and we struggle hand to hand. Then I'm able to punch the knife hilt, and drive the blade all the way in. Of course, he dies then. And the dream ends with my putting his head on the pike. I don't know what's happening to me. When I kill, it's clean, fast, as efficient as possible, as painless as possible. You don't make it as an assassin by putting on some kind of scene from a horror holovid. I don't understand where these ideas, this hate, comes from."

Pestage thought he knew very well, but he had his orders not to let Mara Jade know about her role. Still, he pitied her. Palpatine was using her; when she would have obeyed him on her own, he was driving her to obey. And why was Palpatine taking that approach? Pestage thought he knew that, too. He had come to believe that it had been Vader who most likely would have, or could have, killed the Emperor. The young Jedi didn't seem powerful enough, and from what Pestage knew, the boy wouldn't have joined Vader in an evil act, either. No, Vader must have done it, and died in the process, while Skywalker survived. It would be entirely like Palpatine to hate Skywalker and want him dead, just for not surrendering and not dying. And so, he had to twist the truth for Mara Jade to carry out his "revenge". Still, Pestage would not defy his Master. He would have to hope that all this would work out for the best, somehow.

"I'm sick of dwelling on death," Mara said, looking up sadly. "I want to talk about him, about what he meant to us, while he was alive. I need to mourn him in a healthier way than this."

"Yes, we can do that. He was very important to both of us. You know, there are really very few people in the galaxy who really knew him, who would mourn him at all. We may be the only two. It is very hard to love someone who is really above humanity...who is so much a part of his power, when that power is so very great. It is too easy to give in to things like awe and fear. But somehow, we two managed not to. There are very good reasons why that is so, I think."

"He seemed like a father to me, I suppose," Mara replied, hugging her knees. "When both of my parents died in an accident, he saw that I had caretakers on Coruscant. He came to see me, teaching me things as I grew up. I came to admire him, and he showed me that I could do amazing things. He gave me pride in myself."

Sate Pestage nodded, encouraging her to go on.

"One day," she said, smiling, "he made me his special agent. It felt great to be trusted with so many secrets. To have that special ability to hear his call from anywhere, instantly. On my first mission, to capture a Jedi named Ashka Boda, I almost failed him. I realized that failing him would mean disaster for me. So I never did it again. His demand of perfection made me strong. It gave me an identity. The Emperor's Hand." She stopped for a moment, lost in memories.

Pestage had been with Palpatine for a long time, and he remembered the real story of how his Master had found Mara Jade. Palpatine had learned from his books that some people were born with the ability to instantly receive thoughts across vast distances - powerful receptive telepaths. He had cast out mentally for such a person, and found the tiny child, Mara Jade, on a distant world. He had had her parents "eliminated" and her brought to Coruscant to be raised. Her ability had served Palpatine very well indeed, and Pestage strongly suspected that it had served him one final time when he escaped from the second Death Star.

Pestage decided that it would do much more harm than good for her to know these things. She had been used, yes, but also repaid with many gifts. And most importantly, she had been happy. For both Mara and himself, that said it all.

"So you see," Pestage said, "a good reason. You thought of him as a father." Pestage paused. He decided to tell her a secret. She had been deceived so much lately, and maybe she just deserved to hear some truth. "As for me," he said, "I believe I was his father." Mara's mouth fell open, but Pestage maintained a placid expression. He realized as he spoke that Palpatine may somehow be able to hear him. Somehow, that was all right. "I never told him, of course, and he never guessed. He never treated me as a father, and I never treated him as a son. But perhaps my long service to him will now be easier for you to understand."

Mara stammered, "That's incredible! But what do you mean, you 'believe' you were his father?"

Pestage told her the story of Gemsaa, and his stolen son, Espaa. "Many years passed, after I lost my son, during which I was alone. Then, I heard of the political rise of a Naboo native, Senator Palpatine. I had gone to see him when he came back to Naboo to make a speech. I watched him, and a strong feeling, a suspicion came over me. I felt a connection. I managed to get to see him, and I offered my services as his personal servant. He must have felt something, too, for he accepted at once. He made me his special advisor. Over the years, I tried to find out for sure if he was my son, but I never could. In any case, I believe it is true, and so, to serve the great being my son became was enough to fill my life with meaning."

"Why did you never tell him?" pressed Mara, who was spellbound.

"To do so would have changed our relationship. He had to be the Master. The Emperor. The one ruler of the galaxy and the greatest Master of the Force. There could be no one above him that he could see. And so, I was content to serve him, to be close to him, and to share in his glory."

"I think I understand," said Mara. "He mastered both of us, but we wanted it that way."

They sat in silence for a while, then Pestage stirred. "You should get more sleep, Mara Jade," he said, and went back to his own sleeping spot in the shuttle. Eventually, Mara did go back to sleep. Pestage, who needed little sleep, listened to her breathing for a long time. She seemed to be having a dreamless rest. Perhaps Palpatine had been given something else to think about.

The Emperor's shuttle emerged from hyperspace in the Deep Core, surrounded by a glorious profusion of stars. The closest was a binary, a blue star and its blue dwarf companion, and Pestage told Mara to plot a course for the world orbiting them. So they came at last to Byss, a world full of the energies of the dark side where the Emperor and his adepts had built a model of the galactic society they were striving for. Warm and peaceful blue-green sunlight shone on the billions of citizens that had followed the lure of this beautiful planet, and settled among the islands and canyons in the luxurious cities. The life force of these billions was gently leeched away by the dark side adepts while they complacently enjoyed endless resort life. On Byss, the dark side had total sway without anyone firing a single shot. And Mara Jade could sense none of it.

Mara flew over the Imperial Control Sector, which dominated an entire continent. She approached the Imperial Citadel, an enormous spire several kilometers high. Pestage informed her that, were it not for the recognition codes being broadcast by their ship, they would never have penetrated the defensive zone of the Citadel alive. As it was, they registered the tracking signatures of hundreds of turbolasers as they sailed smoothly into Palpatine's private docking bay. Three hundred Sovereign Protectors were ceremonially lined up in the bay to receive them.

Pestage and Mara descended the ramp and stood wearily before one of the Emperor's dark side adepts, Savuud Thimram. Thimram was visibly shocked to see the dirty, exhausted looking pair, and he could not suppress his anxious questions. "Grand Vizier! Where is the Emperor? We have heard rumors of his death, and indeed, we have felt the weakness in the dark side. You have come in the Emperor's personal transport. What can you tell us?"

Pestage summoned as much dignity as he could. "I would speak with you privately, Savuud. But first we need some rest. We have been mistreated and sorely pressed. See that quarters are prepared for us." Pestage gave Thimram a certain signal that told the adept to probe his surface thoughts: Palpatine is dead, but there may yet be hope. He has somehow preserved himself in the mind of this woman. She must be brought to the clone labs as soon as possible.

Thimram nodded and signaled that he understood. He spoke rapidly into his comlink, then led Mara and Pestage out of the bay and into the halls of the Citadel. Mara stumbled along, and her face showed that she still needed a lot more sleep. Her headache was still plaguing her, and only the thought of a real bed kept her going. Thimram gave Pestage a significant look. They were nearing the clone labs. Stay close to her, Pestage thought.

And even as Thimram stepped near to Mara, she suddenly cried out, clutched at her head, and collapsed into the adept's arms.

"It is done, my Master," sighed Sate Pestage.

"Are you sure you will not stay, Mara Jade?" asked the Grand Vizier. "Byss is a soothing place, it is said, and after your help in getting me here, the least you are owed is a secure life among those who were loyal to the Emperor."

Mara stared out at the beautiful city of lights, glistening under the five moons of Byss. They were standing in the Emperor's docking bay, several days after Mara's collapse. She had awakened in a comfortable bed, her headache gone at last. But her Force powers were still gone, and she had still dreamed of killing Skywalker. She had explored Byss for a while, but despite its beauty, she had only seen Palpatine's ghost, staring at her wherever she went. She knew she could never find peace here, not until she carried out the Emperor's last command.

"I appreciate the offer," Mara said sadly, "but I have unfinished business to take care of." Her hand strayed to the lightsaber at her belt.

"Where will you go?" asked Pestage.

"I'm not sure. I can't go to the Empire, or what's left of it, and I can't go to the Rebels either. I suppose I'll try to survive on the Fringe...I don't know."

"At least you will accept this gift," Pestage said firmly, indicating the shuttle. "The coordinates of Byss will be erased when you leave, but the codes protecting you from hostile Imperials will still be there. I'll know you are safe."

"I accept," she smiled. "You know, I'm going to miss you. You're a good man. Thanks for sharing your secrets with me. I feel like you're my grandfather, in a way. Is that okay?"

Pestage nodded, smiling.

"May the Force be with you, Grand Vizier," Mara said, and went up into the shuttle.

"May the Force return to you, Mara Jade," he said softly, after her.

A while later, the shuttle lifted off gracefully, and climbed for the stars. When it had dwindled to a distant point of light, Pestage heard quiet footsteps approach him from behind.

It was Palpatine. He was alive, and young again. He stood next to Pestage, not speaking, just sharing his presence with the man to whom he owed so much.

"You may have mishandled her, Master," Pestage said after a while. "I'm not sure she will finally do as you wish."

"Only time will tell," Palpatine said simply. "The future is no longer...open to me."

"Are you well, Master?" Pestage asked.

"I am alive, Sate Pestage, but I have lost a great deal. My powers are at their lowest level in decades. My adepts have become my teachers, and they say I can be restored, but it will take years. Years while the Rebels claim my galaxy."

"Master, there will be a chance to reclaim that, too, I am sure. When that day comes, you may encounter Luke Skywalker again. If you will accept my advice, I would ask you to consider that meeting with care. Perhaps it is not necessary to be his adversary. Perhaps you can turn him next time, and even make him the heir to your Empire."

"I will consider your words, Sate Pestage," Palpatine said. "With Vader gone, it may be the wisest course to follow. But that, too, must wait." Palpatine was silent for a time.

Pestage bowed slightly. "I will leave you to your thoughts, Master, and retire for the evening."

"Good night, Old Friend," said Palpatine. Pestage walked away, his robes whispering, and Palpatine stood gazing at the city. For now, it was all that was left of his Empire. That would have to be enough. The doors closed behind the Grand Vizier. Hearing that, Palpatine said quietly, "Good night, Father."

Part Five: The Power of the Dark Side

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

Although the Empire continues to fade, its lost Emperor is determined to resurrect it. Assembling a great fleet, Palpatine plans his return and final victory.

But on the Dark Side world of Byss, treacherous adepts have banded together to plot the downfall of the leader who has failed them.

A deadly coup will destroy all that the Emperor has worked to build, unless he can reclaim his lost dark side strength.

"The Force is an energy field, fed by all living things. All living things have darkness within them that feeds the dark side of the Force. The universe rages. My own anger can unlock and unleash the anger of the cosmos. From this act flows the power of the dark side."

-From The Book of Anger

"Tell me, Savuud Thimram," said Palpatine, "why have you not betrayed me in my time of weakness?" The former Galactic Emperor leaned back in his chair, regarding the powerful adept across the heavy table. Thimram hid it well, but a flicker of anxiety still showed in his thin semi-human face. The question had caught him by surprise. They had, after all, been deep in a discussion about the weakness of inferiors, such as the citizenry of Byss, and how their life energy was stolen by the adepts. Stolen to pay the price of physical decay demanded by the dark side. Savuud Thimram had never once thought of Palpatine as weak or inferior. Not even after Endor, when Palpatine had returned to Byss shorn of most of his dark might. To him, Palpatine would always simply be The Master.

It was that fact that had led to Thimram being chosen as the adept who would guide Palpatine in his attempts to regain his power. Palpatine had always trusted Thimram, and trust was something rare among followers of the dark side. So why was he asking about betrayal? Thimram was unable to block out vivid memories of the fates of others who had betrayed Palpatine in the past. Vader's death was one of the more gentle examples. He quickly buried those thoughts and forced himself to consider the question seriously.

Thimram placed both hands on the table, formally showing that no Force generated attacks were being made. His small lips tight above his pointed chin, he took a moment to choose carefully how to answer. If his loyalty was in question, it was a serious matter.

"Before the events at Endor," Thimram began, "no one would have thought they could betray you and survive. Even Vader, deluded as he was, knew he took his life in his hands when he began to plan his treason. Your power was immense. You didn't need to be concerned about adepts like myself because your link to us gave you the ability to observe us at any time. But Master, you must believe, I never even considered treason, and not simply because it would have meant my death. I was amazed by your strength and knowledge, and I have always felt fortunate that you have shared some of it with me. My loyalty was always that of the apprentice to the Master."

Savuud paused, searching Palpatine's face for a hint of where this was leading. The Master's emotions were hidden, and his expression was unreadable. Thimram had known that face in many guises. Just now it was the face of a man in his early thirties. Palpatine had aged very little since the day, two years ago, when he had left the mind of Mara Jade and returned to life in one of his own clones. But then, it was the heavy use of the power that led to accelerated aging, and Palpatine had been brought low. It was almost as if the dark side had withdrawn its favor from him. Perhaps the dark side was the most unforgiving Master of all.

"And now?" Palpatine prompted him quietly.

"And now..." Thimram felt a nervous dampness break out on his brown skin. "I am still your student, Master. Despite your raw strength being diminished, your knowledge has only grown. No one alive knows more than you about the lore of the dark side. Besides, with your determined research into new sources of power, it will not be long before your strength surpasses what it once was. There are rewards for loyalty to the true powers in life, especially for loyalty during hard times." Thimram tried to remain calm. Palpatine continued to screen his thoughts. Thimram began to wonder if someone else had been trying to turn the Master against him.

Palpatine leaned aggressively towards Thimram. "And yet, my research into the hidden lore is recorded in my archives and books. I have but few secrets that I have not committed to my compendium. If I were gone, you could use that knowledge to dominate all the other adepts. Byss would be yours. You are stronger than I am. Why not destroy me and take my place?"

Thimram decided to get to the bottom of this uncomfortable situation. Perfect frankness, although dangerous, was called for. "Master, I must assure you of my present and continued loyalty. I don't covet your position, nor do I think I'm suited for it. If someone has been informing you to the contrary, I tell you it is a lie. To oppose you, even now, in your 'weakness', would be folly. Here on Byss, you are secure in your fortress. Four hundred Sovereign Protectors remain absolutely loyal to you. My own powers, formidable though they are, couldn't preserve my life against them. You control hundreds of Sentinels as well. Again, I'd dismiss my chances of survival against so many of those giants. Then there are the Stormtroopers, the Royal Guard, and all your technology. Of what use would your destruction be, if I didn't live to reap the rewards? And then there is the plain fact that if I tried to kill you right now, and succeeded, I still would have failed. You would transfer to a clone, and secure in the clone labs, you could decree my death at the hands of your legions." Thimram waited, uneasy, for the Master to reply.

"Very good, Savuud. I appreciate honesty. And I don't believe you would betray me."

Thimram felt the tension drain from him.

"However," Palpatine continued, frowning, "I have felt something in the Force lately. A sense of danger. Something is going to happen." Palpatine looked away. "Of all the things I have lost, the power of vision is what I miss most. Before, I could simply have foreseen the threat. No longer..."

"Master," said Thimram, confident once more, "I haven't heard of any danger, but your feelings must not be ignored. It could be the beginning of your vision returning. If we remain alert, we can catch any threats before they begin."

Thimram could see that the Master was still troubled. Palpatine's old arrogant posture had been replaced by a visible restlessness. The traumatic events involving Luke Skywalker and Lord Vader had left their scars. Palpatine's supreme confidence had been undermined. Thimram, perhaps experiencing a premonition of his own, sensed that an even more terrible trial lay in the near future.

"My Empire was built on the power of the dark side. Without that power, it could not hold together. My own dark will drove the Imperial war machine, and its wheels were lubricated by fear and anger - anger at the Rebellion, and fear of my punishment. But fear, anger, and military might were not enough to hold it all together. Without the dark side, that same fear and anger were enough to tear the Empire apart."

-From The Book of Anger

"Dinner is served, Master," said Sate Pestage. He entered Palpatine's chambers carrying two steaming trays. Placing both of them on a shining table, Pestage gathered his jeweled hems together and settled down, breathing in the aroma of savory flangth. He looked over at the room's other occupant with good-natured impatience. Palpatine was at a huge desk, engrossed with an alien book on the Tyia, an alternate way of viewing the Force. Pestage knew his Master was ranging far and wide in his studies to find new insights into the power of the Force. More alien adepts than ever before had been gathered on Byss, as Palpatine invited them in order to simultaneously teach them and learn their secrets.

The former Emperor was oblivious to Pestage's presence. The old man cleared his throat. "It is unkind to keep your elder waiting, Espaa," suggested Pestage.

Palpatine looked up from his book, frowning. "Perhaps you will recall that I have told you not to call me that."

Pestage shrugged, smiling inwardly. This was a familiar conversation. "Will you not indulge an old man in his doddering sentiment?" Espaa was the name of Pestage's son from long ago, stolen from him by the Sith after his wife's death. Over the years, Pestage had come to believe that Palpatine was that son. He had not spoken of his belief until after the Battle of Endor, when he had told Mara Jade. The Emperor had been residing in her mind, and Pestage had suspected that he could hear him. Regardless of whether that was so, Palpatine's behavior towards the Grand Vizier had changed after that. There was a new level of trust between them. Pestage had saved his Master's life, and Palpatine had repaid that debt of gratitude by opening himself to the old man, sharing his fears and ambitions. Endor had humbled him enough to let one person into his life.

Pestage wasn't sure Palpatine considered him to be his father; he wasn't exactly the sort of person who had a father. But the simple fact that Palpatine now treated him as an equal made all that Pestage had gone through to save him absolutely worth it.

Palpatine loudly shut his book and came over to sit opposite Sate Pestage. "Old man indeed! I have sometimes thought that you have more of a chance of living forever than I do."

Pestage picked up his utensils and began to eat contentedly. He was old, a bony, wizened figure whose scarecrow-like body was lost in his sparkling cassock. In contrast, Palpatine for once looked the part of Pestage's potential son. His strong-boned face was crowned by a blonde widow's peak and short-cropped hair. His eyes never changed. They were as hard and as penetrating as ever. Pestage was pleased that whenever they fell on him, they softened a fraction. To bring out a tiny part of the deeply buried humanity of his Master was no mean feat.

"Let us discuss what is left of the Empire, Old Friend," said Palpatine after a while. "Tell me of the latest reports."

"The fragmentation continues unabated, Master. The various Grand Moffs and Generals continue to carve out their little pieces, fight each other over them, then lose what they had won. And much of it is still being done in your name. The most important new trend is the growing power of the Warlords. The days of vying for power politically are over for good, I think. Today, only military strength counts. We have followed the progress of one Warlord, Zsinj, in particular. With his Super Star Destroyer, he is causing heavy damage to various New Republic worlds. The man is a criminal, but he is effective. He is likely to be successful in carving out his own mini-Empire."

"Until I take it from him," Palpatine smiled grimly. "And what of the so called New Republic's gains?"

"Our intelligence estimates that they will have control of Coruscant within two years. Little stands in their way. Systems like Correllia and Kuat have become fortresses, turning completely inward. The Warlords are powerful, but self-interested. In fact, some of them have fought with loyal Imperial forces that defend the Core Worlds. The way is open to Coruscant." Pestage looked crestfallen. "They will take the Palace, Master."

Palpatine shrugged slightly. "But they will not destroy it. Anything that they have taken can be retaken when I am ready. And it will not be so easy for them to take Coruscant. I happen to know that Ysanne Isard, the Director of Intelligence, has a few surprises ready for the Rebels in Imperial City."

"Director..." Pestage frowned. "She thinks she is much more than that. She dares to act as your successor, when no one is fit to take your place."

Pestage was disturbed by the memory of how, shortly after he had restored his Master to a clone body on Byss, Palpatine had wanted to test the political situation on Coruscant in the wake of his "death". A clone of Pestage had been created, and sent to Coruscant to take power. The original Pestage had been exiled by Chief Advisor Ars Dangor, but now Dangor was dead, and his policies were discredited. The same ruling circle which had allowed Pestage to be exiled accepted the clone Pestage back as their new ruler.

The central accusation which Dangor had used to exile Pestage was that he had used his position to give the Emperor treacherous advice which led to his death at Endor. The clone Pestage was sent back to Coruscant with carefully prepared evidence that in fact, Dangor had been the traitor, and that Pestage's exile was for the sole purpose of removing Dangor's rival for the throne. Documents were "discovered" which named Pestage as the Emperor's chosen successor, and Pestage was presented as the only person who could rule effectively and resolve the chaos that had existed since the death of Palpatine. The ruling circle had agreed, but privately, Pestage wondered whether the other advisors had been influenced by Palpatine's dark adepts; it was the only explanation he could think of for their unlikely reversal.

All too soon, Pestage had discovered how shallow their conversion was. The clone Pestage was not nearly as capable as Palpatine was in controlling the intrigue and treachery of his court. His "rule" lasted a mere six months. All the while, Ysanne Isard worked tirelessly against him, until finally, her schemes led to the clone's death at the hands of an Imperial Warlord named Krennel.

After that, Palpatine had not made any more attempts to control who sat upon the throne, choosing instead to ignore the issue until the time of his own return. But the incident still dismayed Pestage, whose good name had been sullied. The clone Pestage had been made unaware of the Emperor's survival, and so had behaved in a manner most disloyal to Palpatine and the Empire. And now, Isard had all the power she wanted, power she did not deserve at all.

Palpatine smiled knowingly at his companion, seeming to read his thoughts. "Do not be concerned with questions of who rules in Imperial Center. As I have told you before, this chaos is to be expected. While I ruled, I gave power to ruthless and ambitious people. But they feared me, and rightly so! They didn't try to take more than they were given. Now, it is only their natural tendencies taking over. Let them have their petty squabbles, my friend. It will keep them all busy while I prepare my forces. When I go forth with the World Devastators and the Eclipse, nothing that the Warlords or the Rebels have done will matter. Specific territories do not matter. I am going to crush the spirit of the galaxy."

Palpatine's gaze turned inwards, perhaps visualizing the conflict to come. Pestage ate quietly for a few minutes, then, raising a skeletal finger, he interrupted his Master's introspection. "There are other players in the game to be accounted for, Master. There is Grand Admiral Thrawn."

"Yes." Palpatine rested his chin on his hand. "Thrawn is still in Wild Space, but he is due to return in three years. I would prefer that he not be wasted in pointless fighting with the Rebels, but knowing Thrawn, that is precisely what he will want. When I am ready, he would make an excellent Commander for my forces. We will see. If he returns, and if he survives, we will see. I will not reveal myself until the proper time has come."

"The proper time?" asked Pestage.

"It will depend on my recovery of my power, and on Luke Skywalker," said Palpatine. "There must be no surprises this time. But, so far there is little cause for concern. I have followed his progress. His powers have not greatly increased, and his sister remains untrained. No new Jedi have been trained. Skywalker will find it very hard to grow in power. The lore of the Jedi was swept clean from the galaxy during the Purge. He cannot hope to become a Master."

"That is, unless you train him." Pestage took every chance he got to promote this idea. Luke Skywalker worried Sate Pestage. Pestage felt certain, deep inside, that he somehow did have the power to be a threat in the future. He was determined not to see his beloved Master lost again, so he tried to convince Palpatine to plan for Skywalker's alliance rather than his destruction.

Palpatine made a noncommittal noise. "And create another Vader, perhaps?"

Pestage had no answer to that.

They ate in silence. Finally, the table's comlink chirped. Palpatine touched a key, leaning towards it. The voice of Savuud Thimram grated from the small speaker. "Master, the Eclipse has arrived, and is now in orbit around Byss." Palpatine and Pestage looked at each other. Both knew what that meant. Pestage felt a pang of anxiety.

"Thank you Savuud. Have my shuttle prepared. I shall be there shortly." They both stood. "We will continue our discussion...another time. Until then, Old Friend."

"Until then, Master", said Pestage, bowing deeply. It was a habit he could not break. Palpatine strode quickly out of the room, leaving Pestage to stare at the empty doorway for a long moment. May the Force be with you, Espaa. And be careful. The risks you take are so that you can regain the power, and with it, the greatness you deserve. You will succeed. You will because you must.

"The new technology of destruction is an extremely useful tool for furthering the aims of the dark side. Star Destroyers and Death Stars were viewed by some as tools of political conquest. They missed the point entirely. My vision for the galaxy has always been to fill its uncounted worlds with the emotions that serve the dark side. If a civilization is burned down by the guns of a Star Destroyer, it is gone forever, but if it can be made to fear that destruction, the true power in the galaxy grows ever stronger."

-From The Book of Anger

Alone in his private shuttle, Palpatine rose past the moons of Byss and faced the star-crowded heavens of the Deep Core. He could feel the stellar energies like a warm breeze, laced with the distant chill of the great black hole at the center of the galaxy. For a long time, he simply looked at the galaxy, as he used to when he was Emperor. To rule over every one of those stars...it was a seductive thought.

Then he felt an approaching presence, a thing of vast energies contained, threatening. Ahead, the profusion of stars was blotted out by a black shape that slowly expanded. The ship was majestic. It ate the light and shed darkness. The Eclipse was twice the length of the lost Executor. From its foreboding bridge to the gigantic triangular plain of its upper hull, it was made of a superdense ebony alloy. Instead of coming to a point, the hull flared downwards into a huge frontal spine that held a gaping rectangular mouth of fire. That baleful glow was the firing portal of the weapon that dictated the staggering length of the Eclipse, a superlaser capable of destroying a planet regardless of planetary shields.

The ship was unfinished. It had been under construction for years, ever since the Battle of Hoth had suggested the utility of combining a Star Destroyer with the Death Star's prime weapon. Even after Endor, when many Imperials wanted to cease its unbelievably costly creation, construction implacably continued. Palpatine's dark side adepts saw to that.

The axial superlaser was complete, as was the hyperdrive. Still to come were the fighters, gravity well projectors, tractor beams, turbolasers, and ion cannons. But Palpatine did not mean to take the ship into combat. It was Palpatine's means of reclaiming his former might. With it, he meant to tap into the power of the dark side.

Years ago, when the first Death Star had destroyed the rebellious planet Alderaan, Palpatine had discovered to his stunned surprise that the event tremendously strengthened the dark side of the Force while weakening the light side. The terrified death of an entire living world had sent more power than he could possibly contain coursing through him. His plans to take advantage of that had been rudely disrupted by the interference of Obi-Wan Kenobi and his young student, Luke Skywalker. But the idea was never lost, and now Palpatine had the ability to make it a reality.

This time, he would not be fully at one with the dark side, lest the power should overwhelm or even kill him. Instead, he would enter a meditative state, receiving a lesser share of the power. The next time, he would be able to take more. In this manner, planet by planet, he meant to once again become Master of the dark side.

And though the destruction of several worlds might be felt by those sensitive to the light side, distance and the energies of the Deep Core should mask the loss completely. Skywalker would not suspect a thing. It was, of course, his fault that Palpatine faced this dangerous necessity. Skywalker had driven him to seek survival within the mind of Mara Jade. Her tiny node of Force sensitivity had been unable to contain his total energy. He had left most of it behind in order to retain his basic self. And even though his clone was capable of harboring great power, when he entered it he was as weak as he had been decades ago. Unless he found a radical solution, he faced a return climb that was also decades long.

Palpatine hoped this would be it. His shuttle joined a small convoy of ships carrying crew and supplies for the voyage. They were all soon lost against the awesome starship that eclipsed the stars. The shuttle sailed into a docking bay large enough to hold a Victory class Star Destroyer. Immediately he felt the dark aura of the ship surround him. The ship was crewed by many dark side adepts, and everywhere in its enormous volume, the seductive whisper of the dark side could be heard. It was a space going world devoid of light, clotted with rage.

Palpatine immediately felt right at home.

Urn Zelotes relaxed in his tower in Velarium, the city of adepts, watching one of his favorite segments from Palpatine's Book of Anger. Zelotes was a tall, reedy Thaarnian, with four-fingered clawed hands, lizard like skin, and a wedge-shaped head with widely spaced eyes. Zelotes had the disconcerting habit of glaring with one milky eye while leaving the other slitted in suspicion. Rattling his bracelets slightly, Zelotes lifted one claw to place against his pointed chin and smiled grimly. His moment of moments was drawing near, the fruition of all his plans.

Before Zelotes shimmered a life-sized hologram of Palpatine, speaking in that arrogant, pedantic way of his. The Book of Anger was an unfinished hologram recording of Palpatine's teachings that he shared with all of the adepts. Palpatine had admitted that he was unable to create his own Holocron, and so this means of recording was his only similar option. Unlike a Holocron, the Book of Anger was not interactive. It could not be questioned; it would not reply. It simply droned on and on. Zelotes wished he could hold a conversation with the image. He wanted to berate it, accuse it, punish it, and tell it how he planned to kill it forever.

The best he could do was to freeze the image periodically and vent his recriminations at it.

"The universe is full of power," Palpatine was saying. "To release it, you must harness the emotions of hate, anger, fear, and aggression. Release your own anger and the anger of infinity is released. By itself, the dark side is a thing of chaos and irrationality. It has no control, no conscience, no restraint. But domination is its goal. There is a bargain to be made with it. It gives you power and exacts its price. In order to let the power flow through you, you must let the destructive emotions flow through you. But that is not all. It is a great danger to those who cannot control their emotions. Only with a strong will can you control your rage and make the power your servant. When anger is controlled intelligently, there is nothing you cannot do."

Zelotes paused the recording. "Nothing you can't do! But you never share the most powerful secrets with us, do you? Keeping us below you, always below. Now you are the one brought low. Low enough to step on." He resumed the recording.

"Throughout history, followers of the dark side have never been organized as the Jedi were. I have changed that. I am creating a compendium of knowledge and gathering students. The Jedi are destroyed, and I will replace them with a stable order of Dark Jedi. I will replace the Moffs and Grand Moffs, the Captains, Generals, and Admirals, the Governors and Presidents, all with followers of the dark side. The Empire is just a first step towards the birth of a Dark Empire. All who follow me will take up positions of power in the Final Order. The light side of the Force will be utterly forgotten -"

Zelotes angrily froze the image. He leaned very close to Palpatine's glittering face and spat his hate and frustration at it. "Promises, promises, Master. Where is your Dark Empire now? You called us to you, promised to teach us and give us positions of power. And what did you do? You let your Empire die! You indulged your obsession with the last Jedi until it destroyed you. You're in no position ever to give me what you told me would be mine or even to get back what you once had, but still you make promises! You called us to you, not to teach us, but to get our knowledge to add to your own. Now it's time to pay what you owe, and because you have failed and cannot give us worlds to rule, we will take as payment your life itself. In your own words, you have said it: betrayal and death. You have betrayed us, and earned death."

Palpatine resumed speaking. "- and the dark side will dominate forever. The Empire itself is an excellent tool for paving the way for this transformation. It produces the emotions that strengthen the dark side at every turn. There are threats to survival such as slavery and imprisonment. There is the loss of culture, government, rights, and identity. There is the ever-present whisper of atrocity and injustice. The populace of the galaxy is filled with fear...Where adepts have gathered in the past, there have been battles, betrayal, and death. They mistrust one another and are driven to fight each other for dominance. But in the Dark Empire, among the followers of the dark side, there must be a basic cooperation. Betrayal is capable of provoking an explosive outpouring of anger, but the Final Order cannot tolerate it -"

Zelotes froze the image one last time. "Master of hypocrisy! You speak of a stable, trusting order of Dark Jedi, but you never trusted anyone, and so long as you stood high above all the others, anyone who betrayed another was encouraged. But if they betrayed you... Now you'll feel betrayal for the last time. You'll feel the contempt, the humiliation, and then you'll die." Zelotes made the former Emperor vanish, then went to the window. In the distance, several kilometers away, but still highly visible, the Imperial Citadel penetrated the sky. The betrayer had left that great spire and gone to his new warship. Even now, Zelotes' allies were on the ship with Palpatine, waiting for the moment of justice. The other adepts had the task of slaying Palpatine without warning. Zelotes himself faced the more dangerous mission; he would have to prevent the betrayer from returning to life. He must invade the most closely guarded place on the planet, Palpatine's cloning laboratory.

"Betrayal is capable of provoking an explosive outpouring of anger, but the Final Order cannot tolerate it, or its consequences. When the Dark Empire is complete, the followers of the dark side will share my power of being able to observe each other. Betrayal will no longer be practical. Only with this basic cooperation can the order of Dark Jedi attempt the next task, the conquering of the entire galaxy, and then, in the distant future, other galaxies..."

-From The Book of Anger

Rollo Mon shuffled through the halls of the Imperial Citadel. He had just finished his scheduled checking on Palpatine's clones with Sate Pestage, and as usual, his thoughts were full of biotechnology. He didn't even notice, as he entered his quarters, that the lights were dimmer than usual. Thus he also failed to see the hulking shape standing in the room's far corner. He began sifting through a stack of files on his desk, and was very startled when he heard someone clear his throat loudly. He spun, dropping papers everywhere, to see one of the Emperor's adepts lounging in his favorite chair.

"AAH! Don't do that!" he exclaimed. You shouldn't scare people like that. How did you get in here? Wait, don't I know you? The exiled...ah...Magian from Thaarn? Adept Zemekkis, right?"

"Zelotes, Constable. I'm sorry I frightened you. But you see, I'm in need of your assistance." Zelotes stood up. "I need to get into the innermost cloning laboratory, and I need your help with the access codes." The adept's hands clenched oddly as his face took on a look of concentration. It still felt strange to him to use the Force without talismans.

Rollo Mon backed away. "I'm sorry, Adept Zelotes, I can't share that information. The Emperor forbids it. No one else is to enter those labs, especially while he is away. I...I just can't...help you." He stopped his retreat abruptly.

"Yes, Constable, I commend your loyalty, but the Emperor needs me to get into the lab. Before he left, he gave me special orders. He wants an experimental solution tested on his clones, and he said you would help me. He told me to come to you. You are the only one who can help me carry out his wishes."

Rollo Mon said slowly, "I'm the only one who can help you. Do you wish to go there now?"

"No Constable. First we need to wait for a little more protection. The solution is highly valuable and very rare." Zelotes picked up a clear cylinder of yellow liquid. "I have strict orders to prevent it from being stolen by his enemies. He thinks certain of his adepts may be plotting against him, but he doesn't know which ones. You and I might not be able to hold off a traitorous attack on our own. So I brought my Sentinel."

Zelotes gestured, and the giant stepped out of the corner. It was a silent titan, carrying a tall pole arm. Its body was hidden under many layers of clothing, and its shadowed helm hid all of its face save two glinting reddish eyes. The Sentinels were cloned creatures, linked to their adepts and dependent on them for their purpose. They could share their perceptions with their adepts, and they were fearsome fighters. Palpatine had access to several hundred, but the lesser adepts were allotted only one each. Zelotes had brought his own, and his ten allies had contributed theirs. Eleven Sentinels would have to be enough.

"We await the arrival of ten more Sentinels, Constable. His Majesty informed me that several uniforms were stolen from the Sovereign Protectors. We may run into enemies who look like our allies. Have patience."

Rollo Mon was quite overwhelmed. His defenseless mind had fallen swiftly to Zelotes, and he was further caught up in the intrigue. "Do you really think there'll be fighting? That's incredible...Well, you can count on me. But, ahh, there is a slight complication. Usually the Emperor enters the innermost labs with me. Now that he is away, he has entrusted his portion of the access code to the Grand Vizier. We were just there a while ago. I'm not sure where he went after that, but we can probably find him. How much time do you have?" Rollo Mon looked at Urn Zelotes with concern. The adept had begun to curse, very loudly.

Rollo Mon watched, curious, as Adept Zelotes paced nervously back and forth. Standing rigidly beyond the agitated alien were eleven towering Sentinels. They made the Constable uneasy, they always had. Even with his meter high head ornament, the little scientist only came up to a Sentinel's chest. And they were so very still. It was eerie.

There was a gentle knock at the door, and Zelotes' agitation redoubled. "Answer it. If it's Sate Pestage, let him in, but don't tell him I'm here."

Rollo Mon nodded, pleased to see some action after so much waiting. He hurried into the hall and opened the door to see the elderly Grand Vizier looking tensely at him. There was no need for tension. Once the Grand Vizier saw how things were so well in hand with Adept Zelotes there, he would be so much more at ease.

"Constable, I've come as you asked. Now tell me what you know about a threat to the Emperor. What have you discovered?"

Rollo Mon waved Sate Pestage into the hall. "Not out here," he hissed, and hurried into the main room. Pestage followed.

Zelotes summoned his will as the Grand Vizier came into view. This new and unexpected development had greatly increased the difficulty of his task. Now he would have to control two minds as well as coordinate the actions of eleven Sentinels. The labs were about ten minutes away. It promised to be a quite an ordeal.

Pestage saw the gathered Sentinels first, and an expression of startled suspicion was born on his face. Zelotes clamped an instant coercive hold on both Rollo Mon's and Pestage's minds. The time for brain-washing was over. He saw Pestage's eyes fill with outrage at his captivity, but the Vizier could not move.

"Welcome, Grand Vizier Pestage," said Zelotes. "You are just in time to help me destroy your Master once and for all." The adept forced Rollo Mon and Sate Pestage to stand to either side of him. He opened the door and sent his own Sentinel ahead as a scout. A single Sentinel would not immediately alarm the Sovereign Protectors; it could be going about the business of any of the adepts. His Sentinel would also give him visuals of what was around the next corner. Zelotes had planned his route in advance, but chance encounters with soldiers could still ruin him. He linked himself to the monster, and in moments, he could see out of its eyes. As usual, the sense of height was disorienting. With his two captives at his side and surrounded by the other Sentinels, Zelotes went out after his mute slave.

Soon the giant reached the first security cameras, and as planned, a small device it carried emitted a short burst of energy. The camera would pick up only static for a minute, enough time for Zelotes to hurry past. He didn't want any clear images of him to be made, in case he had to retreat. For two minutes, the route proved to be an excellent choice. Then they encountered a Stormtrooper patrol. The Sentinels took the troopers by surprise, tearing into them and rending them limb from limb. Zelotes didn't need to direct their every move in combat. They were programmed for such ruthless violence.

Zelotes had to place a new Sentinel at point, as his was now blood-soaked. He was unused to the specific mind of that giant and had trouble linking his vision to it. As a result, the Sentinel marched straight through an intersection without revealing to Zelotes the Sovereign Protector standing in the cross-corridor. The elite warrior, however, detected Zelotes. He was trained in the use of the dark side of the Force, and the coercion being placed on the captives was like a beacon drawing his attention. The Protector was there to investigate the failure of the Stormtrooper squad to report, and he was fully alert.

Zelotes and his prisoners came into view, and the Protector was already in motion, barking a clipped command into his comlink for reinforcements. In one hand, he had a prototype blaster, in the other, an exotic Force Pike.

The adept went pale with shocked surprise, and lost his control over Rollo Mon and Sate Pestage. But the two men swayed and held their heads, unable to recover. The Protector's first shot ripped away the lead Sentinel's head with immense violence. As the others closed with him, the soldier spun and darted beneath the grasp of the nearest behemoth with impressive dexterity, twisting his Force Pike at full power into its vitals. Sparking and shuddering, the weapon penetrated the giant's light armor. But even as the discharges ravaged its brutish nervous system, the Sentinel forced itself forward. The Force Pike burned out its back as the Sentinel managed a powerful backhanded blow that broke the Protector's neck.

Zelotes recovered his wits. Two Sentinels picked up the prisoners, and the invaders left the dying Sentinel behind in an awful embrace with the corpse of the Protector. Pestage and Rollo Mon, now fully aware, were terrified and furious. The minutes ticked by as they came ever closer to Zelotes' goal. A sudden storm of blaster fire announced the arrival of the Sovereign Protector reinforcements. Zelotes spun and blocked some of the bolts with his hands, desperate to keep his captives alive. Several of the Sentinels went down, gaping holes burned dead center into their backs. Zelotes sent the rest back towards the Protectors, keeping only the two holding Pestage and Rollo Mon. Then he ran on towards the clone labs.

The meeting of the two forces was a fury of noise that washed over the fleeing adept. The Protectors were the most elite of the Empire's soldiers, chosen from the Royal Guard for their stamina, strength, dexterity, and intelligence. The Force further enhanced their perceptions and sped their reactions. The Sentinels were much stronger, but they were dependent on the will of their adepts. As Zelotes fled, they were doomed to failure.

Wielded with the astonishing skill of the Protectors, a few vibroweapons and heavy blasters spelled the end of Zelotes' force. The fight came to an abrupt end when the Protectors' Commander stepped up with a Prax Energy Rifle and fired microgrenades into the helmets of the last three standing Sentinels. There was a stunning report, and fragments of the giants' heavy robes soared flaming through the air as their headless forms slumped heavily to the floor.

Zelotes felt the loss of his Sentinels through the Force. Despairing, he experienced a moment of pure terror as the corridor became a dead end and he realized what the Sovereign Protectors would do to him. Then he understood that he had reached the clone labs at last. Before him was a heavy blast door with a complex control panel to one side. Zelotes throttled his own panic and reasserted his control over Rollo Mon and Sate Pestage.

"Open it," he growled. They stumbled forward, rushing to do his bidding. The codes were entered, and moments later, Zelotes experienced the immense relief of the blast door hissing shut behind him.

"Disable all the lab security systems," he commanded. A plan to deceive the adept flickered across Pestage's thoughts. Zelotes caught it, and punished him with an angry constriction of his wrinkled throat. Gasping, Pestage went to his stick like knees. "Don't defy me, or you die. It's that simple." Zelotes pointed to the console. "One of you, turn it all off, and erase any recordings made so far. I'll know if you do it wrong."

Rollo Mon scurried to the controls and deactivated the system, but Pestage seemed unable to get up. He was weak, and getting weaker. Zelotes didn't care. He brought out the cylinder of yellow liquid, and passed it to Rollo Mon. "Feed this into the Spaarti Cylinders."

Rollo Mon thought of dashing the cylinder to the floor, but the thought was detected. His hands wouldn't obey him; instead they hooked the container up to the nutrient feed lines. He watched in impotent horror as the poison flowed out to find every clone. All his work was being destroyed. He wanted to die rather than watch, but watch he did. Some of the clones twitched violently, then they were still. The youngest forms did not react at all. One by one, the tanks began to whine with warning alarms as their contents died. At Zelotes' command, Rollo Mon shut those off, too. When the last alarm was silenced, the only sounds were the gasps of Sate Pestage, the whimpering of Rollo Mon, and the dull thud of the Sovereign Protectors' first attempt to get through the blast door. Zelotes was not worried. It would hold for a while, yet.

He trembled as a feeling of wild victory coursed through him. He had survived, and he had won! The clones of the betrayer were destroyed, and it was done in time. At any moment now, the betrayer himself would be destroyed, and Zelotes would get the message of ultimate success on the room's HoloNet terminal. He forced Rollo Mon to his knees next to Sate Pestage and waited.

"When rage leads directly to results, a sense of the omnipotence of expressed rage grows. Vader felt this sense of power, but he and I did not use it in the same way. I have truly learned to control my anger, while Vader could only partially control his. Like a berserker, he always struck out with his rage, but I am like a furnace. My rage burns deep within, contained and concentrated. Mine was ever the greater strength, for this reason. Many of my enemies were fooled by my apparent lack of defenses. But rage, focused within and controlled, is a devastating weapon that can be used at any time, and without warning."

-From The Book of Anger

Standing on the bridge of the Eclipse, Admiral Dal reflected that his career had certainly had its ups and downs while serving Emperor Palpatine. Dal had first come to the Emperor's attention in the early days of the Empire, for his part in the massacre that ended the threat of the Zingali. He had climbed in the ranks swiftly, becoming an Admiral by the Battle of Endor. He remembered that day vividly. His Star Destroyer had been in a great fleet, trapping the Rebels between them and the Death Star. Evidently, a madman's order was given within the Rebel fleet, for the Rebel frigates and Mon Cal cruisers had flown directly into their midst and opened fire at point blank range. It broke all the rules of Capital Ship combat, and it was horrible to behold.

Most of all, Dal remembered the explosions of the Star Destroyers. The city-like ships almost brushed up against the Rebel cruisers and the tiny space between them was like a lace work of turbolaser bolts. Twin rows of fireballs blossomed along each hull as deflector shields crumbled and the pent-up hatred of years of conflict was given a savage outlet. A dying Mon Cal cruiser had aimed itself directly at Admiral Dal's bridge, but another Star Destroyer, spinning out of control, hit it first. Their collision had nearly taken Dal's ship with it. Dark and disabled, they had drifted away from the battle. A while later, the blackness of the bridge had been lit up by the distant annihilation of the second Death Star. Dal and his surviving crew had joined with another ship and escaped the Rebel mopping up action.

For one year, he had defended the shrinking Imperial territory. Then, to his mystification, he had been assigned to the Eclipse project. He couldn't believe it was still being funded. Nor did matters become clear when he was in the midst of the project. The source of the funding was hidden in a bureaucratic tangle he could never hope to unravel. The available evidence pointed to a powerful Imperial leader somewhere, but those who inquired too closely into the matter tended to vanish. A few weeks ago, just after the completion of the ship's hyperdrive and prime weapon, Dal had received orders to take the unfinished Eclipse into the Deep Core. He had obeyed, hungry to penetrate the mystery.

Perhaps the last thing Dal expected was to find the Emperor reborn awaiting him. Dal knew absolutely that it was the Emperor, but how could someone return from death as a younger man? Dal couldn't conceive of it. Like a proper Imperial, he had never believed in the Force. His grip on reality had begun to slip. Then he was told that he would be taking the ship to destroy several uninhabited Deep Core worlds for the Emperor. Enveloped by a sense of the surreal, Admiral Dal had agreed. Perhaps he had died at Endor, and he and his Emperor were carving out a new Empire in the afterlife. It didn't matter, so long as he could serve. Without service, Dal instinctively knew he would find a kind of living death.

The Eclipse emerged from hyperspace, pulling Dal into the present. The bridge crew went smoothly into action, placing the vast ship on a course for a nearby world, visible as a tiny blue sphere on the main screen. Dal admired his crew. They were some of the best remaining officers in the Empire. They were efficient and skilled, and completely loyal to the Emperor. Dal was really only comfortable on the bridge itself, surrounded by his human officers. Elsewhere on the Eclipse, he was unnerved by the presence of the alien dark side adepts. They filled him with a deep revulsion and sent a chill through him whenever he saw them.

The small planet ahead continued to grow in the viewscreen. Dal turned to look behind him at the special platform above the bridge. There sat the Emperor, on one of his technological thrones. He was in something called a meditation trance, supposedly in contact with the Force. The Emperor had told Dal privately that destroying the planet ahead would increase his power. Dal was struggling to include the Force in his view of reality, but after seeing the Emperor reborn, he believed many things were possible. He looked forward to reclaiming the Empire and erasing the New Republic from existence.

The Eclipse moved smoothly into firing range. "All crew stand ready," called out the Admiral. He glanced once more at the Emperor's still form. "Commence primary ignition." The Eclipse began to vibrate subtly. It was the barest indication of the incomprehensible forces about to be unleashed. The power of his ship intoxicated the Admiral. Very soon, the planet ahead would simply cease to exist. Dal hadn't served on either Death Star, but this more than made up for it. His prime weapon was stronger than those that had come before. Now he would see it in action at last. And just maybe, before too long, he would see it used on the worlds of the New Republic.

Dal was just about to give the order to fire, when he felt a startling and frightening constriction at his throat. His breath was choked off, and panicked, he grabbed at his neck to force away the hands that held it so painfully. There was nothing there. Terror surged up inside him, but there was nothing he could do. The Force was killing him, he realized in his final moments. He dimly saw that the officers around him were stricken as well. Irrationally, he thought he could see Lord Vader standing nearby. That makes sense, he thought as his mind cut loose from his pain-wracked body. Vader often punished people like this. But he had heard Vader was dead. On the other hand, the Emperor was still alive, was he not? Perhaps no one really died at all. Perhaps this wasn't the end, but only a beginning...

Palpatine let the Force flow through him. He could sense the balance of the dark against the light. Soon, he would disrupt that balance in a violent assault against nature itself. The new strength of the dark side would be shared with him, and once again he would become its greatest servant. But his servitude was not slavery; it was a position of ultimate mortal power. He was far above all other living beings. This was given to him to know by the dark side itself. This he believed absolutely.

The world ahead was full of life. Its oceans and continents were teeming with non sentient forms. Its loss would be strongly felt by the light side. Not only would the existing life be lost, but also all the potential life. Just as all the potential death had been lost with the destruction of the Death Star, weakening the dark side.

Despite being in a trance, Palpatine was partly aware of his surroundings. He heard the command to commence primary ignition as if it was spoken at a great distance. This was it. He was ready to reclaim his title as Master of the dark side, a title that meant more than Emperor to him.

But wait -

Something was wrong.

The command to fire had not been given.

Palpatine reached out with the Force and saw two things at the same moment. The entire bridge crew was dead, and he was completely surrounded by black-robed figures, their human and alien arms raised as if to reach out to him. He had a moment of utter clarity to realize that this, at last, was the source of his recent fears. It was his death.

Then, devastating waves of Force Lightning slammed into him from the ten adepts that ringed him. He was the center of a bright wheel of agony, its spokes twisting through fiery arcs that burned into him. The air shrieked, or perhaps it was Palpatine. He was off the throne, then falling from the platform, but there was no relief as the ten figures moved with him, their circle shrinking as they closed in. The writhing bolts illuminated a bearded human face here, a tentacled snout there. Hands, claws, and other appendages pushed hateful sizzling death at their betrayer.

Palpatine had no chance against so many. Barely able to think, he rolled his tortured body towards one side of the circle, seizing on a final, desperate plan. His hand thrust into his robes, and when it emerged, a hot orange lightsaber blade extended suddenly from it. He thrust it full into one of his attackers' hearts. As the adept died, the circle was broken, and Palpatine dragged himself to his feet. His respite lasted no longer than that. Recovering from their surprise, the other nine adepts unleashed another barrage of lightning at Palpatine's back. The lightsaber flew from his grip as he was hurled violently into the crew pit. The adepts advanced to deal the killing blows.

But Palpatine was right where he wanted to be. He brushed aside the dead hand of the Imperial gunner next to him and grasped the firing lever of the prime weapon. With pain-filled fingers, he drew it towards him.

The Eclipse became a titanic energy weapon. An unbearably bright bar of light appeared between the ship and the planet, bisecting the blackness of space. For an instant, the ship and the planet were linked, then the planet's surface boiled away like a ball of wax hurled into a fire. The small world's rocky core lasted a moment longer, then it, too, wavered within the bar of light and was gone.

On the bridge of the Eclipse, the dark side adepts ignored the spectacle and relentlessly pressed their attack. Palpatine had kept his design a secret from his adepts because of his premonitions, so they knew nothing of what he hoped to gain by his action. One last act of defiance, perhaps? A world they would never rule over?

Their Lightning arced towards Palpatine one final time, carrying their justice with it.

The bolts never struck him.

A shimmering sphere had appeared around Palpatine, a coruscating globe of light that completely encased his prone form. The Force Lightning smashed into the sphere, but did not penetrate it. The wild play of fierce energies turned the sphere into a ball of flame. A moment later, all the power of the attack was hurled back at the adepts, vastly increased in magnitude. As one, they turned to flee, but shock waves of heat overtook all of them. Nine vaguely man-shaped masses of char and ashes spattered to the deck.

There had not been any chance to scream.

Silence settled over the bridge. The sphere continued to shimmer for a few minutes, then it winked out. Revealed within was the battered form of Palpatine. He was sprawled on the floor, nearly unconscious. His slitted eyes glowed with a baleful light, and black flames seemed to play along his limbs.

The Force was with him once more.

The signal that Urn Zelotes waited for did not come. There was no communication from the Eclipse at all. The HoloNet station in the clone lab was dark and quiet. Second by second, fear began to grow inside Zelotes, like a living thing that was born there and was eating his will in order to increase in size. There was no signal. What had happened? Were his allies dead? All dead? It was impossible. Their attack must have been delayed, or called off. But no - they would have let him know in that case, too. Dead. All dead. Was Palpatine dead too? Zelotes lost himself for a minute, indecision crushing down on him. The door to the clone lab shuddered and boomed. Heavy explosives had been brought in. That did it. There was no time left.

Zelotes faced his prisoners. "Show me another exit from this room!" he ordered them. Pestage still didn't seem able to rise, so Rollo Mon stood and walked, trembling, to a blank wall behind a row of Spaarti Cylinders. He put a hand through the wall, revealing that it was only a hologram.

"Thank you Constable. I have to leave you now because I'm not sure if my allies have succeeded in their mission. I have to get to a place of safety and anonymity if I am ever to have another chance. No one must know who I am, and unfortunately, that means you both have to die. Come here, Constable. I'll make this as painless as possible seeing as how you've been such a help to me."

Rollo Mon helplessly walked back towards the gaunt, lizard like adept, tears streaming down his face. But Zelotes had made the mistake of turning his back on Sate Pestage. The Grand Vizier had not been helpless. He had been fighting for some control over his own body. In his fear and distraction, Zelotes had missed it. Pestage grabbed up the long cylinder that had held the poison and swung it as hard as he could against Zelotes' head. The adept's wedge-shaped skull was battered to one side, and in that moment, Rollo Mon was free. "Go!" rasped Pestage.

The Constable spun and ran behind another row of tanks. Urn Zelotes turned on Sate Pestage and grabbed him by his jeweled cassock with strong, claw like fingers. He shoved the old man hard and Pestage collapsed in a heap. "Stay there," Zelotes grated and ran to look behind the tanks for Rollo Mon. But the Constable was gone. There was a third exit somewhere back there.

Gone, too, was any hope of keeping his identity a secret, if Palpatine was indeed alive to learn it. Sate Pestage had effectively killed him. Not bothering to coerce the Grand Vizier, Zelotes stood over him. "This has all been for nothing, if Palpatine still lives. His clones are dead, but that was just a necessary precaution. All for nothing."

Pestage smiled at Zelotes. "Don't feel too bad. Others have tried. Others have failed. The glory is his and no one can take it from him. He will always be the Master."

Zelotes scowled. Rage twisted his features. He knew he had to flee. Palpatine was still off planet. If Zelotes could get to Velarium, he might survive. He knew he wasn't rational anymore. It didn't matter. He stepped away from Sate Pestage. If he could not destroy Palpatine, then he would destroy a part of Palpatine. One of the last two Sentinels came over to the Grand Vizier, picked him up, and squeezed.

Sate Pestage only managed to gasp out a few words. "And he will always be my son -" There was a sound of brittle bones breaking and the once powerful Grand Vizier of the Galactic Empire died. The Sentinel dropped the body to the floor, then waited for its next orders. Zelotes stared crazily at the corpse, a still heap glittering with gemstones. The face was peaceful. Son? Had he said son? This was the Emperor's father?! The lab reeled around Zelotes. He left the Sentinels standing there like grave markers and fled through the door Rollo Mon had shown him.

"Anger, concentrated by will in the vital center of the body creates a portal through which vast energies are released - the energies of the dark side of the Force. Standing watch with the mind, in my meditation of anger, I have slain my enemies from great distances, through the dark side power that permeates the galaxy. I have created lightening and unleashed its destructive fire. Using this knowledge, I can unleash the dark side energies that are all around us, even to shatter the fabric of space itself. In this way, I have created storms."

-From The Book of Anger

- Espaa.

- Father?

- Thank the Force, you are still alive! I had to know before I departed.

- What's wrong? What's happened?

- I am truly sorry, Master, but I have died.

- What do you mean? Where are you?

- I have died, Espaa. I am going to become part of the All. I am within your mind. I was able to see your mind like a beacon and come to it. You have become powerful again. The Force has chosen you as it did before. When you awaken, my identity will be gone. I can feel the pull now. It is very beautiful, actually.

- Will I see you again?

- I...I don't know. You walk a different path. I'm not sure it will be possible. But you may yet learn. In life, I worshipped your glory, but now I see it has its limits. The Force, the All, is one, my son. You feel only a part of the whole.

- A Jedi myth. The Force is only a power to use, to pay the price for, to master.

- I'm not here to argue. I am here to say I have loved you. Now I go to be with Gemsaa, my wife, in whatever way that is possible ?

The insistent beeping of the HoloNet terminal finally reached Palpatine, and he awoke, groggy, grasping at the vanishing threads of a dream. He was on the deck of the crew pit of the Eclipse. All around him were dead bodies, his officers, Admiral Dal. On the upper walkway were several ash heaps. That sight brought the memory of his recent battle crashing back to him. The dream was gone. He could not remember it. No matter. He was alive! He had won. The Force was with him and he had regained much of his old strength. He began to heal himself as he limped over to the beeping station. Rollo Mon appeared there as a small hologram. He looked frantic.

"You're alive! Then they didn't succeed! Master, There was an attack here at the Citadel. Adept Zelotes fought his way into the clone labs and destroyed all your clones. I'm ashamed to say he controlled me, that he had my help. And Master -" Rollo Mon's voice caught. "How can I tell you this? He also controlled Grand Vizier Pestage. He was going to kill us both but Sate Pestage attacked him, so that I could escape. He gave his...he was killed. He gave his life for me. Zelotes escaped. I don't know where he went. Master? How will we find him?"

Palpatine took a step away from the terminal, as if he could deny its message with distance. He shut his eyes. His head tilted back. Rollo Mon left his awareness. His hands became fists. Sate Pestage. Dead. His friend, his Grand Vizier, his faithful servant, a man once his father, dead. Murdered. Palpatine raised his arms, his fists held high. His teeth clenched as his face filled with violence. Dead. Murdered by Urn Zelotes. The only one who had come into his isolation and stayed there. The man who had saved his life. Murdered. Anger was there, in that moment, ravening, demanding release. He held it in, stoked its fire. The anger flared into rage, but he held it in, concentrating it deep within, at his center. Rage. Power. Power was everywhere, waiting to be used. It only needed an outlet. The rage was like a cold iron gate within him, closed against the power. He began to make the gate larger.

Urn Zelotes had tried to kill him. Zelotes had destroyed all the clones and his allies had nearly murdered Palpatine as well. He had been so close to final death and its unending chaos and he had not even known it. Now fear at that thought poured in with the anger, swelling the flow. The gate holding back the power grew. It now felt like it was meters thick, and yet it shook massively.

Zelotes was one of his older adepts. Palpatine had taken the exiled Thaarnian in and shared his knowledge. He had been repaid with betrayal, assassination, and murder. The murder of Sate Pestage. Betrayal and loss, fear and anger. Aggression must follow, but not yet. Palpatine found himself drawing more power than ever before. The pain of his loss had opened up untapped sources that he had not previously imagined. All men lost those close to them, and many cried out in rage. The universe did not care. But other men were not the Master of the dark side of the Force. The Master cried out in pain and rage...and the Universe answered!

The gate felt like part of a towering wall, a black fortress made of iron and stone. The power screamed and beat its fury against the gate, hammering relentlessly, a million voices yammering for release.

Palpatine opened the gate.

And a new thing was born into the galaxy.

Outside the Eclipse, a vortex of time and space began to grow. It spun ponderously, and soon, it had become a huge funnel like storm. Palpatine was struck with awe. The storm was his, and it wanted to destroy. Could he control it? The image of Urn Zelotes filled his mind. His links to his adepts had been restored. Zelotes was on Byss. He had gone to the city of adepts, perhaps to hide, perhaps to try to escape. There would be no escape. The storm responded to his hate. It whirled into hyperspace and burst forth over Byss. The great vortex roared down through the atmosphere, tearing defense satellites apart, rending ships and small fighters unlucky enough to be in its path. The automated defense systems of the Imperial Control Sector sent energy skyward like an inverse rain, but the storm only seemed to pick up velocity. In moments, it was above Velarium.

Urn Zelotes had made it back to his rooms. There is still time, he had told himself, over and over. Zelotes had mostly lost the capacity for planning. He had not reasoned that the Emperor's forces might already be at his quarters, waiting to take him prisoner. He did not know where he would go afterward, once he had retrieved his most important belongings. There hadn't really been a plan for failure. Maybe there could not have been one. Zelotes only knew he had to keep moving, to hide wherever he could. He gathered his books and talismans together in a tough sack. They were his last links to his homeworld of Thaarn and his old way of using the Force. Palpatine had taught him new ways, and Zelotes had tried to use those teachings against him. But perhaps there was something in his sacred books that he could use to survive the failure of his coup.

Hurrying to escape the room, Zelotes overturned the table holding the Book of Anger. It clattered to the floor on its side and activated. Palpatine's hologram projected horizontally and resumed its lecture. "- or its consequences. When the Dark Empire is complete, the followers of the dark side will share my power of being able to observe each other. Betrayal will no longer be practical."

Palpatine had more to say, but Zelotes was already gone.

The Force Storm descended upon Velarium. As it enveloped the city, buildings were torn up whole and went soaring up into the vortex, fragmenting as they rose. The Emperor's punishment claimed many lives that day. Dozens of adepts, innocent of any conspiracy, were swallowed up by the storm and lost. Urn Zelotes, too, met his doom in that merciless chaos. His building was pulled from its foundation and lifted towards the vortex of annihilation. It shattered under the stress on the way, and Zelotes suddenly found himself cast from the wreckage into mid-air. The greatest horror was that he did not fall. Fully aware, he rose toward the enormous whirlpool in the sky. He thought he could hear the Emperor laughing and laughing. Then his body was taken apart by the storm, and the unending chaos of the dark side took the rest of him.

A little while later, the storm began to recede. Witnesses spoke of how it seemed to do so reluctantly, as if, given the choice, it would have ravaged the entire Imperial Control Sector. Left behind was a small city in rubble, with nothing moving in it. But only a few kilometers away, the Imperial Citadel was untouched.

Within a few days, the violent incidents surrounding the attempted coup had been mostly covered up. Sovereign Protectors told no tales, nor did Rollo Mon, so the knowledge of Palpatine's vulnerability, his lack of any mature clones, did not reach the ears of anyone else. The reason for the destruction of the city of adepts, however, was made common knowledge. It was 'revealed' that several adepts had plotted treason, that their scheme had been discovered before it could be implemented, and that all the traitors had been killed by Palpatine's power in the Force Storm. It was a lesson that would never be forgotten.

Palpatine had returned with the Eclipse, having decided to delay any further use of the ship while he attended to the damage on Byss. He made himself highly visible, and all who saw him could feel his new strength, and were more than a little afraid.

The Emperor was back.

Then, the time came for a decision regarding an important matter. Palpatine's eyes were hard and cold as he stared, brooding, at the Constable of Homunculi. Rollo Mon produced a small cryocontainer and placed it on the table between them.

"It is up to you, Master. We can clone him, make him any age you like. Then there is the question of what memories to give him..."

Palpatine's voice was distant. "We actually discussed this, he and I, a year ago. He thought I might want to bring him back this way, when he was gone. But he had this belief that he was my father..." Rollo Mon's eyes widened, but Palpatine only shook his head no. There was no reason to let Rollo Mon know the truth about Pestage, or what had really happened. That of course, Palpatine had once had parents like any other being. That when he was chosen by the dark side, no place remained in his life for such relationships. That only now, when Sate Pestage was gone, did he realize that the old man had meant something to him. "He said he didn't want anyone else to claim that honor, even if they were a clone of himself. Yes, Constable, clone him, but make him like he was ten years ago. Implant the things he needs to know to be my personal servant, to be the Emperor's Grand Vizier, but nothing more."

Rollo Mon stood and bowed. "It shall be as you desire, Master." He left Palpatine alone.

Palpatine was the undisputed Master of the dark side of the Force, and he had no companions left. His piercing yellow eyes gazed from a face that was unlined, but empty. Those eyes avoided the chair that Sate Pestage used to sit in when they shared their meals. The way of the dark side was the way of isolation, of personal aggrandizement at the expense of all other relationships. Palpatine wondered if it was really that fact that had killed Sate Pestage.

He could think of only one way to honor him. When next he met Luke Skywalker, as he knew he would, Palpatine would do as Pestage had wanted, and approach his enemy as a potential ally. Palpatine's power of vision had returned, and he could still see Skywalker kneeling before him, saying, "My father's destiny is my own." But the boy was not ready to join him, not yet. In a few years, perhaps. He still had to learn the limits of what he could do with the light side. When Skywalker was ready, Palpatine would make his move, and the last of the Jedi would belong to him. It would be fitting vengeance on the rest of his enemies to turn their greatest hope against them.

Palpatine laughed his old laugh, a sound of sadistic mirth. Great things were coming to him. The galaxy would become his Dark Empire. And how could it not be so? For who could resist the power of the dark side...forever ?

Part Six: Emperor's End

A long time ago, in an afterlife far, far away...

The Dark Empire lies in ruins, and the Emperor lies in death. Palpatine finds himself trapped in an afterlife realm of the Light Side, unable to return.

Unbeknownst to Palpatine, a legion of Jedi waits for him. These victims of the Emperor's purge have the power to decide the fate of their greatest enemy.

The fallen Emperor's only chance for survival may rest in the hands of the man who served him in life as the dread Lord Darth Vader...

Palpatine found it difficult to recall with any real clarity the events leading up to his final physical death. His insanity had been responsible for that failing. Mercifully, he had regained his sanity along with his consciousness in this empty world of swirling, reddish-gray mists. He knew it was crucial that he remember. Without understanding how he had come here, Palpatine had no hope of discovering a way out and back to his life. Yes, a return to life...he wanted that very much. A chance to complete his Dark Empire and to have his revenge upon Luke Skywalker and his sister Leia.

Memory had never been a problem for him before. What he could not recall on his own, he drew out with a small exercise of the power of the Force. But now...that was denied to him. That thing which defined him more than anything else - his mastery of the dark side - was gone. He was still recovering from the shock of finding himself unable to sense or use the Force. It had been with him since his childhood. It was impossible that it could be gone now, yet it was. Palpatine was powerless, alone, frail, and defenseless. It galled him. But the former Emperor refused to see himself as helpless. He still had his strong will, and he was determined to understand his situation. If he could not use the Force to remember what had happened to him, he knew of other more primitive techniques. Stiffly, he settled his greatly aged body to the gray desert sands. Assuming a meditative posture, he cleared his mind and concentrated.

The first thing that came to him was that there had been a child. He had wanted the child, wanted it so he could save himself. The child's name had been...Anakin. No, that confused him. Anakin had been Vader's name before he turned. Palpatine cursed impotently. Frustrated, he knew meditation was futile with his emotions in such turmoil. If the Force had been with him, meditating in rage would have worked...but not here. No, he would simply have to start from the beginning in his mind and work through it as best he could, one step at a time.

His last perfectly lucid memory was of his awful defeat aboard the Eclipse, at the hands of the Skywalkers. The very name, Luke Skywalker, sent a shiver of hatred through Palpatine's decrepit form. That man had destroyed everything. No punishment imaginable would be enough for him. The plans for the creation of the Dark Empire had been coming along so well before Luke had come onto the scene. Six years after his defeat at Endor, Palpatine had been ready on Byss with his reclaimed dark side mastery, the Eclipse, a vast fleet, and his World Devastators. Then he had sent a special Force Storm to collect Luke Skywalker, his old enemy. Sate Pestage had once advised his Master that Luke should be made into an ally, and Palpatine had debated the troubling idea with him. In the end, the Emperor had based his decision on two things. He wanted to take away the New Republic's symbol of hope, and he missed having a servant like Darth Vader. Years ago, he had experienced a vision of Luke kneeling to him willingly. When Luke arrived on Byss, the vision finally came to pass. Luke's admitted plan was to find a way to defeat the dark side from within, but Palpatine had known he could not.

Luke had knelt anyway and said, "My father's destiny is my own." But the words "my father's destiny" held more than one meaning. It meant servitude to the dark side, yes, but it also meant the betrayal and murder of the Emperor, with the help of a blood relative. Luke had personally invaded the cloning laboratory and cut down Palpatine's clones with a lightsaber. He had also helped his sister to escape Byss with a Holocron she had stolen from Palpatine's very bedchamber. Vader had never rebelled like that until the end. The enraged Emperor had forced Luke into submission. Palpatine and a tightly controlled Luke had gone after Leia Organa together in the Eclipse, in order to recover the Holocron, and to claim Leia's unborn child.

Yes...the child. It did have something to do with how he had arrived here, he knew it. He had wanted the child...as a new body for himself. Yes. That was it. The clones had always been a flawed solution to the problem of mortality. As mere copies of himself, they were one step removed from the protecting energies of the Force, and they suffered an accelerated rate of decay when he drew on the power of the dark side. For a long time, he had searched for another way. At one point, he had been convinced that he could fabricate a new body from pure dark side energy, but that idea had never borne fruit. Finally, upon learning of Leia's unborn child, he had realized he could take it, raise it in the power of the dark side, and make it an extension of his will. At the appropriate age, he could displace the personality within, and take the body for his own. On the Eclipse, however, Leia had somehow resisted him. She had drawn her brother back to the light, and together, they had severed Palpatine's control over his Force Storm. The chaotic energies had devoured his great flagship. He had been faced with death, unable to escape his own creation. It was a painful memory, but at least it was clear.

Palpatine's ability to survive death had been based on transferring his life essence into one of his own clones. But that ability was limited by distance from his clone body. Ideally, he would have initiated the transfer by himself, inside his citadel on Byss, near the cloning lab. This would have limited the duration of his exposure to the terrifying chaos that awaited powerful servants of the dark side after death. But when the Eclipse was destroyed with Palpatine on board, the Emperor's clones were half a galaxy away on Byss. The dangerous journey his spirit had to make threatened to destroy it.

Once before, he had been in such a dire situation, when the Death Star had exploded over Endor. Then, Palpatine had survived the explosion by mentally connecting with Mara Jade and transferring his essence into her mind. The experience had diminished his power, putting him on a road to recovery that took years, but the desperate plan had worked. Sate Pestage had brought Mara to Byss, and in close proximity to his clones at last, the Emperor had left her and was reborn.

Thinking of Mara Jade and Sate Pestage emotionally distracted Palpatine from his organized recollection. He found that every time he thought of Pestage, there was a pang of regret. Four years ago, the old man had died, the victim of an attempted coup by several dark side adepts. Pestage had been the only man who Palpatine had allowed to become close to him. It was reasonably certain that Pestage had been the biological father of the boy, Espaa, who became Palpatine. It was only after Pestage was dead, however, that the Emperor discovered that the man had meant something to him personally. Pestage's loss had opened Palpatine to a new world of anger, and unlocked the power of Force Storms. There was some small irony in the fact that those same Storms had killed Palpatine over Pinnacle Moon. Pestage had always wanted so much to keep his son alive, and had died fighting an adept, Urn Zelotes, who wanted his son dead. Palpatine sighed. Regrets were useless. Pestage was gone forever. Even though the old man had been cloned, the replacement had never satisfied the Emperor. It was just not the same thing...a mere empty shell. Pestage had totally lacked Force sensitivity, and there had been no way for him to preserve his life essence, as his Master had.

And then there was Mara Jade, the former Emperor's Hand. As much as he wished Pestage was alive, he wanted Jade dead. He had given her a mission to kill Luke Skywalker. If she had followed orders, Palpatine would not have been in his current situation. However, not only had she failed, but she had joined the Rebels as well!

The reborn Emperor had kept track of her from Byss while he regained his dark side power and built up his military forces. After years of living on the fringe of galactic society, Mara finally found Luke during the return of Grand Admiral Thrawn. She should have killed Luke then, but Skywalker had once again turned an enemy into an ally. In the end, Mara had helped Luke to defeat Thrawn and C'Baoth. Palpatine did not see Mara turning against Thrawn as a betrayal of the Empire. After all, Palpatine was the Empire, and he had never meant for Thrawn to succeed anyway. The Grand Admiral was just a distraction for the Rebels while the Emperor gathered forces far beyond those Thrawn was allowed to have. But Mara's failure to kill Skywalker...that was a betrayal. The assassination order for that cursed Jedi had been a direct command! No one disobeyed a direct order from the Emperor and lived. Palpatine had wanted Mara dead, but the woman had wisely dropped out of sight as soon as the Emperor reborn had revealed himself. Once, Palpatine could have located her through the Force, using the mental link that they shared. But that link had vanished along with Mara's Force sensitivity when the Emperor had placed his essence within her mind after Endor. Thus Mara had escaped his wrath entirely.

Palpatine scowled. What was he thinking? She was nothing to him now. Neither she nor Sate Pestage was any part of his current problem. He wrenched his thoughts back to the matter at hand. How had he arrived in this place...wherever it was? A dusty, empty desert, with silence as his only companion. A world where the Force was gone.

All right. He had been on the Eclipse. And the Eclipse had been destroyed. His spirit had been forced to find its way back to Byss, by traveling through a nether-realm where the ravenous chaos of the dark side wanted to claim him forever as payment for all the power it had given him in life. How long had the journey taken? How far had he been forced to go? He had no answers to these questions. Time and distance were very different in that realm. He had only been able to focus on his will to reach his goal, the clones on Byss. Using the skills of Life Transfer which he had taken from the Holocron of Ashka and Vantos Boda, he had defied the forces of dissolution and struggled to regain life. The battle for life had been profoundly traumatic, and for the first time ever, the outcome had been truly in doubt. He was unsure now if he would have won it on his own, for there had been help where he had not expected it. Help from the spirits of the past Dark Lords of the Sith!

The Sith Lords had entombed their bodies on the mausoleum world of Korriban, trapping their essences in temples of Sith Sorcery. They were able to roam the dark side realm beyond death without being consumed there. At the crisis point of his struggle to return to Byss, Palpatine had been found by some of these Dark Lords. They had offered to save him by guiding him to his destination. They even claimed that they had done so once before, after Endor. Palpatine had no recollection of that, but neither did he have a choice about trusting the spirits. The Sith had shown him the way to reach his clones, guiding him through the madness and terror that obscured all pathways. They had taken him to Byss, and opened the way for Palpatine to enter a new, young body. Luke Skywalker had not destroyed all of the clones. Palpatine would never have kept them in one vulnerable location...not after Urn Zelotes' treachery. Deep below the chamber Luke ravaged, there was another collection of waiting clones. As Palpatine inhabited one, he knew he had won again.

Except...that he hadn't. The clone he had entered was flawed. Before long, his scientists told him, it would begin to fill up with necrosis, and finally die. As punishment for this failure, the Constable of Homunculi, Rollo Mon, had been executed along with his coworkers. They had not had enough time to study the clone and realize that its decay would also cause the Emperor to go slowly insane. Unsuspecting, Palpatine had turned his attention to the Rebel Alliance, confident that if his body died, he could take another.

Now, as he considered the matter, it became clear that he had been betrayed, and not only by his scientists. The Sith spirits had been his true enemy. Of all the remaining clones they could have guided him to, they chose the defective one, the one that meant his death. Why had they wanted to destroy him in this way? The reason, he realized, was simply for revenge.

Decades ago, Palpatine had been taken by the only living Dark Lord of the Sith as a boy. For a while, he learned all he could about the dark side from his Master, Darth Shado. Lord Shado had wanted to keep the existence of the Sith a secret, as it had been for a thousand years. But Palpatine was then chosen by the dark side itself to be its greatest servant. He surpassed the Sith, and found he had no taste for hiding from history in their dusty monastery. He knew the time for Sith ascendancy was at hand. The Force told him so. Killing his own Master, who disagreed with him on that issue, Palpatine went away to enter galactic politics.

Eventually, a use for an apprentice of his own presented itself. Palpatine had wanted to destroy the Jedi as an obstacle to his rise. A Sith apprentice seemed like a useful weapon to him. He had trained Darth Maul as a weapon, but was disappointed when that weapon failed him. Palpatine's choice of a replacement was far more successful. The Dark Lord, Darth Vader, had become the Emperor's servant, and was charged with completing the eradication of the Jedi order.

Once that task was done, Palpatine contemplated the future of the Sith, and saw that the order had served its purpose in creating himself, the Emperor Palpatine. The time of the Sith had come to its destined end. There was no further use for it. With a means of immortality in his hands, Palpatine declared himself the pinnacle of Sith evolution, and decided that he would never turn over his authority to an apprentice. Vader was destined to be only a servant, until he needed to be replaced.

Palpatine saw this state of affairs as the proper order of things, but he admitted that the ancient Sith Lords might well have felt differently. Now he strongly suspected that it was their long-delayed revenge to guide him into a defective clone. It suggested that Palpatine might have been able to reach a healthy clone without their help...or perhaps not. Perhaps the Sith Lords hadn't wanted him to die right away. Perhaps they had wanted to enjoy the spectacle of an insane and desperate Emperor before he met his final fate.

And what a spectacle it had been. The slow loss of his sanity meant that many of the more recent events were unclear in his memory, but those that he did recall were enough to fill him with shame and rage for his foolish decisions. No doubt the Sith had enjoyed their revenge. If Palpatine had his way, he would enjoy his even more. Upon returning to life, he would take the Sovereign class Star Destroyer Eclipse II and lay waste to the entire planet of Korriban. But only after having his revenge on Luke Skywalker and his sister.

Palpatine breathed slowly, trying to calm himself. The hard part was now at hand...remembering what had happened while he was insane.

Although he had returned to Byss, he had allowed his survival to remain a secret for a while, hoping to flush out any traitors who would feel free to act in his absence. That had been his first mistake. Two of his dark adepts did betray him, and before they died, they destroyed all of his remaining healthy clones. From that moment, he had been trapped in the one fateful necrotic body. Yet, neither he nor his followers recognized his madness. That did not happen until later, after he had revealed to Luke Skywalker that he was still alive. But surely, the insanity must already have been growing. Palpatine was not making rational decisions. He had toyed with Skywalker, sending a series of incompetent dark side warriors after him, instead of simply using another Force Storm.

As the Emperor's reason leaked away, he made even more mistakes. Remembering them was like reliving a nightmare. Nothing made sense about it to him now, but at the time, he thought he was controlling everything like a master puppeteer. He had a vague memory of infusing several randomly chosen servants with the power of the dark side, and then expecting them to be able to defeat a Jedi Master. And there was a weapon as well, some sort of hyperspace missile launcher, which didn't seem to be able to destroy anything he really wanted it to. What had that been all about? Palpatine cursed again. This wasn't working. He had to find some sort of focus amidst the clutter of these nonsensical images. Whatever he had been doing, it must have been related to survival. His body had been dying, so he must have been trying to find a solution for that problem. He concentrated, and a brief image of a primitive shaman frozen in stone flitted across his mind, and was gone. Madness!

Then another image came to him. A glowing, round stone. He seized on that and coaxed his mind to fill in the details. He had been looking at a stone. It had a name...the Sith oracle stone! He had been on Korriban, the tomb world of the Sith! It was coming back to him at last. He had gone to Korriban to ask...no, to command the Sith spirits to halt his body's decay. The memory brought a deep chagrin with it. If the Sith had already betrayed him, why would they have helped him at all? How they must have laughed at his plight. How they must have mocked him as they refused to help. Instead, they had shown him, in the oracle stone, the location of Leia Organa's child! In his madness, he had still desired it, and the Sith had gleefully pointed the way to his doom.

Then he remembered that he had gone to Onderon after the child, personally, without the protection of his forces...into the hands of his well prepared enemies. Grabbing up handfuls of soft sand on either side of him, he flung it angrily as he raged at himself. What had he been thinking? What could he have hoped to gain? His plan for the child would have been useless! His body had been dying! He had needed a solution right away, not in a decade when the child had grown up! Of course, he thought with disgust as he slumped forward, he had not been thinking. He had been insane.

With suddenly perverse ease, the memories flowed clearly. He had found Leia and the child in an old fortress, but Luke Skywalker had been there with his group of Jedi. Skywalker had demanded his surrender. He had brought a cage...a cage for the Galactic Emperor! The decay of his body made it impossible for him to fight them all. He saw himself goading the smuggler, Solo, into killing his useless, dying body for him. Just as he would have entered one of his own clones, he tried to take over the body of Leia's child. It would have been the worst mistake of all. Inhabiting the mind of Mara Jade had once diminished his power in the dark side. If he had existed in the mind of a baby, he would have been helpless...a prisoner at the mercy of the child's vengeful parents. An infant in a Force cage. He shuddered. Luke's Jedi companion, Empatojayos Brand, had actually done Palpatine a favor by stopping him. The cyborg Jedi had taken the Emperor into himself, holding his spirit prisoner. The Emperor had fought Brand, but to no avail. The Jedi had known exactly what to do. Palpatine wondered if Brand had learned what he needed from the stolen Holocron, the same recording device which had yielded the secret of Life Transfer to the Emperor so long ago.

Brand had been mortally wounded by the Emperor, and he was dying. He vowed that the Emperor would never return, that the Force and all the Jedi who came before would make sure of that. Then he took Palpatine's essence with him into death.

The fallen Emperor hunched over in misery. He knew how he had arrived here now. He was full of anger and remorse at his defeat, and finally remembering what had happened brought him no peace. He had failed utterly, and he had deserved death. But he had always assumed that his death would mean endless madness and terror in a realm belonging to the hungry entropy of the dark side. This fate had been revealed to him during his early studies with the Sith, and all of his efforts to prolong his life had been for the purpose of avoiding it. Now it had come to pass, but it was somehow nothing like he had expected. To his perception, he was physically and mentally intact, though he was as aged as he had been when Vader had betrayed him on the Death Star. He was clothed in his usual black robes, and he was seated on an empty plain of soft sands. Sickly colored mists prevented him from seeing very far in any direction, but as far as he could tell, he was still totally alone. Every shred of his power in the Force was gone. So why was it so different from what he had expected? Stubbornly, he began to reason it out.

His presence here had to be related to the manner of his death. There was no other explanation. He had crossed over while imprisoned by a Jedi, a light side adept. He could have been pulled along to wherever it was that Jedi spirits go. It followed that this was some sort of light side realm. It also explained why he was powerless to call on the dark side. Nevertheless, he did not have to admit to a final defeat. In a way, it was a victory to have avoided being claimed by the endless chaos of the dark side. He was still himself, and until it was proven otherwise, there was still hope.

Palpatine straightened from his despairing slouch, forced his frail limbs to pick himself up, and dusted himself off. Then he began to walk across the sands into the red and gray mists. As it had so many times in the past, his indomitable will held his head high and drove him on into the unknown.

Palpatine wandered for what seemed to him like a day, an endless day without any change in his surroundings. The powdery sands provided poor traction to his booted feet, and made his progress laborious. His thick black hooded robes weighed down his every movement. The mists swirled all around, denying him any sense of progress. He had no way to know if he was not, in fact, going in circles and getting nowhere. But he did not physically weaken, tire, or hunger. Only his spirit was in danger of exhausting its determination. Despite his earlier stubborn pride, after a day in this dusty limbo, he had to acknowledge some doubt. What if he never escaped this place? What if the Sith lore had been wrong about the nature of his fate after death, and this was what the dark side had in store for him all along? What if he was still insane, but only thought that he was not? He might even be still alive, but totally mad somewhere. Just as these horrible thoughts began to slither into his mind, the fallen Emperor's feet discerned a change in the terrain. Instead of continuing as a flat plain, the ground had begun to slope upwards. Palpatine's yellow eyes regained a spark of life, and he thrust the thoughts of despair away. His pace quickened, and as he walked, he felt the slope increase even more. His progress was hampered by the sliding sand, but step by step, Palpatine proceeded with his ascent.

Once again, any measurement of the passage of time eluded him. Finally, with a bleak smile of satisfaction, Palpatine reached the top. He stepped up and out of the red-gray mists and onto hard, pebbly ground dotted with large stones lying randomly about. Turning back, he saw the region he had come from. It was an immense bowl-shaped depression, he realized, extending farther than he could see in the hazy air. Like a city sized soup bowl, it was full of the heavy mist. The foggy substance swirled lazily into the distance, and clung to his feet as well, as if reluctant to let him go.

His new environment was free of the mist. He could see for a fair distance where the ground was flat. In another direction, hills rose out of the plain. These were craggy and uninviting, but it would probably be necessary to determine what secrets they might hide.

After so long a period with only the shuffling of his soft boots in soft sand to listen to, the sound of a shifting boulder made him leap with startlement. He spun in the direction of the sound, and was shocked to see two figures standing nearby next to a heap of stones. They were youthful humans, with pale skin and long black hair. They appeared to be twins, but one was shorter than the other. Both of them wore blue outfits padded with gray, white belts, and red scarves. As soon as Palpatine faced them, they assumed a defensive posture which marked them as trained Jedi Knights.

"Denin!" said the shorter Jedi in a female voice. "It's him! It's the Emperor, just like Lord Brand said!"

"Be careful Vila," said the taller male Jedi. "We're not sure if he's powerless."

"Nonsense," said Vila. "He can't have any power here. Lord Brand said so. He's just an old man now. Watch."

The one called Vila held out her arms and gathered something invisible. All at once, a dozen large stones swiftly rose by themselves and hurtled through the air to plow into the ground in a rough semicircle around Palpatine. A shower of dirt and smaller stones pelted the former Emperor, sending him lurching backwards in dismay.

"Who are you?" screamed Palpatine. "How dare you do that to me?" His fists balled tightly, he began to advance on the two Jedi. They glanced at each other as he stumbled during his approach. They did not seem afraid.

"We could destroy him right here, right now," insisted Vila. "I can't sense any of the Force in him. Brand was right."

"No, Vila," said Denin. "It's not our right. I know the Emperor's troops destroyed our home after his death, but we're not the only ones who suffered. The Jedi Legion is full of those who were victims of this old man. He killed some of them personally. They all want revenge."

Palpatine had halted to listen, stunned at what he was hearing. As the two Jedi continued their conversation, they simply turned their backs on Palpatine and started to walk away. That gesture of disdain left Palpatine speechless.

"Our job," said Denin, "is to go back and tell Lord Brand that the Emperor is here. It's up to Brand to decide when and how to destroy him. The other Jedi will want their say as well. But don't worry. The Emperor, and his old servant, will pay for what they did. The Jedi Legion will see to that. Besides...it's not as if there's any hurry now."

Vila thought for a moment as she walked. Then she laughed sharply. "Yes, you're right. No hurry at all. Let the old man sweat it out for a while. It's not as if there's any place for him to go..."

As Denin and Vila strode off, Palpatine tried to follow them. But as always, when his aging was afflicting him, his physical abilities were poor. It was not long before he was left far behind, and he gave up the pursuit. His heart was pounding, but not with exertion. What he felt was fear. Fear that the Jedi might turn around and come back. Fear that they might not, until they returned with a legion of Jedi to destroy him. A little while ago, this world had seemed like an empty prison. Now it felt like an enormous trap. And the Jedi had said there was no place for him to go.

In life, he could have used any of a long list of swift powers to crush the two Jedi ruthlessly. But here, those powers were denied to him. Two Jedi were actually a threat to his existence. Defenseless as he was, a legion of Jedi equipped with the Force would be simple overkill. Evidently, that was the way they wanted it.

Palpatine stared into the distance at the dwindling figures until he could no longer see them. When they finally vanished in the haze, he suddenly became aware that he had to leave this place. The two Jedi had been waiting for him; they had known he was coming. And, they would be back with many more like themselves. When that happened, he needed to be elsewhere. Turning in the opposite direction from Vila and Denin, Palpatine began to trek towards the rocky hills. So what if the Jedi had said there was no escape. Perhaps he could hide from them until he found a way. One thing was for certain. He was never going to surrender to the Jedi order which he had once vanquished. Not in any lifetime.

The jagged hills proved to be a challenge for Palpatine to navigate, and his progress was slow. He evaluated every cave and crevice that he encountered as a possible hiding place, but none seemed deep enough, or concealing enough. His fear of the Jedi Legion goaded him on, however, searching for mind-numbing hours for a refuge. It was moments after he had rejected a small rock overhang which had looked like a cave from a distance, that Palpatine encountered another stranger. He looked up at a ridge he knew he had to climb, and saw someone standing there, darkly silhouetted against the silvery sky. At once, he froze, thinking that the Jedi Legion had found him already. But there was no way he could not have been seen by the shadowed figure.

Then the stranger spoke in a smooth, mature voice which was full of dignity. "You must come with me, if you wish to survive."

Palpatine stared at the newcomer, unable to make out any details. "Show yourself," he rasped impatiently. "Come closer so I can see you."

The figure seemed to hesitate, then descended from the ridge to approach Palpatine. As the man came into better lighting, Palpatine could see that he was fairly tall and solidly built. He was dressed like a Jedi, with gray robes open in the front, over a cream colored tunic. He looked to be late middle aged, with a receding hairline and thin, neatly combed gray hair. The man's face was round, his features broad and generous. There were many deep lines and wrinkles, especially under the darkly browed blue eyes. His expression was serious, and his gaze seemed somehow haunted.

"Who are you?" demanded Palpatine. He didn't remember seeing this man before in his life. "What do you want?"

"I'm here to help you," the man said hesitantly. Up close, Palpatine detected a slight slur in the man's voice. He also thought that perhaps the stranger was afraid of him. Good. It was about time someone here treated him with the respect he deserved.

"We can help each other," the man said. "We both have the same enemy: the Jedi Legion. Perhaps if we work together, there would be a better chance of defeating them."

"Do you know of a place where I can hide?" Palpatine asked bluntly, searching the man's face intently. There was, he decided now, something familiar about it, but identification eluded him.

"I have a place of refuge," the man said. "My companions are there now. They sent me to bring you back there to safety. Will you follow me?"

Palpatine hesitated. This was too much of a coincidence. How had this man known he was a fugitive from the Jedi? How had he found Palpatine at all? The lingering sense of familiarity to the man suggested that he might be one of the Jedi Palpatine had personally killed. He could easily be one of the Jedi Legion, come to lead Palpatine into a final trap. But for what purpose? The two Jedi he had met earlier had implied that all of the Jedi were going to come after him at once, not just one man. And why would they need to trap him? He was defenseless. Perhaps this man was telling the truth. He decided to play for time by changing the subject.

"Do you know what this place, this world is?" asked Palpatine.

The man seemed unperturbed by Palpatine's failure to answer his question. With a patient air, he replied, "It is a realm of the light side of the Force. The Jedi come here when they meet their deaths. Some of them linger here, but others move on to a higher plane, where great battles against evil are fought. You were never supposed to be here...but now that you are...we must do something about it before the Jedi find you and destroy you. If they do that, you will cease to exist, totally and forever. I am offering you a chance to avoid that."

Palpatine was still unwilling to follow the man. "You told me that the Jedi are your enemies too," he said softly. "Are you not a Jedi yourself? What have you done to deserve their wrath?"

The man was silent.

"I will not follow you if you do not share this information with me. You know who I am, I think," Palpatine said craftily. "Yes...the Emperor Palpatine. I think anyone would agree that the Jedi have reason to hate me, as I hate them. Now, I am nearly at their mercy. If the situation was reversed, I know I would slaughter them without hesitation. I know what they will do to me. There will be much pain and humiliation for me before the end. But I am not yet captured. Caution is my only defense. Before I go with you, you must give me a reason to believe that what you say is true."

The man remained silent for a long moment, but Palpatine only waited. Finally, the man spoke.

"I will give you a reason which you can believe in," he said gravely. "The Jedi hunt for the Emperor Palpatine, yes, but they also hunt for his former servant. Their revenge will be terrible upon the man who was once Darth Vader."

The world seemed to fall away from Palpatine's feet. In one reeling instant, he identified the man before him. "You," was all he could say. His eyes blazed, and his ragged teeth clenched.

"Yes, it is me," said the man simply. "It is so good to see you...Master."

The last word emerged so laden with rueful sarcasm that Palpatine flinched. Then Anakin Skywalker crossed his arms on his broad chest and offered Palpatine a smile from the depths of hell.

The two of them made their way through the rough hills in tense mutual silence for a long stretch. Anakin seemed healthy and strong for his age, and the terrain offered him little challenge. Palpatine had a far more difficult time, but Anakin offered an unquestioning helping hand each time it was necessary to cross a gap or climb a steep slope. Anakin seemed to be enjoying the silence. He must have known his former Master's thoughts and emotions would be seething. Anakin had obviously had time to prepare mentally for their encounter, but for Palpatine, it was all quite a shock. He imagined that each time Anakin helped him cross a dangerous crevasse, the former Sith Lord must be glorying in the reversal of roles. Now Anakin was the one in charge. Now Anakin held the power of life or death for Palpatine. The record of the past did not argue favorably for Anakin using that power in a way that would be beneficial to Palpatine.

When they clambered up onto a small plateau and paused to check for pursuit, the tension simply became too great. Anakin suddenly turned on the former Emperor.

"All right," he said. "Go ahead and say it. I can feel your anger. Go ahead and say what you're thinking."

Palpatine scowled and pointed one twisted, shriveled finger at Anakin. "You killed me," he grated, infusing the accusation with the vitriol of the dark side he knew so well.

"Yes," said Anakin, "I did. But you survived, didn't you."

"You betrayed me at Endor! You chose your son over me!"

It was as if Palpatine's anger drew out Anakin's. An unmistakable echo of Lord Darth Vader could be heard in his reply. "You betrayed me long before that, my old Master! Your Empire was never what you promised it would be. You lured me in with a vision of an ordered galaxy, but your real plans concerned only chaos. In the end, there would have been nothing left for either of us to rule over but shattered planets!"

"These are all lies, Lord Vader -"

"No!" Anakin interrupted, pointing one finger directly at Palpatine. "That is no longer my name, old man. If you use it again, I will give you to the Jedi Legion myself. I am not proud of what I was."

"You mean, what I made you," sneered Palpatine.

"No. That is only another lie. The responsibility for what I did with my life was my own, and belonged to no one else. Not even you. You may have thought I was your slave. Indeed, you held my life in your hands. I had to obey you, or else die. What you tried to do to my son, that was so I would be left with no one of my own. No one but my Master, the Emperor Palpatine. But a part of me was always free. It was that part of me that killed you at Endor. And I would do it again, the same as before."

"I should have seen it coming," said Palpatine bitterly.

"Yes, maybe you should have. My son was right about you. Your overconfidence was your weakness."

Palpatine's lips tightened as he glared at Anakin. Then he cocked his head and smiled ironically. "Ah...but in spite of everything, we had such a long time together, did we not? So many years as Master and servant. We accomplished great things, you and I. The destruction of the Jedi, the creation of an Empire. You served me well, Lord...Anakin. I had good reason to be confident in you. Did you understand, my servant, that knowing you were mine to do with as I wished was one of my true enjoyments in life? An Emperor has so few real pleasures. And so little time to enjoy them."

Anakin frowned, but restrained his own anger. "Mock me all you wish. It changes nothing. Look at the end result of things in the galaxy. You are dead. Your Empire is replaced with a New Republic. My daughter is one of its leaders. My son has recreated the Jedi order, and he will be a Master teaching new students. What did you leave behind you that was permanent? Nothing but death and destroyed lives, mine among them."

Palpatine's face darkened as he withdrew deeper into the shadows of his oversized black hooded robe. "Don't be a fool, Anakin Skywalker. I leave behind the dark side of the Force, and that is eternal. It is a great injustice that neither a man nor his accomplishments can live forever...although I made a very good attempt. But I was the greatest Master of the dark side who ever lived. So long as the Force exists, the memory of what I was will live!"

Anakin was silent as they stared at each other. Finally, he said quietly, "It's not the legacy I would choose."

Of course not, thought Palpatine. One does not choose such a legacy. One is chosen for it, as I was chosen by the dark side. He had only scorn for the things Anakin was proud of. And why was Anakin speaking as if history was over? There was still a chance...there was always still a chance. To return and destroy the New Republic and the new Jedi. To continue his own story, which was not yet ended, but merely interrupted.

"We should join the others in the cave," said Anakin. "I do not see any pursuers, but they cannot be far behind." He seemed to be dismissing the argument.

"How far away is the cave," asked Palpatine sullenly.

"Not far. In fact, we're already there," said Anakin. He crossed to the other side of the plateau and pointed to a half-hidden man-sized hole in the ground.

"That's a cave?" said Palpatine doubtfully.

"There's a huge sinkhole below. This is just the way in. I'm afraid you'll have to jump a little ways, but there is a slope to slide down to the bottom." Anakin gathered his robes, sat down with his legs in the hole, and pushed off to drop in feet first.

Palpatine heard a clatter of pebbles as Anakin landed somewhere within. He walked to the hole and peered into the darkness, but could see nothing. Briefly, he considered simply taking his chances and walking away on his own. But he found that he desired the safety of numbers more than he mistrusted his old servant. Also, Palpatine resented the reversal that left him weaker than Anakin. He decided to stay by Anakin's side and wait for a chance to hurt him and reassert his rightful dominance.

He sat down at the edge of the hole, and with a final look at the silver sky, pushed off and dropped in. He fell for a short distance and landed heavily on a steep slope covered with round stones. Helplessly, he slid down into the darkness, battered by tumbling rocks all the way. Painfully, he landed on a level stone floor, sprawled without dignity at the feet of Anakin Skywalker. As he gathered his robes into a semblance of order, he dimly saw Anakin hold up his hand. A brightly glowing ball of light appeared above his open palm, illuminating the cave to its farthest corners.

Belatedly, Palpatine realized he had not asked who Anakin's companions were. In the new light, he had his first look at them. At Anakin's left side was another old man who wore similar Jedi robes, brown where Anakin's were gray. Next to this white-bearded Jedi was a tiny green-skinned alien with long pointed ears protruding from his wrinkled, bald head. Palpatine knew them both at once.

"So, you have brought him," said Obi-Wan Kenobi.

"As much as I hate to admit it," said Anakin, "this old despot is our last hope."

"A great pity it is," said Yoda, frowning, "that there is not another."

Empatojayos Brand floated in front of the ranks of his Jedi Legion. Behind him were the hills into which the Emperor Palpatine had fled. Brand was a cyborg, and the only remaining human parts of him that were visible were his eyes and nose. Below his nose there was only a round droid body with mechanical arms. This survival suit was a reminder of his years as King of the Ganathan people, as well as of the day when Vader had hunted him and destroyed his ship and his body. Now that he had departed the physical world, the suit was purely a mental construct, entirely his choice to wear. He could represent himself in his young, undamaged body if he wanted to, but the droid body suited him after so long. It contained most of the history of his life, and he did not want to give it up.

Levitating just as he had before his death, Brand addressed the hundreds of Jedi before him. He was proud to be their leader. They revered him for his great deed in removing the Emperor from the galaxy forever. But Brand knew that in the crowd were Jedi much greater than himself. It was to his great honor that they had chosen to follow him.

He looked over the ranks, pausing to make eye contact with those he knew well, or those he had come to know here, after his death. He saw Jem and Rayf from Ossus, two young warriors who had perished in the final struggles against Palpatine. There, too, were the twins, Denin and Vila, who had done their work so well in their role as scouts. Brand saw the aged, insect-faced creature known as Jedidiah, who had won Brand's admiration with his tale of sacrificing his own life for Luke Skywalker's. It reminded Brand of his own sacrifice in the Fortress of Modon Kira on Onderon. Then there was Dev Sibwarra, the young man who had helped save Luke during the Battle of Bakura. Brand knew some of these beings had, like him, encountered Luke Skywalker during their lives. They had played a small role in the rise of the only remaining Jedi Master, whose light would lead a new generation of students to serve the Force.

But these were just a minority of the Jedi gathered here. Most of the Jedi had died before Luke Skywalker had ever learned about his destiny. But Brand had something in common with them, too. They were victims of the Emperor's Purge, slain by Palpatine's heavily armed assassins, by his puppet Sith Lord, or by the dark Emperor himself. They had remained here in this realm to watch the fate of the galaxy after their murders, hoping against hope to see the disaster somehow redeemed. And now, they had a chance to do something none of them had ever expected. They had the opportunity to decide the final fate of the Emperor, their destroyer.

"Fellow Jedi!" cried Brand. "The Emperor Palpatine is indeed in this realm, as I told you he would be. When I died, I imprisoned his very essence and carried it with me as I crossed over. I was separated from him, but I knew in my heart that he would still come here. Now we have found him! Denin and Vila have seen him with their own eyes, as he emerged from the Bowl of the Mists. Now he is finally ours to deal with. We have our plan, and all the players are in position. Are all of you ready to play your roles in bringing about the Emperor's end?"

Hundreds of voices, human and a multitude of other species, cried out in affirmation.

"Are all of you ready to do what we have agreed to do?" cried Brand. "It will be difficult for some of you. I know how you feel. But we are Jedi! This is, and forever will be, our way! Are all of you with me?"

Again, every voice shouted agreement. Although Brand's mouth was gone, he smiled in his heart. Then he turned and began to lead his army into the hills, in search of the Emperor.

"What are you two doing here?!" Palpatine snarled at Obi-Wan and Yoda. "Didn't the Jedi Legion want you?"

Kenobi let out a troubled sigh. "Yoda and I are here," he said tiredly, "because of our loyalty to Anakin. We cannot stand by and let the other Jedi destroy him for his crimes as Darth Vader. Such a punishment is too extreme. He was my student and my friend before he was Vader. I can do nothing less than stand by him now."

"So...you are all fugitives from the Jedi," said Palpatine slowly, a leering smile forming on his wasted face, "because you are protecting Darth Vader from the hungry mob, which cries out for his blood."

Anakin scowled and took a step towards Palpatine. "I warned you not to call me by that name again," he nearly shouted.

Palpatine faced Anakin squarely, not backing down from the taller man. "And what will you do to me, a defenseless old man? I am in a nest of my old enemies, with another army of foes at the doorstep. Will you kill me again, my old servant? Are you strong enough to finish the job? And what does it matter to me? I can die here, or I can die out there! But perhaps it matters to you! I have been brought here for a reason. You need me for something, though you are loath to tell me what it is." Palpatine grinned with all of his rotted teeth, gazing into the furious face of Anakin. "Well then...as you can see, I am your faithful servant." His grin turned swiftly into a frown. "You should enjoy it while you can."

"Emperor," rasped Yoda in a serious, commanding voice, "have you not taken enough satisfaction from his pain in your lifetime? More serious matters there are to concern us. Fugitives are we...and so are you. If your own life matters to you, then do not mock Anakin for helping you."

Palpatine glared at Yoda. "In my Empire," he stated, "you would not have been allowed on the streets of Imperial City without a human master. I do not take orders from tiny little alien creatures."

Yoda only stared at him with a hint of pity in his ancient eyes.

Frustrated, Palpatine pointed at Anakin, who was standing rigidly nearby. "Explain to me then, little Jedi Master," he demanded, "why you are here with this Dark Jedi, and your fellow Masters are out there hunting him? Do you know better than they about Jedi justice? Why are you willing to die to protect the Dark Lord of the Sith?"

Kenobi stepped in at that moment. "Anakin redeemed himself at the end of his life. Before he died, he threw off the influence of the dark side in order to save his son. In saving Luke Skywalker's life, he accomplished a great deed for the light side of the Force. The other Jedi cannot see beyond the darkness of his deeds as Darth Vader. They treat Anakin's redemption as merely a technical conversion to the light. It is not enough to earn their forgiveness. But for us -"

"I want to hear the Jedi Master's own answer," interrupted Palpatine firmly.

Yoda looked at Kenobi. Their eyes met for a few seconds, then Yoda faced Palpatine again. "When Luke went to face his father," Yoda said with great dignity, "Obi-Wan feared that lost was our last hope. Told him I did, that there was another...Luke's sister. But...wrong was I. There was yet another hope...Luke's father. Never did you fully destroy Anakin Skywalker. Kept him by your side, you did. And so you kept your death by your side, Emperor. Among us, Anakin is welcome, for though we looked for it not, to our aid did he come."

"So," said Palpatine with disgust. "Everyone is happy. Do you expect me to believe that? Is there no anger between you? Are you really the peaceful Jedi you claim to be? I don't think so." Palpatine allowed his voice to drip with sarcasm and mockery. "Obi-Wan Kenobi...have you truly forgiven your beloved student for killing you in cold blood aboard the Death Star? I watched the entire duel myself through the Force. When you were weak and surrounded, your student cut you down. Your friend did not hesitate for a moment." Palpatine laughed harshly. "But didn't he hurt you even more by deserting your teachings for mine?" Palpatine paused to enjoy the troubled look on Kenobi's face. "Oh...but I am sure these are old wounds, long since healed."

Palpatine watched his companions' faces carefully. Anakin was looking pained, and he hesitantly searched Kenobi's face for reassurance. Kenobi seemed to have none to offer. With evident discomfort, he looked away and did not meet Anakin's eyes. The growing pain and guilt soothed Palpatine. He had always enjoyed the pain of others. With the power of the dark side, he had been able to feed on it. But even blind to the Force, he was clearly able to see the obvious conflicts in this volatile little group. Swiftly, he pressed his advantage.

"Anakin," he said with sour softness. "You cannot tell me that you have forgiven your first Master. When I was your Master, you confided in me how much you hated him. Yes...your hate was deep, so deep. You told me of how he fought you on Horuz, how he wounded you so terribly with his lightsaber. Is that what a friend and a teacher does? He left you a seared ruin, crippled and dying...he left you for me to save. And then..." Palpatine lowered his voice to a whisper. "Then he stole your children from you. He gave them to other men to raise. You never had a chance with them. They were hidden from you and turned against you."

Palpatine could see that he had struck a nerve with that last comment. Anakin's face sagged, and he seemed to age ten years in a moment. Unable to face Palpatine, he spoke to the stone walls of the cave. His voice was uneven, and the ball of light he held seemed to dim slightly. "My son...found the good in me. And my daughter forgave me."

"But was that enough to make up for what was stolen from you?" Palpatine pressed. There was no answer.

Then Yoda spoke up again, very quietly. "Anger is of the dark side. And serve it we do not."

The former Emperor suddenly spat out his disdain. "Bah! You are all so pathetic! Too weak even to face your own anger. You never understood the value of anger, Kenobi, Yoda. It lives in you, but you are afraid to face it! You act as if Vader does not deserve your anger, after everything he did to the galaxy, to the Jedi order! You...are...fools! You deserve to be destroyed by those Jedi out there. At least, they know what to do with their anger! At least, when they destroy me, I will die at the hands of people who I can understand. People who hate me the way I hate them. Yes...the way I hate you!" Palpatine turned on Yoda. "If I still had the power of the dark side within me, I would destroy you for training Luke Skywalker!"

Yoda remained impassive. Pointing one clawed finger at Palpatine, he calmly answered, "You had the power, but destroy me you could not. You are no longer the Emperor. Your boasts," he shook his head, "are empty."

"You survived by hiding like a coward," Palpatine shot back. "Just like Kenobi." Facing the tense Obi-Wan, he continued his verbal assault. "When my Purge swept the galaxy clean of the Jedi scum, you cowered on Tatooine, nursing Skywalker. I only wish you had stayed hidden. You interference cost me greatly. You helped Skywalker to destroy my Death Star. And the other child you secreted away, Leia, stole my Holocron and tricked me into releasing her brother! But you do not dwell on your successes, do you, my old enemy? You only think about your failures. You blamed yourself for Anakin's so-called fall, and you spent years trying to make up for your so-called mistake. I have nothing but disdain for your guilt and angst. Anakin's awakening to the true power was not your failure! It was my achievement!"

Kenobi refused to be drawn into an argument. He looked at Palpatine's fierce expression with a vague loathing evident on his own face.

"You think you are so very different from me," said Palpatine sharply. "But you are not. Tell me you never hated me for taking him away from you. Tell me you did not enjoy your part in the destruction of my battle station. Tell me you took no satisfaction in that revenge. That you had no shred of anger in your heart as you prepared Luke Skywalker as a weapon against me. That you did not feel a cold satisfaction when your plan succeeded, and I was annihilated with the second Death Star, hurled into the core shaft for the sake of your student. Tell me that you have never felt as I do...and I will tell you that you lie."

Kenobi's gaze was very hard as he answered coldly, "Don't you think we know what you are trying to do? We understand you all too well. Even here, when we are all in danger, you strike out at those who would help you, for the sole purpose of doing harm. We expected this from you, and we will not let you divide us. You only have power over us here if we let you. And that is not going to happen. Once, we underestimated your cunning. It will never happen again."

Palpatine fell silent. He realized suddenly that he had erred. When he had tried to turn Anakin and Kenobi against each other, he had almost succeeded. But when he had attacked them himself, he had only reminded them that he was their mutual enemy. For now, he had failed to hurt them. But there was still time to try again. Perhaps Obi-Wan and Anakin were too strong. Yoda seemed to be the weakest of the three. Not only was he a nonhuman, he was small and extremely old as well. Maybe, if he waited for the right moment...

Palpatine turned and walked into the shadows of the cave, signaling his temporary surrender. There he found a large flat stone to stretch out on. Gathering his robes together, he lay down with his back to the Jedi. Yes, he needed to bide his time. He had a priceless opportunity here. He might soon die at the hands of the Jedi Legion, but before the end, he would repay his greatest enemies for what they had done to him. A pity young Skywalker was not here as well. But Yoda, Obi-Wan, and Anakin were fine substitutes. Perhaps he could betray them when they counted on him to give whatever help of his they coveted. It would almost be worth it to be executed by the Jedi, knowing that three of his most hated opponents were dying with him. He needed only to wait. An opportunity would present itself. They think I am helpless, he thought. They will find that it is they who are mistaken...about everything.

By lying still and listening quietly to the conversation of the others, Palpatine learned several useful things about his new environment. Anakin and his companions had been hiding in this cave for several days. It was one of several places of refuge that they had found in the hills. Because the Jedi Legion hunted them relentlessly, they were forced to change their location often. In each hiding place, one of them kept watch while the other two slept. Palpatine had not felt the need for sleep yet, but from the others, he gathered that once a being became acclimated to this new realm, it was necessary to rest periodically. This need followed the cyclic darkening of the alien sky. But the darkest it ever got was a sort of gloomy dusk. This did not stop the Jedi Legion from searching.

Presently, Yoda and Kenobi settled down to rest in sandy areas of the cave. Anakin came over to Palpatine and unceremoniously took him by the arms to haul him to his feet. Palpatine endured the indignity without comment. Anakin's time would come.

"You will keep watch with me," ordered Anakin. Without another word, he strode gracefully across the stone floor and began to climb a natural stone stairway. He lit the way with his Force-created ball of light. When he disappeared up around a bend, he took the light with him. For a moment, the cave was alive with shadows, then it was plunged into darkness.

Palpatine cursed to himself as he gave in and followed, stumbling across the cave floor in the blackness. He found the opening of the stairway by feel, and slowly climbed it until he found Anakin sitting at the top. The former Sith Lord had doused his light, but there was a dim illumination coming in from the sky. This was another entrance to the cave, but it was fully covered by a pile of boulders. Gaps between the stones had been left so that a watchman could look through. Palpatine stepped into the small room and checked one of the gaps. The view of the surrounding hills was excellent due to the elevation.

"Find a place to sit or stand," said Anakin. "It's going to be a long watch."

"Are they out there?" asked Palpatine quietly.

"I don't know," said Anakin. "They're Jedi...we're Jedi...we all know how to hide from each other very effectively. Both sides can neutralize any use of the Force to search. It's sort of ironic, but it really comes down to them physically looking for us."

"Have they located you before?"

"They have come very, very close...but...no."

"Anakin," said Palpatine after a while, "there is something I have been meaning to ask."

"Ask, if you must," he said stiffly.

"Where are your scars, old friend? Where are the marks that the dark side left on you? I still carry them, yet you do not."

Anakin looked at Palpatine in the gloom. "Is that all?" he murmured. "I can answer that easily enough. This is not the same kind of universe that we lived in before. The rules are different. Time is different here, and thoughts have power. The way you appear outwardly is based on the way you see yourself inwardly. You can change the way you look by concentrating. You don't have to look like the diseased individual that you are, but I cannot deny that your face is the perfect reflection of your soul."

Palpatine frowned deeply. "I suppose that it is only fair that you speak to me as frankly as I spoke to you earlier. But you may wish to restrain your derision of your former Master. The time may come when I can once again make you pay for every word of disobedience."

Anakin stared out into the quiet silver dusk. "That time is finished," he said simply. After a pause, he added, "We should be quiet. There's no sense making it any easier for the hunters."

Palpatine stared at Anakin for a while, but the Jedi only peered steadily through the rocks. Then the fallen Emperor settled down at his own gap in the boulders, and contemplated Anakin's words as he gazed over the shadowy hills. If what Anakin said was true, then it was possible to rid himself of his age-ravaged frame, just as if he were transferring into a youthful clone body on Byss. There was, of course, only one way to find out. He closed his eyes and began to concentrate. Before, on Byss, he would burst free of his shriveled, cast off shell, and awaken in a strong, new, glorious body. When he looked into a mirror, he was always pleased with the results. He remembered the pale golden skin tone which echoed the color of his bright yellow eyes. He saw his clear, unlined face, lean and aristocratic in form. His forehead was high, and his head was crowned with a soft, well-groomed crew-cut of blonde hair with a widow's peak. Beneath his long straight nose, there was a sensuous mouth and a strong chin. The overall impression had been one of seductive power. It had been powerfully attractive to his concubines in any case. The one thing that did not change was the piercing, disturbing quality of his yellow eyes. It was an unheard of color for humans, but no one had ever dared to suggest publicly that the Emperor might have had alien blood in his family tree. To Palpatine, their source was unimportant. He simply enjoyed the way they made people uneasy.

And so, he had the image of his young clone firmly in his mind. It had not been his real appearance at age thirty, but the science of cloning had enabled him to make all of the aesthetic modifications he desired. He opened his eyes. At first, he thought that nothing had changed. His roomy black robes were still the same. Then he slid his hands out of his sleeves. They were smooth and young. He smiled, and he could feel the difference in his face. It had worked. The youthful Palpatine met the aged Anakin's eyes in the dimness.

"Well done," said Anakin. "It matches your ego."

Whatever reply Palpatine might have made was lost as Anakin hissed, "Shhhh! I saw something moving down the slope. We may have to leave in a hurry. Go and wake the others. Tell them the Jedi Legion may be close."

Palpatine stood, and moving much more vigorously than before, he quietly felt his way back down into the darkness. Halfway down the stairs, he realized that an opportunity to hurt his enemies was upon him. He was out of sight of Anakin, and Kenobi and Yoda were asleep. He continued downwards as quietly as he could. Quickly, he decided that Yoda should be his target. He gave little thought to Yoda's reputation as a Jedi Master; he was only a Master of the weaker light side. Besides, Force or no Force, the ugly creature would be defenseless while asleep. The diminutive alien had earned Palpatine's wrath. How dare the little thing suggest that the Emperor could not have destroyed him? One blast of Force lightning could have reduced the pacifistic lizard to a green smoking stain on the ground. Or, if he had wanted to be thorough, a single shot from the Death Star could have annihilated whatever planet the alien had been hiding on. Sadly, he had neither weapon on hand at the moment. But primitive weapons worked just as well. There were large stones on the ground, were there not? That was just the thing to crush a wizened green head into a ruin of blood, pulped brains, and jagged shards of bone. The Jedi Legion might soon be upon them, but they would find that the Emperor Palpatine still knew how to deal with those who dared to defy him. As he died, Palpatine would be able to hold the image of Luke Skywalker's murdered Master in his thoughts. And who was to say he could not take one or two of the Jedi Legion by surprise, and send more enemies ahead of him into oblivion?

Palpatine reached the bottom of the stairs, and padded quietly to the center of the cave. His eyes adjusted to the faint light from above, and he spotted a stone twice as big as his head, not far from where he stood. With his new young form, he should just be able to lift it. He wrapped his hands securely around the stone, and raised it from the cave floor. A few pebbles clattered, and he froze, but neither Kenobi nor Yoda stirred. Then he took careful, soft steps until he was standing over the sleeping Jedi Master.

It's been a long time since we last met, Yoda, he thought. Was it in the Senate Rotunda, perhaps? For the longest time, you were working to train Jedi, and what did it get you? You knew what I was, and still I destroyed all your students. All except one. And that one destroyed me. Were you proud of your young Skywalker for that? Are you dreaming of him now? Foolish little creature. Your kind does not challenge me and survive. I told you I would kill you for training Skywalker, and now I am going to keep my promise. If only Luke were here to see this. Perhaps someday I will be able to tell him about it. And now, old Master...you will die...

Palpatine raised the heavy stone high, and hurled it down at the sleeping Yoda's head. But the stone did not come down. Stubbornly, impossibly, it hung in the air, its position firmly fixed. Palpatine pulled on it with all his strength, but the stone did not budge. He had no effect on it whatsoever. Wildly, he looked down at Yoda. The Jedi Master was awake, lying on his back looking up at Palpatine.

Calmly, Yoda spoke in his gravelly voice. "Strong is your anger," he said, "but not that strong. You do not attack me alone, Emperor, for my ally is the Force. A strong and vigilant ally it is, as you should know."

Palpatine continued to pull on the stone, frantic, his handsome face consumed with rage. Suddenly, the stone lifted even higher, while he held tightly to it. For a moment, his feet began to leave the ground, and he was forced to let go of his weapon. The stone turned gracefully in the air, and moved into a position above Palpatine's head. He gasped as it lowered towards his upturned face. Without warning, it was hurled at him. Leaping backwards, he avoided the missile, but landed painfully on the cave floor. The stone impacted heavily and split apart as it crashed where Palpatine had stood.

Yoda stood, his face serene, and watched as Palpatine gathered the tatters of his dignity.

For a long moment, the former Emperor was speechless. Then he gritted his teeth and snarled, "I'm not afraid of you!"

Yoda's eyelids lowered, and his ears folded down slowly. Tiny sharp teeth showed in his mouth. The combination somehow made the tiny creature look menacing. "Ehhhh... you should be," said Yoda. "You should be."

"What's going on here?!" demanded Anakin, running out of the stairway.

"Nothing I cannot handle," said Yoda.

"I sent Palpatine down here to tell you the Jedi Legion is close. One of their scouts is in the area. We have to get out of here before they find this cave."

Kenobi appeared next to him, awake and alert. "We must go at once," he said. "Follow me, all of you, to the back door. Quickly!"

Anakin took Yoda onto his broad shoulders, and hurried after Kenobi. Palpatine, growling to himself about his humiliation, nevertheless swiftly followed. Obi-Wan led them into a tunnel at the back of the cave. After a short winding distance, it opened into a narrow ravine. They ran along this passage until the walls fell away on either side. The fugitives came out of a cliff side onto a broad slope leading towards the plains below. Palpatine realized they were completely exposed.

As if to accompany his realization, a cry split the clear air. High above, and behind them on the plateau, a lone figure stood against the sky. Waving its arms, it cried out in a voice sure to carry an impressive distance. "Jedi!! Jedi!! Vader!! Palpatine!! They are here!! Jedi!! To me!!"

Palpatine caught up to Kenobi as they ran. "You imbecile!" he screamed. "They have found us! Why did we come out into the open? Why did we not hide?!"

"We had no choice!" Kenobi thundered. "Would you prefer we had been trapped like vermin in that hole? This was the only way out! Besides, this was the plan all along! Now that we have you, we don't have to hide any more. We only need to lead the Legion to the trap we have prepared for them."

"What trap?!" Palpatine shouted. "What am I supposed to do to help, you wretched Jedi fool? I don't have any power in the Force at all! What can I do against so many Jedi? You are insane - yes, that's it! I am fleeing with a pack of psychotic fools to the slaughter!"

"And you are a raving paranoid sadistic tyrant," roared Kenobi, "but your worst fault is that you will never shut up and listen!! There is a plan, and you can help. In fact, only you can do what must be done!"

"Here they come!" Yoda called. Riding on Anakin's shoulders, he was able to look at the cliff behind them. Palpatine felt a thrill of fear. No! He couldn't be captured! Their head start had to be enough. Their group was small and swift, and the exit from the plateau was through the cave and tunnel. A large group of pursuers would be delayed while getting through there, for they could only come one at a time.

Then Palpatine risked a look behind him, and learned that he was horribly wrong. The Jedi were not entering the cave and leaving through the ravine. They had assembled at the top of the cliff, several hundred strong. Now, rank after rank was leaping from the cliff's edge, and floating to the ground far below. The Force carried each one to a gentle landing. Among the descending Jedi, Palpatine picked out a being shaped like a sphere with short arms. It was Empatojayos Brand. The Jedi who had killed him, come to finish the job. Palpatine averted his eyes and forced himself to run faster.

Again, he came alongside Kenobi. "If you have a plan, old man, you had better tell me what it is! Or we're finished! The Jedi are coming down that cliff like a waterfall. They'll overtake us like a river, and soon!"

"We're almost where we need to be!" Kenobi yelled. "We need them to be close behind." Obi-Wan's eyes flashed at his old foe. "We didn't tell you what your role is before, because we knew you would betray us if you had any choice. Now, you truly have no choice, Palpatine! Help us, or be killed yourself!" Kenobi pointed to the plain ahead. "Once we get down there, we are going to be able to destroy the Jedi Legion."

"You would kill your fellow Jedi just to save yourselves?" Palpatine taunted. "That doesn't make you much of a Jedi, does it? So, you are like me after all!"

"They are no longer Jedi!" Kenobi shouted angrily. "They would kill Anakin, one of their own, and betray everything the Jedi stand for! They have turned to the dark side in their hearts, and they are lost. They deserve to die. But we are not going to be the executioners. You will be our tool with which to destroy them. You are going to kill them all."

Palpatine couldn't believe what he was hearing. "I am! With what?!" he laughed hysterically as an incredulous fear rose up inside him. "My bare hands? Stones don't work very well! Oh," he said loudly, his old sarcasm suddenly emerging, "now where did I leave my lightsaber? Oh no...back in the cave! You don't still have yours, do you?"

Kenobi ignored him. "This realm intersects with an opposite realm of the dark side. Down there near the portal, a servant of evil can use the dark side's power. But only there. Here is your chance to show us how strong you really are, great Emperor. Can you handle a few hundred Jedi? Will you do it to save your old enemies?"

Palpatine was stunned. He had never expected this! Here was the ultimate chance he had been waiting for! The power of the dark side...his again. His fear and hatred, feeding into a vast destructive source, and unleashing the might to summon a Force Storm. His sudden dark joy was too much to contain, and he laughed out loud again, but this time with triumph. "And what is to stop me from destroying you, and Anakin, and Yoda, as soon as I am finished with Brand and his army?" As he asked the painfully obvious question, he anticipated the foolish answer he would get.

"We will continue on, away from the portal," Kenobi said. "You will stay behind and attack the Legion as they catch up to you. We will be out of range by that time. Once you have defeated our enemies, we will go our separate ways."

Yes! It was as he suspected. His ignorant ally knew nothing of the power of Force Storms. Palpatine had discovered them after Kenobi and the rest had died! The true range and destructive scope of Palpatine's power would come as a rude surprise indeed! There would be no place for anyone to hide. Briefly, he wondered if the whole plan might be a trick to leave him behind to be killed while the others escaped. Perhaps there was no portal, and no dark side power. But that made no sense. Palpatine would merely be the first to die in that case. Once they had captured Palpatine, the Jedi Legion would not just stop their pursuit of Darth Vader! And if Kenobi had wanted to turn Palpatine over to the Legion, they could have simply not helped him earlier. No, it could not be a simple betrayal of him.

All at once, Palpatine felt something deep inside which told him Kenobi's words were true! It was as if he contained a cold furnace, chill and dusty from neglect. Suddenly, a familiar energy began to burn in his vital center. His eyes were drawn to the silvery sky. High above, there was a small black hole marring the shining expanse. Around this void there was a slowly revolving whirlpool in the fabric of the heavens. As the sea of silver turned and twisted around the hole, the ebony opening seemed to grow larger. Struck with vertigo, Palpatine felt as if he was standing upside down on the sky himself, looking down at a great smooth ocean which was draining slowly into a bottomless pit.

It was a portal to a realm of the dark side. Instinctively, he knew that beyond it was the nether world of endless madness which he had always feared. It was close...so close to him! And he could feel its hunger. It wanted him, wanted to claim him, to take what belonged to it. All those years, he had used its power for his own needs and purposes. This realm had always waited to be paid back. First, it had taken his youth and vitality, ensuring that he would eventually die and lose his very essence to its hunger. Palpatine had cheated it, again and again, living on in his clones and avoiding his fate. Now, he could feel it pulling at him. It had never been enough that he had fed it with the fear and anger of a tormented galaxy. That was just part of his servitude. No, the price it demanded was personal. The dark side consumed its greatest servants in the end.

Palpatine came to a point directly under the vortex, slowed, and stopped. He didn't notice Anakin, Yoda, and Kenobi race past him and continue running away down the plain. He wasn't aware of the sounds of the Jedi Legion as it drew closer. He only had eyes for the hypnotic portal. The sky spun on and on, circling it. The pitch black void continued to expand, and now lightning danced high in the sky around it.

He felt the call of his Master, but he also realized he did not have to go. He could stay here if he wanted to. He had the power again. He could remain and destroy the Jedi Legion, serving the dark side as he had done before. He could kill Anakin and the others. And then what? Did he have to go to his death and enter the portal? No! Surely there was another way! Perhaps he could punch a hole through space and time, and return to the galaxy he had been torn from. The dark side could wait for its payment. It could wait forever as far as he was concerned. And then, could the dark side truly be called his Master? Or would it be his servant at last? What mattered was that the power was his now! And it was time to put this pack of yapping Jedi dogs in its place.

Palpatine spread his arms. A cold wind began to blow around him as he gathered energy into himself. Easily, his own words as recorded in the Book of Anger came back to him.

Anger, concentrated by will in the vital center of the body creates a portal through which vast energies are released - the energies of the dark side of the Force. Standing watch with the mind, in my meditation of anger, I have slain my enemies through great distances, through the dark side power that permeates the galaxy. Using this knowledge, I can unleash the dark side energies that are all around us, even to shatter the fabric of space itself. In this way, I have created storms.

He had recorded those words after his victory over Urn Zelotes and the other adepts who had stood against him on Byss. To defeat them, he had created a Force Storm large enough to destroy a city. By the time he had faced Luke and Leia over Pinnacle Moon, he had been able to summon a Force Storm capable of swallowing a fleet of starships. Standing below the open portal to the dark side realm, he had access to the power in its most pure form. The Jedi Legion, which was forming a great circle around him, didn't have any chance at all. Palpatine laughed at the Jedi as they surrounded him. He heard them speaking, but he did not register their words. Nothing they said could matter. They would soon be dead.

High above, the enormous whirlpool in the sky seemed to respond to his call. It seemed to him that it spun faster, and began to shape itself into a funnel, with the narrow end dipping down from the heavens towards him. At the center, the black portal into chaos pulsed and thundered. A great rumbling sound had begun to grow, and the ground trembled. The wind whipped his robes about, and lightning split the air again and again.

"I am the Emperor Palpatine!" he cried. "The greatest Master of the dark side who ever lived! Hear me now, Jedi! I am your doom, now and forever!"

Empatojayos Brand was astonished at the spectacle before him. His Jedi followers had surrounded the Emperor as planned, forming a great ring of beings linked hand in hand. Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, and Brand's own Master, Yoda, had doubled back and joined the circle. But the center of the circle held the makings of a natural disaster. The level of noise was daunting, what with the rumbling of the portal, the trembling of the ground, and the searing lightning strikes. In the middle of it all, Palpatine stood with his arms raised and his hood thrown back. He looked like one of the youthful clones described by Luke Skywalker. But as Brand watched, Palpatine's appearance changed. His face melted back into the horribly withered old man's visage Brand had seen on Onderon. The Emperor laughed at Brand and the other Jedi, a harsh mocking laugh full of stabbing scorn. Brand wondered how Yoda had ever managed to spend time with this monster up close.

To answer the Emperor's laugh, Brand spoke out loudly and clearly to the assembled Jedi. "My fellow Jedi! This is a moment of greatness, which will be remembered forever in the light side of the Force! We have before us the enemy who destroyed us in life. We have the power to destroy him in turn. But that is not the Jedi way. We are Jedi! We serve the light! We do not destroy - we preserve and we redeem. We have been given an extraordinary chance to live by our ideals today! We can redeem and reclaim our most potent foe! Remember the Jedi code!

There is no emotion; there is peace.

There is no ignorance; there is knowledge.

There is no passion; there is serenity.

There is no death; there is the Force."

Hundreds of voices repeated the Jedi code back to Brand. The voice he heard next to him was the high, clear voice of the woman who had conceived this bold plan. Without her, it would not have been tried. But her persuasion, her truth, and her goodness had shown them all the way. As she spoke the words, "There is no death; there is the Force," Brand's heart soared.

But the raging Emperor offered a hateful counterpoint. "I am the Emperor Palpatine! The greatest Master of the dark side who ever lived!" How it must pain her to see him like this, Brand thought. Her bravery must be immense.

"Hear me now, Jedi!" shouted Palpatine. "I am your doom, now and forever!"

At those defiant words, the woman at Brand's side released his mechanical hand and held up her slender arm. She gestured, and a spear of dazzling light appeared in her hand, pulsing as brightly as a lightsaber blade. Following her example, each Jedi in the circle let go and summoned a brilliant spear. The heavens above the Emperor poured downwards towards the exultant dark side Master. The whirling portal drew close to him. Violent lightning struck the ground in a rough circle around him. Even brighter than the lightning were the light spears of the Jedi. As one, they lowered their spears and leveled them at the black robed figure in the center of the circle. Then they advanced.

The ring of fiery spears finally caught Palpatine's attention. The power of the dark side raged within him, and he longed to release it against his attackers. First, an energy shield against the spears, then a wave of Force lightning to drive them all back. Finally, the Force Storm to descend and savage them. But nothing was happening. The dark side was not answering his commands. All it seemed to want to do was to claim him. The Jedi continued to advance until he was at the points of more than two hundred spears. The shining weapons were very long, and their collective light nearly blinded him. But he could still see the forms of the Jedi holding them. Among the Jedi attackers were Kenobi, Anakin, and Yoda! Impossible! Was everything they had told him a lie? Had he really been fooled so utterly? He had only a moment to fix his hateful gaze on Anakin before the spear points moved forward and entered him.

Every part of him was pierced, but he knew at once they were not natural spears. They did not slice his flesh. They slid into him without a single cut. The spirit weapons were not even tools of destruction! They were instruments of healing! They attacked Palpatine's darkness. Impaled on so many lances of light, he was lit up from within. His body became translucent and revealed the conflicting forces inside him. The light spears treated the darkness as an infection to be rooted out and destroyed with complete thoroughness. The energies of the dark side broke upon those spears, fragmented, and were cast out like escaping wraiths.

Above Palpatine, the great black vortex spun. As his dark side power was cut away, it rose like fire and smoke into the lightning-ringed whirlpool. The dark realm fed ravenously, absorbing and reclaiming every shred of the shadow that flew free of its former servant. Palpatine had often wondered if the dark side was a sentient, living energy, or merely an aspect of the galactic energy field. He had never been able to learn the answer. Nor could the assembled Jedi discern its true nature. All they could understand was that it took back the darkness which they carved away, and took it back with frightening strength.

The vortex continued to hurl down lightning bolts. Some of the Jedi were struck and fell away, their spears vanishing as they collapsed. But there were more than enough remaining to complete the task.

For Palpatine, the experience was profoundly painful. Layers of his very soul were being sliced away. He no longer saw the Jedi surrounding him. Vivid visions came to him, depicting the parts of him that were being lost...

...he saw himself holding his lightsaber at the throat of a beaten Luke Skywalker, then the scene burned away, and even the memory of it was gone.

...he saw himself laughing as the adept's city of Velarium was ripped apart by his first Force Storm. Then that, too, fled and was consumed.

...he saw himself unleashing the Force lightning that would have killed Luke Skywalker on the second Death Star. Then it was gone. It had never existed.

...he saw himself awash in the power of the dark side after the destruction of the planet Alderaan...but that event, too, departed forever.

...he saw himself with the Holocron of Ashka Boda, willing his death and making his first transition into a clone body...and the experience itself was taken from him.

...he saw himself directing the Purge of the Jedi from the Palace on Coruscant. The spears amputated that part of his life, too.

...he saw himself declaring himself the Emperor of the Galaxy. The memory was sheared mercilessly away.

...he saw himself using the Force to lower the helmet onto the head of a kneeling Darth Vader. Gone, cut away.

...he saw himself engineering the fall of the Republic as President of the Senate. Extinguished.

...he saw himself learning the secrets of the dark side from Darth Shado, then killing her with his own hands. Lost.

...and at last he saw himself as a boy, taken from his father by the Sith and chosen by the dark side to be its greatest servant.

The last of the darkness to depart into the portal was that which had been bestowed long ago on that day of choosing.

This final memory was the last thing Palpatine saw. The portal descended, and his body was surrounded by a tornado like storm of darkness. The force of it threw back the surrounding Jedi and blew many of them off their feet. The whirlwind spun tightly, dizzyingly around him, swallowing him completely. Then it began to climb upwards again. The vortex began to slow. The lightning bolts ceased to rain down. Gradually, the ground stopped shaking. The aching void in the sky began to shrink. Slowly, the black circle diminished until it was the size of a pinpoint, present, but no longer visible. The silver sky had returned to normal, and beneath it, draped in robes far too large for him, was a young boy.

He was a pale child, with a serious face. He had a head full of messy, light colored hair, and his unusual yellow eyes cast about in bewilderment. The woman at Brand's side stepped from the circle then, and approached the boy with her arms outstretched. Tears fell freely down her face, and she looked overwhelmed with passionate relief. Kneeling before the confused and frightened child, she held out her arms to embrace him. Trembling, he fell into her embrace.

"Oh, Espaa," she wept. "We did it...we saved you. Espaa...I'm your mother, Gemsaa."

"Mother?" said Espaa Pestage. "You are my mother! But I thought you were dead. How can this be?"

"There is no death, my son. There is the Force. I'm here now...that's all that matters. I will never leave you again, Espaa, so long as you need me. I promise you that."

Gemsaa Pestage held her son tightly to her and wept unashamedly as the assembled Jedi looked on in awe.

"Are you sure he remembers nothing?" Brand asked Anakin.

"His mother probed his thoughts. He doesn't know who he used to be." Anakin shook his head. "It's a miracle. Gemsaa is a brilliant healer. If she hadn't died, I think her son's life would have been very different. And so would the fate of the galaxy. I wonder sometimes, Brand. Does the Force control our destinies? If it does, why did it heap so much pain and evil on one man, starting with the death of his mother? Or was it all some ghastly cosmic mistake?"

"A mistake?" said Brand doubtfully. "If so, it has been corrected here today. And thanks are not only due to Gemsaa. I do not think I could have put up with Palpatine at such close quarters as you did, with Obi-Wan and my Master."

"I was already used to him," Anakin said ruefully. "But it was a burden. I won't argue with that...Still, to me it was a chance to complete my own redemption."

"You did your work perfectly, all three of you. The Emperor was totally convinced by your story. He fully expected to destroy all of us. For a moment, even I almost believed that he could."

"I knew him so well," said Anakin. "That's all. I knew how to bring out and manipulate his deepest character traits. Fear for his own survival. Paranoia. The desire for revenge. The need for power. He did the rest by himself."

"Such a healing has never before been accomplished among the Jedi. And it could only have happened here, where our very forms can change, and where there was a place to send what we took away from him forever. I am still in awe that I witnessed it. Come with me, Anakin, I want to see the results for myself."

They approached the little group on the plateau hesitantly, but Gemsaa saw them and waved them closer. Anakin marveled at how simply beautiful she looked with her son. They both had the same hair color, a subtle brownish blonde that glistened in the silvery light from above. Gemsaa held Espaa without possessiveness, and he seemed to belong in her arms.

Anakin sat down next to a pensive Yoda and nodded at his satisfied looking old Master, Obi-Wan. Brand floated at his other side, completing their small circle. Espaa looked at Anakin with a reserved greeting expression. Anakin could detect no hint of recognition in the boy's eyes, and he sighed with relief.

"Espaa," said Gemsaa, "this is Anakin, a powerful Jedi, and Brand, his friend and also a great Jedi. They are going to be your teachers too, along with myself, Yoda, and Obi-Wan. Together, we will teach you all you need to know about the Force, to prepare you for what lies ahead."

Espaa smiled nervously at the newcomers. Then he turned back to the comfort of his mother. "I'm so glad to have you back. We missed you so much when you went away. But...now I miss my father. I want him to be here, too. Where is he, mother? Why isn't he here?"

Gemsaa smiled sadly, and a few more tears brimmed in her large brown eyes. "I miss him too, Espaa. I loved your father very much. He was a good man. I'm glad you remember him. He loved you, more than anyone else in...well, in the whole galaxy. He stayed by your side and took care of you all the days of his life. But he was old, and he died. Sate Pestage wasn't like you and I. He wasn't touched by the Force and called upon to do special things like we were. When he died, he didn't come to a special place like this one. He joined with the All instead. He became a part of the Force. I can feel him, and he is always with me. I'll teach you to be able to feel it, too."

"What am I supposed to do?" asked Espaa. "What special things?"

"Beyond this world, Espaa, there are others. More worlds full of light and darkness. We have battles to fight there, and broken spirits to heal. The Force needs to work through us, to make sure evil doesn't destroy those worlds. It needs us to heal them instead."

"Will we all be going? Will you? Will my teachers?" Espaa looked worried.

Gemsaa stroked his hair. "Don't fear. You need never fear. You will not be alone. I will be with you, and so will your other teachers, for as long as we can."

"When are we going?"

"Well, it's going to be a long time before we go. We have a lot to teach you first. Some of the Jedi you saw earlier will be moving on, however. They are badly needed where they are going."

"When I know everything, then will we go?"

"I don't know if you'll ever know everything, Espaa. But you'll know all you need. And Master Yoda told me we'll be waiting for someone, someone important. I think he'll be here by the time your training is done, but for now, he still has very important work to do, at a place called Yavin Four."

"Who is he?" asked Espaa Pestage. "Will I like him?"

"I think you will," said Gemsaa. "You met him once before, but you don't remember it. He remembers you, though, and he's going to be very surprised to see you."

Original cover design by FernWithy. HTML formatting copyright 2001 TheForce.Net LLC.