Palpatine beamed, looking at peace with the universe. "It's not so surprising, is it, my dear? You are the perfect choice."
This absolutely could not be happening. "What makes me so perfect?" Leia challenged.
"Your power. Your strength.The fact that you have daring enough to use them.That you are willing to learn.That you can think for yourself, and do not allow your hands to be tied by faded, outmoded doctrines." Palpatine steepled his hands together in front of him, and his eyes gleamed as he looked at her. "Moreover," he went on, "you have grown up in the world of government. You were trained as a princess, and know the responsibilities of a ruler. You will not shy away from your duties.And, you have many followers across the galaxy. People who trust you, who believe in you. With you as heir, perhaps they may also come to believe in the Empire."
She backed away from him a few steps, and whispered, wonderingly, "you are so insane. I never realised until right now how insane you are." He started to speak again, but she cut him off. "And don't tell me about the fine line between insanity and genius, I don't want to hear it."
Palpatine seemed unoffended. He said, "is there anything insane about wanting an heir worthy of one's achievements? Even I won't live forever.Must I die knowing that my Empire will disintegrate with my body, its greatness leached away by incompetents and fools, until it is barely a memory?"
Leia thought, my heart is not bleeding for you, Your Majesty.She said, "if a government can't survive without the person who created it, it's not worthy of surviving."
"Ah, but I don't mean it must survive unchanged. Of course not. You will put your personal stamp on the Empire, Leia, just as I have.Think of it, my dear. Here is your chance. The best chance you will ever have. Your chance to rebuild the galaxy in the form you know it should have, to put your ideals into practice. What is the most you could hope for if your pitiful Rebellion were ever to triumph? A seat in the new senate, I suppose. A lifetime arguing with other politicians and never seeing anything that you believe in accomplished. I am offering you the chance to make a difference, Leia Organa.The chance to put the galaxy on a new path.Your path."
Leia eyed him with loathing. She asked, "Palpatine, how stupid do you think I am?"
"My dear?" he inquired mildly.
"You've got decades left, probably. Unless your heir assassinates you. And while I'm waiting till I can put the galaxy on its 'new path', you'll still be in charge, and the galaxy will still be as fucked up as always! And I'll have sold out, and no decent person will trust me again. And by the time you finally kick the bucket, you figure I'll have been your 'apprentice' for so long that I'll be just like you. And you'll keep ruling, through me."
"You're wrong," Palpatine told her. "I would never want an heir who couldn't maintain her own integrity. Leia," he went on earnestly, sounding for the moment as sane as anyone else, "don't let yourself be trapped by your prejudices. Yes, you are right, you would lose the trust of some who thought you had betrayed them. But such fools will never be of any real use to you.Those with the intelligence and understanding to matter in this universe will know that you made the best choice possible, the only choice.Instead of fighting to the end for a doomed Rebellion, you will have taken a first step to reunify the galaxy, to put us back on the road to peace."
Oh, he was good at this, Leia admitted ruefully. He knew everything to say that would strike a responsive chord. Of course she knew that he was talking bollocks, but that still didn't change the fact that when he said it, it seemed to make sense.Dragging her mind out of Palpatine's fantasy-spinning and back into the present, she said, "never mind the road to peace. What about Luke?•À* And our father?"
Palpatine answered, "I will adopt Luke as well.I would never wish anything to separate the two of you. I will help you find a way to heal him. He will be safe, Leia. And your children will be safe. I would never hurt a member of my family."
She laughed bitterly. "Give me one reason to believe that."
"Because it's true," he said softly. "Ask my children. They're alive and well. You can contact them if you wish, then you'll see that I have never harmed them." The Emperor chuckled. "I have never even done anything to hurt my ex-wife. How many men can say that?"
This was too surreal. Leia vaguely remembered knowing at one point that Palpatine had been married, and divorced before he became Emperor. Maybe she'd even known that there were kids. But she'd never expected to hear him talk about them. She wondered whether he had albums of family holo-snaps. Did he still send his children cards on their birthdays? Leia asked, "If your children are alive and well, why do you need another heir? Hand your Empire over to them."
A peculiar expression crossed Palpatine's face. "If you knew them, you would not ask that," Palpatine said. "They ... lack the fire to rule." He shook his head. "One is a librarian and the other runs a veterinary clinic. You can see, I think, why I do not choose to place the Empire in their hands."
I don't know, thought Leia, I'm sure the librarian and the vet would do a better job of ruling the galaxy than you do! She said impatiently, "you say Luke will be safe. What about Vader?"
"Ah," said the Emperor. "That is more difficult. You do understand, my dear, Lord Vader is a traitor. He has shaken the Empire to its foundations. I cannot allow him to go free, to threaten us again. Unless," he mused, "he could be brought back to us. Perhaps if you could convince him to join us, to come back again to the service that he betrayed ... yes, then there might be a chance."
He's lying, Leia thought. She didn't know how, but somehow she could sense the wrongness of what he was saying. He would never do it. Vader would never be forgiven.
But, what choice did she have? Saying no to Palpatine wouldn't get her anywhere. Saying yes, however, might at least buy her some time. Time to find a way to get her family out of this madness.
She looked at the Emperor steadily, and said, "very well ... my Master. I accept."
Mon Mothma frowned at the images on the security video that was rewinding silently in front of her, on her office computer screen.She felt vaguely perverted. The last few hours of staring at these vids had been far too voyeuristic for her liking. She wondered about the officers whose job it was to watch videos like this, and keep tabs on everyone. Did they manage to stay sane? Did they keep a grip on their own lives, or did their lives start to revolve around just watching other people?
Of course, some might say that Imperial officers weren't sane anyway, or they wouldn't be working for the Empire. That was not a point of view which she could endorse -- not any more.
She sighed. Mothma and Commander Antilles had decided that she -- in her copious free time -- would begin watching the security vids that covered Piett's office on the Executor and the corridor outside it, looking for evidence of either the security camera being tampered with to provide a view of Piett's access code, or of anyone gaining unauthorised access to his office. Of course, the really useful thing would be to have equivalent videos for Piett's office here at the base, but as Captain Bailey had pointed out at the review of Piett's case, such surveillance techniques were not among the Rebellion's policies. Mon Mothma admitted ruefully to herself that they probably wouldn't have been able to afford that many cameras, even if there wasn't a moral problem with the concept.
She had been watching the videos backwards, from just before the time at which the incriminating message had been sent. She had the vids for the entire year since the Treaty of Endor and the birth of the New Alliance. The Executor's security chief had told her that the security vids still existed for the years before that as well, back to the Executor's commissioning five years ago. She devoutly hoped that her search would not take her back that far. Surely their famous traitor would only have started contemplating treachery after Vader and Co. had turned against the Empire. Or was even that too much of an assumption to make? It probably was, she supposed. For all they knew this could be some random double agent they were dealing with, or a special agent of the Emperor whose job had always been to spy on the rest of Imperial Security.
So far, no evidence of foul play had leaped out at her. Everything seemed boringly routine. It was rather weird, she had to admit, to be watching Piett at work in his office. But long years of knowing that he was working under surveillance must have taught him not to do anything that he'd be embarrassed for Imperial Security to see. He sat at the computer, he read reports, he sent letters, he drank coffee, and every now and then he talked with the occasional visitor to his office. So far, said visitors had been his executive officer Captain Griffith; Commander Caspren, the Chief of Security from whom Mothma had gotten these videos; Wedge Antilles; Captain Needa; and various officers of the Executor, identified at their first appearance as the security cams analyzed their features, compared them with the crew database, and provided a caption of their name and rank at the bottom of the video image. And once, Piett's office had been graced by a visit from Darth Vader. Mon Mothma had paid strict attention to the actions of every visitor to the office, but thus far none of them seemed to be taking any undue interest in Piett's computer.
She hoped that the other alleged investigators were having more luck than she was. Wedge Antilles had started going through the past year's records of the base's power output, in the search for previous treacherous messages. After some debate, Mothma had agreed with Antilles' suggestion that they should enlist a few more people to help in sifting through the masses of records. Otherwise, as Wedge had pointed out, Admiral Piett would be eligible for retirement before they managed to clear him.
Mon Mothma still wasn't too happy at bringing in anyone else. She couldn't stop herself from thinking that in a situation like this, they really couldn't trust anyone.
But of course, if that were so, then she couldn't trust Wedge either. And he couldn't trust her.
The other investigators Antilles had dragged into this were all fellow pilots of his. There were three of them, his friends, whose discretion he swore he could vouch for. As she watched a particularly boring stretch of security vid, Mon Mothma tried to remember their names. One was a young woman, whom Mothma was sure she had noticed before, as females in the Rebellion these days were few and far between. This woman, whose name was completely escaping Mon Mothma, had seemed ridiculously young. Mothma could hardly believe that she was old enough to be out of school, let alone piloting x-wings. Gods, Mothma thought, surely I never looked that young? Another of Wedge's recruits, who seemed from their body language to be the young woman's Significant Other, looked just as distressingly youthful, a tall, gangly kid with a nice smile and innocent brown eyes. Damn it, Mothma couldn't remember his name, either. She did remember the third one, because Commander Mittri Cawelti was just the kind of person that one remembered. She'd always thought that he looked like a model; Incom ought to use him in their x-wing advertisements, posing in front of his ship looking dramatic and moody. He was dark, tall and hard-featured, with a mouth that seemed expressly designed for sneering. Although she had to admit that he hadn't been sneering when Wedge introduced him to her, and they discussed the investigation. He'd seemed perfectly sincere, and willing to help. As had the little girl and her boyfriend.
Mothma sighed, again. Cawelti and the other two seemed to be as trustworthy as Antilles said they were. She was just going to have to accept that they were, and stop worrying.
It didn't help, of course, that she felt uneasy about carrying out this investigation at all. It clearly wasn't appropriate behaviour for the Alliance's Head of State, and she knew it. If Dodonna or Rieekan or any of the other Alliance Leaders found out about it, the embarrassment was going to be hideous. She could just hear the regretful, schoolmaster-ish tone that would come into Dodonna's voice, as he remarked that he had expected more responsible behaviour from her. Trying to investigate Piett's case herself was the kind of seat-of-one's-pants, would-be heroic behaviour one would expect from wild cards like Calrissian, or Solo, or Luke Skywalker. Not from Mon Mothma, the staid and respectable Head of State.
She smiled thinly. Maybe hanging out with x-wing pilots was corrupting her. She ought to be letting the security people handle this, like a good little bureaucrat, and instead here she was, playing detective with Antilles and Cawelti and the teen Rebels.
The entry bell sounded at the door to her office, and Mothma's heart jolted guiltily. Damnation, she felt like a schoolkid who'd been caught reading a dirty novel. Irritated at her own reaction, she switched off the security vid, and pressed the button which opened the door.
General Veers stepped into the office.
Oh, brilliant, Mon Mothma thought. If there was anyone whose presence was calculated to make her feel even more like a delinquent child than she did already, this was that man. Mothma ordered her face into blank neutrality, reflecting that General Veers could make even Lord Vader seem laid back and accessible.
"Ma'am," Veers said. "Can you spare a few minutes?"
"Of course, General. Will you sit down?"
Veers accepted the proffered seat. When he was seated across the desk from her, he said, "I have concerns of which I feel you should be informed."
"Commander Caspren tells me that you asked him for the security videos of Admiral Piett's office."
No point in denying it, she supposed. She met his gaze and said calmly, "yes, I did."
"You're looking into his case," Veers said.
A tiny frown drew his eyebrows closer together, and his mouth closed more tightly. Mon Mothma wondered whether Veers ever approved of anyone. The General said, "I don't need to tell you, Ma'am, that this isn't your job. The security teams are here for a reason. With respect, perhaps you should focus on your own duties and let them take care of theirs."
"Perhaps I should," Mothma said coldly. "Are you going to report me, General?"
"To whom?" Veers inquired. "Shall I inform on you to Dodonna so that he can slap your wrist?"
Humour, she thought. Good gods, was that humour? Is Veers capable of that?
The General continued, "I was simply hoping that you might reconsider your actions. You're not trained to carry out this investigation, the security personnel are.And their own work might be hampered by the involvement of ... amateurs."
Gods, he was supercilious. Her mood was not improved by the fact that he was probably right. She said, "General, the Rebellion hasn't been able to specialise as much as the Imperial Forces. Each of us has to be prepared to deal with any emergency."
"So you're prepared to pilot a fighter, Ma'am? Operate an ion cannon? Conduct emergency surgery?"
"I'm prepared to do what's needed," she said stubbornly. And I need to do something to help Piett, or I'm going to lose my mind.
Veers was eyeing her measuringly, and she had an uncomfortable feeling that he knew exactly what she was thinking. He must have had at least some inkling, because he said now, "I am sure the Admiral will appreciate your concern for him.But you should consider that your investigation may not be doing him any good. At any rate, there are other issues regarding the Admiral's situation of which you should be aware."
Veers permitted himself a slight grimace. Whatever he was about to say, he found it distasteful. He paused, then said, seeming irritated at having to discuss this, "I am concerned about ... the mood of the men. Specifically, the former Imperial troops."
"Yes. There is some unrest. Tension between former Imperials and more longstanding Rebels. Already several fights have broken out, within the past day. They have been only scuffles so far, with no casualties, but it isn't likely to remain at that level. There hasn't been this amount of tension between our people since the first month of the New Alliance."
Mothma frowned. "What do you think is causing it?"
"They're worried for Piett. There's talk that he's been framed. There have even, Ma'am, been rumours that his illness is part of a plot, and that he was poisoned."
"It shouldn't be a surprise. Our troops have been allies for a year, but enemies for most of their lives. It's easy for them to believe the worst. Especially when someone they care about is threatened."
Mothma looked at him questioningly, and Veers continued, "Ma'am, Admiral Piett is a popular figure. The men respect him, and sympathise with him." A smile twitched at Veers' mouth. "Every Imperial soldier's nightmare has been to have Lord Vader breathing down his neck. The Admiral has lived that nightmare, and that has earned him the affection of the men. I believe they see him as ... something of a good luck charm. The general opinion is that anyone who survives as long as Piett has in close proximity to Vader, must have the luck of the gods. There's a risk that if Piett's luck has run out, the men will believe that so has their own. An attack on Piett is an attack on them."
Mon Mothma stared at the General, not quite able to believe that he was talking about Piett like this. Admiral Piett, the good luck charm! She wondered if Piett knew of his adoption as the mascot of the armed forces. Forcing her mind out of its speculations, she said, "I can make an announcement to all personnel, explaining the nature of Piett's illness and giving an update on his progress ..."
Veers nodded, but his tone was dismissive as he replied, "yes, of course you should do that. But it won't make much difference to the people who are our real problem. They'll assume it's a cover-up. You'd make exactly the same announcement if he had been poisoned, and there was a plot against the former Imperials." His almost-smile again appeared briefly, and he added, "in the Empire, conspiracy theories are easy to believe."
I'm not surprised, Mon Mothma thought. She said, "all right, then, General. What do you suggest we do?" Guiltily, she realised that she expected him to say something intolerable, such as suggesting that any soldiers who complained should be summarily executed.
Veers shrugged. "There's always the traditional method. Diffuse tension at home by seeking out a foreign war. In our position, we shouldn't have to look far to find one."
She thought about that. It was certainly true enough that they were never short of enemies. At the recent command-level meetings they had been discussing the question of what their next priorities should be, where they should send troops next. They could easily find someone to attack, and hope the shared danger would remind their forces that they were on the same side.
But, should they? It had always been one of the greatest problems of planning the Rebellion's strategy, to keep the balance between aggression and defence, and determine how and when they should strike for maximum effect. They couldn't let themselves be pushed into making a premature attack now, just because some of their troops were grumbling.
And then another uneasy thought occurred to her. What if Veers had other motives for making this suggestion? Just supposing that he were the traitor, it would be a major coup if he could get a large proportion of their forces off the planet, leaving the base open to attack, and possibly leading their troops into ambush.
Trying to block out her entirely unsubstantiated suspicions, Mon Mothma asked, "do you think that would help? If things are as bad as you've been saying, won't the conspiracy theorists think that we're sending them into the line of fire to get rid of them?"
"That's possible," Veers admitted. "I hoped the fact that long-term Rebels will be among the troops we send out would remove those fears from all but the most paranoid."
It could work, she told herself. Then again, it could also be a disaster. She said, "I can't authorise an attack just to improve morale. This will have to be presented to the command staff ..." Suddenly, weariness rushed in at her. Presenting it to the command staff would mean more endless meetings, considering Veers' suggestion from every possible angle, the generals arguing about where they should attack, whether it was the right timing, how many troops could be sent out without the base itself being put at risk. She almost groaned. Oh, gods. Her entire life was spent in command meetings these days. When she eventually died of old age, she would have to get her death approved in committee first. That was always assuming that she didn't die of stress before old age got to her. She put her hands to her forehead, then noticed Veers watching her. Smiling faintly at him, she said, "you do know that by the time we finish discussing this in committee, the trouble will either have blown over or our malcontents will have revolted and murdered all of us."
One more time, the patented General Veers Twitch That Might Be Interpreted As A Smile made its appearance. "You may be right," he said. "But it's been our victories that have held the New Alliance together. If we can give them another victory, we should be able to keep it alive a while longer."
And if we can't give them another victory? Mothma thought. Or, if this whole suggestion is just a scheme to finally wipe out the Rebellion ... Damn it, no, she had absolutely no reason to think that Veers was their traitor. None except for the fact that she didn't like him very much, which wasn't a reason at all.
Of course, if he was the traitor, that would give another explanation for why he was so insistent that she stop attempting to discover who had framed Piett ...
Stop it. Looks like it isn't just Imperials who have a weakness for conspiracy theories. She said, hoping the General hadn't deciphered what she was thinking this time, "I'll call a meeting. You can explain your concerns to Command and put forward your proposal ... "
She was interrupted by the bleeping of an incoming message. General Rieekan's visage appeared on her computer screen, looking bleary-eyed and harassed. It looked as if he'd had even less sleep than she had recently. Of course he'd been awakened the night before last for the initial meeting about Piett, but she didn't know what might have kept him from sleeping last night, unless there was some complication with his pet birdcat's pregnancy.
As if to confirm the impression of his lack of sleep, the weary-looking Rieekan rubbed his hands over his eyes, then he said, "Simara, are you there? We've got another problem."
She opened the channel. "What's wrong, Derrath?" she asked.
He gave an apologetic smile. "Sorry to spring this on you, but we thought you should know right away. Our Communications people have picked up a report from the Imperial News Service that ..." his words ran out, and he shook his head helplessly. "Well, it's gotta be seen to be believed."
"Can you patch it through?" Mothma inquired.
Rieekan nodded. "Here it comes." He grimaced. "Brace yourself."
Rieekan's image vanished, to be replaced by a scene that Mothma immediately recognised. It had been twenty years since she'd stood in the Great Hall of the Imperial Palace on Coruscant, and the Palace had still been the Capitol Building then, housing the Senate offices. But the Hall itself didn't seem to have changed much, except that the banners hanging from the balcony, which had borne the insignias of all the planets in the Empire, had been replaced by a much smaller number of black banners with the Imperial insignia gleaming on them in silver and blue.
Well, no, Mothma realised, something else was different as well. There was an object like a museum case at the centre of the Hall, which she had not seen there before. The initial shot of the news report was too distant for her to see any more detail, except that the Hall was also crammed to bursting with people.
The typically youthful, characterless voice of an Imperial News Service newsreader began chirpily, "and now a recap of our main headlines. The top story today is the sensational capture of Darth Vader, former Commander of the Imperial Fleet. Almost a year since Vader's defection to the Rebellion, the Lord of the Sith is back in the heart of the Empire. Vader was captured yesterday during an attempt on the life of Emperor Palpatine. At the Emperor's order, for the instruction of all citizens of the Empire, this traitor has been put on public display in the Imperial Palace. All day, visitors have been thronging to the Palace for a sight of the man who was once our Emperor's closest friend, until Vader's hunger for power brought that friendship to its tragic end. Every subject of the Empire should make an effort to attend the display, and all employers who give their workers leave to visit the Palace will receive government compensation ... "
The holocam had been zooming in while the newsreader spoke, but it coquettishly avoided giving any clear shots of the entire display case and its occupant. Mothma caught a glimpse of a dark, prostrate form, which seemed at first to be headless, until she realised with a jolt that Vader's helmet and mask must simply have been removed. This was confirmed an instant later when the camera panned and focused in on the objects at the captive's feet: a small pedestal on which were placed Lord Vader's helmet and his familiar, gleaming black mask, as well as the Dark Lord's lightsaber.
As the report ended, the camera moved on to members of the crowd, focusing on a wide-eyed pair of children, a little boy and a girl, the girl being lifted up by a man in Imperial uniform to get a better view of Darth Vader, traitor to the Empire.
The image winked out, followed once more by the wan-faced Rieekan. "Really something, hunh?" Rieekan said feebly.
Mothma nodded. She glanced over at the man sitting across the desk from her, and saw something she had never expected to see: a completely shocked General Veers.
The General's mouth, normally so tightly shut, had fallen open. He looked as if someone had just punched him in the gut, and he couldn't quite believe that it had happened.
Cautiously, Mon Mothma touched his shoulder. She murmured, "General?"
Veers blinked, and he shut his mouth. Then he whispered, "bloody hell."
"I suppose," Mothma said quietly, "now we really have to have a meeting."
General Veers nodded distantly, then turned to face her. He said, "you remember that foreign war I mentioned just now? I think we may just have found it."
Moff Nevoy looked around the room, and said, "this time we can't put it off. Either we do it now, or we've lost our chance. For ever."
Most of the men seated about the living room nodded, their faces showing variations on the same depression, hesitation and just plain fear that Nevoy himself was feeling. Dr. Hayashida shifted uncomfortably, sitting so close to the edge of the sofa that he seemed in immediate danger of falling off. Captain Sandar kept passing his cocktail glass from one hand to the other. Colonel Wellaine was holding one of the hors-d'ouevres that Nevoy's household droid had distributed earlier, a small wooden skewer on which were speared several Narsian prawns and the best Cantellin olives, but he seemed to have forgotten it. Captain Raby was glowering at his hands, clasped together in front of him. The only one of Nevoy's guests who seemed even partially at ease was Mulcahy, who was leaning back in the green leather armchair and looking bored. But his fingers, Nevoy noticed, were drumming on the arms of the chair, denying the relaxed impression he was attempting to give.
"Gods," muttered Captain Sandar, "what a mess."
There was no arguing with that analysis of the situation. Nevoy sighed. The others were all watching him expectantly now, even General Mulcahy. And he couldn't blame them for doing so. When it came down to it, Nevoy was the one who had to make this decision, never mind that it was a decision he felt completely unqualified to make. He was the highest ranking officer here, in fact the highest ranking officer on Coruscant, give or take a few retired Grand Moffs who were in their dotage. He couldn't just hide, and shift responsibility to someone else -- no matter how much he wanted to. If he did back out, one of the others might take on the task of leading this, but he knew their chances would be significantly diminished. Having the Moff of Coruscant involved almost made their plans seem like a legitimate political move, instead of treachery. Almost.
He wondered, do I really have it in me to do this?
Forcing himself not do look away from the others, Nevoy said, "I'll go ahead and make contact with Vader, put our proposals to him." He glanced at Dr. Hayashida. "You're confident you got the comlink installed without being detected?"
Hayashida nodded. "After our discussion this afternoon, I went ahead and smuggled in the link while I was supervising the replacement of his infusions. It should avoid detection."
Captain Raby frowned thoughtfully, and asked the doctor, "couldn't you remove the drug from the infusions? It'd help a lot if we had Vader back in top form. Hell, he could just rescue himself."
Dr. Hayashida grimaced, running a hand through his crew-cut blond hair. "No. I don't think we can risk that." He gazed around at the assembled officers. "When someone's as strong in the Force as Vader," he explained, "other Force users can sense his presence. They'll be able to tell the difference between Vader with access to the Force, and Vader without it. If we phased out the drug, Palpatine would know immediately." And we'd be dead, was the obvious corollary that he didn't need to add.
"So we can't even just decrease the dosage?" asked Captain Sandar.
"I don't think so. Not if we don't want to announce to Palpatine what we're up to."
Nevoy said, "I'm afraid, gentlemen, that it's up to us." And this may be my decision, he thought, but I'm damned well not going to plan everything. "If I'm going to put our proposals to Vader, it'd be nice to know what our proposals are. Do I ask him to arrange amnesty for us with the Rebels?"
"Gods damn it," Colonel Wellaine muttered, "I can't believe we're considering that."
"What other choice have we got?" Captain Raby countered. "I don't much like the idea of just running away and having the Rebels and the Empire after us."
General Mulcahy spoke up from the depths of his armchair. "This isn't the same Rebellion anymore," he pointed out. "Vader's with them now. And many of our friends, plus the crews of twenty-eight Star Destroyers. There are as many Imperials in the Alliance now as there are Rebels."
Wellaine shook his head. "We haven't been fighting them for twenty years to go crawling to them now." He suddenly noticed the hors-d'oeuvre skewer in his hand, and stared at it as if it had just materialised there. Looking bemused, he put the prawns and olives down on the little plate that he'd left sitting on the arm of the sofa.
"We all know how you feel," Nevoy told him, "but Raby's right, I don't see that we have a choice. At least if we act now, we've got a chance to influence the way things develop. Instead of sitting back and letting everything fall apart around us."
Captain Sandar, with a timidness in his voice that was unusual for him, asked, "are we sure everything would fall apart? If Vader were dead, maybe the Rebels would lose their momentum. Our people might not stay with them. Vader's execution could be the salvation of the Empire. And ... for all we know, if we rescued him we could be the ones who destroyed it."
Captain Raby answered viciously, "bugger the Empire."
Everyone stared at him.
"I mean it," he said. "It's Vader we owe our loyalty to, not old mush-brains the Emperor. Listen, you can all do what you like. But if I don't try to help him I'll have to attend the execution, have a last meal at Palpatine's banquet, and go home and blast out my brains. That's all there is to it."
Sandar snapped back, "have you ever known anyone that Vader's strangled?"
"Several people," Raby said implacably. "I also know 35,000 people who'd be dead now if Vader hadn't gone back for the Ruthless at Kendahar. He didn't have to, no one expected him to." Raby's voice got quieter, and he looked down at his hands again. "He saved us. If I don't help him now, I don't deserve to live."
Watching the Captain, Nevoy thought, he means it. He thought of Raby's wife and sons, on Hamisan. The boys must be seven and ten now, if he was remembering correctly. They shouldn't have to find out that their father had turned his blaster on himself.
They shouldn't have to find out that their father had betrayed the Empire, either.
Dr. Hayashida cleared his throat, and said, "well, I haven't spent ten years of my life as Vader's doctor just to stand by and watch him be murdered."
"All right," sighed Captain Sandar, "fair enough. I'd rather get strangled by Vader than be squashed by Palp. At least Vader's got sane reasons for killing people."
Hells, thought Nevoy, have we actually got a consensus? Well, no, they didn't really, Wellaine hadn't said anything recently. Damn it, surely Wellaine wouldn't let Vader die? Nevoy thought back to the Battle of Uzal, twenty years ago and more, when he and Wellaine had been among the pilots who had won that victory under Vader's leadership. He remembered the glow on Pilot Jotun Wellaine's face as he exclaimed that he would follow Darth Vader anywhere.
Of course, back then they had trusted Palpatine, too.
Giving Wellaine a bit longer to make up his mind, Nevoy asked Captain Sandar, "how much of the Guard do you think we can rely on?"
Sandar considered. "Enough. A lot of them have served under Vader's command, they'll know they can trust him more than Palpatine. And I've heard a lot of muttering about this damned exhibition. Nobody's happy. When we've decided when we're going to strike, I'll probably have to rearrange the rotas a bit to make sure we can count on the officers on duty. But, yes. I think enough will follow us." His words conjured up uneasy visions which Nevoy was sure were appearing in the mind of each man there, of a firefight erupting between factions of the Palace Guard. They were taking one hell of a gamble thinking that there wouldn't be massive resistance when the men found out that their officers wanted them to defect.
Colonel Wellaine spoke up, finally, "we can disable the perimeter stations' weapons to aid our escape.And I think we should be able to take a good proportion of the defence fleet with us."
Nevoy looked over at Wellaine, and saw a faint smile on the Colonel's face. He smiled back, wanting to say "thank you", but not knowing any way to say it that wouldn't sound awkward.
Captain Raby added, "it makes sense to use the Conquest as our escape vessel. I'll answer for the crew. I may have to give a few of them surprise shore leave, but most will be with us." He gave a feral grin. "I'd love to see Palpatine's face when he finds out we've escaped on his own damn barge."
General Mulcahy interjected, his voice firm and cold, "we can't let him live long enough to find out."
This time, everyone's gaze shifted abruptly to the old General. Nevoy thought how typical it was that, of all of them, Mulcahy should be the first to put the unthinkable into words.
Mulcahy went on, "there's no point in rescuing Vader and letting Palpatine live. We've got to be on one side or the other, completely. If Palpatine's dead, the war can be over now, give or take a clean-up operation or two." He smiled in a predatory fashion. "This war's already gone on twenty years. I'd like to see it end before I die." The smile left his face. "Besides," he continued, looking directly at Nevoy, "some of us here helped to put Palpatine on his throne. It's only fitting that we should be the ones to remove him from it."
Nevoy thought, and how many lives might have been saved if we'd removed him before? Or if we'd never let him become Emperor in the first place?
Shut up. If you hadn't helped him, someone else would have. Don't go convincing yourself that you're crucial to anything.
"Kill Palpatine?" wondered Dr. Hayashida. "How? The man can read our bloody minds."
The conspirators looked at each other helplessly. Then Captain Sandar grinned, hit by a sudden thought. He said, "we'll have to take out the Imperial Guards, for a start. That'll really get the men on our side, if they know they'll get a chance to massacre the Red Idiots."
Scattered laughter sounded around the room. Before anyone else could comment, the door swished open and Nevoy's droid, C4T8, appeared.
"I'm sorry to interrupt, sir," C4T8 announced. "There's been a message from the Palace. His Majesty the Emperor requires that you attend on him at once."
Nevoy stared at the droid. Then, reluctantly, he looked at his comrades, hating to see the shock on their faces. He knew he must be looking as shocked as they were. Despair and terror had just shot into him in equal proportions.
Calm, he ordered himself. You're in charge of this. If you fall apart now, you can forget all of it. Might as well just execute Vader yourself.
He smiled bleakly as he stood up from his chair. "I'll be back as soon as I can," he said. "But, ah ... you might be well-advised to leave. This may not be the safest place on the planet right now."
General Mulcahy said, "if Palpatine knows about this, we're dead already. Wherever we are."
"We'll be here when you get back," agreed Colonel Wellaine, standing up. "After all, you promised us dinner."
Nevoy nodded. "You go ahead and eat. Just save me some leftovers." He turned then and swiftly walked from the room, before his voice failed or his legs gave out beneath him.
He took the lift the two storeys to the roof, then walked numbly to the hangar where his c-wing waited. Inside the little ship, he switched on the autopilot that would take him on the brief journey to the Palace. Often he liked to pilot the c-wing himself, just to keep his hand in, but not tonight. Tonight he was so shaken that he would probably crash.
At least that would save me from having to face Palpatine.
You don't know that he's found you out, Nevoy told himself. This could be anything. It wouldn't be the first time he's dragged you back there out of office hours to deal with some minor idiocy. For all he knew, Palpatine could have had some new idea for the menu at his Darth Vader is Dead banquet, or decided that the stormtroopers would look better in purple, or anything.
Nevoy's hands were sweating. And if he doesn't know, he thought, you'd better think very hard of something else, or he's going to find out everything. It would be just too damned pathetic if he gave away their plot now, through broadcasting his fears to the Emperor. Of course, if Palpatine really wanted to read Nevoy's mind, nothing was going to stop him. But, if Nevoy understood the ways of Force users properly, then Palpatine could also pick up on his thoughts through casual interaction. Rescues and assassination attempts had better not be uppermost in his mind.
But what else was he going to think about, that would be strong enough to keep their would-be palace coup from creeping in?
There was one obvious choice, anyway. He swallowed, looking emptily out at the lights of the traffic flitting past him. Usually, around this time of year, it was difficult to keep this particular topic out of his thoughts. He might as well at least get some use out of it.
Go ahead, he told himself. Wallow in misery. You deserve it.
It had been five years. In three and a half weeks from now, it would be the fifth anniversary of the Death Star's destruction.
And just over a month ago, he had got through yet another anniversary of Laram's birthday. Marida and the kids had come to visit, and he'd done his best to act cheerful and well-adjusted so they wouldn't worry. Can't have Grand-dad breaking down, can we? Adults aren't supposed to do that. But he'd still ended up crying into his drink, after Marida and the children had gone to bed. Damn it. Oh, Gods damn it, he was going to start crying again now, if he wasn't careful. At least his plan to distract himself seemed to be working.
Laram Nevoy would have been thirty-three years old last month. Instead, he was a few specks of space dust orbiting Yavin.
Nevoy clenched his fists. He supposed he would have to go to the annual memorial service yet again. Gods, he hated them. The first one had helped him, he supposed. Perhaps. A little. But after that, each time he went to the service it was like a door opening up on more grief than he felt able to live with.
Not, he admitted, that the door was ever entirely closed. But most of the time, only a few horrible whispers of pain managed to seep through. At the Death Star Victims' memorial service, the whispers turned into screams.
And now, predictably, he'd been appointed to lead the planning committee that was to design a fitting monument to the victims of the disaster. Fitting, ha. How did you build something out of stone and plastisteel that would make any difference to the families of 1,187,000 people?
All right, he knew, he was over-reacting. It would make some of them feel better. It had, in fact, been too long since the disaster already, there should have been some kind of monument constructed sooner. Just having some tangible acknowledgement of their loss would help to remind the survivors that they weren't alone, and the Empire hadn't forgotten them.
Hasn't it? What was our beloved Emperor doing last year, then, when he built a second Death Star? Haven't we learned anything?
Stop that, you idiot. You're supposed to be avoiding thoughts of sedition.
His c-wing was settling onto its usual landing pad, on the level of the Palace that held Palpatine's personal chambers. Nevoy fixed an image of Laram's face firmly in his mind, and concentrated on feeling heartbroken. Better that than giving Palpatine an excuse to plaster him across the walls. Not that the Emperor needed an excuse; if he felt like pulverising Nevoy, he would, as simple as that.
Nevoy strode through the corridors toward Palpatine's audience chamber, his thoughts replaying that evening when he had learned that the Death Star was gone. It wasn't something he was ever in danger of forgetting. He reached the audience chamber door, the Imperial Guards bowed to him in their usual minimal way -- and the door opened and Palpatine stepped out toward him.
This time, the Guards' bows were far deeper. For his part, Nevoy knelt on one knee, thinking as his knee sank into the thick carpet that he might have to have his knees replaced pretty soon, they definitely weren't what they used to be.
"My friend," said Palpatine, "walk with me."
Nevoy stood again and obeyed, keeping pace one step behind the Emperor. As they walked, Palpatine said, without preamble, "I want you to meet one of my guests. Well, two." He chuckled. "The second is not exactly at his best."
Nevoy thought it best not to comment.
"I believe you have met my first guest before, but this will be under different circumstances. You are the first to know, my friend: I am going to adopt her."
Nevoy's pace momentarily faltered, but he quickly caught up again. Palpatine seemed to expect a reply, so he risked the question, "who, Your Majesty?"
"You will see," said the Emperor, in a gleefully smug tone as if he had just purchased Nevoy a particularly appropriate Firelord Day present and was going to make him wait months to find out what it was.
Palpatine went on, "I count on you to make all the arrangements. You will contact my lawyers and ensure that all is in order. As for any ceremony, I expect you to arrange that in co-operation with her. She should feel that she has a part in this. Make her feel at ease. I know I can rely on you. I want you to make yourself available to consult with her whenever she wishes."
"Of course, Your Majesty," said Nevoy, wondering, what in the Hells is going on?
The Emperor had now stopped at the door of one of his guest chambers. He lifted the edge of one of the purple wall drapes, and pressed the entry bell. Nevoy tried to hold back his surprise at the concept that Palpatine would ever ask to be admitted anywhere.
The pause stretched out, and Nevoy started to wonder uneasily what would happen if whoever it was didn't open the door. Just as he had clenched his fists again, the nails digging into his palms, the door slid open.
And Nevoy found out who Palpatine's guest was.
She was standing just inside the door, wearing a long, silver dress that shimmered like an ocean in the sunlight. The dress had a low, rounded neckline, and an opal and pearl necklace nestled at the hollow of her throat. The sleeves of her dress were long and flowing, but translucent, and he could see her slender arms appearing ghost-like through them. Nevoy realised that she looked much too thin; if she were one of his daughters he would be worried sick about her.
Her hair was coiled at the back of her head in one of her trademark hairdos, but little else about her seemed the same as he remembered. Her face was older and inexpressibly more tired. She was no longer the wide-eyed teenager on all the Wanted posters, who for five years had been among the most hated enemies of the Empire: Princess Leia Organa, the outlawed Senator from Alderaan.
"Leia, my dear," said Palpatine, in a voice that sounded almost tender, "you remember Moff Nevoy, don't you?"
Her solemn gaze turned to Nevoy. "Of course," she said simply. Naturally, being a politician, that was what she would say in any case. As he recalled, they had only met once, when Nevoy had addressed a Senate sub-committee of which the Princess had been a member. At the moment, he couldn't even remember what the sub-committee had been on. Something military. That narrowed it down a lot.
Princess Leia stepped aside and gestured for them to enter the room. Nevoy followed Palpatine into the richly-appointed living room of the guest quarters, and the three of them stood there, Nevoy and the Princess looking uncertain what to do now, and the Emperor looking characteristically pleased with himself.
Then a distraction was provided. Nevoy caught movement out of the corner of his eye, and turned to see a young blond man, dressed in typical desert planet style of white tunic and cross-gartered beige trousers, crouching on the floor beside the large, luxuriant sofa. Nevoy had to blink and look again to assure himself that those really were a colouring book and a wide selection of crayons spread out on the floor in front of him.
"Luke," Princess Leia said quickly, "it's all right. Go back to your colouring. These gentlemen just want to talk with me, they won't stay long, I promise."
Nevoy found himself staring like an idiot. If Palpatine had decided to kill him now, he might not even have noticed.
Luke? he thought. Fifty Hells, that's Luke Skywalker!
The rage and hate that welled up in him were so strong that he even forgot to wonder why Luke Skywalker had a colouring book.
Distantly, he heard Emperor Palpatine laugh. Palpatine remarked conversationally, "you may not be aware, my dear, our friend Moff Nevoy's son died on the first Death Star. I don't believe that he's fond of our little Luke."
The words served to instil some sense of control back into Nevoy's mind. No wonder Palpatine had brought him here. A little evening's entertainment, watching Nevoy break down and try to slaughter the killer of his son. He realised that Princess Leia had stepped toward him, and put her hand on his arm. As if that would do any good if he did try to kill Skywalker. He turned his head, not looking at either the Princess or the Hero of the Rebellion, and heard himself say coldly, "don't worry. I won't hurt him."
Then the Hero of the Rebellion said in whimpering, little-kid tones, "Aunt Beru, that man doesn't like me."
Amazed, Nevoy turned back to face Skywalker. He thought, who in the Frozen Hell is Aunt Beru?
"Of course he likes you, Luke," said Princess Leia, in falsely cheerful tones. Her hand closed tighter around Nevoy's arm as she said tensely, "don't you?"
"Uh, yes, of course," Nevoy said obediently. He felt as if the universe had just fallen apart around him and re-assembled itself inside-out.
Palpatine was smirking, Leia Organa's fingers were digging into his arm, and Luke Skywalker was staring at him as if he were a rancor on the rampage. The silence stretched out painfully until, out of desperation, Nevoy asked, "what are you colouring? May I see it?"
Skywalker eyed him warily, then he sat down again and picked up the colouring book. Nevoy glanced at Princess Leia, who hesitated, then let go of his arm and nodded, her eyes not meeting his. She was biting her lower lip, and looked on the verge of tears. Nevoy crossed to Skywalker and knelt down beside him, taking care not to step on any of the crayons. Still not seeming quite convinced that Nevoy wasn't some ravenous monster, Skywalker held the colouring book out to him.
The book was open at a TIE-bomber, on one page, and a TIE-interceptor opposite it. It was the interceptor which Skywalker had chosen to colour. He'd obviously been careful to keep within the lines, and had only failed in a couple of places.
"That's very well done," said Nevoy, "you must have worked hard on it." He decided not to comment on the purple, orange and blue colour combination on the interceptor, or the exceedingly bright yellow uniform of the pilot standing in front of it.
Skywalker watched him a moment longer, then smiled.
Now what? Nevoy did not exactly fancy sitting here and colouring a TIE-bomber with Luke Skywalker the mass murderer. The developmentally challenged mass murderer, apparently. Nevoy said, hoping that he remembered accurately who Skywalker seemed to think Princess Leia was, "I've got to talk with ... your aunt, now. But I'd like to see what you colour next."
Luke Skywalker nodded, and Nevoy stood up and went back to the Emperor and the Princess, cautiously picking his way through the minefield of crayons. Leia Organa, who had watched the encounter anxiously, whispered to Nevoy, "he isn't usually like this."
You're kidding, thought Nevoy. I thought he had his colouring book with him when he blew up the Death Star.
"Leia," said the Emperor, returning to the stated purpose of his visit, "Moff Nevoy will be in charge of the arrangements for the ceremony of adoption. You can discuss it with him, I want to be sure you're happy with every aspect of it. I was thinking of next Halanday for the ceremony, will that be all right with you?"
"I -- " the Princess began, then she managed to cut off whatever she'd been going to say. "Yes. I think so."
"Good. Well, then, I'll leave you two to get acquainted. I'm sure you'll be great friends. I can always rely on Moff Nevoy's help, I know he'll be a good friend to you." While Nevoy was digesting the news that Palpatine could always rely on his help, the Emperor raised his voice and said, "good night, Luke. I'll see you tomorrow."
Nevoy looked over to see Luke Skywalker's form tense as he hunched over the colouring book. The young man stopped colouring, but he did not look up.
Emperor Palpatine left the room with a last beaming smile for all of them.
Nevoy watched his departure with envy. Not that he would ever choose to be in Palpatine's company when he didn't have to be, but this wasn't much better.Two of the most notorious enemies of the Empire, without whom the Rebellion might not even exist today, and one of them, apparently, entirely out of his mind. Nevoy was tempted just to leave, but his usual dread of Palpatine got the better of him. The Emperor expected them to plan this bloody adoption ceremony. He would probably not be best pleased if Nevoy were to bugger off.
Grimly, Nevoy turned back to Leia Organa, and the two of them stood staring at each other.
"I'm sorry, Your Highness," Nevoy said finally, "but would you mind telling me what's going on?"
She winced, and a pained little smile twisted her mouth. "You don't want to know," she said.
No, I probably don't. "He's really -- adopting you."
She nodded. The smile had vanished. "And Luke."
"It's simple, really," she said, her tone suggesting that it was anything but. "We were captured, and he ... hurt Luke, and I'm afraid that if I don't do what he wants, he'll hurt Luke more. That's all."
She put one hand to her forehead, suddenly looking as if she might collapse at any second. "Please, arrange whatever you think is appropriate for the -- um, the ceremony. I really couldn't care less."
"Of course." He glanced longingly at the door, then said, "look, though, I have to ask. About the timing -- I mean, do you think His Majesty will want us to schedule it for the end of the evening, after the banquet and the fireworks? Or earlier, before the -- execution?"
The Princess frowned at him. "Execution?" she asked sharply.
"Yes. You didn't know? Next Halanday's the day that Lord Vader is scheduled to be executed."
Nothing could have prepared Nevoy for Princess Leia's reaction.
For a very long, chilling moment she simply stared at him. The sudden pallor of her face shocked him, although he would hardly have imagined over these past five years that he would ever feel concerned for the welfare of Leia Organa.
Then she seemed to shatter. She turned abruptly away from him, bringing her hands up to her face, and she broke into sobs.
He thought, my Gods. This is not real.
It was, apparently, at least real enough for Luke Skywalker to notice it, although Nevoy was not convinced that that said much for the situation's connection to reality. Skywalker jumped to his feet and ran to the Princess through the crayon field. He began, "Aunt Beru --"
Princess Leia screamed, "Luke, go away! Stay away from me!"
Luke Skywalker cringed. Nevoy did not blame him, either. Deciding that whatever he did, it was better than just standing here, Nevoy walked swiftly to Skywalker and gripped the younger man's shoulder. "Luke," he said, "she doesn't want to talk right now. She'll be fine, everything will be fine, I think you should just go away for a little while. Is there somewhere you can go? Your bedroom?"
Skywalker nodded, his blue eyes very wide. "Is she okay?" he whispered. "What's the matter with her?"
"I don't know," Nevoy admitted. "I'll make sure she's all right. Go to your room now, Luke, I'll call you when it's okay to come back."
"Okay," said Skywalker, in a tiny, scared voice. He hurried away to one of the adjoining rooms, pausing only briefly to pick up his colouring book.
Leia Organa was still sobbing. And the sound was absolutely terrifying.
Nevoy did not think he'd ever heard anything like it. Not even at the first Death Star memorial service, when the horror was still all too fresh. People had broken down then, certainly. There had been no lack of sobbing as background to the speeches and the prayers and the music. But even then, they'd had a few days to get used to their loss. They were crying out of grief, not out of raw, bleeding anguish.
This was the sound of someone whose entire life was being ripped away.
Of course, he reminded himself, she did have her life ripped away. She's from Alderaan.
But why in all the Hells was she crying now? Because Darth Vader was going to die? The very idea was ludicrous.
All right, so they'd been officially on the same side this past year. Surely that wouldn't have made Organa forget that Vader was her deadly enemy? She ought to be doing a victory dance right now, not sounding as if she was dying with him.
He thought, maybe the Princess has become Lord Vader's lover? And then he thought, that's disgusting. With an imagination like that, you shouldn't be a Moff, you ought to be directing porn holos.
Belatedly, he realised that standing here like a pillock while she was sobbing her guts out was just about the height of ungentlemanly behaviour. He fished in his breast pocket for his handkerchief, thinking ruefully that his father's teachings were finally paying off. Years of impromptu pocket inspections, and lectures about how a gentleman must never be without his handkerchief, had all been justified today. Maybe he ought to write to his father and tell him. Dear Dad, today I was able to offer my handkerchief to a princess in distress.
He stepped toward her, awkwardly holding out the handkerchief. "Here. Take this. Please," he said.
She managed to reach out blindly and grab the handkerchief as he thrust it into her hand. She kept sobbing. Nevoy said, in a louder than normal voice in order to be heard over her sobs, "look, I'll leave if you want me to. Do you want me to send someone to you? Is there something I can do?"
Princess Leia looked up at him, and said harshly, "no!" No to what? he wondered. He couldn't quite restrain a shudder at the sight of her. With her tear-reddened eyes and her gaunt, pallid face, she looked for all the galaxy like the Resana ice demon. If she'd reached out then and dragged him into the Frozen Hell, he wouldn't have been surprised.
Her sobs were gradually slowing. She had crumpled the now sodden handkerchief into a ball. Nevoy began again, "listen, what do you want me to do -- "
Then he recoiled, bumping into the arm of the sofa and almost falling on to it. Horror raced through him; it was all he could do not to run from the room.
Force users! he thought. Gods defend us!
She was a Force user.No wonder Palpatine wanted to adopt her.
Nevoy had felt her touch his mind. She'd been reaching into him, reading everything. For a moment, he thought he was going to throw up. At least with Palpatine, he knew to expect this sort of thing. He hadn't expected it from a petite little creature younger than his own daughters, who might be a cold-blooded killer but who he still remembered as the rosy, fresh faced junior senator who had always seemed to think that she could single-handedly change the galaxy.
Suddenly, her demonic aspect seemed to vanish. She looked almost like a normal young woman who'd been crying, red eyed and shiny nosed and looking at him with a combination of pain and remorse. "I'm sorry," she said softly.
Sorry for what, he wondered. For crying, or for digging into my mind like it was your personal garden patch? She must be new at this Force business, if that was what she was apologising for. She'd learn soon enough that consciences were hang-ups which only people without the Force had to live with.
"You don't want him to die," she said, staring at him with an intensity that made him think his impression of her as a demon hadn't been so wild after all. "Vader. You don't want him to die. I felt it."
I know you did, he thought, I felt you feel it. Stay out of my mind, you horrible little bitch.
Apparently she hadn't been in his mind at that moment, that or she didn't care what he thought of her, for she made no reaction to his thought. "You don't want him to," she insisted again. "You can't let him."
"I -- " Nevoy began, thinking, oh, Gods. Now that she's read it in my mind, maybe Palpatine will read it in hers.
"Please," she said wildly, suddenly reaching out and grabbing his hands. She was still clutching his handkerchief, and it pressed cold and wet between them. "Please. You've got to help him. I don't know what I can do. I'll try, I'll try to help him, but I don't know how. As long as Palpatine's got Luke ... I don't what to do, I don't know how to save them both. Please! Please help him! You may be his only hope."
Nevoy couldn't think of any words in response. Feeling like he was moving in slow motion, he managed to detach his hands from hers and from the soaking handkerchief.
Princess Leia said again, in a hollow whisper, "you can't let him die."
Nevoy swallowed. He said finally, "no, I'm afraid you're right. I can't."
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