Chapter Thirteen



Moff Nevoy stood on the balcony of the Great Hall and watched as visitors trooped around Lord Vader's display case like a procession of nelgri harvest bugs.

Only, harvest bugs were industrious and purposeful and useful, and Nevoy had always liked them. He'd always found it disgusting when people stepped on the bugs or tried to eradicate their nests, as if the solemn-faced little insects had no value simply because they weren't human. The procession of tourists, however, was far less appealing to Nevoy than the bugs. All right, yes, he knew, most of them felt compelled to be here. They had to know that not turning up to see the traitor on display would reflect badly on them, might even endanger their jobs or bring them to the attention of Imperial Intelligence. So of course he couldn't blame them. But the sight still gave him a sour feeling.

Through all of this, since Vader had first been installed in his case, Nevoy had tried to avoid looking at the Dark Lord's face. That was silly, he told himself now. It wasn't as if one glimpse of Vader's visage was going to turn him into carbonite. He was too far away from the display at the moment to see much detail, but an added attraction of Palpatine's delightful exhibition was that a mini holocam mounted at one end of the case's ceiling relayed a vid of Vader's exposed face to the screens suspended at all four corners of the Hall. Nevoy looked up at one of those screens now, and forced himself to keep his gaze steadily on the image.

Darth Vader has blue eyes.

He didn't know why, but he'd certainly never expected that. He frowned as he thought that there was some slight difference between the two eyes. He wasn't sure what, at first. Were they different in colour? Was one larger than the other? No ... the left eye had a marginally duller lustre than the right, and he suddenly recognised it as a prosthetic eye.

Nevoy wondered, as most of the visitors to the exhibition must have done at some point or other, what in the Hells had happened to Vader. A prosthetic eye and various mechanical limbs -- at least according to the occasional vague comments Dr. Hayashida made on the subject -- Gods knew what wrong with his lungs, and then there were the massive scars on his head and face. And the tiny, misshapen lumps of flesh which were all that was left of his ears. And the lack of eyebrows. Well, the near lack, anyhow. Half of the right eyebrow was still there, a bizarre little relic of normality left stranded among the scars. The abbreviated eyebrow was dark brown, and Nevoy felt a twinge of deja vu as he looked at it.

Was there anything that Vader's half eyebrow should remind him of? He couldn't recall any encounters with half-eyebrowed men.

While Nevoy was still trying to remember, a voice at his shoulder said, "sir?"

He turned to see Lieutenant La Salle, of the palace guard. "Yes, Lieutenant?" Nevoy asked.

"Sir, there's a courier from Nova Messenger Service waiting in your office. Apparently your signature is required for the delivery of a registered letter."

"A registered letter? If it's palace business, it shouldn't require my signature."

"Apparently it's a personal letter, sir."

Nevoy frowned. If it was a personal letter, it ought to have come to his house. And why send a letter anyway, instead of communicating by link? Registered letters were usually only for things like tax inquiries or a summons to appear in the law courts. He didn't think that this was likely to be either of those. Nevoy sighed impatiently, then said, "all right, Lieutenant, thank you," and started toward the door.

A registered letter. He supposed it could be from Marida. Ah, there was an idea: the last time he'd talked with Marida she'd told him that Nina was just learning to write. Maybe Marida had sent him some impressive sample of his eldest grandchild's handwriting. Though why, in the Gods' names, she should send it by registered post, was anybody's guess. Even maternal affection shouldn't make a five-year-old's scribblings seem that precious! Then again, Marida had never had the slightest wisp of a concept of how to spend her credits wisely. Not that it mattered much any more, he supposed, considering who she'd married. As Vice President of Uni Droid, Kan Komak shouldn't find it a strain to support his wife's expensive whims.

Or maybe it was from Rosmarin, instead, though he still didn't see why she'd send it to the palace. Sending it by registered post could have been to ensure that no one but him got their hands on it; Rose sometimes asked him if he could exert any influence to help clients she was working with, or to track down evidence which might support their case. A few times he'd been able to help, although he had a gloomy feeling that by doing so he'd suddenly find himself committing some obscure form of treason against the Empire. Rose always insisted that just because she was a lawyer who usually worked for non-human clients, it didn't mean she wasn't a loyal citizen, but privately Nevoy had his doubts. Not that he would ever accuse her of being disloyal, but still, some of her stories about cases she'd been involved in gave him nightmares.

Honestly. One daughter who got rid of credits like she was allergic to them, and another who perpetually hovered on the edge of sedition. Ah, the joys of being a father.

Shit. Maybe the registered letter was to say that Rosmarin had been arrested.

No, don't be stupid. If that had happened, he would have got a frantic call from his son-in-law. Unless Elbin had been arrested too ... no, stop it now. He told himself firmly, it's probably some crap advertising ploy, sending things registered post so the poor suckers who get them will think they're important. "You may have already won one million credits, all you have to do to find out is visit our lovely new real estate on the edge of the scenic Dantooine mining district".

He reached his office and stepped inside. Waiting in front of his desk, with a patient look on her face, was a slim young woman in the blue pseudo-military uniform and cap of the Nova Messenger Service. He noticed that her hair was blue as well, or at least in some lights it seemed to be, although when she moved her head it suddenly looked as if it were black instead. Her skin was a warm reddish brown colour, almost purple. Nevoy's secretarial droid, which had been standing to the right of the desk and casting the equivalent of a wary look at the messenger, made a relieved-sounding whirr at Nevoy's arrival and retired to the edge of the room, beside the filing cabinet, where it switched itself off.

"I'm Moff Nevoy," Nevoy announced, thinking that something seemed vaguely familiar about the girl, and then wondering if he was going to have deja vu about everything today. First Darth Vader's eyebrow, and now the blue-haired courier.

The girl was holding a pad and a large square registered post envelope. Instead of handing him the envelope, however, she simply smiled at him and said, "you don't need to sign for it, actually, the envelope's empty. And I'm not from the Nova Messenger Service."

Alarm jolted through Nevoy, as he thought, my Gods, she's an assassin. He couldn't think why anyone would want to assassinate him, but it was always one of the perils of being a prominent official. He reached for his blaster, although he knew that if she were any kind of decent assassin, he'd be dead before he could draw.

The courier, however, did not produce any concealed weapons, or explode him -- and herself -- by detonating a bomb implanted in heer wrist, or take any of the other actions he might have expected. Her smile merely grew broader, and she said, "your message has been received, sir. You can count on our help, at the time you specified. The ground troops should find their hands full. We also have possession of General Solo's ship the Millennium Falcon, which we'd like to deliver to you. Will it be acceptable if the ship arrives at Landing Bay Four at 2200 tomorrow?"

Landing Bay Four was the location of the Conquest, on which they planned to make their escape. Nevoy wondered how the mysterious "we" had known that the Conquest was to be their getaway ship. And 2200 would, hopefully, be half an hour after their proposed uprising had started. The timing should be about right. He hoped. He said, "yes, it should be acceptable."

"All right then, sir. We look forward to working with you." The girl reached out her hand to him and they shook hands, Nevoy feeling startled at the strength of her grip. With a last impish smile, the alleged courier withdrew her hand from his and then left the office, Nevoy watching, slightly dazed, as the door whooshed open and then closed again behind her.

Well, that was weird, he thought. It was a damned good thing that he was a trusted enough servant of the Emperor for his office not to be bugged -- at least not the last time he checked. "We" had probably known that too, and that was why they'd sent their representative here. Who might "we" be, he wondered. Friends or associates of Darth Vader, that was all he knew. If they worked for Vader, they could be anything. A secret sect of Dark Jedi, maybe, or a band of blue-haired Amazon warriors.

No going back now, anyway. They were going to have their distraction, and the Millennium Falcon was going to turn up at the Palace. If they didn't go ahead with this palace revolt, it was going to look very stupid, and there'd be an investigation, and they'd probably all end up getting arrested and executed anyway. So they might as well go for broke, and give the damned revolt everything they had.

He supposed he ought to report to Princess Leia, at least let her know that the situation was in hand. Although he shouldn't tell her any details, in case Palpatine was in the habit of reading her mind. But at least if she knew that efforts were being made to help Lord Vader, it might stop her from doing something reckless on her own and possibly screwing up their plans.

Palpatine himself had given Nevoy a good excuse to visit the Princess. He could be submitting some detail of the adoption arrangements for her approval. What kind of flowers would you like at the ceremony, Princess?

Nevoy left the office and started along the corridors again, toward Palpatine's wing of the Palace. He nodded at or exchanged greetings with various Imperial Advisors and officers that he passed, all the while thinking of how this very corridor might look tomorrow night. His mind created a vivid image of gangs of the Palace Guard gunning each other down, and squads of stormtroopers racing into the scene, and the drapes and the carpets being drenched with blood.

He thought, I can't believe I'm planning to do this. I've served the Empire since it came into existence, and for what? So I can turn around and try to bring it down.

Gods, Ardella would have a good laugh about that. He hoped he would not encounter her in the Rebellion. According to Rose, Ardella was pretty much retired, but it would be just his luck if he turned up at the Rebel Base with Lord Vader and the rest of their defectors, and ran smack into his ex-wife. Damn, how she would smirk. She would never let him live it down, that it had taken him two decades to discover that she'd been right all along. He thought, Hells blast it, if she says "I told you so", I'll murder her, that's all there is to it.

Nevoy had reached the door to Leia Organa and Luke Skywalker's guest chambers. He rang the entry bell and waited. With no response. When significantly more time had passed than it had taken Princess Leia to open the door before, he tried again.

Still nothing. He scowled at the closed door. Surely he'd seen a droid in the suite when he was here last night? Even if neither the Princess nor her mad young friend were in, the droid ought to answer the door. He rang the bell one more time.

The droid could be switched off, he supposed, though theoretically the sound of the entry bell ought to activate it again. He wondered if he ought to investigate further. Probably not. The droid might be faulty, but that didn't give him sufficient reason to go barging in if no one else was home.

Then he heard a metallic thump from the inside of the door.

All right, now that he was going to investigate. He keyed in the security over-ride, and the door slid open.

Immediately inside the door, lay the droid, its feet waving frantically in the air. It must have been the droid running into the door that he'd heard. What in the ... ? Nevoy stepped into the room, then knelt, took hold of the cylindrical body and lifted the droid upright, whereupon it instantly trundled forward and smashed itself into the wall next to the door.

The droid backed up and ran into Nevoy, then once more ploughed into the doorframe. Swearing and rubbing his leg where the droid had bashed against it, Nevoy reached for the desperate little machine's power switch and moved it onto standby. The droid froze, still plastered against the doorframe.

Bizarre. Nevoy flipped open the droid's control panel, and at least saw what the problem was. Three of the wires inside the panel had been cut, severing the connections that controlled the droid's motor skills and its communications systems. Cut with something not very sharp, it looked like, perhaps a butter knife. Gods, the droid must certainly have been switched off when that happened, or he hated to think of the squeals of terror it would have emitted while the wires were sawed at.

Princess Leia and Skywalker must be making an escape attempt, and had sabotaged the droid to stop it from reporting them. He didn't imagine they'd get very far, not with the palace as crawling with guards as it was. Though since the Princess had the Force, you never knew --

He heard another thump.

It came from the direction of one of the two bedchambers off the main room. Nevoy looked over and saw that the door to the room was standing open. That was strange, too. Usually the doors never remained open, unless there'd been a power failure. He supposed maybe the droid had locked it open for some reason. Simply because the droid was fried, or had there been a purpose in it? Perhaps the droid had been trying to draw attention to something in the room?

He suddenly felt cold. The droid had seemed awfully eager to get out of here ...

Nevoy ran for the open door.

In the doorway, he froze.

Luke Skywalker hung in front of the huge window, with Imperial City a sunlit backdrop behind him. One of the thick golden cords that usually held the curtains back was tied in a noose about his neck, the other end tied to the curtain rail. The chair that Skywalker must have stood on was overturned beneath his feet. Nevoy stared for a shocked instant at Skywalker's writhing form, his twisted and reddened face, his hands tearing at the noose, trying to wrench it away from his neck. One of Skywalker's feet thudded against the window, reproducing the sound that had first drawn Nevoy's attention to the bedchamber.

Nevoy's mind seemed to have gone blank, but he still managed to draw his blaster and fire it at the cord above Skywalker's head.

He ran towards Skywalker as the young man plummeted to the floor, and succeeded in somewhat breaking the fall, though only by getting himself knocked over as Skywalker collapsed on top of him. Awkwardly sat on the floor while Luke Skywalker coughed and choked against his chest, Nevoy struggled to get his arm out from under the collapsed Rebel so he could reach his wrist com-link. This accomplished, he summoned a medical team, received their promise of immediate attendance, and then wondered what to do next.

There wasn't much point in trying any first aid, he supposed; Skywalker was obviously alive, and the medics should be here soon enough. Clearly the Rebel hadn't managed to hang himself properly so it would break his neck, though Nevoy reckoned he shouldn't be too scornful about that. Most people didn't have much practice in trying to hang themselves. He wasn't sure he would have succeeded much better himself; after all it was half a century or so since he'd learned how to tie knots in Scouts. He frowned bemusedly down at the blond head of Luke Skywalker, which was just beneath Nevoy's chin. Skywalker gave a convulsive cough, clutching at Nevoy's jacket.

I really don't believe this, Nevoy thought. Was my life always this weird? I'm sure it must have been more normal, once. Maybe I've slipped into some parallel Weird Universe.

Luke Skywalker's desperate coughing against him reminded him uncomfortably of the time that Laram had nearly drowned in the next-door neighbours' swimming pool. He remembered the scene with painful vividness, the beaming sunlight starting to dry the water on his skin while he clutched his seven-year-old son to him, Laram hugging him back and coughing and sobbing onto his shoulder.

Gods, thought Nevoy, Gods -- this man killed my son, and I've jusst saved his life.

He heard the swishing sound of the door to the main room, and yelled, "in here!"

Moments later Nevoy was being relieved of his burden by two medics and a hovering medical droid, who eased the Rebel onto a repulsorlift stretcher. Heaving himself to his feet and straightening his jacket, Nevoy informed one of the medics, "I'll come with you, I'll have to ask him some questions when he's able to speak."

"I don't think he'll be doing much speaking for a while, sir, but you're welcome to come."

Nevoy walked alongside the stretcher as the medics manoeuvred Skywalker through the hallways. The medical droid had administered a mild tranquilliser to the patient, but he was still conscious. Nevoy's thoughts as he walked dwelled blackly on the possible consequences this might have for their palace revolt. He hoped that Skywalker was going to be able to bounce back from this quickly, or they'd have to carry him to get him out of here. Although maybe it was better that way; at least if he wasn't conscious he couldn't delay the escape by insisting that they go back for his toys.

When Skywalker was installed in a bed in the medical centre, Nevoy stood back, out of the way, trying to massage the muscles in his shoulder where the falling Skywalker had smashed into him.

"You want me to take a look at that, sir?" one of the medics asked.

He winced. "Yes. All right." After all, he didn't want the revolt to get fucked up because he'd managed to sprain his shoulder, either.

"Well, you've got some pulled muscles here ... were you trying to catch him?"

"Yes." Though Gods know why, Nevoy thought, I should have just walked off and left him to it.

"I'll give you an injection for this, it shouldn't give you any trouble."

"What about him?" Nevoy asked, nodding toward Skywalker's bed.

"He should be fine," the man said. "He's got a lot of bruises and there's some damage to his larynx, but it ought to be repairable. And there's a fair amount of muscle strain from the tension it put on his body. But, he's been very lucky."

"Yeah," Nevoy muttered. He allowed the medic to pump the injection into his shoulder, then walked over to the bed where Skywalker lay. The medical droid hummed at the other side of the bed, taking readings on the patient's condition.

Skywalker's breathing seemed to be back to normal. The young man blinked, then looked up confusedly at Nevoy.

"What ... ?" he croaked out. "How ... ?"

Nevoy said bluntly, "you tried to hang yourself. I stopped you."

Utter despair washed over Skywalker's face. He closed his eyes and grated, "oh, shit."

"Moff Nevoy," came the tinny voice of the medical droid, "I will have to ask you to leave. You are upsetting the patient."

Luke Skywalker's eyes snapped open. His voice was still hoarse and raw, but he forced out the words, "Leia ... where is she? Did she see ... "

"She wasn't there," Nevoy answered. "I don't think she's been informed yet."

"She mustn't know!" Skywalker's eyes were wild as he reached out and grabbed at Nevoy's arm. "Don't tell her, don't let her find out -- "

"She'll find out you're in here," Nevoy said reasonably. "She's going to have to know."

"You can tell her something else -- tell her I fell -- "

You did, Nevoy thought, onto me. "Young man," he said, beginning to lose patience with this, "you have bruises encircling your neck. You don't tend to get that in a fall." It was only then that he realised that Skywalker was talking like an adult -- a hysterical adult, yes, but an adult nonetheless. Maybe the suicide attempt had snapped him out of whatever strange state he'd been in -- or else perhaps the attempt could be traced to the loss of that state? He'd certainly been peculiar enough when he was playing with his colouring books, but he hadn't seemed suicidal.

Skywalker's blue eyes burned with desperation. He tried to clutch at the sleeve of Nevoy's jacket, but he seemed too weak to get much of a grip on it. Nevoy, however, did not pull away.

"Please," Skywalker whispered, and Nevoy leaned closer to hear him. "I ... left a message. On the computer in the guest quarters ... please, delete it -- before Leia sees it. Please ... Don't let her see ... "

Nevoy sighed. "All right," he said. "I'll delete it."

Skywalker closed his eyes.

As he made his way to the nearest lift and set it for the level of Palpatine's quarters, Nevoy noticed the beginnings of one serious bitch of a headache starting to build just above his eyes. Damnation, and it wasn't even eleven in the morning yet. What a day.

Why did these two lunatics have to be here? It would be relatively easy, he thought, to rescue Vader -- well, no, it wouldn't be easy, but just for the sake of argument -- but Gods knew how they'd pull if off with the demon Jedi Princess and her suicidal friend around to complicate things.

Nevoy rang the guest quarters' entry bell again, then once more punched in the over-ride code and made his way inside. The droid was still standing frozen where it had been shoved out of the way beside the door. Quickly locating the computer on its gold and marble table, Nevoy crossed to it and called up the messages.

There was only one. Any messages left on the computer were wiped after each guest had departed. At least it hadn't taken long to find Skywalker's suicide note. Nevoy's hand hovered over the delete key, then he stopped.

Hells, he thought. If I have to run around cleaning up after you, you little bastard, I've at least got a right to know what this has been about.

He shouldn't play the message. It was personal, and Skywalker wanted it destroyed.

Bugger that. He needed to know what was going on, so he could factor it into their plans. More to the point, he was curious. And Skywalker owed him.

He activated the message.

Luke Skywalker appeared on the screen. He was wearing the same black tunic and trousers that he'd been wearing when Nevoy found him. His face was startlingly pale, but its expression was calm and set, although there was a dangerous-looking gleam in his eyes.

"Leia," he began, and then his glance flickered downward, as if he were ashamed.

"Leia," he said quietly, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I know you'll be angry with me. I just can't see any other way. I've been thinking about it, all night, and I can't. I can't see any way out."

Skywalker's image looked up, and managed a hint of a smile. His gaze dropped again, as if he was imagining the Princess in front of him, and couldn't bear to meet her eyes. "At least," he said, "this way you'll be more free to act on your own. You'll have a chance to free our father, without having to worry about me."

Our father? Who the hells is our father?

Skywalker dragged his gaze up once more to the eye level of any prospective viewer, and he forced himself to hold it there. He swallowed and said, keeping his voice steady, "I love you, Leia. Give my love to Han, too. And Chewie. And ... " his voice faded out for a moment, then he hurried on, in a softer tone, "and your children. Tell them their uncle loves them." There was a pause, while Skywalker looked steadily out of the image. "I'm sorry, Leia. Please forgive me. Goodbye." The message came to an end and froze.

Disgust with himself for having watched the message warred in Nevoy's brain with total confusion.

Father? Children? Uncle? What?

Shaking his head, he finally pressed the delete key, then he left the computer and slumped down onto a crimson velvet covered sofa.

"Our father". "Uncle". Well, the implications were obvious enough. Unless they'd taken some sort of oath of blood siblinghood -- which was possible, he supposed, since they had been companions in battle -- then Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa were brother and sister.

How in all the Fifty hells did that happen? For Gods' sakes, Leia Organa was from Alderaan, and Luke Skywalker, as most of the galaxy had learned after he became famous as the man who destroyed the Death Star, was from Tatooine. They were not particularly close neighbours. And -- well, he couldn't imagine either Prince Bail or Keeiara Organa getting involved with some farmer from the middle of nowhere.

Maybe it worked the other way around? If Luke Skywalker and the Princess were both the children of some impoverished Tatooine farmers, then the Organas might have adopted one of them ... why only one, though? And why adopt them at all, instead of sending aid to the farmers? And what would have brought the farmers and the Alderaani royal family into contact in the first place?

Hang on. Skywalker wanted the Princess to "free our father".

What? Bail Organa was dead. And Nevoy was sure he remembered that Luke Skywalker was an orphan.

He rubbed his hands against his forehead. The headache had arrived in full strength. He told himself, that's what you get for watching other people's messages.

Our father. Free our father.

Who would Organa and Skywalker be trying to free?       

The memory came into his mind of Princess Leia, just last night, begging him to help Darth Vader. She'd said something along the lines of, "I'll try to help him, but I don't know how to save them both. As long as Palpatine's got Luke --"

And Skywalker thought that she'd have more chance to free their father, if he wasn't around for her to worry about ...


That's insane.

Darth Vader?

At least it would explain why Princess Leia had been crying over him.

No. You've really lost it this time. Hey, though, at least when you're a traitor to the Empire and you're out of a job, you can carve a new career for yourself writing holo-soaps.

Darth Vader?

It made sense, he supposed, in a mad sort of way. It explained why Vader insisted that Skywalker and the Princess should be rescued too -- and why he'd come back to Coruscant in the first place, if he'd been trying to get them away from Palpatine. And, for that matter, it could have had a lot to with why Vader joined the Rebellion.

But it was still a ridiculous concept. How would a couple of junior Vaders have gotten onto the scene? Especially junior Vaders from Alderaan and Tatooine?

What, had Darth Vader been jaunting around siring children all over the galaxy?

Some sort of plan for galactic domination, maybe? Creating a new generation of Jedi out of his own children?

Oh, give it up, Nevoy, he told himself. It still sounds like the stuff of bad fiction.

Hells, what do you know about Darth Vader? What does anyone know? Maybe he has harems full of mistresses. Maybe Keeiara Organa was his secret lover, who knows? And one of the women in his harem could have been from Tatooine, it sounded a lot more likely than the galactic domination idea. After all, even if it was some fiendish plot to spread his offspring around the galaxy, he could surely have found some more appealing place to sire a future Jedi than bloody Tatooine. What was it that Anakin Skywalker had said about the planet, that it was the sort of place people come from but never go back to?

Nevoy's train of thought ground to an abrupt halt.

Oh, thought Nevoy.

Oh, my Gods.

Anakin Skywalker.

Several hundred thoughts seemed to tumble into his mind at once.

Anakin Skywalker. No. That was impossible.

But, he thought, Anakin Skywalker was tall. And had a deep voice. And was a brilliant pilot. And was a friend of Palpatine.

And, damn it, he is now a corpse, happily rotting away in the soil of Alma Serena.

Or, just possibly, he's alive and on exhibition in the Great Hall, and scheduled for execution next week ...

Five years ago, when Luke Skywalker first murdered his way to celebrity, there had been plenty of speculation as to whether he was related to the late Field Marshal Anakin Skywalker. It had eventually emerged, if Nevoy remembered correctly, that Luke Skywalker was Anakin Skywalker's nephew.

But, just supposing that he was Anakin's son instead ... and that Anakin Skywalker was Darth Vader ...

That is, without any doubt, the stupidest idea I've ever heard.

But --

Nevoy's mouth suddenly went dry, and he had the feeling that the blood had stopped flowing through his veins.

He had visited Field Marshal Skywalker in hospital, about a month before Skywalker's death. He couldn't remember what they'd talked about -- the New Forces, probably -- but he did remember how Anakin Skywalker had looked.

His hair had been burned off. And his ears. The doctors had started replacing some of his skin, but there were still scars all over his face. One of his eyes -- blue eyes -- had been destroyed, and he'd been given a prosthetic replacement.

His eyebrows had been gone, too. Except for half of the right eyebrow.

Nevoy remembered, too, how much darker Anakin Skywalker's eyebrows had been than his blond hair.

One half of one brown eyebrow.

Moff Nevoy got up, walked to the guest chamber's liquor cabinet, and poured himself a very stiff drink.




Leia's senses jolted back to reality. She had fallen forward, with her hands pressed into Palpatine's black carpet, and she found herself staring at the Emperor's robe-draped knees. Her ragged breathing sounded absurdly loud. Raw terror was still pulsing through her, and she could feel an echo of the despair that she'd felt when she saw Luke sitting over the abyss. Struggling to force her breathing into something approaching its normal pattern, Leia sat up, and looked into the Emperor's face.

Palpatine was smiling at her blandly. The Emperor said, "first experiences of this kind can be very draining. But you've done well, my dear, I'm proud of you."

"Luke's hurt," Leia said hoarsely.

"Is he? What a shame."

In a sudden burst of fury Leia grabbed the Emperor by the collar of his robe, jumping to her feet and dragging Palpatine up with her. "What's happened to him?" she demanded, hardly recognising her own voice.

Palpatine's expression turned cold, and Leia gasped and jerked her hand away from his collar. For a few seconds there was an agonising burning in her hand, as if it had been frost-bitten and was just struggling to life again. Then the burning was gone.

"You should not forget yourself, my young apprentice," Palpatine said in a mild tone. "You may rule this galaxy some day, but I am the master now."

Silently cursing herself, Leia tried to focus in on her connection to Luke. She tried to tune her senses to the guest quarters that she and her brother shared, but somehow she knew that he wasn't there. Where he was, was harder for her to see. Fear shot through her again. She thought, I should never have left him alone. "Where is he?" she asked Palpatine, hating herself for having to ask it.

"Why ask me? Find him for yourself. Search your feelings, Leia. He's your brother, not mine."

Leia scowled at the Emperor, but turned her attention away from him.

"Luke?" she whispered.

At first she barely recognised the presence that she sensed. The aching misery and loss just didn't seem like it should belong to her brother. But she could recognise the feeling.

She had felt it herself, that first day after Alderaan was destroyed.

Oh Gods, Luke, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have left you. I thought you would be all right. I should have known.

She clung on to her brother's pain, trusting it to lead her to him. Leia closed her eyes, shutting out her awareness of everything except for Luke.

For a moment, she saw him. He must be in some medical facility, she realised, for there were monitors above the bed he was lying on. He lay on his side, his left hand pillowing his head, and she saw that he was crying. He didn't move at all, there wasn't even any expression on his face. But tears were trailing down his cheeks.

The image vanished, and Leia's eyes snapped open. Palpatine was watching her with a benign little smirk.

Leia's feelings of guilt threatened to overwhelm her. She had left Luke, and he had got hurt, while she was here with Palpatine pissing about with the Force. Leia shuddered, but made herself shut the feelings away. She was not going to let Palpatine see her break down, ever again.

Eyeing the Emperor, she wondered what would be the best way to play this. Should she do her haughty Princess routine, throwing her metaphorical weight around, or should she be the helpless little girl, or the dutiful apprentice? She decided for the latter, and said, in the mildest voice she could manage, "my Master, I think Luke's been taken to the Medical Centre. Do I have your permission to visit him?"

"Of course, my dear girl," said Palpatine. "I would never try to keep you two apart." The Emperor walked to the com screen beside the door to the chamber, and as he did so Leia's gaze was caught by the bizarre sight of his hood rising seemingly on its own, settling over his head again to hide the expanse of withered scalp.

Palpatine opened a channel and a doctor Leia had not seen before appeared on the screen. "Dr. Kandinsky," Palpatine greeted him, "what is the condition and location of Luke Skywalker?"

The round-faced man looked understandably uncomfortable at being confronted by his Emperor, but he kept his voice steady as he replied, "Mr. Skywalker is in Ward Seven, Your Majesty. His condition is stable, we don't have any worries about him. He should be able to leave the medical centre this evening; we'd like to monitor him for a bit longer, but as long as he's kept under supervision, there shouldn't be any difficulty with allowing him to leave."

"Thank you, Doctor," said the Emperor. "Mr. Skywalker will shortly be receiving a visitor." As he closed the link, Palpatine turned back to Leia. "There you are, my dear. Ward Seven. I'll summon two of my guards to accompany you."

"If you don't mind," said Leia, still in her mild tone, "I'd like to go alone. May I?"

"Certainly, dear. My Palace is yours. I'll inform my men that you have the freedom of the Palace."

Leia bowed her head in thanks to him, then turned and started for the door. The door opened smoothly in front of her, and the two Imperial Guards outside, rather than trying to bar her way, merely bowed as she passed them. She ignored them and walked by, but the sight had made her feel strangely afraid.

Soon, she thought, that could be ordinary. Everyone will bow to me. Someday, she would even get used to it. Leia Organa, heir to Emperor Palpatine.

Gods. She should get out of here, soon, before she forgot what she was fighting for. Or more importantly, what she was fighting against.

In the lift, Leia leaned against the wall, trying to regain her link to Luke. For another instant she thought she saw him, and she called out to him in her mind, but he gave no sign of having heard her.

She stepped out of the lift on the Medical Level, and almost ran into someone walking swiftly down the hallway. The man in question stepped back, apologising, and she recognised the red hair and beard and the strained, tension-worn face of Moff Nevoy.

"Your Highness," Nevoy said. "You've been informed about Mr. Skywalker?"

Leia shook her head. "I only know he's here," she answered. "Can you tell me what's happened to him?"

Nevoy's expression became grim. He said flatly, "he tried to commit suicide."

A wave of cold filled Leia. She managed to whisper, "how?"

"He hanged himself. I found him before it was too late."

For several moments Leia was unable to speak. The impulses to scream, or to cry, were equally strong in her, as, surprisingly, was the impulse to kiss Nevoy in her gratitude. Finally she just took one of his hands in hers and said, in a fierce whisper, "thank you."

He frowned and then nodded. There was embarrassment in Nevoy's aura, and, Leia thought, some other emotion as well. Suddenly she realised, he's afraid of me!

The discovery made her stare at him in wonder. Afraid, of her. Now that she'd realised what it was she was sensing, she could feel his emotions in more detail. Fear, yes, but it was a fear that he was fighting against. She could sense his determination to do what he had to, regardless.

She wondered if Darth Vader had sensed the same emotions in her, when he questioned her on board the first Death Star.

Leia noticed that she was still holding Nevoy's hand, and let go. She glanced at the nearest location plaque on the wall, looking for Ward Seven.

"Your Highness?" said Nevoy. "There's something else I wanted to discuss with you. I know this may not be the best time, but I wanted to assure you that the matter we discussed last night is being seen to."

She turned back to him in confusion. "The matter ... ?"

"Your adoption ceremony, Your Highness," Nevoy persisted stolidly. "And the other matter you brought to my attention. You should know that everything is in hand, I don't want you to worry about anything. It's under control."

"Oh," said Leia, softly. "Thank you. Again. You'll be in touch again when there are more details to discuss?"

"Of course, Your Highness," he said.

She nodded, trying to shove aside the feeling of hope that had leapt through her. She was afraid it must have screamed like a siren through Emperor Palpatine's consciousness. She swallowed, and said, "can you tell me where Ward Seven is?"

"This way," said Nevoy, starting down the hallway again in the direction he'd originally been headed. When they reached the door, Nevoy hesitated, then said, "Your Highness -- one more thing. Don't be too hard on him. He thought he was acting for the best."

Leia stared at Nevoy again, but he was keeping his face blank, and now she couldn't read anything from him. One more time she nodded, silently, then she stepped into Ward Seven.

The doctor from Palpatine's com screen bustled up to her, looking uncertain whether to be obsequious or offended at being in the presence of a traitor. "Princess Leia," he said awkwardly. "If you'll follow me, please."

But Leia did not need to follow the doctor. The pain she felt from Luke was more than strong enough to lead her to him. She pushed past Dr. Kandinsky into the next room, a ward of several medibeds separated from the entranceway by translucent plastisteel screens.

When Luke saw her, he sat up hastily, causing a squeal of protest to be emitted by a medical droid further down the ward. Leia hesitated. Luke's misery had become blended with something else when he saw her: defiance, even resentment. Leia gazed at her brother, tears springing to her eyes at the sight of his pallor, and the livid bruises around his neck.

"Luke," she said, her voice unsteady, "oh Luke, I'm so sorry."

Luke relented a little, his resentment starting to fade. "So am I," he muttered, looking away from her.

She walked to Luke's bedside. She wanted to hold him, but she didn't want to have to face it if he were to break away from her.

"Luke, why?" she whispered.

"Why do you think?" he asked angrily. "What else do you think I could do? I'm holding you back, I know that. You can't do anything with me here. And I can't do anything. I can't do anything any more!"

"That's not true!"

"How do you know?" Luke demanded, his gaze moving back to her bitterly. "You've got the Force. You've got everything."

Leia clenched her fists. She was barely able to stop herself from slapping him. "Luke," she said, "I'm not going to fight with you. I need you too much, Luke, I can't lose you. Not on top of everything else." She sat down on the edge of the bed, still careful not to touch him. "Please, Luke. Don't make me lose you too." Luke had turned away from her again, but she thought she could sense him calming slightly. She took a risk, and reached out cautiously to put her hand on his.

Luke flinched, but he didn't pull his hand away. "Promise me?" whispered Leia. "Promise me you won't try again?"

Luke said, "I promise I won't try again -- today."

"Damn it, Luke! Don't do this!"

He glanced at her with a wounded expression, then sighed and stared dejectedly at some point on the wall. "All right," he said. "I won't try to kill myself."

Leia watched him for a moment. She tightened her grip on his hand. "I love you, Luke," she told him.

He nodded, and didn't look at her. He said hoarsely, "I love you too."



"How are you doing?" Mon Mothma asked, as she sat down in the chair beside Admiral Piett's bed.

"Great," murmured Piett, his voice still rather faint and sleepy-sounding. "Dr. Tomczyk's been summarising for me the Child's First Guide to Ulcers."

Mon Mothma looked up and smiled at Tomczyk, who was standing at the other side of the bed, holding an electronic notepad and taking notes from the monitors above Piett's head. Tomczyk smiled back at her. Mothma took Piett's hand which was lying outside the covers, and started running one of her fingers along the back of it. She asked, "so what did you learn about ulcers in school today?"

Piett grimaced. He accused, his voice starting to fade out partway through the sentence but then gaining strength again, "you're trying to turn me into one of those bores who can't shut up about their illnesses."

"Gods forbid!" Mon Mothma laughed. "I really want to know."

Piett sighed, looking up at the ceiling. "Well," he said, "it seems that all the old wives' tales about ulcers are wrong. Diet doesn't make any difference -- except coffee and alcohol don't help. Surprise." He cast her an aggrieved look which made her laugh again. "And -- " this time a rueful smile crept across his face " -- they're not caused by stress, either. Good thing. Or I'd have had twenty ulcers."

Mon Mothma grinned at him, wanting to kiss him right then and there. But the presence of Dr. Tomczyk made her feel too awkward to do it. "The suspense will kill me," she said. "What causes them?"

"Ah," said Piett. "That would be ... some thingy." He turned his head to appeal for help from Dr. Tomczyk. "Some bacteria whatsit?"

Tomczyk nodded. "Helicobacter pylori," he said obligingly. "Spiral shaped bacterium that can live in the mucous lining of the stomach. Basically, your immune system responds to the infection by sending white cells to fight it, but they can't get through the mucous lining, so they die, spill their destructive compounds on the stomach lining, cause inflammation, and that's what leads to the ulcer."

"Fascinating, isn't it?" sighed Piett.

"Hmm, yes," said Mon Mothma. "Amazing." She smiled teasingly at him. "So if it's not caused by diet, you won't have to subsist on milk and boiled rice for the rest of your days."

"That's a relief," he agreed. "Even if I'm doomed to spend my life in a prison cell, at least I can hope for a decent meal now and then."

"You won't spend your life in a prison cell," she told him. "Trust me."

Piett did not look convinced. "You're going to break me out of the detention wing so we can take off for a galaxy-wide life of crime?"

"Well, I would," she said lightly, "but I won't have to. Grigori ... please, don't worry. You have friends who believe in you. It will be all right."

Somewhere during this conversation, Dr. Tomczyk had vanished into another room without either of them noticing. Good man, thought Mon Mothma. The most important aspect of a good bedside manner is knowing when not to be at the bedside. She left the chair, and knelt on the floor beside the bed, so her face was closer to Piett's. Meeting the gaze of his sombre grey eyes, she wondered, not for the first time, how anyone could look so cute just by being worried.

Mon Mothma said softly, "there's something else I ought to tell you. Has anyone told you about -- the situation with Lord Vader?"

"The situation?" he echoed, frowning. "No."

Oh, Gods. She'd been going crazy arguing with herself over whether she should tell him. The coward in her wanted to avoid it at all costs, and had been insisting that it was better for him not to know. It would only upset him and maybe set back his recovery. But she knew, inescapably, that her cowardice was talking shit. Piett was an adult, and one of the leading officers of the Rebellion, he had a right to know what was going on around him. And what was happening to people he cared about. He would be furious with her, she was sure, if he found out from someone else.

She started gently stroking his hair with her left hand, and held on to his hand tighter with her right. She said, "Lord Vader's been captured by the Emperor. He's being held prisoner, they've got him on display at the Imperial Palace on Coruscant."

Piett fought to sit up, and managed to prop himself up, leaning heavily on one elbow. "We're not going to just leave him -- " he began.

"No, no," Mon Mothma said, trying to sound soothing. "We're not. A rescue attempt's already underway. They'll leave tonight." She knew she ought to try to make him lie down again, but she didn't want to fight him on this. He must be feeling helpless enough anyway, it wouldn't help his state of mind if he thought that she didn't even trust him to judge whether he was capable of sitting up or not.

The Admiral looked disorientated, as if he was feeling dizzy, but he still said, "I ought to go with them."

"Grigori, no. It's a small operation. The officers assigned to it can handle it ... " she smiled regretfully, hoping that her next comment wouldn't piss him off too badly, "and they really don't need an Admiral on painkillers along for the ride."

Piett scowled. "I can stop taking the painkillers," he said stubbornly.

"They don't need you passing out in the middle of a battle, either. Please, Grigori," she went on. "Stay here and get rid of your Heliobacter whatever. Lord Vader will understand. He'd say the same thing. He'd tell you to get your rest, and get well."

Finally giving up, Piett allowed himself to subside onto the bed, though he still looked thoroughly disgruntled. "Medical advice from Lord Vader," he muttered, frowning at the ceiling as if it were an enemy. "That'd be the day."

She squeezed his hand. "You're not going to knock Dr. Tomczyk out with his notepad, escape from the hospital, steal an x-wing, and fly off to rescue Vader singlehanded, are you?"

His gaze dropped back to her, and she was relieved to see a little grin light his face. "Well," he said, "that was my plan. I guess I'll have to give it up, now that you've figured it out."

She smiled at him, then, freed by the absence of Dr. Tomczyk, she leaned down and tenderly touched her lips to his. Mothma and Piett did not immediately separate, and the kiss deepened, faster and stronger than Mothma would have expected. She thought, no matter how many painkillers our Admiral has in him, he still knows how to kiss!

She broke the kiss, reluctantly, and sat back. With a shyness that took her by surprise, she murmured, "get well soon, okay?"

Piett nodded. She thought that he looked a bit scared, but he looked happy, too. She knew how he felt.

"I've got to go," she apologised. "I've got another meeting to get to." She almost said, "I love you." But that was something she didn't even want to think, let alone say.

Hurrying through the corridors moments later, Mon Mothma was informing herself in no uncertain terms just how stupid she was.

Love! she thought. Simara, what are you talking about? You've been vaguely dating the man for a week, and you've slept with him once.

It's because he's been ill, that's what it is. You've got the nurse-falling-in-love-with-the-patient syndrome; everyone knows a little vulnerability makes men more attractive.

Get ahold of yourself, she ordered. He's a sweet, lovely man, but that's all. It doesn't mean the galaxy revolves around him.

She had, she knew, been acting too much as if the galaxy revolved around him already. What in the gods' names had she been thinking of, starting this ridiculous investigation attempt with Wedge Antilles and his buddies? General Veers, unnerving cold fish though he was, had been perfectly right.

Out of consideration for her rank and her service record, the chief security officers had refrained from telling her just how out of line they thought her actions were, when she informed them of the transmissions that the two young pilots had discovered. But it didn't take much insight to know that, if she were anyone other than the Head of State and one of the founders of the Rebel Alliance, Captain Faren and Commander Narita would already have lodged a formal complaint and requested disciplinary action against her.

She was really going to have to watch her step. She couldn't let herself fall into a trap like this again. She had to remember, these weren't the early days of the Rebellion any more. She couldn't do whatever she wanted to, just because she thought it was right. She had a government to answer to, and a large portion of the galaxy that depended upon them. If she went blithely around ignoring the chain of command, sanctioning secret projects, building up her personal gang of supporters, it wouldn't be long before people started comparing her to Palpatine. And they would have every right to do so.

Damn it! And all because she had the hots for one worried-looking Admiral!

As she reached the small conference room where her presence was required in two minutes' time, gloom descended upon her. This meeting was not going to be fun.

Faren and Narita were already there. They both stood politely when Mon Mothma entered the room. She nodded at them, then the security officers and the Head of State took their seats, Mothma asking, "do you have anything more on the transmissions?" Narita and Faren had claimed that their people had already discovered the first of the two transmissions by the time Mon Mothma contacted them, and would soon have found the second. Whether that was true, or they were simply trying to save face, was not a question that she planned to inquire into.

There was a quick, shared glance between the oddly-matched pair of security officers, the debonair, dark-haired ex-Imperial and the sweet-faced, petite blonde Rebel. Evidently they had decided that the Head of State would take their news better coming from a fellow long-term Rebel, as Commander Narita turned to Mon Mothma and said, "Ma'am, both of the transmissions match the pattern of the Chandrila Seven transmission. They were sent from the terminal in Admiral Piett's office here on the base, using his account."

"I see," said Mon Mothma, somehow keeping her voice calm.

"Of course," Narita continued, "we're aware this doesn't mean that the Admiral is guilty. If someone else used his account once, there's nothing to stop them using it three times, or more. You can be assured, we are investigating every possibility." So you stick to being Head of State, Ma'am, and keep the hell out of our investigation, was the unspoken but obvious continuation to her statement.

Captain Faren clearly did not think that leaving it unspoken was good enough. Leaning forward, he said, "we'd like your assurance that your own investigation has been discontinued. Under the circumstances, you and your people must have enough other matters to occupy your attention. It's a waste of resources to have two teams working on the same job; I don't think we can afford that. Ma'am."

Mothma forced a thin smile onto her face. "You do have my assurance," she said. "There is no longer any separate investigation. I hope," she went on smoothly, "that you have no objections to my wishing to be kept updated on your discoveries?"

Faren looked as if he had any number of objections, but he managed to say stiffly, "of course not, Ma'am." Commander Narita cast him an irritated look, suggesting that all was not well in the working relationship of the joint security chiefs.

"There is another new development, Ma'am," Narita reported, ignoring the infuriated glance that Faren turned on her when she mentioned it. "The Chandrila Seven message was not the last message sent to Coruscant."

My Gods. What now? "When was the last message sent?" Mon Mothma asked.

"Just over two hours after the delegation returned from Chandrila."

"And it was on Piett's account again, from his office on the base?"

"That's right."

Mon Mothma tried to think back. When was the first time she had seen Piett after their return to the base? She asked, "was Piett back on the base at that time? Or was he still on the Executor?"

"We're looking into that, Ma'am."

"Fine. Let me know when you have further information."

Gods, she thought. Another message. About what?

The timing would have been right, Mothma realised, for it to be a warning that Lord Vader was on his way to Coruscant.

But if that was the topic of the message, who would have known Vader's destination?     Not Piett, certainly. He had been on the Executor when Vader's message arrived at the Chandrilan mining station. Theoretically, the only people who could have known the contents of the message would be those who were in the Command Centre with Mon Mothma when it arrived.

So who had been there? It wasn't going to be easy to remember. The station had been in an uproar, as the search continued for Princess Leia and Commander Skywalker.

Of course, someone on the Executor or, for that matter, the Mircalla, could conceivably have intercepted the message. So Piett wasn't off the hook yet.

And there was something else to worry about.

What was to stop their traitor from sending a message again?

Theoretically, they wouldn't dare to, with their scapegoat incapacitated in the hospital.    But to foil the Rebels' attack on Coruscant, the traitor might just think that it was worth the risk.

Mon Mothma demanded, no longer caring if she offended the security duo, "what precautions have we taken to stop any further messages from being sent?"

"All communications are now being monitored," answered Faren. "If any message is sent to Coruscant, it'll be intercepted. We'll know immediately, and should be able to get a team to the spot before our traitor's even left his terminal."

Mothma nodded, thinking that ought to be good enough. Always supposing, of course, that the traitor didn't send his message to somewhere other than Coruscant.

Or that he hadn't already sent it.



"Anakin Skywalker, eh?" mused General Mulcahy. "That's an entertaining theory."

Nevoy said, "I don't think it's just a theory. Have you seen Vader's face?"

"I have not," Mulcahy replied, methodically continuing to mix the ingredients of his Egesammi firedawn cocktail. "I don't intend to."

"I've seen it. The scars are the same as Anakin's were. Precisely. Even down to the reconstruction work they'd started on his face before his condition worsened ..." Nevoy's words slowed, as another connection occurred to him. Up to now, he hadn't really considered the question of why Anakin Skywalker might have become Darth Vader. "Or, when it officially worsened. He probably never relapsed at all. They must have faked his death. He and Palpatine might have been planning it the whole time he was in the hospital É "

"Why?" Mulcahy inquired.

"I don't know. Maybe ... as part of the campaign against the Jedi. With Anakin dead, they could blame the Jedi for it. You remember, there was even talk that he might have been murdered, since he seemed to be recovering, and then just relapsed like that, with no warning."

Mulcahy nodded thoughtfully. "Not forgetting," he put in, adding the last few drops of kriminsh to his drink, "that Darth Vader could be a far more effective henchman than Anakin Skywalker. Anakin had all manner of baggage his enemies could use against him. Vader didn't have any baggage at all." Mulcahy put down swizzle stick, and looked up at Nevoy. "Are you going to tell the others?"

Nevoy shook his head. "I don't think so. It's not our place to, is it? For all we know, he still wants it kept secret. He hasn't exactly been broadcasting his identity."

He watched while Mulcahy took the lighter which Nevoy's household droid held out to him, and lit the surface of his cocktail. With a sigh, Nevoy dragged the conversation back to an earlier topic, which had proved fruitless the first time he brought it up, and was almost certain to be just as much wasted effort now.

"Xavier," he said, "I wish you'd reconsider."

"I know you do," General Mulcahy said placidly. "And you know that I won't."

Handing the lighter back to C4T8, the General wafted the tall frosted glass under his nose, appreciatively sniffing the flames. Nevoy sourly wished that Mulcahy's moustache would catch fire. Maybe that'd put him in the hospital long enough for the palace revolt to be over with by the time he got out. No, probably not. An incinerated moustache was hardly enough to stop General Xavier Mulcahy, when he had his mind set on something.

"You don't have to do this," Nevoy persisted, as the flames died out and Mulcahy took a long, slow drink.

Mulcahy regarded Nevoy keenly from under his vast eyebrows. The General drawled, "now, what would a young whippersnapper like you know about what I have to do?"

Nevoy briefly flung his hands up, in a gesture of despair, then he slumped down onto the sofa, scowling over at the old soldier in the green armchair. "I don't happen to think that getting yourself slaughtered is going to help anyone."

"I'm hurt. What makes you think I'm going to get slaughtered?"

Calm, thought Nevoy. Stay calm. "The fact," he said, "that you're eighty-one years old, and that, through no fault of your own, it's probable that your reflexes may have got a little slow."

Mulcahy snorted. "I don't see anyone trying to get you to stay out of it because you're overweight."

Nevoy sat up abruptly. "Gods damn it! You just live to annoy me, don't you?"

The General grinned at him. "That's why I've got to defect with the rest of you. You wouldn't know what to do if I wasn't around to drive you insane."

"Oh, no." Nevoy leaned forward and buried his face in his hands. "Look, Xavier," he said, not looking up. "I don't want you to get hurt."

"I know that. I don't want you to get hurt either. But I'm not trying to stop you."

Nevoy reluctantly took his hands away from his face and looked over at the General again. The fiendish grin had left Mulcahy's face and he looked, for once, entirely serious. "Osheen," Mulcahy said, "you're right, I'm eighty-one. I don't think it'll be much of a tragedy if I get myself killed." A faint smile appeared again as he added, "I never much liked the idea of dying in bed, anyway."

"You wouldn't die in bed," Nevoy muttered, "you'd die in an armchair."

"With a drink and a game of solitaire, yes. What a way to go. You'll forgive me if I prefer a demise that's slightly more glamorous."

"Damn you. You don't have to die. Someone's going to have to take over this place, when Palpatine's out of the way. Why shouldn't it be you? Stay out of it till all the explosions are over, then you can step in and pull everything out of chaos. If it's not you, it's going to be at least six Imperial Advisors cutting each other's throats over who gets the throne. And Captain Aurbrac. And probably a few crime bosses. And random members of random royal families. And gods know who else."

"If you're so worried about that," Mulcahy asked sharply, "why don't you stay?"

Nevoy looked down, shaking his head. "I'm not ruler material."

"Neither am I," said General Mulcahy. "If I was, we'd already be in the reign of Emperor Xavier I."

"But you could do it," Nevoy insisted. "You're respected in all the branches of the service, you'd be able to bring all the different forces together -- even the Imperial Guards might be willing to support you."

Mulcahy said dryly, "only if they didn't know I'd been in on the planning stages of their Master's assassination."

"So they don't have to know. Isn't it at least worth a try? You'd rather be in charge yourself than let the Imperial Guards take over, wouldn't you? It's not going to be much good getting rid of Palpatine, if we just get that sadist Aurbrac, instead."

"Now, now, you're not being fair. I'm sure the Red Idiots are very nice men."

"For gods' sakes!"

A discreet buzzing announced the presence of someone at the front door. C4T8 departed to answer it. The two men watched the droid leave, then Mulcahy said quietly, "Osheen, there is no point in this. We've been through it all already. If Lord Vader wants to make a takeover attempt, that's one thing. If he doesn't, then there's no sense in any of the rest of us trying. If we say we're doing this for the Rebellion, proclaiming them as the legitimate government, then the best thing we can do is just go to them, with as many men and ships as we can scrape together. Without Palpatine, Coruscant will be a fairly easy target, but it won't help the situation if we stick around and add our men to the civil war. There's going to be enough killing without us." He looked intently at Nevoy. "You know that, you agreed with it. Now stop talking crap and deal with it, I'm coming with you."

Nevoy sighed. "All right, Xavier, listen. You want to come with us, that's fine. But you don't have to get involved in the fighting. Just meet us on the Conquest. Better yet, leave the planet before the shooting starts. You'll be a lot more useful to the Rebels alive than dead in the Palace."

Mulcahy said, "I'm not doing this to be useful to the Rebels." He raised one of his huge white eyebrows at Nevoy. "You ought to understand why I'm doing it."

"Tell me," Nevoy said flatly. "Why?"

"Having helped to create our dear Emperor, I'd like a chance at destroying him."

The door opened, and Captain Sandar of the Palace Guard barrelled into the room, wild-eyed and out of breath. He announced, "we are in some shit."

"What?" asked Nevoy, standing up.

"Turn on the news," Sandar panted. "It's probably over by now, the cover-up machine's probably already at work. Turn it on, though, let's see. I've got most of it recorded, anyway. Today on Correllia, on Correllia One. Put it on, quick."

Nevoy eyed Sandar doubtfully, but nonetheless he located the holopad's remote and switched it on, the holo image springing up out of its base that doubled as a coffee table. When he switched it over to Correllia One, all they got was a rotating, pale blue column with the channel's logo, and the usual bland, inane music that served as a background when channels were experiencing technical difficulties.

"So what's happened?" Nevoy asked Captain Sandar, who had flopped onto the sofa.

"Take a look," said Sandar, waving around a recording disk. "I always watch Today on Correllia on my way home from work, or I wouldn't have seen it. I didn't get all of it, I had to hunt around for a disk, but most of it should be here."

"You were flying on autopilot, weren't you?" Nevoy demanded sharply.

"Yes," Sandar said, exasperated. "Just watch this."

Nevoy took the disk that Sandar held out to him, and inserted it into the holopad base. Out of the holopad appeared the main newsroom of Correllia's branch of the Imperial News Service. A male newsreader of indeterminate age and with a shock of strawberry blond hair was in mid-sentence, looking as if he couldn't believe what he was reading.

"... from an un-named source in the Rebel Alliance, claims that a Rebel attack will be launched on Coruscant tonight, at approximately 2300 hours Coruscanti Standard Time. The aim of the attack is to rescue Darth Vader from the Imperial Palace. A fleet of ten capital ships, consisting of five Star Destroyers and five Mon Calamari cruisers, will attack Coruscant's perimeter defenses, while a smaller strike force of cloaked Lamda shuttles attempts to reach the Palace -- " the newsreader suddenly turned away and called to someone outside the image, "hey, who cleared this? I didn't know about this. Has Imperial Security seen it? What -- "

The sound switched off. For another twenty seconds or so the image was still there, and other people hurried into the scene, in apparently yelling discussion with the newsreader. Then the image vanished, replaced by the blue column and the logo. A female voice said brightly, "this channel is experiencing technical difficulties. We apologise for the inconvenience. Normal service will recommence as soon as possible." The music started tinkling aimlessly away to itself.

Nevoy turned off the recording, and Correllia One's live broadcast reappeared. The logo and the music were gone, and they were back in the newsroom, but with a different newsreader, a pretty, dark-haired girl who was reporting the latest on some high-profile murder trial on Correllia. An image of the outside of the court building took the place of the newsroom, and General Mulcahy said, "well, I guess that's that."

Nevoy switched off the holo, feeling numb, then suddenly he exploded, "fifty fucking demons in a landspeeder! I don't believe this! What is it with the Rebels? They just had to pick the most inconvenient possible time for an attack! I swear they go out of their way to screw things up for us!"

The gaze Mulcahy cast at Nevoy suggested that he thought the younger man had finally gone out of his mind. "Osheen, they're rebels. Screwing things up for us is their job."

"Ah. Yes. Well. I guess we can't blame them, after all we haven't exactly cleared our plans with them." He groaned. "Damn it, though. Now we'll be expected to bloody well triple security, it makes it that much more likely that we'll get found out ... "

"Maybe not," Captain Sandar said suddenly. "Maybe it'll actually help. It'll certainly give us a good reason to be at the palace tomorrow night, we can say we're still on heightened alert, and any unusual troop movements can be explained away as precautions against the Rebels."

"I suppose," Nevoy admitted. "We're probably expected back at the palace for a damned meeting about this. Gods. Just when I was thinking I might have a peaceful night in." He looked from Sandar to Mulcahy. "What the Hells is going on with the Rebels? How did they let information like that leak? They've never screwed up this badly before."

"They've got a traitor, I suppose," Sandar said. "But it doesn't make much sense. Why leak the information to Correllia One? Why not just to Imperial Intelligence? Or the armed forces?"

"If it even was a traitor," added Nevoy. "It could be misinformation. Get us all worked up about an attack tonight, and then attack next week -- or tomorrow. Shit, that's all we need, if they strike at the same time we do."

"At least it'll provide one Hell of a distraction," General Mulcahy pointed out.

"Yes," Nevoy muttered, "if we can just convince them not to shoot at us."

C4T8 entered the room. "Pardon me, sir. Colonel Wellaine is on the com link. He requests your presence and Captain Sandar's at an urgent security meeting."

Nevoy cast an I told you so look at his friends, then said, "shall we go, Captain? No rest for potential traitors."

"Have fun, boys," said Mulcahy. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do." He reached for his glass once more.

"You lucky bastard," Nevoy said to him. "Gods, why didn't I retire? No pension is worth this."

General Mulcahy watched Nevoy and Sandar leave, then he took a long swig of his cocktail. When the glass was emptied, he carefully got out of his chair, swearing at how long it took his limbs to obey the instructions of his brain. His silent home awaited him, with his droid and his liquor cabinet and his solitaire board.


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