Chapter Fourteen



Luke Skywalker was alone.

The droid was still away for repairs, and Leia was dining with Emperor Palpatine.

Dinner with the Emperor! Luke thought bitterly. Maybe I should have tried to stop her. But if she thinks it's the right thing to do, it probably is. What do I know? I'm just some jerk who can't feel the Force.

Luke was wandering aimlessly around the guest chambers. He'd tried for a while sitting at the table and had even attempted to swallow some dinner, but his throat hurt too much and anyway he'd never felt less like eating. He had thrown himself onto one of the couches and started counting the crystals in the chandelier, but that only lasted another three minutes before he began roaming again. He trailed into his bedroom, and stood scowling at the window where he'd tried to end his life. The overturned chair was still there. Luke crossed the room and stared up at the curtain rail. Damn it. With the Force, it wouldn't have taken any effort at all for him to leap to the rail, but now there was no way he could jump that high. He righted the chair, stepped onto it, and reached up, closing his hands on the rail. Slowly he brought his knees up to his chest, hanging by his arms, then somersaulted his body around. At least his muscles could still manage that. He hung there for a moment longer, then let go, got down, and sat on the chair. He wondered how many of the exercises he used to do were still possible for him. How much just depended on keeping fit, and how much was the Force? One thing was for sure, he wasn't going to be swinging around the trees on Dagobah anytime soon.

He glowered up at the curtain rail again. The remains of the cord with which he'd hanged himself were gone; Leia must have had them removed so he wouldn't have to see them. But there was still another cord, around the other curtain. He could do it again. It wasn't his fault he'd failed before. Maybe this time he'd manage to die before someone came barging in.

If only he hadn't promised Leia.

He thought back, trying to remember the wording of the promise. Had he said that he wouldn't kill himself, or just that he wouldn't hang himself? Damn, he'd probably said he wouldn't kill himself. He could pretend that he hadn't, though, that he'd just said he wouldn't go for the hanging option. After all, what did it matter if Leia was angry with him? He'd be dead, he wouldn't have to deal with it. He'd probably never have to deal with it, never have to face her again, even after Leia herself finally died. She'd be floating around in Glowing Blue Jedi Land, while he'd be ... somewhere else. Or nowhere.

Luke leaned back against the window, and wondered how solid the plastisteel was. Was there any way he could break through it and leap to his death? Too much work, he decided. And someone would probably hear him before he succeeded in breaking the window. Anyway, if he did jump, with his luck he'd smash into some passing ship and crush the pilot, or something. He really didn't need to burden his soul with that. If he had a soul.

            He wondered where his lightsaber was. He knew he'd been wearing it when they were captured, and he remembered taking it off in his room the first night they were here, but it wasn't there now. Leia must have hidden it from him. She hadn't taken it with her when she left for her date with the Emperor, so it must be still here in the guest chambers -- unless of course someone had removed it when he wasn't in any state to notice.

Anyway, what would he do with the lightsaber if he found it? He could cut his throat -- he'd probably end up cutting his head off too, but what the heck, that would sure do the trick. He could slice his guts open, but that was just too gross, it made him think of that delightful awakening inside the tauntaun carcass on Hoth, with Han grinning in at him and asking if he wanted any breakfast. Just run the lightsaber right through his heart, that was probably the best option, he supposed. Or through his head, but no, that would look like one of those stupid joke hats where one's head is supposedly impaled by an arrow. Hysterical laughter started to rise in his throat.

I can't kill myself. Leia would never forgive me.

He propelled himself out of the chair and hurried into the main room, looking around desperately for something to occupy his mind.

Leia had been gone a long time. He wondered if they'd finished dinner yet. Maybe they were discussing the ways of the Force over a nice after-dinner coffee.

His eyes lighted on the liquor cabinet.

Now that was a good idea.

Luke walked to the cabinet, opened the doors and gazed in awe at the large and expensive-looking selection of alcohol. From one of the bottom shelves, he pulled out a big bottle carved to look like a Termadani crystal. He recognised the style of the bottle and the label. It was a twenty-five year old Darkplain Distillery kahy. Wedge used to have a much smaller bottle of it, that someone had sent him for Firelord Day. He'd been hoarding it, but the bottle had finally got finished off the last time a gang of x-wing pilots ended up in Wedge's room for a few drinks.

The bottle Luke was holding now was full. Good. He considered taking a glass with him, but decided that would just slow him down. He trooped back to his room with the bottle, propped up the pillows of his bed, sat back against them, opened the bottle, and gulped down his first shot of the night.

Shit. His eyes watered and his throat burned, but he just managed not to cough. He rubbed one hand over his eyes. Wedge would say it was a sin to waste alcohol of this quality when one was just trying to get drunk. This stuff, you had to really savour and appreciate. Sorry, Wedge, he thought, taking another drink. If he was going to get smashed on Palpatine's liquor, he was going to drink the most expensive stuff there was.

After three more swigs, he realised that his eyes weren't just watering any more, he was crying. Damn it. He took another gulp, then he had to put the bottle down on the bedside table because he was sobbing too hard to keep the bottle steady in his hands. Stop it, stop it, stop it. Don't cry, it's stupid. It doesn't help anything.

So what? Nothing helps anything.

He wanted to just collapse in on himself.

I don't want to be here! I don't want to be alive!

When his sobs stopped, he grabbed up the bottle again, took a few more swallows, then held the bottle against his face. It was cold, it felt nice.

I'm going to make myself sick, aren't I?

Probably. So what?

Luke took the bottle away from his face and rested it on one of his knees instead. He thought about the first time he'd ever been drunk, which was, not surprisingly, the first time he'd been sick from drink as well. Biggs had got a fake i.d. from somewhere and bought a huge bottle of some cheap gin, which he and Luke had gone to drink in Beggar's Canyon. They finished off the bottle, and Luke was promptly sick all over Biggs' speeder, and then Biggs crashed the speeder into the wall of Beru and Owen's house when he was trying to drop Luke off at home. They'd both been grounded for months for that one.

Biggs, Luke thought, I don't want to be here! I want to go home!

Uncle Owen, can we start again, please? We won't buy Artoo and Threepio this time. We'll buy some boring, ordinary droids, and the Empire won't come looking for them, and I'll stay and help with the harvest, I will, I promise, and if Ben Kenobi starts trying to tell me about the Force I'll tell him to shove his lightsaber up his withered old ass.

Luke took another drink. He paused for breath, and noticed the shopping bag lying on the floor beside the wardrobe. The unopened packaging for a model skyhopper was sticking out of it, and there was a small pile of colouring books and comic books next to the bag.

He scowled over at the toys, feeling a blush spread over his face. The image leaped into his mind of the officer whoÕd stopped his suicide, Moff Whoever-he-was, struggling to be polite while Luke showed off his colouring books.

Damn you, Palpatine. Why did you snap me out of it? At least for a few hours, I felt like I belonged again.

Luke grinned unpleasantly. Let's hear it for childhood, he thought. Give or take hating the farm, and being lonely and bored, and being the smallest boy in class. At least back then I'd never heard of the Force.

He took one more drink for the road, then carefully put the bottle down on the bedside table again. It took him a while to get off the bed, because he wasn't quite sure that he knew where the floor was any more. When his feet did touch the floor, he noticed that he had his boots on, and decided that he didn't want to. Pulling the boots off was something of a challenge, but he managed. Then he padded over to the pile of discarded toys, crouched down by them and started flipping through the colouring books.

One of them, the Great Natural Wonders of the Galaxy one, he hadn't coloured anything in. No wonder, he thought now, it still looks boring. Another, The Big Colouring Book of the Imperial Forces, was a lot better. He started laughing when he saw his orange, blue and purple TIE-fighter, then he had to stop because laughing too hard made him feel sick.

He looked for the box of crayons, and found it inside the shopping bag. He took crayons and colouring book back to the bed, crawled onto the bed with them and started looking for an entertaining picture to colour.

There was one of a stuffy-looking Grand Moff that he thought might be kind of fun; he could draw a "kick me" sign on the Moff's chest. He flipped through a few more pages, then found the perfect focus for his artistic expression: a drawing of Emperor Palpatine.

Luke stared at the picture critically, taking another drink while he did so. Must be a very old colouring book. Or else, more likely, it was treason or something to draw Palpatine as ugly as he really was. The Emperor looked almost sane. Well, Luke could take care of that.

What would be a good colour combination for His Imperial Majesty?

A nice pastel yellow robe, I think. With pink and turquoise polka dots. Just right for highlighting the sallow Imperial complexion.

When it came to colouring the Imperial complexion, however, Luke decided that realism wasn't good enough. He gave the Emperor a bright red nose, and coloured the rest of his face and his hands a sickly drab green. Then it occurred to him that Palpatine really ought to have a big twirly moustache and a goatee, as well. For good measure, he put a big red X through the entire picture.

Luke studied his masterpiece, and wasn't sure whether the sounds he was making were laughs or sobs.

He thought, I've either got to fall asleep right now, or throw up.

Luke Skywalker curled up on top of the bedclothes, his face on the picture of Emperor Palpatine, and fell asleep.



"Leia? I want to show you something."

Oh, wonderful, Leia thought. She eyed the Emperor warily over the rim of the mug from which she was sipping talfa berry tea. Leia swallowed, lowered the mug and prompted politely, "yes, My Master?"

Palpatine nodded. "Yes," he said, in a musing tone, "yes, you ought to see it." The Emperor stood up from his place at the table, and Leia put the mug down and stood as well.

"Do you trust me, my dear?" Palpatine asked.

Just about as far as I can throw you, she thought. She smiled sweetly at him. "No, My Master," she replied. "But I will follow you."

The Emperor looked pleased. "Good," he said. To Leia's surprise, he reached out and took her hands in his. She forced herself not to shudder at the contact. Smiling, and gazing straight into her eyes, Palpatine whispered, "Leia, come with me."

Their surroundings abruptly changed. Leia blinked, looking around the much darker and larger room they now stood in, and realised that Palpatine must have teleported out of his dining room and taken her with him. The room was lit only by pale security lighting above the doors, and the bluish evening light from beyond the tall windows. Leia saw a long balcony above them. This must be the Great Hall, she thought, although she hardly recognised it. She had only ever seen it brightly lit before, and crowded with senators.

The Emperor's face was grey and ghostly in the half light. He said, "over here, my dear." He nodded his head toward the centre of the room, and suddenly another light appeared. For a moment Leia didn't understand what she was seeing, then she caught her breath and stepped back.

The new light illuminated a clear, rectangular display case, raised above the rest of the room, with five steps leading up to it. There was a man lying inside the case, and even without his mask, she recognised him.

"Come closer, Leia," purred Palpatine. "Meet Anakin Skywalker."

Reluctantly, Leia followed the Emperor, stepping closer to the display case. She forced herself to remain calm, taking in each element of the scene before her. Lord Vader's helmet and the upper portions of his mask were placed on a small pedestal at his feet, along with his lightsaber. His body seemed the same as always, still encased in the black clothing and armour, and his triangular breathing mask was still there, but the sight of his face and head made her want to cry -- or to kill Palpatine, who had exposed him like this. Solemnly she gazed at his scarred, bald scalp and the mangled remnants of his ears, and she felt again the searing pain he had felt when those wounds were still fresh. She could smell the burned hair and flesh, feel the fire-suppressant foam dripping into his wounds, feel the shock of realising that one of his eyes was oozing out of its socket.

Lord Vader's eyes were open now, but he was not looking at Leia or the Emperor. He was stonily staring at the ceiling, and only the slight movement of his chest and the fact that he occasionally blinked told Leia that he was even alive.

"Is there anything you'd like to say to your father, Leia?" Palpatine asked. "He can't hear us through the case, and you may not be trained enough yet to successfully speak to his mind, but I can pass on a message to him, if you'd like."

"No," said Leia. "I don't have anything to say." Palpatine was trying to trap her, she was sure. Hoping that the sight of Vader might cause some outburst of emotion, and make her betray whatever she was feeling for him -- and any rescue plans she might be harbouring.

She grimly focused instead on all the anger she had ever felt toward Vader. She stared at him, and conjured up an image of the Dark Lord looming in her cell on the Death Star, while the interrogation droid hovered closer to her. She remembered his presence behind her, as she backed into him while cringing away from Tarkin, and then watched Alderaan explode. She pictured him observing calmly, as Han was lowered into the carbon freeze unit in Cloud City.

"Your Majesty," she said coldly, "I would like your permission to return to my quarters."

"Of course, my dear child." The Emperor gave a slight wave of his hand, and Leia found herself, as suddenly as they had appeared in the Great Hall, standing alone in the living room of the guest quarters.

Bizarre. She thought that she ought to feel dizzy from having been flung around like that, but she didn't. She looked around the room, and called softly, "Luke?"

She'd had her doubts about leaving him again so soon, but Luke had promised her that he wouldn't do anything to hurt himself. Whatever you could say against Luke, he was not a liar. He didn't break his promises. Or at least, she thought uneasily now, he never had before.

She went to his bedroom door, which was closed, and rang the bell once. There was no answer. Leia pressed the panel which opened the door.

"Oh, Luke," she murmured. She shook her head, but she couldn't quite stop herself from smiling.

The overhead light was blazing at full strength, and the curtains at the window were still open. The room reeked of alcohol. There was an open bottle of kahy, one-third full, on the bedside table, and from the look of the bedcovers, Luke had managed to spill some of the kahy onto them. Luke himself was curled up on top of the bed, fully dressed except for his boots, and had his face on one page of an opened colouring book. Crayons were scattered all over the bed and the floor, and Luke was still clutching the red crayon in his hand. He seemed incredibly young, asleep like this, even without the colouring book and the crayons.

Leia sighed. No way would she try to get him tucked in to bed, that would be far more trouble than it was worth. She left the room briefly, went to her own bedroom and removed one of the blankets from her bed, then returned to her brother's room and draped the blanket over Luke. Leia closed the curtains, noticing that they still only had one cord, turned out the light, and left Luke to his sleep.

She stood in the dining area, leaning on the table. She felt restless, but she couldn't think of anything she could do. She shouldn't send for Moff Nevoy, even though she was desperate to learn whether his plans had made any progress; it would look suspicious if she had too much contact with him. And she had had more than enough for today of Force practice with her dear Master Palpatine. She could go to the Emperor's media centre, but she was damned if she was just going to sit around watching holovids while her father was held prisoner and her suicidal brother slept off a drinking binge.

There had to be something she could do, besides standing around feeling helpless.

Leia crossed to one of the sofas and sat down, pulling her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. She thought of the vision she had seen this morning, while Luke was trying to kill himself.

Maybe she should try again. There was always a chance she might learn something useful. And even if nothing practical came out of it, surely it would be a positive thing simply to keep developing her abilities. At least, she thought, surely it couldn't hurt.

She brought her legs down, and sat cross-legged on the sofa. Once more she tried to turn her senses in on themselves.

At first she saw only darkness. Then the dark was replaced by the light in Vader's display case. She saw his face again. His angry blue eyes were still gazing at the far off ceiling.

Leia shook her head, and Vader's face vanished. Leia sent her feelings deeper, and then suddenly she was in a room lit by brilliant sunlight.

She knew this room. When she was little, she used to play under the big, dark wood desk, pretending it was a tent or a cave, and sometimes jumping out from it to try and scare the various dignitaries who were visiting Princess Keeiara Organa, First Lady of Alderaan.

"Mom," Leia whispered.

Keeiara was standing in front of the desk, wearing the ocean blue skirt and jacket that she usually wore when she had to look both elegant and conservative. She'd had a love-hate relationship with that suit, Leia remembered. She alternated between liking the dignified look that it gave her, and moaning that it added at least a decade on to her age. Keeiara's secretary, a plump-faced young man whose name Leia had utterly forgotten, was sitting beside the desk, a notepad in his hand. Keeiara had apparently halted in mid-dictation. "Ma'am?" the secretary asked uncertainly.

Keeiara, Leia realised, was staring out the window. Leia turned to follow her gaze.

In the vivid blue sky -- bluer, Leia thought, than any sky she had seen since she left home -- hung a vague orb shape. The moon, was Leia's first thought. Only it was the wrong colour, darker. And something else seemed strange about it. Leia narrowed her eyes, squinting at the distant shape. Then she saw that instead of the moon's shadowed craters there was a faint grid pattern on the orb. A grid pattern that could not possibly be natural.

Leia knew what the orb was.

"Mom," she breathed desperately, "get off the planet, now."

Keeiara frowned, not taking her gaze from the window. "Vendail," she said, without turning to look at the secretary, "open a link to my husband."

Vendail the secretary obeyed, standing up and punching the code into the com unit on Keeiara's desk. He looked puzzled, then reported, "I'm sorry, Ma'am, we're not getting through. The link to Prince Bail's office seems to be overloaded, there must be hundreds of people calling him.

For an instant longer Keeiara Organa stared into the sky. Then she turned and strode out of her office, leaving Vendail gaping after her in bewilderment.

Leia followed her adoptive mother down the corridor, taking the familiar route to Bail Organa's office. At first Keeiara was walking swiftly, then she broke into a run.

The door to Bail's office opened in front of her. Keeiara halted just inside, seeing her husband standing surrounded by his aides, all of whom wore expressions on the continuum between worry and terror.

"Well, try again," Bail was saying sharply. "We have to get through to them."

"Bail?" Keeiara began.

Bail Organa turned toward her. "Keeiara," he said, running one hand distractedly through his hair, "it's an Imperial vessel, that's all we know about it. They sent one message, but now they're not responding to our hails."

"What message?" asked Keeiara.

"That -- "

The Prince was interrupted by a shout from one of his aides, and Bail and Keeiara turned once more to look out the window. Leia stared at her mother's face, startlingly pale against the red gold of her hair. Keeiara's eyes widened, and her mouth dropped open. Against her own will, Leia turned to see what Keeiara was seeing.

The shape in the sky was alight. The light grew from a pinpoint, until the entire orb was hidden behind it.

Then the light was all Leia could see.

Leia gasped, and the white light disappeared, its place taken by Palpatine's guest chamber.

Leia looked around dizzily. Her heart was beating too fast, and her hands were shaking. She put one hand up to smear tears away from her face.

All right, she'd been wrong. Having a vision could hurt, after all.

She stood up shakily. What the Hell had been the point of that?

She remembered Luke telling her that Force visions were always hard to understand. That Yoda had told him that past and present and future could get jumbled together in them.

Had she really seen the way it happened, she wondered? Or just a way that her brain thought it might have happened?

She almost hoped that she had seen the way it was. At least then she would know that Bail and Keeiara had been together, at the end.

Leia's mouth curved in a bitter smile. You didn't have to be Yoda, she thought, to interpret this particular vision. One reading of it, at least, was pretty damned obvious.

Darth Vader's face appeared again in her mind.

She had to help him. Had to, or she didn't know how she was going to live with herself.

She had already failed one set of parents. She had failed them, when there should have been -- must have been -- something she could have done to save Alderaan.

She had failed Bail and Keeiara. She couldn't fail Vader, too.

Leia walked into her bedroom, numbly undressed and put on her long white nightgown. Her hair was already in one simple braid, so she didn't have to do anything to it.

She eyed her huge, empty bed, then decided that tonight she was not going to be alone.

Luke was not likely to be the most restful neighbour, she thought; gods knew how long it would be before he was jolted into consciousness to make a trip to the loo. He might not be too happy to see her in his bed, either, he'd probably think she was sleeping in the same room to make sure that he didn't kill himself.

What the Hell, though. They were family. They had to be able to deal with each other being annoying.

She sneaked into Luke's room, let the door close behind her, then paused to let her eyes grow accustomed to the faint light drifting through the curtains. Her brother, she saw, was still a lump at the centre of the bed.

Leia went round to the other side of the bed, and crawled under the covers, avoiding her brother the lump. Before lying down she felt the pillow cautiously, to make sure that Luke hadn't spilled any kahy on it. The pillow seemed free of alcohol, although she did have to remove several crayons from it.

Gods, she thought. Smells like going to sleep in a bar. Just don't be sick, Luke, okay?

Leia closed her eyes.



Moff Nevoy thought, I don't think I can do this.

There had to be some way out of it. There had to be.

He had been prowling around his house since returning from the security meeting two hours ago, with a brief interval of picking listlessly at his dinner, and causing C4T8 to worry that he wasn't eating enough. Sometimes Nevoy suspected that C4T8 was secretly in the pay of Rosmarin and Marida, they'd probably bribed the droid to ensure that their old man was looking after his health. Tonight Nevoy had been in no mood to endure his household droid's fussing, so he gave C4T8 permission to spend the evening switched off, and suggested very firmly that the droid would be well advised to keep out of his way.

Nevoy had made an effort to concentrate on the novel he was reading, but that attempt had been doomed from the start. He'd switched on the holo and watched about five minutes of some mindless sitcom about a family of pirates that lived in an asteroid field, but it had not taken him long to discover that he did not care in the slightest whether or not young Andar managed to convince the sexy new girl at school that he was greatest buccaneer ever to roam the galaxy. He had considered composing letters to Rosmarin and Marida, but he didn't know what he would say if he did. If he tried to be calm and cheerful, they would figure out something was very wrong in a matter of seconds. But he couldn't exactly tell them the truth, either. Hello, darlings, I'm about to lead a revolt, so this may be the last time I'll get to talk with you ... oh, yes, sure. All he needed was for a message like that to get intercepted by Imperial Intelligence. That would solve his problem quickly enough all right. He wouldn't have to decide whether to betray the Empire, because he'd be in a dungeon before you could say "traitor".

He told himself, there is no way out.

It was too late to stop the revolt. There were too many factors involved, too much had already been set in motion to stop it now. If he tried to convince the others to call it off, there was very little chance that all of them would agree to it. They'd end up with half a revolt, and he would have condemned to death all the men who had taken part. Not to mention that, knowing the interrogation techniques which were likely to be used, the men who did take part would almost certainly be convinced to reveal the names of those who hadn't.

He could just piss off now, leave the planet and abandon all the others to their fate, but that would have the same result. His departure would arouse suspicion, investigation would begin, and the plot would be discovered. Even if it wasn't, the others might have difficulties convincing some of their men to go along with the uprising if he wasn't there to lend it his authority.

He could go sobbing to the Emperor, revealing the entire conspiracy and begging for forgiveness, but that would not only be cowardly, it would be insanely stupid. He would get all his friends killed, and Palpatine would be sure to reserve some especially charming punishment for him, like using his thoughts to strip Nevoy's skin off his body while Nevoy watched.

No, damn it. If he had to betray someone, it was better to betray the Emperor than betray his friends.

The trouble was, it wasn't just the Emperor they were going to attack.

Nevoy would cheerfully do anything to hurt Palpatine. But the Empire wasn't one man. It was all very well to say that they had to get rid of their mad Emperor, but what of the effect it would have on the millions of men in the Imperial forces? On the hundreds of millions of civilians whose livelihoods depended on the Empire? On the planetary and system-wide economies that would be destroyed if the Empire fell?

Stop it. You can't carry the entire galaxy on your shoulders. Just do what you have to, and leave it at that.

Do what you have to and not care how many people it hurts?

He slumped down at the desk in his study, resting his head on his hands and feeling sick. He was going to drive himself insane at this rate. He hadn't felt this emotionally screwed up since -- well, since the first few days after Laram had died.

That was the real problem, wasn't it? Oh, yes, intellectually he was bothered by the thought of all the other millions of people their revolt could harm. But what he really couldn't stand was the thought of betraying his son.

Laram's dead. He won't care.

How do you know that? he argued with himself. And even if he won't care, I will.

When he thought about striking against the Empire that he had served since its foundation, it wasn't his own lost career and lost hopes that troubled him. What came into his mind were recollections of the day Laram had graduated from the Academy. He thought of the joy and pride on Laram's face as he took the oath of allegiance with the other new officers, and he wondered, how can I betray the Empire that he fought for -- and died for?

How can I join forces with the people who killed him?

When Laram died, the girls -- particularly Rosmarin -- had begged Nevoy to meet with Ardella. They'd argued that she was suffering from Laram's loss as well; just because she was with the Rebellion, it didn't mean that she had stopped being Laram's mother, or stopped loving him. If they could meet, and support each other as a family again, however briefly, it might give them more strength to deal with their loss.

Nevoy had refused. If it had only been that she had left him, abandoned him to bring up the children on his own, that would be one thing. He could forgive her that. But she had left for the Rebellion. She had devoted herself to the cause which stole the life of their son.

Nevoy had blamed her for that. If he fought for the Rebellion now, wouldn't he be equally to blame?

Idiot. You could argue this forever. Why not just take the easy way out, and blame Palpatine? It's his bloody fault -- the war, the Death Star, Alderaan, eeverything. So just kill him and stop whining about it.

Anyway, like we've all been saying, it's not the same Rebellion any more. It's Darth Vader's Rebellion. And the Rebellion of all the Imperials who've chosen Vader over Palpatine.

And if Laram were alive today, how did he know that Laram wouldn't be a Rebel too?

Nevoy whispered, "Laram, please, tell me what to do."

He could imagine the rueful way Laram would smile in this situation. And he thought he knew what Laram would say. He could hear the quiet, reasonable tones of his son's voice -- Laram had always managed to stay calm in situations that drove his father nearly into hysterics -- saying, "Dad, come on, you know you have to do it. You wouldn't be worrying about it this much if it wasn't important to you. You can't leave it like this, you know that.

I don't want to hurt you, Laram.

You won't hurt me, Dad. I know you'll do what's right.

You know that, do you? I wish I knew it.

Dad, don't use me as an excuse to get out of this. The Empire isn't me. You're not fighting me if you fight the Empire.

If Laram were alive, Nevoy told himself, there was every chance that he would be with the Rebellion. He was always a sensible kid, he would know that they had better prospects in the long run with Vader than with their lunatic Emperor.

For that matter, if Laram were alive, he might not be with the armed forces at all any more.

It was a while now -- probably almost a year -- since Nevooy had played back Laram's last message. He used to play it a lot; too much, probably. It was like digging into one's wounds to try and stop them from healing.

But now, it was probably the closest he could come to learning what Laram would say to him today.

He found the file with no difficulty, he could probably have found it with his eyes closed. For a moment he was almost afraid to watch it again.

He's your son. He loves you. Just hold on to that, and watching the message won't hurt you.

He could go into the living room and play Laram's message on the holo, but that, he didn't think he could handle. The holopad added that extra touch of realism that would just make everything too painful. To see what seemed to be Laram sitting there, right in front of him, as if he could reach into the image and touch him ... no. Better to keep his distance, and just play the message on the computer. This was going to be bad enough as it was.

Nevoy closed his eyes briefly, then set the message on play.

There had been a time when Nevoy could probably have recited the message in time with the image of his son. It had been long enough now since he had watched it for the message to almost seem new.

Lieutenant Commander Laram Nevoy appeared in his office on the Death Star, which he shared with several other officers. Despite the knowledge of what was going to happen to his son in less than a day's time, Nevoy still smiled at the sight of him. He was looking good. He had grown his dark red hair to the very furthest extent he could without being in violation of Navy regulations, and he was sporting a trim little beard and moustache which he hadn't had in his previous visual message. He looked fit and healthy, too; of course all the kids had inherited their mother's height and slim build, avoiding Nevoy's own unfortunate tendency to chunkiness.

Laram grinned, and said, "hi, Dad. How's it going? That other birthday present finally arrived a couple days ago, so you don't have to sue the postal service. It was chasing us all over the galaxy; it went to the shipyards at Tilvann first, and then it got put on the Vengeance which was supposed to rendezvous with us at Mikrox Three, only their orders got changed and they were sent to Tirpscanuma instead, so all the Death Star post got re-routed to some troop transports, and we only just met up with them. Anyway, though," he said with a mock formal bow, "thank you very much, sir. It is much appreciated, and it's going to make me the most popular guy on the station. I've already got people promising me the life of their first born child, or something, if I'll let them have a sip of the Ynyssan brandy."

The amusement left Laram's face, and he went on, keeping his expression and his voice carefully neutral, "you'll have heard by now, I guess, about Alderaan." He paused for a moment, as if at a loss for anything to say. "I suppose it'll shut up once and for all everyone who thought this station wouldn't be worth the money we spent on it."

Then Laram grinned again, quickly changing the subject. "So what do you think of the new beard? I know it isn't as impressive as yours yet, but I'm working on it." He turned his head so that his father could examine the beard from all angles. "I have been told," he went on, "that it makes me look very dashing, but I haven't figured out yet if the people who said that were taking the piss or not."

He asked, "anything new on Marida yet? Last I heard from her, she said she was pregnant enough to have five babies in her. You will let me know the minute anything happens, won't you? I mean, there's no point being an uncle if I can't brag to everyone about it."

Laram hesitated, and for a moment he glanced away. When he looked back at his father, he didn't seem to be happy about what he was going to say. "Dad ... the next time I'm home, I hope we can have a talk about ... some things. Don't panic," he added quickly, "I'm not going to do anything stupid. But, well, I'd like to talk with you about -- about my career. I don't know, there's -- there's some things I'm kind of worried about. It's okay, don't worry, it's just ... I'm not really sure any more if this is where I belong." He smiled apologetically. "I know, Dad, I know how important my career is to you, don't stress, I won't just throw it away. I'm not going to walk up to Grand Moff Tarkin and insult his slippers and get court-martialled, or anything. I've just been thinking a lot about what I ought to be doing with my life. I hope we can talk about it soon, that's all."

He smiled a more cheerful smile once more, and said, "phew. That was heavy. Look, Dad, I gotta sign off. You take care, okay? I'll talk with you soon. Love you. Bye."

Nevoy quickly switched off the recording, before he could succumb to his immediate impulse and play it back again. He sat back, running his hands over his face.

Laram, he thought, why didn't you say that the last time you were home on leave? Why didn't we talk about it then? I'd support anything, anything. Anything you want to do. I don't care what. Be a jizz musician. A chef. A bounty hunter. An exotic dancer. I don't care, whatever you want, just leave the forces and stay alive.

He stood up and walked into the living room. For a moment his gaze was caught by the scrupulously polished doors of the glass and cedar liquor cabinet that he'd inherited from Grandma Flora and Grandpa Virgil, and he thought how much he wanted a drink right now. But he wasn't going to have one. On a night like this, one drink would swiftly turn into ten, and the absolutely last thing he needed was to be leading a palace revolt with a hangover.

He crossed the room instead and stood by the door which led out onto the balcony. Then he opened the door and stepped outside.

The night was a bit chilly; he should probably go back inside and get a jacket or a cardigan, but he wasn't going to. He sat down in the wooden deck chair and looked up at the sky.

There wasn't much to see, of course. Stargazing was not a pastime one could indulge in much when one lived in Imperial City. The moons just about managed to make themselves visible, that was usually it. He looked up into the usual red-brown of the light-polluted sky.

In the old days, when he'd received information about where Laram's ships, and then later the Death Star, had been sent to, he used to sit out here and try to work out what part of the sky they were in.

It was easy enough to figure out where Rose and Marida were, although the sky in their directions looked just as bland and featureless as everywhere else. Tasmerine, where Rosmarin and Elbin and Anida lived, was over to the right, just a little above the horizon now probably, over by the tower of the Imperial Assurance building. Cefdor, home of Marida, Kan, Nina and Lien, must be pretty much directly overhead.

And Laram wasn't out there any more.

He gazed in what must be vaguely the direction of Yavin, and saw that one star, at least, was faintly visible in the red glowing sky. That had to be Kroiaz; he had seen it before when he was trying to work out where Yavin was at around this time of year, and it was the only star in that region which was bright enough to force its way through Imperial City's lights. He sighed. One star wasn't very impressive, but at least it was something.

He wondered, as he had so many times before, where Laram had been when the Death Star died. What he'd been doing. What he was thinking.

At least it would have been quick. None of them would have had time to suffer. One second they would have believed that they were going to smash the Rebellion for good, and the next second, they were gone.

Assuming, of course, that nothing had happened to Laram in the day before, when there were Rebels running around the station rescuing Princess Leia. Nevoy knew that a fair number of men had been killed or wounded then. But, surely he would have heard if Laram were one of them. There had been enough time between that fight and the destruction of the Death Star for the casualty reports to be sent out and the men's families to be notified. Besides, he had always believed -- though now when he thought about it, it was rather stupid -- that Lord Vader would have told him if Laram had died before the others.

There wasn't any reason to believe that, of course. Lord Vader had certainly had enough to do without keeping track of who, out of a garrison of 1,187,000 people, had died when. And even if Laram had been killed or hurt during the Princess's escape, and Vader had known of it, perhaps he would have thought there was no point in Nevoy knowing. Perhaps Vader had thought it would cause him more pain. Which it would. But he still wished he could know for sure.

He knew, at least, that Lord Vader had been aware of Laram's death, because the first time Nevoy encountered Vader after the Death Star disaster, the Dark Lord had offered his condolences.

It had been a week or so after, and Vader had only just returned to Coruscant. They had run into each other in the corridors of the Palace -- almost literally, since Nevoy was still so wrapped up in his grief that he barely managed to look where he was going. He couldn't remember much of their brief conversation, but he did remember Vader's deep voice saying "I am sorry for your loss," and he certainly remembered his own amazement, which had managed to cut through his wall of grief and left him standing there, stunned, as the Dark Lord once more strode on his way. He remembered wondering why in the galaxy Vader should particularly recognise his grief, when the two of them had barely exchanged five words outside of the line of duty in the twenty years they had worked together.

Nevoy smiled faintly. He had a logical hypothesis to explain that now, anyway. Darth Vader might never have had any contact with the Nevoy family, but Anakin Skywalker certainly had. Anakin and his wife Shura had been over for dinner a few times, and they were both pretty good with the kids; Shura Talassa had apparently come from a large family, and Anakin had the great skill of treating children like people instead of acting as if they were sub-human. Once, Nevoy remembered, Anakin had come to dinner on his own -- that must have been just a few weeks before the famous accident. Laram must have been seven or eight, then, and Nevoy remembered Laram and Field Marshal Skywalker getting into a long conversation about whether the Jedi Order ought to have their authority restricted. Laram's teacher at school had made some comment about the question, and that night Laram had asked what Anakin thought about it. Later, when the Jedi Purge was in full swing, after Anakin had died -- or not, Nevoy reminded himself -- Laram was glued to the holonews every night, watching each new development. Nevoy remembered Laram declaring that he hated the Jedi, they deserved everything they got, because they'd killed Anakin Skywalker.

Good gods, Nevoy thought. Darth Vader has been to my house for dinner. He and my son have discussed politics.

It was mind-bending to think of Vader remembering that same conversation. Had he remembered it, when he offered his condolences for Laram's death?

And, my Gods -- had Vader even known, then, that it was his own son who had destroyed the Death Star?

If he had, no wonder he'd offered his condolences. His son had killed those 1,187,000 men.

Had Vader felt guilty? Had he ever felt that all those deaths were his own fault?

Nevoy shook his head. Enough of this train of thought. Trying to imagine how Darth Vader's mind worked was just going to give him a headache.

He took in a deep breath of the chill night air.

There wasn't any way out. He knew that. Darth Vader was lying in the Great Hall waiting to be killed, and if Nevoy and company didn't rescue him, nobody would. The Rebels would never get to him in time. And Sandar, Raby, Wellaine, Hayashida, Mulcahy, all the others, they were all counting on Nevoy not to fail them.

He thought, Laram, I hope this is what you want me to do.

Or if it isn't, I hope you can forgive me.

He gazed into the red sky, in the direction of Yavin, and watched the one faint star.


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