What are we going to do?
The question had been pounding through Mon Mothma's brain ever since last night, when the shit had hit the fan. And now, almost sixteen hours later, she still didn't have any answers.
No one seemed to have much of an answer. Last night's attack had been called off as soon as they intercepted the Corellian news broadcast, but despite the seemingly endless succession of chaotic meetings, they had not yet reached any decisions on what action they should take instead.
Some members of the Command Staff were arguing for an altered attack plan, at a different date and time, but others rightly pointed out that now Coruscant's defence forces would be watching for any such attempt. There was no longer a chance of taking Coruscant by surprise. There had been suggestions that they abandon the diversionary attack entirely and simply send in the cloaked shuttles, but no doubt the Imperials would be on the alert for that, too. They might be able to adjust their sensors to pick up the cloaked ships, and even if not, Lord Vader would almost certainly be too heavily guarded now for any of the rescue team to reach him.
What are we going to do?
She felt trapped by her helplessness. She tried to reassure herself that the Rebellion could survive this. If Vader and the others were lost to them, that was a tragedy, yes. Any loss of life was, and Vader and his companions had fought gallantly for the Rebellion, it would be a dark day if they were gone. But the Rebellion would go on. It had lost heroes before, and survived.
Only this time she wasn't so sure. The Alliance had changed. It belonged as much to the former Imperials now as to any of the rest of them. That had been their strength in this past year, but it could also be their weakness. If Lord Vader died, and half of their forces blamed the other half for it, there was a very strong chance that it could tear the Alliance apart. The Empire could win without sending even one ship against them, just by sitting back and watching while Rebels fought each other and the Rebel Alliance disappeared from the galaxy forever.
She sighed bitterly. Even if that worst case scenario did not come true, they still had their traitor to deal with. If they couldn't manage to find him or her now, Mon Mothma thought in despair, they might as well just give up the whole damned Rebellion. Where was the point in even trying, if every plan they made was going to be betrayed the moment it was formed?
At least there was one good thing in all of this, she told herself, as she reached for the cup of coffee on her desk, took a sip, and noted with irritation that the coffee had gone cold. No one, not even Madine, was suggesting that Piett was behind this latest betrayal. The doctors and medical droids were adamant that he had not been out of the hospital and had had no access to any communication equipment. Besides, he had not even been at the meetings where the attack was planned.
Of course, that still didn't clear his name. It was always possible that there were two traitors. She hadn't heard yet the results of Security's latest investigation, but this time, she hoped that the bloody message had been sent from Piett's account. At least that would prove, finally, that someone other than the Admiral was using it.
Gods, what a headache. No, never mind the headache, her entire body ached. She'd managed to snatch a couple hours of sleep last night, in between meetings, but she still felt as if she hadn't slept for a decade.
What are we going to do?
Her office looked like someone had fired a superlaser through it. She gazed around, thinking, this is disgusting. That was always something she could do while she waited for the next meeting; she could give her office a thorough spring cleaning.
She got up from her desk and started picking up the assorted coffee cups which seemed to be breeding on it. Once she'd collected them, of course, there was the question of what to do with them. She stuck them in the "out" tray and resolved to take them back to the canteen when she had this place looking a bit more respectable.
On her desk, along with the usual piles of disks and documents, were the vids from the Executor's security camera.
Damn. She should have returned those. Now, when she did return them to Commander Caspren of the Executor, she would probably get dear Security Captain Faren accusing her of not keeping her word, and continuing her investigation in secret.
Well, she thought, and why not? Hell. If Faren's going to think the worst anyway, I might as well live up to his expectations.
I'm not really investigating, anyway. Just a little light entertainment, until the next useless meeting comes along.
She only had a month or so of the security vids left to watch, anyway; she had already nearly made her way through the entire year that Caspren had given her. Another month, and she'd be back to the time of the New Alliance's founding. So what could it hurt if she watched the one remaining month? Faren and Narita and General Veers were pissed off with her already, why stop now? Another month wouldn't make any difference.
Mothma switched on the vid, feeling defiant and slightly ridiculous, but not particularly caring. It beat sitting around and chewing her fingernails.
Once the vid had started, of course, she began to think that perhaps this was not such a brilliant idea. She had forgotten how boring the security videos were. She was watching the chronological sequence backwards again, and there were the usual long stretches of Piett's office being empty, with the monotony only slightly broken by periods of the Admiral working at his desk, talking with the occasional visitors -- none of whom seemed to be doing anything suspicious -- and drinking coffee. The vid, Mothma thought, might be useful for a coffee company's product use investigations, but not for much else.
She glanced at the date counter. Three weeks after the formation of the New Alliance, and counting.
The video was into a night sequence. The light to Piett's office suddenly switched on, and Mothma saw two people apparently back into the room. She recognised Piett and Captain Needa, the latter clutching to his chest a bottle of what appeared to be vodka. The Captain's blond hair was sticking up at a number of peculiar angles, while Piett, though entirely impeccable compared to his colleague, did seem to be redder of face than usual. Mon Mothma smiled. So, coffee wasn't quite the only beverage to make its appearance in this office.
Still moving backward, the image of Piett sat down at his desk and apparently switched on the computer -- so of course he'd just switched it off -- and Needa sat down on the floor, holding the bottle and resting his head against the edge of the desk.
Piett read a text message on his computer screen, while Needa appeared to be carefully deciphering whatever was written on the vodka label. The message on the screen then vanished, and Mothma saw Piett punching in his access code --
Mon Mothma suddenly froze the image, staring at it in shock.
Needa was watching while Piett typed the code.
It looked perfectly innocent, of course. Needa's head was only a few inches away from the keyboard anyway, so all he had to do was casually glance over and Piett was typing his code right under -- or actually, right above -- Needa's nose.
Mothma frowned. She let the scene continue to play backward, and saw Piett switch off his computer, the two men stand up again, Piett take the bottle from Needa and put it into a filing cabinet, and then Needa and Piett back out of the office, Piett switching off the light as he went.
Mon Mothma turned on the volume and played the sequence again in forward.
Piett walked in, switching on the light. Needa was a few steps behind him. As they walked into the scene, Piett was saying, "... but be careful! Last time we had a drink in my room you knocked over one of the trees."
Piett crossed to the filing cabinet, opened one of the drawers and rummaged around in it, while Needa hung back, saying, "if you will insist on carting a forest around with you, you've got to accept the risks."
Admiral Piett ignored that, and produced his bottle of vodka out of the drawer. "There you go," he announced. "The real stuff." He handed the bottle to Needa, warning again, "careful with that," and Needa obediently hugged the bottle.
Needa started toward the door again, but Piett said, "just going to check for any messages." He sat down at the desk, in front of his computer, and after a moment, Needa sat on the floor by the desk, still cradling the vodka. With complete naturalness, for all the galaxy as if he was just randomly glancing around because he was bored, Needa turned his head toward the keyboard, and was looking straight at it as Piett typed in his access code. He looked away again, lazily gazed all around the room, and then started reading the label of the vodka bottle.
"Message from home?" Needa asked, as Piett continued to read his message and the vodka label apparently lost its interest.
Piett nodded, logging out as he did so. "From Rilla," he said.
"You're not writing back?" Needa inquired again, looking somewhat surprised as Piett switched off the computer and stood up.
"No. Don't want to compromise her. She's a law abiding citizen. We're traitors."
Needa stood as well, saying, "law abiding citizens who write to traitors aren't law abiding."
"All right," Piett said, in an irritated tone. "I don't want to make things worse." He gestured at the door with exaggerated politeness. "After you," he said.
Needa and the vodka bottle left, and Piett followed, switching off the light.
The security video continued playing for some seconds in darkness, before Mon Mothma remembered to switch it off.
It didn't prove anything. That whole sequence was probably just what it seemed to be; two colleagues having a drink and deciding that they wanted to break into the good stuff. Just because Needa had looked at Piett's keyboard, that didn't mean there was some fiendish motive behind it. He probably hadn't even remembered the code, if he'd noticed it; he'd obviously had a few drinks already, and was doubtless about to have more.
But, in the almost-year of security vids that she'd watched, only this even came close to hinting that someone else was in possession of Piett's code.
It wouldn't be Needa, she thought, surely. She'd always had the impression that he and Piett were friends. She thought she remembered Piett telling her once that they'd been at the Academy together. Still, if Needa was someone who really cared about the Empire, and if he didn't think that what Vader and the rest of them had done was right ...
She would have to report this, no matter what. Faren and Narita would probably implode, but she couldn't help that now. Even if this was a false alarm, they still had to know about it.
She scowled at the screen, almost wishing she'd never begun this wretched investigation. If it was Needa, Piett was not going to be pleased to find out. Though he should, at least, be glad to have his own name cleared ...
She started the vid playing backward again, speeding up its rate as it once more went through the Piett, Needa and vodka sequence. Three more weeks to go. Maybe she'd luck out, and find some other potential fiendish traitor ostentatiously sneaking into the office and exonerating Needa.
She grimly watched the screen.
It was a glorious morning.
Vivid sunlight. Clear, crisp air that reminded one of how high in elevation the upper layers of Imperial City actually were. The scent of flowers from myriad rooftop gardens, lending their sweet and exotic auras to the more mundane industrial smells of the passing traffic.
The perfect day on which to throw away one's career. And probably one's life.
Nevoy was amazed at how relaxed he felt. No doubt it was just the calm before the storm, he'd be in hysterics again before the end of the day. But this morning, he felt fresh, rested -- Gods, he almost felt cheerful.
Osheen Nevoy, you are insane.
He had trimmed his beard, showered, dressed, and had breakfasted on qavva juice, two muffins, and porridge liberally drenched in mauay syrup. While eating, he'd read some reports for a committee that he was now almost certainly destined never to sit on. As he got up from the breakfast table, he idly wondered whether he was imagining the relief with which C4T8 seemed to greet the fact that he had eaten a sizeable breakfast.
He wasn't due at work yet for another half an hour, not that anyone was ever likely to tell him off if he were late. Not even Palpatine, who was usually still asleep at this time of the morning. Time for a nice leisurely flight to the Palace, and then a day of engrossing himself in all the paperwork he could find, hopefully ignoring the fact that in just over twelve hours' time he was going to lead a revolt.
What had he forgotten? Was there anything else he should do before leaving home?
Yesterday evening he had, in what he hoped was not any kind of a mysterious fashion, arranged the transfer of some fairly modest sums to Rosmarin and Marida. Not enough to arouse suspicion, he hoped; the kind of money that a doting grandparent sends every now and then in a fit of familial affection, with the intention that it be saved for the kids' university fees. It wouldn't make much of a dent in the funds which would doubtless become inaccessible to him from the moment he officially betrayed the Empire, but at least he wouldn't have to feel that the bank had swallowed up everything. He had about 5,000 credits on him; again, not much, but enough to pay for hotel charges or transportation for a few days, if he ended up needing that. Presuming he joined up with the Rebellion, he didn't imagine he'd need too much ready cash, but obviously it was better to err on the safe side.
He wondered how much his preparations were mirroring those Ardella had made, when she left.
He looked around, resisting the sentimental urge to pay one last farewell visit to every room in the house. But however much he assured himself that he wasn't going to be sentimental, it just didn't seem right to take the lift up to the landing pad this morning. When you left your house for the last time, you ought to experience it to the full, and walk.
One good thing, he thought as he started upstairs, I'll never have to sort out all the junk in this house. There was still stuff in the storerooms that Ardella had left, for Gods' sakes, and that was twenty years ago by now. He'd even lugged her stuff along with them when they moved house; he'd still been too furious with her to look through it, but somehow he would have felt guilty just throwing it away. Oh well, whatever it was, it was gone now. Along with his own possessions, but hells, what did he need? He had some holos of the kids in his wallet, and nothing he left behind him was going to keep him awake at nights. There might be something among the things Rose and Marida still had here that they'd regret, but that was just too bad. If they'd been bothered about it, they should have moved it out by now.
Of course, most of Laram's things were still here too.
Yes, well? So what? First rule of successful revolts, don't try to overthrow the government with your dead son's baby toys sticking out of your pockets.
Resolutely -- or almost resolutely -- Nevoy continued to stomp up the stairs.
Laram had never been much of a materialist, anyway, unlike Marida whose room had been so crammed with toys, it had always been a wonder that the girl herself had managed to squeeze into it. The few books Laram cared about most had been with him on the Death Star, along with the antique blaster rifle that had belonged to one of his great-grandmothers on Ardella's side. No, Nevoy didn't think there was anything left here that Laram would be particularly upset to lose.
Except maybe Blue Bantha.
Most of his toys, Laram had either given away himself or, in the case of the various ship models, sold when he left for the Academy. There were a few remaining models and action figures sitting on shelves gathering dust. But Blue Bantha, in all his moth-eaten glory, had retained the place of honour on Laram's pillow. Laram had still slept with the old toy when he was home on leave, at least Nevoy remembered once when Laram had overslept and he'd gone in to wake him up, and the bantha was nestled in the crook of Laram's arm.
Oh, Gods, no. This was just getting silly. What was he planning to do, run around the Palace with a blaster in one hand and a toy bantha in the other?
No, really, he was going to have to control himself. One chink in his armour, and he'd probably end up trying to take everything. He could just see himself, turning up at work laden down with banthas and school sports trophies and dolls and all the drawings Laram and Rose and Marida had done when they were kids.
He had reached the roof, and he stepped outside, breathing in the fresh air. But he didn't start toward his c-wing.
Who was he trying to kid? He knew he was going to bring that bloody bantha with him, it was just a question of how long it took him to accept it. He could either go get the damned thing now, or have to leave the Palace some time during the day in order to retrieve it. If he did make it through this revolt alive, he did not want to spend the rest of his days feeling guilty about Blue Bantha.
All right, Blue Bantha, all right, he thought irritably, starting down the stairs once more, I'm on my way.
Laram's room was reasonably tidy, a sure sign that its former occupant was no longer here. C4T8 cleaned in here once a month or so, and the room spelled vaguely of household cleanser and furniture polish. There was a thin layer of dust on the surfaces; it must be about time for C4T8's next round of cleaning.
Nevoy stood just inside the doorway. He ought, probably, to just grab Blue Bantha and run, but he couldn't resist pausing for one last look around.
He hadn't changed anything in this room since the last time Laram was here. It wasn't that he'd wanted to keep the room as a shrine to his son. He just knew that if he tried to sort through Laram's things, he'd spend the entire time sobbing, and he didn't particularly want to put himself through that. He could have asked Rosmarin or Marida, or even C4T8, to do it for him, but he'd always thought that someday he'd find the courage to do it himself. Well, now it didn't matter. The entire house would get emptied and sold by someone who didn't know any of them, and didn't care, and maybe it was better that way.
Nevoy gazed at the model Star Destroyer -- a Victory Class one, one of the earliest model kits Laram had constructed -- and the various TIE-vessels scattered about on one of the shelves. Lying on the shelf, next to the ships, were the three action figures that Laram hadn't sold. Nevoy smiled at the sight of them. One of them was in a General's uniform, and there was a fluff of cotton wool glued to his upper lip; that was the action figure that Laram had said was General Mulcahy. The action figure assigned to be Nevoy wasn't a particularly flattering likeness, especially since his beard and moustache had been drawn on with a red magic marker. What the hells, though, it was the thought that counted. And there was the third action figure, a real collector's item now, probably, as it was of a woman in military uniform. The figure had brown hair, and was reasonably slender -- though of course, who ever saw a fat action figure? -- so she had probably at least as close a resemblance to Ardella as the Nevoy figure did to him. Nevoy wondered what pre-Imperial action figures sold for these days. Maybe he ought to bring them along with him; he could sell them to save himself from poverty. But it was too grim. Somehow he just didn't like the concept of carrying Laram's improvised family-and-friends action figures around with him. It felt like he'd be carrying around the corpses of the past.
There were books on the other shelves -- the Space Travellers series, and the Warlord of Warhoon trilogy, and all but the last book of Erdnaxel Racan's Five Guardsmen series; Laram had taken the last book with him. In one corner of the room was the brightly painted guitar that Laram had almost certainly not touched since he was seventeen, even though he had saved up nearly a year's worth of allowance to purchase it. There were a few holos here and there around the room; Nevoy noticed a holo of himself, Rosmarin, and Marida, all grinning madly while they surrounded Laram after his Academy graduation ceremony, and one of the entire family, including Ardella, on some Firelord Day -- from the kids' ages, it must be a year or two before Ardella left.
Nevoy sighed. Enough. Time to go. He crossed to the bed and grabbed Blue Bantha up from the pillow.
What a disreputable creature. Nevoy grinned at the threadbare little beast as he turned it around in his hands. The tail had lost all of its fur, because the six-month-old Laram used to suck on it. The fur on its body was hopelessly matted, and in places the blue looked more black or grey; Nevoy remembered that the bantha had had many encounters with mud puddles. And some with chocolate syrup. You could still see the stitches where Nevoy himself had twice sewn Blue Bantha's right horn back on -- Ardella always claimed that sewing was against her religion, and Nevoy certainly wasn't going to trust a droid with the repair of Laram's bantha. Some of the stitches were starting to come lose again, but on the whole they seemed to have held pretty well.
Right. Nevoy shoved the bantha into one of his greatcoat pockets. He examined his appearance in the mirror on the closet door, and decided that everything was fine; the pocket was voluminous enough for it not to be obvious that Blue Bantha was lurking inside.
So much for his leisurely flight to the Palace, now he was going to be late if didn't get a move on. He strode from Laram's room and once more started up the stairs.
"All right, Blue Bantha," he muttered. "Let's go overthrow the Empire."
"It really is him, isn't it?" sighed Captain Faren.
Commander Narita glanced over at him, and frowned in surprise at how strained and tired he looked. Faren never looked like the job was getting the better of him. Overwork was far too bourgeois a problem to trouble the scion of a snooty noble family like Faren's.
Be fair, Akemi, Narita told herself. Faren's a nice enough guy. Completely full of himself, but at least he cares about doing his job right.
Narita leaned back in her chair, wishing that she knew her colleague well enough to ask him to give her a backrub. She didn't, so she just said, "I don't know. I know we've got enough evidence to bring him in for questioning."
"The evidence is all circumstantial," Faren pointed out.
"It is," she agreed. "So was the evidence against Piett."
"Mmph," Faren said.
Narita eyed him curiously, only then remembering that Faren had once served on Captain Needa's ship. Faren hadn't talked much to her about his career, but he had talked enough for her to know that he'd been Security Chief on the Avenger. So he wasn't just talking about some generic suspect, he was talking about arresting his former Captain.
Not to mention how vocal he had been in the case against Piett. She wouldn't blame him if he were upset about the direction things were taking just because he didn't want to look stupid. She reached up to rub the muscles in the back of her neck, and muttered, "ow." Faren cast a questioning glance at her, and she quickly changed the subject. "I'm ordering more coffee," she announced. "Want any?"
Faren blinked. "Hmm? Oh, no. If I drink any more I believe my skull will go into hyperdrive."
Narita nodded and keyed in her order to the mess hall's service droids. She leaned back in her seat and then glanced over at Faren again. Trying to look as if she hadn't been contemplating this question, and as if she didn't already know the answer, she asked, "you served on Captain Needa's ship, didn't you?"
"For nearly three years."
"What's he like?"
Faren regarded her with a sour smile. "You mean, is he likely to be a traitor? Why not? All of us are traitors here."
Oops. She did not want to get into that territory again. Shortly after they'd started working together, she and Faren had shared a very drunken conversation in which the ex-Imperial had almost started crying as he bewailed his decision to betray the Empire. She'd never heard him say anything of the sort when he was sober, but who knew, extreme lack of sleep might have the same effect as drink.
"Look, I don't know him," Narita said. "I just thought you might have some insights, that's all."
The former Imperial bit his lip. He didn't believe her transparent excuse, obviously, but he always seemed happy for a reason to recall his Imperial days. This time was apparently no exception.
"What's he like?" Faren repeated. "He's the finest commander I ever had." He eyed Narita challengingly, as if expecting her to belittle his statement. Looking rather disappointed when she kept silent, he went on. "He really keeps in touch with his men. Expects the best from everyone, of course, and if you screw up he never lets you get away with it." Faren grinned suddenly. "He's got sarcasm developed to an art. Everyone used to dread him making some witty comment about them, because it'd be a catchphrase all over the ship before you had time to blush. But he's fair, he never hurts anyone who doesn't deserve it. Unlike a lot of captains I could mention."
Narita nodded thoughtfully, trying to think of something to say which would continue the flow of reminiscences. As it turned out, she didn't have to. Faren's expression got more distant, and he said, "then of course there was what happened after Hoth. We all thought Captain Needa was a god, after that."
Hoth? She knew about the battle, of course. She wasn't likely to forget that race to the transports, through disintegrating corridors with ice crashing down at every step. But what were the Imperials doing at the time, besides bombarding the Hell out of the Rebel Base?
"What happened after Hoth?"
Captain Faren looked surprised. "Oh. It was when we were chasing the Millennium Falcon, and they disappeared." He grimaced. "Any idiot should have figured out what they'd done, but oh well. We didn't."
Oh, yeah. She'd heard other ex-Imperials bitching about this. Some clever stunt that General Solo had pulled off, something involving waste disposal. Which, many of the ex-Imps had commented, was at least appropriate where the Millennium Falcon was concerned.
"What happened with Needa?" she prompted quietly.
"He took the blame, that's what. Announced he was taking all responsibility, and was going to explain to Lord Vader. I think it's the bravest thing I ever saw anyone do. Gets into his shuttle like he's going on a tour of inspection, when everyone knows he's about to get choked to death. Or worse."
"But he didn't get choked?"
"He got choked, all right. I don't know what happened, I suppose Vader respected his courage just like the rest of us did. Of course there had to be some token punishment, so Lord Vader just choked Needa until the Captain passed out, then sent him back to his ship." Faren shook his head. "Needa's the first man we'd heard of who stood up to Vader and lived. We were all ready to kiss his feet."
The ex-Imperial frowned, suddenly shoved back into the present. "It can't be Captain Needa. It doesn't make any sense."
"You mean that he'd betray Lord Vader, after Vader spared his life?" She sighed. "You're right. It doesn't." Narita eyed her partner warily, wondering just how far she could push the partnership. How much could they just talk, like the colleagues and friends that she sometimes felt they were? There were times when they'd be chatting away just fine, and then he'd remember that he was an aristocrat and an officer of the Empire Ð once upon a time -- and that he shouldn't be wasting time with a little commoner like Akemi Narita.
"Nile," she ventured, seeing him start at her use of his first name. "Why do you think our traitor's doing it?"
Faren sat silent, and she was about to decide that conversation time must be over again. Then he said, "it's one of two reasons. Either he's getting paid for it, or he cares about the Empire and he's sorry he joined the Rebellion. Maybe it was his plan all along, he'd pretend to turn traitor with the rest of us so he could continue serving the Empire undercover." Was she imagining it, or could she hear wistful envy in Faren's voice?
She asked, "are you sorry you joined the Rebellion?"
A little smile quirked his mouth. "You wondering if I'm the traitor? Not a chance. I don't push Darth Vader's buttons if there's any way I can avoid it. Traitors are the people he reserves really unpleasant punishments for."
"I don't think you're the traitor, I'm just asking. If it weren't for Vader, would you want to go back to the Empire?"
"If it weren't for Vader, I wouldn't be here at all." Which could be interpreted several different ways. Faren sighed impatiently. "Come on. Let's find our man. Whoever he is. I'll see if Vananda has anything for us." The ex-Imperial leaned back toward his computer, to contact Chief of Security Commander Vananda, of Needa's ship the Avenger. Before he could make the call, however, there was a buzz from their office's entry bell.
She exchanged a startled glance with Faren, and Faren muttered, "maybe it's our traitor come to turn himself in."
Narita opened the door, and General Madine bustled into the room.
Oh, dear, thought Narita. She glanced over at her partner again and, as she'd expected, saw disdain and loathing radiating out of him in waves. Like most of the ex-Imps she'd gotten to know, Faren cordially hated General Madine for betraying the Empire over a decade before the rest of them had. One could, of course, have argued that the General just had more foresight than the rest of them, or that he was brave enough to challenge the Empire on his own without having to hide behind Darth Vader's cape. But that sort of argument was liable to get one into a particularly nasty punch-up.
Captain Faren busied himself at his computer, not deigning to acknowledge General Madine's presence. Narita would have to field the General's questions on her own. "Good morning, General," she greeted him, wondering if he knew how the other ex-Imperials felt about him. He had to, she thought; he couldn't be stupid enough not to see it. And she didn't think he was stupid. A bit of a pompous prick, perhaps, but not stupid. Oops, where had that thought come from? Had she always been this snide about the General, or was some of her co-worker's dislike rubbing off on her?
"Commander. Captain," Madine added, nodding to Faren despite the security captain's continued refusal to acknowledge him. "What progress on the case?"
There'd be more if you weren't always bugging us for progress reports. Gods, what with Madine's officiousness and Mon Mothma's lovesick meddling, it was a miracle they got any work done. "If it meets with your approval, sir, we'll be bringing Captain Needa in for questioning. The evidence seems sufficient to warrant that. In addition to the discovery made by Mon Mothma, we've also learned that Captain Needa has a relative working for Corellia One, the station that aired the broadcast. A cousin, one Caspara Drakal. Three years younger than Needa. They both grew up on Coruscant, and attended the same school for several years. We've no evidence yet on whether they've kept in touch, but it's certainly conceivable that he sent her the scoop about our attack."
Madine considered that, not seeming particularly delighted with the information. "Of course it is all circumstantial," he pointed out, echoing Faren's earlier statement.
"Yes sir, it is," she said stolidly, forbearing to observe that Madine had been dragging Admiral Piett's name through the mud on just such circumstantial evidence.
"Well, I suppose he will have to be questioned --"
"Yes, he will," Captain Faren cut in sharply, noticeably omitting the 'sir'. "I've just heard from Vananda."
Narita turned to her colleague, but he blandly refused to meet her eyes. He must have opted for the old-fashioned, typed message method, so his discussion with Commander Vananda wouldn't be overheard by Madine.
Faren said, "Vananda and his team have uncovered the energy signature for a message that was sent eight days before the first of the messages sent using Piett's access code. Based on the Avenger's location at the time, the energy signature is right to be a message to Coruscant."
"Where was the message sent from?" asked Madine.
"One of the open crew terminals on the Avenger. The message itself has been wiped from the computer's records, of course. But something else is odd. The security tape showing that particular terminal, at that particular time, is missing."
Narita sucked in her breath. Madine asked, "would Captain Needa have the knowledge to accomplish that?"
"He would. He knows that ship well enough, and his men trust him. I doubt anyone would be keeping much of an eye on his activities. He'd be able to do it."
Narita suggested, "but wouldn't people think it was fishy if they saw the Captain at one of the crew terminals?"
"The message was sent late at night. Captain Needa often used to go for late-night walks around the ship, I imagine he still does. If anyone saw him, they'd probably think he'd decided to send a spur-of-the-moment message while on one of his walks. Eccentric maybe, but not out of character."
"Well, that's that," sighed Madine. "We bring him in."
Luke gasped, sitting bolt upright in bed. The dream still clung to his mind. Not much of a nightmare, as nightmares went, he supposed. All he remembered was a replaying of Anakin's duel with Obi Wan. The last image before he awoke had been Anakin's horror-stricken face in that instant after his hand was sliced off, when he looked up and saw Obi Wan's lightsaber searing down at him once more.
But in that second Luke had the feeling that Anakin was looking at him, not Obi Wan. That Anakin saw him watching, and knew Luke had done nothing to help.
I'm sorry, Father. I'm so sorry.
The room smelled awful. Or maybe that was Luke himself. His throat and nostrils stung from the reek of stale liquor and sweat. He looked at the hopelessly disordered sheets, tangled down around his feet. Here and there the bed was littered with crayons.
Oh, gods, thought Luke. Gods, I'm going to be sick.
He worked his feet loose from the sheets and gingerly manoeuvred himself off the edge of the bed. So far, so good, at least he hadn't thrown up yet. He took in a deep breath through his mouth and tried to focus all his senses on the brief walk to the bathroom. All those years of training and meditation had to be good for something. Even if he didn't have the Force, he should at least have enough self-control to make it to the toilet without mishap.
The door slid open in front of him. He stepped through into the living room, and stopped short, his mission to the loo momentarily forgotten.
Leia was there, dressed all in black, her hair pulled back in a single braid. She didn't seem to notice him. She was practising. With his lightsaber.
Luke held his breath as he watched her gracefully swing the glowing green blade. A cushion bobbed up from the sofa, hung undecided in the air and then swooped toward Leia. With a swift, effortless-seeming move, she swung the lightsaber and sliced the cushion in half. She paused, watching as the cushion halves flopped to the floor. Then Leia opened her hand and let the lightsaber go. It floated away from her, up toward the ceiling. Slowly its path curved, and it returned, the hilt slipping back to its place in her hand.
Leia turned, and her eyes met Luke's.
He blushed, outraged anger blending with embarrassment at being caught. And with the heavy discomfort in his guts. Not looking at her, he plunged through the room. He wished the bathroom door was an old-fashioned one that he could slam shut behind him, instead of it sliding quietly closed.
Even as he sank down miserably beside the toilet, the thought burned at him, she shouldn't have it. It's mine.
To his great irritation, he didn't throw up. Eventually he abandoned the attempt, and staggered to his feet to perform the task that he could manage. Gods, he thought, feels like pissing an entire moisture farm. At the sink, he splashed large quantities of water on his face and hair, and contemplated having a shower, so he could put off facing Leia.
Wouldn't do any good, he told himself. She'd still be out there. With my lightsaber.
And with the Force.
He pushed his dripping hair away from his face, and stepped back into the living room.
She didn't seem to have moved from where he last saw her, but she had retracted the lightsaber. The small, silver hilt still gleamed in her right hand.
He'd wanted to say something mature and useful. Instead he heard his voice insisting petulantly, "that's mine."
"I know it is," she said.
The pathetic absurdity of it taunted him. Is this what our childhoods would have been like, he wondered, if we'd spent them together? Year after year of arguing about our toys? Gods damn it, Luke, you're an adult. Act like one.
He closed his eyes briefly, then opened them and tried again. "If you're going to use a lightsaber, you should build one of your own. It won't work right for you otherwise."
"You didn't build your first one," she countered. "It was Anakin's."
Luke nodded reluctantly. Anakin's lightsaber. The sword Obi Wan had given Luke, with the words, "your father wanted you to have it." The sword Obi Wan had kept when Anakin fled minus a hand, to pilot his c-wing into the nearest block of flats.
For a moment he saw an image of that blue-glowing blade as it spiralled into the darkness of the Cloud City maintenance chute, its hilt still clutched by Luke's own severed hand. He wondered if the sword had somehow willed him to lose his hand, as punishment for using his father's lightsaber against him.
Lightsabers don't think, Luke. Stop being an ass and say something to your sister. Gods, he was tired. What did it matter, after all? What good was a lightsaber to him? "Where'd you put it?" He asked wearily. "I didn't see it yesterday."
A twinge of pain crossed Leia's face, as if she were imagining him searching for the saber so he could kill himself with it. Which was precisely what he had done.
She said, "I had the droid lock it in the guest quarters' safe. I'm sorry, Luke, I didn't think it was É"
"Didn't think it was something a five year old should play with?" he finished, with a sour grin. "No, you're right. Or was I six? Must have been, I guess, if I thought I was going to school."
"It doesn't matter. Go ahead and practice."
"Why don't you practice with me?" she asked quietly.
He shook his head. "I'm no Obi Wan. You'd be better off without me."
"No, I wouldn't." She flung the retracted lightsaber down on the sofa. "Luke, practice with me. We don't know your loss is permanent. I know you think it is, but we don't know. Work with me. Maybe it'll start to come back." She still hadn't moved from the spot where she stood, afraid he'd retreat if she took a step toward him.
He whispered, "it won't come back."
"Damn it, Luke --"
The door's entry bell chimed.
Leia hesitated, her dark eyes flickering toward the door and then back to him. The angry tirade that she clearly wanted to launch into hung between them, just at the edge of speech. Then she sighed, her mouth closing into a thin, irritated line. She turned and crossed to the door.
Leia punched the release button, the door swooping open. And Luke's heart sank to somewhere near the centre of the planet. Nice to be reminded, he thought, that no matter how bad a morning you're having, it can always get worse. In the hallway stood the man whose fate was apparently to witness all of Luke Skywalker's most humiliating moments. The red-haired Moff who'd interrupted his suicide.
"Moff Nevoy," said Leia. Something about the tone of her voice caught Luke's interest. It seemed out of place. She seemed Ð what, nervous? Excited? As if just the sight of Nevoy had awakened some kind of hope.
"Your Highness," Nevoy said respectfully. "May I come in?"
As the door closed once more, Leia glanced from Nevoy to Luke. Her hands, Luke noticed, were clasped tightly in front of her. Too tightly. Whatever was going on here, Nevoy's arrival heralded some development of importance. "You two haven't really met, have you?" Leia asked.
Luke felt himself blushing again. He was hardly in a state for formal introductions, with his clothes still disordered from sleep and drink, and droplets of water from his wet hair dribbling down his neck. But he was in a damn sight better shape than the previous few times he'd encountered Nevoy. "Not officially," Luke said, surprising himself with the edge of dry humour in his voice.
"Luke, this is Osheen Nevoy, Moff of Coruscant. Moff Nevoy, Commander Luke Skywalker."
The two men nodded to each other. Nevoy's face was carefully void of expression. Luke didn't like to speculate on what expressions might have been there if the other man had allowed himself to show what he was thinking.
"Your Highness," said Nevoy, turning his attention back to the Princess. "I was hoping we could discuss your costume for the adoption ceremony. His Imperial Majesty has suggested that you might wish to wear Alderaani regalia, but of course the decision will be up to you. I've taken the liberty of bringing several files of costume suggestions, for you to look over when you have the time." He produced a handful of recording disks from his breast pocket, and handed them to Leia with another respectful little nod. "Of course, no expense will be spared, so His Majesty asks that you make whatever choices will please you most. There is a file of costume suggestions for Commander Skywalker as well."
"Very well," said Leia, her voice back under control. "And the other matter we spoke of? Have you had a chance to look into it yet?"
"Yes, Your Highness. I believe it is well in hand. It should be taken care of tonight."
"Tonight." The vaguest hint of emotion vibrated in her tone. "I see. Thank you."
"My pleasure, Highness," Nevoy said, with a little, encouraging smile. "If I might suggest, I believe His Majesty is hoping for the chance to speak with you this morning. If you wish to attend on him now, I would like to remain for a few moments longer and discuss the adoption ceremony with Commander Skywalker."
A look of understanding passed between Nevoy and Leia, and Luke felt as bewildered as if they'd been speaking Ewok. "Yes, of course," Leia said. "That's a good idea." She put the recording disks down on the gold and marble coffee table. Her gaze rested on Luke as if she wanted to say more, then she just said, "I'll be back soon." She turned abruptly and strode from the room, leaving Luke alone with Moff Nevoy.
Gods. With the exception of Palpatine himself, Luke could think of few people with whom he'd feel less comfortable being in the same room. It wasn't enough that this man had been present for some of the most pathetic moments in Luke's life Ð or that Nevoy had just saved that life. Luke also remembered, with painful clarity, Palpatine remarking that Nevoy's son had died on the first Death Star. "I don't believe he likes our little Luke," had been Palpatine's comment. Luke hadn't understood what he was talking about then. He understood too damn well, now.
Nevoy had dropped some of his control when the Princess departed. His expression as he studied Luke was cold and measuring, and his dark blue eyes held more than a hint of challenge. But all he said, in a civil tone, was "how are you feeling?"
Still suicidal, thank you, thought Luke. How are you? Instead, he managed to shrug and say calmly, "I've been worse."
Nevoy nodded, apparently searching for what to say next. Luke still had the feeling that he'd much rather tear Luke into little pieces than talk with him. The Moff's next words took Luke by surprise.
"I'm going to have to trust you, Commander," he said. "A great deal depends on you living up to it. Princess Leia and Lord Vader are going to need your help. Tonight."
A weird little tingling sensation sprang to life in Luke's gut, that had nothing whatever to do with his hangover. He thought he remembered having just such a feeling five years ago, when he realised he would get the chance to fly against the Death Star with Biggs and Wedge and the others. "Go on," he said.
"I asked Her Highness to leave because it's too dangerous for her to know the details. There's too much risk that the Emperor might read them from her mind. So we'll have to rely on you instead." The bitter set of Nevoy's mouth revealed what he thought about that, but he did not comment. "It's very important that the two of you be here in your quarters at 2130 tonight. Above all, neither of you must be with the Emperor at that time. Your lives are going to depend on it. Do you understand me?"
"Yes," said Luke.
"There's a strong possibility that His Majesty will ask the Princess to dinner again, but you've got to make sure that she's here with you at 2130. Don't let anything get in the way of that. Some of our people will meet you here. Do your part tonight, Commander Skywalker, and there's every chance that by 2200 you'll be on your way back to your friends in the Rebellion."
"I understand," Luke said. He stared defiantly at Nevoy, seeing all too well the tension in the man's stance and the implacable hatred in his eyes. And Luke wondered, what could I do Ð is there anything I could do Ð to make this man respect me? Fat chance, after my suicide attempt and that little scene with the colouring books. But he wanted passionately, he realised, to earn the Moff's respect. Almost as much as he wanted the respect of his own father.
Moff Nevoy shouldn't have to live with the knowledge that his son had been slain by an idiotic coward.
"We'll be here," said Luke. "You can count on it."
"Pass me the hydrospanner, will you?"
Wedge Antilles turned away from the open side-access panel and reached for the wheeled trolley where a selection of tools was piled in a jumbled heap. He extracted the spanner from the mess, and handed it to Commander Angelotti, who was lying on another trolley and had his head and torso up an access port in the tail of the Lamda shuttle, under the rear thrusters. Wedge thought it looked like Angelotti was helping a very large albatt bird to give birth, but they'd been working on this way too long to have the energy for making jokes.
This was the last of the shuttles they planned on modifying, and Wedge just about felt like doing a jig in celebration. When all this was over, he never wanted to look at the innards of a cloaking device again.
Of course, there was every probability that within the next twenty-four hours he would get himself killed. Which would at least guarantee that he'd be spared any future interactions with cloaking devices.
Or if he didn't get killed, he'd probably be fired instead. If one could be fired from the Rebellion. He wondered how that worked. Would he just get demoted? Or booted out entirely? He vaguely knew that there'd been some schisms in the Rebellion during its early years, and that some of its leaders had been ousted, but as far as he knew, nothing of the sort had happened in nearly two decades. Shit, what would he do if they did kick him out? He supposed he had the qualifications to be a pretty good smuggler. Maybe he could ask Han Solo for a job reference Ð if they got Han Solo back.
There had been no Command decision on the question of the rescue mission. As far as Wedge could tell, the decision was not to make a decision. So after the fifth meeting last night, Wedge had spoken Ð discreetly, he hoped Ð with a few of his colleagues. The ones who, like him, had been most vocal in support of continuing the mission. Their new plan was to install the cloaking device in nine more shuttles Ð fifteen total, instead of the original six. The Lambdas had deep-space capability, so the fifteen shuttles could make it to Coruscant on their own, without the capital ships that had been part of the original plan. Wedge had pilots lined up for most of them, and there was a wide range of ex-Imperials in the strike force, whose knowledge of Coruscant might just be enough for them to pull this off. At least Wedge wouldn't be alone in facing the displeasure of Command, if they made it back alive. Commander Angelotti, General Calrissian, and Captain Ifar of the Mircalla were in this as deep as he was.
They didn't propose to sneak off of the base. Not exactly. When they were ready to depart, they would inform Command of their decision. Inform them, however, by comlink, from inside their already-prepped shuttles. Just in case. The officer in charge of the hangar bay was in on the scheme, and had sworn on the grave of the Firelord that he would open the hangar and let the strike force leave, no matter what any General or Admiral or Head of State did to try and stop him.
Part of Wedge's mind still told him this was the wrong thing to do. That if they went ahead with their plan, they'd be hurting the Rebellion worse than the loss of Vader, Luke and the others could ever hurt it. If Wedge and his comrades went through with this, wouldn't they be sending the message that the chain of command meant nothing? That there was no reason for any member of the Rebellion to follow anyone else's orders? Gods, they might start a chain reaction that would pull them all down into anarchy. They could destroy everything the Rebel Alliance had accomplished.
So, what should they do? Just let it go?
You could make a good argument in favour of just that. Dead, Lord Vader and the others would be martyrs, perfect rallying points for the Rebellion's cause. Avenging them might be the goal that carried the Rebellion to its final victory.
Perfect rallying points. Just like Alderaan.
But it was five years since Alderaan had been destroyed. And perfect rallying point or not, the Rebellion still hadn't won. And all those millions of people were still dead. And as far as Wedge could tell, their sacrifice had achieved nothing at all.
So now I'm supposed to sacrifice my friends? Let them go without even trying to help? No. I don't think so.
Wedge paused in soldering the last few wires together, and glanced up at the hangar bay's clear plastisteel ceiling. The Omean rain poured relentlessly down, and beyond it the grey sky looked like it would slide down and crush them.
He thought back to those first hours and days after Alderaan. It hadn't seemed like such a perfect rallying point then. It had seemed like – failure. Despair. Proof that they didn't have a chance, that there was no longer any point in fighting.
How many people did he know who'd committed suicide after Alderaan? Three? He thought that was the right number. Jin Moriana, one of his fellow pilots. Carmie Van Pearse, a Commander in the Rebellion's intelligence forces. And General Kimura, who'd grown up with Bail Organa.
The Rebellion had rallied. They'd squeezed out a victory Ð the Battle of Yavin Ð and everything got hopeful and purposeful and heroic again.
But that didn't change anything for the people who'd died.
If – gods, if they lost Vader, the Princess, Luke – would Wedge make it through to the next heroic phase? Or would he be one of those who just couldn't live with the knowledge of what they had lost?
He shook his head and focused on the wires. Hell with it. Mothma, Dodonna and Rieekan wouldn't let this smash the Rebellion. When they found that the strike force was leaving with their permission or without it, they'd give it their approval and be glad that for once they didn't have to make the tough decisions. Sooner that, than admit to all of their followers that they were facing a rebellion within the Rebellion.
Of course, that was blackmail. And Wedge didn't feel any too damn happy about that, either.
Gods damn it! Install this godscursed cloaking device, and stop thinking!
He ought to talk with Mon Mothma one more time. Beg her, if that's what it took, to approve the plan to send the strike force. Make one more effort to turn this into the Alliance's official strategy, instead of the half-baked scheme of a gang of sentimentalists who just couldn't bear leaving their friends to die É
He owed it to her, to talk with her. But even if she did approve the mission, he thought with a sudden wry grimace, he'd have to ask her not to discuss it with Admiral Piett. The poor damned Admiral would volunteer to join them. Wedge respected the Hell out of that man, but he did not want him staggering from his hospital bed straight into the pilot's seat.
Wedge jumped, mentally cursing himself for so obviously betraying his guilty conscience. It was not the voice of his conscience that had spoken, he saw as he turned around. It was Captain Needa, instead.
"What can I do for you, Captain?" Wedge asked, taking off his protective eyescreen and wondering if Needa was the messenger that Command had sent to tell them to cease their treasonable activities or face time in the brig.
Needa said, his voice almost drowned by the background noise of the hangar bay, "I've heard a rumour that the Lambda strike force is setting out for Coruscant. With or without approval."
"Really?" asked Wedge.
"Really," said Needa. He looked calm, almost bored, as he continued, "if that were the case, and if I knew who was planning the mission, I'd find him and volunteer to go along."
"You would," Wedge said. He tossed his eyescreen onto the trolley, and crossed his arms over his chest. "I thought you didn't approve of the attack on Coruscant."
"I didn't. I still don't. I'm from Coruscant, Commander. It's never fun to picture the places you grew up in turning into a war zone."
"But, the Lambda strike force should cause less disruption to the planet and I think it's got a better chance of success. I'd like to help the team get on and off Coruscant with as little damage as possible -- as little damage to us and to the planet. And -- " he looked away, his voice becoming so quiet that Wedge could barely hear it. "And I owe Lord Vader a lot. My life, in fact. I ought to do something to repay that."
Wedge eyed him narrowly. Something was weird about this. Captain Needa had so consistently poked holes in all their rescue plans, for him to change his mind now was É then again, maybe the Captain really was a man who just spoke before he thought. If he'd taken the time to think about it, now, and decided they were right, then that was all to the good Ð wasn't it?
"How are you at piloting, Captain?"
Needa shrugged. "I passed both the fighter and the shuttle courses at the Academy. Flew proto TIEs in my first couple years after graduation. It's been a while, but I should be able to keep up."
They still needed pilots. And if Needa had been good enough to be chosen as one of the early TIE pilots, he could sure as Hell find his way around a Lambda.
So why was some damned voice of foreboding still niggling at the back of Wedge's brain?
To Hell with the voice of foreboding. He'd just been spending too long staring at cloaking devices, with too little sleep.
"Well, Captain," said Wedge. "If there was a plan to launch a rescue operation, and if I was the man in charge of it, I'd tell you Ôwelcome aboard'."
"Wedge?" That was Commander Angelotti, sitting up on his trolley and gazing warily at something behind Wedge and Captain Needa. "I think the shit's hit the hyperdrive."
Wedge and the captain both turned. General Madine was striding across the hangar bay toward them, followed in close succession by Captain Faren and Commander Narita, the joint chiefs of security. And, behind them, by five more security guards.
Wedge stared. That was a bit of overkill, wasn't it? Seven security types and a general, just to round up him and Angelotti? It wasn't like he and Angelotti had gone to work armed. What did security think they'd do, throw hydrospanners at them?
General Madine paused a couple of metres away from them. The others were ranged just behind him. One hand planted on his belt and the other on the hilt of a holstered blaster, Madine announced, "Captain Needa? You're under arrest."
Wedge would almost have been willing to bet that the captain had the Force, so quickly did he move. He lunged at the maintenance trolley and hurled it at Madine, the heap of tools flying everywhere. The edge of the upended trolley caught Madine around the waist, sending him tumbling backward into the security chiefs behind him. Madine and Security Captain Faren both ended up on the deck, Faren swearing and struggling to scramble free from the General and the trolley. Commander Narita managed to save herself from falling, drew her blaster and fired. But Needa had already moved again. He saw Angelotti behind him on the other trolley. Figuring he might be a threat, the Captain just shoved the trolley with all his strength, and sent it, Angelotti and all, rolling across the hangar bay deck until it collided with a storage bin and deposited the yelling Angelotti on the floor.
Narita and at least three of the guards were firing now. Wedge had been thinking of trying to tackle Captain Needa, but he sure as hell wasn't going to with everybody and their brother firing on him. The Captain had grabbed a large wrench from one of the trolleys and threw it at the nearest security guard. Then, seeming to duck away from the latest round of blaster fire, Needa leaned down Ð and pulled a miniature blaster out of his boot.
Shit, he's armed! Theoretically that might not have been so surprising, since they were an armed rebellion. But the fighters didn't usually carry weapons except when they were on manoeuvres or actual campaign. And it was very rare for Command officers to carry at all. It had looked weird to see Madine packing. It was even weirder to realise that Captain Needa had been toting a blaster around in his boot.
Now Needa and the security team were firing at each other, and Wedge was going to get out of the way. He ducked and ran for the nearest weapons locker, in the hangar bay's wall. All around him he could see people ducking, running, flinging themselves behind space ships. He slammed into the locker, punched in the access code, and grabbed out the first blaster pistol that came to hand. He whirled to face the action once more.
Security Captain Faren was now up on one knee and firing. General Madine had extricated himself from the trolley and the tools, but his blaster seemed to have gone missing in the chaos. The security team was still firing, but the necessity of avoiding Needa's blaster shots seemed to have a bad effect on their aim.
Okay, thought Wedge. He's not paying attention to me. I've got a clear shot. I should be able to wing him … if the gods are with me, that is …
Wedge fired, and at the same instant General Madine hurled himself at Needa, tackled him around the knees, and sent him flying.
Madine and Needa smashed to the deck. Wedge's shot, mercifully, didn't hit any innocent bystanders, but he did see it sear into the foil of an X-wing, and Wedge roundly cursed the General's bout of heroics. Gods, now he wouldn't be able to get a clear shot again because General Madine was all over Needa and, for gods' sakes, trying to punch him Ð trying to punch a man with a blaster? A sudden twist freed Needa somewhat, but Madine was still blocking him from Wedge's aim. Commander Narita, from her different vantage point, took advantage of the instant and fired.
Wedge couldn't see if the shot had told. He did see what happened next. A blaster bolt blazed up from Captain Needa's position, and Security Commander Narita plummeted to the floor.
Over the widespread shouting, Wedge could hear Narita's colleague Captain Faren screaming, "no! No!" Faren scrambled to the fallen Narita and flung himself to his knees beside her. She moved a little, trying to turn over, and Wedge thought he could see the blackness of blood gushing from her throat.
Then suddenly no one was firing. Because Captain Needa had lunged at Madine, grabbed him from behind, and was now pressing the muzzle of the miniature blaster into General Madine's neck.
"Nobody shoots," ordered Needa, his voice carrying easily across the huge room. "Make any move I don't like, and Madine is dead."
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