“I don’t know.” Shiv said looking from me to my uncle then back again. We were in the middle of supper, discussing Derricote and Loor.
After my meeting with Isard I had not felt much like doing anything else. The journey to Coruscant had been tiring and mostly I just wanted to relax a little and think. I had swung by Shiv’s office to find him mostly bored, convinced him to come home with me, stopping along the way to pick up take away food. My uncle was at the flat when we arrived, if he had gone out and run his errands I didn’t ask. I was glad we had bought enough food for three.
I drummed my fingernails on the counter top until my uncle gently clamped his hand on top of mine. I was annoying him with my impatience. “Lei'lei why do you think this is important? It has nothing to do with why you came here?”
I sighed and sat back a little, picking at the Zabraki food with my food sticks. “Isard is hiding something, something big. She was almost nice to me and that’s just plain weird.” I fiddled with the cup of stimcaf. “Why would she keep this Derricote alive? If he was responsible for the fall of Borleias he should be dead. She doesn’t tolerate failure.” I hadn’t spoken about the flash of memory from the datadisk. I was still trying to make sense of what I had seen.
“Well he must have a use then.” Uncle Vahlek shrugged.
“The droid said Biological and chemical research facility. Shiv do you know anything about this place?”
“No. But you might be able to access Derricote’s file you have high enough clearance.”
I shook my head. “Even with my clearance a query on something like that would be flagged and she’d be able to back track it unless….” I stopped mid thought.
“Unless what?” Uncle Vahlek asked carefully. He didn’t like the expression on my face. He knew it far too well.
“Lord Vader’s Coruscant city home had direct access to the Palace mainframe that bypassed Intel security. I used to work from there a lot so he made sure I could get in without all the annoying security stops.”
“Wouldn’t Isard have had that shut down?” Shiv countered.
“I don’t think so. I don’t think many people actually knew about it to be honest” I said. “Lord Vader pretty much had the run of the system though most people would never have guessed this. He did a lot of things without going through official channels.” I said.
Shiv gave me a look.
“I could go in and look at classified personnel files if I wanted, I don’t think anyone except maybe the Emperor knew just how deep into the system Lord Vader had my access allowed.” I clarified.
“How did you get that?” Shiv asked in surprise.
“Lord Vader got fed up of me bothering him every single time I needed to do a deep core search, he went in one day and upped my security level, bypassed the usual Intel application and poof, suddenly I could go anywhere in the system.” I answered with a shrug. “He jokingly used to call it emperor mode.”
“How the hell did he do that? I thought there were security systems in place to prevent that?”
I made a face. “Oh please, he built a pod racer and a protocol droid by himself before he was even twelve years old, do you think he didn’t get to know his way around the Imperial computer system? Spying was an art form and Lord Vader did it remarkably well. He used to say in order to stay ahead of the Emperor’s game one had to know how to bend the game rules.”
“Oh.” Shiv said.
Uncle Vahlek nodded. “Anakin Skywalker was a very talented pilot and engineer; I do not think it is such a leap of faith that, as the Emperor’s second in command, to think he could not bypass the system here. You think this clearance is still open, Lei'lei?”
“I am sure it is.” I said. “Lord Vader made sure that when I needed to retrieve information for him I could do it without having to ask for permission and more importantly without anyone knowing. He didn’t tell any one about it and neither did I. I didn’t think it was prudent to let that sort of information slip.” I looked at them both. “Not even Thrawn knows about this.”
“And you think you can do this safely from his Coruscant residence?” Uncle Vahlek asked thoughtfully.
I nodded. “I think that in the madness that followed the Emperor’s and Lord Vader’s deaths no one has even thought about his home and all the stuff that was there. He had several residences on this planet and most people never even knew about them. No one… well almost no one, could get in without going through the security checks. It was very heavily guarded and the security system was impenetrable, well mostly.” I amended thinking of Jix, wondering briefly what had happened to him.
“I thought you wanted to clear out your office in the Palace and see about trying to set up some sort of information network for Thrawn. He did not send you here to spy on Isard!” Uncle Vahlek said not liking the direction I was starting to go.
I looked at him. “Isard is up to something. I need to figure this out so I can pass on the information to Thrawn and maybe he can stop it and bring back some sanity to the Empire.”
“You are not one of the Emperor’s agents. Saving the galaxy from Isard is not your job.” He countered.
“The difference between setting up a way to pass on information and actually doing some digging for actual information myself is minimal. It would not be the first time I have done something like this” I said, although the last time I had tried it had nearly ended up with Zaarin having his way with me but I didn’t think they needed to know that. I grinned and added, “And besides, it will be fun.”
Shiv glanced at my Uncle. “Fun?”
My uncle frowned, “Do not encourage her, Siavaan.” He turned to me and pursed his lips. “Concentrate on the job you came here to do Lei'lei. Isard’s machinations are not your concern and I am certain your bond-mate would not be happy if you were to be incarcerated or shot for treason.”
I sighed and rested my chin on my fist. “Well I am not about to do anything crazy right now anyway.” I said looking at the chrono on the wall. “I want to wait till tomorrow evening before I head back to the palace. It will be quieter then and since I told Isard I would be packing up things it won’t be unusual for me to be there.”
Shiv’s eyes followed mine to the chrono on the wall. “Damn, this has been fun but I have to get home.” He said getting up. “Will you be free to have lunch tomorrow? I can get a hold of Cati and Ynyth if you want?”
I grinned. “That would be great!” I said as he pulled me into a hug.
“It’s good to have you back, Rim-Girl.” He said quietly in my ear. I just nodded and watched him leave with mixed feelings. So much had changed, even he had changed. I sighed as the door to the speeder parking area closed. The sky was streaked with red and purple as the last light from the setting sun painted the sky. It was beautiful but not quite as impressive as the sunsets on Nirauan were. I shook my head and made my way back to the kitchen. My uncle was staring at me thoughtfully when I returned to sit at the breakfast counter.
“What?” I asked.
“So, what was it you were not telling us that has got you suddenly tied up in knots?” He asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it just yet.” I said as I began to clear up the dirty dishes.
“Did Isard say something to you?” He dug.
I shook my head. “I saw something when she handed me a data disk.” I told him. “But I am still trying to make sense out of it. Lord Vader once told me that sometimes if the images I saw from an object were jumbled and without meaning that it was better to allow the visions to sit for a little while and not think on them. To let the subconscious mind work them out.”
Uncle Vahlek nodded. “Very well. So now what do you want to do?”
I smiled. “Nothing. I’m exhausted. I thought I would make some tea, curl up on the couch and watch some HoloNet and then go to bed early. I have stuff at the palace I want to do tomorrow that doesn’t have anything to do with Isard.”
For the first time since arriving upon the planet my Uncle seemed to relax. “Tea and HoloNet sounds wonderful.” He said. “I didn’t feel much like chasing you all over Coruscant tonight anyway.” He added with a slight smile. He looked as tired as I felt.
The HoloNet News showed an increase in the number of strange deaths from the mysterious illness that seemed to find its way into pockets of the planet. It was virulent and deadly. The images they showed scared me. They were graphic and terrifying. It was not a pretty way to die at all and apart from complete immersion in bacta early on there was nothing anyone could do. The report hinted that contaminated water was to blame and that anyone seeing suspicious behaviour should report it. The planet was apparently crawling with rebel spies trying to eliminate the population to take over. I was curled up on the sofa, the Dantassi blanket wrapped around my shoulders. My uncle sat in the large comfortable chair, his ankle resting on his knee. His face was expressionless as he watched the images but I could sense his own anger at what he saw.
“This isn’t natural, is it” I asked.
He shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“You don’t think it is the rebels either do you?”
He glanced at me before answering. “It is not their style, but there are other factions out there who would love to bring down Isard’s government who do not have the lofty ideals of the New Republic and I am quite sure they’d not be so hesitant about using biological warfare to get what they wanted.”
“You don’t think that Isard would have anything to do with this do you?”
“Why would she poison her own planet Lei'lei? That makes no sense at all. How would you even come to that conclusion?”
“She is cruel and evil?” It wasn’t really an answer and Uncle Vahlek knew I was stalling. He gave me a look which said just spit it out.
“I saw her in a medlab, an observation room watching someone infected die, it was terrible.” I said carefully. The image had been momentary and almost too quick to really understand at first but allowing myself time to unwind it, slow it down I understood better what I had seen. “She asked the man standing next to her if it was ready? He told her no, he needed at least another month. She told him to hurry up that they were running out of time.”
“That could mean any number of things, least of all that she is to blame. It could be she is trying to find a cure to prevent this disease from spreading further, after all if the planet succumbs to a pandemic she does not gain anything by it and everything to lose. Things won’t get out of hand unless there is a bacta shortage.”
I nodded, feeling both a little relieved because this answer was the most plausible and a little foolish that I had not come to this conclusion first. I had let my fear and my dislike of Isard cloud my judgement. It certainly made sense and it would explain why she had kept Derricote alive. He was some sort of a biological engineer who could probably come up with a cure. No wonder she wanted to keep this a secret though. If word got out for certain that this virus was planted there would be mass panic on the planet. “Why doesn’t it affect humans?”
“If it is an engineered virus it would have been made that way. Xenophobia is not new to this galaxy and the Empire is not the only ruling body that is prejudice against non human races.”
I sighed. “Everything is such a mess. If the Emperor had never died none of this would be happening.”
“Perhaps.” Uncle Vahlek replied cryptically. “But Palpatine was no saint either.” He reminded me. “He had no problems with such tasty little things as slavery, genocide or even wiping out entire planets if it helped him achieve his goals.”
My uncle’s not subtle reminder about Alderaan was not lost on me and the Emperor had been number one on my top ten most evil beings in the galaxy list but somehow I could not help shake the feeling that were he alive there would be less chaos and more order. I wasn’t sure what was worse, a dictator who kept the peace at any cost or a democratic government that allowed a free for all, leading into a descent into anarchy.
“Lei'lei, the whole foundation of Palpatine’s rule was fear. It was how he rose to power in the first place. He played one faction off against the other using their weaknesses and their insecurities to boost his stature and seemingly benign nature. No one knew what had happened until it was too late. He played everyone to achieve the ultimate goal, galactic domination. He had the entire jedi order eliminated in such a way that the majority of the beings in this galaxy thought they were the ones who had tried to over throw the very government they had sworn to uphold in the first place. People are nerfs, especially in a herd or a mob. They follow where ever they are told and whom ever they are told without thinking that maybe, just maybe something isn’t quite right with the picture at hand. When Palpatine told the galactic senate that the jedi Order had attempted to assassinate him to take over the government there was not one voice that day which opposed him. If people had risen up against him at that moment you would be looking at a very different galaxy today.”
“How do you know this?” I asked.
He drew a deep breath. “Because I was there when he made that speech.” He said. “I was working for the Old Republic at the time and I snuck into the gallery to hear what he had to say. I know that there were people who opposed what he had done but no one spoke up, not one. He managed to fool them all and they let him do it gladly with a thunderous applause, thinking that he had saved them all from a fate worse than death.”
I swallowed. If this had never happened my birth mother would never have been hunted down and killed and I would never have had the life I had known. I would never have come to work for the Empire and worst of all I would never have met Thrawn. “So this is why the rebellion began?”
He nodded. “The galaxy was at war and they saw Palpatine as a way to end that war, which he did. He had the military might and once the jedi were no more he had the freedom to do as he pleased without any major opposition. People don’t really care who rules, for the most part as long as they are fed, clothed and can make a decent living. A few disagreed with his policies and his taking of absolute power under guise of uniting the galaxy. They saw it as an infringement of their rights and freedoms, but they were too afraid to fight him openly and they were vastly out numbered so they began an underground rebellion which became what you now know as the New Republic. They fought against Palpatine because they thought he was evil and to some extent they were right but the majority of peoples and planets did not see it this way.”
“And Isard took over where he left off.” I muttered.
My uncle snorted. “Isard is a pale imitation of Palpatine. She is nothing more than a power hungry megalomaniac without vision. She will lose because unlike Palpatine she does not have the charisma or the manipulative skills to hold this galaxy together and she has made enough enemies that few would wish to fight for her if they think she would fall easily enough.” He shook his head. “The Empire is not what it once was and she is not the leader to bring it back.”
“Thrawn could.” I said quietly.
For a moment my uncle regarded me his head tilted slightly to one side. “Your faith in him is admirable Lei'lei but it would take a miracle for him to pull such a thing off. Perhaps had he moved in directly after the death of the Emperor this would have been the case but now, there are so many divisions and so many factions all fighting for a piece of the galactic pie that he would not only have to have a brilliant plan but a whole lot of luck as well.”
He was right and I sighed with the knowledge but it didn’t shake my faith. I had seen what Thrawn could do and unlike Lord Vader or the Emperor who had ruled by fear, Thrawn inspired people to follow him. The men and women under his command would die for him and never think twice about it because he would do the same for them.
“What would happen were he to some how accomplish the goal of winning back the galaxy for the Empire? Do you think he would hand over the power to Isard without a say in the matter? What if he chose to rule the Galaxy instead of leading the military? Would you stand at his side as his queen or his Empress?” Uncle Vahlek asked breaking into my thoughts.
I looked at him, not wavering under the questioning gaze of his pale green eyes. “It wasn’t something I ever thought about, Zte’sa.” I sighed. Being queen of the galaxy had not ever been on my list of things I wanted to do with my life and somehow I could not see me in that role ever but as his bond-mate I would stand at his side no matter what he chose to do.
“Perhaps you aught to give it some thought. If he were to win and take over as supreme ruler of this galaxy things between you would change, he would change.”
I shook my head. “I don’t believe that he would.” I refused to believe this even though I suspected what he was telling me would be true.
The smile that graced my uncle’s lips was sad, almost pitying. “Power always changes people, no matter what. It is simply a question of how they are changed by it and how well they are able to use it rather than be corrupted by it.”
“You make it sound like something terrible.”
“That is because it can be. Although we are speaking theoretically here since the task we are discussing is a damned near impossible one.”
“That may be so but I think he will try anyway, although when you put it this way I don’t really know why he would want to.”
“With a man such as he, it is not a question of want; it is a question of must.” He said thoughtfully. I sighed because I wasn’t quite sure what uncle Vahlek meant by that and I was too tired to ask and this just made him smile at me. “Though if you do somehow manage to become empress, or queen, or princess of the galaxy you must promise me one thing.”
“You will write more than once every three months to your father!”
I laughed. “I guess that’s a promise I can make and maybe even keep.” I said as I stifled a yawn. It was late and it had been an incredibly long day.
“Go to bed and get some sleep.” Uncle Vahlek said after watching me try not to yawn again. “You have no deadlines to keep and you be far better off being well rested if you are going to go sneaking around the Imperial palace behind Isard’s back than beat out like an over worked ronto.”
As usual he was right and before I fell asleep on the couch I decided that bed was a far more comfortable choice. Thrawn’s couch was very nice but it wasn’t the most comfortable in the galaxy and I knew this from first hand experience. With a kiss goodnight on his stubbled cheek I left my Uncle to his own devices and went to bed.
It seemed strange to slip between the clean sheets of the beautiful antique bed that Thrawn and I had shared on my own. Lying awake in the dimly lit bedroom I missed his presence and his guidance more than ever before and wondered, self pityingly, if he missed me at all. As tired as I was I couldn’t sleep. My uncle’s words kept marching through my head over and over driving me crazy. He was right about everything he had said, which made it worse. I desperately wanted to be able to talk to Thrawn about it all but he was more light years away than I could count in a place where the HoloNet did not reach so relaying a message was the only way to get in touch with him, or by courier. I sighed feeling very alone.
Eventually, some hours later, I slipped into an uneasy nightmare filled sleep that had me waking up sweat soaked and crying out in my sleep in the early hours of the morning. I could not recall the images that had spiralled around me in my sleep but the terror they had left in their wake remained. There was no going back to sleep after that so I got up. Wrapped in the warmest robe I could find I made my way to the kitchen, found the bottle of Corellian Brandy and poured a generous glass then headed out to the balcony only to find my Uncle had beaten me to it.
“Bad dreams?” he asked, turning his head to look at me. He was standing at the railing staring out over the city.
“Did I wake you?”
“No. It seems that sleep eludes us both tonight.” He said sounding weary.
“What is bothering you?” I asked.
“How did you put it earlier? Old ghosts.” He replied.
I came to stand beside him and sipped the brandy slowly. “Why did you come with me? You didn’t really have to.”
“You are not the only one with unfinished business here, Lei'lei.” He answered cryptically, taking the brandy glass that I offered and sipping from it.
“Jyrki?” I asked.
But uncle Vahlek did not reply instead he turned back to continue staring out over the city skyline as if that would give him the answers he was looking for. I followed suit and as I watched the never ending stream of lights from the traffic I hoped that coming back here had not been a colossal mistake. If the truth were to be spoken out loud in my heart, I had a terrible feeling about it all and the desire to haul tail and go back to the safety of Nirauan and be with Thrawn was far greater than I could ever have admitted to. For the first time in a very long time I was afraid but I didn’t know what it was I was scared of. My uncle must have sensed this because he put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me into a hug.
“Whatever you are worrying about hasn’t happened yet.” He said.
And before I could sensor myself I said. “I know but it will and that frightens the hell out of me.”
At a loss for words my uncle just glanced at me then nodded grimly. I suppose he had known enough jedi and force users in his time to know when to accept a bad feeling for what it was and leave it at that. Somehow it was comforting to be with someone who wasn’t trying to sugar coat the truth. I just hoped that when whatever it was that I was sensing finally came, it wasn’t as bad as I imagined and I was ready to deal with it.