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A light rain misted the hillside. Other than that slight patter, the only sound disturbing the evening was the sudden cry of the peko peko. The large, blueskinned reptavian’s pitiful squawk carried across the still lake before stopping as suddenly as it had begun.
“The tusk-cats must be hunting,” Inquisitor Loam Redge said quietly to himself, smiling at the idea of the sleek, fawn-colored beasts circling the Retreat. Peko pekos weren’t the only thing that the large predators could kill; simply the opening course.
The cloaked human stood alone on the stone balcony overlooking the placid lake and the hills beyond. For the last few moments, he had watched the final glow of the setting sun turn the world a brief, shimmering pink. As soon as the molten ball had disappeared, though, the sky had turned several shades of gray, from dirty white to steel. The colors layered themselves one on top of the other, so it was impossible to discern where one began and another ended. And then the rains had come.
With a parting glance toward the twinkling lights of Moenia off to the east, the Inquisitor returned inside, where he brushed at his cloaks furiously, as though their exposure to the abrupt shower had somehow sullied them. He smoothed back his rich brown hair and stood with his spine at ramrod attention.
No one knew how old the Inquisitor was, and Redge preferred it remain that way. There were precious few secrets in the Empire, and he liked to keep as many as he could.
Inquisitor Loam Redge was one of those rare individuals who derived great pleasure from his work. Finding those sensitive to the Force, torturing them, and destroying them were his topmost priorities, and they also gave him the greatest joy. He was very good at his vocation, and he always looked as though he was enjoying a private joke when he was at his busiest. This twisted happiness had, over time, etched its mark on his face in the form of the faintest crinkles near the outer edges of his dirt-colored eyes. Other than that, his face was mostly unlined. He might have been thirty, he might have been fifty.
When he was satisfied that he looked properly groomed, Inquisitor Redge moved out into the hallway. He padded silently across the plush, goldtrimmed maroon carpeting that lined the walkway. It was so thick, he barely heard the MSE-6 that almost scurried past his feet. The tiny, black, rectangular droids littered the Emperor’s Retreat, as they did so many of the Imperial starships and ground installations throughout the galaxy. When the struggling company Rebaxan Columni had found itself facing imminent bankruptcy, it had offered the Empire a cut-rate deal on millions of them. Because the navy was extremely short on droids, it accepted. Now the Empire was crawling with the little automatons.
The small droid stopped a few feet beyond the Inquisitor and extended its heavy manipulator arm, clutching a rag. It scrubbed feverishly at some unseen smudge on the tan marble wall. Redge studied the droid for a moment as it buffed the already highly polished surface before slightly raising his cloaks up and moving past it. He found that the mechanism reminded him vaguely of a type of small vermin, and it disturbed him slightly.
There was no one else in the corridor, and he continued to revel in the quiet luxury of Emperor Palpatine’s Retreat on Naboo. The Emperor’s homeworld was calmly green, with areas of dense swamps broken up by rolling plains and verdant hills. Redge found the view soothing and knew that Emperor Palpatine had chosen the location for just that effect, not because of any maudlin sense of homeworld loyalty. While he had traveled to Theed, Moenia, Kaadara, Dee’ja Peak, and most of the smaller cities on the relatively peaceful planet, Inquisitor Redge had not yet ventured into the streams and canals that honeycombed the interior core of the planet. He had heard from a reliable source that it was possible for one to travel throughout the whole of Naboo and never once stick a head above ground. At some point, he would have to explore the passageways himself, or send a trusted associate in his place. There was no way of knowing just what or who might be hiding down there. Naboo might be a haven not just for artists and architects, but for other, less desirable sorts as well.
Since establishing the Retreat, the Emperor had had little trouble planetside and seen no sign of the Rebellion, as far as Redge was aware. And Redge made it his business to know. Queen Kylantha had pledged and proven her loyalty many times over to Palpatine. But it irked the Inquisitor that she had not bothered to dissolve the Naboo Royal Advisory Council or to impose any real changes on the democratic structure of the government. If she were truly that loyal, then why hadn’t she made the simple and overt gesture of disbanding the mock administration? Was it simply for her vanity, so that she could retain her empty title, or was there more to it? These questions nagged at the Inquisitor during the darkest hours of the night.
Rounding a corner, Redge arrived at the entrance of a cavernous, domed antechamber, large enoughto hold several garrisons comfortably. Like the hallway that led up to it, the chamber was composed entirely of mottled pink-and-tan marble. Hanging along the walls and from the curved ceiling were banners of maroon and gold, like the rugs that carpeted the myriad hallways in the Retreat. Cylindrical gold lamps hung down, casting shining puddles of light on the polished floor. Along the far wall, two of the Emperor’s personal guards, draped entirely in crimson, stood as sentries by the door the Inquisitor knew led to the Emperor’s inner sanctum. Like avenging spirits, the guards remained steadfast in their duty, not moving a muscle. However, the vast chamber was not entirely devoid of movement.
Along the curved wall, near a small computer terminal, two stormtroopers stood. Unlike Redge, these troopers were relaxed in their stance. One eaned casually against the wall—no easy feat, given the fact that he was clad from head to toe in sparkling white armor. His colleague held only a slightly more militaristic pose. Neither man faced Redge, so both were unaware of his presence. Gliding over slightly, the Inquisitor could just hear their clipped conversation.
“I tell you,” the one against the wall squawked to the other, “if they haven’t started building a new one yet, they’re not going to.”
“It’s only been about a year,” the other replied with more static in his response, his transmitter clearly in need of some attention. “Equipment that awesome takes time to repair.”
“I’m telling you,” the first argued, “that if they haven’t repaired or replaced the Death Star by now, they won’t. And that should tell you something.”
“What do you mean?” his comrade responded, and even Redge could hear the unease in the man’s mechanized voice.
The first stormtrooper shifted his stance slightly. “I’ve heard rumors that the Rebellion is growing, becoming more powerful. If they could take out a weapon as great as the Death Star, there’s no telling just how strong they really are. I think the Emperor is hiding that from us.” His voice had dropped surprisingly low, considering he had to speak through a transmitter. “I think he’s hiding many things.” “Talk like that will get you killed,” his friend warned him.
“Or worse,” Redge added in a gentle, melodic voice.
Both troopers turned suddenly, clearly caught off guard. That was the technique that Redge enjoyed the most: knock an opponent off balance and strike while he was teetering.
“Sir, I-I didn’t know you were here,” the first stammered.
“Obviously,” Redge replied easily, enjoying the man’s apparent discomfort. He decided to let him squirm a moment longer and so remained silent,
forcing the trooper to try to dig his way out of his shallow grave.
“I’m sorry, sir, I meant no disservice. I was just explaining my concerns to—”
“Don’t bother trying to explain anything to me, soldier,” Redge interrupted coldly. “I know exactly what you were trying to explain to your ‘friend’
here.” He nodded to the other man. “You feel our Emperor is keeping things from you, keeping you in the dark, so to speak?”
“It’s just that—”
“It’s just nothing,” Redge warned him darkly, his facade of pleasantness a memory. “You know all that you need to know and nothing more or less,
like the rest of us. To serve the Emperor is to trust in him completely and question nothing.”
The stormtroopers remained silent, and the Inquisitor knew they were both too frightened to speak. That fear warmed his cold heart. The corners of his thin lips twitched in growing pleasure. He relaxed his stance ever so slightly.
“But,” he graciously allowed, “you do make a good point in your own simplistic fashion.”
“Sir?” the second soldier asked, and Redge knew they were fishing for anything to redeem themselves.
“The war is far from over,” he admitted. “We do have the strength and the power to crush the Rebels; that much is obvious. However, the Rebels are devious, and like fanned rawls they have hidden themselves well and fashioned nests and lairs at the highest levels of power. Only when we drive them out and exterminate those hidden in our midst will victory truly be ours,” Redge explained, momentarily caught up in his own fervor.
But before he could pursue the discussion further, he felt an almost imperceptible change in the air pressure of the chamber. The wiry hairs on his arms rose, and Redge knew the Emperor’s door had slid open.
He turned his back on the two stormtroopers, their presence completely inconsequential now, and watched as a black figure separated himself from the impenetrable shadows of the doorway. As the stark figure moved forward, Redge felt his stomach turn and experienced a moment of vertigo. Sensitive as he was to the Force, the Inquisitor was nearly overwhelmed by the power of the man moving toward him.
The giant figure was covered from head to toe in obsidian armor. On his chest plate, a series of devices blinked blue and red, in time with his breathing and his heartbeat. His face was covered by a grotesque, helmeted breath mask that resembled the skull of some dark god. He moved wiftly yet deliberately toward the Inquisitor, his black cape billowing behind him. He looked like nothing so much as a winged bird of prey.
Redge vaguely saw, from the corner of his eyes, that the troopers snapped even straighter at the ominous presence than they had for him. He didn’t notice much more as he sank gracefully to one knee in a deep, obsequious bow.
“My Lord Vader,” he whispered with just the right amount of reverence.
“Rise, Inquisitor,” Lord Vader ordered in a deep, rich voice, his orders punctuated by his unmistakable mechanized breathing. “Rise and walk with me.”
Redge rose as gracefully as he had knelt and resisted the urge to shake out his cloaks yet again, refusing to appear foppish before a Dark Lord of the
Sith. He stretched his back even straighter, but still had to look up at the Sith Lord who stood two meters tall. Before he moved with Vader, however, he turned to face the two soldiers.
“Since you both have so much free time on your hands to reflect, I will see about relocating you to a post that you will undoubtedly find more . . . challenging,” he told them. “Perhaps something in the Hoth system,” he mused. “I don’t believe we have sent many satellites out there yet. Report to your garrison commander for new orders. Your tour of duty here is now over.” With that, he turned and marched alongside Lord Vader, briefly contemplating what hellish location they would eventually be dispatched to.
After a few moments of silence that were distinctly uncomfortable for Redge, he addressed the dark shadow. “Yes, my lord?”
“The Emperor wishes to know how you are progressing,” Lord Vader demanded.
Redge struggled to keep his equilibrium. The dark power of the Force rolled off Vader in crashing waves.
“Inquisitor?” the distorted voice demanded, and Redge knew he would not ask the question a second time.
“My lord,” he began, “I understand the seriousness surrounding the nature of the mission.”
“Do you? I am honored that you agree with me,” Vader replied. Redge thought he could almost hear the sarcasm in the Sith Lord’s voice.
“I only meant, Lord Vader, that I fully comprehend my role in this.”
“Do you, Inquisitor?” Vader asked him, stopping just before both men reached another hallway. Only Vader’s mechanized breathing could be heard echoing in the antechamber. Redge was momentarily at a loss for how to proceed. Darth Vader was the only creature that ever inspired this effect in the Inquisitor.
“Do you truly know what it will mean,” the Sith Lord eventually continued, “if the holocron should return to the Rebels’ hands?”
Redge swallowed hard. “Yes, my lord, I think I can appreciate what should happen. If the Rebels manage to retrieve that device—with, among other things, its list of high-level Rebel sympathizers—and activate those spies, the Empire could very well crumble from within.”
Vader regarded him stonily before he raised a gauntleted finger to point accusingly at the Inquisitor. “What are you doing about it?” he demanded.
“Lord Vader, I have my best operative on the trail of this item even as we speak. I have trained this agent for many years, and I believe there is no one better suited for the mission. We will not fail,” he promised, barely hiding the quaver in his voice.
Vader stared a moment longer and then turned to walk down the hallway, his heavy footfalls muffled by the thick pile of the carpets. The Inquisitor hastened his step to keep up.
“The Death Star incident will never occur again,” Vader told Redge. The Inquisitor knew the Sith Lord was not really sharing a confidence with him as much as he was simply thinking aloud. However, he did nothing to interrupt Vader, awed as he was in the moment.
“The fact that those plans slipped through our fingers and reached the cursed Rebels . . .” Vader’s voice trailed away and he tightened the fingers of his left hand.
As he did so, Redge felt a pressure build up around his heart. His breathing grew more rapid, and black spots began to dance around the corners of his vision. He slowed his pace and vaguely sawthat Vader was continuing on, unaware that he had lost his stricken companion. Redge placed a hand against his chest. He felt as if a fambaa were settled atop it. His head swam. Then, as abruptly as the pressure began, it disappeared. He rested one hand against the marble wall and tried to catch his breath before trotting weakly after Vader, who had not paused in his march.
“Inquisitor?” Vader demanded.
“Y-yes, my lord?” Redge stammered, barely recovered from Vader’s unconscious assault.
“Your best agent, you say?”
“Yes, Lord Vader,” Redge said, his voice growing stronger with every passing moment. “This agent will not fail.”
Darth Vader turned and stared at Redge once more. “Inquisitor, you should know full well that that there is no such thing as failure within the Empire. I suggest you remember that.” He raised a finger and shook it once, ominously, toward the Inquisitor and then turned and left. The hiss of his automated breathing faded as he marched down the length of the passageway. Only when Redge was no longer in the presence of the Sith Lord did he realize that he had been holding his own breath. He let it out slowly.
Redge turned from the hallway and walked over to an alcove with a view of the Emperor’s personal shuttle, an AT-ST standing guard nearby. He leaned his head against the cool marble wall and sighed. His thoughts drifted from the holocron to his operative and back to Vader’s barely oncealed death threat. He understood only too well how much was riding on the success of this mission. Redge sighed and continued to stare out into the night. The rain fell harder.
From the Paperback edition.