Discussion in 'Fan Fiction- Before, Saga, and Beyond' started by frodogenic, Mar 27, 2017.
Loving this Please tell me there's more to come? Loving this version of Vader, and Piett especially.
In the first post of this story you said it's not prone to cliffhangers. Not prone to cliffhangers, my foot! You may not end story posts with edge-of-seatness, but you leave the story (and your readers) hanging for way too long. Evil, evil cliffie!
Although I totally understand that Darth Real Life messes with us all.
A/N: ...yes, I know, I make tectonic plates look like the Indy 500. I apologize. It's far from abandoned; I've just been working very hard on the ending of this and it's not smooth sailing. My laptop is littered with documents, drafts, huge excerpt files...anyway, thanks to those patient souls who have more or less put up with my heel-dragging yea these past Lord knows how many months, and without further ado, the next chapter.
“What do you mean you won’t.”
Nobody could make a question sound so much like a pronouncement of doom as Darth Vader. Piett cleared his throat. “It’s not so much that I won’t, my lord,” he said, “as that I’ve decided not to.”
Vader stared at him—goggled, actually. No amount of durasteel armor could conceal consternation of that magnitude; Piett could practically see the man’s mask turning purple. Behind him, sitting just within view, Skywalker ducked forward, elbows on his knees and head down in a futile effort to hide the fit of mirth shaking his shoulders. Belatedly Piett realized that his cheeky reply sounded like a quote from Cryptic Jedi Proverbs Through the Ages by L. Skywalker.
The fact was certainly not lost on Vader; he whirled and stabbed a forefinger at his offspring. “I should never have let you anywhere near him.”
Skywalker, possibly asphyxiating on sheer glee, could only shake his head in mute denial.
Piett cleared his throat, mustering his courage. “He’s had no part in it, sir. I—”
“He has had every part in it,” Vader snapped over his shoulder. “His mere presence is sufficient to set an entire system on end, let alone one impressionable admiral.”
Skywalker looked up, doing his best impression of a dutiful firstborn son, but his heart obviously wasn’t in it; his eyes cackled. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“It’s my decision, sir, no one else’s.” Piett cleared his throat again and hastily went on. “I’ve prepared a fresh set of proposals for this evening’s session, if you would care to—”
“I ordered you to accept the terms offered yesterday,” Vader snarled. “You will present no new proposals. You will carry out my orders or suffer the consequences.”
Piett set his jaw and fought the urge to glance at Skywalker, his sole hope of surviving what he intended to say next. Sith Whisperer, don’t fail me now. “Actually, sir, I’ve thought matters over, and as best I can make out, I am no longer obligated to accept your orders.”
For the second time Vader gaped at him, unable to comprehend that his reliable doormat of an admiral could finally have developed a spine after all this time. But fury caught up quickly. Piett could almost see it swelling the armor outward, wrath bulging from every orifice, and knew he’d made his last-ever mistake.
Vader started forward, one arm reaching fatally across the lightyears—then Skywalker seized him by the elbow. “Father—please.”
Those two soft words somehow packed the punch of a quad-laser blast. Vader’s fists balled. He ceased trying to break his son’s grip and looked back into a pair of urgent, relentless blue eyes. For a long while they stared at one another in silence, speaking thought to thought perhaps. Then, almost audibly, Vader’s rage sucked back in, and he retreated a step from the holoprojector, flinging his son’s hand off his arm. Piett let out a shaky breath. If we ever get to the other side of this, Skywalker, I’m buying you a liter of hundred-year-old Whyren’s.
Skywalker winked at him. Piett’s inner accountant instantly regretted the thought.
“And what,” Vader spat, “gave you that fantastical idea, Admiral?”
Piett tried to look as inoffensive and reasonable as possible—which wasn’t very much of either, given what he was about to say. “You did, sir, publicly abdicate the Imperial throne several weeks ago. By all precedent this entails the resignation of any military offices you held. Consequently”—if this was the end he might as well go out with a bang—“I have no remaining obligations to execute your orders.”
Silence stretched, while Vader sought to absorb the incredible fact that anybody could be so stupid as to make that comment to his face not once but twice.
“You know, Father,” put in Skywalker brightly, before the silence was quite long enough to hang someone with, “he’s right.”
The respirator ran through two put-upon-sounding cycles before Vader turned to glower at the more experienced voice of insurrection.
“He’d actually be in dereliction of his duty if he did execute your orders.”
The forefinger pounced. “When I require the assistance of rebels and traitors to interpret Imperial naval protocol, I will apprise you of the fact.”
“Technically, you should’ve been kicked off the ship weeks ago—”
“Enough.” The thundering bass dropped to a dangerous hiss. “It is unlikely the admiral will survive this conversation if I am compelled to eject his defensive force field from my quarters.” Vader’s helmet revolved to pin its withering regard on Piett. “That was your purpose in requesting his presence, was it not?”
Piett forced a faint smile. “I simply know that you value his opinion, sir.”
Vader snorted. “His opinion is inconsequential. He is an interfering and overconfident whelp.”
“I get that from my mother’s side, you know,” said Skywalker, in a pitch-perfect imitation of Solo’s cheery sarcasm. Piett went from forcing a smile to smothering laughter—then panicked all over again as Vader whirled on his son like a striking vaapad.
“Your mother is not a matter of jest, boy.”
“I’m not making fun of my mother,” said Skywalker, laying on more condescension than Piett had heard anybody address to Darth Vader since Admiral Ozzel and the So Many Uncharted Settlements fiasco of ’22. “I’m making fun of you. Been awhile, I take it.”
“What you are doing,” Vader snarled, “is being a deliberate and disrespectful nuisance.”
“Yes,” said Skywalker. “I am. But he is not.” He flicked his chin at Piett, suddenly in dead earnest. “By everything I’ve seen for the past couple months, he is a competent, courteous man who is well-regarded by all his subordinates. By you too, since we’ve just established you can’t put up with a disrespectful nuisance for five minutes, let alone twenty-five years.”
Vader and Piett stopped at the same time, startled glances darting between them before they both found other things to look at—meaning Skywalker, who was shaking his head with a wry but benevolent smile. “My apologies, twenty-eight years. My point is, he obviously is an expert in not pushing your buttons. Don’t you think he must have a pretty strong reason for doing it now?”
“His reason,” said Vader, glaring blaster bolts at his pontificating progeny, “is all too obvious.”
“As inspiring as I am, I don’t think he’s so dumb he’d try to score points with me by irritating you.”
Vader made noise of utter exasperation and paced away from what he evidently would have the universe believe was the bane of his existence. On the far side of the platform he about-faced and stormed back the other way, eyes boring into Piett as he passed. “Do you intend to explain yourself, or will you merely continue to stand there like a wiped protocol unit?”
Something went tick in his brain, and Firmus W. Piett was suddenly angrier than he’d ever been in his life. “I shouldn’t have to explain it, sir. I accepted a responsibility to the honor of the Empire when I assumed command of this vessel. I swore an oath never to surrender her, and the entire galaxy can go to ten hells before I’ll break it, not excepting you, sir!”
Words ran out and he just stood there, scowling and half-panting. Vader had frozen mid-stalk, staring at him—he’d really caught him at the knees, by gods, he’d managed to throw that blasted metal bastard a curve ball at last! He felt—powerful, for a change, downright tipsy with adrenaline, and yes, he’d probably signed his death warrant big and bold with that little speech, Skywalker was half out of his seat looking like he expected a murder any instant, but who cared! Stars! If this was what letting your anger run wild felt like, no wonder Vader had never bothered to rein it in!
Except…except maybe he was right now. In fact Piett couldn’t see any of the usual signs of temper—literally none. Vader had become as still and blank as a durasteel bulkhead, as if confronted by some inexplicable new organism. As if Piett hadn’t been entirely real to him until this instant. In the background, still watchful, Skywalker eased back into his seat.
“I know there isn’t an Empire anymore,” Piett finally said, when several minutes had crawled by with no indication that Vader planned on speaking. “Maybe it was only ever a—a job to you, sir. But it meant something to me, and I won’t dishonor that now. If I can by any means preserve this piece of it that we’ve kept alive all these years, I intend to.”
Vader finally stirred, and Piett braced for the inevitable tidal wave of scorn. But the man only turned to Skywalker.
Skywalker studied him closely for several seconds; then he nodded, shot Piett a reassuring wink, and vanished from the transmission field. A moment later Piett heard the distant whish of a sealing door, and gripped his hands tightly behind his back as Vader turned back to him.
“You think that I have betrayed you, Admiral?”
Piett gulped, hoping it wasn’t obvious. “I never said that, my lord.”
“You have more than implied it.”
Piett worked his hands behind his back, old habit telling him to shut up and leave the bait lying—but no. No, he was done with that.
“That was not my intent, sir. But yes, I do feel that way to some extent. Had I or any other Fleet commander yielded our command in such a manner you would not have excused it in the slightest. And not just myself but every man aboard this vessel has made great efforts and great sacrifices in the service of the Empire for the past twenty-five years. Dropping them with so little ceremony after all of that would—” He had to stop, anger and grief getting the better of him momentarily.
Vader had never had patience for displays of lamentation. “Would what, Admiral?”
Piett forced himself back under control. “It would tell them that everything they’ve done hasn’t meant anything to you. Don’t do that to them, sir.” He swallowed hard. “Don’t do that.”
“Do you think I am some omnipotent machine?” Vader hissed. “Do you think I can repair this ship to a defensible state with a wave of my hand? Do you expect me to re-staff and re-provision her out of vacuum? Even if I could achieve that much, how long do you expect me to keep this ship intact against the entire Republic fleet?”
“We’ve survived outrageous odds before, sir.”
“There comes a time,” Vader answered flatly, “when one can do nothing but accept one’s fate. It is pointless to resist destiny.”
“I don’t agree with that, sir.” Boldly he added, “I don’t think your son would either.”
Vader spun away in another exasperated huff. “I should not have let him anywhere near you.”
“It really wasn’t him, sir.”
“Then you are as great a fool as he is.”
Piett squared his jaw stubbornly. “If by that you mean we both care about your welfare in spite of your best efforts to discourage us, then I take that as a compliment, my lord.”
He could see the astonishment fast turning into dismissal, so he added, “And you can’t tell me I don’t know what I’m saying. I’ve known you for nearly thirty years, sir, and I’m still here. I—I should think that would deserve a little of your trust, at least.”
That was really what it came down to—whether Vader trusted him enough to believe that his defiance wasn’t a betrayal. Twenty-eight years, and now the moment of decision. Vader stood silent for a disheartening length of time.
“It deserves more than a little, Admiral,” he said finally. “That I have none to dispense is not your doing.” He looked away, into some middle distance, remembering, regretting—something, Piett wasn’t sure what, except that it had obviously involved some grievous betrayal. Kenobi? Was that why no form of treason, however inconsequential, had ever met with the slightest mercy from him?
Watch you don’t get into waters too deep for you. Not even Skywalker could mention Kenobi with impunity.
“Well, my lord,” he said, with exaggerated cheerfulness, “the nice thing about retirement is, one can afford a few risks.”
“You did abdicate, sir.”
Vader speared him with a forefinger. “Trust is one matter, Admiral. Patience is another.”
“I’m certain your leadership in both respects shall to continue to inspire us for years to come, sir.”
Vader visibly fumed. “I see it is also imperative you be removed from the Princess’ influence, before you are contaminated beyond repair.”
“Yes, well.” Piett coughed. “I must admit that one was hers.” He thought fondly of the lovely shade of blue Borsk Fey’lya had turned when she’d tossed it at him.
Vader gestured at him impatiently. “Very well. What are these proposals you plan to impose upon me and the committee?”
Piett reined in his giddiness and tried to look like a serious, intelligent, resourceful man of experience with a foresighted and ingenious plan. “In brief, sir, I intend to propose—
“—that the Executor be repurposed as an orbital education and training facility.”
Borsk Fey’lya’s eyeballs bulged. “Education and training facility?”
“Yes, Senator. I am given to understand that the New Republic operates many older Star Destroyers, including several of the Executor’s class. Surely it would be to your fleet’s advantage to have a ship available where cadets can train without throwing a hydrospanner into field operations.”
“And who,” Fey’lya bellowed, “gave you to understand that?”
The Princess cleared her throat, with some amusement. “I don’t believe that the Fleet roster constitutes classified information, Councilor. Am I wrong, General Cracken?”
“Spot on as usual, Princess,” said the general from New Republic Intelligence, chipper and irreverent as only an ex-Rebel could be.
“In that case, Councilor, shall we allow Admiral Piett to proceed with his proposal?”
She smiled her warmest, sweetest, contradict-me-and-you’ll-wish-you’d-never-been-born-est smile. Fey’lya huffed and sat back. General Cracken snickered into his sleeve, and Piett cleared his throat. “As I was saying, I believe this arrangement offers practical benefits to the Republic fleet on the educational level,” he said. Carefully not catching Fey’lya’s eye, he continued, “I’ve also noted that your deployments to conflict zones in the Mid and Outer Rims have left coverage somewhat thin in the Core systems—”
General Cracken burst into gusts of laughter before Fey’lya could do more than sputter in indignation. “Damn, Admiral, you’ve done your homework! You’ve got a job in my office any time you like, sir.” He thumped the table.
“I’m honored, General,” said Piett, hoping that was not an enormous diplomatic faux pas. Fey’lya cast an imploring look at the Princess, who was now fighting a real smile.
General Madine cleared his throat, like a small mortar exploding. “If you’re proposing that we trust the defense of any sector to Darth Vader, Admiral Piett, you’d best think again. I think I speak for all of us on that.”
“I heartily concur with the general,” said Fey’lya hotly. Cracken snorted; apparently agreements between Fey’lya and Madine were an endangered species.
“Certainly not,” said Piett. “That would be a great deal to ask. However, the Executor has something to offer besides firepower. I propose to contract our available hangar space as a mobile launch and staging platform for starfighter squadrons. She can easily house twelve complete squadrons, complete with reserve ships and all necessary personnel, to provide quick-response coverage for the outer system here in Coruscant, thereby freeing up heavier hyper-capable forces for deployments.”
The military types in the room looked keenly interested; Cracken whistled, and Madine unbent so far as to hoist an eyebrow half a millimeter. Fey’lya looked interested too, probably by the inference that the Executor herself would not be hyper-capable.
“A thought-provoking proposal, Admiral,” said the Princess. Her eyes smiled at him; just how much did she know about his little tiff with Vader? “But I have one question. We could, after all, insist on your ship’s surrender and put her to these uses as our own vessel. What is the advantage in allowing her to remain an Imperial naval vessel?”
Fey’lya thumped a hand on the table. “I second the President’s comment!”
“…there’s one you don’t hear every day,” Cracken was heard to mutter.
All eyes turned expectantly toward Piett, who would have felt very lonely at his end of the table if not for the warm encouragement in the Princess’ eyes, cheering him on. Hard as she played for her own team, she wanted him to win this one.
He cleared his throat. “Early this morning, I had the privilege of touring the Palace Mausoleum. Although many changes had taken place, the memorial dedicated to the men whom the Empire lost at Yavin remained. I’m told there was great pressure for that memorial to be demolished, given the number of innocent lives the Death Star claimed at Alderaan and elsewhere.”
At the mention of Alderaan the room went still. The Princess’ gaze rested on him in intently.
“That the New Republic was able even in its hour of triumph to acknowledge the losses of its enemies stands greatly to its credit. You have held true to the Rebellion’s ideals of freedom, even for those who fought against you.” He leaned forward on his elbows earnestly. “Aboard the Executor are three hundred thousand men who have served and suffered many years for a government in which they believed. Although it was not this government, I am hopeful that the spirit which could honor the men who served aboard the Death Star can respect our sacrifice as well.”
He crooked a little smile. “So in answer to your question, Your Excellency, I suppose there isn’t any advantage to the New Republic in acceding to my proposal…except the satisfaction of doing the right thing.”
Greatly to his surprise, the Princess laughed—not mockery, but a bright, devil-may-care merriment. Several old Alliance hands around the table joined in, even the intense Madine. Fey’lya gave a resigned sigh, kneading his eyebrows like the substitute teacher of an exceptionally rowdy class who knows what the joke is but thinks it’s stupid. “Ah, Admiral,” grinned General Cracken by way of explanation. “Now you’re speaking Rebel!”
And from that point on, diplomacy was suddenly the easiest thing in the universe.
Very nice update. Looking forward to more!
SUPERB SUPERB! Wonderful dialogue and oomphy from Piett and Leia. She is the snarkiest diplomat I've come across
Good gosh … I just found this, read it through and needed another thirty minutes to get my oxygen saturation back to survivable levels. I just laughed too hard far too long. Un-kriffing-believably brilliant!
I have just read the entire thing, and it is without a shadow of a doubt one of the most well written pieces of fiction I have ever encountered.
This is a marvel, my friend.
I am here to the end and I shall be tracking down your other works.
Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
Hi all! Sorry for another lengthy silence. I ain't as young as I used to be Thanks for all your enthusiasm and comments! Here's the next installment.
With an expression of profound suspicion, the reflection in Piett’s mirror reached up and tweaked the collar—fashionably cut, the Holonet ad had promised, but damn him if he could tell one way or the other—of the jacket it was wearing. It was a civilian jacket, made of Chandrilan suede (Chandrilan suede, the Princess’ protocol droid assured him, was what the discerning humanoid gentleman was wearing this solar quarter). Piett had picked the soberest, grayest one he could find. It wasn’t sober or gray enough to suit him.
He cast a longing glance at his uniform, hanging on the ‘fresher wall rack; then turned his back on it firmly. This morning he was, for the first time in a quarter of a century, Off Duty.
Someone rapped on the bedroom door, and Piett turned to see Han Solo’s well-honed you’ve-got-to-be-kriffing-me expression surveying him head to boots. “You’re wearing that?”
“It’s presentable.” Piett aimed a pointed glance at Solo’s scuffed jacket and stained trousers.
“Exactly. This place is in CoCo Town, you know that, right?”
Piett frowned. “I always understood the Collective Commerce district was reasonably safe. Should I bring a sidearm?”
Solo waved a hand. “Nah, it’s not like it’s the Southern Underground. It’s just…blue-collar. Anything new’s gonna stand out. I figure you’d rather avoid attention.”
Meaning, of course, that he’d rather avoid attention. “I appreciate your concern,” Piett said wryly. “But I’m afraid it’s this or the uniform.”
Solo pulled the kind of face Piett associated with new Destroyer captains who’d just discovered that the privilege of starship command consisted of one percent glorious interstellar warfare and ninety-nine percent interminable command meetings, byzantine political squabbles, submitting reports in triplicate, and placating impossible superiors. “That. Definitely that.” He flicked his chin. “C’mon, morning traffic’s gonna be hell if we don’t get clear of Galactic City in five minutes.”
Their speeder—best described as an extension of the Rebel it-basically-works-so-who-cares-what-it-looks-like aesthetic also responsible for orange flightsuits, the Millennium Falcon, and popular elections—was idling in the departure bay, alongside Solo’s enormous Wookiee. He oo-wralled at Solo plaintively.
“Yeah, I hear you, but we can’t go running Vader’s admiral around in an open top, that’s just asking for it.”
“Look, I’ll make it up to you. Leia’s got a great chiropractor at the Alderaanian embassy.”
The Wookiee whumpfed and folded itself with difficulty into the cramped passenger seat. Piett climbed in the back—next to the crossbow blaster the great hairy beast insisted on carting everywhere, dear stars just tell me that safety catch is reliable—and Solo took the helm.
“So,” Solo drawled, weaving a path through the Palace District traffic lanes that had to be at least sixty-five percent illegal, “Leia said you’re meeting your cousin at this joint, right?"
“Nephew.” The speeder bucked as they blasted across the exhaust wash of a passing city hoverbus. Piett clung to his armrest for dear life.
“Meant nephew,” grunted Solo. “J-something, isn’t it?”
“Justus. Justus Veritan.”
“Nervous?” Solo’s keen hazel eyes zeroed in on him via the rear-view reflector.
“Uncertain, perhaps.” That we’ll get there alive. “I’m not sure he’ll remember me. He was only four the last time I was able to visit Axxila.”
“When was that?”
“Three years before Endor. Just before I assumed command of—”
He clutched at the armrest again and reached up reflexively to hold down the cap he wasn’t actually wearing, as they swerved into oncoming traffic around a plodding trash hauler.
“Damn air-breathers,” Solo growled, and leaned out the window to yell, “It’s called an accelerator!”
The Wookiee whuffed.
“You said it, Chewie.” The speeder, demonstrating for the public benefit the operation of the thing called an accelerator, lurched clear across the quad-lane into the fork headed west toward CoCo Town. “So he’d’ve been seven when you all did your little vanishing number, yeah?” Solo went on casually, cutting up to the faster overhead lane and punching the forward thrusters. “That’s old enough. Believe me, you’d be amazed what kids remember. Course,” he reflected ruefully, “it’s usually the stuff you wish they’d forget.”
“I suppose I’ll have to take your word for it.” And if that’s not the action of a desperate man, I don’t know what is.
Negotiations had concluded two days ago, and the first thing the Princess had done was lift the communications embargo on the Executor’s crew—meaning he and his men could finally send messages out to their families and friends. Not two hours later, while he was still shaking hands at the post-summit reception, a call had been put through to the Princess from an old friend of hers who taught at Manarai University—and who also happened to be the dean of his nephew’s postgraduate program. Yesterday he and Justus had spoken for the first time by voice com, and had arranged to meet for breakfast.
Piett was rather wishing it could have been lunch instead—perhaps his stomach wouldn’t be pitching such a fit—but there was too much still to be done to get the Executor to Coruscant. His days were full to the gills, and he only had two left before he flew out to Kuat, where the New Republic was staging a team of hyperspace tractor ships to tow the lame Destroyer home.
You had to give the New Republic that much--once they got around to making a decision, they didn’t let the grass grow under their boots.
“Ah, I’m sure it’ll be fine,” said Solo. The speeder sliced a 70-degree angle dowm through six levels of traffic at a speed that did nothing for Piett’s nausea. “If he likes Dex’s he can’t be all bad.” He winked in the reflector.
“Apparently the entire galaxy has heard of this place except for me,” Piett grunted.
“Sure, everybody knows Dex’s. Famous local establishment.”
They swooped through a last sickening turn or three before coming to a stop in what Solo insisted was a private parking hangar and Piett suspected was a black market drop point, judging by the number of shady conversations being carried on in shadowy corners and crates being trucked between speeders. A ten-minute walk brought them up to the famous local establishment in question. Piett would have described it as a famous local junk art installation—the original edifice appeared to be a converted mega-shipping container, now barely discernible under decades of city grime and tacked-on expansions in permacrete, corrugated durasteel, and repurposed ship hull panels—but the amount of traffic at the front door indicated it was, against all probability, as popular as Solo claimed. He squared his shoulders and marched in.
Inside the diner was mayhem and scuttling and hollering and grease. Piett could not see how a single tray was getting anywhere without being jostled or dropped or elbowed, let alone over a dozen waiters each carrying four or five trays at a go. Either every server in the joint was a Jedi, he decided, or six different sets of planetary physics were in operation. He tore his attention away from this marvel and tried to scan the jammed booths, though he probably wouldn’t recognize Justus even if—
“Number and-a species-a?”
Piett started and glanced down at what proved to be a Toydarian waitress, spectacularly temperamental for her size. Or possibly because of it. “I beg your pardon?”
“You plus-a those two”—she waved a claw contemptuously at Solo and his Wookiee—“anybody else-a in the party? You’ve been-a standing there for-a ages, find a seat-a.”
He began to apologize—for existing, he supposed—and actually had to remind himself that he was an admiral for stars’ sake, and what was more he was Darth Vader’s admiral, and therefore he was not about to be browbeaten by a waitress. “I am looking for—”
His gaze jumped past the aggressive little Toydarian. A gangly man had leapt out of his booth and was now forcing his way past the rush of bodies to seize Piett’s hand and pump it up and down like he was bailing out the rowboat his life depended on. “Stars, you look just like I remember! Well, older, obviously, but I suppose I do too, eh?”
Piett ventured an uncertain smile, trying to find a resemblance between this jocular stranger and the quiet but intelligent child he’d known. “You certainly do. I shouldn’t have known you at all.”
Justus laughed and ran a hand through his hair. “Wow. This is—wow. You’re standing right there and I still don’t think I believe it.”
Piett cast a bemused glance around the madhouse diner. “Do you know, I’m not sure I do either some days. It has been a surreal experience through and through.”
“I bet. It was all over the holofaxes, you know,” he added, leading Piett back to his booth. Piett cast a glance over his shoulder and saw Solo and the Wookiee already ensconced at the booth by the door, in spite of the fact that it had thirty seconds ago been occupied by a pack of Aqualish cab drivers. “I was in Chommel sector for research when it happened,” Justus chattered on, “didn’t hear a thing until I got out of the archives late one night and found Mother and Astria and Wesla and everybody had tried to call me about fifty times.”
His throat caught. “Wesla? Is she—”
“Oh!” He winced. “Guess I ought to start at the beginning. Wesla is my sister, she was born almost five years after—well, you know, after Endor. Big surprise for Mother, you can imagine. She and Father are getting on alright. He had an accident at the factory about ten years ago and can’t get around much. Mother won’t leave him alone for more than a day or two.” He laughed, shaking his head again in bemusement. “She keeps saying it’s all a hoax. I think she’s scared of getting her hopes up. They wouldn’t release any names, you know, except everyone knows about Vader obviously. But my program advisor here at U-Cor knows Princess Leia and I’d mentioned about you to her, so she found out you were—”
“You’re-a ready to-a order-a?” The Toydarian was buzzing belligerently at their elbows, snout wrinkled in a scowl. “You been-a sittin’ there for-a—”
Piett grabbed at a menu and speed-scanned it as Justus began, “Oh, er, yes, I’ll have the Obi-Wonton Classic Platter, with the hermit crab salad on the side”—Piett gestured at him to stall a second longer—“and, uh, with ginger sauce on top, and…uh, I know it’s not even nine in the morning, but what the hell, give me a Jinn Tonic. You want one, Uncle Firmus?”
“Why not,” said Piett, who had guzzled starshine too many years to turn his nose up at proper booze any time of day.
“Two Jinn Tonics,” said Justus.
“And-a you-a?” the Toydarian demanded of Piett.
“Er—one Skyguy Special for me,” said Piett. “Well done, please.”
The waitress sniffed contemptuously at him and zipped away.
“I understand you are studying for a graduate degree?” Piett asked, mopping his brow. He didn’t remember civilian life being this stressful.
“My third, actually.” Ah, there was something familiar—that sheepish grin. He’d had it from the cradle. “Father says I’m a hopeless bookworm, but he’s stopped saying I’ll amount to nothing, at least.”
Piett smiled. His brother-in-law had been bred in the best old Axxilan blue-collar tradition, and held rigid views about the proper occupation of a man. He’d regularly scoffed at Firmus for his supposedly soft-handed life as a Navy officer.
Not after they gave him the Executor though. Gods, how proud he’d been when he first saw her long, sleek arrow shape in the construction slip at the Kuat Drive Yards. He’d known right away: no matter how his old mother wrung her hands, there’d never be any woman for him but the Lady.
“Three graduate degrees, that’s quite an accomplishment. No doubt your father is proud. And I know your mother must be.”
Justus grinned. “That she is.”
“What have you studied?”
“Mostly pre-Imperial history and culture. I’m working on a thesis right now in intercultural conflict resolution, which is what sent me to Chommel sector. I’m on Naboo studying the relationship between the native human and Gungan populations.”
Piett blinked. “However did you come to be studying Gungans?”
“It was my advisor’s idea, actually. She used to represent Chommel Sector, back before the Emperor dissolved the Senate, and actually her aunt was the one who—listen to me, I’m rambling, you can’t possibly want to know all that.”
Piett smiled. “A bit out of my bailiwick, perhaps.”
“Maybe you’d better not ask about me,” Justus said ruefully, “otherwise I’ll be off again before you can say Trade Federation.”
“Why don’t you tell me about your sisters?”
“Astria’s married, she and her husband have an investment firm. Wesla’s at university. She keeps threatening to transfer to the Reserve Officer Candidate program and go Navy.”
He liked Wesla already, and not just because the W in Firmus W. Piett stood for Weslerman. “Threatening? May I take it your parents disapprove?”
“Well,” Justus hedged. “Not so much they don’t approve. But I think Mother’s afraid of another letter coming home.” He dropped his voice, grinning conspiratorially. “That and she says the New Republic Defense Force isn’t a patch on the old Imperial Navy.”
Piett’s smile came with a profound pang in his chest. When he’d visited home before going out to take command of the Executor, Carilla had insisted on sewing his new insignia bars on all his uniforms herself, never mind that the household droid could have done it cheaper and faster. There had been days—whole months, in fact—during that hellish hunt for Skywalker, when nothing but the memory of her pride in him had kept him from resigning his commission. What she must have felt, one morning after Endor, when the archaic letter arrived, with that stiff regret to inform you and little more… He should have tried to contact her the minute he got back into known space. Communications embargo be damned, she didn’t deserve one minute of grief more than—
“What about you?” Justus was looking at him curiously now, testing out uncertain waters.
“What about me?”
“Well, I assume it must all have been a shock. You know, the Empire being gone and all this going on.” He waved his hand to indicate the New Republic busily republicking all around them. “What do you think of it?”
“I don’t wish to form opinions prematurely. I’ve barely experienced it.” He glanced around again at the foreign-feeling diner. “I imagine it will be…a steep learning curve, at least in some areas.”
Justus met this with respectful silence for a moment or two. “Have you made any plans?”
“I expect I’ll have my hands full for quite some time, getting the Executor to Coruscant and sorting out the details of our new operational rhythm.”
“Aren’t you going to come home to Axxila?”
Piett toyed with a napkin resignedly. “I should like to, Justus, but I don’t know when it will be possible. I doubt Lord Vader will approve my leave of absence during the transition.” That, and he didn’t plan on asking Vader for anything else for, oh, another twenty-eight years probably.
Justus sat back, wide-eyed. “Stars. I forgot about him.”
“Would that I had the luxury,” said Piett dryly.
“Well, maybe we can figure out a way to visit you here,” Justus said, choosing the path of optimism. “At the very least we’ve got to set up a holocom call for Mother. She misses you something awful, you know.”
His throat burned. “I should like that very much, Justus.”
Han putting on a speeder-race through the city for Piett's discombobulation and my fangirl delight! Justus sounds very affable and warm and his family--sisters and Mom will be great to catch up with again for Firmus!
LOL on the Dex's entrees. Ditch the Toydarian waitress though! Rather abrupt!
*snort* Nobody says that in his presence, I bet.
I LOVE that movie, this comparison makes my day
A/N: Hi all! *I live* Shall we just skip the apologies and get straight to the story? Yes? Excellent.
"Glad to be putting Coruscant behind you?"
Piett grimaced, still shaking out his fingers. "Very much so." If he had to shake one more claw, paw, fin, or hand ever again it'd be too soon. But the last toast had been drunk, the last Senate budget subcommittee meeting endured, the last job proposal from Airen Cracken dodged, the last dig from Borsk Fey'lya gritted out; in less than twenty-four hours he'd be in Kuat, rendezvousing with the task force of escort cruisers and hyperspace tow ships, and in four days he'd have good solid dreadnought decking under his boots again. Provided, of course, it hadn't fallen victim to some Skywalker-induced catastrophe before he got back to Eriadu.
A wicked glint lit up Mara's lethal green eyes. "Shame you'll be back in less than two weeks then."
Piett pulled a disgusted face, and she cracked an equally wicked smile. "There, there. Leia tells me you did very well for not being a diplomat."
"High praise coming from Her Highness."
"Mm. She likes you. And I don't think she's ever liked an Imperial naval officer." Mara narrowed her eyes at the ramp, beyond which the Princess and assorted senior members of the New Republic government who had come to see him off—with considerably more pomp and circumstance than he personally cared for—could be seen leaving the landing pad, returning to the Palace complex. "Except Gilad Pellaeon, and that cost him one intergalactic peace treaty and an Alderaanian moss painting worth millions of credits. What did you do?"
"I, ah…I told her I would be proud to make my application for New Republic citizenship upon our return to Coruscant."
Mara raised one eyebrow at him as she hit the retraction key for the landing ramp. "Not a bad play, Admiral. Not bad at all."
"I was perfectly sincere." He felt his hackles rise a little. A career carved out amid the cutthroat backroom politics of the Imperial Navy had not trained him in honest gestures, and despite all the practice Skywalker and the Princess and their fellow old-school Rebel types had given him, they still made him feel clumsy and vulnerable. "She's shown herself to be a leader worth following in every respect."
Mara, surprisingly, offered an apologetic smile. "So she has. Nasty suspicious mind I've got." The wicked smirk once more. "And just think, this is after five years being married to Farmboy. Imagine what I used to be like."
"I try not to," Piett said sincerely.
"For the best, believe me. Let's get this show on the road. Stow your kit, you've got a few minutes while the preflight checks finish."
"Same cabin?" Piett asked, hefting his bags again.
"No, you'll be in the captain's quarters. I'll bunk with Ben."
Bags scattered themselves across the deckplates. "Ah—beg pardon—will young Ben be joining us for the flight?"
She pinned him with a raised eyebrow. "Problem?"
"Er—no—I suppose I just assumed—I mean—not at all, certainly." Her other eyebrow moved towards her hairline, watching him fumble his bags back in order. "I—well, it's just I don't really have much experience with children."
"About time you got some then. Don't you have a passel of nieces and nephews back home?" She flipped her chin down the corridor. "Second hatch on the right."
"They're all adults," Piett grumbled to himself, collecting his hovercase and lumbering down to his quarters. He paused a moment in the hatch, disgruntlement fading as he took in the cabin and its handful of personal touches—a holo of Luke and Mara on a magshelf above the double-wide bunk, looking windblown and (in Mara's case) rather sunburnt in a desert, and another holo running through clips of little Ben; an old flight helmet stamped with the Rebellion's red firebird emblem racked on the bulkhead; the keelplate of another ship bolted to the back of the cabin hatch, with the name Jade's Fire in hand-drawn Aurebesh characters. Five minutes and a small crate would have sufficed to pack it all up. Either Jade still subscribed to the Empire's minimalist aesthetic, or Skywalker had inherited his father's ascetic inclinations, or both. He nodded approvingly.
The locker was none too big, and it took some experimenting to get everything in. Besides the hovercase holding his dress uniforms and assorted diplomatic presents he had his duffel, satchel, a few briefcases of flimsiwork and datachips, a whole case of aged Whyren's which had been a welcome-home gift from the ambassador for the Imperial Remnant to the Executor's command officers—and last but not least, the item the Princess had handed to him at the very last second. It was, she'd said nonchalantly, a message for Vader from somebody called Mos Espa, just an ordinary security cylinder about the size of a lightsaber sealed with a biometric lock; but the way she'd held it told him it held something of great significance. He stowed it in the very center of the locker, braced securely between other cases, then sealed the lid down and straightened up, massaging his protesting lower back.
"Admiral?" Mara's steps sounded down the corridor a moment before her head arrived through the cabin hatch. "We're about to"—she leaned out again, looking suspiciously behind herself down the corridor, and then mouthed take off.
"Is that classified information?"
She gestured down the corridor with her chin. "Suffice it to say you don't want to see what would happen if he finds out someone not him is flying this thing."
Piett's eyebrows jumped toward his cap brim. "Already?" he blurted.
"Skywalker genes. Also the fact that Luke lets him 'help' any time he flies." She flicked her fingers in a gesture the Solo children had instructed him was called "air quotes".
"But fortunately"—Piett didn't think he liked that smile—"you know all about managing the Skywalker assumption that they are the center of the spaceborne universe. Think you can distract him until I get us into hyperspace?"
"I'll do my best." How hard could it be?
"Fair warning," Mara continued, leading the way back down the corridor, "he's been playing here all morning, so disaster is not too strong a word."
She hit the hatch control leading to the passenger lounge.
"Mama!" A small redheaded boy bounced to his feet and launched across the lounge—straight through the greatest concentration of naval firepower that Piett had seen since Endor. Five model Star Destroyers, seven or eight Mon Calamari cruisers, a couple of Corellian corvettes, a disproportionately huge replica of the Millennium Falcon, sundry customized yachts and freighters, and whole squadrons' worth of starfighters, mostly X-wings.
So much for minimalism.
"Solo started it," Mara said, "and now everyone we know thinks it's a competition. Kid's going to wind up owning his own actual Death Star before he hits puberty."
"Mama!" Ben rounded the last Destroyer flotilla and hurtled like a proton torpedo into Mara's legs. "Az pay wis Achoo! Az—"
He devolved into busy toddler-chatter that Piett quickly realized he did not stand any chance of comprehending. Instead he craned his head to get a better look at the innocent, whimsical, tiny individual in whose person prowled the genomes of Darth Vader. So far they seemed to be achieving perfect incognito.
Ben caught him staring and returned the favor, throwing a chubby pointed finger into the bargain. "Mama, az dat?"
"That's Admiral Piett." Mara produced what appeared to be someone's sock from her pocket and bent over to mop up his snotty nose. "Can you say hello?"
The boy hid half his face in her trousers instead, in what Piett could already see was feigned shyness; his enormous grey eyes had much the same cheerful, inquiring spark that Skywalker's did.
"Ben Owen Skywalker," said Mara sternly. Guilt played comically over his impish countenance. "You need to be polite. Say hello."
Ben ducked his face further into her legs. "Addo."
"Hello, young man. Pleased to make your acquaintance." On a whim Piett doffed his cap, and was rewarded with a bright giggle. "Have you been helping your mother get the ship ready to fly?"
Ben abandoned all pretensions to timidity. "Az fy payship wis Mama an' Achoo! Az hep Mama—" The explanation dissolved into a gush of incomprehensible syllables and mysterious gesticulations.
"He certainly has," said Mara. "This morning, for instance, he washed all of Mommy's socks in the 'fresher bowl."
"Did he," said Piett. Note to self: keep cabin hatch firmly locked at all times.
"And then put them all over my bed to dry," she continued, "for which I blame his father, who showed him how he 'does laundry' on the Lady."
Ben, bored of all this adult conversation above his head, hung from her knees imploringly. "Uz pay fy, Mama?"
"Mommy has to work for a little bit. Why don't you play with Uncle Piett?"
"Uncle Piett?" stammered the newly-christened addition to the Skywalker clan.
"Don't tell me you're scared of the competition."
"Well," said Piett. "When you put it that way."
Ben surveyed him up and down with much the same impress me, if you can attitude Piett remembered from the day he'd met Vader. "Uz fy payships, Unca Peet?"
"I believe I can, so to speak, wing it." Forty years in the Navy had to be good for a few transferrable skills.
Mara's slight smile might have meant anything. "If it gets too interesting, ping me on the intercom. Safety harness seating on that bulkhead." The hatch whooshed shut behind her. Piett eyed it for a nervous moment before berating himself for a coward and finding a spot on the carpet. Ben instantly pushed a fistful of starfighters at him.
"Das Unca Wedz," he chattered, pointing out an X-wing with a black semicircle painted on its prow. "An das Unca Hobbie"—a long hash-marked stripe—"an das Unca Taco"—calligraphy of some kind, maybe Alderaanian—"an az not pay wis Unca Wez." He pointed at the overhead, where yet another X-wing model hung from a short cable. Piett squinted at it, curiously.
Ah. "Unca Wez" was inordinately fond of scantily clad females.
There was an insistent yank on his sleeve. Piett looked down and nearly impaled an eyeball on the prow of yet another X-wing.
"Dis Dada!" The fighter jerked impetuously in Ben's waving fist and, had Piett not dodged to the left, would have drilled his left nostril cavity a full centimeter deeper than designed by nature.
He steadied Ben's hand so as to get a good look. This X-wing had a large fragmented circle marked on it—that must be a kill badge representing the first Death Star, so perhaps the mysterious "Unca Wedz" and his semicircle had contributed to the demise of the second—and a little blue-and-white astromech picked out in loving detail. "I see, and a fine ship it is too."
"Az fy payship!"
Ben plopped down, held out the X-wing, and the tiny ship took flight, hovering six inches over his chubby palm. "Uz doot," he ordered, pointing a hereditary forefinger at his playmate.
Piett picked up "Unca Taco"—no wonder the child hadn't batted an eye at the notion of "Unca Peet", uncles were obviously a decicred a dozen in his world—and flipped it over, looking for the power switch. "Odd," he said to himself after a moment. "Does this one not have repulsors built in?"
Something twittered the electronic equivalent of a snigger behind him, and Piett twisted round. In a corner of the cabin beside the hatch, where it had escaped his line of sight until now, an old but well-maintained astromech droid was hooked up to a charging station. Its coloration matched the droid in Ben's model.
"Achoo!" Ben screeched, and pointed at Piett. "Daz Unca Peet!"
The idea of making introductions in the other direction as well did not occur to him, but then they weren't really necessary. "You," Piett said to it accusingly, "can only be Artoo-Detoo."
For an entity without proper appendages, the droid did a remarkable impression of Solo's Corellian salute.
"You nearly got me killed at Bespin. I still can't believe Lord Vader didn't strangle us all."
Exactly how the Falcon's crew had managed to diagnose what Piett had considered a quite sly bit of sabotage in time to hyper out of the Empire's clutches was one of many skin-of-the-teeth escapes Skywalker had demystified for them during his stay aboard the Lady, and by no means the only one to have hinged on the devious talents of his obsolete astromech Artoo-Detoo. Piett—though, come to think of it, not Lord Vader—had been greatly nonplussed. Being bested by a twenty-something Rebel with supernatural arcane powers was frustrating enough; losing to said Rebel's infernal mechanical sidekick was downright insulting.
The diminutive devil in question blatted something that resembled an apology in much the same way Lord Vader resembled a plushy toy.
Ben pushed impatiently at Piett's hands. "Uz doot, Unca Peet!"
"I'm trying," Piett told him.
"Az not ty," Ben said severely. "Az doot."
"Quoting Jedi proverbs already, I see." Piett turned over the toy fighter in quest of a repulsor switch. "Won't your grandfather be delighted."
The astromech twittered. Piett shot it a stern look. "As long as you're sitting there amusing yourself at my expense, perhaps you could help me find the repulsors on this." He held up "Unca Taco."
He hadn't really expected any help—it gave a certain impression of being a one-man droid—but a string of chatter blasted back at him. Piett held up a hand. "Wait, wait, one moment"—he dug out his datapad. "My binary was never all that good. May I?"
The astromech condescended to be hooked up to the pad, and a moment later text flowed onto the screen. REPEAT OBJECTIVE STATEMENT: the toy does not possess repulsion mechanisms.
Piett looked back at the ship still bobbing over Ben's shoulder. "But that one—"
Patience at an end, Ben flung a hand out, and the fighter in Piett's fingers jerked like a live thing. Astonished, Piett let go and watched it swoop in a shaky circle, weaving back around to his hand. "Uz doot," Ben insisted.
Piett stared in amazement, first at Ben and then at Artoo-Detoo. Who, for not having a face, was making an enormously smug one.
PROCEDURAL RECOMMENDATION: Tell him he must apply the same interface protocol as when playing with UNIT: HUMAN: HAN SOLO or UNIT: HUMAN: WEDGE ANTILLES.
Piett's eyebrows scrunched in the effort to parse this suggestion; but it seemed Ben understood some binary already, at least enough to catch the names. His thunderous little brow cleared in comprehension. "Uz fy payship az dis," he pronounced, and with great gravity of countenance proceeded to move Piett's arm for him, as if this was not the sort of activity that came naturally to most people. "Dis a'ten fy."
"Ah." Piett zoomed the X-wing experimentally. "Pretend flying. What an original imagination you have, young man."
Artoo-Detoo chirruped. OBSERVATION: Welcome to the Skywalker sideshow. THEORETICAL STATEMENT: It is probable that UNIT: HUMAN: BEN SKYWALKER also believes that the Force is how real ships fly.
Piett glanced back at little Ben, who was now the hub of a four-starfighter orbital system. "I didn't realize these, ah, talents could manifest at such a young age."
CALCULATION: Observed activities approximately 62.6% attributable to uploads of new operating instructions, most often by PRIMARY: LUKE SKYWALKER and PRIMARY: MARA JADE SKYWALKER.
Piett frowned, half his thoughts occupied with translating the curious metaphors into something understandable, the other half observing that this unit had to be decades overdue for a memory wipe. "You mean they teach him to do this?"
QUALIFICATION: Observed activities approximately 37.4% attributable to innate coding.
"He...does it instinctively?"
Affirmative. SUPPORTING EVIDENCE: 1: His gyroscopic and navigational functions are not prone to error, contrary to observed humanoid averages. 2: He locates objects without visual reference. 3: He is equipped with sensors for detecting unquantifiable data input, such as [thoughts] and [feelings]. 3a: When he detects high-intensity readings for these data he often experiences system overloads.
Abnormally good physical coordination, knew where things were without seeing them, could sense people's emotions and had meltdowns when they were too intense for him. He might be getting the hang of this droid lingo. "It must be very challenging to raise a child with such abilities."
OBSERVATION: You wouldn't believe the tantrums.
"Oh," Piett said, with a perfectly straight face, "I think I would."
Artoo chittered wicked amusement. RECALCULATION: Good point.
"Unca Peet!" Something sharp-cornered and metal dug into his kneecap, dragging his focus back down. Ben was proudly exhibiting yet another starfighter. It was—good gods, it was a homemade x1 Interceptor, pieced together out of parts scavenged from other models and possibly a few comlink components. There was even a little Imperial crest on the cockpit hatch.
"Dis Gampa," Ben informed him. "Az make uz!"
Piett exchanged skeptical looks with Artoo. "You made it all by yourself?"
Ben gave this some thought. "Az make uz wis Dada an' Mama."
MEMORY LOG REPORT: Model starfighter was constructed during holo call from PRIMARY: LUKE SKYWALKER on 12.13.25 precisely 26.88 standard days ago. PRIMARY: LUKE SKYWALKER provided instructions for materials and assembly.
"Ah," said Piett. "Your father called and showed you and your mother how to build the ship."
MEMORY LOG REPORT: I soldered the wings on.
"Az see Dada on commink," Ben said gravely. "Az cuz Dada go pay wis Gampa."
While Piett involuntarily explored the intriguing question of whether a human lung could be ejected directly through the nostrils, Artoo chuttered impudently. ASSESSMENT: That is a correct assessment of their interactions.
Piett glared at him. "You're not helping. He can read minds at this distance, you know."
QUALIFICATION: But not circuits. CONCLUSION: That's your problem.
"Uz Dada pay fy wis Gampa?" Ben chirped.
"Please the gods not with my ship," Piett muttered. Lord Vader might be a pilot par excellence, but he had a certain distressing tendency to assume that every craft he got his hands on was, more or less, a TIE fighter.
Ben clambered to his feet and pointed at Piett's face. "Uz pay fy wis Gampa, Unca Peet?"
"Er—well, I suppose after a manner of speaking, yes."
ASSESSMENT: So that's what took you so long in the Unknown Regions.
"I can't understand how you've gone this long without someone dumping you at a recycling center," Piett told it.
"Az pay fy wis Gampa?"
Piett winced. "Oh. Ah…"
CALCULATION: Facial analysis indicates 73% probability that negative answer may initiate a system overload.
"And have you considered what a positive answer may initiate?" Piett hissed, flicking a thumb toward the hatch. Though she clearly had a high tolerance for risk—she must, to have married into this family of daredevils—he couldn't see Mara Jade happily scheduling play dates for her not-even-two-year-old and his despotic Sith Lord grandfather. He had no idea whether they planned to introduce the child to Vader at all; the man could give adults nightmares just standing there and breathing, let alone impressionable younglings. Especially younglings who, per Artoo's claim of a moment ago, were extremely sensitive to negative emotions, something Darth Vader was probably generating at hurricane force 90% of the time.
Artoo shifted anxiously on his treads. PROCEDURAL RECOMMENDATION: Stall.
Piett shot another hopeful glance toward the hatch, but no Mara appeared for him to pass the buck to, and he could still feel the vibration of sublight engines and a faint gravitational pressure. Several minutes yet to hyper. He looked back down and was met with a budding scowl suggestive of increasing impatience and homicidal ancestry. "Well...I don't know."
Not so easily was the descendant of Darth Vader satisfied. "Az cuz why?"
Piett cast about him helplessly. How did one translate this sort of thing into toddler-size terminology? "Because...because Grandpa might not want to play flying."
An Orinthic nun at a Hutt strip club could not have produced a more scandalized expression than Ben did. He clearly held it as a truth self-evident and universal that no sentient being could aspire to any greater joy than to play flying. "Az cuz why?"
Piett tried to swallow the pittin that suddenly seemed to be squirming in his throat. He'd pitied the three Solo children, so young and naive to be saddled with such a dark and brutal relative—but innocent little Ben, who'd never imagined anything more terrible than perhaps one of his toy ships breaking, how could he even begin to understand? "Well, Ben, I—I can't really—"
Artoo interrupted with an urgent, melancholy wail. MEMORY LOG REPORT: Prior to 19BBY, PRIMARY: ANAKIN SKYWALKER smiled 73% more frequently when engaged in flight activities. MEMORY LOG REPORT: PRIMARY: ANAKIN SKYWALKER experienced a severe malware infection | darth-vader | in 19BBY which caused extensive corruption of his operating system files, required extensive hardware reconstruction, and overwrote his unit designation. CONCLUSION: Present response to flight activities not predictable.
"Just one moment," Piett sputtered at it. "You knew Lord Vader before—"
Ben tugged insistently at Piett's kneecaps. "Az Achoo say?"
"He says—he says that your grandfather became very sad a long time ago, and he might not be better yet. How did you know Lord Vader before—"
"Az sad?" pressed Ben.
Artoo screeched disapproval at this translation. MEMORY LOG REPORT: Primary behaviors expressed by PRIMARY: ANAKIN SKYWALKER [alt: darth-vader] between 19BBY and 4ABY are anger and aggression!
"Yes," Piett said stubbornly, glaring at the astromech. "Very sad. And sometimes, because he is so sad, he gets angry."
Artoo made a rude noise. Piett glanced at the datapad and hastily covered it, in case Ben's precocity extended to reading.
But Ben was busy turning over his toy TIE Interceptor with surprisingly thoughtful eyes. "Az cuzzer bey bamman make uz?"
Piett frowned. "Beg pardon—what?"
Ben frowned too. "Az bey bey bamman. Az make uz sad?"
Piett sighed and turned to Artoo. "I don't suppose you know what he's talking about?"
CLARIFICATION: He is querying if the Very Bad Man made PRIMARY: ANAKIN SKYWALKER "sad."
The last word was accentuated with a decidedly crude blatt. Piett scowled, and had to remind himself he was not addressing a sentient being but a piece of programming with a seriously under-serviced personality subroutine. Somehow it was hard to believe. "And who is this Very Bad—good gods!"
The half-meter-tall face of the Emperor had materialized amid the reproduction of his lost fleet, scowling none too benevolently at Piett as if holding him personally responsible for its destruction at Endor. Artoo twittered and rescaled the projection to full-body at the same height, which helped, but not much. Ben squealed at once. "Az bey bamman!"
"I see," said Piett sourly. "That very bad—"
He stopped dead, rather the way Mara just had in the hatch. He hadn't even felt the ship make the jump. Looking into her slitted poison-green eyes, he doubted he'd ever feel it come out of hyperspace either; never had the phrase mad as a mother gundark looked less metaphorical.
Piett tried out the words This is not what it looks like in his head, and wondered how he could make them sound more convincing.
"History lesson?" Mara purred.
Piett swallowed. "Of a sort." Privately he vowed that, unless he was spaced out the airlock in the next five minutes, he would seize the first available opportunity to kick Artoo-Detoo in the motivators.
"Mama! Az bey bamman!" Ben was waving a pudgy hand through the imperial countenance.
"Yes," growled Mara, lethal green gaze zeroed on Piett like a pair of Death Stars. "He was a very, very bad man."
Piett felt it was not the time to be making remarks on the complexities of differing intergalactic political philosophies, the frequently subjective nature of personal opinions, and the practical application of moral codes. The Emperor might be dead, but that was no reason he had to be.
Ben scampered into the center of the cabin, arms flung wide to include all listeners organic and mechanical in what he seemed to consider a supremely urgent announcement. "Unca Peet az say bey bamman make Gampa sad!"
Artoo blooped something smug, but Piett decided he might as well go down guns blazing. "Sad," he repeated stubbornly. "And sometimes—"
Ben bobbed his head up and down with all the excitement of a scientist discovering a new natural law. "Gampa az like Mama! Bey bamman az make uz bey sad!"
Piett blinked in total surprise; then realization dawned, and he looked at the woman who'd been the Emperor's Hand. She stood quite still for several seconds, expression inscrutable. Then she came and knelt beside Ben, staring at the projection. "Yes. The Very Bad Man made Mommy very sad too, once."
"Yes. Very sad and very angry." Her hand caressed Ben's hair, and old ghosts stirred in her eyes. "The Very Bad Man took Grandpa away and taught him to do very bad things, just like Mommy."
Artoo cooed sadly.
"But when Daddy found us, he helped us remember how bad the Very Bad Man was. And he helped make us happy again."
She spoke in measured, almost reverent tones, and Piett understood—it was not a simple story, but a sacred catechism, a legacy to be unpacked a little more each year as Ben grew in understanding. He'd wondered what someone as generous and trusting and luminous as Skywalker could possibly have seen to love in the caustic, pessimistic, and—well, jaded Emperor's Hand. But perhaps at core they were not so different. Both bared themselves to their worst demons for the sake of those they loved. Both held themselves to the highest standard of personal courage, and even now, were teaching it to their son.
Of course, as far as said son was currently concerned, this was all just first-rate entertainment. "Dada make bamman go 'way!"
"Yes. The Very Bad Man went away forever and ever."
"Az make bamman go 'way!" Ben swung his pudgy fists at the projection, making up in enthusiasm what he lacked in accuracy and coordination. Artoo whistled exuberantly, and made the projection dart left, right, waver, tumble onto the carpet, and finally wink out under the stomping of tiny bare feet. Ben flung his arms up in a sort of victory dance. "Bamman go 'way! Az make Mama happy!"
Piett probably shouldn't be grinning at the spectacle of his sworn monarch's likeness being trampled to death by a toddler, but found he couldn't help it. Artoo made the astromech equivalent of a snicker.
Mara swept him up in both arms and hugged him tightly, perhaps to conceal a suspicious glimmering in her eyes. "Yes, you make Mommy very, very happy."
Ben squirmed, waving his model TIE interceptor. "Az make Gampa happy?"
Mara ran a gentle hand through his hair. "Well, you'll have to wait and find out when you see him."
"Az see Gampa?"
"Soon, Ben. Very soon."
for your characterization of Mara! And for R2's snippy observations! Ben is in character too, full of childish exuberance!
Piett is mystified for a bit then catches on.
Very wonderful chapter! Well worth the wait. Hopefully life doesn't keep you away so long next time
I like the idea that Vader knows R2-D2 so well that when he sees the Falcon go to hyperspace when the hyperdrive was supposed to be turned off, his immediate mental process is: "What the kriff?" *mentally rewind last half hour, recall quick glimpse of blue and white astromech, add 2+2* "Shavit! This stinks of R2-D2."
A/N: ...I really fell off the wagon all. I post primarily on ff.net and AO3, and forgot to update the fic here for the entirety of 2019. I apologize. I'm finishing it, I swear. I could not prove it in a court of law, but it is true.
Credit for some content in this chapter goes to the EU novel Tatooine Ghosts.
“Welcome back, sir!”
Venka seized Piett’s hand and pumped it like a man trying to bail out a sinking rowboat. Piett cast sharp looks at the rest of the side party assembled to welcome him back to the Executor.
She’d looked like she was still a going concern, as much as he’d been able to see of her on the shuttle hop over from the Fidelity. Appearances, of course, could be deceiving.
“Thank you, Captain,” he said, extracting his slightly numb fingers. “It’s good to be back.” Whatever had Venka in a dither, it almost certainly began with a Darth and ended with a Vader…unless, of course, it began with a Luke and ended with a Skywalker. Or, gods help them all, both of them at once.
Well, if there was anything he’d learned in thirty years under Lord Vader, it was that there was no point paying for trouble before it came due.
“I trust,” he lied through his teeth, “you experienced no serious difficulties in my absence?”
Venka’s smile looked rather on the wan side. “All as well as can be expected, sir.”
Wonderful. I can see I’m not needed here. “Wonderful! I can see I’m not needed here!”
Forced smiles and painfully obligatory laughter ensued. Piett cast a regretful glance toward the puffing young New Republic ensign pushing a hovercart full of his baggage out of the shuttle. Ever since about four hours into the jump to Kuat, when the threat of naptime had prompted Ben to stage an impressive dramatization of the phrase tempest in a teacup complete with whirling airborne debris, he’d nursed fond hopes of unwinding for an hour or two in his own quarters with a well-deserved glass of the fifty-year Hapan blue cane rum that Airen Cracken had given him as a parting bribe. But when one allowed two Skywalkers free rein of one’s ship for a standard month, Consequences Ensued.
Someday, he thought wistfully. Surely he’d earn a decent rest someday.
"Well, gentlemen, I shan’t keep you from your duties any longer. We shall have a great deal of preparation ahead of us if we’re to make the scheduled jump window. Captain, if you’ll come with me and bring me up on our status?”
“Of course, sir.”
“And Lieutenant Ghors, if you would direct the ensign to my quarters with the luggage—ah, excepting this.” He fished quickly in the topmost locker and extracted the Princess’ security case. Though she hadn’t said anything about its being an urgent message, delay was never advisable where Lord Vader’s paternal sensibilities were involved; so he tucked the capsule into his uniform chest pocket and proceeded with Venka to the turbolifts, the rest of the men hanging respectfully back for the next lift. The car hatch had barely sealed itself before Piett cleared his throat.
“Alright—what’s he up to?”
“Er…not much, sir.”
Piett reached out and pressed the brake, jolting them both slightly. “Venka, how long have you and I known Lord Vader?”
Venka shifted nervously. “Ah—nearly thirty years, sir.”
“And when, in all that time, has he ever been up to ‘not much’?”
Venka clung to increasingly precarious calm. “Well, of course he’s busy, sir—but—it isn’t anything mission-critical, I assure you.”
Piett did not care for that pleading tone. “What isn’t mission-critical?”
“Well, the—but you must understand, I did try, sir, truly, ask Ghors, but—it’s not as though I stood a chance against both of them, is it? I’m sure you can requisition another one…somewhere…”
“Venka, stop blathering and tell me what’s going on.”
Venka gathered himself again and shook his head grimly. “You’ll see, sir.” He keyed a new destination into the car’s control panel and deactivated the brake. Three minutes later they stepped out into the corridor leading into the old black ops hangar. Piett peered out into it as they passed the deck-level observation windows toward the entrance, and a beat later stopped in his tracks.
“Master Skywalker’s yacht is gone.”
Venka backtracked and followed his gaze to the empty pad beside Vader’s lambda shuttle. “Odd. I thought they had another test flight scheduled in a few minutes.”
Piett’s gaze glazed over for a spellbound moment of pure, unalloyed dread. “Test flight?”
Venka looked guilty as hell. “I—I did want to warn you, sir, but Lord Vader insisted that it was, er…a surprise.”
Shuffling. “Yes, sir.”
Piett pinched the bridge of his nose. “Damn him and his damned surprises—”
If he had had a laser measure handy, he could have proven that Venka’s boots actually left the deckplates by a fraction of a millimeter. Firmus W. Piett, however, was not going to give Darth Kriffing Vader the satisfaction if it bloody well killed him.
He turned at the most leisurely pace he could without being accused of disrespect or a guilty conscience. Vader was looming practically on their heels, one thumb stuck in his belt, a double-length hydrospanner hanging in his free hand, and a smug-as-hell expression somehow superimposed on his mask.
“My lord. I see you’ve been keeping your hand in.”
Venka made a borderline-supersonic squeak of dismay. He had never figured out that this was (usually) just one of Vader’s games. The man liked a challenge, and if he could give himself one while simultaneously upending his subordinates’ assumptions about how sneaky a bastard a two-meter, hundred-and-twenty kilo, respirator-reliant force of nature could be, so much the better.
“You are late,” he boomed, nearly skewering Piett with the hydrospanner. “You received approval for a two-standard-week temporary duty assignment. It has been over twice that length of time.”
Venka’s face went whiter than one of the Princess’ dresses, but Piett just clasped his hands behind his back and projected the aggressive imperturbability that used to leave Ozzel frothing at the mouth. “Yes, sir. Regrettably the negotiations took rather longer than we—”
“You will notice,” Vader boomed over top of him, still wagging the hydrospanner at Piett’s nose, “that I have commanded this ship for four consecutive weeks without your assistance.”
Piett enforced his straight face with difficulty. Nice though it was to have this proof that Vader was pleased—alright, less than completely indifferent—to see him despite their little tiff, he had his dignity to maintain. “I only hope it wasn’t too taxing, sir.”
“Taxing.” Vader contrived by inflection alone to evoke the image of a health and safety inspector who had just discovered a severed human appendage in his Giju stew. “You may find it taxing to maintain the elevated standards I have instituted in your absence.”
“No doubt, sir.” He eyed the hydrospanner. “All while still finding time for side projects, I see.”
“Indeed,” said Vader. “Since executing the duties of commander occupied a mere thirty percent of the regular duty shift. One wonders what it is you do with the remaining time.”
He swooped past, cape flagging out magnificently in his wake. Piett glanced at Venka and found the captain’s face performing a complicated cubist ballet of terror and bewilderment. Taking pity on the man, he cleared his throat.
“That will be all, Captain. I shall debrief Lord Vader and join you on the bridge shortly.”
While Venka retreated in the turbolift, Piett followed Vader into the hangar—and stopped dead in his tracks. Docked next door to Vader’s shuttle, there was now an additional lambda—Hull Number Delta Three Aurek Aurek, to be precise, otherwise known as Shuttle Incomium. A fact which he knew because it was his shuttle.
Or rather, it had been.
His shuttle, all of it but the actual hull, was now the enormous tottering pyramid of cannibalized engine components, wires, bolts, struts, illumination nodes, hoses, cables, conduits, panels, insulation, gaskets, fuses, tanks, switches, housings, pipes, lube cans, grating, struts, fuel lines, entire dorsal foil assembly, racks, washers, magnetic seal kits, plates, and one enormous securing wingnut labeled in reflective neon orange characters DANGER STRUCTURAL SUPPORT ELEMENT DO NOT DETACH situated three meters on the wrong side of the safe working radius dictated by Imperial Navy safety regulations. Looking at it gave Piett the distinct sensation that a suction pump was slurping every milliliter of blood out of his cardiovascular system. Somehow he managed to stagger around to the shuttle’s aft, where Lord Vader was feeding the double-length hydrospanner into the sublight engine exhaust valve, right past the prismatic yellow warning sticker and its graphic diagram of a limb being severed.
Why in hells couldn’t the man have picked any of the other fifty shuttles on this ship to eviscerate?
“I see you’ve been, ah, productive, sir.”
“More than can be said for your service crew,” said Vader, still banging the hydrospanner around in the shuttle’s innocent entrails. “They have been severely lax in the upkeep of this vessel.”
Piett glowered at the pile of inorganic offal nearby. “Well, I imagine they shan’t have much trouble accessing all the components now, sir.”
“You have no cause for complaint.” Something inside the exhaust valve went spang. “I have installed new sublight fuel cells, optimized engine performance, and recalibrated control sensitivity to combat-grade standards, as well as completing numerous interior upgrades. Provided your flight crew does not rival your service crew for ineptitude, you will find it a vastly superior transport than before.”
“No,” said Piett mutinously, “I’ll find it vastly faster than before, sir.”
“As I said.”
There was a sort of strange sucking noise from somewhere in the ship’s bowels. Vader’s arm shot backwards out of the valve an instant before both sublight engines suddenly shrieked to life and the exhaust fan whipped into motion. Piett jumped like a stung Ewok and fought the urge to jam his fingers in his ears. No proper lambda shuttle was supposed to scream like a TIE Interceptor.
“Finally.” Vader glanced up at the huge chrono embedded in the hangar wall over the control office’s bay viewport, eyed the empty pad assigned to his son’s ship, and made a disgusted noise. “When, or if, my son returns, you will relay to him this message: size may matter not, but time does.”
He started sharply round the shuttle, making for the ramp, and Piett had to scamper after him.
“Er—where is Master Skywalker, sir?”
“Planetside,” Vader said. “Attending to Jedi business.”
Well, that certainly explained a lot.
“I—I’m sure he’ll be back shortly, sir—and as a matter of fact, while you have a few moments—”
“I do not,” said Vader, already tapping in the access code. “The scheduled launch is in five minutes and I have no wish to renegotiate it with the New Republic Navy and the system defense force.”
Piett scowled at his back, not about to be ranked second behind his own eviscerated shuttle. “I shall be happy to take that responsibility myself, sir”—as if it would take more than five minutes to reschedule a simple shuttle flight—“but I have important information to relay to you, and as Master Skywalker is not yet here to act as copilot—”
Vader wheeled on him. “Since you are so desirous of my attention, perhaps I should have you fulfill that role in his place.”
Piett practically felt his hackles rising. Like hells was he going to be threatened out of the way that easily.
“It’d be my pleasure, sir,” he retorted.
“Indeed it will,” Vader purred.
Damn the big smug bastard! He hadn’t been threatening Piett out of the way, he’d been baiting him into it. You’d think he’d know, after all this time, that Darth Kriffing Vader didn’t bluff. Kriffing Sith Lords and their psychotic manipulative games. Kriffing Skywalkers, never around when you needed them.
“I presume you have not forgotten how to transmit a flight packet,” Vader boomed, leading the way up the ramp.
Piett jammed his cap on furiously, storming after him. “No, sir. Once a coms man always a coms man, sir.”
Nevertheless, seeing as the last time he’d acted as a shuttle coms officer he’d been a wet-behind-the-ears petty officer on his first tour of duty in the Imperial Navy and the shuttle in question had been a stodgy old theta-class, he took a surreptitious moment to reorient himself to the station layout while booting up the console. Fortunately Sienar’s operating interfaces hadn’t really changed much since the start of the Empire. “Course data entered?”
Vader, occupying the pilot’s station like a god enthroned, was of course lightyears ahead of him. “Entered and confirmed.” A switch on the nav station threw itself at the flick of his finger, streaming the course coordinates and formulas to Piett’s console. Renewed irritation powered Piett into overdrive: slot course data into packet, pull manifest, revise—add himself, drop Skywalker—overwrite log, copy to packet, pull system status report from Flight Engineering—
“System status reports check, sir. Packet ready for—”
“Sealed,” said Vader, thumb already leaving the scanner. “Initiating sublight warmup cycle.”
“Acknowledge.” Piett selected the appropriate recipients—Eriadu System Defense, the NRN’s flagship Guardian, and the Lady’s bridge—and queued the packet for transmission. “Shuttle Incomium to Executor. Stand by for flight packet.”
There was a rather surprised silence from the bridge as ComScan tried to work out why its admiral was, as Ben Skywalker would certainly have put it, “paying fy.”
“Acknowledge, sir—er, Incomium,” came the answer finally. “Packet received and logged, Incomium. Stand by for launch authorization.”
He thumped back in his seat and shot a pointed look sideways at Vader.
“I see you have retained your lessons in small craft operation.”
Ha! A concession! Piett allowed himself a slight smile and relaxed his posture a little.
“Those to do with coms duties, at least.” Vader’s mask regarded him balefully. “Perhaps we shall also test those pertaining to piloting, since you are certified on small craft up to 500 k-tons.”
It was alarming how much the man remembered, sometimes. But Vader would sooner drop dead than stoop to playing passenger while an inferior pilot embarrassed himself at the controls—"inferior" being defined by him as "anyone in the known universe with the possible exception of Luke Skywalker"—so Piett put on a cool, bold face. “If you like, sir.”
Conversation fell back to the bare operational minimum for a few minutes—the ESD called in clearance, Fidelity pinged acknowledgement of flight packet receipt, and ComScan overcame its befuddlement long enough to send them the launch authorization. Piett logged everything as fast as he could, but was still making entries when Vader sent the thing roaring out of the hangar and rammed him back into his seat with a stifled curse. Payback for not being sufficiently intimidated, probably; black amusement seemed to be emanating from Vader’s side of the cockpit.
He peeled his lips open with some difficulty. “Quite the turn of foot you’ve given her, sir.”
“It is acceptable.”
Translation: it was fast enough not to bore him to tears, which meant its innards no longer bore the slightest resemblance to a standard lambda shuttle, which meant Piett’s desk was probably already inundated with excruciatingly detailed reports from irate techs who couldn’t make heads or tails of what Lord Vader had done to their vessel. The Lady’s ventral beam blazed by overhead, dead center of the viewport, her port and starboard sidewalls narrowing—then nothing ahead but open space, alive with stars. Piett clutched his arm rest with another strangled obscenity as Vader gunned the sublight engine clear into the red zone.
“More than acceptable, I’d say, sir,” he grunted. “I suppose it’d be asking too much to keep our speed within the standard operating parameters?”
“This is a test flight. Assessing the limits of the shuttle’s sublight performance is the primary objective.”
“You might have mentioned that before we left, sir.”
“You were under no compulsion to accompany me. I am well aware of your distaste for such activities.”
“I don’t mind flying,” Piett said stubbornly. “Just suicide.”
Vader shot him a sharp look, as though Piett had said something he shouldn’t. Just as abruptly he turned back to the console. “If you lack faith in my ability to control this ship—”
“Not lack of faith so much as—survival reflex—” The ship plunged into a combat-speed eight-G arc around one of Eriadu’s orbital factories, constricting his chest. “I haven’t your tolerance for this—sort of—thing—”
Was that a hundred thousand klicks per second they were moving at now? His vision was going dark and fuzzy at the edges; maybe he’d seen an extra zero or two. What g-force were they up to?
Perhaps Vader realized that he was going to knock his admiral out in another few seconds if he didn’t make some modifications to his lead foot. Perhaps he just felt he’d gotten his point across. At any rate, Piett felt the acceleration slow, and the pressure pinning him to his seat back lessened considerably as the centripetal force abated. His vision brightened again; now he could make out dingy lights gridded over the nightside surface of the factory satellite as they completed their flyby and hurtled onward toward the outer system. Reflexively he checked the readouts against the flight plan coordinates, but they were of course dead on the money, probably less than three meters of variation. Vader was a legend for his accuracy and precision. And, it went without saying, for his speed; it was supposed to be a four hour flight according to the manifest he’d revised moments ago, but they were already two minutes ahead of their scheduled ETA, and they’d only been under way for ten.
“What is our time to the inner belt?” Vader asked the universe.
Piett wiped a hand over his eyes to clear the last fog out of his head, and squinted at the navicomp. “About forty-five minutes at our present velocity, my lord.” The Eriadu system featured three quite large asteroid belts, all heavily mined to feed the planet’s insatiable factories. As flying through asteroid fields was the sort of thing only complete imbeciles like Han Solo did, the local authorities maintained safe-passage channels at strategic points through each belt. He’d better establish contact with the nearest channel station to schedule their transit—
“Belay that,” Vader ordered, as his hand moved toward the com stud. “You had a matter of urgency to discuss, as I understand.”
“Important, sir,” Piett corrected mildly. “Not urgent, per se.”
“Very well,” Vader said, with scathing condescension. “What was so important that you could not wait a mere four hours to address it?”
“Not me, sir,” Piett said obstinately. “It’s a message from your…from the Princess.”
Vader turned wholly away from the viewport and stared at him, though their course held perfectly true. “From the Princess.”
He sounded as bewildered as Piett confronted with a flight panel.
“Yes, my lord. She entrusted it to me to deliver to you, just before I left Coruscant.” He unbuckled his crash webbing and extracted the little security case from his jacket pocket, holding it toward Vader so that the biometric lock was convenient to access. “She said that it was a personal message for you.”
Vader did not take it. He stared at the case for several seconds, then again at Piett. “The Princess sent a personal message to me.”
“Forwarded it, I believe.” The tension in Vader’s posture unwound a notch or two. He held out an open hand for the case and sat back in the seat, flying casually with one hand while examining the case in his usual terse manner, turning it this way and that, noting its complete lack of distinguishing traits.
“Forwarded from whom?”
“She gave me to understand it was from somebody called Mos Espa, my lord—is everything all right?”
Vader’s hand lapsed from the controls; the shuttle had already drifted four klicks off course, unheard-of sloppiness by his standards. His gaze did not budge from the case, now trembling slightly atop his palm—or was that Piett’s imagination?
“My lord? Is something—”
“Mos Espa is a town.” Vader’s hand closed slowly over the case—no, Piett was not imagining the tremble—and his thumb pressed the biometric lock. “Somewhere, not someone.”
The end of the case sliced open on its swivel hinge, and Vader drew out an ancient, battered recorder. The thing had to be a century out of date; bulky, cracked at one end, paint sandblasted away. It did not have a voice interface, just old-fashioned buttons marked with exotic graphemes—they could be letters of an Outer Rim alphabet, or stylized icons from an obscure culture, or something else entirely for all Piett could read them. Vader sat running his fingertips over its humble contours as if over the face of a lover, controls forgotten. Universe forgotten.
“I…see, sir.” Piett swallowed, eyeing the flight path as it continued to skew. Thirty klicks off course now. “Er…I beg your pardon, my lord, but our heading seems to be—”
Vader threw a switch on the console, and Piett gave a startled yelp as his side of the board sprouted a host of new indicator lights. “Fly,” he ordered.
The next instant he had vanished into the crew cabin, and Piett was left staring at the controls trying to remember how you told a throttle apart from a thruster.
“Well,” he muttered to himself under his breath. “That went well.” Alright, alright—it was a Sienar, just another Sienar, one cockpit array was never that much different from another. Even the Lady relied on the same general pattern, which embarrassingly was more helpful to him than attempting to recollect his long-ago training on actual small craft like this one. Thrusters—reverse thrusters—foils—pitch—directional thrusters—alright. Alright. It wasn’t going to be that bad. Once he blew the rust off he’d be fine. It wasn’t like there was anything to run into, and surely, surely Lord Vader would be back before they hit that asteroid belt in thirty minutes or so…
Right. Right. First things first—get her back on the right heading. Piett gripped his port directional thrusts and waggled his pitch controls to get a feel for—damn, she was touchy! He’d thought it was a smallish nudge, but the shuttle nipped sideways like the spring-jumping cricket-fish of Symoona and promptly overshot her course in the opposite direction. Swearing under his breath, Piett corrected her the other way. It took a dozen tries to calibrate his feel for those damned sensitive directionals and get the shuttle back on a level plane within the standard five-klick variation of the flight path. Anybody watching on their scanners had to be laughing their fool heads off at his clumsy antics. Well, kriff them. This hair-trigger level of responsiveness in the controls could only be another of Vader’s outrageous moon-jockey modifications—
The deck reverberated under his feet as something slammed into it at speed. Something inside.
His hands sprang forward without waiting for his brain, releasing his crash webbing—his feet threw him out of the seat, around the stations, through the gangway, into crew cabin, where Vader—
—where Vader sprawled on the deck on his side, lights spasming on his chest control panel, one hand opening and closing like the gills of a beached fish, the other clinging to the recorder as it played its message, his eyes rolled back into his head, unfocused and dilated—where the hell was his mask?
Piett cast frantically about the cabin, but neither helmet nor mask was anywhere to be seen. All he heard in the silence was a faint, organic rasping—what was he going to do—what the hell—
—do we do if something happens to him? Seventeen years ago, the midnight medbay meeting, him and Venka and the assistant surgeon, after that hull breach killed Dr. Siler, the only one who’d been allowed to treat Vader, who’d known how to maintain his complicated life support systems—what do we do if something happens to the suit—what is our contingency plan—
He darted forward, through the blue haze of the hologram playing from the recorder, over Vader’s legs, wrenched an emergency mask from the life support rack and connected it to the emergency oxygen tube at the medical bunk set in the forward bulkhead. Back to Vader—he seized the man by the wrists, hauled him over the deck within reach of the short tube. Shoving him upright against the bulkhead, he fumbled for the breath mask on the bunk, wedged it under the interior mouthpiece of the suit over his mouth and nose, adjusted the strap carefully around the ragged gashed scars at the back of his head. He leapt back to his feet, eyes racing over the control panel beside the bunk—there, oxygen flow—atmospheric mix—standard or enriched? Enriched, he’d been without airflow for at least two or three minutes now, maybe longer—it stuttered—he slammed the bulkhead—
A swift inrush of breath—then out. In—out. In…out…in…
Piett closed his eyes and sagged against the bulkhead, feeling a sudden burning in his upper body muscles. Whatever Vader weighed, it was much more than Firmus W. Piett was used to lifting. More than he’d thought he could lift.
Did I just interrupt a suicide attempt?
It was the only logical conclusion—except it made no sense, because Vader wouldn’t just quit like that…would he? He certainly hadn’t come aboard with that intention. What in hells could have been in that message to cause such a sudden—such an extreme reaction?
“… do believe there are times when he truly misses your mischief.”
Piett turned around and saw the hologram, still playing determinedly from the battered recorder clenched in Vader’s unconscious hand.
The speaker was a woman, dark-haired, dark-eyed—very like the Princess indeed, except there was nothing of the Princess’ regal air about her. Her ragged, coarse homespun and bent posture suggested a life of long, hard days, sharp words, blisters, sweat. But behind her hung the stars in their glorious, endless array, as they could only be seen from space…or from a desert.
“Ani, this diary is for you. I know you’ll be gone a long time, and that you’ll be very lonely at times. So will I. This diary is so that when you come home someday, you’ll know you were always in my heart. But your destiny lies in the stars. You will achieve great things in the galaxy, Anakin. I have known that from the moment you were born.”
His mother. Dear gods, the Princess had sent Vader a hololetter from his dead mother. He didn’t know what part of that sentence struck him as the most improbable—that Vader’d had a mother, or that the Princess had had a letter of hers, or that she had somehow brought herself to give it to the father she so resented.
“You must never believe you were mistaken to leave Tatooine. Wherever you go, you carry my love with—”
A faint groan snapped his attention away from the hologram. Vader was planting a shaky hand, pushing himself a little further up.
“My lord? Are you alright?”
He dropped to one achy old knee next to his commander so as to get a better look at his—
His face. White, mostly, the skin pale and flaky as crumbling mortar holding together his bald scalp, mangled cheek, and scar-bound lips. Startling red jumped out here and there—at the corners of the mouth just visible through the clear plastic of the breath mask, the corneas of the eyes, the deep furrows of the worst scars, making them look like still-raw wounds—blue too, the eyes he’d given his son and grandson, only milkier, unfocused from retinal damage.
And a still-dashing scar over the right eyebrow.
Piett wetted his lips, nervous and still. The blue eyes tracked him as best they could, looking almost hunted, like a wild thing cornered by the kath hounds. Between them, the recorder continued looping through the message. Piett reached out and turned it off.
“I—can you hear me, sir?”
Breath in. Breath out. Then a laborious nod.
“Are you alright? Should I adjust the oxygen flow settings? I’m not sure what you—”
He felt his heart stutter. If it weren’t for the rest of the armor he would have thought a magician had spirited another man into the ship while his back was turned. The voice—a frail rasp, the ruin of the pleasant tenor in the recording the Solo twins had shown him—labored to be heard at all. Tenor. That just wasn’t right. His hand dropped away from Vader’s shoulder, as if he had been touching a corpse at a wake.
“Impressed?” Vader wheezed. It was strange, being able to read his meaning so clearly. The damaged face was as freely expressive as the mask was impassive, everything set out plainly: bitterness, self-contempt, acidic humor…shame.
“Yes, sir,” he said quietly. “I doubt anyone else could have done it.”
“Lived, sir.” He sat back on his heel. Gods. What must it have taken, to keep going, after such unspeakable injury? He wanted to say more—you’re amazing, you’re a miracle, you’re twice as strong as I ever thought, how did you carry that and all of us at the same time—but he knew, looking at those eyes, that the one thing Lord Vader couldn’t bear was sincere praise. Even the little he’d already said had put a haunted look on his face. Piett cleared his throat. “What happened?”
The question startled him; perhaps it even frightened him. “It is of no consequence. It was long ago.”
Oh gods, he thought I was asking about—“I meant, what happened just now, sir?”
Vader’s fogged eyes drifted down towards the recorder, sitting innocently in his hand as if it hadn’t nearly been the death of a man whom entire armies and the very forces of nature had failed to kill. He stared at it in dead silence. He was not going to answer, of course.
Piett swallowed and scanned the cabin again, ostensibly looking for the missing helmet and mask; in fact he was just glad for something else to think about. He finally spotted the mask, wedged in the shadows under a seat on the opposite side, and the helmet rolled into a corner under a conduit. He wondered whether they still worked.
“I couldn’t…hear her…”
It was barely a whisper. “Sir?”
He gestured at his head vaguely. “The helmet…distorts sound. I had to…hear her…myself.”
“The helmet distorts sound? You nearly died, sir!” In a flash fire of rage, Piett didn’t even notice he’d started using his damn-fool-ensigns voice. “You couldn’t have waited until we got back to the Lady? In your chamber, surely—”
“No.” Vader would not look him in the eye, but his vehemence startled Piett’s anger away even so. “I was nine years old…when I left her. I only saw her…once again…a few minutes before she…”
Piett fell silent. He knew that look—that dead, ground-in weight that meant too much grief, carried too long—gods knew, he’d seen it often enough, sometimes in his own mirror. You didn’t apologize to a look like that.
“I had no image…of her. No…token. Nothing…nothing…”
His voice evaporated to nothing.
It was a fool thing to do, the kind of thing that under normal circumstances would have been noted on the post-mortem as suicide by proxy; but Piett reached instinctively to grip the hand that still lay limp on the deck. Vader didn’t seem to notice one way or the other. More machine than man—what an imbecile he’d been to think so. Machines didn’t accidentally kill themselves out of sheer desperation to hear the voice of a loved one long gone.
“How did she come by this? The Princess, how?”
“She didn’t tell me.” He wished he’d thought to ask.
“Why? What reason did she give for sending it?”
He shook his head slowly. “None. At least…not that she said aloud.”
Vader hefted himself up a little more. “And what did she say by other means?”
“Well, I’m no mind reader”—Piett applauded himself for the tiny huff of disgust this elicited—“but I’m confident she didn’t mean it as any sort of—accusation.” He offered a wry smile. “She, ah, didn’t seem to be looking forward to it enough for that.”
Vader inhaled laboriously; the emergency mask clearly wasn’t as robust as his own respirator. He made no answer. Surely there was something more Piett could say, some sliver of hope to offer, however faint…
“Perhaps…perhaps she merely wanted to honor her grandmother’s wishes.”
Vader’s dim eyes wandered past Piett and found the mask, lying on the desk across the cabin. It stared back at him, one dead man to another. He licked his lips, moistening them enough to speak again. “Then she has done far more than I.”
What to say to that? Anakin Skywalker had indeed achieved great things in the galaxy—but not the way that that gentle, devoted woman had dreamt he would, as even Piett could tell on his mere seconds of acquaintance with her. Ozzel, Needa, the Jedi younglings—such stories would have broken that woman’s heart. Worse than foolish to suggest otherwise, or try to gloss it over, or argue in his defense.
Well, that left only the truth to work with. He didn’t know what good it would do, but on the other hand, what could it possibly hurt?
“Same here, sir. My mother was beside herself when I joined the Axxilan anti-pirate force.” He eased down properly on the deck so as to take the weight off his increasingly irritated knee. “They don’t think much of the military life back home, you see. If I had a decicred for every time she told me I was throwing my life away for no good reason, didn’t I want to get married, what about children—hells, I could have retired a year after I started.” He smiled wistfully. “Then I signed on with the Imperial Navy proper, and she cried for a month straight, I believe.”
Vader remained so silent that if it’d been anyone else, Piett would have assumed him so lost in thought he hadn’t heard a word. Impossible, of course. Vader never missed anything, though he noticed much that he did not consider worthy of acknowledgment. Well, so be it. He’d never claimed to be a Luke Skywalker, and at least he’d tried—
“What…would she have preferred?”
Piett’s eyes snapped up in complete surprise. Vader was still staring at his own mask.
“She, ah…she rather had her heart set on me taking over my great-uncle’s business.”
“Your great-uncle’s business.”
“He, er, ran a greenhouse.” He really should have stopped there—but what the hell. “Exotic flowers, mostly.”
There was a dead silence for five solid seconds…then a weak, coughing laugh burst out. “Exotic—flowers?” Vader wheezed.
Piett tried to keep a straight face. “I don’t see what’s so funny. Perfectly respectable line of work, horticulture—”
Another laugh got free of Vader, and then Piett was chuckling himself. The idea of him back on Axxila, arranging bouquets of Chandrilan orchids for a living, after all they’d been through…
“No doubt,” Vader managed. “Nevertheless—I am glad you avoided it.”
“A thought which has given me valuable motivation for the last twenty-five years,” Piett agreed, and wonder of wonders, Vader laughed again. “She came round a bit more when my sister had children. Amazing the effect grandchildren can have.” He ventured a casual wink. “But I daresay you’ll find that out yourself soon enough.”
Vader’s amusement wilted. “They would do better never to meet me.”
“Fat chance of that. I imagine they’d have to be put in shackles somewhere in the Deep Core to stop them mobbing you. Even then it’d probably only buy you a month or two.” He got to his feet and headed off to retrieve the mask from under the bench. “Can’t imagine where they get it from, sir.”
“That is no mystery,” said Vader. “It is clearly Solo’s influence.”
“Ah, yes.” Piett collected the helmet and carried them back. “Those obstinate, bantha-headed Corellians. What else could it be?”
Vader pointed at him. “You are taking liberties.”
“Just trying to prepare you for the future, sir—shavit!”
A tremendous thump struck the hull. Piett shoved mask and helmet at Vader and sprinted for the cockpit, thudding into his seat as another micro-meteor thunked off the deflector shields he’d fortunately left running. They had drifted into the outer arm of the asteroid belt, and the coms station was flashing furiously with a backlog of messages, probably warnings from the system patrol, the Lady, the EDF, the Fidelity…what a right pair of fools they’d look.
If they didn’t die, that was.
Piett seized the controls, but his intended hard a-port out of the asteroid belt became a hard-a-starboard into it as he was forced to evade a hurtling train of meteors walling them in, and then a planetoid-sized one skewing down from above, and then a vaporous blast of gravelly haze—
“Why did you not switch it to autopilot before abandoning the controls?” Vader trucked into view, mask and helmet and spine-chilling bass all back in order, a going concern once more.
“I was a bit preoccupied”—a stellar gust rattled them sideways, Piett wrestling the controls for dear life to stop them smashing into solid ore—“by the fact that you were dying, sir!”
“That is no excuse for handling a ship irresponsibly, dive—"
Piett jammed the pitch control forward, plunging them below an incoming asteroid just careening out of his blind spot.
“—and I would have been no less dead had a large asteroid impacted us.”
“I stand corrected.” Piett strained at the forward thrusters as the ship shaved past a city-sized obstruction. “Now perhaps, sir, if you’re ready to resume control of—”
“I think not.” Vader actually honest-to-gods crossed his arms and leaned back in his seat. “It is obvious that you are in need of the practice.”
Piett gaped at him for the quarter-second he felt he could spare his attention from the gauges. “Last I checked, small craft piloting wasn’t on the skill set requirements for admirals!”
“There is no reason for allowing any of your training to lapse. Pick up your speed. This is a Navy shuttle, not a nursing home airbus. Why have you not logged any flight time in recent years?”
“Because I was trying to stitch a Super Star Destroyer together with spit and space tape, sir!”
“That is not an acceptable excuse. When you return—veer port—you may expect to attend weekly retraining sessions with the shuttle flight crew.”
“Just so long as it isn’t with you,” Piett snapped.
“Do not think that what has transpired between us entitles you to address me with disrespect, Admiral.”
“Just so long as it isn’t with you, sir!”
A longer comment may come later but for no I'll just say that it was a funny chapter
Mixed with a great deal of poignance around the holo-message. These two-Piett and Vader--snark with the BEST of them.
Although I am aware that this fic is supposed to be comedy, it nevertheless confirms something that I had long suspected, namely that Vader and Piett have genuine respect for one another, and even....don't hate each other.
I don't know why, but this last by-play is my absolute favorite of the chapter. I could see Piett's raised eyebrow and Vader's wry smile with the last two line. Thanks!