Title: Meet the Skywalkers
Disclaimer Not my characters and not my universe.
Summary: Newly returned from the Unknown Regions with Darth Vader, Admiral Piett doesn't expect much of a welcome from the New Republic. And not in a million lifetimes would he have predicted that their very first guest would be Luke Skywalker. After all, Skywalker and Vader are still mortal enemies...right? .
Eriadu looked exactly as revolting as it had twenty-eight years ago, which was a comfort. At least something in the galaxy hadn't changed.
Firmus Piett linked his fingers together behind his back and concentrated on projecting the image of a confident, imperturbable admiral. It was an image that had gotten a lot of practice. Two and a half decades of staggering from crisis to crisis – trying to keep the Executor's life support systems tottering along, scraping together the resources to feed and clothe three hundred thousand men, conference after brain-racking conference with navigators, techs, engineers, mechanics…
They had crawled homeward system by uninhabited system until, last month, the ship reached Zonju V. Piett was prepared to wager his hypothetical firstborn child that never in history had a less deserving planet been greeted with such shouts of joy as the Executor's surviving crew members rained on it. It was by any civilized standard a dustball lodged in the back of a closet, but the closet in which it was lodged was their own long-lost galaxy.
Zonju V's list of desirable qualities ended there. Whether one or a thousand turbolasers were trained on them, the destitute colonists could supply little in the way of aid. Of reliable information, they could supply even less. The Empire had collapsed. No, it was at war with a New Republic. No, no, it had signed a peace treaty with the Rebels, what was left of it--no, just some of what was left of it… No two Zonjuvians seemed to have the same opinion on the subject, and indeed had considered the entire outside galaxy purely academic until a Super Star Destroyer materialized in their skies.
As no provisions were to be had, and as Engineering estimated their jury-rigged hyperdrive was only good for another 5 parsecs or so, Lord Vader ordered the ship to jump to Eriadu – the closest hub of commerce and, once upon a time, of Imperial patriotism. In theory, a system capable of producing Wilhuff Tarkin would not yet have forgotten the Empire…whatever remained of it.
The Executor had limped into the Eriadu system five days ago, flinging open the gates of all nine Corellian hells in the process. From Piett's vantage point it had been quite the spectacle: cargo ships, tankers, and small craft fleeing for their lives in all directions; the panicking corvettes and patrol ships of the Eriadu Security Force, some opening fire, some scrambling towards the planet and orbital habitats to do gods only knew what in their defense; the incredulous horror of the governor as her frantic plea for peace was answered by a Dark Lord of the Sith who was supposed to be dead…
For several hours, the authorities in Eriadu City persisted in violent skepticism that the ship and her crew were who they claimed to be. When Vader threatened the entire Quintad Council with strangulation by way of proof, the governor's office transmitted declassified Imperial naval reports stating that the Executor had been destroyed at the Battle of Endor. Included was a sensor recording from the Reprisal in which the computer distinguished a mere two thousandths of a second between the disappearance of the Executor and the massive heat signature of the Death Star's explosion.
Piett took a slightly deeper breath as his mind's eye populated the relative quiet of Eriadu with the chaos of that day. He had always known they'd had a close shave – but two thousandths of a second? No human eye could have perceived that the ship had vanished ahead of the explosion. Even had they suspected the possibility, they must have dismissed it when the Executor failed to reappear in the following weeks.
Vader had viewed that recording, stood in silence for a moment or two, and then uncorked wells of cooperation Piett hadn't known he possessed. ComScan busied itself for hours transmitting copies of the ship's log, personnel records, their readouts from Endor, medical files, and anything else that might help knock it through the Eriaduans' heads that this was in fact the Executor and her commander was in fact Darth Vader. Conviction finally set in, and the planet began transmitting caches of news records to bring them up to speed on the galaxy's doings.
From the perspective of thousands of Imperial naval officers, not much of the news was good.
The Emperor had never formally chosen a successor; his presumed heir--Vader--had also been presumed dead. Much of the senior military leadership had fallen in action at Endor. So it did not come as a real shock to hear that the Empire had fragmented, factions dismembering each other in the scrum to claim Palpatine's vacant throne; nor that the Rebel Alliance, gathering momentum from its stupendous victory, had finally captured Coruscant and declared the formation of a New Republic.
But it left Piett feeling pointless.
He was captain of a floating anachronism. Even in full fighting trim, the Lady could not re-conquer the galaxy singlehanded. Mention of a surviving Imperial enclave controlling some dozens of systems inspired him only with disgust, as it must anyone who could remember when the mere invocation of Palpatine's name froze the blood of Core World tyrants and Outer Rim primitives alike. The Empire to which he had devoted his life was gone.
Here in the hour of their homecoming, Piett felt more lost than ever.
But he mustn't let the crew see it. They no doubt felt the same emptiness that he did, the same fear of what future might await them in this New Republic governed by their enemies of old, the same torment of not knowing whether reunion with loved ones would be possible. For their sakes he must continue to be the incarnation of confidence and poise.
For once, he was actually glad of Lord Vader. Whatever else you might criticize about Vader's leadership style (and Piett had a laundry list twelve lightyears long), the man was never at a loss. You might not know what his plan was, but you knew he had one and that he expected it to succeed. Not to say he was infallible but he did have a sound grasp of strategy, at least when his temper didn't interfere.
Piett glanced at Eriadu's besmirched surface again. At the moment Vader was making his first trip planetside to speak with the shell-shocked governor in person. Hopefully the woman survived the encounter. Killing local authorities was unlikely to go over well with the new lords and masters of the galaxy.
He twitched his lip. Perhaps he was wasting his concern. It was a thousand to one against that they could convince the New Republic the galaxy was big enough for it and the Executor--unless someone influential interceded on their behalf, but what prominent ex-Rebel would lend Darth Vader a helping hand? The New Republic Navy was no doubt scrambling a battle squadron at this very moment to corner the Executor in Eriadu. Piett snorted. Little did they know he had barely a score of operational turbolaser mounts on the whole ship, after all the parts they'd had to cannibalize to keep vital systems online.
Still, it was useful to be feared, and he intended to maintain the illusion of a lethal warship for as long as possible.
"Admiral!" The voice belonged to Ensign Chimmel from ComScan, now forty-six, the poor bastard; not many opportunities for promotion in the Unknown Regions. "We have a cordon breach in zone thirteen."
Piett joined him at the console.
"Sensors say it's a personal transport, sir," Chimmel told him, as if the admiral's bars on Piett's uniform automatically rendered him unable to interpret a standard sensor readout. "I can't match it to any known models. Military-grade drive, though."
Piett frowned. "Just one?"
"Yes, sir. Unless she has buddies coming in ballistic or under cloaking."
"If she did, she'd be under radar with them." Piett massaged his fingers behind his back, weighing whether to bring his last surviving forward bridge battery online against the trespasser. But the last thing they needed was a firefight. Besides, zone thirteen pointed Coreward straight down the Hydian Way. The transport might be a new arrival in system, out of touch with current events; and though any sane being would steer clear of an unknown Super Star Destroyer, the galaxy was regrettably full of fools, not all of whom could be prevented from operating starships. And with databanks a quarter of a century past their expiration date, ComScan was probably going to run across hundreds of unfamiliar ship designs. "Hail her and order her to stand off."
Chimmel keyed on his set. "Unknown starship, this is Imperial Naval Ship Executor. Be advised you are breaching the ceasefire cordon. Withdraw immediately to one million kilometers."
A text-only transmission flashed back onto the readout: CONFIRM OPERATIVE RECOGNITION CODE: HAPSPIR, BARRINI, CORBOLAN, TRIAXIS. In the corner of the screen appeared an alert icon--the Imperial Security Bureau's Field Operations insignia, surmounted by a stylized glove.
Piett jolted back. He jerked his gaze across the viewports as if he could physically see the pilot of the incoming ship.
Chimmel was studying the icon in confusion; he had probably never encountered that variation before. Stars knew there'd been no occasion for it recently. "Sir? How should I proceed?"
"Request them to stand by, Lieutenant," he ordered. "And get me a secure line to Lord Vader."
He hustled (discreetly) to the holocom deck and initiated top-secret coms protocol, sealing himself off from anyone else's hearing. He had not had to contact Vader with a priority signal in decades, but the man answered as inscrutably as if it was the fifth time that day. "Admiral. What is it?"
"My lord, we are being approached by an unidentified personal transport. They transmitted us an operative recognition code." He swallowed. "It appears to be one of the Emperor's Hands."
"Which code?" Vader demanded.
"It began Hapspir, Barrini."
Vader was silent for a moment. "Permit them to board the ship, but do not allow their arrival to become a matter of general knowledge. Clear the hangar in which they land and hold them there. I will return to the ship and deal with them myself."
Piett ended the transmission and returned to the bridge. Once upon a time they'd had a black ops hangar specifically designed for these sorts of occasions, but like most places on the ship not essential to daily survival, it was out of commission. Instead he bugged out Hangar Bravo Five--home in the old days to the pilots of the 501st, all lost at Endor--and ordered a security cordon of the area. He handed the watch off to Captain Venka and proceeded alone to the hangar bay, his throat tight.
The Emperor's Hand…it felt like being visited by a ghost from another universe. All he could remember was that they had answered directly to Palpatine, and supposedly shared Vader's occult powers. Why had the Hand come? To recruit them to war on the Empire's behalf, or offer allegiance in the assumption that Vader intended to restore the old status quo? To assassinate Vader, for failing to save their shared master?
Whatever the Hand's agenda, one thing was almost guaranteed--it wasn't going to line up with Piett's agenda for a peaceful retirement.
I'm too old for this sort of thing.
The lift deposited him inside the hangar in time to see the mystery ship looming outside the bay doors. It certainly had never come from any Imperial assembly line. Offhand, he judged it to be an extensively modified SoroSuub Horizon-class yacht. Aftermarket cannon mounts poked noses out here and there, and that extended aft hatch must be big enough to accommodate a snub fighter--but she retained the SoroSuub grace, feathering down beautifully on the deck without a whisper.
Nothing to worry about, Piett told himself, proceeding to the base of the extending ramp. Even if the Emperor's Hand had crossed the galaxy to take Vader's head off his shoulders, he/she/it likely wasn't going to give the Dark Lord advance notice by offing his admiral first.
Afterwards--now that was a distinct possibility, but one thing you learned serving under Vader was that each day had enough trouble of its own. Piett posed himself at attention and projected all the imperturbability forty years in uniform could bestow.
A hooded figure appeared at the top of the ramp, hesitated for a long moment, and then made its way down. "Admiral," said a man's voice. Piett felt a prickle in his memory. Could he have run across this Hand once before in the old days, perhaps unknowingly?
A gloved hand offered itself to him. Piett shook it. "Welcome aboard the Executor, Agent." He had spent some of the trip from the bridge debating what title to use. "Emperor's Hand" sounded a bit…obsolete.
"Ah. I have a confession to make," said the man. "I'm not an Imperial agent."
Shavit, thought Piett. Should have brought a sidearm after all. He hadn't bothered to stop by the bridge armory, reasoning that if Palpatine's pet viper wanted to kill a decrepit old admiral, a blaster wouldn't do much for his odds. "I beg your pardon?"
The man brushed his hood back. He had darkish hair, close-trimmed scruff on his chin, bold blue eyes, assorted scars testifying to a long history of close scrapes. The prickle of memory became a violent itch. Where had he seen those eyes before? Not in person--no--wait a second--surely that isn't--
"I'm Luke Skywalker."
Piett's mouth hung open without permission.
It was Skywalker alright. Though twenty-five years had left their mark, Piett had needed only the name to see straight through them to the boyish face that had appeared at the top of the agenda on every Death Squadron command meeting and planning session for three years. Skywalker--what memories that name conjured. Reports of friends and comrades lost at Yavin, the attack on the Rebel base at Hoth, the late unlamented Admiral Ozzel, the madness of the asteroid field, Vader's terrifying silence in the aftermath of Bespin, scores of sleepless nights and dogged searches and false leads and arrivals five minutes too late and rumors and bounty hunter scum…
…and what the hells could have sent this man racing into Vader's reach the moment he had word of his return?
"What a pleasant surprise," Piett managed. "After all this time."
"I'm here to see Vader." Skywalker projected pure calm, but Piett had seen that deliberate façade in his own mirror too many times to be fooled. The man was agitated, working hard not to show it--and at his waist, just peeking out from behind the dark long coat, hung what was unmistakably a well-used lightsaber.
Piett's stomach swooped. Twenty-five years ago Vader had been in his physical prime (or as close to it as a man in a life support suit could get) and Skywalker had been a callow youth, lucky to escape Bespin in only two pieces. But Vader was now an aged man, and Skywalker's scuffed weapon warned that he would no longer have the advantage of experience either.
He ought to be pleased at the prospect of being rid of Vader, at long last. But against all odds, Vader had improved with age. Perhaps it was all those years in the wild of uncharted space, dependent on his crew for survival, but truth be told Piett had thought him much changed even immediately after Endor--as though Palpatine's death had broken some sort of curse. For one thing, nobody had danced the midair jig since then. And he had shared too many troubles with the man for too many years to turn his back now.
No--for better or for worse, Piett was on Vader's side. Damn him.
"Lord Vader is not here," he told Skywalker. "He is on Eriadu liaising with the planetary officials." He knew better than to try lying to a Force-sensitive--but with any luck Skywalker would take his ship out to chase him down, and they could bring one of those functioning batteries to bear; or Vader could join the battle in space. Physical strength counted for nothing in a dogfight.
"He's coming." Skywalker's eyes blazed with disquieting conviction. "He knows I'm here."
Piett pursed his lips in dismay. If that was so--and even though Skywalker was a mass murderer, it was hard to picture him lying--then Vader had given his orders knowing full well it was no Emperor's Hand come to call.
But perhaps Vader just didn't want to admit he was also too old for this sort of thing.
"He may be several hours coming," Piett argued, though he didn't think for an instant it was true.
"It's been twenty-five years. I can wait a few more hours."
Piett shoved all his chips into the pool. "If you intend to stay, you'll do it under arrest, Skywalker. There's no statute of limitations on your warrant." At least he could go to his grave in the knowledge they'd finally caught the slippery son of a Sith, albeit a quarter-century too late--
Skywalker laughed. Whatever toll the years had taken, his eyes looked as young as they had the first time Intel had handed around holos of the pilot who'd destroyed the Death Star. It had made Piett's gorge rise, that far-too-young face. It had made him wonder what had gone so wrong that a boy like him would end up doing a thing like that.
"Fair enough, Admiral. I surrender." And to his surprise, Skywalker took the lightsaber off his belt and offered it, the emitter facing towards his own body. "Break out the binders too, if it makes you feel more comfortable."
From just about anybody else this would have been sarcastic bravado. From Skywalker it sounded sincere. That was worse.
"I don't think that will be necessary." After all, the man hadn't exactly been dragged aboard kicking and screaming…besides which, Piett didn't have any binders. Fleet admirals rarely had occasion to arrest anyone in person. "This way."
He led the way towards the lift to the vacant bay control room, affording a broad view of the hangar through its window. Inside, he turned the lightsaber over in his hands and wondered what to do until Vader got there.
"Well," he said. "Lord Vader will be delighted to see you, I'm sure."
Either Skywalker missed the threat or just didn't care. "You're very loyal to him." He paced up and down the room, arms clasped behind his back and the long loose coat swinging behind him. The mannerism reminded him so much of Vader that, under other circumstances, Piett would have been tempted to laugh.
"I have served with Lord Vader for many years." That was a good stock answer.
"You probably know him better than I do."
Piett frowned. Was it just his overwrought nerves or had Skywalker sounded…almost…envious?
"I would have thought you of all people would have been glad to see the back of him, Commander."
Skywalker gave a little laugh. "You're in good company. It isn't Commander anymore, though."
"You'll forgive me if I don't follow the insurrectionist promotion boards." Piett did not bother about sounding diplomatic. Skywalker could afford to be diplomatic; Skywalker had not devoted three years of his life to obsessively hunting Piett, reviewing reports about Piett, studying holos of Piett, watching his fellow officers be throttled because they'd let Piett escape…
"I resigned from active duty eighteen months after Endor." Skywalker abandoned his pacing and leaned forward on his palms on the rim of the viewport, staring out into the hangar.
"Why?" Piett blurted. Skywalker turned a raised eyebrow towards him. "Surely…surely the war can't have ended so quickly." Surely the Empire can't have been that weak.
"It didn't. I had other things to pursue." He turned his gaze back to the window. "I fought for the Alliance because I believed it was right, not because it was what I aspired to do with my life."
Again Piett saw that young face that had so disturbed him. Back then--occasionally, privately--he'd used to wonder about the ifs. What if the boy had grown up on a more civilized planet, within reach of the Empire's light? What if he'd transmitted that application to the Academy that investigators found drafted in the computer terminal of his blasted-out home? What if the stormtroopers on that recovery operation had had the common decency not to slaughter two ignorant farmers in cold blood?
He had never allowed those questions to linger; they were too much like empathy, and empathy with Rebels was treason. Besides, from his perspective, the Rebellion always took the form of blips in scanner readouts--occasionally, if they were close enough, of rundown ships gunning away from the Lady for dear life. Intellectually you might acknowledge that the corvette your gunners had just liquidated had contained several hundred sentients with dreams, fears, hopes, loved ones. But what you saw was a flash of plasma and atomized matter.
Face to face with the enemy for the first time, Piett dared to ask. "What did you aspire to be, if not a Rebel?"
Skywalker smiled mournfully. "I wanted to be like my father."
Intel had been clear that Skywalker was the orphan of a Jedi. Piett could imagine the rest. The boy had grown up with a gaping father-shaped hole in his life, pouring into it the stories others told him or that he told himself; and of course the man of the stories had been a splendid hero, a rescuer of the oppressed, a fearless victor against overwhelming odds--an ideal that likely bore little resemblance to the man as he'd actually been.
What if his father had been there? Piett hastily dismissed the thought. Skywalker's father had been a Jedi traitor. His death had been in his son's best interests, though Skywalker had chosen to deny that fact.
But what boy wanted to believe he had a monster for a father? A weight like that crippled a child. In Skywalker's place, Piett might not have fared any better. "Do you think you've succeeded?"
Skywalker stared out the viewport. "I'll find out soon." He straightened up and paced down the room, back again, leaned at the window.
"You intend to kill him, don't you?" Piett clenched the lightsaber in his hand, though he doubted he could stop Skywalker from reclaiming it if he chose.
Skywalker shot him a startled look. "My father?"
"Lord Vader," Piett snapped.
Skywalker relaxed slightly. "Of course not."
Just as though it went without saying that two mortal enemies could get along perfectly well provided they took a twenty-five-year break from one another. "Then what are you doing here?"
Skywalker's composure cracked. He laughed, sat down in the closest chair and ran his left hand through his hair. "I didn't exactly plan it out. I just blasted out for Eriadu. I suppose I need to see if it's really him."
"Of course it's him." Was he going to spend the rest of his days answering that question?
"And if he's who I think he is," Skywalker added cryptically.
"Those are questions worth risking your life for?"
"It wouldn't be the first time." Skywalker looked up at Piett. "What about you, what do you think of him? You must be closest to him of anyone."
"I don't think close is the word for it." Piett ignored Skywalker's nod at an opposite seat. No Rebel prisoners were going to play host to him on his own ship. And Skywalker was his prisoner. Maybe if he told himself that enough times, he'd believe it.
"Do you think he's a good man?"
Piett stared at the Rebel, eyebrows lurching. "I beg your pardon?"
"You've been with him for decades." Skywalker's gaze remained nailed on him. "Do you think he's a good man?"
He had to force himself not to gape. "I--I would not presume to--"
"To have an opinion about a man you've worked with that long?" Skywalker's eyebrows arched.
"Why are you asking me this?"
"I asked him at Endor," said Skywalker. "I want to know if the answer has changed."
"At Endor? Were you not busy giving an encore of your famous performance at Yavin?"
"No. I was with him on the Death Star."
A dim memory flared--a shuttle with an old clearance code, requesting to land on the Sanctuary Moon, and Vader's ominous leave them to me. "Lord Vader captured you on the forest moon."
"Not exactly. I turned myself in."
His eyebrows lurched again. Skywalker's mouth quirked, as if to share Piett's disbelief at his younger self's colossal stupidity. "How did you escape?"
"He let me go."
Vader had never breathed a word about this encounter. Piett took himself back to those initial weeks after Endor--that strange mingling of relief and grief that he had thought he sensed in the man and assumed was his own hyperactive imagination. Had Skywalker had a part in…whatever change had been effected?
"Lord Vader is a hard man," he said at length. "But for the past many years, not a cruel one. Such hardships as we have faced can alter lives. And…" He paused, for what he wanted to say still felt like treason. But Skywalker would hardly mind. "I think that the Emperor incited the worst in him. The removal of his influence has permitted better tendencies to flourish." He allowed his purported prisoner a civil little smile. "On occasion, I even suspect he likes me."
Skywalker had hung on his every word; now Piett saw an agony of hope in his eyes, hastily hidden. "Thank you. I'm glad he's had you."
Piett blinked at this comment from left field, and was still trying to figure out what the hell should be done with it when Skywalker twisted to the window. A lambda shuttle loomed outside the bay doors, making its way to a landing. Piett glanced at a chrono. Only half an hour--then Vader must have been already en route when he took the call. Skywalker stood abruptly, gripping the edge of the console until the fingers on his left hand turned white. The shuttle set down, the ramp extended, and the next moment a familiar towering black form sped out, headed for the lift.
A shuddering, deep breath drew Piett's attention back to Skywalker, now leaning heavily forward on his hands, his head down and eyes closed and mouth set, as if doing battle with some dragon deep inside. Why did he really come? Who would choose this?
The door of the observation office opened. The familiar rhythm of the respirator filled the air.
"My lord," Piett began--but he stopped right there. Vader did not, at this moment in time, seem aware there existed any such man as Firmus Piett. He had frozen in the gangway, his entire attention riveted on Skywalker. The Rebel had yet to move or look up. Warily, Piett backed out of the line of fire, planning to make his escape once Vader stopped blocking the only exit.
Silence stretched between the two archenemies for more than a minute, Skywalker's breathing nearly as harsh as Vader's.
Vader took a step forward. "Young one…"
Like a shockball bat to the side of his head, the thought hit Piett that Vader was at a loss for words. What in blazes happened on that battle station?
Skywalker looked up. Wet tracks ran down both sides of his face; he made no effort to conceal them. He seemed unable to even speak. Vader approached and settled a strangely gentle hand on Skywalker's shoulder. Skywalker's gloved right hand seized Vader's wrist, and there they stood in silence for what seemed an eternity. Sheer consternation chased all thought of leaving from Piett's mind.
Skywalker found words first, none too dignified. "Are you fracking immortal?"
Piett heard a sound he hadn't known Vader could make--at least, he thought that odd hiccup in the respirator was a laugh. "Assuredly not."
"This vanishing-for-two-decades act is getting old."
Vader squeezed Skywalker's shoulder. "I have no intention of repeating the performance."
Skywalker nodded and straightened up, mopping his face quickly with his sleeve. "Good. I think your admiral would disapprove."
Vader, thus made to realize he and his obsession had an audience, skewered Piett with a stare. In his fright Piett's fingers tightened on the lightsaber, which happily provided him with something to say. "Ah--my lord--he was carrying this." He held out the lightsaber not so much towards Vader as away from himself. What the hell was going on here?
Vader took the weapon and handed it casually back to Skywalker. "Have you made a practice of volunteering to be arrested?"
"Only when I know you're coming to bail me out." Skywalker restored it to his belt with a smile.
"And supposing I had not arrived in time to dissuade someone from executing you? You have no friends aboard this ship, young one."
Skywalker raised an eyebrow. "Maybe I'm better connected than you think."
"Indeed. Where did you obtain that operative recognition code?"
Vader hooked his thumbs in his belt and loomed. "Are you aware that your friend was a trained assassin answerable only to the Emperor?"
Skywalker widened his eyes. "No shavit?"
"None, young one."
Joy, thought Piett, glancing at the ship out on the pad. Perhaps Skywalker had been a distraction all along. Perhaps he'd return to find his bridge full of slit throats.
"Kriff," said Skywalker. "Guess I should have let Han run that background check before I married her."
Dead silence answered this comment; the respirator even paused. Piett counted four heartbeats before Vader said… "Jade?"
"Jade Skywalker," said Skywalker. "What, no congratulations?"
Piett really should have skedaddled, but this bizarre conversation between the erstwhile second-in-command of the galaxy and his ex-Rebel adversary held him rapt with its hooks.
"Young one, that woman has orders to--"
"Kill me, yes, she reminds me twice a day or so." He sat back on the arm of the chair, enjoying himself to no end. "You know what that makes you?"
Vader regarded Skywalker in--horror? The man could feel horror?
"Her father-in-law," Skywalker supplied.
"I am aware of the relationship," Vader snapped. "What I want to know is what possessed you to initiate it!"
"What can I say, it was love at first death threat--"
Right then, like a podracer at 800 klicks an hour, the full import of what he'd heard belatedly slammed into Piett's brain.
"My--my lord--forgive me, but am I to understand that--that he's your--Skywalker, I mean, is--"
Vader glanced at him. "Is it such a world-shattering concept that I could have a son, Admiral?"
"Yes, actually, it is," Skywalker retorted. "I'm sorry, Admiral, he doesn't communicate these things well. Believe me, I know."
"You should demonstrate more respect, young one," Vader boomed. His index finger, never on the sidelines long, sprang off his belt toward Skywalker's nose.
"You think I'm disrespectful? You should have heard Leia when the transmission came in from Eriadu City. Even Han didn't recognize all the names she called you."
Vader waved a hand in dismissal. "I expect such behavior from your sister."
Piett had to sit down.
"You could at least try to break it to him gently," Skywalker reproved. "Admiral, your pardon."
Piett waved the apology off feebly.
"In the same way you are breaking your news to me?"
Skywalker inclined his head. "Fair enough."
"Your sister is…well?"
"And has not yet had the sense to rid herself of that Corellian nuisance?"
"Married him. Three kids."
"Jaina, Jacen, and Anakin."
Vader's respirator stumbled. Skywalker produced a pocket holoprojector and switched on a holo of three dark-haired teenagers. "Jaina and Jacen are twins. Anakin's a couple of years younger."
Vader took the projector and studied the fresh faces of his three grandchildren. Piett felt a stab in his chest. Vader had always stood aloof--even when the man was at his homicidal worst, there had been a sort of consolation in believing that he was an invincible superman, that no pain or fear could touch him. In this moment he seemed almost frail.
Vader clicked to the next holo, which featured a small redheaded child sitting inside a washing unit and clutching a multitool that his gleeful expression made it clear he was not supposed to have. Wiring hung haphazardly around the little head. "And this one?"
"That's Ben," said Skywalker. "He's ours."
Vader's hand moved as if to reach for the child, remembered whose body it was part of, and jerked back into its proper place. "Is it a current holo?"
"A couple weeks ago. He just turned eighteen months." Skywalker grinned outright. "I forgot to lock the repair kit on the counter. He levitated that multitool out and tried to take the washer apart from the inside."
"I see he has inherited his father's proclivity for wreaking havoc on any orderly system."
"Talk about the Toydarian calling the Jawa cheap," Skywalker shot back.
"Are you suggesting your criminal tendencies are my fault, young one?"
"It's not like I'm the first person in the family to overthrow a galactic government, is it?"
"I will grant that your sister began the enterprise at least a year ahead of you."
"She's an overachiever. Speaking of which, I should probably mention she's Chief of State now."
Piett cleared his throat to reintroduce himself to the conversation at this critical juncture. "Beg pardon--did you say your sister's name is Leia? As in the Princess Leia Organa?"
So much for our chances of a sympathetic reception. Piett swore in torrents under his breath.
"She has Sixth Fleet mobilizing at Yag'Dhul. Sixteen dreadnoughts, plus the Guardian coming in from Fondor."
"An Executor-class Super Star Destroyer," Vader said.
Piett was positive there had been no Guardian on the Fleet rosters before Endor, but had long since given up questioning his commander's routine omniscience. He just pressed a hand to his forehead, feeling the familiar sensation of the future crumbling to pieces before his eyes. "Yag'Dhul. They won't be long getting here, then."
Skywalker turned a steady gaze to Piett. He did not seem perturbed that an entire battle fleet was gunning for the dilapidated ship on which his life currently depended. Then again, if anyone had experience dealing with such a situation it would be Skywalker. "I know. That's why I got here first. "
It needed no Jedi to sense Vader's surge of wrath at this comment. "You should have outgrown such recklessness by now, young one," he snarled. "Depart this ship at once."
"Make me," Skywalker said, in a tone which added old man.
"Do not tempt me." Vader stalked down the length of the control room, perhaps in hope of finding something less consequential than a son to kill at the far end. "I am not so decrepit as you seem to think."
"You're getting worked up over nothing," said Skywalker, who had apparently missed the memo about not condescending to Sith Lords. "She isn't going to blow up this ship once she knows I'm on it."
Vader whirled on him. "You flew into an imminent war zone without telling anyone?"
"Easier to ask forgiveness than permission. Skywalker life motto. Is your holocom working?"
"You have been left to your own misguided devices for far too long," Vader snapped. "I should not have killed Obi-Wan so quickly--"
"Let's not go there, Father." That was what convinced Piett that Skywalker truly was Vader's son--the anger. Though Skywalker kept it muzzled on a tight chain, Piett recognized that dangerous beast. "Is it working?"
Vader made a disgusted noise. "Admiral, take him to the holocom deck and allow him to call whom he wishes. I will be in my meditation chamber. Do not disturb me." He swooped toward the hatch, clearly having had all the insubordination he could take for one day.
As he passed, Skywalker murmured, "I missed you, you know."
Vader stopped for a cycle or two of the respirator. He half turned. "It is good to see you well, son. The admiral will show you to my quarters when you have finished." He pointed a finger. "And then we will revisit the question of forgiveness versus permission."
He precipitated himself away. The hatch shot closed and Skywalker blew out an exhausted sigh as he thudded into a seat, leaning forward with elbows on his knees. "We ought to put you in for a medal," he told Piett. "Twenty-five years and you're still sane. How do you do it?"
"Twenty-eight," said Piett. "I make a point of not provoking him."
"I don't think I can help that."
"Then it's a good thing he likes you as much as he does."
Skywalker stayed locked away in the holocom chamber for forty-five minutes. When he reappeared he looked twice as exhausted as before. Piett felt a vague nausea which could not be put down to out-of-date rations.
"I take it your sister is less than pleased?"
Skywalker pinched the bridge of his nose. "Let me put it this way--imagine taking my father's temper, compressing it into a third of the volume, and pumping it full of estrogen."
Piett contemplated that charming image for a minute or two before deciding there was really only one thing to say. "Would you care to join me for a drink?"
"Please," said Skywalker fervently.
Piett led the way to the lounge, quite empty at this hour. "I'm afraid all I can offer is some concoction our crew calls starshine. I should warn you it may very well be made of seventy-five percent recycled engine coolant."
Skywalker took a tumbler, grinning as Piett filled it. "You don't want to know what we used to make it out of."
Piett raised an inquiring eyebrow.
"Let's just say it's amazing how many things you can do with a tauntaun." He tossed back the tumbler in one go.
"You're right, I don't want to know." Piett offered the decanter again. "Unless you wish to rejoin Lord Vader?"
"Not just yet. That was a lot for anyone to absorb."
Piett raised his glass in fervent agreement. He would have liked to escape to the privacy of a meditation sphere himself; but somebody had to be the diplomat on this ship and stars knew, it wasn't going to be Lord Vader. "So, you're retired from insurrection. What fills your time these days?"
"Jedi Knights. I established a praxeum. About two hundred students have come through now."
Piett tried, and failed, not to be visibly disgusted at the word Jedi. Generously, Skywalker changed the subject.
"Occasionally I also serve as a guest instructor at the Flight School on Anaxes. One of my old wingmates is the commandant now."
The words Anaxes and Flight School triangulated with the name Skywalker and generated one of the compliments he had been failing to invent. "I understand you once aspired to attend the Academy. I have often thought it was greatly to our loss that you did not."
Skywalker planted his drink on the credenza, a bit too forcefully. "I'm afraid personal difficulties intervened."
On second thought, that had been a bad subject to touch on. Like a falling monkey-lizard lunging for a vine, Piett snatched for a tangent. "I suppose you received your training through the Alliance, then?"
"It was more of a practical exam. I only got an hour of sim time before they sent us up at Yavin."
Piett's glass stopped halfway to his lips. "My gods. What were they thinking?"
Skywalker shrugged. "There wasn't much of an alternative if the Alliance was going to live another day."
Piett had had friends on that station who hadn't lived another day, courtesy of the man drinking his booze. "A glorious victory, indeed." He took a rather long swallow.
"An expensive one."
Piett's lip curled. "I'd say the rate of exchange that day was solidly in the Rebellion's favor. Have you any idea how many personnel were assigned to that station?"
"One million, five hundred and fifty-six thousand, two hundred and ninety-six." Skywalker's rock-steady gaze held his. "Not including any civilians or unregistered detainees who might have been aboard. And just getting me a chance to take the shot cost forty-six men their lives, one of them my oldest friend. I call that an expensive victory, yes."
"Nobody twisted your arm, Skywalker," Piett snapped. "You chose to get in that cockpit."
He shrugged. "True. I suppose I could have stayed home and been shot with my aunt and uncle instead. Or gotten to Alderaan a couple of hours earlier and been vaporized with the other two billion people there. Would that have been the upstanding thing to do?"
Piett retreated uncomfortably toward the viewport. "I don't condone the deaths of civilians. The Empire made mistakes, I grant you." He grasped his hands behind his back and turned back to Skywalker. "But it was worth serving, nonetheless."
Skywalker helped himself to a seat and leaned his elbows on his knees, bestowing on his host what might be the most disarming smile in the known galaxy. For the millionth time that afternoon, Piett tried to work out how you could plug a Darth Vader into one end of the reproductive cycle and get a Luke Skywalker at the other. What a woman his mother must have been. "I never said the Empire had no good features. You sure had us beat for military discipline."
"Of course we did. You were a ragtag band of juvenile delinquents and deserters."
"No argument there. There were probably fifty times my squad just about saved the Empire the trouble of killing me."
Piett waged war with a treacherous grin. "We would have had to get our hands on you first. Your talents as an escape artist border on the supernatural, as I remember."
Skywalker grinned in turn. "My wife calls it the Tatooine Corollary to Murphy's Law--any situation involving a Skywalker will immediately escalate to the worst possible scenario, then be resolved in the least probable fashion."
"Ah," said Piett. "That explains Bespin. And Endor. And Hoth…"
"Kothlis," said Skywalker, thinking back. "You'd have been there too."
Piett made a noise of mild interest. "I was never convinced you were actually on Kothlis."
Piett waved a dismissive hand. "Bounty hunters. Those scum will say anything to make a credit."
"Hey now. Those were some of the most considerate bounty hunters I've ever met. I almost felt bad for escaping." He held up his thumb and forefinger, an urchin-like glint in his eye. "Almost."
"Is that why you spent half a day hiding in the asteroid belt?" They had wasted hours supervising recon flights in and around that damned asteroid belt, all because Lord Vader insisted he could sense a "locus for the Force" within it. This was not the kind of intelligence that qualified as actionable in Piett's book, nor indeed the book of anyone whose name was not Darth Vader. After twelve hours and nine minutes he had actually dared to tell the man so. Not two minutes later a ship had darted out of the belt, lingering just long enough for Vader to turn an indisputably smug look at Piett before it scooted to hyperspace.
"That's the Falcon for you. Fastest hyperdrive in the galaxy, unless you actually need to use it. Ever tried to hotwire a motivator assembly without blueprints while sonic sounding charges are hammering over your head?"
"No…but I have had to respectfully disagree with Lord Vader's orders a time or two."
Before either of them knew it they were laughing uproariously.
"You missed your calling, Skywalker," Piett said, stepping into the antechamber of Vader's quarters. "You should have been a diplomat."
Skywalker, sitting cross-legged on the floor doing something mystical, raised an eyebrow. "Why's that?"
"Our scopes have just registered the Millennium Falcon approaching from the outer system. I shall not doubt your powers of persuasion again."
After monopolizing Piett's holodeck for several days, Skywalker claimed he had convinced his sister to extend a truce long enough to speak in person with their father. Vader had been hibernating (one could not call it sulking and expect to live) ever since, leaving Piett to make all the arrangements for welcoming a galactic ruler in style until Skywalker robbed him of even this small comfort by informing him that the visit was being conducted in secret and formal receptions were therefore off-limits.
"You don't persuade Leia, you outlast her." Skywalker, who despite his forty-plus years had the knees of a Juvenian grasshopper, stood up hands-free and rapped on the outer shell of Vader's sealed hyperbaric chamber.
A pointed silence held for thirty seconds before the egglike chamber hatched a glowering Sith Lord. "What is it you want?"
"They're here. Will you come to the hangar with me?" He flicked a mischievous grin at Piett. "I'm technically under arrest."
Vader stood and boomed, "Behave yourself, or I will be inclined to keep you that way."
Piett tailed them to the hangar. He had not been specifically invited, but he hadn't been forbidden either, and therefore felt at liberty to indulge his curiosity under the pretense of being a considerate host.
They arrived in time to see the Millennium Falcon just setting down on her landing struts. My gods, Piett thought to himself, that thing's still flying. Idly he wondered what percentage of it had been replaced since he last laid eyes on it. None of the components looked less than three decades old. Perhaps Solo bought ready-junked ship parts.
"I see Captain Solo's maintenance standards remain nonexistent," Vader seethed. He seemed to consider the appearance of his son-in-law's starcraft a personal affront, as though Solo had collected decades of dents and dings for the sole purpose of annoying him. "That freighter would lower the value of a junkyard."
"Bantha shit," said Skywalker. "You're just jealous she isn't yours."
"That ship should be so lucky."
"Only over Han's dead body."
From his vantage point on Vader's right side, Piett saw the man finger his lightsaber longingly, eyes on the Falcon's cockpit.
The landing ramp descended. Piett clasped his hands behind his back to stop a slight nervous shaking. True, their fate depended on this meeting going well, and true, the odds of that were practically nil, but to betray any concern over this would be unprofessional.
Two minutes crept by with no sign of any passengers.
Vader paced. Skywalker tensed slightly.
"Perhaps Captain Solo has forgotten the combination to unseal his smuggling compartments?" Vader suggested. "I seem to recall they are his preferred travel arrangement."
Skywalker shot him a reproving look. "Just be patient."
Piett felt the beginnings of a cold sweat coming on.
With a sharp intake of breath, Vader stormed towards the ramp. He was just ducking under the overhang of the ship when a blaster bolt greeted him from within. The Dark Lord's hand flashed up--and to the goggle-eyed amazement of Piett, the bolt bounced off into the hull of the ship. His glove wasn't even singed.
Three decades and the man still had cards up his sleeves.
"Well, sweetheart," shouted someone inside, "it's your old man alright!"
Beside Piett, Skywalker gave a short groan and kneaded his forehead.
The door to the Executor's stellarium had been locked for exactly twenty-one minutes and forty-seven seconds. In the adjoining officers' club silence reigned supreme, challenged only by the thump of Piett's heart, the rustle of cards, and the periodic growls of Han Solo.
"If she's not out in five minutes I'm cutting the door down," the Corellian snarled, drawing Skywalker's attention from the hand he had been contemplating.
"She's fine, Han. She's in no danger." He dropped a datachip on the table. "I see your favor from Talon Karrde and raise you a recording of the time Jacen put the crystal snake in Mara's boot."
"Like hell she's not," Solo growled, but dragged his eyes away from the door.
"Admiral, it's your move," said Skywalker calmly.
Piett studied his hand without enthusiasm. He had accepted a spot at the table before realizing that his companions scoffed at the notion of playing for mere credits. What the Sith; in for a TIE, in for a Death Star. "I see your recording," he said, picking up the very last sample-sized flask of real Whyren's on the ship and adding it to the pot. He'd been saving it for twenty years to celebrate the day he made it back to Axxila, but it wasn't as though the galaxy proper had any shortage of the stuff; and besides, it wasn't every day a man had a chance to win not only the favor from Karrde and the recording, but a genuine scrap of the original Rebel flag from the base at Yavin IV, a paper entitling the bearer to a free one-night stay at the Magisterial Suite of the Kaadara Grande Hotel on Piknar, and the framed state portrait of the Emperor still hanging on one of the bulkheads of the officer's club.
Skywalker, as dealer for the round, opted for a randomization. Piett gave a disgusted grunt as his King of Coins transformed into a totally worthless Four of Sabers. He threw his cards in; at the rate this pair went, if he stayed in the betting they'd win the Executor herself out from under him. Skywalker raised an eyebrow at Solo.
Solo eyed his cards, then the datachip. "Does Mara know you have that recording? Last I heard she bought Jacen off for five hundred credits."
The revelation that Solo's teenage son was an accomplished blackmailer failed to surprise Piett at any level.
"Won it from her fair and square," said Skywalker, a slightly-too-bright beacon of innocence. "She'll tell you so herself."
Solo grunted. "She's still buying that Jedi-Masters-don't-cheat-at-sabacc line of yours, huh?"
"Amazing what you can get away with when you have such a straight-up honest farm boy face." Skywalker winked at Piett, who glared, full of sudden suspicions as to whether Jedi could manipulate card randomizers as well as minds. There had been a distinctly mercenary glint in Skywalker's eye when the Emperor's portrait was added to the pot.
Solo rummaged in his pockets for something to stake, and Skywalker suggested, "There's always the deed to the Falcon."
"Dream on, kid." Solo glared once more at the entrance to the stellarium. "I'm gonna need it for the getaway any second now."
"You've got his lightsaber, what more do you want?"
Solo glanced at the hilt sitting next to his elbow, the final concession he had demanded before--not at all graciously--agreeing to this private tete-a-tete between his wife and his father-in-law. He had also insisted on the Princess taking his blaster, though after Vader's demonstration in the hangar Piett couldn't imagine what protection Solo thought this would give her. "Not much, just five minutes with him unconscious in a carbon freezing chamber." He plunked a key chip on the table. "Combination to Booster Terrik's exotic weapons locker on the Errant Venture."
"Call. Double-autographed copy of Face Loran's promo portrait for The Little Black Bantha Cub." Skywalker slid a dog-eared printed card forward, depicting a revoltingly adorable child astride a bantha and gazing in raptures up at an Imperial flag; an enormous childish signature sprawled across one corner and a very tiny adult one skulked in the white border. Piett wondered how much of Skywalker's luggage was dedicated to arcane betting materials for Rebel-style sabacc. "Anyway, has it ever crossed your mind that you maybe had the whole carbonite thing coming?"
They turned their cards up, and Solo scowled as his run of Staves slammed into the duracrete wall of Skywalker's Idiot's Flush. "Whose side are you on anyway, kid?"
"I'm just saying"--Skywalker scraped the pot over to his side of the table--"suppose you had a carbon freeze chamber handy and some cousin of Isolder Chume decided to dance the tongue tango with Jaina right in front of you--"
Solo brandished Vader's extinguished lightsaber at his brother-in-law. "Mention that Hapan scumbag again and I'll send Mara copies of those godawful poems you wrote for that Ysanna chick way back when." He put the lightsaber down to shuffle, muttering under his breath, "Fianceé-stealing sonofahutt…"
"I wouldn't do that if I were you. Be a shame if Leia ever found out the reason you ducked out of the Dubrovna conference was because Xaverri What's-her-name commed you from the cantina down the street."
"Dubrovna?" A newborn akk pup could not have rivaled Solo's wide-eyed who-me innocence as he suddenly became absorbed in dealing. "I don't remember visiting Dubrovna."
"Amnesia," Skywalker told Piett, "caused by a sudden onset of marriage. Besides"--returning his attention to Solo--"imagine how good you're going to look once Father realizes who his son-in-law could have been."
Solo brightened. "There's that."
Piett surveyed his latest lackluster hand, brain elsewhere. "Isn't Isolder Chume the Crown Prince of Hapes?" He was trying to work out how Solo came out ahead in such a comparison. Or any comparison, really.
"Prince Consort, now that he's married," said Skywalker, and Solo added with wicked satisfaction, "His wife's a real witch."
"Can't knock her taste in men though."
"Men ain't the word I'd've used, kid."
Piett glanced between the two sniggering overgrown adolescents. "I'm afraid I don't follow you."
"See, what happened was--" Skywalker paused, then shook his head. "Never mind. It'd take too long."
Solo slapped his cards together with a pleased look and tapped the bottom corner of the stack on the table. "What do you gents feel like losing this round?"
"Let's see how much you really like that hand." Skywalker, that mercenary glint back in his eye, casually tossed another datachip onto the table between them. "One vintage Black-Alpha-level Ubiqtorate security clearance."
Piett, who had taken an opportunity to fortify his nerves with starshine, choked on it. "Did you--did you just bet your wife's Imperial operative codes?"
Skywalker shrugged the shrug of someone who knows his ex-assassin wife is several hundred lightyears away from his jugular. "I live on the edge."
Piett shook his head, but Solo grinned like a krakana, leaning casually forward on one forearm. "Too bad for you you're still an easy read, kid."
And he rolled Vader's lightsaber forward.
Skywalker whistled silently and sat back, gaze traveling to Piett, who stared at his hand with the expression of a man trying to decide whether to grab the ticking thermal detonator and attempt to dispose of it, or just run like hell. "You do realize," he told Solo, "he's almost certainly going to kill you?"
"Gotta match the stakes," said Solo. "Besides, it ain't a game of Rebel sabacc until you bet your neck."
Piett eyed him an instant longer, pressed his lips into a thin line, and tossed his cards in. How these maniacs had lasted even two weeks during the war would forever escape him--
Something crashed against the other side of the sealed stellarium door. All three men jumped; then Solo bolted towards the hatch, cards scattering as he snatched the lightsaber off the table. Skywalker caught his elbow. "Han--don't. It's all right."
"Yeah, sure!" Solo barked. "They're probably just playing Daddy-Daughter smashball in there!"
"She needs to do this. Like I needed to."
"Wonderful! That really sets my mind at ease!" Solo's face contorted in his trademark exaggerated delight. "How 'bout we have her stick a fork in a power socket too, just so she gets the full experience? Unless Old Raisinface plans on popping the casket next."
He stuck a thumb over his shoulder at the bulkhead. Piett tried to ignore the way the portrait of the Emperor suddenly seemed to be scowling in his direction.
"Han, if she's throwing things at him, it's a good sign. Otherwise you two would be divorced by now." Skywalker clapped Solo on the shoulder and sat back down. Solo had enough faith in the Jedi's sixth sense to refrain from charging the door again, but the spell of the game had been broken and he stayed on the balls of his feet, thumb on the saber's ignition key and one eye hanging on the hatch.
"How do you know it's her throwing things at him?"
"Because Lord Vader doesn't have to," Piett told him.
Solo huffed. "Are you his admiral or his publicity manager?"
"I'm the man who has stayed on his good side for twenty-eight years," said Piett. "You managed…about two seconds, wasn't it?"
"Two seconds?" Solo looked affronted. "I'm a hell of a lot faster draw than that."
"My point precisely, Captain."
Solo leaned in, a beaming sun of sarcasm. "It's General, actually."
"My profound apologies. The Rebellion must have been harder up for senior officers than I thought."
Solo started to bluster, but at that moment the stellarium door cycled open and the conversation was interrupted by the dulcet tones of a Chief of State in high dudgeon.
"--wouldn't know a constitutional precedent if it kicked you in the codpiece!" The Princess fumed through, Vader looming on her heels a moment later. Piett instinctively leapt to his feet and backed up a step in response to his highly developed sense of self-preservation; Solo, on the other hand, took two steps closer. Either the bravest husband this side of Corellia, or a complete idiot; Piett's money was on the latter. The imperturbable Skywalker stayed where he was and raised an eyebrow at his father.
"Tell me again how I'm the disrespectful one?"
"You both are," Vader grunted, with no particular malice. Piett noticed his gaze still trailing after the Princess as she stalked over to the bar, shoved Piett out of the way with a scowl--ye gods, if looks could kill hers would be a Death Star--and snatched a bottle from behind the counter. The next moment she flung a hand to her throat, eyes watering.
"What is this, Echo Base vintage?"
"Don't worry," said Skywalker, "your taste buds go numb after the first shot or two."
Vader's mask spun from daughter to son. "How is this a reason not to worry?"
The Princess, ignoring him, took another swig. "Ah. You're right."
"I do not think you should--" Vader began.
"You," said the Princess sweetly, "can stay the hells out of it." She tipped the bottle back again, but a moment later slammed it down on the bar. "Kriff that is awful."
"Brings back memories, don't it, Your Worshipfulness?" Solo had joined her by the bar. "Course, we got Darth Nostalgia here for that." He fired his maddening lopsided smirk at Vader.
"If you wish to revisit the past I would be happy to oblige you more thoroughly on the detention level, Solo."
"Tempting, but"--Solo wrapped a possessive arm around the Princess and leaned back on his elbow against the bar--"I don't think you want to tick off my wife quite that much. Gonna have to come to grips with the situation, Pops."
Vader, with nothing but a flex of his right hand, contrived to suggest that the aspect of the situation he most wished to grip was Solo's throat. A shade of alarm intruded on the Princess' face. "Easy on the swagger, nerfherder." She wove her arm around his back, pulling herself in against him more closely. "I'm not interested in raising three kids on my own."
"Want to find a cabin and shoot for four?" Before Vader could even bristle, Solo dipped her in one arm and swooped in for the longest, loudest tongue-writhing that had ever disgraced this ship. Piett looked away with a disgusted noise.
Vader loomed over his son. "I hold you responsible for this."
"Me? What did I do?"
"You are her brother. You should have protected her from being seduced by such a disreputable oaf."
Skywalker winced. The Princess, still lip-locked with the oaf in question, burst out laughing as Solo hauled her back upright, purple with wrath. "Who died and made you the galaxy's marriage expert?"
Vader flicked a finger. His lightsaber ripped itself out of Solo's hand, spun around in midair, and hovered within what would be striking range the instant the blade ignited. "Are you volunteering, Solo?"
Solo's hand darted for his blaster, but it was still on his wife's hip and she had too much common sense to draw it, so his gaze turned to Skywalker--who wasn't even watching. The Jedi had gone back to studying the remains of the last hand of cards as if all was well with the world. "Some backup you are, kid," Solo growled, and Piett couldn't fault him.
Skywalker made a slight gesture. The weapon arced backwards and re-hooked itself to Vader's belt.
"What are you, nuts? Why'd you give it back to him?"
"You already lost it." Skywalker pointed to the cards he had laid out. His triple Princes had outscored Solo's Royal Wedding by two points. Piett hoped to the stars Vader wouldn't bother to wonder what the connection was between his lightsaber and a game of sabacc. "What are you going to do with a lightsaber anyway?"
Solo eyed it with regret. "They make great arc-welders."
"They make better guillotines," Vader thundered, turning towards the door.
"Always gotta have the last word, don't you?" Solo bellowed after him.
Vader spun, forefinger locked and loaded. "There are plenty of ways to ensure that you do not, Captain. Do not tempt me to demonstrate them."
"General," drawled his son-in-law.
"It's General Solo."
Vader stared at him for a full cycle of the respirator before his gaze traveled to the Princess. "Tell me, Princess, do I have Bail Organa to thank for teaching you such execrable judgment in life partners?"
"Hardly," snapped the Princess. "I inherited that from my mother."
Skywalker abruptly had a coughing fit into the sleeve of his robe; for which Piett was grateful, as it distracted Vader from his similarly afflicted admiral.
Piett slipped inside the hush of the shipboard chapel gratefully. Given the range of religious creeds that were likely to be represented by a crew of three hundred thousand, the designers had had to be creative. The spaced projection nodes on the walls could be configured to the iconographies of over a million belief systems, and in combination with an elaborate set of localized gravity generators could also project opaque "bulkheads" to shape the interior space into whatever form a particular gathering preferred – circular, pyramidal, spherical, dodecahedral, even the tri-dimensional zero-gravity Enlightenment Maze stipulated by the Fourth Post-Beejian Sanctum of Souls. For Piett it had always been a refuge from the pressures of his command, whether Vader's homicidal rages of yore or the torments of survival in the Outer Rim.
Today it represented a much-needed escape from the Skywalker clan. It had been about two standard days since the Falcon's arrival. That was forty-seven hours more than he needed to realize that while sharing a ship with Vader was trial enough for any man, sharing one with Vader and his daughter – even one the size of Executor – was purgatory.
The lights were set to dim, and the room was in meditation phase, configured into comfortable seats lining the bulkheads and calm symphonic music misting from hidden speakers. The projectors cast stylized white flowers on the walls, intertwined with some flowing ancient script he couldn't begin to read. He had never seen this particular mode, but it could not have been better calculated to soothe his fraying nerves. Piett lowered himself into a seat out of sight of the hatch and closed his eyes, absorbing peace into his aching frame. There was a scent of incense in the air.
Belatedly, he realized this had to mean someone else was here.
He opened his eyes and spotted a partition towards the front. Further circumspect investigation revealed the resentment-inducing form of the Princess, cross-legged on a plain square of carpet and lighting a series of tapers in a sand-filled tray on the floor in front of her. Half an hour's freedom from the crucible had been all he wanted, and the blasted woman had to interfere even with that –
The next moment his petulance failed him; it had occurred to him why he had never seen the chapel configured this way before. There were, of course, no Alderaanians in Lord Vader's crew.
"You needn't leave." Her soft alto stopped him as he turned to go.
"I don't wish to intrude on your privacy, Your Highness."
"Please, don't consider it an intrusion."
So the she-nexu has sheathed her claws for a change. Wonders never cease. He folded his hands behind his back and approached, reminding himself that this was a person whose bad side he could afford to be on even less than Vader's. "I didn't expect to meet you here, Your Highness. I assumed you shared your family's religion."
"I do," said the Princess. He watched her light another taper of incense, murmuring a musical prayer in an ancient language that – the thought struck him suddenly – was likely to die with her generation.
"I meant the – Jedi beliefs of your brother."
"Being a Jedi isn't a religion, Admiral." The long-shafted vesta in her hand traced a wavering symbol in the air in front of the new-lit taper.
"Well," he said awkwardly, "I have only observations of Lord Vader for my information." Vader was a one-man Inquisition; benighted souls who questioned the existence of the Force in his hearing got catechized instantly and never forgot it.
She paused, lit the next taper, and said, "He's a Sith Lord. If being a Jedi were a religion, he would count as a heretic."
Her calm surprised him. She had spent the past two days erupting with volcanic violence and unpredictability, and Piett had concluded, darkly, that she was her father's daughter – but as the ghostly echoes of Alderaan now reminded him, she had resounding reasons for being short-tempered at the moment. If he had woken up one morning to the news that his estranged father, a domineering sorcerer who had personally tortured him and authorized the destruction of his entire planet, had reappeared from the netherworld after twenty-five years, he might not react with much restraint either.
"Pardon my ignorance," Piett ventured after watching for a few more minutes. "But is there much difference?" She stared at him, incredulous, and he added defensively, "From the outside, they look very much alike. All mystic meditation and lightsabers and arcane wizardry and what have you."
"This is the difference." She blew out the match.
"I see," lied Piett.
She wasn't fooled. "Or, as Han likes to say, Sith are homicidal and Jedi are only suicidal."
In spite of all his disdain for the Princess' crude Corellian, Piett chuckled. "An apt description. Your husband has a most singular manner of expressing himself."
"And quite a way with people, too." The Princess sat back, twirling the snuffed match between her fingers. She favored him with a smile that, for once, did not mean if you say one more word I'll rip your arms off. "My aunts would have had coronaries if they'd met him."
"How many aunts?"
"Three, on Baba's side. They were determined to make a proper princess of me if it killed them." Her smile faded. "I suppose in the end it did."
Her gaze fell back to the incense tapers, watching the flames consume them.
"Memorial prayers," she said after a minute. "I…needed to go home for a little while."
"I know the feeling, Your Highness. I haven't been home to Axxila in nearly thirty years."
"You'll be back soon."
Her wide soulful eyes studied the dead head of the match. Old chasm-deep grief rolled out from her, as palpable as her hair-trigger temper had been for the past two days. You just choose the best conversation topics, Piett growled at himself, don't you, you idiot. All those years in the Unknown Regions, at least he'd had the comfort of knowing that home was out there somewhere – that the possibility of sitting down to a midnight snack with his nephew, seeing again the view from his childhood bedroom window, walking down Essker Street, leaning on the fence around his old school for a good long reminiscence, and getting a cup of spiced touri at the café down the corner from his grandmother's house existed, even if the odds towered against him. But Leia Organa Solo could never show her children where she'd played as a little girl, never laugh over childish trinkets she'd treasured, never retread a favorite trail. The scope of what the Empire had taken from the orphans of Alderaan staggered him suddenly.
"I'm afraid that must depend on the outcome of your negotiations with Lord Vader," he murmured. His present train of thought had not inspired much hope that said outcome would be positive.
The dead match kept turning between her fingers. Finally she murmured, "I'd be doing the galaxy a favor if I just shot him."
From someone other than the commander-in-chief of the New Republic Defense Force, this would have been a laughable notion; but Piett kneaded his fingers, imagining the Guardian and Sixth Fleet descending on Eriadu on a tide of scarlet death, dissolving the inconvenient Executor into a cloud of twinkling, dissipating vapor. "Would you, really?"
She did not laugh, only traced the blackened head of the match with her thumb. "You and Luke are the only two people who'd miss him. I guarantee it."
If only he could argue that point. "Perhaps, but – "
In her monotone he heard the thudding accusation of too many atrocities to count, and struggled against it to collect his thoughts. This might be his only chance to make their case to the only person in the galaxy who could give him and his men their lives back. But what was the case? It wasn't as if he could claim with a straight face that serving under Lord Vader had been an uninhibited pleasure. And all his reasons for serving, all the good he'd believed the Empire capable of, seemed fiber-thin in the face of what she had suffered at its hands. "I can't justify some of the things he did in the Emperor's name. But it was the Emperor who – "
"He stood behind me when Tarkin gave the order to fire on Alderaan." She stamped out each word like a hydraulic press. "He watched two billion people die without lifting a finger. And you want me to excuse that on the grounds that he was following orders?"
He swallowed, half-expecting the ghost of Lorth Needa to materialize and lend its spectral weight to the Princess' case. Ozzel had deserved what he got, but Needa? It had been murder, pure and simple – and gods, how Vader had enjoyed it. He'd taken his time, actually stopped short four times and prodded Needa to apologize again, as if this time he might forgive what should never have been a crime in the first place. And at the end, when he finally tired of the game, that sickening courtesy that was all the more nauseating because none of them had known before that Vader could sound charming when he was in the mood for it: Apology accepted, Captain Needa.
Piett shut his eyes, trying to banish the ghost. "I do not intend to offer a defense for actions which were indefensible, but – "
"No. Instead you're asking for mercy where there should be justice."
"Perhaps I am," Piett bit out. Diplomacy be damned; she didn't have a monopoly on suffering, after all, she didn't understand what it was like to spend three decades trying to live with a man who cheered himself up by murdering people. He'd earned a little mercy, blast it all! "But I have three hundred thousand crewmen to consider. Their fate will likely depend on his. Since I doubt that Lord Vader will try to defend himself, that responsibility falls on me."
She closed her eyes, her mouth pinched shut. Her fingertips went white on the match, threatening to break it in half. "No," she said after a long time. "No, he didn't."
Piett's indignation vanished in a surge of foreboding. "What do you mean he didn't?"
"In the stellarium." She was close to losing control now, fighting on in jolts. "He told me to shoot. If I wanted to." A low, rasping laugh jerked out from her. "Do you know what it's like to want to kill your own father?"
It was the first time he'd heard her use the word father in reference to Vader. He wished he knew whether it was a good sign or a bad one. "No," he said stiffly. "I don't."
She stared at her hands, fresh anger twisting on her face. "The worst of it is I thought I'd finally forgiven him. But the moment he said that I had the blaster out." The match bowed further in her still-white fingers, a whisper of pressure away from snapping. "I wanted to pull that trigger as much as I would have on the Death Star."
"Like no time had passed at all," Piett murmured to his boots. "I know how you feel."
"Oh?" She raised an eyebrow with a sudden flicker of black humor. "Are you in line to kill him too?"
"No," Piett said instantly – a spinal reflex, but an honest one all the same. "But I felt a little the same way when your brother arrived."
"And what exactly did Luke ever do to you?"
"It was more a ripple effect, if you will. Lord Vader – " Piett belatedly realized that going into the details wouldn't do his present agenda any favors. "Lord Vader was very...difficult to please while we were searching for him," he amended. "We've come a long way together since then, and I can understand the sense of accomplishment that comes with laying old demons to rest. But as I found out when your brother showed up the other week, they have ways of resurrecting when we least expect them…"
He trailed off pensively, thoughts straying to all those horrible moments, Lorth Needa most especially, and to what the Princess had just told him. That Vader might feel remorse for any of the lives he'd destroyed was…a strange thought. Not in his wildest flights of fancy had Piett indulged such a notion. He had trained himself not to expect miracles, not to dream of real justice; Darth Vader answered to no one but their indifferent Emperor, and then there wasn't even an Emperor, so mere survival had become the summit of Piett's hopes.
But it turned out there was somebody who could and would hold Darth Vader accountable for his actions…Vader himself. Piett shook his head slowly. Who would have believed there was still a man's conscience buried in that black-hearted hulk –
– Skywalker. Skywalker had believed it – that day on Endor, he must have.
But how? Piett, like the Princess, could hardly wrap his mind around it when the evidence was shoved in his face – yet Skywalker had somehow found faith enough to gamble his life on it when there was no evidence at all. He'd looked Piett's brand of pragmatic survivalism in the eye and scorned it, preferring instead to risk body and soul on a one-in-a-million chance of winning over someone so entrenched in hate and guilt he'd murdered his own officers and written off entire Star Destroyers with nary a shrug, just so he could get close enough to his own son to maim him.
Neither Piett nor the Princess came naturally by such complete self-abandonment. At bottom, in their own ways, they were both survivors, like Vader himself…but in the reverent hush of the chapel, contemplating the kind of love that could strike an Empire to its knees with a few words, Piett suddenly felt the inferiority of survival. As Vader must have, that day over the forest moon.
He shook himself out of his reverie and found the Princess was watching him keenly. "Well. Just because our ghosts catch up with us every now and then doesn't negate the progress we've made. You didn't shoot him, after all."
"I haven't shot him yet," she said. "He made it clear it was a standing offer." She smiled bitterly at his horrified expression. "What do you think of that, Admiral? Rather outside his usual modus operandi, isn't it?"
Piett looked at his boots again. Redemption, he supposed, was the word for what had left Vader so altered after Endor – but redemption required remorse, and all the guilt and grief that came with it. He wouldn't be in Vader's boots for the galaxy. "I think that for a father to live with the knowledge of having hurt his own child as much as he has hurt you must be a worse punishment than anyone else could lay on him."
She stared for a moment, before laughing again and turning back toward the flickering incense. "As flattering as that would be, there are plenty of indifferent fathers in this universe."
"Indifferent?" He shook his head. "Your Highness, I watched him do everything short of spin the galaxy backwards with his bare hands to find your brother. If he'd known, he'd have done the same for you. That much I know."
She closed her eyes, but the tears sliced free anyway, down over jaw muscles clenched in a rictus of pain, and Piett felt her need to be alone again. He had said as much as he could say, anyway. "I won't disturb you any longer," he murmured.
At the hatch, though, he paused for one last glance, and saw her hold the match to the flame of an incense taper until it relit.
"I don't," huffed Piett, "see why it has to be me."
"Are you suggesting it should be Father?"
"Gods no. Why not Venka?"
Piett stuck a thumb at the captain, who cast a reproachful look at him over his nerfsteak. While their situation vis-à-vis what (for lack of a better term) Piett was forced to call the legitimate galactic government remained dicey, Skywalker had finagled the father-in-law of one of his two hundred students into running them regular shipments of surplus military rations. Since said rations were always less than five years old, Piett had chosen to overlook the fact that they always arrived in a red Star Destroyer (one glimpse of which travesty had sent Vader into his hyperbaric chamber for forty-nine straight hours).
"He doesn't have the diplomatic experience you do." Skywalker salted his thola beans serenely. "No offense intended, Captain."
Venka made a noise indicating that he would never dream of taking offense at anyone related to Darth Vader.
"I have experience in not stepping on your father's toes," Piett growled. "That's not the same thing."
"Hmm." Skywalker studied the ceiling. "You're right, politicians are a lot touchier."
Piett glared at him, and Venka too – the captain's fit of coughing couldn't be coincidental.
It had been almost two standard months since the Executor's now-legendary arrival at Eriadu, and what a two months they had been for opinion columnists, paparazzi, holojournalists, political pundits – not to mention the Legislative Broadcast Channel, which citizens had actually begun to watch for reasons other than needing to be bored to sleep. Piett had reviewed some of the deliberations that had taken place in the Princess' absence, and he had to admit all the shouting and panicking and posturing had made quite exciting viewing, especially since the Senators allowed so few facts to interfere with their proceedings. Borsk Fey'lya, the Bothan leader of the Opposition, had championed the Blast-Them-To-Fragments faction; others called for Vader's arrest and trial; still others for re-banishing the entire ship; and the Senator from Dorduruaa had solemnly suggested euthanizing them all, hiring a taxidermist, and transforming the ship into a traveling museum exhibit. New Republic naval officers itching to hold surprise live-fire exercises in Eriadu had raised all manner of hell over Skywalker's unilateral decision to install himself on the Executor as a human shield, unaware that the only person more displeased with this arrangement than they were was Vader himself. The embassy from the Imperial Remnant had lodged seventeen protests, and the major galactic news networks aired footage of riots and demonstrations across the galaxy as a routine hourly segment.
The Princess, when she finally addressed the Senate on this wild turn of events, had dropped the galaxy's jaws even further by announcing that – however little she or the Senate might currently like it – it had ratified the Bastion Accords between the New Republic and the Galactic Empire. Consequently, since they had been active-duty naval Imperial naval personnel at the time, not only the crew of the Executor but Lord Vader himself were protected from prosecution by the New Republic for any actions prior to the ratification. As Chief of State she was bound to uphold the law, the integrity of the Republic must not be sacrificed to a desire for vengeance, et cetera, and so on.
Twelve million lawsuits were filed across the galaxy before she had even finished speaking, and the case rocketed to the Supreme Court of the New Galactic Republic before the week was out – only for the justices to determine that not only was the Chief of State's interpretation perfectly correct, but that the Accords also granted every man-jack aboard the Executor the option to void his Imperial citizenship and become a voting citizen of the Republic if he wanted, Darth Vader not excluded. Whereupon a second tsunami of lawsuits crashed into the courts, asserting that the Bastion Accords were invalidated by the fact that the representatives of the Galactic Empire had acted without the imprimatur of the Galactic Empire's rightful ruler – namely, Lord Vader. The Supreme Court cleared its throat uncomfortably and referred the question of the Imperial succession to the Imperial Remnant, which dithered for weeks over whether it was more frightened of acknowledging Vader or denying him.
Out of patience with both sides, Vader had dragged a few petrified reporters onto the Executor and resolved the crisis in five minutes with three consecutive press releases: the first declaring himself Emperor retroactively since the Battle of Endor, the second stating his acceptance of the Bastion Accords as enacted, and the third announcing his abdication, effective immediately. The Imperial Remnant heaved a sigh of relief, the Supreme Court dismissed the case, and the Senate found itself with no recourse but to protest the "Imperial invasion of the Eriadu system". While Skywalker was sabotaging Vader's holocom unit to prevent him from calling the reporters back and threatening to demonstrate what an real invasion of Eriadu would look like, the Princess busied herself with soothing the Senate's ruffled feathers, promising to personally redress the matter with "appropriate Imperial representatives" right away.
By the time it was discovered that this phrase meant Admiral Firmus Piett, it was too late for either him or the Senate to object.
And as if the prospect of what was sure to be his brief and star-crossed career in diplomacy wasn't enough to make him sick to his stomach, there was Skywalker's plan for getting him to Coruscant.
"And I don't see why I can't take my own shuttle," Piett continued testily, impaling a hapless pile of peas on his fork.
"Because if the media gets a whiff of a lambda shuttle broadcasting the Executor's transponder code, they'll make a swarm of starved piranha beetles look civilized," said Skywalker.
He reached for the salt as he spoke, without looking, but an instant later he put the shaker down and left his fingers next to it, waiting. A moment later, the oblivious Venka looked up from his plate and said, "Could I trouble you to pass the salt, Master Skywalker?"
Piett wondered if it was exhausting, always reining in that sixth sense so as not to alarm the Venkas of the universe. Vader had never bothered. But then Vader had also never done anything as commonplace as joining his officers for dinner.
"An admiral ought to travel on his own military transport," he said stubbornly. "Sneaking into the capital system on an unmarked personal transport like some kind of criminal, it's disgraceful."
Skywalker shrugged. Did he even know there was any other way to arrive peacefully in a system? "A means to an end, Admiral. Besides, if someone decides to take a shot at you en route, you'll want a quality pilot at the helm."
"I have several very talented pilots on my crew roster," Piett groused. "They received some of the best training the Empire had to offer."
"Yes," said Skywalker, "but my wife received the very best."
PIett pursed his lips in a tight, worried line. Mara Jade Skywalker's impeccable education had covered lots more subjects than starcraft operation. He was not particularly thrilled about the prospect of spending seventy-two hours in hyperspace aboard a cramped yacht with a woman who could probably murder him a different way every thirty minutes without getting past Aurek in the Assassin's Encyclopedia.
"Besides," Skywalker added, "she's looking forward to it."
"Oh, I don't doubt it," Piett muttered.
After dinner he went off to the bridge. Preyed on by the awareness that it was the last time he'd set foot on his bridge for weeks, he dragged up every section chief one by one for debriefing, then pursued them back to the ops pits and harrowed the lieutenants and ensigns, checking all the statuses and reports and watch schedules for the fifteenth time in fear of overlooking some vitally important detail without which the whole ship would disintegrate in his absence.
The fact that everybody appeared totally in command of their responsibilities provoked him to no end.
A quarter-hour or so before the watch changed over, Vader made his appearance, giving the crew a cursory glance before taking up his preferred brooding spot at the viewports. Piett left off grilling Ensign Chimmel about the coms logs and joined him, folding his hands behind his back.
"Admiral. You are prepared for your departure tomorrow?"
"As prepared as I can be, sir. Diplomacy isn't my forte, but I'll do my best."
"I have no doubt you will do well," Vader said. Piett blinked in surprise at the stars.
"Thank you, my lord. I'll report as often as opportunity affords, of course. Is there anything else you require of me before I leave the ship?"
Leave the ship. He was actually going to do that, leave his commander and his men and the Lady behind him for the first time in twenty-eight years. It was downright indecent. He plucked unhappily at the cuff of his jacket.
Vader eyed him with disgust. "Incredible as it may seem, I am capable of commanding a ship without you, Admiral."
"Of course, my lord," Piett said reflexively. They watched the stars for a moment or two. "For two whole weeks?"
Slowly, Vader's helmet rotated towards him. There followed a very long silence, during which Vader presumably debated what form of execution best answered to the occasion while Piett studied his final words with the morbid fascination of a coroner inspecting a fatal chest wound on a corpse.
This, he decided, is what comes of consorting with Rebels.
Well, he'd had a good long run. What did it come to? Twenty-eight years, four months, and…ah yes, thirteen days. At least he'd have the consolation of knowing he'd set a record no one would ever equal –
"Perhaps even as much as three," said Vader.
Piett waited. He waited for what seemed an age but which, according to the chrono on the bulkhead, was about fifteen seconds. Vader went back to surveying the stars. With macro-evolutionary leisure, the thought crawled into Piett's forebrain that he was not going to die at this moment in time.
He had cracked a joke at Darth Vader and survived it.
The sentence sounded so preposterous that he swallowed a few times and breathed experimentally through both nose and mouth, in case Vader had begun to throttle him and he'd just failed to notice.
"Well, my lord," he got out finally, "I suppose it's not as though I'm leaving you entirely to your own devices. No doubt your son will keep you occupied."
Vader shifted. "He will be departing with you and his wife."
Piett cleared his throat. "Indeed, my lord? My impression from him earlier was that he intended to stay."
Vader crossed his arms with the attitude of a man prepared to stare down the stars until Doomsday. "His intentions are irrelevant. He will be departing."
Ah. One of those arguments again: Vader ordering Skywalker off the premises, Skywalker retorting that he wasn't going anywhere, Vader resorting to some variation of I am your father, Skywalker countering with an improvisation on the theme of you can't tell me what to do, Vader making a nasty jab at the apocryphal Kenobi's supposedly pernicious influence, Skywalker retaliating with yet another cryptic Jedi proverb, until it was a marvel the poor old Lady didn't blow her hull plating out under the stress. The show ran performances about three or four times a week, and always concluded with Vader meditating (definitely not pouting) in his hyperbaric chamber and Skywalker tinkering (definitely not hiding) in the hangar bay until their respective tempers cooled to something less reminiscent of molten durasteel.
There was, of course, going to be a flaming row in the hangar tomorrow, and Vader was going to be beside himself when he lost it. At least I'll be out of the system by then. "As you say, my lord. I expect his wife will be pleased to have him back."
Vader spun on his heel and stalked off the bridge, no doubt to go meditate on which precise sin had doomed him to having reformed smugglers and assassins for children-in-law.
It took Piett barely five minutes' acquaintance with Mara Jade Skywalker to see why Vader had been so stunned by his son's bombshell announcement.
He arrived at the hangar some ten minutes after she landed and found her octopused around her husband at the bottom of the ramp, apparently having spent all of those ten minutes with her mouth suction-clamped to his. He couldn't make out much besides a lot of black leather, a badly mussed-up blaze of titian hair, and the words, "Kreth it, Farm Boy, tell Daddy Dearest we don't need a chaperone."
Skywalker laughed and set her down, turning to Piett with no signs of embarrassment whatsoever. "Admiral, I'd like you to meet my wife, Mara. Mara, this is – "
"Admiral Firmus W. Piett, of Axxila, age 68, son of Tellus and Magna Piett, older brother to Carilla, formerly of the Axxilan antipirate forces, handpicked by Lord Vader as keelplate captain of the Executor, promoted to admiral upon the expiration of Kendal Ozzel during the Battle of Hoth." She raised an eyebrow at her husband. "Farm Boy here likes to forget I had a life before he showed up."
Piett coughed. "He did give me to understand you had been an Imperial operative, ma'am."
Mara elbowed Skywalker in the ribs. "Ma'am, you hear that? Take notes, Farm Boy."
"Sorry, we Outer Rim hicks and Rebel scum don't go in for formality," Skywalker said. But he kissed her hair gallantly.
"Nice try, Master Jedi, but don't think you're off the hook yet. I have a very long to-do list that's been piling up." She insinuated herself under his arm, walked a pair of fingers up his chest, and tapped him on the lips. "Lots of physical labor."
Piett stared at Skywalker's open, earnest face and no-nonsense workaday clothes; then at his wife's exotic green eyes, chiseled cheekbones, and vacuum-sealed patent leather; and wondered if a less likely looking couple had ever been spotted at an altar.
Apart from Skywalker's own parents, of course.
Mara's gaze flashed to Piett; for an instant he feared she had heard his thoughts. "I'm so sorry, Admiral. We must be making you uncomfortable."
Her eyes were dancing devilishly. She wasn't sorry in the slightest.
"Not at all, ma'am," he said doggedly. "It's an honor to meet you. Your husband would seem to be a very lucky man."
"There's no such thing as luck," said Skywalker, tucking her against his side.
"Oh, really?" she purred. "Because I think you're pretty damn lucky I didn't kill you twenty years ago."
"Ha. One look at these baby-blue eyes and you were over the moons of Iego."
She jabbed an index finger into his pectorals. "Watch it, Farm Boy. I can still off you some night in your sleep."
"But my love," he grinned, "just think how much you'd miss me."
"I'll cope. There's always Lando."
"Ouch." He clutched at his heart. "You know what, just for that, I'm staying here."
"You do that. Far be it from me to interrupt your vacation with Daddy Dearest." She softened the words with another kiss, then made a face at his shirt. "You've been wearing this thing since you got here, haven't you?" She darted a look at Piett. "Hasn't he?"
"Er," said Piett, who had not previously noticed. Detergent had run out something like a decade ago.
Mara narrowed her eyes at Skywalker. "I knew it. Seriously, you couldn't have taken three minutes before you left to grab a change of clothes?"
"My love, I married you so I wouldn't haveto worry about these things."
She smacked him. "If you wanted a housewife you picked the wrong woman, Farm Boy."
"Ah. So you didn't bring me a bag?"
She glared at him. "It's in the cabin."
"That's my girl." He grinned and started up the ramp.
"Do us all a favor and put on something that's been washed this month!" He made her a melodramatic bow. She blew him a kiss. Piett cut his gaze to the ceiling. Were Skywalkers born with a genetic compulsion to make a spectacle of themselves?
But the moment the object of Mara's affections was out of sight, her coquettishness vanished too. The ruthlessly analytical quality now occupying her piercing green eyes was what he imagined Vader's regard might be like, if the mask were removed. He suddenly had no difficulty at all picturing her in the role of the Emperor's Hand.
"So," she said. "Twenty-five years straight and the man in black hasn't throttled you yet. He really has gone to the nerfs, hasn't he?"
She's way out of your depth, Piett told himself. Vader doesn't need you to defend him, he told himself. So of course the next words out of his mouth were, "Lord Vader remains the same capable and efficient commander he has always been."
"You really think so, don't you?"
He drew himself up indignantly. "I wouldn't have said it if I didn't, ma'am."
She laughed. "Don't push the faithful companion act too far, Admiral, I know better than that." She hooked a thumb in her pocket and wandered away from the ship, taking in the bay. "I have to say…it's kind of nice to be back aboard the Lady again." She favored him with a smile. "There may be other Super Star Destroyers, but she's the grandest old dame of the bunch."
Well, at least she had good taste in ships; more than could be said for Solo. Piett beamed. "She's a bit the worse for wear, ma'am, but I wouldn't trade her for the galaxy. When were you last aboard her?"
"Three months before Endor, if memory serves." She turned in a circle. Her fingers played idly along the hilt of her lightsaber. "Turn and burn en route to an undercover op on Calathron."
"I expect life has changed a great deal for you since the war," Piett ventured.
"Oh, you'd be amazed how exciting life with Farm Boy can be."
"I think I have some idea," he said dryly. "The fruit doesn't fall that far from the juja tree."
She glanced at him with a smile that had about the same effect on him as a mysterious ripple in a lake – possibly an innocent fluke of the wind, but possibly a ravenous sando aqua monster. "Yes, but the fruit's so much more...enjoyablethan the juja tree. Wouldn't you agree, Father mine?"
Piett abruptly registered the rasp of the respirator behind him, and half turned. Vader stood several paces away, just beyond the lift, thumbs hooked in his belt and fingers hovering near his lightsaber. "Jade," he growled.
"Ah-ah. Jade Skywalker."
"As you wish."
"Oh, Farm Boy had some say in it too." She gave him a frank once-over, head to toe.
Piett could practically hear Vader's blood boil at the term Farm Boy. Thank the goddess Skywalker chose that moment to re-emerge from the ship, decked out in a fresh shirt as ordered, with a duffel slung over his shoulder. "You keep saying Farm Boy like it's some kind of insult." He kissed her yet again. "Father, wife. Wife, Father."
"I've known him longer than you have, you know," Mara said dryly.
"Which is why I'm staying here to catch up."
"You," Vader thundered at him, "are departing on that ship imminently."
Skywalker cast a longsuffering look at the ceiling. "I told you, Father. I'm not leaving."
"And I have tolerated your reckless insubordination long enough. Your presence aboard this ship is neither required nor desired. Leave."
Skywalker's monumental patience had hit its limit. He inhaled sharply. "You – "
"Well, that's a plot twist," said Mara loudly. "I seem to recall something about a two-billion-credit alive-only reward, no disintegrations, twelve-Destroyer search squadrons, mass bounty hunter hirings, and the Grade 5 max-security block kept clear twenty-four-seven with a damn mint on the pillow all ready for him." She turned to Piett. "Am I remembering all that right?"
Skywalker laughed under his breath, but Vader whipped towards her with the anger-propelled speed of yore. "You would do well to remember some respect, Emperor's Hand."
"Oh, I can remember lots of things." Out swam another of her ripple-on-the-water smiles. "Sure you want to go down that road?"
Skywalker kneaded the bridge of his nose. "Mara, maybe you should give us a minute to sort this out."
She chucked him gently under the chin. "I have a better idea. How about you hop back aboard and give Ben a call quick? You'll make his day."
He frowned immediately between wife and father. "I don't think – "
"Don't think, good plan. In the best traditions of the Skywalker name. I like it. Shoo."
Skywalker studied her another moment, then heaved a sigh. "Alright. Five minutes. Call if you need me."
With a pointed we're-not-done-here-and-don't-you-dare-mistreat-my-wife look at his father, he tossed his duffel bag towards the lift and went back up the ramp, leaving Mara faced off with Vader. It shouldn't have looked anything like a fair fight, but that smile of hers…yes, this was an excellent time for one Firmus W. Piett to go be very obviously absorbed in checking his luggage.
"Let's you and me get one thing straight. Farm Boy's got it in his head that it's his job to run interference between you and the rest of the universe, and in case you missed it, he's taking a hell of a lot of friendly fire to do it. Let's face it,you've got exactly one actual friend in the entire galaxy." Piett looked up, saw her chin jerk in his direction, and threw the suitcase lid up to hide behind. "Which is why he's not going to get any more flak from you, starting now."
"Watch where you tread, Emperor's Hand." The words struck out like a whetting stone putting an edge on a dagger. "I will not harm my son, but you are another matter entirely."
Piett's heart leapt into his mouth. He hadn't heard that particular brand of possessive malice from Vader since their Skywalker-hunting days. Instantly he realized that the Dark Lord's scathing threats against Solo had been made pro forma. Solo merely irritated him – Mara Jade he considered a threat. Between Vader and his son lay sacred ground that he allowed nobody to violate and live, be he Emperor of the whole krething galaxy; and Mara had planted her flag right in the heart of it. Wife of his son, mother of his grandchild – Piett wasn't sure either status would protect her if the scale tipped even a hair too far.
Her smile hardened, and Piett saw an angry tic in the corner of her mouth. She knew the ice was thin – and she was marching out on it anyway. "You won't harm him? You have a toll-free hyperlane right into his heart, and the first chance you got you flew a Death Star into it and lit him up like Alderaan. He still wakes up with a Bespin nightmare now and then. He went through hell for you at Endor, he's kept going through hell for two decades because he admits to being your son, and now that you've finally decided to grace us all with your presence again, you're giving him more hell for sticking up for your undeserving butt against his actual friends. Around here we call that harming someone. You're not doing any more damage on my watch."
Whoever had taught Mara Jade Skywalker the art of verbally eviscerating a man had been a master. At the word Bespin Vader jerked back as though he'd been struck across the face. Piett had stopped pretending to rummage through his case. He didn't even dare to breathe. Silence stretched, taut as a bowstring.
"What do you want from me?" Vader finally asked. "What is done is done."
Mara's aggressive posture relaxed a notch. "A truce. I don't like you particularly, I never have, but Luke's more important to both of us. So hate my guts from here to Tatooine if you want, but as far as Farm Boy's concerned, I love you, you love me, bygones are bygones, blasters are buried, and so forth."
Vader crossed his arms. "And is that all?"
"One more thing," she said softly. "You don't ever, ever, tell him to leave you again. You mean the galaxy to him. Let him have his father for a change."
She held out her hand. "Deal?"
Vader continued to impersonate a monolith for another few seconds. Then he abruptly reached past her outstretched hand and lifted her chin gently with thumb and forefinger. "I was hasty in my judgment. He did well to choose you."
A blush nearly the same flaming shade as her hair suddenly ran into Mrs. Hardbitten Imperial Operative's cheeks. Piett ducked behind his suitcase to conceal a kilometer-wide grin. So even the unflappable Emperor's Hand was not quite immune to Vader's caprices. Perhaps the next seventy-two hours wouldn't be as trying as he'd feared.
"And our deal?" she demanded.
Vader dropped his hand. "I will do as you ask."
"And what exactly would that be?" Skywalker's voice cut in. He had stopped halfway down the boarding ramp, bestowing suspicious looks equally on his wife and his father.
"Nothing to fret about, dear," said Mara. "I just figured this was my best chance to get my lightsaber autographed by the artist himself."
Vader glanced down at the battered old hilt on her hip and gave a definite start. "Where did you get that?"
"Present from Farm Boy. And no, you can't have it back." She tossed her hair. "Finders keepers."
Vader hesitated for a breath or two, then turned to Skywalker. "I…assumed you had lost it on Bespin."
"I got it back," said Skywalker quietly.
He shrugged. "Long story."
There was another strained silence. Piett found himself holding his breath again.
Vader reached out and laid a hand on his son's shoulder. "Then you must stay," he said, "and tell it to me."
Skywalker's eyebrows shot up. "Stay?"
Vader glanced at Mara, wryly (Piett couldn't for the life of him have said how he knew it was wryly). "Provided your wife can spare you."
His daughter-in-law favored him with a glowing smile. "Dear me. I suppose I'll survive somehow."
The Lady looked very small and fragile from the cockpit of the yacht. Piett watched her dwindle from a ship, to a splinter, to a speck, to an indistinguishable patch of space – then the stars lurched and Eriadu was millions of klicks behind him. Mara settled back, checking gauges and readouts out of habit, her eyes distant; perhaps her thoughts too lingered behind them. He sank down in his bucket seat, watching the dervishes of liquid lightning outside and trying not to feel like a bereaved parent. He'd been the buffer for so long between Vader and the rest of the crew, and without him to interface, gloss over the rough patches, who knew what might happen…
Then he thought again of Skywalker in the hangar bay, as openly delighted as any four-year-old could be over the simple fact of his father letting him stay. He smiled.
Mara turned to him, and he could see at once that she'd been thinking of the same thing. She smiled – no dangerous ripples this time, just simple pleasure at having seen someone dear to her made happy. "Don't worry, Admiral," she murmured. "I think they're going to do just fine without us."
Piett nodded amiably. "I believe you're right, ma'am."
The ramp dropped, and Piett trotted down it to discover that the planet formerly known as Imperial Center had miraculously contrived to become an even greater smog-filled racket than before.
The pinnacles of the capitol district glimmered above him in every direction, almost seeming to blink with astonishment at the sight of an Imperial Navy uniform after all these years. Traffic whined and snarled through every spare meter of sky, and directly overhead flags snapped on the spires of what had been Imperial Palace. He had vivid memories of watching on holovid the day those flags were first run up, back when he'd been an embryo of an officer and still young enough to cheer the spectacle madly in the streets with practically the entire population of Axxila. He was a great deal older and soberer now; the shine had worn off many things that had seemed so splendid back then, himself included.
All the same, it gave him a pang to see those flags flaming the rebel-red of the New Republic.
"Admiral Piett?" someone said, and Piett realized belatedly that a small welcoming party had approached from the far side of the platform. The Princess was conspicuously absent. In her stead were a handful of military types in dress whites, a Bothan senator, a phalanx of security guards, and a man somewhat older than himself in conservatively cut diplomatic robes, who was extending his hand.
"I am Mokka Falanthas, Minister of State. On behalf of Chief of State Organa Solo and the New Republic, welcome to Coruscant."
He had prepared himself to hear Coruscant instead of Imperial Center, and though the change stung could shake the man's hand without showing it. "Thank you, Minister. I'm glad to be here." Gods, he hadn't been a diplomat for five minutes and he was already lying through his teeth.
The Minister gestured to the Bothan. "May I introduce Senator Borsk Fey'lya, Senate Minority Leader."
Fey'lya made a grudging gesture. According to Piett's brief, the Bothan was an ambitious sort who had built a career out of being Leia Organa's antithesis; he currently looked as though he couldn't decide whether to maintain his outrage at the Chief of State's indecently kind treatment of the Empire's orphans, or congratulate himself on securing a spot in such an extraordinary welcoming party. "Senator, a pleasure."
Fey'lya was instantly elbowed aside by a general, who pumped Piett's hand with all the glee of a Hutt surveying an eelfrog buffet. "General Airen Cracken, New Republic Intelligence."
Piett had an awful feeling he was going to be seeing a lot of Airen Cracken whether he wanted to or not. "General."
"And this is Supreme Commander Ackbar of the New Republic Defense Forces…"
Piett shook the aged Mon Calamarian's clammy fin and continued through the obligatory courtesies. If only the Emperor could see me now, he thought. Shaking hands with aliens, ex-slaves, insurrectionists, and senators right smack dab on his doorstep.
He glanced over his shoulder as Mara emerged from the ship and was sucked directly into conversation with Airen Cracken. Ah yes, and Jedi turncoats too. Mustn't forget the worst blasphemy of them all.
"You must be weary after your long travels, Admiral," said the Minister presently. "Chief of State Organa Solo requested that we provide a suite for you here, if that will be convenient?" He gestured at the glorious spires of the palace, where the red flags frolicked their victory dance.
Piett forced a cheerful smile. "I should be glad of it."
"Excellent, excellent." The Minister began leading the way inside. "We'll give you some time to make yourself at home, but Her Excellency would be most gratified if you would join her this evening for a state dinner welcoming you to Galactic City."
He gritted his teeth. "That's very kind of her. I would be honored."
Stars, it was going to be a miserable two weeks.
Dinner was conducted on such a scale as to make Piett exceedingly grateful he could still fit into his mess-dress uniform. There was the Chief of State, all grace and poise. There were Senators; there were admirals; there were potentates of every province and scions of every species. There was even the astonishing spectacle of Han Solo in pressed trousers without a single engine lube stain on them.
What there was not, at least for Firmus Piett, was any actual eating. He cast regretful glances at the tantalizing plates that paraded, untouched, beneath his nose, for all these dignitaries (excepting only Solo's trousers) spent the entire evening competing for a piece of his conversation. It was flattering, he supposed, but such hobnobbing and shoulder-rubbing was lightyears outside his realm of expertise. By the time the Chief of State retired for the evening, he felt depressingly certain that the only thing he'd managed to get into his mouth all night had been his foot.
He'd found a nice quiet corner to catch his breath in when a hand tapped him on the shoulder behind. He whirled, reaching for the sidearm he'd left in the Lady's bridge armory, and found himself staring into a pair of green eyes reminiscent of a Hyraxian panther's.
"Hungry?" Mara asked.
"Gods, yes," said Piett.
With a casual nod inviting him to follow, she led the way around the corner, through a couple of curtains, down a quiet corridor—then suddenly leaned her palm into a decoration on one of the carved walls, at which a whole panel of it slid away. "Let's take the shortcut, shall we?"
"Do I want to know why there is an entire rat's nest of secret passages in the diplomatic guest suites?" Piett hissed behind her as they proceeded down a series of shadowy, narrow tunnels. He had to walk sideways down half of them.
"I'll leave it to your imagination," said the Emperor's ex-assassin.
They came out somewhere in the residential levels of an older part of the Palace, probably constructed in the days of the old Republic; instead of ponderous marble or glimstone, the walls were paneled in Orinthian cedar and intricate ivory inlay, and splendid rugs hushed every step. Piett was almost surprised when he noticed that several of the decorative bosses in the walls concealed sensor eyes.
"Bioscanners," said Mara. "If you'd tried to come down this corridor without proper clearances you'd have a knife through your throat now."
Piett swallowed and cast a nervous glance all around. "I don't see any security personnel."
Mara smiled. "They're very good at not being seen. Most of them," she added, and the next moment they rounded a corner and Piett found himself face to face (or rather navel to face) with a pair of small gray aliens in hoods keeping watch over a doorway. His initial impression was of Jawas, but one glimpse of their grim, fang-riddled countenances put that thought out of his head. "Mara clan Skywalker," one of them rasped, and keyed the door for them. Piett spotted a knife hilt up the bodyguard's sleeve and hastened past, sighing in relief as the door whirred shut behind him.
"…navigation I can help, but if it's astrophysics you're gonna have to ask Chewie—" Solo, standing by a complicated credenza with drink in hand and formal jacket swung over a shoulder, cut short his comments as he spotted them and made an expansive gesture. "Come on in. Care for a stiff one, either of you?"
"Fill me up." Mara shrugged her jacket off.
"Thank you," said Piett, one intimidated eye on her chiseled upper arms, "I—"
"Me too, Dad!" A tousled brown head of hair popped up over a high-backed sofa in the adjacent sitting room.
"Sorry, Junior," Solo said loudly, pouring a small shot glass and holding it out towards the delighted expression across the room, "your mom'd kill me." The boy flung a hand out over the sofa back, and the shot glass scooted through the air into it. Solo winked at Piett. Mara rolled her eyes. "Maybe when you're old enough!"
"Exactly how stupid do you two think I am?" came the Princess' voice from somewhere down a hall. The boy hastily ducked back out of view with his ill-gotten goods before she appeared a moment later, formal grandeur exchanged for a blouse and a loose robe, adjusting an earring as she walked. "Admiral. I daresay you could use something to eat?"
"I certainly could," he said. "I didn't realize there was so little dining at a state dinner."
"Leave it to a bunch of politicians to invite you to supper and not let you eat," groused Solo. "In case we needed any more proof that they all need dedicated six-man navigation crews just to find their own ass—"
The Princess cleared her throat, with a pointed look at the tuft of hair visible above the sofa.
"—teroids," Solo added clumsily.
"Asteroids, Dad?" said the tuft of hair. "Seriously?"
"Yes, Dad, seriously?" said the Princess. She turned to Piett and nodded him towards the sitting room. "I'll get something together for us. Please make yourself at home."
Solo followed her into the kitchen, while Jade headed down a hall saying something about calling to make sure the babysitters had remembered to put her son to bed, ruffling the tuft of hair on her way. Piett rounded the sofa in search of the most appropriate seat for an Imperial admiral paying a casual evening visit to a Rebel ringleader's private residence. The sofa itself was out of the question, being a morass of datapads, textbooks, flimsy, lightpens, calculators, and one teenage boy hunched cross-legged over the lot. Piett noted the half-empty shot glass squirreled away in the crease of his knee. The youngster glanced up. "Hi. Are you Admiral Piett?"
"I am. You must be…Jacen?"
Not the blackmailer, then. He watched Piett with bright blue eyes much like his uncle's, currently exhibiting an intense and somewhat nervous fascination that was explained by his next comment. "You know my grandfather, don't you?"
"Yes," said Piett, wondering how slowly the Princess was likely to kill him if he waxed eloquent on this particular topic. "Perhaps you'll meet him soon yourself."
"I don't know. I don't think him and Mom get along too well."
Understatement of the millennium, thought Piett.
"Like Hutts and charity drives, kid," said Solo as he arrived with Piett's drink. "You're her favorite Anakin by twelve parsecs." Anakin extracted the shot glass from behind his knee with a cajoling expression, and Solo topped it off out of his own tumbler, raising a warning eyebrow at Piett. Anakin grinned, then drank it in a rush as the Princess' voice rose from the kitchen.
"Her favorite Anakin?" asked Piett as Solo scrambled away.
"That's Grandfather's name too," said Anakin. "Or it was, when he was a Jedi. Anakin Skywalker. You didn't know?"
"No…I didn't." Piett sank slowly into a trim striped armchair. Thirty years he had known and feared the man, and only now learned who he was. A Jedi named Anakin Skywalker…it rang dim boyhood bells. He was sure that name had been mentioned by the war correspondents back during the Clone Wars. A burning urge seized him to run Holonet searches when he got back to his suite—to see, if he could, the real human being who'd been mummified within the mask and legend of Darth Vader.
He filed the thoughts away for later. Whatever the original Anakin's social shortcomings, the second edition seemed to be a perfectly amiable young fellow so far. "What are you working on?" he asked.
"Astrophysics lab," said Anakin, making a face. "It's taking forever and a millennium."
The Princess reappeared, a plate of cheese in one hand and a glass of green champagne in the other. "Anakin, the sofa is not your desk. And I'll take that, thank you." She put down the plate and held out her hand for the shot glass.
"Aw, come on, Mom! I'm sixteen practically!"
"The legal drinking age for humanoids is eighteen, young man."
"On Corellia it's sixteen!"
"One more reason we don't live on Corellia."
"Hey!" came Solo's patriotic protest from the kitchen.
"Coruscant sucks," Anakin groused, surrendering the contraband.
"My heart bleeds for you. Now clear that up so the rest of us can sit down."
He started shoveling his homework together, muttering under his breath. Piett had a taste of his drink—then heaved a long, satisfied sigh. Free of that rotgut starshine at last.
"This," he said with feeling, "is excellent, Your Highness."
"Leia, please. We don't stand on ceremony at home. And I can't take credit for it, Han's the liquor expert of the household." She toed off her shoes and curled up on the sofa as Solo sat down next to her and slid an arm over her shoulders.
"And a most welcoming and peaceful household it is." A compliment never hurt.
"There's something we don't hear every day, eh, Your Highnessness?" said Solo. "Amazing what a difference it makes having the Twin Terrors on the other side of the city. Now if we could just get rid of the last one…"
"Ha ha, Dad, real funny." Anakin had relocated to a corner of the carpet and now a sea of flimsy ebbed in and out around him as he scrawled on a series of datapads with one hand, playing a concerto on his calculator with the other.
"I take it Jacen and Jaina are out for the evening?" Piett inquired, to be polite.
Solo nodded at the hall where Mara had disappeared. "They're babysitting the Skycrawler."
"Both of them?"
"Four hands to one Force-sensitive toddler is a pretty conservative ratio," said the Princess. "Trust me on—"
"Sithspit!" The adults turned to see Anakin throw his stylus down and dump his head in his hands. "I don't care what Uncle Luke says, this is one hundred percent impossible!"
"What is?" asked the Princess.
"This stupid assignment! We have to calculate a five-stage hyper jump from scratch. Like, coordinating tables and star charts and mass inertia formulas and everything by hand." He threw himself backwards against a side table. "I mean, why in the nine hells do they think we invented navicomputers?"
"Language," said the Princess sternly. "It's a grade, not the fate of the galaxy."
"Sorry," Anakin muttered. "It's just so pointless. I am literally never gonna have to do this."
"I wouldn't be so sure," Piett cut in, reaching for the cheese. "On the Executor we had to calculate jumps from scratch for about twenty-three years before we got our navicomputers repaired."
Anakin's eyes shot wide open in astonishment. "You did?"
He nodded. "And we had to build our own star charts and coordinate system first."
"Holy shavit," Anakin breathed, earning yet another Look from his mother, and doubtless a reprimand too if something had not chimed from the kitchen.
"There's the rest of it ready," she said.
Solo went with her, leaning down to murmur something in her ear. Anakin's gaze tracked them for a moment, then crept sideways to Piett.
"Would you mind if I ask a question? OK, more like ten questions probably, cause I seriously don't know what I'm doing and the last time I tried to solve it I killed my ship like five times."
Now this was his kind of diplomacy. "Certainly. Let's have a look."
Anakin shoved the cheese platter aside and hoisted his ocean of homework onto the coffee table. "See, I'm supposed to start out at Arkania, jump to the Perlemian Trade Route at Ralltiir and follow that to Brentaal, and then take the Corellian Run to Corellia and backtrack to Colomus. But I keep overshooting Brentaal and then I get powzered in the Deep Core."
Piett raised an eyebrow. "Powzered?"
"You know, bloomed. Dusted. Totally Death Starred." He mimicked an explosion with both hands.
Piett's face was no longer capable of producing a confused expression, because confused looked too much like stupid and Being Stupid was extremely high on the list of Qualities Darth Vader Does Not Appreciate In A Military Officer (outranked only by: High Treason, Making Excuses For Failure, and Playing Political Games). So he nodded crisply and returned to the problem at hand. "Your ship's mass distribution figures and hyperdrive specifications?"
Anakin handed over one of his datapads. Piett flicked a practiced eye over it and sifted through some flimsy for the printouts with the hyperlane astrophysical data for the Coreward end of the Perlemian Trade Route. Once upon a rosy time such an undertaking would have been as foreign to him as it was to Anakin; now he could estimate the complex formulas at a glance. He had not expected this particular skill to be useful to anyone anymore. Humming and hawing with the satisfaction of an old craftsman as he turned from the hyperlane figures to the star charts, then to Anakin's jumbled chicken-scratch sheets of calculations, he never even heard the elder Solos and Mara return to stare at the scene.
"Ah," he said at length. "Here's your difficulty." He circled a variable in one of the early equations. "You've forgotten to account for the pulse in the gravitational flux quotient exerted by Brentaal-7."
"What's Brentaal-7 have to do with anything?"
Piett shuffled the star charts and found the display of the Brentaal system. "It's currently located five degrees off its orbital equinox, which places it in gravitational pull of the outbound terminus of the hyperlane. When you hyper out, you're being towed off-course by its gravity well about 0.002 degrees. So—your last set of calculations?"
Anakin plowed through his sheets and produced the corresponding page.
"So when you don't compensate for that angle of divergence on your outward jump, you miss the hyperlane vector for the Corellian Run, which bleeds your absolute velocity and renders your vector compensation inaccurate. You end up on a straight shot to the Deep Core and then, of course, it's only a matter of time before a black hole overcomes your lightspeed momentum. And that is why, if I may borrow the phrase, you keep getting powzered."
Anakin gaped at him for fully ten seconds.
"You are a genius," he said. "Dad, he didn't even need a calculator!"
Piett looked up and found even Solo looking impressed. "Damn, Admiral. You really know the bantha's head from its—"
"Asteroid?" suggested the Princess.
"Tail," said Solo archly. "That's something else."
"Especially," murmured Mara, gliding by to a chair, "since his naval background is in ComScan, not navigation."
Piett tried not to look too pleased with himself. "Necessity, I have found, is the mother of education as well as invention."
"Jacen and Jaina are never going to believe this," said Anakin. "I mean…that is so rogue that you can do that!"
Carilla had used to look at him like that, ten years younger than him, always bursting with adoration for her big brother the Navy officer. He wondered for the millionth time whether she was still alive, whether she was still married, whether there had been any more children after Justus and Astria. On the bridge of a capital warship one could more easily forget things like snacking in the living room late at night, helping youngsters with their homework, everything that went into a normal family life.
"Admiral?" asked the Princess gently.
He shook himself out of his abrupt melancholy and put on a polite smile. "Forgive me, my mind was wandering. Do you think you can get a handle on that now, young man?"
"I think so," said Anakin. "Thank you!" He transshipped his swamp of homework back to the floor, still muttering under his breath, "So rogue…"
Piett filed away the word rogue next to powzered, bloomed, dusted, and totally Death Starred. Perhaps it would be useful for impressing other youngsters who crossed his path.
Piett peeled off his cap and ran a hand through his surviving hair, savoring the blessed silence of the library. The so-called Eriadu Summit was on its tenth interminable day, almost exclusively due to the fact that Borsk Fey'lya considered it his duty to spend a quarter of an hour bickering over each word Piett said at the table, up to and including um. Not even the Princess, with all her diplomatic acumen, could prevent him from having his say. In fact she frequently invited his opinion, which Piett understood was appropriate and democratic and conducive to the long-term goal of winning over the New Republic at large—but which was nonetheless vastly irritating, especially when the Bothan insisted on revising, for the fifth time in a given day, how large a charge would be permissible in the blaster cartridges of Lord Vader's six (five—make that four—no, six again)-man stormtrooper entourage when (no, if—very well, when) the Dark Lord descended on Coruscant for the final ratification.
In what Piett considered his finest diplomatic move so far, he had refrained from reminding the committee that Vader could spot them the entire entourage, his lightsaber, and a durasteel strait-jacket and still kill them all in five seconds flat.
The Princess often sent an encouraging smile his way, or lauded the progress being made, or (privately) complimented him on the way he wasn't tearing out fistfuls of Fey'lya's fur; that was about all that had kept him from throwing in the towel. Well, that and the fact that Vader had received each communication of fresh Republic demands with comparative serenity. Only two holes had been punched into the Executor's bulkheads so far.
He ought to be conferring with Vader right now. The negotiations were on a two-hour recess while each side weighed the most recent proposals—the Senate committee in its cloakroom, and Piett in an elaborate antique library reserved for the use of top-ranking foreign diplomats on such occasions. But the Executor's on-duty ComScan officer had informed him that Lord Vader was in his meditation chamber and had given orders not to be disturbed, which historically would have left Piett twiddling his thumbs. Nowadays he had only to hand the message off to the ship's resident Sith Whisperer, and wait an hour or so while that intrepid individual flushed Vader out of hiding and performed the mysterious alchemical process he'd discovered for transforming the Dark Lord's homicidal wrath into mild irritability.
Piett shook his head thoughtfully as he meandered around the room. Mere telepathy couldn't explain all the things Skywalker somehow understood about his impenetrable parent. For instance, a few weeks ago he'd casually mentioned that if Piett wanted to look Vader in the eye, he should focus on the lower half of the mask's eyeplates—as if, to him, the mask were nothing but a pane of transparisteel with Anakin Skywalker's face plainly visi…ble…behind…
His feet stopped mid-stride. His gaze traveled sideways to a computer terminal and hung there, as if he were six years old and it were a forbidden cookie jar.
He shouldn't have let such an impertinent idea cross his mind, let alone dare to act on it…but Vader was six hundred lightyears away. Even for a mind reader, that had to be out of reach. And the library was empty. And it wasn't as if he had anything better to do at the moment…
Gingerly he sat down at the terminal and brought up the Holonet research program. He scanned the room again. Still nobody. He blew out a breath and keyed in: Anakin Skywalker.
After over five minutes of churning thought, the program blinked a zero-result screen. "Are you sure you meant: Anakin Skywalker?" Piett leapt half out of his skin, swore a blistering string under his breath at the computer, and muted it, shooting another furtive glance over the top of the terminal. Then he tapped out: Annakin Skywalker.
Still nothing. He frowned. Anikin Skywalker?
The zero-result graphic appeared to be mocking him. He tried Aneken, Anoken, and finally, out of sheer desperation, Annican.
The computer bleeped awake at that one. "Did you mean: Annie Can Sky Walk?"
With an especially foul oath bequeathed to him by his old drill inspector at Academy, Piett stabbed the mute key again. Not quickly enough, however; a snicker drifted from behind the shelves at his back. Swiveling round, he spotted a pair of bright brandy-brown eyes and a tell-tale lopsided grin glinting through the gaps. "Evening, Admiral. Doing a little research project?"
He relaxed a little. "Good evening, Miss Solo. Idle curiosity, I suppose." If he had to be caught by a Solo twin, then thank the Force it was Jaina, and not—
"Annie Can Sky Walk?" queried a second voice. Piett groaned inwardly and turned back. Jacen the Blackmailer was leaning over his console, head craned the better to read the display upside down. "Does Granddad know you think his name is Annie?"
Piett suddenly had bigger things to worry about than whether he was about to become Jacen's next source of pocket money. "Granddad?"
Jacen shrugged his father's elaborately nonchalant shrug. "Why not?"
Piett's subsequent silence, while he tried to decide which of the approximately fifty thousand reasons why not should be the first out of his mouth, unfortunately left the floor wide open for a change of subject.
"I can tell you now," said Jaina, coming up behind him, "you won't find anything under Anakin Skywalker."
"Yep," said Jacen. "We all tried that ages ago. No holos—"
"No news reports—"
"No census files—"
"No birth certificates—"
"No piloting licenses—"
"Not even any criminal records, if you can believe that—"
"It's almost like some big-time Imperial honcho had that name wiped from the records or something—"
"Who could it have been?" they chorused.
Piett had gotten slightly dizzy from twisting the seat back and forth trying to keep up with which twin was speaking. He kneaded his brow. "Well. I daresay in that case I'm wasting my time."
Jacen (for no reason that Piett could see) rapped out a short drum solo on the top of the console, before he swung around and deposited himself in the neighboring chair. "Nah, you just gotta know where to look."
"Search Kenobi." Jaina leaned over his shoulder.
Piett squinted at the screen. "Kenobi?"
"K-a-n-o-b-y," said Jacen.
There was a sound of someone's skull being thumped. "Ignore Bantha Brains here, Admiral. K-e-n-o-b-i."
Piett keyed the name in. "Is he this Obi-Wan character I keep hearing about?"
The computer hummed, sifting through the accumulated records of fifteen thousand years of galactic history, or at least through such records as had managed to survive the cataclysmic downfalls of first the Republic and then the Empire. "Who was he, exactly?"
"Granddad's smashball coach," said Jacen. There was a sound of someone's shin being kicked. "Ow!"
"If you're practicing for Granddad, you might as well quit now."
"Hey!" Jacen donned an injured look, also plagiarized from his father. "I'll have you know I'm considered a comic genius in many circles."
"Only the ones under the age of two," Jaina retorted. "Anyway, have you seen the history holos? He makes your girlfriend look like a Shurnian hyena, and she only smiles once every three years."
"I don't know what you're talking about," said Jacen indignantly, now channeling a spot-on impression of his mother. "I don't have a girlfriend."
"No, just the biggest crush since the Malastare Marvels beat the Corellian Comets four hundred and forty-six to two—"
Piett cleared his throat. "Fascinating, but who is Obi-Wan Kenobi?"
"A Jedi Knight," said Jaina. "He taught Granddad way back when. Uncle Luke too."
Piett frowned. "I was given to understand your uncle did not begin his Jedi training until after the Battle of Hoth. Kenobi was killed aboard the first Death Star years before that." One could not listen to two months' worth of altercations between Vader and Skywalker without learning a considerable amount about a) Obi-Wan Kenobi's innumerable sins and b) what Vader would have done to him on the first Death Star had he known about more of them.
"Um," said Jaina. "Well…"
"Thing is…" muttered Jacen.
They shared a look. It was a look he had seen worn by a great many ensigns and greenhorn lieutenants over the course of his career. What that look meant was: I now realize just how stupid my explanation sounds.
"What," Piett said severely, "is 'the thing'?"
The twins eyed each other like a pair of akk pups that had been caught peeing on the carpet. Then, in perfect unison, they sighed: "He's a ghost."
Piett spun the console around and pinned the twins with his best do-you-think-I-got-this-rank-by-being-an-idiot expression. "A ghost. You expect me to believe your uncle was educated by a ghost."
"Well," said Jacen. "Not just by a ghost. There was Master Yoda too. He wasn't a ghost." He eyed his sister. "Erm. At the time."
"Am I understand," said Piett, "that this Yoda is now also a ghost?"
Jacen's expression performed several interesting little contortions of embarrassment. "Well…apparently that's what happens to Jedi when they, um. Die."
"If that were the case, we'd be up to our necks in them here on Coruscant, wouldn't we?" He flicked his chin in the general direction of the Temple District. "When was the last time either of you saw Kenobi or this Yoda character?"
Jacen cleared his throat stubbornly. "Just because I haven't seen it doesn't mean it isn't true. Besides, Uncle Luke can't lie to save his life, everybody knows that."
"You might be surprised," Piett muttered. He can certainly cheat at sabacc just fine.
Jaina snorted. "Jasa, Uncle Luke also said Dagobah was one giant swamp, so for all we know he was high on fungus fumes the whole time."
"Oh, so now you don't believe in ghosts? You made us spend four months building a ghost trap cause you wanted to meet one."
"One, we were nine at the time, and two, we're adults now." She paused. "Well, I am. You on the other hand still think fart jokes are the last word in humor."
"They're funny and you know it. What do you call it when the Queen Mother of Hapes farts?"
Piett cast a long-suffering gaze at the ceiling. Thank you, Solo, for your contributions to civilization.
"A noble gas. Get it?"
"…Tell me you didn't try that one on Tenel Ka."
"And the genius part is, I can tailor it to any audience. Fr'instance"—he indicated Piett—"what do you call it when the Emperor—"
"Wrong audience," Piett said firmly.
"Okay then, what do you call it when Granddad—"
"Young man, please believe me when I say he will not appreciate such…hilarity."
"What, he never laughs?"
Piett glanced at him, scandalized. "Certainly not."
"Shouldn't have told him that," Jaina sighed. "Watch, he'll make it his life mission."
"Then his life is likely to be very brief," Piett said, in a suitably portentous tone.
"I call bantha shavit." Jacen kicked his feet up on the console next to Piett's and folded his arms behind his head, the picture of unconcern. "He has to have some sense of humor. I mean, he had two kids, right? So Grandma must have liked him, and nobody likes people with no sense of humor."
Faster, Piett willed the computer.
Jaina laughed. "This from the guy head-over-heels for a woman who can watch Hutt soap operas with a straight face."
"That is her sense of humor," said Jacen. Jaina eyed him dubiously. "I bet Granddad goes in for gallows humor."
"You have no idea," Piett cut in, and shot down that subject by stringently adding, "Might I inquire as to why, exactly, I have the pleasure of your company? In this restricted-access library at twenty-two-hundred hours?"
"Research project," said Jacen.
Piett did not like that innocent tone. "Is that so. And what, pray tell, are you researching?"
"It's more of a sociological case study," said Jaina.
"And you selected this library because…?"
"It contains a valuable information source."
"One of a kind."
"Not available on the Holonet."
Innocent that he was, Piett's first thought was for the priceless collection of antique printed books occupying a display case on one wall. Then he realized the twins were eyeing him like a pair of circling krakana. "No," he said at once.
"I am not entertaining questions concerning Lord Vader."
"Come on," grinned Jacen, "it's not like we want to know what color underwear he wears on Tuesday or something."
Piett struggled against the mental image that was now trying to be born. "Is your mother aware that you're here?"
"Of course," said Jaina virtuously. "She's always encouraging us to hone our diplomatic skills."
"And interrogating me for information about Lord Vader meets her definition of diplomacy?"
Jaina crossed her arms. "We aren't children, Admiral."
"So she would be displeased."
"Look, if she is, we'll worry about that." Jaina bit her lip and turned a wide, wistful gaze on him. "Please, Admiral? We've…never had a grandfather before…"
Piett stared, unblinking, into her enormous limpid eyes. Thirty seconds ticked by.
She sighed in defeat. "Overdid the schmaltz factor, didn't I?"
"By approximately three hundred percent," said Piett.
"Told you," Jacen huffed.
"Fine, take two." Jaina pursed her lips for a second, choosing words. "From what Mom and Dad and Aunt Mara are saying, it sounds like Granddad is probably going to come to Coruscant before too long. We'd just like to know what he's like, that's all. From somebody who knows him."
Piett remained unmoved. "Then ask your parents. They have met him several times."
"Yeah," Jacen said slowly, "but they were always enemies then. They never lived with him, you know? But we'll have to. And…well, we grew up hearing stories, you know. Most of 'em aren't good."
"None of them are," muttered Jaina. "Except Uncle Luke's, and even that one…" She cleared her throat, crossing her arms defensively. "It just…sounds like his good side is about as big as a Death Star's thermal exhaust port, comparatively speaking."
"Which explains why Uncle Luke's the only one who's ever hit it," Jacen quipped, but Piett wasn't fooled. Though it had been a long time since he'd seen nervous young bravado like that, he remembered it well. Back when he'd still been the Executor's captain under Admiral Ozzel, newly-minted ensigns had used to arrive like clockwork, ten or twelve of them rotating in every month, the best and brightest Academy graduates sent to the furnace of Lord Vader's flagship for refining, desperate to prove that they weren't the sort of fools Vader so despised, haunted by stories of what happened to such people, and trying to hide under a thick layer of swagger. He'd used to take those young ensigns aside before they began serving on the bridge—sit them down in his office for a cup of caf and a little coaching on How Not To Get Killed By Vader. And those poor kids had merely been expected to call him Sir, not Grandfather.
He cleared his throat, but right then the computer chirped. "Search complete. Fifty-seven million results for Obi-Wan Kenobi."
"Tell you what," said Jaina. "We'll show you a holo of Anakin Skywalker, and you tell us three things we ought to know before we meet Granddad. That's fair, isn't it?"
Piett considered. "Very well. With the understanding that this conversation remains between the three of us."
"Deal," chorused the twins. Jaina snagged a chair and a moment later Piett found himself the filling in a Solo sandwich, Jacen swiping through the results on his right and Jaina scanning the list with an eagle eye from the left.
"Full disclaimer, we don't actually know this is a holo of Granddad," she said. "But we showed it to Uncle Luke and he's pretty sure it is."
"What holo would that be?"
"It's just a minute or two clip from some Outer Rim news agency that folded ages ago. We think it's footage they took in the field during the Clone Wars and never used. Senate passed a freedom-of-information act awhile back to release a lot of old archives that got seized and classified at the beginning of the Empire, and this was in there…"
"I can never remember whether it's the Naboo Daily Herald or the Theed Tribune," Jacen grumbled.
"Theed," said Jaina. "There, that one."
There ensued a brief spat over whether the clip in question was filed under Malastare, Mygeeto, or Mantooine. Piett finally reclaimed control of the console and searched through each, until the twins both lunged to point at a particular line of code on the screen with simultaneous cries of that's the one. With a tight feeling of anticipation locking up his trachea—and hoping that it was just anticipation, and not Vader trying to throttle him preemptively from Eriadu—he selected it.
The projector threw up a shuddering holo that appeared to have been recorded inside a GAR troop assault craft. Rows of unhelmeted clones were panned through, laughs and sweat tracks and fierce grins on their identical faces; returning from some successful mission, apparently. The holocam wandered, without commentary from whoever'd been operating it, through the ship into the cockpit.
"—please watch where you are flying," a ginger-haired man on the right was saying in exasperation. "And try to remember this is an assault shuttle, not an Eta-2."
"You know, Master," said a tenor voice from out of the recording zone, "since attachment is forbidden, I think you should let go of your totally irrational fear that this ship is somehow going to crash while I'm flying it."
The ginger-haired man raised an eyebrow. "Just because I wasn't on Sernpidal doesn't mean I don't know what happened there."
"Obviously you don't, if you think it was my fault."
"I know exactly whose fault it was. Senator Amidala was quite clear."
There was a pause. "What did she say?"
"That you and Commander Rex apparently wagered a week of dessert rations on who could shave Drisdin Heights the closest."
"I suppose she didn't mention I beat him by half a meter."
"No, I'm afraid she was more impressed by the fact that you inadvertently flew through the CIS sensor envelope, got attacked by a division of thirty starfighters, and had to call a rescue force down from orbit to pick you up when you crash-landed in the northern hemisphere as a consequence."
"Nobody else would have made it to the northern hemisphere at all," the voice grumbled. "I picked off all those fighters single-handed."
The holocam widened its pickup to reveal the pilot—a tall man with shaggy sweat-curling hair, an intense expression trained on his companion, paying no attention whatsoever to the tree-riddled landscape hurtling by on either side of the viewport.
"Nobody else would have put themselves in that position to tree, tree—"
The pilot's hand twitched, the ship nipped sideways, and a massive trunk scorched by centimeters to port.
"Blast it, watch where you're flying!"
"I always know where I'm flying, Master," the other retorted. Then, still evading trees at point-blank range with one hand, he spun his bucket seat further around to face the holocam full on, irritation simmering under his controlled expression. "Consid—"
Jaina froze the image. "There," she said, and turned an arch look at Jacen. "And you wonder why Grandma would have liked him if he didn't have a sense of humor."
Piett stared. There was no denying it. The eyes were a dead giveaway—bold blue, like his son and grandson—but even if they hadn't been, that absolute, commanding self-assurance spoke for itself. And the man carried himself—not just like Vader, perhaps, but certainly the way he imagined Vader would were he less encumbered in leather and durasteel. It was like watching a hand that had taken off a thick glove for the first time.
As for Jaina's commentary…well, having personally failed to impress dozens of females in his Academy days, Piett had a fair idea of what women thought was attractive, and the man in the holo ticked rather a lot of those boxes: tall, muscular, rakishly disheveled, the kind of manly good looks that inspired otherwise intelligent young ladies to start using words like sultry. Even the scar over his eye looked dashing—in brutal contrast to the great furrows Piett had glimpsed years ago, marring a head of bald, hideous skin as white and fragile as tissue paper. Somehow it had never occurred to him that that mutilated head could have had hair on it once, could even have inspired a lover's admiring caress.
He stared at the handsome face for a solid minute or two, wondering: what in the nine hells happened to that man?
Or maybe the real question was what in the nine hells hadn't happened to him.
Jaina unpaused the holo. "—sider this your last warning, Jex. Get that thing out of my face." The pilot stabbed his index finger at the holocam.
"Yes," murmured Piett, half-smiling, "that's certainly him."
The projector went blank immediately; Piett could practically see the yessirrightawaysirpleasedon'tkillmesir look on Jex's invisible face. He sat back in his seat with a soft exhale, echoed by the twins. Pensive silence reigned.
"Well," Jacen said, "that's everything we know about him." He thumped both elbows forward onto the console, grinning at point blank range. Jaina mirrored him on the left. "Your turn."
Piett pinned Jacen with a scowl.
"Three things," Jaina reminded him, drawing the scowl on herself for a moment while Piett collected his thoughts. At length he cleared his throat.
"I suppose the first thing is to be honest. He'll know you're lying before the words ever leave your mouth."
Massively unimpressed looks repaid him for this jewel of wisdom. "Well duh," said Jaina. "Even the Skycrawler can do that, and he's not even two."
"It's kind of a Force-sensitive thing," said Jacen, more kindly.
"Perhaps," said Piett, "but he defines dishonesty very broadly. If you say pleased to meet you but are frightened of him, he will consider that a lie, and a cowardly one at that." Which explained the man's total intolerance for politicians. The twins' expressions became much more sober and thoughtful. "Second, be brief. He considers compliments and pleasantries a waste of time at best, and he is not famous for his patience. The longer you take getting to the point, the less likely he is to receive it well."
"Huh." Jacen considered that with steadily increasing approval. "Short on patience, blunt, and we already know he likes to fly…you think he's maybe Corellian, Jaya?"
"Could be." Jaina caught Piett's eye. "Have you ever heard him say don't tell me the odds?"
"That would require the odds to be against him," Piett replied dryly. You would have had to stack two sector fleets against Vader before any bookkeeper would accept wagers on him.
"Not Corellian," the twins agreed, with a concerted nod.
"So," pressed Jaina, "what's number—"
A loud chime coming from the other end of the room cut her off. Three chairs spun toward the holocom station, where an incoming transmission signal had begun blinking.
"I'm afraid it will have to wait." Piett stood, straightening his uniform jacket on reflex. Next moment he realized that had been a telling mistake. The twins shot up on the edges of their seats like kath hounds who'd scented a roasting nuna.
"That's him calling, isn't it?" Jaina's eyes glinted.
Piett ignored the question. "It is a matter of urgent business. I must ask you both to leave at once."
"It is him," Jacen breathed, eyes fixed on the holocom station with desperate fascination.
Piett pinched his lips together. Every ounce of common sense he possessed was ringing danger alerts; but as they had just warned him a moment ago, they were Force-sensitive and not easily deceived. "Most likely," he ground out. "But it is not my place to introduce you. That decision rests with your parents."
"We'll stay right here," Jacen insisted.
"We won't say a word."
"We won't breathe!"
"No," Piett said firmly. "The topic to be discussed is classified."
"We already know about it! Mom is the Chief of—"
"And if I have to call security to escort you out," Piett warned, "I will."
Jaina crossed her arms, eyes narrowed. "Fine. Sure you want to keep him waiting that long?"
"Cause it's going to take awhile." Jacen grinned. "Our mom is—"
"I'm aware of who she is!" Piett covered his brow with one hand, cursing under his breath as only a man with forty years in uniform could. But they were right, blast them; it was unwise to keep Vader waiting. "Suit yourselves," he said finally "Not a sound, either of you."
They beamed and nodded, leaning forward in their seats for the best possible view. Piett gave his jacket another frustrated twitch and marched over to the station. As Vader's towering form sprang forth in the life-size projection, he felt the twins stiffen with excitement—but true to their word, not a sound escaped.
"Good evening, my—"
The index finger pounced. "Do not think you can deceive me, Admiral. Who is it that you have invited to eavesdrop?"
Six hundred lightyears away and he still—it just wasn't fair! How could he possibly—
Belatedly he realized that a man who could take a head count from six hundred lightyears away probably wouldn't have any difficulty reading what was in those heads. "I beg your pardon, my lord. Just before you called I received some unexpected visitors. However"—he scowled at the twins—"they are leaving as we speak."
With synchronization so perfect a drill sergeant would have swooned with delight, the junior Solos crossed their arms, thumped back in their seats, and raised their right eyebrows, projecting such a resounding attitude of like-hell-we-are that the only wonder would have been if Vader hadn't sensed it.
"It would seem your powers of persuasion leave much to be desired," said Vader. "Perhaps your visitors would prefer to deal with me."
Piett's esophagus tried to turn itself inside out. "That won't be necessary, sir." He forced himself to sound jaunty. "I'm sure they—"
Vader pointed his basilisk gaze straight beyond the pickup of the transmission sensors to where the twins were sitting, now pale-faced. Dread had belatedly gotten the better of their curiosity. "I insist," he purred.
Damn. Piett froze, thoughts churning—Vader would be furious if he picked now of all times to be obstreperous—but what the Princess would do to him didn't bear thinking on—
Jaina suddenly stood. Jacen started out of his seat after her. "Jaya, you don't have to, I'll—"
"I'm oldest," she murmured, as solemn and final as a captain preparing to go down with her ship. She took a deep breath, then marched across the room and stepped into the pickup with a small but determined smile. "Hello, Granddad. I'm Jaina. How are you?"
"Hi, Granddad. I'm Jaina."
She'd said it. She had actually gone and said it to his face.
Piett had thought that frightened look of a moment ago had meant she'd had some sense knocked into her. Well, he wouldn't be assuming that about anybody named Solo ever again.
But Vader only said: "Child. What are you doing there?"
"Nothing much. We're just keeping your admiral entertained."
Vader gripped his belt with one hand—hanging on for dear life, Piett would have said, if it had been anybody else in the known universe. "We?"
"What the hells," Jacen muttered, and joined her at the station, forcing Piett off to the side. "Us. Me and her. I'm Jacen. Uh…hi."
The black stare ticked from twin to twin, like the needle on a Geiger counter. "Is your mother aware of this?"
Piett blinked. The question almost—no, it did imply a tremendous concession—an unheard-of concession—that, at least where teenage children surnamed Solo were concerned, Darth Vader's wishes must defer to those of the Princess. This, from the same Darth Vader who had never taken orders from anyone but the Emperor or the Emperor's puppet du jour, such as Tarkin had been.
Jaina tipped her head slightly to the side. "Now she is."
Safely out of the pickup range, Piett mopped his suddenly clammy forehead. Back in Eriadu, Vader seemed to be having a difficult time finding words. It had probably been decades since the man had last had to introduce himself to somebody on civil terms.
"Are you coming to Coruscant soon?" Jacen ventured, in a surge of nerve.
"That," Vader thundered, "will depend."
Jacen's eyebrows shot up in alarm as the rest of him sprang reflexively to attention. "Yes—I mean yessir," he agreed, without bothering to ask what he was agreeing with.
Jaina was not so easily intimidated. "On what?"
"On whether my admiral has an opportunity of discussing the negotiations with me," Vader boomed, "or continues to be interrupted by insolent children."
"Yessir," Jacen stammered. "Sorry we interrupted." Piett did not like the look in his twin's eye, however. She was only too clearly taking the measure of her opponent—and unlike Jacen, appeared to be finding the odds to her liking.
"I'm not," she said, crossing her arms. "He's had you all to himself for twenty-five years. I think it's our turn. And we aren't children either," she added testily. "We're eighteen. I'm starting at Academy in a couple months."
There was a taut silence. Piett caught himself holding his breath.
"Perhaps not a child," Vader conceded at length. "Certainly insolent." Jacen remained stiffer than the cold-case wing of the Galactic City Morgue, but Jaina grinned. She seemed to have figured out in five minutes what Piett had taken years to comprehend: Vader's aggression was quite often no more than his way of testing your mettle.
Of course, it was also quite often his way of editing unsatisfactory life-forms from the galactic script, but dwelling on the negative never got you anywhere.
"Comes of being Corellian," Jaina answered, just on the safe side of flippant.
With what must have been superhuman effort, Vader passed up this sterling opportunity to insult his son-in-law. "What specialization have you chosen?"
"Good." His tone made it abundantly clear he considered this the only military career acceptable for persons descended from him. The helmet swiveled. "And does your brother also plan to attend Academy?"
"Uh, well, not just yet," Jacen replied.
"Not just yet?" Jaina demanded sotto voce. "Last summer you said never in a million years!"
"Last summer I didn't know he'd be asking," Jacen hissed back.
Piett cleared his throat loudly. Call him paranoid, but it seemed better to cut this first conversation short on a high note. Or at least a note not too far below middle C. "Master Solo, Miss Solo, I'm afraid I really must speak with Lord Vader privately now. The committee is due to reconvene in forty minutes."
Jacen nudged his sister with his elbow and flicked his chin towards the door, and this time she relented. "Alright. I guess…we'll see you later, then, Granddad."
"It would seem the Force has willed it so, child."
Jaina's eyebrows went up indignantly, signaling the onset of a Royal Snit a la Leia Organa. "I am not a—"
"Yep, looks that way," Jacen said loudly over her, grabbing her arm and towing her backwards. "Nice talking to you, Granddad!"
Jaina tugged her arm as he marched her out of the room, protesting half-heartedly. A moment later Jacen's wicked grin popped back around the frame. He waggled three fingers at Piett. "You still owe us the third one, remember!" The door whooshed shut. Piett turned with unaccustomed relief back to Vader and found himself the object of profound suspicion.
"What is it that you owe them?"
He cleared his throat. "Oh, it's nothing of consequence, my lord."
Vader's forefinger lasered in on him. "If this has anything to do with that repulsive card game my son insists on propagating—"
Piett prayed to gods he hadn't found out about the lightsaber. Or the Emperor's portrait. "Nothing whatsoever, sir, I assure you. Have you had an opportunity of reviewing the report?"
"In spite of Jedi interference, yes."
"Jedi interference" was his new phrase for anything Skywalker did to irritate him, ranging from destruction of Imperial property (his holocom) to corruption of Imperial officers (Rebel sabacc, fast becoming a shipwide craze) to taking outrageous personal liberties ("good night, Father, sleep well"). Piett had already heard the complaint too many times to spare it a second thought.
Particularly not given how many other things there were to weigh on his mind. "And what is your opinion of the committee's revised proposals?"
He asked purely for form's sake. There was one new demand guaranteed to send him back to the table with a withering refusal that he'd somehow have to translate into less offensive phrasing—
Vader waved a hand. "They are acceptable."
Piett, stylus poised over his datapad ready to start taking notes, froze in total shock for more than five seconds before looking back up at Vader. "A-acceptable, sir?"
"That is correct, Admiral."
"Are you sure?" he blurted. Vader's mask snapped around to him, whether in anger or surprise he couldn't tell. Likely both; he'd never questioned Vader's decisions to his face, let alone been such an idiot as to do it without a single my lord or sir.
But it turned out thirty years of faithful service was enough for Vader to allow one infraction to slide. "You have an objection?"
How could the objection not be leaping off the flimsy at the man? "I—well, yes, my lord, I—I have some very deep concerns about section 3A and following. I—forgive me, my lord, but I did send the documents with today's time stamp? There hasn't been—some confusion on my part with an earlier draft?"
"There had better not be, Admiral, for your sake." Vader nevertheless deigned to consult his copy of the report. "Section 3A refers to the arrangements concerning the ship."
Piett swallowed. "And…I beg your pardon, but it does state that the Executor is to be—to be formally—"
"Surrendered," Vader finished. "That is correct. You have some objection to this?"
That mechanical voice had never sounded so merciless or dispassionate. He could hardly believe his own ears. "I—we cannot simply surrender her after—"
"What do you suggest be done with her instead?"
Piett swallowed. "Sir, I—I realize she's in bad shape. The expense of refurbishing her would be—"
"Prohibitive." The word slashed down like a guillotine blade. "Nor are we in a position to prolong these negotiations. Political leadership under democratic auspices is fickle at best. The Princess may continue in office for another decade or be impeached tomorrow, and if she is, you will find that her successor places a steeper price on peace than one obsolete dreadnought barely fit for scrap. I intend to secure our tactical advantage while it may be secured." He paused his tirade, studying Piett with, perhaps, a shade less indifference than before. "The necessity is perhaps to be regretted, but the ship is no longer of any use. Therefore neither is her crew. And as both they and you are offered employment by the New Republic military reserve forces, you can have no reason for remaining aboard her."
"Sir," he began hoarsely, "I swore an oath to—"
"That is irrelevant, Admiral. There is no longer an Empire to require your services. Inform the committee that their terms are accepted."
The connection went dead. Piett stared at the blank projector for he knew not how long. Several times his hand hovered recklessly over the transmit key, though what he'd say, he had no idea. There was nothing to be said. The man had given his orders and all that was left was to obey them. Make an end of it. Perhaps, after all, it would have been best to die at Endor. A warrior's death. No disgrace in that.
He was still staring when the door opened and the Princess appeared.
"Admiral. I've come to let you know that—is everything all right?"
Purely out of habit he was able to force a polite smile. "Forgive me. I—I suddenly feel very tired."
The smile gave out on him. He peeled off his cap and kneaded his forehead.
"Then you'll be glad to hear I've postponed our reconvention until tomorrow evening," she said.
The thought of lying awake all night thinking of nothing but what he'd have to say at the table sickened him. "I'd prefer to have done with it, actually."
The Princess raised an eyebrow. "That would be inhospitable of us. Particularly when you've had to put up with my children's antics for an hour."
Piett's earlier horror came faintly back to him, and must have showed on his face, for the Princess immediately shook her head. "From what they told me, I don't think any harm was done." Her gaze wandered thoughtfully for a moment. "In fact, I…I think it might be quite the opposite."
"They told you that they spoke with him?"
"Every word." She laughed softly at his skeptical expression. "They're reckless to a fault, I grant you, but they take their knocks on the chin. Just like their father."
"I see." He cleared his throat. "Your Highness, can we not reconvene in the morning at least? I shall merely be wasting my day otherwise." One night would be hell enough without the following day thrown into the bargain.
The Princess studied him closely. He had a nasty feeling she suspected his real reasons had little to do with impatience. Deliberately, she shook her head. "I understand how you feel, Admiral. I've felt that way myself many times before, when a negotiation is on the cusp. I've found the wisest course of action is to take a good long pause and give everyone a chance to clear their minds of possible regrets or resentment. Peace too fast is usually worse than no peace at all."
There was, as always, nothing for him to do but comply.
Sleep proved as impossible as he'd feared. The walls of his plush suite seemed to bend inward on him, Vader's cold orders echoing off them endlessly in the silence. Finally, around oh-three-hundred hours, he threw on his uniform jacket and stormed out into Imperial Palace. He needed to have space, a sense of going somewhere, of being involved in a bigger whole with other busy people…
His boots rang dully on the marble tiles, loud in the dim and quiet that had settled over the diplomatic suites. Too dim. Too quiet. What in the hells were they all doing in bed? Wasn't Coruscant supposed to be the planet that never slept? Kest, how he missed the Lady, right down to the gods-damned mouse droids that were always getting underfoot and trying to break his neck. A warship never slept; her shifts came and went, but her crew was always about its business.
Finally he picked up on a distant, crowdlike hum and followed it, until a much brighter beam of light bowed him through an archway onto a sprawling balcony of sorts. A cavernous hall opened to view, below and above and for what must be three kilometers in either direction. Imposing geometric columns vaulted from twenty levels below past his balcony and into a ribbed ceiling thirty levels over his head. He stopped in his tracks; the sheer vastness of it demanded his full attention.
"The Grand Corridor," said a heavy CoCo Town accent. Piett glanced to his left and saw a security checkpoint under the complacent eye of a Palace guard. "First time 'ere, guv'nor?"
"Yes…" His hands closed over the rail. Here was the looted glory of the Empire, still echoing before his eyes. What a figure Vader must have cut down that concourse in those days! Here was a setting built to the scale of such a force of nature as he was. How many holos and broadcasts Piett had seen of the formal Empire Day processions, winding down this hall to the ceremonial Plaza Gates, out onto the Grand Promenade from which the Emperor had once made his public addresses to masses of flag-waving millions as flights of TIEs swept overhead and entire battalions of the Imperial Armed Forces paraded in unison on the sprawling expanse of the Pliada…but that was all gone now, just the shell left.
"It's a sight, innit?" The guard sauntered up, thumbs stuck in his belt, with the possessive air of a museum curator.
"Yes. I suppose you must be familiar with it."
"Oh, aye. Bin working 'ere since the Reconstruction." He did a double-take at Piett's uniform jacket. "'Ere now, you're that admiral what come back from the Unknown Regions, aren't ye?" He prodded Piett's insignia. "You're Vader's admiral, aren't ye?"
Piett scowled and batted the finger away. "For now, at least." He wasn't sure what the guard would do with that information. Shoot him, for all he knew—but once they took away the Lady, everything between here and his grave would just be filler anyway.
"Cor," said the guard, looking impressed. "You actually know 'im then."
"Better than most, I suppose." Before Eriadu he'd have said better than anyone, but that was before Skywalker started pulling things out of the man nobody could have suspected him of containing, like a Falleen magician putting on a show with a bottomless puzzle box.
"Blimey," the guard said. There was something gratifying about how impressed he looked. "Y'know, my dad used to work security 'ere too back in Empire days. Said 'e saw Vader once. Said 'e could read your mind from a sector away."
It was more question than comment. "Ten sectors," said Piett. Actually, it might be eleven from here to Eriadu.
"I seen a holovid what said 'e took out a whole regiment o'Rebels at Vrogos Vas single-handed," mused the guard. "You ever seen 'im scrag anybody?"
Piett pursed his lips. "I don't care to discuss it."
"But you did see 'im do it?"
"Yes," he said, to put a stop to the question.
"It true 'e can scrag you without layin' a hand on you?"
"I said I don't care to—oh, very well, yes, it's true."
Ten days of Borsk Fey'lya's oozing, velveted contempt made the guard's admiration difficult to refuse, however morbid. The man beamed at this revelation, then nodded as if he'd known it all along. "Thought it were. Young 'uns nowadays say it's all spacer's tales 'bout 'im. I say, they weren't around then."
Amazing, the things people could get nostalgic about. "You remember the Empire, then?"
"Cor, do I! Weren't but a sprout then, but I remember sure enough. See them big Republic crests on the walls?" He pointed out at the Grand Corridor. "When I used to visit my dad on the job them were Imperial crests. Still there unnerneath, you know, cut inter the wall and such."
Piett swallowed a brief but intense flash of resentment. It was the flags all over again, only worse.
"Wunnerful place, this. Seen the Forest of Kashyyyk yet?"
Piett blinked. "The what?"
"The colonnade in the North Wing, what the Wookiees gave the Republic five hunnert years back. Seen it?"
"I—no, I didn't know it existed."
"'Ere now," said the guard, ballooning with indignation. "Can't miss that. I'll take you if you like."
"You needn't trouble yourself," Piett said quickly. "I'm—"
"No trouble, Adm'ral, none t'all. 'Alf a minute, I'll get one of the boys on patrol to take that there checkpoint."
Piett's irritation over being press-ganged soon evaporated. The guard proved a first-rate tour guide, and the Forest of Kashyyyk—comprised of two hundred hand-sculpted wroshyr trees, each over five hundred meters in height and over three thousand years in age—did not fall short of his praise. Warmed to his work, the guard proceeded to exhibit the Serenno Ballroom—"six million tiles in that there floor, twelve layers o'enamel on each one of em, three days' work by hand"—the hall where the Emperor had presided over state dinners at a ten-meter-long dining table carved from a single block of Alderaanian sea crystal—"woulda bankrupted a Mid-Rim system to buy it, and that's a'fore the Death Star come into it"—and wound up at the Mausoleum, a vast honorary cemetery where the heroes of the galaxy were memorialized.
Or rather, where the heroes of whoever happened to be running the galaxy were memorialized; it had undergone some rather pointed renovations since changing hands. The corridor of placards honoring Imperial military heroes had been replaced by a long sandstone wall, engraved with the names of every being known to have been on Alderaan at its last instant. On the opposite wall, a row of kinetic sculptures slowly flowed through the faces of the protestors who'd been killed in the Ghorman Massacre, when the future Butcher of Alderaan had tenderly landed his Imperial-class destroyer on their heads. And at the far end of the hall enshrining all of Tarkin's personal contributions to the galaxy's woes danced a tall column of light, mesmerizing the eye in a constant, interwoven upward rush—a memorial to the Jedi of old. The epitaph at the base read: There is no death, there is the Force.
What mockery. They'd died alright, down to the month-old infants in the Temple crèche. Three guesses who'd done that little chore for the Emperor.
"Lovely, innit?" said the guard, reverently. Piett muttered something noncommittal, looking away from the epitaph. Nausea was beginning to roil his gut, and he wished he could put it down to mere exhaustion.
"But this," the guard went on, "this 'ere I think you'll 'specially like."
He'd seen more than enough to sate him; the beauties of the Empire pilfered away or swept beneath the rug of history, and its ugliest deeds put on public display like a moral freak show. "I appreciate it. But it's been a long night. I think I should like to return to my suite."
"Only 'alf a minute more, guv'nor," his amateur guide urged. "You won't 'ave cause to regret it. Just a step this way."
Piett turned, intending firmly to shut the offer down, and stopped in surprise at the sight of a tall pair of copper-sheathed doors embossed with an Imperial crest—the only one he'd seen in the entire Palace. A blinking red light on the control panel indicated it was locked, but the guard made a show of unlocking it with his code cylinder. "Yavin Memorial Hall," he announced.
Piett stood still for a long moment more, then crossed quickly over the threshold. A short, curved corridor led him into total blackness, and then rounded a corner into a galaxy of lights, extending in every direction around him, forming a perfect sphere with a glittering orb of white crystal suspended in the center above him.
"It's meant to be the Death Star," the guard informed him. "That there crystal's a kyber, same as was used on the station to focus the laser."
Piett nodded, swallowing hard as he looked about him. He did not need the guard to tell him that there were exactly one million, five hundred and fifty-six thousand, two hundred and ninety-six lights surrounding them. "I can't believe this is still here," he got out.
"Well, they don't gen'rally open it except for family," said the guard. "It were the Emperor that had it made, and there's some would like it smashed to bits, see. But they was most of 'em reg'lar men on that station too, says I." He cleared his throat. "You take your time, Adm'ral. I'll be just outside whenever you're ready."
Piett found a bench along one wall and sat, thinking, remembering, mourning. A few of those lights had been friends; not his nearest or his dearest, but men he'd liked and respected all the same; and there was probably not a survivor of the old Navy but remembered where he'd been when word of that terrible defeat broke. He wondered if Vader had ever set foot here…and if he had, whether it had meant anything to him at all. Or had he shrugged all those lives off too, the same way he'd just shrugged off the Executor and all the people who looked to him…
When he emerged, the guard was deep in conversation with somebody at the other end of a comlink; he held up a finger to indicate he'd be along in a minute and stepped out a side door. Morosely Piett wandered the other direction. Passing the pillar of light, he discovered a stained glass window at the end of the corridor, facing true east. A faint predawn glow had just begun to illuminate the image of a woman dressed in white, the guardian angel of all these remembered dead, perhaps. Kindness mingled with sorrow in her expression, tempting his grief and betrayed feeling right out of their hiding places, straight to the tip of his tongue, and before he realized what a stupid thing he was doing: "Did they take everything you believed in, too?"
You, his rational side seethed, are talking to a damned window.
But the rest of him had already decided his rational side could go to hell for once. He needed someone to talk to, and she seemed like she'd listen.
"My commander's told me to surrender," he went on. "I've spent thirty years following him. Not because of him really. He's a first-rate son of a bitch, begging your pardon. But he was the Empire to us in many ways, and the Empire meant a great deal to me. I assumed it meant something to him too." He swallowed. "It appears I was wrong."
He could've sworn she had somehow nodded at him. Certainly she looked as if she understood every word.
"Do you know what it's like? To give everything to someone, only to have them drop you like so much trash in the end?"
Silent compassion seemed to flow toward him with the feeble light.
"We believed in it, you know," he said hoarsely. "What the Empire meant, what it was, what it was going to be. As much as any Rebel believed in the Republic. We let him wring our necks like nuna chicks because we believed—I let him—"
His throat was suddenly too swollen with anger and guilt to get words out. His gaze fell, blurring, to the granite slab floor, thinking of his own personal mausoleum—the Avenger, Admiral Ozzel, poor Lorth Needa—if ever a man had deserved a monument it had to be Needa. Men who'd fallen brutally at Vader's hand—rightly so, he'd told himself all these years. Ridiculous as it had sounded, the word from above had been clear: the security of the Empire depends on capturing Luke Skywalker. Those who failed in this task put at risk the Empire they'd sworn to serve, which was practically treason, if you stretched the definition in the right direction...
…only he couldn't tell himself anymore that that was why Vader had killed them. Not since that moment in the observation office.
Piett wrung his fingers furiously together. "Well, it's obvious now, anyway," he told the woman in the window. "He doesn't give a damn about the Empire and he never has. I daresay he never cared about anyone but that insane son of his." He snorted bitterly. "Whom he doesn't begin to deserve, by the way. That boy waltzes in, forgives every gods-damned thing the man ever did to him, and what does he do? Tries to chase him off every chance he gets! He doesn't know how to carry on a relationship with another human being, he's more machine than—"
He stopped dead. Her presence acted like a mirror, reflecting back to him what he was actually saying. A man who'd lived without family for—how long?—about fifty years. A man who'd lived encased in a walking sarcophagus for half a century, cut off from all normal aspects of human life and society, surely as if he'd been buried alive in a dungeon—and because he was strong he'd survived, consuming every living thing around him in unspeakable ways, all the scurrying frightened rats like Piett and Ozzel and Needa.
And maybe, after that long in the dungeon, the only way he knew how to care for something was to shove it the hell away from him.
Was that what was going on here? Maybe he hadn't ever given a damn for the Empire…but did it follow that he'd never given a damn about Firmus W. Piett?
He sat down on the closest bench, feeling lightheaded. But hadn't Jade called him Vader's friend? And…Vader hadn't contradicted her.
But even so, what was he supposed to do about it? He was no Luke Skywalker. He was just the dunce who hadn't had the sense to resign or die at any point in the past twenty-eight years—
In a burst of glory the rising son blazed through the window, setting fire to the reddish tints in the marbled-honey glass of the woman's hair and flashing her eyes full of life. Something else dawned on him too. It hadn't been Skywalker who'd gotten Vader to stop trying to drive his son away. It had been Jade.
And she hadn't done it by trying not to step on his toes; she'd marched right into his face and started stomping. She hadn't had any immunity from his wrath. She'd just cared about something more than her life.
The way he'd just found out he cared about his command.
Piett stared bleakly at the serene countenance of the woman in the window. "Why me?"
"Adm'ral?" a voice echoed behind him. Piett sucked in a sharp breath, wrestling his face for composure, and got the neutral expression pinned down just as the guard trundled into view.
"Beg your pardon," he said, climbing back to his feet. "I…just stopped to admire this window."
"Ah," nodded the guard, munificently. "They all do that as see her. A right angel, in't she?"
He worked his throat. "Yes. Who…" He trailed off as his eyes landed on a little plaque below the window.
Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
Given by the Sovereign System of Naboo
In Loving Memory Of
Padmé Amidala Naberrie
Queen – Senator – Servant
“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 monumentally 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 exceedingly 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,” put in 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 very 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.
To be continued ....