That day the sun dawned bright and clear, and shuttles were flying over the Academy long after morning drills had finished. Uyter Imperial was for officer-cadets, not pilot-cadets, but Naval pride had to be considered: No cadet could graduate without knowing how to fly a shuttle straight in good weather.
It was a good morning for flying. The weather was calm, if cold, the winds steady and manageable. The first-years had been chivvied into the cockpits and were trying to keep to their formation as they made pass after pass over the campus and through the mountains. The least-confident fliers had been placed on the edge, and trailed their compatriots by hundreds of feet or more, meandering away from their marks over time.
Being mid-flight, they noticed the skiff first. It lit up their sensors like holiday lights: A small streak of silver against the gray-washed sky, nearly invisible to the naked eye. The ship came in from a high-altitude orbit and dove through the center of their formation, at an angle that made saner pilots cry.
For a few seconds it looked like the ship would just keep dropping. Too much speed, not enough space to pull up. It’d be a spectacular crash site, and a story to tell at lunch.
But then the pilot pulled up on the yoke, sharp and reckless, and skimmed a few meters above the ground, arrowing towards the Academy’s gates.
Tower Control at the Academy had been alerted by then. There was a brief back-and-forth over comms. Threats were issued, clearance codes demanded and given, then, disbelievingly, requested again for confirmation. Control ran the codes twice more. They came back the same each time.
Glances were exchanged in the Tower. Above our paygrades, they agreed, not even in orbit around the planet where our paygrades are.
Someone commed the Academy's director. It was probably out of his paygrade too, but he might be close.
The ship—Nabooian in shape—skipped over the last foothills and pulled up to clear the walls of the Academy. Engines still thrumming with barely-restrained power, it alighted on the visitors’ landing pad, right by the administration building.
Director Jolav was already jogging across the pad as the engines cycled off and the ramp lowered. The pilot, and indeed sole passenger, passed him at the bottom of the ramp and kept going, ignoring the director’s salute.
“Welcome, sir,” said Director Jolav. He followed the visitor after only a second’s hesitation. “May I ask what brings you to the Academy this time, Lord Vader?”
Lord Vader—for indeed it was he, the dread figurehead of the Empire, crossing the landing pad in a few long strides—did not slow his pace or tilt his head to acknowledge Director Jolav and his aborted salute.
“Director,” he said, flat and chill. “I have come to inspect your cadets.”
“Very well, sir,” said Director Jolav. “If you would permit me, may I suggest the simulations suite in Raiv Hall? There is an upper-level class of cadets that should prove demonstrative, studying under Instructor—”
Darth Vader stopped, suddenly enough that Director Jolav nearly ran headlong into him. He turned with great gravitas to face Director Jolav. The blank, lidless lenses of the respirator mask reflected the director’s pale face back at himself.
He was able to bite down on his shiver, but not on his fear, souring the air around them with its psychic tang.
Vader let him suffer for a moment longer, before he inclined the helmet slightly. “Your assistance is noted, Director,” he said. “You are dismissed.”
He strode away before Director Jolav could reply, and heeded his advice.
This was hardly Vader’s first visit to Uyter, though he came infrequently; in the last decade he’d been there three other times. Cadets caught sight of him across campus and froze, as much from disbelief as from instinctive terror. Vader breathed in their fears and dreads, the dark miasma of discomfort and unease, and smiled slightly, under the heavy mask. The Darkness within him purred openly at every flinch and every backwards scramble.
Raiv Hall held its simulations suite in the basement. It was a large, cavernous room, with a massive central processing unit sunk into the floor at its center. Dozens and dozens of individual sim-pods were hooked up to the computer, Devaronian leeches draining their hosts’ lives through their long proboscises. When every pod was switched on the heat would radiate out in waves, rivaling Mustafar, and the whining of the coolers above and the pods below would together form an unholy galvanic symphony. Now the pods were silent and dark, save for a faint glow on the far side of the room.
Vader stalked through the room, sticking to the shadows. As he approached the light an instructor’s voice became audible, reverberating incomprehensibly around the pods until he stepped out from one last row and the echoes abruptly resolved.
“—still struggling with three-dimensional thinking. There’s some part of you that keeps forgetting to look up and down, not just forward and aft—”
At an ancient holotable against the far wall, some dozen cadets watched a run-through of a classmate’s performance, standing or slouching or perched on the lip of an open sim-pod. Their black-clad instructor could just be seen through the ghostly projection, stabbing at it in emphasis. A few cadets were exchanging quiet asides or frowning down at their datapads, rather than looking to their instructor—but in the Force they were all turned towards her like mila flowers seeking the sun.
Vader could understand the impulse. He’d been drawn here by their instructor’s presence, magnetized; if he were deaf and blind and lost a thousand years to the howling void, he would know her, and turn, unerringly, wherever she would guide.
“Even if you memorize the standard formations backwards and forwards, that’s no good if you’re caught off-guard by someone coming at an angle to the Galactic Plane. You need to consider unorthodox solutions,” the instructor continued.
“But the handbook—” one of the cadets said.
“A pirate fleet is hardly going to follow the Rules and Regulations of the Galactic Imperial Navy, 4th Edition,” she said drolly. “And sometimes, neither should you. Official tactics will inevitably lag behind new technology. To pretend otherwise is folly.”
“But, Instructor Piett,” said a different cadet, “Regardless of tech, a band of pirates or political malcontents is hardly going to present a challenge to the Imperial Navy. Overwhelming firepower is the order of the day. Aren’t our resources enough to counter most threats?”
“Cadet Thacker, I almost think you’re being obtuse for obtusity’s sake,” said Instructor Piett. “Because I know you’re smarter than that. All of you are smarter than that.”
The cadet shifted on his feet, made uncomfortable by the rebuke. After a moment Piett’s hard expression softened—Vader could hardly see her face, but he could feel the ripple it sent through her class in the Force, the prickles of intrigue-anticipation and smatterings of relief-chastisement-escape, as they, to a being, leaned closer.
Piett cleared the holotable with a flick of her hand, pulling up a crude map of the galaxy. “You know I started my career in the Axxila Antipirate Fleet, not the Imperial Navy,” she said. “It’s one of hundreds of partner-fleets and sub-navies scattered throughout the Rim, to help police the most vulnerable sections of the galaxy.” At her touch, small spots of light swept over the map on the fringes of the galaxy, a ring of color protecting the Core.
“These partner-fleets serve a vital purpose: In underfunded and otherwise undefended systems and sectors, they keep the peace. They hold the line against pirates, slavers, extra-Imperial governments, violent revolutionaries…Without their assistance the Imperial Navy would be spread too thin to hand out parking citations, much less respond to emergencies happening thousands of lightyears apart.”
She caught the eyes of each of her cadets, one at a time, through the light of the projector. Vader watched with great interest. There was something occurring that he couldn’t put his finger on—some undercurrent to Piett’s relations with her class that he did not yet understand. It flavored their every interaction with her, beskar-bright and clean-smelling.
“The work of these fleets, necessary as it is, is difficult, thankless, and ill-regarded,” she said slowly. “Therefore they are perpetually understaffed and undersupplied. An Imperial Admiral can rely on overwhelming force to cover for sloppy tactics, and victory is often assured. But officers in the Axxila Antipirate Fleet and in other partner-fleets can afford neither such arrogance nor such waste. Every ship, shuttle, and escape pod counts. They must be clever, and resourceful, and persistent, or else they will be dead.
“And none of you know where your first posting will be.” Her voice and presence in the Force were both blade-sharp, all of her considerable will bent onto this one single point. “But I'll be damned if it'll be your last.”
It was like the first rain after a drought, or the dawning of day after a long and bloody night. Vader watched, in the Force and in the physical realm, as the implication of her words hit. Spines straightened; faces cleared; deep down in secret hearts, embers were lit, the knowledge of Piett’s care and determination sparking off of something preexisting, something…
Ah. Of course.
That was the secret undercurrent flowing between Piett and her cadets. They were loyal to Piett, well beyond what simple duty and respect required between a teacher and their students. They had bound themselves to her, and she had bound herself to them in turn.
Piett had always been popular among her subordinates. He should have considered this possibility, but he’d always focused on Piett herself, not the way her cadets interacted with her. He’d missed the signs.
He wondered, how many other students right now felt such a loyalty to Piett, to a greater or lesser degree? How many graduates were even now haunting the halls of capital ships and planetside garrisons, who at Piett’s appearance, might feel a renewed pull into her orbit?
The thought was…immensely pleasing.
He had spent enough time in silent observation. Still hidden among the shadows of the room, Vader spoke.
“A noble goal, Captain,” he said. “If somewhat naïve.”
His voice rolled like thunder through the gloom of the simulation suite. Every cadet in the room jumped out of their skin. They spun on their heels, casting their eyes about in the darkness, peppering the Force with fear and disquiet as they searched for him.
The fear only increased when he stepped out of the shadows, bug-eyed and motionless until one cadet hissed, “Attention!”
They snapped to at once, forming two orderly rows before the holotable with a small gap for Piett to step through. Then they waited, barely breathing.
Piett herself was unflappable, as always. She hadn’t so much as twitched when he’d spoken, only turned her head unerringly to find him. She was more than familiar with the way his voice echoed in dark spaces.
Now, straight-backed, she walked around the holotable and into the space her cadets had left her. Her salute was handbook-perfect. The ideal Imperial officer, as smooth and flawless as if she’d been molded for this very purpose: To stand at attention, here, before him, surrounded by her loyal cadets, and await his orders.
“Lord Vader,” she said, still holding the salute. “It is an honor to see you again.”
She meant every word.
Vader tilted his head, acknowledging the salute, and closed some of the distance between them. (Not enough, of course—the Darkness within him whining and snarling for more-closer-TOUCH HER NOW, but he hauled it back with the skill of long practice and set it to gnawing on the cadets’ fear instead.)
“Indeed, Captain.” At the use of Piett’s old rank, he felt the surprise from one of the cadets—the one who’d called them to attention, a Zeltron woman. Unheard-of among the upper ranks of the Navy—but not the only woman, or the only alien, among Piett’s class. “Tell me, are you so devoted to all your cadets? Or has this group earned…special consideration?”
He was not blind to the effect that particular tone of his vocoder usually had on sentients. Right on cue, the cadets shivered in redoubled fear-dread-apprehension, further feeding the Darkness within him.
Piett remained outwardly unaffected. Her own presence in the Force was always tightly-controlled; her mind constantly working, ticking busily away in one direction or another, the hum of her thoughts tidy and subdued. Occasionally flashes of emotion, like morning mist on the still surface of Lake Varykino, would rise from her mind and catch the light in brilliant patterns. Yet she was largely self-contained.
All he could sense from her now was wry amusement, cool and minty, and a few sparks hinting at a slow-building heat. “I wish all my cadets a long and successful career, my lord,” she said. “Though I would be lying if I said I didn’t have favorites.”
Vader caught a smile on the face of the human to Piett’s left, quickly hidden. They were all still at perfect attention, but a few glimmers of emotion slipped through onto their faces.
“Is that not unprofessional, Captain?”
“Perhaps, my lord.” She tilted her head back to better meet the eyeless gaze of his mask and smiled, brief, bright, and cheeky. “Is there a punishment for that?”
Vader turned away from her without responding, pacing up and down the short line of cadets, focusing on their apprehension over the flashes of heat that were still just perceptible from Piett. “Parade, rest,” he said belatedly, and the cadets obeyed. He paused before the human who had argued with Piett earlier. “Your name, Cadet?”
“Sir, Cadet Thacker reports,” said Thacker. There was a glimmer of sweat on his brow already.
“What class is this, Cadet Thacker?”
“Advanced Tactical Interplays and Applications, sir,” he said. “Only offered to upper-level cadets, sir.”
“And what are the qualifications for this course?”
Thacker’s apprehension spiked noticeably. He broke position enough to glance in Piett’s direction, seeking reassurance; Piett remained calm beside him. “Sir…This course is offered by invitation only, sir! Instructor Piett has not disclosed the precise qualifications with the class, sir.”
“Hm.” He walked down the line a little, stopping before the Zeltron cadet. She was almost tall enough to look Vader in the eyes without glancing upward, though she stayed staring straight ahead, swallowing thickly at his presence. “And your name, Cadet?”
“Sir, Cadet Ilsen reports,” she said. This particular cadet was prone to more nervousness than outright fear, and as a Zeltron it was naturally louder than her fellows’ own anxieties. Her breathing was tightly controlled, damping the worst of it to avoid influencing the rest of the class.
An admirable effort, though not quite up to the task of fighting off Vader’s dark aura.
“Instructor Piett has implied she shows favoritism towards you and your classmates,” he said, lapping up the flash-fire anxiety this caused in Ilsen (cascading immediately to the cadets around her before she could control herself). “Do you find this fair?”
Ilsen hesitated. Her emotions writhed as she considered and discarded responses, then steadied, a lance of pure determination piercing the nervous miasma around them. “Sir, respectfully, I disagree with your interpretation of—of Captain Piett’s statement. Captain Piett said she ‘has favorites’, not that she ‘shows favoritism’, sir.”
She’d chosen to follow Vader’s lead, using Piett’s former rank rather than the more accurate “Instructor”. Vader tilted his head. “You see a difference between the two, Cadet Ilsen?”
“Yes, sir. The latter implies Captain Piett treats us easier than she does other classes, sir, in direct breach of military protocol in general as well as the Academy’s policies in specific. The former implies that she has a personal preference—as many sentients do—which may or may not impact her duty, sir.” She took in a larger breath and added, daringly, “Sir, in Captain Piett’s case, I do not believe it impacts her duty. If anything, she is harsher on the cadets in this class than on her other students, sir.”
Vader stood still for a few pacemaker-regulated heartbeats, letting the cadets stew in their apprehension, before he nodded, once. Ilsen had taken a bold gamble, and he would allow it this time.
“An interesting assessment, Cadet.” He turned slightly to face Piett. “Well, Captain? Do you agree?”
Piett met his mask’s gaze square-on, almost managing to meet his eyes. She had a better idea than most of where in the lenses they were, after all. “My lord, out of the entire graduating class I only invited the cadets whom I believed had the greatest potential. If I am harsher on them, it is because I know they can take it.”
He stepped before her once more. “Then you have placed a great deal of faith in them. Have you found this faith rewarded?”
“Yes,” said Piett at once. “Every cadet in this room has the makings of an exemplary officer. With a little seasoning and continued effort, they will undoubtedly prove themselves the cream of the crop.”
And at this frank praise, delivered in Piett’s most convincing command voice, a ripple passed through the cadets, pleased-pride and desire-to-please and more of that beskar-bright, near-burning loyalty. Their commander was proud of them; all other concerns, even Vader’s own presence, had become secondary.
Usually he would be irritated at how quickly his own power was forgotten, but when it came as a result of loyalty to Piett…what did it matter? Afraid of him, or loyal to Piett, the result would be the same.
“Your judgement is often accurate,” he said. “But I prefer to make my own assessments.”
“Of course, my lord. Your standards are quite high, and I would hate to disappoint you.”
As if Piett had ever disappointed him before.
“Perhaps a test of their abilities is in order,” Vader said. He withdrew from his belt a paired set of datacards, holding them in clear view, and caught the anticipation-shock-wonder that bloomed as he continued. “I have devised a tactical simulation that should prove an adequate challenge, if you have judged them correctly. Would you care to have them try it?”
Piett broke from his gaze to look at the lines of cadets to either side of her. Some of them visibly quivered, akk dogs straining at the leash.
“Cadets?” she asked, with only the faintest hint of amusement. “What do you think? Shall we show Lord Vader what you are all capable of?”
“Sir, yes sir!” they cried in unison.
Piett smiled. “Alright then. To your pods.”
Cadets scrambling into position around them, Vader and Piett stood before each other for a few long seconds more. “Should you like to try the simulation as well, Captain?” Vader asked, leaning forward and dropping his volume to give them the illusion of privacy—of intimacy, denied to them for months at a time—nearly a year now, since last they’d been on the same planet, an unbearable and incomprehensible eternity.
And Piett swayed forward to meet him, tilting up her head even further to keep looking at him, exposing her pale throat so neatly and naturally. The display sent a frisson of heat shooting down Vader’s metal-fused spine. “If that is what you desire, my lord,” she said, perfectly demur, with the slightest of stresses on the word desire. “Do you believe my performance will please you?”
“I believe you will please me, Captain.” Vader fought to keep his voice level; his breathing was, mercifully, already regulated. “I must re-familiarize myself with your particular merits, Captain. Including your ability to perform under pressure.”
She dipped her head slightly, holding his gaze from under her lowered lashes. “As my lord commands.” Then, as if she hadn’t provoked him beyond all reasonable measure, she turned to climb into a simulation pod of her own.
Vader had more practice reigning in his desire for Piett than indulging in it (a state of affairs he would have to rectify, and soon); he wrestled down the frantic need, and moved to the central computer at the heart of the room.
Work first; pleasure later.
Vader had designed simtests before. A few in his other life, yes, but more recently as Vader, for this very purpose: To test Piett’s latest batch of questionable students. It provided a certain smokescreen to his visits to the Uyter Naval Academy, the barest gilding of legitimacy helping obscure his true motives.
The pattern was predictable, unchanging. He would present Piett’s class with the challenge, and they would accept. He would challenge Piett as well, and she, too, would rise to meet it. He would set the simtest to running for however many students had been in the lecture hall or on the parade grounds or wherever he’d found her; he would notice a few of the outstanding students, and a few particularly poor ones, and forget the rest.
But most of his attention would be devoted to Piett herself, always—the rush of her adrenaline, the sweat that would gather on her brow from the close confines of the sim-pod, the light in her eyes after she emerged triumphant.
Truthfully, it had served more as elaborate foreplay than an actual assessment of her cadets. Piett played along. Afterwards, she demanded exacting detail on the simtest’s parameters and recordings of her cadets’ performance; presumably she folded this into her curriculum somehow.
This time was different. It would hopefully still serve as foreplay, but that was not his only purpose this time. It hadn’t been during the design phase, and it wasn’t now, in the testing phase, not with such an interesting batch of cadets before him.
Loyal to Piett, hand-picked by Piett, and at least one of them bold enough to directly contradict Vader himself—how could Vader not watch them closely?
He took his place at the holotable, where the raw data from the test would arrive in real-time, adjusted the display settings slightly, and started the sim.
The running lights on the occupied pods flashed once, switching from white to green. As the sims began, lines and lines of code filled the air above the holotable, streaming by in patterns almost too fast to follow.
Vader had not the skill of mentally translating such code into the images of the simulated fleets facing off against one another, but with a little concentration the Force provided him a reasonable approximation. Here a cadet’s fleet dropped out of hyperspace in perfect Formation Besh; there someone toggled between Victory-class Destroyers and Interdictor-class Cruisers, still building their armada; here Thacker had already engaged the simulated Rebels, turbolaser batteries opening fire on the Mon Cala cruisers.
There was nothing of much interest yet. The first few minutes were always tiresome.
With nothing better to do, Vader closed his eyes and opened himself up to the Force.
He started small, feeling out the minds in the room one by one. Fourteen minds bent with determination onto their singular goal—on the surface near-identical, but look longer and one could feel the variegated differences between them. The taste of Thacker’s determination-anxiety was different from that of his neighbor; when Ilsen’s nerves-pride-focus bled into her fellow cadets it shone differently, like an image refracted under crystal or water.
He observed all of them carefully, folding their Force presences into his awareness and moving onto the next. He saved Piett’s for last, of course, familiar and welcome as it was. The storm of her mind worked twice as busily as before, a well-tended machine. What thoughts and emotions she projected outwards were naturally quiet: the muted jangle of her own nervousness, her bright and steady concentration, a curl of heated anticipation.
He brushed closer against the surface of her mind, seeking closeness and clarity alike. He caught more of that concentration—practically her whole mind turned to the problem before her—and a deeper welling heat, on a slow simmer, before Piett’s native defenses pushed back, and he withdrew.
Then, keeping aware of all fourteen of the sentients in the room, he turned towards the room itself. The humming and spitting of electricity, the faint whoosh of air-cyclers, the flickering of the lights above. He felt, kilogram by kilogram and then molecule by molecule, the settling of the entire building’s weight on the supports, the subtlest of shifts as people moved about on the upper floors, the tiny breezes and whirlpools created by the motion of his own respirator. He felt the scouts from a colony of insects burrowing into the far wall, venturing inward from the earth, their simple minds as focused as the cadets.
Now for the tricky part.
Staying aware of the cadets and Piett, of the insects and the walls and the room’s entire microclimate, he reached further. He felt for the bonds that connected each of these disparate elements together—bonds of sentiment and of electromagnetic forces alike. The faintest tug of gravity between the atoms of Piett’s hand and the atoms of the controller she was guiding. The friendly rivalry between Thacker and Ilsen, built over years of study groups and jockeying in class rankings, and the way they had left their mark on one another. The innate wariness the insects would show towards any of the sentients in the room and their giant boots, and the animal fear that would result when the exterminator was called in three weeks’ time.
It came easier than ever before. He’d spent several years practicing this meditation, inspired by the writings of an ancient sage of the Baran Do, and only recently mastered the fine control and precision needed for this step.
The next was to seek out the bonds that led outside this room—that tied the room to the planet, and the sentients to other sentients, and then the planet to its solar system and the present to the past to the future to the present again, bonds growing ever-exponentially outwards until the entire galaxy was a dewdrop on the vast spider’s web of the universe, and he could feel, faintly, the tremors of that incomprehensibly great web.
Or so the Baran Do had theorized. Their strongest members had managed to feel all of the planet Dorin, or, briefly, as far as the entire star system, before their strength gave out and their concentration broke. Vader himself should be able to reach this whole system eventually. Possibly further.
Daring, he ventured on. He followed the first bonds out of the room—to other students and other instructors—to the building itself rather than just the basement, and the building’s place within the academy, aesthetically and practically—to the rest of the insect colony outside these walls, and their nearby rivals for food and shelter. His senses stretched, unevenly but certainly, keeping the room in greatest focus and the rest in the background.
He followed one bright thread from Piett outwards, south towards town—towards a mind as brilliant as a campfire among candles, young and yet burning so fiercely he would be scorched if he looked too long—
—and he found himself once more rocketed forward, into the vision.
It was a simple vision—a fragment of a future that might yet come, cut out of its time and place. He saw the receiving room of a lavish building, some palace on a distant planet, the details cast in shadow. He saw himself, monstrous and unsettling as ever, a dog of war just barely restrained.
At his side, matching his path step-for-step, he saw Piett.
A few details had been added since this vision first came to him. She was in a pure-white dress uniform, the sort only worn by upper officers—grand admirals and ISB agents, or particularly irritating Project Directors. There were figures around them, features indiscernible and unimportant, parting before them and offering respectful bows.
At the end of the room stood a major-domo. They struck a staff on the marble floor and announced their approach to a person behind thick gilded doors, the person seated on the throne.
And though Vader could not see them he knew, in the unmistakable way of dreams and visions, the identity of the throned figure. It was his daughter.
It was their daughter.
The vision was clearer than ever. He could almost hear the reverent whispers of the crowd as they passed, almost see the distant figure on the hidden throne, now rising to greet them. He was approaching this future—had finally taken the first steps towards it—and though the way would be long and arduous he was certain he would prevail.
The vision distracted him from his meditation. His concentration broke. He floundered slightly, seeking a sure place to stand; found Piett’s mind in the chaos, and steadied himself, feeling the harmony of her mind buzzing down to his metal bones and mechanical heart.
Piett belonged at his side. He knew this without the nudging of the Force. She should have been there already—would have been, if Vader himself had used an ounce of sense or forward planning—but at the end he would stand beside her, all wrongs righted between them, and not a Force in the galaxy would rend them apart again.
It all started here. Besides the fact that his actions would at last place them together once more, as they should always be, leaving Piett to waste her considerable abilities in merely teaching instead of leading was impossible. The Rebel threat was growing troublingly quick. A misstep in dealing with them would lead to disaster in the Empire.
Decisiveness was needed, yes, but also a certain measure of caution, balanced with cunning to ensure their victory—all traits Piett had shown in spades in her previous commands. Were there no other considerations, Vader would want her at a helm for those qualities alone.
But. He ought to see to see how much the relative inactivity of eight-and-a-half years had dulled her skills, and how much she would need to reacclimatize herself before she could take up the Captain’s mantle on the most powerful ship the galaxy had ever seen. The sim would help.
That it allowed him to also assess her cadets—her loyal cadets—was a secondary boon.
One of the cadets—durasteel-spined Ilsen—swayed abruptly from nerves to panic. Vader opened his eyes and observed the stream of data from the various pods, searching, searching…
Ah. Ilsen had been surprised by the purrgil subroutine.
Most sims were straightforward things. Even those with an integrated learning drive failed to encapsulate the chaos and distress caused by a real battle. Mechanical difficulties, surprise reinforcements, mid-battle mutinies—a captain might face any of these problems and more, and none of them were represented in the Academy’s standard simtests. But Vader included a few in every sim he programmed.
Vader smiled, a little cruelly, at the frantic reactions of the cadets as they hit the five-minute mark and the first of the randomized difficulties manifested. For some it was a solar flare impeding communications; for others, well-meaning civilian law enforcement stuck their noses where they didn’t belong. Ilsen was the only one who’d run into purrgils, so far, but the longer the sim went on, the more such difficulties would appear.
Their anxiety would continue to grow, and the Darkness in him would feast on it.
He thumbed through the data quickly. They were a skilled group. All had chosen decent starting formations, and kept their heads in the first part of the engagement. Even with his first surprise, they were adjusting admirably; Thacker had already destroyed two Rebel cruisers, and a few others were attempting clever traps.
Yes, the potential was there. But Piett had also been right about the need for more polish. More experience, or more training, or more faith in their own abilities—or even all three. There was improvement to be made, before they would become the officers Piett foresaw them as.
Vader had no concrete idea of how difficult the sim was compared to their usual assignments. They seemed to do well. All of them lasted beyond the second randomized surprise, hitting at the thirteen-minute-mark; at the seventeen-minute-mark, when the third dispensed, the first cadet finally lost their flagship to the unexpected appearance of pirates, and was booted from the sim.
Then in ones and twos, they began to meet the failure parameters—flagships destroyed, or Rebels on the run and out of reach, or too much damage to their fleet to continue. They came out of their pods and gathered, slowly, on the far side of the holoprojector, whispering among themselves. Vader paid them no mind, even when the braver cadets crept close enough to observe the raw data flying by on the holoprojector.
Thacker was the first to notice the anomaly, even before Vader himself. “Holy shit!” he swore.
His volume spooked his fellow cadets and himself. They froze, casting nervous looks over to Vader.
Vader let it slide. He could frighten them again later, if need be.
“What is it?” said one of the other cadets, when they’d apparently decided it was safe to speak in front of him. “Which sim are you looking at?”
“Second to left—I didn’t know we had a madman in the class,” said Thacker.
A few of the cadets paled or cursed under their breath, noticing what Thacker had; one shook their head. “I can’t parse that much data at once.”
“Someone’s playing chicken with their fucking Star Destroyers.”
Vader restrained anything more demonstrative than a smile—though, as the next cadet was booted and only five participants were left, he altered the holoprojector’s display, adding crude renderings of the simulated battles alongside the raw data, so everyone could see. A dark pride purred through him as he watched the cadets crowd even closer, fear overridden by curiosity and awe as they watched.
On the speedy little Acclamator-class Cruisers Piett had captained in the Antipirate Fleet, playing chicken against pirate swoops and smugglers’ fleets was an excellent albeit risky maneuver; but Imperial-class Destroyers, over twice as long and with two-thirds the maneuverability, were a dewback of an entirely different pattern.
He couldn’t think of any other captain who would employ this tactic in real life. Perhaps the man Vader had once been, if he’d been assured of the helmsmen. Yet Piett was driving one of her simulated Imperials right through the center of the Rebel formation, scattering Mon Cala cruisers in her wake while a trio of slave-rigged Dreadnaughts swept behind to help mop up.
Gladly, he watched both the display, and the admiration it caused in the cadets. Sims were different than real battles, yes. Still. Whatever of her edge Piett had lost, it wouldn’t take long to regain it.
They watched with increasing eagerness the slow demise of the simulated fleets. One cadet took too much damage to the Interdictors pinning their enemies, allowing the Rebels to flee, and was booted. Another was being herded towards a pixelated moon, either not noticing or deliberately springing a trap. Ilsen was caught in an ion blast from the Rebel fleet and booted soon after; she emerged red-faced and frustrated, before she was caught up in the same apprehension and interest as her classmates.
They hit the twenty-five-minute-mark, and Piett sacrificed one of her Dreadnaughts to keep her flagship safe. Twenty-six, and the trapped cadet was booted, their damaged fleet unable to escape the moon’s gravity well and hurtling towards the surface. Only three participants were left, now.
As they hit the twenty-seven-minute-mark, the fourth of Vader’s randomized surprises deployed. Vader watched the data-streams change for each test. Subroutines activated, fundamentally altering the entire game. For the cadet on Vader’s left, an unexpected meteor shower. The cadet at the center, technical malfunctions—in a fleet that had already taken particularly heavy damage. For Piett, an old foe: Pirates.
They were operating on borrowed time after that. It took under a minute for the cadet at the center to succumb, fleet crippled by damage from within and without. The last cadet adjusted their own fleet around the incoming meteors, but they were flagging—it was a war of attrition by this point.
Piett held on a little longer herself. Flanked by two enemies, she shuffled her fleet, hardening its defenses and pulling it closer together. The shields on the mock-Imperials held just long enough for them to turn tail and jump to hyperspace.
Surprise rippled among the cadets, watching Piett’s ships jump out, one by one. Vader shifted his weight on his feet, slightly, filled only with anticipation. She’d performed as brilliantly as he’d hoped.
When the last ship had made the jump and her sim powered down, the pod popped open. The cadets turned as one to watch Piett, lightly flushed, clamber out of the pod and back to her feet. She was grinning broadly, still caught up in the adrenaline rush and broadcasting her satisfaction and giddiness for even the Force-null to read.
“Instructor Piett?” someone whispered, echoing the unspoken thoughts of half the class. Vader reigned in his instinctive defensiveness at their disbelief—already the surprise was morphing to awe.
Piett stepped around the holoprojector to stand at Vader’s side. She’d taken off her hat and shoved it in her back pocket, a rare breach of the uniform code—designed to drive Vader insane, absolutely shameless—and wisps of hair were stuck to her forehead with sweat. Her jacket was a little creased from spending a half-hour in the close confines of the pod.
“Well, my lord?” she said, trying and failing to temper her excitement. “Have we given satisfaction?”
Not yet, was the first answer that leapt to his tongue; You always do was the second. He wrestled down both responses and managed something less revealing: “The exercise was most enlightening. Your choice of tactics was…unusual.”
Piett nodded once. “And so there would be little defense against it. Truthfully I would’ve preferred a bit more responsiveness in the program—I’ve had a few thoughts about how to handle smaller fighters, but the options weren’t available in a sim.”
“I shall take that into consideration next time,” Vader acknowledged. The class fell silent on the other side of the holoprojector.
Piett nodded and turned to the cadets. “Flancelt’s still in the pod? They can join in when they’re finished. We’ll go into greater detail next time, after I review everyone’s responses—my lord, there were recordings, correct?—In the meantime, let’s have your initial thoughts.”
“It was a lot harder than normal sims,” said one cadet. “Is that what real battles are like, Instructor?”
“Yes, and no,” said Piett. “For one thing, sitting in a sim pod is very different to occupying the bridge—though they can be equally uncomfortable. And of course a sim’s speed is different to the actual pace of battle. Aside from the physical sensations, however…” Piett shrugged. “This particular sim managed to capture more of the stress of actual combat, and incorporated the sorts of complications you might run into in live-fire situations. But no, most battles don’t involve pirates and Rebels and failing power generators all at once.”
“Or purrgil pods,” said Ilsen, a little resentful, bordering on disrespectful.
Piett chuckled. “Yes, or purrgil pods,” she agreed. “But sometimes they do. No matter how much one prepares, there will always be surprises. The most successful officers do not have planned responses for every possible scenario—there are too many unknowns to attempt it—rather, they are able to keep their heads and improvise when the situation changes around them.”
The debrief continued back and forth for a little time without Vader’s input. The cadets offered intelligent comments and questions, with Piett guiding the discussion masterfully. He allowed himself to disengage, and focused on Piett’s presence at his side: her slowing heart-rate and fading adrenaline, her hair still escaping from the tidy bun at the back of her neck—he could remember when she kept it short, nearly shorn to the scalp—the steady rise and fall of her voice as she engaged the class.
Was it any wonder she was admired, even adored, by her cadets? She deserved devotion. Vader had not treated her as she deserved, but he would do better. And he'd start with today.
At last an alarm on Piett’s comm sounded. She grimaced at the time. “If I keep you much longer, your other instructors might stage a revolt,” she said. “Before next class, in addition to your usual sim-test, later today I’ll be forwarding everyone a partially-declassified after-action with a few discussion questions. You’ll also receive recordings of two classmates’ performance on today’s sims, I want write-ups on their actions and your own by the 6th—I won’t keep you any longer, you all know what to expect.”
The cadets began to gather their things, a few exchanging goodbyes with one another or their instructor. Thacker and Ilsen stepped forward to ask Piett further questions.
Before they could, Vader turned to Piett and said, “I would have a word with you, Captain. In private.”
His voice was particularly low through the vocoder, producing a shiver of fear from Thacker and Ilsen—and an altogether different type of shiver from Piett herself. She looked to Thacker and Ilsen, and the class behind them, pretending not to watch the exchange. “I have a free hour tomorrow after midmeal, if there are any emergencies before our next class.” Then, with a proper little bow and all, “My lord, I await your command.”
Piett’s office, on the second story of Raiv Hall, was a narrow, cramped room to begin with, and her decorating choices didn’t help.
She kept everything in impeccable order, of course. But there was too much stuff, no matter how well-organized, for the office to be anything but crowded; something about a planetside posting, or perhaps the indefinite length of it, had turned her into a bit of a packrat.
Piett was still tapping at her datapad, shooting off messages rapid-fire. Vader let himself further in and observed the small changes since his last visit. There was another plant in the collection on the windowsill, something with a great deal of flowering vines. The rug had been replaced, and the new one had a greater contrast of colors—even through his tinted lenses he could make out the bold pattern. The holobooks had been reorganized to make room for a few more histories of the Old Republic.
There was a holoprojector still open on the desk, cycling slowly through image after image. He couldn’t make out most of them, with their display settings. Just enough to guess the theme: a small child of about seven standard (only two months shy of seven, now—) featured prominently.
There was one of the child sacked out in a pile of sleeping hounds, or maybe oddly-shaped pillows. Vader stared at it for a long moment before he forced himself to turn away.
Piett sent off one last message without looking at the screen. She was already watching him with an expression he didn’t want to place. “Is everything alright, my lord?” she asked, locking the door.
“Fine,” he said shortly. He watched her cross to him and put the pad down. “You—have you been well?”
“Hm. Can’t complain.” She looked at him searchingly for another moment, as if she could read his mask as easily as others read faces. He stayed still.
Finally she huffed out a breath and dug in her pockets. She came out with a bottle of hand sanitizer. “You wanted a word in private?”
Vader tilted his mask down towards the thorough sanitizing she was doing, then up towards Piett’s face again. “Eager, are we, Captain?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said, biting down a smile. “You wanted me, my lord. I’m always happy to serve you.”
“Really. And how do you think you’ll be serving me today?” He took a few steps closer to her, cupping her face in one large hand, thumb stroking her cheekbone.
She bit her lip, one small hand coming forward to hook in his belt and pull him even closer. “I can think of a few ways.”
If Vader tried, he could come up with an exact count of the times they’d come together like this. There were the three other occasions he’d visited Uyter and they’d locked themselves in Piett’s office, testing the structural integrity of the desk and the softness of the rug. Their excursions on the Devastator, back when Piett was still in active service, where she’d sneak into his quarters between missions. Nine months ago, on Taanab, the glorious twenty-six hours they’d spent together in the overlarge suite the planet’s governor had tried to bribe him with; between rounds, Piett had fallen asleep on his flesh shoulder, and he’d laid there in still and silent awe, feeling her thoughts turn sticky and slow in peaceful dreaming.
Forty or fifty times, it must have been, scattered over a decade’s acquaintanceship. It was an embarrassment of riches. He knew the feeling of her body, trembling firm smoothness and steady lean softness, laid overtop his ruined aching chest; knew the spine of her, and the sounds she made when he bit at it or smoothed his mismatched mechanical hands over her skin and bones; he knew how Fidela Piett liked to kiss and be kissed, and he’d been known in turn, an unbearable luxury.
She’d given so much, and yet still he was greedy. Always he ached for more.
Did she ache in his absence, as he did? As if her heart had been cleft down the center and he’d absconded with the larger share? As a machine ached, missing a vital component, filling the empty space with echoes?
He didn’t want to know. If she yearned even half as much as he, Vader would never leave her side; if she didn’t yearn at all, he’d probably throw himself down the nearest reactor shaft.
In the sweaty, silent aftermath of their coupling, Vader found himself sitting on the floor of Piett’s office, Piett curled up on his chest. One of her hands snaked beneath the suit’s open flaps, resting between the armorweave and his stomach.
He was aware of every square millimeter—every micrometer—of her skin touching his. It felt like he’d be able to see her handprint there, later, laid over the patchwork of Vader’s body, an indelible brand.
It was just a passing fancy. As much as he could belong to anyone (besides his Master), of course he belonged to Piett; every part of him free for the giving was hers to take. But there was no outward mark of her claim on him. It was too dangerous for them both right now.
But someday. Perhaps even someday soon.
“Thank you for buggering up my syllabus for the rest of the month,” Piett said eventually. The churning of her thoughts had slowed, and she released a consistent hazy blur of safety-warmth-contentment into the Force. “Was that one harder than your usual challenges, or am I finally getting old?”
“It may have been more difficult.” Vader tucked her more firmly under his chin. A few strands of her hair were probably brushing the plastoid casing of his respirator, not that he could feel them; just the weight and pressure of her body and the warmth of her hand on his skin, the eternal storm of her mind in the Force. The Dark in him was quiet, glutted on their spent passions and the rest of the Academy’s fears and content to leave them be. “Whatever happened to your confidence in your cadets? I thought they were the best and brightest in the Academy.”
“They are,” she said, “but they could’ve used a little warning before you threw their final certification at them a whole semester early.”
“Mm. Suffering builds character.”
“You’re impossible.” Her tone was more fond than annoyed. “I could’ve used a little warning. I’d’ve preferred to cancel my classes last night, instead of ten minutes before the next one started. Comm me, next time?”
Vader sighed, overdramatic. “If I must.”
“Yes, you must. Thank you.” Piett’s thumb on his stomach circled slowly, sending shivers down his metal-fused spine. “Well, go ahead and say it.”
“Whatever it is you’re thinking about my cadets. You’ve never been shy before.”
“They have earned the praise you give them,” said Vader. “Your judgement is as sound as always. I’ll have to keep an eye on their careers after graduation.”
Piett pulled back a little to look him in the faceplate. “What, all of them?”
“Is that so surprising?”
“You have rather high standards, that’s all,” Piett said slowly. “And I was under the impression you don’t normally like people on first meetings. I’m glad they impressed you, though.”
“I trust your judgement,” he said stiffly. “And they lasted longer than your cadets usually do.” Not to mention, they were more loyal than her past classes had been.
“I’ll tell you where they end up, if you like,” she said. “Instructors can get hold of the postings a little early. If you're interested in following their careers further, or the like.”
He hummed, and did not comment directly—it’d spoil the surprise. “I have something for you,” he said instead.
“Kark, that reminds me.” Piett sat up, pressed a quick kiss to the side of his mask, and got to her feet. “I have something for you, too—I meant to give it to you on Taanab, but it slipped my mind, and then you left in a bit of a rush…”
She rifled through a few of her desk drawers before emerging with a triumphant “Ha!” Then she crossed the room to once more tuck herself under his arm. “Here. Be careful where you plug that in; you don’t want a record of it on public servers.”
He accepted the datacrystal she placed in his palm. Civilian tech. Beneath the mask, he quirked a brow. “Something private, Captain?”
“You could say that. It’s—” She looked away from him, shrugging slightly. “It’s holos of Loric.”
Vader knew his pacemaker was working perfectly. The sense that his heart had skipped a beat was only an illusion.
Of course Piett had holos of Loric—of their daughter. Her daughter. He’d just seen a few projected on the desk earlier. And of course he hadn’t forgotten her existence (how could he, he could never forget her, her name was scarred on his heart beside the unborn child he’d killed in Padme’s womb—)
But he didn’t often think of her. What use was it? The best way to keep Loric Piett safe was for Vader to stay far, far away from her.
“I was able to add a few more, since Taanab,” Piett continued, when Vader had been silent and still for too long. “From her last birthday and the like. I just thought—you have a few from when she was very young, but she’s growing up so quickly.”
“I—” Carefully, so carefully, he folded his metal fingers around the crystal and secured it in a belt pouch. “Thank you.” It felt impossibly inadequate.
Piett looked up at him. She was, again, nearly able to find his eyes through the heavy lenses of the mask. “You’re her father,” she said quietly. There was something almost challenging in her gaze. “Shouldn’t that count for something?”
“I have not been much of one, so far,” he said, pitching his voice as softly as possible. “But—I wish to be. As much as I can.” He had never deserved it, and didn’t really know what he was doing anyway, but what did that have to do with anything?
Piett softened, slightly. She leaned her head against the armor plating over his chest and sighed. “I know. I know you care for her. And there are good reasons we chose this arrangement. I only wish….” She shook her head. “Never mind.”
Vader groped for reassurances—but there was nothing to say. What could he point to as proof that his words were not simply empty promises? The vision he’d had—the two of them side-by-side, their daughter crowned in glory—might never come to pass, and Piett was too practical to take it on mere faith.
This too shall pass, a Jedi might say. But he wasn’t a Jedi. And it’d be cold comfort, even if he was.
After a moment she nudged him lightly. “You said you had a gift for me?”
Vader brought out the handheld holo-projector and offered it to her. She accepted it with a raised eyebrow and flicked it on.
The ghostly blue outline of a capital ship floated before them. Piett’s being prickled with curiosity-confusion, taking in her sharper and more pronounced dagger shape, the smooth outer lines and central city-structure, so different from the blunter, more common Imperial-class.
“Did you buy me a ship? Or just a very pretty projection?” Piett joked. There was some internal turmoil changing the rhythm of her thoughts, though what, he could not guess.
“Not exactly,” he said. “‘Gift’ is not the precise word. ‘Offer’ would be better.”
“What sort of offer?”
“Or perhaps even ‘request.’” He curled his hand around hers and flicked to the second projection in the queue. Now the same ship was placed beside an Imperial II for comparison.
For the second time in the last hour, Vader felt her mind come to a screeching halt.
“What—” She floundered. “That’s—is this an accurate scale?”
Beneath the mask, Vader smiled. “I think the Imperial-class is actually a little smaller.”
“But she must be fifteen klicks at least! How in the hell—” She cut herself off, tilting her head back to look at Vader’s mask with wide eyes.
“Nineteen kilometers from stem to stern,” said Vader. “The talent, ingenuity, and experience of hundreds of skilled engineers working in tandem for nearly five years went into her crafting.” He quirked his helmet slightly. “I believe the rest of the technical specifications are also there.”
Piett’s attention snapped back to the holo-projector. She flicked through the rest of the images—technical drafts, cross-sections of the engines, a cutaway diagram of the ship’s hull. “This is bleeding-edge tech,” she said, awe-struck. “What is she?”
“The Executor. First of her class, and my new flagship.” He watched the light flickering over Piett’s face as she cycled through the images, forward and back. “How do you like her?”
“She’s beautiful,” said Piett at once. She stopped on another long shot of the ship, this one outlining her armaments and potential blind spots. There was a look of open longing on her face. “Who’s the lucky bastard at her helm, then?”
Vader shifted slightly, drawing her a little more securely into his side. This was the moment to come clean, but he hedged a little further. “Sizon.”
“Terre Sizon? Stars, I’d thought he’d retired already. Does he know he’s just keeping the seat warm for your real choice?”
“He is a decent, if uninspired, captain. He will manage the shakedown well enough, and retire with one more accolade to his name.”
“And then you’ll promote your real captain two or three ranks and stick them on the bridge.” Her tone was teasing, but the longing lingered. “Let me guess who. You’re waiting for some inspiring cadet to graduate? Just stopped by on your way to see them?”
Enough circling round the point. “Rather the opposite. I am trying to convince an instructor to come out of retirement.”
Piett was unfailingly quick on the uptake. She jerked upright, eyes boring into his mask, then shook her head. “You don’t mean—You can’t mean what that sounded like.”
“Why not—I haven’t so much as stepped foot on a proper bridge in seven years, much less commanded. I’m not the captain of anything anymore, I’m a bloody tactics instructor! You need to find someone else.”
“There is no one else,” said Vader. “You are a brilliant strategist and commander—”
“Years ago, maybe.” Piett stood and yanked her jacket back on, striving for composure. “Before I was put out to pasture. No one will accept a captain who's spent the last decade teaching instead of leading.”
“Your service record is impeccable,” said Vader, with some irritation. “Eight years in the Anti-Pirate Fleet with a dozen commendations and accolades; three years climbing the ranks under Tarkin; then three more as a ranking officer on Acidity and Accuser, slated to take over the Accuser yourself…”
“And then seven years of exile at the nearest backrocket academy that would accept me!” She grabbed her trousers and hopped back into them. “And that, this job, was as close to proper operations as they'd let me. You don't know what it's been like. I had a choice, between having a child and having a military career, and I made that choice.”
“And now I offer you another one,” he said. He clambered up to his feet, pulling his own fly shut with jerking movements. “A chance for both. A military career, and your child.”
“Maybe I like this career,” she said. “I've made a life for myself out here. Loric has a life here. Now you want me on your ship, playing at being a captain – ”
“You will be the captain – ”
“—while my daughter does what? She can't tag along to strategy meetings.”
“Plenty of officers have children,” he said. “And are their careers affected? Look at Veers!”
“Veers? I don't know if you've noticed, but Veers was married—I don't have anyone else, I'm her only guardian.”
“You have—” He cut himself off. “A support structure,” he corrected weakly. “Your sisters.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, face contorting in anger or one of its milder cousins. “What were you about to say?”
He huffed, and tucked his hands behind his back.
“I have my sisters,” she continued, after a dangerous moment. “Yes. Sisters a half-dozen sectors away, an ailing mother, a few friends here and there. But I am her sole guardian. I have a support structure—but Loric has me.”
And not you, hung unsaid between them. It burned like acid on bare skin.
He cleared his throat after a pause. “Arrangements can be made. For a few years, at least. It would not be ideal, but it is not enough to end your career before it's begun.”
“No, her existence was enough to end my career,” she said. “I'd made my peace with it, ages ago, and now you want to—” She cut herself off and turned her back on him, stacking some of the items on her desk.
“Now I want to what? Use your considerable talents where they will do the greatest good?”
Her shoulders tightened. “Which talents, my lord?”
“Which—” He scowled, hard enough to tug at the scars on his face. “You know better than that, Captain.”
“What I know is, we had an agreement. As long as we were doing this, you wouldn't play with my career. I must admire your restraint—look how long it took you to break your end of the deal—”
“Is that what you think I am? An oathbreaker?” The pots on the windowsill rattled ominously, shelves creaking behind him. “Do you imagine me so shallow, so low as to be driven only by base lust?”
“What else could be your motive?” She spun on her heel to face him, brandishing her comm like a knife. “What possible reason could you have for installing me as captain on this ship of yours? You must have dozens, hundreds of officers chomping at the bit for such a command. Even your exacting standards must find some worth keeping.”
“After the simulation today,” he said, “you mentioned ideas that were impossible with the sensitivity of the program—”
“Oh, spare me the damn object lesson—”
“—tell me what they were.”
She met his lenses squarely. But with the helmet, he very rarely lost staring contests. “Why?”
“That's all I do these days.”
"Even so," he ground out. His anger and hers were feeding the Dark inside him, appetite whetted by their combined rage. Before long it would demand release. "What ideas did you have?"
She laid the comm down, sharper than necessary, and crossed her arms. "You were inspired by Turkana, obviously," she said after a long moment. "The closest the Navy has come to a rout since the last Separatist holdouts were dispatched. I submitted a tactical analysis after I read Lennox’s after-action. What ISB official did you bully my paper out of?"
"I haven't read it," he said honestly. Reading the title and prospectus didn't count as reading the entire thing. "What did you suggest?"
"Tractor beams," she said. "TIE strategy relies on being twice or thrice as fast and maneuverable as any other fighter on the market. X-Wings aren't as fast, but they're fast enough to be a serious threat, and they’re well-shielded. If you can use tractor beams to slow them down, make an easier target for the fighters and smaller artillery…." She shrugged.
"Tractor beams." A solution so obvious, elegant in its simplicity. "I have read the after-actions of every flag officer at Turkana. A dozen strategists have tossed around ideas for combatting this new threat. Do you imagine that any of them came up with a suggestion half so ingenious?”
"It hasn't been tried," said Piett. "We don’t know if it works. Even if it does, coming up with clever ideas from the sidelines or on simulations doesn't make me a brilliant captain in the heat of battle."
"You have always been brilliant."
“Stop.” She raised her hands, pressing at her temples and covering his eyes. “Just—stop, you—don’t lie to me about this of all things.”
“Have you ever known me to lie?”
“Stretch the truth, then.” She sagged back against the desk, yanking irritably at the flyaway hairs. “I won’t accept a position I haven’t earned. Especially not one I’m not qualified for.”
There was—there was real hurt in her, he recognized suddenly. Somewhere in his offer, he’d badly misstepped. But where?
She’d always taken pride in her work, in her accomplishments, and most of all in how they were hers. She had submitted to the necessity of Naval politics, but she had never taken a bribe, never curried favor—had not even used her connection with him to any advantage, though he would’ve gladly ruined her rivals and given her the Devastator a decade ago on her word alone. She truly had been wasted running errands for Tarkin, and wasted again here. There was selfishness in this offer, but he would not suffer an incompetent at the Executor’s helm. Didn’t she know that?
It seemed he must convince her. He stepped forward into her space. “Fidela Piett. What do you imagine first drew me to you?”
“Besides me propositioning you in that dusty old records room?”
“Besides that. I have been propositioned before, and propositioned since. I am not moved by such things.” He reached out carefully, pressing at her chin. She allowed him to tilt her head up. “Nor are looks alone enough to sway me. It was your skill, your competence, and your fearlessness that first caught my eye. I have known many officers, brilliant and terrible and middling. I know when a good one is before me.”
She pushed his hand away, softly, and he let it drop. “Then why did you leave me here to rot?”
He flinched slightly. “You made your choice,” he said. “I thought to honor it. And it seemed too great a risk.”
“And now what? The risk is gone?”
“The Rebel threat grows, and few take it seriously,” he said. “The Executor needs a good captain and good staff—the best the Navy has to offer, officers who are not blinded by arrogance and complacency. The risk of inaction now outweighs the risk of action.”
She snorted. “You’re Darth Vader. Your officers will take it seriously because you take it seriously.”
“That is not enough.” He bit down on the impulse to shake some sense in to her. “You are needed, Fidela—I did not think you of all people were given to pointless self-delusions.”
“There’s no call to insult me, my lord,” she said, infuriatingly level. “I think I know my own capabilities.”
“Then how could you think to remain, wasting your talents—denying your destiny—when the best place for you—”
“The best place for me is where I choose to be. And I don’t choose that.” The color was high in her cheeks when she said, “I spent my entire career fending off accusations of sleeping my way up the ranks. I’d rather never fly again than make those rumors true now.”
He could feel the absolute truth of it, the planting of feet like a great tree settling its roots deep in the earth, like a citadel wall towering above the grass. Fidela Piett would not be moved by anything less than an orbital bombardment. She met his gaze steadily, a challenging curl to her lips.
This time, Vader flinched first.
It was infuriating—it was intolerable. There had to be some way—something he could say to convince her, to make her see how she was needed. To make her understand, he wouldn’t put her at the helm just so he could sleep with her more regularly—
“And what if they weren’t,” he said slowly.
She eyed him suspiciously, looking for the next clever workaround. “What do you mean?”
But he’d run out of stratagems and clever tricks, and had only blunt truth left. “The terms of our agreement—As long as we are intimately involved, I will not interfere in your career. Not in the least manner.” He tucked his thumbs into his belt. “At best, my request stretches the intent of that agreement as I have understood it. As I believe your skills and your record qualify you for a posting on the Executor, the fact that there are—some additional personal inducements did not seem germane.”
“Didn’t they,” she said.
“Obviously you do not agree.”
“Finally picking up on that, are you?” She leaned further back against the desk, nearly hopping onto it. “Is this the start of an apology?”
“No,” he said. “This is my final offer.” The words were having some trouble coming out of his throat, sticky and unwilling. “Should you accept the posting aboard the Executor, as long as you are stationed there, our relationship will be—professional. You shall receive no special treatment and no personal attentions. We shall be colleagues only. No one will be able to doubt your integrity, or your capabilities.”
Piett did not respond for several long moments. The respirator did not let him hold his breath.
“Why?” she asked.
He sighed. “Because I need you at the helm more than I do in my bed.”
“You’re serious,” she said, sounding faintly incredulous.
He merely tilted the helmet at her.
“You know, even when you’re being accommodating, you’re a bit of a bastard,” she said.
“So I have been told,” he said wryly. “Well?”
“That won’t be enough on its own,” she said after a moment. “It’s not enough of a guarantee. And even if it were, I still couldn’t upend Loric’s entire life without a damn good reason.”
“I know,” he said stiffly.
(He thought he’d understood the vision. He thought they’d stand side-by-side in all things, not only comrades but more—
The Force never lied. But how often had it been kind in its selective truths?)
She swung one foot idly against the synthwood of her desk. “Do you have the details of the posting?”
He summoned the holoprojector they’d discarded at some point and loaded up the second presentation—really just a single file, with the commission, the access codes, and all the formwork she’d need to present when she arrived at Kuat. If she went to Kuat.
Piett accepted the device and flicked through it. “Hull department, chief assistant to the first lieutenant. Not typically a fast-track for command.”
“Once you are aboard, your eventual promotion is inevitable. With or without my influence.”
She eyed him coolly through the light of the projection. “Is it now.” She refocused. “Suppose you’d better hope so, for the sake of your plans. Commissioned at the rank of Senior Lieutenant. Protocol dictates a rank drop after a prolonged absence, yes?”
“That is a rank drop.”
“Of one rank. Very subtle.” She powered down the projector, turning it over carefully in her hands. “Can I have some time to decide?”
“She launches in two standard months,” said Vader. “Barring delays. Part of the Ascension Week festivities.”
Piett nodded. “There’s ten more weeks left in the semester. I’ll give you my answer before then.”
“You can take your commission straight to Sizon. He knows there are a few officers I am choosing for myself.”
“Very well.” She put the projector deliberately on the desk behind her. “This isn’t a yes, Vader. I will think about it, that is all.”
He couldn’t help but straighten his spine in any case. “I understand.”
“And if I do agree, then—I’ll hold you to that promise.” Her face was a little pale and very serious. “I won’t share your bed and serve on your ship at the same time. And I won’t be convinced otherwise.”
“I will not try.” He would be no less alone than he was now. And he would be able to see her and speak to her in the course of their duties. It would be bearable, surely.
“There might be other ground rules. Things we’ll need to discuss, if I come onboard.”
She observed him, silently, for a long moment. Her hands clenched and unclenched as she took in the angle of his shoulders, the position of his hands, and whatever other minutiae she found useful. There was a thrum of cold seeking-uncertainty-apprehension about her shoulders.
Finally, Piett closed her eyes and shook off her previous mood, visibly setting their conversation aside. “How much longer can you stay?”
“I have other business in the system: perhaps two hours more.”
“How are you explaining your presence this time?”
Vader tilted his head slightly. “You are giving me a report on promising third-year cadets. This is naturally a cover for spying on Director Jolav. He is suspected of graft.”
“Is he now? And who planted that suspicion, I wonder?”
“I have my sources,” he said loftily. It was the sort of excuse that worked on officers who were too frightened or too apathetic to question him further. Piett, of course, was neither.
There was a grin on her face as she leaned back on the desk. “Well, then, I should give you my official report on the good Director. He’s not guilty of graft, although he’s definitely taking bribes.”
“How are you so certain, Captain?”
“How do you think I got permission to hold a third-year seminar? He’s very fond of my Winterfest cookies. And bottles of very old whiskey. But he’s an honest man overall.”
“How did you get the whiskey?”
“Life-Day gift. Admiral Motti was showing off. In any case, you can rest assured that Director Jolav is no more corrupt than the average officer.”
“Now that your mission is complete, you seem to have some spare time, my lord. What shall you do with it?”
“I am open to suggestions,” he said. Was this…They’d just had an argument, was she really…?
“In that case…tell me all the latest gossip. It’s been a while since I’ve heard from the captains.”
“I have a poor memory for gossip.” He dragged one of the chairs closer and sat. Almost immediately, Piett propped her feet in his lap. She could hold a grudge as well as a Sith, but for whatever reason, she was apparently putting this one aside.
(Maybe, then—if he waited until after her retirement—or even earlier, if she approached him first, if the Force for once was kind—)
Distracted, he asked, “What would you like to know?”
“Hm. Tell me about Turkana?” She smiled a little, nudging his thigh. “I bet Lennox got a stern talking-to.”
“Indeed. Grand Moff Tarkin was most displeased.” He grinned back, at her and at the memory and at the strange pang of hope alike, beneath the mask. “I stood by Tarkin while Lennox made his report.”
Piett laughed. “You mean loomed behind. Tell me everything.”
Vader had never learned to deny her. He curled one hand around her delicate ankle, and began.