The moment Admiral Piett felt the Star Destroyer Relentless drop out of hyperspace, he rose, and, adjusting the rank insignia on his dress uniform—starched and stiff, never having been worn before this day—walked briskly out the door of his private quarters and towards the bridge where the Imperial entourage waited.
He passed scurrying stormtroopers and droids, the thousands of cogs in the well-oiled machine of one of the Empire's finest ships, all preparing for the disembarkation of the ruler of the galaxy—and stopped to look out. The lush, green planet they had come for was just visible through the transparasteel viewport.
No one but he took any notice of the unassuming world, though it was the final destination on this most auspicious voyage. The Star Destroyer's passengers held its crew in awe—they were what was to be focused on, not the terminus. This state visit was the first and final royal tour of the Relentless; the Star Destroyer would in all likelihood never carry the Emperor again. Now was the time for consideration of career, rank—any advantage that might be pressed for the short amount of time this ship was the most important in the galaxy.
They might have been going anywhere.
He turned his face away, internal clock reminding him time would not wait, and resumed his half-mile trudge.
The Emperor's home world had looked small to Piett, even from such a short distance as the Star Destroyer's present position. An unlikely beginning for the most powerful man in the history of the galaxy.
But, he thought, as he approached the bridge, and the perfect lines of stormtroopers turned into deck officers and over-stuffed dignitaries, not as unlikely as he, Firmus Piett, being invited to join the Imperial retinue on a state visit at the personal request of the Emperor himself.
He had been beyond surprised when Lord Vader, in his usual taciturn manner, had informed him of Emperor Palpatine's particular desire for his presence in the party that would surround him on Empire Day. Piett was an ambitious man—but only where he knew he could distinguish himself. Playing the game of the royal court was not what he relished...he knew he had little chance of gaining anything by it. Frankly, the man had been astounded that the Emperor even knew his name.
But he does, he thought, as he passed the two Royal Guards who flanked the entrance to the bridge, I would not be here otherwise.
The revelation disquieted him.
The guardsmen did not spring to accost Piett, as some of his more creative fellows at the Academy had claimed they would. As he stepped past the unfamiliar command crew and towards the raised dais where the Royal Party waited, he was acutely aware of being a mere spectator here. The Executor, as the flagship of the Imperial Navy, would have been the natural choice to carry the Empire's elite...had she not been grounded three weeks before for a full work-up, by order of the Emperor himself.
Palpatine had taken a very personal interest in his affairs this past month.
"Ah—admiral," the Emperor said, his voice tinged with polite interest. "The last of our party. Welcome."
"Your highness." Piett bowed to his waist. Palpatine waved, as if he found this unnecessary ceremony to stand on.
"I believe you are at least acquainted with everyone here?"
Coming out of the bow, Piett glanced between the other men. Watery-eyed Governor Tychum of Naboo's Chommell Sector was murmuring something to Moff Bratton. Piett knew the Moff—it must have been at least an attempt at humor, for he was chuckling softly—largely by reputation. High-born, his hawkish good looks matched the ambition that had first caught the Emperor's attention several years before. There was no recent public act of valor or political bid the younger man had made to have earned a coveted spot on the Relentless, though. Perhaps, Piett thought, cynically, he'd been chosen for how good he would look on the HoloNet.
Next to Bratton was Captain Argos, Commander of the Relentless—who Piett himself had come up with in the Academy. Stout and practical, what he lacked in Bratton's surface appeal he made up for in good sense. Argos would stay with his Star Destroyer when the rest of them went planetside—for that Piett was disappointed. Having another member of the Navy in the party put him more at ease.
His eyes slid past Argos, busy explaining the features of his ship to the Emperor, and rested on the last of their odd gathering. His superior, the Supreme Commander of the Imperial Navy, Darth Vader, stood dutifully at his Emperor's right side. Piett's gaze lingered on the impassive black mask for a fraction longer than the others, before turning his eyes back to Argos.
"I was just explaining to Moff Bratton that the Emperor asked to be informed when we began our approach into Theed so that he—that we all—could be afforded the best view of the planet possible."
"Forgive an old man's whim," Palpatine said, his eyes, shrouded by his hood, fixed on the viewport. "It is difficult to act wholly rational in the place of one's origin."
The Star Destroyer finished its circle of the planet's night side and the jewel-green world, lush and beautiful, shone brightly under its single sun.
"Naboo..." the Emperor murmured, in an inscrutable voice. "It has been too long."
Naboo. Piett, like everyone else, marveled less at the planet than Palpatine's choice to move the Empire Day celebration here so suddenly. In the twenty-three years of the Empire's existence—twenty-three today—never had his majesty spent the festival away from Imperial Center. Along with the move were scaled back festivities—a retinue of twenty had become four,
a Coruscanti parade of ten-thousand became a festival entirely made up of locals. It would be provincial by any standards. The rumor mills were abuzz.
Was the Emperor's choice to leave the capital planet a calculated move, meant to show, even in the face of civil war, that he did not fear? Or was this an austerity measure, intended to sober the public at large with a more modest celebration?
Piett did not find either explanation compelling. The cancellation of the most important day in Capital City—or at least, the massive curtailment of it—had been on the whole a financial loss, and left the chief architects of the famous spectacle scrambling.
The Emperor seemed largely unconcerned.
"Beautiful, is she not, Moff Bratton?"
"The shining jewel in the crown of the Chommell Sector, liege."
Piett exchanged a look of disbelief with Argos. Under his thick eyebrows, the captain rolled his eyes—he had about as much tolerance for obsequy as his friend did.
Even the Emperor thought it a bit much.
"Have you spent much time on Naboo, Moff?" he asked, his polite voice hardening, almost imperceptibly. Piett had heard Palpatine never asked questions he didn't already know the answer to. The Moff realized this a second after he did.
"Not—ah—not as such, my lord."
Palpatine turned to him.
"And you, Admiral?"
"I've never had the pleasure, Emperor Palpatine."
"Well, before the week is out, you shall have true call to be impressed..." The Emperor's demeanor sharpened. "Is that not so, Lord Vader?"
All eyes snapped to Piett's commander. For all his size and reputation, Vader had managed to fade into the background for the duration of the journey here. Piett had not heard him string more than three words together the whole voyage.
"As...you say." The mask shut out most modes of inquiry, but if Piett was not sure how unlikely it was, he would have thought Vader was not paying attention.
The Emperor turned back around and approached the viewport slowly, leaning on his knotted cane. As if by some wordless command, Vader stepped forward and joined him.
"How long has it been, my friend?" The Emperor's voice was loud enough for them all to hear, but the question was meant for one alone.
"Since whenever you last bid me come."
"Have you not, in all your years in my service, come of your own accord?" Vader remained silent. Piett did not think there was another being in the entire galaxy who would dare not answer. "I find it difficult to believe you would neglect history so. Everything began here."
The two men were caught in a private reverie—until Palpatine turned around to address the rest of them.
"You will excuse Lord Vader and I our reminisces, I trust."
Vader's helmet still pointed towards Naboo.
"We are almost in atmosphere." With visible effort, he turned from the viewport and towards his master again. "I will check that the shuttle is secure."
"If you think it necessary, by all means." When Palpatine lifted one hand in a gesture of permission, Lord Vader stalked past them all and towards the forward landing bay, scarcely giving Piett enough time to rattle off a quick salute. "We shall join you in due course."
The moment Vader's footsteps had faded, Moff Bratton's shoulders visibly relaxed. He shared much of the Imperial Court's discomfort at Vader; the presence of their ruler's loyal second was usually enough to subdue an entire Coruscanti banquet hall. Vader and the Emperor together in a social setting was virtually unheard of—and Piett could not help thinking, with bleak irony, that there was a reason.
There was not enough Corellian ale in the galaxy to take the edge off of this trip.
Governor Tychum cleared his throat nervously.
"Is all—erm," Tychum coughed into one hand, his eyes focused on the doorway through which the Sith had just disappeared. "I hope Lord Vader is not displeased."
Piett met the eyes of Captain Argos. Neither one of them would have thought the governor had the nerve to ask such a pert question.
The Emperor's disbelief was less frank.
"I am sure Lord Vader appreciates your concern, governor. I shall let him know you expressed it." The regional governor's expression was one of undisguised horror; Piett wanted to laugh. He stifled it, and his smile turned into a grimace. "No, I think it more likely he is—as he says— merely eager to ensure our security."
The Emperor returned to silently contemplating his home. What did he think of when he looked at that blue orb through the polished transparasteel viewport, Piett wondered. The past—it must be. He was a master of seeing patterns—was he now seeing the trajectory his own life had taken? Wondering at the unlikelihood of his destiny? A lesser noble from such a relatively minor system becoming the ruler of all known space was something no one—not even he—could have foreseen, after all.
Abruptly, the Emperor returned to the land of living.
"I have seen enough."
Whatever he saw, they would never know.
"The shuttle launch is not scheduled for another hour and a half, Emperor Palpatine," the Captain said, with another deferential nod. "If you'd like, I can show you to the more state-of- the-art facilities, or back to your chambers for more—"
"No. I think..." The Emperor clicked his tongue, thoughtfully. "...I wish to go directly to the shuttle. Let us surprise Lord Vader."
Tychum paled, but Bratton, by all accounts the next-highest ranking person there, eagerly took a step forward before—
One word, phrased more as a polite question than a command. Taken aback, but intelligent enough not to comment, the Moff stepped aside and allowed Piett—a decade older and a foot shorter—to take what should have been his place at Palpatine's side.
"Governor Tychum, Moff Bratton—you may return to your quarters until our scheduled hour of departure." This was less something granted than something ordered. "The admiral and I will go —check on Lord Vader's progress."
With a flick of the wrist he had dismissed them, and both men murmured ascents—Moff Bratton's with only the smallest tinge of displeasure. They bowed to the waist and left the bridge. Palpatine similarly dismissed Argos; he suggested the Captain return to his standard duties. Argos, sensing the odd mood of his Emperor, was only too glad to accept.
That left Piett to accompany the Emperor alone—or nearly alone. Imperial guards trailed behind, but at such a distance as to make this an essentially private audience.
They walked in uneasy silence for several of the longest minutes of Piett's life. Shrouded in his customary hood, it was difficult to discern the mood of the man at the admiral's left. For one who used a cane, the Emperor walked with surprising purpose, and it occurred to Piett to wonder if it was possible that he did not need it at all.
Palpatine let out a low chuckle, and the other man had the impression he had hither-fore-to only heard whispers of—that the Emperor could read the minds of his subordinates.
"Have you enjoyed your leave, Admiral Piett?" he asked, suddenly. His voice was soft and polite. It was almost gentle. "Have you gotten a chance to convalesce and—spend time with your family?"
Piett blinked. Of all the questions he had expected, that was about the last.
"Rest, yes—but no family. I'm a bachelor, your majesty."
"No parents? Siblings?"
"No family whatever."
"No family whatever," the Emperor repeated, thoughtful. "Would you say you are married to your command, then?"
Piett considered his options. There was the reply of the humble ("I never found a wife that would have me") the flatterer ("I certainly expect that death will be what parts us, my lord") or the politician ("as long as I am needed in my current position, of course...")
"I do not see my command as an end unto itself," he answered, at last—deciding on the truth. At least it would be a novel approach. The Emperor probably hadn't heard it in a decade.
"A means, then?" The old man's tone was inscrutable. "To what?"
"Peace and security—in whatever way the fulfillment of my duty can gratify the Empire's need for both."
Palpatine laughed with genuine amusement.
"If I heard those words come out of Moff Bratton's mouth, admiral," he said, slyly. "I would view them through a lens of—skepticism. But from you...I am quite certain you believe it." His thin smile turned circumspect. "I can see why Lord Vader holds you in such high esteem. You have much—though not all—in common."
Massive, imposing, and liable to strangle an incompetent—Lord Vader was intolerant of all failure. He could see very little of his commander's strengths—or the rough edges that put half the court's teeth on edge—in himself.
Again, his walking companion answered the unspoken question.
"There are hidden depths to Lord Vader, you know." The silent corridor stretched out before them, endless. He had never gone so long in a Star Destroyer and not seen personnel. "He is a complicated man."
"His devotion to the Empire is unparalleled."
"Unparalleled and undisputed, my lord."
"I was not entirely honest with the governor when I told him Vader was just interested in ensuring our safety," he continued, and his familiarity caught Piett off-guard. "Truthfully...I do not think he could bear to look at Naboo anymore."
Piett's step faltered.
"Your majesty, I'm afraid I don't—"
"You see, Admiral Piett," he interrupted, gravely. "I am not the only one who is not rational when faced with my place of origin."
It took a moment for the full implication to set in.
There was no recourse but to rise to the Emperor's bait.
"Is this...Lord Vader's home world as well?"
"Is he from Naboo, you mean? No." The Emperor shook his head. "Let us say it is where—his career began. Like any place of formative significance, for him I believe there to be both— attraction and repulsion."
Where his career began...there had been no serious military campaign on the planet since the Clone Wars. Whatever it was that the Emperor so delicately alluded to, it must've been during that conflict—or even earlier. Vader's age was, after all, as much a mystery as anything else about him.
"The past...is a difficult ghost for anyone to exorcise," Piett replied, cautiously.
"Ghost...yes, that might be the best word for it." He returned to a light and conversational distance. "I hoped having a trusted lieutenant—a fellow military man—on this state visit would help—alleviate the tension for him. Lord Vader, I'm sure you know, does not much care for politicians."
Piett nodded, again suppressing a smile. Vader's dislike of the now defunct Imperial Senate was legendary.
"Present company excluded, of course, your majesty," he quipped, trying his hand at court flattery.
"There have been a few notable exceptions." The old man smiled at a private joke. "I'm sure you will benefit from this trip as well. You will come to understand him much better on Naboo."
His words had an ominous ring to them; Piett only nodded, and they passed the rest of the walk in silence. It gave Piett a dangerous amount of time to think.
The life that Lord Vader had before his injuries was no longer a complete blank—it existed, and he had been a person of interest to the Chancellor of the Republic, at least. But why was Palpatine confirming a dual identity to him of all people? He had never felt it necessary to explain or justify Vader before. As Piett understood it, the imperial elites' distrust of the Sith Lord actually amused him.
This smacked of intrigue. He hated intrigued almost as much as he did court.
In that respect he and Vader were alike.
When at last the two men reached the private shuttle hangar, Piett was surprised to find the entire command crew standing outside the ship. Hastily, they all bowed, and the pilot—a slim blond woman Piett recognized from the boarding party on Coruscant—stepped forward to engage them.
"What is the meaning of this?" Piett demanded, briskly. The woman snapped him a harried salute. Her forehead was slick with sweat, and the sleek new uniform did little to hide the tension in her shoulders and neck. "Why is your crew not preparing for the flight?"
"I'm sorry...admiral..." She turned to the Emperor, half-appealing, half-chastened. "My lord, we —"
The Emperor held up a hand to silence her.
"It is quite alright, captain. It is as I expected." He shot Piett a conspiratorial look. "Lord Vader ordered you off the shuttle, did he not?"
Immediately the pilot straightened up into a defensive posture.
"I assure you, Emperor Palpatine, this shuttle has been checked and rechecked—the Relentless has the finest security team in the Empire, there was no need for anything—"
"I am sure, captain. Neither Admiral Piett nor myself are in any doubt." He fixed his gaze on the landing ramp. "Where is the engine room of such a shuttle found?"
"The...the engine room, my lord?"
"The engine room, yes," The Emperor repeated, the very model of patience. She blinked, too surprised and terrified to do anything but answer.
"In the lower rear compartment of the ship—below the cockpit."
"Thank you, captain." He glided past her and Piett. "We shall return shortly with Lord Vader."
Piett was so taken aback he had to jog to rejoin his liege.
"Where do you imagine we will find him?" the Emperor asked, as they entered the modified Lambda-class shuttle. "If you were checking the security of an imperial shuttle of this nature, where would you go first?"
"The cockpit, naturally."
"Lord Vader is not in the cockpit," Palpatine answered, evenly, with the air of a well-bred schoolmaster. "What can we conclude, then?"
Piett glanced down the one long corridor of the ship—the cockpit was, just as the Emperor said, empty.
"That he is—" he hesitated, and swallowed. His mouth felt unnaturally dry. "That Lord Vader is... not checking the pilots' security protocols."
"Are you aware, Admiral Piett, that in addition to his many other gifts, Lord Vader has a considerable talent for mechanics?"
"Of course," He followed the Emperor down a narrow service ladder to the bowels of the ship. "Lord Vader often oversees the droid and ship maintenance on the Executor. And he does not allow anyone else to service his personal fighter."
"Does he not?" Palpatine asked, mildly interested. "Unsurprising. Mechanics are a second nature to him—one might say a 'way of life.' When he is...distressed, I have often known him to use whatever flimsy pretext he can to take apart a ship engine or droid and...tinker."
The way that the Emperor spoke of Vader—more like an amusing child than a trusted lieutenant —made the hairs on the back of Piett's neck stand up.
"The engine room, your majesty."
Palpatine considered the utilitarian door.
"The access code—you know it?" Piett nodded. "Then by all means, after you."
Piett punched in the six digit code, his palms slick with sweat. The door slid open, and with one last sideways look at Palpatine, he walked forward and around the corner.
Though he'd been warned, the middle-aged and consummate military man still had to stifle an exclamation.
The floor was littered with so many engine parts that it looked more like a repair shop or droid reclamation center than the heart of a royal shuttle. His commander's cape—all known galactic deities help him, it was detached and hung up on a peg next to power cables.
As for his lord...the powerful black legs stuck out from underneath the ship's hyperdrive containment chamber, looking for all who came into the room like those of a mechanic droid.
"Admiral?" the muffled voice was still intimidating, even from underneath a tangle of wires. "What are you—"
"Lord Vader," a soft, amiable voice greeted from behind Piett's shoulder. The clanging of a hydrospanner being dropped on the durasteel floor echoed through the entire lower compartment. "I hope we are not disturbing you."
Faster than Piett could have guessed was possible, Vader pushed out from underneath the bowels of the ship and practically scrambled to his feet.
He wouldn't have believed his commander was capable of scrambling.
"Master—" He made a flustered movement with his torso, as though to kneel—but with just a look, the Emperor stilled and silenced him.
"I trust the ship's security was agreeable to you?" His yellowed eyes lingered on the engine parts strewn about the compartment.
"I—" Piett's presence obviously made the Sith's embarrassment tenfold. Never had the admiral felt more akin to Vader; this was excruciating. "I noticed a discrepancy in the ship's steering and so I—"
"—Saw fit to correct it?" the Emperor finished for him, lightly. "I can understand that, my friend. I am only surprised you did not delegate the task to one of the engineers. They were, after all, hand-selected by you for this trip."
The sovereign stooped and picked up a rusted power converter delicately, as though it was a piece of fruit that had fallen from a tree.
"The work needed to be done quickly, master."
"Ah—I see." He dropped it back on the ground. The sharp clang perfectly accented his irony. "Better that than the second-in-command of the Empire lacking faith in its best and brightest." His surveyed the chaos in the room dispassionately. "You know we are set to depart in less than an hour?"
"It will be in full working order with time to spare," Vader insisted—and unless he was mistaken, the admiral now heard annoyance in the deep basso voice.
"Admiral," Piett stepped forward, hesitantly. "You have some experience with ship mechanics, don't you?"
"Yes, my lord—erm, some."
"Good." He turned back towards the door. "Assist Lord Vader with his—repair work—and when it is done you will both rejoin me in the upper cabin."
"Yes, your majesty." Vader only bowed.
Without another word, Palpatine glided out of the room again. Vader's shoulders slumped. He and his admiral stared at each other, prolonging the discomfort—before Piett broke off his eye contact with those unfathomable optical lenses and began to unbutton his dress uniform's high- collared overcoat.
"What are you doing, Admiral Piett?" Vader asked, in a subdued voice.
"Preparing to assist you—" He hung the coat up next to his superior's shroud. "—In returning the engine to working order."
"That will not be necessary." Vader brushed past his lieutenant, who was now rolling up his sleeves. "I am perfectly capable of completing the modifications myself."
"I'm certain that's true, my lord." Piett picked up the toolkit—which promptly floated out of his hands. "But if I do not at least make an attempt to assist I will be ignoring the direct orders of the Emperor."
Vader ignored the quip.
"You may stand there, admiral. Out of the way."
He watched his superior piece the engine back together with quiet awe. Vader had not been exaggerating his abilities; he had no need for help, but he tolerated Piett's presence, even allowing him to find a tool or supply a necessary instrument when convenient.
"Where are the moff and the governor?" he asked, as Piett handed him a power coupling. "Do they await us in the cabin as well?"
The Sith worked quickly, with a practiced, methodical precision that suggested it was second nature to him.
"To the best of my knowledge they obeyed the Emperor and returned to their quarters."
"Why are you not also there?"
"Emperor Palpatine asked that I...accompany him to the shuttle directly."
Vader stopped screwing the bolt in.
"You have never had private words with the Emperor."
"No, my lord."
He resumed his work.
"How did you find it?"
"An...unsettling experience. I had the most distinct sensation—" Piett hesitated.
"—That you were being tested?"
"Yes." Vader pushed out from under the chamber and replaced the last covering on the case where the hyperdrive was cradled. "Very good, Lord Vader."
"Do you believe you passed the test?" he asked, ignoring the compliment.
"Difficult to say. Perhaps I will never know."
"The Emperor is not in the habit of leaving such matters open to interpretation."
Not for the first time, he wished he could see his commander's face. As it was, he could almost feel Vader's warning humming in the air.
He took it under advisement.
"Then I imagine I will find out before this state visit is over."
"That cannot come soon enough," The Sith's voice darkened. "Your—uniform, Admiral Piett."
The smaller man looked down at his sleeves and shirt front. In spite of his best efforts, they were covered in engine grease.
"You didn't fair much better, my lord," he said, pointing to a glob of oil on his lordship's boot.
Vader looked down and made a short noise that might have been a scoff. His vocoder made it difficult to tell.
"I will have a droid look to it. As for you—"
"There is a spare uniform stored here." Piett tapped smartly on the wall. "It's standard issue for any Lambda-class shuttle to carry extra rank uniforms for everyone on board. Of course, it won't be as formal..." He tugged at his dress collar. "But I shall feel more comfortable in that anyway."
Vader reached for the peg where his cape hung and refastened it. He fumbled for a moment— Piett almost considered asking if he needed help—before it was secure.
He was Darth Vader again.
"As soon as the Executor's maintenance work is complete we will return to Coruscant and leave. I want you in constant communication with the engineers, admiral."
"I... happened to speak to the chief engineer before our last hyperspace jump, my lord, and he —" He swallowed and coughed, nervously. Lord Vader was doing a final inspection of his handiwork. "He had just gotten off a priority comm with—Mas Amedda." The temperature in the room seemed to drop. "There is a new directive. It seems that the Executor may not leave Coruscant until...the Emperor has given his final approval."
Vader's gauntleted hand froze on the metal hatch of the hyperdrive.
Without another word the Sith turned around and stalked out of the engine room. The 750 kilo durasteel door slammed shut behind him of its own accord.
Luke could not take his eyes off the small green planet beneath his ship. The moment he had come out of hyperspace the anticipatory tightness in the pilot's stomach had given way to giddiness. He thought of the wedding holo, still tucked away in Artoo's memory bank, and smiled.
This place was a part of him, just as Tatooine was. As soon as he laid eyes on his mother's planet, he had known this was a homecoming.
A part of me began here.
Luke was so fixated on Naboo as he flew his X-Wing from the night to day side that when he looked up to check his flight path he nearly let go of his controls.
"Woah—check out all these imperial ships!" The younger Skywalker let out a low whistle. "I knew there was a lot of Imp activity here because it's the Emperor's home world, but I didn't think it'd be this unfriendly."
Is it possible something happened?
"Nah—if there was a military altercation here, we'd know about it." It was comforting to think Threepio was not here to interpret the doubt in his voice to Artoo. "Still, watch out."
He swooped down to get in line with a series of smaller crafts, all waiting for approval from the planet to enter atmosphere.
"Let's hope that identifier code Leia gave me throws them off the scent long enough to get us to Theed."
He was excited to learn more about his mother, the young pilot repeated to himself, as he muttered the cover story he'd invented under his breath. That was where this unsettled feeling he couldn't shake came from. He pushed it back down. Nerves—that's all it was, nerves.
"Alright, old buddy—here...we...go!"