Set in the same AU as Lord Vader's Limpet & Driving Lord Vader.
The full fic is still in progress, so updates will not be predictable. But I'll give you this much – it's not prone to cliffhangers. ;)
Eriadu looked exactly as revolting as it had twenty-eight years ago, which was a comfort. At least something in the galaxy hadn't changed.
Firmus Piett linked his fingers together behind his back and concentrated on projecting the image of a confident, imperturbable admiral. It was an image that had gotten a lot of practice. Two and a half decades of staggering from crisis to crisis – trying to keep the Executor's life support systems tottering along, scraping together the resources to feed and clothe three hundred thousand men, conference after brain-racking conference with navigators, techs, engineers, mechanics…
They had crawled homeward system by uninhabited system until, last month, the ship reached Zonju V. Piett was prepared to wager his hypothetical firstborn child that never in history had a less deserving planet been greeted with such shouts of joy as the Executor's surviving crew members rained on it. It was by any civilized standard a dustball lodged in the back of a closet, but the closet in which it was lodged was their own long-lost galaxy.
Zonju V's list of desirable qualities ended there. Whether one or a thousand turbolasers were trained on them, the destitute colonists could supply little in the way of aid. Of reliable information, they could supply even less. The Empire had collapsed. No, it was at war with a New Republic. No, no, it had signed a peace treaty with the Rebels, what was left of it – no, just some of what was left of it… No two Zonjuvians seemed to have the same opinion on the subject, and indeed had considered the entire outside galaxy purely academic until a Super Star Destroyer materialized in their skies.
As no provisions were to be had, and as Engineering estimated their jury-rigged hyperdrive was only good for another 5 parsecs or so, Lord Vader ordered the ship to jump to Eriadu – the closest hub of commerce and, once upon a time, of Imperial patriotism. In theory, a system capable of producing Wilhuff Tarkin would not yet have forgotten the Empire…whatever remained of it.
The Executor had limped into the Eriadu system five days ago, flinging open the gates of all nine Corellian hells in the process. From Piett's vantage point it had been quite the spectacle: cargo ships, tankers, and small craft fleeing for their lives in all directions; the panicking corvettes and patrol ships of the Eriadu Security Force, some opening fire, some scrambling towards the planet and orbital habitats to do gods only knew what in their defense; the incredulous horror of the governor as her frantic plea for peace was answered by a Dark Lord of the Sith who was supposed to be dead…
For several hours, the authorities in Eriadu City persisted in violent skepticism that the ship and her crew were who they claimed to be. When Vader threatened the entire Quintad Council with strangulation by way of proof, the governor's office transmitted declassified Imperial naval reports stating that the Executor had been destroyed at the Battle of Endor. Included was a sensor recording from the Reprisal in which the computer distinguished a mere two thousandths of a second between the disappearance of the Executor and the massive heat signature of the Death Star's explosion.
Piett took a slightly deeper breath as his mind's eye populated the relative quiet of Eriadu with the chaos of that day. He had always known they'd had a close shave – but two thousandths of a second? No human eye could have perceived that the ship had vanished ahead of the explosion. Even had they suspected the possibility, they must have dismissed it when the Executor failed to reappear in the following weeks.
Vader had viewed that recording, stood in silence for a moment or two, and then uncorked wells of cooperation Piett hadn't known he possessed. ComScan busied itself for hours transmitting copies of the ship's log, personnel records, their readouts from Endor, medical files, and anything else that might help knock it through the Eriaduans' heads that this was in fact the Executor and her commander was in fact Darth Vader. Conviction finally set in, and the planet began transmitting caches of news records to bring them up to speed on the galaxy's doings.
From the perspective of thousands of Imperial naval officers, not much of the news was good.
The Emperor had never formally chosen a successor; his presumed heir – Vader – had also been presumed dead. Much of the senior military leadership had fallen in action at Endor. So it did not come as a real shock to hear that the Empire had fragmented, factions dismembering each other in the scrum to claim Palpatine's vacant throne; nor that the Rebel Alliance, gathering momentum from its stupendous victory, had finally captured Coruscant and declared the formation of a New Republic.
But it left Piett feeling pointless.
He was captain of a floating anachronism. Even in full fighting trim, the Lady could not re-conquer the galaxy singlehanded. Mention of a surviving Imperial enclave controlling some dozens of systems inspired him only with disgust, as it must anyone who could remember when the mere invocation of Palpatine's name froze the blood of Core World tyrants and Outer Rim primitives alike. The Empire to which he had devoted his life was gone.
Here in the hour of their homecoming, Piett felt more lost than ever.
But he mustn't let the crew see it. They no doubt felt the same emptiness that he did, the same fear of what future might await them in this New Republic governed by their enemies of old, the same torment of not knowing whether reunion with loved ones would be possible. For their sakes he must continue to be the incarnation of confidence and poise.
For once, he was actually glad of Lord Vader. Whatever else you might criticize about Vader's leadership style (and Piett had a laundry list twelve lightyears long), the man was never at a loss. You might not know what his plan was, but you knew he had one and that he expected it to succeed. Not to say he was infallible but he did have a sound grasp of strategy, at least when his temper didn't interfere.
Piett glanced at Eriadu's besmirched surface again. At the moment Vader was making his first trip planetside to speak with the shell-shocked governor in person. Hopefully the woman survived the encounter. Killing local authorities was unlikely to go over well with the new lords and masters of the galaxy.
He twitched his lip. Perhaps he was wasting his concern. It was a thousand to one against that they could convince the New Republic the galaxy was big enough for it and the Executor – unless someone influential interceded on their behalf, but what prominent ex-Rebel would lend Darth Vader a helping hand? The New Republic Navy was no doubt scrambling a battle squadron at this very moment to corner the Executor in Eriadu. Piett snorted. Little did they know he had barely a score of operational turbolaser mounts on the whole ship, after all the parts they'd had to cannibalize to keep vital systems online.
Still, it was useful to be feared, and he intended to maintain the illusion of a lethal warship for as long as possible.
"Admiral!" The voice belonged to Ensign Chimmel from ComScan, now forty-six, the poor bastard; not many opportunities for promotion in the Unknown Regions. "We have a cordon breach in zone thirteen."
Piett joined him at the console.
"Sensors say it's a personal transport, sir," Chimmel told him, as if the admiral's bars on Piett's uniform automatically rendered him unable to interpret a standard sensor readout. "I can't match it to any known models. Military-grade drive, though."
Piett frowned. "Just one?"
"Yes, sir. Unless she has buddies coming in ballistic or under cloaking."
"If she did, she'd be under radar with them." Piett massaged his fingers behind his back, weighing whether to bring his last surviving forward bridge battery online against the trespasser. But the last thing they needed was a firefight. Besides, zone thirteen pointed Coreward straight down the Hydian Way. The transport might be a new arrival in system, out of touch with current events; and though any sane being would steer clear of an unknown Super Star Destroyer, the galaxy was regrettably full of fools, not all of whom could be prevented from operating starships. And with databanks a quarter of a century past their expiration date, ComScan was probably going to run across hundreds of unfamiliar ship designs. "Hail her and order her to stand off."
Chimmel keyed on his set. "Unknown starship, this is Imperial Naval Ship Executor. Be advised you are breaching the ceasefire cordon. Withdraw immediately to one million kilometers."
A text-only transmission flashed back onto the readout: CONFIRM OPERATIVE RECOGNITION CODE: HAPSPIR, BARRINI, CORBOLAN, TRIAXIS. In the corner of the screen appeared an alert icon – the Imperial Security Bureau's Field Operations insignia, surmounted by a stylized glove.
Piett jolted back. He jerked his gaze across the viewports as if he could physically see the pilot of the incoming ship.
Chimmel was studying the icon in confusion; he had probably never encountered that variation before. Stars knew there'd been no occasion for it recently. "Sir? How should I proceed?"
"Request them to stand by, Lieutenant," he ordered. "And get me a secure line to Lord Vader."
He hustled (discreetly) to the holocom deck and initiated top-secret coms protocol, sealing himself off from anyone else's hearing. He had not had to contact Vader with a priority signal in decades, but the man answered as inscrutably as if it was the fifth time that day. "Admiral. What is it?"
"My lord, we are being approached by an unidentified personal transport. They transmitted us an operative recognition code." He swallowed. "It appears to be one of the Emperor's Hands."
"Which code?" Vader demanded.
"It began Hapspir, Barrini."
Vader was silent for a moment. "Permit them to board the ship, but do not allow their arrival to become a matter of general knowledge. Clear the hangar in which they land and hold them there. I will return to the ship and deal with them myself."
Piett ended the transmission and returned to the bridge. Once upon a time they'd had a black ops hangar specifically designed for these sorts of occasions, but like most places on the ship not essential to daily survival, it was out of commission. Instead he bugged out Hangar Bravo Five – home in the old days to the pilots of the 501st, all lost at Endor – and ordered a security cordon of the area. He handed the watch off to Captain Venka and proceeded alone to the hangar bay, his throat tight.
The Emperor's Hand…it felt like being visited by a ghost from another universe. All he could remember was that they had answered directly to Palpatine, and supposedly shared Vader's occult powers. Why had the Hand come? To recruit them to war on the Empire's behalf, or offer allegiance in the assumption that Vader intended to restore the old status quo? To assassinate Vader, for failing to save their shared master?
Whatever the Hand's agenda, one thing was almost guaranteed – it wasn't going to line up with Piett's agenda for a peaceful retirement.
I'm too old for this sort of thing.
The lift deposited him inside the hangar in time to see the mystery ship looming outside the bay doors. It certainly had never come from any Imperial assembly line. Offhand, he judged it to be an extensively modified SoroSuub Horizon-class yacht. Aftermarket cannon mounts poked noses out here and there, and that extended aft hatch must be big enough to accommodate a snub fighter – but she retained the SoroSuub grace, feathering down beautifully on the deck without a whisper.
Nothing to worry about, Piett told himself, proceeding to the base of the extending ramp. Even if the Emperor's Hand had crossed the galaxy to take Vader's head off his shoulders, he/she/it likely wasn't going to give the Dark Lord advance notice by offing his admiral first.
Afterwards – now that was a distinct possibility, but one thing you learned serving under Vader was that each day had enough trouble of its own. Piett posed himself at attention and projected all the imperturbability forty years in uniform could bestow.
A hooded figure appeared at the top of the ramp, hesitated for a long moment, and then made its way down. "Admiral," said a man's voice. Piett felt a prickle in his memory. Could he have run across this Hand once before in the old days, perhaps unknowingly?
A gloved hand offered itself to him. Piett shook it. "Welcome aboard the Executor, Agent." He had spent some of the trip from the bridge debating what title to use. "Emperor's Hand" sounded a bit…obsolete.
"Ah. I have a confession to make," said the man. "I'm not an Imperial agent."
Shavit, thought Piett. Should have brought a sidearm after all. He hadn't bothered to stop by the bridge armory, reasoning that if Palpatine's pet viper wanted to kill a decrepit old admiral, a blaster wouldn't do much for his odds. "I beg your pardon?"
The man brushed his hood back. He had darkish hair, close-trimmed scruff on his chin, bold blue eyes, assorted scars testifying to a long history of close scrapes. The prickle of memory became a violent itch. Where had he seen those eyes before? Not in person – no – wait a second – surely that isn't –
"I'm Luke Skywalker."
Piett's mouth hung open without permission.