"… is the sort of behavior one would classify as blackmailing him. He was quite clear on what would result."
Slouched on a rocky outcropping inside a nondescript cave, Dr. Aphra did her level best to ignore her own instincts which said she should just start running. As her oh-so-helpful and acutely sinister protocol droid Triple Zero felt the need to point out, she was indeed waiting in an isolated spot for a very dangerous man who by all rights intended to flat-out murder her once their business was complete. And not in the distant future as she had been counting on up 'til now, but very soon. Like before his next meal, even!
Such was the day-to-day peril of working for an Imperial Sith Lord.
"Though it does make a droid wonder how exactly he'll terminate you," Triple Zero continued in animated tones.
BLEEP! The astromech assassin droid Beetee One contributed his own monosyllabic opinion at this point.
"Yes, Beetee, he certainly could do that," his platinum-plated partner asserted in a musing fashion.
For her part, Aphra felt her stomach tying in knots. She did not face impending execution with quite the same academic curiosity as her two cohorts. The least they could do was let her contemplate what might be the last few minutes of uninterrupted existence in peace.
"Guys," their anxious mistress groaned miserably. "Not helping. Not helping at–"
She looked up, and there before her stood Darth Vader.
Aphra flew backward to lie sprawled on the cave floor, staring in horror at the looming apparition. How the hell could a seven-foot cyborg move so quietly?! At the very least his mechanical breathing apparatus should have given him away, but perhaps she had grown so accustomed to hearing those stilted gasps in the background that they just didn't register to her anymore! The two droids looked on quietly. Whatever happened next, it made no difference to them. Though if she were perfectly honest, the rogue archaeologist had a feeling she knew what outcome her homicidal machines were hoping for, and it was the exact same one she needed to avoid at all costs.
Vader didn't need Sith mind powers to get the answer he wanted out of her. Aphra could no more have refused him than she could twist her own head around… mercy, why did I come up with a comparison like that?
Okay, Aphra, think fast! You need to give him a reason to keep you alive once you give him the intel! And it better be a damn good one, by the way he's fingering the handle of his lightsaber! Or maybe more than one…
"Vrogas Vas," she informed him straightaway. "The boy's on Vrogas Vas." And then, before he could so much as flick the button of his lightsaber, the frantic criminal launched immediately into her pitch. "Lord Vader, I know you feel you have every reason to kill me now, but if you just hear me out I'm sure I can give you ten… no… twenty-five good reasons why I should be allowed to live!"
Meanwhile, Aphra was mentally pitching a fit. Twenty-five?! Why the hell did I say THAT?! I haven't even come up with ONE yet!
He's looking at me. Oh, mercy, think of something quick!
I DON'T KNOW! Anything! The first idea that comes to mind, just keep him interested until you can come up with a real winning argument!
"So," she leapt to her feet, dusting off the bottom of her pants and flashing that winning smile which had served its owner well in the past. "Reason #1…!"
"Hi, everybody! Nice to be in this asteroid belt, really great to get in before the tourists, right?! Anybody here from Nal Hutta? Anyone? Good, that means there might actually be leftovers at the buffet. I'm kidding, I love Hutts!"
Aphra stood clutching a microphone that came courtesy of Triple Zero. He and his squat murderous accomplice waited politely against the cave wall. Between them the great menacing form of Darth Vader watched with the patient disinterest of a sand scavenger expecting its victim to breathe their last at any second. The desperate comic knew she was performing for her life. This wasn't the most dignified example of her talents, or even the most useful. But it got the ball rolling, and that's what counted.
"Has everybody found their seat?" the aspiring (but mainly perspiring) entertainer asked. "Great! So anyway, let me ask you something, in all seriousness: how many Nabooans does it take to screw in a light rod?"
A red flash split the oppressive darkness. When Aphra looked down, she found her microphone had been neatly beheaded. Huh, the girl thought with a sort of detached curiosity. Will ya look at that?
With cheerful aplomb she chucked the severed instrument aside. "Alright, then, lemme bring out the big guns. Here's an oldy, but a goody!" Taking a deep breath, Aphra launched into one of the best jokes in her arsenal.
"A Gungan, a Jedi, and a hick from Tatooine walk into a bar…!"
Not one second later she was rolling around on the floor as what felt like an invisible hydraulic press squeezed her throat. One arm waved frantically in mute appeal, and thankfully the Force choke relented.
Sucking in great gasps of air, Aphra clambered to her knees and waited for the redness to recede from her vision. Once she felt closer to life than death, she wasted no time in leaping upright.
"Okay, that's it for jokes. Let's move on to the next reason!"
"Master Aphra," Triple Zero stated in a frosty tone of voice. "In case you are wondering, I do not find this to be at all amusing."
"Oh, don't be such a grump. Not like I'm gonna miss."
Her unwilling assistant flashed red eyes but said nothing more. There was a round blue fruit balanced precariously atop his head, and he had been instructed not to move for this demonstration. Meanwhile Dr. 'Deadeye' Aphra had positioned herself a few meters back and now took aim with the blaster pistol from her belt. She threw a look at Vader and grinned.
"No joke, I'm a crack shot. Could probably shoot the whiskers off a Wookie from fifty paces!" She looked back at her fuming target and scrunched her eyes in the low light. "As long as nothing distracts me I-ah…" Her nose twitched, head drawing back slightly with mouth open wide. "Ah… AH… AHH-CHOO!"
The blaster fired, and the fruit erupted in a burst of stringy goop that left poor Triple Zero completely besmirched. Aphra hoisted her weapon and turned back to the audience with a self-satisfied smirk.
"Just kidding!" she trilled pleasantly.
Triple Zero revised his estimate of how long he intended to spend killing her sometime in the future by several hours.
Aphra's pursed lips twisted to one side of her face, then another. She became cross-eyed for a moment before appearing to roll her tongue around both cheeks. With the most intense of concentration she sucked in a breath through her nose and held it, face twitching. They all watched this performance.
After a second meant to heighten the tension, the doctor opened her mouth and stuck out her tongue, revealing what proved to be a cherry stem tied in a knot.
"Ta-dah!" the young woman proclaimed in triumph as she plucked it free to be held on high.
No one applauded her success. But that was okay. Vader hadn't moved since this whole debacle started. Still, she felt proud of herself. They had reached Reason #8, and so far her head was still attached to her neck. Good job, old girl. Actually learned something worthwhile at the university.
Turning to Triple Zero she handed him the cherry stem. "Here you go, kid!"
He accepted it, staring at the perfectly tied knot. The android torture artist looked up at his mistress, then back at the evidence of her success.
"How did you do that?" he asked in quiet confusion.
He and Beetee moved off to puzzle over this mystery together. Aphra merely clapped her hands. "Okay, moving right along…!"
One last tightening of lugnuts, and…
"There!" Aphra stepped back in satisfaction, wiping an arm across her brow. "Perfect!"
Not to toot her own horn, but this really was pretty impressive. She hadn't even been certain it would work right off the bat. But the proof was self-evident. Aphra glanced over one shoulder at Vader. "What do you say?"
Vader didn't say anything, actually. Which was a bit disappointing. Not just any technician could pull off a procedure as complicated and completely outside of factory specs as this. Considering the level of skill the Sith Lord had demonstrated in the past regarding the workings of droids, she had felt certain he would be more appreciative of such technical ingenuity. Shrugging, the artist turned back to inspecting the two droids for any sign of flaws.
Beetee and Triple Zero could certainly appreciate their mistress' skill. After all, right now the protocol droid's arms were attached to the astromech's body, whose stout legs had been removed and reattached in the spots left vacant on his counterpart's torso. They were fully functioning, securely set in place, and perfectly compatible thanks to her brilliant hack job.
"Master Aphra," Triple Zero said with chipper bloodthirstiness. That torture-kill estimate had now jumped several weeks thanks to this latest humiliation. "If I still had hands, rest assured they would be firmly locked around your throat right now, master-slave protocol or not."
BLEEP! came an equally murderous affirmation as Beetee looked to be making an effort to do just that judging by the way his new arms reached trembling out towards her, almost falling over in the process.
Aphra ignored their empty threats and placed a finger to her lips, eyes scrunching up in thought as she examined her hodgepodge creations. "Hmmm," she pondered. "Wonder if I could get their heads switched too?"
Maybe that'll be Reason #16…
"Pick a card! Any card! No… no, not that one. You want this one!"
Vader knelt across from her as she crushed the tea leaves into a paste just the way Mother had taught her. The water in the teapot was boiling perfectly. A deft bit of mixing later and the brew was ready to be presented. Aphra laid aside her tools for cleaning afterwards. With the grace of a professional geisha, she poured them both a steaming cup without spilling a single drop.
Settling back, the hostess noticed something. "Oh, right," she realized. "Some refreshments, that's what was missing. Would you excuse me for a moment, please? I'll be right back."
She then rose and dashed pell-mell down the tunnel until she was out of sight.
Vader picked up the teacup and inhaled its aroma through his mask. He gave no sign of it being unpleasant or not.
As he did Aphra came flying back (literally) and landed in front of him once more in roughly the same position she had left. Stupefied, the young woman blinked a few times, then stated very quickly, "I wasn't running away."
He didn't respond, and she retrieved her cup to have a sip, hand shaking so badly half of it went on the floor.
"For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and can quote a Rule,
In point of fact derives straight from the ancient Ordu Aspectu;
But still, in Rims both Outer, Inner, even Mitochondrial,
I am the very model of an IMPERIAL GRAND ADMIRAL!"
Her own childhood version of that time-honored rhyme finished, Aphra collapsed and just sat there panting for several seconds.
The faint clink of two metal hands clapping together reached her. She looked up to find Triple Zero applauding. "Bravo, Master Aphra!" he declared. "That was indeed 25 reasons to keep you alive! Your primitive fleshy survival instinct is most impressive, as always."
She shot him a nasty glare but lacked the energy for anything more.
The protocol droid glanced down at his squat colleague. "Beetee says he especially enjoyed the fan dance."
Her eyes narrowed even further, and a growl came from her throat.
"Just where did you pull those giant feathers from, anyway?"
"The same place I find all my plans," she muttered darkly back.
Creepy robots notwithstanding, there was one other person who had yet to express his critical review of her performance. She nervously sneaked a peek at the silent black monolith who would decide her fate. The Dark Lord of the Sith now stood once more between the two droids, arms crossed and affecting an air of brutal condemnation in every sharp angle of his mask. She could see herself reflected in the mirror-like eye panes, but could discern nothing about what he might be thinking.
And what Darth Vader thought was…
Must… not… LAUGH!
The last time Vader laughed, his breathing apparatus had blown out and he was forced to use the Force to keep his lungs going for several hours until the med techs could get it working again. Inflating and deflating your own lungs in what most people did reflexively had proven to be the third most painful experience in his life (ahead of the dismembered lava bath, surprisingly). He had no desire to repeat such an experience.
Darth Vader woke up angry and went to bed furious. He knew how to keep himself in check, otherwise there would be a trail of bodies behind him everywhere he went. More than usual, at any rate. And so, almost strangling on the urge to burst into gut-busting peals of laughter, Vader whirled around and swept from the cavern, his cape billowing behind him. With no more noise than he had initially made appearing, the Imperial overlord vanished into shadow.
Aphra craned her head to catch a final glimpse of him, then turned back to the droids.
"Well," she flashed that gamin grin of hers. "Guess that means I earned a reprieve!"
A few hours later saw the three-man crew back aboard the Ark Angel and well on their way. Dr. Aphra sat in her antiquities room carefully cleaning off an eggshell-thin urn which if properly appraised might net her enough to stay under the radar of certain acquaintances for a cycle or two. With any luck, Vader would be too busy chasing that Skywalker kid to think much about their working relationship, which was fine by her. There was little doubt he meant to kill her someday. But if she could just keep finding ways to make herself useful to him, that date might be put off indefinitely. If anyone can do it, it's yours truly!
Something brushed the back of her neck with eerie gentleness. Her nerves were still on edge, and she almost dropped the urn, instead contriving to set it securely on the table. When she turned around it was to find Beetee One holding a giant pink feather in one shiny metal claw.
He waved the blowsy prop animatedly.
Aphra frowned. "No!" she said, half embarrassed and half outraged at the suggestion.
BLEEP… The astromech assassin's great red eye glowed dangerously. A blaster barrel shot from his trunk and pointed right at her. BLEEP!
The woman scoffed. "Oh, please. You can't shoot me, I'm your master, remember?"
Beetee appeared to consider this. The weapon retracted back into its fount. As it did, however, another metal arm popped out and moved right aside the urn.
"Hey, what are you…?"
With a spiteful flip, the fragile antique was knocked to the floor where it shattered into worthless shards.
Elsewhere on the ship, Triple Zero looked up from his pastime to see Beetee go zooming by the open door of his lab. BLEEP-BLEEP-BLEEP-BLEEP-BLEEP-BLEEP-BLEEP!
"GET BACK HERE, YOU LITTLE MANIAC!" Dr. Aphra howled as she raced past in pursuit. "I AM GOING TO RECONVERT YOU INTO A BARBECUE GRILL, JUST YOU WAIT AND SEE!"
The sound of their altercation soon faded. Finding little inclination to pursue the topic, Triple Zero turned back to the examining table and its current occupant. "Now, tell me when this hurts!" he sang exuberantly, and pressed down.
A muffled scream came in response.