In orbit around Axxila
Admiral Firmus Piett stood uneasily at the front viewscreen of the Executor, gazing down at his homeworld of Axxila.
He was nervous because he was in Darth Vader's spot, so to speak, which was an unsettling position. But Vader was down on Axxila, putting the fear of the Force and the Sith into the planetary governor, so Piett had decided to stand where his superior usually did; not out of any sense of self importance, but because his men seemed to work better when he was on the bridge, but not actively staring at any of them.
All was quiet on the great ship, and Firmus Piett allowed his mind to drift. It had been many years since he had left Axxila. Certainly as a young man, he had never imagined he would reach the height of Admiral in the Imperial Navy. His parents, if they were still alive, would have been proud.
Not that being Admiral on the Executor was the safest of positions. Darth Vader was always intelligent, usually moody, sometimes homicidal. Piett had broken all kinds of records in surviving as the Executor's Admiral for more than 2 years now.
He had even survived the Bespin debacle, which still startled him nearly every day. Given how obsessive and downright peculiar Vader was about Skywalker, Piett had 110% expected to be strangled when the Millennium Falcon had disappeared, abruptly and incredibly, into lightspeed.
He shook his head slightly. He still might permanently lose his connection to oxygen if someone didn't find Skywalker soon. The young man – hardly more than a boy, really – had proven incredibly difficult to track down. The admiral was personally frustrated, and Vader had lashed out more than once in a towering rage after yet another near miss.
Piett suddenly realized one of his lieutenants was standing to one side, and turned quickly.
"Admiral, we have a holocall for you from a ... Denorah Piett. According to our records, she is your sister-in-law, sir?"
Piett suppressed a gape of surprise. Why was Denorah contacting him here?
"I'll take it in my private suite," he said, then turned to his captain. "You have the bridge."
As Piett marched toward his rooms, he mulled over this bewildering happenstance. He was rarely on or near Axxila, but Lord Vader's visit had been moderately well publicized and Denorah knew he was the Executor's admiral. But Denorah was a sensible woman, and he thought it completely impossible that she had called merely to chat.
The most likely possibility was that Maximus was in some kind of trouble. Piett sighed to himself; the boy had done reasonably well after the sudden and tragic death of Piett's brother Tractus eight years earlier in a speeder crash. But as Piett's career had taken off, he'd had less and less time to stay in contact with Max; no doubt the youth, only 23 years of age, had done something foolish and Denorah hoped with Piett nearby, he could talk some sense into his nephew.
Well, if he had time, he'd make a holocall to the boy and drum some sense into him. If he had time. His primary responsibility was to the Executor and her crew and her Lord.
He shut the door and marched up to the holoterminal. He quickly put his cap down on the desk, then accepted the call.
"Denorah ..." he began, then stopped in shock.
Denorah was standing in her familiar living area, but the woman herself was a ball of horrified distress. Her eyes were red with weeping, her skin blotchy, her body trembling with terror.
"Denorah, what is wrong?"
"It's Max, Firmus, Max!" she gasped out, then began sobbing.
Firmus's throat constricted; for all that he had not been in contact much with his nephew, he loved the boy. Did Denorah mean ... mean ... that Maximus was ...?
She was too broken up to speak, but she obviously managed to push a button because the image suddenly changed.
Piett stiffened in disbelief. It was an image of a room, one with blank walls and no identifying information. Standing against the wall, his hands chained above him, was his nephew Max Piett. The holocam drifted closer, and Piett noted the bruises on the boy's face, and the swelling of one eye. And both eyes looked strange somehow – the pupils were dilated. Had he been drugged?
Now a masked and cloaked individual stepped forward in front of the holocam.
"We have your son, Maximus Piett," the voice said with an obvious mechanical distortion. "You have 3 hours to collect 80,000 credits. We will contact you then and give you instructions on the deposit accounts. Once we have been paid, your son will be released. If you fail to provide the ransom, your son will die ... very unpleasantly."
The holo ended, and the scene shifted back to Denorah, Piett's widowed sister-in-law.
"I don't have that much money, Firmus," she gasped.
He interrupted her, speaking rapidly, "I will deal with the credits, Denorah. When did you receive this transmission? How long ago?"
"2 hours," she said. "It took me 2 hours to get hold of you."
He glanced quickly at his chrono. He had a great deal to do in the next hour.
Piett's private chambers
In orbit around Axxila
The call came through 63 minutes later. Piett had arranged to have it transmitted directly into his chambers, so that the kidnappers would deal not with a terrified mother, but Maximus's capable uncle. He had removed his uniform in exchange for civilian clothes, but he hoped that his calm demeanor would help in the ensuing conversation.
He took a deep breath. He had dealt with a terrifying Sith Lord for literally years at this point. He could handle a group of second rate abductors.
Piett turned on the com and stood a little straighter. Again, a cloaked and masked figure stood in front of the com. To the sentient's right was Maximus, still chained to a wall.
"I have the money," the Admiral said coldly, "and am ready to make the necessary trade."
He was, or course, tracking the signal. He would pay the money to save Max, but he would track down these marauders and ensure their arrest and execution.
"Excellent, Admiral Piett," the Masked One said in his mechanically altered voice,"I am so glad that your sister –in-law was wise enough to contact you directly. That will save us both time."
Piett paused. This wasn't what he expected.
"The credits ..." he began.
"Are not what I want," the abductor interrupted ruthlessly. "I need, instead, something that only you can provide."
"Which is?" Piett demanded suspiciously.
"You will immediately order the release of Prisoner #453, who is being held in maximum security prison #6 on Axxila. The prisoner in question is scheduled for execution in three days, so you had best move quickly, Admiral Piett."
In spite of himself, Admiral Piett found himself breathing more rapidly.
"I can't do that ..." he began.
"You will do it, Admiral."
The voice, if possible, grew even more menacing and deep.
"Because if you do not, your nephew will die by inches, and we will send you a holo of every single loss of a digit, every single burn from a fire whip, every blaster wound. And just to show you that I am serious ..."
The masked figure turned now, and gestured off holo, "Cut one of his fingers off."
"No!" Piett called out in horror.
Maximus, in whatever horrible cell he was being held, jerked noticeably even as another dark clad figure stepped forward, a gleaming instrument in hand. Ruthlessly, Max's left hand was grasped, the sharpened pincers held high for a terrifying moment.
"Uncle Firmus!" Max screamed in terror.
Then, so quickly that Piett's eye could not follow it, the pincers suddenly jerked out of the hand of the torturer near his nephew and flew to the right.
There were yelps of astonishment, and blaster fire began emanating from the left of the screen, off holocam.
A moment later, there was a strange buzzing sound, even as a series of bolts began crisscrossing the screen. The Masked One who had been threatening Maximus had turned to the right and raised his blaster, but before he could fire, a strange green light flashed in front of the holocam.
The screen went black.
Leaving Admiral Firmus Piett shaking and confused.
Docking Bay #2
In Orbit around Axxila
1 hour later
The shuttle ramp lowered and Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, strode irritably down onto the docking bay floor.
His meeting with the (former) governor of Axxila had stretched far longer than it should have. He should have just strangled the incompetent fool immediately, instead of talking to the moron for hours and then strangling him.
That was three hours of his life he'd never get back.
He was, at least, pleased with the new governor, a former captain in the Imperial Navy who had been sent back to Axxila for medical reasons. He would be a reasonably competent governor, and, more to the point, wasn't corrupt like the man whose body was currently being incinerated.
At the bottom of the ramp stood his faithful admiral, Piett. Vader permitted himself a slight nod to the man. He was, without a doubt, the most reliable and competent admiral Vader had ever had. This, if nothing else, had stayed his hand more than once during the last three years.
"Admiral," he said, coming to a halt, "status report."
"My lord," Admiral Piett responded, then, most uncharacteristically hesitated.
"I have a personal family situation, my Lord, but it has developed into a wider problem."
Vader looked at him incredulously. Piett was competent, he reminded himself. He wouldn't be annoyingly obscure without good reason.
"Explain," he ordered coldly.
"If I may, my Lord, I would appreciate discussing the issue in a more private venue."
"Very well, Admiral," he said rather impatiently. "Lead the way."
Piett walked very briskly, almost ran indeed, toward a nearby conference room.
Once the door was closed, he turned to face his black cloaked superior, breathing heavily.
"My lord, two hours ago, I received word from my sister-in-law, who lives on Axxila, that my only nephew, Maximus, had been kidnapped and was being held for ransom. She sent me the ransom demand, which was for 80,000 credits."
"Is your nephew an Imperial officer on this ship?" Vader demanded.
"No, my Lord."
"Then as regrettable as this incident is, it is hardly my concern."
"No, my Lord, of course not. I arranged to take the subsequent call myself, and I respectfully request that you watch it."
Vader sighed and nodded, then turned toward the holo. Really, what did Piett think he was? A bleeding heart willing to waste his time on a nobody nephew ...
Then the clear buzz of a lightsaber, and the green flash, and the com went dead ...
"Where did this transmission originate from?" Vader snarled.
(It was, at least, a blessing that he knew Piett was intelligent enough to trace a ransom call.)
"It did not originate from Axxila, my Lord," Piett said in a remarkably steady voice. "Given that the transmission was short, we were only able to pinpoint it as originating from Vandyne, Camden, Edusa, or Tangrene."
Vader had a sector map up on a screen, and it took him three seconds to make a decision.
"Set course for Vandyne, Admiral."
"Yes, my Lord."
Vader strode to a nearby viewscreen and stared out at Axxila. He was pleased when the Executor shifted into hyperspace within two minutes of Piett's orders.
"Admiral Piett," he said, his back to his faithful officer. "I require a full report on your nephew, Maximus Piett, in three hours."
"Yes, my lord."
He heard Piett turn, take a few steps, then stop.
"Could it be Skywalker?"
Darth Vader cycled through three respirations before answering.
"It is Skywalker."