Oh, the brass was out in force tonight.
When Ton Stark had called to hold a meeting with his Imperial liason following a breakthrough in his weapons development program, he figured it would be a simple thing to accomplish; Colonel Ganti would look over the documents pertaining to the weapon's capabilities, blueprints, discuss payment plans, and shake hands as if they actually liked each other's company. But no. Colonel Ganti had instead decided to bring what had to be every regional governor in the sector to Stark's private skyhook for a demonstration of the device. Fourteen of them! Fourteen high-ranking Imperial officers representing the Army and the Navy had come to this little patch of space in geosynchronous orbit over Corellia's capital of Coronet, all to see what one of their premier weapons designers had coughed up.
"I don't know, Jay," Ton said, securing the jacket's final button and running his fingers through his slick black hair, "I always thought silver was more your color than mine".
"Possibly, sir. But as you are scheduled to demonstrate your latest design in less than ten minutes, an adequate change of clothes is not an option."
Ever the optimist, Ton thought to himself. J-3PO was the average protocol droid in many respects. He was polite to a fault, had silver-colored coverings that were polished to an almost garish degree, and had exactly none of the disrespect for long shots that Ton and every other Corellian like him had come to nurture. Ton was half tempted to drag his wardrobe with him and change suits every five seconds just to spite the robot, and reconsidered only when he remembered that fourteen representatives of the Galactic Empire were practically on his doorstep, wondering just what Colonel Ganti had been on about. A new weapons program that would suit both branches of the military? Practically unlimited applications? A per-unit cost that would make the Emperor himself write out the order? Even for the brilliant Ton Stark, that was almost laughable. In fact, it was only because the idea had been brought up by the brilliant Ton Stark that Imperial brass was taking the proposal with even a modicum of seriousness. To get fourteen of them to show up, Ganti must have either pulled some major strings or cancelled whatever appointments Imperial officials had on the greenputt course. Whatever the case was, Ton Stark was going to deliver.
"I always do."
"I'm sorry, sir?"
"Nevermind, Jay, just talking to myself. Thinking…hey, go let our guests in, would you? Offer them a drink or something."
"They are, sir. I tried, sir. They said they were on duty."
Ton turned to face Jay, his eyes taking on a whole new fear altogether. On duty? The brass? Good grief, they were taking this seriously after all. He wasn't planning to waste their time, by any stretch, but the fact that they'd turned down a simple glass of brandy was troubling. The last time Ton had made a weapons demonstration, the presence of the lone officer there was less genuine curiosity and more drunken buffoonery (insofar as the good Lieutenant – now Commander – Wester had been allowed, anyway). This, so far as Stark's knowledge went, was not how the brass was supposed to operate.
"On duty on duty on duty. Crap. Okay, tell you what, go ahead and bring that brandy in here."
"Of course, sir. Might I inquire as to why? It hardly seems appropriate."
"Oh, just so I can crack it on the bow of my new yacht before she leaves dry dock and fly away happy as a bir – no, it's not appropriate, but it's necessary, okay? Go. Fetch. Good droid."
Jay tilted his head, much like a curious pup would have done. Ton was rubbing his sweaty forehead with his palm by the time the blasted droid finally turned to leave the room and retrieve the brandy. J-3PO had been programmed with all of the tenets of Coruscant high culture as part of his etiquette protocols. This meant that, among other things, he wouldn't have really appreciated the finer points of his master's position. Namely, that Stark wasn't nearly prepared to deal with a handful of Imperial higher-ups, let alone a handful of Imperial higher-ups that would be poring over whatever he brought to the table. But more than it spooked him, it irked him. Smart and sound as his designs were, Stark hadn't been anything important to the Empire before. Why this renewed interest? If the deal went through, then sure, no reason to complain and all would be right with the galaxy again. But the last time he had come under that kind of scrutiny, everyone was; the declaration of the Empire's formation had not gone over smoothly in the Corellian System. He had been younger then, with no real way of coping with the sudden paradigm shift.
Fortunately, twenty years on, he now did. And he used any excuse he could find to "cope" as best he knew how.
"It'll be good. It always is."
Whether Colonel Ganti had said that to assure his thirteen colleagues sitting around the glossy wooden table or to convince himself he wasn't wasting everybody's time was unknown even to him. Ganti – balding, wrinkling, and slowly bloating as he reached his old age – was often certain about his hunches. Such certainty had helped him climb the ranks in the Imperial Army. Such certainty had earned him the respect of his soldiers and his comrades. But now such certainty was being put to the test. Even with Stark's flawless product record, even with his astounding mechanical competence, the billionaire's ego may have finally come home to bite him in the ass. The be-all and end-all of infantry warfare, he'd called it.
"The be-all and end-all of infantry warfare, you said he'd called it."
Sitting at the other end of the ornately-designed wroshyr table, dressed in the stark white medaled uniform that went with his position, Grand Admiral Olin Candar made his distaste clear. He was everything the older Colonel was not, despite being similar in age; in shape, tight-skinned, and had a full head of dark gray hair and a well-trimmed beard that matched the gray uniforms of his naval subordinates almost perfectly. Unlike Ganti, Candar had little respect for intuition or gut feelings, and he was all too happy to speak on the subject whenever he got the chance.
"Colonel," said Candar, smiling and lightly shaking his head to feign respect for the colonel's instinctual viewpoint, "nobody here can argue that Stark's contributions to the military have been bad. But he's saying – and by extension, you're saying – that he just won the war for us. Did he show you any specs, any blueprints, diagnostic data?"
"No, Grand Admiral, he did not."
"So we're all taking time out of our schedules to witness…what, exactly?"
Ganti had to concede that Candar had a point. Despite his personal conviction, Stark had brought nothing to the table apart from a promise. Which, to a man like Ganti, meant a great deal; twenty years ago, the clones under his command had been unfailingly honest and ready to deliver on any order or challenge. In Stark, the old colonel saw a similar conviction, albeit negatively tempered by wealth and excess. Stark was often not in a position to give his word on anything, usually gallivanting with loose young women or being entirely too drunk to stand. But when he did give his word, he gave it with the confidence and certainty that Colonel Ganti had only ever heard from people that had been specially bred to have such a trait.
But such sentimentality would not go over well with his colleagues, least of all Grand Admiral Candar.
"To be fair," chimed Captain Killen Pord, a short and dark-skinned man that had only recently been given command authority, "Stark's track record is a good deal better than some of our private contractors. His amplification units on the DS-1 orbital station far surpassed our expectations."
"Which fired exactly one time," said Admiral Ward Burke, Pord's senior officer, "on a derelict prison asteroid slated for destruction anyway. The station was destroyed before the systems could be properly stressed. For all we know, Captain, they might've blown a gasket on the second run. We don't have the data from the DS-1 to confirm or deny anything."
"Gentlemen, we could go back and forth on Stark's previous contributions all day," said Candar, taking back control of the tableside chatter, "but the fact is we're here because Colonel Ganti had a gut feeling. Had this been an actual military situation…"
Ganti had to keep from rolling his eyes, and he was not the only one. Sensing the Grand Admiral was about to go into another of his famous lectures about the perils of instinct, at least five others in the room apart from himself were fully ready to tune out, secretly wishing the same Grand Admiral hadn't insisted they weren't allowed to drink at this meeting when the door into the wood-lined meeting room slid open, revealing Ton Stark's silver protocol droid. The blue-photoreceptored machine bowed as low as his limited body would allow him to before addressing the gathered officers.
"Good day, gentlemen. I am J-3PO, human-cyborg relations. Master Stark is almost done with the final preparations, and I am to escort you to our gardens for the demonstration. But before I do, are you sure I cannot offer you some refreshment?"
Saved by the Coruscanti-accented service machine. Candar, who was the only one fully prepared to speak, once again spoke for the entirety of the group. The six men who had almost rolled their eyes redoubled their efforts. Pord failed, having not quite gotten used to higher command, but Ganti – having been the only one to catch the error in etiquette – would be damned if he snapped at the younger man for a mistake anybody could make.
"Thank you, J-3PO, but no. You may bring us there now."
Arrogant and calculating as he was, Ganti couldn't fault the Grand Admiral's manners. In all the years he'd known Candar, he hadn't once heard of him so much as raising his voice to someone under his command or beneath his station, let alone treat them with any disrespect. Even on the rare occasions he met with aliens – Twi'lek dancing girls, Bith entertainers, all the way down to Wookiee slaves – Candar had been nothing but charming. Candar's bedside manner was almost as legendary as his distaste for instinct, and was probably one of the main reasons he wore a pristine white uniform instead of a gray one. Any other officer in the room would have treated the droid as a tool, a public address system with legs. But not the most senior officer. Not Candar.
Offering another bow, J-3PO turned to walk out of the meeting room, the Imperials standing from their chairs and trailing behind him.
The meeting room had been impressive; a table and chairs carved from Kashyyyk wood, with the walls lined with panels of the same. A single large monitor was set up on the far end of the room, with a holoprojector inlaid into the table to display whatever the meeting called for. Ambient lighting lined the ceiling, allowing for visual comfort and easy adjustment. It was exactly the sort of thing, in short, that one would expect a billionaire's meeting room to be.
But luxurious as it was, the gardens blew it away entirely.
For starters, it was massive; on the uppermost deck of the skyhook, it took up more than half of the circular platform's diameter. The walking paths were inlaid with stone bought from the finest-quality quarries, weaving intricate designs through and between the exotic flora that lined the area. Smack in the center was a sizeable gazebo that would not have looked out of place in Naboo's lake country, towering over all of the plants and statues save for a single truly massive flower on the far side of the green circle. And above it all was a transparisteel dome that perfectly caught far-flung star systems in its seamless view.
"Gentlemen," said J-3PO after a short time, now holding a sleek datapad in his right hand, "if I could direct you to the gazebo in the center, we can begin our presentation. Please follow me."
The Imperial commanders made their way through the gardens to the ornate stone centerpiece, where fourteen leather-padded chairs lining the circumference of the gazebo awaited them. Obviously not a part of the standard décor; Stark had clearly poured a lot of time and credits into this section of his skyhook, and even the least fashion-savvy of the Imperials knew that black leather clashed with tan stone. The chairs had been placed there specifically for today's demonstration, as were the viewscreens that had been somewhat haphazardly attached to the left armrest of each seat. As each man took their seat, the chairs automatically spun around to face the garden.
"Colonel Ganti," said Admiral Burke," you said this was a weapons demonstration?"
"That's what Stark seemed to imply, yes."
"…in his garden."
"It would appear so, Admiral."
"Oh, I do not like where this is going…"
The next voice to speak came in from each chair's respective viewscreen, loud enough to cause Admiral Burke to jump in his seat.
"Y'know, I was gonna go ahead and do this in the guest hangar, but there are a bunch of ships in there. Didn't wanna scuff 'em."
Ton Stark came in loud and clear, insofar as his slurred speech would allow. A throwaway joke only he found funny, a cavalier attitude towards his audience's ranks and positions, and a fairly unorthodox entrance. Few others in the Empire would've had the gall to pull it off. But then again, few others in the Empire could get quite as intoxicated as Ton Stark could.
"Mr. Stark, always a pleasure," said Grand Admiral Candar in a tone that betrayed only the slightest hint of his almost palpable annoyance, "I hear you have something to show us."
"And you heard correctly, Grand Admiral! Allow me to show you how you're about to win this little tussle with the Rebellion."
"Sir," said Candar, almost losing the veneer of politeness entirely, "I would hardly call a full-scale civil war a 'tussle'."
"And you'd be absolutely right. I was going somewhere with that…I forgot…"
Grand Admiral Candar took a deep breath and abruptly stood from his seat. Striding forward, he had almost left the gazebo's bottom-most step when he saw the viewscreens turn on out of the corner of his eye. The camera angle was coming from space, and in the small screen he could see himself in stunning detail; crisp white uniform, dark gray hair, and golden epaulettes all. Had he been lying flat, Candar might have believed he could pick out the individual medals adorning his chest. As he raised his arm to his side – to which the smaller version of him mirrored in almost perfect synchronization – the camera zoomed out. Slowly, the entirety of the gazebo came into view. The gazebo was followed by the entirety of the garden. The garden was followed in turn by the entirety of the skyhook's top deck. And still it continued to zoom out, going further and further until the skyhook itself took up – at most – ten percent of the screen, hanging lazily in the bottom left corner.
"So…this is where I am. A good few dozen kilometers upward. Some of you might recognize this location as sp-space, I don't know."
The camera angle turned, removing the skyhook from the picture entirely and giving a good panoramic view of Corellia before turning towards space once again, where five near-invisible specks quickly grew larger in size and speed, clearly racing towards the camera.
"Aaaaaaaaaand some of you might recognize those as Phlac-Arphocc Automata Industries tri-fighters. Let me tell you guys, an absolute bitch to find and restore. And if anybody asks, Jay's got the permits for those suckers on hand if you wanna give 'em a l-"
Stark was interrupted by the droid fighters screaming straight past him, which gave pause to his drunken rambling.
"…oh, sonuvabitch," Stark said, speaking barely above a whisper, "they're headed straight for you, aren't they?"
At once, the camera turned to face the now rapidly-departing droids. There was a sound – something like a great machine taking a deep breath – and then what sounded like a small explosion. The camera lurched forward in response, matching pace with the droids in seconds. The skyhook grew larger and larger, a fact that did not go unnoticed by most of the Imperials. Still standing in the gazebo's threshold, Candar looked up through the transparisteel dome, barely able to make out the droids headed their way. For a brief moment, his mind flashed back to Coruscant twenty years ago. Then-Chancellor Palpatine had been captured. The bulk of the Republic fleet was over the planet, battling it out with General Grievous's warships. Skywalker and Kenobi had been personally called in to rescue the Republic's head of state. And these tri-fighters had been everywhere. Candar quickly snapped out of it, of course; it was a weapons demonstration, and if Stark had gotten a permit then the droids would have obviously had to be disarmed as part of protocol. But the Grand Admiral would have been remiss if he denied that – for however brief a moment – he feared Stark was pathologically insane in addition to being a drunken fop.
"Jay, go ahead and mark the targets, would you? Let's start this party."
Nodding his head slightly, J-3PO raised his free hand and tapped lightly on the datapad he was holding. At once, red squares formed around the tri-fighters and a small blue circle formed in the bottom left corner of the screen indicating the droids' position in relation to Stark's own, a small number immediately to its right indicating that the tracker was set for an even ten kilometers. As if in response, whatever Stark was flying whirred and clicked, and a semi-circle of dark metal made up of a series of cylinders took up a small portion of the screen's right side.
Colonel Ganti and the other Army representatives recognized the shape immediately. Multiple barrels. A ring on the end to keep them from flying apart mid-firing. Whatever Stark was demonstrating was packing a Z-6 rotary blaster cannon. Ganti looked to his fellow Army officers with a pang of regret. Stark had truly gone off the deep end; the Z-6 was one hell of an anti-infantry weapon, no doubt. But they simply didn't have the punch to break through any but the weakest of starfighter-grade shields.
There was a loud burst from the viewscreens and a series of fast-paced streaks of red light from the gun, and a tri-fighter instantly exploded, causing the other four drones to immediately break into groups of two and split off. Widening his eyes in surprise, Ganti returned his attention to his screen, no longer worried for Stark's design choice. Tri-fighters had no shields, but they were very solidly-built for interceptors. Blaster fire didn't do much to durasteel except score it somewhat, and even a Z-6 wouldn't have been able to pierce most hulls. If Stark had modified one to punch through a fast-moving durable target with ease, then perhaps he wasn't nearly as mad as he briefly feared he was.
Grand Admiral Candar, however, was still not convinced. Eyes still glued to the dome as the remains of a tri-fighter smashed against it and back into space, he saw what must have been a torpedo streak off in pursuit of a pair of droids. Small and narrow, with a bright blue exhaust flame? It had to be some kind of guided missile. Or perhaps another type of droid fighter. If it was going to be as effective for the Army as it appeared to be for the Navy, then perhaps it had variable geometry to it, not unlike the old Vulture-class droids? While Candar wouldn't have been able to say he was convinced, saying the demonstration didn't have his attention and curiosity would have been an outright lie.
Another burst of red streaks was followed by an audible explosion just above the skyhook's garden as another tri-fighter was destroyed by Stark's mystery weapon, followed by a noise that was somewhere between a shriek and a hiss. Soon after, another met its fate near the guest hangar. Stark pulled upward to fly parallel to the skyhook, the camera seeing nothing but the depth of space.
"Now gentlemen, if you aren't wowed outta your seats at all that, allow me to direct your attention to the radar readout. Two tri-fighters on my tail, some ninety meters and closing…"
The more attentive members of the gathering saw the cannon swerve out of sight with the whirring of servos. While not visible, there was an audible click and the rapid-fire of the gun. One of the red triangles on the radar screen blipped out of existence.
"…one tri-fighter on my tail…"
Another blast of fire, and the radar display was clear of hostiles.
"…no tri-fighters on my tail. Let the bastards at Sienar beat THAT."
Colonel Ganti smirked to himself. Sienar had, in fact, tried to replicate that very capability with their TIE Aggressor program. But that had required a ship-grade weapon (which meant ship-grade cost) and a whole other pilot. Ganti and his thirteen compatriots had just seen it done by one man with an infantry weapon. Looking around, the old solider saw expressions of glee, excitement, and wonderment adorn the faces of the Imperial officers. Even Grand Admiral Candar, standing at the edge of the gazebo, was nodding in acknowledgment.
Intuition, it appeared, was having its day.
"Gentlemen, for your consideration, the Variable Threat Response Platform. I call it…uh…Jay, help?"
"You've yet to give the weapon a production nickname, sir," said J-3PO, speaking almost directly to his datapad, "although I have heard you sugge-"
"Yeah, yeah, that's nice. Lower the shields in the main hangar and bring our boys in uniform down there, I've got a bladder to empty and a deal to finish."
The viewscreens cut to black as the transmission ended.