An accident reveals an old deception, and Darth Vader must make a decision that will change not only his life.
Piett returned quickly with two mugs of coffee, handing one to Vader who accepted it with a nod of his head. The admiral remained standing, shifting his weight uncomfortably, while Vader took the first sip of the hot beverage. To Piett's eyes, the Dark Lord looked tired, but more relaxed than he had ever seen him. Working with the crew seemed to have done him a world of good. It had certainly taken his mind off his own situation.
"Why don't you take a seat, Admiral?" Vader's deep voice interrupted Piett's thought.
"Thank you, Sir." Piett sat down opposite Vader, cradling his cup with both hands. How to begin? Darth Vader regarded him with open curiosity over the rim of his own mug.
"What is it, Admiral?" he asked, setting his coffee down.
Piett found he could not quite meet those piercing blue eyes. "I... wish to apologize, Mylord", he began, "about my earlier behavior. I was out of line."
Vader's eyebrows shot up. What was Piett talking about? Not the little scene in the hangar? But of course... Piett was more perceptive than he gave him credit for. It had taken him a while, but he understood that he was getting on Vader's nerves. Vader felt a smile tug at his lips.
"Apology accepted, Admiral. Is there anything else?"
"The meeting will begin in twenty minutes, Mylord. This is the agenda." Piett handed Vader a small datapad. The Dark Lord studied it for a moment, scrolling through the list. Monthly department reports were scheduled for the meeting. Sith, how was he supposed to stay awake through this? The last point on the list caught his attention. It had obviously been added recently, as an answer to recent events. Preliminary report on the TIE Avenger. That would be his part. And at the end of the meeting, too. For a fleeting moment, Vader wondered if this was Piett's revenge for the dressing-down he received in the hangar, making him sit through endless hours of boring reports. But no, the admiral was not that petty. Anyway, there was no way he could make only a short appearance at the meeting and leave the tedious details to Piett while he got a good night's rest. I must be getting old, Vader mused, if I think about shirking my duties in favor of sleep. "Well, then, Admiral, we don't want to be late", he said aloud, handing the pad back to Piett and slowly getting to his feet. There was still a dull ache in the muscles of his back and legs; at least the headache and dizziness were completely gone now.
Torb Garin, too, got up, motioning to his team. "And we should get back to the hangar and finish up. I will send you my report, Anakin... I mean, Lord Vader", he corrected himself quickly.
Vader turned to look at him. Garin was pale with fatigue, and so were the men under his command. Vader had gotten a good impression of how hard Torb and his team had been working during the last three days. They were determined to find out what was wrong with the Avenger in record time. "No," he said.
Garin gave him a quizzical look. What did he do wrong?
"You will not go back on duty today, Garin. In fact, none of you will touch the ship until 08:00 hours tomorrow morning. Do I make myself clear?" Vader snapped. Enough was enough. As commendable as his work ethics were, Torb needed to learn when to stop.
The sergeant stood at attention. "Yes, Sir", he grated out between clenched teeth. Somehow, he had managed to displease the Sithlord, despite following his orders to the letter and putting all his energy and that of his men into work. And it still wasn't enough.
Vader caught the thought and shook his head. He knew he demanded a lot, but he always believed it was within reason. Yet his crew perceived him as some kind of slave driver.
"Torb, I want you to listen to me very carefully", he began. "I want results. I don't care much how you get them. That is your part. But I do not want you to miss crucial details because you're too tired to look straight. Do you understand me?"
Garin blinked. So Vader thought he had been overdoing things. But he still trusted him to do his job right. He nodded slowly. "Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir", he replied.
"Good. Now get some rest, and I'll see you at 08:00 tomorrow. Dismissed."
The Dark Lord turned to leave, motioning for Piett to follow him.
Piett caught up with Vader in the corridor. He had difficulty matching the Dark Lord's long strides without breaking into an undignified run. Vader hardly seemed to notice. At least, he did not slow down. The admiral felt a certain degree of relieve when the lift doors closed behind them. He pressed a button, and the cabin started to move toward the bridge level where the conference room was located.
Vader leaned against the cabin's wall, arms crossed in front of his chest, and stared at Piett.
"Piett, I think I owe you an apology", he said after a while.
"Mylord?" Piett gave him a shocked look. Darth Vader, apologizing to him? The galaxy must be about to end!
Vader lifted a hand to quiet Piett.
"No, let me finish, Admiral. This is not exactly easy for me", he continued. "I know I'm difficult to deal with. Especially so for the last few days. I do appreciate your concern. I just don't know how to handle it."
Piett's expression softened. "I understand, Mylord. There is no need for an apology."
Do you, Admiral? Vader thought. Do you really understand what it means to live behind a steel mask for more than half your life, never able to get close to someone, never able to truly share with someone, until you forget how that feels? And then your life is given back to you, and you discover you're crippled in more than one way. And you did it to yourself in order to survive and stay sane. Can you understand that, Piett? Loud, he said: "Thank you, Admiral." He shook his head to chase away the gloomy thoughts. "Anyway, Admiral, if I did not know you better I'd say you got your revenge. You did spoil my fun."
"Let me just say that the crew harbors some fascinating thoughts about me. I've learned that I am a raving lunatic. Quite interesting, really."
The lift came to a stop, and Piett was spared an answer.
The two men exited the cabin and made their way to the conference room. They were a few minutes late, and the department heads were already waiting for them. Vader bore their curious stares without comment. Piett headed for his usual place at the long table, put Vader stopped him with a hand on the admiral's shoulder.
"No, Piett. You will head the meeting today. I am not prepared." He nodded in the direction of the larger, high-backed chair at the head of the table, while he himself took Piett's seat.
"Of course, Mylord." Piett didn't miss a beat.
Department head after department head droned on about the previous month, in exhaustive - and exhausting - detail; the amount of fuel which had been used, how many shots had been fired during practice, which consumables needed to be stocked at the next port. Vader was listening with only half an ear; the Dark Lord was nearly bored to tears. Couldn't they just give a summary? It would definitely save them time, and it would help make decisions easier. Piett certainly did not need to know the fuel consumption down to the last liter; all he needed to know was if it was within normal parameters, and when they needed to refuel.
Vader had tuned out his officer's voices and idly played with the datapad in front of him in an attempt to stay awake while an endless amount of useless information was recited.
"Hmm? Sorry, Piett, I was... thinking." Damn. He should have paid more attention.
"Of course, Sir. Your report, please?"
"There is not much to report yet. The Avenger is not fit for flight due to failure of the coolant system. Staff Sergeant Garin has determined that the coolant pumps are faulty, and we have begun disassembling a second Avenger for comparison. I await further results within the next days. So far, both ships match up to the specifications given to us by SFS", he said, adding: "I would welcome your comments, Gentlemen."
One of the officers cleared his throat. "Sir, you have been involved with the development of this craft?" he asked timidly. Piett frowned at him.
"Are you implying that Lord Vader's design is faulty, Lieutenant?" he queried in a cold voice. Vader raised his hand to silence Piett.
"Let him speak, Admiral", he admonished. "Continue, Lieutenant."
"Uh... I didn't mean it that way, Sir. I was just thinking... you said the ships met SFS's specs. But do those match yours, Sir?" The words came out in a rush. Vader stared at the Lieutenant, dumbfounded. Could it really be that simple? He was such an idiot! That was the first thing he should have checked, and he had missed it.
"Piett, the crew is right. I should have my head examined", he groaned.
Veers threw Piett a questioning glance, but the admiral shook his head. Tell you later, he mouthed silently.
Not noticing their little exchange, Vader used his datapad to access his private files on the Avenger's design in the ship's main computer. Borrowing a second pad, he called up SFS's manuals. He found the first difference almost immediately, now that he knew what to look for. Disgusted, he threw the pads down on the table hard enough to shatter one and started to swear. It took him several minutes to exhaust his extensive Huttese vocabulary, and he was rather inventive, too. Fortunately, no-one but General Veers understood a word of what he was saying. The general, however, was blushing furiously as Vader questioned the ancestry and sexual preferences of SFS's engineers in graphic detail.
Finally, Vader calmed down, took a couple deep breaths, and noticed the interesting shade of red on Veers' face. "I take it you speak Huttese, General?" Veers nodded slowly.
"In this case, I would prefer if you did not translate what I just said", Vader commanded dryly.
"I don't think I could, Mylord. Some of it was... bizarre", Veers answered. "Good. I think we are finished here. Unless you have something to add, Admiral?"
Piett slowly shook his head.
"Then this meeting is adjourned." Vader nodded to each of the officers in turn as they got up and left the room. Only he and Piett stayed behind.
Vader leaned back in his chair and stared off into space.
"Something wrong, Sir?" Piett asked.
"It's nothing, Piett."
"So... what did you find, if you don't mind me asking?"
"It's the wrong pump. They used a smaller model than the one I put down in my specs. No wonder it burns out", Vader said. "Idiots. They must have tested each part individually, but never the complete ship." He shook his head. "And now we have to compare each and every part on the lists. Tedious work, Admiral, but it can wait until tomorrow."
"Maybe the computer can...", Piett offered, but Vader cut him short: "Yes, but we have to program it first to find the differences." He rubbed his forehead.
"If you wish to retire for the night, Mylord", Piett began, but let the sentence trail away. Vader barked a short, humorless laugh.
"Somehow, the prospect of returning to sickbay does not appeal to me, Piett. And my own quarters..." He shrugged.
"I see", Piett said. "I took the liberty of having quarters prepared for you, Mylord."
Vader smiled. "Piett, have I told you that you know me too well?" For once, he did not mind Piett's mothering him. Trust the admiral to anticipate his wishes!
"Frequently, Mylord. If you would follow me, I will show you to your new quarters."
Vader was struck speechless as he entered the VIP quarters. He never knew his ship held such luxury. His old quarters were large, but austere and practical. These were only slightly smaller, and anything but austere. A deep carpet covered the floor of the study, the furniture was tasteful and made from real wood, not the metals and plastics found in other cabins. The fresher was at least twice as large as the one in his old quarters, with a shower and a bathtub. The floor here was Alderaanian marble, a rare and expensive commodity even before the first Death Star destroyed the planet. The bathroom floor alone must have cost a fortune. Vader moved on into the bedroom. The bed was almost decadently large, certainly too large for a single person even of his height.
But the best thing was the view. Large viewports in both the study and the bedroom overlooked the Executor's bow, allowing him to see the stars even from the bed when the ship was cruising at sublight speed. It was beautiful.
"These are guest quarters?" Vader asked, sitting down on the bed to pull his boots off.
"Yes, Mylord. For visiting dignitaries. There are two more apartments like this, on other decks. None have ever been used. I take it they are sufficient?"
"They are indeed", Vader said softly. "Help me with the boots, will you?" Piett did as he was asked, and Vader stretched out on the large bed a few moments later. It was soft, almost too soft for his taste.
"I had your new uniforms delivered here, Mylord. They are in the closet." Piett turned to open the closet. When Vader did not answer, the admiral turned back to him to discover that the Dark Lord was sound asleep, face turned toward the viewport.
Piett shook his head. Taking a blanket from the closet, he shook it out and spread it over Vader's body. Then he left quietly, turning off the lights on his way out.
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