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PRojects IN Controlled Environments, version Sith

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Sienar Fleet Systems meant high-class ships, deadly starfighters and sleek shuttles. The popular image was a smoothly working machine that brought Raith Sienar's ideas to gleaming life in the service of the Galactic Empire as the genius engineer walked the floors of his factories among half-constructed TIE fighters and Lambda-class shuttles.

The popular image didn't mention that the factories were space docks without floors, less chance of dust contamination. Or that these days Sienar himself  sketched the initial shape at most, if he even deigned to get involved in a project. The actual design work fell to teams of designers and engineers, each wholly knowledgeable about only one aspect of the future craft, from aerodynamics to hyperdrive to slip-proof deck lining. It took on average fifty people to design a new model up to approval of prototype production, not counting assistants, modellers, and programmers that tested some three dozen ideas before one panned out.

The popular image didn't include Ketha Lais, either. In holodramas the ship designers were visionaries who knew by instinct whose help was needed for their projects and whose work their radical design changes would affect. Imperial approval was obtained when by herculean effort the prototype was ready for unveiling on Empire Day, or - if the budget allowed - the heroic test flight saved brave soldiers from a sneak attack by a nest of ruthless criminals.

Without a project manager, Ketha insisted, ninety percent of the design team would be blown up, arrested or both within a week.

Technically she wasn't in charge of the redesign of the Lambda-class T-4a shuttle. She was just keeping track of the schedule, the interfaces, work assignments, approvals, vacations, personal drama, and Ithnal's inability to understand the first law of thermodynamics. The couple of general engineering and physics courses she'd picked up during management training were now supplemented by an encyclopaedia's worth of Things That Could Go Wrong and a decent instinct for identifying weak points of designs. More than enough to present projects for outside approval and obtain it with minimum of fuss. No-one in the approval chain watched more than her précis and the general visualisation anyway.

The fourth-tier midpoint design approval from the Imperial Palace was in her inbox two days ahead of schedule. She put a green tick on the wall-wide chart before she noticed the attachment.

Someone had scribbled all over printouts of the blueprints in red ink before holoscanning them back. The handwriting was atrocious, a combination of two different styles - one with romance holo titles flourishes, one absolutely primitive - and cramped enough that she needed to zoom in before she could decipher the comments. A lot of the weak points were already on her wall as action items, but the hurricane of annotations on the hyperdrive cross-sections was a revelation.

She spent the rest of the day hounding her engineers. Not only was Red Ink correct in their comments, the identified fault would have had the test pilot smeared across half a star system in a layer exactly one atom thick. By midnight the hyperdrive team came up with four ideas to restabilise the dampener, but between exhaustion and confusion Ketha knew she wasn't about to get any definitive answers as to which of them would work.

She did know one engineer clearly bored enough to do a deep review on specs he was only supposed to check against personnel capacity. She sent off a reply to the approval, with four more drawings and a summary of her team's anxious babble. Then she went home and fell asleep before taking off her boots.

In the morning she stuck her head under a stream of water until she felt a bit more human. The meat in her conservator was a day past expiration, so she put it out for the wild loth-cats that gathered in the alley by her rented house. They were easier to manage and more appreciative of her efforts than Sienar employees, anyway.

The long walk to the office woke her up the rest of the way. There was a reply to her message, but it turned out to be some idiot wondering why she was messaging him with things he couldn't comprehend. She attached Red Ink's original comments to her response and dredged out the most polite insults in Imperial bureaucratese to accompany it, then went off to put out a different fire. Not like her work was ever done.

Red Ink's reply came that evening from a long randomised address, the kind usually assigned to droids that needed Holonet messaging capability for some reason. Not even the most aggravating protocol droid would write the cover message like that, she thought. She hadn't been addressed as Nairi Ketha for years. If Red Ink bothered to dig up an obscure Mid Rim title, she could bet it was used correctly, from a male to a female. So: definitely male, definitely bored, high enough in Imperial hierarchy to nick blueprints off the desk of an idiot officially assigned to review them, and either fascinated by pre-Empire social structures on worlds loosely aligned with the Republic or old enough to remember when they mattered.

And touchy. Touchy enough to tear apart each proposed design in the same cramped red Aurebesh. Good thing she already had an idea how to handle it.

I see you have more expertise in these matters than the overinflated egos on my design team, she wrote. I would be obliged if you could offer some direction for them.

*

Two weeks later, Ketha put up a new master chart of work assigned, with one row more for Red Ink's tasks. He was temperamental, his turnaround times were unpredictable and getting constructive ideas out of him took three times as much effort as getting him to rip apart others' designs, but that still put him in her subjective top three of this herd of wild tooka Sienar called a project team.

Red Ink was best with engines, both hyperspace and conventional, but his interests were wide-ranging. Ketha offloaded the ergonomics reviews on him wholesale, because he was unerring in spotting all issues for both fully-able human troopers and any combination of non-human or impaired that the shuttle might have to transport in the line of duty. When he offered testing ideas, the three days spent smearing grip and panel mockups with red jelly definitely broke up the interface designers' routine. It was almost worth the epic row with the janitor droids.

With armour and weapons, Red Ink kept to feedback rather than redesigns. A lot of it sounded like battle experience. Ketha took the lot back to the weapons team, along with his tweaks to the weapon casings that brought atmospheric drag and turbulences down to tolerable levels even in the worst storms they could program. The next time she submitted that part of the designs for approval, the captain reviewing it looked like he was about to kiss her in delight.

Ketha's style of herding engineers was based on the personal touch - or socialisation enforcement, depending on who you asked - and she treated Red Ink the same way. He didn't need details on the Snack War of Doom, but she did inform him it happened because the fallout included the wing and landing gear teams not talking to each other. She asked him to assign a name to the end-of-week sprint when his turn came - Fountain - and let him know when Lossk was away for their grand-progenitor's funerary rites. Red Ink commented that whatever came out of the navigational procedures team during their absence might as well be sent directly to the incinerator. Ketha agreed with him.

One thing she couldn't manage was get him to write proper messages instead of scribbling all over printouts of hers. He insisted it was more efficient. She insisted his handwriting was atrocious.

He ignored that comment. She retaliated by describing the wild loth-cat horde in her street in excruciating detail. He ignored that too, except for underlining the description of the wily old male and writing "Rex" next to it for some reason.

A month before prototype design freeze, Red Ink started letting her know when he would be unavailable. That information, she kept in her personal data pad, not on the wall chart. She had a vague idea for working out his identity - how many high-level people could there be with engineering background, extensive combat experience and past or present mobility impairment? - but it was more important to keep others from guessing. As far as her team was involved, she was getting an outside consult from someone on Coruscant, to avoid groupthink bias. Paiti, the nominal lead designer, was usually too drunk to keep track of team members anyway.

The software team were a little more curious once they became the focus of Red Ink's energy. Even as she reviewed reports on parts manufacturing from Cygnus Spaceworks, Ketha had to come down hard on him for the first time. They didn't have the budget for the advanced sentient capabilities he suggested, no matter how helpful they would be in preventing hijacking. How often were Imperial personnel shuttles hijacked, really?

The result was a two-page rant that for once wasn't scribbled over her initial message, impugning her management skills, tactical awareness and ability to comprehend innovation. She retaliated with loth-cat holos. She nearly broke her leg climbing on the rooftop to find the nest with loth-kittens, too.

By unspoken agreement, they never mentioned that exchange again.

She flew out to Cygnus twice just to make sure they weren't making a mess of the prototype. After the first space test she deleted the two months budgeted for design tweaks off her schedule, and started wondering. When the atmospheric tests went just as smoothly, she insisted the comprehensive flight tests be moved back to Lothal on the faint suspicion Cygnus was sabotaging the test results. Ithnal, Red Ink and Lossk all accused her of paranoia. She decided they were scheming to drive her crazy with impossibly optimistic timelines.

Since despite their insinuations, she was a professional, the actual tests were run by the Imperial Military at their base on Lothal. Ketha divided her time between haunting the facility, catching up on paperwork and removing loth-cat fur from her leggings. Rex had taken to rubbing against her ankles each morning in a blatant attempt at blackmailing her into providing food.

*

Finally the official maiden flight was scheduled. The attendance list was heavy on officials and upper management, with rumours that big shots from Coruscant would visit, but Head Designer Paiti got her on the guest list out of sheer fear of anyone asking him questions. The food should be decent, but most of all she could get to see everyone admiring the ship. Two years of her life in this tooka-infested backwater, she had to get her wins where she could.

The flight was set for sunset, the better to show off the prototype in floodlights as it landed at the end. Before the official welcome started, she made a detour to put fear in the kids the Imperials kept calling pilots. They were both barely out of the academy, their voices still prone to breaking. Diel promised solemnly not to leave a scratch, while Oraine teased her about the speed of spinning needed to break off the stabilisers. That earned him a last cuff on the ear for luck before she had to get back to the flight control centre.

Just as she was getting settled near the back of the crowd, the Imperials in front all started talking at the same time. It spread through the flight control centre like a ripple through a lake. Like a bomb exploding in slow motion.

Vader, they whispered. Vader is coming here.

She'd heard about the guy, seen holos a few times - official occasions, just a dark shape at Palpatine's right side. The Emperor's fist. Baby stormtroopers told Vader fairytales, about the guy who showed up from nowhere and turned everything over in pursuit of whatever secret mission the Emperor assigned him.

Frequent flyer like that, Ketha could see why he'd be interested in a new shuttle. Might get the Imperials moving faster on approvals. Not like there was anything here for him to get angry about. She'd heard those tales too. Some of them got really fancy, with people who failed Vader choking on their own tongues or being thrown out of windows while he was on the other side of the room from them.

A vibration ran through the floor. A craft landing on the pad outside. Lambda-class shuttle, she'd guess, lighter than the new prototype.

Next to her, Paiti was the colour of TIE outer coating. Ketha didn't know what he was worried about. Not like the Emperor's special agent would know the first thing to ask about design details.

When the door next to her opened, she understood a little better. In all the black-on-black armour, Vader moved in a personal veil of darkness. The sound of that armour carried, something like breathing, like a respirator pushed to the limit. And it was all good to tell yourself he'd never look at you just up to the point you realised that behind the helmet, you had no kriffing idea whether he was looking at you or not. She tried very hard not to breathe as the edge of his cloak passed within a hands-breadth of her leg.

Once Vader and the people  accompanying him walked up to the front, she moved back closer to the landing pad doors. If anything went wrong with the prototype, she was probably the only person on Lothal who had a general idea about all of its systems. And she felt better with a door at her back.

From where she was standing, it looked like Vader cut the base commander's pleasantries short. The Imperials got on with the business of the test flight. Just the basics, even though it was the first comprehensive test they were running - vertical take off, accelerating to maximum speed to get out of orbit, loop around a drone probe and blow it into pieces, then a grand total of ten minutes in hyperspace.

Diel and Oraine were on their best behaviour, no chatter or showing off. With each element of the test ticked off Ketha could feel the room relaxing a fraction. One of the controllers was reading out flight parameters each time the shuttle exceeded official specs or beat records from previous partial tests, and by the time the probe exploded like a firework on the wall-sized screens, people were murmuring with approval.

The first hyperspace jump to Garel was textbook. No speed records this time, but the hyperdrive was the longest-running outstanding issue on Ketha's lists. She'd settle for no slower than base-model Lambda-class for now, even if Red Ink kept tweaking each subsystem in an effort to turn the shuttle into a hyperspace podracer.

Oraine reported the start of the hyperspace jump back home. Something about the coordinates was making the test team murmur, the sound almost lost in the crowd by the time it reached Ketha. If the idiot was showing off his navigating skills again, she'd make sure the cafeteria served him nothing but Dug food for a week.

She tried not to sneak too many looks at Vader, still looming over the flight control officers. By the angle of his helmet, he was reading the live feed of diagnostic from the prototype, much good as it'd do him. If he was suitably impressed, he might want to talk to Paiti after all. She'd just have to pray cutting the designer off from alcohol for the last three days was enough to get him coherent. She was definitely staying in the back this time.

Vader's head snapped up half a second before the alarms started. The room erupted in confused shouts. Ketha couldn't make the words out, but the overhead screens switched automatically to feeds from orbital stations as the prototype passed them.

As the prototype fell past them, the hyperdrive half-melted, trailing smoke. Not dead in the water. One of the alarms was kriffing life-support, but at least one of those stubborn bastards was conscious enough to actually try to steer it, and ten clicks off the surface one of the conventional engines stuttered into life. Initial specs included ability to fly with one engine off, but not three out of four. Thank the wind and sky for Ithnal's ridiculous over-speccing and Red Ink's steering designs. The damn thing was hanging in one misshapen piece and coming in for landing.

She wasn't first out the door. Third, after the captain in charge of tests and Mahut, the backup test pilot. The impact threw her against the hallway wall. A stormtrooper caught her before she could fall, one of the firefighters. The white armour was easy to follow into the smoke on the landing pad.

By some miracle the prototype ended up on the raised landing pad, missing both the flight control tower and Vader's shuttle. It hanged with the nose and one wing unfolded over the edge. The grooves it left when it skidded looked like giant claw marks.

Foam cannons were taking care of the hyperdrive fire, but the three troopers struggling with the escape hatch weren't doing so well. The explosion must have shifted the plating- No.

The rubber soles of Ketha's boots sizzled as she ran up the shuttle's side. She wrapped the ends of her headscarf over her hands and tapped the panel that slid aside to reveal a keypad because an emergency hatch that opened from the outside without a security measure was an invitation to a pirate, of course it was. She'd been kidding when she told Wattri to set the code to Ketha Lais, but it was now the default for all security systems in the prototype. She was kneeling and her leggings were starting to smoulder.

The hatch popped open, releasing a cloud of smoke. She slid inside, headscarf pulled over her mouth, because there was the door to the cockpit too. And once she put in the code, it was go forward or get in the way of the firefighters, so she saw the burns on Oraine's hands, the way Diel's eyes were showing white, white as the bone of his skull under the blood.

Oraine was babbling in a language that wasn't Basic, still struggling, so she held his head while the firefighters cut the webbing. He clutched at her jacket and hair and the skin on his fingers was falling apart in flakes, so she followed the trooper who carried him out, stumbling and coughing and blinded by tears from the smoke.

She climbed out first, pulled Oraine out while the trooper pushed from below. The hull was creaking, cooling down, contracting. Then it shuddered with a sound like a wounded gronda. The half-melted plates where the hyperdrive met the hull were cracking, the entire shuttle folding in two, with the part she was standing on hanging lower and lower over the edge of the landing pad.

She couldn't remember any prayers.

Another creak, and the shuttle was moving under her feet. Oraine had his arms around her. He was crying. It felt like giant hands were holding her, bracing her even as the shuttle impossibly rose and pivoted in place until it was in its entirety on the landing pad.

She didn't recognise the stormtroopers that helped them down. Someone injected Oraine with something that made him go limp. Without his weight, she sat down on the ground and wiped the smoke from her eyes. She could hear the foam cannons, the medical crews, the controlled chaos of the crash landing procedure.

She could hear rhythmic, mechanical breathing.

Vader was standing not three metres from her, watching the crews swarming the fallen shuttle. He had his hands on his hips. Ketha realised she'd seen him from atop the shuttle, but his arm had been extended then. Had he been directing whatever strange tractor beam saved the shuttle from falling further?

The operation was winding down, but the chaos was only increasing as the crowd of observers from the flight control room spilled onto the landing pad. Ketha got to her feet to avoid being trampled, though she was well within the perimeter of space everyone was leaving around Vader. Which meant sooner or later he might notice her, which meant time to get going.

She faced the crowd and saw Paiti pushing through it. For a moment she was stunned - was he actually concerned for her?

Then she saw the panic in his eyes.

"How could you not check the hyperdrive designs?!" he screeched. "You - you're supposed to make sure the people are doing their jobs!"

So he'd throw her to the Empire's mercy rather than admit he was heading the team in name only.

"I knew I shouldn't trust some Rim colonist!" Paiti had her data pad - she didn't remember dropping it. "I have all proof here, the investigation will uncover if this was incompetence or sabotage - sabotage! You spoiled it on purpose, you always wanted my job, you're working for Cygnus or Kuat or you're jealous, just jealous!"

Her lungs and eyes still stung from smoke. She couldn't find the words.

He swung at her with the pad. It caught her on the shoulder, knocking her back.

She tensed, fingers clenching. She'd be damned if she went down without a fight.

Paiti took another swing.

He froze with his arm in the air, stumbling as if an invisible hand caught his wrist. No, the pad, because he let go of it with a yelp and sat down heavily.

The pad floated into Vader's outstretched hand. He was looking straight at her.

"It's her, my lord, I'm sure it's her, you'll see it's her," Paiti babbled even as he scooted back.

Ketha straightened. At the edge of her vision, she could see pale flakes tangled in her hair. Pieces of Oraine's skin.

"We will talk tomorrow," Vader said.

His voice echoed, shaking her to the bone.

"You will not be needed today."

Paiti whimpered. Without looking at him, Vader gestured. Two stormtroopers picked up the trembling head designer and led him away. Vader followed, cape flaring in the passage that opened in the crowd.

Ketha went home.

*

To her own surprise, she slept like a rock. The dawn woke her. Instead of dressing, she got a mug of caf and opened the door long enough for the loth-cats to get in. Two of the kittens from the nest were doing their lanky-legged best to imitate Rex's swagger, but were willing to trade their dignity for food and scratches. Once both were happily eating, Ketha curled up in her armchair and stared at the wall.

The knocking jolted her.

There was a stormtrooper on her doorstep. A speeder bike was parked in the middle of the street.

"Lord Vader requests your presence."

The guy was pretty good at the blank helmet look himself. She knew she had red eyes, bits of Oraine's skin still stuck in the tangle of her hair, and she was wearing a striped red and yellow robe. With orange loth-cat fur everywhere.

"You'll have to wait until I'm ready," she told him. The smoke-rasp made her best do-what-I-say voice better. "Don't touch the loth-cats, they bite."

In the fresher, she let her hands move on automatic. Wash, braid, enough paint to mask the bruises and burns.

She'd seen the explosion as well as anyone. Better, since she'd climbed on top of the damned thing. She could draw a diagram of that hyperdrive from memory, and the blast pattern meant that the dampener exploded first. The one piece in the entire shuttle designed by someone who wasn't on Sienar payroll. The man she let into the project, without security clearance, without permission, without telling anyone that she was sharing Sienar secrets with a third party, just because he was a good engineer and called her Nairi Ketha. And now it all blew up in her face.

No. In Diel and Oraine's faces.

The black tunic and leggings were on the upper shelf where the loth-cats couldn't get to, so they were fairly fur-free. She wrapped a grey headscarf over her wet braids. The pests watched her dress with blank feline expressions. She left a window open so they could get out even if she didn't come back.

Outside, Rex was sitting on the speeder bike, having a stare-down with the stormtrooper. Despite the helmet, she had a feeling the loth-cat was winning.

"Off," she ordered.

The preserved meat in her hand probably went a longer way to persuading Rex. He still left a layer of orange fur on the seat.

"I'll walk," Ketha said. "You can ride along."

She tried not to read anything into the stormtrooper going along with her suggestion. Or the fact there was only one of him. Didn't they send teams to arrest people? She'd never listened to those stories too closely, it wasn't healthy.

From the angle they approached, she couldn't see the landing pad. Inside, she kept her eyes forward. If they passed people she knew, she didn't pay attention. Breathe in. Breathe out. Was that how Vader felt, how he could project power and terror in ways a man in a life support suit shouldn't, couldn't?

There were four stormtroopers stationed at the door of the largest meeting room. Her escort nodded at them. The door opened soundlessly. The stormtroopers remained outside.

The giant table was covered with the remains of a mechanical autopsy, the shuttle's hyperdrive disassembled into twisted and melted component parts. The casings were in the middle, large enough to scrape the ceiling. She had to walk around them to see Vader, though she could hear his breathing from the moment she stepped into the room.

He was holding a piece of shrapnel. When he saw her, he put it down next to similar pieces, none of them bigger than a finger. They were stretched on the table in a two-dimensional puzzle that recreated a three-dimensional structure she recognised.

The dampener. Red Ink's dampener.

She must have listened to the fairy tales after all, because she remembered all the ways people died in them. Choking. Crushing. Necks wrung. In one of the stories there was a lightsaber, like he was some Jedi nightmare of the Republic.

She kept her eyes on his, or where she thought his eyes were.

"The dampener was sabotaged," Vader said. "In normal conditions, its performance was fifteen percent down from the original design. Under gravity strain, it exploded on dropping out of hyperspace."

Original design that had been jettisoned for Red Ink's work. Ketha concentrated on her breathing. This was an interrogation, not an execution. Not yet.

"This shuttle project is a priority for the Empire."

"I know." Her voice was still rough from the smoke. "If the test went well, it would be rushed into production. Average test parameters would not reveal the weakness. This - could have been a disaster."

"All craft prototypes undergo additional stress testing on Coruscant."

Ketha frowned. "By combat pilots? Your squadron?" And suddenly it all made sense, because for all her fury no-one would sabotage a prototype to piss off a middle-grade project manager. "It's you. You fly them personally. You'd have been the one blown up." She caught herself just before pointing a finger at him. "Lord Vader."

"The investigation will be thorough."

The way her throat was seizing up was probably just the smoke and the fear.

"The culprits must be found."

The room was growing darker. She tried to remember if she'd had breakfast. Dinner. Anything since lunch the day before.

She had to take a deep breath before she could speak. "May I sit down?"

She pulled the chair out without waiting for his answer. Somehow she managed to sit without falling on the table. Her ribs hurt.

"Nairi Ketha, did the medics clear you after the incident?"

"I'm fine," she answered automatically.

Then his words caught up with her brain.

Darth Vader was known for disregarding the hierarchy of Imperial military due to his own position as the Emperor's armoured fist. Darth Vader walked around in a pressurised suit with a respirator, definitely a mobility impediment. He'd read the diagnostic data during the test flight and realised something was wrong before the hyperdrive exploded.

And he called her Nairi Ketha.

She lifted her head. Each piece of the hyperdrive was spread out in the exact pattern of the blueprints. He wouldn't trust anyone else on the base to do this. He had been up all night putting it together.

"What do you want me to do?" she asked.

He lifted something from the table. Her data pad. "The designs sent from Sienar to Cygnus were the correct ones. My investigators will find who switched them in Cygnus. This dampener is based on one of the attempts to fix the initial problems. You did not document their creation beyond the final correspondence."

"Yeah. I'll make a list of who would have seen them." She was already running down the team roster in her mind.

"After the investigation, you will oversee the completion and testing of the new prototype."

Ketha's head snapped up. "That's Paiti's-"

"Paiti Sienar is incompetent."

"Not arguing there." She rested her face in her hands. "Don't think Sienar will hire me again after this."

"Your next job will be in Kuat Drive Yars," Vader said. "Lira Wessex has won the commission to design the Super Star Destroyer. She is a competent designer and politician, but she will welcome your assistance."

Ketha kept concentrating on her breathing. Assistance. He meant spying for him. Making sure no-one sabotaged that project. "How Super?"

"Fifteen kilometers."

She snorted. "Lira Wessex is kriffing insane."

Vader did not answer. She rubbed her eyes. It was all - she didn't have answers, just suspicions, deductions, and she couldn't change the course of her career, her life based on a hunch.

"Two of the kittens kind of moved in," she said. "One's really chatty, he keeps responding each time I say anything. The other one gets into every place he shouldn't. I found him inside the conservator the other day."

"Echo and Fives," Vader said.

Kriffing insane. It was all kriffing insane and he was the worst of the kriffing lot. She'd sent loth-cat videos to Darth Vader. She could blame the tears on the coughing fit.

Once she stopped coughing, she looked up at him. "If I punch you, I'll just break my hand, won't I?"

"You are already in need of medical assistance."

She reached for her data pad, and he let her take it. "Next prototype, you're taking a look at the planetside steering. Diel said the acceleration rate's no fun at all."

The medics stuck her with a respirator of all things, but she badgered them until the kriffing thing operated quieter than a loth-cat purr. Three days later, she got irrefutable proof who sabotaged the prototype. Vader did have a lightsaber.