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Star Wars: The Funeral Pyre

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A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

 

The orders had come with the usual lack of fanfare.

Imperial Star Destroyer Devastator, you are to divert to the Fondor system, effective immediately.

The transmission included an info packet detailing the reasons for the unexpected change of course. The so-called Rebel Alliance had started out unworthy of any particular notice, no different from the thousands of pirates, ex-Separatists, and other malcontents that infested the galaxy. In recent years, however, they’d swelled from a minor nuisance to an outright pandemic. Emboldened by numerous petty victories, including the recent debacle with Moff Tarkin’s personal corvette, they’d gotten braver.

Piett thumbed the readout on his datapad, lips pursed in consternation. Some eighteen hours previous, a small squadron of unmarked scout fighters had attacked the orbital shipyards at Fondor, the third planet of the Thyferra system. Located at the extreme edge of Sector L13, it was situated well away from the Core Systems, but in the years since the formation of the Empire, the planet had seen a massive industrial boom, growing from a small colony world to a major manufacturing center nearly on par with the Kuat Drive Yards.

Piett was surprised that the rebels had struck at such a high-profile target. Their usual methods typically involved clandestine strike teams and relatively soft targets – usually on lightly guarded worlds such as Lothal or Cyrkon – that focused primarily on the destruction of infrastructure or materiel. As it stood, Fondor was far from being an easy target. Maintaining a ready garrison of several hundred TIE Fighters and their variants, including a decent number of the smaller, faster V-wings. And that wasn’t counting the handful of Imperial vessels with their own forces likely to be in orbit at any given time.

It had been an audacious move to be sure.

“Casualties?” The voice belonged to Admiral Ozzel, who stood with his back to Piett near the bridge’s large, trapezoidal windows. Outside, the vast emptiness of space was broken only by a large but exceedingly dim nebulae the exact shade of rusted blood, the remnants of a star that had died long before the Old Republic had even been born. Piett thumbed his datapad again. “Personnel casualties tally at just over twenty, with twice that number listed as wounded,” he said, reading the display. A third of the deaths came from a single vessel, an unarmed and infamously slow-moving T-88 maintenance tug crewed by half a dozen men. “Initial reports also estimate about 800,000 credits in structural damage.”

“I trust the perpetrators were dealt with?” Not a statement. A question. Piett gave him the answer. “Yes, sir. All seven fighters were quickly eradicated. However, Naval Intelligence suspects another attack is eminent.” He pursed his lips again, thinking. According to the info packet, the initial skirmish had lasted just under six minutes. Completely unsurprising, given the size of the Imperial garrison. Surely the rebels, even with their misguided idealism, were aware that attacking such a well-defended target was tantamount to suicide.

“And we’re called to bring the rest to heel. Unsurprising,” Ozzel remarked, and while the Admiral was essentially correct, his tone grated on Piett’s nerves. He wisely refrained from saying anything, however, returning his gaze to his datapad, turning the intel over in his mind. On the other side of the bridge, something stirred. Piett felt the presence at his back long before he saw it.

“You wish to add something, Captain?”

Piett fancied he could feel the vibrations of that rich baritone in his chest, every syllable laden with barely restrained violence. He watched, and not without some satisfaction, as Ozzel wheeled about with a jolt, making a great effort not to look startled.

“Possibly, my lord,” said Piett, turning to face Vader. By all accounts a relatively short man, he had to tilt his chin back slightly in order to meet the Dark Lord’s gaze. Nothing about the Emperor’s champion was ordinary. Not his towering height, not his appearance, or the supernatural powers he seemed to wield. Even just standing there with his great, gloved hands resting on his belt, Vader radiated latent menace, as if the fabric of the room had simply caved in around the gravity of his presence.

Piett squared his shoulders. “Something troubles me about this report,” he said, quickly gathering his thoughts. “Suicide missions don’t fit the terrorist’s usual tactics. Moreover, it seems uncharacteristically bold, especially for such relatively little gain.”

“Zealots, spurred on by recent events,” Ozzel sniffed, recovering himself. He adjusted the belt of his tunic. “In any case, Captain,” he added disparagingly, “it’s not something you and Lord Vader need trouble yourselves with. You’ve been instructed to continue on to Isa, while the Devastator diverts to Fondor and routes these agitators.”

There was something in the way he said it, hooded eyes giving Vader an uncomplimentary once-over, that televised exactly what he was thinking. That he’d been given the real mission, while Lord Vader was being sent to do busy work. It was well known that Ozzel regarded him as little more than the Emperor’s thug. Piett felt his annoyance flare. The more he spent under Ozzel’s command, the more the man’s arrogance began to chafe. Though currently an Admiral, rumor alleged that he’d been passed over several times in his career and Piett couldn’t say he was surprised. He also suspected that Ozzel’s wealthy Core family had something to do with his eventual promotion.

“I do not require you to remind me of my schedule, Admiral.” Vader replied, his tone deadly.

Ozzel didn’t look impressed. “As you say,” he allowed, raising his voice to be heard by the command pits. “Prepare Lord Vader’s shuttle for departure, then plot a course for the Tapani sector.”

Piett decided he would be glad to be rid of the man’s company for a week or two, suddenly grateful that he’d been assigned to accompany Lord Vader. He gave his datapad one last look, then tucked it under one arm. In the end, Ozzel was essentially correct. The situation at Fondor was no longer his concern and he had other, more immediate matters to attend to. He left the bridge at a brisk walk, aware that after a minute, Vader moved to follow him. The Dark Lord joined him in the turbolift, his enormity making the enclosed space feel even smaller than usual. Piett glanced sidelong at him, watching the light strafe across the gleaming planes of Vader’s helmet, searching in vain for some hint of his thoughts.

As ever, Vader offered him none.

The doors swished open again.

Cavernously huge, the main hanger was busy at all hours, a concourse of personnel and droids of every make and model. Binary load lifters piled shipping containers and moved defunct ion engines back-and-forth across the deck. Piett had barely taken two steps from the lift before he was nearly the victim of a hit-and-run, a speeding R2 unit almost clipping his ankles as it raced across the deck. The droid whistled a quick apology, which dissolved into a garbled, binary squawk as Vader emerged from the lift behind him. The droid wheeled back a pace, then quickly hastened off, as if half expecting the Dark Lord to bound after it.

Piett was unsure whether he found the thought amusing or worrisome. He took a deep breath, the air in his lungs tinged with the scent of ozone and thin lubricating oils, and resumed his course across the flight deck, the staccato rhythm of his boots absorbed by the heavier footfalls directly behind. Even so, Vader was unnervingly stealthy for his size. If not for the dark, suffocating weight on the air, Piett might have overlooked his presence.

The Lambda shuttle was waiting for them at the far end of the flight deck. As they approached, a young man – barely more than a boy, really – came down the ramp to meet them, wiping his greasy hands on a stained towel. Pale-skinned and with the harried flush of the overworked still on his cheeks, but overall, there was little else for Piett to note. He gave both men a quick bow, a mop of bright red hair tumbling over his forehead.

“Shuttle’s fueled and ready, sirs,” he said, breathless. “Will there be anything else?”

“No, Lieutenant,” said Piett, guessing at his rank, since no command bar was visible. “You may go.”

Vader’s gaze tracked the boy as he left, helmeted head slowly rotating to monitor his passing. Piett decided he didn’t want to know what had drawn the Dark Lord’s attention and could only pray the poor kid hadn’t done something foolish, though what possibly he could have done escaped him. A greasy handprint on the consoles might have annoyed Ozzel, but Piett doubted Vader would be that fastidious.

There was a clatter of boots on the flight deck.

“Special detachment reporting for duty, sir,” a female voice shook Piett out of his musings. Their crew complement had arrived, five elite Stormtroopers plus their pilot, a rangy blond with hard, sullen eyes. Piett had seen her type before; veterans from the clone wars, either fought in it themselves or youths who’d watched their friends and family slaughtered while the CIS and the Republic squabbled over some nameless backwater world. Judging by her age, Piett put her in the latter category rather than the former. “Captain Leonhart,” he acknowledged politely. Vader’s personal pilot for the past three years.

She gave him a clipped nod before continuing into the shuttle’s dimly lit interior. Piett cast his mind about for anything he’d forgotten, then ascended the boarding ramp with the Dark Lord at his back, his impatient stride clipping at the shorter man’s heels.

Like most of the military, Piett had spent a good portion of his career inside Lambda-class shuttles, of which he’d run the gamut of conditions, from the lavishly appointed all the way down to the poorly maintained, with the low end of spectrum being troop transports that reeked of stale body odor. This particular craft fell into neither category, and had obviously been modified for Lord Vader’s use. The bank of seats running the center line of the craft were fewer, seated less personnel. The port and starboard cargo bays had also been altered to accommodate the Dark Lord’s personal quarters, into which Vader disappeared before the boarding ramp had begun to close. The Stormtroopers had already checked their blasters into the onboard armory and were silently strapping themselves into their seats. Several had already removed their helmets. As for himself, Piett knew there would be a smaller cabin towards the rear, but he decided against it for the moment, choosing instead to sit in the last remaining seat. A faint rumble in the deck told him that the pilot had ignited the engines.

Piett rolled his neck to loosen the tension there. He felt unreasonably edgy. Ozzel’s penile-measuring contest notwithstanding, their mission to Isa was relatively cut-and-dry. Located on the Outer Rim, the arctic world would have gone largely unnoticed if not for its lucrative carbon mining industry, known the galaxy over for its crucial role in the carbonite freezing process. Imperial representatives had been sent to the planet in order to discuss a renegotiation of contracts. Their efforts had met with little success, and Isa’s unwillingness to make concessions had earned them a special visit. Piett tried not to grimace. While he respected Vader considerably more than Ozzel, the Dark Lord was infamously heavy-handed, and even that was being generous.

Piett had a bad feeling that somebody on Isa was liable to end up dead.

He made a mental note to do everything in his power to run interference when and where he could. Without bringing Vader’s wrath down on himself, of course. He wasn’t a fool. Piett felt the shuttle begin to drop, falling smoothly from the Devastator's wide, underslung hanger. Turning his head, he could see a narrow slice of the cockpit viewscreen, slowly turning black with the infinite darkness of space.

“Shuttle Praetorian, you are cleared for departure,” a voice on the com announced.

“Acknowledged,” Leonhart replied without emotion. Piett thought he’d heard protocol droids with more inflection. The stars outside the viewscreen stretched, elongating into infinity as the shuttle plunged into hyperspace. Piett watched the hypnotically swirling blue light for minute, then leaned back in his seat. Lambda shuttles were fast, but not exceptionally so. Piett estimated he had about eighteen hours before they reverted to realspace. He propped his black leather boot on his knee and took out his datapad, studying the intel they’d received from Fondor.

Searching for what exactly he found troubling.

After over an hour, however, Piett was reasonably sure that any discrepancies – if they even existed at all – were beyond his understanding. He prided himself on being a competent officer, but despite years of tutelage under Grand Moff Tarkin, his mentor’s uncanny knack for military strategy hadn’t rubbed off as much as Piett would have hoped. He closed the datapad and set it aside. Unstrapping himself from his seat, Piett got to his feet and stretched, his back making a peculiar crackling sound. The narrow, reclined seats were sturdy, but not entirely comfortable. As cadets, they’d used to joke that some engineer had designed them that way, to keep the troopers in them from relaxing too much.

A few of the troopers had begun to chat softly amongst themselves, their voices subdued. Piett headed for the cockpit. Captain Leonhart gave him a hooded glance as he entered, her gray eyes sharp, then dismissively returned her gaze to the instrumentation panel.

Piett slid into one of the auxiliary seats, finding it far superior to the one he’d just vacated. Leonhart didn’t bother to initiate any kind of small talk, which suited Piett just fine. The swirling blue tunnel of hyperspace slipped by, soothing in its ubiquitous familiarity, and Piett gratefully began to doze. Since he wasn’t privy to Vader’s immediate plans, it was best to be prepared for all eventualities, including the very real possibly that the Dark Lord would simply round up local management the minute he got off the shuttle. As such, a few hours of sleep were a welcome commodity.

The shuttle gave a sickening lurch.

Pitched out of his seat, Piett gave a yell as he hit the chair directly in front of him, leaving him sprawled on the deck with blood leaking from a split lip. Emergency klaxons blared throughout the cockpit, warning lights flashing. Hyperspace narrowed and snapped, and the shuttle exited into realspace with its aft higher than its nose. The hull groaned dangerously, emitting a series of alarming pops as Leonhart seized the yoke and attempted to manhandle it back to center. Piett gripped the back of the gunnery seat and used it to haul himself upright as the shuttle rocked again, from a different angle this time.

Something had struck the hull.

Not an ion canon, nor whatever had torn them from hyperspace.

Something physical.

“Asteroids!” Piett bellowed a warning just as another sailed past the viewscreen, clipping their dorsal fin as the shuttle spiraled past, still in a half-controlled spin. Outside was a dense field of floating rock and ice, ranging in size from micrometeorites to chunks larger than the shuttle itself, all of it bathed in a hellish crimson glow. A dingy chuck of ice struck the nose of the shuttle and exploded, peppering the viewscreen with tiny, glittering shards. Leonhart took in the instrumentation panel at a glance, then pulled sharply to the left, firing the shuttle’s lateral thrusters against their dangerous spin. Another shudder ripped through the hull as something struck one of the lower fins.

The door to the passenger compartment slid open and something dark swept into the cockpit, weightier than a neutron star, and Piett’s lungs convulsed upon inhaling the sudden, bone-deep cold. He glanced behind him to see Lord Vader standing in the doorway, one massive hand braced against the frame. He seemed unbothered by the tremors ripping through the shuttle, merely there as an observer.

The soft, nearly inaudible hum of the Lambda’s engines had become a sour whine and the yoke shook visibly in Leonhart’s grasp. Piett dropped into the gunnery chair and fumbled with his seatstraps, latching them just as the shuttle plunged into a hair-raising dive. They spun left, the back to the right as Leonhart piloted through a cluster of asteroids, so close the largest nearly skimmed the shuttle’s underbelly. Thick smoke wafted across the viewscreen, billowing from unseen damage. Another chunk of ice broke up on shuttle’s wing and they flew through a cloud of glittering dust.

Leonhart pulled back on the yoke, wheeling the shuttle through a shifting cluster of rocks. The asteroid field dropped away as quickly as it had appeared, replaced by a wide vista of open space. Piett quickly took it in, scanning the horizon for anything of note. Directly ahead was an enormous gas giant, impenetrable layers of cloud streaked with the vivid blue of nitrogen gas, while a distant red star took up most of what he could see to starboard, the source of the all-encompassing scarlet light. They hadn’t flown through an asteroid belt, he realized suddenly. They’d flown through the ring system of a planet.

The shuttle gave an alarming shudder and Leonhart reached up to toggle a switch mounted on the ceiling. The bone-jarring vibrations eased somewhat, but didn’t stop entirely. Leonhart’s head swiveled to study the navicomputer. “Local star in the last stages of life… currently orbited by two nitrogen-mix gas giants and a rocky dwarf planet deep in the inner system,” she mumbled, reading them aloud to herself. “Each are surrounded by a handful of moons...”

Moving with sudden purpose, she reached out to throttle the Lambda's engines, attempting to slow the shuttle’s trajectory, all while slapping the comm system with her opposite hand. “Attention all hands,” she announced over the speaker. “Standby to make emergency planetfall.”

Piett took a deep breath, his realization of the situation heightened by another devastating, full-body shudder that went through the shuttle from helm to stern. If anything, the shuttle seemed to be picking up speed rather than slowing down, caught in the gravitational tug of the nearby planet. Behind him, Vader calmly swept his massive frame into one of the auxiliary seats, placing him just outside of Piett’s peripheral vision. A thin haze of smoke and the stench of burning plastic was beginning to fill the cabin. Only through great force of will did Piett resist the urge to cough, watching as the gas giant hurtled up to fill the viewscreen. At the last minute, Leonhart wrenched the shuttle hard to port, firing all starboard thrusters to push them around the curve of the planet. The gas giant slid away and a new sight filled the viewscreen, a smallish, barren-looking orb of rock the exact color of rust.

There was a muted explosion and the shuttle lost one of its stabilizers, yawing violently to port. Leonhart slowly fought the yoke back to center, releasing one of her hands just long enough to divert power to remaining systems. Hardly a combat pilot, Piett had nonetheless received enough training to know that if they didn’t hit the atmosphere as precisely the correct angle, they would either vaporize or burn up. Leonhart quickly toggled a series of switches on the ceiling, her expression inhumanly calm, and the shuttle all but went into freefall, the hull beginning to glow as they began their descent.

Smears of red and brown resolved into continents, gorges, vast basins of tyrian purple water stretching across a desolate landscape. Subjected to the friction of the atmosphere, the shuttle rattled and shook like decrepit old droid, everything that wasn’t tied down suddenly going flying. An airborne holodisk caught Leonhart in the side of the head with the force of a small rocket, drawing blood. With one quick motion, she deactivated what was left of the engines and diverted all power to the in-atmo stabilizers, rudders flared to slow their descent. There was a muted, explosive snap as part of their vertical dorsal fin broke off and went spiraling away.

“Brace for impact!” Leonhart shouted.

The planet reached up to crush them as Leonhart angled the shuttle’s underbelly to skip across the ground. Jagged stones, some large, some small, gouged into the hull as the shuttle scraped and spun and bounced across the surface of the planet. They hit an outcropping of rock, then another. Then another. The lower dorsal fin caught, snapped from the main body, sending them careening sideways and down, plowing into the marsh. The viewscreen cracked, and a wave of muck and water washed over the bow of the ship, turning the cockpit dark. A few seconds later the shuttle struck something large enough to arrest its forward momentum, and pain flared in Piett’s shoulders as he was hurled against his seatstraps.

They’d stopped moving.

The sound of Vader’s breathing filled the abrupt silence, regular as a pendulum.

Piett realized he was holding his own breath. He inhaled quickly and forced his mind to clear. The shuttle had some to rest partially on its side, leaving the cockpit tilted. The gloom was nearly complete, filled with only a few small, flashing lights that might have been the instrumentation panel, or it might have been the myriad of buttons on Vader’s suit. Water dripped through the fractured viewscreen and pattered on the durasteel floor, the smell of decaying vegetable matter seeping into the cockpit. Piett unstrapped himself and slid from his seat, trying to stand on unsteady knees.

“Captain Leonhart?” he called, clearing the roughness from his throat.

From somewhere in the darkness came a series of clicks, Leonhart’s fingers dancing over the instrumentation panel. “All systems inoperable,” she responded by way of an answer.

There was a clatter of seatstraps and Piett heard Vader shift to his feet, rising to tower above him in the darkness. The cockpit was filling with smoke and Piett felt rather than saw the Dark Lord swivel to face the door, which had closed automatically to seal the cockpit from the rest of the shuttle in case of decompression. When the controls failed to respond, Vader engaged the emergency override, took a grip on the door, and heaved it aside manually. Inside the passenger compartment, the troopers had already freed themselves from their seats and were in the process of grabbing their weapons. “Sirs!” The commanding sergeant barked. “Are there any injuries?”

An explosion of sparks ruptured from an overhead circuit, throwing the trooper’s helmets into stark contrast, like bleached and frowning skulls. Piett opened the emergency panel and pulled out several glowrods, handing one to Captain Leonhart and holding the other above his head. He aimed a questioning glance at the blood trickling down her jawline. Leonhart shook her head.

“Negative, sergeant,” Piett responded. “Open the boarding ramp and begin fire suppression.”

The troopers leapt to obey, grabbing halon extinguishers and putting out the handful of small spot fires burning beneath the deck. Kneeling in front of an access panel, the commanding sergeant was forced to splice several wires in order to reroute latent battery power to the ramp. When it opened, it did so with a tremendous scrape, hydraulics and bent, fractured metal squalling in protest. Crimson light poured into the darkened shuttle like burning blood, accompanied by a waft of air so humid and thick, Piett could almost taste the dank atmosphere on his tongue. The ramp ground to a halt, leaving an opening about a meter wide, through which Piett could see nothing but a churned mire of rock and mud. Moving swiftly, and with an effortlessness that belied his size, Vader fit himself through the gap and ducked out of sight. Somewhat slower, the commanding sergeant moved to follow.

“Fan out. Form a perimeter,” he ordered, hefting his blaster.

Piett took a minute to wipe the sweat from his forehead and adjust his officer’s cap, peering around the interior of the shuttle. Despite the deceiving red glow of the planet, the breeze wafting into his face was cool and he found it refreshing regardless of the unpleasant odor it carried. Now that death was no longer of imminent concern, he had time to think about their circumstances – including their most obvious problem.

There was a metallic bang and Piett glanced back to find that Leonhart had climbed down into the engine compartment, her train of thought clear. Piett held his glowrod closer to give her some light, peering over her shoulder into a nest of charred wires and buckled metal. Beyond that was the gleam of the hyperdrive generator, an angular slab of metal scoured by deep, intersecting channels. Piett was neither an imaginative nor especially poetic man, but he’d always found the device unusually arcane-looking, more like a relic from a lost civilization than a functional piece of technology. Outside, he could hear the modulated crackle of voices as the Stormtroopers declared the area secure.

Vader reappeared at the boarding ramp, his shadow looming into the passenger compartment.

“Report,” he rumbled, making no distinction between who he was asking, only that he was demanding an answer. Piett had time to hope, for Leonhart’s sake, that their current predicament was the result of mechanical failure and not pilot error. Leonhart straightened to regard the Dark Lord, her gaze unflinching. Piett wondered again what ordeal she had suffered to make her so cold, so unafraid of Vader’s wrath even when her own neck hung in the balance. “I believe someone tampered with the hyperdrive module, lord,” Leonhart said calmly. “The damage was done in such a way that it wouldn’t take effect immediately, nor would it appear on diagnostics.”

Pressure, cold, dark and suffocating, gathered in the cabin like a physical weight. Piett was accustomed to the sensation and remained motionless despite the passive grip on his lungs. “Sabotage,” Vader growled.

“That is my judgment, sir,” said Leonhart. This time, Piett took note of where her fingers rested. Despite the slag around it, the hyperdrive generator itself was only scorched around a deep, foreign groove, as if someone had taken a sharp object and raked it across the metal. Methodical. Deliberate. The site carefully chosen. Next to it was the blackened and greasy imprint of a hand.

Piett felt a sudden flash of anger. Assassination attempts on Lord Vader were rare, but not unheard of. The galaxy was filled with stories, but whether the being responsible was a political enemy or Rebel saboteur, it mattered not. That someone had dared make the attempt, the idea that someone as powerful as Lord Vader could be killed by a coward’s blow, caused something cold and lethal to knot inside Piett’s chest. He promised himself that the minute they rejoined the fleet, he would hunt down the responsible party.

Vader’s helmet tilted. It was difficult to tell exactly where he was looking, but Piett was certain that he was suddenly the object of the Dark Lord’s scrutiny.

“In any case, my lord, all systems are down and our comm suite is unresponsive,” Leonhart continued. “I might have some luck with the subspace transceiver, but only if there’s someone nearby to hear us. It’s possible that we may be several sectors off course.”

She didn’t bother to suggest trying to escape atmo. The shuttle was never going to fly again.

Vader turned away. “You have one hour.”

 

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After restoring minimal power, it took only a short time to prove Leonhart’s theory, leaving the party with limited options for rescue. Since Isa had not informed of an impending visit – a common Imperial oversight, particularly where Lord Vader was concerned – and had no reason to report them overdue, it would be at least a standard week before Imperial Center realized they hadn’t arrived. After that, it was anyone’s guess how long they’d have to wait. There was some dark comfort in knowing that due to Lord Vader’s presence, the Emperor wasn’t likely to simply write them off as missing in action, and would probably deploy half the fleet to search for them. In the meantime, they plied their minds to anything useful, including taking an inventory of everything onboard the shuttle.

Released from the hold, an ID9 seeker droid hovered at Piett’s elbow, assisting the Imperials wherever appropriate. A miniature cousin to the Viper-class probes, the ID9-series performed nearly all the same functions, albeit with a much more limited range. For that reason, they were often used by the scout corps for local reconnaissance. Unlike their larger counterparts, however, the ID9 series was compatible with personality programming – and Piett had begun to think this one’s primary setting was sarcasm.

“If anyone cares, we are currently marooned on the second moon of the third planet of the Aett system, designated Cweorth IV,” BA-8 reported, patching into the navicomputer. “We are tidally locked to the local star, so don’t expect nightfall anytime soon. Weesa also several thousand kilometers from the equatorial band, so we also shouldn’t expect any storms, unless we’ve arrived during the 32.6% chance of a planetwide monsoon.”

Piett cocked at an eyebrow at the droid, unsure whether he should be annoyed or amused. BA-8 clacked his mechanical pincers, his single, forward-facing optic tightening and expanding as the droid scrolled through the data. “Oh, dis is fortunate,” it reported cheerily. “As we were crashing and bumping about – might I ask where in the stars did you get your pilots’ license? – long-range scanners picked up an emergency transponder. Civilian… and very outdated. Dis comm frequency hasn’t been updated since the end of the Clone Wars!”

“Might be smugglers,” Leonhart observed.

“A logical guess, Pilot Leonhart. In either case, I’m sure they have a working ship.”

The droid was being openly mocking now, Piett was sure of it. Standing nearby with his hands on his belt, Vader said nothing for a minute. Then he asked, “How far is this transponder?”

“Twenty klicks from our current location.”

Piett did the math. An overland march of that distance – without accounting for challenging terrain or other unforeseen obstacles – would take them about eight hours. Difficult, but not impossible. Piett was therefore he wasn't surprised by Vader’s next order. “Gather whatever gear you require,” the Dark Lord told them. “We make for the station.”

“Marvelous!” BA-8 chirped.

There is no way that’s regulation, Piett thought, eyeing the droid as it whizzed about. Some grunge monkey was either bored or possessed a deviant sense of humor when he’d programmed the thing with random bits of Gungan vocabulary. With an internal shrug, Piett selected a DL-44 blaster from the armory and buckled it around his waist, settling the holster against his thigh. He also picked up a standard deployment pack, loaded with a supply of emergency rations, medpac, and personnel comlink. Leonhart and the troopers followed suite, with the commanding sergeant – a man Piett had since learned was called Hach – selecting a heavy T-21, which he propped against his shoulder. After a final look about the shuttle, Piett ducked outside for the first time.

He was met by kilometer after kilometer of canyon rock bathed in the crimson glow of the sun. The shuttle had come to rest at the edge of a large body of water, stagnant and lapping sluggishly at its banks. Tall, purplish grey reeds stood in the shallows surrounded by floating mats of scum. There were no birds, no trees. No sound at all save for a moist breeze. Piett’s exposed skin tingled. The sun may not have been especially bright, but it was unusually harsh, displaying signs of high UV radiation.

Piett adjusted the straps of his backpack. “Droid, give me a bearing.”

“Destination lies at 21-degrees south. Yousa just follow me, okeyday?”

This time Piett’s eyebrows shot up into his hairline. Beside him, Vader went imperceptibly stiff. Though it was impossible make out his expression, there was something in the Dark Lord’s posture, the way his helmeted head swiveled to follow the droid, that broadcasted his incredulity. Piett was struck by the sudden urge to laugh. “I think that droid is glitched,” he said.

“Indeed,” Vader rumbled. After a moment, however, he moved after the droid with a swirl of his black cloak. Piett fell in behind him, mud sucking at his boots with each step. He’d visited a number of planets in his career, but this was one of the strangest, for the ambient color if nothing else. Still, the feeling of unease he’d been nursing refused to dissipate. What the overly chirpy droid had failed to mention, but what Piett had gleaned from a quick glance at the navicomputer, was that Cweorth IV had another name, given to it by early Rylothian spacefarers who’d first discovered the system during the formative years of the Republic:

Cweorth IV. The Funeral Pyre.

 

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Hours passed, and despite the cool temperatures, it wasn’t long before Piett’s heavy uniform was glued to his back with sweat. As a Naval officer, he hadn’t much call for overland marches or field deployment, but even so, Piett was in good physical shape, well within the parameters of Imperial fitness standards. He was therefore forced to attribute his condition to the humidity.

After a long climb they stopped to get their bearings, and Vader sent BA-8 ahead to scout. The bluff overlooked an immense lake stretching about a kilometer distant, its vast expanse pockmarked by hundreds of small islands. The smell of the planet was pervasive, but Piett had come to realize that the planet wasn’t quite as silent as he’d first thought, the air now filled with the harsh, peeping cries of frogs, or something that sounded like frogs. He took off his cap and allowed the breeze to fan his damp curls. Their trek had taken them up the throat of a valley, sandstone cliffs slowly rising to either side. Twice now he’d caught the faint, hazy shapes of birds circling in the far distance, too far for him to make out any specifics.

In accordance with his earliest training at the Academy, Piett took the opportunity to swallow a mouthful of water from his survival pack. It was warm and tasted strongly of the plastoid bladder it was stored it, to say nothing of the metallic smack of added salts and minerals, but it wasn’t there for his pleasure. He replaced his cap, feeling mildly more refreshed.

“It will take hours to go around,” Sergeant Hach commented, staring at the lake.

“Then we will go through,” said Vader. “The droid informs me the water is not deep.”

Piett had totally missed the seeker’s return, now floating by Vader’s shoulder like a well-trained pylat bird, its quartet of jointed legs curled in what Piett could only interpret as pleasure at a job well done. The Dark Lord started down the embankment, loose scree clattering in his wake, and the rest of the party moved to follow. It took them almost ten minutes to pick their way down, unable to safely move any faster despite the obvious signs of Vader’s impatience.

At the bottom was a dry beach interspersed by large, jagged boulders. Piett noticed several places where the loamy soil had been mounded into concave bowls strewn with broken eggshells, but the creatures which had laid them were nowhere in sight. As if sensing his thoughts, BA-8 whizzed up to hover next to Piett. “Those belong to a species of native lizard. Reaching up to a meter in length, the adult females typically lay in clutches of three!”

“Fascinating,” said Piett dryly.

Without pause, Vader waded into the surf, his cloak rising to float on the surface of the water. The rest hurried to keep up, BA-8 bobbing alongside and emitting an endless stream of info regarding the planet’s fauna. “Do not worry, Captain! Unlike Cweorth’s apex predator, the lerahk, dralls are not carnivorous and prefer to spend their days in the shallows, feeding on the nutrient-rich plants that grow there. Would you like further intel?”

Piett muttered something noncommittal, his face creasing as he waded into the lake. The water was as tepid as still bathwater and deepened enough to lap dangerously at the rim of his boots. The submerged bottom was also thick and gooey with decay, a fetid smell rising from the water with every step. Piett steeled himself and quickly sloshed his way to Vader’s side, suddenly envious of his superior’s much greater height and sealed armor.

They walked on in silence. Occasionally, the wind would ruffle Vader’s cloak, trailing behind him like an oil spill. Piett glanced into the red-tinged water, wondered if there were snakes or other venomous aquatics. Specifically, he found himself thinking about the pale, sightless fish that lived in the tide pools of his home planet. Their sting wasn’t fatal, but it certainly hurt.

“What is your opinion of the summons to Fondor, Captain?”

Piett startled at the unexpected sound of Vader’s voice. His stride faltered, but to his credit, did not come to a stop. “...My lord?” he questioned, gazing at the side of Vader’s mask. The Dark Lord did not clarify further and as the silence between them stretched on, Piett realized the original question still stood. He frantically cast his mind about for an answer. “It- it seemed very ordinary, my lord...” he trailed off, wondering how much he should say, whether he should speak his mind on the matter or allow the subject to drop. Why was the Dark Lord even asking? Surely a man such as he, the Supreme Commander of the Imperial Navy, didn’t require a second opinion.

The wake caused by Vader’s powerful strides was enough to finally let the water tip into his boots. Perfect.

“But something troubles me about it nonetheless,” Piett said at last. Considering where his career path had taken him, Piett had learned to be cautious, but he wasn’t a coward. “With the exception of a few cells operated by Saw Gerrera, the Alliance does not typically engage in suicide missions. It seems abnormal of them to alter their tactics for such meager results. There are no Imperial dignitaries stationed at the Fondor Shipyards, nor any classified projects that would warrant special attention. In all honesty, my lord, diverting an Imperial Destroyer seems… excessive.”

“Admiral Ozzel did not share in your assessment.” The deep bass of Vader’s vocoder was modulated, but there were nuances, subtle changes of pattern that Piett had spent years laboring to decode. The Emperor’s Second-in-Command was notoriously volatile, his temper unpredictable, and Piett had long since decided that it behooved his continual existence to become familiar with what little of the man’s mood he could glean. And right now Piett gleaned a trap, a verbal snare. He swallowed again, aware that silence was not an option.

“Admiral Ozzel is… a brazen man,” he allowed cautiously. “His reputation means a great deal to him.” He is pompous fool whose arrogance will end up costing lives, he added mentally, though he was not quite so brave as to say it aloud.

He felt the weight of Vader’s gaze on him, as if the Dark Lord had glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. Piett tensed, but Vader’s massive hands remained at his sides. The tightness in his throat was only the one conjured by his imagination. For a moment they walked without speaking, though Piett’s mind continued to churn. Now that he’d voiced his thoughts, something about them seemed to crystallize, forming an unwelcome conclusion. He took a deep breath. “Considering recent events, the timing of the shuttle sabotage seems highly coincidental. Perhaps the attack on Fondor was not so much a gain in and of itself.”

“You suspect an informant.”

As do you, Piett realized, hearing the calm in Vader’s voice. This conclusion was not new to the Dark Lord. The knot between Piett’s shoulders loosened a tad. “Yes, my lord,” he acknowledged, then – realizing that Vader had not reprimanded his thinking – he added, “Although our mission to Isa was not discussed on open channels, there are a few ways such intel might have reached the hands of the Rebellion. It’s also possible that, if one of their sympathizers were already onboard, the sabotage may have simply been an act of opportunity.”

“You and I think alike, then,” Vader rumbled. He offered no further comment on the matter, and they lapsed back into silence. The opposite shore had come into view, a shallow escarpment about two meters high fringed by a thick stand of reeds. Spread lazily on the bank, several creatures – dralls, Piett believed BA-8 had called them – watched the Imperials with wary eyes. Squat and fleshy, the species was clearly of reptilian origin, with broad, unintelligent faces and a rounded neural spine that ran the length of their backs. Without warning, the entire clutch of them suddenly made for the water, lunging deep into the murk and out of sight.

Vader came to a sudden halt and whirled to look at the sky. Alarmed, Piett turned with him. Five- six- a dozen hazy shapes wheeled in the air above them, growing larger by the second. Until then, Piett had heard nothing beyond the gently sloshing water and the rhythm of Vader’s respirator, but now he slowly came to recognize another sound, that of beating wings.

“Above us!” BA-8 cried. “Lerahks!”

The creatures fell on them with alarming speed. Piett was reminded of the mosquito hawks of Lothal; spindly, delicate, stupidly bumping into illumination panels during the warm prairie nights. But where those insects were small enough to trap in one’s hand, the creatures that descended from the sky were meters across, their huge, transparent wings making an audible buzz that set Piett’s teeth on edge. He drew his blaster with a scrape.

“Open fire!” Sergeant Hach ordered, shouldering his rifle.

Lines of blaster fire lit up the marsh, hammering into their targets with deadly accuracy- only to ricochet into the dusky crimson sky. Piett hadn’t the time to contemplate that fully when a large lerahk swept overhead, nearer than before, so close one of its impossibly long legs – each several meters long and as thick around as an arm – collided with his shoulder. Knocked a step forward in order to keep his balance, Piett fired at the creature as it passed. The red bolt of energy struck the lerahk’s underbelly and left a scorch on its leathery hide. Piett fired again, striking near enough to the first impact that there was a splash of bodily fluid.

Vader ignited his lightsaber, the unmistakable thrummm of the blade sending a wave of gooseflesh down Piett’s spine. Though he had rarely taken the field during the clone wars, he had never forgotten the sound, the manifest symbol of powers far beyond those of an ordinary being. Vader hurled his lightsaber into the sky, the blade cutting a whirling crimson arc as it sliced through the nearest lerahk. Blood and dismembered limbs splashed to murky water, and Vader’s lightsaber returned to his hand, drawn by the will of his mind. The blade reignited again, sizzling where it touched the water.

Another lerahk landed in the marsh with a splash, water dripping from its chitin as it rose to stand on spindly legs, towering a meter above their heads. It was so close Piett could see the segmented grid of its massive compound eyes, red, glittering and bulbous, twitching in sockets the size of a man’s head. A moment later, the left one imploded in a spray of gore as Leonhart fired her blaster directly into it. The lerahk toppled onto its side, limbs flailing the water in a paroxysm of agony.

Several more lerahks hovered in the air above them, bobbing and weaving, avoiding the incoming blaster fire. Their insectoid clicking filled the air, emanating, Piett had no doubt, from the set of double mandibles that framed a long, hollow-looking proboscis. Hach fired his T-21 into the side of one’s head, killing it instantly, while another trooper’s blast skittered off the creature’s glossy thorax.

“They’re armored in the chest region!” Hach shouted. “Aim for the head and underbelly!”

Vader’s lightsaber carved a murderous red line as he slashed at one of the lerahks, parting several limbs from its body, even as he used the spin of the blade to open the gut of another, spilling its entrails into the marsh. One of the lerahks hovering to his right seemed to pivot, its long, segmented abdomen snapping forward with alarming speed, much as a scorpion would lunge with its tail. Vader sidestepped the danger and cut the creature’s abdomen in half. It dropped to the water at his feet, which was when Piett finally noticed the stinger, nearly a meter long and edged like a razor.

“Careful, Masters! Careful!” BA-8 cried, whizzing in frantic circles.

Piett aimed his blaster into the largest knot of creatures and opened fire, hoping to force them to scatter. He estimated there was about five, maybe six more. Their constant darting and shifting made it hard to count their numbers. One of his blasts removed a leg, searing it off at the joint and betraying an overall fragility to the creatures despite their size and fearsome appearance. As if to contradict him, however, a blood-curdling scream caused Piett to whirl, his heart in his throat. One of the troopers was clawing weakly at his throat, clawing at the stinger embedded between the segments of his armor. His struggles had already ceased by the time the lerahk lifted him from the water and flung the body several meters away.

Piett cursed mentally. Vader lifted his hand and Piett felt something insubstantial rush past him just as the lerahk seemed to freeze midair, seized by an invisible hand. With a wet, meaty pop, Vader crushed the lerahk with the Force and hurled the broken corpse into another, knocking it out of the air. Both hit the water in a tangle of limbs. Dead. Dying.

Piett killed another with a shot to the mandibles, wounded a second by putting a hole through its wing. The marsh grew viscous with floating entrails and dark yellowish blood. There was another scream, cut swiftly off. Piett couldn’t spare the time to look, forced to throw himself out of the path of a stinger as the lerahk above him flung its abdomen forward with frightening speed, with a striking range of over two meters. It grazed his survival pack, nearly ripping it off and driving the straps into shoulders already bruised from the shuttle crash. Wheeled around with a grunt, Piett hammered a line of fire along the lerahk’s abdomen.

On his left, three of the creatures had engaged Lord Vader at once, stabbing and weaving, mandibles clattering if already anticipating the taste of his flesh. Vader raised a hand, gathered the Force around him, and used it to hurl one of lerahks back, breaking several of its legs. In the same motion, he leapt meters into the air, higher and faster than any normal being should have been capable, regardless of the prosthetic legs rumor insisted Vader possessed. His lightsaber opened a gaping wound along the lerahk’s chest, parting head from armored thorax. Droplets of water arced from his cloak as Vader landed with a heavy splash, already turned to face the remaining two.

The mangled corpse of a nearby lerahk gave a twitch, torn muscles contracting as its long abdomen burst from the marsh, squirming in its last throes. Sensing the danger a fraction of a second before it materialized, the Dark Lord turned at the last minute to present a sidelong target and the stinger raked along his armor, deflected sideways and down, penetrating his body at the junction of his shoulder.

Vader roared and seized the protruding spike in his fist, preventing the creature from withdrawing as he swung his lightsaber upwards, slicing the creature’s abdomen off in a spray of gore. The stinger remained lodged in his shoulder, still affixed to a pulsating lump of tissue. Vader seemed not to notice. He whirled, the red line of his saber cutting through the head of one of the creatures, then reversing to slash the legs from another. Both creatures splashed into the swamp, squealing in tones almost beyond the range of hearing. Vader dispatched them quickly, then stepped over the bodies.

The remaining lerahk took off vertical to avoid him, accelerating quickly. No longer concerned with the possibility of hitting Lord Vader by mistake, Piett and Sergeant Hach immediately opened fire on it, blaster bolts tearing holes in its wings and shredding its comparatively vulnerable underbelly. The lerahk fell back to ground, dead before it hit the water.

After so much noise and confusion, the silence that fell was unnerving. Piett quickly sloshed his way to Vader’s side. “My lord! Your–”

“It’s none if your concern,” Vader rebuked, cutting him off. He deactivated his lightsaber and hung it from his belt, freeing his hand to reach across his body and grasp the stinger lodged in his flesh. With a single motion the Dark Lord wrenched it free, swift and unnervingly brutal, with zero acknowledgment of the pain it must have caused. There was little blood despite the depth of the wound, only an unsettling scrape and the pop of sputtering circuitry. Vader gave the stinger a disgusted look before flinging it into the marsh, the motion tense with subdued rage. “Report, Sergeant,” he growled.

“Two dead, my lord,” Hach told him, still breathing hard. Piett looked over to where Leonhart squatted in the marsh, her hands on the bloodied throat of one of the troopers. His helmet floated beside her, momentarily bobbing in the surf before tipping, filling with water, and sinking out of sight. “Three,” she corrected, standing. A string of viscera was glued to her cheek.

Piett absorbed the information, unconsciously flexing his grip on his blaster. Behind him, BA-8 cautiously emerged from a stand of reeds. “Master!” he called nervously. “You must see to that wound immediately! The tox-”

“Enough,” the Dark Lord snapped, flashing the seeker a look that could have frozen boiling water, even through the inscrutable lenses of his mask. BA-8 miserably scrunched his legs. “Fine then,” the droid sulked. “Curl up and deactivate. See if I care.”

It was almost funny. Almost. Piett swallowed the knot in his throat, only to feel it sink down his esophagus and lodge somewhere near his sternum. Vader flexed his arm, then allowed it to fall back to side, apparently with no loss of motor control.

Unbidden, Piett thought of the rumors that flew about the Devastator like the Balmorran flu. That Vader was more machine than man, a twisted amalgam of wire and plasteel whose humanity had long been buried under the very suit that kept him alive. Without emotion. Without mercy. There were some that suggested, quietly of course, that Vader was nothing human at all, but a murderous assassin droid programmed to do the Emperor’s bidding. BA-8’s petulant suggestion to “curl up and deactivate” went through Piett’s mind again, sulky and ironic, but Piett had seen the blood, little though there was. And Piett worried. He wondered what it was that kept Vader from accepting medical attention. Pride, or a dangerous disregard for his own health?

Vader turned sharply and waded to shore, leaping to dry ground in one smooth, impossible motion, because the Dark Lord did not clamber. With little choice but to belay his concerns, Piett holstered them along with his blaster and made his way after Vader. Reeds slapped his at face, rough with microscopic burrs, as he hoisted himself out of the marsh. Inside his boots, water and other, less pleasant things sloshed and squelched. Grimacing, Piett extended a hand for Leonhart to grab and hauled her onto shore beside him. The dead troopers they left in the marsh. A detail would be dispatched to recover the bodies if they made it off-world, though Piett suspected there would be little enough to recover.

They set off again, at a more brutal pace than before. Piett unsnapped the first closure on his uniform, no longer able to distinguish if the viscosity that drenched his body was the result of marshwater or sweat. The extreme sunlight preventing him from shedding it entirely, as he would rather swelter under the heavy fabric than expose more of his skin to sunburn.

Vader led them on through a complicated mix of flat, sandstone plains, gorges and spongy marshes. Flies and other biting insects swarmed around Piett’s head, eager to lap the sweat from his skin. Within short order, however, the insects had disappeared, chained to the marshes in which they huddled. Piett made a note to undergo a full contamination index the minute he returned to the fleet, to rule out any bloodborne diseases he might have picked up. Beside him, Leonhart had begun to pant, but the group would stop or march as Vader willed.

As they walked, BA-8 floated up beside Piett. Sometime in the past few hours, the seeker’s designation numbers had fused together in his mind, settling on a more phonetic pronunciation. “Pardon me, captain,” Bait said meekly, as if afraid of further rebuke. “My data on this planet is limited, but I do know that lerahks possess a hive mentality and do not take kindly to intrusion. Dey will return long before we reach the station.”

Piett allow that to sink in, mentally steeling himself. He put a hand to his blaster. “Keep watch then,” he instructed the droid. “You have a sensor suite, yes?”

“Yes, sir, but I fear it will be of little use. My range measures only half a klick.” The droid’s tone was so browbeaten, Piett almost felt sorry for it. After a moment’s hesitation he tapped the seeker’s leg with his knuckle, the motion abortive, awkwardly reassuring. “It will have to do,” said Piett, and he dropped into the gorge after Lord Vader.

 

---------------------------------------------

Cweorth had more oddities in store for them, this time in the form of rusted ghosts. After another hour of travel, the Imperial party crested one of the larger hills in the area. Below lay a shallow depression at the edge of another marsh. A collection of prefab buildings squatted in a loose semi-circle, surrounded by an equally aged retinue of machinery. High atop the opposing cliff was the outline of a communications array, nearly lost in the twilit haze. Leonhart put her filthy hands on her knees and struggled to catch her breath, thin shoulders heaving.

“There! An uplink tower,” said Hach, pointing. “Reckon we could get that up and running.”

“Doesn’t look like anybody’s home, Sarge,” the trooper next to him remarked. “How long you suppose all that been down there?”

“I’m delighted you asked, Lieutenant Balearic!” Bait responded, having recovered some of his liveliness. “Judging by the type of machinery, plus all visible signs of aging and the growth of nearby plants, I would estimate that dis station was abandoned at the end of the clone wars – approximately sixteen years ago, if yousa desire a more precise number.”

Vader’s withering gaze fell on the droid. “I do not,” he snapped.

They descended to the station. Loose cabling and rotten tarpaulins buffeted in the humid breeze, as if the dead station had summoned up a rattling, hacking cough to greet them. Everything was covered in rust and spongy patches of moss, leaving Piett with little hope of finding a working transport ship. As he walked, his toe caught on something partially buried in the soil. Looking down, Piett lifted his boot and the object let out a mournful squawk. It was a child’s toy lizard, brown and deteriorated with age, though it might once have been brightly colored. Unnerved for reasons he couldn’t quite put a finger on, Piett carefully sidestepped the relic.

“Dare I ask if there’s anything else on this planet that should concern me?” he asked Bait, who had taken to sulkily floating just behind his elbow. The droid swiveled to regard him. “Moon, sir,” he corrected. “Cweorth IV is a moon. Due to its unusually large size, my data indicates that it was likely a capture, drawn into the system by the gravity of the gas giant weesa currently orbit.”

Piett drew a breath. “I didn’t–”

The droid nattered over him, pleased that someone was interested in his option for a change. “If your question refers to native predators, however, only the lerahk is large enough to pose a threat to human life. If your concern is disease, one might potentially contract any number of illnesses common to swamp-worlds, but standard inoculation procedures should provide adequate defense – provided that contaminated water is not ingested. Are you current, Captain Piett?”

Piett nodded distractedly. He was thinking about the crew of the station, about their inevitable fate. A wire strung between two buildings was draped with clothes which had long since rotted to scraps, fluttering absently in the breeze. Had their owners been smugglers, pirates for whom Cweorth’s isolation was a perk rather than a drawback? Or perhaps the station had belonged to one of the galaxy’s innumerable small mining companies, mostly startups run by colonists or civilian prospectors looking to strike it rich. Piett knew they often brought their families with them.

“You have anything more on the station?” he asked Bait. “Operators? Personnel?”

“Negative. The transponder signal I am picking up is generic, not registered under any name or corporation.”

They passed a landspeeder garage and what Piett assumed must have been the station’s water purification facility, both heavily damaged. Blast points peppered the buildings like some kind of necrotic disease. “Small arms fire, probably DC-15s,” Sergeant Hach commented. “Explosive damage is too small for thermal detonators. Probably seismic survey charges. Whatever it was, they didn’t go out without a fight.”

Piett was glad he didn’t have much of an imagination, as the evidence invited him drawn wild conjectures that, with a little creativity, might easily have merited a sensational holovid. The kind of easy, predictable horror that kept cadets awake in their bunks, sweating at the thought of deep space deployment. Piett shook the idea away. The entire affair was shaping up to be a good story to tell his niece the next time duty allowed him time to visit.

At nine standard years of age, his sister’s daughter wanted to be a holojournalist – a profession that Piett was admittedly none too fond of. In his opinion, most holojournalists were little more than troublemakers at best. At worst they were Rebel sympathizers, self-professed “truth seekers” with sympathetic ears that the Alliance found all too easy to bend to their cause. All the same, however, Sonca was only a child – decades away from any true career decision – and if Piett could help it, the Rebel Alliance would be stamped out of existence long before then.

He returned his gaze to the inky waterfall of Vader’s cape, several paces ahead of him. Almost as soon as he’d focused on the man, however, Vader’s stride suddenly went off-kilter. Wobbling, the Dark Lord came to an abrupt halt, placing a massive hand on the side of a prefab structure in order to steady himself. Piett’s stomach knotted uncomfortably. He hurried to Vader’s side.

The Dark Lord paid him no mind at first, his helmeted head tilted downwards, as if he were gathering his strength. Angling his body as not to block the dim sunlight, Piett tried to visually inspect the Dark Lord’s wound, but found the effort sorely unhelpful. Black against black, Vader’s suit seemed to be as much about practicality as it was about an almost ritualistic air of intimidation. Concealed beneath the folds of cloth that made up a second, closer-fitting tabard that hugged the Dark Lord’s body, there was little evidence of injury besides a puncture in the fabric, shiny and clotted with blood.

Uncertain how much leeway his rank granted him, and knowing he could easily be strangled for breaching the Dark Lord’s personal space, Piett cleared his throat. “My lord?” He kept his voice respectfully low, though it afforded them little privacy. “There are anesthetics and bacta injections in my kit, if you would allow me to administer them.”

“No,” Vader growled, slanting him an angry look. “You presume too much, Captain.”

The deep bass of his voice had an edge that’d sent braver men to their knees. Piett held his ground, however, surprised at his own daring. In Cweorth’s climate, an untreated wound could become infected in mere hours, to say nothing if they were forced to spend an extended sojourn on the planet – a prospect which was growing more and more likely, Piett thought, glancing around at the derelict station. There was little hope the uplink tower was in any better shape than the rest of it. He nervously wet his chapped lips with his tongue. “Lord Vader… with all due respect, I don’t think–”

He was interrupted by a sharp, repetitive beep of an alarm. Perhaps just as well, as something malevolent had begun to close around his throat. “Sir!” Bait cried. “I’m detecting motion on my scanners, bearing 37-mark-2 and rapidly approaching.”

“You got a count?” Sergeant Hach demanded.

“Negative, sir. Lifeform reading are packed too closely together, but I estimate over a dozen based on previous data. Mesen apologize for not being of more help! I wasn’t programmed for combat!”

Piett looked around for a place to defend. The rusted prefab buildings were spaced too widely apart to make the streets a viable chokepoint, and climbing to high ground would serve no tactical advantage against creatures that could fly. Sergeant Hach pointed past his shoulder. “Sir, I think we could make a stand there. The overhead cables will keep them from falling on top of us.”

Piett agreed. He took a quick tally of weapons and their estimated range of effectiveness. “Sergeant, you and Lieutenant Balearic get behind cover. Pick them off as them approach. Leonhart, keep to Lord Vader’s flank.” He unholstered his blaster and turned his back to Vader, aware that the Dark Lord had taken his lightsaber from his belt and ignited it.

“Here they come!” Sergeant Hach bellowed.

The first lerahk had crested the hill at the far end of the compound. Sighting it in, Sergeant Hach squeezed off a bolt, peeling a groove through its bulbous eye. More lerahks swept over the bluff, buzzing and chittering, so that Piett’s ears itched with the sound. Bait dove beneath a badly rusted speeder bike and clamped all four legs under his dome, whizzing and beeping in what must have been the binary equivalent of a string of terrified oaths. With Hach and Balearic firing as quickly as they could pick a target, the smell of ozone soon filled the humid air.

Moving with deliberate, almost meditative slowness, Vader closed his other hand around the hilt of his saber. The saber, previously oriented vertical in front of his helmet, began to fall as he slowly let the blade pitch forward until it was pointing at the ground between his feet. Piett felt something dark and weighty gather in the space around him, what he would imagine the Dark Lord’s massive, armorweave cloak to feel like were it draped over him. However, the weight held no warmth; it was cold against his skin, neither the crystalline burn of ice nor the chill grip of space, but something else entirely… almost indescribable… as if the frozen, fathomless dark between the stars could somehow burn.

A battered comm antenna sheered free of its mooring with a horrendous screech, hurtling off a nearby roof as though launched from a cannon. It struck two of the lerahks, shattering their carapaces and knocking them down before plowing through the ranks to crush another. There was a muted boom as the antenna fell back to ground, ejecting dirt and broken fragments of durasteel into the air. A large crate, nearly a meter square, flew down the street and struck another lerahk headlong, leaving a gory smear of whatever primitive, insectoid brain compelled the thing to move.

A moment later, the lerahks reached their position. As Sergeant Hach had hoped, the overhead network of cabling preventing the creatures from diving upon them outright. Instead they were forced to hover, searching for an avenue of attack. Piett took aim, though the constantly shifting horde made it difficult to pick an accurate target. After a moment he simply opened fire, doing his best to strafe the lerahks where they were vulnerable. The rest of the party did the same. Warm, sticky fluids splattered Piett’s upturned face, but he didn’t have time to be disgusted. A lerahk corpse dropped into their midst, writhing and still partially alive. Piett switched his aim and opened fire on the creature’s head until he was satisfied it’d been terminated.

Vader hurled his lightsaber into the seething insects, showering the thoroughfare with severed limbs. He caught it one-handed, reacquiring his saber just in time to pivot and decapitate a lerahk which had dropped to the ground and tried to approach from the rear. Above them, a braided durasteel cable snapped with an alarming twang. One of the lerahks had gotten tangled in the lines and was frantically beating its wings trying to escape, stabbing and lashing with its stinger. Piett quickly leapt back and Vader stepped into the space he’d just vacated, parting the lerahk's exoskeleton with a single, well-timed slash. Ropy yellow guts sluiced onto the damp soil, but the dead lerahk remained suspended above their heads.

Vader faded back a stride, swaying precariously, and he was forced to take another, much quicker step to compensate for his failing balance, his feet placed widely apart. Piett glanced at him, worried by the sudden, real possibility that the Dark Lord might lose consciousness. Vader closed both hands on his saber again, almost as if the two-handed grip was meant to steady him, even if the stability was only perceived. Lunging sideways in a swirl of his black cape, he cut the legs out from under one of the lerahks, angling his saber to pierce the creature’s thorax as it fell, crippled and helpless, upon the blade.

Hach gave a cry, more startled than in pain. Piett spared an anxious glance and saw that the eye socket of the Sergeant’s helmet had been partially shattered, the jagged bone-white edge soaked with a disturbing amount of blood. With a snarl, Hach swung the butt of his rifle like a club, striking one of the lerahks out of the air. In the half second it was grounded, he stomped his boot atop its spindly leg, crunching flesh and chitin, and held it place while he fired point blank into the creature’s eye.

“There’s too many!” he shouted. “We have to retreat!”

Retreat to where? Piett glanced about the compound, but found nothing better than the first time he’d searched, just wide-open streets and the large, gaping wounds of whatever struggle had taken place there over a decade ago. Some of the deteriorated buildings might provide temporary cover, but they’d be forced to squeeze together, hampering each others movements and limiting their own effectiveness against the creatures.

“When animals are threatened, they either turn and fight, or attempt to flee,” Moff Tarkin had told him once. “Fighting is always the better option, Lieutenant. More often than not, the shallow burrow the creature assumed would be its refuge instead becomes its grave.”

A handful of lerahks had taken to sitting on the adjacent rooftops, their heads twitching erratically, either waiting for a better ingress, or seizing the opportunity to rest while the rest of the hive probed the party’s defenses. For the first time all day, Piett saw something that resembled a glimmer of intelligence in those large, faceted eyes. Vader stretched a hand towards the creature and torqued his wrist, a motion that was mirrored in the quick, brutal rotation of an insectoid head, nearly twisting it off. It struck the roof as it fell, reverberating through the gutted building.

“Sirs! SIRS!” Bait cried, vocal speakers crackling at peak volume. “There is a maintenance bunker approximately fifteen meters to the south. You might try there!”

Fifteen meters – fifteen meters to dash across open ground, to a bunker that might be locked, destroyed or otherwise inaccessible. Piett grit his teeth, but his command prerogative was clear. Remaining at their current position was not an option. “We make for the bunker!” he shouted, raising his voice to be heard over the chaos. “Hach, Balearic! Punch us a hole!”

“Yessir!” Hach reached around and pried the cylindrical thermal detonator from the small of his back. Thumbing the code without looking, he depressed the activation switch, held it for a count of five, then lobbed it into the midst of the swarm. Piett jammed gloved fingers into his ears just as charge exploded midair, showering him with moist chunks of chitin and internal organs. The lerahk swarm burst apart.

“Go!” Hach shouted.

As one, the Imperial party surged forward. After a moments trembling hesitation, Bait zoomed from his hiding place and shot ahead at about knee height, leading them across the compound. Within seconds, the loamy red soil turned into a duracrete ramp, sloping swiftly down to meet a corroded blastdoor. “Let me! I can interface with this equipment!” Bait cried, shooting forward.

The lerahks had knotted together again.

“Hurry, droid!” Leonhart hissed, aiming down her blaster.

Piett opened fire again, a thread of bluish ozone curling from the heated barrel. A lerahk carcass hit the ramp and slid several meters, stopping just shy of their position. At least now he had a partial answer as to what happened to the previous occupants of the station.

“Almost there!” Bait cried, cycling through his interface. The door gave a garbled click and began retracting into the wall, internal mechanisms grinding. “I’ve got it!”

Firing as he went, Piett walked backwards through the narrow opening, his blaster perilously close to an overheat. The moist and moldy dark of the bunker beckoned him in, washed over his sunburnt skin. Hach took a knee just inside and fired his rifle back up the ramp, piercing wing and thorax and chitinous skull. Still outside, Lieutenant Balearic reached for his thermal detonator and went to throw it. A moment later, a hardened spike burst through the back of his body. Hot, coppery blood flecked Piett’s face as the dying man screamed, somehow able to maintain enough cognitive thought to hurl the detonator away. As the Lieutenant’s body hit the ground in a heap, Piett made a motion to go for him, only to have Vader’s hand clamp on his shoulder. Solid durasteel fingers bit his flesh hard enough to leave individual bruises.

“Take cover!” Vader ordered, using his grip on Piett’s shoulder to fling the Captain to the side, against the duracrete wall. Sergeant Hach and Leonhart threw themselves next to him just as the detonator exploded. Dust and larger chunks of debris rained from the ceiling, and a large portion of the entryway collapsed.

Piett coughed, his ears ringing from the force of the explosion. Outside, the lerahks swooped back in to assess where their prey had gone, only to come up against a mound of soil and shattered duracrete. Piett watch their shadows blot out the thin, jagged beams of red sunlight pouring into the bunker through gaps in the debris. He gripped his blaster, but the ramp had filled in too much, leaving nothing large enough for the creatures to squeeze through. Piett let out the breath he’d been holding and rose, somewhat shakily, to his feet.

As the dust settled, he was able to make out Vader standing with his back against the opposite wall, closer to the blast than they were, but still remarkably unscathed. He dipped his helmeted head in acknowledgment of Piett’s unspoken question, but remained silent. The sound of his respirator echoed in the dusty air, each time catching a little on the inhale. “Investigate this facility,” the Dark Lord commanded. “I wish to know of any other access points.”

Leonhart gave a nod. For a fleeting moment, Piett had the impression that this was what she truly looked like, not the pressed and polished image of an Imperial pilot, but with dirt and blood dotting her face and her hair hanging wild about her face. Unaware, or more likely unconcerned with Piett’s scrutiny, Leonhart pulled a glowrod from her survival pack and held it high, not relinquishing her grip on her E-11 as she moved off into the gloom.

At the same time, Piett realized that Vader had not deactivated his lightsaber. Holding it with an almost casual air, Vader eased himself off the wall and stepped deeper into the bunker. Piett moved to walk beside him, trying to think of something that would make his superior stop and take stock of his own health. It would have been far easier if he could just order him to do so, but only the Emperor himself had the power to command Lord Vader. Anything else was just a suggestion – one made at great personal risk – and Piett had already pushed his luck once.

Their footsteps echoed off the walls, the noise at once sharp and hollow, fading into the void that Piett could feel looming around him. The bunker was quite large, perhaps several dozen meters in width, and at least double that many in length. Bait activated a small light on his dome and panned it around, revealing workbenches and heaps of scrap metal stacked haphazardly along the walls. The hulking silhouette of a binary loader loomed out of the darkness. “This place was probably the main storage and repair facility for the station,” Bait informed them. “At the time, it was standard procedure to place vital systems underground in case of Separatist attack.”

They found an aged computer terminal and Bait immediately moved to investigate. After a moment, the droid said, “Systems are still functioning at minimal power. I presume you wish the north entrance to remain locked, but I can also turn on the lights and raise the blastshields on the windows. Do you wish me to do so?”

“Fine, but only lift the shields partway,” Hach responded, reaching up to remove his damaged helmet. To Piett’s surprise, the Sergeant turned out to be a clone, his face deep and weathered by a thousand campaigns. Tossing the ruined helmet aside, Hach dabbed his bloody face with the palm of his glove, revealing a deep laceration across his brow, but otherwise the injury was far less substantial than the amount of blood would suggest, though it was fortunate the Sergeant had not lost an eye.

“Acknowledged,” said Bait.

Illumination panels reluctantly crackled to life along the ceiling, dim and yellow with age. Several immediately short-circuited. Along the upper limit of the walls, there was a horrendous gnashing of gears as the blastshields rattled up about half a meter. Streams of deep red sunlight poured into the bunker, filtered in through dirty windows which, Piett realized, were level with the ground outside. He blinked against the light, now a murky, jaundiced scarlet.

Shouldering his rifle, Hach climbed to the promenade that ran under the windows and peered cautiously outside, leaning his armored shoulder against the wall. A shadow swept by, followed by another. Hach set his jaw, squeezing the blood from his lips. “They’re still out there,” he said darkly. Now that his helmet vocoder had been removed, Piett was able to recognize the familiar, ubiquitous voice. “Dozens of the evil buggers.”

Inside his glove, Piett’s hand was clammy with sweat. When he moved to holster his blaster, his grip squelched uncomfortably, but not nearly as uncomfortable as the thoughts running through his mind. They’d lost half their number just getting to this ill-fated station, while the lerahks had doubled their own. Whether they were intruders upon the creature’s territory or merely prey animals, the matter had been rendered academic. The swarm that had just attacked them was much larger than the one they’d encountered in the swamp, and Piett doubted the creatures would be dissipating anytime soon. He considered his options. They had provisions and water for a handful of days, if rationed carefully. Perhaps it would be wiser to simply wait it out for a time.

Leonhart returned from her sweep. “There’s a swoop bike in the back, but I wouldn’t trust it with anybody’s life,” she reported, raking damp hair away from her face. “I also found a couple of X-34 landspeeders, both in various pieces. Looks like they were trying to scavenge them for parts. It’d take me a week to get one running, if at all.”

Vader’s gaze swept the bunker, eventually coming to rest on the CLL loadlifter, deactivated in the midst of piling empty fuel cells aboard a maintenance skiff. “Is that hovercraft operational?” he asked.

Leonhart shrugged. “I didn’t check, my lord. Thing’s too slow to make much an escape.”

“I... am aware of that,” said Vader, his voice oddly strained. “Do it anyway.”

Piett watched as Vader prowled amongst the containers and piles of scrap machinery, his movements slow and methodical, obviously scanning the detritus for something of use. After a moment, he stopped to conduct a survey of a cluttered workbench. Piett noticed several hydraulic actuators amidst the servos and nests of stripped wire, including what looked like the core of a shield generator. It was this latter that interested Vader the most. He lifted it free of the workbench and held it up for inspection. “Droid,” he said suddenly, “bring me a toolkit. You will assist me.”

Bait did was he was obliged and hovered near the Dark Lord’s armored shoulder, looking almost comically suspicious, but still eager to be helpful as Vader reached out to select a hydrospanner. To his dismay, Piett noticed the Dark Lord’s hand was shaking, his fingertips juddering in an uncontrollable spasm. Vader clenched his fist with a snarl, bending the supremacy of his mind over his treacherous, failing body. When he opened his fist, the tremor had been suppressed, if only barely.

Piett decided that waiting out the creatures was not an option. Another day – another few hours – and Lord Vader would likely not survive his injury. Piett’s swallowed, his throat making an audible click, but his uneasy thoughts soon drifted, fascinated by Vader’s movements as he probed the shield generator. The same massive hands which had wrapped around the throats of Rebel prisoners and crushed their spines with nothing more than his enormous physical strength, now gently caressed circuit boards and plasma conduits, twining together a series of broken wires with a dexterous touch Piett had not thought the Dark Lord capable. He was suddenly overwhelmed by the sense that he was witnessing something he should not.

He knew nothing of the Dark Lord’s past, save for the fact he had appeared fully-formed almost to the day the Empire had risen from the ashes of the Republic. Before that, he simply hadn’t existed. It was if he were a physical manifestation of the Empire itself, and yet as the Dark Lord skillfully adjusted the various mechanical components, Piett was filled by a deep and ineffably dangerous sense of curiosity. The thought that Vader might have hobbies or personal interests had never occurred to him before. It frightened him, quite honestly. He quickly averted his gaze, lest he be strangled for having the audacity to stare, and moved to help Leonhart clear the fuel cells off the skiff.

“Repulsors are still in decent shape,” she told him. “Give me ten minutes and I’ll have it working.”

The Captain was good to her word. In less time than that, she had the skiff in a shallow hover, though at a much lower height than Piett knew to be standard. Leonhart leaned on the cargo bed, and the hovercraft sank by nearly half. “It won’t carry much,” she muttered, scowling. “Certainly not any of us. I could try replacing the fuel matrix.”

“That won’t be necessary, Captain,” said Vader. With one hand, he gestured to the shield generator sitting upright on the workbench. It wasn’t a pretty sight. A metallic nest of wires and foreign components, with most of its external plating stripped away to access the internal workings, the shield generator looked barely functional. Piett carefully picked it up, realizing what Lord Vader had in mind. There was only a slight problem. The shield was designed to protect against energy bombardment, not–

“I have modified it appropriately,” Vader interrupted, somehow reading his thoughts. The sound of the respirator was definitely starting to hitch, raking harshly with every inhale.

Startled, Piett hastily bowed his head. “Yes, my lord,” he said quickly. He placed the shield generator in the center of the skiff, found the activation switch, and pressed it down with a click. A column of blue plasma bloomed from the top of the device and arced several meters into the air before bubbling around them. A pulse of unstable energy raced along the membrane, first red, then a muted shade of purple.

Hach picked his rifle off a nearby crate. “Well, droid? You got us a way out?”

“Affirmative. I have calculated the shortest possible route to the comm tower.” Bait activated a hologram projector on his dome and materialized a grainy image of station. “Please keep in mind that dis is only what I retrieved from the local database. Structural modifications made by station personnel and natural alterations to the terrain may have occurred over time.”

A small, blinking dot appeared in the lower left corner of the hologram. “Dis is our current location,” Bait explained. “Exiting the bunker from the north, we will follow this thoroughfare for half a klick until we reach the mineral refinery.”

The hologram panned and zoomed in, highlighting the large communications array built atop the cliff. “From the refinery, blueprints indicate that we can reach the comm tower via an external stairway. There is only a 4.2% chance of the turbolift being in working order, so I have bypassed that route entirely.”

“So all in all, about three klicks of ground to cover,” said Hach. “We’d best get moving.”

 

---------------------------------------------

The north-facing door of the bunker slid apart with a gritty, asthmatic rattle. Piett kept a tight grip on his blaster, even knowing that if the shield failed, the DL-44 would ultimately avail him little. Walking slowly to keep up with the aged hovercraft, they ascended the ramp into the hazy crimson twilight. To all sides, long purple shadows stretched between the buildings like inky pools.

“I thought you said this planet didn’t have a night,” Hach remarked, his voice tense.

“Cweorth’s rotational axis ensures that the local star appears to rise and fall in relation to the horizon, thus the ambient light also rises and falls by approximately 15.2% daily,” Bait replied. “However, what I said is correct. As the sun never fully disappears, this moon does not experience true night.”

Piett couldn’t decide if the droid’s blithe chatter made him more or less nervous. The lerahks where nowhere in sight, but he knew that wouldn’t last long, five or six minutes at the most. It wasn’t his first campaign to go tits up planetside, but it was certainly the first he’d experienced in the company of Lord Vader. Out of the comparatively cool interior of the bunker, pinpricks of sweat popped up on his brow and drizzled uncomfortably down his sides. The muck and swamp water that’d poured into his boots some hours previous had dried to a gelatinous crust.

Piett wiped his forehead on his sleeve, all while watching Lord Vader out of the corner of his eye. For now, the Dark Lord was coping well enough to fool a less observant man, though his strides were less powerful, his posture less erect. Piett marveled at how easily the man could shrug off pain and discomfort, forcing his body to keep the pace even while toxins ran thick in his veins.

They walked on, following the main thoroughfare even as the false night of Cweorth closed in around them. The ground under them began to rise, gently at first, and then more steeply. Beside him, Vader stumbled. Piett quickly shot out a hand to steady him, his pulse jumping as Bait began emitting a series of tones. “Incoming contacts!” the droid cried.

Piett realized he had not let go of Vader’s arm until the Dark Lord irritably shrugged him off, grasping his lightsaber but not yet igniting it. Piett glanced anxiously at the sky, his vision obscured by both the nebulous shield and the waning light. They walked another five paces. Another ten. Bait let out a binary sort of whine, and then the lerahks were upon them. Their buzzing wingbeats audible even over the hum of the shield, the creatures circled for a long minute, wary of the glowing object and whether or not it posed a threat. One of them finally lunged, stinger extended.

The shield gave an energetic crack and flashed a pale red, the agitated plasma giving off a familiar ripple of static. The lerahk retreated with an insectoid shriek, stunned enough to momentarily fall to the ground. A hard smile sliced across Piett’s face. “Do not fall behind,” Vader warned suddenly, his tone ominous. “The shield is polarized and will-” his respirator pulled harshly, “-not permit reentry.”

The gravel underfoot turned to cracked duracrete. They’d reached a more industrialized section of the station, leaving Piett to assume that the remainder had been purely residential. Stacks of crates, no doubt piled together for shipment, were scattered across the field, many of them overturned and spilling their contents. Under years of dust, Piett could just make out the brittle, dirty green of what might have been beryllium.

“Dis way! Up the stairs!” Bait directed them.

The mineral refinery had been built in two levels, the one on the ground which included the rudimentary landing field and banks of power generators, and the upper, a large promenade built against the cliff and crisscrossed by pipes as thick as a man’s waist, many of them dipping into the nearby marsh where the edge of tailings dump stretched away from the side of the refinery.

Their caution spent, the lerahks were beginning to pelt the shield in earnest, one after the other. The shield flickered, now glowing an almost constant shade of red. Sergeant Hach swore colorfully. “Heads up, people! On the cliffs!”

Piett looked up and felt like swearing himself. High on the cliff were hundreds of mud nests, swollen and bubbled like a cancerous disease. More lerahks were beginning to fold themselves from the narrow, crimped openings, birthing themselves into the haze. Piett’s mouth dried up, but it was too late to turn back. The shield had a limited power supply, which it was burning through at a much faster pace than the device normally accounted for. Hach put his rifle to his shoulder and opened fire into the swarm. Most scattered. Several fell down wounded.

Up one level, the Imperial party moved laterally along the cliff, sidestepping the giant pipes and piles of abandoned machinery. Empty fuel lines split like overripe fruit as Piett crushed them underfoot, and all the while the lerahk swarm grew more and more angry as their quarry was denied to them. Their tactics grew more aggressive, no doubt in response to their close proximity to the hive. Piett staggered as the gantry he was standing on suddenly gave a lurch. He peered down through the latticed metal to see that several of the lerahks had taken to perching on the underside, their stingers bursting through the floor only to be repelled by the shield.

The gantry rocked again, harder this time. The lerahks weren’t just perching on the underside.

They were ramming it.

Leonhart pointed her blaster at the floor and a handful of shots slipped through to find their mark, but the air was so thick with lerahks that the effect was minimal. The gantry narrowed and began to slope, climbing towards the comm tower at the top of the cliff. Piett had the sudden, horrific thought that the array had long since been engulfed by the hive. They’d certainly had enough years to assess the local property market. Perhaps they’d found it cozy and daubed the inside with mud, built a hellish nursery for their larvae. A blistering, sexually dubious curse made its way to the forefront of Piett’s mind, something the pirate fleets of Axxila had spat in his face enough times for him to memorize it.

Beneath his feet, the gantry shook with a muted boom that rattled Piett’s teeth. He staggered and seized the handrail for support. Cylinders of fuel toppled and began to roll. Had the incline been this steep before? Piett didn’t think so. The gantry rocked again, wrenching another meter lower. Blessed Emperor have mercy, Piett had time to think, before the world gave out from under him.

Weakened by the lerahks hammering mercilessly at the supports, the rusted gantry abruptly sheered away behind them, collapsing under the weight of the machinery piled atop it. Piett went to his knees as the incline he was standing on tilted precariously, his ears filled with the shriek of metal as a portion of walkway peeled away from the cliff, warping as it fell. There was a high-pitched scream. Piett frantically twisted to look, but Leonhart was already gone. To his ever increasing horror, however, he did see the hovercraft and the shield it carried sliding backwards towards the edge, as was Sergeant Hach, the smooth planes of his armor providing no traction.

Piett made a frantic grab as they pitched over the edge, only to see them halt midair several meters below. Braced against the near seventy-degree slope with his boots planted against the incline, Vader held onto the railing with one hand. His other was extended, the first two fingers lifted from his lightsaber and splayed. The shield halted midair and the skiff slid out from under it, plunging forty feet to the muck below. Caught in the grip of Vader’s mind, Sergeant Hach floated alongside it, looking up at Vader with naked relief in his eyes. Piett slid down to his knees and extended his hand as far as he dared. “Take my hand!” he yelled.

Hach and the shield floated up towards him, the luminous bubble of the latter flickering dangerously. Piett felt what was about to happen before it did. With a terrible, sour whine, the shield generator belched a cloud of sparks and the protective bubble instantly shrunk by more than half, leaving Hach dangling outside the shield. Before either of them could move to do anything, the lerahks set upon him like a cloud of flies, stinging again and again, and Piett couldn’t spare a hand to blot out the sound of his screams. Vader dropped the limp ragdoll of a corpse and it disappeared into the swarm.

“Climb!” the Dark Lord ordered, his voice almost a snarl. The floating shield wobbled, nearly tipping from the poison-soaked grasp of his mind. Piett inched his way up the incline, a full two meters until he reached level ground. Vader was the last to reach the top, his powerful legs trembling beneath him. He mentally shoved the shield ahead of him and it clattered to the gantry, barely encompassing the two of them.

Piett frantically reached out and caught the Dark Lord’s arm, leaning backwards in an attempt to counterbalance the man’s enormous weight. Vader got an armored knee over the edge, every muscle straining until he was able to hoist himself up, collapsing heavily to his injured shoulder. A strangled oath burst from his vocoder; in what might have been Huttese. The lerahks swept overhead. Screeching. Hungry.

“Sirs we have ta go!” Bait whined.

Vader moved to stand, a sudden gust of wind snapping at his muddied cloak. He’d barely made it halfway before his legs unhinged and he was forced to kneel again, hunched over with his helmeted head nearly on his knee. The steady rhythm of his respirator had become a shallow, labored drag, though it kept its ruthless pace, inflating his lungs again and again despite the unwilling muscle.

They’re gone… they’re all dead. It’d happened so fast, no more than fifteen seconds to lose two more lives. Numb with shock and adrenaline, Piett no longer had any room for complicated thought. It was just the two of them now, plus the frantically hovering droid. And if they didn’t move soon, they wouldn’t survive either. Galvanized by the sudden, incredible strength of the desperate, Piett draped Vader’s thickly muscled arm over his shoulders and heaved the Dark Lord to his feet.

“Grab the shield and GO!” he shouted at the droid. “Go, go!”

And kriff this planet to the blackest depths of hell!

Bait darted down, clamped his pincers on the generator and lifted it as best he could, repulsors straining under the load. Piett could smell the stench of burning circuits, but couldn’t tell if they were coming from the droid or the failing shield. He dug his fingers into the padded leather at Vader’s waist and concentrated on placing one foot in front of the other. The stairs loomed up to taunt him, but somehow they made the ascent, one halting step at a time.

The first time Vader stumbled, he brought Piett down with him, his hand fumbling against the captain’s shoulder, instinctively grasping for a hold as both men went down in a tangle of bodies. Piett hit his knees first, forced to let go of Vader in order to stop himself from face-planting on the edged metal steps. The gantry jolted again, rammed hard from below.

“Almost there, my lord,” Piett gasped, taking hold of Vader’s arm again. Planting his feet, he pulled the Dark Lord upright again and felt something burst in the center of his back, a wave of hot, liquid torture rolling down his spine. Piett dropped back to his knees, head bowed against the pain. Through great effort, Vader stiffly angled his helmet to look at him. “Captain,” he grated between rasping breaths, “I… do not require… you to sacrifice yourself on my behalf…”

“My choice, not yours,” Piett snapped. Breathless, he grit his teeth and forced his abused body to stand. The azure bubble around them sparked and dimmed. Reaching out with his injured arm, Vader seized the railing and they ascended the last dozen steps to reach the top of the cliff. Piett squinted against the fiery scarlet light, the wind raking at his curls. Rising two stories above the lifeless brown mesa, the comm antenna was only another fifteen meters away.

The lerahk swarm burst up after them and into the sky, plunging at them with a combined screech. The protective bubble of plasma shrank even further, so close the edge nearly brushed Piett’s arm. Bait whined and clutched the shield generator closer to his dome. “Please hurry! It won’t hold out much longer!”

They made a final push for the tower. “My lord… the door,” Piett’s voice had gone hoarse, his breathing sounding as loud to his own ears as Vader’s respirator. Vader lifted a shaking hand, took hold of the door with his mind, and heaved it aside with a rusted screech. The room beyond was a yawning void into which Piett could not see. Offering a quick prayer to whichever of the galaxy’s millions of deities happened to be listening, Piett made for the opening, realizing instantly that they couldn’t fit through it two abreast. Spinning around, he entered sideways, stumbling as Vader’s dead weight bore down on him. Unable to hold him any longer, he let the Dark Lord down on the floor as easy as he could manage, only to crane his neck to look back and realize that most of Vader’s lower legs hadn't cleared the doorway. And the lerahks were preparing to charge.

The shield sputtered out of existence.

With one final, panicked burst of strength, Piett hooked both hands under the Dark Lord’s shoulders, set his feet and tugged, ignoring the spike of agony in his lower back. Thankfully, the floor was smooth enough that Vader slid relatively easily – much easier than Piett had anticipated. Overbalanced, he tangled his boots together and fell hard with Vader nearly in his lap. Bait dropped the shield generator on the floor and darted for the control panel.

“Close it NOW!” Piett hollered.

The lerahk swarm knotted together and charged.

At the last possible moment, an emergency blastshield dropped out of its slot and sealed the door with a pressurized hiss. There was a series of bangs as the lerahks rammed into from the other side, but the aged door held. Gasping for breath, Piett untangled his legs from beneath Vader’s massive shoulders. The room was dim and sweltering, filled with the chemical smell of warm plasteel, but nothing rushed from the corners to slaughter them. Narrow, slotted windows high in the ceiling allowed some light into the room. Too narrow, Piett was relieved to notice, for the lerahks to force their way through – even if they managed to shatter them.

“Lights!” he ordered hoarsely. Please let there be lights.

A battered illumination panel flickered to life on the wall, revealing a tiny hexagonal room which contained nothing besides an outmoded console and moldy boxes of spare parts – that and a mummified corpse dressed in dirty orange coveralls. A bottle of liquor stood on the edge of the console, the liquid inside long since turned to amber resin. Piett swallowed the dust in his throat, too exhausted to wonder what it all meant. He grasped Vader’s arm. “Lord Vader? Can you-” He coughed, then took a quick breath and tried again. “Can you sit up?”

Vader’s helmet tilted, as if the man were considering his answer. “No.”

With the last of his strength, Piett maneuvered the Dark Lord into a sitting position against the console. Vader let his helmeted head fall back, his breathing harsh in the confined space. Piett stayed crouched beside him for a moment, waves of pain rolling down his back in spasms. He wondered if he’d even be able to stand again, or if he’d be forced to crawl.

“Can I be of any assistance?” Bait asked, hovering up beside them. When neither of the men responded with anything more than their ragged breathing, the droid pinched the nozzle of Piett’s survival pack and offered it to him. “Perhaps you should hydrate,” he told him simply.

It was utterly absurd. Water was the least of his problems right now, and yet the gesture left Piett feeling immensely grateful for the tiny droid. If Bait hadn’t been with them, he never would have been able to carry the shield generator and Lord Vader as well. They would have died below on the gantry. Piett bit the proffered nozzle and hot, mineralized water gushed down his throat.

“There! The electrolytes should help you recover,” said Bait, his tone conversational. Trust a droid to always offer something of reason, no matter how dire the situation. “Additionally, the emergency transponder I’ve been tracking is located here in this building. Judging by the blaster wound to our companion’s skull, he self-terminated when the signal would not reach beyond the planet.”

Charmingly blunt, as always.

“We’ve got to make sure it does for us,” said Piett, his head clearing marginally. There wasn’t time for him to rest, no matter how desperately he needed to. “Any chance of boosting the signal?”

“I will investigate, Captain Piett.”

“Interference,” Vader rasped suddenly. The lights on his chest panel were flickering. “The nearby star… emits shortwave radiation. You must set the tower to compensate for the interference. I will–” Vader stiffened and broke off, seized by crushing spasm of pain. Piett put his hands out, braced to catch the Dark Lord if he toppled, but Vader waved him off. “I will guide you when you are ready,” he finished, the words painfully slow.

Piett didn’t know whether Vader knew this due to his connection with the Force or because of personal experience, but he remained by the Dark Lord’s side as Bait went back and forth across the room, prodding at various access panels. Several lerahks landed on the roof above, their shadows moving across the floor. Piett cast a wary glance at them. After a moment he wearily scrubbed his face with his palm, only to realize his mistake when his skin began to sting.

“I believe we can send a signal,” said Bait, “but I will need assistance to align the tower.”

Piett forced his watery legs beneath him and stood. For the next several minutes, he stood at the control panel and inputted coordinates, following Vader’s precise instructions. After the dish had been encoded to a secure channel, he grasped the comm and began transmitting. “Emergency. This is Captain Piett of the Imperial Star Destroyer Devastator, clearance code 081817-B. I repeat, this is Captain Piett ordering a Series 4 emergency protocol. Immediate medevac at this coordinate.”

The comm was silent. Though Bait assured him the message had been sent, there was no way to know for sure. Piett set the distress beacon to loop, feeling horribly lightheaded. Wobbling, he pinched the bridge of his nose for a minute, then wearily slid down the console to sit next to Lord Vader. The heat of the room was oppressive and humid, easily trending towards the claustrophobic. Piett unfastened the front of his uniform and relished what little relief it provided. Completely spent, he tilted his head back against the console, watching the lerahks irritably buzz about the narrow slatted windows.

He thought of Leonhart and Sergeant Hach, and the troopers whose names he hadn’t known. He would have to write their families, if any existed, and inform them of their deaths. Hopefully, there would still be a body send to each of their homeworlds, draped honorably beneath the Imperial flag. For some reason, the thought ached where it usually didn’t. Beside him, Vader tried to shift to a more comfortable position and grunted when the pain flared.

“There’s still anesthetics in my kit,” Piett offered, concerned.

Vader shook his head. “They will be of no use,” the Dark Lord retorted, leaning his helmet back against the console “but… the offer is appreciated, Captain.”

Stunned by Vader’s apparent honesty, Piett found he had no words to respond. He returned his gaze to the ceiling, aware that Bait had settled himself on the console above their heads, perched there in an obviously protective sort of way. How long would it be before they could expect a rescue? There was no way to guess and Piett refused to think on it, knowing how little time there was left.

Above, the sun moved slowly behind the comm array, forming a false eclipse.

 

---------------------------------------------

It was amazing how even the harshest of planets could look beautiful from orbit.

Piett fingered the bacta tape currently stitching his cheek together, gazing out over the system. In the shadow of its parent planet, Cweorth looked like a polished copper orb, the crimson light of the nearby star mixing with its nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere and giving the entire moon a glowing, violet sheath.

It’d been nearly twenty four hours since an Imperial drop ship had pulled them from the moon’s surface. The lerahk nest had been swiftly exterminated upon the simultaneous arrival of dozens of Stormtroopers and a TIE attack squadron. In that time Piett had eaten and showered thoroughly. After several hours of sleep, he’d even allowed the 2-1B surgical droid to talk him into rubbing a medicated cream over his sunburnt skin – but he still fancied he could feel the heat and slime of the moon, even under his clean uniform. Thankfully, however, the ruptured disc in his lumbar was a souvenir he could not feel at the moment, though he was aware of the tape pulled across his skin to support it.

Ozzel was impatient to be on their way, but there’d been a, ahem, slight miscommunication as Piett had already sent a recon team down to the planet to recover the bodies of the troopers, thus preventing the Star Destroyer from leaving orbit. He’d already gotten his quota of amusement for the day as he’d watched Ozzel puff and bluster, pretending he’d meant to order the retrieval all along. Piett tapped the datapad he was holding with his finger, scrolling past the names of the deceased.

The door hissed open behind him and Vader’s measured, even breathing heralded his arrival long before Piett saw him. The Dark Lord joined him at the viewport, his cloak brushing Piett’s ankles. There was no indication that Vader had ever been planetside at all. Piett glanced at him, though Vader was currently looking out the window and did not meet his gaze. He had a number of questions, the most pertinent of which was whether Vader should be out of medical so soon after nearly dying via a combination of paralytic venom and sepsis. After deciding that the inquiry would be too disrespectful, no matter how well-intended, Piett condensed it down to a single query.

“Are you well, my lord?”

“Well enough,” Vader replied cryptically.

Piett let the matter drop, aware that he would get nothing further. They stood in silence for a time, but it was not uncomfortable. Piett was surprised to discover that, under the right circumstances, the pace of Vader’s respirator could be oddly relaxing, a pendulum to which he unconsciously began to match his own breathing. After a moment, the door opened again and Piett turned to see two Stormtroopers march in hauling a third man between him, his hands in binder cuffs. Piett kept his expression neutral, but he wondered who had misunderstood his order to bring the mechanic the detention level, not to the observation deck.

“I countermanded the order,” said Vader ominously. He slowly turned to face the troopers, watching as they deposited their prisoner on the floor and left without a word. The cuffed mechanic struggled to get to his feet, the bruise swelling under his left eye hinting at the gentle treatment the Stormtroopers had provided before they’d taken him into custody, but upon seeing Lord Vader looming silently at the end of the room, the young man decided it would be better to remain on his knees.

“L-lord Vader,” he breathed, going mushroom pale. “Captain Piett. What’s going on?”

“I think you know,” said Piett. He wasn’t sure where the situation was going, but he had a grim inkling. He tapped his datapad against his thigh. “Phineas Flynn is your name, correct?” he asked, somewhat rhetorically, as he’d already pulled the young man’s files some twenty minutes previous.

“Y-yes, sir.”

“Graduated Lothal Academy four months ago. No living parents, older sister already in the service – a commanding sergeant aboard the Star Destroyer Ultimatum,” Piett reiterated from memory. “Tell me, Flynn, what would your sister think if she knew her brother was a rebel spy?”

The young man gulped. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Captain sir.”

“Lord Vader’s shuttle is subjected to the strictest of inspections, and yet a deliberate act of sabotage was somehow overlooked inside the hyperdrive compartment. I also seem to recall that as you were departing my company yesterday, you claimed you had just refueled the shuttle. However, records indicate that the Praetorian had already been fueled several days previous.” Piett leveled a cold stare at the engineer. “Your field of study was in hyperdrive design, was it not?”

“Sir, I-” Phineas choked, his bound hands suddenly flying to his throat. Piett watched as something unseen hoisted the squirming man to his feet, holding him so his toes barely touched the deck. Vader had not moved except to lift his hand, but Piett could feel the Dark Lord’s immense power rippling outwards.

“I grow tired of your lies,” Vader snapped. “Who is your contact?”

“There- there isn’t anyone! I don’t know what–”

Who?” Vader thundered, his mental grip tightening.

Something gleamed in Flynn’s eyes like an icy fragment of glass. “I don’t know; we never spoke face-to-face, just over the holonet.” Vader’s invisible grasp loosened a fraction, enough for the young man to speak, though his voice was still squeezed breathless. “But even if I did,” he continued, “I wouldn’t give him up to the likes of you! You asked about my sister? I did it for her, to keep her from dying aboard your war machines, pressing your boot down on good folk because they won’t bend their kne- urkkk!

Flynn’s eyes rolled back until the whites showed, scrabbling at his throat for something he couldn’t neither see nor grasp, but whose grip was no less real. There was the dull, muffled snap of splintering bone and Flynn’s hands swung loosely to his sides. Vader dropped the corpse in a heap.

Piett tried to summon some measure of pity for the way the young man had died, but found he had none to spare. It’d vanished when he’d heard Leonhart plunge to her death, when he’d watched Sergeant Hach die in agony before his very eyes. “He might have known more,” was all the Captain could say.

“He knew nothing,” Vader spat, disgusted. “That much I could sense.”

As he looked at the corpse, Piett decided instead to pity the circumstances that set brave men and women against each other, their courage warped to serve misplaced ideals. The Empire had its flaws – Piett was aware of many – but it was a far better system than that of the Republic and the corrupt bureaucrats who’d allowed a war to drag indefinitely while they hid behind a flimsy shield of morality, staining the years with the blood of innocents and the soldiers it created to die. The Empire forced no one to fight for it; the Imperial navy was completely voluntary. Flynn’s elder sister had made her choice the day she’d signed up, and to imply that she needed “rescuing” from that choice not only insulted her, but the thousands of others who served alongside her.

No, Piett decided he felt no pity for traitors.

As if by some unspoken cue, the door swished opened again and the two Stormtroopers reappeared. Seizing the dead body by the arms, they hoisted it between them and left to dispose of it, sidestepping the floating droid trying to come into the room.

“Was that the rebel saboteur, Captain Piett? If so, his termination gratifies me,” said Bait, his polished dome and newly applied copper trim gleaming in the light. “In any case, I am here to inform you that since the retrieval of deceased personnel has been accomplished, Admiral Ozzel wishes to be underway. You also have a transmission from Imperial Center demanding an update on the negotiations at Isa.”

It just never ends, does it? Piett straightened his uniform, feeling lighter despite the uncomfortable business he’d just participated in. “I will be there shortly,” he told the droid.

Vader tracked the seeker as it floated over to hover next to Piett’s shoulder. “You’re keeping that thing active?” The Dark Lord asked, the modulated tone of his voice shimmering with something very much like bemusement – though it might possibly have been closer to annoyance.

Piett shrugged, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips. “I am, my lord,” he responded mildly. “I’ve had Bait upgraded with all the necessary programming to serve as my personal assistant.”

Bait whistled a happy tone. “Mesa youss humble servant, Capytan!”

Piett could practically see Vader’s scowl through his mask, though he was unsure if he’d imagined the part where the Dark Lord grumbled something about blowing the droid out an airlock. For the first time over a month, Piett allowed himself the indulgence of laughter.