Designing and creating inventions, Luke was learning, was a skill the empire at large seemed far too happy to heap needless pomp and ceremony on to.
If he’d known when taking on the job of Head Engineer aboard the Executor— sorry, the Lady, that so much fuss would be made about every little improvement he made to anything he would’ve— well, he would’ve certainly given it all more of thought than he had! He certainly would’ve insisted at the very least that his name be kept off of any official documents concerning the damn things. As far as the empire was concerned, they could just believe that the new upgrades and inventions had popped out of the dune sea sand.
Luke sighed to himself. Well, that wasn’t completely true. He did like being acknowledged when having built something he was, in all honesty, pretty proud of. But if he’d had any say in it, said acknowledgement would’ve come in the form of a pat on the shoulder and some praise from his employer/mentor/indefinable-but-steadfastly-positive-figure-in-Luke’s-life Darth Vader. Maybe a “thank you” here and there from the people he’d actually helped though even that was hardly necessary. But certainly not this.
Having just finished designing, producing, testing, refining, and getting the new Stormtrooper Universal Tactical Armor (or SUTA, as it had been officially abbreviated) approved in just a month’s time, he’d thought that the most stressful part of the ordeal—as exciting and fun though it was—was over. Suns, had he been wrong!
Even with Darth Vader’s personal seal of approval on the project, there were meetings to sit in, and politics to be navigated, and documents to be drafted, and presentations to give, and even more meetings to be had before the armor could actually enter official circulation amongst the troops. Luke could only produce so many of the SUTAs aboard the Lady after all, and without the necessary heavy-duty machinery, the production was inefficient and slow-going.
So, there were meetings. And as the Head Engineer, Lead—and only—Designer and Head Producer of the first fully finished armor, he had to attend most, if not all of them.
Suns and sand, he’d seen more of the conference menu in his holopad’s call center these last two weeks than he ever had in his life and he still wasn’t done.
Which was likely why Erribas was now grinning down at him after they’d pulled him out from under the TIE AD-X1 that was the latest Vader owned and hadn’t crashed. Yet.
One of these days Luke was going to haul a box of scrap from the latest wreckage with him, dump it on the man’s rarely used desk, and demand that he either stop giving Luke heart attacks every time he performed a “controlled emergency landing” or start fixing the damn things himself. And he could do it, Luke knew, the man was at least his equal, if not superior, when it came to knowing how to make the engine of a spacecraft sing. He just didn’t care to.
Which was once again why it was Luke getting pulled out from under the spacecraft by Erribas while still on his hover creeper instead of some other poor shmuck. Glaring at his second-in-command, he narrowed his eyes further when the man’s grin only widened.
Erribas Lyvon; former Head Engineer of the Lady before Luke arrived and now his second in the Engineering Corps. They’d been an ex-combat engineer on the frontlines for years before they’d taken the necessary classes to serve aboard a starship (and hadn’t that reveal been an awkward moment). Said experience had left the Anaxsi with a fierce-looking line of jagged scar-tissue that stood out along their dark chin and jawline. A scar that they refused to elaborate on except to say that it had not impacted the implacable manners for which their people were known, according to them. No, that impact had apparently come from serving on several active battlefields in the outer rim, as the man liked to joke. To the collective horror of their family, of course.
Having managed to acquire the position of Head Engineer aboard the Lady, the man was obviously no slouch in their capabilities, if sometimes a little too adherent to doing things “by the book”, in Luke’s opinion. And while they hadn’t been too happy at first to be demoted in favor of an eighteen-year-old teenager from the outer rim—an eighteen-year-old who’d upstaged them once already on a holonet channel of all places—after Luke had put his money where his mouth was and proven himself to be a damn good engineer in his own right, they’d come around and proven themselves in turn to be a capable and loyal 2IC.
That didn’t take away from the fact that the man took all too much glee in Luke’s irritation with the imperial military’s love for ceremony and bureaucracy.
Glaring even harder, Luke pulled the hydrospanner he’d clenched between his teeth out of his mouth. ‘What now, Erribas?’ he asked irritably. ‘Wait, don’t tell me.’ He let his head fall back against the vinyl cushioning under his head. ‘There’s another meeting.’
Erribas simply grinned widely and fished a familiar looking comm unit out of their pocket. ‘Actually, sir, Lord Vader’s summoning you to his office.’ Their eyes sparked with poorly hidden mischief. ‘Though that might be to schedule another meeting, who knows?’
The man chuckled as Luke let out another groan. ‘Have you told Lord Vader that if he actually wants me to finish this tune-up before the next dogfight and crash, he’s gonna have to, y’know, actually let me work?’ he grouched.
Erribas snorted loudly. ‘No, and you couldn’t pay me enough in a million years to tell him that.’ Handing over the comm to Luke which did indeed have a message from Vader displayed, they walked over to the workbench’s holodisplay. ‘Just get going, sir, there’s no getting out of this one, not after what you pulled.’ They frowned at the screen as they scrolled through it. ‘By the way, sir, did you keep a tune-up checklist this time or am I gonna have to play the guessing game again to figure out what you’ve been conjuring up in your alchemy lab?’ they called over.
Luke heaved himself up and stuck his spanners back into his toolbelt. ‘Yeah, just under the progress tab, though you can check off everything from the power lines to the torpedo racks,’ he called back as he busied himself with dusting off everything from his hair to his uniform.
Erribas looked over sharply with a confused look. ‘TIEs don’t have torpedo—’ They cut themselves off as their face rapidly went through several different emotions that Luke didn’t recognize before settling on a look of resigned acceptance that strongly reminded Luke of Biggs whenever they filmed Scrap Hunting. ‘Right,’ they muttered. ‘It’s you. Never mind, so you said the torpedo racks were already finished?’ they said as they started checking off the relevant boxes on the list.
‘Yeah, you pulled me out while I was just realigning the heat sensors with the main targeting computer.’
‘Right,’ the other engineer enunciated slowly, drawing the word out. ‘Realign the torpedo rack sensors with a CRX-9 targeting computer… I might be able to get that done while you have your chat with Lord Vader. And what kind of setup am I working with, sir?’
‘A double F4-29 Proton Storm, one on each side. I strung the wires and systems already, now they’ve just gotta be integrated properly.’ He wiped off the last of the engine grease and dust on a throw rag, and looked back up, finding Erribas staring at him with their signature flat look.
‘Sir,’ The Vice Engineer, first rank said, looking thoroughly unamused. ‘Those are racks designed for ships three weight classes up from a TIE. Even an AD.’
Luke rolled his eyes. ‘Look, I already modified them, resized them, installed them in four ships before this one, and Lord Vader requested them. Can you, or can you not, wire them in while I go see what he wants?’ he asked, already thin on patience at the prospect of having to sit through another meeting and not in the mood to debate his 2IC on the merits of improvising. Again.
Erribas blinked at him before nodding with a sigh. ‘You better check the sensor output yourself when you get back though, sir.’
Luke sighed in relief. ‘Thank you, Erribas. Schematics are under the weapons tab; you should be able to figure it out from there.’
Opening the tab, the man quickly became engrossed with what he found, only waving him off as Luke headed out of the private hangar bay.
Heading through the main hangar adjacent, he was greeted by the other members of his corps while people bustled about, happily waving or saluting back at them while the rest went about their business. The troopers stationed at the lifts, two of the ones who hadn’t yet gotten their new equipment, saluted him sharply as he approached.
‘Another summons then, eh, sir?’ a trooper that he recognized as the one with the nickname Rails teased.
He groaned good-naturedly as both troopers laughed. ‘Tell me about it. It’s like he thinks I’ve got nothing better to do than sit through meeting after meeting. Why do I even have to be there in the first place? They have all the files and I’m just the guy who builds stuff!’ he complained as the troopers continued to chuckle at his expense.
‘Must be your sparkling personality and charm, sir,’ the other trooper, Thresh, said in perfect deadpan, Rails nodding along sagely.
‘That, and your decades of expertise,’ Rails concluded gravely, lasting only seconds before he started snickering again.
Luke folded his arms as the troopers continued to laugh, narrowing his eyes at the pair. ‘Well, they couldn’t exactly go to you two for either, now could they?’ he asked, grinning when Thresh made an affronted noise and Rails looked as if he was glaring under his buck— helmet, before shrugging with air that said “fair enough.”
‘Alright, alright, we yield. But in all seriousness, sir, you’re the one who put that shiny new armor together in a month and the brass are probably working themselves into a tizzy trying to figure out how you did it,’ he noted reasonably.
‘Aye,’ Thresh agreed. ‘You showed up a lot of those R ‘n D boffins with your work, sir, and they’re probably all kinds of desperate to save face. But anyway!’ He clapped his hands together and gestured towards the lift. ‘What do we know? We’re just the ground pounder grunts who actually see the consequences of the top brass’ decisions and the ones manning these oh-so-important lifts,’ he finished, voice dripping with sarcasm. ‘So where to, sir? Lord Vader’s personal wing again?’
‘You got it,’ he said as the trooper entered the destination into the lift system with a nod. The device chirped out a cheery ping and spat out a string of numbers.
‘Right,’ Thresh noted. ‘Third officer personnel lift on the right, it’ll take you to the rail station where you’ll want to take car 5-A2. Bellow and Creek will have the other lift waiting for you at the other end and you’ll know where to go from there,’ the trooper rattled off as he read out the numbers.
‘And good luck, sir,’ Rails wished him as he snapped off another salute.
Bidding both troopers farewell, Luke rejoined the crowds heading in and out of the lift station, following the path past the grand cargo lifts into the personnel section at the end. A lift was indeed waiting for him, and pressing the button to signal its passenger had arrived, the doors slid shut with a soft whoosh.
The rail station was a hive of activity as always. Crew members, officers, and troopers alike bustling in and out of the transport station while the railcars took people to all corners of nineteen-kilometer-long Lady. Car 5-A2 pulled into the station just as he stepped onto the specialized-destination section of the platform.
As an A2 car meant for officers or other high-ranking personnel that needed to get somewhere fast, it was much smaller than the ones meant to be able to transport entire trooper squads or supply crates. It was also, Luke decided as he sat back in one of the synthleather seats as the car began to build up speed, much more comfortable to travel in.
Roughly ten minutes later the car pulled up to the station under the command center, and once more navigating his way through the even thicker crowds, he found himself being beckoned over by two other troopers at the lift station.
He grinned at both men when he approached. ‘Bellow, Creek, good to see you two,’ he greeted the two troopers who saluted back.
‘You too, sir,’ Bellow returned with a nod. ‘So, Lord Vader’s wing again?’ he asked with a knowing tone. Luke shrugged as he smiled self-consciously while Creek chuckled in that deep tone of his.
‘We’ve got you covered, sir,’ Creek assured him while jerking his head over to the lift station. ‘The panel to Lord Vader’s private lift is already unlocked. If you’ve got your code cylinder, you should have access.’
‘And try to keep his Lordship from strangling anyone, sir, eh?’ Bellow added in a tone Luke could swear was accompanied by a wink.
Thanking them both, he waved after Bellow and Creek as he headed for the very back of the personnel lifts. Approaching a wall that was ostensibly just polished durasteel, Luke watched as two panels pressed outward and slid aside where there had previously not even been evidence of a seam.
Behind the two panels was a private lift, so called because only a select few individuals aboard the Lady had the authorization necessary to use it, and even fewer had the authorization to make it stop at a floor that technically didn’t exist.
Vader’s private wing, an open secret that practically everyone knew of but only a handful of people had ever seen. And yet Luke had been given access to it on his first day.
Plugging his code cylinder into the security scanner, the light above it flashed green for a moment while the door to the lift slid open with a ding. Stepping inside, the lift’s interface gave him a number of options to choose his destination from, but not the one he needed. Plugging in his code cylinder again, the screen froze for a second, reloaded, and a single other option appeared at the top of the list.
A deceptively blank slot with no information on it, Luke selected it and tucked his cylinder back into his utility belt as the doors slid closed. Two minutes later and Luke was walking down the dark and gloomy corridors to a room he knew well by this point.
There were other rooms in the wing, but Luke had never been shown them and there were only a few Vader seemed to use at all anyway. Even less that he actually let his visitors see.
Entering the meditation chamber, Luke waited for the large pod at the center of the room to open. He hadn’t announced himself and he saw no way how the man inside could perceive the outside world from within it, but he knew Vader was already aware of his presence in a way that Luke had never fully understood, but that whispered in the back of his mind like shifting sands.
With a hiss, the two halves of the hyperbaric chamber separated, opening in a way that vividly reminded Luke of the maw of a krayt dragon, with Vader as the black pearl they hid in their gizzards.
Regarding the man inside, Luke crossed his arms as he adopted the stance Aunt Beru often had when she’d been annoyed with him for one reason or another. The black mask tilted sideways at him and he could swear on all three Moons that the man was already amused by him.
‘You know,’ he began casually, not shifting from his stance. ‘If anyone decides to attack right now, you’re gonna have to go out in a regular TIE. ‘Cause someone didn’t let me finish the tune-up again,’ he finished with a pointed look.
‘Then I believe I should count myself fortunate,’ the vocoder rumbled like a rockslide, smug amusement rolling off of Vader in waves, ‘That unless anyone wishes to challenge the full might of the Lady in a snub fighter, no such attack will occur.’
And damn the man, but Luke knew he was right. Sighing as he tried to suppress a smile, he relaxed his stance while Vader rose out of his meditation chamber. ‘So, what’s the cinch then?’ he asked, curiosity overtaking his annoyance. ‘Another meeting? Do I have to redraft the files again? Or is there finally something else you need me for? I still have those redrafts for the AT-AT walkers ready if you want to start another project, those stabilizers really need to be redesigned and the ejection seat for the operator could be way better if I got to do more than a patch job and—’
‘As much as I would prefer those options, little one,’ Vader pointedly cut into his rambling, and Luke smiled sheepishly at his mentor. ‘This is unfortunately something far more serious than all of that.’
With those words, the atmosphere of the room chilled to the point that Luke nearly expected frost to start forming on the walls, waves of a strange sort of distress nearly vibrating through the room. Feeling concern beginning to edge in at the fringes of his awareness, Luke took a closer look at the man in front of him. Even as Vader exited his meditation chamber with his usual grace, there was a kind of stiffness about him. Like he’d tensed all his muscles and had trouble letting that tension go again. Fist clenched at his side, and mask turned downwards, and— okay, there was definitely something wrong here.
He sighed and completely let go of his previous stance, arms now loose at his side and posture wide open towards the man in front of him. ‘What’s wrong?’ he asked, ignoring how the man seemed to jerk at the question as if startled.
Two opaque red lenses fixated on him and he could almost feel the question behind them. Luke huffed out a puff of air that was half a laugh and half exasperation. The man never seemed to expect anyone to read him, even though he was nearly an open book at times.
‘You’re practically a wall of tension,’ he explained as he evenly met the gaze. ‘So something must be bothering you, and considering you called me up, it must be something I can either fix or something that I caused, right?’
There was a beat of silence that Luke could almost call “stunned” before Vader released a gust of static from his vocoder that Luke mentally translated as a sigh. ‘You are… more observant than I give you credit for, little one,’ the man begrudgingly admitted. ‘There is indeed something amiss.’
Luke kept his silence as the man walked towards him and placed a hand on his shoulder that gently nudged him towards the extensive comm station situated outside of the chamber.
Letting Vader lead him towards it, he began to mentally sort through whatever could’ve distressed the dark behemoth of a man this much. It wasn’t urgent, or at least, not that urgent that the Lady needed to jump into hyperspace immediately, so it couldn’t have been a surprise attack that the Lady needed to combat. Nor would that have explained Vader summoning Luke. He was an engineer and a damn good pilot if he did say so himself, but he wasn’t an officer or a combatant. And while meetings were tedious, annoying, and boring as all get out, they weren’t anything that would alarm Vader.
So. What was it?
As if to answer his mental query, Vader began speaking again as he activated the comm station. ‘About three standard hours ago, I got a transmission form the Imperial Palace, or more specifically, from my Master, the Emperor,’ Vader revealed and Luke quickly suppressed a wince at the word “Master”, firmly reminding himself that it likely meant something entirely different to Vader than what he’d been taught by his Aunt, a Child of the Desert.
Vader either didn’t notice or ignored Luke’s reaction as he continued his explanation. ‘He… has taken notice of your creation, little one, and wishes to acknowledge your ingenuity himself,’ Vader said as he pulled up a transcript of the transmission in question, though he hesitated to activate it, instead choosing to rest his hand over the control box on his torso.
Luke’s thoughts were somehow spiraling and laser-focused at the same time. The emperor had noticed his work on the SUTA. The emperor had decided he wanted to acknowledge Luke’s work personally. The emperor had specifically commed Vader—ostensibly his second in command—himself to notify the man of that.
That was… nothing Luke had ever expected to ever happen to him.
Suns, he was just a farmboy-turned-engineer from Tatooine! All his eighteen years he’d known nothing more than vaporators, the junkyard, the glare of the twin Suns, and sand and somehow, he’d gotten noticed by the emperor!? That just didn’t happen. It just didn’t.
And glancing up to where Vader was still staring at the message in front of him—staring but, Luke suspected, not seeing—he could pretend that that was the only reason why it suddenly felt like the hungry maw of a sarlacc had opened up beneath him and he was only two steps removed from being swallowed whole. That, and nothing else.
‘Milord?’ he asked softly, concerned about the man who seemed to be frozen like a statue.
Vader stiffened at the sound of his voice and his hand clenched sharply around Luke’s shoulder, the grip nearly painful, before abruptly letting go.
‘Like I said,’ he repeated stiffly, tension rocketing back up with an abruptness that left the thing in the back of Luke’s mind itching with unease. ‘My Master has decided to… honor you, for your work.’ The way Vader hesitated on those words left Luke with the distinct impression that said “honor” would be more akin to a punishment, whether it was intended that way or not.
‘There will be a formal ceremony,’ Vader continued, either oblivious to Luke's growing unease or… something. ‘And an event to herald the start of the production and distribution of your armor design. You will be expected to give a presentation on its capabilities in front of both the Imperial Court and the Galactic Senate, followed by accepting a commendation from the Emperor himself.’
Technically speaking, all of those things were a great honor, but Luke could only feel his face go slack with horror as the words sunk in.
‘A presentation?’ he squeaked faintly, and yes it was a squeak! He earned that squeak after what he just heard! ‘In front of the entire Court and the Senate!?’ His voice was going higher and higher with each word as the meaning of them continued to sink in but for once, he couldn’t bring himself to care.
‘Yes,’ Vader confirmed bluntly, though he once again rested a hand on his shoulder in quiet comfort. ‘You have a week and a half from now to prepare, little one. I will give the orders to begin the jump to Imperial Center soon. If my calculations are correct, from our current position the jump should take roughly three days at minimum. I suggest you use said time before arrival wisely.’
Still feeling somewhat like he was reeling from the information he’d just gained, Luke’s mind eagerly latched onto those last couple of words.
‘Wisely?’ he asked, looking up at Vader. ‘In what way? What are you suggesting?’
A long gust of static burst forward from the vocoder, and Luke wondered what he had missed that could make the man sigh so.
‘Luke,’ Vader rumbled. ‘I realize you have never before had to contemplate this, but there will be… expectations of you amongst the Imperial elite. Expectations you neither can or should meet. Regardless of the sophisticated airs and masks these people cultivate, they tend to resemble a venomous tangle of cowardly vipers who take vicious glee in tearing each other down.’ And here the tone of the man was so utterly scathing that Luke had to quickly stifle a snort.
Ever since he’d started getting to know the man, Luke had suspected there were very little things Darth Vader actually liked. However, that didn’t mean that the man automatically disliked everything, as Luke had quickly found out. He tended to be mostly apathetic towards everything around him that was wise enough not to annoy him too much.
Politicians and nobles, it seemed, did not fall under that category.
‘Not much love lost between you and them, is there?’ he teasingly asked the dark lord, earning himself a soft tap on the head in reprimand, something that only made him duck to hide his smile.
‘Behave, little one,’ Vader admonished him in a tone that was as monotonous as ever, but somehow glowed with warmth to Luke. ‘And listen, this could be vital in the coming weeks.’
Luke nodded and stepped just a little closer to the man as he began his explanation. It wasn’t often that the man Luke had come to think of as a mentor actually mentored him, so whenever Vader decided it was necessary to pass on some of his knowledge, he made sure to listen carefully.
‘What you need to know, little one, is that these kinds of events rarely are what they are said to be. While they may appear to be a celebration or commemoration on the surface, they are often organized with only one purpose in mind,’ Vader explained softly, voice rumbling in the same soothing tone the dunes back on Tatooine had often produced when the wind swept through the sand.
‘And that purpose is, milord?’ he asked, feeling the tension and frenzy from earlier bleed out of him with every word spoken. Right now, right here, he was safe, and listening to someone who was trying to teach him how to remain safe in a frightening new world.
‘Power,’ was the blunt answer. ‘They are organized for power. Either to display it, or to try and gain more of it. Through building connections or other means, the method matters little. And the coming event will be little different. All who will attend will attempt to gain power for themselves or gauge that of others.’
Luke blinked. He… hadn’t thought of it that way, but it made sense, didn’t it? Uncle Owen had often said that boiled down, power was simply the ability to get people to do stuff for you, and the more of it you had, the more you got to do. So, if these people wanted power, then the easiest way to get it was likely by getting to know other people. After all, it was easier to get someone you knew to do something, than to try and get a complete stranger to do the same.
‘I… think I understand,’ he said at last, even as he felt unsure of the statement as he spoke it. ‘But what would they want from me if what they want is power?’
Static blared out of the vocoder, startling Luke before he realized it was just its best translation of the sound of a snort. ‘You, little one, possess far more power than you realize.’ The words were spoken with an air of knowledge and certainty that Luke didn’t fully understand but appreciated nonetheless. ‘And unlike many of the scavengers you will have the misfortune of meeting soon, it is a power all your own. Which is why you must be careful, for those who seek power all too often try to gain it at another’s expense.’
Luke pursed his lips together sadly. This, at least, he more than understood. ‘Like slavers do,’ he offered as he compared the two.
Vader froze for a moment, just a moment, before inclining his head in agreement. ‘That may be more of an apt comparison than you realize, little one,’ he acknowledged darkly. ‘At this event, and likely by all you’ll meet on Imperial Center, you will be tested and measured against their standards, likely without you even realizing it. They will be looking for weaknesses they can exploit to manipulate or bend you to their will. They know you are a new player in their twisted games for power, untested and inexperienced. They will try to use that against you.’
Like a young bantha calf separated from the herd, Luke thought morosely, and it sounds like here there’ll be nothing less than a whole pack of anooba on the prowl.
‘I don’t think I like the sound of these “games”,’ Luke muttered, feeling like it all looked rather bleak.
‘On that we can agree,’ Vader growled lowly.
He blinked in surprise at the man, but Vader merely tilted his head back at him with a warm feeling washing over him. ‘You wouldn’t be the first to acquire a distaste for these kinds of politics, little one. Thankfully, most are wise enough not to try and involve me in them.’
‘Oh.’ Somehow, that little bit of information didn’t seem as surprising as it likely should be, but Luke could easily understand how someone like Vader would have little will or patience for what seemed to be a kind of game with rules as tangible as a shadow show. Then he had an idea. ‘Wait,’ he asked, ‘Will you be there too?’
If Vader knew what he was thinking, he didn’t show it as his mask merely tilted before inclining in a nod. ‘Yes, my Master requires my presence at this event, tedious though I find it.’
Luke smiled widely as a plan began to take solid form before his mind’s eye. ‘Then can I stay near you during it?’ he asked urgently. ‘Please? If they leave you alone then maybe they’ll leave me alone as well!’
Vader stared at him silently for a moment that stretched out until Luke nearly started to fear that he’d said something incredibly silly, but then the man slowly nodded. ‘Yes,’ he muttered quietly. ‘That ought to work. Some might still attempt, but my presence should temper out the worst of their behavior.’
‘Yes!’ Luke cheered, bouncing up and down, gleeful excitement coursing through him.
Static rumbled out of Vader’s vocoder in a strangely halting pattern that reminded Luke of thunder and with a grin he realized the man was laughing. A sound so vanishingly rare that Luke always felt himself swell with pride whenever he could elicit it with his antics.
‘I agree,’ he said happily. ‘This is sounding much better already!’
‘Not so fast, little one,’ Vader admonished him with a finger wag. ‘You still have much to learn about the inner workings of the Imperial Court and we have limited time. Not to mention that you have a presentation to prepare, and I will not tolerate you going up on that stage with nothing but improvisation to rely upon.’
He groaned theatrically but failed in keeping a smile off his face while he did so. Regardless of what his mentor seemed to think, learning, especially when the lessons were taught in the clear and easy manner that Vader seemed to have, was something Luke loved to do. And if he was going to be facing the whole of the Imperial Court in just three days’ time, then he could only count it as extra incentive to pay attention.