Actions

Work Header

Once More Unto the Breach

Work Text:

The recruitment station was madness. The news of Hosnian's destruction had only just gone out that morning but a crowd had already formed. It was a mixed group; there were men and women, old grey veterans like himself, kids barely past their teens. There were a good many Humans, but there were also Rodians, Abednedo and Sullustans, one towering Wookie, a scarred Ithorian, a Quarren couple, a gangly young Duros girl, and even a few Bith. The woman next to him was a Twi'lek older than the hills. If she said she'd fought in the Clone Wars, he'd believe her.

At the top of the stairs, security droids scanned each and every entrant before admitting them to the recruitment station. A pair of supervisors flit between them—an exhausted Pantoran man and a dark-skinned Human woman guzzling a very large cup of caf.

It had been a long time since Firmus Piett had had to go through security. The last twenty-nine years had been quiet. He'd returned to civilian life with no small relief. He'd raised his son, seen him off to Med School. He'd taught at the New Republic Academy here on Halmad until a few years ago. Retirement had suited him. Spending every day with his wife, morning to night, was a treasure. One hard-earned and one he would not give up lightly. But watching five planets explode in the early morning sky wasn't something he could dismiss with a shrug, a sip of caf, and the words 'I'm retired.' So here he was, shuffling along with the crowd, his complete personnel file and service record uploaded to a datacard that he carried in his pocket.

The security droid scanned him and ushered him through the door. The space beyond was no less chaotic, but no one was pushing. The mood oscillated between confused, terrified, and enraged. The desire for vengeance was palpable.

Firmus looked around. They were crammed into a small foyer with a circular reception desk. Beyond that, dividers steered toward four blast-glass booths, each with a large illuminated number above it. Under normal circumstances, the staff at the desk would likely direct applicants one at a time to whichever booth they needed. Today there was a Weequay standing on that desk.

"Okay! For everyone just coming in," the Weequay shouted, slow and clear. "Those of you with prior military experience serving the New Republic or the Rebel Alliance, make your way to lane one, far left."

The Twi'lek woman started weaving toward that line. So did a good chunk of the veterans.

"Bounty hunters, mercenaries, and smugglers looking to offer their services: lane three. If you have prior military experience serving the Galactic Empire: lane four, far right. The rest of you: lane two."

Firmus eased through the freshly turbulent crowd toward the glowing four. He slipped between the dividers and into line behind a middle-aged woman, all muscle and scars. There were no youths in this line. The youngest looked to be in their fifties. All were human and more than half of them were men. Firmus was not the oldest there. He looked for anyone he recognized, but none of the faces were familiar.

The line moved at a fairly decent pace. There was a studious young Zygerrian man in the booth, checking identification and ushering people deeper into the building. Firmus could see a grid of cubicles, and beyond them, offices and exam rooms.

"Identification, please," the young fellow asked, holding out a hand with carefully filed-down claws. His other hand reached up to adjust a pair of glasses. Firmus passed his ID over the counter and the clerk did a cursory check, compared his holostill to his face, and handed it back. "Desk thirteen, Mr. Piett."

"Thank you."

A quick scan and Firmus found the cubicle in question, directly in front of him and in the last row before the offices. The clerk at this desk was a young woman with the most violently red hair Firmus had ever seen.

"Have a seat, sir," she said, not yet looking up from her holoscreen. Her accent was a thick Arkanisian lilt, which certainly explained the hair. The plaque on the desk read J. Arell.

Firmus sat, retrieved the datacard from his jacket pocket, and waited. The cubicle was old-fashioned, but much of the infrastructure on Halmad was. The planet had built up significantly since the fall of the Empire, but it still felt like a backwater. It was nothing like Axxila or Hosnian and perhaps that was a blessing.

After a few more taps to her datapad, Arell looked up. "You have your service record?"

He passed her the cylinder in his hand and she twirled it once before plugging it into her datapad. Her holoscreen filled with old Imperial files, banks of text and a holostill so old he hardly recognized himself. His hair had still been brown then.

Arell smiled. "I thought I recognized you." She sat back, scrolling through the files. "Firmus Piett. Ex-Admiral. Defector. Last commander of the SSD Executor and Hero of the Maw... Your record certainly speaks well for you. You cleaned up the Axxilan Anti-Pirate Fleet; in Imperial service... Hoth, Mygeeto, Endor." She nodded, several times. "With the Rebel Alliance you broke the siege of Axxila. Significantly more victories than losses, strategic competency, and no war crimes. I can't see any reason not to clear you. There is the matter of your age, though. Seventy-three standard years is well past our usual retirement age."

Firmus nodded. "I'm aware. Given the events of this morning I believed it best to offer my experience."

"In that case..." Arell tapped something on her datapad. "I've cleared you pending a medical exam."

Firmus hadn't expected things to be this easy, nor this fast. He'd expected much more suspicion, given that his previous employer had been the Imperial Navy. Most of the ex-Imperials he knew kept their involvement as secret as possible. He'd heard that on some worlds it was next to impossible to get a job if you'd served in the Imperial Forces.

"Just like that?" he asked, taking his data cylinder when Arell offered it back.

"Just like that," Arell replied. "We lost a lot over Hosnian. More than the news lets on. So we're trying not to waste time. If you want to volunteer, then you want to volunteer. It wouldn't exactly be in our self-interest to discourage you."

"Fair enough."

Arell smiled again. "I've sent your file over to room three. Doctor Erski will look you over."

"Thank you."

*1*1*3*8*

The spaceport had been far too loud for calls, so it wasn't until he was aboard the gleaming commandeered Chandrilan cruise liner that he'd been able to get somewhere peaceful enough to call Cicelly. When her holo flicked to life above his datapad he gave a sheepish smile. "I'm in. They've reinstated my rank and I've already got my uniform."

Cicelly took a sip of her tea before putting it down on a surface he couldn't see. "They must be desperate, handing out commissions to old men." Her heart wasn't in the teasing, but Firmus played along, pointing at his own chest in mock confusion. She smiled at that. "You have a ship?"

"We're rendezvousing with what's left of the fleet at Kuat. They'll assign ships once we're there."

"An Admiral again," she said, half to herself. For a moment she looked a bit lost. There was a lock of greyed hair loose and Firmus wished he could reach out and tuck it behind her ear. "I heard from Corin an hour ago. He's signed up too. On his way to Kuat already."

Firmus kept his dismay off his face, despite the pointlessness of the gesture. Cicelly had always been able to see through him. And they both knew that their son had absolutely the wrong temperament for war. "I'll make sure he's on my ship," he promised. Cicelly nodded, then crossed her arms. She looked down at the floor. A little knot of worry settled in Firmus' chest. "Please tell me you're not mad at me, Cissy."

"Of course not," Cicelly whispered. She tucked back the loose hair. "I'm considering signing up myself. The Fleet will undoubtedly need mechanics."

Firmus' heart twisted. Fear gripped him—imagining losing her to enemy fire or an accident in the hangar or a radiation leak in the reactor room. But overtaking his fear was the thought of having her near, in the same quarters each night. They'd spent too much time apart in their lives.

When he said nothing, Cicelly shifted and spoke again. "I can't sit here, twiddling my thumbs, waiting for holos or bad news. I'm not a young woman anymore, Firmus. I can't... I don't want some lieutenant coming to my door to tell me my husband and son are dead."

The ship's intercom interrupted their silence with a two-tone chime. "All passengers, brace for jump." It had been a long time since jumps had really rattled those inside a ship—since long before the Clone Wars—but warning passengers to brace themselves had held on as a quaint civilian custom. Such warnings had never gone out on the Executor, not even in the heat of combat.

"You're off then?" Cicelly asked.

"I'm off. Shall I expect you?"

Cicelly looked thoughtful for a moment—thoughtful with an edge of fear. Then, after a long sip of her tea, she nodded. "Yes. I'll comm your sister, get her to look after the house. Put everything in order... Then I'll be off to the recruitment office."

Firmus gave her a smile, feeling the deck beneath his feet thrum in a way he could never forget. "I'm about to lose your signal."

"I love you," Cicelly said.

"You too."

There was a funny little pull in the bottom of his stomach, Cicelly's image flickered out, and a thump went through the ship. They were off.

*1*1*3*8*

The orbital facilities at Kuat were bigger than he'd remembered. The hangars could have held Imperial freighters with ease, and some of them might even have squeezed a Star Destroyer in if they were careful. Ships swarmed the docks—everything from civilian yachts to New Republic dreadnaughts. There were a couple of old Mon Cal frigates and a Nebulon B with a faded orange starbird in the mix. X-Wings of every model from the old T-65 to the newest T-80 darted like wasps between the larger vessels, coming and going on patrol. Gathered in hangars were A-Wings, B-Wings, Y-Wings, troop transports, a few old U-Wings, and some private fighter-freighters that looked like smuggler ships.

The concourse area was twenty stories from polished floor to transparisteel ceiling. It hovered somewhere between civilian spaceport and military base, and Firmus felt oddly at home in that twilight zone. He was given a room at one of the hotels in the upper levels and told to check in at the main hangar ASAP. After years in Imperial service, he took the request deadly seriously. He was in his room just long enough to deposit his bag and freshen up, and then he was out the door.

There was a line of hastily erected desks in the hangar manned by security personnel and a few requisition officers. The lines weren't long and they moved quickly. Once at the desk, Firmus again passed over his ID and then the datacard he'd been given before departing Halmad—the one which confirmed his commission. The Sullustan woman behind the desk passed him rank insignia, a Navy datapad with clearance codes, and a temporary log-in.

"You'll have to enter a new password the first time you log in. The computer will give you further instructions. It's only for emergencies anyway; your datapad has a detachable code cylinder which will function just like the ones you're used to." She passed back his ID along with a set of dog-tags. "Any questions?"

"Have I been assigned a ship yet?"

"That's certainly the sixty-four credit question," she replied, and Firmus got the distinct impression she'd been asked this a lot. "We lost a good chunk of the fleet over Hosnian. We're scrambling everything we can get our hands on and ships are still pouring in. You'll know in twenty-four hours. Do you have any requests as to your crew?"

"I'd like my wife and son aboard my ship, if that can be arranged." He paused as she typed. "And if any of my old crewmembers from the Executor have signed up I'll be happy to have them as well."

The security officer tapped a few keys and smiled. "Done. Anything else, Admiral?"

Firmus nodded his thanks. "That's all. Thank you."

He took a meandering route back to his room, pausing to peruse a bookshop and wandering through the exhibit area—a storage hangar with old TIE fighters, Arc-170s, a battered Jedi Interceptor, Republic gunships, a Lambda shuttle, and a thirty foot chunk of the SSD Eclipse's hull—before buying a cup of tea and sitting down in the hanging garden. He sent a holosnap of himself to Cicelly, Max, and Therton Needa, captioned 'I am the very model of a modern Naval Admiral.' Cissy didn't reply, which meant she was probably in hyperspace, and neither did Max, which wasn't unusual. He was a fairly busy grandfather. Therton replied with 'Very funny, Firmus. Did you really just join up?'

The ensuing conversation lasted an hour before Therton excused himself for dinner. Firmus was already headed back to his room by then and sent his regards to the kids and grandkids as he got in his door. He eyed the chrono on the holoprojector and wondered if he could track down Corin. It would be a few hours yet before Cicelly showed up, and if he was going to find his son the food court would be the place. He pulled out one of his uniforms and dressed. The cut was dignified without being stiff, the undershirt a pale blue, the tunic and trousers a creamy white that the Empire would have reserved for Grand Admirals. There were no gloves, and the boots were blessedly comfortable. He skimmed the decorum manual before pinning his rank badge in place and straightening up his tunic and belt. Lastly, he brushed his hair into place and slipped on the optional command cap.

It was strange to look in the mirror and see himself in uniform again. It was a very different uniform, but a uniform nonetheless, and he looked older than ever wearing it—albeit much healthier than he had at Endor. At least the white twill made his grey hair look darker than it was.

He slipped his New Republic issue datapad into the pocket on his tunic and stepped out into the halls again. Now that he was in uniform he received salutes and nods of acknowledgment from most of those who passed him, which he returned with an odd surge of nostalgia. Not once had he missed the Empire, but he was very quickly realizing how much he'd missed this.

There were almost no civilians in the station. The civilian ships berthed at the shipyards were all in the process of being fitted with guns and armour plate. Everyone on the concourse was either in uniform or carrying a uniform bag. Here and there, Firmus spotted the khaki tunics of Resistance personnel. Medical droids and astromechs wound their way through the crowds—old R2 units, even older, boxy, pre-Clone Wars C1s, floating GH droids, and gleaming new BB units. The one thing he hadn't seen were any high command officers. He had yet to see anyone who outranked him.

He was standing overlooking the concourse when a voice behind him said: "Fancy meeting you here."

Firmus spun, a smile splitting his face. "Max!" He gave the other man a once-over, spotting the rank plaque. "Good to see I'm not the only mad old bugger signing up."

Unlike Firmus, Maximilian Veers looked younger in his uniform. Something of his old vigour had returned. His hair may have been white and the lines around his eyes deeper, but the twinkle in those eyes was undimmed.

"I wasn't about to let you Navy boys have all the fun."

The pretence of formality between them lasted only a moment. They both laughed, and Firmus pulled Max into a hug that, once returned, was no less bone-crunching than it had been when they were younger.

"I haven't seen you in a year," Max said, pulling back. "How have you been?"

"Well enough," Firmus replied. "Nothing much happens on Halmad. How are the grandkids?"

Max grimaced. "Holy terrors. They're in that phase that all teenagers seem to go through where they hate everything."

"Thank goodness Corin never went through one of those."

"Lucky bastard. I never saw Zev's, but I remember the letters from the Academy Commandant complaining about his abysmal behaviour."

"So they come by it honestly, then."

"That they do."

Firmus glanced at the chrono on the repulsorlift display screens floating over the concourse. "Have you had anything to drink? There's a shop down that way that does a fantastic cup of tea. And the gardens are nice and quiet for conversation."

"Little hard of hearing in your old age, eh Firmus?" Max teased.

Firmus pulled a face. "I'm not going deaf. It'd just be nice not to have to shout at one another to be heard. Come on."

"Yes, Admiral." Max snapped to attention, smirking when Firmus rolled his eyes.

"Do let me know if you spot Corin. The lad should be here by now."

Obvious surprise took Max's face as they started toward the gardens. "Corin? Of all people, Corin signed up?"

"Cissy did too. She's on her way now."

Max's brows climbed a touch higher. "Didn't want to let you go?"

A smile tugged at Firmus' mouth. "Not really."

"And how do you feel about this?"

"I'll worry. As always. But I won't claim that I'm not happy about being together. I would have hated to add to all those years we spent apart."

Max nodded, solemn for a moment. Firmus nudged him with an elbow. "What about Zev? The Resistance is screaming for pilots."

"No. Zev's not left the girls. I think he's afraid of turning into me."

Ah, yes. Of course. Firmus dropped whatever questions he'd been ready with. Instead, he pointed to a cozy shop front with a stylized lothcat in stained glass in the window. "That's the place."

"Think they'll put a shot of rum in the caf if I tell them I'm navy?"

Firmus gave him an admonishing look. "It's nine, local time."

"Too early for rum? In the navy?"

"Yes. You see, there's a cycle. If it's too early for rum, then it's the lash. If it's too early for the lash, then it's—"

"Dad!"

The shout came from behind them and the hall that lead to the cafeteria. Could have bet on that. Max was smirking again.

"So it's the lash in the morning, rum in the afternoon, and sodomy in the evening?" When Firmus looked scandalized, Max laughed. "He's thirty-four, Firmus."

"And I'm still his father. There are things he doesn't want to hear me talking about." Firmus turned at the sound of approaching footsteps. Corin was trotting toward them, his uniform crisp and flawless, a lieutenant's insignia pinned to his chest. He'd opted not to wear the cap and his pale brown fringe bounced as he came to a stop. He almost went in for a hug but, at the last minute, snapped to attention.

"Admiral, sir."

"At ease, Lieutenant Piett," Firmus said with a smile, then held out his arms for an embrace, which his son dove into. "It's good to see you, Corin."

"You too, dad," he replied. "I was afraid you'd be angry."

"No. Not angry. Just surprised."

They parted and Corin turned to Max—somewhat embarrassed—stiffening to attention again and saluting.

"General."

"Lieutenant." Max returned the salute with that damnable smirk still in place.

"Getting breakfast?" Corin asked, looking between them. "Or did I interrupt something?"

Firmus went to reply but Max beat him to it. "Nothing important. Your father and I were just discussing the three grand traditions of the Navy."

Firmus shot Max a glare. Corin snorted. "Oh. So that's why he's so red."

Max chuckled, throwing an arm over Firmus' shoulders. "All right, I think I've tormented your father enough for one day. Let's get that breakfast."

Firmus allowed himself to be steered toward the cafe. The disappointment on his face didn't last—not with Max and Corin both laughing on either side of him. Corin nudged him, smiling.

"Don't worry. I hear much worse than that at work."

"I daren't imagine."

*1*1*3*8*

Firmus had had three and half days en route to get used to Kuat time, but the time change was still catching up with him. Breakfast was lovely, but as far as his body was concerned, it was lunch. He knew by nightfall, local time, he'd be exhausted. And there was another time change to come. The fleet ran on galactic standard time.

After breakfast he, Corin, and Max found a secure terminal and sorted out their log in codes. Firmus didn't realize Max was looking over his shoulder until he entered his new passcode—shuttletydirium and a long string of numbers and letters—and heard a soft chuckle.

"It's an older code, but it checks out."

He blew a raspberry in Max's general direction and mashed the enter key. "Snooping on an Admiral's codes?"

"Afraid I'll use that knowledge for evil?"

Firmus scoffed. "As if you were capable of such a thing."

Around local midday Cicelly's transport came in. She'd been smart enough to bring luggage with her, including some of Firmus' clothes. She got herself checked in, picked up her insignia and kit and then went up to their room to freshen up and change. When she emerged it was in her off-duty uniform and the rank badge of a Chief Petty Officer.

They spent the rest of the day catching up. As it turned out there was more to do on the station than initially met the eye. Corin lamented his lack of swimwear when they found the rec facilities' infinity pool—whose transparisteel sides looked out onto open space and the planet below. Cicelly insisted on a walk through the art gallery, studiously ignoring Max's Thrawn impressions. But it was the small zoo that caught Firmus' attention. It was a modest but unusual collection. A few lothcats, an aquarium full of fish from Naboo, Kashyyyk spiders, small Tatooinian mammals, Tauntauns, and one foul-tempered Jakku steelpecker. Most interesting of all, though, was the enclosure that held four ysalamiri. The little golden-brown lizards were sunning themselves under the heat lamp, their beady eyes mostly closed. Lines painted on the floor showed the extent of the Force-empty bubble the lizards created. Firmus couldn't feel the difference, but he got a thrill knowing that within that bubble no Force-wielding lunatic could have crushed his larynx no matter how badly he'd wanted to.

They ran into a few familiar faces over the afternoon. In the hangar, a group of fresh-faced pilot recruits were getting a lecture from Wedge Antilles on the difference between the crop dusters back home and the X-Wings they'd soon be flying. His hair was entirely grey now, save for his still-dark eyebrows. He wore a Resistance uniform, his Rogue Squadron patch standing out against the dark khaki sleeve. His students were all young, all civilian, about thirty different species and six different genders. All of them were enraptured; Wedge had become a legend in the New Republic.

Once they were all off to the simulators, Wedge joined Firmus near the maintenance pits. It had been close to a decade since they'd had a chance to speak and he was perfectly happy discussing the Resistance—the long battles with the Senate over what to do about the First Order, and the short but bloody skirmishes at the edges of their territory. But when asked about Luke he became reticent. They'd heard the rumours of his disappearance, and Firmus and Max decided not to press. Cicelly just squeezed his hand. Wedge was aggressively changing the subject when the PA cut in to announce the successful destruction of the First Order weapon that had struck Hosnian. Cheers in a thousand languages echoed from floor to ceiling.

In one of the orbital parks, amongst a large crowd of groundpounders, young and old, they found Brenn Tantor and Helia Iron Cloud. Both were Generals now, but they still came to attention and saluted the moment they saw Max. Formality aside, they greeted one another like family.

Later, as they sat down to dinner, they passed a table where now-Vice Admiral Gherant was dining with a group of senior officers. They merged their tables before the server had returned to take their drink orders and dinner became a communal affair. By the end of the evening, as they were returning to their rooms, wine-sodden and tired, Firmus realized just how much he'd missed these people. When they'd parted ways all those years ago it had seemed strange to remain in contact with his crewmembers. They were just coworkers after all. He regretted it now; he said as much to Cicelly and she cast him an indulgent look, kissing the end of his nose.

"Lucky it's not too late then, hmm?"

He didn't argue. There were points he could have made, but Cissy had never had any use for regrets. So instead he pulled her close and buried his face in her hair. She was right, of course. Regrets were pointless; the past was the past. Every soldier learned that the hard way—and those stationed with Death Squadron more than most. But as long as you were breathing there was the future.

*1*1*3*8*

"Wraith Squadron, you are clear to launch."

"Grey Squadron, report to bay eighteen for transport to RSS Constitution."

"All cargo for RSS Bodhi Rook now loading in bay forty-two. All crew report to your stations. Mirax Terrik, report to berth Y-24."

The docks were complete madness by midmorning. The first ship assignments had been made and every available bay was busy loading crew and cargo onto freighters, frigates, and capital ships. Fighters of every make and model were assembling, squadron by squadron, aboard the larger ships. Those ships that were cleared for launch jumped immediately to hyperspace and to whatever secret base they'd been assigned to. New Republic High Command had been lost on Hosnian, as had the Senate; the Resistance was in charge now. Fleet Admiral Ackbar had ordered all ships to remain dispersed until further notice so as not to repeat the loss. The gathering at Kuat was causing enough anxiety as it was, and drills were running almost non-stop.

"We'll need to take the turbolift to your ship, Admiral. She's is dry-dock."

Firmus stepped into the lift behind the stiff-backed ensign—a Chiss man who looked barely old enough to be out of the Academy. The ensign keyed the no-stop button and the lift swung out onto the high-speed rail and accelerated away along the orbital ring. Spread out below them, Kuat itself was a shining ball of greens, blues, and the soft white of clouds. The narrow crescent of night-side visible was filled with lights—lines and rings of gold, dotted here and there with clusters of twinkling dots. It was sparser than Coruscant, but no less impressive. To the south, just at the terminus, Firmus spotted the disc of a massive hurricane out at sea. At the other horizon, sunlight reflected off the ocean—blinding white. It was winter in the northern hemisphere, and snow made most of the landmasses shine under the light. The silvery halo that was the orbital ring disappeared into shadow on the night side, visible only by the lit viewports and winking docking lights. Engine cones glowed blue, red, gold, and white like baubles on a Life Day tree. Firmus smiled to himself. All these years and Kuat still left him in awe.

"I suppose I'll have to get used to a new ship," he said, just to break the silence.

The ensign glanced up from his datapad with a slightly bemused grin. "Not really, Admiral. I think you'll find her quite familiar."

Firmus followed the ensign's gaze. The lift sailed up and over the main bulk of the ring, veering toward where the dry docks bristled with partially constructed ships and the battered shapes of those in for repair. There, at the oversize dock—berth K-421, he recalled—was a shape as familiar to him as his own hands. A nineteen kilometre arrowhead of blue-grey alusteel plate and twinkling viewport lights. A looming monolith that dwarfed the ships around it.

Firmus didn't bother to conceal his smile as they approached. Last he'd heard, his Lady had been an orbital museum over Chandrila. She was the last of her kind, and the last ship he'd expected to see here, but joy ran through him at the sight.

The ensign cleared his throat. "She's been given a refit: new reactor, new engines, new shields and sensor suite, modern guns and computer equipment. Her new hyperdrive is a class one."

Twice as fast as she used to be. As they hurtled closer and the details of the hull came into view, Firmus saw construction droids and vehicles hovering around the dorsal batteries. The conning tower sensor spheres had been replaced with shallow domes that would make for smaller targets. Some of the droids were doing shield tests; others were patching up the fresh paint on the Lady's flanks—matching New Republic crests, one to port, one to starboard.

"As lovely as she ever was," Firmus said, wistful. "Will I have a full crew?"

"Yes, sir. Mostly navy and ground troops, but you'll also have a full fighter wing aboard and enough specialist crew to man a base." The ensign tapped his screen. "The crew manifest should be on your datapad with the updated ship specs and your orders."

"Launch time stands?"

"Eleven-hundred hours. Yes, Admiral."

The turbolift dropped back down onto the slower tracks and moved into berth K-421. It stopped without so much as a jolt and the door hissed open, depositing them on the top floor of the three storey dock. It was a wide and spacious area but narrowed to a single airlock entrance flanked by Noghri security officers in New Republic tunics. The level below would connect to a larger airlock, where enlisted and lower ranking officers would board. It was where Firmus had boarded the first time he'd ever set foot on the Executor. Below that, cargo and crew for the lower decks entered via one of the side hangars. There were only ten berths of this size on Kuat's orbital ring. The only ships that had ever been large enough to warrant them had been Super Star Destroyers and they'd been few in number.

"Will you be joining the crew, Ensign?" Firmus let the question trail as a subtle prompt.

"Ensign Shrand, sir. And yes, sir; I'm a comms officer. I'll be in the portside bridge pit."

"In that case: Welcome aboard, Mr. Shrand."

Shrand stiffened slightly, not quite at attention. "Thank you, Admiral."

Together they approached the airlock, which slid open automatically. The Noghri came to attention as Firmus passed, but otherwise didn't move their eyes from the passageway. Stepping into the familiar grey halls of the Executor, Firmus had to force himself not to run his hands over the bulkheads. Everything was exactly as he'd remembered it—the hum in the soles of his feet, the warm but somewhat dry air, the chirp of a distant mouse droid, the spotless surfaces, the muffled echo of his boots on the deck. Falling in behind an R2 unit, Firmus made for the turbolift shafts down the hall. Ensign Shrand followed, silent.

Firmus entered the code for the bridge without a thought and the lift surged upward—only perceivable by the change in the pitch of the sound. The compensators didn't flicker for even a fraction of a second. They were in perfect repair and he indulged a swell of pride. In just over a minute the lift delivered them to the bridge, the door opening to the first sign of other activity aboard.

Nearly half a full bridge crew was present, already getting settled and acquainted with their stations. Technicians were flitting from console to console on final checks. As he stepped out onto the bridge proper, a faintly accented female voice barked from one of the command alcoves: "Admiral on deck!" In an instant the crew stilled and came to attention. Even the mouse droid beneath the forward viewports halted in its sweep.

Firmus nodded, half smiling. "As you were."

Ensign Shrand remained at attention at his side. "Permission to take my leave, Admiral."

"Permission granted."

Shrand turned, heading for the entrance to the crew pits, as Firmus surveyed his bridge. No signs remained of the damage she'd sustained at the Maw. The computer consoles were obviously new; they were streamlined and sleek and took up two thirds of the space their predecessors had. For the most part, though, the Lady hadn't changed. He patted the bulkhead next to him, muttering a soft "That's my girl," before striding out along the central walkway. Matching his gait, he was met at the viewport by an officer with captain's insignia who looked to be in her fifties and was presumably the source of the earlier call to attention. Despite the years he recognized her immediately.

"Captain Kokhba. It's been a long time," he said, holding out his hand. "And quite a few promotions, I see."

"It has, Admiral," Kokhba replied, taking his hand to shake. "But I've been on active duty since we defected. Promotions come with the territory."

"Nothing to go home to on Lothal?"

"My family's orchards were—still are—mining scars. My parents and sisters died on Kessel." It was said matter-of-factly, but Firmus saw the flinch in one eye. "So I went to the recruitment officers on Chandrila and told them I'd fight like a rancor if they'd have me."

"I'm sorry, Captain."

Kokhba smiled. "Thank you, Admiral. But it's been a long time, and I've blackened enough eyes to warrant my own spot on the Order's hit-list. I think it's fair to say my family has been avenged."

Firmus looked out the viewport at the long grey stretch of the Lady's hull. The turbolasers were in test mode now, firing low power bursts at sensor drones that mimicked TIE flight patterns. They flashed red or yellow when they registered a hit. Most of them were focusing on the central cityscape, swooping though the trenches. Firmus was happy to see all of them register hits.

"I wouldn't trust the Lady to a captain with anything less than a reputation. I only hope the rest of us can join you on that hit-list, Captain Kokhba."

Kokhba's grin widened. "It's good to have you back, Admiral."

Firmus turned to take in the bridge. He could see Shrand in the crew pit conversing with a Bothan woman at the console next to him. The technician helping them was a Geonosian. In the opposite crew pit the Helmsman was an Umbaran; the weapons stations were crewed by Quarren, Humans, Togruta, and an absurdly young Lasat. The pit commander was a tall, grizzled Shistavanen. It was the most diverse crew Firmus had ever had—the most diverse the ship had ever seen. He entertained the vision of Tarkin or the Emperor spinning in their graves and smiled.

"It's good to be back."

"Shall I show you around your bridge? There've been some changes."

"Thank you, Captain. I'd appreciate that."

Kokhba's tour was brisk and efficient. She started by flicking a control switch on the console before her. Halfway between the walkway and the viewport, deck panels parted and a command chair not unlike those on Mon Cal ships rose and locked in place. Firmus tried not to look too relieved. It wouldn't do to appear as if his age affected him, but he secretly relished the freedom to sit down.

The rest of the changes were minor by comparison, except for one. The holoprojector in the bridge foyer had been replaced with a tactical holotank. Clone Wars-era ships had had them, but under the Empire, no captain had been granted sufficient strategic freedom to warrant one, and so no Star Destroyer had been equipped with one. Grand Admirals had them in their quarters, but strategy for all others had come directly from High Command and had not been open to debate. The presence of the holotank seemed a luxury.

When Kokhba was finished, Firmus stepped down into the crew pits to speak with the officers. He spoke with each and committed their names to memory. The crew manifest may have been waiting, but a commander should always know his bridge staff. Always.

As eleven hundred hours approached the bridge filled until every station was manned. Systems tests continued—auxiliary power, alert systems, tractor beams, targeting systems. A few of the younger crewmembers were being quizzed by the pit commanders in communications etiquette. Weapons officers were running simulations—anti-fighter and anti-capital ship variations. The helmsman was on the comm with Kuat dock control.

Firmus settled in his command chair and took out his datapad to review his orders. The memo was succinct. At eleven hundred they would depart Kuat and jump to Lira-San, where they would report to General Orrelios and await further orders. Extremely precise coordinates followed, along with a footnote regarding technical details of entering the system's nebula. The orders were signed by Fleet Admiral Ackbar.

Firmus turned to the ship specs, scanning over the information package for changes. The Executor's top speed in both real and hyperspace had increased and she had a point-five percent increase in manoeuvrability when operating in normal parameters. Overall firepower had doubled, mostly due to the updated turbolasers, though an extra ventral battery had been added fore of the main hangar. Shield strength had increased by twenty percent and backups had been installed to cover the bridge, hangar, and the reactor-engine area in the event of main shield loss. By all indications, the Lady was even more of a fortress than she'd been thirty years ago. Far from being outdated, she was, according to the brief, the most heavily armed and armoured vessel in the New Republic fleet. Firmus allowed himself a smile.

He then turned to the crew manifest, familiarizing himself with the commanders who would report to him. He was pleased to find Max in his senior staff, with General Iron Cloud as field commander of all armoured divisions. In charge of his fighter squadrons was General Gavin Darklighter, whose wife, General Asyr Sei'lar was listed as head of the Intelligence Division.

Captain Kokhba stepped to his side. "Admiral? All crew and cargo are aboard. Hatches are sealed. We are five minutes from launch."

"Thank you, Captain." Firmus stood and retracted the chair. "Lieutenant Falor, you have our coordinates?"

"Yes, Admiral. They're in the computer and the hyperdrive is charging."

"Good. Ensign Idele, sever the fuel and docking lines. Commander Dmayden, inform traffic control we are ready for departure."

Both acknowledged the orders and Firmus remained at the viewport, hands clasped behind his back. Captain Kokhba stood a pace back from him. After a brief exchange, Dmayden spoke again.

"We're cleared for departure."

"Excellent. Lieutenant Falor, take us out."

"With pleasure, Admiral."

The ambient hum in the floor didn't change much, but Firmus was well acquainted with the subtleties in pitch. It lowered to a throb, then to a rumble. In the viewport, Kuat's docks seemed to peel up and away from them as the Lady dropped, then came about to her exit vector. Somewhere ahead of them and off to starboard a Nebulon-B blurred and vanished into hyperspace.

Firmus felt the moment the Executor's engines took over from the manoeuvring thrusters. The rumble turned subsonic—a silent thunder behind his breastbone. They were accelerating. To the rear of the bridge a BB unit trilled and his Ops commander translated.

"All systems green. Hyperdrive is charged."

Firmus looked out at the distant expanse of his ship, so large that his eyes couldn't focus on the prow almost seventeen kilometres in front of him. She may have been over thirty years old, but he knew that there was nothing in the First Order's arsenal that could match her. Not in size and not in firepower. She was intimidating, and Firmus intended to make sure she lived up to her first impressions.

"Make the jump, Lieutenant."

"Yes, sir."

Stars blurred into lines, then, with a faint thump below decks, dissolved into the cloudy blue tunnel that was all human eyes could perceive of hyperspace. Firmus gazed out into it for a minute or so, but turned away when dizziness set in. All his years in the Navy and he still couldn't understand how some spacers could stand spending hours on end staring into that maelstrom. Luckily there was a long list of inspections Firmus needed to make and the hours in hyperspace were the perfect opportunity.

When they reached Lira-San, the Executor would be ready for anything the First Order could throw at her. Whether the Order would be ready for her remained to be seen.