Any Work Worth Doing
I hope so, Commander, for your sake. The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am.
Lord Vader had forgiven him, then. Moff Tiaan Jerjerrod watched him go for longer than was strictly necessary. He would allow no detail to escape him. The rhythm of Vader’s boots against the hangar bay floor; the sway of his cloak behind him; the precision of his gait, never hurried and never slow. The pace of inevitability.
He watched him go, then turned on his heel and matched that gait, that rhythm, exactly. Let everyone assembled see harmony in the choreography of their parting; let them see how aligned are Jerjerrod and Vader, how attuned, marching to the same silent, powerful music.
Let them see Jerjerrod as he thought of himself: not as Vader’s inferior, but as his instrument.
As he walked out of the hangar bay, Jerjerrod allowed himself a single dissonant, unbecoming thought: He had lied directly to Lord Vader, and lived.
The lie was innocent enough: They would not, in fact, be doubling their efforts. They couldn’t. Jerjerrod was no mathematician, but he took pride in his work, and he knew the scope of the project well enough to recognize that doubling their efforts wouldn’t result in an operational Death Star by the appointed time. Effort was messy, inchoate; a poor swimmer could thrash his limbs against a lake until his lungs gave out and not advance any farther or faster than a fine swimmer breathing evenly. It wasn’t a matter of effort expended, but of efficiency. Of technique.
Vader knew this, of course, whether or not he realized it. Jerjerrod had learned from watching him over the years. More powerful in the Force than anyone alive save the Emperor; capable, no doubt, of ripping men’s limbs from their bodies with a thought, of striking them down with his lightsaber, of crushing them into compacted fists of meat and bone and wringing blood from the stone of them—and what did he do, instead?
He obstructed a single airway between his thumb and forefinger. Like playing a flute.
Jerjerrod enjoyed music. He wondered if Vader did.
He had wondered, too—more than once—what it felt like. What it might feel like. Ever since Piett’s promotion to admiral, he’d allowed his thoughts to drift toward the possibility of failing Vader so utterly as to court that particular consequence. Whether he’d experience it as a bone in the throat, plugging him up from within and nothing more—whether it might overwhelm him like an ocean wave, smothering him—or whether he’d feel, in his last moments, leather against his skin, retreating from the ruin of his neck like a caress.
Perhaps I can find new ways to motivate them.
He did not allow himself to shiver until he knew he was out of sight.
Jerjerrod’s quarters were spare by the standards of most officers, lacking the plush comforts his rank might have afforded him elsewhere in terms of furnishings and décor. As it was, he had a bed—standard issue, slim as the cots the workers slept in—bare walls, and a draft table large enough to accommodate his peculiar affectations.
It had somewhat embarrassed Jerjerrod, ever since his student days, that schematics made more sense to him if he could touch them. He found it much easier to hold vast structures inside his mind if he could first apprehend them in two dimensions. He often did this on large datapads, but he preferred, wherever possible, to produce them on archaic physical media that he could hold flat beneath his palms, before activating the relevant holoprojections to flicker and pulse before him. Otherwise, the projections distracted him; he found it difficult to move past the smooth, false promise of a completed façade until he’d absorbed the plans with his hands.
He’d been mocked for this in his youth, of course, as if it betrayed some immaturity, some lagging development: a child still mouthing the words of a story under his breath as he read. But as an adult, he’d cultivated this into a quaint but acceptable eccentricity: A large part of his discretionary funds were spent on reams of flimsiplast, the more antique in quality the better.
More embarrassing was the truth: There was an intimacy to the process he couldn’t explain. In his first year as a recruit Jerjerrod had trained in basic field medicine, and it had struck him at the time that when a body was brought to him to treat, he saw it as a broken machine in need of fixing: Here it leaked fluid, there its circuits needed patching, or else the whole was scrap that couldn’t even be reused. Jerjerrod learned early on that he couldn’t bear waste.
He had followed this insight into a study of engineering, and from there to grander architectures—but to his surprise, once surrounded by machines, every schematic began to look to him like a body. Every project had a beating heart, a nervous system, fibers flexing beneath a sheath of skin; every project needed to be comprehended as an organism struggling to be born. He sometimes drew them as he imagined them—he never gave them faces, that would be several steps too far, but he felt compelled to give them some comprehensible personhood. He made his peace with this, and disliked speaking of it—but whenever he needed to focus on a problem, to understand it so profoundly that the solution arrived like breathing, he would roll out lengths of flimsiplast in his quarters and spend hours running his fingers over diagrammed lines as if he could coax from them a gasp or shudder of revelation.
So it was with the DS-II battle station. The project was too vast to lay out in one sheet, but he’d built a model of it that he could split open and lock shut when he wanted to be able to shift his perspective on something, and he’d mapped out key areas by hand with reference to it when he wanted to understand a projection from the inside out. As he smoothed out these reference drawings, his eye was first drawn, as always, to the improvements he’d made to the orbital station’s unfortunate predecessor. They pulsed bright in his mind: Instead of the angry red area around a single thermal exhaust port wailing its treacherous vulnerability, he’d insisted on a capillary system for venting exhaust, discarding dozens of designs in pursuit of the correct one. Now millions of minuscule tubes would stretch from core to surface, allowing the DS-II to breathe. He’d also built choke points and fail-safes to prevent the kind of catastrophic chain reaction that had doomed the original; now the system had the elegance of a Coruscanti necklace, with each bead or gem individually knotted in place such that one section could break without ruining the whole.
He was proud of his improvements. In theory, the completed DS-II would exceed its elder sibling by every relevant metric: power, efficiency, invincibility. But in practice, the angles of one stubborn geometry refused to meet.
There was simply no way to complete construction of the DS-II in the time frame allotted with the resources he’d been given. Its beating heart: the thrum of the generators. Its nervous system: the complex circuitries that would eventually resonate with kyber frequencies. Its lifeblood: for now, merely workers, flowing through its nascent corridors, building out its veins and arteries. The DS-II was anemic. He’d asked for more troops, and been denied; the Emperor had made quite clear that he could not ask for more time. So it fell to him to do the impossible.
He thought of Vader’s cape, swaying behind him.
Jerjerrod went to work.
He traced the contours of the plans. The DS-II ached beneath his hands. He could feel tension gathering in several key muscle groups—work areas—threatening to spasm into problems, delays, ruptures. He’d pushed the men hard, but if they broke now, there was no replacing them.
Perhaps to do the impossible, he had to do the unexpected.
As he studied the diagrams, he drafted new shift rotations, changed their shapes: Instead of tight clusters of furious effort running so hot they’d burn out, he lengthened and stretched the groups to be more flexible, to ramp on and off from different key areas. He didn’t have more men, but he did have plentiful shuttles gathering dust in the hangars; he would requisition them to move workers more quickly across wider areas, such that the journey itself would provide some relief without interrupting the overall workflow.
It could work, given a comprehensive enough vision; he’d relax the pressure in some sectors by raising it in others, and keep redistributing it as it collected. Instead of cracking a whip, he’d be an iron hand in a supple glove, massaging the deep tissue of the project until it released its secrets.
In practice, this meant keener oversight. It meant pacing the corridors, seeing while being seen. Not a distraction, but a reminder of regularity. A metronome, perhaps—no, a conductor, shifting the melody line from one part of the station to another.
Jerjerrod closed his eyes, rubbed his temples. His metaphors were blurring into each other, as if he could solve the problem by simply finding the right one. But it wouldn’t be enough. This method would help—but if he wanted to meet the Emperor’s deadline, he needed a true force multiplier.
Which, of course, the Emperor had already sent.
Copyright © 2023 by Olivie Blake. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.