Thursday, May 11, 2023

An Older Code: 40 Years of Return of the Jedi

Imperial technician Zarn Kellam stared at the wall as the head of Imperial information technology droned on during the latest “important” holo-seminar on security protocols. How many times had he been in his quarters, in his off-hours, listening to someone discuss the importance of workplace security?

The answer: forty-six.

The Empire had held forty-six separate remote work sessions. These mandatory “training workshops” always fell outside his normal duty hours, meaning he’d wasted forty-six hours—nearly two whole standard cycles—of downtime listening to the head of information technology discuss “simple things you can do to keep the Empire strong and secure.” The speakers changed at an alarming rate, with Jek Pernu being the latest mouthpiece for IT security.

So many others had preceded him: Pirn Swalt, Garvey Dellog, Tinner Klep, Dod Kedricks, Haller Daviess, Sheeto Glurg...

They were all very forgettable types personifying the very best in Imperial efficiency. Serious in demeanor with smartly pressed uniforms and hats worn without any panache, each sounded authoritative and uber-competent. Then, without warning, someone would replace them the next week and last varying amounts of time until another one ascended to the role.

So far, Pernu (who managed to last eight months, a new high) had delivered the usual warnings about using Galactic Empire workstations for personal messaging, app, and banking.

“These secure workstations are reserved for Imperial business only,” Pernu said, sounding even more judgmental than normal. “What may appear to be a harmless program may in fact be something that compromises Imperial security. We are not immune to the scourges of data mining and electronic espionage. Simply do not open any non-work-related programs. Use your downtime, downtime the Empire grants you with supreme generosity, for personal business on the personal terminals in your quarters.”

Just like the personal terminal I’m watching this remote holo-seminar on, Zarn thought.

“Now to the matter of your holo-message inbox. Over the last four weeks, we have sent messages that appear to originate from Imperial High Command,” Pernu said. “However, these messages are fundamentally flawed, featuring poor grammar and AI translations. In many cases, the video is out of sync. I’m pleased to reveal that not a single member of the technical staff fell for these attempts to steal personal information.”

Zarn could only shake his head. How could anyone with common sense fall for such a clear scam? The one he received featured Lord Vader pitching some pseudo-currency called “VaderCreds” that promised “most impressive returns.” Vader made a direct appeal for Zarn’s banking information. Why would a high-ranking member of the Empire be involved in something like that? Why would he send a message on official Imperial channels promoting it?

The simple answer: he wouldn’t.

Zarn reported the message before deleting it, as was protocol for suspicious communications. Any remotely competent tech would do the same. Only a moron would fall for such an obvious scam.

Pernu shifted on his feet and cleared his throat. “Despite outreach efforts and extensive training workshops, I must report the unfortunate reality that some fleet commanders did not react to the exercise with the expected amount of caution. We have reassigned training for these individuals in hopes of bridging some of these gaps.”

Zarn hoped Piett wasn’t one of them. The admiral struck him as a competent commander, but having Vader breathing over your shoulder couldn’t be easy. When the Emperor’s right-hand man watched your every move, even a fake message could sway a person simply out of obligation. Maybe.

“I’m sending a list of fleet commanders to the respective techs on their ships. You are entrusted with monitoring their training, which must be completed within seventy-two standard hours. Imperial IT will send an automated reminder before the window closes.”

Zarn’s console beeped. He sighed; an alarming number of the Executor command staff had failed the security check, including Piett. A closer look at the message found that the admiral hadn’t actually failed the test, he’d simply ignored it. Zarn could see it one of two ways: either Piett saw the message and was smart enough not to respond without marking it as suspicious and deleting it, or he’d simply ignored it. Both outcomes were superior to having him fail it, as officers Shelba, Prenze, Tuk, and Granze had.

“As you know very well, protocols are vital to the security of the Empire,” Pernu said. “We must be disciplined and encourage discipline among those we serve and those we serve under. Open a dialogue with your fleet commanders and section chiefs who have overlooked these vital training messages.”

Zarn didn’t want to “open a dialogue” with any of them. He found just about every officer aboard the Executor unbearable and self-important. Piett, the highest-ranking among them, appeared to have the most common sense of the lot. Zarn’s Imperial colleagues often talked of vain commanders who couldn’t reason their way out of a trash compactor, men and women who played petty mind games and thirsted for power as they sought to enter the upper echelons of High Command.

Piett didn’t lack for ambition. He’d taken over for a commander who died right in front of him, but the fact he’d survived the whole Bespin blunder showed Vader had faith in the man. Of all the bureaucratic oafs and vainglorious loons Zarn had met and heard about, Piett appeared to rise high above them in terms of competency and strategic acumen.

“I now turn to a significant change in Imperial policy,” Pernu said. “At the direction of Imperial High Command, we have accelerated the timetable for the expiration of our master code. As you are aware, the standard had been a new master code every month, with codes up to two months given leeway because of unfortunate communication delays across our vast Empire. High Command gives fleet commanders discretion in accepting these older codes.”

Pernu’s image flickered as he attempted to deliver a real-time hologram to hundreds of ships across the Empire’s vast fleet. “Because of an increase in Rebel activity, we are now changing the master code every week, retroactive to two days ago. Codes older than a month are no longer acceptable based on Imperial Intelligence assessments. Fleet commanders still have limited discretion under extenuating circumstances.”

Pernu cleared his throat. “Any capital ship, starfighter, freighter, or transport attempting to enter Imperial territory with an invalid code must be immediately stopped and its crew detained for questioning. We are cognizant of gaps in our communications and how some ships in remote areas may not have received these directives. That is why this is a ‘stop and detain order’ instead of a ‘disable or kill order.’ Imperial intelligence believes the Rebel faction has taken advantage of deficiencies in our protocols to gain tactical advantages. These new procedures, when implemented correctly, will lead to a safer, more prosperous Galactic Empire. I thank you for your time. Long live the Emperor.”

“Long live the Emperor,” Zarn, on autopilot, repeated as he switched off Pernu’s message and turned his attention to the fleet commanders who’d been fooled by something called “VaderCreds.”

“This whole rollout doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.” Kamel Tarth nursed a cup of caf in the mess. “Changing the master code, I get it. Narrowing the window, I get it. But the old protocols called for ‘disable or kill’ when it’s clear a code is old or forged. That bullshit about ‘gaps in our communications’ is pretty stupid.”

“As you know very well, protocols are vital to the security of the Empire.” Zarn affected Pernu’s haughty delivery. “Especially when it becomes apparent that fleet commanders have failed my little test.” The two shared a laugh.

“The usual suspects,” Kamel said. “Shelba, Prenze, Tuk, and Granze.”

The same four officers failed Imperial IT’s policies and procedures check, which consisted of a four-part questionnaire in which they simply had to acknowledge they’d received and read the Galactic Empire’s policies and procedures handbook. One of the questions asked them to name the ship they served on, which all four answered correctly. They all answered incorrectly when asked to name the date of the Galactic Empire’s founding. Two of them—Prenze and Tuk—answered it was “optional” to stop a ship suspected of carrying Rebel forces, a response that necessitated a visit from the Imperial Security Bureau to the Executor along with an additional “intensive” training module. Both officers somehow managed to pass.

“I don’t know why the Empire puts up with those guys,” Kamel said. “We’re all held to higher standards. Why aren’t they?”

“It’s simple,” Zarn said. “Even though they consistently fail our silly ‘security checks,’ their battle efficiency ratings are extremely high. I’ve looked at the numbers. Each of them does a very good job of managing their resources during an engagement. Imperial IT can say all they want about security tests, but the Empire really cares about a commander’s competency when it matters. It doesn’t care if their moronic officers lose their life savings in a VaderCreds scam.”

“I’d care if I lost my life savings on something called VaderCreds.”

“Yeah, but the Empire wouldn’t, just as long as you showed up to your next shift.”

“You’re probably right.” Kamel shrugged. “Do I detect a little bit of snark there regarding our glorious mission with the Empire?”

Zarn spun his drink in his hands. “That sounds like an ISB question, buddy.”

“We are legion.” Both techs laughed. “But I’m just saying you sound a little down on things, that’s all.”

Zarn shook his head. “It’s not that. I just wish our officers took the security tests a little more seriously. VaderCreds aside, our systems are more vulnerable than Imperial IT wants anyone to believe. We’ve done a good job of locking things down, but the Rebels have some damn good slicers. They’ll find a vulnerability, especially when we insist none exists.”

“You know, I heard an old story that’s probably apocryphal. A general aboard the Death Star—Tagge was his name, I think—dared to suggest that the Rebellion posed a threat to the Empire. He voiced these concerns in a meeting of several generals. Tarkin was there, I think, and Vader showed up, too. But Motti, you know, was dismissive of the whole thing. What happened? Tagge was right—the Rebels were a threat. And everyone in that room, with the exception of Tagge and our dear Lord Vader, got vaporized because they didn’t take things seriously. There’s a lesson in there.”

“Yeah—don’t sit in a room with a bunch of admirals and generals and moffs unless you want to get vaporized,” Zarn said.

Kamel shook his head and let out a tsk. “The lesson is that you’re right. Vulnerabilities exist in our systems no matter how hard we try to protect them. The Rebels can get to us. Now, I’m seeing a lot of chatter on Bantha about some of the fleet movements we’re making.”

“You’re not supposed to be on that app,” Zarn said. “It’s on the banned list.”

“The restrictions are easy enough to bypass. Besides, the app uses end-to-end encryption. As long as you keep to private servers, you can learn a lot about the state of things.” Kamel leaned in close and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial level. “A lot of users are saying a final offensive is imminent. We know where the Rebel fleet is located, the entire fleet, and are awaiting orders from High Command to make the jump to lightspeed and end this thing once and for all.”

“I really don’t think we should be talking about this,” Zarn said. “It’s a violation of regs.”

“It’s just chatter, bud. Could be right, could be wrong. Imagine if it’s right, though. We take out the whole Rebellion in one fell swoop, and then the Emperor lets everyone know the new Death Star is ready. The Galactic Empire will rule for a thousand years. And we can finally stand down from the military. We could get a job in the private sector or something, put down some roots and leave this fleet life behind.”

“The pay bump would be nice,” Zarn said. “I’d take a trip somewhere. I hear Felucia’s got some outstanding sights.”

Kamel sat back and stretched out his arms. “See? That’s what I’m talking about. This Galactic Civil War feels endless. What if we finally ended it? What if we bring peace and prosperity to the entire galaxy?”

To be honest, it was a nice thought. Life in the Imperial Navy, even just in the technical corps, meant working strange hours, keeping copious records, and following more regulations and protocols than he could ever remember. If they could defeat the Rebellion, maybe he could reclaim a little of his own life for once. He hadn’t known much of the outside world since his days at the Imperial Academy, moving from one ship to the next and one planet to another.

No more loyalty tests. No more banned apps. No more security holo-seminars.

It sounded pretty good.

On the Executor’s bridge, Zarn checked the arrivals and departures schedule. He saw no incoming or outgoing shipments from the forest moon. That was odd, he thought, because things were almost always coming and going, with shuttles shipping personnel to and from the moon or freighters delivering supplies. Energy shield integrity remained strong; it’s a good thing they’d had a technical crew boost the output of their prefab bunker a few months back.

“How are things looking, Technician Kellam?” The question came from Admiral Piett. Though he managed a large crew, he knew the name of everyone who served on the bridge, even a low-ranking technician.

“All systems check out, sir,” Zarn answered. “The energy shield is operating at maximum capacity.”

“Excellent.” Piett sighed and put his hands behind his back. “I’m greatly pleased by a high level of efficiency.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I did have another question for you. I noticed a message from Imperial IT about some security test. Is this important?”

“Protocols are always important, admiral,” Zarn replied. “The security check is a fleetwide exercise. Every technician across the entire Empire passed the test. It’s a very simple matter of—”

“I should not ignore it, then?”

“Well, sir, Imperial IT tracks these things and reports to, you know, High Command. They’re very, um, enthusiastic, I guess you could say, about making sure everyone is up to speed on the latest important security policies. I wouldn’t ignore it.”

“You mean, you wouldn’t ignore it again?” Piett said with a subtle smile.

Zarn released a heavy, relieved breath. “The records say, sir, that you didn’t even take the test the first time. Maybe the original message bounced out of your inbox or something. It’s been known to happen.”

“And fleet commanders have also been known to ignore ‘important security checks,’ especially those requiring attendance at a holo-workshop.”

“That’s your prerogative, sir.”

“High Command brought it up at my performance review. The moff in charge of my evaluation didn’t seem to care about the exercise. But if it’s important to you, Kellam, then I will give Imperial IT some of my very valuable time in the middle of a war.”

“You’ve always led by example, sir,” Zarn said. “Perhaps completing the security check would influence some of our other commanders to take it more seriously.”

“I received the same report you did,” Piett said. “And while I won’t name any names, it doesn’t surprise me that some of the officers have failed in their duties. I believe you make a good point. Perhaps by completing the exercise, I can convince my subordinates to do the same.”

Zarn’s console beeped. “We have a shuttle incoming, sir.”

Piett stood somehow even straighter. “We have nothing on the schedule for today.”

“No, sir.” Zarn checked the transponder. A Lambda-class shuttle called the Tydirium approached. A records search showed the shuttle hadn’t checked in with Imperial forces in several months. He activated his comm. “We have you on our screen now. Please identify.”

“Shuttle Tydrium, requesting deactivation of the deflector shield,” the pilot said. He sounded bored.

Zarn bit his lower lip. “Shuttle Tydirium, transmit the code for shield passage.”

“Transmission commencing.” The pilot somehow sounded even more bored.

Zarn tapped on his screen. “This is code is older than three months, Admiral. I don’t think we can let them pass.”

Piett leaned over Kellam’s shoulder. “The new protocols just went into effect, Technician Kellam. Surely, we must give ships some leeway for a few days, don’t you think?”

“Well, Admiral—”

“Besides, protocol gives me broad discretion when it comes to accepting older codes, does it not?”

Zarn took a deep breath and gathered his thoughts. He needed to choose his next words very carefully. “It’s true that the new protocols still give fleet commanders discretion, but ships broadcasting an older code are subject to a ‘stop and detain order.’ The shuttle transmitted an older code, sir, and that means the new protocols call for us to stop it. We should absolutely not allow it to pass unchallenged.” The shuttle appeared to be keeping its distance.

“It seems you love protocols more than some droids do,” Piett said.

“Protocols are vital to the security of the Empire.” Part of Zarn died inside when he realized he’d quoted Pernu.

Another tight smile from the admiral. “A scan shows more than two dozen people on the shuttle. That lines up with a technical support crew.”

Zarn checked the records again. “We don’t have any delayed shipments, sir. The Tydirium isn’t on the list of ships authorized for passage in this system. We have no scheduled arrivals, no messages about a delayed crew. I can identify no extenuating circumstances that would necessitate allowing the shuttle to pass unchallenged.”

Zarn felt goosebumps. The hair on the back of his neck and arms stood up. His stomach tightened. Imperial Lord Darth Vader had a way of sweeping into a conversation like a dark wind. In Zarn’s early days aboard the Executor, the Dark Lord’s electronic breathing unnerved him. He thought he’d gotten used to it until he realized Vader stood right over his shoulder.

“Where is that shuttle going?” Vader said in that commanding voice of his.

Zarn, momentarily frozen, shifted slightly as Piett punched the comm button on his console. “Shuttle Tydirium, what is your cargo and destination?”

“Parts and technical crew for the forest moon,” the pilot said. Zarn was surprised the man didn’t yawn while answering.

“Do they have a code clearance?” Vader asked.

Zarn resisted the urge to pump his fist in triumph. Finally, someone who valued protocols. Of anyone in the Empire, Lord Vader would have the utmost respect for security.

“It’s an older code, sir, but it checks out,” Piett answered. “I was about to clear them.”

Vader looked toward some unseen horizon. Zarn couldn’t read his mind, of course, but he was certain the Dark Lord was grappling with how to best discipline the admiral for his flippant treatment of Imperial protocols and procedures.

“Shall I hold?” Piett asked.

The technician waited for Vader to answer in the affirmative. 

The shuttle needed to be stopped and detained; those were the new rules set forth by the Empire. In many ways, Vader was the Empire. He personified those ideals and—

“No. Leave them to me. I will deal with them myself,” the Dark Lord replied.

“As you wish, my lord,” Piett said. “Carry on.”

Zarn, stunned by the Dark Lord’s answer, couldn’t move. Piett broke him out of his trance with a nudge, and Zarn hit the comm button. “Shuttle Tydirium, deactivation of the shield will commence immediately. Follow your present course.” He said it with more confidence than he actually had. The bored pilot didn’t even bother to thank him.

“Well done, Technician Kellam.” Piett patted him on the shoulder and left to attend to other matters.

Vader’s heavy boots clicked ever closer. “Technician Kellam, I sense this decision has left you uneasy.”

“Of course not, Lord Vader.” Zarn managed not to stutter. Part of him wanted to tell Vader that he’d violated Imperial protocol. What could he even do? File a report? If that came across some bureaucrat’s desk, they’d simply mark the case closed and move on, if they valued their life.

“I don’t think you’re being truthful with me, Technician.”

Did Zarn feel tightness around his throat? He heard that happened sometimes when people got on Vader’s bad side. He took a deep, unobstructed breath and realized his mind was playing tricks on him. “To be honest, my lord, your decision to allow the shuttle to pass is a direct violation of new Imperial protocols. I just attended a mandatory workshop about them. Sir.”

“If you feel so strongly about a potential breach of protocol, Technician Kellam, I suggest you file a report. Perhaps you should file two reports: one with IT and another with ISB.” He placed a gloved hand on Zarn’s console. “While no man is above the rules, sometimes there are more important things than protocol.” With that, like another gust of wind, the Dark Lord left.

Once his shift ended, Zarn picked up something from the fast-serve kiosk and went to his quarters. He arranged his food on the side table and logged back into his personal console. Balancing his sandwich in his mouth, he tapped away at a detailed report citing the regulations Admiral Piett and Imperial Lord Darth Vader violated in the Empire’s most vital operational sector.

He read over it once more, cc’ing Imperial IT, the Imperial Security Bureau, and Imperial High Command. He quoted Vader himself.

“While no man is above the rules, sometimes there are more important things than protocol.”

Zarn smiled, took a bite of his sandwich, and chewed thoughtfully. His finger hovered over the send button as he mustered the courage to forward a complaint that would surely ripple through all levels of the Empire. But before he could do it, Piett summoned him back to the bridge due to urgent “Rebel activity” on the forest moon.

Even in his downtime, Zarn Kellam served the Empire.

He scarfed down what remained of his dinner, buttoned his tunic, and made sure to put his uniform hat on straight. His door hissed open as he left, and he missed an urgent, automated message from Imperial IT.

Four fleet officers still needed to complete their security training before the deadline.

Piett, at the very least, had taken the time to fill out his.