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Saga Cold Iron Mirror [Completed 11/18]

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction- Before, Saga, and Beyond' started by Mechalich, Oct 2, 2012.

  1. Mechalich

    Mechalich Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Feb 2, 2010
    Cold Iron Mirror
    Author: Mechalich
    Timeframe: 19 BBY (Order 66 and post)
    Characters: Nivi Avixin (OC)
    Genre: Adventure/Drama
    Notes: This story will, eventually, contain spoilers to Darth Vader and the Ghost Prison

    Summary: As Order 66 wipes out the Jedi and the galaxy changes, one lonely Force-user dares to seek to unwind it all, but is she prepared for the darkness along her path?

    Comments of all kinds, both positive and negative, are strongly encouraged.

    Dramatis personae
    Nivi - Jal Shey
    Corvid - Longrifle Dragoon
    Taozin - Assassin
    General Gentis - Imperial Headmaster
    Darth Vader - Sith Lord
    Trachta - Imperial Moff
    Palpatine - Emperor
  2. Mechalich

    Mechalich Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Feb 2, 2010
    Chapter 1

    Republic Bioterrorism Countermeasures Center
    Chommell sector
    19 BBY

    Span took the message on his internal helmet comlink. Then, for the first time in his memory, he gave the subvocal command to have it repeated. After he had confirmed beyond any possible doubt that the authorization code was indeed correct, he swallowed bitterly. Silently, remaining at attention, he shifted his head a few degrees to the left, just far enough so his peripheral vision took in Ready standing on the opposite side of the door.

    It took no more than a glance to interpret the body language. The same message had passed to both men.

    Face front, Span's eye moved inside the helmet field down the row of pale gray laboratory stations. One, two, three researchers in lab coats passed by without concern before his sight paused on one in armored robes. At the waist of this unusual scientist hung a forearm-length metal cylinder, sleek and chrome-coated. Starring at the lightsaber, his grip tightened on the stock of his Dee-Cee.

    “Do we?” Ready's voice sputtered over the helmet line, filled with uncharacteristic hesitation.

    “She's not a Jedi, right?” Span managed to muster the words, fighting a confusion and resistance he could not entirely pin down. Orders, in his experience, had always been clarifying things, providing a path of action in moments of indecision. Now everything stood shrouded in fog, broken up into a puzzle he knew no means to solve.

    Something in his countenance must have betrayed this unease. Four desks down the black-haired skull turned away from a glowing terminal chirping with the dulcet rhythm of cellular analysis to stare directly back into Span's helmet sockets.

    Looking down the row into those strangely mirrored dark eyes, the trooper stood frozen as Nivi addressed him. “Sergeant, is something wrong?” Heads turned across the room, providing an audience as those flashing orbs slid down his armor to rest ever-so-lightly along the barrel of his blaster before creeping back up to the face again. “Do you intend to use that on me?” She made no move towards her lightsaber, that was certain; Span's focus was clamped around the weapon.

    “No ma'am, you're not a Jedi!” the words burst from Ready's frame, his emotional soup boiling over.

    Nivi's gaze went flat, eyes turned a frightful matte shade. Her neck moved to slowly bring her head in line with the junior trooper. Pausing there, it soon returned to Span. He wanted to turn away, but the compulsions of duty would never allow it.

    Cold laboratory light, blue-shifted and merciless, caught the hidden metallic sheen in Nivi's face as she stared down and through the Clone Trooper Phase II Armor. “Something has happened, has it not?” she pressed gently. “I should hope you would tell me, and the rest of the lab.”

    “Doesn't concern the rest of the lab,” Procedure sheltered Span's careful response. The need to contain panic was an ancillary concern, but one he could safely act upon. “There's no need to know.”

    “So only I,” she gave the softest hint of a smile. “Because I'm not a Jedi.”

    Holding his rifle as if it was his only protection, Span managed to formulate an answer without rising to the jibe. “No ma'am, but we must request confirmation of your status.”

    “What are your orders sergeant?” Transitioning with jarring rapidity, Nivi's body snapped whipcord straight, and her voice claimed the edge of a razor. “I will not be kept in the dark as to my fate.”

    Speech was compelled by this command. To fill the suddenly unbearable silence words were drawn from Span. He regretted them instantly. “Contingency Order Sixty-Six has been issued.”

    “And is this order a state secret?” Mirrored eyes burned. “Or will you do me the courtesy of divulging its contents?”

    Span had made it a point of emphasis to memorize all one hundred and fifty contingency orders upon making sergeant. He could recite them all perfectly.

    Meeting mirrored eyes the clone struggled with the unfamiliar storm of conflicting duties. Nivi was a comrade, a fellow member of the GAR, an officer even. She was skilled, honorable, and in her own way kind. He wanted to tell her; the contingency orders were not secret, at least, not officially.

    But how could he reveal this particular order, in this hour, after it had been enacted?

    Nivi had taken the quiet pause as a chance to move forward, and now stood at a modest conversational distance. Span knew the practical range of a lightsaber, and it was close enough to take his head. It seemed very likely.

    It would certainly simplify matters. He opened his mouth. “Order Sixty-Six: In the event of Jedi Officers acting against the interests of the Republic, and after receiving specific orders verified as coming directly from the Supreme Commander (Chancellor), GAR commanders will remove those officers by lethal force, and command of the GAR will revert to the Supreme Commander (Chancellor) until a new command structure is established.”

    Nivi did something Span had never seen. She blinked, and stood stock still. The clone trooper counted ten full seconds before she spoke. He kept his finger over the trigger the whole time – there had been no longer ten seconds in his whole short life.

    When she finally spoke it was a bare scrape of a whisper. “The Supreme Chancellor has ordered the extermination of the Jedi Order...” she paused. “No, that's wrong. Your order mentions only Jedi officers; how very specific. Even so, what madness has led to this end?”

    “Ma'am, the order has been verified,” it was a limited truth, but Span took comfort in it. He could not fathom why, but that was not his role. Better minds than his, men trained to think, not to fight, had decided upon this course. Surely it was necessary to preserve the Republic.

    “Oh I have no doubt it has,” Nivi whispered. Tears were pooling atop her eyes. “Palpatine always was ambitious, and if there were ever a moment it would be now, but is beyond belief.”

    Span said nothing. He recoiled at the accusation those words contained, but there was nothing he knew that might counter it.

    Nivi shook the water from her eyes. She starred up at Span, unable to match the height of the helmeted trooper. “Thank you for the information sergeant,” genuine kindness was conveyed with those words, filling the soldier with surprise. “I believe I will get some air.”

    “Sorry ma'am, you can't leave,” Ready jumped in quickly, on the edge of panic.

    “Ma'am, I need to ask you to stay here until the situation is clarified,” Span elaborated, eyes on the lightsaber, trying to cover his nerves.

    “Ready, Span,” Nivi's glance shifted quickly from one to the other. “You are good men, and in this, blameless, but I have no intention to wait at my desk, standing pointlessly until they order my execution.” Her flashing eyes turned cold and steely. “Before you say anything more I remind you that I am at liberty and you have no authority to hold me. And,” she added with a grim glare. “You truly do not wish to try and restrain me right now.”

    Ready hesitated, gripping his rifle so tightly it creaked audibly. Span simply took a single step to the right, away from the door. His weapon came up to the shoulder, guard position, not combat. Relief spread through him. She had quoted the orders correctly. Let her disappear beyond that barrier and take the dilemma she represented with her.

    “Thank you sergeant,” Nivi stared at him for a final second, but in her eyes he saw nothing but his helmet reflected back at him. “May the Force be with you.”

    He knew when she stepped past in the next moment it was goodbye. Significance dripped from each word, the Jedi phrase he'd never heard from silver lips in all the many months of close contact. An inescapable sensation, foggy and cold, stuck to him beneath his armor; he knew something profound had changed for him then, but what he could not say.

    Span was only a clone trooper. The galaxy might warp and groan under metamorphic spasms, but he was confident it would alter his role little at most. Sparing an unprofessional glance back as the repulsors slid the door closed, he could not help but wonder what foundations remained for Nivi.

    * * *

    There were no Jedi Knights on the staff of the Bioterrorism Countermeasures Center. The pair initially assigned to the project had long since been re-routed to actual combat commands that needed their aid, but the four MediCorps Jedi brought with that mission were still in place. Healers, not warriors, two were elderly and the others mere teenagers. They were not armed. Nevertheless, Captain Irons had placed the full quartet in confinement and turned out his entire modest garrison to ensure containment.

    It had been an aggressive move, but the follow-up confirmation orders had vindicated any possible over-reach. All Service Corps members were to be placed under arrest and held until special forces were available for secure pickup. Irons found he was in high spirits – making the correct call on his own initiative proved he was just as capable as any womb-born officer.

    Lost in the disturbing excitement and chaos of Order Sixty-Six, however, he was about to belatedly discover he had neglected a far more troubling externality.

    This particular difficulty had mirrored eyes and had just appeared at the end of a long subterranean passageway leading to his checkpoint; the final guardpost before the surface. The soldier could not help but notice the armor she wore, or the lightsaber she carried.

    “Stang,” he whispered silently into the void of his helmet, indulging in that brief expletive before keying his mike. “Take aim,” he ordered the squad behind him. “But do not, do not, fire unless attacked or at my express order.”

    Composed of light plates and pads the gray and green armor faded into the low lighting of the semi-circular passageways. Light reflected back only from the eyes as a steady gait brought her forward.

    In the process of their making the debilitating shackles of fear had been struck off the clones, but Irons felt a paralyzing emotion of a different sort now – command uncertainty. Trained to believe in the sanctity of correct and incorrect decision-making, his mind reeled from this moment, for it seemed to present not even the faintest possibility of a right choice.

    He knew the numbers, but that could not keep him from tabulating the sums over and over again. The Center contained exactly seventy-three clones: two platoons and himself as the supernumerary. Every man was presently in armor and ready to plunge into action. Two squads on the MediCorps group, two up-top on the landing pad, four at checkpoints, and he'd added his own blaster to this stronghold at the main entrance. All that and he had no idea if it was enough.

    Memories of Jedi in battle flashed through his head. He'd seen knights, and masters, and even the legendary Kenobi once, but those images provided no comfort against the oncoming eyes. Nivi was no Jedi, and Irons had never seen her in action. How many lives would that deficiency cost? It haunted him.

    Nivi came to a halt precisely five steps in front of the squad. Her gaze encompassed them all. Irons captured no hostility in the sheen on her face, but he dared not relax in the slightest.

    “Captain,” she began with easy openness, almost casual. “Why the enhanced security? Are we facing a possible attack?”

    Irons ignored the remark. “Doctor Avixin, I must ask you to return to your quarters immediately. This base is on high alert while command is in flux.”

    “So you have not received orders regarding me,” she noted. All kindness and warmth vanished as if never there at all. “And the MediCorps?”

    “You have no need to know,” Irons stonewalled. He wondered whether he should order an attack. He wondered, but he hesitated. Without orders, it would be murder. He wasn't a murderer; he was a soldier.

    “I would have thought you remembered how easy you clones are to read,” Nivi noted. Irons resisted the urge to retort. “So, you have arrested them, and in due time you will give them to Palpatine's minions so that they may be disappeared.”

    “They are in our custody,” the captain was unmoved. “Do not make any attempt to oppose or protest this.”

    “Had I the power, I would,” pain sobbed through each word, an avalanche of regret. “But as I do not there is no reason to unleash death here.”

    The part of Irons' mind that had spent three years in the desperation of combat following Jedi officers had learned to trust the intuition of people with lightsabers. It warred with the newly birthed part that harbored a narrative beginning with the words 'lethal force.' He did not relax.

    “I need you to return to your quarters,” he wanted this to end, and swiftly. The longer the tension incubated, the closer shots fired moved to inevitable. “There is nothing to discuss. I would prefer to not have to detach an escort.”

    “Then it seems I must disappoint you,” Nivi's voice went hard. “I have no intention of waiting to be killed, and I am therefore leaving immediately.”

    “I can't allow that,” Irons kept his rifle up, trying to read the intent in mirrored eyes. He intended to go down fighting, at the very least.

    Nivi's response defied his expectations. “Your allowance is irrelevant,” she spoke sharply, but with frightful icy deliberation. Her face was frozen and clenched. “My presence here is via a cooperative agreement with the Jedi Order. I am not, independently, part of the Grand Army of the Republic. As the Jedi have seemingly been declared enemies of the state that agreement is in abeyance and my continued presence here is a violation of the Military Secrets Act.”

    Legalese was not a battlefield for clones. Irons knew that in such a theater he could only concede defeat or cede the field. It dawned upon him then that Nivi had taken the responsibility for violence and placed it as an anchor about his shoulders.

    He was a clone, not born but designed, and the Kaminoan designers had prioritized control. In the absence of orders authorizing it he simply could not commit murder. Irons did not reason it out in this clinical fashion, he simply understood that his muscles would not obey any impulse to squeeze down the trigger.

    Obligated to withhold the instigation of violence, Irons was under no such burden to provide aid. “Very well, Doctor Avixin. You are to be escorted from this facility this instant. No resources will be detached to your use whatsoever.”

    Nivi's face fixated on the clone's, burning the outline of her fine bone structure into his memory. She smiled, all bitterness, pain lacing over the shimmering accents. “Well played Irons, well played.”

    The captain did not respond to this. Instead he silently signaled out two of his men. “Take her up, now.”

    Keeping the rifle trained on her back until she disappeared up the service lift, Irons finally dared to breathe. “I want perimeter sensors switched to full power active scanning,” he relayed to the troops.

    They were in a remote and isolated section of Naboo. One woman, the Force or no, would not get far traveling on foot. He would get clarification, and soon.

    If it was the will of the Republic that the Jal Shey share the fate of the Jedi, she had not yet escaped.
  3. Mechalich

    Mechalich Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Feb 2, 2010
    Chapter 2

    Eastern Swamps
    Chomell Sector
    19 BBY

    The shadows played through boughs bent and ragged to scatter over uneven moss carpets and verdant liquid murk. Nivi's eyes surveyed it in a scattered reflection of distaste. She placed the sun behind her, a distant peak to her left, and began to bushwack directly southeast.

    She chose her steps with as much care as she dared to spare, moving rapidly to cover ground. Time was firmly against her, and any glance away from the moist terrain conjured a bleak monochrome image of a clock deep inside her skull, slowly ticking down to a stop. The oppressive conception shared its burdensome presence with deep, pitiless grief.

    Jal Shey did not feel the Force as Jedi would, but the wreckage of the day was inescapably pervasive. The Force itself was soaked in the blood of the fallen. It pushed into her, bridging the gap between spirit and flesh to manifest as palpable nausea.

    Would that she could push it all away and shelter in the calm security of the material reality until the palpitations of agony receded, but there was no escape now. Nivi relied upon the Force to navigate the unforgiving wetlands, drawing deeply on it for support. Enhanced vision pierced the clouded pools to reveal firm ground, luminous energy wrapped about muscle fibers to lengthen strides and reduce fatigue, and a reflective perception dropped from high above to unearth the swiftest path.

    The sickness gripped her deep. An hour passed and Nivi could no longer override her body's suffering through will alone. She stopped abruptly and vomited wretchedly into a puddle, clouding the still water with viscous yellow bile. Insect larvae moved immediately in her heightened focus to consume it. Soot-colored moths descended down from the trees as well, fluttering to feed on this purged emotional waste.

    The sight brought a small smile to her face. Life endured.

    Nivi paused for two minutes, allowing this minimal amount of time for her body to recover and her mind to settle. It was not truly rest, not with the Force as it was, but it would have to serve.

    One hundred kilometers could be measured in a straight line through the marshes between the facility she had so recently vacated and the nearest human transit corridor hosting regular traffic. Mere hours remained before she was labeled a fugitive by the entire GAR, subject only to overwhelmed communication channels and bureaucratic inertia. It was possible the order had already been given. Against those resources she possessed a pitiful set of assets. Her lightsaber, her armor, one advanced datapad carrying a highly illegal copy of the Bioterrorism Center's archives, and the Force completed the tally. It was little to serve as a hopeful inspiration.

    She kept walking anyway, regardless of the weight of logic; holding to the swiftest pace she could sustain.

    Only once did she give in to the voice of regret – after falling into a deep pool and soaking through for the first time. “Hutts take Irons! One single speeder and I'd have the whole galaxy!”

    Knowing recriminations would provide neither true solace nor aid, she banished all such thoughts to the lower depths of her conscious mind, locking them away with a trick of neural control. For now she must escape Naboo, a planet that could not shelter her; nothing else mattered.

    Nivi kept a corner of her attentions skyward. Captain Irons had several armed shuttles at his disposal, and the planet's GAR detachment had assault craft and starfighters. The swamp would mask most scanners, but she dared not become complacent against the possibility of spotters.

    No doubt existed within her as to their inevitable coming. Nivi did not know Palpatine, but no man possessed of the brazen cunning and ambition needed to set and execute a trap to exterminate the Jedi Order would be so foolish as to let loose ends linger – certainly not on his birth-world. She held no illusions regarding her success in escaping the sustained attentions of the GAR's full might – not with all the resources freed by the ongoing Separatist collapse – only her obscure affiliation and low-priority status protected her now.

    It was an oversight Nivi fully intended to make Palpatine regret, in time, but she could devote no energy to indulgent fancies yet. Survival was paramount.

    Mathematics sits at the heart of all sciences, and whatever else she might be, the soul of a scientist rested at Nivi's core. As the numbers gathered against her she could not help but calculate the envelopment.

    One hundred kilometers to the road – at her enhanced pace she might average five klicks an hour, twenty hours without interruption. All manageable, with the Force's assistance, but her best understanding of GAR protocols suggested holding forces would move into place in under six.

    A woman on foot could not outrun airspeeders. Nor was there any possibility of finding aid. The vast marshland she occupied was deeply isolated, traversed only by Gungan herders. The Separatists had chosen the site well.

    Even if she had a chance to reach them, Nivi would not risk the Gungans. Their military had been integrated with the GAR, their communications would betray them. Worse, they had no reason to stand and protect her, no one in the Republic did. She must instead find a way to break through the forming vise undetected, alone.

    She only wished she had some idea how.

    For the present she could only keep walking, the sun falling lower and lower in the sky behind.

    Night brought changes in sensation, color, and perspective, but no true obstacles. Mirrored eyes caught light far better than humans might see in the dark, and Naboo's sky was sufficiently illuminated to leave her in the world of reds and purplish grays. Confident in this she kept to her pace, wet but filled with the warmth of exertion.

    Slow and shrouded by the dimness, the air beneath the ragged trunks and webs of lichen proved to be bursting with life. Creatures large and small crawled, swam, and scurried through the mass of growth and rot. The land burst with smell and sound, a rampant sensory spectrum exploding across Nivi's enhanced intake. She took solace in the refreshing fascination of it all. After months logged inside the lab the embrace of wilderness, even that of this mild parkland Mid Rim world, was refreshing. She felt the marsh slowly flush the grief away, and soon it was possible to begin facing down the horrible truth she had witnessed.

    While the details were no doubt propagating across a HoloNet beyond her reach, Nivi required no such journalism to supply her with the essentials. The Force and the clones had revealed plenty already. The Jedi Order shattered – Knights and Masters dead, Corpsmen imprisoned, turned upon by the soldiers whose lives they'd safeguarded up until the very final moment.

    Order Sixty-Six, an innocuous, simple label. It was precise and clinical – fitting for the clones. Nivi herself admitted she might have used such language, but it seemed a poor fit for a Supreme Chancellor. She considered that, quite possibly, that was the point. “Detail slays the Jedi and spares the Jal Shey.” It was an old saying from an earlier cycle of the Republic. Something of a miserable joke, today it had become a cruel truth. So too, she feared, was the equally aged retort. “Evil slays the diplomat; falls to the guardian.”

    But she was not ready to give up yet.

    The finer points of military protocol governing containment cordon deployment or strategic unit placement or maximum area coverage formations were not a portion of Nivi's knowledge – nor was she trained in defeating such tactics, as a Jedi might have been. Considering this bleak picture as she light-stepped over brush mounds and fire-scarred stumps she knew she could not survive by thinking that way.

    Perhaps a skilled Jedi might make the warrior's charge across the landscape and beat the clones at their own game, but that same Jedi would never have made it this far, instead dying in the laboratory, shot in the back by Span.

    I am alive because I am Jal Shey, not Jedi.

    The words burned across the back of her mind with the written certainty she knew derived from the Force. She followed the thought to its logical conclusion. In order that she might keep living, it could only be through living as Jal Shey, not Jedi.

    Climbing a long, low, ridge topped by towering conifers she cast the overlapping skills aside from her thought process. Lightsaber techniques, unarmed combat, speed and sensory enhancement, even mental trickery, all were discarded. The remainder was much reduced, and seemingly little to do with warfare, but it was hers.

    In the course of this consideration she unearthed an unexpectedly potent commonality in her understanding of bypassing defenses: the world of immunology and epidemiology. The GAR barricade was the skin, and she was a bacterium seeking a way through.

    Her mind began churning, eyes wandering as they sought to put all possibilities of the landscape into the vortex of data now swirling into one of her Force-boosted deductive mental algorithms. Somewhere the key existed to solve this puzzle; to unlock the path that began with survival and ended with the unmaking of the catastrophe known as Order Sixty-Six.

    That there was a way she never doubted – schemes of extravagant personal ambition were, like such ambition itself, always flawed.

    * * *

    The mission profile was utter simplicity – kill any lifeform weighing more than thirty kilos that crossed a digitized line before it could breach the opposite perimeter. The resulting kill zone was roughly two kilcks wide and encompassed a seventy-five klick radius circle of sunken marsh, flooded bottomland, and low-land forest. Sixer's assignment was to cover a roughly fifty-kilometer length stretch of the aforesaid belt using his Torrent.

    It had started out as great fun, a chance to bank some hairpin low-altitude moves he'd never get to use in actual combat while blasting at moving wildlife for emphasis. It had quickly become something resembling the galaxy's most sadistic form of target practice. Unarmored swamp creatures turned into particularly messy cocktails of organic remains when hit by laser cannons, and the view was churning even a hardened clone's stomach.

    As any competent soldier would do, Sixer had familiarized himself with the local environment upon arriving at this station, just in case he'd needed backwoods knowledge to survive following a bail-out or other accident. So now he recognized every miserable life form in the instant before he depressed the trigger. Mutts, Ganks, Numas, Bursas, and a mated pair of Swamp Banthas had all come under the guns. At some point, one he dreaded more than more with each pass, the scope would illuminate a Gungan.

    It was his desperate hope that the ground teams would find the fugitive first. Sixer had never before taken the life of a non-combatant sentient. It was a streak he very much wanted to hang onto.

    Six hours into the patrol matters had largely calmed, the practical consequence of most of the belt slowly burning from earlier laser strikes. For a clone grappling with the entirely unprecedented desire to not shoot more things with the control stick in hand this was a blessing.

    In fact it was all rather excessive to Sixer. Eight Torrents, two Larties, and two full platoons on the ground all to catch one pseudo-Jedi. He'd have figured a squad on speeder bikes could have handled it just as well. Command, apparently, felt differently, and they were the ones paid to make those decisions, so he kept to it, no matter the gore below.

    But where was the woman? How was it possible she'd evaded the searchers for so long?

    Six hours later, with no life signs detected within the entirely enclosed search area, Sixer was no closer to an answer. He had to withdraw to refuel regardless. Upon returning to base, he checked the unit log of computer-tabulated kills. It made him sick to see – his streak was intact, but eight Gungans had died. Total wildlife mortality was simply approximated by tonnage.

    Another six hours further command conceded their quarry had somehow escaped and redeployed all search assets.

    In the chaos of burning swampland and dying mammallia, Sixer had never noticed that a Gank carcass had somehow moved from where it was shot to the far edge of the kill zone.

    * * *

    Sheltering beneath shadows cast off the brilliant domes of Theed, Nivi finally reached a point where the stench of smoldering Gank had sloshed free of her shimmering hair. By the time this state was achieved she'd managed to assemble a basic picture of the tsunami of events surging through the galaxy. All she had felt and sensed through the Force faced brutal confirmation, and far worse. The very foundations of galactic order had been uprooted and for now only a terrifying unknown prevailed.

    Mace Windu, Kit Fisto, Yoda, Arglian Zey, Ki-Adi-Mundi, Plo Koon...the list of Jedi slain as traitors was endless. The corresponding list of surviving fugitives much, much shorter. Some of this was surely a fabrication, Nivi could not believe claims implying not a single senior master had survived, but the very confidence revealed by Palpatine's willingness to proffer such claims was a confirmation all its own.

    The destruction of the Jedi Order was now the reality of the galaxy.

    This news created a firestorm that rose up to burn away any announcements of smaller affairs, but a bit of diligent HoloNet searching revealed a list of 'Jedi Collaborators' now in GAR custody. There were Jal Shey names among them, more than a few. Nivi took as bitter blows each scrolling down to reveal a friend of colleague. Her own master, a renowned medical scholar, was on that list; seized aboard a MedStar.

    No details revealed the fate of all the myriad Service Corps members, Matukai, Jal Shey, or any other swept up by the echoes of Order Sixty-Six. As a witness to the pursuit and bloodshed unleashed against her personally Nivi could secure little hope for her fellows. Worse, she had absolutely no way to contact or find those who might yet still be free.

    Despite the abject death and destruction it bore, the news of countless Force-users being scourged was not the worst thing to blast across the HoloNet. That particular abomination occupied Nivi's attention as she nursed a cup of tea in a tiny backstreet tapcafe. She'd printed the whole text out on flimsi from a public terminal, needing the physical structure to ground something so mind-shattering.

    It was a short document, a few hundred words only, with the strangely mundane title 'Declaration of a New Order.'

    The Republic was dissolved, Palpatine had assumed the open role of dictator, and everything the war had been fought for was torn asunder.

    Had the star above gone nova in that instant Nivi could not have been further shocked.

    Every minute in the open brought great personal risk, but Nivi sat at the tapcafe for hours, reading the reports over and over while her drink went cold. Somewhere embedded in those words was the key to what she must do next.

    Slowly the pieces came together – the extra-sentatorial governors, the elimination of independent Jedi oversight, the militarization of all economic sectors, the destruction of Rim-based socioeconomic power centers, it all fell out centered on one man, one would-be Emperor.

    When she reached this conclusion is seemed shockingly simple, entirely too obvious, but no effort to debate it offered any purchase.

    Palpatine was the key to it all.

    Palpatine must die.

    “The duracrete has not yet hardened,” whispered beneath her breath, Nivi made the old catchphrase of Jal Shey diplomacy into a battle cry. The choice was clear – as was her path.

    What remained illusive was the means. Palpatine lay ensconced on Coruscant behind the galaxy's very best security and this strange new enforcer Vader. Nivi would not be enough on her own.

    To kill an Emperor would require the very best assassins. Lacking money to recruit such persons, she would perforce need to rely on other motives.

    Luckily, perhaps, for her, the world of bioterrorism research had revealed more than few possibilities.

    As the sun set Nivi headed for the spaceport. She had a ship to steal.
  4. Mechalich

    Mechalich Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Feb 2, 2010
    Chapter 3

    Secret Corporate Alliance Facility
    Thorium sector
    19 BBY

    The mountainous terrain rose and fell, slowly, endlessly. Trails wound around and about, crawling along river valleys and long, slithering ridges. Thick coniferous growth, ranging from towering trees to low scrub, covered everything in a thick red-green glaze. The deep pitch-soaked smell was pervasive, coating every surface.

    Game trails cut through the wilderness, but the travelers were forced to avoid these, and any other visible path. The planet's deadly crocodilomorph predators and strangely bat-like gliding reptiles were far too fearsome to idly provoke. No, bushwhacking through the undergrowth was preferable.

    Cover had the added benefit of fooling airborne patrols.

    Despite the difficult ground and dangerous wildlife the pair progressed with excellent speed. Corvid was astonished to discover, only a handful of hours into the journey, that he was the limiter of their pace, not Nivi. It defied all evidence and expectation. He was in peak condition, wilderness trained, and knew the land intimately. She, while obviously in shape, was nothing impressive, and was a self confessed lab rat of a scientist. Yet her feet never missed a step, she simply did not stumble, and the endurance hidden beneath shimmering skin proved boundless.

    The Force, no doubt, but its quiet and casual application terrified the sniper far more than any flashy lightsaber display.

    Little was spoken during this time; mundane exchanges to pass ration bars or water, or to note one or another hazard, and little more. Trained by the silence of snipers Corvid did not pry, and the Jal Shey did not volunteer anything, content to keep her own council.

    He made no effort to break the silence until the end of two long days traveling. Corvid lay in his sleep sack, carefully cleaning the action of his rifle. Nivi had just emerged from the nearby stream. Not over-modest, she still insisted on bathing privately. Touched by the low light of evening; covered in droplets, her skin positively gleamed. It gave her a strangely synthetic appearance.

    “At this rate we should get there a little after midday tomorrow,” he told her, more relaxed than he'd been in some time. It was an odd feeling, almost worrisome, as if he'd stepped away from the war.

    “Good to hear,” the Jal Shey acknowledged, betraying some eagerness. “With any luck there'll be a salvageable speeder as well. Your woods are a fine place, but I cannot help feeling pressed for time.”

    Corvid nodded slightly. He'd seen this in her – the constant nervous stress, a millstone of need. “Assuming we find this invisibility tech,” he speculated, not yet ready for sleep. “What then? How does one kill an Emperor?”

    “I...” she paused, mirrored eyes staring at him, bright in the starlight. “Don't know.” She looked to him instead, measuring. “You understand the principles. What are the requirements?”

    “It depends,” he cautioned. “The most essential piece to begin is this – do you intend to survive the attack?”

    “Ah, of course,” Nivi nodded, looking strangely thoughtful. “No doubt planning a successful...extraction, as the Clones would say, makes it much more difficult.”

    Corvid felt no need to use language to answer this remark. He simply waited for her to supply the continuation.

    “Come to that, I am fully prepared to give my life for this,” Nivi spoke the words solemnly, tasting them for the first time. “I would take a simple fifty-one percent chance of success. It is too important to hesitate.”

    Corvid nodded.

    She turned the question back at him. “And you?”

    It was not, in truth, a question. He'd answered it weeks before. “I am already dead. It is only a matter of which enemies I take with me. I will trade a few certain clones for the possibility of a single Emperor.”

    Mirrored eyes flashed. “When I told you that there was a deviancy in your brain did not come as a surprise, did it not?”

    “No,” this was old territory, though Corvid still wished he understood how she had known. “I've known from a young age. It is not considered to require medication.” He stared into those shimmering panes, daring her to challenge.

    “Certainly not in your line of work,” Nivi muttered, making little of it. “In any case, it means nothing to me. What of the Emperor though? How to do it?”

    “Assassination is governed by two principle factors,” Corvid pivoted easily, happy to leave the subject behind. “Access and defense. The first is necessary to provide a window to attempt the kill. The second must be neutralized to ensure success.”

    It was difficult to tell what lay behind eyes reflecting your own face back to you, but the Jal Shey appeared perfectly attentive, studious. “Palpatine is a massive challenge in both areas,” he continued. “As Emperor access to his person is tightly controlled, especially on Coruscant. Even should he leave the palace and the planet absolutely every individual in his presence will be carefully vetted, down to the smallest droid. All area access points will be locked down and secured as a matter of course, with even tighter emergency measures.”

    “His defenses are equally sound; the best technological security money can buy, a veritable legion of utterly loyal, highly trained guards.”

    “He's also a Sith Lord,” Nivi added, almost casually.

    Corvid blinked. “What?” He could summon nothing more, so unexpected was this.

    “I suppose that's not public, at least not yet,” the Jal Shey amended wearily. “I'm sure he won't resist showing his powers off in good time though. Regardless, it is a matter of simple deduction – Darth Vader is a Sith Lord and he serves Palpatine openly and absolutely. Only another Sith could command such subjugation, and it is not a front, Vader's body language is far too genuine in extant public appearance footage. Finally, Sith Lord status is among a small number of explanations for Palpatine's successful survival of a concerted Jedi attempt on his life.”

    Silently the sniper considered this. It seemed, to his great shock, to be perfectly reasonable. Dooku had been a Sith, why not his enemy Palpatine? Further, a Sith affiliation provided an explanation for the wanton destruction of Order Sixty-Six, a thing that had nagged at him. Killing children was considered the greatest of sins, there was no military or political justification for it – he was good at recognizing purposeless death. If it had been a principle of Sith vengeance though...then it made perfect sense.

    “That...” he spoke with uncharacteristic hesitation. “Would make an assassination much more difficult.”

    “I know,” Nivi's voice was pained. “You've killed a Jedi. What are the specific challenges?”

    “Jedi sense threats and attacks,” Corvid explained, recalling the tactical briefings on Jedi targets. “They have off-the-chart levels of personal ability. As a result it is essentially impossible to achieve full access or to completely reduce defenses. Jedi are not assassinated, they are overwhelmed.”

    He could see something in her motions, the lean of shoulders and head, that would not leave it there, so the sniper continued. It was an old story, one told many times. “One shot, from elevation, aimed at the roof of the skull; matched to time with battle droid fire from the front. It's formulaic, really, simple math. A lightsaber can cover only so much angular space per interval, no matter the speed. Force the high block and droid fire penetrates; in my case the Jedi chose to block low, to die by human hand, rather than machine. That's all.”

    “Of course.” She believed in reason, there was no indication of doubt in her voice. “Well, if the Separatists have left me the tool I hope to find perhaps we can get around the access part of the equation.”

    If the claim of invisibility to the Force was real, then it's importance was impossible to overstate. With that in hand a Sith Lord was reduced to a conventional target, though still a powerful one. “And the defenses? One laser rifle will not be enough.”

    “You're right of course,” Nivi answered, deep in thought. “We will need weapons capable of killing a Sith Lord. I shall have to research the matter.”

    These words drew their conversation to an end. Corvid lay watching the stars spin for some time. The prospect of facing a Sith chased away sleep in a way no pursuing clone army could.

    * * *

    The facility was buried deep in the mountainside. Only a pyramidal duracrete entryway marked its existence; an entrance flanked by the burned out hulls of two Pursuader tank droids.

    Bomb craters surrounded this opening, the legacy of an airborne assault used to clear the remains of Dragoon squatters two weeks before. Corvid remembered that day well; he'd been part of the trap group hitting the attackers from behind. Good men had fallen, but there was a smashed Larty two-klicks to the north. It had been a victory, such as they were in these last days.

    “So your people never went past the first level?” Nivi asked, the same question as before.

    “All the lifts were broken,” the sniper explained with a shrug. “Nobody really wanted to go scrounging in a germ lab.” He gave the Jal Shey a questioning glance. “You seem strangely confident that something valuable remains here. Clone commandos hit hard, fast, and thorough. Not likely they left anything behind.”

    “That would generally be true,” she admitted slyly. “But this was not a conventional case. It was my recommendation that this site be considered a priority target, and I conducted the after-action interviews with the squads.”

    Corvid's eyes narrowed, but he did not interrupt.

    “The commandos detected a self-contained tunnel system below the lab, one they did not have time to investigate. Additionally several scientists were not accounted for.”

    “Why was there no follow-up attack?” it seemed the obvious move, he would not have thought Nivi would make such an oversight.

    “There were plans,” she responded. “But it was not a priority. The tunnels were natural, and commando scans pulled no tech readings. The data raid evidence indicated the program had been stalled for months, one test stage from potential viability. Projections reported the chance of any restructuring or completion before Creshal was completely retaken as zero.”

    Corvid translated the stat-speak into something he understood in military terms. “You were winning so it didn't matter anymore.”

    There was a sad cast to her silver lips at hearing this. “The primary concern was mass production,” her eyes misted. “A single prototype – soldier invisible to the Force – was no threat to an order of thousands, but now...”

    “You only need one,” he finished for her.

    Nivi nodded.

    “Well, lead the way then,” Corvid pushed into the next moment. “I suppose you've memorized the layout?”

    “Correct,” Nivi stepped forward with confidence.

    The entry was cloaked in shadow, and strewn with debris cast about by grenade discharges. The burned bodies of nine humanoids lay in various twisted positions along the floor. Scavengered down to bare bones by local wildlife they were differentiated only by the scraps of armor remaining behind. Three were Dragoons, six were clones.

    “One a woman,” the words escaped Nivi's mouth almost idly.

    “What of it?” this statement puzzled the sniper. Certainly there were those who thought woman unsuited to the battlefield, but he could not see this lady holding such sentiment.

    “Oh,” this response was accompanied by a certain form of absent-minded neglect; the Jal Shey's focus elsewhere. “It is just strange how masculine this war has been. Male clones, male droids, even factoring in native forces on both sides female casualties are below three percent. So it can be surprising to see.”

    “Huh,” rating such matters as well above his pay-grade, Corvid simply pushed on.

    Inside the facility was a jumbled cluster of gently rounded corridors, dorm rooms, utility stations, and labs, all in the droid-facilitating black-gray metal common to CIS installations. Once outfitted to clinical state of the art it was now a bombed-out shell, ravaged by laser fire and grenades. Most rooms were recognizable only by overall structure.

    Bodies were abundant. Relatively undamaged, it seemed the scavengers had not penetrated much past the inner blast doors, they lay without any recognizable order or pattern. A gaggle of security droids had fallen defending that final choke point. Afterward only scientists and staff could be found. Most were human, some were Koorivar, and a handful less recognizable species. Sharp sniper eyes observed that many had been shot in the back, or with hands raised.

    This neither surprised him nor moved him to any emotion. Nivi's motives tensed a moment later when she made the same discovery, but she too chose silence.

    The Jal Shey ignored the obstacles and moved to the main turbolift shaft. It lay half-smothered beneath a partially collapsed ceiling. “Shaped charge,” Corvid noted, looking at large metal plates and piled basalt boulders. “Awfully heavy.”

    “The upper half of the door is uncovered,” Nivi pointed.

    Bent and twisted out of shape, the durasteel panel looked to be a thoroughly solid barrier. “Wouldn't that require another-”

    His objection trailed off beneath a characteristic snap-hiss. A pale turquoise blade emerged from Nivi's lightsaber.

    “Odd color,” the sniper noted as the silver-shaded woman quick-stepped up the wreckage. With assured motions she plunged the energy blade into the door and began to carve it away.

    Apparently only partly occupied with iron surgery, Nivi answered the remark as she cut. “Jal Shey lightsabers use synthetic crystals. We usually fit a shade in-between strong colors. Variations on cyan are among the most common.”

    Only marginally interested, but with nothing else to worry about, Corvid glanced at the weapon's hilt as well. The design was a basic cylinder, silver and black with grip, actuator, and nothing more. Compared to highly artistic Jedi blades this one seemed simple, even industrial. He wondered if it had been machine-made.

    Nivi's cut was finished in a moment, and the ruined door slid down the debris pile. A dark hole, outlined by superheated metal, beckoned. The lightsaber vanished.

    Nivi stuck her head inside.

    “Looks clear all the way to the bottom,” she said upon emerging. “You have a hook and cable I imagine?”

    Corvid nodded. “Only one at a time though,” he cautioned.

    “I'll go first then,” Nivi grabbed the cable as he tossed it over. “Five levels. Once at the bottom we can find the tunnel access.”

    Firing off the hook securely into the exposed roof bedrock, Nivi wrapped the cable around her waist and plunged into the darkened column. She landed swiftly, triggering a loud metal echo.

    Corvid followed, making a somewhat less dramatic descent by sliding down the cable.

    Blackness reigned in the bottom level, many meters below the surface. Corvid's goggles compensated, shifting everything into a digitized world of bluish light amplification. Nivi wore no optical devices, but her vision appeared unimpaired. He imagined it was something to do with the Force, and asked no questions.

    “Ready?” she queried.

    “Copy,” Corvid acknowledged.

    Boots rang loud on the metal flooring as they walked through this lowest, high-security level. The bodies here were all Koorivar, the masters of the Corporate Alliance had clearly not trusted humans this deep. Large chemical vats, cored by blasterfire, could be seen in many places. A sour smell lingered in the air.

    Corvid put an arm over his face, wondering if the air was clean. His goggles had a basic scan package, but they could be easily fooled.

    “It is all right,” Nivi assured without looking back. “No toxins, all the volatiles have been absorbed into the stone.”

    Corvid relaxed. Slightly.

    From the turbolift they traveled roughly thirty meters east, before turning left and going twenty meters north. There they wrestled away a damaged piece of wall paneling to reveal a small storeroom. Between floor-to-ceiling stacks of supply crates resided a large, heavy durasteel floor hatch. It was military grade, naval style, the kind that might be found at an emergency bulkhead junction on a warship. The sniper wondered at this, it seemed distinctively overkill.

    Nivi put a hand to the heavy white bags filling the industrial shelves. The contents crumpled slightly – indicative of some kind of powder.

    “Nutrient mix,” the Jal Shey spoke to the air. “I thought so.”

    “For the Koorivar?” Corvid questioned. He had no idea what those aliens ate.

    “Not quite,” a curious smile split Nivi's face. She bent down to the hatch in the floor. “This wasn't sealed properly.”

    “So your missing scientists might have escaped,” Corvid admitted, believing for the first time that something useful might remain in this ruin.

    “Yes,” she grasped the large spoke-ring turning mechanism. “Help me with this would you?”

    Wrenching back the heavy lid revealed a narrow ladder down into a tunnel utterly without illumination. Odorless still air hung heavy in that abyss.

    “Glow rod,” Corvid indicated, slipping into combat speech without realizing it. He pulled a tiny disposable unit from his belt, a marble-sized globe, and dropped it into the chasm.

    Bright green light burst into being when it hit bottom, ten meters below. Low in candlepower in an absolute sense, it was more than enough to satisfy his goggles. A quick glance at mirrored eyes proved they were supplied equally well.

    “Down we go then,” the Jal Shey's voice was hopeful; out-of-place in the grim wreckage landscape.

    She went first, shimmering hair flashing light waves as she took the rungs confidently. Following protocol, Corvid waited until she'd reached the bottom before rail-sliding to the bottom.

    They were in natural tunnels, un-worked, the remnant of some great ancient upheaval in the mountains. Whatever it had been it had cracked the land open and left this miserable pocket of twisting caves behind. Once jagged, slow movement of water over rock for millions of years had smoothed the stone-scape to almost glassy perfection.

    Green glowrod light illuminated passages in three directions. Corvid considered which choice to pick before his eyes caught a color shift. There was dark staining on the stones below his feet.

    The sniper dropped to one knee. Carefully he ran his hand along the surface of cool stone. “Blood,” he whispered. “Dried.”

    Nivi gave him a single look before squatting down beside him. She put a finger to the stained patch; then touched it to silver lips.

    “Not human,” she announced with certainty. “Koorivar.”

    Unable to challenge this assertion, the sniper simply examined the stain carefully. Internal alarm bells grew to loud ringing. “This is a lot,” he spoke quietly, reducing the carriage of his voice. “Easily enough to kill.”

    “Hmm...” Nivi's lips purred. “Best to be careful. Stick together, look for remains.”

    “Left tunnel first,” Corvid indicated; standard path-finding protocol.

    Nivi led, he followed, one hand on the rifle stock strapped to his back. The green glow suffused the little world, otherwise empty.

    Calm radiated from the Jal Shey, but the Dragoon was on edge. He did not like this place. It was narrow, confined, and with too many blind corners. Sentient hands did not belong here, not in this ancient crack in geologic purity; it had a feral air.

    Ahead the passage bent, opening and looping to the right, low-emerald shadows crept towards a distant far wall. Nivi moved ahead, but Corvid paused. Something tickled the edges of his perception. He pulled all sound and motion, holding perfectly still, the sniper's posture – searching.

    Faint, low-sensory, echoing along the edge of thought, insufficient to truly wake conscious awareness, his reflexes reacted all on their own to a tiny sequence of taps.

    “Nivi!” schooled in the endless stalk-and-ambush of the wilderness, Corvid never hesitated. He was un-limbering his rifle even as he called. His armor responded to sub-vocal commands, active stealth systems ramped to full power, rendering him one with the shadows on the walls. “There's something down here!”

    “I don't sense any-” the Jal Shey started to turn. As her head passed into the angle of his observation Corvid saw a pale green sheen, witch-like and alien, reflected in her eyes.

    He threw himself against the wall. Nivi jumped impossibly high, moving with blinding speed to touch the tunnel ceiling.

    Something massive surged past Corvid. He felt the rush of air tear along the tunnel; hundreds of click-clack explosions burst in his ears as powerful segmented legs propelled the immense beast by.

    The predator turned about in front, flashing pale red flesh and dark ocher legs ending in jagged latching barbs. It was huge, the size of a skiff, but it moved with the deadly liquid grace of a centipede. Green eyes, larger than Corvid's whole head, adorned the front end above lashing mandibles.

    As it moved its body seemed to fold and subsume; light whistled by the mighty carapace, leaving the predator shrouded in perpetual gloom, barely visible.

    Even as Corvid tried to line up a shot, there was a snap-hiss above. An armored form descended in a flying overhead chop, turquoise beam sweeping down just behind the jaw shield.

    The brilliant plasma blade struck. There was a blindingly bright flash of energy discharge.

    Protective systems in sniper goggles took over. A dark wall blanketed Corvid's vision for a period of several critical milliseconds, obscuring the reaction.

    Nivi screamed in pain, a high and shrill noise of screeching metal and slate. When vision returned he saw cruel burns smoking through her armor and snaking along her arms.

    The segmented predator undulated, and the snap-quick motion threw the Jal Shey aside, deep into the next chamber.

    It was an ill-omened loss, but a sniper is trained to focus only on the shot, the target, to make it connect no matter what has just shattered beneath him. Corvid fired, and then again, and he managed to squeeze down the trigger a third time before hurtling his body at the stone floor and rolling to the side.

    The beast passed over, unable to see this pest that dared to sting it, but an articulated leg struck Corvid in the ribs. Smashed against the wall, air burst from his lungs. It took all the effort he could summon to keep hold of his rifle.

    Rising high, reaching toward the ceiling in the tunnel behind, the creature's mouthparts shivered and twitched in every direction as pain was revealed. Smoking blaster marks illuminated the front left flank in three places, but the sniper's eyes widened at the shallow, even cosmetic, nature of the wounds.

    Each of those hits would have dropped an adult dewback.

    This predator seemed merely enraged.

    Pale eyes darted and shifted as the creature struggled to locate this insect that had dared to confront the true master of shadow. Corvid felt secure in his invisibility, but despaired of surviving another charge by a creature that could simply overbear and crush him blindly.

    Segmented legs clamped down, ringing through the narrow tunnels like whip-cracks as the beast prepared to lunge.

    A surge of wind slashed by Corvid in the opposite direction. A blue, green, and gray blur of motion sprinted through the crude cylinder of stone to connect with thunderous vocal detonation.

    “Kriffing Taozin!” Nivi threw herself into the might predator's midsection.

    Twenty-meters long, almost two meters around, and surely over ten thousand kilos, the taozin drowned the black-haired woman in its immensity.

    Impossibly, this meant nothing in that moment. Corvid watched in awe as the predator reared, screeching in high-pitched agony. Nivi's knees bent, and she threw her whole body into the beast, hurling its great bulk into the tunnel wall.

    The crash brought Corvid freedom from incredulous rapture; the will to act returned. “Nivi!” He reached back behind with his left hand, grasped, pulled, and whipped the arm forward to throw. “Catch!”

    With a swift left-handed grab the Jal Shey pulled in the blaster pistol. Vaulting in the next instant onto the back of the righted taozin, she fired again and again.

    Corvid added the heavy bolts of his rifle to the stream, taking the creature in the front, aiming among the delicate mouth-parts.

    Struck from both sides the serpentine beast coiled and thrashed, seeking to throw off the parasitic leech plunging burning spears into its back, but the nimble Jal Shey somehow evaded being smashed to a pulp against the walls and ceiling.

    Multiple attacks confused the savage predator, and pain overwhelmed its senses. Blinded by blaster fire, its agony mounting with every blast, it flailed back and forth, unable to focus on one attacker.

    Holding to her perch through some inexplicable combination of supernatural grace and shear dare-devil tenacity, Nivi pumped shot after shot into the taozin. With the silvered lady's presence anchoring the translucent monster's position Corvid poured his own sequence of high-powered rifle blasts into its head.

    Smoke filled the chamber and a powerfully nauseating reek, burnt alien flesh, assaulted the nostrils. Dozens of marks scored the segmented hide. Great and strong though it was, even the taozin could only endure so much. Eyes shattered, mouthparts cleaved to the base, back a smoldering and torn wreckage, it writhed a final time and collapsed to the cold stone beneath.

    Corvid shot it between the eyes to be sure, and then let out a breath. He glanced at his goggle's chronometer display. The entire engagement had taken sixty-two seconds.

    “ stang...was that?” he managed to squeeze the words out through teeth chattering with the flood of adrenalin, pressing Nivi.

    Wiping smoke stains from her face, she passed back the blaster pistol, its power pack almost completely drained. Only then did she supply the answer. “A taozin.”

    The look of incredulity must have registered, because she quickly continued. “A major predator, legendary really. They originated on the Jungle Moon of Va'art, but have been found in many places through the years. They are most notable for a singular trait – complete invisibility in the Force.”

    Corvid suddenly made the connection. “The research here-”

    “Was based on Taozin, yes, and a much smaller crocodylomorph predator native to this world, the Kalkre, that masks the sense of threat its ambushes should trigger in the Force,” Nivi explained. “I suppose we'll find a few tied up in the webs ahead.”

    As the Jal Shey turned and walked onward into the alien strands of dark silky material clinging to every surface within the Taozin's lair, Corvid proved unable to restrain an accusation. “Didn't you suppose they might have kept a live taozin on site?”

    “Not really,” her silvered face betrayed a brief blush of embarrassment. “They're supposed to be extinct.

    Feeling bruised ribs, Corvid muttered. “I don't think I'd mind much if they were.”

    This remark provoked a hurt look from Nivi, but her irritation was soon banished as they entered into the pockets of space preserved among the webbing.

    After a brief search, Nivi scrambled over a pile of desiccated Kalkre bones to grasp at a shredded red lab coat.

    Corvid watched her bend down, then suddenly straighten, hands held aloft in triumph.

    There, standing in darkness among the consumed, she leaped in victory, a datacard in one hand and a small sealed vial in the other.

    “Found it!”
  5. Mechalich

    Mechalich Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Feb 2, 2010
    Chapter 4

    Secret Corporate Alliance Facility
    Thorium Sector
    19 BBY

    Left to her own devices Nivi would have begun analyzing the research then and there, heedless of blackness or smoldering Taozin remains. Corvid had prevailed upon her to walk back up to the entrance. She had to admit, it was nice to have clear air.

    The sniper offered only one question regarding the recent battle below. “What happened with your lightsaber?”

    “Taozin scales disperse and reflect the energy from a lightsaber,” Nivi sighed. It had been embarrassing, to slip up like that. Painful too, her arms were still burning from the back-flash discharge. “I thought that was a myth.” Self-restorative techniques were already working – the Force triggered a supercharging of repair enzymes and tissue generation throughout her body. Rapid cell division and repair would soon eliminate any damage, but pain remained.

    In the cool light of mid-afternoon they sat side by side, leaning against the shattered tracks of a ruined tank droid. Placing the loose flowing edge of armored robes beneath crossed legs she unfolded her datapad and placed it on her lap. Corvid, busy cleaning his pistol, glanced at the machine, eyes examining the multiple thin screens and embedded holo-projection interface.

    “Stang, he muttered. “What’s that thing cost?”

    “Ten thousand credits,” Nivi answered, turning the salvaged datacard, a finger-length bit of metal and plastoid, over in her hand.

    From the corner of her eye she caught the glare replying to the prior statement. “I got a grant,” she muttered defensively.

    This seemed to satisfy the sniper, and Nivi was spared pointing out the surely astronomical costs of his rifle and stealth armor. She suspected that conversation would not end well.

    Weary of distractions, she threw caution to the wind, shoving the datacard into the reader.

    A complex hierarchical file system materialized on the primary screen. Labeled in alien script, her datapad struggled to interrogate it.

    “Hmm…” Nivi muttered under her breath. “No encryption, but it’s in a native Koorivar dialect. This could take some work.” She fingered the little vial of dark liquid at the same time, placing it up to a secondary port designed for chemical spectroscopic analysis.

    Machinery turned, and Nivi sank her focus down into the datastream.

    Corvid cleaned his pistol, his rifle, and was carefully scraping smoke residue from his armor by the time Nivi emerged from the thrall shrouded over her intense effort.

    “They were close, very close,” she announced.

    “Close to what?” the sniper asked, his voice betraying nothing but habit, no curiosity at all.

    “To turning a human invisible in the Force,” she spun a visual model out on her projection. “This concoction,” she pointed to the little vial. “Is a chemical serum containing a retroviral setup and a soup of bio-activation compounds. It causes every cell in the body to produce a prion string that binds to the surface of midi-chlorians, coating them. This renders that person, in fact that person’s very cells and consciousness, wholly undetectable; they don’t even leave ripples in the Force.”

    “Did they test it?”

    “Yes, several ways, including on Dooku himself,” she pulled up an image of the late count standing next to a caged avian crocodilomorph. “It works perfectly, in Kalkre.”

    “Not all that useful then,” Corvid mused, leaving unsaid that Kalkre were small, petulant, and completely undomesticated. “What about humans?”

    “At present,” Nivi changed the display to a false-color representation of the retrovirus. Spiny and fluorescent, it flashed a complex array of neon-shaded contact proteins along its outer surface. It resembled nothing so much as an antique naval mine. “It causes a lethal reaction as a result of the system shock from prion induction into the brain.”

    “That would explain why they stalled,” Corvid muttered dryly.

    Nivi shot him a glance, but the armored face proved inscrutable. She knew he’d always harbored considerable doubt. He took this finding in stride.

    She refused to accept the result.

    Placing her hand atop the projection, she spun the little retrovirus around. Every other screen hummed beneath her fingers, scrolling at blistering speed through a horde of biological imagery. Cell models, chemical formulas, protein sequences, she dumped each article together into a vast mental conglomerate, sorting and collating them all at once, seeking out elusive patterns. Then she pulled her basket of possibilities in line with a designed mental fortress resonant with the stream of the Force.

    Filtration began.

    “G…C…C…A…G…T,” letter after letter spun from her mouth; a massive, complex string, hundreds long.

    Nivi was not conscious of the passage of time. Visuals flowed across four screens. Mirrored eyes spun back and forth, absorbed without sight. Corvid watched in fascination, even as the Jal Shey had no knowledge of the stares.

    Her recitation came to an end.

    A lengthy digital-projected string of DNA hung glowing in the air before her.

    “Run sequence assembly and protein model,” she ordered the datapad distantly.

    Double-helix morphed into a complex three-dimensional molecular representation. It resembled a large, circular plate, with a sort of latch in the middle.

    “What’s that?’ Corvid whispered.

    “A carrier molecule,” some part of the Jal Shey mirrored a reply; while the rest of her attention was anchored on the thing she had made. Something was still missing.

    “Display mitochondrial DNA sequence,” she considered. Something from the Taozin, but from humans as well, it had to combine, to merge into a natural break point. She needed a commonality. “Coruscant-native onycyphora specimen.”

    The datapad flashed; a query box noting that a HoloNet query was required to provide that information.

    Nivi hit it without pause.

    A series of long DNA sequences appeared on her second screen. She ran her hands down the list, searching with intellect, but relying on the intuition of the Force at the same time.

    Her left hand attached to a piece a few dozen base pairs in length, her right to one ten times that. She pulled them both up and into the hologram, fitting matters just so. “Re-run compile.”

    The disk vanished and then re-appeared. Now it had a bright ring around the edge.

    “Perfect,” Nivi smiled, observing her handiwork.

    “What’s it do?” Corvid’s voice intruded.

    “Basically it escorts the prion directly to the midi-chlorians, avoiding other endosymbiotic organelles in the process, and adjudicating the rate of reaction,” she sighed, picking up the little vial. “That’s one problem solved, but now we have to get it into the virus.”

    “Wouldn’t it be easier to make more?” the sniper wondered aloud.

    “Would that it was,” this produced a grumble from the Jal Shey, turning the vial over between her fingers. “But that’s not possible. The recovered data was incomplete. Synthesis was not recorded, only the results. Even if it was, to produce something like this requires millions of credits in equipment we don’t have.”

    Bringing his eyes down to the level of the few grams of goo, the sniper stared. “So…” he exhaled.

    “I have to cheat,” her lips smiled, but the Jal Shey shook her head. She did not like doing this, not at all. It wasn’t properly scientific, wasn’t reasonable. The whole thing was un-professional. “Using the Force. It’s something my master taught me for battlefield situations and pandemics.” She glanced at Corvid’s belt. “Do you have a spare power pack?”

    “Sure,” he detached the little boxy case and passed it over. “But what use is that?”

    “It’s a power source,” Nivi pried into the device with her fingers, pulling out the sturm dowel. Then, without ceremony, she slammed it hard against the tank droid armor plate behind them.

    Corvid scowled disapprovingly, and leaned back as the power pack began to leak a crackling hiss of electrical sparks through the damaged plastoid casing.

    Nivi ignored the sniper’s silent objections and placed the little sample vial on top of the rectangular box, feeling the discharge streak across her skin. Her hair rose, straightening out until it stood parallel behind her and sparked on its own.

    She closed her eyes, looking to the mirror within.

    Grabbing at the coiling tendrils of electricity with iron will, Nivi pulled them down and in, through the complex mix of application fluids and into the little packets of protein and nucleic acid that waited there.

    Then, taking a slow, deep breath, she made them dance.

    No other way to describe it sufficed, this manipulation of genetic material at the sub-cellular level through electricity and will, guided by a warring combination of knowledge and intuition; using the Force to manipulate the forces and fabric of life itself.

    It was almost impossibly difficult, choreographing a ballet that could not be seen with nothing but a crude lash to compel obedience. A thousand times harder than throwing the Taozin about or blocking a blaster bolt.

    Time slowed in her perception, everything reduced to the conversion of one base pair at a time, the slow reformation of molecules into a new configuration molded to the necessary design, all held in place by electrical screaming until they were ready to collapse in a final fusion. Sweat beaded and flowed down her face, soaking glimmering hair. Her heart rate rose, and her breath came in shallow gasps. A bioscan would have registered her on the edge of cardiac arrest. Her limbs chilled, taking on a bluish cast as her brain demanded every bit of oxygen her distracted body could possibly spare.

    At last the final base pair cycled into place.

    Nivi dropped the power pack to the ground. It lay there silent, utterly drained.

    Wobbly, she turned to Corvid. Dizziness seized her, and she almost fell to the soil before the sniper grasped her shoulders in firm hands. “Are you alright?” he asked, concern audible.

    “Fine,” Nivi muttered. Realizing this would not be convincing she added, mustering deliberate vigor. “I’m fine.” She made her neck stay straight, looking up at him. The emotional concern evident on his face was surprising. “Merely tired, something like that takes a great deal of energy.” She held the little dark vial up to her face. “But it worked. I’m certain it did.”

    Corvid’s vision followed the vial somewhat suspiciously. “Can you test that?”

    “Perhaps,” she considered. “With a sufficient quantity of human tissue culture you could get some kind of measurement.”

    “Could we do that?”

    “Maybe,” she cautioned. “But in the end it’s still my professional judgment. It is not really possible to bring in a third party on this. It will work, I know it for certain.” The Force had written it into her mind; she need not rely on statistics. “The question is, with only one dose, do you want it?”

    Nivi did not hesitate to make the offer. Corvid had proven everything she needed to know against the Taozin. He could be the assassin she required, but she would never compel anyone to undergo such a change. “I must tell you this – there will be side effects.”


    “There won’t be physical impacts,” she explained carefully. “Nothing changes there. It is in the realm of the mind that shifts to the state of midi-chlorians play out. Your own will shall forget their presence.”

    “What’s that going to do?” his voice was flat and stoic, but his face tightened; betraying concern.

    “I cannot say exactly what will happen,” Nivi couched, thinking. “This is something of a unique case. My experience suggests a loss of empathy, specifically building off your pre-existing condition.”

    “So I am to become completely free of murder’s burdens,” Corvid summarized. His face went empty. “Not a thing I desire, but for this task, necessary. Complete predatory purity is essential.”

    He stared straight into Nivi’s face. For the first time in her life she looked at a human truly seeing into her eyes.

    “Do it,” he ordered.

    Nivi took the small portable medpack from her belt. From it she removed the adjustable auto-injector. Dialing the machine to match the vial’s size, she un-capped the liquid and hooked it together.

    Corvid rolled up the armor coating his right arm, extending it to her. Mirrored eyes found a vein and she pressed the injector to skin. “Fair warning,” she amended at the last moment. “This is almost certain to hurt. A lot.”

    Dragoon teeth clenched, but he said nothing.

    Nivi triggered the injector.

    For several seemingly endless breaths nothing happened.

    Then Corvid began to spasm. His thrashing was silent, save for creaking, involuntary groans, but it grew worse second by second, flailing more and more pronounced.

    Nivi watched carefully, clinical but concerned. She held her medpack at the ready, but did not act yet.

    Before the thrashing completely compromised his ability to act, Corvid threw his body flat to the ground – a shield against potential injury.

    Invisible to the naked eye, but barren and raw before the Force, the retrovirus passed through human tissue – a wave of change. It crept slowly through the muscles of the arm, but at the same time shot down the bloodstream there to circulate throughout at terrible speed.

    To watch the process in the Force was to see a light slowly fade and then vanish as piece by piece, tissue by tissue, cell by cell, Corvid’s very being disappeared from the enhanced sensory perception. Nivi’s brain, so attuned to perceiving this additional layer of sensory data, struggled to recognize that there was a living being, or indeed any matter whatsoever, before her. She could not shake the feeling she was looking at some strange full-color holoimage, completely illusory.

    Even the external signs, dead skin cells, aromatic secretions, respiratory wastes, all the sensory data informing the Jal Shey’s enhanced awareness, blinked away. So far as the Force was concerned the Dragoon named Corvid not only did not exist, but had never existed at all, and any actions he might take simply never occurred.

    It shook Nivi to the core.

    As the process continued, just before it reached critical brain tissue, she acted. Reliant on medical knowledge alone, feeling disturbed and half-crippled, she injected a combination of saline compounds and neuro-chemical inhibitors - a desperate move to prevent the mind from refusing to accept this overwriting at the base subconscious level. A common danger in gene therapy, the mind had to be quieted to prevent a silent rebellion that resulted in catatonia.

    No further difficulties arose, but Nivi administered a low-dose muscle relaxant when all was finished, to aid recuperation.

    It took three tries to find a vein, groping, as if blind, without the Force to guide her actions. She had to stop her hand from shaking when she pulled it away.

    “Did it work?” Corvid asked; voice hoarse and echoing with recalled agony.

    Offering a light smile and passing a water bottle, Nivi answered softly. “Yes. I can’t sense you at all.” Her eyes fixated involuntarily on the stealth field generator on his armor, imaging those panels active. “It’s rather frightening.”

    “A milestone,” Corvid noted, standing with some difficulty. Slowly he moved to strap his weapons and gear back on. “I feel terrible, but we should make some distance from this place, it’s too open and we’ve been here too long.”

    “There’s a small pond about a klick southeast,” Nivi suggested.

    “That’ll do.”

    * * *

    Corvid ate the ration bar slowly, letting the bites of thin, fibrous mash linger in his mouth until made soft by digestive enzymes before attempting to chew. It spared his sore jaws.

    Every part of his body ached. It was the only thing he felt. Otherwise nothing seemed different at all, he had only the Jal Shey’s word on it. This insurance seemed inadequate, though the unfamiliar hint of fear in her glances was proof enough that she, at least, believed.

    Mental changes, she’d promised, and the Dragoon wondered. Was he truly different? Sitting in the wilderness with only Nivi for company was doubtless unlikely to provide any answers.

    “So, how quickly can we reach civilization?” the Jal Shey, stirring the edge of the little pond with a finger, asked.

    Corvid glanced up, and noticed her burns seemed almost completely healed. He wished such benefits accrued to those without the Force. “Seven days to reach enemy territory,” he answered mechanically. “Then four more, assuming we can break through.”

    “Stang,” she muttered distractedly. “This is an interesting planet, but I feel pressed for-“ Suddenly her head turned, glancing out over the still waters of the mountain pool. “The water is shaking…”

    Corvid looked past the light playing across metal-streaked hair over to the liquid mirror carved into the stones. Sharp eyes carved along the shore, catching the motion of tiny waves.

    “Speeders!” pain shot through tired muscles as he dove for his rifle. He rolled across roots and crackling dried needles. Back to a nearby boulder, he keyed on the stealthing of his armor.

    Nivi, looking toward him to confirm this shout, stared well to Corvid’s left.

    It was only then that he truly believed.

    The snap-hiss of lightsaber activation carried in tandem with the arrival of individualized engine noise. Corvid counted the expected eight incoming speeders – a full squad. The whine was loud and powerful, the characteristic rumble of heavy BARC bikes.

    Clones were uniform - the same men, the same training, the same practices. They propagated repeated methodology across the entire army. Droids, even more uniform than their foes, could not exploit this weakness.

    Dragoons could.

    So, as the lead pair approached from forty-five degrees to the left of their targets, as they always did, Corvid lined up his rifle in the exact corridor, waited for the white helmet to appear at range, and fired.

    Without looking to confirm the kill he pulled his rifle eight degrees further over, kept it level, and pulled the trigger again.

    Loud splashes came from the pool as the two white-armored forms tumbled into the water.

    Reacting with extraordinary speed the remaining six clones pulled up, circling and firing rapidly.

    Corvid rolled left. His armor protected him from sight, but he knew that firing revealed his position. Stone chips flew above his head as superheated rock burst; the Dragoon escaping just ahead of lethal reprisal.

    He had no illusions about the chances of escaping again.

    The trailing pair of speeders targeted Nivi’s glowing lightsaber blade. A flurry of bolts was batted away by the turquoise beam, but barely. Burned and scorched, a blackened green shouldered plate tore off and set fire to a pile of needles below.

    Four speeders looped back to converge on the Jal Shey, attacked from a widespread arc. The other two continued to hunt down the stealth-shielded sniper, layering focused barrages on any possible firing position with their bike-mounted cannons.

    He counted the patterning; they would find him in seconds.

    Nivi flipped from the shoreline, soaring high to land ten meters up in the coniferous canopy. She pressed her left hand, bare skin to rough bark, onto a centuries-old pine. Her voice enunciated a single word. “Release.”

    It took no more than that.

    Every needle from every tree for a hundred meters simply dropped as one.

    It rained red and black. The air filled with mass. Blast bolts carved brilliant streaks of flame. An acidic stink subsumed everything. Repulsorlift engines screamed and moaned as baffles clogged and projectors labored to parse an insane level of interference.

    Visibility collapsed.

    A flash, somewhere to the left, and something bright connected with flesh. In the aftermath a speeder slammed against the tree trunk, unleashing new fires. Blaster bolts tracked the noise.

    A sniper rifle tracked the blaster bolts.

    Concern for Nivi failed to register. Corvid concentrated on targets alone, prioritizing, knowing the clones were the only relevant obstacle. The speeders betrayed them, engine noise, sequenced blaster fire.

    He took full advantage.

    Shoot. Three steps left. Turn. Shoot. Two steps back. Turn. Shoot. Four steps right. Turn. Wait. Wrong sound – empty speeder. Ten degrees down. Shoot. Splash – body in the water.

    One target left.

    An explosion rocked the pond. A massive geyser wave of water expanded in all directions, knocking everything – including the storm of needles – flat.

    Corvid dropped the rifle, pulling the pistol for rapid close-range target acquisition. Goggles polarized, allowed focus through the liquid glaze.

    The last clone was kneeling behind his bike, a rifle in each hand, ready to gun down Nivi as she emerged from the wave-lashed pond. Bubbles betrayed the Jal Shey’s submerged refuge.

    Corvid snapped off three shots as he moved, hardly aimed, imprecise. Only one connected, below the speeder, taking the clone in the knee.

    As the armored form toppled backward the Dragoon charged the distance. He fired while running, scattershot, suppressive fire. It was random, wasteful, but still managed to clip the clone in the left arm and right shoulder before he could rise.

    Springing over the idling BARC at the same moment as Nivi emerged from the murky depths; Corvid gained a clear view of this final enemy.

    Lying on the ground before him, the clone was on his back. He held both hands atop his head, unarmed.

    “I surrender, Jedi,” the voice was synthesized, of course. “I know you won’t kill me.”

    Mental calculations moved quickly, sped up by adrenalin. Nivi was not a Jedi, but the moral calculus was unchanged. Escape with a captive was impossible; so was leaving him behind.

    One solution presented itself.

    He did not hesitate.

    Corvid shot the clone in the head.

    The body rolled down the shallow shoreline to rest half in the water. Nivi came up behind the Dragoon. “How could you possibly-“

    “Easily,” he answered feeling quite satisfied. “It was the best option available.”

    “But how can’t you feel-“ the Jal Shey stopped, a strange, alien expression bending her shining features. “You don’t feel anything do you?” She did not wait for confirmation. “Have I manufactured a monster?”

    “No,” he brushed aside the remark. It was rude, but he did not feel insulted. “I have no desire to kill, and I do not enjoy taking life,” he searched the mixture of emotions coursing through his mind and body. “I simply do not not enjoy it. The process is merely mechanical now. Almost droid-like. I suppose that’s fitting,” he mused.

    “No, it’s ironic,” Nivi whispered, eyes pooling with tears. “And terrifying. If only this wasn’t necessary.”

    They threw the bodies into the pond, and crashed all but two of the speeders. The last pair they kept, after he disabled the military transponders. “This attack was a blessing in disguise,” he muttered as they climbed onto their new transportation. “We can blast through the defense cordon and lose them in the riverlands to the west. There are sympathizers there who will help us get to the spaceport.”

    “We’ll need to steal another freighter then,” the Jal Shey responded, mood recovering. “That will make four in a month,” she offered a tired smile.

    Putting his hand to the throttle, the Dragoon grimaced at a recollection. “There’s only one real puzzle. How did they locate us? There were no airborne patrols.” If the clones had assembled a comprehensive sensor net then all the resistance was doomed instantly.

    Nivi’s eyes flashed, and she blushed. “The HoloNet!” she gasped. “I ran a query while running the mutagen. Stupid.”

    “Be more careful,” the sniper said flatly, concern fading. “Now, we should move, their response unit will come very soon.” He prepared to gun the BARC for the run through the mountains.

    His companion hesitated. “Are you certain this was right?” Nivi dared to question. “That the loss was not too great?”

    “I do not regret this,” the Dragoon told her. “Better it should be this way than one who would hate it.” He looked into mirrored eyes. “I do feel different. You have made me into a different person Jal Shey. I shall need a new name.”

    As he expected, she responded with a technical question. “Is that the tradition here?” the tears shook away. He avoided sighing and simply nodded.

    Nivi stared back, peering through his goggles as if they did not exist. “Then there is only one thing suitable.”

    For the first time in the day he understood her musings perfectly. “Yes, that’s true.”

    The predator spoke to the Jal Shey, clear and complete. “Now, I am Taozin.”
  6. Valairy Scot

    Valairy Scot Manager Emeritus star 6 VIP - Former Mod/RSA

    Sep 16, 2005
    No comments/reviews!? Exciting story.
  7. Mechalich

    Mechalich Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Feb 2, 2010
    Valairy Scot: It is somewhat frustrating, yes, though I appreciate all comments nonetheless.

    As a more general warning, the following chapter, and subsequent material, begins to include spoiler material for Darth Vader and the Ghost Prison, which this work is in some sense a prequel to.
  8. Mechalich

    Mechalich Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Feb 2, 2010
    Chapter 5

    Unregistered Scattered Disk Object
    Raithal system
    19 BBY

    Taozin banked Migrant Nebula over slowly, lining the old freighter up on a new heading. “Beacon matched,” he announced to the empty cockpit. Vocalization helped. It kept the unfamiliar commands straight in his mind.

    As he pushed the controls into a holding pattern he leaned back in the seat, trying to relax.

    This effort failed miserably.

    “Isolate point 0.0.0 relative,” he keyed the main sensor feed directly ahead. “Increase to maximum magnification,” Each command had to be punched in manually. It was only in vain that he wished the ancient vessel had modern recognition systems.

    A grainy image – a dark, reddish sphere - slowly pulled into existence on the HUD. Alone in the dark, it was a barren little planetoid far away from the primary star. Nothing but a loose mix of metallic rock and exotic ices; the projected appearance offered nothing of interest to any observer.

    Nivi had chosen it as their next destination.

    The proximity monitor indicated a full hour remaining before deceleration and docking procedures. Taozin figured the autopilot could handle most of the waiting. He wouldn’t have trusted it in the inner system, but this far out the sensor board was utterly blank. Even Migrant Nebula, beaten tub though she was, would have time to run if someone showed.

    The predator moved through the ship, searching out the sole other occupant. Finding Nivi was not difficult; the Jal Shey lingered in the cargo hold as usual. Barely aware of her surroundings, she plugged away incessantly at various pieces of second-hand – often stolen – computer and communications gear. She searched through endless news and government reports dozens at a time, day after day. Every turn of the cycle rendered the search that much more forlorn.

    “Docking in an hour,” he told her.

    Nivi looked up from her datapad absently. “Two months today,” her eyes seemed almost tarnished in the dim light. “Since we left Chreshal. Three since Order Sixty-Six. Every day the Emperor’s security tightens and the resources we few survivors possess grow fewer.” She shook her head. “This is the last possible Jal Shey resource to explore. If we find nothing here…” her voice dove to near-silence as she trailed off, but the keen hearing of the assassin could still listen. “The whole strategy may be impossible.”

    Taozin nodded even as he looked away. He knew the grim record just as well as the Jal Shey. Two months had left behind nothing but dead clones, shattered hopes, and mounting warrants. The noose of Imperial security was slowly drawing down about them both, tighter and tighter. The current pace would soon render them utterly without operational freedom. He’d seen it coming for some time, but had avoided mentioning it. Were the choice his alone, he would never stop fighting the renamed Republic – it was simply a matter of picking a more manageable target. A mundane but ranked officer or politician – Tarkin came to mind – would serve his purposes almost as well.

    But the choice was not his alone, or even at all. It belonged to Nivi. She had made the being he was. For that, he would honor her with the first hunt and first kill. Yet, if all prospect for success should vanish he had no idea what she’d do.

    Perhaps the little planetoid, a four hundred kilometer wide sphere, would supply better answers. So long as it remained secure it should. It was only that prospect he doubted.

    “I’m not willing to give up yet, not yet,” Nivi spoke slowly, words still strong despite the resignation beneath. “There has to be an opening somewhere.”

    Though he agreed, Taozin privately believed Palpatine had made remarkably few slip-ups. Despite the corrupt government he fronted the Emperor himself pursued his goals with a purity of focus that limited potential errors. The alternative explanation was simply that the Jedi had proven embarrassingly inept once deprived of centralized guidance.

    All across the galaxy Imperial arms battered down Separatist holdouts and native uprisings in the name of democracy. Little prospect for victory there, but at least they were engaged. Nivi’s vast searches had turned up a single legitimate Jedi action – a failed plot to kill the enforcer Vader on Kessel.

    As a mustering of the strength of the supposedly beloved defenders of the galaxy it was pathetic. To learn that the Republic had truly loved their champions little more than their enemies in the CIS had was little solace now.

    Nivi stood. She shut the datapad down and stowed it with her grubby, much-battered armor. “Let’s see what the Frozen College has to offer us, shall we?”

    The silver-tongued woman used the Jal Shey colloquialism. Taozin preferred the name the Jedi had applied – Military Oversight Post.

    Tucked into the frigid, barely-visible planetoid, the installation had always been small. Designed to observe and monitor the planet’s famous academy without the Republic’s knowledge it had been kept highly secret.

    “This place,” Taozin noted as he sank back into the creaking pilot’s chair. “Is a testament to all the failures of the Jedi.”

    This pulled a tired grimace from Nivi’s direction. “I cannot entirely disagree,” sadness was burned deep into those words. “Monitoring the academy for Force-sensitives was important; doing so in secret was not.” She paused, and then offered the defense he had expected. “We did try to correct that failure.”

    “By siphoning off the occasional corpsman for you own ranks?” Taozin could not hold back the sarcastic skepticism. “Not exactly a strong showing.”

    “The Jal Shey have existed at the suffering of the Jedi Order for thousands of years,” Nivi remarked, an echo of her intellectual fire emerging. “Don’t think we enjoyed it. Such overt religiosity can be deeply troubling when granted great power, but no one could change it, or really wanted to.” A rare sigh escaped her lips. “The Jedi wanted the responsibility of defending the galaxy, and we were all too happy to let them have it. I never wanted to be famous, or a soldier.” She looked out into the blackness of space. “Perhaps that was our error.”

    This drew no response from the assassin. It was all one culture to him. Jal Shey or Jedi, they had all been pawns of the corruption that had taken hold of the galaxy. The Force might claim to serve justice, but in practice it served only power. Palpatine already had his own lightsaber-wielding warriors – the so-called Inquisitors. Those who answered to the Force seemed all-too-willing to serve their superiors without question. Even Nivi, he privately believed, had that naivety in her.

    “Finally got close range scans,” the Jal Shey’s voice interrupted his musings. “This hunk of junk is pathetic, but we’re showing all clear. No other ships on scan. Facility levels are consistent with emergency standby. No outer damage registers. It all looks untouched.” She flipped through additional system’s checks. “The Empire may have actually missed this one.”

    Her voice betrayed a lack of confidence in this conclusion; an emotion born of experience that Taozin shared. Two months of searching and they had found naught but ransacked and smashed facilities, safe houses, and private holdings from Core to Rim. Everything had been hooked into the Republic’s entwined bureaucratic web. The Empire had uncovered it all.

    Supposedly this target, designed for the express purpose of spying on the Judicial Department, would be different. Hidden from everyone, it had been scrubbed even from traditional Jedi Archives. Nivi had only stumbled upon reporting material by shear luck, and only in Jal Shey records.

    Taozin allowed himself some hope. Some.

    “Tracking emergency beacons, lining up for docking,” he pulled the semi-decrepit Barloz-class into position, moving at a slow crawl. He undertook the maneuver with extreme caution, wishing desperately for a real pilot. The docking spars were a basic arrangement, crude even, without guide droids. Even the airlock was a primitive, single stage construction. They’d have to project a force cylinder to cross.

    “Emergency comm. signals matched to navicomputer,” Nivi announced. “We’re being queried by the system, standard emergency protocols. No sign of any internal activity. No life signs.”

    “Can you sense anything?”

    “Not at this distance, and there’s no way to differentiate allies from enemies,” Nivi countered. She was reluctant to discuss such abilities in detail.

    “Not likely,” Taozin noted, looking at the desolate docking spars. “This place looks abandoned; must have gone to the Jedi Temple.” It amazed him how many had been caught by such an obvious trap.

    “There was a Jal Shey stationed here,” Nivi muttered worriedly. “He may still be on site.”

    “We can hope,” he said this aloud, but did not hold any such private faith.

    “We have internal atmosphere, gravity, and heat,” the summary came from the Jal Shey as docking completed. “A hopeful sign anyway.”

    “Let’s go,” Taozin was eager to leave the ship. It was a confining place, no good for stealthy stalking or sniping. That it was also falling apart only made it worse.

    The assassin took up point position as they floated across the force cylinder and passed through the airlock into a dark, insulated tunnel. Foam padding over stone and ice, it was soft and soundless at footfalls.

    He turned his head to glance at Nivi. “Going black,” he told her before activating his stealth generator.

    “Cover me,” she responded, advancing with one hand on her lightsaber, but not drawing the weapon.

    It was not a large facility, and most of the compartments had clearly been assembled from old freighters. The chambers were roughly hewn from icy rock, close to ten meters high. Stacks of fuel canisters, replacement parts, and supply crates filled the first three chambers, a buffer against the vacuum of space. Then the path split three ways.

    “Dorms left, engineering right, listening post above,” Nivi pointed.

    They had no map to the facility. Taozin wondered how she knew. “Why?” he dared to whisper, low enough that only her enhanced hearing had any chance to catch it.

    “Cleansers are different,” she knew well to not turn her head, avoid looking his direction and revealing position. “And there is a living presence, or presences, here, but it’s…strange…subdued. Maybe some kind of stasis.”

    “Cleansers?” Taozin considered this. Something didn’t fit. The environment was sterile. No activity, no movement, no dust or wear, so there should be no need for droids to clean, to deploy cleansers. “Are there active droids?” he braved the silence with a second question. He knew Nivi could detect the electronic and mechanical residue of automatons just as she did organic beings.

    She turned in a quick circle, hair shimmering. “No…that’s odd-“

    “It’s a trap!” Taozin hissed. He made an immediate about face, going for his weapons.

    Barely in time.

    A white blur slashed down the corridor. Clone armor, strangely modified - this figure sprouted razor-sharp blades at the end of each arm.

    Lightsaber illumination burst through the shrouded hall, but the clone assassin never saw it – Taozin had already shot him in the head.

    White-armored bodies poured out of the storerooms, massed up all three passages, converging from every direction at once with the supreme coordination of identical men. Their advance trapped Jay Shey and sniper in a terrible kill zone.

    Or so they thought.

    Taozin dropped the sniper rifle and pulled his pistol, rolling and firing, unloading a sweeping autofire stream into the corridor.

    Clones tumbled and fell, charging desperately, heedless of losses.

    Nivi jumped, vaulting the whole height of the corridor. She pushed off the ceiling with one foot, redirecting her motion ten meters in the air. Fleeing those sharp, screaming vibroblades she soared back toward the mounted supply crates near the airlock.

    Firing to the side, emptying his weapon blindly, the assassin followed this charge, only silencing his barrage as he met the oncoming line of pale soldiers.

    Vibroblades cut high. Taozin dodged low. A blade scraped away the top of his helmet.

    He ignored the attack, rolling forward through the enemy instead, trusting in his stealthing and praying they considered that a miss.

    The clones turned about anyway, following in a single mass to pursue their priority target: Nivi. This flood of rapid movement pushed them past the assassin; left him rolling along the foam between flashing metal barbs.

    Meters high, balanced easily on a pile of fuel canisters, the Jal Shey was beyond the reach of those blades.

    The clones reacted instantly, half going for hip mounted pistols, the other half for grenades.

    All had to know a penetrating strike on the fuel canisters would kill everyone in the tunnel, but they never hesitated.

    Neither did Nivi. Taozin rose to one knee, looking to enfilade the group from behind, but he caught a smile on silver lips as she battered aside the first pinning shot, mirrored eyes flashing.

    He dove back down the tunnel, moving with all the speed he could manage.

    Nivi jumped down, descending from her perch with all speed. A quick jab from the lead clone sought her life, but she managed a choppy mid-air block, and vibroblade cleaved through naught but plastoid armor.

    Her left foot touched the ground.

    The floor pulsed.

    Clones were surefooted, and these men trained in the quick-stepping slide of dueling blades, but the ground quaking with a singular shudder, a rejection stemming from the heart of the little world itself they could not combat. Bodies were thrown into the air a critical few centimeters, falling akimbo in strange contortions.

    Grenades came free of armored hands.

    Nivi’s right foot touched the foam-covered ground. The world lashed with a second wave, counter-resonant to the first. Everything shifted to further chaos.

    The Jal Shey rocketed to the ceiling, flipping in midair to push off with both feet into a spinning trajectory that sent her flying down that hall over Taozin’s head at inhuman speeds.

    The sniper dove for the floor.

    It began with a single bursting crack, and then cascaded into a sequence of progressively expanding booms. The consecutive explosions billowed against each other, against the walls, and against the air itself. Fuel ignited, joined by a sea of toxic chemicals to raise the cataclysm to new heights.

    Massed air compressed, clouded, and took the only path remaining – a wavefront backed by a tsunami of flame that stampeded down the hall.

    Struck by this hellish wall of energy Taozin was lifted bodily, pulled from the floor with his back on fire. The armored frame of an immolated clone struck him hard across the back, slamming him to the side. Pain blossomed, burning everywhere, until the surface of the universe seemed to be boiling over. He fought through it, keeping the plated corpse atop him, using the dead man as critical protection as he was hurled through the storm-front to its end.

    He struck a distant wall hard, and sound traveled through his tissues, bypassing deafened ears to reveal cruel snaps as his hand bent under him before everything went dark.

    * * *

    “Stang,” Nivi whispered in horror as she surveyed the destruction unleashed upon the outer chambers. Bodies and debris lay in an oddly counter-intuitive configuration, draw down to rest upon the floor only after they’d finished a gravity-defiant ride across walls and ceiling.

    All was still. There were no immediate signs of life, save the strange weak perception that had confused her before and covered the ambush. The clones were eliminated, entrapped by the consequences of their zeal.

    As foam-coated walls cooled Nivi hurried into the ruin. “Taozin!” she shouted, searching desperately for the sniper, cursing silently his invisibility to her enhanced perception. Fear clenched deep on her chest, terror beyond quantification.

    He’d acted fast, anticipated her, but the explosion had been far worse than she’d expected. In the rush of battle she'd failed to account for the consequences of confined spaces – the power of the self-contained atmosphere to channel the brutal perturbation.

    “Taozin!” Nivi rushed through the dead.

    She could not sense him in the Force, but her other sense remained, as did sharp analytical eyes, boosted well beyond human norms. So a barely audible groan to her right reached her awareness.

    Head turning, she caught the characteristic camo-pattern of the sniper’s armor poking out from beneath a clone body.

    Rushing to her comrade’s side Nivi pulled the clone away. A much battered and slightly charred Taozin lay beneath. The Jal Shey gave him her best quick field inspection, though she struggled with the inherent uncertainty present in a subject invisible to the Force.

    “Severe burns, two broken bones, sprained ankle, and a concussion,” she enumerated, letting out a relieved sigh when she discovered no life-threatening injuries. His armor, by contrast, seemed largely ruined. A serious loss on its own, it was not, thankfully, an urgent one.

    The Frozen College contained a well-outfitted, if compact, medical station – any Jal Shey operation did. So Nivi lifted the sniper onto her shoulders and walked quickly in that direction.

    What she found surprised her. There was a fully outfitted medical suite manned by a powered-down 2-1B droid – a surprisingly advanced model. A bacta tank, stocked and ready for use, was also present.

    The Jal Shey quickly spun up the droid and handed off Taozin. “Prep the tank and put him in immediately,” she ordered the machine.

    “Of course ma’am,” the droid took the wounded sniper in its arms with gentle care.
    This left Nivi free to stare at the room’s second tank.

    It was a clear tank, filled with translucent liquid. Not designed for healing, it was instead simply a holding device – a stasis chamber.

    A single individual floated in that weightless grasp, metabolism slowed to barely measurable rates. This was a female Khil; humanoid in body, with dark green skin and a face dominated by thin tendrils from nostrils to chin.

    Horrific wounds, deep slashes and lacerations covered with nothing but gauze foam crisscrossed the body everywhere the eye could see. Life sign indicators on the tank were all yellow and red.

    “Sadistic kriffing scum,” anger filled Nivi as she analyzed the readout. “This was your bait?”

    The female’s trauma was so extensive she would not even survive transfer into the nearby bacta tank. Stasis was not keeping her alive – it was merely drawing out death.

    Touching the transparisteel Nivi felt the spark of the force in the Khil. “Jal Shey,” she recognized. “Kuvarn’s apprentice perhaps?” The Khil mentor had been a master scholar and archeologist, but Nivi did not know this woman. She was not the Jal Shey assigned to this posting.

    A known comrade or not, Nivi refused to leave anyone in such a miserable state. She tapped out a series of emergency override commands onto the control pad.

    The contents of the tank spilled out, draining into the secondary ring below, down below the floor. The tank canopy drew up into the ceiling. With suspension removed the Khil female fell forward, body limp and lifeless.

    Nivi caught the alien in both arms. The body was terribly light, almost bloodless, as she cradled it.

    Khil eyes fluttered open, weak and clouded. Nevertheless, they looked up at Nivi’s face with awareness.

    “Jal…Shey,” wind pressed slowly through the fluted tendrils, producing a weak remnant of a voice. There was recognition in those eyes. “Must…save…Holo-cron…from them,” the Khil struggled to turn her head, and ultimately failed. “Be…be…be-low…floor.”

    Nivi held the woman’s head to her breast, starring down through tear-coated eyes. No more words came. The candle flame of life flickered and faded soon after. All was still and dark.

    “Rest now,” Nivi spoke softly over the body. “Until returned from the Force.” She placed the Jal Shey back in the basal ring of the tank. The body merited no further thought. Consciousness did not reside in cold flesh.

    “A holocron?” beyond her grief the Jal Shey’s curiosity was piqued. Below the floor, the Khil had spoken.

    She stared around the room, a nervous feline prowling. Where would one of her own hide such a device? No marks, crevices, or other damage presented a clue as to a hiding place. The insulating tiles were clean.

    Only then did Nivi recall that there was truly nothing below the floor, no space save for frozen planetoid, hundreds of kilometers thick. The only hidden passage would have to have been deliberately carved.

    “The drains!” she realized with a start.

    Taking up her lightsaber she lined up with the drainage from the stasis chamber, tapping with her left hand to find the pipe. With two meters charted she slashed down, making two narrow cuts before prying back the foam and metal.

    In the pale light beneath the overhead fluorescent emplacements, glowing scars opened to reveal pale bluish liquid, and a dark red pyramid the size of a man’s fist.

    A Sith Holocron.

    “Huh,” the Jal Shey picked up the crystalline device. “That’s different.” She wondered how the relic had ended up in this place. Perhaps the Jedi had found it. This seemed the best guess – Jal Shey traditionally had little to do with such dark artifacts.

    Curiosity burned through Nivi, a compulsion to activate the machine and interrogate it immediately. With deliberate effort she tucked it into her belt instead. “Later,” she muttered, seeking to strengthen her resolve. “Later.”

    There was too much to do first.

    “Is he responding to treatment?” she turned back to the 2-1B.

    “Yes ma’am,” the droid answered briskly. “Full recovery should be complete in twenty-eight hours.”

    “Understood. Notify me immediately if there is any change in negative categories,” she instructed absentmindedly. Privately she wondered if they could stay that long.

    Hoping to find out, the Jal Shey went exploring.

    It was not, in the end, a large facility. The Jal Shey section was only five rooms, the Jedi portion a mere three times that. All had been ransacked thoroughly. The dormitories, kitchenette, and refreshers still functioned, though the clones had been using them hard. Several overworked maintenance droids were already struggling to clean up the destruction she’d unleashed – and the dead.

    She left them to that grim work, but pulled aside the captain of the clone assassins. Placing him on an empty exam table she scavenged shrapnel-punctured armor for useful information.

    This morbid groping yielded a small code cylinder. Only weakly encrypted it was easy for Nivi to pull out the series of check-in codes necessary for the six-hour confirmations the clones were required to submit to their distant overseers. She grabbed a maintenance droid and programmed it to take care of the task.

    While the ruse would not hold for long, the Jal Shey’s experience with bureaucracy suggested they had a few days at worst.

    Not that they needed it. “Stang,” she whispered after her frustratingly short search. Everything had been thoroughly shredded. Databases, archives, droid memories, even the private journals of the staff had been totally wiped. The only information resource still operational was the listening post aimed at the Raithal Academy.

    A high-level signals interception setup, the device tied into numerous ground-based surveillance systems, placed into critical locations by decades of surreptitious Jedi operations. The Jedi had set it up to detect any potential Force-sensitives among the cadets. Imperial Intelligence, or perhaps the newly-constituted Force-hunting Inquisitorious, found that information valuable – so the system had not been targeted for elimination. Nivi gave its data buffer a rapid perusal, but discovered nothing of interest.

    “No Jedi, no Jal Shey, no intel, no supplies left behind, not even an emergency stash of credits,” that last particular resource had obviously ended up in the pockets of whatever inquisitive officer had served to supervise the posting of the clones to this desolate iceball.

    Nivi returned to the medical station disheartened. She looked at Taozin, floating in serene slumber inside the bacta tank. “Everything has fallen. I don’t know what to do now.”

    The clones had a record of kills. One Jedi and four Jal Shey had fallen to their blades. Considering what else she knew of casualties before and since Order Sixty-Six, Nivi suspected there were less than a dozen members of her order still alive in the whole of the vast galaxy. She despaired of reaching close enough to Palpatine to kill him. The resources were simply unavailable to such a tattered fellowship; finding them had been a mad dream.

    “Looks like we netted bumps, bruises, and a holocron,” she told the somnambulant Taozin.

    The 2-1B updated the bacta tank chronology – twenty-four hours to go.

    Nivi sat down in front of the main medical terminal. She pulled out the dark red pyramid, feeling the energy pulsing within the crystal matrix. “Well, there’s nothing better to do I suppose.”

    She activated the holocron.

    A shimmering projection of a woman appeared above the pyramid. Tall, hard-muscled, and wearing midnight-blue form-fitting battle armor ensconced with blades she had the violent eyes of the Sith. Nivi noted, curiously, that they were not yellow.

    The gatekeeper stared down at the Jal Shey. “Who dares invoke the peerless wisdom and mind-hollowing secrets of Belia Darzu?”

    Mirrored eyes widened. That was a name writ large across the march of history. Feeling a momentary wickedness, and channeling her frustration, Nivi responded. “Someone who’ll smash you flat if she doesn’t get immediate and full answers to all her questions holocron.”

    “You wouldn’t-“ the gatekeeper stopped. Nivi had begun carving away bits of ornate inlay with a laser scalpel.

    “Ruthlessness is a respectable trait,” the phantasmal Sith Lord demurred. “Ask then, and embrace the true virulence of the Force.”

    Nivi glanced at the bacta tank’s chronometer. Twenty-three hours fifty-seven minutes. She smiled wickedly at the apparition. “Better talk fast.”
  9. instantdeath

    instantdeath Jedi Grand Master star 5

    Jul 22, 2010
    Bookmarked for when I get a chance to buy Ghost Prison.
  10. Mechalich

    Mechalich Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Feb 2, 2010
    Chapter 6

    Unregistered Scattered Disk Object
    Raithal system
    19 BBY

    There was, among veterans, an old joke. “Want to conquer the galaxy? Find a species that just loves the taste of bacta.”

    So far, no one had managed that particular feat. Instead soldiers continued to wake up under bright lights to the tender ministrations of medical droids with a foul sick-sweet taste in their mouths. Today, Taozin recognized that it was his turn. So he rinsed, gargled, and spat out the totally inadequate sinus-clearing solution the 2-1B offered and contended himself with feeling hale and properly rested for the first time in weeks.

    Nivi, by contrast, the assassin could not help but notice as he pulled on the black body glove provided by the med droid, was visibly haggard. Her armor was still sporting the char marks of yesterday, and her shimmering hair had dimmed. The hazy recollection of his few waking moments inside the tank suggested she’d spent the better part of a full day talking to a hologram.

    He hoped she’d learned something useful, but knowing the Jal Shey’s predilections he doubted it.

    “Feeling better?” Worn down though she must be, she still sounded fresh.

    “Fine,” he replied, honestly for once. “How are we doing?”

    “Not good,” her voice was dejected. “They wiped everything. Only signal intercepts remain.”

    That was bad news, and Taozin wondered where it left them. “Anything in the signals intercepts? The academy?” The Raithal setup was huge; it was inconceivable to him that steady surveillance hadn’t left anything exploitable behind.

    “I didn’t find anything,” Nivi sounded distracted. “Feel free to take a look. We have a day or two before we need to leave.”

    “What about the…” Taozin recognized the body in the other tank as a Khil; those aliens were common enough, but nothing more. He stumbled in his search for a proper label.

    “A Jal Shey I didn’t know,” Nivi explained. “The Imperials were using her as bait. There’s no identification, so it’s another nameless loss.”

    “Right.” With strange tendrils clinging to a mouth-less face the green-skinned alien wasn’t anyone’s idea of a friendly sight, but nothing deserved the depravities the renamed Republic was developing at such a rapid pace. Using a half-dead being as bait was no longer surprising, nothing was. “Well,” Taozin considered. “I’m going to find some food, then check the signals data.”

    “Auto-kitchen two doors on the right,” Nivi told him absently. “I’ll be here, might get some sleep though.”

    He nodded at this. A combination of the Force and mental sorting techniques allowed the Jal Shey to fall asleep more or less instantly on command. The assassin wished it was a talent he could duplicate.

    Breakfast proved modestly satisfying. The Jedi had equipped the kitchen well, even if it made overly seasoned Coruscanti dishes. Taozin was plagued by a sense of discomfort all the while – an impulse he ultimately traced to the absence of his armor.

    The Dragoon battlefield outfit, essentially his only real clothing for months, lay in a neat pile by the bacta tank. He went back after eating to discover it was well beyond salvageable. A quick examination, done quietly while Nivi slumbered in her chair, revealed some cause for hope – the critical stealth panels that powered the optic masking were intact.

    A wan smile crossed his face at this discovery. He could cobble together something for the present.

    Nivi had dumped the body of the clone assassin captain on the same gurney. Taozin gave the fallen soldier a brief nod as he passed. The clones were valiant men; their brainwashed servitude a banal tragedy. The assassin’s eye caught on the clone’s arm; the shock-mounted vibroblade attached at the elbow. He recalled the lethal gleam of those blades in the dark hallway, swift and deadly. It gave him an acquisitive idea.

    Carefully Taozin sheared off the entire elbow and forearm sections of armor plate, taking the blade as well. “New armor comes with at least one upgrade,” he decided.

    The signals interception post was his next destination. A room cut into rock and ice, it had a single chair and a massive bank of screens. The place veritably smelled of circuitry.

    Sitting down, Taozin discovered there were no internal security measures whatsoever. The Jedi had apparently considered the remote location sufficient. He also learned he now had full access to every last electronic transmission that flowed through Raithal’s vast academy complex.

    “She didn’t find anything useful,” Taozin mused, strangely disappointed in the Jal Shey, a rare occurrence in their brief tandem. “Nivi, you weren’t looking nearly hard enough.”

    He got to work.

    * * *

    Nivi came awake with the startling realization that she was being shaken. “Taozin?” her muddled mind tried to reason. Some inner voice told her it had to be him – though it would be several seconds more before she was able to formulate the realization that it was his Force invisibility that had permitted this to occur; that only he could bypass all her private defenses.

    “I found it,” the assassin was positively giddy; his enthusiasm almost terrifying. “I found the opening.”
    “What…” the uncharacteristic fog of sudden waking faded slowly. “You found something…in…the signals data?”

    “Come here, I’ll show you,” Pulled to her feet by the strangely exuberant Taozin, Nivi had time to note only that she’d slept for not more than a few hours prior to this interruption.
    Hauled bodily up the angled floor into the listening post she discovered a series of screens referencing multiple shipping reports.

    “What’s all this?” Nivi looked at it, analyzing quickly. “Shipments of academy memorabilia to Coruscant?” It didn’t seem suspicious at all.

    “Graduation gear and awards,” Taozin smirked. “At least, that’s what it’s supposed to be.” He magnified a single line of each manifest. “But they’re all too heavy, way too heavy.” He pulled up another screen. “And look at this – materials scan caught one co-mingled upon release, and it was transmitted here before being erased internally.”

    Nivi read off the result breakdown. “Polycarbonate plastoid, high impact metal powders, energetic gases…” the pieces fell into place. “Blasters!”

    “Headmaster-General Gentis signed off on these shipments personally,” Taozin shifted the display to highlight the digital signatures.

    “He didn’t have to do that, surely,” no military bureaucracy, not even the decidedly hidebound one the Empire was formulating, mandated such a thing. Nivi looked at the readout with growing suspicion. “He had to know what was in the cargo.” Her eyes dashed from screen to screen. “This is thousands of weapons,” she breathed.

    “Thousands of blasters smuggled onto Coruscant to be distributed during a graduation ceremony – a ceremony Gentis presides over – two months from now,” the assassin elaborated, sounding slightly smug. “It’s a plot. It has to be.”

    Nivi kicked herself silently. Taozin had every right to be smug for uncovering this. “He gives the weapons to the cadets and has an instant army in the heart of Imperial Center,” she completed the puzzle, considering. “A plot, yes,” she could not help but agree to that move. “But to accomplish what? It could be some secret scheme of Palpatine’s.”

    “Maybe,” the sniper hesitated, revealing a hint of doubt. “But Palpatine’s already got millions of troops on Coruscant. It has to be infighting, some kind anyway.”

    “That does seem likely,” the Jal Shey admitted, but she was not convinced, would not let her hopes rise so rapidly. “Is there anything else?”

    “No,” Taozin stiffened. “It’s all very well hidden. None of this ever made it off Raithal, except to here, and most was long since untraceably deleted. The key parts of this existed for a few hours at most.”
    “Was it transmitted from here?”

    “Nope,” his response was swift and sure. “This system isn’t hooked up to the HoloNet, the only outgoing data goes through a portable transceiver the clones brought with them. There’s an analyst assignment in their logs, but he doesn’t ship out for another two weeks.”

    For the first time, Nivi realized. They’d successfully stolen a march on the Imperials. Palpatine’s focus on using the facility as a Jedi trap had negated its vast mundane intelligence value. Blushing hotly, she recognized this as the very same mistake she’d just made in obsessing over the holocron.
    Thankfully Taozin hadn’t missed what the Force had.

    “Well,” she determined. “If we can’t confirm with data, then we need to confirm in person. It’s time to arrange a chat with the Headmaster.”

    “That’s not going to be easy,” Taozin cautioned.

    “No, it’s not,” she agreed. “But we seem to have the entire digital infrastructure of a planet at our fingertips. There must be a way.” Pushing the frightful revelations of Belia Darzu from her mind in an act of forceful compartmentalization Nivi stepped up to the many screens.

    This time she would not be seduced by distractions.

    * * *

    General Gentis, headmaster of the Raithal Imperial Academy and superintendent of all imperial officer training, was well into middle age, but he was a barrel-chested man of statuesque build in excellent shape. He retained glossy red hair. His years showed only on his much lined face, and eyes haunted by the trials of war.

    A man of few vices, he nevertheless enjoyed a glass of Corellian brandy at the end of long days, when almost all his subordinates had left. So he returned to his tower office at twenty-two hundred for the purpose of this particular indulgence, feeling relaxed.

    The door opened, sliding on smooth micro-repulsors.

    Gentis took two steps toward his desk.

    Motion-sensitive corner lighting activated; bathing the room in a pale yellow glow. The door sliced closed.

    The general took a third step.

    Something cold touched his neck. Cold and sharp.

    He froze.

    There was a flicker to his left. Eyes moved to watch electronic optical pattern-mashing disintegrate into a man wearing pale gray armor. Obviously re-purposed from clone trooper gear, this outfit held a long, narrow vibroblade attached to the right forearm. It was this weapon that brushed the general’s throat.

    “If you think killing me will weaken the Empire-“ the general began to speak.

    “Spare us the platitudes,” a woman’s voice interrupted, sharp and fierce, from his right.

    Gentis turned his head to follow that voice, moving very slowly so the assassin’s blade would not pierce the skin. Standing in the corner was a woman in battered armor. She had silver tracing in her skin and shining hair, but he had eyes only for the lightsaber at her belt.

    A Jedi traitor! The fury of his boundless rage grew to blast furnace proportions.

    Then, somehow, she suddenly deflated it. “Rather than weaken the Empire, I imagine killing you might well strengthen it, at least from the Emperor’s perspective.”

    Gentis froze. He stared at the woman, only to find eyes reflecting his scowling visage straight back – revealing nothing. How could she know?

    “Blood pressure level elevation, topological confusion, retreat, not-denial or in-credulousness, and a lessening of anger,” she ticked off the points with medical precision. “Your loyalty is a front, General,” the confidence behind that deduction was absolute.

    “I will always be loyal to the Empire!” he roared. Heat sprouted at his neck, and a smell of sharp coppery tang reached his nostrils. The violence of his words had opened a cut against the blade still resting there. Gentis forced his hands down, letting the blood flow, regardless of how bad it might be. He would not show weakness. His eyes flicked back to the silent, imperious assassin.

    “Unfeigned rage,” the woman continued. “Accompanied by a visceral reaction heedless of personal safety. My apologies, general, my accusation lacked precision. Your loyalty to the Empire is indeed true. What then, of the Emperor?”

    She cut him off before he could manage a response. “That is it, is it not? The reaction difference, the subcutaneous shifts, they’re clear. You love the Empire but hate Palpatine, how interesting. I wonder; why is that?”

    She took a small step forward, walking toward him in a circuitous motion, words dropping free to accompany each soft footfall. “What is the reason?”

    Gentis held his body absolutely still. It betrayed him to this anomalous female all the same.
    “Autocratic power? Oppression of non-humans? The loss of Republic tradition? Sector governance? A Force-using ruler? The surveillance state? Military expansion?” She stopped, her face extremely close to his, peering at him over the liquid edge of the vibroblade. He could see every line of the eerie metallic touches to her gray skin.

    “It’s the last one, isn’t it.” It was not a question. “How ironic, the heroic warrior opposes the Emperor’s wars. Why is that?” She mused, as if it were a jest, stepping back to a reasonable distance.

    “You would never understand Jed-“ Gentis began, and then everyone was speaking at once.

    The woman offered a weary expression. “I am not a Jedi-.”

    “His sons,” these two words rang in the air, falling from the previously silent mouth of the assassin. The man’s voice was a low scrape, terrifying in its lack of human warmth.

    Four eyes turned as one upon the masked and helmeted man.

    “You had five sons,” the opaque man spoke to no one in particular. “One died in the Clone Wars, three have fallen since. The last graduates in two months.”

    “And the actuarial tables give a new cadet what?” the woman’s voice was brutally playful. “A thirty percent chance of dying in the first year?”

    “Thirty-four,” Gentis growled. The numbers rekindled his fury. “Five year estimate is fifty-two, cumulative.”

    “Unreasonable, considering the Empire is victorious before all enemies and officially at peace.”
    “Unreasonable?” Gentis exploded, unable to hold back even as part of him was conscious that he was giving the woman precisely what she wanted. “It is shear madness! He wants to expand the fleet ten times over, the army, worse. Ten times! And half of those young sons and husbands will never come back! Trillions will die, and for what? To make the barbarian hordes of Wild Space bow down to Coruscant? He’ll kill us all if he’s not stopped!”

    The General paused for breath. Some small, militarily practical part of him realized he ought to be bleeding profusely after that outburst, but he was not. At some point unnoticed the blade had silently withdrawn.

    His hand twitched.

    “Please try to resist the urge to engage in some foolishly heroic gesture general,” the woman smiled at him. “This conversation has been recorded. Its contents are more than sufficient to secure you a traitor’s fate even in the extremely unlikely case where you force us to kill you.” She smiled again. “However, I have no desire for that to happen.”

    “You expect me to believe that?” the general’s eyes narrowed. This woman was playing some kind of game. That much was obvious. He also realized she was right, he’d already said more than enough. ISB, Intelligence, Inquisitorious, if she represented any of them he’d condemned himself fully more than once. “What do you want, really?”

    “Several things, actually,” she quipped, gesturing that he should take a seat at his desk.
    Ignoring the offer, Gentis deliberately remained standing. Carefully, he pulled an embroidered handkerchief and dabbed up the bloody stain at his neck, making sure nothing dripped onto his uniform.

    “First,” the silvered woman continued. “I want to know why an angry general such as yourself arranged to have thousands of blasters smuggled onto Coruscant.”

    Gentis’ blood chilled. How could she, how could anyone, know about that? He’d taken every precaution. In his recriminations he stalled. “You seem to have all the answers Jedi, you tell me.”

    “I am a Jal Shey, not a Jedi,” it was a weary refrain. She leaned back against the far wall of his office. “But since you asked, I suspect you are planning a coup; the cadets, presumably.”

    “Has to be done,” the words tumbled from his lips. “None of those boys will survive if I don’t. They know it too. They deserve a chance to fight for their futures.”

    “So that’s the plan then? Have the cadets rush the Palace and kill the Emperor after graduation, then take power for yourself?”

    She was mocking him somehow. He could feel the mirrored eyes laughing. “It is somewhat more complex,” he sneered right back, he wouldn’t let a lightsaber carrying thug, whatever she called herself, intimidate him. “We will neutralize strategic targets and seize central system control first, but otherwise yes. Simple plans are the best.” The Jedi were poor excuses for soldiers as far as he saw it, and he doubted this woman had a bone of proper military training anywhere in her body.
    “You will fail,” the assassin, silent for so long, again interjected his voice unexpectedly.

    Gentis rounded on the masked man. He was not to be lectured by a hired killer.

    “Corsucant is networked,” the assassin continued, clearly un-intimidated. “There are too may avenues for reinforcements, and millions available. You will not break the stormtrooper garrison; they will fight to the last. In those narrow spaces you will never overrun them in time.”

    That was not the analysis of a killer. “Who are you?” the general accused.

    “Taozin,” the strange apparition responded, utterly opaque. “Once I was something else, but that no longer matters.”

    “Even if you did break through,” the woman, the Jal Shey, added. “Palpatine is a Sith Lord. It will take concentrated numbers to slay him. Relying on a single plan has a low probability of success.”

    Gentis started to retort, but then stopped. The absurdity of the conversation finally caught up to his emotions. “Why should I bother explaining my plan to you? Why do you care?”

    “Because,” the Jal Shey stared at him, body conveying a deep sadness. “I would very much like you to succeed, General, and I believe we could assist you.”

    “I don’t get it,” the general stiffened. “Do you think that they Emperor’s death will bring the Republic back? The Jedi?” He glared at her. “I’ll stop Palpatine the warmonger, but the Empire will remain, and traitors will all be hunted down.”

    “To trade a Sith Lord on the throne for a mundane tyrant would be worth almost any sacrifice in and of itself,” her body tightened visibly. “But I suspect your rule will prove less certain than you anticipate.” She raised a hand to forestall any objections. “It does not matter, for now Palpatine’s death is essential. Until that is accomplished there will be no real change.”

    She stepped around to his desk, pulling the chair back. “Why don’t you sit down? You should call your wife and tell her you won’t be coming home tonight. We have much to discuss.”

    Knowing he really had no other choice, the general took a seat. To his great surprise, he found he actually believed much of this woman’s intent. Traitors though they were, Jedi types had useful talents. Directed carefully, she might indeed be a valuable resource.

    * * *

    “I see two key problems,” Nivi was explaining. They had just finished Gentis’ detailed summary of the coup plans. “The first is time. This plan simply can’t move fast enough to avoid being swamped by endless reinforcements. Your projections are entirely too optimistic. We’ll have to find some way to delay a second wave’s arrival.” She tapped the desk several times. “The second is means. You are reliant upon your cadets to gun down their Emperor. I do not doubt their bravery,” she deflected a murderous glare from the general. “But any man might hesitate when faced with the prospect of killing such an august personage, and hesitation will insure the survival of a Sith Lord. Multiple potential means would be best.”

    Taozin watched quietly as Gentis countered. “There’s no way to keep word from getting out once shots are fired. Coruscant’s just too wired. We do have a fail safe plan to use local droids as a secondary attack force,” the general mused. “I will advance that.”

    The predator listened to this exchange, and what followed, but he was only half paying attention. Time was indeed the key problem – how to isolate the palace long enough for the cadets to use their numbers to clear it. The inevitable secondary response seemed to ruin any scheme raised. He pulled his imagination inward, running through scenario after scenario in his head, trying to find the proper means, the one that would have stopped a Dragoon response team.

    “A hazard,” he spoke suddenly, loudly.

    Two heads turned together.

    “A hazard, chemical, or biological,” Taozin elaborated, seeing it clearly now. “Flood the area with toxins. Mask the cadets beforehand for protection. They retain movement, but no one else does. Some defenders will survive, but they will be reduced, and any reinforcements will have to wait on special gear, clearance from their hazard coordinators.”

    “Hmm…” Gentis considered aloud. “We could catch a lot of stormtroopers and royal guards out of armor in their barracks, maybe up to half. Plus, that would clean the staff out.”

    Before Nivi could move to protest this, Gentis held up a hand to forestall her. “They are not innocents. We investigated. All of the servants, the concubines, the advisers, they are all brainwashed to absolute loyalty and trained to give their lives for the Emperor. You just saw them accounted for in the plans.” He stared at the Jal Shey, and then looked to Taozin. “The idea is a good one. I will deploy it, with or without you, but perhaps you can make it better.”

    “Excuse me?” Nivi objected.

    “Palpatine doesn’t wear a mask,” Gentis explained, speaking in low whispers without realizing it. “Multiple means of attack – yes? But I know Jedi, saw them fight on plenty of hazardous battlefields, take poisoned attacks, none of that ever stopped them. I bet Sith are the same way, correct?"

    Nivi nodded grimly.

    “So, there’s no toxin I know that could take down the Emperor, not that wouldn’t corrode through protective gear and kill my boys too, but maybe you do, Jal Shey bio-terrorism expert?”

    In Taozin’s vision Nivi suddenly went stiffer than Gentis had with a vibroblade to his throat. Mirrored eyes were opaque in the darkness; she seemed more statuary than soul.

    “There is such a weapon,’ she said at last. “A very deadly thing indeed. I had not though to see it deployed in any circumstance ever, but to kill the Emperor is a case without equal in history.”

    “What is it?” Gentis demanded.

    “It is called Aorth-6,” she told them. “A Sith weapon from the last age of darkness. Nothing less would serve to defeat Palpatine.”

    Nivi looked carefully at Gentis. “If I obtain this weapon, never will it touch your hands or those of any of your servants. Only Taozin,” she pointed at him. “Is suited to unleash it.”

    He recognized why after a moment’s thought. “Otherwise the Emperor would foresee this attack.”

    “Yes,” Nivi agreed sadly. “We can only hope that giving you such a deadly and centered role will cloak the whole enterprise.”

    Taozin watched as Gentis looked back and forth between them. “What is this babble?”

    “In the Force,” Taozin explained. “I am invisible.”

    The general did not need to speak, the look of raw skepticism on his face was sufficient.

    Taozin moved quickly, sweeping down to snatch an ornate figurine from the general’s desk. He flung the oblong crystal piece directly at Nivi’s chest.

    The Jal Shey reacted fast, but her hand closed on empty air a fraction of a second behind the impact. It collided against the pitted armor plate with a solid thump.

    Scrambling, Nivi trapped it with her forearms against her knees. She carefully placed it upright on the desk once more. “That looks valuable, would hate to break it.”

    Gentis stared at Taozin wide-eyed. ‘If you had thrown that at her head…”

    “She would be bleeding on the floor,” Taozin filled in angrily, annoyed at having to pull such a cheap stunt. He turned to Nivi instead. “We’ll get this Aorth-6,” he looked back to Gentis. “You’ll get me the best stealth armor imperial requisitions can supply, and I’ll get you the Emperor.”

    “It will be done,” Gentis answered.

    In that moment, Taozin knew he would have his shot.
  11. Mechalich

    Mechalich Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Feb 2, 2010
    Chapter 7

    Ungreth System
    Sector Redacted
    Territory Redacted
    19 BBY

    Amazingly they were still flying Migrant Nebula. Despite the confusing escapades of meeting with Gentis their cover had not been compromised and they’d left Raithal without incident. Engaged in conspiracy to commit regicide, they’d returned to the clanking rust-pot for this penultimate segment of the journey.

    The old piece of Corellian engineering, durable to the last, had successfully traversed half the distance of the galaxy, bringing them to a place Taozin already wished he’d never seen.
    It had no name in navigation records; the navicomputer reported a number and an extreme hazard warning, nothing more. He knew it as the Ungreth system; a piece of lore relayed from the lips of a Sith Lord a millennium in the grave. The name derived from the old Herglic language – it meant ‘blood.’ The assassin could not help but agree that it was well chosen.

    A dying red giant star burned at the center of the system, less than a million years from collapse. Dust and debris unleashed by the violent out-gassing filled the nearby stellar environs, unleashing an omnidirectional blood-red reflection. He could not shake a persistent mental image that the ship was not in flight, but was swimming through it.

    “This place is distorted,” the words had slipped free of Nivi within moments of their exit from hyperspace.

    Taozin’s face must have displayed his puzzlement.

    “Disturbances in the field fabric of the Force reflect similar damage in the physical world – the energies interact with each other at quantum scale,” her explanation was tense. “This star has become unstable, sliding into a sort of celestial rot, and the dark side of the Force has attached to this.” She looked out to the distant planet. “No doubt he chose this place for that reason.”

    Keying maximum magnification, Taozin scanned the image. It was a world of standard size and within expected temperature ranges for human habitation, but the color was all wrong. The planet lacked any sense of differentiation, reporting back a single spectral band – dark gray.

    “What kind of pattern is that?” he wondered aloud.

    “Death,” Nivi’s voice was still, wires under tension. “This biosphere was murdered twelve-hundred years ago.”

    Taozin kept his eyes forward. Nivi had been closemouthed regarding this whole mission. It was not his way to press.

    “Sith infighting set this into motion,” she continued eyes downcast. “But the instrument of oblivion was a necrotic virus called Aorth-5.”

    Taozin looked upon the grayed-out world once again. “Aorth-6 would presumably be a more potent version then?”

    The answer was conveyed in a single word. “Yes.”

    A weapon was a weapon, nothing more. Schooled in the oft-disparaged art of sniping, that was something he had long ago come to believe. Now, for the first time in his adult life, doubt sprouted within him. Every weapon, even the most destructive, had some limits on its capabilities, some control, but this ruined world he was looking down upon besieged that logic.

    Regardless, he did not waver. He would take whatever steps were necessary. The Emperor must be defeated, the Empire broken. The level of acceptable collateral damage was greater than any one planet, one biosphere. He compelled his mind to consider only practical impediments. “If the planet is dead, where do we find the virus?” he asked the Jal Shey.

    “We need to locate the citadel of Locarthas Feol,” she explained hesitantly. “He ruled this world and fifty others. The laboratories should be below his throne chamber.”

    “What happened?”

    “Treachery, the usual story among the Sith,” Nivi shrugged. “He was an enemy of Belia Darzu, and developed a necrotic plague called Mechas-2 capable of killing her technobeast minions. So she subordinated one of Foel’s apprentices and arranged for him to release the universal necrotic agent Aorth-5. He thought Darzu would reward him, but she had him executed in Foel’s name.”

    Taozin considered it a pity Palpatine had no Sith rivals. “Are there likely to be defenses? Droids?”

    “I cannot say,” the reply was nervous, nearly timid. “I know little more than that.” Taozin knew this to be a painful admission for her. “Only this – the Force does not lie quietly on this world. Something will surely oppose us.”

    “We’re moving into orbit now,” Taozin observed. “Let’s see if we can find the citadel.”

    Sensors detected no life signs or active technology. He turned to get visuals, but the vessel’s dilapidated systems offered little detail. A stony world, with small oceans and large elevated wastelands, it seemed to have never hosted more than a handful of major settlements. Heavy evidence of tillage could still be seen in the limited coastal regions, the rest was emptiness.
    “One hundred to five hundred million,” Nivi guessed, scanning through the images. “Mostly temperate environments, fairly arid, probably scrubland and desert as the predominant biomes. Focus scans on the lowland areas, any possible marsh environments, for cities with tall buildings. The ideal candidate is a large rocky outcrop of some kind.”

    Not questioning this analysis, Taozin streamlined the search criteria. Slowly they turned over gray land below, the eerie colorlessness set a nervous vibration rumbling through both their tempers.
    To suck the life out of a world so thoroughly even the seas and stones faded away was a singular horror.

    They sat in silence as the orbital scan continued.

    Thirty minutes in there was a response from the command console.

    “Coastal lowlands,” Taozin read off the feed. “Highly urban area, one structure with a height estimated at four hundred fifty meters, main complex on a large stone mesa with a one-point-five-klick summit.

    “That’s it,” Nivi indicated. “Take us in.”

    The descent was smooth, with even the planet’s weather seemingly deadened. They cut in over the oceans, coming up across a large city strewn through a vast river delta. Lowering to less than a klick in altitude they passed through the final cloud layer to achieve the first true examination of the planet’s surface.

    It was like nothing Taozin had ever seen.

    The world had melted. Forests, scrub, ferns, all had disintegrated into a uniform liquefied mass lying thick over the landscape. In a strange reversed tableau it was possible to mark out the disintegrated remains of individual trees in some places, darkened silhouettes of decay spilling across a stony surface.

    “By the stars,” he could not contain the exhalation.

    “Behold the power of the dark side,” Nivi whispered. Fear suffused her voice.

    Taozin stared on in silence. Plague-killed worlds were nothing new in the galaxy. The Candorian Plague, the Blue Shadow Virus, and many more, all had taken millions of lives. He’d seen the vids as a child, those pictures burned into a young and impressionable mind, but they were not like this.
    Any world might fall to disaster in the turning of galactic cycles. This was something worse – something engineered for maximum cruelty.

    The proximity sensor pinged. Taozin looked to it in relief. “Coming up on the mesa now.” He decelerated and the distant landscape solidified in visual scanning.”

    A tall, hard, stone outcrop, the remnant of some ancient volcanic uplift, it was filled by a city. Low, dim, gray buildings filled it from edge to edge, a tightly settled land designed to pack people in so suffering was inevitable. Everything was compacted down, kept low so that it would dwell in the shadow of the vast central citadel.

    Towering, sharp, and composed of overlapping angular triangles, it was a building without softness. Coal black, it had a strange reflective signature. “The stone must be off-world in origin,” he speculated.

    “Scavenged from the ruins of Ziost,” Nivi answered. “It was common during that era.”

    “Hold on, I’m going to circle around and look for a landing pad,” Taozin banked the fighter into a slow turn. He dreaded an improvised landing. Crashing the ship would be a worthless death.
    The city structures were perfectly preserved, save the liquid stains where municipal plants had disintegrated. They were built in an old style, but clearly supported a space-faring civilization. Landing pads surrounded the sides of the citadel. Taozin picked the north side and put the ship down with slow deliberate care, doubling his already considerable caution.

    They touched down without incident, but the assassin saw Nivi blanch when they made contact with the surface. “Something wrong?” he asked the Jal Shey.

    “The virus is still active,” she spoke slowly. “I’ll go get a breath mask. Keep the ship sealed.”

    Taozin hurriedly slipped on his retrofitted clone assassin helmet. It had an internal air circulation system and supply. He looked out at the ruined landscape in trepidation.

    Nivi returned to the cockpit shortly, mask and canister applied. She glanced at the helmeted assassin and smiled slightly. “A wise precaution,” she noted. “But you should be perfectly safe. This virus targets through the Force. You will be invisible to it.”

    “Huh,” he mumbled. He hadn’t considered this potential benefit, nor was he inclined to rely upon it.
    “We should get moving,” Nivi continued, still all nerves. “I doubt we will escape this place without confrontation, but haste should prove beneficial.”

    Strapping on his weapons, Taozin found he shared the Jal Shey’s impulse. He was not sure why. The dead were not to be feared, and the pass over the city revealed all the droids long since shut down. There should be nothing left to face them.

    The landing pad resembled countless similar duracrete platforms across the galaxy. Filled with stacked supplies and idle droids, it lingered on timelessly. The ancient automatons were rusted, their power supplies used up centuries ago, standing where they’d been left, waiting for orders that would never come.

    Monstrous in size and lightless in coloration, the black citadel rose high above them, the only thing capable of drawing the eye on the whole world. Nivi gave the single grim look before hurrying ahead. Taozin, weapons ready, followed.

    They traveled up several sets of stairs and landings before spilling out into a wide open receiving plaza. The north entrance, a pair of vast doors each capable of admitting an AT-TE, loomed ahead. For a moment Taozin wondered how they could possibly pass through.

    Then they found the first body.

    It was a charcoal colored stain, low and sunken, but the extended pools of liquid flow revealed limbs, torso, and head. It was unlike anything in the assassin’s experience. He had no frame of reference at all. He found it strangely fascinating and utterly horrific at the same time.

    “Millions,” Nivi knelt over the body. “All like this.”

    “Dead is dead,” Taozin cautioned.

    “Yes and no,” the Jal Shey’s response surprised her companion, for she was rarely sentimental over such matters. “These are not bodies. The necrotic process consumed whole tissue first, but it proceeded to the sub-cellular level. All complex organic materials were destroyed, even the virus components itself. What we are seeing is chemically little more than oddly impure graphite. You would achieve a similar result through cremation and liquefying the resultant ash.”

    Taozin considered this in silence. There were numerous other bodies, impossible to differentiate. Their clothes had vanished with the flesh, only metal and plastoid pieces remained, sunken into the fluid.

    “How do we get inside?” he asked at last. “Even you couldn’t push those doors open.”

    “No obvious windows,” the Jal Shey considered. She walked along the edge of the building, tapping the wall. After a few meters she stopped. “There we are; an air duct.”

    Knowing what came next, the assassin moved into cover position as his companion pulled forth her lightsaber and began to cut into the wall.

    Nivi moved swiftly, quickly slashing through the two thin walls covering the open space between. Black panels fell onto the duracrete, molten edges clattering.

    Something moved to the right.

    Taozin spun, tracking this motion – the very first since making planetfall.

    It came from one of the corporeal stains.

    “By the Force,” Nivi whispered.

    The assassin managed to hold back any such exclamations, but what he saw was indeed a thing from which the mind rebelled. The charcoal-colored fluid rose up, flailing numerous thin tendrils, writhing angrily. Then - powered by no visible motive mechanism - it streaked across the flat surface toward Nivi.

    A sniper is a sniper, and Taozin addressed his principle fears and questions with the barrel of his rifle.

    A ruby bolt speared through the center of the amorphous mass. White-hot heat spread in a wave from the heart to the end of the pseudopods in an eye blink.

    The monstrous animation exploded.

    All across the plaza death stains roiled and howled, unleashing an ear-piercing scream as alien as it was virulent.

    In a turn compounding the madness of the moment, from some dark place beyond reason, the screams acquired a voice.

    Shouting, angry, utterly lacking restraint, it was still speech channeled through the remains of beings slain more than a millennium past.

    From the first word Taozin wanted nothing more than to burn the whole planet away, purify it from orbit with endless turbolaser fire.

    “Clever!” the strange shout-scream thundered over the stones. “But however you managed that, you shall never leave here! I have grown bored these past few centuries. You shall be my new toy!”
    Bodies flowed over pavement, forming a wave of twitching, semi-liquid tentacles and whips, a line barring passage back to the ship.

    Nivi, wielding her turquoise lightsaber, ignored them, jumping instead through her finished ingress. Taozin paused for a split-second – he saw that the manipulated remains moved after Nivi but simply ignored his position – then scurried after the Jal Shey.

    Once inside, in a long, narrow corridor lit softly by lightsaber blade, Nivi held up a hand to forestall any words. The Jal Shey began to walk briskly to the south, and motioned for Taozin to follow.
    In the next few seconds he saw her tap something into her datapad, one-handed, keeping the lightsaber up front. Words began to appear, scrolling across the assassin’s HUD. “Enemy Sith Spirit – no vision – Force only. You not exist to it. Silent. Keep it that way.”

    It was far from Nivi’s most eloquent exchange, but the meaning was clear. He carefully strapped his rifle to his back, drew his pistol and vibroblade, and followed the quick-stepping Jal Shey on her way.
    A small swarm of thrashing puppeteered bodies awaited them at the first intersection.

    They lunged. Nivi put a foot down.

    The flooring rocked and the un-cohesive aberrations flattened.

    A turquoise blade speared the floor. White heat flashed across the remnants as they burst apart, charred into nothingness.

    The pair ran on, Nivi leading, Taozin behind. Following some invisible path they dashed down emergency stairwells and through maze-like maintenance corridors.

    No barriers opposed them. Echoing a pandemic a thousand years long all doors were open and free in emergency evacuation status.

    The journey was brutally tense, swarming, screeching masses of necrotized tissue, all that remained of the Sith’s inner circle, dropped from ceilings, burst from drains, and launched lashing tendrils through cabinets.

    Quick lightsaber strikes met them all, and the brittle dead bits of carbon disintegrated at the slightest hint of that burning touch. There were no more swarms. No threats, no mockery seeping from a voice imposed on the dead.; only harassment, terror, and a slow burn of liquid corpses.

    And Nivi was tiring.

    Taozin could see the strain. Energy leeched from silvered hair with every strike, every spin, and every step. The vigilance and speed summoned through the Force could not be sustained. The Sith thing, the dead one with a dead man’s patience, was waiting, waiting, to break his foe piece by piece.

    But the Sith did not know about Taozin. Nivi did, and the assassin realized she had placed all prospect for survival and victory upon this fact, trusting in him utterly.

    He gripped his weapons tightly, fully intending to repay that gift – and if the dead could die a second time, he would find a way to manage it.

    They found the lab five floors down. It resembled nothing in the architecture that preceded it.
    Jagged abstract labyrinths of black stone were instantly replaced by white, modern, sterile walls and floors. High-end laboratory equipment, massive machinery and server banks, and a mountain of supplies crammed into every possible centimeter of space. Droids were numerous, crouched in alcoves and hoverspaces, but the bodies were few.

    The creatures attacked without coordination, allowing Nivi to slog through them.

    She fought past incubators, past rows of servers, past a vast chemical distillery, and then through a vast refrigerated bank of samples, still showing the flickering remnants of long-sustained emergency power. They stopped in front of a massive circular durasteel door – the high security vault.

    It sat opened. In the center were several pedestals, labeled in ancient script. Taozin could not read those glyphs but they were obviously numerals. Four were empty. One sported a pair of opened biohazard canisters. The last held a carbonite block, twin cylindrical shapes within.

    “Aorth-6,” Nivi grasped the frozen virus, lashing it to her back armor with liquid cable. This done, she signaled the retreat with a tired wave.

    A wall of liquid dead waited by the stairs. It did not attack, simply seethed in waves; an obstacle of pure vileness.

    Then it spoke, shouting from beyond the grave. “So, you come for my virus?” somehow the thing laughed. Taozin had never heard anything so opposed to reality. “Not what I expected Jal Shey.” There was dreadful pause, while merged corpses sluiced together atop the steps. “But you can’t have it, not without my blessing. Come to my throne room and we will talk. Perhaps, if you show proper obedience, I might even allow you to live.”

    The wall parted.

    Nivi hesitated. Taozin saw the tension in her muscles as she considered.

    “Must I kill you?” the spirit boomed. “Such a bland outcome. I would like to show my first visitor in so long a proper welcome.”

    The assassin turned to blot out the horrid voice. His ears burned with each word. Eyes focused on Nivi.

    A snap-hiss and the lightsaber vanished. “Fine,” silver lips expressed wearily. “I’ll go and see your miserable monument to vanity.”

    With a tiny gesture she motioned for Taozin to follow close.

    An eerie, supernatural journey followed. The assassin walked no more than a step behind Nivi, surrounded by the grayish fluid mass, gelatinous and clinging. Traveling in almost total darkness, he keyed off movement to avoid missteps.

    They were herded a long ways, following a twisted, mangled path conforming to no recognizable logic. The strain wore Nivi down to almost nothing.

    Taozin waited. The spirit was overconfident. He kept his weapons ready.

    After some interminable interval – it was impossible to reckon time inside the black maelstrom of distorted space created by the mobilized dead – they reached the center of the citadel.

    The fluid remains dissipated at the door, screaming up the walls and ceiling, pouring down looming statues of faceless dark lords before sluicing up steps and swarming the throne. It cohered, these composite mobilized carbon atoms unbound by life, into a larger than life humanoid figure. Tall, thin, and skeletal; his face spun back and forth continuously, melting and reforming from featureless to imperious glare.

    Blackness seeped into the abomination, Taozin could summon no other label, from the throne itself, supplying the first color on the planet outside of rock, a wretched necrotic black. The thing must have loomed to three meters, a suitable size for the mammoth throne the long-dead Sith could never properly have filled in life. It sat down, relaxed, amused; reveling in the drained and dispirited enemy before it.

    Taozin kept his eyes on the creature, unlimbering his rifle. As it began to speak he slowly made his way to a covered position on the left side. Guarded by an aged statue, he had a clear shot of the torso and head.

    “Welcome, Jal Shey, to the court of Locarthus Feol,” the Sith’s voice was doubtless intended to boom, but the voluminous acoustics of that room rendered the screeching into an ear-piercing reverb. “Dark Lord of the Sith. I congratulate you, as the first visitor in a thousand years to make it more than five steps across the surface of my capital.”

    “Your hospitality is bounteous, naturally,” Nivi sneered. She held her lightsaber before her in a strong guard. “How many have died for your virus?”

    “Regrettably few,” the thing, Feol, smiled. “No doubt my cowardly enemies ordered the planet interdicted.”

    “Yes well, a pity your virus is too deadly to allow anyone to transmit it off-planet,” Nivi’s voice was mocking, but Taozin was annoyed. He saw little point in posturing.

    “Indeed,” Feol screeched. “I admit, Aorth-5 was designed as a test of pure virulence, it was never targeted as a tool of conquest or rule. Nevertheless, though that shape-shifting witch Darzu unleashed it through treachery, I am not ungrateful. Through it I have achieved mastery of death itself!”

    Mirrored eyes rolled. “Spare me your delusions. Just tell me why you called me here, or attack. This is tiresome.”

    “I have two questions for you, Jal Shey worm,” anger flared, a bubbling boil within the body of the monstrosity. “How did you know to come to this place? And whatever do you intend to do with my virus?”

    Nivi’s answered were snap-quick, fierce. “Belia Darzu told me, and I’m going to take your virus and kill a Sith Lord. Judging from the evidence here, it seems to be good at that.”

    “Darzu has been dead for-“ Foel’s apparition paused. “She left behind a Holocron, of course. Interesting…you have it with you. I should like to kill that spirit, very, very slowly.” The abomination stood. It extended whiplike tendrils from its hands, flowing through the still air toward the Jal Shey.
    “An offer Jal Shey; give me the Holocron, willingly, that I might torture its soul, and I will let you leave alive, knowing that you bowed down to the dark side and groveled for your life. Do this and you might make for a worthy apprentice when you return.”

    Mirrored eyes flashed. “Tempting, I’m sure, to the degraded, but it seems much more efficient, to me, to simply destroy you and let those you hold in thrall free.”

    “For those words you shall spend an eternity dying! And that will be but the beginning of your torment worm!” The thing rose up in towering rage, flowing against gravity to extend its height.

    “Be…quiet…already,” Taozin was through listening to this bad theater. He double-checked his aim, and then shot the liquid mass in the head.


    Black fluid remains flew off the turgid form, thunderstruck. White-hot they disintegrated in a cacophony of fevered wails and firecracker pops. Foel’s form vanished down to a black, billowy smoke-form, a transparent reflection of forgotten pain.

    “How? How!” the thing raged vaporous. Its voice was clear, but nothing more than a weakened rasp “It was not you Jal Shey! I feel your weakness. That was not your power! How?”

    “It’s not the predator you see that kills you, wretch,” Taozin shot the thing again.

    This time the bolt passed through.

    Foel turned slowly, starring blindly in the direction of the sniper. “Something is there…” it reasoned, frightful. “Something I cannot see. Something hidden from me, from the very essence of life and death.” His head snapped around, staring blankly at Nivi. “You know this thing Jal Shey! What horror have you produced?”

    “Only a horror to evils like you,” Nivi stood firm.

    “Silence!” Foel shrieked. “You underestimate me Jal Shey; you and your hidden ally. I face an enemy who cannot be seen. You face one who cannot die!”

    Gray death fluid spilled from tiny crevices in the ceiling, a viral rain that swiftly cloaked the spirit in power once more.

    The Sith did not remain stationary, but moved forward with blinding speed. Whip-tendrils of necrotic droplets spilled forth from his arms, lunging for Nivi.

    Batting away the first strike with her lightsaber, the silver-haired woman dashed backward, fleeing before the onslaught.

    Taozin took advantage of the pause, wrenching his aim into place, and shot the spirit in the back.

    Again gray ooze disintegrated into white ash, and howls of pain and rage split the throne room, but the smoke-phantom form at the heart of the blackness did not fade. Swift as the mind could follow rivulets of the dead emerged from every direction. Taozin had to dodge and shift to avoid those gravity-defying lines of madness.

    Nivi tried to seize the moment. A swift charge carried her forward, lightsaber raised to spear the dark thing’s heart.

    The turquoise blade left a bright glowing streak in the smoke, but nothing more.

    Foel raised a massive hand. Lightning, purple-black and hideous with wrath, shot forth in wildly forked shafts of power.

    Nivi threw up an arm, blocking the brunt of the blow, but her body was spun down to the floor, striking hard and cruel. The room filed with the destructive smell of burning flesh.

    With his other hand the Sith swept the room, hurling lightning in every direction. Taozin rolled beneath the assault, ozone in his nostrils.

    Blasters no. Lightsaber no. Blade – doubtful. Taozin wondered what he might do. How could a disease be slain?

    Whipcord tendrils of black fluid seized Nivi by the waist, raising her up before the Sith Lord. Those metal-milky bonds grasped at her breath mask as the lightsaber flailed uselessly against them. “I wonder, little thrall of reason, how long will it take my virus to kill you?”

    A few critical seconds, Taozin saw them, and he seized the time in desperation. Determined to make his effort count, he grasped at the one mad idea remaining in his mind.

    Then he charged.

    Tentacles of the dark side and the dead grabbed the breath mask above silver lips.

    Taozin pulled his pistol and shot the thing while standing atop the Sith throne.

    Gray-black fluid melted away. Nivi fell to the floor in a semblance of a fighting crouch.

    Foel rounded on the assassin. “I know where you are now!” the Sith began, hands glowing with a corona of gathering power.

    Taozin said nothing. He shoved his right hand forward, fingers spread wide, into the apparition’s skull.

    It felt impossibly strange, the plunge of a gloved hand into ice cold oil.

    Sith spirit let out the beginning of a blood-curdling keen, but then it cut off abruptly, descending into a miserable, chaotic burble.

    Taozin smiled beneath his helmet. He spun his hand around, moving it up and down for good measure.

    The disease manifestation slowly dissipated, falling apart from the inside out, slopping messily across the floor.

    Nivi speared her lightsaber into that mass, holding the blade steady until every last drop burned away. “A shadow in the Force,” she spoke to Taozin in a low, worried tone. “Your actions, being invisible, leave behind a mask, a blot, a blanket over the energy field, rendering it unrecognizable. So when you inserted your flesh into the conscious space of Foel’s mind it became impossible from him to communicate internally; rather like burning away all the synapses inside the brain.”

    Privately the assassin understood only a portion of this explanation. “So, I didn’t actually kill him?” he surmised.

    “If his claim was true, that he merged with the virus, then no,” the Jal Shey shook her head. “The necrotic virus converts spare living tissue into copies of itself. It coats this world in a film microns thick, and penetrates deep into the nano-scale fractures in all surfaces. Until the whole surface of this world is reformed that will not happen.” She looked up. “It will take grand changes in the star, perhaps a million years or more from now, before that happens.”

    “Almost immortality then,” the assassin griped. This seemed somehow unfair.

    “No,” Nivi’s voice hardened. “Even before you destroyed his consciousness, the Sith had long since sealed his fate. He moved beyond death, yes, but also beyond life. Viruses are not alive. He severed himself from the continuum of the Force, joining to something completely opposed to life. There is no return from that.”

    This philosophical digression had little impact on Taozin. “He’s gone anyway. What about the virus?”
    “It remains,” the Jal Shey concluded sadly. “But you have beheaded its malevolence. Still, there is no reason to tempt matters. We should leave this place, the sooner the better.”


    They wound their way out of the citadel roughly, hacking through doors and windows to get back to the landing pad.

    Taozin kicked Migrant Nebula into orbit with all the speed the old freighter could bear.

    At Nivi’s instruction he conducted an aerobreaking maneuver through an outer system gas giant before making hyperspace. This trick superheated the hull, insuring any viral particles clinging there were fully destroyed.

    In the cargo hold the Jal Shey thawed the twin canisters of Aorth-6. Sturdy durasteel, heavy, shielded, and labeled with Sith glyphs, Taozin hesitated to touch the things. He would rather the cargo hold had been filled with baradium than these two bottles.

    “Internal diagnostics still function,” Nivi covered her nervousness well, shifts of mirrored eyes and overly clinical language measured the extent revealed. “My Sith translation program isn’t perfectly accurate, but I have better than ninety-nine percent confidence in the result.”

    “The virus is fully active, and retains, as expected, complete potency,” she continued. “Limited computer simulations match with evidence from the Belia Darzu holocron. Aorth-6 is far deadlier than Aorth-5 and disperses with greater rapidity, but it does not propagate in the fashion of its predecessor. Natural and artificial barriers will halt the spread of contagion.”

    “Meaning?” the assassin probed.

    “It won’t kill the whole planet if we use it on Coruscant,” she managed a weakly hopeful expression. “But it will kill everyone exposed in the target area, including, hopefully, the Emperor.”

    She pushed the canisters toward him, twisting one around slowly. “Use is simple,” her fingers pointed to latches at the top. “A double-latch release and the aerosolized virus spills out to fill one hundred cubic meters in less than a tenth of a second. Once opened there’s no stopping the full dispersal of the virus – one shot and that’s it.”

    “One for the Emperor,” Taozin took the first canister, handling it with extreme care. “But what of the second?”

    “I would like to destroy it,” Nivi stared hard at the bioweapon, mirrored eyes unreadable. “But I fear such a rash course will only expose some future need.” She pushed it toward him. “The dark side seethes inside this. I do not trust myself with it. Take it, hide it somewhere safe, and pray to any god that may exist that there never comes a crisis great enough to contemplate its use.”

    Cradling the canisters with great care, Taozin nodded. “I will be careful.” To contemplate shooting a man dead gave him no pause, but this was something else. This was holding the power of a god. Or a devil.

    Nivi relaxed visibly with the canisters out of her hands. “So…” she spoke softly. “Now we simply rendezvous with Gentis and finalize our plans.”

    Taozin held the shining cylinder up to his face. Before, he had not truly believed in this idea. It had seemed absurd that a virus could end an Emperor. Now, he was sure it would.

    PS: I wish to apologize to any readers for how long it took to upload this chapter. The recent episode VII announcement, and limbo this places upon the EU has had a deleterious effect on my fanfiction-writing enthusiasm. Rest assurred, however, that this work will be completed.
  12. darth_treyvah

    darth_treyvah Jedi Master star 3

    Dec 26, 2005
    This Sith virus sounds eerily like the thing recreated in Project Blackwing or--perhaps more terrifyingly--Mnggal-Mnggal. This thing is in some ways even more frightening than Palpatine and Nivi might be making a terrible mistake releasing this monstrosity anywhere outside this planet: improved batch or no. I really like this unorthodox approach to taking out Palpatine. I look forward to seeing more and just how far the Jal Shey and her assassin are willing to go.
  13. Mechalich

    Mechalich Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Feb 2, 2010
    The visual similarities to Mnggal-Mnggal are a sort of literary convergent evolution more than anything, there's a frustratingly small number of ways to describe featureless goo (the thesaurus and I had a long talk during this chapter). As for this approach, I can't really take the credit, and what's going to happen is kind of well...predetermined.
  14. Mechalich

    Mechalich Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Feb 2, 2010
    Chapter 8

    Raithal Academy
    Raithal system
    19 BBY

    “Here,” the assassin slammed the canister down onto Gentis’ desk. The general took a half-step back, staring at it in unfeigned trepidation. He’d seen the clips recorded by the man’s helmet feed. It was rather like having a live thermal detonator next to you.

    “It works?” he asked, forcing his body to project calm.

    “It works,” that was the strange silver-shaded woman Nivi. Gentis did not trust the Jal Shey, he’d never trust any hand wielding a lightsaber ever again, but her background was that one qualified to give the answer.

    “So,” he breathed. “It seems we are ready.” He had always been committed, but now it was real, not a feverish dream. The little durasteel cylinder held a dead emperor within. A slow examination of the pair before him revealed steady commitment. They would fight, he was certain of it. All that remained was to channel them properly.

    “Given the canister’s small size it is possible to proceed with plan V1,” the general decided. It was a good sign.

    “What are the components of that plan?” Nivi demanded.

    Gentis had all the details in his head; nothing was committed to databases where it could be compromised. “Part of the graduation ceremony is an introduction of a picked group of cadets to the Emperor himself, in person and in private. Like all meetings with the Emperor it is precisely timed – we will launch the attack keyed off that moment, and release the virus during the meeting.”

    “But the security for such a meeting will be extreme,” the woman objected. “Will you have weapons?”

    “No,” Gentis admitted. He suppressed his annoyance. She had not been part of the planning councils; an explanation could not be avoided - typical Jedi move, never content to trust other with the details. “Weapons will be impossible, but single-use breath masks will work. We have prepared a special concealed case for the virus, it contains the commemorative trophy of the first imperial academy class – the only one he will ever receive. You, Taozin,” he pointed to the assassin quickly. “Will serve as my orderly. The documentation has already been prepared, and you will have no difficulty passing as one of my soldiers.”

    “Even if the Emperor somehow resists the virus we may be able to overpower him,” the assassin agreed, filling in the next step. “Assuming the guards are disabled.”

    “Precisely,” Gentis still wondered precisely what sort of soldier this man had once been, a few clandestine searches had turned up nothing. “Even if not we should be able to retreat in good order and meet with the oncoming attack, though I am fully prepared to sacrifice the entire meeting party if necessary.”

    “It is a logical release location,” Nivi confirmed. “As air recyclers will rapidly diffuse the virus outwards through the whole palace quadrant, but I sense one problem with this plan.”

    The Jal Shey was frustratingly intelligent and intuitive. Gentis cut in ahead of her next words, his pride would not allow for less. “Darth Vader,” he scowled. It was a problematic issue indeed, one stymieing his many plans. “He is unpredictable, but it is likely he will be on Coruscant for this graduation ceremony. His cybernetic armor presents us with a problem, as does his command authority. The Emperor trusts him alone above all others. He can be anywhere and can seize control of any force. He must be neutralized.” The general stared at the Jal Shey.

    “Darth Vader’s documented career has been very brief,” Nivi cautioned. “But he clearly has the skills of a Jedi Master. Jedi are warriors in a way Jal Shey are not. I have combat experience, but not their lifetime of martial training.” She paused, looking him straight in the eye. Gentis forced his head straight, meeting the swirling mirrors. “I do not know which Jedi Master serves as Palpatine’s slave,” Nivi amended. “But it is unlikely he has faced a Jal Shey in battle. Upon that, and that alone, I have the potential to engage. I will be able to keep the Sith busy for a time, but I cannot promise victory, much as I might desire it.”

    “It is enough that he senses you and pursues,” Privately Gentis did not believe this woman had any chance one on one, but he had no qualms over sacrificing her. Ideally they’d kill each other and spare him the mess. “I will arrange to hide you among the cadets, though some degree of makeup will be necessary.”

    “I can handle it,” the response left no doubt that she had disguised her features as human before. “Just furnish us with the necessary details.”

    Annoyingly Gentis needed the Jal Shey, so he swallowed the rebuke at her impertinence. Her agreement was sufficiently satisfactory. Without further hesitation he relayed the intricacies of the plan’s timing to the pair. They would never earn his trust, but the images from the spy camera he’d hidden on the hull of their ship were too real to be a hoax. That canister would fulfill its purpose.

    * * *

    Taozin kept turning the armor stealthing on and off, sliding and slinking around the ship. Nivi knew he was annoyed that she’d quickly stopped paying attention to it. He wouldn’t be content until he’d stalked and killed someone, the more dangerous the better, while wearing it. She suspected harsh words might be necessary by the time they left.

    Unable to focus, knowing the undetectable sniper was somewhere behind her, Nivi gave up her studies and turned to face the wall. There was nowhere in the ship distant enough that he could fail to hear her. “So, how many tracking devices in the armor?” she mused.

    “Five,” he remarked, still invisible, cloaked by advanced stygian-interlaced polymers. “Some surprisingly cunning ones too; I had to recharge your scanning-tunneling microscope twice.”

    “I hope you were careful with that,” it did not surprise her one iota that he’d felt compelled to scan down to the atomic level. “It’s an expensive piece of gear.”

    “Its fine,” he reappeared, giving off a brief electro-energetic burst. “I wonder that they thought it would succeed. I won’t be so easy to kill when this is done.”

    “It seems I’m scheduled to meet my end on Vader’s lightsaber, but no doubt the good general has contingency plans.” Nivi was not naive. She knew full well Gentis intended to use her as the scapegoat for his little coup. “As amusing as it might be to live on as the galaxy’s most wanted bioterrorist, no doubt they’ll proclaim me a Jedi in the want ads.”

    She sighed, looking at Taozin. “Do me a favor, will you. If we succeed at this, make sure history remembers it was a Jal Shey operation, not a Jedi one. I am thoroughly tired of explaining that.”

    “Do you want history to remember you so much?” the assassin questioned.

    Nivi considered this, noting as she did that the assassin clearly favored the opposite. “If we save the Republic, I want the historians to get it right.” She decided, slowly piecing together the answer she sought. “It is not for me, no, but if Jal Shey succeed where Jedi failed, that very fact would be almost as important as the act itself. It could change the very nature of the galaxy’s understanding of the Force.”

    “I’ve no desire to see the Republic saved,” Taozin reminded her. “But I will do what I can to remind history of the truth.”

    “No Republic,” Nivi sighed again. Despite months of struggle to obliquely convince the assassin of her course’s superior wisdom he remained indomitable. “What then? An empire under Gentis?”

    “Gentis will not hold power long,” Taozin sounded disinterested. “The navy will not bow to an army commander.” He paused. “The CIS promised a hands-off policy. It was a dubious promise from the beginning, but perhaps something of that nature. To grow strong the Rim must be able to keep its own money, its people, its resources. It can not all feed the Core.”

    “Hmm…” she mumbled. There was no desire within to debate economic policy with the assassin. “Well I suppose it’s a moot point anyway. We are highly unlikely to live to see it regardless. We can only hope the triumphant vision is not Palpatine’s.”

    “What if we do survive?” the words came unexpectedly from Taozin. “If we kill Palpatine and evade Gentis?”

    Nivi stopped. She stared out the viewport into the blackness of space, wondering. “You first,” she whispered softly.

    “I have already destroyed one Sith,” Taozin’s words were clear, the answer obviously pre-formulated. “Palpatine would make two. I see no reason to stop there. I suspect the galaxy holds no shortage of irredeemable souls suited to my particular skill set.”

    This declaration actually brought a smile to the Jal Shey’s face. “May you be a terror to the dark side for many years to come.”

    He kept his focus on her, and she knew he was waiting for an answer. She wondered, at last, if she truly had one. “I originally studied medicine because I wanted to improve the condition of this galaxy, and I didn’t think I could handle politics,” she smiled slightly, recalling younger days. “I picked diseases based on mathematics – do the most for the most people. That calculus still holds true.” She tested those words against herself and the Force. There was a characteristic resonance. “I suppose, if we succeed, I might be able to help a restoration movement, assuming the media doesn’t turn me into a liability.”

    This new realization appeared inescapable. “Otherwise I may need to disappear, find some isolated place on the Rim.” A thought occurred. “Maybe I’ll take students; there are few of us left.” Feeling out the possibility left Nivi haunted by uncertainty. Killing Palpatine was necessary to save the Jal Shey, along with the rest of the galaxy, but even in success a great task of rebuilding would remain.

    “Well,” Taozin concluded. “If Vader does kill you, I’ll put him at the top of my list.”

    Inexplicably Nivi found this vengeful aspiration comforting.
  15. bentheswguy

    bentheswguy Jedi Youngling

    Nov 8, 2012
    Interesting story so far! I will definetly be sure to read updates as they are posted! Tag me please :D
  16. Mechalich

    Mechalich Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Feb 2, 2010
    Warning: This chapter takes place concurrently with Star Wars: Darth Vader and the Ghost Prison 1 & 2 and as a result may be somewhat confusing to readers unfamilliar with that source. While I would encourage everyone to read the comic in its entirety (it's very, very good), to those unable to access a copy a decent summary of events can be found on the Gentis wookieepedia page.

    Chapter 9

    Imperial City
    Coruscant sector
    19 BBY

    Vader took the turbolift to the Emperor’s throne room in stony silence. His mental awareness was projected well beyond such matters as the ascending floor count or rush of motion or even his impending meeting with his master. That meeting would resolve as it should, as it must, so that he might pursue the sensation prodding the edge of his mind even now. It was an intrusion, an unacceptable breach of the sanctity of this place, this Imperial capital.

    It must be purged.

    And Vader intended to handle it personally.

    The prospect invigorated even as it maddened.

    Exiting the turbolift Vader strode into the throne room, utterly ignoring the ever-vigilant Royal Guards that watched his every move. Skilled though they might be, they were still nothing but tools, completely incapable of grasping the realities of power.

    Tall and red-robed, the haggard figure of Ars Dangor scurried in the other direction as the Sith entered. Vader ignored the man. He had no use for the toadying bureaucrats. They served a purpose in preserving the machinery of empire, but their true uselessness was manifested in the ease with which the Emperor manipulated them.

    The galaxy was sorely lacking worthy souls.

    As he often was these days the Emperor was alone, naught but the silent guards surrounded his seat of authority. Vader wondered at the plans his master formulated in these long periods of isolation. What did he dream of the Empire’s future? Soon Vader would demand inclusion in those dread theories, but not yet. Not until the Jedi were fully and totally destroyed.

    A step forward in that endeavor awaited.

    Vader fell to one knee before the Emperor. “Master,” he intoned.

    “Rise Lord Vader,” the Emperor acknowledged him.

    The Dark Lord did so, as swiftly as he could while maintaining a veneer of respectability. “Master,” he began. “There is an intruder amongst us.”

    “Yes,” the response was quick, terse. “One has arrived among the cadets, seeking to disrupt our growing order.”

    “This enemy must be eliminated.”

    “Yes…” the Emperor turned his head slightly to the side. His voice deepened. “You wish to go in person. That is well, your anger fuels you; it ensures your victory.”

    “I do not trust the inquisitors in this,” Vader answered. “They are untested, and this presence is…” he felt for the right word, matching it to the vision supplied by the dark side. “Treacherous.”

    “Your assessment is valid,” the Emperor acknowledged. “But I sense hesitation. What holds you back?” Faced with that piercing insight, cutting as ever, an answer was required. Vader was aware his master knew his response full well, but that they must play the game of master and pupil until it was done.

    “This intruder arrived with the cadets,” Vader intoned. “Gentis could not have been unaware of it. He has hatched some plot. Should you meet with him in my absence?”

    “I have foreseen Gentis’ wavering loyalty,” the Emperor responded, full of confidence as always. “Soon he will no longer be useful to us, but for now there is no action he could take to harm me. Go Lord Vader,” the command was absolute. “Eliminate this skulking remnant who dares dishonor our ceremonies.”

    “Yes, my master,” the Dark Lord bowed his head.

    * * *

    Nivi waited in an empty auditorium, sitting on a folding chair in the center of the stage. Idle, she was reading the Coruscant news report on a disposable datapad. She carried her lightsaber, nothing more. Her Jal Shey armor was polished to the point of gleaming. Her only regret was the replacement plates she ordered fabricated on Raithal would never fully match the patina of the original ones.

    The Dark Lord of the Sith entered, as Nivi had thought he might, through the left stage entrance, as a star would. She looked up when he arrived, already turned to face this anticipated presence. Leaving the datapad on the chair, she stood to receive him.

    In person, Nivi admitted, Vader was every centimeter as imposing as the holos made him out to be. Towering in height, swathed entirely in coal black armor, and with leering empty black eye sockets, he did not walk so much as stomp and loom. She had to fight the urge to step back in the face of his approach.

    As expected the Sith was alone. Nivi was certain Vader had men in waiting, surrounding the building with a ring of his elite 501st stormtroopers. She accepted this. It suited her purpose well to face the Sith alone.

    Vader’s approach stopped four meters distant from her. His lightsaber was held outstretched in a black-armor glove, but remained inactive. The helmet bore down upon her. “You are not a Jedi,” he began, not speaking so much as proclaiming darkness. The mechanical hiss of his cybernetic breathing apparatus accompanied each pause in chill counterpoint. “The Force is strong in you, too strong for you to be unknown to me.”

    Nivi silently upped her estimation of Vader a degree. His role implied a brutish warmonger, the mailed hand of the Emperor, but it seemed he possessed a sharp mind as well. “I am Doctor Nivi Avixin, Jal Shey.”

    “Jal Shey…” Vader parsed the words. “Ah,” the helmet turned ever-so-slightly, staring past Nivi’s skull. “A mongrel healer.”

    As they spoke Nivi’s heightened senses, attuned to her surroundings as always, pulled in a continual stream of information, tremendous in quantity and scope. Without conscious thought she analyzed the Sith Lord’s movements, cadence, speech patterns, and exhalations. Her Force-primed mental framework parsed through it all.

    It sprang forth in revelation.

    “I suppose I should not be surprised you do not recognize me,” Nivi almost whispered, absorbing this knowledge. He would hear her nonetheless. “But we have met before, Anakin Skywalker.”

    Vader’s posture froze. He was so unnerved Nivi considered attacking in that very moment. She hesitated just long enough for the ruby-red lightsaber blade to spring to life, snatching away the opportunity. “How can you know that!”

    “Every being gives off a unique signal, chemical, hormonal, and genetic. A signal I parse through the Force,” she explained carefully. “I never forget anyone I’ve met before, regardless of whether I can see their face. Your suit muffles the signal, but it cannot obscure it entirely.”

    “I have never met you before,” Vader thundered. “I would remember those eyes.”

    “No doubt you would,” Nivi mused. “If you’d been paying any attention to me. You had eyes only for your little Togruta padawan, and the pretty senator, Padme Amidala.” Her eyes narrowed as her intuition opened a path to a previously hidden truth. “That’s it isn’t it? That’s the hinge. You threw the galaxy to Palpatine for the sake of an affair!”

    She had thought to impel the Sith to a towering rage, and all the vulnerabilities it brought with it, but Vader was a stone. His anger focused a baleful solar storm onto the Jal Shey alone. “When was this?” he demanded, pushing through her accusation by the brutality of his wrath.

    “On Naboo,” Nivi remembered the day well. “You had just returned from Iego, carrying a precious cargo of Reeksa root.”

    Black armor shivered as recollection dawned within the cybernetic frame. “The Blue Shadow Virus. Then you were the one who-“

    “Processed the Reeksa into a viable cure? Developed a synthetic cross-species treatment from that sample? Neutralized all remaining viral molecules in the environment?” Nivi accused. “Yes, that was me. Not bad for a ‘mongrel’ I should think.”

    “Had my wife died there I would never have seen the truth I do now,” Vader mused cruelly. “So perhaps I should thank you.”

    Nivi spat to the side, recoiling from those foul words.

    “But it does not matter,” the Dark Lord continued. “You are engaged in a conspiracy with General Gentis, and you are stalling.”

    “You only noticed just now?” Nivi mocked, though inwardly she cradled disappointment. She would have liked to hold off a little bit longer, every second benefited Taozin. “It doesn’t matter though,” her eyes flittered over to the little datapad, and the countdown displayed at the center.

    The numbers clicked over to zero.

    Ground shook; distant rumbling filled the air through every wall.

    “You’re right,” Nivi stared straight into the black pits of Vader’s helmet. “I am conspiring with Gentis. He’s off killing your precious Emperor right now, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do to help him.”

    “You know who I truly am,” Vader raged. “And yet you persist in believing you have any chance at all?” He raised the crimson lightsaber.

    “I can’t match your power, true,” Nivi admitted. “But I am not without advantages.” She ignited her lightsaber. The weapons hummed against each other in disharmony. “I sparred intensely with many Jedi during the war. I know how to fight them. Anakin Skywalker, for all his heroics, never fought a Jal Shey.”

    “Then you shall be the first to fall before me,” Vader growled.

    Blade high, the Sith charged.

    * * *

    As he entered the Emperor’s throne room a strange, almost frightening sense of déjà vu struck Taozin. He felt transported back to the throne room of Foel. Certainly an intellectual differentiation was possible; there were clear differences in architectural style, structural materials, and the design of the statuary, but the overall visual effect of the galaxy’s living Sith overlord matched that of the one dead for a thousand years in every important way. The feel of the two rooms mirrored each other perfectly – a vast colorless space channeling all vision to a single occupant at the center.

    Royal guards stood to the side of the chamber, tall men cloaked in deep red. The Emperor, shrouded in a heavy cloak, sat slumped upon his throne, flanked by a handful of uniformed officials. Only one stood out, a tall powerfully muscled man with cybernetic red machine-eyes and a facial prosthetic.

    Taozin tensed. That could prove to be a problem.

    The assassin stayed fully within Gentis’ visual shadow, out of the Emperor’s line of sight. Clad in a standard staff officer’s uniform, close inspection would no doubt reveal he was invisible to the Force. That must be prevented, for now. He kept a careful eye on the chrono-display atop his case, watching the last few seconds count down.

    Gentis stopped before the Emperor, five meters distant and several steps above. The six chosen cadets spread out to the side, three in each direction.

    Palpatine looked up from the side of his throne absently, barely even glancing at the cadets. “Ah, General Gentis, your presence was expected.”

    It was impossible to miss the ominous intent simmering beneath those words. The Emperor’s voice retained nothing of the graceful, stentorian authority he had possessed as chancellor, only a sharp, accusing rasp. Did he know?

    The General and his cadets went to one knee, the assassin followed the motion. As rehearsed, he put his hand behind his back during this movement, smoothly extracting a thin polyfiber wafer from a hidden pocket. The chronometer registered ten seconds remaining.

    “My Emperor,” Gentis proclaimed. “May I present the future Moffs of the Galactic Empire.”

    Palpatine looked up. His gaze did not move across the cadets. It passed over the general to fall on Taozin.

    The Emperor’s face distorted in shocked surprise.

    The countdown hit zero, letting off a string of beeps.

    In the distance, a low rumbling penetrated the sound-proofed chamber.

    Taozin slid the breath mask over his face, ignoring all other signals. He hit a single button on the carrying case. This triggered a hand-made mechanism within – one that split the case open and undid the double-latch.

    “Assassins!” a royal guard shouted. He went for his pistol, moving with nearly supernatural speed. The Emperor started to rise from his podium.

    Across the room, guardsmen, dignitaries, and Emperor all collapsed together in the next moment, dropped by uncontrollable coughing spasms. Black flecks of liquid poured from many mouths.

    “What?” the Emperor, clutching desperately to the sides of his throne, gasped desperately.

    “Your wars end today!” Taozin heard Gentis bellow as the general rose to charge the throne.

    “Traitors!” loud and strong, unimpeded by the deadly virus now expanding outward throughout the palace, this declaration issued forth from a mechanical voice box.

    The red-eyed man stood before Palpatine, shielding the Emperor.

    Gentis hurled himself at this adversary.

    A powerful man, trained in close infantry combat, the general was somehow thrown down the steps to smash against the paving with a single move.

    Cybernetics…Taozin realized, seeing metal ripple beneath coverings on the arms of this opponent. The assassin was already running right, throwing his body weight into a dying royal guard, his hands seeking for the man’s heavy blaster pistol.

    The men of the Imperial Royal Guard were supreme warriors, specially chosen, exquisitely trained, and loyal to the point of death, perhaps even beyond it. In that moment, one man justified their whole existence.

    Standing on the left hand wall, he crumpled, but managed to keep one knee under him. Black fluid gushed from every pore, pulsating with every heartbeat, but from some immeasurable depth of conviction he found the strength to pull back an arm and throw.


    The cry sent a blaster pistol on a wobbling arc through the air of the throne room, descending to the ready hands of the red-eyed cybernetic Moff.

    Catching the weapon with a swift one-handed grab, Trachta snap-shot a pair of cadets with a smooth, almost casual, motion. He slammed an augmented fist into a third.

    Taozin’s hands closed on the guardsman’s pistol. He whipped it around and fired.

    Trachta saw the move coming, and soldier’s reflexes led him to dive for the floor, pulling the barely breathing Emperor down beneath him.

    High-energy, overcharged, and unfamiliar to the sniper, the guardsman’s weapon bucked in Taozin’s hand.

    The first shots passed over the Moff’s head, scorching burn marks into the Emperor’s throne.
    Return fire came from the Moff, a quick spray of ruby bolts.

    Taozin felt a terrible burning as a lance of pain entered his left shoulder. He fell to his knees as his left arm dropped uselessly to his side. Training took over. He kept firing, one-handed – wild.

    Pushing a groaning, limp Emperor, a body so depleted it gave no obvious sign of living, behind his throne, Trachta kept up a steady suppressive fire.

    The assassin, struggling to see through vision blurred by agony, blinked repeatedly, fighting for clarity. His watery survey revealed a room filled with the dead. Only he, the cyborg Moff, the dying Emperor, and a somewhat dazed Gentis remained. The general lay beneath the body of a cadet, the youth’s face was a morass of black ruin, the result of an improperly fitted mask.

    Taozin cut low, running and rolling to the general, teeth snapping together with every brutally damaging bounce. He kept his erratic fire up, just enough to keep Trachta from picking him off. “Fall back!” the assassin hissed at the general. “We’ve lost this position!”

    “But the Emperor!” Gentis protested; a little fire returning.

    “Is at death’s door!” Taozin overrode the remark. Palpatine was unable to move, stand, or do anything beyond cling to life. The Sith must be using every last gram of power he possessed to hold the virus back from critical tissues. It wouldn’t last, he’d seen it in Nivi, the endurance of the Force might be infinite, but the flesh wielding it wasn’t. “Trachta has us pinned! Stay here and we’re dead men!”

    “Point,” knocked about though he might be, Gentis remained a soldier. His instincts were still solid.

    Taozin burned through most of the power pack, firing as fast as he could depress the trigger, while they fell back out of the throne room.

    “Press the attack!” Gentis began issuing orders to his distant cadets the minute they exited communications shielding. “We must encircle the throne room at all costs!”

    “Move!” the assassin hurried the general, charging through the panicked corridors. The dead lay at their feet, victims of Aorth-6, spreading further and further through the heart of Imperial City. “Stormtroopers will be coming.”

    They won that race in the end, but barely. Assassin and general hit their first white-armored squad just as a team of helmeted cadets overran it. The young officers swarmed Gentis, crowding their idol.
    Seeing his chance, Taozin fled onward.

    His armor was hidden near the palace, with medical supplies nearby. Stripping down and snapping it on, his motives changed swiftly. His part was done. The Emperor’s life was failing. All remaining defenses were weak. Now was the time for him to focus on survival.

    * * *

    Vader did not advance at a run. He came forward in a strong, steady pace. The lightsaber held in high guard, his body radiated power. It was an inexorable advance, an unavoidable invitation to collapse into lethal combat.

    Nivi waited; her turquoise blade low to her right. There was a smile on her face.

    In the background of the Force the dark side wailed. The Emperor was at the edge of death, and weakening by the second.

    Vader surely felt this, but it slowed him not at all. He stepped in close, red blade crashing down. The pale turquoise beam rose to meet it.

    The strike was brutally strong, inhuman. Augmented by armor and blended to a style engineered to take full advantage of every last bit of potency to be wrangled free from weight and torque it hit like a boulder.

    Nivi met it head on. The sabers locked in place, crackling against each other. Slowly, the Jal Shey’s blade pushed upwards.

    “Impossible!” Darth Vader thundered. He broke back, sweeping in again with brutal speed and power, too swift for Nivi to seize any opening.

    Instead she met the strike full-front, blade to blade. The Force flooded her body, recruiting idle muscle fibers, supercharging protein structures, imposing orientation, uniformity, and a million other micro-effects all combining to multiply her natural strength many times over.

    Nivi could arm-wrestle a Wookiee down in one push. Vader’s suit couldn’t match her.

    But he was a better swordsman.

    Pulling and striking with clear advantages in leverage, conserving his power and battering at her defenses without making the slightest error he gave no ground at all. Brute strength was insufficient to the task.

    So when the blades crashed together once again, sparking and locking in the strange frozen dance of beams of charged plasma, Nivi fell back; just a half-bend, a tiny move to pull Vader forward.

    Then she screamed.

    Not a scream of rage or anger, rather a massive unbridled detonation of sound. It poured out in a torrent, roaring across vocal-chords super-stimulated to Ithorian extremes.

    Caught off-balance, the sheer force of this violent exhalation threw the Sith Lord backward.

    Nivi did not lunge. She bent her knees and sprang. Her body flipped through the air, turning high above to land her feet upon the ceiling at the terminus of her arc.

    Two could play the leverage game.

    Kicking off with all her might, Nivi transformed into a lance of silver and turquoise light, a meteoric burst to pierce through the Sith.

    Arm extended, her right hand carried the lightsaber blade, her luminous spear.

    Vader looked up in time. His lightsaber pulled into his left hand, rising to defeat that terrible oncoming barb.

    Smiling, the Jal Shey unleashed her true attack, wheeling her left fist across in a brutal hook to smash the shining dome of her foe’s helm.

    Vader’s armored fist rose to intercept.

    For a moment they hung suspended like that, caught in the tableau of perfectly matched powers, pillars of dark and light.

    All was silent.

    Then Vader’s armor plating, pushed out in an unnatural angle, buckled microscopically under the strain.

    A detonation of the Force itself blew out every transparisteel window in the auditorium, from the floor to the rafters.

    Hurled by the blast, Vader crashed hard into the far wall, buried to his shoulders in plaster and molding. His lightsaber lay on the stage floor, far out of reach.

    Nivi, upright and unharmed, skidded to a stop on the opposite end of the stage.

    The Dark Lord’s defenses were broken! Her moment had come!

    Released from Nivi’s hand the turquoise blade flew straight and true, set to pierce the heart of the foe.

    Darth Vader saw it coming. His armored body had no chance to evade.

    The Dark Lord’s hand came up. Nivi peered into those empty, mirrored helmet eyes.

    Absolute rage stared back at her.

    A mechanical right fist rose up, in line with the oncoming lightsaber.

    The fist opened.

    An avalanche of power, the exhaust column of a relentless rocket of wrath, ripped across the stage. Building higher and higher with every meter it proceeded; it drove on, crushing everything before it, a tidal wave of fury.

    The blast tore through Nivi’s lightsaber, ripping the precious tool apart. It surged past, sweeping up the shards of metal and plasteel and turning them to supersonic shrapnel, launched unerringly back at their source.

    Nivi could only throw her hands in front of her face before they hit.

    The impact was a bath of razors, cutting her in countless places, setting every nerve aflame.

    Pain screamed through her mind, threatening to overwhelm all impulses, to send her spiraling to darkness, but the Jal Shey refused to fall.

    Standing there, suspended in agony and the Force, a revelation settled over her – one of great and terrible sad resignation.

    She smiled.

    “Now…” Vader intoned, drawing the lightsaber back to his hands with a gesture. “You die.”

    Nivi could not move either arm, and if her focus wavered she would fall unconscious and bleed to death within minutes, but she refused to die this day. “You have no time for me Lord Vader,” she managed to cough through a throat filling with blood. “Your Emperor is dying.”

    Calling upon all the strength left to her, Nivi bent her knees again, springing for survival. She passed over row upon row of seats to land already in a jerky run for the exit. She looked back one time only as she ran. “You will have no victories today, Sith.”

    The Dark Lord did not follow.

    * * *

    Nivi lay amongst a pile of scattered supply crates. Her ruined torso was covered in poorly applied bacta patches wrenched into place as best she could manage using her teeth. She held the fourth and last of the synthetic plasma packs between her teeth, trying to suck down as much as possible to replace the red liquid pooling beneath her even now.

    That was how the cadets found her.

    “That’s the Jedi witch,” one of them called. All remained unrecognizable beneath their sealed helmets. It would be some time before it would be truly safe to breathe here. “I recognize her from the briefing.”

    “She’s not to survive,” another, tall and heavily built, amended.

    There were five cadets, all armed and newly hardened by battle. Nivi could not fight them, she could not even muster the strength to correct them.

    “Let’s do this all at once,” one muttered nervously.

    There were nods. A rough half-circle formed. Five blasters were raised and leveled.

    A sharp, high-pitched whine pierced the air.

    In the same moment a cadet’s head was separated from his shoulder.

    Lightning-quick his neighbor was similarly eliminated, even as three quick shots dropped the others to the duracrete forever.

    They were dead before the stygian-masking finished dissipating.

    “Taozin?” Nivi struggled to whisper through her blood-soaked breath mask.

    “Stang,” the assassin muttered. “Do you ever need a batcta tank.”

    The Jal Shey could not muster any humor at this remark. She remained silent in the next instance, as she was lifted up into the air like a child, body silently screaming in pain all the while.

    “Hold it together, we’re getting out of this madhouse,” Taozin told her as he carried her out of the combat zone. Stormtrooper holdouts were still fighting, dedicated to the last, but the numerous cadets were systematically breaking down their positions one by one.

    “We got the Emperor,” Nivi heard Taozin’s voice coming from some far off place as they moved.

    “No,” she croaked, the words involuntarily escaping her. “We didn’t.”

    Then the blackness finally overwhelmed her.
  17. Mechalich

    Mechalich Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Feb 2, 2010
    Chapter 10

    Imperial City
    Coruscant sector
    19 BBY

    Laurita Tohm went over the edge gracelessly, flailing through the air, unbalanced by his injuries.

    Taozin, watching the young officer fall through his scope, considered putting the worthless wretch out of his misery. He decided it wasn’t worth wasting a blaster bolt. The wind chill would kill the Imperial long before he hit bottom anyway. Instead the assassin pulled his rifle upwards, zeroing in on the looming visage of Darth Vader.

    Even with the shot lined up, directly between those spherical eyes, the Sith Lord had no idea he was being observed. Only the invisible shields, installed days before by a harried technical team, protected him.

    To the assassin’s great regret Vader did not lean out past the reach of that unseen wall to watch the officer fall.

    Vader soon departed, and Taozin pulled back the rifle with a silent exhalation. Not what he’d wanted, but the trip hadn’t been a total loss. Visual readings of Vader summarily executing an astonishingly successful and loyal subordinate would have propaganda value to someone.

    It also brought matters firmly to a close.

    Traversing the heights, through tubes and tunnels on a high-wire journey back down to the Undercity, the assassin brooded in silence; to think that they had found their way to the least likely of all outcomes. They had failed, but somehow lived.

    It still seemed unreal.

    The ancient, abandoned clinic in the Works was not easily reached, but the dangerous feral droids of the region could not see through advanced stealth technology any more than stormtroopers could. It had served as a secure enough hideaway from Gentis’ patrols. Taozin knew it would not be preserved from the thorough scouring just beginning with the Emperor’s return.
    It was time to go, though he had no idea where to.

    He found Nivi seated at her desk, starring at the wall near the bacta tank she had all-too-recently vacated. She only turned when he deactivated the stealth functions, keying in on the discharge.

    “So…what is the news?” she asked without turning.

    “It’s over,” Taozin spoke softly, trying to hide the disappointment he felt. “The Emperor has returned to power, information regarding the coup is already being suppressed, and Vader just threw the young officer who engineered the whole victory off a balcony.”

    Those mirrored eyes held resignation. All the fire Nivi had once possessed seemed to have faded away with her injuries. “So it ends, as expected, as inevitable.”

    “Inevitable?” the assassin bristled.

    “My fault, not yours,” the Jal Shey shook her head. “I miscalculated, made a mistake of judgment. I tried to leverage the dark side against itself. It was an impure move, the light wielding the darkness. It never had a chance against the pure black abyss that is the Emperor.”

    “The Force is not as malleable as it might be. It has strange feedback loops, a recursive nature. It will take a true champion of the light side, and the right conditions, to achieve a victory over this darkness now that it has taken hold,” she sighed, looking to the ruined ceiling. “In the Force, dark and light move in cycles, and on a timescale that does not calculate losses as we would.”

    “But if not for Moff Trachta-“ Taozin protested.

    “That was not a matter of chance,” the Jal Shey admonished. “I am sorry. I made you invisible to the Force, but you are not completely free of it.” She looked directly at him. “Take heart though, our efforts were not in vain.”

    The assassin stood silent, waiting for this explanation with deep skepticism.

    “Palpatine lives, yes, but he was grievously injured. The virus within has been subdued, but he will never truly be free of Aorth-6. Death will live within him forever, and the paranoia of this, combined with his brush with death, will eat at him for however many days remain. Eventually it will consume him utterly.”

    “Further, we drove Gentis to launch his coup. The loyalty of the officer corps to the Emperor has been poisoned mere months into his reign. The military needed to subdue the galaxy will never again know true loyalty to their lord. Fear and ambition will be the only means to contain them going forward. It will not suffice.”

    “We set out to break the foundation of the Empire. In this we failed, but we have riddled it with cracks.”

    And there is one other thing,” Nivi added, a bit of wicked sharpness returned to her frame. “We have deflected the Empire’s attention. Palpatine killed Gentis, but we were not with him. He does not know our location, but he knows how close we came. He will move every resource in the galaxy for the exclusive purpose of our destruction. I cannot evade his hunters forever, but his myopia will lead to the escape of many others.”

    “You can’t…” Taozin quickly picked up off the words she had chosen. “But what about-“

    “Our time together has come to an end, my friend,” Taozin froze, she’d never called him that before, not once. Her eyes were bottomless pools of sorrow. “I cannot escape them, but you, invisible to both the eyes of technology and the eyes of the Force, you have that power. And you must!” she stressed, words rising with energy. “My task is ending, but yours remains. You must teach them fear. Never, ever, let them forget that the Taozin hunts the dark side.”

    She paused, following a sharp intake of breath. “And there is one other thing.” Nivi pulled a small, soft-glowing object from within her armor. It was a pentagonal cylinder roughly the size of a fist. Crystalline in form, it radiated a soft turquoise light.

    A holocron – he recognized it instantly. “That’s not Belia Darzu’s” Taozin had barely seen the Sith artifact, but it had been pyramidal, and glowed a sickly red.

    “No,” Nivi offered a rare, unguarded smile. “It is mine.”

    The shock must have registered on the assassin’s face, but Nivi gave no sign of noticing.

    “I will have no chance to teach in person, but the Jal Shey must survive this darkness. I tried to lance it and failed, but I have seen that we must instead quarantine the spread of this pestilence. Find those who can learn to take up the path, rebuild our strength in the far reaches of the Rim where the hold of the Empire is tenuous.” She stared at him, rising to stand very close. “Will you do this for me?”

    “As there is no one else, I will accept this duty,” he acknowledged stiffly.

    Nivi pressed the holocron into his hands. “Take it then, and go. I do not want a long goodbye, and even now our enemies are hunting us.”

    Tears pooled in her eyes, but Taozin held to silence. He nodded only, knowing it was the end.

    Carefully he drew his body up, standing at parade ground attention, and offered the Jal Shey a salute.

    Then he activated his armor, vanished, and turned away.

    He was already planning to escape Coruscant by killing an inquisitor and taking his ship.

    * * *

    “Find me this Jal Shey! And bring her to me alive!” Palpatine’s voice returned echoes of its powerful oratory from his days as Supreme Chancellor, only distorted. “I will have the truth behind this virus Vader. Old legends are not enough. I will have all of it! You will relay this to all inquisitors and all commands; this is now the absolute priority.”

    Vader did not protest. He found that he was in complete agreement with his master, a true rarity. The things that woman had done… He did not believe for an instant that Gentis had eliminated her. “Yes, my master, I shall make certain they are suitably encouraged.”

    “I want no mistakes in this. They came too close,” the Emperor sneered. “I will not allow it to happen again.”

    “As you command,” Vader knew the woman would kill many of those whelps indoctrinated from the AgriCorps. It did not matter. No one could stand against the full might of the Empire for long.

    * * *

    Six months. Eight inquisitors. Fourteen star systems. Nivi knew the litany perfectly well, just as she knew it had at last run its course. She was at peace with it all. It had lasted far longer than she’d ever thought to manage.

    Torbin had moved heaven and earth to trap her here. He must have deployed a full legion of stormtroopers to hold her in place, and he had half a battlegroup interdicting the system. Nivi suspected that she was costing the Empire millions of credits for every hour she kept breathing.

    Whatever could be said of Laddinare Torbin, he’d made the key realization that the Emperor truly didn’t care about money.

    She would laugh at such blindness, were it not so morbid.

    “Jal Shey,” Torbin’s voice came over the turbolift intercom. “I am giving you this one chance to surrender yourself to Imperial custody. Submit, and you will be offered the chance to serve the Emperor in person.”

    Now Nivi did laugh, standing idly in the center of the stopped industrial platform. “Why don’t you come down here yourself Torbin? And I’ll tell you what happened to the last servant of the dark side to offer me a job.”

    “Enough of your mockery!” the intercom went dead. Booted feet thumped, vibrating the walls on all sides.

    They surrounded her in a ring, six men in dyed zeyd-cloth as red as the lightsabers they carried.

    “Six?” Nivi raised an eyebrow. Somehow she did not feel the slightest fear. It was time to rejoin the Force.

    They moved forward. Nivi gathered the energy within herself. She closed it down around the core of her being, eye shut, everything bound tight in a compact ball of the self.

    Then she let it go.

    A surge of energy flashed through the chamber. Lightsaber blades flashed, and then bent back, reeds in the wind, pressed down through the bodies of their wielders.

    Stormtrooper poured into the chamber within seconds. They found nothing but six bodies and an empty pile of armored robes in the center.

    “Sir, the security cameras show she just vanished instantly,” one of the stormtroopers radioed to Torbin.

    The high inquisitor came up shortly. He gathered up the Jal Shey’s clothes with a grim expression on his face. “Pursuit is over,” he declared, adding. “But the Emperor will not be pleased.”

    * * *

    Taozin saw the news report. It listed the death of a wanted Jedi bio-terrorist, a woman responsible for thousands of deaths in an attack on the Imperial palace. The report was filled with absurd propaganda, but there was no mistaking the mirrored eyes in the photo.

    “Well then Nivi,” he tapped the holocron’s resting place in his rifle harness. “It seems Palpatine wants to pretend the Jal Shey don’t exist. He’s going to regret that.”

    If what he had pulled out of news and rumor was to be believed, Nivi had taken six inquisitors with her, bringing her total to fourteen. Taozin was ten behind.

    The assassin tapped his rifle. He had some catching up to do.

  18. Mechalich

    Mechalich Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Feb 2, 2010

    I suppose doing this sort of thing is somewhat arrogant of me, but I tend to write a short piece regarding my thoughts on a work following its completion. In this case at least, due to the unusual nature of this piece, it seems appropriate.

    Cold Iron Mirror is not, truthfully, a stand-alone piece, but rather a companion piece to Star Wars: Darth Vader and the Ghost Prison. It was directly inspired by that work and serves in some way as my tribute to it. Being myself, of course that involves exploring a few key questions that were present in the original. In this case two in particular, both having struck me almost from the outset. They were: where in the galaxy did Gentis get a virus capable of driving Palpatine to the brink of death? and, how did he fail to foresee this coup coming, at least in part, since he foresaw just about everything else of significance regarding his own life? So I set out to answer both.

    The result seems, to me at least, to work within the framework already established. I borrowed the two key pieces: making Aorth-6 into a Sith invention, and Taozin's Force-invisibility from existing sources. There are several examples of dark side based plagues within canon, and of Sith Alchemists who could produce them, such as Darth Maladi. I chose to tie the history of Aorth-6 in with Belia Darzu because she dates from the gloriously open-ended New Sith Wars, and because she was already confirmed to have a holocron. As for Taozin, these are actual canon creatures and are fully invisible to the Force, they even have a full set of RPG statistics. It fit the needs of the tale very well.

    Taozin himself, is an interesting concept as a character, especially given he was a different person earlier in the story. In my view they are two separate, albeit very similar, people, which was an unusual thing to write. I made very careful choices with descriptors to create separation between the two identities, but I wasn't able to emphasize the differences quite as fully as I would have liked. Notably the confines of the story structure didn't give many chances to emphasize how inhuman Taozin really is, how casually he would choose to kill. Regardless it's a fun little thing to play around with.

    Of course the heart of the story is Nivi, this rather unusual Jal Shey woman. I made a lot of deliberate choices to make and keep her mysterious during the writing, such as never identifying her by species or really by age either (though in the latter case it reflects that a human observer cannot easily tell). I chose to make her a Jal Shey, and not a Jedi partly out of personal preference, adding yet another survivor to Order 66 gets tedious, but also because it fit the situation. The Jal Shey approach the Force intellectually, rather than religiously as the Jedi and most other traditions do, which seemed to make so much more sense given the whole death-by-virus plotline I was working with.

    It also gave me a lot of freedom to make things up. While there is a modest amount of description regarding the Jal Shey in the Knights of the Old Republic Campaign Guide, the principal source talking about them, they are otherwise almost entirely unknown, and their only appearance in the novels previously had been via a quote attribution. It was an interesting puzzle to take a group that is outwardly very similar to the Jedi, lightsabers, a reputation as diplomats, and the like, and try to produce differences. There are various hints scattered throughout, such as the nature of Nivi's powers – ex. she never once uses telekinesis - and hints at her philosophical outlook. As the piece developed I worked to leave hints that she had very much different beliefs regarding death than a Jedi would, among various other factors.

    I didn't get to tackle the matter of the Jal Shey philosophy head-on, because Nivi was already trained and assured in her beliefs, and Taozin simply wasn't the type to pry into them or even really care. The best way to reveal the secrets of the Force are through training sequences, and that simply wasn't part of this piece.

    Originally that was something, along with Taozin's survival and the general fate of the Jal Shey during the Dark Times and perhaps even beyond, I was looking to explore in subsequent works, but I really don't think that's going to happen now. With the Episode VII announcement the fate of the existing continuity has been thrown into extreme jeopardy and I am disinclined to build sandcastles with the tide rushing in, so any expansion of this idea is put indefinitely on hold.

    Anyway, anyone who read Cold Iron Mirror and enjoyed it, or not, is encouraged to leave any and all comments or questions.
  19. Kahara

    Kahara Chosen One star 4

    Mar 3, 2001
    Okay, I read this a week or two ago and (as usual with my comments on your stories), this will hardly do justice to the intricacy of the writing. There is always something cool that I noticed while reading and forget to mention.

    There is a very distinctive overall feel to this that really captures the sense of that new-Empire era. The anonymous qualities of both Nivi and Taozin really add to that -- reading it, I was struck with the feeling that they were not just themselves, but kind of symbolic characters -- archetypes or whatever the right term would be -- for the experiences of so many others in that time. They really seem to bear that weight of knowing that there are uncounted thousands of people like them, malcontents who no longer have a place but by all that's holy or unholy they will go down fighting.

    Nivi's insistence that it be remembered that it was a Jal Shey and not a Jedi, Taozin's new name, they are keyed to the individuals that they are but also kind of make them into characters of folklore. Maybe that's what I'm thinking of more than archetypes. They seem destined to end up like Robin Hood -- possibly historical, mostly surrounded by fabrications, defined by symbols and odd bits of reality that no one really understands later. On a vaguely related note, I liked that we never learned Nivi's species. There have to be a lot of species that just aren't common enough to be easily identified.

    I like the subtleness of Nivi's Jal Shey background. It comes out in little bits and pieces instead of a whole explanation of "this is what the Jal Shey are about." We just get to see the edges of their training as lived by a very reserved and careful woman who doesn't tend to overshare. Actually, given some of her brief references to how they related to the Jedi, I wondered if that was a part of their social upbringing. "We're not like the Jedi, we don't impress our values upon others -- or discuss them unless absolutely necessary." As a side note, I couldn't help comparing what I could pick out about the Jal Shey with your interpretation of the Zeison Sha (have you posted that one here?) It was interesting and amusing to see that they both had their beef with the Jedi, but in different ways and degrees. Nivi's attitude seems to be more annoyed resignation to the Jedi having more influence, rather than outright angry resentment.

    I also did catch the reference to her beliefs about what happens after death. Very intriguing. Reincarnation or something else? It hints that the Jal Shey are not necessarily a more secular order, but then she did mention they were concerned by the "religiosity" of the Jedi. That has me wondering if their afterlife beliefs are based on something that followed their interpretation of whatever scientific studies they must have done regarding the Force. So of course, their religion would be based on fact. From a certain point of view. Then again, I could be way off.

    Taozin's development throughout the story was also well done, though I was never sure of how much his psychology was actually transformed. Mainly, we just hear him talk about it. He's a cold-blooded killer before, and remains somewhat honorable (for a given value) afterwards, even being willing to ensure Nivi's last wishes are carried out. So while he and Nivi notice a definite trend towards the uncanny, he doesn't seem to really make that full change to utter sociopathy that your author's notes imply (if I interpreted them right.) He was oddly sympathetic in spite of his, well, defining personality traits.

    The shadow zombie-infested Sith planet was grotesque and interesting. The presentation of the plague and its victims was definitely creepy, and the way the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Sith spirits played against Nivi and Taozin was fascinating to read. I had guessed that the main characters would survive somehow because "eaten by zombies" didn't seem like a natural conclusion to the plot. I mean, they had an Emperor to fail to kill. ;) On the other hand, I was unsure until the end of the confrontation how they would manage it.

    Nivi's duel with Vader was really interesting and I liked that she didn't fight anything like what he was used to. It was cool to see the Jal Shey using some unconventional techniques that were possibly unique to her order (also in earlier sections -- the part with the gene sequencing before they tried the experimental stuff on Taozin was a fantastic image.)

    The ending was good and seemed fitting to the rest of the story. It was dark without crossing the line into being a total downer. There's something satisfying about the idea of the Emperor's servants having their own personal bogeyman -- and the reader knows why he is what he is, but they possibly haven't a clue.