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Beyond - Legends Empire of Ashes (RotJ-DE bridge story; Isard, Carnor Jax, Ken, many more)

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction- Before, Saga, and Beyond' started by cthugha, Feb 28, 2020.

  1. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Why did Palpatine take so long to return after Endor? Whatever happened to Ken, the Jedi Prince? Who are all of those Dark Side Adepts that pop up in Dark Empire but are never seen anywhere else? And how, in all seven Corellian hells, did Palpatine manage to turn Luke frigging Skywalker to the Dark Side?
    This story tries to answer those questions, and plenty more besides. It's the story I've wanted to see ever since reading the Thrawn Trilogy and Dark Empire back to back. As that never happened, and now the EU is in cryosleep, I figured I'd just write it myself.

    "Empire of Ashes" will consist of three parts: one focusing on Palpatine and his dissolving Empire (4-6 ABY), the second on Ken and Ederlathh Pallopides (6-9 ABY), and the third on Palpatine and Luke before and during Dark Empire itself. Two thirds of volume 1 plus bits and pieces of the other two are already written, and I plan to post a chapter every few days until summer.


    ***

    Prologue: A Galaxy of Fear

    "Help! Help! Help!" a tinny voice sounded from the cockpit.

    Tash Arranda pushed herself forward through the Shroud's corridor, her hair tangled from sleeping. Silently cursing the Imperial attack that had taken out their gravity generator, she grabbed the next handhold and slapped the release for the hatch.

    "Help! Help!"

    "What's wrong, Deevee?" Tash asked the silver-plated research droid who was hanging from the ceiling, its feet mag-clamped to the only place that did not have any control switches or displays on it. "What happened?"

    "I am merely translating the incoming message," DV-9 said, indicating the blinking light on the communications console. "It is a weak optical signal, not a standard distress call, but I believe…"

    "Where is it coming from?" Tash asked, ducking under the droid's hanging frame and pulling herself into the copilot's chair. "Is it another Rebel ship?"

    They had barely escaped from the ice world of Hoth when the Empire had attacked the Rebel base there. Tash, her brother Zak and their uncle Hoole had joined the Rebellion only a few weeks earlier, hoping to make a difference in the galaxy; but since then, it seemed that their troubles had only increased.

    "What is it?" a sleepy voice asked from behind her. It was Zak, his pajamas floating awkwardly around his lanky limbs. "Have the Imperials found us?"

    "No, look!" Tash pulled up the readings on the screen. "It's another ship, but it doesn't seem to be coming from Hoth. And they're calling for help!"

    "It could be a trap," Zak cautioned, gliding down into the seat next to her and creasing his forehead in a deep frown. "Can we see what kind of ship it is? Maybe if we turn on the active sensors…"

    "Do not activate the active sensors," their uncle's gravelly voice came from behind them, startling them both. "If you do, the Imperials will detect us here for sure. Remember that we are only alive because we managed to play dead - and we don't know how much of the Imperial fleet is still in the system."

    "But we can't just leave them out there!" Tash protested. "Imagine if it was us calling for help!"

    "The signal is getting weaker," DV-9 informed them. "Based on the red shift in the optical rays, I anticipate that the source will be moving behind the sun of the system - and thus, out of our reach - within nine to ten minutes."

    "Can we send a reply?" Tash asked. "To find out more about…"

    "Do not send a reply," uncle Hoole cut her off. "Zak, get out of my chair."

    "But uncle…"

    "Shh. Let me think." Hoole bent over the navigation console, frowning deeply. "There. This could work. Deevee, if you would check this for me, please."

    The droid bent over the astrogation chart. "With all due respect, Master Hoole, this does seem rather risky. If we are off by even half an arc-second, we could fall into the sun!"

    "But it could work," Zak said, looking over Hoole's shoulder.

    "Let's do it," Tash agreed.

    A minute later they were down in the airlock, despite Deevee's protests. "This spacesuit is getting smaller," Tash commented as she checked her seals.

    "No, you're just getting bigger." Zak put on his helmet and turned to Tash, who laughed. His eyes still barely reached the bottom of the face plate - the same way Tash's had only a few months ago. "Don't worry," she said, patting him on the shoulder. "You'll get your growth spurts too."

    "Ready?" uncle Hoole's voice sounded through the comm.

    Tash clicked her own helmet in place. It fit perfectly now. "Ready," she and Zak said at the same time.

    "Remember, you have to stop after exactly two minutes and eight seconds, no more, no less," Hoole reminded them. "And if you spot any Imperial ships…"

    "Break off. We know, uncle Hoole."

    "Good luck, then." Behind them, the inner airlock whirred closed - and a moment later, the outer one opened like a wide dark eye.

    Tash had never liked being in space like this, with only a thin layer of plastic between her and the vacuum. It made her feel how big space really was, and how easy it was to get lost somewhere in that endless black void. The little bubbles of ships and planetary atmospheres that were hospitable to humans seemed so insignificant compared to this deadly enormity…

    "Tash?" her brother asked. "You ready?"

    "Uh," she said, quickly planting her feet where uncle Hoole had told them to and mag-clamping them in place. "Yeah. Now."

    "Take my hand."

    Linking their hands through the bulky suit felt awkward, but it still helped pull her out of the black eternity and back into reality. "On my mark," Zak said, squinting at the display inside his helmet. "Three - two - one - go."

    With a press of their hands, they activated their suits' maneuvering thrusters. Pressurized gas hissed out of the top of their EV backpacks, pushing them down against the Shroud's hull - and, because they were standing firm, slowly pushing the drifting starship down towards the sun.

    The acceleration was slow at first - hopefully slow enough not to show up on any Imperial sensors as more than the drift of a piece of wreckage. Activating their sublight engines would light up the sensor board of any Star Destroyer near the system, but the cold release of gases from their suits was almost imperceptible except from up close.

    At least in theory. Still, Tash kept nervously scanning the darkness all around them for signs of a ship, a TIE Fighter or even the ominous triangle of a Star Destroyer.

    "Gosh, this is slow," Zak complained next to her. He had placed his feet wide apart on the hull for balance, like a fighter in a grav-boxing arena.

    "You know you don't have to push the ship down with your knees though, right?" she said, smiling at her little brother's intensity.

    "Sure feels like I have to," he grunted. "How are we ever going to catch up with them this way?"

    He got his answer soon enough. At first it was hard to tell without a point of reference - the planet Hoth was barely a speck in the distance, and the Imperial blockade surrounding it invisible at this distance - but by the time Hoole told them to switch off their thrusters, they could feel the acceleration in their limbs.

    "It's like we're riding this ship down towards the sun," Zak said, his eyes shining with excitement now. "How much faster do you think we'll…"

    "Exponentially faster," uncle Hoole advised over the comm. "Fast enough that it's going to rip you out of your mag boots unless you get back in here in the next one and a half minutes."

    "Oh. Shame," Zak said. "Come on then, Tash… Tash?"

    But Tash was not paying attention. She was staring towards the sun of the Hoth system - the sun, and the ship that was drifting behind it.

    She could feel it now through the Force, getting stronger with every second they closed in on it. And what she felt was pain. Pain that invaded every fiber of her body. Pain so deep it threatened to overwhelm her, even at this distance.

    She dimly felt her brother pulling at her hand, heard him shouting her name; then everything went black.


    ***


    They got her back into the ship just in time, thanks to Deevee's help in figuring out how to deactivate her mag boots remotely. She was still unconscious when they pulled alongside the ship that had sent the distress signal; Hoole and Zak had strapped her into the copilot's chair for safekeeping.

    The ship looked like a box sitting atop a huge X of durasteel girders, with the engines mounted at the ends of the cross. "It's the cockpit module of a cargo hauler," Hoole explained. "Usually there would be containers fastened to the cross, up to twenty of them."

    "Maybe they were attacked by pirates," Zak speculated. "Deevee, are they still broadcasting the distress signal?"

    "Yes. It is still only that one word, 'help, help, help'..."

    "Alright, enough," Hoole shut him up. "There are some status lights still visible along their flank, so their generator should still be up, but I can't see inside… They must have closed the bulkheads in front of the viewport." He got up from his seat with an abruptness that nearly made him slam his head into the ceiling due to the lack of gravity. "I'll have to go over there and see what's wrong."

    Suddenly Tash stirred in her seat. "No," she groaned. Her voice sounded strained, and like it came from a long distance away. "Don't… don't go there!"

    "What?" Zak and Hoole said simultaneously. "Tash, are you alright?" Zak added.

    "No," she ground out between clenched teeth. "I feel… the people in there, three of them, I think…"

    "You feel them? Through the Force?" Zak had always been a little jealous of his sister's connection to the Force, even after he had found out that he was a little Force-sensitive himself. But in this moment, he did not envy her at all.

    "Something's… something…" Tash broke off and let out a sudden wail, digging her fingers into her messy hair. Zak pulled himself closer and grabbed her wrists on instinct; he wanted to help her, but he just did not know how.

    "The transmission has stopped," Deevee said. "It seems they are no longer calling for help."

    Zak pressed his forehead against his sister's, as if he could read her thoughts this way. His legs were drifting awkwardly above the controls, but he didn't care. "Tash," he whispered. "Come back."

    She abruptly opened her eyes, and the fear Zak could see in them cut deep into his heart. "Something is eating them," she murmured. "From inside. And… it knows we're here. It's looking forward to… a fresh meal."


    ***


    "I must point out again," DV-9 said, "that I am hardly qualified for this mission. I am a research droid, not a search-and-rescue specialist. Why, the Cybot HRR series was developed over decades to serve just that single yet delicate purpose…"

    "We don't have any retrieval droids," Hoole said curtly as he fastened the final strap of the EV pack around Deevee's abdomen. "And your most important qualification here is that you don't have any flesh for whatever it is over there to chew on."

    Before the droid could protest again, Hoole maneuvered its floating metal form into the airlock. "Treat it as a research expedition," he said before activating the lock. "Who knows what you'll find over there?"

    "That is hardly reass…" DV-9 began, but he was cut off by the swoosh of the air being sucked out into space. Moments later, the silver droid was tumbling through space between the two small ships.

    Zak and Tash watched from the cockpit as he stabilized using the backpack thrusters, just in time before hitting the hull of the freighter. When the droid started fumbling with the hatch, Zak turned to look at his sister. "How are you holding up?"

    "I… I think I've managed to shut them out, at least a little," she said. Her eyes were puffy and red from crying, a stark contrast with her unnaturally pale face. "Or maybe they are just getting weaker… dying," she added darkly.

    "Let's just wait what Deevee finds out, okay?" The droid had gotten the hatch open now and was clumsily climbing inside. "Should I do your hair in the meanwhile?"

    Tash looked up at him. "Would you?"

    "Sure." Zak pushed himself away from the console to get a hair band, careful not to flip any switches.

    They listened to Deevee's broadcast while Zak was busy taming his sister's hair. "The emergency lights are on, as is minimal life support. No artificial gravity. From the debris floating around, it looks like this ship was a family operation… there are toys, some kind of model spacecraft, hair…"

    "Hair?" Zak asked.

    "Does that mean there are children aboard?" Hoole said from behind him.

    "Just a strand of blond hair with… oh. There seems to be some skin attached to it," the droid said, to Zak's horror. "Most likely human."

    "The crew, Deevee," Hoole reminded him. "Where are the people?"

    "I am moving towards the cockpit, Master Hoole. My heat sensors indicate… oh, my."

    "What is it, Deevee?" Zak asked, his heart pounding furiously. "What do you see?"

    "I found the crew," the droid said, its voice steady as only a droid's could be. "It is indeed a family of three. Or I should say, it was. A mother with boy and girl about your age, Masters Arranda… and they're all dead."

    "No," Tash said soundlessly.

    "It seems they only died very recently, though," Deevee went on. "Their bodies are still losing heat. And there is some odd movement…"

    "Deevee, watch out!" Tash called. "They're still alive!"

    "I assure you, their body temperature…"

    "Not the people!" Tash had sat up straight in her seat, so that Zak had to let go of her half-finished braid. "The things inside them!"

    Deevee's only answer was a terrified screech.


    ***


    They watched the video from DV-9's camera multiple times while the droid drifted along outside the ship. Deevee had plugged his data cable into a jack on the Shroud's exterior; they had not wanted to risk a transmission beyond the narrow-band audio feed with the Imperials still snooping around the system. But they had also agreed not to let Deevee back into the Shroud before they knew exactly what had killed the Keefes.

    Because that, Deevee had found out by going through the ship's logs, was the name of the family that had owned it - and had died on it. Melia Keefe, her daughter Lora and her son Pameen, out of Pedducis Chorios in the Meridian sector.

    "They're a long way from home," Hoole said.

    "Apparently their nav computer was damaged in the pirate attack that cost them their cargo," DV-9 supplied via the cable connection. "It seems they were trying to get to Talcene or somewhere further Coreward…"

    "Instead they ended up here," Hoole finished, his Shi'ido eyes narrowing suspiciously. "Halfway across the galaxy."

    "After a months-long series of increasingly erratic hyperspace jumps. Eventually their hyperdrive motivator must have burned out somewhere around…"

    Tash stopped listening. She was watching the video, the one that showed what remained of the Keefe family after their lonely odyssey. Space was so big, she thought again, and there were so many ways for people to get lost in the voids between stars - and yet trouble and terror always seemed to find her, and Zak, and their uncle Hoole. Like it had found the Keefes, wherever they'd been going.

    They had embraced in the moment of death, apparently. It looked almost peaceful, the way they were floating there in the cramped cockpit, a bundle of quickly draining human warmth… that is, until their skin began to boil.

    "They were waiting," Tash said weakly, referring to the small creatures that were burrowing out of the corpses' skin on the screen. "They were biding their time inside them, carefully keeping their hosts alive for as long as they could. It was only when they felt us coming, when they sensed new potential hosts in the vicinity, that they finished them."

    "They ate them?" Zak asked, his face a mask of terror.

    "Drained them of their life force," Tash nodded. "Sucked them dry."

    Zak shuddered.

    "It is odd," Deevee commented, "but the progression of the illness you describe, together with the symptoms I witnessed" - Tash almost thought she could hear a tremor in the droid's voice at that - "all sound curiously similar to a plague that wiped out most of Meridian sector centuries ago…"

    "Nonsense, Deevee," Hoole cut the droid off irritably. "The Death Seed plague had nothing to do with parasites. You'd do better to figure out how we can get you conclusively sterilized - you, and the Keefe's Needle both."

    "The ship as well?" Deevee asked. "But Master Hoole, what do you plan to do with a dilapidated cargo hauler such as this?"

    Hoole, who had been watching and rewatching the video on his own datapad, pushed himself further into the cockpit and turned the screen so it could be seen by Tash and Zak - and DV-9, who was floating just outside the window.

    "Fix the hyperdrive," he said, pointing out a small segment of a still image that he had highlighted and magnified. "And then go to Paradise."


    ***


    They connected the Shroud to the Keefe's Needle by two lines: one tether and one data cable that Deevee plugged into the external access port, moving even more gingerly than usual as if afraid the ship might hurt him if he even got too close.

    He took cover on the far side of the Shroud after that, while Zak went to work slicing into the freighter's computer systems. They were easily breached, to his relief.

    The next step was harder.

    "Goodbye, Melia Keefe," Tash said, taking her brother's hand. "Goodbye Lora. Goodbye Pameen."

    Zak activated the airlock override. It took some time for all the loose junk floating around inside the boxy ship to blow out of the hole, and at the distance he was not even sure if he actually saw the bodies; but eventually Deevee's sensors confirmed that the Keefe's Needle was empty of anything that had not been tied down.

    They watched the small cloud of debris drifting towards the sun until their eyes hurt. "And good riddance, creepy flesh parasites," Zak mumbled.

    Then he deactivated the Needle's reactor shielding, and for the next hour they simply watched the readouts on their screens showing the ship bathing in radiation. "That should do it," uncle Hoole finally said. "Deevee, do you feel up to going back in now?"

    "It is not a question of feelings, master Hoole," the droid said. "It was a question of risk. As to your question, I am indeed ready to go in as soon as master Arranda reactivates the reactor shield."

    This time, Deevee took the cable with him so they could watch his progress through the ship. It looked the same way it felt through the Force now: empty. Empty of life, whether human or parasitic or bacterial, and empty of almost anything the Keefes had owned.

    Except for the tokens.

    They were still stuck to the viewscreen where Hoole had spotted them in Deevee's first recording, held in place by a telltale blob of purple glue. "Don't even try to pull them off," Hoole told the droid over the comm. "That's Covalga resin; Meridian spacers love this stuff. Gets near unbreakable once it's dry, but sprinkle a bit of snekfruit juice on it and it goes soft as putty."

    "Do we have any snekfruit juice?" Zak asked.

    "Not yet. But we will get some." Uncle Hoole rose out of his seat and stretched, the tension of the last few hours visibly falling off him. "The two of you will need time to prepare anyway."

    Tash felt a strange pulling in her heart as they put on their space suits and crossed over to the ship that was going to be their new home. While Zak and their uncle went to work on the hyperdrive, she made her way through the family's living quarters and into the cockpit.

    The tokens were square and surprisingly thick pieces of yellow duraplast, each about as large as her palm. They looked identical except for the serial numbers engraved on the side, but Tash knew that each of them contained an unforgeable identity chip containing the name and personal details of its owner.

    There were three tokens, one for each of the Keefes. The Aurebesh letter Peth was inscribed twice on each of them, once mirrored and once the right way around. Nobody was completely sure what it meant; some said it was short for "Palpatine's Property", but most people just assumed that it stood for the place the tokens allowed you to go.

    Paradise Planet.

    Everyone in the Empire knew about the lottery, but up until that point Tash had always assumed it was merely another one of the Emperor's propaganda tools. What better way to stifle discontent than to tell anyone they, too, had the chance to escape it all, to go live on the fabled - and top-secret - paradise world? According to the stories spread by COMPNOR, the Empire's ideology wing, lots were drawn randomly from the lists of all registered, law-abiding Imperial citizens. The winners were allowed to decline, but few did, if the HoloNet reports were to be believed. Millions of common people from all over the galaxy, it was said, had already taken the chance and gone to Paradise, a planet so beautiful the Empire kept its location hidden so it could never be touched by strife or war.

    Of course Tash, along with her brother and uncle Hoole, suspected there was more to this than the COMPNOR-controlled media let on. When Hoole had recognized the tokens in the video, he had immediately understood that this might be the best chance they - or the Rebel Alliance - would ever have to find out the truth about this mystery world.

    "Atmosphere restored," Deevee called from where he was working on the utility spine of the ship. "Heating restored. Stand by for gravity."

    Tash quickly reached for a handhold and planted her feet on the floor. Something clattered and Tash heard Zak curse back in the engine room; but to her, the feeling of weight and direction actually came as a relief after all this floating around.

    She took off her gloves first, feeling the cool air on her skin; then her helmet and the rest of the bulky suit. Stretching, she pulled her long blond braid over her shoulder, stroking it for what might be the final time. Lora Keefe had worn her hair short, like most spacers; and Tash would have to become Lora Keefe.

    "Tash?" her brother's voice called twice, once through the comm in the space suit and once through the air. "We could use your help back here."

    "Sure, wait a second." On instinct, Tash reached out to touch the token that had belonged to Lora. It was hers now, her ticket to the best-kept mystery in the Empire.

    The shudder that went through her when her fingertips brushed across the letters engraved in it was deeper and more full of foreboding than anything she had ever felt. And that - was that laughter in the back of her head? A mad cackle, like spines cracking…

    "Tash?" Zak called again.

    "Right. Sorry!" She pulled her fingers back with an effort of will, staring at them as if expecting them to be burned. "I'm coming!"

    Whatever was waiting for them at the end of their journey, she told herself to still her beating heart, she would not have to face it alone. Zak would be there with her, and together they could get through anything.

    But still the dark laughter would not stop echoing through her bones...
     
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  2. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Paradise Planet


    Anger.

    It was the first thing the Emperor felt when he awoke, and he embraced it.

    He was floating, immersed in a green liquid, semi-organic tubes running into his mouth and nostrils, pulsating softly. He ripped them out with an impatient gesture, embracing the pain in his throat as well. Pain was nothing, a mere side-effect of being alive.

    Alive!

    He gathered his anger to himself. Anger at Vader, the weakling, who had turned traitor in the moment of their greatest triumph. Anger at Vader's son, who could have surpassed his father in strength but instead chose to suffer rather than strike him down.

    His anger was strong enough to shatter the glass wall of his cloning tank. It would have shattered the walls of the room as well, the citadel, even the thin crust of the planet it stood on; but he preserved it.

    Anger, the Emperor knew, was a valuable resource. It grew as one held on to it; it festered, fermented and grew in intensity until, in the hands of the wise, it could tear through the very fabric of reality.

    The Emperor stood, green slime dripping from his limbs and chin. Oh, he had much to be angry about. A whole Empire of failures and incompetents; a galaxy filled to the brim with fools.

    He would deal with them later. First he had to take possession of his home.


    ***


    The Citadel that Palpatine had commissioned as his private retreat was not so much a building as a needle of hardened ceramics and durasteel, stuck as deep into the planet as it rose above it. At its very bottom, heat-resistant tubes and feelers tapped into the liquid mantle, feeding magma and energy into the laboratory caverns above. And when the Emperor stepped out on its highest terrace to survey his dominion, he stood so far above the atmosphere that he could see it curving away in the distance, clouds glinting near the terminator where the sunlight gave way to night, and two of the planet's five moons rising beyond its hazy edge.

    Inside that thin layer of breathable gases below him, hundreds of millions of people were living, breeding and dying; but at this moment, the Emperor did not spare them even a single thought. They were part of the infrastructure, not any more worthy of his attention than the food processors or the turbolifts. Instead, Palpatine threw back the cowl of the black robe he had donned and raised his head to look towards the stars.

    They were his, all of them, whether the people circling them realized it or not.

    He had chosen the planet of Byss as his retreat, not because of its warm and stable climate, nor even for its seclusion here in the Deep Core, where newborn stars and merging stellar clusters were whipping up space-time into a near-impassable froth. He was the Emperor; he could have hidden any world from view if he so chose. He had selected Byss because from here, he could take in almost the whole of his dominion with a sweep of his head.

    Lesser beings than him would have been dazzled by the abundance of light from the masses of stars nearby; but Palpatine knew them for the pinpricks they really were. His senses stretched out through the vast gulfs between them to touch the lives bustling beyond. Trillions upon trillions of beings, each with their own parochial dreams and goals, flitting about in ignorance from Kokash to Loedorvia, from Bastion to Bakura.

    Once, Palpatine had tried to rule them all. He chuckled, now, at his youthful idealism. They did not deserve to be ruled.

    This time, he was going to consume them.
     
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  3. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Scattered Limbs (1/2)



    Sarcev Quest strode through the corridors of the Imperial Palace, desperately trying to think of anything but murder.

    Your thoughts betray you, he had heard Palpatine say often enough; and standing next to his throne, watching his enemies crumble before him, it had always been clear to Quest that this was not a trick. But just now he had felt the Emperor, who should have been dead for eight months, invade his own mind for the first time - and it chilled him to the bone.

    Think of anything. Anything else.

    He made himself focus on his surroundings. The Palace felt empty these days; back before Endor, the Grand Corridor would have been bustling with activity even at this time of night. Now there were only a couple of concubines favored by members of the Ruling Council lounging under a Ch'hala tree, their voices drawing ripples on the bark, and a confused aide carrying datapads back and forth. Sure, the Ruling Council was making more noise than ever, Ysanne Isard was spinning her webs of intrigue from her new office up in the main tower, and the old factotum Ars Dangor was probably sitting in an office somewhere, busily trying to keep things together on the administrative front. But most of the Moffs had withdrawn their representatives to the territories they controlled - there was even talk of them forming their own governing body to sideline the Ruling Council altogether - and more and more traitors like Admiral Banjeer were taking their assets to join the various warlords splintering off from the Empire. Even Roganda, who had known no home but the Palace since her teenage years, had absconded to parts unknown, taking Irek with her.

    Oddly, Quest realized, it was the children he missed the most. While they had been a nuisance more often than not - especially after that Pallopides brat had discovered the crawlspaces behind the walls and shown Irek - they also struck him as a symbol of stability. The Imperial Palace might have been the most dangerous place in the galaxy, as Lord Vader had once famously said; but as long as children lived there, it could not be completely hellish.

    The children were gone now, and this hell was getting hotter by the minute.

    Quest lengthened his strides, biting down on the dark thoughts that were bubbling up again. As if Isard's constant surveillance wasn't bad enough, now he had to avoid even thinking treachery. How was a man supposed to work like this?

    His path cut right into the center of the Imperial Palace, to a place everybody knew existed but that did not show up on any of the maps. Most called it the Imperial Sanctum, but recently some members of the Ruling Council had been referring to it as "Pestage's Lair" instead. A single Royal Guard was posted next to the entrance, clad all in crimson except for a black hem at the bottom of his robes and the black-painted faceplate.

    "Carnor Jax," Quest greeted him, observing the guard closely. Was it possible he had felt the same thing Quest had? "I need to see Pestage."

    "The Grand Vizier asked not to be disturbed," Jax replied, but he did not raise his weapon. Instead, he seemed to be studying Quest with the same intensity the other was him. This was the crucible, Quest realized, suddenly wishing he had brought his lightsaber. This night would decide all of their futures.

    "I would think," he said carefully, "the Grand Vizier is quite disturbed already. It is, shall we say, an exceptional situation?"

    Carnor Jax inclined his head. "That it is." So he knows. "But will the Grand Vizier see it the same way?"

    "Only one way to find out."

    "True." The guard touched the tip of his lance to a spot on the wall, and the door irised open.

    Behind it was not so much a room as a wide shaft, its depth emphasized by white fluted columns along its walls. Steps ran down from the door to a long platform that stretched all the way to the center of the shaft, where it seemed to hover in mid-air. This had been Palpatine's meditation chamber; now it housed a deranged clown.

    The man who thought he was Sate Pestage stood at the very end of the platform, hunched over a hologram. He flinched and turned his head at the sound of Quest's footsteps. "I said," he snarled at him from under his purple hood, "I was not to be disturbed…"

    "My apologies, Grand Vizier," Quest said without breaking his stride. "It is urgent."

    Pestage squirmed like a cornered hive rat. "Is it the Council? Are they moving against me? Isard promised…"

    "The Council is sleeping." Quest cast a glance at the hologram, which showed the tactical situation in Hevvrol sector, where the Rebels were making an advance. So he has no idea.

    "Then what…" Pestage retreated to the edge of the platform as Quest closed in on him.

    "I've been wanting to do this for a while," Quest said and pushed him off.

    Pestage screeched as he fell, his purple robes flapping around him. When he neared the bottom of the shaft, Quest jumped after him.

    While everyone in the Imperial Court knew about the Sanctum, no one except a select few knew that the bottom of this shaft, running straight down the geometric center of the Palace, was the only entrance to a set of chambers hidden underground. Those were marked on the maps, but as irradiated cooling caverns for the supplementary reactor, ensuring no one would ever try to venture there.

    Winds ripped at Quest's clothes, but soon enough he was caught in the gentle embrace of a repulsor field. It slowed him down just enough to land gently next to Pestage, who was gathering himself up huffing and fuming with indignation. "What is this?" he demanded.

    "Your birthplace," Quest said. "Come on. This way." He could have gone alone, but he wanted to be sure no traps had been installed since he'd last been here - and to keep an eye on the notoriously unstable Grand Vizier. Pushing the man ahead of him, he made his way past a number of doorways marked with Sith symbols - the Chamber of Learning, the Chamber of Weapons and so forth - until they reached the one called the Chamber of Life.

    It housed six cloning cylinders, three to each side. Four of them were empty; one held a middle-aged woman with black-and-white hair; and the last one was dark, the liquid inside it cloudy rather than shining with a faint green light like the others.

    Quest breathed a sigh of relief, then turned to Pestage who was looking around in bewilderment. "Is that Isard?" he asked, pointing at the floating woman.

    "Her clone," Quest said. "The one behind her was yours. You were decanted early, though, hence the…" - he made a gesture at the clone's head - "the side-effects." The real Sate Pestage had taken off right after Endor to try and find the Emperor's spirit, which he'd been confident had to have survived somewhere out there. Quest had not shared his optimism, but he had promised to support Pestage's clone for the duration. "Seems like your original succeeded after all," he told the clone, who was still sputtering. "I guess that makes you obsolete." Without waiting for a reply, he shoved the wizened old man back up the corridor, then pulled him along as the repulsors automatically reversed to help them float up to the platform. With a casual wipe of his hand, he erased the Grand Vizier's memory of the last few minutes, then strode away from him without looking back.

    Pestage was irrelevant. Palpatine had returned - on Byss, most likely, unless he had other secret haunts Quest didn't know - and there was no telling what he would do, how many people were aware of his return, and when he would intrude into Quest's mind again.

    He would have to adjust his plans accordingly - and he would have to be very, very careful.


    ***


    A few kilometers due south and up, Ambassador Sa-Di of Pendari was entertaining guests from Sarrish who had never before seen a city larger than the skyhook they were in. Standing in the transparisteel observation bubble attached to the belly of the floating platform, they were so entranced by the dancing lights of Coruscant sky traffic that they barely noticed their host faltering for a moment before he caught himself.

    Handing his bulb of Elba to a serving droid hovering next to him, he looked across the bright mess of the cityscape towards the horizon. They said that it was never truly night on Coruscant, which also meant you could never properly see the stars; but then, Sa-Di's perception was not limited to his human senses. He could feel them out there, burning - and one in particular, burning brighter than all the others.

    Not a star. A man. The man.

    His master.

    "If you will excuse me for a moment," he told his guests. They bowed, wide-eyed and blithely ignorant of the cosmic event that had just happened, far away. "I need to schedule a journey."


    ***


    That night, Mara Jade had gone to bed without fear for the first time in a long while.

    Granted, it was not much of a bed - more like a piece of industrial foam under a tarp outside a warehouse. And sure, one reason she had had fallen asleep so quickly had been sheer exhaustion after battling yet another hunter sent by Isard to recapture her - some Sith witch this time, who had taken her lightsaber but then suddenly broken off the attack as if confused. Mara had watched her leave the planet before rejoining the swoop gang she had joined to stay afloat here in Doolis.

    But more importantly, she had been able to close her eyes that night without fearing the dream. It had been coming less and less often since she had destroyed the Black Nebula base at Qiaxx, fulfilling her master's last command. That is, the last command the Emperor had given her in person…

    The reprieve lasted until the early hours of local morning. Mara's scream echoed all across the suburbs, startling the urban wildlife and most of the squatters, gangsters and thrillseekers there.

    Those who did not know Mara waited if there was more to come, then turned over when there wasn't, one hand or flipper on their blaster just in case. Those who did know her also knew better than to bother her.

    By the time she was finally awake, bathed in sweat, Mara was all but ready to put her lightsaber to her temple and press the activation switch. The dream had never been as strong, as hateful since the day of Endor, and it had almost destroyed her then.

    But her lightsaber was not there. The Sith woman had ripped it from her hand with her lightwhip, then taken it with her as she ascended to the sky.

    And Mara knew that she would not have done it anyway. As much as she tried not to, she knew. Mara Jade, the dead Emperor's Hand, could not die by her own hand until that, too, was accomplished.

    YOU WILL KILL LUKE SKYWALKER!


    ***


    Luke Skywalker was on holiday.

    He had resisted, at first. With the war against the Empire raging on multiple fronts, external threats like the Ssi-ruuk or the Nagai trying to take advantage of the confusion, and the responsibility of restoring the Jedi order resting on his shoulders, this was no time for him to take a break, he had insisted. But Mon Mothma had been adamant, and Leia had done her part to help change his mind. "You told me fear and hate lead to the Dark Side," she said, "but looking at you, I'd almost think exhaustion could do the job as well."

    "We will need you at your full strength for the coming challenges," Mon Mothma had added. "For now, you can leave the war to Ackbar and Nantz and the rest of the fleet."

    And so he had come here, to the derelict Temple of the Woolamander deep in the jungles of Yavin IV. With only Artoo-Detoo for company, he had spent most of the day meditating, and practiced his telekinesis skills by clearing some of the loose rubble out of the temple. Now he was sleeping on a bed of rushes in one of the cleared-out passages, watched over faithfully by his Artoo.

    R2-D2 agreed with the women that his master sorely needed rest. He had seen firsthand what could happen to a human as a result of constant stress and trauma. So he had asked a friendly Emdee droid at the headquarters to supply him with some medication that, in that droid's expert opinion, would help Master Luke relax in case he did not manage by himself.

    Luke Skywalker stirred in his sleep. That in itself was not unusual, but Artoo put himself a state of heightened preparedness just in case. When the Jedi started to tense up, twitch, and draw in a desperate breath as if drowning, Artoo was ready: extending one manipulator arm, he planted a diffusion syringe right in the center of his master's forehead, releasing a dose of soporific chemicals directly through his skull into his brain.

    The Emdee unit must have calculated right, Artoo concluded as Luke's body relaxed instantly and settled back into the rushes. His pulse dipped a little, but not much more than expected, then stabilized as the normal human sleeping pattern reasserted itself.

    The success of the Astromech's intervention was confirmed the next morning. "Artoo," Luke said, stretching, "did anything unusual happen over night? I had the strangest dream."

    Artoo twittered a colorful curse that his master, in his usual obliviousness, interpreted as an expression of sympathy. "There was the shadow of half a moon," he went on, "and someone gave me a third eye and said the Emperor had returned." He shook his head. "I don't suppose you know what any of this could mean, right, Artoo?"

    Bantha droppings, Artoo replied. The next time, he decided, he would ask the Emdee for a stronger dose.


    ***


    Beldorion the Hutt's tail twitched slightly, more in amusement than surprise. "Pause," he told the slave reading to him. It was a spicy scene, too good to spoil with thoughts of other things.

    There was a tang to the spirit that had touched him, a complex flavor that needed time and concentration to properly savor. That it was Palpatine, the upstart, there could be no doubt. His essence smelled somewhat fresher than the stink of his that had pervaded the galaxy up until a few months ago; a clone, then, or a host body of some sort. Some shreds of the chaos beyond still clung to him, but they were quickly being washed away by his anger.

    And the place… ah. Darkness the size of a planet, with a frosting of cheap contentment. So Ashgad was right. The paradise planet of the much-vaunted Imperial Lottery was indeed Palpatine's secret retreat. Seti Ashgad, the senator the Emperor had banished to this place, had guessed as much - and tried to poison his enemy's paradise using his newfound mastery over the Death Seed plague. And failed, apparently.

    Beldorion considered telling him. It would be interesting to see which won over: Ashgad's disappointment that the drochs had never reached the planet, or his excitement at getting another chance to strike at his old rival.

    He decided to wait. Ashgad's passions were an entertainment best enjoyed at the appropriate moment - just like the book his slave with the sweet voice had read to him.

    "Put it away," he told her. "We will resume another time." He slid down from the dais he had been resting on, into the crystalline light. "I have much to ponder."
     
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  4. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Scattered Limbs (2/2)



    "Look," Zak said, pointing up at the Tower. "Lightning. Again."

    A few of the adults at the picnic turned to follow his gaze; the children mostly kept playing. "Nothing to worry about," their old neighbor Jorn told them. "Happens once in a while, but it never goes anywhere else."

    "You hear that?" Tash told the baby sitting on her brother's arm. "We're quite safe."

    The little girl chuckled when Tash tickled her chin. She was growing up so quickly, Tash thought; it almost reminded her of Eppon, the baby they had found in an egg on the planet Kiva long, that had grown to the size of a giant in the space of a single day. But Eppon had been a genetic experiment by the evil Borborygmus Gog, while little T here was a fruit of love. She smiled and kissed the baby on the nose, eliciting more giggles.

    "It's probably just static discharges, this high up," Zak mused. The Tower stretched so far into the sky, it seemed to touch the stars when you looked up at it in one of the warm nights Tash loved so much. "Or it's a lightning rod," Arleen suggested next to her, "built to make sure we never have to be afraid down here."

    Some of the other parents muttered their agreement, praising the wisdom of those who had built this place. The children, once again, did not care; they played tag in the meadow, romped around in the cushion fruit pit, and climbed the sloped walls of the softplast castle, without a care in the world.

    Tash stroked her belly and smiled at her brother. Zak, too, had grown into a handsome young man more quickly than she would have thought possible; but then, maybe the life here on Paradise Planet was just so wonderful you hardly noticed as time passed.

    Another flash lit up the Tower, strangely beautiful in front of the darkening sky.


    ***


    No, Ishin screamed inwardly. I will not fall for you! I will not!

    "Grand Admiral?" a man's voice said somewhere near him. A living voice, at least, but still too close. "Grand Admiral Il-Raz? Are you…"

    Ishin lashed out, the back of his hand connecting with something fleshy an instant before his eyes snapped open. Durasteel beams arranged in triangles, faintly lit from the crew pits. Huge swirls of iridescent gases, seemingly frozen in time, beyond the triangles. Closer, Petty Officer Osoaro writhing on the deck, cradling his cheek.

    "Do not get close to me," he growled at the faces gaping up at him from the crew pits. "We are under attack. I am under attack."

    People had tried to trick him before. The Rebels, offering amnesty in exchange for his public surrender, as if they would ever forgive the atrocities he had committed. The Oxtroe woman with her claims of legitimacy, dressing up high treason in aristocratic robes. The delegation of officers from his own battle group who had tried to persuade him that the Empire was doomed except for Grand Moff Kaine's personal fiefdom in the Pentastar.

    But of all the tricks and betrayals, this had to be the cruelest one by far. Someone speaking in his own master's voice - inside his head! - calling for him like one might call for a pet, or a very obedient lover.

    "Sir?" Captain Finnek came striding onto the bridge, stopping at a respectful distance. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

    Obey, the voice called again. Come to me and renew your allegiance! Ishin felt his spine buckle under the pressure; it was all he could do not to double over. "Take the helm," he ordered Finnek through gritted teeth. "Take us… ugh."

    He pressed his eyes shut again, struggling to focus. There was something in that book Syn had lent him, hidden among the tortured rhymes and opaque hints about the future - something something false voices calling from the void, and choosing chaos over twisted order…

    "Take us into the nebula!" he screamed when the pressure in his skull flared up again. "Take us in! Now!"

    Other captains might have objected, cautioned, quailed. Some might even have mutinied. But Finnek was one of the good ones, selected and trained by Ishin-Il-Raz himself. He believed in - no, he embodied - the ideals of COMPNOR with every fiber of his being. There was no one, save for Ishin himself, who felt the tragic glory of superiority and sacrifice more keenly than Captain Veremus Finnek of the Emperor's Disciple.

    "Full speed ahead," he commanded, standing tall on the walkway when Ishin could not. Behind the viewports, the gases grew denser, brighter, mixing and curling into glowing specters as the huge silver wedge of the Star Destroyer disturbed them.

    And still the voice was there in Ishin's head, snarling now, then keening. Palpatine's voice, the voice of his patron, his friend - only wrong.

    The nebula was helping, though. It surrounded the remains of two stars that had gone nova simultaneously four thousand years ago. Back then, Ishin knew from his studies of Dark Side lore, a great Sith Lord had triggered the cataclysm to destroy the fleet pursuing him. He imagined he felt the echoes of that power now, as they plunged deeper into the irradiated hell. They scratched at his skull from inside, drowning out the fake Palpatine like static. It was a good pain, a glorious pain.

    "Grand Admiral!" someone called again. It was Yarello, at the sensor station. There were thousands of men like him on board this ship, hopeful young men the most of them, the cream of the Sub-Adult Groups across the galaxy, but right now, Il-Raz could not care less about any of them. Defeating the enemy always took priority, they all knew that - even if that enemy was inside their commander's head.

    "There's little left of the sensors," the sensor officer said, bravely holding his gaze, "but what we have looks like the cores of the two stars are collapsing into each other. Or are about to; it really is hard to tell."

    Ishin looked at him, then out the viewports where sulfuric yellows were now mingling with a pink that hurt the eyes. Finnek was there too, very nearly a silhouette, waiting in expectation of new orders.

    "We go between," Ishin said, his growl matching that of his invisible assailant. "Like Naga Sadow, we go between."

    "But…" Yarello protested, predictably.

    "You heard the Grand Admiral," Finnek cut him off. "Navigation, you have your course. Shields, all forward deflectors to full power. We're going between the stars."

    Where they will free me of the voice, Ishin thought, as they freed Naga Sadow from his pursuers.

    And with just a small push from Ishin's will, they did.


    ***


    "What?" Jian Paret snarled. The holographic images of two people were staring at him, one live and the other a recording; and now a third person was knocking at his door. He had told the bloody Ghouls not to disturb him; he had even executed two of them for that same crime two days ago. They never seemed to learn, though, no matter how many of them he slaughtered.

    "My apologies, Grand Admiral," he told the frowning hologram. "The primitives here…"

    He broke off when the door slid open of its own accord. To his surprise, it was no Yevethan out there but one of his own men, a wispy logistics officer named Orvar Krei.

    ISB, was his first thought. The Imperial Security Bureau was notorious for embedding informers on every major warship or installation, equipped with override codes and secret communication channels. Running afoul of them could mean demotion or a death sentence, carried out immediately and without recourse.

    He shut off both holo projectors with a slap to the master switch, then sat heavily down in his chair. "Alright," he said, feeling along the underside of the armrest for the holdout blaster he had hidden there. "You have my attention."

    His fingers found the blaster - just as it jerked, fell to the floor and skidded over to the intruder in an impossible motion. Paret felt his blood run cold. Worse than the ISB, he realized. Ubiqtorate.

    The door hissed shut. "A lot of people are vying for your attention," Krei remarked matter-of-factly, then gestured towards the holoprojector on the left. "That was Grand Admiral Syn you just cut off. Who was the other one?"

    "Imperial Center," Paret said through gritted teeth. Chances were Krei knew all about it anyway, and was just testing his veracity. "Challer, which means Carvin, which means Isard. Commanding me to bring the whole Black Fleet to Coruscant. Peccati Syn was a little more modest; he just wanted this ship." The SSD Intimidator was the pride and the cornerstone of Black Sword Command - and the only place in the entire Koornacht cluster that was mostly free of the stink of the Yevethans. "But then, Fleet Command already borrowed the Harridan, and the Trellus, and a dozen troop carriers and whatnot for their 'fighting retreat' from the Rebels" It felt surprisingly good, he noticed, to vent like this without having to worry about clearance levels. He usually only did this in front of Ghouls before he killed them.

    It occurred to him that this time, he might be the one who would not live to tell.

    Krei regarded him darkly for a while. "Coruscant does not matter," he said eventually. "Neither does Kashyyyk, or Notak, or Druckenwell." He casually closed his fist, and the blaster lying on the floor next to his boot crumpled into a tiny ball of metal and plastics. "What you will do," he said, stepping up to Paret's desk with a commander's poise, "is send word to Isard and the Grand Admiral both that you are coming to their aid by way of Cal-Seti."

    "While in reality…" Paret said, beginning to sense where this was going.

    "While in reality, Black Sword Command is to destroy all non-movable assets and assemble the rest, including all personnel as well as movable unfinished vessels, to a rallying point at these coordinates." He handed Paret a datapad. "Under utmost secrecy. Internal encryption codes only, and the a complete communications blackout to be put in effect immediately after you have sent your message to your other… suitors."

    Paret ignored the jibe. "It says 'to the last man'. Can I assume the Yevethans are not included in that?"

    Krei closed his eyes for a moment, looking all the more disconcerting in his self-assuredness. "You are free to deal with the slaves in whatever way you see fit," he said then, "provided you do it quickly."

    "Good. Good." Paret rose, straightening his suit to conceal his relief. He would order an evacuation of the native workforce, he decided, then bring all Imperial personnel up from the shipyard and finally slag the place, as he had wanted to do so often in the past years.

    So the Ubiqtorate creeps can be good for something after all, he thought, casting a look at Orvar Krei. "And you will…"

    "I have my own matters to attend to," Krei said coldly. "You have your orders. Make sure to follow them."

    Jian Paret shuddered as the man left. That last look… it was like Krei had seen a dead man.

    But he shook off the thought. Those creeps just can't resist getting under your skin. Picturing the Ghouls burning up in the Intimidator's turbolaser fire helped.

    "Attention all decks," he spoke into the shipboard comm. "This is an evacuation drill. All Yevethan workers, assemble at the shuttle ports for transportation to the surface. Stragglers will be shot."

    At last, he thought. Whatever came next for him, it had to be better than dealing with those creatures.

    It ends today.


    ***


    "They're not coming," Merili whined. "They're not coming!"

    "Paret said they were on their way," Grand Admiral Syn said, for her benefit as well as for the crew's. "And so did Teradoc."

    "They lied! All of them!" She jumped up from where she had been slumped on the bridge floor, tearing her wild black hair. It was in those moments that the Prophetess was the most frightening, and the most glorious at the same time. Suddenly she was still, silhouetted in the light of the battle outside like the shadow of an exploding star. "It ends today," she whispered.

    Peccati Syn stared at her, his queen, his despair. "A minute ago you said the Empire was going to eat its foes," he tried, weakly. "What… what changed?"

    "A different time!" she screeched. She was mad, everybody knew this; but Syn understood she had to be, if her mind was to exist at more than one point in time at once. "It was a different time! O would that I could return to that future…"

    A hologram appeared behind her, showing the sweaty face of Moff Hindane Darcc. "We're coming up in a shuttle," he panted. "The Wookiees ruined everything. Even the palace! You must…"

    Syn never found out what he must, because the hologram dissolved into static. "The shuttle was shot down, sir," the sensor officer informed him. "Ackbar's Home One is pulling alongside us. No sign of our reinforcements yet."

    "Is this my penance?" Peccati Syn asked the Prophetess, forgetting all military decorum in the heat of the moment. "Is this the crucible you spoke of?"

    But Merili, Prophetess of the Dark Side, former Emperor's Eye and self-declared Queen of Kashyyyk, was not looking at him. Sinking to her knees again, her dark robes billowing around her, she had turned her face towards the ceiling.

    "My Emperor!" she breathed. "Let me stay with you!"

    Then she vanished.


    ***


    The lightsaber cut neatly through Arden's right arm, cleaving it off at the elbow. She stared at it for a moment, more confused than angry; then Durrei charged from where he had been setting in a corner of the sparring room, barreled headfirst into her opponent and slammed him into the far wall.

    Sweet Durrei. Silly Durrei. "Stop it!" she cried out, both at her lover and at the man who had just maimed her. "Durrei, it was a mistake! Devian, don't…"

    But Ennix Devian, former Emperor's Hand, was not about to strike at anyone. He was grinning at her over Durrei's shoulder, his scarred face twisted into a rare expression of pure glee.

    Durrei extricated himself from the taller man. "Arden, are you alright?" he asked, gesturing at the stump of her arm. It was throwing sparks and sending error messages up her connected nerves, but that was little more than a distraction. "What happened?"

    My mortal enemy just returned, she thought, feeling the sting of Palpatine's betrayal in her heart again. He had promised to restore Xendor to her, after twenty-five thousand years of waiting; but it had all been a lie, stringing her along so she would do his bidding. She had thought him gone, killed by another, robbing her of her chance for revenge; but that cold touch inside her head just now, which had broken her concentration on the sparring match just long enough for Devian to slip through her defense, left no doubt. Palpatine was back, and he was stronger than ever.

    "Nothing," she said, ignoring Durrei as he hurried to her side and instead watching Devian, who pushed himself up easily in the asteroid's weak gravity. "I just got careless for a moment."

    Devian's prosthetic eye glowed a bright red as he towered over her. Had he felt it too? Arden wondered. And if he had, would he betray her to his old master, sell her out like Palpatine himself had sold her out, like Tremayne had, like Zaarin - like everyone had since they had woken her after millennia of sleep. Arden Lyn, ancient relic: that's what they thought of her. A tool.

    "No," Devian said, kicking the rest of her robotic arm out of the way. "Do not lie to yourself, Lyn. That was not you getting distracted."

    Arden tensed, readying herself to twist out of the way the moment he raised his lightsaber. But instead, Devian deactivated the blade and squatted on his haunches next to Durrei. "That was me being better than you," he said. "Without the Force, without the ancient art of Teräs Käsi, I am still your superior. Admit it."

    Arden concealed the relief flooding through her. So he has no idea. "I admit it," she said. "You bested me, fair and square."

    His smile was as ugly as ever. "Come, then," he said, rising and holding out a hand to help her up. "Let's get you a new arm."


    ***


    Meanwhile back on Coruscant, Ars Dangor sat slumped over a datapad, snoring. He had been working late on sound bites for Paltr Carvin, his patsy on the Imperial Ruling Council, designed to reassure the rank-and-file after the Rebel advance. Now he was sleeping and did not notice a thing - though even if he had, he would have dismissed it as a fancy born of tiredness. He had no patience for distractions. After all, he had an Empire to run.
     
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  5. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Negative Space



    Three people were kneeling before the throne, staring at its smooth curved back, waiting for their master to turn their way.

    One was Jeng Droga, a bulky human who had been called "the Emperor's puppy" by his detractors in the Imperial Court. Next to him was Sate Pestage in his customary purple robes. And to his left, towering over the both of them even on his knees, was an imposing alien whose horned face still haunted the dreams of many in the Empire.

    Mas Amedda was the most patient of the three. While Droga was breathing noisily and Pestage fiddled with something in his sleeve, he simply waited. During his seclusion here on Byss, he had learned to think in millennia, plotting the future of the Sith Empire at his master's behest. For those in the business of immortality, a few hours were nothing.

    Eventually the throne turned, and the resurrected Emperor gazed down upon his servants.

    He looked tired.

    "The body is rotten,” he growled. "Let it die."

    "You can have mine, Your Highness!" Jeng Droga offered immediately, practically jumping at the opportunity. "Let me carry you again. I'll make room…"

    Mas Amedda rolled his eyes. He understood, of course, that the Emperor was not speaking of his own cloned body, but of the body politic; of what remained of his old Empire. To his credit, Pestage seemed to have grasped it as well, and explained it to Droga in gentle tones before the big lunk could lobotomize himself. By some obscure coincidence, Droga had caught Palpatine's essence after his death at Endor, going stark raving mad from the experience until Pestage had found him and brought him here to transfer it into one of the waiting clone bodies - but beyond that, Amedda saw little use for the man.

    "In the meantime," the Emperor continued, ignoring the interruption, "we shall proceed with the Great Work. I will require sustenance, matériel… and subjects."

    "Subjects, my Lord?" Pestage asked. "Are you referring to the reconquest of your Empire?"

    "Subjects like him," Palpatine said, pointing a bony finger at Jeng Droga. "Adepts who will serve as an extension of my Will."

    Amedda's chin horns twitched in irritation, but he quickly brought them under control. Even in his weakened state after his long exposure to the Chaos beyond death, he trusted his master to see more clearly than him, to think further and deeper than anyone else alive.

    "It shall be done, my Lord," Pestage said with a bow. "I will instruct the Inquisitorius to round up suitable subjects."

    "And I will bring them to you," Jeng Droga said proudly, snapping upright in a way that made it obvious his master had just given him a mental command.

    "See that you do." With a wave of his hand, Palpatine dismissed the two humans. When they were out of sight behind the curving columns, he stood from the throne, stooping only a little.

    "Do you know," he asked, "why I prefer humans? And human males, specifically?"

    Mas Amedda simply held the Emperor's gaze, knowing no reply was necessary or expected. He had long suspected that the Empire's racist doctrine of "Human High Culture" was a stratagem designed to divide the populace rather than an outgrowth of Palpatine's genuine beliefs, but he had never asked.

    "They are the easiest to dominate," the Emperor explained, "thanks to their eagerness to dominate others in turn. There are a few species that come close in their usefulness as tools and dupes - the Zabrak, for instance - but none so widespread, or so pliable."

    Amedda inclined his head slightly, again offering no reply.

    "But from you, my faithful servant," the Emperor said, "I will need death."

    That, at last, got the Chagrian to speak. "Death, my Lord?"

    "Not yours." Palpatine chuckled. "You are far much more valuable to me alive. No, what I need is the death of millions."

    Now Mas Amedda understood. "Sustenance."

    "This vessel I am inhabiting," Palpatine said, gesturing at his body, "is in its prime; yet I walk with a limp. My time in Chaos has taken a toll on me. If I do not replenish my spirit, Chaos will soon reclaim me."

    Even after decades of serving the Sith Lord, Mas Amedda still felt honored that Palpatine spoke so frankly in his presence. He had told him about the ravages of Chaos before, and Amedda had studied the writings and holocrons of those who had studied it before him, from Xendor to Andeddu, to Palpatine's own master Darth Plagueis.

    With his help, Palpatine had learned to keep his spirit from dissolving in the madness after death; but the true secret of immortality still eluded them. After all of his digging through ancient tomes and interrogating spirits, Amedda felt more and more certain that the answer had to lie in the future rather than the past. The dead were dead; all their attempts were proven to have failed. If they wanted to cheat death, he and his master would have to do it on their own.

    "The Death Stars…" he began, pondering.

    "The Death Stars served their purpose," Palpatine said. While many in the Imperial hierarchy had scoffed at the apparent folly of building a second Death Star after the destruction of the first, Mas Amedda had grasped the true function of these battle stations right away. They had to be huge not merely to engender fear, but to house the hundreds of thousands of soldiers that were the Emperor's insurance: when the Rebels had destroyed the second one at Endor, the resulting deaths had provided the strength Palpatine needed for his harrowing voyage through the afterlife.

    "Another level of destruction, then," Amedda surmised. "We will need engineers. Leth and Eloy, if possible. Magrody too, perhaps. I suppose we can do without Lemelisk?"

    "Indeed," Palpatine growled. "But get me Sigit Ranth."

    "The hyperdrive engineer?" Ranth had developed the hyperdrives for both Death Stars, making some major breakthroughs in the process.

    "I need him," the Emperor said. "If there is anyone alive who knows more about the Chaos than I do, it is Ranth."
     
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  6. Kahara

    Kahara Force Ghost star 4

    Registered:
    Mar 3, 2001
    I'm not all caught up yet, but wanted to say that I really enjoyed the first part. [face_dancing] The Galaxy of Fear books were a favorite of mine early on, and I still have a soft spot for them. Really enjoyed seeing the characterizations of the gang here and it's so fun to see these characters again -- even if they are heading into certain doom. (Not that that's unusual... :p )

    Palpatine is just as terrifying as he should be.

    Yup, just spot on Palps villainy. :D

    And I've always been curious about that whole Dark Empire thing and all the missing pieces that seem to happen when you try and make it make sense with the rest of the EU -- so I am looking forward to seeing how these various characters and their machinations play out!
     
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  7. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Thanks a lot, I'm glad you enjoyed it! I still love the Galaxy of Fear books in all their corniness - and rereading them recently, it struck me just how much of a continuity buff John Whitman was, with all the clever references to other EU stories.

    Yup, that's exactly what I'm going for here :emperor:
    There's been a lot of great work done trying to tie DE more into the rest of the EU, by Jason Fry and others, but almost exclusively in secondary media -- so I'm trying to include all of the bits and pieces we already know, but tie them together into a larger story. Let's see how I do -- it's a fun project, but also a bit frightening in just how many things I'm attempting to fit together there [face_hypnotized]
     
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  8. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Bad Religion


    Two figures walked along the rooftops of Imperial City, passing through the shadow of an immense skyscraper, then emerging back into the light. One was a tall woman in smooth business casual, the other a stocky man wearing clothes so blatantly cheap he would have been thrown out of most establishments in this district.

    They stopped when the ferrocrete path they were on ended abruptly in front of a chasm that was easily a hundred meters wide and ten times as deep. On the other side was the Alien Protection Zone, called Invisec by most Coruscanti, a mess of buildings that had grown over millennia of construction to produce an impossible layer cake reaching up to the same height as the government district whose roofs they were standing on.

    And in the middle of the chasm, exactly halfway between this block and the next, there hung a huge black crystal in the shape of an iceberg, fifty meters or more on each side from the nearest place resembling solid ground.

    "This is it?" Stinna asked.

    "The First Church of the Dark Side," Sigit said, extending his left arm over the edge. "Perched between order and chaos - between the luxury of Imperial City and the squalor of Invisec. Pointing towards the light" - he indicated the blunt multifaceted top of the crystal, then the long and tapered bottom - "but deeper into the shadows."

    "Symbolism." Stinna shuddered. "Is all their wisdom like this?"

    Sigit allowed himself a slight smile at the thought of all that his colleague had yet to learn. "No," he said. "I only mentioned it to show how nothing about the Church is a coincidence."

    "Such as their stupid name?" Who in their right mind would join a church that by its very name proclaims itself to be evil?, she had asked when Sigit had first told her about it.

    "Exactly - because it keeps away the shallow-minded…"

    "...and attracts those who have a thing for contradictions and counterintuitive stuff. You told me."

    "Not in those words, but yes, that's the essence of it."

    "So how do we get over there?"

    Sigit's smile widened. That had been his favorite part during his own initiation. "We walk," he said and stepped off the ledge into thin air.

    As always, the repulsor bridge felt soft to the touch, like walking on pillows and through mud at the same time, but he had long since learned to master his gait so that he did not look completely stupid as he moved.

    He turned around after the first few steps, to see Stinna gaping after him. "Come on," he said, laughing. "It's only terrifying the first dozen times!"

    He helped her make the first few steps into what all her senses told her would be certain doom, then tried not to make fun of her as she struggled along the invisible path. He remembered too well how often he had been about to turn back when his own inductor Mahd had brought him here, thinking that no knowledge in the galaxy could be worth this ordeal.

    How wrong he had been! Now it seemed to him that he had learned less about the true nature of things during his entire scientific career than he had in his few months as an initiate of the Church.

    From childhood, Sigit had always been a seeker. Whenever grownups had refused to answer a question, or retreated into vague non-answers as they liked to do, he had prodded further in that direction. That way, over time, he had built up a good idea of what was known in the galaxy - and what was still unknown, or considered unknowable.

    It was the latter sort of questions that had enthralled him, and that after a long and varied scientific career had eventually led him here. Questions of death, determinism, and the end of all things.

    He stepped onto the narrow ledge that ran along the widest part of the crystal, and held a hand out for Stinna to hold on to. As soon as she was up, she gave a deep sigh and sagged against him, forcing him to quickly wrap an arm around her waist to steady her.

    "If you were trying to impress me," she breathed, "I guess you just did."

    Sigit smiled and carefully disentangled himself from her. "Not me," he said, holding up his hands. "I told you, my heart is spoken for."

    "But you won't tell me by whom."

    "No."

    She shook her head, leaning against the solid crystal wall. "So what happens next?"

    "You wait here," he said. "And when the door opens again, you enter."

    "The door? What door?"

    Sigit turned towards the building, and the crystal face right in front of him winked out. With a wink back at Stinna, he stepped inside.

    Darkness enveloped him as the holographic forcefield behind him snapped shut again. Only a heartbeat later, he was caught in a stasis field while an array of precision lasers burned his clothes off. A gust of wind dispersed the ashes, then he was free again - free to crouch down to the ground where a glowing sign had appeared, and crawl through a narrow tunnel into a chamber aglow with soft violet light. Here, a roughspun robe awaited him, hanging off a spike of crystal in the wall. He slipped it on, then passed through another door that opened on its own into the inner sanctum.

    If the repulsor bridge had been disorienting the first time, the innermost chamber of the Church was even more so. Its walls, floor and ceiling were high-resolution holoscreens showing the live feeds captured by cameras looking out from the crystal, so that it seemed like they were floating free in the middle of the chasm. Sigit could see Stinna standing nearby, nervous and completely oblivious to the fact that he was watching her from only a few steps away. But he hardly spared her a glance before turning to look at the woman who was waiting in the chamber, a lonely figure in the apparent emptiness.

    She was older than him, with slightly greying hair that framed her face like a pair of brackets. Her eyes were warm, but there was a fierce energy behind them, like a maelstrom of thoughts and inspiration. They had fascinated Sigit since they had first met, on the set of a holo-documentary she was producing.

    "I bid you Dark Greetings, Acolyte Ranth," she said, inclining her head.

    "I bid you Dark Greetings, Adept Windcaller," he reciprocated. That phrase, too, had struck him as awkward at first, until he had learned to recognize its true significance. Here among initiates of the Church, it meant, they were free to delve deep into the dark and painful truths that would drive most other people mad if they even considered them.

    "You brought a new candidate," Mahd Windcaller said, looking past him at Stinna. There was a strange note to her voice, Sigit thought, a sort of tension or sadness. Did she see me catching Stinna and get the wrong impression?

    "Yes," he said. "A friend. Uh, a colleague," he amended, silently cursing himself for stumbling over his words like that. "Stinna Draesinge Sha. She is a brilliant scientist, but she has much to learn."

    "And she will," Mahd said, visibly tense now. "But not from you."

    Sigit frowned, trying in vain to read the expression on Mahd's even features. Before he could formulate a question, she produced a fist-sized ball of chalk from the pocket of her robe and held it between them.

    Sigit felt the words stick in his throat. The ball was green.

    "You, Acolyte Ranth," Mahd said formally, with all the dignity of the Prophets themselves, "are the subject of Prophecy."

    Sigit felt suddenly exposed, wishing not for the first time he could turn off the viewscreens surrounding them and discuss these matters in an environment that not just was, but also felt secure. But as with the repulsor bridge, the inquietude he felt here was another exercise in trusting his intellect - and the Church - over the base instincts of his body.

    He watched with a mixture of fascination and dread as Mahd placed the ball on the palm of his outstretched hand and then brought her own hands together with enough force to smash it into a fine dust that instantly filled the room.

    Sigit held his breath. The question of Prophecy was the central mystery of the Church; and with every step of his initiation he had learned how false and limited his previous assumptions about it had been. First he had been shown what he had thought were incontrovertible demonstrations that the visions of Supreme Prophet Kadann actually predicted the future - as he had famously predicted the death of Emperor Palpatine at Endor. Then Prophet Gornash had revealed to him and his fellow initiates that the prophecies only came true if the right people knew of them - people whose role in subsequent events would have been different without that knowledge. However, this too Sigit had later learned to be a necessary lie told to people who were needed to help the prophecies come true, because the masses needed to believe in miracles so they would not despair in this time of chaos.

    And now Mahd was implying that there was a prophecy about him, that he himself would be called upon to fulfill?

    His heart racing, he allowed himself to breathe in some of the green dust swirling around him. He knew it was laced with microdoses of Glitterstim: just enough to set the brain afire, too little to addle it. If prophecies were true, he thought as the flash hit, but everything he'd learned so far was also true, then…

    A holographic image appeared in the dust, showing a short, bearded man in black robes. Prophet Gornash! The Prophets of the Dark Side lived on a space station in the starless void of the Null Zone, to minimize the distractions caused by other minds as they probed the Force for hints of the future - or so they claimed. In all the months Sigit had been with the Church, he had only ever seen them by hologram, and never been addressed by one directly. But now Gornash's eyes seemed to bore into his, sparkling with power and the dancing dust.

    "You shall go where men breed and women pay," he said without prelude, "to move the skeleton that will eclipse the stars."

    The image disappeared as suddenly as it had come, leaving Sigit disoriented and confused. "But," he stammered, "what…" What's that supposed to mean? And don't the Prophecies usually have four lines?

    Mahd seemed to read his thoughts. "I'm sure you'll hear the rest when it is time," she said. "First you must go to Kuat."

    "To Kuat?" Away from you?

    "Where the women of the aristocracy hire telbun servants to father and raise their children. There's a ship under construction there called the Eclipse." Mahd leaned in closer while the dust gathered around their ankles, obscuring the view of the chasm. "It's very secret, and very important."

    Sigit had long since accepted that Mahd Windcaller was privy to almost everything that went behind the scenes of the galaxy. He was only a lowly scientist, whose discoveries about the true nature of hyperspace were ridiculed by the scientific community, while she single-handedly controlled a media empire that stretched the galaxy and produced such blockbusters as Luke Skywalker and the Jedi's Revenge - which, as Sigit had been shocked to learn, was based in actual Prophecy. When she said something was important, it was probably crucial to the fate of the galaxy, and the Great Work of the Church as a whole.

    He drew himself up, pride and fearful anticipation mingling inside him. "So that means…" he said.

    "That means that henceforth you will no longer be an Acolyte, but an Adept, actively working to fulfill the Church's dark destiny."

    "Dark Power to Kadann and the Empire," Sigit gave the ritualistic reply, feeling the hairs on his arms rise.

    "And by abandoning your past," Mahd continued with a gesture towards Stinna, who was now nervously climbing around the crystal looking for an entrance, "you prove that you are ready for the next layer of truth."

    "Dark Truth from the Null Zone," Sigit intoned reflexively, forcing his eyes away from Stinna's desperate attempts to get to him. He felt like he could almost see the outline of the new truth already, but as always it slipped away when he tried to grasp it on his own.

    "What are the Prophecies?" Mahd Windcaller asked.

    "Lies," Sigit Ranth said, "that we must make come true."

    "That is itself a lie, and a truth both." Mahd stepped even closer, dust billowing up around her feet and breaking against his shins. Her lips were inches from his as she spoke. "The Darker Truth is this."


    ***


    Sigit chewed on the revelation all the way to Kuat. It distracted him from his guilt at leaving Stinna behind without an explanation or good-bye; from his trepidation at swapping the safety of Imperial Center for the war-torn galaxy out there; and even from his feelings about hyperspace. Since his discovery during the work on the first Death Star's hyperdrive, he had always requested quarters without observation ports on interstellar flights. But this time he was traveling under an assumed identity and on a cheap ticket procured by the Church, so all he could do was shut his eyes against the blue-white flickering outside.

    To keep from going mad, he kept muttering the secret Mahd had told him, safe in the knowledge that no one below his initiation level would be able to make sense of it - and certainly not the apprentice welders and dock workers he shared this hold with. "Causality does not exist," he murmured, over and over again while thinking through the implications. "The universe operates by analogy. What looks like laws of nature are merely ingrained habits; and habits can be changed."

    The more prophecies we make come true, the more Prophecy actually starts to work; and we need Prophecy to get through the crucible of the future.

    His head was still swimming when the ship reverted to what the ignorant called realspace. He watched numbly as they approached the planet with its massive ring of shipyards, took note of the cleanup droids hauling what looked to be battle debris away from the docks, then endured the seemingly endless security procedures as he was shuttled this way and that with his scant baggage before being even allowed near the vessel he was supposed to move. None of it mattered in his mind; causality was a lie, and the only way to keep the universe from collapsing was to make the Prophecy come true. And once that was done, he might finally meet Mahd Windcaller again - not as an equal, for he could never be that, but as a fellow Adept who had contributed to the Great Work.

    When the Eclipse's frame finally came into view from his latest shuttle, Sigit's heart sank. "That's not a ship," he told the officer who met him in the cavernous aft hangar bay. "It's a ruin." A megalomaniacal ruin - designed much too large to be practical, half-finished and then half-destroyed.

    "We were attacked by pirates, sir," the officer said. "And Rebels. But the superstructure…"

    He stopped when a serious-looking man clad in black joined them, creasing his high forehead as he looked Sigit up and down. "You made the Death Stars move through hyperspace," he said. "Is that correct?"

    "It is." Before Sigit's breakthrough, it had been considered an iron law in hyperphysics that a ship had to achieve a certain sublight velocity before it could make the 'jump' to hyperspace. For a battle station as large as a Death Star that presented a near-insurmountable problem, as getting something of that size to the requisite speed would take either absurd amounts of energy or a very long time.

    For dozens of millennia, no one had found a way around those limitations - because they'd all been stuck thinking of hyperspace as a dimension of speed.

    "So can you drop this vessel into hyperspace?"

    Startled, Sigit regarded the man with a new appreciation. He had used the appropriate term - drop, not 'jump' - so clearly he was familiar with Sigit's work. Given the prejudice against him in Imperial Intelligence, and the fact that the officer next to him seemed more bewildered than frightened by his presence, this pointed towards the man belonging to the mysterious secret service branch known as the Ubiqtorate.

    "I could, given time and resources," he said carefully. "But in its current state, it would never come out again."

    "I see." The man's frown deepened, and with a gesture of his hand he sent the officer away. He waited until he had cleared the deck before continuing. "And how long do you estimate it would take for you to plan and direct the necessary refittings so the work could then be finished in your absence?"

    "In my absence?"

    The man held his gaze. "While the ship is being stabilized enough to survive the trip."

    Sigit had to force down his confusion so he could do the estimates in his head. "With a competent crew and all the necessary materials? Two months; perhaps three. But I don't like…"

    "Make it one month. You are required elsewhere."

    "What do you mean, elsewhere? My, uh, orders…"

    The man took a small pouch from his belt and pulled it open just enough for Sigit to peek at the chalky green ball inside. "You are required elsewhere," he repeated, closing the pouch again. "Follow me."

    He turned on his heel, and Sigit hurried to catch up despite the quickly growing lump in his throat. I will see you again, Mahd, he vowed, wherever Prophecy will take me. And I will give you reason to be proud of me.
     
    Last edited: Mar 10, 2020
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  9. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Hearts and Minds


    The hologram in front of him showed a black hole in human form, but Palpatine had no time to waste on appearances. "Cronal," he rasped, naming the shrunken old warlock who hid behind the image. "My condolences on the death of your daughter."

    "I have no daughter," Cronal growled. A philosophical nihilist, he resented the fact that he had once been inadvertently involved in the creation of even one life. Palpatine found that sensitivity amusing - and sometimes useful, to keep his overambitious servant off balance. "Not any more," he said. "It seems she was killed by a would-be Jedi on the planet Ruusan. One of your projects?" He knew it was not, but he liked letting Cronal believe he could do things behind his back.

    "No," Cronal said, the algorithm making his voice even darker than usual. "That was your Dark Jedi pet Jerec, once again trying to become more powerful than you. You said to let him."

    "So I did." He could have been useful, had he not failed. "As I am letting you proceed with your plan to subvert Luke Skywalker."

    "You've seen the show?" Cronal sounded uncharacteristically pleased with himself.

    "I have no use for shows." Unlike you, I have never strived to win the hearts and minds of common people… except to devour them. "But what is this I hear about a Jedi Prince?"

    "Ah!" The sound was almost a laugh. A laugh, from Cronal? "Whatever bad things you've heard about that one, they're true. The series is deliberately awful - Windcaller is releasing it via a false-flag channel called SPIN Entertainment, making it look like Rebel propaganda so that future audiences will associate any Rebel-aligned media with preachy drivel. But of course that is not its only purpose…"

    "I'm sure," Palpatine cut him off. Cronal's plots had a tendency to be tediously complex and multilayered; he tolerated them only because they usually worked out in his favor, or at the least resulted in gratifying amounts of death and destruction. "But tell me about the boy."

    "The boy my Lord?"

    The Emperor snapped his fingers angrily, and the stylized hologram of Blackhole dissolved, revealing the pathetic true form of Cronal crouched in the tiny asteroid that was his hiding place. "Do not presume to toy with me, old man," Palpatine said. "Tell me about the real Jedi Prince."

    "Ah. Well." The expression on Cronal's withered face was as close to apologetic as it got. "The Abomination's son. You told me to take care of him."

    "I do not recall instructing you to lock him up in an underground city on the fourth moon of Yavin with a full copy of the Ubiqtorate database at his disposal."

    "So you did watch the show?," Cronal said, almost eager. "You do realize I took artistic liberties…"

    "What are your plans for him? Is this another of your Prophecy games?" Cronal's fanciful 'Church of the Dark Side' had proven remarkably effective at misdirecting the ambitions of various troublemakers within the Imperial hierarchy by feeding them sham illuminations and leading them on with prophecies that played to their egos. That, and Cronal's faux prophets served to annoy the real Prophets of the Dark Side, who had predicted the Emperor's death shortly before Endor and were still hiding from his wrath.

    "As I said, my Lord," Cronal explained, "multiple purposes. The most important one of which," he added hastily, sensing the Emperor's impatience, "is to drive home the point that a legitimate successor to the throne is needed."

    "There can be no successor to my throne," Palpatine growled.

    "Exactly, my Lord. So we offer them Ken, a minor, who by virtue of his age, his apparent progeniture, and his allegiance to the Rebels in the show will be intolerable to all sides. We offer them Triocolus, a self-professed murderer, liar, and inhuman monster. And to the audience of Luke Skywalker and the Jedi's Revenge, we offer the hero of the Rebellion, who by the time he claims the throne will be nothing more than a puppet of our will."

    Of your own will, you mean. "So you intend to make them long for my return?"

    "Yes, my Lord." Liar. "If we let things deteriorate a little further, it will come as a relief to all sides of the war."

    "That it will." But not to you, traitor. "The boy will have to be disposed of after he has served his purpose; as will your fake Prophets and all the other pretenders."

    "Naturally, my Lord." Cronal affected a small bow, despite his cramped position. "Their fates have already been scripted."

    As has yours. "See to it, then." Palpatine cut the connection with another gesture, then turned to one of the tall, silent sentinels standing beside his throne. "Fetch me the Constable of Homunculi," he said, "and his keeper."

    The Sentinel acknowledged mutely, turned and stepped onto a turbolift platform that instantly dropped down into the subterranean levels of the Citadel. Most of the caverns and laboratories down there were still empty, waiting to be put to use in the Great Work; a few held prisoners, experimental subjects or rare creatures from around the galaxy that Palpatine considered interesting candidates for his biological alchemy; but the most important group of floors by far were those holding his clones. Most were of himself, with a few others tucked away as test cases or by way of insurance. Together with the varied machinery that produced them and kept them alive, they were under the care of the Constable - a creature unlike any other that had served Palpatine well for decades.

    It arrived now, rising soundlessly from the depths on a repulsor platform that could barely contain its size. A malformed hunk of flesh, it had only the vaguest resemblance to a human being. Most of its body was covered in purple scales that seemed to slither whenever the creature moved; only the tiny head, which sprouted between the shoulders like an afterthought, had the gray skin of its original owner.

    Accompanying it, perched on the edge of the platform like the Sentinel on the other side, was a Wookiee. As tall as the hairy beast was, it still looked diminutive in comparison - and Palpatine knew it was all an illusion anyway.

    When they stepped off the platform, the Wookiee quickly created some distance between himself and the purple-scaled creature, then suddenly shrunk and transformed into a normal-sized humanoid with the same gray skin as the creature's head. "Master," Mammon Hoole said reverently, dropping to one knee before the throne. He was a shapeshifter, from a race known as the Shi'ido - and probably the most versatile shapeshifter in the galaxy, at least since the transformation of his former colleague into the unfortunate creature that now followed him.

    "Borborygmus Gog," Palpatine addressed the latter, speaking not to the Shi'ido head but to a small black box set in the middle of the creature's chest. The box was rectangular and surrounded by welts of dark red skin, as if it had been pressed into the soft flesh at some point and then grown in. "I trust my bodies are in order?"

    "They are… my Lord." Gog's strained voice came out of the Shi'ido mouth up top, but it was mixed with the screams of the spirits trapped inside the little box with him. "The new batch… growing well."

    "And my prototype?"

    The creature that was carrying Gog's essence seemed to sag - or perhaps cower was the more appropriate word. When it did not speak, Hoole took over. "My apologies, Master," he said, "but we had to destroy it. It proved too aggressive, even in its pre-conscious state. When it shattered the cloning tank, Gog had to… absorb it."

    "Did he." Palpatine scowled at the pair: Hoole in his natural Shi'ido state, and his longtime colleague and/or rival Gog stuck in his own creation, the failed super soldier Eppon, together with the ghosts of all the Kivans he had killed. The constant terror he experienced in there served to keep him pliable, and Hoole happy; but sometimes Palpatine worried it would eventually destroy his mind beyond repair.

    "I am asking," he continued, speaking slowly for Gog's benefit, "because an early experiment of yours has proved viable despite expectations."

    Hoole's head perked up. "Viable? Do you mean…"

    "The Abomination you spliced," Palpatine said. "The one that survived."

    "Triclops?"

    "Do not mention that name." I should have had it killed, but Quest insisted the monster could still prove useful. "Twelve years ago, the Abomination fathered a son; and against all odds that son seems to be still alive." Using the controls set into his throne's armrest, he called up a holo of the purported Jedi Prince - the one from the show, as his agents hadn't been able to find a picture of the real one.

    "Uh, my Lord," Hoole said cautiously, "you do know this is an actor? Or more like a generative holo model of an actor, since the real Face Loran would be in his twenties now..."

    "The show is based upon real events," Palpatine snapped. He was beginning to remember how much he loathed Cronal's memetic shell games. "You created a being, using my DNA, that was able to reproduce."

    "Your DNA among others," Hoole amended absently, craning his neck to look at the back of the boy's head. Even Gog's body next to him seemed to have revived at the mention of the Abomination, extruding a pseudopod that reached for the holo. "Does he… does the real son have a third eye, too?"

    "Not to my knowledge."

    "And his mother was a Human? He was naturally conceived?" Hoole's excitement was palpable, but Palpatine cut him off with a twitch of his fingers, constricting his throat. Gog's pseudopod retracted instantly, proving he was paying attention.

    "The point is," he said slowly while Hoole's eyes bulged, "that you were able to do it before. You will do it again, using only my DNA this time."

    He let go, and Hoole drew a grateful breath. "I… I will get to work immediately, Master," he said. "If I could only…"

    "You will get the boy yourself," Palpatine said, anticipating his request. "Have Mas Amedda draw you up a travel plan. In the meanwhile, Gog will prepare another prototype. Won't you, Gog?"

    The Constable's affirmative was mingled with blood-curdling wails. "With your leave, Master," Hoole said, "I will prepare the cell cultures before I leave. We don't need any more… absorption accidents."

    "Do so," the Emperor said. "But be quick about it. In a year's time, I shall reclaim the galaxy; and that will mean a lot more work for you."
     
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  10. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Zoochberry Blast


    "Seriously?" Carnor Jax laughed, bending over the counter. "Triocolus?"

    "Well," said Sarcev Quest, pouring himself another shot, "he does have an above-average number of eyes. That counts as a qualification in this day and age, I guess."

    "So the old Emperor had a hundred Hands, and this one…"

    "Actually," Quest said, “old Palpatine had him beat even there." He downed the centiliter of blue liquid he’d selected at random from the Emperor’s liquor cabinet, shook himself, then grinned, flashing his teeth. "Last I took stock, he had at least four eyes in addition to the ones in his skull. And that’s not counting his clones'." He squinted at the bottle: something something Abrax, the label said, and a year number that he sincerely hoped was a sealed-in rather than a best-by date. Even then, though, it seemed worryingly low. "Two of them were rocks, though,” he said, “and as big as this palace. I think."

    "Rocks for eyes? That would explain..."

    "Shh," Quest said, waving one hand over the bar with his palm down. "We’re here to figure out how to destroy him, not to mock him."

    "Right." For a moment, Carnor Jax’ face looked almost sober; Quest poured him some of the worrying blue stuff just in case. "Here. Drink up."

    "I hate this," Jax said, then tossed it back. "Gah."

    "So. Step-by-step plans." Quest tapped the surface of the bar with one finger. It was Durosian marble, polished so fine it made you see double before you were even drunk. Only the best for the Emperor’s guests, Quest supposed; Palpatine himself famously never drank. Might have done him some good though, he thought. Loosen him up a little.

    "Yes?" Jax asked. "Step one being?"

    "Uh." Getting drunk in the middle of the day while the Moffs are out there declaring a new Emperor and Isard is doing her best to dismantle what’s left of the administration. "Step one… panic?"

    "Nah, that wasn't it."

    "Right. No. Drink some more so we don't panic, then." He dug in the ebony closet for something more familiar, found a bottle of Whyren's Reserve and produced it with a triumphant flourish. "There - Wynssa Starflare said it's the reasons Corellians don't care about the odds. That should work."

    "I thought this was about scrambling our thoughts so Palpatine can't read them from a distance?"

    "Yeah, that too. Multiple purposes, as Cronal never gets tired of saying."

    "Who?"

    "Ah, never mind." Quest took a sip, frowning. "Or actually, do mind. If we're going to bring him down together, we both need to know about his assets."

    "Plural? Oh, you mean the clones?"

    "I said assets, with a 't'. Cronal, or Blackhole, or Lord Shadowspawn, whichever you want to call him, is a big one."

    "He's Blackhole? Stang." Jax reached for the bottle of Corellian whisky. "I did a rotation with his battalion once. Not a good memory. So what's he up to?"

    "That's the thing - I don't know. I suspect he's behind the Triocolus thing in some way, and I'm pretty sure the whole Church of the Dark Side scam was his idea."

    "Wait, that's a scam? I was considering applying."

    "Seriously?"

    "No. Of course not. But having someone on the inside could be useful."

    "I don't think so. Too many layers." Quest swirled the whisky around in his glass and followed its burning trail down his throat, then up through his nerves into his brain. "He actually was a kind of mentor for me, back in the early days when he still had most of his teeth. But even then he played his cards pretty close to his chest."

    "Let me guess."

    "No, not much of a chest either. His strength came, not even so much from the Dark Side as from his total lack of regard for… anything, really. He likes ruining people and things in elaborate ways, but at the same time he's not attached to any of his plans. Something goes wrong, so what, new game, new tricks."

    "You want to be like him, huh?"

    "What? No, I… well, maybe I do. But only for the, like, operational lightness. Not the nihilism." Quest shook his head, failing to clear it. Good, I guess. "Now that I think of it, I almost could believe the whole disaster here, the dissolution of the Empire, is just one of his games. Would be in character."

    "Could he do that?"

    "Get to Isard, get to the Moffs, orchestrate the defection of Zsinj and the Teradocs and whatnot? Absolutely." Quest turned back to the cabinet, mostly to hide the shade of sudden terror that he couldn't keep off his face.

    "How, though?"

    "You ever heard of the Ubiqtorate?"

    "The, what was it, Ubrikkian Directorate?"

    "Ubiquitous. It means 'everywhere'. That’s because they have people everywhere, at all levels, in the ISB, in Imperial Intelligence, in every branch of the Armed Forces, you name it. Sleepers, most of the time, but when they pull out their Ubiqtorate codes they automatically outrank everyone around them."

    "Oh. Those. I’ve heard of those."

    "Your teacher Myn Kyneugh was one."

    "He was? Yeah, that fits." Jax touched a fist to his forehead. "Honor to our dead. So what you're saying is, it's not enough that we need to worry about the old guy reading our minds, but also about Blackhole getting wind of whatever we do?"

    "Yup. That, and he can probably predict it."

    "What?"

    "He used to be a Prophet of the Dark Side too. The best one, apparently, though Kadann and Merili would have disputed that. Believe me, no drink will get your head spinning like hearing those three argue about the future."

    "He can..." Carnor Jax slammed the bottle of Whyren’s Reserve on the counter. "I give up. Palpatine alone is bad enough. Isard alone is bad enough. But when you add frakking prophecy to the mix…"

    "But gladly, gentlemen!" a voice piped up, startling both of them. Jax dived off the bar stool, trying to go for his spear but ending up sprawled on the black marble floor. Quest proved a little more coordinated, swinging the whisky bottle in a wide arc towards the origin of the sound - and slamming it to bits against the metal head of a matte-purple MixRMastR barkeep droid that had rolled forth from behind a retracted wall panel.

    "That was uncalled for, gentlemen," the droid said, unfazed by the alcohol running down its bulky frame. "Initiating security procedures." A panel opened in its side, revealing a rotating blaster that Quest could only hope was set on stun.

    "No, no need for that," he said, squinting as he tried to remember. "Uh, exception two-two-one-eight-six?"

    "If you insist, sir. Anything to drink?"

    "Yeah." Quest sighed, pushed some of the glass shards out of the way with his shoes - his ruined shoes, he thought, remembering how much they'd cost - then walked around the counter to give Carnor Jax a hand. "It's okay," he said as the Royal Guard picked himself up awkwardly. "Just the help."

    "You sure it's not spying on us?"

    "Here, in Palpatine’s private quarters? Not likely. Hey, droid?"

    "At your service, sir."

    "Deep diagnostics code oh-oh-leth-aurek. Are you spying on us?"

    "Diagnostics mode activated. No, Master Quest."

    "Is anyone else spying on us through you?"

    "No, Master Quest. This room is insulated against eavesdropping, airgapped and equipped with multiple intrusion countermeasures."

    "Good. Exit diagnostics."

    Carnor Jax released a breath. "That’s something, I guess."

    "What can I make you, gentlemen?"

    Quest waved his hand in exhaustion, then opened the top two buttons on his shirt. "Whatever," he said. "Something strong."

    "For me, too," Carnor Jax said. He had gone pale around his scars, Quest noticed. "Is it true?" he asked. "Can they actually see the future?"

    "Within constraints," Quest replied carefully, forcing his tired tongue through the consonants. He'd had practice with that: sounding clever while drunk worked great with the ladies and politicians alike. "Merry, uh, Merili always seemed to have the clearest visions. Drove her mad, though, when she couldn't control them and kept forgetting what time she was in."

    "Didn't she die just recently?"

    "Above Kashyyyk, with Grand Admiral Syn. Thought she was Queen of the Wookiees or something."

    "Didn't help her much then, did it. Seeing the future."

    "Not in the… final analysis." Yeah. "Cronal's were mostly doom and gloom, because he thrived on that. Actually… how much do you know about the Prophets schism?"

    "The what?"

    "Right, I think you were out on rotation then." Palpatine had his Royal Guards embed with regular stormtrooper units every once in a while, which had saved Carnor Jax from getting blown up with the Emperor at Endor. "So, this Church of the Dark Side poodoo? They claim to worship the Prophets of the Dark Side."

    "Right. That dwarf and his giant friend. They're not a joke? I thought they were a joke."

    "The ones you see on the holonet are. But they're a joke at the expense of the actual Prophets. Because a while before Endor, Supreme Prophet Kadann told Palpatine he was going to die."

    "Uh-oh. That's the dwarf, right?"

    "Not what you ought to call him to his face, but yeah. That one. He was really specific too, telling him time and place and everything."

    "Wait, exactly the way it turned out?"

    "Yes." Quest had been there, waiting in the wings as usual to see if anyone made a move that could endanger Palpatine. If he had been a little more conspicuous, and if he had been practicing his mental defenses a little less zealously, the Emperor would have wiped all memories of the conversation from his mind, just as he did to anyone else present. "Cronal, perched on this robot chair with legs, instantly crowed that this was treason, that the future held no hint of that, that Kadann had to be deposed before he could spread his defeatism any further, and so on. But thinking back on it now…"

    "There you are, sir. And you, sir." The serving droid slid two tall drinks in front of them: one with red and violet swirls for Quest, while Carnor Jax' looked like a snowstorm trapped in a tumbler.

    They clinked glasses, sharing a dark look across the counter. "You think he lied," Jax said.

    "It would fit." Memories tumbled and clinked together in Quest's mind: Cronal humming to himself as he left the throne room, the same tune he'd hummed back when Quest had handed him the three-eyed boy; Prince Xizor's spiky reptilian neck bending as he suggested the Emperor lay a trap for the Rebels at Endor. "If he saw the same doom, but wanted Palpatine to walk straight into it, that would explain a lot of things." Like who gave Xizor that idea.

    "So he's on our side?"

    "He's not on anyone's side, except entropy's."

    "Whose now?"

    "Forget it." Quest raised his glass and took a deep gulp, then cringed. "Ow."

    "Too strong after all?"

    "No. Can I borrow your lance?"

    "What for?" The Royal Guard frowned but made no move to stop him, so Quest took his weapon, activated it using the hidden button, and swung it at the mixer droid. The vibroblade at its tip sheared the droid's head clean off, then came around to stab it in the chest.

    "Did it try to poison you?" Carnor Jax asked, eyeing his own glass suspiciously.

    Only emotionally. That was Roganda's favorite drink. "It knew too much about me."

    "Oh."

    "Step one." Quest put the lance down on the counter, carefully. "Get rid of Kadann."

    "Wait, what? I thought…"

    "The real Kadann. The one who tried to warn the Emperor of his impending death." Unlike Cronal, who saw it coming and helped it along.

    "Palpatine didn't kill him?"

    "He exiled him. Locked him away for further use. Let Cronal torture him, and neuter the impact of any further prophecies of his, by installing some actors as fake Prophets and spreading their ridiculous prophecies."

    "Like the Glove of Darth Vader."

    "Like the fragging glove." With a heroic gesture, Quest downed the rest of his Zoochberry Blast and channelled the emotions it caused to well up inside him into anger and determination. "Step two, come up with a plan to destroy Palpatine and all his clones in a way that maximizes entropy."

    "You keep using that word. Who or what…"

    "Just let me handle that one. I'm angrier. Think you can take Kadann?"

    "Do I have to be drunk for that?"

    "No, I don't think so. Just unpredictable."

    "Unpredictable, huh? I have some ideas about that."

    "And you might need your asset."

    "My… oh. Oh!" Jax' eyes went as wide as his tumbler. "I thought you didn't know!"

    "Who you've been going on extracurricular rotations with?" He winked, then wished he hadn't. That came out wrong. "I do talk to Isard, you know. I suppose she still thinks it's her idea."

    Carnor Jax' face had gone a shade of pink, highlighted with streaks of white scar tissue, that clashed horribly with the crimson of his robes. I wonder how he would look if he remembered that he told me all about his secret master Lumiya himself the last time. Quest put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "So," he said. "Get Kadann. Be unpredictable. Do you think that will be enough?"

    "Yeah. Uh. Sure. Should be." He pulled his head between his shoulders like a child expecting punishment. "I was going to tell you, you know."

    But you did. "It's okay,"he said. "I know how Sith can be."

    "Yeah. Yeah. You won't tell her you know, will you?"

    I hope to never meet her. Vader was bad enough, but a lady Vader with a whip? "Of course not." Quest pulled out the accessories drawer, found a salt shaker and screwed it open. The salt made a nice thin layer on the dark veined marble as he poured it out. "Get… Kadann," he traced with his fingertip in the salt. "Be… unpre… dictable. There."

    Carnor Jax straightened up on his barstool. "Can we purge now?"

    "That's your favorite part, huh? The purging."

    "Just get it over with. Please."

    "Alright then." In his time as Palpatine's man-about-the-palace, Quest had learned more than a few things about getting people drunk - and getting people sober again when required, including himself. Some of those tricks were chemical, some psychological, and some involved the Force. The best and fastest, of course, were a combination of the three.

    "Maybe take off your robes," he told Jax while mixing a double dose of his infamous clearing fluid. "Don't want to get them soiled like last time."

    "Last time? What happened last time?"

    Quest smiled mysteriously, surveying the scene as he stirred. Quite the party. "Never mind." That's the good thing about plotting under the influence: people will blame the gaps in their memory on the alcohol. "Ready?"

    Carnor Jax pulled a face, but he took the cup Quest offered him, his abs rippling with disgust.

    "To power," Quest said. "And the freedom to exercise it."

    "Uh-huh," Jax said. "To power."
     
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  11. Kahara

    Kahara Force Ghost star 4

    Registered:
    Mar 3, 2001
    Planning to comment more at some point, but I just had to say -- reading this part brought on a brief spasm of nigh-on villainous laughter that would do Trioculus himself proud. :D
     
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  12. Sinrebirth

    Sinrebirth Mod-Emperor of the EUC, Lit, RPF and SWC star 9 Staff Member Manager

    Registered:
    Nov 15, 2004
    Okay, I am going to catch up.

    TAG me when you update!
     
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  13. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Not Amused


    Even with Palpatine dead, Ysanne Isard constantly caught herself wondering what might please him. It was a natural habit to acquire for someone who had spent most of her life in the Imperial Court, she supposed. For a while after the catastrophe at Endor she had tried to resist the impulse, telling herself it was a new day, a world without Palpatine; but eventually she'd relented. There was and always would be an image of Him inside her head, built up over years of intense observation, speculation and experience. If he was not going away, she figured, she might as well use him as a guiding star, the way she had the real Palpatine when he was still alive.

    She imagined herself kneeling in front of him now, telling him all about her latest schemes and plans, her triumphs and frustrations. He would approve of her whipping the Ruling Council into shape, she thought, eliminating the worst obstructionists and power-grabbers so the Council could do what it was supposed to do: administrate matters of minor importance, sign off on measures she proposed, and placate the various nongovernmental contributors to the war effort by offering them the illusion of having a say. Her most recent success in that regard had been her slow poisoning of Baron Ragez D'Asta, making him just ill enough to recuse himself from the Council, but not so sick that the inevitable succession squabbles would tear apart his territory - and, more importantly, his sizeable private fleet - before his daughter came of age.

    She felt less confident about what Palpatine would think of the wider state of the war. She knew he loathed traitors and would often go to extreme lengths to punish them and everyone they held dear; whereas she had elected to let the Rebellion deal with most of the Moffs and warlords that had splintered from the Empire rather than hunt them down herself, instead focusing on protecting key assets and fortress worlds. But then, she told herself, the Emperor had also been renowned and feared for his patience in letting his enemies bury themselves deeper before squashing them - and she fully intended to squash anyone who had ever defied her once her rule was secure.

    It would not be long now, she told herself. Pestage had been killed on Ciutric, Quest was drinking himself into oblivion, and the Moffs would have their fill of the capricious three-eyed clown they'd put in charge soon enough and come crawling back to her for protection. Then she would restore order to the Empire and quickly end this war. Palpatine would have been pleased, she thought.

    She could not have been more wrong.

    From his Citadel on Byss, the Emperor watched in increasing frustration as Isard struggled to hold together and control what remained of the Empire. He saw her compromise where she should have crushed, dither and scheme where retribution should have been swift and public to set an example, and expend absurd amounts of effort to maintain the illusion of control instead of proving her power through the use of force.

    It was not even that she misunderstood him, as much as that she had gobbled up all of the lies he had spread since his creation of the Empire. She really, sincerely believed that what Palpatine wanted in the end was order and harmony. She did not see that what he really needed was destruction.

    Other maggots in the corpse of his Empire acquitted themselves better in this regard. Warlord Zsinj, for all his foolish bluster, at least got a proper war going that promised to escalate only further as he kept stepping on the Rebels' toes. Uther Kermen, though appointed by Isard's puppet Council to oversee the fleet, ignored her orders when he bathed the planet of Milagro in turbolaser fire rather than let the infrastructure - and the population - fall into enemy hands. Sander Delvardus, who had broken from Kaine's Pentastar Alignment to form his own Eriadu Authority, was losing every other battle despite his material superiority; but he kept pushing, kept fighting, his desperation and sheer will shining so bright Palpatine could see them even through the glare of the Deep Core. Even Triocolus, the Kesselian slavelord who had the impudence to pose as Palpatine's own son, gave Palpatine more pleasure than Isard's plodding subtleties when he had razed half a continent on Yavin IV in his search for Cronal's trap. He was frozen in carbonite now and would soon get the death he deserved, but in the meantime he had done his part to strengthen Palpatine; and that was all that counted.

    For the Emperor in his current state, preferring war over peace, and violence over subtlety, was not a question of strategy or aesthetics but a matter of life and death - or more precisely, of power and impotence.

    He rotated his throne away from the spiderweb window through which he liked to look into the galaxy. The physicist was there, finally; and further back, three men arranged in a row under the watch of his servant Jeng Droga.

    "Sigit Ranth," Palpatine said. "Rise."

    The physicist obeyed. He was short and just shy of obese, though it was obvious the past weeks of intense work had tightened his flesh somewhat. They had given him a hat, as was traditional for members of Palpatine's inner circle; Ranth's was a small cylinder that looked almost comical atop his rotund head.

    "You do know why I summoned you," Palpatine said.

    "Yes… yes, Your Excellency!" Ranth had the look of an acolyte who had just been called for communion with the priestess. He visibly fought down his agitation, then added in a more restrained voice: "Because I know about Death."

    "Do you," Palpatine said slowly. "Then you know, too, that it does not deserve that name."

    Ranth's eyes glazed over. "You' right, of course, Your Excellency. It is very much alive… in a way. The dynamics are there, but the structural persistence…"

    "I call it the Chaos," Palpatine said. "But this is not the time for word games. Whatever it is, I have passed through it unassisted, by the force of my own will. I have mastered it, and now I intend to fashion it into my tool." He rose from his throne and beckoned Jeng Droga to bring the men forward. "Observe."

    The men did not merit a speech. They'd been selected for their strength and health from the ranks of his soldiers; if they were here at Byss, they already knew they belonged to the Emperor flesh, skin and bone. "Brace yourselves," Palpatine said simply.

    Sigit Ranth watched with mounting anticipation as the bulky Jeng Droga took a step back from his charges and raised his hands as if to steady them from behind using the Force. The Emperor raised his hands as well - and then blue fire crackled from his fingertips and arced towards the men.

    Sigit gasped. He had seen this, or something very much like this, before - once as a tragedy, in Luke Skywalker and the Jedi's Revenge, where blue fire had broken from the Emperor's tortured body in the moment of death; and then again as a farce in the Jedi Prince show, where the villain Triocolus had built himself a trick gauntlet able to execute others using electrical discharges, in order to make people believe he had inherited his powers from the Emperor. In both cases, Sigit had thought of it as nothing but a cheap special effect, a visual representation of the idea of extreme power, designed by and for those who could not conceive of power other than in terms of electricity.

    He realized his mistake now. Of course the Emperor was no mere battery - he was a conduit for the Chaos itself, the terrible blue-white glare of what the ignorant called hyperspace charging forth from his fingertips and slamming into the three men writhing before him.

    He could only imagine what it did, and what it meant. Would it suck the men's essence into the Chaos, the way a beach pond would drain into the ocean once you cut a channel - or would it fill them, cling to them, connect them to the well of power Palpatine had tapped? Would it burn out their nerves, scramble their neural connections, or invigorate them the way his passage through the Chaos seemed to have invigorated the Emperor? What was the relation between the entropic forces that pulled apart weaker essences in the Chaos, and the patterns of bioelectricity that anchored those essences in a living body?

    Sigit felt giddy. There was so much to explore here, so much to investigate - things hidden since the beginning of the universe that he would be the first to study. When the lightning let off and the three men crumpled to the ground, it took all of his self-control not to rush to them and begin probing them for data. Two of them were evidently dead, their bodies charred and twisted into bizarre shapes, but the third one twitched, rolled over and struggled to raise his head.

    The Emperor cackled, clearly pleased with the result. "You will assist me in plumbing the depths of these powers," he told Sigit Ranth, as if he had read his mind. "And you," he addressed his experiment's sole survivor, who was now staring up at him with fiery eyes, "you shall help me attain more of it."


    -------------------------
    Tags: @Sinrebirth
     
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  14. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Dagobah Tech


    The Shroud set down gently on the landing pad outside the Mount Yoda complex. The facility had been built into the peak of a dormant volcano that sprouted from the jungle plains of Dagobah like a gigantic pimple.

    Clouds clustered around the platform and started creeping towards the landing struts while the Shroud's exit ramp lowered. A teenage boy bounded out, a carry-on bag slung over his shoulder, and waved merrily at the humanoid figure approaching from the main entrance of the outpost.

    "See-Threepio!" he called. "Good to see you!"

    "It is good to see you too, Master Zak," the gold-plated droid replied. "My, you have grown."

    "It has been more than two years since Hoth," Zak Arranda replied, "and boys my age grow quickly." He looked around. "Is Artoo here, too?"

    "No, he is off on some dreadful mission with Master Luke again. By the way, Master Zak, are your sister and Master Hoole still aboard?"

    "Master Hoole and Deevee had to go on another mission. After all, we are old enough to fly on our own now," Zak said. "And Tash's still in the 'fresher." He shrugged. "Girl problems, you know."

    "I do not," Threepio admitted. "Will she be staying here as well?"

    "We both will. We want to study with Master Luke, but until he is ready we figured we'd go with Dagobah Tech instead. We're also hoping to meet other kids who are about our age."

    "Why, that is splendid!" Threepio said. "There are only a very few students enrolled as yet, but we have the most remarkable teachers."

    He kept prattling on as they entered the building, but the boy ignored him for the most part. Instead he studied the layout of the Mount Yoda base, noting exits and unobserved corners and mentally remarking on the fact that the entire place seemed very empty. No surprise there - did they actually think many people would want to come out all the way out to this hellhole?

    He let Threepio show him his room and took the keycard for Tash's as well. Then he told the droid he needed to rest, but as soon as Threepio had waddled around the nearest corner Zak started walking towards the canteen instead. The sun had been close to setting when he had arrived, and he knew from experience that the Dagobah air made you hungry, so he figured a place with food would be his best bet.

    He was at the canteen's entrance when he noticed he still had his travel bag slung over his shoulder. No matter - it might even make me look cool. Summoning his best teenage confidence, he pushed the button for the sliding door and walked in.

    "How do you do…" he began, but then trailed off. Just like the rest of the facility, the canteen seemed depressingly empty as well. A few off-duty soldiers were drinking caf and other stimulants around one of the gnarlwood tables; a young couple was consoling a red-eyed squalling child in a corner; and back there near the droid-operated counter sat a meager group of what might be students, munching on some nondescript red stew.

    But behind them, alone at a table, was the boy.

    Zak hesitated for a second. In the long run, an indirect approach would probably be preferable; but he had no time for the long run. So he cut a line straight across the room to the boy's table, trying to look as natural as possible, then slipped into the chair opposite him and dropped his bag on the ground next to it.

    "Hey," he said, his voice squeaking a little. "I'm new here. Who are you?"

    The boy was fiddling with a crinkled piece of paper he'd been reading; now he quickly stuffed it into one of the pockets of his coverall. "Uh," he said, "I was actually just leaving. Talk another time?"

    "I… but…"

    The boy got up with a weak smile and slid out from behind the table. "Sorry," he said, rubbing his stomach significantly. "Don't get the red stew, okay? See you around."

    "Oh. Uh… sure, I guess?"

    Zak frowned after the boy as he left the canteen with quick steps, cursing inwardly. This place was ruining his appetite, both for food and for what he really craved.

    But he was not out of options yet. Leaving his bag - it was just a prop anyway - he sidled out through the canteen's back exit, looked around to make sure no one was in sight, and changed.


    ***


    When he finally stepped out of the toilet, feeling weak but also more than a little relieved, Ken heard a gasp in the corridor behind him. He turned to see a girl in a flight suit staring at him - a pretty girl, he couldn't help but notice, with clear eyes and straight blond hair pulled back in a single long braid.

    "It's you, isn't it?" she said, taking tiny steps in his direction while she kept holding his gaze, as if afraid to scare him off. "You're Ken. The real Ken."

    "Oh. Uh, yeah?" Ken wiped his hands on the legs of his coverall, suddenly wishing he had changed into something nicer after maintenance class.

    "Wow," she said, then shook her head. "I'm sorry, you must be getting this all the time. I'm Tash, Tash Arranda."

    She stuck out her hand, so he shook it. Her grip was warm and firm, and she surprised him by holding it a little longer than expected. "Uh, I'm Ken." Just Ken, he felt compelled to add, but didn't. "But you knew that. Um. And, actually, no."

    "No?" She looked at him quizzically, but without annoyance.

    "I mean, no, I don't get this a lot. I don't get much of anything these days. No, that's not right. It's just that most people I know are either gone or too busy to talk to me."

    Tash gave him a sympathetic look, resisting the urge to pat him on the head. "That must be hard," she said. "I mean, I have a brother who never stops talking, so that's a different kind of problem…"

    "Oh, is he the guy with the carry-on bag? I think I met him in the canteen."

    "Yeah, he went to his room now. We've had a long flight, you know. But hey, if it's alright with you, maybe you could show me around? And if you don't mind, just if you don't mind… I have so many questions."

    She sounded so sincere and enthusiastic Ken couldn't help smiling back at her. On one hand, it was supremely weird - she had to be at least a couple of years older than him, and he had just run out on her brother - but on the other hand it felt great to finally have someone other than droids give him some undivided attention.

    "Uh, sure," he heard himself saying. "I'd love to!"


    ***


    Ken's guided tour of the Mount Yoda complex was extensive, in-depth, and a lot less boring than expected. It turned out that Dagobah Tech was not a freestanding institution but the pedagogical branch of a military research department called DRAPAC that resided in the lower levels of the outpost, built into the crater shaft itself. For a twelve-year-old boy, Ken was remarkably, even worryingly familiar with the layout, the research program and the staff of DRAPAC. He introduced his new friend to Massad Thrumble, one of the foremost engineers of Human Replica Droids in the galaxy, and told her everything he knew about Project Decoy - the real Project Decoy, not the salacious farce that had led to Triocolus' demise in the show. They also met Tinian I'att Azur-Jamin, the mother of the kid Zak had seen crying itself blue in the canteen, as well as the ever-nosy Arhul Hextrophon, who asked a bit too many questions about Hoole's whereabouts and exploits over the last two years for Tash's taste until he was called away by an assistant.

    Ultimately they ended up outside the base, walking along the rim of the shield volcano. It was a warm and pleasant night; the stars turned leisurely above them while clouds drifted past the slopes below, looking like fleets of warships on the way to meet their fate.

    They sat down on a ledge out of sight of the base, looking down at the jungle. "It's a beautiful place," Ken sighed, "but a lonely one. There are so few other kids here, and my friends keep going off on missions they say are too dangerous for a boy my age."

    "This here is a dangerous place too," Tash said, "at least down there." She pointed out a brightly-colored Jubba bird that dived through a cloud far below, hunting its prey. They heard the screech of the bogwing as it was caught, and Ken shuddered.

    "You know," Tash said, suppressing a smile, "I've actually been here before."

    "What?" Ken asked, startled. "So you knew all of this already?"

    "Not this base," Tash laughed. "But I've been on this planet." And as Dagobah's single moon rose over the horizon, lining the clouds with silver light, she told him about the time the Arranda kids had come here together with their uncle Hoole and the smuggler Platt Okeefe, on the run from bounty hunters sent by the Empire. Down there in the jungle they had met the descendants of an Alderaanian survey team that had crash-landed here decades ago - and found out, to their horror, that they had become cannibals in order to survive.

    Ken shuddered at her lively descriptions, and the edges of Tash's mouth twitched. Children were just so easily frightened, and their fear was so much more nuanced and less restrained than that of adults.

    "Your life sounds so exciting," Ken sighed after she was done. It had taken a while, even though she had left out their encounter with Yoda, but it had been delicious - the nearest thing to a full meal in a while. "Mine was extremely boring for a very long time," the boy went on, gazing up at the stars. "Then it got more exciting after I met Luke and the others; but now it seems it's back to boring all over again."

    "So you would like to go on an adventure?" Tash asked, cocking an eyebrow and turning her head to look at him. His profile was still that of a kid's, but the shape of the man he would become was starting to shine through. His eyes glinted with the lights of the night sky.

    "I would…" he began, then sighed again, his chest heaving. "No, I have to. I'll have to go."

    "Where to?"

    "I… I don't know!" He turned to her, his eyes now overflowing. "I don't… I don't even know if I should tell you this."

    Tash simply held his gaze, taking in his despair and confusion. "Maybe," she said after a while, "I can help you?"

    Ken wiped his face with his sleeve. "You have to promise not to tell," he said. "Not even your brother."

    Tash smiled. "Don't worry. Zak won't be a problem."

    "Can I trust you?"

    She propped herself up on one elbow, leaning over him. "Do you want to trust me?"

    "Yes." He sniffled. "Very much."

    "Then do."

    She kept watching his face as it all came pouring out of him. His early fantasies about being the son of a Jedi. His disbelief when Triclops, the mad three-eyed son of Palpatine, had told him he was his father. His dismay when the records in the Lost City of the Jedi had confirmed the story. The difficulties he'd had in coming to terms with the truth - and his pain when Triclops had fled in the end, leaving him behind, with nothing more than a letter as a memento.

    It was all terribly boring. Tash knew the broad strokes from the show, and Ken's confession did not add much besides depressing details and stale emotions. Still, Tash did her best to look interested as he talked, and then pounced when he was done.

    "So," she said, "should we go look for him?"

    Ken stared at her. "What, you mean…"

    "You and me?" She sat up, pulling her long blond braid over her shoulder. "I've got a ship. We could leave right away."

    "But you…"

    "I like adventures. And going to Dagobah Tech never meant that much to me anyway. That's more my brother's thing; Zak will be happy here." Luckily Ken had never met the real Zak, or he would have caught the lie right away.

    Ken's face fell. "But I can't just leave. I promised Luke, Luke Skywalker, I would be here waiting for him. He wants to train me, you know. After all, my mother really was a Jedi."

    "He told you to wait?" Tash asked. "How long ago was that?"

    "How long? Uh…" She could see the days ticking by in his head, the weeks, the months. "It's been… a while."

    "And it's going to be a long while yet," Tash said. "You know what I think? They don't want to tell you because it would be awkward, but you've become a liability."

    "A what?"

    "Something that they're embarrassed by. Someone they'd rather not talk about, or let other people see." She looked away. "I don't think they're leaving you here just because their missions are too dangerous, Ken. I think they don't want to be seen with you."

    "But why? Just because who my parents are… who my grandfather was? That's so unfair!"

    "Yes, Ken, it is unfair. But no, I don't think it's mostly about your grandfather. It's because of the show."

    "The show?" Ken scowled at her. "You mentioned a show before, in the droid lab, and I saw Professor Thrumble flinch. And I I've heard others whispering strange things as well, but they always go quiet when they see me…"

    Now it was Tash's turn to stare. "They never told you?"

    "What?" he almost screamed. A bogwing answered with a screech from below.

    Tash gathered herself up and held out a hand for him to follow. "Come on," she said. "I have all the episodes on my ship." I watched them on the way here, to prepare. "Go get your things; I'll start the Shroud." She gave him a grin that radiated genuine excitement. "We leave right away. You have so much to catch up on!"
     
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  15. Kahara

    Kahara Force Ghost star 4

    Registered:
    Mar 3, 2001
    Really loving the sheer diversity of villainous characters here! [face_devil] All sorts of different motivations and views on what should happen next with the remainder of the Empire.

    My favorite so far was the one with Sarcev Quest and Carnor Jax getting Sith-faced, which is pure comedy gold though with serious implications. [face_laugh] And I really liked your version of how the Prophets of the Dark Side (two splinter factions, it seems!) see themselves and their role in events. That idea that faking the events ultimately feeds into the real fate of the galaxy is really interesting. Things do not seem to have gone all too well for Hoole after arriving on Byss... wonder if he remembers the kids or just got completely whammied. It seems like he's regressed to someone he was a long time ago. [face_thinking] And the multi-verse fates of Tash, all of which seem kind of ominous. (I thought she was getting all life-drained with the others, but this latest iteration of her seems to have a bit of a Force vampire thing going on herself... :eek:) I'm really curious whether the whole Dagobah Tech thing is real, or what is going on with Ken the real-but-fictional Jedi Prince.
     
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  16. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Thank you so much! That was very much one of my motivations, to make some sense of the multitude of Imperial ambitions after Endor -- we get so many splinters and bits of information across various books and comics and "secondary literature" but somehow it never connected into anything like a coherent picture for me (that is, until I started researching for this story...)

    The idea that the Prophets in the "Jedi Prince" series were actually fakes has actually been around for a while in the various Essential Guides and some roleplaying materials... and the entertainment-as-propaganda war between the New Republic and the Empire is obviously inspired by Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor. I've always wanted to see more in-universe media (I loved the Kallea Cycle in the Essential Atlas, for example), and semi-retconning the Jedi Prince series into a cartoonish kids' show seemed like an obvious choice ;)

    I promise the whole Tash thing will become a lot clearer over the next few chapters. Don't worry, no multiverses will be involved :D

    Thanks so much for reading and commenting, it really means a lot to me! [:D]
     
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  17. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Knowledge Is Power


    "And you," the old man said, "shall help me attain more of it."

    Finnek squinted. Who was this guy? He looked decidedly weird, almost creepy in his wide black robes, his face half hidden in the shadows of its hood. The room behind him, with its backlighted steps and the round window broken up into irregular bits, seemed like it ought to tell him something, but the recognition wouldn't come. And why in all seven Corellian hells did everything here smell of bacon?

    A glance to his left answered the latter question. Oh. That one's Ziske! The name came to him out of nowhere, even though the corpse was so blackened and burned it was impossible to make out any features. Ziske's dead… and I'm not.

    "When I created my Empire," the old man said, "I chose cruel men, ruthless men, men with an insatiable thirst for power - and I put them in positions where I knew they would be at each other's throats as soon as I was gone. I created not one, but three intelligence services, making sure their agendas overlapped so they would clash destructively as soon as I was not there to adjudicate their territorial disputes. For each of my powerful servants I bred rivals - Kaine for Tarkin, Quest for Pradeux, Xizor for Vader at the end. Kadann for Cronal." He chuckled.

    What was this - a history lesson? Finnek had trouble following the words, and was relieved when he saw the old man was not talking to him but to a fat man in robes with a ridiculously tiny hat on his head. "I was the capstone," he went on, "and without me…"

    Finnek tuned him out to take a look at his own body. He'd been wearing a uniform, he remembered now. Ensign Finnek Answeg, it had said. He could hear Ziske - Colonel Ziske, that was it - reprimand him for knocking someone's teeth out, or showing them how to throw a sucker punch in zero gravity. Ensign Answeg, report to the brig!

    There was little left of his uniform now, and the scraps that remained had been fused with his skin. For some reason, however, the pain didn't bother him. It pulsed through him in waves like his blood had whenever he'd gotten into a fight in his previous life - and the death of the two men beside him felt, absurdly, like nothing so much as a sip of hot, strong caf.

    "Letting Ysanne Isard take over from her father was an error," the old man continued his incomprehensible monologue, "but that error is soon to be corrected. Which is why," he said, suddenly turning to face Finnek, "you will be going to Imperial Center, where Ambassador Sa-Di shall oversee your training."

    The fat man was facing him too now, inspecting him with narrow eyes. Finnek felt a familiar rage swell up inside him, a desire to drive his fist into the man's jowls, to see his soft skin burst open and feel the muted crack of bones underneath. He looked to the old man for permission to crush him - and it was that instinctual gesture that made him realize who he was.

    The Emperor. Palpatine. A shiver ran up Finnek's tortured spine. Death.

    "Are you certain he understands, my Lord?" the fat man asked, still eyeing him suspiciously.

    "He understands what is important," the Emperor said. "He understands that it was the deaths of his comrades which gave him the power to stay alive. And he understands that it will take many more deaths for him to become as strong as he would like to be. You do want to be strong, do you not?" he addressed Finnek directly.

    Finnek cowered before the glare of Death. His attempt at a response resulted in a growl that made the fat man flinch. "You see?" the Emperor said. "And with the traitor Cronal's plans about to come to fruition, there will be no place in the galaxy that will see as much death as Imperial Center. The jewel of the Core shall be crushed, putting an end to Isard and her schemes - and then the slaughter will truly begin."

    Slaughter. That word, unlike the litany of names that went before it, provoked a reaction in Finnek. He growled again, and the Emperor showed his teeth in appreciation. "You will be there, my servant," he said. "The carnage will give you strength - and through you, strengthen me in turn. You exist only through me now, and for my sake; your old life is over."

    Finnek had known that. For some reason, he also knew exactly what had to come next. He straightened as his master approached, towering over his bent form but still feeling intimidated. Palpatine reached out and touched Finnek's chest where his rank cylinder had burned a finger-long gouge into his skin and bone.

    "No longer are you Finnek Anweg, troublemaker and eternal ensign," he intoned. "I name you Baddon Fass, and all the galaxy shall learn to fear that name!"
     
    Last edited: Apr 3, 2020
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  18. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Ken's Odyssey


    During the flight from Dagobah to Yavin, Ken watched episodes one through three of 'The Jedi Prince' on the Shroud’s tiny entertainment unit. When he was not complaining about the silly sound effects, he kept yelling things like “That never happened!”, “I don’t talk like this!”, or “How is this suddenly about air pollution?”

    He was still ranting abut Han Solo’s sky house when Tash set the ship down on a landing field outside the village of Vornez, at the edge of the long swathe of forest that had been burned down by Triocolus’ TNT attack. Tash remarked on how quickly the jungle was growing back over the ashes, looking fresher and denser than the old growth on the other side of the village, but Ken hardly spared it a glance. He dashed across the platform and into the nearest building, then out of the nearest building and into the one behind it.

    "Where is everyone?" he yelled when he came out from that one.

    "Let's look in the communications shed," Tash suggested, pointing at a prefab container attached to a medium-sized antenna tower. Inside, they found a running comms array hissing with static, and an old man in dungarees sleeping on a cot in the corner.

    Ken woke him up and repeated his question. "Ah, son," the old man said, wiping his brow, "they've all gone, closer to the front lines of the war. We're just keeping the watch here, me and the boys - but for what, I don't know."

    "But what about the Lost City?" Ken asked. "Isn't anyone watching it? And the search for my… for the escaped prisoner, Triclops?"

    "Your father, you mean?" the technician said. "Or is that just something they made up for the show?"

    "Spoilers!" Tash groaned - but Ken had gone pale. "Does all the galaxy know?" he asked in despair.

    The old man chuckled. "Most of the galaxy thinks you're a piece of fiction, son. Or propaganda, depending which side they're on. Anyway I'm afraid you're too late - spotters saw a ship break through the canopy down Woolamander way some weeks ago."

    "A ship?" Ken asked. "What kind of ship?"

    "Aye, we been wondering about that ourselves." The technician squinted at a roster printed out on flimsiplast and stuck to the wall, then slapped a button on the comms array. "Hey Munk," he said. "I've got our Jedi Prince here, with a friend. Aye, the real one. You wouldn't mind telling them about that ship you saw."

    "It was the weirdest ship I've ever seen," Munk's voice came crackling from the speaker. "Cobbled together from I don't know how many different parts; I'm pretty sure some of it was crashed Death Star wreckage. It only just made orbit, too, wobbling like crazy all through the atmosphere."

    "Do you have any idea where it went?" Ken asked.

    The spotter's laugh was a rustle of static. "Not into hyperspace, that much's for sure. Limped off counterspinwards on sublights, according to the orbital sensors."

    "Why didn't anyone tell me?" Ken yelled.

    "We sent it up the line," the old man shrugged. "Never heard back. Guess they weren't that interested."

    "Sorry, lad," Munk pitched in. "This about your dad and that Supreme Prophet type?"

    Ken angrily hit the button that broke the connection and stomped out. Tash followed, with an apologetic shrug to the old man.

    Back on the Shroud, they studied the astrogation charts. "There," Ken said. "Krylon. See? That's where they must have gone."

    "Most likely," Tash muttered. "If they made it."

    Through hyperspace, it was no more than a small hop down the Yavin Bypass until they reached the system. Ken mostly sulked in the copilot's seat, only speaking up when they approached the planet. "I think you were right," he said grudgingly. "They really are ashamed of me - because whoever made that stupid show has poisoned the minds of everyone against me." He balled his fists. "How am I supposed to live like this?"

    "Let's find your father," Tash said gently. "Then we'll figure out the rest."

    The atmosphere on Krylon was so toxic with industrial fumes they had to wear rebreathers outside the ship, but both Tash and Ken spared each other the obvious commentary. With the help of a spaceport hustler, they found the "spare parts ship", as he called it, in a junkyard outside the capital. It seemed to have been built around the wreckage of an old Delta-7 from the Clone Wars, with components from TIE fighters, Imperial walkers and threaded vehicles, and even some parts Ken recognized from his old underground home, the Lost City of the Jedi, welded together into a barely spaceworthy jumble.

    More importantly, however, it was empty.

    "There was a Bimm with a beard and a Human with a, what do you call it," a friendly Besalisk junkyard worker told them, "this thing wrapped around the head. Wanted to trade it as an artefact of great historical importance, eh? Master Kilv offered them scrap value, only fair if you ask me, but then the Bimm got all high and mighty, puffing up his beard and saying he was a prophet."

    "Kadann," Ken said darkly.

    "And Triclops in a turban," Tash muttered.

    "Anyway me and Kilv just laughed at them, but Buller who operates the cranes, he got scared. Told us not to mess with the Dark Side and apologized a dozen times and said he'd take them to the faithful, or something." The Besalisk shrugged with his four arms. "Never took Buller for the religious type, but eh."

    They thanked the Besalisk and set out in the direction he indicated, to what looked like a repurposed Kooroo shrine ducking under a monorail bridge. Sneaking into the circular building, they overheard a group of humans talk in reverent tones about the imminent resurgence of the Prophets of the Dark Side, and about how they would profit from having helped the Supreme Prophet himself return to his dominion.

    "I sure hope it really was him, though," one of them said a bit less reverently. "He did look a lot like a Bimm."

    That kicked loose an avalanche of mutterings, including "He's just short, everyone knows he's short", "I knew a Bimm once, he had fur all over", and "The other guy showed us his third eye, what more do you want?" Ken tensed up, but Tash shook her head, waving towards the entrance. "Wait outside," she whispered. "I've got this."

    Ken waited outside, grinding his teeth under the rebreather. They were so close, he could feel it! Tash rejoined him a moment later. "They're breaking up," she whispered, pressing her back to the monorail pillar next to him. "Apparently they all pooled their money to buy Kadann a ship. Hush, here they come."

    They waited for the churchgoers to pass, then followed the largest group to a domed plaza near the spaceport. The place seemed to be part mall, part commercial and residential area, equipped with air scrubbers and indoor plants. Tash took off her rebreather with a sigh of relief, but Ken decided to keep his on. I don't need anyone else recognizing me today, he thought bitterly. With the hood up as well, he might even have looked intimidating if he'd been a little taller.

    The men were headed for a starship rental booth on the ground floor of an expansive courtyard. Tash and Ken watched from behind a group of decorative shrubs as they exchanged a few words with the receptionist droid at the front desk, then stepped inside through an opaque glass door.

    "Okay," Tash said, her face grim. "You stay right here. I'll handle this."

    "What? But…"

    "No buts. You trust me, remember? Wait for me and be ready to run. But above all, do not follow me."

    "Tash…" Ken felt his stomach knotting up. Tash had appeared in his life when he was at his worst; she had given him hope, and in a world that seemed intent on mocking him she was the only one who had stood up for him. He didn't want to show it, but the thought of losing her too terrified him to the bone.

    "It'll be fine," she promised, then after a moment's hesitation kissed his head. "I'll be right back."

    With that, she stepped out of their cover, pulled her hood up and walked straight towards the booth. Ken saw the droid tilt his head at her approach; then it said something that didn't carry to him and opened the door for her. Just like that. How did she do that?

    Ken held his breath for what felt like minutes while nothing happened - or at least nothing he could see or hear from where he was. He had nearly made up his mind to go after her despite her warning, when a sound like a Wookiee's roar shook the glass door and echoed through the plaza.

    Ken froze, trying desperately to think of something, anything, to use as a weapon. I have the Force - if only I could use it better! He balled his fists in frustration and sprinted for the booth anyway. Anything was better than just waiting.

    He was halfway there when the door opened. At first he was not sure if it was really Tash - she looked so fierce! - but then she was there, grabbing his hand, spinning him around, pulling him after her. They barged through the confusion in the plaza without looking back even once until they were outside and she had to slow down to pull the rebreather across her mouth and nose again.

    "What..." Ken panted, but she shook her head and pulled him onwards.

    Only when the Shroud’s landing ramp clicked shut behind them did she let go of his hand. She dashed to the cockpit, tossing her outdoor gear aside on the way, and a moment later the ship buckled underneath Ken's feet as it took off. He made his way forward, dropped into the copilot's seat and looked at her.

    She still looked fierce, with half her hair pulled from her braid and her face red with exertion; but when they cleared orbit, a grin started tugging at the corners of her mouth. She turned to Ken and raised her left hand. "I've got it," she said.

    "Huh?" was all he could manage.

    "The tracking fob." She showed him a palm-sized triangular device with a metal ring at the top. "For the ship the guy rented out to Kadann."

    Ken opened and closed his mouth dumbly as a fresh wave of hope spread through him. "That's… wow. How did you…"

    "Never mind that." She set the ship on a course away from the planet, then fished out a cable from a compartment in the nav console and attached it to the fob. There were dark blotches on the back of her hand and under her fingernails, but Ken decided not to ask. Tash was a mystery, and that was alright - a beautiful, powerful mystery, and she was on his side.

    "Let's go hunt a Prophet," she said when the coordinates flashed on the screen. Her blue eyes glinted and she gave him a smile that made his ears burn. "Want to pull the lever?"

    ***

    On the way to the Circarpous system, where the tracking beacon had last released a signal, Ken watched another episode and a half of 'The Jedi Prince', becoming angrier with every scene. He finally gave up with a huff of disgust when Triocolus started coming on hard to Princess Leia. Without turning off the entertainment unit, he plodded out of the cockpit and towards the back of the ship to see if there was any tolerable food to be found.

    The door to Tash's room was open when he walked by. She was facing away from him and pulling up her shirt - and the skin underneath was gray.

    Ken's recoiled in confusion and horror. His foot catching on a ledge, he stumbled against the bulkhead behind him. The noise attracted Tash's attention, and she turned.

    It was not Tash. It was not a girl, or even a human.

    Its face was long and gray as a ghost's, and it came stalking towards him.
     
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  19. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Fuel


    The Emperor walked among his people, unnoticed and unguarded except for the telescopes and turbolasers tracking his every movement from the Citadel. The settlement surrounding his abode had grown and was still growing as his subjects kept on breeding. Palpatine felt their intensity all around him, the thickness of their pleasures, the quickened pulse of their lives.

    "It is something about this place," he told his physicist who was walking beside him. "Amedda blames the Rakata, who ruled this world dozens of millennia ago. They sacrificed their slaves in such great numbers that the fabric of the universe is weakened here, he says, the walls that separate this world from Death worn thin." He stopped to watch a family cross their path. Three young children were chasing a herd of furry pets across the misty square between the high-rises, while their parents and elder siblings were carrying strings of lights and occasionally calling after them with good-natured admonishments. It was cloud season on Byss, a liminal time marking the end of summer in which kilometer-wide bands of moisture enveloped the planet, shrouding the surface in a featureless haze and making the world look almost like a gas giant from space for a few weeks. Its inhabitants, brought here from all across the galaxy, did not seem to mind; they decorated the houses and parks with colorful lights, and since the air was still warm they played in the mists as they had in the sun. Palpatine and Ranth passed a pair of adolescents holding hands under a spreading tree, so engrossed in their mutual presence they hardly noticed the old man and his servant walking by.

    "They do not seem close to Death to me," Sigit Ranth said, regarding the two.

    "No. Amedda has it wrong." The Emperor stooped to pick up one of the furballs that had come to a tumbling halt before his feet, then handed it to the little boy following it. "The Rakata came to this place because it intensifies life and everything about it - including the suffering of their slaves." He patted the boy on the head, then did the same for his sister who showed him her pets. "They live faster, not less. Generations change within a dozen years, not thirty. This boy will be almost a man come spring, and these two" - he pointed at the adolescents, who were now kissing passionately - "will be feeding a gaggle of squalling children."

    "Yes," Ranth murmured. "I feel it. Perhaps it is our closeness to the center of the galaxy, where stars are born and die in quick succession. Or perhaps the gravitic forces of the bulge act as a focusing lens…"

    "It is useful, in any case," Palpatine cut through his speculation. "I have foreseen destruction, and I will need lives."

    "Your clones…"

    "Clones are useless." The Emperor's sudden anger made his voice resonate with power, and a few of the children and young parents nearby turned to look. Palpatine smelled a note of budding fear in the moist air, and for a heartbeat he was tempted to lash out at them and taste the full bloom of their terror. But it was not fear that he needed. Unlike his errant servant, Mammon Hoole, he could not be satiated by the terror and anguish of those around him. He could appreciate it, both aesthetically and as a means to power; but it did not give him strength the way it did the Shi'ido.

    "Excuse me." A young woman approached them from a garden area hung with clusters of grape-like lanterns where some sort of party seemed to be in progress. "Would you like to sit down? We have cushions and tea."

    Palpatine studied her. She had a round face framed by chin-length hair, a warm smile, and the eyes of someone who had recently buried a loved one. "What is your name?" he asked.

    "Taneera." The shadows behind her eyes deepened. Her mother's name, then, taken after her recent death. It was a tradition most people on Byss had converged on, perhaps to cope with the fact that a faster life also meant more frequent deaths and bereavement. In all likelihood, there was always one woman named Taneera in her family; when she was gone, another would take up her name.

    "Thank you, Taneera," Palpatine said, "but I have no use for tea. I might have use for you, however. Is there someone near you love?"

    Taneera lowered her gaze in embarrassment, but Palpatine already knew. "Bring him," he said, indicating the bearded young man who was watching them from behind the fence. "We leave together."

    Their minds were soft, made pliable by lives of comfort and base pleasures. They followed him without complaint, down the wide alley, through the gates of the security zone, between weapons emplacements and across the bridge over the moat. There was no water in the moat, but deep down some creatures from Gog's menagerie roared their hunger. Taneera and her lover took it all in with wide eyes, but to Palpatine's quiet amusement it was Sigit Ranth who felt the greatest fear. He was still sweating when their turbolift platform arrived on the throne room level. An escort of Sentinel Guards met them there, and at Palpatine's command escorted them out to the balcony.

    The balcony was a lip of durasteel jutting out from the Citadel's sheer walls. True to Imperial form it had no railings, and because this level of the Citadel was just above the cloud cover it looked like one could simply walk off the edge and continue walking on the soft orange-white expanse that stretched all the way to the horizon.

    Palpatine stopped his guests before it came to that. He watched them marvel at the size of the tower while the Sentinels carried out his orders and some of the Citadel's other inhabitants began to congregate around him.

    Amedda was among the first. He genuflected before him, but even kneeling he seemed taller than his master. "My Lord," he said, bowing his horned head.

    "How many people are there on this planet at the moment?" Palpatine asked him.

    "I am not sure, my Lord," Amedda admitted. "A few billion?"

    "Just over ten billion, my Emperor," Sate Pestage supplied, kneeling beside Amedda. Palpatine waved them both up with an impatient gesture. "If I killed them all," he said, "except for, say, a few hundred. How long, do you reckon, would it take them to repopulate the planet?"

    "Years," Amedda guessed. "More than a decade," Pestage specified.

    "Too long. Ah, there he is." The Constable of Homunculi had entered the scene, dragging two naked clones behind him on living leashes, and eliciting shrieks of terror in the two humans Palpatine had brought up from the city.

    He faced them where they half-cowered behind Ranth. "This is my servant, Gog," he said. "He is quite docile, though he could absorb you with a touch. And whose clones would that be, Constable?"

    "From the... Marek and Stele germlines," the creature said, forcing its voice through the agonized din of a thousand souls. "My… Lord." Taneera and her lover blanched at the sound and retreated instinctively, so that Palpatine had to dispatch a Sentinel to save them from falling off the balcony.

    "They are ripe?" he asked, inspecting the clones. Freshly decanted, their skin was still glistening with nutrient goo as they cowered on the duracrete floor. "And imprinted?"

    "One of them… is, my Lord. As… per your orders."

    "Clones," a disdainful voice said from behind them. "Weak fuel." The speaker was a humanoid creature with a monkey-like face, accompanied by another who looked just like him except for their differently-colored robes.

    "Careful, K'uaz," Palpatine admonished him. "I am a clone."

    "You are not fuel," K'uaz responded without a hint of fear. - "Nor are you this body," his brother T'iaz added. "You are the Emperor, whatever form you take."

    "I am," Palpatine said. These two had never bent the knee, and he had never required them to. They were among the very few beings in the galaxy whom he considered friends - though not equals. "You have been hunting," he observed, tasting their vibrant scintillations in the Force.

    "On Tython. You should go," T'iaz said. "The ground itself there is alive with malice, home to saarl worms and incandescent predators. Horranth and Flesh Eaters, barely sentient as individuals, gather in packs that could defeat a hundred of your Sentinels in sheer ferocity…"

    "Let me try," Palpatine said, extending a hand.

    T'iaz hesitated only for an instant; then he stepped forward and placed his sloped forehead in the Emperor's palm. Palpatine felt a slight resistance far beneath the conscious levels of his friend's brain, the animal instinct to cling to any shred of energy he owned, but it was easily broken. A strange kind of power and exhilaration coursed through him, barely diluted by its passage through an alien mind. Palpatine bared his teeth when he broke the connection.

    "It is pleasant," he said. "It is not enough."

    T'iaz inclined his head. More of Palpatine's servants had gathered on the balcony, gathering around them until they nearly filled the space. "You will go hunting," the Emperor told them, his voice ringing with power. "I will send you to worlds teeming with lesser creatures, such as these." He gestured towards the Humans he had brought, Taneera and her lover, who stared back at the Emperor and his entourage in horror. The outstretched arm of a Sentinel was all that kept them from retreating straight over the edge. "You will take their lives," Palpatine said, "and bring them to me. Observe."

    With a twitch of one finger, he directed the Sentinel to push Taneera off the balcony. Her fall was silent, as was her lover's incredulous shock. With narrow eyes, Palpatine observed the ripple that went through the crowd of his servants at the precise moment of her death.

    There were only three beings who did not react to the sudden puff of a life being ripped into Chaos. Sigit Ranth, who was as deaf to the Force as a rock; Borborygmus Gog, for whom the screams of the dead were the permanent backdrop of his existence; and Taneera's lover, who was still staring after her in dumb confusion.

    It took another two heartbeats for him to fully grasp the situation. Then he produced a roar that turned into a wail, teetered on the edge for a moment, and finally tipped rather than jumped after her.

    This time, Palpatine watched the clones that had curled up on the floor beneath Gog's towering form. Both their backs arched when another death sparked through them, and one of them even gave a low growl as the creatures down in the moat tore apart the fresh body. Palpatine remembered the first batch of Marek clones; they had been unstable and troublesome, but promising in how far they deviated from the norm across every dimension. Combining them with the Stele line had yielded a few remarkable results. If the Kaminoans had been able to do that sort of thing at scale, perhaps the Clone Wars would not have been quite as disappointing.

    "The clones now?" Mas Amedda asked.

    "No. Save them." Palpatine had intended them as a foil, an example of the kind of death that served him not; but looking at the way his servants frowned at them, he saw there was no need. "You will glut yourselves on souls," he said, raising his voice again, "and then you will relinquish them to me."

    One by one, Palpatine's servants dropped to their knees in obedience - all except Gog, who could not, and T'iaz and K'uaz, who merely nodded. They all were his fingers, the Emperor knew. Using them, he was going to reach into the galaxy and squeeze it dry.
     
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  20. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    The Jedi Prince: Electric Bugaloo


    With Paltr Carvin and Baron D'Asta gone, the meetings of the Ruling Council had become a dull affair. Isard was standing in the middle of the floor, as usual, laying out her latest propositions, all carefully calculated so the Council would pass those she wanted passed, and block a few she had put in to make them feel like they still mattered.

    Mahd Windcaller had long stopped paying attention. Leaning back in her high-backed chair, she was going over the script notes for the second season of The Jedi Prince. Even more than the first one, this would be an exercise in agile production, as the show's plot was designed to dovetail with - and comment on - real-world events as they unfolded. It was this format, halfway between newsreel and drama series, that had made the first season such a success despite the admittedly corny writing and subpar production values. Making it had been a terror and a thrill at the same time; and as almost nobody besides her knew, it had only been possible thanks to her secret master's skill at predicting - and bringing about - future events.

    That was the chief reason she did not feel the need to follow Ysanne Isard's posturing in front of the Council. The Madame Director thought she was in it for the long run, that she could lead the Empire by means of intrigue and intimidation indefinitely. If she had seen the drafts Mahd Windcaller was looking at, she would have been outraged.

    Where the first season had been about showing the need for a worthy successor to Palpatine's throne, the second would focus on the question of the ideal ruler. The end of the first episode, as envisioned by her secret master, would see Ken Palpatine placed on the throne after an intense battle between legitimists and Isard's forces over possession of Imperial Center. The second was to feature the twist she had been looking forward to ever since her master had personally induced her into the rank of Secret Keeper within the Church of the Dark Side. In a daring crossover more than a year in the making, Luke Skywalker - of the Jedi's Revenge movie - would reluctantly accept the regency for Ken at the overwhelmed boy's request. The remnants of the Empire would bow before Emperor Skywalker, even as a darker threat emerged from the Deep Core…

    "Madam Director," Sarcev Quest's sonorous voice interrupted Isard's monologue. Mahd looked up; Quest was perhaps the sole remaining interesting player on the Council. "I believe you should see this. We all should."

    "I was not finished, Councilor Quest," Isard said sharply. "In any event -"

    "But you will be," Quest replied, effortlessly drowning out her voice, "unless we find a way to counter this." With the last word, he used his system privileges as the Council's acting chair to call up a holofeed on the floor right next to Isard.

    Mahd had to stop a grin from spreading across her face when a larger-than-life image of Supreme Prophet Kadann filled the room, complete with his characteristic sparkling robes and booming voice.

    "Citizens of the Empire," he said, "I bid you all Dark Greetings."

    So it begins, Mahd thought. Instead of watching the Prophet as he commanded all believers to help retake Coruscant in his name, she regarded the other members of the Council. Nolyds had gone even paler than usual, his gaunt face looking like a skull in the harsh light. Quest was leaning forward, his eyes narrow, studying the hologram and no doubt plotting ferociously behind that broad, creased brow. Tann Starpyre next to him, in contrast, looked almost relieved. When the Grand Moffs had seceded from the Empire to form their own Central Committee, Isard had shunted their administrative duties into Starpyre’s department, the Diet of Imperial Governors, which had been an entirely symbolic office up to that point. He probably hoped that Kadann would bring the Moffs back into the fold and let him retreat back into his comfortable irrelevance.

    "The Emperor's true heir will come to me," Kadann prophesied, "and I shall seat him on the throne. Then the Empire will be whole again, and ready to fulfill its destiny."


    ***


    "Ridiculous," Isard said. "He's just a silly old dwarf in a sparkly robe. No one is going to listen to him." She threw a look in Windcaller's direction. "No one important, anyway."

    "He did predict Palpatine's death at Endor," Nolyds said.

    "He got lucky. He has no ships or troops, he has alienated his most powerful allies, and it appears he vaporized the last claimant he meant to put upon the throne. I assure you, Councilors, Kadann is not going to be a problem."

    She is worried. Ysanne Isard might be good at deception, but Sarcev Quest was better at reading people. When Isard left the room amid murmurs of disagreement, Quest quickly closed the session and followed her to her office.

    She let him in without debate. That alone showed the seriousness of the situation; otherwise she would never have passed up an opportunity for power play. Quest stepped into the wide, sparsely decorated room that looked out over Imperial City. "He is a problem," he said.

    Isard flared her nostrils; a dangerous gesture, Quest had learned. "I've taken steps."

    "May I ask which ones?"

    She regarded him flatly for a moment. They were not confidantes, nor even allies, but he thought he could see her come to the same conclusion he had. Kadann could ruin everything for both of us.

    "An old associate of Kadann's. A disgruntled apprentice. I've given him the resources to find his hated master, and destroy him."

    "And you are confident he will?"

    "The resources I mentioned include Grand Admiral Makati's fleet."

    "Ah." Afsheen Makati hated Kadann with a passion since the Supreme Prophet had fried him close to death using the Force once. Only that must have been the real one, back then, not the impostor he is hunting now. That was for the best, Quest supposed; the more separate plots to kill some Kadann, the harder it would be for the real one to see the true strike coming. I hope.

    "And what about his followers? Religious zeal can be a powerful motivator, whether the Prophet is alive or not."

    "Nonsense. The only true believers I was worried about - Hissa, Il-Raz, Peccati Syn - are all dead." Grand Moff Hissa had been sent to his death by Kadann himself on Yavin IV; Peccati Syn's ship had been vaporized by rebels above Kashyyyk, with the Prophetess Merili aboard; and the mad Grand Admiral Ishin-Il-Raz had plunged his Super Star Destroyer into the Denarii Nebula, causing the unstable gases to erupt in a nova-like flare that was still impeding traffic along the Junction-Tierell Loop.

    Quest frowned. There was something there; an idea. He quickly balled his fist, driving his fingernails into the skin, and squashed it.

    "As for the rabble, they will be easily weaned from the Church," Isard went on. "I have made preparations to reinstate freedom of religion in the Empire."

    Good; that's safe territory. "You'll need the votes of the Council," Quest said. "Windcaller is going to veto…"

    "She will do nothing of the sort," Isard snapped. "The leader of her silly cult just publicly declared himself a traitor to the Empire. It will be freedom for all religions, or persecution for hers."

    "And by making her choose the former, you avoid creating martyrs." It made sense, Quest had to admit. His own instinct would have been to blow up the pretentious floating crystal that was the First Church of the Dark Side, as a declaration of war against the Prophets - but not for the first time, he saw that Isard's plan was objectively better.

    "That, and the Church's rank and file will drain away into their former faiths." Isard turned to the window and looked out across the dusky cityscape. "I am more worried about other threats."

    "The opportunists."

    "Very sharp, Councilor Quest. Those who would follow Kadann's call not out of faith, but as a means to power."

    "And a way to get rid of you."

    Isard cast him an icy glance over her shoulder. "I am sure," she said. "Would you like to be rid of me, Councilor Quest?"

    "No, Madam."

    "I know. You are playing a different game, or you believe you are." She turned around to face him. "Which is why you are going to help me."

    Oh, am I, now. Quest decided to indulge her. "Specifically with what, Madam Director?"

    "Sander Delvardus." She wasted no time, so she had obviously been considering this since before this Council meeting. "I believe you know him."

    Gears started spinning in Quest's brain, so fast it was an effort to focus on the matter at hand. "I knew him, a long time ago," he said, forcing himself to reminisce. Sander had been a friend for a short while during his stint at the Imperial Palace; a good wingman, but also hopelessly romantic. One time he'd even tried to woo Ysanne Isard, herself a lanky girl back then, with a stature not too different from Sander's own. The outcome had been predictably disastrous, and Quest dearly hoped Isard was not aware how deeply he'd been involved in that attempt; but if she was, she gave no sign of it now. "He was a different man then," he added. "A boy, really. I hear he calls himself Superior General now?"

    "He imagines he's got enough ground troops and matériel to conquer any city in the Core." Isard gave a disdainful flick of the hand. "He means to turn it all against this city."

    "That seems… ill-advised." Delvardus could not seriously expect to conquer Coruscant with a few Star Destroyers full of AT-ATs. "And rather rash."

    "He's been preparing since before Kadann's announcement. Someone must have given him early warning. And he will not remain the only warlord who will try to profit from the chaos they expect the Prophets to unleash."

    "So you want me to make an example of him."

    Isard waved a hand. “Delay him, derail him, dispatch him, whatever. Just make sure he doesn't get here.”

    "And the others?"

    "I will deal with the others. Can you deal with Delvardus?"

    Quest took a moment to study her. It was a rare occasion that Ysanne Isard was reduced to pleading. This was the woman who had gotten her own father executed so she could rise to his place in Imperial Intelligence, and who now presumed to bend the Empire to her will using nothing but information as her weapon. He did not trust her, and never would; but for the moment she could make a useful ally.

    "I can," he said finally. "But in return, I want you to tell me everything - every detail and every contingency - about how you are planning to bring down the Prophets." He thought of Jax, whose last message a week ago had implied he was leaving with Lumiya on a 'random mission' - their arranged phrase for the hunt for Kadann. He sat down on the edge of Isard's desk. "Oh, and I'll need a drink. A strong one."
     
    Last edited: Apr 24, 2020
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  21. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    To Kill a Mockingbimm

    Ken dreamed of destruction. Neutron Torches devouring the jungle… turbolasers chewing into bulkheads, making the metal boil and burst... TIE fighters literally biting the heads off people...

    He awoke in a sweat. Where did those dreams come from? And more importantly, where was he? What had happened?

    Tash. He remembered the girl, his hopes and his shock when it turned out she had never even been human. The creature, whatever it was, had attacked him - he had tried to fight, pinned to the wall by strong grey hands - had grasped for the Force, finding it sluggish and elusive like mud - the grin on the alien's face, like it was enjoying his fear - and then a flash, a blue flash…

    It must have stunned him before stuffing him in the storage closet, Ken realized. Tash, the fake Tash, had carried a tiny holdout blaster; she had shown it to him back on Dagobah. Trying to gain my trust.

    Ken gritted his teeth. It felt like his whole life was nothing but a series of betrayals. His childhood, locked away in the Lost City of the Jedi, had been an elaborate lie; the new friends he had found with the New Republic had all turned their backs on him; and to cap it all off he had allowed himself to be tricked, kidnapped and locked up like a fool.

    He should have taken stock of his surroundings and figured out some clever way to escape; but instead he let his anger swell up inside him until it filled him and spilled over in a scream. His fist hit the bulkhead - and a spike of pain shot up his arm that made him collapse with a whimper.

    The door was unimpressed. Ken stared at it for a while, nursing his arm, then he began to cry.


    ***


    Carnor Jax rolled a die. It came up five, again. Frowning, he bent over the handwritten list he'd prepared. Five down was an odd number, so he multiplied the results of the last two throws, took the sum of the digits, and went seven steps up in the list.

    Nefta.

    That one was one of his own contributions to the list. Lumiya had access to Isard's files, but Carnor Jax had his memories of years spent in Palpatine's throne room, observing the Emperor's audiences through the slit of his helmet. Together, they had made a tally of everyone who might have a reason to hate Kadann, the Supreme Prophet; and now they were offering them revenge.

    Dice in hand, the former Royal Guard strode through the long corridor that connected the Revenant's forward modules to the bridge and engines at the back. He found Lumiya in her sparring chamber, a room directly above the main reactor that she’d had cleared out and armor-plated from the inside, swinging her light-whip at the figure of a tall Prophet.

    The incandescent line hissed through the air like a snake striking at its prey, and hit the Prophet at an angle that would have cut a living being clean in two. Lumiya pulled it back while the image of the Prophet sputtered and fell away, revealing a battered old holodroid whose limbs had been reinforced with strips of Beskar steel to withstand Lumiya's attacks.

    "They're too easy to kill," the Dark Lady of the Sith snarled. Her voice was a metallic rasp, filtered through the breathing mask that covered her nose and mouth. "Or too hard. How do they even fight?"

    "With words, my Lady."

    Lumiya snorted. "Not against this," she said, flicking her whip. "Can they anticipate where you will strike? Do they see the path to victory?"

    "I do not know, my Lady. I have never seen any of them fight." Carnor Jax paused. "They never seemed to need to fight."

    "And yet Palpatine drove them away."

    "Perhaps." Let's not think about that. "Or else they left of their own accord, to further some hidden agenda."

    "So we still have no idea what we'll be facing when we get to them?"

    "Not entirely, my Lady. But we do know who will be facing them, next."

    Lumiya fastened her rolled-up weapon at her hip. "Who is it?" she asked.

    "The former senator for Esstran sector; King Nefta, as he styled himself. The Supreme Prophet convinced Palpatine that he would attempt to assassinate him and usurp his throne at some point in the future, so the Emperor gave Nefta a choice between exile or death."

    "And he chose exile."

    "On Odacer-Faustin, near the Stygian Caldera. A desolate frozen rock, according to the records."

    The sharp lines of Lumiya's eyebrows creased in a frown. "Desolate, indeed. He is still there?"

    "According to Isard's files, he should be. Eagerly waiting for revenge, no doubt."

    "Good." Through the tightly wrapped bandage in front of Lumiya's mouth, the word sounded like some deadly curse - which, in a way, it was. "Go dress the prisoner, Apprentice, while I command Captain Valek to set course for his doom."


    ***


    There was a knock on the door.

    Ken ignored it at first, thinking it was just the metal popping back into place after his futile assault. He was still curled up on the floor of the storage compartment, surrounded by shelves whose contents were kept in place with green elastic nets. The ceiling was glowing faintly, as it always did when someone was inside.

    There was another knock, then another. A voice calling. "Ken?" it said.

    Ken tensed and sat up, wincing as he let go of his injured hand. "In here!" he called back, hating the weak sound of his voice.

    The door cracked, shifted, stuck; then it slid a few inches sideways with a grating shriek before getting stuck again. Human fingers gripped its edge, and the face of a boy about his age appeared in the gap.

    "You're Ken?" the boy asked.

    "That depends. Who are you?"

    The boy grinned. "My name's Locor. Come on, let's get you out of there."

    "Locor, huh?" Ken studied him with narrow eyes. "Are you that shapeshifter again?"

    "You mean Hoole, the Shi'ido? No, he left you here. If you come with me now, you can still see him die."


    ***


    The King in Exile greeted them in the ruins of a giant tower that stuck out from the snow like broken teeth. Carnor Jax cleared the final boulder with a Force-assisted leap, his crimson robe snapping at his ankles. Snow flurried up around his feet when he landed in front of the tall near-human, who regarded him with a skeptical expression.

    "Is your master afraid of me?" he asked. His voice sounded almost exactly like the icy wind that was hissing and howling around the fragments of black rock, but Jax still understood every syllable.

    He looked over his shoulder to where Lumiya was perched atop a jagged spike, presenting a menacing image with her triangular headdress silhouetted against a bright crack in the clouded sky. Their intention had been to swap roles, to make it appear as if he was the master and Lumiya the apprentice standing guard, but apparently Nefta was more perceptive than most.

    "I'm waiting, Nefta," Lumiya called, the echo of her words reverberating from the stones. "Do you want your revenge or not?"

    Nefta ignored her. "She should be," He continued, still looking down at Carnor Jax. "You, on the other hand… I think we could work together well, young man. What do you say…"

    The snow stirred, and Lumiya touched down gracefully right next to him. "I saw the palace that used to be yours," she said, "in the old town of Livien Magnus. This here?" She gestured around at the ruins. "This is no home for a king."

    "Spare me the flattery," Nefta replied evenly, his creased upper lip twitching in what might have been disgust, "and I will spare you the platitudes about appearances being deceiving. I know exactly what you want, and I've already told you I agree."

    "So you will kill Kadann?"

    Nefta's eyes flared with anger. "Do not presume to trick me, witch. I will help kill one Kadann, and afterwards you are going to take me to your master."

    Lumiya's knuckles were white around the hilt of her lightwhip. Carnor Jax used the tension building around him to narrow his focus to the impending fight. Nothing else mattered; only the distance between him and Nefta, the reach of his lightsaber, the folds of the old king's robe and what might be hiding in there.

    "Yes," Nefta said, his voice audible even through the pounding of the blood in Carnor's ears. "I know about your master. And so does your acolyte, though he seems desperate to hide it."

    With a snarl, Carnor Jax attacked. He crossed the distance in two steps, ducking low and swinging his lance in a horizontal arc that would have severed Nefta's legs at the knees - only to pitch it up at the last moment and drive the tip straight for his opponent's chest instead. As anticipated, Nefta stepped aside - but counter to Carnor's expectations, he neither drew a weapon of his own nor did Lumiya join the fight. Instead, as he brought his weapon around in a follow-up slash, Nefta simply floated up from the ground, seemingly without moving a muscle, and then dissipated.

    Carnor Jax looked around in confusion, every muscle in his body taut and ready to spring. The circle of stones was empty except for Lumiya, who was still standing where she had before, her whip still dark.

    "Don't!" she called out. "This is his home turf. You can't -"

    Then the ground gave way beneath his feet, and he tumbled down into the darkness in a rain of crumbling stones.

    ***


    Locor led Ken out of the Shroud into a dark, cavernous hangar bay

    where the only light came from the stars outside the hangar's mouth. It was completely still here, save for their own sounds and the slow ticking of the Shroud's hyperdrive cooling down.

    "I know this place!" Ken exclaimed, then winced at the way his voice echoed back from the walls. "We're in Space Station Scardia!"

    "This is my home," Locor said.

    Ken stopped in his tracks, staring at him. The boy wore simple black robes that hung off his lanky frame a little awkwardly. "Are you… are you a Prophet?" Ken asked. "A Prophet of the Dark Side?"

    Loroc laughed and waved his hand towards a bulkhead, where a hidden door slid open in response. "I am an acolyte of the High Prophet Jedgar himself," he said. "He's on a mission now, but one day - oof!"

    He broke off when Ken slammed into him at full speed, ramming his shoulder into Locor's ribs so the boy lost his breath and his balance at the same time. His head cracked against the durasteel wall just beside the door, and he immediately went limp and collapsed at Ken's feet.

    That, Ken decided, had felt good. Really good.

    He had been captured by the Prophets once, and then interrogated in this very station. Hot shame still rose inside him at the memory of how he had let Kadann trick him into drinking avabush tea, a truth serum under whose influence he had given away the location of the Lost City of the Jedi.

    He kicked the unconscious Locor hard in the ribs for good measure, then dragged his limp body back to the Shroud, grinding his teeth all the way. He would not let himself be embarrassed again, he vowed to himself. Not ever, and not by anyone.


    ***


    Carnor Jax landed hard on his back in the middle of an ancient hall, arches of blackened stone bending and intertwining above him. Nefta - the real Nefta, he supposed, not the illusion Carnor had attacked on the surface - was sitting in a throne built from the ossified roots of a tree, looking down at him with the same detached interest as before.

    "I understand," he said, as if Carnor's fury had been merely a turn in their conversation. "We shall speak no more of it, then. Would you care for some wine?"

    "What are you trying to do?" Carnor growled. He looked up to where he had broken through the roof; jagged stones framed a patch of cloudy sky, with no sign of Lumiya.

    "I am trying to have a cup of wine with you." Nefta indicated a spider-like creature that came shuffling across the rubble on eight fleshy legs, carrying a tray with two earthen cups on its back. "And perhaps share some thoughts before your master catches up."

    Two other spiders brought a chair and pillows, and before he knew it Carnor Jax was reclining opposite Nefta, the cup in hand. He peered into it with suspicion. "What will this do?" he asked.

    "What wine does," Nefta said, lifting his own cup. "Scramble your thoughts. Give you ideas, even if they might not be comprehensible to others."

    Carnor swallowed hard. He had expected Nefta to be a skilled adversary; everyone on the list he had compiled with Lumiya was dangerous, and approaching them meant playing with fire. But Nefta was laying him bare with mere words; just by looking at him, he seemed to know everything Carnor Jax had ever thought or done. And if a mere servant of Palpatine had power like this…

    Seeing him hesitate, Nefta got up from his throne. Broken stone crunched under his boots as he walked over, then he plucked Carnor's cup from his wavering fingers and handed him his own. "I am not trying to poison you, boy," he said, downing the wine in one big gulp. "Drink up."

    Carnor Jax raised the cup to his lips. Snowflakes falling through the hole above him had dusted the rim, and one was melting on the thick dark liquid's surface as he looked. This is a trap, he thought.

    "Yes," Nefta said simply. "But not for you."

    The wine was sour at first taste, but then it seemed to dissipate in his mouth and rise directly to his brain, enveloping it in a smooth cool shell. We can talk now, he heard King Nefta say directly in his head, without Palpatine's clone or your Dark Lady here being any the wiser. He tilted his head back, chuckled and waved up at Lumiya, who was now peering over the rim, her lightwhip sizzling. Ironically, he told Carnor, it was Kadann himself who came up with this trick. Wine from the Dreaming Vineyard of Bosthirda. Lumiya landed on the rubble next to Carnor, and Nefta greeted her with a mocking bow. The real Kadann, not the poor fool you have prepared for me, or the impostor that Makati is about to kill. A spider brought him a travelling case, and he hefted it with one hand. "Shall we leave, then?" he said aloud. "I believe we have a Prophet to kill."


    ***


    Ken stood behind a bulkhead, seething. He was wearing the black robes he had pulled off the boy, Locor, before locking him into the cabinet on the Shroud. They were even more loose on him than they had been on Locor, but there were rings and pulleys sewn into the sleeves that opened doors and secret passages by remote control. Using those and his memory of the station, Ken had made his way towards the Chamber of Dark Justice, where his father, his kidnapper and his greatest enemy were waiting.

    He knew they were there because he could feel them through the Force. His father's grim anticipation, mixed with pain; Kadann's cloying self-assurance; and a constantly flickering sense of annoyance from the third creature, the shapeshifter who had tricked Ken into coming here. He had never felt anything that clearly through the Force before; the most he had gotten were small prickles of impending danger, which he would have ignored if Luke Skywalker had not taught him to trust them.

    Luke Skywalker. Ken almost snorted. It had been bad enough to realize that the self-proclaimed Jedi Knight had left him behind on Dagobah because he did not want to be associated with a stupid holodrama. But a minute ago, Ken had discovered something even worse: Luke had been lying to him from the start. He had told him to let go of fear, anger and hate, that those would cloud his senses and lead him down the path of the Dark Side. But Ken had never been as angry, as afraid and full of hatred as when he had made his way through Scardia Station, to this very place - and his senses had never been sharper, his path never clearer, his will never stronger than right now.

    Luke Skywalker had tried to keep him weak. He never wanted Ken to find his actual strength; he just wanted him out of the way. Just like they all did: the Rebellion, Kadann, the shapeshifter - even his own father, Triclops, who had abandoned him in the dead of night with only a letter full of weak apologies.

    Ken felt his anger deepening, and his perception with it. Closing his eyes, leaning close to the wall, he could now make out individual words, then sentences. "Let me out," a voice growled - an unfamiliar one, sounding like that of a feral beast. The shapeshifter. "You don't know who you're dealing with."

    "Mammon Hoole?" That was Kadann, audibly amused. "Yes, I even know your first name. And you might notice that I'm quite equipped to deal with shapeshifters, even of your caliber."

    "You don't know who I serve," Hoole retorted, but before he could go on a tinny voice interrupted. "Supreme Prophet," it said, "search and cleanup have been completed. There were no further survivors."

    "A pity," Kadann commented, "but not a problem."

    "Not a problem?" a third voice exclaimed. Ken's heart seemed to contract painfully in his chest as he heard his father speak. "Master, without the other Prophets…"

    "They can be replaced. Sure, the poor boy will take it hard; he doted on Jedgar, the fool. But as we speak, my loyal followers all over the Empire are preparing to assault Coruscant, and once Delvardus has taken the capital for us, we will have all the raw material we need."

    "But what of the man who killed them?" Triclops sounded terrified, downright pathetic, and for an instant Ken could see him stepping over corpses behind Kadann, sickened by the slaughter they had found upon returning here. "If he is still around…"

    His father's fear stabbed into Ken and he looked around, his sense of life and danger heightened like a cornered animal's. Except for the three burning embers right behind the bulkhead, Scardia Station was empty, with only the echoes of recent violence and pain vibrating through its decks. This is a tomb.

    "Azrakel?" Kadann laughed. "Don't be afraid of my old pupil, friend. He may have surprised our co-conspirators; but he's a firecracker, quick to anger but as easily distracted. I assume he's off on another mercenary mission already, trying to vent his frustration for not catching me. And even if he does return, we are prepared now. You may have three eyes, but thanks to these robes you made me I have a thousand."

    Ken flinched, because for some reason he knew exactly what the Supreme Prophet meant by that. The robes he was wearing controlled doors and turbolifts through hidden systems; but Kadann's were linked up to every system on this station, painting the security feeds onto his skin with tiny prickles of electricity, taking orders from every twitch of his fingers. "Yes, boy," he laughed now, and to Ken's horror the bulkhead in front of him suddenly parted in the middle, its halves retracting into the floor and the ceiling. "I am this space station, and you have tickled me for long enough!"

    Blue light filled the room on the other side of the vanishing wall. The first thing Ken noticed was a big cube-shaped energy cage floating in the middle of the room, holding a blur of different creatures. The shapeshifter, trying and failing to escape. Behind it and to the left, the floor rose to form first a dais and then a smooth black throne, on which the diminutive bearded figure of Kadann was perched. And next to him, standing on the dais but at eye height with the Supreme Prophet, was Triclops - Ken's father, and Emperor Palpatine's son.

    "Ken!" Triclops called out as soon as he saw him. He looked even more haggard than the last time they had met, with a shock of white hair on each side of his face and the two eyes that Ken could see reddened and wild with turmoil. He started towards Ken, but Kadann held him back with a wave of his hand. As if smacked in the chest, Triclops stopped and stared at his son across the distance. 'You should not have come,' he mouthed.

    "The son and the grandson both," Kadann said. "So tell me, which one of you should I set on the throne once I take Coruscant? Or maybe I should let you fight it out…"

    "I'm not your toy!" Ken yelled at the Supreme Prophet. "I'm not anyone's toy. And I will never fight my father! He's a good man, whatever you…"

    "He's really not," Kadann spoke over him. "Triclops, do you want to tell him?"

    Ken stared at his father with tears in his eyes, but was distracted by the whirling shapes in the energy cage suddenly solidifying. The shapeshifter had taken on the form of the girl again, and he spoke with Tash's voice as he said: "Kill him."

    Ken rounded on the creature, his anger flaring up at the thought of how easily he'd been seduced. But before he could say anything, the girl went on: "He's just a Bimm. A con man. Rip off his coat and you take away all of his power…"

    Kadann rose from his throne in anger. Triclops stepped off the dais, moving in the direction of the cage. Then a sound like a thunderclap cut through the room, and for a moment everything seemed to stand perfectly still.

    The walls crackled, and then a voice boomed out from everywhere at once. "This is Grand Admiral Afsheen Makati," it said, making the floor vibrate Ken's ears hurt. "And I suppose you call yourself Emperor now, Kadann?" A tremor ran through the station, and all of a sudden Ken felt the floor drop away beneath him as the gravity in the room shifted, then disappeared. He saw the Supreme Prophet flailing his arms and wrestling with his cloak; he saw the girl in the cage change into a mynock; and he saw Triclops, his father, pushing off the dais towards him, arms outstretched. Time seemed to slow to an agonizing crawl while the Grand Admiral's laughter reverberated through the station. "Yes, I have taken control of your systems," Makati said, "just as my associate here took the lives of your fellow Prophets. Your subordinate Azrakel was kind enough to help me find you, my Emperor." The disembodied voice had taken on a sharp, mocking quality, and Ken felt the danger building up all around him him like an electric storm. "He does not care for your sparkly dress either."

    Triclops reached him and took hold of his arms, pulling him close as they drifted across the room. "Death," he whispered, his voice hoarse and intense like during one of his trances. "This place is death. This time, too…"

    "We need to get out of here," Ken agreed - but it was too late. The sound of the Grand Admiral's laughter mixed with the whumpf of turbolasers hitting the station, the screeching of overheated bulkheads warping and breaking, the blaring of alarms and the whoosh of escaping atmosphere. Ken could almost feel the violence with which the barrage was chewing through the space station, boiling away plate after plate without mercy.

    "The hangar bay!" Triclops shouted over the din. "It's on the other side! Maybe we can still - "

    The last words of Triclops, mutant spawn of the Emperor Palpatine, father to Ken and dreamer of superweapons, were cut short by a Rancor biting his head off at the neck. Blood squirted into Ken's face, and he just barely saw the Rancor change into a huge bird-like creature before the roof caved in and an explosion pushed him hard against the floor.

    Kadann screamed, somewhere far above him. A torrent of blinding light filled Ken's vision, then he passed out.
     
    Last edited: Aug 1, 2020
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  22. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Wingman

    The ISD Brilliant lived up to its name, Sarcev Quest thought as his shuttle was slowly pulled towards the Star Destroyer's forward hangar bay. Its prow gleamed in the light of Woostri's sun like a newly forged dagger.

    "That's a clean ship," Quest remarked to the man sitting in the pilot's seat beside him.

    Shea Hublin inclined his head minutely, his aristocratic features noncommital. "Delvardus leads from behind," he said. "Maintaining the integrity of command is more important than displays of bravado, as he likes to say."

    "You disapprove?"

    Shea Hublin looked up to where the docking bay was opening for them. A legendary starfighter pilot, Hublin had cast in his lot with Sander Delvardus and his Eriadu Authority after Endor, but had fallen out with the Superior General over Delvardus' plan to attack Coruscant. Instead he had traveled to the capital himself, told Isard all about Delvardus' intentions, and offered her his services - only for Isard to send him straight back here with Sarcev Quest in tow.

    "No," he said softly as the tractor beam pulled them into the narrow hangar bay. "He is right. The greatest risk factor in any battle is the breakdown of the command structure."

    Quest regarded him for a moment while the docking clamps took hold of their shuttle. Was he thinking of Endor, of the Emperor's death and Pellaeon's flight, or of the current power struggle among the Imperial factions? With Isard and Supreme Prophet Kadann both laying claim to the whole of the Empire, the Moffs and the Ruling Council both disputing their authority, and the various warlords clinging to the domains they carved out for themselves, the Empire's command structure had not so much broken down as splintered into a hundred shards, as unpredictable and dangerous as orbital debris.

    "So you will hold to our agreement?" Quest finally asked.

    "If you can convince him, yes," Hublin said. "Until then, I will be staying on this ship."

    Ready to blast your way out through the hangar doors if necessary, I'm sure. "I won't be long," Quest said. "I hope." He took his coat from the backrest of his chair, smoothed it out and put it on. It had been a while since he had affected a coat, but it would do good to remind Delvardus of their shared exploits on Imperial Center.

    Four stormtroopers were waiting at the foot of the ramp. They escorted him to a turbolift which took them to midships to the auxiliary bridge. The Superior General himself was there, looking out at the stars while Quest approached. He waited until Quest stood next to him and the stormtroopers retreated to guard the door before he spoke, without looking at him.

    "Sarcev. It's been a while."

    "Glad I could make it, Sandor." Quest let his gaze roam over the rows of turbolaser emplacements dotting the armor plates outside. "Beautiful ship you have here."

    "Is that Hublin in the shuttle?"

    No banter, then. "Yes. He's considering coming back."

    "Conditionally, I suppose." Delvardus let out an exasperated breath and turned to face Quest. "Look, Sarcev. I don't follow Palace gossip enough to know what position, if any, you currently hold in the rump Empire. I do know that Isard is calling the shots, so I'll assume you are her lap dog in this matter."

    "And what matter would that be?"

    Delvardus made a gesture, and the stormtroopers who had escorted Quest stepped out, letting the door hiss closed behind them. "Coruscant will fall," Delvardus hissed, taking a step back and spreading his arms in the same awkward speaker pose Quest remembered. "Isard has been making nothing but enemies these last months, with her scheming, her demands, her attempts at extortion. Everyone wants her gone, Sarcev. If I were you, I would not bet on her survival."

    "She thinks she sent me,," Quest said carefully, "but I'm not here on her behalf."

    "No?" Delvardus' gaunt head perked up. "You see it too, don't you? She'll never be able to hold Coruscant, much less rule an Empire, now that she has ousted Pestage and killed off half of the Ruling Council. So you are deserting her as well?"

    Quest looked around. The auxiliary bridge was empty, with most lights and stations powered down, as usual when a ship was not engaged. "How certain are you that this room is secure?" he asked.

    "Why?"

    Quest simply looked into his old friend's eyes, waiting. Finally Delvardus relented. He walked to the door, slapped the release and told the startled stormtroopers: "I am taking my guest to my quarters. Tell Captain Cronus to finish assembling the fleet. If I'm not on the main bridge in thirty minutes' time, he is to initiate the battle plan. Understood?"

    "At once, Superior General!"

    "The battle plan?" Quest asked when they were in the turbolift, barreling towards the bow along the Star Destroyer's central axis.

    "I told you. Things are moving quickly. Kadann is a prop, but his proclamation was the signal everyone needed that the battle for Coruscant is on. Only none of the others have the ground troops to actually take the Palace…"

    He is looking for something, Quest realized while Delvardus was talking himself into a rage. The gestures and the haunted expression in his eyes were distressingly familiar. Oh no. Is he in love again? But why then would he...

    The turbolift halted abruptly, and Delvardus led the way with long, decisive strides. His quarters were as clean and austere as the rest of the ship, but they quickly passed through them to a sealed door at the very back. It opened only after Delvardus provided a voiceprint and a drop of blood from his finger, revealing an airlock leading into what looked like a small automated lab. Quest felt the increased air pressure in his eardrums when they stepped inside; then the door snapped shut again behind him and he was locked in, together with Sander Delvardus and a human-sized coffin that took up most of the space in the middle of the room.

    "This is secure," Delvardus said, facing Quest across the dark grey box. A row of indicator lights at the end of the lid caught Quest's attention, and with a start he realized what he was looking at. "Is that… that woman? The one from Bith?" The one they say you killed?

    "This is secure," Delvardus repeated stubbornly. "No one can hear us here. Or see us, or sniff out whatever your big secret is."

    Would that it were so. Quest tore his attention away from the coffin to put his thoughts in order. He had to do this just right. Believable, authentic, but not too close to the truth at the same time. As soon as he uttered the name, he knew, he would be playing for two audiences: one man in front of him, and another peering into his mind from far away.

    "Palpatine," he said slowly, "is alive."

    Delvardus frowned but said nothing. Focusing on the words, their pronunciation and pitch to the exclusion of anything else, Quest continued. "He cheated death at Endor, and came back to life."

    Delvardus' gaze flicked to one end of the coffin - to where, Quest supposed, his mistress' face would be. According to the rumors Quest had heard, Delvardus had struck her with some sort of hammer in a fit of passion, sending her into a coma from which he was desperately trying to awake her ever since.

    "How?" Delvardus asked. "How do you know?"

    "He contacted me." It was true enough, after a fashion. "He wants his allies to join him while he prepares for his return. They will be richly rewarded."

    The Superior General's face settled into a grim expression. "Assuming I believe you…" he began.

    "You believe me." Quest had played enough confidence games in his life to know when a mark was ready to fold. "Your battle plan is madness, and you know it. It only makes sense if there is something specific you hope to find in the Imperial Palace." He laid a hand on the suspended animation casket between them, making Delvardus flinch. "You suspected Palpatine had contingency plans, didn't you?"

    "Of course he would," Delvardus ground out between clenched teeth. "But that he could survive the Death Star…"

    "He is more powerful than any of us imagine." That too was true, and Quest let some of his deep apprehension creep into his voice. "So this is your choice: you can either join him in the fullness of his power, or risk everything for a chance to dig around on Coruscant for whatever he may have left behind."

    It was not a choice, really, and they both knew it. "You are certain," Delvardus said.

    "I am."

    "How come no one else knows?"

    "Once you know it," Quest said simply, "you either join him or die."

    The Superior General took a deep breath, steadying himself against his lover's coffin. "And you can get me there?" he asked. "Right now?"

    "No."

    "No?"

    "It is a secret, Sander. Until he is ready to strike, to take back his Empire, no one can know. No one must even suspect. You will not tell anyone about this, not your captains, not even your closest friends." If you have any. "Instead, we will manufacture an excuse. A plausible reason for your fleet's retreat into the Deep Core."

    Delvardus stared at him, his fists clenching and unclenching in turn. "You want me to lose."

    "I want you to fight. Heroically." Quest began pacing to break up the tension of the situation. The debate is over; we are planning now. "The Rebels just took Yag'Dhul from you. Strike back at them where it hurts."

    "A well-defended world, you mean."

    "A worthy prize. One that will make them angry, so they will strike back."

    "And I flee, like a coward?"

    "No, you hold out. Preserve your strength, keep the line of command intact. Keep fighting, with honor and determination, until your captains come to you advising a strategic retreat." Quest spread his hands, mirroring Delvardus' earlier gesture. "Whereupon you graciously take their advice, with no stain on your honor."

    The Superior General's eyes had narrowed to slits; Quest could feel hope and pride fighting inside him, trampling the last traces of distrust in the process. Finally Delvardus pulled himself up to his full height, in the inevitable final show of token resistance. "You talk a good game," he said darkly, "but I still remember the last time I followed your lead."

    Quest laughed. "That last time I told you not to try your luck with Ysanne Isard in the first place. Remember that? But you were intractable, so I did what I could to cushion the blow." Walking around the casket, he stepped into Delvardus' personal space. "Don't be intractable this time, Sander. For your own sake."

    For a moment it seemed as if he had pushed it too far; but then Delvardus relented. "I won't," he said. "It's a good plan."

    "And you get your poster boy back in the bargain." Quest slapped the Superior General's shoulder, grinning. "Hublin will be delighted to hear you are taking on the Rebels at Sullust instead of going adventuring in the Core."

    Delvardus frowned. "Did I say Sullust?"

    "No, but you thought it, didn't you? Come on." He pushed the airlock release, guessing correctly that no blood was required to exit. "Let's go inform your captain of the change of plans."
     
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  23. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Kadann dies at the end (1/2)


    Nefta's Kadann died quickly.

    A short, dark-haired human, she had been picked up by Lumiya on a research station in the Outer Rim. For her crimes against the Empire - specifically, passing on military secrets to the Rebels - Lumiya had reached into her mind and twisted it until she believed, with every fiber of her being, that she was the Supreme Prophet Kadann, possessed of visions of the future and destined to rule the Empire. It was not the first of Lumiya's experiments with this particular kind of Force persuasion, but it had been the most successful to date by far.

    "You will bow to me," she intoned, her voice impressively deep and sonorous. She looked the part, too; adding a visual illusion on top of the mind twist had been a comparatively simple exercise. "I have foreseen it."

    Nefta, formerly King of Radama, Imperial senator and close friend to the Emperor himself, looked at the creature in disdain. "Really?" he asked Lumiya, who stood behind him in the doorway to the cell. "This?"

    "You will treat me with the respect I deserve!" the human demanded, eyes blazing. "You will - "

    Light arced from one of Nefta's fingertips to the prisoner's temple. Without sparing the slumping body another glance, Nefta turned on his heel and left the cell. "That was demeaning," he told Lumiya.

    "It was good practice," she replied, her voice metallic and even. "And we agreed Kadann needed to die."

    "You want another one?" Carnor Jax asked. He had been keeping watch outside the cell, his face unreadable under the black visor of his uniform. "We still have two on board that should be mostly serviceable."

    "Nothing would please me less," Nefta said drily. "I have done my part; now you get done with yours."

    "And you are sure it is Bosthirda?" Lumiya asked. Carnor could tell she still did not trust Nefta, and to be fair she was right not to. But the time for betrayal is a long way hence, he thought, and Nefta agreed with a soundless laugh.

    "Do you have any better guess?" Nefta asked.

    They had narrowed down the list of likely hiding places for the real Prophets to a few dozen worlds, but that had always been a sketchy exercise. Bosthirda was on it, near the end of the list, based on a comment from Kadann about the death of some ancient Dark Lord that Carnor had once overheard. "No," he admitted now, while Lumiya still glowered at Nefta. "Whatever else those Prophets are, they're good at hiding."

    "Oh, they are good at a great many things." Nefta smiled with a menace that chilled Carnor to the bone, even though it was not directed at him. "But not for long now. Not for long at all."


    ***


    Isard's Kadann started out as a rumor. "There's a whisper going around the Palace," General Ashen told Ysanne Isard, "that Kadann is already on Coruscant. An aide of Windcaller's claims to have seen him exiting a speeder near the First Church, and another source I haven't yet been able to pin down places him in the Palace District this morning. No, there's no sign of him in the security footage," he added, anticipating Isard's question, "and apparently everyone agrees that he's alone. No forces, no giant goon, just a bearded dwarf."

    "This is Imperial City," Isard scoffed. "I'm sure there are quite a few bearded dwarfs here, just as there are quite a few of any other kind of creature. People just never noticed them until they saw Kadann's pathetic holo rant, and now of course they'lll see him anywhere."

    "Exactly what I thought, Madam Director," Ashen said. "I wanted to apprise you of the rumor anyway."

    "As you should. Rumors have a power of their own, even if they are unfounded." Isard considered for a second, looking through her window at the lines of vehicles crisscrossing the sky. "I happen to know," she said slowly, "that Kadann, at this moment, is very much preoccupied and not in any state to be walking around the city." She thought of the recording her Grand Admiral had sent her only minutes ago, of Kadann's screams as his space station disintegrated around him. She smiled. "Have your men look for him anyway. Show the inhabitants of the Palace District that you are taking every threat seriously, no matter how unlikely. Oh, and arrest Mahd Windcaller. She is to show your men into the Church so they can search it. If she cooperates, let her go in the evening. If not, execute her for aiding the enemy."

    If he was shocked at the idea of killing the head of the most influential media conglomerate in the Empire, Ashen hid it well. "As you command, Madam Director," he said evenly. "I will see to it myself."

    Isard carried the feeling of a job well done with her to the Council meeting an hour later. To her mild surprise, it was Tann Starpyre, the dull and ineffectual representative of the Governors' Diet, who asked about Windcaller's absence. "I have placed her under the protection of the EDF," she said, nodding to the heavily armed Elite soldiers who guarded the doors behind her, "until this matter of Kadann is settled." She watched the faces of the Councilors as they digested this; it meant, of course, that they themselves had to expect getting arrested if anyone they had ties to ever threatened Isard or her rule. "Which I am sure," she added in a more conciliatory tone, "it will be by the end of the day."

    She was thinking ahead to the evening, when Afsheen Makati was to publicly announce the death of the traitorous Supreme Prophet, as she walked through the Grand Corridor after the meeting had adjourned. Makati was not the galaxy's most charismatic speaker - in fact he had a tendency to lisp, particularly when excited - but Isard decided he had earned that honor, if only for putting up with the notoriously unstable Dark Jedi Azrakel during their mission to Scardia Station. She was imagining Windcaller's face at the news when a soldier in her security detail suddenly called out, raised his gun, and stepped in front of her.

    "What is it?" she asked, trying to peer past his broad armored chest. By now the other three soldiers accompanying her were reacting as well, falling into a defensive position and quietly calling for reinforcements over their helmet comms.

    "He is here," one of them told her. "The Prophet."

    "What?"

    The usual murmur in the corridor was quickly growing into a riot of voices and shouts. Impatient, Isard pushed past the soldier blocking her view to see what was going on - and froze.

    There, in the middle of the Grand Corridor, the center of power in the Empire, stood the diminutive figure of Kadann, his robes sparkling as he waved his arms like some deranged conductor. To either side of the corridor, waves of color ran up and down the trunks of the ch'hala trees lining the corridor, seemingly in reaction to his motions, as everyone in the corridor either fled or looked on in terrified fascination.

    "Permission to shoot, Madam?" the soldier next to Isard asked, his voice tight.

    "Yes," Isard said, shaking her head and blinking rapidly as if to dispel an illusion. "Shoot him. All of you."

    Four bolts of fire lanced out at the figure, which raised its arms and cackled madly. Two scorched the floor in front of him; one went wide, setting a far-off banner on fire. The fourth one hit the Prophet dead in the chest, whereupon he flickered, sparked, and fell over.

    "A droid, Madam Director," the soldier announced. "A TC-SC, from the looks of it. Heavily modified."

    "A prank?" one of the EDF officers who had arrived at the scene mused. "Or a distraction?"

    Ysanne Isard looked at the droid, its arms and legs sawed off to approximate the proportions of the Supreme Prophet. "Yes, a prank," she decided. She understood, now; she would need to have a word with Carnor Jax when he came back. "Have Windcaller released, with my apologies. Give her network the story." She paused. "And tell her to reserve a slot for an exclusive broadcast from Grand Admiral Makati this evening. She won't want to miss that one."


    ***


    Grand Admiral Makati watched on a holoscreen in his personal quarters as the crazy Dark Jedi descended towards the glowing ruins of Scardia Station. They could have blown it all to bits with a few more minutes of sustained turbolaser fire, but for some reason Azrakel had insisted on going down there to look at Kadann's corpse in person. Probably has a thing for corpses, that freak. Was mighty disappointed when the dwarf came home and simply told the housekeeping droids to clean up the mess he left behind. Like cutting up people with his glow stick is some sort of art...

    The image on the screen began to shimmer as Azrakel neared the station, which was still leaking flames and superheated air. Where the lasers had cut the deepest into the structure before Azrakel had told them to stop, Makati thought he saw a bubble of some sort, like a hole in the mess of melted metal; but then he was distracted by the chime of the comm unit on his desk. "What is it?" he asked gruffly.

    "Priority message, Sir," the Steadfast's comms officer said. "Source unknown. We tried to trace it, but…"

    "Imperial codes?"

    "Yes, Sir."

    Probably Isard, then. "Put it through."

    The message, it turned out, did not come from Ysanne Isard. It consisted of only one word, spoken in a metallic rasp that sent a shiver down Makati's spine.

    "Bosthirda."


    ***


    Ken was in hell.

    The last thing he remembered was his head hitting the floor, and a giant bird's talons reaching for him before being pushed away by the explosion. The floor had been black, like everything else in the Chamber of Dark Justice; now it was an angry red mass, warped and literally liquefied in some places, with tongues of flame licking through the gaps and at Ken's back.

    And yet, somehow, he felt no pain other than a dull throbbing in his skull - and the anguish in his heart at the memory of his father's gruesome death. Triclops' blood still stung in his eyes; he wiped it away with the back of his hand and blinked.

    It was as though he was floating in the eye of a storm, a bubble of calm in the midst of destruction. And he was not alone: there, on the far side of the bubble, was Kadann, his sparkly robes billowing around him as he drifted lifelessly across the fiery backdrop.

    A shield, Ken realized. Kadann must have activated some sort of personal shield as a last resort - and whether by accident or by design, it had saved him as well. There was no sign of the shapeshifter or whatever remained of his father, but when he squinted he could see it now, hovering right between him and the Supreme Prophet: a small metal sphere, maybe fist-sized, exuding a faint blue glow.

    As the first shock and confusion receded, Ken felt his anger rushing back in force - and with the anger, his awareness of the world beyond his line of sight. The shapeshifter, the main object of his anger, was gone, and Kadann held on only to the most diminutive of sparks; but there were other minds, other lives out there, some clustered together far away, but one getting closer, burning with fury. Ken looked up, startled, but there was still only Kadann's body, framed by the cooling edges of the ragged hole the turbolaser barrage had cut into the station.

    Then a red light speared through the darkness behind him, a blade that stung Ken's eyes with its sudden glare, and illuminated a hulking figure coming at them feet first. Ken looked on in a mixture of fear and fascination as the warrior set down on top of the bubble, ribbons of blood-red cloth trailing around his shoulders, his face helmetless in the hard vacuum with only a breathing apparatus covering his mouth and nose.

    Azrakel. That's what Kadann had said, and what the Grand Admiral had confirmed. The one who killed all the Prophets… or nearly all of them.

    The Dark Jedi bent down, put one hand on the bubble so that the shield buzzed and glowed with the energy needed to repel him, and looked inside. He focused on Kadann first, and Ken was sure he found the same vestigial spark of life in him that he had felt. Hatred poured off him in waves, so strong that it made Ken's mouth dry with a thirst for revenge. Then Azrakel turned his gaze on Ken - and to Ken's utter surprise, he nodded. Once, curtly, but with an expression that made Ken feel he was being greeted as an equal. Respected, even.

    Then he killed Kadann.

    It was the smallest of gestures - a narrowing of the eyes, a barely perceptible pinching motion of the gloved fingers - but it was enough to smother the last smoldering ember deep inside the dwarf. Ken felt the Supreme Prophet die at the same moment that the shield protecting both of them suddenly flickered. Without warning, the sphere which had hovered between him and Kadann raced towards Ken, stopped just short of punching him in the stomach, and he found himself enclosed in a much smaller bubble, just wide enough for himself.

    Ken's ears popped, and he caught his breath. Above him, Azrakel brought his lightsaber down on the now-unprotected corpse of Kadann, cutting off what appeared to be a hand with the first slash, then bisecting the dwarf's entire body with the second. Amazingly, his anger only seemed to build as he mutilated his enemy, reaching such proportions that it enveloped Ken and made him grit his teeth in involuntary sympathy. He was reminded of kicking Locor, the trainee Prophet, after knocking him out; but this was stronger, fiercer, darker.

    When he had spent himself, the dark warrior turned off his blade and reached for the hand he had cut off. It had drifted closer to Ken in the meanwhile, and as Azrakel's fingers closed around it, Ken realized what it was. The Glove of Darth Vader.

    Azrakel looked at him, and once again, through the coldness of space and the fine mist of blood surrounding him, a silent understanding passed between them. When Azrakel rose, past the remains of Kadann and out of the ruins of his home, Ken rose with him, pulled by invisible threads of power and need.

    His journey, Ken realized, was only just beginning.

    ***

    This chapter turned out rather long, so I split it into 2 parts (of which this is the shorter one). Next up: the battle of Bosthirda!
     
    Last edited: Aug 8, 2020 at 2:51 AM
  24. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Kadann dies at the end (2/2)


    The High Prophet Jedgar stirred in his Sleep. "This makes no sense," he murmured.

    "That they're trying to kill me?" Kadann asked without opening his eyes. The light of Bosthirda's sun, filtered and animated by the vine leaves on the pergola above, danced on his eyelids. "It was anticipated. All is as we foretold it would be."

    "No," Jedgar said. He had been unsettled for days, barely willing to pull his head back in, constantly staring at the shifting futures. Kadann worried he might be going mad. "Yes. But why Cronal?"

    That made Kadann open his eyes. "The traitor?" he asked, squinting into the tangled vines. Cronal was a knot in the fabric of the universe; he had long ago given up trying to untangle him. Instead he avoided him wherever possible, like one would a navigational hazard. "What of him?"

    "He is… gone?"

    It had been a long time since Kadann had felt anything approaching fear. The loss of Merili, almost a standard year ago, had been a disappointment, but not a surprising one. She always burned too hot, that one. The death of Sariss, even more recently, had come almost as a relief. And when the fake Kadann's antics had brought all of his enemies down on his head - both the real Kadann's and the impostor's own, amusingly - Jedgar had kept him up to date on their pathetic attempts to cloud his foresight by killing half a dozen poor fools in his stead.

    But now he sat up, his back as straight as his crooked spine allowed, and stared at the long frame of Jedgar stretched out on the bench beside him. "It's one of his ploys. It has to be. Are you sure this is now?" Jedgar, he knew, perceived most things in terms of people and relationships; this sometimes obscured the times and places at which things were taking place.

    Jedgar sat up himself, rubbing his eyes. "See for yourself," he said. There was a bunch of grapes hanging between them, each as wide as Jedgar's thumb and twice as red; he plucked one off the vine and popped it into his mouth.

    Kadann went to Sleep only reluctantly these days. A while ago, Gornash had spouted some nonsense about Emperor Palpatine having survived Endor, so Kadann had let himself fall deep into Sleep to investigate the exact manner of the Emperor's death. To put it mildly, it had not gone well. For a sensitive mind like Kadann's, Sleeping was like sticking his head out into hyperspace at the best of times; his brain still felt like it had been deep-fried in a supernova from that one attempt.

    But Cronal disappearing was troubling enough to cut through his hesitation. Cronal was a true Prophet, on a par only with Jedgar and Kadann himself, perhaps stronger than either. If someone got to him, they had to consider the possibility that they themselves were in danger as well. If Cronal, with his unparalleled mastery of Darksight, could not evade his own death…

    The pergola groaned above them, just as Kadann was about to lie down. Ships, the vine said.

    "What?"

    There were cries from all over the Temple grounds as the vine told the others the same thing. A heartbeat later, Gornash and one of his young students came dashing into the grove. "A fleet!" he called out. "Delk saw it a minute before it happened. Star Destroyers, closing in from sunwards."

    Kadann and Jedgar looked at each other. They had known that an attack was coming at some point, of course. Kadann had expected it months ago; Jedgar had felt a renewed sense of urgency after the recent disaster at the Valley of the Jedi. They had prepared accordingly; but still, the timing seemed ominous.

    "Should we blow up the moon?" Jedgar asked.

    Please don't blow up the moon, the vineyard said.

    You'll survive, Kadann told the vineyard. He had nursed it himself, from an ambitious tangle growing out of a dead Sith Lord's grave to a sentient vineyard that covered a whole continent. You'll grow further than ever once the dust has settled.

    "Blow up the moon," he said aloud. "And Gornash, get the acolytes outside. It's time for the big show."


    ***


    The journey from Scardia Station to Bosthirda took less than a day. Ken learned more in that time than in all his years under the tutelage of DJ-88.

    Azrakel had never in his life taught anyone. From childhood, he had related to people either as masters, as victims or as obstacles. Darth Sidious had been the first of these masters; Kadann the last. His victims were too many to count, and in too many pieces. Tolerating Grand Admiral Makati and his crew as allies had been a foreign concept for him, the mission a constant struggle.

    All of that changed when he found Ken.

    He had felt him from the moment Makati's fleet moved into attack position over Scardia: a mess of emotions radiating in all directions, fear and anger and hate spiced with a dash of foolish hope. The raw strength in him was palpable even from a distance; but it was seeing him, bloodied and desperate inside his enemy's protective bubble, that startled Azrakel awake.

    Azrakel. What a stupid name.

    He had been a boy once; a boy like Ken. He had had a life of his own: feelings, dreams, regrets, desires. He'd had a name too, though he could not for the life of him remember it.

    Then Sidious and Kadann had tortured him, tried to burn it all out of him, to turn him into an empty shell which they could fill with their own hate and send him at their enemies. They had succeeded, in a way: for years Azrakel had been a tool, for all intents and purposes, with as much self-awareness as a vibroblade. In all that time, he had not felt himself, except the part that hated.

    But however strong Sidious and Kadann had been, they had also been wrong. He had never been empty; his inner life had never been excised, but compressed into a solid, indestructible core. And Ken's appearance had provided the critical mass for that core to explode.

    "Who is that?" Commander Vivant had asked when they arrived in the Steadfast's hangar bay together. Azrakel set the boy down on the deck, then crushed the fake Kadann's shield generator with the Force, letting him breathe the stale air of the Star Destroyer. "My apprentice," he said simply, and the boy agreed.

    "Is Kadann dead?"

    "That creature down there was a fraud. A Bimm." Bimms had a separate air bladder above the heart, probably something to do with their vocal abilities, as he had noted on a previous occasion of slicing up a libelous Bimm bard.

    At that point Makati stepped out of the turbolift, his disfigured face flushed. "Bosthirda," he said, not even sparing the boy a glance. "What does that mean?"

    "It means that the real Kadann, the one who did this to you, is still alive," Azrakel said. "But we're going to change that."

    Ever since then, they had been barreling through hyperspace along the Outer Rim, and Azrakel had taught Ken everything he knew.

    He showed him how to make himself small, so that no one would notice him even when he stood next to them. He made him straighten up and rise to his full height, which was so much larger than his skinny little body that even a Herglic mechanic passing them in the repair bay shrunk back in instinctive fear. He trained him to nourish his anger, even the smallest traces of it, and use it as a flamethrower, a bomb or a precision laser blade at will. When the Herglic mechanic came back, carrying a stack of Fulstar plates, they killed him together for practice, without ever laying a hand on him.

    Ken was terrified of his own power, and exhilarated at the same time. Part of him recoiled at his surroundings - an Imperial Star Destroyer, one of the most hated symbols of the Empire - but he realized quickly that Azrakel too was out of place here. They were their own thing, both of them, not a cog in anyone else's war machine; an irritant to everyone around them.

    "But the most important thing you need to know," Azrakel told Ken as they neared the end of their journey, "is that ultimately you are on your own. Never rely on anyone. Never bow down to anyone. Most of all, never seek anyone's approval."

    "Yeah," Ken scoffed, thinking of his former heroes in the Rebellion. "I've learned that one the hard way."

    Azrakel looked at him, sizing him up. "Your way will be harder than you imagine," he said. "But you will prevail."

    Reentry klaxons sounded all over the ship, and Azrakel turned away from Ken abruptly. "I must go now," he said, tightening the straps of his respirator. "I have given you everything I can. All that I am."

    "What do you mean?" Ken asked, suddenly horrified.

    "Down there on Bosthirda, the real Supreme Prophet is waiting for me," Azrakel said. "The man who made me what I am. I must kill him."

    "Then I will go with you."

    "No." Azrakel took the glove from which they had removed the severed hand, and slipped it on. "This is my fight, not yours. Your enemy, the one who kidnapped and tricked you, was the impostor; the impostor is already dead." He flexed his fingers, and the amulet embedded in the back of the glove shone with an eerie grey light. "Like I said: ultimately you are on your own."


    ***


    "Attack force insystem," Captain Valek reported when Lumiya and Carnor Jax entered the bridge. "Two Star Destroyers, one ISD and one Victory. Ensign, how are we on identification?"

    "A moment, Sir," the sensor officer said, listening to his subordinates' reports over the headphones, then nodding sharply. "It's the Steadfast alright, Sir."

    "They jumped in close," Valek explained, "letting the sun pull them out of hyperspace, then immediately taking course for the planet." On Lumiya's orders, the Revenant had reverted to realspace near the system's heliopause and some degrees above the ecliptic, just close enough for watching but far outside any plausible defensive perimeter. As they still didn't know anything about Bosthirda's defenses, Lumiya was more than happy to let Makati and his forces test the waters and draw out whatever the Prophets had in store.

    "More contacts!" the sensor officer announced. "Two Pursuit-class light cruisers, one Gozanti carrying… something,unclear. Forming up with the Destroyers now."

    "A blockade line?" Captain Valek speculated.

    "I'm more interested in the reaction," Lumiya said, her eyes fixed on the stars outside. They were too far away to see much with the naked eye, but looking on helped her focus through the Force. "Anything from the surface?"

    "No, my Lady." Then the comms officer gasped. "Another contact! A… Torpedo Sphere?"

    Carnor Jax laughed softly, the first sound to pass through his mask since his arrival on the bridge. "A bombardment line, then," Captain Valek said with grim appreciation. "This should be interesting." In the absence of Death Stars, Torpedo Spheres were the Empire's favorite tool for breaking heavily defended planets. Their ability to fire five hundred proton torpedos simultaneously at a single spot let them overwhelm even the most powerful of shield generators. They were rare and expensive to operate, however, and it seemed more of them were getting lost every month.

    "In a few hours, maybe," Carnor Jax commented. "Those things take hours to calibrate."

    "If you are firing at a single spot," Lumiya said without taking her eyes off the viewport. "But…"

    She let the word trail off and tensed. Something had happened there, between the fleet and the planet. Something big. "Sensors!" she hissed. "Report!"

    "It's the moon." The ensign's voice broke on the last word. "It exploded."


    ***


    "He'll never make it," Commander Vivant said. They were watching the point of light that was Azrakel's Scimitar Assault Bomber swing past the bulk of the Torpedo Sphere and dive towards the planet.

    "He's a Dark Jedi," Grand Admiral Makati said. "He's tough."

    "There is a cloud of moon shards between us and the planet," Commander Vivant said, gesturing out the bridge viewport. "Some of them moving at ten thousand klicks a minute. Ranging in size from microscopic to bigger than this Star Destroyer. They will rip him to shreds."

    Makati shrugged. "Or that."

    For a minute they stood on the bridge in silence. The holoscreen to one side showed the Scimitar's projected path and its current position based on real-time telemetry. He must have reached the outer edge of the expanding cloud of gravel and rocks by now, an environment too chaotic for the screen to represent. Makati turned his gaze back out the window.

    There was a short, bright flash. "Sensor lock lost, sir," the officer said. "He's gone."

    "Like I said," Vivant observed calmly.

    Some of the bridge crew gasped, but not Makati. "Back to the plan, then," he said. "We burn them to cinders. Comms, tell Captain Pivoluk to stop the calibration and fire the full complement. No precise solutions; it's enough if the torpedos are heading in the general direction of the planet."

    "At once, sir."

    "Still no activity from the surface?" he asked the sensor station.

    "None, sir. Uh, it seems to be quite the jungle. Lots of plant life, reaching very high up, obscuring the terrain. Hard to get any life readings beyond that…"

    "No matter," Makati said. "In a few minutes it will all be ash. Still no shields?"

    "No, sir."

    "Torpedos away, sir."

    Through the viewport, they saw the space around the rotund battle station to their left light up with five hundred individual exhaust flares. On the tactical holoscreen, their projected paths diverged slightly but still all ended up on Bosthirda, ignoring the obstacles between them.

    In reality, a little less than half of the torpedos detonated early when they hit fragments of the moon, setting off a fresh cascade of chaotic collisions. The others roared on towards the planet - only to change course an instant after entering the atmosphere, curving outwards and back like the petals of some exotic flower.

    A feeling like cold fire coursed through the Grand Admiral's nerves, too much like the torment and humiliation Kadann had put him through all those years ago. "Report!" he screeched as a new wave of explosions blossomed in the debris field. Again, many of the returning torpedos fell victim to the debris storm; but the rest…

    "It, uh, seems," the sensor officer stuttered, then flinched as the Torpedo Sphere exploded, hit by its own weapons. For a few minutes the air was filled with klaxons and screams as Makati ordered the fleet to pull back to a safe distance and the remains of the battle station merged with those of the moon.

    "Uh, the plant," the officer finally continued when the worst of the clamor had subsided. "It seems like… the native plant life reached up into low orbit, grabbed our torpedos and, uh, turned them around? I know it makes no sense."

    Makati's face had settled into a gloomy frown, the kind that made his scars ache in memory of lightning. "Oh it makes perfect sense," he said. "Commander Vivant, give orders to pull back."

    "But, Grand Admiral…"

    Makati cut him off with a gesture. "Those moon shards? Their orbits are rapidly decaying. It will not be long until the first of them start entering Bosthirda's atmosphere." He looked around at the remains of his small fleet. "And we do not want to be here when that… that plant starts flinging rocks at us."


    ***


    There was this cliche in the minds of sentients that plants were slow; that if an organism like the Dreaming Vineyard of Bosthirda spent millennia rooted in the same spot, the lives of other people must be mere flickers to its ponderous mind.

    That idea was as old as poetry, and just as misleading. From the vineyard's perspective, time was simply inconsequential: a moment could capture its attention just as much as an entire era, and it could act in both with equal deliberation.

    It was growing through the corpse of Darth Xedrix, taking on some of his essence as it drained out of him. It was battling for nutrients with a tenacious species of fern, eventually winning out after hundreds of years. It was feeling the winds, delicate shifts in air currents rustling millions of leaves, to anticipate the course of a proton torpedo, divert its course with a thousand gentle touches, and guide it back towards its sender. It was pushing pale roots through the mud at the bottom of the ocean on its way to colonize Bosthirda's other major continent. It caught the small ship that came in hot and smoking, batted its bombs away, ripped off its drives and guns, then passed it on from vine to vine towards the Temple.

    Over the last decades, with the help of Kadann, the vineyard had grown such that it now sat atop the continent like an enormous living mesa. It had courted symbionts: tall trees whose trunks it used to climb further towards the sun, and which it fed with refined solar energy in turn; web-spinning critters whose threads added tensile strength to its branches. Only in one place near the southern shore had the plant tamed its reckless growth, forming a structure like a huge green crater at whose center lay the Temple of the Prophets. There the vines stood in orderly hedges, hung from arched pergolas and decorated the ancient stone platforms in aesthetically pleasing ways; and there it delivered the ship, as the Supreme Prophet had asked it to.


    ***


    The Scimitar's viewports were choked with greenery, but Azrakel did not need his eyes to know where he was. He could feel Kadann, his former master, just a few paces away; there were other people with him, but none evoked as much rage in him as the Supreme Prophet.

    Azrakel ate that rage: he bit down on it, chewed it, swallowed it, and felt its strength radiate through him from behind his solar plexus. He gripped his lightsaber, closed his eyes and prepared.

    "You stay here," he growled when he was ready. "Understood?"

    "Y-yeah." Of course Ken had not listened when Azrakel told him to stay behind. Of course he had stowed away on the Scimitar the hangar crew was preparing for Azrakel, crouching in the bombardier's seat and using the technique his newfound mentor had taught him to make himself small. Azrakel, meanwhile, had been so focused on his goal that he did not notice the stowaway until they almost died.

    They almost died because a fist-sized bit of moon was coming at the Scimitar Assault Bomber with the speed of a bullet, just after they entered the dangerous zone. They survived only because Ken, acting on instinct when his danger sense pricked him, had dropped and immediately detonated a concussion missile whose shock wave pushed them out of the way. That and the chin wound Azrakel had sustained in the maneuver did not make him any happier when he found out. He ate that anger too, though it was barely a snack in comparison. "You stay here," he repeated.

    "Uh-huh."

    "And eat that fear. Keep yourself small. Don't come out until everyone is dead."

    "But -"

    "Shut up." Azrakel felt the Prophets step closer to the ship, and everything inside him tensed like a coiled spring. He forgot about Ken; he forgot about everything except his goal. With a roar and a hiss, he and his lightsaber snapped into action at the same time, cutting through the canopy and the vines encircling it at the same time, then vaulting through the hole in the same movement.

    His leap was high and precisely calculated to bring him down right on top of Kadann's head. When he was at the apex, he brought his sword down - and was jolted back when a vine wrapped around his ankle. As he struggled to break his fall, more vines grabbed hold of his wrists and his other foot, then one snagged his lightsaber and pulled it away. Before he knew it, he was face down on the ground, bound hand and foot, his rebreather scraping on stone.

    A booted foot stepped in front of his face, and he did not have to look up to know what it was. "Azrakel," Kadann said, pulling his name like soft putty. "How nice of you to drop by. And just in time for the fireworks!"


    ***


    Ken was small. He was extremely small. He was minute, really, almost infinitesimal.

    He was not small enough.

    There were vines everywhere: vines encircling the ship, vines crawling in through the hole Azrakel had cut, sprouting new leaves and branching out at terrifying speed.

    He knew it noticed him when he let out a small breath, the tiniest breath, and one of the leaves shivered at the touch of air. Now the green tentacles were closing in on him from all sides, growing along the walls, under the floor mat, through the ventilation system and swaying their tips through the air in front of his face like a blind monster feeling its way. Terror rose in Ken, sheer mammalian claustrophobic terror that made him want to scream and thrash and burn it all.

    It took a monumental effort, but he bit down on that terror and ate it. It was lumpy and gross, but then it was gone.

    And he could feel the plant now. Its presence was muted, nothing like the raging fire of Azrakel's; but it was huge, heavy and everywhere. Ken tried to get a feeling for the size of the plant, for its roots and its limits, but he failed.

    In a way, he felt, the plant was this planet, much like the false Kadann had been his space station. In this place, escaping the plant made as little sense as stepping out of the universe.

    So he tried something else.

    "Hey plant," he whispered, his breath rustling the nearest leaf. "Can you hear me?"

    The leaf nodded. It literally bobbed up and down on its stem in an imitation of the human gesture. If he hadn't been so tense, Ken might have laughed.

    "Did you blow up the moon?" Ken asked. At the outermost limits of his perception, he felt the plant move, bundles of vines deflecting rocks that came streaking down through the atmosphere in growing numbers. It felt calm, even though it was moving some of its limbs with dizzying speed.

    The leaf swayed from side to side. No. - I knew it!

    "It was Kadann, wasn't it? He gave the order, anyway." Ken did not wait for the plant's confirmation before going on. "You are protecting him, but he's letting you die."

    The leaf disagreed, but weakly. "I saw the moon shards getting ground up, up there," Ken said. "There's no way you can catch them all. And the dust in orbit…" He tried to remember DJ-88's history lesson about the Beheboth Cataclysm. "Even if you survive the bombardment, you won't get enough sunlight for years, hundreds of years. Thousands, maybe."

    With a twitch of the vine, the plant managed the equivalent of a shrug. "What I am saying is," Ken insisted, "Kadann would never do for you what you're doing for him. He will happily let you die and fly off to another planet." He leaned in closer, until his lips almost touched the leaf. "But you don't have that option, do you?"

    For what felt like a long time, nothing stirred inside the trapped Scimitar bomber. Outside, Ken heard the Prophets laughing without speaking, as if they were telling each other jokes in some inaudible language, over the groans and snarls from Azrakel. "You will learn to behave in time," Kadann said aloud in response. "I know you came back to be tamed. You need a master; you are nothing without me."

    A shiver ran through the planet as a moon fragment slammed into its crust on the far side. "It will have to be soon, though," Kadann said. "We are leaving this place. You can come on my leash or not at all."

    "He is letting you die!" Ken hissed into the leaves. "All I am asking is for you to do the same."


    ***


    The vines slackened. Not the ones holding him, Azrakel noticed, but the ones holding his lightsaber in a dense hedge of greenery a few paces away.

    That was enough.

    Thrumming like a whole swarm of angry insects, the weapon burst forth from its hiding place in a mad whirl, impossible to counter. Azrakel went for Jedgar first, cutting into the lanky Prophet's shoulder as he turned. He was not used to being surprised, and it showed. When he lifted his arm to grab the lightsaber's hilt with the Force, it bucked and spun in the other direction instead, cutting his arm off at the elbow.

    There were shrieks all around, punctuated by the drum beats of impacting rocks. Azrakel felt as alive as he never had, pouring all of his strength and hate into controlling the lightsaber - until Kadann stepped on his head, and Azrakel's world exploded in blinding pain.

    "You will learn to behave, I said," Kadann growled, grinding his heel into Azrakel's face between his cheek and the rebreather. "Or you will -"

    The other vines came loose as well, and Azrakel was free. Eating the pain in his face, he spun around with his head pinned, grabbed Kadann's leg and kept rolling, pulling him down.

    The Supreme Prophet was short and stocky but surprisingly strong. Freeing his leg, he jumped up, snatched Azrakel's lightsaber out of the air and landed hard on his chest before Azrakel had a chance to rise.

    "You," he said, pointing the tip of Azrakel's own blade at his throat, "will, behave!"

    It was Jedgar's surprise that killed him.

    To Azrakel, lying on his back with the wind knocked out of him, the scene unfolded like a picture slowly coming into focus. There was Kadann standing on his chest, his hair and beard blowing in the winds unleashed by the orbital bombardments. In the background, framed by mile-high growths of vines, an uncountable number of moon shards was entering the atmosphere, turning so hot they scorched the vines that batted them away, a firework so spectacular he had to watch it for a moment even with his life in urgent danger. From the sides, more black-robed Prophets crowded into his field of view, more than he had expected to find here, their hands outstretched to help Kadann by keeping his enemy pinned down.

    Then Jedgar rose from where he had fallen, raised his mutilated arm and pointed the stump at the ship. "You!" he crowed, blood spraying from his mouth along with the word. "You were supposed to be on Coruscant!"

    Azrakel never learned what Jedgar meant by that. He could not know that Cronal had intended to put Ken on the Imperial Throne while pulling his strings in the body of Luke Skywalker. Lacking the Prophets' vision, he had never seen the future that had seemed near unavoidable until the moment of Cronal's sudden death, in which both the Rebels and the Empire bowed to Ken Palpatine and his guardian Luke Vader, in an apparent peace whose every aspect was under the secret control of the Dark Side. Azrakel did not even see Ken himself climbing out of the Scimitar's cockpit to defend him in a last desperate gesture. All he knew was that Kadann was momentarily distracted by Jedgar's exclamation, and he used the opportunity to strike.

    With his right hand, wearing the Glove of Darth Vader, he took the lightsaber by the blade and ripped it out of the Supreme Prophet's hands. He slapped the hilt in Kadann's face, then let go of the blade and jerked it around with the Force.

    Kadann's head hit the ground with a dull thud. The other Prophets screamed and came at him, but Azrakel hardly cared.

    Azrakel. What a stupid name.

    He remains of the man who had come up with it slid off his chest. He looked at the intensifying fireworks above and smiled.


    ***


    "Now?" Carnor Jax asked.

    "Yes," Lumiya said. She had been in a deep trance, trying to feel what was happening on Bosthirda's surface while their sensors were struggling to penetrate the growing cloud of dust that had once been the moon.

    Carnor Jax activated the comm. "Captain Valek, clear the way." They were sitting on the double-nosed bridge of a Pacifier scout ship, all systems running and ready to fly.

    On Carnor's signal, the frigate Revenant launched a chain of concussion missiles into the expanding cloud of moon debris the crew had dubbed 'the maelstrom'. When the leading missile reached the edge of the debris field, it exploded, and the shock wave punched a hemispheric hole into the lethal cloud.

    The hole would hold for only a few seconds before rocks came tumbling back in from all around; but a few seconds was just long enough. Carnor Jax gritted his teeth and pushed the Pacifier's control stick forward. It shot right into the gap created by the first missile, rocked with the shock wave when the second one exploded a bit further in, then rattled and bucked with a succession of punches as the barrage in front of them cut a path through the chaos.

    They were barely through when they slammed into the atmosphere. Rocks were falling all around them, burning up from friction; Carnor Jax let the Pacifier drop as fast as he dared while avoiding the same fate. At about two hundred klicks from the surface, he released the tanks full of defoliants they had synthesized from rocket fuel on the Revenant.

    For a long moment, while they were falling just a little slower than the toxic rain, Carnor Jax held his breath. Below them, reaching up into the thermosphere, the plant was batting away rocks at blinding speeds. They scorched its vines, but it never flinched, never hesitated.

    Then the rain hit it. It was hard to see through the viewport at first, but as the Pacifier sank lower, Carnor Jax saw the effect of his tactic. Over at least ten square klicks, the thicket of vines was liquefying, branches shriveling up and dripping fluid onto the layers below them in an unstoppable cascade of destruction.

    And yet the plant did not panic, did not flail, did not make any desperate moves to grab or kill them. On the contrary, it seemed to retreat, pulling its still-living limbs away from the infected area to stop the spread.

    Carnor Jax let out the breath he'd been holding. "You were right," Lumiya said. "I feel no fury, no desire for vengeance. Not even proper pain."

    "Our real enemies will be different."

    "I know." They were nearing the temple now; Carnor Jax could hear Lumiya's lightwhip hiss and thrum as she turned it on. "Let's kill them."


    ***


    This, Ken decided when a bunch of grapes fell on his head, was not so much a battle as a procession of absurdities.

    First the dwarf knocked down Azrakel. Then Azrakel grabbed a laser blade as if it was a solid stick. Then the Prophets complained that he was not on Coruscant, like they were so convinced he had to be there that their whole worldview collapsed when he wasn't. Which was a good thing, he supposed, especially because it cost Kadann his head, but still confusing.

    And now the plant - the giant plant he had just talked to - was melting. Vines turned to mud, mud that could not support the heavy grapes; and the grapes too, Ken noticed with disgust, were going soft and spilling sticky pungent liquid down his face and neck. He shook them off and wiped his face, squeezing his eyes shut to protect them.

    When he blinked again, all the Prophets were dead.

    The Temple was surrounded by a sea of brown sludge that was quickly draining away, revealing that they were actually standing on the top of a small terraced hill. There was a new ship on one of the terraces nearby, looking like some sort of squat, mean bug; and the ship had brought two of the most frightening figures Ken had ever seen.

    One was a Royal Guard in crimson robes, plunging his lance into a bundle of black robes on the ground. The other was a woman with a triangular headdress, a burning whip at her side, who was kneeling next to Azrakel.

    "It's him," she said, her voice a metallic hiss. "This hand."

    Fear and fury mingled inside Ken, and this time he did not keep them to himself. With a roar, he charged from his hiding place behind the Scimitar and came at the pair bare-handed, even as the Royal Guard was bringing his lance down on Azrakel.

    He was too late. The woman raised her hand when he was a few steps away, and it felt like he was slamming into a wall of power. At the same instant, the guard's lance scraped against stone, and Ken saw Azrakel's body convulse.

    That was too much. He broke the grip holding him with a scream that pushed the Royal Guard away and made the woman stagger. As he closed the remaining distance, he saw Azrakel's chest heaving; they had cut off his hand, the one with the glove. The Guardsman had caught himself and whirled around to come at Ken, swinging his lance in a wide arc that would have taken off his knees - but the woman stopped him with a gesture, just like she had stopped Ken moments before.

    "Leave him to me," she told the Guardsman. "Check for survivors inside the Temple."

    The man hesitated for a moment, regarding Ken through the eyeslits of his black mask, then turned and left. The woman looked at Ken; she was wearing a respirator just like Azrakel, he noticed, only hers was covered by a flap of cloth.

    "This one is important to you?" she asked, looking at Azrakel.

    Ken could not bring himself to speak. All his anger and rage was draining out of him like brown ooze from the grapes. Watching the woman from the corner of his eye, he knelt beside his mentor.

    "It's too late for him," the woman said. "The Prophet burst his heart before he died."

    Ken ignored her. He knew that Azrakel was dying; he felt it as if it was himself. He also felt Azrakel straining to speak, to tell him something, but his rebreather was half ripped off and gurgling.

    The woman took a step back, still making no move to attack him. "Take your time," she said. "Wait for me here. The Empire can use people as strong as you."

    Then she was gone, and Azrakel was all there was. Ken brought his ear down to the ruin of his face, and then he heard him. His actual voice, not the distorted sound produced by the rebreather.

    "I give you one last thing," he said. "My name. My real name. I remember now."

    He had been a boy once, Ken realized, a boy like him, before Kadann had broken him. He was that boy again now, at the end.

    "My name… is Qaga Lok," he whispered. "Only you shall -"

    Then he died.


    ***


    On the planet Bosthirda, a boy knelt next to the mutilated body of a man. Rocks burned up in the atmosphere above him, painting streaks of smoke into the evening sky. Around him lay the remnants of a secret order, pale bodies in sparkling robes carelessly strewn about the Temple gardens. The vineyard that had protected them was retreating, drawing its energies away from the surface and underground, into sheltered caves, under the ocean. It would wait for decades, maybe centuries, until it could thrive in the light of Bosthirda's sun again; but thrive it would, eventually. To the plant, time was of no object.

    When Lumiya and her apprentice emerged from the Temple, the boy was nowhere to be found. Nor was their ship, the Pacifier scout they had left on the landing field.

    Carnor Jax groaned. "See? I was right again."

    "Perhaps," Lumiya said, gazing wistfully at the chaos up above. "But I don't think we've seen the last of that boy yet." She activated the communicator set into her masked and opened a connection to the Revenant. "Captain Valek," she said, "extract us. We're done here."
     
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2020 at 2:23 PM