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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 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Words and Violence



    In every society, there is a class of beings who consider themselves above the affairs of the rest, beyond politics and aloof from the fickle concerns of the present moment. In their view, wars are like the winds or tides: something to be accounted for and made use of where possible, but not worthy of partisanship or any kind of improper excitement. They pride themselves on their calm, their long view and their friendships across the shifting lines of politics, blithely ignoring the fact that they can only hold these lofty views thanks to their extreme riches and influence.

    But there were moments, Ambassador Sa-Di thought as he surveyed his guests, when even those people got nervous. The eight beings gathered around the dinner table in his skyhook commanded a good part of the Galaxy’s resources - and yet, in a way, they were all refugees, expats, homeless and uncertain about the future.

    He let the moment linger, basking in the power he held over them. On the far side of the table, Lady Ucce was fingering her headdress as she told the man next to her about the revolt the Rebels had incited on her homeworld of Herdessa. “It is a minor thing,” she assured him, “as thankfully my business has been interplanetary for decades, and the men they executed on Herdessa were mere figureheads, designed to draw attention. But even so, one’s home is still one’s home, would you not say?”

    Gerald Weizel, her neighbor at the table, inclined his head in sympathy. He too had recently been ousted from his post when the Rebels had taken over Chandrila; now he called himself a governor-in-exile, though in reality he had nothing to do. Across from him, Lady Aryn Dro Thul of Alderaan looked a little sour at the remark, but she said nothing. The Baroness Marchia of Virgillia 7 was too busy dissecting the fish on her plate to comment, while Moff Jamson Caglio merely smiled as serenely as he always did.

    It fell to little Ederlathh Pallopides, the nine-year-old ward of Dame Vita Veruna, to voice what they were all thinking. “I don’t want to leave,” she said.

    “Oh poor darling,” Lady Ucce reassured her across the table, “but it is only for a short while, until things stabilize.” Her tone was sweet and sympathetic; on Herdessa, she had been called “Lady Bountiful” by the populace, for the gifts she bestowed on the families whose children she sold into slavery.

    Dame Veruna shot her a glance. “What did we talk about, Edi?” she said. “There is no use complaining over happenstance. We move through the world…”

    “...with dignity,” the girl finished her sentence, pouting.

    “Will you be going back to Naboo?” Aryn Dro Thul inquired.

    “One of its moons, in fact,” Vita Veruna said. “For the time being.”

    “But Narmle is boring!” Ederlathh complained.

    “Edi, you haven’t been there since you were four.”

    Moff Caglio leaned across the table and touched Dame Veruna’s arm. “My offer stands,” he said conspiratorially. “Should the need arise.” Days ago, when the Supreme Prophet’s declaration of war had shaken the Coruscant elites out of their placidity, Caglio had formally offered to shelter any of the nobles and exiles in Sa-Di’s circle on nearby Corulag, which was still firmly in the hands of the Empire. Gerald Weizel and the Baroness Marchia had already accepted, and the others were expected to make a decision in the course of this event.

    Smiling, Ambassador Sa-Di raised his glass. Through the transparent roof, Coruscant looked like an immense glittering bauble, veined with lights and studded with skyscrapers piercing down from the cityscape towards them. He had set the gravity on his skyhook such that the planet seemed to hang above their heads, while they themselves would appear to be dining with their feet towards the sky to an observer on the surface. It made for a much more inspiring view, Sa-Di thought, than merely sitting on top of the city and staring out into the emptiness of space.

    “As it happens,” he said, instantly drawing the attention of everyone around the table, “there will be no need for any of us to leave this lovely planet - not anytime soon, in any case.”

    Surprised murmurs sprung up around the table, with Aryn Dro Thul being the notable exception. “I was wondering when you were going to get around to that,” she said.

    “What do you mean, no need?” Weizel asked. “Did Admiral Kermen finally come through with that relief force Isard begged him for?”

    Sa-Di shook his head. “How did you know, Lady Dro?” he asked instead of an answer.

    “Oh, one hears things.” Aryn Dro Thul shrugged. “Fleet movements along the Rimma, but towards the Outer Rim rather than Corewards now. Interdictors at Bortras."

    "So it seems Delvardus came to his senses," Moff Caglio said, leaning back in his chair. "Interesting."

    "But what about Prentioch? Drommel? Zsinj?" Apparently Gerald Weizel had been listening to the military rumor mill more than was healthy. Caglio tsk-tsked at his loss of composure. "Zsinj would not," he said.

    "Nor will anyone else attack Coruscant," Sa-Di truncated the debate, "because the instigator of this insanity is dead."

    A moment of stunned silence ensued, once again broken by young Ederlathh. "Who?"

    "Kadann," Sa-Di said, "who called himself the Supreme Prophet of the Dark Side."

    "No one of any consequence, dear," Vita Veruna assured her ward. "A madman."

    "How do you know?" Aryn Dro Thul asked. She was frowning, and her gaze flicked to the hooded man who stood off to the side of the room. Sa-Di noticed and graced her with a smile. Good guess, but no. "In a few hours everyone will know," he said. "I thought you might appreciate being among the first."

    "Does that mean we can stay?" Ederlathh Pallopides asked excitedly. "We can still live in the Palace?"

    "I will make inquiries, dear. But if this is true…"

    “If it is,” Caglio cautioned. “We have thought him dead before.”

    “Oh, I assure you it is.” Sa-Di winked at Aryn Dro Thul, well aware that he had not answered her question. “It appears we will not have to impose on your hospitality after all.”

    “Good,” the Baroness Marchia said, wiping her mouth. “No offense, Moff, but Corulag is too close to Chandrila for my tastes anyway. No offense either, Governor-in-exile.”

    “Can you make your inquiries now?” the girl asked, pulling at her guardian’s sleeve. “Please. I want to know!”

    Dame Vita Veruna sighed and excused herself. Sa-Di looked on as the excitement and speculation among his guests ran its course, adding no further information. It was such a small secret, he thought, and yet it set them all abuzz. More amusingly still, the deeper secrets -- such as the fact there had been two Kadanns, one of them fake, or the death of Lord Shadowspawn at Mindor -- would have meant nothing to them even if he had spilled them, as none of them were prone to the dark machinations going on behind the scenes.

    Before long, as was customary in these circles, the talk turned away from politics and towards matters of culture and business. Lady Ucce made Aryn Dro Thul admit that her shipping company, Bornaryn Trading, had profited from the liquidation of Xizor Transport Systems and its subsidiaries; Caglio obliquely referred to criminal elements blossoming in the wake of related events, goading Weizel into launching a diatribe against the crime lord Tyber Zann -- specifically, against his affectation of a cultured air when he was no more than a thug. At that, Sa-Di’s gaze strayed to the hooded man waiting in the corner again. The usual anger emanated from him, mingled with growing impatience; but he kept every emotion off his scarred face and kept his posture with military discipline.

    Ederlathh Pallopides, meanwhile, had climbed off her seat and was strolling around the room, waiting for her guardian to return. Sa-Di raised an eyebrow when she walked up to the hooded man, completely unafraid even though he towered over her by at least twice her size.

    “You don’t look happy,” she said.

    Baddon Fass gave her a look that would have sent hardened criminals scurrying away; but the girl only stepped closer and rose on her toes as if to inspect his face. “In fact, you look like you would rather kill someone.”

    “Edi!” Vita Veruna called, hurrying back in from the corridor. “What did I tell you about harassing the help!”


    ***


    Baddon Fass was boiling inwardly. By the time all the guests had finally left, his intestines felt like an overcooked chunk of meat and his teeth were hurting from clenching them too hard.

    “Accarrgm?” his host asked when he returned from seeing Dame Veruna and the brat to their rooms. He held out a bottle that shone with a soft blue light. “From Kashyyyk. Burns like lava.”

    Baddon Fass forced his lips open. “I was promised carnage,” he growled. “And instruction.”

    “This was not instructive?” Sa-Di asked, indicating the table that was being cleared by floating service droids.

    Shadows moved over the Darksider’s lightning-scarred face as he ruminated on how to express his disgust. In the end he simply said, “Words.”

    “Just so.” Sa-Di looked up at the planet hanging above their heads. “And you would rather kill someone?”

    Again Baddon Fass hesitated. He was eager, but not stupid. “I am here because Coruscant was going to be attacked. I came to stand upon a battlefield.”

    “And now you wonder what you are still doing here.”

    Baddon Fass nodded grimly. His master, the Emperor, had sent him out from Byss to seek out death, and to study under his trusted friend Sa-Di. But so far Fass had learned nothing that seemed in any way relevant to his service, and the only deaths nearby had been from a speeder crash that he had engineered while experimenting with the powers Palpatine had bestowed on him.

    “Learning,” Sa-Di said. “And killing, I suppose. Shall we go?”

    Baddon Fass perked up. “Where?”

    Baring his teeth in a smile, Sa-Di raised his hand. “Down,” he said.


    ***


    They took an open-topped airspeeder from the skyhook's garage; Sa-Di insisted Baddon Fass take the controls.

    "Weapons?" Fass asked before they departed.

    "Do you need weapons to kill?"

    Baddon Fass bared his teeth. "No."

    The garage, at least, was the right way up. Outside the air was thin and cool, and the faint shimmer of the orbital shields appeared closer than the planet below. Weather control was keeping the night free of clouds or storms, so their descent was gentle and undisturbed.

    They passed transportation skylanes packed with drone ships that served the logistical needs of the city. Fass considered sending some of them crashing into the cityscape below. He had been a demolition expert before the Emperor had made him what he was now, so he could estimate the ballistic force with which the trucks would shear through multiple densely inhabited levels; but next to him, the Ambassador shook his head. "Down," he said gently.

    Baddon Fass took the hovercar down. The tallest skyscraper in their vicinity was topped by transparisteel domes filled to the bursting with greenery; it vibrated with lifeforms of all sizes, a verdant island in a sea of durasteel. "The Skydome Botanical Gardens," the Ambassador explained. "Mostly nonsentients; the guests have been cleared out for a reception later tonight. Not worth the effort."

    Fass had been pondering what it would take to bring the place down, but he conceded the point. "Down?"

    "Down."

    An almost flat expanse of rooftops stretched underneath them, a result of municipal tax regulations that made building above a certain height significantly more expensive. At Sa-Di's prompting, Fass steered the hovercar into a gap between two blocks. What had looked like a single line of light from up above turned out to be a chasm more than twenty meters wide, with traffic lines patrolled by floating signal droids. The building faces were a jumble of windows, balconies, walkways, open-air restaurants, shop windows and advertisement screens; and people were milling around everywhere, sentients of more different species than Fass had seen in all his years of military service.

    It would be the easiest thing to steer the vehicle into one of the most crowded establishments here, bail out before it hit and revel in the shock of sudden death. But this time Fass did not even have to look at his host to know he was supposed to go on. Sa-Di had something specific in mind, and it would take them into the depths of the ecumenopolis.

    They joined the downwards line, trudging between a delivery truck and a floating platform carrying a group of gaudily dressed aliens. "What are those?" Fass asked the Ambassador. "Those hammerheads? They're everywhere."

    "Ithorians," Sa-Di explained. "Their planet's ruling class is fanatically ecopreservational - that is, on Ithor they can't do anything that might endanger another lifeform, insects and plants included. So the more reasonable of them emigrate to other planets - preferably to those that are the antithesis of their oppressively bucolic home."

    Baddon Fass understood maybe half of what Sa-Di was saying, but he did not complain. Instead he watched the levels go by, getting progressively darker and more forbidding on the outside - but, absurdly, packed with even more people.

    "Living topside is expensive," Sa-Di said. "The cheaper the lodgings, the more people will cram into it. And the poorer they are, the more they breed. Entire clans - entire races - live and die in the shadows here, stacked on top of each other, without ever seeing the sun."

    "No one will care if they are killed," Fass surmised.

    "No. - Further down."

    The chasm narrowed as they descended; the robots and traffic signs disappeared after a few dozen levels, as did the holo posters and lighted storefronts. There were much fewer flying vehicles around them as well; instead the walkways multiplied, some of them crossing from one building face to the other at seemingly random angles, some so wide they blocked most of the airspace, with bustling street markets or tiny shantytowns on them. Once they passed a huge transparisteel pane that covered one side of the chasm for about fifty levels; behind it, an assortment of strange creatures swam in softly illuminated water. "The Calocour Ocean," Sa-Di said. "Less charmingly called the Dishwater Aquarium by some. Home to uncountable aquatic and amphibian species, including a few ambassadorial colleagues of mine. As the old propaganda posters said, there is a place on Coruscant for everyone."

    Baddon Fass carefully navigated the airspeeder past an increasing number of obstacles, including construction scaffolding, a ferocious brawl between members of a winged species battling it out in midair, and at one point a wall that had partly collapsed and was leaning against the other side. Hawk-bats were hanging from it, waking when they passed and screeching after them until Sa-Di silenced their cries with a subtle motion of his hand.

    Finally they could go no farther. Fass set the speeder down on the most horizontal surface he could find, a piece of roof where something big seemed to have been dragged away recently, and they debarked. Fass expected the Ambassador to secure the vehicle in some way, perhaps with a stunner net to repel thieves, but Sa-Di waved it off. "Leave it. We will not be returning this way."

    They followed a narrow track that creatures of undetermined species had trampled into the debris on the roof. As soon as they entered the superstructure, they were accosted by a gang of diminutive beings who were busy walling off a section of this floor with panes of scrap metal. One of them jabbed a long green finger into Fass's abdomen, but Sa-Di signaled him to keep his peace.

    "They're saying this is spider territory," he translated the aliens' gibberish. "Literal spiders, apparently, taking over this level." He held out a hand and the aliens fell silent, slightly swaying back and forth with a confused look on their faces. "Down here," he said then, pointing to a hatch in the floor.

    They climbed down a ladder that passed through a dozen gloomy levels, most of them occupied by members of the same small species engaged in cooking, sleeping, tinkering, debating or trading. In between, there were infrastructure levels whose nonfunctional ducts were populated by rodents. When the ladder ended, Sa-Di put one hand on the grimy wall and then found them a gap they could squeeze through into a cavernous chamber that reminded Baddon Fass of the Emperor's Citadel at Byss, except for the rubble and bones on the floor. A horde of pale, eyeless humanoids with flabby skin made to attack them, but Sa-Di made them freeze with a gesture, then step aside so they could follow their path to its origin. It was a hollowed-out industrial facility where their maggot-like children grew and played in massive duraplast molds, occasionally slinging projectiles at the swarms of moths that occupied the higher reaches of the structure. Multiple corridors led away from that nest; the on Sa-Di chose brought them to a ledge overlooking what had once been a wide plaza, before the city had grown over it and turned it into a cave.

    "Look," Sa-Di said, indicating the mess of girders and scaffolds overhead. "There was sky once. Then they built a highway over it, which collapsed, was propped up, and then served as the foundation for a new building. That one is rubble now as well, built over a hundred times. Do you think anyone up there knows that this cave, this empty space exists down here?"

    "No," Baddon Fass growled. More words. When were they going to get to the killing? There was plenty of life down here too, he saw: reptiloid creatures gathered around cooking fires at the bottom of the plaza, bugs scurrying around the walkways sniffing at the smoke, luminous molds growing from every fissure. But how, he wondered, was any of this more worthy of murder than the crowds in the bars up top?

    "And yet," the Ambassador continued, "all of their homes, their skyscrapers and esplanades rest on this place, and others like it. Even the tallest, most audacious towers up there have no real foundation, no feet planted into the rock of the planet. They rest on chaos; they rely on the fact that if one wall crumbles under their added weight, there will be hundreds more nearby that will hold. None of the architects or builders know exactly where the pressure goes; they simply assume as a general rule that it will spread out over enough different pillars, walls, arches and heaps of rubble to support their construction."

    Reluctantly, Baddon Fass looked at the girders above the plaza with a new appreciation. How many megatons of brick, steel, glass, plastics and living beings rested on any one of them?

    "Yes," Sa-Di said and ran his fingertips along a pillar beside him. "Place your hand here and feel the lines of force. Pure, base physical force; coarse matter that tends inexorably toward the core of the planet. Come, try."

    Baddon Fass obeyed, understanding dawning inside him. The pillar was one of many supporting this side of the building; but as soon as he touched it, Fass knew that there was a lot more resting on it than just the next few floors and the roof. It was an H-shaped metal beam, and though it looked perfectly straight where they could see it, Fass noticed that it was bent ever so slightly along its entire length, almost but not quite to the breaking point.

    "If I pull here," Fass said, "will it all come crashing down on us?"

    "Try," the Ambassador said with a smile.

    "But won't we die?" Looking up, Fass tried to estimate how many levels were above them. Eight hundred? A thousand? More?

    "Not according to my calculations," Sa-Di said, and seeing Fass's incredulous glare, he added: "The chaos is my domain, you see."

    Baddon Fass hesitated. Emperor Palpatine had made him powerful beyond his wildest dreams; he had sent him to seek out death, and told him to learn from this ambassador. Sa-Di still seemed like a windbag, but Fass saw no reason why he should want to kill him - or himself, for that matter. And despite his new powers, he was still a soldier at heart; the chain of command was in his bones.

    So he pulled.

    Nothing happened. The pillar did not move; it was held in place by incredible forces between the city above and the rocks below.

    "Use your anger," Sa-Di said.

    "I'm not angry."

    "This thing just defeated you. A dumb piece of ore, holding its own against the mighty Baddon Fass."

    Fass creased his scarred forehead. He hooked both hands into the beam and let the power grow inside him. If he had one personal strength, it was grim persistence, an unwillingness to give up or back down. That's what had gotten him through the grueling tryouts for the Imperial Army, and it was what had let him overcome the agony of the Emperor's Force lightning which had killed his comrades. There was no way he would let a pillar get the better of him now.

    With all his body, all his mind, all his defiance, he pulled again.


    ***


    A sharp crack sounded through the plaza, louder than a projectile discharge, in fact louder than anything Sneech had ever heard. His packmates all jumped up from their places around the fire, grabbing clubs, bricks or burning roots to defend themselves. At the next fire over, one of the Softclaws was screaming. Armored rats scurried for cover underfoot, some getting crushed when the Blackscales stampeded toward their motte.

    In all the chaos, Sneech was the only one who looked up rather than around for the origin of the sound. A cloud of panicked hawk-bats blocked his sight for a moment; then they dispersed, and he could see the roof.

    Sneech knew the roof. Many times, while his packmates played their status games, he had lain back and stared at it, imagining what must lie behind this jungle of girders and fissured duraplast plates.

    Something was different about it. There was a little more room between these two girders; and that plate seemed to be creeping sideways, bending as it moved…

    "Look out!" he yelled at his packmates, but it was too late. The last thing he noticed was two bipedal figures standing on one of the top galleries, in Cthon territory, before half of a city block crashed through the roof and squashed him flat.


    ***


    "I win!" Thth squealed. The bone splinter she had lobbed up towards the roof of the Cthon nursery using her skin sling had gone lower than she wanted, but the effect was incredible. All the moths were in an uproar, swarming away from the ceiling and down the walls, looking for exits. Thth could not see them, of course, but the air currents brushing the sensitive folds of her skin told the story of her triumph.

    The next sound made no sense, however. It seemed to come from everywhere at once and was too strong, too condensed for her to tell her anything about what was happening. That the entire building was coming apart in the middle, cut in two by unprecedented shearing forces, was so far beyond her experience of the world that she still thought she had won the slinging game when she was bisected by the roof.


    ***


    Yedde wedged the plate into the final gap. "This should hold," he said. "The spiders are tough but not that strong."

    "You wish," Yalma said. His left ear had fallen off thanks to a spider bite a week ago.

    Yanoddle gave the wall a kick. "Looks good to me."

    The floor bucked, and the wall collapsed. "Yanoddle!" Yedde groaned, drawing his net gun to fend off the nearest spiders. "Now you ruined it!"

    Suddenly, for some reason, he was sliding forward, straight into spider territory, accompanied by pieces of their wall. The whole level had tipped, he realized, and was still tipping further. Yalma was falling along with him, screeching; where Yanoddle had gone, he had no clue.

    Not that it mattered, Yedde figured with the sort of calm normally expected only from the revered elders of his species. In a very short while he would be dead - either from spider bites or from being crushed between the falling debris and whatever first got in their way.

    Neither of that happened, however. Instead, in a final surprise, he drowned.


    ***


    The Calocour Ocean contained over a trillion cubic meters of water, with regions of different salinity separated by filter membranes or plasteel barrages. It housed just over eighty billion registered sentients and perhaps twice that number of unregistered ones, plus several complete marine ecosystems, from krill to kraken, to support them.

    A container of such size will always have some leakage. Engineers both within and without constantly fixed small cracks and replenished the water volume; in some places, the inhabitants and wildlife of the levels below the Ocean actually depended on the moisture seeping out of microscopic ruptures. But on the whole, the saltwater sector of Coruscant had persisted with remarkable stability for hundreds of years.

    Until now.

    The westernmost part of the Ocean rested on the ruins of a district that had been razed almost a millennium ago. The tremors of the collapsing structures further below caused the compressed rubble to settle just a little more - barely a few meters at the outermost end. But with thousands of tons of water pressing down, that small difference increased the tension on the weakest part of the wall plates so much that a previously irrelevant crack widened enough for water to shoot out. The pressure of that jet, in turn, was such that it cut through every bit of stone in its way within seconds, further weakening every bit of substrate which it touched.

    What folllowed was not so much a chain reaction as a simultaneous failure of a thousand seams at once. Nearly all of the Calocour Ocean's contents drained into the underlevels in the space of less than an hour, washing away entire city blocks, jumpstarting avalanches of brick, junk and bodies, and drowning millions of beings while leaving its aquatic former residents to die gasping in the empty shell of their refuge.


    ***


    Tycho Celchu sat on the terrace of the Yellow Lamp, the premier tourist café this side of the government district. With his hair dyed a dirty brown and a cup of cheap Elba beer in front of him, he looked so aggressively mediocre that no less than three scam artists had already tried to make a move on him this evening. Next mission, he thought, I'm going with something more threatening. A Yinchorri bodysuit, maybe.

    He looked over the railing into the canyon the terrace overlooked. Everything seemed as busy as usual; if the continued fragmentation of the Empire had any repercussions here in its heart, the city itself showed no sign of it. Every place he had been to since stashing his stolen TIE Fighter in a black-market mechanic's hangar half a week ago exuded the same mixture of ambition, self-assuredness and corruption Tycho remembered from Palpatine's time. To the Coruscanti, it seemed, the Empire's reign felt eternal and unquestionably secure.

    As if on cue, the cup of Elba in front of him rattled as a tremor ran through the building. A few of the beings around him stopped their conversations to look around, but then resumed them when nothing more happened. Interesting, Tycho thought. Maybe there is more going on down there than it seems?

    On his next mission, he resolved as the first sirens sounded from the depths, he would have to go deeper.


    ***


    "With the dissension these self-proclaimed Prophets spread a thing of the past," Grand Admiral Makati told the holocams as well as the dignitaries Isard had brought together in the Skydome Botanical Gardens to celebrate his return, "I am honored to play my part in ushering in a new age of stability and unity of our glorious Empire!"

    Oh you will play your part just fine, Ysanne Isard thought, watching him from offstage. That of the designated target, that is. Despite her best efforts, the Prophets - both fake and real - still had quite a few friends in the Empire; this show, with Makati taking credit for killing them, was designed to direct their attentions towards him and, more importantly, away from Isard. She cast a sideways glance at Mahd Windcaller, media mogul and onetime initiate of the Prophets' own Church of the Dark Side. There were murderous plans brewing behind that weathered face, Isard was sure of it.

    That's another Grand Admiral Grand Admiral as good as gone. The way Palpatine's twelve Grand Admirals cut through the Navy's regular command structure had long been an obstacle to her control. With them gone, she could finally set the next stage of her plans in motion…

    The thought sent a shudder through her - or was it the thought? For a moment it almost seemed as if the tower she was standing on had vibrated - but of course that was nonsense. This was Imperial City; every skyscraper here was outfitted with repulsor compensators and inertial buffers. They were as safe as they could ever be.

    Or she was, in any case, Ysanne Isard thought, grinning up at the Grand Admiral's resplendent uniform. Those who stood in her path, not so much.


    ***


    In the guest wing of Sa-Di's skyhook, Ederlathh Pallopides was fast asleep. Like most nights, she dreamed of the Palace: of running through secret passages behind the walls, sometimes alone, sometimes with Irek; of discovering hidden places, spying on clandestine and confusing meetings, hiding from the guards, slipping from Quest's large brutal hands at the last moment before he could crush her. As in most of her dreams, she came up in the Throne Room after a long and desperate crawl through a dark tunnel; but this time, when she stuck her head up through the floor grille in front of the throne, there was someone in her way.

    He had his back to her, with his hood raised; for a moment she thought it might be the servant she had annoyed that evening, the one with the scarred and angry face, come to kill her. But when he turned around, her mind reeled between recognition and confusion.

    It was Him. The Emperor. He was alive - but he was younger, stronger, taller, with a spotted face almost like a teenager.

    There was no trace of the tremors downside to be felt in the skyhook, but Ederlathh's bed trembled all the same.


    ***


    "Great," Baddon Fass said.

    First he had almost choked on dust. Then a steel pane had narrowly missed him, shaving off the front edge of the balcony he and Sa-Di were standing on. Then the water had washed the dust away, only to fill the plaza and rise through the cavern until it sloshed around their ankles. Bodies and dirt drifted on the surface, forming an almost solid layer. "So how do we get out of here again?"

    Ambassador Sa-Di stood ensconced in a Force bubble, his clothes immaculate from head to toe. "That depends," he said. "Do you feel strong?"

    Baddon Fass paused to consider that. He had been so focused on the cataclysmic events around him that he barely noticed how he felt. But there it was, just as his master had promised: a richness in the Dark Side, a layer of screaming energy so close to the surface of the world he had only to reach out with his mind to touch it.

    "Yes," he said.

    Sa-Di waved incongruously, and a swarm of hawk-bats appeared from a gap in the warped building face across the plaza. As if following an invisible command, they shook the water from their leathery wings and launched themselves towards them. Up above, Fass noticed as he followed them with his eyes, a wide rift had opened, with transient waterfalls streaming down its sides. It was almost beautiful, he thought, in a genocidal way.

    Then the hawk-bats were on them, clawing for his shoulders and arms. Sa-Di had raised his, and the beasts were already pulling him upward towards the rift. "Come then, strong man!" he called. "Come fly!"
     
  2. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Beasts in the Basement


    Carnor Jax felt every hair on his body rise the moment he first set foot in the Emperor's Citadel.

    The feeling had been building for a while, like a static charge, as they followed the pilot drone ever deeper into the gravitational maelstrom of the Galactic Core. Looking at Byss from the Revenant's bridge, his mentor Lumiya to his left and his frightening new ally Nefta to his right, he had known without a doubt that this was the true center of power in the Galaxy. Hidden from all but a select few, this was nevertheless where all the lines of Force and influence converged.

    This is what we have to contend with, Nefta confirmed his thoughts. What we need to destroy if we mean to rule our own destinies.

    Allowing thoughts like this, this close to Palpatine's lair, still sent a spike of fear through him. Nefta assured him that the protection afforded by the symbionts in the Bosthirdan wine was total; but how certain could he be of anything, in the face of a power such as this?

    So when they entered the Citadel itself, from a docking arm high above the thinning clouds, Carnor Jax reverted to the habit he had practiced with Sarcev Quest: to think of anything but Palpatine, focus on anything but his true desires.

    Fortunately for him, there was a lot to take in here. The Citadel was a work of art; with its huge angular pillars that flowed seamlessly into vaulted ceilings and cavernous walls, it looked as if it had been cast from metal in one piece and then stuck into the planet's crust like a gigantic sword.

    Carnor Jax was a tall man and rarely felt intimidated. He was a Royal Guard, the threat of violence personified, directly serving the most powerful man in the Galaxy. Next to the Emperor on Coruscant, or on one of his rare excursions through his realm, he had been as close to the top of the pecking order as possible.

    He had thought so, anyway; but he realized now that he had never seen behind the curtain. There was a separate hierarchy, one that even his new master Lumiya was only a marginal part of, that did not end at the Emperor’s court in the Imperial Palace but stretched all the way to this top-secret place. It had always been there, controlling the fate of the Empire at a level unimaginable to the courtiers and politicians who spent their lives bickering over surface details. The Emperor had indulged them, had put on a good show for them, had acted like the frail old man hiding behind his crimson guards was all there was to see.

    Carnor Jax and his fellow guards had been props in that show. Background characters in a play Palpatine staged for the benefit of the old elite. He knew it as soon as he saw the guards standing beside the entrance to the Citadel, towering figures with veiled faces and gauntlets of layered metal that looked like they could crush a human head with no effort.

    Those are the true warriors guarding the heart of the Empire. Like living extensions of the Citadel, they silently watched their progress along the corridor, all the more threatening for their stillness and apparent calm.

    Two more of them peeled out of the shadows when their party approached the repulsorlift platform. Before they moved, most human eyes would have taken them for pillars; and when they took their positions on either side of them for the ride down, they seemed to turn right back into architectural embellishments. They were not human, perhaps not even sentient, Carnor Jax surmised; in the Force, they felt like a dull throbbing, like a cancer or an nek’s headache.

    Not warriors after all, then. Tools. In spite of his sense of foreboding, Carnor Jax smiled tightly behind his mask. So there might be a place for me here after all.


    ***


    Lumiya did not appreciate the way she felt when the platform began sinking through the floor. She had never liked this place, from the first time Vader had taken her here to meet his master; and every time she did this, it felt like the Citadel itself was swallowing her whole, delivering her down into its guts for disassembly and digestion.

    Which was not so far from the truth, in her case. Vader and Sidious had waged a secret war for her allegiance ever since they had recognized her potential - a war that extended to her body, which had been salvaged by Vader after she suffered near-fatal injuries during her undercover mission, and then refined by Sidious right here, in his gruesome chambers beneath the Citadel.

    As for herself, she had bided her time, waiting to see how the power dynamics between the two Lords of the Sith would work out before choosing a side - and building her own powers in the process. Only they had both lost when they died at Endor, leaving her the sole heir of the Sith in the Galaxy… that is, until Sidious had returned and called to her, just when she had been fighting one of his old Hands at the behest of Ysanne Isard, a distraction more than anything.

    That had been the last time she had come here, to see if Sidious was really back. And he was… in a way. He had greeted her in his clone body, looking both young and frail at the same time, and she had knelt before him to swear her allegiance.

    He had come back. Vader hadn’t. That should have settled the matter. By her words and his, as well as by her deeds since then, Darth Sidious was her master and she was his apprentice. But secretly, in what was left of her heart, she was still biding her time.

    Something felt off about that clone, and about Byss in general; something different than the first times she had been here. Whoever this new Palpatine was, he was certainly powerful, so she humored him and did his bidding, trying to learn as much as possible in the process; but she would not truly accept him as her Master until he had proven himself to her.

    So far, he had not. As the platform descended through the Citadel, carrying her and those she had brought to the man who would be Sidious, she guarded her thoughts and checked her expectations. How would he react to the fact that she had taken an apprentice of her own - and that she had delivered an old rival Palpatine had banished to his inner sanctum? The fact that they were all still alive and had been allowed to come this far did little to reassure her; after all, she knew how much the old Darth Sidious had liked to gloat and look his enemies in the eyes while punishing them.

    The air was getting warmer now as they sank deeper; root-like structures were snaking up the walls, tentacle shapes that looked as if they could reach out and strangle trespassers at a moment’s notice. Many of the rooms they passed were empty, reminiscent of a palace waiting for the return of its court. If it was really Palpatine, Lumiya caught herself thinking, why hadn't he called everyone to his side yet, gathered his forces and reclaimed his Empire? Why was he hiding here while his subordinates were tearing each other to shreds with the Rebels cheering them on?

    The platform slowed as they entered a section of the Citadel that looked less like a building and more like the bowels of some giant beast. The vaulted ceiling was covered in a fleshy substance, structured by pulsating veins and bulbous growths, from which breeding sacs of various sizes hung like grotesque stalactites. Along the walls, the meat merged with machinery: Lumiya. saw pipes feeding nutrients into veins, tendons attached to pistons, cables piercing ridges of tissue and making them twitch in regular intervals. This was what her body must look like on the inside, Lumiya thought, and the idea made what was left of her stomach clench in revulsion.

    Then she saw something even worse, and heard Carnor Jax beside her suppress a retching noise. Rising next to the platform was a mountain of purple scales, shaped in a crude approximation of a humanoid body, topped by a tiny cadaverous head. The platform stopped at the monster's feet, by which time it was towering three meters above them; and it was only the sight of Palpatine standing next to it, looking entirely unconcerned, that stopped Lumiya from instantly lashing out at it with her lightwhip.

    King Nefta stepped off the platform first, pushing past Lumiya and Carnor Jax. "My friend," he boomed, spreading his massive arms. "It is good to see you again. And so spry!"

    Lumiya tensed, waiting for Palpatine's reaction. A duel between a Sith Lord and whatever Nefta was, next to a monster and in the heart of a place that was dripping with dark side power, would be hard to survive even for her… but the Sentinels standing watch on the platform did not seem inclined to let her leave either. She exchanged a glance with her apprentice and reached for the hilt of her lightwhip.

    Palpatine crossed the rubbery floor towards Nefta, then flung his arms around the taller man. Lumiya, who had never seen Darth Sidious be physically affectionate with anyone, was more shocked by seeing him clap Nefta on the back as he hugged him than she would have been if he had burned him to cinders with Force lightning.

    "Did you grow so tired of your exile," Palpatine asked, "that you decided to join me in mine?"

    "I thought you might be lonely." Nefta looked around, craning his neck to spot the purple monster's head. "But I see you've got… interesting company."

    Palpatine beamed. "Meet my Constable of Homunculi, Borborygmus Gog. But don't get too close, he will eat you whole the moment you touch him."

    "This is Gog? He was much prettier the last time I saw him."

    "A side effect of one of his experiments," Palpatine said. "His mind is intact in there, though… or as intact as you can be while you're under constant assault by a million vengeful souls."

    "And here I thought he finally won that contest for the most egregious transformation with that friend of his, what was his name? The fear-eater."

    "Hoole. We were just talking about him, in fact." For the first time, Palpatine faced his other visitors, greeting them with a toothy smile. "But fortunately I still have faithful servants too. Dark Lady," he addressed Lumiya, his expression hovering on the edge of mocking. "And my loyal guardsman, Carnor Jax."

    Lumiya felt more than saw her apprentice flinch. The Emperor's Royal Guards were almost never called by their names outside of training; they were faceless on purpose, meant to be perfectly interchangeable and impersonal in the discharge of their duties. The fact that the Emperor knew his name, and knew him well enough to recognize him through his mask, came as a shock. Did her apprentice have secret dealings with Palpatine - or had the Emperor merely made a point of finding out exactly who was coming to his stronghold beforehand?

    He didn't give her time to ponder. "Look at this," Palpatine said, indicating a transparent globe as big as a human head that hung suspended from an arch by a bundle of tubes and cables. "I had tasked Hoole, the shapeshifter, with bringing me a boy of some importance. From what I hear, he even had the boy in his possession for a while; but he allowed himself to get distracted, and so he lost him."

    "Is this going to be a parable?" Nefta said, yawning. "You know what I think of parables."

    Once again Lumiya had to hide her shock that anyone would speak to the Emperor like this. This time, even Palpatine seemed annoyed. "It is what happened, Nefta," he said sharply, "but yes, there is a lesson to be learned from it. Because what Hoole did, instead of reporting his failure and then making up for it, was to run and hide."

    "That seems hardly surprising," Nefta said, "considering how you're known to deal with failure. Would there have been anything left of him to make up for it, I wonder?"

    "I am no fool," Palpatine growled. "I do not waste my valuable assets in fits of emotion." He looked at Lumiya as he said that, and she knew he was talking about Darth Vader. He had told her as much, once, obliquely but clearly: that if she cast her lot with Vader over him, she would fall victim to one of his bouts of frustration eventually. She had decided, then, to not rely on either of them for protection ever again, but to appease them as long as they had something to teach her, and then cut them loose.

    "Look at him," the Emperor continued, indicating the heap of purple flesh that was his Constable. "I've long lost count of how many times this wretch has failed me - indeed, the brain soaking in this pot belonged one of his earliest, and grandest, failures in my service. And yet he is still here!"

    "In a manner," Nefta commented, eyeing the colossus sceptically. The waves of pain rolling off him, of a suffering far beyond the merely physical, were thick in the Force.

    "But the worst," Palpatine said, "is not that Hoole fled. That almost shows some measure of respect, if you will. No, the worst is that he sent me a gift. An apology." He placed his fingertips on the bottom of the globe holding the brain, and by the sudden sense of shock erupting from the floating tissue Lumiya knew that it was not only alive but conscious.

    And to compound the terror, the huge purple creature spoke for the first time, its voice an anguished wail emanating from a metal box set embedded in its skin. "It is a… good head," it said. "Use...ful."

    "The head is a trifle. The insult is that Hoole thinks he can placate me. He dares hope that he will sway me, that I will allow him to slither away unscathed because he did me a favor." His gaze swept from Lumiya to Carnor Jax and back as he continued. "I have no patience for half-measures, now less than ever. You either serve me completely, or else nothing will protect you from my wrath."

    From the corner of her eye, Lumiya saw Carnor Jax drop to one knee. "I am yours, Your Majesty," he said, drawing a satisfied smile from Palpatine's lips. "So am I," Lumiya said. She remained standing but bent her head, then retrieved a satchel from her belt. "I hope you will not begrudge me this, my Lord."

    With a flick of the Emperor's fingers, the satchel sailed his way and ripped open in midair. "Ah," he said, "the famed Glove of Darth Vader." The glove, battered and dull but still intact despite all that it had been through, spun between them - and then, with another small gesture from Palpatine, it flew apart. Flakes of metal and duraplast drifted to the floor; only a black object like a shard of obsidian remained.

    King Nefta stepped closer, looking genuinely interested for the first time since their arrival. "So that's what it was all about, huh?" he said. "One of Kaan's?"

    "The last one," Palpatine said, pulling the amulet between his hands. "The Heptad is complete. You have done me a great service," he said, facing Lumiya and her apprentice again. "You shall share in the glory of the Empire to come - the real Empire, not the hamstrung chimaera I had to make do with before my death. With this," - he held the amulet aloft with the Force, so that its dark radiance spread throughout the cavernous room - "you have set me on the path to victory... to absolute power."

    Even King Nefta, Lumiya could not help but notice, trembled at the words.
     
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  3. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Nothing Concrete


    Jax gave the hose another kick to get it settled - droids never got that right, they were much too precise for a material as crude as liquid duracrete - then settled in to wait.

    That Isard woman, he thought, shaking his head while the hose slowly inflated. First she'd been all intense and sinister, checking his background and interrogating him like this was a murder investigation, not a construction gig. Then, after he'd signed all her NDAs and handed over both his private and his work comlink, she'd suddenly gotten all nice and chatty, offering him Elba, cracking jokes about his name he didn't understand, and complaining about the hassle of the official Palace procurement process. Fire and ice, as they said; just like her eyes, one red, one blue.

    "Everything ready down there, Sisi?" he asked his hauler droid. Sisi was floating halfway down the shaft of the absurd room they were in, while Jax was sitting on the edge of the platform suspended over it, his feet dangling. Even leaving aside Isard's mood swings, this was the strangest job he'd had so far, and that was counting the cleanup operations after the Zillo Beast.

    First she had made him and Sisi rappel down all the way to the bottom of the shaft, where to his surprise there was a corridor leading off to the side of the cooling vent. Most of the doors there had been sealed off with construction foam, a very poor job in his opinion, but at the back there was some sort of lab or hospital, he couldn't tell. He'd almost joked about the Emperor having his beauty surgery done there, but then Isard had looked like she might be in one of her more murderous moods again and he'd held off.

    Anyway he understood then why they had called him, of all people, him and Sisi. Sisi's specialty was containment, as in containing dangerous or fragile materials, and those tanks with the green liquid on the walls there sure looked like they were both. Jax had unrigged them, carefully, then Sisi had wrapped his flexible lower body around them, encasing them whole, before flying them gently up through the shaft one by one. Then they'd done the delivery too, just the two of them, in unlabeled boxes to some facility deep underground, handing them off to a pair of stormtroopers who never said a single word.

    It was spooky, that's what it was. But then, Jax supposed, that's just what the Empire must look like from the inside.

    "Ready, Master Pavan," Sisi reported back after what Jax knew would have been a thorough check of the flow channels.

    "Good. Come on up, then." He waited for the droid to float up into sight, looking like a deflated gas balloon clutched by a metal spider; then he punched the release for the duracrete tank.

    The hose next to him twitched and rumbled; then, after an unusual but not unexpected lag, a stream of phase-one duracrete came pouring from its end.

    "I trust everything is in order?" a voice said behind him.

    Jax flinched, but caught himself just in time. "Minions of Xendor," he cursed under his breath. "Madam, I could have fallen off the ledge the way you came creeping up on me there! I mean, with all due respect, Madam." He got to his feet, making sure to stand a bit away from the edge. "But, uh, yes, Madam. Everything is fine. Right, Sisi?"

    The droid turned the tiny head that sat atop its spider torso and flashed its eyes green twice in affirmation. "No leaks or blockages," it said, its voice a fair approximation of Jax's own. "Should fill up nicely."

    They'd had to run the hose all the way from the landing pad where Jax's rented tank was standing, through the endless corridors and service shafts of the Imperial Palace, and finally down here into the chamber. Granted, it had been Sisi doing most of the hard work, but it had been a harrowing experience for Jax anyway, what with all of the decorations, safety protocols and classified sectors he'd had to take into account.

    But now all this was done, it was indeed filling up nicely, and he could probably let Sisi manage the removal on his own. "It's almost done," he said - and he'd be glad to leave this place behind, he added mentally. "When the phase one is up to here" - he indicated the lines Sisi had sprayed on the walls of the shaft at her direction - "we'll add the phase two reactant, which comes through this narrower tube attached to the hose."

    "And that hardens the duracrete?"

    "Uh-huh." For an Imperial bigshot, she was not too bad, Jax decided. Most of his contractors could not care less about the details of his work. "Takes maybe four, five seconds for a volume of this size. After that, good luck getting anything out of there ever again."

    "Fascinating." Ysanne Isard, the most powerful woman in the Empire, leaned past Jax to look at his controls. "And this switch here releases the phase two?"

    "Careful, now, Madam," Jax half-laughed, resisting the urge to swat her hand away. "We don't want any layering; though it's not like you'd get a lot of shear in here. No, you have to turn off the phase one first and wait for it to settle. That's this button here."

    "Ah," Isard said, "of course. Thank you, Mister Pavan."

    And with a casual gesture, she pushed him off the platform. Jax barely even had time to realize his droid wouldn't save him, thanks to the restraining bolt they'd put on him, before the phase one swallowed him.

    She didn't even wait for it to settle. Four, five seconds later he was gone.


    *****
    Author's note (don't worry, I'm not making these a habit) --:--


    Just a short chapter this time, but it's one of my favorite ones -- and one of the first pieces I wrote of this sprawling conglomerate of "missing moments" between RotJ and Dark Empire.

    The plot, insofar as there is one, is slowly agglomerating around Ken and the plottings of Sarcev Quest & Carnor Jax now. Both of those are heading towards a fiery finale at the end of part 1 of this project, but in between there will be plenty more moments like this one interspersed -- pulling different strands of Legends lore together to paint a fuller picture of what was happening beyond and between the books we got. (And yes, we will eventually get to Orinda.)

    Writing this has been and still is tremendous fun, and trust me when I say I have a lot more planned out for this story -- but please bear with me if I occasionally take a while between instalments. I won't drop this project, but I'll let it grow at a pace that it is fun for me and I can be happy with it.

    Glad to have you along for the ride!
     
    Last edited: Feb 8, 2021
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  4. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Unfrozen


    "Careful," Urai Fen told his crew. "This is a dangerous place."

    "You've been saying that for the last ten hours, boss," Avni said. A slim blue-skinned Duros, Urai Fen's first mate was only half his size, but she had never let that keep her from speaking her mind. "Still looks quiet to me."

    Urai Fen clacked his beak. "It's a feeling." Ever since they had followed the tracking signal into the mysterious region of space called the Stygian Caldera, he had felt like there were daggers pressing into his skull from all sides, slowly pushing their way in towards his brain. As a Talortai, he had been born with a natural sensitivity for what the Jedi called the Force; a talent that had helped him in the past, but which he was now starting to deplore. The last time he had felt a place this thick with the Dark Side had been on Dathomir - where, incidentally, he had first met the woman he was hunting now.

    "I respect that, boss," Avni said. "I'm sure you're right. I just prefer dangers that I can see."

    "And shoot at," Qull chimed in from the copilot's chair. "Like stormtroopers."

    Over the last six months, Urai Fen and his crew had been raiding the personal storehouses of the Emperor, working down a list they had downloaded from the massive but unfinished Star Destroyer Eclipse over Kuat. Ranging from storage lockers on Denon and caves on the frozen moon of an uncharted planet all the way to the heavily fortified Emperor's Retreat on Naboo, those caches had yielded enough treasures for the Zann Consortium to fortify its hold on the galaxy's underworld and fill the vacuum left by the near-total implosion of Black Sun. Some of those missions had been dangerous, thanks to the traps and troops the Emperor had left behind; but none had felt nearly as threatening as this one.

    "How's the signal?" he asked Qull, carefully keeping the tension out of his voice.

    "Still stable. The planet's in sensor range now. Should I do a sweep?"

    Urai Fen put a hand on the viewport and looked out into the darkness of space. "No," he said. "Not yet."

    "We could send a few probe droids ahead," Avni suggested. "Served us well on that rock in the Roche."

    Urai Fen shook his head. "Let's drift a little closer first."

    "Whatever you say, boss. I'm in no hurry to see her again either, to be honest."

    There were sounds of agreement all around the bridge. Since Tyber Zann had recruited her on Dathomir, the witch Silri had made precious few friends in his organization; and matters had not improved when she had absconded with a valuable Holocron that Zann suspected was the key to even greater powers than Palpatine's vaults. Urai Fen had long warned Zann against trusting the witch, and had offered to kill her on numerous occasions, only for Zann to insist that she could still be a valuable asset.

    Until that asset had stolen a ship, taken the Holocron and disappeared. Now, finally, Zann had given Urai Fen leave - and a Crusader-class corvette - to hunt her down and kill her for betraying him.

    "How long until we reach the planet?" he asked Qull.

    "At current speed? Two hours and a bit. We'll have to fire up the engines to make orbit though, or we will shoot right by."

    Fen squinted out the viewport. The planet was visible now, a crescent of light reflecting off its atmosphere. Like most of the worlds inside the Stygian Caldera, it only had a survey number and a navigational hazard warning in the official star charts; but the files from the Eclipse identified it as Rhelg, once a major world in the ancient Sith Empire. No wonder Silri was drawn to this place, Urai Fen thought. And no wonder it is giving me headaches.

    But there was something else besides the pain, there at the edges of his consciousness. "Qull," he said, "are you sure the signal is coming from planetside?" He had long ago planted locator beacons in Silri's boots and in the hilt of her weapon, in anticipation of a hunt like this.

    Qull leaned forward to check. "Positive, boss. On the night side right now, near the equator."

    Urai Fen frowned. "Do a systemwide scan. Full sensor range."

    "Active sensors now?"

    "Yes."

    "What are we looking for?" Avni asked. "A ship?"

    "Could be," Urai Fen said. "It's a feeling." It had been no more than a flicker, but he was almost sure he'd felt a presence there, a strong but clouded one, somewhere farther out in the system.

    "Should I call battle stations, then? Just in case it's a trap."

    "Sure," Urai Fen said distractedly. "Can't hurt. Wait -"

    "There!" Qull called.

    "There?" Urai Fen said, pointing at a spot in the darkness outside.

    "Yes, boss. How did you know?"

    "What kind of ship?" he asked, ignoring the question. "Are they reacting?"

    "Scout ship," Qull said. "And no. Life readings consistent with… one person or less?"

    "Silri?" Avni asked, looking at Fen.

    "If it's her, she left her rancor behind. And her weapon."

    "That's a good thing though, right?"

    "I suppose." Urai Fen reached for the longblades he kept on his back; their cold weight always reassured him. "Prepare a boarding party. I'm going in first."


    ***


    The ship was little more than a tin box running on pure inertia. One of its sideways wings was shredded, half the drives seemed to have ripped clean off, and the remains were leaking air and fuel from a hundred tiny punctures.

    "Someone tried really hard to kill this boy," Tu'par remarked when they floated through the docking tunnel towards the wreck. There was no sign of Silri; the only occupant of the craft was a lanky human teenager who seemed to be sleeping in the pilot's seat.

    "And failed," Urai Fen said. "Let's be careful in any case."

    Tu'par cut a hole into the scout ship's secondary viewport, and Urai Fen propelled himself through it. Hands on his blades, he let his magnetic boots lock on to the cockpit floor with a clang.

    The boy stirred. "Don't move," Urai Fen said. "You're probably injured -"

    The grips of the blades slipped from his fingers, and they crashed against the deck next to his boots. "Boss?" Tu'par asked, coming down head first with his blaster drawn. "What's happening?"

    "Don't -" The blaster went flying, wrenched from Tu'par's bony fingers, then came around to slap him in the face. The Givin lurched weightlessly, but quickly caught himself and reached for the blaster carbine on his back. The boy, meanwhile, was still sitting motionlessly in the pilot's chair, facing away from them.

    "Don't," Fen repeated, grabbing the tip of the carbine and pushing it down. When he was sure the Givin had gotten the message, he raised his hands in a gesture of peace. "We are not here to hurt you, boy."

    "What then?" the boy asked. His voice was cracking, the way it sometimes did in juvenile human males.

    Urai Fen considered his next words carefully. The boy was powerful, that much was obvious. He was also angry, and probably aggressively protective of his status like most males of his species.

    "You're strong," he said. "I felt your strength from far away." It was a gamble, giving away his secret connection to the Force like that, but Fen was almost positive the boy already knew. "We could use someone like you."

    That last bit had been a mistake; he felt it as a pressure against his skull. A little more effort and the boy would crack him like an egg, despite his best resistance. "I will not be used," the boy growled, turning around to face him. He is angry alright. "By no one."

    "Of course," Fen managed. Next to him, Tu'par was cringing and trying futilely to get his weapon back under control. "I meant to say, I'd like to hire you. For a job. A well-paid one."

    The pressure eased off, just a little, while the boy regarded them through narrow, bloodshot eyes. "First the pay," he said, audibly straining to keep his voice deep. "Plus transport away from here. To somewhere civilized."

    "We can get you wherever you want," Fen promised, ignoring the incredulous glances from Tu'par. "And if this job goes well, I'm sure we can offer you more. Your choice, of course."

    The boy considered this for a while, but Urai Fen knew he had him now. Strong as he was, he still needed a way out. His ship was a wreck, and even if he could commandeer the corvette, there was no way he could steer it without a crew. "What's the job?" he said finally.

    Urai Fen allowed himself the slightest of smiles. "A challenge," he said. "We're going to hunt a witch."


    ***


    The largest continent on the planet Rhelg bore a wound in its northeastern flank, a place where even the hardy plainsgrass refused to grow; instead denuded bluffs of stone bulged from the ground like scar tissue. There were no ruins here, no ancient castles of the Sith; this region had been shunned as cursed even by them.

    Which had made it the perfect hiding place for Ludo Kressh's secret army, the one he had held in reserve, encased in carbonite, when he set out to crush his rival Naga Sadow. Too bad he had died before he could even tell his coddled son about it, and the Holocron meant for him had never made it into Elcho Kressh's hands.

    Bad for the Kresshs, but good for Silri. The witch was squatting next to a depression in one of the higher lava bluffs, overlooking a flat expanse of rock beneath her. Humanoid figures were stumbling around down there, hundreds of them, some flailing their arms or swords as if to fight off unseen enemies, some writhing on the ground or huddling together in little clumps, some wailing at the heavens in their incomprehensible ululating language. They were blind, all of them, blind and confused, worthless meat decked out in arms and armor that had been top of the line approximately five millennia ago. Apparently being frozen in carbonite for so long did not exactly leave mammalian brains in pristine condition.

    It did not matter. Silri had no use for their brains anyway; what she needed were weapons. She pulled her gaze away from the chaos below and murmured a simple incantation that drew water out of the ground from far below, made it rise through the pores of the rock in little shining globes, then dropped them into the depression at her feet.

    It was not a cauldron, but it would have to do. Drawing some heat from the magma simmering below through the thin crust was trivial; within moments, the water started bubbling and steam rose into her face. A low growl from behind her reminded her that Cuddles, her pet rancor, was keeping watch, standing behind her in a way that would have made her silhouette seem tall and threatening if anyone down there had been able to see.

    She bit her tongue, hard, and spit a bloody drop into the water. Contrary to what outsiders tended to think, the contents of the potion were of little importance; all that mattered was the connection between herself and what she wanted to accomplish. The mist that enveloped her now, tinted red with magic more than blood, was only the medium through which the spirits worked.

    As was she.

    Silri closed her eyes instinctively against the fumes; when she forced them open again, she was looking out over the gloomy landscape of the spirit world. “Gethzerion!” she called out. “Sister!”

    Gethzerion appeared like a whirlwind, riding on the glare of the Winged Goddess. “Silri,” she said, sounding wary. “I thought you lost.”

    “Never, sister. I have found us an army.” She gestured, and the shadows of the unfrozen Sith warriors appeared on the plain in the spirit world. “They are malelings, and blind; but they will help me carve a way across the galaxy to you, and break your chains.”

    “Our chains,” Gethzerion admonished her. “Come, then, and quickly. We have waited too long.”

    Silri felt irritation grow like a tumor in her neck. For years she had labored in exile, pretending to serve the distasteful maleling Tyber Zann while carefully maneuvering herself into a position to help break the Imperial embargo of her home planet. She had risked her life, swallowed her pride and used her powers to demeaning ends, all to further Gethzerion’s dream. Gethzerion had united many exiles from the Dathomiri clans with the promise of restoring the glory of the Nightsisters of ages past; she imagined that with their combined powers they could grind the Galaxy under their heel if only they got off the planet first.

    From out here, having seen the Galaxy, that dream seemed less plausible than it had on Dathomir’s surface; and yet Silri remained true. Had she clung to her loyalty in the face of disillusionment only to let herself be accosted by an impatient jungle witch?

    Instead of biting down on her irritation, Silri let it grow and rise behind her like the shadow of her rancor. She saw Gethzerion’s wraithlike face crawl with dismay, then the light of the Winged Goddess latched on to the power she unleashed and everything else went away as Her power flowed through her. Back in the real world, the smoke had turned green and dense and was crawling down the hillside towards the warriors, forming tentacles before crawling up their bodies and into their heads. Silri resumed her chant as the spirit ichor took hold of her tools, raising her eyes to the horizon.

    There they were, just in time. A ship large enough for most of her army, or what would be left of it once its current occupants were defeated. Captained by her old nemesis, Urai Fen, who had warned his master against trusting her from the beginning.

    He would die now, Silri thought with a grin, raising her hands to make her warriors rise. He would prove useful one last time by bringing her his ship; then he would die.


    ***


    Qull brought the ship in low on Urai Fen’s orders, its belly almost scraping against the bulges of organic rock below. They had spotted Silri’s stolen shuttle from orbit, powered down, and their sensors detected numerous lifeforms on the plateau it was standing on.

    “Make the call, captain,” Qull said as they neared their target. “Destroy the shuttle or leave it?”

    “Leave it,” Urai Fen said. Next to him, the boy twitched in disapproval, but he ignored him for now. “Can you make the turn at this speed?”

    They were coming in hot, the axe-head front of the Crusader-class corvette still glowing from re-entry - and Qull didn’t slow down even as the distance counter on her viewscreen was quickly approaching zero. “Trust me, captain,” she said, both of her bony hands gripping the controls. “You better get ready.”

    Urai Fen nodded, then waved Tu’par and the boy out of the room. Zianna and Mokce Tu were waiting for them in the aft freight bay, suited up. “This is gonna be tricky,” Zianna said as she handed them their repulsor harnesses. “You sure the boy’s up for it?”

    “I’m up for it,” the boy said, his voice cracking. He pulled on his harness with more force than necessary, then used it to maneuver himself up to the ceiling and do a flip, locking his boots on the ceiling next to the cargo hatch. “You coming?” he asked.

    A look passed among the rest of the assault crew, but they all knew Urai Fen well enough to read his expression. Leave him alone, it said. Trust me.

    To be honest, he thought it was pretty likely that the boy would die over the next few minutes. That was fine; either he was competent enough to be worth keeping around, or he was not and would be out of his hair. Just in case, Urai Fen kept his thoughts guarded as he floated up to join him. He focused on the countdown running on his wristband. “Brace yourselves,” he called out, closing his eyes to find his balance.

    He pictured the corvette hurtling over the last bluff and across the plateau on which Silri had landed. He imagined Silri’s face as the ship came rushing toward her at full speed. Then he tensed all of his muscles, just when Qull pulled up at the hardest angle she could manage with the repulsors and maneuvering thrusters working in concert. The elongated hull of the ship screeched and protested as its forward momentum was forcibly transformed into an upwards shove.

    Urai Fen opened his eyes. Next to him, the boy cursed but held on. Mokce Tu, meanwhile, had lost his grip and crashed into the webbing at the back of the chamber. Zianna, to her credit, ignored his struggle and pushed the hatch release.

    “Now!” Urai Fen called.

    They jumped out, one after the other. The ship was almost completely vertical now, but they made sure to put some distance between them and its bulk before dropping so they would not get fried by its engines.

    Tu’par was the first to set down, his boots hitting the smoking ground with a thud. Urai Fen landed next to him, followed by Zianna and the boy. Above them, the ship roared away into the sky. Around them, hell reigned.

    The ground was scorched and crackled when they moved. Smoke and exhaust fumes and a residue of some strange greenish mist were so thick in the air Urai Fen almost wished he’d followed Zianna’s lead and put on a full vacsuit. But no; he needed to be unencumbered for this fight. Shrugging off the repulsor harness, he drew his blades and looked around with narrow eyes.

    Where was the witch?

    There were a few burned bodies on the ground around them, humanoid and clothed in something that still looked like armor even after the treatment the corvette’s jets had put them through. One of them, Urai Fen noticed with a frown, had been holding a sword when he died. What had Silri dug up here?

    The answer came more quickly than he liked. More of the creatures came walking towards them out of the fog, most of them heavily charred but apparently undeterred by that, swinging swords and hauberks and lances like a gang of crazy juveniles.

    “Engage, sir?” Zianna asked. She had been in Imperial service too long, Urai Fen thought; Tu’par was already hoisting his blaster carbine and mowing down the first row of attackers to his left. “Engage,” Urai Fen grunted, stepped forward and swung his blade to hack one creature’s head from its shoulders.

    They were easy to kill, it turned out. Even the boy got a few, although he clearly was anything but an expert with the blaster they had given him. “Boy,” Urai Fen called while he stepped on the head of a half-burned warrior who was still twitching madly, “get up there and look around. Look for the witch.”

    “And her rancor!” Tu’par added.

    The boy gripped his harness controls and shot straight up; so at least he was quick on the uptake. “Over there,” he said, pointing; and as if on cue, a wind picked up and blew the fog away so Urai Fen could see them for himself.

    There Silri was alright, her hair flying in the sudden breeze, her hands raised in the dramatic gesticulations she used whenever she drew on the Force. Urai Fen felt her gaze meet his - and in the same instant, the humanoids surrounding them changed up their attack, going from shuffling imbeciles to competent warriors as if a switch had flipped inside their heads. One of them jumped Tu’par, getting under his line of fire and pushing him off his feet before Zianna could come to his aid. Urai Fen was busy fending off a coordinated attack by three swordsmen, suffering a slice to the wrist before he smashed one’s face in with his elbow and shattered another one’s sword arm with a blow from both his blades; when he chanced a look in Tu’par’s direction again, the Givin was no more than a pile of dismembered limbs on the floor. Zianna screamed, and Urai Fen barely managed to swat away a pike that was coming toward her face. The warrior holding it ducked to avoid his slash, then kicked up gravel to distract him while another one hurtled a spear that hissed past his face and hit Zianna square in the temple.

    Urai Fen growled and flattened the three warriors nearest him with a furious push from the Force; but there were too many more rushing in to fill the gap. The boy was at his back, loosening salvo after salvo from the bloody blaster carbine he had somehow gotten off Tu’par’s corpse. “Cave!” he called over the noise.

    “What?”

    “To your left. Cave mouth. Get in there!”

    Urai Fen let his blades whirl, driving a half-dozen of attackers back for the moment. There was a dark spot in the rock wall, true; but he did not see how this would help them. “We’ll be trapped,” he growled, activating his comm with a flick of his wrist. “Avni!” he called. “Strafing run!”

    “Coming around, captain,” his first mate reported. “Couple of minutes.”

    A spear tip pierced Urai Fen’s calf, and the pain distracted him for long enough that a warrior with a huge broadsword got inside his guard and nearly took his arm off. Urai Fen twisted out of the way and hacked his beak into the warrior’s skull from behind. “Not fast enough,” he said, spitting.

    “They’re only coordinated,” the boy squawked, “when she sees them. Watch out!”

    Urai Fen ducked just in time for a hauberk to swing over his head; he cut the legs off the guy who had swung it. Silri was up on the bluff there, facing him; the boy was behind him, in his shadow. And the warriors were still fighting even when they were missing half their face. It made sense; way too much sense for his tastes. “You take point,” he said. “Run!”

    They ran for it, the boy cutting a path through the crowd of enemies with the blaster carbine and Urai Fen cutting down everyone who tried to come at them from behind. Halfway to cave mouth they felt the ground reverberate with heavy steps, and saw the rancor loping down the hillside.

    “This,” Urai Fen hissed into his comm, “would be an excellent moment for that strafing run.”


    ***


    Silri ran downhill grinning, weaving air and shadows with her hands, feeling the power of the Winged Goddess lift her up and the hunter’s purpose of the Fanged God lend direction to her movements. Every bounce of her feet carried her further up and forward, and within moments she was floating above the plain, quickly catching up to Cuddles, her pet rancor.

    The battlefield expanded around her in perfect clarity: she saw the Sith warriors stumbling around waving their ancient weapons, momentarily bereft of her guidance as she focused on other things; she felt Cuddles’ innocent excitement at being allowed to hunt; she saw him swiping his claw at the smaller of the two enemies who were still alive, a boy she’d never seen, who narrowly evaded Cuddles’ claws by leaping up into the air, his strength bolstered by a repulsor harness; and she felt the thrum of the corvette’s engines as it thundered her way at low altitude to rejoin the battle.

    Urai Fen, that overgrown bird who fancied himself her nemesis by virtue of his minuscule connection to the Force, looked up at the corvette’s approach, then stopped in his tracks when he saw her gliding smoothly in between the warship and her rancor, drifting on the wind like a soap bubble. She was not nearly as fragile, though: when the ship’s turbolasers lanced out to strike Cuddles, the almost-invisible globe of spirit ichor surrounding her absorbed the energy and sent it to the spirit realm, where she could hear the Fanged God hiss appreciatively. Then the corvette was gone, dragged past the battlefield by its own momentum, and with a grateful gesture she relinquished the power of the Winged Goddess and passed the direction of her movement back to the Fanged God for his own endless hunt. The rest, she thought as she descended on the battlefield, would be up to her own strength, her own fury.

    She landed on the blood-spattered ground in front of Cuddles, her light-whip snapping to life at the same instant. Next to her, the boy was wrestling a two-handed sword away from a fallen Sith warrior; she ignored him and cracked her whip at Urai Fen instead, who came at her with both his broadblades drawn.

    “Now you die,” Urai Fen growled. “I should have killed you long ago.”

    Silri laughed as her whip wrapped around one of his blades, then danced out of the way when he slashed at her midriff with the other. Beside her, Cuddles was rocking the ground with his own dance, trying to step on the boy the way he used to step on whuffa worms when they poked their heads aboveground as a calf on Dathomir. Silri yanked on the handle of her whip to extricate it from her enemy’s blade for another slash, but to her surprise Urai Fen had trapped it with his other blade and pulled as well, almost succeeding in ripping the grip out of her hand.

    Then Cuddles shrieked, and Silri turned to him with sudden concern. The rancor had succeeded in stepping on his prey, but in doing so he had impaled his giant foot on the sword the boy had held. It was a gruesome injury, if none that would kill him; but the distraction was enough for Urai Fen to pull the whip away from her and hurl it at the rancor.

    Silri howled and raised her hands, but too late - the sizzling whip had already cut deep into Cuddles’ side, almost bisecting his massive body, which swayed dangerously for a moment and then toppled sideways, almost on top of her. Called by her wrath and the instinctive gestures of her hands, the Sith warriors rose again and came shuffling to her aid from every corner of the battlefield; but they were too slow to stop Urai Fen from slipping past her, pulling the boy out from under the rancor’s foot, and diving into the cave mouth in a mad, desperate dash.


    ***


    The boy dropped to the ground as soon as Urai Fen let him go. The floor was cut stone, cold and hard and dusty, and every part of his body hurt like… well, like a rancor had stepped on him.

    With an effort of will, he pushed himself up and looked around. The cave was a huge, cavernous hall illuminated by shafts of light that stabbed in through slits in the ceiling. On the floor, symmetric metal spikes were sticking out of rows upon rows of metal platforms; in between the spikes, the boy noticed, some dark material seemed to have melted and congealed. He was hurting too much, and too pumped with fear and battle frenzy, to even try to make sense of it. The only recognizable thing was a massive statue at the very back, bathed in reddish light, that portrayed a larger-than-human warrior holding a giant staff.

    There was a noise at the cave entrance, and the boy quickly turned his back on the statue. Next to him, Urai Fen was holding his blades at the ready, trembling slightly; unarmed himself, the boy hoped it was with anger rather than fear.

    Two of the gaunt warriors came rushing through the entrance, their eyes glowing with an eerie green light. Urai Fen dispatched them both with casual strikes of his blades, then growled deep in his throat when the witch entered.

    The boy froze, paralyzed by fear. She was holding the sword he had stabbed in her rancor’s foot; slick with blood, it seemed to scream revenge at him. He knew he ought to run, but he couldn’t. His only hope, he thought as desperation engulfed him, was Urai Fen.

    The witch laughed. “Urai Fen,” she said, her voice high and dramatic in a way that reminded the boy of holo actresses. “Are you looking forward to our fight?”

    “I am looking forward to your death,” Urai Fen growled, putting one foot forward in a flexible fighting stance. “Very much so.”

    “Sorry to disappoint,” the witch said. “You’ll have neither.” And without warning, she dropped the sword and raised her hands, curling her fingers in a way that hurt even to look at.

    It hurt Urai Fen worse, though. There was a sickening crunch as his thigh bone broke; and before he could steady himself, the bones in his other leg crumpled as well, followed by his arms, his ribcage, then his skull. Within seconds he was a pathetic heap on the ground, unrecognizable save for the beak and his clothes, his blades clattering to the floor next to him. He had died with a whimper as his collapsing torso pushed the last gasps of air out of his lungs, with no chance even for a last defiant scream.

    The boy stared at the ruin of the one who had hired him. The one who had promised to take him out of here as a reward, to a place where he could finally make his own way. Then his gaze rose to meet the witch’s.

    “You have fought well,” she said, holding her hands stretched out before her in the universal gesture for peace. “You will make a good slave. Serve me well, and you will be rewarded.”

    The boy closed his eyes, feeling her spirit fingers prodding at his mind, looking for a weakness. His desperation was gone; instead, a dark wave of fury rose inside him, and he welcomed it with open arms.

    “I will,” he said, taking a step towards the witch, “not,” raising his hands in a mocking imitation of her own gestures, “be used!” - And without so much as a conscious thought from him, like a pure extension of his anger, Urai Fen’s blades rose from the ground, screeching against the stone as they hurtled towards the witch, and cleaved off both her arms below the elbows.


    ***


    Avni almost doubled over when she saw the ruined bag of flesh, feathers and broken bones that used to be her commander. But she did her duty, helped the others to load his remains onto the gravsled next to the bodies of Zianna and Tu’par, then joined Mokce Tu in tying the maimed witch to a separate sled.

    The boy they had found in the drifting ship was hovering over the witch almost possessively. “I took her down,” he said repeatedly. “I could not save him, but I took her down. And the rancor too.”

    “Yes,” Mokce Tu growled, giving him a dark look. “Thank you.”

    “I want my reward.”

    “You are going to get your reward,” Avni said. “We’ll bring you to the boss, and he will pay you.”

    The boy looked like he wanted to protest, but then just stared at the witch some more while they pushed her into the corvette’s hold. “Get her into the sick bay,” Avni told one of the crew, “and tell Bee to keep her alive, but unconscious.”

    “Not too alive,” Mokce Tu said.

    “And…” And the boy too, Avni wanted to say, but she figured she would rather not step on the glum kid’s toes. “What’s your name, anyway?” she asked.

    The boy glowered at her, his brown hair caked to his skull with sweat and blood. “My name,” he squeaked, clearly going for a weighty, grim delivery but failing, “is Lok. Qaga Lok.”

    “I’m Avni.” She stopped short of holding out her hand, opting for a respectful nod instead. “I guess you should get yourself checked out too.”

    “I’m fine,” he said. “But I’m going with her.”

    “Of course.” Avni stepped out of the way to let him pass, then looked after him. “I know,” she said when she felt Mokce Tu staring at her. “I don’t want him on this ship either. But he might come in handy if she wakes up… and most of all, I really do not want to make him angry. Do you?”

    “What, the only survivor of a battle against undead Sith warriors, a rancor and a witch? A boy who survived what killed Urai Fen?” Mokce Tu shuddered, something Avni had never seen him do. “No, I don’t think anyone here wants to make him angry.”
     
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  5. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    This is a short chapter, but it was hell to write -- too many storylines crossing, too much information to fit into what is supposed to be an action scene. But it is done -- things should be easier from here on out, as we enter into the final act of this volume.
    ----------------------------------------------------------------



    Pass on that


    Storms were raging around Mount Yoda. The volcanic summit rose high and proud above the dark green sea of Dagobah’s jungles, but now it seemed as if the planet’s clouds had banded together to beat it back into the ground with lightning, slaps of wind and torrents of heavy rain.

    Within that maelstrom of atmospheric energy, a tiny shuttle descended towards the landing pad built into the crater. By all rights it should have been tossed about and ripped apart by the forces pulling at it; but a greater Force kept it safe and on course even as bolts of supercharged air zapped past it and burned into the mountainside below. Its pilot was Luke Skywalker, and as his only passenger looked on with the pale face of one expecting imminent death he set down the shuttle on the pad as softly as a feather falling to the ground on a mild summer’s day, his eyes closed and his hands hovering above the controls without touching them.

    Moffa,” Lorz Geptun cursed in his native language the moment he felt ready to draw a breath again. “With all due respect, General, I am not flying anywhere else with you.”

    “Then finish rewriting that report,” Luke Skywalker said brusquely, shrugging off his crash webbing and getting up. “And stop calling me General. I quit, remember?”

    “Aye, General.” Lorz pulled up the hood of his jacket and followed the Jedi down the exit ramp, the bag with his meager belongings slung over one shoulder. He’d had a bad feeling about this from the start, when Skywalker had hired him to write an account of his involvement in the Battle of Mindor. It had been hard enough getting enough information out of the people involved to give him something of a coherent picture of the events, what with half the details being classified and most of the protagonists having to rush off to their next mission right away. Bending it all into a plot that would be comprehensible to mainstream audiences and entertaining enough to sell had been comparatively easy; but then of course Skywalker had griped and ranted about the result, calling it ‘garbage’ and ‘the worst thing he’d ever read’. Lorz should have walked out then, but instead he’d let Skywalker blackmail him into rewriting the whole thing to his specifications - which was why he was here, following him around like a tame akk dog while Mister I-Am-Not-A-Hero went about his Jedi business.

    The wind whipping across the landing pad ripped the curses from Lorz’s lips; not that he would have cared if Skywalker heard them. It almost ripped his bag out of his hand too, so that eventually he had to hug it to his chest like a lover while he staggered across the duracrete with the wide gait of someone who had just soiled his pants. At least Skywalker was struggling too, but that was small relief when lightning struck the mountain just a little to the right of them, loosening an avalanche of rocks and pebbles that thundered down the slope.

    They reached the entrance drenched and shivering. The Nautolan on guard duty scrambled to his feet when he saw them, fishing for his weapon before he suddenly relented. "General Skywalker!" he called. "How…"

    "I'm not a General any more," Skywalker said. "I quit." That was turning into his new tag line, Lorz Geptun mused, but it was not one he would incorporate into his script. Skywalker's qualms notwithstanding, a good story needed something uplifting at the end, not the hero giving up and vowing never to do anything like this again.

    "You should have called ahead, uh, Master Skywalker," the guard said, fumbling at his console. "I'll have your quarters warmed up for you. And will your aide be staying with you or does he need separate accommodation?"

    "He's not my aide," Skywalker said. He made it sound like I'm beyond help. "But yes, give him a room. Lorz Geptun, put him in as a contractor with the Judicial Department."

    "Right away, Gen… Master Skywalker." The Nautolan poked at his console again, then handed Lorz a flimsy keycard. "We have plenty of vacancies anyway. Enjoy your stay."

    "Thank you," Luke Skywalker said. He made it sound like I will not.


    ***


    These are the final hours of the Mount Yoda facility:

    At the very bottom, deep inside the volcano, magma is pushing against the solidified stopper on which the facility rests. It lacks the pressure and heat to get past the barrier on its own, but all it needs is a deep enough crack for it to come pouring through.

    Massad Thrumble, an aging scientist working in one of the deepest, most secret DRAPAC labs of the facility, does not actually feel that danger, but something makes him nervous all the same. He double-checks the seals on his project lockers - 'synthflesh-caskets', his young assistant calls them - and reviews the evacuation procedures, just in case. The Rebels who built this facility have clearly learned a lot from Yavin and Hoth and a myriad of other installations that were compromised or overrun. Massad Thrumble would not describe himself as paranoid, but his career has taught him to appreciate a well-prepared escape plan.

    A few levels above Thrumble, Tinian I'att Azur-Jamin (she's still getting used to the long name) tries not to breathe while her baby is finally dozing off. Every time something cracks or rumbles in the walls, every time the struggling ventilation system so much as sighs, she tenses up and throws silent curses at this place. Can’t the lightning storm see her little Tam is falling asleep? Can’t the duracrete stop trying to adjust to rapidly dropping temperatures outside for just one vaping minute until his eyes stop fluttering and jerking open at the slightest noise? How can a solid, unimaginative block of a facility like this be so absurdly active right when it’s the least convenient?

    Tinian’s husband, Daye Azur-Jamin, is sitting in the commissary slightly dazed, because across the rickety aluminum table from him sits Luke Skywalker himself, Hero of the Rebellion and more importantly, Last of the Jedi. This is not the first time they’ve met - General Skywalker dropped in at his wedding to Tinian, both to congratulate them and to tell Daye to meet him here if he wanted to learn to be a Jedi - but it still feels surreal. Daye has known about his sensitivity to the Force for a long time; since the fall of the Empire he dared to be more open about it, and now it seems there is a chance for him to fully embrace that gift. It is a dizzying prospect - or it would be, if Luke Skywalker showed any inclination to actually teach him.

    Instead, the General scowls at him with tired eyes. “They’re all gone,” he mumbles. “All but you. You don’t know anything about where they went either, do you? Hoole’s kids, Zak and what’s-her-name, Tash? And Ken, Ken most of all. He was here, wasn’t he? Until not long ago.” He shakes his head, apparently not actually expecting a reply. “Too late, again. I played at fighting instead of learning and teaching, again. I failed them, just like I failed Flint and Dev.” Daye nods in rote commiseration, not that he has much of an idea what Skywalker is talking about; he is waiting for the pivot, the inevitable “but”, hopefully followed by “you, Daye, I will not fail”, but it never comes. When the General finally raises his head and looks Daye in the eye, he looks even grimmer than before. “Ironic, isn’t it, that it is here on Mount Yoda of all places that I finally realize how I have squandered Yoda’s legacy.”

    While Daye sighs and offers to get Luke Skywalker a drink, two men - or beings looking very much like men - are having a much more cheerful conversation in the facility’s small but well-curated library. “Imagine,” Mammon Hoole tells Arhul Hextrophon, raising his glass in a flourish, “they are now spreading rumors about me being some sort of essence eater, a fiend who thrives on the terror of others and is secretly in league with Palpatine.” He laughs, and Arhul Hextrophon, Chief Historian of the New Republic, explorer and connoisseur of things far worse than ordinary fear vampires, chuckles with him. “The remains of the Empire must be truly afraid of you,” he said. “The worst rumor anyone ever spread about me was that I had fabricated my data while ingesting psychoactive gnats on Exodeen. - It truly is a shame about those kids of yours, though.”

    Hoole waves the comment away. “Like I told General Skywalker, I am sure they’ll be fine. This is not the first time they’ve slipped away, and they have proven extremely resourceful in much more worrying circumstances. I will keep looking for them, though, on the off chance they do need help.” He does not tell his old friend that the real Zak and Tash were never here; that indeed the two kids he had taken under his wing during the war have been stranded on Byss for more than three years now, with little hope of them ever returning. They were the price he had to pay to get back into Palpatine’s good graces; that he is still occasionally impersonating them is part sentimental homage, part obfuscation to keep anyone from ever finding out about their fate.

    The library is located at the very summit of the Mount Yoda facility, to allow for two large roof windows to let the sunshine in - on days when there is any sunshine to be had. Now the windows are covered by blast doors on the outside, so Hoole and Hextrophon cannot see what is going on outside. If they could, they might have spotted a shadowy figure - large for a man, but tiny compared to the elemental battle raging above the mountain - leaping from the clouds, followed by broken pieces of the vehicle that he held together just long enough to get him here. The man’s feet alight on the roof of the facility with a warrior’s grace; moments later, the debris crashes into the metal sheets around him with crude force. A lightsaber blazes to life in the man’s hands, and without hesitation or worries he starts cutting his way in.

    The attacker is Jeng Droga, and Palpatine sent him here to find out what exactly happened to Lord Cronal at Mindor. He has traced Luke Skywalker and his strange companion to this place, and now he means to hunt them down and extract from them whatever information his master needs. He does not want to destroy this Rebel base and everyone inside it, but he does not mind that happening as a side effect of what he is here to do.

    The first to notice his arrival is a pair of overworked maintenance droids in the infrastructure levels just behind the library. One of them gets half its head sliced off when Droga cuts through the ceiling; the other one’s sensory appendage gets caught under the jagged piece of metal that comes crashing down with glowing edges and the Emperor’s attack dog riding on it. One casual flick of the lightsaber bisects the second droid’s batteries before it can log an alarm with the system. Not that it matters much, because Jeng Droga is no man for stealth or subtlety, or anything but killing and maiming his way to what he wants, really.

    It is Luke Skywalker who sounds the alarm a moment later. He feels the dark man’s presence like you would feel a crack breaking open in the building you are in, beginning at the top but reaching all the way down into the bedrock. “Attack!” he yells, startling Daye and a few technicians in the commissary. “We are under attack!”

    It would be easy to dismiss him as crazy if he were not Luke Skywalker - and if Daye Azur-Jamin, well-known and respected among Mount Yoda personnel, did not agree with him. “Sound the signal,” he tells a startled technician. “Evacuate.”

    “Evacuate? In this weather?” The technician, Looris Hobb, has been here since the facility was built; he knows about the turbolift shafts doubling as launch tubes, about the contingencies baked into Rebel construction plans ever since Hoth. But he also understands basic physics and electricity, and the wind speeds and voltages out there are far outside even wartime safety margins.

    But General Skywalker looks at him, one hand on his lightsaber handle, and says: “Believe me, what’s coming for us is worse than any thunderstorm.”
    This is what saves Massad Thrumble, down in his lab. When he hears the alarm, he only nods; so his instincts were right after all. He wheels a trolley holding his best prototype and all his data into the waiting escape shuttle, then hurries to the security terminal to input the code for the purge protocol. Whoever is coming will not get their hands on the secrets of his Human Replica Droids.

    The alarm wakes the baby. Tinian, who was dozing herself at last, jolts upright and begins packing on instinct. Any thoughts of annoyance or rest are forgotten as she wraps up her things and the baby while simultaneously pinging Daye and listening to the announcement from station security. Immediate evacuation, active threat on the upper levels, the entire facility may be compromised. Other people might freeze in terror at news like this, but Tinian has spent most of her adult life as a bounty hunter, always skating on danger's edge. Baby or no, she knows what to do.

    Her husband Daye does not. His Rebel instincts tell him to flee, but Luke Skywalker, the man who gave him hope of one day being more than just a Rebel, seems determined to stand and fight. Standing there in the commissary, watching Skywalker pinpoint the source of danger with his eyes closed and brow furrowed, he only belatedly notices that his comm is trying to get his attention. "Tinian!" he says, the word exploding from his throat. "Are you, is Tam…"

    "We're fine," Tinian says. "Meet us at the shuttle."

    "But General Skywalker -"

    "I'm not a General!" Luke Skywalker yells. "And I'm done having people die for me. Run, Daye! Protect your child." He had his lightsaber in hand now, staring at something unseen above them. "Now!"

    But it is already too late. The ceiling comes down in an avalanche of duracrete and dust. A shadowy figure sails down through the chaos, pushing chunks of debris outward in all directions like a dying star. One hits Daye in the side; then Skywalker upends a table with the Force and pulls it in front of them like a shield. "Stay down," he says, then immediately ignores his own advice and leaps across the table, the lightsaber hissing to life in his hands.

    It would be a fight for the ages: Luke Skywalker, who held his own against Darth Vader, versus Jeng Droga, who has only lost one fight in his entire blood-soaked life. The man he lost to is his master now, and he has given him a job.

    That job is not to kill Luke Skywalker. He could do it, Jeng Droga reckons as he parries the boy's fast-paced attack, but it would be a waste of time and strength. His job is to find out what happened to Lord Cronal at Mindor, and there is someone here who will tell him with much less ado than this sandy-haired puppy with a hero complex.

    So he decides not to fight Skywalker; instead, he distracts him. One weak spot all of these self-proclaimed good guys have is that they care too much about others, and Skywalker has just made the mistake of showing Droga who in here he cares the most about. Reaching out with one hand, Jeng Droga pulls Daye from his hiding place behind the table, lets him dangle there in the air for a moment, then pokes his lightsaber into the man's left eye. He has no feelings for this guy or his eyeballs - eyeball, now - but something in the swirls of the Force around him told Droga that was the place to go for.

    Daye screams, and Skywalker does what heroes are supposed to do: he saves his friend instead of taking revenge on his enemy. Jeng Droga leaves him to it and walks out the door, stepping over the bodies of two men he killed with his debris attack.

    Upstairs, Mammon Hoole is panicking. "They're here for me," he says. "I know it." This, for once, is not a lie; he really thinks Palpatine must have sent one of his minions to hunt him down for his failure to bring him Ken. And all because he thought he could do better by capturing Triclops, Ken's father, as well… but then this idiot Makati had attacked the station and all Hoole had been able to salvage was Triclops' head. Ken was dead; instead Hoole had somehow picked up another useless orphan, an acolyte Prophet called Locor who had been sleeping on his ship when he fled the imploding station. He had gotten rid of the boy at the nearest spaceport, entrusting him with Triclops' head in a specially marked package that would eventually make its way to Byss - but it had been clear to Hoole even then that this small gift would not be enough to still the Emperor's wrath.

    So he fled here, to the Rebels among whom he had spent so much time undercover. This time he intended to defect for real - only for Palpatine's long arm to reach him even here. The facility is breached; water from the rainstorm comes seeping in under the library doors. The main attack seems to have passed them by for now, but Hoole knows it is only a matter of time before he is discovered.

    Perhaps, he thinks, looking at Arhul Hextrophon, perhaps there's still a chance for him to make it up to Palpatine, if he surrenders now and brings a valuable price with him. The Chief Historian of the Rebel Alliance must have plenty of useful intelligence. "Come," he tells Hextrophon, changing his shape to that of a gigantic Wampa. "Let's get out of here while we still can."

    The evacuation alarm blares from every speaker in the Mount Yoda facility, sending everyone running for their lives. Only one man remains stubbornly seated in his room, typing away furiously at his datapad. He's almost there; the book is nearly finished, the cursed rewrite complete. It is still a lie, and he is confident that Skywalker will still hate it, but there's a wholeness to it now, an artistic integrity that even the grumpy ex-General will not be able to resist. It was hard, brain-breaking work to get it to this point, and there is no way Lorz Geptun is going to stop now, with only half a paragraph still missing. Just a few words now, just a final hopeful flourish, then he'll go see what is up…

    The door slams open. Geptun is pretty sure he locked it - he always locks himself in when he's writing - but he can see how that might not be an issue for the man outside. He is huge, Kar Vastor-levels huge, and just as muscular. The bare skin on his chest ripples as he clips his lightsaber to his belt and ducks in through the door.

    Lorz Geptun has no idea who he is, but with a cold stab to the heart he realizes he does know exactly what he is: this man is his death. There is no way, no possible path the future could take but this. So in a feat of bravery unlike anything he has attempted in decades, Geptun swallows his fear, ignores the wetness seeping through his pants, and remains seated behind his desk to type the last few words into his datapad before it is too late.

    The End.


    A massive, callused hand grabs Geptun by the throat, lifts him out of his chair and slams him against the wall. Jeng Droga sees his eyes widen and feels his mind unravel. It is a strange mind: when he pushes into it, something reacts - not pushing back so much as pulling at Droga’s mind in turn. He has killed someone similar before, Droga seems to remember - a Kiffar? Not that it is of much consequence. They yield their secrets like anyone else; they die like anyone else.

    Lorz Geptun gasps for breath. He would have gasped even if the monstrous invader did not hold his throat shut like a vise, because the secret he just learned as the man touched him is so shocking. Geptun has a knack for inferring a thing’s past by touching it - not in miraculous ways, nothing too precise or reliable, but it has sometimes given him a competitive edge in his time with the Judicials. It usually works better for things than for people, and better for the near past than the distant; but there is a fact about this man that is so salient and fundamental that Geptun knows it the moment the other's fingers wrap around his neck.

    This is a servant of the Emperor Palpatine himself, and he is acting under the Emperor's orders. His loyalty to Palpatine is absolute; at some point he even seems to have been Palpatine's body - not that Geptun can make any sense of that specific bit of knowledge. But he does realize, while the enemy stares him in the eyes and rips his mind from his body, that this means Palpatine is still very much alive and poised to take back the Galaxy.

    Geptun feels the last vestiges of life draining from him when suddenly a green glow lights up the room. Skywalker has arrived! Nothing has ever sounded so sweet in Geptun's ears as the hum of his lightsaber. He sucks in air when the giant loosens his grip around his neck. "General!" he croaks. "The Emperor -"

    Jeng Droga lets go of him in the same instant he draws his lightsaber. The red blade slices neatly through Geptun's neck before coming around to catch Skywalker's blow. The boy is good with the weapon, Droga will give him that; and to his credit, he uses his anger and grief over the other guy's death to fuel his strength. He could become a great asset one day, Droga remembers Palpatine saying. But he has much to learn until that day; mere saber play won't save you in a real fight.

    He teaches the boy that by turning off his own saber and stomping on the floor so hard it breaks. Skywalker stumbles, blindsided by the duracrete splitting right between his feet. Clipping his weapon to his belt, Jeng Droga reaches out to widen the gap with such force that the entire room dissolves into rubble and Skywalker tumbles away into the depths of the base.

    Luke Skywalker is falling, but that is fine. For the first time since the Battle of Mindor, his mind is clear and focused on a single goal. There is an enemy here, a murderer, strong in the Force but clearly human. He needs to be stopped before he kills or maims anyone else. There are no doubts and no distractions - Luke has made sure Daye made it into the shuttle with Tinian, the kid and the other evacuees, and just moments ago he felt them lift off at an angle that should keep them out of the worst of the storm. Lorz Geptun is dead and this facility is dying: when he hits the ground, Luke feels it rumbling. The volcano, Mount Yoda itself, is waking up, preparing to spit out the invaders.

    Luke knows what he must do. Not try to do; just do. There is no try. He leaps, holds on to a burst tube that's spitting water, pulls himself up to the crumbling ledge that is all that remains of the next floor, then leaps again. As he makes his way upwards, a crumpled piece of hardware catches his attention: Lorz Geptun's datapad, stuck in a bent piece of cladding. Luke pockets it in passing and continues in pursuit of his enemy.

    Jeng Droga is in no hurry. His ship is gone, but just before it fell apart its radars showed a sturdy vessel parked on the facility’s landing platform. This far up, most of the corridors are still intact, if collectively starting to lean inwards to a soundtrack of ear-splitting shrieks and groans. It is like walking across the body of a defeated enemy, Droga muses as he steadies himself with the Force when the whole installation judders and something rips open some ways behind him. All of the blast doors on the way to the platform are open, most likely courtesy of the evacuation protocol. Jeng Droga steps through placidly, then out into the storm. This has not been the most exciting of missions, but that is not the point. The point is that he has the information he needs to find what remains of Cronal and bring him back to his master. The liar, Geptun was his name, tried to hide the truth beneath layers of lies and fiction, but his confabulations were no match for the power of the Dark Side. Nothing, Jeng Droga knows, is a match for the powers of the Dark Side of the Force.

    There is a hiss behind him, and green light reflects in the raindrops falling past his face. The storm has lessened; it is merely wet now, not as deadly as it was before. Jeng Droga keeps on walking, daring Skywalker to catch up to him before he reaches the vessel.

    Then something startles him. There are two creatures huddled under the wing of the spacecraft, one big and furry and white, the other human. The white one looks dangerous, but it raises both arms as he approaches. “I yield!” it cries. “Don’t kill us! This is the Chief Historian of the Rebel Alliance! I am sure your master…”

    Jeng Droga flicks them aside. Man and beast skid across the slippery platform, screaming, and then straight over its edge. Droga rolls his eyes in amusement when he hears Skywalker bounding after them, his attack forgotten. Heroes. Every single time. He strolls up to the craft and lowers the ramp. With transportation like this, he should be able to catch up to Cronal in a week’s time or less; that is satisfactory.

    He is about to set his foot on the ramp when the ground suddenly tilts so sharply he falls. The ship lifts off the ground for a moment, then falls away as the ground drops out from under it. It is all Droga can do to hold on to a cracked durasteel plate and watch the ship and half the platform tumble into the clouds below. When it zooms up again a moment later, engines blazing, he grinds his teeth in frustration. It seems he has underestimated Skywalker and his ability to do more than one thing at once.

    What remains of the landing platform sways and bends as the caldera of Mount Yoda fills up with lava hot enough to melt durasteel at a distance. Jeng Droga glowers at the destruction he has wrought, at the burning ruins of the facility and the shimmering air above eating the clouds. This is annoying. Just a momentary setback, to be sure, but still annoying.

    Then the mountain explodes.
     
  6. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    This chapter is short but it was one of the most fun to write so far. A brief recap because it's been a while:

    When Sarcev Quest, one of the Emperor's Hands, felt Palpatine's return to life a few months after Endor, he quickly decided that his interests were best served by keeping Palpatine dead - or, if necessary, killing him again. Allying with the Force-sensitive Royal Guard Carnor Jax, he hatched a plan to achieve that end. While Carnor Jax went to Byss with his Sith mentor Lumiya - forming a surprising alliance with King Nefta, who also wants Palpatine gone, along the way - Sarcev Quest has traveled to the Eriadu Authority to make contact with his old friend Sander Delvardus. Ostensibly acting on behalf of Ysanne Isard, who wanted him to deflect Delvardus' Coreward ambitions, Quest convinced the Superior General to seek out Palpatine in the Deep Core - but not before attacking Sullust to provide a pretext for his retreat...



    Everyday Superweapons


    There was a saying among technology entrepreneurs across the galaxy: To get rich, make something powerful. To get dead, make something really powerful.

    The classic cautionary tale was that of the Gravitational Field Disruptor. Working in tech under Palpatine was a permanent tightrope walk between terror and hope: if you produced something relevant to the war effort, you could look forward to an exclusive contract that would settle you for life - or, just as likely, forced nationalization and a government pension. But if your product was just a bit too good, just a bit too potentially game-changing, chances were your assets would be seized by the Empire and you would be eliminated as a security risk before you could so much as blink.

    Skaz Vynalez, the creator of the Gravitational Field Disruptor, thought he was home free when his product hit the market without anyone raising a fuss. It was not so much a novel invention anyway as a clever application of existing gravity modulation technology, miniaturized for end-user convenience - or at least that's what he told his CTO Kéral to write in the box explaining why they were eligible for the expedited version of the BoSS pre-market audit. Their marketing department, meanwhile, called the GFD "Magic in a Box" - "just point it at something to change its weight by up to 7 orders of magnitude!"

    With the repulsorlift cartels driving up prices everywhere, the Gravitational Field Disruptor was an instant hit. Small merchants could use it to transport heavy loads without repulsor sleds or binary load lifters. Smugglers and other criminals found it convenient to protect contraband against cursory inspections. Acrobats employed it for a whole new range of stunts; variable-weight sports enjoyed an explosion in creativity; and comedians provided free exposure with a whole new generation of Your Mom jokes. Just a few months past market entry, the GFD had become a staple in hardware stores all across the galaxy, and turned Vynalez from a modest Denon businessman into a super-rich magnate living in 500 Republica.

    Then Princess Leia used one on Darth Vader's porter, increasing his weight so much he broke through the crust of Aargau right into the planet's mantle, and it all came crashing down.

    The Empire impounded all Gravitational Field Disruptors it could get its hands on, made it illegal to own one, rent one, use one or even look at one without immediately turning it in, and staged a show trial against Kéral for perverting the audit process and endangering public safety. Skaz Vynalez himself got a visit from Darth Vader.

    Sarcev Quest had never cared to learn exactly what, if anything, had been left of Vynalez after that visit. What he did know, however, was that the impounded GFD units were still in deep storage on Lununmo XIX, a rocky airless moon in the Sullust system, waiting to be converted to Imperial use.

    And the use to which Quest intended to put them would be very Imperial indeed.

    He dropped into the system in the middle of Delvardus’ attack fleet. The Superior General had given him an Omega-class freighter for his personal use, a bulky thing that looked like nothing so much as an AT-AT with its legs cut off. When the fleet had stopped over at Eriadu for repairs and resupply, Quest had a private contractor weld three layers of additional armor plating to the inside of the hull, including over the viewports; so Quest was watching the deployment of the attack force on a hologram in the narrow space that remained of the cockpit, rather than with his own eyes.

    Delvardus' plan for retaking Sullust was solid enough to be convincing. His fleet, led by the Superior General's own ISD Brilliant, was staging in the sensor shadow of Lununmo, the gas giant nearest to the planet Sullust. In a few minutes they would come boiling around both sides of the gas giant in a gravity-assisted high-speed maneuver, hoping to catch the small Rebel contingent above the planet unprepared.

    Only they would be anything but unprepared. Using old Rebel codes Quest had been saving for a time like this, he had gotten word to the Rebels' First Fleet that the attack was imminent. The First Fleet was both nearby and crewed by a disproportionate number of Sullustans - among them Captain Sien Sovv, a veteran leader of the Sullust resistance movement. If the psychological profile of Sovv that Quest had perused was correct, he would stop at nothing to prevent his home planet from falling back into the Empire's hands…

    An alarm sounded over the fleetwide channel. Quest waited for the new engagement data to come in, then told the Astromech unit at the helm to shut it off. "Let's see," he said, running his hands through the hologram. Where there had been only a few red smears before, indicating the most likely positions of the defending ships, dozens of new red spots winked into being. "Not the whole First Fleet," Quest murmured, "but enough." He traced the path of Shea Hublin's fighter squadron, hugging Lununmo so tightly their jets drew swirling trails into the gas giant's upper atmosphere. It was quite possible he had just sent the Empire's most celebrated starfighter pilot to his death, but that was a price Quest was willing to pay. With Hublin here giving his best, no one would ever realize that this entire engagement was a scam, engineered solely to give Delvardus an excuse for retreating.

    The Astromech next to him - the ship's only occupant other than Quest - warbled inquisitively. "No, we're not following the fleet," Quest replied. "The tracking protocol is for after. Set a course for Lununmo's nineteenth moon and set us down north of its largest crater. We're going to pick up some cargo - and some companions for you."
     
  7. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Handoff


    The corvette hung between stars, motionless relative to the galactic arm, looking tranquil and only a little battered.

    Inside, the witch was screaming.

    "Is there no way to shut her up?" Avni asked, pressing her palms against her ear holes. Her normally blue skin was taking on a greenish tinge that became more pronounced with every minute of Silri's shrieking. There were three levels and four massive bulkheads between the bridge and the med bay where they kept the witch, but it still sounded like she was standing right among them, shoving her anger and frustration directly into their heads.

    "We're out of sedatives," Qull said from the pilot's seat. "Bee says she's metabolizing them at absurd rates, almost like she is feeding on them."

    Mokce Tu was pacing, his massive arms twitching as he squeezed his fists. "We should have put her in the back," he said. "In the machine shop or something. Open the middle of the ship to vacuum."

    "We should have opened her to vacuum," Qull said. "We could still let him kill her." She looked over at the boy, Qaga Lok, who was sitting in the comms seat with his eyes closed, the comm console's massive headphones covering his ears. He had been brooding quietly for most of the trip, giving no sign that Silri's shrieks annoyed him more than life in general. They had still given him the comms console with the ship's only noise-canceling headphones when he had asked for it. Nobody wants to make him angry.

    He must have felt her gaze, because his head snapped up like a hunting reptile's. Qull looked away quickly and swallowed. "But Zann wants her alive, I know," she said. "Nobody's killing anyone today."

    "I just wish Zann would get here, then," Mokce Tu grumbled. "It's been how long since we signaled him? Ten hours?"

    It had in fact been almost exactly ten hours, Qull saw when she looked at the ship's chrono. Silri screamed, Mokce Tu paced, Avni suffered and the boy brooded for another twenty minutes until finally - finally! - the sensor screen lit up with the notification that another ship had reverted from hyperspace nearby.

    Mokce Tu was by her side immediately. "Is it him?" he asked, peering out through the viewport.

    "Who else would it be? We're lightyears away from anything interesting." Qull engaged the magnification on the viewscreen. There it was: the Merciless, a huge Aggressor-class star destroyer the shape of a giant plasma torch, radiating destructive potential. Unlike the more familiar dagger-shaped ISDs, which had the look of floating cities that happened to be armed with a few turbolasers almost as an afterthought, the Aggressor-class was pure weapon: a multi-barrelled gun with crew quarters and a bridge tacked on. The images of snarling krayt dragons painted along its side added to the effect, striking fear into anyone who would oppose the Zann Consortium.

    Tyber Zann had done well for himself since the fragmentation of the Empire after Endor and the near-simultaneous collapse of Black Sun, the Consortium's biggest rival. He had his fingers in nearly every facet of organized crime across the Galaxy; his fleet of smuggling and enforcement vessels rivaled those of the Thul and D'Asta clans; and through blackmail, bribery or extortion his corrupting influence extended into the administration of nearly Imperial splinter group as well as the New Republic. That his flagship was of Imperial design only served to emphasize his power: Tyber Zann took from anyone he wanted with impunity. At one point he had even had his hands on the controls of the galaxy's biggest warship, the as-yet unfinished Eclipse; and it was only by his choice that he had left it behind for the splintering Empire to fret over rather than lug its half-built hulk around the Galaxy himself.

    Three corvettes of the same class as Qull's dropped out of hyperspace a moment after the Merciless had. At the other end of the cockpit, the boy ripped off the headphones with a scowl. "Someone's calling," he squawked.

    Qull put the connection on speaker. "Merciless, this is Qull. Put us through to Number One? He'll want to hear this himself."


    ***


    "You can stop fidgeting," Avni told Mokce Tu when they were standing in the Merciless's turbolift. "The witch can't get you here. Not even with her voice."

    The boy grunted something that sounded like disdain, though it was hard to tell whether it was directed at Mokce Tu for being afraid or at the witch for not being able to hurt them across ten meters of vacuum and two heavily armored ships' hulls. They had left her aboard the corvette with only a camera drone for company. Let the boss figure out how to deal with her, Avni figured. The huge ship was humming and clanking all around them, but to her ears it felt like precious quiet.

    The turbolift doors whooshed open. As the temporary captain of their ship, Avni stepped onto the Star Destroyer's bridge first, followed by Qull, Mokce Tu and finally Qaga Lok. Avni did not like having the boy along, but leaving him behind with the prisoner had seemed like an equally bad idea - and besides, she really did not want to find out how he would react to being denied. So here he was, glancing around the bridge warily, looking almost as nervous as Mokce Tu.

    "Avni!" Tyber Zann's voice boomed through the bridge a moment before the man himself came into view. Much like his ship, Zann's appearance left no doubt what he was all about. Hard eyes, a narrow face bisected by a diagonal scar and framed by long white hair, he had the look of a man who would stomp you into the ground the moment you got in his way, and who had been doing just that to his enemies for a very long time.

    "Sir," Avni said, straightening up. There was no need to be afraid, she told herself. If he was angry at her, she was already dead and there was nothing she could do about it.

    "Qull," Zann said, letting his cold gaze rove across her group. "And Mokce Tu. And you must be the boy who disarmed Silri, eh?"

    "I'm sorry, sir," Mokce Tu blurted out. "I didn't mean to…"

    Avni winced inside as Zann returned his gaze to the man. "You're here," he said evenly. "If you had gone down with Urai, you wouldn't be. This way you'll live to die for me some other time."

    "Uh, yes, sir…"

    "You would not have made a difference." For a fighter, that was about as harsh a dismissal as it got short of having you gunned down on the spot, Avni thought. No wonder Mokce Tu was still trembling when Zann returned his attention to the boy. "You, on the other hand, could prove a valuable… partner."

    The boy stared at him, sizzling with subdued anger but apparently deciding to keep a grip on it for the moment. Clearly Zann had watched the extensive report Avni had sent him, noting the boy's deadly fits of anger at the notion of being used in any way. "I was promised a fee," the boy squawked. "I want my money."

    "Of course," Tyber Zann said. "I'll have my men prepare it shortly. Meanwhile I have another mission that might interest you, one especially suited to your talents."

    Another one of the Emperor's storehouses, Avni assumed; she knew Zann had been looking for a Force user stronger than Urai Fen - and more reliable than Silri - to open those he had found impenetrable. "How much?" the boy asked, and Tyber Zann smiled. "Oh, a lot more than this," he said. "This has been damage control - and a bit of revenge, I'll admit. But with your help, we can gain the ultimate price: we are going to raid Paradise itself."

    Avni saw Qull's eyes go wide. "Byss," he mouthed. Not just a storehouse, but the Emperor's personal retreat. Zann must have found the coordinates in the files stolen from the Eclipse; he had only been waiting for an opportunity like this. If this Qaga Lok turned out to be the key to Byss, and Avni had been the one to bring him in…

    The boy winced a split second before the shipboard alarms started blaring. "Contacts!" the sensor officer yelled. "Two ISDs, sixteen hundred klicks out, bearing our way."

    Tyber Zann turned on the spot, calling up a tactical hologram with a flick of his hand. "Two more, at ninety and two-seventy to the first," the officer continued. "Interdictors."

    Avni and Qull exchanged a glance. "A trap," Avni said. "But how…" Then she saw Mokce Tu clinging to a support strut, his face pale as death, and she knew.

    "You," she hissed.

    "Ion cannons, target those Interdictors," Zann said, sounding completely unconcerned. "Torpedo crews, fire as soon as they're disabled. All turbolasers on the ISDs. Wherever they came from, let's make them regret they ever did."

    A cheer went up from the crew pits, then died down when the tactical hologram updated. "Uh," the sensor officer said.

    Avni stared at the thing, hoping against hope it was a technical glitch; but then she looked out the viewports and there it was, undeniably real and impossibly huge. Mokce Tu whimpered and Qaga Lok growled in a way that would have scared her half to death a minute ago, but now it barely registered.

    "S-Super Star Destroyer," came the belated update from the sensor station. "Uh, right on top of us."

    "Incoming transmission from the Iron Fist," the comms officer said. "It's Zsinj. Himself."


    ***


    Tyber Zann accepted his defeat with grace. His last action as captain of the Merciless was to put a blaster bolt through Mokce Tu's head for selling them out; then he signaled to open the doors to the bridge, put his famous chopped blaster carbine on the floor next to the body, and surrendered control of the ship to Zsinj's boarding party.

    A corvette ferried him over to the Iron Fist. It was a short but tense voyage: the Imperials had taken the mercenary boy, Qaga Lok, and brought Silri over from Avni's brig as well; so Zann was sitting there with two angry Force users, guarded by a squadron of nervous stormtroopers, while the captain of the corvette kept blathering on into the ship's log as if this prisoner transport was the greatest adventure of his life.

    Seeing Silri again, lacking her arms but with a scowl as fierce as ever, was a small consolation. "We could have done great things together," he told her, ignoring the dark stares of the stormtroopers and the muzzles pointed at both of them. "It is a pity you betrayed me. Luckily I've found better help," he added with a nod to Qaga Lok, whose expression was almost as grim as Silri's. "So we will have to do great things without you."

    "I never belonged to you," the witch spat, slurring her words a little thanks to the lingering effects of her sedation. "You're insignificant. A means to an end. Your time is over."

    "I am afraid," the captain of the corvette cut in, genially clapping his hands together, "that all of our times are over - our time together, that is. Mr Zann, if you would be so kind. Officers, if you please."

    Normally the stormtroopers would have restrained the prisoners by their arms while walking them; but seeing as Silri had none and Qaga Lok seemed liable to rip anyone apart who tried to touch him, they abandoned that tradition and even allowed Zann himself to walk on his own. Instead they trusted in their blasters and the security systems of the Iron Fist to discourage any escape attempts.

    Not that Zann had any intention of escaping at this point. His strength was not in running nor in fighting - though he could do both passably in a pinch - but in corrupting. Fate had delivered him onto the flagship of a bona fide Admiral, the second most powerful warlord of the Empire to boot; or rather, fate had delivered Zsinj into his presence. So Tyber Zann would do what he did best: make him an offer he could not refuse, then gradually twist Zsinj to serve his own ends.

    The doors to the bridge irised open. "Go," the stormtrooper behind him growled, poking him with the tip of his blaster in a puerile display of power. Half suppressing a smile, Zann stepped through the door.


    ***


    Zsinj was ridiculous. A short, fat man in an Admiral's uniform, grinning at them like they were cakes at a buffet. Ken felt like ripping off his stupid moustache - no, that was wrong. Qaga Lok felt like ripping off Zsinj's moustache, and maybe he would. Ken would not have dared, but Ken was no more.

    Everything here was ridiculous. The silly half-smile in Tyber Zann's face, as if the crime lord hadn't just been caught with his pants down. Silri's lame attempts to catch the eye of a dark-haired woman in the Admiral's entourage, both by shifting her head this way and that like someone flirting and by fidgeting with the Force. The captain of the corvette that brought them here bowing before the Admiral - a literal bow, one arm out and his toes scratching the floor - and going, "I deliver your prisoners, Admiral; as unharmed as they were before I got them."

    "Yes, yes," the Admiral said, waving him off. "Back to your ship, Darillian." He stepped in front of Zann, which made him look even shorter. "So you're him, are you? Tyber Zann."

    "And you are Admiral Zsinj. Can I just say that I admire what you've built out of the ruins of Palpatine's Empire."

    Zsinj ignored the flattery. "The Tyber Zann? Leader of the eponymous Zann Consortium?"

    The crime lord puffed up his chest a little at that. "The same. And whatever you've heard about our reach and influence, I assure you it is just a small part of the story."

    Zsinj casually stood a step back and twirled his moustache. "You have a proposal to make, I suppose?"

    "Indeed I do. We have met at an exceptionally auspicious time, Admiral; now all the pieces are in place. With your ships, my knowledge, and this boy's powers, we can…"

    There was a flash and the hiss of sizzling flesh, then Zann crumpled to the floor like a puppet with its strings cut. Silri cried out, but Ken - no, Qaga - Qaga Lok only looked on as the Admiral handed the blaster back to the stormtrooper he had taken it from. Somehow he seemed a lot less ridiculous now, though nothing about his appearance had changed. He even wore the same expression as before when he turned to Qaga Lok. "Your powers, he said?"

    "I defeated her." Qaga Lok tipped his head in Silri's direction, who bared his teeth at him. She would have balled her fists too if she could, he supposed. "Zann still owed me money for that."

    "Did he, now." Zsinj stroked his moustache again, but this time he did not reach for a blaster afterward. "I figured you were not one of his men."

    "I am nobody's man." Qaga Lok hated the way his voice cracked at the worst moments; he would have to do something about that.

    Zsinj tilted his head in a noncommittal gesture. "I still think we can come to an arrangement," he said. "It so happens I have my own uses for this witch you disarmed. I will pay you for her - unless you'd like to keep her?"

    "What? No." Qaga Lok looked over at Silri, who was seething with rage. "Why would I?"

    "Good." Zsinj turned around, addressing the dark-haired woman Silri had been trying so hard to make contact with. "Miss Pasiq, I think this lady - or what's left of her - would make a charming present for our mutual friend Gethzerion. Why don't you wrap her up and send her down to Dathomir; ballistically, of course."

    "You will regret this," Silri hissed, speaking for the first time since arriving on the bridge. "You cannot keep all of us trapped forever. The witches will rise and take revenge on all of you - you most of all, blood traitor!" That last bit was directed at the dark-haired woman, whose only response was a smirk.

    "Perhaps they will," Zsinj said. "But you will not. Off you go, now." He waved them away before turning back to Qaga Lok. "So we have an agreement?"

    Qaga Lok nodded. "As soon as I have my money, we do."

    "Outstanding. Ensign Pollak here will show you to the quartermaster. Once that is dealt with to your satisfaction, you are free to leave - unless, that is, you could be interested in taking on a new job right away."

    "That depends." Qaga Lok regarded the Admiral warily, waiting for the alarms to blare and an even bigger ship to drop from hyperspace; but none came. "What's the job?"

    Zsinj smiled. "How about you get your money first, and then we talk." He looked sideways at Tyber Zann's corpse and gave it a little kick. "You'll see I am an honest man, Mr Lok. You're among good guys now."
     
  8. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Escalation

    Imperial Center was its own kind of battlefield, Lieutenant Vaartsoon knew. After a tumultous youth on Corulag, his meteoric rise through the ranks of Imperial Intelligence had taken him all over the Galaxy, from Kokash to Ciutric IV. Each world had its own challenges and opportunities, but none was so rich in both as Triple Zero, the glittering heart of the Empire.

    When he got off the public turbolift at level CC4-sub71, he was keenly aware of the sentient beings all around him. That was no exaggeration: he literally felt what the people behind him were doing as little pinpricks on his back. For missions like this one, when situational awareness was crucial, he wore an undershirt with a little holocam embedded in the back of the neck. The images from the camera were converted into high-contrast monochrome, then painted onto the skin of his back in patterns of low-voltage electric stimulation. The first time he had used this piece of equipment, it had taken his brain all of an hour to treat the pinpricks as just another sensory input like any other, essentially turning his back into a big backwards-facing eye.

    On his way through the crowds that lined the sides of the Caramere Canyon, he spotted no fewer than three pickpockets trailing him and sizing him up before melting back into the crowd. He saw a group of human thugs shake down an elderly Ithorian, spotted what he was pretty sure were illegal drugs being passed from hand to hand in the line before a food stall, and discouraged a cybernetically enhanced bandit who followed him across a bridge by putting a hand on the grip of his visible blaster without turning around as soon as he got too close. Vaartsoon could have killed, incapacitated or arrested all of them, but petty crime was of no interest to him. There were much bigger things going on in this city, and he was here to stop them.

    His first hint that he might be on the right track was a door in the wire fence that separated the pedestrian area from a strip of walkway reserved for infrastructure droids. The door was shut, but a scrape along the corrugated steel floor suggested it might have been opened recently - a very rare occasion, judging by the layers of caked dirt on the floor that had been pushed away.

    Vaartsoon pulled the door open and squeezed through. Whatever had come through here could not be much bulkier than he was. Footprints in the dirt indicated a human or something very similar. He looked up the sheer wall in front of him: those were the foundations of Caramere Tower, the second tallest skyscraper in CoCo Town - and one of the most densely inhabited places on the entire planet. Hundreds of thousands of people lived on the nine hundred floors whose weight rested on this and fifteen other duracrete pillars. While the others were completely encased in other construction, however, this one abutted the Canyon, making it a target for graffiti, vandalism - and, potentially, terrorists.

    A pack of small creatures had built a nest out of flimsiplast scraps where the walkway and the pillar met; they fled on scaly legs when Vaartsoon approached. The chittering noises they made as they hopped up through the maze of steel girders above startled another pack around the corner: near-human lowlifes, Vaartsoon concluded when he pushed around the blankets and depleted deathsticks they had left behind with the toe of his boot. Those were not the ones who had opened the door; they probably lived in here, in the liminal space between the Canyon and the Tower.

    Holding on to a diagonal beam, Vaartsoon looked up again - and spotted a furtive movement behind and below him, on the next grate down from the one he was standing on. Someone humanoid was ducking out of sight behind the corner. Vaartsoon straightened up leisurely, took another good look around, then continued his tour around the pillar as if nothing had happened. In a few seconds, he supposed, the guy would poke his head back out and either try to flee or get the drop on him…

    "Stop right there," a voice said from below and in front of him. There the guy was, a human in a casual suit, his black hair tied into a bun behind his head. The blaster in his hand looked heavy enough to punch through the grating and blow a hole into Vaartsoon's chest if he let it. "Hands away from your body," the man bellowed. "This is private property. I'm placing you under arrest for trespassing."

    Vaartsoon relaxed. He had seen five different ways out of this situation at first glance, two of which ended with the other guy dead, but one of the first rules of intelligence work was to avoid a fight unless it couldn't be helped. "Caramere Security?" he asked, showing his palms. The man grunted derisively. "CoCo Constabulary," he said. "You better come down here quick." He indicated a service ladder with a tilt of his head without taking his sights off Vaartsoon.

    "Certainly, Officer." Vaartsoon climbed down, then held his hands out again and faced the officer with a smile. "Lieutenant Vaartsoon, Imperial Intelligence. I'm here on special dispatch from Director Isard herself. I think perhaps we can help each other."


    ***


    Far above the two of them, Baddon Fass was surveying the cityscape from the very top of Caramere Tower. It had taken some bending of weak minds and quite a bit of acrobatics to get up here; but the challenge - as the Ambassador liked to say - was what it was all about.

    The Collective Commerce District, called CoCo Town by the locals, sat at the very edge of what Sa-Di had called "respectable Coruscant". Every day millions of people from the poorer districts flooded the shops on its lower levels looking for bargains and rejected items from the malls above. Those were the glitzy sort meant to attract well-off civilians, low-level bureaucrats and their ilk. No one who was actually rich would ever come here, Sa-Di had explained, but the malls gave the middle class a sense of luxury and achievement. Baddon Fass saw them pour out of the hovertrains at the station, all of them so certain of their own destiny they ignored the hundreds of others around them who competed for the same status and territory. He sneered, viscerally disgusted at those petty civilian lives. Even after a month of lectures from Sa-Di, he could not understand what the Ambassador found so interesting about them.

    Baddon Fass was only interested in power. And power, he knew, came not from people but from Chaos. The creatures milling below, with all their hopes and dreams and expectations, were merely fodder for the Chaos in the end.

    Having disgorged its load, the hovertrain left the station. The next one was already coming into view in the distance, weaving its way among the skyscrapers and docking here and there like some grotesque insect sipping nectar from flowers.

    When the train was on course toward the Pom Spire, Baddon Fass struck. Coruscant hovertrains were piloted by droid brains, but due to Imperial safety regulations there had to be a sentient operator in every cockpit, to override the droid's routine in an emergency. The operator's presence in the Force was easy to pick out: it was the most bored of the lot. A small pinch sent it into panic mode and made the operator flip the override switch.

    The next part was harder. By instinct, Baddon Fass wanted to grab the wavering train with the Force and hurl it where he needed it; only that way it would never build up the energy he needed. Instead he had to dig deeper into the operator's brain and convince him to steer the train off course, then push the accelerator to the limit. According to Sa-Di, this level of fine control required at least a modicum of empathy, something Baddon Fass had been notoriously short of even when he still was human. He made up for that lack with pure force of will, shoving the image of where he had to go into the operator's mind so hard he had no chance but to follow it like some mad compulsion.

    The hovertrain veered off toward the right, gaining speed as it shot straight through an airlane, then dipped downward at a steep angle before crashing into the base of the Pom Spire where it emerged from the surrounding roofs.

    The highest building in CoCo Town, topping Caramere Tower by three dozen stories, Pom Spire was a narrow needle stabbing into the cloudless Coruscant sky. It had been a vanity project by some architect or other; now it stood almost empty except for a few representative offices on the top floors. The hovertrain's impact sheared off almost a quarter of its base and set the surrounding buildings on fire. Even up on his ledge, Baddon Fass could feel the weight of the building shift, the tensions spreading through the cityscape. Pom Spire leaned toward him inch by inch, flames licking at its base. For a moment its fall seemed inevitable; but then a shudder went through it and it stopped and held.

    His teeth bared, Baddon Fass turned his eyes away from the conflagration he had caused and looked for a new victim. There was a fuel truck speeding in the direction of the Imperial District, several tonnes of compressed flammable liquids controlled by a single dull mind. That should do it.

    Baddon Fass reached out.


    ***


    "It's make-work, is what it is," Sergeant Erkin said, gesturing at the pillar and the durasteel structures surrounding it. "They need to be seen doing something, what with the terrorist attacks in Uscru and South U. So what they do is send us Constables scrambling to check the foundations of every frakking skyscraper for bombs or sabotage, because of course the Guard can't be bothered to do their work and catch those guys…"

    Vaartsoon tuned out the interdepartmental grievances. "Not every skyscraper though, right?" he said when Erkin stopped for air. "Intelligence analytics say the attacks seem to be focused on areas with especially dense populations - and dense human populations in particular. So I suppose they didn't send you to check out Pom Spire?"

    "What, Big Pom? Nah." The officer frowned. "Figured they'd get around to it?"

    "That's because it is basically empty, compared to this one here." Vaartsoon slapped the blackened surface of the pillar, then wiped his hand on his pants. "Whoever is behind this seems to want lots of humans dead. Which is why they sent you here - and why they sent me here as well."

    Sergeant Erkin frowned. "Are you saying it's aliens? I've heard about the riots in Invisec, but this…" He stopped, and Vaartsoon felt the hairs in the back of his neck rise. Something had just changed - the background noise, the quality of the air or something equally intangible. He was peering northwards along the Canyon when the tremor hit, rattling the walkways and the scaffolding and even the massive duracrete pillar itself. A cacophony of groans and cracking sounds rose from the lower levels, punctuated by the occasional screech of metal taxed beyond its breaking point.

    Compared to that, the blaring sirens and alarms that went up all around the district seconds later sounded almost comforting. Sergeant Erkin looked at his comm, his broad face pale. "Pom Spire," he squeaked. "They hit Pom Spire. It's… it's falling. This way."

    Vaartsoon swallowed a curse. Focus. He pulled his vibroblade out of its sheath on his belt and turned it on in the same motion, then slashed a hole into the wire fence to his left. They were on a service level that was mostly deserted at this time of day, but some ways up ahead some swoops and speeders were parked in front of a seedy unlicensed eatery operating out of an old freight container. Erkin followed him as he dashed towards the place, keeping up running updates in a wheezing voice. "Hovertrain crash. Spire is leaning but… stopped falling. For now."

    Vaartsoon chose a bike and leapt onto it, ignoring the yells from a group of workers who were getting up from a makeshift table nearby. Given a few minutes, he could easily have hotwired it; but one of the perks of Intelligence work was a data chip that unlocked every vehicle using a mandatory hardware exploit. "CoCo Constabulary!" Erkin shouted at the approaching workers, waving his comm. "Evacuate the area! Get as far away from here as possible!"

    "You're taking my ride!" one of the men protested. Vaartsoon looked up at him and shrugged. "Share," he said, pulling Sergeant Erkin into the saddle behind him and kicking off.

    The yells quickly faded into the general uproar coming from all directions as Vaartsoon steered the swoop into the Canyon, then pulled up as steeply as he dared. He wove through lines of traffic that were quickly dissolving into chaos, then shot up out of the Canyon into an apocalyptic scene.

    Two blocks away - terrifyingly close by Coruscant standards - the Spire was burning. Flames were crawling up its length, warping the duraplast wall panels and the very around it. To Vaartsoon's momentary confusion, it looked perfectly straight from his point of view - until he realized that was because it was tilted exactly his way. A fraction of a degree more, and it would fall against Caramere Tower, its tip impacting the Tower at approximately…

    "Watch out!" Erkin screamed behind him. Vaartsoon ducked and swerved instinctively as a massive fuel truck barrelled past just overhead. It flew like the driver was drunk, Vaartsoon thought as he followed its progress toward the burning Spire - and then the huge vehicle jerked in a way that should not have been possible for a vehicle of this mass, before tumbling straight into the conflagration at the Spire's base.

    This time Vaartsoon cursed out loud. The analytical part of his mind mapped out the situation - seconds until the Spire would begin to fall, a few more seconds until it hit Caramere Tower, the shock wave from the impact, the rain of debris in all directions - while the instincts from the swoop-racing days of his youth took over the driving. Erkin whimpered when he threw the swoop around and accelerated toward the sheer walls of Caramere Tower. "Only safe place is up!" Vaartsoon called, then pulled the swoop into a dizzying hockey-stick maneuver and shifted all power to the aft repulsors.

    With a horrible screech, the Spire fell. Vaartsoon watched it from the corner of his eye, trying to visualize the curve its tip was drawing in the air and where it would intersect his own path. Even with all the unknowns, the verdict was clear: he was too slow. At this rate, the Spire would likely slam him right into the Tower; and even if he could dodge, he would be pulverized by a spray of high-speed debris moments later.

    "Sorry," he subvocalized, entirely for his own benefit, before he pulled Sergeant Erkin's hands off his jacket and pushed the older man out of his seat with one hand. He thought he heard Erkin scream as he fell, but it was hard to tell with the noise all around.

    More importantly, the swoop was picking up speed. Rows of windows and terraces flew by beneath his feet as he raced up the wall, slanting the swoop so it followed the contours of the Tower as it narrowed towards the top. With Erkin gone, he could see the Spire fall into view behind his back, could watch its tip shatter against the Tower, then the Tower's north wall crumple under the impact of the rest of it.

    He had made it, just barely. The shock wave slammed into his back, weaker than he had feared but still hard enough he had to fight the swoop like a bucking bulfus to keep it from careening into the topmost levels of the Tower.

    As teenagers on Corulag, he and his friends had sometimes raced each other up Agricombine storage towers on their swoops. The trick was never to go full vertical, or you would flip and be mashed into the ground by your own repulsors. The most dangerous part came at the top, when you had only a split second to get your swoop level before it launched into an uncontrollable tumble. Vaartsoon gritted his teeth, every nerve in his body on high alert, and counted down the stories. The Tower shook and began to topple just when he approached the end - and all of a sudden Vaartsoon found himself staring into the face of a man who was standing on the top ledge of the Tower, grinning madly even as the building crumbled under him.

    He should have lost control and ended up a smudge on the rubble of CoCo Town. Instead, for a terrible moment, he stopped. The world kept on roaring around him - sirens wailed, storms howled, thousands of people died screaming as the Pom Spire pulverized one side of the Caramere Tower and sent the rest tipping over to destroy even more of the Commercial District - but he and the swoop just hung there at the apex of his arc, as if arrested and held in place by an invisible force.

    By an invisible Force…

    The man had a broad, chunky face disfigured by burn scars, and eyes that glowed with malevolent glee. At the last instant before the ledge he was standing on broke away, he jumped - a seemingly effortless motion that carried him up toward the swoop, up further than should have been possible, until his equally chunky and scarred hands gripped the rods behind the steering vanes and finally pulled the swoop and Vaartsoon out of their paralysis.

    It would have been the easiest thing to give in to despair right there and then. Here he was, hundreds of meters above a hellscape, alone with a Force user - probably one of those Dark Jedi whose files in the Intelligence archives were so heavily redacted they were practically useless. Even with all of his training, his experience and his urban combat equipment, Lieutenant Vaartsoon knew he stood no chance. He had seen this man hurl a fuel truck into a skyscraper using only his mind, he realized. If he wanted him dead, he was dead.

    But Isard had to know. Even here, in the moment of his likely death, he could feel the Director's commanding presence; he could picture her disappointment if he died with his mission incomplete, and her appreciation when he brought her the information she needed to crush this man. Without waiting for the Darksider to pull himself up any further, Vaartsoon slammed the accelerator, swung into a course perpendicular to the main arc of destruction, and leapt off the swoop as soon as the roofs far below looked solid enough. The small vehicle and its most recent passenger disappeared behind him in an eyeblink, as if yanked up into the sky, and Vaartsoon was falling headfirst into the city.


    ***


    Sarcev Quest blinked slowly. "Huh," he said when the Lieutenant had finished his story. "And you survived that how?"

    "Urban combat gear, sir," Vaartsoon said. "There's an emergency parachute worked into the seat of the pants. Not the most dignified way to travel, but…"

    "Can you find him?" Ysanne Isard interrupted him sharply. She had been pacing and staring into the middle distance while Vaartsoon recounted his adventure; that was never a good sign. "I need him gone. I have plans for this planet."

    And you don't want a random Darksider running rings around you and making people doubt that you can keep them safe. Quest pulled a face. "I'll see what I can do."

    For a moment Isard stood perfectly still, then her head snapped around to Vaartsoon. "Lieutenant, you're dismissed. Report in for a full medical examination. Now." She waited until Vaartsoon was gone, then she exploded. "Who is that?" she said. "Another escaped toy of Palpatine's? You said you had them covered!"

    Sarcev Quest yawned and leaned back in his seat. "Ysanne," he said, "I just got rid of Delvardus for you. Five hours ago I was in the middle of a fleet battle. I'm tired."

    "And drunk."

    "Yeah, that too."

    "Sober up, then. This is a critical time for the Empire."

    Yeah, you have no idea. "It's been a critical time for the Empire ever since Endor. But sure, like I said. I'll see what I can do."

    Isard huffed. "Soon, please. The Moffs will be coming to Coruscant in a week - or what's left of them anyway. I will need all of my patience for those traitorous fools. I'll have none left for terrorists, or you."

    So that's why you're so tense. Quest felt his patience with Isard running out too, but once more he bit down on his anger. "You said you have a possible accomplice in custody? I'll need to talk to him."

    Isard sneered. "He's a Rebel. I thought this was a Rebel campaign at first, but now…"

    "I want to talk to him anyway. If he was at the scene of the first attack, I might get something useful out of him."

    "Well you can't," Isard said simply, turning her back on him.

    "Because he's in Lusankya?"

    Even through drowsy eyes Quest could see her hackles rise at that. Isard hated that he knew about Lusankya - after all, he had put the Super Star Destroyer where it was now, with Cronal's help. She hated it even more that she couldn't kill him as she had killed everyone else who knew. There was no doubt in Quest's mind that she would attempt it the moment she felt she didn't need him any more. Not that he was worried - he could take care of himself - but having Isard and her goons on his back was another annoyance he didn't need right now.

    "I'm putting him to use," Isard said finally. "You can't have him."

    "Yeah. Fine. So. Where do I start?"

    "I don't know." It had to be a grueling admission for someone like Isard. "You're the expert on Darksiders."

    "Am I? I guess I ought to be." Sarcev Quest got up and stretched, his joints creaking and popping. "Fine, then. I think I have an idea."


    ***


    Coruscant might be big, Sarcev Quest mused as he got into his speeder from one of the highest landing platforms of the Imperial Palace, but it was anything but subtle. The lowest levels were home to the lowest creatures: subsentient races, tribes or individuals reduced to barbarism by their cruel environment. The richer you were, the higher you lived. Ysanne Isard, the de-facto ruler of the Empire for the time being, looked down on everyone from her sparse, roomy office… on almost everyone, at least.

    The skyhooks were a world of their own. Ranging in size and shape from small floating islands to veritable space stations in all but name, they hung above the cityscape like a material reminder that there existed a class of beings that was utterly beyond anyone's reach. Even Director Isard, they proclaimed, could claw her way up only so far. Quest wondered idly if that bothered her. The thought that it most likely did warmed his insides like brandy.

    There were distinctions among the skyhooks themselves too, of course. Some floated so low they were accessible by elevator, while others were all the way beyond the planetary shields. The one Quest steered his speeder towards was somewhere in the middle, just low enough you could approach it in an open-topped speeder without getting too short of breath. Its bottom was an immense cupola made of clari-crystalline that stared down at the city like a lidless eye. Negotiating an approach - first with the automated security systems, then with a human operator and finally with the skyhook’s owner himself - took a full twenty minutes. Sarcev Quest used the time to infer the platform’s hidden defenses from its architecture, then cautiously steered the speeder through a spiraling tunnel in which gravity shifted by 180 degrees before landing it on the floor - or rather, the roof - of a small hangar in the belly of the skyhook.

    The last time he’d been here, he had assumed the flipped-gravity thing was just one of the ways rich people tried to impress their guests and give their places some unique touch. This time he realized it also served to guarantee that no one who was not used to this place could get away too quickly. While that was not enough to make him worry, it increased his estimate of his host by a notch. He climbed out of the speeder, took a moment to let his dizziness settle, then climbed down - no, up - the spiral staircase that led into the eye.

    His host was standing there, hanging from the ceiling by his feet, looking up at the surface of Coruscant with a liquor glass in his hand. “Ambassador Sa-Di,” Sarcev Quest greeted him. “Thank you for seeing me.”

    Sa-Di put the glass down on a transparent table before turning to face him. His broad, upturned nose gave his face something of a childish look, but Quest knew the innocence was deceptive. This was one of the few men Emperor Palpatine had regarded as one of his peers - not his equal, of course, but close enough to be a partner rather than a tool. “Ah,” he said, affecting a smile. “You’re the handsome one. I remember now. Idlewil?”

    From the way Sa-Di waved his glass at the last word, Quest assumed he was being offered a drink. “Gladly,” he said.

    The Ambassador produced another glass and filled it, then let it float over to Quest in a casual display of his powers that was at least as disorienting as the gravity shift. Even at the height of the Empire's might, its Dark Side elite had known better than to flaunt their abilities, sometimes even going to great lengths to appear as dumb to the Force as possible. This gesture, as small as it was, felt like a monstrous breach of etiquette, leaving Quest to wonder what it meant.

    He plucked the glass out of the air and took a sip. At least the liquor was good. Excellent, really. He was about to make a comment to that end when Sa-Di spoke. "You are here on Ysanne Isard's behalf, I suppose?"

    Quest did his best not to bristle. "Isard is a means to an end," he said and took another sip.

    "I'm sure," Sa-Di said with an avuncular smile. "But is it your end or another's?"

    "Gah." Quest emptied the rest of the glass in one go, feeling it burn down his throat. "I'm too tired for these games. Listen, Ambassador, someone is tearing this city apart and I need to find him. A Darksider, from what it looks like, but no one I seem to have heard of." He let his glass wobble back through the air to Sa-Di, who caught it with a steady hand. "As far as I can tell, you and me are the strongest two Force users on this planet. So if there is a third, it's in both of our interests to know."

    "Ah," Sa-Di said, nodding as he refilled Quest's glass. "Give me your best guess."

    "My best guess? Retribution for Kadann, I suppose. Could be the Prophets had some sleeper assets stashed away that activated on their deaths." He frowned and accepted the second glass. "We dismantled their Church crystal and raided their other known locations though. No luck."

    "So you have no idea."

    "Not really, no."

    "And your Master won't help?"

    Sarcev Quest stared at him. The Ambassador's gaze was piercing, penetrating. He knows. As quickly as possible he downed the second glass, focusing on the pain to drive the thought away. "Stop changing the subject," he slurred. "Do you know who it is or not?"

    "Sure I do. He's a student of mine. In fact he should be on his way here as we speak."

    Sarcev Quest took a few moments to process that, blinking. "Uh," he said.

    "You mean to ask if I can stop him."

    "Well. I mean, why…"

    The Ambassador set his own glass down and took Quest's from his hand - with his physical fingers, this time. "You think you are helping Isard out of loyalty to the Empire. At the present moment, Isard is our best hope of stability, and stability is what you associate with the Empire. Isn't it so?"

    "That's… well. I wouldn't have put it that way, but yes." Quest forced himself to straighten up. "I'm not attached to Isard, but I am attached to order." It was only partly a lie; he did need at least a modicum of order for his plans to ripen.

    Sa-Di clicked his tongue and laughed. "No you are not," he said. "You are attached to power. But you are still a servant of the Empire. And what the Empire needs right now" - he gestured at the cityscape hanging above them - "is not stability, but Chaos."

    A shiver ran down Quest's spine. As much as he tried to force down the thought, he could not help realizing that he had never been this close to Palpatine and his machinations since Endor. An image of what Palpatine actually wanted began to take shape in his head, dark and immense and terrifying - only to shatter when something rammed the cupola above his head and broke through it with an ear-splitting crash.

    It was a speeder, a sleek one-person craft of the sort favored by rich young men. It burst through the ceiling snout first, then tumbled and fell back up - back down, in fact - together with the glass shards, while its driver jumped out and sailed down - up? - towards them with a graceful leap.

    Quest, who had raised his hands on instinct to protect his face, used them to rub his temples now. I get why Isard houses her prisoners the wrong way up. This is just cruel. He forced himself to uncross his eyes and look at the new arrival. Square build: check. Burned face: check. Dark side: ouch. This was a crude one, like one of those goons Jerec liked to boss around.

    He landed on both feet, scowling and roiling with puerile annoyance. "What's the hurry?" he muttered. "I was just getting here."

    "This gentleman has been asking about you. Sarcev Quest, one of the Emperor's… limbs, I suppose." Sa-Di gestured lazily at his guest, then turned away to push some buttons on a wall panel. "It seems you were seen felling those towers."

    The brute regarded Quest with brutish eyes. "Should I kill him?"

    "No need. He came here to ask you to stop… or to ask me to stop you, to be precise."

    "Yeah right." The brute sneered, them cocked his head suspiciously. "We're not stopping, are we?"

    When Sa-Di turned around, he had a smile on his face. "Not quite," he said. "But you know, I am an ambassador. And sometimes ambassadors are… recalled."

    The understanding dawning on the Darksider's face was just a little slower than Quest's own. "You are leaving?" he said. "Both of you?"

    "Momentarily. And I suggest you do so too." Sa-Di took the bottle of Idlewil off the table and tossed it Quest's way, only a little too high for Quest to actually catch it - until the skyhook suddenly rocked and dropped by just enough for the bottle to sail straight into Quest's open hand. "A parting gift," the Ambassador said, then left through a hatch that had opened in the wall next to him, followed by his apprentice.

    It took another tremor of the room for Quest to realize what was happening. He's turning off the repulsors one by one. Bottle in hand, he raced to the hole in the floor and down the spiral staircase. His speeder was still there; he got into the seat just as the artificial gravity cut out and he nearly crashed headfirst into the hangar ceiling.

    It was sheer annoyance that saved him. "Enough already," he growled, flipping the speeder right way up and pulling himself back into the seat in an effort that was as much gymnastics as Force power. A wave of projected violence turned the exit spiral into a gaping hole lined by showers of sparks and puffs of steam; Quest sped through, flicking a swinging high-voltage cable out of the way at the last moment. The moment he was clear, the last of the skyhook's engines cut out and it went into free fall, tumbling towards the roofs and spires below.

    Quest looked up just in time to see a small spaceship rise through the clouds. There was no point pursuing it; even if he got through to the relevant authorities in time, Sa-Di had diplomatic clearance that would take days to revoke even if Quest could prove his guilt.

    Assuming he even wanted to. Leaning over the side of his speeder, Quest watched as the skyhook impacted the surface at terminal speed, instantly pulverizing anything within a three-mile radius and sending a shock wave hard enough to shatter transparisteel in all directions. He was high enough to feel it only as a sudden gust of wind that buffeted his speeder; but it was the other wave, the wave of death, that rocked him to his core.

    He knew the heady rush of murder and the ecstasy of slaughter, though he had never reveled in it as much as some of the Emperor's other minions. Mere hours before, the rout above Sullust he had orchestrated had made him so giddy he didn't shut an eye all the way back to Coruscant. At the time he had attributed that fact to the grandiose betrayal he had just set in motion - but now, with thousands of deaths echoing through the Force from right beneath him, there was no way to deny that the deaths gave him power.

    A parting gift, Sa-Di had said. What the Empire needs right now is not stability, but Chaos.

    He was grinning when his comm buzzed and he accepted the connection from Isard. "I know," he said before she could get in a word. "I'm at the scene. That was the last one, though."

    "You got him?"

    "He's not going to be a problem any more."

    "So you killed him?"

    Quest rolled his eyes. "He is out of the picture. You can get in front of the holocams and announce that the terrorist threat is dealt with. Or the Rebel threat, or however you want to spin this."

    "You're sure."

    "I'm sure I've done quite enough for you in one day, Madam Director. Wouldn't you agree?" He hung up without waiting for an answer and tossed the comm on the seat next to him - where, to his surprise, the bottle of Idlewil was rolling back and forth, unscathed.

    Sarcev Quest took it and sent an ironic toast up to the heavens, where the Ambassador and his pet were probably getting ready to jump into hyperspace - and to their deaths. "Thanks for the parting gift," he said and took a swig. "Good stuff."
     
  9. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Bye Bye Binring


    Phindar mission, 40:11:21
    Informal debriefing, Cmd Rezia Snoles (Iron Fist officers' galley F-14)
    Solicited by: MIO Cresh-118
    Classified: personal discretion of Wl. Zsinj, Gen. Melvar only



    TRANSCRIPT FOLLOWS


    This was a weird one.

    I'm still not sure if sending me on that mission was a punishment or a show of trust on Zsinj's side. It sure felt like a punishment at first. “Here, take this boy off our hands, treat him like a chunk of zinethium or he'll blow up in your face, and deliver him to the scariest place in the whole kriffing sector. Here's your orders. And here's your secret orders. Oh and here's your super-secret contingency orders in case it all goes horribly wrong. Which it probably will. Off you go now.”

    You can imagine how that made me feel. Not the mission itself, you know. I like challenging missions. But keeping secrets from my team, sending them in half blind, knowing I'll have to pull the rug from under them eventually. Not fun.

    The boy himself though? He was actually surprisingly alright. I'd briefed my team on everything we knew about him - he's a killer, he literally disarmed a Nightsister all on his lonesome, he has this hangup about not being bossed around or feeling used in any way - and I had impressed upon Maurie and T'got in particular that this guy was not an acceptable target for their jokes unless they wanted to get strangled with their own insides. I'll spare you the kink jokes they came up with in response to that, but to their credit they did keep it together fairly well when we finally met the boy down in the hangar bay. I suppose there was a lot of tongue-biting involved, because really he didn't look like much. Just your typical Human teenager, lanky and pimply and the sort of pale you get from spending too much time on ships or underground. Didn't talk much, or look anyone in the eye when I introduced the team, or show much interest in anything really. If this was a family dinner he'd have wolfed down half a serving and then disappeared to his room. But that was alright. We had been told what to expect. “You want to go fight bad guys,” I said. “So let's go fight bad guys.” Maurie and Fonn whooped and T'got did his whistling thing, but the boy just walked up the ramp without even a shrug. I would have rolled my eyes if I didn't have the sneaking suspicion that he might notice even though I was behind his back.

    But like I said, no problem. Fonn put it best, when we all sat in the rec room during the jump - all but the boy, that is. “He's a weapon,” Fonn said. “Weapon wants to stay in its case, leave it in its case. No point risking an accidental discharge.”

    Then we reached Phindar station. Normally, that is according to plan A, we should have met up with the science team there and gone on planetside within the hour. Only the science team was… well, turned out there was no science team, because they'd been blown up. Literally. Not that they told us anything about that at the time, except to wait for Ops to figure out a replacement.

    So we were stuck on Phindar's orbital spaceport, which was a problem in two ways. One, we were not supposed to be seen, or at least not in a way that contradicted our cover story. The cover story being that the boy was our prisoner, and we'd deliver him to the Ubiqtorate creeps so he could go ballistic on them rather than us. Simple plan, really. Classic. But putting that boy in forcecuffs for any longer than we absolutely had to? Not kriffing likely. So I sat them down, as soon as Seeyou had found us a room onstation that was probably not bugged, and told them, “Here's the thing. I know you want to go kill bad guys, and you will, but for the moment we're stuck here.” Because Phindians nowadays, they don't let you dock your ship for more than an hour any more before they put it in a parking orbit, and we were supposed to be waiting for the science team's replacement on the station. Anyway, “And we also can't walk around here,” I tell them, “because you're supposed to be our prisoner and we, uh, can't have everyone see you walk around like that.”

    Granted, it was not the best of speeches. But while everyone's still watching the boy's spotty face to see how he'll react, the droid next to me - Seeyou, our protocol unit that we'd brought to deal with the annoying Phindian bureaucracy - he starts screeching like that. Vocabulator malfunction, I'm thinking, but then his head comes off, and then his head gets ripped apart, like, the jaw falls off and the insides get ripped out while it's just hovering there like this… until the boy up and plucks it out of the air and puts it on his head. Like a mask, get it? Only his chin pokes out. “Now can we go?” he asks.

    You're laughing, but we were terrified. Just picture it. Guy just randomly guts our droid without warning. But actually, you know, that's when things started to turn around. Because we're starting to see that he's not just a weapon. You know why he was so keen on walking around the station instead of staying in our room and sulking like he did for the entire trip? Because he wanted to splurge.

    That's right. That boy, ticking time bomb that he was, he wanted to go shopping. Really wanted to, like it was the first time he had his own money or could get out without his parents or something. We take a walk around the station and he's constantly veering off there, to buy a fold-up vibroknife-plus-multitool, or a jacket with lots of pockets, or a huge nerf wrap that he sits around stuffing into his mouth below the helmet while playing with his new toy. Meanwhile I have my hands full from keeping Maurie and T'got from snickering behind his back. I pull them aside and say, “Look, he's a teenager. He's a perfectly normal teenager who happens to also be extremely dangerous. Pretty sure that's not fun for him, right? So if he wants to behave like a teenager, kriffing let him. It's better than the alternative.” To their credit, they get that and shut up.

    But then there's problem number two: the Phindians. You ever met a Phindian? Lanky, humanoid, with those long arms that go down to their knees, and a beak-like mouth that looks like they're constantly going, 'whoops, you sucker, sucks to be you'? And personalities to match. Like, our boy's sitting there munching his wrap, bothering no one, when this Phindian woman from Station Services walks up to him and says, “Yummy, huh? Enjoying your meal? Go on, feel free, leave a trail of nerf crumbs why don't you, and a couple of drops of sauce for good measure. Not like we mind cleaning up after you tourists here, why would we? Not like we've got anything better to do.” And then she claps him on the shoulder...

    Now remember this is the boy who single-handedly defeated a Dathomirian Witch. Cut off both her arms in a blink because she was getting on his nerves, they say. Darth Vader-level dangerous, if you want to believe the rumor mill - only with a sillier helmet and munching noises instead of that metallic hiss. So I can see how that Phindian lady got confused, but I also know I have to intervene right now if I don't want to see her insides plastered all over the walls around us.

    So I charge her. “Miss,” I yell, “leave him alone. He's…” - and there I stumble over my words, because what do I say? 'Under my protection' is likely to lose me a limb or two. I have no idea how he'll react to 'one of us'. 'Just a kid'? Hell no. 'Literally zinethium' comes to mind, but that'll get us thrown off the station or worse. Finally I settle on “...uh, he's with us. We'll take care of it.” But it’s too late. Too kriffing late, because the boy is already flexing his fingers and the dirt is rising off the floor and to her eye height, like this, and when he closes his fist it all compacts into a little ball…

    Long story short, we had to kidnap the cleaning lady. Luckily my team is good at that: Fonn stunned her, Maurie walked her into the nearest toilet like she was drunk, then a minute later T'got turned up with a giant suitcase she just bought to stuff her in. Not that any of this would have held up to a proper investigation, but classism is alive and well on Phindar and apparently staff get lost or just walk away all the time, even on the space station. We switched IDs and got ourselves a new room to be sure, though, where I sat them all down again and said, “So now we really can't go walking around here any more, any of us, unless we absolutely have to. I'm sorry, and I'm not blaming anyone, but we're stuck here.”

    “Oh great,” says a sardonic voice from inside the suitcase. “I've always wanted to be a hostage to litterers. Not.”

    You can imagine what the next few days were like. I made everyone set their blasters to stun, though I really did not want to find out if a stun blast would be enough to subdue the boy if we had to. Every once in a while we sent Maurie out for recon and resupply because she had the most random face among us, plus standard mechanics' fatigues and that natural charm. She made sure to get plenty of junk food for the boy and once even scrounged up a handheld hologame for him to hide behind. Still there was more than one time when I was sure our room would be a hole in the side of the station momentarily. We had to stun our Phindian hostage a couple of times when she just would not shut up with her cynical commentary about our situation. “Still here, huh?” she'd say when she woke up. “I get it, you know. Nice and cozy, two beds for five people, not counting the hostage because why would a hostage need sleep when you can just zap her and stuff her into a bag, right? Oh but the boy gets a bed of his own, gotta spoil the next generation, huh? Don't worry, I won't touch the boy, no need to zap me again. Though I am tempted, I mean who wouldn't want to catch that dashing spotty rash spreading over his face… yaargh!”

    Like that. Fonn said we should just kill her; I was almost ready to agree at a few points. But then one day she wakes up, immediately starts to gab as usual, only no words come out. She moves her mouth and all, but zip. When she notices she starts yelling - still nothing. She throws a fit, flailing and kicking T'got in the shin, until suddenly she can't move either. Her arm frozen in mid-flail like that. Then she stops breathing. Like, she clearly wants to, but she can't. She's going purple in the face and seizing up when the boy puts down his hologame, waves a hand like he's dismissing her, and she drops to the floor, wheezing. “Now,” he says, “now will you shut up?”

    And that was that. Just a few hours later we got word that our science team had finally arrived, so now morale was picking up for real. “Maurie,” I said, “you go pick them up from…” I looked at my datapad again. “From storage?” That was weird. And it got weirder. Turns out the science team was an Emdee droid. One droid. Lab assistant model. With some upgrades, sure - stronger arms, a sampling backpack, two extra power packs welded to its chest - but, one Emdee. Zero scientists. No team.

    I was this close to calling Ops and telling them where they could shove their mission. Actually I did contact Ops demanding an explanation before we proceeded, because this was starting to look a lot like we were being set up to fail. Nope, they said. Plan's still the same. Only the company doing the science work had suffered an… incident. Sabotage, but the kind that wiped out the whole managing staff plus half their labs. They didn't say as much but it sounded a lot like an inside job. The whole of Binring Biomedical just gone. We were lucky to get even the droid, they said.

    Well that's what war is like, I told my team. Reassess, adapt, execute. - “Execute who?” our Phindian captive shrieked at that, jumping up and waving her long arms. “I knew it! Go on, shoot me, my life has no meaning anyway… not!”

    To our surprise, it was the droid that stunned her - apparently someone had built a stun blaster into its left arm as one part of its upgrades. “She will make a good test subject,” it said as the Phindian crumpled to the floor. “After all the original procedure was designed to work on Phindians.” I nodded reflexively before I realize what just happened. Someone in Ops must have programmed the droid with our mission objectives, but forgot to specify which parts were classified. This bit? It was not supposed to be discussed in front of the crew - and definitely not in earshot of the boy.

    But again, it was already too late. “What procedure?” the boy asked. “And why do we need a science team anyway? What's this mission really about?” He was staring at me, not the droid - so the droid used the opportunity to zap him too.

    Or at least it tried to. Remember how I didn't want to find out if our blasters would be enough to subdue him? This is how we found out. The boy gets hit full in the back, starts going down but then catches himself on one knee. When he raises his head to look at me, there's no trace of the awkward teenager left in him; he's pure hate, pure danger. I know I can't hesitate now, but I do anyway. I can still blame it on the droid, I think. Maybe I can still talk him down…

    Then there's another flash, and another, as Fonn and T'got unload into him. The boy jerks and collapses, belly down. When he raises his head again, I shoot him in the face.

    You'd think that would do it, but it took another three shots and a Herglic dose of universal anaesthetic delivered straight into the jugular before he finally stopped twitching. “Oh kark,” Maurie said. “He's going to be so angry when he wakes.” Fonn growled something about making sure he wouldn't, fingering his blaster, but again the droid gave the game away. “Optimal,” it said. “The angrier the better.”

    Because you see, the plan was to deliver the boy to the Ubiqtorate base in Laressa, Phindar's capital. To tell them he killed one of ours Darth-Vader style, using the Force, so we figured we'd let them deal with it. That alone was a risk, since we are not supposed to even know that the Derida Compound is a Ubiqtorate base, or that the Ubiqtorate is interested in Force users. You're supposed to pretend that the Ubiqtorate does not exist, that it's a made-up word from Rebel propaganda. Only of course we all know. And we're all afraid of it, which is the point. Except Zsinj himself, I suppose; he's probably mostly annoyed that they're still operating in his territory. Hence our mission - the secret one, that is. Get them to take the boy, lay low and wait for them to get on the boy's nerves, wait out the carnage and then go pick up the pieces.

    I explained as much to my team, seeing as the word was out now anyway. “So let's do that,” Fonn said. “Get him off our backs and make him their problem. What are we waiting for?” That was the reaction I'd been hoping for, so we got to work. On the shuttle we crowded into a small compartment with the Phindian in a suitcase and the boy on a stretcher, the Emdee keeping him soaked in soporifics through a tube extending from its wrist to the boy's. We were almost down to the surface before someone thought to ask the obvious next question. “What pieces specifically are we supposed to pick up, though?” Maurie said. “And what’s it got to do with the cleaning lady? I don't get it.”

    I wanted to tell them. I really did. But my orders were clear: strict need-to-know, and technically no one except the science team needed to know what we were dealing with until we'd breached the base. In case we breached the base. That's why I was actually glad when T'got figured it out for them. “It's the Renewal,” he said. “Got to be. I read up on the history of this place, and it's exactly the sort of thing the Ubiqtorate would go for.”

    "The Ubiqtorate does not exist,” I reminded him, glancing up into the dark corners of the compartment. He got the hint - with their sector base on this planet, it wouldn't be surprising if they'd bugged every spot on every shuttle. “Sure,” he said. “But if they existed, is all I'm saying.”

    He was right, of course. About half a century earlier, some criminal organization on Phindar had come up with a way to wipe the memories of sentient beings. Keeping their skills intact but erasing their history. The technology had been lost during a revolution on the planet, but there were plenty of hints that the Ubiqtorate had reverse-engineered it at some point during the last decade. Getting our hands on that was the true purpose of our mission - and from the warnings and priority markers in my instructions I got the impression that it was crucial to Zsinj's future plans.

    So yeah, we did our best. Stashed the packed-up Phindian with Maurie in a downtown hostel. Carted the boy up the hill to the fortified entrance of the Derida Compound, the place that was definitely not the headquarters of the nonexistent Ubiqtorate. Told the guards we had a Force-sensitive criminal they might be interested in. Waited out the obligatory denials and told them to send it up the chain. Let an officer - a Human officer - mock us with a degree of sarcasm that would have made our Phindian hostage blush. “So you want to sell a Jedi?” he said. “Who do you think I am, Darth kriffing Vader?”

    I'd been told to expect something like this, and what to do in case they didn't take me seriously. “Fine then,” I said. “I guess I'll take him to the Inquisitorius.”

    That did it. The Inquisitorius is another one of those things you're not supposed to know about; but apparently whoever wrote my briefing knew enough to conclude that the Ubiqtorate hated their guts. Two clipped comm conversations later, the gate opened and a squadron of guards came out, took the stretcher with the boy on it and the droid too, then they all disappeared inside without even so much as a thank you.

    And that was that. Disappointing, I know, but nothing happened - at least nothing that we heard of. We regrouped with Maurie, kept an eye on the Compound for a week, but nothing. No explosions, no alarms, not even blaster fire as far as we could see. When the Phindian cleaning lady woke up we gave her a good talking-to and a couple hundred credits, after which she promised not to tell anyone what had happened and thanked us for keeping her safe from the maniac; though I am pretty sure I heard her mutter 'Not' when she walked out the door.

    Eventually Ops told us to return to base. I'd like to say we didn't like leaving with empty hands, but to be honest it was a relief to be rid of that boy. Mostly. I reported success on our tertiary objective - remove the subject as a threat to Zsinj's Empire and potentially earn points with the Ubiqtorate - and made sure to give everyone commendations for restraint in the face of extraordinary annoyance. Fonn still says releasing the Phindian is going to bite us in the back, but he'll get over that as soon as the next mission comes our way. He always does.

    Myself, I'm not so sure. I mean, yay, no more angsting over whether the boy likes his hologame or whether he'll get so frustrated he rips another head off someone's shoulders. Sure it was tough having him around, being responsible for him. But I can't help thinking… he's just a kid. Or he could have been just a kid, if someone had given him the attention and care he needed. Even there, holed up with us in a tiny room on Phindar Spaceport, I felt like he was slowly opening up, softening a little, becoming less angry and more approachable. We weren't much of a family, but we were better than nothing, and I'm pretty sure he felt some of that. If everyone hadn't been that keen on exploiting him as a weapon, I'm convinced we could have helped him off the dark path he was on and into some semblance of a normal life.

    But this is war. I know. And now it's too late anyway. I don't know what they did to him in there - killed him, wiped his memories, turned him into a faithful servant of the Ubiqtorate - but he's beyond help. Sucks, right? But I guess I'll get over that as soon as the next mission comes along…


    END TRANSCRIPT
     
  10. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Shadow Mass


    The hologram hovered in the center of the Citadel's Great Hall, dwarfing even the massive Sentinel Guards arrayed along the walls. It showed an enormous machine that looked like the torso of some muscular beast with its head, tail and legs cut off, as it floated above a planet's surface and devoured a city. Ripped apart by tractor beams of terrifying strength, roofs and houses and the very ground itself were pulled into two giant maws at the bottom of the machine.

    Three figures stood in front of the projection, its blue-white glare casting long shadows on the floor behind them. The tallest one, horned and erect, was the Chagrian Mas Amedda. Even with his hat, the Emperor's physician Sigit Ranth only came up to his shoulders. Standing between them, short and crouched but orders of magnitude more powerful than either of them, was the Emperor Palpatine himself.

    "This is Thomork?" Sigit Ranth asked after the destruction had gone on for a while. The machine's appetite seemed boundless, and Ranth found himself wondering about the logistics of it all. He knew that this floating prototype factory - the 'World Devastator', as Umak Leth had called it with his usual flair for the crass and dramatic - housed a molecular furnace that broke down everything it devoured into its constituent atoms. That explained its apparently limitless capacity, but not how it dealt with the added weight. The energy supply to the repulsors had to be both immense and flexible, especially considering they also needed to counteract the tractor beams…

    "What's left of Thomork, yes," Mas Amedda confirmed. The Thomork system lay at the very edge of the Deep Core. To provide cover for Leth's experiment, the Emperor's agents had spread rumors of a plague spreading through the system, then put it under quarantine and evacuated most of its inhabitants to Byss. It was a mercy, Sigit Ranth supposed, that they did not have to witness how their houses and cities were being uprooted and dismantled. "Umak Leth sent these recordings a few hours ago. It seems that the prototype is fully functional."

    "Bring it here," Palpatine said. "Bring them all here."

    "I will relay the order at once," Amedda said. "The remaining Leviathans are already en route, to be retrofitted according to Leth's updated specifications."

    "That will suffice for the first wave," Palpatine said. "Soon we shall not have to bother with that." He waved his hand and the hologram changed. It showed another World Devastator floating in space, looking even bulkier and more uneven than the first, as if it had grown additional body parts. It bucked and shifted like a living animal; then an aperture that spanned the entire width of the machine gaped open and it gave birth to a mechanical monstrosity that, as it took shape, turned out to be a smaller version of itself.

    "This is not real, is it?" Sigit Ranth said, frowning. Unlike the previous recording, this hologram had a certain surreal quality to it, the lines and surfaces blending in a way that looked more like art than technology.

    "It is not real yet," Mas Amedda responded. "This is one of the Abomination's dreams." Sigit Ranth had seen that Abomination in the Emperor's subterranean laboratories: a disembodied brain surrounded by sensors which translated its neuronal activity into sketches and blueprints for nightmarish weaponry. "We were about to make it real, but the project suffered a minor setback."

    "Nasdra Magrody disappeared," Palpatine said.

    "Oh." Sigit Ranth was beginning to understand why he was here. Magrody had been the head of the Institute for Programmable Intelligence, and of course machines as complex and capable as these would require a genius of his caliber to program.

    "The finished World Devastators will require no sentient crews," Mas Amedda explained. "They will repair themselves, improve themselves, and create more of themselves as soon as they have gathered up enough material."

    Sigit Ranth was not easily rattled, but the thought of an army of self-replicating world eaters spreading through the Galaxy while reproducing at an exponential rate did make him frown. "That sounds risky," he said.

    "Of course each World Devastator will be controlled by a hardwired master signal originating from here on Byss," Mas Amedda dismissed his concerns. "They will be our means of ultimate control over the physical plane of this universe," Palpatine said. "I hear you are close with Magrody's most gifted student."

    "Stinna Draesinge Sha," Sigit Ranth said. "I do know her, but we had to part rather abruptly." His last memory of Stinna, desperately searching for an entrance to the Church of the Dark Side while he was inside with Mahd Windcaller, still made his heart ache.

    "You will bring her to me," Palpatine said. "Once she completes Magrody's work and enables the World Devastators to replicate, all matter will be ours to command." He wiped the hologram away with a gesture and turned to leave. "In the meanwhile," he continued, assuming as a matter of course that the others were following him, "the seven amulets of Lord Kaan will give us unlimited control over the Force. And once both of these are accomplished" - here he suddenly stopped and turned to face Sigit Ranth, pointing at him with a gnarly finger - "we can finally get to work on conquering the Chaos."

    Sigit Ranth swallowed hard. During his time on Byss, the full extent of the Emperor's plans had gradually been revealed to him: he had seen the warships arriving, one or a small group at a time, spirited away from the fleets of the various Imperial factions in utmost secrecy; he had heard Palpatine instruct his agents to sabotage this warlord's efforts or help the cause of that breakaway satrapy; he had listened to Sate Pestage's diligent reports on the strength of the Emperor's hidden fleet, the position of his assets throughout the Galaxy, and the optimal time to strike to ensure both maximum casualties and inevitable victory. At the same time he had continued his studies of the Chaos - that place the ignorant called either 'hyperspace' or 'death'. He had assumed that Palpatine, having survived his own demise and returned from the Chaos, was interested mostly in staying alive in this world and using the energies of the Chaos to increase his powers. Only now did he understand that all of this - the Empire, the ravaging of worlds, even mastery over the Force itself - was but a prelude to Palpatine's true ambition.

    Overcome with awe at the revelation, Sigit Ranth dropped to one knee before the Emperor. "I am at your service, Master," he managed, his throat tight. To think that just a moment ago he had felt jealous of Stinna! She might be the key to creating an army of self-replicating terrors the likes of which the Galaxy had never seen - but he, Sigit Ranth, would subdue Death itself at the side of his master.

    Palpatine smiled, his mouth stretching into a narrow gap in his wrinkled face. "Go now," he said, "and bring me the woman. By the time you return, the Empire will be mine again, and all of its power shall be at our disposal."


    ##########
    This one is short but exposition-heavy; it sets up the end of Part 1 of this story. Only 2-3 chapters to go until some of our heroes' villains' plans come to fruition while the others' are foiled...
     
    Xammer likes this.
  11. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Homecoming Rock


    The prisoner was caked in mud - offworld mud, judging by its smell and consistency. His clothes, as far as they could be discerned under the layers of soil, were torn and tattered. Blood had dried on his forehead and arms, and his eyes were bloodshot.

    If he hadn't had so many other things on his mind, Commodore Proth would have been fascinated by the mystery he presented. As it was, all he could think of was how to get him out of the way as soon as possible. "Give me one reason why I should not have you shot," he said. "And make it quick. I have a lot on my plate."

    "Uh, intelligence authorization U-9, code eleven-Kresh-nineteen," the prisoner said. Some of the dried blood flaked off his brow because he was creasing it so hard. "I think? Could have been Besh instead of Kresh. Anyway I'm on your side, I need to use your facilities, and I would rather not kill you."

    The troopers who had brought him in raised their weapons at the implied threat, but Commodore Proth only squinted at him. "You're saying you're Imperial Intelligence?"

    "What? No." The prisoner scratched his chin, dislodging crumbs of mud. "I'm, uh, above that? Command level? No idea what you troopers are calling it these days. Anyway, just let me use one of your data consoles. It's important. Really important."

    Proth shook his head. "That won't be possible. Even if I did believe you. Praesitlyn is under military lockdown, and we are clearing out the whole comms center."

    The big man frowned. "You are? Why?"

    "Because the Rebels took Sullust and Sanrafsix and Bith, so there is a good chance they'll be coming for Praesitlyn next. If you really were 'command level', I'd assume you would know that." Proth gave an ironic salute and stepped away. "Troopers, escort him to the South gate. There's a stream there, so you'll be able to clean up a little," he added before turning on his heel and heading for the door.

    He never reached it. An invisible hand gripped him mid-stride, immobilized his limbs and turned him back around like a puppet.

    "No," the prisoner said. Only he was not really a prisoner any more: the guards had been pushed against the walls to either side, their weapons lying mangled on the floor. The stranger, whoever he was, had balled his fists and was staring at Proth with a rage that burned straight into his brain.

    "I jumped off an erupting volcano," the stranger growled. "I fought my way through a jungle filled with spiders as tall as trees and nightly horrors beyond your imagination. By the time I found a ship half-buried in the swamp, I was starved near to death, because nothing on that hellish planet seems to be edible. I fixed that ship - a relic from before the Clone Wars, with vines snaking through the engines, hordes of poisonous frogs occupying the cockpit and some sort of giant clam glued to its belly. But I did fix it, with my own bare hands; I ripped the vines apart, I flushed out the frogs and I sawed off the clam using only a piece of jagged metal. I got it to fly and it limped into orbit, with just enough air to keep the cockpit pressurized for a few hours. I risked a single hyperspace jump, to the one place nearby where I knew I could get access to an Imperial database. The ship almost came apart in hyperspace, and then it actually did come apart when I brought it down on this planet. I had to break open the canopy and jump the last twenty meters by myself, then limp across this blasted rock of a planet for half a day with a sprained ankle." The stranger paused for breath and balled his fists more tightly. Commodore Proth felt his ribs crack and his windpipe contract. "I will not be stopped by the likes of you."

    Uh-oh; bad call, Commodore Proth thought as black spots began crowding into his field of vision. I'm dead.

    Then the grip on his limbs and throat eased and he took a deep, grateful breath. "I… see," he said with as much grace as he could muster. "Under those circumstances… I am sure we can find a working terminal for you somewhere."

    "Oh, good," the stranger said. "Because it's kind of urgent."


    ***


    Jeng Droga was not particularly good with computers. Luckily the Commodore also found him a helpful droid, a data specialist with a secure setting for Intelligence operations. When Droga got the code correct on his third try, the droid introduced itself. "Twodee-Ex, at your service. May I recommend working on your memory? One more failed attempt and I would have had to self-destruct, killing us both."

    "Maybe later," Droga said. "For now - can you take blood samples?"

    "Indeed I can," the droid said, sounding almost surprised as it extended a small needle from one finger. "I wonder why?"

    "Because some classification levels are blood-coded." That part Droga remembered well. "The blood has to be fresh, of course."

    "Of course." The droid poked its finger against Droga's. "Fascinating," it said. "I never knew this database existed."

    "And you are going to forget it in a minute. Now get me the tracking data for, uh, let me think. Codename Blackhole?"

    "With a space before the hole or without one?"

    "There's both? Um, I guess without one."

    "Blackhole. Aliases. Oh, this is even more fascinating! Apparently there is information for which even you are not cleared."

    "But you can get the tracking data?"

    "There are five entries. Three are labeled as lost, one as unknown, and one… there it is. On the other side of the Galaxy."

    "Copy it to my… huh. I guess I should have asked the Commodore for a datapad. No matter; just store it locally. You are coming with me."


    ***


    Nick Rostu was not, he liked to think, a hateful man. He had spent a life marked by war and violence, from the Summertime War on his native Haruun Kal to armed resistance against the Empire, but through all of it he had remained, he liked to think, a good man. A man who killed when it was necessary - and it often was - but not someone who enjoyed killing. A man who had no qualms about fighting his enemies, but not a man who let himself indulge in hate. Too much.

    Not until recently, that is. Those past few days, he had discovered a depth of hate inside himself that he had never thought possible. The object of his hate was Cronal, of course - the villain who had kidnapped him, put a crown on his head and turned him into the feared Lord Shadowspawn using sentient stone needles that penetrated deep into his brain. He had stolen years of Nick’s life, separated him from his girlfriend Aeona, and very nearly used him to become the ultimate power in the Galaxy.

    But what Nick really hated about Cronal was his taste in starship design.

    Sure, it was partly his own fault - his and Aeona’s, who’d had the bad judgment to agree with him - for deciding to hunt down what remained of Cronal using his own personal shuttle. It had seemed like the obvious choice at the moment, what with the Taspan system falling apart around them and the thick walls of the shuttle being the only thing keeping them alive. But once they got back to the Rebel fleet to drop off Skywalker and his droid, they could just have asked for a different ship. Looking back - and he was looking back much more often than was in any way healthy these days - Nick was sure Skywalker could have scrounged up a gunship or even a light corvette for them. But no, Nick just had to insist that they leave right away, and Aeona had not even so much as coughed to make him reconsider. She had an excuse, of course: she was still kind of terrified that Han Solo would try to get even with her for stealing his ship. But Nick? He had no excuse.

    So he lay there, in the claustrophobia-inducing bottleneck that connected the cockpit and the spherical chamber in the back, staring at Aeona’s red hair backlit by the glare of hyperspace and steaming in his hate for Cronal, Cronal’s paranoia, Cronal’s megalomaniacal plots that justified his paranoia, Cronal’s starship mechanics who had refitted what had been a perfectly comfortable Lambda-class shuttle into this torture chamber, and - though he tried not to admit it - himself. If hate truly led to the Dark Side, as the Jedi liked to say, he had to be as deep in the Dark as Darth Vader.

    But not Cronal. There was no one below Cronal. That ruskakk was just the worst.

    “Hey,” Aeona said, turning her head a little so he could see the flickering of hyperspace reflected in the sweat on her nose. “We can swap places again, you know? I can take it for a while.”

    “No.” Aeona’s claustrophobia was worse than his, Nick knew, since the time she'd spent looking for him in the caves of Mindor. "How did you even know…"

    "You were muttering again."

    “Oh. Sorry.”

    “Nothing to be sorry for. Maybe you want to go check on Kar? We have…” She checked the tiny screen at the front of the cockpit. “Oh. Less than minutes to go until our next drop.”

    “I’ll go check after, then.” Kar Vastor had been another victim of Cronal’s. The biggest and strongest man Nick had ever met, he had at one point also been the man Nick had been most afraid of; but once you had met Cronal everyone else became an altogether lovely sentient by contrast, he supposed. Being enslaved by Cronal through the meltmassif had taken a worse toll on Kar than it had on Nick; since Skywalker had freed him, he had spent most of his time rolling around in a puddle of bacta they had filled the aft chamber with. He’d been lucid enough to insist that he come along for the hunt though; and if he was quite honest, Nick didn’t mind having someone like Kar along to take point once they actually caught up to their quarry.

    A soft ping told him they were about to enter realspace. There was not really much to hold on to in the padded niche that served him as a couch, so he just splayed his limbs to reach as many walls as possible and trusted the inertial dampers to do the rest.

    Somehow they fouled it up this time, and he ended up a sad bundle on the floor just behind the pilot’s chair. Aeona was cursing and slapping the controls. “I don’t know what happened there,” she said when Nick had gathered himself up and was craning his neck to look over her shoulder in the confined space. “It’s almost like we hit something, only there’s nothing - aaah!”

    Nick Rostu had seen plenty of holothrillers in his time. Somehow, even when his own life had been filled with adventure and bloodcurdling horror, he found it relaxing to watch other people scream and run and fight and die. One trick that he had seen so often he just found it trite by now was having a face appear somewhere close to the heroes in an unexpected moment. Whenever that came up in a holoflick, he simply laughed and yawned.

    Now he almost screamed his lungs out, and not just out of sympathy for his girlfriend. The face that stared at them from outside the viewscreen was broad, dirty and brutal, radiating a malevolence that easily cut through two thick layers of transparisteel. Nick was sure he had never seen the man, but he was wearing a spacesuit of Imperial make, so he felt pretty confident he was a bad guy. “Blast him!” he told Aeona as soon as he had sucked some stale recycled air back into his lungs. “Come on, blast him!”

    “No weapons,” Aeona said. “Remember? All armor, no armaments.”

    This time Nick cursed. “Punch it, then. Evasive action. Shake him off.”

    “Don’t,” the man said. His voice vibrated through the window, deep and resonant with a metallic note. “Keep your hands off the controls or I’ll kill you.”

    Aeona turned her head, her face a terrified question. “Don’t,” Nick whispered. “I think… I’m pretty sure he could.”

    “I’m here to help,” the man said. “We’re hunting the same man. Creature. Whatever. You take me to him, I take him out.”

    Aeona’s jaw went slack. “Uh,” Nick said. “Thanks, but we’re fine?”

    “You’re not. You have no chance against Blackhole.”

    “Actually, we…”

    “I killed Kar Vastor, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

    “You what!”

    “He was too much of a risk. And he wouldn’t have been any use in the fight anyway.”

    Nick forced himself to take a deep breath, then another one. Somehow the air smelled even worse now. “You’re… you’re…”

    “I’m your best chance at getting revenge.” The man bared his teeth. “So, are you going to invite me in?”


    ***


    “I can feel him,” the one called Nick Rostu said. “I was connected to him…”

    “Through the Shadow Crown. I know.” Jeng Droga tapped the droid head in his hand against the deck impatiently. “So, where is he?”

    “I need to concentrate.”

    “So concentrate.” Droga scowled at the man. He felt like killing him, and not just because he knew that he had spent years hunting Darksiders. Something about Rostu irked him, the way a mosquito’s buzz makes you want to squash something. He squeezed the Twodee's head a little harder. “But make it quick.”

    “That’s… not how it works.” Rostu squirmed on his couch. “I need quiet. And room.”

    “There’s no room here.”

    Rostu’s gaze flitted aft. Jeng Droga rolled his eyes. “Don’t think I won’t know if you try anything stupid,” he said while pushing himself backwards through the narrow corridor towards the hatch leading to the shielded compartment. “Because I’ll know.”

    “Uh-huh,” Rostu said. His girlfriend activated the hatch controls, and Droga squeezed through into the largest room in the shuttle. It was still not quite high enough for him to stand without stooping, and he was stepping around in a puddle of bacta with a corpse in it, but that was fine. He was on his way now. There was not a lot that could go wrong any more.

    Except… “Listen,” he said, making sure his voice carried through the body of the ship again. “I know what you’re thinking. As soon as you tell me where to find Cronal, you are disposable. So you’re trying to think of ways to trick me.”

    The hatch opened again and Rostu poked his head in. “Did you hear what I said about concentrating?” Then his face turned into a grimace when he saw Vastor lying motionless on the ground. “Also, ew.”

    “Just this one thing,” Droga said, holding up a finger the way he had seen Pestage do when talking to subordinates. “I will make you a deal. You get me there and you let me retrieve Cronal without trying to trick me. Then I take the ship and drop you off on some inhabitable world.”

    “Wait,” the woman called Aeona Cantor said. “Retrieve? I thought you were going to kill him.”

    Jeng Droga frowned; he had forgotten that he was supposed to lie to these people. “You don’t just kill a black hole,” he improvised. “Get it?”

    The woman was clearly unconvinced, but Rostu cut in before she could reply. “You haven’t told us what’s in it for us.”

    “For you? Oh, you get to live. Both of you. I thought that was implied.” Droga shrugged. “Otherwise, if you try to trick me even one time, I kill one of you. Just one, so the other will live and suffer.” He scratched his chin. “Perhaps I should restrain the other one then, so they don’t just kill themselves. Yes, that sounds good. You see, there is this type of stasis bed that keeps you alive and fully conscious but completely unable to move…”

    “All right, all right,” Rostu said, looking as if he was disgusted. “We agree. Right, Aeona? Right. So, can I concentrate now?”

    “Oh. Yes, sure.” Droga nodded at the woman. “You can close the hatch again. I just wanted to clear that up.”

    The door hissed shut.


    ***


    Two Sentinels were waiting on the landing platform when Jeng Droga finally returned to Byss. They reared back when he walked down the ramp, making a noise almost like a feral growl. “Oh don’t worry,” he said, pulling the remains of Cronal behind him. “He’s harmless for now.”

    The dreaded Prophet had been drifting in space when he found him, indistinguishable from a rock except with the Force; and even there Jeng Droga would have missed him without Rostu’s help. The memories he had ripped from Lorz Geptun’s mind on Dagobah had not made it entirely clear to him what exactly had happened to Cronal at the end, and he still was not sure about the mechanism of it all, but the result was unambiguous: Cronal, Blackhole, Shadowspawn or by whatever other name he went had been pretty much turned into a rock. That there was still some life somewhere in that lump of black silicate was a testament to Cronal’s former powers, Jeng Droga supposed, but it was pretty clear that there was nothing to fear from him now.

    He looked up at the Sentinels again, who were lowering their axes to take hold of the rock named Cronal while still keeping their distance. Only they were not keeping their distance from the rock, he realized as he watched them maneuver it into the palace. They were keeping their distance from him.

    Because he stank.

    Only fair, he supposed. Rostu and his woman had seemed pretty relieved too when he put them down on Sernpidal; towards the end of the trip, the air in the shuttle had become rather rank. Thinking back on it now, Jeng Droga realized he had not been to a refresher since he jumped out of his ship to penetrate the Rebel base on Mount Yoda.

    Which was all right. His Master had given him a task, and he had carried it out without hesitation or pause. Now he was done and returned to his Master. “Hey,” he called after the Sentinels. “Tell the Emperor I’ll be right with him, will you? I’ve just got to use the facilities first!”
     
    Vialco, Kadar Ordo and Xammer like this.
  12. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Sentimetal Journey


    "Who are you?"

    The boy opened his eyes and closed them again when blinding white light stabbed into his pupils. He could not close his ears to the voice, however; his hands were held down tightly at the wrists.

    "Who are you?"

    Memory was hard to come by. It felt as if the contents of his mind had been put through a blender and then strained repeatedly until only the faintest substrate remained. "K…? Q…?" he tried. The sound felt right. "Qaga…?"

    "Again."

    Cold metal braces gripped his head, holding it in position. Within moments they became painfully hot, and pressure started spreading inward from where they touched him. The light was inside his head now, washing away anything else…

    He understood at the last moment before it overpowered him. They were trying to erase him. To wipe his memory, the way you wiped the memory of a droid you bought. They wanted to use him, so they had to break him first.

    I won't let them. I have to remember.

    The pressure was building, but he pushed it outward. There were pieces still there, fragments, specks of residue. If he could hold on to even one thing…

    There. He remembered. He remembered… being angry.

    Furious. Betrayed by lesser beings. Used.

    The metal bands holding his arms snapped. The pressure they had put into his head flew from his fingertips, shattering unseen pieces of machinery and extinguishing the terrible white glare. Someone screamed something about containment protocols. Alarms blared.

    He grabbed the metal clasps holding his head and pulled, bending them outward, then ripping them from their sockets. Sparks burned his scalp and electric fire danced over him, but he did not care. He freed his ankles too, then vaulted off the stretcher. "I am Qaga Lok!" he roared. The way his voice broke on the last syllable only increased his fury. "I will not be used!"

    He balled his fists, took a deep breath and focused all of his anger on the wall and the people screaming behind it. He would squash them all; he would break this place wide open, and then…

    And then the highly concentrated dose of FGA-583 nerve agent that he had just inhaled took effect, and Qaga Lok dropped to the floor like a sack of sidi gourds.


    ***


    In every Imperial installation, whether civilian or military, whether open to the public or so secret even Moffs only refer to them by oblique code names, there is an unwritten standard procedure:

    When something goes wrong, you call security. When something goes very wrong, you call a cleanup crew. But when something goes seriously, catastrophically wrong - you call the janitor.

    "Ah. Well," Thorden Beesmax said. He bent his head back to see where the cracks in the wall met the ceiling, then stepped over the body of one of the officers to survey the structural damage to the load-bearing beams. "That's going to require major renovations. And I don't mean filling in the cracks or replacing a pillar. I mean bulldozing the entire wing and building a new one."

    Pol Vray-Boole, newly in charge of the Phindar Ubiqtorate Base by virtue of being the only officer not lying crumpled and lifeless on the floor, harrumphed impatiently. "Yes, fine," he said. "We'll get to that. What I need to know is, when can we resume the procedure?"

    "The procedure?"

    Vray-Boole pointed into the next room, past what remained of the wall and the one-way observation mirror. The boy lay curled up next to the stretcher he had been brought in on; both the droid and the apparatus behind the stretcher were mangled almost beyond recognition. "The Renewal procedure," he said. "We need to get this boy under control before he does any more damage."

    "Oh, that." Beesmax tapped some keys on his datapad. "Somewhere between two and five months depending on the contractors. That's assuming the budget gets greenlit right away, anyway…"

    "Not the building," Vray-Boole snapped. "The apparatus. All the critical infrastructure is in the subbasement, isn't it? So how long until we get it running again?"

    The janitor shook his head. "There is no critical infrastructure in the subbasement, sir, because there is no subbasement any more." He called up the results of the seismoscan on his datapad screen and showed them to the officer. "Everything below and directly above us is rubble. Ruins. That this room is still stable is a fluke. See those pressure vectors here?"

    But Vray-Boole had already stopped listening. "Then we have to kill him," he said, looking for the easiest way through the mess of stones and shards that separated him from the Renewal room. "He's too dangerous to be left alive." He tugged on a piece of synthstone. "Come on, help me."

    "Oh, don't worry about that," Beesmax said, typing into his datapad again. "The FGA-583 should be good for at least fifty more minutes."

    "Don't count on it." Vray-Boole pulled the stone free, then backpedalled quickly to avoid the small avalanche of mirrorplast shards he had set loose. "This is not just a boy."

    "Oh, I'm aware. Nonlocal structural damage, five officers and eight guards in three different rooms killed without outward sign of trauma? You brought a Force-user in here, that much is obvious." Beesmax shrugged. "Not the best of ideas if you ask me. But then you never do that, eh?"

    "So help me kill him!" The officer was trying to climb across the rubble heap now, only to slip and scrape his shin. "Oh stang it, I'll just shoot him from here."

    "I wouldn't," the janitor said.

    Vray-Boole turned and glared at him, gripping his blaster. "Why?"

    "Because he's not your problem any more." The janitor's datapad made a plonking sound and he toggled the communicator function. "Central block, down in the basement. The only corridor that's still accessible."

    "Who." Lieutenant Vray-Boole was practically seething now; it seems to take all his willpower not to shove his blaster into the janitor's face. "Who did you call?"

    "You brought a Force user in here and you failed to contain him. Who was I going to call? The Inquisitorius, of course."

    "Thank you, Mr Beesmax. Officer." The Inquisitor that strode in was a tall Zabrak, his face covered in lightning-shaped tattoos that radiated outwards from the bridge of his nose. He quickly glanced over the corpses on the floor, gave Vray-Boole a barely respectful nod, then simply stepped over the heap of rubble into the next room. Two shorter human aides followed him, gracefully leaping over the ruins without so much as acknowledging the Ubiqtorate officer.

    "You can leave now," the Inquisitor said. Something about his voice made it clear that this was more than a suggestion. "We will take it from here."


    ***


    Rebel propaganda would have you believe that the Galactic Empire fragmented immediately after the catastrophe at Endor - that the Emperor and his superweapons were the only thing keeping the overextended colossus together, and that without those cornerstones it was shattered by its own pent-up internal tensions.

    There was some truth to that, of course. More than a few Moffs and fleet officers had wasted no time fortifying their own holdings and cutting ties with the rest, becoming de facto warlords or satraps whether or not they publicly declared their secession. But the Empire was not one thing - it was not just the Navy, or the Moffs, or the Diet of Planetary Governors. Even if one institution broke - say, the military chain of command between Imperial Center and the Navy under Warlord Zsinj - other levels of the multilayered, multiply-redundant Imperial hierarchy were not necessarily affected.

    One of the layers that had proved more stable than most after Endor was the Ubiqtorate. While Imperial Intelligence rushed into, and ultimately won, a fierce battle for dominance with its rival agency, the ISB, the Ubiqtorate stood aloof, protecting its assets and continuing with its secretive business as if nothing had happened. If there ever was a split within the Ubiqtorate, no one on the outside could possibly tell; to those who noticed its workings at all, the entire agency still appeared to obey one singular hidden will.

    The Inquisitorius, too, remained mostly intact, though its leaders employed a slightly different strategy. Instead of pretending neutrality, they instructed their Inquisitors to pledge loyalty to whatever faction would have them, then serve their new masters in every way that did not conflict with their oath while still clandestinely reporting to the Citadel Inquisitorius. Thus Antinnis Tremayne and Loam Redge cast their lot with Palpatine's former Procurator of Justice, Hethrir, while the late High Inquisitor Jerec had rebranded the branch under his command the 'Great InQuestors of Judgment' to better fit in with Grand Moff Kaine's vision for his Pentastar Alignment.

    But those distinctions, every Inquisitor knew, were window dressing. They still had the same job: find and hunt down Force-sensitives, then convert them to the Empire's uses - or, failing that, eliminate them as a threat to galactic stability. Once a candidate was in the hands of the Inquisitorius, they did not leave again until they were either broken or dead.

    The boy retrieved from the Ubiqtorate facility on Phindar, designated 'Candidate QL' in the preliminary report to the Citadel, was evaluated by Grand Inquisitor Ja'ce Yiaso aboard his ship, the Voltage. Blood tests revealed a midi-chlorian count in the five digits, so it was decided to remit the candidate to the Citadel for further processing.

    The Grand Inquisitor kept the boy sedated according to protocol and travelled to the Botajef system to hand him over to High Inquisitor Volytar, as per instructions from the Citadel. The handover was executed in deep space through a pressurized umbilical. It went smoothly right up until the moment Volytar's ship, the Whisper Bird, detached from Yiaso's Voltage and headed towards the jump point on its own.

    It is not clear exactly how the candidate managed to overcome both the physical sedative and the Force bind Yiaso had put on him. The Whisper Bird's security logs show him vaulting off his stretcher, breaking his bonds and killing the crew of the Starwind-class vessel, including Volytar, within less than three minutes. At the moment of Volytar's death, the dead-man switch installed in his skull rendered the Whisper Bird inoperable, leaving her floating in space with all systems except for basic life support locked down.

    Fortunately Grand Inquisitor Yiaso was still in the system when the shutdown occurred and remotely accessed the Whisper Bird's security systems to determine the cause. After consulting with the Citadel, he remained within weapons range of the drifting vessel, prepared to destroy it in case Candidate QL should somehow manage to bypass the lockdown. That did not prove to be necessary, however, as the Citadel dispatched a Lictor-class Dungeon Ship under the command of InQuestor Halmere from Sojourn to take on the candidate. Specifically designed to hold Force-sensitives, the Lictor-class was equipped with adaptive subjugation caskets, energy cages, isolation chambers held in place by tractor beams in the middle of a hold filled with toxic gases, and numerous other means of neutralizing the advantages of even the strongest Force-sensitives.

    Transferring the candidate from the Whisper Bird to the Dungeon Ship required the combined efforts of Grand Inquisitor Yiaso, High Inquisitor Halmere and their respective staffs, and resulted in the complete destruction of the Whisper Bird as well as the death of Apprentice Inquisitor Doondagh. From that point on, however, the conveyance of Candidate QL to the Citadel encountered no further impediments. After a long but uneventful journey up the Hydian way and through the fortified Core systems, the candidate was delivered to Prakith and remitted into the care of High Inquisitor Shynne on the main landing platform of the Citadel Inquisitorius. Immediately afterwards, all records of the candidate's existence outside of Prakith were removed from any records to which the Inquisitorius had the requisite access, which includes all official records in the various successor states to the Galactic Empire, including the so-called 'New Republic', as well as the internal databases of Imperial Intelligence, the ISB and the Ubiqtorate.

    At the current moment in history, the Empire may present an appearance of political and military dissolution. But that appearance is deceptive: those agencies which were doing the actual work all along, which carried out the Emperor's grand plans without regard to the vicissitudes of war and politics, are still committed to the same goals, and still working towards them with determination and efficiency. The successful delivery of Candidate QL to Prakith proves that the reach of the Empire is still as long and its grip still as unyielding as ever.


    ***


    Prakith was a forbidding planet. Bare mountain ranges rose from its crust like cracked teeth; deep canyons split the surface, separating its landmasses more decisively than any oceans could. The closely packed stars of the Galactic Core overhead bathed the planet’s night side in a dark twilight as the Ambassador’s shuttle approached.

    “Do you feel the Dark Side?” Sa-Di asked, bringing the shuttle in so low it almost grazed a few of the taller peaks. “It is everywhere here. Stronger in some places, but omnipresent.”

    Baddon Fass, sitting in the copilot’s seat, grunted a terse acknowledgement. Sure, this place was seething with the Dark Side; but it was also empty. Rocks and ruins had never interested him, no matter how much they rang with darkness from ages past.

    Then the shuttle cleared one mountain range and shot towards the foothils of another, and Fass perked up. Yes, that was more like it: a vortex of pain and despair, of sinister glee and dark satisfaction. It was not hard to guess its physical location: a tall black spire, looking like a mixture between an ancient temple and an insect hive, jutted out from among the mountains. “What’s this?” he asked.

    “The Citadel Inquisitorius.” Ambassador Sa-Di shut down an alarm and sent out a code that made the tower’s superlaser batteries shut down almost before Baddon Fass had even sensed the threat they posed.

    “Another Citadel?”

    Sa-Di smiled. “Don’t worry, we will return to your Master momentarily. This is merely a quick stopover on the way.”

    “Why?”

    “Why,” the Ambassador said, “when you visit a friend, you bring a gift.”

    They set down on the smallest of three platforms at the foot of the tower. Robed guards escorted them inside without a word, into a hall so high its vaulted ceiling was lost in shadows. While Baddon Fass was looking around for threats, a tall figure approached the Ambassador: a woman in robes the color of dried blood, with a face so sharp Fass imagined she could split someone's skull by headbutting them.

    "Shynne," Sa-Di greeted her, putting on his gregarious smile. "Moving up in the world, I see? Last time I visited you were only an angry little girl." He reached out to touch her cheek, and Fass could feel her struggling not to bite his hand.

    "I remember," she said, her voice hard. "How can I serve you this time?" She shifted her gaze to Baddon Fass. "Are you bringing a candidate?"

    "Him? Oh, no. He is not mine to give. Quite on the contrary, in fact; I am here to take someone."

    The woman's eyebrows rose into steep triangles "You are taking on an apprentice?"

    "Something like that. Not you though, I'm afraid. Why don't you show us what you have on offer?"

    Baddon Fass decided not to care about the histories and hierarchies at play here. The Ambassador loved this sort of game, he knew: poking at people's hangups, using their reactions to figure out secrets, trying to see how far he could push them. Fass found that disgusting, but he had learned to ignore it during his time with Sa-Di. Instead he focused on the lives he felt around him, underneath the floor, above the ceiling and behind the walls. There were only a few of them, but those glowed with hate or simmered with despair.

    The woman led them down a ramp and brought them face to face with some of them. A group of adolescents were engaged in a sort of fight, or dance, or workout; it was hard to figure out until Fass realized they were all pulling at each other with the Force while simultaneously trying to resist the others' grips. "This one has potential," Shynne said, indicating the boy at the center of the group, who had his arms crossed in front of his chest and was willing everyone else towards him with obvious effort. "His name is Brakiss."

    "You are attached to him," Sa-Di observed. "You do not want to let him go, but you think offering him to me will make him cling to you harder." The boy heard him and sneered, then twitched his shoulders to send two of the other trainees stumbling into him. "Show us another."

    Shynne took them down another level; Baddon Fass began to suspect that this place went as deep below the mountains as it poked up above them. In one cavernous dungeon two young women were torturing a prisoner, probing various strands of nerves with long black needles and keeping detailed logs of his screams and physical reactions; in another, some older apprentices were studying a holographic map of the Galaxy and highlighting the sites of known Jedi temples and sanctuaries. Each time Shynne pointed out one particular apprentice, and each time Sa-Di dismissed them with a snide remark.

    "Enough," he said eventually. "You are hiding someone. You can stop attempting to distract me from that fact; you are not good at it, and never were. Take me to…" Sa-Di hesitated and reached out for Shynne, his fingers brushing the back of her head. "To him. The candidate."

    Shynne shuddered, but she complied. Calling up eight guards armed with force pikes, she led them to a repulsorlift platform that took them high into the tower at a speed that made Fass's ears pop. Up there a cage was hanging suspended in midair, its glowing bars illuminating the shape of a boy within - a lanky teenager with a spotty face, whose sheer hatred outshone even the emotions roiling inside Shynne.

    "Very good," Sa-Di said, beaming. "This one will do just fine."

    Once again Baddon Fass tuned out what was going on between Sa-Di and Shynne; this time he focused on the object of their haggling instead. The boy was spoiling for a fight, that much was obvious; Fass could feel him sizing him up, trying to decide if he would be a worthy opponent. Baddon Fass grinned at him; when the time came, it would be fun to find out.

    It did not take long for Sa-Di to break through Shynne's last few objections; then they were on their way back to their ship, accompanied by a cadre of guards surrounding the floating cage. "By surrendering the candidate to you," Shynne said while the guards loaded the energy cage into the shuttle's hold, "I divest myself of any and all responsibility for his or your own further fate."

    "You do that," the Ambassador said good-naturedly. "It has been a pleasure seeing you again. Hopefully I will be able to visit more often in the future."

    Shynne did not reply, but the expression on her face said everything her voice could not. She turned away and left with long, quick strides, leaving the guards to hurry after her.

    "Did you notice?" Sa-Di asked as he prepared the shuttle for take-off.

    "She hates you," Fass replied. "I don't think I want to know why."

    "Oh, that was a given. No, I meant the clumsy way she tried to steer us toward the boy."

    "Steer us toward him? But she was trying to distract us from him…"

    Sa-Di clicked his tongue. "If you want someone to desire something, simply act like it is secret, like you don't want them to have it, like you want to keep it for yourself. Even HoloNet advertisers know this."

    Baddon Fass glanced at the hatch to the cargo compartment, suddenly uneasy. "You're saying… you're saying she wanted us to take him?"

    "She was terrified of him. They all were. She is probably weeping with relief right now, and gleefully picturing our demise at his hands."

    Baddon Fass tensed up. The surface of Prakith was falling away beneath them, and with another override code from the shuttle's computer the orbital shields opened a gap just wide enough for the shuttle to pass through. "You think he's going to break out of his cage?"

    "I know he is going to try. If things go well, we will be back at Byss before he succeeds."

    "And if they don't?"

    Sa-Di threaded the shuttle in between the patrol routes of Prakith's picket cruiser screen. "You wanted to fight him, didn't you? Perhaps you'll get your wish."
     
    Kadar Ordo likes this.
  13. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    The Gathering



    Darth Sidious stood on the highest observation platform of his Citadel and watched his plans come to fruition. Dark shapes were moving beneath the maelstrom of stars that was the Galactic Core, their monumental size apparent even at this distance. Umak Leth's prototype World Devastator had arrived hours ago and was now taking its place in the orbital docks alongside the two score Imperial Leviathans that waited to be retrofitted into its sister ships. Leth himself was still on Thomork, overseeing the destruction of any and all evidence of this project, but he too would join his engineers here soon.

    Farther out in the system, invisible to the naked eye but clear as day to Palpatine's finer senses, the first ships of Sander Delvardus's fleet were appearing from hyperspace. One of the smaller vessels' engines misfired on reversal, putting it on a ballistic course towards the sun; most likely it had been damaged in the fighting retreat from the Greater Seswenna. But it was inconsequential, without even a single lifeform aboard, and the other ships promptly swerved to evade it before returning to formation. It was a good fleet, a disciplined one, forged in battles that had been lost only because they meant to lose.

    The Superior General, as Delvardus called himself now, had turned up on the edge of the Deep Core with almost a full Sector Group's worth of ships and materiel a week ago. He had told Palpatine's agents in no uncertain terms that he meant to place his forces at the disposal of their true leader; so after some deliberation Palpatine had given the order to escort them here.

    Unlike the superstitious Jedi, Darth Sidious knew there was no such thing as a 'will of the Force' - one could either impose one's will on the universe or let it crumble without aim or meaning. Still, there were moments when everything just came together, when multiple lines of history intersected to create the possibility of something new.

    This was one such moment. Delvardus's forces increased the strength of Palpatine's assembled fleet by half again as much. With the new World Devastators spreading fear and confusion, and with Harrsk surprising the enemy on the southern flank, they would scatter the Rebels like ashes before the wind. Once Isard gave him Coruscant, he would make an example of those warlords who did not immediately bend the knee upon his return…

    But those were minor issues, political trivia best left to Pestage and his ilk. What really mattered was not worldly power but dominion over the Force. The real conquest would begin right here on Byss, tonight.

    The shuttle carrying Sa-Di and Baddon Fass swooped down from orbit in a narrow arc and set down on a platform a few stories below. Palpatine sensed the calm presence of his old friend aboard, the restless anger of the servant he had empowered only recently - and something else, something so intense it almost drowned out the rest. His thin lips stretching into a grin, Darth Sidious turned away from the stars and returned to his Citadel. This promised to be an epochal night indeed.


    ***


    Cronal struggled to see. That seemed ironic, considering that his eyes were among the very small number of his organs that were still, in principle, completely functional. His nerveless legs had atrophied a long time ago; his arms and hands were newly encased in smooth black rock, except for two joints of one little finger; and even his skull had collapsed when the melters he had enslaved suddenly left the silicate mass they had animated and it turned back into cold, dead stone around and inside him. That Cronal had survived at all was a testament to his instincts: apparently, without knowing, he had erected immaterial barricades around the crucial parts of his brain and the half biological, half mechanical parts required to keep it alive.

    He even still had a mouth of sorts, though it was filled with spiky black crystals. Traces of bone and skin within the rock could help to reconstruct a face, in time. Meanwhile only his eyes poked out of the grotesque conglomerate he was stuck in, and they were having trouble focusing without the requisite muscles to pull them into shape.

    Cronal had used the Force for many things during his long and colorful career. But using it to replicate the functions of his limbic system had to be a new low.

    At least, he told himself, he could put names and context to most of the blobs and squiggly shapes he saw. There was the familiar figure of Mas Amedda, accompanied by good old Sate Pestage. The real one, Cronal supposed, not the mad clone who had caused all of that hubbub on Ciutric. The third blob in the peanut gallery was Jeng Droga, the Emperor's pet, who had come to pick him up where he drifted after his botched escape from Mindor and dragged him back here. The brute probably expected Cronal to be thankful; he could not have been more wrong. He had thwarted the Dark when it was about to claim its greatest servant. In time, he would pay for that.

    Cronal adjusted his eyes, cursing the cruel coincidence that had kept some of his pain receptors alive along with the optical nerves. The other attendants, those who were gathered in front of the throne, were more of a challenge to identify. He had met some of them, and he had surely read the files on all of them, but they were not the sort to spend time in the limelight. The woman he knew: she had been his mole once, an operative embedded deep within the Rebellion who had almost succeeded at eliminating Skywalker at some point. Shira Brie, who now called herself Lumiya. Something about her posture told him everything he needed to know: she aspired to be the new Vader, but a Vader without a master. He would have to watch her closely; that could turn out to be interesting.

    Also watching her, but with ironic bemusement rather than genuine interest, were two near-human males sporting horned headdresses and fancy robes. One was called K'uaz and the other something similar; they came from some planet whose Force-sensitive population had been wiped out by the Jedi long ago. Trinta, that was it. Cronal had never paid them much heed; they were close to the Emperor but did not seem to have any ambitions beyond hunting and enjoying life.

    The same could not be said of the man standing next to them - if he was in fact a man; Cronal's best agents had never been able to determine that for sure. Jahar Nefta - King Nefta of Radama, as he would have it - affected the part of a wry old aristocrat, but the Dark coiled and warped around him in ways that presaged violent destruction. When Kadann had accused him of plotting to kill the Emperor back in the day, Cronal had assumed the Supreme Prophet simply wanted to rid himself of a rival. Looking at Nefta now, he was not so sure.

    The Emperor himself did not seem worried, however. He made his entrance via the long curving stairway along the outer wall of his throne room, surveying its occupants with a narrow grin as he descended. Cronal would have chuckled about the transparent theatrics - of course Palpatine was trying to show everyone he could still walk unassisted, despite his rapidly aging clone body - if he had not been in a rather awkward physical situation himself.

    "Dark Lady," he said, acknowledging Lumiya in a tone that was just on the verge of cackling. "Your apprentice is busy, I assume?"

    "He is trying out for a position among your Sovereign Protectors, my Lord." Lumiya bowed so that her head remained level with Palpatine's as he stepped off the bottom stair.

    "Good." The Emperor moved on to the two Priests of Trinta. Those did not bow, but they inclined their heads in respect. "Our tribute, my Lord," the one said. "Fresh kills from Kashyyyk and the other Byss," the other added. Palpatine waved them off. "Keep them for now. You might have use of them in what is about to happen."

    "Still teasing, I see," King Nefta said. "My dear friend, not everyone likes surprises as much as you do."

    "Patience, Nefta. Our final guests are only just arriving." He turned to face the entrance, and Cronal found himself futilely straining to follow his gaze. Suddenly the rock he was encased in turned, and he noticed a look of cruel glee on the Emperor's face before the hall shifted in front of him. One thing Palpatine clearly liked even more than surprises was seeing those he viewed as his subordinates cut down to size and rubbing in their failures at every opportunity.

    But at least he had pushed Cronal around so that he could see the new arrivals. Ambassador Sa-Di, nominally of Pendari in the Expansion Region, had been a frequent guest at the Imperial Palace in better days. Like Nefta, he had a strange chaotic aura about him that made him feel more like a wizard than any kind of trained Force user: certainly powerful, but in a quaint and parochial way. He brought with him a hulking man with a scarred face and eyes so red and bloodshot Cronal imagined they must feel almost like his own - and a boy in a cage who radiated a wild, angry power that would have made Cronal flinch if he could.

    “Welcome back, Ambassador,” Palpatine said, approaching them. “Baddon Fass, I assume you have something to give me?”

    “Wasn’t easy, my Lord,” the scarred man grumbled. “No war.”

    “Kneel,” Sa-Di admonished him. Baddon Fass obeyed at once, if rather clumsily. Palpatine stood in front of him, held out a hand and put it against the man’s forehead. Cronal would have sneered if he still had lips. So the Omnipotent Leader was reduced to leeching power off his subordinates now, like some sort of vampire by proxy? That did not bode well for his plans at all. Not enough that he was dependent on a fresh supply of clones and the requisite facilities, but he needed the loyalty and service of his servants to prop him up…

    “And this,” Palpatine said, stepping past the two and to the energy cage, “this is a most welcome gift. I’ve been expecting you, my boy.”

    The boy stood, snarling. “I'm not your boy! I belong to no one!” The energized bars crackled, and for a moment Cronal thought he would break through them by the sheer force of his anger; but then Palpatine waved his hand and the side of the cage slid open without a sound.

    For a moment the boy stayed where he was, staring at the opening. Cronal saw Baddon Fass flex his muscles and Lumiya's hand move toward the hilt of her lightwhip. The Emperor, meanwhile, merely stood there and waited. He did not move so much as a finger when the boy leapt out, landing in a low, primitive fighting stance and looking around him with all the ferocity of a cornered predator.

    “You are mine,” Palpatine said. “Everyone here is mine. Everything in the Galaxy is mine. This is the heart of my Empire, and you will serve me.”

    The boy’s reaction was a sight to behold. Cronal’s eyes registered nothing more than some more trembling and what he supposed were balled fists, but in the Force a veritable storm of fury spiraled around the boy, the equivalent of a damaged reactor core seconds before it exploded. “I am Qaga Lok!” he screamed. “I wont…”

    “I know who you are,” the Emperor interrupted him calmly. “And you know who I am. Would you like to kill me?”

    The attack came too fast to see. Cronal felt the storm break loose, felt the boy's pent-up fury melt down in an exponential chain reaction, felt the boy throw the all of the power he was releasing towards his enemy, his nemesis, his grandfather…

    Oh. Now that's interesting.

    Palpatine slapped him down. By the time Cronal managed to get his eyes to focus again, the boy was sprawled face-down on the floor, cracks in the permacrete radiating from his point of impact. Palpatine had raised one hand in an almost casual gesture to pin him in place. “You will serve me,” he repeated.

    The boy tried to rise, his hands scrabbling for purchase on the broken floor. He had barely raised his head by a hand’s width when the Emperor slammed it back down face-first. “You. Will. Serve. Me.”

    Another burst of hate swelled up inside the boy - but this time, instead of exploding, it transmuted into something entirely different. Cronal would have felt his mouth water if not for the lack of salivaries. He wanted to be defeated. He was looking for someone strong enough to be worthy of his respect.

    “Yes,” the boy ground out between clenched and broken teeth. “I… submit.”

    Palpatine kept him down. “You will serve me, without question or doubt.”

    “I… will…”

    Palpatine closed his fist. Cronal did not hear the boy’s ribs crack so much as he felt it echo through the floor. “I swear,” the boy whimpered. “I’m…”

    Palpatine squeezed, and the boy slackened. For an instant it seemed certain he was dead; but then a whisper rose from his throat, barely audible even in the complete silence of the throne room. “Please,” the boy said with his last breath. “Let me serve you.”

    Only then did the Emperor release him. The boy coughed up liquid, spasms shaking his lanky frame; when he finally raised his head again, even Cronal could see he was broken. With slow, agonized movements, he stood - only to take one step towards his vanquisher and fall to his knees again. "I am yours," he said.

    "You always were." Palpatine turned away and walked to the middle of the loose circle formed by his subordinates. "You have arrived at an auspicious time, my servant. Soon everyone will realize that they belong to me. Stay here and watch, if you have the strength for it."

    "I do… my Master."

    "Good." Palpatine lifted a finger in the direction of the throne, and an elongated black box came flying into his hand. "This is the Kaan Heptad," he said, opening the box to reveal seven gleaming stones inside. "The seven amulets of Lord Kaan of the Sith."

    "You found them all?" Sa-Di said. "I'm impressed."

    "Kaan was a fool," Palpatine continued, "but in this he was right: it will not do for the Galaxy's Darksiders to work at cross purposes and sap each other's strength. They need to be united under a common Will." A gesture from him made the amulets rise out of their container; another squeezed the box into a crumpled ball and dropped it. "Kaan, being weak, thought that Will would emerge from the communion of his time's most powerful Darksiders. He failed - in fact, he failed so hard that it took until a few months ago to clean up the last remnants of his failure."

    He was talking about the Valley of the Jedi, Cronal realized - the place where Kaan's spirit had been imprisoned along with thousands of others since his suicidal detonation of a Thought Bomb a millennium ago. Acting through his servant Jerec, Cronal had planned to take advantage of the power those spirits represented; now he realized that Jerec's failure had been part of Palpatine's plan all along.

    "I am not Kaan," Palpatine said. "I am not weak. Through these amulets, I will join your wills to mine, and together we shall compel every Darksider in the Galaxy to serve us."

    To serve you, you mean. For once, Cronal mused, it was probably better that he could not speak. He wondered how many of the others here had noticed how similar 'join your wills to mine' sounded to 'chain your wills to mine'. But it's not like any of us have a choice at this point… or do we?

    The amulets floated through the air to their recipients. One remained in the Emperor's open palm; one lightly touched Cronal's exposed finger, then seemed to melt against his skin until it stuck to it. As if I didn't have enough rocks stuck to me already...

    He saw Lumiya frowning at her amulet as it glued itself to the skin just below her throat. K'uaz and his brother were visibly intrigued; Sa-Di was skeptical but curious; and Nefta, to Cronal's surprise, was a complete blank in the Force. Could it be that Cronal had underestimated the old wizard? Perhaps he would be the one…

    "The Seven are complete," Palpatine said. "You, all of you, are mine."

    Cronal blinked. Not literally, of course, but something close enough it almost felt as if he had eyelids again.

    What he saw was the Dark. The Dark personified, given a vaguely human shape, though it was less a figure than a portal to an infinite expanse, a glimpse of the truth behind the veil of the universe.

    Cronal had served the Dark ever since he had left his homeworld in the Unknown Regions to enact the visions of the Sorcerors of Rhand upon the Galaxy. He had aligned himself with Palpatine, both to learn his secrets and to exploit his Empire for the purposes of the Dark - a task made easier by his appointment as the head of the Ubiqtorate, the shadowy institution that controlled Imperial Intelligence. The Emperor, to him, had been at once a valuable resource, a useful pawn, and a potential foe to maneuver around.

    Never until this day had he realized that Palpatine was the Dark itself, and that all Cronal did or would ever do was in service to him.

    Forgive me, he pleaded without a tongue to speak, without a face to show his contrition. Now and forever, I am yours.


    ***


    Sunlight was streaming through the arched windows of the dining room, so close to horizontal it threw a sharp outline of every cup, every plate and every treat on the table onto the back wall. Platters were heaped with marinated meats, creatures perversely swollen far beyond their natural size through the magics of breeding, feeding and genetic manipulation. Curiously similar to them in appearance, the largest lump in the silhouette was the dinner's host, Beldorion the Splendid - and even more curiously, he sat as quiet and unmoving as the food.

    “What is it, Beldorion?” Seti Ashgad asked. Moments ago, the Hutt had passionately held forth on the relative talents of his previous cooks, only to suddenly stop and stare into the middle distance. “Droch got your tongue?”

    Slowly, very slowly, Beldorion’s red eyes focused again, his gaze drifting across the food before settling on Ashgad. “There is something,” he said, “something I haven’t told you. Something important.”

    “Really.” Ashgad leaned back. He had been stuck on this planet for more than twenty years, with the Hutt as one of his only companions. That the verbose, sybaritic slug was the closest thing to a peer he could find in this place said all there was to say about his exile. By now he must have heard every story and opinion from Beldorion’s four hundred years of life many times over.

    “Some years ago,” Beldorion said, “you made a plan. With the help of my cook and my Dzym, you managed to smuggle some drochs off planet. There was a family nearby who had won the Galactic Lottery and were going to Palpatine’s pleasure planet…”

    “I know,” Ashgad said. “Something must have gone wrong.”

    “What went wrong,” Beldorion said, his expression uncharacteristically serious, “is that you tried to kill the Emperor and failed.”

    “So? He is dead anyway.” Seti Ashgad lifted his cup. “I’ll drink to that.”

    Beldorion slammed the table with one pudgy hand, and on its far side the cup went flying, spattering Ashgad’s robes with thick black liquid. “He is not,” the Hutt snarled. “He is alive, and you will die for your betrayal.”

    “What?” Ashgad was on his feet now, looking at Dzym in the corner for reassurance. The mutated Droch’s face revealed nothing, as usual, but there was a tension in his shoulders as he watched the Hutt rear up and slam the table aside. “What is this nonsense?”

    “I will bring you to justice,” Beldorion said, fumbling around for the lightsaber he kept in a compartment of his hoversled. “And then I will deliver your head to the Emperor and pledge fealty to him - as we both should have done a long time ago.”

    Ashgad’s eyes narrowed. This had to be a trick, one of the absurd games Beldorion liked to play to relieve the tedium of this world. But when the Hutt’s lightsaber flared to life with a chilling snap-hiss, former Senator Seti Ashgad turned and fled.

    Dzym stayed in his shadowy corner and watched as Beldorion charged after him, his pectoral muscles propelling him across the floor on his own power. Dzym was in no hurry and had no favorites. Whether it was Beldorion who got him off this planet, or Ashgad, or someone else entirely, hardly mattered. In the end he and his kin would spread across the galaxy to devour the essences of everyone alive.

    It was only a matter of time.


    ***


    Tall spider-like robots moved through the mist, touching the plants they passed with delicate movements that reminded Roganda of kisses. Like kisses, their touch was a means to an end: to keep the vines healthy and well-fed so they would yield flawless fruit to sell at a profit. Roganda’s share of those profits was small at present; she had made sure not to buy too much of a stake in the companies operating here, not enough to raise eyebrows and perhaps make someone curious enough to follow the money. They were hiding here, after all - and though they were well on their way, they could not yet control every computer system in the Galaxy.

    One of the spiders twitched, a sudden stutter disrupting its otherwise smooth, unhurried movement. It reached out with its proboscis - but instead of kissing another plant, it spat a load of yellowish slurry at one of the harvest workers on the catwalks up in the vines. A vile curse echoed from above, followed by laughter - and a snicker from off to Roganda’s side.

    “Stop that, Irek,” she told her son.

    “But it’s fun!”

    “It is unseemly.”

    Irek huffed. “This whole place is unseemly. Why couldn’t we have stayed on Coruscant?”

    “Because it is not safe. You know that.”

    “I watched the holos, mother. The attack they were talking about never came.”

    “It will, though. If you had not only watched but seen through the holos, you would know that. The Rebels will not stop before they take it. And if the Rebels don’t, one of the other factions will.”

    “Edi is still on Coruscant.”

    Roganda turned to him, the reproach stinging her tongue like a cube of Calocour ice. She swallowed it. “Come inside now,” she said instead. I might yet need to exploit your attachment to that girl at some point. “Time for your lesson.”

    The boy obeyed, if glumly. “This,” he said as they entered. “We are living in a prefab building previously owned by a criminal. We are hiding in caves.”

    “We are preparing.” Roganda slipped off her outside shoes. “We are keeping the Galaxy in the dark. Ignorance and surprise…” She stopped.

    “...are powerful weapons.” Irek rolled his eyes. “I know.”

    Roganda did not respond. Instead she straightened up, took a deep breath through her nose, and gripped her son’s shoulder. “But you are right,” she said, her voice suddenly airy, excited. “You are right. We should be leaving.”

    “Mother? Did you think of something?”

    Roganda shook her head, then nodded. “Yes. I was wrong. Oh, I was so wrong.” Her eyes shone as she looked into Irek’s. “Go and get Magrody. Make sure you take his notes. We leave at once.”

    “We do?” Irek looked around as if to find the source of his mother’s sudden change of heart. “Why? Is there danger here? Did something happen?”

    “No, Irek. There is no danger… but there is opportunity. Imagine - if we can join our power to the biggest power in the Galaxy…”

    “The biggest power in the Galaxy? But Mother…”

    “Hush. Go now. Tell Magrody we are taking him back to his wife and daughter, that should speed things up. I will arrange everything else in the meantime.” Roganda was trembling inwardly, with an excitement of a sort she had not felt since she had first arrived in the Imperial Palace and laid eyes on the Emperor himself. He had been a disappointment then, in a physical sense; but things were different now. This time she would not have to fight and scheme to maintain her position; this time he would accept her as an ally. Not an equal - she would not have wanted a man who was merely her equal - but more than a decoration and distraction. Oh so much more.

    She would return to the Emperor’s court; and so would all of them, she realized with another thrill. Drost Elegin would be there. Irek’s little friend Ederlathh would be there. And Quest - Sarcev Quest would be there too.

    Until just now, the prospect would have made Roganda shudder. Quest had used her, and she had used him, and the fallout had almost cost both of their lives as well as Irek’s. But this was a new day. Whatever enmities or emotional scars remained, the Emperor would resolve it all. Under his hand, under his unprecedented power, even she and Quest could be together again.

    When Roganda picked up the holocomm, she realized she was crying.


    ***


    The Imperial Palace was many things to many people: a symbol, a seat of power, a stage to prance about vying for influence or prestige; an architectural abomination, a maze of secrets and dangers, or a dull workplace filled with petty bureaucrats.

    For Edi, the Palace was all of that - after all, she was a scion of the Imperial Family and had to act the part. But more importantly, to her, it was a playground.

    Common buildings, Edi knew, had one set of corridors and rooms and that was it. She had visited common buildings, on Naboo and its moons as well as here on Coruscant. It felt a little odd being in rooms with only one exit, but you got used to it quickly enough.

    The mansions appropriate to her class all had two sets of corridors and doors: one for people and one for the help. When she had no classes and there were no guests present, Edi had sometimes been allowed to explore the servants' world of narrow stairs, of food elevators and hidden doors.

    The Imperial Palace had those too, in a larger and more elaborate fashion suited to the needs and desires of officials, advisers and representatives from a thousand worlds. But to Ederlathh's delight, her friend Irek had shown her a third layer of accessways that existed here behind the walls, between the floors and in the empty spaces of the climate system. While the servant paths were designed to be unobtrusive, this layer was seriously hidden; she would never have found the access points without Irek's help. They called it their 'whisper stairs' even though there were hardly any stairs, just crawlspaces, hatches and ladders.

    She was lying in one of those crawlspaces now, flat on her belly with her head propped up in one hand and her face pressed to the ventilation grille. On the other side of the grille, the bad man was talking to someone. It was one of the more comfortable meeting rooms, with black couches on a burgundy hardwood floor and a serving droid handing out drinks from the tray mounted in front of its belly.

    "We agree, then," the other man said. Ederlathh struggled to remember his name. He was an important functionary, and she was supposed to know the names and faces of every important functionary in the Palace; but somehow all the men of his type - pallid, soft, with ridiculous hats that changed weekly according to inscrutable fashions - kept blending together in her mind.

    "I will draw up the investigation," he said. "Classified, of course, but timestamped. You will send me a file with all the crimes you want to pin on her."

    Punishment, Edi thought. The President of the Bureau of Punishments; but his name still eluded her. - "I will do no such thing," the bad man said. "Nothing about this gets sent anywhere. Hard copies only, off the holonet, no connected devices. You will write down the the things I tell you, and I will supply an inert datachip with corroborative evidence." His tongue slipped on the last two words, and he made a dismissive gesture. "But not today. Let's reconvene… sometime. I'll get to you."

    "Of course." The President stood. "I am trusting you with a lot, Sarcev." He held out his empty glass for the droid to take.

    "With the future," the bad man said, taking a fresh glass from the tray. "Never less." He waited until the door had swooshed closed behind his guest, then downed the drink in one big gulp. "Gotta make sure my name is nowhere on that file," he muttered to himself, "in case I need to sell you out to Isard on the fly."

    The bad guy was nearly always drunk these days. His real name was Sarcev Quest, but Irek had always simply called him the bad guy. He never said why, though Edi suspected it had something to do with Irek's mother. Edi liked watching him because he met with interesting people and he knew a lot of secrets… and because she knew it was dangerous.

    Quest took another drink. "Round about time," he slurred, looking at his chrono. "Any time now. Wonder if Jax got out…" He threw back the drink and burped, then dug his comlink out of his pocket. "Hey Seezed, any news from Jax?"

    "Which Jax would that be, sir?" a tinny voice sounded from the comlink. "There are approximately..."

    The bad man belched out a curse that made Edi blush. "You know exactly who…"

    He broke off suddenly, almost dropping the comlink. "Sir?" the droid's voice sounded after a while. "To answer your question, I have not received or intercepted any communications from or to Master Jax since…"

    This time the curse was even dirtier, spoken - no, roared - in such a deep, forceful timbre that Edi trembled in her hiding place and had to suppress a squeak. She would have to remember that one, she thought, for when she really wanted to make Dame Veruna mad.

    Then Sarcev Quest threw his glass at the wall right next to her, where it shattered with an earsplitting noise. Now she did squeak; there was no helping it.

    It only took two steps for the bad man to cross the room. Edi was backing up in a panic, pushing herself backwards and scrambling for the ladder she knew was some way behind her; but he ripped off the grille and pulled her out, not with his hands but with the Force. On instinct, Edi reached out to break her fall against the floor - but to her horror she landed straight in the bad man's arms instead.

    "You," he said, squinting at her with watery eyes. His breath smelled of liquor, even worse than Dame Veruna's did after a night in town. "Yes. I’ll take you… as a hostage. No! No." He reached for his forehead, squishing her head against his bulging arm. Edi wanted to struggle, but her body knew it was no use. "No. As a gift." He loosened his grip a little, looking her up and down as if to see if he had broken anything. "Yes. But - oh. Oh!"

    He dropped her. Luckily he was standing next to one of the black sofas, so Ederlathh only hit her head a little on the armrest. "Have to think of it," the bad man mumbled. "Trained myself not to think of it, but now I have to think of it. The droids. Gravitational field disruptors." He bent over Edi with the speed of a raptor swooping down on its prey. "Remind me of it!" he yelled at her. "Droids. Gravitational field disruptors."

    "D-droids," Edi whispered. "Gravitonal… what?"

    But Quest had turned away again, frantically looking for his comlink on the floor. "Seezed!" he yelled into it when he found it. "Priority message! Whatever channels you can find! To Jax! To Byss! To the Brie woman, whoever you can get! The droids!"

    "Beg pardon, sir?" the droid on the other end asked.

    Quest whirled on Edi. "Say it! Remind me!"

    "The, uh, gravitic field distorters?"

    "Gravitational field disruptors!" the bad man shouted into the comlink, so loud Edi was sure its circuits would be fried by the sound pressure alone. "Gotta warn them..."

    "Sir, I have no data on the whereabouts of Master Jax or whoever ‘the Brie woman’ is. As for Byss, please specify whether you mean the planet in the Outer Rim’s Ash Worlds sector or the one in the Beshqek system..."

    The comlink fell silent, crushed in the bad man’s hand. "Too late," he whispered tonelessly. "I’m sorry, Jax. Forgive me, my Lord. It’s too late."

    Then he fell to his knees and cried.


    ***


    All over the Galaxy, every sentient being that had ever touched the Dark Side stirred. Mara Jade leapt from her cot, her blaster flying into her hand. Arden Lyn gasped and almost lost her grip on the line that connected her to the asteroid. Lord Hethrir paused the inspection of his slaves to look up into the stars turning above his worldcraft, a new sense of grandiose purpose coursing through him. A'Sharad Hett, elbow-deep in the guts of a droid, snarled at the uncaring sky.

    At the foot of the Emperor's Citadel, in the deep moat that separated the tower from the sprawling city around it, Carnor Jax was fighting a Rancor when it happened. The Sovereign Protectors whose ranks he meant to join had shoved him into the pit where the mutated beast was waiting, hungry and driven mad by the sounds, the smells and the miasma of the Dark Side that wafted from the Emperor's laboratories in the Citadel's base. He had barely managed to stay alive so far, wondering more than once if they had put him here to die because they guessed his true motives for wanting to serve in the Emperor's guard.

    But all of a sudden, just as he vaulted over a gigantic claw that would have crushed him in another split second, none of that mattered. Not the Rancor, not the robed Sovereign Protectors lining the rim of the pit, not even his plans and ambitions, his secret alliances with King Nefta, with Lumiya, with Quest.

    The only thing that mattered was that he had to warn him. He needed to warn the Emperor about the attempt on his life, right now. He did not know what exactly Sarcev Quest had planned - in the name of operational security, Quest had kept the details hidden not only from Jax but even from his sober self - but whatever it was, he had to tell the Emperor that something was coming.

    He ran at the Rancor head-on, jumping at the last second to land on its head, only to kick off again in the same instant and vault out of the pit in a high arc. Four Sovereign Protectors hefted their force pikes when he landed among them, and a hulking Sentinel lumbered forward from the back to grab him. Again Carnor Jax leaped, with a strength brought about by desperation mingled with a burning, unprecedented sense of purpose. The tip of his boot touched the tip of the Sentinel's helmet, giving him just enough of a boost to reach one of the turbolaser emplacements that stood from the tower like bristles. He grabbed hold of the nozzle and pulled himself up, his eyes scanning the walls ahead for the nearest entrance into the Citadel. He had to get up there; he had to…

    Belatedly it occurred to him to use his connection with King Nefta, the thought-bridge provided by the symbionts in the wine the King had given him to drink, to pass on his message. He clung to the turbolaser shaft, closed his eyes and tuned out the noise of the guards preparing to shoot him down. Nefta, he thought. You need to tell him. Now.

    But where King Nefta should have been, there was only a sucking emptiness, a black hole filled with cackling laughter…

    A spear struck his back; without his armor, it would have speared right through him, in by his kidney and out through his chest. As it was, it only cost him his balance and he dropped down into the waiting mass of guards.

    "Listen to me!" he yelled as they grabbed hold of him and delivered him into the unyielding arms of the Sentinel. "You have to tell the Emperor! Something terrible is about to happen…"

    Then the sun exploded.


    ~~~~~~
    Only one more chapter to go until the end of volume 1...
     
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  14. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Cataclysm



    The Dark Side burns. It is a flame, a source of energy; fed the right purpose and fanned with Will, it can grow into a roaring fire.

    But where the Will is weak, the purpose lacking, it flickers and dims like a candle in zero-g. Many who could be powerful are not, simply because they lack direction. Many who might conquer a galaxy do not, because their parochial ambitions suffocate their Will.

    But now a wind was blowing through the Galaxy. No more than a draft at first, a breeze, it gained in intensity by the millisecond. Pathetic flames began to swell and hiss; smoldering embers flared up with a sudden crack. In a great spiral, a hurricane of the Dark Side, all of them were drawn to the center of the Galaxy, to the all-encompassing Will that was the Emperor's.

    Palpatine laughed, a cackling sound that echoed through the Galaxy. This was the true beginning of his Dark Empire. All of them were at his command. They all belonged to him, and wielding their powers he would rend the very fabric of the universe...

    Then the sun exploded.


    ***


    The Beshqek system had two suns: Beshqek itself, a massive O-type star so bright it could be seen from Coruscant even through the sea of light that was the Deep Core; and a comparatively small Blue Dwarf, an ancient star with barely any luminosity that had been captured by the larger star at some point in the past. They orbited each other at a distance so small they could be treated as a single gravity well for most practical calculations.

    When Sander Delvardus's fleet had arrived in the system, it had brought a stowaway: a heavily armored Omega-class shuttle crewed and piloted exclusively by droids. When Sarcev Quest had asked Delvardus to take the shuttle along with his fleet, as his only condition for pointing him the way towards the once and future Emperor, the Superior General had thought little of it. A secret storage, he assumed, or something of the sort. Something Quest wanted safe but away from the conflicts plaguing the outer Galaxy.

    He could not have been more wrong.

    The Astromech on board the shuttle had been programmed with a simple task: as soon as the ship arrived in the Beshqek system, the droid was to get the ship in as close to the system's Blue Dwarf as possible. The risk that anyone would try to stop an insignificant box of metal that showed neither weapons nor life signs as it hurtled towards a star on a ballistic course were vanishingly small, so no further instructions had been required.

    The fifty heavy-duty mining droids crammed into the shuttle's hold, meanwhile, had a somewhat more finicky task. They were to wait until the larger star's heat and ejecta had abraded most of the wall and armor plates on the sunward side, then punch through the hot, melted rest and bring the full load of Gravitational Field Disruptors to bear.

    The GFDs were sturdy instruments. With the Blue Dwarf interposed between the mining droids and the scalding hell that was Beshqek, they were good for one shot each, on maximum power, before they melted. The mining droids, designed for work in extreme environments such as Mustafar or Sarapin, lasted for a little longer. In their final moments, they were able to witness something unprecedented in the entire history of the Galaxy: the Blue Dwarf, its already considerable mass amplified to the ninth power by the Gravitational Field Disruptors, plunging straight into the heart of its much bigger neighbor, the gigantic sun that was Beshqek.

    The effect was immediate and grandiose. Among the biggest stars in the Galaxy, O-types tend hover on the edge of going nova for most of their lifespans - and when they do, it is always a sudden, violent event. Other stars might take years or decades to switch from burning hydrogen to shedding their outer layers; Beshqek merely contracted for a moment, as if tightening its belly before a monumental burp, then flung itself apart.

    Uncounted megatons of burning solar matter hurtled towards Byss, the Emperor's paradise world, preceded by a burst of radiation so strong it could burn the flesh off the bones of a hundred planets' worth of lifeforms in an instant. Every ship in orbit around Byss that happened to be on the sunward side was instantly destroyed, including the newly arrived prototype for Umak Leth's World Devastators. The power of technology, even at the gargantuan level the Empire commanded, had never been more obviously insignificant next to the forces of nature.

    Somewhere on Byss, near the base of the black needle that stuck out from the planet all the way into orbit, Carnor Jax screamed.


    ***


    There was no time to think, no time to decide. The attack came at lightspeed; only a Sith's intuitive defenses, trained to catch laser blasts and expect deadly backstabbing at any time, had any hope of stopping it.

    Even so, it was too much. Even Darth Sidious, conqueror of the Galaxy and sole survivor of the Chaos, could not halt the onslaught of an exploding star. He might have been able to save himself, cocooning his body in pure Dark Side energy while feeding off the deaths of everyone around him - but it would do him little good to merely keep this one failing body intact while all of his clones and all of his resources burned away.

    He had been outmaneuvered and blindsided. Whoever his enemy was and however they had done it, they had thrown more at him than he could handle - at least on his own.

    But he was not on his own. Using the Kaan Heptad, the seven amulets forged by Lord Kaan a millennium ago in his quest to unite the Sith, Palpatine had turned six of the Galaxy's most powerful Force users into extensions of his will - and together they could tap the potential of every Darksider in existence.

    He did not waste any time before sucking them dry. Everything he could get, every erg of power he had access to, he threw at the stellar tsunami coming to consume him. Far beyond the Galactic plane, an alien overlord's misshapen jester stumbled and fell on his face, much to the delight of the assembled warlords he had ridiculed moments before. In the Emperor's secret storehouse on Wayland, the Guardian lost his mental grip on the captives he had coerced into helping him fix the shuttle, and they turned on him with bleary, hungry eyes. Right behind Palpatine himself, Baddon Fass groaned and scratched his scarred face as he sunk to the ground, and even Qaga Lok had to hold on to the cage that had brought him here for balance.

    The six allies the Emperor had brought into his Heptad, meanwhile, had arrayed themselves to either side of him, mirroring each of his gestures in perfect synchrony. Only Cronal, encased in rock, appeared outwardly inert, but the powers he sent forth were at least as potent as the others'. And if there was a twitch of the finger from King Nefta, or a quick sideways glance from the Dark Lady Lumiya, it was lost in the blinding glare that threatened to devour the world.


    ***


    The city was magical even on ordinary days, but every once in a while it surprised Zak with yet another display of otherworldly beauty. He stood on the roof of their house, little Z on his arm, as the light of the sinking sun suddenly tripled in intensity, quintupled, then kept flaring up at a rate even Zak lacked a word for. Luminous buildings sloped up all around him in organic shapes; the sudden brightness flooding through them gave the city the appearance of a frozen meadow surrounding the huge black tree that was the Citadel.

    Zak held a hand before the baby's eyes and averted his own. "Zak!" his sister Tash called from downstairs. "What did you do?"

    Zak laughed and held out a hand for little T to hold on to as the girl came scrambling up through the skylight beside him. "Don't look there, sweetie," he told her. "It'll hurt your eyes. Turn this way. Aren't the shadows beautiful?"

    "What did you…" Tash repeated; then she stuck her head out through the window frame and stopped. "Is that the sun?"

    "I don't know," Tash said. "I didn't do it. Maybe they figured since everybody liked the fireworks so much…"

    Tash climbed up and stood beside him, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Zak," she said quietly, so the kids wouldn't hear. "Zak. Something's wrong."

    "It's only light," Zak reassured her. "It's a spectacle."

    "No, I mean… something's wrong about all of this. About this place. About you and me." She shuddered. "About the children."

    "Loo! Loo!" little T shouted, pointing where she was not supposed to look. "Bubba!"

    Zak turned his head, squinting through his eyelashes. The brightness had dimmed a little; it still filled the entire sky, but it appeared somewhat contained now. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust before he saw what Little T meant: between the light and them - as meaningless as that distinction sounded - a scintillating layer had formed, like thin oil on the surface of a puddle.

    Like a soap bubble.

    "See?" he told Tash, squeezing her shoulder. "It is spectacular. This is a magical place, Tash, and there is nothing here we need to be afraid of."


    ***


    The wind was strong, but it was not equally strong everywhere. There were swirls and eddies and slipstreams that cancelled each other out in some places, creating ephemeral zones of calm.

    That was all King Nefta needed.

    While Palpatine - brave, headstrong Palpatine, heroic as ever - was channeling the power of the Dark Side through him and the others, using them as a lens to focus the potential of a Galaxy, Nefta went sailing. He let his mind drift through the currents, used the quiet places to turn and decide which stream to go with, then leaned into one that would take him closer to his goal.

    He did not know his goal at first. Some other wandering mind, perhaps; some place resistant to the storm, or something else interesting. Wherever there was strong, correlated movement - whenever something shifted as suddenly as the balance of power in the Galaxy was shifting now - there also was tremendous opportunity.

    He found his in a mind right next to him. A woman's mind struggling to pull out from the stream, to break free of the amulet's compulsion.

    Lumiya.

    It took a twitch of one finger to get her attention; a blink of her eyes to show she agreed. The next part was harder, but nowhere near impossible.

    While Palpatine wrestled down the sun, sending exajoules of hard radiation back into space and compressing matter that had been expanding at two thirds of lightspeed back into something resembling a star, Nefta showed Lumiya how to regain her freedom. In the end it proved easier than anticipated - whether because she was stronger than he thought or because someone else was aiding her behind the scenes, he could not tell.

    Not that it mattered. When Lumiya broke loose, it was over.


    ***


    It was the woman. The woman with the triangular headdress who had turned up on Bosthirda out of the blue; the woman with the lightwhip who had killed his mentor, Azrakel. - Qaga Lok remembered little of his life before, but that he did remember.

    He had no idea who she was, nor did he care. When she wrenched herself out of her position at the Emperor's side and reached for her lightwhip, Qaga Lok knew what he had to do.

    His ribs ached, his lungs burned and his legs felt like jelly, but he flung himself towards her anyway. Lacking a blade, he forged the Force itself into his weapon: a burst of anger sharpened to a point that drained his last reserves as he shoved it at her neck.

    She had crept up behind the Emperor, moving as if against a surging tide, and was raising her lightwhip for the fatal blow when she felt the attack coming. With a hiss from her mouth and her whip both, she whirled around - and Qaga Lok's attack struck her right in the throat.

    He watched her collapse to the floor, gasping and clawing at the spot where he had hit her. For a moment their eyes met, and Qaga Lok allowed himself a predatory grin. You are not taking away this one, witch.

    Only the witch was grinning too, for some reason. Before the boy could puzzle it out, she raised her head again and took her hand off her throat.

    Her throat, where the amulet had been. The amulet that had bound her to Palpatine, whose influence she had been struggling to escape. The amulet he had dislodged with his attack.

    Qaga Lok balled his fists in rage; but he was spent. The woman, meanwhile, hooked the whip to her belt and ran, leaping past the boy and out of the room with sudden nimbleness. He would have followed her if his muscles had still obeyed him, but it seemed impossible to even get up from where he had broken down after his assault on her.

    At least she had not killed the Emperor, Qaga Lok thought - a moment before the Emperor died.


    ***


    It was too much.

    With the help of the Kaan Heptad, Darth Sidious had barely managed to turn back the wave of light and save his world. But with the Heptad broken, with Lumiya gone and her amulet inert, the raw, unbalanced energies flowing through him were more than his aging body could bear. He had been betrayed, again. He was coming apart, again.

    The last emotion Palpatine felt before his mind was ripped into the void was pure, black anger.



    ~~~~~~
    END OF VOLUME 1
     
  15. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    So… this has been quite a ride. Special thanks to @Kahara for your kind words and encouragement along the way!

    This was part 1 of a 3-part story. The next one will lead into Dark Empire, featuring Airen Cracken, Thrawn, Betl Oxtroe and of course all the central characters from the first part. Volume 3 will take place just before and during Dark Empire itself, depicting the Pre-Shadow Hand campaign, Luke’s seduction by Palpatine and the eventual fate of the Arranda siblings, and generally enriching the plot of DE by showing what everyone else was up to during that time.

    For now, because I love endnotes, here are my…


    Endnotes for Volume 1

    I began this projects for two reasons:
    1. I love Dark Empire, and I always wanted more EU stories that really take it into account and tie it in more closely with the rest of the EU that built up around it over the years. So when “Isard’s Revenge”, to my immense disappointment, turned out not to be a Thrawn Trilogy / Dark Empire bridge story after all, I figured I would have to write it myself at some point.
    2. As sad as I am that there will be no (or next to no) new Legends content in the foreseeable future, it also made me feel more motivated to write Legends fanfiction - knowing that whatever I come up with is unlikely to be “overruled” by new official sources. (Yes, I am like that.) So for this story, I pored over tons of Legends sources to find loose threads, open questions, underutilized characters etc, and tried to figure out ways of pulling all of those threads together into a new story.
    It was tremendous fun. To see how things fell together, take this trio of observations:
    • The Dark Empire Sourcebook says Byss has two stars: a big one and a dwarf companion, while the Essential Atlas says Byss has only one sun.
    • Palpatine took six full years to come back, passing up numerous opportunities when his Empire would have been better placed to squash the fledgling New Republic. Why?
    • In “Vader vs. Leia 1” (1977), Leia kills Darth Vader’s porter by hitting him with the beam from a Gravitational Field Disruptor, increasing his weight so much he crashes through the planetary crust.
    Combine those three and… boom!

    And that was just one of so many happy coincidences, so many opportunities to wrap up stories that were left open or give underappreciated characters a place in the spotlight. So if you are a Legends continuity nerd like me, you might enjoy my notes for each chapter below.


    Prologue: A Galaxy of Fear (3 ABY)

    The Galaxy of Fear series ended with Tash & Zak Arranda and their uncle Hoole deciding to join the Rebellion at the end of “The Hunger” - the book where they crash-land on Dagobah and meet Yoda, establishing that both of the kids are Force-sensitive. Here we meet them as they make their escape from Hoth and stumble into a completely new adventure.

    They have the Shroud back even though Boba Fett ambiguously destroyed it in “The Hunger”. I simply assumed that they recovered it from Koaan; if there had been additional volumes of Galaxy of Fear, I’m pretty sure that would have happened.

    The Keefe family is my invention. The parasites that killed them are the drochs from Planet of Twilight, who imitate their hosts’ tissue so exactly it doesn’t even show up on bioscans (which is why no one realized they were the ones who caused the Death Seed plague ~700 BBY).

    Pedducis Chorios is from Planet of Twilight too. Later chapters reveal that Seti Ashgad, the senator Palpatine exiled to the nearby droch-ridden world of Nam Chorios, learned that the Keefes had won the lottery to go to Byss and managed to infect them with drochs hoping to get back at the Emperor by spreading the Death Seed plague to his paradise planet.

    The lottery itself is from the Dark Empire sourcebook - one of the creepiest ideas in there IMO, what with Palpatine collecting millions of random people from across the Empire to leech off their life energies on Byss.

    “Galaxy of Fear: Paradise Planet” could totally have been another instalment in the series. The rest of the siblings’ appearances in this story are mysterious on purpose; we will return to them properly in volume 3. Suffice to say… it is bad.


    Chapter 1: Paradise Planet

    The role playing scenario “The Kaal Connection” from the Adventure Journal tells us that Palpatine’s spirit was “caught” by Jeng Droga, who was driven mad by it and crashed the Emperor’s Yacht into the oceans of Kaal. He was stuck there for a while and eventually managed to leave somehow, leaving behind his lightsaber; then he traveled to Byss, where Sate Pestage (the real one, not the insane clone he left behind on Coruscant) helped him get the Emperor’s spirit out of him and transfer it into one of the clone bodies.

    I suppose I could have started with that scene, but it kind of lacked in punch and focus in my view. So here we have the Emperor himself the moment he awakens in his clone tank.


    Chapter 2: Scattered Limbs

    When did the Emperor awaken? We don’t know exactly, but I wanted his return to be felt, in various ways, by his disciples across the Galaxy. While researching possible candidates for this montage, I stumbled upon Ishin-Il-Raz from Who’s Who: Imperial Grand Admirals, who went completely off the rails 8 months after Endor and plunged his ship into the Denarii Nova. That struck me as the sort of thing that might be triggered by Palpatine sticking his mental fingers into an already unstable brain right after his return - so 4.8 ABY it was.

    Now I had the fun task of figuring out who was up to what eight months after Endor. Sarcev Quest - one of those underappreciated characters I really wanted to use - was probably on Coruscant, trying to keep a grip on Isard and the Ruling Circle. The Emperor’s Pawns had established him as the one who would eventually work with Carnor Jax behind the scenes to sabotage the Emperor’s clone bodies; so I figured he would have seen Endor as an opportunity to gather more power to himself and be rather miffed when he felt the Emperor returning. Showing Quest trying to hide his thoughts from Palpatine (whose powers of mind-reading-at-a-distance he overestimates) was a fun writing exercise.

    The “children” Jax thinks of are Ederlathh Pallopides (Palpatine’s “remote great-grandniece” who was mentioned exactly once in the Dark Empire Sourcebook and then never again) and Irek Ismaren, the son of Roganda Ismaren and one of the villains in Children of the Jedi. The timelines surrounding CotJ are a mess, but in any case Irek would be somewhere about the age of Ederlathh, and with both of them being ambiguously High Royalty, it seemed plausible that they could have been friends. (There is a tiny detail hidden here when Quest thinks that Edi showed Irek the crawlspaces, and in the final Edi scene in this volume she remembers Irek showing her - because of course both would blame it on the other.) The other fun detail here is that Irek is canonically Quest’s son, though Roganda tries to pass him off as hers. The fallout of the relationship between Quest and Roganda comes up repeatedly in the course of this story.

    Quest harrasses Pestage in the chamber we see him occupying in the X-Wing: Rogue Squadron comics, with the platform hanging in the middle of the room. I always wondered about the function of that room, then figured that jumping off the platform to get into the secret rooms hidden below might be a very Palpatine thing to do. Quest goes there to look if Palpatine returned in one of the clones down there, of course; he’s relieved when he sees that he didn’t. We get a glimpse of Isard’s clone (from Isard’s Revenge) here, which will be transferred from here to the buried Lusankya in a later chapter.

    Sa-Di is one of the extras in Dark Empire I always found fascinating. I decided to make him Ambassador of Pendari, a world that only exists as a name drop in an old WEG supplement. In my mind he is one of the “Dark Side mages” the Dark Empire Sourcebook hints at, a scion of a long Dark Side tradition among the elite on his homeworld that has little to nothing to do with the Jedi or Sith but was co-opted by Palpatine at some point during his rise.

    Mara Jade only has a few scattered appearances in this story (more to come in volume 3 though). Here she is in Doolis, the capital of Caprioril, in the night after her duel with Lumiya (mentioned in The Emperor’s Pawns).

    Finding out what Luke was doing 8 months after Endor was fun. I went back and forth between the Wook, the Marvel comics, the various Essential Guides and anything else I could get my hands on, and the answer is… I’ve got nothing. For all we know, Luke Skywalker was on holiday 8 months after Endor - so that’s exactly where I put him. He is sleeping, dreaming of Lord Shadowspawn and Triocolus and the Emperor.

    There will be more scenes from the POV of R2 “planet killer” D2 in volume 3; I’ve actually written some of them already. Writing R2 is fun.

    Beldorion the Hutt - Beldorion the Hutt Jedi, at that - is from Planet of Twilight, where we also learn about his sizable collection of Hutt erotica. This segment was supposed to reveal who had killed the Keefe family from the prologue, but in retrospect I think it was maybe a bit too subtle / reliant on the reader remembering the plot of PoT really well.

    Tash and Zak are way too happy; they’ve been snared completely by the spell of Paradise Planet. The events surrounding the fast-growing baby Eppon on Kiva that Tash remembers are from “Galaxy of Fear: Army of Terror”, which also features the apparent death of the evil scientist Borborygmus Gog.

    Ishin-Il-Raz, already driven to distraction by the loss of the Emperor, thinks that the reborn Emperor’s mental touch is an attack. Tragic, really, when he could have just gone home to his beloved master. The Denarii Nova is the two-star system Naga Sadow blew up in Tales of the Jedi. Later in this story it is implied that the impact of Il-Raz’s Star Destroyer caused a deadly flare-up there that killed thousands in nearby systems… which will turn out to be the inspiration for Quest’s plan to kill the reborn Emperor.

    Jian Paret aboard the SSD Intimidator is from the Black Fleet Crisis trilogy. Immediately after the events of this scene, Nil Spaar will lead the Yevethans in capturing the Black Fleet - thus depriving Palpatine of a key part of the fleet he is trying to assemble. Orvar Krei from the Ubiqtorate, who acts as Palpatine’s agent in this scene, is my invention.

    Admiral Syn is fighting over Kashyyyk and in need of reinforcements. Isard wants reinforcements too; Challer and Carvin are members of the Ruling Councils as depicted (and killed off) in the X-Wing: Rogue Squadron comics. Krei tells Paret to inform Isard and Syn that he is on their way to them via Cal-Seti; this leads to Imperial Intelligence later erroneously reporting the Black Fleet as having been destroyed at Cal-Seti.

    Merili, the Nightsister-turned-Prophetess of the Dark Side whose mind became unstuck in time, is one of those characters that always lurked in the background of the Legends canon, in RPG supplements and Hyperspace articles, and never really got their day in the limelight despite their tremendous potential. (Another example of that is Azrakel, who will become important later on.) When she tells Syn about “the Empire eating its enemies”, she is thinking of the World Devastators she saw in a vision of the future. She vanishes at the end, leaving the possibility that she might turn up out of the blue in a different time…

    Arden Lyn, from the Masters of Teräs Käsi video game, is sparring against Ennix Devian from Crimson Empire III, who is as blind to the Force as a rock but has always wanted to prove his superiority to Force users. Durrei is from an old RPG scenario and was established as Arden Lyn’s lover and Devian’s pawn in The Imperial Warlords: Despoilers of an Empire.


    Some of the scenes in this montage are narrative depictions of scenes that we already knew happened (e.g. the deaths of Il-Raz and Syn) but that were never "shown" outside of reference articles. Most are extrapolations from other stories (Arden Lyn, Jian Paret, Mara, Beldorion), and a few are completely new but (hopefully) plausible given all we know (Quest, Sa-Di, Luke, and of course poor Tash & Zak). This is pretty much how the rest of the story works as well.

    ***

    Since this is getting long, I’m going to split it into sections. More endnotes to come soon!
     
    Last edited: Sep 1, 2021
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  16. Kahara

    Kahara Force Ghost star 4

    Registered:
    Mar 3, 2001
    Whoo, I'm glad to see this completed! Just the motivation that I need to get caught up with reading it again. :)
     
  17. Kadar Ordo

    Kadar Ordo Jedi Padawan star 1

    Registered:
    Feb 9, 2021
    This was great. I love how you pulled from all sorts of EU sources, especially the more obscure ones. I also like how (spoiler just in case some here aren't familiar with the Dark Empire storyline)
    you seem to be building up Ken to eventually become Sedriss.
    I look forward to reading the next volume (as well as your next set of endnotes since I love reading behind-the-scenes info like that).
     
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  18. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Thanks a lot, @Kadar Ordo !

    Here's the next batch of Endnotes...

    ***

    Chapter 4: Negative Space

    Mas Amedda, after tracking down old Sith artefacts during the Emperor’s heyday, is now on Byss, making plans for “the next 10,000 years” according to the article Barely Tolerable: Alien Henchmen of the Empire. I was skeptical about that idea at first (and its none-too-subtle suggestion of a Darth Wyyrlok connection further down the line) but in the end I loved having Amedda interact with all of those “older” characters in terms of EU history.

    The bit about why Palpatine likes humans is one of my favorite headcanon explanations. It’s not that he’s an ignorant racist; he just knows human males and how to dominate them.

    That Sith Lords are energized by the death of others is a well-established fact, so it seemed like an obvious conclusion that the Death Stars were intentionally oversized to provide Palpatine with a boost of Death (of his own people) in case they were destroyed while he was on it.

    Amedda mentions “Leth and Eloy”: Umak Leth is the designer of the Galaxy Gun; he appears in Dark Empire and is expanded on in the Sourcebook. Eloy was the head of the Hammertong project, basically the Legends equivalent of Galen Erso. Nasdra Magrody is the head of the Institute of Programmable Intelligence, mentioned in Children of the Jedi - where we also learn that Roganda Ismaren kidnapped him after the Emperor’s death, so Palpatine is not getting his hands on that one, further delaying his plans.

    Sigit Ranth being the Emperor’s physician is a contested issue (see the Wook). “Why would a physicist specializing in hyperspace be Palpatine’s physician?” turned out to be one of the most fruitful questions underlying this story. If Palpatine passed through the Chaos after his death, and expects to do so many times more… and if he has a doctor who is an expert in hyperspace physics… does that mean that hyperspace is the Chaos?!

    Once I decided to go with that, it opened up so many new avenues that it informed much of the rest of the story. And Ranth himself…
    [​IMG]


    Chapter 5: Bad Religion

    ...Ranth was fun to write. He loves mystery and Deep Knowledge so much that you can lead him on forever simply by promising him more layers of mystery beyond this one.

    The idea of a “Church of the Dark Side” is one of the most corny parts of the Legends EU. I took it seriously and figured it had to be some kind of mystery cult rather than a popular church, by the nature of the Dark Side alone. So I took what I knew of mystery cults and stuffed it all into this chapter - the recruitment of influential figures (Stinna Draesinge Sha, the genius programmer mentioned in Children of the Jedi); the layered revelations where each layer tells you the previous layer was only a sliver of the truth or a necessary lie told to those of lower rank; the way insiders learn to see obviously-ridiculous rituals and practices as deep and symbolic...

    The “First Church of the Dark Side” on Coruscant was mentioned in Evil Never Dies: The Sith Dynasties (another one of those info-heavy articles whose contents were never really fleshed out thanks to the Reboot) but never depicted, so I decided on a fancy floating crystal that looks black from the outside but completely transparent from the inside thanks to wraparound screens on the walls. Because why not?

    Mahd Windcaller is an extra from Crimson Empire II: Council of Blood. The Handbook to that series says she is the head of a big media conglomerate (HNN, I suppose?), so she looked like an obvious recruit for the Church of the Dark Side. Also we know from Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor that Cronal (who is the mastermind behind the Church) also produced popular movies, so it made sense that he and Windcaller were in cahoots somehow. Mahd Windcaller will have a more central role in Volume 2 of this story… as will poor Stinna who gets left behind outside the Church here.

    [​IMG]

    The ruined Eclipse over Kuat is a reference to the climactic battle in the video game Empire at War: Forces of Corruption. I loved that this game included the Eclipse under construction - one of the all-too-few attempts to tie Dark Empire into the more recent EU - but then this thread got left hanging, as did so many others from that game (more on that later). So here we have Sigit Ranth visiting the aftermath of Tyber Zann’s heist where he stole the location data for the Emperor’s storehouses from the unfinished Eclipse’s central computer.

    If Sigit Ranth thinks of hyperspace as the Chaos, the realm of death, of course he thinks it’s more appropriate to talk about “dropping things into hyperspace” rather than “accelerating them to hyperspace” or something.


    Chapter 6: Hearts and Minds

    The timelines are a little squishy here. The battle for the Eclipse is still in 4 ABY - I choose to interpret this as “at the very end of 4 ABY”, to make it work with the NR involvement - while the event this chapter references, the death of Sariss at the hands of Kyle Katarn, happens in 5 ABY. There seems to be agreement that the end of Dark Forces: Jedi Knight happens before (but not long before) Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor, so here we have Palpatine calling Cronal just as Cronal thinks his plans are finally coming to fruition. Cronal’s plan, according to LSatSoM, is to take over Luke Skywalker’s body and use it for a power grab somehow. I’ve elaborated on that here by bringing Ken into it: Cronal pretty much wants to do what Betl Oxtroe will later suggest to the NR (per the Dark Empire Sourcebook): place a heir of Palpatine’s on the throne (Ken rather than Ederlathh) and put a regent in charge of him (Luke rather than a joint Imperial/NR council).

    Windcaller’s false-flag channel “SPIN entertainment” is a riff on the “Senate Planetary Intelligence Network”, the intelligence agency from the Jedi Prince series.

    That the Jedi Prince series itself is an in-universe show produced by Cronal is a long-running headcanon (not just of mine) but has never been officially established. It fits in rather well with what I imagine Cronal’s other productions must be like. Like in the frame story to LSatSoM, I assume here that while the Jedi Prince series as published is an in-universe holodrama, something similar to the events it depicts actually happened - after all, the gist of the plot has been treated as fact in the Essential Chronology and other sources. So there is an actual Jedi Prince, son of Triclops and “grandson” of Palpatine in the sense that Triclops (presumably) was created using some of Palpatine’s DNA and gestated by Sly Moore (I wish I was making this up). That Cronal was the one who put Ken into the Lost City of the Jedi was never established, but it seemed like the job for him - and it gave me a way to explain the absurdly up-to-date database Ken is accessing in the Jedi Prince books. (The “brown robed Jedi” said to have brought him there could be one of Cronal’s agents or Ferus Olin tricked by Cronal into acting as his patsy.)

    Moving on, Palpatine meets his Constable of the Homunculi. This character was mentioned for the first and only time in the Dark Empire Sourcebook, with no further detail given except that he oversaw the Emperor’s clone program. This seemed like a natural next step in the career of Borborygmus Gog, the mad scientist from the Galaxy of Fear series, who was “killed” by the ghosts of Kiva together with his ultimate creation “Eppon” in Army of Terror - but of course “killed” is relative, and Army of Terror itself ends with a glimpse of Eppon twitching. So here we have Eppon in his gross final growth stage, absorbing any living flesh that he touches (but not hair, which is why Hoole takes the shape of a Wookiee while with him).

    [​IMG]
    Eppon in happier days

    Speaking of Hoole. In Galaxy of Fear, he is presented as a mysterious, possibly evil figure who keeps getting the Arranda kids involved in the most gruesome adventures imaginable. Eventually it is revealed that he worked together with Borborygmus Gog on Project Starscream (of which Eppon was the culmination) but quit and is now a good guy… which always struck me as kind of implausible, not least because even after that he kept dragging the kids from danger to horror and beyond.

    So I figured there must be something else going on. In this story, Mammon Hoole is driven by the need to feed on other people’s fear - which explains why he didn’t mind traveling with two easily frightened teenagers for months. When they got to Byss after the Prologue, he sold them out to Palpatine, who took him back into his service to look after Gog.

    We also get a glimpse of Palpatine’s experiments here. In this story, one of his driving obsessions is the fact that he cannot have children on his own - another thing that was never stated plainly but that works extremely well with everything we know about him IMO. Including, uh, this image of a freshly cloned Palpatine from Dark Empire...
    [​IMG]

    So when he hears that one of his early experiments of creating a ~son proved “viable” in the sense of having a healthy kid of his own, this is of course Very Interesting to him.

    Finally - yes, this is a dense chapter - notice the timeline of Palpatine’s current plan: he means to reclaim the Galaxy “in a year’s time”, so by 6 ABY. Let’s see how that goes.


    Chapter 7: Zoochberry Blast

    The title is another Jedi Prince reference, though Zoochberries have since broken out of their niche and even made it into the new Canon.

    Sarcev Quest and Carnor Jax are throwing around in-jokes like confetti in this chapter. Jax can’t believe that the Moffs would make someone as ridiculous as Triocolus Emperor. “Emperor’s Eye” is a rank in the Secret Order of the Emperor according to the TIE Fighter video game; later Merili and Triclops were said to have held that rank. The two “Emperor’s Eyes” that were rocks were the asteroid-shaped dreadnought Eye of Palpatine (from Children of the Jedi) and its sister ship (I can’t remember where I read there was a sister ship - perhaps I had them confused with the Torpedo Spheres, but there’s nothing precluding Palpatine from having built a backup, so why not).

    I had a blast researching alcoholic drinks for this chapter. Abrax brandy is from Darth Plagueis; Whyren’s Reserve is the staple Corellian drink (“Wynssa Starflare”, the famous Corellian actress, was the stage name for Syal Antilles). I only later found out that there is a literal “Dark Side Daiquiri”... but perhaps that was the drink the droid served Quest, Roganda’s favorite. (The Roganda Ismaren / Sarcev Quest backstory rears its ugly head again.)

    The joke about Palpatine’s assets / asses (and Carnor Jax's momentary confusion when Quest says he'll need his asset later) is the lowest I went in this volume... I hope.

    The Ubiqtorate is one of my favorite Imperial institutions. There are lots of conflicting interpretations of their role; here I interpret them as agents embedded in every other Imperial institution under near-direct control by the Emperor (hence the guy who ordered the Black Fleet to Byss in an earlier chapter). Carnor Jax thinking of “Ubrikkian”, the technology and weapons company, before “ubiquitous” is one of my favorite character moments here.

    The real Kadann predicting Palpatine's death and getting banished for it is canon; Cronal selling him out despite knowing it's true is not, but it seems almost inevitable. There is an implication here that Cronal might have "helped it become true" by getting Xizor to suggest the trap at Endor in Shadows of the Empire, the way his fake Prophets later make their own prophecies become true.

    Quest "taking care" of the infant Triclops by handing him over to Cronal is again from Barely Tolerable: Alien Henchmen of the Empire.

    Note that Quest is routinely purging Carnor Jax’s memories of their encounters. Not the most healthy of relationships.


    ***

    To be continued!
     
    Last edited: Aug 28, 2021
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  19. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Endnotes, part 3:


    Chapter 8: Not Amused

    Ysanne Isard definitely has Palpy issues. We do not see much of her in this volume, but I do have quite an arc planned out for her in 2 and 3.

    Timeline: We have moved past the final X-Wing: Rogue Squadron comics now; Isard's opposition in the Ruling Council and the mad clone of Sate Pestage have been defeated and Isard allows herself to think she's in control.

    Baron Ragez D'Asta and his daughter Feena are from Crimson Empire II. One thing I've been trying to do here is to extrapolate backwards from all those sources that have "important Imperial functionaries" appearing out of nowhere, and have those characters appear where they ought to given their later reputation.

    "Quest was drinking himself into oblivion": that's what he wants Isard to think, while actually he's scrambling his thoughts while plotting Palpatine's downfall.

    Palpatine giving an overview of the state of the war and judging everyone by the amount of destruction they unleash is part of my attempt to make the greater state of the Galaxy comprehensible. Delvardus's exploits here were first detailed in the Essential Atlas and the Essential Guide to Warfare, two books I had open almost constantly while writing this. Triocolus razing Yavin IV is from the Jedi Prince series, but that the City of the Jedi he is looking for is "Cronal's trap" is my interpretation.

    Sigit Ranth's induction into the Emperor's inner circle is, of course, signified by putting a Silly Hat on his head. Can't advise the Emperor without a hat.

    Because this is Ranth, we get Mysteries. Hyperspace is the Chaos, which is the realm of death but also very much alive (more on that in Volume 2, in a chapter tentatively called "Palpatine's Adventures in Hyperspace"). But Force Lightning is also hyperspace / the Chaos! When Palpatine zaps you, he's channeling literal death into you - either to destroy you (as he tried with Luke) or to empower you (as he does with Tedryn-Sha and Xecr Nist in Dark Empire II - and with Baddon Fass here, though that part is my invention).

    There is no basis for this, other than "hyperspace and Force are both kind of blue-white-ish", but I thought it was neat.

    Sigit knows Force Lightning from Cronal's holodramas ("once as a tragedy, once as a farce"). "The Emperor's tortured body" hints at the historical revisionism of Luke Skywalker and the Jedi's Revenge, in which the Rebels are the villains.


    Chapter 9: Dagobah Tech

    Dagobah Tech is the school Ken attends towards the end of the Jedi Prince series. Mount Yoda on Dagobah is from that same series; it's said to be on a tall mountain, which I made into a volcano so I could eventually get rid of it in a suitably dramatic fashion.

    The "Zak" who gets out of the Shroud here is, of course, Hoole the shapeshifter. Imitating his former wards must be the easiest thing ever for him. Palpatine sent him to retrieve Ken, so he chose a suitable appearance.

    The "dreadful mission" Artoo is on with Master Skywalker is Luke going to Mindor; Threepio has no idea that he will have to join him soon.

    Hoole-as-Zak walking into the canteen trying to look cool with is bag slung over his shoulder is basically
    [​IMG]

    The "red-eyed squalling child", who next we hear of him is "crying himself blue" is Tam Azur-Jamin, the very human son of two humans whom Troy Denning called a Duros in Star by Star just to contradict the EU, I guess. He would have been born somewhere around this time, so I decided to use him and his parents to populate the otherwise lonely Mount Yoda facility a bit.

    The crinkled piece of flimsi Ken is reading is the letter his father Triclops left him in the final Jedi Prince book.

    When Hoole doesn't get anywhere as Zak, he simply changes his shape into Tash. Convenient!

    Massad Thrumble is the engineer who designed Guri, the Human Replica Droid from Shadows of the Empire: Evolution. At the end of that story (set in 4 ABY) it seems likely he'll be recruited by the New Republic. Neither that nor his involvement in Project Decoy from the Jedi Prince series (where they build a fake Leia with laser eyes) is ever outright stated, but it seems obvious in retrospect.

    Arhul Hextrophon, the in-universe author of the original Star Wars Sourcebook (among others) is friends with Hoole, who he thinks is just an adventurous anthropologist, so obviously he would annoy Hoole-as-Tash by asking about Hoole.


    Chapter 10: Knowledge is Power

    This chapter title is a silly stealth pun. "Knowledge is Power - France is Bacon", hence the smell after Palpatine's Force-frying fest.

    Baddon Fass's birth name is Finnek Answeg, for no better reason than Finnegans Wake being a fun book about a guy who should be dead rising again. The somewhat silly names of Palpatine's Dark Side Elite in DE led me to assume they are intentionally Sith-y pseudonyms, so Finnek becomes Fass here. You'll have to wait until vol. 2 for Kam Solusar's pseudonym…

    In case you're more interested in Palpatine's exposition than Finnek is: the three rival intelligence services are Imperial Intelligence (headed by Isard), the ISB (Imperial Security Bureau) and the Ubiqtorate. Ardus Kaine took over as Grand Moff of Oversector Outer after Tarkin exploded with the first Death Star, and now heads the "Pentastar Alignment", mostly keeping out of the war with the NR. Alec Pradeux was an advisor to Palpatine who showed up almost exclusively in online Galaxywide NewsNets articles. That he was a rival to Quest (in terms of both influence at court and womanizing) is my invention.

    The plan for getting rid of Isard is not Palpatine's but Cronal's; but in this case Palpatine approves of the "traitor" Cronal's scheming. It involves the fake Kadann calling for an invasion of Coruscant, which is going to keep Isard and Quest busy for the next few chapters.


    Chapter 11: Ken's Odyssey

    The village of Vornez on Yavin 4 is from the Jedi Prince books; the nearby planet Krylon only existed as a name-drop before. The Delta-7 that Triclops and the fake Kadann used as the core of their improvised getaway vehicle is what remains of Anakin Skywalker's Azure Angel, which Ventress destroyed on Yavin 4 in the Tartakovsky Clone Wars series.

    "I knew a Bimm once, he had fur all over" refers to the fact that there are two different species called Bimm: one of near-humans, to which Rajah Ubooki (the fake Kadann) belongs, and one of furry humanoids with floppy ears.

    When Hoole-as-Tash goes to get the tracking fob, he does his transform-into-a-Wookiee trick while Ken can't see him, then transforms back as he flees. Convenient!

    The chapter ends with a classic Galaxy of Fear cliffhanger…


    Chapter 12: Fuel

    It's season of mists on Byss, "making the planet look like a gas giant from space for a few weeks". This is a nod to / attempted fix for the extremely varied depictions of Byss in different sources:
    [​IMG]
    We're in the bottom right corner in this chapter.

    If you were wondering about Tash & Zak having kids even though they were still teenagers 2 years ago: here we learn that's because life passes more quickly here - people age and breed and die in a continual haze, most of their time & energy getting leeched off by Palpatine. Creepy!

    Amedda and Pestage playing off each other is always fun. Pestage thinks Amedda is hopelessly imprecise; Amedda, who thinks in millennia, disdains Pestage's parochialism.

    T'iaz is named in Empire's End; there's a similar-looking unnamed guy with him whom I've named K'uaz here. They're yet another brand of Darksiders in my mind: priests of a lost civilization. Their backstory will become important later on; their world, Trinta, is a Dark Side nexus where the mad Jedi Halagad Ventor spent his exile.
    [​IMG]

    Considering that Tython still exists after 25.000 years, it seems criminally underused in the EU (for obvious OOU reasons) - so here is an attempt to put it to use at least a little.

    The mention of "Marek and Stele germlines" implies that Maarek Stele is a clone, probably one of Galen Marek's (hence the Zahnesque double vowel) but combined with some other line of cloning experiments. We know from Crosscurrent and Riptide that Thrawn experimented with splicing the genes of different Force-sensitives together; I would be surprised if Palpatine hadn't gone there before.

    If the life energy of clones does not nourish Palpatine as much as that of non-cloned people, it's no surprise that he found the Clone Wars disappointing. In a later chapter we learn that Palpatine felt the invigorating effects of mass death for the first time during the Stark Hyperspace War (fitting, if hyperspace = death), which caused him to plot a great war that would make him powerful enough to sweep away the Republic single-handedly. That did not work out (too little death, with droids on one side and clones on the other), so he had to make do with an imperfect Empire for the time being...


    Chapter 13: The Jedi Prince: Electric Bugaloo

    As sequel title tropes go, "Electric Bugaloo" is only my 2nd favorite one; but "Bride of Jedi Prince" would have been even more misleading here, so…

    Paltr Carvin was chief among the rivals Ysanne Isard eliminated in the last X-Wing: Rogue Squadron arc; Baron D'Asta was the guy from Crimson Empire II she poisoned earlier.

    The idea (from The Emperor's Pawns and other articles) that the Church of the Dark Side became a widely known, public-facing institution after Endor is so ridiculous it's awesome. Kadann's Dark Greetings to the citizens of the Empire are my tribute to that.

    Burr Nolyds and Tann Starpyre are more extras from Crimson Empire II; Starpyre's Diet of Planetary Governors is from the Crimson Empire Handbook. Isard shoving the Moffs' responsibilities on him during the Triocolus crisis seemed like a good use for that obscure agency.

    "It appears Kadann vaporized the last claimant he meant to put on the throne": In Mission from Mount Yoda, Kadann vaporizes a carbonite slab that he believes has Triocolus in it. (The real Triocolus will, of course, be killed by the Leia Replica Droid's laser eyes.)

    Afsheen Makati's hate for Kadann is from Who's Who: Imperial Grand Admirals. The "disgruntled apprentice" is Azrakel from the Dark Side Sourcebook:
    [​IMG]

    Grand Moff Hissa is from Jedi Prince; Grand Admirals Il-Raz and Syn were established as devotees of the Church of the Dark Side in the Who's Who, as is Isard declaring freedom of religion to counter the Prophets. Quest thinking of Il-Raz's death is the moment his assassination-by-supernova plot is born.

    Delvardus's Coreward push is from the Essential Atlas; that he was using the opportunity provided by Kadann's declaration of war is my addition.


    Chapter 14: To Kill a Mockingbimm

    ...sorry, but that title was just too obvious.

    Ken's dream is slightly prophetic: "TIE fighters literally biting the heads off people" presages the "Shadow Droid" starfighters from Dark Empire II, for which Palpatine had his best pilots' brains removed and implanted into machines.
    [​IMG]

    "How do you kill someone who can see the future" is always a fun exercise. In this case, I went for randomization + noise: make your path unpredictable and kill not just one but a few dozen Kadanns. (Only it doesn't really work...)

    The Revenant, Lumiya's ship, and its captain Valek are from the short story "Lumiya: Dark Star of the Empire".

    In Dark Empire, Nefta is just a name. Here I made him a king, made up a backstory that connected him with the Prophets and gave a reason for his absence from the Imperial Court. Of course Kadann was right when he prophesied that Nefta would try to kill Palpatine eventually - he does so in Dark Empire II, together with Sa-Di.
    [​IMG]

    As Nefta's exile, I chose Odacer-Faustin, the site of the Sith Academy in Red Harvest - a suitably Dark Side-infused place.

    Locor, the apprentice Prophet who frees Ken, will later call himself Orloc. Faking Force powers through technological means (like all of the fake Prophets), he will be the villain of Junior Jedi Knights: Kenobi's Blade. The retcon making him into one of the few surviving Prophets is from the Evil Never Dies article.

    King Nefta is originally from Ord Radama; the city of Livien Magnus (mentioned and depicted in the Book of Sith) was its capital until ~4000 years ago:
    [​IMG]

    Nefta's throne is built from the ossified roots of a tree: that "tree" is the corpse of Dail'Liss, the Neti librarian who was killed millennia before in Red Harvest. They are sitting in the library of the old Sith Academy.

    I wanted Nefta to be seriously frightening in a way that has nothing to do with physical power. Like Sa-Di, he is a wizard more than a Sith.

    The Dreaming Vineyard of Bosthirda is my invention (and my favorite original character in this story).

    Ken is now wearing the kid version of Orloc's tricked-out cloak from Junior Jedi Knights.

    The timeline of the destruction of the fake Prophets is a bit of a mess. The Dark Side Sourcebook says Azrakel went in and massacred the Prophets; meanwhile the Who's Who has Makati send a gloating transmission before blasting Space Station Scardia from space. So I tried to have it both ways: Azrakel comes in and kills all the Prophets except Kadann (and little Locor), because Kadann is still on his way there after having been trapped on Yavin 4. Makati, with Azrakel aboard, waits for Kadann's return, gives him some time to find everyone dead, then transmits his "sparkly dress" message and blasts away.


    Chapter 15: Wingman

    The title refers both to starfighter ace Shea Hublin and to Quest having been Delvardus's wingman during the latter's awkward attempts at dating in the Imperial Palace.

    They meet Delvardus in Woostri system, to which he has pulled back after his defeat at Yag'Dhul (mentioned in the Essential Atlas).

    Shea Hublin is from Eriadu; his falling out and eventual reconciliation with Delvardus are from the Atlas too. Quest's involvement in the affair is my addition.

    Captain (Ivan) Cronus is Delvardus's second-in-command in Darksaber.

    Delvardus's tragic affair with Seledra-Zin, a refugee aid worker he met on Clak'dor VII (vulgo "Bith" for its dominant species) is from Who's Who: Imperial Grand Admirals.

    ***

    More soon...
     
    Last edited: Aug 28, 2021
  20. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Endnotes, last batch (it's a big one...):


    Chapter 16: Kadann dies at the end

    As in the book with a similar title, Kadann dies at the beginning, of course. And then again in the middle, and again at the end.

    The woman Lumiya hypnotized into thinking she is "Kadann" is a captive from the research station shown in "Lumiya: Dark Star of the Empire".

    The ancient Dark Lord whose death on Bosthirda Quest heard Kadann mention is Darth Xedrix from the Revan novel. Xedrix, like Kadann, was very good at hiding his motives and his powers. The sentient vine we will meet later has grown from his grave and through his body (minus the head, which Lord Scourge took after murdering him), probably taking on some Dark Side mojo in the process.

    General (Tal) Ashen, in charge of Palace security, is from the Galactic Battlegrounds video game, where he is killed in 6.5 ABY during the fall of Coruscant. "No giant goon" is a reference to Kadann's tall second-in-command Jedgar. TC-SC infiltration droids are the common man's version of TFU's Proxy, previously appearing only in some WotC role-playing games.

    The voice with the metallic rasp that tells Makati where to find the real Prophets is Lumiya's, of course.

    The emergency shield projector that saves Ken's life (and the fake Kadann's, for a few minutes) is my invention; it seemed like an obvious gadget for a trickster like Ubooki to have. In case of decompression, it automatically creates a shield bubble around anyone still alive.

    The journey of the Glove of Darth Vader - from Kadann to Azrakel to Lumiya to Clone Palpatine - was established in Evil Never Dies: The Sith Dynasties.

    Cronal's death in Luke Skywalker and Shadows Mindor happens offscreen here, but its effects reverberate through this story. Here it is Cronal's death, rather than Quest's and Carnor Jax's feeble attempts at confusing Kadann, which unsettles the Prophets enough to take their eyes off the (timey-wimey) ball.

    Bosthirda looks very different from what it was like in Revan's time. We know next to nothing about the real Prophets, so I tried to come up with something unusual - they’re just living the life, lounging in the vineyard, munching psychoactive grapes (the ones Nefta's wine was made out of btw) and occasionally Dreaming of possible futures..

    The vine communicates telepathically with the Prophets, through the symbiotes in the grapes.

    Delk is the one Prophet I made up; everyone else is from previous sources.

    Azrakel’s backstory here is taken directly from the Dark Side Sourcebook. The only detail I added was Azrakel’s “original name” - for the sake of Ken’s arc, I retconned him into the original Qaga Lok.

    Fulstar plates are my favorite starship part - they’re hyperdrive elements first mentioned and depicted in the obscurest of obscure sources: the 1984 kids’ activity book Adventures in Colors and Shapes...
    [​IMG]
    "which of those plates do you need, Mr Solo?"

    The whole Battle of Bosthirda was a blast to write. Much of the plot of this book involves filling in rather narrow blanks between established facts, but here there were only a few constraints - the Prophets needed to die, some killed by Azrakel and the rest by Lumiya and Carnor Jax; Lumiya needed to take the Glove of Darth Vader; and Grand Admiral Makati needed to get away. Everything else was left wide open… so I could tell a scene from the point of view of a plant, have Ken talk to leaves, and let Azrakel grab a lightsaber by the blade with the Glove of Darth Vader.

    Beheboth is a rocky planet from a 1977 Marvel comic; I invented the “Beheboth Cataclysm” that made it as arid as it is, so Ken would have a reference for what will happen to Bosthirda when the moon fragments come down.

    The MRX-BR Pacifier scout ship that Carnor Jax & Lumiya use to get planetside is a classic WEG model:
    [​IMG]

    This chapter concludes the first phase of Quest’s master plan: get rid of the Prophets, whose existence threatens the secrecy of any other plan. Next step: kill Palpatine...


    Chapter 17: Bottleneck

    The Kaan Heptad Palpatine is meditating on (and which becomes a crucial plot point at the end of volume 1) is my invention. I view it as the tool Lord Kaan used to unite the Sith, but the unity between its seven wearers has already been broken by the time we meet him in Jedi vs. Sith or the first Bane novel - hence the many signs of his forces falling apart in those stories.

    Quest being a protegé of Cronal’s is established in The Emperor’s Pawns. I’ve used Palpatine’s reminiscences here to bring in my headcanon for how Palpatine managed to hide an entire flipping Super Star Destroyer beneath the cityscape of Coruscant...
    [​IMG]

    ...and, by analogy, why everyone just seemed to forget about the Jedi, the super-hologenic galaxywide heroes of the Clone Wars, after Order 66. I checked every Legends story set around the end of Revenge of the Sith to confirm that we don’t see what Palpatine is doing or thinking in the exact instant all of the Jedi are dying… so it is absolutely possible he used the energy of all of those deaths to enact some (imperfect but still awesomely effective) Sith ritual to literally delete his enemies from the memory of the Galaxy.

    (Sorry about the TFA quote in there. I try not to cross over too much, but this was simply too appropriate.)

    Palpatine has plans for Luke… their exact nature will have to wait until later. If this doesn’t seem to square with his Last Command to Leia, that’s because the Last Command was an instinctive outcry, whereas Palpatine now had a better idea on reflection. (He sees no need to take back the command because he is convinced Luke will win anyway, and killing Mara will drive him closer to the Dark Side.)

    Lord Hethrir is a weird case. He’s the villain in The Crystal Star; later sources identify him as the leader of the Reborn from the Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast video game and expand on his role as the Emperor’s “Procurator of Justice”. His relationship with the cloned Emperor is never really made clear; here I have him secretly working for clone Palpatine all along, sending him slaves to increase the population of Byss as a tribute.

    Hoole’s gift… I think I might have left too many things unspoken here. The implication is that Hoole wanted to please the Emperor by bringing him not just Ken but also Triclops (which is why he-as-Tash helped Ken search for his father instead of just abducting him right away). That plan broke apart on Scardia, where all he could salvage while fleeing was Triclops’s head, which he bit off. He got out of there on the Shroud, unwittingly saving Locor from Scardia’s destruction in the process, and then panicked. Using the brain preservation technique developed by the B’omarr monks (introduced the Illustrated Star Wars Universe and expanded upon, among others, in Galaxy of Fear: Brain Spiders), he pickled Triclops’s brain and sent it to Palpatine via Hethrir as an apology.

    Alas, poor Triclops…
    [​IMG]

    Chapter 18: Words and Violence

    Sa-Di’s dinner guests are a varied bunch from a wide range of sources:

    • Lady Ucce, a slave trader by implication, is one of Hethrir’s supporters in The Crystal Star. She never appeared anywhere else, so I took the liberty of fleshing out her backstory a bit - by making her the woman behind the slave-trading Herdessan Guild from the 1977 “Figurehead” story (Star Wars #88). “On Herdessa, she had been called ‘Lady Bountiful’ by the populace” references a panel in that comic where a member of the resistance scoffs at Leia’s offer of help: “Oh, sure, you’ll help, like Lady Bountiful. That’s a laugh.” So I thought - why not treat that like it’s a proper name? (Incidentally, "Figurehead" is also the first story where Lumiya appears under her new identity.)

    • Gerald Weizel and Moff Jamson Caglio appear in some Galaxywide NewsNets articles, where they are said to be allies; their post-Endor activities are my invention.

    • Aryn Dro Thul is the mother of Raynar Thul from the Young Jedi Knights series. The Thuls are said to have owned a major trading company, Bornaryn, as early as the Galactic Civil War; but somehow the company never makes an appearance in any source set before 23 ABY. So here we have Aryn, an Alderaanian with pronounced Rebel sympathies, rubbing shoulders with Imperials because people of her stature are supposed to be above politics (and, one supposes, for strategic benefit).

    • Lady Marchia is my invention, but the planet Virgillia 7 is from Truce at Bakura and its sourcebook. These establish that the planet was embroiled in a 29-year civil war which ended with the defeat of the Imperial-aligned aristocracy shortly after Endor; so it seems reasonable for a Virgillian noble to be in exile on Coruscant in 5 ABY.

    • Ederlathh Pallopides finally shows up! The Dark Empire Sourcebook calls her a “remote great-niece” of Palpatine, so given later sources I assumed the Pallopides were one of the noble houses of Naboo. According to Darth Plagueis, Palpatine killed his entire family in 65 BBY; for the great-niece thing to work, I assumed one of his brothers must have fathered a child that was born after his death.

    • It seemed natural for Ederlathh to have a governess from another of the Great Houses of Naboo; so here is Dame Vita Veruna (Ars Veruna was king of Naboo before Padme).
    The city of Narmle on Naboo's moon Rori is a location in the Star Wars Galaxies video game:
    [​IMG]

    Admiral Kermen is originally from the "Kaal Connection" RPG scenario in the Adventure Journal; his role was expanded into that of the de iure commander of the Imperial fleet post-Endor in the Essential Guide to Warfare, which also mentions that he could not be counted on. Utoxx Prentioch is from the "Kaal Connection" too; Gaen Drommel was one of the first warlords established in the West End Games RPG supplements.

    Xizor Transport Systems collapsed after Xizor's death in Shadows of the Empire, with Mara Jade mopping up a successor organization in the comic By the Emperor's Hand. Tyber Zann's Consortium, established as Xizor's main rival in Empire at War: Forces of Corruption would have profited from the corresponding shrinkage of Black Sun, for which XTS was a front - only to collapse itself soon after, for as-yet unexplained reasons.

    The Wookiee fungus liqueur Accarrgm is from Rebel Dawn. When Sa-Di says a funny word that you don't know, he's usually offering you a drink.

    The "Violence" part of this chapter is my love letter to Coruscant urbanology. First we go down: from the Skydome Botanical Gardens (from the Illustrated Star Wars Universe) through the Ithorian-infested midlevels (featuring an explanation for the sheer number of Ithorian extras on Coruscant in The Clone Wars episodes), past the Calocour Ocean (my invention, by analogy to the Calocour Heights) and into Cthon territory (also from the Illustrated SW Universe originally, used to great effect in Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter). - Then Fass pulls at the capstone pillar and we go up again, following the destruction: from the Softclaw and Blackscale gangs and the playing Cthon hatchlings (all mine) to a species of bottom dwellers at war with the spiders whose names slightly suggest that they might be of Yoda's species (though nothing definite must ever be said about Yoda's species, of course) to Tycho Celchu - whose undercover mission on Coruscant is a crucial part of the backstory for the X-Wing novels, and who will be caught and delivered into Isard's hands as a result of the investigation of this incident (my addition). We get a glimpse of Isard watching Makati's victory speech at the Skydome - I used the opportunity to insert my explanation for why the twelve Grand Admirals became irrelevant so quickly (Isard wanted them out of the way).

    Finally Edi dreams of meeting Palpatine. Foreshadowing? Perhaps…


    Chapter 19: Beasts in the Basement

    The Imperial Sentinels guarding Byss were described as chemically lobotomized slaves in the Dark Empire Sourcebook. They are not to be confused with the Sovereign Protectors, who are basically elite Royal Guards in even creepier uniforms:
    [​IMG]
    A Sovereign Protector with what I suppose is either a Force Scythe or the Emperor's shoehorn

    Previous sources leave it ambiguous whether Lumiya ever was on Byss before Endor. I chose to give her some connection to this place and make the implied rivalry between Vader and Palpatine over her allegiance explicit. That Lumiya ultimately decided that clone Palpatine was not worthy of her loyalty is established in the Fate of the Jedi novel series.

    Lumiya's memory of fighting Mara Jade implies she would have killed her if Palpatine had not chosen that moment to touch her mind and call her away.

    "Gog used to be much prettier" is a reference to Galaxy of Fear: Ghost of the Jedi, where Tash finds him "handsome"; though he is a shapeshifter, so…

    Nefta straight-out calls Hoole "the fear-eater" here.


    Chapter 20: Nothing Concrete

    I'm fine with GFFA concrete being called duracrete (or ferrocrete or resicrete or whatever) - but it really annoys me when authors extend that to the adjective and have characters say things like "We don't know anything duracrete yet, but…" Hence the title.

    This is a fun sideshow mostly independent of the main plot. I had shown Isard's clone in the Imperial Palace back in chapter 2, so now I wanted to show how it got from there to the still-buried Lusankya. (We know this must have happened at some point from Isard's Revenge.) This chapter also shows why the New Republic never discovered Palpatine's hidden labs & chambers under the Palace that Luke stumbles on in the beginning of Dark Empire (the scene is only mentioned in the comic but depicted in the DE audio drama).

    Jax Pavan the concrete layer is one of the millions of Jax Pavans on Coruscant. The Zillo Beast that he remembers cleaning up after is from the eponymous TCW episode. "Minions of Xendor" is a random exclamation from the 1997-8 Han Solo trilogy that got one hell of a backstory eventually.

    Two-phase duracrete was my idea (I think). Note that if Isard had listened to Jax's professional advice and let the phase one settle before introducing the hardening agent, the duracrete block might not have cracked when Luke crashed a Star Destroyer into the Palace five years later…


    Chapter 21: Unfrozen

    One of the most maddening loose ends in this part of the Legends timeline IMO is the fate of the Carbonite Sith Army. The Empire at War: Forces of Corruption video game ends with Tyber Zann getting his hands on the location data for the Emperor's storehouses, and his treacherous accomplice Silri finally cracking the Sith holocron that was the game's chief McGuffin. It's a star chart that leads her to an unnamed planet where she finds a tomb full of warriors frozen in carbonite…
    [​IMG]

    It made sense that the unnamed planet would be in Sith space. I chose Rhelg, the fortress world of Ludo Kressh from the Golden Age of the Sith comics. We know Kressh was cautious to the point of paranoia, and the Knights of the Old Republic comics establish that he had a son, Elcho Kressh, whom he wanted to keep safe at any cost - so it made sense to me that he would hide a backup army and create a holocron to guide his son to it. Only the holocron was lost in the chaos of the fall of the Sith Empire… so here we are, millennia later, with a bunch of frozen warriors.

    Anyone who paid attention during Return of the Jedi knows that being unfrozen from carbonite leaves you quite a bit less than competent even after only about a year of deep-freeze. Poor Silri must have had her hands full after unfreezing a whole army after five thousand years… which explains some of the chaos already extant when Urai Fen and company arrive.

    The history of the Nightsisters in the late EU is a mess, thanks not only to TCW introducing a whole Nightsisters civilization long before Gethzerion's heresy that was established in The Courtship of Princess Leia, but also thanks to the Star Wars Galaxies video game making Dathomir easily accessible and introducing more Nightsister shenanigans that seem incompatible with Courtship. The Dathomir mission in Empire at War: Forces of Corruption, where Tyber Zann's forces free Silri and take her off planet, does not make that any better - remember in 8 ABY the Nightsisters are supposed to be an obscure cult on a planet long cut off from the rest of the Galaxy.

    I tried to make that work by portraying Gethzerion as trying to recreate the TCW-era Nightsister culture; by implying that during the time of SW Galaxies she did not consider her tribe strong enough to conquer the Galaxy yet; and by making Silri one of her agents she has sent out to gather intelligence and resources. It's still wonky, but I can live with it.

    Silri's ritual is TCW-inspired; for the metaphysics (the Winged Goddess, the Fanged God etc.) I relied on the Nightsister chapter in the Book of Sith.

    I haven't seen repulsor harnesses mentioned in previous sources, but they seemed like an obvious, if clumsy, piece of technology.

    Whuffa worms were introduced in a funny and gross scene in Courtship. The manner of Urai Fen's death is straight from Courtship too, where Gethzerion almost kills Han that way.

    Ken has now left behind his identity as Ken almost completely and taken on Azrakel's true name, Qaga Lok.


    Chapter 22: Pass On That

    (Yoda: "Pass on what you have learned"...)

    Lorz Geptun's curse "Moffa" is from Shatterpoint, as is Geptun himself originally. This chapter picks up right after the epilogue of Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor, with Geptun still working on that rewrite Skywalker wants from him.

    Tinian and Daye are from a series of stories by Kathy Tyers published in the Adventure Journal. Later sources say they married and Daye was trained by Luke, but are unclear on when that happened. I use Daye as a stand-in for all the Force-sensitives Luke encounters but doesn't train before establishing the Praxeum here, from Kyle and Corran to Flint (from the Marvel comics) and Dev Sibwarra (from Truce at Bakura). "Pass on what you have learned" indeed.

    Hoole, scared out of his wits by his own failure, seeks protection from the New Republic now; he has even come up with a cover story in case the truth about his fear-eating ever comes out. Hextrophon tripping on gnats on Exodeen is my invention, as is everything else in this chapter. Mount Yoda, I'm pretty sure, will never show up anywhere again.


    Chapter 23: Everyday Superweapons

    This is why Quest suggested Delvardus attack Sullust: so he could get his hands on those Gravitational Field Disruptors.

    The Battle of Sullust, including the participation of Hublin and Sien Sovv as well as the series of defeats that follow, are from the Essential Atlas. That Delvardus meant to lose, as a pretext for his flight into the Deep Core, is my addition.

    Skaz Vynalez, the inventor of the GFD, is named after the amazing 1958 Czech Jules Verne movie Vynález Zkázy ("The Deadly Invention").


    Chapter 24: Handoff

    ...where we tie up the fate of the Zann syndicate in a game of Summon Bigger Fish. Having that happen in the moment Zann sets his sights on Byss (information on which would have been included in the Eclipse's data banks) seemed appropriate.

    The black-haired woman on Zsinj's bridge is Lanu Pasiq, a Nightsister-turned-Inquisitor from the Evasive Action web comics, who cast her lot with Zsinj according to the EGTW. Captain Zurel Darillian is from the Wraith Squadron books.


    Chapter 25: Escalation

    Baddon Fass came to Coruscant expecting a battlefield; when that didn't happen, he made his own.

    Vaartsoon appears as Isard's agent on one page of the final X-Wing: Rogue Squadron arc, then is never heard from again. Until now!

    Sergeant Erkin: "Are you saying it's aliens?"

    Vaartsoon:
    [​IMG]

    Bulfus are flying predators from Vaartsoon's homeworld of Corulag.

    Isard's impending peace talks with the Moffs are heavily implied but never stated IIRC. The Rebel prisoner she and Quest are butting heads over is Tycho Celchu, of course.

    Shashay Idlewil Liquor is from a 1996 Adventure Journal RPG scenario.

    When Quest compares Baddon Fass to "one of Jerec's goons", he is probably thinking of Boc ("Boc'aseca the Crude") and/or Gorc.


    Chapter 26: Bye Bye Binring

    (The destruction of Binring Biomedical is kind of incidental to this chapter, but I liked the title and couldn't think of a better one, so…)

    Phindar, home to the notoriously cynical Phindians, appears in Yoda: Dark Rendezvous (my reference for the orbital spaceport) and the Jedi Apprentice series (in which a young Obi-Wan successfully resists the Renewal procedure). The existence of a Ubiqtorate base on Phindar is my invention, as is the Derida Compound it's located in (named after the Derida brothers, the criminals-turned-resistance-heroes Obi-Wan aids in Jedi Apprentice: The Hidden Past).

    Dr. Gast blowing up the Binring facility is part of Voort "Piggy" saBinring's backstory in the Wraith Squadron novels.


    Chapter 27: Shadow Mass

    Thomork being the secret construction site for the first World Devastators is from the Dark Empire Sourcebook. The "Imperial Leviathans" are from a 1995 French RPG magazine - they happen to look exactly like DE's World Devastators, so it makes sense that the first World Devastator prototypes would be refitted Leviathans.
    [​IMG]
    Definitely not a World Devastator... yet

    "The Abomination" is Triclops, whose dreams of superweapons are a plot point in Mission from Mount Yoda; it is implied that the designs he dreams up are the reason the Empire left him alive. Palpatine's plan of seeding the Galaxy with von Neumann monsters is new - and might just be the most evil scheme he ever hatched, IMO.

    When exactly did Roganda Ismaren kidnap Nasdra Magrody? Darned if I know; the information in Children of the Jedi is vague, and the Essential Chronology's reshuffling of the book's timeline placement (from 14 to 12 ABY) does not help matters. For the scene here to work, we must assume that Palpatine has not kept track of Magrody's whereabouts for a while, and only just found out he's gone now that he needs him. Maybe I should have made that more explicit.


    Chapter 28: Homecoming Rock

    (I'm proud of that title.)

    The first draft of this chapter was twice as long, describing Droga's exploits on Dagobah in gory but ultimately boring detail. Suffice to say, he got out - by stumbling on Jorj Car'das's beckon call in the Dark Side cave (because of course that place would call to him), finding his ship (Car'das left in a launch back in the day) and fixing it. The specifics of this adventure belong in a different story I want to get back to eventually, so I glossed over them here.

    The Praesitlyn Intergalactic Communications Center is the main battleground in Jedi Trial. (For a fun exercise, try finding Praesitlyn's exact position in the Essential Atlas...) Commodore Proth gives us an update on how the Delvardus campaign is going (remember, Clak'dor VII is "Bith"):
    [​IMG]

    Nick Rostu, Aeona Cantor, Kar Vastor and the Haruun Kal habit of calling people "ruskakk" are all straight from Shadows of Mindor. If you mind me giving Kar Vastor such an ignoble offscreen death, I'm sorry. I'm not sorry about making Nick Rostu the Mayor of Sernpidal, though.


    Chapter 29: Sentimetal Journey

    FGA-583 nerve agent is from 1994's Galaxy Guide: Bounty Hunters. Sidi gourds are from the Episode I Visual Dictionary. Putting random references from completely different eras of Star Wars publishing into the same sentence is what I live for.

    The persistence of the Ubiqtorate after Endor is never outright stated but works well with what little we know of them, AFAICT. The Inquisitorius's strategy is my headcanon. Ja'ce Yiaso is from Star Wars Galaxies; same for Loam Redge (including his connection to Hethrir). I made up the Voltage from whole cloth. Inquisitor Volytar was mentioned in WotC's Galactic Campaign Guide, where he shows up in Skorrupon system, so I picked an animal from a suitably creepy nearby planet as the name of his ship: the Whisper Bird from Null.
    [​IMG]

    Halmere was an obscure WEG namedrop until he was featured in the gloriously continuity-heavy Evasive Action web comic. The article Imperial Warlords: Despoilers of an Empire established his post-Endor career in the Pentastar Alignment. Sojourn - Darth Plagueis's hunting grounds, nuked in Darth Plagueis and placed in the Pentastar Alignment by the Atlas - seemed like a good place for the Inquisitorius to store its antique dungeon ships (the Lictor-class was "used to transport Jedi in the Clone Wars", per Dark Empire and its Sourcebook).

    Shynne is from the "Planet Hoppers" feature on Prakith; I made her a High Inquisitor. The Dark Side suffuses Prakith not just because of the Citadel Inquisitorius or the excesses of Moff Foga Brill, but also because it houses the grave of Darth Andeddu, as seen in the Legacy comics.

    Brakiss is a fun character in that his story was written backwards. Created as the villain for the first arc of the Young Jedi Knights series (set in 23 ABY), he next appeared 6 years earlier as a secondary antagonist in The New Rebellion, then another 6 years earlier in I, Jedi as the infiltrator at the Jedi Academy. True to form, here he is 6 years before that, in 5 ABY, being trained by the Inquisitorius for future use as a spy (a fact established in the New Essential Guide to Characters).


    Chapter 30: The Gathering

    I assume here that Harrsk (the warlord whose fleet is stationed at the southern border of the Deep Core) is already at Palpatine's command in 5 ABY - not necessarily knowingly, but either through Palpatine's agents or via Thoath (the split personality Harrsk is said to have developed in Despoilers of an Empire, and which I believe Palpatine could absolutely have influenced if he wanted).

    We know that Cronal survived Mindor, but it is never said exactly how. His next appearance is in an RPG adventure seed set 5-6 years later, though Evil Never Dies suggests this may have been Pestage impersonating him. 10 years on he's walking around on robot legs again, with his face (minus most of the forehead) reconstructed:
    [​IMG]

    I think my description here, plus Star Wars-level surgical tech / Sith alchemy (pace Vader) leaves room for this.

    Carnor Jax aspiring to the rank of a Sovereign Protector is from Evil Never Dies as well, but the specifics of the selection procedure (dancing with the Chrysalides from Dark Empire II) are new.

    "The other Byss" is the homeworld of the cyclopean Abyssin in the Byss and Abyss system of the Outer Rim. (I toyed with the idea of "Byss" being for planets what "Jax Pavan" is for human males, and implying the Emperor chose Byss as his hideout precisely because it is such a common name, but ultimately didn't go with it.)

    When the Kaan Heptad is complete, suddenly everyone desperately wants to serve Palpatine - giving me an excuse for another montage of moments from around the Galaxy. Beldorion spells out Ashgad's plan that we saw fail in the Prologue. Roganda imagines a new season of her Imperial Palace soap opera. (Children of the Jedi strongly implies that Magrody's wife and daughter are dead, but the Ismarens are still using them to yank him around. Drost Elegin is a noble and famous heartbreaker at the Imperial Court from the same book.) Ederlathh watches Quest make plans to sell out Isard to the New Republic as the designated scapegoat, in collaboration with the unnamed President of the Bureau of Punishments (mentioned for the first and only time in, again, Children of the Jedi). Even A'Sharad Hett, the future Darth Krayt of Legacy, makes an appearance - don't ask me where he is at this moment, it is a mystery. Of course their sudden enthusiasm will falter just as quickly when the Heptad is broken…


    Chapter 31: Cataclysm

    Sorry for all the capitalizations. Palpatine's capital-W Will is from the excerpts from his Books in the Dark Empire Sourcebook; the capital-DS Dark Side is my idiosyncrasy.

    I indulge in another brief montage here, taking a look at Onimi (the Yuuzhan Vong Supreme Overlord's jester) and the Guardian of Mount Tantiss (is it Joruus C'Baoth? Is it someone else? Who knows…). Zak and Tash are still way too happy, though Tash is beginning to see the dark.

    Finally, Palpatine's second (third? nth?) death was a foregone conclusion from back when I first started thinking about this story. He did not just wait six years before striking back, and there is no way the preparations for his campaign took so long (especially because striking earlier would have made it all so much easier). No, there had to be some major setbacks happening behind the scenes… and this was about the most major setback I could come up with.

    ***

    Next volume, join me for Chaos on Coruscant, Palpatine's Adventures in Hyperspace, Mahd Windcaller's Pan-Imperial NewsCast and Airen Cracken's Personal Addenda! This should be fun.
     
    Last edited: Aug 31, 2021
  21. Vialco

    Vialco Force Ghost star 5

    Registered:
    Mar 6, 2007
    Hey, @cthugha ! Just finished reading this fic and I am awestruck.

    This is an amazing bridge story for Dark Empire. So many amazing scenes in this fic that I loved, it's hard to pick one.

    • The moment that Palpatine awakens on Byss is so well written. You picked the moment perfectly and it fits really well with the moment that Ishin Il-Raz dies. I like that you had it take 8 months for Sidious's spirit to reincarnate in a clone. It makes the death he suffered at Endor significant and powerful.
    • I love that the real Pestage and Amedda are there on Byss, by their Master's side. The Pestage that remains on Coruscant is absolutely a clone, and not a very well-made on either.
    • As a fan of the Galaxy of Fear series, I'm excited to see Hoole, Tash, Zak and Gog. You have a very good take on Hoole, I always thought there was something suspicious about Mammon in the series. He definitely wasn't a very good guardian. But to see that he's a fear-eater, like the Anzati, that he was putting those children in danger on purpose is so sick and so so fitting. It explains for too much.
    • You use Jeng Droga very well. He is the Emperor's primary field agent at this point, and by far the most loyal. I like the scenes where he realizes that he hasn't visited a refresher in weeks. It shows just how driven he really is. He also adds some grim humor, particularly on Praesityln (I could not find it in the Essential Atlas btw). I enjoyed seeing Nick, Aeona, Kar and Geptun as well. Droga would slaughter all of them, even Kar. I like the way you showed that Vastor is completely broken after Blackhole's mental control.
    • Speaking of Cronal, his condition is the definition of a fate worse than death and so karmic for an unrepentant nihlistic monster like him.
    • I would have loved to see Sidious's thoughts on Thrawn and Kaine, two of the biggest warlords aside from Zsinj. Hopefully in the next volume or two.
    • Palpatine's contempt for Isard's slimy ways felt right to me. She always acted more like an spy instead of an Empress. Never able to effectively wield force as she should.
    • That twist at the end was really shocking to me and explains something I'd always wondered. Why did Palpatine take six years to return to the Galactic scene? He had reincarnated within a year, why would he wait? Quest's meddling is very, very skillful.
    • He wiped out the Prophets, undermined Isard, plotted with Delvardus, and schemed with Lumiya and Jax. Sidious is being undone by Sith-style sabotage, undertaken by his own servants.
    • Quest is pretty brutal and doesn't know what overkill is. Given that he's dealing with the Dark Lord of the Sith who can reincarnate, the only solution that doesn't allow him to return is to wipe out the entire planet.
    • I loved the concept of the Kaan Heptad and the fact that Sidious needs to rely on all these amulets and Dark Side allies to reassert his dominance over the Force. The sheer scope of his feat of thwarting the supernova is a massive display of power and is a good foreshadowing of the Force Storms we see in Dark Empire. Truly magnificent.
    • Ken apprenticing to Azrakel (who is another favourite character of mine) makes total sense to me, as Sedriss (who Ken obviously becomes) shares a number similarities to Kadann's apprentice
    • Lumiya's presence here really lends to what we know of her character in Legacy of the Force. It's so satisfying to see her on Byss, in front of Sidious. She's my favorite out of all of the Dark Siders in this fic, just because we know that she will outlast all of the others.
    • Everyone in this tale, from Droga to Irek to Sidious to Sarcev perish at some point. But Lumiya witnesses it all and survives right up to 40 ABY to corrupt another Skywalker
    • I wish I had room to say more, but I just wanted to say this fanfic was amazing. I've really enjoyed following it from start to finish and I can't wait for the next one. Seeing Sidious reincarnate again and witnessing his take on the Fall of Coruscant, the rise of Thrawn and the birth of Leia's twin is something I'm really looking forward to.
    • Thanks again for writing this fic, it's so awesome!
    • And I loved Darth Krayt and Onimi's cameos, it really makes this story galaxy-spanning!
     
    Last edited: Sep 25, 2021
  22. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Thank you, your reply just made my day :D

    It's been a lot of fun writing this, and I'm looking forward to starting on volume 2 - right now I'm digging through sources and (re)reading a ton of books to get a feeling for some Rebel / New Republic characters, because the next volume will feature more points of view from the "other side". Your feedback definitely gave me a boost to get into the weeds and start the actual writing soon!
     
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  23. Vialco

    Vialco Force Ghost star 5

    Registered:
    Mar 6, 2007
    I'm so glad :D. Well, I'll tell you, reading this entire fic and the endnotes (which are awesome btw, so detailed!) made my week. I actually have a small list of fanfictions that are my favorites and fit right into canon, that I really consider as canon, at least for me. For me, Empire of Ashes is canon and it fits right into my virtual Legends bookshelf. After the Bounty Hunter Wars and Truce of Bakura, and before Shadows of Mindor and the X-Wing series.

    It's really nice to see Coruscant after Endor but before the New Republic conquest. Isard has a lot of enemies to deal with before she can rule unopposed as Regent. Pestage's mad clone is gone now and Ysanne is one step closer to victory. I'm really looking forward to seeing Palpatine's thoughts on the Krytos Virus and Isard giving Coruscant away. I imagine he'd be infuriated by the latter and quite pleased by the death that the former brings.

    I'm really enjoying Sarcev and Jax's partnership. Both characters feel very human and relatable to me, not like the aloof and mighty Sidious or the devoted Amedda. From an authorial perspective, those two characters are very well written and really give the reader someone to identify with.

    Re-reading Hoole's POV inside Mount Yoda, knowing who he really is makes the whole interaction with Ken make so much more sense. Of course Hoole would have better luck in a Tash disguise than as Zak. I also loved Daye, Tinian and Tam's cameo. I loved that family and wish we got more of them in canon.

    Can't wait to see your next work!
     
    Last edited: Sep 26, 2021
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