3643 BBY (Before the Battle of Yavin)
Taris, Ojoster Sector, The Outer Rim Territories
I won't ever forget the first time I saw the planet Taris.
Which in and of itself is rather odd because, strictly speaking, the 'me' who had been named Edward and had come from a little planet called Earth in a different, unremarkable galaxy, had never seen the planet Taris. However, the Sith Lord, Nyeomi Fens, who I was now, whose body my consciousness had merged with hers had seen it. Confused? Don't worry, so am I.
In any event she had seen it from the observation lounge of the liner Pride of Coruscant which 'our' mistress, Darth Vannacen and she had traveled on to the war torn world. Ok, that's too confusing, I think I'll just go back to using first person pronouns. I remember not being very impressed with the so-called Coruscant of the Outer Rim. Three hundred years ago it had been a jewel in the territory, perfectly balanced between gleaming ecumenopoleis of tall buildings rising to the sky and yet still retaining its ocean giving the planet a blue and gray coloration from space along with clouds and attendant weather.
That had been three hundred years ago.
Taris was unfortunate enough to be the nexus of the far edges of control of three separate military powers, the Galactic Republic, the Mandalorians and the Sith Empire. Between the Mandalorian War, the Jedi Civil War and countless other little skirmishes, the planet had suffered, but remained. Until Darth Malak attacked the world, bombarding it from orbit and laid waste to the entire planet. Now, centuries later, the Republic suddenly had decided they wanted to re-colonize the world which had been bombed into oblivion and was just a collection of ruined cities, slowly being reclaimed by what plant life had been on the world, mostly from parks and a limited number of nature preserves.
Now most of the land masses were gigantic swamps or jungles with crumbling ruins falling into collapsing infrastructure tunnels. While that made the planet dangerous, the real threat were Rakghouls. Rakghouls were corrupted, mutated humanoids, mindless for the most part, cannibalistic, rabid and violent. The true horror was they were not an indigenous life form, but victims of a highly infectious blood pathogen, the aptly named Rakghoul Plague. No one really knew who had invented it, likely as a failed (or successful depending on your point of view) bio-weapon, but the plague was highly contagious and could be spread by a Rakghoul biting or scratching you.
That meant only someone with a death wish, or someone looking for something incredibly valuable would risk going to Taris.
Since the Republic were 'restoring and re-colonizing' Taris, they must be after something and so my mistress and I had been sent to find out what. I was twenty, young, foolish and excited to be sent on my first mission outside the Empire. I must confess it had been an interesting journey. As on paper at least the Galactic Republic and the Sith Empire were at peace, we had been ferried to the edge of the Empire by the Navy, then an independent freighter had born us into the Republic, from which, using our real passports and credentials, we booked passage on the Pride of Coruscant to Taris.
The Republic officials seethed, of course, but by flying under our own colors so to speak, we had rendered them toothless. We were tailed, both overtly and covertly, the most obvious of which were a pair of Jedi Masters who my Mistress took considerable pleasure in making them out as fools in the debates they would conduct in that very lounge. Darth Vannacen argued them into befuddled circles with a smile on her face and a snifter of brandy in hand as she bent their logic back on them. Most nights I entertained myself watching her, keeping an eye on the Padawan of one of the Masters who had been assigned to keeping an eye on me, but sometimes I must confess I took a kind of perverse pleasure by leading him on a merry chase as I wondered the ship aimlessly.
This was how I found out the other Jedi, probably the former Padawan of one of the Masters but he at least had graduated to his knighthood. The Padawan had needed to call for help which was how I outed him and with a sweet smile once his cover was blown, I had returned to the lounge to finish the evenings entertainment. It goes without saying I'm sure the Knight and the Padawan had an...interesting...conversation later.
I had been sure my mistress would make seducing one of the Masters the icing on the cake of her journey, but evidently she found both not to her taste. We disembarked and took the shuttle down to the center of Olaris, the settlement that the Republic had carved out of the ruins of Taris, which was also where they began to show their hand.
The customs officials made a great show of having issue with our passports by putting every road block they could in front of us. Finally, they could give us no further issue without sparking a diplomatic incident and we were allowed to leave the space port and reconnoiter Olaris. It was here that I got my introduction to Leontyne Saresh, the Twi'lek Governor of Taris. She was a green skinned version of the species, with darker, yellowish green striping on her lekku, or head-tails. In her middle forties at the time, she had gone to seed a bit, but there was still enough of that legendary Twi'lek beauty to show she had been something in her youth. Perhaps that had been part of the reason for her success and now that it was fading she resented me for my youth.
To say we didn't get along was something of an understatement, and the beginning of a long standing grudge that would come to haunt me later on in life.
3638 BBY (The Present)
Office of the Supreme Chancellor, Senate Hall, Coruscant, Galactic Core
In retrospect, I should have seen Ziost coming.
A past me, a me that seems ages ago now, knew that after the battle with Revan on Yavin, Vitiate fled to the world called the Gateway to the Empire; Ziost. Ziost which was an old world, strong with the Bogan, that had served as Capital of the Sith Empire ages ago, had scholars arguing whether the Sith Species had originated on Ziost or Korriban, and had long been a center of Sith power and knowledge.
You know, your perfect place to conduct dark rituals.
In my defense my experiences had been so different from the game I had enjoyed that I simply didn't think of it. I had convinced myself that Vitiate had fled to Korriban and that I could catch him there. Between my victory over the Will of the Sith, the whirlwind awarding of accolades and titles that followed that victory and my own marriage and honeymoon, it just didn't occur to me to look for Vitiate on Ziost.
And half a billion people were dead because of it.
Ziost was a fairly major trading hub, despite it's somewhat isolated position. Its proximity to Korriban, Dromund Kaas and the Trail-ward heart of the Sith Empire meant there were tens of thousands of ships in orbit, coming and going. Ships who had born witness to the wave of death that washed over the planet, saw the work of Vitiate the Mad consume every organic thing, plants, bacteria, animal, people. As the wave washed over them then turned to dust and ash, consumed by his lust for immortality.
To say the news spread like wild fire was a colossal understatement.
An embargo had been hastily placed on the system, trying to catch Vitiate before he could escape, but dozens of ships had jumped into hyperspace after all life on the planet had been obliterated. Vitiate had been on one of them, and now panic, real honest to God terror, gripped the Galaxy. Who would be next? What would be the next planet wiped from existence?
Which was how I came to be standing in the office of the Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Republic, coolly returning the glare of the aforementioned Supreme Chancellor, Leontyne Saresh. The former governor of Taris, and the bane of my existence, was glaring at me because she had demanded that Emperor Malgus put his best operatives on the hunt for Vitiate. This decision His Imperial Majesty had delegated to his Minister of Defense, Prince Marr, who picked, wait for it, me.
Because the Supreme Chancellor (I swear I hear peasants ranting about wielding Supreme Executive power) had also demanded to meet the chosen expert I found myself in her office, along with a hologram of Prince Marr and the ever diplomatic Jedi Grand Master Shan. Now Leontyne, as I have noted previously, is a Twi'lek, not that there's anything wrong with that, but it did show they could be more than crack pilots and dancing girls. Her green tinted yellow skin was flushed to a darker shade from her anger and her twin tails or lekku as they were known in their own language at the back of her head were whipping like snakes from her movements. “Is this a joke?” demanded the Chancellor of Prince Marr with a furious gesture at me. “Are you trying to provoke me deliberately?”
“Countess Fens, as Grand Master Shan will attest, exemplifies the Sith Ideal and her list of accomplishments under impossible circumstances speaks for itself,” Marr replied in a remarkably even tone.
“Her accomplishments?” Saresh demanded. “Her failure to capture Vitiate on Yavin IV? Her failure to catch him on Korriban? Or her failure to put her personal life on hold to deal with a threat to our entire galaxy, which accomplishment are you referring to, Prince Marr?” The holographic Sith Lord crossed his strong arms over his barrel chest.
“Don't take that tone with me, Chancellor,” he warned her softly. “The Republic requested aid from the Empire and we gave it. The Republic requested our best and we have sent her...”
“This reckless, wanton little...”
The hologram pointed his gauntlet clad finger. “Don't...interrupt me,” Marr ordered. “Your personal issues with Countess Fens not withstanding, the Republic requested our best operative, and I have sent her, end of story. Either accept her aid, or provide your own agent, I do not care which. This matter is closed.” With a burst of static, the hologram of my immediate superior vanished. I watched Saresh seethe for a moment, then turned to Grand Master Shan and shrugged.
“Chancellor,” the Jedi began in a neutral tone. “I suggest we move on. I have worked with Darth Fens before and...”
“Don't you sing this...monster's...praises too, Master Shan!” Saresh snapped. Her mouth worked as if she tasted something foul as I continued to stare at her, mute and aloof. “Fine, if this is how Darth Marr chooses to deal with a threat of this magnitude, it falls on me to set it right.” Turning to me, she held up a finger and declared, “But I am sending my own agent on your little expedition to see that our resources aren't squandered!” She pressed a button on her desk and ordered, “Come in!”
A side door opened revealing a man in his thirties, but exactly where was hard to say. He was grown and in his prime, but still youthful. He was good looking, with a rugged chin, a nice tan and full head of thick, dark brown hair that was just short enough to stand up without being a buzz cut. He had rather intense olive green eyes and three small metal tell tales of a cybernetic implant protruding from the skin around the orbit of his left eye. He wore a blaster on a fast draw belt holster over khaki trousers and boots. A black double breasted shirt under a red and white leather jacket with the collar standing up completed the ensemble. He was a good looking sort, not that I noticed as I am a happily married woman.
His eyes narrowed a bit as he took in the room, but he walked forward confidently.
The Jedi stood, her eyes on the Chancellor. “Please, excuse me,” she said as she turned to me. “I have pressing business. I hope you will come by the Jedi temple before you depart, Countess.” She looked up at the man, then walked out by the other door.
Saresh smirked and made a gesture of introduction. “Darth Nyeomi Fens, Theron Shan, Republic Strategic Intelligence Service.”
I stood and offered my hand which he took, obviously surprised. “I look forward to working with you,” I told him, pleased he gave a firm, cordial handshake. Turning to my nemesis I asked, “Unless there is something else, Chancellor?”
I took her silence as dismissal, and turned to leave. The spy walked beside me as we exited her office and made our way through the lavish surroundings to the bank of elevators. Tari stood from the seat she had been awaiting me in and fell in step with us. “You seem more down to earth than I was led to believe in our reports on you,” Theron told me in an off hand way as he pressed the call button for me.
“You'll find me an immanently practical woman, Mr Shan,” I replied as I looked him in the eye. He was a bit under two meters and I had become quite comfortable in wedge heels despite already being tall for a woman so we were about the same height. “My sole priority right now is the destruction of Darth Vitiate and ending his threat to the galaxy. I am willing to work with anyone to accomplish that.”
He considered that for a long moment, then nodded. “I'm glad to hear that. I have some leads that we can follow up on, but perhaps I should brief you and your team all at once. Who else is assisting you?” he asked with a glance at my apprentice. “Your normal group of followers?”
It is an interesting feeling to be spied on. The car arrived and I entered it, pushing the button for the landing platform of the building. Theron joined me after allowing Tari to enter the car first. “I wasn't aware I had followers,” I told him loftily with a cool stare. “But if you've decided I have, you must already know who I arrived here with.”
He made a placating gesture. “Just putting all the cards on the table,” he pleaded. “From what I've read of your file, my lady, the galaxy is a much safer place with you around rather than not, but that won't stop SIS from keeping an eye on your comings and goings. Especially as you and the Chancellor have a somewhat...colorful...history.”
Tari looked up at me, the curiosity written on her face, but I just winked at her and continued to concentrate on the spy. “It's wonderful the Republic has so many assets they have manpower to spare to keep an eye on me,” I told him. “With so many resources, I'm curious why my help is even needed.”
“It wasn't my call,” Theron told me earnestly.
I opened my mouth to make a retort about guards following orders and realized he likely would not get the metaphor. “That's very convenient,” I decided instead. “For you.”
Theron shrugged and crossed his arms over his chest as he leaned against the side of the car. “Ok, I probably deserved that. The question now is are we going to be able to work together to find and stop Vitiate?”
“I may take issue with your methods, Mr Shan,” I told him evenly. “But Vitiate is a danger that leaves me no option to be picky in my allies. I must stop him and I am willing to work with anyone to accomplish that.” He nodded.
The car came to a stop and the door opened. I stepped out, but noticed he hadn't moved. “Are you coming?”
“I have some files I need to get from my computer before we leave. I'll meet you at the Aces and Eights' hanger in...two hours?”
He pressed a button on the panel and the doors closed. “See you then,” he replied in parting. I considered the doors for a moment, then pressed my thumb to the valet droids pad to fetch our speeder from the hanger and it flew off.
“I heard the Supreme Chancellor even out in the lobby,” Tari told me as we waited for the speeder. “What happened to make her hate you so much?”
“That is a long story, my young apprentice,” I told her with a smile. “And one I'm willing to tell you, never fear. But first, I have to make a call, and then we have to go by the Jedi Temple at the request of Grand Master Shan.” The speeder arrived with the droid, a compact, sporty two-seater model that we had rented at the space port. “You drive,” I ordered her. We got settled and she eased into the massive traffic pattern that is the air traffic of Coruscant and the nose pointed in the general direction of the massive construction site that was the Jedi Temple.
In his youth during the war, our future Emperor, Darth Malgus had spear headed the assault on the Jedi Temple in the closing days of the Republic Sith War, even crossing sabers with the noted Jedi Master Ven Zallow who our Emperor bested, leaving the temple burning as the so-called Sack of Coruscant began. Now the building was surrounded by construction scaffolding, cranes and repulsor construction droids, in a massive testament to the stagnation of the Jedi Order by being restored exactly as it had been.
I got out my communicator and shortly over it appeared the ghostly blue white image of Darth Marr. “Your highness,” I greeted. “As you suspected, Supreme Chancellor Saresh has inserted an operative into my team, although, unexpectedly he admits to being a spy.”
A gloved hand rubbed the mask Lord Marr always wore. “Interesting. Who is this spy?”
“Theron Shan was the name he gave me,” I replied.
“I am familiar with this individual, and he can be quite resourceful. His presence could be an asset, but you may count on your every move being reported on.”
“He admitted as much,” I told him. “I don't believe he likes the position he has been put in, but generally seems to want to be of assistance.”
“His desires will likely have little to do with how this mission will play out. And two can play the espionage game. Go to our embassy, and I'll have an operative waiting for you there. You two should get along famously as I understand she is something of a fan of your holonet series. Beniko is her name, Lana Beniko.”
Tari was already adjusting our course to the Embassy of the Revanite Sith Empire. “Yes, your highness.”
3643 BBY (Before the Battle of Yavin)
Taris, Ojoster Sector, The Outer Rim Territories
Olaris was an interesting kind of contradiction.
It wasn't a 'city' by any stretch of the imagination. It was a square mile or so of reasonably level concrete that had plenty of patches of grass and jungle that had yet to be cleared out. The spaceport seemed to have been a salvaged building from one of Taris' original space ports that was in reasonably good shape. That would explain the open ground a bit better at least. Several hangers and out buildings were likewise being re-tasked for the 'colonization effort', but there were plenty of prefab plassteel buildings and even a collection of rigid canvas tents.
Most of the old buildings had blown out windows, but there were work crews moving about with a doubtlessly endless repair list. Surrounding all of it was a concrete wall that was fallen in in places, leaving holes that were patched with portable force field fences to close those gaps. Over the wall one could see large, flying animals, likely predators from their look, above the canopy and there were calls and screams from the half jungle, half urban wasteland that could be heard from here.
“Why are we here again?” I asked her as we left the relative comfort of the climate controlled space port into the muggy swelter of the camp. None of it bothered Vannacen, who only coyly winked at me and took my elbow and began to guide me further down the concourse. She was wearing a white linen blouse that looked quite airy and comfortable over khaki jodhpurs and boots where as I was in my 'working leathers' white and gray with plasteel plates with a kind of bustled loin cloth over them that draped in front and back of my legs giving me the drama of a cape without the heat.
Yes, it left my midriff exposed and with a stomach as taunt and flat as mine, why wouldn't I show it off?
“What do you see, Apprentice?” she asked, answering my question with a question. It was a habit she was fond of and I was learning to expand my awareness of what I already knew because of having to answer them.
“I see a lot of wasted effort and money,” I replied, after a long glance of taking in the vista before me. It was like an ant hill, furiously trying to hold back a tsunami. “There is no strategic need for re-colonizing this world, the trade routes have stabilized bypassing it two hundred years ago. The credits being wasted reclaiming this ruin from the jungle could make two or three virgin worlds fit for human habitation. It makes no sense.”
“Unless there is something here already that is worth all of this blood and treasure. Now, narrow your focus to the north and tell me what you see.”
I turned my eyes north and was not terribly surprised to find a well manned Republic Army post, complete with what looked like three full legions of men, equipment and material. There was even an air wing of utility air speeders. That made sense from the rational part of my brain to protect all these colonists, then I took a closer look and realized just how top heavy the 'administration' side of things was to the 'colony' side of things. There was enough official government types spread out in buildings and complexes for a settlement five or six times this size. And even with the Rakghoul threat, this meager little outpost couldn't have a population of legitimate colonists of more than a thousand or so, certainly not sufficient for the military and government presence here.
The main gate, for anyone fool hardy enough to leave the protection of the wall, was beyond the Army post, it's intention rather clear. I looked back up at her and she nodded. “I will go struggle with the red tape and get our clearances to go into the ruins. You go and see about procuring us a sky hopper and on the way, do what you do best, my faithful apprentice,” she said with a smile.
“Stick my nose where it doesn't belong?” I asked her with a smile.
“Ah, the recklessness of youth,” she affirmed with a grin. “Call me when you have what we need.”
3638 BBY (The Present)
Embassy of the New Revanite Sith Empire, Senate Sector,Coruscant, Galactic Core
The Embassy of our Empire took up one hundred floors of a well-to-do tower on the opposite side of the Senate building from the Jedi Temple. Go figure. The Senate building itself sat on a roughly circular plateau, somewhat above the top 'surface' of the ecumenopoleis, as if further enforcing the impression that here was where the mighty rulers dwelled. My apprentice and I landed on the private platform for the Embassy and were quickly ushered to an office with a view of the Temple, over the top of the round, mushroom shaped Senate Hall.
Waiting for us was a woman a bit younger than myself, in her early twenties, no more than twenty two I think, with blonde hair she wore just to her shoulders. She was pretty, with very pale skin and soft, regular features and her eyes glowed gold with the Bogan around her. She wore a tunic and pants in deep green and black with a scarf around her neck and shoulders held by a mother of pearl broach. She might have been a fashionable business woman, if not for the light saber that hung on her left hip.
She stood and came around the desk to bow before me, a grin on her cheeks. “Countess Fens, it is my honor to make your acquaintance. Commander Lana Beniko, Sphere of Expansion and Diplomacy, on loan from Imperial Intelligence.”
I offered a hand which she shook tentatively. “The pleasure is mine, Commander. My apprentice, Lord Tari Mur, Sphere of Defense of the Empire.”
“My lord,” Beniko greeted with a more truncated bow. “Please, sit down, and allow me to welcome you to Coruscant. May I get you anything?”
“No, thank you, Commander,” I replied as Tari and I took the seats she offered before the desk. “I understand from Prince Marr you have some assistance you can offer in my mission to find and kill Darth Vitiate?”
She shuddered, just ever so slightly which I caught immediately and let my expression ask my question for me. She hesitantly licked her lips. “I...I must confess to you at once, Countess, that for most of the Sith Civil War I was stationed here, and...and I was not a Revanite.”
“I try not to hold honest mistakes against those I work with, Commander,” I replied. “Prince Marr and Emperor Malgus obviously trust you as you have integrated yourself in the New Sith Empire and hold a position of obvious importance here. So long as I can trust you, we should find our time together pleasant.”
Lana clasped her hands before her on her desk and stared at them, unable to meet my eye. “I thought I was doing my duty, staying loyal to the Emp...Vitiate and the Empire. I didn't want to believe that anyone could be as evil as the Revanites made Vitiate out to be. I should have realized that if Sith Lords of the stature and dedication of Darth Malgus and Darth Marr would rebel against the Empire they had served their entire lives that there must be truth to it. I was blinded by what I wanted the Empire to be, not what it was.”
“The Order of Revan is an order of Merit,” I told her. “Do your duty, serve loyally, and you will be rewarded for it.”
She brought her eyes up and forced a shy kind of smile. “Thank you, my lady, I will endeavor to prove myself to you and Prince Marr.”
“Now, what can you tell me about Theron Shan and what can he offer in the hunt?” She pressed a button on her desk and a holo-emitter on one corner came to life, showing a bust of the aforementioned agent that rotated slowly.
“Theron Shan is the son of Grand Master Satele Shan of the Jedi Order, though they have no relationship other than blood. Satele gave the infant up to her master to raise and when the boy proved not to be Force Sensitive, he was abandoned again, this time by the Jedi. It is not known who his father is.”
Tari made a face of disgust. “Gave up her son? What kind of...?”
I made a placating gesture to the obviously upset Cathar. “The Jedi fear all emotion, but the emotions of attachment, love, nurturing, and family, most of all. Don't be surprised she gave up the child, be more surprised she didn't abort him.” I turned back to the blonde. “Continue, Commander.”
“After failing to become a Padawan, Theron was placed in the Jedi Service Corps and bounced from posting to posting, finally leaving ten years ago when he was approached by an SIS operative to join them. It was here that Theron found his calling as a spy, he's proven to be a fairly major thorn in the side of Imperial Counter Intelligence. He is considered one of the top assets of SIS.”
I considered that for a moment, then asked, “So you believe he is telling the truth and has leads on the whereabouts of Vitiate?” The blonde shook her head, shoulder length hair whipping back and forth.
“No, my lady, only that I believe he thinks that information is valuable to you,” she amended quickly. “He may, in fact, have such information, but it is more likely he is using your desire for such information to gain your confidence.”
“The luxury of being a warrior is that your enemies are honest in their hatred of you and their desire for your death,” I muttered angrily. “I have no patience for cat and mouse games of hucksters and con-men. Commander, does your instruction from Prince Marr limit your involvement to this briefing?”
“No, my lady, I am at your disposal and instructed to provide whatever aid you require.”
I stood. “Pack a bag, then, Commander,” I ordered her. “I'll need someone I can trust to play cat to Theron's mouse, and I pick you.”
“I'm honored,” she assured me as she stood from her desk. “I'll just need a few minutes to run to my apartment and collect a few things.”
“Meet us at the hanger for the Aces and Eights,” I replied with a gesture to Tari to give her the numbers. “I have another house call to make before we depart.”
“I'll be there within the hour.”
Hanger complexes on Coruscant are, like any other building on the planet, high rise affairs by necessity. Ours was a combination of lease-able hangers in a plethora of sizes, shopping mall, hotel and modest resort. I can personally recommend the Salty Pond day spa, as it is run by and staffed with Lyrans. These tentacled, cephalopod aliens vaguely resemble octopuses from Earth, but with at least four or more tentacles with a matching number of eyes on stalks at the top of their bodies. They use an anti-gravity belt harness to move around, and being aquatic in nature, prefer things damp. So once you have changed and entered the spa proper, you enter a hot, like a sauna, environment, but instead of dry heat, there is so much water vapor in the air it's steamy, nearly requiring a respirator. You sweat constantly, which the Lyrans make into a therapeutic experience. If you have even the least amount of congestion in your lungs it will come up and their deeply alien physiology makes being naked in the spa more comfortable. If you are still skeptical, I can assure you that you have not had a massage until your back has had its muscles relaxed by a being with six tentacles.
Five stars, I tell you.
In any event, as promised, both Lana and Theron were already waiting outside the hatch into the hanger proper, glaring daggers at each other. Although, I have to say I don't know if it was 'woman’s intuition' or The Force, or something else, but watching them glare at each other I have an almost overwhelming desire to instruct them to get a room. I refrained, in the interests of everyone's better journey. This required a bit of reshuffling of the sleeping arrangements. Darius volunteered to share his room and its spare bunk with Theron and Tari did the same with Lana.
Once everyone was settled, I got busy in the cockpit bringing the Aces and Eights up from standby. It was nice being able to dock in facilities that had proper ground crew which disconnected the shore power connectors for us and was able to guide the yacht over to the launch chute with hand jacks while the Eights hovered on her repulsor motors. The hanger was only just big enough as space was such a premium on Coruscant that it was required for the ground clearance.
We were gently pushed through the force field into the launch chute, a huge, open tunnel through the center of the building, off from which were the various bays, and open to the sky for comings and goings. We were again guided up, this time by computer, to be clear of the building and finally I was back in control of the ship.
In a space of time not so much longer than a couple of jump cut wipes, we were back in the black and making the jump to hyperspace. From here it would be a week to go out to Ziost, back into the friendly skies of the New Revanite Sith Empire. Wouldn't that be fun?
3643 BBY (Before the Battle of Yavin)
Taris, Ojoster Sector, The Outer Rim Territories
The Incom J-6 Sky Hopper was another dependable entry of the corporation's penchant for making rugged, reliable craft, generally for government contract work. It looked like a squatter, somewhat fatter version of it's millennia from now descendant, the T-16 that Luke Skywalker would own, trading some of that agility for cargo and passenger space. It sat on four landing pegs that were fixed to the bottom of the triangular body, tucked under the wings, now folded straight up against the side of the craft.
It cost just shy of the promise of my first born child to rent it, along with a ruinous rate of insurance, but that's what expense accounts are for.
I was finishing up the pre-flight checks when Darth Vannacen arrived, a series of permits on her tablet she cross verified with the leasing agent. He walked over with her to me, keys in hand with the look of a man on his way to the gallows. I disconnected the fuel hose and closed the port before scrambling out from underneath it with the hose to return to the fuel hand truck. He thrust a data pad at me. “Sign, initial and thumbprint,” he ordered.
My light sabers were inordinately heavy on my belt as I did so. Mistress Vannacen was all bright smiles looking like a fashion model playing at expedition gear in khaki shirt and pants with boots, but the light saber hanging from her belt was all business. I had opted to remain in my working leathers because, they were already what I was comfortable getting into trouble in. Keys in hand, I followed her up the little ramp that was the entry way and secured it behind me before I sank into the pilot's chair by habit.
Not to give the wrong impression, but one of the reasons Darth Vannacen chose me as an apprentice was that I was so extensively trained in military gear and protocols. It made things easier than having to hire locals. “Where are we going?” I asked as I got the bird coming up and the interior electrical systems online. The controls before me came to life as I double-checked them in preparation of starting the engines and got the head set comfortable over my ears.
“Where did it go last?” she asked with a smile.
I reached over to the navigation screen and called up its last inputs. Surprisingly enough for a settlement this rugged, there were several predefined auto-navigation routes and markers that had been defined. Two went to other Republic military encampments, but the third just went deep into the city and stopped there. “Doesn't that look interesting?” Vannacen purred. “Let's start there.”
Tripping both APUs to 'Start' the engines began to spin up to idle as I got the radio tuned. “Dorn Yirt 41 calling Olaris Control, how copy?”
“Yirt 41, Olaris Control reading you five by five.”
“Olaris Control, requesting VFR departure to...” I leaned over the screen again. “...Waypoint Besh 27, over?” The delay was longer than it should have been, but that let me finish the take off check list.
“Yirt 41 cleared to Waypoint Besh 27, depart 213 to actual, cleared VFR, no close traffic.”
“213 for Yirt 41 to actual, roger. Yirt 41 departing.” The J-6 came up off her landing pegs at the slightest brush of the throttle which brought a smile to my face; I like a craft with some spirit in it. I lowered the S-Foils down into flight mode and urged it to heading 213. The wall of the space port slid under us as I swung back over towards the way point buoy some kilometers away in the sea of crumbling skyscrapers and collapsing city. “ETA about twenty minutes,” I informed my Mistress who smiled at me looked out the canopy, taking in the ruined world.
“What a waste,” she observed, mostly to herself, but loud enough for me to hear.
“Mistress?” I asked. Turning back to me, she had a sly, yet curious expression on her face. Once more I got the sense she was making up her mind about me, but not in the way some teachers might. I knew she was fond of me, and I had received little that was not praise for my learning and dedication to my apprenticeship to her. This seemed like one of those times where a master shares a real secret with their apprentice.
“Why do we fight, Nyeomi?” she asked softly.
I blinked in surprise, but not much, as I was used to this philosophical side of her. However she usually saved it for heading home from the mission. “We defend those we love, Mistress, from those who would do them harm.” She smiled a little and propped her elbow on the seat rest so as to cup her chin in her hand.
“That is an excellent reason to defend yourself,” she admitted. “But not why we are fighting. What is the cause of the conflict between the Sith and the Republic?”
There were several answers that leapt to mind, the obvious ones, the fundamental disagreement in how we interpreted The Force from the Jedi, expansion of our Empire, revenge for the murderous defeat we had been handed at the end of the Great Hyperspace War, but something told me that was not what she meant. “I don't know why the Empire is fighting, Mistress,” I admitted after a long moment of thought. “I fight because I enlisted, to make my parents proud of me and to prove myself.” I gave her a naughty smile. “And because you tell me to.”
Darth Vannacen's smile beamed out her cafe au lait face. “She can be taught!” she exclaimed. Turning back out the window she continued, almost to herself. “We have been fighting for so long I don't think either of us truly remember why any more. Year after year, century after century, we are so far past debate or conversation, our wars have become reflexive. To the Jedi we are simply evil, to be stamped out where ever we crop up, exterminated without pity or remorse; completely blind to the fact that what they are doing is the very definition of evil.”
She turned back towards me. “I'll tell you, Nyeomi...”
I'll never know what she was about to say because before she could, the sky hopper lurched hard to the right and alarms began to blear as the controls were bathed in red. “What happened?” she asked, urgent, but calmly.
“I don't know,” I told her as I fought with the controls. “I lost the starboard engine.” The hopper was veering hard to starboard as the very worst light on the controls lit up; Engine Fire. I quickly tripped the fire suppression system and killed the fuel to the affected engine. “Bird strike, maybe, I have to throttle back the other engine,” I told her and fought to try and get back on course. The port engine was pushing so hard it was throwing us into a broad circle if I gave it enough throttle to keep us aloft. The control surfaces were insufficient to overcome the thrust of the engine, even with the rudder and ailerons hard over. We were not going to get back to Olaris on one engine I realized as I throttled back to be able to maneuver it became clear one engine was not enough to keep us in the air. One hand slapped at the radio control as I fought the dying craft.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday, this Yirt 41, transmitting in the blind, I have lost my starboard engine and am going down.” My hand paused for a split second over the button, then stabbed it as the fuel was dumped overboard and the low fuel warning was added to the cacophony of alarms. At least now we would not end in a fireball. The port engine coughed and died and the only just aerodynamic sky hopper became a glider. A terrible glider in point of fact. “Rotate your chair aft and lock it there,” I ordered my Mistress, hoping that by doing so it would spread the crash over her entire body and reduce her chance of injury.
“My position is...” The hopper lurched again as something exploded. The controls winked out as the electrical power failed and I could only watch as the ruined city came up to slap us out of the sky.
3638 BBY (The Present)
Ziost, Esstran sector, Outer Rim Territories
The endless blue white tunnel of hyperspace collapsed into a stream of individual stars, pulling away, as the husk of Ziost rushed up. I have often remarked on the beauty of worlds from space, either the rugged Earth tones of Tattooine, or the lights and gray geometric precision of Coruscant, or even the blue green jewel that was Ruuria, the Aces and Eights' home port.
Ziost had none of that.
Ziost was just a flat, uniform gray, like an asteroid or an airless moon, without even the whimsical, if austere beauty of Luna. No, this world was dead, the cadaver of a planet, every living thing obliterated. It is a strange feeling to see death on this scale. It is one thing to sit in a theater and see a space station the size of a moon fire a green laser and have a planet vanish in an optical FX fireball. I had seen the wave of death march across the planet from a recording taken by a ship in orbit.
Half a billion people, human, alien, sentient beings, snuffed out in twenty seconds.
Just enough time to see their doom coming and scream in terror. I had felt Ziost die on Ruuria, two full sectors away. Sir Alec Guinness underplayed it, I don't ever want to feel death and terror like that again. It was easily the worst twenty seconds of my life.
Despite being a dead planet, the space around it was quite lively. There were a pair of Harrower-class Dreadnoughts providing security, large bulk freighters from the Universal Society of the Red Sigil providing aide and relief services for survivors in the orbital facilities and ships throughout the system, as well as news organizations, researchers trying to determine what happened and all the ships to carry them. And I thought the traffic over Coruscant had been bad. We were given clearances through the swarm of ships down to the center of the on the ground efforts, the former capital of the world, New Adasta.
In many ways, the view up close was worse than the view from space.
There was only superficial damage in New Adasta. There were speeder wrecks being cleared to unclog the streets, but that was minor. Otherwise the city seemed perfect and normal, except there were not nearly enough people on the streets. Ziost had a perfectly fine atmosphere and there was still water, but everything else was a gray dust that blew up around the Aces and Eights, as she settled down into the landing bay. As soon as we were down, techs in full face respirators came out, vacuuming up the dust as, over head, the hanger door was closing. Torm and I shared a look was we finished bringing the ship down, then stood and made our way aft. Arriving at the airlock door by the boarding ramp, the Quarantine light had been lit by the ground crew.
“What's going on?” asked Silas as he joined us in the hall.
“The ground crew tripped the quarantine light,” Torm told him. “So we're waiting. Somehow, I think you might have a little trouble finding a game,” he added, noting Silas' wardrobe. The lanky gambler just grinned.
“Where ever there are people, there's a group somewhere bored and playing a game,” he retorted with a wink. I flipped open the maintenance door on both of my sabers in turn to be certain they were both fully charged. They were. Torm and Silas did the same for their blasters.
“Some delay?” Lana asked as she joined the crowd by the door. We all just pointed at the light next to the hatch. Then the motors of the ramp being lowered rumbled through the metal of the ship. There came two sharp wraps on the hatch and the light went out. I pressed the button and the door rolled up into the ceiling, revealing a tech wearing a full face respirator.
“Sorry for the delay, my lord,” he told me with a bow, his voice muffled and his expressions unreadable behind the goggles of the mask. “Believe me, you don't want to inhale that.” He pointed behind him, down the ramp, deeper into the bay. “Minister Davidge is waiting for you.”
“Let's not keep the minister waiting,” Theron declared, having silently arrived.
The Ground Crewman didn't move, pointedly keeping his attention on me. At my gesture, he turned and trotted down the ramp. I followed at a more leisurely pace to find the Minister with a pair of troopers and a technician with a storage box on a repulsor lift sled. The minister, a tall, blonde haired good looking man, young for his position, in his early thirties I would guess. He was wearing neither his robes of office nor his dress uniform, but field fatigues and a face respirator hung from his neck. He drew himself to attention and bowed. “Darth Fens, you honor us with your presence, Countess. Upton Davidge, Minister of Logistics at your service.”
“Thank you, Minister,” I greeted, returning his bow from the neck. “My husband, Sir Torm Belos-Fens, and I believe you were made aware of the rest of my entourage?”
“My lord,” Davidge greeted, with a half bow and shaking Torm's hand. Turning back to me, he made a gesture at the tech. “Indeed, My Lord, Prince Marr made me aware of your arrival. You will have my full cooperation in your investigation.”
The tech, his arms full of masks from the crate, handed me one which I took with a nod of thanks. “I was led to understand the atmosphere was still breathable...?” I declared, letting the question hang. Davidge nodded.
“The gasses in the atmosphere haven't changed, my lord, but this dust is everywhere.”
“What is it?” asked Silas, as I reached out and touched the slight residue on the Ministers uniform. As soon as I touched it I got a flash of the same terror and death as I had felt on Ruuria, from what seemed like two or three different perspectives.
“People,” I whispered, horrified. “The dust was people.”
Davidge nodded grimly. “Most intuitive, Countess, you are correct. There are no bodies to bury or recover, no caskets to fill. Not even bones, but everything, people, animals, plants, rendered down to this, like a crematorium.”
“Were there other survivors, Minister?” Theron asked.
“There were no, survivors, spy,” Upton told him coldly. “I was in the orbiting dockyards when...it...happened. The same with my men here. There is nothing left alive on this planet.” I noted the epithet he made of the pronoun and filed it away for later inquiry in private.
“Have you been able to determine where the ritual took place?” Lana asked, either unaffected by the horror of this place, or putting on a very brave face, perhaps for my benefit.
Upton turned and one of the troopers handed him a data pad. “Yes, Commander. It radiated out in a circle that was caught by, well, plenty of cameras. It came from the Sith Citadel.”
That made a twisted kind of sense.
The Citadel had been constructed thousands of years ago, long before the Great Hyperspace War, when the Sith moved our capital from Korriban to Ziost. From here, of course, it would move again to Dromund Kaas. It had been built by the Dark Jedi Ajunta Pall after his conquest of the Sith Race and the founding of his Sith Kingdom. A kingdom that would eventually become the Sith Empire, not that Pall would live to see it. Although I dislike the term, if there could truly be a Dark Side of the Force, its center would certainly be Ajunta Pall's Citadel.
I clipped the lowest of the straps for the mask the tech had given me and let it hang around my neck. “Do you have a speeder my party can use?”
“I...” the tech immediately replied, then stopped when my attention turned to him. He swallowed and continued at the Minister's gesture. “I wouldn't recommend it, my lord. The dust is a nightmare in the engines. Any filter over the intakes small enough for it clogs the screen so fast you can't make a round trip.”
“What about these masks?” Silas wanted to know.
“The cartridges have an acidic layer between the filter media. It completely vaporizes the dust, but I have extra cartridges for you just in case,” the tech assured us. “We're trying to improvise something big enough for a speeder, but it's slow going.” He saw the question on my face and winced, shrugging his shoulders. “Tomorrow, perhaps? My lord.”
I took the data pad from the minister. “How far on foot?” I asked.
“Three kilometers,” the trooper replied. “I've indicated on the pad, my lord.”
“Be careful, my lord,” Upton cautioned me. “There are rumors that something may have been protected in that citadel. Something dangerous.”
“Droids?” asked Torm, but Upton shook his head.
“Not droids,” the Minister affirmed. “Not alive either, I think. Some thing. I strongly advise caution, my lord.”
I patted the light saber dangling by my hip with one hand as I got the mask pulled over my face. “I'm a very cautious woman, Minister.”
I'll spare you the description of the special hell that is a multi-kilometer hike wearing a gas mask. If you need a little help for your imagination, picture yourself on a treadmill, at its maximum setting, wearing a surgical mask, with your nose taped shut. That about covers it.
The dust was both better and worse away from the city. This was a somewhat rural side of the city, so the ash didn't trigger a little shot of someone's dying seconds except every once in a while,which was better. The worse was it was winter for this hemisphere of the planet, there was a good bit of snow on the ground, mixing with the ash making for a horrendous, crunchy slush that turned black as the dissimilar materials mixed.
Finally we crested a rise and the Citadel came into sight. It was an ugly, monstrous, monolithic Ziggurat of bluish stone made lighter by the snow and ice that clung to it in places. It had odd, asymmetrical extensions that bulged out of it like cancerous tumors. There was nothing wholesome or welcoming about it, nor did it have any of the appeal of either the Temple of the Whills on Barkhesh or the Temple of the Force Tari and I had discovered on Ione.
This was a cathedral of Evil, the Bogan perverted and twisted to hate, malice and rage.
I was infuriated in a way that was very difficult to describe. “I have a bad feeling about this,” Torm muttered beside me as he spat into the snow, obviously unhappy having laid eyes on this abomination.
My eye was drawn to movement and I fished out myMacrobinoculars and turning them towards the Citadel. I worked the zoom unit I was practically at the front entrance before I saw it. “Karabast,” I swore, bringing my husband's eyes to me. I handed him the device as I pointed
“Garven's knees! What is it?”
“A monolith,” I told him grimly. “A kind of Sith Spawn.”
Darth Sidious once told Anakin Skywalker that the Dark Side of the Force was a path to many abilities some considered to be unnatural. He wasn't lying. When you bend the Force to your will for dark ends, the way this building had been used, strange, unnatural things happen. The Living Force is life itself, made up of every living thing in the galaxy. But pervert the living enough and monsters appear. Sith Spawn, as they are collectively known, are creatures made manifest of the Force. The Jedi say they are the tears of the Force, lamenting over being so abused.
There was plenty of room for debate, but suffice to say that Sith Spawn are horrific creatures, manifested, that is to say created from nothing, from the Force itself. They have no life cycle, although they have a physical body, with muscles and bones and flesh, they simply appear out of thin air. They do not eat, but have teeth and claws they delight in using. They are not intelligent, but they are uncannily cunning. No matter their size they are fearsome opponents and preternaturally strong.
And, of course, Monoliths are the worst.
It looked rather like a rancor and was about the same size easily five meters tall. It was standing on stubby legs under a massive torso and arms that went from its shoulders all the way to the ground ending in three fingered hands with quarter meter claws. It had black, leathery skin and was pockmarked with lumps and lesions all over it and a maw overfull of massive teeth. “It's standing right by the entrance,” Theron declared, after a glance through his own macro-binoculars. “Can we kill this thing?”
“It won't be easy,” Lana replied. “It's hide is resistant to blaster fire and even light sabers take a few seconds to pierce it. Shall I call for some heavy weapons, my lord?”
“It will take them a while to get here,” I muttered, grimly. “And if they miss, we could block the entrance or cave it in.” Turning to Lana, I asked, “I note you wear a light saber...?”
She blushed a bit. “I...I trained as a Sith, my lord, but I was never selected as an apprentice, even though I graduated the Academy. So I joined Imperial Intelligence.”
“And now you're a diplomat?” Theron wanted to know. Beniko smiled an evil smile.
“I happen to have excellent patience for dealing with the terminally stupid.”
Theron considered that for a moment and nodded. “That would come in handy for the Diplomatic Corps.”
“Tari and I practice Ataru,” I told her. “What did you study at the Academy?”
“Form V Shien,” she admitted, and it matched perfectly with her deflective, self effacing personality.
Well, there are worse things, I thought to myself. Out loud, I said, “Tari and I will engage it, then. You shepherd the others through the opening and as it looks to be too big to get through it, if we can't kill it, we'll hold it off long enough for you all to get through.”
She nodded. “Yes, my lord.”
“There is not a lick of cover between here and there,” Torm observed softly. “It's going to see us coming.”
I flashed him a smile. “Good, then it cannot make any surprise moves, right?”
“My mother warned me about women like you.”
I patted his cheek in re-assurance. “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it, lover.”
“That I did,” he admitted, stretching his neck until it popped and drew his blaster. “Fine, let's do this.” I took my sabers in hand and we crested the ridge and began to descend into the little valley between us and the Citadel.
3643 BBY (Before the Battle of Yavin)
Taris, Ojoster Sector, The Outer Rim Territories
It was the luckiest of circumstances, or the will of the Force, whichever you like, that the collapsing skeleton of a building clipped and snatched off the port wing. With the weight of the engine still there, it rotated the hopper ninety degrees port to the direction of travel. I had been aiming for the overgrown remnant of a plaza or park, with planters, trees and shrubs in hopes of softening our landing. Now we landed starboard wing first and with a good thirty degree list thanks to the weight of the now unbalanced port side.
The starboard wing disintegrated in a shower of shrapnel and control pistons. Hydraulic fluid sprayed like blood from severed arteries, all of it taking a little bit of the energy of the crash away with it. What was left of the starboard engine hit next, lodging against a ferrocrete planter now overrun with weeds. It caught for a handful of nanoseconds before the motor mount bolts were sheared off. The cabin rolled over the planter once, destroying the tail and rudder as they collapsed into the reinforced cabin, then again, before the weight of the port engine, still bolted on overcame the roll.
We skidded for about a hundred meters before we came to a stop, mostly upright, with nothing worse than bruises from the seat straps. I will never own any craft not made by Incom again! “Are you alright?” I asked of my Mistress, who was unstrapping herself the same as me.
“Well, my apprentice, not your best landing, but certainly the one I am most pleased with!” She told me with a chuckle. “Nasty bruise, I think, but nothing broken. You?”
“Nothing a day at a spa won't fix,” I muttered as I climbed out carefully due to the angle the craft sat at and worked my way aft. The boarding hatch didn't want to open, but a quick turn of the rescue level took care of that. It was blown off the wreck a good ten meters where it landed with a deafening clatter.
“Well!” Vannacen remarked with a smile. “If anyone near by didn't hear the crash, they certainly heard that!”
I gave her a look of long suffering, then pulled open the compartment labeled 'Emergency' just below the rescue lever. “If they didn't hear the crash, they're already dead,” I assured her. The first bag I pulled-out was a medium-sized over the shoulder tote with the mark of the Universal Society of the Red Sigil on it which I handed to her. The other, larger bag I pulled out for myself and led the way out into the sunshine.
The sky hopper's wreck was spread across half a kilometer of debris field, but in the greater corruption and decay that was Taris, it really didn't stand out that much. The plaza was ringed by large buildings, but the under pinning had collapsed due to a broken viaduct of water, either rain runoff or some almost working vestige of the city's' infrastructure I couldn't say. Everything was overgrown with weeds and vines as the jungle that was originally Taris reclaimed the planet. The water went off to the east, carrying soil and ferrocrete with it. Someday this whole area would cave in, bringing down several large, but ruinous buildings.
If it could be called this, the good news was the area was quite open for nearly a kilometer in any direction so we were safe from ambush. A ways from the wreck, I sat down on a park bench that was incongruously still in its place and relatively perfect to go through the survival equipment. “It's a fairly standard medical kit,” my mistress declared from her rummaging. “Trauma patches, bandages, a splint, tourniquet, six kolto injectors, pain relievers and the like. What do you have?”
I had the bag open, laying it out in its two halves. “A small moisture evaporator, looks like a liter an hour type based on this humid jungle. A power converter, seventy two hour ration block for four, so one hundred forty four for just us, a pop up shelter, thermal blankets I'm sure we won't need, signal mirrors...Oh! Here's a commlink that... doesn't work. Wonderful. And a flare gun with...six flares.”
I got out my data pad and oriented myself from the land marks I could see. “Olaris is about twelve kilometers that way.”
“As the Bogstalker flies, perhaps,” she said, indicating a flock of the reptilian avians in that direction. “Probably closer to twenty walking, based on the ruins between here and there. What about our target?” she asked, turning in the direction we had been flying.
A quick consult of the tablet gave me the answer. “Um, about eight,” I guessed, pointing the way I was looking. At least the going was easier in that direction. “You want to keep going?”
She arched an eyebrow at me. For all her love of the comforts of modern society, Jaydis Vannacen was a tough, resilient woman. She shouldered the med-kit so it wouldn't hinder the draw of her light saber. “It would be a shame to come all this way for nothing, wouldn't it?”
“We could always get a new hopper tomorrow...” I offered, but she shook her head.
“I don't want to give them any more time to react to our presence and hide what they are doing,” she declared resolutely. “Besides, you say it was a bird strike that brought us down, but I am not so sure.”
“I gave the hopper a thorough pre-flight, mistress!” I protested. “If we had been sabotaged, I would have...”
“I do not take issue with your skills, apprentice,” she told me with a smile. “Only not underestimating our adversary. So, whatever they are doing is closer, surely two survivors of an 'accidental' speeder crash can get help there.”
At this point, I knew her mind was made up and there was no use arguing with her further. I zipped up the survival kit and shouldered it. “Yes, mistress.”
Despite the ground being 'open' as it was without buildings or vegetation that bared our way, it still took the better part of an hour to cross the plaza. The rushing water had eroded the foundations far more than I had at first thought. The plaza was only still up from force of habit, and the water was roaring over a ledge falling deep into the under layers of the ecunopolis. When this section collapsed, it would do a horrific amount of damage to the region. Which made it very dangerous ground to be on.
Perhaps there was something to my mistress' sabotage theory.
After the most circuitous route imaginable, we were able to get off the plaza and down onto a more stable patch of ground, thanks to the ascension cables and grappling hook I carried on my utility belt. Down here was soil, either built up from wind, or perhaps this had been a park, connected to the plaza some centuries ago. Either way, a touch of the maintenance battery in my utility belt to the end of the cable caused the grappling hook to pop loose and it fell down to us for me to collect. “Are you hungry?” I asked her, once I had the cable properly stowed, but she wasn't looking at me. Her eyes were out into the 'park' we had descended into.
“Do you feel them?” she asked me.
I stopped and let my senses expand. This was, I admit, one of the faults she frequently corrected me on; I could get so focused on what I was doing, I would not be aware of other, larger perturbations in The Force. As I opened myself to The Force, I felt the plants, and the normal animals near us, Bogstalkers, rodents, insects, and then I felt it.
A cold, ravenous hunger, tempered with an irrational, unquenching anger, all around us. The sensation watched, calculating if we were as easy of prey as we looked. I shuddered and took my light sabers into my hands. The Force bends and recoils from things that are not natural or alive. It is one of the reasons Jedi and Sith are considered uncaring; we both avoid graveyards. The Force is made from life itself, and graveyards are tremendous centers of death. We find being around them extremely unpleasant.
Looking up at my mistress I saw her take her own saber in her hand. “Ah, you do, good.”
“Rakghouls?” I asked. She nodded.
“Rakghouls,” she declared. “Do not let them bite or scratch you. We must be cautious. Come.” With that she picked the correct bearing without consulting me, letting slip she was only testing me when she had asked where we were earlier and set off at a moderate pace.
The ground was uneven and made for slow going. When an ecunopolis is bombarded from orbit, what remains combines the worst aspects of a ruined city and a collapsed mine. You never knew if the ground you were standing on was solid or not. Large swaths of the buildings were canted over at sickening angles and the pavement, jutting and broken likewise. It made for a very difficult and strenuous work out as I contemplated the monsters that were tracking us.
Rakghouls, the legends say, are a kind of Sith spawn. The tales tell of a Sith Lord who was either trying to cheat death or create a perfect army; either were favored pass times of the Sith, truth be told. Some version say it was a 'magical' amulet, endowed with Sith Sorcery that had the power to turn anyone the wielder could see into a slathering monster, loyal to him. But while the amulet could not harm Force Sensitives, thus this Sith Lord's downfall, the bite or scratch of a Rakghoul could.
Of course, the bite or scratch of a Rakghoul would turn anyone into a Rakghoul, so that might have just been a storytelling device. Who knows?
Which just leaves the question I'm sure you have, what is a Rakghoul? Well, the short answer is they were once human, or near human aliens. When they are infected with the plague, they mutate over six to about forty eight hours into a mindless, slavering monster; assuming they survived their original encounter, of course. The unfortunate will bleed from the eyes and nose, then any ounce of fat is burned up as the body mutates into cadaverous, yet strong, muscled form with hands ending in thick, sharp claws and a mouthful of razor sharp teeth. They are called ghouls because they will eat anything they kill, including their friends and other sophonts, usually as messily as possible.
I will say that this 'invention' was considered so far beyond the pale that whether by magic or biochemistry, the stories agree that the Sith all turned on this 'inventive' Sith Lord and killed him for creating such abominations. That said, the question I had was, “Mistress, how can there still be Rakghouls? This planet suffered complete orbital bombardment three centuries ago! How could they have survived?”
Once I had finished helping her up the piece of rubble we had been ascending, she took a moment to stretch out her back and catch her breath. “The only answer that makes sense is the old fashioned way, apprentice,” she told me with a wink. “Though I admit my mind shies away from the thought of Rakghoul mating rituals.”
We were standing on top of a collapse of rubble and debris that sloped gently down into a lake that was quite large. A building had fallen on the far side, making a dam that was backing up the flow from another broken pipe. There was grass and weeds down to the shore and several different kinds of birds I had no name for fishing or swimming in the lake. It was, all in all, quite peaceful.
Except that, on the near side of the lake, no more than five hundred meters from us, were a handful of humanoids, waste deep or so in the water, also fishing. One of them, perhaps a juvenile? It was hard to be sure, but was smaller than the rest locked eyes with me, then barked a warning. The others looked up and all of them stared at us as we stared at them. The largest pushed his way to the front, hooting at four others who joined him forming a line between us and the remaining, smaller three. He roared at us and threw his arms up in challenge.
With a pop, my mistress' saber snapped on, glowing as scarlet as her passions, followed closely by my twin golden blades. This enraged the alpha male and his gestures and cries became wild and angry. The other four males at his back followed his lead, roaring at us. “Stay with me,” Jaydis instructed softly. “If they come at us, we take them together. Do not let them bite or scratch you!”
I licked my dry lips. “Yes, mistress.”
Having laid eyes on them in the light of day, they are more hideous than anything I could describe. Misshapen mouths that were overloaded with teeth, more like a skull than a living creature for they had no lips nor could they even close their mouths it appeared to me. It gave their heads an insectoid look that was disturbing. Darth Vannacen began to move to our left, sliding away from the lake and the threat we faced. The younger males took to darting forward a few meters on all fours, then standing up to challenge again before fading back to the line of the Alpha.
“Do not run,” Vannacen warned me. “If we run, they will chase us.”
“No fear,” I assured her.
The Alpha cocked his misshapen head to the side, as if he had heard us, then gave a horrific roar. Then all five of them fell to all fours and charged.
3638 BBY (The Present)
Ziost, Esstran sector, Outer Rim Territories
We had barely crested the ridge before the Spawn took notice of us and roared a challenge.
It was as if a thousand brass horns that had been beaten and abused for a decade were all blown at once. There was nothing musical, or pleasing about its roar, only danger and spine grating evil. As we got closer, I could make out that what I had taken for lesions and boils were actually solid lumps of rock, as though the very stones of Ziost had been corrupted and turned into this monster. The boys, Torm, Darius and Theron fired their blasters and scored hits, but they either ricocheted off the abominations' thick hide, or left blackened spots that enraged it further.
This actually worked to our advantage in a strange way.
Enraged, the creature loped at us, running on both its massive hands and its stubby legs, like an ape. Tari and I drew our sabers and ignited them, joined by an obviously nervous Lana Beniko. Noting her trepidation, I asked, “Is this the first time you've used that outside of practice?”
“No,” she said, quickly adding, “My lord. I...I'm just not very good with it.”
Honesty is always a win, I suppose. “Wait until Tari and I have it engaged and then take the others to the entrance,” I repeated my previous order having noted that firm, consistent and simple instructions tend to bolster faltering troops. Lana's grip on her saber became a bit more firm, even as she curiously noted that while her own saber was red, a deep, angry crimson, smoldering with her resentments at being passed over, mine and my apprentices' blades were much lighter in color; gold and golden green respectively.
Once I was sure it was close enough, I reared back with my sabers and heaved them both, with all of my strength and the might I had in The Force behind them. They tumbled through the air, end over end, striking the beast on either side of its head, leaving glowing scores the entire length of the blades on its torso. The monolith bellowed in pain and rage as I guided my sabers through The Force back to my hands from two separate directions.
“Show off!” I heard my husband declare behind me as I looked over my shoulder long enough to blow him a kiss, then Tari and I began to move off to our right, flanking the beast and drawing its attention. It contemplated the others for a moment, but the boys had wisely stopped shooting and so Tari and I were the only things causing it pain. It turned and charged at us.
I had only a moment to note Lana leading the others in a desperate charge towards the Citadel, then the Monolith took my full attention. It roared again as its arms swept between Tari and myself, separating us. We ducked under the somewhat clumsy swipe, batting parting blows with our sabers as we did so, only scoring glowing grazes for our trouble. Then it suddenly turned on Tari and lashed out with both arms, it lost a sizable chunk of rock as she tried to deflect the blow, however, it still managed to connect and knocked her back nearly a dozen meters.
Before I could do much more than bring my own sabers up, it wheeled and I was staring down its horrific maw myself. It reared back to deal me a blow that would likely be lethal, but Tari had scrambled to her feet and leapt the distance, hanging on her sabers, trying with her own weight to drag them through the limb and cut it off.
Her blades did penetrate some, causing the creature to roar again in pain and fling her away. This left it open for me to get inside its guard and bat with all my might at its belly, hoping it would be the softest part of it where we could do some serious damage. I left several glowing scars before I was forced to back-flip away, joining my apprentice as we warily stared down our adversary. We had hurt it, and it was snarling in pain, but it was far from dead and still very dangerous.
“You don't suppose it will give up, do you?” she managed around her panting breath from the exertion.
“Do you think we're that lucky?” I demanded. Then, I shouted, “Look out!”
The creature had decided two could play the distant attack game by picking up a massive boulder and hurling it at us. Now, don't ask me how, but I suddenly realized Tari would not be able to dodge in time and threw out my arm. The Force shoved her clear, but the boulder grazed my left forearm as it passed, effortlessly snapping both my radius andulna, flinging my saber away. The pain was like a hot knife that shot up through my body, making me scream in agony.
The blow twirled me about and I landed on my face, quickly rolling to protect my broken arm. I was nauseous with the pain and the grating agony of the two ends of the bones touching and rubbing against each other. The monster, thinking I was finished, rushed in to follow up, but I was enraged and the Bogan was flowing through me. I kipped up to my feet and with my good right arm, I ducked into the monsters blow, light saber first. The creature thus used both my strength and its strength. The light saber was forced through its arm at the wrist and with a tremendous thud its hand fell next to me into the snow and ash.
The monster roared, flaying its severed arm with its glowing end and staggered back, away from me. I took this chance to retreat back myself, putting ground between myself and it, in the direction of the Citadel. Quickly taking stock, I realized with a broken arm I was no match for the Monolith, and Tari was too inexperienced. Through force of will, I kept myself from throwing up in pain and snuffed out the saber and returned it to my belt. I called the other back to my good hand and ignited it while I shouted, “Withdraw!” to my apprentice.
We backed away from the screaming Sith Spawn, but we had injured it enough that it was wary of us. It seemed to take a lifetime, but we finally arrived at the mouth of the Citadel and the welcome hands of our friends pulled us to safety. The opening was too small for the Spawn and it could only rage and bellow its frustration. “It's broken,” I hissed between clinched teeth as Torm and Darius guided my apprentice and I deeper into the building, out of reach of the entrance.
Torm relieved me of my saber and deactivated it before he eased me to the ground. He set it down beside me, his hands finding the first aid kit I kept on my utility belt. “I don't suppose this will cure you of your need to live life on the edge, will it?” he asked as he got it open and rooted through it.
“If you had wanted a demure little mouse to stay in your kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, you wouldn't have married me,” I told him. Even I had to admit that sounded more sexy than petulant in my perfect, rounded Eton accent.
“I don't especially care if you wear shoes or not,” he shot back, finding the kolto injector and pressed it against my bare shoulder. There came a sharp sting, then a cool numbness as the kolto began to numb my most active nerves, those carrying the pain from my left forearm to my brain. I looked down to see him in the process of opening the armored Vambrace. It was plastisteel, running from my elbow to my wrist, on the back of which I had mounted a comlink. There was a massive dent in it, where it had served as a fulcrum or a wedge and snapped both bones. Had it been naked flesh, it likely would have smashed a sizable chunk of the bones instead of the clean break.
It didn't seem like it at the time, but I was in fact quite lucky. “If I didn't have this mask on, I would kiss you.”
He winked at me as he finally got the Vambrace off. My arm was already swelling and turning an ugly, dark blue, made worse by my naturally dusky, olive complexion. “This will hurt,” he warned, taking a hold of my arm above and below the break.
I turned my head away and tightly closed my eyes. “Do iittt...!” My command turned into a scream as his hands became tight and pulled in opposite directions. I felt, with sickening clarity the four broken ends of the bones brought back together with a bit of having to feel around by him to be sure. My right hand flailed at his back without my command as I screamed, hitting him repeatedly. His only answer was to grunt and lean his shoulder into me, pinning me to the wall so I couldn't move.
Finally both bones were set and the pain dropped substantially. Tears were flowing down my cheeks, but I wasn't sobbing. In fact, I was actually running my hand, flat on his back where I had struck him in subconscious reflex, trying to soothe the hurt I had given him. Tari gently took the arm from him, her head bowed as she focused The Force into my arm. Between the Kolto, the arm being set, and my Apprentice, the pain was considerably lessened. Still, Torm got a quick cast from the medkit and wrapped it around my forearm. The swelling was lessened, thanks to the Force and Tari repairing the arteries and veins damaged by the break, but the tight cast was still quite uncomfortable. With a flash of the element becoming solid from the flexible bandage it had been; agony became a dull ache that was tolerable.
“I'm sorry,” I murmured to him as he held up the Vambrace.
His eyes twinkled and he gently stroked my hair. “For what?” he asked and I wished we were alone so I could show him once more what he meant to me. By all that was holy, I could hardly wait to have his children. “The bracer took most of it, and its repairable, but I think you'll need a new comlink.”
I shrugged. “I'm sure the Empire will issue me a new one,” I told him. Tari took it and tucked it into her satchel while Torm gathered up the medkit and returned it to my belt.
“With your Sith powers, I'm sure you'll have it healed before we get back, but have a droid look at it anyway, just for my sake.”
“Yes, dear,” I told him with a smile behind the gas mask. I put the saber on my belt and my husband helped me to my feet. I have to admit it is still a little awkward for me to say that, but it is becoming quite soothing. I had use of my left hand, but even I knew I shouldn't stress it at all. Torm had kept out the sling from my medkit and got my arm comfortable in it.
Now I could finally concentrate on our surroundings. The walls were lit every few meters by glowing sconces that had been set into the wall. They were a later addition as the walls were stone blocks, God only knew how heavy and covered with what seemed to be the history of the Sith in images and pictograms. I looked, seeing first an image of who I took to be Ajunta Pall, a towering figure with his sword held high over his head. Beneath him, the Sith people he had conquered who bowed low and humbled themselves to the Dark Jedi. Then images of the Hundred Year Darkness, the War of the Second Great Schism as former Jedi, their eyes opened to the Bogan and the true way humans learned fought against their brothers in the Jedi Order and The Force was Split.
Defeated, but not beaten, the learned of the Bogan returned to Korriban and took on the name of the people who had shown them the true path of The Force; thus were born the Sith Lords. I saw the history of my order carved into the stone, saw how passion would ease and quicken learning in the Force, saw the Sith rise in power and prominence only to be challenged over and over by the Jedi and their fanatical desire to stamp out our heresy.
It was a story written over and over, the Jedi waging war, the Jedi calling the Republic to Jihad, the Jedi who could not bear for us to exist; to allow any other view of The Force than their own.
I felt proud and vindicated of my beliefs, to see the history of my Order as I had always surmised it; a history of persecution and pogroms. I was not given long to bask in my feelings of righteousness, for this was not the only history recorded here. As I had said before, Ajunta Pall was not a particularly nice man, and he abused the Bogan in the same manner he abused people. There was also a record of horrible atrocities, the thirst for vengeance against the Jedi for their crusade against us written out in a ledger kept in human blood. Spiteful wages of tit for tat misery paid out in human life. Such was the lesson of history; knowledge is not evil, the sword has no malice, but there are always corrupt men who will misuse them. When I thought I could stomach no more, the hallway opened up into a larger space, double or triple that which had been under the Temple of Naga Sadow on Yavin IV, and I received a fresh lesson in evil.
For this great hall was filled in exactly the same way as the Temple of Naga Sadow.
Precisely aligned around a center altar were the desiccated corpses, all dressed in robes inscribed with symbols that were alien to me, all facing the altar of their doom. Their hands were frozen upwards by the hardened leather their skin had become. There must have been several hundred of them and the power of the Bogan so completely perverted hung rank in the air. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I beheld the evil that passion can sometimes lead to.
“I...I think I'm going to be sick,” Theron whispered.
He was standing next to Lana by the entrance, loathe to enter the room. Torm, Tari and I were somewhat immune to this particular evil for having seen it before. “Just like Yavin,” Tari whispered, as we carefully threaded our way through the corpses, afraid lest we disturb one and they all return to hideous life. “Just like...”
“No,” I corrected her. “Not exactly, look.”
On Yavin, the alter had been bathed in blood, the bodies of an infant, fresh from its mothers womb and an old man, bent and gaunt with extreme age had been sacrificed, their throats cut to let their blood intermingle. But here, here the alter had two piles of ash, still in the shapes of the last seconds of their lives.
“You've seen this before?” The spy demanded.
“These are the remains of a similar ritual we discovered on Yavin IV,” I told him. “Thankfully, a much smaller scale one, or I would not be here to inform you.”
“My lord?” Lana called. “Do you recognize these markings?” She was standing by one of the corpses that I had taken to be some either duped or fanatical Sith Lord. The diplomat was being very careful not to touch the mummified remains, but drawing my attention to the robes, I had at first taken for simple markings of Sith Sorcery. I came over and took a closer look.
On the robe of several of the bodies in this outermost circle was a patch, sewn onto the fabric of the robe. It was white and in gold thread was a stylized arrow head, bifurcated from its tip to its rear third where it flared into barbs just before it would have met the shaft of whatever arrow it was mounted on. A chill ran down my spine as I saw it, but as we were in the presence of a spy, I chose to shake my head. “No,” I lied. “Do they have meaning for you?”
She looked at me, then her eyes darted in the direction of Theron and she shook her head. “No, but then I was never apprenticed as you were.”
“My master was a soldier,” I replied. “Darth Jaydis Vannacen, of the Sphere of Defense of the Empire. She was a practical woman, not given to the esoteric mysteries of The Force.” I turned to note that Theron was watching our discussion with some interest. I gestured for him to join us and purposefully indicated the symbol. “What about you, Agent Shan? Do you recognize this?”
He came over and glanced at it, shaking his head. While his performance was remarkable, you can't bull shit a bull shitter, as they say. “Never seen anything like it,” he lied. So now we all knew we all had seen it before. I just desperately hoped it did not mean what I thought it did.
3643 BBY (Before the Battle of Yavin)
Taris, Ojoster Sector, The Outer Rim Territories
When I was fifteen, much to the pride of my parents, I knelt on the stage of the Sith Academy on Korriban before the beautiful, gracious lady who I both desperately envied and admired who laid her hands on my shoulders and announced, “Hear now and all take note that I take Acolyte Nyeomi Fens as my Apprentice in the Sith Order. Heed my instruction, obey me in all things, and I will make you a powerful Lord of the Sith.”
Never had I felt so elated and accomplished that my parents were proud of me.
For five years, Jaydis Vannacen had been a second mother to me. I ate with her, slept in her house, knelt at her knee and learned the ways of my order. Surprised that I had made a pair of light sabers, where another master would impose their style of combat upon me, Jaydis brought in one of the finest masters of Ataru in the Sith Empire to teach me. While that was unusual enough, she did not leave me with this master, but sat and studied the form he taught me even as I learned it. She was a diligent student herself, becoming proficient enough that she could practice her own Makashi against my Ataru, and we would both learn.
I was more than her body guard, chauffeur or hands; though I was all those things and more. I was the daughter she had not had even as she became my second mother. We discussed every topic, and held nothing as sacrosanct or sacred. I knew enough of her tastes to introduce her to men I encountered that I knew she would fancy and she only lightly teased me about being an 'uptight virgin in desperate need of a good shagging.'
When I had arrived on Taris, I was twenty and for five years I had never been more than a few days out of sight of my mistress and I knew her as well as I knew my own hands. We fought together, like a prize fighter and her shadow, each knowing innately what the other would do. The Alpha reached us first and I struck low, forcing him to jump which made him a perfect target for her precise, controlled sweep, which lopped off his head mid-snarl on the fore stroke and cut him in half with the return. We spun in place, back to back as our sabers hummed through the air only to be drowned out by the screams of pain as we both struck again, severing hands and arms.
I threw my left saber which gave mercy to the creature I had maimed, cutting off what was left of his right arm and his head. The blade sailed around and my mistress struck it in midair with her blade, causing it to impale her foe through its heart to the hilt. I called it back to my hand, as the two remaining males tumbled back, roaring meaningless challenge. In less than five seconds their alpha and two oldest siblings had been butchered.
Unarmed opponents rarely fair well against Sith Lords armed with light sabers.
“Begone!” my mistress ordered, and the remaining two scrambled away, whether they could understand or not. Her tone made it clear we were not the prey they were looking for. The remaining members of the pride, still in the water, quickly followed their kin deeper into the shadows of the ruined city. With a hiss, her saber withdrew into the hilt before she returned it to her belt and nodded in the direction the monsters had fled “I think we've made our point, Apprentice,” she declared, favoring me with a reassuring smile. “You did well. Come, let's be on our way.”
By a bit after midday, we had gotten around the lake, well away from its makeshift dam, and comfortably uphill. We were, by my calculation, more than half way to the landing site we had been aiming for. The ruins here were a bit more closed in, there were signs of what seemed purposeful activity. Several buildings bore caution markings of being unstable. We were in a fairly defensible position so we stopped long enough for me to root through the survival kit to produce a ration bar for each of us.
If you've never had one, they are not very tasty, by design, so they are kept for true need as opposed to bored snacking. They are about twenty millimeters square, in a bar that is about ten centimeters long and a dull, yellowish brown. They are extremely dense, which is the best way to describe them and very chewy which made them something of a chore to eat, which might be on purpose. They had a vague, but unidentifiable and very mild fruit taste, but were I not in a survival situation I would never pick to eat deliberately. You would think eating something like that would make you thirsty, but that was not the case.
They also sat very heavy on the stomach which was also likely on purpose to be 'filling.'
As we sat and chewed, facing each other so we could watch each others back, I commented on the caution symbols around us, even if there were no humans or aliens in sight. “Yes,” Jaydis replied once she could get her mouth free, “this does seem to be an area they are beginning to search. Perhaps the landing zone was merely the closest stable ground and we have stumbled into where they are looking currently.”
“What for?” I demanded, with a vague gesture at the closest building, its unsafe marked ground floor still adorned with the faded sign for a pharmacy chain that was popular in the Republic. “Surely there are safer places to get bandages or pain medicine.”
An odd look on her face, she rose and walked over to the doorway of the pharmacy. She took a small flashlight from a pocket on her shirt and shined it inside. Curious myself, I stood and joined her. The store had been looted, most of the shelves picked clean, and what was left was long spoiled and worthless. Near the back was the dispensary which had a couple of computer terminals that had been put up on the counter as though someone thought to get them working again, but their memory cores were missing.
She frowned and reached out. “Let me see your data pad,” she commanded, which I instantly obeyed. We returned to our little picnic and sat down, where she laid it on her lap and worked it for a moment, then called up a hologram of the area we had been trudging through to float over it. “We are here,” she said, pointing at a little red dot in the rubble. “Here is the landing zone we were making for. And look, the navigation beacons move through here, along routes that are accessible to foot and air traffic.”
“You think they landed and then walked back here?” I asked her, curious, as I sat down again on my little pile of rubble.
“I think they landed and searched back through here.” She pointed at a building across the way from us. “Look there, on that sign, doctors offices. And you indicated that pharmacy. They have both explored, but neither the burned out restaurant or the hotel show signs of being explored. Why?”
As I thought, trying to come up with an answer to her question, I reached down and pulled a sign from the rubble I was sitting on in an attempt to be more comfortable. It was a casual gesture, and revealed the most ubiquitous of things, a much faded street sign that had been knocked over by the collapsed wall I was sitting on. It bore a bold-ed Herf, the Aurebesh pictogram that in English was the Letter H with an arrow, going off to my left, into a section that it looked like had not been explored yet. Below that was spelled out Dynamet General Hospital.
It hit me suddenly, as my mistress had already surmised, the Republic had been exploring anything remotely connected with medicine. And, it made sense there were so many medical type buildings and offices if there was a hospital nearby. I looked at her, noting the smile on her face, because it always amused her watching me think through a problem. “Do you think they're looking for the hospital?”
She stood once more, pausing to dust off her khakis, obviously through with our lunch. Such as it was. “Let's go find out,” she replied and led the way, picking through the rubble choked street in the direction the sign had indicated.
The going was particularly hard, as a pair of large buildings had fallen into each other and most of their facades had broken loose and covered everything in this direction in a small mountain of rubble. I would be much more uneasy about going nearer to these two leaning titans if they were not so obviously well constructed now that we could see their skeletons, and they were not so well lodged against each other. Perhaps it was merely my general ignorance of engineering and metallurgy that gave me a false confidence, but my courage needed all the boosts it could get just then.
For the better part of an hour we picked our way over it, only covering half a kilometer at most in that time, but a few other signs seemed to indicate the largest pile of debris seemed to cover the hospital. A little judicious poking at the pile discovered a few voids, which as we scrambled through them suddenly opened into what appeared to be an Emergency Room.
Or what was left of one after an orbital bombardment.
There were no bodies, never mind the Rakghouls, insects and rodents had long since picked clean anyone who had died here. Even the bones were long carted off to be gnawed on for their marrow. Still, everything was a complete mess of jumbled equipment, overturned seats and spoiled, worthless medical supplies.
The faded paint on the wall confirmed we had arrived at Dynamet General and everything was in either the harsh light of our flashlights, or deep shadows as almost none of Taris's sunlight could penetrate this deep in the rubble. “No one has been here in some time,” Darth Vannacen declared, shining her light on the thick layer of dust from the rubble on the floor, leaving our foot prints well demarcated. She turned to me, suddenly decisive. “The hospital should have some kind of power generator independent from the city grid for emergencies. Go find it and see what you can do to get it running. I will see what I can find...”
It was extremely rare that I would shy at a command from her, or interrupt her as she spoke, but this seemed excellent grounds for both. “Is it wise for us to separate, Mistress?” I asked in my most respectful tone. “These hallways are confined and there could be more of those creatures nesting in here, never mind the entire building seems to only be standing from force of habit.”
She considered me for a moment, her mouth puckered as if she were trying to make up her mind by sense of taste. Finally she nodded slowly. “You make an excellent argument, my young apprentice. So answer me this: staying together means it will take twice as long to explore this building. Would you rather reach our destination in daylight, or risk spending a night in here?”
Some, I realized, would have taken her question as a dig at their courage. But I knew every mood of Jaydis Vannacen, and the certainty with which I knew my bravery to her had been proven long since was absolute. In her eyes, both choices were equally dangerous and she placed great trust in me to choose as a learning experience. I took a deep breath. “A Hospital will have sturdy walls and strong doors,” I reasoned. “If pressed, we should be able to find safe shelter here together rather than risk misfortune separate.”
She nodded again. “So be it. Let's see if we can get some light. There should be a generator in the service areas on the lower floors. If we can get it running, our ability to search this ruin increases exponentially.”
I pointed with my flashlight behind her. “There is the stairwell.”
“Down we go!”
The service area of the hospital did not start for eight floors. The kitchens were first and still reeked of long rotted food and poor circulation of air. The less said about that smell, the better. Next came the laundry and various supply rooms, the morgue and finally the engineering spaces. The door was locked, not with a magnetic or electronic lock, but an archaic mechanical bolt that my light saber made short work of.
The air was exceptionally stale, but otherwise, everything was in a remarkably undisturbed state and appeared as if the hospital maintenance crews had just left a few minutes ago. “Looks like the looters, or those creatures didn't get this far,” I told my mistress who winked at me.
“The Force is with us,” she assured me. The signs, still on the wall, pointed us to the generator room. It was a massive thing, the size of a delivery speeder, and nestled between a river of thick looking bundles of cables. The control panel seemed simple enough and there was even a little laminated card with a checklist hanging by a chain from the large, mushroom shaped Start button. “Before starting, open supply mains breakers on panels twenty and twenty one,” she read. I looked about for a moment before I found two large metal cabinets labeled Supply Main 20 and Supply Main 21.
Opening them I found a dozen large switches in rows, all of them tripped and marked Interrupted in the windows beside them. I threw them all to Open with a loud series ofclacks as they were switched. “Isolate Generator Main to Start on Panel One.” That I found on a catwalk, along the top of the generator that took me a moment to climb.
“Done,” I called to her once I had accomplished it.
She followed several steps at the controls herself, even huffing through pumping the prime capacitor for the starter to have sufficient charge as the batteries were long dead. Finally, she pressed the starter trip and it whined. With a groan, the elements in the generator began to turn. The control panel flickered to life and slowly, begrudgingly the power generator awoke from its centuries long sleep. “Close Generator Main to load,” she ordered and I threw the switch.
Over head, the lights flickered on and the plant machinery around us began to groan to life. Cool, fresh air even began to flow from the air vents. “Excellent,” my mistress declared, obviously pleased with herself. “This will likely draw notice, so let's be about our search.”
I slid down the ladder only holding on the railing with my hands and feet to land next to her. “But, mistress,” I protested. “What are we looking for?”
“My student, you will never go broke betting on the worst of mankind,” she told me sagely. “What is the worst that Taris has to offer?”
“Rakghouls,” I replied instantly, but was still unconvinced. “But mistress, even The Empire realized the folly of a biological weapon with no cure! That's why we destroyed Taris and all the legends agree the Dark Council combined the entire Sith Order to defeat and kill the maniac that created it in the first place!”
She smiled at me. “Bravo, my apprentice! You are well schooled in our history! But, having seen them, we both know Rakghouls still exist. That our orbital bombardment failed in its mission to exterminate this plague. And how did the Dark Council learn of this plague, to rally our forces, to destroy this planet and end the threat the Rakghouls posed?”
That stumped me and after a moment of thought I admitted my ignorance. She took me about the shoulders and began to guide me back to the stair well. “That is a suspiciously large hole in the story, isn't it?” she asked me with a smile. “It's a plague, and it wasn't immediate, so the doctors must have been trying to fight it. Catching a Rakghoul to get a sample of the plague can't require so many people, or methodical searches of medical facilities.”
“There may be a cure for the plague?”
She shrugged. “The Republic seems to think so,” she told me. “Or at least they do not wish to go over the same work load twice. Either way, it bears investigation and while that generator is running, the computers for the hospital will have power. Let us see what's in them.”
3638 BBY (The Present)
Ziost, Esstran sector, Outer Rim Territories
When we emerged from the Citadel, the Monolith had moved on.
To where, we didn't know, but 'not here' was fine to all concerned. The return hike to New Adasta was worse than the hike out due to my arm, and of course, everyone being on edge and on the look out for the Monolith. I had never been so glad to see a city in my life as we came up the hill and around the bend to the gates of the city. While Minister Davidge had requested a meeting for immediately upon our return, I refused him, instead returning to the Aces and Eights, for a long shower in the refresher after a quick once over from 5-RN7.
At least that had been my intention; Fiveareen had other plans.
After a scan of my arm, he sprayed a chemical on the cast and it wiped off like a particularly thick mud. I was ordered to strip as I would be going into the Kolto tank. I didn't think it was that serious, which only illustrates just how addled my thinking at the time was that I considered a broken arm not 'serious.' Fortunately, Fiveareen was not having it and my feeble protestations were unmoving to it. So I stripped and after getting the air mask comfortable on my face, slid slowly into the tank from the top.
So, you're probably wondering what being in a Kolto tank is like.
Well, as we saw from the movies, Bacta is electric blue tinted and otherwise indistinguishable from water, Kolto is green. The exact shade depends on the concentration levels and what not, but the tank's Kolto was a deep, hunter green. The other thing is that Kolto is thick. Sliding into the tank is like sliding into not quite set Jell-O; it wasn't so thick so as to be a non-Newtonian fluid like Oobleck, but it is a decidedly odd feeling to be immersed in it. At least it wasn't cold.
Yes, a Kolto tank is actually a degree or two above body temperature, so that the solution feels warm. This makes it quite soothing, despite feeling like I was skinny dipping in a redneck bar cliché. You fight opening your eyes at first, you expect the stuff to burn or sting, but when you do open them it doesn't. Everything is distorted of course, but your eyes just feel really moist, like you're right on the edge of tears, but without the emotional side effects.
I would have a hell of a time later getting it out of my hair, but my hair would practically glow from being so shiny and healthy for a week, so fair trade.
How does it work?
Well, to be honest I don't know; nor had I ever been curious enough to ask Fiveareen. You were submerged in it because while it could be directly injected, that limited the concentration of the Kolto to avoid a shock to the system. In a tank, you absorbed it through the skin, hence why you were nude, and the absorption was slow enough that the concentration could be full strength. Beyond that, all I could tell you was I soaked for three hours and when I came out, a quick scan showed my arm was completely healed with no sign of the original break.
The joys of modern medicine.
A nice hot shower with my husband moved things past business hours, so I enjoyed a lite dinner and a good nights sleep before I had to return to the hunt for Vitiate.
The next morning, the work crews were diligently cleaning up the ash that was the mortal remains of Ziost's population, and the City's defense shields had been raised to prohibit more being blown in. Still, I decided to be modest wearing my black 'schoolmarm' blouse and Jodhpurs along with my normal boots, I added gloves, the mask, and a rather complicated, but delicate looking tiara and black veil I found amongst my jewelry that I found appropriate to mourn the death of an entire planet. With all of my skin covered, we made our way to the ministry building and were quickly ushered into the presence of Upton Davidge.
“My lord, I am pleased to see you safely returned,” he greeted as he stood from his desk to bow and invite us to the conference table off to one side of his office to be comfortable.
“Thank you, Minister,” I assured him. I noted his glance at Theron and the obvious displeasure on his face due to the spy's presence, but I gave him a soft gesture of condolence and that seemed to mollify him. “Have you been able to gather the data I requested?”
“I have,” he said as we sat down at the table and made ourselves as comfortable as possible. He worked a control and a spread sheet appeared holographically above the table. There were lists of names, not of people, but ships, photographs of them and notations of owners, captains and the like. “We have determined four thousand ships jumped into hyperspace before the quarantine was established. We have managed to track most of them to various ports of call from filed flight plans and narrowed down the list to three hundred ships who did not file a flight plan, or have not yet made a port of call.”
“Three hundred is better than four thousand,” Shan observed mirthlessly. “Nice round numbers, though...”
“If you require the exact account, I will be delighted to indulge you,” Upton retorted with considerable frost.
“That's alright, Minister,” I declared. “The executive summary is sufficient for now. Do we have trajectories for the three hundred?”
Davidge gestured and one of the men who were standing some ways from the table, a clerk of some kind based on his uniform, stepped forward with a data pad in his hands. He bowed, obviously nervous. “Ye...Yes, my lord. There are still about a dozen we are still working, but most of the ships trajectories have been plotted and we're calculating all possible destinations from that...”
“Do any of the ships jump on trajectories that have no possible destination?” Torm asked. The clerk blinked in surprise, as though my husband had read his mind and stolen his moment of surprise.
“Uh, yes...yes, sir. The dozen ships are all on trajectories that go nowhere. How did...?”
“Do any of them go into Unknown Space?” I asked softly.
“They...they all head into the Unknown regions, my lord.”
The minister's expression was grave. “You suspect...?
“That Vitiate was on one of them?” I asked, eyebrow arched in irony. “I do.” Turning to the clerk, I ordered, “Concentrate your efforts on the ships jumping into unknown space, and upload those vectors to my ship's computer.” The clerk bowed and scurried out after a glance at the Minister for permission.
Upton leaned forward and clasped his hands on the table. “You intend to follow those leads yourself, my lord?” After I nodded, he continued, “What shall I inform Prince Marr of your findings?”
I stood, my companions rising as I did so. “I will make a full report to Prince Marr myself, and I will be sure to mention your ready and able assistance, Minister. You have aided my investigation greatly.”
Davidge stood and bowed. “We are honored to be of service, my Lord.”
I felt an urgency in a way I had rarely experienced. If what I suspected was true, then what had occurred on Ziost might be considered a mercy. It was the nature of my dilemma that I had no idea how much of what I remembered as a game, that I was now living had been true. There were many things that had changed. There was, in fact, a Darth Baras, but he was one of several dozen instructors who held that rank at the Sith Academy on Korriban. I had discreetly inquired after the man whom I knew as the character that shaped and then betrayed the Sith Warrior in a bid to take over the Empire. Here, it seemed, the real Darth Baras, if that phrase makes any kind of sense, was a semi retired old man, content to pass on the learning of the Dark Side to the upcoming generations.
He had no ambitions other than a comfortable retirement.
Oh I had resources I could consult, indeed, I had access to the Ultimate Spy, who doubtlessly had its tentacles everywhere in the galaxy. If anyone knew if what I was afraid of might be true, it was certainly the female-shaped gynoid robot avatar of the planet-sized computer that called itself The Void. That said, even if you had the Godfather's phone number, how often would you use it? I already owed it a favor I can't refuse and I was entirely uninterested in further indebting myself.
We were now on our way back to Ruuria, to make a report to Prince Marr that I did not trust to any Hyper Wave channel, no matter the encryption or security measures. If, what I suspected was true, then the Galaxy was in dire trouble. I sat in one of the few places I felt truly free, at the pilot's console of the Aces and Eights, staring out the transparisteel view port at the blue white tunnel of hyperspace the ship was hurtling through.
I wasn't needed, the ship was running on autopilot and, even if there was trouble, X4 was more than capable of taking care of it. Still, sitting here at the controls, where I truly accepted just how free I had become, and also aware of how much danger that freedom entailed, that I could forget about titles, or The Force, or my previous life and just think and perhaps have a better understanding of who I was.
For all my adventures, I may have accepted who I was, and to a certain extent embraced it, defining it was still a work in progress. So, whenever I could, I would sit in the cockpit and brood, contemplating the wormhole the ship was hurtling through while thumbing its nose at the equations of a patent clerk in another galaxy. “May I join you?”
The soft question brought me around to see the spy who worked for me, Lana Beniko, standing in the hatch at the rear bulkhead. I refrained from a sullen sigh and gestured to the seat next to me. “Make yourself comfortable,” I invited. She stepped in and the hatch slid shut.
“I hope I'm not disturbing you,” she started, and her polite demeanor made me understand why she had been loaned out to the Diplomatic Corps. “I noted that you seemed to recognize the symbol on the dead ritualist. I had hoped to ask you about it.”
“What do you know of it?” I replied, answering her question with one of my own. She slid into the co-pilot's chair, her golden blond hair just to her jawline loose about her head as she contemplated how she would respond.
“Imperial Intelligence has seen this symbol a few times, generally along the frontier with the Unknown Regions. It was thought at first to be the emblem of a pirate or smuggling ring, but some of the things it has been found on do not seem to have an origin from either the Republic or the Empire. Getting additional information was a priority directive.”
I considered that for a moment, it was a detailed response, plausibly so in fact, but vague; the perfect kind of answer that a spy might use looking for more intel. “What do you know about our former Emperor, Lana?” I asked. “What do you really know about our quarry?”
That brought a curious look to her face and she cupped her chin in thought. “Vitiate?” Her face became a bit drawn as she thought about it. “Only official things, really. That he is strong with the Dark Side, that he saved us from Pultimo the Butcher and led us to Dromund Kaas and has ruled for over a thousand years. It was said he was already immortal, but our mission seems to contradict that.”
Pultimo the Butcher was known to the Republic as Supreme Chancellor Pultimo, or, to some, Pultimo the Crusader. He was not satisfied with the defeat of Naga Sadow and the rendering of Korriban incapable of supporting life, and so launched a campaign of all-out genocide. A campaign that not only nearly exterminated the Sith Race, but whose stated purpose was the murder of anyone who believed in the Sith Code, to stamp out the Sith Heresy to the child born yesterday. A Campaign the Jedi willingly took part in. Genocide for the thought crime of belief.
To this day, nothing could grow in the scorched earth of Korriban, nor was there a drop of water that had not been brought in from elsewhere. While the air could be breathed, death from thirst and starvation awaited anyone incapable of spaceflight there.
“Vitiate is immortal, but not in the way you probably think,” I told her cryptically.
She raised an eyebrow. “How many ways to immortality are there?”
“The body that was born Darth Vitiate died centuries ago,” I told her. “But the spirit of that Sith Lord has endured to this day; a ghost, who passes from possessed body to possessed body, driving out or destroying the spirit of its rightful owner.” She processed that for long moment, a look of horror slowly spreading on her face. “The Voice of the Emperor,” I told in her in answer to the question she had not asked, “Was really the vessel of Darth Vitiate. That is why our former Emperor has not been seen in centuries.”
“How do you know this?” she demanded.
That, as they say, was the sixty four thousand dollar question, and it wasn't a question I could answer truthfully in a way she could believe. Fortunately, I had a ready dodge. “I had a vision through The Force that revealed it to me.”
She mulled on that, then I saw her choose to believe it. It was plausible enough, and both Jedi and Sith are predisposed to believe such things. “How do we capture a being like that?” she wanted to know. “What is to protect us from being his next victim?”
“The research I have done showed that the Will of the Sith was who preformed these rituals for him,” I told her, hoping I sounded more confident in my theory than I felt. “By killing him, we have rendered Vitiate vulnerable. At least until he can train a new Will.” I sighed and made an adjustment to the trim the flight computer wanted. “We think, we hope, that Vitiate's spirit is becoming weak by this process and that was why he was desperate to find a way for his body to be immortal as well as his spirit.”
“If what you say is true, then time is even more of the essence than I first thought,” she said carefully, seeming to consider each word as she spoke it. “How will we know when we have found Vitiate if he can take any random body...?”
“Prince Marr has stood in the presence of both the Voice and he tells me the aura given off by Vitiate is unmistakable. A feeling of unrivaled power in the Dark Side, as well as a deep set sensation of corruption and evil. 'Cold as a grave,' is how he described it.” I sighed and flipped a monitor to the navigation screen, checking that we were still on course, which we were. I turned it back to its default status of monitoring the engines. “I don't think recognizing Vitiate will be a problem.”
She sat for a long moment, contemplating the chaos the ship was hurtling through out the canopy, then turned back to face me. “My Lord, have you considered...”
Lana was unable to finish as she was interrupted by the compartment hatch sliding open which drew both of our attention. Framed in it was the last person I expected to see, the tall, mostly humanoid shape of Fiveareen. Our medical droid was a seasoned member of the older Imperator-Series of medical droids, built by Ubrikkian Steamworks for the Empire. Like any number of Imperials I preferred this model to the ones used by the Republic as they were programmed to be much more polite. A conscious design choice by Ubrikkian Steamworks as they rightly deduced that treating Sith Lords could be a touchy business.
Fiveareen, as I've said, was mostly humanoid in shape, even having normal human hands, where he differed was his head, which was rectangular and was covered in protruding sensors and antenna and a single red camera that served as its eye. Even now, almost a year after I had arrived in this galaxy, I still found it a bit disquieting that it moved on its own and there was no way the human head of an actor could fit into that box of sensors. “Excuse me, Countess, I apologize for this interruption, but I require your presence in the medical bay.”
I frowned in curiosity. “What for?” I asked. “My arm is fine.”
The droid bowed low. “Forgive me, my lord, but I discovered some anomalous readings in some of your blood chemistry and would like to run further tests.” I stood, resigned to my fate as I had promised myself I would take care of this new, younger body I had been blessed with.
“Very well,” I informed Fiveareen, then turned to X4 who was plugged into a computer port in an out of the way corner. “X4, you are in charge. Alert me if needed.”
“Acknowledged, mistress,” it replied, spinning its mushroom shaped head so its eye was looking at me. “I expect no difficulties.”
“Carry on,” I ordered as I followed the medical droid back to its domain.
3643 BBY (Before the Battle of Yavin)
Taris, Ojoster Sector, The Outer Rim Territories
I would be hard pressed to decide if the hospital looked more foreboding in the dark, lit only by flashlights, or with the lights on, the air conditioners working and completely devoid of other people. My Mistress and I had climbed back up the stairs, neither of us trusting the elevators considering the lack of maintenance and the overall state of the building, and returned to the ER to begin our search. As you might imagine, the Emergency Department had been thoroughly vandalized by the survivors of the bombardment, desperately clinging to life. The looting was so complete none of the workstations that were left would even turn on.
From the ER we wondered over to the Intensive Care Unit to find it similarly picked over, although, several of the beds had chains on them, and blood soaked sheets and bed linens still bearing witness to the ghastly horror that had been unleashed on Taris. “It is a shame that Admiral Karath was not more successful in his bombardment,” Darth Vannacen observed as she looked over one of the blood soaked beds.
“Mistress?” I asked, looking up from trying to get the three hundred year old computer up and working. She turned to me, her expression grim.
“If he had been, neither of us would be here, bearing witness to this scourge, or under what is my growing suspicions of what the Republic is really doing here,” she expanded, walking over to the Nurse's station where I was working. “How goes it?”
“I think...” I muttered, replacing a power cable that had been gnawed through with one salvaged from another unit that was much worse off. “Yes..perhaps...” The ancient computer beeped and stuttered, but the holographic display it was connected to lit up with the face and torso of an almost pretty woman dressed in nurses scrubs. She was quite harried looking, even in the old holographic display with its much lower resolution, a testament to her dedication that she had worked to the bitter end.
“Rooms eight and nine have...been euthanized after no improvement and obvious transformation had begun,” she said in a weary tone of voice. She hung her head and wiped her face. “Dr. Forn is certain he can isolate the disease and find a cure, but I'm loosing hope this will ever end anyway but with us being dead, or worse, one of them.”
“They were working on a cure,” I declared, but Jaydis only winked at me.
“The winning question is did they succeed?” she countered. She made a gesture to urge me on. “Play the next entry.”
The holo gave a burst of static and the nurse's scrubs were now stained and her hair was even more unkempt. “The constables just brought in five more cases. I've put them in rooms three through eight. If this keeps up, we'll have nothing but plague cases. Doctor Forn says he sent a Republic soldier to get a sample of the plague pure enough so he can work on it. I guess we're all counting on Revan now.”
The recording skipped and now the nurse looked as if she had slept and showered. “Revan did it! Doctor Forn has his sample and is beside himself! Even with his first efforts, none of the new subjects have begun to transform. Room seven even seems to have had his transformation slowed. I'm just starting to think this nightmare may be coming to an end!”
There was another burst of static and the nurse had changed once more. Now she was smiling. “The latest formulation is a miracle! Room seven is showing signs of reversing his transformation! Room four is no longer feverish and asking when he can go home! We...Wait...What's that sound? I hear explosions...”
There was a violent explosion and the nurse was shaken and flung to the ground. Then, with a burst of static, the holo went dark. “That was the last entry,” I told my mistress softly.
“What can you find on this Doctor Forn?” she whispered.
I worked the controls. “Zelka Forn, Xeno-infectiology. His office should be two floors up.”
“Never mind his office,” Darth Vannacen told me. “Where is his lab?”
“Next door,” I answered after a brief check. “It's this way.”
I led her out and there was a bit of confusion as I went to the stairwell; I had meant next door to his office, but she had taken it as next door to the ICU. We went up two floors, but the door had no handle on this side, probably as a safety precaution. My light sabers cut us a new door and in short order we were inside Dr Forn's office. He had a window office, which were blown out, exposing the office to the weather. A Bogstalker was spooked from the nest it had made on the remains of his desk and flew out the window.
“Karabast!” my mistress swore. “Everything in here is ruined. Let's check the lab.”
She led the way there and, the Force was with us there, there lab had no windows and most of the equipment seemed intact. The beakers, stained green and their contents long evaporated made for a maddening tease. Jaydis pointed at the terminal, still remarkably intact. “See what you can find.”
I got it turned on, and was stymied yet again, this time by a password prompt. I picked up the holographic emitter and, sure enough, taped to the underside was the name Gurney. I gave it that and instantly had access. Fortunately the Doctor kept excellent notes and it was actually more difficult to get my data pad to interface with the three hundred year old computer than to actually find and copy the files. Once it was complete, I put it back into the protective keeper on my belt and took one of my sabers in hand. Indicating the console, I asked her, “What now?”
“Now,” Darth Vannacen declared with a positively evil smile on her face. “Let's go pay Governor Saresh a visit.”
I won't bore you with the details of our return to Olaris.
Once free of the hospital, we found the forward camp easily enough and talked our way into a Skyhopper. If that sounds incredulous to you, allow me to remind you The Force can have a strong influence on the weak minded. From there it was a simple flight back to the city.
There were Jedi waiting for us on the pad, but that was no surprise to anyone. My mistress just calmly walked up to the most senior of them and declared, “Take us to your leader!”
Suffice to say that was not what they were expecting.
We were led, or escorted whichever you like, to the central administration complex where I met Leontyne Saresh for the first time. She was younger then, but then so was I. She was only in the twilight of her beauty then, and from the way she was desperately climbing the political ladder I'd say she was well aware of it. She had one of those ugly smirks marring her face, the kind that mean people wear when they believe they are about to indulge in the abuse of others while certain they would get away with it. “So!” she announced as we entered, arms folded over her breasts, the very picture of authoritarian disapproval. “I knew it wouldn't take long for a pair of Sith to show their true colors! Destroying Republic property, trespassing, abuse of Republic personnel and theft of Republic property, the two of you are going to be spending a long time on a penal colony!”
Jaydis Vannacen smiled.
I have often remarked on the smile of my mistress. Many find it surprising and unsettling that a Lord of the Sith would smile, let alone have a smile that was actually pleasant and warm. I was fortunate that she had been a member of a small minority of Sith who still believed that Rage was not the only path to power in the Dark Side of the Force. That said, there was nothing pleasant about her smile now. “Is that what you think is going to happen?” she asked slyly. “My word, you are in for a very ugly surprise!”
Saresh's eyes narrowed. “Of course, you're welcome to try and fight your way out of here. I have more than enough Jedi to handle the two of you.”
I made a point of staring at the youngest of the Jedi who was not wearing a Padawan lock in his hair. I made him see me and my face so that he could no longer hide behind butchering 'Sith' but striking down a pair of women. His feet began to shuffle as he became uncomfortable with that realization. “I don't need to refute your charges, but for the amusement value, I will. I rented a sky hopper and paid for full coverage of insurance for it. The rental agency will be made whole and whether that speeder went down from an accidental bird strike or deliberate sabotage, I look forward to the publishing of the Republic Safety Board's findings either way. Trespassing? We arrived on this world via a Republic Transport, using our issued, Imperial passports and IDs. We are here legally and without any attempt at concealing our identities. We have as much right to explore the ruins of this world as anyone else here. Abuse of Republic personnel? Show me anyone with a mark on them. As far as your baseless accusation of theft, the hopper in question is parked at the air field where we took it, with the permission of those at the forward field we walked to after surviving what could be considered an attempt on our lives!”
I smirked and crossed my own arms. “How else would you like to embarrass yourself today?”
“Keep your pet on a leash,” Leontyne hissed. “No one is ever going to hear from the two of you again! We have a lovely little prison on Belsavis where the Republic puts people like you to be forgotten!”
“Really?” asked my mistress in a sly tone. “The Republic keeps a dungeon for political prisoners to hold without trial? That is interesting. I wonder what the fall out in the Senate will be when that goes public?”
“Who are you going to tell about it from your cell?”
“Me?” drawled Darth Vannacen. “Oh, goodness, not me. I won't tell anyone. You, on the other hand...” The confused look on the Governor's face was priceless as, despite herself, her certainty she had all the cards, neither my mistress nor myself looked worried. That was causing her concern that was beginning to crack her confident facade.
“You don't think we came here alone, do you?” I smirked at her, while pointing up to the little holocamera in the corner of the ceiling, silently recording everything done or said.
Frowning, Saresh snatched up a remote control and pointed it at the camera. Not that it mattered, for no matter how much she waved it at the camera, the little red light stubbornly refused to turn off. “A stealth ship has been following us since we left Imperial space, filled with the best slicers in the Empire!” I taunted her. “They own this camera and have already sent it's video out to every planet in the Republic, showing the entire galaxy what you are doing here! Searching for the cure to the Rakghoul Plague so you can turn it into a weapon to use against us!”
“The Empire created the Rakghoul Plague!” Leontyne shouted at me.
“And we have done everything we could to stamp it out!” I shot back with the enthusiasm and absolute loyalty that is the hallmark of youth. My mistress was content to smile and let me humiliate the Governor. “And in the seconds before we bombarded this planet to stop it, a hero, Doctor Zelka Forn discovered the cure! The cure my mistress and I found and those slicers have broadcast to the whole galaxy, along with my pictures of the pen of Rakghouls you have behind this very center and the massive biomedical research station where Republic scientists are doubtlessly working feverishly to weaponize that plague! For better or worse, the Empire has done nothing but try to stamp out what should never have been created. But you would turn it into a weapon!”
Did I not mention the interesting discoveries I had made, wandering about when we first arrived, sticking my nose where it didn't belong? I must have overlooked it.
“Here,” my mistress told her, placing a data chip that had a copy of the documents and notes I had copied off Doctor Forn's terminal on her desk. “These are the documents and notes on his cure you were looking for. Now you, and everyone else in the Galaxy has them, and that makes your weapon useless. Now if you will excuse us, we will take our leave of your little Death Camp. I want to wash the filth of this place off of me. And I imagine you will want to start working on how you are going to explain your magnificent failure to the Republic Senate. Good day, Governor.”
With that, Leontyne Saresh sank into her chair, a stunned look on her face, as my mistress turned and stared at the Jedi blocking the door, daring him to try and stop her. With a chagrined look on his face, he stepped aside and we left the office and the Planet Taris as quickly as our feet would carry us.
3638 BBY (The Present)
Ruuria, Xappyh Sector, Revanite Sith Empire, Outer Rim Territories
The Palace of Darth Marr, Prince of Ruuria, was so understated it almost didn't qualify as a Palace. It sat on about fifty acres, give or take the odd foot, and while they were well manicured, there were certainly well to do holo-actors or business moguls who boasted larger estates. There was a landing platform and small hanger complex both for Air Speeders and smaller star ships, a pool that was always sparkling, inviting, and bereft of anyone enjoying it. This was all in keeping with the austere lifestyle the Prince of Ruuria kept, strictly down to business and no-nonsense.
There were many Sith Lords who might look down on my old school beliefs about the Bogan, the proper emotions with which to harness The Force or even my frequently noted traits of mercy and forgiveness, but Darth Marr was a practical man. To him, my eccentricities as a Sith were largely inconsequential so long as I was successful. Results were the only thing that mattered to Darth Marr. Beyond that, he was also a man who understood that subordinates needed the authority and freedom to achieve their best results and that respect accomplished more than fear.
Which was not to say he was tenderhearted, far from it. But he was a Leader, and that was likely the best description of him.
I had barely time to shower and make myself presentable before I was ushered into a limo-speeder from the hanger of the Aces and Eights and rushed across town to the Prince's Palace. Darth Marr's Praetorians were waiting on me as I was led through the small estate directly to his office, giving me all I needed to know about how important he viewed this meeting. I had elected to wear a dress for this audience, comfortable enough that I could probably fight in it, but still formal enough for a meeting between a high ranking vassal to her liege lord. That and I desperately hoped that a fight was not in the offering. The dress itself was a sleek, fitted white number Princess Leia would have loved with a scalloped neckline to set off my decolletage. My waistline was accented by a wide brown leather belt from which my light sabers hung, then the light, milky fabric fell to just below my knees where the top of my boots that matched the belt came.
I had long since gotten used to heels and, indeed, flats felt foreign and odd to my feet now.
Sweeping up to his desk, I bowed, then sank to one knee, thankful for the soft carpet in the room to cushion it. “What is your will, my master?”
He was standing at the window behind his desk, looking out over the gardens, his hands clasped behind his back, as inscrutable as ever. “Why are you here, Countess?” his deep baritone asked, rumbling from behind his mask.
“Forgive me, my master,” I replied. “The news I bring is dire and I trusted no transmission or encryption to keep it for your ears alone.”
“Your fears about Ziost have been confirmed, then?”
“Yes, my master. Vitiate was there, staging another of his rituals, echoing the one we found on Yavin IV, but much larger in scope. Worse, some of the sorcerers consumed by his ritual wore the symbol we spoke of earlier.”
“The mysterious Empire you fear from the Unexplored Regions mighty enough to challenge the Republic and The Revanite Empire both at once?” He sighed and hung his head for a moment. “Never have I felt the loss of your Mistress, my apprentice more.”
“I will do my best in her stead, Master.”
His head rose and his shoulders squared. “I'm certain.” he turned from the window and strode over to his desk. “Rise, Countess and be seated. We have much to do and plan for. When do you leave to renew your pursuit?”
I remained on my knee, working up the courage for what I had to say as the blank mask stared at me and I imagined the expression of recognition and then annoyance that likely draped onto his face. “Don't tell me...”
“I am sorry, my Lord...”
“Sorry, Countess?” he demanded, then the stern facade cracked and he let out a knowing chuckle. “I doubt it. No, you are not sorry, you are young and hot blooded and were I your husband I would likely be as susceptible to your charms.” The brief moment of levity ended and he was stern once more. “That does not excuse you from your obligations!”
“No, Master!” I responded quickly. “It is my full intention to closely monitor the search from here!”
“See to it!” he ordered preemptively. “I will expect regular reports and you are free to commandeer any military units you require.” He sighed and shook his head, making his peace with this new development that he likely had foreseen. “Even the Imperial Army must bow to biology. When are you due?”
“Um, seven and a half months, my Master,” I replied, more than a little embarrassed for some reason. Never mind the joys of requesting maternity leave in a military organization, the simple fact that I was pregnant was mind blowing enough. “My medical droid estimates May fifteenth.”
“Very well,” Marr growled. “I expect to be invited to the Naming of our Empires newest recruit.”
I couldn't help but smile at that. “Of course, Master. We would be honored by your presence.”
“Congratulations, Nyeomi,” he added in the most sincere tone I had ever heard him use. “Jaydis would be proud.”
“Thank you, Master,” I replied, deeply moved.