3627 BBY (The Present)
Ruuria System, Xappyh Sector , Outer Rim Territories
Until I had experienced marriage with a husband instead of a wife, I never really understood the concept of 'Marital Bliss'. I had seen it, in old movies and TV Sitcoms, it had been everything from harridans and shrews browbeating timid and long suffering men as the butt of jokes either tongue-in-cheek at best and truly nasty at worst. Every now and then we'd see an example of a couple who did love each other in a movie, generally by elderly bit characters or as something 'quaint' and old fashioned.
The image of Ida and Isidor Straus holding each other in bed as their cabin floods on the RMS Titanic will haunt me to day I die.
My own experience of marriage was one of failure, and constant reminder of that failure from a woman I thought I loved. A woman who had in fact used me with that love, for the material things I could provide and when we were all swept up and delivered to the hot, sandy Dune Sea just before the Jundland Wastes of Tatooine, I finally saw the real face of who I had married. Seeing her prospects exponentially expand thanks to being in the body of the Chiss bounty hunter she now had, Lanaka Fargo dropped me like a bad habit.
That betrayal had gnawed at me, even as I was being courted by the man who would be my husband. It had grown when that man, my brother and my best friend were kidnapped by the Will of the Sith and tortured to draw me out and Lanaka had had the unmitigated gall to attempt to convince me to abandon them and flee.
Once I had been proud I had not killed her for it. Now? Well, there aren't many things I regret.
I wasn't surprised when, returning from the honeymoon trip I had taken with my Husband, I was informed by Silas she had packed her things and left. Of course, she had attempted to convince my spiritual brother to come with her, but had been rebuffed. Once upon a time I would have been enraged and probably gone hunting her. Fortunately, for her, I had just come from dream like trip from being pampered, showered with affection and made thoroughly and completely glad I was a woman. By that point I had washed my hands of her physically and mentally. Now, no longer my concern, I concentrated on learning how to be a good wife, and before long, a good mother. I gave Torm Belos, my husband, everything I had wanted from my wife; loyalty, devotion, children and love as only a Sith can feel and give. Then I discovered what marital bliss was and I got to enjoy it.
They say love is what lust turns into when the initial fire of passion dies down to the ember of routine. I wouldn't know; the fire of our passion hasn't died down. Our kids roll their eyes sometimes when we kiss or hug in front of them, but my ally is The Force. Through it, I can feel the warm feeling of being safe and loved Kale and Bree experience when Torm and I physically show our affection for each other.
I find that, as a descriptive phrase, 'marital bliss' should be taken at face value. If you have it, and you know it, it is bliss. That warm, contented feeling that everything is right with the universe and you are doing your part in it. Afterglow comes closest, for the benefit of those that aren't married, to describing the feeling. When you have just had really great sex with someone you really care about and who really cares about you. That's what Marital Bliss is like. I know when I walk past Torm's chair and we're alone, or it's just family, I am going to get my rear goosed. He doesn't look up from what he's reading, I don't squeal or berate him. He does it to show me he still loves me, and I always walk by his chair in arms reach to show him I still love him.
Truth be told, I rather like feeling my husband's hands on me.
But there is a perversity to the Universe; a mindless force that seeks to destroy happiness like that. Call it Entropy, or Evil or even karma, that force that breaks things down seems to be drawn to happiness like a moth to a flame.
It was that feeling, that sense of something not quite right, that woke me from my slumber. I was in Torms arms, the taste of him still on my lips, the smell of him in my nose and the warmth of him around and in me like The Force itself, but something away from us, but also near to us was wrong. I stood, gently extracting myself from his arms without waking him and stood. My sabers were on the night stand, plugged into their charger, nothing untoward there.
As my eyes fell on them, I got a vague feeling that my sabers were not needed.
That wasn't what was out of sorts. I was nude, but I didn't care as I walked over to the doors out to the balcony the bedroom opened out onto. They opened for me and a cool breeze caressed my skin, calling up goosebumps and causing my nipples to stiffen. Still, even cool, the night was pleasant and the sky exceptionally clear. The balcony overlooked the Banudan Bay which gave the illusion there were stars both above in the sky and in the inky waters of the bay.
I sank down on the stone of the balcony, still warm from the sun that had shown on it all day, into the lotus position and laid my hands open on my knees. I closed my eyes and looked inward first. I was coming close to my time of the month and if Torm and I kept carrying on like teenagers my son and daughter would get a new playmate. I remembered my previous pregnancy and the ten hours of my labor, the indescribable feeling of giving birth and again wondered why anyone would suffer all of that and then I remember the feeling nursing my children. The looks of absolute love as they nursed from me and in my breast I felt a longing.
Yes, I was actually ok with having more children.
“Motherhood suits you, my apprentice,” a familiar voice declared softly. I opened my eyes to smile into the face of my mistress, long dead and yet unchanged and untouched by time sitting on the bench across from me by the railing of the balcony.
“Hello, Mistress,” I greeted her with a smile. “I have missed you.”
“I may not appear often, but I am never very far from you, Nyeomi,” Jaydis Vannacen declared, a smile on her oh so slightly transparent fact. She winked at me with a gesture at my nudity and declared, “I see you've kept up your workout routine.”
“I had the advantage of knowing what middle age was like when I didn't and have no desire to repeat it,” I told her with a smile. I stood, reaching out my hand and calling my robe to me. Wrapping it around me I joined her on the bench. “What brings you to me this time, mistress? Some cryptic warning of approaching hardship?”
She smiled and reached out to caress my cheek and even though I could see through her body I felt her skin on mine, warm and soft against my cheek. “You don't need me for that,” she told me. “You're a mother, you should know hardships are always approaching.”
I couldn't help chuckling with her as I reached up to cup her spectral hand in mine. “I have wished so many times you had been here with me,” I told her. “That I could have leaned on your wisdom when I was new and overwhelmed with all of this.”
“You didn't need me,” she admonished softly. “You did well enough without me to hold your hand and whisper what you already knew.” She sighed and took my hands up in hers. “Remember these happy moments, my apprentice. They will bare you through the trials you have ahead of you. Cling to them, and know, the Force will be with you. Always.”
“Mistress?” I asked, confused and more than a little concerned.
“The Force is with me, and I am one with the Force,” she replied, then I couldn't see her for a blinding white light from behind me washed her out. I brought my hands up to protect my eyes, instinctively curling into a protective ball when I realized for a moment I could see through my eyelids, then it was gone and I was blinking back spots. The hair on my arms stood up for a split second as the House deflector shield snapped on which protected us from both the heat flash and the massive pressure wave that slammed into it.
I staggered to my feet and looked, seeing a gigantic mushroom cloud rising up from where the City of Banudan used to be. I gaped, awestruck at being so close to an explosion of this magnitude, before the soldier in me asserted itself. I turned and bolted back into the house as at last the rolling thunder of the explosion had crossed the distance and washed over the shield. “Torm!” I shouted, snatching off the robe and running to the closet. “We're under attack!”
I needn't have shouted, the sound of the house alarm reacting to the explosion had woken him. He was already dressing as I pulled on my 'working clothes', the white and gray armored leathers. “The children!” he ordered as he finished pulling on his clothes and reached past me to snatch out the 'go' bags we kept there.
“Two minutes!” I replied as I grabbed him long enough to kiss him, then called my sabers to me as I ran in the other direction from our bedroom to the bedrooms of our children. In the hall, Fable was in the process of pulling on her armor as she fell in with me. The room she shared with Silas being just across the hall from us and yes, that armor is in fact designed to be donned in a great screaming hurry.
“I can't raise the planetary defense directorate,” she told me.
“Banudan is gone,” I told her as we ran. “Either a thermonuclear device or an impactor big and fast enough to be an equivalent. Get Kale!” I ordered as I stopped at Bree's room and my thumb opened the door for me.
“Done!” she replied as she kept running.
Bree was coming to the door, dressed, her go bag in her hand and her eyes full of tears. “Mommy, I'm scared!” she admitted as I clutched my daughter to me and held her tight.
“I know baby, courage now, be brave,” I whispered into her hair as I reversed myself and swept her out the door and up to a trot. The ground shook, another impactor, much closer, but we were still alive and the shield was holding. Kale was standing by the emergency slide, watching Fable's feet disappear down it as she went down weapon and head first. “Go!” I shouted at him as we ran up.
He threw his bag into the slide and then followed it. I picked up Bree and dropped her through, then scrambled into the darkness after her. Being royalty did have its perks. Chief among them was that Torm and I were able to have this house built from the ground up. It had the deflector shield as was already noted and was hardened against direct orbital bombardment. As if I would accept anything less having lived through the special hell that was city planet Taris.
All of the systems were shielded against electromagnetic pulse and other ionized based anti-systems attacks, and below the plateau the house sat on was a little bunker hanger that housed the Aces and Eights. The slide we were riding now took us right to it. My feet hit the ground to find the lights in the hanger on, with Torm and Silas quickly disconnecting the shore power connectors. As I trotted over to the entry ramp I keyed on my comlink and set it to the house frequency. “Attention, this Countess Fens, all staff attention. Institute emergency plan one. I repeat, Emergency Plan One. This is NOT a drill. May the Force be with us all!”
The staff taken care of so they knew to get into the shelter in preparation of their own evacuation, I charged up the ramp and towards the cockpit while Bree and Kale climbed or descended the ladders down into the turrets. Fable and I brought the Aces and Eights up as quickly as we could, but even taking every short cut it would be nearly five minutes before we'd be in the air.
The comm system came up first and I got the headset on my ear as my hands moved by themselves over these now very familiar controls. “Top turret check,” Bree's voice came in my ear.
“Bottom turret check,” Kale added.
“Ok, kids, make mom and dad proud,” I replied as the engines came up and I activated the repulsors.
“Honey, GO!” I heard Torm shout from down the hallway by the hatch, just as I began to realize we were being shot at. Out the canopy I could see a dozen...somethings scrambling out the escape chute with blasters. It could be some kind of full armor, or it could be robots, I wasn't sure. Either way I slapped on the deflector screens, and began to ease forward towards the opening doors of the bay. I was worried that the ramp hadn't closed yet.
A pair of blaster bolts from my son slammed into the group of combatants and either humans in armor or robots, they were destroyed. At last the ramp closed light lit on the board and I firewalled the throttle. The Aces and Eights shot from her hanger like a thoroughbred given whip and spurs, pinning Fable and myself back into our seats for a moment until the acceleration compensators kicked in. “Yahoo!” Kale shouted into my ear through the intercom.
Pulling back on the yoke, she began to climb Ruuria's gravity well as Fable pointed from the co-pilot's chair out the canopy. “By the Force, what is it?” she asked, awestruck.
It was, in fact, the largest space station I had ever seen. Dwarfing Vaiken Spacedock and hanging in the sky like a new moon. It was roughly octagonal, with a massive pair of arms that were reaching down as if to embrace or swallow the planet. It dominated the sky, visibly seven or eight times the size of sun. Instinctively I turned the ship away from it as we climbed up to the defense of our home. “Ruuria Defense Net, this is Countess Fens, check in.”
The frequencies were awash with scattered units, desperately trying to mount a coordinated defense, but we were well back on our heels from the suddenness and viciousness of the attack. All of the ground unit channels were crowded with chatter of units bravely trying to link up, but the devastating orbital strikes had been followed up with a massive invasion of ground forces, as I could now see as we fled our home. From this altitude I could see a dozen of the massive mushroom clouds climbing to the stratosphere.
“Fighters!” Bree's voice all but shouted in my ear. “Eight O'clock high, incoming!”
I looked as much over my shoulder through the canopy as I could and caught sight of six of them, breaking off from a troop drop ship they were escorting to come after us. They were odd fighters, of a design I had never seen before, not old Sith Empire, nor any Republic design I was familiar with. Come to it, they were so sleek and spindly while obviously having been optimized for atmospheric work, there didn't seem to be a space large enough for a pilot.
Not that I was given much time to ponder such things.
The Aces and Eights responded to my inputs, snap rolling on her side as the blaster fire I had anticipated passed harmlessly where we would have been and I began a series of acrobatic maneuvers back towards the surface, trading altitude for speed. “What are you doing?” demanded Silas from the flight engineer's chair he was busily strapping himself into. “We have to get clear to get to hyperspace!”
“Angle the deflectors!” I ordered Fable, as I concentrated on my flying and not being hit by an angry rainbow of blaster fire. “We won't ever outrun those fighters to orbit, but we can out maneuver them and use the home court advantage!”
The flash of an explosion caught my attention for moment as the closest fighter vanished in a fireball of ionizing fuel and explosive vapors. “I got him! I got him!” exalted Bree over the com link.
“Don't get cocky!” Torm cautioned her from the navigator's place behind me. He pointed over my shoulder out the canopy. “There, see it?”
The landing support cruiser Warspite was rising up from her landing pad, her shield positively glowing from the withering barrage of enemy fire she was soaking up that was trying to keep her from launching. I ran the Aces and Eights through a half roll and split S turn and dumped what little altitude I had left until we were only a few meters off the deck. The blaster bolts were landing all around me as the fighters anticipated what I was doing, but it wasn't enough to keep me from it. Robbed of almost all of my maneuvering room, Bree's fire from the top turret began to become more accurate as two more fighters blossomed into fireballs from her handiwork. Some of the guns of the Warspite noticed us, and began to assist Bree, convincing those fighters they wanted to be somewhere else.
We shot under the cruiser, shielded by her and finally free of pursuit. Out the other side, I nosed us up again, doing my best to screen for the Warspite so she could get clear enough for her thick hide and bigger guns to be of use. I emptied the Aces and Eights magazine of proton torpedoes into the largest of the ships attacking the Warspite a frigate that exploded in a dazzling flash and fireball as one of those torpedoes found her reactor and destroyed it.
That gave us some breathing room as we made it up, into space and I had a moment to stop reacting and start acting on my own initiative. The blue sky gave way to black and even with the bulk of the space station on the other side of the world from us, I could see the flashes of explosions as our enemy took the Ruurian Orbital docks.
I flipped over to the star fighter networks and tried to increase our forces beyond the meager guns of the Aces and Eights, and the Warspite. “Any Imperial craft this is Blacksheep One,” I announced looking about as we reached the emergency rally marker to begin to muster a counter attack. “Rally all, I say again, Rally All, all ships acknowledge.”
“Blacksheep One, this is Pride Leader,” and I felt relief that Tari, my senior apprentice and practically my second daughter was alive. “I am on your six, with about three squadrons worth of mixed fighters.” The Aces and Eights was surrounded by a little cloud of fighters and gunships, even a pair of corvettes I could see coming up from the surface and taking position around the Warspite. Now we could make a fight of it.
Or so I thought, for no sooner had I begun to plan our counter attack a powerful signal broke through and the commanding voice of my mistress' master boomed from the speakers. “This is Prince Marr. All forces are to coordinate to rally point Alpha. All ships with functioning hyperdrives are to flee and return with the Imperial fleet. This is Prince Marr.” The message began to repeat so I clicked it off and turned to Fable.
“What is the status of our hyper-drive, Major?”
“Up and operational, my lord,” she replied softly. I took a deep breath and let it out as I exchanged glances with Torm and Silas in the cockpit.
“Mom?” my children asked in stereo.
“Major, set course for Dromund Kaas. Pride Squadron, all ships, follow me.”
“Yes, my lord.”
My eyes cold and hard on the invaders of my home I vowed to return and wreak vengeance on them as my little rag tag fleet of surviving fighters and small ships formed up around me. The invaders had taken notice of the formation of the little fleet, sending four times our numbers to deal with us. Not that it mattered, we had made our getaway.
The Aces and Eights leapt into hyperspace with my little fleet.
Hyperspace, aboard the INS Warspite, en-route to Dromund Kass, Outer Rim Territories
We were about half way to Dromund Kass when we got the news.
The networks and information spheres had been critically disrupted as part of a dedicated cyber-attack before the primary invasion. Ruuria had not been alone as the target of this invasion. This unknown aggressor had attacked from the uncharted regions across a front tens of thousands of light years across. Key planets and facilities had been first wave targets, and with Ruuria being the primary shipyard of the New Revanite Sith Empire, it had also been in the first wave.
The reach of this enemy was staggering.
Drumund Kass, Korriban, Coruscant, Tython, the attacks had targeted the capitals of the Sith Empire, the Republic, the Jedi and the Sith orders and they had all fallen. There were battles raging, but the size and firepower of this mysterious enemy were overwhelming. Each attack, all coordinated to within minutes of each other, had read the same, a massive fleet would leap out of hyperspace, towing one of these massive battle stations while tens of thousands of capital ships would engage orbital defenses while millions of troops would land, overwhelming any defense.
Emperor Malgus and his wife's, Empress Eleena, whereabouts were unknown.
The Republic Senate had been captured with a quorum of senators present. There were rumors the Republic had already surrendered. Tython was burning and Korriban and its tombs had been dealt incalculable damage to its artifacts and history. In the interstellar void, I had my little rag tag fleet drop out of hyperspace and called a war council. The fighters were able to land on the Warspite, and when her bays were full, I reassigned them to the corvettes Moff Ceptor and the Indefatigable, then called a meeting with the senior officers available to me.
Captain Tucmax Barsal, commander of the Warspite, hosted Lieutenant Commanders Antdami Alliswin, and Joy Ireclay of the Moff Ceptor and the Indefatigable respectively in his wardroom. In addition to three squadron commanders, myself, Torm and Tari. We had been joined by four escort frigates and even two additional cruisers, the Hotspur, and the Witch of Endor, but even with that level of resupply, we didn't have the resources to take back even a single planet, let alone defend our Empire. For good or ill, the only Sith in our company were former apprentices of mine, or apprentices of my apprentices.
That gave us a grand total of five Force users, but I was not willing to accept defeat quite so easily. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” I began as I retook the podium after the succinct report of an obviously overwhelmed young ensign who had briefed us on the situation as was then known. “As you know, I am not one to give up easily. That said, our foremost priority now is acquiring a force capable of fighting back against...”
I was interrupted by the somewhat excited arrival of a young lieutenant, who, despite being out of sorts, remembered himself to bow to me, then rushed over to Captain Barsal and whispered in his ear. “Captain?” I asked.
Barsal stood and bowed, his face somewhat pale. “My lord, we have recieved a properly coded and verified order to stand down. With it is an announcement of the formal surrender of the New Revanite Empire.”
I frowned. “Emperor Malgus has surrendered?”
“No, my lord,” he replied after a quick consult with the lieutenant. “This order is from Naval High Command by order of the Dark Council.”
“The Dark Council cannot...” started Commander Alliswin heatedly, but he calmed himself at a soft gesture from me.
“Captain,” I asked him, “What is your opinion of this order?”
Tucmax Barsal was a fine figure of a Navy man, grey at the temples with a mustache giving his face a bit of rugged authority. “My lord, Commander Alliswin is correct that there has not been sufficient time for the Dark Council to issue such an edict with the whereabouts of the Emperor unknown. However, that may be only unknown to us. I don't doubt we're back on our heels, but a complete surrender seems premature, unless the Council has information we do not.”
I considered that for a moment, then with great weight, I removed my lightsabers and laid them on the podium, then walked around it to the table. “Friends, we are deep in it, that is no lie. I interpret my oath to require me to draw every fighting man I can to my banner and to throw off these invaders of our nation.” I saw the officers nod around the table and swallowed my fear as I made my decision. “Captain Barsal, proclaim this through out the fleet. Any man who feels it is his duty to obey this stand down order is released from my service and I will arrange passage for them to the closest outpost of the New Revanite Sith Empire. As for me, gentlemen, be damned if I am going roll over like a whipped dog! I intend to fight. Who's with me?”
“ Warspite!” Captain Barsal shouted, followed closely by the commanders.
“ Moff Ceptor!”
I nodded grimly and turned to my apprentices. “What of you, my lords?”
Tari got laboriously to her feet, her gravid state hindering her just a bit, as she sank down to one knee. “Ten years ago I swore to follow you anywhere, my master,” she declared gravely. “Nothing will change that now.”
Next to her, Darth Akee sank to his knee, his yellow skin flushing a bit. “I am yours, Mistress. To whatever end.”
I nodded again, and with a gesture called Bree over to me. I gave her a hug and turned her to face her godmother. “Tari, this is your daughter until I return.”
Bree turned, a look of hurt and worry on her face. But even in her emotion, she didn't forget herself. “Mistress...?” Tari stood and took Bree into her arms.
“Gentlemen, we have a large task ahead of us. Captain Barsal, send out individual fighters to every corner of the Empire. Have them bring everyone with a belly to fight here.” He nodded and strode out, already barking orders. “Tari, loan me your fighter.”
“It's yours, mistress, but where are you going?”
I sighed. “Back to Ruuria. I am going to get Darth Marr and anyone else I can rescue. I am a fighter, but Darth Marr is the greatest tactician of this generation. We need him.” Looking back to the other commanders I squared my shoulders. “The rest of you, get on the holonets to every friend you have. Tell them Darth Fens is going to fight. Anyone with the stomach for it is welcome.”
“Empire!” they shouted.
I was going through my go bag back in the cabin Torm and I shared on the Aces and Eights when he caught up with me and locked the door behind him. I turned, braced for a fight, but he just caught me up in his arms and kissed me. A part of my mind was nagging at me that time was of the essence, that minutes counted, that...
Have I ever mentioned how amazing of a kisser Torm is? Yes? Well, it bears repeating.
I didn't need the Force to remind me my family had needs I had to consider. Maybe I didn't have time to make love to my husband, but I did it anyway, flinging the half packed bag off the bed so it could be put to its proper use. We had been apart for two months on my homecoming from the adventure that took me to Belsavis and Alderaan. For a week we had been making love like teen agers, but even with that, he had not been so forceful and needful in a long time.
When I was sure he was sated, I lay in the hallow of his arm to listen to his heart beat for a while and write the memory of his scent into my mind again. Quietly, he asked, “I can't talk you out of this, can I?”
I squeezed his chest with the arm I had laying over it. “Would you really want to?” I asked him. “When have you ever given up on something you wanted or believed in?”
“When I was single, I could behave that way and not have second thoughts,” he told me. “Did I ever tell you I couldn't sleep the night we met? Thinking about you was exciting in a way I can't really describe.”
I looked up at him and raised an eyebrow. He laughted and kissed my forehead.
“Oh, my better judgement was screaming at me, about how all but suicidal it was to even think about trying to seduce a Sith Lord.” His hand absently stroked my hair. “There isn't a day that goes by that I don't thank the Force that I ignored that voice in my head.” I kissed the side of his chest and laid my head back down.
“If you had left, even after our first night, I wouldn't have been angry. I'm so glad you didn't, but I know how the Republic loves to slander my Order.”
“Come now, my darling,” he scolded me softly. “We both know how many of your fellow Lords put in overtime making those slanders true.” He sighed, lightly trailing his fingers down my back, tracing designs in the sweat. “But now, now I am a family man. I have responsibilities, people who depend on me so I cannot take reckless risks the way I once did.”
“Do you think I'm being reckless?”
“I think you're being a Sith,” he replied.
I raised up on my elbow. “If our positions were reversed...”
“If our positions were reversed,” he interrupted me. “I would surrender. Without a second thought. For you, for Bree and Kale, I would grovel to keep them safe.”
I shifted a bit until I was laying on top of him so I could look him directly in the eye. “Do not think for a moment, my husband, that I do not fear for you and our children. Yes, when I met you I was young and reckless and I did many stupid things I regret! You and our kids will not ever be one of them.” I leaned down to kiss him and his arms came around me and held me against him and we kissed for a lifetime it seemed before we finally separated so I could look him in the eyes once more. “No one threatens my family without paying for it, Torm. If it was me, yes, I would surrender too. But its not just me, they came after me, and you and the kids. And mark my words they won't stop coming for me either.”
His face pulled into a frown. “You speak like you know who they are.”
“I do,” I whispered. “It's Vitiate. He's finally come for us.”
“How...” and he paused and nodded. “Oh, yeah, right, The Force.”
I smiled at him and nodded. “I swear I will come back, husband.”
“I swear I will come for you if you don't, wife.”
“I love you, Torm.”
His hands pulled me against him and he kissed my forehead again. “I know,” he whispered.
Ruuria System, Xappyh Sector , Outer Rim Territories
The S-12 Blackbolt was one of the many variants Tandankin shipyards built upon their remarkably successful Mark VI Supremacy star fighter. It was predominately an octagonal pod for the pilot and engines, then a pair of swept forward delta wings, reminiscent of half of a TIE Interceptor wing, but tacked at the 'top' edge at a forty five degree angle. The S-12 was a scout configuration of the platform, losing none of the incredible speed of the Mark VI, it traded offensive fire power for a magnificent sensor suite to be packed into such a small fighter. It did have a pair of the original four rapid-fire repeating blasters, the generator equipment for the upper pair being traded for the antenna of the sensors.
Likewise, the missile launchers were loaded with a pair of probe droids and a pair of hyper drive equipped message buoys instead of ordinance. This would increase the already formidable 'ear' of the ship letting my gaze cover practically all of what our enemy was up to. While she did have shields, they weren't much, as the S-12 depended on her speed and not attracting attention rather than the 'reconnaissance in force' approach.
I had deliberately jumped into the system via it's most traveled approach, and as I had hoped, my exit from hyperspace had been lost into the background of several bulk freighters arriving. I kept to a pretty low energy approach to Ruuria, taking in what I could and doing my best to keep my temper. The ship yards were a flurry of enemy activity, mostly freighters that seemed to be busy looting. As soon as I dropped out of hyperspace, I fired the probes, one towards the ship yards, the other to investigate the massive space station the Eternal Empire had brought with them.
I launched one of the buoys to park itself equidistant from the two probe droids where it would serve as a relay back to the other I merely ejected from the launcher to drift. The two of them would relay information back to the fleet and Imperial High Command, if there was such a thing anymore, until they were noticed and would then flee.
Until then, we needed all the intel we could get.
My home, the blue green jewel of the Imperial Crown was cracked and marred. The crater that used to be Banudan could be seen from orbit. Inside, I seethed, but I knew there would be a reckoning for this, I only had to be patient and count on my memories and I could beat Vitiate and his Eternal Empire. So far, I had gone unnoticed, and the sensors had been writing books, comm chatter, network frequencies, encryption samples, in addition to the number and classes of ships.
I nosed the S-12 over to one of the larger communication satellites to mask, I hoped, my signature a bit longer. My arc and speed matched with it, the satellite, the size of a bus, coasted next to me as I tuned the radio to the master disaster frequency I knew Darth Marr, if he was still alive, would be monitoring. I squirted my friend or foe code and waited. The minutes stretched out until, at last, the encryption light came on for the main holo, and the blue tinted head and shoulders of Darth Marr appeared before me. “My fair haired daughter returns,” he declared and even though I couldn't see his face, I could tell that behind that mask he was smiling. That said, he had been through interesting times, his hood and robes were scorched.
“I am still a brunette, my master,” I chided him.
“Trivial details,” he assured me. “What strength have you, my right hand?”
“I am here for you, Master, and any else we can quickly rescue.” The Counter ECM computer began to blink angrily at me; the enemy knew I was here and was looking for me. “Where are you Master?”
“Ruuria's importance to the Empire...” he started, but I shook my head.
“Master, Ruuria is lost, the Empire may be lost, but I will keep fighting! For that I am coming for you to help us fight. Where...?”
“The Redoubt,” he declared, then the transmission cut.
I only used the attitude thrusters to depart the satellite, hoping that while they were still looking for me, that I had not been seen yet. I was well into the atmosphere before I began to use the S-12's engines. Slowly coasting down in the wake of a bulk freighter and letting it mask me. But the time it turned off towards one of the commercial space ports that had been spared, presumably for our enemies use, we were low enough that I could dip down to the nape of the earth, well below most of the sensor nets. It made for...interesting...flying, but it kept me off the eye of our enemies.
Still, paranoia was a good thing, so I took a very circuitous route to the hidden Imperial base known as The Redoubt.
As you might imagine, The Redoubt is one of those kind of bases; it doesn't have a perimeter that is in any way marked as military. It is, in fact, marked as a toxic waste dump. It didn't have line items in the budget, or the usual flotsam outside a military base; brothels and illicit gambling dens poorly disguised as 'day spas' or 'entertainment restaurants'. Indeed, it was well away from everyone and everything, serviced by a single road and mostly only accessible by air. It was high up in the mountains and there was enough activity that it even looked like a hazardous waste disposal area. Most of the military stuff was deep in the mountain it sat near. On the opposite side there was a hanger, well hidden, at the end of a long box canyon.
I didn't approach until I was certain I wasn't being tracked, so it was several hours before I was finally tractor beamed into the cave. You've never been more grateful to simply stand up than after spending eight hours in the cockpit of a fighter. That said, a brief glance around the hanger was not reassuring. There were only eight other craft, none of which had a hyperdrive and all were being worked on. The deck boss cleared me through to the base and I wasn't even given time to change out of my flight suit before being ushered into the presence of Prince Marr.
If he looked the worse for wear in the hologram, in the flesh Darth Marr had been ridden hard and put away wet. His normally spotless armor was singed, pockmarked and dirty from several tough encounters. There was even a long burn on one side that looked suspiciously like a light saber strike.
I started to sink to one knee, but, to my immense shock, he reached out, took hold of my arms and pulled me back up to standing. “We have no time for protocol or social niceties, Darth Fens. What have you to report?”
It's a bit embarrassing to admit, but he flustered me, and it took me a beat or two to be able to jump start my brain again. “My lord, I have come here in an S-12 Blackbolt, that has valuable intel on the situation in orbit, and the ground, the techs are probably down loading it now. I have been able to assemble a small fleet around the cruisers Hotspur, Witch of Endor, and Warspite. That includes two corvettes and four frigates with approximately four squadrons of operational fighters and gunships.”
“None of the dreadnoughts?” he asked.
“No, sir,” I told him with some regret. “My lord also, in your ear...” I leaned forward and he bent over just enough for me to whisper, “We also received an order of surrender from the Dark Council...”
He jerked back up right and his fists clinched. “I sense Darth Acina's hand in this, the coward!” he fumed. A fist came down on the holo-table he had been studying in a rare display of anger. Marr had always been cool and level headed, it was required of a soldier as he himself had declared many times, but I could always sense that temper boiling under the iron hand of his Will. The mask turned back to me and demanded, “And have you...?”
I squared my shoulders and raised my head. “All of the captains swore loyalty to me and I have ordered them to send word throughout the Empire that Darth Fens will fight, and anyone who is willing to defend their Empire is welcome.”
“Excellent,” he announced, then pointed a gloved finger at me. “Except for why would you abandon your post on an ill-advised rescue attempt?”
My chin raised a bit. “I know my strengths and my weaknesses, Lord. You are the greatest tactician in the Empire and I took a calculated risk to come here and get you, and as many others as possible out.”
The expressionless mask stared at me for several moments, then he turned to one of the officers. “Show me the most recent intel we have on Banudan Spaceport.” The officer, a youngish looking one, who could probably do with a day or two of sleep, saluted and made an adjustment. The hologram on the table shifted.
Most of Banudan City had been on the mouth side of the Bay of Banudan. There was a magnificent suspension bridge that crossed the mouth of the bay, the ruin of which was still about half standing, in testament to the skill of the engineer's who had built it. On the southern shore there was Banudan Space port, on the same side of the bay as my house, on the western side of the Bay, by the Skynx River. Fortunately, the Space Port was also protected by an automatic deflector screen and had survived the blast, and subsequent Tsunami that filled most of the crater.
There was a lot of light and medium freighter activity, more looting it looked like, but the Prince's personal dreadnought, the Courageous, was still sitting on the field where it had landed, awaiting a refitting. He cupped the chin of the mask as if it was his own. “What was the last status report of the Courageous?” he demanded.
“Landed and in stand by, my lord,” the youngster replied. “I don't see that work has started, but if her power plant is cold...”
“You're not thinking...?” I started as the mask came up and looked at me.
“Was the authorization to shut down the plant given?” he insisted.
“N...No, my lord.”
“If the plant was hot she would have fought, and been damaged, if not destroyed...!” I protested.
Marr shook his head. “There would only have been a skeleton crew aboard, to mind the reactor, with out it being cold, there would not have been enough aboard to either get her off the ground, or fight.”
“You want to try and steal the Courageous?” I asked him.
He crossed his arms over his chest. “Not daring enough for you, my rainmaker?” I smirked at him and shook my head.
“Do we have enough men to crew her?”
He pointed at a makeshift POW camp on the runway with what looked like four or five thousand men, waiting to be processed. Well, Grand Theft Starship, won't that be fun?
It wasn't terribly hard to get close to the spaceport.
The entire area was in shock, from the bombardment and destruction of Banudan, to the disorganized occupation, there were people everywhere, begging, being 'processed' but for what was anyone's guess as well as the general confusion of warfare. Darth Marr ordered every man and woman he had into civilian clothes, though, he only put a somewhat tattered cloak and hood over his armor. I gave him a look, but he only stared at me with that blank mask, almost daring me to say something.
Meanwhile, I had swapped out my flight suit for my working leathers and put a little cloak over them myself. We had emptied the Redoubt's armory such that every man had two, in some cases three blasters, which we would use to arm the military personnel we were hoping to liberate. Then it was a simple matter of blending in to the stream of refugees being 'herded' to the spaceport.
My memories of the game told me the Skytroopers that were occupying Ruuria, were just very advanced battle droids, not that I had to order our men to be forgiving to the invaders of our home. Even if they were men in armor, we would delight in killing them. They were fashioned to resemble heavy armor, standing more than two meters tall with hands and carrying normal blaster rifles. What made things odd was the dependence the Eternal Empire had on these robots. Why not build the weapons into the robot? While there were some humans mixed in with the invasion forces, but at extremely low numbers, and usually they were in some kind of decision making role, the ratio was not forgiving. As it was, there was only about one human for about five hundred Skytroopers or so.
At the main gate of the space port there were a pair of humans and perhaps a hundred troopers, there to funnel all the refugees through a tent for processing. The armor was tough, but the men had learned where the weak spots were and would be engaging at bad breath range. Our slicers had already taken out their weapons scanners so the gate detail never saw it coming. It's an odd sound to hear several dozen blasters all go off practically at once. But the Skytroopers were junk, and my lightsaber and Darth Marr's had the pair of humans captive.
“Make a sound, and I'll carve you like a Life Day Bantha,” I warned mine as a couple of the men seized him and stripped him down to his BVDs. Their uniforms were quickly swapped with two of our men they would fit and we put them at the head of the column as we moved to the holding area.
There were less Navy men there than there had been, but still enough, it looked like between what we had to bolster the numbers with. “Remember, I whispered to one of our imposters, “be in charge.”
He nodded as we walked up to the largest of the troopers guarding the group. “I have orders to take this lot and yours into that ship,” he declared with a vague gesture towards the Courageous.
The head of the robot swiveled its red eyes at us. “On whose orders?” it demanded.
“Mine!” Marr hissed as he whipped off his cloak and at the same time activated his light saber.
“Down!” someone shouted.
Military men, especially Imperial Military men are exceptionally well trained. When someone yells 'down', they drop, and if someone wasn't moving near them, they pull them down. Within three seconds the chief robot's head was off, thanks to Darth Marr's lightsaber, and the crowd of POWs in front of us were all on the tarmac, giving us perfect shots at their captors. There was a brief, intense flurry of blaster fire, then silence.
“To me, Imperials!” Marr shouted as, in the distance, an alarm began to wail. “To the Courageous!” The crowd got to its feet, blasters were handed out, and something like four thousand people rushed to the Dreadnought. The specialists were separated to get the ship up and going, and sent in with armed guards in case there were boarders who were not invited to our party. The rest formed a perimeter around the ramp. Even with a ramp that size, four thousand people do not board quickly.
Within a few minutes we were coming under counter attack, but with a deep, throaty roar, the engines of the Courageous began to come to life. I started to think we were going to get away with this, and that's when the attack came. Dozens of Skytroopers came pouring out of buildings, blasting as they charged.
That's when things went really south.
Leading these troopers were humans. Humans in silver armor with gold accents. Who carried lightsabers. I looked at Marr just as he looked at me, and I knew what he was going to do. We had to buy time for the crew to board, and that meant those humans could not be allowed to reach the ship. In my mind I saw my twenty year old self on Balmorra, another bitter retreat, another last stand to buy time for others to get on rescue ships.
When my mistress had sacrificed herself to save me.
Marr started running towards the threat and I ran after him. If we had any chance left of getting away with this, he needed someone to watch his back, and the only one capable of that was me. Lightsabers flashed through the air, hissing and sparking as the blades clashed. If only I didn't have to watch Marr's back, my Ataru style was meant for open areas against multiple opponents, just like this. But I had to move on my own, I had to be able to move nonstop.
Distantly, I heard someone give an order to set the blasters to stun, to take us alive.
George Lucas took a significant amount of heat about the battle of the Jedi Temple, that troops armed with blasters and a single Sith Lord wiped out scores of Jedi. Well, I can testify that, when you are facing dozens of opponents, while trying not to be cut in half by men with lightsabers who know how to use them, the blaster bolt will get through.
I dodged and weaved, and blocked and parried then a sharp, electrical sting ran up my spine. My lightsabers slipped from my hands as I fell, hard to one knee. I truly thought I would be more upset, meeting my death. But I had the children I had wanted to have and the love of a spouse and my youth a second time to enjoy it. No one could really ask for more than that. I was strangely content as I fell, some part of me reaching out to the Force. I turned, seeing the Courageous begin to lift into the air, and I was happy that the men would get away, that none of this was in vain. Then a white boot filled my vision, and only darkness followed.
Zakuul System, The Eternal Empire , The Unknown Reaches
Somehow, I thought being dead would hurt less.
Pain was what pulled me back out of the darkness, a dull, throbbing agony that seemed to possess my entire body. The taste of blood was in my mouth and my left eye really did not want to open. I found myself looking at my lap where both of my arms disappeared into a massive looking set of binders. They enclosed my entire hand up past the wrist and was chained to a belt around my waist. Thinking was very difficult as I remembered how to make my neck muscles lift my head and look about. I was strapped into a jump seat, like you would find on a shuttle or troop transport.
No frills, just metal braces with canvas slung between them.
Across the cabin from me was Darth Marr. His head hung limp and I didn't know if he was unconscious or dead. The spikes on his armor had all been cut off and it seemed to diminish him somehow. I heard voices to my left and managed to turn to see a pilot and co-pilot flying this shuttle and out the canopy beyond a marvel.
We were over a planet, covered in clouds, but up through them rose spires, shining gold and transparent crystal, to impossible heights. One, the largest, we seemed to be flying to, and there was no way the top of this gilded, transparent masterpiece was still inside the planet's atmosphere. It was an unimaginable level of engineering, even for this galaxy. The Spire gleamed gold in the sunlight, beckoning the shuttle that was flying towards it. Behind the pilot stood a man in white and gold robes, his back was to me, though his head was bald and for some reason his left arm and collar was gray and stood out against the white and gold.
I blinked, slowly, trying to make my eyes work and keep myself awake by my mental fingernails.
He shifted and my vision sharpened just enough to realize it wasn't his clothing that was gray, his entire left arm from the shoulder down had been replaced with a repulsive, grossly mechanical limb, like one that might be cut from a labor droid and grafted onto his body. This rose up the left side of his head and face, covering his ear and that eye, and his mouth and nose. There was just enough skin beyond that was puckered and scarred as if he had been near some terrible fire or explosion.
His right eye, still human, was full of hate and the Bogan coiled around him like a serpent.
The shuttle came alongside an airlock into The Spire and mated to it.
The man in white walked by me, his human eye glaring as he did so. “Get them up,” he ordered and even his voice was raspy and mechanical. Not the smooth, Shakespearean basso menace of James Earl Jones as Darth Vader, this was a mechanical, low-fidelity rasp more like General Grievous. “Father is waiting.”
Soldiers in armor, humans like we had fought at the Banudan Spaceport, unstrapped us from our chairs to haul us unceremoniously to our feet. Marr suddenly became alive and shouldered into his guards, which would have killed them if he still had his spikes, but he was speared by three others with some kind of electroshock prod. His rage and cry of agony were palpable, but he fell to one knee. I felt the Bogan move through the compartment and take hold of Darth Marr almost before the mechanical arm raised to direct it. “Don't try that again, or you'll die here and now, no matter what Father has decreed!”
I tripped over my feet to fall hard on my knees next to him. “Master, I'm here,” I whispered, and the mask turned just enough so I knew he heard me. Then the soldiers took me by my arms and nearly wrenched them from their sockets as I was hauled to my feet.
The pain gave me focus and my mind continued to become clearer.
We were propelled through the airlock and down a corridor from the docking arm, then into a space that almost defies description. It was a throne room, set inside a diamond, hundreds of meters tall and across. A golden throne lay at the edge of a second, magnificently worked platform, with carpets of arterial blood red and every twenty meters was another of these knights, for lack of a better word, each armed with a light saber pike, half again his own height.
With every step my mind got a bit clearer and the Force seemed to re-connect with me. I'd never been stunned before and it was more than a little disorienting. But as my senses returned, I began to get over my awe of this place and see the overwhelming wastefulness of it; everything was gilded, everything was so over the top as to become nearly a caricature of decadence and excess. For the rest of my life, when I hear the phrase 'the sky's the limit,' I will doubtlessly think of that throne room.
That's when I became aware of him.
He sat on a golden throne that fit that room in its excess and sheer magnitude. I've rented apartments that weren't as big as that throne. Not the room, the chair. Sitting on it, sprawling on it, was the last thing you might expect from how I have described the Sith Emperor Vitiate before. Now, before me was a handsome man, just stepping from his middle age to a somewhat premature 'grandfatherly' look. His greying hair still had plenty of dark beneath it and his dark, full beard had just enough gray to be distinguished, like a Victorian Admiral on his way to Portsmouth and just as impeccably groomed.
The hair was brushed back from a high forehead over piercing blue eyes and the beard was combed straight. He wore robes of white with accents and trim of gold as well as enough armored pieces to give him the look of a soldier, but it mostly seemed for show. Everything was brightly polished and spotlessly clean. But under him, there was the unmistakable coldness of unspeakable evil. A feeling of unrivaled power in the Dark Side, but Darth Marr had been accurate in his description of 'Cold as a grave.'
We were hauled up before him and jerked to a stop, perhaps ten to fifteen meters away and below the dais the throne sat on. You'd think we would have been struck, or forced to kneel, but the guards let us go and returned to their ceremonial place at the end of the row of flanking honor guards. The bald man in white with the robotic arm did kneel, declaring, “His Imperial Majesty, Immortal Master and Protector of Zakuul, Emperor Valkorion.”
“Welcome,” the Emperor purred in a dulcet, cultured low baritone, as lovingly rounded with an Eton Received Pronunciation as mine was, and just as classically, regally British.
Darth Marr squared his shoulders and took a step ahead of me. “A new name, a new face, but these are not enough to hide yourself from me, Vitiate.”
“Your presence is unmistakable,” I added as the son stood and walked off to one side.
Vitiate, or as he called himself now, Valkorion gave a grandfatherly chuckle as though gently correcting a loved grandchild. “Oh, I think a mistake has been made, but by whom?”
I felt Darth Marr's anger begin to boil under this armor and he took another menacing step forward. “Your constant silence across our history,” he snarled, tightly controlled and seething with rage. “This, this was your distraction?”
The Emperor gave an idle, dismissive gesture, as if he had been offered sugar instead of honey for his tea. “This was my focus,” he corrected the Lord of the Sphere of Defense of the Empire. “Everything else? The means to an end. This end.” He stood and stepped down the dais from the throne, an infuriating, smug smile on his face. “You and your lovely little toy have been chasing me for ten years.” He reached out and cupped my chin and it was as if the Grim Reaper himself had touched me. “Well, here I am. What do you want?”
I jerked my face away and snarled, “To destroy you! Once and for all!”
The beard parted revealing a smile of movie star teeth, before parting like a curtain before the most debasing, insulting kind of chuckle; as if the thought that we desired his death and would attempt it if given a second's chance, amused him. “You say you know me,” he gloated, turning his attention to Marr. “If that is true then you know the depths of my power, as surely as you know, deep inside, that you cannot succeed. But, I can be merciful, and to prove it, you need not stand against me. Instead, you may kneel.”
He made a gesture and the binders fell away from Marr's hands as his legendary temper wormed out from under his control. “Never!” Darth Marr thundered. “I will never again kneel to you!”
The beard curled up into a sneer. “You would rather die than acknowledge my superiority?”
Marr's arm shot up and pointed like the finger of Death itself. “It is you who fears death, 'Valkorion'! I do not! I will not kneel!” Marr whirled and I felt the Bogan flow through him like the sluice gate of a dam full open. He ripped one of the saber pikes from the guard's hand and struck the platform with it like the fist of a Titan. The Force washed over me like a cool summer breeze, but the knights were all blown off the platform as though they stood before a hurricane. The son was even shoved back as he threw up his arms and braced himself.
Not even a hair of Valkorian's beard was misplaced.
Marr turned, his blood on fire and he had but one thought or goal now, but before he could take that step, Valkorian casually raised a hand and lightening as I have never seen flew from his hand. I was on the edge and it arced like liquid agony across my body. I screamed and was thrown to my knees, but Darth Marr, my master's master took the blast full on.
I could see his skeleton through his armored suit as every muscle clinched and, rigid, he was flung a hundred meters back down the platform to land in an unceremonious heap. The stench of cooked flesh was in the air and I did not need the Force to know this man who I had come to trust and admire, who had written the names of my children as subjects of the Empire into the Sith Rolls was dead. I staggered to my feet, stunned, heartbroken and yet still seething that for all my adventures I would have come this close, and failed. “Darth Marr was ten times the man you will ever be!” I told him, low and angry. “He gave the Empire hope and direction, life! You are nothing compared to him!”
The Emperor again gave a dismissive gesture. “He was narrow minded,” he stated as if that were obvious. “Bound by irrelevant, ancient dogma. But I think you might be different. In all my centuries, you alone have merited my full attention. You leave your mark upon the galaxy wherever you act; just as I do. I have noted your attempts to turn the Sith from their obsession with anger and rage.”
He stepped down from the dais, and for once a fire seemed to pierce the dismissive, aloof air he cloaked himself in. “Look around you. Zakuul is poised to become the greatest civilization in the history of the galaxy! I have forged this empire to surmount all my previous works. To span eternity as will I, it's Emperor.”
He towered over me now, his eyes bright with zeal and a horrible, loathsome expression on his face. “The Eternal Throne commands a fleet more vast and powerful than any ever built. It has the power to reshape the galaxy into any image I choose.” He paused and if possible, the lustful expression became even more vile. “That we choose.”
I looked at him and I would swear he had been watching every time my husband and I made love. “I will share all of this, with you, my one worthy adversary. If you will only kneel.”
I don't think I could be any more disgusted. “Share?” I demanded, remembering the charred corpse of my master behind me and the fate that doubtlessly awaited me. “You don't share anything! You enslave! You devour! I will never be a part of that!”
Valkorion seemed almost disappointed. “So be it,” he declared, turning to his son. “Kill her.”
Ponderously, he began to mount the dais again as the son stood between us, igniting his light saber and holding it high. The words of Bouris Ulgo rang in my ears and I held up my head high, my gaze direct into the eye of my killer. I would meet my death on my feet and defiant. I love you, Torm and Bree and Kale.
As I stared into the son's eye, I felt his thoughts waiver, then his own rage exploded like a volcano. “You wanted to kill him,” he whispered. “Now is your chance!”
His light saber came down, between the shackles of the binders that held my hands. They fell away to clatter at my feet. I was free! He turned and leapt over Valkorion's head higher up the dais and tried to strike him with the blade, but the Emperor merely raised an empty hand and turned it aside. That seemed to amuse the Emperor, and he demanded, “First your brother, and now your father?”
The son merely continued to beat against his fathers' hand, trying to force his blade to harm him. “Does my ambition truly surprise you?” the younger man asked.
Valkorion was as dismissive as ever. “You do not have ambition, only jealousy.” The other hand rose and again that massive lightening storm blasted out. The son was knocked back, senseless, but alive. “That is why you fail,” he declared.
Having made my peace with death, I seized my moment. I ran, pulling one of the sabers to me as I did so. As Valkorion stood, gloating over his son, the saber snapped on and I thrust it through his back, all the way to the emitter. He cried out as the blade destroyed his heart and seared his lungs and I was amazed I had actually been able to strike. “That is for all the people you've made suffer and die!” I shouted, then snatched the blade free, preparing to deliver a coup de gras.
But then he spun to face me and he was smiling. Smiling! Like I had just fallen into his trap. “So be it!” he somehow managed to declare, and then the Force rose great and terrible into him, the very air becoming electric and crackling with energy. It rushed into him like torrent and then exploded outward. I was flung to the far side of the platform and struck my head so hard stars danced before my eyes.
It was a new kind of agony as the waves of power washed over us.
I didn't hear the door open, but suddenly there were guards taking hold of my hands and yanking me to my feet. I heard a woman's voice scream, “Father!” with more hate and rage and grief than I could imagine.
The son's mechanical voice cried, “The Outlander has murdered Father! Take her away!”
I was drug, half in and out of consciousness, my head being hammered such that thinking was hard. I probably had a concussion, perhaps worse. I was thrown onto a table, for a moment, I thought perhaps I would be given treatment, then I heard a familiar grind of machinery and the high pitched whine of a carbon freezing chamber being activated.
Then came a cold from which I will never be warm again.