Varak was leaning hard on the speeder bike’s frame, twisting the throttle as he banked into the turn. Varo, holding on to his back, her Twi’lek tentacles swept backward in the wind, was laughing as she took shots at the terrified Voss who were now running in the nerff grazing fields. She called off the hits as they hit their mark.
“Hah! That was a slow one.”
“Ooh, she couldn’t dodge!”
Varak banked again to the other side, turning to swoop past a herd of terrified nerffs, snorting and bucking in a stampede.
Varo screamed with delight. They watched an old Voss who was caught by the stampede stepped on several times by the lumbering herd animals. She fired a blast point into his chest as they passed him.
“Call that mercy! Ahaahahaa!”
Two other speeders were on the side of the canyon slope leading to the Voss village. They repeated the raid techniques on their ends. Above them, the TIE fighter was moving at a steady rate, strafing toward the village still far ahead. They were sowing chaos and terror among the Voss. In so doing, they planned to draw out the patrol of the traitors that were left from the garrison, and ultimately, they planned, the Rebel fool who played Jedi.
Varak laughed at the chaos and shouted back to his gunner and lover behind him.
“Weren’t you a slave once? How do you enjoy yourself so much?”
She was still finding it hard to catch her breath.
“It’s because I was a slave. I learned how useless it is to be sentimental! So better them than me! Ahaaahaha!”
::: || ::: || :::
Heff was surprised by the blast. Adrenaline fired through his body, filling his limbs with a swollen, tingling sensation. He quickly surmised that the Centopt had been shot. For half a second he swung his head in studious fear, searching for where it came from, dropping the macrobinoculars on the rocky rampart. As he put his hands on his blaster and drew the weapon, his mind cleared. The shot had come from their rear. From one of their own. In the mere seconds that passed, his companions had quickly sussed out the situation as well.
“Vancil!” Rikka screamed. The communications specialist was standing with his smoking pistol in his hand as Jafan collapsed to the ground. Rikka was holding a long gun, but dropped it to put hands on Vancil. He smashed the other trooper’s helmet with a powerful fist, knocking it off. Vancil’s terrified face was revealed with a trickle of blood on his lip. Rikka leaped again, trying to tackle him. But Vancil scrappily leapt backward. Still holding his pistol, he shot Rikka in the chest.
Balia was a stormtrooper from a world that none of them were familiar with. He was humanoid in form, but was in fact, a warrior drone from a hive species. He was also technically a sterile female, as were all the warriors from the hive, but he looked and seemed male enough to be part of the stormtrooper corps. He also was Rikka’s lover.
Balia screamed as he saw Rikka fall, and immediately pounced on Vancil, and with a savage blow knocked him to the ground. He crushed the smaller stormtrooper’s hand holding the pistol with his durasteel heel, tearing off the armor and cutting through the black overskin. Vancil’s cry was muffled as Balia grabbed his head in a rage, and started to twist in an effort to break his neck.
“stop... don’t kill him… don’t”
Jafan was wheezing. He was face down on the ground, holding himself up by his forearms. But just barely. Heff and Desek immediately fell to his side. They helped to turn Jafan over as he gasped for air through punctured lungs. Heff had been trained as a medic, and quickly removed the Centopt’s helmet. They saw his strained face, gasping.
Desek’s helmet was itself frozen in one expression as all stormtrooper helmets were. But the thick trooper’s body language was crestfallen, even as the face never changed. He looked to Heff, whose blue face was pursed as he held their Centopt’s head in his chest. Jafan had been shot in the back, and the plasma bolt had cut through the organs on his right side, punching through the armor on the front.
Desek continued to plead with his body language. Heff caught his eye while he was cradling Jafan. The Chiss corporal looked at Desek, and with the expression of his helmetless face, he relayed the condition. He gave a subtle shake to his head to quickly temper any expectations of what was going to happen.
Wheezing, Jafan addressed what remained of the garrison before him.
“Don’t… kill.. Vancil. Why… ask him why… we were… betrayed… ?”
Balia stood over Vancil, who was now bloody and breathing heavily, his face pulsing in agony over his broken hand.
“Why? TELL US WHY?” Screamed Balia.
“Why?” Vancil croaked. “Isn’t it obvious? You’re traitors! You abandoned the Empire. For these.. toads! I followed orders to join your defection! To keep an eye on you for the loyal ones. I followed my orders!”
Coughing, Jafan nodded. “Sergeant Kale… he was behind this. The Empire… never forgot.”
Blood was running down Jafan’s face. His eyes were wide as he gasped.
“Take… Vancil as prisoner. Get… to cover. In the village. You must… must protect… them...” He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. “Almost feeling… better now.”
Heff soothed him as best as he could. “You’ll be alright, Top. You’ll be alright! We’ll get you in a bacta tank!”
“Nonsense!” Jafan wheezed. “I’m shot… through. There’s no medical tent within... kliks of here. I’m done. I’m dying. I’m not… stupid.”
::: | ::: | :::
The freighter was on a smooth course, gently buffeted by the warm current at about 40 Imperial metrics above Voss. They passed over the terrified village and the fleeing nerff herders who had no means of resistance. Not so much as a single blaster shot came at them. The speeders and the TIE were doing their job, spreading mayhem through the outlying areas of the village, driving the Voss towards its huts for what they hoped would be safety. This would just make them easier to corral.
Jeet Syllba worried about this. Good military strategy, if the Voss had limited resources, would be let the freighter land, unload its cargo of a dozen infantry, and then attack them while they were still bunched up. The patrol was down there somewhere, too, and that meant six trained stormtroopers who could be directing these natives. And whatever the pretend Jedi actually was, he needn’t be underestimated. Even if he were a charlatan, he was clever enough to bait Vader and the Emperor into their deaths. Which was also not to mention he had something to do with the deaths of Jabba and Boba Fett. That last detail made Syllba’s fellow bounty hunters eager to see Skywalker’s head sealed in durallium and mounted as a trophy.
Syllba woke up from his daydreams of paydays and cursed himself again. He knew he was out of the bounty hunting game for too long. He was patched into Death Watch on Ankhural as a young man, and he indulged himself in the old ways and the old code: war, aggression, and taking what he needed by might. The Empire had been profitable, and he’d grown lazy. He’d forced extreme discipline upon himself these last two months to hone his body and mind back into warrior shape. So far, he’d felt himself getting back into the old ways, but he knew his tendencies toward lethargy still clouded his mind.
Before they took off, he suggested that the Marauders not immediately pour out of the cargo bay when it landed. Instead, he helped them devise a ruse to draw out whatever Voss resistance there may be.
The freighter lowered down above the very center of the village, shaking severely as the gravity and wind fought the whining repulsors, culminating in landing with a violent bang. The cargo door burst open, and the ramp lurched downward, smacking the ground with a metal screech and an explosion of dust.
Two stormtroopers moved forward and walked swiftly but stiffly out of the open bay as best as they could manage. They seemed to have difficulty. They heel-toed forward, their arms dangling loosely at their sides. They turned this way and that, not knowing exactly where to go. Suddenly, a group of Voss boys came out of the hiding near the huts, tossing spears at the troopers that were ineffective on the armor, although they did cause one trooper to lose balance and fall to his side, now unable to right himself. A blaster rifle was among the Voss as well, and the person or toad manning it fired and lit up the other stormtrooper, whose body fell apart in a burst of metal shards and bouncing servos.
Intan grinned behind his helmet. He turned to Syllba at the back of his transport. “Such a good idea. Putting two of those droids in armor and sending them out first. Well, these toads showed where they are. Let’s go kill them, shall we, Marauders?”
The group of former stormtroopers turned mercenaries roared a war cry as they sprang forth. A dozen men in motley, modified stormtrooper armor ran out of the cargo ship led by Intan. With swift and well-rehearsed infantry tactics, they pressed forward and began killing the villagers mounting the resistance. Syllba cooly walked out behind them. He took very little interest watching the troopers joyfully kick down the hut doors and wooden nerff carts, and shoot Voss after Voss. The goal here was to terrify the populace, taking the valuable ones as slaves if they could.
He knew the hotheads would shoot too many of the young boys they were confronted with, which was inefficient, as the young ones were worth money. Only the very oldest or the most stubborn were useless and best used as cannon fodder. But the Imperial stormtroopers were trained for aggression, and these fools made for solid mercenaries, but would never be more than middling bounty hunters or slavers, anyway. They took a long time to be convinced to use the protocol droids as bait, as they only were worried about the value of the droids. It took some convincing by Syllba that it was of far greater value to lose a couple of droids to draw out resistance and take the village as quickly as possible rather than killing everyone outright. The Empire had not trained stormtroopers to have subtle minds. But they’d serve their purpose well enough.
Syllba held a heavy case in his right hand and a datapad in his left. He set down the case on the village dirt. The sides folded down, and interior levers turned, interweaving platters unspun and spread themselves, and cogs swiveled out and folded up. Three miniature probe droids floated out of resting charging bays. He turned the holographic controls from the data pad, and the probes came to life with lights and electronic chirps. He switched them to “hunt” mode and they instantly took off over the village. They were filled with every piece of data known about the Skywalker bounty: bits of recovered DNA, descriptions of his height, sound, and relative weight. They instantly began scouring the huts with gamma rays, micro-sniffers, sonar, and infra-red scans, spreading out to the hills beyond.
There was a roar as the TIE fighter made a slow pass overhead. Kale was calmly aiming and taking shots at wherever he saw Voss which were expendable or offering resistance. They still hoped to flush out what remained of the patrol as quickly as possible. The tauntauns were already seen fleeing in panic over the hills. That mean that the patrol were here, on foot, and they were dead or about to be.
That would be the problem for the Marauders, however, not Syllba. One of the probes had chimed that it had found possible tracks leading up into the mountainside. Skywalker was very likely up there in a Mystic temple. For the Mandalorians, for the Hutts, and the for the promise of Imperial specie, Syllba had his target to hunt.
He spoke in the comm-link to Intan as well as Kale, who was overseeing operations from above in the TIE.
“I’ve got a track on Skywalker now. I’m going after him. I’ll set the other two probes to help out your grunts on the ground.”
He fired up his flightpack. The repulsors came alive, severely vibrating his bones in a way that takes a great deal of conditioning to get used to. Pushing off from the ground, he fired the rockets to propel him in the direction toward the probe droid’s beacon. He knew he was out of perfect conditioning for this, and the vibrations would cause extreme pain the longer he flew, but it was necessary. He could repair this older pack, but it would cost almost as much as a new one, and it wasn’t that bad, he told himself. Gritting his teeth behind his helmet, he resigned, no, it wouldn’t be that bad if I were 20 years younger. But, he told himself, get this done with, he could retire to Zeltros or a penthouse on Nar Shaddaa.
Heading toward the hills, he could see the path winding between the trees. This must be where the Mystics had led him. This was it. Syllba was starting to feel the thrill of reaping the harvest of his most lucrative bounty.
::: | ::: | :::
Luke wasn’t sure how, but he was cold. Still in his Tatooine farmer’s tunic, he shivered and held his arms to his side. He told himself this wasn’t real, but an illusion projected into his brain by the Force, but it was real enough.
The landscape had changed. It was flat and dry like his desert childhood home, but there seemed to be dark, purplish colors in the sky. He walked through a cold wind that bowled him over. He could still see Ben, his father, and Yoda’s Force presence there, but they were sliding along above the ground in ghostly form, not quite walking, through the landscape.
Anakin spoke to him. “Press forward, Luke, you will find the entrance to the Dark Side’s realm. You must prepare yourself.
“The entity here has studied the Sith ways of anchoring to the physical world. He has long sought to make an entrance and a hold here. Do not let it kill you.”
Luke looked up at Anakin with shock. “Kill me? I didn’t know that was an option here.”
Ben soothed his nerves. “That is why the Voss Mysic is anchoring you while you are in the trance. You will be pulled out of the Force if the entity attempts to overwhelm you. Be on your guard, and you face no danger.”
A voice that Luke had heard in the chambers under the castle echoed now in his mind. He first heard the familiar laughter echo.
“Skywalker! Son of Skywalker. How delightful you’ve come back to me. You will serve me well.”
A tall man in a long, purple-to-black hooded cloak emerged into view. The ethereal glow gave away that he was from within the Force itself. Skywalker could see a bald head in the cloak, wearing a face with a twisted expression, much like he’d seen in Palpatine during the Force Lightning attack. The man had a greenish hue to his skin and eyes that were hid behind darkly painted skin around them. He pulled down a mask over his face that was reminiscent of a decorative skull.
Luke was terrified. But he kept an outward cool.
“Have we met?”
“In a way.” The voice was solid and booming, but calm in a completely unhurried way. “I came to know your father very well.”
“My father was Anakin Skywalker. Vader was a corrupted version of the man he was.”
“Ah. In fact, he was one of the great ones.”
The entity looked over the assembled Jedi Force ghosts besides Luke. “Not impressed, really. Are you so chafed, little ghosts, that you must piggyback along to watch me harvest this young Jedi pup like I did so many before?”
Anakin’s ghostly body was looking darker, pained, and twisted. Luke began to see a darkness and puffiness around his father’s eyes as passion began to brew. For the first time, he truly saw the seeds of what must have become Vader.
“Darth Bane.” Anakin hissed. “I sought power through you. I sought your knowledge. Like you, I sought to end this destructive nonsense. But you only gave me more darkness.”
Bane laughed. The ancient Sith entity raised his hands and almost effortlessly brought forth a shower of Force Lightning on Luke.
Luke was stunned. It hurt! Here in the Force, where they were not in the physical world, he felt it truly hurt! He felt the Force swelling inside himself and instinctively struck back. Without knowing how, he directed a blast of Force lightning back at Bane, stopping him momentarily. There was more booming laughter.
“You learn well, young Skywalker! You feel the Force! You feel the potential of your rage! Reach out and strike me.”
Luke centered himself as best as he could, even as he felt his flesh sting, finding himself gasping for breath. He knew this part very well. He’d seen the Dark Side and even sampled its power. But he wouldn’t let it dominate him.
Yoda’s ghostly form sat beside Luke. Without meeting his eyes, Yoda began meditating. Bane raged again, but this time the lightning fell to no effect.
“Luke!” It was the voice of Tylo the Mystic, who was anchoring him in the physical world back on Voss. “I am here. And I am lending you my strength as well.”
Obi-Wan and Anakin both sat beside Luke now. Again, they were quiet and centered as Bane raged. Slowly, they each could feel that Bane was being pushed backward. Slowly, but inextricably, the Sith was being constrained and pushed back through into the Darkness.
Luke was determined to learn. Yoda had told him when he was calm, he would know the Light from the Dark. Here, now, he could feel himself earning the price of the wisdom.
::: | ::: | ::::
The six members of the patrol stumbled down to the battle in the village; one dead, one dying, and one battered and shackled as a prisoner. Desek carried Jafan in his arms. Balia carried the lifeless body of Rikka on his shoulders. Heff led the way with the bloody, battered Vancil, his hands roughly tied together and leashed to a tether of duracord, forced to walk in front. They stumbled down the slope, falling into despair as they could see the TIE overhead was targeting and killing the villagers at will. There were stormtroopers down there, but they were wearing mixed armor pieces with green and red pinstriping. They were running and shouting, hitting the Voss, kicking them, and occasionally shooting them. They were making them cower, driving them together in the center of the village. Most Voss now were on their knees with their hands on the tops of their heads.
Heff held up his hands to his companions, crouching behind a rock just above the scene unfolding less than 30 meters down the slope.
“We have to stop here. There’s nothing we can do to help them.”
He dove behind the closest set of rocks. They had a close up, wide view of the carnage. His mind exploded with thoughts as he aimed Rikka’s long rifle. His mind raced through every possible course of action. If he shot, the troopers would see where it was coming from, and they would come for him. How many could he kill then? How could he stop them? Could they surrender? Should they die in a last stand? Or somehow get to safety?
“They’re taking the Voss alive. Probably as slaves,” Heff muttered. “It’s not ideal, but they won’t all die.”
Desek grumbled. He was angry. And his instincts were for taking action. But he trusted Heff as the smartest trooper he knew.
They saw the TIE fighter above them was coming to a slow hover. A voice spoke out from a crowd-control loudspeaker. He regrettably recognized it as their former Master Sergeant.
“Villagers of Voss, throw down your arms, and you will not be harmed. You have been ordered to stand down by the authority of the Empire. The garrison has officially taken control of this village.”
Heff’s mind was racing. They were swiftly running out of options. If he could get a clear head shot on Kale, he’d have some kind of satisfaction before his own death. But Kale was floating above them in a fighter, essentially unreachable. And whoever these troopers were who were acting as Kale’s troops were clearly not a standard Imperial unit.
Well played, Kale, Heff bitterly thought to himself. Very well played indeed. If the Empire had followed standard protocol and sent an official reinforcement, complete with Imperial orders for landing parties, scouts, and chain of command, surely there would have been an arrogant demand to surrender the garrison. They had prepared for that, and would have evacuated instantly if that were the situation. What they had not planned on, however, was a group of mercenaries acting with the authority of Imperial codes, and utilizing Imperial gear. Pirates, Trandoshans, even a fleet of IG assassin droids could not have got past the deflector shield. But Kale, with Vancil’s help, could do.
There was very little noise within the remaining platoon now. Jafan was still gasping, rattling wetly as he did so. Desek had a field cloth he used with his canteen to wet Jafan’s face, giving him some drops of water the dying man was grateful for.
There was a sound of quiet sobbing as Balia sat, cradling Rikka’s lifeless body. One trooper holding another. Their own physical intimacy separated by their durasteel/duraplast armor in one world, and the veil of death for the other.
Vancil shuffled himself with his feet. He sat uncomfortably with his hands bound behind himself, and his movement caused rocks and rubble to roll slowly down the hill. Desek turned and hissed at him, holding up a fist. Vancil’s face was terrified. He pulled up his knees to his chest to show he was moving as little as possible. His smashed right hand was now swelling grotesquely and causing him debilitating pain.
They watched as the TIE fighter gently floated down. It pushed up dust as it maneuvered itself into landing next to the crowd of beaten, frightened Voss.
Heff re-adjusted the sights on the long gun. This was his chance. He’d take off Kale’s head once it emerged from the TIE and then shortly afterward, his part of the cosmic story would end.
He was never one for Chiss lore. He found the temples to be nothing but silly superstitions. But now he found himself finding faith in the talisman he kept on his neck. He remembered the stories of the elders. He knew they told stories of those who would “die well” and have a story worth telling in the living world, which would keep them noble in the afterlife. Now at last he understood the meaning of that, and admitted it had some appeal.
His thoughts turned to the Jedi. No, the Voss were being slaughtered now. He and the patrol could do nothing but die if he engaged the mercenaries here. But they could hide and somehow find the Jedi. Enroll his help somehow. They knew that they needed to keep him safe. He calculated it might be better to hold off on killing Kale, as much as the thought delighted him. It might be better to run. To find the Jedi. And come back with more of a fighting chance.
As he came to this realization, a shrieking sound came from behind him. He turned to look to see a small probe droid, no larger than one of Desek’s fists, that was floating behind them with a pulsing light and a siren. Balia lifted a hand with a blaster pistol and quickly scrapped it.
But it was too late. Already, several of the mercenaries down below had begun running toward the hill, yelling, as they pointed their blasters up at them. Heff swore. He re-adjusted the long gun, moving it off the landing TIE and aimed downward. He killed the first trooper trooper that was mounting the hill and heading his way. Desek and Balia fired and immediately hit the second. Now realizing that they had a more substantial fight on their hands, the rest of the troopers took cover. There was more commotion down below.
The TIE stopped landing and floated much closer, and set down nearly at the base of the slope just meters away. The relentless cloud of dust from the TIE’s landing overtook their rocky cover, and the pinned patrol realized they could see nothing. Heff continued to pray and swear in intermittent rhythm. He pulled his blaster pistol from its holster and re-adjusted his helmet back on his head, sucking on the rebreather now to get fresh air and relying on the HUD to provide visuals of his surroundings. Desek placed Jafan’s helmet back on his head as well, allowing the dying man to breathe.
Vancil was wheezing and gasping without his helmet in the rising dust. Good, Heff thought. I hope you suffer.
More sounds came up. The whining repulsors of speeder bikes were heard coming up behind them. Through the HUD, Heff could only see the barest outline of movement, but he saw that the bikes had mounted up the path much faster than he could track, and they were now turning around and facing them. Surrounded. Well, Heff, thought: that’s that.
Kale’s unmistakeable voice was heard now. No longer through the TIE loudspeaker, but through a trooper helmet itself. He was mounting the hill behind the mercenary troopers.
“Is that the rest of the garrison? Take them alive! Stun them! Stun them only! They are my prisoners!”
Heff was surprised at how calm he felt as he was resigned that this was likely the end. He yanked the gagging Vancil to his feet. Desek and Balia stood as well, and walked behind him. Heff twisted the ropes and put Vancil in front of himself with his pistol directly pointed into Vancil’s neck. He walked forward on the path, using Vancil as a shield.
“Kale? Is that you? Listen! We have your mole! We have Vancil. Let us go, or we’ll kill him!”
The dust cleared enough. Heff could see Kale in his gleaming armor standing there along with six of the mercenaries. Two biker troops were also now on the hill flanking him on either side. He could see the two mercs they killed were crumpled over on the side of the path. Heff pushed Vancil forward, moving sideways.
“I have a better idea” Kale said. He pointed his blaster and shot Vancil in the chest. The trooper emitted a last wheeze and fell dead at Heff’s feet, leaving a burst of burnt blood on the front of his armor. Surprised for a moment, the Chiss corporal decided to at least die well and aimed his blaster at Kale. Before he could pull the trigger, though, his body was riveted by stun shot after stun shot. He fell down unconscious in a flop. An experience that was immediately repeated with Desek and Balia.
Kale calmly marched up the slope, surveying the bodies at his feet. He took delight in seeing the one body with the orange chevron of rank, still squirming, as it had not yet died.
::: | ::: | :::
Jafan now was the last member of the platoon not dead or unconscious. And his body was very near crossing that border as well. He didn’t understand what was happening at first as he found himself being carried away by Desek. Ah, reliable Desek. His own limbs were numb, and his body was colder than he ever felt. The overskin was now failing fully, as it could not heal itself, or stop his hemorrhaging, and his body was rapidly losing heat as the life slipped away.
When the TIE fighter had kicked up the dust, Desek had re-fitted his helmet back on him, and the rebreather forced its way into his mouth. It helped fill him with oxygen, but his body no longer was able to absorb much of it.
In the quiet echoing hum of the helm, he watched the events unfold around him, projected in greenish, 3-D holoview. He felt a strange sense of calm now. He’d worn this helmet with an unchanging expression for more than 20 years now. He’d watched it at night at his bedside, seeming to grin at him like a demon that kept Jafan as his pet. The helmet almost seemed mocking, laughing, daring him to leave it behind. They were chained together. And now, like Jafan had speculated so many times before, he would die inside his armor, his head inside the helm. The HUD would be the last thing he would see.
He closed his eyes and focused on his breathing now. In his mind, he reached out through the Force. He felt the people around him. Heff, Desek, and Balia were still alive, but they were immobilized. He reached out and felt Tylo. She was absorbed in a trance, and he knew he couldn’t reach her. He found Skywalker, deep in the Force. In a blue glow, he saw him sitting on the ground. Skywalker turned and seemed to recognize him, however briefly. Jafan nodded to his master. Skywalker seemed disturbed, as though he was shocked to see Jafan there.
He had one last task. He reached out with every sense of the Force he had and found his children, Qyr and Panna. They were huddling in the storehouse in fear. They gasped and opened their eyes as they felt him through the Force. He gave them his last instructions. Panna could see him in her minds’ eye, and could see her father’s blue, ethereal glow around a ghostly form like his body. She squeezed the holster her father had given her, holding it to herself like a container that held his soul. She nodded to him one last time, and found her eyes had grown damp.
Jafan was now still. He fell into the Force and was at peace.
Kale trod steadily up to the gasping body on the ground. He grinned behind his helmet, savoring the sight of Jafan broken like this. He took aim with his blaster and shot the Centopt in the head to finish it once and for all.
::: | ::: | :::
Tylo had been still. She was deep in a trance, focused in body and mind deep in the waskaja. Suddenly, her body felt a jolt like she had been thrown into a wall by a drunken wookie. Jafan was dead. The connection they had through the Force was instantly severed. She fell from the Force, screaming.
Her mind went red with shock as a reverberation through the Force also severed her connection to Skywalker. She heaved, lifting herself from the floor of the cave, fully awake. Skywalker was there, in a trance and seated, his eyes opaque as he had fallen into the Force. But she was no longer connected to him. He was there on his own. Trapped in the Dark Side.
 Durallium was an alloy that was particularly good at preserving and sealing flesh in a frozen way. A popular way for the patrons of the galaxy to preserve and mount the heads of their enemies. Or, depending on the culture, mummify their venerated dead.