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Ghosts of the Sith by Daniel Jeyn
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Lando relaxed his arms, cupping his hands together and resting them behind his head. Something he’d learned from decades of being a smuggler, pirate, and entrepreneur, was to know when things were handled, and in turn not worry about the details beyond the thing itself. The call had come in from Skywalker that he needed exfiltration. They were heading to Voss, now, under full light. The cargo bays were empty, and they were ready to load up the Jedi and the items he was recovering that once were Vader’s. The message had said to expect extra passengers as well, so extra provisions were packed.
The downside of the repurposed Imperial shuttles was mainly that they were, he reflected, too well made. He found it a bit of a let-down. There was something that thrilled him about re-wiring a simple freighter to pull more power, buffeting its housing with just the right insulation, and hacking it to get every kind of advantage possible. But these shuttles weren’t built for utility, first and foremost, like most freighters. Nor had they been overhauled and haphazardly upgraded as most of the junkers in the outer-rim had been. They were expensively engineered to be both militarily enhanced in their engines, weapons, and armor, and were expensively maintained. Every dent and scuff on the insides was replaced, buffed, or polished on schedule. There was no joy here of squeezing extra performance out of every angle, or repurposing components in a clever way. These were not from the sharply honed outer-rim minds that knew how to hustle and plead every bit of efficiency out of a craft. These were core-world all the way; born to transport in supply lines that never feared running short of fuel or parts.
Not that he was complaining. The CO chair in which he was resting had been made for someone used to the respect and luxury of the Coruscant ruling class. He found he could stretch out easily enough, and stare up out of the viewport at the streaks of stars while the ship was engaged in a light-speed tunnel.
Fair enough, he thought. Lando poured a narrow glass from a bottle he’d found in the CO’s quarters. It was a different, alchemical concoction, probably engineered generically just for a military purpose like a CO’s cabinet for toasting the Emperor. It did pack a pleasant wallop, though. Here’s to you, Palpatine, and your fine, government-contract distilleries.
Nien Nunb watched the ship’s wheel, while relaxingly strumming on an instrument from his homeworld that was something like a harp held in his lap. Lando’s best six commandoes were resting in the ship’s cargo hold in case they ran into trouble. There was little else to do now but wait it out and enjoy the trip.
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Luke tossed his head back, pushing aside the hair that was falling in his eyes, and peered down the ridge. The rocks jutted out of the mossy carpet of the hills reminding him of the Krayt dragon bones he’d climbed over as a child back on Tatooine. But these cool, green hills of Voss were lush. And moisture, the scarcest commodity from back home, was abundant on this world. From up here he looked back again at the Vossik village far below. Jafan and the patrol had escorted him to the village to meet with the Mysics, and they waited down there now. He turned his head back to the path ahead, he could see the spires of Vader’s Keep to his west.
He kept his footing on the ridge as he navigated the narrow path. Tylo, the Voss Mystic, led the way, ducking under the overlying branches that obscured much of the trail from the bleak sunlight piercing through the dense leaves. Behind him, Luke’s young oathman and servant, Drrsala the Trandoshan, made his way in relative silence, effortlessly supporting his packs of supplies on his back.
Most trails in the mountains were well-worn by herders of nerffs with packs, or on mounted tauntauns. This was a trail in rougher terrain, however. They were heading up past the nerff grazing playa, up toward the summit where the Mystics would meditate on the Force. These were the old Gormak hills, where the primitive ancestors of all the Voss hunted and huddled in caves. They were a special place to commune with the Force. They faced Vader’s Keep straight on, but they were distant enough to not be overwhelmed by the strong Dark Side presence that was amplified by the crystal spiers of the Keep.
Luke steadied himself with a stick as they pressed upward. He lifted his wrist to bring up the comm-link.
“Threepio, are you there?”
“Certainly, Master Luke!” came the reply. “I am pleased to report that most of the holocrons have been efficiently stored in the cargo cases and are being prepared for transport!”
“Most of them? What do you mean?”
“Well…I have counted four hundred and twenty-one holocrons! And sixty-seven lightsabers. We have prepared them in their individual containers, and have already loaded one of the pallets with one-hundred and fifty holocrons!”
“All right, Threepio. I’m going to ignore your use of the word ‘most’ and just remind you that we will be out of comm-link range shortly. We should be back sometime just after nightfall.”
The golden droid sounded crushed at the rebuke.
“But… sir! I only meant that we had pre-stored the items, which should be most of the work, we will be loading the rest of them as we speak! I can only, say, sir, I am designed for protocol, and if we only had access to loader droids, this would be so very much more efficient…”
Luke had already began steadying himself after balancing on his walking stick.
“That’s fine, Threepio, that’s fine…”
“…but I shall, nevertheless endeavor to do my very best, as I always intend…”
“Threepio, stop explaining! You’re doing fine! I’m closing the link now.”
“Very well, Sir. And I do wish you a very…”
Luke closed the line. He mused that for a droid built for communication, C-3PO was often not very good at picking up inflections.
Drrsala made a noise. Luke wasn’t sure if he was wheezing with effort or chuckling.
Hours later, they had reached the summit on the highest hill. Much of the latter climb had been nearly a vertical ascent achieved by wedging their bodies between rocks for leverage. Luke had worried whether there was a danger of slipping. He was angry at himself for being somewhat out of shape. He had spent much time communing with the Force while he was on Voss, neglecting some of the martial discipline he had practiced these past years as a soldier of the Rebellion.
Tylo had strained with the effort to climb as well, but she was resolute and mostly silent. Drrsala seemed completely unfazed by the climb, as if he was indifferent about moving either horizontal or vertical. Even when laden with heavy packs.
They were at a clearing on the top of the ridge. There was a cave entrance in the rocks. The winds were high up here, Luke noted, and most importantly, they were now almost directly facing the spiers of Vader’s Keep.
Tylo set to work inside the cave’s entrance laying down branches and sweeping leaves and debris off the cave floor. She began chanting as she built up a fire, and motioned for Skywalker to sit nearby. They sat themselves near the mouth of the cave, sheltering from the winds, but gathering in just enough light to see their surroundings.
Skywalker took two objects from the pack that Drrsala laid down. One was a metal beaker with water. He drank thirstily. The other object was the meditation holocron he had found among his father’s collection, and which he had found useful to enter a deep Force trance. It was the same one he had used to draw out the Force sensitivity of Jafan.
“I’m completely exhausted after that climb,” Luke hoarsely croaked as he offered the water to Tylo. “Could we wait to begin the ritual?”
Tylo took the water and took a steady drink, pausing to wipe the moisture from her skin, colored as it was with her Vossik intermittent blue and red patterns, glistening with the water and her sweat. She adjusted the Mystic’s robe she wore over her hairless, but otherwise humanoid, frame. She shook her head.
“No, Skywalker. The ritual is performed usually after a rite of climbing this way. It is done after extreme fatigue. Because the participant must be able to taste oblivion. We are dipping into the borders of where the Force exists beyond death.”
She motioned to the holocron. “That will be useful to bring you into the waskaja deep enough. We do not need to run you for days, scourge you, starve you, and make you climb these rocks naked, as is the tradition for this ritual.”
Luke took the water back and nodded, somewhat chastened. “I’m grateful for the concessions, then.”
Tylo knelt over the charred pit. A pip of a plasma ignitor started the dry branches and reeds to burst into a fire. A smoky haze rose up against the rush of heat and light dancing now on the walls of the cave’s shadows. Tylo took her place opposite Luke. They both sat with their legs crossed with hands on their knees. Luke waved a hand over the holocron and the mechanical locks whirred into motion as the box unfolded, revealing the calming, glowing blue orb that pulsed within.
He inhaled and began coughing from the smoke. Tylo closed her eyes and began chanting ritual lyrics softly. Minutes passed as Luke felt himself getting lighter. He felt himself floating within the Force itself. Beyond the constraints of his flesh and bone.
Tylo paused. She looked at Luke with sincerity. The firelight danced reflections across her face as the meditation orb emanated blue light that reflected underneath her chin. “There is something I must tell you, Skywalker. Before you go into the Force. Why I understand what it was that Vader was doing in the Keep. Why I understand why you are here. Why I understand that this ritual is necessary, now, for you to find something redemptive in your father’s legacy.”
Luke was silent as she had his full attention. She went on.
“I made a promise to Bail Organa that I would return to Voss. I would complete my training. And keep an eye on the Sith Lord for Obi-Wan’s sake. I had other orders, too. I followed them. And I let myself socialize with the stormtroopers of the garrison.
“I kept my distance. A Force user as powerful as Vader could have seen if I were observing him closely. I could not have have hid my Force sensitivity. I observed him from afar. With the other Mystics, I meditated in our ancient ways. I watched the fluctuations of the Dark Side when Black Mask was here.”
Luke’s mouth was open, but he was speechless. He finally found the words to speak.
“You were… part of the Rebellion? You were sent back to Voss as a spy?”
“Yes. Or more precisely, as an operative under deep cover. And if the opportunity arose, an assassin.” She closed her eyes and looked downward. Luke swore he saw a trickle from her left eye as she strained the next words. “But I could not have killed Vader. There was never a chance to get close to him. There was the possibility… through seduction… to sneak in a thermal detonator with one of the garrison.”
She breathed heavily, now. Luke could sense the unraveling emotion from this confession.
“But I did not expect to fall in love. But I did. With Jafan. And through the garrison, I saw another side of the Empire. Of good men who were twisted by an evil system. Of a kind Force user who was a trooper, who never explored his forbidden senses. And we became just two more people…”
She stopped now and wiped her eye with the sleeves of her robes. Luke knew that this emotion was unlike that normally revealed by a Mystic. This was a deeply personal moment for her. He nodded and swallowed hard.
“We had two children. We had a normal life here. A family. Just another family trying to survive without being crushed by the Empire’s heel.”
She now looked squarely at him. Luke saw a fiery absolution in her slightly opaque, alien eyes.
“There is a reason why I am telling this to you, Luke. For the sake of my family, yes. But for yours as well. Bail had told me the truth of Vader: That he once was a Jedi named Anakin Skywalker. And that he was the subject of a prophecy. He would be the one who would bring balance to the Force.
“I came to believe that is why he was here. From afar, in the village, I could sense his agony. His pain from his charred flesh drove his rage even further. And from this cave, observing the Keep, I could sense the fury and hatred in his dreams that reached out to the Dark Side. He never forgot that prophecy. He came here to seek the way to that balance. To seek some truth he could find in the remains of the Voss of old. From the holocrons of the Jedi and Sith that he had shipped from tombs and museums across the galaxy.
“Killing Vader here would have done little but expose me as a Rebellion plant, and it would have given the Empire an excuse for genocide. It would have torn apart those who were most important to me: Jafan, my children, my neighbors. I knew the Rebellion might say I hadn’t tried. That I had disobeyed orders. But the closer to Vader I was, the more I saw it was futile to rely on his death alone, as impossible as it would have been to make that happen.
“It was Palpatine who was holding his leash, and I knew that nothing would change without his final death.
“The Sith had sought power for centuries. But they were limited in their ambitions. They sought personal power, and personal glory. But Palpatine was smart enough to realize if he seized the reigns of power over the military, over the governments of the galaxy, he had unprecedented power to indulge the Dark Side. With the Death Star, he could unleash death on a scale unlike any other that had come before him. His political power fed his Dark Side power until he was convinced that there was nothing that could stop him.
“But you, Luke. You stopped him.”
Luke winced involuntarily. He leaned back and exhaled, closing his eyes. He felt the weight of her emotion breaking through the brave Mystic exterior. He spoke softly.
“I could not defeat Palpatine. Not by myself. I did defy him. But it was Va – Anakin Skywalker who killed him in the end.”
She nodded. “So it is true. Vader did kill him?”
“My father was dying. Much of Vader had been beaten out of him. But what was Anakin was left in him. And he finished off Palpatine. In the end, they killed one another.”
She nodded. “I see.”
“Tylo, I know that the Force leaves anchors in places where it is strong. The Dark Side is strong with the Keep. And it holds an essence of Vader there. And worse, part of what Vader unleashed. If we can close it once and for all...”
She shook her head. “The Dark Side is not closed or done away with it. It just is. As with the LIght Side. ‘Where there is life, there is the Force.’ That was an inscription on the temple at Jedah, you know. What we can do here is find out the limits of what Vader himself found. We cannot keep out the Dark Side. But we can remove the anchor that he left behind. So that you can continue from here. And bring the Jedi order back. As you must.”
He nodded. “Yes.”
There was a pause as they grew silent. Luke focused once more on the Force, feeling himself drawn in once again.
“Lady Mystic, I am ready.”
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The garrison was situated at the ridge of one of the peaks just below where Vader’s Keep extended to the sky. Assembled as plasteel prefabricated structures, they spread out in a circle that was more than an Imperial kilometer in diameter. There were two main housing barracks side by side with a canteen connecting them. Each one had once housed a hundred troopers comfortably, along with their officers. Three larger, curved durasteel structures were next to them which served as a hanger, power plant, and a storehouse, respectively. Smaller duraplast huts along the circle served as an armory, fabrication shop, a gymnasium, infirmary, and command posts. In the center was a large open ground for muster, PT, weapons training, and landing zones for any visiting crafts. The tauntauns were penned next to a fenced field and plasteel barn at the far end of the perimeter, given room to graze and exercise on the graded slopes going off the mountain when they were not sheltered or working.
The shield which covered the castle and the garrison itself was run from the power plant. For that reason, there was neither fencing nor barricades around the garrison. The post had always been disciplined and polished, but there was never heavy reinforcement. The shield had prevented any attack from outside its barrier. Besides that, the land itself was deserted almost entirely of locals, save for the Voss village at the bottom of the mountain.
The purpose of the garrison itself was largely ceremonial, as it served to guard the castle’s only resident, who himself was only occasionally on site. And if anyone sought to engage Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, 200 stormtroopers weren’t likely the worst thing they would face.
The troopers had been lucky. For many years, they’d had a holiday away from the war against the Rebellion. While thousands of units were pinned down fighting insurgents on distant worlds, the troopers here spent their time patrolling deserted mountain passes; they spent time hunting, drinking, and getting familiar with Voss village’s hospitality industry. A day’s journey down the pass (or less than an hour by tauntaun) would lead into the settlement where the traders came to visit and sell goods, services, and the occasional luckless soul. By Imperial decree, Vader’s Keep was a Class 2 restricted zone, which meant anyone who was not one of the Voss villagers or an Imperial Officer was required to be a badged trooper, a visitor with a transmitting beacon pass, or they were subject to killed on sight at the pleasure the Empire.
The death of the Emperor and the fall of Coruscant had mooted all the old decrees. Where once there were more than 200 permanent residents of the garrison, there were now never more than 30 after most had fled to the remainder of the fleet. It was a skeleton crew that guarded the Keep and Vader’s supposed heir. But they still had the deflector shield.
Just what a Sith Lord had been secreting away was too tempting to the adventurers of the galaxy. It didn’t help, either, that the Jedi who was now in residence was blamed by the Imperial holdouts for assassinating Vader and the Emperor, had a price on his head from the Hutts, and was also considered a prime bounty by the Mandalorian clans.
Three of the remaining engineers were in the power plant. They had been scrubbing the fusion generators, and checking for any errors in the automated routines. After that, they had done the more mundane tasks of dusting and sweeping out the entire bay. With only a sparse amount of droids available, much of the hands-on maintenance was still done by flesh hands wrapped in duraplast gloves.
They wore loose-fitting, shiny sanitary smocks that blocked out dangerous bits of micro particles or toxic substances as they worked on cleaning the generators that drew power from the planet’s core. They had transparent sanitary shields over their faces which protected them while allowing unobstructed vision. They had these clear masks pulled back on top of their heads, now. Their engineer smocks were slightly undone as they sat around an overturned plasma coil housing. It was a flat, circular piece of equipment that was burned out long ago, but wide as a wookie is tall, and unwieldy enough that it was just easier to re-purpose it than to drag it out of the power plant for disposal. Adorned with chipped paint with Imperial military insignia on the side, it was now overturned and served as a table.
The engineers were playing a portable sabacc game. The suspension plate with the cards hovered above the center of the makeshift table as they drank a lunch of synthesized blue milk spiked with a particularly volatile grain alcohol the local Voss brewed. Black and gray imperial astromech droids were now rolling on the edges of the hangar, performing the close scrubbing of particles in and around the more contoured part of the generators while their human masters rested.
A lanky engineer leaned back in his duraplast folding chair, quietly sipping his blue milk. He observed the other two deal and bicker. The youngest man, with a mop of unruly blonde hair, guffawed as he shifted the cards in his hand as he dealt them. The remaining engineer, a squat, older man with a bald pate under the sanitary shield resting on his head looked over his own cards and drew vapor from a hookah pipe. He watched the sabacc plate turn and chime, his eyes following it’s calls as the next hand fell into place. He smirked condescendingly.
“Nice play, Jannsen.”
“Ante up?” asked the blonde man in frustration. The bald engineer pulled on the hookah as he hummed noncommittally.
The play stopped as a shadow came across the table, passing over the floating game plate. The three men looked up, completely bewildered by what they saw. It was a man in what looked like classic Mandalorian armor standing at the vehicle bay entrance. He stood at a rightish angle toward them, armed as he was with a bullpup blaster rifle, with the stock resting in his shoulder as he held a hand on the trigger which was forward on the barrel ahead of the action, and another on the rear handle near the stock. They were more surprised than alarmed at the intruder. Glances backward confirmed that the deflector shield controller was still humming away, and the power was untouched. A moment hung in the air as they considered whether this was real or some kind of hallucination. The blonde man wondered if the algal incubator had malfunctioned, breeding hallucinogenic mold into their milk. Such things had been known to happen.
Finally, the lanky engineer snapped awake. He was on the far end of the table, directly facing the Mandalorian stranger. He reached to his breast pocket, tearing open the latch to get a hand on his blaster.
Before he had even drawn his weapon, a plasma bolt burst into his chest, knocking him backwards, killing him before he hit the floor. Without missing a beat, the Mandalorian swiveled and shot the bald, hookah-wielding engineer through his open hood, hitting him directly between the eyes.
The young man with the mop of blonde hair fell to his knees with his hands up in the air. His eyes were wide as he stuttered and pleaded for his life.
Jeet Syllba felt the elation of destruction. It had been an embarrassingly long time since he racked up a clean kill. He missed rejoicing in the splendid sensation of the surprise in a victim’s face just before a plasma bolt when through it. He walked up to the pleading young engineer now begging for his life.
“How many?!?” Snarled Syllba. His voice was heavily electronic, behind his red and gray Mandalorian helmet.
“H-How many?” Pleaded the young man.
“How many more are inside the hangar?!?” Syllba hissed impatiently as he put a boot into the side of the man, knocking him sideways.
“N-none! We’re the only ones on duty! The rest are in the b-barracks! I swear!”
“Good.” Syllba shot him in the heart, ending their conversation quickly.
The air was mostly silent, now. The sabacc game chimed, reminding the next player to make his move. The dead bodies gasped air, reflexively. The droids in the corners whirred away, carrying on mindless, routine cleaning duties. Syllba crouched, turning swiftly with his arms extended, sighting through his bullpup blaster rifle’s sights, scanning the perimeter of the hangar. He saw no signs that the engineer had lied. The infra-red scanner blinking in the corner of his HUD gave no indication of any living movement left besides his own. He spoke into the comm-link in his helmet.
“The power plant is mine, Intan. Your move.”
Intan closed the comm-link in his hand. He swung a hand overhead to gesture to the rest of the Marauders. In uniforms that were most-parts standard stormtrooper issue, but also mixes of biker scout, pilot, and improvised, and all decorated with personalized pinstriping and the occasional Ewok bone, the Marauders rose from their prone positions and moved forward. They kept low, crouching behind obstacles.
They moved smoothly with well-rehearsed cooperation. In squads of five, two aimed high, two aimed low, as the squad leader focused on the objective. They quickly advanced across the grounds, scanning every corner of the garrison. They saw no movement.
Intan bit his lip behind the trooper helmet. Kale kept his word at least. Their codes had let them through the deflector shield without raising an alarm. Once they sent a back-end override, they were able to avoid the usual challenge-response protocols which would have necessarily alerted the garrison to their entry. As he suspected, the garrison was only barely a crew at this point. Dispatching the traitors would be fairly swift work.
The squads approached the barracks. They skillfully attached thermal detonators to the outside of the structures and quickly began double-timing back to the treeline to find cover.
The movement had excited the tauntauns far down at the other end of the garrison. They started bleating in turn, bunched up at their fence. Perhaps they were anticipating feeding time had come early.
Inside the barracks, the remaining garrison was stirring to the tauntaun bleats after sleeping off their night duty. Private Llrellius, KA-448, was on fireguard duty. He had been lazily walking through the barracks, running a polisher over the floor, and barely paying attention when he saw movement outside. Seeing a sudden flash of what looked like stormtrooper helmets running by, he squinted and placed his head to the window. He thought he saw troopers running from the barracks, quickly getting behind the rocks and shrubbery next to the parade ground. It seemed strange enough. He considered raising the alarm, but then considered waking everyone would be stupid if the patrols had come back early and were chasing a ball or a womp rat.
He looked closely and could tell now this was not the patrol. Their uniforms were wrong. Mis-matched helmets and armor pieces, and colored pinstriping. He turned in a panic and reached for the general alarm button on the fireguard vest. But he was too late.
“Fire in the hole!” Intan screamed to his crew as they crouched and covered their helmeted faces. A moment later, four precisely placed thermal detonators went off, and the barracks were torn apart. Twisting shards of semi-molten plasteel bulleted into the sky, spinning off into random directions, arcing eventually to the ground as shrapnel, leaving behind a widening cloud of dust and fire.
The garrison was taken.
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Ghosts of the Sith by Daniel Jeyn