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Ghosts of the Sith by Daniel Jeyn

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Drrsala was the name he was given on hatching. Now, in his sixth year, he was the age in which a youngling would join the pod as a hunter. This was the tradition of the Trandoshans, living in thrall of the great eternal Huntress. His scales were reddish, which was a trait of his father’s clan, and considered handsome. Great things were expected of this one by the elders. His parents had thus taken him on his first hunt, to collect a bounty on a soft-skin. But it was the last hunt they would ever take.

Drrsala’s great hunt had been short. So far. He watched his parents both be struck down and join the Huntress. He was now the prisoner and slave of the soft-skins who had killed them.

The soft-skins were a weak race he had been told; smelly creatures with fur instead of scales, who eat sticks and berries, and move with a mammalian twitchiness. They were clever, though, and they could be dangerous. They had no claws. But they built claws they could hold as weapons. And they covered their soft skins in hard shells.

He’d lived among them for a month now, and they were indeed chatty and nervous, always moving like typical fur-covered beasts. Their constant motion and heated bodies stirred his predatory instincts. Their skins quivered in a way that provoked his salvation with the memory of chasing womp rats.

He felt dishonored to himself by how much he missed a good womp rat meal more than he missed his parents. His captors had fed him generously with their strange food made in glowing vats. It tasted something like meat. But it was blandly missing any hint of blood.

Still, he had not suffered. Although at least suffering would have been a challenge. He didn’t understand why they had not tortured him as a captive. It frustrated him to think that his parents had broken through to the Huntress in joyous pain, but he was left not to suffer and fight, but only be bored.

They stumbled on the words to say “you are not slave!” But Drrsala couldn’t understand the meaning of this. To the Trandosha, there is service and command, and this is all there is. He understood he was in debt to the Jedi for sparing his life, and for that he served willingly. One who serves is ranked below those those who command, but to serve a great hunter is itself a high honor. The Jedi was a great warrior. Especially if he was good enough to defeat a Trandoshan.

He was now overlooking the great valley from a warm rock, observing a wavering sea of orangish reddish savannah grass undulating with the wind. The valley was ringed by the mountains extending far in the distance. He had rested here for two days now. The Jedi had wandered the plains for much longer. Drrsala understood that the Jedi was on a long trek not unlike a hunt. It was something to do with the religion.

He followed the instructions Luke had given him. He had gathered supplies in a bag and climbed in one of the globular Imperial ships with two large panels on the side. It followed a pre-programmed course, gently floating across the plain to get to the rendezvous point. He filled the days ever since alleviating his boredom by wiping down the craft and resting on the rock when daylight was at it’s zenith. There were insects in the high grass which flitted about, and he entertained himself by stalking and hunting them. They were fine prey to supplement the boring rations from the soft-skins, but they still lacked the satisfaction of fresh blood. He made a game of it: Trying to leap and grab them from further and more obscure angles. They had different textures and tastes, and he took care to remember the ones he liked most.

As he was contemplating perhaps stalking something for a snack, he noticed shimmering light in the distance. The tall grass moved in a way that indicated an animal was walking there. He picked up a pair of macrobinoculars and could see now the Jedi and two Voss Mystics were coming up the valley. The Jedi looked gaunt and tired, his military jerkin looked covered in dust, and the fur on his face had grown to a fine dander. The two Mystics walking on either side of him kept plaintive expressions on their gleaming, multi-colored faces. Drrsala stirred his warmed blood to focus on his tasks and crawled down from the rock. He placed out a folding duraplast table, a container of water, and a case of food sticks. He proceeded to set out a complement of tools and clothing from the Jedi’s compartments. All as he had been directed to do.

It didn’t take long for Luke to make his way up the valley toward the landing area, shaking the dust from his clothes and nodding in acknowledgement to Drrsala that he had done well. The Trandoshan bowed in respect to his master. Luke picked up the water first and drank with a relish. He offered it to the Voss as well, but they seem mostly uninterested.

“We are well, Skywalker. This land nourishes us as its children.” Luke seemed fatigued at their speaking. “Suit yourselves” he muttered. He stripped off his clothes, exposing his flesh to the warmth of the sun. He picked up a sonic cleanser, and passed it over himself. The hand-held device buzzed as it pushed a thick wall of ion-charged air over his skin.

Drrsala noted that the hygiene of these creatures was very much in the manner of all warmbloods. Unlike regular grooming and shedding of one’s scales, these creatures regularly washed their bodies with either liquids or sonic devices that wiped and cleaned off the accumulation of dirt and excretions on their skins. They were still strange to him, but somehow civilized for having the shortcomings of furry beings.

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After a minute of waving the ion shower over his body, Luke’s expression relaxed. He dressed himself in a fresh khaki and green uniform. He chewed on a food stick and turned to the mystics. One of the Voss spoke first in accented Basic, with the buzzing tonality of their language.

“Master Jedi, we have been pleased to take you into this voyage into the ancient holy lands.”

Luke nodded. “The honor is restored.”

“You are strong with the waskaja. What you call ‘The Force.’ You are beyond a mere adept. We have been pleased to commune with you these past few days.”

Luke bowed again. He had taken in much of Voss folklore and ways of living. His brain was tired. Ten days of traveling with the Mystics and meditating on the mountaintops, eating and drinking very little, while his body was pushed to the limits had driven him far into the Force. This was an accelerated version of what Mystic adepts in their culture would undergo. Normally, this was the tail end of a process of indoctrination in the Force which lasted for more than ten years. For this Jedi, they had brought him up to speed as best as they could. They knew that he had already earned his own gateway to the world beyond, tested by battle against the Dark Side. They had been curious to observe his power in the Force as well.

He had gained much insight into the long history of Voss culture in those recent days, at least. Far from the heart of the Empire, the Voss Mystic traditions had skirted the bans on Force indoctrination throughout the galaxy. Their ancient contacts with the Jedi and Sith during the Golden Age still lived on in the quiet backwater rural Voss had become. Luke had heard far more Vossik legends in the last few days than he would ever retain in the long run. He mused there were only a few he may remember fully even a week from now.

Luke knew that his time on Voss would be limited. Vader’s Keep was in a precarious position that would not remain safe for much longer. Not with the galaxy coming to scavenge its holdings. Especially after Jafan had informed him that former Imperials had been reportedly seen skulking around the trade settlement.

Luke had never fully understood how Ben was able to communicate after his death. But now he understood more from the Voss how those who are one with the Force can be anchored to those who are left behind. The dead do not walk among the living, the Mystic had said, but that we the living meet them halfway in the world of the waskaja. The Voss had a powerful heritage of contemplating these things for quite some time.

Luke himself now also contemplated how much insight he had gained into the physical differences between the Voss and humans in the last several days. They were well suited to this land, and they considered themselves to be its offspring. They broke certain mountain reeds which grew in the streams and chewed them. These seemed to provide most of their needs for food and drink, supplemented by eating the raw insects that flitted about in the reeds. Not one to question the insight of Force masters as when he was much younger and more impetuous, he willingly went along. He admitted to himself that no matter how deep in the Force he was, eating insects was repulsive. But he managed it well enough. The reeds were also bland to his taste, and constantly left his stomach feeling unsettled.

Life on a military base was a minimal one without luxury. But he couldn’t stop thinking now of how much he desired the comfort of a military cot and a plate of fresh algal whipped up into a pleasing texture: spiced, salted, and piping hot. In his mind, he longed for these spartan comforts more than a louche, hedonistic Hutt might long for a hot pool and a feast of gwerp frogs.

Pulled temporarily out of the heavy matters of considering the souls of the dead Jedi and Sith, he also eyed the TIE fighter. He had waited until the time was right to take one from the garrison out for a flight. Something didn’t sit right with him that he was fully inheriting Vader’s Keep here. If the Jedi order was to return, Luke Skywalker would want to avoid the mantle of Vader. He hoped to honor the good that once was Anakin Skywalker. He certainly didn’t want to give out any impression that he was using the garrison equipment as his own possessions. But he was greedily looking forward to piloting a TIE fighter for real.

After waving off the Mystics, Luke worked with Drrsala to pack up the rest of the belongings back into the fighter. He’d had Threepio work with the young servant, teaching him as many Basic phrases and words as might be useful. The Trandoshan found it extremely difficult to pronounce foreign words with his reptilian mouth, and the droid was noisily frustrated with the task. Drrsala made non-committal sounds as Luke directed the youngling. He wondered if the Trandoshan would be a useful ally in the long run. He supposed he’d just let him go at some point if Drrsala wished it. Until then, he hoped to let the youngling know that the new order of the galaxy, if Luke had any say, would have no part of slavery and cruelty as a matter of law.

“Are you ready to fly?” Luke asked, not sure even if he had been understood. Drrsala nodded and made a hissing noise. Luke pulled an outer flight suit over his fiberweave fatigues. He strapped down the helmet over his head, twisting the torque straps into place. So equipped, he leapt up and lowered himself into the cockpit. Drrsala climbed in after him, uncomfortably locking himself into the gunner’s perch just behind Luke, which had not been designed to fit a scaly Trandoshan’s frame.

They were brilliantly built craft, Luke had observed. Their twin-ion engines were highly efficient, and their fusion charge could enable a TIE fighter to operate for weeks at a time in zero-gravity environment. The ionic propulsion that emitted from different angles on the waffled panels allowed for equal movement in all directions in zero gravity.

When modified like this one was to operate within an atmosphere, several compromises were made. The TIE fighter’s form was designed for space, and had no aerodynamic qualities of its own. When operating in an atmosphere, the fusion coil’s amperage was increased, and the shield projectors were inverted. This provided a small gravity well, essentially allowing the craft to float in a gravity bubble that pushed out against the atmosphere and the planet’s g-forces. This was similar to the relatively tiny cores in landcraft like speeder-bikes, but at at a much greater electron displacement to account for flight and to actively counteract gravitational friction. For a drifting path like the pre-recorded flight carrying Drrsala slowly and sleepily over the mountains, the energy expended was fairly modest. Luke had no desire for such modest efficiency right now, though. He wanted to punch down the acceleration, pulling maximum thrust from the plasma core, and push the TIE to its limits.

The X-wings and many of the other ships the Alliance relied on were much simpler, and more inherently multi-purpose than the TIEs. They did not have nearly as intricate of a design, and they cost far less to produce. Whereas the TIE relied mainly on shielding, ionic panels, and reverse gravity wells, the X-wings relied much more on armoring, speed, adrenaline, and the modular astromech droids. Their shielding and ionic pulses were many generations behind Imperial technology, and thus were much easier to work on and return to the field by the Rebellion and its scarce resources.

The TIEs were not designed for standalone squadrons with limited ability to make repairs that depended on astromech droids; they were hive beasts. They were parts of a high-tech military infrastructure tied to carriers and a vast crew of engineers to service them. Their intricate complexity was a vulnerability, then, when they were removed from the fleet. They required the constant activity of the highly disciplined, and specifically trained Imperial technicians to continue operating at peak performance.

From farm T-hoppers, to Corellian freighters, to the no-nonsense X-wings, Luke had piloted a great many can-do utility vehicles that were blunt, lumbering vehicles compared to a delicate piece of high-tech like a TIE. He was no stranger to vehicles with rattling seals, mis-colored replacement panels, and the need to spend time leaning into their crevices with a hydro-spanner. Piloting a clean, precise machine like this was a joy. He felt like a wealthy lord out for a pleasure cruise.

As he flipped on the gravity inversion well, the ship lights warmed up, and the whining sound of motivational capacitors charging echoed in his helmet. Luke felt his stomach and head swell in the unsettling g-force press that was forming. Every piece was harmoniously functioning as designed to eagerly buoy the craft upward.

“Here we go” he announced to Drrsala, who made a non-committal grunt behind him. They were about to see just what the very best of Imperial technology could do. Luke pulled hard on the throttle, and the TIE went from a gentle float to a contained explosion bursting up into the clouds. He was surprised at the incredible responsiveness of the controls, giving tactile feedback in both hands. Almost instantly, a wave of nausea swept over him, as he fell into the sky. The ability to absorb extreme g-forces was a necessity for a serious pilot. However, the gravity inversion resulted in a different, dizzying effect than simply being thrust backward by straight g-forces. Even as he was propelling forward faster than atmospheric sound, the result of the gravity inversion was a sensation of falling forward into the direction the craft was moving, with his insides seemingly aching to expand, rather than being crushed. At these speeds, without the pressurization and gravity well, any singular fleshy being fighting on its own against planetary gravity would be crushed into unconsciousness and likely suffocation and death. Within the cocoon of the TIE, however, he felt only as uncomfortable as a swift descent in an air hopper in glide mode, which was slightly disorienting, but not debilitating.

He could see the bursting plumes of vapor whirling around the craft as they parted the clouds explosively. He overlooked the swiftly expanding, miniaturizing landscape of Voss. In less than two minutes, the TIE was up against the edge of space, and the ship made a whining sound again in descending tones as the atmospheric friction dwindled against the gravity well. The vapor cloak receded, as the TIE pulled away from the lower Vossik atmosphere. In the distance, the bright reddish glow of the planet’s coronal halo was visible at the curving horizon.

Luke banked the craft with the dual-stick controls and piloted between the endless depth of darkness above him and the clouds at his feet. He was circling the continent where the Keep was. He could only make out the occasional mountain or body of water below him. He took a breath as his lungs finally relaxed. His meal of protein sticks and water no longer threatened to make a reappearance.

“There’s the planet from above, Drrsala. I never tire of this kind of view.” The Trandoshan had been quiet, but made a few noises staring out at the sight. Perhaps he was eager to be a pilot as well. Luke knew he was no stranger to flight, as he made no effort to complain in the slightest as they were rocked to and fro during their ascent.

Their arc continued as Luke edged the craft back down into the atmosphere. He could see the vapor clouds converging and being pushed aside by the presently winding-up, recharging gravity well. The land below him began to take form. He held the dual stick controls, transmitting the flight path’s directional arc in precise feedback, and he felt properly in control of his momentum. He had been content in the past few weeks to trust the Force, and was used to letting it guide him. It was unusual, these days, to have a moment where he chose his own course once again after having been buffered by events so often.

Piloting a ship was when he was at his most calm and felt most complete. At the moment, he was no longer tired, no longer overwhelmed with desire for real food and sleep. His mind was on his flight path, feeling the feedback from the craft in which he was cradled, his spare glances only on the directional sensors in the holographic HUD around him. He was light itself, passing over the plains below, and leaving behind the concerns of crude matter.

His mind now freshly went to the stories the Mystics told of ancient Voss. They had chanted stories while they chewed the reeds and meditated in front of the fires in the darkness at night. For long hours, Luke had listened to their quiet chanting, finding himself lost in a dreamlike state. Watching the burning embers climb into the Vossik night, he had relaxed his body and opened his mind to the Force. This was how they had told him a Mystic must let himself go; he must leave behind the trappings of the busy outside world, and contemplate the nature of the Force.

After the third day of repeated meditation, Luke was stronger. He found himself entering a strong Force trance even while still nearly in a waking state. It was there that he once again saw Anakin Skywalker. His visage was paler, still distant from Luke in the darkness. There were limits to what a living soul like Luke might yet glean from communing with one within the Force. Anakin’s face was concerned, and seemed to be leaning forward, as though he were reaching out. Luke had leaned in through the trance, but he found his father could not quite be reached. Just faintly, above his face was the gossamer outline of the grill of Vader’s mask. Anakin seemed to want to mouth something, but his essence was chilled by the strength of the Dark Side that was still evanescent around him; a darkness that had a solid footing here in Voss. It’s strength was a balance that restrained Anakin’s soul. Anakin nodded his head with a serious expression before dissolving back into the darkness.

Anakin and Ben could only guide him so much from beyond. And Luke’s destiny was his own to discover and endure.

Luke learned that the Voss were influenced by visitors of the Jedi religion in ancient times. There were those who visited as well who were followers of the Dark Side. The planet was thick with history planted deep in a ground littered with half-buried stone relief carvings, temples, and sacred places that were all strong with the Force. These relics were long overgrown with vines. They were colored with a patina of ashes from those long-departed generations. What were once temples on which Mystics communed with the Force, and entertained the Jedi, the rocks were cold and discarded, now mere perches for nexu stretching themselves and straining to sniff the air to hunt their next meal.

The Mystics transversed these landscapes in their pilgrimage, practically indifferent to their desiccation. They were corridors through a storied past, now, left untouched to let the ancients sleep. The legends were alive in them, the Mystics and storytellers, and their power in the waskaja was their holy duty.

Turning the craft in a vast arc, Luke could see the Keep come into view with the garrison below. The TIE’s comm-link was encrypted with the code frequency that would allow it pass through the shield over the castle. Luke took his time, observing the great structure from the angles afforded him by the craft’s bubble cockpit. The castle’s spires went straight up, far above the rooms where Vader had spent his time. As Luke circled, he contemplated the significance of those spires. Why were they so high? There were four of them, in fact, at equal points around the castle, much higher than any other part of the structure. The highest turrets were far enough from the ground that they would not do much good as defensive battlements during ancient times.

He noted how the black volcanic rock reflected light shimmering across its glassy surface. The obsidian was a hard surface, its crystalline form baked by volcanic eruptions in the planet’s youthful perturbations. Luke noted for the first time that the spires and the entire substance of the Keep seemed to have a shape that was reaching upward. A chill went through him as he considered this.

Khyber crystals were notable for allowing vibrations in rhythm with the Force. There may have been something more than first appeared to this castle’s very structure, made as it was with volcanic rocks thick with crystalline veins running throughout the entire structure. The black obsidian blocks that had been cobbled together to construct it were not just an obscure construction technique. There was maybe a greater purpose. If a single crystal can channel the Force as felt by a Force user, then the whole structure of the Keep itself seemed to be a solid crystalline glass structure, of immense density, and incredible height. He contemplated that as dense as obsidian of this nature would be, it is still a brittle rock, not nearly so suited for battlements. But maybe, Luke pondered, this castle was never meant to be impregnable. Maybe it was never meant to be a defensive position at all. He had learned how the mystics had held rituals at high points in the mountains, reaching higher above them to better sense the Force. The Keep was maybe not designed as a fortress, but as a giant conduit. It was an antenna for the Force.

Vader could have channeled the Force from there. And he could have sought communion with the powers that the Voss had buried there so long ago. The Keep could have been a device to reach out. But to reach out from what? What could the Keep itself have magnified from below that so intrigued a Dark Lord of the Sith?

Luke felt a shivering chill trickle across the scars on his back. He knew he’d next have to find out just what it was.

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Ghosts of the Sith by Daniel Jeyn

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