C-3PO had fussed over the mundane duty of loading up Darth Vader’s collected artifacts from the castle. While he felt it would be better suited to a loader droid, he was satisfied he had made his case to Master Luke and would suffer as was required. Not being optimized for heavy lifting, he and his three protocol companions nonetheless had compiled and inventoried the light sabers and holocrons from the Keep. They then had loaded them into duraplast carrying cases, roughly half an Imperial meter square dimensions, and loaded them up in stacks on the repulsor sleds. They then brought them down to the base of the Keep. It was a lamentable fate for machines as sophisticated as themselves to be loading cargo containers. But they performed their duties as expected.

The three additional protocol droids had been assisting Threepio in his translation and categorization duties. They joined their processing power together to evaluate the markings and etchings on the Jedi and Sith artifacts. These droids had blue exterior plating, rather than gold, which was a flourish of a more recent design than Threepio’s model. They had eventually deferred to Threepio’s seniority, however, and followed his lead. He named them C-3PP, C-3PQ, and C-3PR, which he found appropriate for the sake of sequential symmetry.

 At the base of the entrance to the Keep, adjacent to the garrison, 3PP was wrenching closed the first cargo container. Threepio was loading the manifest data into the identity chip. The other two stood by the sled, conserving energy for the trip back up to the Keep for the next load of artifacts.

The tauntauns at the opposite end of the garrison had been bleating for nearly a minute. The droids had not considered that this merited their attention. Threepio found tauntauns were annoyingly braying and stubborn creatures. His linguistic algorithms were always flummoxed into dead ends when trying to decipher the language of dumb beasts.

A sudden blast shook the garrison and wobbled the very ground the droids stood on. They each stumbled, taking several steps to steady themselves. The four droids looked upward and were met with a darkening cloud over their heads. As they switched to thermal imaging, they were pelted with bits of rock and shredded durasteel plates.

“Oh my!” C-3PO shouted.

“This is most extraordinary!” 3PP shouted in agreement.

The droids did their best now to close the cargo door together. This was one cargo container, after all, and they had expected to load at least two more.

“I believe that came from the barracks. It could be a power malfunction!” Threepio exclaimed.

3PR did some calculations as her eyes pulsed accordingly. “I deduce it was less than a 10% chance of a malfunction. I just checked for any power surges in the area. It would have had to come from the power plant if that were the case. And I do see that the deflector shield and the perimeter housings are still fully powered!”

As the droids discussed their analyses, their attention inextricably drawn to functions and probabilities, they barely were aware of the two stormtroopers coming up out of the smoke.

“Oh! I say! It looks like troopers from the base! Over here!.” Threepio waved so as to be seen through the smoke. He watched the troopers emerge into clear view and lift their blasters. He, 3PP, 3PQ, and 3PR raised their hands to show they were unarmed. The troopers quickly darted their heads back and forth, taking visual inventory of the perimeter. One of them aimed and shot 3PR. Her voice emitted a digital shriek as her torso was ignited by the plasma, splitting her into separate pieces.

The other trooper, wearing a biker scout helmet shouted at the shooter.

“Dammit, Mersan! Don’t shoot the bloody droids! They’re worth money!”

The shooter lowered his weapon and held up a hand. “Scrog it!. Nerves, Varak! I wasn’t thinking about money!”

“Damned right!” shouted the biker scout apparently named Varak as he smacked the other trooper’s helmet with a fist.

C-3P0 kept his hands up. As did his two remaining companions. Their eye modules were pulsing with fright. Otherwise, every servo was unmoving. Threepio noticed that these stormtroopers were very different from the others they knew from the garrison. They had mixed uniform and armor pieces, but all were decorated with red and green pinstriping. They also were less formal with one another. And obviously less disciplined.

More troopers came up from the rolling smoke. They were as ragged and randomly attired as the first two. Threepio noted that there was a female Twi’Lek among them as well, wearing most of an Imperial pilot’s uniform. A stormtrooper with an eerily calm gait walked up the middle of the group. His helmet had the pinstriping in circles on it, as Threepio had recognized, as a linguistic marking common from Correllian gang tattoos which itself was inspired by the the style of Dathomir warriors. Even flushed with terror-induced program calls, and a calculated certainty he was about to be scrapped, C-3PO’s mind whirled with linguistic and anthropological calculations. It was his essential function, and thus where his chips focused their work when he was stressed or idle. Or both.

The fearsome trooper removed his helmet to reveal an equally frightening human face: a flat nose with hair and beard both braided. He breathed in the smoky air, coughed, and laughed.

“Ah, the smell of burning metal! It’s been a spell since we’ve had a proper scrap, eh, Marauders?”

A murmur went up among the tropers. Varak the biker scout pointed to Threepio.

“Have a look here, Intan! The droids were loading up the containers. Must be spoils of the scavengers. No sign of this would-be Jedi.”

The fearsome leader with the sneer and braided beard, apparently named Intan, nodded and turned toward C-3PO.

“Droid! What is your function here?”

“I am C-3PO, programmed for etiquette and protocol, fluent in over seven million forms of communication. I have been employed on many worlds since my first installation, including serving as the chief negotiator for the Manakron system, approximately one-hundred and twenty three years ago…”

Intan grunted as Threepio began his curriculum vitae. Immediately realizing where this was going, the stormtrooper pulled up a ring hanging off his belt with multiple controller fobs attached. He flicked through them with his forefinger and his thumb until he found the one he was looking for. He immediately pointed it at Threepio.

“OH!” Threepio yelped as the fob instantly shocked his system with an override command.

“There now,” Intan growled. “This will order you to tell me just what I want. Is your master the one who thinks that he is a Jedi?”

Threepio answered truthfully. “Yes. My master is Luke Skywalker. He thinks that he is a Jedi.” A chuckle went up among the Marauders.

“So he thinks he is the son of Darth Vader, huh?”

“Yes. He thinks that he is the son of Darth Vader.” More laughter.

Intan now leaned in with a serious drawl to his voice.

“Is Luke Skywalker in the castle there?”

“No. Luke Skywalker is not in the castle.”

“Where is Luke Skywalker?”

“Luke Skywalker is away on a mission to commune with the Mystics of Voss in the village below.”

The stormtroopers looked to one another. Intan looked to the ground and seemed to scrunch his expression as he paused to think. He grew angry and spit, then shouted so as to be heard by the entire crew.

“Tell the Mandalorian to get up here! We’re missing his target. Rally here.” He spun his hand in the air so it could be seen by all of them. 20 mercenary stormtroopers in repurposed armor gathered around. Intan turned back to C-3P0.

“Droid!” he snapped. “What are in the cases you are putting in this cargo container?”

“They are holocrons which were collected by Darth Vader. There are approximately one hundred and fifty in this cargo container in individual protective cases.”

“What’s a bleedin’ holocron?” Varak asked to no one in particular.

The Twi’Lek female answered. “They’re artifacts of the Jedi and Sith. If they were Vader’s, they could be very old. Not something you’d sell out of the back of a cantina…” She glanced almost contemptuously at Intan at the last words.

“…But the right collector, well – we’d have to find the right one at the right part of the galaxy – but when we do, they’d pay millions. For each one.”

The troopers murmured and nodded, seeming very pleased with the news. Intan seemed to immediately forget the insult. He turned back to Threepio and pressed the fob again.

“Is that all?”

“There are two hundred and seventy-one other holocrons making for a total of four hundred and twenty-one.”

“Anything else besides the hocrolons – or whatever they are called?”

“There are sixty-seven light sabers as well.”

At this, the Marauders raised their hands in victory and cheered. Some of them were banging their helmets together. Intan finally grinned. He turned to the Twi’Lek female.

“And those, Varo, we can indeed sell out of the back of a cantina. For millions as well.”

She smirked and put her hands on her hips, leaning backwards into Varak. He removed his biker helmet, revealing shaggy brown hair that fell about his face. He leaned over the Twi’Lek’s shoulder as she brushed the hair away from his face and kissed him. The other Marauders continued to cheer and celebrate the plunder they had found.

A hollow voice from a stormtrooper helmet echoed from the smoke that was now dissipating, coming from the back of the group.

“There now. Lose one little Death Star, and the discipline of you troopers all goes straight to Hell!”

The words had come from a tall stormtrooper dressed in glimmering, clean, bone-white armor with an orange chevron of rank on his shoulder. He was walking past the ragged clan toward Intan. Another man dressed in Mandalorian armor with red trim walked next to him.

“Well, Syllba,” Intan shouted, addressing the Mandalorian, “the pretender Jedi isn’t here after all! And who is your companion?”

The stormtrooper removed his helmet to reveal a closely-cropped head of hair and a permanent scowl under severe eyebrows as thick as a nerff’s. Intan chuckled with recognition.

“Well, Sergeant Kale. I’ve only seen you in civvies before. But I reckoned you were around somewhere to watch the fireworks. Did you come to piss on the wreckage of your former garrison?”

Kale did not share the festive mood. The distinction was very clear by his uniform armor, grooming, and posture that he was still bound by Imperial attitudes toward duty and decorum compared to Marauders and the Mandalorian.

“It’s Lieutenant Kale now, Intan. My arrangement of tidying up these traitors and rebel scavengers has seen to that. And I’m happy to watch them burn. But while you attacked the garrison, you didn’t get them all. There is a patrol. And it’s with Skywalker. Why didn’t you get my message to postpone your attack?”

Intan swallowed hard, still smiling through gritted teeth. “We were under comm-link silence. That was the agreement.”

Kale pointed severely at his opposite in the Marauders. “You were supposed to turn them on at the arranged time. My message was critical! You were supposed to contact me directly!”

Intan sighed. Then he crossed his arms as though this was beneath his interest. “Truth? Yeah, Kale, I saw your message to contact you. Right after we turned them on. But we were ready to go! When the codes you gave us worked to get through the deflector shield, we knew we could do the job, and we weren’t going to wait. There’s money to be made here. We all agreed on that. The Mandalorian paid up his retainer.”

The Mandalorian Jeet Syllba bowed his head in a polite ceremonial acknowledgement. Kale still had a frightful sneer on his face that seemed pregnant with violence.

“The reason those codes worked is the same reason I knew the Jedi wasn’t here! My mole on the inside! He is out on patrol with them!”

Syllba raised his hands and cooly walked between the two bickering stormtroopers.

“Gentlemen! I think we have an excellent chance at settlement here! Just point me in the right direction to where Skywalker is, and I will go kill him.”

Kale leaned back, reducing his confrontational stance for the moment as he seemed to chew his own tongue. “All right, Syllba. We’ll make it happen.”

Kale turned and shouted to the group. “They are down in the Voss village below us. The patrol itself won’t be hard to pick off. And Skywalker is conspicuous in that he carries a light saber on his person.”

Vero the Twi’Lek smirked. “That will make sixty-eight light sabers to sell in total.”

Syllba pointed a gloved finger to the air and held up a data pad with the other hand. He pressed his finger against the holo screen and there was a boom in the sky above them as the air itself shifted. The deflector shield was down.

“I’ve configured the power plant for remote control. You and any craft may come and go from this place with ease.”

Kale nodded and pursed his furry eyebrows. “Intan, the Marauders should take five minutes to recoup yourselves, but no more than five. Then we pack up and get ready to go on to the village. The longer we delay, the better the chance that they will be aware of what has happened and have time to prepare for us. Do your men have their speeder bikes?”

Intan surveyed his followers. “Yes. It won’t be enough for all of us.”

Kale turned again. “Then split them up. Leave two here to guard our haul. We’ll take your freighter as transport for the rest. We also have the TIE fighters. It’s been some years since I took pilot training, but this won’t be high-speed landing or dog-fighting. Just target practice on some traitors and toads. The toads themselves will submit quickly or we’ll burn them to ashes.”

C-3PO noted the word of racial contempt that Kale used for the native Voss villagers. They were called “toads” because of the bright red, blue, or white striped markings on their skin.

R2-D2 was back in the Keep, overlooking all the events. Threepio could sense a sub-frequency distress beacon coming from his inscrutably stubborn companion. He wrote a “thank you, R2!” file and archived with his thoughts. He hoped the troopers wouldn’t notice the broadcast. It seemed to be rare luck now – the maker had mercy – and the troopers were besot with the promise of riches and thus paid him little attention. Perfectly fine with me, he computed and archived.

The Mandalorian now was staring at the droids. He interrupted the mercenary celebrations.

“Hold on. I have an idea for how we can use the droids to our advantage. Is there any extra or damaged armor in the garrison workshop?”

::: || ::: || :::

Luke pulled himself up from the ground. He was in darkness. The floor was rock. But smooth. For a moment, he didn’t know where he was. He felt himself wearing the loose white farmer’s tunic he’d worn since he could remember wearing clothes. Feeling around the room with his hands, the walls seemed to consist of a rippled texture of pour stone and silicate bricks piled on top of one another. Even in the darkness, it was unmistakeable: Tatooine. He walked the length of the room, and his fingers felt shelves on the wall. He bumped one that was low down, and felt the rattling of his old polished inverter collection. Recognizing the placement in his mind’s eye, he reached up above this shelf, but only felt emptiness. He lowered his hand and felt the models of ships he once kept on what was the high shelf. There was the T-hopper, the Freighter, and the Destroyer. It was his childhood room. But he was larger now. And everything was much smaller than he remembered. Once upon a time, he was not able to see above the top shelf. Now it was beneath him.

He felt along the walls that lead into the common hallway. He could now see the dining table in the reflected moonlight coming in from the skylights. He always could on a typical Tatooine night. The cups were set in place. As were the plates. It was home.

He could see the entry to the bedroom beyond. He swallowed hard and shivered. Owen? Beru? Were they here, too? A lump formed in his throat. Standing over his old childhood things had given him a moment of simple nostalgic joy. Now he felt a cold shiver. He was washed over with sorrow and regret.

There was silence close to him. But there was a whistling distant wind. Like night on Tatooine would be. This was home as he remembered it to be.

He felt incredibly alone at that moment. He realized he had never been completely alone on the farm. When Owen didn’t have itinerant workers, he and Beru would take Luke with them whenever they traveled even a short distance. The Tatooine frontier was too dangerous to be so alone.

His eyes were getting used to the darkness now. The moonlight now bolstered his range of vision. He could more clearly see the outlines of the walls and the windows.

Luke’s other senses came into focus. He smelled wood burning. Cocking his head toward the window, he could see a flickering light outside. He made his way to the doorway. In the desert, there was a fire burning. He could see figures seated around it. They seemed not to move.

He stumbled into the night. He felt himself walking forward. His limbs were heavy, like he was partially paralyzed. For the first time, he realized that he must be dreaming. Or something like it.

He stumbled forward and came up to the fire. Feeling his heavy feet moving as he struggled with the deepening sand, he saw the three strangers more clearly. They had hoods, and their faces were obscured from his view. One of them, in a very small frame, was now moving and tending the fire.

His numbed legs felt weak in the loose sand. He fell. He was crawling on his hands and knees. He looked up as he was before the fire. To his left, two of the seated figures remained unmoving even as the wind rippled the cloth of their cloaks. He opened his mouth to speak to them and found his voice was croaking like he had never properly used it before.

“Is this… am I on Tatooine?”

“No. In a place not in your body, it is. Not asleep. In the Force you are.”

“Yoda. Master Yoda.”

To Luke’s right, the small, green Jedi master was the one stirring the fire. He did not take his eyes away from it when he spoke to Luke. Under the hood, his long ears rose and fell with his breathing.

Luke bowed his head from his kneeling position. He felt the wind, the heat of the fire, and the coarse texture of the sand. Yet the conversation was clearly heard, as though it was spoken through their minds as much as their mouths. He could hear Yoda perfectly without raising his voice. “Master, I am humbled to see you again. Please. Please instruct me what I must do.”

Yoda sighed. He poked the fire some more, taking his time. He hummed to himself for a while, pondering his response. Finally, he spoke up.

“Your journey this is. Here, am I, because you have drawn me here. To me, address your questions, you may. But all your answers, I cannot give.”

“Master. Am I in the past?”

“No. In the Force, time does not move that way. The past you see now. But the future is here also.”

Yoda still presented him with riddles. He paused to consider this. Clarity began to form in Luke. He no longer felt as though he were dreaming. He began to remember where he was. Who he was.

“Master. Am I still on Voss?”

“On Voss your body is. Through the Mystics there, you have been lifted here.”

Yoda finally looked up and peered directly at Luke. There was an ethereal, blue glow outlining his old master as there was for all beings who were one with the Force. Yoda gestured to the log on the opposite side of the fire, on Luke’s left, on which were seated the two silent figures. They now removed their hoods and looked into Luke as well.

“Ben. Father.” Luke bowed his head again.

“Sit beside us, young one,” Obi Wan smiled, gesturing to the space between himself and Anakin. “You have come such a long way to get here.”

Luke took the seat, feeling bewildered at how it felt both real and dreamlike. He could feel the air moving around the fire. He could sense the heat. He sat next to the ghost of his father and his first teacher, and directly across from the last great teacher of Jedi.

Anakin stared straight at the fire. He was the young Anakin that Luke had seen in the Force. Not the scarred old body that was trapped in Vader’s armor.

“Do you know what this is, Luke?” Anakin drawled as he gestured at the fire.

“It is the Force. I do not know how I know. But I know.”

Yoda hummed approvingly. He poked the fire some more.

“The Force it is. Feel, do you, the warmth? Sense, you do, the light? Yes. Sense it, you do. But touch it, and burn you, it will. Wield it – try and hold it, and it will burn you as long as you close a fist around it.”

Luke held his left hand out. Shaking slightly, he felt the flames lick against him, singeing the delicate flesh.

Anakin spoke ominously. “But if you hold your other hand, Luke – the one that is not flesh – what would it be? You would not feel the pain, would you? The machine would not be harmed.

“When you are in the fire. When you are deep within it, but you are mostly machine, you do not sense all of it. It burns, but you do not feel it. You think you are its master. But you’re senseless to its nature.”

Ben leaned in from Luke’s right side.

“Palpatine could indulge the Dark Side like no Sith ever had. With his machines, and his ability to wage galactic war, few things at his command could feel the pyre to which they were feeding his victims. Palpatine sat atop a galaxy of unfeeling machinery that did his bidding. And the Dark Side gained power.”

Anakin leaned forward again, holding his hands together in a fist. He leaned over to address his son.

“I had power in the Dark Side. It was power like nothing I could imagine before. But it burned me. Until my own voice was burned away. And I could no longer see the light at all. I sought to control it. To balance it. To tame it. But the more I wielded, the deeper I was buried in the fire.”

Luke sighed and looked at the landscape that was around him, dimly visible in the moonlight, extending to unseen horizons in all directions.

“And this place, Father… Well, not this place, exactly. But Voss. Here. You had looked for a portal to the Dark Side beyond Palpatine?”

Anakin looked down to the fire again, scowling, his hands still clenching one another.

“Yes. That is true. And I found the Dark Side would burn. Like a fire that never runs out of fuel.”

To underlie this point, Anakin leaned back. He opened the brownish vestments he wore, and pulled them open. Inside his clothing, where Luke expected to see scarred skin, there was nothing. No skin, no bone, but simply void.

Yoda, on the opposite side of the fire hummed and nodded. He poked the fire some more.

“Powerful was Palpatine. But not alone was he. But not merely Vader or other Sith. But a long line, it was, of Sith who sought power over death itself. All sought power in the Dark Side, they had. Remains, the legacy does, here and elsewhere. Dormant, it appears, but awaken, it always will.”

Ben looked again at him with his patient eyes.

“The dark portal that was open here, on Voss, in places strong with the Dark Side, must be closed. You can do this through your will. We can help you. But you must also bury this portal so that others who stumble across it do not get seduced by its power. You need to prevent it from being used as a weapon.”

Luke was steady in his response. “I understand, Masters. Where do we start?”

“Where we start,” Anakin spoke with a certain gravity, “is we have a monster to catch.”

::: || ::: || :::

Jafan still had his armor on, but without his helmet for now. He was helping his children carry bundles of reeds through the village. The elder, Tano-Ko, needed his dwelling repaired, but he was too aged to do this himself. So the village contributed their efforts in turns. It was a rare chance for Jafan to do something constructive with his children, rather than leaving much of their care to their mother.

His son, Qyr, fumbled with the process of holding the reeds straight and tying them together with the fibrous sinews in the correct way. The boy worked hard, though, and was trying his best as his small body would allow.

Qyr had told his father how he dreamed of riding a tauntaun some day, not a nerff. And he imagined he’d have a ranch of his own, somewhere on a planet far from here. The man had listened to his son, entertained by the details of the saddle the boy described, like one Qyr said that he saw in an old adventure holovid. Qyr wanted a saddle like that, and he swore he would learn how to make it.

He’ll make a fine man, Jafan thought. He’s diligent. He cares about what he does. He knows that there are people who love him. He’s not an orphan in Nar Shadaa, scrounging to survive by learning the arts of theft and violence. Hopefully, he won’t have to be a grunt in some war, either.

Panna, his oldest, was something special in another way. She had less enthusiasm for the drudgery of this repetitive work. He knew she had a quick mind and a strong will that would serve her well. For now, he noticed that it meant she didn’t suffer tedium very well. But if we go far from here, it will open up possibilities for her. She would do well in the galaxy. She’d be able to absorb much education and training from the variety of worlds they may see.

She was strong in the Force. Jafan knew she was already nearly stronger than he ever was. In a galaxy where the Jedi were no longer banned, she could wield the Force openly as her ally. She would go far.

Jafan was busy securing the reeds he’d wound with the sinewy twine when there was a burning, frightful sensation in the back of his mind. Through the Force, he knew something terrible had just happened.

He looked to Panna, as she had stopped what she was doing as well. She looked up to him with a puzzled expression.

“You felt a great loss just now, didn’t you, Panna?”

She nodded slowly. “I don’t understand what that was. I just felt…that people had just died!”

Jafan looked upward. From down here, they could see the spires of the Keep pointing skyward. They couldn’t see the garrison itself from this angle. Jafan felt muscles in his neck flexing as he saw a smoke coming up over where the garrison would be. He gestured to his children and brought them to him. They were hesitant at that, wondering what kind of danger could so upset their father. He embraced them both firmly.

“I have to go. It’s the garrison.” The children looked surprised. But they knew how serious their father was with his job. He held them tightly for several breaths.

“When I know everything is okay, I’ll be back.” He spoke as he pulled his helmet over his face.

Mounting the hill, Jafan passed the villagers who barely acknowledged him. The Voss were squinting, staring up at the mountain, and pointing. Jafan reached the rest of the patrol. Vancil was attempting to get a signal on his communications gear. He saluted the Centopt and turned to get out of the way.

Corporal Heff had his helmet off to better view the mountain through a pair of macrobinoculars. His blue Chiss skin was a contrast to the white armor. Desek, Balia, and Rikka stood next to him, fully armored and holding their weapons. They were all apprehensive.

“Can you see anything, Corporal?”

“Dust and smoke. There was certainly some kind of explosion.”

Jafan turned to Vancil.

“On the comm-links? Anything?”

“The signal is still there, Centopt. The garrison must still be there and power is still on. I’m not getting anyone online at the moment. There is no emergency signal or alarm, however.”

“That’s still not good. Something must have happened. There must be casualties up there. I definitely don’t like it. I’m going to assume that they’ve come under attack.”

Heff pondered this. “Centopt, if someone is attacking the garrison, it would stand to reason that they might be after Skywalker. And since he’s over here, but up in the mountains on this side, then it means they’ll certainly be coming this way.”

Jafan didn’t need to dwell on this observation long to realize it was likely. “Good point, Corporal. Balia! Go over and inform the village elders that they should tell everyone to stay in cover, and take defensive positions if they are in the war groups. We don’t know if someone is attacking.”

Balia saluted and ran to talk to the villagers.

Jafan turned back to the communications specialist.

“Anything, Vancil?”

“Negative, Centopt. Still silence.”

“Keep at it.”

Jafan nervously glanced up into the hills on the opposite side of the garrison and Keep. His wife was up there with Skywalker. Out of comm-link range. She was leading the ritual to close the quest he had embarked upon here on Voss. Jafan exhaled. He knew that restoration of the Jedi was important. Maybe his children would have a place in that world to come. Especially as emissaries between the traditions of the Voss Mystics and the Jedi.

Watching smoke build and curl, he felt some regret. Maybe it would be best if the Voss Mystics were entirely left alone. Let the Empire fall apart, he thought. Let me die, and let us become one with the Force and part of history. But maybe it was a blessing that the Voss were largely forgotten over the eons. Better they just be left in peace by every galactic would-by tyrant and other fools with delusions of grandeur. The Jedi themselves could neither stop the Empire nor their own destruction. Hopefully, this will be a lesson that Skywalker will retell to any of his future followers.

Balia returned, performing a quick salute. “The Voss have been informed, Centop.”

Jafan returned the salute perfunctorily, still distracted by the thoughts in his head of what might come after all this. He turned and shouted to the men.

“I’m going to do a quick perimeter check. Heff, Vancil, hold this post and carry on. Inform me immediately if there is any communication or any visible movement from the garrison. Rikka, Desek, Balia, with me!”

From there, Jafan took a tour of the village. The young Voss who were parts of the war parties were being called to action. They were visibly nervous. They were country kids, far away from the times of the fearsome warriors of ancient legends. They had some blaster rifles, but mainly relied on atlatl spears for hunting, or their heavy stabbing daggers for livestock slaughter. They had improvised shields that were mostly wood and twine. Only the bits of the shields with repurposed durasteel plate would be effective. They would protect their homes as best as they could, but these poor villagers had no means of stopping even modestly armed pirates.

Jafan took care to give advice where he could. How to take positions. How to be still without cramping up. How to be careful not to bunch up together to make an easy target. He watched the Voss hide the elderly and the children in the storehouses which were buried under ground. With this image burning in his mind, he made one last stop to see his own children. He went to the family hut to make sure they were still safe. The other troops waited outside while he tended to this very personal moment. He entered the hut and found them both on the floor. Qyr was busying himself with a puzzle counting game with beads attached to strings on a frame. Panna was busy weaving nerff wool, which was her usual chore. They both looked relieved to see their father again.

“I need you both to go to the storehouses. You’ll be safer, there.”

Qyr didn’t quite understand. Panna, older, and more firmly strong in the Force, was more aware. She was frightened.

He embraced them again. They came at him with rapid questions.

“What’s happening?”

“Is it pirates? Or Trandoshans again?”

He answered as best he could to put them at ease.

“We don’t know. It could be nothing. There might be some accidents that happened and that could be all.”

He turned to leave the hut, but stopped when a nagging memory hit the back of his mind. He went to the footlocker which held his personal mementos. He dug through the boxes and old clothes and found what he was looking for. It was wrapped in an officer’s old blaster holster in finely finished soft bantha hide. He held the leather holster for a beat as he considered it. He reached down and handed it to Panna.

“Hold on to this. You will figure out how to use it if you must. Don’t let anybody know that you have this, okay?” He leaned down and embraced her. As much as he could, he leaned his mask against the top of her head like a kiss. As the children walked between his troopers toward the storehouse, he took position to lead his squad  away. Panna stopped. She turned, her eyes widened with fear nourished by her heightened senses. She called back to him.

“Daddy!”

He turned to look at his daughter.

“May the Force be with you!” she shouted.

“It will, Panna.”

Heff turned his head to see the Centopt coming back up the hill.

“Just saw something, Top. Looks like something just moved out from the garrison at a high rate of speed. Looks like… hmmm… a TIE fighter. And a freighter vessel. Starting a wide perimeter toward this direction.”

Jafan was now certain that something more sinister than a malfunction had happened. “Bantha-humping mother of Hell! What is going on? Vancil! Try and raise them on the comm-link! Heff, what about the markings? Are they ours?”

Heff’s blue face still pressed against the macrobinoculars. He concentrated on following the path of the craft.

“The TIE is definitely one of ours. They’re angling this way, too! They’re strafing! They’re hitting targets on the ground!”

Jafan took in the sight as best as he could from inside his helmet, watching it all unfold on his HUD. They were on a high point here at the edge of the village, but surrounded by rock outcroppings. They had good visuals from here, but also reasonably good cover if hostiles headed this way.

Jafan still had no reason why they were being strafed by their own TIE.

“Vancil! For the love of the gods! What’s on the scrogging comm-link?!”

Vancil didn’t answer. He paused and took a deep breath. He drew his blaster and shot the Centopt in the back.