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The Chameleon's Crystal: Star Wars Alternate Universe Trilogy Volume 2

By SonicSculpture

Fantasy / Scifi

Chapter 1

With goodly intent,

for though we mean well,

we sometimes do pave

the highway to hell.

The desert landscape seemed to stretch right into the darkening skyline. Had it not been for the orbiting orbs that were slowly slipping into obscurity below the hazy horizon, Lamis Cormosa would not have even been able to tell where the sky stopped and the barren wasteland began. It seemed as if the wilderness swallowed everything, even the evening. Turning away with disgust from the troublesome spectacle, he swayed sideways and spat. The granules he returned to the ground were invisibly absorbed along with so meaningless an amount of moisture. The sands of the stark vicinity seemed to him to be grittier than those of the region where he had been raised, or perhaps it was just the people. He’d never before been this disturbingly close to the infamy of Mos Eisley or its cesspool of a spaceport. Swinging his blond locks aside, he trudged into town.

The first twenty-four years of his life had been spent in slavery, although in the service of an unusually understanding individual. But because of the hardships that were quite common to the desolate location, his owner no longer had any living relatives. According to the legal documents that were opened upon his master’s recent demise, the slaves were emancipated and the estate divided among them. Two of his late master’s most prized possessions had been bequeathed to Lamis: a skiff-like spacecraft and a late model droid. The ship wasn’t much to look at, although it was good for getting around the galaxy. And since the droid’s principal purpose was to interface with computerized equipment, it was neither quite as complex as an astrodroid nor as humanoid as a protocol droid. But because it gave him the ability to interact with many kinds of technology, Lamis believed it would make a profitable companion. The droid’s designation was XP-M3.

In spite of all the destabilization that was still occurring across the cosmos as a result of the assassination of Emperor Palpatine, Lamis had no desire to stay in the system where he’d been enslaved. He was already preparing for departure before Jedi Master Skywalker entered orbit in the Star Killer and advised the evacuation of all the inhabitants of Tatooine. To Lamis, it seemed like a confirmation of the plans he’d already put in place. But since he just happened to be in the spaceport, his droid enjoyed access to the readouts from the subspace sensors. Everybody had believed that the legendary Jedi were extinct, so Lamis had been understandably excited at first to learn that this conviction was incorrect; but he was devastated to discover that Skywalker had actually caused the catastrophe from which they were fleeing. And it impossibly seemed like the Geonosis system wasn’t even the only one he’d destroyed. A second subspace shockwave was detected where Kamino had once been located. Despite how mortified Lamis was to learn about these developments, they also suggested to him a strategy.

The asteroids of Alderaan had been raining down as death in all its surrounding systems for almost a decade. He was very well aware of this fact, but he also knew there were people who’d profited as a result. Every resource within a world suddenly becomes easily accessible when it’s shattered, even those that would never have been discovered otherwise. A few of the fragments had turned out to be mineralogical treasure troves. He saw Master Skywalker’s handiwork as an unparalleled opportunity to do a little prospecting. It was definitely a hazardous industry in which to engage, but he saw such concerns merely as something that might minimize the competition.

Seeing the questionable trajectory that its master was programming into the flight computer, M3 said, “That course is not consistent with any of those recommended by traffic control. Please recalculate. You are preparing to send the ship directly into danger.”

“We are going to fly around the shockwave that’s spreading out from the Geonosis system,” Lamis patiently explained. “We’ll then take a tangential course that will keep us just ahead of the shockwave from the Kamino system. Since it was destroyed first, it should dissipate first. Almost all of its planetoids orbited in a plane. We’ll fly around that radius, which will give me the chance to scan inside the system and see if there is anything that might be salvageable. And then, once the shockwave has dissipated to the point where our shields can withstand the passage, we will go in and get whatever I find.”

“Radiation will remain at dangerous levels even inside the shockwave,” M3 intoned. “If there are to be any extravehicular activities, it would be best for you to let me undertake them alone.”

“I can’t foresee any situation that’d require me to exit the craft,” Lamis laughingly agreed.

Even though obviously jovial about beginning his journey, especially since it now included a possibility of profit, Lamis was momentarily concerned by the pandemonium in the airspace over Mos Eisley as so many ships attempted to exit the imperiled system simultaneously. But he was aware that the shockwave, although originating from a point less than a parsec away, was more than two lights years from reaching them. And he wasn’t heading in the same direction as all the other refugees anyway. He therefore adjusted his initial course to keep his little ship close to the surface until he was well away from the panic that was permeating the spaceport. It made sense to him as well not to advertise the fact that he was falling out of formation. There was no need to make anybody wonder about his intended destination.

The Star Killer had already cleared the system before he sent his tiny ship streaking into the sky. Concentrating exclusively on his anticipated encounter with Darth Chrysalis, Skywalker was never aware of the seemingly inconsequential craft that headed back in the direction from which he had just come. Lamis had M3 use the logs from the subspace sensors to verify his calculated course and ensure that they would skirt both shockwaves. After he’d finally satisfied himself with the safety of their trajectory, he settled back in his ergonomically-designed seat and relished the newfound feeling of being the absolute master of his own destiny. This sensation was increased exponentially as the ship leaped into light speed and the stars turned into surrealistic streamers.

Traveling at relativistic speed, the shockwave radiating out from the decimation of Geonosis was quite a sight to see. The expanding disturbance spanned the entire spectrum. Knowing that most circumspect captains would steer clear of this section of space, it seemed certain that only his ship would have an opportunity to make hyper-accurate recordings of the phenomenon from close range. He therefore made sure that every available scanner was angled in the appropriate direction. He entertained himself with such industry until they had cleared the quadrant.

Because of its proximity to the Rishi Maze, their approach to the Kaminoan shockwave was somewhat more problematic. The impact on the local continuum was profound. Space itself was essentially altering. If not for M3 being aboard to help with the computations, Lamis would never have reached his objective. The ship’s navigational system was not designed to compensate for such a catastrophic disturbance, but they finally succeeded in plotting a parabolic course around the circumference of the steadily expanding sphere. Lamis began to scan the plane in which the planets had once orbited.

Once M3 had adjusted the craft’s equipment to compensate for all the interference from the shockwave, they quickly detected several large amalgamations of mass. The android calculated that the ship’s scanty arsenal could be used to open an aperture in the wave front through which it could then safely pass, but they’d have to wait for additional dissipation to occur before such a method could be attempted. In the meantime, Lamis had little with which to occupy his mind. He found himself missing the older women with whom he had served his master. There hadn’t been room on the ship to bring anyone along. It barely accommodated its current compliment. But the two women were well-known throughout the region for their culinary and accounting capabilities. He had no doubt that someone would employ them and provide them transportation off-planet.

When at last M3 announced that the shockwave had finally lost enough strength for them to attempt their gambit, he raised himself from his reverie and secured himself in his seat. M3 took mere moments to unleash the concentrated assault. Since the craft’s offensive capabilities were in such short supply, it wasn’t difficult for the droid to coordinate the attack. They were rewarded with a reading that was just inside the safety limits for the little ship’s shields. With a determined nudge, the skiff crept into the outskirts of the shattered solar system that had once produced the Empire’s Storm Troopers and even the Clone Emperor himself.

Before dismissing the sense of unease with which he suddenly felt himself assailed, since it seemed like an easily explainable response to such disturbing stimuli, Lamis said, “I have a very bad feeling about this.”

Nevertheless, he set a cautious course toward the careening mountains of mutilated matter. Thinking a glint of metal was from an obliterated orbital platform, he brought his sensors to bear.

“That’s no space station. It’s a moon,” he brokenly breathed. “It looks almost entirely intact.”

“This indicates that its structure was artificially reinforced,” the android adroitly added. “And since there is no official record of such an installation, this constitutes a substantial discovery.”

“Can you take us in for a closer look?” Lamis asked. “I am not enough of a pilot to dodge all this debris.”

Instantly responding to the request, M3 interfaced with the craft’s controls and began a slow descent towards the peculiarly reflective portion of the mysterious moon. It quickly became clear that only a small section of its decimated surface was actually artificial. By tearing off so much of its exterior, the shockwave had revealed the existence of an underground installation. And in the epicenter from which all the destruction seemed to ripple, there was an apparent rip in the metal skin of which the stalwart structure was encased. Lamis aimed all of his instruments into that rift.

“I am detecting technology in there,” he almost instantly announced. “And the radiation level is surprisingly low. Put us down near the opening. We need to enter and investigate. It looks like we just found a fortune in forsaken equipment.”

M3 complied with the command but commented, “It might not be safe inside the structure. It would be advisable for me to enter and reconnoiter its confines first. You could then enter once I have certified its safety.”

“It’s built like a bunker,” Lamis objected. “I’m only able to read what’s right inside the rip. We would be out of communication the entire time. I don’t like that idea. I say we go in together.”

“Acknowledged,” M3 automatically answered, skillfully setting the ship down just outside the irregular entrance. With no clear indication of danger, the droid had no option but to abide by the instructions of its owner. Any attempt to force a further discussion concerning safety would have been incompatible with its programming. It assisted Lamis instead as he suited up and prepared to disembark. They stepped out onto the shattered lunar surface amidst the silence of space.

As they confronted the fissure, and in order to focus on something else besides the darkling enclosure before their feet, Lamis said, “With the imperial fleet to defend this star system, I don’t see why such a secret complex would’ve been required. I can’t even guess what this facility was used for.”

As far as Lamis and M3 were aware, the reports of Emperor Palpatine’s assassination while aboard the Death Star were no more than wishful thinking on the part of the Alliance. Everybody in the outer rim worlds understood that he had somehow survived. The fact that he’d really been replaced by a clone was not common knowledge outside the Republic at this point; hence, there was no way Lamis could have guessed that he was entering the cloning complex in which Darth Chrysalis had actually been conceived. And he also had no idea that the manufactured monarch was about to meet his ultimate demise in the Hoth system. It was therefore in response to some other perception that he paused to peer with sudden suspicion into the mysterious chamber that waited to receive them. Making sure his suspensors were properly positioned, he switched them on as he stepped out over the alcove. Activating its own; M3 swiftly descended beside him.

From inside the upper reaches of the colossal cavity, it was easier to appreciate the degree of the damage. Some of the support structures were compressed. Others had been twisted and stretched. He found it disconcerting to consider an impact that was capable of causing so much contortion. Having been designed by beings whose supercities withstood centuries of assault by surging seas, the load-bearing labyrinth of fractal reinforcement was utterly unlike anything in all his experience. It was to the credit of its alien creators that it had simply been ripped open rather than completely pulverized.

As he continued his steady descent, he focused all his floodlights down into the darkness of the cavernous enclosure. He was rewarded with reflections from frost-covered consoles. He had the accurate impression that they might be for the manipulation of medical equipment. However, this was mostly because their frozen controls did not conform to any configuration with which he was even faintly familiar. He instructed M3 to start scanning to see if any power was still present inside the structure. He needed to activate the equipment so he could determine what it did.

Even though partially compromised by the impact of the shockwave, the complex’s security system was activated by the scans. It did not identify the droid as a threat since its maintenance was accomplished by automatons. But the biological signature constituted unauthorized access. It identified the life form as an intruder. It shot Lamis with its lasers. While still many meters from the floor; his suspensors were short-circuited by the blasts. M3 could not respond swiftly enough and silently watched its master helplessly plummet to collide cruelly with the unforgiving angular surfaces of the metallic consoles. As his broken body bounced to fall between them, the system finally discontinued its attack. The same medical equipment it was supposed to protect was now superimposed between the emitters and their target.

M3 quickly completed its scans and thereby discovered an interface where it would be able to access the controls for the security system. Most of the command codes were encrypted. But there was a redundancy in the diagnostic routine of which the droid was able to take advantage. Forcing the energy flow through the compromised circuits resulted in a cascade that caused the system to crash. And while engaged in this interface, M3 became aware that they were inside a cloning complex. It then turned its attention to the crumpled form of its master.

It took only a cursory examination for the droid to confirm that Lamis was mortally wounded. He didn’t have long to live. In a subsequent interaction with the complex’s computer, while trying to determine what medical assistance the system could extend, it made a surprising suggestion.

The only other clone in the entire complex had been irradiated to death when the structure’s fortifications catastrophically failed. Radiation from the stellar explosion had essentially sterilized every cubic meter of the complex, save for a particular sample that was stored in a sealed vault. Because it was receiving signals from Darth Chrysalis when the electromagnetic pulse slammed into the station, the transponder equipment had also been crippled. Some of those same circuits were involved in the transfer of experience from the donor to the clone, a process that had been perfected by the Kaminoans at the request of Darth Sidious, decades prior. But a partial transfer of experience and personality could still be accomplished, and the clone could also be aged at a far more accelerated rate than was feasible at the time of the first Storm Troopers. The system’s computer advanced a suggestion that involved transferring the nearly lifeless Lamis into a clone of himself.

The android seemed desperate to repair the damaged circuitry, which was something even the system’s service robots hadn’t been able to do. With Lamis languishing more each moment, there was precious little time to make the attempt. In the end there were just too many panels to replace, and the droid had to be satisfied with simply installing ray-shield emitters around the rip in the top of the chamber. This at least made it possible to re-pressurize the compartment.

If the word can properly be applied, M3 was concerned by the prediction of gaps in both the memories and the personality of the individual who would emerge. It therefore wanted to know if any enhancements were available that might help to compensate for what would be lost through the procedure. The system replied by saying that certain augmentation options were available. It then asked M3 a series of seemingly innocuous questions.

“Increase midi-chlorian count?”

Understanding that this was being offered as an advantage, the droid stoically accepted the recommendation. The midi-chlorians, which had been isolated from a sample provided by Darth Sidious decades before and stored in the sealed vault, constituted the only organic material that had survived the shockwave.

“Install survival training?”

Darth Maul was made to submit to an incredibly arduous survival regimen when he was the apprentice of Darth Sidious. He was marooned on a particularly inhospitable planet with nothing to facilitate his survival but the Dark Side of the Force. Not understanding such an inference, but seeing it only as something that could possibly help its master survive, M3 eagerly accepted this enhancement.

“Upload common skill sets?”

These skills sets were actually common only to such career criminals as Darth Maul, Darth Tyranus, Darth Vader, and Darth Sidious. But skill sets sounded only advantageous to the droid. The well meaning automaton was aspiring only to the most altruistic aspects of its programming. But it nevertheless accidentally authorized the remaking of its master as a Dark Lord of the Sith. The system simply complied with the actions that had been so unsuspectingly approved.

Not long after the system had extracted the required specimen for starting the clone, Lamis succumbed to his injuries. But the quantum capture of everything that comprised his personality had already been completed; or at least the system transferred as much of that esoteric quantity as its damaged circuitry could still accommodate. The interface then informed M3 that the signal degradation was estimated to be slightly less than ten percent. In order to minimize the shock of transition, it also advised that the clone be matured to the approximate age that its recipient had reached prior to implanting the personality template. Understanding that it would require several years of accelerated growth to accomplish the recommended maturation, M3 chose to shut itself down for the duration.

During that time; Darth Chrysalis and the Star Killer were both eradicated, the Republic was reborn, the Jedi Order was brought back into being, and Han Solo and Leia Organa were wed. It was assumed and understandably so that the Sith had been irrevocably vanquished. It therefore seemed unnecessary to risk any reconnaissance of the radioactive ruination that had once been called Kamino. The Senate decided instead to quarantine that entire section of space. They had no idea that, in so doing, they were actually abolishing any possibility of someone realizing what was really happening inside the decimated system.

With interminable precision, time passed. The manufactured Lamis matured. Shortly before the templates were supposed to be implanted, M3 emerged from its dormancy. And while it was waiting to see what would be the result of its well meaning ministrations, it reminded itself that a loss of memory was not uncommon among individuals coming out of comas. In a very real way, this description could be appropriately applied to its awakening owner. Its aspect did not appear impassive as it stood by with what looked approximately like anxiety, until its scanners detected the normalization of its master’s vital signs while the system raised him to awareness. Moments later, his eyes fluttered open.

“What in the hell just happened to me?” he inquired in confusion as he suddenly sat straight up and examined his extremities incredulously. He then haltingly continued, “It seems to me that I remember being very badly injured, but I’m not sure how it was supposed to have happened.”

“The security system targeted you as an intruder,” M3 took the opportunity to inform him. “It brought you down with its blasters. You were dying. I had to take extreme steps to save you.”

“Why am I no longer wounded?” Lamis demanded with mounting desperation. “What kind of extreme steps are you talking about?”

“The body you now inhabit was cloned from your original one just before it succumbed to its injuries,” M3 evenly answered. “You might be missing some memories because of imperfections in the process. Some of the transfer circuits were shorted out by the shockwave. But the system calculated that the signal degradation was less than ten percent. And in order to compensate for any shortcomings, I had it add every available enhancement option.”

“What kind of enhancement options are we talking about?” Lamis asked. But before M3 had time to formulate an answer, and after only momentarily presenting the appearance of someone suddenly introspective, his owner unexpectedly stretched a hand towards the droid and levitated it from the floor. As M3 seemed to spasm in response to its suspended situation, he perceptively added, “Don’t bother trying to explain. I think I just figured it out. But it has to take time to grow a clone. How long have I been unconscious?”

“Approximately three years,” the droid responded, sounding disturbed by the turn of events.

“Then the shockwave has already reached Tatooine,” Lamis correctly concluded. “I’d hoped to find my fortune and return there with a larger faster ship to rescue anyone from the household who might’ve been left behind. But I guess nothing can fly faster than the speed of life.”

“What do you intend to do instead?” the suspended droid inquired as it continued waving its limbs about in apparent panic.

Returning the robot to the reflective metal floor, Lamis replied, “The shockwave should have dissipated enough by now that we can pick up subspace broadcasts in the ship. I’m going to suit up so we can return to the surface and see just what’s been going on in the galaxy. I will then be able to make a much more informed decision about my possible objectives. After that, I will want to take a look around the complex and determine the condition of some of its contents.”

After helping Lamis into his suit and making sure that all its suspensors were fully functional again, M3 interfaced with the system’s computer. The droid did this to disengage the ray shields and enable their exit. But the control system had a concern that it used the android to declare.

“The system understands that the moon is now moving through space and no longer in orbit around a central star,” M3 announced. “It recommends that we use the ship’s computer to make sure it is not now on a collision course with any other astronomical object.”

“That is a worthy concern to take into account,” Lamis instantly agreed. “Tell the system we will comply with its request.”

M3 performed as commanded and then accompanied Lamis back to the skiff. The ship was still in surprisingly good shape after having been abandoned on the lunar surface for so long. Its components were completely operational. They activated only moments after Lamis entered the access code. He then listened in disbelief as the subspace broadcasts described the brave new world of the restored Republic.

Even though the transmitted experiences of Darth Chrysalis had been destroyed along with the transponder system, Lamis had been imbued with those that were common to the other Sith Lords. The electromagnetic pulse had only penetrated the uppermost extent of the underground structure and hadn’t deleted those other data banks. The broadcasts made it quite clear that the Emperor had been automatically replaced by a clone after being assassinated aboard the Death Star and that the clone was subsequently killed in the Hoth system. Lamis now understood what purpose the complex had been both constructed and concealed to serve. He had unintentionally become the ultimate offspring of the incredibly clever, although now extinct, Kaminoans and the Emperor’s ingenious scheme.

The broadcasts also referred to a resurrected Jedi Order. And it was with a distinct sense of celebration that they spoke of the elimination of the Sith. Lamis slowly discovered that he’d been rescued from the jaws of death only to become the very happily unsuspected last representative of a deliberately endangered discipline. This realization called his very survival into question. He definitely had no desire to remain as a permanent prisoner in the cloning complex where he had been brought into being. But if the Jedi were to become aware of him, they would certainly try to assassinate him as well. He was completely the equal of the clone they had basically just killed.

It seemed to Lamis like somebody’s sick idea of serendipity that he should have to resort to deception just to ensure his survival. It was precisely the type of ploy that the Jedi would see as a justification for his execution. His continued existence dictated as a prerequisite that he accept the necessity of subterfuge. The so called do-gooders of the galaxy were forcing him to become their nemesis. It made him angry, and he could feel the Force flexing around him in response.

The Sith Lords, whose skill sets he shared, had each assumed a different designation when they became the disciples of the Dark Side. It made no difference whatsoever that he had never desired such a station nor even deliberately trained in the application of such paranormal power. Through no fault of his own, he had actually awakened that way. But he now had to undertake a contemptible campaign if he hoped to preserve his existence, and so he decided to do precisely what the Sith Lords before him had done. By scanning the thesaurus in the skiff’s databanks, he came across the word delusory as a synonym of deceptive. He considered using it. But it wasn’t a desire to deceive that necessitated his crusade. He had lived as a slave all his life. He wanted more for himself than an undeserved life-sentence in solitary confinement. He was thus coerced into doing what his circumstances made compulsory, so he chose to call himself Darth Duress.

He knew he needed to immediately mask himself from the powerful perceptions of the Jedi. If he had emerged anywhere else in the galaxy, this would have represented an insurmountable problem. There was, however, one possible solution: an instrument that Darth Sidious had used to invoke the Shroud of the Dark Side. From his uploaded experiences, he knew the crystal was located inside the complex. It was now time to ascertain the condition of that device and discern the extent of any other arsenal with which he could equip himself. After certifying the absence of any collision course, as requested, Darth Duress and his android returned to the confines of the cloning complex.

He was relieved to discover that the lower levels of the labyrinth had obviously proved to be beyond the reach of the solar shockwave. All the pressure seals had remained uncompromised, and the radiation levels were even lower than those in the topmost compartments. Relying upon the incorporated experience of Darth Sidious, he proceeded directly to the chamber in which the crystal was kept. But he was quickly disappointed by what he discovered. The crystal was not in pristine condition. Shards had been sheared from its edges by the force of the shockwave. They lay all about its base. For an uncomfortable moment, he felt as shattered as the crystal looked.

But the Force seemed to insist that the instrument hadn’t really been rendered useless. And a possible application suggested itself as he examined its shards. He still had yet to arm himself in a manner that truly complimented the menace he now represented.

There were lightsabers at his disposal. He had encountered them along with the desiccated carcasses of their previous wielders during his descent to the lowest level of the structure. Being curious as to the cause of the carnage, he accessed the security recordings. He discovered that Darth Chrysalis had furnished them for the clones of his prior apprentices, so they could fight for the right to serve as his subordinate. After emerging triumphant, Darth Maul had been rewarded with another weapon. Of course, the recordings didn’t include the fact that it had failed to give its user any real advantage, since he was subsequently killed in combat by Master Luke Skywalker aboard the Star Killer.

But Darth Duress had no desire for lightsabers whose owners had discarded them in death, especially when they sported the infamous crimson color that would blatantly betray the bearer’s factual affiliation. He soon discovered that he could use one of the crystal’s fragments to fashion a lightsaber that was able to emanate blades of two distinctly different colors. One of the saber’s settings resulted in a green blade, giving it the appearance of a Jedi Knight’s weapon. The other emanation was the signature red of the Dark Lords. He called his new weapon the Chameleon’s Crystal. The possession of so portentous an implement suggested the possibility of a strategy to him, and the crystal that powered his duplicitous weapon also provided him with an unparalleled capacity for masking what he really was.

Addressing his droid, he took the time to patiently explain, “I know you were just doing what you thought you had to in order to save me. And I am grateful for my life. But you unintentionally remade me as someone who would be both considered a criminal and regarded as the galaxy’s most wanted man if the Jedi Order ever discovers my existence. Experience tells me they would deem me too dangerous to be left alive. I need to get an accurate estimate of their strength, and I need to understand their agendas. The only way to acquire such information is to infiltrate their order. I have an idea about how such a thing could be accomplished. But I’m going to need your help. I know you weren’t programmed for protocol, but I am probably going to need you to act as my representative nevertheless. By saving me as you did, you’ve already demonstrated that you are able to exceed the sum of your programming. We need to first complete the prospecting that we came here to do. And then, I will explain the assignment to which I am referring.”

“I am always anxious to demonstrate my dependability,” M3 predictably responded. “I enjoy a challenge.”

Using the Force, Darth Duress was able to rearrange some of the rubble that was scattered across the lunar surface and use it to cover the exposed portion of the complex. Additionally, he reconfigured the ray shields to obfuscate its entrance. After that, he and M3 started prospecting.

The expansion of the shockwave and the passage of time had drastically reduced the levels of radiation in the amalgamations of tumbling debris. His spacesuit was now sufficient enough to protect Darth Duress and allow him to assist in the extraction of whatever resources they found. And their search was rewarded, although the profitable deposits and even the rock around them had been fused together by the intense heat of the stellar explosion. It therefore required a lot of work to remove them. These simply were not easily accessible treasure troves like the asteroids of Alderaan. Such a comparison was beyond his experience, but his industry was probably most similar to that of a deep sea diver struggling to extract impacted artifacts from a shipwreck.

Since the cloning complex’s system included no small number of service droids, which were used to accomplish its maintenance, M3 had them help with the processing of the assortment of materials with which the skiff repeatedly returned. The little spacecraft wasn’t able to hold much, but that worked out well since it necessitated the taking of regular breaks. This helped both man and machine to keep up what would otherwise have amounted to an impossible pace. Thus, the work proceeded steadily but slowly.

During their recurrent round trips, Darth Duress and M3 would often talk about the extent of the damage to both the transponder and the transfer circuitry. In particular, the Sith Lord wanted to know if additional components would perhaps make it possible to perform the needed repairs. Since he would lose another ten percent of himself and ostensibly emerge as a different person, Darth Duress sternly instructed the droid not to put him through the process again unless all the damaged panels had been replaced and the transfer circuits were fully functional. If however the transponder system could be repaired as well, he would have the required transmitter implanted and thus assure that the Jedi wouldn’t be able to eliminate him as they had his predecessor. M3 responded by trying to sound optimistic about the feasibility of so doubtful a fix.

As the weeks went by, Darth Duress amassed a significant fortune in refined resources. He began to explain his elaborate plan to the dutiful droid. Because it would require M3 to act as his emissary, he wanted to be certain the droid understood the nuances of his scheme. To that end, he began extending his time at the complex during their return trips, so he could carry out all the required research. When he had selected the most likely systems for accomplishing the parts of his plot, he laid it all out.

“We’ll go to Utapau first,” he told the droid. “We’ll cram as much precious cargo into our little ship as we can and trade it all in for a bigger one with more firepower. We’ll use it to transport all the rest of our profit, which we will return here just long enough to load. I need you to make a list of the materials you might need to repair the damaged circuits. Have the system help you. Once we have everything in the new ship, our destination will be Sullust. It’s just in the Outer Rim, and its support for the Republic has vacillated back and forth for centuries. Not surprisingly, there’s a Republic outpost there. You’re gonna help me hire mercenaries to attack it. It really shouldn’t be hard to find some in that section of space. They’ll get a small part of the payment up front, more after they carry out the initial attack, and then they should expect to receive the rest after they’ve responded in force to the Republic’s attempt to extract the survivors. Of course, it’s questionable whether any of them will survive that long, but do not tell them that. They only need to know that you represent a group of Separatists who fiercely oppose Sullust becoming part of the Republic. That’s one explanation they’ll easily accept. Jedi will doubtlessly be dispatched to safeguard the survivors as they are extracted. I’ll rush in to help rescue them as the mercenaries are launching their second attack. I’ll tell the Jedi that I was trained by one of the Lost Twenty, of whom Dooku was also included. They’ll want me go with them to the Jedi Temple on Coruscant. You however will return to the complex with the required materials, which I’ll help you procure, and get to work on the repairs. The crystal will help me hide my true identity, but I might be scanned on my initial trip to the Temple. If you’re able to repair the transponder system, I’ll get the transmitter installed later. Our only communications must be through the crystal. They don’t need to know that I have a droid. I certainly don’t want them wondering where you are or what you’re doing. Have you got any questions?”

“Yes,” M3 hummed. “Who are the Lost Twenty?”

“They were Jedi Masters who abandoned the order over a generation ago, before the Clone Wars even began,” he replied. “They believed the Senate had become corrupt and they were no longer defending democracy. They became disillusioned and left. I suppose they could be called conscientious objectors. This is why members of the Jedi Council were not willing to believe that Count Dooku could’ve been involved in an assassination attempt against one of the Senators. In fact, it was awhile before they finally accepted that Dooku had really turned to the Dark Side and become Darth Tyranus. But some of the rest of the Lost Twenty must’ve trained all the Jedi who responded to the summons of Leia Organa, now Leia Solo. It certainly seems strange to think of somebody who was once a member of the Imperial Senate now serving as nothing less than the Grand Master of the Jedi Order, especially since I know that marriage used to be forbidden to its members. That to me suggests corruption just in itself. Were there any other questions?”

“You spoke of procuring the components that I will require in order to construct replacement panels,” M3 answered. “But you did not identify either of our projected destinations as a location where you expect this acquisition to take place. Can you please clarify?”

“Even though it’s much deeper in the Outer Rim worlds, Utapau does pose a possibility,” he responded, smiling at how carefully the question was phrased. “But Sullust is located both along the Rimma Trade Route and right at one end of the Sanctuary Pipeline. It is also not far from the Hydian Way. If we don’t find what we are looking for on Utapau, I have no doubts that we will be able to find it somewhere near our secondary destination. Make certain you have a complete list of the required components. I’m going to see just how much payment I can actually compress in the cargo compartment. I’ll probably have to store any provisions in the cockpit. We’ll leave after the next sleep cycle. Make sure you’re fully charged for the flight.”

Hovering hesitantly, the android appeared to pause before saying, “Perhaps this issue does not need to be addressed until we part company in the vicinity of Sullust, but I am uncomfortable with the idea of our only communication taking place through a technology I do not understand.”

“You know how to use the crystal to communicate with me, which is all that you require,” he commandingly countered. “I alone truly understand its instrumentality, and that is the way I want it to remain. Although it is true that you are unable to interface with the Force sufficiently enough to perform any other manipulation, I won’t have that kind of data even entered into your memory banks. You’ll have to return here alone after I make contact with the Jedi. It will be bad enough if you’re intercepted and someone learns the location of this installation by accessing your internal records. But I’m not going to give anyone the knowledge to use the crystal against me. They will have to go through the process and earn it honestly, if they’re willing to pay so personal a price.”

“I would have to be completely reprogrammed before I would willingly assist anyone in such an endeavor,” the dedicated droid declared. But then with much less confidence, it continued, “If however I am made to complete the repairs and the replacement panels really do work, no more risk of loss during transition would remain to discourage any abductors. Is it your wish then that I should destroy myself and the ship if I am unable to fend off such an abduction attempt?”

Darth Duress vacillated for several perceptible seconds before finally asking in reply, “Does the complex have a self-destruct device?”

“Yes,” M3 answered, “but the subroutines were associated with the transponder system and were shorted-out by the electromagnetic pulse.”

“If you repair the transponder system without first disengaging the self-destruct device, what will happen?” the Sith Lord pressed.

“The complex will destroy itself,” the android answered.

“If you are captured, you are to comply with every request of your abductors,” Darth Duress instructed. “Don’t give them a reason to access your records directly. Don’t warn them about the self-destruct device. And don’t disable it before replacing the transponder panels. If the complex is compromised, the only solution is its destruction. I have no hope of repairing the system if you are lost to me. It basically becomes a liability. If such a thing occurs, I want you to destroy it all.”

“Understood,” M3 affirmed. It then insightfully added, “I know more about the damage to the security system than that sustained by any other part of the complex. I was primarily responsible for its sabotage. I could prioritize repairing it upon my return and program it to exclusively accept your biological signature, which has now become an integral part of the complex’s records. That would provide an additional safeguard against any unauthorized entry if we ever undertake such solo missions again.”

“Yes, it would. But if you’re captured, the pirates might think to inquire about such a security system. What then?” he asked in reply.

“If you instruct me to do so, I could honestly tell them it was damaged by the shockwave but not mention the fact that I repaired it,” the droid suggested.

“Excellent. You are so instructed,” Darth Duress gleefully agreed. “You and I make quite an insuperable pair. The galaxy is going to find it difficult to get rid of us. And so justice will be done upon the Jedi.”

From his perspective as an outsider, and after long years of carnage and conflict during the Clone Wars, the empire had finally come to know peace under Palpatine. He wondered whether slavery would have eventually been abolished if only Darth Sidious had survived long enough to assimilate the outlying systems. He was also aware that Master Luke Skywalker, who somehow succeeded in killing the Clone Emperor, had first obliterated billions of unsuspecting people; and all supposedly in the pursuit of peace. Now the unrest of the Republic was stretching all the way into the Outer Rim worlds. From the subspace broadcasts, which he and M3 had heard while on their way to and from the prospecting concerns, it was clear that Chairman Chelingus of Utapau was quite close with the new Grand Master of the Jedi Order. And that particular planet seemed to unhappily be the most likely location for trading up to the type of spaceship he really wanted.

When he first conceived his prospecting scheme, he had not really been thinking in terms of doing any more than scoring enough credits to hopefully support himself in comparative comfort for the foreseeable future. He now found himself forced to think many moves ahead. Despite his brand-new abilities and the boldness with which they made him imbued, he knew he would have to be very careful not to rely upon them on Utapau. He definitely did not want anyone in the Jedi Order to learn of his existence before he was ready, especially the surviving Skywalker. It had to be on his terms in order to assure the success of his strategy.

After packing as much of his prospected profit into his little ship as he could, he retired to an adjoining chamber to slumber. While he was reclining, he considered how incredibly lucky it was that the Kaminoan moon had been at so auspicious a point in its orbit when it was interrupted by the explosion of its sun. Rather than being hurled out into Wild Space by its angular momentum, where it would have been increasingly difficult to reach, or back toward the systems in the Outer Rim, where it might easily have been discovered; it was basically now in orbit around the galaxy itself. It would in fact be closer to Utapau on the return trip and ever further from the Rishi Maze, which had been destabilized by the shockwave. That section of space was only hazarded by the foolhardy even before its orbits were all jumbled. No one would go there now. And without a star to shine upon the speeding planetoid and give any indication of its existence, it seemed doubtful that anybody would ever chance upon such a wayward little waif of a world. The secret complex certainly seemed to be safe.

Upon arising, Darth Duress summoned M3 and prepared to depart. Making sure the facility was secure; they turned from the obfuscated entrance and climbed aboard their tiny spacecraft. Conveniently concealed beneath a cloak, which he’d found hanging alongside the huge hallway where the Clone Emperor’s prior apprentices fought for the right to serve as his subordinate, the Chameleon’s Crystal went with him. Although he heartily hoped not to have to resort to what the Jedi called aggressive negotiations, he nevertheless needed the device to disguise what he was from any he might unexpectedly encounter. If he were forced to defend himself with it, he would have to use the emerald emission and pose as a disciple of the Jedi Order sooner than his plan anticipated. But he hoped to avoid the kind of confrontation that could impose such a response.

Once they had plotted their course for Utapau and engaged the star-drive, he had the droid delete every reference to their origin. There was no need to take any chances on the ship’s new owner accidentally discovering the Kaminoan moon in the vessel’s logs. The information on that object’s location and course were safely stored in M3’s memory. It made the droid indispensible, since it would be difficult to find the meandering moon in the absence of this data, but it seemed as if everything he did was now dictated by sheer necessity. This simply was no exception.

The explosion of the Kaminoan sun was actually still distorting the entire Abrion Sector. The Death Wind Corridor was now a more dangerous place than its name even implied, since it was situated between the devastated systems of Geonosis and Kamino. Because of all the stars that had been displaced in the process and the new orbit of the Kaminoan moon, he was able to plot a course that took him between Ryloth (or what had been left of the system after the destruction of Geonosis) and Lameredd; thereby keeping him well away from that section of space and any other interstellar traffic. Consequently, and according to his intention, he would only pass closely to the Silken Asteroids as he approached Utapau. He had no doubts that many people were still abandoning the Arkanis Sector. He would look just like another fleeing refugee.

He knew that the people of Utapau regarded their world as a sort of sanctuary. It almost felt as if he were indeed on a type of pilgrimage, since his journey was really the result of religion. In essence, the dogmatic doctrines, by which he was endangered, made requisite his jihad against the Jedi. If he wished to continue living as a freed resident of the universe, he had no choice but to begin behaving exactly like a Dark Lord. And he laid this cursed requirement to their account.

The stars slipped by like silvery streamers, until at last he decelerated into the system of his destination and entered orbit above its equator. It was only a matter of minutes before the traffic controller assigned him a final approach path and landing pad location. He angled his ship down into the alien atmosphere, grateful for the opportunity to employ his improved capacity as a pilot. Once he was ensconced in a swifter ship with formidable firepower, he knew he would easily be the equal of anybody foolhardy enough to force him into a dogfight. In fact, it would be preferred to the kind of encounter that would require him to expose his skill with a lightsaber. It would look like he just happened to be the better pilot. He clenched his jaw against the unexpected impulse to display his prowess in just such a situation, reminding himself that he had merely come to get equipped for combat and not to actually engage in it.

Having had the wisdom to mention the motivation for his visit to the traffic controller, he had already been directed to the level where such transactions commonly occurred. He followed the flight path to the landing platform and was greeted by the attendants as he disembarked with his droid. Their comportment was so courteous that he found it almost comical. However, it was the Utai who seemed to be amused when he told them why he was there. Despite the fact that they spoke to each other only in their native tongue as they shared what they mistakenly assumed to be a confidential joke, the Force gave him the fluency to comprehend their discourse. It seemed inhospitable for them to be having such fun at his expense, so he elected to address the subject of their friendly scoffing.

“It would do me no good to trade my ship for dactillion dragonmounts, no matter how many I might get in exchange,” he interjected as genially as he could. “I need a ship that can fly through space. And I have more to trade than just the skiff. Please tell your port master that I am looking to trade up substantially. And I am quite certain that he will find my business beneficial.”

The Utai were obviously abashed to think that their flippancy might have offered a guest an occasion for offense. Not unexpectedly, it wasn’t long before the Pau’an port master reported to the platform. Having received a report from the Utai concerning their possibly impudent conduct, he was already of a mind to make amends before he even entered into negotiations. Of course, this proved very much to the advantage of Darth Duress. And it was made possible by a simple misconception of his linguistic expertise. He never even attempted to use the old Jedi mind trick on the Pau’an. After the port master saw all that he had to offer in addition to the trade-in, it was only a matter of minutes before the Sith Lord was led to a spacecraft that matched his criteria.

“It’s called the Nubian Nadir,” the Pau’an, Putch, said as he gestured toward the impressive spaceship. “Its name appears to have been prophetic. I was friends with its captain. That is how it came to be in my keeping. He owned it outright and maintained merely a skeleton crew; if you will excuse the expression, since they were irradiated to death during the destruction of the Hoth system. They were along the Corellian Trade Spine, making a commercial run to Isis, when their subspace sensors detected the shockwave. They were between Javin and Varonat. Rather than attempt a dead stop and reversal, since it wouldn’t be enough to save them, the captain decided to try and use the ship’s speed. They succeeded in doing something that had been hypothetical; they executed a hyperspace course correction.”

“They turned their ship while they were traveling at the speed of light?” Darth Duress asked incredulously, although he could sense no deception from Putch.

“Despite such an incredible accomplishment,” Putch affirmed, “it wasn’t enough. And so the ship earned its oddly appropriate name. It carried them through the outskirts of hell itself. And all of them eventually died from the dose of radiation they received. Their new course took them no more than light-minutes from Mustafar and very close to Tantra as well, but they were afraid that they would find no sufficient assistance for their condition in either location. Knowing of nowhere else to turn, and despite our limited experience with radiation, the captain brought the spaceship here. And this is where he died only days later, the very last survivor to succumb to the insidious sabotage of Skywalker. I watched my friend fade before my eyes. He left me his ship, but it’s far more than I need for my infrequent business trips. A spaceship like yours would surely suffice.”

“But it was exposed to lethal levels of radiation,” Darth Duress objected. “Can you certify its safety?”

“I wouldn’t be offering it otherwise, and you’re welcome to inspect it for yourself,” the Pau’an patiently replied. “Use your droid if you have any doubts. I can tell you that its hyperdrive is none other than a Nubian 327 core with a T-14 generator. Since their purpose was to repel pirates, its weapon systems are all state-of-the-art. And to assuage your concern, I should probably tell you that exposure to such intense radiation seems to have actually compressed the molecules in the ship’s shielding. We don’t understand how this happened. Because it would require destroying a star, the process cannot be repeated. But this vessel is both stronger and faster than any ship in its class. As a young man who has obviously found his fortune, I’m certain it will serve you much better than it will ever serve me. And I think you will agree that the asking price in reasonable.”

As the port master passed him a handheld device that displayed the price, which was easily within his available budget, Darth Duress pursed his lips, nodded approvingly, and then took the chance of exploring a subject that had surfaced earlier in the conversation.

“You spoke of Skywalker as if you didn’t particularly appreciate him destroying star systems and causing incalculable collateral damage,” he cautiously observed. “I have to wonder just how many others lost loved ones and long time friends because of what he did. Do you think that the rebirth of the Republic could’ve possibly been worth the sacrifice of so many innocent people?”

“Before the Clone Wars and the Galactic Empire, the Republic stood for a thousand years,” the Pau’an softly answered. “But Utapau was never incorporated, and that is not without reason. We’ve always preferred independence. We were also justifiably afraid that any such association would serve as an invitation for others to interfere in our affairs. We have always negotiated our own trade agreements. There are other entities that exist to oversee such arrangements. We’ve never needed assistance from the Republic or its Senate. So why then should we wish to make ourselves accountable to a collective that is completely disconnected from our concerns?”

“I know just how you feel,” the Sith Lord honestly admitted. “I’m all for independence myself. But I picked up some subspace broadcasts on the way here that certainly made it sound like the leader of your world is desperate for this planet to become part of the Republic.”

“It’s only political posturing,” Putch insisted. “He’s trying to appear progressive and perhaps curry favor with some newfound friends. But consider how far from the core we’re really located. There’s no advantage to be found in any such an allegiance. And politicians can be replaced.”

“And they can certainly be replaced easier than lifelong friends,” Darth Duress agreed. “I’m hoping you can perhaps help me with some components I need to purchase. Even if they’re not to be found in your system, I’m willing to pay you a finder’s fee if you can point me in the correct direction. It’s the least I can do after you gave me such a good deal on your friend’s spacecraft.”

He had M3 transfer all the specifications to the port master’s handheld screen. It took Putch only a matter of moments to cross-reference them with the station’s available inventory. Shaking his head sadly, he softly responded, “These components almost look like a mixture of Kaminoan and Imperial technology, and you obviously can’t consult the Kaminoans. I’m very sorry to say it, but we have nothing like this. However, if you head up the Rimma Trade Route, you might find a few worlds with components that could be reconfigured to satisfy your requirements. If you have found some old Imperial equipment that you’re trying to repair, I’d be happy to sell it for you. Any commission I make would be thanks enough for the information.”

“I have no wish to sell anything,” Darth Duress announced. “But if your suggestion pays off, I might just come back here and help you replace a politician.”

Putch rewarded the suggestion with a distinctly sinister smile before he bowed almost to the ground. Darth Duress then surrendered the skiff to his host, paid the difference upon which they had agreed, and took possession of the Nadir. M3 whistled like an astrodroid as it made its way up into the shimmering spaceship.

Before they left the landing pad, the Nadir’snew owner made his unusually melodious droid help him perform a complete inspection of their acquisition. They quickly determined that the log contained a record of the remarkable maneuver to which the Pau’an had referred. Darth Duress had M3 meticulously examine the computations. If he could change course while traveling at the speed of light, he could presumably elude any pursuer. Such a capacity was priceless. Although it didn’t seem important at first, they also discovered that the ship had been on its way to pick up some starfighter parts. But the log intriguingly made no mention at all of the destination to which the parts were supposed to have been delivered. This made him wonder if the information could have maybe constituted incriminating evidence to certain authorities and if this made the Pau’an a political activist. It occurred to him that he’d perhaps defined the friendship that had developed between the two seemingly unrelated individuals. He had certainly gotten an impression that the Pau’an was a kind of kindred spirit, even an anarchist. Now he wondered whether this individual could perhaps be of assistance to him in the future. Maybe he really should return and eliminate Chairman Chelingus. It certainly could not hurt to have a secret society of revolutionaries feeling indebted to him, especially if they exercised control over spaceports and had renegade captains in their back pockets. Putch could conceivably be developed into an exceptionally serious asset.

M3 was able to determine that someone had made modifications to the hyperdrive. Since it was easy to extract from its compartment, it was a simple matter to install upgrades. He thought this might explain how the ship had managed a mid-jump course correction. It looked as if some of the adjustments were not of a kind that would have been recommended by the manufacturer, since some technology that had been attached was clearly not native to the Nubian device. The inspection nevertheless revealed that the unit was operating at peak capacity. And after making so reassuring a determination, they launched the Nadir and got ready to return to the Kaminoan moon. The first part of their plan had proved to be flawlessly successful, but they now needed to gather all the rest of their treasure and hope to then locate components that could be converted into something that would satisfy their extremely unforgiving construction requirements.

Darth Duress deliberately did not allow himself to become distracted by thoughts about the upcoming encounter with the Jedi. He had more immediate concerns with which to contend. He had to help M3 locate and acquire the materials with which to build the replacement panels first of all. There could be complications. Such a search could easily cause them to cross paths with a person who was actually familiar with the kind of equipment in question, somebody who might figure out what they had found. But what really worried him was the idea that M3 wouldn’t know if it had what it needed until it was alone on the moon and he was hundreds of light years away.

There was simply no option for him to keep the ship. Too many factors interfered. Foremost was the fact that he had purchased the Nadir primarily to safeguard his indispensible android as it made its unaided way back to the Kaminoan moon. But the possession of so formidable a ship would also be problematic for him to explain to the Jedi. It wasn’t typical for a recent padawan to own such auspicious transportation. In order to impress them with his prowess and demonstrate his mastery of the Force, he planned to show up just in time to help them evacuate the survivors from the Republic outpost. But he also wanted them to see him as a kind of orphan, bereft of the mentor by whom he had been so instructed. It could certainly help to accommodate his adoption into the Jedi Order if those who found him also felt protective towards him. Portraying himself as a pauper would be the best way to accomplish that purpose. He could commandeer an alternate form of transportation if he required one later, but the ship had to stay with the droid.

The Kaminoan moon was precisely where M3 said it should be. And there was now nothing within a parsec of the place, neither astronomical nor mechanical. Its course was now clear as it wheeled its way through Wild Space at the very outskirts of the galaxy. With the crystal’s shards to help it stay hidden, its existence would never be so much as suspected. The far-flung fortress dutifully received its refugees as they left the ship on the surface and descended into the bowels of the baleful bastion.

The moon’s meager gravity represented no challenge for him to overcome as Darth Duress levitated all the remaining treasure into the cargo hold of the Nadir. It took so little time for him to complete the process that it didn’t even constitute exercise. Because he decided that it would be wise for him to rest before making the jump to Sullust anyway, he instructed his android to make the most of the opportunity and top off its power supply. Even the complex around them seemed to slumber as, moments later, they both became immobile and the lights robotically darkened.

Flexing the Force around him, Darth Duress arose. It was time to forsake his sanctuary and begin his inevitable invasion of the gullible galaxy. Because of its trajectory, the Kaminoan moon was almost as far from the Core as Utapau. Tatooine was actually closer. But Sullust was barely in the Outer Rim. And it was time for him to stop hanging out in backwater worlds and undertake the next step in his audacious scheme, one that would most probably take him all the way to the Jedi Temple on Coruscant.

“Set our course for Eriadu,” he told M3 as they boarded the Nadir. “We’ll go there before we set our sights on Sullust. Eriadu was the birthplace of Grand Moff Tarkin, commander of the first Death Star. Their major exports include computer technology and droids. It was also the seat for Imperial power in the Outer Rim during the reign of the Emperor. I doubt if there is a better place in the quadrant for us to begin our search. However, I believe it would be best to stay away from Eriadu City. I don’t want to attract attention. There’s a big spaceport at Phelar. Let’s land there.”

Leaving the shadowy lunar surface behind, the vessel angled up into the surrounding space before beginning its interstellar acceleration. Upon leaving Utapau, Darth Duress had been very impressed by just how smoothly the ship slipped into hyperspace. As it imparted no sensation of speed to suggest its suddenly relativistic velocity, the performance was repeated. He watched in awe as the stars suddenly transformed into streaks, but with no noticeable alteration in inertia.

Their course took them around the compromised Arkanis Sector, where the shockwave was still dissipating, as they headed for Seswenna space. They were moving towards major shipping lanes. But the subspace transceiver constantly fed information to the navigational computer so it could take the flight plans of other spaceships into account when calculating its course. And with a program in place to instantly drop the ship out of hyperspace if the subspace sensors detected anything ahead that had not already been accounted for, the chance of any kind of collision was nearly nonexistent. Ships no longer destroyed each other in space except when done by design.

By the time Omwat went streaking by, he knew that they had to be nearing their destination. He had accessed the ship’s extensive records while on the way back from Utapau, which is how he knew about Eriadu and the spaceport at Phelar. Now, he searched the files to see if he could determine the section of the city where he was the most likely to locate computer components.

Seated beside him, M3 highlighted a section of street along the outskirts of one of the more remote districts and said, “There seem to be several shops that specialize in cybernetics right in this area. Since what we are looking for is technically a man-to-machine interface, I recommend that we begin here. If none of the shopkeepers happen to have the precise types of components we need, they should hopefully be able to refer us to someone who does. Many merchants tend to be aware of what their competitors keep in stock. They did on Tatooine.”

“That sounds like a plan,” Darth Duress agreed. “Contract traffic control and take us in.”

Although he hadn’t even carried it on Utapau, he elected to conceal his lightsaber under his cloak this time. They were going to be much further from their spacecraft and surrounded by the billions who inhabited Eriadu. They were directed to a docking bay; and after landing and paying the parking fee, he rented a speeder for the day. They were soon headed toward the highlighted area on M3’s map.

Although they each had components that they thought could conceivably be reconfigured to facilitate the customer’s mysterious application, the shop owners seemed quite perplexed by the schematics. And since the Sith Lord did not deem it judicious to explain the nature of the system he was trying to repair, he had to be satisfied with purchasing an assortment of parts, only some of which would hopefully accomplish his purpose. But when the last of the shopkeepers seemed particularly nonchalant about his unwillingness to reveal the specifics of his project, he hazarded a different kind of question.

Extending a generous gratuity along with the required cost, Darth Duress said, “I’m trying to find some fighters for an employment opportunity, experienced people who have no compassion for the Republic. Do you have any idea where I could locate such a crew?”

“On the south side of the spaceport is a cantina called the Septoid Saloon,” the storekeeper casually answered. “I’m sure you can find whatever you’re looking for there. And I don’t mean to tell you your business, but I’d send your droid in to look. You’re too young and clean-cut. No one in that dreadful dump is going to take you seriously; and somehow, I think they would be making a big mistake.”

“Yes, they would,” the Sith Lord ominously snarled with an intensity that made the merchant grimace uncomfortably. “Thanks.”

It seemed auspicious that the merchant had recommended precisely the same strategy that Darth Duress was already planning to employ. Considering that it had been at the suggestion of the Force that he sought such information from the man, this implied a kind of confirmation. With his droid at his side, he turned and made his way back to the rented speeder. Upon examination of the map, he discovered that the Septoid Saloon was right on their way back to the spaceport.

After circling the establishment, he found an inconspicuous place to park and systematically instructed M3 in the nuances of the imminent negotiations. Once he was sure that the droid was absolutely equipped for the encounter, which included a partial payment for the mercenaries, he sent the robot inside. He would of course be able to enable audio and communicate directly with any paramilitary prospects once M3 had certified that they were indeed interested, and he would also be able to communicate covertly with his droid. But he definitely did not want anyone to see him, and it had nothing to do with the fact that he was young and clean-cut.

The video feed from the android was also available through his com-link. As M3 strolled into the saloon, Darth Duress used the images to assess the clusters of customers. He then told the droid which group to approach. Despite having grown up on Tatooine, he was certain he’d never seen a more retched hive of scum and villainy. Spotting somebody whose flight jacket displayed an insignia that he’d seen on the side of a ship on a landing platform on Utapau, he experienced a strange certainty that this was indeed the individual to induct into his sinister service. The man seemed to experience a sense of providence, turning toward the droid before M3 even began its approach to the table. His companions quieted as they observed his puzzled expression.

Preempting the droid’s programmed introduction, Darth Duress said, “For political reasons I can’t appear to you in person. But I’m looking to hire an experienced group of freedom fighters.”

“I don’t like working for invisible employers,” the man reticently responded, while still holding his mixed drink in midair. “It’s gotten me into too much trouble.”

“I can guarantee that you will get into trouble,” the Sith Lord laughed. “But the reward will be commensurate with the risk. And I am prepared to offer you part of the payment up front. Let me buy the next round to compensate you for your time.”

After a questioning look at his crew, who all excitedly nodded, the captain ultimately agreed. Darth Duress had M3 place enough payment on the table to cover a substantial bar tab. And he could tell by the way the recipients all responded that they appreciated his use of precious metal as opposed to Republic credits. He waited until they had ordered and received their rounds, and then he quietly explained what he wanted.

“I need to hire some freedom fighters to make a couple of forays against a Republic outpost on Sullust,” he very softly said. “If we can agree on your wages; I can pay you one third up front, a third after the first strike, and then the balance after the second strike.”

“Why do you want us to make multiple strikes against the same target? That’s just inviting a reprisal,” the captain demanded.

“The first strike is to make them send for a ship to extract them,” Darth Duress replied. “The second strike is to make sure they actually evacuate. Representatives of the Republic will surely be sent to try and stabilize the situation. I’m relying on you to persuade them that the situation is not salvageable.”

“Representatives of the Republic indeed,” the captain sarcastically coughed. “You’re talking about Jedi Knights.”

“As I said before,” the Dark Lord repeated, “your reward will be commensurate with the risk. Name your price.”

“What’s to keep you from withholding the final payment?” the captain suspiciously asked.

“I’ll set up an account with the last third in it,” Darth Duress easily answered. “I will give you a code that will enable you to access the account enough to check the balance. When you finish the job, you’ll get the final access code.”

“That only proves the money is there,” the captain complained. “That is not a guarantee that we’ll actually get the final payment.”

“I understand that my invisibility gives you cause for concern,” the Sith Lord replied. “But we have, I believe, a common acquaintance who could confirm my credibility. He’s a port master on Utapau. His name is Putch.”

“Alright then,” the captain confirmed as the members of his crew also nodded in agreement. “If you’ll pay our price, we’ll do the job.”Start writing here ...
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Jasmine Chow: As I read this story, I was reminded some what of Terry Pratchett, especially some descriptions of politics and economics. The sci-fic setting is quite intriguing. Writing style is quite lovely and grew on me slowly. I was also slightly reminded of Mark Twain, especially his book A Connecticut Ya...

Chris Rolfe: BOY!!! I sure love what Aer-Ki Jyr did with this series. IMHO he captured the essence of what stargate is all about. Thru out the Stargate stories Aer-Ki wrote Stevens and John Shepard some of the main characters in his stories are pursued by a corrupt I.O.A.. All the while Stevens is changing in...

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Nymeria: Really can't get enough of this story. It flows well, it captivates the reader from page 1, and throws you into such a well-written, well conceptualized world that you'll believe it's real. Everything in the book is meshed together really well. From character backgrounds to plot twists, you can t...

Hawkebat: Playing both Kotor I & II and Swtor I found the story line interesting and it held me until chapter 35 Very good story and plot flow until then, very few technical errors. I felt that the main character was a bit under and over powered, as it fought for balance. The last few chapters felt too f...

Meri Amber: The plot is creative, fun and addictive! The writing is superb and the characters are really well put together. Definitely highly recommeded!

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Iosaghar

FreakyPoet: "you made me laugh, made me cry, both are hard to do. I spent most of the night reading your story, captivated. This is why you get full stars from me. Thanks for the great story!"

The Cyneweard

Sara Joy Bailey: "Full of depth and life. The plot was thrilling. The author's style flows naturally and the reader can easily slip into the pages of the story. Very well done."

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Spectra

Ro-Ange Olson: "Loved it and couldn't put it down. I really hope there is a sequel. Well written and the plot really moves forward."