Of War and Legacies
In the light, there is darkness and in the darkness, light. It is the way with us all. Be a prisoner of neither the dark nor the light. Strive to live in balance. As Tython itself teaches us, it is dangerous to do so otherwise. And the danger is there—always.
-Master Ketu of the Je'daii Order
[-I-] 42 ABY
"Rise now and recite the Jedi Code as your forbearers have done eons past." Ben Skywalker heard Jedi Master Barratk'l's instructions and tried to keep his face 'Jedi serious' as he rose from his bended knee along with a dozen other, older Jedi.
Since the Swarm War nearly five years earlier, he had pushed himself as hard as he could to 'make a difference' in the Jedi Order. As a Skywalker, it was his duty to continue what his dad had started, it was his duty to emulate his cousins and become one of the youngest Jedi Knights of his era. It helped that one of his cousins in particular empathized with him and took him under his wing.
Jacen Solo had offered an apprenticeship position to Ben shortly after the events on that dark-side asteroid several years ago. To which the then twelve-year old boy had eagerly accepted. Now, a few years later, Ben hadn't regretted the choice at all. He had learned all sorts of things from his older cousin, had even begun to buy into the Unifying Force theory, much to his dad's chagrin.
Of course, with him being the youngest Jedi to be knighted since the Yuuzhan Vong War, and him being a Skywalker to boot, the press just had to be invited to what would have otherwise been a close, intimate ceremony on Ossus. Despite Jedi attempts to limit their influence over galactic affairs, Chief of State Kenth Hamner had proven surprisingly adept at utilizing the Jedi and getting results that made the galaxy ooh and ahh over the Order's prowess.
"There is no emotion, there is peace. There is no ignorance, there is knowledge. There is no chaos, there is harmony. There is no death, there is the Force," Ben felt himself repeat the age-old code of the Jedi, feeling as if a new purpose was filling his being. He was now on his way to becoming a Jedi Knight, like his father and his father before him. Despite the bright lights shining on him, he could see his family in the audience smiling in approval, and had to grin back in turn.
"You have all sworn an oath to defend and protect those in need, to make the galaxy stronger by forging alliances and fostering understanding. A Jedi Knight does not act for personal gain, will sacrifice his or her self if it means others can make a difference and keep the galaxy in balance. We are keepers of the peace, never soldiers. Now ignite your sabers for the first time as Jedi Knights and be proud of all that you have accomplished today."
The rest of the ceremony was a blur for Ben, though he did remember walking off the stage without managing to trip or break character.
He finally allowed himself to relax and drop his 'Jedi face' as he stepped off stage and into the throngs of waiting people. There was one person at the front of the crowd he immediately focused on though, his childhood best friend.
"Look at you, a Jedi Knight," a blonde and impish, Kani Asari greeted him with a smirk at the end of the ceremony. Her girl-next-door demeanor was always spiked with that hint of mischief.
"Look at me," Ben remarked back, holding out his arms to extend his baggy Jedi robes and doing a showy turn. He was already waiting for the hammer to fall though; Kani was waaay too good at keeping him humble.
"I am, I just don't see it," Kani said, mock scrutinizing him with her face scrunched up cutely. "Maybe it's the fact that all the other knights had more chin-hair than you."
"Two were Cathar! Another was Yuzzem! Three others were Chadra Fan! Of course they'd have more chin-hair than me!" Ben protested, swatting her hand away from his chin.
Kani's purple eyes shone with delight. "I am happy for you, Ben. You're crazy for going through all that to get your fancy title, but I'm still happy for you."
"Thanks," Ben smiled back.
"Now, I'd hug you, but if I see one more article declaring me the next Mrs. Skywalker, I'm going to do something to those poor holo-cam droids flying about."
Ben rolled his eyes and pulled the blond girl into a hug. "There, now I'm hugging you and not the other way around."
Kani just chuckled and returned the embrace quickly. She took a step back, well aware that the embrace had somehow attracted a swarm of the cameras like flitgnats. Ben might have become adjusted to having his life under a microscope, but her not so much.
"So, you've just become a Jedi Knight, what are you going to do next?"
"I don't know," Ben blinked. To tell the truth, he didn't exactly plan for what he might do after becoming a Jedi Knight. It was like graduating, spent so long having someone tell you how to act and what to do, and suddenly you're free to do what you please. "Maybe get a tattoo or something."
"A tattoo?" Kani raised a fine eyebrow.
"A crest of the Jedi Order on my arm or something," Ben mock-flexed to show off his nicely developed biceps.
"This I have to see," Kani laughed, poking at his arm playfully. "No wait, seeing your mom's reaction after the fact is something I have to see. Might as well add 'Property of the Jedi Order' under it."
"And what's this I have to see?" Mara Jade Skywalker approached the young pair with her husband and other son in tow.
"Ben's getting a tattoo," Kani said lightly. "Thinks it'll make him look more grown up."
"I thought apprentices were supposed to respect Jedi Knights," Ben said to his mom with a look of suffering on his face.
"I think best friends are exempt from that," thirteen-year old Janek Skywalker chimed in. "Congrats on your promotion, Ben."
"Thanks Janek," Ben mussed his brother's copper-toned hair.
"Ben!" Janek tried to duck away.
"A tattoo now?" Mara eyed her eldest.
"Hey, it's like a tradition with Knights these days," Ben said, holding up his hands. "Thann and Azil both got tattoos. So did Lharr and Cantor. You should be happy that I'm willing to just get the Jedi Order crest."
"Yup, on his arm Thann has a naked wo…"
"You can stop there," Mara said.
"Wookie," Ben finished smartly, his best friend rolling her eyes next to him.
"Aren't all Wookies naked?" Janek asked, smirking in turn.
"Never mind your brother," Mara shook her head. "Farmboy, he's your son, you talk to him."
"Don't know what good that'll do," Luke chuckled. "I am proud of you for passing your trials, Ben."
"Thanks dad, but it's mostly thanks to Jacen for sticking to it all. The things he learned on his journey are amazing. Too bad he had another galactic crisis to attend to and couldn't be here though."
The family gathering was interrupted when the Chief of State himself approached with his entourage of ministers and aides.
"Chief of State," Mara greeted with an air of Hoth-level coolness in her voice.
"Ah, the Skywalkers," Kenth Hamner smiled broadly, the holocams still floating about. "You must be so proud, Master Skywalker, that your son is following in your footsteps."
"We are," Luke said mildly. "Here to convey your congratulations to Ben?"
"Of course," Kenth said, sounding like a used-speeder salesman as he rubbed his hands together. "And also to convey to you, Jedi Knight Ben Skywalker, your first mission."
"A mission?" Ben asked, his expression brightening despite the dark looks both Luke and Mara exchanged.
"Yes," Kenth nodded. "As you know, every Jedi is needed, and as a Knight, you are now more than qualified for an independent field assignment. Think of this as your inaugural act as a Jedi Knight. Provided the Grandmaster and the Jedi High Council agree of course."
It was strangely convenient that Kenth had three of the five masters on the council in his retinue. Luke merely kept his smile tight, the holocams not allowing for any other reaction. Kenth Hamner may have backed down from his attempt to also become a Grandmaster, but he had since pulled out all the stops to gain as much control of the Jedi Order's business as he possibly could. Added to the difficulties was the fact that he had used the Jedi well in his tenure as head of the galactic government and had made visible improvements throughout the galaxy. Luke couldn't very well go against Hamner without seeming controlling or showing favoritism, especially since it was now his son being sent out.
"What's the mission?" Kani spoke up, her purple eyes hard as she stood by her friend.
"This way, Jedi Knight Skywalker," Kenth directed Ben towards a side room. "For your ears only."
"You might as well let Apprentice Asari join us," Ben said casually, well aware of the political game being played. "I'll just tell her anyways."
"If that is your wish. This way please, the mission is time sensitive."
Kani exchanged a brief nod with Mara before taking a few steps to catch up with Ben and Kenth. The noise from the after-party lessened considerably when the door to the room slid shut once more. There the elder Jedi and statesman gave both young teens a once-over and then reached into his dress-uniform. He pulled out a datadisc and inserted it into the table's holoprojector.
"Your mission, Jedi Knight Skywalker," Kenth said evenly. "You are to act as an envoy to a group of disgruntled refugees in the Formos system."
"The Formos system?" Ben frowned, seeing how remote the location was on the holomap. "That's all the way out in the Outer Rim. Are they even part of the Galactic Alliance?"
"No," Kenth shook his head. "The political situation is complicated. Formos does lie on the Triellus Trade Route and heavily regulates trade into Rimward sectors such as the Tion Hegemony. The government of nearby Aduba Three has taken advantage of the power vacuum in the region and has operational control of a majority of the Triellus Trade Route and many territories that were formally controlled by the Bothans, Hapans, and Hutts within the Hutt sector. The refugees at Formos are mostly from worlds that had been ravaged by the Vong that have yet to be rehabilitated. Aduba Three does not have the resources to repair these planets, and normally the Galactic Alliance doesn't either."
"So what's changed?"
"As you know, with the decline of the Hapans and Bothans in that part of space, the Galactic Alliance has minimal influence in that area of the Outer Rim. Before Aduba Three's rise, the systems were all mostly scattered, unaligned, and to be honest, a nightmare to deal with. But with Aduba Three bringing them in line, we now have a singular power base to negotiate with."
"You want me to go over there and negotiate a treaty?"
"Nothing of the sort," Kenth's smile barely made it to the corners of his mouth. "This is strictly a good-will mission."
"The fact that the Bakuran Hegemony has been making inroads towards that area of space doesn't factor into anything?" Kani spoke up, her sharp eyes drilling the Chief of State. "They control most of the trade in the southern Outer Rim area all the way to the Corellian Trade Spine. If they make a treaty with Aduba Three, the entire trade-network will be locked up."
"You're well informed, Apprentice Asari."
"I like to listen to the news," Kani replied beatifically. "Their annexation of Socorro and the starbase on Tythe caused a lot of mouths to flap."
"Er hmm, well, yes, as your friend has pointed out, Jedi Skywalker. The Bakurans have also taken note of Aduba Three, but they too can ill-afford to spend billions of credits so far away from their home sector. This is where the Jedi Order's connections to the Yuuzhan Vong come in. As a show of good will, and to help stabilize the Formos system—a system bursting at the seams with all the refugees—I'm counting on you to lead a team of shapers and help make some of those planets and moons in the system livable by using most of the GA's supply of specialized Yuuzhan Vong terraforming biots."
"And the fact that I'm the one going tells the Aduba government you truly do care about them," Ben said wryly. "Why can't you politicians ever do something easy? Send an official envoy, tell them what the GA has to offer them, and leave the Jedi Order out of a clearly political maneuver."
"If there was anything else at stake I would. But the Bakuran Hegemony's newly elected president, Malinza Thanas, has recently been locking down alliances left and right and if the Galactic Alliance wants to remain relevant out there, then we need to go all out."
"The Bakurans aren't our enemies, Chief of State," Ben said, a little confused.
"But they aren't fully allies either. Even with the stability of these past few years they still refuse to rejoin the Galactic Alliance. Member worlds have even opted to join the Hegemony because of pretty words and promises. With you and a team of shapers going to Formos, I'm letting the Aduba government know that the Galactic Alliance can achieve results and that we value them as partners and allies."
Ben just nodded slowly, absorbing the information so he could run it by his mother later on. Excited as he was about his first mission as a Jedi Knight, he was well aware he was being used to advance some backroom agenda.
"Put it this way, Jedi Knight Skywalker. If you decline this mission, millions of refugees in the Outer Rim won't have access to a home. The Yuuzhan Vong shapers don't trust Galactic Alliance forces to keep them safe that far away from the Core, but the name Skywalker guarantees their participation."
Ben looked across the table at Kani, raising a single eyebrow. Kani met it with an eyebrow-raise of her own. And just like that, their silent communication was over.
"Fine, I accept. Do I go it alone or do I have backup?"
"All other Knights and Masters are on assignment. Keeping a galaxy together requires the full participation of the Jedi Order."
"Then as a Knight, am I allowed to take apprentice-level Jedi with me?" Ben asked, knowing that Kani would kick his butt if he didn't bring her along.
Kenth smiled almost patronizingly in Kani's direction. "Of course Apprentice Asari is more than welcome to join your mission. You may recruit other apprentices if you desire, but no more than six. As I said, all Jedi, even apprentices are needed to help keep this galaxy spinning. I'm sure you are more than capable of doing this without the participation of older Jedi. After all, all you have to do is shake a few hands and supervise the Yuuzhan Vong for a couple of months."
"Right, what could go wrong?" Ben said dryly.
"I look forward to reading your after mission reports, good luck and may the Force be with you."
"Rise now and recite to me the words that define who we are, that have held us together since planetfall millennia ago."
Vestara Khai rose from bended knees, but still kept her head bowed at Grand Lord Darish Vol's order. After all, she was the lone figure, and the youngest—having been fifteen years of age for all of two days—standing before the Circle of Lords; the ruling body of Kesh made up of some of the most intelligent and powerful Force-users she had ever known.
"Peace is a lie," she began without hesitation, feeling as if she had ice water running through her veins. This is what all her training had led up to, all her suffering and trials. There was no way she would fail now. Her dark brown eyes were devoid of emotion as she continued her recitation. "There is only passion. Through passion, I gain strength. Through strength, I gain power. Through power, I gain victory. Through victory my chains are broken, the Force shall free me."
"Lady Rhea," the Grand Lord looked to a figure in the shadows. "You vouch for this Tyro?"
"I do, High Lord. She embodies the very spirit of what it means to be Sith, will no doubt take my place on this council some day."
"High praise, Tyro," the Grand Lord said to Vestara in a way that made the words sound more like a threat than a compliment. He activated his saber, its blood red length illuminating the side of Vestara's face. She held stone still, daring her body to betray the sudden surge of adrenaline that raced through her as she heard the saber buzz loudly by her ear. "But I am not as convinced. Tell me, Tyro Khai, is it true that knowing and understanding are two different things?"
"It is, Grand Lord," Vestara said in as even a voice as possible.
"Then answer me this. We gain our strength from our fear, our hatred and anger, correct?"
"No," Vestara said evenly, her eyes rooted to the marbled floor of the council room.
"Then pray tell what do we draw from?"
"Fear, hatred, anger, they do not strengthen us, but weaken us. But we must use it anyways because if we do not, it will use us in turn. It is our drive to make this galaxy a better place that powers us, our passion to see the galaxy in the image we wish it to be. Controlled, tamed to our will. Our true strength is this passion within us, what truly frees us from the fear and hatred that might chain us to our baser instincts. We are not diplomats, but soldiers, always fighting to tame the galaxy to a state that will serve us best."
The Grand Lord chuckled. "You parrot your master's words well, Tyro. Another question then." He shifted his lightsaber to her other shoulder. "Suppose our situations were reverse. I kneeling before you, your lightsaber at my neck. If you were to kill me, you'd gain my position, my title, my lands, no repercussions to you. Tell me, what would you do?"
Vestara reigned in her first instinctive response, but then decided to go with it anyways. The worst he'd do was slice off her head after all. "I would remove your head, Grand Lord. If you were so foolish enough to put it in the way of my saber, you are clearly not worthy enough to lead this council."
At that, Vestara could feel amusement radiate from some of the council members and knew then that she had answered correctly.
"I see what you mean, Lady Rhea. She is indeed a Sith through and through."
"When have my students ever been anything less, Grand Lord," the voice of Vestara's master replied back with an air of arrogance.
The Grand Lord looked to a stalk-still Vestara without pity, then deactivated his lightsaber. "Truer words have never been spoken. Congratulations Vestara Khai, you are a Tyro no longer, you have earned the right to call yourself a Sith Saber, weapon of this council."
"I am deeply honored," Vestara bowed stiffly.
"I am sure," Darish Vol sniffed. He took his seat once more, joining the council in peering down on her. "Your father will be rewarded for your upbringing. You are dismissed."
"Thank you, Grand Lord."
Vestara didn't allow herself to breathe normally until the doors to the council chamber slammed shut behind her. She released a slow, relieved breath, her eyes fluttering close for a fraction of a second. She allowed herself no other reprieve because awaiting her, leaning against the wall by the door, was her training partner Keshiri Sith Tyro Ahri Raas.
"You lived, Ves. What a shame."
"If I didn't pass, my Master promised to make my afterlife a living nightmare. Binding spirits are second nature to her," Vestara remarked, forcing Ahri to fall into stride with her. They weren't exactly friends, but they weren't enemies either. His family and hers were not exactly in the same strata of the complicated Keshiri political system, and she would be stupid to think that anything could happen between the two of them. Even then, he had been her sparring partner for as long as she could remember and his presence was somewhat comforting after the icy coldness of the Circle of Lords chamber. "You planning to take the trials any time soon?"
"And get my head cut off by the Grand Lord? We both know he hates the thought of another Keshiri rising to prominence," Ahri said, his lavender-colored skin making his species obvious to any who saw him.
"Why do you think I'm asking," Vestara said with a wicked smile. "I think you'd look a lot prettier without that unsightly mess on your shoulders."
"Funny, I was about to say the same. Only a brain-dead Jedi would find that face of yours attractive."Ahri shot back.
"Funny," Vestara said sourly. "Seen my father around by any chance?"
"Think he's still waiting back at your house. Didn't want to be within striking distance of the council if you failed to impress."
"I'm sure my master will be pleased with that," Vestara rolled her eyes. "And here he's told me that I've always excelled at being a Sith."
"If we still practiced those inane traditions of choosing a sacrifice, I bet I know who'd you choose."
"So kind of you to offer yourself in such a way."
The sound of a throat clearing caused both teens to freeze in their tracks. They immediately recognized the Force presence behind them.
"Tyro Raas, leave us."
"Yes, Grand Lord," Ahri inclined his head in a short bow and quickly continued down the hallway.
"Grand Lord," Vestara bowed low, mentally cursing Ahri's cowardice and wondering why should thought his presence had been comforting in the first place. Not that she needed him at her side anyways. But she clearly knew where he stood were it a matter of life and death, hers and his.
"Rise, Saber. After a short conversation with the others, we have decided to assign you a mission off-planet."
"In Ship?" Vestara's eyes widened, unable to contain her excitement. It was common knowledge that a relic vessel of the old days had landed on Kesh, had arrived two years earlier and had since been updating everyone as to the status of the rest of the galaxy. It had caused quite the upheaval of the status quo and renewed hope of a Sith Empire reborn among the most fanatical.
"Yes," the Grand Lord said almost bitterly. "In fact, the vessel requested you itself."
"Me? But I just made Saber."
"Do not question me, Saber," Darish Vol snapped.
"Forgive me, my lord."
"I have selected a team to accompany you. Apparently the vessel thinks it is time we begin our expansion outside this system."
Vestara did her best to control her thoughts and emotions. She knew from her father that Darish Vol had tried to claim himself master of the sentient vessel, and then had been promptly humiliated when the vessel locked him out. In fact, to the best of anyone's knowledge, it had always deemed their tribe inferior and incapable of restoring the Sith to the galaxy. Yet Ship continued to stay on Kesh and teach them all about details that might have been lost or corrupted in their millennia of isolation.
"I…I am honored, my Lord. To where am I headed?"
"The Bheriz system. Our databanks say that before the Stranding, it had many prosperous planets rich in mineral resources. The ship claims that most of its mines are now barren, but that the location is strategic in value. A government called the Aduba Starhoppers control the region. You will learn more from the ship when you meet with it. Now out of my sight and return victorious or not at all."
"For the Tribe," Vestara clasped a fist over her chest.
"Great, Fearless Leader, your first official mission," Kani smirked, reclined in the shiny, black leather chair of the ship's meeting room.
After all the bells and whistles of the knighting ceremony and mission debriefing, the political games didn't end. Ben Skywalker was 'given' a brand new Corellian tactical freighter VCX-2000 for his team's personal use—after all it was only right that a 'Skywalker' had his own ship. Speeds nearing that of the fabled Millennium Falcon, the VCX series freighter was the direct descendant of the G-series freighters; known for their speed and firepower. Its cargobays were chock full of supplies, credits, and Yuuzhan Vong biots, everything the number-crunchers said the team would need to complete the mission.
"Don't start," Ben groaned.
"Aren't you our Fearless Leader, though? Should have put that under the tat on your arm," The team's healer in training, fourteen year old Josat, chimed in with a smirk. He was referring to the New Jedi Order emblem that Ben had on his left shoulder. "I can also recite the adjectives that holovid used to describe you as they boasted about your first official mission. 'The Next Face of the Jedi…'"
"Please don't, Chatterbox. Why did I invite you again?"
"Because your cousin Cassa told you too," the fourth member of their team said. Also at fourteen, the Cathar Jun Rasi Tuum chuckled. Attached to his chest was a Yuuzhan Vong biologically engineered symbiote that kept his breathing normal. "Said something about you not being her favorite cousin any more if you didn't."
"Like Master Tekli always tells me, it pays to have connections," Josat said airily.
"And Kani invited me along so she wouldn't be the only girl," the last Jedi in the group, Melodie Jedi Cappricia, chimed in.
"Please, I can handle these boys. I invited you so you could see more of the galaxy than just the Ossus libraries, Fishsticks," Kani said dryly, lobbing a towel at the younger teen.
"But the libraries are so amazing," Cappricia protested. "All that knowledge!"
"Trust me, seeing things for real instead of a vid-screen is a lot better," Kani said with a shake of her head.
"Pardon the interruption," a stilted Basic-speaker said.
The group of young Jedi twitched slightly, having not detected the approach of one of the other half of the team. A Yuuzhan Vong shaper was standing off to the side of the table they had been around, his head slightly bowed. To the surprise of Ben and Kani, Josat responded to the shaper's interruption in what seemed to be perfect Yuuzhan Vong.
"What did you say to him?" Cappricia asked curiously.
Sensing their raised eyebrows, Josat blushed slightly. "Just told him it was okay to approach…or something like that, a lot is lost in translation to Basic."
"When did you pick up Vongese?" Ben said, impressed.
Josat then blushed for real this time. "I…I've kind of had Cassa Solo teaching me. Jun knows some words too. We're both working with shapers and Yuuzhan Vong biots for his lung problem so I thought it'd be handy if we could cut the translation time and learn how to speak it."
"Nice," Ben whistled. He then looked to the shaper. "What Josat said. It's alright you weren't interrupting anything. Master Shaper Aeri."
"Thank you, Your Eminence."
"Just Ben," Ben Skywalker insisted, shooting a glare at his silently laughing 'best' friend.
"Yes…Ben," the scarred Shaper tried. He gestured to the gathered Jedi. "We of Domain Paasar just want to thank you for allowing us to redeem the name of our people in the eyes of those who live in the systems we will restore. Though we were once warriors, the freedom the Jedi gave us to choose what we want from life has enabled us to learn how to heal the damage we have created. We know as Jedi that you could be doing other more glorious tasks befitting of people of your legendary…."
"Stop right there," Ben exhaled, doing his best not to roll his eyes. "I might be a Jedi, I might be a Skywalker, but I'm still just one person in a galaxy of quadrillions. Now please, no bowing, no thanking us, we're just doing our jobs, as are you."
"How much hostility do you anticipate Ben?" Aeri asked. "We of Paasar have sworn away the amphistaff and coufee as proof of our dedication to healing the galaxy. We have no offensive weaponry."
"We'll keep things civil, don't worry about that," Jun spoke up. "There might be a few grieving and angry refugees, but if they know you have the power to make their homes livable again, they'll hold off."
"We hope," Kani said evenly. "We won't lie to you, Shaper. There are a lot of angry people where we're going. If things get dangerous, your desire to redeem the name of your people will have to wait. As you can tell, none of us are the soldier-y type of Jedi."
"Healer," Josat volunteered.
"Bookworm," Cappricia chirped with a grin.
"We don't need to be combat-Jedi, this is a mission of peace after all," Ben said wryly. "Let us handle the unruly masses. Restoring planets probably are not going to be an overnight thing, right?"
"It will take several galactic months just for the process to begin to take hold," confirmed the shaper.
"See, so plenty of time for the locals and refugees to get to know us and learn about all our charming personalities," Ben said. "Chatterbox can soften them up, Fishsticks can impress them with all those codeci in her head, Hairball can show them that the Yuuzhan Vong actually do good, and once the masses like us, we send in Kani to seal a deal."
"What about you, oh Fearless Leader?" Kani deadpanned.
"Yeah what will you be…Wait a minute, how come Kani didn't get a nickname?" Cappricia protested.
"I will be posing and looking good for the holocams, oh and practicing my handshaking skills," Ben said with a smug grin. "And Kani doesn't have a nickname because my self-preservation instincts kick in whenever one's about to leave my mouth."
"She can read your mind you know," Josat said.
"Maybe that's why I feel a shiver down my spine whenever I think of a nickname," Ben chuckled, earning him a light tap on his shoulder from his best friend. He then sobered and looked back to the healer. "You have the word of my family that we'll do everything we can to protect you and your adepts."
"Do you have to be so formal and serious?" Ben asked curiously. "I mean, this is just a routine 'repair damaged worlds' mission. At most we'll be up against one or two disgruntled refugees, but nothing to worry about, really. Most of the time will be spent hanging out at the regional HQ looking good for whoever shows up. It's a mission, but it's of the milk-run variety."
"We are Yuuzhan Vong. From a young age, we were bred to expect the unexpected. Yun-Shuno and Yun-Ne'shel will always test us in ways we can never anticipate."
"Alright then," Ben sighed. "But after the first few months with nothing happening, I'm sure you'll see how tiring it is to be serious all the time."
"We shall see."
"Saber Khai." Vestara heard the voice of Aris Zin, one of the Sith Tyros assigned to the mission, interrupt her meditations.
"What is it, Tyro?"
"Apologies for the intrusion, but your team has been assembled and is awaiting your presence."
"I will address the team when I am ready, Tyro," Vestara's voice promised a quick death if he continued to intrude. The Tyro bowed his head low and backed out of the room.
With the door sealed, Vestara re-immersed herself in the Force and resumed her kneeling position in the center of the icy cold room.
Why pick me, Ship? I am neither the strongest, nor the wisest of the Tribe.
You embody that which is Sith, the thoughts echoed through her mind, cold and calculating. Seek to rise beyond the stale teachings of your stagnant people. To be a Sith is more than just reciting dogmas, interpreting the words of people long dead. You have to feel it in your every cell, know that in your very essence, you are Sith.
I am but a newly minted Saber, would not any Lord or La…
You are not listening! The ship's mental message battered Vestara's mind causing her to inhale sharply in pain. I chose you because of the potential I sensed. You are destined to return the Sith to their glory, not your so-called Lords and Ladies of the Sith. Anyone can pick up a title, and with enough fear and power keep it. But the Sith of my era would laugh at what your Tribe has become. Would not even devote resources to annihilate a peoples who are so incompetent that they cannot see themselves a doomed race.
"What would you have me do?" Vestara voiced aloud. "I cannot go against the Council. You may not believe in titles, but all of my people do."
That is why I have demanded you take part in this mission. I will make you invaluable to your people, make it so that your word means more to them than the entire council.
"I turned fifteen only a week ago. There has to be others in the tribe who are older and more experienced."
Age is irrelevant. You will do as I bid and raise your people up or you will die in the attempt. You told me you wished to become a master of the Sith arts, that you wish for your people to transcend their current status in life. A true Sith always accomplishes what he or she sets out to do. And you are a true Sith. Now go tend to those the council has foolishly put with you. Just know that while they are all expendable, you are not.
"Understood, I thank you for this chance." Vestara rose from her kneeling position in the center of the meditation chamber. "I will prove you have not made a mistake in selecting me to be your emissary."
In the dim red light that filled the room, Vestara caught the sight of her own reflection on one of the polished metal panels, the freshly inked Sith tattoos that denoted her Saber rank stood out in stark contrast to her pale face. A constant reminder of who she was, of her identity. She was Sith, master of her own life and the life she wished to live.
Making sure her black hooded robes were straightened, she released one final breath and let her emotional barriers rise to impenetrable levels. She then affixed to her face a war-mask made in the same style that her ancestors had worn many thousands of years ago. The actual battles might be lightyears away, but there were battles of a different sort that awaited her outside the featureless durasteel door.
Those on the other side were not her friends, were the furthest thing from allies she could have. They were all there, waiting for her to falter so they could swoop in and claim the glory for their families, for their master, and for the Council. But she was not about to let that happen.
The door to the room slid open again and she stepped out into the intake bay of the spherical vessel. Ship itself was not very large, meant really for one or two people, not twelve. Over the coming months, those onboard were going to get to know each other very well, would have to sleep in shifts. Vestara mentally grimaced. Cramped and uncomfortable dark Jedi were not the most fun to hang out with.
The door slid shut behind her. At once seven Tyros lowered themselves to one knee while the four Sabers also on the mission exchanged bored nods.
"Well?" The cold blue eyes of Vran, a Saber almost ten years older than herself, threatened to beat her down with its penetrating powers.
"Watch your tone, Saber," Vestara snapped, her voice distorted by her mask. She would not let herself be intimidated by the mountain of a man. "The Council decreed that I am the leader of this mission, it is you who will report to me and not the other way around."
"My brother simply wished to know if the Ship has imparted any words of wisdom before we leave this system," Sith Saber Kaara voiced in an almost eerie whisper. "None of us have even left the planet before."
"I am aware of that," Vestara said curtly. Kaara was older than her by three years , but was also a newly minted Saber. Not that Vestara felt any sense of camaraderie with the dark-haired teen; without even trying she could sense Kaara's lust for power, for prestige and acknowledgment. "And if the Ship had any information for you, it would have informed you itself. Seeing as how it has not told you anything, it obviously believes that its wisdom is not meant for you. We have our orders and our target. Ours is not to question the orders but to carry them out. For the Tribe."
"For the Tribe," the others repeated on instinct.
"What are our orders, Ves?" Ahri Raas sad, still on one knee and head bowed low so that she could only see the white hair atop his head.
"Saber Khai to you, Tyro," Saber Kayala corrected darkly.
"The Bheriz system is our first destination," Vestara ignored the interplay. Ahri might be the closest thing she had to a friend, but in front of the others, she could not afford to play favorites. "A convoy of materials meant for the worlds in a nearby system will be passing through when we arrive. Our goal is to take the convoy, force the local authorities to send gunships and support, and then with the help of Ship claim those ships for the Tribe. At that point one of you will be taking our spoils back to Kesh and the rest of us will build our Tribe's armada."
"Great and powerful Sith reduced to piracy?" Sneered Vran.
"If you would like to recommend we assault, hold, and then repurpose a shipyard with just us, by all means, Vran," Ahri spoke up boldly.
A red blade shot out from Vran's saber and nearly cleaved Ahri's head from his shoulders. Vestara's own purple saber, however, intercepted it with barely millimeters to spare, the energy blades singing the pale hairs on Ahri's neck.
"He is a Tyro, he should have learned his station long ago."
"He is also smarter than you Vran," Vestara remarked darkly, swatting his blade aside. "If you were leading us we'd all be dead in the first engagement. You're the saber-staff, the muscle, stop thinking above your station. We'll arrive at our destination at the end of the week and have another week to plan and execute our attack."
"Are we taking prisoners?" Tyro Aris Zin asked.
"Remember the code, Tyro," Vestara said tonelessly. "Unless their continued existence benefits us, why waste resources to keep them alive. Our goal is to build a fleet for our Tribe and pave the way for their return. Nothing is going to stop us."
"This is Jedi Order transport Dawn to Formos Control, our arrival is expected," Ben Skywalker said, toggling the comm and waiting for a reply. In the distance was the planet Formos, an unimpressive brown and yellow sphere rotating in space. But what really caught everyone's eyes was what was surrounding the planet. In what could only be described as a giant construct of starships interlinked by various airlocks and enclosed walkways; it was as if Formos had developed a ring of ships in the span of a decade and a half since the end of the Vong War.
"That's a lot of ships," Jun Rasi Tuum whistled.
"A lot of people too," Josat answered, subdued. "A lot of unhappy, suffering people."
"How many refugees were we supposed to deal with?" Kani said, aghast. "This is way more than Chief of State Hamner said there would be. Their reports said only a few million!"
"Good thing we're here then," Cappricia said, glancing to the others. "Millions or billions, it our duty as Jedi to help, right? Nothing's going to stop us."
"Maybe," Ben answered , feeling slightly overwhelmed by all the life he felt in orbit around the planet. All the life he was soon going to decide the fates for. He could feel his heart thump loudly, his mouth drying at the sheer scale of the task made visible before him. Kani's hand reached out and covered his own, and he turned his hand over so they could interlace their fingers.
Josat had been right. Many of those in orbit were suffering, had been for a very long time, and the Force was letting Ben and Kani feel it in unvarnished darkness. It was like feeling the Yuuzhan Vong War all over again, the echoes of the lasting pain and agony it had inflicted on the refugees pulsating relentlessly like a giant beacon. His breath came out in shorter gasps, his grip on Kani's hand tightening just as hers did the same to his. Together, just as they had done when they had been younger and in the Ossus Praxeum, they slowly pulled themselves out of the morass of despair and negative energies of the Force.
"Ben?" Cappricia said, picking up on the change in mood.
"I'm okay," Ben said hoarsely. "Just all those people caught me off guard."
The comm unit crackled to life, drawing the Jedi away from the ring of ships.
"Dawn this if Formos Control, welcome to our little end of the galaxy—population nine-point-eight billion. Proceed to hangar bay Dorn-Senth-Niner at one-third sub-light."
Ben wiped at his eyes and swallowed, before replying. "I copy Formos Control, setting course now."
"Look over there," Cappricia had her face almost pressed to the viewpoint as her yellow eyes rapidly tracked the solid ring of ships orbiting Formos. "That entire section has to be made up of Kubaz ships. I recognize their design from the temple archives. You see those sloped pods on the back? They're actually hatcheries and are the heaviest shielded area of the ship. That part of the ship seals itself off and ejects itself if a hull breach occurs in the rest of the ship."
"That's only fifteen or so ships," Josat spoke up. "Look at that cluster over there! It looks like they have their own starfighter squadrons and everything. Like it's some type of nation-state in space. They're not really connected to the rest of that grouping and those surplus V-wings look to be keeping out the other ships that don't have that weird marking. There has to be over a hundred ships over there, and some look ancient."
"The briefings we got never said anything about this many people." Kani almost whispered again, her hand reflexively squeezing Ben's once more. "And we're supposed to help all of them somehow?"
"Over there!" Jun exclaimed in alarm, jabbing his fur-covered hands at another sight.
The young teens peered into the direction he was pointing and had to blink in amazement as over a dozen combat ships started a deadly skirmish around several larger civilian vessels. After a few minutes of heavy fighting, one side backed down and this new group appeared to tractor-beam the larger ship out of its current orbit and into a new one.
"They're fighting for supplies," Ben said, immediately understanding what they were seeing. "Nearly ten billion people. Records show that the population in this system rarely rose above ten-thousand before the Vong War."
"Only the strongest can survive," Kani agreed softly. "This is what billions of people have been reduced to, a bunch of nexu fighting for another meal."
"The sooner we can start giving these people a home, the better." Jun said firmly.
Their ship rocked slightly as it entered Formos' atmosphere, yellow, sulfurous clouds parting quickly. The ground of Formos was mostly rocky and barren, the few pre-fab structures that dotted the ground were clustered around the planet's lone spaceport.
A lone, heavily fortified spaceport.
"That place has more turbolasers than the Denon Senate Building," Kani whistled, her purple eyes counting the many emplacements that littered their destination. It didn't help that almost half of them had turned to acquire a target lock on them as they descended.
"They do know we're friendly, right?" a worried Cappricia breathed.
Ben toggled his comm. "All those guns for us, Formos Control?"
"Can't be too careful these days, Dawn. You've seen the crowd that hangs out in orbit yourself."
"Point. But the only things we have to declare are relief supplies and people wanting to help you out."
"True, blowing away a Skywalker would probably be…eeeh….bad news for everyone," a new voice replied. "I'm having my people stand down. See you planet side."
The turrets all returned to their heaven-side gaze, and the crew of the Dawn breathed a little easier. The young Jedi all exchanged nervous grins, their eyes keeping track of the happenings in their fast-approaching destination.
The hangar they had been directed to was evidently a military one if all the fighters in the hangar were any indication.
"Look at all those Hornets," Jun blinked at the bee-shaped fighters docked in the front. "And those Corellian 500s and K-Wings. I thought this was supposed to be some out of the way backwater, not a military stronghold."
"Probably still is, but I'd get nervous too if several billion people decided to park in orbit above my planet," Ben reasoned. "They need some way to keep the peace, and holding a big gun to their heads sometimes does it."
The Dawn shook slightly as it landed, the welcoming committee already outside and waiting.
"Is that…a giant rabbit?" Cappricia gaped. She had just torn her eyes from the cockpit window to join the others at the ramp, when she did a double-take. The figure that had caught her attention was hard to miss, even from a distance. It wasn't every day one saw a nearly two-meter tall green rabbit dressed in armor with several blasters strapped to his side and a flamethrower on his back.
"Lepi," Ben chuckled. "That's his race. Uncle Han told me a story once about working with one of their people before."
"We shall wait in the ship," the Yuuzhan Vong Master Shaper said calmly. "This far out, there is no use fanning the flames of hatred. We'll emerge when you signal us."
"Good idea," Ben said solemnly. "Don't worry, we'll get you the chance you're looking for."
"We know," Aeri said patiently. "Good luck with your initial negotiations."
The ramp finished its cycling and lowered to let the Jedi out into the hangar.
"Welcome to Formos," the green bipedal rabbit Cappricia had seen from the window greeted, gnawing on an orange, root-like vegetable as he did. "The name's Nugget, governor of…"
Josat hadn't been able to stop himself from sniggering. A flash of annoyance crossed the pink-eyes of Nugget and the Lepi drew two blasters faster than the young Jedi could react.
"Think that's funny do you?" Sneered Nugget, the whine of the blasters charging filling the hangar.
"No sir, sorry sir," Josat gulped.
"Thought so." Nugget holstered his weapons and resumed chewing on the root in his mouth. "Eeeeh, as I was saying, I'm the governor of this system. With me are my two most useful associates Mei and Ack. Mei is my Chief of Security and Ack is my Chief of Refugee Business."
The Jedi looked at the two henchmen on either side of the governor. Nearly as tall as Nugget, Mei was as mercenary as a Bith could look, wearing a trench-coat over heavy durasteel armor plating, with wrist-launchers on either arm and a bandoleer slung across his shoulder. Ack appeared to be just the opposite, a Chadra-Fan, with a backpack larger than his small form and robes that looked to be made of the finest of silks.
"Pleased to meet you," Ben said with a diplomatic smile.
Nugget finished chewing and nodded. "Right, now I assume you're here because the Galactic Alliance wants to look good for us Starhoppers?"
"Is that what the government of Aduba Three call themselves?" Ben asked, walking alongside the governor out of the hangar.
"It was the name of the gang pops ran around with before settling down and having a den of his own," Nugget confirmed. "Got himself elected to lead those band of misfits and when the Hutts beat feet out of here and, he took over. With the Vong War decimating the Tenloss Syndicate's power base, can't believe the idiots actually supported the Peace Brigade, the Starhoppers are the only ones left out here. There are definite benefits to having three dozen brothers and sisters."
"Three-dozen!" Jun mouthed silently in shock behind the rabbit's back.
"So each of your brothers or sisters is in charge of a system?"
"Only the more responsible ones in our family," Nugget chuckled. "You wouldn't want to put some of my brothers and sisters in charge of a dejaarik table even if your life depended on it. Anyways, not that your arrival isn't appreciated or anything, but unless you can actually contribute something besides your last name, I don't have much use for you."
"We've brought a Yuuzhan Vong Shaper team with us as well as many metric tons of relief supplies and materials to terraform a handful of planets." Kani voiced.
"Great, you really want to start a panic, let the word that you have Vong on your ship reach those yahoos in orbit. We only have enough power to fire half our turbolaser batteries at one time. The others are just for show. The yahoos up there know it, but keep each other in check. Which is lucky for us down here."
"How is the situation in this system?" Josat asked. "Food, medical supplies…"
"You saw that skirmish on your way down, you tell me," Nugget answered with a click of his tongue. He passed a trash bin and discarded the remnants of his snack with a careless toss. "What supplies we do have aren't going to last long. We have the convoys we get from Aduba, but with billions of mouths to feed, they disappear almost as soon as we get it. Forget medical supplies, those were used up pretty quickly. Out here, if you get anything more than a flesh-wound, you can kiss your pretty rear-end good bye."
"Do you have a triage center at least?" Josat frowned.
"Located next to the morgue, why?"
"I'm a healer, well, one in training. If we can pool those with medical training, we might be able to save a few more lives."
"Kid, weren't you listening? That's the last thing we want out here, more mouths to feed and bodies to house. Our food-ships are at their limit and breaking down. Environmental and CO-two scrubbers are wearing out. Heck, even all the garbage they've generated has become a navigation hazard—we lost a storage ship when micro-fragments punched through its engine block. As good as healing the sick might sound, it's more of a mercy to let them die at the moment. At least that way they won't take everyone else down with them."
"Well now that we're here, we might be able to start fixing up some of the planets in the sector," Ben backed up the younger Jedi. "So you might as well start making sure that those who can be saved are."
"And who decides who gets first crack?" Nugget said dismissively. "I told you before, my guns only half-work. My militia numbers in the hundreds. And all the starfighers you saw in that hangar look great and all, but I have no pilots for them. We open an actual med-center and we'll have a stampede of people trying to get to it. Those with the most credits and biggest guns will get there first. Those who really need the care will still be up in orbit dying slowly. I don't have the manpower to keep things civil. As it is, you Jedi have come at an inconvenient time. We're currently expecting a supply convoy from Aduba Three so resources are their lowest yet."
"Do you normally wait until they're that low?" Kani asked, curious.
"Of course not. But we absorbed several hundred thousand more refugees when the government of Dubrava flopped last month. When they flopped, so did the trade route, so aid through the Bheriz sector now takes an additional week to get here. If you Jedi do have a magic-planet-be-better spell in your book of tricks, it's more than welcome. I don't need the Force to know that Formos can't last much longer, even with Aduba's help. All we really need is one missed shipment and we have thousands die of starvation, and desperation kicks in."
"Is there anywhere you'd like us to start?"
Nugget cast a sidelong glance to Ben. "Don't suppose your Vong buddies can give this planet a make-over? If more of it were able to sustain farming then we wouldn't have to import so much food."
"That shouldn't be a problem," Ben nodded.
"Great, then after this planet you can give the other planets in this system a redo as well. Formos Besh was once the major farming hub in this system, but the Vong turned it into a desert. The fourth planet, Asa, and the fifth, Arkan, once supported life. But thanks to the Vong again, Asa is a molten ball of space-rock and Arkan is in pieces."
"We'll have a look at the planets, but even if they are viable for a restoration, it will take time," Ben said patiently.
"That's something we don't have much of. I need to start settling the people in orbit before they tear each other to bits and take my planet down with them."
"Do they have any representatives or leaders up there?" Kani asked.
Nugget nodded. "A loose, very loose, band of captains and 'presidents' formed a council a little while back. There are several of them actually. Think individual nation-states. The refugees up there are divided into their own little factions, with some more powerful than the other. No one wants to try a power-grab because it'll cost them too much and leave them vulnerable to the other factions. I'm hoping your arrival doesn't make any of them do something bantha-headed."
Kani nodded in understanding. "While Jedi Knight Skywalker coordinates with the Yuuzhan Vong Shapers and your terraforming teams, Jun and I can talk with them, see if a Jedi's touch can help resolve any of their disputes."
Nugget snorted. "Be my guest, darling. Can't offer you any protection if you go up there though. You'll have to be aggressive with those numbskulls up there or negotiations are going to be short."
Kani activated her lightsaber and let it spin around in her hand. "I can take care of myself."
The lagomorphic governor shrugged. "Your choice."
"I'll go help Josat set up the med-clinic," Cappricia voiced. "I've read a lot of files about various maladies and how to fix them."
"Well, it looks like you Jedi have a game plan. You have more full support, as worthless as it may be," Nugget pulled out another space-carrot from his suit. "Good luck. I really hope you guys succeed."
"Target hasn't detected us yet," Ahri murmured, seated on the backs of his legs.
"Look at those fools," Vran grinned, cracking his knuckles at the Damorian s-18 light freighter in their scopes. "Fat and lazy, practically inviting us to slaughter their useless souls."
"We have the pilots in the fighter-escort," Saber Kayala Fei, voiced, hand out-stretched. Next to her was Tyro Aris Zin, seated with a similar look of concentration on his face. "Say the word Saber Khai and their lives are ended."
"We need to wait for them to enter the gravity shadow of that planet," Vestara reminded the others, her voice empty of emotion and face hidden behind her mask. "Once the natural forces deny them hyperspace travel, then we strike."
"In three minutes," Sith Saber Kaara voiced in an equally toneless voice.
The Sith Meditation Sphere they were in continued to hover in place in the shadow of a gas giant's moon, the seconds ticking by with agonizing slowness. The anticipation, the bloodshed, the first combat they would see, all stirred the passions of the crew.
"Now," Vestara voiced.
Several things happened in unison.
Kayala and Aris both closed their fists. Lightseconds away the pilots in two of the fighters escorting the large cargo freighter slumped dead in their seats. Before the other pilots realized something was wrong, Kayala and Aris refocused on another pair with similar results. Four of six fighters down without a shot fired. The last two clued onto the fact that something was wrong when the others—now with their pilots slumped dead over the steering column—veered sharply out of formation. One slammed into the side of the freighter it was supposed to protect, and another collided with one of the other disabled fighters. By then, Kayala and Aris had the last pair of pilots in their mind's eye and closed their fists one last time. The fighters, which had been in the middle of an evasive loop, continued said loop and likewise immolated themselves against the now panicking freighter.
Even before the flames could be extinguished by the vacuum of space, the Meditation Sphere surged forward out of its cover and fired. Its powerful weapons sent out beams of white light at the unsuspecting freighter, lancing out at the aft of the ship, easily penetrating its weakened shields and disintegrating the generators that powered the ship's engines all in the blink of an eye.
"Initial distress call has been issued, now activating comm-jammers," Ahri called out.
"Prepare to board," Vestara commanded, moving to the front of the group standing at the airlock. "Remember, no survivors."
Sith masks dropped into place and sabers were freed. The ship shook slightly as it docked with the side of the larger cargo freighter, the air hissing as it formed a seal with the hapless ship. Ship then overrode the other vessel's computer and forced open their airlock door.
Sensing what was going to happen before it did, Vestara activated her lightsaber and batted away the first few blaster bolts shot at her. A gesture with her hand sent the weapons flying out of the hands of the security personnel and clattering across the floor. She then stepped back, holstering her lightsaber, and let the others surge forward. They did so eagerly, like hounds being released on the trail of bloodied prey. More blaster fire, screams, small explosions, all echoed down the narrow hallways of the ship.
Vestara simply walked sedately behind the others, the metal heels of her knee-high boots clicking against the metal deck plates. She passed several bodies without care, the circular burns in their chests a sign of their quick death. Security personnel, engineers, scientists, her brethren were nondiscriminatory. Above, the lighting flickered on and off as the ship's dying power generators tried to keep the vessel functioning.
"Bridge is secure Saber Khai."
Touching her cranial-implanted comlink, Vestara answered. "Very good, Tyro Raas. Get me the cargo manifest for this ship, see if it's worth sending back home. I'll be at the bridge shortly."
Vestara stopped at an intersection in the corridor, a hint of movement down one way caught her attention. "On a second thought Ahri, I have something to take care of first. Get me that manifest anyways."
Letting her lightsaber fly back into her hand, Vestara headed down the path, her senses attuned. Her target wasn't afraid, good. It would have been mildly annoying to corner it and hear the various babblings of a doomed individual. Her footsteps were slow, steady, sounding loudly over the otherwise quiet walkway. Her quarry had disappeared into one of the unlit side rooms.
A snap-hiss of Vestara's purple lightsaber filled the air, its glow eating into the shadows of the room. All around, Vestara saw stacks of cargo crates. She said nothing, using her senses to track her prey. She felt nothing from her target but resignation, however. This caused Vestara to raise an eyebrow behind her mask.
Rounding the last corner in the room, the purple light of her lightsaber fell over a single individual. Clothing torn, a slave collar around her neck, looking no older than herself. Bruised, battered, it was fairly clear what this teenage girl had been on the ship for.
"Just my luck," the girl said with a small bitter grin. In the purple glow, her black eyes seemed to reflect a small amount of madness. "The day I finally gut that bastard of a captain, we get boarded by dark Jedi."
Vestara regarded the teenage girl impassively, not expecting this at all. Despite all her bravado and Sith posturing, she had yet to take the life of a sentient being. Animals, sure, she had put down her fair share of dangerous creatures in her trials. But never a sentient being; the Tribe was not big enough for its Tyros and Sabers to kill each other for practice. Those too weak to make the cut were sent home a disgrace, forced to do menial labor for the rest of their lives.
For some reason, staring at the girl in front of her, Vestara felt none of the thrill or delight that she had sensed from the others on the ship.
"Well?" The girl held out her arms, revealing an almost bony frame. "You going to kill me?"
"You wish to die?" Vestara finally spoke, the Force making her meaning clear.
"No," the girl shook her head. "But I get the feeling begging for my life isn't going to do anything. Never had in the past so I don't see how now's going to be any different."
Vestara held her lightsaber out to the side in a non-threatening manner and took a step closer to the battered teenage girl. "You would be correct."
"Just…one request," fear and despair finally cracking through the teen's exterior.
Vestara took another, silent step forward, her other hand reaching into her combat tunic.
"Make it quick, please," the girl took a step back, her back bumping up against the bulkhead wall. She let out a little sniffle, unshed tears flickering in the light of Vestara's lightsaber. "For once in my useless life, can your great and mighty Force grant me this something?"
Vestara's hand whipped out faster than the eye could see, her glass parang slicing through the air. The girl let out a gurgling gasp, her hands flying up to her severed throat as her life's blood sprayed out over Vestara's covered form.
"The Force cares not for the weak," Vestara said emotionlessly, watching the girl's panicked eyes and feeling her life rapidly leave her body.
A few seconds later, the girl breathed her last, her body limp in a pool of her own blood.
All was silent once more.
I have a vested interest in you. Such a kill. Her name?
I…I never asked.
Then name her. Name your first kill so you will always remember this moment, so that it will forever be emblazoned on your soul.
Vestara was quiet for a long moment, staring at the crumpled body, emotions conflicted. Finally the Sith Saber took a deep breath. I shall call her First.
As you said, Ship. She is my first kill, thus First.
Aloud, Vestara knelt down next to the body. "And I will never forget you First. If only you had been born stronger, then perhaps the galaxy might have let you live longer."
Her comlink pinged again. "Saber Khai, a picketship has just entered the system to check on the freighter."
Vestara rose and walked away from the body. "Very well. Continue as planned. It will be the first of many warships we will claim for the Tribe."
"Understood Saber Khai. Are we taking any prisoners this time? These soldiers might have useful information."
"Saber Fei, we are Sith," Vestara stepped back out into the corridor, droplets of blood dripping down onto the durasteel deck. "No survivors. If any surrender, drain them of useful information , then throw them out the airlock. We can't afford to care for prisoners, nor can we afford word of our identities to get out to anyone. Better to eliminate all witnesses. For the Tribe."
"For the Tribe, Saber Khai. Your will will be done."
Vestara just nodded, reaching up to remove her mask. Her eyes felt annoyingly irritated, wet, so she reached up with the sleeve of her combat robes and rubbed at them. She felt a sudden surge of anger, anger at First's weakness, at becoming the first to fall to her blade, and channeled that rage into her movements. She exhaled sharply and placed her mask back into position. It was as she had said, they were Sith, and they had a job to do.
Formos could never have been called a tourist's dream location at any point in time. Barren, rocky, and in the hind-end of space, the only thing it had to offer was a spaceport full of the type of scum and villainy that normally occupied Outer Rim, out-of-the-way systems. Even though the Starhoppers of Aduba had 'tamed' the area and set up a functional government to keep the system secure, Formos was still a place only for the desperate or those allergic to abiding laws went.
"These are, in your language, Life-Seeders," Domain Paasar's Master Shaper introduced to the Jedi and to Nugget. "They are like fountains, sending into the air a geyser of elements conductive to life to gradually shape the planet to a desired state. For maximum effectiveness and expediency, we will set up a full network of sixty-four seeders around this planet. "
"And how long will this take?" Nugget asked, chewing on an ever present space-carrot.
"Two months before noticeable results are seen around the seeders, another galactic year for the process to finish. Once the Life-Seeders begin the process of shaping the planet, it is largely automated. So long as the seeders are undisturbed, the process will continue until completion."
"A couple of months, eh?" Nugget grimaced. "Given how I don't want you Vong and Jedi hanging about here when you can fix up other planets, that just means I have to assign some security forces here just in case some bonehead up in orbit gets the wrong idea."
"Can you spare the people?"
"Ehhh…Not really, but if I want this planet fixed up, it should be worth the aggravation. By the way, not to shoot a gift Gungan in the tongue, but if restoring planets is so easy, why haven't the Galactic Alliance restored more worlds?"
The Shaper inclined his head. "The one-hundred and ninety-two Life-Seeders we have with us are approximately four-fifths of all mature Life-Seeders in existence. They were developed several years after the war's end, and take five years to reach maturity. A set of sixty-four can only restore two mid-sized planets with atmospheric shells before they are exhausted. Added to that, most worlds prefer the Tenandro Industries' mechanical means of restoring their world. Instead of an organic process, they would rather use their credits on the various industries that are vying for their favor."
"The Galactic Alliance wants to show that we mean business when it comes to helping our friends and allies," Ben Skywalker added. Ben Skywalker heard his comlink chirp and answered it. "Go ahead Kani."
"Good news and bad news Fearless Leader."
"Go ahead." But even as Ben spoke he saw a beat-up looking transport fly over their location. The intent of those onboard was loud and clear in the Force. "Although I think I just figured out the bad news. More warning would be appreciated next time."
"Just learned about it," Kani said. "The guys in that transport all lost their planets to Vong-shaping. When they heard that a team of Shapers was about to alter Formos, they kind of freaked out."
"The captains in this faction are giving me different tallies of who's no longer up here. A dozen to two-dozen at least."
"You do realize we only have five militiamen, me, the governor, and the Shapers down here?"
"You're the Fearless Leader. While you deal with them, I'm trying to convince the rest of the fleets up here not to orbitally bombard your location. Governor Nugget wasn't lying when he said that they provisionally controlled everyone up here."
"Oh, well in that case. Thanks, good luck."
"Wait, what about the good news?"
"I just told you it. I'm convincing the rest of the people not to shoot at you from orbit and to give the planet-shaping a chance. Trying to anyways. Even if I'm a Jedi, most of these captains are fifty years or older, so I'm still a little girl to them."
"Good luck on that front. The transport just landed, so I'll call you back in a little bit."
The transport, a battered freighter that had definitely seen better days, kicked up a small cloud of dust as its thrusters slowly brought it to the arid ground.
"Easy," Ben muttered to the few militia soldiers at his side. They had all reached for their blasters and had been aiming it at the transport's landing ramp. "Guns down. We don't want any accidents. Shapers, you can get back inside our transport or wait out here, I don't think it'll matter much."
"Your show, Jedi," Nugget shrugged, nodding to his men. "But if things go down the rabbit-hole, all bets are off. I'm not going to sacrifice my men for your Jedi codes."
"Code, governor, we only have one code," Ben said, eyes focused as the passengers of the transport began to pile out. Five, ten, twenty... "That bucket of bolts can hold a lot."
"Keep counting Jedi," Nugget said, coolly pulling out his blasters.
Ben stepped forward, holding his hands out to his side in a non-threatening gesture. "Hiya! Nice day we're having, isn't it?"
The appointed leader of the mob of forty or so individuals—Ben made a mental note to ask Kani where she learned to count—stepped out to meet Ben half way. The man had the air of a soldier, shaven head and muscles that were well defined against the skin-tight shirt he was wearing. He was also wielding a heavy rifle, pointed directly at Ben. "Turn the scarheads over to us, that's not negotiable, Jedi."
"They're going to help fix up this system."
"Kid, you're too young to remember, but those scarheads back there, their entire species, they've done enough to this galaxy already. These here people, and our families in orbit, have a nice cozy living right now and don't need no Vong biots making a mess of things again."
"And what happens when the food runs out, or if the supply convoys stop coming?" Ben replied evenly. "You've obviously seen war, know how to survive. Tell me, are you actually living up there in orbit or just surviving?"
The man took aim with his rifle, but Ben side-stepped keeping himself between the ex-soldier and the Yuuzhan Vong. "Boy, I'm not going to tell you again. Those scarheads need roasting. After all the pain they caused the galaxy, it's the least they deserve."
"Killing them won't bring back your friends, family, and whoever else that died," Ben continued patiently, a trait he had picked up from his father. He had also seen first-hand, however, that the patient-Jedi voice and posture sometimes infuriated people more than helped. So he tailored his next statement carefully, stepping aside and gesturing at the Yuuzhan Vong. "And right now they're the only ones that have a chance of making this planet farm-able. Of providing a permanent and sustainable home on the surface of the planet. So if you want to speak for the billions of others who live in orbit by all means, open fire. But if you just stop and think, you'll realize that these 'Vong,' these scarheads, are actually here by choice. Here because they want to make this galaxy a better place. Want to heal it, not cause more pain. Want to restore what was broken and not leave things in ruin."
"Jedi sorcery!" One of the others in the back growled, hefting his own blaster. Even from the distance he was standing, Ben could smell just how intoxicated the man was. "Shut up already. Either get out of the way or die with the scarheads!"
Ben made a brief gesture just as the man's hand squeezed the trigger. Before a second shot could be fired, Ben waved his hand, and the man's gun flew from his intoxicated grip. The others all raised their weapons, looking twitchy, the sound of nearly three-dozen blasters charging not exactly a friendly one.
"Guys," Ben said evenly, his blue eyes meeting each of their confused and hurting gazes and projecting warmth and understanding. The fact that almost all of them were a hairsbreadth away from firing made him determined to get his point across. "This isn't going to solve anything in the long run. Let the Vong do their work, give them that chance. Not because a Jedi is telling you to, but because you guys truly have nothing else to lose. At worse, a planet you aren't even living on is ruined. At best, they create a place where billions can live and grow."
The mob shifted, some glancing uneasily at their blasters or the Yuuzhan Vong shapers. Another intoxicated individual let his drink do this thinking for him, however.
"'nough of this!" Vibroblade in shaking hands, he charged Ben with an angry yell. The man, several dozen kilos heavier than Ben, didn't seem to care that he was attacking a Jedi.
Rather than dodge or Force shove the man onto his back, Ben made a choice—mentally grimacing as he did. The lessons he had learned from his father and at the Ossus Praxeum becoming clearer in that split second. Sometimes being a Jedi sucked royally. He called on the Force to keep him in place as the ruby-faced, rampaging, raging refugee rapidly ran raggedly and remorselessly right at him.
Like a swerving speeder slamming soundly into a solid steel wall, the momentum of the refugee was halted in a brief collision. There was the unmistakable noise of vibroblade piercing flesh, as well as the startled gasps that came out from pretty much everyone present. Even the ones who had come for bloodshed were completely shocked at what they had just seen.
"Feel better?" Ben said in as calm a voice as he could muster, his jaw clenched as he used the Force to keep the pain at bay. Even then, having a vibroblade entering one's shoulder and emerging out the back wasn't the most pleasant of feelings. There was a ton of muscle and tendons and nerve endings, and none of them liked being perforated.
Ben's attacker, as inebriated as he was, realized what he had just done. Blearily looking up at Ben, he frowned. "Why didn't you stop me?"
"Would that have accomplished anything?" Ben replied, patting the man on his back and using the Force to siphon off some of the man's emotional anguish. "You would be the second in your group to attack. One of your buddies in the crowd might feel that me as Jedi was trying to force my beliefs on you people. I'm not. Just asking you, begging you for a chance. A chance to help these Yuuzhan Vong make things right. You wanted blood for blood? Now mine's has been spilled. Can we get on to healing now?"
The drunken refugee staggered backwards several steps, looking at Ben incredulously and at Ben's blood covering his hands. "You, Jedi, are either ridiculously stupid or idiotically brave."
"Thanks," Ben said with a faint smile. He kept the smile on his face even as Kani's mental assault at his stupidity echoed through his bond with her. Most people would grimace at being verbally reamed out by one's best friend. He got the added benefit of knowing exactly what she was feeling as well. Suffice to say, exasperated and annoyed topped the list after she got over her initial shock and fear.
The leader of the bereaved refugees stepped forward again, his military background showing in the way he kept the mob of others from any more acts borne from their emotional anguish. "How long will this planet-fixing take?"
"Master Shaper?" Ben looked to the Yuuzhan Vong.
"Depending on the resources available to us, and if we are allowed to shape without disruption, one galactic month to two to make the ground in the immediate area of the Life-Seeders arable. Using shaping techniques, the first harvestable crops would then be available the following month and a half. To fully make the planet arable another half a galactic year is needed, and another half year to complete the shaping of the planet."
"Several months?" The refugee leader raised an eyebrow. He looked back to those with him, all uncomfortable with anything Yuuzhan Vong.
"They'll need your help," Ben said softly, sensing that they were all on the fence. "Help them make this a planet you can move your friends and family to. A planet to call your own. No more wandering, reprocessed food, recycled air."
The leader swallowed, and very slowly lowered his gun. "Fine. A half year, five months. But if we can't eat fresh food from this planet then, we'll blast the scar-heads regardless."
"Thank you," Ben said solemnly.
The refugees climbed back aboard their transport, and it blasted jets back off to the armada of ships around the planet.
"Think you can stick to your time-line, Master Shaper?" Ben said, holding a hand to his bleeding wound.
"You defended us, spilled blood for us?"
"Master Shaper. I'm a Jedi. For some reason we Jedi have a very hard time keeping our blood and vital fluids in our bodies. I'm just following tradition."
"Like a true warrior," one of the other Shapers—former warrior of Domain Paasar harrumphed approvingly.
"Good, can you tell that to Kani when she gets here. Tell her I was acting manly and like a true warrior."
Nugget, who stepped back closer to Ben after the refugees left, chuckled. "For some reason, boy. I don't think that'll give you much protection."
Ben's face fell. "True. So why did I get stabbed again then?"
"The Force told you?" offered another shaper.
Ben just sighed. "Start shaping the planet. This is just one of many we need to get to."
"Understood, Ben," the Master Shaper acknowledged. "Perhaps you should get that wound tended to in the interim."
"I do that and Chatterbox will be spilling his guts to Kani in several lightseconds."
"She would disembowel him for aiding you?" A shaper asked in surprise.
"Not that type of gut spilling," Ben breathed with a laugh.
He closed his eyes and called on the Force to help begin the healing process. Despite the challenge, he felt calm and energetic at the same time. Like the galaxy was going to keep throwing him for a loop and daring him to find a way out of it. This was his first real mission as leader. Regardless of what the Force threw at him, he was ready for it. He was, after all, a Jedi Knight, and he had a job to do.
A\N: And so begins another interlude story. Next update in two weeks. And in other news, I'm now also working on another story-arc for Forging the Future, possibly up in March-April-ish.
Heart and thoughts are with those in France...