The Empire Reborn
It is a dark time for the Empire.
Following the death of EMPEROR PALPATINE
and its defeat at the BATTLE OF ENDOR, the Empire has begun
to crumble and fight amongst itself. The remaining faction, known as the IMPERIAL REMNANT, has fled to the Outer Rim to regroup and regain the power to crush the NEW REPUBLIC once and for all. A valuable store of cortosis has been found on the oceanic world of BAL'DEMNIC, and a promising young officer, ERRIL KAVEN, has been sent to oversee the mining operation, unaware that the Remnant's presence there has been discovered...
Bal'demnic. An oceanic planet in the Bak'rofsen system of the Auril sector. Outer Rim.
The commander stepped into the elevator and the doors hissed closed behind him. The car began to move upward.
So far the mining operation had been running smoothly despite the locals and the nuisance presented by the mine crabs. The crabs were hardly more than pests to the personnel assigned to the operation, but several incidents with the Kon'me, the noisome aliens native to the tropical planet, had slowed their progress. Mining equipment had been destroyed, hydraulic jacks had turned up missing and, whether it was the Kon'me's fault or not, new nests of mine crabs had been found in a few strategic areas.
The incidents had stopped after a group of high-ranking Kon'me had been taken captive to serve as sabotage insurance. Now the aliens were avoiding all hostilities, and had switched to simply being as derisive as they could without inciting all-out battle with the Empire. The blockade orbiting the planet served as a reminder to avoid harassing the operation.
The commander smiled thinly. An undeniable show of force sufficed to keep the system in line.
The look was lost at once as the elevator ground to a halt with a screeching wail. Aware that he was several floors from his destination still, the officer opened his comlink and contacted the maintenance station.
"This is Commander Gonner," he said. "Elevator 12 has gone offline again. Send a repair crew imme-"
He was cut off as the elevator gave a shudder. There was a quiet, ominous creak.
He lifted the communicator again. "Immediately," he snapped.
"Right away, sir," came the reply.
The elevator shuddered again and began to fall, but came to a halt after several metres.
"And hurry up," he hissed.
There was another ominous creak, and then a worse sound: the sound of the repulsorlift cutting off. A cold hand seized Gonner's heart in the terrible silence that came after.
The elevator plunged twelve floors. It hit the bottom and the officer died.
Several floors above where the elevator had stopped and then fallen, a Stormtrooper stood with the doors propped open, gazing down the shaft. At the horrific crashing noise that floated upward as the car struck bottom, the trooper stepped back and let the doors close again.
Checking to see that he was completely alone, the man removed his helmet and drew a device from a hidden compartment in his belt. He activated it. Even at this distance the transmitter would take his message directly to the temporary base the New Republic had set up.
"Consider the operation delayed," he said. "They'll have to find a new commander now."
"We are now entering the planet's atmosphere," the Stormtrooper said. "Our estimated arrival time at the facility is in twenty-three minutes and twelve seconds."
The officer he had addressed rose and went to the doorway of the cockpit, gazing out of the viewport at the planet's surface, which was growing closer with each moment. The planet was primarily ocean, dotted with tropical islands and archipelagos. As the shuttle flew downwards, dwellings built on and into the cliff sides became visible.
"Beautiful," said Erril Kaven, the newly-appointed commander of the Bal'demnic operation, with a smile. "I think I'm going to enjoy this assignment."
"I can see why, sir."
The mining facility, built among some high cliffs overlooking the ocean, came into view. There were three figures standing by the landing platform, waiting for their arrival. The ship touched down.
Kaven discreetly checked the time. Their arrival was spot-on. "Punctual as always," he said to the Stormtrooper on his left, as they disembarked from the landing craft.
The three officers that had been standing by the platform came closer as the small group approached. Lieutenant Bryn Shar eyed the commander as he came to them, noting that he hadn't changed much since their days at the academy on Corulag.
They stopped, and Bryn and Kaven regarded each other silently. It had been six years since they had met.
Kaven was in his mid twenties, with dark brown hair and light green eyes. His features were regular and conventionally attractive- handsome in an unaffected sort of way. Lieutenant Shar was the same age, slim, and with dark eyes. Her brown hair would have reached her shoulders if she had worn it loose instead of in a coiled bun. Both were straight-backed and neat-model officers of the Imperial Navy.
"Ah, Bryn Shar," he said. He smiled at her. "Still a lieutenant."
"Not all of us climb the ranks as quickly as you, Erril," said Lieutenant Shar, stiffly. So it's beginning already, is it? she thought.
The two officers had never gotten along, not during their days at the academy, and not during flight school. The latter, especially. Bryn would have been the top student in her class if it hadn't been for Kaven; no matter how well she flew, or what she achieved during a mission, he had always been one step ahead. Glory was something she had always hated to share, and they had quickly become rivals.
And now, seeing him as a commander, no matter how temporary, made something in her blood boil. She wondered what the admiral was thinking to have appointed Kaven in Gonner's stead.
She swept a hand in the direction of the building looming overhead. "Let us take you to the mining facility."
There was a delicate cough from behind them, and the lieutenant straightened. She had been distracted by her rival and had nearly forgotten about the two men accompanying her.
"This is Second Lieutenant Shaada, and Second Lieutenant Kai. Lieutenant Shaada will be your aide during your time here," she added, indicating the pair of officers.
They stood at attention. Lieutenant Shaada was fair-haired and bland-faced, fresh out of the academy, while Lieutenant Kai was tall and more heavily built, with dark hair and a nose that had been broken a few times in the past.
"I see," said Kaven.
"Let us show you the facility, then, Commander," said Bryn. With the woman leading, the group walked into the building.
The commander listened to the officers' explanations of the situation and procedures as he was taken around the facility. Lieutenant Kai had left with the Stormtroopers that had accompanied Kaven, and the young man was left with Bryn and Lieutenant Shaada.
"The hydraulic jacks can quickly become clogged with dust from the cortosis mining, in addition to the heads being worn out," Shaada was saying. "Commander Gonner had two hours' time set aside for maintenance every day, which keeps the jacks from breaking down, but the heads still need replacing every so often."
He indicated the elevator on his right. "Sir?"
"By all means, show me the mine itself," Kaven said. "I ought to know it well, if I'm to command this operation."
Lieutenant Shar turned to them as the blonde officer opened the elevator doors. "Now that you've familiarized yourself with the facility, it's time for me to return to the blockade."
Kaven nodded to her, knowing that she was, like him, more comfortable aboard a Star Destroyer. He had refrained from questioning his orders, but on the voyage to Bal'demnic he had often wondered why he had been chosen to head a mining operation, when his place was in the cockpit of his TIE Defender. He was a pilot, not part of the army.
He and Shaada stepped into the elevator, and the doors closed on Lieutenant Shar's retreating back. As they descended, the young lieutenant cleared his throat. "I assume you've read the files regarding the mine crabs," he said.
"'Leathery-skinned and approximately twenty centimetres in length with six bladed forelimbs; average colouration is a dark green on the back with a pale yellow underside'," Kaven replied, quoting from the documents he had been given. "Also a bit of a nuisance, from what I've heard."
"That would be them, sir." The lieutenant touched the handle of the blaster pistol at his hip, noting that Kaven was similarly armed. "The troopers posted in the mines have their orders to shoot them on sight, but we could still run into some in the tunnels."
"I'll keep an eye out for them, then," the commander said. The elevator doors slid open and the two officers walked into the cortosis mine. Fusion lanterns had been strung along the walls at ten-metre intervals, and the two men cast inky black shadows on the opposite wall as they walked.
After a while both paused at a furtive scrabbling noise from somewhere in the rock.
Lieutenant Shaada's pistol appeared in his hand. He drew a comlink from his breast pocket and spoke into it. "Sergeant Oster, this is Lieutenant Shaada. Have your men conduct another sweep of the tunnels on the entrance level."
"I'll get right on it, sir," a man's gravelly voice replied.
The blonde officer slipped the comlink back into his pocket, then listened. There were no further sounds, and he and Kaven continued on. After a few twists and turns of the corridor they were met by a group of four Stormtroopers, evidently part of Sergeant Oster's group.
"Have you anything to report, trooper?" the lieutenant asked, as they drew abreast of the troopers.
"No, sir. Nothing."
"Carry on, then."
The officers passed by, and the troopers continued on their sweep of the mines. There were no more of the little scrabbling sounds in the rock as Kaven and Shaada moved through the tunnels, and there was nothing unusual to be seen as the lieutenant took the commander through the processing and refining facilities.
When at last they had finished, Kaven went back to his quarters. After the door had slid shut behind him, he sighed.
Until the reserves of cortosis the imperial scouts had discovered had been removed from the area, he would be separated from his ship and his squadron. Kaven was not thrilled with the assignment, and wondered why in the cosmos it had been given to him, of all people, but another part was intrigued as to why he had been sent to Bal'demnic in lieu of an army officer. After Commander Gonner's death, Admiral Makar had chosen Erril Kaven, a TIE pilot, to take command of a cortosis mining operation. Why? He was on good terms with the man-or at the very least, he had never had the occasion to make the admiral angry, so he doubted that it was an assignment given out of spite. Makar had always been pleased with his talent as a pilot.
Kaven took his cap off and ran a hand through his dark hair. Perhaps there was something special about the operation, he mused. It looked like an ordinary mine to him, though. Cortosis was always important, but overseeing a mining project was for the army. His assignments usually involved rebels, smugglers, and pirates, and he had once seen something in an asteroid field that had nearly put a grey streak in his hair, but here there were Kon'me, mine crabs, and malfunctioning equipment. Scary.
Well, I'm sure I'll find out why I'm here eventually, he thought, smiling a little. In the meantime, Erril, take it like a vacation-you might be able to steal some time on the beach while you're here.
The young officer set his questions aside for the time being, and prepared to settle in for what he hoped was going to be a short assignment.
An image formed on the great screen, that of a human man wearing Stormtrooper armour, holding his helmet in his hands. He had tan skin and curly black hair, and behind him stood an aged Kon'me in blue robes.
"They've gotten a new commander already, sir," the false Stormtrooper said. "He arrived today."
"That was too quick," said the rebel officer he had contacted. "What have you found out, Pavel?"
Pavel scratched his chin. "I haven't heard where they're shipping the cortosis to, just that they're handing it over to some other faction of the Remnant. About Commander Kaven, though; well, he's from the navy, not the army. He's a TIE pilot, a flight officer, but nobody's mentioned why he got sent here instead of an army officer." The spy grinned and held up a small recording device. "This helmet came in handy again today-I got some footage of him for you. Here."
He leaned down, and for a moment there was the quiet, scurrying clack of keys as he typed. Once the record had been transferred, the officer opened it immediately.
The clip showed two officers walking past Pavel's post. As they passed by, the one in the black uniform turned his head to glance at the Stormtrooper, and the rebel officer paused it at that moment, for it offered a clear shot of Commander Kaven's face. The imperial officer was a handsome man, with green eyes and a cocky arch to his features that spoke of either arrogance or cheekiness or both. In actuality the officer had expected that of Erril Kaven.
"So that's what he looks like," Captain Rask remarked. "Hum. He's young-that figures."
"You know him, then?"
The older man nodded. "He's gotten something of a reputation, especially after the Battle of Salamand. He's just as nuts as the next TIE pilot, but lucky, and good at what he does," he said. "If you can find out why he's here and not out in space somewhere, do that. This situation is getting more and more suspicious."
"Maybe he ticked off his admiral," Pavel suggested. "He does look fairly snarky, after all. And this assignment's probably not too glamorous to him."
"I hope that turns out to be it."
The robed Kon'me standing behind Pavel suddenly spoke up. "It's getting late. The Imperials will wonder where you have gone."
The false Stormtrooper straightened. "That's right," he said. "I doubt anybody's going to believe I went skipping rocks in the dark."
"And of the commander..."
Pavel flashed a smile. "Don't worry, Captain. I'll make it rough on him."
"Be careful-when I said Kaven was lucky, I meant it. May the Force be with you."
"And with you. I'll do what I can, sir."
Kaven's eyes opened.
The room, shadowed with the blue and black of the very early morning, was still the same. The officer sat up regardless, feeling like something were amiss, and let his eyes adjust to the gloom.
He heard something that was like a quiet crunch, coming from somewhere in the room. He pulled his knees up and moved closer to the headboard, looking around for the source of the noise. Another soft crunching noise came, sounding like it was coming from the air vent on the wall adjacent to the bed.
The officer slipped out of bed and went onto his hands and knees. He leaned down to look at the grate behind the desk, his cheek nearly touching the floor. There was a dark form wriggling out of a hole it had apparently gnawed in the grate's covering. It hit the floor and hissed at him, opening its fanged mouth very wide.
"I thought so," Kaven said, reaching for the blaster he had left on the desk. The mine crab scuttled forward and snapped at him. The officer pulled his hand away and moved back to avoid being bitten, but the aggressive creature came forward again, going for the human's legs. Kaven pulled them out of reach, and the mine crab snapped at his wrist. On reflex the officer backhanded it. It hit the far wall and shot underneath the bed, where he heard another set of teeth clacking.
"Great. How many of you got in here?" he muttered, more exasperated than startled.
The room Commander Kaven occupied was en route to Lieutenant Shaada's. On his way back to his own quarters the blonde officer heard a surprised yell from the commander, then a quiet thump. Raising his eyebrows, Shaada went to the door.
"Gotcha!" Kaven exclaimed, from inside.
"Commander?" the officer asked. "What's going on in there?"
"Come in, Lieutenant," came the reply. "I can't get to the door right now."
Mystified by now, Lieutenant Shaada opened the door. Kaven was standing inside, in his shorts, with one foot planted hard on a mine crab that was trying to bite his heel. He held another in his hands, and appeared to be strangling it.
The blonde man merely stood in the doorway, looking at the unexpected, strangely comical scene and wondering how he ought to react. "-Oh," he said, lamely.
Kaven shifted his grip on the struggling mine crab. "Hand me my blaster, will you?" he asked, holding his free hand out. His aide went to the desk and took the weapon, handing it over, and watched as the commander shot both of the hissing creatures.
Shaada bent over, and saw the hole in the covering of the ventilation shaft behind the desk.
"They're smaller than I expected," Kaven said, dropping the body.
"They must have hatched further down the shaft," the lieutenant replied, straightening. "Your ankle is bleeding, sir," he added dutifully, as an afterthought.
"I doubt I'll expire between now and a bandage," the commander said dryly, "But since I'd rather not wake up to any more mine crab attacks in the night, I want those ventilation shafts checked thoroughly by morning. All of them."
Lieutenant Shaada straightened, privately glad that it was someone else's quarters that had been invaded and not his own. "Yes, sir."
Kaven dismissed him, and the aide walked out, leaving the commander to bandage his ankle in peace, blaster pistol lying within easy reach at his side.
There were three clutches of eggs found in the shafts by morning, with seven unhatched eggs in total. Four of them had been on the verge of hatching in the warm air drafts, a fact which made Kaven glad to have ordered all of the shafts checked. If the eggs had been left undiscovered, both the Stormtroopers and the other officers would have had some unpleasant surprises in the future.
With what enthusiasm he could muster Kaven set about his duties, with the intention of keeping the operation running as smoothly as possible.
...It was easier said than done, the officer found, a few weeks later, between the equipment malfunctions and mine crabs alone. Of the crabs he wasn't sure, but with more than a little suspicion he had posted guards to keep watch over the equipment. Now that the Stormtroopers were keeping an eye on the machinery, there were a few less incidents of breakage. Kaven had supposed that the Kon'me miners had been responsible for the damages, but the troopers had not reported them acting up at all. From what Lieutenant Shaada had said, Commander Gonner had put the fear of the Empire into them.
There were some rumours of ghosts wandering the mine shafts, but the commander did not believe in that sort of thing and paid it little mind. Ghosts, after all, did not break equipment.
The two mine crabs hissed at them, opening their fanged mouths wide.
Kaven and Shaada shot them both, and they dropped from view. "There must be more nests that we haven't found," the blonde officer said with some frustration, "Or a...colony, somewhere."
"The recon droids have found two nests," Kaven replied. "They can find more."
The two officers continued along the catwalk, moving to where a lift would take them to the lower levels. Kaven eyed the lift with some mistrust. It looked as sturdy as any other, but for some reason he had a bad feeling about it. He came to a halt.
His aide stopped as well. "Commander?"
"Just a moment, Lieutenant," Kaven said. "I don't think this one's safe, either."
He went to the edge of the catwalk and planted one foot on the platform, then pushed down. The platform didn't move.
"It's never shown any sign of that in the past," the lieutenant said. He watched as Kaven backed away from it. "Surely you're not going to-"
The officer bounded forward, landing on the platform briefly before jumping onto the other side of the walkway.
"Can nothing here be trusted?" the commander asked, as the lift collapsed. The platform crashed to the floor twenty metres below. Kaven regarded Lieutenant Shaada's expression with some amusement. "But after a few weeks here, I've come to expect this sort of thing. How do the rest of you survive?"
"It's never happened to me," the lieutenant replied. "Commander, you're the one finding all the malfunctioning machinery-firsthand!"
Kaven put his hands on his hips and gave his aide an arch smile. "Setting traps, Lieutenant?"
Shaada was horrified. "Of course not! I would never do such a thing!" His ruffled feathers smoothed when he realized that Kaven was only having him on. "They are like traps," he admitted. "Perhaps it's only coincidence that you're running into them, but maybe not. I will look into this matter further, Commander."
"You do that," Kaven said, taking some obscure delight in how easily he could disorient the young officer. Surely Shaada had expected someone more aloof; maybe they all had. Either way, the captain was amused at the mild ruckus he had created among the army officers, who were alight with consternation at having a pilot as their commander. He suspected someone wanted to replace him, and quickly.
"Lieutenant," he asked, "Was the reason for my presence here mentioned in any reports?"
"No, sir. The high command has kept that information confidential. I am unaware of why a pilot would be sent to oversee the operation."
"It is strange," Kaven admitted. "Very strange that I would be sent to oversee a mining operation when my skills as a pilot would be more useful elsewhere, even if it is cortosis."
Between the number of "accidents" and strategic dangers around the facility, he was beginning to suspect that he had been chosen for his tendency to survive difficult missions, rather than his tidy record. Twice already his intuitions had saved him from serious injury, if not death.
Over the years he had learned to trust his premonitions completely; they had saved his own life and the lives of his wing mates several times over. Even if it meant disobeying an order, an act which had once gotten him busted back down to lieutenant, he obeyed the little voice inside him that noticed the things that he sometimes did not.
Pushing the thoughts aside, he glanced at his aide. "There was only one commander before me, wasn't there?"
Lieutenant Shaada looked uncomfortable. "No, sir. There were two. Commander Taal had been the first, and he had been killed in the mines a standard month after the operation started."
"Now how was he killed?"
"Mine crabs, sir, in the lower levels. There had been a...colony there. The Stormtroopers with him had been killed as well-after they were discovered, the colony was fired and a Viper droid was sent to conduct bioscans on the area afterward. The lower levels have remained free of activity since then."
The doors behind Lieutenant Shaada slid open and two troopers ran in, blasters in hand. They surveyed the missing lift and the two officers. Kaven crossed his arms and merely raised an eyebrow at the pair.
"Uh, is everything all right here?" one of the soldiers asked.
"Just another close call," Kaven said, looking directly at the one peering down at the wreckage below. "Business as usual, I dare say. Call a repair crew, trooper-and have all of the lifts checked."
As the Stormtroopers left, the commander nodded to his aide. Lieutenant Shaada took a few steps back, then took two running steps and leapt across to the other catwalk. They continued on.
"Captain Rask," Pavel said in greeting, once the officer's image came up, and saluted. He stood as before in the elderly Kon'me contact's house, which overlooked the ocean.
"Your mission is proceeding without trouble?" the captain asked.
"Yes, sir," the false Stormtrooper replied. "There's no suspicions on me, so I can still go around as freely as anyone else. You were right about the commander's luck, though, sir, and I think he might do a security sweep of the personnel soon." He glanced at the rebel sympathiser for a moment, then continued, "If I didn't already know how much trouble it would cause, I would think it'd just be easier to shoot him in the back."
The older man shook his head. "That's far too risky."
"Yes, sir. But what about the plans? The Remnant's almost got this vein of cortosis finished, and even at the rate they're going now, they'll have it all out within a few standard months," Pavel replied. "I can only slow the operation so much."
"Our troops are preparing to liberate the planet," the officer answered. "They will have the assistance of a Jedi Knight in this venture."
Pavel smiled brightly. Despite the re-emergence of the Jedi order, there were still very few of the mysterious Force-wielders, and the young soldier had never encountered one before.
"On behalf of Bal'demnic, I thank you for your assistance," the Kon'me said, stepping forward. "Though our leaders may remain politically neutral, in the future this may count towards a consideration of joining the New Republic."
Pavel turned to her. "When the troops arrive, will the Kon'me help drive the Remnant out?"
The alien shook her head regretfully. "While our leaders are being held captive, we dare not raise a hand to the Empire."
"The captives will be rescued when the Jedi comes," Captain Rask said. "Until then, Pavel, just keep a low profile. Do not make any direct attempts on Commander Kaven's life, not even when an opportunity presents itself."
"Yes, sir," Pavel said.
"May the Force be with you, Pavel."
"And with you, sir."
Lieutenant Kai looked up from his computer as the officer walked by. "Commander Kaven?" he said. "We've received a transmission from the blockade, sir."
Kaven turned to him. In the time he had spent on the tropical planet he had acquired a light tan, and like everyone else, a faint smell of ocean spray accompanied him everywhere he went. "Relay it," he said.
"There's a very large storm on its way, sir, and it will hit this location an estimated fifteen days and twelve hours from now," the older man said. "It is likely that we will temporarily lose contact with the blockade." He turned a little in his chair, so that he faced the young officer directly. "This one is somewhat larger than the last. Our communications may be disrupted for the duration of the storm."
"Approximately forty-eight hours, sir."
"I see," Kaven said. He made a mental note to see that the lower levels were sealed tightly ahead of time. During the last large storm one of the bulkheads had buckled under the pressure of the water, and that room and the next had been flooded nearly to the catwalks.
That had not been the part that had strained Kaven's temper, not really. It had been the fact that the water had been crawling with eels that had gotten to him. Long, serpentine, slimy eels with grinning toothy maws, speckled and numerous. They lived in the rocky shallows close to the cliffsides, and had come surging in when the bulkhead broke.
Kaven could think of nothing more repulsive. To the pilot, even mynocks were cute and appealing next to them. He would not admit to having an eel phobia, not even to himself, but he would have nothing to do with the creatures. At least they rarely came up in his line of work. He would have said never, but his current assignment had made that a lie.
"Is there something wrong, sir?" Lieutenant Kai asked.
The commander shook his head. "No. But have the bulkheads in the lower levels checked in time for the storm. I don't want a repeat of last time."
When the storm did come, it hit the facility hard. As Lieutenant Kai had predicted, the communications with the blockade were lost.
As the storm raged outside Pavel Ultrand crouched in one corner of Bay Twelve, hidden from view by a stack of crates. In one hand he held a flat black device that looked like a remote of some kind, and in the other he held a holoprojector.
Using the storm as cover was the best opportunity they had been afforded since he had been sent to Bal'demnic to keep an eye on the operation, but it also brought new risks with it, especially for the pilots flying through it.
A small holographic image formed. It was undoubtedly the Jedi Knight Captain Rask had mentioned weeks before, and Pavel smiled at the sight. She was a young-looking Togruta, although Pavel was unsure of whether her species aged in the same way as humans. She was dressed in loose brown robes, and her hands were tucked away in her sleeves.
"We've entered the atmosphere," said Midea Locke, her image crackling badly. "I take it you've set the charges?"
"Naturally," Pavel replied.
"Good. I think now's the time to set them off."
At the sound of the first explosion Kaven leapt to his feet. When another came, he grabbed his comlink. "What's going on out there?" he demanded. Another explosion rocked the facility.
"Someone has set explosives in Bay Three-"
The door suddenly hissed open, revealing Lieutenant Shaada. "Commander, we are under attack! Republic troops have gotten past the blockade and are attempting to enter the facility through Bay Twelve," his aide reported.
Kaven's eyes narrowed. "They will not escape."
The landing craft swung down into the hangar, wet with rain and dotted with laser blasts. The gangplank lowered and a figure in a black uniform hurried down it, followed by a platoon of Stormtroopers.
Lieutenant Shar drew her blaster pistol, looking around them through narrowed eyes. She motioned to the first squad. "You, go to the mines and secure them. The rest of you, follow me," she ordered. The first group ran out.
The storm outside had made it difficult to see, but the flight officer had seen the smoke rising from Bay Three as they had swept in. She had suppressed a smile at the sight. Erril was surely not smiling at this moment as the rebels invaded his operation, reminding him of where his place was.
As much malicious pleasure as it would have given her to see his stint as commander end in failure, she had been sent by Admiral Makar to aid Kaven for the time being. The rebels had to be taken care of first.
The troopers fell into step behind her as they hurried out of the hangar.
Bay Twelve was alive with screams and blaster fire.
From where he was crouched behind a makeshift barrier Kaven shot, then drew back in time to avoid a hail of fire. A few metres away a Stormtrooper fell, knocked off his feet by the impact of a blaster shot.
At his side Shaada was taking what shots he could, using the crates they had dived behind as cover. He leaned out for a split second and fired, and a Republic soldier fell.
All of a sudden Kaven felt something like a warning tremor. "Come with me! Now!" he ordered, and the two officers started away, sprinting for the next blockade. Behind them a metallic clinking noise sounded as a grenade landed behind the crates. More motivated than ever to make haste, the pair put on an extra burst of speed and dove for cover as the grenade exploded. A wave of heat washed over them.
"Luck of pilots," the lieutenant muttered, rubbing his temple. He had lost his cap in the mad sprint for the blockade, and now his blonde hair fell over his brow in disarray.
"There's something else here," Kaven said, looking around warily. Around them more Stormtroopers were running in and the Republic soldiers had gathered around the imperial landing craft they had swept in on, using it as cover. The hangar was coming back under control, but the commander had the feeling that something else was with them.
Suddenly there was a crash from their right, near the wall. He turned his head in time to see a figure in a long brown robe sprint from behind the shuttle, moving faster than he had ever seen anyone run before. There was a lightsaber in her hand.
"A Jedi!" Lieutenant Shaada exclaimed.
The Jedi disappeared into the ventilation shaft whose grating she had just somehow shattered, crouching.
The mines! Kaven realized, with a sinking feeling.
Without thinking he ran after her, ducking into the shaft amid another hail of blaster bolts from the rebel troops. Moving as quickly as he could on hands and knees he followed after the woman, part of him wondering what the hell he was doing.
Midea Locke moved quickly through the ventilation shaft, the metal feeling warm under her bare feet. The Togruta was aware that someone was following her; she could feel their presence in the Force.
Recalling the base blueprints that the spies sent to Bal'demnic had recovered, the Jedi moved down each shaft as she came to it, selecting those that would take her to the mines.
As she moved, she heard a skittering sound. Feeling rather than seeing something coming her way in the gloom, the Jedi ignited her lightsaber. In the gold light she caught sight of a nasty-looking little creature running toward her on bladelike limbs. Its three eyes were blinking rapidly in the sudden bright light.
With a small sideways slash she dispatched it, then noticed two more small shapes coming.
Hmm, she thought.
Although he was not sure how, Kaven felt the Jedi's presence as he crawled through the shafts. He followed it, counting on his intuitions not to lose the woman in the labyrinth of vents.
His hand flew to the handle of his blaster pistol when he saw six dark shapes lying in the tunnel, but he relaxed when he saw that the trio of mine crabs were quite dead, and that they had been chopped in half. Despite himself he smiled approvingly as he passed.
As he went by it, he glanced out of one of the grates at the tumult going on in Bay Six, and was surprised to see Bryn Shar among the facility's officers and troopers as they engaged the rebels. Not stopping to watch, he moved on, intent on catching the Jedi before she could blow up the mines.
Bracing her foot against the grate, Locke shoved it outward. It fell with a loud clatter, and the pair of Stormtroopers looked up. The orange-skinned alien dropped between them. Before either trooper could fire his blaster, she used the Force to throw them hard against the wall of the tunnel. They fell into a heap, out cold but still alive. The Togruta disliked killing sentient beings.
She padded to the door, which was locked, and entered the code she had been given on the number pad. The door slid open.
Once it had closed again, another figure emerged from the ventilation shafts over the tunnel, a human man in a now-dusty black uniform. He landed on both feet and dusted himself off without thinking about it.
Kaven glanced at the unconscious Stormtroopers as he passed by. With the feeling that the Jedi was close by, he drew his blaster pistol and entered the mines.
Feeling a warning in the Force, the Jedi leapt into a patch of shadow as the door opened, using the Force to cloak herself further. She waited silently.
A man came in. It was an officer with dark hair, straight-backed and archly handsome. He looked at the tunnel with some puzzlement as he came in, the blaster pistol he held levelled before him.
"I feel you," he said softly.
From where she stood, Locke's brow raised. The Jedi had noticed that his presence was somewhat stronger than an ordinary being's, and realized now that the man was Force-sensitive.
For a moment she wondered if he weren't one of the Reborn faction, but his presence in the Force was not such a dark one.
"I feel you, Jedi," said the man, who was surely Erril Kaven. "I don't know how, but I know you're there..."
The Togruta didn't answer.
"I want to know how you are doing this," he continued, coming closer. He was looking directly at where she was hidden, though she knew that he couldn't see her. He could only sense her.
Kaven took another step forward, his green eyes focused on where she stood. "Show yourself," he said quietly.
Locke hid her presence in the Force.
To the human it seemed as though the Jedi had simply disappeared. A look of shock came over his face and he stopped. He looked around himself, frowning and trying to sense where she had gone.
Taking advantage of his momentary confusion, she slipped past him.
Kaven's eyes closed as he felt a breeze pass by him, carrying with it a faint perfume scent.
Turning, he ran after her.
"Lieutenant Shaada," a woman's voice called, once the last of the rebel soldiers were down.
The officer turned at the sound, and saw Bryn Shar walking toward him. There was a neat burn-streak on the upper left arm of her uniform, made by a blaster bolt, and he could see the angry red line of a fresh scar on her skin. Otherwise the lieutenant was untouched.
The young man saluted. "Where is Kaven?" Bryn asked, looking around. There was no sign that the TIE pilot had been killed in the firefight.
"He went into the vents after the Jedi, sir-ma'am. Presumably to the mines," Shaada answered.
The woman was taken aback. "What? What is he thinking?" she demanded. Before the blonde man could answer, the pilot continued, "Take the prisoners to the detention. I will see to the mines myself."
Each flanked by a quartet of Stormtroopers, the officers separated.
Not trusting the platform down to the processing area to hold his weight, Kaven simply leapt over it as he ran. Catching sight of the now-visible Jedi before him, he lifted his blaster and fired. Reacting with supernatural speed the Togruta turned, igniting her lightsaber, and deflected each of the bolts. One of them whizzed past the commander while the others veered away, the officer apparently too far away to hit accurately. Kaven pressed on.
Suddenly a warning flashed in his mind, and he let out a surprised yell as his feet shot out sideways beneath him as if yanked. He fell onto his side, and nearly off of the catwalk. His fingers gripped hard at the edge of the walk, and for a moment his feet swung freely over the floor thirty metres below, where rivers of red-hot ore were being processed. The Jedi padded away, robes flying behind her, as the officer pulled himself back up and retrieved his blaster.
There was a feeling rising in him that reminded him of how it was to be in the middle of a dogfight, that certain awareness that he attained as he hit that peak moment in his Defender, when he and everything around him merged.
If the Jedi wished to blow up the mines, she would have to make her way to the main console, which was located below them, past the processing facility and well into the mines. The doors below were coded, but it seemed the codes had been leaked to her already. They were not obstacles to either of them.
The Togruta was taking the conventional route. Kaven knew a shortcut.
Instead of entering the corridor at the end of the catwalk, the officer jumped off on the right side, grabbing a chain and riding it down. The metal was hot against his cheek as he went, and he could feel the heat through his gloves.
He could not sense the Jedi; she was still hiding her presence somehow. However, Kaven knew that if he hurried, he could get to the console before her and make sure the operation was safe.
Improvised plans beginning to form already, the commander slipped out of the processing facility and began to make his way to where the mining supplies were safely kept.
Leaving the half dozen Stormtroopers riddled with their own blaster bolts behind her, Locke veered down the right passage, to where the main computer lay. She felt the commander's presence nearby, and held her lightsaber before her as she approached the doorway.
Suddenly she felt a warning in the Force and leapt back as a series of detonation packs fixed just inside the room went off. The explosions were sufficient to collapse the doorway, blocking it with rubble.
Once the last stones had fallen, the Jedi came forward again. She looked down the branching corridor to where Kaven was approaching at a slow walk. He halted just outside of the range at which she could reliably hit him if he fired his blaster, standing near an open container of unrefined cortosis ore.
"There's nowhere to run, and it's too high to jump," Kaven said. He held up a hand placatingly, with the other still holding the blaster pistol levelled at her. "Put your lightsaber on the floor and push it towards me, and I promise that you will not be harmed."
At least until the interrogations, he added privately, but made no mention of the thought.
The Jedi didn't move. They stared at each other. "I don't trust you," she said.
"Can't we talk about this?" the commander asked, with a disarming smile. "I am a civilized man, after all. And there are a few things I would like to know."
The Jedi's lightsaber remained in a ready position. "What's the Remnant doing with the cortosis?" she demanded.
The smile faded. "You're not in a position to ask questions, Jedi," Kaven said. "Who informed you of this operation?" The Togruta didn't answer. Kaven frowned. "I'll have the information out of you eventually. It would be better for you to tell me now," the officer told her.
The alien's grip on her weapon tightened. For some reason she seemed wary of Kaven, an observation that the young officer intended to use to his advantage.
There was a tense silence. "Are you one of the Reborn?" she asked.
"One of the...?" The officer blinked, and shook his head. "I don't know what you're talking about." His momentary hesitation vanished and he pointed the blaster at her. "Enough of these games. Give up, Rebel."
The Jedi shook her head slowly and began to advance, her lightsaber levelled to deflect any shots he might take.
"No, sir. I don't know whether Kaven made it into the mines or not," Pavel said. "I overheard that he was last seen going into the vents after Locke, but-ugh!"
Something hard connected with his temple, knocking him over sideways, and he hit the floor in a clatter of white armour. The holoprojector fell out of his hand, the ghostly holograph of Captain Rask disappearing as it hit the floor and rolled away.
A pair of white feet strode around him and stopped. When he looked up, the spy saw an E-11 blaster rifle pointed directly at him. The Stormtrooper must have used it to hit him. He could see more forms in white surrounding him.
"On your feet, 'trooper'," said a woman's voice.
The Stormtroopers around him followed his movements with their guns as he climbed slowly to his feet and turned to face the speaker. Lieutenant Shar was standing just inside the doors of the room in which he had been contacting the captain, blaster in hand.
Stars' end, he thought.
"Well-a rebel spy. Put your hands on your head, where I can see them." The lieutenant gestured with her pistol.
Wondering if it wouldn't be better to be shot instead of interrogated, Pavel placed both hands on the back of his head and surrendered.
Kaven saw it coming.
He saw the leap forward, the angle of the blade before it swept down. It was crystal-clear and exact, and the officer acted without thought.
Ducking down, the commander snatched up a large chunk of cortosis as the Jedi swung the lightsaber, using it as a shield. The pure, unrefined metal would have burned his bare skin on contact, but Kaven's hands were protected by his leather gloves.
The energy blade struck the cortosis and shorted out.
The Jedi pulled in a breath of surprise. Before a second could pass Kaven raised his blaster. Before the Togruta had time to step back, the officer fired.
There was a moment of silence, and then the Jedi fell. Her lightsaber clattered to the stone floor beside her.
I've killed a Jedi, the young officer thought in mute shock.
He had heard of how supernatural the Jedi Knights were, with their magical powers, and how they had always sounded unbeatable. But they weren't. He knew that now.
He knelt beside her, no longer able to feel her presence. She was, without a doubt, dead.
Kaven had hated the Alliance ever since they had destroyed the Death Star at the Battle of Yavin, and had never felt much remorse in killing a rebel soldier. He was surprised to find that he was sorry to have killed this one.
He felt a twinge, and looked over his shoulder. A group of Stormtroopers were approaching. Some of them were looking around warily, watching out for the mine crabs that lurked in the tunnels.
"Commander Kaven," the lead trooper said. "The Jedi, is she...?"
"Yes," the officer said, glancing back to where the Togruta lay still. "A pity. She could have provided some useful information. What about the other rebels?"
"Three have been captured," the Stormtrooper replied promptly. "The others are dead."
The officer stood up. On impulse he bent and retrieved the lightsaber, looking at it as he straightened.
It was the first one he had ever seen in real life, the first he had ever held. It was decidedly elegant, with a slim handle, and he found himself regarding it curiously, wondering what it was like to wield one.
He fastened it at his belt. He could examine it in more detail later, but for now there was work to be done.
The rebels had been pushed into a retreat. The three that had been captured, including the spy, were awaiting interrogation, and the operation could continue.
Kaven stood in his office, looking at the peculiar weapon he had retrieved from the Jedi. He ignited the lightsaber, and the blade hissed out a glowing yellow. He gave it an experimental swing, noting the unfamiliar weight distribution of it.
The officer swung it gently, familiarizing himself with it, and gradually grew more open in his movements as he became accustomed to the balance of the lightsaber.
He was still toying with it fifteen minutes later when the door slid open, admitting Lieutenant Shar.
The woman looked curiously at Kaven as he stood with the lightsaber held in both hands as she entered.
"Experimenting, Erril?" she asked.
He extinguished the blade and straightened, feeling self-conscious. "I thought you were returning to the blockade," he said.
She watched him fix it to his belt. "I am. I felt it necessary to inform you before I left. So it is true that you killed the Jedi yourself?"
"And you're keeping the lightsaber?"
"What do you expect me to do, throw it in the rubbish bin?" Kaven asked, with some incredulity. "Of course I'm keeping it."
"I see," Shar said, smiling a little at his reaction. "I will be returning to the blockade now, Commander."
"All right," he replied. "Do be careful flying through that storm, Bryn. Take care of yourself..."
The little smile faltered, and her mouth became a flat line. "Rough weather is not an obstacle," she told him. "No more for me than for you, Erril."
The pilot gave her a sunny grin. "Oh, good."
After she had left, Kaven sat down. He and Bryn had been antagonistic toward each other since the day they met. She seemed to have adopted him as a personal rival, despite the fact that there were better pilots than him in the Empire with whom she could compete. Kaven didn't mind the rivalry, though, and part of him wished he could butt heads with her more often, even while another part did want to get along.
He smiled archly. Their discordant relationship had begun the day they had met at the academy, when he had flirted with her and then had gotten told. For some reason that had only interested him more, and during their time at the academy and in flight school he had developed a definite liking for fighting with her, sometimes just to see the sparks fly, and sometimes because he just couldn't help it. Something about him just seemed to aggravate her, and something about her made Kaven's natural snark get worse.
Now, six years later, he was starting to remember why he had fancied her. In some sick, twisted way, she was just his type. Or, one of them, anyway.
The arch smile becoming a grin, he leaned back in his chair with his hands behind his head. The unfamiliar addition of the lightsaber shifted with his movement, and he glanced down. He unhooked it from his belt and looked at it again.
A lightsaber could be used to deflect blaster bolts, and even send them right back to the shooter. With the right amount of practice, maybe it was possible for him to do the same. His reflexes were lightning fast, like any pilot's ought to be, so surely he could learn to make like a Jedi and repel laser shots. The skill could come in useful if he were to board an enemy ship, or to have his own ship be boarded.
He considered how to go about practice. During target practice he had used a remote, and the fast-moving little droid had greatly improved his sharpshooting skills. He had also on occasion felt the sting of a shot from the little buggers.
With that thought in mind he rose and left the office, in search of a training remote.
The shuttle emerged from the cloud cover and shot upward, continuing toward the Bal'demnic blockade.
From where she sat in the pilot's seat Lieutenant Shar was still alight with aggravation over her parting with Erril Kaven. The worst of it was that she wasn't quite sure what it was that was bothering her, and that in itself was frustrating.
It might have been that Kaven had one-upped her again with the killing of the Jedi. Despite what she had accomplished by sweeping heroically into the hangar with backup troops, something for which he had even thanked her, he had still been the one to defeat a Jedi Knight in single combat and save the mines. With the help of a chunk of cortosis and a stroke of luck, by the sounds of things.
It could have been that he had kept the lightsaber; it had surprised her a little that he hadn't made some sort of snarky little gloating comment over it. Many in his position would have kept it as a trophy, but the way Kaven had acted had made it seem more of a matter-of-fact acquisition than a prize.
It might have been that after six years Kaven was still alive, despite being Kaven. Unless he had changed since flight school, which didn't seem the case, he was still the devil-may-care hotshot flyboy he had always been. Types like that had a life expectancy shorter than an unarmed Jawa in a Tuskan camp. Yet here he was six years later, cocky and accomplished. She was his equal, she had to be, but her career apparently hadn't been quite as eventful, otherwise she too would have been a captain by now. It was the Battle of Salamand-it had promoted him to captain.
It could have been that he had been doing his job well, despite the weirdness of his Bal'demnic assignment. Nothing exceptional, but up to imperial standards. He had been a competent enough commander.
The part of her that she was pointedly ignoring had pointed out another possibility, that it could have been that she found Kaven attractive. Six years had been a nice visual addition and, snarky or not, he had a certain charm.
It was, she decided, just that Kaven was Kaven. He was a flippant, arrogant, conceited hotshot with a lot of luck, even if he was a good pilot. He was her rival and things had always been tense between them. Sparks had always flown.
That was it.
The ship sped toward the blockade.
Kaven sucked his knuckle where the stinging bolt had caught him, glaring at the training remote as if it had giggled. Then he raised the lightsaber again.
Deflecting shots was harder than he had thought it would be. The Jedi certainly made it look easy, anyway. Then again, they had whatever sorcery was on their side. Kaven didn't.
The remote hovered, moving randomly. The officer watched it warily, tensing as he waited for it to take a shot at him.
It took two. Kaven swung, but missed both shots and felt the sting of one hitting his leg and the other his hip. "Ow!" He rubbed the offending spots, looking down at the bright golden blade in his hand. For every ten shots taken, he could deflect one or two only. At best. He might as well have been blindfolded.
Facetiously he closed his eyes and raised the weapon. The remote hovered before him.
On impulse he swung the lightsaber in front of his left leg, and felt a shot deflect. He opened his eyes in surprise, and a second shot hit him in the shoulder.
He squeezed his eyes shut again, and just waited. Like before, he moved on impulse and somehow managed to repel another shot, and then without pausing or even thinking about it he moved the lightsaber over another six inches and deflected again. And again. And again.
After he had deflected two more shots he straightened and opened his eyes, smiling and looking at the Jedi's weapon with pleasant surprise. He had...felt something. As long as he had acted on impulse he had been able to repel the remote's shots.
He turned the remote off and put it away. He could experiment with it some more later, he thought, hooking the lightsaber to his belt. In fact, he would.
Feeling as if something big had just begun, he replaced the cap on his head, adjusted it, and left.
Pavel sat on the bunk of the prison cell with his elbows resting on his knees and his head bent. Every now and then he sighed.
The Republic had been driven off, and now he, the Kon'me, and the other captives were going to suffer for it. The gamble they had taken in trying to crush the operation had been an abject failure.
The spy raised his head a little at the murmur of voices outside in the corridor, and when the door to the cell slid open he straightened, then stiffened.
Commander Erril Kaven stepped into the cell, removing his leather gloves in a businesslike way as he did so. An IT-O droid floated after him, its visual receptor resembling an ominous red eye.
Kaven looked down at Pavel and a cool smile touched his lips, and the spy regarded the lightsaber attached to his belt with some horror.
The door slid shut.