World 51: Star Wars Original Trilogy

WE ARE ALTOGETHER

Previously: Two for the Price of One

Themesong: The Emperor’s New Clothes by Panic! At the Disco

What? You can’t fucking Time Travel backwards from a future that never existed… Apparently, JJ Abrams has gotten his hands on the Original Trilogy, because… well… you read.

“Episode IV: Out of Time”

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire, ruled by the iron triumvirate of Grand Admiral Thrawn, Grand Moff Tarkin, and Darth Vader, having returned from the future with the plans for a terrible new Ultimate Weapon, The Death Star, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Even now, this titanic fortress is under construction, while the Dark Lord’s Inquisitors hunt the surviving Magi across the Galaxy. It is five years before the battle of Yavin… and time is running out for the rebellion.”

See what I mean? There is no Vader in this timeline! How can he travel back in time from a future that… oooooohhh… Executive Meddling! That’s what this is. “BAAANKER!”

“You bellowed?”

“This is your doing, isn’t it?”

“Well… of course! Couldn’t have the fact that you completely destroyed a perfectly serviceable plotline-”

“Please! Sheev Palpatine already had all the power… he didn’t need to be Emperor. He didn’t need the Jedi out of the way. Religions and Revenge Schemes only make sense if you’ve got a long standing personal stake.  Like if you were raised on it. But Sheev wasn’t raised Sith. He was Plagueis apprentice. It’s all about power to him. There’s just no way he’d actually care about a thousand year plan for revenge… especially since not only did he murder his predecessor, but so did every one of them going back to the time of Darth Bane. I cannot conceive of a clique less likely to be dedicated to the concept of Revenge.”

“Maybe they-”

“Oh, please. The Romans sacked and burned the Second Temple and enslaved 30,000 jews to pay for the Colosseum and I’ve never heard a single jew suggest tearing it down, let alone getting revenge on the Italians. Hell, we didn’t even ask them to pay to rebuild it. Literally everyone involved is long dead… and the Sith have the institutional memory of a grapefruit.”

“How do you know-”

“I just know, damn it. I know things!”

“I think you’re taking this personally.”

“A Time Traveling Darth Vader comes back in time to hunt my Magi after I go through the effort of trying to force the Republic into a better, more stable form! Of course I’m taking it personally!”

“Don’t be like that! Just imagine all the fun you can have beating up Tie-Fighters and drinking blue milk.”

“You’re lucky I can’t throttle you.”

“You want CP, or what?”

“Uuuu…. Yesss. Fine. But if Darth Vader turns out to be Jar-Jar Binks under the helmet I’m going to give Mensarius the final bit of the key.”

“Now now, no need for threats. I promise, Jar-Jar is not Vader.”

“Great. So, I assume I have to buy Force Sensitive again if I want the power bump.”

“Indeed! But this time, Force Sensitive is in addition to your choice of Background and Race… though you can’t be a Droid and a Force Sensitive.”

“Gee… and I’d sooo wanted to be made entirely of metal and wire.”

“No need to be prejudiced against mechanical lifeforms.”

“They’re not lifeforms. They don’t self-reproduce, they don’t consume food or fuel of some kind, and they’re droids.”

“Wow. Intolerant.”

“Sue me. Wait… what about Skippy?”

“Skippy?”

“The Jedi Droid.”

“What about it?”

“It was a Droid and Force Sensitive.”

“I didn’t say it was impossible. I said you can’t be both.”

“…. fine. I’ll take Force Sensitive… again… Wait, how much CP do I have? Have you already picked drawbacks for me, again?”

“You have 1600 CP… and I promise not to make you a Slug this time.”

“You’re going to make me be a Wookie, aren’t you?”

“RAWRRR!”

“I couldn’t be a Chiss instead, could I?”

“Nope… but I’ll be nice and let you buy a Chiss Alt-form that you can’t use this jump!”

“Why would I want a Chiss Alt-Form that I can’t use to be a Chiss? In another other jump I’d just be Cosplaying Admiral Thrawn.”

“Reasons!”

“Your forced imprisonment has damaged your already fragile psyche, hasn’t it?”

“You could always be a Chiss if you choose to Return!”

“You know what? If the total cost for Wookie and Chiss is 100 or less, sure. Fine. I’ll take it.”

“Excellent. That’s 1300 left, after buying races and Force Sensitivity. What Background would you like?”

“What you got?”

“Besides Drop-In? Bounty Hunter, Soldier, Spy, Royal.”

“Huh… toss the perk trees up and give me the wheel of fate so I can spin for age and location.”

“Oh. You’ll be starting at Mos Eisley, and you’ll be 14.”

“You’re a wretched hive of scum and villainy, you know that?”

“You say such nice things.”

I looked at the perk trees and considered. Drop-In was the Han Solo line, with perks about getting places fast, getting people to like you or promote you, and to know a bad scene when you land there. Bounty Hunter was the Boba Fett line, though unless something had gone terribly wrong… which seemed likely, Fett and son were still locked in Carbonite in my secret vault on Coruscant. The entire line was… bizarre, except the capstone. The freebie allowed you to charge triple the going rate and always get paid, even if your employers betrayed you. That was followed by a perk that meant people always assumed you were dead whenever anyone suggested it… seriously? Then 400 points for the ability to definitively prove you killed someone even if you vaporized them. Why would anyone want that? The only one that made sense was the capstone, which was a really nice hunting / tracking perk… if you liked that kind of thing.

Royalty was, of course, the Leia line, and ooooh dear lord was it… enthusiastic. Rallying Speeches, Recruitment, Imprisonment Insurance, and Presence. It was… yeah… the whole package. I was tempted, but it was just a little too specialized in overthrowing the state and usually I just went for the top.

Spy and Soldier didn’t seem based on anyone in particular, and both were interesting. Spy had Stealth, Intimidation, Interrogation… and a really nice Conversion of the Enemy Perk… but aside from that one, called “You Will Join The Right Side”, I didn’t have to have any of them. I considered, then selected Soldier, which ate another hundred of my CP, but got me “A Bit Too Close” for free, which was a general combat luck perk that pretty much augmented my ability to dodge the right way just by pure chance. It wasn’t reliable, and I certainly wouldn’t have bought it on my own… but the 200 and 600 point abilities, before discount of course, were just nifty. The 400 one was… weird.

“I Think It’s Time I Finally Told You That Story…” was the first of them. It allowed me to send those listening to my recounting of a battle to sleep. Hahah… yes, I’m boring… shuddup. What was special about this was that, while they were asleep (and it was a choice for them, not an enforced effect) they’d enter a perfect recreation of the battle in their dreams. They’d find themselves taking part in the battle as if they were soldiers for one of the factions that took part in the fight, fully trained and equipped in a role of their choice. The recreation would be accurate to the history, even if I purposefully lied about the story, though any participant could change things if they tried hard enough. The effect would end if the story concluded or something interrupted the story, and no one would be permanently damaged or traumatized by the events they’d witnessed, nor would they get to keep their new skills… though I suspect they’d keep the memory of using them and enough exposure could be used as a training method.

The whole concept was… fascinating and I could see the utility. I’d been through a lot of battles over the centuries. Not useful, but interesting enough to warrant the cost, even if it wasn’t enough to warrant being a solider. No, that distinction came from the near total battlefield awareness granted by the Soldier’s Capstone. It was called “A Command Post Has Fallen!” and it was… glorious.

ACPHF gave me supernatural awareness of the battlefield, up to and including the exact number of troops on each side, who was responsible for each kill, and the precise location of my current objective, as well as places of strategic importance and knowledge of when those places were under attack. I’d have paid full price for that one. Good thing I didn’t have to.

I did not, however, take “Select a Class”, which was the weird one. It was a six setting loadout swapper, allowing me to (as long as no enemy was in sight) swap between 6 different “Class” presets of gear… gear that I had to own already. I… Requip was sooo much better… Thanks again Erza.

That left me with half my CP. “Is there group Import this time?”

“There is, in fact. A two-for-one deal too.”

“You mean one of those where I pay X amount of CP and all my companions get twice that much? Is it otherwise free?”

“Yes, it’s free. No, it’s not all your companions. Just 8. Trying to get me to ‘accidentally’ let all your companions get 800 CP isn’t going to play here, little miss.”

“I would never!”

“I can read your mind.”

“No you can’t.”

“What?”

“At a certain point, you stopped being able to do so.”

“How do you know that?”

“You had to ask me for the downloads of the various seasons of animation I made while in Asgard Jail. And you didn’t know about them. I think you can only read my thoughts now if I either allow it or am broadcasting.”

“All your powers come from me you know.”

“I do… and that’s what makes this interesting… I think… I think this is about growth. You’re like… a gardener and I’m like a tree. You provide water… CP… and Fertilizer… Drawbacks… and sunshine… the various jumps… but you don’t know what, exactly, will grow. I don’t think you’re omniscient… just… objectively omnipotent. I think, suspect, that as you provide me with more room to grow, I’m growing beyond what can be easily influenced or shaped… without direct permission. I’m certainly becoming important enough for your colleagues to begin messing with.”

“Yeah… well… you haven’t reached a point where you no longer need a gardener, so bear that in mind.”

“I will. Won’t stop me from giving you a hard time… but this Spark thing… that’s Graduation, isn’t it? That’s leaving the nest, leaving the safety of your garden and having to move on.”

“Only if you pass.”

“Well… of course. Anyway. I’ll take the Import… and that spy perk, “You Will Join the Right Side”. With that I don’t even need to defeat my enemies in battle to convert them. Blackmail, persuasion, seduction, befriending… hell… that’s just nice.”

“Don’t want any new Force Powers?”

“Don’t I have all of them?”

“Well… no… but I see your point. How about equipment?”

“Anything super interesting?”

“Errr… no. You do get some freebies.”

“Cool.”

“You could build your own ship?”

“Got ships. No thanks. Tell me about the freebies.”

“You could have a baby Rancor?”

“I have a Ziggy. I think he wins.”

“Right. Good point.”

“Freebies?”

“All the basic Force Powers again.”

“Of course.”

“An Energy Slingshot.”

“Whazat?”

“A small wrist-mounted weapon that fires energized projectiles that are strong enough to temporarily stun unarmored individuals.”

“Ooooo… such yay. Much… yawn.”

“It has unlimited ammo.”

“O… really?”

“What?”

“I might have to… improve the output… a little.”

“I’m so glad I’m intangible.”

“You… should be. You…. Should…. Be.”

“You’re not nearly as intimidating as you think you are.”

“Have you seen my Ferret Tengu Form? I have 6 inch fangs!”

“Three.”

“They could be Six!”

“You’re a shapeshifter. You could be a walrus if you wanted…. Please stop being a Walrus.”

“Nof! I amf de beft Walruf!”

“You’re a Hutt with Lightsabers in your mouth.”

“BEFT WALRUF!”

“Yes… yes. Best Walrus.”

“Beft Walruf Efa?”

“If I say yes, will you stop?”

“Yef!”

“Then yes. Best. Walrus. Ever.”

“WOOO!”

“I can’t believe I put up with you.”

“I know! It’s like you enjoy pain or something!”

“Well, you also get a signature outfit like Han’s Shirt and vest ooor Chewie’s Harness.”

“I will wear a hat.”

“Fine. You do that. And a Slave Outfit.”

“What? Like Leia’s slave outfit? For a Wookie?”

“Why are you giggling?”

“Wookie and sexeeeeeee….. ahahaahahah!”

“Er… yes, well.”

“You sure I can’t be a Chiss?”

“Yes. Fine, you can be either a Wookie wearing a hat or a Chiss wearing a slave girl outfit. That’s it.”

“Thbt. Spoilspork.”

“Did you just call me a spork?”

“I DID! Best utensil evar!”

“You know, for that, I’m almost tempted not to give you your Hangar Bay or Mediation Chamber.”

“I get a Hangar Bay and a Meditation Chamber?! WOOO!”

“Yes… The hangar bay from-”

“Where the Mil Falc was when they first got on board and Vader’s Pod thing?”

“Yes. Those would be them.”

“Awesome! Must add fog machines to the Meditation Chamber!”

“Not going to ask why.”

“Prolly best. Anything else?”

“You get a-”

“Bowcaster?”

“No.”

“Deathstar?”

“NO!”

“SLAB OF CARBONITE WITH A BUTT STICKING OUT!”

“Have you been drinking?”

“I dunno… have you been drinking?”

“I do not imbibe alcohol.”

“You should! It makes things funny.”

“Maybe I’m Minbari.”

“Oh. Then don’t.”

“You get a training remote and a speeder.”

“An Imperial 74-Z? Does it have racing stripes?”

“Why would it have racing stripes?”

“To make it go faster!”

“Paint doesn’t make things go faster.”

“You’ve never been to Illegal Aliens then.”

“I… oh… yes. Well.. you haven’t been there yet, so no applying chromodynamics to the speed calculations.”

“I’m going to paint it red and add racing stripes… and flames… black flames!”

“I’m so happy for you.”

“Wait, you said a training remote. You mean one of those little floaty zappy droid things?”

“Yes. Those are the ones.”

“Excellent! I shall name it… Bippo! No, Isaac!”

“Why Isaac?”

“Violates the First Law of Robotics.”

“Of Course. So, who are you bringing with you?”

“Well… lets see. It should be people who haven’t already come to the GFFA. That rules out Yoiko, Ryoga, Velma, Kohina, Mini, Franky, Tokimi-chan, Yuzu who all went to KOTOR-”

“Your Harem… minus Cirno.”

“They’re not my… they’re… fine, yes. Be that way. It also rules out Bart, Zane, and, of course, Meetra. And I’ll let Joy and Ahab do their own thing, as usual.”

“That still leaves 14… not counting the twins.”

“The twins are still grounded. I note that, despite all the time that’s passed, they haven’t apparently aged a day.”

“They’re linked to a Jurian Tree, but even without that, nothing ages in the Warehouse.”

“Well, that just not true. Even setting aside the cheese shop and brewery and other things that ‘Age’, the plants in the Lifestream Garden grow just fine.”

“Okay… I meant that things that are supposed to age age and things that aren’t supposed to age don’t.”

“But they’re like… teenagers. They’re supposed to age to their prime.”

“Their parents do not desire that to happen, and since you haven’t over-ruled their desires, they remain biologically the equivalent of 15.”

“Well… fine. I’ll worry about that later. Rayray wouldn’t understand this place… but watching her destroy Tie Fighters would be awesome. So her. Dyna’s an alien. So her. Kendra. AJ and Francine… and might as well toss in Petra as well. That leaves two. Might as well make it the Odd Couple.”

“The Odd Couple? Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau?”

“Cirno and Toph.”

“They aren’t dating. Despite the Fairy’s… proclivities, Toph remains, much to your evident frustration, heterosexual.”

“True. But Lemmon and Matthau… sorry Felix and Oscar didn’t date either. They bickered. And Cirno and Toph bicker more than any other pair in this Ka Tet.”

“Fair enough. I have distributed build tablets to them.”

“Tell them not to take Force Sensitive. I can just make them Force Sensitives as a Conduit, right?”

“Strictly speaking, only in other universes, but yes. Not much difference between doing it now or later.”

Barely paying attention, I looked down on Tatooine’s night side and muttered “I bet Rogue One has come out while I’ve been gone.”

“No time has passed in your home world.”

“Yeah… I know… just… a feeling. Can’t explain it. I know it doesn’t make any sense. If I’d remained on Origin I’d be long long dead and almost certainly so would every trace of the civilization I knew. It’s been, what… 13,333 years?”

“One month shy, give or take a couple of days.”

“Heh. If one minute passed back home for every day I’ve been jumping, a little over nine and a quarter years would have passed. If one day passed for every year… it would have been thirty-six and a half years.”

“Yes. I can do math. And if 1 second passed every year, you’d have been gone less than 4 hours. Relative Time between dimensions is meaningless unless a single thing brings two or more timelines into sync with each other.”

I sighed “Okay, okay. I’m being a bummer. So how long is this jump?”

“You assume it’s not the standard length?”

“I assumed last time and it turned out to be 13 years.”

“True. This jump is 10 years.”

“Wuuuunderful. That’s what… just past the end of Episode Six?”

“Mebe. Depends on which Episode Six, doesn’t it.”

“Yes. I suspect very much it does. Have the minions finished their builds yet? I’m anxious to see how you’ve managed to make an Empire when I pretty much trashed any hope of there being a damned Empire.”

“They have. Would you like the breakdown?”

“Briefly. Nice to know what I’m working with… to the extent I can with you playing fast and loose with the drawbacks and history.”

“Would I do that?”

“You apparently gave Darth Vader a Time Machine.”

“I think you’re just jealous I didn’t give you one.”

“Envious. Not Jealous.”

“Huh?”

“Envy is wanting what others have. Jealousy is stopping others from wanting what you’ve got… haven’t we had this conversation before?”

“Eh. Who can remember. It’s been ages!”

“Right. Whatever. Breakdown.”

“Your little Swordsman will be playing the part of an Umbaran Spy named ‘Vekkin Nas’, one who uses a Bowcaster when he’s not stabbing people with a lightsaber. He took the complete Spy Package, which comes with a Voice Scrambler mask and a bunch of disguises.”

“Well… that sounds reasonable. Francine?”

“A Dathomiri Bounty Hunter. Since you learned Dathomiri Sorcery, you can make her one with relative easy. Her name is… ahem… Fon Du.” I snorted.

“Cheesy.”

“Yes. I thought so. She picked up a TIE Intercepted, an E-11 Sniper Rifle, Electrobinoculars, Mandalorian Armor, and the Proof of Death and Tracking Perks from the BH line.”

“Excellent. I suspect I have a number of Bounty Hunters.”

“Less than you’d expect, I think. Four Spies, only three Bounty Hunters.”

“The others are Soldiers?”

“Drop-Ins and a Royal.”

“I thought companions… oh… right. Joy?”

“Indeed. It qualifies for her Auto-Import. She and Ahab still don’t get ships, as the Jump Tree strictly prohibits Companions from Buying Ships, Drawbacks, or other Companions.”

“Drat.”

“Such language!”

“I knooow! I’m soooo broken up about it. Whatever will I do without another Piece of Junk Star Wars Light Warship.”

“Steal One?”

“I might. I should see if Slave-One is where I left it. But enough of that. Petra?”

“A Droid Spy. Remote Chassis-”

“That means she’s a little flying sphere? Like one of Darth Maul’s hunter-seekers?”

“Bigger than that, but yes. Flying. Sensor Module, a Basic Vocabulator with Voice Modulator… that means she can mimic the voice of anyone she’s got a voice print of… Personal Shields, Bubble Shield… Built in Blaster… Enhanced Optics… As a Spy she took ‘We Have Ways of Making you Talk’ and ‘I’ve Altered the Deal.’ Goes by RK-1.”

“Wait… does she still get a Slave Outfit?”

“She does.”

“She’s a not even vaguely humanoid… I assume she’s a kind of multi-limbed flying crab thing?… she doesn’t even have bits to show off.”

“I know. In her case it will be a completely for show Restraining Bolt.”

“Oh… well. I guess that makes sense. RayRay? Wait… don’t tell me… Rodian?”

“You know your large green reptiloid well. Yes. Rodian Drop-In. Rodak Ro. Less than 12 Parsecs, Declaration of Rebellion. Bantha Milk. Speeder Bike.”

“W… wait… she took only the cheapest perk from Drop-In… and the Royal Capstone… and the bike that’s free for Soldier? Did you explain that she’d get a better deal if she took Soldier?”

“She didn’t care.”

“And this is why I normally double… never mind. Her choice. Dyna? Tell me she was smarter? Or at least… more invested?”

“A Zeltron Spy.”

“The PINK PEOPLE?”

“Yes.”

“THE PINK PEOPLE WHO ARE NEARLY CLUELESS AND OBSESSED WITH LOVE?”

“That would be them.”

“AHAAHHAHAHAHAHAHA—can… can’t breathe… oh… oh… this… this is too… ahahaha… go… go on. She… she… you… she picked them because they’re pink, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Did you tell her about them?”

“No.”

“Snerk… Evil.”

“She took most of the Spy Line, and For The Alliance from the Royal Line. As well as an A-Wing Starfighter, an Incinerator… that’s a flame thrower rifle… and a Speeder Bike.”

“I’m forming my own Speeder Gang, aren’t I? That’s three. What’s she calling herself?”

“Sala Dyn.”

“Oh… really?”

“Yes. She thought you’d appreciate that.”

“It’s cute. Kendra?”

“A Chiss Drop-in named Thrimp.”

“Tell me she took advantage of the discounts.”

“She did. All four perks. A Cycler Rifle, and the 4th Speeder Bike. You can now pretender to be the Speeders of the Apocalypse.”

“Har. Har. Har. Waaait… Thrimp? Thrawn… Prawn… Thrimp… Shrimp?”

“I would not know.”

“Suuuure. Toph?”

“An Icarii Bounty Hunter named Mesac.”

“You allowed that?”

“It’s on the list of Near-Humans.”

“I… yes… well.. Fair enough… shit.”

“Problem?”

“Pretty sure the Icarii were hunted to extinction by the Empire. Can’t remember when though. Before Yavin though. I think.”

“Maybe you can stop it.”

“I’ll try. Literally bigger fish to fry. What did she buy?”

“A CR-1 Blaster Cannon.”

“Subtle… Perks?”

“Three of the four Bounter Hunter perks. Everything besides the Proof of Death one, and Rebel Spies and Traitors from the Royal Line.”

“Might come in handy. Cirno?”

“A Jawa Spy named Martini.”

“A… Jawa… Spy… Martini? She’s going to be a Jawa James Bond? A Sandy Lothario? That’s just… terrifying. What did she take?

“Oh, all the Spy Stuff… and the royal perk ‘They Have to Rescue You’… you do realize there’s nothing there for you to bang your head against… are you generating a telekinetic force field to bang your head against.”

“YYYYYESSSSSS!”

“Well, that’s just silly that is.”

“Going… to… throttle… stupid… FAIRY!”

“She said you have to catch her first.”

“GRAAAA!”

“Want me to tell you about Ahab and Joy?”

“Suuuuure. Can’t be more annoying, they don’t get points to squander.”

“Ahab is a Humanoid Chassis Droid Bounty Hunter named Phantom Pain. Joy is a Royal Vorzydiak Force Sensitive named Slepa.”

“Har har on the names… what the heck is a Vorzydiak?”

‘Largely isolationistic, hard working, smug about it. Yellow skinned humanoid.”

“Oh… huh. I guess it works. Of course, a three headed monkey wouldn’t be out of place in this setting. Insertion time?”

“Indeed.”

INSERTION

What can I say about Mos Eisley that you don’t already know? I mean… everyone knows that it’s wretched hive of vum and scillany, that Tatooine is full of countless gangsters and criminals, and that Mos Eisley is pretty much the epicenter of all that naughtiness… It was hot. It was sandy. It smelled atrocious. I hadn’t really noticed as a Hutt, last time I’d been there, but as a Wookie I noticed alright… especially as I was 14 year old Wookie… at 14, Wookies aren’t even pubescent just so you know.

“Papa Bail? Why are we here?” I heard myself ask as I dropped into the consciousness of Bail Organa’s adopted daughter, the Wookie Sarbucca… look, don’t ask why Bail Organa had an adopted Wookiee daughter… I was her and even I thought the story was weird.

Bail Organa, Supreme Chancellor of the Republic in exile shushed me. “This Toydarian claims to know how to find General Kenobi.”

“I thought he died in the…” I paused to remember what the incident was called in this time frame. “The Moment of Madness.”

“That’s what everyone thought, but according to reports, there’s a man living here-about calling himself Ben Kenobi who might be the right age.”

“Isn’t the Empire hunting all the Magi that escaped the fall of Coruscant?”

“Yes. Which is why the Alliance to restore the Republic needs to find as many as we can to protect them. Quiet now and let me talk to… Ah, Watto, thank you for meeting me.”

I rolled my eyes as the now decrepit and even more wasted Toydarian fluttered in. For the love… I did not have time for this shit. I scanned the little bastard’s mind, then walked outside, blinking at the double bright sunlight. I pulled a comm unit out of the Warehouse and popped it into my ear. It worked on telepathy, so my inability to speak anything other than Shyriiwook didn’t hamper communications.

“Does anyone have the faintest clue what the hell is going on?”

Zane came on line “Looks like Vader, Tarkin, and Thrawn arrived on scene about the time the last jump ended, with an even bigger army of Clones all loyal to The Galactic Empire, absorbed the Separatists, and conquered Coruscant, shattering the Republic in the process.”

“And Anakin?”

“Escaped capture with Mace Windu. Last anyone saw of him was… 8 years ago. Ahsoka Tano’s apparently been a thorn in the Empire’s side, judging from the bounties on their heads. Ditto Padme… nothing on the kids… though they’d be barely 14 now.”

“Shit. Huh… Thanks. I’ll get back to everyone once I figure out what’s going on.” I shifted to my Hutt form and rolled back inside, “Hello Bail… Watto…”

“Shujak!” the Toydarian nearly screamed, fluttering up out of reach, but I grabbed him with the Force and pulled him down to eye level, pulling him nose-to-lack-of-a-nose with me.

“I always knew you were slime… but selling out a contact to the Empire… that’s low.”

“I-” he opened his mouth to protest, but I force-choked him into silence. He hadn’t had much choice, as he owed Jabba more money than he’d make in a lifetime, and no reason to be loyal to anyone besides himself… but I didn’t have to forgive him for that. I tossed him into the corner and shot him with a Star Trek Phasor I’d rebuilt to look like Han’s Blaster.

“Your daughter is fine. I had some of my followers take care of her. You we need to get out of here. Follow me, I’ll explain later.” Of course, the second I got him alone, I stunned him and slid him into stasis, then went looking for Kenobi.

“Ben?”

“What?! How’d you find me? And where have you been for… why are you staring at me like that?” He looked like an elderly Ewan McGregor… I mean… sure… he’d been Ewan before… but for some reason, I’d been expecting Alec… but no… Ewan… and not nearly as old as Alec had been. Early 50s and pretty spry…. Not the early 60’s Alec had been when he’d played the role.

“I was… out of phase… That’s unimportant. We’ve got to get you to the re-” that was when something struck me from behind and the next thing I knew I was Frozen in Carbonite.. All 540 lbs of me. Installed in Jabba’s Palace. Where I remained… powerless and unable to escape (somehow), but fully aware… for almost 5 years!

I waited, in vain, for my companions to come for me… they didn’t. Instead… Padme, Luke, Ben, and a very worried looking Han Solo and a slightly amused Chewbacca… came for me. Padme, dressed as Boushh, was looking for work and Han claimed he was there to pay Jaba back the money he owed him. Luke… looked like Luke, but fitter, more toned, like he’d spent his childhood working out and training and not been a punk kid from Tatooine. He also looked paler… as if he’d been raised on… say… Dagobah. A quick scan confirmed this.

Sorry to say, this rescue mission was no more ept than the canon one… but all that changed the moment Padme hit defrost. ALL my power came roaring back and… Yeah… I might have taken out my frustration on Jabba and his Palace. For instance… I beat the fat fuck to death with his own Rancor, then force-fed said Rancor to the Sarlacc. I’d been forced to pay witness to far too many atrocities to be forgiving.

An hour later, I landed next to the smoking ruins of the desert palace and glowered down at Boushh. “Padme, you look ridiculous. Tell me… Jyn Erso… Rogue One… did they succeed in getting the Death Star plans?”

She pulled off her helmet and shook her long hair. “You really do know almost everything, don’t you. Always one step ahead of everyone else… even after being frozen for years.”

“Much of it. Yes. Broad strokes. You came to get me for a reason?”

“The Alliance is going to move against the Deathstar… but Leia…”

“Leia has the plans and has been captured by the Empire?”

“Yes, how did you?”

“We have to get to… shit… I don’t know… where will… no… it’ll still be Alderaan. We have to get to Alderaan now.”

“What? Why?”

“That’s where Moff Tarkin is going to take the Deathstar. Signal the Alliance, tell them to get to Alderaan in force. I know where the Deathstar’s weakness is, I’ll transmit it when they get there.”

Han said “My ship can get us to Alderaan in-”

“My ship can get us there faster.” I interrupted him.

“What shi…” He looked up as the Jenny hove out of the sky, dodging fire from the Star Destroyer still in orbit. “That? A CR-90? The Falcon is much faster than… she’s the ship that made-”

“The Kessel Run in 12 Parsecs, yeah yeah, I know. And no, it’s not that ship.” I said as Yuzuha flew down from the Jenny.

“You called?”

“Yes. Excellent. Francine?”

“I am Fon Du!” the whiteskinned bountyhunter said as she ported next to me. “Whatcha need?”

“I’m going to bubble us. You have to get us to Alderaan orbit, Now.”

“Wooo… big port.”

“You can do it. I’ve shifted that far… once. If I can do it, you can do it. You’re the Psychoporter… or I can ask AJ…” She glowered at me for implying that AJ (who is a damned powerful psychic, never forget) could be better than her. He split his effort between sharpening his mind and sharpening his swords.

She nodded, closing her mind, finding the way between, the path of least existence, and space twisted, sickeningly, the sand disappearing to be replaced with high orbit around the shining orb of Alderaan. I caught her as she fainted, then said “Yuzuha… spin up the wings and prepare to defend the planet. I’m taking proton torpedo and ending this.”

No sooner had I uttered the words than I felt the presence, terrible and dark, of a powerful Sithlord entering the system… and thousands of system defence fighters scrambled from the surface of Alderaan… “You’re supposed to be a PEACEFUL PLANET!” I heard myself yelling as I pulled 800gs accelerating myself towards the source of the vergence and the enormous battlestation.

“Don’t forget, Leia’s onboard that monstrosity,” AJ reminded me, and I swore.

“Shit.” I had forgotten. “Right. Hopefully it does take awhile to cycle between full power shots. AJ, take Petra, Ahab, and Cirno… and Luke and Han… but not Ben… and Victor and go get the… well, I guess she’s still a Princess. I’ll be out here destroying weapon emplacements and holding a gigaton bomb on my shoulder… no hurry…. Holy shiiiit.”

“What?!”

“The Deathstar… It’s CHROME! It’s Freakin’ Chromed… like… like a damned disco-ball.  That’s just… wro… It’s charging the main gun. That probably means Leia’s on the bridge. Yuzu, Wings up now!”

There should not be sound in space. An explosion has to be titanic to actually push enough of the diffuse interplanetary medium close enough for sound waves to propagate… this is also why nukes are actually much much less useful in space than one might think, one of the major reasons most space tech uses energy weapons.  Of course, those have their own problems… photon packing density for one, beam coherence for another… but the main beam of the Death Star didn’t care about any of that. The SOUND (as it was too loud not to be in all caps) was… imagine being hit with a quilt that’s been soaked in boiling water… at 30 miles an hour. That’s what the SOUND was like. It hurt my everything, offended every sense of rightness, and screamed through the void like green death and, for a moment, I doubt Yuzuha… and then… the beam shattered as my flagship threw one of her Wings of the Dark Hawk in front of it.

If you have never beheld a Wing of the Hawk, Light or Dark, you can scarce imagine its power, and even seeing them flared like the trinatistic petals of a vast spaceborne flower, it is like viewing a shining diamond of anti-carbon, shining and lovely and inconceivably deadly. Wings of the Light Hawk (and Yuzuha’s shadowy counterpart) held destructive capacity on par with the main cannon of the Death Star II… and First Generation Ships could not only generate three of them at a time, but could recharge an expended wing in roughly a minute… which would have, already, made them weapons of untold destructive power… except that they weren’t weapons. Their titanic capacity for destruction was a mere side effect of what they were, like being hit by the edge of a Spartan Hoplon… for Wings of the Hawk were, at their most basic… shields.

The brilliant green horror that had stabbed from the chromium abomination fragmented, crazed, transformed into coruscating walls of emerald lightning as tall as the orbit of Sol’s Jove and in that moment the dark side of Alderaan was lit by verdant midnight. “Wing at 40% and recharging”, Tokimi announced from Yuzuha’s bridge and I breathed a sigh of relief. “Minor disruption of the Force around the planet.”

“How’s it coming guys?” I commed the rescue squad “The Alliance will be here shortly and there are a metric fuckton of turbolasers on this thing.

“Mother’s nagging again. She must be worried about us.” AJ commented to Petra, who boopboopbooped in return. Ahab announced “We’re in the prison block n-” but then there was a surge of static as an, I swear to Almighty God, Chrome TIE Interceptor came arrowing out of the darkness, aiming for me and opening fire. Either Chrome made the thing go faster or it was one heavily futurized TIE-I… because I was having serious trouble dodging the thing… even with combat precog. Darth had leveled up!  Bastard!

Minutes seemed to crawl by as I juked and dodged and did my best to return fire without dropping my cargon or losing focus on the flow of battle swirling around me. Four, five, six, and I felt the Death Star beginning to cycle energy back into the massive Planet Buster weapon, no doubt supercharging it this time. And then the Alliance showed up, a half dozen Mon Calamari Cruisers and fifteen Nebulon B’s, dropping out of hyper in a near perfect block and opening up with all guns, their fighters screaming out to support the remaining Alderaan system defenders. The numbers of allied and enemy fighters rapidly equalized and then the Empire began losing fighters rapidly as the technical superiority of A-Wings, Y-Wings, and X-Wings overwhelmed the far far cheaper mass produced TIE fighters.

“We’re Clear!”

“Get to the Temple of Cardboard. Meet you there!” I yelled, then turned my back on Vader and dove straight for the trench leading to the Death Star’s critical vent, dodging and juking the entire way, my telekinetic shields struggling to deflect the hellacious amounts of fire that blasted Chrome-plated lunatic was pummeling me with.

Feeling my energy reserves getting low, I pulled an Elixir out of my warehouse and chugged it, cursing the need and myself for not picking up more than 999 of the damned things… then I cursed myself again and pulled my flask of felix felicis out of storage and took a hefty swig of that as well. “May God, Luck, and the Force be with me.” I said, tracing a Star of David in lines of fire before me as I called up the most powerful Offensive Sign ‘Light Heat Attack’ I could. “It’s not the Deathstar. It’s a giant silver Neuroi… Yeah… That’s my story, I’m sticking to it.”

I raced along the trench, using Soul of Ice in her Protonic Canon form to one-handedly blast gun emplacements to smoking space-dust, then the vent was ahead of me and Iobbed the bomb straight and true into it. Swish, three-points. She shoots! She Scores! I turned sharply, racing away from the doomed battlestation, screaming “BEST WALRUS EVAR!”

30 seconds later, from a safe remove, I paused, looking back. “Where’s the Earth…er… Death-Star-Shattering Kaboom? There’s supposed to be a Kaboom.” Instead, what I got was a geyser of atomic fire, a vast thruster-jet lancing out of the Station’s pole. Admittedly, it must have taxed the internal compensators greatly and had no doubt shaken things up a little inside the super weapon… but “RIP. OFFF!” I screamed, diving back towards it… then realized what had happened and sighed. Vader, coming from the future, knew how the original Death Star had been defeated. He’d clearly tampered with the schematics. Bastard. I hate time travellers. Only I was supposed to be able to play the foreknowledge card!

Frustrated, I flicked the sphere off and flew back to Yuzuha, arriving less than 10 seconds before the main weapon of the blasted thing fired off again. The blow was measurably more intense and I felt the ship shake a bit as the first Wing failed completely.

“Enough pussyfooting around,” I announced, striding onto the bridge in my Sant Jara form (I’d discovered on the walk to Ben Kenobi’s place that I could, apparently, only access my Star Wars Forms for some reason… or my apparently now default “Ice Maiden” form.). “Yuzuha, prepare to attack.”

“YAY!” She crowed, manifesting to hug me from behind “I love attacking! What are we shooting at?”

“The Disco Ball of Death.”

“Oooooo. Laser World.”

“Sure.” I glared out at the sphere, then raised my comms and hailed every ship in the system. “This is Supreme Commander Sant Jara of the Magi Order. All ships are advised they have 20 seconds to clear the space surrounding the Empire’s Battlestation.”

Tokimi patting my shoulder “Being Generous, are we?”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh. I thought you were worried about the poor TIE fighter pilots.”

“Oh. No. Just wanted to make sure all the Alliance pilots heard me. If the Empire’s flyboys are smart, they’ll bug out too… but I’m guessing there will be idiots on both sides.” I hmmmed, then waited three more seconds. “Fire in the Hole!” I announced, as Yuzuha converted her two remaining Dark Hawk Wings to offensive mode.

The Impossible Unlight of the DHWs flashed across space at the speed of darkness and hammered into the Chromium Sphere like the universe’s largest pool cue. There was a Bong! Of titantic proportions and I twitched violently. “That’s not how physics wooorks!” I growled subvocally, then blinked as the viewscreen showed the Death Star slightly singed, but otherwise unharmed.

“The Hell?” I snapped, then pulled up the footage from the Jenny, gaping as the beams of unlight… flowed around the sphere, sliding across that Chrome Surface like water off of glass. “Okay… fuck it… now… now I’m pissed. Tokimi… link with Yuzu. Help her focus this without getting hurt.”

“Focus wh… oooh.” the goddess asked, as Yuzuha, who was linked soul to soul with me laughed and clapped her hands and bounced up and down happily. I rose out of the ship, shimmering, transforming, all the mes inside my Mental Palace laying their hands upon the giant blue prism at the heart of who and what I was. My form rippled and I grew. I was flying away from Alderaan now, getting bigger, bigger, colder… I paused to eat a passing comet. Mmmm argon.

“Hey, Vader.” I said, broadcasting thought loud enough to shatter weaker minds across the sector “Dodge This.” And I pumped 5 Wings of the Dark Hawk through Yuzuha’s Goddess-reinforced emmitters, holding the tiny ship on hands the size of a dozen Everests.

Yuzuha laughed maniacally and the only reason I didn’t join her is because telepathic laughter from a super-earth-sized Megabrain would probably have killed everyone… or at least their sanity. The Black Beam of FUCK YOU! Lanced across space, so cold it left eddies of unreality in its wake, the leading edge of the beam blackening the chrome with frostbite, then punching through it like it was the ghost of tissuepaper. 66% of the sphere simply ceased to exist, leaving a crescent “That’s No Moon” hanging there for a full second before the lesser reactors and capacitors simply lost containment and began vomiting existing, a thousand lesser explosions ripping the last vestige of the Doomsday Device to kingdom come.

I shrank back down, bleeding the hypercold back into the Heart of Winter, shuddering as my mortal flesh struggled to warm back up enough for blood to… thaw. Hell, my electrons were having trouble remembering what motion felt like.

I sat down on the deck and then fell back, my head landing in Yuzuha’s lap. She grinned down at me “Best Walrus Ever!” she grinned, then kissed my nose. Her breath smelt of rootbeer.

Three Years Later

“Zane? Where are you?”

“Oh… nowhere really. Just… need some personal time. I’ll see you soon.”

“You okay, you sound a little horse.”

“Do not. I’m a canine!”

“You’re an idiot… are you avoiding me or something.”

“Noo… noo… look… I’ll talk to you later… and… don’t tell Padme you talked to me.”

“What? Wait! Wh… damnit!” He’d hung up. I signed and went back to tinkering on my newest toy, one that had, admittedly, taken most of my free time for the last 3 years.

Six Months Later

“Why can’t I go to Hoth with the rest of the Alliance!”

“They’re afraid you’ll turn into an Ice Planet again and they’ll get confused about which of you is which.”

“Ahardy harhar.” I glowered at Bail who was still trying to come to grips with the idea that his daughter was the reincarnation of both Shujak the Hutt and Sant Jara the Magi Supreme Commander… which, of course, made her… me… the legendary Manifestation. Of course, the fact that I’d waved a hand and granted him Force Powers had kinda proved beyond a shadow of a doubt my bonafides, but that’s parents for you. “Mom, Dad, I’m the living Force. I want you to meet my harem. Oh, and I blewed up the Death Star… can I have bigger allowance?”

“They just don’t want to put all their eggs in one basket, and apparently the Empire is really good at tracking you for some reason.”

I growled “I know they are! I can’t figure out how they’re doing it! It’s sooo annoying!”

Six Months Later

“Any Rebellion ships. Do not come to Hoth. The Empire has Found Us. I repeat, the Empire has found us. Go to position Seven.”

“See. Told you.” I commented to Bail as I finished another of the growing stack of massive wedge-shaped droids.

“Yes. and Mon Mothma took your warning to heart. The Empire will regret attacking Hoth.”

“Cool. Is Lando set up?”

“He is. Are you sure you want him to do this?”

“Vader’s managed to avoid me on every occasion where I’ve tried catching up to him. I’ve got to hope he’s still playing by the same timeline for whatever reason. SO far he’s done everything I’ve remembered him doing.”

“Well, the recorders are up, and Luke is standing by.”

“Brave kid.”

“He has faith.”

“I just hope I don’t have to actually replace his hand.”

“You taught him Tutaminis, he should be fine.”

——

“Don’t make me destroy you! Luke, You do not yet realize your importance. Join me and we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the Galaxy!”

“I’ll never join you!”

“If you only knew the power of the Darkside! Jara never told you what happened to your father.” I gasped as my name was mentioned, frowning.

“She told me enough, and Obi-wan is my father!”

“No!” the chrome plated James Earl Jones-alike said, and I leaned forward intently. “I am your father!”

Anakin, playing the role of Boba Fett, jetpacked down from the top of the shaft. “I would never betray Obi-Wan like that.” He snapped, pulling off his helmet and glaring at his evil future self.

“I never claimed to be you, fool.” Vader said, then jerked as I teleported behind him and grabbed his helmet with one massive claw as Luke lept from the pylon into his adopted uncle’s arms.

“Let’s see who you really are under there,” I drawled, and ripped the faceplate off… to reveal… “ZAAANE?!”

“Darth Cerebris sends his regards.” He said, grinning, then sucker punched me and vanished. I sat down, gasping and very much needing a drink.

I woke up the next morning feeling betrayed, hungover, miserable, pissed off, and wondering when I’d gotten to bed and how… and why I was a male Togruta… and why Ahsoka  Tano was… oh… right… err… no one tell Anakin I slept with his padawan… ex-padawan… our little secret okay?

“Fuck it. Tell the Alliance we’re heading to Endor.” I said as I pulled on my clothes and consciously willed hydration back to my brain. Owwww… Fermented Bantha Milk… kill me now.

——

“Fooolish Jumper! There is no Emperor for me to turn against! There is only Lord Zane! Conqueror of the… did you just throw a dog treat at me?”

“Ayup.”

“It will not work to distract me! Even though you have arrived six months early, this battle station is still fully operational! And there is no way to reach the Core! Ahahaahaha!  Stop throwing Scooby Snacks at me! This is Serious!”

“Dude… you still recruited Mara Jade. I still had Luke Seduce her to the Light Side. We know. We’ve known for almost two years you were building this thing. You’re predictable.”

“NEVER! I AM ZANE! EMPEROR OF DARKNESS! STOP DOING THAT OR I’LL”

“Get your ass kicked if you don’t stop acting like a moron?”

“You Always Insult My intelligence!”

“Only when you’re plotting against me!”

“Yeah? Well, I’ve got a doomsday weapon and it’ll shrug off your trick if you… what are those droids doing?”

“Those droids?” I asked, pointing to the several hundred thousand wedge-shaped refrigerator sized droids that were, even now, closing a circle around the DS2 and dropping out of stealthmode. “They would be opening a subspace rift in three… two… one.”

“Subspa… NOOOOOOO!”

After letting him drop to his knees, I kicked him in the crotch and stunned him senseless. “You… are… in soooooo…. Much… trouble.” I panted. Then signalled the droids “Grab the Executor too. We can paint it pink or something.”

The Universe wavered and then froze

“Did you just… steal the Death Star Mark 2?”

I grinned at the sourceless voice of the Banker, clearly outraged, as this was the first time he’d actually paused a live setting to question me.

“Best. Walrus. Ever.”

“That’s not an answer.”

“SUBSPACE, BABY!”

“You can’t just… there are… you don’t have the crew for… Fine… but I’m putting all the crew of it, and the Executor, down on Endor. You can either let them be eaten by Ewoks or whatever… but you can’t keep them… and I’m setting all the droids to stupid as fuck.”

“You turned Zane against me!”

“Nooo. Darth Cerebris did that. You just didn’t notice.”

“You made Jar-Jar into ZOMGSITHLORD!”

“You said he was one.”

“I said he was Plagueis having jumped bodies!”

“Eh. close enough. You had fun, admit it it.”

“I averted the destruction of Alderaan and the ecosystem of Endor… so… yes?”

“Well then. Go, have your party. Enjoy yourself.”

“You suck.”

“Best Banker Ever.”

Next: World 53 – The Dresden Files

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World 51 Again: Star Wars Prequels

TWO FOR THE PRICE OF ONE

Previously: A Traitor’s Tale

Themesong: Rise of Evil by Sabaton

It was the year 32 BBY… I’d been gone from this realm for nearly four thousand years… that’s a lot of time for the changes I’d wrought to be… unwrought, as it were. It was the day the Invasion of Naboo began. In mere hours, a pair of Jedi would be stowing away aboard a Droid Lander and then going on to encounter what was either the biggest pain in the ass of the entire franchise or the secret mastermind for most of the evil in the galaxy… Jar-Jar (Darth?) Binks.

I hung suspended in blackness, looking down on the lush green fields and forests and farms of Naboo. It was a lovely planet. Words scrolled by beneath me.

“Episode I: The Phantom Magi. Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute. Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo. While the congress of the Republic endlessly debates the alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Magi Knights, the guardians of Balance and Justice in the Galaxy, to settle the Conflict.”

Wait… what? The scroll did not repeat itself, but my memory was perfect once again and I merely gaped at the fundamental change this represented… where the hell were the Jedi? Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan were Magi? I had a bad feeling about this. More scroll tracked slowly across my vision.

“The Actions of the Magi Lord Sant Jara, following the Mandalorian Wars nearly 4,000 years ago saw a fundamental realignment of the Galaxy, with the long extinct Magi Order rising to predominance and largely supplanting the fragmented and often fractious Jedi and Sith Orders. Yet their numbers, never vast, have never been enough to effectively police the entire Galaxy, with its millions of worlds and trillions of citizens. Refusing to impose their ideology upon the galaxy, they have sworn to act as mediators and councillors only, remaining painfully neutral in the often contentious realm of Galactic Politics. However, this time of relative peace is about to come to an end. For this is an era of great change once again, with potential for renaissance or suffering in equal proportion. What happens next is up to you. You have 1600 CP.”

1600? Oh… shit. There was only reason I could think of for that… the Banker had saddled me with one or more unseen Drawbacks… drawbacks I’d have to deal with blind. “Wow. Back in the Big Chair for a couple minutes and already reminding me that you’re a jerk and in charge. Good one. Gratitude much?”

“You jumped at the chance to use my absence to weedle a huge CP package for your friends.”

“Yeah… well, if I hadn’t they might not have been super useful in helping me track down that Key thingy. Going to tell me what it is?”

“Fair enough… which is why they get to keep their ill gotten gains. And I’ll even let you keep your purchases, because I am a benevolent sort. But I had just as much time as you did to think about things, and I think you should set to see the long term ramifications of your meddling.”

“And you think it’ll be funny.”

“And I think it’ll be funny.”

“Asshole.”

The universe dinged “Species Purchase Confirmed. Your account has been debited 100 CP.”

I looked around “I did not… ah… punishment for… fine. We’ll play your little game. Does this mean, btw, that my companions are all back from whatever limbo they were in after they… reached game over in the last jump?”

“Why should I tell you that?”

“Because, oh high and mighty one who needed me to rescue him, it would be a nice thing to do. They died because of your poor stewardship. And if they’re not back, it doesn’t speak well of the guarantee of your CP backing, now does it?”

“Very well. Yes. They’re back. Everything that was busted is back.”

“And the roof?”

“Err…. Yes… I’ll have someone come by and fix it.”

“And get that stupid VMoDoom out of my pool area?”

“I… that might be a problem.”

“Why?”

“Well, technically, I can’t remove it. It’s XP backed.”

“XP? Is that Mensarius’s version of CP?”

“Mmm… yes… essentially.”

“Wait… does that mean Mensarius is a Gamesmaster?”

“Mmmm… yes, that’s one one way of looking at it.”

“Ah. So you’re a facilitator… he’s a manipulator?”

“Something like that. It’s more complex than that, but that explanation will do.”

“SO…. do I start on Naboo?”

“What? No… noo… that would be all too easy.” An image of the galaxy appeared hanging next to me, slowly spinning on a lightsaber stabbed through the galactic core. It was a wheel of fortune… with the Executor serving as the arrow.

“Cute.” I gave it a spin. Outer Rim… Giving me the choice between Dathomir (home of the Dathomir Witches) and Mandalore (home of the Mandalorians). I considered, then chose Mandalore. At least I knew how to get from there to Naboo, Tatooine, and Coruscant… if the story was playing out as expected, then I’d have to hustle to get to Tatooine for the Boonta Eve pod-race. That seemed the best way to connect up with the plotline and… do something. I hadn’t even really considered what… besides deal with Maul and Sidious.

I spun the wheel again, getting 26 as my starting age, though I still had no idea what species I was. Ewok maybe? Or wookie?… or Ithorian… ewww. They were herbivores! Oh… I bet I was a Gungan… that would just be sooo funny haah… not. No point worrying about it. I’d find out soon enough.

“So. Now that we know where you are… I guess we should know Who you are. Would you could you be a civilian? Would you could you be a Politician? An Engineer, a Privateer, a Jedi Seer?”

“Are those actually the options?”

“Civilian, Politician, Engineer. Those are Free. Outlaw and Force Sensitive cost points.”

“Why should I take Force Sensitive? I’m already a Grey Jedi. It’s not like each nation of Jedi has a different elemental power. The Force is the Force… of Course of Course.”

“Yeah yeah. And no one can talk to the Force of Course.”

“That is, of course, unless the Force is the ghost of someone dead?”

“Ah… ha. Nice. But no. No different elements. But if you want to buy more force powers, you’ll have to buy it again.”

“What? That’s craaap.”

“Well, as a bonus, I’ll double your raw force power for buying it again… and toss in your pick of three new force powers free.”

“Oh. well, then… sure. Why the fuck not. How much?”

“200.”

“Cool. Sign me up. What force powers are on offer?”

“Well, you get the basics again. Telepathy, TK, Force Empathy, Force Speed, Farsight, Force Stealth, Force Sight, Mind Trick… just in case you forgot… all of those increase your skill with that specific power, giving you new and innovative ways to use them and improved control equal to roughly five years practice. Plus Melee Training, which gives you skill in weapons both bladed and blunt”

“Uh huh… yeah, and?”

“Three picks from Breath Control, Comprehend Speech, Force Body, Force Flash, Force Listening, Tutaminis (i.e. Absorb slash Deflect Energy), Force Heal, Beast Control, Plant Surge, Battlemind, Ionize, Force Stasis, Doppelganger, Psychometry, and Force Bellow.”

“Whoo… nice list. The Force has come a long way in the last 4000 years… or this isn’t limited to what was demonstrated in a pair of old videogames, eh?” There wasn’t a reply. “Breath Control and Comprehend Speech sound like cheesy little “Ooo, ain’t it cool” powers, while the later ones sound more powerful. I’m going to guess that those are the more expensive ones, thus the better deals. There are 15 powers you listed… five each of 100, 200, and 300?”

“50, 100, 200. No discounts apply.”

“Ah. Regardless, I already have Force Heal and Beast Control. Plant Surge I can do with magic, Ionize destroys droids… but I already know Force Lightning. Force Stasis is, what, Hold Person the Force Power? Meh. Force Bellow is yelling really loud. Not a fan. How about Tutaminis… Does that work on lightsabers?”

“With mastery, yes, you can block lightsabers with your limbs and absorb both laser and plasma bolts… though it starts out as deflect.”

“Naturally. I’ll take that.”

“Really? It’s not 200. You’re missing the deal!”

“Eh. I’m okay with that. Psychometry is object reading. I’ll take that. I don’t have that a psychic ability yet. THough I worry about the readings I’ll get off some things… but then again, I’ve seen inside most people’s souls. Can’t be much worse. Tell me about Doppelganger.”

“The power to create a perfect illusion of yourself. You can move it around remotely and even perceive everything it experiences as if you were there, both living and droids… though it’ll be dispelled if attacked.”

“Huh. Neat. Sounds like a real steal. I’ll take it too.”

“Excellent. Any other powers you’d like?”

“Naw… I’m good. At least for now. Tell me about perks. What perks do Force Sensitive Types get discounted?”

“None. They get access to Force powers and the freebies.”

“Oh… well then… tell me about the perks for the other backgrounds.”

Four panels appeared in space around me, each containing three or four abilities. Outlaw contained piloting skills, shooting skills, unconventional weapons skills, and a really nice perk called “Go to Guy” which was a huge reputation booster that got people to ignore failures and give job priority… it would definitely have been a thing to take… were I looking to be a gun for hire. But I’d done that kind of work for the last two decades. I closed that window with finality.

The Engineer panel had some nice tech stuff, military engineering, cybernetics, and mechanical genius were all on sale… but it wasn’t that great of a boost and I passed on it as well. Politician I barely glanced at. I had charisma to burn and even the capstone wasn’t that good. I was about to close all the windows and just grab more powers… when I noticed the Civilian capstone and did a double take.

“Anomaly” it said. “Force Powers no longer have any effect against you.” It also protected me against psionics… and would allow me to cancel out nearby psi powers if I focused. I could not hit confirm fast enough. Even the 600 point cost didn’t slow me.

That left me with 700 points left… “Companion options?”

“You can have an apprentice for 200, an R2 for 150, or a clone for 500.”

“Why the heck is the clone so expensive?”

“They are a perfect genetic clone of you, rapidly aged, with all your physical abilities, non-major skills, and Force Powers.”

“Riiiight. No. that would be extremely narcissistic… and weird. And… creepy… Did I mention screamingly narcissistic? Seriously, who would take that? I don’t think I want to meet them.” I considered “What good is an R2 Unit?”

“Helps run a starfighter.”

“I don’t have a starfighter.”

“You can have a Z-95 Headhunter for 200… that’s half off because you’re Force Sensitive.”

“You mean one of those pre-ex wings?”

“That is the one.”

“I’d be a sitting duck in one of those things.”

“Yes. But you wouldn’t draw attention like you would if you used your other ships. They don’t exactly look Star Wars.”

“You want me to take a POS ship to fit in? You’d have to give it to me for free. And a Z-95’s a single seater… which, unless I’m remembering wrong, doesn’t even have a hyperdrive… which means it doesn’t have a spot for an Astromech! Those things were outdated when they were first constructed!”

“Your call, though this unit does have a hyperdrive.”

“Bully for it. I have two Jurian Treeships, a Black Jenny with Jurian drive tech, an Assault Shuttle with Magi drive tech, and a Ziggy. You’re just trying to trick me into squandering my points. Tell you what, I’ll give you 100 CP to give the Jenny an alt-form that looks like the Tantive Iv. How’s that?”

“Just the shape?”

“I could rig up a holoprojector, but it might get scanned through. I want something that looks like and scans like a CR90… and even has the hyperspace footprint of one… just not the actual deck layout or internals. Wouldn’t work anyway, considering that Jenny is 380 meters long and I think a CR90 is… what… a third that?”

“Yes. almost precisely. I shall do as you ask… though the size is, of course, no issue. Remember that I stuck your purloined Mako into a broomstick. I am that awesome.”

“Yeah yeah. You’re special… that leaves me 600. I guess I’ll take the Astromech… it’ll know where things are and be all beepboop bweedle… and it’s overpriced, but I’ll take the apprentice… for Zane, since he got left out last time. How much CP does it come with?”

“500. For perks and items… with a background similar to yours.”

“Huh. Well, that works. What do you have for 250?”

“Collection of Holocrons.”

“Oh? Jedi Porn?”

“No. instruction manuals that include all the information you need to train someone into a Jedi or Sith, basic information on both orders, instructions on how to build and use lightsabers, and how to harness the Force.”

“Well, I’m sure that would be useful… if the Force was found anywhere but here. Since it’s not-”

“Actually… Once you leave the Galaxy Far Far Away you’ll become a Force Conduit, able to grant living things in other universes a connection to the Force. You’ll have full control over who and what becomes Force Sensitive and will be able to grant powers to either a few individuals… or an entire universe if you so choose. Sensitives you create will be able to start anywhere from beginner to padawan in strength and skill… and you’ll be able to fully dictate how well they’re initially able to use the Force and wield a lightsaber… though training will allow them to potentially become just as powerful as you are… perhaps even more so.”

“What about Midi-chlorians?”

“You can decide whether or not the Force Powers come with Midi-Chlorians. There isn’t a need for it. Be warned, however, that the Darkside will always be a temptation, though Willpower and anti-corruption effects will mitigate the danger. And, before you ask you and your new Force users will be able to create synthetic lightsaber crystals… and you can allow them to grow naturally in any cave system with a strong magical or spiritual field. And, if you’re keen, you can even teach Sith Sorcery, Sith Alchemy, and Dathomirian Sorcery… if you learn them.”

“Oh. Okay. I’ll take the package I guess. No telling when I might need to create my own new Force using organization… again apparently. I guess that spends me out… Has Zane made his choices?”

“He has. He’s gained the form of a Miraluka Force Sensitive, which gives him Melee Training, the Basic Force Powers, and a free lightsaber.”

“What’s a Miraluka? I don’t remember them.”

“Human with no eyes. They see by use of the Force.”

“Creepy. Like a Fade from Wheel of Time?”

“Very much so.”

“What powers did he take?”

“Ionize, Force Stasis, Force Bellow” I flinched at that. Zane can be plenty loud already. “And he paid 400 points for Force Sever.”

“What’s that? Cutting someone off from the Force?”

“Indeed. Initially it’s a temporary field, but a Light Jedi can completely sever a Force User for good.”

“Ouch. I’ll have to observe that.”

“You are such a magpie.”

“You gave me this warehouse. You knew I was when I signed up. What did he spend his last hundred on? High Explosives?”

“Of course. He picked up a pack of 24 Thermal Detonators that regenerate monthly and a Stun Pistol guaranteed to immobilize any organic target it hits and ignore body armor. 50 shots before it needs to be recharged.”

“AAAAAck…. To both. Any organic target? Oy. Scary gun… and that was only 50 CP?”

“Indeed.”

“I’m already worried about him trying to use up 24 nuclear fusion grenades in a 1 month period.”

“Indeed! I’m most interested to see that myself.” He sounded faaar too intrigued.

“What about Joy and Ahab?”

“Ahab has chosen to be a Force Sensative Gen’Dai, taking Comprehend Speech, Battlemind, and Doppleganger.” I shuddered at the mention of the nigh immortal blobs of nerve and muscle tissue.

“Lovely. And Joy?”

“Clawdite, Force Sensitive, of course. Also Comprehend Speech, with Psychometry and Plant Surge to round her out.”

“Great, she’ll spend the entire time pretending to be me and talking at the plants. Everyone will think I’m insane.”

“You’re not?”

“Shadap, you!”

And with that…

INSERTION

“Why do I feel so heavy?” I asked, my voice sounding extremely deep. I raised my hands to look at my arms and groaned. “YOU BASTARD! A HUTT?! I’M A MOTHER FUCKING HUTT?”

Zane grunted “Huts don’t have mothers, they’re hermaphrodites.” We were standing aboard the bridge of the Jenny, most of the lights off… but I could see just fine, as everything was bathed in Ultraviolet light. Zane, eyeless, had no problem seeing at all.

“Hermaphrodites have mothers. Just both parents are the same sex… sexes. I’m a Hutt. Lovely. I bet I smell like slug.”

“Eh. more like damp slightly mildewed tofu.”

“I hate you.”

“YOu have a Togruta form.”

“I’ve been trying to transform into it… ah… there we go.” I shifted, dropping a good 300 kilos in the process as well as growing a foot in height. Hutts don’t actually have bones… which, combined with their native regeneration, thick skin, heavy blubber, and chemically resistant slash heat resistant skin and unappetizing taste made them practically impervious to most forms of attack… though they were slow and ungainly enough that a thick carpet could effectively block on as long as she didn’t have a hover platform. They were quasi aquatic, not particularly more mobile under water, but with their huge lungs and sealable nostrils, they could hold their breath for hours under. Of course… I had other forms, all of them better at almost everything besides being disgusting than a Hutt… Unfortunately… I now had 260 years of fairly disturbing Hutt memories and knew more about Hutt family, social, and political life than I had ever dreamed existed… and frankly, while it was fascinating from a purely objective stance, it was deeply disturbing on any number of other levels. Even my Hutt-self found other Hutts distasteful… if only for their lack of focus.

I shook my no longer bulbous head and settled into the pilot’s seat of the Jenny for the first time. “Okay baby, speak to me.” The new VI, this one just called “Jenny” pinged, and the screens flared to life all around me. “Plot least time jump for Tatooine. Notify Mandalore system control we’re leaving… now.”

“System control has assigned us a window in 1 hour, 18 minutes.” the machine voice announced.

“Tell system control I’ll be lifting in three minutes. They have that long to clear a launch window. Raise shields.” I tapped the intra-ship comm and announced “I don’t know who’s aboard, but you have 1 minute to strap in before we lift.” Jenny might, thanks to the Banker, look like a CR90, but she was nothing of the sort underneath. Her shields were as advanced as I could make them, able to stand up to Wings of the Lighthawk if need be… at least for a few seconds, and the Sister Ray that was her main cannon had been upgraded time and time and time again, giving it a maximum output that could core a medium sized moon. Her top speed was fast enough to cross the galaxy in a week… or roughly five million times the speed of light. And to be frank, she was only the 4th most powerful starship in my fleet… though she was the fastest in real space.

Leaving behind a completely annoyed Mandalorian system control, we rose from the surface of Mandalore and cleared the planet’s mass shadow in minutes, faster than any response vessel could more to intercept… not that they’d have been able to do much. “Anyone know how to get to Tatooine?”

A black and silver R2 unit that I remembered naming M6 booped and wobbled a bit as if it wasn’t at all sure, then rolled into an Astromech port that hadn’t been installed by me and socketed down. I was expecting coordinates, but instead a hologram of a certain pragmatic operative appeared in front of Zane and me. “What… in the name of all that is holy… have you done to me.”

I blinked. Zane blinked. The Operative’s hologram didn’t blink. “Oh. Right. Forgot all about kicking you out again after I decked you. I’ve no idea how you ended un inside a droid… That’s what you are currently, an R2 series Astromech droid. Now. if you’d please find the coordinates for Tatooine in your system and plot a series of hyperjumps to get us there, that would be wonderful.”

“I AM NOT A ROBOT!”

“Look, I don’t hold what you did against you, but if you’re not going to be helpful, I’ll reset your memory… or head back to Mandalore and find a restraining bolt. I paid for an Astromech droid to do the astrogation. So either you help out, and I’ll try and explain what’s going on, or you find out what it’s like to have your free will removed. Capiche?”

“I don’t even know what Tatooine is…” he trailed off, then shook his holographic head “Apparently I do know what Tatooine is. Desert planet, controlled by the Hutt Syndicates. How do I know this?”

“You’ve been imported as an Astromech Droid. The purpose of an Astromech droid is to control various computer functions in starships, to perform EVA repairs as needed, and to, in general, be a walking toolbox. Oh, and to facilitate human-machine communication. Without hooking up to a system like you are now, you’ll probably only be able to communicate in 27th generation machine code, a kind of hyper-compressed binary. Now, please, plot a course for Tatooine. Time is… tight.”

Grudgingly, the Operative-cum-droid did as I’d asked, and once we were on our way I explained what was going on, that I was, in fact, the same being he’d known as Senet, and yes, I was an alien entity. I didn’t explain that I could, with a thought, probably send him home. I’d never tested the theory and wasn’t feeling super generous… especially as he was currently my only astromech droid. I suspected Banker chicanery, but for all I knew this was Mensarius pulling something. I’d have to ask the Banker… later. I was, also, lying to the Operative. I’d meant to bring him along all the time… if for no other reason than to verify if my impression of him was correct…

Unfortunately, that plan had been, at least briefly, stymied, as I couldn’t see into his heart or mind, nor mind read him… as Droids lacked hearts or minds… and apparently souls in this setting. Since he had no alt-forms, he couldn’t shift back, meaning he was almost certainly locked into the droid form until the end of the jump.

One by one, the various members of my crew began to cycle through the Jenny, checking in with Zane and Me, verifying that everyone had been restored and asking if I needed anything. Mostly I needed hugs, and allowed myself a nice little cry at seeing familiar faces so long vanished.

Meetra was last, looking out on the stars of her home reality in silence for long minutes. “I don’t blame you for sacrificing me.”

“It… wasn’t much of a sacrifice. But I am pleased you understood.”

“Strange being back. They tell me this is 4,000 years later, that what happened so long ago is naught but a memory?”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not. It seems as if the Jedi have been replaced with the Magi… though my new memories do not contain information about the core philosophies of this Magi Order. They could be as bad as the Sith or just the Jedi of this era renamed.”

“Watching the events of this time play out in video was… odd. It’s like seeing a hyper-accurate Force Prophecy… why is this droid booping at me?”

“It’s not. That’s a bweedle. I think he’s surprised to see you. Oh. This is R2-M6… Argent… Bart.” I chuckled. “Somehow The Operative ended up coming with us. He’s been imported as a Droid, just like you were as Milly the Bodyguard.”

She nodded and patted the machine, “Ah. Cute design.”

“Not as cute as the BB series, but that’s from the third trilogy.”

“The one you have four different copies of?”

“That’s the one. Black Bullet, Mass Effect, Great Detective, Firefly. Different realities, different copies. No idea which is the accurate one. Anyway… you understand what the general plan is?”

“We go in, kill the Zabrak, maybe kill the Gungan, rescue the kid’s mom, kill the senator, keep the kid from being a tool.”

“Sounds about right. Yeah.”

We landed on Tatooine near Mos Espa 3 days before Boonta Eve and staked out Watto’s junkshop. The kid was, well, a brat. Getting around as a Hutt wasn’t easy, but people respected the Hutts enough that I was, in general, left alone.

“SJ… the ship just landed. Herself, the elder Robe, and padfoot are on their way into town with their tin can.”

“Gotcha. Gametime, boys and girls. Zane, Ryoga, Meetra, you find the Zabrak’s landing spot, he’ll be here in a day or so… handle him. Don’t give him a chance to retreat. Extreme prejudice.” I squished my way to the food vendor that Jar-Jar would be snagging a meal from and waited, huddling under my all too small parasol and trying to look bored. As the quartet neared, I examined each of them in turn.

Padme, still pretending to be the handmaiden, was exactly as she appeared to be; earnest, forthright, and fairly naive. Qui-Gon, older, more mature, was nuanced, layered, and obsessed with prophecy… but not the prophecy I’d expected. The Magi had, according to his memories, long ago brought balance to the force, dismantling the endless warring of the Jedi and Sith, creating a more mature and structured, less monastic order… which was reflected in the fact that their robes were mantles over uniforms, uniforms designed for combat and acrobatics, but uniforms nonetheless.

No, this prophecy wasn’t that one would come to bring balance… it was that one would come to destroy the balance and one would come to maintain the balance… and that they would not know each other until chosen one was found.

Which is, perhaps, why it was not a surprise to me that I couldn’t read Jar-Jar at all. Not with the Third Eye of Satori, not with the Force, not with telepathy, not with the various magics I had at my disposal. I wondered what, exactly, was in that 600 points of drawbacks and gritted my… total lack of teeth.

One of two things were true. Either Jar-Jar was merely a tool… or he was a powerful (and protected) Dark Lord… or maybe something else entirely. All I could do was follow and see. With a little luck, and if a certain internet theory had been correct, He was soon to manipulate Padme…

Unfortunately, I was detained from being there to witness it when a speeder collided with me, totalling the vehicle and requiring me to extricate myself from the wreckage. That was just cheating… I decided to wait until after the sandstorm to make my appearance… I had to change my outfit… what?! Hutts can wear clothing. We’re not savages. We’re just grotesque.

“The Zabrak who might or might not have been a Dark Lord named Darth Maul has been terminated.” Zane announced. “We’re incinderating the body.”

“Incinerating.” I corrected.

“Naw… that would mean we reduced it to Ciners… we reduced it to Cinders! Incinderate!”

“Fine. Go rewrite the dictionary,” I grumbled as I squelched into Watto’s shop. “I thought I saw Magi come in here. Your kind isn’t welcome here. This is Hutt space.”

“We’re just here to get parts for our ship.” Qui-Gon tried placating me. “We’re not here on official business for the Order or the Republic.”

“Your Gungan stole food from a vendor. Someone has to pay for that.”

“We don’t have any local currency, I’m afraid.”

“Magi know fear?” I asked, teasing, though I was well aware that the Magi were more focused on controlling their emotional responses than denying them. Qui-Gon said nothing, recognizing the taunt for what it was, but Padme took offense and tried to step to me.

I waved my hand at her “Ease your womp rat, Magi. I meant no offense,” I lied. “If you have Galactic Credits, I’ll take them and pay local currency.” I could see the calculation flashing behind everyone’s eyes “With a conversion fee, of course.” I licked my heavy lips salaciously.

“I thank you.” Qui-Gon said. “That would be most… helpful.” And thus I bypassed a huge waste of time and an entire pod race… and then undid much of it by insisting, forcefully, that the Jedi be my guest for the evening, along with the brave little boy and his mother. Of course, I also arranged for Ryoga to attack Qui-Gon (in full Zabrak facepaint and sith hood) before swooping in to drive him off with a hail of blaster fire from my Mandalorian Ripper (All geared to not quite hit).

Inside the banquet room of Jenny, which had been disguised inside as well as out, I played the gracious host, tossing the sympathy card for the Naboo, for the plight of the two slaves, and of course voicing disdain for the corruption of the Senate and the Trade Federation. Of course these poor lost lambs could rely on the discretion and assistance of Shujak the Hutt. I’d even be willing to take them to Coruscant myself. “I’ve always wanted to see the Magi Temple.”

‘The Tabernacle is off limits to those who aren’t Magi, I’m afraid… but the Citadel can be visited.” Qui-Gon explained, suspicion warring with his desire to resolve this. “Our ship…”

“Bring it. We can tractor it to the hull of the Jenny.” Of course, that was possible, though risky. The Jenny appeared to be a CR90, which was only 50 meters longer than Amidala’s J-Type 327 Nubian, which was 76 meters long. It was doable… but chancy, and it would be safer for all involved it they came over to the Jenny. I didn’t tell them that, in reality, the Jenny was actually five times as big as the Royal Naboo Cruiser and would have no problem pulling it through hyper.

While I was doing that, Ahab and Joy were busy explaining to Watto that while no podracer was worth the price of two slaves, his life was not worth the sweat scrapped off the back of Shujak the Hutt and if he had a problem with that, he was invited to go take a literal flying fuck into a proton reactor. He handed over the ownership papers with only minimal bruising. Serves him right for being a stereotypical Evul Space Jew. talk about defamation… nice that the cartoons did a good job of redeeming the Toydarians… but that didn’t help Watto in the slightest. He was scum.

Thus it was I got to scan the last of the major players… Obi-wan too, was largely as he’d been depicted; enthusiastic, daring, and sheltered. Now I just had to tinker as I always did. I sent Yuzuha and Velma to chat with Anikin and begin the process of therapy, while I arranged for Padme and Obi-Wan to discuss what they’d seen of the droid army with Tokimi, Gaius, and Caine. Which left me and Meetra with Qui-Gon. Jar-Jar was off somewhere being Jar-Jar… I still had no idea if that was bad or really bad.

“I find your willingness to help us intriguing,” the Magi Knight commented.

“You mean confusing. I understand. It’s nice of you to try and be politic, but there is no need. I know all too well the reputation of my kind… but forgive me… you seem worried by things beyond the concerns of Naboo or even the Trade Federation.”

He considered for a long moment, then asked “What do you know of the history of the Magi?”

I nearly chuckled and Meetra coughed. “More than most, less than I’d like. Why?”

“4,000 years ago, there were two warring factions, two faiths that both embraced the Force… or aspects of it. They styled themselves the keepers of the true way and each hated the other with a burning passion that cost many millions or billions of sophonts their lives. On one side, there were the Sith, who preached a doctrine of obedience and dominance, an embrace of the more basal and aggressive traits we all share to some extent…” He took a deep breath, then sighed. “The others, the other side of the Sith coin, was the Jedi. They embraced asceticism, setting aside all that made them… human… for lack of a better term. All too often, the Sith would secretly infiltrate the Jedi, suborning their apprentices… or at least that’s what the Jedi claimed, allowing them to engage in periodic purges against all those who were not fantastic enough.”

I nodded “And that was when the Magi were born?”

“Oh, no. The Magi are an ancient order, hundreds of thousands of years old and, at the time, thought long extinct except for a few adherents to their old ways. That was until the coming of Sant Jara, the Unifier, first of the Magi Manifestations in ages. She unified the Jedi and Sith, showing the proper balance and scouring away the old, corrupt ways. She then ascended into the Force, promising to return if she was ever needed.”

“Well, that’s an interesting history lesson, to be sure… but the events of four millennia ago can scarcely be worrying you now?”

“There have been… rumors. Since that time… well, more than rumors. The Jedi and the Sith hardliners never really vanished. The Sith hold to what we believe is called “The Rule of Three”, a system where one master and two apprentices are active at any given time, and eventually one of the apprentices will kill the others and become the new master.”

I chuckled, both externally and internally. Seemed the Sith in this time were more open about their ‘Secret’ Apprentices. “Lovely system. They lurk in the shadows, manipulating people and hoping to bring about the fall of the Magi? And the Jedi?”

“Crazed Fanatics. Yes. They operate both publicly, as a monastic order with secret membership except for the higher ups… and as a terrorist organization called the Council who are actually in control. They are obsessed with bringing down the corrupt Republic and the Order that supports it. If the Sith use domination and trickery, the Jedi use seduction, mind tricks, and manipulation. The Sith embrace primal emotions, like rage and hate and fear. But the Jedi are no better, using and playing on the social emotions, such as attachment, protectiveness, and generosity… using them as weapons against their foes.”

“Fascinating.” Meetra breathed, and it was. A subtle change… and one that potentially changed things. Who might be on this Council? Would I have to face off against the likes of Yoda and Mace? What else was different?

“We’re arriving at Coruscant, Boss,” came AJ’s voice. He’d gotten much better once Francine had showed up again and spent several days pestering her about what it was like being dead. They were a cute couple, even if AJ steadfastly refused to admit his feelings for the other psychic pokemon. They were just friends… honestly. Not that he was fooling anyone. It didn’t take mindreading to know his true feelings… not that we had a shortage of mindreaders.

“Thank you AJ. We’ll be right there. Come Magi. I think we’ll need your clearance to land. I suggest using her majesty’s ship and leaving the Jenny in orbit.”

Qui-gon didn’t object, nor did he begrudge me a ride down to the surface. After all, Jar-Jar was coming along. He did insist on bringing the kid, because of course he would.

Meeting Sheev Palpatine was, to be honest, a total mindfuck. I scanned him, just to be certain he was the same shitheel he’d been in the original timeline… and discovered something… unexpected. This was Sheev Palpatine… but it wasn’t Darth Sidious. It was Jedi Councillor Sidious. And he was most concerned because he’d not heard from his Padawan, the Assassin Maul. Sheev Palpatine and his partner’s Count Dooku and Jedi Councillor Plagueis, were behind this whole mess, with the assistance of others, including General Grievous. But at least looking into his mind confirmed that, no, Yoda and Windu were not, as far as he knew, Jedi or Sith.

I decided not to kill him… yet. Though it was tempting. I could have just stunned him and knocked him off the high, handrail lacking walkway into the chasms of Coruscant far below. Instead, I decided to screw with his plans… and get the Hutts in big trouble at the same time. I requested, as an interested party, to attend the Senatorial hearing.

It went as it had to, of course. That is, until, the Supreme Chancellor showed his weakness. The Queen was just about to call for a Vote of No Confidence, as Sheev was pushing for, when I asked her, quietly, “Might I be allowed to speak. I know I have no standing, so I ask you to call me as an impartial witness.” The Senator and Queen shared a look, then the Queen nodded “Chancellor, If it please the Senate, my associate wishes to present evidence of the invasion.”

There was a general susuris of outrage and protests from both the Trade Federation and the Malastar contingent that no such evidence could exist, but the general outcry supported hearing and seeing my “evidence”.

“The Hutts have long seen the corruption and decadence of your Republic and kept out of it, for your dealings are your own. But to allow one of your member states to invade another without sanction or censure is despicable. On my own authority, having heard of this issue, I have dispatched three of my capital ships to the Naboo system. I present the Senate with the feed from those ships.”

I pulled out a comm unit and plugged it into the Senate Chamber’s main display matrix and the Droid ship in orbit around the planet sprang into view. “I believe that is your ship?” I addressed the Traders, then switched the feed to dozens of surveillance platforms that had been dropped into the atmosphere and were streaming footage from occupied cities and prison camps. “I may be a simple Hutt, but this does not look like a dispute over taxes. This looks like an invasion and illegal occupation.”

The outcry was immediate and profound. “Well?” I asked the Trade Rep. “Will you move your forces of the planet?”

“These are not our forces! We are being framed!” he demanded, disavowing the entire operation.

“Oh. Well then.” I raised my communicator to my lips “COmmander,” I said, addressing Yuzuha who was both flagship and its genius loci. “Open fire.” And weaponry that hadn’t been seen in 4,000 years obliterated the Droid Control Ship. “I’m sure your Viceroy will love to explain why he was acting against your orders. My forces have also apprehended him and his adjunct… and will have obtained a full confession and surrender of all forces under his control by the time he arrives on Coruscant. Thank you,” I said, turning to the Queen, “For allowing me to speak. I believe you were going to say something?”

She blinked, then nodded, and called for a Vote of No Confidence, thereby removing Valorum from power… and sealing Palpatine’s doom, as I’d already suborned the minds of all those he was counting on having the votes of, replacing their instructions with ones to vote for Bail Organa. I’d have to clean up Palpatine personally, as well as his allies, but that was for later.

For now, I had the Magi High Command to speak to. In the confusion, I doubt any of the Senators even noticed I was gone.

The Magi Tabernacle did not look like the Jedi Temple. It was much more ornate and refined, and surrounded by the vast military campus that was the Citadel. No one noticed the Togruta wearing an old fashioned Magi High Commander’s uniform. Why should they, I belonged there, these were my people, my legacy taken across a hundred generations. Even the Keepers of the way to the innermost chambers didn’t so much as notice that they’d never seen me before, merely saluted and let me pass.

The High Command, on the other hand, noticed at once. They were just discussing Anakin’s fate and Yoda was about to refuse because he considered the likelihood that Anakin was not the Balancer but the Unbalancer. I’d removed the kid’s worry about his mother, but that left the child’s innate… rambunctiousness… which did not appeal to the octocentarian’s sense of decorum. He did look excellent in his uniform however, though oddly enough his staff had changed to look like a copy of Cologne’s from Ranma.

“Who are you, and what are you doing here?” Ki Adi Mundi demanded, rising from his seat, the lightbuckler on his arm flashing to light and his hand reaching for the lightlance at his side. It was heartening to see the various adaptations of the technology I’d invented had survived the ages.

“I am the Magi Manifestation. I am called Sant Jara. This child will be trained in the Way of the Force.” I said it in a voice that brooked no dissent. “Mace Windu. I, the founder of this order” and my uniform shifted as I spoke, to that of the Supreme Commander of the Magi and I let myself grow taller and more full of my own glory, “I charge you with his instruction and his care. Teach him what it means to be a Magi.” I knelt before the boy, whose eyes were bugging out, and fixed my gaze upon his. “And you, child, remember my words. Balance, Moderation, Knowledge of Self, Compassion for all others, especially one’s enemies… Acceptance of the Inevitable, Freedom from Greed… these are the watchwords of the Magi. Never take an action you cannot admit to taking, if only to yourself. Understand that having more power than others does not make you their better, nor does skill entitle you to respect. We earn the respect of others through our deeds. We trust our companions… and we always question if prophecy is what must be, or what will happen if we do not turn from our present path. Ultimately, we are who we make ourselves, the sum of all our choices.”

I rose then, looking at them and shook my head “The Sith and Jedi are not gone. They have not forgotten. They are still a threat. The Naboo Crisis is their making and civil war is coming It cannot be stopped… things have gotten too bad. There is too much corruption, too much bureaucracy, too much discord and distrust. You must prepare for it… oh, and berets are to be incorporated into the dress code… you look ridiculous without hats.” Then I vanished from their sight and senses, waiting as they took in what had just happened. The results, near pure anarchy, was frankly hilarious. It had been so long since I’d done something to shake up Magi society but tradition is tradition, after all.

“Was that an Angel?” Anakin asked Mace.

“Worse… that was a God.”

“Why is that worse?”

“Angels can be ignored.”

“Oh.”

A few days later, a Trade Federation suicide bomber assassinated Palpatine and very nearly (but not quite) caught Queen Amidala and Boss Nass in the blast at a formal declaration of peace and liberty for the entire Naboo system. The inclusion of the Gungans was, of course, my… I mean Shujak’s suggestion. That done, I began the process of doing exactly what Palpatine had tried to do in the original timeline… cause a civil war, reorganize the entire Galactic Republic, and eradicate the Jedi threat. Eradicating the Sith too, once I located them. But, for the time being, I had free time.

“Questions?” I asked the droid’s projection.

“I do not… how is any of this possible? I have seen things… you’re sometimes a giant slug, other times a purple and white demon, other times human. You cow monarchs and command ships that can…” He shook his head. “Even this society… so many aliens… and no trace of Earth-That-Was.”

“Once upon a time, you told Malcolm Reynolds that you believed in something greater than yourself. Do you remember?”

“I… yes.” there was a slight tinge of regret in that.

“I am that something greater.”

“You think highly of yourself, don’t you?”

“Little man… I have ruled a nation as old as the sands of Earth-That-Was, a nation that stood the test of millenia and never once had a civil war, never once had a monarch assassinated for madness or corruption or for petty power. I have strode across time and space, visited worlds undreamed of in your philosophy and spoken with gods. I am not the Greatest Good. I make no claim to that, but I am the greatest good you are ever likely to meet.” The tenor of my voice never changed and it was touched with sadness.

“Then why have you brought me with you to this place?”

“You once told Malcolm Reynolds that there was no place for you in the better world you envisioned… and you were right. I have brought you along for the sake of… call it redemption.”

“You think there can be redemption for one such as me?”

“Poor child. You see your litany of sins and think, how can I be forgiven? Surely my sins are greater than those of others, more heinous, especially as you knew every act of evil, every monstrous crime you committed… every last unarmed civilian, and priest, and child you cut down to build your unworthy future… you understood that you were doing evil.”

“I… yes.” His voice was small. “If you are so powerful, such a force for good as you claim… why not strike me down and be done with me?”

“Three reasons, though you won’t like any of them.”

“Tell me anyway.”

“The first is… you are not worthy of such an easy out. Killing you would be too simple, too… nice. Your suffering would end, your guilt be cut short. No. You will serve me in making other worlds better… other worlds you will never, ever, get to live in.”

Droids cannot gulp, or flinch. Those are biological responses. But they can… cringe. He did so. “I… I’m not so certain I want to hear the other reasons.”

“Too late. You ask how I can think you deserving of redemption? It is because you have shown it. Too little too late, perhaps, but you have. You made restitution to Captain Reynolds after the Miranda Incident. You understand your inherent unworthiness. You know yourself to be a monster… but I have bigger monsters than you in my retinue. The girl you knew as Milly betrayed tens of thousands of her own people to end a disastrous war. The one known as Reggy destroyed an entire civilization and murdered tens of millions, all through biological imperative. The one known as Gaius was an Emperor who betrayed so many trusts that even I do not know the scope of all of them. Caine is the biblical Caine, the very first Murderer and has slain countless humans over the ages. Joy and Ahab were Operatives like yourself, ones who did… many questionable things in the service of their ideals. Were I to judge you unworthy, I would also have to judge them unworthy, and they are my friends and boon companions.”

“I… well… that’s terrifying… but I guess it makes sense. And the last reason?”

“I have been a monster myself. I have betrayed those who trusted me. I have murdered children and through inaction allowed monsters to do likewise. I have ended at least two entire civilizations and will do so again. I have fought and slain gods. I have defied the ineffable and flaunted my power in the face of Creation itself. I have held myself to be the supreme arbiter of what is and is not right and just and good… and will do so again. I have committed regicide against monarchs I was sworn to protect and presidents duly elected by the people. I have worked my will on the unwilling, plundered the minds of the innocent, and enforced my own desires upon those who could not have stopped me… I answer to no law but my own. How can I condemn you child, when I have done everything you have done and more, on a grander and more terrible scale?”

He just stared, unable to doubt the words I was saying so calmly.

“That is why I can judge you, oh monstrous one. And that is why I offer you this chance… Oh, and a fourth reason.”

“What is that?”

I shot him with several million volts of Force Lightning, watching him ignite like a roman candle as every circuit fried to ash in an agonizing moment of transcendent pain. Then I waited. I am exceptional patient. I didn’t move for the entire twenty four hours. As soon as he reappeared I opened the way into the Warehouse for him to roll through. He was juddering and twitching violently.

“W… what just… you just… I was… and then.”

“Your death would not end your suffering, Bart.”

“You killed me.”

“I did. And yet, here you are, as if nothing had happened.”

“Th… this is Hell.”

“Oh. Child, Hell is other people. Hell is what you make of it. This… This is Tuesday.”

“I… why do you call me Bart?”

“Inside Joke.”

“Between who and who?”

“Me and Reality. Do you even remember your own name?”

“I… gave it up long ago.”

“Then Bart it is.”

“This is because I’m black, isn’t it.”

“I’ve been black… been asian too. Been a lot of things. People are people. But yes, it’s because you’re Black… and kinda a law man… and handsome… when you’re not a droid. Malcolm Reynolds could be your Sundance!”

“More inside jokes?”

“Once you have a sense of humor, I’ll show you the source material.”

“So… if you don’t mind me asking… why didn’t you use any of these resources back in the… the Verse?”

“Different realities… different limitations. I was… there were special circumstances. My travels are not directed by my choices. There is an entity known as the Banker from whom I draw much of my power… and an entity known as Mensarius who opposes the Banker.”

“God and the Devil?”

“Ahahah… so much more… and I suspect… less, than those terms suggest. To paraphrase the Bard, ‘There are things undreamt of in your philosophy.’ Best leave it at that.”

Things remained at a low simmer for almost a decade as the various factions maneuvered, plotted, schemed, and the Republic steadily Balkanized, egged on in no small part by the ongoing war between the Hutts and the Trade Federation, which was slowly dragging in others. The Republic’s member systems were slowly splitting into Separatists, Loyalists, Reformers, and Hardliners. The Hardliners were those who’d most earnestly supported Sheev, though the Loyalists were nearly as jingoistic, if less Imperially minded. The Reformers were growing more and more vocal every day and the specter of outright civil war could not be ignored. And I’d left Dooku and Grievous alone, allowing them to rally the Separatists, though they hadn’t quite gotten to the point of forming the Confederacy. It looked to be an interesting time… though I’d messed with the Clone Army’s programming because that’s what I do. If anything, I regretted that I wouldn’t be there for the inevitable outbreak, as the Clone War began in 22 BBY, one year after my stay would end.

Except… have I mentioned the Banker is a Bastard? Well… he is. “Why haven’t the Pillars of Time shown up?” I asked, 10 years to the day after the Invasion of Naboo, brushing the sand of Takodana from my thigh as I glowered at the VMoDestiny… the VMoDoom was off to the left and looking somehow smug for an inanimate object.

“Oh. Sorry. Did I not tell you? You’re here until the day Luke and Leah are born.”

“What!!!? You… I… Padme is married to Obi-Wan you great… there… I am not arranging for Padme to have an affair with Mace Windu’s precious little Ani (it was frankly a little creepy how much Mace doted on Anakin, demonstrating far more patience and ability to restrain his charge’s more… impulsive… behaviour.) just for you to get your shits and giggles.”

“Ohhh… fine. You just have to stay until the day they should be born.”

I growled, then sighed “Fine. Three more years. I can cope with that.”

The war was… well, let’s not beat around the bush. Wars on a Galactic scale are not good and I had my hands full manipulating events so that those who resisted reform ended up getting harder hit and those who sought reform had often miraculous victories.

I was kept pretty busy… so busy, in fact, that, two days before the end of the strangely extended jump, I was flabbergasted to feel an overwhelmingly powerful pulse through the Force and across the Galaxy, loyal Clones began turning on Magi. I screamed in rage, even as I located the source of that blast. I teleported to the Senate Chamber just as Jar-Jar mother-raping Binks called for a vote to grant Supreme Chancellor Bail Organa (granted Emergency Powers 2 years earlier) the position of Emperor.

“BINKS! WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?”

“Not Binks.” he sneered. “Darth Cerebris. And Isa brought’n down da bombad Magi Order!” He laughed, it was nothing like Binks’s easygoing attitude and I saw through his veil at that moment.

“Oh. well. Shit.” I couldn’t even blame the Banker for that one. Binks had shielded himself from everyone, from the entire Order, for decades. It seemed he’d just managed to block me entirely by accident. “Well, bully for you… but now, Jar-Jar… Yousa Gonna Die.”

And I blurred into action, drawing my lightsaber and flicking my buckler to life, as well as my plasma shield. I wanted him to think I was relying on my devices… and, powerful as he might have been… smart and cunning as the little bastard was… he fell for it, maneuvering me until he could thrust his saber into my guts. He was damned good… really quite obscenely good actually… and slippery as hell, a true master of both the Jedi / Sith Arts and of drunken boxing. Unfortunately, he wasn’t anticipating that I’d be able to just… stop a lightsaber with my belly button.

I grabbed him in a bearhug “Say goodnight, Binks”. I said, then burst into flame and lightning. The Dark Lord of the Sith, one who’d hidden so well he’d even hidden from me… died, screaming, as the entire Senate watched on in stunned horror. As the ash settled down up them, I looked around the chamber “Now, which one of you fuckers thinks a Galactic Empire is a Good Fucking Idea?”

They were, strangely, silent.

Without Binks pushing them, the CLones rapidly were brought under control of the surviving Magi and those who’d pulled the trigger and actually managed to kill their Magi Leadership, many of whom had been both stunned and forewarned by the Force Pulse, had either turned themselves in or eaten their own blasters. Still, at least a thousand Magi had died on that black day.

Two days later, Luke and Leia were born… I hadn’t even known Padme was pregnant. The birth was, interestingly enough, uneventful.

“Well. That was fun… Not.” I grumbled as the Pillars finally rose. “Where to next?”

“Next? Oh… someplace a little different.” and then the scroll for Episode IV played and I screamed “WHAT GALACTIC EMPIRE YOU COCK-SUCKING PIECE OF JUNK!?”

Next: We Are Altogether

Resources: Build, Document, Force Supplement

If you like what I do, please consider supporting me on Patreon.

World 52: Firefly – Part 6

A TRAITOR’S TALE

Previously: Wintertide on Summerfair

Themesong: The Blazing Saddles Theme from Blazing Saddles

Time is a bitch. It grinds all things down, even hope if you’re not careful about it. I’d been in the Verse for 17 years now, and my hope reserves were very small indeed. I was the Mayoress of a grand estate, a widow these past 3 and a half years, and left most of the day to day operations to Mistress Reynolds (as Inara was calling herself these days.) Zoe and Wash lived in town and Kaylee was foreman of the factory I’d built to turn out microformers, a personal habitat maintenance machine that would and could, depending on the model, do everything from lawn maintenance all the way up to automated farming. My home’s gardens were maintained by 6 of them and were a showpiece of luxury and design… though I also had a landscaper on staff… River was quite good at that.

Her brother was the chief of medicine at our local hospital, Malcolm was the Sheriff, and my little town was becoming more and more a city with each passing year. And yet, for all the hope of the future my people had, I… had none. Adventures had come and gone, come and gone, and yet the fifth and final key fragment had eluded me.

I’d almost had it in year 12, but it had vanished from an archeological dig on Namira, moon of the dwarf planet Ra Amiran in the White Star System… as had all the dig’s workers and professors… and the entire “alien” ruin had scrubbed from the face of creation by a KIW. The pictures I’d received showed Magi influence in the architecture… but even the contact who’d supplied me with the shots had ended up being run down in the street by an out of control horse and buggy less than a fortnight later.

Rumors of it had floated around for a couple of years, and I’d tracked them assiduously, but always fruitlessly. And then… the rumors stopped. Nothing. A cold trail for growing fury. So I’d begun planning for the long term, trying to make my people as safe as I could and just… waiting for the inevitable. I had no idea what would happen if I reached the end of my road here without finding the last fragment, but I figured that, worse come to worst, I could bargain the pieces I had for a hail mary… or a trip home at least. It wasn’t something I was at all thrilled with and my anger and frustration very never completely absent from my thoughts, though I tried not to let it show in the way I treated my people, allies, and friends.

I’ll never know, I suspect, if Mensarius (either through his own power or through the grudging assistance of the Banker) knocked something loose or not, but 17 years to the day we entered the Verse, a flash of data hit the cortex… an Alliance Blacksite just… pinged onto net, appearing with all its particulars… location, security, contents… everything. It was a prize worth taking and… on the list of contents was “Puzzle Cube, White, Glows softly, apparently unsolvable, recovered from alien archeological site on Namira.”

The reason I suspect manipulation was that I just so happened to be dining with Gaius on Highgate, 6th planet of the Blue Star system… and the black site was on the 6th moon of Blue Star’s 4th planet, the Gas Giant Fury… ominously named “Iscariot”. Iscariot wasn’t a populous place, only being home to about 24,000 people, and they were spread out across a number of small, isolated towns. The top secret vault was located 56 kilometers from the smallest of those, a tiny town known as “Ridge Rock”, inside a small rainforest valley with walls too steep to allow the moisture to do more than cycle endlessly.

According to the data dump, not only could we not land in the valley due to heavy cloud cover and the lack of a landing site that wasn’t ringed by anti-air defenses… but the entire valley was ringed by anti-air autocannons to prevent adventurous skydivers. The only way in was, apparently, a small rocky defile that had been used in the construction process some 10 years back.

Of course, I suspected a trap. I’m no idiot and this was too good a windfall to be accidental, but it was, ultimately, too good to pass up.

“This feels bizarre,” Velma commented as we lifted from Highgate. “Like something from another lifetime, like… one last ride for death or glory.”

“That’s because we’ve been undercover for so long,” Ryoga pointed out. “17 years of being… law abiding normals. It… It’s been a vacation, but not the best of one.”

Gaius nodded “A working vacation.”

Yoiko cracked her back and grumbled. “I feel old. I mean… hell… I am old. I’m almost 40!” Gaius rolled his eyes at her, and she just shrugged “I know, I know, you’ve been older, but I really haven’t. Aches and pains are just things old people complain about.

“Or martial artists.” Ryoga added.

“Naw. You have them, you just don’t complain about them. Pain is transitory to you weirdos.”

“Can we not talk about aging? This may be our last chance to get out of here before we… what’s the term? Forced retirement?” Gaius wrinkled his forehead, trying to think of the military lingo.

“Age Out.” Velma supplied.

“Ah. Yes. Before we Age Out. I doubt we’ll be doing any treasure hunting once we get into our 70s.”

Even though I’d been barely paying attention to the conversation, running through the details of landing zone and security setups, I flinched at the idea of being 70… in a human body.

Petra commented over the comms. “Personally, If we’re going to faint, I’d rather go down in the heat of a tourney than slide into the cold of final evolution.” Trust Pokemon to see death as one last unpredictable evolution.

“If I see that happening Rocky, I’ll try mashing B as fast as I can.”

“Good to know boss. Burn in 10. 9. 8…”

Bao’s ship may have been the fanciest, and Zane’s the best for smuggling, but none of them could beat Gaius’s for speed. High Speed transport was his bread and butter and few ships in the verse were faster than Invictus. As it was, we were the second ship to arrive and three more were closing in fast, but they were at least 4 hours back. More worrying was the ship already on the surface. It was a three man alliance pursuit craft, or had been, but this one was painted non-standard black and had no visible markings. It was locked down tight, but from all the signs it had been there for no more than 12 hours.

Fortunately for us, they’d been forced to go into town to get horses. Invictus had 3 high speed loader craft, each capable of bringing two riders. We’d have to leave them at the edge of the pass, but we could make up serious ground on the way.

“Kohina. Petra, Gaius. YOu stay here, protect the ship, be ready to get out in a hurry if it comes down to that. Velma, you ride with Metra on point. Hibiki’s you’re on droge. Caine, with me.”

“This feels wrong,” Gaius said.

“How so?”

“We should be riding horses too. Feels like cheating to ride hover speeders to the edge of the mountains.”

“Fine. Next time we’re trapped without powers we can ride horses.”

“Well, excuse me, princess.”

‘You’re not Link.”

“Who?”

“Never mind.”

Good horses are a wonderful thing, and we actually did have a couple in the warehouse. But the mortal horse, Sorrow, belonged to Joy and it seemed wrong to use her Chala without her around. The Nameless Horses only showed up when Joy and Ahab were around… and Fliagor was an Elven Horse and would be out of place even if I could bring him out, which seemed unlikely.

Regardless, within the hour we’d reached the edge of the mountains and begun the several mile long hike through the maintenance pass. We parked the hovercars next to the grazing steeds of our predecessors… who numbered 8 if the horses were any indication (some of whom had to be natives)… or had. We found the first one dead on a rockfall about a two kilometers in… and a second, also a native (if the leather pants were any indication), and also very dead, shot in the back only about 400 meters further in.

Thankfully, our way forward was pretty smooth, what with these idiots disabling the various security measures… usually with grenades or other percussive maintenance methods, and we’d made up at least 5 hours by the time we reached the edge of the jungle. The valley was only about 30 kilometers long and about 11 wide, and was choked with humidity and dense vegitation. Again, all we had to do was follow the path in. It was all too easy, though I was beginning to suspect our rivals were using the locals as slave labor and felt bad about profiting from their deaths… as we’d found the last three of them by the time we reached the far wall and the cave system the vault was, supposedly, located deep within. Each of them had suffered a mischief and would not be spending any of their promised reward.

This is not to say we’d emerged without a scratch either. Yoiko had been stung by several nasty wasps and Velma had been bitten by a snake… but our med station inside the warehouse still worked and they were back to fighting trim in minutes.

The cave mouth was mostly covered by lianas, but a path through had been hacked with machetes and That’s where we found the remaining trio… laying in wait. They opened fire as Caine stepped through the gap, his local armor doing little to stop the laser weaponry from punching through him. He went down hard, gasping in agony and cursing like a heretic about how Uriel’s curse had left him soft against pain.

The siblings shared a glance at each other, both of them having caught several blasts as well and looking pretty bad… and (as one) lobbed a pair of concussion grenades into the cave, followed by a smoke grenade and a sonic grenade a heartbeat later. The booms shook the trees behind us and the lainas were blasted to ruins by the shockwave. I tossed out a hover drone with heat scan to peer inside the cave, but all was stone cold or rapidly fading to it, besides the large warm slab of a metal vault door. They must be inside, using it to shield themselves.

“You can’t get out. THis is the only exit.” I shouted as Velma dragged Caine back into the warehouse while the siblings limped inside as well. It was just me and Meetra now.

“Yeah, well you can’t get in, whore.” I knew that voice. It was the voice of Kapashin Gol, the asshole who’d nearly killed Meetra a decade earlier, an unethical, morally bankrupt mercenary and treasure seeker. We’d tussled at least a dozen times over the last 17 years, though we’d never really talked. He seemed to have the worst habit of screwing me out of various prizes. Well, not this time.

“Gol… I’m only here for one thing. You can have the rest. Just toss out the puzzle cube and We’ll let you leave.”

“No chance bitch. This is payback.”

“Payback? For what? You’ve snaked prize after prize from my grasp… more than I’ve managed to do to you.”

“For my Mother, you piece of shit Browncoat Traitor.”

“Pretty sure I have no fucking clue what you’re on about, mate.”

“She was captain of one of the Alliance Destroyers you sicced those Reavers on.”

“Oh. Well, then she had it coming. Not going to appologize for that. Alliance caused the Reavers, it was their responsibility to clean them up.”

“Not in a god cursed Ambush!”

“Without that Ambush, the Alliance would have gone on pretending the Reavers didn’t exist for another damned decade at least. Killing colonies and raping and eating their way across the Verse. Someone had to do something. I did. But that’s not why you’re here. You want revenge, fine. I don’t care. I’m getting into that vault if I have to pack this cave with nukes and blow the whole mountain to smitherines. I’m not fucking around here.”

“Can’t do that! The cube’ll be toast if you do.”

“Cube wouldn’t even be scratched. You’ve got twenty seconds to decide.”

“You’re bluffing!”

“Gol. I have been looking for that cube for 17 god damned years. I’ve lost friends and family and loved ones. You’ve got 15 god damned seconds to get out of my way or I’ll show you just how little patience I’ve got left. Ecology, fallout, repercussions be damned. I’m getting that cube, today.”

“You promise we can have the contents of the vault if we hand over the cube?”

“Yes! Gods curse your eyes.”

“Well, we got a problem then.”

“What’s that?” I ground my teeth.

“Cube’s locked in a deadlock. Can’t be opened unless someone goes in and presses a button. Can’t get them out as long as the cube’s not put back in. Pretty sure the box is a death trap and I’m not sending one of mine inside… and sure as shit not betting you’ll come in and volunteer.”

I grimaced… then looked to Meetra and sighed “You owe me your life. I’m calling in the debt. I don’t know as this will kill you. Don’t know what will happen if you die here. But if we’re ever going to get out of this…” I felt like scum. Sacrificing someone for a chance at victory… but if anyone would understand, it would be Meetra Surik, “Hero” of the Mandalorian War.

She looked to me, then nodded “It had to end this way, didn’t it?” I considered, then nodded. “Have faith. Maybe it’ll all turn out okay. She vanished into the cave and I commented “Gol! She’s not your hostage. You’re mine. I don’t care if any of you survive at this point. I want that cube.”

It was cold… colder than I’d ever been and I had to sell it with every ounce of my being… A task I found all too easy. I felt a crack of something inside me… a tiny trace of… something alien… but it faded without anything happening and a minute later, the cube came bouncing out of the cave entrance. I bent down to scoop it up, brushing some of the dirt off it and was only mildly surprised when The Operative and 50 Alliance commandos stepped out of the foliage as if they’d been waiting there the entire time.

The Operative nodded to me as I nodded to him. “We knew you’d come for it. Knew you’d be able to explain it.” I considered.

“You could have asked, Bart”

“Bart?”

“Sheriff round these parts. Never mind. Go on.”

“We couldn’t trust you. You knew too much.”

“I do. You’re right. I’ve had motives beyond your knowledge from day one. You want to see what’s inside? See what the big secret is?”

He nodded slowly. “I do. Those in power had to resort to… extreme methods to convince me… but the evidence is compelling. You’re not human. You’re something alien. No one knows as much as you do… has contacts like you… is as good at so many things.”

I held out the cube. “Take it.”

“It’s not open yet.”

“You don’t want me opening it. I’ll tell you how to open it. Safer that way.”

He thought about that, then stepped forward, extending a hand to take the cube from my hand. I didn’t hold my breath, didn’t twitch, didn’t even blink too hard. He was expecting something to happen the moment he touched it. He was seconds too late. The moment he was within a circle 3 meters from me, the ground opened up beneath my feet… and then his, and we were inside the warehouse, the sound of gunfire cutting off as the ground sealed back up above / behind us. The punch Caine leveled at The Operative sent him spinning into a rack of gold bars and he could only blink as a dozen robomaids pinned him down. I didn’t spare him another glance.

“MENSARIUS!” I bellowed as I stood under the portal. “I’ve got your gods be fucked key! All of it this time!”

“Ah… Very good. Send it through.”

“Not a fucking chance in hell.”

“That wasn’t our deal.”

“You can’t be trusted to honor our deal.”

“Then we’re at an impasse.”

“No, we’re not. You release the Banker and I’ll hand over the key.”

“You can’t be trusted to honor that agreement. Nor can your banker.”

“Then we’re at an impasse.”

“Very well. I’ll send you a crate. Load the Key Fragments into the crate and lock it. Once I witness this action, I will release the Banker, then you can send the crate up to me.”

“What’s special about this crate?”

“Once it is sealed, it can only be opened by me.”

I considered. I’d seen no evidence he could call items sent through back to his side. If he could, he could probably take the fragments. “Alright. Send the crate.”

It arrived much as Mensarius’s VMoDoom had, but less destructively, being lowered on a rope like a cargo crate from a ship. It was a metallic box, big enough for the statue, and had a button clearly marked “SEAL”.

I loaded the statue and the knife and the rose and the cube, then considered the final piece, the one I’d never seen… then I grabbed the dufflebag from my Infamous jump, from long long ago, and zipped the thing into it.

“What are you doing?” Mensarius asked, annoyed.

“This is a CP backed container. Every part of it is bound by the Banker’s essence.” I tossed it into the crate. “I just wanted to make sure they didn’t decide to fuse into a single object on me.”

“Good. Fine. Whatever.” He sounded… frustrated. “Now close the crate and seal it.”

I closed it, and was about to press the button, then shook my head again “Naw.”

“Naw? NAW?! WHAT THE HELLFIRE DO YOU MEAN NAW!?”

“I think this is a positive action thing. If I do this… it’s allowing you to dictate something about me. It’s letting you inside me just a little. No. Send a space rock or something to lock it. I am not touching that button.” And then I summoned up chains to bind the crate to the warehouse floor. “Need me to get you a really long stick?”

His growl of frustrated anger was perfect. I had no idea if it was any such thing, but annoying Mensarius was definately worth it. A brick fell from the void and would have hit the button but I smacked it away with a broom handle.

“Opps”

“Now you’re just being a brat.”

“Total accident. Go on, do it again. I won’t stop it this time.” Of course I did.

“This is counter productive! You’re just wasting time now!”

“Awww… am I annoying the Quantum Entity? Poor Quantum Entity! Try a third time. I can’t possibly be-” He tried at that moment, but I swatted it away again. “This childish.” I finished as if I hadn’t been interrupted.

Bricks of non-antimatter… which had to be extremely taxing for Mensarius to make if his growing howls of rage were any indication… rained from the hole in my roof for the next three minutes. I finally missed one around the 120 mark and the crate clicked closed.

A moment later, the VMoDestiny pinged on and the Banker’s voice said, somewhat annoyed “Took you long enough. Fine… take your stupid key.” I released the chains and allowed the rope to retract the crate through the hole in the roof.

“I can’t believe you let yourself be… detained.” I accused.

“Call it a staff meeting. I can’t believe you took advantage like that! And you handed over the key without even knowing what it did!”

“No I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did! I saw you do it!”

“Mensarius can’t read my mind like you can.”

“So?”

“So that means he couldn’t see inside my head and had to be using actual senses.”

“You didn’t…”

I chuckled, pulling the haversack out of my pocket. “I put the last item inside the dufflebag to see if he could see through the bag itself. I figured it might block his senses. What he didn’t realize was the haversack was inside it already and I simply shrunk that into this subspace ring as I pulled my hand back out.”

“Oh… you… wicked… wicked creature.”

“Yeah, well… you’re welcome. Now give me back my friends and GET US THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!”

Next: World 51 Resumed

Resources: Build, Document

World 52: Firefly – Part 5

WINTERTIDE ON SUMMERFAIR

Previously: The White Ride

Themesong: Can’t Hold Us by Macklemore and Ryan

“You want us to do what?” Wash said, eyes (both cybernetic and natural) wide with disbelief.

Mal was a little more sanguine. “I appreciate as you’ve helped us out a time or two-”

Kaylee interrupted him with a dry and amused, “hundred.”

Mal glowered but continued, “Or more. I’ll acknowledge that. And we could use the cash, but this job is insanity.”

“Oh. It absolutely is. Seven bank jobs in seven days is madness of the highest order… which is why I can’t imagine taking anyone else with me on the run.” It wasn’t quite true. Serenity’s crew was my third choice, but my first choices were… well… not functioning too well. We’d been in the Verse for eight and a little under a half years, and had lost more companions than was at all happy making.

Meetra had been badly injured in an accident in an industrial plant where we’d received information about a potential key fragment. It had been a hoax, but that hadn’t stopped a rival group of treasure hunters led by one Kapashin Gol from rigging up booby traps that had brought down the entire facility as Meetra and I’d raced to escape it.

After Francine’s death in action, AJ’d gotten progressively more moody and had slipped into a “smooth” habit without any of us noticing until it had gotten bad enough to affect his flying. The street drug was a system suppressant often prescribed to sufferers of emotional trauma, but in larger doses it just left the patient numb.

Joy had been detained by the Alliance as far as we could tell, apparently captured breaking into and then out of a secure black book site. We had no idea if she was alive or not nor where she was, and even The Operative hadn’t been able to help us with that. It, like all the other setbacks and failures in this world, bothered me daily.

But worst of all was the loss, with all hands, of Bao’s ship. As best as the Alliance had been able to determine, it had been the work of a Sino-phobic Anglo-sphere-Firsters calling themselves the Occidental Liberation Directorate. OLD had certainly claimed responsibility for the act, which had killed not only my friends but a member of the Alliance Council and family that had been travelling aboard the ship and which were the primary targets.

I’d sent Caine and Kagetane to bring me the person who’d ordered the attack and what I’d done to that woman I scarcely desire to commit to memory, let alone to posterity, but rest assured she saw the error of her ways… as did many of her compatriots… sing praises for enemies too stupid to understand the concept of cell-network-organization… but it didn’t bring back Franky or Mini or Tokimi or Yuzuha or Uriel or Bao.

Mensarius had only laughed when I’d demanded to know where they were… Someday, somehow… we were going to settle accounts. I wasn’t sure how… but deep inside my soul, someplace I hoped he couldn’t peer, I inscribed his name on a steele of purest, blackest hate. It was the first such name since I’d left my Earth of Origin all those ages past, and the level of rage I felt against this cosmic being vastly exceeded the anger I’d felt as an injured child wronged by a member of frail humanity.

Which is why I’d come to the Serenity crew. I had one working ship’s crew left and, so far, I was pretty certain no one had clue one that Gaius’s team and I were connected and their reputation was as close to squeaky clean as it was possible to be in the Verse without obviously being a cover. They’d had adventures of their own, as I understood it, but the amount of times we’d managed to covertly meet up over our stay had been relatively short. I’d booked passage a couple of times, but not enough to make it seem like anything more than a casual thing… of course, I’d tried to do the same thing with the others as well, but that hadn’t protected them. I was really beginning to hate the Verse… which is a shame, because I loved the people in it… or at least a select few of them.

It had pioneering spirit and vivacity… but such obscene levels of cruelty and disdain for the value of human life, something that I, as an immortal, treasured all the more deeply than these faint mortals. Of course, dwelling on mortality wouldn’t do anything to solve the problem, and so I laid out the mission for Serenity’s bridge crew.

“The client’s name is Colby Teef. He’s a bit of a computer genius and not the sharpest tack in the carpet when it comes to understanding people. The target is an HMO… a Health and Wellness trust called Ofsted Care Providers. They are approximately 60% less trustworthy than the name implies. Colby built them a complex piece of tracking software for their revolutionary new ‘Eterna System Wellness Monitoring and Notification system’. It was marketed as a set of implanted biochips which would constantly monitor your biometrics and send you updates via cortex link and yeah, I can tell by your faces that you’re already seeing the downside. Ofsted could monitor everything those with the implants did. Everything. Location, heartbeat, who they were with and their emotional state.”

“Blackmail.” Zoe said, matter of fact.

I nodded “Blackmail. On a planetwide basis. Politicians, private citizens, a list a few thousand entries long.”

“How did you come to know that? Mr Teeth tell you that?” Mal asked, with a little more snark than was exactly warranted.

“Teef. Not Teeth.” I stressed the pronunciation. “And yes. He may be a bit naive, but like most compuwizzes, he’s a bit paranoid and he built a backdoor into their system.”

“So why doesn’t he use this backdoor to just wipe the system… that’s a thing they can do isn’t it? Tell her that’s a thing they can do, hon.” Wash elbowed Zoe who smiled fondly at him.

“I think she’s going to tell us why Mr. Teef can’t do just that thing. Now shush.”

“Ofsted, it turns out, is paranoid too. Understanding that they’ve got a lot of people who might be mad at them if they ever find out the exact nature of the scam and how their blackmailers are getting their information… well… Ofsted has backups. 7 of them. In 7 different banks across the moon.”

“I note you haven’t as told us which moon this might be,” Mal commented, sounding a bit suspicious.

“I… yes, well… That might be a sore spot for you… seeing as how it’s Summerfair.” Zoe and Mal both winced at that, but Wash looked a bit confused. “Summerfair is Shadow’s moon.” I flicked my eyes to Mal and Wash got it. Shadow had been Malcolm Reynold’s homeworld… and had been rendered effectively uninhabitable by the Alliance during the Unification War… millions had died. Shadow was the Alliance’s Alderan, though the planet was still there, a constant reminder of the price of rebellion against the central government.

“Seven banks, seven backups.” I continued. “Ofsted randomly picks three of them each week for data backup, but those drives also contain a copy of the kernel, the central program that governs the entire system. They are the only copies of the kernel and they’re the reason Colby can’t just use his backdoor to shut down the entire thing for good… and the 7 days is how long we have to get all 7 and verifiably destroy them before Ofsted notices any of them are missing.”

“Won’t they notice when the banks start reporting break-ins?”

“They would… which is why we’re doing this on Wintertide.”

“What’s Wintertide?”

“Local holiday. Near every business is shut down for a week… especially-”

“Banks.” Mal finished. “So we help out a bunch of people with secrets to hide and take down a corrupt health company… but we’re not a charity. What do we get out of it… and don’t say the take from the banks, cause I’m not in for robbing no one of their life savings, save perhaps those who’ve crossed me. Tends to make people a might techy when you do.”

“There’s a fund. Colby’s managed to contact a number of the victims and offered them a permanent solution to their situation… which is why the drives must be destroyed in a verifiable way. The payoff is 100,000 platinum.”

There was a faint whistle from Zoe and Wash whooped. He actually whooped. “Captain, we could use the scratch.” I chuckled “It’s a little more than scratch… it’s practically dosh.” I didn’t mention that shutting down Ofsted’s system would also lower the security on their private vault which, according to Colby, contained a glowing crystal rose that made anyone who looked upon it feel strangely nostalgic but very calm. That was my price and prize.

Mal just shook his head “Closed or not, how are we going to crack seven high security vaults in…” he checked his watch… “11 days, 16 hours and change?”

11 Days, 15 Hours Later

“Oh, that’s how.”

… No, just kidding.

The plan was relative simplicity. The banks were targeted in descending order of apparent difficulty and each with its own technique. It helped that the banks were not a single chain, but rather 5 different corporate entities, and only 3 belonged to the same banking combine. The banks were, in order, Bywater Savings and Loan, Southhampton Community Credit Union, Avon National Trust, Leeds of Basingstoke, Leeds of Oxnard, Leeds of Kent, and First Bank of Coventry.

While Avon National’s alarm system was getting a Boy Who Cried Wolf, Southampton’s sewer system was getting a Cherry Bomb, and Bywater’s vault was getting a Reverse Great Escape. The Leeds branches would get a Softwall System Scrambler, and Coventry would get a good old fashioned One Two Punch. Or… that was the plan at least.

It all started with Bywater, which was unable to use tremor sensors because Bywater was a mining community and used an inordinate amount of explosives and ground shaking heavy machinery. Since the mine was shut down for the holiday, they didn’t even notice when Jayne and Meetra breezed in and borrowed a heavy mining laser. Normally, powering it would be a hassle, but I’d stockpiled all manner of useful things in my years in the Verse and I had discovered that, as long as the power cables were local, I could pump nearly limitless electrons out of my Warehouse… and I had a couple of starships to generate power. A little tinkering and the mining laser ate through the bedrock under the bank’s vault chamber in only a couple of hours. It could have been faster… but not without causing something at street level to blow up. Thermodynamics can’t be ignored… normally.

Cutting through the vault itself took only a little longer, once the vault’s anti-laser coating had been scoured away with a hand built interlaced-diamond-bladed surface scourer. The vault was… steamy, but too bad, and with Caine there to hack the local constabulary’s link to the bank we were able to get in and get out with the backup drive before the day’s festivities even got well and truly started. Shame we couldn’t stay for the fireworks.

Southampton, which was on the south side of the Hampton river, had a weir along the riverside, as well as built up retaining wall reinforcing the relatively soft soil the town was built on and keeping heavy structures like the Bank from sliding into the river. It also meant that the town was constantly in danger of flooding… especially if the weir failed or the wall cracked… and that the town’s sewer system was constantly having issues with backing up. A phone tap to the bank manager’s home allowed us to know when the local constable called to report that water was leaking out from under the front door of the bank, thanks to our tampering with the flow regulators, backing up the river into the building’s toilets. Sanitary it wasn’t.

“Hello… Hello? This is Dick Darling… I… I know it’s Wintertide, but… I’m the manager of Southampton Credit and-”

“Yes Mr Darling, I know who you are. My sister has her account with you. Laura Greentree?” I was using my most placid and non-descript voice, and though it didn’t sound much like Gretchen Greentree (who did indeed have a sister named Laura who had an account at SCU and did indeed work at one of the larger plumbing groups in the city as a receptionist) it was close enough for a worried banker distracted by an emergency on a holiday. “How can I help you?”

“I… I have you down as a twenty-four hour emergency plumbing contact? Do… Do you have someone you can send over… maybe a couple of someones? I think the bank is flooding.”

“You think?” I tried to sound confused.

“I… Constable Morris just called and said water is coming out from under the door. I’m driving over there right now. How soon can you have someone over there? I’ll pay your holiday hours… At least 4 hours of your time, even if it’s nothing.”

“It’s a 50 platinum service charge for Holiday emergency, plus a team of 4 at 11 platinum per person per hour at time and a half… plus parts… and if there’s-”

“Yes, yes… anything. How long?”

“I’ve already scrambled our team, Mr Darling. They’ll be there in 13 minutes if traffic allows. Don’t go in the building until my team gets there, you don’t want to get anything on you if it’s a sewage backup.”

“Oh god… Could it be?”

“There is the possibility sir.”

“We just had new carpet put in last month!”

“Sorry to hear it. And sorry this had to ruin your holiday.” I actually was. Dick Darling hadn’t done anything to me and everything I could find said he was well respected and genuinely liked in the community. But his bank had damned good security, including auto-targeting gauss stunners and sonic disruptors… all of which he’d have to disable to let us into the bank. The only question was would he summon security. We’d prepared for the event if he had, but we didn’t think it was likely.

As it turns out, he didn’t think of it or didn’t expect anything because he was pacing back and forth in front of his building, freaking out and pulling at his hair. We’d left Jayne behind and had River (who was doing much better, thank you), Metra, Mal, and Zoe as the team, all in the most nondescript outfit available… coveralls and hoods against the winter chill. As the team pulled up, I walked down the street strutting my stuff and acting very drunk… it was Wintertide after all. I nearly bumped into Mal, wobbled, and stumbled sideways, falling against Mr. Darling, who, dear man that he is, caught me and steadied me, never noticing the pressure hypo River pressed against the side of his neck at the same time.

The drug would heighten his stress level and making forming memories of this whole event difficult… and it pretty much guaranteed he’d faint once he saw the the state of his bank… and be free with his secrets as long as he felt safe.

Thirty minutes later, the vault had been opened, pilfered of the contents of exactly one deposit box, the evidence cleaned up, the actual professions called, and the carpet confirmed a dead loss. I dispatched the others and administered the antidote just as the actual repair men (who assumed I was the Bank Manager’s assistant) were finishing up… it was a relatively easy fix and loose ends are bad. Even the real Gretchen Greentree had had a copy of the original call played for her. Only the time stamp existed as discrepancy, but a tampering with the cortex records fixed that. It was as if the entire switch off had never happened… unless someone checked the street cameras and saw one van arrive then leave and a second identical one arrive a few minutes later.

Day three saw us in Avon, watching feeds from the security company who’d been forced to assume someone was going to hit the bank since the alarm had been going off seemingly at random for 5 days straight, once every 4-17 minutes. The guards were miserable, as it was exceptionally cold out, and the job was utter bullshit… and they’d turned off the alarm system… which had, no doubt, been driving them nuts… of course, nuts was exactly what was triggering the entire system, as the entire thing was rigged to a recording of Ziggy playing with a stuffed acorn covered with chewy contact pads. Incidentally, each time the alarm triggered, it also triggered a machine in the warehouse which fired compressed fecal matter wrapped in layers of wet toilet paper with a core of high explosives through the rift to Mensarius.

Getting into the bank past the guards wasn’t particularly challenging, as the wall between the Avon National Trust Building and the leather goods shop next to it was nothing more than brick and mortar. From there it was simply a matter of sending Kaylee and Caine to speak to the vault and the drive was ours. Three down, four to go.

The security on the Leeds bank branches was good, I’ll give them that… but their VP of operations was an idiot and his password was… Password8*. His password got us into the system and we literally walked in the doors of all three banks armed with all the correct codes (codes created by the VP’s master user account and programmed to erase themselves 5 hours after they were created with no record of their existence). The vaults would show a timestamp for their opening of course, but nothing more than that, as even the CCTV cameras inside the buildings had been disabled by the codes.

Which brings us to First Bank of Coventry… which was a brick. Our initial plan had been to tunnel in as well, using the borrowed laser, but Coventry was built on shale and the building’s substructure was made of reinforced concrete and steel… with tremor sensors. Our second plan had been infiltration and safe-cracking… but the bank used a three key card system with full body biometrics to override the time lock. So we’d settled on using One Two punch, i.e. setting off a very large distraction for the LEOs while using explosives to bust through the vault’s back wall.

To that end, we decided to use stinkbombs at the local churches… 5 of them. Not bad enough to hurt anyone, but it would ruin their evening. We also rigged the traffic control network to go down 12 minutes after the bombs went off. 3 minutes later still, we blew the back of the bank… and discovered that it was tougher than we’d counted on… a lot tougher.

“Shit!” yelled Jayne, while Wash expressed himself more colorfully in pidgin chinese. I just stared at the meter thick armorplast and groaned. We could use more explosives, but they’d either destroy the vault or… I looked around, having remembered seeing something in the planning phase and laughed. Grabbing Wash, I yelled “Get back… waaay back.” then hauled him down the street with me.

“Where are we going?” He asked, faintly amused.

I pointed down the block… to the Coventry Arsenal and Museum… where, in the front yard, in pride of place… was a decommissioned Unification War Battle Tank. “The One Two Punch has just become a good old-fashioned Smash and Grab.” Wash blinked, then grinned.

Watching Armor Corroding rounds (brought out of my Warehouse of course, but absolutely based on local nanite technology) punch into the vault’s armor and then… melt it… was hilarious. Driving a Tank away from the scene of the crime as every LEO in 3 counties followed behind us was more so. Explaining how we’d gotten out of the tank and into a spacious extra-dimensional Warehouse to a very confused Wash was even more fun. As I understand it, the tank eventually crashed into a ravine once the remote control link failed, but we’d been out of the war machine for about 40 minutes by that point.

The rest was a cakewalk. After sending out a blanket email explaining to everyone what they’d done and how, Ofsted’s computers went down and wouldn’t be coming back up any time soon. Their vault was cleaned out to the bone, with much of the recovered funds going to pay back those whose blackmail was of a personal nature, and the rest to the legal fees of the victims of those whose blackmail was of a violation of public trust nature. All the medical records Ofsted had were mass mailed to their respective owners and all physical evidence in the vault was tossed into a bonfire to celebrate the end of Wintertide.

As for me… I spent 3 hours staring at that crystal rose but never felt more than just… angry. I sighed, sealed it up in my sanctum, and returned to my husband’s estates, feeling miserable and frustrated and hoping I could keep it bottled up without exploding at my friends for a few more years. Hopefully this would all come to a close soon.

Next: A Traitor’s Tale

Resources: Build, Document

World 52: Firefly – Part 4

THE WHITE RIDE

Previously: Holmesworld Bound

Themesong: The Mighty Quinn by Manfred Mann

The speakers of Zane’s ship “The Jade Lotus” blared with the sounds of the Earth-That-Was tune about a powerful Eskimo, pumped at maximum volume through the cargo bay… and still it did nothing to drown out the howl of the blizzard just outside.

I signed “why are we trying to kill our ear drums with this noise.” to which Zane sang “Come on without, Come on Within, you ain’t see nothing like the mighty oooof-” he grinned at me and turned the music down as AJ battled the tempest. This job had been two months in the planning and turned almost entirely on AJ’s ability to hold the Lotus still long enough to provide wind cover for our team outside. Zane and I were inside, carefully guiding the operation and ready, once the pylons were sunk into the pack ice beneath us, to trigger the winches and laser cutters. Of course, that’s when the biggest gust yet picked up a chunk of ice the size of something once known as a Buick and smashed it into the hull… the Lotus jerked and I fell, gasping, into the white void, the gale snatching at my limbs and tossing me like a ragdoll… but maybe I should go back to the beginning.

Two Months Earlier

“I swear. I seen the thing with my own eyes!”

“Yeah, right Weiss. If what you’re saying about this base is true, how is it that you got out before they managed to move it off planet?”

“It was embedded in the rockface still when I had my accident… that’s what caused the accident, I tell yah. I hit it with my jack and the whole thing just fell apart like every nut and bolt was cracked in half instantly.  Twernt natural it were.”

“And then, the Alliance just sent you off knowing what you know?”

“No. No. See, I was hurt bad… the jack blade shot backward like it were one of them cat-snakes what’d bitten into an livewire… cept of course, it was made of solid metal and hit me in the chest… and went clean through. Shoulda killed me… Alliance medboy couldn’t figure out why as I was still livin and all… so, since the shipment were goin’ out in a couplea days, they stuck me on to get some scans and sciency stuff.  Landtrain runs from Kodiak alla way to Whiteout… pole to pole or near nuff, ain’t no one who ain’t a mucky mucky in the liance got clue one exactly where Kodiak is, ceptin somewhere under the packice and down deep enough to make yer ears pop on the trip back up.”

I grunted, nodding. “So why aren’t you in an Alliance hospital being pocked and prodded, Weiss?”

“See, that’s the thing. Durring the trip, I… got this… I dunno… feeling, a second sense if you reckon, that I wasn’t safe stickin round. So I convinced, as it were, the doc that I needed to stretch my legs a bit.  I could walk even with the hole… just hard to catch my breath’n all… and he, seein’ as how I was all injured and stuff, let me do so without a guard…. Cause, you know, where was I gonna go on a Landtrain in the middle of no-where inna blizzard, see?” I nodded again, pushing the plate of greasy fries towards the moron with the information I needed and tried to be patient. “Then I jimmied open one of the outer doors and hid myself nearby when they came to look. Thought I’d gotten myself kilt… but I ain’t that stupid. Momma di’nt raise no idjit. Once the train pulled into Whiteout, I snuck off and stowed away aboard the first ship I could find… and that’s how I met yer man here.” He crooked a thumb at Zane who growled menacingly.

“He means that the crew of the ship he stowed away were less than pleased after catching him sneaking off their ship at Calico and chased him right into our midst, forcing us to defend ourselves.”

“Aye, and right preciative I am, Capin.”

I rolled my eyes. “And you’ve been Zane’s guest for almost 6 weeks now.”

“Yes Mistress.”

“But you didn’t mention this object until today because…?”

“Oh. Well, I did, kinda… that’s why Zane… the Capin… why he let me stay… cause I said as I had some information as might be worth it to someone as collected information… I jus din’t specificy zactly what kind of information… and now you’s as being here and you’s payin’ enough for me to vanish-”

“If the information pans out and your details match… you’ll get your money.”

“Money’s nice… but you could be plannin on dumpin’ me in the black, or turnin’ me over to the Liance for t’bounty.”

“Do you know who you’re dealing with, Weiss?”

“Yer Senet. The Gamesmaster. Things don’t happen without your say so.”

“And do I have a reputation for screwing people who help me, Weiss?” I put bite into his name and he flinched.

“Didn’t mean noffin, Mistress.”

“Good. Now walk me through this again, from the beginning. Slowly. Leave nothing out.”

Weiss was a miner, a rockhound, and had been hired by the Alliance to work in their not particularly secret mining city of Kodiak. The reason Kodiak wasn’t secret was it didn’t need to be. The entire town was located under the polar ice cap on Denali, the moon of the planet Glacier, and served essentially one purpose. Kodiak was a mine, as one might imagine, one that pulled ytterbium and iridium out of a deep impact site a few million years old. Both were vital to the Alliance’s weapons developement and production system, and Kodiak was the largest source for both in the Verse.

Unfortunately for the Alliance, Kodiak, and all of Denali really, were terrible places to try and extract anything.  All the settlements on Denali were either in the mountains, whose high crags minimized the impact of the hurricane-like blizzards that routinely scoured the surface, or under massive ice domes. The sole exception to this was Whiteout. The site of the only spaceport on the planet, Whiteout was located at the southern pole, half-way round the world from Kodiak, and built atop a high plateau that kept it mostly free of the near endless storm cycle. Whiteout had a functional magnetic field and was, by all accounts, a nice enough place, frequented by ice-miners, winter sports enthusiasts, and crazy people… I mean mountaineers looking for challenges. Denali itself was tilted over on its side with regards to Glacier, the northern pole, the one Kodiak was under, pointed right at the parent planet and tidally locked there, the gravity of the primary pulling the ice mountains at the pole higher and higher with each passing year… and of course, where there’s a mountain, there’s a madman willing to risk his or her life to climb it.

What this all meant is that, in order for the Alliance to get its precious metals off planet, they had to truck stuff all the way down to the south pole… across mountains, shifting ice packs, and snow drifts deep enough to drop a battlecruiser… point first. And since the metals were precious, they had to be protected every step of the way… which meant that there were a dozen potential routes, each of them classified, and no one knew which the base commander would use.

The mine’s output was impressive, but the weather and hardship involved meant that the base only sent out a load once every 180 days, transported in a landtrain, a massive hovering battlewagon hauling 7 equally massive cargo cars and a trio of passenger cars / cabooses… each outfitted with defensive weaponry sufficient to hold off a regiment of Browncoats. And the whole thing could cover 240 kilometers in an hour.

The base at the Whiteout end was a heavily armed military camp. Taking the prize, which was, apparently, at least three times the size of a human being, would not be as easy as driving a truck in and sneaking it out. It would be under heavy guard until it was extracted and sent off to who knows where. If I wanted it, I’d have to take it off the train.

Which is where planning came in. Each of the routes was maintained by a different engineering group, to limit the number of people who knew about them. Each of those engineering groups had had to be subverted, either through blackmail, the pleasures of the flesh, the debts of gambling, or just getting one of our creepifying government assassins near enough. After that it was a matter of damaging in apparently natural ways, 7 of them so badly that they couldn’t be used. This was a statistical outlier, but apparently each route, all of which wound through protected canyons, sub-ice tunnels, and mountain passes, had approximately a 40% chance of being unusable during any given season. And even if the commander got suspicious, he would have essentially no choice but to send the transport anyway, since its return trip would bring supplies badly needed for the 80,000 miners and support crew and families in Kodiak.

A moonquake wiped out three of them, avalanches another two, and a sudden liquefaction event took out the sixth. The seventh had been sabotaged from within by its own engineer who owed some very bad people a very large amount of money and was willing to do pretty much anything to square his account, including committing suicide in order to leave his family the business debt free. It was a menchey kind of thing to do, even if he was otherwise a scumbag. That left five routes, three of them clustered relatively closely together, the other two roughly 1/3rd of the way around the moon from each other and the triplet. They were all chosen for specific reasons and each of them had a structural weakness that could be exploited… which brings us back to the moment and explains what we were doing hovering over a patch of ice in the middle of a blizzard. We were exploiting a weakness.

The weakness in question in all cases, was a place where an ice tunnel and a mountain tunnel linked up. Each of those locations had a Prager and Lang field stabilizer, which minimized vibrations in the rock to keep the ice around the tunnel merger from liquefying from the vibrations caused by the passage of the Landtrain.  It wasn’t a huge problem, as under normal usage there would only be a small amount of slippage with each usage… but over time it could lead to a catastrophic failure, and the nature of the beast was that such a failure would happen just as the train was coming through the rock tunnel, far too fast to stop as the ice tunnel shattered like glass and rained a few megatons of glacier and meltwater down on the speeding conveyance.

Now, we had no intention of making the failure that bad… we wanted to disable the Landtrain… not bury it or destroy it. And so we were retuning each of the field stabilizers… but that meant cutting through the roughly 12 to 16 meters of ice covering the damned things, hoisting the massive blocks of ice up, getting into the gap and changing the settings… then slotting the ice back in place as smooth as can be.  In theory. It had gone swimmingly the first three times, but they were in relatively shielded locations. The fourth was both exposed and, most annoying, the blizzardcaine we were certain would swing south had swung north and hit us halfway through the process… which is why I was now falling out of a cargo bay.

Zane grabbed my arm, his free hand grabbing at the hanging cable. The jerk of contact wasn’t too bad, but the downward force of the fall transferred into sideways motion, and I swung, facefirst, into the edge of the hatch. Dazed, I clung to Zane’s arm as we slid, helplessly, down the anchor cable, slowed only by the burn of Zane’s glove-covered grip.  We hit hard, inches from where Kagetane was manning the laser cutter under Francy’s sensor guidance.

“Hey boss, nice of you to drop in.” he said with a snarky chuckle. I could only groan. Thankfully, I was wearing all the padding in the known universe, since it was approximately all the degrees below freezing out there, but my goggles were cracked and my nose felt decidedly bruised, as did my ass and ego. Zane’s hand had to be hurting as well, and his ankle had definitely snapped in the landing. And to make matters worse, AJ’s voice announced “Got a high altitude sensor boat just cresting the horizon.”

“Shiiit… time to get clear?”

“Hard to say… looks like it’s doing a slow sweep. Maybe… 30 minutes to be on the safe side, though I’d prefer 20.”

I rolled my head to look at Francy. “Can we get the field tuned and set in time?” She shook her head “No chance. We’re having too much trouble getting through the ice here. It’ll take at least 20 just to finish the cut and get the block up.” Shit. The retuning took 15 minutes. Damn it… “Give me the cutter.” I snarled.

“You’re not going to be able to do it faster, boss.” Kagetane said, but he handed it over as directed.

“Not going to.  Francy… where’s the front of the stabilizer. The control  panel. I need an exact line.” She studied her scan for 20 seconds, then painted a hologram on the ice. “Right, stand back.” I cranked the cutter to max burn and opened the aperture to the one meter mark. Then I fired it, holding the thing steady as a huge gout of steam blasted upward. “Francy!” I yelled “Give me a depth reading… keep’m coming!”

It took 7 minutes and the cutter was going to need a new … everything… but we had a hole. It was full of steam and the bottom of the shaft would be claustrophobic and full of water and subtle it wasn’t, but there was a hole. “Kagetane. Get this and Zane up to the ship. Francy… I hate doing this. Get down there and get that thing tuned. We lift in 16.”

Give the girl credit. She didn’t even hesitate. There was a better than even chance I’d just sent her to her death, but she, better than most, understood that, and understood the price of failure. If we got the Banker back, we would be free of this place. If we didn’t, we’d all die here, one way or another. We already knew that those who died here didn’t respawn, something we’d learned when Ahab had been senselessly killed in a terror bombing in Baxter. CP guaranteed items likewise weren’t proof against the ravages of time or senseless violence.

I checked my chrono. “AJ, time to intercept?”

“Not good. It’s moving faster. We’ve got to get gone in the next 10 or we’ve got to shut down at wait to it to pass…” he didn’t say, but I understood, that doing so would be almost certain doom. Shutting down meant killing all power, and in this temperature, that meant the hull would freeze over and the engine lock solid in the time it took the probe to pass. We had to outrun it but stay within the storm.

“Francy? How’s it going?”

“Go. Leave me here. Finish the mission and get everyone out.”

“Not leaving you kiddo.”

“You have to. My legs are already frozen in place. I’m not getting out of this hole.”

Shit. I hadn’t expected the ice to set that fast… she could be lying. But there was no way to prove it. She had the damned scanner. “Francy… you.”

“I’ll see you all once you get clear. No hard feelings. It’s cold logic… “ I cursed again, then did what I had to do. I couldn’t go into the hole… I wouldn’t even fit, and if I was lost, we all were. “I love you kiddo.” I said, holding my voice steady, then grabbed the lat anchor cable and pulled it hard, twice. The wench wound me up into the waiting ship. “AJ… floor it.”

Later, when he asked where Francy was, when I answered him… that was the closest my little AJ ever came to lashing out at me. I couldn’t blame him. I pulled him close and held him close as he wept his heart out. I added another pair of marks against Mensarius to my mental tally, one for Francy’s sacrifice and another for AJ’s pain.

And thanks to all that, we no longer had the time, crew, or focus needed to handle the fifth and most challenging of the field stabilizers… which meant I was faced with a dilemma. Either I had to accept that there was a 20% chance of failure of our mission and Francy’s sacrifice being rendered meaningless… or do the unthinkable and rig the tunnel to completely collapse. That had a 20% chance of potentially causing the deaths of thousands… and ran the risk of completely burying the train.  The risk wasn’t worth it and I could not live with causing such needless suffering. The chance had to be taken.

The gods of random chance were, it seems, with me… or simply acknowledged the bravery of a young woman named Francine, for, right on schedule, the Landtrain came thundering down that very tunnel and, as planned, the packed ice and snow gave way as the vibrations ripped the lattice apart and, with a tortured scream the tunnel roof let go, dumping enough snow and ice to stop the train cold.  The sound of the massive cars smashing into each other, their armored and reinforced hulls scraping against each other was ear splitting even from our reinforced bunker a kilometer distant.  We set out at once, dressed in dark arctic camo, Zane with the bum-leg bringing up the loader, and each of us armed with stun weaponry.

The crew of the train were just coming out to see what had happened and most of them looked pretty banged up, but we were dozens of meters underground (underice really) and they weren’t expecting an ambush. Most of them went down without ever realizing the threat, and those who didn’t went down before being able to spot us.

We moved like ghosts through the train’s passages, lobbing sleep gas grenades and fusing doors shut, then brought up the loader and with no small amount of effort got the three meter tall gently glowing alabaster statue off the train. I glanced at the face of the icon and shuddered. It looked like John Cleese playing the Virgin Mary. Someone had a sick sense of humor.

We were just leaving the train when a familiar face popped up… right behind a fist aimed at my head. “I thought I smelled a whore.” snarled Dobson, the Fed who’d nearly killed Kaylee way back in the first “episode”, and who I’d spared once upon a time, for reasons I couldn’t quite remember now.

“Never,” I grunted as I dropped, not from the blow but seemingly so, and thrust out with a snap kick from ground level aimed right at his knee. It cracked alarming and he began to fall “Say.” my second kick drove him back into the cargo hold and I rolled forward to grab him into a suplex “Whore.” I drove him into the ceiling head first “As an insult.” I grimaced… he wasn’t dead… but I couldn’t let him live to explain who’d pulled the heist. I chuckled, then waved Kagetane over. “Pull as many crates of iridium as we can load, then make it look like Dobby here was the inside man and got greedy. You’ve got… 15 minutes.” Kagetane grinned. It would take him ten.

A day later and many light minutes distant from Denali, we raised a toast to friends absent and damnation to the enemy. We all knew who that was.

Next: Wintertide on Summerfair

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World 52: Firefly, Part 3

HOLMESWORLD BOUND

Previously: To Hell

Themesong: Killing Me Softly by Frank Sinatra

Three years, 213 days elapsed between that case and our next lead. With nearly 5 years in the Verse, I’d managed to establish quite a reputation in the field of specialized recovery and mystery solving. My name wasn’t known to many, but those who had need for my skills could usually find me. Many of them contacted me through Mr. Universe, who monitored everything one the Cortex or through Tophat, Badger’s replacement on Persephone. What I’d done to Niska had made me both friends and enemies when the video feed leaked out, and what I’d done to those enemies had made me more friends and given me a reputation that few in the Verse dared face without a small army at their back.

Unfortunately, that also put a bit of a target on my back, as well as the backs of those who helped me, though few were brave or foolish enough to cross the crew of Serenity, who’d become (thanks in part to my association with them, but also from me arranging for them to handle many of the more straightforward of my jobs) something of a memetic Crew of Crews. The fact that I’d made certain they were all, more or less, outfitted as best as I could arrange without making them overconfident might have gone a long way towards forging that rep, though I never let on just how much I was helping them out.

Part of that was letting them get into their own trouble and only saving the day when absolutely necessary. Part of it was making sure they had havens to hide in when the heat got too heavy. I also had to cover for Kaylee when she managed to let Simon (a little tipsy from celebratory wine after a particularly good heist) knock her up. It wasn’t that she wasn’t able to do her job, but as her belly swole, there were more and more places she couldn’t get into… which wasn’t much fair, seeing as how I’m not exactly dainty in this form… I’m taller and more built than Jayne… who is, in reality, even more adorable than Adam Baldwin.

Still, it’s nice that fifth crew cabin is getting some use, since they had to convert Simon’s cabin into a nursery. River turned out to be decent with the kids… twins, of course, fraternal. They named the boy Booker… though Milly seems to be the most “aww babies!” of the lot of us. Mal, I think, is scared of the rugrats, and keeps hinting that maybe space ain’t as being the best place to be raisin’ little’uns. But he didn’t push the issue, especially once Inara mentioned she found it made the place more homelike.

Good thing I upgraded the atmo-scrubbers. Babies and cowboys… both need so much seeing to. At least Inara and the Captain were treating each other with a little more respect. At this rate, they’d get together for good right around the heat death of the Universe.

But that’s neither here nor there. I wasn’t here to fix up their love lives. I was here for the key. And so it was that, on the 283rd day of the 4th year PI (post insertion), as we laid over at a space station in Georgia space picking up mail and supplies, I found myself looking at a 56 second long piece of footage from a bank’s high security lock up, which showed six relatively young men, in their 30s and 40s, looking down at a 7cm wide eye in stained glass or crystal, before wrapping it up in a satin cloth and sealing it in a box and, one by one, they entered their biometrics and a passcode, then placed the box into a safety deposit box.

There wasn’t enough information to identify the bank or the individuals. All there was was a computer generated message that asked “Do I have your attention?” and had a contact number. I dialed it… of course I did.

When the shape of a person without features appeared on the screen, dark blue on a lighter blue background, I said “You do. What do you want?”

“You’ve been looking for something like this for a while. You 100,000 platinum for the information. 200,000 more when it pays off.” said the machine generated voice.

“Not until I know who I’m dealing with.”

“Not part of the deal.”

“50 up front, show of good faith. 150 when I’ve verified.” This would test the broker’s bonafides. If he was on the up and up, he’d ask for the missing hundred after… if He wasn’t, he’d raise the up front price. Or he could just be greedy bastard and raise both, which wouldn’t help at all.

What I wasn’t counting on was him saying “Done.” That set off some weird bells, but maybe I’d hit on numbers he’d been hoping to settle on in the first place.”

“What do I call you?”

“You don’t. Bring the cash to Triumph, Pitt City. There’s a hotel called The Woods. Tell the concierge you’re in town for the Marigold Wedding and that you need to buy a Gown and you’re worried no place will have a dress in your size.” the line went dead.

Triumph… that immediately made me think of Saffron, who’d tricked her way aboard from the nearly Amish world where women were often treated as currency. But the planet, 1st of the Heinlein Protostar’s planets had a population of nearly 33 million and we hadn’t left Saffron there. Maybe I was being paranoid. But being paranoid kept you alive, and I wasn’t about to stop now, especially not as vulnerable as I’d become. With the Banker missing, death might very well be permanent and I wasn’t keen on giving up eternity in the service of a jerk like Mensarius.

Worse… death here might make me somehow beholden to Mensarius. Now that was a scary thought.

I checked my roster, and sighed. Serenity was going the absolute wrong way, heading out system to deliver seed stock to Deadwood in the Blue Star system. But Bao’s Feng Shui however would be at Persephone on the outskirts of White Star in 3 days. If I couldn’t get a transport there to meet him, I’d eat my pretty floral bonnet.

“Hey Scholar, give a lady a lift?”

“New parasole?”

“Makes me look demure, nǐ bù juéde?”

“Sen… while you look as… fine… as ever, I doubt anything would let you look demure in this incarnation.”

“Flatterer. You got stiffs on board?”

“Family of 8, heading to Dangun to pick up a bride for the young master.”

“Excellent. You’re going to drop me off on Triumph.”

“Alone?”

“You’ve got customers. Drop me off, drop them off, come back and get me.”

“Sen… it’s a round trip. They’re just picking up the young lady, then heading back into the Core, míngbái wǒ de yìsile ma?”

“Yes, I do understand, and I hate to do this to you, but this is time sensitive and the Lotus is at Sihnon getting her yearly tune up and Invictus is half way out to Kalidasa and won’t be free of her load for eleven days. So, if I have to inconvenience someone, it’s going to be your passengers. But I promise, I’ll make them smile despite that.” I grinned at him, hard enough to make the warrior-poet flinch.

“You’re the boss.”

I was, and am, indeed, the boss. And the patriarch of the family was clearly not his own man. His mother, a bitter, vicious, and uncompromising woman in her late 80’s was manifestly the one in charge, and I played her vices and prejudices like a fiddle, convincing her that she shouldn’t take the marriage broker’s report as gospel, that she should take a week or two to observe her prospective grand-daughter-in-law in her native environment first, see how well the young lady deported herself before paying the no doubt exhorbitantly over-inflated brideprice.

If you’ve never experienced it… people will do almost anything if you can convince their prejudices that it’s the right thing to do. What a bitch… but then again, I’d just sicced said bitch on a poor innocent girl, so what did that say about me? I justified it as giving the poor dear a sneak peek at what life would be like in her new home… and maybe consider murder. I knew that if I had to put up with the old biddy for months on end, one of us would end up dead… or at least in a coma.

When we arrived at Triumph, Franky and Mini refused to leave me all alone, and had settled which would come with me via the expedient of drawing high card… which is why I sashayed… well… okay, I don’t sashay in this body… but I was still graceful as sin, in my own way… into the lobby of The Woods in downtown Pitt City with Franky, tiny and actually dainty, guiding my luggage and dressed like a pageboy, though the black uniform did little to hide her most excellent curves… or the brace of pistols in a shoulder rig, the two more auto-pistols in the middle of her back, or the various bladed and blunt weapons strapped to her thighs. My coat did little to conceal my curves, but its sleeves were voluminous to hide more than one weapon. I was not, however, carrying 50,000 platinum in coin. Not when I could pull it out of my Warehouse at a moment’s notice.

The concierge, once given the passphrase, directed me to dressmaker on the Street of the Frog. The shop was, of course, a front, and they in turn directed me into the back room where a woman in a black silk cheongsam tried to pretend she was the one who’d called me. I played along… she was very good.

“You have the money?” she asked in broken English.

“You have the information?” I returned with a smile.

“I do.”

“Then I have the money. But I’ll see the information first.”

“I see the money, then you see the information… then you leave with the information and we keep the money.”

“Fair enough.” I waved Franky forward and she handed over the case. It was, of course, empty. I opened it… that is I opened a portal to the warehouse and allowing one of the robot butlers to slide in the cash, then placed it on the table and spun the case to face the “broker”, opening it slowly to reveal the coins. “Fifty Thousand.” I said lightly, “Untracable.” My voice hardened a little. “Now my information?”

She slid over a printout, a short stack of documents. The footage was from 35 years earlier, taken at a bank in the Core, on the moon of Shiva.The individuals, all aged between 30 and 42 at the time, were a tantine… a death pact… or wager. In a Tantine, everyone left a special package sealed, like a time capsule… and the last living member of the tantine got to open it. It was often a form of duty, perhaps a bottle of fine brandy with which the survivor would toast the others, but sometimes it was a secret, something that could be disastrous if it got out, but for some reason was important to reveal in the proper time… that time being once everyone else was dead. The practice started as a form of pension scheme long ago in France-that-was… although it had been invented by an Italian by the name of Lorenzo de Tonti… hence the name. It operated much like the social security system in the old United States of America-that-was, but stopped paying out once the last shareholder died.

According to the information, however, there were two remaining members of the Tantine alive. A retired alliance colonel and the mayor of the town of Bakersfield. All I had to do was to somehow kill one of the two and convince the last survivor to give up his code, thus allowing the box to be opened. Seemed easy enough. I nodded to the woman and asked “Shall I return here after it’s done?”

“Why would you do that?” She asked, slipping up for the first time.

“To provide proof that the job is done, of course.”

She nodded “Ah. Yes. Do that.”

I nodded once and left, saying nothing until we were out of even the most extreme of surveillance range, then scanned myself and Franky for bugs. “She had no idea what was in the documents. She’s a cutout… and this doesn’t feel right. But I think the information’s on the up and up… something just rings wrong here.”

“So what do we do now?”

“We find these two… Colonel Dashel Christie and Mayor Howard Poe.”

“Where are they… and what do we do once we’ve found them? We’re not really going to kill some harmless old guy just to steal his treasure… are we?”

“Poe’s town, Bakersfield, is on Triumph’s very own moon, Mycroft.” I pointed up at the sky where the crescent of the sub-sub-planet (Heinlein, being a Brown Dwarf was, strictly speaking, still a planet, just one that had been converted to a star… which meant that Mycroft technically orbited a moon. Just one of the many ways the stellar-cartography of the Verse was… let us say… improbable.) hung in the fading daylight sky. “Colonel Christie lives… on Ariel, in the Core. Well then… this is going to take some time. Lets go meet the good Mayor and find out if he’s a good man or not. I might, just might, take a page from Saffron’s book if he’s a big enough jerk.”

“I… don’t understand. You’re going to trick him into helping you steal a laser pistol?”

I showed her the profile on the man, tapping where it said, in big bold letters ‘Marital Status: Divorced’. “Not quite. I was thinking that, perhaps, I’d get him to marry me.” My little Franky just stared at me in horror as I chuckled my way down the street.

A week later, having made the trip to Mycroft and, by dint of a little social engineering, managed to finagle an introduction to the mayor, and by interviewing more than a few town locals, I’d determined that the man, while not the scum of the Earth-that-was which would have been enough to seal his fate, was a womanizer, a cheat at cards, and a scoundrel. I liked him immediately.

He cracked ribald jokes, drank if not too much then too well, and treated his household servants with the respect so few of the gentry show those of the common throng. That he was now in his late sixties but still fairly spry spoke well for him and he was both well groomed and polite, if not punctiliously so. He was neither grotesque nor overly handsome, but had the definite appeal of a mature man who knows who he is and what he wants out of life. His town liked and respected him, considering him responsible for the law and order that comes from being a little bent but not too corrupt. By the end of the third week we were engaged, and the wedding invites were sent out… including one to his old friend the Colonel.

Bao’s passengers were, no doubt, rather astounded to receive their own invite as well, but I insisted that the old lady had made such an impression on me during the crossing that she had to be there.

It wasn’t a lavish to do, but it was a lovely party. I moved among the crowd gathered for the rehearsal dinner, meeting all of Howard’s oldest and dearest friends; Mr and Miss Hercules Wolffe, a retired writer and his daughter, from New Rotterdam; a Mister Maury Doyle of Londinium, an actuary; a Sargeant John Caliber of the Rubicon Constabulary (retired); and Harley Dominic Cross, a professor of Antiquity at the University of Osiris.

“Tell me, Professor, I hear the Gates of Tannhauser are beautiful.”

“Indeed. The lightshow they put on every year on Saint Batty’s Day is something to see.”

I’d seen the statue of shirtless Rutger Hauer holding a dove that stood in the square of Tannhauser’s capital city of Orion’s Shoulder, but I’d never made time to climb into the mountains next to the city at pass through the 108 buddhist gates that led to the summit. No one really knew who’d built them, and some said they’d been there since before planetfall, constructed by the terraforming machines in a holy miracle… and clearly the professor had no idea of the existence of an Earth-that-was film known as Blade Runner.

The dinner was quite nice, and I sent Franky to work her wiles on the good Colonel, who was extremely stiff and humorless, as well as being in his early seventies… and had come alone, aside from his almost as aged batsman, a chinese ex-corporal named Jaindai… who was graced with neither looks nor brains, but had an excess of servility. I trusted her to take his measure, though it was a wrench sending my goofball little inamorata off to seduce the man… but she’d voluntarily taken the Companion training and the persona that came with it. It wasn’t emotional, it was a job… and a calling. And hopefully she wouldn’t have to go all the way with the joyless old battleaxe.

As it turned out, she didn’t. She gave him a bath and a massage and he begged off, claiming fatigue from his trip and the late hour, but invited her to accompany him to the ceremony and promised to take advantage of her kind offer after the reception the next evening. That didn’t, as it turns out, happen either.

The ceremony was nice enough, and the vows were written to very circumspectly give me an out (Our time in this Universe do last), while old grumpy chinese lady cried the whole time and kept going on about how nice it all was. Her son looked like he had no idea why he was there, and the grandson (the one who’d been on the way to get his bride) looked as if the entire concept of marriage made him a little ill. His bride to be seemed nice enough, if a little… dim.

Everything was going fine until the reception… at which point, right during his best man speech, the good Colonel suffered a massive (and suspiciously timed) heart attack. It wasn’t a very good best man’s speech, as it contained no jokes at the expense of anyone present, and dying didn’t help at all. That said, I should have cottoned on to what was happening, but… I missed it. These things happen when you get over-reliant on reading people supernaturally… and have been drugged.

So it was that, party mostly spoiled by the spectre of death, my new husband and I retired to our chambers… at which point, consciousness began to fade rapidly. Far too rapidly.

I hadn’t been drugged in ages, literal ages, since I was normally immune to poisons, but that was a supernatural ability I just couldn’t access at the moment. I could, however, access my warehouse and its medbay, so I fell to the floor, rolled under the (thankfully spaciously high) bed, and fell through a hole in the world, gasping “Medic” to the listening robots.

The drug in me wasn’t enough to kill me, but it would have guaranteed I’d sleep for at least 12 hours… It would also completely have metabolized in that time and have been untraceable thereafter. I had the medbay synthesize a counteragent after verifying that such an agent existed in the Verse, then stepped through into my bridal suite… or rather rolled through.

As I’d suspected, my new spouse was likewise drugged, and had gotten a rather larger (and considering he was smaller than me, fatal) dose, though he was still (barely) alive. I have to admit that, for a moment, a darker part of me considered letting him die, but I couldn’t do that and so I injected him with the counter agent. I might have been using him, but murder for profit was never my line of work. Those I killed usually deserved it. If I profited as well, that was incidental.

But now that I was thinking a little clearer… did you know soporifics screwed with your thinking before knocking you out and if you had enough in your system you wouldn’t wake up again? It’s true!… I realized something was amiss. And that’s why I did what I did next.

The local constabulary broke down the door approximately ten hours later, and promptly arrested me for the murder of the mayor… despite the fact that I was, at the time, barely conscious. Unfortunately for the murderer, so was my husband… who I’d told the entire story… or a version of it… when I’d roused him.

“So… an unknown individual approached you, knowing you were looking for…”

“It’s called “The Key”. It’s parts glow with an unnatural and inexplicable inner light and possess strange properties.”

“And they told you that Colonel Christie and I were in possession of such an item?”

“Yes. I ventured here to meet you and, having determined that someone, probably another member of your tantine, wanted you dead, decided to keep you safe. You’re not a bad sort, if I do say so, but even if you weren’t, I don’t like being a catspaw.”

“And the Colonel?”

“I wasn’t expecting the assassin to try anything at the reception. That one’s on me. It’s not like I’m a professional killer. I just wasn’t expecting it. Not then. Later. I’d placed my valet to protect him later. She’ll be most disappointed.”

“And you think this hidden hand plans to frame you for my death? Then claim the prize?”

“I do. And I think we should let him think he’s succeeded. Now, do you trust me enough to tell me which of your friends is the third remaining survivor of your cabal?”

“I… this is all… I should be most cross with you for marrying me for my property… but I’m an elderly man and you’re a young and vibrant woman, and to be honest, I always assumed you were doing exactly that anyway.” I smiled, nodding.

“Not going to lie there. But I had no intention of killing you to speed the process.”

“No. You’re a Ludus Companion. You play the long game, don’t you?”

“Indeed.”

“Unfortunately, only Dash and I are left of the original group.”

“Huh. That doesn’t make any sense. Did anyone outside of your group… of course… who set up the Tantine? None of you are lawyers.”

“What? Oh… Maury did. He and his partner.”

“Ah. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts, that if all members of your cabal die before the box is claimed, then Maury becomes your executor? Executor of an unknown and undocumented cache of valuables?”

“I…” he blinked, then nodded slowly “I think that’s the case. The documents are in my desk.”

“Well then… I guess we should make him think he’s succeeded.”

“How?”

“Call your sheriff, tell him that someone has attempted to murder you and frame me, and will be calling in the next few hours to report it. Tell them to act as if you’re dead and arrest me for the murder. Then, assuming he’s not stupid enough to make the report under his own identity, have the coroner call him down to the station as the executor of the estate to verify your death. When he walks in and sees you alive…”

“His expression should condemn him.”

“Indeed. And while he’s there…”

“Sheriff Horatio can search his belongings?”

I smirked “You’re good at this sweetie… Now… I think we have a couple of hours to kill.”

It worked as expected. Maury was a schemer… not a master criminal. He broke in minutes and was tried, convicted, and sentenced to a penal colony before the week was out, barely escaping the hangman’s noose due to a local ordinance that forbade hanging the elderly. A couple weeks later, after attending the young man’s wedding on Sihnon, we ventured to the bank on Shiva and, with solemn dignity, claimed the box.

“We found this on a hiking trip in the wilds of Avalon.” he carefully lifted it from the box. “It was so lovely, so special… none of us could bear the idea of selling it. So we sealed it away, pledging that the last of us would become sole owner. It’s saddens me to think that none of us had an heir to pass it down to.” He smiled wanly, then handed the wrapped package to me. “Take it.”

“Don’t you want to see it one last time?”

“I… I think it’s cursed. All of us were successful in life… but heirless. We should have left it in that cave.” I hugged him as he continued, “And for all that, I can still remember it as clear as the day we found it, its image imprinted indelibly on my memory.”

On the trip back to Mycroft, I considered unwrapping it, but in the end, decided I didn’t need to. I could feel the power of the item, of the fragment of whatever this was, even through the cloth, and so, eventually, I put it in my sanctum without ever looking upon whatever they’d found in that cave. Call me superstitious.

Next: The White Ride

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