Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Security Measures

Everything had gone so well at first. The orbital defense satellites had responded to Darrus Jeht's codes and allowed them to approach the planet. The stationary guns on the surface had obeyed the ceasefire order and stayed quiet. Even the landing facility had acknowledge his command status and activated, guiding down their shuttle and Basilisks. When they touched down everything was powered but unmanned, systems on automatic.

This was exactly as Jeht had expected to find the planet. Lush but uninhabited, precisely the way it was supposed to be. The Abyssal and the radiation belts in the nebula made long term life here dangerous for complex organisms. Animal life was not truly at risk but sentient beings could not stay here long without developing biological issues. At least that was what his medical officer aboard the Maelstrom had predicted when they had first found this planet. It had been settled, yes, but none of the smugglers' bodies recovered from the battle had been exactly healthy.

"Cancer, sir?" Tymor had asked this succinctly as they were flying down through the atmosphere. Darrus had been explaining why no permanent colony had been established by the Republic forces in the know about this place.

"Yes, cancer and... worse." He had not really wanted to go into detail about the state of some of the corpses they had found. "Just trust me. Sanctora is the very definition of a nice place to visit but you wouldn't want to live here."

Exploring the landing facility confirmed his suspicions. The Jedi that had come here after him had maintained the systems and even upgraded them in places. Everything was fully automatic all the way down to basic service droids for maintenance. Power was a mix of geothermal taps and radiant collectors, a perfect mix for this place. Sanctora's energy-reliant systems could operate at full capacity for a thousand years and never run out. They would break down long before they went dark.

Fortunately for Darrus, the point of breaking down seemed nowhere near. Everything was in top condition, a tribute to the efficiency of repair robots with nothing else to do. While Tymor had recommended that several of the droids be shuttled up to the Ird-Adora to start working on its failed systems, Darrus was moved to be a little more cautious.

The truth was he just had a hard time trusting droids. The war had not exactly instilled a great confidence in him where machines were concerned. It was not an irrational fear; he trusted his Basilisk after all. Still, he wanted to be sure everything here on Sanctora was safe before he introducing parts of it to their only way of leaving.

That said he did authorize the worker team they had brought down in the shuttle to start identifying and gather vital parts the Ird-Adora needed. It felt like scavenging but with so many lives at stake? So be it.

Their sweep of the complex took three hours before Darrus was satisfied that nothing was out of order. Surface scans indicated that this outpost was the only one in working shape. Everything else on Sanctora was dead, itself scavenged to maintain this facility. There were signs of a huge field of debris nearby, likely the remains of a ship at least twenty years old. That had only heightened his desire to proceed carefully.

Still, nothing had turned up out of the ordinary and when he was satisfied that the installation was no threat he authorized the transport of supplies from the base to their vessel. He was only allowing supplies right now, not droids. He felt uneasy about them, a worry that was sticking with him all the way down the turbolift they were taking to the storage level below.

The Vault. That was what they had called it when Jeht and his clones first arrived here. It was a massive series of caves that the smugglers had turned into storage. The place was naturally fortified against attack, sealed by means of a series of secure bunkers and had its own recycling air supply. If trouble had ever come to Sanctora, this would have been Darrus's last line of defense. With a hundred men and advance warning, he suspected he could have held off an invasion force in these caves.

And the moment the turbolift doors opened, his suspicions were confirmed. Maya gasped at the sight that lay before them, dozens of half skeletal bodies in white armor amid the metal remains of ten times their number in droids. The entryway to the Vault was a slaughterhouse, an open grave.

Tymor did not react except to say, "They put up a good fight."

Darrus just nodded, reacting more in line with Maya's feelings but not letting it show on his face. He stepped over the bodies and examined the only doors out of the chamber. "It was a holding action. These men gave their lives to buy time."

Tymor joined him, watching Maya as the rapidly paling medic made her way over to them through the morass of death. "Time for what, Alayt?"

In answer, he simply reached out and guided Maya gently to the control panel for the door. "We need this open. Can you do that? I need you to slice the panel and get us through." It was possible Darrus could have done it himself but right now the empath needed something else to think about.

While she worked Darrus explained the situation to his second-in-command. "Tymor, the door is sealed with a Republic override. We changed all the lockpads when I took over this place. In case of a full invasion, the door codes scramble and only military command had the access key."

The Mandalorian nodded in understanding. "If that's true, why are we having to force our way in? You were a General."

"Something has reset the system. My code's not working and the one high access key I have will only work once. I left myself a backdoor encryption in case of emergencies. One I never told anyone. It'll get a door open but then it erases itself. I'd rather save it until we reach the Core and I can get the main computers running again."

"Got it!" Maya smiled in simple triumph as the doors slid open. A moment later the elation died as another body fell out onto her feet.

Hall by hall and room by room, they found the same thing. A huge battle had been fought here, a droid invasion held off by clone troopers to the bitter end. Each one had a few less corpses and a few more droids. There were marks of explosions and the scoring of heavy blaster fire in all directions. The clones had fought hard and died well. Tymor was satisfied with that.

Darrus was not. It was so senseless, all of it. Sanctora was supposed to have been a haven, perhaps the only one in the galaxy. Had the Separatists really been so powerful that even this tiny refuge could not stay safe? And knowing what he did now, it was truly all for nothing.

The entire war had been a ruse, a Sith shadow play. Billions dead for nothing more than a twisted man's bid for power.

"Darrus, this one's fused. I can't get it open." Maya sounded crestfallen. She had gotten them through every security door so far and they were only one hall from the Vault Core. There was just this door and the main one to go. One last hall and they would be to the chamber that was the whole point of coming here. "I am so sorry."

"Ion pulse, Alayt," Tymor said as he examined the dead access panel. "Likely from the other side. There is no way to get it working again."

"Right, stand back." Darrus had not come all this distance through all these corpses to turn back now. Both these people knew the truth about him anyway. Reaching up the the front of his rifle, Darrus pressed the mag-lock release and slid his lightsaber from its concealment sheath. The cylinder settled into his hand like an old friend, comfortable despite its long absence.

Unleashing its violet beam, he plunged the saber's tip into the hardened steel door and slowly cut in a wide path along the frame. Glowing metal hissed around the blade, dripping down the sundering slag. Completing his cutting arc, Darrus pushed forward with his mind and the white hot oval of sheared metal lurched inward, flying several meters before landing with a heavy clang on the worked stone floor.

Maya started to step through but Darrus held a hand to her chest. "Wait. I had a clone lieutenant nicknamed Streak because he did that." As if to make his point for him, streamers of burning liquid metal started dripping from the top of the cut, hissing as they landed. Maya's eyes widened and she stepped back.

"Allow me, sir," Tymor said as he raised one arm. A vent on his bracer gushed forth, spraying a gray foam in a cone around the doorway. The molten metal instantly cooled, a billow of steam obscuring the hallway beyond for a moment.

"Excellent, Tymor. Thank you."

They made their way through the mist and into the last security hall. This one was free of droids. Unfortunately, as Darrus was already running to see, it was not devoid of bodies. There were three corpses against the far wall, only two of which were clone troopers. The third, the one that had all of Jeht's attention, was also dressed in white armor but it was piecemeal, interspersed around a bodysuit and pale brown robes.

A Jedi. A dead Jedi.

The access panel to the Core door was open above them. These three did not die from violence. They were wasted, drawn thin beneath their garments. None of the bodies before had been much more than skin and bones but these were even more so. They looked dry, brittle to the touch. They...

"These three died of dehydration. Darrus, I am so sorry." Maya leaned her head against his shoulder plate. "There probably wasn't any pain. They fell asleep at one point and faded away."

"Why didn't they move on?" Tymor was examining the panel as he spoke. "This pad is working. No ion disturbance. They should have been able to get through."

Darrus sat down beside his fallen comrade and took off his helmet. Letting it fall to the floor he buried his face in his gloved hands, cold metal offering no comfort. "The invasion caused a lockdown, the security measures I told you about." His whole body sagged, only his armor keeping him upright. "I never thought..."

"This man was obviously a General, sir. He should have had the codes needed to get in." Tymor looked down at his commander, confusion in his stance. "This is not your fault."

Darrus shook his head. "It is. The Core is the heart of the complex. It was given top level security. The invasion protocol locked out every code but one."

This was his fault. He had never shared the backdoor command. It had never even occurred to him that any other Jedi would need it. This was supposed to be a place of safety. Now the only quiet here was the peace of the grave.

Maya and Tymor looked at each other, the latter's face hidden behind an impassive mask. "Darrus," she said softly.

Jeht covered his face again. "No. Don't try to tell me this isn't my fault. If I had been more open, if I hadn't tried to keep this place to myself these people would have lived. They wouldn't have sat here and wasted away. I killed them." The air started to crackle with whispers of lightning-despair. "Don't try to tell me I didn't."

His quiet empath leaned against him, arms tight around his shoulders. "I won't. I don't think this is your fault but that wasn't what I was going to say."

Darrus sighed into his palms. "Then what? What is it, Maya?"

"The Jedi has a holorecorder in his lap, Dar. It... it still has power." She took a deep breath and held it out to him. "There's a message waiting on it."

As Darrus slowly looked up, staring at the small steel disc, she continued in a hush.

"And... I think it's for you."

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Song of Sanctora

It was a small room but that made sense to Darrus. The Mandalorians were not a lavish people and very little about their culture was extravagant. Indeed, he was grateful his desk even had a chair. He suspected that some Mandal captains actually preferred to stand all day.

Unfortunately he was not able to sit down for long before there was a chime at the door. He knew Maya was asleep; he could still feel her dreaming if he focused on it. That meant it could only be one other person – his second in command. Since he had given orders not to be disturbed unless the ship was under attack or something equally dire, he suspected that somewhere, something was on fire.

"Come in."

The door opened and his second stepped into the tiny chamber. "May I trouble you for a moment, sir?" The man's voice was quiet, almost deferent.

"Of course. How are we progressing through the nebula?"

"Quite well sir. Because we know what to look for, the transponder beacons have been guiding us flawlessly. Long range scans are still wildly inaccurate but we believe we are approaching a small planetoid just as you described."

Darrus took a deep breath. "Sanctora…"

"We can only surmise, sir. May I be permitted to ask you something, sir?"

Darrus gestured to a seat, giving the man silent leave to sir. His second did so, folding armored hands over his lap patiently. He had not been given leave to speak. Darrus corrected that too, also with a quick wave of the hand.

"I was hoping you could tell me about where we are going, sir."

Ah, so the only thing burning here was someone's curiosity.

"How much do you need to know?"

His second shifted, leaning forward to answer the question. "Need, sir? Only whatever tactical data is relevant. Wanting to know? Anything you are willing to divulge, sir."

Darrus paused for a moment. Just how far could he trust this man? He had already asked a lot of these Mandalorians and if his suspicions were right, the Force was guiding him to ask a great deal more. Before this was over, he might ask everything of them, including their lives. His dreams had been troubled of late. He hoped against hope they were not being prophetic.

If there were, the least this man deserved was as answer.

"All right. I'll tell you all I know about Sanctora. Before I do though, you need to know something." It was time to come clean, at least a little. He was certainly not going to tell the man what he was but he needed to admit, at least to his second, what he was not.

A raised hand stopped him. "If it will put your mind at ease, Silverlord? I know you are a Jedi."

There was a very long pause. Darrus just stared at him, completely at a loss for words. Slowly, he removed his helmet, setting it down on the desk. Perhaps he had been hoping that taking the thing off would clear his surprise. It had not. "I… you know what I am?"

His second nodded. "Of course, sir. I was unsure until I faced you in the duel. There are a few things all Mandalore warriors are taught from the time we can walk, One of them is how to fight a Jedi. You may have had a blade when you faced me but you wielded it exactly like a lightsaber." Then, just as calmly, "And while your fighting style may be unorthodox, there was no denying the wind that kept trying to pull me off-balance and tear my armor apart."

Darrus cringed. He has thought his powers were in check. He had thought wrong. "I am sorry. I did not mean to deceive you."

"Of course you did, Silverlord. You had every reason to believe we would kill you and your apprentice when you came aboard. On any normal night you would have been right." The man's hands folded again. "But you came aboard and saved us. You led us to victory and you took us home alive again."

"Thank you for that, but I am still Captain under the premise of a lie."

"No, sir. You are captain by right of combat. You did not use Jedi powers to defeat me. You stood with me in the circle of blood and earned your rank. I may not like what you are, sir, but I can respect the fact that you are worthy of the seat you hold."

Darrus was again at a loss for what to say. Luckily, the Mandalorian was not yet finished.

"I have no intention of revealing this to the rest of the crew. Most would feel as I do but some might not be able to place our needs and traditions over the hatreds of the past."

Darrus nodded. "Thank you. I appreciate your discretion." After a moment's thought, mind still in shock, he added, "If you still want to know about the planet Sanctora, I am more than willing to tell you now. All right?"

"Perfect, sir. When we are alone here, I would prefer if I were told nothing but truth from now on?" Even with his helmet on, the man's look was clear. "Is that acceptable?"

"More than." Darrus meant it. Deception was something he both detested and was possessed of very little skill. Having an ally among the Mandalorians who knew the truth might actually prove to be a great advantage. "Listen closely then. You will hear the story of Sanctora."


"When the Maelstrom, my command ship, and its supply convoy reached this sector of space, we had just jumped from a fierce battle over Rygrus. Separatist ships had reinforced a blockade there and while we tried to hammer our way through, it was no use. We have to retreat and there was no time to set the navigational computers. It was a blind jump. Blind chance.

"The nebula had no buoys when we got here. We left those to try and find our way back out if we ran into trouble. We originally came into the gas cloud to escape anyone who might be pursuing us. We were just looking for a safe spot in the storm to hole up and repair.

"What we found was a whole lot more than that. There's a small star system inside the nebula, something we did not even know until we found the eye of the cloud. It isn't charted and as far as astrogation data is concerned it does not exist. Even its gravitational signature is hidden because of the nebula's mass.

"So of course, a hidden planet, capable of supporting life, one jump away from hyperspace lanes?"

Tymor proved his intelligence once again. "It was covered in smugglers?"

"Just so. Smugglers that found their way in but couldn't get back out, to be precise. At least two generations of them. The Abyssal had been pulling them in and not letting go. At least the main planet in the system was hospitable, even fertile. Most of it was green, even from space. If one had to be trapped somewhere, it was as good a spot as any.

"They were trapped but they weren't defenseless. As soon as they saw a Republic battleship, they panicked. That did not lack long. First we saw a flurry of activity on the planet's surface. Then we saw ships lifting off on approach vectors."

"They had spotted your supply convoy?"

Darrus smiled and nodded again. "Just so. Smugglers and pirates, it seems, are scoundrels even when marooned. It was obvious we were damaged and there were a few dozen ships with us that did not look armed at all. Maybe they did not feel they had anything to lose. Maybe they did not think we could put up a fight and would surrender.

"Either way, they were wrong. My crew, still stinging over their defeat at Rygrus, laid into them as soon as they were within range. I had given them leave to welcome our new friends. It was one of many times that would teach me that I needed to be a lot more precise when giving orders to clones."

It was several seconds before Darrus realized he had left that slip. Clones. That not only dated him but also locked down his role in the past. If Tymor recognized any of that, he made no indication of it. This was why Darrus disliked Mandalorian armor customs. Like the clones, they wore full suits constantly while on duty, helms included. It made it very hard to gauge reactions, especially since he did not have Maya's gift for empathy.

With no good way to know what Tymor was thinking, all he could do was press on. "Even damaged, we were still a functional vessel and our guns made very short work of their first attack wave. The second line of ships broke off and tried to flank, guessing correctly that while our guns worked, we were not terribly maneuverable any more.

"They came in at the convoy at oblique angles, attacking them with strafes that left us unable to use our rear guns for fear of hitting our own ships. With a fleet of unarmed transports between them and us, it should have been easy picking for them to disable and board anything they wanted."

"Except that it wasn't, was it, General?" Tymor said in a very neutral voice. Frag it; he did know. He sounded like he knew quite a bit, especially when he added, "The Republic started adding disguised gunboats to their large convoys about halfway through the Clone Wars, right? So a thirty ship convoy would have had three or four of them."

Darrus nodded, trying to hide the wince. That was dead on. "Three. The gunships turned on them as soon as we transmitted their go codes. Caught between their cannons and ours, the whole pirate fleet was wiped out without any real losses to our own.

"I was not particularly happy with having opened fire first but they had lost the element of honor when they attacked my convoy instead of running. When we got to the planet and had a pair of defense cannons shooting at us, I let my men target and take them out. It was precise. Both shots were kills and there was no additional loss of life.

"What happened to the civilians planetside after you got there?"

Darrus could not help but raise an eyebrow. That was an interesting question for a Mandalorian to ask, especially one that had been advocating cutting and running before his own station was fully evacuated. Still, it was a worthy question and deserved an answer. "They fled."

Then, more precisely, "As soon as their guns were down, they evacuated in an old Sullustan transport and used the planet to cover their escape. I suppose they expected they would be rounded up and either arrested or executed. I would have done neither but they had no way of knowing that. I sent two fast unarmed transports after them to try and get them to stop but they hit the gas cloud before we could establish contact."

"They got away?"

Darrus sighed. This was the part of the story he had been hoping to avoid. "No. A few moments into the nebula, their ship collided with something. We registered an explosion. Later, we found their debris field and remains. Families. Entire families lost to panic. Perhaps that was my fault."

Tymor said nothing at that. He just watched impassively, quietly waiting for the rest.

"There was no reason to think the planet was hostile in any way and a high altitude scan revealed no life signs except animals and only a few active power sources. My crew was exhausted and the convoy was no better so I gave orders to land. After a quick exploration turned up no danger of note, we started out in shifts. It was a nice planet with a clean atmosphere and we were all in need of the rest.

"I had only intended to stay a day but damage to the ships necessitated at least three. We were fortunate enough to have most of the parts we needed as part of the convoy and what little we did not have on hand we were able to scrounge from the settlement.

"Three days became a week and a week became two. The conditions on the planet, which we found out from things left behind was called Sanctora, were just so pleasant and the damage was so much more severe than we thought. One delay after another kept us on Sanctora and to be honest, we did not really mind. It was almost like shore leave, after all, something none of us had had in a very long time.

"Eventually, we got our ships repaired and headed back into space. Once we were back in the fight, I forgot all about Sanctora for a while. I was reminded of it nearly a year later when I got word from one of the convoy captains that he had been using it for a few months as a supply depot under the secret instructions of another Jedi. Apparently he had revealed its location while serving a new command and his General had decided it would make for a good hidden base. Even Republic High Command did not know of its existence.

"I went back twice during the last months of the war. Any time I had a surplus of goods, I would leave them there, adding to the stockpile. A few other Jedi did as well, those few who knew about the place. We left a few automated defenses as well, just enough to make visitors reconsider raiding the cache."

Tymor nodded, taking all this in. "Will those defenses prove hazardous to us?"

"I doubt it. I still know the lockdown codes and if we can get close enough for me to transmit them, we shouldn't have any trouble. I can take my Basilisk out to do it. That should minimize…"

His comm and Tymor's beeped at exactly the same time. Also in unison, they said "Go ahead" almost in exactly the same tone of voice. Darrus half-smiled to himself. Did that mean the Mandalorians were becoming more like him?

Or was he becoming more like them?

"Sirs, we are approaching the planetary system. There are defense satellites tracking us and we detect a large concentration of metal and electronics in a clearing near the primary planet's equator."

Darrus got up and donned his helmet. "All right, Alayt. Let's go see if anything I left behind is still here."