The garage was rather small by military standards, and it could hardly accommodate more than three Sith armored transports at a time. The dim lights of the garage hid tattered paint on the walls, broken durasteel, and other vehicle parts in the corners of the room. The temperature was warmer on the outside, but not by much. The fact that the garage was more or less directly connected to the outside of the base and lacked any proper insulation made it less bearable than it could have been.
Celsus left the vehicle first, and the two Jedi were quick to follow him out. Their allies waiting in the back joined them soon thereafter. The only other being in the garage was a young Twi’lek mechanic. His blue-hued skin was stained with sweat, and his uniform—which was once clean and well kept—was covered with soot and grime. He was too busy fixing one of the other transport’s fuel lines to notice the arrival of the intruders.
Celsus removed his lightsaber from his belt and activated it quickly. The Twi’lek heard the lightsaber activate, but only cast a passing glance at the Jedi Master and his allies. By the time Celsus was using the Force to pull him out from the underbelly of the broken transport, it was too late. The Twi’lek was dragged across the cold floorpanels and positioned before Celsus and the group. Celsus stomped on the Twi’lek’s chest, much to the alarm of Gaiel and Ralina’s crew. The mechanic cried out in pain and coughed violently. The Twi’lek whimpered for clemency, but his cries fell upon deaf ears; the Jedi Master ignored his pleas and moved his boot onto the Twi’lek’s throat.
“Do you have a passcard for that terminal over there?” Celsus growled, noting the console at the far corner of the room.
The Twi’lek nodded. He probably couldn’t speak due to the boot on his neck.
Celsus smiled slightly. “Good. Where is it?”
The young mechanic motioned toward his left pocket.
“Grab the card, Raen,” Celsus ordered.
Raen stepped toward the pair and knelt down as he approached the mechanic. Celsus’s violent demeanor surprised him, but he figured that the Jedi Master had been under a good deal of stress since they had departed. Besides, Raen had no objections. He would have handled the situation exactly like Celsus. He ignored the young Twi’lek’s plight and grabbed the passcard from his pocket.
“Is there a password for the computer?” the Jedi Master asked once he had the passcard in his hands.
“No,” the young Twi’lek spoke for the first time. His voice was weak and cracking, and his breathing was labored.
“Very well,” Celsus said.
The Jedi Master removed his boot from the mechanic’s throat. The Twi’lek, genuinely surprised by Celsus’s action, gasped and wheezed as air filled his lungs. He was far too terrified to stand up, so he remained on the ground, still crying and thanking Celsus for his mercy. Raen spat at the sight. This groveling, sniveling idiot would not survive long. Besides, weakness deserved some form of punishment.
Apparently, Celsus agreed. His weapon slowly tilted downward until it faced the mechanic. Raen noticed Gaiel had sensed Celsus’s plan, and the Nautolan sprung forward, grasping at the Jedi Master’s arm. Celsus shrugged off Gaiel with ease, and—while the Twi’lek was still praising the Jedi Master’s kindness—he drove his weapon into his target’s chest. He convulsed for hardly a second, and then he died.
“Why in the name of the Force did you do that?” Gaiel cried out. “He was defenseless! A prisoner!”
Celsus deactivated his lightsaber and returned it to his belt before facing Gaiel. “He could have posed a threat to our mission,” Celsus retorted. “If we had let him go, we’d be forced to leave someone behind to watch over him.”
“How could he have been a threat? We scared him senseless! He was dumbstruck after your show of violence, and even then, we could have let him leave the base.”
“And die of the cold? Gaiel, I think my method was far more compassionate.”
“Compassionate?” Gaiel spoke slowly, allowing the word to roll of his tongue in distaste. “You just killed him, Master Djan! There was no harm in letting him live.”
“You question my actions? It would be fitting of you to remember the difference between Jedi Knight and Jedi Master, and remember who is who,” Celsus ordered.
“All right. Enough. He’s dead,” Ralina interrupted. “It’s over. Let’s move on, shall we?”
“My thoughts exactly,” Celsus said.
Gaiel said nothing. Raen shook his head, disappointed. He did not know much about the Jedi, but he found Celsus’s methods far more effective. Why did Gaiel have to argue with the Jedi Master? Surely, with his senior rank, he knew better than the Nautolan? Raen assured himself that Gaiel was just bitter that he was not able to do things his way.
Considering the matter dealt with, Celsus traveled to the terminal in the distance, and the others followed him. After activating the console and searching through its contents, Celsus used the passcard to obtain otherwise off-limits data. His eyes scanned the screen for some time before he returned his attention to his allies.
“I have formulated a plan. But I’ll need all of you to help me,” Celsus admitted.
“We’re ready to help you, Celsus,” Raen replied.
“I suppose we have no choice in the matter,” Ralina moaned.
“Very well. Here’s my plan. We’re going to blow up this base with some carefully placed demolitions,” Celsus announced. “I didn’t bring any, but the reactor in any of these vehicles should serve as a fine substitute. It needs to be placed in the base’s command center, at the very heart of the base. Otherwise, the explosion won’t be effective.”
“The base must have a reactor that we can overload,” Cortes said.
“They do, but the Sith do a good job of protecting them with a specialized lock that only Sith Masters can access. It is doable, but it would take too long,” Celsus replied.
“So you just plan on ripping out one of the reactors? Do you intend to kill us all?” Fetcher asked.
A team of Republic soldiers and I did something just like this back on Taanab. If I could do it then—while under fire from a platoon of Sith troopers, mind you—I have no doubt we can do it here,” Celsus explained.
“Let me guess. Hordes of Sith are separating us from the command center?” Manda asked bitterly.
“No, but there is a blast door protecting the command center. The only way to open it is to go down a secondary hallway and enter the security room. In an effort to keep the route to the command center clear of hostiles, we’ll send someone down a maintenance shaft to poison the barracks with a few gas grenades.”
“Tserne can do that,” Ralina said.
“Very good,” Celsus replied. “I was planning on the smugglers and the natives heading down the halls to the control room with the makeshift bomb in tow. Meanwhile, Gaiel, Raen, and I will disable the blast doors.”
“I think we can handle that, Captain,” Cortes said.
Ralina thought over the plan again, before responding: “Very well. Just do your part, Jedi. I don't want to end up dead before we get to the goal.”
“Let’s get started, then,” Celsus mused. “They don’t know we’re here, so we have an advantage.”
Ralina, her crew, and the remaining natives left the garage through the primary doors and entered the hallway that led to the command center. Delvin went in first, prepared to defeat enemies with his heavy repeater. Ralina, Manda, and Fetcher followed him while the natives brought up the rear. There were crates and barrels situated along the walls of the hallway that could be used as cover during a firefight.
When they first entered the hall, there were several guards patrolling the passageway and others defending certain rooms. With the help of the natives and Delvin’s firepower, they easily dispatched these enemies. However, the amount of guards dwindled as they continued their long trek down the hallway. Soon enough, the crew and their allies were alone—with blasters at the ready.
“This is eerie,” Manda muttered. “Where did everybody go?”
“There’s a good chance that we killed most of them when they traveled outside to kill us,” Delvin answered.
“I doubt it,” Fetcher said. “A base this size would have more than two squads defending it.”
“Maybe they were killed by Tserne,” Ralina mused aloud. “Or perhaps the Jedi distracted them. Who knows? Just be glad we aren’t being shot at.”
The three Jedi traveled down the secondary hallway by their lonesome. Unlike Ralina and her allies, the three Force-users were not forced to fight any guards. Their side of the base was empty. Even so, Raen kept his lightsaber in hand. His eyes peered ahead, beyond Celsus, far enough to see any enemies that may have approached them. He was not worried about anyone sneaking up behind them; the Force would protect him from those foes.
Celsus had forsaken his snow gear, and Raen recognized the changes that had overcome the Jedi Master were not solely emotional. His hair had faded and become a gray color, and scars on his neck and jaw—that Raen had not noticed before—were quite prominent, almost bulging out like fiery veins. The muscles in his arm had atrophied, and he looked weaker and sicker than he had on Taris. His hooked nose and thinned face made him appear almost sinister. Despite his apparent physical weakness, Celsus had determination in his eyes, and Raen saw power in him. He had seen that sort of strength in one other individual, and that was his brother, Jaeln.
As they walked, Gaiel was suddenly overcome by an unknown force. He quaked at the knees, and eventually fell to the floor, unable to endure the pain. Gasping aloud and groaning in between breaths, he seemed weak and disoriented. Raen stopped his advance and returned to Gaiel’s side, offering to help him to his feet. Celsus, on the other hand, kept walking, and only when Raen headed back did he bother to turn his attention to Gaiel.
“What’s wrong, Gaiel?” Celsus asked. “We need to keep moving.”
“Something… I’m not sure. I felt a slight disturbance in the Force, and then I was overcome by this powerful energy. It was like I was hit by a wave. There is an evil presence here… I know it. I can feel it,” Gaiel said. He stopped to catch his breath as he spoke, and his labored breathing became a hacking cough.
“I don’t feel it,” Raen said. “Are you sure, Gaiel?”
“No, I’m sure. Raen, do you think I would just fall over to delay our progress?”
“I don’t feel anything either, Gaiel. Don’t worry about it. You are just fatigued, I’m sure,” Celsus guessed.
Gaiel hesitated for a moment. He bit his tongue, forcing himself to hold back his retort to Celsus’s observation. “Yes… perhaps I am. Let’s keep moving, Master Djan. I’m sorry I slowed us down.”
“No, it’s good you stopped us. I believe this is the engineering room, right here.” Celsus opened a door on the left and—after making sure the room was safe—beckoned the other two Jedi inside.
Immense gears were situated around the room, turning massive conduits and apparatuses that powered the base. Wires and cables snaked around them, carrying electricity wherever they went. The lighting was dimmed, probably because very few individuals spent time in this room and the Sith wanted to conserve energy for elsewhere in the base. There was a single terminal in the room, and Celsus was drawn towards it.
“What can we do in this room?” Raen asked.
“Very little, I’m afraid,” Celsus said, disappointed. “Most of the controls are in the security room. However, I did manage to activate the alarms on the far side of the base. Code Aurek-Two. Any guards left around the base will be sent to deal with the intruders.”
“Ralina and her crew are on the other side of the base!” Gaiel shouted, suddenly recovering his strength.
“They are,” Celsus began, “and they will encounter more resistance than before. However, they can handle it. That one individual—the specter—probably poisoned the barracks by now, and most of their soldiers will be too weak to fight. It should not hinder their progress.”
“What if you’re wrong?” Gaiel snapped. “What if they aren’t ready? What if the Sith troopers overwhelm them?”
“I am never wrong, Gaiel. I am a Jedi Master.”
“No! That’s not right. A Jedi knows that he is ignorant, but seeks to remedy his ignorance through a healthy pursuit of knowledge,” Gaiel countered.
“You dare preach the Jedi Code to me, Gaiel Remus?” Celsus bellowed. Veins bulged in his forehead, and his eyes glowered ferociously at the Nautolan. “I have served the Jedi for decades longer than you. The Jedi Order has confided in me to solve its most difficult issues. My wisdom has erased any trace of ignorance. You, as a Jedi Knight, would do well to keep silent.”
The Nautolan’s head dropped slowly. He said nothing, but Raen could tell that he desperately wanted to continue. Why did Gaiel embarrass himself like this? Raen didn’t understand. Celsus’s seniority and heightened wisdom due to his years of experience were enough to make him more knowledgeable than Gaiel, and yet he continued to start these foolish arguments.
“Gaiel,” Raen whispered. “Just let it be. If you don’t like Celsus’s course of action—ignore it. For now. We’re almost done.”
“Now can we continue? If we don’t open those blast doors, then we’re not going to be able to do your allies any good anyway.” Celsus was clearly impatient, but he tried his best to hide it.
“Fine. Let’s go,” Gaiel replied bitterly.
The three Jedi continued and reached the security room without any encounters with the base’s guards. Two Sith soldiers defended the door between them and the room itself, but they had not seen the Jedi approach. Celsus called upon the Force, bending it to his will and causing its power to seep into his targets. One of the guards lost his perception of reality, and his mind was numbed. He killed his own companion with his blaster before Celsus moved in and bisected him at the torso. The Jedi Master turned his attention to the door’s wall panel, which was locked by a basic alphanumeric code. Celsus again reached out into the Force, using it to see in place of his normal vision, and he managed to identify the keys pressed by the last user.
“Hmm… the code is… 1Ah3Td3y,” muttered Celsus, after trying several combinations. “Not too complicated. We’re in.”
The security room was circular, unlike most of the other rooms. In the center of the room rested several large computer monitors, all watching certain areas of the base via security holocams. There were three engineers operating the only terminals connected to these monitors, and two guards stood on the opposite side of the room, guarding the entrance to the conjoined room.
Celsus commanded the Force to compress a guard’s blaster rifle, causing the weapon’s power pak to explode. The small explosion was strong enough to kill the owner of the blaster and severely burn the other guard. The engineers reached for their own blasters, but they were too late. Celsus threw his lightsaber at one of them, and his head was cleanly separated from his body. Gaiel and Raen moved in, throwing their own lightsabers and severing the weapon arms of their respective targets.
“Good work,” Celsus muttered. He killed the other two technicians—ignoring Gaiel’s cues to spare them—and headed for a computer terminal. “But we’re not done yet.”
Celsus’s efforts to slice one of the consoles proved fruitless, and he feverishly scrambled toward the nearest engineer’s corpse. While he dug through the remains for a passcard or some clue to unlock the console, Gaiel and Raen locked the door behind them and kept watch. Gaiel positioned himself near a wall, musing over their course of actions. Raen was closer to Celsus, and he was enthralled by the computer monitors.
While glancing over them, he saw Ralina and her companions in one of the holocam recordings. They were retreating from several dozen Sith soldiers, with the last of the natives in tow. Although he couldn’t be sure, he assumed they were heading back to the garage.
“Celsus,” Raen called out. “The smugglers are returning to the garage. The Sith are pursuing them, but I think they’ll survive until they reach the garage.”
“What?” Celsus shouted. “They’re ruining my plan! Those cowards!”
“Celsus, you’re the one who sent those additional troops toward their location,” Gaiel replied furiously. “You can’t blame them for not having enough manpower to deal with all those soldiers.”
“Are you blaming me for their failure, Gaiel Remus?” Celsus bellowed.
“You planned on leading them to their deaths!”
“I didn’t plan on having them die! I wanted them to succeed. I can’t be blamed for their failure!”
Raen’s eyes scanned the other monitors. He found a map on one of the farthest screens, and he saw a room that looked rather strange. Instead of remaining on the ground or second floor like the others, it was only accessible from underground. An elevator between that room and the others was located in the room adjacent to theirs. “Celsus. Gaiel. The next room is connected to some sort of subterranean room. What do you think it is?”
Celsus shifted his attention to Raen. “The next room is the science facility. So, whatever it is, it must be related to the scientific experiments that go on here. Since we can no longer destroy this facility, we should at least destroy any experiments they’re working on here.”
“No, we should leave,” Gaiel said. “Remember that energy I felt earlier? I’m feeling it again, and it’s stronger now. I think we’re getting closer to its source.”
“You’re wrong,—as usual—Gaiel,” Celsus pointed out dryly. “It’s not getting closer to us. We’re getting closer to it.”
“What are you saying?” Gaiel asked.
“I’m saying there’s a Dark Jedi here. A powerful one. He’s waiting for us in that chamber. We have to stop him,” Celsus demanded.
“How do you know?”
“I can sense him too.”
“What about Miss Venli and the others? We can’t just leave them to fight off those Sith troopers.” Gaiel noted.
“They’ll have to make do on their own,” Celsus answered. “That Dark Jedi must be killed. If we let him go now, then everything I did here was for nothing. He must die.”
Gaiel rested his head on his fists again. “Lead the way, Master Djan.”
“Damn it, damn it, damn it!”
Blaster fire flew past Ralina’s head as she sprinted the last hundred meters toward the garage. She reached the garage first, diving out of the line of fire and hiding behind a nearby crate. Manda and Fetcher followed her, and then Delvin and the last of the natives. Once they were inside, Fetcher destroyed both door panels, causing the door to activate its emergency locks. Hoping the sealed door would hinder their Sith assailants, the crew and the last few natives took a moment of respite amongst the vehicles in the garage.
Ralina cursed their ill luck. It was not their fault they had retreated. They had been well on their way toward the control room, and they killed the few guards that remained in the halls. Suddenly, dozens of guards poured in from the barracks. They outnumbered Ralina and her allies three-to-one, and they did not have enough heavy armaments to defeat them. What else could Ralina have done? She failed the Jedi, but she didn’t care. The lives of her crew were more important to her.
Delvin and Fetcher were working with the natives to block the door with crates and random mechanical parts, while Manda tried to use the security console in the corner to unlock the garage doors that led outside. Ralina paced back and forth, weapon in hand. They could not hold off the Sith, that much was clear. The transports offered little offensive capabilities to aid them, and the garage was hardly a fortress. She doubted the Jedi would return to help them—why would they? They were pretentious and looked after their own. They had their own mission, after all. No, if they wanted to get out of this alive, they would have to do it on their own.
“We need to get out of here,” Ralina finally announced. “The Sith will break through the doors soon, and we can’t fight them here.”
“Where do we start?” Manda asked.
“Hold on,” Ralina replied. She activated her comlink and shouted: “Jon! Jon? Are you there?”
The Hound’s Sapphire’s AI received the message, but his voice was weak and garbled. “I have your location on… Captain Venli, and I hear… However, you are… and the storm is interfering with my sensors. What is it you require?”
“I need you to get our ship to the Sith base. We need an emergency pickup,” Ralina shouted back into the comlink.
“… try. I’ll be there as… do stay warm.” Jon’s voice was overcome by static, and the transmission was cut off early.
Ralina turned her attention to the door defenses. It was a paltry barricade, to be sure, but it would hold the Sith back for a few more minutes. “How long until they break through the door?”
“They’re at the door—I hear them,” Fetcher said. “I suspect, with their supply of grenades, they’ll be inside in ten minutes or so. Perhaps sooner, if they have fusion cutters.”
“That’s not enough time. Jon will never make it!” Manda moaned.
“Are the main doors opening?” Ralina asked. It would be difficult for them to leave the garage if the doors wouldn’t open.
“No! I can see the option to open them, but I need clearance, and the Jedi have the passcard. Nothing’s working out, Captain,” Manda complained.
“Captain, what about the anti-air guns? They’re going to destroy the Hound’s Sapphire on approach,” Delvin realized.
“How can they be disabled?” Ralina asked.
“This console says any console in the security room can disable them,” Manda replied.
“Damn,” Ralina muttered. She had tried to contact the Jedi when they had first been overcome by the Sith soldiers. They had received no response. Either the Jedi had given up on them, or they were dead. Regardless, they could not help them anymore. She activated her comlink again. “Tserne? Where are you?”
“Just left the maintenance corridor. Approaching your location now.”
“Don’t,” Ralina countered, “There are four squads of Sith troopers cutting us off from the rest of the base. They’ll gun you down before you try anything. Instead, go to the security room, where the Jedi were, and shut off the anti-air guns. Open the primary garage doors if you get the chance.”
“Sounds like a suicide mission, my dear.”
“Just do it.”
“Of course.” Tserne paused. There was a brief moment of silence, and then he spoke again. “Will you wait for me, Ralina?” His tone, normally aloof and bitter, changed as he asked his question.
Ralina paused. She didn’t know how to respond. He had been so sardonic and so macabre that the slightest hint of emotion in his voice caught her off guard. “What?”
“Will you wait for me?”
The answer was no. It had always been no. He would not be able to reach their location before the Sith attacked the garage. They could not wait for him. He was the sacrifice she needed to save her crew. But isn’t he a part of your crew? she asked herself. No, he wasn’t. Not really. He was different. He had killed one of her crewmembers, and only then had she imprisoned him on her ship.
“Captain?” Tserne sounded concerned, and it was certainly the first time he had addressed her as his captain with a sincere tone.
She had helped him, even though he was her enemy. He had done so much harm to her and her crew, but she had forgiven him. She had seen beyond that, even when her crew did not. She felt compassion for him, broken as he was, and she didn’t know why. Was it something he had said? Was it something he had done? Ralina attempted to integrate him into her crew, but she failed. He was a mystery to her. The captain convinced herself that he was just a traveler—a pet, perhaps—that had accompanied them. He was not part of her crew.
But he had saved her. Several times, in fact. And now he was risking his life, without question, for her. Her stomach churned at the thought of leaving him behind. She did not want to, but she had no choice. Ralina had to save the rest of her crew.
“Of course, Tserne,” Ralina whispered. She had to force herself to lie to him. “We’ll… we’ll be here.”
There was silence, and then Tserne coughed slightly. “Thank you. Tserne out.”
Ralina felt a pang in her chest. I’m sorry, Tserne, she repeated over and over again in her head. She hoped he would understand, even though she knew he wouldn’t—or couldn’t.
“They’re breaking through the door, Captain!” Delvin shouted.
“Did the Jedi leave the keycard to the vehicle in the ignition?” Ralina asked.
Manda moved away from her position by the console and glanced inside the transport’s viewport. “Yes they did, Captain!”
“We’re getting out of here in that!” Ralina noted. “Let’s go, everyone! We’ll meet up with Jon once we’re outside.”
“What about the garage doors, Captain?” asked Manda.
“Ignore them. We’ll smash through them if we have to!” Ralina ordered.
One of the natives tapped Ralina on the shoulder. “Let us has your guns. We hold off the incoming soldiers while you escape.”
Ralina was slightly taken aback. “Are you sure? Cthor would expect you to return, and we can take you-”
“No,” the native interrupted. “No return. Cthor want honorable pact-sons. Honor in death for others. We are ready.”
Ralina shook her head. “I can’t ask you to do that for us.”
“Not ask. We want.”
The captain stared into the young Pyn’gani’s eyes. There was such tenacity, such a desire to succeed in those eyes. It pained her to look at the brave warrior, and she quickly diverted her gaze. She handed him her blaster rifle with a false smile on her face. “I won’t refuse you, then. It’s only got half a cell left. Maybe less. Good luck.”
“The Force be with you,” the native said, his Basic particularly cleaner now than before.
Ralina bit her lip and headed for the armored transport. The rest of her crew was already inside the cockpit, and they had given their weapons to the last three natives. The doors between them and the Sith were being beaten down, and the smugglers did not have any time to waste. If they wanted to outrun their Sith pursuers, they would leave now. Ralina bitterly sat down next to Manda in the cockpit. She placed her hands over her face and sighed softly. Tserne was gone, and the natives would join him. Why did she care? She was a smuggler. She only looked after herself and her crew. They traveled this way and that, without a care in the galaxy. Perhaps it was the Pyn’gani warriors’ bravery in face of death. It scared her, but it also impressed in her an admiration for their loyalty and benevolence. Whatever it was, she should not have cared that a few random natives from Polus stayed behind to defend them. But she did.
“Are we ready to leave, Captain?” Fetcher asked, gripping the steering wheel.
“Yes!” Ralina said, choking slightly between tears. “Hit it!”
“Then let’s go,” Fetcher shouted. The accelerator roared, and the vehicle returned to life. They would be gone soon enough. And so would their allies.
The Jedi took an elevator they found in the science laboratory to the hidden chamber beneath the base. Once they left the elevator, the Jedi found themselves in complete darkness. Raen did not know how to alter his perception with the Force, so he stumbled around in the darkness for a brief moment until Celsus grasped his shoulder. The Jedi Master could see clearly, and he stopped Raen from wandering too far from their group. They remained in the dark for a few moments, and then the chamber’s floorpanel lighting activated. Blue light sprung from the metal floor beneath them, slowly illuminating the vast chamber of secrets to its Jedi visitors.
The chamber was massive, and hauntingly empty gray blocks extended as far as Raen could see, lining the walls on their left and right until they disappeared into the darkened end of the chamber. What were they? Raen’s eyes followed these slabs until they were drawn to the center of the room, where a large pyramid-shaped device sat. It was taller than the Jedi, and various runes and formulas had been scrawled across its surface.
“What is this place?” Gaiel wondered aloud.
“I don’t know,” Celsus admitted. “Keep your guard up.”
The pyramid-shaped device in the center of the room opened without warning, revealing its core—a large spinning apparatus—to the Jedi. The hidden device glowed brightly, and an amorphous shape began to form above it. The three Jedi watched as the holographic image of an elderly Human male took shape before them. The figure had a flat face and a sharp, distorted nose with horrific burns on it. The man’s eyes were small and weakened by age, and he was hunched over. He wore a lab coat with several utensils in it, but most of them would have been dirty and useless.
“Dr. Bancho? Dr. Salis? Who’s there? Identify yourselves,” the hologram demanded.
Raen was surprised. The figure could speak, and it recognized that there were sentient beings present. It must have been a recording, or perhaps the old man watched them from another part of the base. The young Force-sensitive was hesitant to reveal their position to the figure, but Celsus didn’t care. He introduced himself, and then demanded to know who—or what—they were speaking to.
The figure in the hologram lost its irises and streams of data raced across the whites of his eyes. “Interesting. Master Celsus Djan, Jedi Order, born in the Mid Rim prior to the Mandalorian War. No siblings, parents deceased, and the Republic archives have you listed as MIA,” the hologram’s voice faded into a monotonous, dry tone that was almost droid-like. “Alert: Jedi identified as enemy combatant. Preparing emergency protocol.”
“How did you know all that?” Celsus asked plainly.
The projection’s eyes and voice returned to normal. “My core is connected to the Sith mainframe here. It updates me periodically. However, I can process new information when I am presented with data not present in my current memory.
“What are you?” Gaiel asked.
“This system is similar to the holocrons used by the Jedi and the Sith. I am not real; I am merely a computer program that has received nuances and information present in the doctor at the time of my creation. However, I am programmed to behave critically and rationalize information before I respond to specific queries.”
“So you’re an AI based off someone’s memories,” Celsus presumed.
“You are correct.”
Gaiel crossed his arms. “Who is the doctor?”
“I am modeled after Doctor Tserne DeLarane of the Imperial Board of Military Research and Scientific Advancement, Neurological Branch,” the AI replied.
“Tserne DeLarane?” Gaiel murmured. “Raen, isn’t that the name of that ghastly man on Ralina’s crew?”
Raen’s eyes widened at the realization. “Do you know the status of Doctor DeLarane?” he asked.
“Doctor DeLarane is deceased,” the AI noted. “He was reported dead several years ago, during a medical accident on board… Critical error. Data restricted…”
“What do you mean, ‘data restricted’?” Celsus asked.
“I am not permitted to answer particular questions—especially those that relate to the Sith Empire’s top secret programs and activities—unless proper clearance has been given.”
Raen frowned. “The fact that they have the same name must be a coincidence. There must be hundreds of individuals named Tserne in the galaxy.”
“You’re right. However, we should consult the Jedi Archives once we reach Coruscant, just in case,” Gaiel answered.
Celsus turned his attention to the room’s peculiar decorations while his companions talked amongst themselves. “AI, what’s going on here? What are these slabs for?”
“This room is the Polus Sepulcher. Before you are nearly two thousand sentient beings, all Sith soldiers, frozen in carbonite. They were placed here at the behest of Doctor Salis, who was himself placed in cryogenic suspension sometime thereafter. The soldiers are to be shipped to… Critical error. Data restricted… per the orders of Darth Malak, Lord of the Sith.”
“Where are these soldiers headed, AI?” Celsus asked, hoping it would answer despite the fact it shielded its data from him at first.
“That’s enough, AI 2001. Disengage conversation and activate self-destruct sequence,” a voice spoke up in the darkness. “Code 200-104-772. Xesh Pattern.”
“Command issued. Polus Sepulcher’s core will reach critical state in ten minutes. Warning. All sentient beings are advised to evacuate the base immediately. Xesh Pattern achieved. Override protocol disabled. Shutting down to prevent further damage,” the AI disappeared in an instant and the pyramid returned to its former state.
“Well, well, Raen Benax. We meet at last,” a second, unknown voice called out. This one was different than the first, and it sounded distorted and mechanical, as if the individual was using a breathing apparatus.
“Who’s there? Show yourself!” Gaiel demanded.
Eight figures stepped out of the darkness. Each of them wore the armor of a Mandalorian warrior. To the surprise of the Jedi, they were not armed with blasters, but with vibroswords. A ninth figure revealed himself after the others were in view. Unlike the others, he carried a double vibrosword in his hands, while his armor was red and significantly bulkier around his limbs and on his chest.
The red armored leader spoke, and the Jedi recognized him as the second voice. “You don’t know me, Raen. But I know you. My name is Commander Lubain, and we’ve been hired to kill you. You led us on quite a chase, and you did well to take out my lieutenant, Gheas, back on Taris. But your journey ends right here.”
Celsus scoffed. “Mandalorians? Don’t toy with me. I know he is here. Just surrender and leave, so I may deal with your master.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Jedi,” Lubain replied. “We’re here for Raen, and if you get in our way, we’ll kill you too.”
Celsus sighed. Reaching out his hand, he called upon the power of the Force. As his fingers outstretched, he grasped at the throat of one of Lubain’s soldiers with his mind. While the hapless soldier flailed about and clawed at his own neck to free himself, the Jedi Master reached out, grabbing several carbonite slabs with his mind, and threw them at his targets. Most of Lubain’s soldiers avoided the missiles, but two were crushed before they could escape. Celsus’s first target died as his trachea collapsed, and Lubain’s men regrouped around their leader.
“What in the name of Mand’oa…?” Lubain muttered.
“That is the Force,” Celsus growled. “Retreat, and let me deal with Darth Bandon, or I will personally kill all of you Mandalorian brutes.”
“Darth Bandon?” Gaiel mused. “Celsus, what are you talking about?”
Before the Jedi Master could answer, Gaiel was struck by a stream of lightning that emerged from the darkness at the end of the chamber. The force of the attack threw him backwards, but the electrical current flowing through him caused far more pain. He had fallen to the floor, weakened, before Raen was lifted off his feet and launched toward the wall behind them. His side struck the elevator door, and he almost fainted when his body hit the floor with a thud.
And suddenly, Celsus was alone. But it didn’t matter. His target had come… at last. Lubain’s leader emerged from the shadows. He was bald, his eyes glowed a sickening yellow, and his flesh was pale. There was no doubt that this man was a Sith. He covered most of his body with dark robes and fibrous upper bodysuit, and it was evident that he had incredible physical strength from the prominence of his muscles. He held a lightsaber with a large hilt—the trademark feature of a double-sided lightsaber—that was ready for battle.
Darth Bandon, apprentice to Darth Malak and heir to the title of Dark Lord of the Sith. They had met once before, on Korriban, when Celsus and a squad of Jedi infiltrated the Sith world. Their disguises did not fool Darth Bandon, and he dueled them in the Valley of the Dark Lords—the vast wasteland where the Sith Lords of old were buried. Under any other circumstances, they would have defeated him. But they could not work together, and the dark side was stronger in that barren valley.
Celsus had been the sole survivor. He fled to Taris, where he avoided Sith pursuers and discarded his Jedi apparel. He took up a job as a security agent to hide himself, and he remained there for years. It was not until he met Raen that he decided to avenge his fallen comrades. He had destroyed dozens of Sith bases, led the Sith from system to system hunting for him, and forced Darth Malak to dispatch his finest apprentice to stop him. It didn’t matter how many of his allies he lost now. He was moments from perfecting his revenge.
“Darth Bandon. I thought I’d have to raze Korriban itself for you to fight me,” Celsus taunted his opponent, bolstering his own confidence in the process.
The Sith Lord wasted no time activated both sides of his lightsaber, revealing two crimson blades. “You underestimated me the last time we met, and you still do.”
“You fought in the presence of the dead Sith last time. Now, we fight on neutral ground.”
“Your words are as hollow as your existence. I will end you.”
Celsus shouted boldly. Leaping through the air, he ignored the Mandalorians who circled him and landed within striking distance of his Sith opponent. His violet lightsaber hissed as it sprung to life and threatened to rip apart Darth Bandon’s throat. However, the Sith Lord recognized Celsus’s maneuver and calmly placed one of his blades in between Celsus’s weapon and its target. Once he had repelled the Jedi Master’s blade, the Sith Lord twirled his double-bladed weapon over his head and swung one of his blades at Celsus’s left side, and then—when the strike was blocked—he attacked the Jedi’s right side with his other blade. However, Celsus knew how to fight Darth Bandon’s double-bladed weapon, and he countered both strikes.
The Mandalorians, noticing Celsus was distracted, moved in to attack his exposed flank. The Sith Lord watched their approach, and a single disproving glare from him caused the Mandalorians to hesitate and rethink their strategy.
“Let the two Force masters kill each other,” Lubain ordered. “We’re here for Raen. Let’s kill his friend and then return him to Alderaan.”
The Mandalorians retraced their steps and then turned their attention toward the two incapacitated Jedi. Raen noticed the Mandalorians’ approach, and he did his best to stand. His body failed him, and he remained on the ground, barely conscious. He grasped at the nearby wall with his hands, looking to prop himself up, but he couldn’t reach out that far. He swore profusely. This won’t be the end of me. It won’t! His mind started to blur as the Force and his survival instincts fueled his adrenaline and empowered his muscles. The pain in his back and legs began to subside, and it was replaced by the all-encompassing power of the Force.
In seconds, he was standing again. He screamed at the top of his lungs, and he eyed his targets. Four Mandalorians, including Lubain, were heading toward him, and two were approaching Gaiel—who was still on the ground. Rage was fueling his body, and he lost any hesitation or doubts he had about subduing his Mandalorian opponents. They were no longer enemies, but prey. They were animals to the slaughter. The first Mandalorian reached Raen before the others could provide support, and he eagerly swung his sword at Raen. The Force-user had increased his reaction time through the Force, and he dodged the attack with ease. The Mandalorian warrior was thrown off balance as his weapon missed its target, and Raen plunged his lightsaber into the warrior’s chest. The blue blade shattered his foe’s armor and ripped through his chest. He perished within seconds. Removing his blade, Raen allowed his first victim’s corpse to fall to the ground as he turned his attention to the remaining Mandalorians.
While Raen engaged his targets in combat, Gaiel was still on the ground, aching and unable to stand. He was not skilled at healing, and he could not bolster his body’s strength with the dark side, like Raen could. He remained on the ground, limp as a fish out of water, as his body recovered from Darth Bandon’s electrical assault. The two Mandalorians were nearly on top of him before he reacted. The first Mandalorian reached Gaiel as he was turning on his back, and the warrior raised his weapon to strike down the wounded Jedi. However, before his weapon could descend, a knife slit the Mandalorian’s throat. Gaiel gasped as the Mandalorian’s body fell to the floor and Tserne revealed himself to the Jedi.
“How did you get… get down here, Tserne?” Gaiel moaned.
The assassin shrugged. “I took the elevator. Need a hand?”
“Yeah. I would appreciate it.”
Tserne outstretched his arm and allowed Gaiel to grasp his hand. He pulled the Nautolan to his feet, and made sure the Jedi was stable before letting him go. The second Mandalorian reached their position as Gaiel was recovering his footing, and Tserne had to engage the warrior in close combat. His knife did not have enough range to defend against the Mandalorian’s sword, and he had trouble dodging his foe’s wide swings. Nevertheless, he proved able to protect himself until Gaiel’s strength was restored and the Nautolan sliced off the Mandalorian’s primary hand and left leg.
Once the Mandalorian went into shock from his wounds, Gaiel turned to Tserne. “Why are you here and not with Ralina and her crew?”
“They left me here,” Tserne said, with a bit of disappointment in his voice. His eyes drifted away from Gaiel and stared into the distance. “And I sensed that you and Raen were in danger, so I traveled down here.”
“Raen!” Gaiel realized aloud that his pupil was still in danger. Turning, he noticed that Raen was dueling three Mandalorian soldiers by his lonesome—and not doing well. Lubain was among them, and Raen could hardly defend himself against the Mandalorian captain’s double-bladed sword. “There are three of them,” Gaiel noted.
“One for each of us,” Tserne mused.
Gaiel threw his viridian lightsaber toward one of the Mandalorian combatants while Tserne cloaked himself and faded from sight. Gaiel’s weapon cut apart its target’s torso, splitting him in two. Raen, startled by the death of one of his opponents, hardly deflected Lubain’s latest attack in time. Tserne leapt behind the other Mandalorian, and—using his invisibility to approach his opponent—grasped at his throat. Once the Mandalorian was unable to fight Raen, Tserne drove his knife into the warrior’s skull.
Lubain, finding himself alone, stopped attacking and backed away from Raen. “Now, hold on, Raen. I know when I’ve been bested. Let’s not be rash.” His voice seemed less assured and more hesitant than before.
“Rash?” Raen spat. He approached Lubain, lightsaber still in hand. “I’m not rash. A rash man would attack my friends and me on Taris. A rash man would kill my uncle and his family. A rash man would try to ambush me in a Sith base and force me to return to Alderaan. I am not rash.”
“Please, Raen! It was nothing personal. It was just a job,” Lubain shouted.
Raen was deaf to Lubain’s pleas. He smiled a wicked smile as he raised his lightsaber to attack the Mandalorian leader.
“No! No, no, no! Raen, I was forced to hunt you down. De’dlay commanded me to! He said he would kill my men if I didn’t! Let me live, please. You’d never see me again!” Lubain begged, falling to his knees and releasing his weapon from his hands.
“Raen!” Gaiel shouted, arriving at Raen’s side with Tserne in tow. “Listen to him! You cannot kill him. Don’t give into your anger.”
Raen stopped suddenly, centimeters away from Lubain. The Mandalorian deserved to die. He had threatened Raen, his friends, and he would have killed him, had Lubain’s and Raen’s positions been switched. His anger kept whispering in his ear. Kill him. He lowered his lightsaber. Not to attack, but to put it away. Raen deactivated the weapon and extended a hand to Lubain. “I will not give into my anger… let’s go.”
Lubain seemed as though he was about to grasp at his weapon, but decided against it. Reciprocating Raen’s mercy, he grabbed the Jedi’s wrist and allowed himself to be brought to his feet. “Thank you, Raen. Bless you.”
“Not yet. My job’s not done,” Raen muttered. Still grasping Lubain’s wrist, he pulled the mercenary closer and placed the handle of his deactivated lightsaber in between the Mandalorian and him. As the Mandalorian flew toward Raen, the young Force-sensitive’s lightsaber burst forth, piercing the Mandalorian’s chest and sprouting out his back. “I had to satisfy my rage. Join your comrades now,” Raen said, smiling with glee as the leader’s eyes widened in shock.
Raen deactivated his lightsaber, and Lubain’s body staggered backwards. The warrior still had enough life in him to mutter curses at Raen in his native tongue, but Raen did not hear them. Lubain’s body hit the floor before Raen could turn around. Turning to his companion, Raen found himself facing Gaiel’s fist, and a swift punch from the Nautolan Jedi sent him backwards. The strike was strong enough to startle Raen, but it didn’t cause any bleeding.
“What was that for, Gaiel?” Raen growled.
“For not only disobeying my instructions, but misconstruing my words,” Gaiel retorted.
“I dare you to hit me again,” Raen snapped. “It’ll be the last thing you’ll ever do.”
“Are you threatening me, Raen?”
“If I am?”
“As deep as this conversation is,” Tserne interrupted, “Celsus is still fighting that Sith. Should we aid him?”
Gaiel and Raen stared vibrodaggers at each other before directing their attention toward Tserne. He was right. Celsus and Darth Bandon had been fighting the entire time, neither one of them gaining the upper hand on the other. Gaiel sensed that Celsus was tiring, and Raen could tell that the Sith Lord remained strong by fueling himself with the dark side of the Force. The Sith Lord’s lightsaber proved difficult for Celsus to deflect, but he had survived this long.
The two Jedi and their enigmatic companion raced to the Jedi Master’s side. Darth Bandon, noticing their advance, used a quick Force push to throw Celsus away from him and redirected his attention toward his new enemies. Performing another simple Force push, Darth Bandon sent Tserne flying away from him. Gaiel reached Darth Bandon first, and he leapt behind the Sith Lord and struck at his back. However, his opponent was ready, and his second blade easily parried Gaiel’s strike. When Raen arrived, he split his focus and started a two-way countering motion that refused to surrender to the offensive of the Jedi pair.
Celsus had recovered his bearings by now, and he returned to the fray. Raen—tired as he was—was distracted by the Jedi Master’s arrival, and Darth Bandon used the opening in his foe’s defense to kick Raen in the chest. With the wind knocked out of him, Raen fell on his back and his lightsaber flew out of his hands. Celsus took his place in the duel, and Darth Bandon found himself equally matched yet again.
Raen tried to recover his footing, but Tserne stopped him. “Hold on, Raen. This entire building is going to explode in less than five minutes. We need to get out of here.”
“We need to help Celsus,” Raen snapped back.
“We can’t help him if we’re dead!” Tserne shouted. “Listen, there’s a tram that leads away from this research facility. It’s located about two hundred meters that way,” he said, pointing east. “Let’s go.”
Raen ignored Tserne’s warning. Running toward Darth Bandon, Raen struck at the Sith Lord’s legs. He dodged the attack by performing a quick jump, and then deflected the blows of Raen’s companions. Darth Bandon leapt away, using the Force to propel him away from the Jedi. Spinning his weapon, he goaded the Jedi into attacking him.
Celsus stopped Gaiel from moving in to attack. “Hold on,” the Jedi Master ordered. “This is my fight. You two are done here. I don’t want you to interfere.”
Gaiel frowned. “Master Djan, this isn’t just your fight.”
“This is my fight, and my fight alone! I’ve been waiting to kill this man for years, and now he is here. You two will just be in the way.”
“Celsus,” Gaiel said, “you can’t be blinded by your desire for vengeance. We lost our chance to destroy this base—on our terms—and now you’re going to abandon us?”
“I need to do this! My comrades will not rest if I don’t slay Darth Bandon!” Celsus shouted.
“No! You’re treading too close to the dark side. If you continue down this path, you’ll die!” Gaiel shot back.
“No more words! Go!” Celsus barked.
Raen had already headed off to follow Tserne. Gaiel sighed and nodded. He had made his point. Celsus would fight alone. Contrary to what the Nautolan thought, his words stung the Jedi Master. Celsus moved forward to attack Darth Bandon, but before he did, he turned to face Gaiel, one last time.
“Gaiel,” Celsus said.
“Tell Syme that it was an honor serving as his Jedi Master. I know he’ll become a far greater Jedi than I ever was.”
Gaiel would have thought that Celsus was just being polite if he had said that to him before this mission. Now, though, Gaiel knew the truth. Syme would be a better Jedi than Celsus, because Celsus was no longer a Jedi. If he had ever been a Jedi, then that had been a long time ago. Gaiel nodded silently as he struggled to turn away from him. Nevertheless, Gaiel would be sure that his legacy was untarnished by his actions on Polus. He would make sure Celsus remained a hero. He bid farewell to Celsus one last time before following Raen and Tserne to the exit.
And so, Celsus remained. He was the last one standing yet again. His arms were exhausted, and he was barely able to deflect Darth Bandon’s attacks. His rage goaded him on at first, pushing him onward and closer to his ultimate revenge. Weariness had overcome him, and his plans—all his machinations—seemed so shallow. Sweat raced down his brow and into his eyes, forcing him to blink. He gave his opponent unnecessary opportunities to strike at him, and it turned the battle against him. His muscles were weak after dabbling in the dark side. Now what was it worth since the anger, the hate, and the vengeance were gone? Nothing.
Darth Bandon noticed his weakness. The Sith Lord’s attacks became more ferocious and less predictable. The Jedi Master could no longer bend the Force to his will—as he had been doing—because the dark side had abandoned him. He was so weak, now, that he could not even heal himself. His mind began to wander, in the midst of the battle, back to his allies that had died on Korriban. They had not wanted this. They did not want to become the idols that drove his quest for retribution.
Two realizations hit him at once. He didn’t need revenge on Darth Bandon to remedy his failure. He had sacrificed his companions on Korriban on his quest for power, and he was willing to sacrifice his companions on Polus for a chance at revenge. He had learned nothing, and that was why he could not defeat Darth Bandon. While he was lost in thought, his opponent had severed his entire weapon arm. The Jedi Master was drawn back to reality by the pain, and it dawned upon him that he was nearly defenseless.
Withdrawing the spear on his back, Celsus used his off-hand to deflect Darth Bandon’s next few blows, but he knew it was futile. The spear’s shaft was only able to block lightsaber blows as long as Celsus could maintain a defensive aura around it. His body was shaking, and his remaining arm twitched violently, crying out in pain. The spear shattered into tiny wooden fragments, and Celsus fell to his knees in agony.
This is the end. I failed. I did not avenge you. Tynr, Rorcan, Verlili… I’m sorry.
“And so you fail,” Darth Bandon said, in a hushed voice. A single swing, and the job was done. He cleaved through his foe’s flesh, and his first mission was over. He had killed the last of the Jedi who had attacked Korriban several years ago. Darth Malak would be pleased, but not satisfied. He still had one more mission to do yet. “Revan shall meet the same fate.”
Raen, Gaiel, and Tserne took the tram from the Sith base. Their vehicle was surprisingly fast, and it had raced through the subterranean tunnels and reached its destination before the base itself exploded. Disembarking at a transit hub, the two Jedi and their companion left the safety of the underground and returned to the harsh, freezing environment of Polus’s surface.
“So, I suppose we’re going to Coruscant now?” Raen asked.
“You mean, you’re still coming with me?” Gaiel answered with a question of his own. “I thought you were done with me.”
“No… I… I still have to face my trial for the death of Tor’chal. That’s all.”
“Well, then. We should head to Ambria first. I have some business to attend to there before we travel to Coruscant,” Gaiel explained.
“Is Tserne coming with us?” Raen asked, turning to the assassin at their side.
“If he would like.”
Tserne stood there, silent, for a brief moment. He placed his hand at his chin, as though he were thinking deeply on the subject. “No. I do not deserve to follow you Jedi. I will find my own way off Polus.”
Gaiel clasped the enigma’s shoulder. “You saved my life today. If you ever need anything, the Jedi Order will welcome you.”
Tserne smiled coyly. “I don’t think so. Thanks anyway.” He turned invisible, and left their sight. Footprints alluded to his destination, but the Jedi would not pursue them, and the light snowfall would soon erase all trace of them.
Once he had departed, Gaiel motioned for Raen to follow him. Making sure he still had his lightsaber with him, Raen followed the Jedi Knight to the nearest village. As they left, Raen turned toward the transit hub, looking in the direction of the Sith base. He didn’t know if Celsus survived—he couldn’t sense him—and probably would never find out. He hoped that Celsus found closure and peace before he finished his duel with the Sith Lord he struggled with. Bidding one last farewell to the Jedi who had aided him a year before, Raen picked up the pace and followed Gaiel through the snow.