In the Belly of the Beast
Theynur Kötturinn the Farghul explorer & Force sensitive played by Burke in our End of Empire campaign, is inside a large room that is a mix of austere & luxurious monochrome; something exactly like a visiting Admiral's quarters on board the Praetor-class Super Star Destroyer The Claw, along with the astroprobe AK-88 "Kaytee". Her vocalization "on screen" has sounded something like a Viper probe droid babbling in Imperial code, & like Binary or any language in Star Wars, it is based on narrative context whether or not a given person can understand her. Joey, taking the droid over as a side character, decides that given her origins as an "Empire friendly" product, it makes sense that more Imperials can understand her than not.
- AK-88; "Katee": Like most Arakyd products, the basic concept behind their astromech probot was to take a successful civilian droid & reverse engineer a more expensive military model. To that end, they designed the AK-series with the secondary purpose of in-combat starship sabotage; departing the astromech socket mid-dogfight & slinking across space on their repulsors to tear open ship hulls & burn out enemy systems. When the player characters first reactivated AK-88, they missed her combat & self-destruct capabilities; since then Katee has focused on cyphers & codebreaking, while the programs for her primary functions of computing & astrogation have continued to evolve, as has her personality matrix.
As Theynur buckles on her gear, the door whisks open, revealing one of the other strangers in the Force vision where the Imperator reached out to Para Totool: Ulma Verbost, Rachel's long time signature character amongst the antagonists, now having dyed her hair blonde; nor from idolization or a sense of fashion, but just as a way of feeling in control of herself, her body. Ulma has a number of character actions involving spending Dark Side points; this does not necessarily mean that Ulma is Force sensitive, but rather, like Para Totool, that she is swept up in the currents of Fate.
- Cornet Ulma Verbost: Last seen commanding the Interdictor Labyrinth, shields down & being blown apart by the ghost ship Insidious, Ulma was among the few who survived the attack, found by the Imperator herself. Pulled from the wreckage & critically injured, the Imperial Praetorians rebuilt her, complete with a cybernetic eye. Her physical battle scars, & her ever-present blast vest, are only the visible signs of the trauma from holding on for dear life in the venting bridge of the ship, separated clean from the rest of the hull by the enemy's phase shifters. Her emotional scars run deeper. She swirls now in the eddies of the Imperator's destiny, & has been appointed as "flagbearer" for the Praetorians, along with a symbolic portion of the Imperator's own authority.
The viewport of the room is partially obscured by a large Oculus-like device, overlaid on a scarlet planet below. A red giant, Domir, blazes huge & hot in the distance, but below there are blood red oceans & seas of ruby mist lurking amongst harsh typography, the planet's teeming swamps & jungles between obsidian crags magnified by the Oculus. For a moment it almost seems to resemble a skull, before Dathomir's clouds move on. & it is getting larger as the starship approaches.
Here There Be Dragons
Imperator Tanda Pryl is here, wearing something like Sly Moore's feather-fur shadowcloak but in pristine white without any shades of grey in the visible spectrum, held shut by Palpatine's rectangular clasp. Her voluminous blonde hair is entwined into two long braids trailing down the front of the robe to below her knees. She is standing by the Oculus when the three of them enter, but when they come in she moves to a small table in the center of the room, motioning for them to shush with a pale, long nailed finger to her lips.
She places her palm on a round shape under a veil, & chants, in a voice that grows rapidly hollow as she intones the words, "Mothers, Sisters; lend me your strength." Below her hand, the curve of an Orb begins to pulse green beneath the sheet, building to a crescendo. Theynur feels it in the Force, but the spell is somehow…different then anything she's felt so far. There is a tingle like a green snap, & a faint static sizzle at the periphery of their vision before she speaks again.
"Theynur, AK-88, thank you for coming. I have gone through quite some trouble to arrange this…opportunity for us to truly speak openly." She acknowledges the droid, but it is clear that her focus is on Theynur, thick with tension. "Coronet Verbost, I would like to grant you permission to speak freely during this discussion. You have demonstrated your loyalty to the best ideals of the Empire, & gone through pain & darkness to follow my orders; that is why I have made you my flag bearer, & it is time to show at least some of my cards."
- Skywalker Hypothesis: "I grew up in the Core, born to a political family & with my whole military career planned out for me. I was a young officer when rumors & classified intel about the destruction of the first Death Star began to circulate around the Empire's whisper network. Piecing together what I could, I came up with what I called "The Skywalker Hypothesis," the idea that these…"Force Sensitive" individuals could be found more often on the Outer Rim. I transferred out there, horrifying my family, who thought I was throwing any real chance at advancement away. On Tatooine I learned about the Skywalker family, though I didn't know Organa was one of the bloodline until the rest of the Galaxy did. That research, of course, brought me to…His attention."
The Dark Knight: "You...really can't imagine Lord Vader. You might have seen holos, you might have heard stories but just…being near him was like being doused in freezing water while grabbing the end of a power cable. Like feeling a planet's shadow, an eclipse, fall on you, holding you down. I thought...I don't remember what I thought when he first came for me. Something like the feeling that the end had come, only...worse. Like he was going to flay me open. & to be honest, that is what he did, in a way; but in the pain & the fear I found power. Something inside of me had always been there, but now it was awake."
The Fall: "Vader…put me on a path. Tasked me with chasing the ghosts of rumors, the odds & ends of history. You see, He didn't exactly betray his Master, it wasn't really like I was His "Apprentice," & I certainly wasn't privy to whatever Sith secrets He & Palpatine were hoarding. I chased the shadows of greater Knowledge, piecing together the occasional crumb He dropped with whatever scraps I gleaned. & I stayed in the fringes of the Outer Rim, where I served with Commander Totool, until I was called away from Elrood to serve in His Death Squadron, to command a Star Destroyer in His own personal fleet. I thought it was the beginning of the next phase of my training. Instead it was the end."
The Reflective Game: "All the secret projects, Harbinger, the Inquisitorius...those were all Palpatine's gambits, & many of them were knives pointed at Lord Vader's back. Some of them are still out there; one of the old Inquisitors has declared herself "Prelate" & has a cadre of disciples in the deep Core. I mentioned the Emperor's love of Shah-tezh; there is a variant called the Reflective Game, in which both players control the same pieces. In the end, the Skywalkers moved against Palpatine; the Knight & the Disciple overthrew the Imperator in his own Demesne."
- The Witch of Endor: "Gilad Pellaeon wasn't a fool, but he wasn't anywhere near up to the task of holding the Empire together. In the anarchy of the immediate aftermath following Lord Vader & the Emperor's demise, I took command of Death Squadron & we secluded ourselves in the mantle of the gas giant Endor. When the celebrations of the Rebels & their cannibal allies died down, I felt a…call to the planet below. I followed the raven, & that is where I met the Witch of Endor. Or what was left of her; after appearing to me, her spectre told me to go to her daughters on Dathomir before fading away like an emerald dream."
Imperial Remnant: "Gallius Rax, the last Counselor to the Empire, was a fool & moreover, a terrorist. He called himself "Counselor" as a joke to those of us aware of the Emperor's game; even he knew he was just the Outcast, Palpatine's last checkmate, a sacrifice to vanity. & Mas Amedda, the final Grand "Vizier" of the Empire? He was a weakling whose surrender to the Republic meant nothing. With virtually no real power, all he provided was a rubber stamp for the bureaucratic class. Everything Rax did, everything, was just a means towards obfuscation, in service of Palpatine's lies."
The Contingency: "The Emperor had a plan for everything, even death. You will certainly remember Project: CINDER, the old Order's last gasp, deploying some of Palpatine's hidden superweapons against former Imperial & new Republic worlds alike, but CINDER didn't end, it was stopped. I stopped it. But the rest of the wheels keep churning & I cannot foresee where they lead. CINDER was only the beginning."
Unknown Regions: "Grand Admiral Sloane was the only one who knew what she was doing in the last days of the old Empire, & where is she now? Somewhere out in the Unknown Regions doing…who knows what. Something…dangerous, I know that. I fear…I didn't think Sloane was the type, but when I reach out for her, I feel Palpatine's poison. She is out there somewhere; I know because the I have felt the last of the Imperial Remnant slipping through my fingers, fleeing this "New Republic" in the guise of some last grand retreat into what Thrawn called 'The Chaos'."
- The Imperial Fleet: "By my count, the Imperial Fleet is significantly more powerful than the decentralized forces of the various local powers that have taken over in the guise of a new "Senate." Our "big secret," but one those accursed Bothans are well aware of, is that for all our advances & resources, almost every one of our ships are working on a skeleton crew…but this is not a problem for my ultimate intentions. You will note that we Praetorians have scrupulously attacked military targets: old depots, declassified bases, naval shipyards. To prevent this fledgling Republic from imploding into a failed state, before the plans in the Unknown Regions can hatch, we intend to extend an offer of help to the Republic, but this time I will negotiate from a place of strength, not from under the heel of defeat."
The Royal Guard: "The Praetorians have three major centers of power. I have the loyalty of most of the military, I am proud to say, & any doubters are silenced by the support of the Royal Guard, about whom you must always remember one important thing: they are a death cult. With their failure to protect the Emperor, they are literally programmed for revenge at any cost. They have their own resources & a small legion of fanatics sworn to their cause, & they have thrown in their lot with me for two reasons: I haven't claimed the throne for myself & I have convince them there is still hope for their Emperor to live again, through Project: STARKILLER."
The Imperial Security Bureau: "The other leg of the tripod is the Imperial Security Bureau, & frankly I am not sure what percentage of it is comprised of intelligence, enforcement, or ops, but I can tell you which internal faction ended up on top: Research & Development, under the command of Director Dalaa at The Maw facility. He…certainly holds the Praetorians no loyalty & he seems happy enough with the power he's accumulated, but his true motives remain opaque to me. Nearby on Kessel, the former sycophants of Minister Tashu, all those pathetic Sith cultists, have gathered, & somehow they are using the Dark Side to cloud any vision of Director Daala.
- Para: "I…am surprised that Commander Totool didn't join us. She always seemed...to have a greater vision. To be loyal to the idea of the Empire rather than Palpatine's twisted monument to vanity. I thought...when I saw Para on the holo-surveilance, I believed I felt her through the Force, I thought she must be part of my destiny. I admit I was...surprised to find you there, looking back at me, & now I think...it was this thing that ties us together that I felt, but which I mistakenly assumed was about our...about my former subordinate."
Jolit: "When I first saw Commander Totool working with that cyborg clone on the Rubicon, I thought she had sided with the Imperial Security Bureau, Director Daala's faction. That's why I reached out to her, that's how I first encountered…you. But now...was that how you found the Observatory on Kamino, by following Daala's footprints, working your way backward from the Vault in the Maw Facility? Are you in touch with Cadacus Dee?"
Theynur: "I spoke truly when I said I want you to be my Hand. It is, of course, not that easy. I could snap my fingers & say it is so but…as I mentioned, there is a delicate balance of power, & in the margins of the balance are all too many opportunities for espionage & assassination. We will test our bond, but in the meantime, I will give you & your droid the code cylinders for every non-classified & non-essential area. I can see the truth, even without the Force: you are trusting me, but not foolishly. Utterly sensible, & I will happily reply in kind. We can take footsteps together towards fealty."
Dathomir: "We are already approaching Dathomir; we will be taking the ship into the atmosphere to facilitate resupply with Twilight Base. Another little lesson I learned from the Rebel Alliance: keep secret stations on remote planets. This is also where you will meet my, & hopefully soon your, Mothers. But all that in due time. Coronet Ulma, will you show Theynur to the surprise we've been working on for her in Hangar Bay 327? & after that, bring her to The Garden," you can practically hear the capital letters, "so that I can introduce her to Ichor."
Race You To the Surface!
With the mechanical whine of opening blast doors, we cut to the hangar bay of The Claw, with the three of them waking in, down a corridor of racked TIE fighters & parked shuttles, flanked by looming AT-ATs, to where their ship is. While Katee & Theynur have been "entertained" by the Imperator, legions of Praetorian grease monkeys have been hard at work on their X-wing before making them selves scarce in anticipation of letting them enjoy the moment. Adding dagger-like solar panels to the ship, the pit crew have given it a slightly more "Imperial" profile, as well as adding significantly to its speed. The high-output ion engine, on top of the standard Incom turbine, will make the "X-ceptor" as fast (or faster) than an A-wing or the standard TIE Interceptor.
That's when they here the door maglocks activate & the hangar power down, going lights out. The airlocks are sealed, but the vehicle gravity locks are off, as is the hangar bay forcefield. Luckily, between the advanced sensor array of AK-88, the cat-like eyes of Theynur & Ulma's cybereye, they are all able to see in the dark. Before they have a chance to discover that comms are blocked, they all hear an uncanny sound, one each of them recognizes for different reasons: the sound of sealed tibanna gas "unspinning" right before an explosion.
The good news is that the Imperator was not so foolish as to fuel & arm their X-ceptor, so it does not explode, but they are all rattled, scraped & scarred & a little shellshocked as the hanger bay bursts into flame, despite diving behind cover. The bad news is that klaxons immediately begin to blare & sirens flash as the hangar bay's exterior blast doors start opening. Ulma, Kaytee & Theynur hold on as best they can but are sucked out into the ruby horizon of low-pressure in the upper atmosphere, as The Claw has begun its planetary descent. Defenestrated, they are all further battered about by wreckage while being sucked out into red nothingness.
Spinning out in free fall, the humanoids struggle to right themselves while the astroprobe droid's radial symmetry & repulsor drives are right at home in the maelstrom. Strain from the gravitational forces & disorientation from the spin begin piling up, but despite a piece of permasteel rebar through her leg, Ulma manages to collide with AK-88, though in the process the droid's inertial stabilizers are blown out. As Theynur uses her connection to the Force to pull herself toward the cockpit, a piece of debris slashes her, but she's in, & Katee leaves Ulma clinging to the hull as she hover-slots herself into the falling ship's droid socket. With a heave, Ulma is in, as the droid & pilot do their best to regain control; as previously mentioned, they are without any fuel, as the X-cepter glides down into a crash landing on the planet Dathomir.