Of course, while battle raged in the Crusader Kingdoms, the rest of the multiverse was not standing still.
In the Core Earth New York Amarant Solutions offices, the computers had sorted the last couple of hours worth of magical-service requests, possible gate-operation, manifold-guidance, mission, and bodyguard contracts, and currently-open manifold-rescue rewards, into categories – assigning priorities according to urgency, ethics, legality, humanitarian principles, profitability, practicality, likely expense and duration, probable publicity results, and other factors, before sending them to the core support team for human evaluation. While hiring a Core staff had freed up some of the Thralls to transfer to the mission teams, business had been increasingly steadily for weeks. Even with new recruits to reinforce them, priorities had to be set.
One new rescue-reward offer rated pretty high in a lot of those categories. What with the troubles with the weaponized memes, the ongoing disruptions, and the increasing number of semi-random direct assaults on Core from the Manifold, risk-comparisons were no longer so strongly weighted against visits to the Manifold. As importantly, the benefits of acquiring some personal psychic or magical power were looming a lot larger, and training under natural laws that made such abilities easy to learn and practice was the best (approved; the advisability of going to Kadia and signing up with Kevin was still under investigation) way to do it.
There had been a steady trickle of youngsters and young adults who headed into the Manifold to attend various training programs and manifold-based “boarding schools” ever since the Opening. Under current conditions, quite a lot more of those programs fitted into the “benefits outweigh the risks” category, the computers had begun approving under less stringent circumstances, and the trickle had become a steady stream.
In this case it was a group of forty-three youngsters who’d taken a charter trip – thankfully, with a competitor – to one of the quieter and more isolated New Imperium Jedi Academies. That wasn’t a bad choice in itself; any youngster from Core could learn the basics, the New Imperium had a fairly sensible program, the New Jedi Academies had decent services and defenses, and most of the remoter worlds of the New Imperium were pretty quiet places to be.
What with the disturbances in Crusader, and the attacks on the transport hubs there, they’d routed through Pastoral Italy, the Cotholds, and (finally) Vandor-3, in the Coruscant System of the New Imperium – where they’d be taking a modest chartered passenger ship to the Academy. According to the notice and reward offer, Pastoral Italy and the Cotholds had gone well, but something had gone wrong on Vandor-3 – and the forty-three kids, sans guide, had gone missing.
With a high reward offered, a probable short-and-cheap mission – how lost could kids get in less then a day on Vandor-3? – good humanitarian value, likely good publicity value, and (apparently) complete legality, that was well worth looking into immediately.
Alys started routing queries. They had some agents and contacts in the New Imperium, and good communications, so they got into touch with them to try and get some more details.
The guide was easy enough to trace; he’d been jailed overnight by the local port authorities on drunk-and-disorderly charges (didn’t these people know better than to step into a bar in the New Imperium?).
The port authorities – unable to raise the ship – had sent over a couple of stormtroopers from the detachment drilling nearby to notify the passengers that there’d be a transport delay for a day or so. Somebody on board had started firing up the ship systems at that point, and the Port Authority had detected it and promptly sent the rest of the stormtroopers heading for the ship to prevent any possible unqualified joy-riding – falling neatly, of course, into one of the New Imperium’s basic event-sequences. Whoever was on the bridge – probably some of the kids had been checking themselves out on the piloting systems and had turned everything, including the communications gear, off while they were doing it – apparently concluded that their “best option” was to escape, and took off immediately.
Oh DAMN. No wonder the reward was high. They’d gotten lost on a starship.
Wait a moment… blasting out ahead of a bunch of pursuing storm troopers was a standard realm-jumping procedure for getting from the New Imperium to the Old Empire. Depending on where in the sequence they’d wound up, that could be pretty bad.
Alys got in touch with the mission-team leaders.
“Joel! Taniel! We’ve got an urgent one! A bunch of would-be Jedi youngsters decided that it would be a good idea to try to outrun the storm troopers rather than find out what they wanted, tried blasting out ahead of the pursuit, and have almost certainly wound up in the Old Empire. We’d probably have to take this one anyway, but the retrieval reward is pretty good too. Do you think we can track them? We do have some information sources in the Old Empire.”
(Joel) “More kids out there? Well, it’s worth a try.”
(Taniel) “Where might they have wound up do you think? We’ve got some Dark Sun connections in the Old Empire, but we’ll have to decide where to look.”
(Joel) “Hmm . . . how many stormtroopers are we talking about here?”
(Alys) “It looks like it was about forty; the entire starport security detachment was out for drill and got sent to try to keep the joyriders from taking off.”
(Joel) “Ah, dammit. That’s a pretty big stormtrooper squad. Any idea which world it was from?”
(Alys) “It was Vandor-3, one of the secondary worlds in the Coruscant system and a minor hub. They were headed for one of the new Jedi Academies.”
(Taniel) “Coruscant… hmm, think they’d be on Coruscant?”
(Alys) “Not if they’ve got the sightest lick of sense! Security around there wouldn’t go easy on an unauthorized ship in the Old Empire period!”
(Joel) “These are KIDS we’re talking about.”
(Taniel) “Would-be Jedi kids… Oooh CRAP. The only major old-empire action on Coruscant is the pre-takeover sequence! Guess where a bunch of would-be Jedi kids would fit into that plotline?”
(Joel) “Ugh. Hostages, human shields, or worse. We don’t have much time to waste.”
(Taniel) “Worse I think… About the only place for Jedi Kids in that sequence is being corrupted by the Emperor or in the massacre scene.”
(Joel) “Wonderful. Still, hopefully they’re before the massacre rather than in the imperial period. Alys! Find out how recent the last reset on Coruscant was!”
Coruscant was apparently towards the end of the clone wars sequence. It looked like Palpatine was currently maneuvering in the Senate – although he might have a soul again this time around, he was deviating a bit from the usual pattern. They also managed to confirm that at least one ship – which didn’t mean much around that kind of traffic center – and a sizeable group of young humans – which meant a lot more – had been taken in to custody quite recently.
(Taniel) “Right… Emergency kits: Blasters, Grenades, Thermal Detonators, Light Sabres, Smartclothes, Medical Packs, skimmer with some Bacta Tanks? Oh yeah, Rope. Anything else?”
(Joel) “Duct tape, or whatever they use. We’re going to a cinematic realm, after all.”
Besides, Duct Tape was a very Jedi thing. It had it’s light side, it had it’s dark side, it was very difficult to handle or use properly, and it held the universe together.
(Taniel) “Right… They’ll either be in port custody or be in Jedi custody. If it’s port, that’s easy; wait for the takeover and just buy the bunch of them when the new orders go into the computers.”
(Joel) “What if they’re with the Jedi? I’m not sure we can handle all of them.”
(Taniel) “Well, they won’t be in very good shape after some of them go to deal with Palpatine – otherwise Anakin couldn’t have walked in to pull off a massacre – so we’ve just got to get in ahead of him and escape with them.”
(Joel) “Hmm. I say we head straight to the Jedi temple once we get there. You can never have too many extras when you’re making a movie. Especially for big dramatic scenes.”
(Alys) “Right… Well, here’s the gear: there are forty-three kids, so both available teams I think. Six of us then. It looks like the quickest available routes are Crusader-Anarch-Linear Realms – Coruscant, or Death Valley – Old Empire Tattooine – catch a ship.”
Jeol and Taniel – the mission team leaders – opted for the Death Valley-Old Empire Tattooine route. They didn’t have a lot of time, and Crusader was still a mess ,as well as tending to suck you into superheroic subplots without notice.
They took a flit.
Tattooine was, of course, broiling hot, rocky, and haunted by sand-people. In fact, the Jawa were in the area as the flit-turned-speeder suddenly broke down almost immediately after passing through the gate into the sand-choked valley. They immediately offered to take it off the team’s hands in exchange for more water and a map and a compass.
Joel expressed doubts about their trustworthiness.
“Of course we trustworthy are! Good as Yoda! Much more better! New and Improved! Protocol Droid for sale Cheap!”
Well, they weren’t exactly equipped for a month’s stay, but they had known that they might have to walk. It would be a pain and slower than using a vehicle, but they did have water and supplies. The compass was totally redundant anyway. The Smartclothes were more than capable of that kind of navigation.
They decided to take their chances in the horrible desert.
“So terrible! We will mourn your deaths most extravagantly!”
If they left the Jawa would collect the “speeder” anyway – so they whipped up a little sandstorm to dissuade them and protect it. With six of them available, it wouldn’t be too much of a drain on their resources…
The howling wind sent the Jawa running back to their vessel as the sandstorm blew up. It was a pain to set off into, but at least they should be out of it shortly. A bit of local editing hopefully wouldn’t set off anything that would stretch all the way to the wretched hive of scum and villainy that was Mos Eisley.
Of course, as they were passing through a narrow gorge, they were abruptly surrounded by attacking sandpeople – several well-hidden behind boulders in the front, more lining the sides of the ravine. A good crossfire setup, with plenty of cover for the attack.
Given that nature of the realm, that was hardly a surprise – but the fact that they were using concussion grenades, stun-sticks, blasters set to stun, and nets definitely was. Several of the team-members were thrown around like matchsticks by the massive concussions, and slammed into the walls of the ravine with stunning force.
Joel and Taniel were experienced mission leaders though. They hit the ravine walls beneath the sandpeople lining the edges of the cut in front of them with massed blaster fire. With any luck they could bring a lot of rock and several of the ambushers on the ravine walls down on top of the ones in front of them. It might block the way, but so what? They could manage some levitation if they had to.
The walls tumbled, sending three of the sandpeople crashing to the earth and boulders bouncing. Two more were flattened beneath the pile – but the sandpeople’s response was to open fire with a high-powered blaster cannon and fragmentation munitions.
That was WEIRD. The sandpeople weren’t usually much for well-prepared ambushes, much less for that kind of gear… They were using enough firepower to put their victory in serious doubt. Two blaster cannons set up for a crossfire from cover down the ravine? Low enough not to seriously endanger their own men?
Oh never mind. Win first, theorize later. Joel, Taniel, Lena, and Sary used enough levitation to leap out of the ravine to get to their attackers – and out of line-of-sight of those damned cannon.
“Orgh Bloch Kogh!” (Roughly: “Oh Shit! Jedi!)
The positions above the edge were carefully prepared, there was a lower area under an overhang with a couple of speeders parked, and some supplies scattered around. Weren’t sandpeople supposed to be low-tech? What was going on around here?
Still, there were only two guarding the speeders, and one of them had abandoned the post in favor of reinforcing his friends… Lena went down in the crossfire, but she’d live – and they could pretty easily handle some sandpeople in an even fight, even outnumbered three to one.
There was a force-cell restraint with a couple of unconscious teenagers in it with the speeders as well. Both wearing smartclothes – and, at this range and with line-of-sight, their own smartclothes were picking up the distress beacon despite the interference of the force-cell.
Joel spent the magic for some sleep-spells. He wanted to ask a few questions. Taniel had the same idea, but went with paralysis-magic.
By the time they finished off the ambush, and the twenty-odd sandpeoplewho’d been running it, they’d had some hand-to-hand, a lot more weapons fire, and several more explosions. It looked like they’d need an hour or two to heal and about half a day to regain their powers. Still, that should be easy enough to take care of on the trip to Coruscant, that was a couple of days at a minimum.
They also had six prisoners. That was pretty impossible normally – the sandpeople usually didn’t cooperate with anyone well enough for that kind of thing – but they had used magic. Besides, they were supposed to be tribal primitives, and this bunch were operating blaster cannons and force field systems. What was going on here? Who gave them this stuff?
They resorted to charms, compulsions, and telepathic probing.
It looked like they were working with the Jawa, who used field-disruption projectors under the sand to sabotage vehicles that come into the valley (where the gate was), and then sold them drugged water. Anyone who made it this far, the sandpeople collected. They were well paid for the captives they got, so they refrained from lethal force. Sadly, they had no idea who the buyer was, they considered that dealing with the Jawa was repulsive enough.
Well, that was a nasty scam. Also one that really should not be carrying through the usual resets – unless someone powerful around here had acquired a soul.
The two unconscious core teenagers in the force-field bubble had souls of course. None of the sandpeople seemed to – although it would probably take someone with more local power and large-scale influence to keep a scam like this intact through the resets. Had someone moved in?
Taking down the force field was easy enough, and the youngsters were drugged but healthy enough. What to do with them? They couldn’t send them back to the Jawa, it wasn’t like there was a good place around here to drop them off, and dragging them along might make things rather awkward. There weren’t any handy gates to use, and making one was only an option for Openers like Kevin. They were both decent prospects for recruitment, and they could conduct the basic witchcraft pact easily enough while in space. That would mean that if they got killed they’d just wind up in Kadia. Of course, by what “local law” there was, they were salable property and they could just board them somewhere in Mos Eisley.
Besides, now they had two heavy speeders and they wouldn’t have to walk.
Once they woke up, they could make the recruitment offer, board them, and let them think about it – and, if they didn’t want to be recruited, charge them the usual fee for being rescued.
Mos Eisley was thriving; it looked like business was good locally. Of course, the place was an alternative shipping route what with the trade disputes and the clone wars. There were even several freighters and one crummy passenger vessel heading for Coruscant within the next few days. There were busy markets – including a slave market – and quite a few jawa around. Quite a few of the slaves up for sale had souls – and were in suspiciously good shape. It looked like someone was systematically preying on the traffic from Core.
Of course, most people who headed to the Old Empire from Core were looking for adventure, or some such, and could be expected to vanish for at least a while anyway. Could someone be looking for souls to fill a realm?
Joel dug deep into the cash reserves, purchased and boarded the sixty-odd ensouled slaves on the market, and told them they were being rescued, even if they were going to be charged a (quite reasonable) fee for it. The younger ones could consider working for Kevin too – and another team could be sent to get them all back to Kadia. It looked like they’d all be willing to sensibly wait to be evacuated.
They sold off the six sandpeople while they were at the markets too. They were mildly unusual – captured sand-people were fairly rare – and it helped offset the cost of purchasing the other slaves and boarding them for a bit.
The local “police” – such as they were – were waiting to see them when got back from the slave market. They seemed to be pretty corrupt, and were looking to either arrest them or get quite a large bribe. Still, they folded pretty easily before the massed mental power of six Thralls – and they spent a few minutes finding out what THEY knew about what was going on.
They had some general background information on the Clone Wars – but they knew that their job was to prevent anyone who didn’t have connections and wouldn’t be missed from actually leaving the planet except as a slave – especially if they know anything. Selling the sandpeople just after the ambush crew quit reporting had definitely roused some interest.
Secondarily, they knew that Coruscant – as always – needed food and supplies, and that a lot of the other routes were currently cut off. If that kept up, Jabba would soon have enough money to build the palace of his dreams – and he was getting the place organized, trying to bring the Jawa, Sandpeople, and Mos Eisley all into his criminal empire. He’d even acquired some exotic tech from somewhere – personal (if relatively weak) force field systems, excellent skintight body armor, and some much-improved computer systems.
Well, that sounded awfully familiar. Core tech. It would mostly work in this realm. Taking it away from travelers and then selling the travelers perhaps?
He was apparently trying to move up in the Black Sun organization.
Oh boy… Still, NOT their mission right now. Well, they’d have a couple of days to recover from the effort during the trip – so they pushed “We are not the slave traders you are looking for” into the cops heads and headed off to Coruscant. That would take four or five days…