We buried the clones outside, in the living dirt of Korriban, because that's what the Skywalker wanted. I didn't even complain; the mindless toil with shovel and sweat is better than any meditation I've ever come across, and I wanted to forget just then the small half-formed bodies I'd had to cut down because of one mad "Jedi." Illanova Skywalker, for her part, didn't shirk the work either. We spent hours at work with our spades, until the sun went down and the moons came up.
I sat on the mounds, filthy and exhausted save for my tireless prosthetic left arm, as the Skywalker fetched us a meal from her living ship: tubers that pulsed hot as body heat, and hollow gourds filled with a thin salty-sweet sap. She dug in to hers as readily as I did, and for perhaps a moment I forgot how she'd cajoled and blackmailed me into this. Only for a moment.
"Eiven," she said. In the light of two of Korriban's moons, I could see the pale green veins running just beneath her almost translucent skin. Her head looked like one of those flowers that only blossoms by moonlight, the strange plant-like "hair" turned a pale silver. A shudder went through us both then, a pulse in the Force that came like thunder, and passed as slowly.
"What is it?" I said. I had a bad feeling about this.
"I don't know," she said. "But great-grandpa wants to talk to you about it."
An apparition appeared over her left shoulder, limned in a faint blue aura against the night sky. He looked like an older human male in a black jumpsuit with black gloves, and his smile reached all the way to his eyes. I recognized the face. Most people alive would have.
"Skywalker." I spat the words.
"Eiven Task." He said, the words echoing in my head. "You did a good job here. A pity about Ammas, but he had lost his way quite badly."
"What do you want?" I said.
"I have another job for you."
My anger spiked, and it must have showed on my face because Illanova went from standing to a slight fighting crouch. They already held a bounty over my head from the tournament on Tatooine, and that and being broke had gotten me to do their dirty work. Now they wanted to dangle me on a leash...
"What was promised will be delivered." He said, holding up his left hand. "The bounty will still get removed. You'll still get paid. More, even. But something has come up and you're in the perfect position to do what has to be done. Something I can't ask a Jedi to do." He gave an intangible pat on the shoulder to his adopted great-granddaughter. "Even you my dear."
"And what can I do that a Jedi can't?"
The Skywalker told me. Then I smiled.
Korriban was lousy with temples of the Old Sith. Hundreds of generations built them, warred over them, lost them. There were entire villages whose houses had been scavenged block by block from millennium-old pyramids that had resonated with the Dark Side of the Force. Walk down any dusty street and a Force-sensitive could feel the tug from the stone, like wading at the beach and feeling the tide suck at your feet.
This temple was different from the others. There were signs of life and reclamation. Piles of new-turned earth, pre-fabricated huts erected around fresh-dug firepits and latrines. It reminded me of another camp, over a year ago, a tomb of a Prophet of the Dark Side...the artifact I had stolen from that adventure throbbed where I had installed it in my cybernetic left arm, and I became aware of the others lurking around. Force adepts, Sith acolytes, and three potent pillars of rage and hate that throbbed in my awareness. That would be their masters. My own signature in the Force was damped by the Sith runes I had carved into my flesh, a potent and rare piece of lore that lessened my own abilities. I hoped it would be worth it.
I was here to make an impression, and chose to go through the front door. That is how they first saw me: limned from behind by the alien sunlight, clad in spotlight white armor in the mold of the old Imperial Royal Guard, with a floor-length white robe on top of that, and in my hand a meter-and-a-half metal staff - my lightsaber-pike, though none of them would know that until it was ignited. My visor automatically adjusted for the darkness within the temple as I strode forward. The shadows moved around me, acolytes in black robes - I counted seven, moving as one, eyes accustomed to the darkness.
At an unseen signal, they all lit their lightsabers at once, the bloodshine blades flaring into life, casting the temple antechamber in crimson shadows. The fools. I was already moving as they struck, half-blinded by the sudden light, and my staff caught the first one by the throat with a sickening crunch. They moved mechanically through the forms they had been taught as if programmed, still unable to see properly, never trained to extend their senses to foresee their opponent's move, only their Force-heightened instincts preventing them from injuring themselves or each other. I took them apart quickly and efficiently, not bothering to ignite my own weapon, but using it sometimes as a club, tripping legs and crushing skulls, knees, and elbows. In less time than it takes to tell it, they lay on the ground, with only the sound of their moans and gurgles.
I stepped over their broken bodies, and stepped into the inner temple.
There was an altar there, and seated around it three Sith lords, their half-naked bodies marked by blue-black tattoos. I didn't recognize the race of the other two, but the middle one was human. He was the only one that did not rise as I entered unbidden, and whose hand did not stray to the lightsaber at his wrist. We regarded each other for a moment, and I knew that his extrasensory perceptions focused on me then with unnerving attention.
"I know you." He said. "The tournament on Tatooine. Eiven Task. Jedi-killer. Sith-killer. Who fled across the galaxy with seven holocrons. What do you want here?"
"A seat at the table."
"Because I have something." Reaching into my robe, I pulled out a glassy yellow cube, strode forward and placed it on the altar between them. "Recently, I took this from a rogue Jedi. It contains the technical data of Imperial experiments carried out to clone Force-users - and to enhance their attunement to the Force, and the mass-production of lightsabers and synthetic lightsaber crystals. All you need to create a generation of acolytes...or an army."
"Very...interesting." He reached down and picked up the cube. The other two Sith masters did not move. I stood still, projecting ease and confidence. If it came to a fight, I could handle one, perhaps two, but not all three.
"We didn't sense you come up."
"A talent. You would be surprised what I have learned, with seven holocrons at my disposal."
"I'm certain. Our acolytes in the outer chamber?"
"Alive, for now." He raised a tattooed eyebrow. "I do not care for waste."
He nodded, staring again at the cubic infocron in his hand.
"How did you find us?"
"I...sensed you. From halfway across the planet. A ripple in the Force that drew me here."
He nodded again, one thumb tracing the lines of circuity embedded in the infocron.
"And what do you want for your...gift?"
I leaned close. "Partnership. The strongest branch, by itself, will always break; the sharpest stone is that which is sharpened against another stone. I require allies and peers against which to measure myself."
The Sith on my right hissed, flashing a long, pointed tongue. "You challenge us?"
"I seek to be challenged." I replied, turning my attention to him.
"He is a Sith-killer," the one on the left said, a pale yellow sweat dripping down her tall forehead. "We can kill him, and take the cube."
"Enough." The human Sith said, laying his hands at the table.
"Darth...Task presents us with a credible offer of service. We could probably take what we want from him, but better to gain an ally than waste our strength against a skilled opponent."
The two Sith lowered their weapons, though their stances said they were both ready for a fight.
"If you are to join us, however, you will need to see what we are about. Come."
There were crypts beneath the temple. I could feel the angry spirits behind the walls, still tied to their bones, hanging tenaciously on to this world when long ago they should have gone to the Netherworld of the Force. The human, Darth Kieron, led the way; the others saw to the acolytes. Alone, we descended into the darkness beneath the surface of cursed Korriban.
"There was a legend...isn't there always?" the Sith said, holding up a glow-torch. "Palpatine was not the first to clone a Jedi, or to seek to enhance their powers. Many Sith down through the long centuries have dabbled in those dark sciences - genetics, cybernetics, drugs, sorcery and alchemy. We knew, even before we had the words for it, that the ability to use the Force was stronger in some than in others...that it was a combination of heritage, psyche, training, and experience. Aspects physical and psychological. But what the Old Sith strove for with eugenics and abominations was achieved quite by accident, nearly four thousand years ago. A mutant."
He stopped at a sarcophagus, sealed with ancient Sith runes in the high formal temple script, and as well by quite advanced technological locks. I could feel the hum of the ancient engines in the wall that still powered the coffin and kept it inviolable.
"The Force was strong with her. They say she was nearly invulnerable to weapons, even the primitive energy-swords of the era. She could walk on air and had the strength to pull down the temples around her, only to walk out unscathed, and when confronted her stare could reduce her opponents to ash. It took a thousand Sith just to contain her."
"And you want to let her out?" I said, striving to keep the incredulity out of my voice. The human snorted.
"No. She was uncontrollable then, and if she is even alive in there after all these centuries, she'll be completely mad now. I thought of using her as a living weapon against the Jedi - a bomb to drop upon their temple and slaughter their padawans. Now," he lifted the infocron "A better idea presents itself. With the data you have provided, we can clone an army of such Sith mutants...a new race of super-Sith, each a veritable demigod in the Force!"
"Intriguing." I said.
There was a rumble down the steps. The other two Sith masters appeared, with their bruised and bloody acolytes in tow.
"A Jedi ship approaches! We are betrayed." The female hissed.
The human Sith ignited his lightsaber. "Traitor!" he shouted.
"Naturally," I said, and mentally thumbed a button on my belt pouch. The "infocron" in his left hand exploded in a flash of burning metal and crystal, the fragments of which ricocheted around the room and continued to burn, causing the unarmored Sith to cry out in pain and alarm. The shaped charge had removed the human's arm to the elbow, leaving a blackened stump, and half his face was burned almost to the bone, the left eye flash-boiled and blind. I brought the heavy heel of my boot down on his throat. I felt his hate seethe as he fought for life, but it eventually abandoned him with a wheezing rattle.
The other Sith came at me, style forgotten momentarily in their rage and the cramped hallway. The woman came first, and I sidestepped the woman's thrust and caught her by the throat with my cybernetic left hand; she tried to scream as I lifted her off the ground and smacked her head into the wall, then scraped her face across it in a wide arc that left a smear of yellow blood behind. The hissing male tried to strike while I was distracted, and was surprised when I dropped my staff and grabbed his burning blade with my right hand. Plastic and ceramic smoked, melted, and burned but my grip held as I pushed the pain away, all my attention and power focused on my right hand, hard as Mandalorian iron.
The Sith was dumbstruck at the feat, but not stupid. After a moment's attempt to batter the blade away, he clicked to disengage it. Too late he realized his mistake as my hand shot free - a hand that could hold a burning lightsaber - and ripped straight through the flesh of his unprotected throat. I ripped out a handful of muscle and cartilage and watched him collapse and drown in his own blood. By the time he died, I looked back to the female Sith, left forgotten on my tireless artificial left arm. His face was an alarming color, the eyes sightless. I took a moment to snap her neck for good measure, then let her body fall to the ground. The acolytes did nothing as I retrieved my lightsaber-pike.
The bravest one spoke up.
"Dark lord...Darth...what do we call you? Master?"
"I've only one lesson to teach you, my young apprentices." I thumbed the switch, and the silvery-white blade of my lightsaber-pike flared into life. "Be very careful whom you call Master."
By the time I took a third step toward the stairwell, the acolytes had fled. By the time I had exited the temple, they were already hastily packing up camp. Illanova was there, in her living ship, and towed behind it was my own vessel. In the sunlight, her hair was a bright yellow-green, and she was dressed in a kind of barkleather bikini to catch as much sunlight on her skin as possible while remaining decent.
"The bounty's off," she said. "Just like we promised. And I had your ship refueled, the credits placed in your account." The Skywalker looked a bit wistful. "Where will you go now?"
My hand burned. Old wounds ached, beneath my armor. I was tired in body and spirit, and her words finally crystallized in my mind a need I had long put off, and only now could give voice to.
"I'm going to get laid."