Thursday, May 11, 2023

Let's celebrate the 40th anniversary of Return of the Jedi!

It's hard to believe Return of the Jedi came out 40 years ago!

The movie opened on May 25, 1983. It's the third and final movie in the original trilogy. I still remember seeing it as a kid. The movie ran for a long time and got a rerelease in 1984, so that may have been when I saw it. Seriously, I was not very old, but I still remember the rancor and the big space battle at the end.

Jedi is my favorite Star Wars movie. I once argued with a middle school teacher about it being the best of the Star Wars movies. He was convinced that honor belonged to The Empire Strikes Back, and while 13-year-old me disagreed, 42-year-old me can at least see where he was coming from. "Favorite" doesn't always mean "best," and people can certainly make an argument that the original Star Wars (or A New Hope, if you prefer) is the best of the three. 

A couple stories about the movie. First of all, we didn't own a copy of it for a long time. I remember a Friday pizza night when my family went to the video store to rent a movie and came out with Return of the Jedi even though we'd already watched it several times. I'm pretty sure this whole thing exhausted my mom, who was probably thinking NOT AGAIN when her sons plucked Jedi off the shelf.

Yes, Mom, we wanted to see it again. Because it is the best Star Wars movie.

Or at least our favorite.

The movie premiered on a local network affiliate some years later. My brother was having eye surgery in Indianapolis at the time, and my parents were away to be with him, so I was with my grandmother for the weekend. I was all amped up to see the movie, but more importantly, I had a fresh VHS tape in my grandmother's VCR so I could record it and watch it over and over (so long, video rental fees!). 

Disaster struck. 

I hit record, but the VCR didn't respond. As I freaked out, my grandmother finally called my uncle, who calmly informed us that you had to hold down the record and play buttons at the same time in order to get her VCR to tape something. We missed the opening crawl and Vader's arrival on the second Death Star. My taped-off-TV version of Jedi started with with Threepio and Artoo walking to Jabba's palace.

I finally got proper home releases of all three movies for Christmas in 1991 or 1992. The "uncut" version of Jedi finally had the opening crawl and Vader's arrival ("Perhaps I can find new ways to motivate them"). It was also missing awkward splices from skipped commercials (the old pause-record method), station logos, and the "edited for television" disclaimers.

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the other Star Wars movies, Del Rey released anthologies featuring forty stories, one to commemorate each year since release. The A New Hope version came out in 2017, while the Empire version came out in 2020.

This year, it's Return of the Jedi's turn.

I would love to say I have a story in the anthology, but I don't have that kind of clout or renown. Still, I decided to write a few stories of my own. These are pure fanfiction, nothing more. While I keep up on Star Wars, I've not read every comic and novel in the Disney era. Thus, I chucked out Star Wars canon. A few things are nods to the old Legends continuity.

Will the stories conflict with something established elsewhere? Probably. Do I care? Not one bit.

I had several ideas! Probably not enough to write 40 individual stories, but you never know. I finally settled on writing six of them...since Return of the Jedi is Episode VI. 

Here are the summaries:

A Whole Case of Trouble.
Lando Calrissian, working deep undercover in Jabba's palace to lay the groundwork for Han Solo's rescue, encounters a stylish spacer with a big problem and a rare, expensive case of liquor.

Many Bothans Lived.
A Bothan spymaster's network uncovers plans for a new Death Star, setting off a calamitous series of events.

Terror Bears.
 An elite group of stormtroopers, cut off from Imperial forces during the Battle of Endor, tries to outwit fearsome jungle warriors with grisly results.

The Fall of Palpatine.
As he plummets toward apparent oblivion, Emperor Palpatine reflects on his failed plot to destroy the Rebel Alliance once and for all with a daring gambit above the forest moon of Endor.

TurncoatAn Imperial spy embedded within a Rebel squadron loathes everything about her wingmen until the Empire reveals its true nature.

An Older Code. An Imperial technician on the Executor recognizes a shuttle carrying an older code, a clear violation of protocol. Why does no one seem to care? Didn't they finish the Imperial-mandated security training?

Commentary: An Older Code

This is commentary for An Older Code.

This story is inspired by a pivotal scene in Return of the Jedi in which Darth Vader allows a shuttle carrying a technical crew for the forest moon to land even though it's carrying an older code.

I understand why this happens. Vader senses Luke aboard the shuttle and lets it pass because he’s more interested in turning Luke to the Dark Side than adhering to protocols.

I always wondered what other personnel aboard the Executor thought about this. Admiral Piett was going to let the shuttle pass even though it had an “older code.” That sounds risky given the strategic importance of the forest moon and the Death Star II project. How did rank-and-file personnel react?

The story set out to explore what Piett meant by “an older code,” why such a code would exist, and what policies would be in place to handle the situation we see in Return of the Jedi.

If the Imperial tech has a name in canon, I couldn’t find it. I used the decidedly Star Wars-sounding name Zarn Kellam. He’s a relatively low-ranking tech on the bridge of the Executor.

How intolerable must it have been to serve in the Empire? In addition to the Empire’s general soul-crushing nature, Zarn deals with “corporate” annoyances as well. In this story, he has to attend, via remote, an IT training seminar. Anyone who’s ever worked in a corporate environment has to empathize with the poor guy.

The security virtual meeting is basically anti-spam training for Imperial officers. It’s a reminder that Imperial workstations are reserved for Imperial business, lest any employees download TikTok on their consoles.

It is quite big of the Empire to grant, with “supreme generosity,” some downtime for its beleaguered servants. Note how the position of IT security head has changed multiple times in the span of a few years. Again, for anyone with experience with a corporation, this is commonplace. People change jobs and titles all the time and there’s always someone new in charge of something.

Spam in the Star Wars universe has to exist, right? “VaderCreds” is totally a riff on crypto. Sorry, crypto bros.

You can absolutely feel the weariness in Zarn when presented with a list of Executor officers who failed to pass their security training. It’s up to him to make sure they take it again and pass. Among the ship’s officers, he finds only Piett tolerable.

But the security training also includes a major change in Imperial policy: the Empire is accelerating its timetable for the expiration of the “master code.”

In my version of the Star Wars universe, the master code is distributed fleetwide every few months so ships can “prove” they’re part of the Imperial fleet. With a recent uptick in Rebel activity, Imperial High Command is concerned Rebels may try to steal ships in order to infiltrate Imperial space—the Moddell Sector in particular.

This change in policy is important, and Zarn believes his commanders need to follow it. Zarn doesn’t sound like a particularly dedicated Imperial, but he does believe in following the rules, if just because it will keep Imperial High Command off his back.

I wanted Zarn to have at least one friend on the ship. The brief interaction between the security training and the pivotal Tydirium scene is designed to give Zarn a little more personality.  It also shows us that four of his superiors are lazy and stupid. While Zarn holds Piett in somewhat high esteem, he doesn’t have much use for the other officers. He and his friend believe the officers should be held to higher standards.

Would the Empire care if you lost your life savings in a VaderCreds scam? As Zarn tells his friend, they absolutely wouldn’t care as long as you showed up for your next shift.

Zarn is likely joking about his friend asking an “ISB question,” but there’s probably some paranoia involved here. The Imperial Security Bureau is basically the gestapo of the Galactic Empire, with agents who observe and report on dissident behavior.

His friend’s story isn’t apocryphal at all. It’s literally what happens in the first Star Wars movie. General Tagge voiced his concerns about the rising threat of the Rebellion. Those concerns were summarily dismissed by Admiral Motti. Who blew up the Death Star? The Rebels. Who was right? Tagge.

The “Bantha” app is basically a Star Wars version of Discord I made up. Imperial personnel aren’t supposed to use it, as it’s on a long list of “banned apps.” Zarn’s friend makes the wrong read here, though, and believes the Empire is preparing to attack the Rebel fleet. Instead, the Imperials will hang back and let the Rebels come to them.

Zarn and his friend are both clearly worn down by the Galactic Civil War and Imperial culture in general. They hope an end to the war—one that’s coming soon—will mean they can take a trip somewhere or get a different job. I guess that would make them casual fascists?

We saw Felucia, of course, in Revenge of the Sith. I’m not sure it’s a place you’d want to visit, but it does have some beautiful flora.

Zarn is excited by the idea of doing something different with his life. Reminder: the Executor explodes during the Battle of Endor.

Back on the bridge, Zarn checks the energy shield integrity and notes a technical crew boosted the “output of their prefab bunker.” This is a direct reference to intel from “Many Bothans Lived.”

Ugh. Small talk with the admiral. At least Piett is personable, I guess?

It’s funny to think of an Imperial admiral getting a performance review, isn’t it? Did he have to rank himself on a five-point scale? Did his evaluation lead to a pay increase? Did he have to create vague “goals” for the upcoming year?

You can tell Piett is amused by the security training and doesn’t consider it very important. However, for Zarn’s sake, he’ll commit to finish it despite being in the middle of a war. Heck, maybe he can convince the deadbeat officers to take care of their stuff.

The rest of the scene plays out like it does in the movie, with the Tydirium arriving and requesting deactivation of the deflector shield.

Zarn notes that the pilot sounds “bored.” It’s a reference to Harrison Ford, who may not have given Jedi his most inspired Han Solo performance. I’ve never had a problem with it, but some fans believe he didn’t bring his “A” game to ROTJ and didn’t want to be in the movie. Legend says he wanted Solo killed off.

Zarn immediately notices the older code. New protocols mean the Executor should stop and detain the passengers for questioning. The rules do have a little wiggle room allowing fleet commanders “limited discretion” under extenuating circumstances, but the shuttle doesn’t appear to be in distress or anything like that.

Vaguely worded policy FOR THE WIN!

I feel like “more than two dozen people” would be larger than a typical technical support crew, but Piett knows his stuff. Poor Zarn finds himself quoting the Imperial IT flunky from earlier.

What does a dark wind feel like? Darth Vader. What does Darth Vader feel like? A dark wind. Is this a strained analogy? Absolutely.

This is Zarn’s moment of truth. When Vader shows interest in the shuttle, Zarn is certain the Dark Lord will vindicate him. Surely, he’ll follow the “stop and detain” order. He’s the last line of defense against a violation of Imperial policy! After all, Piett was about to clear the shuttle, even though it transmitted an “older code” that’s a clear violation of protocol.

Zarn’s faith goes unrewarded. Vader lets the shuttle pass.

Zarn is a mystifying mixture of fear and outrage. Vader can feel it. This author readily admits the brief scene between Vader and Zarn is an indulgence. Most of these stories don’t include interactions with main characters, although I suppose Zarn also directly interacts with Han Solo via the comm.

Zarn wants to report Vader. He wants to report Piett. They didn’t follow the rules. Protocols and policies keep the Empire safe!

But Zarn initially backs down. He even feels like he’s being Force-choked, although that’s all in his head. Vader would Force-choke an admiral for dropping out of lightspeed too close to a system, but he wouldn’t necessarily bother with a lowly technician who was trying to do the right thing, especially since Vader’s thoughts are centered on Luke and the Rebel incursion.

To Zarn’s surprise—and because Vader was in a good mood that day—Vader encourages him to file a report.

When his shift is over, Zarn is determined to write up a report detailing how Piett and Vader violated Imperial policy. The poor guy only has time to get a sandwich from the “fast-serve kiosk. 

He even quotes Vader in the report, writing that “while no man is above the rules, sometimes there are more important things than protocol.”

I imagine, years down the road, some archivist coming across a report from before the Battle of Endor in which Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, completely ignored Imperial protocol. This revelation would appear in a book about the Galactic Empire and spawn dozens of news articles.

“Even in his downtime, Zarn Kellam served the Empire.” Kind of sad, isn’t it? Work-life balance clearly isn’t an Imperial priority.

Poor Zarn doesn’t even see the notification that Piett finished his security training.

Commentary: A Whole Case of Trouble

This is commentary for “A Whole Case of Trouble.

This is the first story I wrote when I decided to dip my toes into the ROTJ fanfiction pool. It’s the only one featuring a main player in the Star Wars universe as the POV character. Some of the other stories mention characters like Darth Vader, Han Solo, Luke, and Leia, but they primarily focus on side characters.

This filename for this one is simply “Lando story.” It’s one of two in which the filename doesn’t match the final title; “The Fall of Palpatine” was originally titled “As I Have Foreseen It.”

In my version of events, Lando has been embedded as a guard in Jabba’s Palace for a few months. I make no real determination of a timeline here, and again, I’m sure this conflicts with newly released canonical material in one way or another.

I like the idea of Boba Fett knowing Lando was disguised as a guard and doing absolutely nothing about it. He’s more interested in collecting credits from Jabba and waiting to see what happens when Solo’s friends inevitably try to rescue him, which is infinitely more fun than simply turning him in.

Plus, as Lando tells us, the overconfident Fett would likely get a much higher bounty for the whole Rebellion Collectors Set. Reminder: the “galaxy’s greatest bounty hunter” is defeated by a man who can’t see.

Yes, Lando, there are rookie Jedi. They’re called “padawans,” although we didn’t find this out until 1999, 16 years after Return of the Jedi came out.

Lando assumed the identity of Tamtel Skreej while masquerading as one of Jabba’s guards. There’s not a ton of material surrounding this character.

I distinctly remember a Quarren being featured on the card art for Luke Skywalker’s ROTJ action figure. Is Oz the same guy? It doesn’t matter all that much. The implication in the story is that Oz is serving Jabba as part of some indentured servitude arrangement. He wants to get out.

“Some poor spacer who dumped a shipment of spice during a delivery” could also describe Han Solo, who later becomes a “coffee table” at Jabba’s Palace.

Lando digs the spacer's jacket. For a man who appreciates high fashion and the finer things in life, living for a few months at Jabba’s grimy, dingy palace among Jabba’s grimy, dingy minions is rough.

Who was Jabba’s last protocol droid? How long had the Hutt been without one? Those questions went unanswered for years, although a one-shot comic gives the droid a name and a background. His name is Eightyem and he ends up accidentally betraying Jabba at the behest of a rogue, leading to his disintegration. At least that’s what the summary I read told me.

I had originally written the part for a blue protocol droid with a female voice. But the comic’s release in late March led me to make a change to line things up with the current canon. I’m not obsessed with aligning these stories with canon, but if I can add a touch here or there, I will.

How many recreational substances is Jabba taking? Imagine how much stuff a creature Jabba’s size and weight had to take to stay high—and how much he’d really have to consume to sustain his drugged-out existence.

I guess I’ve imagined Jabba’s Palace as kind of an opium den.

It’s absurd how awful things are at Jabba’s Palace. Lando shares the story of another rogue who ran afoul of the Hutt and paid back his debt, only for Jabba’s minions to kill him because they liked his boots. He wonders if the stylish spacer will suffer a similar fate.

I use three asterisks (***) to denote a section break in manuscripts. My ROTJ stories use the Imperial logo or Rebel Alliance symbol, depending on the affiliation of the narrator. For “A Whole Case of Trouble,” I used Colt 45 cans. I’ll get to that in a bit.

This section opens with Lando reflecting on the betrayal at Bespin. I know people get angry at Lando for betraying Han, and I understand that, but there were millions of people in Cloud City. When the Empire showed up unannounced, he didn’t have much choice. I think, in the back of his mind, he always thought he’d figure out how to talk his way out of it. But there’s no talking your way out of it when Vader’s involved.

Vader would indeed know “all too well when a gambler was bluffing.”

Can you imagine ever getting a good night’s sleep after encountering Darth Freaking Vader? Wouldn’t you constantly feel like you were short of breath—that an invisible hand was squeezing your throat?

“He’s so spiced up, he thinks the Galactic Senate’s still in session” went through a few different iterations to note the passage of time in the Star Wars universe.

  • “He’s so spiced up, he thinks Valorum’s still chancellor.”
  • “He’s so spiced up, he thinks Alderaan’s still running tours.”
  • “He’s so spiced up, he thinks Tarkin’s still a grand moff.”
  • “He’s so spiced up, he thinks the Republic’s still in charge.”

Some of them felt a little too forced or specific coming from a common spacer. I finally settled on the Galactic Senate one. 

Given the vigor with which bounty hunters pursued Han Solo, the spacer’s probably right about her inability to simply disappear.

Twinburst Ale is supposed to be a pricey liquor in the Star Wars universe catering to high-class customers with expensive taste. Lando liked the stuff so much that he bought a stake in the company. In recent months, the Empire banned the ale and branded Lando a traitor. The Empire claims it destroyed every bottle, but given the vastness of the universe, it feels like a few cases slipped through the cracks.

The spacer plans to extort Lando for the credits she needs to pay off Jabba.

How did she know Lando’s identity? I left this ambiguous in earlier versions of the story. She recognized something about Lando when meeting him in the palace. That’s fine. It works.

But while reading through the story again, I thought maybe something needed to trigger that recognition. I added an interaction and a few lines of dialogue, with the key phrase being “works every time.”

His use of the phrase made her recall an ad for Twinburst Ale in which Lando uttered the same words. A little on the nose, perhaps, but I felt like the story needed something here.

Just imagine Baron Administrator Lando Calrissian, replete in one of his many dashing outfits, hanging out with some beautiful women in Cloud City to advertise an alcoholic beverage. Class, sophistication, it’s the Lando Calrissian—and Billy Dee Williams—way.

The whole idea for the ale, and the commercial, stemmed from the famous Colt 45 ads featuring one Billy Dee Williams, who often said “works every time.” It’s also the reason for the unique section breaks in this story.

We next go to a scene featuring Lando and Oz, who are playing what is essentially Star Wars Racer in what passes as the lounge area. I initially made this a skiff racing game before changing it to podracing instead. Given the Boonta Eve Classic and all that, there’s no harm in a prequel reference. Plus, I’m not sure how fast those skiffs from Return of the Jedi actually go. Pods look like they’re a lot faster.

Another prequel reference: Geonosis. I don’t recall a podracing level being set there, but the catacombs and such would make for some interesting scenery.

Poodoo. Indeed.

I have no memory of Quarren drinking beer, but they’d have their own mass-market brand, right, kind of like the Bud Light of Quarren? Nice of Lando to hand his friend one of them, even if it “smelled like a sea breeze carried on winds near a noxious factory.”

And here’s another complication for Lando: one of Jabba’s guards, Gronko, runs a customs scam. Having gotten aboard the spacer’s ship, he’s seen the Twinburst Ale and knows selling it could be lucrative. This really puts Lando in a bind. As he notes, if Gronko steals the ale, the spacer can’t sell it to Lando and she’ll likely make her only remaining play by giving Lando up.

A quick aside here on the Han Solo rescue. What was the plan, exactly? Obviously, it’s important for Han’s friends to infiltrate the palace. Luke gives Artoo his lightsaber as his ace in the hole. Lando’s on standby to keep an eye on things. Leia and Chewie get there to break Han out. Luke, I guess, is there as a Plan B. When he’s unable to bargain with Jabba, what did he plan to do?

Surely, the plan didn’t call for Luke to land in the rancor pit or for Jabba to throw some of the group into the Sarlacc pit just so Luke could get his lightsaber and save everyone.

My view is that Leia and Chewie were the first phase of the rescue and Luke was the backup plan. Everything that happens after Luke shows up is improvisation. It all works out—just try not to think too hard about it.

The tasteful spacer has an awesome Nubian freighter. Goodness, a lot of prequel stuff in this story. Didn’t realize it until this commentary.

Stang! One of my all-time favorite made-up curse words. I remember this from some Star Wars comics and novels. Couldn’t resist using it here. For a college project, I once portrayed a sportscaster named “Stang Kittridge” for a segment on Star Wars sports, which included events like tauntaun racing and the Endor Olympics.

Observant readers would probably see where this was going when Lando mentioned Gronko was a Clawdite, a shapeshifting species first seen in Attack of the Clones (again with the prequels!). Gronko posed as the spacer to fool her copilot in a bid to steal the Twinburst Ale.

Then, Lando and the spacer turn the tables on Gronko, with the spacer announcing herself as customs. Gronko doesn’t last long; serves him right for stealing the jacket.

By the way, the spacer was jobbing Lando the whole time. He’s a little off his game after the whole Bespin thing. She planned to take Lando’s credits and keep the ale the whole time.

The “my fence seems confident” line is a reference to Ocean’s Eleven. The spacer isn’t moving Incan matrimonial headmasks, however.

“Yours, Tendra.” The stylish spacer is Tendra Risant. In Legends continuity, she and Lando get married. She’s been erased in the new canon. I’ve restored her in my version of Star Wars continuity, although the two meet under significantly different circumstances than they do in the novels. It’s really just meant to be a fun Easter egg for fans who may have remembered the character.

Lando really is a softy, giving that bottle of Twinburst Ale to Oz so he can finally get off-world. Good dude, that Lando.

We come back to Fett at the end of the story. This time, Lando acknowledges the bounty hunter by raising his glass. He knows the droids will soon arrive and they’ll finally have a chance to save Han.

Commentary: Many Bothans Lived

This is commentary for Many Bothans Lived.

The story’s title plays on Mon Mothma’s enigmatic line from Return of the Jedi: “Many Bothans died to bring us this information.”

New Star Wars canon has mentioned Bothans a few times, but I don’t believe we’ve seen or interacted with any in new material. In the Legends continuity, Bothans and their homeworld were much more fleshed out. They played a major role in many stories, including the Heir to the Empire trilogy and subsequent novels.

They’re ascribed feline/mammalian-like qualities in Legends continuity, with furry bodies and pointed ears.

The main character of this story, Lort Br’lya, is heavily influenced by Borsk Fey'lya, a key figure in Legends-era stories. Fey’lya was a politician and high-ranking member of the Bothan Spynet who rose to great heights in the post-Empire era. He was often an adversarial figure, a skilled bureaucrat who manipulated others and prioritized personal power over the good of the state. Vainglorious and stubborn, he harbored an animosity toward Admiral Ackbar that led to a bitter rivalry between the two.

To be perfectly honest, I could’ve used Fey’lya in this story. In fact, I went back and forth on it. In the end, I decided to create another character with similar traits in hopes Fey’lya, like Thrawn before him, will one day resurface in Disney-era canon. He was never nearly as popular of a character as Thrawn, but his machinations during the New Republic era stretched from its beginning in Heir to the Empire through the New Jedi Order storyline. Few expanded universe characters achieved as much influence (and elicited more anger) than Fey’lya.

I imagined the Bothan Spynet as a decentralized group of cells operating as information brokers across the vast Star Wars universe. Some of them have friends in high places, while others befriend low-ranking techs or politicians to milk them for information. I use a lot of spy tropes in this story—dead drops, codenames, coded messages—to show a side of Star Wars we don’t see much of aside from Rogue One and Andor.

In my imagination, the Bothan Spynet is a vast apparatus rivaling the Empire’s own intelligence division. Lort, the group’s highest-ranking official, is one of the few figures given access to all the information coming in from across the galaxy. Analytical and calculating, he possesses the uncanny ability to take small pieces of information and use them to form a larger picture.

One of the more difficult aspects of writing stories about the Death Star II plans is making sure the characters have stakes. The Emperor, after all, manipulated events to make sure the plans fell into Rebel hands to set up what he foresaw as the “final showdown” against the Rebel Alliance. The whole operation, from the Emperor’s view, is a trap. As a writer, that really twists you into some narratively tough situations. If the Empire “let” the Rebels get the plans, then what sacrifices are the Rebellion and Bothans actually making?

I took the view that, yes, it’s definitely an Emperor-engineered trap. But he allowed the plans to fall into the hands of the Bothan Spynet with the dual purpose of finally destroying the Spynet itself. The group’s existence had angered and rankled the Emperor for years. It’s also important to remember the Rebellion’s spies, leadership, and rank-and-file have no idea they’re being manipulated. To them, this is a life-or-death situation. If they can’t get the plans to Rebel leadership, the consequences for the galaxy are dire. They view this as their best chance to destroy the Empire once and for all.

While the Bothan Spynet provides vital aid to the Rebellion, Lort and his colleagues don’t have the most favorable view of Rebel Intelligence. They see the Rebellion in pragmatic terms and have little affection for Rebel leadership, viewing them as a means to rid the galaxy of Imperial blight.

In a light revisionist view of Rogue One, the Bothan Spynet heard rumblings of a “planet killer” and passed the information to the Rebels. Based on my interpretation of the Spynet, this makes a lot of sense. The Bothan spies, however, play no role in the movie or the Andor series.

For a while, Lort and his spies believe rumblings of material linked to a “planet killer” are related to the first Death Star. Those rumblings grow increasingly loud and more frequent, however, and they realize the Empire is working on a second, larger battle station.

In this and other stories, I portray the Empire as a complicated bureaucratic machine. When its people follow its policies and protocols, the Empire wins. When people become complacent or fail to do their due diligence, the Imperial apparatus suffers. In the case of the second Death Star, an independent contractor fails to properly conceal a shipment manifest, allowing spies to find a single mention of “kyber.” This leads to further scrutiny on the part of Lort and his agents.

Even then, the Rebels are reluctant to take the news at face value. They’ve already defeated one Death Star, as Lort notes, and are not looking forward to dealing with another. They’re in denial.

The Moddell Sector is part of the Outer Rim and includes the Endor system. At least that’s what several Star Wars wikis tell me.

Lort refers to his cousin by her codename. It’s vital to Lort that his agents conceal their true identities. He wants to keep his spies as safe as possible. While he makes an attempt at cold detachment in his communications with her, he can’t quite fully commit to it. The two were very close as children and have a great deal of affection for one another. While she may not be the highest-ranking member of the Spynet, he puts a lot of stock in what she reports.

The prefab bunker mentioned in their exchange is the same one we see on the forest moon in Return of the Jedi. I like the idea of the Empire ordering a standard bunker and plunking it down on the planet. The bunker, however, needed a reinforced power grid to project the energy shield around Death Star II. “Aierzon” is meant to be a playful invocation of Amazon.

I mention Bothawui as the homeworld of the Bothan people. In Legends continuity, it was a typical, temperate terrestrial planet. It appears current canon has turned it into a gas giant. I will stick with Legends continuity for my purposes.

The “invalid code” comment from Saber plays into another story, “An Older Code.” With Rebel activity on the rise, the Empire changed its protocols regarding old and outdated codes. That story also suggests the Empire has difficulty coordinating such orders across its vast fleet. It would appear, based on what occurs in that story, that the Empire again failed to follow its new policy to “stop and detain” ships with invalid or older codes. That’s probably a good thing for the Spynet.

The Empire has also reassigned many of its ships, which mysteriously disappear from their prescribed patrol routes. This comes to the delight of smugglers and spice runners, who no longer have to worry about Imperial entanglements while shipping their ill-gotten cargo. The idea here is that the Imperials are moving the fleet to the Moddell Sector as part of the Emperor’s plan to entrap the Rebel fleet.

I mention three Star Destroyers. The Devastator is the large ship seen pursuing Leia’s blockade runner at the beginning of Star Wars. It’s the first Imperial ship Star Wars fans of a certain age ever saw. The Devastator served as Darth Vader’s flagship until he assumed command of the Executor, the Super Star Destroyer first seen in The Empire Strikes Back.

The Vigilance was under the command of Rae Sloane, a prominent and popular character in the new canon.

Lort definitely recognizes something amiss with current Imperial behavior. It’s not like the Empire to essentially “abandon” its patrols. It’s not like the Empire to allow Rebel leaders to openly flaunt anti-Imperial ideas. There must be a reason for this, he believes, although he can’t quite grasp it.

He fails to see the trap.

Myr’la mentions Mount Tantiss. The location, which initially appeared in Heir to the Empire, served as the Emperor’s storehouse of technology and weapons. It became part of the current canon continuity thanks to the animated TV show The Bad Batch. It serves much of the same purpose as a repository of weapons, technology, and cloning. It’s pretty much Crazy Old Palps’ House of Fun and Destruction.

While the Bothan Spynet sometimes has an antagonistic attitude toward Rebel Intelligence, Lort makes it clear he stands against the Empire. His thoughts about the price of overthrowing tyranny mirror, in some aspects, Luthen Rael’s viewpoint in Andor.

Armed with information about the Death Star II plans, Lort convenes a meeting of his intelligence chiefs. For once, they all agree on something. Bothans, by nature, are obsessed with the acquisition of power and personal prestige. For the intel chiefs to be all-in on the operation carries a lot of weight.

Lort suggests “For Alderaan” is a rallying cry for the Rebellion. I was thinking of Rogue One, in which we hear some Rebels utter “For Jedha!” after the Death Star destroyed the moon’s holy city.

It appears the dangerous operation to acquire the Death Star plans succeeds. It soon becomes apparent, however, that something is awry. One by one, Bothan Spynet cells are discovered and destroyed. Agents are killed. It’s clear the Empire is somehow tracking the Spynet.

Everything goes straight to hell.

Before long, Lort gets a priority transmission from Myr’la, who drops all pretenses of protocol and implores her cousin to make sure their sacrifice matters. She calls him by his real name on the transmission, something that would typically anger Lort. In his grief, however, he doesn’t care. His cousin is gone, and the Spynet he dedicated his life to building and preserving is crumbling right before his eyes.

He's defeated. Hopeless.

As the Spynet disintegrates and his agents die, Lort reflects on how, in his younger days, he would’ve been concerned about how fellow Bothans would have viewed his failures. This goes back to the idea that the Bothan people are very class driven and aristocratic in nature, their society fueled by prestige and power.

The automated looping message for Spynet agents to steer clear of Lort’s base recalls the message sent to Jedi in the wake of Order 66 in Revenge of the Sith. Lort even mentions the Jedi Purge to Guardian in a subsequent passage.

Lort is content to sit and wait for a Star Destroyer to arrive and end him once and for all.

“This is Guardian,” I hope, reads as a hopeful line to the audience. It means something.

Let me just say I love droids in Star Wars. In “Turncoat,” an astromech named Fate saves the day. In this story, an astromech named Elfie basically saves the Rebellion. Yes, heroes have blasters and lightsabers and starfighters, but they also speak binary sometimes.

Elfie disabled the tracking mechanism embedded in the plans, allowing Guardian to escape without being tracked to Lort’s base. He shows Lort the same plans we see during the briefing scene in Return of the Jedi.

Guardian’s real name is Ray’lo. Only after I wrote the story did I realize it sounded a lot like “Reylo,” the portmanteau used by “shippers” of Rey and Kylo Ren. You can call it a reference if you want, but it’s not meant to be. Just like the relationship between Rey and Ben Solo.

A late addition during revisions was the line about the Emperor overseeing construction of the Death Star. The ROTJ briefing makes this a Big Deal, and while the Death Star plans are definitely important, knowing Palpatine would be on the Death Star—and the implication that it would mean the destruction of the Death Star would result in the death of Palpatine—was something I needed to address.

When it comes to short stories, I’ll often use repetition to reinforce a point or make a world feel familiar to the reader. “Terror Bears” uses some (“We called ourselves the Dread Forge”). So does “Turncoat” (“She told the Rebels her name was Kail Tremal/But she was really Sevra Brack, TIE-XS75”).

In this story, I have a list of names and codenames. In the original version, it used to be longer, and I utilized it a few more times.

I cut a couple instances off the list. I also trimmed a few names from it because I didn’t even refer to some of the individuals in the story itself. The only ones Lort really interacts with are Sunrise, Saber, and Guardian, while the others are mentioned in passing.

To the reader, the rest of the names are somewhat meaningless, even if they’re mentioned in the story. The important point is that to Lort, they mean something.

The last line turns around Mon Mothma's most famous line. While the Rebellion focused on the fact "many Bothans died," Lort reminds us all "many Bothans lived" to make sure the Rebellion had a fighting chance.

Commentary: Terror Bears

Dread Forge isn’t a reference to anything particular from Star Wars canon. I was simply looking for something that sounded intimidating on the surface.

I’ve never had a problem with Ewoks. I always liked them and thought they were brave. Also, you can’t defeat Imperial forces by being cute and cuddly. The Ewoks used Imperial helmets as drums. What happened to the Imperials who wore them? I’m just saying the Ewoks were gonna roast Luke, Han, and company before Threepio showed off his godlike powers.

The Empire’s mission briefing on Ewoks referred to them as a “docile but territorial pre-hyperspace civilization with pagan beliefs and a strong connection to the forest.” I’m sure Imperial researchers spent about six minutes coming up with that description.  

Of the six stories I wrote, this is the only one presented from a first-person perspective. The narrator here is a stormtrooper nicknamed Bolt. He’s cocky, like the whole unit. They believe they’re basically on Endor as a formality and have no expectation of failure.

Throughout the story, it’s readily apparent he’s in denial at the things happening to the Dread Forge, although the realization starts to sink in toward the end of the story.

The stormtroopers don’t directly interact with the Ewoks. I wanted to present them as something out of Predator—an all-seeing, unstoppable force. They set traps for the stormtroopers, lurk in the forest, etc.

In the hands of a writer more skilled with building terror and tension, this story would feel grimmer in nature. The “kills” come quickly and play broadly. That’s just the way I write.

Something I liked about Revenge of the Sith was how certain clone units painted their armor or added personal touches to their helmets as the conflict dragged on. I used the same idea for the Dread Forge, with members of the unit painting kill streaks or symbols on their armor and helmets. This had to have happened with Imperial units stationed on backwater planets, right?

I like the idea of stormtroopers calling the Emperor “Old Palps.”

I gave the stormtroopers nicknames for clarity’s sake and to show they are a tight-knit unit. Trying to keep names like TK-421 straight would confuse the reader (and the author!), so designations like “Cap,” “Therm,” “Pops,” and “Vibro” came to mind.

The nicknames and their meanings:

  • Cap: "The Captain”
  • Therm: Specialist with thermal detonators
  • Vibro: Expert with vibroblades
  • Pops: Resident “Old Guy”
  • Tracker: Unit’s “capable scout”
  • Cinder: Plays with fire
  • Bolt: Strikes quickly like a lightning or blaster bolt
  • Mags: Always has extra blaster magazines
  • Nines: Unexceptional, professional ninth member of the unit
  • Spanner: Techie named after the hydrospanner tool mentioned in The Empire Strikes Back 

The unit gets cut off from the rest of the Imperial force. Overconfident, they believe they’ll easily handle the Ewok threat and press deeper into the forest. This decision is a grievous tactical error.

In the original version of the story, I had Bolt giving orders even though I’d written a character named “Cap.” Some light rewriting fixed the issue, putting Cap in charge of the Dread Forge and correctly framing Bolt as a member of the unit instead of its leader.

In the middle of the chaos, the narrator stops to ponder why Imperial units have specific armor for specific environments, while stormtroopers are running around the forest sans camouflage. 

I namechecked Corellia and Ryloth because they’re a couple recognizable Star Wars planets. Corellia is Han Solo’s home planet and played a role in several stories in the Legends continuity. It’s still quite relevant in current canon. Ryloth is the home planet of Twi’leks. It’s appeared in both canon and Legends continuity, although I remember it most for being mentioned in one of the X-Wing books, where it was the source of a potent pharmaceutical substance called ryll.

The “Ewoks in the cave” scene was inspired by a similar gory scene in the movie Bone Tomahawk. The Kurt Russell indie movie starts out like a typical western before it takes some, um, unforeseen turns.

Bacta. Of course, the stormtroopers have fast-acting bacta patches for pain relief in the field.

While members of the Dread Forge are dealing with their Ewok tormentors, the rest of the Empire has its hands full with Ewok and Rebel forces. The sounds of battle aren’t that far away in the form of clanking AT-STs, zooming speeder bikes, and screeching blaster bolts.

How did the Ewoks sneak up on them in a cave? And why doesn’t “capable scout” Tracker notice them? Don’t think too hard about it. The author didn’t.

Did anyone really think Pops was still alive?

I like the little detail that Pops was one of the first non-clone stormtroopers. The dude has seen it all. And he got an arrow right through the eye for it.

The BlasTech E-11 is the standard-issue blaster of Imperial stormtroopers. The toy version I had growing up was painted white to make sure no one mistook it for a real weapon.

Is Vibro getting crushed by a giant rock a bit too much? A bit too comical? Probably. The timing here is everything.

What is a mag-tube? Well, the story describes it. More or less, it’s a bazooka for thermal detonators. There’s probably some obscure reference somewhere in Star Wars canon for such a weapon.

Why did Therm’s thermal detonator go off even though he disarmed it? Let’s just say sometimes the Empire went with the lowest bidder and this particular detonator had an unfortunate faulty mechanism. Kaboom.

Even though the rest of the unit is gone, even though he’s seen Vibro and Therm die right in front of him minutes before, Bolt still holds out hope of rescuing Nines and restarting the Dread Forge after the Empire’s inevitable victory on Endor. The exploding Death Star II should dispel any such notions, dude.

Shouldn’t be a real mystery what happens to Bolt at the end. Is the Ewok with the axe the same one from the cave? Maybe. Maybe not.

Commentary: Turncoat

This is commentary for "Turncoat."

“Turncoat” is my love letter to the X-Wing and Wraith Squadron series. Their spiritual successor in current canon is Alphabet Squadron. The story opens with a “dramatis personae,” which I distinctly recall showing up in several Star Wars EU novels.

It’s helpful in stories with a large cast, which a fighter squadron would always have. Bronze Squadron includes twelve members with numbered designations. While writing it, I kept the names and designations in a list at the bottom of my Word document. This was helpful to me, so I added the dramatis personae section at the top to help familiarize readers with the characters.

This is the longest entry of my ROTJ stories.

The main character is Sevra Brack, an Imperial TIE pilot who’s working undercover as a spy and embedded within a Rebel fighter squadron. An Imperial loyalist, she’ll serve the cause until the bitter end. She loathes the Rebels, their janky starfighters, and their pilots.

Pretty much everything about the Rebel Alliance annoys her. She misses the structure and order the Empire brought to her life. She misses being able to treat aliens as second-class citizens. She misses her sweet, sweet TIE Interceptor. She doesn’t understand why the Rebels allow pilots to fly antiquated, inferior starfighters.

The Rebels’ best fighters are X-Wings and A-Wings. The Y-Wings are slow but powerful. A Wookiee pilot flies a beat-up ARC-170, an X-Wing precursor first glimpsed in the prequel trilogy.

The alien wingmen are typical Star Wars species, no real deep cuts. We’ve got a Duros, a Bith, a Twi’lek, and the aforementioned Wookiee. 

One of the pilots is Hapan—meaning he’s from Hapes, a planet first mentioned in The Courtship of Princess Leia, an absolutely wild EU book featuring a matriarchal society and a romantic suitor named Isolder who attempts to woo Leia, much to Han’s chagrin. The Hapan pilot’s demeanor is meant to be over-the-top and kind of in the style of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor. In the Legends EU, Hapans were famously isolationist, making Aldar's inclusion a bit of a stretch.

A couple other planets mentioned include Corellia and Chandrila, both important worlds in the Star Wars universe. Corellia also got a mention in “Terror Bears.”

The message exchanges between Sevra and her Imperial superiors did not appear in the original version of the story. I wanted her to have some interaction to show she was working as a spy. Sending coded messages to report on her squadron’s activities ended up being the solution.

Sevra would gladly take out Mon Mothma if given the order. You can tell she’d really like to destroy the shuttle. However, she’s under orders to keep “MM” safe.

Home One is the ship Admiral Ackbar helms in Return of the Jedi. The Mon Cal cruiser is the Rebel Alliance’s flagship. 

Would a normal Imperial know anything about Eadu, a planet seen in Rogue One? Maybe. Maybe not. At the very least, Sevra is a spy and it’s one of the mountainous planets I could think of that we see onscreen.

Sevra does seem confused by certain aspects of her orders. The Empire has been trying to kill Mothma for a while, yet she’s not ordered to take her out. And what’s this about a “final offensive?”

She is forming a begrudging respect for the Rebels, however. That becomes more and more apparent throughout the story. She still prefers her TIE Interceptor, though.

As for her thoughts on other species? She still thinks of Wookiees as “things” and has zero interest in getting to know her fellow pilots, especially the non-human ones. She really is the Empire’s best.

As in “Terror Bears,” I enjoyed giving some of the pilots nicknames. Wookiees always have long names, so shorthand is almost always a requirement. Other nicknames include “Roo” and “Goalie,” although those names aren’t nearly as long.

The group scene with the pilots is meant to show their sense of camaraderie. Sevra is playing a role here, but she’s doing it well. We get an idea of the pilots’ personalities. It’s most important to establish Roo and Nova, as they play a big role in what’s to come and have a personal impact on Sevra. To a lesser extent, we also need some insight into Aldar and Pollux.

I love a good mission briefing scene or a heist setup. Each of the original trilogy movies has a scene like this: in Star Wars, it’s the attack on the first Death Star; in The Empire Strikes Back, it’s the defense and evacuation of Hoth; in Return of the Jedi, it’s the final offensive. Here, we learn about the mission parameters.

I was always fascinated by Imperial interdictors, a class of ship capable of preventing other vessels from jumping to lightspeed. They’ve never played a role in a Star Wars movie that I can recall, although they appeared in expanded universe material and the Star Wars Sourcebook.

The ship they’re trying to protect is a Skipray Blastboat. It’s a small vessel that packs a decent punch for its size. My hazy memory tells me Talon Karrde’s mercenaries used Skiprays in Heir to the Empire. We later learn the pilot’s codename is Scimitar. I’ll come back to that.

The idea that the Rebels are attacking an interdictor head-on without a capital ship is insane, but Bronze Squadron is adept at hit-and-fade missions. The operation, honestly, does strain credulity. On the other hand, this is a critical mission with a tight timeline and with no other ships nearby, Bronze Squadron has no other choice.

The briefing provides Sevra with information about one of her key objectives. Whether she meant to or not, Bronze Leader reveals the Rebel fleet is gathering near Sullust. She is, of course, eager to pass this information along to her superiors. However, it seems they already knew, based on their reply. The Empire’s reluctance to guarantee her safety really nags at her.

The brief scene of Sevra getting into her X-Wing serves a couple purposes. First, it implies there’s some bond between her and Nova, although she doesn’t reciprocate. She shows her animosity toward non-humans with her flippant response to his genuine concern for her. She also derides her astromech for insisting people call it “Fate.”

When I decided to make a Wookiee one of the pilots, I realized someone would have to translate his radio transmissions for him. I defaulted to having the pilots’ astromechs take care of it.

The Rebels have early success in their mission by surprising the interdictor. Pollux gets too cocky, however, and ends up getting blown to bits, despite the warnings of Aldar and Bronze Leader.

Giving the “Flying Daggers” a yellow stripe was inspired by the First Order’s red-accented fighters from the sequel trilogy. Also, the squadron’s nickname is totally on the nose, as TIE Interceptors pretty much look like flying daggers thanks to their unique pointed, angled wings.

At one point, I had the Flying Daggers pegged as Sevra’s old unit. The idea didn’t complicate the story, but it also didn’t add much to it, so I scrapped it.

Ah, Bronze Eleven and Bronze Twelve. Although it doesn’t become a running joke, exactly, the idea here is that pilots get killed or transferred so often that it’s not worth getting to know their names. Sevra also implies she may have been responsible for some ship “malfunctions” that exacerbated the problem.

From a practical standpoint, I already had ten named characters with backgrounds in the story. I didn’t want to add additional characters for the readers to track. My solution was to keep the characters unnamed and provide only their designations.

While Roo and Nova antagonize each other, they’re good pilots and friends. Consider it a friendly rivalry between the two.

At roughly the midpoint of the story, Sevra acknowledges that Nova’s disappointment in her hurts. She’s not turned away from the Empire yet—that comes much later—but she’s starting to think about things a little differently.

On a few occasions in the story, the Rebels have a chance to finish the job or make their own escape. But instead of being the cold, efficient killers of the Imperial Navy, they risk their lives to save their wingmen. Even though Sevra failed to save Nova minutes ago, he’s more than willing to save her.

Sevra doesn’t understand it because the idea is antithetical to Imperial ideology.

She eventually chooses self-preservation and momentarily reflects on the challenges of being a spy. Her role requires her to kill Imperial pilots. There is a disconnect here, though. While she doesn’t like killing other Imperials, she lacks the self-awareness to understand that the Empire is willing to sacrifice its personnel in exchange for intel. The acquisition of information is more important than the people who serve the Empire. While she understands this on the surface, it doesn’t sink in on a deeper level.

A quick refresher on starfighter speeds. Y-Wings are slow. X-Wings are faster. A-Wings are the fastest in the Rebel fleet. TIE Interceptors can outrun them all. Gil’s ancient ARC-170 is slower than the Y-Wings, although the Wook gets plenty out of it.

While providing cover for the Y-Wings, Roo’s engines take a direct hit and disable his ship. Nova’s first instinct is to save him, much to Sevra’s chagrin and disbelief. It takes an impassioned appeal from Roo himself to remind Nova that they must complete their mission; otherwise the Empire will continue to oppress the galaxy.

This, Sevra understands. The mission must take precedence. She applauds Roo for having some common sense, something she feels is sorely lacking among the Rebels. She does, however, take exception to the pilots’ “bro-tastic” exchange.

Once the gravity well projectors are disabled, we hear from Scimitar. That’s the codename of Lort Br’lya, the spymaster from “Many Bothans Lived.” After securing the Death Star II plans, he needs help getting them into the Rebellion’s hands. None of the pilots know the nature of the intel in Br’lya’s possession; they’re only aware it’s important.

With the hyperspace lanes open, the Rebels are free to make the jump to lightspeed. They disappear off Sevra’s scopes. She plans to stay behind so she can rejoin the Imperials, but Bronze Leader won’t leave until everyone else is safe.

Sevra feigns a hyperdrive malfunction, eliciting a furious protest from her droid, Fate. She activates her coded transmission and is stunned when the Imperials, instead of helping her, attack her ship. She had a special message guaranteeing her safety.

Bronze Leader, Berix, tries in vain to save Sevra, going out in spectacular fashion. Sevra’s as confused as she’s ever been as the TIEs converge on her. Why are they trying to kill her?

Basically, the Empire got what it needed out of her. With the intel she provided received and the Rebels’ final offensive coming soon, she no longer has value as a spy. She’s an expendable asset.

But while the Empire she loved tried to kill her, two Rebel pilots risked their lives to save her. Bronze Leader died while lowkey MVP Gil blasted her out of a jam and saved her skin. This all forces Sevra to reassess everything, especially when her handlers stop responding to her messages.

She’s still in denial aboard Home One until she takes a good look at the members of Bronze Squadron. As they reflect on their losses, she reflects on everything they’ve sacrificed. To paraphrase the good doctor, her small heart grew three sizes that day.

She’s now ready to leave Sevra Brack behind and embrace life as Kail Tremal, Rebel pilot.