Thursday, May 11, 2023

Many Bothans Lived: 40 Years of Return of the Jedi

Myr’la. Sunrise.

Pal’ryk. Saber.

Jeslin. Spear.

Torsk. Strike.

Ray’lo. Guardian.

Breton’la. Skimmer.

Picbacca. The Wook.

Jar-EE. Dewback.

Names and codenames. People. His people. Bothans.

Lort Br’lya—Scimitar—knew them all, thousands of them. His Spynet spread far and wide throughout the galaxy, with his agents reporting in whenever and however they could. Coded transmissions, dead drops, even physical documents. One inventive spy tied a scroll to a homing graal, which flew all the way to Spynet HQ to deliver an important message.

These things were never clean, never easy. Large-scale spying operations couldn’t be. It took a certain type to smile in the face of their enemy, gain their trust, and steal information right from under their nose. It took even more moxie to send back the information without being caught or suspected, and Bothans were better at it than anyone in the galaxy. Some attached themselves to high-ranking Imperial officers. Others dined with lowly techs, their lips made loose by fruity drinks and the comfort of chatting with a friend. They befriended influential bankers, politicians, union bosses, contractors, air traffic controllers, hostesses, dancers, pirates, and scoundrels. Anyone could have a vital piece of information that, when combined with other pieces, helped Lort synthesize the bigger picture.

Often, those pieces didn’t immediately add up.

Spynet’s operatives and informants heard whispers of increased Imperial presence along the Outer Rim. At first, this meant very little. After all, the Outer Rim was home to multiple remote systems that could be challenging to staff. But going back as far as five years, shipments of materials and personnel arrived in the Moddell Sector with surprising frequency. Work orders and manifests provided little clarity on the nature of the shipments; even some of Lort’s best slicers couldn’t scrape details from the Imperial databanks they’d once cracked with ease.

When Spynet leaned about a “planet killer” and passed that information to Rebel Intelligence (an oxymoron if one ever existed), the Rebellion took on the Empire with a full-frontal assault on Scarif. It all led to the discovery of the Death Star and the critical Rebel victory in the Battle of Yavin. All the personnel and materials, Lort and his advisors believed, had been part of the original Death Star project.

But the whispers didn’t go away when the Empire’s ultimate weapon turned into stardust.

Reports continued to come in from the Moddell Sector.

The breakthrough came from an Imperial contract shipping company that had done a poor job of securing its internal database. Sure, the Imperial databanks were nearly impenetrable, but sometimes the contractors doing the Empire’s bidding made a mistake. A slicer scraped a single mention of the word “kyber” from a shipping manifest. The contractor quickly recognized the error and corrected it, but the damage was done.

In the spy world, proof was never really proof. No one believed you even when the information had been vetted at the highest levels. Spynet massaged its information, the naysayers alleged, and Bothans couldn’t be trusted. Rebel Intelligence, though shrewd and often ruthless, wouldn’t act on Spynet tips without independent verification. Even when the shipping company responsible for the kyber error abruptly ceased operations, the Rebels were hesitant to buy in.

They’d already destroyed one Death Star, after all.

They had no desire to worry about another one.

One of the many viewscreens in Lort’s main data center trilled to signal an incoming transmission. It came from his cousin, the inscrutable Myr’la. Codename: Sunrise. Though the cousins had been close since childhood, protocol dictated discretion. That meant sticking to protocol.

Lort checked the encryption. “The line is secure, Sunrise. What do you have?”

“We have confirmation of the project in the Moddell Sector. A freighter delivered a prefab Imperial bunker to a small moon there fifteen months ago. It’s called Andor or Endor. My team tells me this bunker is tied to another planet killer.”

Lort took a deep breath and attempted to hide his annoyance. “Something that happened fifteen months ago is hardly news. Activity in that region pointed us to Moddell some time ago.”

“We’ve been searching for verification, Scimitar. This is it. The information is new. We didn’t know there was a bunker at that location.” Myr made no effort to hide her annoyance as her image flickered in the holo transmission. “This is fresh intel. The Empire commissioned an Aierzon utility crew last week to address a power stability problem. Something in that facility drew enough energy to overload the whole bunker. Prefabs are meant to be self-sufficient. The Imperials are using the bunker for something other than its intended purpose.”

Lort stroked his chin; perhaps he’d been too dismissive of his cousin. “Interesting. Have you been able to obtain a work order or any other documentation?”

“We’re working on it. The kyber fiasco was good for us, but it also made the Empire plug the gaps in outside databases. They’ve locked things down. We got this intel based solely on a fluke. One of our operatives happened to know a member of the utility crew sent to address the problem. I couldn’t even calculate the odds of that happening.”

Lort sighed. “Excellent work, Sunrise. Keep me apprised of any further developments.”

“I will.”

“And Sunrise?”


“Do be careful.”

Myr’s hologram disappeared. He thought about the summers they spent together as children on Bothawui, but the memory had only a moment to take root before another transmission came through.

He checked the encryption. “The line is secure, Saber.”

Pal’ryk’s dark fur rippled in agitation. Lort’s second-in-command loathed reporting in for field duty, but circumstances required it. “Our attempt to pierce through the Imperial blockade at the Moddell Sector failed, Scimitar. Our contact provided the crew with an invalid code. He assured us it would work, but the fleet has accelerated its expiration cycles. Fortunately, the captain was able to talk his way out of being boarded. It’s a good thing the Empire doesn’t consider a garbage scow to be a threat.”

“No doubt they would’ve had a few questions about the scanners conveniently missing from the ship’s manifest,” Lort said.

“They would’ve killed the entire crew on the spot. We were able to place some long-range buoys near a debris field. They should go undetected for a while. While the information takes some time to ping back to us, we’ve picked up some massive energy surges. We can’t get a solid read on the signature. However, the output matches an orbital bombardment. That’s all I have for now.” Pal’ryk bowed his head and signed off.

Lort had pieces. Some small, some large. All would eventually come together to form a picture.

He simply had to see it.

To the delight of smugglers, several reports indicated the Empire was pulling back fleet resources. It made it easy for spice-runners to go from point to point without worrying about any Imperial entanglements. Multiple sources indicated Star Destroyers were abandoning their normal patrol routes and systems. They included the Vigilance and the Devastator. Lort’s agents lost track of Vader’s Executor, a rather alarming development considering the size of the thing.

It all marked a noticeable change in Imperial strategy. Over the last two years, the Empire had squeezed the Rebellion at every turn, rooting out secret bases and outposts. No lead was too small for an Imperial hit squad to land and ask questions later. They delighted in slaughter, even when Rebels were nowhere to be found. A local population would suffice, especially if non-human.

Over the last few months, Imperial patrols had become less frequent. The single-minded effort to kill Rebels and their sympathizers took a back seat to something else, presumably the new Death Star project. High-ranking leaders in the Rebellion suddenly discovered they could step into the light and openly defy the Empire without bringing a squad of Death Troopers to their doorstep.

No one trusted these latest developments, least of all Lort. The Empire was well funded and patient while the Rebels were underfunded and desperate. Analysts within Spynet predicted the Empire was simply drawing out as many Rebel leaders as possible to bring down the hammer and crush the Rebellion once and for all. Swift Imperial justice would end the Rebellion any day, his analysts said.

It had yet to occur.

Clearly, though, the Empire was encouraging Rebel leaders to assemble without fear of reprisal. It had to be a trap. Again, Lort had pieces large and small. He could not put them together just yet.

Another transmission.

Myr’la. Sunrise.

“The line is secure. What do you have for me?”

“The utility work on the Endor bunker involves a massive energy shield. Looking at the specs provided by our contact, the shield would cover an object larger than the first Death Star,” Myr’la said. “We’ve had no visual confirmation, but the pieces are there. Massive amounts of manpower and materials. At least one confirmed kyber shipment, and many more we probably don’t know about. An Imperial pullback meant to provide additional security.”

“This is all speculation, Sunrise,” Lort pointed out. “Informed speculation, but speculation nonetheless.”

“A long-range buoy picked up the navigational beacon for the Executor. It appears to be heading toward the Moddell Sector. It’s only the largest ship the Empire’s ever built,” Myr’la said. “The Empire’s best serve on it, and we’ve got a source who’s friendly with a radar tech.”

“I haven’t heard from Dewback in a month,” Lort said. “I have no idea where the Executor has been. I only know it abandoned its prescribed patrol route. Given current circumstances, it appears to track with current Imperial methodology.”

“I have one more tidbit to share, but you’ll need to confirm this report. Skimmer has a source in Mount Tantiss who claims to have access to schematics for the new battle station. I can’t tell you how valuable this information would be to the Rebellion.”

Myr’la talked as if Spynet and the Rebellion were separate entities with different goals when they were more like different shades of the same color. She almost made it sound like Spynet was a paid information broker that only turned over vital intel when the price was right. The price to overthrow tyranny was never just “right.” It was high, all-consuming. The Rebels on Scarif became legends for their sacrifice.

Lort harbored no grand illusions of martyrdom. He preferred to monitor his agents and synthesize information from his sources. But if Spynet had the chance to get its hands on the Empire’s plans, he had to take the risk. He called a meeting of his intel chiefs.

He’d formed the picture.

They had to act.

And quickly.

The intel chiefs all agreed: Spynet had to make it a priority to infiltrate Mount Tantiss and acquire plans for the second Death Star. Analysts doubted the massive battle station would have the same thermal exhaust port defect that brought down its predecessor, but technical readouts could hold the key to a weakness. Everything had a weakness, from a remote Imperial outpost to a secretive Rebel cell to the decentralized nature of Spynet itself.

For once, the top-ranking officials in Spynet set aside their egos. This was tough for Bothans to do, as cultural status played a central role in their society. Each member of Spynet would want to take credit for the successful recovery of the plans in order to glorify their house and uplift their status on Bothawui. Spearheading such a major operation could open doors to the highest offices in Bothan politics and launch a career to the Galactic Senate (if the Rebels were actually able to reinstate it).

But Lort’s fellow intelligence chiefs surprised him. Each understood the gravity of the situation and recognized the importance of preventing the Empire from utilizing another Death Star. No other planet could suffer the fate of Alderaan, a shining example of culture and civil disobedience. Its loss lingered; “for Alderaan” remained a stirring battle cry. Neither Lort nor his intel chiefs would allow it to happen again.

Spynet thrived on both simplicity and complexity. Different operatives ran various schemes to gain trust and claw away vital information. The decentralized nature of the network, which operated in cells not unlike the Rebel Alliance itself, meant that sometimes not everyone was aware of a major operation at the same time. But simple commands and code words delivered at timely intervals allowed those disparate cells to act as one when needed.

Really, it all came down to people.

Myr’la. Sunrise.

Pal’ryk. Saber.

Jeslin. Spear.

Torsk. Strike.

Ray’lo. Guardian.

Breton’la. Skimmer.

Picbacca. The Wook.

Jar-EE. Dewback.

Names and codenames. People. His people. Bothans.

An infiltration team hitched a ride on a freighter and landed, undetected, on Mount Tantiss. Lort knew it for a fact. Led by Strike, his highly competent spec ops chief, the team planned to infiltrate the command center, download the plans, and get the hell out. Each member of the ten-person squad would take their own copy of the file and go their separate ways. If fortune smiled upon them, at least one would make it to a Spynet safehouse.

Lort awaited word from Strike or any member of his team.

Four days after the infiltration, he still waited.

His sources believed three members of the team had already died, two by blaster and one by bad luck (a depressurized cargo bay that was not supposed to be depressurized).

Incoming transmission. Pal’ryk. Saber.

“The line is secure, Saber. What’s your report?”

“Spear made it to the Spynet safehouse in Onblat City. As soon as he arrived, a Star Destroyer dropped out of hyperspace and launched an orbital bombardment. No survivors. We were also in contact with Skimmer, the Wook, and Guardian. An Imperial fleet arrived immediately at Gelonda III and destroyed the enclave there. Skimmer is among the casualties. The Wook made it to the safehouse on Cassiter and boarded a ship bound for Sunrise’s base. As soon as he left, another orbital bombardment followed. The Cassiter cell is gone. Guardian disappeared from our scopes.” Overcome by the reports, Lort sank into his chair. Was Tantiss a trap? “We’re burning assets at an unsustainable rate, sir.”

“Is there any good news?”

“The plans are heavily encrypted. Remote transmissions are impossible right now, and it’s apparent the Empire is tracking us. We have nothing.”

“I asked for good news, Saber.”

“If I had any, I’d deliver it, sir.”

Reports flooded in from throughout Spynet. Imperial arrivals, orbital bombardments, strike teams. He received a priority alert from Myr’la. She spoke before he even confirmed the line was secure.

“Imperial... bombardment... ” The signal broke up. He couldn’t understand what she was saying as interference scrambled the transmission. The lights behind her flickered and the room shook. Lort knew what it all meant. Myr’la’s post was compromised, and the Imperials would show no mercy. He caught her last words in crystal-clear audio fidelity. “Don’t waste it. Please don’t waste it, Lort.”

The use of his real name was the highest breach of protocol.

For once, the Bothan to whom protocol meant everything suddenly cared nothing about it.

“Myr’la. Sunrise.” Lort reached out toward the hologram, knowing full well the futility of it all, as her image flickered away.

In less than a week, Lort’s beloved Spynet collapsed. The Death Star plans were a trap, leading the Empire to his well-protected and most essential bases of operation. They used those leads to find and eliminate more cells. If his calculations were correct, it would take approximately another week for the Imperials to bring about the irreparable destruction of the whole enterprise.

In his younger days, Lort would’ve been concerned about how the collapse would affect his status in the Bothan aristocracy. Surely, no one who’d been in charge of such a catastrophe would’ve been worthy of a high-ranking office. They would’ve shamed their house and perhaps been subject to public humiliation, stripped of their ancestral lands and titles. Perhaps assigned, as a mercy, to a job of low standing from which their family name could never recover.

Those days were long past. Lort no longer cared about his house or status. He cared about Myr’la. Of his many cousins, she had been his favorite. They’d spent many summers together on Bothanwui, warmed by the planet’s breathtaking sun. She loved to watch the sunrise in the morning on those vacations; they sneaked off together well before their clan leaders awoke.

He had failed her, just as Spynet had failed the galaxy.

All the pieces had been there. He’d finally seen the picture—a way to hurt the Empire at its most critical point. But for all he thought he’d seen, he’d missed the truth. What could have been a killing blow to the most pervasive evil in the galaxy instead became the tool of his own destruction.

He kept the lines open for any remaining members of Spynet. An automated looping message advised them to go as far underground as possible and use their lowest-profile, cleanest forged identity. They were no longer safe. Even returning to Bothanwui posed too much risk. He told them to pick a remote world in the Outer Rim, some wild frontier where the Empire held little sway. Such places, though limited, still existed.

For while the Empire pretended it was everywhere, the galaxy was far too large for it to live up to that threat, even if its surveillance apparatuses and probe droids were formidable.

His Spynet numbered in the tens of thousands. So many Bothans, especially in the last decade, sacrificed so much to stop the Imperial juggernaut. The Empire acted as if people were made to be ruled, intimidated, and beaten down. It made oppression the currency of its realm, as if giving oxygen to a whisper of freedom could spark a revolution.

Lort believed. It’s why he spent nearly two decades establishing the finest spying apparatus the galaxy had ever seen. From the Core Worlds to the Outer Rim, Spynet listened, watched, and lurked in the shadows. Its members cajoled and influenced, rarely in heavy-handed fashion, to obtain access and information moffs would kill to possess. He prided himself on protecting his members, providing safe passage and new identities to those who may have unwittingly compromised themselves.

And as the movement grew, it included many non-Bothans. He would never admit it to someone from his home planet because his brethren were proud and sometimes nationalistic opportunists, but he came to regard any member of Spynet, no matter their planet of origin, as an honorary Bothan.

Names and codenames. People. His people.

On the verge of his greatest triumph, many Bothans died.

It wouldn’t be long until a Star Destroyer parked itself just outside his base and started blasting away. He’d managed to stay hidden for so long, why not give up the game now? His fate should be the same as those who’d counted on him.

As if to confirm his fears, the scanner beeped to signal the arrival of an incoming ship.

Though certain the Empire had arrived, he checked the monitor to confirm it. He would be insulted if anything other than the Executor showed up to destroy the greatest spy network the galaxy had ever seen.

But something struck him immediately: the ship didn’t appear large enough to be a Star Destroyer, let alone a Super Star Destroyer. Heck, the little speck looked to be only slightly larger than a TIE on the scope. The enhanced view showed a beat-up T-65 X-wing with black and gold trim. He didn’t recognize the snubfighter, although the pilot transmitted the proper code.

“Scimitar, do you read? Do you read?” a voice said through static.

“Pilot, your presence in this system is a direct contravention of orders from Spynet Command. You are to exit this system immediately and go to ground. For your own safety, get as far away from here as possible.”

“Negative, Scimitar. I have an urgent parcel to deliver. This is Guardian.”

Lort stood with his hands behind his back as the starfighter landed in the main bay. He had dismissed base personnel some time ago and retrieved a ladder so the pilot could make his way down. A dark-furred Bothan dressed in an orange flight suit clambered down the ladder as his astromech trilled and beeped in its socket. The pilot undid his chinstrap and let his helmet fall to the plasteel floor. “It’s bad out there, Scimitar.”

Lort held up a hand. “You can call me Lort, Ray’lo.”

“But Spynet protocol dictates—”

“Spynet is no more.” He forced a bittersweet smile. “A great purge not unlike the one that wiped out the Jedi some years ago. The copied plans essentially acted as homing beacons. For the last week, Star Destroyers and Imperial kill squads have surgically wiped us out. It’s just a matter of time before they find us.”

“With all due respect, Scimitar,” the pilot said before noticing Lort’s severe look of displeasure, “I mean, Lort, the Imperials aren’t following me. They lost my trail three days ago. You wanna know why?” He walked toward the back of the X-wing and activated the lift for his droid companion; a vacuum tube suctioned itself to the astromech’s domed head, lifted the entire unit out of its socket, and placed it gently on the deck. “Elfie disabled the tracking mechanism and cracked the encryption, all while calculating frequent jumps to keep the Empire off our tail. We finally lost ‘em for good.”

“Cracked the encryption? What do you mean?”

“Show him, Elfie.”

The green-and-black astromech bounced excitedly on its feet and gibbered in its signature language of electronic bleats and boops before projecting an image of a large green planet surrounded by a smaller red sphere. Upon closer inspection, it appeared to be an unfinished Death Star.

“Show him the generators.”

The planet disappeared as the astromech zoomed in on the Death Star. The larger image gave Lort a better look at the battle station, which was clearly still under construction. Three columns in the interior of the massive structure glowed yellow.

“Targeting the three generators at the center will destabilize the Death Star and destroy it.” The image simulated proton torpedo and rocket strikes to the three structures; the station disappeared in a shower of spark and flame. 

“We must deliver this to Rebel Command as quickly as possible,” Lort said. It sounded more like a question than a statement. 

Ray’lo—Guardian—put a hand on his shoulder. “We also learned the Emperor is overseeing the final stages of construction. We can end this once and for all. The Death Star, the Emperor, the entire Empire.” 

Lort did his best to stay composed. They would say many Bothans died to bring the critical information to the Rebellion. But as he thought of his friends and colleagues, of family members and secret operatives, he saw it differently.

Myr’la. Sunrise.

Pal’ryk. Saber.

Jeslin. Spear.

Torsk. Strike.

Ray’lo. Guardian.

Breton’la. Skimmer.

Picbacca. The Wook.

Jar-EE. Dewback.

Names and codenames. People. His people.

In his heart, many Bothans lived.