Thursday, May 11, 2023

Terror Bears: 40 Years of Return of the Jedi

We called ourselves the Dread Forge.

A squad of ten, working as one. We imagined the Rebels shaking in their foxholes when they heard our boots hit the ground. A highly trained, highly skilled unit of Imperial might, each attuned to our individual strengths and weaknesses, a well-oiled machine of death and destruction. We were, we liked to boast, “forged in dread.”

Thus, the nickname.

The Stormtrooper Corps adhered to specific, unbreakable rules. But if your squad performed well enough, if you and your squadmates showed you were a lethal tool of terror, your superiors would look the other way when it came to your quirks. That’s why we boasted non-reg designations like Cinder, Cap, Therm, and my own, Bolt. That’s why we painted kill streaks and custom marks on our armor—we could pick each other out on a crowded battlefield.

See, the Empire thought it wanted its best and brightest to talk, look, and act the same.

Collective lethality went a long way toward changing that line of thinking.

It’s a good thing Old Palps decided to send us into the meatgrinder on Endor’s moon. If he refused to deploy his best for the final destruction of those Rebel bastards, we would’ve crashed a dropship right into his throne room and given him a piece of our minds. It probably would’ve been an epic fight; we heard the old man could handle himself.

To be perfectly honest, we weren’t really there for the operational glory, such as it was. We’d have the element of surprise and an overwhelming advantage in numbers. But I agreed with Cap—we wanted to be there to wipe that smirk off Solo’s face and add a few dozen names to our kill list. It wouldn’t be much of a contest, definitely not one of our most challenging assignments.

But it was gonna be fun.

Hell, yeah, it was gonna be fun.


We were on the periphery of it all, watching from a distance as our guys led the Rebels out of the bunker. Storms, scouties, graybacks, fleeties, olives and blacks all around. Just an overwhelming force surrounding that pitiful little band of Rebels, with AT-STs and speeder bikes there to reinforce how screwed they really were.

Things went straight to Sith real quick.

Pint-size furballs with sticks came from everywhere.

Imperial forces prided themselves on being unflappable amid chaos.

Sometimes, pride takes a spear right in the junk.


We called ourselves the Dread Forge.

A squad of ten, working as one. We kept our heads, picked off a few furballs, and ended up getting separated from the rest of the Imperial force. A disciplined unit would’ve radioed back to Ops and made it a priority to reunite with the main force. But our radios were useless; the Rebels must’ve found a way to disrupt our communications. It would undoubtedly make it difficult to coordinate during the battle, but Imperial forces trained for these scenarios. We were the best fighting force in the galaxy.

My squadmates and I didn’t like surprise attacks. We got tunnel vision and pursued the furballs deeper into the woods. Cap took down two of them with some well-placed shots. Therm unleased a couple detonators about thirty yards ahead, clearing away some of the overgrowth and, I hoped, a few of the enemies. What good would spears and slings do against Imperial might?

I’m certain the furballs were thinking the same thing after we fried a few of them. We understood the importance of making quick work of our enemies; they knew the terrain better than we did. Spending too much time chasing them deeper into the forest would give them an advantage.

War horns. Triumphant hooting and chittering.

Cinder prepped one of his signature flame-blasts, but before he fired, warriors leaped from treetops and pulled him down. I had no idea they were even there.

By the time I turned around, I could hear Cinder shrieking but couldn’t see him underneath the mountain of fur.

There was no going back.

Once we cleared the forest of these pests, we’d go back to rescue Cinder.

And if he didn’t make it, we’d drink to his memory.


The mission briefing said the natives on Endor’s Sanctuary Moon were called Ewoks, a “docile but territorial pre-hyperspace civilization with pagan beliefs and a strong connection to the forest.” While the Ewoks were curious about the shield generator and our bunker, Imperial ecologists expected them to keep their distance as long as we limited the damage to our wooded surroundings. Endor’s moon had dense, unchecked forest with some of the tallest trees I’ve ever seen in my life. Me and the guys in the Dread Forge had been deployed to dozens of worlds; none appeared as untouched and pristine.

I wasn’t one to get all squishy about a place, and if we had to reduce the forest to ash, so be it. Roast the little furballs on a spit for all I care. Make ‘em into bathmats and winter coats.

The nine remaining members of the Dread Forge were more than enough to handle some primitive warriors. After all, we’d tamed more than a few native populations in our time. As we ventured deeper into the forest, Tracker, our capable scout, spotted a group of Ewoks hiding on a ridge. We moved through the foliage like ghosts, splitting off into two groups for a flanking maneuver. Cap, Therm, Spanner, and I approached from the left and Tracker, Nines, Pops, Vibro, and Mags came in from the right.

Cap gave the signal; both sides converged.

But we didn’t find any Ewoks, just a pile of animal pelts meant to look like Ewoks. They’d even dressed the things up, given them spears and bows and slings. That line from the briefing sprang immediately to mind: “a docile but territorial pre-hyperspace civilization.”

Docile, my plastoid ass.

“Eyes up, guys.” Pops pointed to the tree line above the ridge. Before we even had the chance to look, he took an arrow through his left eye lens and screamed as crimson spurted from the opening onto his armor and helmet. He waved his arms frantically and then tried to pull out the arrow. That only resulted in more screaming. Vibro and Mags tried to drag him away from our vulnerable position, but Mags howled in pain after one of the little bastards shoved a spear through his left leg.

They were above us.

Below us.

Around us.

This “docile but territorial pre-hyperspace civilization” was kicking our ass.

Therm did what he did best, tossing a few of his detonators in the air. The explosions bought us some time, and we scrambled away from the ridge as quickly as we could. Pops finally removed the arrow from his eye, leaving behind an unsettling empty socket that dripped red. Either because he was in shock or incredibly composed, he supported Mags, who limped around furiously with a spear still embedded in his left leg.

“Move! Move! Move!” Cap yelled, the first spoken command since we’d gotten separated from the main Imperial force. If discretion is the better part of valor, we failed miserably at it all, tromping deeper into the forest through tall grass and snapping every tree branch along the way. Rustling to our six reminded us we were being hunted. We moved as fast as we could and tried to put some distance between us and our attackers.

We split up again, figuring it would be harder to track us in smaller groups.

Tracker, Cap, and I formed a trio, as did Therm, Nines, and Vibro. Cap ordered Spanner to double back with Mags and Pops so the injured pair could rejoin the main fighting group. The remaining six of us would draw off our pursuers and, once we’d defeated them, make our way back to find out what happened to Cinder.

Imperial units had some oddly specific functions. Our ranks included biker scouts, shore troopers, aquatic assault troopers, lava troopers, snowtroopers, and the like. The units were outfitted for specific environments, their armor tailored to blend in with their surroundings. And here we were, a bunch of morons in gleaming white armor that did jack shit as camouflage in the forest. Tracker, Cap, and I found a little stream and a muddy bank. Working quickly but thoroughly, we rubbed mud into our armor and covered our helmets in it. I understood this was imperfect camouflage, but I sure as hell knew we had to do something.

A stormtrooper in bright white armor wasn’t exactly invisible when standing next to a tree or crouching in the grass.

“You ever seen anything like this, Bolt?” Tracker asked.

“We’ve had some rough missions. That militia on Corellia almost got the best of us.” I turned around so Tracker could spread mud on the back of my armor. “We nearly got incinerated on Ryloth.”

“Who didn’t nearly get incinerated on Ryloth? That place was impossible,” Cap said.

Tracker patted me on the back. “All done. Take care of Cap.”

Typically, a unit would make sure its captain went first, but Cap was the selfless type who put his guys before himself. I rolled a ball of mud into my gloves and patted it down before applying it to Cap’s back. Just as I bent down to reach his legs, something whooshed over my head and slammed into the back of Cap’s helmet.

I looked up to find his helmet cracked, a stone embedded in it. Cap reached for his head, fell to his knees, and slumped forward. I couldn’t tell if he was dead or simply knocked out, but he was dead weight either way. Tracker and I tried to carry him away, but we’d gotten deeper into the mud than we’d intended and were basically sitting ducks. More rocks whizzed by our heads, undoubtedly thrown our way thanks to the Ewoks’ slings.

We finally pulled Cap free and trudged through the mud, dragging him across the ground as more stones flew past. Tracker used his free hand to fire a few blind shots in the direction of our attackers. It was just enough to buy us a short window to reach some foliage and get Cap to his feet. He groaned and grunted as we lifted him up.

“We have to move, Cap,” Tracker said. “We need cover.”

“You guys… should go on without… me,” Cap struggled to say. “Not much… but… dead weight.”

“Not a chance.” Tracker said. We put Cap’s arms over our shoulders and managed to move at a good clip.

“What are these things again?” Cap asked weakly.

“Ewoks,” I answered. “A docile but territorial pre-hyperspace civilization, according to the mission brief.”

Cap coughed. “They’d be cute if they weren’t trying to kill us.”

War horns. Triumphant hooting and chittering.

We moved deeper into the forest, beyond the sounds of battle aside from the occasional high-pitched whine of a speeder bike or the zwang! of a blaster bolt. To our right, I spotted a small cave next to a large tree. The thick trunk would give us some cover, while the alcove would give us a place to stop and think. The three of us collapsed as soon as we made it to the cave’s entrance. My sides burned from the long trek through the mud and underbrush.

Cap sat up with a little help and asked us to take off his helmet. I finally wrangled it loose and tossed it to the ground. Like me, his breaths came in gulps. “How’s it look?”

I switched on a field light to examine the back of his head. The stone left him with a deep gash; the force of the impact embedded large chunks of plastoid in his skin and scalp. He’d lost some blood, but it was nothing a field bacta patch couldn’t help. I pulled one from my utility belt, ripped open the bag, and gently secured it to the back of his head.

Cap let out a contented sigh as the bacta patch brought instant relief.

Something scurried across the ground and Tracker smoked it with his blaster. It looked like some kind of rodent. I couldn’t blame the guy for being on edge, but we needed to stay quiet. I told him as much.

“Just a little jumpy,” Tracker said.

“We can’t stay here long,” I told him. “Those things know the terrain. Just catch your breath, maybe have a field ration or something.” I opened a holomap of the area. We’d ventured far away from the main battlefield. If we headed east and circled around the perimeter, we could return to the bunker and the safety of the Imperial forces. Surely, we were routing the Rebels and their primitive allies. Stones and slings and spears were no match for an armored AT-ST. I relayed my idea to the others.

Cap agreed it was the best course of action, although he had some reservations about his ability to keep up. “Leave me here. I’m only going to slow you down.”

I told him we refused, even if he made it a direct order. Tracker voiced his steadfast agreement.

What happened next, happened with shocking speed and brutality. One second, Cap’s head was there, the next second, it was not. Blood spurted from the hole in his neck and ran down the front of his armored breastplate before his headless body collapsed and slammed into the ground. I caught the glint of an edged weapon and shined the field light directly behind him. A half-dozen Ewok warriors stood patiently with spears at the ready. Had they been there the whole time? How did they get so close, so quietly?

There was no point in taking Cap with us now. Tracker and I backed toward the exit, almost tripping over Cap’s head and helmet, and peppered the cave with enough blaster fire to fill it with smoke. I knew we needed to head east, but I also knew I’d lost my bearings while making our hasty retreat. We could be going north or south or east or west or some direction in between.

We just needed to get away.


When we reached a clearing, we spotted Pops resting against one of the forest moon’s gargantuan trees and ran toward him. We yelled in his direction, but he didn’t immediately answer. The old man wasn’t our commander—Cap had been—but we all looked up to him. He’d been among the first non-clone Imperials to join the Stormtrooper Corps. He always bragged about seeing a Jedi one time, although none of us believed him. It gave us a sense of relief to see him casually resting against the tree trunk.

“Pops!” Tracker yelled as we approached from about fifty yards away. “Hey, Pops!”

“Where are Spanner and Mags?” I asked when we finally reached the old man.

His left helmet lens was still gone from the arrow he’d taken in the eye. The blood on his armor had started to dry. I also noticed, with much trepidation, that Pops was not leaning against the tree—he was pinned against it.

Those furry little bastards used him as bait.

I tried to stir him, but he was completely limp. His head lulled to the side and his helmet fell to the ground as he slumped forward.

Tracker and I looked at each other. Though our helmets obscured our faces, I could feel panic radiating from him.

War horns. Triumphant hooting and chittering.

I looked over my shoulder and saw nothing.

A second later, an arrow to Tracker’s left side. A stone bounced off the top of his helmet, staggering him. Another arrow, this one in the vulnerable area between his shoulder and chest. A spear caught him in the midsection and penetrated his armor. A blaster bolt finished him off. Frozen, I stared in fascination at the smoking hole in his torso.

The little monsters took one of our firearms and learned how to use it. After all, the sound of a standard-issue BlasTech E-11 was unmistakable to the grunts who’d trained with the things since their first days at the academy. Tracker meekly lifted his head and reached out for me. I took a step forward and then hesitated; an arrow whistled past and went right through the palm of his hand.

Only one option remained.

I ran.

Through tall grass and shrubbery. Streams and creek beds. Past trees and rock formations. Splashing through water, stepping on branches, stomping through dry grass. My heart pounded quickly enough to rattle my chest piece; my breaths came in big gulps of air. Members of the Dread Forge pledged to stay in peak physical shape, but it seemed I’d lagged on cardio lately.

I ran until I almost threw up with my helmet still on. I stopped only when I heard several blaster bolts in sequence. As I drew closer, I reached a small valley where three stormtroopers stood next to each other and directed their fire upward. Nines, Vibro, and Therm. Finally, some luck. With a reckless slide down the hill, I rolled into position beside them.

“Where is everybody else?” Nines asked between shots.

I shared the grim news: decapitation (Cap); bait (Pops); various methods including stones, arrows, and a blaster bolt (Tracker). Three unknown fates, although prospects seemed grim (Cinder, Mags, Spanner) given current trends.

“You’re telling me there are just four members of the Dread Forge left?” Nines asked.

A shadow passed overhead, and a boulder dropped from the sky, crushing Vibro’s head and helmet. A spray of red splashed across Nine’s armor. Vibro twitched at our feet.

“I’m telling you there are three.”

“We managed to take down about a dozen of them,” Nines said. “We thought they’d gotten the message and stopped following us. Then we went down the hill and heard—”

War horns. Triumphant hooting and chittering.

“They followed us the whole way. They don’t like the blaster fire that much, though.” He pointed his blaster toward a ridge. “We’ve been funneling them toward the center up there. Figured if we could get them clustered together, Therm could chuck one of his detonators and take out a bunch of them all at once.” He indicated an opening in the trees behind us. “That’s a straight shot for the bunker. It’s still some distance away, but it’s our best chance.”

I joined their effort to corral Ewoks toward the center of the ridge. I couldn’t tell if anyone was actually up there, but I trusted Nines. He was a levelheaded, professional soldier. We just kept firing and firing, occasionally checking over our shoulders to make sure no one surprised us from behind. The Ewoks didn’t make another run with a glider, either, but we stole the occasional glance toward the forest moon’s clear blue sky. The unfinished Death Star hung in the air, a glorious backdrop for the end of the Rebellion.

Nines pulled out his macrobinoculars. “Got the little bastards all huddled in the middle. This is as good of a time as any, Therm.”

Therm usually let his explosives do the talking. He loved blowing things up, be they vaults or doors or entrances to impenetrable strongholds. The guy could chuck a thermal detonator with as much distance and accuracy as anyone. But this particular target looked well beyond his reach, so Therm brought out his mag-tube. The simple device could launch a detonator a considerable distance. He mounted the mag-tube on his shoulder and made a few adjustments, then armed the detonator and prepared to place it in the end of the tube.

Before Therm was able to load, however, a couple stones knocked the mag-tube off his shoulder. Therm dropped to his knees, frantically searching for the thermal detonator he’d just armed. He muttered more curse words in a five-second span than I’d heard him say in our six-plus years serving together. The countdown beep signaled impending death, although we were not usually on this end of it. He felt around the grass, crawled toward the sound of the increasingly rapid beeps, and finally plucked the shiny metal sphere from the ground. Having disarmed it, he held it aloft in triumph.

“That was close,” he said, the relief in his voice unmistakable. “I thought we were goners for sure. I mean—”

Those were his final words. The thermal detonator went off, throwing Nines and me backwards several feet. I was woozy but awake while Nines was out. I took him by the arm and dragged him toward the clearing in the trees behind us. Smoke and fire provided the perfect cover for our escape. It would’ve been a lot easier if he’d been conscious, but I managed. The thought of leaving another member of the Dread Forge behind sickened me, and I couldn’t bear to consider it, even if I could save my own hide.

It dawned on me again that no one knew what happened to Mags or Spanner. Once I got Nines and myself to safety, we could regroup and look for them. If we were lucky, maybe we’d find Cinder, too. It wouldn’t make up for our losses, but we could re-fire the Dread Forge with some new, top-flight recruits. There may not be as much of a need for us with the Rebellion crushed once and for all, but the Empire could always use good soldiers.

Almost there. Just a few more steps to the clearing. Nines regained consciousness and slowly got his bearings. Then the whole planet shook, and we looked up to see a ball of flame in the sky where the Death Star had been. What in the world happened? It had to be the destruction of the entire Rebel fleet—the only thing that made sense.

Just steps away from the clearing now, with Nines now fully aware and running beside me. In an instant, Ewoks emerged from the tree line. Somehow, they’d known exactly where we wanted to go. They converged on Nines first; he swung his arms and fired his blaster wildly to no avail. He screamed and struggled until they speared him to death.

And then they set their sights on me.

One Ewok had affixed a piece of Mags’s armor to his shoulder; his hand-painted “medals” from campaigns on Corellia and Ryloth gave it away. Another wore the blood-drenched chest piece belonging to Spanner, easily recognizable for the hydrospanner our resident techie stamped on the upper left side. A third had Cinder’s helmet, notable for the flames painted on the top and sides, tucked under his arm.

Huh. So that’s what happened to them. Good to know.

War horns. Triumphant hooting and chittering.

We called ourselves the Dread Forge. 

A squad of ten, working as one.

Now only I remained.

The mission briefing called Ewoks a “docile but territorial pre-hyperspace civilization.”

But as three of them clawed away at my armor and another approached with an axe, I realized they should’ve been called something else entirely.

For them, it was gonna be fun.

Hell, yeah, it was gonna be fun.