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Saga - Legends "FOG" (basically LOST in SW, lots of OCs & Legends characters)

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction- Before, Saga, and Beyond' started by cthugha, Feb 1, 2021.

  1. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Title: FOG
    Author: cthugha
    Characters: tons of OCs, some of which will turn out to be / interact with Legends or movie characters eventually
    Genre: Mystery, Drama... whatever LOST was
    Timeline: ANH-ROTJ, with flashbacks to various eras before that
    Summary: A passenger ship crashes on a mysterious planet. While they're trying to survive and get help, the survivors gradually realize how both their pasts and their destinies are intertwined...
    Notes: I've always wanted to write a Star Wars version of LOST, so here it is. While a lot of the premise, cast and story beats are taken directly from LOST, it will go into decidedly Star Wars-y directions and take quite a few turns that are different from the show. (I also hope to provide a more satisfying ending -- in any case I've planned out the resolution to all of the major mysteries from the beginning, and I have a long list of the show's failings that I'll be trying to avoid.)
    Expect about a chapter per week for the next few weeks, not sure yet how my schedule is going to be later in the year.


    1.1: Jax

    Jax Veshok, ISB
    Mission log, informal
    35:3:6


    The good news: Target #2 (the woman) is alive and accounted for.

    The bad news: we are trapped in a crashed ship that is quickly sinking into a swamp on some uncharted planet, and as far as I can tell no one in the Galaxy has any idea where we are.

    I was not awake during the crash itself. The last thing I heard was the unscheduled reentry alarm and a voice telling everyone to strap in; then I must have blacked out, perhaps from sudden depressurization.

    When I opened my eyes again, I thought I had gone blind. Everything was grey and blurry, some places brighter than others but nothing to focus on, and my head was pounding like crazy. Patting myself, I realized that I was still in my seat, but hanging rather than sitting. Either I was upside down or gravity was; in any case, the safety harness was all that kept me from crashing headfirst into what used to be the ceiling of the passenger cabin.

    With that insight, I was finally able to identify some of the blurry shapes in front of me. Many of the other passengers in the cabin had not been so lucky; I saw at least three humanoid figures sprawled below or tangled up in impossible positions near me. On the other side of the aisle, a group of seats had been ripped free and smashed against the ceiling, killing everyone in them. When the fog cleared for a moment, I could see them more clearly than I would have liked, until a new cloud of cold, sticky moisture came drifting in from a bright spot up ahead. The seats directly across from me, where Targets #1 and #2 had been sitting, were empty.

    And then there were the sounds.

    I may be undercover as a washed-out ex-trooper, but I am still an officer of the Empire, with all the duties and obligations toward our citizens that brings. So as soon as I had worked myself free of the crash webbing and found my footing on the uneven surface below, I made my way toward the plaintive noise that came from somewhere up ahead and to the side, in the direction of the light.

    It sounded like a mix between a baby porcine and a badly distorted synthesizer; when I came closer, the smell told me all I needed to know. It was a Hutt, the smallest Hutt I’d ever seen, who was trapped between two girders that had been dislodged during the crash. I had not realized there was a Hutt aboard the Lady of the Rim, though with Tatooine’s criminal profile I ought not to have been surprised. Unfortunately I also saw no way to help it, as even a juvenile Hutt is much too heavy for me to lift. So I told it I would be back as soon as possible, then moved on toward what had to be a tear in the hull of the ship through which the light came in. It was from there that the thick fog came wafting in, obscuring anything more than a few centimeters up ahead.

    As I neared the tear in the hull, I heard the sounds of footsteps from outside, as well as a growling noise that sounded distinctly dangerous. So I pulled my holdout blaster, which I had been allowed to keep at check-in thanks to the ISB waiver in my documents, and approached slowly. It was there that a human voice startled me, speaking out of the shadows to my left.

    “You need to get me out," the voice said. "Oh, and you'll want to drop that blaster."

    Peering through the fog, I saw a man hanging from his seat just like I had, only that his crash webbing had caught on the armrests, leaving his arms pinned in place. He seemed to pose no danger at first glance, but his demeanor - and his heavily tattooed face - made me wary. "And why would I do that?" I said cautiously.

    "Because you do not want to face whatever is out there on your own," he said. "And the blaster won't help you."

    To complement my officer-track training within the Imperial Security Bureau, I received instruction by members of the Inquisitorius on the matter of recognizing - and, in some limited ways, defending against - attempts at Force-based manipulation. It is my professional opinion that the passenger trapped in that seat, who later gave his name as "Nash" to others, was a Force user who deliberately tried to influence my decisions. For this reason, I felt and still feel justified in refusing him assistance, especially in light of later events. In keeping with ISB doctrine, I also classified him as a person of interest, to be observed and investigated as far as mission parameters allow.


    Leaving the man behind, I made my way to the tear in the hull and climbed out. The fog was still thick there, butThe fog was a little lighter up there, but I could still see only a few meters in all directions. I was looking at what had been the bottom of the Lady of the Rim, a wide expanse of deck plating spattered with mud and ripped open in some place, exposing ducts and wires. My seat had been in the starboard midsection of the ship, where RimTours puts its local passengers to keep them apart from the wealthier cruise guests, so I ought to have seen a network of girders holding the sublight drives to my right; but the drives and their superstructure were gone, sheared away except for a few struts bent at angles that spoke to the violence of the crash.

    I saw the source of the growling as well, a massive furry creature kneeling on the deck and tearing at the plates. With some relief, I recognized it as a Wookiee, a sentient creature who had most likely been a passenger on the ship rather than some native monster. It was trying to free another of its kind who was stuck in a narrow hole in the hull; as I looked on, it succeeded, pulling the second, larger Wookiee out with another roar that would have frightened anyone who did not know the context.

    Having had some experience with Wookiees, I carefully approached the pair. “There are people still trapped belowdecks,” I told them, enunciating clearly. (Most Wookiees off Kashyyyk understand Basic, though they lack the necessary anatomy to speak it.) “Please help free them.”

    That set off a debate between the two, with the bigger pulling the smaller one away from me and both gesturing wildly. I tried to get a better grasp of my surroundings while waiting for them to come to their senses, which is why the smaller of the two - a female, I suppose - was able to surprise me by reaching for my blaster with one of her long arms and yanking it out of my hand before I could react. I yelled at her, but she threw it away with a growl so that it vanished in the fog. I heard it clatter to the deck, then slide away. To my renewed surprise, however, the female did not attack me any further; instead she made for the tear in the hull I had pointed out earlier and climbed in, presumably to free the surviving passengers. With an exasperated howl, the other Wookiee followed.

    Just then the damp breeze picked up a little, blowing away some of the fog, and I saw that I was not alone on the ship's belly. Near the middle of the expanse of tortured metal, a group of survivors had congregated around a particularly wide gap, where the hull had collapsed in a way that it sloped down into the ruined interior like a ramp. Making my way towards them, I caught my first glimpse of the place we had crashed in: tall, overgrown trees stretching their crowns above the fog, with giant branches reaching for the ship like tentacles.

    I did not waste any time dwelling on the view, however. Target #2 was with the group, a little aloof from the others, who were clustered around a figure on the ground. "Are you a doctor?" someone asked me - a Twi'lek female in loose freight-worker's fatigues whose name I later learned was Nooma. I said I was not, but agreed to take a look at the elderly human male lying supine on the deck, grinning madly despite the bloody scrapes crisscrossing his face and chest. He seemed to take a perverse pleasure in the pain he was feeling, but appeared to be healthy enough otherwise; and indeed, when the entire ship groaned and tilted a moment later, just a little but enough to cause nearly everyone to lose their footing, he sat up and steadied himself against my shoulder under his own power.

    "We should go back inside," he told me, loud enough for the others to hear. "All of us."

    "I don't think so, old man," the grating voice of the man with the tattooed face sounded from behind me. Turning around, I saw that the Wookiees had managed to free the Hutt as well, who was gliding towards us on his sluglike belly. "This ship is sinking. But you do you, if drowning in mud is your idea of a good time."

    The wounded man pushed himself up, using my shoulder for leverage. "You would not know," he said calmly, "but there's a storm coming. And it's not one we're likely to survive out here."

    It turned out he was right. Nooma was the first to see it, a wavefront of dark clouds rolling our way above the jungle, lit from inside by flashes of lightning. People started muttering and arguing, so I took charge. With some help from Nooma and the wounded man, I managed to set everyone in motion - all except Nash, who pulled his tattooed face into a smirk and sauntered off by himself. Target #2 was resistant at first, staring into the distance without moving or communicating, but eventually I got her down the makeshift ramp as well. And not a moment too soon, because just as we joined the others inside the first bolts of lightning struck the ship, making the hull crackle and glow with electricity. I hastily pushed everyone a little further in before pausing to take stock in the harsh flickering light from outside.

    There was a droid among the survivors, a silver RA-7 unit with a circular repulsor panel welded to its hips in place of legs. I sent it to scout for passages and stable places, then led the remaining sentients further away from the gap as rain began pouring in from outside. Soon water was sloshing around our feet (and the Huttling's belly), and since the droid had not returned, I made the call to move everyone to the galley. On cruise ships the size of the Lady of the Rim, the galley usually has its own air filtration and life support systems, both for safety reasons and to keep the cooking smells out of the passenger sections. I explained as much to the other survivors, and together we set out to climb through the wreckage. The galley was two levels up - now down - from the floor we were on and almost exactly in the center of the ship, which raised my hopes that it could have been spared the worst of the damage. On our way there we encountered Nash again, who was busy looting the storage compartments - as well as some of the corpses, I realized with disgust. I should have shot him then and there, but my priority was getting the others to safety.

    The galley, it turned out, was indeed mostly intact; even some of the kitchen droids were still working there, struggling to clean up the mess caused by the crash. The lights were on, which provided a welcome change of mood from the gloomy exterior. Some other survivors had already gathered there, presumably attracted by the light; these included a grievously wounded man, a frightened Bith, a Kuati noblewoman and her telbun companion, both swaddled in absurdly elaborate robes, as well as a Mandalorian in full armor who was busying himself with the galley's computer system.

    I took care of the dying man first, showing a reluctant Nooma how to staunch his bleeding and put pressure on the wound in his side. While I was looking and asking around for a medpack, the telbun approached me, pointing warily at the Mandalorian's armored back. "Isn't he dangerous?" he asked quietly. "He might be wiring the ship to blow."

    "Not all Mandalorians are criminals," I responded, but approached him anyway. Any Mandalorian is a force to be reckoned with, so I wanted to be on the safe side. "I assume you know what you're doing?" I asked.

    "I'm trying to get into the ship's mainframe," he said, never turning away from the terminal in front of him. "To find out what happened to us. Are you part of the crew?"

    "No." I looked around, but saw no one who fit the bill; living crew were notoriously sparse on the cheaper levels, where most of the service work was done by droids. "The most important question would be whether help is coming, and if so, how soon."

    "Agreed," he grunted, so I left him to his work. Turning back, I was accosted by the Kuati lady herself. "Are you not going to arrest him?" she asked.

    "Why would I?"

    "You are an Imperial officer…"

    "I am not," I lied, determined to preserve my alibi for this mission. "And this man is no danger." Putting aside the question of how she had guessed my background for the moment, I pushed past her to get back to the dying man… only to find him dead, and Nooma over him with bloody hands.

    "What happened?" I asked.

    "He just… he stopped breathing and went all rigid," she said, her lekku writhing as she cried. "I don't… I didn't…"

    Just then the echo of a blaster shot from far away sounded through the open hatch, immediately followed by an anguished scream. Bewildered, I made my way past the rest of the survivors and stepped out of the galley into the corridor. The scream went on, broken by little gasps; and here I clearly heard that it was coming from below.

    Someone was trapped deeper inside the ship. And they were fighting.

    By a superficial calculus of risk reduction and mission priorities, I ought to have ignored the screams. I should have stayed in the galley, helped the Mandalorian find out more about our predicament, dressed the scrapes of the man we had found on the deck and kept an eye on Target #2. I chose to investigate instead - perhaps simply out of misplaced empathy or curiosity, perhaps out of a sense of knowing too little about the entire situation to stay in one place. Time will tell whether I chose wrong.

    Nooma wanted to come along, but I refused her. "Keep them calm," I told her. "Help the others. And lend me your flashlight, please."

    She nodded but hesitated. "Nash is still out there," she said.

    "Nash?"

    "The guy with the facial tattoos…"

    "Oh." I instinctively reached for my blaster, then remembered the Wookiee female yanking it from my hand. "I'll be careful," I said, sweeping the corridor with the flashlight instead, and left.

    Getting down was simple enough: thanks to Imperial safety standards, every commercial vessel of this size has emergency stairwells in addition to turbolifts. As expected, the lifts had shut down, either from lack of power or because of a breach further down in the shaft; but the bottom of the stairs provided a good-enough ramp to navigate.

    I paused on every floor, listening. The screams gave way to yelling, then to sobs, but there was no more blaster fire. The ship around me seemed to be in pain as well, its creaks and groans punctuated by the occasional sound of something snapping, breaking or collapsing. It was moving too, not so much swaying as shifting minutely over time as it was slowly being swallowed by the swamp.

    I had travelled perhaps six levels down, encountering only death and stillness on the way, when a Wookiee's roar followed by very human curses lent new urgency to my progress. The yelling went on for long enough to guide me there, down one more level and some way toward the side of the ship.

    This part of the ship was a good deal more spacious than the cramped bottom levels I had travelled in, and the emergency lights were still on here. I found the Wookiees in the ruins of an elegantly furnished dining room, where they were locked in a standoff with Nash, whose hand was bleeding, and a Neimoidian who had taken cover behind an upturned table. When I entered the scene, another being poked its head up behind the shattered remains of a liquor shelf: the hybrid RA-7 droid I had sent out to look for shelter.

    "I found a stable place," it spoke into the momentary silence. "It's seven levels up and this way."

    "The galley?" I asked.

    "Yes, it even has its own life-support system…"

    "Shut up, Stumpy," Nash growled, nursing his injured hand. "We know."

    "I just came from there," I said. "And I would like to return as soon as possible. So what's the matter here, and can we please just get it settled?"

    "He shot my son!" the Neimoidian whined, pointing an accusing finger at Nash. The occasional whimpers, I realized, were not coming from him but from a second, smaller alien behind the table.

    Nash rolled his eyes. "She stole my blaster!" he said, tilting his tattooed head towards the female Wookiee. "And shredded my hand in the process."

    The Wookiee female roared in protest, only for her partner to cut in and pull her aside with a low growl. "Probably for the better," I said, making my way through the atrium to the Neimoidians' hiding place. While I felt reassured knowing that the man didn't have a blaster any more, I remained wary, remembering the way he'd tried to get into my head before. "How bad is it?"

    The boy was sitting on the ground, pressing a piece of cloth against a wound in the side of his head. So at least he was conscious, if in pain. "What happened here?" I asked his father.

    "I'll tell you what happened," Nash's voice rang out. "Those two attacked me, and then they called their Wookiees on me."

    The Wookiee female roared what I supposed was an objection. "We thought you were one of them!" the Neimoidian said.

    "Boy darts out from the shadows, flings a broken bottle at my face," Nash continued, sauntering closer. "What am I supposed to do, not defend myself?"

    "Hold on a moment," I said. "What do you mean, one of them?"

    The Neimoidian looked at his son, who seemed to feel it and whimpered again. "Did you see anyone on your way here?" he asked me. "Anyone - even dead bodies?"

    I thought back. "Not on this level." Or any of the previous ones below the galley, in fact. I had assumed the Mandalorian had gathered everyone who had survived there, and frankly I had not been looking out for corpses. "Why?"

    "They're gone. Someone took them."

    Nash groaned. "So I look like a corpse-stealing monster, huh? Is it because of the tattoos?" He bent to look over the table at the kid. "Maybe you should stop telling him horror stories, bubble head."

    I did my best to ignore him. "Did you see that happen?" I asked. "Were you threatened? Are we in danger here?"

    The Neimoidian let his head sway from side to side. "I don't know! But you should see for yourself. They cut them out of their seats - they cut their way through the side of the ship…"

    Nash snorted. "No wonder your kid gets panic attacks," he said. "Listen, I don't want to interrupt your story time here. Can I leave without your furry bodyguards here ripping any more skin off me?"

    "They're not…" the Neimoidian started to say, but I talked over him, addressing the Wookiees directly. "Escort him to the galley, please," I said. "Don't let him get away."

    "Oh great," Nash groaned, rolling his eyes.

    "And take them too," I added when l saw the female approaching. "Can you carry the boy?"

    "I can carry him myself," the Neimoidian said quickly, scooping his son up in his arms. "But will you look?" he asked me, his voice trembling with urgency. "They were there - Bnie says…" He broke off. "Just look, please?"

    "I will," I promised. What he said sounded unsettling enough to warrant investigation. "Go with the Wookiees and ask for Nooma; she should have found a medpack by now. And keep…"

    Then something happened.

    I don't know what it was, but I was not the only one who felt it. Next to me, Nash winced so hard the Wookiee female thought he was trying to escape and grabbed his collar with a furry fist. As for myself, I suddenly felt disoriented in a way that is hard to describe. The closest I can get is a feeling of deep disillusionment, as when one catches a revered mentor in a despicable act; or walking on thin ice without realizing it before your foot breaks through.

    "What's wrong?" the Neimoidian asked.

    "I don't know. You should go. Quickly."

    The Wookiee growled in agreement - the male one, this time, who had always held back so far - and even Nash grunted his assent. "Let's get out of here."

    "I'll stay and investigate," I told the Neimoidian again, even though I felt like clouds of nameless dread were billowing up around me. "Now hurry!"

    They left, all of them, and I was alone. The only thing that moved besides myself, as I slowly picked my way through the wreckage, was the spot of light from my flashlight dancing ahead of me, over broken furniture, spilled food, pieces of luggage and machinery… but no people, no one trapped and wounded, not even a severed limb.

    There was blood, though, and there were signs of sentient activity after the crash: rubble pushed aside, boxes opened, tufts of hair strewn about like after a fierce struggle. The Wookiees could not have done all of this in the time they were down here, and neither could Nash or the Neimoidians.

    I dearly missed my blaster now, and looked out for something else to use as a weapon. I found an armrest that had broken free and swung it with the jagged end forward experimentally. It was better than nothing, but deep inside I knew it would not help against whoever did this.

    I should have turned back then and fled back up into the galley. I should have gathered everyone, told them to arm themselves, posted sentries and fortified the entrances. But I had to know more; I had to see for myself.

    A wide double door led from the atrium into the seating area. I had not looked at the passenger manifest for the Lady of the Rim in detail, but by my estimate this section should have held somewhere between thirty and eighty people. I was walking on what had been a high ceiling, between decorative light fixtures and ventilation fans, looking up at the rows of seats above my head.

    Many of them had been occupied, that much was obvious. Now they were empty, the crash webbings hanging from them like dark ghosts, swaying slightly as the ship tilted some more. They had been cut open, I realized, just as the Neimoidian had said. They cut them from their seats…

    I looked at the floor. I could see the floor now, I noticed, without pointing my flashlight at it; light was seeping in from somewhere up ahead. There were more puddles of blood… and streaks too, drag marks, where someone had pulled the bodies. Away from me, toward the side of the ship, where the faint light originated.

    Grabbing my makeshift club harder, I advanced. The light was stronger behind the next partition, making the blood on the ground look red instead of black. There were still no people, but there was a huge jagged gap in the wall, looking like it had been ripped by a huge branch during the crash, then propped open with pieces of wreckage and wood.

    I walked towards it, my anticipation building. Standing in the gash, I looked out over the scenery outside.

    The storm had passed as quickly as it had come. The ship's mutilated flank stretched to either side of me, and on the far side of a strip of splintered wood and scorched vines the jungle towered above me, dark and brooding and woven through with streaks of fog rising out of the soggy ground.

    Someone had built a makeshift bridge out of two massive tree trunks connecting the gap in the hull to a mossy rock a little further down. I knew it was a bridge because there was blood on it. As I looked on, one of the tree trunks lost its balance and slid off the hull, broke through the mess of splintered wood below and landed in the swamp with a splash. The ship creaked in reply and tilted further.

    When I looked down, my feet were less than four meters above the surface of the swamp, and closing. In a few minutes this level would be flooded, and the rest of the ship soon after that. - When I looked up, there was a pillar of black smoke rising above the jungle canopy.

    Out there was the enemy. In here was certain death. I had to make a choice.

    I ran.
     
  2. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    1.2: Nooma


    Faces and names, that's the first thing. Once you know who everybody is, you can start figuring them out. You need to figure them out if you want to survive.

    The guy with the scratches all over his face and chest, he's Dak. For some reason he seems to be enjoying all of this, like it's a comedy or something. Gotta watch out for him; that level of crazy could be dangerous.

    The Bith girl's called Iquaza. Not a risk. I'm probably the only one here who knows enough about Bith to even figure she's a girl, and a young one at that.

    The Mando? No idea. His kind don't talk much, apparently. The Kuati bitch hates him and also won't give her name, but her telbun, K'wanna, is okay.

    Then there's the Hutt, who speaks passable Basic and wants to be called Ronto for some reason. I never get the name of the dazed middle-aged human lady, because I've only just started chatting her up when the Wookiees return. The Wookiees, bringing Nash, two Neimoidians, the hovering bug-eyed droid, and trouble.

    I feel it brewing even as I crack open the medpack the droid hands me. That's the other thing: knowing when people - usually males - are about to fight. Getting out of the way until it's clear who is about to win, then backing that one at just the right moment.

    In this case, the aggression is - predictably - centered around Nash. The Neimoidian guy who is carefully lowering his son to the ground next to me clearly loathes him, and the Wookiees are at least wary of him… but the main active conflict is building, wordlessly, between Nash and the Mandalorian, the two top Neks in the room.

    "What's your name?" I ask the Neimoidian while I'm helping him stabilize his injured kid. From the corner of my eye, I'm watching Nash stalk through the galley, clearly looking for angles of attack.

    "Tin," the Neimoidian whispers. "This is Bnie. He shot him!"

    I grit my teeth while I inspect the kid's leg wound. The shot must have burned clean through his calf just above the ankle. "Does he still have the blaster?" I ask.

    The Neimoidian sways his head. "Wookiee took it."

    Which explains why Nash is keeping his right hand in his pocket. "Good. Hold him down." I say a silent thanks that the kid is already unconscious when Tin grabs his shoulders and I pull the burned fabric of his pants away from the wound. Bnie still twitches, but at least he doesn't try to kick my nose in.

    Then it happens. Nash, having completed his tour of the galley, comes back around and bends down to put his tattooed face close to mine, just out of reach of the hissing Tin. "You know that guy?" he asks, indicating the Mandalorian, who is now staring at a couple of wires he pulled from the kitchen computer.

    I shake my head without raising my eyes from the wound I am treating. No taking sides yet. Look disinterested.

    Nash straightens up. "Does anyone here know this guy?" he calls out loudly. "Because it looks to me like he's about to blow us up."

    "Right? That's what I've been saying," the Kuati woman whines to her telbun. "But no one listened!"

    I do not need to look to know what's happening. Like every man looking for a fight ever, Nash is sauntering up to the other guy, taunting him all the way. "How 'bout you put that down, bucket head," he says, his hand making a bulge in his pocket. Bluffing. "And raise your hands, all nice and slow."

    One of the Wookiees growls something. The Mandalorian doesn't even twitch, hooking two bent wires into each other with exaggerated care. Something starts whirring in the wall, and an interface port irises open next to the computer terminal.

    Now the Mandalorian turns his helmeted head. He ignores Nash, though, scanning the room behind him instead. "You," he says, pointing at the pilot droid. "Can you access this?"

    "I said, put your hands up!" Nash takes another step closer, while the droid hovers unsteadily between them. "And step away, whatever you were doing there."

    "Unlocking the data interface," the Mandalorian says. His voice sounds calm, but I can't be the only one who hears the threat in it. "To find out what happened."

    "Yeah right," Nash scoffs. "Now get away from there and…"

    "I would very much like to know what happened," a calm voice cuts in. Now I do look up: it belongs to Dak, the elderly human with the scrapes along the front. "Array, if you would be so kind?"

    The droid hovers over to the terminal on unsteady repulsors; if I didn't know better I'd think it was feeling trepidation. "Would you mind telling us what you've found so far?" Dak asks the Mandalorian, stepping up so he is almost between him and Nash.

    The Mandalorian surveys the room, as if considering whether everyone should hear this. "Not much," he says eventually. "Looks like the hyperspace antenna got ripped off almost immediately after our reversion, so no distress signal was sent. As far as I can tell, the captain and crew are all dead or missing."

    I focus on wrapping a bandage around Bnie's skinny calf, keeping my head down to hide my relief. "Very convenient," Nash cuts in acidly. "So it's just us now, huh?"

    "Unfortunately," the droid pipes up from where he has stuck a silver finger into the data port, "that seems to be correct."

    "And just what," Nash begins - but before he can finish, the Mandalorian tackles him, ramming his armored shoulder into the man's gut, and all hell breaks loose.

    ***

    "So it's just us now, huh?" the hunter said, flaring his nostrils in a way that looked absurdly like a grin.

    I looked around. Behind me, the lip of the docking bay rose to waist height, with a four-meter drop to the bottom of the sunken bay beyond it. There was a ship down there, a rust-red orbital freighter humming through its preflight checks, and for a moment I allowed myself the fantasy of leaping onto it when it rose, waving my lekku at the hunter as it carried me away.

    But life is not a holoflick, and I'm no heroine in any case. Putting my back against the wall, I searched the alley behind my attacker for any sign he might be wrong; but the only living creature larger than a sand spider was a Jawa who snuck in to peek at the broken Podracer engines lying around, then scuttled away hastily when he saw us.

    It was double noon in Mos Eisley; of course no one in their right mind was out here in the open, under the glare of the twin suns. As he had said, it was just us: me, the fugitive, and him, the hunter.

    He was tall and lean, looking almost but not quite human in a way that suggested a predator's mimikry. There was no way I could slip away or take him in a fight, so I reverted to my oldest strategy: being afraid.

    Being very afraid. Wide-eyed, as pale as my lilac skin allows, and trembling so hard my attackers either take pity on me or congratulate themselves on having broken me, cowed me into utter submission. Often that's all they want; sometimes it's not. In any case, it usually makes them sloppy.

    I watched the hunter's shoulders relax ever so slightly as I pressed my back harder against the wall. "Actually," he whispered, taking small, lazy steps towards me, "I was looking forward to another's soup. But for some reason Jabba seems to want you more than him." He reached out with a bony hand, and his nostrils curled even more. My faked fear turned into genuine terror as I remembered the old stories about the Eaters of Luck and their nasal tentacles, and for a moment I thought I might be in a holoflick after all - only a horror one, as the victim.

    But then he hesitated, frowning, and leaned even closer. "I usually prefer killing assassins," he said, sniffing my cheek, "so I wondered… But you are no stranger to killing yourself, are you?"

    Images of pale, pleading eyes rose from my memory, of lips gasping for breath and the bloody impressions of my fingers on a mangled throat. It was too much to bear; I broke down crying. Hiding my face in my hands, I let all of the pain flow out of me while my body was wracked by heaving sobs.

    "Sad," I dimly heard the hunter say. "A death is something to be savored, not…"

    I pushed myself up with all my strength, grabbed the ledge of the landing bay wall and swung myself up and over it. There was no point in trying to gauge his reaction, I knew; if I hesitated for even one look at him, I was as good as dead.

    Instead I let myself drop the moment my feet swung free on the other side of the lip. Four meters down, I had guessed; odds were I would break my legs or spine or worse. But the Anzat would not get me; that was enough.

    'That is enough,' a thin, impossibly sad voice sounded inside my head as the air rushed past my ears. 'It is more than most of us can expect.'

    Then I hit bottom, and the memory was swept from my head by a shockwave of pain.


    ***

    Nash goes down hard, his head hitting the ceiling next to me. I see the Mandalorian preparing to headbutt him with the angular front of his helmet and duck instinctively, expecting to be splattered with brains; but Nash twists away in the last instant, so the helmet clangs against the bulkhead instead. He uses the moment to kick up and wriggle out from under the armored warrior, only to get caught in a leg grip and go down again -

    Then the lights go out.

    I stay where I am, bent over the Neimoidian boy to protect him, listening. Grunts, clangs and whumpfs prove that the fight is going on, moving away from me and toward the bulkhead for the moment. The Kuati woman is whining, others are yelling at Nash and the Mandalorian to stop it, and the droid disconnects with a series of beeps, whirs away from the terminal and immediately crashes into the nearest wall.

    "What's going on?" Tin asks me, his head next to mine.

    "No idea - hey!" Something hits my ankle, almost crushing it for the second time in two days. At least it's Nash, apparently, rather than his hard-shelled opponent. I pull it away and straighten up. "Hey, Array!" I call out, remembering the name Dak used for the droid. "Some light?"

    I shield my eyes as the droid switches on what feels like a floodlight. Turning away, I see another, weaker light flickering in the hallway. I realize who it is a second before he steps into the door - and I finally know who to back.

    I get up. "Hey!" I yell again, reaching for Nash's arm without touching him. "Stop right now! Both of you!"

    My voice is loud enough for them to hesitate; even the Mando's helmet turns minutely in my direction. On my own, that moment's hesitation would be all I could get without physically throwing myself between them - but I know I am not alone any more.

    "Listen to her," Jax says, walking in with all the poise and authority of an Imperial officer. "There is no time for fighting. We have to get off this ship, all of us, right now."

    ***

    My life and legs were saved by worrt larvae. I don't know why anyone would collect worrt larvae, much less stack them waist-deep in a shipping container, but I did not complain. I even kept enough of my consciousness to go completely limp and let myself sink into the morass of squashed cadavers instead of struggling to get out of it.

    The stories said the hunters could smell their victims' soup, the life force they craved and fed on; but I was pretty sure the stink of dead worrt covered any smell I might give off. I had done the impossible, I thought as I lay there, my lungs burning with the breath I was holding, four meters below the alley where the hunter had caught up with me. I had gotten away from an Anzat, and I was still alive.

    Then a loadlifter droid clanged a lid on the shipping container I was in and clicked it shut. The cooling system began to whir, and a moment later the whole crate shifted as the droid picked it up.

    Now I did struggle, kicking to get my head up and out of the mass of slimy larvae. There was precious little room to breathe, I noticed when my feet found the floor and my face broke free, only for my nose to bump against the lid. But there was a draft of warmer air coming from somewhere, and as the crate was put down in the hold of the ship with a metallic clang I noticed that there was a gap where one of the larvae had gotten stuck between the container's rim and the lid.

    That could be good news or bad news, I thought, depending on where the ship was going and whether it would keep its loading bay pressurized on the way. For the moment, all I could do was wait - wait until I could be absolutely certain I was out of the hunter's reach, and wait to see what other kind of punishment the universe had in store for me.

    Because that, I knew, was inevitable. All I had done was buy myself a little time, and the hope that my death might be a little less gruesome than having my brains sucked out by the Eater of Luck.

    Which, the voice in my head reminded me as my lekku writhed their way free of the larvae and towards the gap, was more than most of us could hope for.


    ***

    "Food," the Huttling speaks up, his voice a squeak.

    "Right," Jax says. "Anything canned and rich in universal nutrients. Nothing that spoils, nothing species-specific."

    "So food, weapons, lights, communications equipment," the Mandalorian summarizes.

    "And batteries," the hybrid droid reminds him. "All the batteries we can find."

    "We?" the Mandalorian says, regarding the hovering droid through the slits of his helmet. "I don't think so."

    It's been agreed that Jax will lead most of the survivors up to the hull, while the Mandalorian volunteered to stay behind to get supplies out of the ship before it sinks. So far he has not asked for help with that.

    "It's a good idea, though," Jax says. "He can help you identify what works, and scout out places you'd rather not go."

    "And I'll help carry things," Dak says before the Mandalorian can object. I see what they're doing: taking the decision out of the Mandalorian's hands, making clear they don't need his permission. Men. It's power plays all the way down, every time.

    Good thing I know how to deal with power plays. "I'll come too," I tell Jax. "If you don't mind," I tell the Mandalorian. "I'm good at finding things."

    Jax wants to stop me, of course, but now he can't. "Be careful," he hands my own advice back to me instead. "Nash is still out there." He left with his habitual scoff as soon as Jax started explaining what had to be done, and no one tried to stop him.

    "You too," I say. "Go."

    Jax calls out to the others, and while they start moving with the maddening viscosity of civilian crowds we scavengers break away, hauling three storage boxes full of stuff we've already collected from the pantry. "Put those next to the stairwell," the Mandalorian says, asserting control as soon as we are out of sight of Jax. "We'll start at the bottom, see how much we can save from the levels that are about to be flooded. Array, light the way."

    So he is proud but adaptive, and if he has a hidden agenda it's not on top right now. I still watch him closely as we make our way through the ship. He moves with the confidence of a warrior used to working alone, changing directions without announcing it, simply breaking through rubble using his weight and armor when he knows he can.

    Dak finds a functioning repulsor trolley, which makes moving our loot a lot easier. At one point something falls over with a crash a level or two above us, and I'm almost certain I hear Nash yelling a curse. But the creepiest thing are all the empty seats with their cut harnesses swinging above our heads. Jax told us there was no one down here, but clearly he did not give us the full story.

    I breathe a sigh of relief with every level we go back up. We've almost made our way back to the galley when the ship suddenly lurches violently, the floor bucks, and what used to be a straight corridor turns into an uphill slope that makes even the Mandalorian stagger.

    "We're sinking!" the droid exclaims needlessly. A loud splash makes me turn around: the repulsor trolley has lost traction, narrowly missed Dak at the back of our group, and is now floating in the putrid mud that is rising towards us at alarming speed.

    "In here!" the Mandalorian calls, blasting open a door to his left and climbing into it. I grip the doorway with one hand, haul my pack over the edge, then reach down with the other hand to help Dak climb up the rest of the way. "Leave it, Array!" I shout when I see the droid hovering next to the trolley, trying to get it to work again with its tiny manipulators. "Come on!"

    "Almost… got it…" the droid says, putting an uncannily realistic note of strain in its voice. I'm almost ready to give up on it when it comes zooming up towards us just as Dak climbs into the tilted corridor after me, with the trolley in tow.

    It is hard going, navigating the ship when all the corridors are not just upside down but angled so that we are mostly staggering with one foot on what used to be the wall and the other one on the ceiling. All I can do is carry my own pack, help RA-7 keep the trolley stable and hope that the Mandalorian knows where he's leading us.

    "How much further?" I call, when the floor shifts again and the ship straightens out with a terrible cacophony of screaming metal and an enormous sucking sound. Suddenly the ceiling is the floor again, only we cannot see it because we are up to our knees in mud.

    "Here," the Mandalorian says, pointing an armored glove at the circular hatch to his right. It is closed, two interlocking durasteel doors meeting in a toothy line in the middle. The emergency release button next to them is dark and does not do a thing, no matter how hard or how often the Mandalorian slams his fist against it in frustration. We're locked in, the mud is rising to our hips now, and there is no way out that I can see.

    "Let me try," the droid says hoarsely. I don't even wonder about that any more, because the mud is up to my navel and I am quickly getting claustrophobic in the contracting airspace of the corridor. There is just enough room for the droid to fly between the mud's surface and the former floor, and the access port next to the hatch is already half submerged.

    "I'm sorry," RA-7 squeaks after a moment. Its lights, I notice, have become significantly dimmer since we set out less than half an hour ago. "It really is hopeless, I'm afraid…"

    Which is when the door whooshes open and an avalanche of mud pulls Array and the Mandalorian through to the other side.

    Dak and I exchange one glance, then follow them. Dak still looks like he is enjoying this way too much, even caked with mud up to the armpits and with beads of sweat running down his bald head. He grins when we climb through the door and find the Huttling on the other side, almost as if he expected this.

    "Ronto," I say, "what are you doing here? Why aren't you with the others?"

    "Doesn't matter now," the Mandalorian says. "Escape pods are this way."

    "Yeah, Jax said so too," Ronto squeaks. He seems dejected, even though he has much less trouble getting through the mud than we do. "What happened?" I ask him quietly, joining him at the end of the group.

    "I heard you," he says, "so I pushed the button."

    "No… I mean, thank you. But what happened up there? Did they get off the ship? Are they okay?"

    "I guess so. Most of them." The Huttling lifts his stumpy arms in what might be a shrug. "The Bith fell in the swamp. Jax jumped in after her."

    A hero, then. "I'm sure they'll be okay," I lie. "And you?"

    "They all climbed up the branches of some giant tree. I can't climb, so they told me to go back and look for you at the escape pods. Are those the escape pods?"

    Next to us is a row of trapezoid hatches, seven in all. "Yes," the Mandalorian says. "Let's see if we can use any of them."

    The ship lurches again, and I am reminded of the foolhardiness of this endeavor. Those escape pods were not designed to be launched inside a planetary atmosphere, much less from a half-submerged ship in the middle of a jungle. Even if we get any of them to work…

    "There we go!" RA-7 calls out. A honking noise sounds as all seven hatches open at once; the bright light spilling from them hurts my eyes. "They have their own separate power supply," the droid says, sounding almost proud.

    "At least something they did right," the Mandalorian mutters. "Load them up."

    I work with Dak, whose skin shines like burnished gold in the light from the pod. We heave the trolley inside and secure it while the ship keeps swaying around us. The muddy water follows us inside, rising up to our ankles by the time we're done.

    In the pod next to us, the Mandalorian is strapping Ronto in. "But what if the pod gets stuck?" the Huttling asks. "What if it drowns? What if it smashes against a tree?"

    "Then you die," the Mandalorian says simply.

    "As will we," Dak says, pointing at the wave of mud rolling towards us through the corridor. "Get inside, now! Array, close the doors and initiate…"

    The rest gets lost in a blood-curdling tearing noise that vibrates through every bulkhead of the ship. Helped by a shove from Dak, I stumble into the escape pod and against the fleshy, putrid body of the Huttling, who is hanging from the wall tied up like a roulade. There are screams all around, the Hutt pulls me into a stranglehold, a tide of swamp water splashes against my back, then an explosion turns the pod into a giant cocktail shaker.

    As if my day could not get any worse.

    ***

    "Hutts, eh?" the supervisor said as he had his loadlifter droid pull me out of the crate. "They'll eat anything. Or anyone, looks like." He walked around me, making sure to keep his distance while I dangled head-down with my ankle in the loadlifter's grip. When he was satisfied with his inspection of my dripping body, he stopped in front of me and smacked his meaty lips. "So what's your name, Hutt food?"

    "Morsel," I said defiantly.

    "Says here, 'Pickled Worrt, air every four hours, Hutt consumption only'," he said, gesturing at the crate. "Nothing about a Twi'lek."

    "I'm the surprise ingredient," I said, playing for time. In my experience, people are the most dangerous when they're alone; as soon as there's more of them, you can play them against each other. And sure enough, a moment later a pair of Ugnaughts came strolling into the hold, muttering about something on a datapad.

    "You can't do that!" I cried the moment they were within earshot. "If the captain hears about that…"

    "If the captain hears about what?" one of the Ugnaughts asked in its twittering voice as the pair approached curiously.

    "Only the captain can sentence people to death!" I said, addressing the Ugnaughts. "Isn't that right?"

    "What are you talking about?" the supervisor snapped. "My droids found her when they aired this crate, and I just…"

    "He said he'd kill me for spoiling the food!" I shouted over him. "I did not even want to be in this crate! It was an accident! The captain will understand!"

    "But I never…" the supervisor protested.

    "I tell the captain," one of the Ugnaughts said, waving the datapad. "He says you bring her up right now."

    The glower with which the supervisor fixed me while the droid set me down on the deck told me all I needed to know about him. He was a Theelin halfbreed, desperate to feel superior at least to the Ugnaughts working under him, and he had hoped to keep me as a prize - both of which plans I had foiled with my act. He was appropriately rough with me when he escorted me out of the hold and to the turbolift, a cutter knife in hand and my own hands taped together behind my back.

    Rather than worry, I used the time to observe. This was a big ship, but clearly a civilian one - a cruise ship, going by the level designations on the interface. Casino, ballroom, dining first class, second class, third class plus nonhumans, itinerant. I had heard about that: cruises for wealthy Core Worlders slumming it on the Rim, that doubled as local transportation while keeping the two clienteles strictly separated. Probably Hutt-owned, if the Worrt larvae were any indication. That might make my negotiations with the captain a lot more delicate, I thought, but if I was lucky…

    Before I could finish the thought, an alarm blared and the floor of the turbolift capsule dropped out from under us. I curled up instinctively, so my back took the most of the damage, while the supervisor crashed headfirst into the ceiling, then flopped back down like a wet sack when the inertial dampers came back on.

    He was not dead yet, I noticed, but he had dropped his cutter knife. There was no question about what I had to do.


    ***

    Climbing out of the escape pod would be hard and messy enough even without a Huttling in the mix. By the time we have all cleared the pod, which is sticking up at an angle from a hill of moss at the foot of a tree, all of us look like swamp monsters. If this here were a beauty contest, there'd be a good chance Ronto would win.

    But we're alive, which is what matters. Three of the other escape pods were not that lucky; one is smoldering right next to us, slowly charring the bark of the enormous tree trunk it shattered against.

    Everyone else is far above us, tying tarps and ropes into the interlocking crowns of a stand of trees. "It's safer up here," Jax explains when we join them after a long and harrowing climb - or a comfy ride up in an improvised hammock-and-pulleys elevator, in Ronto's case. "No treacherous ground, fewer predators…"

    "What about bird predators?" Ronto interrupts him.

    "That's why I said fewer, not none."

    "Not like you need to worry about those," someone quips. Not Nash, though, which reminds me. "Did Nash get out?"

    "I don't know. We'll do a census of everyone later. Right now, what's important is that we stay together and stay up here."

    "So the rescue ships can find us, right?" K'wanna says. His fancy telbun robes are caked with dirt and ripped in places, but apparently dressing down is still not an option.

    "That too," Jax says. "It looks like we only have a few hours of daylight left, so we'll…"

    His voice trails off as a loud gurgling sound from below captures everyone's attention. We are standing on a natural platform in the crutch between two massive branches; one of them has splintered a few meters up ahead when our ship crashed into it.

    It was a big ship. I knew that, in theory; but it is only now, looking out over the wide swathe of destruction it carved through the jungle, that it really sinks in. If it was tall enough to crack the branch ahead of us while it was already diving into the mud, and wide enough to reach all the way to the forest on the far side, then the part of it that we searched cannot have been more than a tenth of it, if that.

    But the scariest part is this: it is gone. Where the ship used to be, all two dozen levels of it, there is only splintered wood drifting on the swamp now, occasionally disturbed by bubbles bursting from below.

    "Are you all thinking what I'm thinking?" Ronto says.

    I can tell by the faces of the people around me that they are all thinking very different things. The Kuati are looking at the sky and worrying that this will make us harder to spot from orbit. Jax is wondering how many sentients were still aboard that he was unable to save; I see his gaze drift back and forth between the swamp and a pillar of black smoke in the distance, where some burning piece of wreckage must have crashed. Dak, meanwhile, is giving the jungle a toothy grin as if he wants to eat it raw.

    But I can only think of one thing. Nash is still in there. I know next to nothing about him other than the fact that he tried really hard to make everyone hate him in the few minutes since I met him; but there was an intensity about him that told me he was going to be important. It is stupid, I know, but…

    There is a grumbling noise, then a hiss of evaporating superheated water, and a single escape pod bursts out from the swamp riding a pillar of fire and steam. It shoots almost straight up for a moment, then its engines sputter and die. Everyone screams as it yaws towards us, sails over our heads in a lazy parabola, then crashes into the crown of the next tree over, where it gets stuck between two branches.

    The seal opens and a tattooed face appears. "There you are!" Nash calls out to a near-unanimous groan. "Miss me?"
     
  3. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    1.3 Dak


    You wake. Your eyes won't open properly, again.

    You roll over to lie on your back; now they open. Sparkles are flying all around, like someone is throwing a party for you.

    No one has ever thrown a party for you.

    Good morning, Dak. Your day begins with screams, the smell of blood and guts and searing pain all over your chest - and it is glorious.

    Let's see if you can move. Legs work; arms too; neck is a little stiff but okay; everything involving your torso hurts like nothing you've ever felt before. Your hands come away bloody when you touch it; looks like you left some skin behind during your fall. If the loss of blood doesn't kill you, you might be waddling around like a protocol droid for a while.

    Funny, huh? Now get up. Get up, come on! There's things to do, a whole world to explore.

    And what a world it is. An upturned ship full of people, most of them dead, the others in a panic. Red emergency lights drowned out by the strobing of a torn power line somewhere above you. Next to you - careful where you step! - there is a hole in the floor, a widening gash as shearing forces tear the ship apart. You can see through it into the levels below, where other survivors are picking their way through the rubble.

    Amazing.

    "Mister! Hey!"

    Someone's talking to you. A Togruta lady in the red uniform of the ship's crew; you seem to remember her from boarding. "Get away from there! The floor's…"

    You look down at the floor, then up at what used to be the floor - just as it rips open and comes loose on the far side of the rip, squashing the crewmember and slapping you in the face.

    This is not what you imagined being slapped in the face by a few tons of hull plating would feel like. You blink - with one eye only, you notice; the other is stuck again - and wipe your forehead, or what's left of it. Another piece of skin gone, you muse. Maybe you should start listening to others when they tell you things.

    Oh, now you get it. This is shock. You've heard about that. Keeps the brain functional by lying to it about how damaged the body really is. What a hack.

    Meanwhile, the hull breach is an opportunity to get to a whole new level. You scramble up the incline while the shock lasts, dimly aware that other survivors are following your example. The hull is blackened and still warm from the ship's uncontrolled descent through the atmosphere. Halfway up you hit your shinbone on a protrusion, and for some reason this pain registers immediately, making you yelp.

    "Are you alright?", a Twi'lek woman asks. She takes your arm and helps you up the rest of the way. You feel the loss of blood now, but you manage to push yourself up and stand on the deck for a moment, surveying the scenery.

    You're on a jungle planet. All around the ship are treetops, complex ecosystems of branches, parasitic vines, mushrooms, huge spots of lichen, and uncountable species of animals inhabiting the canopy, from birds to bugs to microorganisms. You even see a tree growing out of a patch of soil that collected in the crutch of another, bigger tree.

    And the treetops are growing, you notice with sudden dizziness. No, of course they are not. The ship is sinking.

    "Are you sure you're okay?" the Twi'lek asks again. "Maybe you'd better sit down…"

    You should take her advice, you know; but before you can, the pain your shock hid from you hits you full in the face and chest. Your knees buckle, and you go down with a welp and a smile.

    You never guessed it would be so intense.

    ***

    The stormtroopers died too quickly. Every time you took a shot at them they died instantly, the little icons representing them turning into dark red smudges on the floor. Their own shots, by contrast, nearly always went wide or did minimal damage. It made you wonder what all of their armor and training was even for.

    The problem was, Dak thought as he moved his avatar to the next screen, that if the troopers were stronger or even a little more competent, they would win every time. That would take all the fun out of breaking into Imperial bases and blowing them up. To make the game appealing, there had to be some risk of losing, but without making winning impossible; a balance he had been struggling with ever since the first release.

    Dak sighed and put his datapad on the table. The clock on the office wall showed five twenty; another forty minutes until cleanout, according to his schedule, but Dak figured it couldn't hurt getting started. Not like anyone ever came here anyway.

    The evening light painted long orange rectangles on the floor as Dak made his round of the empty rooms. He fetched the hovercart from the utilities closet, made sure the cleaning droids were plugged in properly, then began rounding up the perishables. Sparkly water and local juices from the meeting room; caf concentrate from the dispensers; the fruit bowls from the reception area, the dining room and the big one from the gym. Pastries, sliced breads, frozen meat cuts from a dozen different animals. The pile on the hovercart grew as he methodically unloaded the freezer, the fridge and the pantry shelves. He did some of it with his eyes closed, just to prove that he could, but somehow that just made it even more depressing.

    The light had crept up the walls by the time he was finished and pushed the hovercart into the elevator. Down at street level, he closed his eyes for a brief moment before stepping close enough to the door that it swished open. Breathing the air outside was his daily special treat, he told himself, and he almost believed it.

    The building he worked in, a blunt cylinder three stories high and completely opaque from the outside, was nested against the Imperial garrison in Hanna City - not quite part of it, but close enough in its grim appearance that it looked like an offshoot of the high-walled military installation. Together, the buildings sat in the harmonious and wide-open cityscape of Hanna City like a scab, surrounded by a welter of high-rises built to house the citizens displaced by the construction of the garrison.

    A double fence protected the building; the inner door closed behind Dak before the outer one opened. He stepped outside to the sound of unseen children fighting somewhere between the high-rises. There were no stormtroopers or other Imperial troops around; those usually kept to the Grand Avenue on the far side of the garrison. While Dak walked down the empty street, one hand on the hovercart and the other on his concealed blaster, he was watched by security cameras from the fence posts on the left and hungry faces from the windows on the right. Dak was not worried about either - there was no one behind the security cameras, because like everything else in the building that was his job, and the neighbors had learned the hard way not to approach him. Still he preferred not to look around until he reached his destination.

    The municipal waste processing facility - or "the Holes", as the locals called it - was a circular area circled with well-pruned trees, where garbage disposal droids took whatever people brought them and tossed it into one of a dozen duracrete funnels leading to the subterranean facilities wherr the real work happened. It was all nice and clean and professional on the outside, but most people still avoided the area if they could.

    Most people, but not old Peet. Like every evening, he was loitering next to the gate when Dak approached, his wrinkled face shiny with the reflection of his datapad screen. "You're early," he said, looking up. "Something wrong?"

    "Even if there was, Peet, it would be no business of yours." The words were the first Dak had spoken all day, and he noticed his throat felt rough. Peet put his datapad away and got up, strolling leisurely around the hovercart. "So what you got today? Any booze?"

    "There's never any booze, Peet." That conversation was another thing Dak could have done in his sleep. "And if there was, you wouldn't want to take it."

    "Damn shame." Peet took a frozen chunk of meat off the cart and sniffed it. "Ah, nerf," he sighed.

    "Don't," Dak said simply. "Remember…"

    "...what happened to the children." Peet rolled his eyes. "I know." He tossed the meat over the fence, where one of the garbage droids caught it and immediately diverted it into the appropriate funnel. "Aren't you ashamed, Dak? Throwing all of this away?"

    "It's a job," Dak replied bitterly, signaling the nearest garbage droid to open the gate. "At least I have a job."

    "Yeah, droid work." Peet gestured at the garbage droids, who were busy ripping the sled's freight apart and sorting it into the holes in the ground. "Real meaningful."

    "More meaningful than sitting around at the garbage dump begging for scraps," Dak shot back, but Peet had already gone back to staring at his datapad and mashing buttons. Glumly, Dak waited until the droids had finished offloading, then turned the cart around and began trudging back.

    The kids were still fighting between the high-rises. In the distance he spotted the white flash of a stormtrooper's armor passing under a streetlight. Setting his teeth, he put in the code for the gate. Down the path, into the elevator, to the utilities room to lock the sled away - then he could finally go back to shooting stormtroopers on his datapad.

    Back in his office, he looked at the clock. Twenty more minutes until the next delivery; then he would have to sort everything in again, prepare new fruit bowls and arrange juice bottles on the meeting table. If anyone came here before he was finished, he would be in trouble; but nobody ever came here anyway.

    So why not blow up some Imperial bases first. He would make it harder this time, fiddle with the settings so the stormtroopers were less of a joke, maybe adapt the floor plans so there was more cover to make up for that. Some day, he knew, he would find the right balance. Some day the game would be as satisfying as the real world could never hope to be.


    ***

    Rummaging through the ship is fun. There's some time pressure as the mud keeps rising; occasional sudden movements and collapses keep you on your toes; and there's an element of mystery with the cut harnesses and the missing passengers. It's all a little less populated, less alive than you'd have thought, but the planet outside will probably make up for that.

    The room marked 'Special Storage' has been cracked open by the same shearing forced that turned your face into a bloodbath, apparently. For a moment you get worried when you realize someone must have come looting here before you - that uncanny if picturesque character with the facial tattoos, most likely - because many of the lockers have been opened with obvious force; but then you realize the room would look different if he had found what you are after.

    The box you handed over at check-in is still there, in compartment 327, half-buried below the mangled remains of a security droid. You cut out the droid's battery just so you have something to show for your excursion if anyone asks, stuff the box in your belt pouch and head out to rejoin the others. The hovering droid eagerly accepts the battery, and before Nooma can ask what else you found the Mandalorian tells you to break it up and move on to the next level.

    It's a good adventure, ending with a wild ride in an escape pod and a climb up a giant tree, from where you get to watch the swamp swallow the ship whole. While everyone else is talking about Nash's dramatic reappearance, you sit down in a protected spot near the tree trunk to inspect the contents of your belt pouch.

    "Who are you?" a small voice asks. You turn to look: it's the Neimoidian kid you first saw in the galley, the one with the half-melted leg. He's sitting on a thermo mat with his back propped up against the tree, his head drooping slightly with the tranquilizers they must have given him. "Did he shoot you too?"

    "Did who shoot me?"

    "The man with the stripes. In the face." He points around the trunk, his small hand shivering. "That one."

    "No one shot me", you say, projecting calm. "Are you afraid?"

    "I don't know." The boy is staring at the tree where Nash is pulling stuff out of the escape pod. "Could you protect me?"

    Could you, now? With the instinct of children, the boy has put his finger right where it hurts the most. Could you be a hero, in real life? There is a weapon in your bag, but would you even dare to use it?

    Even now?

    "What's your name, boy?" you ask.

    "Bnie," he says. "Bnie Ac."

    "And you're here with your father, Bnie?"

    "He's not…" The boy stops himself, and a moment later you see why: there's his father, with a ration bar clutched in one hand. "I got you food, Bnie," he says, squatting down in front of his son and holding out the nutrient bar. "They weren't going to hand it out yet, but I got one early, for you."

    "I'm not hungry," the boy mutters, looking away.

    "He's afraid of that man over there," you say. "The one who shot him."

    "And who are you?" the Neimoidian snaps. "What have you been telling my son?"

    "Dak Ramis, pleased to meet you." You know enough about Neimoidians not to hold out your hand for shaking. "Bnie was asking about protection. Do you have reason to believe you are in immediate danger?"

    "That's no business of yours." The Neimoidian puts himself between you and the boy, ending the conversation. So he is afraid, you figure, but he doesn't want to lose face in front of his son. While they argue in their own language, you take stock of your surroundings. At this level of the jungle, the branches are wide enough to walk on, even to slither around on safely for the baby Hutt. The canopy here grows in mostly horizontal layers; the next one is about five meters further up. A few of the huge fanned leaves are shaking suspiciously, but then you see it's just the Wookiees climbing and leaping around up there, holding on to the tree with fearful claws and weaving vines between the branches. Making a roof for you, or a floor for themselves.

    "You're here already", an exhausted voice addresses you: it's Jax, guiding a mud-stained Bith and motioning for her to sit down next to you. "That's good. We'll declare this the sick bay, get you all looked at, alright? Stay here, don't go away. Array should be here with the medpacks any minute."

    "But there's nothing wrong with me!" the Bith protests; the voice gives her away as a woman. "Really, I feel perfectly fine. Better than fine, even." She runs a delicate hand over her skull, then scratches at a clump of mud stuck there.

    "Iquaza, you fell more than three meters into a swamp of unknown composition. There's no telling what you could have caught. Now wait here while I take a look at the boy." Jax moves past you and taps the Neimoidian on the shoulder. "Tin, let me?"

    The Neimoidian flinches away but keeps holding his son's hand. While Jax tends to him, two more injured passengers are brought and deposited near you. "I am not sure that's wise," you tell Jax when he turns to inspect your wounds. "Putting all of the weak and injured in one corner."

    "Oh?" he says, distracted. "Where's that droid?"

    "It got sidetracked," a deep voice sounds from behind him. The Mandalorian is there, holding two medpacks. "I'll take this one," he says, pointing at you and holding one medpack out to Jax. "I'm good with flesh wounds."

    "If you say so." Jax makes room for him but keeps an eye on you. "You were saying?"

    "Having a hospital makes sense in civilization," you say. "But we are in the jungle now. Predators always sniff out the weakest of the pack."

    Jax laughs softly while he applies bacta spray to Bnie's leg. "I would agree with you if we were on the ground," he says. "But up here?"

    "And we'll be back in civilization soon, right?" Iquaza says. She gestures at the giant clearing left by the crash of your ship. "They can't miss this sign when they come looking for us."

    You give a little smile instead of a reply while the Mandalorian gets busy cleaning your wounds. "Hurts?" he asks.

    "Very."

    "You say that like it's a good thing."

    "Means I'm alive, doesn't it? Ouch!" Turns out what you thought was your nose was mostly a giant clump of clotted blood, which just came off under the Mando's less-than-tender ministrations. "Take more than bacta if you ever want your face back," he says.

    "Oh I don't think I will." You close your eyes while he sprays your face with coagulant to stop the fresh blood seeping from the wound. When you open them again, the light has changed. "Sun's going down quickly," the Mandalorian says. "Reckon we'll be here for at least a night."

    "The fog is rising too," you point out. It was creeping around the ship after the crash, you remember, before the rainstorm washed it away; now it is back in force, filling the gap in the forest and quickly encroaching on your refuge in the treetops. People are muttering; someone cries out in fear.

    "You're smiling," the Mandalorian says. "Why?"

    "There are lots of things worth screaming about here, but the fog is not one of them. We just survived a starship crash, and yet we're still haunted by ancient organic fears of the dark and the unseen."

    "Lights," Jax says. "We need lights. Has anyone seen Array? The droid?"

    You sit there and watch as they bustle about. Nooma, the Twi'lek, is doing her best to appear helpful and competent, putting on bandages at Jax's direction one minute and scurrying along the branches looking for the droid the next. The Huttling you rode in the escape pod with keeps sliding closer to the trunk surreptitiously, or perhaps he is not even aware he's doing it. The Kuati telbun is preparing a bed for his lady, using inflatable pillows as a mattress and the least soiled of his robes as a blanket. The Wookiees are settling in above you, growling among themselves. Of everyone here, they probably feel the most at home.

    Meanwhile the fog is crawling around your feet, rising implacably and unpredictably like the mud did while you were searching the ship. Next to you, the Bith girl - Iquaza - pulls her knees closer to her chest. "I don't like it," she whimpers.

    "It's just water," the Mandalorian says, then gets up. "You stay here," he tells you, "or your wounds rip open again."

    You can feel them, the strips of abraded skin across your face and chest, slowly knitting together under the influence of the bacta bandages. You feel your bruised ribs complaining every time you breathe, and the cool fog touching your ankles like a curious animal.

    "There he is." Nooma is practically dragging the hybrid droid with her; when she lets go, it sways for a moment, then sets down on the branch with a clunk. "What's wrong, Array?" Jax asks. "Weren't you going to get us the medpacks?"

    "I'm sorry." The droid sounds genuinely dejected. "My batteries… I'm almost out of power."

    "I tried charging him up with one of the power packs we found, but that didn't even last for the way here," Nooma says. "Either the power pack was broken, or he is."

    "I can't shut down," the droid whines. "I mustn't."

    "I'll take a look at it," the Mandalorian says, picks up the droid and props it up against the tree some steps away. Meanwhile the Huttling slithers your way, his arms full of equipment. "Um, Nooma gave me those," he says. "I think they're flashlights?"

    "That's great, thank you, Ronto." Jax takes one of the flashlights and sticks it into a crack in the bark some ways above Bnie's head. "Bad idea," you mumble.

    "What?" Bnie asks. With his father having moved to his other side and Jax busy with other things, you are neighbors again. "Nothing," you say. No point in frightening him even more. Of course the light will attract attention, and in a jungle at night that's generally not something you want to do.

    "Hand out the rest to anyone who wants one," Jax tells Ronto. "Or wait, leave me another one, just in case."

    "But they don't like me," the Huttling says. "They avoid me."

    "They'll like you when it's dark and you're bringing them light," Jax reassures him. "Go on, you'll see."

    "You think so? Okay, I'll try." Ronto slithers away, and soon puddles of light appear all around us, forming halos in the thickening fog.

    Jax gets up and waves his own flashlight around. "Listen up, everyone!" he shouts over the chatter and the jungle sounds. "It looks like we will have to spend the night here, unless we get rescued before morning. There are blankets in the big pile over there; Nooma will hand them out. Okay, Nooma? Thanks. The most important thing now is for everyone to stay together. Stay in groups, cuddle up if you can, and move as little as possible. Remember, we're on a tree! If you don't know exactly that there's stable ground where you're stepping, don't step there. Ronto is handing out flashlights…"

    "They're all gone," the Huttling squeaks. "Flashlights are out, no more flashlights here! Sorry!"

    "Ronto was handing out flashlights, so if you need one, ask someone who's got one. Ask nicely, share them, don't fight. Please." He takes a breath. "I'm confident that if we make it through the night, we'll be rescued tomorrow. Right now the biggest threat is us being stupid and starting fights. So don't be stupid, don't start fights, don't ruin it, okay? Help each other. Thank you."

    There's a moment of silence, broken by a sarcastic slow clap from over on the other tree. Nash's tree. "Nice speech, officer!" he calls out. "Very inspiring. Anyone need fresh batteries, I'm happy to trade. Preferably for weapons."

    And as if on cue, the flashlight above you dims, sputters and winks out - followed by the one Jax is holding, then all the others in the crowd.

    Night has come, and still the fog is rising.

    ***

    Of course they had to come in the middle of the night, when you least expected them.

    By the time Dak had arranged his clothes and hurried out of his quarters, they were already in the hall, looking around for the light switch. Two of them, humanoid, radiating impatience and danger. Dak quickly turned on the lights and stood at attention. "Forgive the delay," he said quickly. "I was not informed…"

    "We do not announce our arrival," the taller of the two said. He was human, at least for the most part: his right eye and part of his jaw had been replaced with bulky cybernetic implants, their glossy black sheen and the glowing red artificial eye clearly designed to attract attention and inspire fear.

    The other figure only came up to his shoulder, despite the overlarge skull framed by three braids of black hair originating at the base of her skull. A Qiraash, Dak realized after a moment's thought; not a species you saw often on Chandrila. "I hope the refreshments are appropriate for your metabolism," he told her. "If you wish, I could…"

    "We are not here for refreshments," the man cut him off again. "Is the meeting room ready?"

    "Right this way, sir." Good thing, Dak thought, that he had finished sorting in the new delivery in the evening after all. He had been told to expect visitors at any time, and to keep everything clean and ready for them, but this was the first time in all the years he had been working here that someone actually came. He watched their every movement as they walked by him, looking for any clue as to who they might be. Even though he lived here, even though he knew every nook and cranny of this place, from the power generators in the basement to the strange medical facilities under the roof, he had no idea what this place was actually for.

    "Can I bring you anything?" he asked when they were entering the meeting room. "And may I ask if you are expecting anyone else, so I can…"

    "Stay." The man sat down and indicated another chair while the Qiraash woman hovered by the door. His red eye glowed steadily while Dak complied, confused. "You are Dak Ramis, the caretaker of this facility?"

    Was this an audit? Dak almost laughed with relief at the fact that these two had not come a few hours earlier. "Yes, sir," he said. "That's me."

    "Do you know who we are?"

    "Couldn't say, sir. But as I heard no alarms, I suppose you have the proper codes; and if you have the proper codes, you are authorized to be here. Beyond that, it is no business of mine, except to help you in whatever you came here to do."

    "Straight from the manual." The man nodded; apparently Dak had passed this test. "But do you know who you work for? Who pays your salary and the expenses for this place?"

    "Celanon Finance," Dak said immediately. He had met their representative only twice, once at the interview and then again for his induction here, but every pay slip reminded him of the name.

    "Indeed." The man leaned forward in his seat and fixed him with his glowing eye. "Celanon Finance, in turn, is owned by RenGalactic, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Renik, the counterintelligence branch of Imperial Intelligence. - Relax, Sirln, I'm sure Mister Ramis here is aware of the confidentiality clause in his contract and the penalties specified should he break it. Aren't you, Mister Ramis?"

    "I am, sir." He had suspected it, of course - who else but the Empire had this amount of money to waste on an empty building? - but hearing it said out loud was still a shock. He remembered the screams of the children and the implacable masks of the stormtroopers, but he carefully kept his thoughts from his face.

    "So ultimately, Mister Ramis," the man said, "everything you do serves His Majesty, the Emperor." He leaned back in his seat again and looked at the Qiraash woman. "Sirln, in the office next door there is a datapad lying face down on the desk. Go fetch it."

    Dak froze, torn between feigning ignorance and running away. There was no telling what weapons this man was carrying or what he was capable of, but somehow Dak doubted that the menace he radiated was all bluff and bluster. Staring into the glowing eye, another memory came to him: once, while researching potential end bosses for his game, he had come across rumors of a shadowy organization that hunted down fugitive Jedi and suspected Force-sensitives. Witnesses had described a fearsome man with a prosthetic eye cutting his way through half a city block using his lightsaber, all to get his hands on a single child…

    "Very good," the Inquisitor said, a cruel smile wrinkling the corners of his mouth. "Yes, we both serve the same master. My name is High Inquisitor Tremayne, and this facility exists as a base of operations within Bormea sector for myself and my associates."

    A deadly calm settled over Dak, whether as a result of Tremayne's invisible manipulations or of Dak's own realization that there was no way out. "So you have come to kill me," he said.

    Instead of a reply, the Inquisitor nodded at his assistant, who handed him the datapad with a tense sideways glance at Dak. The datapad on which Dak's game was still running, with stormtroopers smeared against the walls and a ridiculous caricature of Darth Vader blindly swinging his lightsaber, half his mask melted by a live cable.

    Tremayne's one eyebrow twitched as he glanced at the screen. "On the contrary," he told Dak. "I am here to offer you a promotion."


    ***

    "What's happening?" Iquaza's frightened voice sounds through the darkness. "Where did the lights go?"

    "Maybe the batteries ran out," Ronto suggests. "We could ask the tattoo guy…"

    "All of them at once?" Jax says. "That seems implausible."

    "And awfully convenient," Tin pipes up, his squeaky Neimoidian accent unmistakable even in the dark. "If someone gives him weapons, we're…"

    He breaks off as a scream sounds from further out on the branch, starting out loud but then receding quickly. Nooma hisses a Twi'leki curse. "Everyone," Jax calls out, "stay where you are!"

    You take a deep breath, then another one. Your ribs feel a lot better already, though the skin stretching over them is still brittle and raw. All around you, the survivors are yelling and ranting, hissing and muttering. They feel threatened; their reflexes are telling them to run or fight, and since they can't do either, they are taking it out on each other using words. Good luck trying to calm them down now, Jax, you think.

    But it's not Jax who calms them down this time. "A fire?" someone yells off to your left. "You want to start a fire? We are sitting on a karking tree, in case you hadn't -" Then the night lights up, a floodlight from Nash's escape pod throwing long shadows through the fog. You see a woman stagger with surprise, almost falling over the side of the branch before the Mandalorian reaches out to catch her just in time; everyone else seems frozen for the moment, like a scene in some grotesque opera.

    "Like I said," Nash's harsh voice rings out over the sudden hush, "if you want to trade, I'm right here. Prices just went up though."

    "That's not good, right?" the Neimoidian boy asks softly. He is talking to you, you realize, not to his father, who is pleading with Jax to intervene. "Don't worry, Bnie," you tell him. "Even if anyone here has a weapon, I doubt they'd be stupid enough to give it to him."

    "I don't mean that. I meant the light. It will attract the animals, won't it?"

    "Did I say that?" You're pretty sure you didn't, but before you can figure it out you are distracted by two things: the droid, RA-7, sputtering and trying to get up where he fell - and a high whistling sound from far above.

    "Do you hear that?" Iquaza asks.

    "Sounds nice," Nooma says, craning her neck to look up; but of course there's nothing to be seen except the fog. All of a sudden the boy, Bnie, is clinging to your arm. "Not nice," he whispers. "Not nice at all!"

    "It's alright," you want to tell him, but now he's scratching at your face, small fingernails digging into your barely-closed wounds. "Hey!" his father yells at you. "What are you doing to my son?"

    RA-7 chooses this moment to push himself up and sail past you on shaky repulsors, toward the light. That is why you don't see what is coming at you through the fog until it's already too late.

    It's a bird, or perhaps a winged reptile; in any case, it is at once the most ridiculous and the most frightening flying creature you have ever seen. Under a bright pink plume and green eyes, its beak is so wide it seems to grin at you as it attacks, with serrated edges like teeth ready to rip into your flesh. Rainbow-hued wings spread wide, it glides in between the horizontal layers of the canopy, heading straight for you.

    You have a second to react. Now less than that. What do you do?

    It's there, its oversized claws reaching for you - or for the boy? No matter - you throw up your hands by instinct, but instead of hiding your face you grab hold of the creature's twitching legs, take them before they can take you, and hold on with all your strength.

    The bird's whistle turns into a shriek. You see everyone flinch back in horror, like ejecta thrown out by an asteroid impact, as it flaps its leathery wings and pulls you up, trying to get away; but you won't let it, clinging on to it like your life depends on it.

    And your life does depend on it - especially now as it pulls you up with incredible strength, drags you across the branch past Jax and Ronto and two other people, all of whom seem too dazed to help you, and out over the edge into the empty air.

    You fall, the bird and you, its shriek still ringing in the air as the next layer of branches rushes past you, then the next. You're almost ready to let go - you're dead anyway - when a second bird swoops in, grabs your legs in its claws, and together the two absurd, pink-crowned reptavians carry you away into the night.

    ***

    Tatooine, all the way in the Outer Rim, was not a place where you would expect a heavy Imperial presence; and yet Dak saw more stormtroopers patrolling a random alley in the spaceport town of Mos Eisley than he had seen most days living right next to the biggest garrison on Chandrila.

    They could not all be here for him, he told himself as he pulled his cowl deeper into his face and tried to keep pace with the locals walking along the street. As far as the Empire was concerned, he was a failure, a sunk cost; a loose end at best, but not a critical one. Even if he had been betrayed - even if anyone in the Empire knew he was coming here - he would never be worth that kind of effort.

    "You there," a filtered voice addressed him from outside his narrow field of vision. "Yes, you." Two stormtroopers pushed into his way, their armor matted with the omnipresent sand. "A landspeeder just went by here, with two droids on it. Did you see where it went?"

    "Two droids?" Dak shook his head, keeping his face in the shadow. "Sorry, officer. Wasn't looking."

    He watched them for a moment as they plodded on in their search. They must be cooking in their armor in the heat of the twin suns, he thought. The heat bothered him little, but he still picked up his pace to get to the arranged meeting spot. No point in risking more Imperial entanglements.

    The place was a seedy cantina, unrecognizable from the outside except for the pile of junk outside that Leesub had told him about. Ducking his head, Dak entered and waited a moment just inside the threshold to let his eyes adjust to the relative darkness inside.

    He was standing on a small landing, from which three steps led down into the crowded main room. Dak tried to spot Leesub in the crowd, but the air was too smoky and there was too much going on to see anything from up here. He started to go in, still crouching a little, when a metal box on the wall next to him started flashing.

    "Hey!" the barkeeper called, waving at him, and a pale-skinned near-human with a tall hat stepped out of the crowd and into his way. Dak sighed and threw his cowl back, looking up at the taller man. "Droid detector, huh?" he said. "Go on, frisk me." He raised his arms, one finger pointing at his midsection. "Cybernetic hip, gets me in trouble every time."

    The man squeezed his arm and cheek to make sure, then shrugged apologetically and stood aside. "No droids allowed," he explained unnecessarily.

    "Yeah." Not the rarest of prejudices, Dak knew, especially where people still felt the scars of the Clone Wars. But if no droids also meant no stormtroopers looking for them, he was just fine with that.

    And the short-lived commotion had served a purpose, too: Leesub Sirln was pushing through the crowd towards him, smiling. "You made it!" she said, running her hands along the two dark braids above her ears as if to see if they were still in place. "Were you followed?" she asked more quietly, pulling him close.

    "I don't know what all the Imperials out there are looking for," he said, "but it's not me."

    "Me neither, I'm sure," the Qiraash said. "I don't think they want either of us back. Come on, let's get out of sight." She maneuvered him into one of the alcoves, with his back to the door. A short nonhuman with a face like melted rubber was already sitting in there behind a glass filled with a shining liquid, regarding him intently through a pair of dark eyes that sat distressingly high up in his face. "You're the one she told me about?" he asked.

    "Depends. What did she tell you?"

    "That you programmed my favorite hologame. Rebel Clone." The creature grinned under what looked like skin folds and a drooping moustache at the same time. "That you?"

    "Yeah. Uh." Dak was still struggling with the routines and scripts required for nonstructured social interaction. "I mean, it was a hobby project. Started out as a skin for Warrior Clone, that propaganda game."

    "To get back at the Imps, eh?" The alien mimicked firing a blaster. "That what got you in trouble?"

    "Um, actually, I…" Dak looked at Leesub Sirln, frowning. She took the hint and scooted onto the bench next to him. "Sorry," she said. "Introductions. This gentleman here is Ownellco. He's a friend, and a pretty good slicer."

    "So I've heard say." Ownellco dipped his head in modest acknowledgment.

    "He covered my tracks when I was on the run," Leesub said, "and he knows all of my aliases. You can trust him."

    "Okay. Sure. Uh, I'm Dak. And, well, you could say the game got me in trouble in the end… but not the way you'd think."

    "They didn't catch you?"

    "Oh, they caught me alright." Dak cast a sideways glance at Leesub, who nodded slightly. "He knows," she said. "I just thought I'd leave that part of the story to you."

    Dak nodded darkly. It was not a day he liked to remember. "It turned out the Empire had known about my hobby for a while. I thought I was being clever, keeping the game and my notes on a separate, unregistered datapad; but of course the device had a hardwired backdoor, so they saw everything I was doing."

    "So you were being stupid." Somehow Ownellco managed to say that in a way that sounded sympathetic rather than demeaning.

    "I'm not a rebel. I was never… I was just angry and bored."

    "So you made a game where you get to shoot some Imps, both to relieve your boredom and as an outlet for your anger." The alien dipped his head again. "What I'm wondering is, why did the Imps not stop you from publishing it, if they knew?"

    "That's just the thing." Dak could still see the cruel smile on the Inquisitor's face as he told him, the mocking red glare in his eye. "They wanted me to publish it. They even offered me a promotion: I was to work with a team to improve the game and distribute it to more people across the galaxy, all while making it seem like I was still a disgruntled hobbyist keeping under the radar."

    "Ah," Ownellco said, and the understanding blossoming on his face was obvious despite his alien physiognomy. "Spyware."

    "That was part of it, yes. To this day, every copy of the game in circulation is logging user data - who they are, where they go, what messages they write - and sending it in encrypted packets to Imperial Intelligence."

    "Providing them with a nice long list of people who dislike the Empire."

    "Exactly. And…"

    "Which is why we are here," Leesub interrupted him. "I told you, he's ready to sell. Right, Dak?"

    "Uh, yes." Dak noticed that they were no longer alone; a bulky Whiphid he had seen loitering nearby had drifted closer and was now standing right next to their booth, staring at him, and a small group of humanoids in old-fashioned helmets were clustered behind him, trying and failing to look like they were there by chance.

    "Leesub?" he asked quietly. "What is this?"

    "Oh, you're popular," she said and got up to greet the Whiphid. "When word got out the creator of Rebel Clone was coming here, that got a lot of people interested."

    Dak frowned. This whole affair was beginning to seem a lot more dangerous than Leesub had let on when they'd communicated. "The ticket," he said. "Before we go on, I want the ticket. And my new ID."

    "Dak, it's alright," Leesub said. "These are good people. Well, maybe not good, but none of them cares a whiff for the Empire."

    "That's good to know. I would still like to see my reward first, please." If push came to shove, Dak considered, he could probably make it past Leesub, keeping her between him and the Whiphid; then he would only have to hope that none of them caught up to him before he reached the door. If only the place wasn't so crowded…

    "Not a problem," Ownellco said, nodding at Leesub. He fished two datacards out of his pocket and put them on the table. "Feel free to inspect them."

    Dak took the datacards and held them for a second, then put them down again. "Alright," he said. "So let's get down to business."

    The Whiphid leaned in closer, so that his massive belly almost touched the table. "Business," he said.

    "You've got the code for the game on you?" Ownellco asked.

    "Yes. The original code, unencrypted, plus the full version history." Now he leaned forward too. "I will give you this unser one condition. Leesub said you're an excellent slicer and you know your ways around Imperial security protocols."

    "I suppose you could say that," Ownellco replied modestly.

    "So if I give you the code, I want you to release a version of the game that keeps the Empire from spying on its players."

    Ownellco tilted his head. "I guess I could do that. Yes, I can see how that could be done. It's a nice challenge."

    "Promise," Dak said. "That's the condition."

    "Actually, I'll do you one better," Ownellco said thoughtfully. "I think I can make it so that all current versions get replaced by my new one as soon as players connect to the holonet. It'll be hard, but not impossible… and worth it. Especially if I keep the back door in so the Imps don't get suspicious, but have the program swap out all user data for bogus info. Won't keep them from catching on forever, but it'll annoy them for quite a while. What do you think?"

    "I told you he was good," Leesub said, grinning. Just then the barkeeper was yelling something and a momentary hush fell over the room, except for the upbeat music the Bith ensemble on the other side of the cantina was playing. The Whiphid and his entourage turned their heads, and even Leesub was momentarily distracted. If he wanted to run, Dak reasoned, this might be his best chance… but he was not sure if he wanted to run after all.

    "That does sound good," Dak said. "And you're sure you can do this?"

    "With some help from my friends, yes."

    "Trustworthy friends?"

    "Come on, Dak," Leesub said. “This is the best chance you’ll get to redeem yourself. No point getting paranoid now, is there?”

    “Alright.” Dak nodded. “Alright. Let’s do this.”

    Leesub whooped, and the Whiphid raised a fist. “This calls for drinks,” he said, raising his glass. Leesub and Ownellco followed suit, and one of the helmeted spacers walked past Leesub to fetch one for Dak. “No, thanks,” he said. “I don’t drink.”

    “Told you,” Leesub said, laughing and emptying her glass in one go. “So, let’s see it.”

    “Give me your datapad.” Dak held out a hand across the table. Ownellco handed him a scratched and dented MicroData one, an ancient model from before the Clone Wars. Which meant that it definitely had no hardwired Imperial backdoors, Dak thought, increasing his estimate of the alien’s competence. He put it on the table in front of him, then proceeded to unbutton his shirt.

    “You were not kidding when you said you had it on you, huh?” Leesub said.

    “Datasticks can be stolen,” Dak replied, exposing his chest. He could feel everyone’s gaze on him as he hooked his fingers into the synthskin below his collarbones and pulled it away to reveal the metal beneath. It came off neatly, in a square about the size of his palm that flapped down while he opened the latch to his dataport. He kept three cables rolled up in there, where biological humans had their heart, so he could plug into all of the most common systems.

    “Incredible,” the Whipid said, stepping even closer. “You have to see it to believe it.”

    “Right?” Leesub said. “I told you, he’s a work of art.”

    Dak raised his head, the cable he had uncoiled from his chest poised next to Ownellco’s old datapad. Something was going on here. Whether it was the glee in Leesub’s slightly slurred words or the greedy looks in the Whiphid’s eyes, the way Ownellco fidgeted or the fact that the men in the helmets had their hands hanging at there sides in a way that spelled trouble - something told Dak he had been played.

    They were not here for his game. They were here for his body. Leesub had told them what he was, and had concocted an excuse to get him here. If he had been human, Dak would have slapped his forehead in frustration. Of course a droid that could pass as a human would be worth more on the black market than a mildly popular and badly programmed game…

    He had trusted Leesub, because she had been a victim like him. He had hoped for redemption, because he had nothing else to hope for any more. But it was all a lie, the same as it had always been. The moment he plugged his cable into the datapad, his body would shut down and be carried away to be used and abused by someone else.

    “Don’t back out now,” Leesub said, leaning in close. “Do it.”

    He had no choice, Dak realized. It was either that or let them take him by force, risking damage to his complex interior mechanics that they had no hope of repairing. He grabbed the datapad harder. It was just another step, he told himself, on the downwards journey he had been on for decades. At least it could not be worse than what his previous master put him through…

    Then a light flared up at the far side of the bar, and everything changed. Leesub gasped; the Whipid ducked; the helmeted man’s head swiveled as the hum of a lightsaber filled the room and the blinding light hacked down at something hidden by the crowd. Even the band had stopped playing, Dak noticed; and somehow it was that which broke the spell.

    Snatching the datacards from the table, he ducked as low as he could and kicked himself out of his seat, away to the side and through the gap between the wall and the guy in the helmet. Something brushed against the top of his head, then liquid splashed into his neck; he must have hit the man's elbow, making him spill his drink. Dak did not wait to hear his yell but bounded away, still bent over, towards the door.

    He was helped by the fact that almost everyone in the crowded cantina was standing still for a change, staring at the lightsaber as it hummed once more and then switched off. As he charged past the blinking droid detector and out into the midday glare, Dak stuffed the datacards into his belt pouch without looking, then kept his hand in there to make sure he still had the weapon. All the while he kept running, dodging a Bantha and a Swoop in quick succession and silently appreciating the superhuman sense of balance and orientation his makers had given him.

    The weapon was still there, of course, in a box as long as his hand that filled most of the pouch. Not that it would do him any good if it came to a fight. Worse, using it would attract the worst kind of Imperial attention. That made it doubly urgent to get away from the cantina, he realized. Someone in there was sure to alert the authorities, and in a few minutes the place would be crawling with stormtroopers.

    He ducked into an alley and peered back around the corner. No obvious signs of pursuit so far. Perhaps the Imps were already there and causing trouble for Leesub and her cronies. If he could catch a ride into orbit soon, he could be on the
    Lady of the Rim before they caught up to him. That is, if the ticket Ownellco had given him was even valid…

    Dak silently cursed himself while he scanned the spaceport alleys from under his cape. That, at least, was something human he could still do. Brood and grumble as if it was any use. Beat himself up for thinking he could make things right, for seriously believing he could be anything but a tool, for running headlong from one trap into the next.

    In a doorway, he quickly shoved the cables back into his chest and pulled the synthflesh beck in place. No use getting even more curious looks. But at least, he told himself as he buttoned his shirt, he had finally broken free of his past life in one important way.

    For once, he did not have the slightest idea what was going to happen next.


    ***

    The bird's claws are slick with your blood, but you keep holding on with both hands as you rise higher and higher between the trees, until the branches and the gloom retreat and you actually see the sky, a sparkling expanse of darkness stretching above the treetops. You feel a smile tugging at your lips - another thing you haven’t felt in a long time - at the thought that this might be the last thing you’ll ever see, your reward for decades of struggle and disappointment. You’re human again, so you get the full human experience compressed into the space of a few hours. The thrill of adventure, sympathy for a frightened child, excruciating pain, sheer panic mingled with bouts of heroism… and finally, a moment of deep awe just before getting eaten by predators.

    Not love, though. You have had enough of that.

    You feel your stomach lurch when the birds suddenly stop rising and let themselves drop in an almost ballistic arc. Their destination remains hidden in the shadows of the treetops until you’re almost upon it: it’s a gigantic nest built from mud and vines, taking up half the crown of an immense tree much like the one they just kidnapped you from. The nest is roughly circular, with walls taller than you are… and it is packed wall-to-wall with miniature versions of the birds that brought you here. Their crooning is almost beautiful, as they stretch their serrated beaks up towards you in juvenile excitement.

    That’s what you get for being made out of meat. You get to be food.

    The pink-crowned fledglings do a little dance when their parents dangle you closer above their heads. A few drops of blood fall down into the nest, but rather than going into a feeding frenzy the birds retreat, scurrying backwards on oversized feet and pressing together in clumps to make room for you. The bird that is holding your legs lets them go without warning, and the jolt is too much for your tired arms; you flop down into the middle of the nest, surrounded by deadly, grinning birds.

    Ah well, you figure. Might as well play this out.

    While the parents settle down on the rim of the nest to watch their children feed, you scramble to your feet and reach into your belt pouch. The weapon is still there. Getting it out of the box is a struggle, but for the moment the birds seem content with watching you and crooning their enchanting song. Are they trying to lull you to sleep? If so, it's not working.

    You remember the moment in the cantina, only days ago but worlds away. The moment the hum and glare of a lightsaber turned a hopeless situation into a merely desperate one. You grab the handle of your own weapon with bloody hands, grinning. So maybe it all did mean something after all.

    The blade snaps to life, and in its crimson light the little birds surrounding you look even more ridiculous.
     
  4. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    1.4: Nash


    Neat trick, Nash thought when all the flashlights on the other tree went out. Wish I had thought of that myself. He reached into the escape pod, running his fingers along the inside of the hatch until he found the switch. Light exploded around him, turning the fog into an immense halo. Nice. He moved his arms experimentally, watching the shadows cut deep swathes into the air. Makes me look like a wizard.

    "Like I said," he called out, "if you want to trade, I'm right here. Prices just went up though."

    That being done, and with everyone else being pretty much invisible beyond the glare, he settled down to wait. There was no need to hurry, he knew. Whether the banthas over there realized it or not, they were stuck here - and would be for a long, long while. That's why he had made sure from the start that he had a place of his own, and stuff of his own. Stuff to barter, and resources for long-term survival.

    The benefits of foresight, he thought darkly.

    There was some commotion over at Jax's - screams, sobs, shrieks, the usual. Nash ignored it until someone cried, "Turn it off, fool! Turn it off!" - and then a gaudy caricature of a bird came flopping his way in slow motion, right up until it dropped like a stone.

    "Well thanks for the comedy interlude," Nash muttered, "but… were you carrying something?" He closed his eyes for a moment and reached out. "Son of a Bith…"

    "Shut it off! Now! Nash!"

    Was that the Twi'lek babe? She sounded serious. Nash frowned, still sensing no danger… but he did see three more of the absurd birds gliding through his bubble of lit fog towards him. That helped, though he still felt more like laughing than fighting at the sight of the pink tufts sprouting from the top of their heads.

    Then it hit him. I'm being suckered! Those birds were humming, hitting some kind of frequency that made his mammalian brain bliss out like glitterstim while they swooped in for the feast.

    Hissing a curse, Nash killed the lights and let himself drop back into the pod. He hit his head on the rim of the hatch and landed on the corner of a box, but that was a fair price to pay for survival plus the sound of two of the birds' heads smacking together right above him. He wrenched himself around and kicked up with both legs for good measure, hitting a bony something that bounced off the outer hull and vanished.

    One down? Two? Nash listened, not breathing, until he was sure they were gone. Enough, then. Must not be used to things that kick back instead of rocking with their lullaby. He remembered the name now: Jubba birds. Came in at half a million credits apiece, last he'd heard, for the superrich who were so bored they needed help falling asleep. He'd heard a trader say he knew a source once, and another making fun of him. Nobody knows where they're from, mate. Bet you that place don't even exist any more.

    Well, he had a source now. Only he had no way of getting them off planet. Nash's Exotic Animal Emporium, he thought as he sorted out his limbs from his stock. Now wouldn't that be appropriate.

    He had just dug up a datapad to get some non-vermin-attracting light when there was a knock. A single one, rather louder than courteous, that sent the whole escape pod rattling. "Hey!" Nash yelled and pushed himself up, ready to rip the next avian that came at him to shreds - but it was not one of the birds. It was the droid, the hybrid abomination of a protocol unit stuck on top of an old-fashioned pilot droid's floating butt, only now it was pretty much stuck in the foliage next to the pod, twitching weakly as it attempted to free itself.

    "Hey, Bug-face! I said, stop that!"

    The droid kept shifting. "I need…" it began, but its vocabulator turned the second word into a downward smear, then gave out. "What you need, Twitchy," Nash said, "is to stop rocking the vaping boat, or you'll end up dislodging both of us. And you don't look exactly fit enough to carry us both all the way down to swamp level."

    The movement ceased, whether out of exhaustion or because the droid had finally understood. "That's better," Nash said and climbed out. The fog was getting so dense now that he almost couldn't see his feet as he climbed gingerly along the branches to where the droid was lying. Its status lights were flickering, but at least they told him where it was.

    "Come on, Kludgie, let's get you out of there. Can you fly?"

    "You know me!" The droid perked up, turning its insect-like head to face him. "I was wondering when…"

    "Quit wondering and help me." Nash bent one of the smaller branches out of the way. "Pull your arm out; there. Now hold on while I get you upright. Do you trust your repulsors?"

    "Not… really…" The droid actually sounded like it was speaking through gritted teeth. Elaborate, for a bug. "Turn them on anyway. Every little bit helps. Ready now? Go."

    He heaved the droid up to the lip of the pod, where it promptly tipped over and fell inside with a crash. "I'm okay!" it squeaked from in there. "I'm fine!"

    Nash was going to climb after him when he heard a sound from below. A jungle sound, the clicking of chitinous limbs, the crickety-crack of claws hooking into the bark at worrying speed. And it was getting closer, coming up.

    "Poodoo," he cursed under his breath. "What did I turn the lights off for?" Instead of climbing back up, he vaulted, catching the lip of the pod with one hand and pulling himself inside, right on top of the droid.

    "So," he hissed at it before it could protest, "you got any weapons to trade or not?" The chittering noise was just outside now, to the left; Nash hit the hatch switch experimentally, but it was still jammed. "I'm sorry," RA-7 whined. "I've only got myself…"

    Then that'll have to do, Nash thought, pulling the droid out under him and shoving it up toward the opening. Let's hope the predators here are as turned off by metal as they are on most worlds.

    Peering past the struggling droid, Nash saw a spindly red leg feel around in the opening, then a distressingly large insectoid head returned his gaze, its compound eyes reflecting RA-7's status lights multiple times. "Bug-eye, meet bug eye," Nash muttered under his breath as he braced for the attack; but then the giant insect pulled its head back, scrabbled for purchase on the metal hull for a moment, and then launched itself into the air with a push that sent the whole escape pod rattling.

    "A fefze beetle," RA-7 said in a tone of amazement. "I did not know those existed off Duros."

    "Shut up." Nash listened. If he was not mistaken, the creature had jumped in the direction of…

    Yes, there they were, the screams. Nash nodded quietly into the darkness. In the absence of light to attract them, most attackers would go where there was plenty of food, plenty of body warmth, and the smell of the injured and dying. That should buy him enough time to at least fix the problem with the open hatch.

    "Are they dead?" the droid asked when the screams had faded.

    "Not all of them." Nash found and partly unfolded a tarp, then looked for something to attach it to the hull. "But give it time."

    ***

    Feeling good - what are you calling yourself again these days? Nash? cute - so, feeling good about yourself, Nash? You get to play the outsider again, the hard dark man, the beast prowling the wilderness away from the pack, rationalizing your loneliness by mumbling about how everyone else is going to die anyway. I bet you're already picturing yourself sitting in that dive on Nar Shaddaa again, telling some young wannabe hunter how you once tracked a target on a ship that crashed on a swamp planet, then waited for the swamp to do your work for you and kill him. "It's not about heroics, or about winning every time," you'll say in your scratchiest world-weary voice, "but about surviving. Outlive your enemies, then you're the victor by default."

    That's what it's all about for you, isn't it, Nash? Feeling superior and gloating about it. Slaying that dragon, then sitting around the fire with your dad watching approvingly from the side. Even after all these years, across four different lives - or was it five? might have lost track - you're still chasing that high, knowing full well you'll never get there. That one time you got to feel real good, and then everyone died or turned into your enemy, and your new friends told you everything you'd been doing was evil, and you had to learn not to gloat, ever… and you believed them, for a while, you sincerely thought they were better, that you were learning to be Truly Honorable this time, truly good, no matter how it felt inside, until they too all died and you saw how they had been rotten to the core all along.

    So what, you figured, so nothing matters, every code of honor is a sham, you might as well become the worst kind of person you can imagine. If there's nothing up there, go scrape the bottom; at least it's a place. You told yourself you didn't care about a thing, that surviving was enough, outliving everyone like you'd outlived your brothers, your father, your order, your Republic, everyone. Prowling alone, waiting for everyone to die, sometimes killing a few of them yourself because at least that's something you're good at, plus it earns you the creds to scrape by for another few months. That, and you enjoy it, don't you? If you're into feeling superior, it's the ultimate kick. Even better if it's effortless, and it has been a while since any job made you so much as break a sweat. You could kill anyone here, is what you think when you walk among ordinary sentients; or you could wait for them to die. Same difference. Not like you care.

    So, feeling good, Nash? If you are, enjoy it. Not to spoiler you more than you already are, but it's not gonna last.

    After all, you are here for a reason.


    ***

    The rainstorm came back that night, rattling the treetops with such force it felt like the planet itself was trying to shake them loose. Nash spent half the time outside, clinging to wet bark and slippery branches, tying the escape pod to the tree as well as he was able. When he slipped back inside, drenched and exhausted, the datapad wouldn't come on any more and the only light was one weak indicator on the droid's prosthetic repulsor platform.

    "Great," he muttered. But at least it was mostly dry, mostly safe, and the droid gave off quite a bit of warmth. He'd stayed in worse places, Nash decided as he peeled off his wet travel clothes and put on a salvaged mechanic's shift. "So what'd you come here for anyway?" he asked the droid while he cleared a space on the nearest thing there was to a horizontal surface in this mess. "You got something to trade?"

    "I have information," the droid said in a low voice. "And I need batteries."

    "Information about what?" And unless it's a way off this planet, why should I care?

    "I don't… know." The droid's vocabulator was clearly damaged, and the more it talked the more Nash thought some of its central processors must be too. "I just know it's important. Extremely important. But I can't access it… too little power."

    "That doesn't make any sense. Listen, I'll just reboot you and…"

    "No!" The droid tried to twist away from him with a desperate twitch of its repulsors, but it only succeeded in wedging itself deeper into the pile of loot that filled the pod. "I can't… data corrupted… if I shut down…"

    "Yeah right." Nash tossed it a battery pack and watched the droid plug it in with clumsy silver fingers. "At least keep watch, will you? Wake me if anything unusual happens."

    "Thank you," RA-7 sighed while Nash curled up and closed his eyes. "I will."

    But it wasn't the droid who woke him in the morning; it was Jax. The guy poked his head in with the first sunbeams like he was a friendly neighbor dropping in for caf. "Hey Nash," he said. "Oh, and good morning, Array. Are you alright?"

    "Thank you," the droid said. Nash could have bet it sounded sleepy. "Still a bit weak, but…"

    "What do you want?" Nash cut in. "And more importantly, what have you got to trade?"

    "I need the strongest power pack you have. Or the pod's power supply, if you don't have anything better. We're trying to get a distress signal out, but we need to boost it to clear the atmosphere."

    So you figured they're not coming, and there are enough of you left to care. "And in exchange?"

    "Come on, Nash. This is for all of us. Don't you want to get out of here?"

    "I'm fine where I am." Nash sat up, cross-legged. "Make me an offer or get out of my house."

    Jax huffed. "Well then. Come on, Array, we're leaving."

    The droid stirred, but Nash grabbed its arm before it could go anywhere. "I don't think so. Shiny here came to me and used my batteries, so I'm claiming it as salvage."

    "That's not how it works, Nash. Let him go."

    "Or what, Sheriff? Are you threatening me?"

    Jax shook his head slowly. Nash knew the expression: it was one of his favorite ones, the sight of authority crumbling when faced with someone who simply would not accept it. You're so used to having the whole Empire to back you up, you never realized you don't actually have any power on your own. "You're making a big mistake," he said eventually, and left.

    "You can't just keep me here!" RA-7 protested when Jax was gone. "Droids have rights!"

    "No they don't. Did you think of that information yet?"

    "I… it's to do with the Raiders."

    "The what?"

    "The Raiders. They're coming. They… I don't know." The droid affected a pretty impressive shrug considering that it couldn't move its shoulders. "But it's urgent."

    "Is it, now." Nash was using the time to rummage through his stuff, sorting it into vaguely coherent heaps and refreshing his mental inventory. "And where did you get that information from?"

    "I saw it? I think. I need to tell my… No, that can't be right. But the Raiders are… they're going to…"

    Clearly a memory malfunction, Nash decided. He let the droid babble on while he continued his work. In one of the boxes from the ship mechanic's workshop he found a restraining bolt; he keyed it to his datapad, then slammed it into RA-7's metal chest before the droid could protest. "Shut up," he said, setting up the control relay. "I'll dig through your data later. For now you'll serve as a lookout." He maneuvered the droid up into the opening and secured it there. "Tell me if anyone else comes along."

    They sent the Twi'lek next. She came balancing across a rope bridge that someone - Nash suspected the Wookiees - had hung between his tree and the next one over at some point during the night. "Nooma," Nash greeted her, resting one arm on RA-7's head. "Colonel send you to beg?"

    "I come to trade." She gracefully stepped off the rope and onto a narrow branch, holding out a satchel and rattling it. "We have about three hundred credits between us, cash and chips. Fair price for a power pack and a broken droid."

    What's the deal with all of you and that droid? "Credits are worthless here," he said, sizing her up. "You got anything else?"

    "They'll be worth something when we get out of here," she shot back, "which is exactly what we are trying to do. No thanks to you."

    "That's assuming it's gonna work, Tails, which I don't. So, any weapons?"

    She looked about to spit at him, but held back. "I've got a cutter knife," she grumbled.

    "A cutter knife?" Nash laughed. "Really?"

    "It's a good cutter knife." She held her ground; that was something. "Take it or leave it."

    "You know what? Fine. You get one power pack, fully charged, for your cutter knife… and a kiss."

    Nooma's pretty face contorted. "Human men," she sneered. "You see a Twi'lek, and that's all you can think about."

    "Oh I can think of plenty more," Nash said, grinning. "So, we got a deal?"

    She hesitated for just long enough to tell Nash all he needed to know. "No," she said, turned on her heel - quite an achievement in itself, on that surface - and walked back across the swaying rope bridge.

    "Alright then." Nash swung himself over the lip of the hatch and down to branch level. "Array, safeguarding protocol is in effect. Make sure to explain it to everyone who is stupid enough to come near. You have my explicit permission to go into excessive, excruciating detail if they don't leave right away. Just don't start babbling again, okay?"

    "Understood," the droid said, sounding appropriately robotic for a change. Nash patted his pockets to make sure he had everything he needed, then stepped onto the bridge himself.

    He'd had his share of high-altitude adventures in his time, but walking on a single rope held by swaying branches on either end, with only a second rope at arm's height to steady himself still made him feel a little light-headed. At that moment he wouldn't have minded a bit of fog to cover up the harsh realities of his situation, but of course now the view was clear all the way down to the treacherous surface of the swamp. Just my luck.

    The other tree, he saw as he approached, was significantly better endowed than the one his pod had gotten stuck in. Two enormous branches, each as wide as the biggest trees he'd seen on any other world, and a few more merely huge ones merged into a natural platform near the trunk. People were walking around on it like on solid ground; you could even sleep on it without worrying. Cozy. And people were all around, more than Nash had expected, most of them looking remarkably intact considering the night's events.

    Most, but not all. "It's him!" a high-pitched voice cried; when Nash turned to look, he saw the Neimoidian boy spearing an accusing finger his way. "Someone stop him! He tried to kill me!"

    I didn't, but you're beginning to make me wish I had succeeded anyway. "Hey, easy now," he said, raising his hands to chest height as nearly everyone turned to stare at him. "I just came to talk."

    "Talk about what?" The Mandalorian stepped into his way, his gloved hands open at his sides. The image of him moving from that position into a fighting stance was so clear in Nash's mind he had to bite down on the impulse to strike first.

    "You all wanted my help, didn't you?" Nash said with a sweeping gesture. "Well, I'm here to help."

    "Did you now," Jax said sourly, getting up from behind a crate he had been rummaging in. "And how exactly do you mean to help us?"

    "By giving you another chance to make a deal." Nash pointed at Jax but spoke to the rest of the crowd, making his voice resound through the camp. "This guy comes to me and wants my stuff for free. Just like that." He shifted his pointing hand to Nooma, who was squatting near the two Neimoidians. "Then this cutie turns up, offers me worthless credits and a cutter knife and won't even throw in a kiss to seal the deal." He saw her eyes flashing and Jax tensing, but he gave them no time to contradict him. "I think I've made my conditions pretty clear, but I'll to spell it out for you again: you want my stuff, you pay my price. And my price, right now, is weapons."

    "Why would we give you any weapons?" That was the Kuati man-toy, still dressed in his ridiculous robes and layered overcoats. "You're a killer!" He'd placed himself in front of his owner, feet apart and arms akimbo, projecting manliness for all he was worth. Which ain't much.

    "I haven't killed anyone." Not on this planet, anyway. Not yet. "And just in case you hadn't noticed, there are all kinds of dangerous creatures around here. Which is why I want weapons. In capable hands. My hands."

    "Like that bird that killed Dak?" the Neimoidian boy cried. "That you attracted, with your light!"

    Nash stared at him for a moment, his jaw working. Should have finished the job. "Alright, you know what?" he said. "Forget it. I don't care if you all die here, just don't come complaining about it to me. Oh and just so you know, my pod over there? It's rigged to blow if anyone but me tries to get in. So don't." He turned and started walking back, mentally preparing himself for crossing the rope bridge more quickly this time.

    "Wait," Nooma called when he was almost around the tree. "Wait. You can have your kiss."

    Nash didn't even turn his head. "Deal's off. Shoulda thought of it sooner."

    "Nooma," he heard Jax say behind him, "don't…"

    But of course she did. He had one foot on the rope bridge when he felt her hand on his shoulder. "Nash."

    "I said," he began - but then her mouth closed over his and he stopped talking.

    ***

    Really, Nash. A woman? You're still the desert boy, deep down, lusting for skin and kisses.

    But you're not here to feel good, or to indulge in puerile fantasies of hunting and killing and kissing. You are here for the pain.

    You know that, don't you? You have lost your life and everything that you held dear enough times to recognize the feeling. This planet, this crash? It is only the latest crucible in a long line of them - and that line is nowhere near its end. You are about to be chewed up, ground into your constituent parts, swallowed and then spit out as something new, if you're lucky - and you won't be able to hold on to anything you had or were before.

    Is that why you are clinging to your meager stash of plunder so obsessively? Is that why you were asking for your kiss right now, because you knew there might not be anyone left to kiss later?

    Enjoy it, then. Drink your fill. Perhaps some intoxication will make what comes next a little easier to bear.


    ***

    Nash almost fell off the branch when Nooma broke the kiss. For a moment he hung suspended between life and certain death before she grabbed him by the collar and pulled him back into balance. "First the batteries," she said.

    Then you can die, she didn't say, but Nash could read it in her eyes. He made sure his head wasn't spinning any more, then started walking across the rope.

    "Do not come any closer!" RA-7's voice rang out when he reached the other end. "I will blow up the pod if you… oh, it is you."

    "Disarm," Nash told the droid. "You stay outside," he called over his shoulder without looking back.

    "Wouldn't think of anything else," Nooma replied. Nash grumbled to himself while he dug out the power packs and the small pocket generator he had found in an emergency kit and stuffed it all into a backpack.

    When he poked out his head again, Nooma was glaring up at him. "Cutter knife," he said, holding out his hand. Nooma rolled her eyes and produced the tool, its blade retracted; but when he reached for it, she grabbed his wrist with her other hand. "Why?" she asked.

    "Because it's better than nothing. You can do a lot of damage with a cutter knife if you know how."

    "Not that. The kiss."

    Nash pulled on her until she was pressed up against the hull of his pod. "Because I wanted to know what you really are," he growled. "Now I do."

    "Oh really, " she hissed contemptuously. "And what am I?"

    "A killer, like me. You try to hide it, but you are." He leaned in closer. "We two belong together."

    "Poodoo." She twisted away from him, leaving the knife. "We are nothing alike. Now give me those batteries."

    "No."

    "What?"

    Nash climbed out of the pod, strapping on the backpack. "I'm coming with you. You want my stuff, I'm along for the ride."

    "That's not…"

    "Consider it a bonus." He swung his legs over the lip and landed at her side. "So, where to?"

    Nooma huffed about it for a while, and so did Jax when they walked back into camp, but no one seriously tried to keep him. Besides the three of them, the party consisted of the Mandalorian and, to everyone's surprise, the two Kuati. "You do realize," Nash told them, "that this is not that kind of party, right? I think something got lost in translation there."

    "We are coming," the lady insisted. "Whatever is said up there, we have a right to hear it."

    "In those robes?" Nash laughed, but Jax cut him off. "You can come," he told them, "but you'll go last so you can take your time." Translated: so you won't slow us down. Nice, officer. "Jatne, are we ready to go?"

    "Ready," the Mandalorian said. So you do have a name. "I go first. Batteries next." And so do I, apparently. "Whatever you say, Buy'ce." Nash threw a wink at Nooma, who grimaced, then followed the Mandalorian to a rope ladder they had hung from the next level of the canopy near the tree trunk.

    Climbing up was easy and actually felt safer than walking on its medd of branches horizontally. You had a big solid trunk in front of you and if you fell there was always enough stuff this close to center to catch you. Jax went last, pulled the rope ladder up after himself and threw one end of it up at the next layer trying to get it wrapped around a branch. When that failed, the Mandalorian - Jatne - shot a cable from his wrist launcher, caught it when it came down on the other side of a branch, and used it to pull the ladder up.

    That way they slowly rose through the layers, each one a little less expansive than the one below, until most of the forest seemed to lie below them and they finally had a horizon to fix their eyes on.

    It was not the most heartening sight. The jungle seemed to stretch in all directions, an endless expanse of dark green fluff coating the surface of the planet. Occasionally a grove of trees jutted up a little higher than the rest, forming flat islands propped up by a mess of branches; and in some place there were gaps that seemed natural, suggesting bodies of water or less fertile ground at the bottom. Other than that, the only discernible geographical feature was a low conical mountain in the distance, its slopes almost completely covered in the same shade of greenery - and a pillar of dark smoke on the far side of the swathe the ship had cut into the forest.

    They all stared at it for a while. "Is that a fire?" the Kuati lady asked. "Are we in danger?"

    "It's been there all along," Nooma said. "And it's getting weaker," Jax added. "Not spreading. Nothing to worry about."

    The Mandalorian was busy setting up his makeshift transmitter, a conglomerate of wires and antennas taller than he was in its assembled state. "Batteries," he said, holding a hand out towards Nash.

    "What's the message?" Nash asked, carefully keeping out of his reach. "What are we going to send?"

    "Distress codes. Ship's name. Duration since last stop. Number of survivors, specifics of crash."

    "That's it?"

    "What else?" the Mandalorian said. "Nash is a nuisance, kill on sight?"

    "Not a bad idea," Nooma opined.

    "Cut it out," Jax said. "We all want to get out of here, right? So let's get to work."

    Grudgingly, Nash took off his backpack and handed over his battery stash. Jax and the telbun propped up the antenna array while Jatne crouched at its base and Nooma held a comm attached to the whole thing by a long cable. Letting the lady be our voice, eh?

    “Power,” Jatne announced. “But fluctuating.” He turned his head toward Nash, and Nash was pretty sure he was scowling at him underneath his helmet. He held out both hands and shrugged. “Those were the best I had,” he said.

    “Quick, then. Jax, hold down that button. Nooma, speak.”

    Jax stretched to push a button while holding the antenna at the same time. Nash rolled his eyes, walked over and took the antenna, freeing up Jax to focus on the controls. “Wait,” Jax said. “There is something.” He twiddled the controls, frowning. “Across all bands. Some sort of wide-spectrum transmission coming in.”

    “Someone calling us?” the telbun asked, almost dropping his side of the antenna in excitement. “Maybe they’re already on their way here and telling us…”

    “Shut up,” Nash barked at him. “Let’s hear it.”

    Nooma was fussing over her datapad. “I can’t decode it,” she said. “Looks like audio, but I can’t get the speakers to work. Must have been damaged by the water.”

    “Give me that,” Nash snapped. He held out his hand at the same time that Jax and Jatne did. Nooma looked at each of them, then handed her datapad to the Mandalorian. Oh come on. “Does anyone else have some device with a speaker?” Jax asked.

    “I’m sure there must be something in the stash down there,” Nooma said. “Sorry I didn’t think about checking the datapad’s. I didn’t think we’d have to deal with incoming messages so soon. I’ll climb back down and see what I can find.”

    “No time,” Jatne said. “Power is running low. Those batteries are almost empty.”

    “What?” Nash tried to bend over to look at the readouts but couldn’t. “That can’t be. I gave you my best ones, tested them all last night and haven’t touched them since. You must be doing something wrong.”

    The Mandalorian shook his head. “This planet. Something wrong with this planet.”

    The telbun had been whispering with his lady; now he straightened up. “We have a speaker,” he said. “Give it to them,” he told the lady, who twisted her face but reached into one of the folds of her absurdly complex dress. It was a sleek holopad with no visible ports or sockets; the Mandalorian had to yell at her three times before she deigned to open the panel hidden in its side so he could plug in the antenna array. The thought of anyone else handling her precious machinery seemed to disgust her in a deep, visceral way. Aristocratic types, Nash thought. Probably cringes at having to interact with us rabble at all.

    “There,” Jatne said. The holopad hissed, then crackled, then a woman’s voice cut through the static. Everyone in the group held their breath as they leaned forward to listen.

    “...kill us all, the voice said. “There are five of us left. Two are pregnant. If we do not receive assistance soon, the jungle will eat the rest of us. Please, please help us. There are treasures to be discovered here. The fog…”

    The voice broke off, giving way to more static. Jatne and Jax looked at each other. “There must be more survivors,” Jax said, looking around, his eyes fixing on the pillar of black smoke. “They must have sent a distress signal already. That is good news. We need to find them and…”

    “This is Halka Four-Den of the Republic Survey Corps, expedition Isk-One-Three-Eight. If this message reaches you, please forward it at once to RSC headquarters on Coruscant and the Royal Academy on Alderaan. We are in distress and require immediate extraction. All of my previous messages seem to have been lost. We are six weeks into our scheduled one-year survey, and already most of our gear has broken down and three of my team are dead. If you hear this, please help us before it's too late for the rest of us. We are holding out at the source of this signal, but our food is getting scarce. In a few days we will have no choice but to try eating what grows on this planet, but our chemical analyses so far are worrying. The native biosphere seems so inimical to humans that I'm afraid that eating it may kill us all. There are five of us left. Two are pregnant. If we do not receive assistance soon, the jungle will eat the rest of us. Please, please help us. There are treasures to be discovered here. The fog…"

    Nash slowly released the breath he'd been holding. "Well poodoo," he said. “That message is at least twenty years old.”

    “And drowning out all bands,” Jatne said darkly. “We couldn’t get a message out even if we had…”

    With a final crackle, the holopad went silent. “Power,” Nooma finished his sentence quietly.

    “That can’t be,” the telbun protested. “There has to be a way.”

    Nash gave him a lopsided grin. “Don’t get your hopes up, kid. Looks like we’re stuck here for good.”

    The telbun flashed his teeth, and for a moment Nash almost thought he would try to punch him across the antenna array. “You wanted this!” he hissed. “You knew! That’s why you gave us the failing batteries…”

    “Don’t be ridiculous,” Nash sneered. “I’m just being realistic.”

    Jax, who had been staring into the middle distance all through the transmission, rounded on them. “No word,” he said. “No word about this to anyone. We can’t let them lose hope.”

    “There is no hope,” Nash said. “Why let them think there is?”

    “Jax is right,” Nooma said. “People would panic. Everyone is on edge already. No, we should…” She trailed off, looking back and forth between Jatne and Jax. So that’s your game, huh? Latch on to whoever comes out on top.

    “We say we sent the signal,” Jax decided. “But we can’t be sure it worked. Also, we need to get to safer ground.”

    “Safer ground?” the telbun asked, his voice shaking. “Didn’t you hear? There is no safe ground on this planet!”

    “The camp,” Jatne said, unplugging the Kuati lady’s holopad. “Got the coordinates.”

    “But…”

    “They did manage to hold out for six weeks,” Jax said, nodding slowly. “And there must be a power source that keeps the transmission going, even after twenty years.”

    “So we lie,” Nooma said. "Yes," Jatne agreed, and Jax nodded. "Nash," he said. "K'wanna, Lady Matua. We need to know you're on board with this."

    The lady pressed close to her telbun and hissed at him. "If you promise you'll try again," the telbun said. "We'll try again, that is. We don't just give up."

    “We won’t,” Jax promised. “We’ll look for their camp, we’ll find the power source and see what we can learn. We will find a way off this planet; we just have to make sure we survive until then. All of us. Nash?”

    “No.”

    The Mandalorian got up, facing him, beskar gloves at the ready. “Say again,” he growled.

    “I’m just saying we won’t all survive,” Nash said. “Not that I care.”

    “You’ll keep your mouth shut?” Jax asked.

    Nash shrugged “Not like anyone wants to talk to me anyway.” He let go of his side of the antenna, forcing Jatne to swivel and catch it before it could break off, then crouched to unplug his batteries and returned them to his backpack. “Ready when you are.”

    They climbed down in silence. Nash had expected a rush of people pressing in on them when they returned, but instead almost everyone was staring down at the swamp. “What’s going on?” Jax asked, pushing ahead as usual. Nash sauntered after him, appreciating the way people made room for him as he passed.

    Someone was coming up the makeshift pulley they had constructed the day before to get all of their salvaged stuff up the tree. He was nearly all the way up before Nash recognized him, with his face even more mangled and bloody than the day before. It was the old guy that had been with the salvage party, Dak or whatever his name was. He was coming up grinning, pulling almost all the weight by himself with only token help from a few people at the top. In a net he had tied to the rope there was the carcass of a huge dead bird, plus four eggs the size of a Wookiee’s head.

    “You survived!” Nash heard Nooma say near the winch. “But your wounds…”

    “Never mind my wounds,” Dak said, smiling despite the thick scabs on his cheeks. He hoisted himself up on the branch and pulled up the net behind him. “I brought food!”