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Saga - PT Resh Squad: Vibrance

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction- Before, Saga, and Beyond' started by KithuraVess, Jan 7, 2019.

  1. KithuraVess

    KithuraVess Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Nov 19, 2008
    Hey everyone and welcome to Part 1 of this Clone Wars / Republic Commando-inspired fanfic! It's complete already, so being able to read to the actual end is guaranteed. =D
    I will be updating Tuesdays, usually, so check in tomorrow for Chapter 2!

    ====================
    "Clones you may be, but the Force resides in all life forms. In the Force, very different each one of you are." ~ Master Yoda
    ====================
    Each a part of a whole person. We’re not whole. You’re gone. Resh Squad: men of durasteel. Ready to take on the galaxy as one. Except we’re not ready. Not to face it on our own. Turns out we were hopelessly unprepared to go into the galaxy alone.
    ====================

    Chapter 1
    [​IMG]

    Heat. Unremitting, oppressive heat. The storm only worsened it: on this planet, even the rain was hot. Every drop seared the back of his neck. Kept his face down, looking at the mud beneath his feet. Breathing hard with pain, and with the heat of anger. Wasn't usually the angry type, but now he fed his anger like a flame. Damned before he showed the Phindian that he was afraid.
    “Republic scum!” The Phindian’s acidic spittle mixed with the rain and sizzled at his feet. Would've liked to look up with burning defiance, but the rain would burn his face.
    “So, you think you can just land on my planet and walk into my base? Me, Tenallo Destrel? And I won’t notice? Is that it?”
    He did not reply. The Phindian was not wrong; had to give him that. Although it was not, strictly speaking, his planet.
    “Just two days ago I found your cloned friend. Your – haha – brother. He assured me he was acting alone. It looks like he was lying – to protect you, perhaps? Or to conceal the true nature of your intentions on my planet?”
    The Phindian brought his head down to eye level. His eyes glinted, an evil greenish-yellow, matching the permanent death’s-head grin of his race.
    “Well, that doesn’t matter any longer. Your little plan has failed, clone – whatever it was. You see – I killed him.”
    At this, his head snapped up, heedless of the hot rain that burned his nose and cheeks.
    “You don’t believe me?” The Phindian snapped his fingers, and two droids marched off into the base. The Phindian’s grin widened, if such a thing were possible. They stared at each other, brown eyes into yellow-green, defiance into cruel malevolence. The droids returned, and he felt his stomach plummet. A figure in a black thermal bodysuit was draped over their shoulders. At the Phindian’s command, they threw it down, and it crumpled in the trampled mud. It was his captain – or had been. A strange pallor showed beneath the tan, and his eyes, slightly open, were rolled back into his head.

    Tracker drew his breath in sharply. “Damn.”
    “We were too late,” grunted Shadow beside him. The dense foliage and deafening birdsong protected them from the rain, as well as audio or visual detection. “I can’t believe they executed him already. We just found out about it this morning! If I had just been quicker, if I could have gotten to him in time! – Although I guess he could have been dead already when I was here earlier.”
    “Could be. They move fast.” Tracker reflected, not for the first time, that Shadow was quite talkative for a commando specialising in stealth.
    Shadow shook his head, and with a clear effort got a grip on himself. “Nothing for it now, I suppose. We just have to get Lingo out of there and then get moving.”
    Tracker was about to agree when he felt it again. That strange feeling in his chest; and an idea popped into his head out of nowhere.
    “He’s not dead.”
    Shadow actually removed his helmet, the better to stare at him in disbelief.
    “The boss, you mean? – Are you serious?”
    “That’s right.”
    “He looked dead to me. And Lingo seems convinced, from his reaction. He’s a lot closer. Come on, Tracker, we all know what death looks like.”
    “I know. He looks dead. But he isn’t. Don’t ask me to explain.” He was getting angry – this bloody heat!
    “Look, if we can get him out, we will, but we can’t make that our focus. We can see that Lingo’s alive, and we’ve got to rescue him before they do anything to him! ’Sides, we’ll have to get him out before we’ll be able to communicate with the natives. We can still find Soren and complete that part of the mission.”
    Certainty. The feeling in his chest had settled; had concentrated around a point. Why – how – was he suddenly becoming so poetic?
    “No. We have to get the boss. We’ll be able to get Lingo too.”
    “You seem very confident,” replied Shadow sceptically. At the Phindian’s command, the droids had once again shouldered the captain’s corpse and carried it back into the base. Then he sighed. “Tracker, I hate to say it, but this isn’t really your area of expertise. You’ll get caught. Are you sure it’s worth the risk?”
    “I’m sure. And I don’t care for your hesitation.” He knew what he had to do. Just knew.
    “Alright, alright, keep your hair on. It will be nightfall soon. We’re going to need a plan. Any ideas?”
    “I was going to leave that to you. Stealth is your area of expertise, after all.”
    “Very funny. Alright, here’s what I think. We know the base and patrols are pretty standard droid stuff. We have no idea where they’re keeping the boss’s body, of course, but I’d assume it would be in the medical bay. They won’t exactly have a morgue at a base this small. I wonder why they didn’t just dump it into the jungle, the way they did with those locals they executed. Anyway. If you time it right, you can get in by that window. Going by the standard layout for these bases, it should be on the same corridor as the medical bay.”
    “What are you going to do?”
    “Get Lingo, of course. You know – the one who’s actually alive? That way we can achieve both objectives, always assuming everything goes according to plan.”
    “No.” His tone was one of finality. “If the boss is injured, I’ll need your help.”
    “You’re very emphatic. – Well, you do have seniority, so I guess I have to do what you say, but I think you’re going Loth-bat crazy, all the same.”
    Tracker couldn’t help but smile beneath the helmet, and remembered to chuckle so that Shadow would get the sentiment. “We’ll go in and out quickly. If he’s dead, we leave him, get Lingo and get out of here. – And I’ll owe you a beer.”
    “Several beers.” Shadow replaced his helmet. “And none of that standard-issue Republic Cruiser piss, either. We’ll go to a proper canteen. The more expensive the better.”

    The rain lessened, then stopped, and the clouds parted to reveal the last rays of the burnt orange sun. Night fell quickly, and the light of the tiny moons barely penetrated the misty atmosphere. The lights came on at the base, casting hazy haloes in the humid air. A patrol clanked past their position.
    “Now!”
    True to his name, Shadow flitted out from the leaves and crept soundlessly to the window. Tracker followed, and boosted him up.
    “All clear. You can come up.”
    Tracker jumped up and grabbed onto the sill. The walls were slippery beneath his feet, from rain and algae; Shadow took his arm in a firm grip and hauled him into the corridor.
    “Med bay should be right along here. Let’s hope they haven’t gotten creative with their interior architecture.”
    Tracker nodded silently and followed him as he crept along the corridor. The base seemed deserted inside – granted, this was on the opposite side from the officers’ quarters, but it made him uneasy all the same.
    “Better be quiet when we open the med bay door. There’s a sentry around the corner.” It was so clear to him. But he had no idea why; he had neither seen nor heard anything.
    “How do you know that?”
    “Standard procedure.” That had sounded much more snappish than he had intended. “Let’s just keep moving,” he added, trying to infuse his voice with a friendlier tone.
    “Right.”
    The med bay door, predictably, was locked. If only Tech were with them now – then again, if Tech had been with them, Straightlace would not have been their captain in the first place, and this whole mission would have gone very differently.
    “I don’t want to set an alarm off by fiddling with the access panel,” Shadow muttered.
    “I thought you were supposed to be good at this sort of thing.”
    “I know, I know. Give me a minute.” He silently removed the access panel cover and critically surveyed the panel. A variety of slice cards appeared in his hands, seemingly out of nowhere. They were marked with red paint – they must have belonged to Tech. It took more than a minute – much longer than Tech would have needed – but at the end of it, the panel glowed green, and the door slid open. They hurried inside and Shadow locked the door behind them while Tracker surveyed the med bay. His night vision identified Straightlace’s body sprawled on the bed. At an impulse, he switched to infrared vision – and gasped. The body was still warm.
    Ripping off his helmet and one of his gloves, he dropped to his knees beside the bed and felt for a pulse. It was weak, but growing stronger by the beat.
    “Boss!” he whispered. “Boss, can you hear me?”
    Straightlace coughed. His chest began to heave again; his eyelids fluttered. Tracker heard Shadow swear beside him.
    “He’s not dead?”
    “No, I’m very much alive,” came the muted reply. Straightlace’s eyes were wide open – and shining with a cold fury. “You bloody idiots! What in the blazes of Mustafar d’you think you’re doing? Get out of here this minute, before someone sees you!”
     
    Last edited: May 21, 2019
  2. KithuraVess

    KithuraVess Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Nov 19, 2008
    Chapter 2: Out in Force

    Five days ago. The Republic Cruiser Indomitable was orbiting the oft-contested world of Felucia, currently under Republic control, thanks to a decisive offensive effort. Part of this effort had been Resh Squad’s mission to capture the Separatist leader. It had been more difficult than expected – and far, far more costly.
    “I still can’t believe he’s gone.” Shadow was struggling to control his emotions.
    Lingo laid a hand on his shoulder. “There was nothing we could have done, Shad. Tech sacrificed himself so we could get away with the Separatist. He knew what he was doing.”
    “I wish there had been another way.”
    “No sense dwelling on it,” Tracker said sharply. “Tech knew the risks and did his duty. Each one of us would have done the same.”
    “That doesn’t make it any easier,” replied Shadow stubbornly.
    “Well, go and drink, or something. You’re getting me down with that attitude. I’m trying to concentrate.”
    “What are you even doing, anyway?” Shadow looked over at him.
    “Reviewing my inventory. Used up a lot of disposables on the mission. Damages, too, like my assault rifle.”
    “Yeah, it’s an assault rifle, not a doorstop.” Shadow gave a half-smile. “Saved our lives, though – so I guess it was a pretty good doorstop, after all.”
    “Single-use, though.” Tracker looked up. “Come on, Shad, snap out of it. Get busy. We’ll get another mission soon.”
    “He’s right. We’ve had three days off – that’s an unprecedentedly long vacation, given none of us were wounded,” said Lingo, who had meanwhile made himself comfortable on his bunk and was placing headphones over his ears. “It can’t last much longer. I’m going to brush up on my Huttese. Last time I tried to chat up a Twi’lek, she laughed at my language – called it antiquated. I’m not letting that happen again.”
    “Yeah, I’m sure it was the language she was laughing at,” grinned Shadow.

    “You’re a prophet, Lingo.” It was two hours later when Shadow burst into the dormitory. “Vacation’s over. Command wants to see us.”
    Within seconds the squad was suited up and headed for the command room.
    “We’re getting a new boss for this mission,” Shadow continued as they jogged along the corridors. “His shuttle just docked with the ship.”
    “Any idea who it is?” asked Lingo.
    “Not yet. I’m curious, though. I just hope he can fill Tech’s shoes.”
    “And I hope you hold your tongue and treat him with the same respect you showed Tech,” snapped Tracker.
    “Was that necess–” began Lingo, but Shadow stopped short and spun around to face Tracker. Clone commandos were engineered to exhibit some physical and mental variation, the result in this instance being that Shadow had to look up at Tracker.
    “I’m a good soldier, Tracker. Question that again at your own peril.”
    “I wasn’t,” Tracker replied evenly. “I just want you to get your feelings under control before you get yourself into trouble.”
    “Well at least I have those. We’re supposed to think, and feel! We’re humans, Tracker, not – not factory-produced droids!”
    “We are factory-produced.”
    “Will you two ladies stop bickering? We don’t want to keep command waiting,” cut in Lingo.

    A holoprojection of a jungle planet shimmered above the command table. Clearly waiting for them stood Miralian Jedi General Seela Khun and a commando, his gleaming white armour patterned with immaculate grey.
    “Ah, Resh Squad,” said Seela Khun, a note of relief in her voice. “Glad you’ve arrived.”
    “Are they always this good at keeping time?” The commando arched trimmed eyebrows. His glance could have withered a Wroshyr tree.
    “The last days have been difficult for them,” replied Khun calmly, at which Lingo and Shadow shot her grateful looks. Tracker, stony-faced, burned inwardly. He knew he was late. He could take his own blame. He didn’t need some Jedi to make excuses for him. “They are an excellent team, Captain. Resh Squad – meet RC-0793 of Onith Squad.”
    At the name, Shadow stiffened beside Tracker.
    “Two of the captain’s team members were injured on their last mission to Ractus Prime. In the meantime, he has agreed to take command of Resh Squad for your next mission – which is where I hand over to you, Captain.”
    “Thank you, Master Jedi. As you can see, this is a holoprojection of the planetoid Sidellia. What’s the situation there?”
    “Y – you’re asking us? Sir?” The words had slipped out of Shadow’s mouth before he could prevent himself.
    “No, I’m asking the wall behind you. And give me your number before you address me next time, soldier.”
    “RC-1058, sir!” Lingo stepped forward and saluted smartly. “Nickname Lingo, expertise alien and droid languages and forms of communication. Sidellia is a jungle planetoid in the Near Outer Rim inhabited by a small reptilian race called the Gerlak. Native language Gerlian, but they also speak Huttese, due to a long history of rule by the Hutt families. They came under Separatist control eight months ago. I believe there’s a small fleet stationed in orbit. I – I don’t know anything more, sir.”
    RC-0793 gave the tiniest possible nod of approval. “Correct, as far as it goes. That small fleet is still there – and still small; they’re trying not to attract too much attention, but we believe something big is going on. Six days ago we lost contact with a spy called Evers Soren. Before he disappeared, he told us that the Separatists were developing a dangerous toxin in a secret base on Sidellia. He was going to try and discover the location of the base. When he failed to make his daily report two days in a row, we tried to raise him. Nothing. He could have been captured, of course, but he may also have gone into hiding. Either way, we need to get him out – or give him a decent burial – and we need to put an end to the development of that toxin, whatever it is.”
    The ship rocked slightly. A glance out of the window informed them that they had entered hyperspace.
    “We’re heading to the nearby system of Serennia, just a few parsecs from Sidellia. There we will get the remaining supplies we need, and transfer to a smaller craft that will slip past the Sidellian blockade and drop us off. We’re going to split up. You’re going to the main village. That’s the last location we have on Soren. Despite – or perhaps due to – its remote location, the village has become a haven for lowlifes from across the galaxy. RC-1058 and RC-1102, you will use your respective linguistic and disguising skills to make contact with the local scum, to get any information you can on Soren, as well as on the Separatists. Which one of you is RC-1102, by the way?”
    “Me, sir.” Shadow saluted.
    “Then you must be RC-1017, nickname Tracker.”
    “Yes, sir!” Tracker saluted.
    “You and I will head for the Separatist base overlooking the main village. I’m going to infiltrate the base and make sure they capture me.”
    “Capture you, sir?” Tracker stared.
    “That’s right. I have good intel that leads me to believe they will take me to their secret base. You will follow the transport to this base. Once there, you will infiltrate the base from the outside, while I shall do the same from within. We’ll extract as much of the toxin as they have concocted already, along with any relevant intel, and destroy anything that could help them make any more. The bonus prize would be to assassinate the Separatist leader, a Phindian named Tenallo Destrel. However, and I can’t stress that enough, if we do that, it has to be done after we get the toxin. We can’t run any risks that might cause them to put the base on lockdown, or even destroy the toxin themselves. The Republic wants very badly to analyse its chemical formula. Any questions?”
    “Sir!” Shadow had conquered himself enough to raise his hand. “About the disguises, sir. What kind of being will they be expecting? – I mean, can we disguise ourselves as humans? Or a specific alien species?”
    “I thought you were the expert. We will be arriving on Serennia in two days. You have until then to prepare. Anything else?”
    He waited for a few moments; then, no questions having been asked, gave a curt nod. “Dismissed.”

    “Bundle of laughs, isn’t he?” Lingo was going through his inventory.
    “What else d’you expect,” muttered Shadow.
    “You seemed like you knew him,” commented Tracker. “You went stiff as a plank when you heard his number.”
    Shadow nodded. “That’s Straightlace. I’ve heard about him. He does everything by the book, and I mean everything. No sense of humour, and he doesn’t respect his men. He – he even had…” His voice failed.
    “He had what?” demanded Tracker. “Man up, Shad.”
    “He had one of his men executed for mutiny, alright? A commando!”
    Tracker and Lingo exchanged glances. Such a thing was almost unheard-of.
    “What were the circumstances? Do you know?” Lingo’s inventory was forgotten.
    “I mean, it was bad, apparently. Really bad. One of his troops decided that he was leading them to their deaths, so he tried to take command from him. He didn’t try to harm him, though!”
    “That’s open rebellion. Execution was a legitimate response.”
    Shadow stared at Tracker. “You’re not serious? We’re brothers, Tracker!”
    “That’s why we should be able to trust each other. Rebellion undermines trust. Undermines discipline.”
    “But execution! I would have had him sent back to Kamino for maintenance duty, not – not executed.”
    “We don’t know the full story,” answered Lingo. “Was this the first time there had been trouble with that trooper? Do you know?”
    Shadow looked away. “No, apparently they had a history.”
    “Well, there you go. Insubordination – mutiny – is the greatest danger to our army. Much worse than the Separatists. Don’t worry, Shadow, mutinies and executions don’t happen overnight, nor by accident. Straightlace won’t have you killed – at least, not right away.”
    “Very funny…”

    It was in the marketplace on Serennia two days later that Shadow voiced his other concern. He had just loaded up on various types of materials that could be used in disguises, and was leaving the textile shop when he spotted Jedi Seela Khun waiting outside.
    “Good morning, Commando,” she greeted kindly. “Did you find what you wanted?”
    “Yes, ma’am. I hope you can say the same?”
    “Oh, I’m just waiting for my gloves to be repaired. My next assault mission is not for another few weeks.”
    “Really? – Oh, Master Jedi, that brings something to mind – but no, I don’t have the right to ask. Please forget it.” He shook his head and started to walk away, but she laid a hand on his arm to restrain him.
    “Your mission is troubling you, Commando. I can sense it.”
    “I reckon you don’t need the Force for that, ma’am.” Shadow smiled lamely.
    “The loss of your leader affected you more than the others, I know; but it is not that, is it? You have unanswered questions about the mission.”
    “I don’t have the right to trouble you.”
    “I am not currently busy. You may ask whatever you like; the worst that can happen is that I will be unable to answer you.”
    “Well – I don’t want to be disrespectful. I don’t mean to question my orders, but – well – something isn’t adding up, and if I could just have my mind set at ease before I go, I’ll be able to give my full attention to the mission. Ma’am – this mission, well, it seems like a Jedi kind of thing. Finding a secret base, a missing person – that’s what the Force is for, isn’t it?”
    Seela Khun smiled. “From your point of view, it must seem like achieving goals in the war is the main purpose of using the Force. Go on – ask your question.”
    “Is there a reason you won’t be coming with us?”
    “You are perceptive. It is precisely because of the Force that no Jedi – in fact, no-one sensitive to the Force – can go with you. Sidellia is a very strange planetoid, Commando. It is strong with the Force.”
    “I don’t understand. Doesn’t that mean that a Jedi would be more powerful there?”
    “It is difficult to explain to one untrained in the ways of the Force, but I suppose I can try. Do you know that there are different… types… of connections to the Force?”
    “I’m not sure I follow you.”
    “Think of the Force as a power current, and our ways of connecting to it as plug points.” Seela Khun seemed amused by her analogy. “The Jedi use one type of plug point. It is the most common way of connecting to the Force, and the best-understood way. The Jedi have studied the Force for millennia. However, there are also other ways – just as there are different plug points that all connect to the same power current. Like the witches of Dathomir – you know of them?”
    “They use a form of magic.”
    “That is what they call it. In fact, they connect to the Force, but in a way the Jedi do not. They use it differently. So there are many other ways for the Force to be used, and to manifest.”
    “To manifest?”
    “The Jedi say that the Force manifests – that is to say, it is strong – in certain people, events, and places. Sidellia is a place where the Force is manifested, but in a strange way, an ancient way, one which the Jedi do not quite understand. For a Jedi to go to Sidellia – to attempt to call on the Force there – would be like trying to connect to a plug socket with the wrong plug point. At best, nothing would happen; at worst – well, your mechanical expertise is more comprehensive than mine; I’m sure you know what happens to a plug when things go wrong.”
    Shadow grimaced. “I can imagine. But won’t this strange Force harm us, then?”
    “It is not the Force that is strange, but the way in which it has manifested itself,” clarified Seela Khun. At least it was apparent that she thought she had clarified it; Shadow was more confused than ever, but decided to let it slide. “No, I do not believe there is any danger for you. Going back to our plug analogy, it would be like placing a mechanical device, one that does not work with electricity, next to a power point. The electricity would not do anything to that device, would it? After all, the device cannot connect to the electricity at all, so there is no way for it to connect in an incorrect way.”
    Shadow nodded. “I think I understand, ma’am. Thank you for the explanation.”
    “I trust it has set your mind at ease?”
    “Very much so, ma’am.” It was a blatant lie, and he knew that she knew it. But she smiled encouragingly, and he returned to the ship. There was no point in sharing what she had told him with the others; he wouldn’t be able to explain it, and even if he somehow could, they wouldn’t be able to do anything with the information. The Force, after all, was not interested in them.
     
    Last edited: Jan 25, 2019
  3. KithuraVess

    KithuraVess Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Nov 19, 2008
    Chapter 3: A Rumble in the Jungle

    “We’ll approach Sidellia on the other side of the planet from the Separatist fleet.”
    They were in the command centre once again. This time, the holoprojector showed Sidellia along with a group of unmistakably Separatist ships.
    “The fleet is geostationary to the position of the main village,” Straightlace continued, “so we’ll have to land quite a distance away from our destination in order to avoid detection. I calculate a three-day march will bring us within range of the village. Yes, RC-1017?”
    Tracker had raised his hand. “Sir, do we know if there are any other villages in the area?”
    “We’re not aware of any. As RC-1058 can no doubt confirm, the Gerlak live exclusively in river deltas.”
    Lingo nodded affirmatively.
    “We’ll use the ship’s scanners to detect any lakes or river deltas while we make our approach, and land as far as possible from them. Then we’ll use our own scanners to avoid them during the three-day march to the main village, if we are able to land in the location I have my eye on. We don’t have nearly as much intel on this planet as I would have liked, so we’ll have to work the details out once we get there and can assess the situation for ourselves. Any more questions?”
    “Sir – if we do make contact with the natives before we get to the village, what do we do? We can’t let them see that there are four of us, can we?”
    “That is why we must avoid them, RC-1058. Your squad has been specially selected for this mission on the basis of your skills, notably including stealth and survival. If each of us does his part, we will not fail. Understood?”
    “Yessir!”

    The first thing they noticed about Sidellia was the heat.
    “Forty-two degrees?” Lingo stared at the ship thermometer.
    “And humid. We’ll survive,” said Tracker.
    “Right, enough chatting,” cut in Straightlace. “Hold on, we’re about to land.”
    The ship rocked as it descended into the dense jungle, but made a fair landing. The door slid open, and the heat struck them like a physical object.
    “Forty-three down on the ground,” corrected Shadow. The jungle glowed an eerie, poisonous green, contrasting with the burnt orange sun that hung huge and low like an overripe fruit.
    “Let’s move, soldiers,” commanded Straightlace above the screeching and cawing of a million birds. They swung out of the ship in turn, each landing with squelching sounds in the ankle-deep green ooze.
    “Delightful,” commented Lingo.
    “It gets better,” said Shadow. “Watch out for these grabbing vines.” He smacked a purple vine that had tried to curl itself around one of the water bottles attached to his backpack. The vine made a whining sound and quickly curled up far out of reach.
    “Diamond formation,” ordered Straightlace. “I’ll lead. RC-1102, you take the right. Watch out for anything coming from above – like that vine. RC-1058, take the left and keep your eyes on the ground. I don’t trust swamp terrains. RC-1017, watch our backs. Form up! Move out!”
    The next few hours were straining. The jungle was constantly surprising them: evil-looking gnats buzzed about them, trying to crawl into the gaps between their armour plates; dark green patches of sludge bubbled and surged – one of these patches erupted, and the dark drops that splattered onto Tracker’s armour spat and sizzled. “Don’t step on those,” he warned. A purple-and-yellow spotted slug dropped from the arboreal heights onto Lingo’s left shoulder. Tracker grabbed it off and flung it into the trees. A yellow bird darted out of nowhere and snatched it out of mid-air.
    “Lovely place,” commented Lingo drily.

    About four hours into the march, as tiredness was beginning to turn into exhaustion, they reached a forest of mangroves, heavy-laden with orange fruit.
    “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” muttered Shadow.
    “Quiet back there,” ordered Straightlace. “Keep moving, and stay alert.”
    The mangrove forest was strangely quiet after the avian cacophony they had grown used to. Only now and then, from far away, did they hear an odd screech, followed by what sounded like a dull explosion.
    “Separatists?” asked Lingo tentatively.
    “Negative. My scanners aren’t picking up any droids or sapient lifeforms,” Tracker replied.
    “That fruit’s going to come down soon,” observed Shadow, looking up. “Let’s get out of its way.”
    The next moment there was a deafening screech as the orange fruit detached itself from the branch. It landed in the ooze and exploded with a roar, spattering them all with acidic pulp that rapidly began to eat into their armour.
    “Drop and roll!” commanded Straightlace; the slime of the jungle floor calmed the burning acid. “Let’s move!” At a run, they set off through the mangrove forest, slipping on the ooze, tripping on roots, and dodging the falling fruit.
    “Doesn’t – this – forest – ever end?” gasped Lingo.
    “Tell me about it, I have a stitch in my side,” groaned Shadow in reply.
    “Move it!” shouted Tracker. Placing a hand on each of their backpacks, he lowered his head and shoved. “There’s a fruit right behind us!” A screech and explosion followed, but they were far enough away from it, and kept running.
    “Stop!” shouted Straightlace suddenly, an edge of panic to his ordinarily clipped voice. They obeyed – with difficulty, sliding on the slime beneath them – but came to a halt just in time. Straightlace had grabbed onto a low branch and stood staring at the sheer ravine centimetres from his feet. Yellow fog swirled hundreds of metres below, obscuring the bottom.
    “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t have time to check my scanners. They would have picked up that there was a drop,” gasped Tracker.
    “Too late now,” barked Straightlace. “Rappelling guns out! We have to get across before more of these fruit decide to spice up our lives!”
    “Yes, they’re really making me sour,” said Shadow, and almost bit off his tongue. To his surprise, Straightlace gave a curt laugh.
    “Get a move on, soldier.”
    The opposite side of the ravine, thankfully, had only a few more mangrove trees. It seemed to be the end of the forest; after a few hundred metres, they emerged from the dark orange gloom into the now friendly green glow of the jungle.
    “RC-1017, scout ahead and find us a place to rest,” ordered Straightlace. The commandos, Tracker included, did not even bother to supress their sighs of relief.
    “The ground gets drier from here, sir,” reported Tracker a few minutes later. “I’ve found a place with some flat rocks. We can sit on them – I’ve tested it.”
    “Any fruit-bombs above our heads?” asked Lingo.
    “Negative.”
    “Lead the way, then,” said Straightlace.

    The rocks were of a pale minty hue, and at least looked less poisonous than the rest of the jungle.
    “They appear to be – just rocks,” commented Lingo in obvious surprise.
    “Sit down,” ordered Straightlace, who had led by example and sat cross-legged on one of the rocks, his helmet carefully balanced on his lap. Clearly not trusting the jungle, he unfolded a broad-brimmed hat from his backpack, which protected him against possible surprises from above. He applied a potent gnat-repellent to his face and neck as he spoke. “What are your water supplies like?”
    “Five and a half out of seven litres remaining, sir,” replied Tracker.
    “After six hours? How? – Three and a half, sir,” said Shadow.
    “Four, sir,” said Lingo.
    “I have four remaining as well,” said Straightlace. “We’ve done about thirty kilometres today. That’s not a pace we can sustain over the course of days, especially since I do not expect the terrain to become any easier.” He gazed into the depths of the darkening jungle. Tracker, not usually fanciful, imagined he could hear the gears turning inside his head.
    “By my watch, it will be dark in an hour. In this hemisphere and time of year, the nights last four hours and the days last just over fifteen. I suggest we use the next five hours to sleep. When it gets light tomorrow we will firstly investigate the possibility of straining and purifying water from the jungle slime – I assume you’ve all brought converters.”
    “I have a portable moisture vaporator, sir,” volunteered Tracker. “It takes about an hour to fill a litre. If we can supervise that through the night, we’ll have nearly half of what we need to get to full capacity.”
    Straightlace raised a neat, approving eyebrow. “Set it up, then. I’ll take the first watch. The rest of you, get to sleep.”

    He was floating among the stars. No – he was in a cave. It was lit with millions of tiny lights. Insects? He peered at the wall. Crystals. He reached out to touch them, and as his finger-tips reached the cave wall, a sharp pain seared through his hand. He cried out – and sat up. He was in the jungle on Sidellia, with glowing insects all around him. One of them must have bitten his hand.
    “What’s the matter, soldier?” It was Straightlace, peering at him from under his massive hat. The other two were still asleep. Had he really cried out loud?
    “I – um – insect bite, sir. My hand,” replied Shadow sheepishly.
    “Why on Kamino did you take off your gloves? – But you didn’t. Then how – ?”
    “I don’t know, sir. I mean – something hurt my hand.”
    “Well, have a look at it and then take over from me. It’s your watch in two minutes anyway.”
    “Yes, sir.” Carefully, he slipped off his glove and inspected the hand that had touched the crystals. There was no mark on it, yet it still stung. He treated it with disinfectant just to be safe, then checked the moisture vaporator. Straightlace had emptied it just before the end of his watch, so there were only a few drops in the bottom of the collector. He stretched, rubbed his eyes and peered into the jungle, lit here and there by swarms of glowing fireflies, and listened to the dissonance of screeching insects and animal whoops and wails echoing strangely in the mist.
     
    Last edited: Jan 25, 2019
  4. KithuraVess

    KithuraVess Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Nov 19, 2008
    Chapter 4: Living on the Edge

    The night passed without further incident, and they set off again the next day, Straightlace having further supplemented their water supply with albeit brackish water extracted and purified from the slime. They marched at a good pace, in spite of their stiff limbs: they were beginning to get used to the jungle, to the snatching vines aiming for any loose object, to the dark patches that squirted out mild acidic slime, to the randomly dropping slugs and worms. Even the annoyance of the gnats seemed to fade as they got into the rhythm of the march.
    “Sir!” It was four hours since they had set off. Straightlace halted.
    “What is it, RC-1017?”
    “My scanners are picking up a river, fifteen clicks ahead.”
    “Can you tell what part of the river it is?”
    “Negative, sir. I’d have to get closer.”
    Straightlace deliberated for only a few seconds. “What is the radius of the Gerlaks’ territory?”
    “They rarely go more than seven clicks from home, sir,” replied Lingo.
    “Hmm. We’ll keep going for another seven, and see what RC-1017’s scanners say then. Let’s move.”
    “It’s definitely the wider part of the river, sir,” said Tracker a few hours later. “No sign of any lake, though, so the delta can’t be close by.”
    “I’m not willing to take any risks. We’ll move upstream – five clicks – then approach the river and see if we can find a way to cross.”
    “It gets rocky in the upstream direction, sir. We might have to climb.”
    “Noted. Take point: we’ll need your scanners. Let’s move.”

    The next few hours were spent in navigating increasingly steep terrain. As the ground grew rockier beneath them, the thick ooze turned to thin, slippery algae, far more treacherous underfoot. More than once each of them slipped and fell; Kamino, Coruscant, Ryloth, Nal Hutta and many other worlds were well-represented by the colourful expletives hailing from each of them that now came forth in short, sharp bursts to echo briefly through the jungle before being stifled by the mist. Then from the mist came another sound: the rushing of water.
    “We’re nearly at the river, sir,” said Tracker somewhat unnecessarily.
    “Right. Scout for a place to cross, will you. You others, get out your rappelling guns in the meantime.”
    “Right away, sir!”
    With care, Tracker scrambled over the rocks, keeping his centre of gravity close to the ground. The river, when he reached it, was a long way down, and with such slippery terrain… he shuddered. They would have to be extremely careful. Still, the gorge was not wide. Provided their rappelling guns could get a decent grip, they would be able to cross the river at this point. He slid back to the others and made his report, after which he led the way to the crossing point.
    “I’ll go first, sir, if I may,” he volunteered. Straightlace nodded, and he aimed his rappelling gun at a patch of rock that seemed somewhat clearer of algae. It buried itself in the rock. He pulled against it to test its strength; it held, with no sign of movement. Satisfied, he activated the reeling mechanism, flying across the gorge in a sitting position, feet first, and touching down on the opposite bank. His feet slipped and slid on the slime, but holding firmly onto the rappelling gun, he was soon able to gain his balance. He detached the line and signalled to the others to cross. Stretching, he removed his backpack and slung it onto the ground – well away from the edge – to allow his waist and shoulders a quick rest. At a sudden impulse, he shot his line into another rock. There was no harm in having something to aid his grip on this treacherous footing.
    Straightlace took a few moments to scan the rocks, looking for a suitable anchor point. Satisfied, he shot his line and tested it. Tracker, looking at the spot where the line was anchored into the rock, saw the rock around it crumble ever so slightly.
    “Sir – ” he began, but at that moment Straightlace began to reel himself in. The rock crumbled further and the line broke loose. Unthinking, Tracker launched himself into the air; it was pure instinct, drilled into his very bones by years of training, that caused him to release the mechanism on his rappelling gun as he jumped. Hardly conscious of the left arm holding the gun, he stretched out his right and grabbed onto the line from Straightlace’s rappelling gun. There was a brief moment that he could never remember after that, and then he was hanging by one arm, his back knocking against the cliff face, the full weight of his captain suspended from his other arm. There was an unbearable pain in his right shoulder. On his left side, the abdominal oblique muscles felt as if they would tear. For a moment he could think of nothing, see nothing; then his vision cleared and with it, his mind.
    “Sir!” he gasped. “Are you alright?”
    “I think so, 1017,” came the reply from the yellow mists below. “What is the maximum weight on your rappelling gun’s winding mechanism?”
    Ordinarily, he had such facts at the tips of his fingers, but under the circumstances Tracker had to think. “Two hundred kilograms, sir,” he remembered at length.
    There was a pause while Straightlace calculated. “Are you wearing your backpack?”
    “No, sir.” He imagined he could hear his tendons ripping.
    “That’s good, but I’ll still have to drop something. Damn! I’m going to rappel up to you. It’s going to be a jerking movement, so hold on.”
    “Ye – yes sir,” gasped Tracker.
    From their position on the opposite side of the gorge, Lingo and Shadow watched with bated breath.
    “What’s he doing? – Rappelling up to Tracker? How is that going to help?”
    “They’ll only be a few kilos overweight for the rappel gun to reel them in. He has to ditch something – my bet is that he’s going to drop his own rappelling gun.”
    “Oh, I get it. – By the Force, I wish we could help them.”
    “We’ve been over this, Shad, it’s too risky.”
    “I know, I know!”
    Now Straightlace reached Tracker and took a firm hold of his leg. Tracker gasped as the pain in his abdominal obliques and right shoulder immediately lessened.
    “Let go of me and get both hands on your gun,” ordered Straightlace. Tracker obeyed, somehow controlling the right shoulder that sent terrible pain stabbing into his arm, neck and collarbone at every move. Straightlace dropped his rappelling gun, then unhooked one of his water bottles and sent it spiralling after the gun into the yellow fog below.
    “We should be light enough. Now I’m going to get onto your back – leave your legs free,” said Straightlace. “Right, I’m ready. Pull us up, 1017.”
    Hanging on for dear life, Tracker activated the rappelling mechanism. Much more slowly than usual, the cord shortened, but at last it pulled them onto the bank. Grabbing onto the rocks, Straightlace hauled himself onto sure ground. Tracker got shakily to his feet, released the rappel from its hold on the rock, and collapsed onto the slimy rocks in a dead faint. Shadow and Lingo erupted into loud cheering.
    Tracker came to, his helmet off and his cheek smarting.
    “Pull yourself together, soldier,” ordered Straightlace sharply. “We’ve got to get out of the way for the others.”
    “Sorry, sir,” he mumbled, closed his eyes and promptly fell asleep.

    He awoke to find himself resting on the rocks somewhere deep in the jungle. His armour and helmet had been taken off. Limbs aching, he rolled onto his side and tried to push himself up, but his right arm buckled under him the moment he put pressure on it. Gasping, he fell back.
    “Take it easy, soldier.”
    He turned his head in the direction of Straightlace’s clipped voice. The captain, again wearing his jungle hat, was presiding over a setup of glowing heat crystals, over which a strong-smelling concoction was bubbling.
    “The others have gone scouting. They’ve taken your helmet with its scanners, hope you don’t mind.”
    “Of – of course not, sir.”
    “I’m brewing you some kolto. Like bacta, but cheaper. Tastes like fish oil. Burns your skin when applied extraneously. But it’ll get you healed up just the same. You didn’t do any serious damage to yourself, miraculously. Come on – stay awake. Falling asleep contrary to orders once is acceptable, but I won’t tolerate it again.”
    “Won’t do it again, sir.” But his eyelids were desperately heavy. As they fell like a curtain across his vision, he glimpsed something like a smile flickering across Straightlace’s face; and just as he returned to sweet unconsciousness, he thought he heard those clipped tones again.
    “It’s an honour to be your captain, Tracker. Even if it’s only for one mission.”

    The kolto was every bit as bad as Straightlace had warned, but it did the job. He awoke again to find his skin searing underneath foul-smelling bandages.
    “Say aah,” instructed Shadow, and sent a huge spoonful of pungent liquid down his throat. “Keep that down, it’s the boss’s magic fish oil.”
    “It had better work,” grunted Tracker. “It’s horrible!”
    “If it’s half as bad as it smells, I have to agree. We’ve been dealing with it all day.”
    “All day? – How long have I been out for?”
    “A few hours. It’s getting dark again.”
    Tracker groaned. “We hardly made any progress today.”
    “The Separatists aren’t going anywhere. – Well, actually, I reckon they are, but there’s nothing we can do until you’re healed up. You were bloody brilliant, you know. If you hadn’t moved that fast, the boss would have been a smear on the rocks somewhere.”
    “Didn’t really decide to do it. It just happened. Any of us would have done it.”
    “Any of us would have been willing to do it, sure. But able to? Now stop being humble and have a ration bar.”
    “Anything’s better than this fish sauce,” Tracker replied.

    “Two more days,” said Straightlace when he and Lingo had returned to the camp. “Then we should reach the main village and get started on our mission. There’s nothing more to be done today, so if you are all tired enough, I suggest we go to sleep. If we start now, those of us on watch will have four hours each, which I think we will need after the day’s excitement. I’ll take first watch again, and of course, Tracker, you’re exempt.”
    Shadow and Lingo exchanged glances – a name instead of a number?
    “There’s some kolto left, 1102, I suggest you give it to him before you turn in,” continued Straightlace.
    “Yessir.”
    In spite of the day’s strenuous activity, Shadow found it difficult to fall asleep. He was not sure if it was that the din of the insects was louder or that Straightlace’s data pad glowed brighter; or perhaps the moons shone clearer through the mist tonight. The rocks weren’t all that comfortable either. After twisting and turning for at least half an hour – he could feel Straightlace’s disapproving stare – he finally gave up the attempt and forced himself to lie still, peering into the jungle at the dancing fireflies. This did not help much either, and he had just gathered enough courage to ask Straightlace if he could take over the rest of the watch when he suddenly found himself in the cave once again. He looked down and saw that the floor, too, was covered in the glowing crystals. Well, this time he was not going to touch them. He didn’t want to leave the cave so soon. He found it strange that although he knew he was dreaming, the knowledge did not wake him the way it usually did. Instead, he walked cautiously through the cave, noticing that more and more crystals lit up around him the further he went. The light was getting almost too bright to see, but he knew he had to keep going. Something very bright shone from around the corner. It would probably blind him to look at it, but he knew it was a dream – it wouldn’t blind him in real life, would it? Anyway, he had to see what it was. Steeling himself, he rounded the corner – and stopped. There was a man in front of the light source, which turned out to be a huge crystal at the end of the cave.
    “Hey, you!” he cried out. The man turned around and – it was him. Or was it?
    “Your turn to keep watch.” Straightlace had shaken him awake. Shadow blinked hard, his eyes adjusting to the gloom of the forest after the crystal’s bright light.
    Yawning, he took up his position to keep watch. He turned the dream over in his mind. Who was the man in the cave? Himself, or another clone? Was it Tech, perhaps? But he knew that it wasn’t. No, something inside him knew very clearly that it was someone alive. Someone he was supposed to discover.
     
    Last edited: Jan 25, 2019
  5. KithuraVess

    KithuraVess Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Nov 19, 2008
    Chapter 5: First Contact

    “How are you feeling, soldier? It’s time to move out.”
    Tracker got up gingerly, stretching his arms experimentally.
    “I think I’m alright, sir. That kolto worked wonders.”
    “That’s why I always keep some with me. It’s a good thing I didn’t have to drop my pack down the ravine. Well, suit up. – Keep the bandages on for the rest of the day. Kolto doesn’t go bad that quickly, though the smell certainly doesn’t improve either.”
    “Yes, sir.” Truth be told, he hardly noticed the smell anymore, he had been surrounded by it for so long. The same could not be said for the others.
    “We’ll have to get rid of this kolto aroma before we get within range of the village,” said Lingo worriedly. “Gerlaks have a pretty keen sense of smell.”
    “Not much point in disguising ourselves if they can recognise us based on our delightful fish-scented cologne,” agreed Shadow, wrinkling his nose. “I’ve got some odour neutraliser with me, but I don’t know if it will be enough for all of us and our equipment.”
    “I always keep some with me,” said Tracker. “We’ll have enough between us.”
    “We’ll deal with that tonight,” said Straightlace decisively. “Today’s mission is to make up for lost time, so let’s get moving!”

    The day passed with far fewer events than the previous two.
    “Between the absence of ravines and the lack of exploding fruit, this is a walk in the exercise grounds,” commented Lingo. “Hey, Shad – are you listening to me?”
    “Sorry, what did you say?” The image of the cave vanished just in time for Shadow to avoid a patch of spitting dark green ooze.
    “Just trying to be amusing, but apparently I can’t keep your interest. You’ve gotten used to too much excitement, apparently. Alright, I can take a hint.”
    “No, no, keep talking. I’m sorry, I was just getting lost in thought. But I shouldn’t do that, I almost stepped in one of those slime volcanoes.”
    “Yeah, that’s not good. So, what were you getting lost in thought about?”
    “Just some weird dream I had.” Surely it wouldn’t have sounded too strange out loud, but he didn’t want to share his dreams about the cave. He knew that they were something he had to figure out for himself.
    “Oh, I have weird dreams all the time.”
    “Yeah, well, you dream in alien languages. That’s pretty strange already.”
    “That’s nothing. I once dreamed in binary.”
    “Now that you’re making up!”
    “Are you planning to keep quiet anytime soon?” barked Tracker from in front of them. “Your voices carry.”
    “Time to get lost in thought again,” grinned Lingo.
    “No, time to concentrate on my surroundings,” countered Shadow. “I’m not giving you the satisfaction of seeing me trip on some root and land face-first in the gunk.”
    “That would be extremely satisfying.”
    “Quiet! That’s an order!” commanded Straightlace. A loud whooping was coming from the jungle ahead.
    “Sir!” whispered Lingo.
    “What is it, 1058?”
    “I recognise the sound, sir. It’s a Gerlak mating call!”
    “Right. Let’s get into cover. 1058, I want you with me. Set weapons to stun.”
    A brief scramble followed. When Lingo looked around, having found cover alongside Straightlace, there was no sign of Shadow and Tracker. They had vanished into the jungle, yet he knew they were close by.
    “Not much chance of our escaping their notice, if their sense of smell is as good as you say,” commented Straightlace in a low voice.
    “No, sir. Not with the kolto.”
    “Damn.” Straightlace was getting out his rifle and attaching an extension to the end. Lingo shot him a concerned look – of course it was impossible to see that under the helmet – but said nothing. Now the whooping calls were getting louder; the next moment, two small lizard-like aliens dropped from the trees above. Their scales glimmered, dark teal with flashes of cyan. The female, running ahead, was clothed in a flowing orange dress which seemed to throw off sparks of gold. The male flared his impressive scaly beard and gave another whoop, in answer to which the female twirled, the dress whirling as she moved, and gave a coy, chattering laugh. She came to land on one of the rocks just a few metres from Straightlace’s position – and stopped. Now her laugh turned into a strange whine, and the male, concerned, landed beside her. His eyes narrowed as he sniffed the air, first moving his head in a circular motion, but soon pinpointing the origin of the strange scent. Two soundless blue bolts erupted from Straightlace’s gun in rapid succession, and the Gerlaks crumpled softly to the ground.
    “1017, report,” ordered Straightlace. “Any more around?”
    “Negative, sir,” came Tracker’s voice from above them. The next moment he dropped down from his hiding spot, landing with a squelch in the slime. “There’s nothing on my scanners.”
    “But your scanners didn’t pick up these two, did they?”
    “They did, sir, but only a few seconds before Lingo – er, 1058 recognised their call. I didn’t have time to say anything.”
    “I thought you had a range of thirty clicks on those scanners.”
    “I do, sir. I mean – I can’t explain why they didn’t pick them up sooner, unless they were underground or something.”
    “Underground, eh? 1058, do the Gerlaks dig tunnels?”
    “No, sir, there’s no evidence for that.”
    “Would they use existing tunnels? – No claustrophobia or anything like that?”
    “There’s nothing to indicate that they wouldn’t enter existing tunnels, sir.”
    Straightlace passed a hand over his helmeted face. “Right. Do a full scan of the surrounding areas. Look for tunnels, of course, but also pipes, any artificial materials. Chances are we’ve stumbled upon some Separatist infrastructure.”
    “Right away, sir!” acknowledged Tracker. Scanners activated, he advanced silently in the direction the Gerlaks had come from, staying hidden among the trees. For two kilometres there was nothing; twenty minutes had passed, and he was starting to think that his scanners were faulty when there was an indication on the terrain model in the lower right corner of his head-up display. He approached the point indicated, then set the sensor to a finer setting and moved his head systematically up and down, left to right, allowing invisible laser pulses to map the environment. The terrain model grew on his display as the mapping processor interpolated between the fine points captured by the scanner. After a few minutes, he switched off the scanner, satisfied that a fairly comprehensive model of the surroundings had been built. He focused on the model, turning it this way and that using his eye movements, until he found what he was looking for: a stone pipe, half-submerged in the slime and overgrown by the jungle. There was a hole in it, which he assumed the Gerlaks must have exited from. Dismissing the model from his display and diverting power back to the lifeform scanners, he cautiously snuck closer, approaching the pipe. There it was, so thickly covered in foliage that it would have been impossible to find by accident. He found the hole, too; it was just large enough for him to get his helmet in. He activated the night vision camera, removed the helmet and dangled it carefully through the hole. The recording showed a cleanly-hewn interior, covered in a thin but vibrant layer of algae. There appeared to be carvings on the inside of the tunnel, too faint to make sense of at the resolution of the camera, but perhaps Lingo would know what they were supposed to be. Having further determined as much as he could about the extent and direction of the pipeline, he returned to the others. They had sent him their new coordinates, as they had moved away from the spot where they had left the stunned Gerlaks. He found them in the act of deodorising their armour and equipment.
    “Get your armour off and remove those bandages,” ordered Straightlace. “We’ll get your stuff deodorised while you make your report.”
    “Sir, they came through a pipe made of stone. It’s completely overgrown; it must have been there for a very long time.”
    “Not the handiwork of the Separatists, then?”
    “No, sir. It looks hand-chiselled. I took a recording of the inside.”
    “Have a look at it, 1058,” said Straightlace. “Where does the pipe lead?”
    “Away from the main village, sir. It seems completely straight, heading west-by-nor’west to east-by-southeast. There was a hole in the side, which the Gerlaks must have used to get out.”
    “1058 informs me that Gerlak mating rituals can take those involved a long distance from their homes. I suppose these ones must have come from quite far away.”
    “I think so, sir. There’s no suitable habitat for them on my scanners.”
    Straightlace nibbled his lower lip. “Then we must dismiss this incident and move on. Start packing, 1102. 1058, any progress on that recording?”
    Lingo shook his head. “I can’t make anything out inside the pipe, sir. It does look ancient.”
    “Could the Gerlak have built it? The Hutts perhaps?”
    “Not the Gerlak, sir. It doesn’t look like anything the Hutts would have made, but I guess it could have been someone else under their orders. Either way, from everything else I found on these scanners, it has to be at least a few hundred years old, maybe even a thousand.”
    “No concern of ours, then. Suit up and move out.”
    “Sir – ” began Shadow.
    “What is it now, 1102?”
    “It – well, it’s the Gerlaks, sir. Are we really going to leave them there?”
    “Of course. Get going.”
    “But sir, if we leave them out there, they’ll die! They won’t recover for another three hours, and the jungle is full of predators! Couldn’t we at least put them back in the tunnel?”
    “RC-1102, are you questioning my orders?”
    Straightlace was right up against Shadow. His eyes glittered dangerously. Shadow held his gaze for only a few seconds before looking away.
    “N- no, sir. I – I just thought we should, er, minimise our impact on the planet while we’re here.”
    “We’ve done that already. There’s nothing more natural than for two isolated young Gerlak to fall prey to this hospitable jungle of theirs. Now for the last time, move out, and keep your tongue behind your teeth if you want to keep it.”
    “Yessir.”

    The march continued in a subdued atmosphere. After another hour or so of walking, Straightlace signalled for Shadow and Lingo to fall back a few paces, and motioned Tracker toward him. A hand signal told Tracker to make sure the radio broadcasting on his helmet was switched off. He knew it was – they had all switched broadcasting off some time ago to avoid possible detection of the signal – but he checked anyway.
    “That stealth trooper, 1102,” began Straightlace. “What can you tell me about him?”
    “He’s a good soldier, sir!” cried Tracker.
    “I’m not so sure of that myself. Does he often have difficulty following orders?”
    “Not at all, sir!”
    “He seems very individualistic.”
    “He’s part of our team, sir! We’ve always worked well together.”
    “I see. And is he always this concerned for civilian life?”
    “All life, sir. – Well not the enemy, of course, sir, but for anyone who’s on our side or neutral.”
    “Strange values for a commando.”
    “He admires the Jedi a lot, sir. I think he’s taken on some of their ideas. He won’t be any trouble, sir, I promise.”
    “The Jedi are going to lose the war for us if they don’t get sense. As for RC-1102, he’s caused trouble already.” Straightlace sighed. “Still, at least his concern for life is genuine. That’s all I wanted to know. Scout ahead, will you.”
    “Yessir.” Tracker moved ahead, toggling between the relevant sensors, and dismissed the conversation from his mind. He eyed the scanners’ battery status worriedly. All this scanning was wreaking havoc on his helmet’s power reserves.

    “Alright, I can’t take it anymore.” Lingo gave Shadow a friendly punch in the shoulder. “Stop sulking, will you?”
    “The boss will want us to keep quiet,” snapped Shadow.
    “The boss can’t hear us, he’s too far ahead. That was noble of you back there.”
    “Can’t think what came over me. How did I think I was going to convince him? Why did I stick my neck out for some blue lizards anyway?”
    “If you hadn’t, I’d have thought command had got mixed up and sent another clone in your place. I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for them myself – they looked so happy until the boss blasted them.” He chuckled. “I wonder how far they came from. Usually they go between twenty and thirty clicks from their home, depending on the terrain, but these guys obviously went further. I guess the pipe made travelling easier.”
    Something stirred in Shadow’s chest at the mention of the pipe.
    “You said it was a thousand years old.”
    “I guessed.” Lingo shrugged. “It’s certainly not much newer – looked pretty old. The records on this planet aren’t great, as I discovered when I did some digging, but all the sources I found seemed to agree that it’s still very primitive. The Gerlak aren’t completely civilised, if that makes you feel any better. Not sapient at the level of humanoids.”
    “Not really. – But I guess that means there’s no way they’re responsible for the pipe.”
    “They’re early Stone Age, except for their weapons, which are adapted from Hutt designs. So no.”
    “Sounds like the Hutts had a pretty big influence.”
    “The Republic made contact with Sidellia only three hundred years ago. By then it had been under Hutt control for centuries. There’s no record that anyone else ever had contact with them. Not that the Hutts did much here, though; they harvested some plants from the jungle to turn into spice and cosmetic ingredients.”
    “I’m surprised they didn’t try to weaponize those exploding fruit.”
    “Yeah! Though I think those fruit, well the environment generally, discouraged them eventually. By the time the Republic got here, the Hutts had more or less left Sidellia to rot. That’s why it was so easy to convince them to let us have it. They never invested anything in it – didn’t even develop any infrastructure, beside a couple of harvesting plants, all in ruins now.”
    “Could they have built the pipe?”
    “Didn’t look like their style. I guess they contracted someone else. The quality of Tracker’s recording wasn’t that great, so I couldn’t tell what the inscriptions were. Weren’t Aurebesh though, that’s for sure.” He shrugged. “The boss is right, though. It’s none of our business.”
    “I suppose not,” replied Shadow, and yet that strange feeling would not leave him.
     
  6. KithuraVess

    KithuraVess Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Nov 19, 2008
    Chapter 6: Disguise and Conquer

    “We should reach the village by midday, in just over seven hours,” said Straightlace. The dark hours had been uneventful. The crystal cave had not put in its appearance in Shadow’s dreams, and for once he had had a good night’s rest. The effects of this were plain: he felt focused, positive, and was even able to think of the previous day’s disciplinary incident without much more than a slight pang. Straightlace acted as though nothing had happened, which helped.
    “1102, what’s the status of those disguises?”
    “The Separatists turn a blind eye to spice runners as long as they get a cut of their profits, so I got two injections, each will make you look like one of two minor criminals. Both are currently incarcerated in a Republic prison far away from here. They operated closer to the core, neither of them was ever this far out, so nobody should recognise them here. They wear off after three days each – that’s twenty-four hours per day. I’ve got various items in my pack that I can combine into three distinct outfits.”
    “Any vocoders?”
    “I had to choose between a vocoder and one of the injections, sir, so I decided to put my faith into Ling– 1058’s acting skills instead.”
    “You won’t be using either of the disguises yourself, then.”
    “No, sir. I’ll stay out of sight.”
    Straightlace nodded. “Right. We’ll stay together until Tracker’s scanners can give us a comprehensive view of the village with its Separatist base and the surroundings. Then we’ll split up. I’ll go ahead and get settled in the jungle close to the base. I’m planning to give them three or four days to find me – don’t want to make it too easy for them, or they could get suspicious. Tracker, I want you to keep abreast of my status, but do some scouting as well. Make sure you’re familiar with the area around the village, and find a way of transmitting any useful information about the environment to the others. Anything that can help them find Soren. 1058 and 1102, you keep tabs on each other. Once you reach the village, 1058 will start asking questions, without drawing attention to himself, while 1102 will do what discreet surveillance he can. See if you can find out anything more about the toxin and what it might be used for. Clear?”
    “Yessir!”
    “Then let’s move!”

    “Nice place.”
    “You’ll have to turn the sarcasm up a notch, or I might think you were serious.” Shadow adjusted the zooming function on his helmet. They had reached the village half an hour before. Tracker had sent the terrain model captured by his scanners to each of their helmets, and they had studied it thoroughly before making their approach. The Separatist base was to the north of the village, a standard, pre-fabricated droid army design, built on solid platforms to keep it from sinking into the marsh, but surrounded by only a crude wooden palisade. A variety of ships, Separatist as well as some miscellaneous others, were parked on a large platform just outside the palisade. Straightlace had gone into hiding not far from the base; Tracker too had mysteriously vanished, and Shadow and Lingo had taken up a position to the south of the village.
    This was set in the marshy bog formed by a river as it mouthed into a steaming yellow lake. The Gerlaks lived mainly in live trees growing from the sludge, all centred around what appeared to be the main dwelling. This was a huge tree with gleaming blue bark, at least eight metres in diameter at the base, which twisted and tapered into a hundred branches, echoing with ceaseless Gerlak chatter.
    In contrast to this albeit strange natural beauty stood the humanoid-friendly buildings: hardly more than wooden shacks held above the marsh by rickety stilts, but crowded centres of activity all the same. The signs in fading Aurebesh proclaimed them to be a cantina, a few mechanics and an assortment of merchants of varying repute. The dregs of the galaxy seemed to have gathered here; as they watched, the cantina’s door was flung open, and a Rodian flew out to land unceremoniously in the marsh below. He got up with some difficulty and slalomed off, cursing in Huttese. A group of Gerlak, watching from a nearby tree, erupted in high-pitched giggling.
    “I hope you’ve got some solid boots among those disguises of yours,” commented Lingo. “I don’t much fancy getting my socks wet in that muck.”
    “Who said anything about socks? – Just a joke, brother,” Shadow added hurriedly. “Got a strategy yet?”
    “I’ll start with the cantina. Assess the situation and the general feeling. Ask a few questions, not too much. I’ll have to see how it goes from there. Some Gerlak are going into the cantina now, so I should be able to make local contact there.”
    “So they are. How’re they paying for it? I didn’t think they were the type to use currency.”
    “They don’t, not among themselves. Must be working for the Seppies. I’ll go in tonight. Hopefully they’ll be drunk enough to give me some sweet intel without getting suspicious.”
    “Right. I’ll scout out the village. See what I can pick up from wagging tongues – always assuming they speak Basic. I’ll record it for you if it’s in some other lingo but seems important.”
    “Okay. Let’s get a camp sorted out. Any ideas?”
    “There’s a sturdy-looking tree a couple of clicks to the south from here. Looks uninhabited. Do you see it on the model?”
    “Yep. Good choice. It’s the wrong species for the Gerlak to live in.”
    Accordingly, they headed to the tree and set up a rough camp.
    “Glad I’m going to be sleeping in the village,” commented Lingo, scooping dripping swamp slime into one of the water purifiers. “How you manage to stay in the branches while asleep is beyond me.”
    “Practice. Besides, I’d rather run the risk of landing on my head in the swamp than be a snack for all the vermin you’ll find in whatever kind of bed’s available in the village. This climate’s ideal for breeding all kinds of diseases.”
    “Don’t remind me. So how long do those disguise injections need to work?”
    “A few minutes. Which one do you want? There’s Orlo Scabb, a slimy little spice dealer from Hosnian Prime, or Rak Suuthar, a onetime enforcer for the Malandro syndicate on Tangenine, now a gun for hire. Also a spice dealer, of course. Didn’t want your disturbingly extensive knowledge of spice types to go to waste.”
    “Suuthar sounds like the easier one to impersonate, but I’ve got a feeling Scabb will draw less attention. – When you said ‘little’, exactly what did you mean?”
    “One point five eight, sixty-five kilos.”
    Shadow didn’t need to be able to see Lingo’s face to know that he was grimacing.
    “Fine.” He started to remove his armour. “Guess I’d better get ready.”
    “It’s going to hurt, by the way,” warned Shadow, ripping the seal off the injection. “Whatever you do, keep your mouth shut.”
    “Can’t wait.”
    “Ready? Here goes.” In one swift movement he brought the injection up to the exposed part of Lingo’s neck, placed it against the skin and injected the cloudy purplish liquid that rapidly spread through the veins. Lingo fell back, sprawled across the roots of the tree, and began to quiver and shake as the injection took effect. With great effort he kept his jaws clamped, grinding the teeth that were shrinking and turning dark; his hair grew, lightening, while his skin paled and his limbs shortened and thinned. It was over in a few minutes, and a rat-like face peered up at Shadow from a now oversized bodysuit.
    “How do I look?”
    “Hideous. But you sound like a bog-standard clone.”
    Bog-standard is right. Cut me some slack. I’ll work on the voice.” He struggled into an upright position. “By the Mand’alor, this guy is weak.” He brushed a curtain of oily, mouse-coloured hair from his narrow face. “Gross!”
    “I’m glad you’ve come to accept your new body with such good grace,” chuckled Shadow. “Here – I’ve loaded a voice-recording of Scabb into your helmet. Like I said to the boss, nobody way out here will have a clue who he is, so you needn’t impersonate him necessarily.”
    “It’ll be easier than coming up with a new voice.” He placed the helmet over his head. “Why is Scabb’s head so small? Ugh. Hmm – that sounds like a Corellian accent. You said Hosnian Prime.”
    “That’s where he operated until the Republic gave him a nice long vacation. Who knows where he picked up his accent.”
    “W-well, s-son, ah couldn’t say mahself,” squeaked a voice from under the helmet. Lingo removed it and grinned, showing mottled, broken teeth. “Let bahgawns be bahgawns, ah always say.”
    “Bah- what? Bargains?”
    “Bygones. Tha’ss how yew s-say it in mah accent.”
    “Okay, Lingo, I think you may be having a little too much fun.”
    “But jess’ a m-minute ago you w-were complaining ah wasn’t en-thew-zee-astic enough!”
    Shadow shuddered. “Just go infiltrate the village already, will you?”
    Lingo gave a snivelling laugh. “Ah’ll get intew that village, boah, jess’ yew wait an’ s-see.”

    Tracker was investigating some broken foliage, carefully rubbing a leaf between his fingers and trying to decide if it had been trampled by a Gerlak or a droid, when his helmet indicated an incoming transmission. Having made sure that his location was untraceable, he activated the receiver.
    “Track, we’ve found a campsite.” Shadow’s voice proceeded to read off the coordinates. “Swing by, will you? Lingo’s going in soon.”
    Tracker deactivated the receiver, carefully plucked the leaf from its plant and stored it in his pack before moving out. The location Shadow had sent him wasn’t far, and it took him only about fifteen minutes to reach it: a green-hued tree with gnarled roots curling and twisting in and out of the ooze. There was no sign of life, but the water purifier and the backpacks, the latter hung safely above the slime, told him that it was the right place.
    “Wey-ell, wey-ell, what have we hey-re?” A hunched figure emerged from the undergrowth. “R-republic troops, s-so far from home? Ah – hey! Udesii, haar’chak[1]! It’s me, Lingo! Don’t shoot!”
    Tracker stared, speechless, but lowered his rifle. It was the Mando’a phrases that had stopped him, rather than Lingo’s name.
    “Well, that almost ended badly,” said Shadow, materialising from the jungle. “I warned Lingo it wasn’t a good idea to surprise you.”
    “Kaysh mirsh solus[2],” growled Tracker. “Lucky it was set to stun.”
    “Sorry ‘bout that.” Lingo rubbed the back of his skinny neck. “Ah wanted ter be shawr ah was convincin’.”
    “Well, you are,” admitted Tracker, his heartrate slowing back to normal. “What are you supposed to be?”
    “A spice, um, trader. Got the goods right here.” He slapped the pouch that hung limply from his shoulders. “Name’s Orlo Scabb. Ah’ll be movin’ out in a c-couple minutes. Jess’ wanned to see if mah disgahse held up. An’ of course ah wanned yew to know what ah looked lahk.”
    “Don’t overdo it on the accent,” commented Shadow.
    “Scabb hisself overdoes it,” countered Lingo. “Seems ter be a bit of a showman. A-ny-way. Yew two gonna be alright?”
    “Sure. Good luck, Lingo.”
    “Luck? Orlo Scabb don’t need no luck.”



    [1] Mando’a for “Calm down, damn it!”

    [2] Mando’a “He’s an idiot”; literally: “His brain cells are lonely.”
     
  7. KithuraVess

    KithuraVess Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Nov 19, 2008
    Chapter 7: Intel is the Spice of Life

    The Gerlak were chattering in the trees, getting ready for the night. Most of the buildings had gone dark, but the noise from the cantina was only getting louder. Most of the occupants were too busy slurping acidic liquids from badly-rinsed mugs or growling at each other over dog-eared cards to notice one of the doors swing open, admitting a small, hunch-backed individual. Nor did they notice him slink past them to the bar. It took a few coughs to attract the attention of the barman, an overweight Besalisk, who turned laboriously, dumping two of his blubbery arms on the counter.
    “Whadd’l it be, newcomer?” he asked, all the curiosity of a dead fish in his eyes.
    “Yew got any firaxa shark ale?”
    “Got a knock-off fish sauce that’ll do the same damage to your brains,” replied the barman helpfully.
    “Sure.”
    “Hah! You like that sssstuff?”
    Lingo forced himself to turn slowly. Being in this small body was making him jumpy. “It gets the job done,” he said simply. “Haven’t s-seen a lot of Trandos in these here parts.”
    “I go wherever there’s good businesss,” replied the Trandoshan. Lingo was used to looking up at Trandoshans, but finding that this one was nearly half a metre taller than himself was nonetheless disconcerting. He was glad that Scabb’s voice was supposed to squeak.
    “B-business, eh? What’s yer line?”
    “I don’t like talking to strangersss,” hissed the Trandoshan.
    “Where are mah manners,” snivelled Lingo nervously. “Name’s Orlo Scabb. Dry goods dealer.”
    “Ssspiccce.” The Trandoshan’s red eyes gleamed greedily. “What are you sselling?”
    “Yew got a name?”
    “Krassk. I hunt.”
    “D-didn’t think there’d be much work for a merc way out here.”
    “I keep the localss in line,” the Trandoshan explained. “They didn’t resspect Ssseparatist property at firssst. The gatorsss, too.”
    “G-gators?” The worry in his voice was genuine. “Haven’t seen any mahself.”
    “You will. They feassst on the localss. But then, the locals alsso feassst on them.”
    “S-sounds like a good deal,” sniggered Orlo Scabb. He took a sip of the cheap shark ale and successfully prevented himself from gagging. “Say, where d-does a fellow sleep around here?”
    “Thosse of us who can, ssleep in our shipsss. The resst sstay in the vermin-infessted room above the cantina. You’ve got a ship?”
    “Naw, got ditched here. Guess ah’ll take mah chances with the vermin.”
    “Guesss you will. Now. The ssspicce.”
    “R-right.” That sounded too much like something someone from Concord Dawn or Coruscant would say. He made a mental note to replace ‘right’ with ‘sure’ in the future. “W-we’d better step outsahd.”
    “Let’sss not wasste any more time,” agreed the Trandoshan.
    The jungle air seemed cool and fresh after the alcoholic atmosphere inside the cantina. The Gerlak appeared to have mostly gone to sleep, with the exception of a few who had clearly been influenced by the culture of the strangers, and sat around the cantina steps, smoking, exhaling clouds of variously coloured noxious fumes. Krassk led Orlo Scabb into the shadows of the building. The spice trader glanced around furtively.
    “There’sss no need to worry. It’ss jusst a formality. No-one caress about selling sspice around here.”
    That was not what had been bothering him. His furtive movements had been due to worry relating to his reflexes and training, and if they would still serve him in this body if he had to fight or run. He wished he had asked Shadow about that.
    “S-so. What will be your pleasure?”
    “Iridonian fire-ssaltsss. But no-one carriess those, not even thisss far away from the law,” sighed Krassk. Lingo had never heard a Trandoshan sound wistful before.
    “Ah’ve got some flame-tongue powder from Anaxes. It ain’t as strong, but…”
    The Trandoshan snatched at his spice-pouch. Orlo Scabb leapt backwards out of reach. “Let me ssample it!”
    “Hey, now, there’s no need fer that,” replied Scabb. “Yew can show me the colour of yer coins, first.”
    “Fine,” snarled the Trandoshan. “It had better not be too expenssive.”
    “They don’t make ‘em cheap.” Scabb named the price, tensing his body for another leap out of the way. But the Trandoshan seemed satisfied.
    “It’sss not worth the trouble,” he hissed, digging the necessary money from his pack. He held it just out of Scabb’s reach. In response, Scabb took a spice packet from his pouch, holding onto it tightly, eyeing the Trandoshan warily. But Krassk could now only think of the spice, and willingly handed over the money, snatching the spice packet from Scabb’s grip the moment the coins had changed hands. He ripped open the packet and immediately sniffed nearly half of it. Lingo waited for the explosive coughs, but none came: the Trandoshan was obviously an experienced spice-user. His eyes curled upwards as the influence of the spice took hold, and his tongue darted out of his wide mouth, quivering in the night air; yet he seemed aware of his surroundings, in spite of the dosage.
    “Yessss. It iss not as sstrong as the fire-ssaltsss, but it iss good. Let’sss go back inside. I will get you more of your fisssh drink.”
    Sudden friendliness was a known side-effect of flame-tongue powder; Lingo followed Krassk back into the cantina, where they took a table in a dimly-lit corner, joining a group of mercenaries or smugglers who lay sprawled about in various stages of intoxication.
    “Hey, Krassk,” mumbled a Nautolan, taking a smoking cone out of his mouth. An acrid smell like burning rope assaulted Lingo’s nostrils. “Who’s the new guy?”
    “Hisss name’ss Orlo Sscabb. Packsss ssome pretty good sspice.”
    “Nah, I’m good,” replied the Nautolan, taking another puff of the cone.
    “He looks like an oily rag,” intoned the more sober Ithorian to his friend, who seemed too drunk to appreciate the comment.
    Lingo couldn’t resist the temptation. “It does not matter what I look like, only what I sell,” he replied in Ithorese. The long-necked aliens stared at him in surprise.
    “I spoke in haste,” apologised the one who had spoken. “I may be interested in your wares tomorrow.”
    “We will see.”
    “Hey, shpeak shomething we can all unnerstann,” slurred the last occupant of the table, a tattooed Berchestian, slamming his glass down on the table. “Otherwishe I might think you’re plannin’ to kill me or shomethin’, ha, ha. Nice to meet another human. I mean I’m near-human, but like, you know what I mean. Haven’t sheen one of thoshe in weeksh an’ weeksh.”
    “Th-that so?” Lingo did not let his interest show.
    “Yeah! – Wait, no. There wash that other guy…” he snapped his fingers clumsily, trying to remember. “You remember him, Kilau. Tall, shkinny, blond… hey, that shoundsh like my ideal woman… dishappeared, didn’t he?”
    “Walked into the jungle and never came back,” assented the Nautolan. “Pity. He was a good pazaak-player.”
    “Pazhaak! Yeah! Hey, anyone got the cardsh?”
    “You don’t have anything left to gamble,” smiled the Nautolan.
    “No, I guesh not.”
    “You mean the other human jess’ – w-walked out of the village?” The description matched Evers Soren exactly.
    “He alwaysh wash a little shtrange,” reflected the Berchestian. “I even shaw him shpeak to that shkull-head once.” He shuddered. “Givesh me the creepsh.”
    “No-one likesss Phindianss,” commented Krassk. “They’re all cowardss.”
    Lingo could have screamed with impatience, but dared not nudge the conversation again. He wasn’t ready to display a too obvious interest in Evers Soren.
    “I’ll bet thish shludge-hole wash the only place the Sheparatishtsh would shend Shkullface,” analysed the Berchestian.
    “Watch it, you’re ssspitting on me,” snarled Krassk.
    “Shorry…”
    “Well, ah’ve had a long day,” said Lingo. There was clearly no further useful information to be gleaned from this conversation, and Orlo Scabb’s body was not handling two mugs of shark ale very well. His head was buzzing and it was becoming increasingly difficult to form coherent thoughts.
    “Gonna turn in if y’all don’t mind.”
    Receiving no reaction besides a couple of nods, he rose and shuffled over to the bar, where a quick exchange with the Besalisk behind the counter was sufficient to secure a room for the next two nights. He dragged his feet up the creaking wooden stairs and found himself in a subdivided loft that could definitely have used an airing-out. Besides the smell, there was a distinct lack of oxygen. Still, even that had its benefits: oxygen deprivation and shark ale combined made for a potent sleeping draught. Orlo Scabb locked the door of one of the makeshift rooms behind him and fell onto the grimy bed, suddenly no longer concerned about hygiene – or anything, really. He had time for one last thought before sleep overtook him. Pazaak. Yes. He would play with the talkative Berchestian tomorrow… low stakes… and see what else he could tell him about the fate of Evers Soren.

    The only sound that didn’t fit into the dissonance of the jungle at night was Shadow’s whistling snore. He seemed supremely comfortable, slouched in the crook of a branch one and a half storeys above the ground, limbs dangling freely. Tracker didn’t know anyone – besides himself – who would have been able to fall asleep like that. They had carried out a thorough search and had found nothing worse than gnats living in the tree. Not that the gnats weren’t bad, but there was nothing they could do about them, besides feel deeply grateful towards the swamp-bats that swooped and flitted among the branches. Tracker noticed that the bats didn’t seem very interested in the fireflies, and wondered idly what kept their population under control. Not that it bothered him too much. He didn’t make a habit of wasting time to appreciate beauty, but he liked watching the gentle green glow grow and fade as groups of fireflies gathered and dispersed. Now they danced above the water, reflecting in the ripples stirred up slightly by the breeze as cooling air descended to the river; now they scattered, a small galaxy of green, and swirled into the trees. Tracker frowned. A different light was shining among the trees now. A strange, blue glow that floated towards him, then stopped, about ten metres away, and hovered silently. Something stirred inside him. He was already halfway towards the light before he even realised that he had gotten up.
    “What am I doing?” he asked himself out loud. Shaking his head to clear it, he returned to his position, still watching the light. It moved away slightly, then back, then away again – was it beckoning? He desperately wanted to follow it. He glanced up at Shadow’s sleeping form. Surely nothing would happen if he were to go just a few steps away… but a life of discipline kept him from moving, and at length the light floated back into the forest. The spell was broken, but a strange disappointment had settled in his chest.
     
  8. KithuraVess

    KithuraVess Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Nov 19, 2008
    Chapter 8: A Bit Stroppy

    It was over a bland breakfast of ration bars that Shadow remembered his dream. This time, there had been no crystals; instead, he had found himself inside a carved stone passage. The algae-covered walls were ancient, and it must have been underground, for roots had stuck out from between the stones, moss hanging from them in long beards. Faint blue light had come from an undefined source. He had not done anything in the dream besides look about him, and it had ended after only a few seconds.
    “Track, would you say I… imagine things?”
    Tracker dropped the moisture vaporator, and it bounced off a tree root. He caught it just before it would have landed in the slime.
    “Nice catch.”
    “What did you mean?” Tracker rounded on him. “Imagine things? Do you mean seeing things?”
    “Um… no. I mean, would you say I had a vivid imagination?”
    “Oh. Sure, I guess you do. Why?”
    Shadow shrugged elaborately. “No particular reason.”
    “Shad, I can tell when you’re lying to me.”
    “I’m not lying, I’m just… it’s nothing. Just been dreaming a lot lately, is all. – You seem very interested.”
    It was Tracker’s turn to appear nonchalant. “You looked like something was, um, bothering you. Just wanted to help.”
    “If you say so.”
    Shadow ended one of the most awkward silences of his life by crumpling up a ration bar wrapper. “Well, I’m packing up. Going to see what’s happened to Lingo. You?”
    “Right, um. I’m heading north today. Got to check on the boss. I want to have a look at the Seppie base, too, see what I can find out about their patrols.”
    “Good idea, I’ve been getting worried about that. Haven’t seen any clankers since we got here.”
    “That doesn’t surprise me. Just look at the jungle. Would you send clankers into that?”
    “Of course, but only because I’d want them destroyed.” Shadow grinned. “Good point. I – hang on, what’s that?”
    Tracker followed his stare. Something was causing ripples in the yellow river, and they caught a glimpse of green scales.
    “Gerlaks don’t swim, do they?” Shadow had moved further up the bank and was reaching for his rifle.
    “Dunno.” Tracker’s pistol was already out, trained on the epicentre of the ripples, which was moving rapidly towards them. “But we’ll find out soo–” Then everything was chaos. There was a flash of scales, a roar, there was water everywhere, and their equipment went flying. Tracker had jumped aside just in time, and fired into what looked like a dark green tornado. It snarled and flung itself at him; Shadow emptied his rifle into it, and it let out an ear-splitting scream.
    “Damn – you – bloody – thing – die! Die!” Tracker shouted, stabbing it viciously with his vibroblade. Green liquid squirted over him. The beast stopped its struggle and fell on top of him with its full weight.
    “Gerrit off!”
    Shadow jumped down from the low branch he had somehow ended up on, and rolled the beast off of Tracker.
    “What in the mines of Sleheyron is that? I’ve never seen anything so hideous! Are you alright?”
    “Damn nearly turned me into its breakfast. Looks like some kind of giant crocodile.” Tracker had removed his gloves and was wiping the thick gob from his face, not that that completely removed the green colouring from his cheeks.
    “Lingo never warned us about this! Just think – this monster was in the river all this time. If it had felt hungry during the night it could have had us both for supper!”
    “Lucky for us it wasn’t. Well, I don’t think – hold on – ” Tracker hurriedly leaned over the water.
    “That is disgusting, Track. Haven’t you had enough of gob and slime for one morning?”
    Tracker gave a racking cough. “Now I have. Hand me some water, will you?”
    “Here. – Bloody croc knocked over my water extractor, so we don’t have as much as I’d have liked. Good thing you’d already emptied your vaporator.”
    “We’d better check on all our equipment, make sure we’ve got everything. And then find another campsite.”
    “You don’t say.”
    “It’s not just the croc. Blaster bolts aren’t exactly silent. We should move fast.”
    “Right.”
    In under two minutes they had cleared the site, cramming everything into their packs, slime and all. After a last shuddering look at the hideous beast, its curved yellow teeth, snake-like eyes and spiked tongue, they unceremoniously dumped it back into the river. Tracker erased all obvious traces of their ever having been there; then, heaving their packs onto their shoulders, they set off into the jungle once again.

    Lingo awoke with a throbbing headache and the feeling that something was very wrong. He grabbed instinctively at the spice pouch – he had slept literally on top of it – but, to his mild surprise, everything was still there. Sitting up, his bony knees came into view, and the source for his uneasiness revealed itself: he was, of course, Orlo Scabb. Stretching – Orlo Scabb was surprisingly flexible, or was that his own muscle tension? – he took a quick look at the surroundings he had so blindly stumbled into the night before. The room was extremely bare, with odd stains on the walls, some of which were definitely blood, and an entymologist’s delight of curious bugs skittered across the plank floor. His toes were itching terribly; upon inspection, he discovered that they had made out a substantial part of some creature’s repast. Hoping the marks wouldn’t still be there when the injection wore off, he pulled on the scratchy socks Shadow had provided for him, which did nothing to relieve his discomfort, then the boots, after having shaken a few sleepy-looking beetles from each of them. Slinging the spice pouch over one shoulder and pulling his hat over Orlo Scabb’s greasy hair, he slouched downstairs to the bar.
    “Hangover?” It was the Berchestian, sprawled over the counter, drink in hand. The Besalisk was unconcernedly polishing the counter around him.
    “L-looks like you’re getting s-started on cultivatin’ one yerself,” replied Orlo Scabb, sitting down heavily on a barstool, or as heavily as his insignificant frame allowed him to.
    “Hair of the kath-hound, man. It’s the only thing that helps.” Somehow the Berchestian did seem more sober, if only because of his gloomy tone. “You’re the spicer, right?”
    “D-don’t know where yew got that idea, son. Ah’m jess a dry-goods merchant.”
    The Besalisk politely moved off, lumbering away to dump some glasses in the sink.
    “Guess I couldn’t afford anything even if I wanted it,” moped the Berchestian. “Blew everything on sabacc. Pazaak’s more my game.”
    Lingo’s heart was thumping in his chest. He did his best to look unconcerned. “Ah like a good game of Pazaak mahself.”
    “You do? Well, it just so happens that I’ve got a deck with me…”
    Scabb shrugged. “Not like ah have anythin’ better to do.”
    “How about we get a table?”
    “Sure.” Scabb rose, landing on the ground with a slight hop – his feet hadn’t reached the ground while he had been sitting – and followed the Berchestian to a corner table. The bar was empty except for a few Gerlaks gathering up broken glass, half-smoked cones and other debris from the floor, which they eagerly carried to the counter in exchange for nearly worthless coins.
    “Where’d everyone go?” Scabb asked idly.
    The Berchestian shrugged. “Couple of ‘em go hunting in the jungle, go after gators mostly. Separatists have a bounty on ‘em. The rest hang around the village. Trading, fixing their ships, whatever they need to get done before moving on. No-one stays here for long.”
    “S-seems like you’ve been here a while.”
    The Berchestian nodded. “Too broke to catch a ride out. Cut the deck.”
    Scabb complied. “By the way,” he said, handing back the cards, “I didn’t catch yer name.”
    “Voll Quarris. I’m from Berchest,” came the reply. “You?”
    Orlo Scabb’s fissured lips parted in a grin. “Liquor hit yew pretty hard lass’ night, didn’t it, son? Ah’ll tell yew one more time. Name’s Orlo Scabb.”
    “Where you from?”
    “Hosnian Prime. Got a little hot there, so I moved out.”
    “Way out,” agreed Quarris, handing him a side deck. Each player drew four cards from his respective side deck, then they drew a card each from the main deck to determine the order of play.
    “Guess yew start,” said Orlo Scabb, slapping the two he had drawn onto the table.
    “If your luck’s going to go that way, I might have a chance at getting off this planet,” grinned Quarris, who had drawn an eight. He placed the top card from the main deck on the table, facing up: a plus six.
    “Good news for me,” he commented, adding a plus nine from his own hand. “Your play.”
    Orlo Scabb had worse luck: a plus ten drawn from the deck, with nothing but high positive numbers in his hand. At length he chose to put down a plus eight.
    “Ah’ll stand.”
    “You do that while I win.” Quarris grinned. He placed a plus five on the table, reaching the required total of twenty. “Good thing for you there’s no price on the first round.”
    Scabb narrowed his eyes. “Yeah. Let’s see how well yew do when there’s money involved.”
    “Low stakes, remember. At least to start off with.” Quarris named a price equivalent to a mug of firaxa ale, and Scabb assented. Quarris dealt again. This time, he drew a five from the deck, which he followed up with a positive two, while Scabb drew an eight, following up with a positive eight. Quarris added a positive three to his row of cards; Scabb played a positive three.
    “I never fly that close to the sun. Too dangerous.” Quarris played a positive ten, winning again. Scabb sighed.
    “Yew got lucky, son,” he said, throwing down his remaining cards, among them a positive one, which would have won him the game.
    “Yeah. Maybe you’re my lucky charm.”
    “G-guess ah owe yew a drink.”
    “I’ll get it later. Let’s play.”
    “Sure.” Another round passed; this time, neither player reached twenty, but Scabb, standing at eighteen, beat Quarris’s score of sixteen.
    “S-so, do we cancel the debt, or do we buy each other drinks?” Scabb grinned.
    “Cancel. It’s too early to start drinking – even for me!”
    Scabb sniggered his agreement and they started the next game.
    “S-say,” began Scabb after a couple of turns. “Ah heard someone talkin’ ‘bout a Phindian yesterday. He the Separatist?”
    “Yeah.” Quarris shuddered. “Tenallo Destrel. He comes into the village maybe once a week or two. Parades his droids, mercs and Gerlaks around, makes a couple of arrests, too.”
    “A-arrests?” It was natural for Orlo Scabb to be concerned about that; Lingo did not even try to hide his worry.
    “Only Gerlaks. It looks like he picks ‘em at random, just takes ‘em away. Never seen any of ‘em come back. One time there was a kind of revolt, I guess. Couple of Gerlaks broke some droids. You shoulda seen him then.”
    “Took it personal?”
    “Yeah. Had a couple Gerlaks executed right in the village, dumped their bodies in the jungle. He wouldn’t dare do anything against anyone from outside, but still – wouldn’t like to get on his wrong side.”
    “S-sounds like a mighty friendly sort of feller. Ah guess he keeps ter hisself.”
    “Most of us avoid him as much as we can. Not that we’re scared of him on his own, like, Krassk calls him a coward. But he’s still got an army.”
    “Ah heard there was a feller spoke to him a couple days ago.” Scabb gathered up the cards and began to shuffle them.
    “Mhm. Name was Evers Soren. Human, from some big Outer Rim planet, Nar Shaddaa I think. They seemed sorta friendly, even had a drink in here once. Looked kinda like Soren was trying to sell him something.”
    It took all of Lingo’s willpower not to prod too much. He took a sip of his drink – a mild, gooey grain-based mixture that doubled as a meal – dealt the cards, and allowed the play of the next round to resume before speaking again.
    “Th-this Soren still around?”
    Quarris shook his head. “He vanished about, what, two weeks ago now almost.”
    “Get on the Phindian’s wrong side?”
    “Didn’t look like it. He just walked out of the village one day and nobody ever saw him again. Didn’t say where he was going – not that anyone would have cared, if he’d come back. Most people guess the gators got him.”
    “Yew don’t seem ter think so,” observed Scabb. “Ah’ll stand – nineteen’s close enough.”
    “Can’t beat that. – It just feels like a dumb way to go, is all. Who’d be dumb enough to get grabbed by a gator after living here for more’n a month?”
    Lingo asked a question that had been bothering him for a while. “Th-these, uh, gators. Ah haven’t seen any of ‘em.”
    “Nah, they don’t come close to the village. The Gerlaks hunt ‘em, the mercs too. Ugly though. Huge. I heard it takes a lot to kill ‘em, if you don’t know what you’re doing. – Heard the Gerlaks have some sort of trick.”
    This did nothing to allay Lingo’s fears, but he tried to look as if he felt better. “Ah’ll jess’ stay outter their way. Sound like too much trouble ter me.”
    “Yeah. ‘S why I never leave the village if I can help it. Hey, I’m getting bored. Wanna raise the stakes a little, make it more exciting?”
    “Sure.” They negotiated a new bet, and play resumed.
     
  9. KithuraVess

    KithuraVess Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Nov 19, 2008
    Chapter 9: Discovery

    “Krassk.” The Phindian looked worried, his hideous grin flickering uncertainly at the corners. “Have you made any progress?”
    Tracker settled himself more securely in the tree and focused his helmet’s audio receptors. The static subsided, and he could hear the Trandoshan’s reply clearly.
    “If you’re going to be ssso impatient, maybe I sshould adjust my pricce.”
    The Phindian was a good deal shorter than the Trandoshan. Jutting out his chin, he glared up into Krassk’s eyes. “It’s been twelve rotations. I want to find Evers Soren. You’re just increasing your fee by dawdling, aren’t you? Well, I won’t stand for it. If you don’t have something to report within the next rotation, I’ll cancel your assignment.”
    The Trandoshan hissed angrily. “You can’t do that!”
    “You will find that I can. You can’t cheat Tenallo Destrel.”
    Their staring contest lasted nearly a minute before the Trandoshan finally yielded.
    “Fine.” He spat on the ground. “I’ll go and look for your human. But I warn you, Phindian, no-one messses with me and doessn’t regret it.”
    “I’ll take my chances, Trandoshan. I’ve got an army.”
    “Droids. Pretty usseless army in a jungle,” commented Krassk scornfully, shouldering his rifle and striding out of the encampment. Tracker reduced the power to the audio receptors and dropped silently onto the jungle floor. So Soren was alive – and if the Trandoshan was really such a good hunter, he would lead Tracker right to him.

    A group of Gerlak was chattering in the branches, harvesting fruit from heavily-laden trees. Shadow couldn’t understand a word they were saying, but it was obvious they were arguing furiously; since they were all throwing the fruit into the same collection of baskets, it didn’t look as if their food was the topic of conversation. Suddenly, one of them let out a high-pitched whistle. There was a mad rush of activity as each Gerlak dropped what it was doing and raced towards the fruit baskets, forming a semi-circle that faced away from Shadow’s position. A hush fell over the gathering as two male Gerlaks emerged from the trees, dragging something behind them. They dropped it in the middle of the semi-circle and parted aside to reveal what it was: the head of a battle droid.
    Flaring out their beards, they glared defiantly, triumphantly, at their kin. The larger of the two stepped forward and began to speak, clicking and hissing passionately. The other interjected with what appeared to be assenting whistles. It seemed to be a rousing speech: several of the younger Gerlak began to whistle along, hopping up and down with increasing agitation. When the speech was over, they let out a resounding whoop and leapt into the air. Theirs was by no means a popular opinion. The rest of the Gerlak, who formed the majority, had shrunk back from the droid’s head; as the speech progressed, they had backed further away, and now they glanced at each other, uncertainty and fear apparent in their movements. At length, one of them, who seemed to be considerably older than the others, stepped forward to confront the two warriors. Hissing and screeching, it was clear that he was angry. The enthusiasm faded from the young Gerlaks; the beards of the young males deflated, and they shuffled backwards, their heads down. There was no mistaking the scorn in the larger warrior’s screech. He pivoted on the spot, turning his back on his kin, and leapt away, followed by the smaller warrior, to vanish into the jungle.
    The Gerlaks seemed stunned by the altercation. They shuffled their feet, whining and clicking indecisively, until the old Gerlak gave a furious bark. This roused them into action. They hopped into the branches once again to continue their harvest, but the joy had gone from their work. Shadow noiselessly circumvented them and continued on his way.

    Tracker had been following Krassk for some hours, and it was not getting any easier. Initially, the Trandoshan had shown little regard for stealth or subtlety, slashing vines out of his way with a curved vibroblade; but then he had apparently made some discovery, extending his tongue and letting it quiver in the air, sampling the scents and flavours of the jungle around him. He had detected something, and proceeded with sudden caution, stopping regularly to scent and listen. Tracker had fallen back considerably, relying on his scanners to keep track of the Trandoshan while he concentrated his own senses on staying hidden. The oppressive heat of the jungle was starting to get to him in spite of the armour’s temperature regulation. Even the gnats seemed to fly more heavily. He activated the barometer and watched it for a few seconds: it was dropping rapidly. Turning his attention back to his quarry, he saw that he had stopped yet again, and was now sniffing the air with a concerned look. There was a flash of bright orange light; Tracker was still trying to decide what it was when a deafening thunderclap tore the air, and the first raindrops fell.
    Krassk swore and sheathed his vibroblade, then spun around and started back in the direction of the village at a jog. Tracker followed him, still cautious. The vizor wiper activated, clearing his vision of raindrops. It seemed to be getting hotter and hotter as the rain fell harder; the Trandoshan broke into an all-out run, yelping curses as he went, and steam rose from the ground. Tracker dropped the trail once they were within three kilometres of the village. At last able to rest and check his environmental sensors, he realised that the rain itself was scalding hot. Just when he had begun to think that the planet couldn’t get any less friendly.

    “Is this really the best place we could find?” Shadow eyed their new campsite doubtfully: a heap of algae-covered rocks surrounded by thick vegetation. He smacked away a grabbing vine that had been aiming for the water extractor.
    “The rocks will keep us out of the sludge and the canopy will keep the rain off us.” Tracker was going over his helmet, carefully cleaning the air filters and sensor input points.
    “Yeah, but have you noticed it’s practically a nest of creepy-crawlies?” He pried off a spotted slug that had just landed on his knee and threw it into the jungle with a shudder.
    “We’ll sleep in our armour.” Tracker held the helmet up and rotated it, inspecting it through narrowed eyes. Fitting it on, he toggled some of the sensors, turning his head this way and that. After a minute or so he removed the helmet and swore bitterly.
    Shadow looked up, in the act of rearranging the contents of his pack. “What’s up?”
    “Blasted power reserves. I’m running low.”
    “Mine are taking a beating, too. The temperature regulation is working overtime. I ran it very low today, kept it at about thirty-six degrees environmental temperature while active. Pure hell, but at this rate it should last another six rotations or so, not accounting for the use of any of the cloaking or electro-dampening features.”
    “You have it easy. I have to use my scanners. Been going on thirty-five degrees for the last two days. I can’t push it up any more or I’ll fry.” He shook his head. “I’ll have to make do with fewer sensors – I’ve already stopped monitoring environmental conditions. But the lifeform detectors are very power intensive, and they’re the ones I need most of all. Especially if that Trandoshan goes looking for Soren again.”
    “Yeah, I’m surprised he’s still alive. I have to admit, I thought trying to find him was a wild Ghoral bird chase, especially since meeting the croc this morning.”
    Tracker shrugged. “I don’t know if he is alive.”
    “I thought you said it looked like the Trandoshan had found something!”
    “Who knows. He could have been mistaken. I could have misread him. I’m not assuming anything.”
    “Well, there’s a cheering thought. At least we know the Seppies didn’t get him, which was the first thing I thought when Lingo told me he’d been friendly with the Phindian before his disappearance. – Lingo makes for a surprisingly convincing spice dealer, by the way. He’s going to start making discreet inquiries to see if anyone knows anything about the toxin tomorrow.”
    “Good.” Tracker nodded. “There’s nothing more he can do about Soren, and the toxin is more important anyway.”
    “You’re right. I think I’ll have a look at the Seppies’ base tomorrow, see what I can find out about them. And – I have a feeling I should keep an eye on what the Gerlaks are doing. Something is up with them.”
    “The lizards? You’re wasting your time. Focus on the Seps. I’m going after that Trandoshan.”
    “I’ll make the Seppies my first priority,” Shadow answered ambiguously. “I’ll – phew!” A huge yawn suddenly overcame him. “Well, I’m knackered, clearly. You taking the first watch again?”
    “Yep.”
    “Then I’ll turn in. See you.” Shadow stretched, put on his helmet and curled up on a flat part of the rock. After a few minutes of uncomfortably shifting about, he seemed to have found a comfortable position, and soon his breathing was deep and even.
    Tracker re-checked his suit to make sure it was completely powered down, then took it off, keeping only his boots on over his bodysuit. He couldn’t help feeling slightly uncomfortable at the thought of all the insects and other creatures that could drop onto his head, and wished that he had a jungle hat like Straightlace. Then he dismissed the thought: wishing and worrying wouldn’t change anything. He slowed his breathing into a regular rhythm and tried to go systematically through the events of the day, as he did every night, to decide what was relevant to remember, and discard anything that wasn’t. Ordering his mind helped him to fall asleep more easily and kept him focused on the mission.
    This night, however, he found it exceptionally difficult. His thoughts seemed to be jumbled; he was worried about his armour’s power, and worried about Straightlace, and worried about the mission. The jungle noise was considerably more intense than it had been on the previous night, and all the gnats on the planet seemed to be attacking him, in spite of the repellent. At length he abandoned his attempt, and stared out into the dimly glowing jungle, letting confused thoughts run wild through his mind, tumbling crazily, chasing each other, like the fireflies that danced and chased and fled through the trees. Suddenly he saw it again: the strange blue light. He shook his head vehemently; but when he looked again, the light was still there, hovering, and he wanted desperately to follow it. As he watched, first a few, then a dozen, then hundreds of smaller lights joined the first, floating lazily on the hot air. These were brighter, glinting and sparkling like tiny crystals. He watched, fascinated; it took all his self-control to keep seated. They were so beautiful. Surely there was no harm in taking a closer look? His right foot slid forward, ready to get up –
    “Ah!” Shadow sat up with a gasp behind him, and he nearly fell off the rock with fright. The blue lights disappeared into the trees.
    “Damn it, Shadow!”
    “Dream…” Shadow was rubbing the sleep from his eyes, helmet off. “I keep having these dreams. Vivid, too. Like I was there.”
    “Pull yourself together,” snapped Tracker.
    “I saw a building in the jungle… deep in the jungle. I think it’s really here, somewhere. On Sidellia, I mean.”
    “A building?” Tracker’s annoyance vanished. “The Separatist base?”
    “No, no, nothing like that. It’s ancient, like that stone pipe. Abandoned, overgrown.” Shadow was waking up properly now, realising what he was saying, and his tone changed to nonchalance as if a switch had been flipped. “I’m sure it’s nothing. Just the heat’s that getting to me, and eating nothing but ration bars. I’ll be right. Good rest-of-the-next-two-hours.” He replaced the helmet and lay down quickly, his back to Tracker; but it was a long time before he fell asleep.

    They moved out about two hours after sunrise, and set off in the direction of the Separatist base. Each lost in thought, they barely spoke, and the squelching of their footsteps in the sludge was drowned out by the deafening cries of the birds that flitted among the trees in flashes of yellow and purple colour. Shadow dropped his guard for a moment, looking up to admire the spectacle – and crashed full-on into Tracker.
    “Sorry, Track, I – ”
    “Shhh!” Tracker held up his right hand, adjusting an audio sensor with the left. “Get into cover – droids approaching from the northwest. Better attach the silencer.”
    “Got it.” Shadow took in his surroundings with a quick glance, leapt upwards, grabbing onto a branch, and vanished into the foliage above. The leaves barely trembled. The clanking of the droid patrol became audible a few moments later.
    “Keep scanning,” said a robotic voice. “We need to find that intruder.”
    “Roger roger.”
    There was something so ridiculous about the designs and voices of battle droids. They were the laughing-stock of the war, the butt of the joke in all the dormitories, dropships and cantinas, but Shadow had always found it chilling to think that these comical machines, all wire, metal and awkward movement, had taken the lives of so many of his brothers. The silencer clicked onto the barrel of his assault rifle and he took careful aim, barely breathing.
    “Sir, we’re not picking up anything on the audiovisual scanners.”
    “Try the heat sensors. Remember, we’re looking for a human.”
    “Roger rog– sir! There are two–”
    The jungle erupted in a blizzard of silent blaster bolts, and the droid patrol, six battle droids in all, crumpled to the ground with a clank. Shadow dropped down from the tree, landing beside Tracker as he materialised from the jungle.
    “This wasn’t a regular patrol,” said Tracker, inspecting their weapons. “Too well-equipped.”
    “They were looking for someone. Soren maybe?”
    Tracker shook his head. “The Trandoshan went looking much further to the south yesterday. Besides, the Phindian wouldn’t have hired him to look for Soren if he was just going to send out his own droids.”
    “Good point. So you think –”
    “ – they’re after the boss.”
     
  10. KithuraVess

    KithuraVess Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Nov 19, 2008
    Chapter 10: Tear Tracks

    “Morning, spicer.”
    “Why, mornin’, Nautolan. An’ here ah was thinkin’ yew weren’t inneressed in mah wares.”
    “I’m not,” grinned the Nautolan. “But the Separatists might be, and they’re in town. Just thought I’d give you the heads-up.”
    Orlo Scabb jerked nervously. “Th-the officials? Say, they got anythin’ against an honest dry goods trader?”
    “They don’t usually arrest spicers, but the Phindian’s with them, and he’s mad.”
    “The Phindian?” The Berchestian, Quarris, hung over as always, was suddenly alert. “That can’t be good.”
    “That’s because it isn’t,” agreed the Nautolan. “Looks about ready to arrest anything that moves.”
    “Sh-shoot, ah’d better lay low. Th-thanks.” Orlo Scabb took the spice pouch that he had slung over the back of his chair, and put it under the table, keeping it clamped firmly between his feet.
    “Why’s the Phindian here?” Quarris was still worried. “I mean, he never comes into the cantina, but…”
    “He’s looking for someone. Apparently there’s an intruder, a human. Rumours are going around that it’s a Republic spy.”
    “A human?” Scabb asked casually. “Couldn’t be that one who walked off into the jungle, could it? – What was his name?”
    “Evers Soren? A spy?” The Nautolan laughed, showing stained teeth. “That skinny kid is either in the bottom of the swamp or inside a gator. ‘Sides, the Phindian didn’t mention any names. It’s just – an intruder.”
    Orlo Scabb leaned back in his chair. “Mighdy innerestin’. Who’d want to spy on Sidellia, anyway? ‘S not like there’s anythin’ goin’ on around here.”
    “Nothing going on!” Quarris stared. “I know you’re new, Scabb, but everyone knows the Separatists have a second base.”
    “That’s a conspiracy theory, Quarris,” chuckled the Nautolan. “I think it was made up by the Separatists themselves, to make their Sidellian base seem less pathetic.”
    “No way, Kiau. You haven’t been here as long as me.”
    “Now that’s the truth!”
    “Listen to me, Scabb, something’s up,” went on Quarris, ignoring the Nautolan. He leaned forward across the table, eyes widening. “The Separatists send patrols, droids and hunters, into the jungle. They’re gone for days. The Phindian goes with them sometimes. Where do they go? Just hang around the slime and the slugs? I don’t think so!”
    “So what?” Scabb looked unconcerned.
    “So – where do they go? Why do they have a second base, and why do they keep it a secret? Some people say they’re looking for treasure. Artifacts, maybe.”
    The Nautolan laughed. “All they’ll find are Gerlak villages, maybe a ruined Hutt factory from five hundred years ago.”
    “Who knows,” said Quarris mysteriously. “Others say they’re working on something. A prototype, maybe, some kind of new droid or super-soldier. Or a weapon.”
    “Yeah, whatever,” grinned the Nautolan, slapped Quarris good-naturedly on the shoulder, and walked over to the bar.
    Scabb shrugged. “Secret bases, secret weapons… ah dunno, Quarris, that sounds a little far-fetched.”
    “It’s war, Scabb. It makes sense.”
    “ ‘Zat so? What kind of weapon is it, then?”
    Quarris leaned even further across the table and glanced around him furtively. “Well, think about it,” he said in a low voice. “Why would they pick Sidellia? What’s unique to this place?”
    “Uhh… a whole new world of discomfort?” That wasn’t a very Scabb-like thing to say. Lingo went on quickly. “Bugs, slime, more bugs…”
    “Slime! Exactly. And all of these weird, these weird vines and plants and things. Poisonous things.” He looked at Scabb expectantly. The latter, however, was not to be drawn out.
    “So what?”
    “So – all of these poisonous plants and bugs and slime are on Sidellia, and they develop a weapon here. It’s gotta be some kind of poison. What else could it be?”
    “Ah dunno, ah c’n think of a lotta other things it could be. Like – nuthin’.”
    Quarris sat back, shaking his head in disappointment. “You haven’t been here long enough, Scabb. You’ll see. There’s something going on around here.”
    “F-fine, if yew say so.” Scabb took a sip of his drink. “S-so say there is a poison. What’s the point? The Separatists have a lotta pretty lethal weapons already, way ah hear it.”
    “Yeah, but what if this poison does something special? Something, I dunno, different. Maybe it’s some kind of untraceable poison. Or – or maybe it’s a mind-controlling drug.”
    Scabb’s skepticism was almost tangible. “S-say, son, what’s in that drink?”
    Quarris scowled. “Yeah, that’s right, laugh it up. But don’t say I didn’t warn you when the truth comes out.”
    “Ah’m not plannin’ to stick around long enough fer that,” smirked Scabb. “C-come on, let’s play Pazaak.”
    “I’ll get the cards,” said Quarris, instantly appeased.

    Tracker activated his scanners long enough to locate Krassk. The Trandoshan was heading south again, as he had on the previous day. This time, he was moving more methodically. Tracker found himself enjoying the hunt – as much as he ever allowed himself to enjoy anything – on two accounts: firstly, in that it tested his tracking and concealment skills, and secondly, in that it gave him the opportunity to study the techniques of another hunter. He had originally had his doubts as to whether the Trandoshan stood any chance of finding a quarry that had been gone for nearly two weeks, in terms of Sidellian rotations, but the persistence and method of Krassk’s movements were beginning to inspire some confidence. Krassk was sweeping the area in a very systematic way, stopping frequently to scent the air and listen out. He did not possess any sophisticated sensors; instead, he was carefully studying the terrain, plants and animals. Tracker realised that he was looking for a habitable area, under the assumption that Soren had holed up somewhere.
    By midday, an area of about six square kilometres had been covered. Tracker heaved a sigh of relief when the Trandoshan finally halted for a rest. Sitting down on a rock and balancing his rifle on his lap, Krassk snacked on a packet of crisped bugs from his shoulder pouch. Tracker’s stomach rumbled – he had to laugh at himself for finding bugs appetising. He had no time now for food, but, judging it to be safe, he removed his helmet and took a long, satisfying drink of water, one of the most delicious he had ever had, despite its stale, muddy flavour. Krassk had finished eating, and had now taken a comm link from his pouch, which he activated.
    “Come in, Dessstrell.”
    “Krassk!” spat the Phindian’s voice. “Where are you? I’ve been trying to reach you all morning!”
    “I’m looking for Sssoren, of coursse,” replied the Trandoshan impatiently. “I’ve ssscouted to the ssouth. No luck sso far, but – ”
    “I don’t care about Soren! I want you back here! I’ve got a situation – two situations! An intruder, and a destroyed patrol!”
    “Then I’ve jusst wasssted half of my day.” Krassk wasn’t even trying to hide his fury.
    “Well, maybe if you’d turned your comm link on, you would have known sooner! Now get moving!”
    “Fine,” snarled the Trandoshan, shut off the comm link and started back in the direction of the village. Tracker let him go; between them, Lingo and Shadow would be able to monitor the situation in the village and the Separatist base. He needed to eat first of all, and then he would continue the search for Soren.

    The fourteen Gerlaks stood in a line, blaster rifles trained on them. Most of them were clearly terrified, trembling and whimpering, looking either at their feet, or at the Phindian, eyes wide. Only one of them, a young warrior, stood stock-still, staring fiercely ahead of him. A crowd of Gerlaks had gathered in the surrounding trees and on the roof of the cantina – it was beginning to sag under their weight – but they made hardly any sound, watching the action, at once terror-stricken and fascinated. The Phindian paced up and down in front of the line, his mouth set in its physiological skull-like grin.
    “It appears as though you Gerlaks have once again decided to interfere in Separatist business,” he was saying, speaking Huttese. “I thought I made it clear to you that I would not tolerate any such behaviour. But, clearly, sadly, the executions of those disloyal traitors among you was not enough. Today,” he continued, stopping suddenly and rounding on them, so that they shrank back in fear, “I sent out several patrols to search for an intruder. Someone who has no right, no right to be on Sidellia! All I wanted from you, all I wanted, was that you stay out of my way! That’s all I ever wanted from any of you! Now, is that so hard?” He bent over, pushing his evil face close to one of the Gerlaks, who began to cry softly. Shadow’s trigger finger itched. He felt an intense hatred towards this sadistic Separatist. But he was bound by his orders not to kill the Phindian, not yet; and so he could only watch as the tragedy unfolded.
    “Apparently it is hard. I don’t know why. But it seems to be a pathological need for you to get in my way! And so you, some of you, perhaps not all of you, attacked one of my patrols! Destroyed my droids! My property! With stolen blasters, no less!”
    An icy hand seemed to close around Shadow’s heart. This whole situation was the result of the patrol he and Tracker had destroyed.
    “Or perhaps,” went on the Phindian, “it was not only you. Perhaps the intruder helped you, hmm? Perhaps you are harbouring him?” His arm shot forwards like a flash, and the next moment a Gerlak was suspended in the air by the neck, his tail twitching, feet jerking, hands clawing at the Phindian’s hand. The Phindian opened his fingers and the Gerlak fell, landing on the ground with a painful squeak.
    “Oh, yes. You are all afraid now. But you were not too afraid to interfere. You were not too afraid to challenge me. Me, Tenallo Destrel! You were not afraid enough of me!” He grabbed a blaster from one of the droids and shot the ground right in front of one of the Gerlaks. She screeched and sprang back, crashing into the wall of the cantina behind her.
    “We not afraid,” came another voice. It was the Gerlak warrior, speaking broken Huttese. Under ordinary circumstances, Shadow would have found the squeaking tone and childlike grammar amusing; now it seemed to him infinitely noble. “We not afraid you!”
    “That’s too bad,” said the Phindian, and shot him through the head. The Gerlak stood for a moment, transfixed; then he toppled over into the mud, without a sound. The birds, gnats and bugs screamed from the jungle, deafeningly loud.
    “I’m going to give you a chance,” said the Phindian, turning now to the remaining Gerlaks. “One chance, to tell me what you know. Who did this? Who destroyed my droids? And where is this intruder? I know you can tell me.” He walked down the line again, staring at each Gerlak in turn. When he reached the end of the line, he curled his finger around the blaster trigger. “Well, it seems as though none of you is willing to tell me, so I have no choice but – ”
    “No!” screeched one of the Gerlaks. “No, no! I speak! I speak!”
    “Alright, missy, spit it out.”
    “He! He!” She pointed at the dead Gerlak warrior. “He break droid! He – he bring head of droid!”
    “Really? Well, he’s already dead. Is that all you got?”
    “No! No! There is stranger in the jungle! I see him! I see him!”
    “Is that so? And what does he look like?”
    “Human! He human!”
    “I know that, damn you! But is he short? Tall? Thin? Light or dark? Describe him!”
    “Human! Human! H-hair – hair!” She stroked her head desperately. “Like this!” She pawed at a patch of black mud. “He has – he has head of droid!” she added, mimicking the action of putting on a hat, or helmet.
    “Where is he?” There was a new note to the Phindian’s voice: he, too, was experiencing fear. “Where is the intruder?”
    “He – he – there, there!” She gestured wildly towards the north.
    “That’s enough. Fire!” ordered the Phindian, and the droids automatically pulled their blaster triggers. The Gerlaks all crumpled to the ground, including the informer. It took all of Shadow’s willpower in that moment not to end the Phindian where he stood.
    “Dump these bodies in the jungle and break up the crowd. Hurry!” ordered the Phindian.
    “And drop them far away from the village,” came a scaly voice. “At leassst three or four kilometress. Don’t want to attract the gatorsss.”
    “Krassk! Where were you? – Do as he says,” he added to the droids, who quickly gathered up the small corpses and marched off into the jungle.
    “Watching the ssshow. It’sss a bad move to kill your informantsss. You can’t usse them again.”
    “I don’t care. I’ve got what I wanted to know. Come on, we’ve got to get back to the base.”
    “What’sss the russh? You’re very jumpy.” The Trandoshan was enjoying this moment of superiority, and seemed determined to exploit it as much as possible.
    “Didn’t you hear what it said? A human, black hair, helmet?”
    “That dessscription could fit a lot of people.”
    “Maybe so, but alone? Way out here, on a Separatist world? Don’t play dumb with me, Krassk. That’s a clone commando. The Republic is onto us.”
    The Trandoshan shrugged in elaborate nonchalance. “If you sssay sso.” Shouldering his rifle, he followed the Phindian in the direction of the Separatist base. The Gerlaks looked after them for a moment; then there was an explosion of sound as they screeched, whistled, howled, a confused mess of grief, fear, anger and accusation.
    The door of the cantina swung open and a hunched, bony figure ambled out. He brushed sagging oily hair behind one ear, looked straight at Shadow’s position and winked. A moment later he was joined on the cantina steps by a wide-eyed Berchestian.
    “Phew! Yew weren’t kiddin’ ‘bout that Phindian, were you, s-son?”
    “I told you. He’s dangerous. Ruthless. No way the Separatists would waste him on some backwater. There’s more to this place than they’re letting on.”
    “Maybe s-so. Hey, all this ruckus is makin’ me thirsty! L-let’s go g-get a drink.”
    “Count me in,” said the Berchestian, and they disappeared back into the cantina. Carefully, silently, Shadow retreated from the village, making his way back to the rendezvous point he had agreed on with Tracker. He was sick to the stomach, sickened by the Phindian’s sadism, sickened by Lingo’s callousness, sickened by guilt. And he was angry, filled with a rage such as he had never known before. He wanted justice, and more than that, revenge, for the Gerlaks who had been murdered, for the ones who now mourned and feared; for all the peoples across the Galaxy who had been dragged against their will into this war.
     
  11. KithuraVess

    KithuraVess Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Nov 19, 2008
    Chapter 11: Rage Against the Light

    Tracker was making much slower progress than the Trandoshan had. He was ashamed to admit it, but a gun-for-hire on a backwards jungle planet was a more efficient hunter than he was – at least without his suit’s extra scanners and sensors. Granted, it was hardly his fault that he couldn’t smell the atmosphere with his tongue. He searched the area as if he were looking for a hideout himself: higher ground to keep out of the slime, drier areas that didn’t supply as many places for gnats to breed, trying to find a balance between vegetation that was thick enough to provide decent cover, but not so thick that it made living impossible. Occasionally he would stop and activate his lifeform scanners, having set them to detect anything about the size of a human, but nothing came up on them.

    It was starting to get dark. He had covered an additional five square kilometres, and he was tiring rapidly. He marked his position on the map, from where he would continue the next day, and started heading back to the rendezvous point. He had walked about eight kilometres – the gloomy orange sun had nearly set, and the jungle was filled by the evening cries of a million birds – when he saw the blue glow again, floating in the jungle to the east. And finally, he approached it, half-expecting it to dart away from him; but hung in the hot air until he was close enough to touch it, before starting to drift away at walking speed. His duty to the mission, his responsibility to Shadow: all of that seemed very far removed from him, overwhelmed by the powerful desire to follow this light, and by something he had never before indulged in: curiosity.

    He followed the light deep into the jungle, and his awareness of the fact that he was getting ever further away from the rendezvous point faded. The vegetation was growing thicker now; the elevation was dropping, and the sludge crept up his calves. The constant high-pitched whining of insects filled the air with a wall of sound. The last orange rays of the sun faded into the oppressively hot night, but the blue glow provided enough light so that he did not activate his night vision. Now the ground began to rise again, and here and there rocks jutted out of the slime. He realised that he was at the foot of a mountain, ascending rapidly into the night sky. The light was getting further ahead now – it was keeping up a constant speed, but clambering up the slope, searching for footholds and grabbing at slippery rocks, was taking him a lot longer than walking. At once the light stopped, a hundred metres or so ahead. He stopped too, to catch his breath, then approached it. It did not move away again, and when he reached it, he saw that it was hovering in front of the mouth of a cave. Cautiously he entered – and with the grating of stone on stone, the cave shut behind him.

    Tracker chose the choicest of expletives. He was about to switch on his night vision and inspect the wall behind him for a weak point, when he noticed tiny lights in around him and in front of him, in the floors and walls of the cave. They looked just like the lights he had seen on the previous night, but on closer inspection he realised that these were crystals embedded in the rock. They lit up a tunnel ahead of him, barely big enough for him to fit through, and he inched along it. The crystals grew larger, the light brighter as he advanced. It was getting uncomfortably bright; he fiddled with the exposure settings on his helmet, reducing light input, and continued along the tunnel. All at once it made a ninety degree bend: he could see that something extremely bright was around the corner. His heart was beating furiously in his chest, though he could not have said why.

    Taking a deep breath, he rounded the corner – and gasped. The tunnel ended here, and the bright, whitish-blue light was coming from a massive crystal formation growing from the rock. It jutted out at all angles, shimmering in geometric perfection. He reached out and touched it; it was cool through his glove. Without knowing why – or fully realising that he was doing it – he removed his glove, and stretched out his hand.

    He yanked it back with a yelp of pain, and all the lights in the cave went out. Now he was seized by panic, and fought to control his breathing. He flipped on the night vision and inspected his hand – there was no blood, no cut – and the crystal was still there, exactly as before, but no longer glowing. He had to get out of this cave. What was he thinking? He turned around and ran for the cave entrance – the wall had gone, and he tumbled out into the night air, slipping and sliding down the mountain, landing with a loud squelch in the slime at the base of it. He leaned against a rock and pulled off his helmet, gasping for air. He would be alright. He was not injured, he was not going insane, it was just a strange cave on a stranger planet. Orienting himself, he set off in the direction of the rendezvous point. Shadow would be getting worried. But something had happened to him, and there was a new feeling in his chest that he did not understand. He felt more aware of everything around him, as if he were somehow more alive, as if there was something inside of him that wanted to get out.

    For a heart-stopping moment he thought he had the wrong coordinates. He was all alone in the jungle. Then he came to an even worse conclusion: he had the right coordinates, but Shadow was not there. He checked and re-checked the time. It was over an hour after they had agreed to meet. He gnawed his lip in indecision. Perhaps Shadow had only been delayed by environmental factors. If he went looking for him now, and he reached the rendezvous point in his absence… no, he had to stay put. He forced himself to take a seat on one of the rocks. He couldn’t wait for the mission to be over. Their squad wasn’t meant for long assignments like this, anyway! What had command been thinking? He stopped himself, aghast. He had never had so much as a fleeting thought of disloyalty or of questioning orders, and here he was, his mind on open rebellion! This planet must be affecting him.

    “Track! There you are!”
    “Shadow!” He spun around. “Where were you? I thought – ”
    Shadow ignored him. “Where were you? Have you heard? They’ve got him!”
    “Got – you mean the boss?”
    Shadow nodded excitedly. “Yep.”
    Tracker frowned. “I thought they’d only started looking for him this morning. He said he was going to give them a few rotations to find him.”
    “I don’t think he let them get him. It was that Trandoshan.”
    Tracker raised his eyebrows. “He’s even better than I thought, that guy. At least they definitely won’t suspect that the boss wanted to get captured.”
    “Yeah. – I hope he’ll be right.”
    “What do you mean? He can handle himself.”
    “I know, but… Track, I saw the Phindian today, the Sep leader. He’s – he’s completely evil. Just executed a bunch of locals. Claimed they had destroyed the droid patrol, the one we shot up. No evidence. And he just shot them, in cold blood.”
    Tracker shrugged. “It’s war, Shad. These things happen.”
    Even in the darkness he could see the blood flare up in Shadow’s cheeks. “How can you say that? It’s murder of peaceful civilians! Women, too! For no reason other than sheer cruelty. And – and in a way we’re responsible.”
    “How? It’s not our fault the Phindian decided to shoot the lizards. If he’s done it once with so little provocation, he’s probably done it before.”
    “They didn’t ask for any of this.” Shadow shook his head. “Sometimes I ask myself if we’re not doing more harm than good.”
    “What did you say?” Tracker rounded on him, fury in his eyes. “Are you questioning our orders? The Republic’s orders?” The strange feeling in his chest expanded, fed by his anger – and his fear at his own rebellious thoughts. Suddenly he saw Shadow’s emotional words as a threat. Could they be influencing him? “You’re bloody full of yourself. From the start you’ve been dragging your opinions, your ideas into this mission. You’re so obsessed with these bloody lizards, as if they’re our responsibility. You never wanted to follow Straightlace. You contradicted him every step of the way, and now you’re openly doubting his abilities! And even questioning our orders! Our commanders! I always thought you were – a bad batcher[1].” He tensed instinctively, expecting Shadow to jump him; he wanted a fight, wanted to get out his frustration and this strange anger, to smash anything and anyone within reach into a pulp against the rocks. But Shadow only stared at him.
    “What’s gotten into you, Track? – I’m sorry, I know I let my tongue run away with me sometimes. I shouldn’t have said any of that.”
    Tracker’s anger began to fade. As if he were waking up from a dream, and, calming down, he was filled with horror by the extent of his rage. “Just shut up,” he growled. “We’re losing focus.”
    “Yeah, you’re right. I’ll just go to sleep then, shall I. Oh, by the way – Lingo’s joining us tomorrow, three hours past sunrise. That injection will be wearing off soon.”
    “Fine,” said Tracker tersely, and turned his back on Shadow. His heart was hammering in his chest. He had never experienced such intense emotions before. What was happening to him?

    “Track! Wake up!”
    Tracker was instantly awake, ready to fight – there was no-one there but Shadow. “Hey, what’s the idea?”
    “Lingo’s back. Didn’t want you to wake up and see him and accidentally kill him, he isn’t back to his normal self yet.”
    The scraggly figure of Orlo Scabb emerged from the bushes. “We’ve got a situation,” he said in Lingo’s voice. “Shad says he told you the Seps have got the boss. Well, some of their mercs came into the cantina today, early, and I overheard them. Tenallo Destrel is going to execute Straightlace.”
    What?” Tracker’s exclamation rang out through the jungle.
    “The Phindian’s completely out of his mind,” agreed Shadow. “We can’t let that happen!”
    Tracker passed a hand over his face. “There was nothing about this eventuality in our orders, I can’t believe no-one – ” He stopped mid-sentence and shook his head. “Anyway. Shad’s right. We can’t let it happen. What’s the situation like at the base, Lingo? High alert? Patrols?”
    “They don’t seem to be on high alert, now they’ve got him. Remember, they don’t know about us. I doubt they’ll be sending out many patrols, either. For the same reason.”
    Tracker nodded. “Then the only thing worrying me is that Trandoshan.”
    “I saw him. He’s gone south again today, looking for Soren, probably.”
    “Right. Lingo, how soon does your injection wear off?”
    “Not for a while, but Shad’s got an antidote, so I can return to my normal self any time. Any time now, Shad,” he added, feigning impatience. “There’s nothing more for Orlo Scabb to do.”
    “Go ahead,” ordered Tracker, in response to Shadow’s questioning glance. Shadow took an injection from his pack, tore off the seal and squirted the injection into Lingo’s neck. The second time around was considerably less disconcerting, as they all knew what to expect: the quivering convulsions, limbs stretching, skin and eyes darkening, hair shortening, face filling out, nose receding.
    “Phew!” Lingo sat up, flexing his arms, feeling his face. “This is great! I never used to think of myself as particularly good-looking, but after being Orlo Scabb, I’m ready to reconsider.”
    “You didn’t? I take that very personally,” grinned Shadow.
    “Hand me my temps[2], will you? These clothes are pretty tight all of a sudden. I’d better get my armour on, too.”
    “Okay, here’s what we’ll do,” said Tracker a few moments later, when Lingo was suited up. “We’ll approach the base from the north, it’s less swampy. I’ll run a full scan on it and the surroundings. If the Seps really are on standby, with no patrols going out, the base will be crawling with droids, so the scan will show us where they are, and where the boss is. Based on that, I’ll create a distraction and see how many of ‘em I can draw out of the base. Lingo, you’ll watch me, see how many of them actually fall for it, and if necessary create another diversion. If not, stay on Shad’s six. Shad, you’ll be doing the rescuing. You’ve got the best chance of getting in there undetected.”
    “Got it.”
    “Right! Then let’s move!”

    [1] Defective clone. Regarded by some as the ultimate insult.

    [2] Temperature controlling bodysuit.
     
  12. KithuraVess

    KithuraVess Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Nov 19, 2008
    Chapter 12: Forced Entry

    Tracker steadied himself against the tree trunk and activated his scanners. The power was almost completely depleted – there would be just enough for one last scan. He had temporarily turned on broadcasting to the others in order to communicate with them, transmitting on an obscure frequency the Separatists weren’t likely to scan for. Methodically flipping through the sensors, he captured all sources of electromagnetic energy and lifeforms, creating an exhaustive model of any potential danger they would encounter.
    “Looks like nearly everyone’s inside,” he commented. “Sending the data from my scans now. I think I’ll need your help to draw them out, Lingo. We don’t want them to know we’re Republic soldiers, so we can’t let them see us. Use sound or a surge of energy to get their attention.”
    “Copy that.”
    “Come in, Shad.”
    “I’m here.” Shadow was positioned at the other end of the base, closer to the main building.
    “Do you see the boss on the model of the base I sent you? – It’s picked up a few lifeforms, but I’d bet he’s the one on the underground level.”
    “Agreed. I’m in position.”
    “Wait for enough of them to leave the base. Okay, Lingo – wait a few seconds after my diversion before starting yours. Disable broadcasting as soon as the distraction starts, so they can’t track us. One, two, three – now!”
    On one side of the base, an ear-splitting howl sounded. The Phindian himself came running out of the main building, surrounded by battle droids.
    “What was that? What was that? Captain, report!”
    “I don’t know, sir,” replied the droid on guard outside the building.
    “Get a squad out there and find out! It could be a gator, or worse!”
    “Roger roger! Squad four, form up!”
    A group of battle droids formed around the guard. They had just begun marching off in the direction of the noise when another screech sounded; immediately after that, there was the noise of an explosion from the other side of the base.
    The Phindian let out a string of foul curses. “What is going on? Get out there, you useless heaps of scrap!”
    “Uh – which ones of us, sir?”
    “All of you! Find out what’s making those noises!”
    “Roger roger.”
    The battle droids formed up into their squadrons and marched off into the jungle. Shadow could hardly believe his luck. With the Phindian still in front of the main building, it was easy to climb over the rickety palisade and cross the grounds undetected, aiming for the back door, on the opposite side of the main building from the Phindian. This was locked, but the security was so poor that he had hardly inserted the slice card before the door sprang open – and brought him face-to-face with a Rodian mercenary, taken by surprise. Without a thought, Shadow brought his fist up, unsheathed the vibroblade and stabbed the Rodian in the throat. Green blood spattered across his armour; his vizor wiper activated and cleared his vision as he caught the body, then laid it soundlessly on the floor. There was nowhere to conceal it, so he left it there, stepping carefully over it. The door slid shut behind him. He stole down the otherwise abandoned passage. Surely it was too quiet.

    As if in answer to his thought, a forcefield activated across the passage, directly in front of him. A tiny hum sounded behind him, and he leapt backwards just in time as a forcefield sprang into being that would have trapped him; phasing into existence, it touched his retreating boot, sending a powerful electric shock through his body. He collapsed onto his back, panting – a splitsecond later, and he would have been fried. He couldn’t tell if it was an automated defense, or if someone had seen him; but there was no-one around, and no alarm was raised. Senses on high alert, he approached the forcefield, trying to see if there was a way to deactivate it. He would have to find a quiet way out anyway, he realised: a forcefield had appeared across the door by which he had entered, and another blocked the passage behind it. Every instinct of self-preservation screamed at him to get out, but his lifelong discipline kept him calm. There was always a way to switch off forcefields at the source – he just had to find it without electrocuting himself. A quick inspection told him that he was safe for the moment: there were no other forcefield brackets in the vicinity. No turrets on the ceiling either. As long as there was no alarm and no-one discovered him, then, there was no reason to abort the mission.

    A light indicated on his head-up display: there was an incoming transmission with Tracker’s signature. For a moment he was torn. Accepting the transmission could give away his location; but he realised that Tracker would not have attempted to contact him for anything other than a critical reason. He accepted, and a moment later Tracker’s voice came over the comm in terse barks.

    “Shad, get out. They got Lingo. They’ll be at the base any minute. Approaching from multiple vectors, including front and back entrances. If you leave now you can get out the way you came. Meet me at these co-ordinates.” A succession of numbers followed. “Repeat: get out now. Tracker out.”

    There was nothing for it. He shoved the body of the unfortunate Rodian into the forcefield covering the door; it overloaded with a crackle, sending arcs of purple sparking off the corpse, but leaving the way clear. Leaning carefully over the body, he opened the door and jumped outside. He waited a few infinite moments for the body to stop sparking before hauling it over one shoulder. For what it was worth, he would cover his tracks; that instinct was in his very marrow. He ran silently back to the palisade and threw the body across it, then swung himself over the wall and into the jungle in a clean leap. He dumped the dead mercenary in the first river he reached, hoping the gators would get it, and proceeded like a wraith through the trees towards the co-ordinates given by Tracker.

    “Track, what’s going on?” Panting, he emerged from the foliage, having first made his approach clearly audible so as not to surprise Tracker.
    “Shad! Thank the Force you got out. Did you see the boss?”
    “Negative. These forcefields activated around me. I was lucky to get out at all. Don’t think they saw me, though. Must have been an automatic defence system.”
    “Damn!” Tracker’s mind was working furiously. “So, they may not have known you were there. That could be an advantage. We might still have a chance, but we’ll have to move quickly.”
    “What do you mean? What happened?”
    “Not sure. We were supposed to go in different directions, lead the droids away. Something went wrong. I heard a scream, so I went back – carefully – and saw the droids surrounding Lingo. And Gerlak scouts, working for the Seps. Looked like he took a tumble out of a tree. I’m sure the lizards arranged that.”
    “Is he alive?”
    “He was then, according to my scanners. They started taking him back to the base, and I heard the droid captain ordering all units to return. The others gave their locations when they reported in. That’s how I knew they would get you if you didn’t get out.”
    “Yeah, thanks. So what’s our plan? Do you think they’ll kill him, too?”
    “Not immediately. They’ll want to interrogate him first. Maybe they’ll even delay executing the boss – see what they can get out of them together.”
    “Good news for us.”
    Tracker nodded. “We’ll just have to go back. They never saw me. With any luck, they’ll think Lingo and the boss were the only ones on the mission.”
    “That’s what Lingo will say. I guess it depends on whether they believe him.”
    “Yeah.” Tracker glanced at the sky. Dark purple clouds had gathered, and there was a far-off rumbling. “Looks like rain. Good for us. They won’t want to be outside too long, and it will make their heat sensors and lifeform scanners less reliable. We’ll wait for it to start raining, then we’ll go.”
    “Right.”

    They did not have to wait long. Within a few minutes the clouds had obscured the dull sun, and the thunder rumbled ever closer. Lightning flashed orange, and the rain began to fall. They moved out, the knowledge that there were Gerlaks among the Separatists’ ranks making them even more cautious. Shadow activated one of his signal jammers to hide any possible power readout that his suit could be giving off. They approached the base from the west this time, keeping far away from the village.
    “There he is,” whispered Tracker tersely. “See him?”
    “Yep. Bloody Seps.”
    The Separatists had removed Lingo’s armour and helmet; he was tied up outside, with no protection from the scalding rain. He was handcuffed to a post, his hands well above his head, so that his feet were not quite flat on the ground; the cuffs glowed blue and gave off sparks at each raindrop that fell on them. He was guarded by a super battle droid on each side.
    Shadow let out a low whistle. “I didn’t realise this base had supers.”
    “They didn’t. These must be from the secret base. Look,” Tracker added, as the door of the main building slid open. The Phindian stepped out, an energy shield glowing dimly about him, deflecting the raindrops. He, too, was flanked by super battle droids. Tracker swore. Super battle droids would make their job much more difficult. They watched as the Phindian approached Lingo.
    “Republic scum!” he cried, and spat on the ground.

    * * *

    After the droids had taken Straightlace’s unmoving body back inside, the Phindian stepped forward.
    “Now that I’ve got your attention, I think it’s time I asked you a few questions.”
    “And what are you going to do if I don’t answer?” growled Lingo. “Kill me too? Is that supposed to scare me?”
    “Oh, no. I’m not that naïve. I know you clones are very glad to die for the Republic. Programmed that way, aren’t you? At least – you think you are glad to die, but you often find out that it’s not nearly as – heroic as it sounds. Like your captain, here.”
    Lingo knew the Phindian was just trying to intimidate him, but he fell for it all the same; he could not keep the concern from showing in his eyes.
    “You’re worried now, aren’t you? And for good reason. You see, before he died, he told me quite a lot.”
    “That’s a lie!” spat Lingo. “He would never! We would never.”
    “Of course, that is what you think now. Tell me, clone – have you ever had to… explain yourself… to an enemy before? I can see in your eyes that this is a new experience for you. Let me explain how it works.” The Phindian began pacing grandly. “You will tell me exactly what I want to know. No more, no less – although, to be correct, more is always welcome. I am not going to kill you.” He took a staff from an obliging droid and switched it on: a ball of whitish-purple lightning appeared at each end, arcing and spitting in the rain.
    “An electrostaff!” muttered Shadow. “Where did he get one of those? Ohhh… that is going to hurt.” His stomach ached in sympathetic pain.
    “No, clone, I am not going to kill you,” went on the Phindian. “I am going to make you wish that I would kill you.” He turned slowly, relishing every cruel moment. Lingo continued to stare at the Phindian defiantly, forcing his breathing to stay even.
    “You are the best soldiers the Republic has to offer. You are supposed to be stronger than other creatures, and braver and more loyal than other humans. But deep down inside, all creatures are the same. They all fear pain above all things. And all humans are – weak.”
    With infinite patience he brought the end of the electrostaff ever closer to his victim. Lingo’s stomach contracted involuntarily as the purple lightning approached him, and his face turned away of its own accord.
    “Damn that Phindian,” hissed Shadow through gritted teeth. “When I get my hands on him – ”
    Tracker did not reply. He felt as if he would burst. The hatred that had been building in him since his first look at the Phindian was almost incontrollable; it flooded into every limb and throbbed in his brain.
    Curse you to the fiery depths of hell, Phindian, to chaos, to fear and darkness and pain forever if you touch my brother. You will not harm him. You will not harm him. You will not harm him. The phrase seemed to take over his mind as he chanted it silently, over and over.
    “Perhaps I’ll give you a chance, first.” The Phindian snatched the electrostaff backwards and spun it in the air with a flourish. “Let’s start with an easy question. Your rank and designation, clone. – No? Not even that?”
    You will not harm him. You will not harm him.
    The Phindian stroked his chin thoughtfully. “One more chance. Before he died – screaming – your poor captain assured me he was working alone. I don’t want any more lies. So think carefully before you answer, because I’ll make your existence miserable if you lie to me. Are there any more of you out there?”
    Lingo’s answer rang out with confidence. “No. It was just the boss and me.”
    “Are you sure?”
    You will not harm him. You will believe him. You will not harm him. You will believe him, believe him, believe him.
    “You seem to be telling the truth. Unusual – for a human. You’re all pathological liars. It seems the Republic underestimated me. As if two clones could ruin my plans! Well, well. I’ll be back tomorrow. In the meantime, think carefully about what you’re going to say to me on my next visit.” The Phindian spun away and strode back into the base, followed by his bodyguards. Even from a distance Shadow and Tracker could see Lingo heave a sigh of relief. The rain fell with ever lessening intensity, then stopped altogether, and the fading amber sunset broke through the parting clouds.
     
  13. KithuraVess

    KithuraVess Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Nov 19, 2008
    Chapter 13: Move Out

    “Sir – you – but we saw you!” protested Shadow. Straightlace had sat up and was glaring at them with unconcealed rage. “You were – dead!”
    “And how exactly did you see me?”
    “We were watching the base – they brought you out.”
    “I see. So you were observing the Phindian attempt to intimidate – well, it must be 1058. How did he end up a prisoner, anyway?”
    Shadow was very glad for both the darkness and the helmet concealing his flushing cheeks. He decided to leave the answering to Tracker, who obliged.
    “We got intel that they were planning to execute you, sir, so we launched a rescue.”
    “That obviously didn’t work out.” Straightlace sighed. “Nothing to be done about that now. – Did the Phindian interrogate him after the droids took me away?”
    “Not really, sir. The Phindian just asked him a few questions and then left him alone,” said Shadow wonderingly.
    “Really? Perhaps they’re planning to take him along.”
    “Along – where? Sir?”
    “I see I’ll have to tell you everything. When I was captured, I tried to convince the Separatists to take me to their secret base for further interrogation, but was unsuccessful. I didn’t want them to actually injure me, so I used the back-up plan. I convinced them that I was implanted with a microchip carrying vital information, then used an injection that Command had issued me with. It simulates the effects of death – quite convincingly, as you saw. They don’t have the facilities to do a dissection here, so they’re taking me to the secret base in the morning. I have two more injections with me, so I should be able to keep up the charade long enough. I’m fully conscious, able to feel and hear – not see, of course – so I can wake up at any time.”
    “But sir, why – ” Shadow stopped himself mid-sentence.
    “Why didn’t I tell you? Strict orders to keep knowledge of the technology to myself. Well, you’re under those same orders now.”
    “Yessir!”
    “Now get out, and make sure you stay undetected. You’ll have to leave 1058 where he is, I’m afraid.”
    Shadow firmly swallowed down his reply. He knew Straightlace was right.
    “You’ll keep to the original plans as well as you can. 1017, you’ll follow me to the secret base. 1102, you’ll keep looking for Soren – unless you’ve found him?”
    “Negative, sir.”
    “Right. Get moving!”
    “Sir, yes, sir!”
    As silently as they had come, Shadow and Tracker slipped out, locking the med bay door behind them, dropping from the window into the mud below. The clouds had come together again, and the hot rain obliterated their footprints behind them as they glided back into the jungle.

    “You should search for Soren to the west of the base.” Tracker didn’t know why he was so certain, but the thought had come to him with crystal clarity.
    “I thought you were looking to the south.” Shadow was pulling on his boots. Like all soldiers across the galaxy, he had been able to sleep soundly in spite of his excitement and worry.
    “Didn’t find him, did I. And look for a hideout in a tree.”
    “Okay.” Shadow did a few stretches to make sure his armour was comfortable, then picked up his pack and dug out a small silver object. “Here – the emergency comm link,” he said, handing it to Tracker. “Signal’s pretty strong, but very easy to detect and locate.”
    “I’ll use scramble code one-one-three-eight if I have to contact you,” answered Tracker. “Under no circumstances are you to contact me. We’ll rendezvous at these co-ordinates in three rotations, unless I let you know otherwise.” He gave a string of numbers that identified a location some distance from the base. “Whoever gets there first will wait for the other one, but no longer than – make it six hours. Then he’ll call in the Republic for extraction.”
    “Got it. Good luck, Track.”
    Tracker slung his pack over his shoulders. “Let’s move.”

    “Get moving, sleemo.” The mercenary’s voice woke Lingo up just in time to prevent him from falling: the handcuffs were unhooked from the post in the next instant, and he braced himself against the post as his lifeless arms dropped downwards. It had been surprisingly easy to sleep once they had lost all feeling. He was not looking forward to the return of it, though he was glad of the blood rushing back into his hands: they had turned an alarming shade of blue. He felt the unmistakable prod of a blaster rifle in the small of his back. “I said, move!”
    “I heard you the first time,” Lingo replied, stumbling forward on aching legs. “Where to?”
    “The transport. And don’t get smart with me, or you’ll regret it!”
    Lingo saw that a transport was parked just outside the base: an ugly, fat vehicle, guarded by a squadron of battle droids. Krassk was sitting just inside the open door of the transport, and got out as he approached. Lingo kept his face expressionless, showing no recognition.
    “And where are you sssupossed to be going?”
    It took Lingo a moment to realise that the Trandoshan was speaking to the mercenary behind him.
    “Out of my way, Krassk. I’m taking this Republic slime to the base.”
    “On whosse orderss?” The Trandoshan’s red eyes gleamed with unconcealed loathing.
    “Destrel’s, of course!”
    “He never mentioned you.” The Trandoshan grabbed Lingo by the still-unfeeling arm and hauled him into the transport. Lingo made a mental note not to underestimate the Trandoshan’s strength.
    “That’sss all I need from you, Zhaal.”
    The mercenary narrowed his eyes – admittedly difficult, for a Duros. “You’ll regret crossing me, Krassk.”
    “I don’t think I will. You’d better go.”
    The Duros spat on the ground and spun around, storming off in a rage.
    “Sssit down,” ordered Krassk. Lingo obliged. The transport had definitely seen better days: it was rusty and a thick layer of filth covered every surface, including the bench he reluctantly seated himself on. He saw that he was not the only occupant of the transport: aside from several battle droids and super battle droids, there were three cages bolted to the floor, holding about fifteen Gerlaks in all. At first glance, he thought they were dead; then he noticed that they were paralysed with terror, their eyes wide and moist. He looked away, torn between sympathy and disgust. He couldn’t think of anything more debasing than showing fear.
    “Dessstrel!” Krassk sounded impatient. “Can we go?”
    “Is everything ready?” The Phindian swung himself inside. “I see you’ve got our test subjects.”
    “We ssshould go. They might not live long.”
    “Chonuu, Uthar, get in.” The two Ithorians from the cantina followed the Phindian onto the transport. Ithorians were normally such a peaceful, slow-moving race that it was almost comical to see these two armed with blaster rifles. Almost, but not quite: there was a menacing gleam in their cold, slit-pupilled eyes. Pausing inside the door, they turned around to take something from the battle droids outside. It was a heavy object. Lingo’s stomach lurched as they dragged it inside, dumping it unceremoniously on the grimy floor: it was Straightlace’s body. Still in the same condition it had been in the previous morning – he guessed they had injected it with some kind of preservative.
    “That will keep you company,” said the Phindian, with an evil grin at Lingo. “Chonuu, Uthar, you watch him. Krassk, you’re with me.” Destrel shuffled to the front of the transport and into the cockpit. Krassk followed, shutting the cockpit behind him with a firm click. A second later, the Duros jumped into the transport. With a nod to the Ithorians, he sat down, placing his rifle on the seat beside him. The outside door slid shut, and dim lights flickered on inside the transport. There were no windows. The engines ignited; the transport rose above the ground and rumbled off into the jungle.
     
  14. KithuraVess

    KithuraVess Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Nov 19, 2008
    Chapter 14: Seek Spy, Love Mercy

    Shadow couldn’t put his finger on what it was, but there was something wrong with the noise of the jungle. It wasn’t that it was quiet: birds whistled and screeched, insects hummed and buzzed, and the gnats whined incessantly. He concentrated on the sounds, trying to isolate them, and it was then that he noticed the absence of the chattering and whooping that he had come to expect in the vicinity of the village. The Gerlaks were completely silent. Feeling uneasy, he advanced to the west, keeping an eye out for any surprises.

    He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched; after a quick calculation related to his suit’s power reserves, he switched on the signal jammers, then ducked into cover and waited for a few moments before activating the cloaking device, and a light-refracting shield projected around his armour. It was highly power intensive, giving him ten minutes at most before all of his power would be drained. He slipped away, moving as quickly as he dared, doing his best not to step in the sludge, disturb large leaves, or make any sound. After six minutes he uncloaked, and his projected time to losing power, shown in the lower right corner of his head-up display, shot up drastically.

    Somewhat reassured, he moved on, beginning his search for Soren’s hideout. A tree, Tracker had said. Well – that wasn’t very helpful. Still, the number of trees he would consider using as hideouts himself was limited, and combining his criteria with those he expected Soren would have used, narrowed the field even more. Many of the trees only started sprouting branches more than three metres above the ground, and while the difficulty of getting into a tree would not necessarily deter him, the holograms he had seen of Soren had depicted a gangly, unathletic figure. Then, too, there was the question of water: any suitable long-term hideout would be close to water, not sludge. Preferrably running water, not only in the interests of cleanliness – after all, water could always be purified with the right equipment – but also to keep clear of gnat breeding grounds. Even with his armour and repellent, Shadow felt like a living smorgasbord. Soren’s fabric clothing would not protect him nearly as well.

    Shadow systematically searched the area, his confidence boosted by these observations. As there was no particular reason for him to stay hidden, he increased his pace, even jogging slowly when the terrain permitted it. About an hour after midday, he had covered an area of almost seven square kilometres, and stopped to rest, having found a relatively comfortable seat at the base of an outcropping of rocks. His food supply was running low, but his internal debate was won decisively by a growl from his stomach. Chewing on a ration bar – supposedly Jogan fruit flavoured, but really tasting like potent cough medicine – he took stock of the situation. He was not dissatisfied with the progress he had made, but couldn’t completely block out the myriad of doubts and anxieties that sprang into his thoughts, now that he was not busy.

    This was Tracker’s job, really, not his. He was going largely on common sense and gut feeling, rather than Tracker’s training-from-birth and deeply instilled instincts. He could easily have missed something. Then there was the possibility that Soren was not, in fact, hiding in a tree, and the even more dismaying possibility that he was looking in the wrong part of the jungle entirely. There was no real reason to suppose that Soren would have stayed close to the village at all, if indeed he were still alive. Shadow shook his head and put the doubts firmly out of his mind. These were his orders, and worrying only wasted time. He stuffed the ration bar wrapping into his pack, swung it onto his back and set off once again.

    As he walked, he tried hard to think what Tracker would do. Pay close attention to his surroundings? He was doing that already. Look for sources of food? That was certainly a good idea, but he did not know which plants and fruits were edible. Listen carefully? Not much use in the racket the birds were making, but he would try that. His helmet allowed for some auditory enhancement –nothing as sophisticated as Tracker’s, of course, and somewhat power intensive, but it was worth a try. He adjusted it slowly as he walked; turning it up too quickly would result in a deafening blast of birdsong and bugscreech (a term he had coined himself). And there was a sound that made him stop short. A gentle, sorrowful crooning, interspersed with clicks: definitely a Gerlak. This far away from the village?

    He pinpointed the direction of the sound and went towards it carefully, staying in cover. There was no telling what to expect, especially now that he knew there were Gerlaks working for the Separatists. The sound grew louder – loud enough for him to turn off the enhancement – and he dropped into a crouch, moving slowly, soundlessly. The crooning had taken on a sing-song tone, and now and then the voice broke a little, giving way to soft sobs. Shadow felt a strange pain in his chest: a sharp, acute grief. It surprised him: he did not even know who was singing, or why. Then he peered around a tree stump and found the answer.

    A Gerlak female, clothed in a dress that must once have been a dazzling orange, but was now filthy and tattered, lay at the base of a gnarly blue tree, cradling an infant in her arms. One of her legs was shattered, the knee at an odd angle, the foot crushed; marks in the mud showed that she had dragged herself to the tree. The infant was too quiet. Shadow was an intruder in this scene of desolation; he was an intruder on this planet; and he felt very keenly that he, his army, was an agent of destruction. But here was something good that he could do, and he would. He removed his helmet and gave a polite cough. The Gerlak started and looked around wildly, clutching the infant to her.

    “It’s alright, I’m not here to hurt you,” said Shadow, keeping his voice low, crawling slowly out from the foliage, keeping on his hands and knees to present a smaller, hopefully less intimidating figure. The Gerlak stared at him, wide-eyed, and pushed herself backwards with her good leg, against the tree, whimpering softly.
    “No, no, no, please calm down!” Shadow stopped. He cast about in his mind for some Huttese phrases. Anything. He could understand it fairly well, but forming sentences was different. If only Lingo were here. “No hurt. No hurt,” he said. He knew his accent was terrible, but she seemed to understand, because she stopped trying to get away, and looked at him with what he hoped was diminishing fear.
    “Friend,” he continued, having at last remembered the word. “Um – I help. I help. I help you.”
    She replied now, mostly in Gerlak, her eyes still wide and moist, her voice unsteady – which did the opposite of making it easier to understand her; but he thought he picked up a few Huttese words, including ‘you’ and ‘droid’.
    “No! I, um, no droid. I no friend droid.” He hoped he was making sense. What was the word for break? Or kill? Yes! “I kill droid. I help you.”
    For a moment he thought he must have said something very wrong, because she became very agitated; but then he understood that she was asking for something, and since she kept pointing to her infant, he had a good idea of what it was about. In desperation she took the infant in both hands, holding it up for him to see. It was alive, to his surprise, whimpering and paddling in the air with faint movements. The mother put the infant back on her lap and pointed insistently to her mouth.
    “Yes, I’ve got food. I hope he can eat it.” Shadow didn’t even bother trying to find the Huttese for that.
    He advanced a bit closer, took off his pack and rummaged in it, taking out a packet of nutritional jelly. Back on the cruiser Indomitable, he had almost decided against packing the jelly, which tasted like the worst possible combination of salt, sugar and artificial flavouring, but had finally thrown in a few packets in case of emergency. Despite its awful taste, the jelly provided essential nutrients and rehydrated its consumer within only two or three minutes after ingestion. He hoped it would be compatible with Gerlak physiology. He tore open the packet and gave it a gentle squeeze, so that a small amount of jelly protruded from the top, then stretched it out toward the mother. Her indecision lasted less than a second; she grabbed the packet and tasted the jelly. Satisfied, she sucked a mouthful from the packet, swirled it around with her tongue, and then drooled it carefully into the infant’s mouth. At the first taste of the food, the infant reached upwards, grabbed its mother’s face, and sucked the drool hungrily.

    Shadow realised that his calves were cramping from sitting on his haunches, but he didn’t want to run the risk of scaring the Gerlak by standing up, so instead he folded his legs in under him, trying to keep out of the sludge as much as possible. This was hardly more comfortable, but at least the cramp was going away. At length, the infant pushed the mother away, and gave a tiny burp. The mother replied with a chattering giggle, and turned shining eyes to Shadow.

    “Go on, eat the rest of it,” he muttered in Basic, looking away. She hadn’t needed him to tell her that; the rest of the jelly disappeared down her throat in a smooth gulp. She considered the packet in her hand for a few moments before stretching it out towards him. He dropped it into his pack, then took out his medical kit. It wasn’t much; a cauterising knife, some disinfectant, a few bandages, and painkillers – he would not experiment with the latter and Gerlak biology. The most useful item he had was probably the kolto, given to him by Straightlace back when Tracker had been injured on their march to the village. That seemed like a very long time ago.
    “Let me have a look at your leg.” He brandished the bandages. She seemed to understand him: making enthusiastic clicks and whistles, she pointed to her smashed leg. He moved forward again, so that he could reach it comfortably; she didn’t squirm back at all. The jelly seemed to have forged an unbreakable trust. He inspected the injuries. The foot would have to go. He was at a complete loss as to how to explain it to her. Sitting down – getting sludge all over his armour was now the least of his concerns – he gestured to his foot and mimed cutting it off. To his astonishment, she nodded, clicking encouragingly.
    “Er – are you sure? – Okay.” He switched on the cauterising knife: yellow energy gleamed around the blade. It wasn’t really meant for amputations, but the Gerlak was very small. “Are you sure?” he repeated, bringing the knife close to her leg. There was apprehension in her eyes now, but she nodded. Shadow took a deep breath, brought the knife down swiftly, and cut through the tiny blue-green calf and bone in one movement. The cauterising knife sterilised and sealed the wound as he cut. Aside from a small squeak of surprise, the Gerlak made no sound, staring in complete astonishment at the mess that had been her foot, and was now separated from her body.
    “Doesn’t hurt as much as you thought, eh?” Shadow gave a lop-sided grin that was mostly relief. “Now for the next part.” The rest of her leg was covered in deep cuts, but they would heal with the proper treatment. “This is going to hurt, probably more than your foot,” he said, pointing to the disinfectant and giving an exaggerated grimace. He carefully tipped a few drops onto one of the cuts. She whined, but did not jerk away, so he continued, cleaning the cuts, then generously applying the slimy kolto, at which she sniffed curiously.
    “We’ll need a splint for that,” he said, pointing to the knee. “Let’s see… these twigs look pretty sturdy.” Standing up, he reached into one of the trees, breaking off a few choice twigs. He selected the straightest one, then bandaged the wounds and splinted the leg tightly. He sat back to admire his handiwork.
    “There. You’ll be right now.”
    She chirped, and placed a small, scaly hand on his knee, the only part of him she could reach.
    “F-friend,” she said in thickly accented Huttese.
    Shadow swallowed hard. “Sure. Now, where do you come from? Um – where… you… friends? Where?”
    Amazingly, she once again seemed to understand, and pointed vigorously to the north. That was not exactly where he had been planning to go, but he couldn’t just leave them; besides, it might not be far; so he strapped on his pack, put on his helmet again, and bent down slowly, extending his arms. She chirped happily as he picked her up, and nestled comfortably against his chest, holding the infant to her. It was asleep. Shadow was suddenly very glad that none of his brothers could see him now.

    The Gerlak cooed and chirruped softly as he walked, apparently talking to the infant. He wondered what had happened to them. Judging by the state of her dress, she must have been in the wild for a few days at least, but the injuries were recent. Thank the Force he had found them when he had. And she had seemed so frightened at first. Did the Gerlaks fight among themselves? Or was this the work of a wild animal? Or the Separatists perhaps? He wished he could ask her. Hopefully whatever had done this wasn’t still around – although, if it had been, it probably would have jumped them by now. This really wasn’t the best position to be in… if anything attacked them, he wouldn’t be able to grab his rifle, unless he dropped them, which wasn’t a great option. Still, she seemed very calm. He hoped this was due to actual knowledge of the absence of danger on her part, rather than from an over-reliance on him. He glanced down at her – and stopped. She had fallen asleep.
    “Hey!” He shook his arms, and she woke up, blinking confusedly. “How am I supposed to know where to go if you’re sleeping? Where – you – friends? Where?”
    She yawned, looked around her, and sniffed the air for a bit, then pointed in the same direction, jabbing the air. Keep going, keep going, it will be a while, the gesture seemed to say.
    “Fine,” he muttered. His arms were starting to ache, so he set the Gerlaks down on a protruding tree root and stretched properly, resting for about ten minutes, before picking them up and moving off again. All of this was taking a long time… it was three hours past midday already. And no chance of finding Soren now. Then again, he hadn’t been making such a great job of that anyway. After another hour of walking, the ground began sloping downwards. The ooze underfoot became rapidly thicker, and each step cost effort. He had to rip his feet free from the sludge that now completely covered them, inching up his calves as the slope descended. The air was growing increasingly humid, too. He must be approaching a river. Well, hopefully that meant he was close to a delta, and therefore close to a Gerlak village.
    As if in answer to his thought, the Gerlak woke up, tapped his arm, and pointed to the west. He changed course, and she sat up straighter now, chirping softly. Suddenly she let out a loud whoop, and from a distance, in the direction they were going, he heard several whoops in reply. She gave a joyful screech, and tapped his arm with increasing intensity.
    “Alright, alright, keep your – um – scales on. I’m going as fast as I can.”
    The whooping of the other Gerlaks intensified; all at once the trees around him were filled with flashes of teal, cyan and orange. He heard a furious hiss, and looked down: a group of Gerlak warriors stood confronting him, pointing their tiny spears at him, their orange beards flaring, veined with blue.
    “Hey, I’m a friend,” he said, unable to keep the laughter out of his voice. “Um… I, friend,” he added in Huttese.
    They didn’t seem convinced. Advancing, spear out, the oldest of them began to chatter and screech. The Gerlak in his arms replied with a flurry of excited chirps and clicks. It was either a convincing argument, or she had overwhelmed them with sound; either way, the leader backed away, clearly less hostile, though they did not stand down. The leader rapped out a sharp command, and two of the warriors hopped away.
    “So, what now?”
    The Gerlak chirruped.
    “That… really doesn’t mean anything to me. Uh, I reckon I’ll wait.”
    Minutes passed. The Gerlaks in the trees continued whooping and babbling, and the Gerlak in his arms chirped and whistled replies. They were all getting more and more excited. The warriors, however, kept glaring suspiciously at Shadow. They didn’t seem to be blinking very often; it was quite impressive. After what felt like an hour, but was, Shadow guessed, probably much closer to about ten minutes, the two Gerlak warriors came hopping back. They said something to the leader, who gave another sharp command. The warriors surrounded Shadow, and the leader gestured to him to follow him. They led him out of the dense jungle into a boggy clearing, dotted with shimmering blue trees: their village. A massive blue tree stood at the centre, each of its huge branches as thick as any of the other trees. Shadow saw that a human figure was seated on one of the lowest branches, resting against the trunk. It was swathed in a brown cloak, but looked up as he approached. Shadow started. The cheeks were hollower than they should have been, the skin jaundiced, and the eyes over-bright, but it was without question the face he had studied on so many holograms: the Republic spy, Evers Soren.
     
  15. KithuraVess

    KithuraVess Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Nov 19, 2008
    Chapter 15: Truth Will Out

    Tracker stopped, panting, and bent forwards, placing his hands on his knees. The transport was moving at a surprising speed, given its cumbersome proportions and the density of the jungle. There was no need to follow it closely – it left a clear path through the foliage – but he was unable to keep himself at a comfortable pace. Impatience burned within him. Anger. Frustration. He had hoped to relieve those emotions by physical exertion, but that had only made it worse, since being too hot was now an added irritation. He had never felt this way before. He was a good soldier, always had been. Focused, disciplined, collected.
    As a young clone on Kamino, he had always been commended for his singularity of purpose, his ability to concentrate totally on the task at hand. Commandos were engineered to be different, bred to exhibit more strength of will, more individuality and creativity than the others, more of the fierce independence that had made the original gene donor, Jango Fett, into such a fearsome bounty hunter.
    This had been something of a hit-and-miss operation: some commandos had stubbornly refused to show any defining traits, wasting all the effort the cloners had spent on them by being exactly like any other troopers. Others had been too individualistic: there had been a rumour back then that, as children, Shadow’s batch had been under consideration for quality control. Not that anyone had given it much credence; commandos were far too expensive to duplicate and too difficult to raise to be disposed of. Besides, that had been around the time the quality control program had been phased out, under not-so-subtle pressure from some of the Mandalorian mercenaries Jango Fett had enlisted to help train the troops.

    Tracker’s personality had landed exactly in the middle. Precisely where it was meant to be. Creative, intelligent, but unswervingly loyal to whoever commanded him, no matter their orders. Always working as one with whatever team he found himself in. He had never gotten into any fights with his brothers. That would not have been productive. He had never felt any hatred towards any of them – certainly nothing like that all-controlling anger that had nearly made him attack Shadow, just two nights before – that had made him call him a bad batcher, made so much worse by the knowledge of that unsubstantiated rumour back on Kamino.
    And he had always been absolutely dedicated to his service, always placing his duty first. Never cultivating his own opinions, always dismissing his feelings as irrelevant. On his last mission he had watched Tech, his leader and long-time friend, die in the line of duty, and he had accepted this without qualm, without regret. Without any particular anger towards the Separatists who had killed him. It was war, after all.

    If, at the start of this mission, anyone were to have asked him how he would feel if he had to watch one of his brothers be tortured by the Separatists, he would have had his answer ready. He would be angry, certainly; he would do everything in his power to save the brother in question, of course; but he would concentrate on completing the mission, whatever the cost. His duty was to the Republic, not to his own sentiments.
    That hatred he had felt for the Phindian had been unlike anything he had ever experienced. So, too, was the concern he now felt for both Straightlace and Lingo. The worry, apprehension, strength of emotion that was driving him onwards now, running through the jungle, tearing his boots from the sucking sludge, ignoring the heat, fighting through the intense pain under his ribs from the spreading stitch in his side. Something was going to happen, he knew. Something terrible. He could not let it happen, whatever it was. He would not.


    Lingo was getting a little green about the gills. The transport was rattling and bumping through the jungle, due to uneven terrain or a faulty gravity field, and the air inside was only getting staler as time went on. There was a sour smell coming from the Gerlak cages, where some of them had given in to their nausea, and the Duros was taking swigs from a battered plasteel bottle emitting the distinct odour of rotting fish. If it was firaxa ale, it must have been exposed to the Sidellian heat for a long time. Lingo kept his eyes fixed on a spot on the far wall, breathing regularly, stoically avoiding the grim sight of Straightlace’s body bouncing with every jolt of the transport.
    “How far is this base?” muttered one of the Ithorians. Not that it was possible to sound impatient when speaking Ithorese. “It’s been hours!”
    “Patience,” replied the other one, in slow, deep tones. “There is nothing we can do but wait.”
    “What did Destrel need us for, anyway? He’s got Krassk, the Duros and battle droids.”
    “Don’t underestimate clone commandos. I knew a guy who did that once. Aqualish fellow, based on Malastare. He’s one with the Force now.”
    “Doesn’t look like Destrel underestimated this one.” The first Ithorian prodded Straightlace’s body with his foot. “Why’s he dragging the body along, anyway?”
    “He’ll have his reasons, Uthar. The point is, he’s paying us.” So the calmer one had to be Chonuu, then.
    “And the live one?”
    “Hey, clone,” said Chonuu suddenly. Lingo kept staring at the wall. “You’re a coward.”
    Just focus on the wall. Keep breathing.
    “What was that about?” asked Uthar.
    “Just making sure he can’t understand us. That human in the cantina the other day… what was his name, the spicer. Reminded me that we cannot always assume that our language is unique to us. Clones always react when you call them a coward. It’s physiological. They are programmed to hate that word.”
    “I see. So what were you going to tell me?” Uthar’s dark marble eyes were glinting with interest. “What does Destrel want with him?”
    “The same thing he wants with the Gerlaks, I assume. They are developing something at that base.”
    “A weapon? A poison, like that crazy Berchestian was going on about?”
    Chonuu nodded, his absurd head bobbing to and fro.
    “I have heard many interesting things about that poison. Some say that it is a mind-control drug. Destrel has dropped some hints that it is an aid to interrogation.”
    “You mean like a truth serum?”
    Chonuu nodded again. “I think that is very likely. It would explain why he is taking the clone. Torture is very time-consuming, and usually does not work on them. Bribery, threats, and intimidation are similarly useless. A truth serum would be by far the best solution.”
    Lingo’s mouth had gone dry. He had been preparing himself for painful interrogation, for a battle of wills between himself and the Phindian. He could win that. He was prepared to die for the Republic. The thought that they could just inject him with some chemical, and he would tell them everything, betray his commanders, betray his friends… that was terrifying.


    “You’re a commando.” Soren’s voice was hoarse and low.
    “That’s right, sir. RC-1102, Resh Squad. – You are Evers Soren?”
    “Indeed. So, the Republic came looking for me at last.” He leaned back against the tree trunk, closing his eyes, and gave a few deep breaths. “I was beginning to think no-one was coming.” He sat up with effort. “And the Gerlak?”
    Shadow looked down. The Gerlak female was sitting contentedly in his arms, cradling the infant. Dozens of other Gerlaks were surrounding them, peering out of the branches, venturing into the marsh, chirping and clicking. She seemed to be enjoying the attention.
    “I found her in the jungle, sir. She was badly wounded – I had to take off her foot. Er – she seemed – surprisingly alright with that.”
    Soren nodded. “Yes, the Gerlak possess incredible powers of healing. Pain-dampening, too. That’s why the Separatist have been taking them to experiment on.”
    “They – what?” Shadow stared.
    “You didn’t know? They’ve been kidnapping Gerlak for test subjects at their science base.”
    “No, sir. I know they have a secret base in the jungle somewhere. The rest of my squad is taking care of that, at least, I hope they are.”
    “I see. Why don’t you have a seat?” Soren gestured to the branch. “Put the Gerlak down, too. It seems I have a lot to tell you – and she has a lot to tell them.”
    Shadow obliged. The instant he put her down on the branch beside him, she was surrounded by excitedly chattering Gerlaks, whooping and whistling in a confusion of voices. A cluster of maternal Gerlaks appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, surrounded her protectively, screeching angrily at the others, and whisked her and the infant up into the heights of the main tree, out of sight. Soren’s chuckle ended in a racking cough.
    “H-hehe… the Gerlak look after each other,” he said, recovering. “So. What do you know of the situation on Sidellia? And take your helmet off, I’ve had enough of faceless conversations.”
    “The Separatists have a public base next to a large village, which is their official presence on Sidellia, and a secret base – you called it a science base just now, sir – where they’re developing some kind of toxin. Their leader is a Phindian named Tenallo Destrel. A cruel and vindictive tyrant. He’s got battle droids, mercenaries, and Gerlak scouts working for him. That’s all I know, sir.”
    “That is all correct. About two weeks ago, I discovered exactly what the toxin is they’re developing. Destrel decided that I was much too interested in it, so I made myself scarce. Unfortunately, I contracted this fever, but the Gerlaks found me and took me in – I’m still not sure why.”
    “What is the toxin, sir?”
    “It’s a truth serum, to be used as an interrogation aid. The idea of it is to leave the consumer completely unable to lie – and unwilling to remain silent. But it’s still under development. At first, apparently, it killed the Gerlaks instantly, later slowly; at the time I disappeared, it was apparently working, more or less, although a high dosage could still induce a potentially fatal coma, and any dosage had the side-effect of making the Gerlaks incredibly loud and garrulous. – What’s the matter?”
    The colour had gone from Shadow’s face. “A truth serum? Sir, that’s very bad! Two of our squad have been captured by the Separatists. At least, they think one of them’s dead, but the other one…”
    Soren stared. “Why didn’t you tell me immediately?”
    “Well, it wasn’t part of my assignment, sir. I just had to find you. But – but now – and I can’t contact Tracker, either. Sir, do you know where the base is? Is there any chance of my getting there?” It was sheer desperation.
    To his surprise, Soren did not immediately dash his hopes. Instead, he rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
    “There might be a way.”
    “What? – Er, sir?”
    “I don’t have the coordinates for the science base, but I suspect that some of the Gerlaks may have tried to find it. There is ancient infrastructure on Sidellia, probably from the very first outside visitors – ”
    “The stone pipe!” cried Shadow. “We came across one on our way to the main village.”
    “Exactly. Stone pipes and tunnels. There’s a pipe not too far from here. I’ve seen some of the Gerlak warriors go in and out of it, but woe betide them when the elders catch them doing it. I don’t understand their language very well, but I understood it had something to do with the Separatists. It may be a long shot.”
    “I’ll take any shot I can get, sir. Lingo – that’s RC-1058, the one they captured – has an extremely good memory. If the Seps have got that serum working, it would be a bad day for the Republic. Not to mention for him.”
    “I’ll speak to the Gerlak.” Throwing his head back, Soren let out a piercing whistle. A moment later, several Gerlaks dropped from the branches above, coming to land on the branch around him. Soren communicated with a chattering noise, interspersed with some Huttese words, and exaggerated gestures; the Gerlaks responded by looking first at him, then at Shadow, before giving a small chorus of chirps and hopping away.
    “I’ve told them to fetch three of their friends,” said Soren. “One of them speaks some Huttese, and the other two might be sympathetic to your cause. The war is a very sensitive topic among the Gerlak.”
    “I noticed that myself, sir.” Shadow proceeded to tell Soren about the incident he had witnessed, when two young warriors had dragged a droid’s head into the midst of the fruit harvest. “I remember thinking they were wrong, sir. The old Gerlak, and the ones who didn’t support the warriors. I thought they were cowards. Then I saw what the Separatists could do to them – I watched the Phindian execute them without reason. I didn’t even know they were being abducted, too.”
    “And you realised that they had their reasons to be afraid.”
    Shadow frowned. “No, sir! I realised that their young warriors were right. Skulking in the jungle, hiding from the droids, pretending there’s no war, while every day they could be stolen or killed – what kind of a life is that? Sir?”
    “That kind of talk would get you thrown out, if you were a Gerlak,” smiled Soren. “No, no, RC-1102, the situation is much more complicated than you realise. – Ah, here are the fellows I asked for.”
    Three Gerlak males had come to land on the branch between them. One of them was clearly somewhat older, his back bent, his beard limp. The other two were younger warriors, straight-backed, with twitching tails and gleaming eyes. Each held a pointed spear.
    “How this goes is going to depend very much on how the translator reacts,” prefaced Soren. “The older Gerlak can be very touchy. I’m going to ask if the warriors will show you the tunnel.”
    “Sir, if we could know if the tunnel comes up at the base – ”
    “I can’t ask that! Not directly. The translator would simply refuse to translate it. Let me handle this.” Soren turned to the old Gerlak and spoke in Huttese, pointing at Shadow, the warriors, and to the north, presumably the direction of the pipe. The translator glared at him suspiciously, and asked a question. Soren replied, his tone offhand, nonchalant. The translator narrowed his eyes, and said something clearly accusing, jabbing a scaly finger at Shadow. Soren replied a trifle quickly, but very emphatically. The translator stroked his beard, considering. Finally he seemed to make up his mind, and communicated something to the young warriors, who looked at each other in surprise.
    “He doesn’t want you coming near the village ever again, if you enter the tunnel,” explained Soren. “As long as you can promise that, he sees no harm in letting the warriors guide you there. He said very pointedly that he doesn’t like having outsiders in the village.”
    “But sir, do we know where the tunnel ends? How far it goes? I mean – ”
    “I will ask him if you insist, but he won’t like it.” Soren addressed the translator again. This time, there was outright hostility in the Gerlak’s expression. He spat out a question to the warriors. These widened their eyes and protested loudly.
    “I think they’re pretending not to know the answers to those questions.”
    “It looks like it, sir. Well, I can’t just sit around. If they won’t tell me, I’ll see for myself. Thank you, sir. Here – can I give you this emergency comm link? It sends a strong signal, easily detectable, but the Separatists won’t be scanning in this area. I’m supposed to rendezvous with the others in two and a half rotations – that is, in two mornings’ time, starting tomorrow morning. Will you give us three rotations, sir, starting now? If you don’t hear anything from us by then, contact me. And if you don’t get through, use the emergency comm link to call for extraction. The Republic cruiser Indomitable will be expecting a signal. It’s orbiting Serennia.” Shadow rose.
    “Three rotations it is. Transmit to Serennia. I understand. Commando – I regret not being able to help you any further, but my hands really are tied if the Gerlak won’t co-operate.”
    “I understand, sir,” said Shadow shortly. “I have to go. Goodbye, sir.”
    “Good luck, Commando. For the sake of the Republic, make sure the toxin doesn’t remain in Separatist hands. And – I hope your squad gets out.”
    “Thank you, sir.” Shadow shouldered his pack, put on his helmet, nodded to the Gerlak warriors, and set off.
     
  16. KithuraVess

    KithuraVess Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Nov 19, 2008
    Chapter 16: Stand Up and Find

    The village erupted in excited chattering – clearly, they had all been eavesdropping. The warriors flared their beards with pride, then hopped nimbly from tree to tree to the edge of the marsh, where they sat waiting for Shadow as he set off through the marsh. It was shallower on the northern side of the tree; the sludge did not even reach his knees, though it was still slow going. He had only gone a few meters when there was a loud screech behind him. It was the Gerlak female he had rescued, waving to him desperately from the main tree. He waved and turned back, ready to go on, but she launched herself at him with a cry, landing awkwardly in the slime on her hands and her good foot, and grabbed his leg, chattering and wailing insistently.
    “Hey – what are you doing? Leave me alone, I have to go!” He bent down and tried to pry her hands off, but she clung on, whining. “You’re getting yourself full of muck!” He took her in both hands and pulled her off his leg. She hung in the air, waving her arms and legs. He caught a few Huttese words – ‘friend’ and ‘help’; but she didn’t seem to be thanking him. The village was alive with chattering and babbling. He was getting more confused by the minute. A glance at Soren confirmed that the spy didn’t have any more idea of what was going on.

    An ear-splitting whistle tore the air, and suddenly there was silence. An ancient Gerlak had emerged from the foliage of one of the branches of the main tree. He was huge – Shadow estimated that the Gerlak would reach up to his waist if they stood next to each other – and his beard sagged onto his stomach. He was hung about with orange and yellow robes – the only male Gerlak Shadow had yet seen to wear clothes.
    “That’s the chieftain, Commando. I suggest we listen to what he has to say.”
    “Yes, sir.” Shadow was burning with impatience. Why wouldn’t these infernal villagers just let him go?
    He heard a small squeak, and realised that he was still holding the female Gerlak at arm’s length. With a sigh, he squelched back to the main tree, and put her down on the lowest branch, the same one on which Soren was seated. But she grabbed onto Shadow’s arm, determined not to let go. The Gerlaks – including the chieftain – were watching the scene in silence.
    “Can’t you just get on with it?” cried Shadow in desperation. None of the Gerlaks could understand a word, but his meaning must have been clear enough. The chieftain made a strange whirring noise, followed by a sharp whine; the other Gerlaks all retreated, with the exception of the translator, who stepped forwards, and said something in Huttese.
    “The chieftain wants to know who you are, and how you found Gree’a,” said Soren.
    “Sir, I don’t have time for this! I just want to know what she said. Please tell him – say that I won’t answer any of his questions until I know what she wants from me.”
    A discussion of chattering and twittering followed between the translator and the chieftain. Shadow could have screamed. But at length he got his answer.
    “She wants you to save her husband, Cherrek.”
    “Her – husband?”
    “I assume he was taken by the Separatists, but I’ll find out for you.”
    In answer to a question from the translator, Gree’a gave a string of fast clicks, whirrs and whistles. It took the translator a few minutes to communicate everything in Huttese.
    “Just over a week ago, she left this village with her husband and son. They went westwards to another village, where they joined a larger group, travelling to the main village. This group was attacked two days ago by the Separatists. Sounds like one of them was a Trandoshan. As far as she knows, she was the only one to escape, with her son. Cherrek distracted the Separatists so she could get away, and he was captured.”
    “Oh… I see. But – sir – how did she know where I was going?”
    “She heard that you were going to take the tunnel.”
    “So – she knows the tunnel will take me to the Separatists?”
    Soren posed the question to the translator. When he translated it back to the Gerlak language, however, the chieftain gave a loud, protesting bellow. The translator gave a small jump of fright and stopped mid-sentence. Now the chieftain launched into a didactic, emphatic speech, one the humans were clearly not meant to understand. With deep tones and exaggerated gestures, the chieftain was telling his people something – about them; that much was clear, from the way he jabbed his staff in their direction. Mainly in Shadow’s direction. The atmosphere was changing, from one of friendly curiosity into something more sinister. Many of the Gerlaks retreated, wary, fearful, while others began to show anger, baring their pointy teeth or flaring their beards.

    Not all of them were moved by the chieftain’s words, however. The young warriors gripped their spears in anger – not at the humans, but at their own chieftain. There was a whoosh as a dozen other young warriors jumped down to land beside them, similarly armed, and similarly angry. Something rustled in the branches above: a group of young females was watching the warriors with rapt attention.
    “Sir – what is he saying?”
    “I don’t know, Commando.” Soren was looking worried. That was not a good sign. Gree’a was holding his arm in a vice grip, baring her teeth at the chieftain. The chieftain barked an order, and several older warriors appeared from the trees, rushing straight towards Gree’a. Shadow reacted by instinct. In one movement he clutched Gree’a to his chest, sprang away from the tree, and whipped out his blaster rifle. The warriors recoiled. There were screeches of terror from the other Gerlaks.
    “Commando, what the hell are you doing?” screamed Soren. “Stand down! Stand down, damn you!”
    Shadow had pointed his rifle straight at the translator, who cowered, trembling.
    “Sir, now is our chance! Tell him to translate. We have no idea what’s going on, and – and I really don’t have time for any of this.”
    “It won’t work! You’re only making everything worse.”
    But Shadow could see, from the corner of his eye, that the young warriors were not opposed to him, even now.
    “I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t agree. Please ask him.” Shadow called Soren ‘sir’ only out of courtesy. The spy had no official authority over him, as far as he knew.
    “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Soren spoke to the translator, who immediately began to babble and sob.
    “The chieftain said that strangers only bring destruction to the Gerlak. He said that it was a mistake to bring me here, and an even bigger mistake to let you in. He said all strangers are the same, and that they should all be shunned.”
    “But – I saved Gree’a!”
    “He also mentioned that, apparently. He said that that proved nothing, it only showed that strangers can’t leave the Gerlak alone. And he said that Gerlak who interact with strangers are as bad as the strangers themselves. The only way to preserve Gerlak culture, he says, is to shun the strangers, and all who side with them.”
    “What? That’s insane! – Last time I checked, we weren’t hauling away Gerlaks to perform despicable experiments on! We weren’t the ones taking over their villages, executing their people, making their lives hell! And correct me if I’m wrong – sir – but trying to avoid the Separatists wasn’t working that well either!” He gestured with his blaster rifle as he spoke, causing the translator to squeak and cringe. He couldn’t remember ever having felt so much contempt before.
    “Do you want me to translate that?”
    Shadow blinked. “Uh – well – yes! Sir.”
    Soren pushed himself upright, and spoke as loudly as he could with his hoarse voice, pausing frequently for breath. The Gerlak translator did not seem inclined to say anything, but there was a stir among the young Gerlaks. The females were pushing one of their own to the front. She protested, shyly, but the young males began to cheer and chirp, and she took courage, translating, hestitantly at first, but then with increasing confidence, as the other young Gerlaks interjected with what appeared to be encouraging comments. Shadow hoped she wasn’t embroidering, but was too glad to have found a way around the cowering old translator to care very much. She finished speaking, and looked at him questioningly.
    “It appears they want you to make a speech,” observed Soren drily.
    “Er – well – ”
    Another bellow from the chieftain echoed through the village, but this time, the Gerlaks did not seem to heed him. He drew a deep breath to speak, and Shadow saw that his moment had come.
    “Hey! Listen up!” He waved his rifle in the air. The chieftain was too surprised to continue. Shadow pressed his advantage. “I know I’m a stranger. I know I don’t belong on Sidellia. But this is war, and I came here to fight the Separatists. I’ve seen them. I know what they do to you. They destroy your homes, steal your people, and kill your families. They’re cruel! And they don’t care who gets in their way.”
    Soren translated rapidly into Huttese, and the Gerlak female began to chatter even before he had completely finished his last sentence. The young Gerlaks were hanging onto her every word, and the others were overcoming their fear, leaning forward the better to hear her, or to get a better look at Shadow.
    “Staying out of their way is not going to work. It didn’t work for the Gerlaks in the main village, did it? I saw! I watched as the Separatists killed innocent Gerlaks, men and women, for no reason! And it didn’t work for Gree’a, or her husband, or the others who were with them. They didn’t do anything wrong, but the Separatists attacked them! The Separatists have been – experimenting on your people. Do you realise what that means? They’ve been, they’ve been kidnapping them, torturing them, killing them! You are under threat, and you can’t hide. You’ve tried that. It didn’t work!”
    There was a questioning chirrup from one of the older Gerlaks.
    “He wants to know why you care.”
    “I care because – because I can’t stand to see anyone treated like this. Treated like this, and taking it. It’s, it’s despicable. It’s cowardly!”
    A shocked murmur rippled through the Gerlaks when the translation reached them – except for the young warriors, who cheered. One of these, the largest, stepped forward and spoke.
    “He says that anyone who doesn’t protect their own is a coward.”
    “He’s right! And that’s why I need to go after the Separatists. They have two of my brothers. Only the worst kind of coward would not help them. If I don’t go to help them, they might die!”
    Now the Gerlaks were beginning to chirp and chatter among themselves. Their fear and hostility had gone; they spoke with amazement and excitement. One of the young warriors had a comment, which sent a gasp through the other Gerlaks.
    “He says he’s willing to take you to the Separatists. He knows where the Separatists take the ones they capture.”
    “He does? Well, then, there’s no time to lose!” He put Gree’a down again. This time, she let go quite willingly. “I’ll find your husband,” he said. He knew it needed no translation. The young warriors were forming up, and some of the older ones were joining them now. The chieftain folded his arms across his chest and scowled, but did not protest.
    “I didn’t know they taught oration on Kamino,” said Soren.
    “Er – they don’t, sir. I didn’t exactly plan it, the words just sort of – came out that way. Besides, I couldn’t have communicated any of that without you, sir, or that Gerlak girl.”
    “It looks like the Gerlaks want to go.”
    “Then I won’t keep them waiting, sir.”
    Soren nodded. “Get moving, soldier. And good luck.”
    “Thank you, sir. I have a feeling I’m going to need it.”
    The village resounded with loud whistling and chattering as they departed, five of the proud young warriors in front, Shadow in the middle, and the rest of them, at least twenty, behind him as a guard of honour. The marsh became shallower; now the slime was less than ankle-deep, and the vegetation was growing densely around them. The warriors ahead kept having to stop, waiting as Shadow battled through leaves, vines and hanging moss, while the ones behind kept bumping into him, but none of them showed any impatience, chirruping and clicking to each other with subdued excitement.
    After about half an hour’s worth of bashing through the jungle, the warrior in front gave a sharp whistle, and halted beside an overgrown mound of rock. Shadow couldn’t quite see what the point was – this was not like the stone pipe he had been expecting. It didn’t seem to be a structure at all. Then he gasped: the warrior had vanished, seemingly into the mound.
    The other warriors now swarmed around it, pointing out a hole in the rocks, clawing at the thick vegetation that grew around it. Suddenly, Shadow realised what it was: the entrance to a tunnel, blocked by rocks that had collapsed over it, a long time ago. Putting down his pack and blaster rifle – the warriors respectfully left those alone – he began trying to pry out the rocks.
    It didn’t seem possible. Soil had formed between the rocks, and the roots of bushes and ferns were entangled in everything, locking the rocks together. He took a utility knife from his pack and began to hew at the roots, making little headway; but the warriors saw what he was doing, and descended on the rocks around him, tearing off the vegetation, cutting at the roots with their spears or gnawing at them, clawing out the soil from between them. One of the rocks began to move; seizing it with both hands, Shadow pulled on it with all his strength. It sprang loose and he fell backwards onto the ground, the rock flying out of his grasp.
    The Gerlaks were silent for a moment.
    “Well, that’s one way to do it,” he chuckled, sitting upright. The Gerlaks burst out chirping and attacked the caved-in tunnel entrance with renewed vigour. One by one, the rocks came loose. They were far too heavy for the Gerlaks to lift, so Shadow concentrated on moving them while the Gerlaks continued loosening the soil and roots. Even with all of the help, however, it was an extremely time-consuming task.

    It was two hours to nightfall by the time there was enough space for Shadow to crawl through; his back ached, his shoulders cramped, and his arms felt as if they were about to fall off. He was frankly exhaused, and there was only one thing that could keep him going, terrible as it was to contemplate. He steeled himself, put down his helmet, took a packet of nutritional jelly out of his pack, and squeezed the contents into his mouth, swallowing it as quickly as he could.
    He gave a retching cough. He contemplated that his oath to serve the Republic, no matter the cost, hadn’t included anything about eating nutritional jelly. After a few minutes had passed, however, he felt the strength flow back into his body; the cramp eased, and the exhaustion faded into a milder weariness. Taking up his helmet, pack and rifle once again, he prepared to enter the tunnel. The Gerlaks watched him with interest.
    “I reckon this is goodbye,” he said, but they had other ideas. With a chirp, the largest young warrior hopped into the tunnel, where his clicks and whistles echoed. He was followed immediately by six or seven others. The rest sat back, waiting. Shadow took his cue and stooped into the tunnel – and stopped. The gloom was lit by tiny blue lights in the walls. Peering closely at them, he saw that they were crystals.
    He flicked on his night vision. The walls of the tunnel were covered in carvings, thinly veiled by algae. The tunnel widened into a passage and sloped steeply downwards, leading underground; roots stuck into the passage through the walls, trailing beards of moss. This was not simply like the stone passage from his dreams: it was exactly the same place. His heart hammered in his chest. What did this mean? Again he felt like something was watching him, and there was an elusive thought at the back of his mind, just out of reach.
    An impatient grunt from the leading Gerlak warrior brought him back to the present moment. Shaking off the strange feeling, he set off down the passage after the warriors. He didn’t have time for this. He had to get to the rest of his squad before it was too late.
     
  17. KithuraVess

    KithuraVess Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Nov 19, 2008
    Chapter 17: Truth Be Told

    The transport rumbled to a halt. The cockpit sprang open, admitting Krassk to the main area of the transport. He stopped short upon seeing the Duros.
    “You! I thought I told you to ssstay behind.”
    The Duros took another swig of rotting fish.
    “What’s the hold up, Krassk? – Oh, it’s you, Zhaal.” The Phindian pushed his way past Krassk. “Get these prisoners unloaded, I want to get started.”
    “What? Are you jusst going to let him get away with it?” hissed the Trandoshan. “He issn’t ssupossed to be here!”
    “Just do as I say,” barked the Phindian impatiently. The transport door slid open and he hopped out. It was an hour or two past midday. “I don’t want to waste any more time.”
    “Fine. Sssincce you’re here, Duross, you may as well make yourself usseful,” growled the Trandoshan. “Take that body insside. Desstrel will show you where to take it.”
    The Duros rose – somewhat unsteadily – and hauled Straightlace’s lifeless body over his shoulder, stumbling out of the transport.
    “Droidss, help me with these nativess,” ordered Krassk, getting out of the transport.
    “Roger roger.” The droids shoved the Gerlak cages towards the door. Krassk picked up one of the heavy cages with ease, and indicated to the droids to follow him. The transport was now empty except for a few battle droids remaining behind as guards.
    The Ithorian Chonuu rose, a heavy hand on Lingo’s shoulder; the other, Uthar, had taken out a blaster pistol. They escorted Lingo out of the transport. Now he saw that the transport had parked outside a walled compound, the walls topped with sparking fences. There were a few buildings inside the compound, which was patrolled by battle droids. Once they went through that gate, there would be no going back. Lingo took his chance. Twisting his arm out of the Ithorian’s grip, ducking the other’s blaster, he aimed a few strategic kicks that sent them bending over, bellowing with pain. He turned and ran.
    All hell broke loose behind him. He heard the Phindian shouting orders, battle droids colliding into each other, heavy objects clunking to the ground – those must be the Gerlak cages. Lingo increased his speed, running through the gloomy jungle, knocking his shins against rocks and roots, twigs scratching his face. He had to put as much distance as possible between him and the base; once he had disappeared into the jungle, he could figure out where he was, and try to get back to the main village. But now there was something worse behind him: regular squelching thuds, unmistakably Krassk’s running footsteps. Lingo gathered his strength for a burst of speed –
    Lightning struck. He fell to the ground, convulsing, purple sparks arcing from him. His jaw clenched. Spasm shooting through his neck and head.
    “I don’t like electrossstavess, but they have their usess,” muttered the Trandoshan, standing over him. He waited for the shocking to stop, then bent down and grabbed Lingo by the arm, threw him across his shoulder, and started walking back towards the base. Pins and needles seared through Lingo’s body – he had really had enough of those for one day – and he felt as if his arms and legs had turned to jelly. They wouldn’t obey his commands at all.

    The Phindian had been pacing nervously; he stopped and looked up as Krassk entered the compound. “You got him alive?”
    “Of courssse. He’ss no use to uss dead.”
    “Take him to the med bay first. Have a medical droid check him. I don’t want to run any unnecessary risks.”
    The Trandoshan strode up to the main building, a slab of grey concrete. Inside it was lit by fluorescent white lights, and surprisingly clean, after what Lingo had come to expect from Sidellia. A janitor droid rolled after them, beeping, upset at the footprints the Trandoshan was squelching across the pristine white floor. Lingo heard a door slide open, and the Trandoshan dumped him onto a bed and unceremoniously strapped him to it, so tightly that his chest could barely expand.
    “Don’t get any ideasss.” The Trandoshan moved away to speak to the medical droid, leaving a view of the next two beds clear. The further bed was closed off by a curtain. The Ithorians were sitting on the nearer bed, nursing their bruises. The spasm in his jaw had reduced enough for him to grin at them.
    “That bloody – ” began Uthar, rising, but Chonuu restrained him.
    “Sit down. It was our own fault. I warned you not to underestimate commandos.”
    “I hope they torture him to death! I hope he dies screaming! The bastard!”
    “That’s not a very suitable insult to use on a clone,” observed Chonuu, amused.
    The medical droid appeared, having received Krassk’s instructions, and automatically pulled a curtain between the beds, obscuring the Ithorians from Lingo’s view.
    “Greetings, patient. I am medical assistant MD-587. Please remain still while I conduct a routine assessment of your health.”
    “Not like I have much of a choice, do I.”
    The medical assistant bustled about him, measuring blood pressure, heart rate, and a dozen other health indicators. It loosened the strap across his chest and asked him to breathe deeply; his control of his limbs had not properly returned, so he could make no attempt to escape.
    “Excellent lung capacity,” commented the medical droid.
    “Hey, MD-587.”
    “I am here, patient.”
    “Why are you giving me a check-up?”
    “It was requested by bounty hunter Krassk.”
    “No, I mean – what are you checking for?”
    “I was asked to determine your maximum survivable dosage of Serum TX-three-point-two.”
    “You mean it could kill me?”
    “In the proper dosage, there is no reason to assume that it would be lethal.”
    “But it’s a dangerous drug! MD-587, aren’t medical droids programmed to prioritise the safety of their patient?”
    “Yes, patient.”
    “So aren’t you going against your protocols by clearing me for the administration of something potentially lethal?”
    The droid stopped, calibrating. The curtain was flung open, and the Phindian yanked the droid away from the bedside. “Enough of that!” spat the Phindian. “Droid, will it kill him?”
    “Current estimates show that the patient might suffer adverse effects from any dosage of Serum TX-three-point-two. I recommend waiting a twenty-four hour period, or one full day according to human biology, before performing another assessment.”
    “Boss!” cried something at ground level. Peering between the Phindian’s legs, Lingo saw an Ugnaught waving a datapad. “Two of the subjects just died, Boss. We changed the formula just like you said, and it was working better, but then these two just – keeled over.”
    “Urgh!” roared the Phindian. “You useless piece of slime! Find the cause! I don’t want to risk killing the human because of your bumbling!”
    “We’re working on it already, Boss. We’ll let you know as soon as we find the reason.”
    “Fine! And I don’t care about adverse effects,” added the Phindian to the medical droid. “We’ll administer the serum as soon as we know it won’t kill him outright. And I don’t want you speaking to him again, damn your protocols! Sedate him for now, I’ll be back once I’ve fixed this mess these so-called scientists have created.” He stormed off, the Ugnaught trotting at his heels.
    “Yes, sir,” said the droid calmly to Destrel’s retreating back. “Please hold still, patient.” It secured an oxygen mask over Lingo’s nose and mouth. He felt the sharp jab of a needle in his forearm, and his hand twitched. His limbs were working again! If he could just –

    Lingo blinked. Every muscle he possessed was aching, including some he hadn’t known about before. He was still in the med bay, but he was breathing more easily – the strap around his chest was being loosened. It was the Duros from the transport, reeking of old firaxa ale.
    “Hey, what’s going on?”
    “Time to go, clone.” The Duros undid the last strap. He sounded surprisingly sober. Lingo struggled upright.
    “Go where?”
    “They want you in the lab. Don’t try anything stupid,” he added, waving a blaster pistol.
    “You can’t scare me with – ”
    “I know that. But there are four battle droids outside, and that Ithorian who hates you. You won’t get far, even if you do get past me. Try to think ahead.”
    Lingo frowned. “What are you trying to tell me?”
    The Duros glanced over his shoulder, even though they were alone in the med bay. Then he leaned closer to Lingo and muttered something.
    “What? Why – ”
    “Can you do it?”
    “Uh – yes, sure, but – ”
    “Shut up!”
    The door slid open behind behind them. It was the Ithorian.
    “Hurry up, Zhaal. The boss is waiting.”
    “Move it, scum,” snarled the Duros, jabbing Lingo in the back with the pistol.
    Flanked by battle droids, the Duros behind him, Lingo followed the Ithorian through the brightly lit corridors of the main building. They exited the building and walked a few meters across open ground to an adjacent building. Night was falling rapidly. This building had considerably more security: a forcefield spanned across the door, and could only be deactivated by a code, which the Ithorian made sure no-one else saw.
    The door opened to reveal a small entrance, just large enough for their group, before another door blocked their way; the first door slid shut behind them, and a beam projected out from a camera above the second door, scanning them. Only then did the second door open, allowing them into the building. They walked along a dark gray corridor, illuminated by dazzlingly bright ceiling lights. The corridor terminated in another double-door, which opened onto the laboratory.

    It was like a scene from a nightmare. Evil-looking machines with sharp needles and scalpels were suspended from the ceiling. Tanks filled with a bubbling green liquid stood against one wall, and cages were piled in a corner, filled with terrified Gerlaks. As they entered, two Ugnaught scientists were dragging a fainting Gerlak out of a cage.
    “Put it back,” ordered the Phindian. “I’m done waiting.” He was standing beside a large chair, from which protruded all kinds of strange instruments, syringes and probes. Lingo shuddered. He had guessed correctly: the Ithorian led him over to it and, clearly seeing this as his moment of revenge, shoved him into it with obvious glee. Ugnaught scientists appeared seemingly from nowhere, strapping him securely into the chair, restraining his arms, legs and chest. One of them rolled up his left sleeve.
    “Welcome,” grinned the Phindian. “Now at last I am going to find out everything I want to know.”
    “I’ll never talk, Separatist,” spat Lingo. “Do what you want!”
    “Oh, I will. And you will find that I can be – quite persuasive.” He snapped his fingers and an Ugnaught came running from the far side of the laboratory, carrying a syringe full of the strange green liquid. The Duros strode over to him and took it, momentarily obscuring the Ugnaught from view, then turned around and handed the syringe to the Phindian.
    “This,” said the Phindian, “is Serum TX-three-point-two. You may have heard me mention it. It is made from purely local ingredients. Some slime from the jungle floor, the seeds of the exploding bomb-fruit from the most dangerous parts of the jungle; extract of some exotic slugs and plants, and, of course, a few secret ingredients… it has taken a long time to develop, and many mistakes, but I believe it is finally ready. I will get straight to the point: it is a truth serum. Once I inject you with it, your will to cling to your secrets will fade. Your reticence will disappear. You will begin to talk, and you will continue to talk until I know every little secret buried away in your memory.”
    Lingo glared at the Phindian. “You’re wrong. I’ll die before I tell you anything.”
    The Phindian chuckled. “It is you who are wrong. You will die – but only after you have told me everything.”
    He grabbed the strap around Lingo’s left forearm and gave it a powerful yank; Lingo drew his breath in sharply as the strap dug into his flesh. The veins popped up immediately. The Phindian jabbed the needle into one of them and pushed down the syringe with full force. Lingo flinched and clenched his teeth, imagining that he could feel the liquid spread through his veins.
    “Well, I suppose I’ll wait until you’re good and ready,” smiled the Phindian. “It won’t be long now.”
    Lingo closed his eyes and breathed deeply. He had to keep calm. He had to focus. He was going to need all of his concentration for this.
     
  18. KithuraVess

    KithuraVess Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Nov 19, 2008
    Chapter 18: Break Loose

    Damn the loss of power to his suit! At least night vision ran on a separate system. Not that he needed it immediately: the secret base was lit by bright white lights lining the walls of the buildings, as well as freestanding lamps placed at regular intervals between them. They really weren’t joking around with their security here. Super battle droids guarded the entrance of the compound, and regular battle droids patrolled the perimeter.
    The main building would house the critical facilities: offices, sleeping quarters for Destrel and the more important personnel, the med bay and the dataframes. The building beside that was equipped with a whirring extractor fan, and had a red forcefield across the front door; that would be the laboratory. It was a standard Separatist building, and he knew the layout: most of it would be taken up by the laboratory itself, containing various instruments and chemicals, and it would have a secure basement, often used either as a detention area or as storage for the more dangerous substances. The square building next to the power generator must be the droid storage unit, and the remaining building would be the quarters for non-essential personnel.
    They would be keeping the boss and Lingo in either the main building or the laboratory. Getting in unnoticed would be difficult, even under cover of darkness. The only way he could see would be to start by taking out the power generator from a distance, but that would of course alert the Separatists.

    Now the main building’s door was opening. Tracker quickly unclipped a panel on the side of his helmet and manually rotated the optical zoom. An Ithorian walked out, followed by a squad of droids and a Duros, surrounding – Lingo! He watched as they took him to the laboratory. The Ithorian was going to type something in on a keypad. Thank the Force Ithorians had such huge hands: even without the digital zoom, he could clearly see the movements of the Ithorian’s long, thick fingers on the keypad. He memorised them. The forcefield deactivated, the door opened, and the Ithorian led the others into the laboratory building. Tracker returned to normal zoom, closed the panel on his helmet, and activated night vision. Time was up.
    He was about to move out when something rustled in the leaves behind him. He spun around, unsheathing the vibroblade in his glove. There was a chirp from the branches above. A Gerlak! It had to be a scout, working for the Separatists.
    “Track-er!” squeaked a small voice, in Basic. He started. Was he imagining things?
    “Show yourself! How do you know my name?”
    A Gerlak warrior dropped from the foliage above, landing on the branch in front of him. It held a spear in one hand, but waved a scrap of something in front of it – it looked like a ration bar wrapper.
    “Track-er!” it repeated.
    “Give me that!” Tracker snatched the wrapper from the warrior. Something was written on it in Aurebesh, obviously in a clone’s handwriting, though it was rather a little more slapdash than that of most clones. Shad, no doubt about it.
    Track, I’m north of the secret base. Sent the Gerlaks to find you. Follow them. I need to tell you something urgent. Shadow.
    Tracker hesitated for only a moment. There was no way this was a trap – well, no way that he could see.
    “Fine, hurry up,” he said to the warrior. It chirped again and jumped into the next tree, turning around to make sure that he was following.
    “Think I’ll do this on the ground.” Tracker swung himself noiselessly onto the jungle floor; the warrior hopped down to his level, and ran ahead, stopping every now and then to make sure he was keeping up. It led him around the base to the north, and some distance into the jungle. Then it let out a low coo, indistinguishable to Tracker’s ear from the cry of a bird. There was an answering coo from just ahead of them.
    “Track!” Shadow materialised from the bush.
    “Shadow, what’s going on?”
    “Long story. I found Soren, he’s waiting for us in a Gerlak village. I’ll fill you in later. But he told me what the toxin was for. It’s a truth serum.”
    “What?”
    “Apparently it’s pretty effective. If they’ve given it to Lingo, he’ll have told them everything. Not just about the mission, about everything he knows.”
    “They haven’t. I just saw them take him to the laboratory.”
    “Then there’s no time to lose! Any ideas?”
    “This base is guarded pretty well. The only chance we have is taking out the power generator. Lucky I brought my anti-armour attachment.”
    “You’ve been dragging that heavy thing along with you all this time? Thank the Force.”
    “I had a clear shot at the generator from my previous position. I’ll take it out from there. That should shut down the forcefields and electric wires around the compound. Lights, too. You sneak in, get inside that laboratory, and get Lingo out. Destroy the toxin, but make sure you take a sample with you. I’ll join you as soon as I can. I’m activating my short-range comms. You should too.”
    “Copy that. – What about the boss?”
    “I don’t know. We’d better hope he’s done whatever he had planned, because all hell is about to break loose. Let’s move!”
    Tracker headed off without waiting for a response. Shadow was about to do the same when he heard a chirrup near his feet.
    “Oh, I forgot. Wait here. Wait.” He thrust out his hands as if to repel them. They seemed to understand: the leading warrior sat on his haunches, and gave a disappointed coo.
    “That’s the idea. See you.” Shadow touched his fingers to his helmet in a casual salute, then set off for the compound entrance. He took up a concealed position just a few dozen meters from it, and waited.

    “How long has it been?” It hadn’t taken the Phindian a very long time to lapse into his habitual impatience.
    “Four minutes, sir,” answered an Ugnaught.
    “That has to be long enough. Clone!”
    Lingo opened his eyes. They were unfocused, staring into the middle distance.
    “What is your designation?”
    “RC-1058.” The voice that replied was flat, monotone. The Phindian grinned.
    “Now, that’s more like it! How long have you been on the planet?”
    “Seven rotations.”
    “Really? That’s interesting… what were you doing before you were captured?”
    “We landed four days’ march from the main village. When we reached it, RC-0793 went into hiding to the north of the village. I spent the next two days scouting. Then I found out RC-0793 had been captured. I attempted to rescue him.”
    “But that didn’t go quite the way you thought, did it? And now you’re here. Well, well, life does have its surprises! Tell me, what was your mission?”
    “We were sent to discover the location of this base.”
    “Indeed!” The Phindian’s overconfident smile faltered. “So they knew about it, did they? And – do they know about the truth serum?”
    “We were given information that the Separatists were developing a weapon in their secret base. There was no mention of a serum.”
    “Good! Hah – they’re not as informed as they think. I congratulate you, Doctor,” said the Phindian, turning to one of the Ugnaughts. “This serum is working wonders. Go and prepare the medical bay for the dissections, and get started on the first one. If your serum continues to be this effective, I will be joining you soon.”
    “Yes, sir.” The Ugnaught bustled off. Lingo’s right eye gave a nearly imperceptible twitch.
    “Now, let’s see, let’s see.” The Phindian clasped his hands together and began pacing up and down in front of the chair. “Oh, I’ve wanted to know this one for a long time: is Evers Soren working for the Republic?”
    “I don’t know that name.”
    “Hmm, that’s disappointing. I suppose they wouldn’t tell you that kind of thing. No, ships, weapons and codes are more in line with what a commando would know. Isn’t that right?”
    “Yes.”
    “Then you can tell me about those. Where are the Republic forces in this area based?”
    “They are not all based in the same system.”
    “I could have told you that, damn you! I mean, where’s the main force? Is it at Serennia?”
    There was a slight pause. “Yes.”
    “Hah! I knew it! And – oh, what is it now?”
    The Ugnaught doctor had come rushing into the laboratory, wringing his hands, white hair awry.
    “Mr. Destrel! Mr. Destrel!” he squeaked. “The – the body! It’s gone!”
    “What?” barked the Phindian. “I didn’t give orders for it to be moved!”
    “And – and the medical droid has been deactivated!”
    “Deactivated? I didn’t order that either! What – ”
    There was an explosion outside, and everything went pitch black. An alarm sounded. The Phindian uttered a succession of unbelievable curses.
    “Power’s out,” commented Zhaal from the darkness.
    “I can see that, you bug-eyed imbecile! Stay here. I’m going to get to the bottom of this. Droids – with me.”
    The Phindian flicked on an emergency switch, which lit up the laboratory with a dull red light, then swept out, followed by the Ugnaught doctor and the battle droids.
    “Let’s go.” The Duros began loosening the straps on the chair.
    “Thanks.” Lingo pulled his arms free, then tore off the remaining straps and jumped up. “I – the door!”
    The Duros spun around just in time to see an Ugnaught scientist making a rush for the exit. He shot him down without a second thought.
    “Anyone else? Didn’t think so! That reminds me. You’ll need this.” He drew an extra blaster pistol from his belt and handed it to Lingo. “Let’s move.”
    “Wait, I have to destroy the serum.”
    “Nothing short of an explosion will destroy those tanks!”
    “That can be arranged,” said a voice from the door. “Lingo, are you right?”
    “Shad! Was this power outage your idea?”
    “Yep. Who’s your friend?” The suspicion in his voice was palpable.
    “I’m Zhaal,” said the Duros. “Let’s not waste any more time standing around. The Separatists will be back soon.”
    “We need to blow those tanks,” said Shadow. “Tracker’s anti-armour could do it, but I don’t think we should wait for him. Labs usually have explosive chemicals.”
    “In the basement,” answered the Duros. “I’ll show you.”
    Shadow’s hesitation lasted for only a split-second. “Okay. Lingo, you’d better go with him. I’ll stay here in case anyone gets the bright idea of coming back.”
    “Right.” Zhaal and Lingo hurried out. Shadow made his way over to the tanks, the bubbling liquid glowing faintly in the half-darkness. A group of Ugnaught scientists huddled together beside the tanks, cringing away from him as he approached.
    “Get me a sample of this stuff,” ordered Shadow. They whimpered, but did not otherwise respond. “Move it!” He aimed his rifle at them. This spurred one of them into action. He waddled over to a cabinet and took out a plasteel cylinder, clearly full of green liquid, and proffered it to Shadow.
    “What the hell is this? I want to see you take it out of the tanks.”
    The Ugnaught grunted, but obliged, taking a clean cylinder from another cabinet, which he filled from one of the tanks. Shadow snatched this from him and slipped it into his pack.
    “Now get back into your corner and stay there, if you don’t want to get fried.”
    The Ugnaught made his way back to the others, and stood there, watching Shadow warily. Keeping one eye on them, Shadow flung himself at the Gerlak cages and knelt beside them, shot off the locks and pulled the doors open. The Gerlaks, however, were too frightened to come out.
    “Oh, for – I’m helping you escape!” He reached into one of the cages, took out a Gerlak, and put it down carefully on the floor. It did not move; it had fainted. One of the Ugnaughts gave a squeaking chuckle – then squealed in fright, staring at the smoking blaster-mark centimeters from his feet.
    “I’ll aim higher next time,” snapped Shadow. “Come on, get out, you!” he added to the Gerlaks. There was a stir inside one of the cages, and a young warrior emerged. He was shaking with fear, but controlling himself admirably.
    “That’s it!”
    The warrior turned to the others inside the cage and cooed encouragingly. They seemed to be waking up, out of their nightmare; one by one they shuffled out.
    “Which one of you is Cherrek?”
    They looked up at him questioningly.
    “Cherrek. Where’s Cherrek? Gree’a’s husband?”
    “Cherrek! Cherrek!” Two of them understood, and hopped back into the cage. They emerged soon after, supporting a badly injured and unconscious Gerlak. Dried blood was caked around several wounds on his torso and legs; there was a gash across his face, and a large part of his beard hung in shreds.
    “Oh, damn.”
    “We’ve got the explosives!” Lingo, followed by Zhaal, ran into the lab, waving a packet. “This will vaporise the lab, so get clear!”
    “Right.” Shadow got to his feet. “Will the basement explode, too?”
    “No, the blast isn’t that powerful,” answered Zhaal.
    “Then that’s where we’ll put the Ugnaughts. Zhaal, you escort them. Lingo, set the charge.”
    “What? You’re really going to worry about them?” Zhaal was incredulous.
    “Well I can’t just murder them, can I? Now get going, you’re the one who keeps saying we don’t have time!”
    “Fine! Get moving, you,” ordered Zhaal, pointing his blaster pistol at the scientists. They shuffled obediently towards the door.
    “Okay, Lingo. I’ll cover you while you place the explosives.”
    “Got it.” Lingo began inspecting the tanks for strategic spots to put the explosive packets. Shadow took up a position covering the door. He glanced worriedly at the Gerlaks. Cherrek wasn’t going to last long. The door slid open, admitting the Duros.
    “I’ve locked the scientists in the basement, like you said, but they’re going to die one way or the other.”
    “It’s not my fault if the Seps take out their anger on them. You ready, Lingo?”
    “Yep.”
    “How do I detonate them?”
    “I’ve laid a makeshift fuse. Just shoot it. But it’ll burn through pretty quick.”
    “Okay. Don’t wait for me. See if you can find Tracker or the boss, and – ”
    “The boss? Shadow, he’s dead!”
    “Right, you wouldn’t know. Long story, but he’s alive and kicking. Now move!”
    Lingo stared at him open-mouthed, and didn’t budge.
    “Well, I’m done waiting,” said the Duros. “What are you standing around for?”
    “Get yourselves clear. I’ll get these civilians out of here, then light it up.”
    “The lizards? You’ll get yourself killed. I’m off.” The Duros spun around and headed for the laboratory door. Lingo shook himself out of his shock and followed.
    “Come on!” Shadow stooped down, picked up the injured Cherrek with one hand, and gestured to the other Gerlaks to follow. It was a testament to the magnitude of the shock they were suffering from that they followed him in complete silence, letting out no chirp or chatter. At the door of the laboratory he turned around and shot the fuse; it burned towards the serum tanks at an alarming rate.
    “Run!” This needed no translation. He sprinted down the corridor, the Gerlaks hot on his heels.
    The outer door of the building opened onto a scene of absolute chaos. The power generator was a burning wreck, and the fire had spread to the barracks. The lights were all out, and droids and mercenaries were running around, shouting, shining torches into each others’ eyes; a blaster shot fired from somewhere in the darkness, and a mercenary screamed. Shadow nearly fell over the smoking hulk of a super battle droid, right outside the door.
    “Good job, Lingo,” he grinned, and ran. The ground rocked as the laboratory exploded behind them, lighting up the sky. In the confusion that followed, no-one noticed him as he cut across the compound to the exit. The forcefield was still deactivated, and the loss of power had kept the door jammed open, but as he approached it, two battle droids blocked the way. He shot them down without stopping, and led the Gerlaks into the jungle.
    “Here, take this.” He dug the kolto out of his pack and gave it to the warrior who seemed to be in charge. “Give it to Cherrek, okay?” He pointed at the kolto, then at Cherrek, and mimed rubbing the kolto on the wounds. The warrior chirped an affirmative, but looked around him with an air of desperation. They were very far away from their home, and totally lost. At this moment there was a rustle in the leaves behind them, and three of the warriors from the village emerged.
    “Hey, I thought I told you to wait at the tunnel! Get him back to Gree’a,” he added, pointing at Cherrek. “Alive, if you can.”
    They chirruped. “Gree’a.”
    “That’s right. I’ve got to go.” Strapping on his pack again, he sprinted back to the compound.
     
  19. KithuraVess

    KithuraVess Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Nov 19, 2008
    Chapter 19: Safe and Found

    Tracker decided he had caused enough disarray. It was time to find the boss. He weaved his way through the chaos of the compound and slipped into the main building.
    “Intruder aler– ” Tracker sidestepped the droid’s falling body. The emergency lights were on inside the building, so he deactivated night vision and started off down the corridor. Clanking footsteps coming around the corner. He braced himself, rifle up. Let loose a hail of blaster bolts moment the squad of battle droids came into view. Only one of the droids had time to fire at him. Blaster blaster bolt singed the wall inches from Tracker's head; he hurried on without a second thought. His first stop was the med bay, but it was empty, except for a deactivated medical droid. He performed a quick search all the same, just in case the Separatists had left some truth serum or anything else interesting lying around, but found nothing. He would go to the dataframes next; Straightlace would likely have gone there to extract relevant data and delete everything else, assuming he was still alive.
    The door to the data room was locked, but Tracker could hear someone inside, moving about and – swearing in a muted tone. It was definitely Straightlace.
    “Boss!” he knocked on the door. “It’s 1017.”
    Silence, for a moment.
    “Commando. What is your nickname?”
    “Er – Tracker, sir.”
    There was a click, and the door was slid open manually. Straightlace lowered his blaster.
    “Had to make sure it was you. Come in.”
    Tracker obeyed, and Straightlace locked the door behind him.
    “Report. While you slice that terminal. Copy any relevant information – codes, plans, or anything related to the truth serum. The toxin, that is. Then destroy the dataframe.”
    “Sir.” Tracker seated himself at the terminal. He was no expert, but all commandos were trained to be proficient in slicing, and the electronic security did not keep him busy for long. “1102 has found Soren, alive. He’s safe, in a Gerlak village. I’ve been at this base for the past few hours, 1102 joined me here. I took out the power generator so we could get in. I saw the Separatists take 1058 to the lab, but 1102’s gone to get him out. We know about the truth serum, sir. 1102 will take care of any supply they have in the lab.”
    “Good work. You really upset the Separatists’ apple cart. When that explosion sounded – I assume that was the power generator – everyone lost their heads, which made my life much easier. There, that dataframe’s done. How is your progress?”
    “There’s not much here, sir, but I’m copying everything that looks important.”
    “Good. I found some encrypted files related to the serum, which I’ve copied onto this card. The dataframe you’re slicing is the last one. Once it’s finished, we’ll destroy the hardware. Not much point in deleting the files; these Separatist systems are riddled with hidden backup mechanisms, I’ll give them that.”
    “Yes, sir. It’s done,” he added a minute or two later.
    “Then let’s rearrange their system architecture.”
    A flurry of blaster bolts turned the frames into molten wrecks. Straightlace’s grin gleamed in the dim emergency light.
    “Ah, it’s good to be alive! Now, let’s find the rest of the squad, scrap this place and get out of here. I’ve just about had enough of this planet.”
    He pushed open the door and they burst into the corridor, blasting two unfortunate battle droids without even stopping, running on, blasters at the ready.
    “We make a fair team,” observed Straightlace, reloading as he ran.
    Tracker’s chest swelled with pride, and his blood pumped with excitement. This was who he was, this was all he'd ever wanted: to risk all for the Republic, to follow a leader he would gladly go to the ends of the galaxy for. To fight alongside a brother, as one.

    They waited for the droids to pass, hidden in the darkness, trying to keep their breathing still.
    “They’re gone, let’s go.”
    “Wait.” Lingo grabbed onto the Duros’s sleeve. “Why are you helping me?”
    “I’ve always hated that Phindian. How he acts, what he does to the Gerlaks. But I never thought there was any point going against him. You changed my mind.”
    “Really? Just like that?”
    “You stood up to him. Tried rescuing your friend, too. Maybe you were just following your programming, but it was pretty brave. Seemed a shame to waste all that by letting them give you the serum, erase your ability to think for yourself.”
    “Thanks, but that can’t be all. What’s in this for you?”
    The Duros grinned. “You’re right, it isn’t all. I need your help. The Phindian’s got a stash, probably in his quarters. Valuable artifacts. And data: maps, recordings, discs. You can keep the data. Deal?”
    Lingo gave a decisive nod. “Deal.”
    They burst out of cover and sprinted across the dark grounds to a side door of the main building. It was locked, but the Duros slid off the access panel cover and hotwired the automatic control in a matter of seconds. Cautiously, he pushed open the door.
    “It’s clear.”
    “How can anyone be this disorganised?” muttered Lingo as they snuck through the empty corridors, emergency lights flashing, alarms blaring. “Not that I’m complaining.”
    “Rusting battle droids and drunk mercenaries. What did you expect? – Shh!” The Duros skidded to a halt and peered carefully around the corner. “It’s that bloody Ithorian Uthar, snooping around; he’s blocking our way to the Phindian’s quarters. He – hey!”
    Lingo had stepped out of cover. He raised his blaster and shot the Ithorian through the head.
    “Come on. Do you want to get the Phindian’s stash or not?”
    “Cover me while I slice the door.” The Duros’s eyes were even larger than normal. “Some revenge,” he commented, kneeling down beside the access panel. “Satisfied?”
    “It wasn’t revenge. That desire gets drilled out of us pretty quickly; it’s not productive.”
    “So you just shot him because he was in the way? That’s cold,” said the Duros admiringly. “Okay, we’re in.” He shoved open the door, and they entered, Lingo dragging the Ithorian’s body after him. The Duros closed the door.
    “It won’t lock. One of us is going to have to stand watch while the other one searches.”
    “I don’t trust you that much,” said Lingo, giving a lop-sided grin. “You keep watch. Keep the door open a little. Tell me immediately if you see any of the other clones. I’ll take everything I find – and I’ll bring you the artifacts.”
    “Guess you won’t take them, you wouldn’t get them past security on any Republic ship,” shrugged the Duros, taking up position by the door.
    “Where would I spend the money anyway, even assuming I could sell them?” Lingo was already ransacking the room. The Phindian’s quarters consisted of four small adjacent rooms, the connecting doors standing open: the small ante-chamber which they now occupied, furnished only with a few chairs and a storage container, empty except for a few slice cards; then there was a bedroom, a bathroom and a study-cum-control room. A quick scout of the bare bedroom delivered no useful items except for a shoulder bag. The bed was raised above the ground, and the space between the floor and the matress was covered by a panel. On a hunch, he knocked at the panel. It was hollow. But there was no way to open it; it seemed to be for aesthetic rather than storage purposes.
    He went into the study, shooting the locks off the lockers, grabbing any data storage media he could find and stuffing them into the bag. There was a terminal built into a desk in the corner. He wasn’t quite as good a slicer as Tech, his old captain, had been; nonetheless, he was proficient enough to get into the system in under two minutes. To his disappointment, there was no data stored on the terminal itself. Instead, it connected to the main dataframe system – or rather, it was supposed to, but claimed to be unable to establish a connection. The only thing on the terminal itself was an access control for some or other unspecified door. He tried to slice it on a whim, but it was surprisingly difficult to get into.
    “What’s this?” he muttered. “Must be important. I’d better open it, whatever it is.”
    It took him nearly five minutes of intense concentration, but at last he succeeded. Wanting to waste no more time, he got up to head for the ante-room. On the way past the bedroom, however, something caught his eye: the panel beneath the bed had slid open, revealing a safe. His heart throbbed with sudden excitement, and it was all he could do to keep from diving at the safe head first. If he had stopped to analyse his emotions, he would not have been able to find a reason for this. He went down on his knees beside the bed the safe. A mechanical lock! The Phindian sure wasn’t taking any chances.
    “Hmm… ” He rotated the lock this way and that, listening carefully as it clicked. He hadn’t worked with mechanical locks since the early days of his stealth training, four or five years ago. They weren’t used much. If he could just –
    “Battle droids incoming!” came a strangled cry from the Duros. A moment later he heard their clanking footsteps. “And a mercenary from the other end of the corridor. There’s no way out. Hide!”
    Lingo rolled under the bed, pulling the panel across, but leaving it very slightly open in order to be able to hear what was going on. He heard the Duros snap the door shut and get into cover – it sounded like he was hiding in the storage container – and then heard the droids stop, right outside the door. There were other footsteps too, belonging to the mercenary. He addressed the droids in Huttese.
    “Where are you going?” His voice was high, his syllables drawn out. Probably a Rodian.
    “We’re reporting to the boss,” replied one of the droids, speaking Basic. “He’s regrouping at the main entrance.”
    “Then I’ll come with you.” He sounded relieved. “I have no idea what’s going on.”
    “Roger roger.” They set off down the corridor again. The storage container opened again, and the Duros climbed out.
    “That was close. We’d better move.”
    “Give me a minute.” Lingo had struggled out from under the bed and was fiddling with the lock again.
    “I’ve given you plenty of minutes,” growled the Duros.
    “Hey, do you want your artifacts or not? Because I’ve got the data files; I don’t need anything from the safe, I don’t think. I’m ready to go.” Not that he was. He wanted desperately to see what was inside the safe.
    “Fine. Just hurry up.”
    Lingo twisted the lock again, feeling the mechanism inside turn and move and click. He was starting to get the idea now. There – the tension released, and the lock sprang open. He tore it off and flung open the safe door.
    “Ow! Bloody – ”
    “What is it now?” snapped the Duros.
    “Bloody thing stung me!” Lingo sucked his fingers, trying to ease the stabbing pain. He had reached into the safe to pick up the first artifact, a strange cube of carved stone, set with tiny blue crystals.
    “Must have been static electricity,” commented the Duros.
    “Don’t see how – it’s not metal.” Lingo wrung the stinging hand.
    “Let me take it out then. I’m the one who’s keeping it, anyway.” The Duros shouldered him out of the way, holstered his blaster and began cleaning out the safe. “Hey, here’s something for you.” He tossed him a phial. Lingo caught it: it was a sample of the serum. He was about to reply when the door was dragged open.
    “Jussst as I thought. Thievesss,” hissed the Trandoshan. His red eyes fell on the phial in the split-second before Lingo could shove it into the bag. “Oh no, you don’t,” he snarled, and lunged.
     
  20. KithuraVess

    KithuraVess Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Nov 19, 2008
    Chapter 20: Berserk

    “The armoury is just down this corridor,” said Straightlace, pulling up. “I unlocked it from the control room. We’ll look for anything that can cause considerable destruction – grenades and explosives, preferably, not that I expect it to be very well stocked. The more damage we can do to this place, the better.”
    “Yes, sir!” Tracker’s broad grin was hidden by his helmet, but evident in his voice. They ran along the corridor, took up position on either side of the door, blasters out; then swung themselves around, ready to burst into the armoury. The doors did not move.
    “Damn!” cursed Straightlace. “They must be on a timer to re-lock. I’ll see if I can slice the access panel – ”
    “Oh, it’s nothing that complicated,” said a voice behind them. Hate flooded through Tracker as he spinned around to see the Phindian, flanked by two super battle droids on either side. There were two more behind him.
    “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” grinned the Phindian, glancing at Tracker’s blaster rifle. “You’re hopelessly out-gunned. Now, put down your weapons.”
    “What’s the point? You’ll just kill us anyway, you sniv– ”
    “Let me handle this,” cut in Straightlace, stepping forward. “You do seem to have the upper hand, Destrel. A clever trap – using the chaos to pretend to be in more disarray than you truly were. But what makes you think we’ll come quietly? You don’t exactly have a stellar record in terms of keeping to the Galactic Treaty on the Treatment of Prisoners of War. After all, you executed my captain and were going to have me injected with a truth serum.”
    Tracker glanced at Straightlace. So – he wanted the Phindian to think that he was Lingo. Well, they didn’t look exactly the same, but there was no way the Phindian would suspect that Straightlace wasn’t dead. Even if he knew the body was missing. Unless, of course, they knew where Lingo was. It was a risk.
    “What do you mean?” asked the Phindian suspiciously. “I did inject you.”
    Tracker’s heart missed a beat. He glanced at Straightlace. But his captain’s gaze did not flicker. He forced a smug grin across his face. “So you thought. And I’m sure you thought you’d got a lot of juicy information out of me, didn’t you? But you’re wrong.”
    “I don’t know how you did it, but I don’t care,” spat the Phindian. “You don’t get to make deals with me, Republic scum!”
    “I don’t? – Aren’t you in the least interested to know how I was able to resist your magic serum?” Straightlace had the Phindian’s interest now. He was trying to keep his voice calm, but Tracker could feel the nervous energy radiating off him as his mind worked, trying to find a way out of the situation. Tracker wished he could activate recording on his helmet, to transmit everything he was hearing to Shadow, but with the power depleted he would first have to switch the recording functionality onto emergency power. This required manually adjusting the controls behind a panel on the outside of his helmet. There was no way to do that without the Phindian noticing – or was there? The Phindian was staring very intently at Straightlace, who was using a lot of impressive words to say almost nothing, but sound significant. Tracker reached up behind his head, flipped open the panel and made the adjustments. The Phindian’s eyes flicked to him just as he was bringing his hand down.
    “What was that? What did you do?” he demanded.
    “Just adjusting my helmet. It gets uncomfortable in the heat.” Did that sound too casual?
    The Phindian narrowed his eyes and looked from Tracker to Straightlace.
    “You’re stalling.”
    “Of course I am,” said Straightlace. “You don’t think I’m looking forward to the interrogation you’re no doubt going to subject me to, do you? But I think we can work something out, if you – ”
    The Phindian raised his blaster and shot Straightlace through the heart. Straightlace stopped, mid-sentence, a surprised expression on his face, and collapsed. Tracker’s world came to a sudden halt.
    “If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a liar,” snarled the Phindian. “You’d do well to remember that, clone.”
    Tracker felt cold, ice cold. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the body of his captain. Alive one moment, standing next to him, his brother, his leader. Now a silent corpse. He became aware of the fact that the Phindian was still talking, and suddenly the cold was gone. A flame had started in his heart, searing him, filling his chest, spreading outwards, racing along his veins. Anger – rage – all-consuming hatred.
    “I’ll bet you’ve got all the same information he had,” the Phindian was saying. “I’ve still got one sample of the truth serum left in my safe. My scientists will reconstruct the serum based on that, and then I’ll just get the information out of y–” He paused, frowning. He loosened his collar. “I’ll –” He coughed. Rubbed his throat. He tried to draw a deep breath, but couldn’t. Now he was looking worried. Tracker felt the fire run along his arm, into his fingertips. They tingled with hate.
    “What’s – eck! – going – heagh – on?” The Phindian’s voice was sounding hoarse. His eyes widened. Both hands were at his throat now, clawing at his windpipe, trying to loosen an invisible noose. The super battle droids watched, impassive.
    “I – droids! D- do – someth…” The phrase ended in a desperate cough. The Phindian dropped to his knees. Tracker stared, fascinated, as the Phindian’s face changed colour. There was a shot from somewhere, and the Phindian stopped struggling and keeled over. It was as if Tracker had been under a spell which had suddenly broken; he was in control again, aware again, the hatred subsiding. The super battle droids turned in the direction of the noise, breaking formation. This left a gap between them, through which Tracker could see Shadow, rolling an ion grenade down the corridor towards them.
    “Track! Run!”
    The only way out was through the droids. Tracker leapt forwards and sprinted away; the droids were still recalculating their course of action when the ion grenade went off, lighting the walls with flashes of blue lightning. Tracker caught up with Shadow, and they ran towards an exit.
    “I got your transmission. What happened?”
    “That fierfek shot the boss in cold blood.”
    “I saw. - I'm sorry. - But, I actually meant the choking. What was that?”
    “Your guess is as good as mine. Where’s Lingo?”
    “Not sure. He was with a Duros mercenary who’d been helping him. We were supposed to rendezvous near the lab – after I’d blown it up – but I haven’t seen them. We’ve got to find them fast. The droids and mercs are regrouping. Once the chaos dies down, they’ll come looking for us. I mean, again.”
    “A mercenary? And you just left them alone?”
    “Like I said, they were working together. Come on, Track, have some faith. Lingo can handle himself.”

    The world was swimming, and there was a searing pain down the right side of his face. Something hot and sticky was gushing down his cheek. The Trandoshan was turning towards him; behind him lay the crumpled form of the Duros, dead or unconscious, Lingo wasn’t sure.
    “Give me that bag,” hissed Krassk. Lingo clutched it tightly, trying to remember why it was important. Then it all came back to him: how they had been interrupted while clearing the safe, how the Trandoshan had seen him take the serum, and had then attacked. Krassk made another grab at the bag; this time he caught hold of it, and a desperate tug of war ensued. Lingo hung on for dear life, gritting his teeth. The Trandoshan was a lot stronger than he was, but he could not let go. Krassk dug his bloodied nails into the fabric, and the bag ripped open, scattering stone artifacts across the floor. Neither of them were interested in those; they both scrambled for the serum. The Trandoshan got there first.
    “You’re out of luck,” he snarled, and tensed his arm, ready for a fatal swipe at Lingo’s throat. Lingo’s blaster was lying on the floor, just out of reach; he saw it at the same moment Krassk did, and flung himself at it, snatching it up a splitsecond before Krassk’s foot could land on it. He aimed; Krassk swore and ran, and the blaster bolt buried itself in the doorframe, millimeters from where Krassk’s shoulder had just been. Lingo struggled to his feet and set off in hot pursuit, trying to stem the flowing blood with one hand, while letting off blaster shots with the other. If Krassk escaped with even a small sample of the truth serum, their work on Sidellia would have been for nothing.
    He pelted after Krassk, running through the dim corridors, the alarm still blaring, drilling into his mind, breath coming in gasps. The Trandoshan had nearly reached an exit when an armoured figure stepped in front of him. Tracker! They had him now! But Krassk put his head down, rushed at Tracker, and flung his fist at him with all his strength, catching him full in the stomach. The force of the blow sent Tracker staggering backwards, bending over; Shadow raised his rifle to shoot Krassk, but the Trandoshan had escaped through the exit and into the night.
    Tracker steadied himself against the wall, body heaving as he tried to get his wind back.
    “We’ve got to get after him!” shouted Lingo. “He’s got the truth serum!”
    “What?” cried Shadow. “We can’t let him get away!”
    Tracker held up his hand to say something. Shadow waited for his breath to return. Lingo lunged for the door, but Shadow grabbed him firmly by the shoulder and held him back.
    “I – can – track the Trandoshan,” gasped Tracker. “He won’t – get far. Some – other mercenaries have – taken the transport. He’ll have – to walk.”
    “We can’t lose any time,” began Lingo.
    “You’re not going anywhere,” said Shadow sharply. “You’ve got a gash the size of a small canyon on your face. I’m surprised you haven’t fainted yet.”
    “Tracker can’t go after the Trandoshan alone! That lizard is more than a match for any of us on our own.”
    “I’m going with him. You’re going to the village, after I have a look at that wound. Come on, sit down on that storage container. Track, cover us, will you? Not that I’m expecting anyone to surprise us anymore – everyone seems to be abandoning ship, now word has spread that the Phindian’s dead.” Shadow had taken off his helmet and gloves, and was opening the medical kit he had taken out of his pack.
    “He is? – How?”
    “Excellent question,” said Shadow in clipped tones, with a sidelong glance at Tracker. “Hold still, this is going to hurt a lot.”
    Lingo drew in his breath through clenched teeth, but managed not to flinch away.
    “I’ve… really had enough pain for one day.”
    “Which is exactly why you’re not coming with us. That’s the disinfecting done, now I’m going to put on some drops to stop the bleeding. They’ll hurt too. Damn, it’s going to leave an ugly scar! Wish I had something to stitch it up with. What happened?”
    “The lizard got me with his claws.”
    Shadow swore. “Better drink some of these disinfecting drops too – they are approved for ingestion as well as extraneous application. There,” he went on when Lingo had swallowed some of the disinfecting liquid as required, “we can get moving. Track?”
    Tracker gave a thumbs-up.
    “Here are the coordinates for a tunnel that will take you to the Gerlak village I found,” said Shadow, handing Lingo a datapad that looked rather the worse for wear – he had taken it off a dead mercenary. “I’ve typed in the coordinates to the village as well. Take the tunnel, it doesn’t branch off at any point, and it’s lit by these little blue crystals.”
    “Blue crystals?” Lingo frowned.
    “Yep. Looks pretty nice. Anyway, it took me three hours to get through the tunnel, and it will take you a lot longer, because you’re going to be walking slowly and resting frequently – understand?”
    “Sure…”
    “And it’s about five kilometers from the exit to the Gerlak village. I haven’t told you yet, but I found Evers Soren. He’s staying in that village, got a pretty rough fever. The Gerlaks’ll look after you until we get back. Here, you’ll also need some water – you know what, just take my whole pack. Be careful with it: I’ve got a sample of the truth serum in there. I’ll keep the ammo pouch, of course.” Shadow slipped the pack off his shoulders and gave it to Lingo, who strapped it on.
    “Will you be right?”
    “I’m not three years old, Shad.”
    “It’s all clear,” cut in Tracker, returning from a quick reconnaissance outside. “And I’ve found the lizard’s trail. Let’s move.”
    They set off. The compound was deserted, aside from broken droids and a few corpses. The fire from the power generator had died down only after laying complete waste to the barracks, and the laboratory was a smouldering wreck.
    “The Ugnaughts!” cried Shadow suddenly. “They’re still in the basement.”
    Lingo gave him a sceptical look. “Do you really believe the Duros locked them up instead of just shooting them? Anyway, even if they are still alive, turning them loose into the jungle would kill them just the same. Maybe you’re the one who’s three years old.”
    “I… guess.” Shadow suddenly felt sick.
    “We can’t waste any more time,” said Tracker sharply. “Lingo, this is where you leave us. Good luck, and take it easy. Come on, Shad.”
    “See you, Lingo. Track – I can’t just leave them. That’s murder!”
    “Are you still harping on about the Ugnaughts? They’ll get out if they’re desperate enough, there’s always a way. Assuming they’re even still alive. Focus!”
    “Okay. I’m sorry.” Shadow knew – intellectually – that Tracker was right. He shook himself out of his sentiment, and followed Tracker into the jungle, heading west, the sky behind them lighting up with the first rays of the amber sun.
     
  21. KithuraVess

    KithuraVess Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Nov 19, 2008
    Chapter 21: Shadowfall

    “Where’s he going?” It was a few hours later; the sun was high, the jungle steaming. They had stopped for a quick rest and a drink of water. “I know I’m not the navigator here, but I could have sworn the main village was further to the south. Much further. Although I guess we don’t actually know for sure that that’s the only place to get off the planet from.”
    “He’s trying to throw us off,” answered Tracker. “He expected to be followed. I’ve seen this guy at work; he’s smart. I’m sure he’s going to try and circle us – or lie in wait for us.”
    “So what do we do about it?”
    “Don’t lose the trail. Or move too slowly. So let’s get going.”
    “I shouldn’t have brought it up,” sighed Shadow in mock-exasperation, pulling on his helmet.
    The next few hours passed in silence, not counting the noise of the jungle. Shadow wanted desperately to ask Tracker what had happened with the Phindian, but he knew Tracker needed all his concentration to stay on the Trandoshan’s trail. Now they began to go uphill. The sludge thinned into a treacherous slime, and each step was more taxing than the last. Shadow broke a long stick off a tree and began using it to boost himself up the rocks, taking some strain off his aching thighs, or planting it firmly in the mud as an aid to balance when clambering down. The slope was becoming increasingly steep, and Shadow gasped as he looked back the way they had come.
    “Track – we’re halfway up a mountain!”
    “Didn’t you notice?”
    “I was too busy concentrating on not falling on my face.”
    “Keep doing that, then.”
    The ascent did not seem to end; the dense jungle blocked the view so that they could not see the peak. Shadow’s breath was coming in gasps now. He concentrated on his feet, and tried not to continually wish that they could stop.
    “Stop!” whispered Tracker.
    Shadow was caught by surprise and nearly slipped, but steadied himself in time with the help of his stick.
    “What is it?”
    Tracker did not reply. He had dropped into a crouch, and looked around cautiously, searchingly.
    “Keep your rifle ready,” he said at length, straightening. “Something’s not right.”
    “The Trandoshan?”
    “Probably.”
    They moved on. The noise of water came to their ears; then the mountain wall grew sheer to the right, the path they were on became a ledge, and they were walking above a river, the yellow steam rising from it. This did the opposite of relieving the sticky heat of the jungle – or of setting Tracker’s mind at ease.
    “Track, I know I’m the last one to give you a lecture on feelings and nerves, but try to relax, will you?”
    “Shh! The Trandoshan started going slower here,” whispered Tracker, going down on one knee in the mud. “I don’t trust this at all. Don’t bunch up.”
    “Twenty meters?”
    “At least, but stay in sight.” Tracker got up again and went on, and Shadow waited a few seconds before following. The cliff face was becoming less sheer now, and sloped away from them; the angle was such that a layer of earth and mud had formed over the rock, and the indomitable jungle vegetation had taken root. Shadow noted that it didn’t look like a nice climb, though it was certainly possible. He was just getting into the rhythm of the walk when Tracker stopped again, holding up his hand.
    “Do you hear that?”
    “I can’t hear anything in this racket, Track. Besides, I’ve been twenty meters behind you.”
    “It’s not loud. Just repetitive, a sort of ticking, or – wait, it’s coming from just ahead, at ground level.” Tracker crouched and listened hard. “I know that sound, damn it, it’s – got it! Something’s caught in an electric wire.”
    “Electric wire? So the Trandoshan – ”
    “Obviously,” said Tracker shortly. “Help me look for it. It’s near the ground, we were meant to step on it or trip over it. – No, scratch that. Cover me. He might still be close by.”
    “You’re the boss.”
    Tracker started and looked around at him.
    “I mean – oh, damn, I didn’t mean – but, well, I guess you are. Just – look for the trap, will you?”
    Tracker turned away without comment and carefully scanned the jungle in front of him, looking for anything that was out of place. That confounded wire would be thin enough to be almost invisible, so it was no use trying to see the wire itself. The ticking noise was probably made by a leaf or a dead insect making the wire spark. He found it at last: some kind of dragonfly had managed to get itself stuck between the electric wire and a rock, half hidden in the undergrowth. So he had found not only the wire, but also the spot where it was secured. Well, they could step over it. – No, that would be assuming that this was the only wire, which was by no means necessarily the case.
    “Hand me your stick,” ordered Tracker. Shadow complied, and Tracker held it lengthwise in front of him, ready to drop it so that the nearer end would fall on the wire. If there were any other wires, the stick would be suspended above the ground. He was so focused on his task that he didn’t hear the grating of rock on rock above him.
    “Track! Look out!”
    Tracker looked up just in time to see a rock come hurtling down the mountainside. He stood, paralysed, unable to move – but it wasn’t aimed at him; Shadow jumped aside just in time, but landed awkwardly. He slipped in the mud – tried to regain his footing – overbalanced – and fell.
    “Shad!” Suddenly life had come into Tracker’s limbs again, and he leaped towards Shadow, his hand outstretched. He missed him by millimeters. Shadow saw Tracker jump to help him – saw his hand, reaching out – and for a moment he seemed to hang in the air, suspended from nothing. Then the moment ended, and he plummeted into the swirling yellow mist and the roaring rocky chasm below.


    Tracker went totally numb. He stood perfectly still, staring at the spot where Shadow’s helmet had been a moment before. Now there was nothing, nothing but the gorge and the mist and the jungle. And the hatred did not fill him this time. He could not even feel sadness. He had no emotion anymore. He was empty, desperately empty, and suddenly exhausted. If he sat down, here, now, and gave up, would anyone care? Would anyone even realise? The war would keep going without him, and the galaxy would keep going with or without the war.
    Even as he thought this, he had mechanically begun to move again, slinging off his pack, taking out the parts of his rapelling gun and assembling it. The rock had come from above him, the Trandoshan had pushed the rock, the Trandoshan had the last of the truth serum, and it was his duty to prevent it from remaining in Separatist hands. He owed his existence to his duty. He had been trained to do it all his life, drilled at every waking moment, dreamed about it at night. He was his duty. Take that away from him, and what was left? He turned away from the ravine, shot the rapelling gun upwards, and sped up the mountainside.
    Krassk had gone, but there was a clear trail where he had taken off into the jungle, scrambling upwards. This time, he had not expected to be followed. He was moving faster now, not bothering to cover his tracks, but even with the Trandoshan’s undoubtedly superior climbing skill, Tracker was gaining on him by using the rapelling gun. The ground evened out – surely he was near the top of the mountain now – and he clipped the gun to his pack, rather than stop to disassemble it. Krassk had continued to clamber upwards, desperately now, it seemed. And he had swerved off his upward path, following a contour along the side of the mountain. Had he realised that Tracker was after him? – No, it was something else.

    Another track had joined the Trandoshan’s, coming along the contour from the opposite direction. Something had moved along here, breaking off branches and trampling leaves. Tracker glanced around him instinctively, and the back of his neck tingled, but he could see nothing. The beast – it had to be something big – was gone, off in pursuit of the Trandoshan. Well, that didn’t change Tracker’s duty one jot; it just made it easier. It was like following a path now, clearly delineated. He began jogging, still careful of the terrain, though the creature had flattened most of the obstacles in his way.

    A blood-curdling scream tore the air. It was followed by a different kind of sound – an angry, hissing screech. Tracker slowed, and ducked into the foliage. He moved on carefully, staying in cover. The hissing continued, growing louder; there were no more screams, but as he advanced, he heard a low moan of pain. Then he stopped, and his heart jumped into his mouth. Before him, turned away from him, was a massive lizard, the size of a bantha, its beard flared out, as orange as the sun. It was not a sentient being, that much was clear; and it was responsible for the hissing, clawing at the trunk of a huge tree. The moan was coming from above: the Trandoshan was clutching onto a branch of the tree with his hands and one of his feet; the other leg terminated in a bloody stump. So the hunter had become the hunted.

    The irony was not lost on Tracker, nor the justice, but he did not feel any satisfaction. Neither did he feel any sympathy for the Trandoshan, always in control, supremely competent, now helplessly staring his death in the face; nor any grudging respect as Krassk mastered his terror and scrambled into a sitting position on the branch, slowing his breathing, fighting his pain, looking for a way out. Tracker felt absolutely nothing. He didn’t think he would ever feel anything again. He raised his rifle, aimed and fired, and watched dispassionately as the beast, with screeching frenzy, devoured the Trandoshan’s corpse, spattering blood across the leaves, rocks and tree trunks. All he felt was his natural survival instinct, which warned him to get clear, but his duty made him stay and watch, making sure that the beast left no remains, no traces of the serum. It finished eating, and stomped what was left – apparently just the head – into the mud. Then it gave a deafening screech and leaped into the jungle, away from Tracker.

    It was over. Mission accomplished. All he had to do was get back to the Gerlak village, rejoin Soren and Lingo, and get back to the Republic cruiser. Perhaps they would be merged with another limping two-member squad. Or perhaps they would be separated and assigned to different squads. It didn’t really matter. Without wasting another look at the bloodied clearing, Tracker turned around and set off through the jungle, the way he had come. Whatever happened, he would do his duty.



    He moved quickly now that he knew where he was going, and didn’t have to worry about any nasty surprises the Trandoshan could prepare for him. The noise of the birds and the insects seemed far away and dull; he was not even really conscious of it, or of the heat, or the discomfort of clambering and slipping over slimy rocks, bashing through stubborn vegetation, or fighting the suction of the oozing sludge. He did not stop to rest or eat at any point, and drank as he walked, not even pausing while he unclipped the water bottles from his pack, or secured them back on.

    It took him only a few hours to reach the deserted secret base. There were still three or four hours left until nightfall. The destruction looked even worse in the daylight. Then he noticed that it was worse: there had been a fire, apparently caused by the still-sparking power generator. It was a good thing the air was so humid, and the vegetation so saturated with water, or the fire would have spread into the jungle. On any other planet, the damage caused would have been incalculable. Not that that would have bothered him in the least. Let it all burn.

    He made his way to the tunnel where he had met up with Shadow the night before. With a start, he saw that it was lit by tiny blue crystals. Like that strange cave he had been in some nights ago. But surely it was irrelevant; probably the crystals were just common in caves and rock walls. He would not waste any more thought on that. He marched along the passage, unaware of the ancient carvings in the walls, of roots and leaves growing through the cracks, glowing in the blue light. He just had to get through. Not that it seemed as if this tunnel was going to end soon.

    When he finally reached the exit, he found it blocked by a small rockslide, and had to crawl out through a hole that was barely big enough for him. It was nearly dark now; the gloom of the jungle was oppressive, and the nighttime insects had struck up their screeching song. He took a moment to orient himself, worried for a splitsecond that he would not be able to find the way to the village – but Lingo had been here already, and had left a very obvious trail. Tracker hardly had to pay any attention to follow it, though it did seem to slalom a bit – of course, Lingo had not been wearing his boots and shin guards, he would have avoided the thicker undergrowth. The jungle thinned after about forty minutes of fast walking – and suddenly the air around him exploded in hissing screeches. There were Gerlaks everywhere, it seemed, in the branches, and in front of him: a group of armed warriors, eyeing him suspiciously.
    “Commando,” called a voice, and he looked up to see a tall, thin human, with a long, pinched face and yellow hair.
    “Mr. Soren?”
    “That’s right.” Soren made a clicking noise, and the Gerlaks hopped away, satisfied. “Your fellow soldier reached us earlier today. He was in a pretty bad way, but the Gerlaks did what they could for him. He had some fever pills, too, and enough painkillers for a small army. He’s resting now.”
    Tracker nodded. “Good. I’ve completed the last mission objective, so I’m going to call in the Republic for extraction.”
    “Excellent! I, for one, am more than ready to leave Sidellia – notwithstanding my regret at leaving these creatures who have made me so welcome. You should come to the main tree – that central one. That’s where your comrade is sleeping, and I suggest you find yourself a branch as well, once you’ve contacted the Republic.”
    Tracker followed Soren to the tree. Lingo was stretched out comfortably on a low branch, a massive piece of wood that was broader than the dorm beds on the Republic cruiser Indomitable. The wound on his face looked nasty, but clean enough, with no signs of infection, and thankfully the gnats were leaving it alone. He detected the distinct smell of kolto, too. Tracker moved away far enough that his voice would not disturb Lingo, slung off his pack and took out the emergency comm link.
    “This is Resh Squad. Come in, Indomitable.”
    “Receiving you loud and clear, Resh Squad.” That would be CT-28194, or Comms, as he was better known. “We were starting to get worried!”
    “Mission accomplished. We need a pick-up. Coordinates as follows.” He gave the coordinates.
    “Roger that. The Sep fleet over Sidellia has diminished, but it’s still there, besides, you’re in rather swampy terrain by my scans. We can’t pick you up at those exact coordinates.” He gave the closest alternative. “When can you get there?”
    Tracker paused for a moment. It was a good ten kilometers from the village.
    “One of my men is injured. He needs to rest. Better make it sunset tomorrow, local time.”
    “Copy that. We’ll meet you there. Indomitable out.”
    Tracker stuffed the comm link back into his pack and turned back to the tree, looking for a suitable branch to sleep on. Most of the lower branches were unoccupied, so he chose a low, broad candidate. He took off his armour, helmet and pack, putting them down on a branch beside Shadow’s pack, which Lingo had brought back with him. He took a last drink of water, applied the gnat repellent, and swung himself onto the branch he had chosen. He wasn’t going to go through the events of the day. That custom would not help him tonight. He closed his eyes, drew a deep breath, and purposefully cleared his mind of all thoughts. One by one, he consciously relaxed his limbs, back, shoulders and neck, and within seconds sank into a dreamless sleep.


    “Morning, Tracker, what’s up?”
    Tracker turned around. Lingo was sitting up, leaning against the trunk of the main tree, scattering the various bits of plant and fabric that the Gerlaks had turned into makeshift pillows for him.
    “You’re awake. How is your wound?”
    “Hurts like hell, now you mention it.” Lingo rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, very carefully so as not to move the skin too much. “How do I look?”
    “Not good. But you’ll live.”
    “So, did you get the serum? – Ow, damn, I shouldn’t open my mouth that wide.”
    Tracker nodded. “Destroyed the serum. Trandoshan’s dead.”
    “Good work! So we’ve got the only remaining sample of the serum, in Shadow’s pack. Soren’s looking after it.”
    “I know.”
    “Right. So, we’re done! Finally! Where is Shadow, by the way?”
    Tracker did not reply.
    “Uh… Tracker.” There was no mistaking the concern in Lingo’s voice. “Where is he?”
    “The Trandoshan got him.” Tracker’s voice was flat, devoid of all emotion. “He died in the line of duty.”
    “No!” Lingo’s mouth fell open. “How – how did it happen?”
    “Mountainside. Trandoshan dropped a rock. Shadow fell off the edge.”
    “I can’t believe it. I don’t believe it! Not Shadow! He would have – he would have grabbed on, or something!”
    Tracker shook his head. “You’ll have to accept it sooner or later. These things happen.” He expected Lingo to lash out, shout at him, accuse him of being heartless. But nothing happened.
    “You’re right. He knew the risks, we all do.” Lingo shook his head and sighed. “Damn it, Tracker! First Tech, now Shadow. I guess this is the end of Resh Squad.”
    “Yep.”
    Lingo said nothing, and for a few moments all they could hear was the intense birdsong of the waking jungle. Then Tracker heard a low, sad tone, and knew that Lingo was singing, a painful, drawn-out lament. The Republic army did not encourage its soldiers to grieve. And Tracker did not want to feel. But the low tones reverberated in the jungle, and Tracker joined in.

    “Ni su'cuyi, gar kyr'adyc, ni partayli, gar darasuum. Nu kyr'adyc, shi taab'echaaj'la1.”

    They chanted it over and over, their last respects to their fallen brothers. Lingo’s voice was low and steady, but Tracker’s faltered. Aching sadness filled him, much worse than the strange hatred, much worse than the dead emptiness. He sobbed. He felt pressure on his shoulder – Lingo’s hand, a gesture of deep sympathy, of shared grief, of unbreakable brotherhood. Far above them, across the stars, the war raged on, indifferent.

    * * *

    1 Mando'a for “I’m still alive, but you are dead. I remember you, so you are eternal. Not gone, merely marching far away.”
     
    Last edited: May 28, 2019
  22. KithuraVess

    KithuraVess Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Nov 19, 2008
    Chapter 22: Ghost of a Tale

    It was hot. Unbearably hot. He was trapped. He had to get out. He couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t see. He pushed himself up, gasping for air, and his eyes flew open – he had been lying on his stomach, his face half-sunken into the mud. He retched water – disgusting, sulphurous, brackish liquid, streaming from his nose and mouth.

    Coughing, panting, still somewhat dazed, he sat up and tried to gather his thoughts. He had fallen from the cliff, who knew how far above him – the jungle blocked his view when he looked up – into the steaming hot river. His armour had cushioned the impact of the fall to some degree, but his helmet had filled with water almost instantly, and he had torn it off, the river ripping it immediately from his hands. He had struggled desperately, swept on by the raging current, trying to dodge the rocks that rose up to meet him, but the river had bashed him against them, his armour buckling, cracking. Remembering it brought back the panic he had felt, gasping, thrashing, trying to reach the shore. Somehow he had managed to keep his head mostly above the water, and away from the rocks; eventually the flow of the river had slowed, and he had managed to drag himself onto the slimy, muddy bank. And had apparently lost consciousness.

    Well, he was awake now, aching with countless bruises, and totally lost. To one side was the river, flowing peacefully, quite undisturbed by the desperation it had recently witnessed. The opposite bank was shrouded in yellow fog. Behind him rose the side of the ravine, rocky and sheer; though stubborn vegetation clung to its side, it was impossible to climb. He had come to land on a kind of muddy beach, the wall of the ravine concave above him. The river had flowed hard and fast against the rocks here, once, and caved it out, but that must have been a long time ago. He got to his feet and staggered a few steps, catching himself against the rocks. By some miracle, he didn’t appear to have broken anything.

    It was unbelievably hot. He didn’t want to take off his armour, cracked and battered though it was, but he could at least remove the gloves, temporarily. He glanced at his left hand, supporting him against the rock – and sprang away, adrenaline giving him strength. Embedded in the rock, glowing faintly, was a small blue crystal. And another one – and another one. They formed a straight line that ran along the ravine wall, disappearing into the jungle. There was no question of whether or not he would follow it.

    Keeping his left hand on the rock face just below the crystals, he walked along the river bank, thrusting vegetation out of the way. Was it his imagination, or were the crystals getting larger? No, they definitely were. And – his fingers ran over the relief in the wall: a carving, its lines smoothed by the passage of time, and wind, and water, but unmistakably hewn into the rock. Come to think of it, the ravine wall was much smoother here – entirely smooth, in fact. That had not been done by the weather.

    There were more carvings ahead of him now, in the smooth wall. His heartrate picked up speed. He hadn’t recovered enough to run yet, so he contented himself with as fast a walk as he could manage, following the carvings. The wall undulated outwards, blocking his view; he rounded the curve, and stopped with a gasp. Set in the rock ahead of him, raised above the ground and surrounded by crystal-studded carvings, was an ancient door.

    A set of five steps lead up to it, hollowed out in the centre by – whose footsteps? Who had built this, and when? Long before the Hutts had ever come here, he knew that now. The door was covered in intricate carvings depicting humanoids with large ears and eyes, snout-like muzzles and broad, flat feet, and a strange, rune-like script, highlighted with blue crystal. There was a square in the centre of the door, made of a separate rock; it looked as if it could move. Shadow pushed it – and it did, retreating far into the door. For a moment, nothing happened; then, with a grating sound that echoed through the jungle, the door slid open, half of it receding into the rock below, the other half going upwards. It revealed a passage, built for a race not much smaller than humans, lit by a galaxy of crystals in the walls.

    None of this was part of the mission. He had to get back to the others. If they didn’t think he was dead, they might be planning to look for him – and if they did think he was dead, they would leave without him. Yet somehow that did not seem nearly as important as what lay in front of him. He stepped into the passage and walked along it as it sloped upwards into the mountain. The air was surprisingly fresh – and much cooler than outside in the jungle.

    As he walked, he tried to make out the carvings in the walls. They showed humanoids engaged in various activities: agriculture, building, carving, writing, and – standing around with their hands stretched out? Could they be using the Force? Something nagged at the back of his mind. Then he remembered the conversation he had had with Jedi General Seela Khun, back on Serennia. She had said that the Jedi couldn’t use the Force on this planet. So, what were they doing, then? Perhaps they were accessing the Force in some other way?

    Light glowed in the tunnel ahead, much brighter than the crystals in the wall. The tunnel led into a chamber. He stepped into it – and stared. In the middle of it was a gigantic outcropping of blue crystal which lit the whole chamber, throwing the carvings into stark relief. The chamber itself was huge; he could see the walls reaching up for at least five or six storeys before they vanished into the darkness. Aside from the crystal, it was bare. It seemed to be a central room, some kind of connecting area, because multiple other passages led out here; but they were all closed, their doors tightly sealed, except one, which appeared to lead right on into the heart of the mountain.

    He set off along this passage. It was much the same as the previous one, but seemed far, far longer. He wondered how long he had been walking, in the strangely fresh coolness, in the utter silence, broken only by his footsteps. It all had a dreamlike quality about it, but he knew he wasn’t dreaming – not this time. This time he was really there, and perhaps he was finally going to find out what was going on, what had been going on ever since the first dream on his first night on Sidellia. The passage terminated in another chamber, not so brightly lit, nor nearly as colossal. The light came from large, diamond-shaped crystals in the walls, and the chamber was about twice the size of his dormitory on the Republic cruiser Indomitable. It seemed to be a tomb. At least, there was a sarcophagus on a raised platform in the centre. There was nothing else in the chamber; it was a dead end. He couldn’t remember ever being this disappointed in his life.
    “Really?” he said aloud, his voice echoing in the tomb. “Is this it?”
    “What – what are you?” asked a voice. Shadow nearly fell over backwards as a faint blue shimmer appeared above the sarcophagus, gradually taking shape. It was a young woman wearing flowing, loose-fitting robes, little more than a girl, like a human with the lower part of her face extended, snout-like, with large eyes, and bat-like ears. A thin layer of fur covered her face, arms and the flat feet protruding from the robes. She looked like a hologram – transparent, and all in blue. She was regarding him with total astonishment.
    “You’re a sentient being!”
    “I – er – well, yes, but who – ” Shadow swayed a little, and backed away on unsteady feet until he could feel the wall behind him. He leaned against it for support.
    “How did you get past the curse?”
    “The – the what? I’m sorry, ma’am, but I don’t know where I am, or who you are, or if I’m even alive right now.” This had to be a dream.
    “You are alive. That is what I don’t understand. A curse was placed on this mountain, a long time ago. You shouldn’t have been able to break it. How did you get in?”
    “Through the door.” Even in his awed, confused state, Shadow saw the humour in this, and couldn’t restrain a chuckle. The girl didn’t seem to notice.
    “That’s impossible! The door shouldn’t have opened. The elders sealed it!” There was definitely no way this was a dream. His imagination couldn’t have come up with this. Could it? He decided to go along with it – whatever was happening.
    “They sealed it with the curse, long ago. No sentient being – no creature conceived and born from a sentient being – can ever enter!”
    “Well, that explains it then, ma’am,” said Shadow. “I wasn’t born.”
    “What?” She stared.
    “I’m a clone. Produced in a test tube, in a laboratory on Kamino.”
    She looked at him blankly. “I don’t know what any of that means.”
    “Um – I’m a copy of someone else. A direct copy. Made by – you know – science.”
    “You mean – made artificially?”
    He winced. “I wouldn’t put it quite like that, ma’am.”
    “But how is that possible? To create – life… without the Vibrance?”
    There was a small, niggling fear at the back of his mind. It had always been there, and he had always dismissed it, ignored it, kept it at bay. Now it leapt to the fore, no longer to be denied.
    “Do you mean,” he said, in a strangled voice, “that I’m not – not really – alive? Or – not fully human?”
    “Oh, no! No, you are. Both alive, and human. But you are a very strange kind of human – at least, compared to the ones I met and learned about. I was taught that all humans have the blood Vibrance, but you don’t. You are like – like a shadow.”
    Shadow gave a short, barking laugh. “That’s my name. Shadow.”
    “Really?” Her eyes grew even bigger, if such a thing were possible. And – was she smiling? “That is very fitting. I am fascinated.” He gave a start of surprise: she sat down on the sarcophagus, letting her legs dangle over the end.
    “I’m sorry, ma’am, but can I ask what – what exactly you are? I mean, you look like a hologram, but you’re interacting with the physical world.”
    “Oh – I am sorry. I never introduced myself. I’m Chira, and this is my tomb. I’m a shade, you see – no longer alive, as such, but not yet passed into the Vibrance. I volunteered to stay behind and look after the mountain. It is a rather lonely task, though.”
    “You – you’re a ghost?”
    Chira wrinkled her nose. “I wouldn’t put it quite like that. I chose to stay. And what is more, I can interact with those who have passed into the Vibrance – but they have to reach out to me, and, well, sometimes they forget.” She drew up her shoulders. “They forget about the physical world.”
    “I don’t – I don’t think I understand any of that.”
    “The ones who have passed. You know, the dead. They don’t like it when I call them that.” She gave a mischievous grin. “It makes them feel as though the physical world has forgotten them. Then again, I suppose it has, and who can blame it, if they never show themselves? – But enough about me. I’ve just been in the mountain for – well, I don’t know how long. I think it has been a very long time – I can see some of what happens on Phosphora, and a lot has changed.”
    “Er – Phosphora?”
    “The planet! Of course, you call it Sidellia, don’t you? As I said, much has changed. The river, for instance. It was a thin stream when the curse was laid, and the entrance – the door you must have come in by – was deep underground.”
    “The – damn. That must have been a long time ago.”
    “The last time anyone came through that door, they had to come a long way through the tunnels and shafts. How did you find it? I know the door is in the open now.”
    “It’s a very long story,” said Shadow. He suddenly felt very tired, confirming that it was no dream – he had never wanted to rest in a dream before.
    “Well, I am not going anywhere,” smiled Chira. “Why don’t you sit down?”
    Under normal circumstances, Shadow would have protested, would have wanted to get outside and find his way back to the Gerlak village. Meet up with the others, finish the mission. These circumstances were anything but normal, and his responsibilities faded into the back of his mind, all sense of urgency gone. Besides, he was pretty tired; far too tired to set off all the way – wherever the Gerlak village was, from here. He was totally lost, but the knowledge did not scare him. Nothing did, much, here in this timeless, ancient, strange cave, with the glow of the shade faint upon the crystal-spangled walls that reached up into the dark. Shadow sat down, cross-legged on the stone floor, leaning his back into the wall behind.
    “So,” said Chira. “Tell me your story.”
     
    Last edited: May 28, 2019
  23. KithuraVess

    KithuraVess Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Nov 19, 2008
    Chapter 23: Vibrance

    “You’re going to need some background, ma’am,” Shadow began. “How much do you know about what’s going on in the galaxy? Do you know about the war?”
    “Oh, yes! – Are they really still fighting? The Jedi and those, those armoured warriors – what were they called? Something with an M.”
    “Er – Mandalorians?”
    “That’s right!”
    “Well, people normally just call us clones. Not all of us like being associated with the Mandalorians – and many of them don’t like us.”
    “You are one of them? – Well, you are wearing armour. I suppose I might have known, though somehow I thought – well, never mind. Go on.”
    “I was sent here on a mission for the war. We had a few objectives, all related to the Separatists.”
    “Those destructive creatures and their automatons.” She frowned.
    “You mean droids? Yep, I hate them too. We broke into their base and more or less destroyed it, but then – ”
    “Destroyed it?” She beamed. “Well done!”
    “Thanks. It wasn’t that easy, though. They – they killed our captain. One of the others took that pretty badly.”
    “Oh, I am sorry. I am not sure what happens to humans when they die. I suppose his essence will have faded into the Vibrance. You must remember him.”
    “We will, ma’am. We will. Anyway,” he went on quickly, giving a hard swallow, “then one of them – the Separatists – ran away with something we needed. So we followed him into the jungle, but he rolled a rock down at us, and I fell into the river. I washed up not far from the door, and then, well, I just walked in, and here I am.”
    “Extraordinary… how you circumvented the curse. I wonder if there was a mistake in the curse, or if it was meant to be? A human without the blood Vibrance. I still cannot quite believe that, but here you are in front of me.”
    “Um, do you mind my asking what this – this blood Vibrance thing is?”
    “All humans – well, all sentient beings, really, except us – and you – have a pre-determined capacity to detect and express the Vibrance. It is determined by tiny creatures in their blood, receptors for the Vibrance.”
    “You’ll have to back up a bit… what is the Vibrance? Do you mean the Force?”
    She wrinkled her nose again. “The Force! You’ve been listening to the Jedi. They don’t understand the Vibrance.”
    “Er…”
    “No, that is unfair,” she reflected. “It is different for blood Vibrants – we realised that. Understanding it as the Force is the way that makes the most sense for them, especially on the planets they come from, where the Vibrance is not concentrated around them, in the air and the rock. They are used to its presence within them, but not around them.”
    “You’ve lost me.”
    “The Vibrance is the life energy of the galaxy. It is in all living creatures and all natural elements – the rocks, the soil, the air, but most of all in the crystals. That is what we always believed. Meeting the blood Vibrants challenged that view. Some of them came to our planet, and we spoke with them. That was when we found out about the Force. The blood Vibrants experienced the Vibrance very differently from us. How strongly they could feel it was predetermined by their blood. No amount of practice or study or meditation could change that.”
    “But the Jedi do study. I’ve heard their training is gruelling – almost as bad as ours,” he added with a grin.
    “Oh, yes. Study and meditation improves their connection to the Vibrance and their ability to use it. But they are born with a fixed level of potential, you see. One they cannot exceed.”
    “I think I can understand that.”
    She nodded, her huge ears flopping. He tried not to think too hard about how a ghost could be affected by physics.
    “It was a strange concept for us,” she continued. “That a being could live in a society without the Vibrance, and that that being could be the only one of his or her people to feel its flow. We learned about the Jedi, then: an organisation of people from all over the galaxy, joined together to study the Vibrance. They called it the Force. Their focus was very different from ours: of course, they could not build a society or a culture the way we had. The Vibrance – or the Force – was determined by their blood, apparently at random, so that two siblings could have very different levels of it. There was no guarantee that the children of two Jedi would be able to detect the Vibrance at all. So they were celibate, and dedicated themselves to the study of the – Force. How to use it to improve the societies they were in; their science and their warfare. The Sith in particular used it for the latter; apparently they were very interested in conquest.”
    “The Sith? I heard they were extinct.”
    “Really? Has it been so long?” She turned her head sideways with curiosity. “Well, I never liked their philosophy. Based on power as it was. Of course, the Jedi’s way of thinking was based on power too, but it was much less destructive.”
    He had been getting slightly annoyed by the way she spoke about the Jedi. “The Jedi are selfless,” he snapped. “They serve the galaxy!”
    Now her head turned the other way. “You are not only a strange human, but a strange Mandalorian. You seem to admire the Jedi. More than that, to like them.”
    “Of course I like them! They are our generals. They command us in battle. Many of them have died fighting to defend the Republic.”
    “Then – you are fighting with the Jedi? That is very strange. I must have misunderstood… but no, that is not possible. Those Jedi who came here to Phosphora were adamant about defeating you. I remember it very clearly, long ago as I suppose it must have been. Two Jedi, a master and an apprentice, it seemed.”
    “Jedi – came here? When? They told me, the Jedi that is, that they can’t use the Force here.”
    “That is correct. It was always a bit difficult, or unusual, for them to use their Force on Phosphora, but after the elders placed the curse, it became actively dangerous. They placed the curse because of those two Jedi. Because they came here seeking power to make war, to conquer – to dominate. We were not opposed to war as such, but they wanted something more. Something sinister. They tried to hide it, but the master, the one in the mask, was too eager. And the apprentice was too afraid. We could see that they were embarking on a dark journey, one from which there could be no turning back.”
    “Wait.” Shadow had been working it out, frowning. It was all more than a little overwhelming, and he could almost feel the gears of his mind turning with great effort, much more slowly than he wanted them to. “You said the Jedi wanted to defeat us. But you seem to think that I’m a Mandalorian – which I told you I’m not, not really. And – this war has been going for less than three years. I’ve only been on active service for a few months.”
    “What? But those Jedi were here, oh, I don’t know when, centuries ago. Maybe millennia.”
    “Then we’re clearly talking about two completely different things,” concluded Shadow, his brow clearing. “How long have you been in this cave? And have you had any news from the rest of the galaxy?”
    “I’ve been here ever since the elders cursed Phosphora. We all passed, then. It was the only way. Someone had to stay to look after the caves, so I volunteered – I wasn’t quite ready to go yet, and, well…” Was she – blushing? Could ghosts blush? “I suppose I hoped I could find my way back to the physical world eventually. Not that coming back alone would be much use,” she added bitterly. “Initially they would come by often, telling me about everything in the galaxy. It was very interesting. The politics, the war. Those Jedi did find some source of power eventually.
    “I never found out what happened after that; the dead stopped coming as often, and when they did come, they didn’t talk about the physical world. They were getting so philosophical. Some even passed beyond death, and went to the Maker, at the heart of the Vibrance. That was all anyone could talk about on their last visits, and then – they no longer came. No-one thought about me anymore. So – I watched Phosphora instead.” Her tone was more cheerful now, if perhaps a trifle forced. “There was a lot to see, as it turned out; especially those small lizards.”
    “You mean the Gerlaks? I like them too,” he grinned. “They’re such emotional little things.”
    “Yes, very artless,” she agreed, smiling. “It has been hard for them recently, however.”
    “I know. Those bloody Separatists. I can’t believe what they did to them – killing them without reason, experimenting on them. It makes me sick!”
    “You seem to feel deeply for them.”
    “I do. They didn’t ask for this war, but it came to them all the same. Then they tried to avoid it, hide from it, but that only made everything worse. I tried to tell them that, and – well, it seemed to work, actually. At least in one village. They helped me fight the Separatists.”
    “They helped you?” She stared at him in astonishment. “How did you convince them? They are so insular. You must be a very charismatic orator!”
    “Er, no, I’m really not. They’d had enough of the Separatists’ cruelty, but there wasn’t much they could do about it. They just needed to realise that hiding away wasn’t the answer, and they needed someone to fight for them. I didn’t have to say much; their young warriors caught on pretty quick.”
    “No, you are too humble,” said Chira. “You are a very compassionate human, you know. I can sense that. You feel for others, you care about them – and you endanger yourself for them, even against the wishes of your fellow soldiers.”
    “How – how do you know that?”
    “The more I speak to you, the more I am able to see who you are, and what you have experienced,” she explained in a factual tone. As if it was obvious. “You know more about the Vibrance than you think. You would be able to use it, if you tried.”
    “Me? What? No. You must be mistaken. I’m no Jedi!”
    “Exactly. You are not restricted like the blood Vibrants. You have had dreams, haven’t you? About the caves, and the tunnels my civilisation once built.”
    He started. “I’m not going to ask how you found that out.”
    “Being a shade, I am more attuned to the Vibrance than mortals,” she clarified, as she thought. “Let me see… this is interesting! I haven’t looked at mortal thoughts in such a long time. I looked at those of the lizards, of course, but it was not quite the same. Do you mind? – I should have asked!”
    Shadow had a sudden thought, and he narrowed his eyes. “You can’t manipulate my thoughts, can you?”
    “I would never do such a thing!” She sounded scandalised. “What a terrible thing to say! That is against all we stand for.”
    “But it is possible, right?”
    “Yes, but I have never done it. I would not know how.”
    “Fair enough. I can’t say I’m entirely comfortable with you – or anyone else – looking at my thoughts, though.”
    She looked hurt, so he went on.
    “You see, I’m a clone. A copy of someone else, like I told you. And there are millions of us across the galaxy, all serving the Grand Army of the Republic. There isn’t much room for individuality. Even for me, and I’m a commando – a specialised unit. We look the same, we’re expected to act the same. Everything we do is supposed to be in service of the Republic. So the only privacy I get, the only place I can really express myself, is in my thoughts. And even that’s frowned upon by a lot of the others. So I keep it all to myself.” He had never talked about this before, but the words had come so naturally.
    “I see,” said Chira. Her eyes were sad, and she was silent for a few moments before continuing. “So, the others you talked about – the ones who came with you to Phosphora. They are clones, too? Copies, made artif– er, not born?”
    “Yep.”
    “I wonder if they are blood Vibrants, or unrestricted, like you,” she mused.
    “You mean, if I can use the For– I mean, the Vibrance, they can, too?”
    She shrugged. “I was merely wondering. If there is one thing I have learned, it is that the Vibrance is unpredictable with humans.”
    But something had clicked in Shadow’s mind.
    “How exactly does one use the Vibrance?” he asked casually.
    “Oh – well, that depends on what kind of a person you are,” replied Chira. “The Vibrance expresses itself when you do. I suppose it sort of – amplifies your strengths. Or your weaknesses, depending on your point of view. That is why the Jedi cannot use it: they do not allow themselves to feel. And it is why the Sith could not be allowed to use it. They would twist it, with their hatred and lust for power.”
    “So it feeds off your emotions?” He was getting excited, if somewhat uncomfortable. “And then – what does it do?”
    “What you do,” answered Chira. “If you are compassionate and empathic, and you are, the Vibrance will strengthen that aspect. Your passion will increase, and perhaps you will find it easier to convey what you feel.”
    “And what if someone is – well, angry? What about a disciplined soldier who always keeps himself under control, but then – then loses someone he cares about?”
    “That is an oddly specific question.”
    “Yeah, well I’m asking for a friend. What would someone like that be able to do? What if he hated someone? What if he wasn’t used to dealing with pain and grief?”
    “Then I suppose the Vibrance would strengthen his anger. That could be very dangerous.”
    “Dangerous? Why?”
    “He would be a danger to himself, of course. He could lose control, and then – ”
    “And then he could kill, right? He could kill someone with the Force?”
    “Well – yes. That is possible. In fact, it is likely.”
    Shadow jumped up. “It’s been a pleasure, ma’am, but I’ve got to go.”
    “You do?” She didn’t even try to hide her disappointment.
    “I have to get to my brothers. They’ll be getting worried – if they don’t think I’m dead. I did fall off a cliff, after all. You wouldn’t happen to know the co-ordinates of this cave, would you?”
    “Of course I do,” she said indignantly, and rattled them off.
    “Damn. That’s very far away from the village. At least a day’s walk through the jungle, and I don’t have any water…”
    “You don’t have to walk through the jungle. I am sure the tunnels will be able to bring you close to where you want to go – our tunnel network connects most of the jungle in this area. Where is this village?”
    He gave her the co-ordinates. She grinned.
    “Why, there is a tunnel entrance very close to that village!”
    “Yes, I know, but I don’t know how to get into that tunnel – ”
    “They are all interconnected. I’ll go with you.” She got up and stepped onto the floor. “And – I just thought of something!” Her face lit up, glowing brighter, seeming slightly more solid, somehow. “I can’t leave the cave… well, not if there’s no-one here to look after it. I wonder. I’m not really supposed to do this, but… this is sort of an emergency. The curse was broken, after all.”
    “Er…”
    “Come with me!” She spoke with authority, and led the way down the passage, a bounce in her step. When they reached the magnificent chamber, she ran over to the gigantic blue crystal, and placed her hand on it, shimmering blue on shimmering blue. She frowned in deep concentration, and was silent for so long that Shadow began to feel very tempted to interrupt her; but all at once she sprang back, looking at the crystal with eager anticipation. Nothing happened for a few moments. Then a glimmer of light appeared above the crystal – just like the one that had been above the sarcophagus, before she had materialised. The glimmer became a glow, and formed the outline of another one of her species. It was a male, apparently about her age. He floated down towards the floor, looking around him.
    “Chira! What’s wrong?”
    “Chorran, where have you been?” Her eager anticipation was now replaced by fury. “Do you think it’s funny to just go off for – for thousands of years? I was beginning to think you had passed beyond death!”
    “Thousands? Has it been that long? I was on the other side of the galaxy, studying an ancient library I found. You know no-one besides you is allowed in here.” Shadow noticed that the male was not interacting with the physical world quite as much as Chira was. It was all a bit much for him.
    “Sorry to interrupt, but I really have to go,” he cut in. The male looked at him in surprise.
    “A human? How could anyone break the curse – ”
    “That’s why I called you here! It’s an emergency, isn’t it? I’ll explain later. This human needs to be guided back to one of the villages belonging to the primitives. He won’t find the way on his own.”
    “So, you called me? I see.” Chorran smiled slyly, but did not elaborate. “Alright, I’ll look after the cave for you.”
    “Thank you! I will be back soon. Come on, Shadow,” she added, running lightly across the vast chamber to one of the shut doors. She touched it, and it slid open, revealing a passage very like the others, lit by tiny blue crystals. Chira skipped down it, moving so quickly that Shadow was hard put to keep up without actually running. His strength had been returning gradually, but he knew he wouldn’t have the stamina to keep up a running pace for very long.
    The passage must have cut right through the mountain, not that he was completely sure of his direction. Then it forked, and Chira went down the right-hand passage without hesitation. Were they going northwards now? Or – no, it was – he wasn’t sure. Well, from here on he was completely dependent on her navigational skills, and the fact that she had apparently not left the cave for a few millennia didn’t exactly inspire him with confidence. To make matters worse, he was developing a painful stitch in his side.
    “Wait, stop!” he called. “I need a rest.”
    Chira turned around, impatient. “You said you were in a hurry.”
    “I am, but I also have a physical body! I understand you may have forgotten what it’s like, but believe me, getting a stitch is no picnic.”
    “Be thankful for what you have,” she replied. There was a note of regret in her voice now. “I have forgotten. What it is like to feel the wind in my fur, or the clammy river fog on my face, or breathe in the fresh scent of crushed leaves.”
    Even Shadow was not that sentimental. “Don’t think I’ll ever be thankful for pain. At least, not the unnecessary kind. You’ve forgotten what it’s like, or you would agree! Alright, the stitch has gone, I’m ready to move.”
    Chira started off again, leading him through the tunnels. Hours passed, he was sure. He was starting to get very thirsty. How long had it been since his last drink of water? – Not counting the brackish river water he had swallowed while almost drowning; that had only made him thirstier. His mouth was parched, his tongue cleaved to his palate. He was getting exhausted, too. But every moment he delayed was another moment that the others must be worrying, or grieving. He found himself hoping that it was the latter; if they had decided to look for him, that would be a real complication. No time to worry about that now, though. He walked on determinedly, focusing on every step.
    “We’re here.”
    He woke up from the dream-like state his exhaustion and the rhythm of walking had put him into, and stopped short, nearly tripping on the rough stone floor. He narrowly avoided crashing into Chira. He wondered if he would have walked into her, or fallen through her, like a hologram. Looking around him, he saw the familiar walls of the passage near the Gerlak village, the roots sprouting through the rock, their trailing beards of moss moving gently in the exchange of air between the steaming jungle and cool tunnel.
    “So we are,” he said. “I reckon this is goodbye, then.”
    Chira nodded. “This is where I leave you. I wish we could have spoken more.”
    “There’s a lot I would have liked to ask you,” agreed Shadow. “But time waits for no man, as they say, and there’s a lot to be done out there – in the physical world.”
    “Then farewell, Shadow, and may the Vibrance flow through you, always.”
    “Ret’urcye mhi1,” he said, though he knew he would not see her again. Then he clambered out of the hole in the collapsed rocks that he had made with the help of the Gerlak warriors, so long ago. It was getting light outside, the orange sun rising in the east.

    1 Mando'a for goodbye, literally “Maybe we’ll meet again”.
     
  24. KithuraVess

    KithuraVess Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Nov 19, 2008
    Chapter 24: Well-Met and Adieu

    Shadow stumbled through the undergrowth, freeing his feet from the sludge at each step only to catch them on roots. It was only five kilometers, by the Force, but it felt like it would never end. Vines snatched at his hair, twigs scratched his face. The world seemed to drift before his eyes, and it was hotter than ever. He was definitely dehydrated. Ironic, in this humid jungle. Suddenly he heard a loud screech, and stopped, glancing down. For a moment he thought he must have trod on the Gerlak’s tail or something; then he realised that it was excited, hopping up and down, chattering, and gesturing wildly.
    “Sorry, can’t understand you.” His voice sounded hoarse. He felt a sudden stab of irritation with himself: he couldn’t be this weak! With an effort he pulled himself together. “You’ll have to show me what’s going on.”
    The Gerlak grabbed at his shin-plate – the highest part of him it could reach – and tugged, then hopped off.
    “I was going that way already,” he protested. Concentrating hard, he walked on through the jungle, fighting against gravity to raise his arms and smack at the vines, or push the plants away from his face. The Gerlak would run ahead, then stop and run back to him, hop up and down, and rush off again, chattering and babbling excitedly. Soon its cries were joined by the screeches and whistles of countless others; flashes of cyan and orange lit up the trees around him, and four, then seven, then twelve warriors surrounded him, forming a guard of honour. It required a lot of concentration not to step on them. At last they were near the village, and through the foliage he could discern the huge blue main tree. Lingo was seated on the lowest branch, Tracker and Evers Soren standing beside him; all three seemed confused by the Gerlaks’ exuberance. Then Tracker noticed movement in the bushes across the marsh; he dropped into a combat stance, lifting and aiming his blaster rifle in a smooth movement.
    “It’s me, you idiot!” shouted Shadow hoarsely, thrusting aside the last of the vegetation in his way, and emerging from the jungle onto the bank of the marsh. Tracker seemed to freeze in place. Lingo steadied himself against the tree trunk, gaping. Soren stared. Then there was an ear-splitting screech from the upper branches of the main tree, and Gree'a flashed down the trunk like a streak of teal lightning, leaping from tree to tree and into Shadow’s arms. He blinked, confused, as she hopped onto first one shoulder, then the next, grabbing his hair to keep balance, then clambered down his arm again, chattering and cooing and whistling and clicking. He heard someone squelching through the marsh, and looking up he saw Tracker, forcing his way through the ooze, ripping his feet out of the sludge.
    “Shad – what happened? I saw you fall, you – you – were dead! I thought you were dead! If I had known – I would have looked for you, I thought – I’ll never forgive myself, Shad, I – eh?”
    Shadow was holding out Gree'a’s wriggling form. Tracker barely had time to tense his arms before Shadow dropped her into them. She could easily have jumped back to him, but seemed to understand, giving a soft coo.
    “Water,” croaked Shadow, and swayed.
    “Right! Here, I’ve got you, vod1, lean on me.” Gree'a jumped clear just as Tracker would have dropped her; he drew Shadow’s right arm across his shoulders, wrapped his left arm securely around Shadow’s torso, and started walking slowly back towards the main tree.
    “I’m not – a complete invalid,” said Shadow hoarsely. “I’ve walked this far.”
    “This is no time for pride!” cried Lingo, who had gotten up from his seat and was clipping a water bottle off Tracker’s pack. “You’re supposed to be dead! – There you go, that’s it,” he added, taking Shadow’s other arm as Tracker reached the main tree, and helping him to sit down on the branch. He handed him the water bottle. Shadow snatched it with both hands and emptied its contents down his parched throat.
    “Another one?”
    Shadow nodded, and the brackish, swampy contents of another water bottle – and then another – followed the first.
    “Okay, that’s enough, or you’ll throw it all up again,” cautioned Lingo.
    “I know, I know. Phew, that was good.” Shadow leaned against the tree trunk and closed his eyes. “That’s the last time I give my pack to someone else.” Then his eyes flew open. “You did get it back alright, didn’t you? The serum – ”
    “Safe and sound. Oof, I’m not feeling too well either, move up!” Lingo dropped himself onto the branch beside Shadow. “So – what exactly happened?”
    “I’ll keep it short and sweet: I fell of a cliff, landed in a river, almost drowned immediately, somehow ended up on the river bank, found a magical cave type of thing, met a ghost who told me a lot of stuff about the Force and some Jedi she’d met thousands of years ago, then led me back here, after leaving her ghost boyfriend in charge of the cave.”
    Tracker placed his wrist against Shadow’s forehead.
    “You’ve got a raging fever. Better get your armour off, and stop talking.”
    “It’s true, I swear!”
    “Shh. Lingo, get me the fever pills from the med pack.”
    “Way ahead of you.”
    Some bitter pills were shoved into Shadow’s mouth, and then more swampy water. He felt his boots being removed, then his gloves, and the rest of his armour, piecewise. The Gerlaks had joined in, too, pushing heaps of moss and leaves between his head and the tree trunk. He submitted to these ministrations with good grace – he was fevering, it was true, and he had to admit that his story wasn’t exactly very believable.
    “Will you be able to keep food down?” Tracker had produced a ration bar, one of the last ones from his pack.
    “Yes, come on, give me that.” Shadow took it from him and unwrapped it. His gastric juices sprang to life painfully, and he reflected that this supposedly Jogan-fruit flavoured stuff really wasn’t all that bad. “No no no, keep that away from me,” he added through a mouthful of ration bar, seeing Tracker approach with a packet of nutritional jelly. “I definitely won’t be able to keep that down! I’m mainly just tired. I’ll be right.”
    “If you’re sure.” Tracker stepped back, and Shadow noted with relief that he put the nutritional jelly back in his pack. “Rest up, Shad. I’ve contacted the Republic for extraction. They’re sending a shuttle down to get us, it’ll be landing about ten clicks to the west. It should be here by nightfall, so we’d better start walking a good four or five hours before – ”
    “Shh!” interrupted Lingo, and pointed. Shadow had fallen asleep.

    Parting from the Gerlaks proved to be a challenge. When they realised that the commandos and Soren were leaving, such a wail went up that Shadow was sure it could be heard for kilometers around. He reflected that it was a good thing the Separatists seemed to have given up on Sidellia, and wouldn’t be looking for them anymore. Gree'a was especially distraught; she clung onto his shoulder and wouldn’t leave him alone, not even to join the other Gerlaks in – whatever frantic activity it was they were engaged in, hopping among the trees, gathering leaves, moss and flowers. Her husband Cherrek, Shadow found out, had survived the journey back to the village, largely thanks to the kolto. He was expected to live, though he was still very weak; his beard would never be the same again, either. But he was back with his people, with his young son and adoring wife, and they now had the chance to build a life together, free of fear.
    Shadow had woken up around midday, after seven hours of deep sleep. His fever was gone, and after emptying two more water bottles, he felt more or less like his old self again, aside from the bruises. A glance under his suit showed that he was completely covered in a mass of green and purple marks. He preferred that to Lingo’s situation, however. Lingo had finally seen his own face, using a polished tin as a mirror, and for once his humour had utterly deserted him.
    “Oh, fierfek. That’s… that’s not going to close up, is it? I don’t suppose the Republic would pay for plastic surgery.”
    “No,” was Tracker’s helpful reply.
    “Damn that bloody lizard! Damn him to hell! By the Force, Tracker, I wish you hadn’t shot him. I wish he’d been alive when that monster ate him. – Ow, bloody hell!” he added, wincing.
    “Wouldn’t have changed anything for you.”
    “It would have made me feel that there was some justice in the universe.”
    “Tracker did say the monster took the Trandoshan’s foot, though,” Shadow supplied, trying to loosen Gree'a’s vice-like grip on his forearm, which was cutting off the blood circulation. “If that helps.”
    “I guess.” Lingo let the tin fall into the sludge and dropped his head into his hands. Nearly a minute of extremely awkward silence followed; Shadow had never seen Lingo react to anything with so much emotion. A lot of possible remarks welled up in Shadow’s mind, all humourous, and all extremely inappropriate; he noted to himself that his automatic reaction to traumatic situations was likely to be counter-productive. Eventually, Lingo’s muffled voice broke the silence. “At least – at least I look unique now.”
    “And how,” said Shadow. “Oh, damn, Lingo, I didn’t mean to say that.”
    “No, no, it’s true,” said Lingo, looking up. “And I’d certainly hope you didn’t mean to say that out loud, you heartless bastard,” he added, managing a lop-sided smile, activating only the muscles on the left side of his face. “That’s an expression, before you say it.”
    “Are you two planning to get ready any time soon?” cut in Tracker. “We’re leaving in less than two hours.”
    “What’s there to do? All of my worldly possessions are in my pack, except the serum – I mean, it’s in my pack, but it’s not mine, and I’m ready to put on my armour at a moment’s notice. Or what’s left of it.”
    “And I don’t have anything,” said Lingo gloomily. “Not even a decent face…”
    “Just making sure we’re ready to go,” growled Tracker. “If I had my way, you two would be sleeping right now, gathering your strength. It’s a ten click walk through the jungle.”
    “So you keep saying,” replied Shadow. “Relax, Track. I – ow! Hey, what’s the idea? Let go!” Gree'a had grabbed onto his ear and gave it a hard tug.
    “Think she wants your attention,” commented Lingo.
    “She – has – it!” He took her in both hands and tried pulling her away. Seeing that he was paying attention to her, she let go, and began chattering, pointing at something. He couldn’t see what it was – it must be on the other side of the main tree. He suddenly noticed that all of the Gerlaks seemed to have gone quiet, and he couldn’t see any in the trees.
    “She wants to show me something. Alright, I’m going.”
    But now she was hissing insistently, and stabbing her fingers in the direction of Tracker, Lingo and Soren.
    “And she wants you guys to come too.”
    “Sure, why not.” Lingo got up; Soren had already risen.
    “Not me,” said Tracker shortly.
    “Suit yourself. Come on, Gree'a, don’t worry about him.” She seemed to understand, and pointed back at the main tree. Shadow walked around the trunk – and stopped short; on this side of the tree, the branches had all been hung with festive-looking plants, braided vines, colourful flowers stuck into them, wreaths of moss. The lower branches were covered in various jungle fruits. And everywhere there were Gerlaks, keeping themselves quiet with great difficulty. When they saw Shadow, they cast off all restraint, breaking out into deafening whoops and whistles.
    “It’s a farewell party,” observed Soren.
    “What – it’s all for us?” cried Shadow. “They went to a lot of trouble!”
    “Not that we can eat any of the fruit,” sighed Lingo. “Shame. They look so good, too.”
    “You can eat the spotted orange ones,” said Soren, pointing. “They have a rather peculiar taste, though.”
    “I’ll chance it.” Lingo took one and gave it an experimental bite, then shrugged. “It’s awful, but it beats Jogan-fruit flavoured ration bars.” The rest of the fruit rapidly disappeared, though he chewed cautiously, all on the left side of his mouth. The fruit left a vivid orange stain down his chin. “You should try it, Shad! Come on, it’s a party.” He took a seat on one of the branches. “Hey, one at a time!” he protested; the Gerlaks had come down from the upper branches, and three or four of them were trying to offer him spotted orange fruit. Gree'a was tugging Shadow’s ear again, more gently this time, and pointing to another branch; taking the hint, he settled himself on it, and she hopped off his shoulder, whistling and clicking.

    She had adapted very quickly to the loss of her foot; the wound had healed completely, and her disability did not seem to hinder her very much. Though she was making extensive use of her tail, much more than the other Gerlaks. Even this celebration was marred by the harsh cruelties of the war. Shadow quickly shook himself out of that line of thought – it was the first step on a dark road. He noticed Gree'a staring at him, concerned, and he forced a smile. He would enjoy the feast, if only for her sake. She chattered happily, then jumped onto his shoulder, launched herself upwards, and disappeared into the tree, giving a loud screech as she did so.

    This attracted the notice of the other Gerlaks. They were quiet for a splitsecond before launching into some kind of song, the females whistling while the males clicked rhythmically. They gathered around Shadow now, waving flowers at him. Gree'a returned moments later, carrying her infant. He was looking about him with interest, showing no fear, and looked well-fed. She extended him towards Shadow.

    “Er – okay,” he said, holding out his hands. She placed the infant in them – he was small enough to hold in one hand, really – and whirred happily. Shadow didn’t really know what it meant, but sensed that she was doing him a great honour. Several other Gerlak females had hopped up to him as well, carrying three vines that had been braided together. They proceeded to wrap these around his wrists and forearms. Now an elder stepped forward, and began to whirr, keeping to the rhythm of the chant or song. When he stopped, the Gerlaks gave a united whoop, and Gree'a took the infant out of Shadow’s hands again, whistling happily.
    “Not – not sure what that was all about,” muttered Shadow, unwinding the vines.
    “Hey, look,” said Lingo through a mouthful of fruit, pointing. “They’re going to do a dance.”
    Jagged rows of Gerlaks had formed on the available branches and rocks, females in front and warriors behind, holding their spears before them. One of them gave a signal, and they began to stamp the spears in a rhythm. One of the females gave a high-pitched coo, then the others joined in. The same female cooed again, and the others replied. Then the females sang together, and their song was amplified by the bass voices of the warriors. The females swayed, swishing their orange dresses, and the males began to chant and click as the females continued their cooing song.
    “They’re good,” commented Lingo. “And they seem pretty happy. I read somewhere that the Gerlaks only do these group dances on important occasions, where they want to involve the whole community – see, the others are participating too,” he added, as the other Gerlaks, not part of the dance troupe, began to clap to the rhythm of the dance.
    “Speaking of the whole community, what happened to that huge old Gerlak?” Shadow turned to Soren. “Is he still their chieftain?”
    “Oh, he’s around, sulking, I expect,” answered Soren. “They still follow him, officially.”
    “They would. Gerlaks always pledge allegiance to their eldest,” Lingo affirmed.
    “Not that they always listen to him, as we’ve seen,” Soren added, smiling. “The young ones really appear to have taken over, but it seems to be working. Now that the threat of the Separatists has been dealt with, they’re free to experiment with their social structure without compromising their security.”
    Shadow had been thinking. “I’m not sure it has been dealt with, sir. The official base is still there, and the Separatist fleet hasn’t gone, as far as we know. I hope the Republic will retake the planet, but that will depend on whether they can spare the resources.”
    “Now is the ideal time to do it,” said Lingo. “The Seppies are extremely vulnerable. We could just walk in and take it.”
    “Agreed, and I hope – eh? What are they doing now?”
    The Gerlaks had finished dancing, and had formed a semi-circle around them. Four older Gerlaks approached them, each carrying a wreath of twined moss. They heard squelching footsteps behind them: Tracker, in full armour and helmet, was joining them with extreme reluctance, not even trying to hide his irritation with the small army of Gerlaks escorting him.
    “We don’t have time for this,” he began, but the Gerlaks had other ideas, cooing and whistling with enthusiasm. The older Gerlaks placed the wreaths over Soren’s and the commandos’ heads, and the jungle erupted into a chorus of joyful whoops. Now there was a stir the branches above, and a young warrior, decked out in wreaths himself, began to make a speech. The female Gerlak translator followed his sentences with Huttese, and Soren took his cue to translate that into Basic.

    “It has been a long time since we have feasted,” began the warrior. “For many sunsets-of-sunsets we have lived in fear of the strangers. The strangers killed our people and burned our villages, and we hid from them! Our sunsets were sad. – It sounds a lot more profound in Huttese, and I’m sure it’s even better in Gerlian,” added Soren. “Then these strong warriors killed the strangers, and burned their village! We will hide no more. We also have warriors. We also are strong!”
    A cheer went up from the assembled Gerlaks. What a contrast it made with their frightened hesitation, only a few days ago.
    “Today these warriors are leaving us. They are going back into the sky. We will not forget them! We will present them with a gift.”
    Right on cue, a warrior hopped down onto the branch beside Shadow. He bowed his head and held out an ornate stone knife. Shadow took it, and his hand was only slightly too large for the hilt. It had not been made by the Gerlaks. He could guess at the identity of the artisans. The blade was covered in intricate curved and twining lines, and the hilt – as he noticed with a sudden throb of excitement – was set with three glowing blue crystals, and engraved with runes.
    “Thank them for me, will you, sir?” he asked Soren. “This is beautiful!”
    “We do not acknowledge their thanks,” replied the warrior, when it had been translated to him. “The gift is a small part of our thanks. And now,” he added, the ceremony concluded, “enjoy the feast!”
    The Gerlaks jubilated and descended on the fruits that had been laid out on the lower branches.
    “Time’s up,” said Tracker, rising, and pulling off the wreath. “Shad, get suited up. We’re leaving.”
    “Copy that.” Shadow got up from the branch. Gree'a looked at him mournfully, but let him go. He went back to the other side of the tree where he had left his things, and gingerly pulled on his battered armour, wincing as it pressed into his bruises. He strapped on his pack, having placed the knife in a side pocket, then rejoined Tracker and the others.
    “Everyone ready? Let’s move,” Tracker ordered, without waiting for an answer, and set off through the sludge. Lingo and Soren followed. Shadow had one last look at the Gerlak village, so happy and peaceful in the sun’s orange glow. The Gerlaks, seeing them go, broke off their feasting and struck up a loud, wailing song. Shadow turned away from them and fell into step behind Lingo.

    1Mando'a for “brother”.
     
  25. KithuraVess

    KithuraVess Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Nov 19, 2008
    Chapter 25: What Possessed Me

    They made slow progress through the jungle. The terrain was not particularly hostile, but Tracker kept them to a pace of about twenty minutes to the kilometer, and made frequent deviations around difficult terrain, keeping them out of thicker sludge and undergrowth. They had just south of five hours to get to the rendezvous point, and he seemed determined to utilise every minute of it. During yet another stop, the third one in the last two hours, Lingo turned to Soren.
    “Shadow told me you were able to learn some of the Gerlaks’ language, sir,” he began.
    “Not terribly much, just some phrases, some noises, really. I don’t know what they mean literally, so I wouldn’t call it learning the language as such. But, from observing them, I learned how to call them, how to tell one to fetch another one, and so on. Much of their activity seems to revolve around summoning one another.”
    “They seem very community-oriented,” nodded Lingo. “And it also makes sense in the context of the environment and the way their villages are structured. They live close together and they’re very mobile, so calling a friend or asking him to fetch another one must yield almost instant results.”
    “I’m rather interested in the way you phrased that,” said Soren. “What’s your opinion on the formation of language, then? You seemed to hint at environmental determinism. ”
    “I believe language is formed by a combination of practical reasons and cultural forces,” began Lingo, “but – ”
    “Okay, we’re moving,” cut in Tracker.
    “Go on,” encouraged Soren, falling into step beside Lingo. They soon had a lively discussion going, and Shadow found himself effectively alone with Tracker. At last he had the opportunity he had been waiting for, to put to Tracker the question he had been burning to ask since the previous night. Yet suddenly he didn’t seem to have the courage. His heart hammered in chest, and the words stuck in his throat. What was he going to say, exactly? It was ridiculous, it was all ridiculous, the cave, the ghost, the idea that they could use the Force… but then he saw the Phindian again, coughing and gagging, dropping to his knees, and Tracker’s clenched hand stretched out towards him. He hadn’t imagined that.
    “S-say, Track,” he began.
    “What?”
    “Last night – I mean, the night before that. At the Sep base. Um, what, what happened exactly? With the Phindian, I mean!” The last sentence came out in a rush.
    “What do you mean?” snapped Tracker, sounding sharp and unfriendly, even for him. Shadow was taken aback, but the subject had been broached now, so he soldiered on.
    “He looked like – like he was choking. Like he was being strangled with the Force.”
    “What are you talking about?”
    “Track, I know what I saw. It looked like you were doing it.”
    “That’s a damned lie,” said Tracker harshly. He could feel the anger again, burning like a flame. “How would that even be possible? I don’t know why you’d say that.”
    “It is possible!” cried Shadow. “Do you remember what I said when I came back from the jungle? About the cave, and the ghost? I wasn’t delirious. It’s this planet, Track. There’s, there’s something about it. And I spoke to General Khun as well, before we even came here. She said that the Force works differently here. She said it’s very strong on this planet, but the Jedi can’t use it. And the ghost said the same thing. Hear me out, Tracker, please! The ghost said that the Force is in the environment, in the, the rocks, the crystals, the plants.”
    “The crystals?” Tracker suddenly remembered the cave he had been in, the blue crystal that had stung him. No, this was all wrong. It was the jungle, the heat. And this bloody anger – he wasn’t even sure where it was coming from, but it was taking all of his self-control to struggle against it. And it scared him. “You’re not making sense. Drop it.”
    “What? You mean just pretend nothing happened? I can’t do that! We can’t do that. If, if you – and I know it sounds crazy – but if you used the Force, somehow, we can’t just keep it to ourselves! Just imagine the implications, it could change everything! We have to tell the Jedi. Our duty – ”
    “I said, drop it!” Tracker rounded on Shadow, fists clenched. Some impulse compelled him to snatch off his helmet, showing his features twisted with rage. “Forget about it! That’s an order, damn you! You will never speak of this again. If I even suspect that you’ve mentioned it, to anyone, I will treat it as a case of mutiny. Understand? And don’t you ever dare lecture me about duty again, soldier.”
    Shadow’s eyes widened, bewildered, hurt. Tracker’s incontrollable anger subsided; now guilt was added to the conflicted tumult in his chest.
    “We’re wasting time, let’s go,” he snarled, spun on his heel and walked on, ramming on his helmet. Shadow stared after him for a few moments.
    “What was that about? We heard Tracker shouting,” said Lingo, coming up behind him.
    “It – it’s nothing. I mean, nothing important. It’s just the heat.”
    “That wasn’t very convincing, but it’s between you two.” Lingo clapped him on the shoulder. “Let’s go, Shad. Don’t want the shuttle to have to wait for us. The sooner we get off this planet, the sooner I can plunge my head into some lovely bacta.”
    “Right.” Shadow started off again, following Tracker, but leaving as much distance between them as he could, without losing sight of him. His heart was pounding against his ribs. Tracker had seemed possessed by rage. He’d never seen anything like it. He couldn’t go to the Jedi now, at least not about the incident with the Phindian: he would never defy a direct order, not even in secret. Hopefully it was just the planet influencing Tracker; maybe things would return to normal once they were back on board the Indomitable. But deep down he knew that something had changed. He had never actually been afraid of any of his brothers before. He had always been able to trust them implicitly: the troopers, the officers, the commandos, and especially the men of his squad. He had always believed that they were supposed to be one, a unit, a team, each a part of a whole person. And now he wasn’t sure if that was possible.

    Tracker plunged on through the jungle, slashing at vines with his utility knife, tearing off the leaves that got in his way. This did nothing to alleviate his frustration. He would have liked to scream, to throw himself into the jungle with all his might and rip it up by the roots, rip it to shreds. Or better yet, he would have liked a fight. Ten super battle droids could have stepped right in front of him at this moment, and he would have charged at them with his fists. Maybe he was going insane. Maybe something had gone wrong in the cloning process, and he was really a defective unit, and it had just taken some pressure to expose his weakness. No, he couldn’t let himself think that way. He had to focus. The others depended on him, they always had, and he’d always come through for them. Not that he had been of much use to Tech, or to Straightlace… just thinking about the Phindian threatened to bring back that terrifying hatred. He had to get a grip on himself, damn it all.
    “Hey, Tracker! Calm down!”
    Tracker stopped, somewhat reluctantly, and turned around. He was losing the others – for a moment he couldn’t see them, then they appeared out of the jungle, thrusting leaves and vines out of their way. Shadow had fallen back behind Lingo and Soren.
    “I can’t – keep up,” panted Lingo. “I know I don’t look it, but I’m not exactly at my peak performance. I do actually have an injury or two. You can’t see it, I know.”
    “Stop talking, conserve your energy,” ordered Tracker. “We’ll rest here. Have some water.”
    “Thanks,” said Lingo, gratefully dropping himself onto a slimy rock. “Ugh… this slime isn’t going to wash out, is it. So how far do we have to go?”
    “About another three clicks, as the mynock flies, but don’t get excited. The jungle’s getting thicker.”
    “ETA?”
    Tracker thought for a moment. “I’d say an hour. Hour and a half at most. It’ll be nightfall in two.”
    “Right, so let’s get going. I’ll be right.” Lingo was rising, extending the water bottle. Tracker took it and clipped it onto his pack. Glancing up, he saw Shadow strapping on his pack, having taken it off for a moment’s rest. Their eyes met; Shadow looked away immediately, trying to pretend he hadn’t noticed. Tracker swore inwardly. He didn’t have time for this.
    “We’re moving,” he said, and headed on into the jungle. The foliage closed densely across their path, and the sludge was getting thicker. He forged on, cutting through the vines with his knife, less angry now, more efficient. He looked over his shoulder frequently to see how the others were getting on; he was worried about Lingo, not trusting him to be honest about the real extent of his exhaustion. Still, they couldn’t keep stopping, and Lingo did seem to be keeping up. Soren was struggling a bit, but then, he was keeping up a constant monologue, something about alien cultures, Tracker wasn’t listening. And Shadow was lagging, but that was deliberate.

    Now they were moving uphill again, and the foliage thinned. Good – he had been wondering why Comms had picked a spot in such thick jungle, but apparently it wasn’t. The exact co-ordinates, as he discovered after about an hour, gave a reasonably flat area on the lee side of a hill, where the trees grew sparsely, by Sidellian standards. The sun was low on the horizon. He found a seat on a low branch and switched on the emergency comm link. Lingo and Soren both sat down with obvious relief, and continued their conversation. Shadow arrived somewhat later, and chose a spot some distance away. He had taken something out of his pack, and was inspecting it with obvious interest – must be that knife the Gerlaks had given him. Strange creatures.
    Indomitable, this is Resh Squad, are you receiving me? Come in, Indomitable.”
    Silence. Tracker’s mouth dried. Then the comm link crackled.
    “ – Resh Squad, are you there? Indomitable to Resh squad, do you copy, over.”
    “Receiving you, Indomitable,” answered Tracker, almost laughing out loud with relief. “We’re in position and ready for pick-up.”
    “Copy that, Resh Squad. Sending the gunship now. Over and out.”
    Tracker leaned back against the tree trunk, watching the darkening sky. The fog was so thick that the moons were completely hidden, let alone the stars. But soon enough, another light appeared: the landing-lights of the gunship, swooping in from the darkness.
    “Get clear, we don’t want to finish off the mission by getting landed on,” ordered Tracker, and they all retreated into the trees, which bent with the wind as the gunship landed. It touched down in the mud with a squelch, and Tracker signalled to the others to follow him. The door opened as they approached, the light from the inside of the gunship illuminating the jungle.
    “Squad! It’s good to see you.” Comms himself had piloted the gunship down, with Wings as his co-pilot. “You certainly took your sweet time.”
    “Didn’t know you could fly, Comms,” commented Lingo, stepping into the light.
    “My secret. I’ve been spending time in the simul– holy sithspit, what happened to you?”
    “Trandoshan cosmetic surgery.”
    “Bloody hell. – I see you’ve lost your armour, too. Hang on, there’s only three of you. And you, sir,” he added respectfully to Soren. “Did Straightlace…”
    Tracker nodded mutely, sitting down heavily and strapping himself in.
    “Damn shame. Onith Squad’s on board the Indy, you know.”
    Tracker’s head snapped up. “What? They’re out of recovery?”
    “Yep. They were supposed to join up with Straightlace and start their next mission, after he’d had a couple of days’ R&R, of course. Wings, notify them once we’ve taken off, will you? I’d do it, but I think I should concentrate on flying the ship. – Everyone strapped in?”
    Receiving an affirmative response, Comms went back to the pilot’s seat. The door slid shut, and the gunship rocked, and took off. Tracker was glad that no-one could see his face. He didn’t know how he was going to be able to look Onith Squad in the eye. Straightlace had been their captain. And what a captain!
    Capable, calm under any circumstances, quick-witted, unhesitating. Committed to his duty, whatever the price – and the price had been the ultimate one. Tracker had never felt such admiration for anyone before. If he could be half the man Straightlace had been, he would be content. But he would never get there. Not with his emotional instability.
    As for that, though, he realised that his anger was getting less and less potent by the second. It seemed to be diminishing the further away they got from the planet, and his old, familiar, glorious equanimity was returning. No, he was not responsible for Straightlace’s death, and Onith Squad would not blame him for it. They were commandos, after all. Professionals. He leaned back against the wall and heaved a sigh of relief. He was himself again.