Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Kneeling, eyes closed, Darrus finally let himself do what he'd been putting off for weeks. Ever since he began this Scarlet Wake business, he'd set aside part of his mind. Day after day, he had avoided what he was doing now. With a deep breath, Darrus opened the gates of his consciousness and let himself remember.

There were those who called the Jedi heartless. Unfeeling, uncaring monastics with mystical powers at the cost of their own souls. The truth was a little more complicated that that. Jedi were not at all uncaring. Quite to the contrary, the reason they seemed this way was because their connection to the Force made them exactly the opposite. The Jedi were not unfeeling.

They felt everything.

When someone without the ability to sense the Force had an emotional reaction to something, their thoughts and feelings remained within themselves. This could be a very strong reaction but it was centralized and limited. A Jedi's feelings echoed through the Force, affecting others and feeding on their reactions in turn. All intense emotion became amplified this way, resounding and increasing until even the smallest thought could become overwhelming.

And it did not stop there. Jedi were in touch with life and with all living things. They were not just affected by their own emotions. If someone near a Jedi felt strongly, he or she would start to feel that way as well. It was hard enough to control one's own mind; filtering out the untrained thoughts of others could border on the impossible.

Focusing on himself now, letting himself finally think after so long trapped in the persona of Wraith, it occurred to Darrus that this was probably why he had appreciated the clone troopers in his army so much. They were disciplined, trained to control themselves in battle and in everyday life. In a way, their minds were quiet. Even when they did show emotion, they never let it get out of control, thus providing him a certain peace in their company.

What had brought up that thought? Was he drawing a correlation between his clone troops and the Mandaloreans? Perhaps, though the only real denominator linking the two was their military lifestyle. In every other way, they were two very different animals.

Darrus moved past that, placing his hands on his knees as he straightened his back and breathed in deeply. There was more troubling him tonight than just runaway emotions.

During the battle, he could feel every death just as he had during the many engagements of the Clone Wars. Back then, it had taken all his training not to be overwhelmed by the loss. It had not always been easy to block out the dark echoes of ending life.

But during the battle earlier that day, there hadn't been any trauma at all. Each death, each fading light disappearing into oblivion, had been like a brief flicker of pain. Nothing more. What once had been so hard to endure was now barely more than a second of mental discomfort. By the end of the combat, there had been no sadness or anguish at all.

What was happening to him? Was he losing his connection to the Force?

No. That would have been a better answer than what he feared was the truth. For years he had struggled with the Dark Side, trying to keep himself for ever forging a true connection to its powers. No matter how badly his emotions had strayed from his control, he'd always been able to keep them from going too far. He had always drawn the line at death, always been able to make the distinction between right and wrong.

Now, the loss of so many lives wasn't affecting him at all. He sensed them but there was nothing there. No impact. No emotion. How could he feel this way, or more to the point, not feel? He had finally become jaded. Apathy was as dangerous as hatred. Not caring was as sure a path to the Dark Side as passion.

And of course, that word brought up other issues. Passion takes many forms.

"Darrus? You all right in there?"

Speaking of which...

He rose quietly, smoothing down his black metasilk robe over his legs. His arms and legs were bare, his hair loose and falling over one shoulder. Only his bantha leather belt and his lightsaber accompanied his robe; the rest of his garments were in the other room. With her.

"I am well. Just taking a moment to meditate. I haven't done it in a while."

Maya opened the adjoining door, leaning against its silver frame, one bare leg pulled up to rest foot first against her other knee. "You mind company?" Even in the half light of the bed chamber beyond, her gown clung to her invitingly.

Darrus closed his eyes, folding his hands and trying to center. "I really should do this alone."

There was a soft sigh and then the sound of the door closing again. "I understand, Darrus. No trouble. Just come back to bed when you're done? Please?"

He nodded, knowing she wouldn't be able to see the gesture and returned to his crouch on the floor. Lightsaber in hand, resting it across his lap, he tried to regain his focus.

There is no emotion; there is peace.

Very little in his life felt peaceful right now. At one time, he had been able to set all the turmoil in his soul aside and concentrate on the Code. Now... that was harder than ever. There was blood on his hands. Blood of friends. Blood of the innocent.

There is no ignorance; there is knowledge.

He was lost in this. He had no idea how to save himself, especially if he truly was starting to lose the ability to feel the darkness and find his way through it. Emotional detachment was useful but being heartblind was not. He needed help. He needed advice.

There is no passion; there is serenity.

That was not at all true these days. Passion was almost a given and not just because of the beautiful woman in the other room. The last few battles he'd fought had been more than just tactical. The rush of combat, the touch of fury riding every nerve. Dangerously close to the Dark Side each time, this was why he'd sworn his oath not to take a life again.

An oath he was no longer sure he could keep.

There is no death. There is the Force.

Groaning, Darrus stood up, returning the saber to his belt. This wasn't working. He felt no better now than when he'd started. Whatever was wrong, the Code was no comfort. If he was going to find himself again, it wouldn't be here.

Perhaps, and this concept terrified him deeply, it wouldn't even be as a Jedi.

Friday, October 12, 2007

To The Victors...

Deneb Station was alive with lights and motion, every ship in stardock running fully lit and firing its energy weapons into the darkness all around the aging, but still intact, facility. It was a celebration of survival. Everyone at Deneb knew how close they had come to getting blasted out of the stars.

And they also knew who to thank for their survival.

In the station's galley, all the best from the larder had been brought out and prepared like only spacer cooks with decades of experience could. The food was spiced within inches of explosion, the libations were flowing freely and the music was deafening. Throughout the station, no one was quiet or alone. Even the dock workers were taking a well-deserved few hours to just celebrate life. Life and the continuance thereof...

A mug of something cold and foaming lifted into the air at the heart of the galley throng. "A toast to the finest warrior drew in space!"

The response was like thunder. Three dozen men and women, all armored in one way or another, raised their drinks and shouted at the same time.

"And a toast to our ships; the fleet that would not fall!"

Again, a roar of agreement. Glasses were raised. Drinks were drained and refilled.

"And let us not forget," the commander-soldier speaking said with a wide smile, "a toast to the Archon that made this all possible!" He tipped his mug towards the man of the hour, the only 'Mandalorean' still wearing a helmet.

Behind his visor of alloys and glass, Jeht was feeling remarkably nervous. Never exactly a social creature on the best of days, all this attention was making him quite uncomfortable. Had it not been for Maya's insistence that the troops needed him here, Darrus would have already retired to a private chamber for the night.

"All hail the Silverguard and the savior they sent us!"

The reply boomed through the hall. Of all the toasts, this one echoed the loudest. "Hail! Hail! Hail!"

Darrus winced at the noise and the focused attention of everyone in the room. They were looking at him now. They were all expectant. They were calling him a savior. Part of him wanted to run. The rest of him wanted to vanish.

Instead, half at Maya's telepathic prompting, he raised his own mug and nodded quietly, hoping that would be enough for them all.

It apparently wasn't. The room went silent.

"Say something to them. Something encouraging."

He glances sideways at Maya, sitting beside him with a drink of her own. Mentally, he asked, "Like... what?"

Beneath the table, she patted him consolingly. "Let them know you are proud of the job they did. They are warriors. They want to know they fight well."

He sighed quietly and started to speak. Before he could even get the first breath past his lips, Maya cut him off quickly with another short, telepathic burst.

"Take your helmet off, silly."

Jeht cringed. "Do you really think that's a good idea? I don't exactly look normal, Maya." His pale skin and black hair would not be a serious issue but the total lack of white or color in his eyes would probably make an impression. If these people were expecting something specific, taking off his helmet was possibly the worst thing he could do.

"I will watch their emotions, Darrus. If any of them become apprehensive about the way you look, I'll let you know and we can get out of here before they react. All right?"

As they were conversing, the commander lowered his drink slightly. "Sir? Is everything all right?" Around him, people were starting to look nervous, shifting and staring at Darrus with curious eyes.

The time for discussion was clearly over. Time to act.

Darrus put his drink down and reached up to his chin, popping the respirator lines and unlocking his helmet. With a soft hiss, the faceplate split down the middle and slid back into the helm in both directions. Taking it off completely, he set it down on the table, retrieved his glass and looked up into the concerned gazes of the many people crowding the main table around him.

"I don't talk much outside combat," he started. His natural voice, barely more than a whisper, was loud enough to be heard by everyone in the suddenly silent room. "So you'll have to forgive me if this takes a moment."

Instantly, he could tell he'd said the right thing. Mentioning combat set the Mandaloreans at ease. They were obviously used to battle leaders with more savvy on the field than in the barracks. Maya reassured him quietly, confirming that suspicion. he'd disarmed the moment but he had to keep this momentum going or risk losing this goodwill.

"I have led troops into battle for years. I've seen wars fought among starts that no one has even named and killed people on planets that no one will ever remember."

All of that was true and because it had a weight of honesty behind it, the people in the galley accepted his words without question. The Clone Wars had taken through a general's journey, one that these soldiers could definitely relate with easily.

"But tonight, I saw a handful of men and women with virtually nothing take down an enemy with virtually every advantage. This night, those who opposed us are frozen among the stars while we burn in the fires of the righteous. They died. We lived. Be proud of this victory."

He paused long enough to look through his drink at the beaming faces of the Mandaloreans at the table. Even the commander was now smiling, all trace of suspicion or worry gone.

"And be proud of yourselves. Many stood as one and as one we stand triumphant now. You all salute me, but it is I who should salute you." Darrus raised his glass and downed its unknown contents in a single quaff.

"Well done, men. Well done."

The applause was louder than the roar of a thousand engines. The room exploded in cheers and activity, drinking and revelry. The commander at the other end of the table stood tall and rpoud, returning the gesture by finishing his own drink and bowing his head in deep respect.

"Darrus! That was incredible!"

He leaned against her, sighing and closing his eyes. "Maybe. But that speech was even better when Master Windu gave it after the Battle of Tirilis V."

Maya could not help but laugh into her glass, instantly frothing what was left of her drink.


She grinned up at him. "Yes, love?"

He rested his hand on her shoulder. To the rest of the room, it just appeared to be a gesture of companionship or affection. Only Maya could tell it was something else. Only she could feel that Darrus was suddenly resting more of his weight on her.

"I have no alcohol tolerance at all. Could you help me get out of here before I pass out?"

He was already swaying slightly. One drink and he was plastered. Maya had been the owner of a bar and now she was hopeless over a man with the beer stamina of a sun-addled Jawa. The irony most definitely wasn't escaping her.

But speaking of escape...

"Oh course, Darrus. Just lean against me and stay still when I stand. I'll walk you out of her and make it look like you are taking me to your chambers for some 'private celebration'."

Maya made a big show of fawning on him as she guided him through the galley. The envious looks and warm leers were all rather complimentary and nothing she hadn't dealt with before. No one here would question why Darrus was leaving so quickly. Between body language and slowly undoing his armor as they walked, she was making that pretty obvious, after all.

Besides, Maya thought to herself as they left the mess hall and the raging party behind. An inebriated Darrus was a prize in and of itself.

She'd never take advantage of him, drunk or sober, but there were a few questions she'd been meaning to ask...

Friday, September 28, 2007

Raising the Stakes

Black Four throttled back his engines, watching all the red on his hull status display flash angrily. Plasma flames racing over the main engine's cowling, his gunship had more holes and gaps than the second Death Star...

...before it blew up...

...which was going to be his fate if he didn't get help quickly. As a squadron leader, he had access to the emergency frequency but he'd been informed by Black One upon pain of death not to use it unless he absolutely had to do so. It was for the most dire of circumstances only, to be punched up only if he was in danger of being captured or if there was absolutely no chance of the mission succeeding.

The former wasn't a risk; he'd managed to hyperspace out of that death trap. Four flights of Ties, each lead by a gunboat, and he was the only one to make it out alive. They'd jumped into a firestorm, turbolaser fire tearing them apart before most of them even knew they were under attack. He'd resented being chosen as the rear squad leader. Now, he was grateful.

The lasers tearing through all the others first had given him the few precious seconds he'd needed to run like hell. Sure he'd abandoned his flight but they were all going to die. No sense in throwing his life away with theirs.

Besides, someone had to report the mission failure. He just hoped a rescue ship would get here before his life support ran out.

He entered the manual code numbers, activating his transponder as soon as the frequency locked in. His communications array dispatched a pre-recorded distress call complete with current space coordinates and recorded footage of the mission.

Then the thermal detonator under his seat exploded, killing him instantly and setting off a chain reaction of plasma charges that vaporized his assault ship down to the last fight panel. Within moments, even the glowing motes of ash dispersed, leaving only empty stars and the cold void between them...


Thick fingers toggled a bright red switch on a dark wooden desk, revealing a display screen behind a hidden, sliding panel in the wall. The monitor alone was worth thousands of credits, the concealing systems around it costing ten times that to install.

He didn't care. The money was irrelevant. He had hundreds of millions of credits, scattered across the galaxy in hundreds of accounts. He could buy and sell star fleets. He had before and he would no doubt do so again. Right now, money did not concern him. All that mattered was this transmission and what it would mean to his plans.

The watcher took in every last image on the screen, silently observing the attack on the Mandalore fleet, the Rebel fools breaking off their assault, his Imperial vessels having to strike at the Neo-Crusaders directly, their unexpected retreat and the ambush waiting for his ships on the other end of the hyperspace jump.

That was not been in his plan at all. Neither had the survival of the Ithorian hive carrier nor the Rebels not doing his dirty work for him. These were chaotic elements in an otherwise flawless scheme.

Random factors.

He hated random factors. They could not be bought or sold. They could not anticipated. He preferred to deal in assets and exchanges. A few hate groups combining to form an intergalactic racist brotherhood. A single base on Tattooine traded to simulate planetary bombardment. A ship full of worthless aliens to instigate a Rebel response.

And finally a manipulated clash with rabid would-be "honorable warriors" to simulate a false first strike in what would become a very real war. Such a plan had worked twenty years ago to forge the Empire, after all. There was no reason it couldn't work again.

Expect that now there was a very good reason. He needed lots of dead Rebels and angry Mandaloreans getting righteously blown out of the stars by Imperial forces. Right now, he had neither.

This would not do. This would not do at all.

Fortunately, he never did anything without a contingency plan. And a contingency for when that contingency failed. And a third plan to back up the other two just in case.

He detested being in the position of having to relay on his very last option but such was life. If this was how the game would be played, he would have to make the best of the sabacc hand being dealt. Fortunately, just like in sabacc, he knew how to cheat.

It was time to stack the deck.


A calm, feminine voice played over the desk's integrated speaker. "Sir?"

"Get me Savan."

He steepled his fingers in front of his heavy-jowled face. Black Sun. He'd been trying to avoid this, but there wasn't any choice now.

"Tell her I am ready to discuss an alliance. Tell her... tell her I know where she can find a certain droid she's looking for."

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Chain of Command

Dim red lights pulsed along the halls of the almost-derelict ship, lighting their intermittently. Many of the glowing strips had burned out, leaving several sections of walkway in deep, dangerous shadow.

Even without the optics of his helmet, Darrus could see without difficult. Darkness had never been a problem for him. Even as a child, night was far preferable to day. The day, especially on Coruscant, was painful. Bright agony. He'd was twelve years old when his mentors in the Academy got him his first pair of night lenses. Once he had them, he stopped weeping blood in the daylight.

In a place like this, he was grateful for his light sensitivity. There was little of it left, especially the deeper they all went into the Mandalore vessel. Beside him, Maya was obviously not so comfortable. She was tightly clinging to his hand, relying on him to lead her through the tangle of dark, broken corridors.

He kept his hand behind him, letting her hold on without making it obvious to the hunters in front of him that he was doing so. He was not entirely sure who they thought he was but Darrus doubted that handholding was a common occurrence among this lot.

Wat little he knew about this situation bore him out on that suspicion. These people were Mandaloreans... or at least they were using Mandalore technology and wearing the trappings of that ancient, military culture. Some of their body armor was new, other pieces were old or obviously salvaged. Their weapons were a mix of tech from all over the galaxy and no two men were armed the same.

What they lacked in uniformity they were more than making up for in training and discipline. They had the look of professional soldiers; that much suggested that they were at least familiar with the warrior's way of Mandalore. But something seemed odd, something that suggested that these people were not all their seemed... or perhaps more than they appeared.

In his mind's eye, he pictured Maya and used that connection to speak to her through thought. "I do not think these people are entirely Mandalorean. There's something strange going on."

She answered, her mind-voice softer and less controlled but still strong enough to be heard. "I agree. I feel a lot of unease about them. They aren't deceiving us... but they all seem to be part of some kind of self-deception. I can't explain it."

He nodded, more to reassure her than to express any kind of understanding. None of this made much sense to him and he was quite willing to admit Maya's expertise over his own when it came to people. "Who do you think they believe us to be?" Maya was empathic on a level he would likely never reach. She often had insights he did not. He appreciated her for that ability, even envied it slightly.

"Their reaction to you was genuine and I don't sense that they mean us any harm." She squeezed his hand reassuringly even as he helped her avoid a panel of sharp, ragged metal. "They are scared, not that they'll admit it. I can't really sense anything beyond that."

Fear was something Darrus understood. Fear and what it could make people do. This situation was starting to make a little more sense. As they walked, he reached out with his other hand and tapped the armored soldier in front of him on the thick, reinforced shoulder.

"Yes, sir?" The man's voice was slightly obscured by static, issuing from a small speaker in the front of his helmet.

Darrus asked in as calm a voice as he could, leaving the reverberator effect in his own helm off for the moment. "What happened here? Why is the ship so damaged?" It seemed like a simple enough question, general but to the point.

The soldier gestured to the warped walls as he answered. "The Telos IV exchange station was attacked a few hours ago. We were responding to the open distress call when we were jumped by a surprise attack. The..."

"They ambushed us, Exarch." That voice came from the front of the group ahead, the same man who'd addressed him before and told the others to hold their fire. "We got caught with our greaves down and the Battlelord paid for his failure with his life."

"How so?"

The leader of the Mandaloreans continued to press on as he spoke, answering Darrus succinctly with seemingly no emotion in his voice. "When the attack hit us, we lost our forward cruisers in the first volley. The Battlelord ordered all power to the main guns and returned fire on the attacking destroyer instead of rising deflector screens. We punched a hole clean through the enemy's main vessel..."

Darrus could tell there was more.

"...and then a drone fighter carrying a full rack of primed torpedoes rammed our bridge and killed the entire command staff. The flashback gutted us, taking out primary power, half our guns and detonating most of our charged ammo stores. Only Mandalore luck kept us in the star and not scattered between them, sir."

Darrus nodded, his face obscured by an armored mask similar to their own. "I see. And the ambush? How did you make it out?"

The men bristled, making Jeht think for a moment he'd chosen a poor question to ask.

"We survived because we were stronger than those cowards thought." The man's voice was ice-cold.

"Reassure them, Darrus. Take charge."

He turned on his vocalizer and let the sound module turn his voice into a grave-like rasp. "That's Exarch to you, soldier, and I wasn't questioning your skills. I wanted to know how you managed the jump to this system."

The sudden wrath in his modulated tone startled the men, shaking them all from their moment of hostility. Even the soldier in the lead was visibly cowed. "Forgive me, sir. Exarch. I misunderstood the question, sir."

"I want an answer, not an excuse. Can you provide it or do I need to give your rank to someone who can?" Darrus had been a general in the Clone Wars, commanding the finest soldiers in the galaxy for several years. If these men needed command, that was something he could provide. Behind him, he could feel Maya's surprise. She had never heard him like this before.

The soldier in the lead stopped and turned, stiffening to attention. "No, sir; I can and will answer your question. We were able to keep navigation and the hyderdrive engines online, sir. Once we repelled the ambush, every ship capable of pursuing them do so, sir!"

Darrus nodded, his dark silver armor gleaming like old blood in the flickering red light of the access corridor. "That is better. Carry on."

"Sir!" The man saluted with his fist to his chest and then spun on his heel. The passage through the halls was faster now, as if the men here now had something to prove. Darrus didn't mind the haste at all. Outside the battle might still be raging, especially if whomever had made that strange transmission on a Jedi frequency proved unable to call off the Rebel ships. The sooner they got to where they were going, the better.

"That was well done, Dar. I didn't know you could do that." Maya sounded impressed. Surprised but impressed.

He allowed himself a slight smile, knowing she could feel it but also glad no one else could see his face. He seldom let his emotions reach his expression... but Maya had a way of doing that to him. She was a lot like Trill that way.


Before his mind could go down that dark road, the world shook violently. The ship was taking hits. Lots of them...

"We need to hustle."

"No need, sir. We are already there." The soldiers between Darrus and the leader started to scatter into the room, taking up positions at computer stations and targeting screens. They had emerged into a well-armored command room, a secondary bridge located deep inside the vessel's bulkhead.

"Your orders, sir?" Even as the commander spoke, the other Mandaloreans were bring up tactical displays and charging weapon batteries. A large cylindrical holo-screen in the middle of the chamber showed their situation. All but three of the Mandalore ships were gone, overwhelmed by a large force between their location and the planet below.

Planet below? That didn't make any sense. The Rebel ships had been straight ahead, splitting to flank even as he and Maya were being pulled above. They hadn't been approaching from below. Besides, there were too many hostiles on that display, flying in a tight, oddly familiar formation. More than two dozen. Had the Rebels already gotten reinforcements? Or...

Darrus cussed under this breath, a bad habit he'd picked up from Marr-ek.

"Sir? What was that? Permission to fire?"

Darrus shook his head, the math in his mind coming up with some very ugly... and final... numbers. "Negative. Order the remaining ships to charge deflectors to full and jump on our mark."

The soldiers in their chairs reacted exactly like Darrus had assumed they would; all of them hesitated, turning to their commander in confusion.

"Sir? We may be outnumbered but we can die with honor..."

"We will fight them but not here." Darrus let the reverb in his helmet trail off into a spectral growl before continuing. "I want them to chase us this time, soldier. All the way back to Telos."

Darrus was gambling that one very important aspect of the station at Telos IV hadn't changed in the time he'd been asleep. If it was still the same stardock he remembered, it had one special feature not normally found in a repair/refueling point -a full array of fire linked, capital class turbolasers.

The total change in the commander's posture told him his bet had paid off. "I understand, sir! Send the command and set our course. Get us as close to Tee Four as possible. Now!"

Darrus nodded; the commander understood his strategy perfectly. "Send a tight comm as soon as we get there. I want the enemy to come out of hyperspace to a very warm welcome. Am I clear?"

"Sir, crystal, sir!" The commander ran across the room to the communications console and started seeing to the order himself.

As he did, Maya pulled Darrus aside as subtly as she could, concern in her eyes and an upset waver to her thoughts. "Darrus! We can't just gun down Rebel ships! Those pilots out there are innocent. They were only trying to help!"

Jeht rested his hand on Maya's shoulder, hoping his touch would calm her as it always did. It worked, to an extent. He could still sense her worry. Her panic. She cared so much about people. Sometimes, she cared too much. There would be times, probably sooner rather than later, when they would he to make hard choices and good people might end up hurt.

But this wasn't one of those times. "Maya, you need to trust me. The ships outside are not Rebels and they aren't innocent."

She stared at him a long while, not looking away even when their ship trembled and shook from the effort of lurching into hyperspace. She wanted to trust him but fear was making that hard. Fear of hurting former friends. Fear of good men dying. Fear of being responsible for it.

He stepped around the corner of the room's doorway and pulled her into his arms. "I know I am right. I can feel it, Maya. Please. Please, believe in the Force."

She buried her face in his armored chest, forcing herself to make a very hard decision. In the end, even if they were about to do something terrible, she had chosen her path longer before this moment. Nodding, she clung tight.

"I do. I believe... in you."

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Dark Homecoming

"Darrus, what's happening?"

He had nothing to tell her. Darrus was as confused as Maya at the moment. The what was actually quite simple. Their Basilisks were no longer under their control. They were flying as fast as the war droids could move towards the lead Mandalorean vessel, weapon systems retracted and environmental shields up.

The why, on the other hand, was a complete mystery. They had started moving this way only a few moments after the dark fleet arrived. Their flight systems were all off-line, controlled from an outside source. Presumably, the ship was bringing them in but there hadn't been any communication or attack. If they had been identified as enemies, why weren't they being shot at? The ship definitely had its share of guns.

Right now, those weapons and the ones bristling across the hulls of the other vessels in the Mandalorean fleet were making themselves known, sending glowing lances of deadly light across space into the makeshift Rebel ships in the distance.

Before he could say something to his panicking partner, his comm light glimmered. Hoping it was some kind of explanation, he toggled the receiver. Only then did he notice it was on a frequency usually reserved for Jedi Temple communications.

"If you're hearing this, 'Wraith', you are who I think you are. Don't talk, just listen. I'll try to reach the Rebels and get them to break off their counter attack. This has all gone Bantha up. If you can, do the same with the Mandals."

Then the transmission ended. There was something familiar about the voice but at the moment, Jeht couldn't place it. He silently wished the mysterious figure, whoever it was, luck and sighed to himself. He wasn't sure he'd have the ability to sway the Mandaloreans from their attack but he was certainly about to get the opportunity.

The side of the vessel was scored with dozens of blaster cannon hits, a single working cargo bay opening to receive them. The other loading doors were too damaged to open or, in one case, close. There was a plasma fire raging inside that bay, metal glowing from intense, unquenchable heat. He hoped there hadn't been men inside it but he suspected that hope was in vain.

"Darrus... I'm scared."

That wasn't over the comm. That was Maya using the thought sending ability he'd shown her. Unfrtunately, she was also sending her fear and it was very strong. Strong enough to touch a darkness of a wholly different source.

"Calm yourself, dear." He used the term of affection to change her mood, knowing that it would make her focus on her feelings for him. It was manipulative, yes, but it was better than them both dwelling on fear and panic right now. "Calm your mind. We have to both be prepared for whatever awaits us here, be it battle or escape."

He could feel her affection but it was tempered with embarrassment. She answered with a quick, "Of course. Sorry..."

He sent soothing thoughts her way, easing her mind of doubt and regret. They would also cloud her vision and he was concerned they would both have need of her healing skills before this was over. A warship of angry Mandaloreans? That did not bode well.

The bay engulfed them, swallowing their relatively small Basilisks like a Naboo spurwhale feasting on glow-krill. Below them, the landing deck was in shambles. There were four fighter craft, all with serious damage. None of them looked flight-worthy. Half the bay was a mass of wires and twisted metal, as if a massive explosion elsewhere had nearly shaken the bay apart. On the outside, the ship was a fearsome sight.

Inside, Darrus wondered how it could possibly still be functional.

His time to wonder anything was cut sort by what he'd been fearing. As guidance tractor beams brought their Basilisks in for an auto-landing in a small cleared area of the bay, several Mandaloreans in full gear, complete with heavy blasters and powered armor, came forward and pointed their weapons in a textbook cover formation.

At least one mystery was solved - the reason for their Basilisks having their environmental systems active. His instruments showed that outside the droid's cockpit, there was pressure but no breathable atmosphere. The bay's life support was completely shot. No real surprise.

His control panel crackled to life, the communications array switching on. "Come out slow, hands up. We see a weapon, you stop seeing. Comply." The voice was rough and invited no argument or discussion.

So Darrus didn't argue or discuss. Popping the clasp on his seat harness, he left his blaster cannon behind and opened the droid's chassis. Plates slid open and footholds extended to let him climb down outside the loyal metal beast's body. His back still turned to the Mandaloreans, he watched to make sure Maya's rebreather would be up to sustaining her outside the droid. Seeing that she was fine, he touched down on the warm deck and turned to face his captors.

There was a stir among the Mandalorean soldiers. Jet had been afraid of this. His armor was a custom piece of work by Vaaro but it was still noticeably Mandalore in design. By their warrior culture, owning a suit without being one of them was an offense punishable by death.

This was about to dissolve into a fight. An ugly one. And he was disarmed.

The Mandalorean in the lead strode forward, pistol still in hand, and crossed halfway to Jeht before dropping to one knee and clapping the grip of his gun to his chest in a salute. "Sir! We had no idea one of the Silverguard had made it here before us!" The soldier turned his helmed head to the others, ordering them to stand down immediately.

They did.

"Sir, please come with us. Our Battlelord and his entire command staff are dead, the bridge is knocked out and we are running the entire ship from the aft consoles. We need you!"

The other soldiers all stood at instant salute. "Lead us to victory and glory, Exarch!" As one, they turned and followed the speaking commander out, obviously expecting Darrus to bring up the rear.

Inside his helm, Jeht blinked very dark, very confused eyes.

"What just happened?" Maya said, handing him his cannon and fetching her blasters.

Now, like before, he had nothing to tell her. Nothing at all.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Hell in Zero-G

"That's the last of them, Darrus."

Maya was not at all used to this new communication system. Of course, she wasn't used to any part of this huge, robotic war machine surrounding her flesh, fused to her nervous system and acting as if it were part of her body. All she had to do is think and the Basilisk responded. Sometimes, she didn't even have to think.

The strangely agile mechanic monster was seemingly prescient, moving at times before she had completed her instructions for the action. When a shrapnel canister from one of the bombs on the Ithorian breed ship had come loose and started to drift away, the Basilisk's right arm had extended and caught it before she was consciously aware of the need to do so. Part of her was grateful for the droid; it was the only way they had been able to get here in time to disarm all these explosives.

The rest of her was utterly terrified.

Maya was a medic, a healer both in training and in spirit. All her life, she had been raised and educated to understand the body and its functions. She knew muscle, bone, blood and tissue. She was comfortable with the myriad forms of life in the universe. From big to small, organic existence was endlessly fascinating to her.

This... this machine was not alive, yet it acted in every way as if it was. The Basilisk was more than just a droid. It was something more, something beyond its metal and composites. Something beyond even the cerebral link that melded its operating systems to her brain.

This thing was not a mere tool or a weapon. It was not just a siege engine or war machine. It was...

...a companion.

An alien, nigh-incomprehensible companion to be sure, but like having a Rancor for a lap dog. It was loyal, faithful, unquestioningly obedient while being apocalyptic and unbelievably destructive at the same time.

And in the end, it was hers. Or she was its. Maya really couldn't be sure.

"Darrus, did you hear me? That was the last of them. The bombs are disabled."

She waited again, drifting in space near the gargantuan Ithorian vessel. Held in place by glowing blue thrusters, Maya was able to move in any direction and rocket forth with as much speed as she desired. Right now she was just hovering near the connection site of the final ion charge, holding its disengaged power core.

But Darrus wasn't answering her. Instantly, the engine cores along the back of her Basilisk fired up and sent her hurtling towards where he had last been, where his locator showed him to be right now. She didn't will them to do so; the droid just started moving on its own.

In this case, she didn't not mind at all. Panic was already starting to grip her senses. When the ex-Jedi stopped talking, she started worrying.

She darted like a shark through a sea of darkness, flying up over the glimmering transparent dome of the breed ship. Below, the arboreal floating city, encased in silver metal and softly glowing crystal, rested like a timeless forest among the stars. It was beautiful, breathtaking really, and if she wasn't so frantic to get to Darrus she would have admired it longer.

As it was, the city was no longer in danger of being blown apart and dropped onto Tatooine in a fiery rain of death and destruction. That was good enough for now. The ship was safe. Now all that mattered was finding Jeht and making sure he was okay too.

He had to be all right. He just had to!

She finally found him, but only because of the internal sensors of the Basilisk. It was linked to Darrus' own war droid, allowing her to track him anywhere within a parsec of open space. This was good, because the black finish of the basilisks made them virtually invisible in space.

She hovered close, watching him closely, not getting within reach in case something was seriously wrong. Darrus was just floating there, engines barely blazing. Through the shadowy cockpit, she could see him staring down at his droid's instrument panels, dark eyes wide and expressionless.

"What is it?" she sent again. She knew he could here; there was no way to quiet the mental channel between these two droids. He was hearing every word. He just wasn't responding. "Darrus, what is it?"

"I know why we are here."

His voice was ashen, the exact tone she was afraid she'd hear. That was Darrus' cold voice, the sound of imminent death. Usually someone else's. Somehow, she suspected he wasn't talking about someone else this time.

"To save the Ithorians," she said hopefully, upset at how flat it sounded. "Right?"

She could see him shaking his head, the visor of his armored helm reflecting the lights of the screens inside his canopy. "No. I mean why we were sent here."

She thought she knew that answer as well. "To plant the final bombs."

"That's what they told us... but that's not why we were sent."

She came a little closer, easing her Basilisk beside his. "Why then?"

The main arms of his droid came up, holding open the bomb he'd been given to mount onto the Ithorian ship. It was open, its shrapnel cases exposed, and its timer wired into one of the computer ports of the Basilisk. "This thing was set to explode as soon as it was turned on. The timer was a fake."

She narrowed her eyes. "They sent us up here to die? Why? Did they figure out who we were?"

Darrus shook his masked face again. "No. It's bigger than that." He reached into the bomb with a secondary servo arm attached to the droid's right battle claw and withdrew a fragmentary canister. "Look at this." With that, he crushed the cylinder open, bursting it and scattering its contents.

Maya looked at the drifting metal shards uncomprehendingly. "It's anti-personnel shrapnel. I've seen it before."

"Look closer."

She shrugged, not really understanding, but did so. Some of the pieces were painted, others weren't. A few even had lettering or symbols, in whole or in part, but she still did not see their significance. It was shrapnel, something usually made by grinding up salvage just like this seemed to be. Nothing out of the ordinary.

"What am I supposed to see, Darrus?"

His tone was still cold and dead still, the sort of thing she hated to hear. "It's Mandalorian iron."

She blinked again. "Some of it?"

"All of it."

That made no sense. Anti-personnel weapons were typically packed with random material; in any given bomb there could be a dozen different alloys present. She'd seen the terrible effect of these weapons on their intended victims. 'Soft targets', the military called them. She called them people, usually people in several small bags once exposed to this kind of hideous munition.

"Wait... Why was the Scarlet Wake using a shrapnel mine on a starship?"

Jeht looked up inside his cockpit and nodded. "That was meant for us. The other bombs are, I'm sure, much more appropriate for the task of destroying the hive vessel."

"But..." Her mind was reeling. "Why Mandalorian iron? Are these Basilisks that tough?" Mandalorian iron was generally regarded as one of the strongest metals in the galaxy, capable of being forged into superheavy armor or weapons of surpassing sharpness.

"No. A mine of this size and power could have torn us both apart with Jawa scrap. The Mandalorian iron is there for another purpose." His tone was still grave, still dire. Her stomach sank as his suspicions started forming in her own mind.

"Mandalorian armor, Mandalorian shrapnel, Mandalorian battle droids..." She murmured this, doing the math in her head. The clues were painting an unfortunate picture, one she was sure Jeht had already seen in its entirely.

Below, along one arc of the planet's atmosphere, Maya could see more than a dozen ships moving this way. Planetary security ships, likely Rebel starfighters and transports on loan from the main fleet and here for repairs and refueling, had already been dispatched to their location. No doubt this was all prearranged by the Scarlet Wake; all that was missing was the demolition charges that would have given them something to investigate.

"No, Maya. There's something else missing."

She looked into his eyes, suddenly wishing there wasn't so much armor plate and glass between them. "What, Darrus? We saved the ship. There won't be a massacre today." Again, she was trying to have hope. Again, it sounded so bitterly flat.

"The Scarlet Wake, or more accurately the power behind the Wake, wants a war." Darrus closed his black void-eyes. "And every war needs two sides."

Maya sighed, understanding at last. She pointed with one servo-claw to the incoming Rebel ships. "There's one... but where's the other?"

Darrus didn't answer. He just turned his Basilisk to regard the empty depths of space beyond the Ithorian ship. Moments later, the glimmer of hyperspace anomalies began to form.

"I can only assume, Maya, that this plan had two halves. We stopped our half but if the other succeeded..."

The glimmers resolved into several military transports and a huge battle carrier. Its gun ports were glowing bright and fully open, its hull proudly bearing the symbol of Mandalore. Sections of the carrier were badly damaged but it was still in fighting shape, despite one of its command desks being gutted and trailing smoke.

Maya looked first at the arriving armada and then at the Rebel squadron. "This..."

Jeht finished the sentence, his voice colder than ever. "...isn't going to end well."

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Last Words

"Is it done?"

Red One's hologram flickered as he spoke. Masked and impassive, his face betrayed no emotion but Gannar could hear the tension in his voice. This was their biggest action to date and, unless he missed his guess, only the start of something much bigger. Gannar chose his next words carefully, phrasing things in as neutral a tone as possible.

"Yes, sir. The two mercenaries you requested have been dispatched using the special vehicles as you directed."

"Have there been any delays?"

Gannar's brow furrowed. Did Red One have other informants in the Tatooine base? How could he have known about the alien woman or the missing operative? Red One's question was a leading one; perhaps he did not actually know but was merely fishing. Time to be diplomatic again, and perhaps do a bit of fishing on his own.

"Nothing significant, sir. Were you concerned about something?"

The helmed figure shifted in its glowing blue and white image. "Then you have no personnel unaccounted for?"

Blast it; he did know. But why this verbal game? Red One not just directly asking him about the technician and the other bounty hunter could only mean that he didn't trust whatever answers he might get. That meant that at some level, Red One didn't trust him.

Gannar clenched his jaw. After all this time, all these tests of loyalty, his place in the Scarlet Wake was still tenuous?! Surely he'd proven himself. Surely the leader of the Wake, assuming Red One really was the highest authority in the group, trusted him by now. Perhaps these were just precautions.

Surely that was it. Red One was just being cautious. Only one way to find out, though. Gannar took a deep breath and did something he'd never done to his superior before; he lied.

"Yes, sir. Every member of the Tatooine chapter of the Scarlet Wake is present and accounted for here. Our only two outstanding are on assignment, ensuring the success of your objectives involving Operation Planetfall."

There was a long pause. Did Red One believe him?

"One last thing, Red Two."

Gannar breathed a sigh of relief. There was no mistrust in the leader's tone of voice.

"Anything, sir."

The image flickered and changed to a schematic of the massive Ithorian vessel in orbit over Tatooine - the target of Planetfall. Two red dots glimmered into view over the ship's station-keeping thrusters. "Primary explosives have been placed already, yes?"

Gannar nodded, speaking affirmatively.

"Yes, sir. Primary charges were set before the vessel left its last port of call. The secondary charge inside the ship's bio-dome was set up yesterday and slaved to a remote detonator. You should have the code with you, sir."

The image returned to Red One, his blank steel face nodding slightly.

"Correct. And the two operatives you sent to oversee the successful detonation of the primary charges have not been informed about the secondary device?"

Gannar smiled, pleased that all was returning to normal.

"Indeed, Red One. They have no advanced warning, as per your instructions. They will be caught in the secondary charge's blast radius and destroyed along with the target."

Inwardly, Gannar considered this a waste. Even if the Wake needed bodies to blame the attack on for alibi reasons, why had it been necessary to sacrifice two priceless pieces of technology with them? Perhaps there really was more going on here than just taking out a few million aliens.

"You have everything in order, Red Two. The Scarlet Wake commends your efforts."

Gannar beamed. No matter what this mission was a prelude to, he was sure now that his place in it was secured. From here, his good service could get him moved to Red One's location and put in charge of a larger part of the Wake. There was still so much to do, so many aliens to do away with and power centers to destabilize. The future was looking very bright.

"Thank you, my lord. Your orders?"

Red One's image showed the masked figure pushing a small button on the console at his right hand. A set of six lights illuminated above the button, one vanishing almost immediately.

"No further orders, Red Two. You may stand down."

A second glow went dark, leaving only four.

"Stand down? Sir? What do you mean?"

Half the lights were out now.

"The Tatooine chapter is no longer required."

Two glowing lights remained, even as the image of Red One started to fade.

"But... what are we supposed to do now, sir? What about us?"

All the lights were gone except for one.

"Your sacrifice will be remembered."

The last light disappeared and with it, so did Red One's transmission.



Gannarsen had been right about one thing.

His future, both seconds of it, was very, very bright...

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Ticking Clock

"Is he dead?"

Darrus didn't mean to sound so cold; his tone was stilted and quiet all the same. Since he'd woken up, it had been hard for him to articulate anything emotional. He suspected something was interfering with his ability to feel - probably the same something still stretching its microfilaments through his brain.

"No. He's comatose but he's not dead." Maya's voice was just as flat. She was slightly more emotional in her words than him; Darrus suspected that was her natural empathy at odds with her own Mandalorean implant. It would also explain why she woke up with a migraine and he did not.

"Can you do anything for him?"

Maya nodded, already cradling the bounty hunter's head in her lap and injecting his arm with a spray hypodermic. "His device seems to have malfunctioned slightly. One of its cerebral probes has gone off course and burrowed into his hypothalamus. The hormonal imbalance has..."

Darrus shook his head. "No time. Can you help him?"

Maya nodded again. "Yes. I've got him stable and once his vitals went back up, the probe corrected itself. I think it's working now. He'll sleep for a while but he'll live."

Darrus took a moment to look over the war droid standing in front of him. "And these... They are somehow bonded to us now. Any way to reverse it?"

His partner frowned. "I do not think so. The implant had anchored into our skulls and its leads are..."

He interrupted again absently, his hands checking the plating of his droid for some way to extend its boarding rungs. Instantly, a dozen half-moons of dark steel slide out of its side, a ladder ascending to its armored saddle. "I can feel the leads; they are still active."

"Yes they are. I am fairly sure they will stop once they completely weave their way into our nervous systems. I don't think they will hurt us, though."

Darrus had to agree. His 'conversation' with Vykara had not ended poorly. As long as she was in control of this massive steel beast, he doubted it would ever be a threat to him. His real concern was what would happen if she couldn't control the robot. As scared as she felt in his dreamscape, he had his doubts about her ability to remain calm and focused during battle.

Still, Vykara had been a Jedi padawan. He would have to trust in her training. He might even be able to draw on her experiences as a Jedi to help her deal with what had happened. He could only barely imagine what pain she'd already gone through. And being completely divorced from life, entombed in a metal shell? Such a horror was inconceivable. For her to have been sane enough to even reach out to him like she did? That spoke of serious inner strength.


Jeht blinked. He'd been standing against the war droid, eyes closed, for... well, he didn't actually know how long. "I'm sorry. I was lost in thought."

Maya smiled and squeezed his arm gently. "It's all right. It's been happening to me too."

"Must be a side effect of the implant."

Maya walked over to her own droid, its ladder extending as she approached. "Let's hope it's a temporary one. A flashback in the middle of a fight could be..."

He finished her sentence, "...fatal. Yes."

Both of them slid into the saddle cockpits of their droids, both surprised by how comfortable the padding and contours of the machine felt. It was practically molded to them - a perfect fit. Controls lit up unbidden, a low, crackling thrum of ionic engine power building in the hearts of their combat robots.

Darrus put his helmet back on, becoming Wraith again as it settled in and locked shut.

"We have less than an hour left. If we stand any chance of stopping Planetfall..."

Maya pulled on her own helmet and nodded, acting as his Echo as she completed his thought. "...we have to move quickly."

Wraith tilted his head, thinking something without saying it. *Are you reading my mind?*

Her answer came swiftly, an audible voice that seemed to reverberate through the front of his skull. *Only when you send like that. Are you hearing this?*

He just nodded silently and reached out to the droid's controls. Without actually touching them, several buttons started to glow. The machine was controlled through willpower, something Darrus had heard of but never actually seen in action. Some Jedi had lightsabers that activated by thought but to the best of his knowledge, that was as complex as the technology had ever gotten.

Apparently, he was wrong. The robot, which he instinctively know to be a 'Basilisk', was completely under his mental control, able to react to his thoughts like an extension of his own body. At the same time, it had a will of its own and could act independently if it wished to.

In many ways, it was like the Force itself. Controlled yet separate, willing to serve yet possessing its own desires and identity. There was a duality to this droid, a fact that led Darrus to wonder off-handed if the Basilisk had a dark side as well.

*Darrus?* Maya's mental voice brought him back to the present.

*I did it again, didn't I?*

He could feel her soft amusement as she sent, *Yeah, a little. Not long though.*

He sighed inwardly and thought about lifting off. Instantly, thrusters pivoted beneath him and lifted the droid into the air. It was an interesting feeling; he was both riding a flying vehicle and also sensing the air rushing past him as if he was the vehicle itself. This was going to take a lot of getting used to.

*We don't have any more time to waste. The Ithorians have forty two minutes before the Scarlet Wake's bomb tears out their ship's hull. We...*

There was even more amusement as Maya finished his sentence, this time doing it intentionally. *...have to find it and dismantle it before that happens.*

Darrus glowered, his face hidden by his helmet but the emotion not at all lost on her. *You are really enjoying this, aren't you?*

Maya did not hesitate at all before answering, even as their droids' cockpits unfolded behind them and rose up to cover them before they left the atmosphere.

*Oh yes!*

Monday, April 16, 2007

Compassion Revisited





"What are you?"

Jeht could feel nothing. See nothing. Hear nothing. Even the 'voice' was more a thought, a sensation surrounding him in this midnight dreamland. There was nothing but him here. Him... and the presence of another.

'Who are you?"

The shadows were infinite but as he drifted, Darrus could feel a current running through this ephemeral sea. The void was immense, perhaps infinite, but it seemed to be traveling to some distant point. Instead of fighting the current, Darrus let the stream take him along with it. There was nothing else here; perhaps the current would carry him to whatever was speaking.

"Why are you here?"

Jeht had tried to answer the words already but in this place, there was no sound. Nothing escaped his lips. He'd even tried to use the Force to speak. Still nothing. The voice seemed almost desperate to speak but struggle as he might, Jeht could offer no reply.

"What are you?"

The farther he drifted, the more substance there seemed to be in the void around him. He could feel eddies in the darkness, emotions and memories half realized. There was a mind here; something terribly alien and distant. There was no sense of physical self, just an awareness as vast as an ocean and as nebulous as space itself.

Each time he passed through a ripple of emotion, he tried to make contact with it. He envied Maya for her empathic gifts right now, wondering if she was having a similar experience. Similar perhaps, but not the same if what he'd suspected in the hanger was true.

Whatever these droids were, they were not just robots. Somewhere inside them, just like he'd seen in the Jedi Hunter months ago, there was something alive. In fact, the strange droids were a lot like the Jedi Hunter. Similar presence in the Force, similar mechanisms. In some way, they were related. These huge machines were built, or at least modified, by the same hand that had constructed that vile, murdering....

Jeht tried to center himself. Such fury was unbecoming to a Jedi. That, and as his own emotions became turbulent, so too did this sea of shadows around him. He could sense similar anger, similar pain and loss in the mind at the heart of this dream. If he wasn't calm, the mental landscape he was trapped in could get very, very uncomfortable.

Stilling his emotions made the current flow both faster and easier. He moved past whirlpools of anguish and through tides of rage. The dream mind was surrounded by dark emotions that easily matched the worst within himself.

It was only when he tried to calm the pain and fear around him that Jeht managed to make any contact at all. Reaching out to ease the ragged agony in this teeming void, he was suddenly confronted by a rushing wave of awareness, a relentless assault of questions and focus and boundless fear.

"Who are you? Where are you? Where am I? What am I?!?"

Darrus took a moment to relax, forgetting his own anxiety long enough to try and offer what answers he could. His response manifested as telepathic force, louder and stronger than ever before. Wherever he was, physical limits did not apply. The power of the mind was paramount here - a sort of shadow space where only Will had any true existence or impact on reality.

"I am Darrus. I do not know you, but I know what you are."

"What? What am I?"

"You are within a machine, part of a droid."

As he expected, the darkness around him shuddered in confusion and fear.

"Cold. So cold."

Again, Darrus envied Maya. She would know what to say. She would be able to help this mind, this disembodied soul. He was no good at this; his world was violence. Healing, while not an unknown concept, had never exactly been a focus. Nor had diplomacy. Still, the heart of this dreaming horror needed help and though he didn't know what to say, he knew he had to say it.

"I... I'm sorry."

It was weak, a very weak attempt to help. Like putting a small bandage on a blaster wound, it felt like too little too late. To the presence around him however, his three words seemed to make all the difference.

"Help me?"

"I will if I can."

Though he had no idea how to fulfill such a vow, he meant every word. There was a lot he did not know about the droid but he was more certain than ever that it was actually some kind of cyborg. How much was left of the original creature? No way to know while he was here. But once he returned to his own body, he would try to find out. And if there was a way to restore the being, he would... or at least see to it that it found peace.

"I don't want to die."

Jeht sighed. He should have expected the mind to be able to read his. especially now that he was apparently so close to its heart. The shadows and darkness were parting around him; there was some kind of light ahead. The current was stronger too; even if he hadn't wanted to enter the radiant core of the dream, he might not have been able to break away.

"I know. But if I can't free you..."

"I just don't want to be alone."

As the light opened and took him inside, he could finally see the mind's self image. He was surrounded by a sphere of metal, its core a smaller ball of crystal with radiance pulsing in and out of it along ghostly lines like hovering circuits. Within the clear orb, a floating figure was suspended in what appeared to be a contained gale of wind and glittering snow.

It was a woman, human and sleeping. Her long pale hair was whipping madly around her unclad body, caught in the hurricane of her crystal prison. Though her eyes were closed, he instinctively knew the voice was hers. This was the presence inside the droid.

And he knew something else, something he'd suspected the moment he felt her through the silver curtain covering her mobile tomb.

She was Jedi.

He drifted closer, the current bringing him right up to where she slept in her glowing sphere. Lines of white and red and shadow arced from the walls and passed through him, connecting Jeht to her thoughts in a web of power.

"Please. Don't kill me. I don't want to die... again."

Before he could respond, his vision was overwhelmed by a memory of pain. Of running across a rooftop on Cularin, of his/her boots catching on loose gravel as Death itself stalked behind. As her, he watched helplessly as a metal murderer brought her down within sight of the city lights below. There was pain. And blood. And then darkness.

Darrus knew who she was now and the realization stunned him. When the Jedi Hunter first started stalking the Cularin system, his first kills had been a Jedi Master and three young padawans. The master and two of the trainees had later been found as part of dark Sith devices in the industrial factory lair of the Jedi Killer. The missing padawan's body had never been recovered.

Until now. He searched his thoughts, trying to remember her name. The figure in the crystal globe stirred as her attention focused ravenously.

"Please... yes... who am I?"

He paused, unsure if he should tell her. The shock of self-identity might be a terrible blow to her, another link to how much she'd already lost. His doubt did not last long, however. For better or worse, she deserved to know. It was such a small thing, really - just a name. But to her, it was everything. He didn't have to be very empathic to know that.

"Vykara Zaa."

He felt the ripples of awareness as the mind accepted her name, the tremors of shock as it settled into her psyche and dredged up thousands of memories that hurtled past him like solar flares. His dreaming existence seemed to fade as the world became trouble and reverie and raw, quaking emotion.

Vykara, at some level, seemed to sense his distress. Clumsily, the current that brought him here sent him away, back into into the darkness outside her core.

"Go. Be safe. Forgive me."

He shook his head. Or rather, thought about shaking it. The gesture seemed to translate mentally. He knew this was not her fault, that she was pushing him out of harm's way.

"No need. Thank you."

The waves of telepathic motion were swiftly carrying him to the edge of her dream. He knew without knowing how that when he reached it, he would return to himself. He would wake up and return to the physical world. Somehow, he also knew he wouldn't completely leave this place. A pain in his mind, in his forehead that did not exist here, stretched thin as he traveled away - a tether that bound him to this place.

"Please... don't leave me."

He felt her voice getting softer as he neared the border of the dream world. As gently as he could, compassion still a difficult thing for him to understand or offer, he shook his head again.

"Do not worry. I do not think I could, even if I wanted to."

A trembling thought followed him out.

"Do you want to?"

In the last instant of his presence within the darkness, he answered honestly.


And with that, Darrus woke up.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

<--- Double Update --->

Be sure to read Awakenings before Curiosity.

Just trust me on that one.


"Frang it all! The hanger's been here the whole time!"

Crouching behind a windblown rock, Narr lowered his macrobinoculars and cursed. Two kilometers away, a mountain loomed high overhead, its eroded sides apparently sheer and unwelcoming. Narr knew the truth now; a hologram generator was hiding the entrance to the secret base he'd heard about months ago. Following those three had paid off, though he was still frustrated that he'd not been able to find this place on his own.

"Chalk one up to Gannar. The man can keep a secret."

He pulled his thinsuit gloves tight and hopped astride his speeder bike, thumbing its throttle and swooping out from behind the shelter of his rocky perch. The slave tech and the two bounty hunters had been in there a few minutes now; he could likely approach safely.

At least, he could have if his speeder was working. A loud snap and a grind of smoke from its engine casing brought his flight to an abrupt, violent stop. The front of the bike unceremoniously slammed into the sand, sending him vaulting end over end forward. Using more physical skill than the Force, Narr managed to keep from being injured, but the yielding amber ground had a lot to do with it as well.

Looking up at the Tatooine cloudless sky, he grumbled to himself about new technology and not being able to trust it. His faithful old swoop was being refitted after its run in with Wraith a few days ago. Accordingly, he'd had to borrow a new one from the Wake's vehicle pool. He really should have known better.

New things never worked well for him.

Now he was aching all over and had no ride. This wasn't likely to end well. Taking a draw off the water line in his suit, he stood up and brushed himself off. "Frang it all..." The bike was a complete loss and he didn't have time to fix it any way. After quickly weighing his options, he started moving towards the mountain. Broken speeder plus Tatooine heat plus less than three hours before Planetfall meant he had to get to that mountain and hope there was a way to warn the Ithorians on Shin'da'ruu before it was too late.

No time to be subtle now. If Wraith or his counterpart got in his way, that would go poorly. For them. A battered but utterly familiar metal rod pressed into his left hand as he ran, shedding the hydrospanner shell that concealed it. He'd not wielded his saber in some time but right now, too many lives were at stake.

He was less than a kilometer away when the holo covering the base's ground entrance flickered and a single swoop came out. Diving for cover, he watched as the swoop turned away from his approach and raced off over the dunes. Even without optics, the lack of hair and shape of the body let him know it was the Zabrak tech. She was making a break for it.

He felt for her; he really did. Unfortunately, he knew something she didn't. Her spine had a small dermal charge set in it. At any time, Gannar could use the comm relays on Tatooine to hit her with a signal and she would simply die. Neural shockers were nasty tech, complicated to implant and even harder to disarm.

Fortunately for Slash, Narr hadn't spent the last twenty years pining over the loss of the Jedi Council. He'd moved on with his life, doing what good he could and learning things Almas would never teach. He quickly fetched his worn but functional datapad from his satchel and pointed his transmission port at the quickly fading Zabrak. Running a codebreaker program, he hacked into her spine zapper and deactivated it.

The lovely alien would still have to deal with Gannar's fury once he learned she was still alive but at least she had a chance now. He wished her luck and hoped she was smart enough to catch the first ship off this rock. He folded the pad closed and tucked it away, resuming his run.

He made it to the base of the mountain, subtle use of the Force making his trip as quick as possible. Just as he reached the hidden entrance, there was a rasping sound of huge metal plate high above. He knew what that had to be; the hanger undoubtedly had a roof access. It was opening. He was running out of time.

Hoping his hunch was right and the base's defenses were down, he set out in a full run up the access tube. The going was rough as the path was designed for swoops and not people on foot. Once again, the Force came to his rescue. He felt the fang of fatigue that came along with heavy use of his powers now. He wasn't getting any younger, after all, and he'd hidden for so long. The paths in his body weren't used to so much energy.

The Force did its magic and propelled him up the twisting corridor. He was pleased to see all the blast doors open, all the check points deactivated. The base was defenseless, not that he knew way. He'd long ago learned to trust his feelings; they hadn't steered him wrong.

He came up into the hanger with his blaster in hand and his saber pressed against his forearm, ready to lash it out and ignite its cyan blade at a moment's need.

There wasn't a need. There was no danger.

Or rather, whatever danger was here had apparently passed. There were, however, casualties. Wraith and Echo were lying on the ground, small wounds in the center of their brows. Head shots, and damned precise ones. The rounds used to take them down were still visible, protruding slightly from their skin. Odd.

He made a mental pass through the chamber, double checking that the sniper wasn't still here. He doubted Slash, despite her name, would have done this. She was a skittish woman, kept enthralled to the Wake because of her technical skills. She was no assassin.

His senses detected aggression in the room, but no active hostility. There was something here, several actually. Mental patterns caught in somnolence, like people asleep. Two of them were more aware but he couldn't pinpoint them. That made him nervous. Hidden targets meant another ambush could happen. Taking to the shadows, he made his way slowly around to Wraith and Echo. They might be beyond his help but perhaps he could get a better idea what he was up against by checking their bodies.

He was halfway across the wall where the two were laying when a low sound of shifting metal drew his attention to the command console on the far side of the hanger. What he'd assumed to be towering loading droids were moving around it, accessing its functions through flexible link tendrils. He'd never seen machines like them before - hovering, armored and bearing obvious weapon ports. Battle droids of some kind, clearly, but of what design? And where had the Scarlet Wake gotten them?

One of the pair turned his direction, a swiveling camera port scanning across the hanger. Moving fast, he ducked under a huge silver curtain, seeking to get out of sight before it tracked him. Back to the wall, he waited several breaths before moving again.

Except that, as he paused, it became clear he wasn't up against a wall. Curved steel was pressed against his back, cables under his still touch. Slowly, he risked turning around and taking a closer look. He was standing beside a sphere of folded plating, the thick armor concealing another droid like the two at the controls outside. His active mind could sense its presence as well.

It was a droid, clearly, but it wasn't invisible to the Force. How that was even possible boggled the mind. He knew there were lives at stake, millions of them, but he wouldn't likely last long if he charged out into the hanger recklessly. Better to bid his time until the droids turned back to their task, whatever that was. And while he waited, he could examine this strange machine.

Along its front face, there were dozens of shielded ports and one encased in a thick crystal lens. leaning over the cowling of the sphere, he pulled off his thick, cumbersome cowl and took a closer look...

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


Gannarsen did not like to wait, especially when there was a deadline looming over his head. The Scarlet Wake was a delicate organization, no matter how much it looked to outsiders like a simple hate group. He knew what its real purpose was, after all - at least its real purpose on Tatooine.

Since earning his rank as Red Two on Tattooine, he'd begun to realize there was more going on than what he'd been told before. Timed actions, coordinated attacks and specific messages in particular places all guided by an external authority; these pointed to a larger plan. Before being told about Operation: Planetfall, he had assumed the greater scheme was being orchestrated by Red One but now...

Now he had his doubts. Red One, in the conversation that revealed what the Scarlet Wake intended to do during Operation: Planetfall, honestly sounded to him like the shadowy, helmeted figure was relaying the actions to him on behalf of someone else. Someone above Red one?

Gannar had been in the Wake since its formation a year ago on this backwater world. He'd originally believed it was just on Tatooine but he knew better now. There were chapters on Sullust, Coruscant, Corellia and at least four other planets. In his entire time with the brotherhood, he'd never been given a reason to suspect a higher authority than Red One. But now, if his suspicion was correct, there was a leader above the one he answered to - a hidden mastermind with a penchant for violence and destruction far beyond his imagination.

Operation: Planetfall had shocked him when he'd heard about it. After getting over his surprise, the idea of it appealed to him on so many levels. Not only would it be a terrible blow to one alien race, the residual fallout would cripple the non-human hold on Tatooine. Yes, a few of the one true race would die in this attack but it was a sacrifice worth making. Worth their lives and worth the priceless technology he would have to devote to the attack.

Speaking of sacrifices, it was time to call in his would-be martyrs. The time was O:P - 3 hours, precisely when he was told to begin the mission. Of course, the people he would use for Planetfall would have no idea they were being spent permanently but afterwards, he would ensure they were remembered as willing, patriotic Wakers.

It was the least he could do.


"I need to know where we are going." Darrus was using his mechanical Wraith voice again. Maya always felt a chill run up her spine when she heard it. Hissing and menacing, the voice was one of Vaaro's nicest touches on the Jedi's costume. Its effect on others was also interesting to watch.

Their escort, a Zabrak woman named Slash, shuddered. She was doing her best not to quail from Wraith's impassive, intimidating presence as it was; Jeht's "evil" voice wasn't making that any easier.

The three of them were racing on swoop bikes across the sand dunes of the Jungian Wastes as fast as their repulsorlift engines could move. The clock was ticking. They had two hours and forty one minutes left to accomplish what seemed like the impossible. Even if it was something they could do, it was certainly unthinkable.

Maya, "Echo" to the Scarlet Wake, missed the Zabrak's shaky response because she was lost in her musings. Their mission was more horrible that anything she could have expected the hate group to ask of them. She'd been mentally prepared to kill if it was required. In the Rebellion, she'd killed Imperial forces several times. She hated the idea of killing someone innocent, but taking down the Wake was worth it if she had to do so.

Of course, she was also willing to kill because she could tell Darrus was struggling with his own violent nature. Saving him from having to kill by taking the burden upon herself was a decision she'd made when she first agreed to be his partner. She wanted more than that, much more, but the Scarlet Wake had kept them from discussing such things.

There would be time for talking after the Wake was in flames. As far as Echo was concerned, that couldn't happen soon enough.

She didn't come back to the present until the shadow of a mountain darkened her surrounds. They were racing towards the rock face at full speed, something that didn't seem to disturb Slash at all. Wraith was impossible to read as usual. She suppressed her concern and trusted in him. If he was going to ram the mountain, so would she.

Even so, she still closed her eyes just as they hit...

Except they didn't. Almost instantly, she opened her eyes to see a nearly circular shaft arching up in front of her. The other two swoops were moving ahead, increasing in speed. Breathing again, she did the same. In less than a minute, they emerged into a large chamber with a high peaked roof. The ceiling was obviously hinged and connected to motors.

The room was a huge hanger and landing port, hidden in a mountain in the deepest wastelands of Tatooine. As impressive as that was, it wasn't what had her attention.

Or Jeht's.

He was standing next to his hovering bike, staring at a row of large shapes, covered in metallic tarpaulins. The corners of the tarps were linked with a suspension chain, energized and caught in a power field. Whatever was under the silver sheets obviously required a lot of security. Two massive auto-cannons, already locked on her and Jeht, emphasized that point quite well.

"What... what's under there?"

Maya blinked. Darrus wasn't using the voice augment. Something had him either distracted or disturbed. The odds of Slash being sensitive to the Force were slim, slim enough to risk letting her abilities unfold. If he was upset, she wanted to know why. Closing her eyes again, she opened her senses.

And almost instantly recoiled! There was something here, several somethings, coiled and waiting. A low, simmering aggression filled the hanger, centered under the huge reflective curtains. Whatever rested beneath them was, in some bizarre and hostile way, alive!

Wraith walked toward the powered field, slight flickers of electricity arcing between the tarps and his armor. The Zabrak looked alarmed and started to move forward but he raised his hand and she stopped in her tracks.

Now he used his darker voice. "What is under here?"

Slash looked down for a moment, steeling her resolve before answering. "This is a secret armory of the Scarlet Wake, sir. Mister Gannarsen asked me to bring you here to equip you for your mission. You..."

"I did not ask for a briefing. What is under here?" The flashes of lightning were now leaping along his entire body; he was almost through the power field, less than a foot from the shimmering sheet.

"Mister Gannarsen wanted me to provide you with a way to reach your mission objective, sir." Her tone was curt and withdrawn; her emotional state was a few seconds from collapsing in fear. Darrus wasn't shielding well right now and he was obviously angry. Taking a deep breath, Maya reached out with her mind and ignored the sensations beneath the tarps long enough to soothe the frightened Zabrak.

"We already have a vehicle." As he spoke, he turned to stare at Slash. All the woman could see was black metal and her own terrified face.

Damn it. He wasn't helping. What was upsetting him so much? "Wraith, she can't help us if you melt her brain. We don't have time for this." Maya fought to kept her tone calm, mostly because she wasn't immune to his intensity either. He was furious, not that she knew the reason for it.

Fortunately, he reacted to her better than the pleading eyes of the Zabrak. "Of... course." He turned away and stepped back out of the field. His armor was steaming, unharmed but still crackling across its smaller plates.

That broke his spell of fear over the woman, long enough at least for her to move across the room to a small console. Quickly pushing a series of code keys, she brought down the energy protections and deactivated the guided cannons overhead. A moment later, a crane activated above them and started to come down over the shape in front of Wraith. His attention was locked on it, tension evident in his almost-trembling stance.

Maya moved closer to him, whispering, "Wraith, what's wrong?"

He didn't respond.


He flinched slightly. That was the extend of his reaction. Then the curtain came up.

What was revealed was both shocking and confusing, a tangle of metal and cables nearly spherical in shape. It was more than six meters wide, covered in armored panels and seemed to contain a massive amount of droid actuators and electronics. Though it was oddly vicious looking despite its obviously compressed form, there was no apparent reason for Jeht's reaction to it. What was going on?

The crane moved to the left, revealing another dark metal sphere. "Please," the Zabrak woman said quietly, as if she didn't want to attract attention to herself. "Remove your helmets and use the retina scanners to activate the droids."

Darrus did not even hesitate. Maya was worried that he would risk his identity by revealing his face but she did the same. Helmets off, she followed his lead and approached the huge metal ball in front of her. There were several objects embedded in its front plating, only one of which looked like an optic of any sort. A small red light flickered to life in its depths as she approached.

Looking into the glass-shrouded aperture, Maya was prepared when the red glow flared brighter and scanned her retina. It was vaguely painful but she knew it was coming.

What she wasn't prepared for was the giant metal ball to lurch to life, huge clawed arms unfolding and coming down on either side of her. A four lobed hand emerged from the plate above her, opening and slamming down like the sting of a scorpion. In less than a heartbeat, the dark steel hand closed around her head, driving a thin needle from its 'palm' directly into her brain!


Slash finally dared to open her eyes. She's cringed away as soon as the battle droids started moving. The sounds of their screeching steel joints had been like a banshee's wail, unnerving her even more than she was already. Being an essentially enslaved alien technician for a human's only hate group was hard enough; dealing with bizarre, lethal technology she only barely understood was almost more than she could take.

Once she realized the droid were not rampaging around the hangar and that the bounty hunter wasn't about to kill her, she calmed down enough to look up.

Both Wraith and Echo were laying on the ground, bleeding from their foreheads while two massive death machines towered over them - motionless gargoyles of metal and shadows. Mister Gannarsen had warned her about this. The droids were waiting for their bonding implants to burrow into the two human's cerebral cortexes.

She didn't envy them. This was obviously a painful process, judging by the way they were twitching and writhing on the ground. For a moment, she was worried for their safety...

Then it occurred to her. They were unconscious, but she knew they would be waking up soon. The droids would not respond to her if she didn't approach them, something she had no intention of doing. The base's defenses were all deactivated at the moment to allow the droids to integrate with its control systems and open the roof doors when they were ready to leave.

All that, and she was all alone with three swoop bikes...


"Good luck, you two!" Slash yelled over her shoulder as she raced across the desert. Away from the mountain base. Away from the Jungian Wastes...

...and as far away from the Scarlet Wake as she could get.