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.