Sunday, December 07, 2008

Fleeting Doubts

It had not been an easy voyage so far. The first ship to fail was the one they all expected to go, the Sorador. She had been a rickety transport from the day she'd rolled off the line and the years had not been kind. Low on maintenance when the station disaster hit, she was only barely spaceworthy to start with. In a way, it was a minor miracle the Sorador had achieved hyperspace at all.

When her motivators finally blew, no one was surprised. Her own engineering staff had been taking bets on how many jumps she was going to make before it happened. Dead in space, all they could do was strip her for parts and transfer her passengers and crew to the other two ships in the fleet.

That had not been especially uncomfortable. The fleet's remaining vessels had the room and with the Sorador gutted, the supplies to keep going. That was critical. They were off the main travel lanes now; refits were impossible. There were no colony worlds out this far.

Two days and more space flight later, they were deep into the Outer Rim. Gone were the usual beacons and markers, the normal means of tracking and navigation. They were well and truly into smuggler territory now, using start charts and astromech droids just to keep from jumping into the hearts of stars or out of the galaxy altogether.

It was the worst possible time for another breakdown.

So when the power grid for the Arbiter suffered an ion backlash and shorted out, no one was particularly surprised either. It was irreparable, though the ship's crew tried valiantly to get critical systems restored. Life support and deckworks, including the power to open doors and run the lifts, were brought back online but non one was confident how long they would last.

It was a tough decision to abandon the Arbiter in space but there was no other choice to make. With several thousand people surviving on wisps of air from the intermittent recyclers, the call to bring them aboard the fleet's only functional ship was unavoidable.

It took four hours to complete the evacuation and that was almost too long. The last shuttle had only just cleared the Arbiter's dorsal bay when the grid failed completely. Another few minutes and that last flight of survivors would have been cast into deep space. Far too close for comfort...

Comfort was a forgotten concept now. The loss of the Sorador has been unfortunate but the Arbiter had been there to help bear the load. Without it the Ird-Adora, the fleet's only remaining vessel, was now terribly overloaded.

Some of the Ird-Adora's hallways had to be cordoned off and turned into sleeping space. There were wounded on every level and life support was running well beyond maximum capacity. The most generous engineering estimate was six days until atmospheric failure. Not that six days was a meaningful number, since food and water supplies would be depleted within four.

Yet still they pressed on, jumping deeper and deeper into the rim. The progression forward did not stop or eve cease once the Arbiter was left behind. Star by star, the Ird-Adora made her way onward, never looking back.

Never, that was, until she came to the point of no return. Stopping to take astrogation data for the jump that would take them past their supply ability to return to normal space should they turn around, the vessel needed one hour to collect telemetry. It was not a long window of opportunity, but it was all Tymor needed...

The steel door to the small auxiliary room slid open with a soft chime. Darrus looked up at the sound, nodding as he watched his second in command step inside. Waving him in, Darrus gestured to a seat he knew would be ignored.

True to form, the Mandalorian strode over to the chair and remained standing, practically at attention. Darrus know it was pointless to tell the man to relax. He was not honestly sure Tymor was capable of relaxing. Darrus knew what the man was here for but politeness dictated he start the conversation. "What can I do for you, Alayt?"

Darrus was becoming quickly familiar with the language of the Mandalore. In their tongue, Alayt was a word and a rank, both meaning "next". In the Republic Navy, back when there was a Republic Navy, it would have been equivalent to a First Mate.

"Captain, permission to speak?" Tymor snapped a salute, letter perfect. Darrus was secretly glad that the half face helm he had taken to wearing when he was out of his quarters, when he was 'on duty'. The helm's mirrored visor meant Tymor did not see him roll his eyes at the formality. So much like the Clones, so much...

"Granted, Tymor. Granted."

"Sir, I feel I need to make sure you have been apprised of our situation."

Darrus sighed. He knew this was coming. The crew had been loyal to a fault, coming this far with him without the slightest question but now, on the eve of the jump that would kill them all if nothing waited on the other side, someone had to speak up.

He was honestly glad to see it happen. This was how the Mandalorians differed from the Clones. Most of the clone troopers he knew would have blindly marched into oblivion if ordered to do so. At least his Mandalorian crew had some sense of self, some preservation instinct that would keep them from being so unthinking.

Perhaps the Mandalorians would not betray him like the Clones had...

No matter. Darrus banished the dark thoughts. Tymor deserved an answer.

"I do not need the report, Alayt. I know the gravity of our situation." He hoped that would be sufficient. With a Clone, it would have been.

"Sir, with all due respect, we have several thousand people aboard now and rations are already down to one third. Even the bridge crew are starting to show the fatigue." Tymor pitched his voice lower, showing his concern. "I do not know how much longer we can keep going."

Darrus turned his chair towards the forward window, looking out over the thinning stars. The Ird-Adora was very near the edge of the Rim now, the very outer boundaries of the galaxy. "We do not have much farther to journey. I promise."

"I..." Tymor began a sentence, then stopped it. This was a matter of loyalty and of trust. He had both for his new Captain. If the Silverlord said to press on, they would press on. "Thank you, sir. Are the current heading orders correct?"

Darrus had been expecting that question as well. "Yes, Tymor." Slight smile. "We really are heading into the Vashoud Abyssal."

Tymor's apprehension was understandable. The Vashoud Abyssal was one of the galaxy's many navigational hazards, a nebula so thick that even basic visibility was impossible. With all scanners useless in the Abyssal, ships avoided it like a space-borne plague. With debris and half-formed planetoids scattered throughout the nebula, those that ventured inside had their flights cut brutally short.

"There is a plan then, sir?"

Darrus nodded. "There is, indeed. I gave helm a transponder code. Have them start scanning for it after we are at the five minute mark inside the Abyssal. That transponder will provide the next code to search out."

Tymor nodded in sudden understanding. "Stepping stones?"

"Just so, Alayt. They will lead us to our destination." Darrus pressed the button that started the shutters closing over all the windows in his room. "Give the command to jump. It's time for us to go."

"Sir yes sir!" Snapped salute.

Darrus watched him go, waiting until the door was closed again to take off his helmet and rub his temples. He had been the height of confident with Tymor but inwardly, he has just as many doubts... perhaps more.

Was he leading them to their deaths?

Leaning forward, face in his hands, Darrus lost himself in thought even as the ship's engines trembled and catapulted them all through space towards their fate...

Towards Sanctora.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Moments in Flight

"I have to admit, it would help if I knew what I was looking at."

Darrus stared at the screen, entirely unsure of what it was they was trying to show him. The readout was obviously chaotic, pulses and lines that did not seem to ever repeat themselves, all superimposed on a grid network of red and black shaded squares.

The engineer closest to him apologized and pointed to the largest of the wildly flickering lines. "Forgive me, Silverlord. We did not know how which caste you were originally from. This is the regulation vector, one of Telos IV Station's main power core diagnostics."

Quietly, Darrus made a note to ask Maya if she knew anything about Mandalorian castes. Nodding as if he understood what the man was saying, he waited for more.

"As you can see, it is caught in a state of diametric flux. This line should never waver past 70 nanobars but it is spiking well over 100 in both directions."

With a serious expression, Darrus nodded. "I see that." Actually, he didn't, but he was willing to take the tech's word for it.

"And here," the engineer tapped along two other lines. "These are capacitance levels. We should see them at five mtj or more at all times. Right now, the s-line is at three and the p-line is almost below two." The look on the engineer's face and those on the other four in the room made it clear these arcane numbers were a big problem.

"Anything else critical? I want to see these problems addressed as fast as we can."

It became instantly clear he had said the right thing. They nodded to themselves and pushed the one speaking to continue. "Thank you, Silverlord. Our last commander did not appreciate the finer points of mechanical lore."

He nodded, inwardly concerned at his own reactions. he was enjoying this charade far more than he should. Not only was he impersonating a Mandalore warrior but he was perpetuating the belief that he should somehow have sovereignty over the people on this ship. They kept deferring to him, though, and now that he had won their ascension challenge, he seemed to be in absolute command.

All that aside, he was determined to do right by them. They had chosen to follow; the least he could do was lead. "It's all right. Tell me what we have to do."

One hour later...

He fell backwards onto the room's only real piece of furniture, a passably comfortable bed. Beside him, sitting up with a datapad open to a page of scrolling text, Maya looked down in sympathy. "Rough day?"

"You could say that." Darrus closed his eyes. "We have a problem."

That brought an amused glint to her expression. "You've managed to narrow it down to one, have you?" Shifting her legs, she made him more comfortable. "That's impressive."

Darrus shot her a dour look. "Very funny."

Setting down her pad, Maya moved so that she could lay beside him, hand in his black, silken hair. "Sorry, love. It's just that the list of potential problems around here is so vast, I'm surprised you could find a new one." She pecked him on the cheek, an adorable gesture she knew would defuse him instantly.

She was right. Sighing, Darrus closed his eyes and released all his tension in a long, deep sigh. "Well, this new one is pretty big."

"Okay, shoot. How big?"

He turned his face to hers and opened his eyes again. "The station is going to explode."


One hour later...

"That is the situation," Darrus intoned from one end of the bridge's meeting chamber. His helmet's vocal reverberation made him sound dark, grave and somber - the perfect tone for what he had just told his command staff.

They were a solid group, he had to give them that. Though most were masked as he was, even their body language betrayed no shock. The only evidence of surprise was the lingering silence. When it was eventually broken, the man talking was the one Darrus had assumed would reply first - his new second in command, Tymor.

"May I restate for clarification?"

Darrus nodded his assent. The shift of attention in the room's other occupants made it clear they appreciated the offer as well.

"The damage sustained in the battle with those forces from hyperspace has proven more severe than we had believed. Not only is our ship nearly crippled but the generators on the station were disrupted past their ability to self-repair."

"All correct."

"Within an indeterminate amount of time, less than a day at most, the reactors will all chain-critical because they can no longer sustain their own internal shielding."

Darrus nodded again. Tymor had a solid grasp on both the mechanical and personal severity of the situation. That was good to see. The more he learned of these people, the less he could believe the image of Mandalorians put forth by the Jedi Academy. They were militant, yet, but there were hearts and souls beneath all this armor plate as well.

"There is no way to prevent this from happening. When they go red line, Telos Station will explode, destroying itself and any vessel within docking range."

"That is the situation, succinct and unfortunate as it is."

Tymor nodded, his half-helmet sliding on its mounting pistons. "All that remains now, sir, is to ensure the damage to our forces is minimal. We need to leave the station and order every ship vessel with flight capability to do the same."

Darrus sighed quietly, hands gripping the back of his chair. He was standing; Darrus rarely sat even when he needed to relax. Right now, there was no relaxation to be had. Two thousand people called Telos Station home. Though Tymor obviously did not enjoy doing so, the man was advocating abandoning them.

It was simple math. There was no way to know when the reactors would blow. Staying and evacuating the station put everyone at risk. Leaving now at least saved those aboard what few ships could still launch.

Simple math, but not numbers he could accept. He had abandoned billions to die before. Darrus had no intention of adding to that total now.

Fortunately, this time? This time he had a plan.

"Negative. This is what we are going to do."

One hour later...

"I will not discourage the others, Silverlord Wraith, but I must voice my concerns."

Darrus was standing with Tymor and Maya on the loading deck of the starship. Its docking ramps were all extended and people were flooding in as quickly as they could. None had anything more with them than they could carry or would fit in small personal speeders. Between swoops and hovercraft, several dozen little vehicles were now in the bay. Activity outside in the crowded streets of the station suggested many more would be coming soon.

"Go ahead."

"Every moment we linger here is another moment you place all our lives in jeopardy. We cannot predict when the station will be lost. I implore you to..."

Darrus raised a hand to quietly cut him off. "You are not wrong in your assessment but I have resources you cannot factor for, T'siel Tyvor." He used his second in command's traditional title of rank, a word Maya had dredged up for him earlier.

In fact, Maya was the 'resource' he was alluding to as he spoke now. "My woman has witch blood, Tymor. I assume you had suspected it."

That brought a curt nod from Tymor. "Yes, sir, but I had not wanted to mention it. Some of the crew..."

"I know and your discretion is appreciated. I keep her around for her usefulness though."

It disgusted him to trivialize Maya like that but she was all right with it and right now it was necessary. She only cared about his opinion in any case and she had let him know many times that she loved the way he cared about her. If the crew needed to think she was little more than property, so be it.

"And just what usefulness is relevant right now, Silverlord?"

Darrus put his hand on Maya's shoulder while she stared out into the empty reaches of the station beyond the hangar's open doors. He caught the prurient reference to what uses he likely had for Maya under normal circumstances but chose to let that pass. "She has a sense for the flow of things. She is watching the reactors in ways that no machine can."

The implications were not lost on Tymor. "So she will be able to give us warning when they finally begin to fail?" He sounded instantly relieved, completely stepping past any racial bias he might have had before. "Excellent."

"Just so. Between her magic and our metal, we can save these people."

Tymor stepped closer, pitching his voice so that only Darrus could hear him. "It is still a risk few would take, my lord. Most men would have abandoned this place." There was a new tone in the T'siel's voice, one of respect. Perhaps even admiration.

"I am not most men, Tymor."

Quietly, the Mandalorian warrior murmured as the tide of evacuees continued, "Indeed, sir. I am beginning to see that."

One hour later...

"Just one question, love."

Maya was laying beside him, fingers on his chest as she asked. "We managed to get everyone off the station and onto the three ships we have with the ability to jump into hyperspace."

"Right." Darrus stared at the ceiling. "Everything else had to be left behind."

She nodded. "And we salvaged what we could from the derelicts and the station itself. Parts, machines, droids, weapons... the lot."

"Right again."

"And we only left at the last possible moment so everyone could get aboard safely."

Darrus nodded quietly, his mind's eyes still seeing the fireball of plasma consume Telos Station as their battered little convoy sped out of range. None of the ships were in particularly good condition but they were space worthy. Right now, that was enough.

"And we had to enter hyperspace to avoid the gravitational wake of the station's destruction. That's why we could only take ships capable of making the jump."

"Yes." He rolled sideways to stroke her arm. None of this would have been possible without Maya's help. She was taking to her lessons well, showing a surprising aptitude for Battle Meditation, a rare gift among the Jedi. With it, she had been able to guide the evacuation flawlessly. "So where in all that was your question?"

She blushed, covering his hand with her own. "Oh, I forgot to ask it."

"Go ahead then," he said with a quiet laugh.

"Well," she started, leaning down to kiss him. It was soft and honest, two things that hallmarked her completely. "I was just curious... I mean, I don't want to pry... but..."

He kissed her back and sat up. He knew what she wanted to know. It was sweet that she did not want to question him but she had a right to know. "You'd like to know where we are going?"

She nodded, grateful for the hug he gave her next. "Yes, please. I know you haven't told the others but... well... would you tell me?"

Darrus smiled at her, reassuring her that the question was not offensive with a silent look of approval. "Of course."

And with her eyes widening at each word, he revealed exactly where he was taking them all...

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Shin'ador

The people of Mandalore were a literal folk. When they said 'fight', they meant fight. And apparently, when they said 'circle', they really meant circle.

The room was a series of wide concentric rings of steel, alternately colored grey and black all the way to the round center platform, raised slightly above the rest. The small circle surrounding it was deep red, a reference to the name of the contest waged here - the Shin'ador, the "Crown of Blood". Along the walls curving around the chamber, there were weapons. Blaster pistols, rifles, even vibroblades and axes of antique styling.

Darus had checked the ship's history files with the aid of his Basilisk. He was allowed to use personal weapons in this fight; the wall-mounted ones were replacements if he was disarmed or if his armaments were broken during combat.

Though he would have been more comfortable fighting with his lightsaber, that was still safely concealed in his rifle and its appearance in the fight was a possible risk of exposure. He still was not up on current events but it seemed like the Jedi were extinct aside from a notable or two. He did not want to be revealed yet, not until he knew the attitude of the galaxy towards his kind. Once he knew how the Jedi would be accepted in this new age, he could approach this Skywalker and his people, but not before. He had learned the hard lesson of misplaced trust.

Right now, all of those were secondary concerns anyway. He was stepping out into the round room, decked in his armor and carrying the weapons of his choice in accordance with the rite of the Shin'ador. He has selected only one, the curved blade hanging at his waist. Even sheathed, he could feel its hum. The katana seemed to share his apprehension.

Apprehension and, truth be told, excitement. This was a fight he could devote himself to without fear of killing and without the need to hold back. The Shin'ador was a ritual combat, a battle to first blood only. And Tymor was an ally, a man fighting for honor and duty without a shred a malice in the act.

Darrus was not used to fighting when his life was not on the line. Aside from sparring with Maya, he had not been able to pit his skills against a living opponent without the heavy weight of knowing that someone would die before the dance was done.

The far door opened and his foe stepped forth onto the other side of the grey circle. Tymor was clad head to toe in armor, plates and ballistic cloth in an older style of Mandalore battle dress. His helm was a full piece that stretched from shoulder to crown with a wide triangular eye visor. At his sides, a pair of short vibroblades with over-long handles rested patiently. He did not recognize this sort of weapon and the uncertainly added a bit of spice to his already growing eagerness for the challenge to commence.

Tymor bowed and, assuming he should do the same, Darrus followed suit. Above them both, every hand aboard the ship was watching behind foot thick transparent plasteel. They would see every step, every swing of the battle, both with their eyes and replayed on hovering monitors in a ring above the canopy. Nothing would be hidden; there was little room to cheat.

Mandaloran honor, it seemed, was self enforcing. Darrus appreciated that.

Then the first of three tones echoed through the chamber. His basilisk's sliced files had prepared him for this. Each tone indicated three seconds of readiness. After the third, combat would commence. Seeing Tymor crouch into a fighting stance, Darrus did the same.

The second tone was the mark to draw weapons. Darrus slipped his songsteel blade from its scabbard with but a whisper of noise. The weapon emitted a gentle note of clarity, a first breath in the aria to come. Tymor reaches across his waist to pull each short sword with the opposite hand. As they passed in front of him, there was a brief flash of light between the handles. Then a crackling arc of energy linked the pommels, stretching into a line between them as he held them apart.

Darrus' eyes widened behind his faceplate. That were certainly unexpected. In a way, that energy looked much like the beam of a lightsaber. It was unfocused and wavered greatly from a lack of coherence but he suspected it would be just as effective at piercing armor and lancing flesh.

The intonation of the third note marked a flurry of motion. Tymor flicked his wrists, thrusting the pommel ends of both blades forward. Much to Darrus' surprise, the arc of power leapt free of the swords and fired across the arena!

His first reaction to any surprise in battle was to leap clear, an instinct that served him well as he vaulted over the curving beam of light and landed two rings closer to the center. The arc continued on to the wall behind where Darrus had been, shorting out in a black mark that pitted the metal bulkhead more than an inch deep.

Tymor certainly was not pulling any punches. That only made this better. Darrus dashed forward, blade to his side, moving as fast as he could without relying on the Force. He suspected anything beyond normal capabilities would be seen by the critical audience above. History was replete with incidents of hostility between the Jedi and the Mandaloran. Darrus had no desire to write another page of the same.

At the last moment, Tymor managed to catch Darrus' sudden strike with the edges of his blades, parrying the katana wide and avoiding a chest slash. The first mate's attempt to capitalize on the moment of open defense with a vicious snap kick failed as well, ducked as Darrus went down and under it.

Darrus seized on the chance for a leg sweep and kicked outward, catching Tymor hard in the side of his lower greave. The Mandaloran's leg gave way and he staggered back, barely managing to remain upright by falling against the wall.

To cover himself and regain his footing, Tymor slashed wildly, a hissing web of quick strikes that made Darrus pull back to avoid their sting. It was enough to get his back back under him and Tymor used the returned balance to reignite the line between his weapons. Not knowing what to expect, Darrus jumped backwards to give himself breathing room...

...and nearly fell from the playing field. One of the metal rings, a black one, was moving silently, revolving up over the battle. Only a few feet thick, it was now arching high overhead, its underside covered in hundreds of tiny electrical discharges. Darrus managed to catch the edge of the sudden pit and launch himself back to a stable ring before the black one finished its transit. Now flipped over, it stopped moving. Where its had been smooth metal, now it was a ring of storms, bolts of lightning surging between small emitters mounted in the steel.

Darrus took a second to get his bearings, assuming he was safe while the ring of electricity was between him and Tymor. He could not have been more wrong. With a shout, Tymor hurled one of his blades through the flickering barrier. It lashed arrow straight towards Darrus, trailing lightning as it flew.

Reflex proved unfortunate this time for Darrus. He dropped to the side and slashed a perfect parry, knocking the blade aside and avoiding its strike. Unfortunately, the contact of metal on metal send the vibrosword's borrowed current down his katana and into his arm. Darrus' armor protected him from most of the charge but it still shocked his hand enough to involuntarily spasm. His blade dropped to the floor with a song of protest and an eerie clatter.

The parried sword was not finished with Darrus yet. Tymor swung the one he was still holding sideways in front of him and the beam of power between them coiled brightly. The thrown blade reacted to the motion, reversing direction and slashing back towards Darrus. It was everything Darrus could do to avoid the riposte, falling flat and then leaping back up once it passed.

With a quick twist of his wrist, Tymor recalled the flying blade, its tether of energy pulling it back to his empty hand. Those weapons were as effective as they were exotic. Darrus resolved to take them and the man wielding them more seriously.

Twice more the thrown blade came, lashing like a dire arrow through the storm, and twice more Darrus dodged. He did not have a sword to parry with, nor would he have done so if he did. Though he evaded the attacks, Tymor's goal became clear. He was trying to get Darrus to dodge because each evasion made him move farther from his fallen katana. If Tymor could not hit him, he was intent on keeping Darrus disarmed.

Clever, but Darrus did not need his weapon to fight. With a quick run immediately following the third attack, he reached out and grabbed the vibrating blade as it tried to return to its skilled master. It was a risky move with that deadly line of energy behind it but Darrus was quick enough to avoid it and take hold of the handle. He was betting the thing had controls on both grips.

And the bet paid off as his finger clutched a sliding button and pressed it down. Instantly the line of light disappeared, severing the connection between the swords. Now both armed and no longer under fire, Darrus readied himself for whatever came next.

It was not a moment too soon. The ring he was on shuddered and began to move just as the black one had done before. Faced with the choice of jumping forward or back, Darrus instinctively vaulted backwards. It put more distance between him and Tymor but it also gave him more time to plan. This mobile battlefield was a new concept, one that had him off-balance. Against a man like Tymor, that was something he could not afford to be.

This new ring was not electrified like the one before. Instead, it was spiked with a very familiar kind of threat - force pikes of varying heights. These weapons were usually ceremonial but there were some worlds where law enforcement agents would use them to subdue targets. Tipped with micro-generators, they could generate anything from a numbing pulse to a lethal blast. Darrus supected they were cycled fairly high and had no desire to test the thory.

A few seconds after the pike ring clicked into place and stopped moving, the storm ring started to flip back over. Seizing his chance, Darrus pushed aside his misgivings about the spikes and picked a low enough spot to leap. With a quick running start, he jumped as hard as his body and the servos in his armor would allow.

It was barely enough. He felt the highest of the pikes discharge against his chest and leg plates as he tumbled over them, shaking from their impact as he landed. He knew Tymor would be coming fast.

He was right. A fast kick announced his opponent's arrival past the black ring. Darrus was still momentarily stunned by the pikes, a second's defenselessness that earned him a staggering blow to the head. He went backwards, nearly falling onto the pikes again. Forcing himself to steady, Darrus raised his stolen blade and managed a last second block against its twin.

Their edges whined as they clashed, steel biting against steel. Tymor was over him, Darrus forced by the strength of the blunted attack to one knee. Above them, the roar of anticipation could be heard from the crew. For a moment, Darrus could make out a gasp of worry, a mental wash of concern from Maya.

Tymor was good, very good, but he had one vulnerability in this fight. He was a Mandaloran and as such, he fought like a Mandaloran. This attack was called the Gundark's Surprise, an overbearing move where the first step was to take a weapon in both hands and force an opponent to the ground. That part has been successful.

But Darrus had trained, at his own insistence, along side his troops as they sparred during the war. He knew knew their moves. He knew their Mandaloran-based fighting style. And he knew what came next.

Tymor suddenly let go with his left hand and unleashed a crushing punch to Darrus' face. He had strength, height and momentum advantage over Darrus. A punch like this could drive a target's faceplate back against him nose, bloodying him instantly and sending him reeling, open to a strike to the back. It was a powerful attack...

...assuming it ever hit. Darrus released his blade at the exact same time, caught the incoming fist and fell to the side, all in the same motion. Tymor went flying past, impacted the pikes and shook violently as two of them discharged, one in each of his shoulders and another along side his pierced helm. The stench of ions and burning blood hit the air as the pikes retracted and the lighting along the walls went from red to white.

It was over.

Darrus quickly dropped his blade and turned to Tymor as he slumped to the ground. It took one second to get the man's helmet off and another to check his vitals. Tymor was alive, though shocked unconscious and bleeding from three wounds. The worst were probably his shoulders, the slash across his cheek was not terribly deep.

That was a relief. This was not supposed to be a battle to the death. Darrus was glad to see that, for once, a fight turned out as planned.

The doors opened again and dozens of armored men poured into the chamber, quickly arranging themselves into an honor guard around the outermost ring. Two white armored figures, one male and one female, entered and bore Tymor away on a hovering sled, presumably to a medical bay and well-earned rest.

Maya was at the doorway, watching him with her helmet off, eyes wide. he slowly stood, looking around the assembly, unsure what would happen next. In the several seconds of silence and stillness, he retrieved his songsteel weapon and returned it to its sheath. Darrus turned as a third door, one he had not seen before, slid open and a trio of Mandalorans walked in, approaching him slowly.

The one in the lead bore a small pile of shimmering black cloth in his armored hands. He stood, hands out but cloth tightly gripped, right in front of Darrus. Several tense seconds passed with no reactions from anyone in the room.

Finally, Darrus felt Maya's mind brush his. "Kneel. They are expecting you to kneel."

He did so, even bowing his head slightly. He felt very exposed this way, unable to defend himself well should the room turn violent. When the man with the cloth spoke, his apprehension faded fast.

"Hail, victor of the Shin'ador. You have earned the right of command." The cloth unfurled in front of him, revealing itself to be a mantle and cloak, connected at a pair of inscribed silver discs. "Rise."

Darrus did so, head still bowed in respect. The other two men near him each took a disc and stepped close, draping the cloak over his shoulders and the mantle over his upper chest. The discs attached magnetically to his armor, one just below either side of his collarbone. Looking down, he could see that the black cloth had countless motes of reflective light, stars hanging in the void of the cloth.

In that same moment, the ring of men around him and the three in front all dropped to a kneeling salute. "Hail, Silverlord Wraith, our captain and commander. Where you lead, we will follow. Where you strike, we will slay. Your word, our duty. This we swear."

The words were those of the man who had borne the cloak but the last three were echoed in whispers by every one else. Then they were spoken aloud. Then they were shouted in unison, everyone standing and saluting with a clenched fist.


Darrus just stared at them all, their enthusiasm and fervor more than a little overwhelming. He faced the man who had spoken first and returned the salute, more an act of instinct than of any real understanding. It was the right thing to do, as the entire room followed suit again.


Yes, these men would fight for him. They would die for him if he asked it. They were like the Clones, but not slaves to his will. They were the soldiers he had always wished for and never quite felt the Clones could be. With this small army, this battered warship, what could he accomplish? No, what couldn't he accomplish?

Quietly, he felt Maya again. "Darrus, this is still just until we can get away, right?"

In this moment, with thoughts and plans and possibilities raging though his mind, Darrus simply could not give her an honest answer.

Friday, April 11, 2008


He was resting, breathing carefully and focusing his energies when a soft tap on the chamber's only door caught his attention.

"Yes?" Darrus said softly. Though the wound to his throat that had, for years, ruined his voice was healed, he was used to speaking quietly. It would take a long time before he felt comfortable raising his voice. In truth, he was not sure he could any longer.

The door slid open, revealing Maya in a steel gray bodysuit and a loose fitting sleeveless robe the color of a Coruscant night. "I'm sorry to interrupt you."

He shook his head slightly, reaching out with one hand. It had taken a lot for him to make quiet gestures like this, casual intimacy, but Maya had earned them a dozen times over. "It's all right," he murmured as she approached and wove her fingers into his own. "What do you need? Have I been in here too long?"

It was a fair question. Darrus knew all too well that whenever he trained alone, time could easily get away from him. With the Force sustaining him, he could and often did put off sleep, nourishment and fatigue until their want came crashing down on him at the end of days of battle katas. Maya had seen this for herself a few times now and had a tendency to gently interrupt him if she thought he was going too far into such a state.

"No," she smiled gently. "Well, yes, but that's not why I'm here."

He tilted his head, blinking black eyes at her green ones. "It isn't?"

Maya covered his hand in both of hers. "The Mandalorian, the one that called you a Silverguard? He wants to speak with you in the Captain's Room. He's got several others in there with him." The concern in her tone was obvious.

And it was there for good reason. Darrus had been wondering how long this ruse could continue. "Right."

As he rose to his feet, still holding on to her, she looked up at him furtively. "What are you going to do?" Again, her intent was easy to read. If he was going to fight, she would be right at his side. He had come to depend on that loyalty. She no longer had to assure him of it; he knew she would follow his lead in all things.

With that devotion came a need to be closer and a responsibility not to abuse it, something he took very seriously. If he had been more cautious of others, more communicative and inclusive in the past, things in his life might have turned out differently. Dwelling on past mistakes would not help him avoid ones in the present, however. It was time to move on.

"If he wants a meeting, Maya, we'll give him a meeting." He helped her to her feet. "Are the Mandolorians wearing armor?" he suspected the answer was yes.

"I think so, yes. All of them. They never seem to take it off."

He nodded and gave her something he knew she could use right now - a kiss. It wasn't long or lingering but it made her face light up like nothing else could. Then, quietly, "Go suit up and meet me on the bridge. If we have to make a run for it, make sure you aren't leaving anything behind."

He watched her walk away, grateful that he had someone to watch his back. That was another thing he had missed in the past, another lack he could only blame on himself. There had people able and willing but be it arrogance or over-caution, he had never let them do it for long. Had he really been that much a fool?

Darrus clenched his fist and drove back the waves of doubt. No. No dwelling. No brooding.

By the time he met with Maya on the bridge of this strange new ship, he had already donned his battle armor, fetched his custom rifle and contacted his basilisk through the embedded communicator link in his head. The fact that he had a communicator stuck in his forehead was a matter of some concern on its own but right now, it was far more useful than disconcerting. His pensive droid was awaiting his arrival, as was hers.
If and when they fled this place, their rides would be ready.

They walked into the side room together, armor polished, weapons slung but at hand, a sign of prepared combat readiness. Maya had discerned this as a part of Mandalorian culture. Someone who stood in their midst unarmed was a victim, a civilian not worthy of attention. They needed to be taken seriously, thus they came to the meeting with every weapon their owned.

From the demeanor of the men in the room, some masked, others not, they had made the right decision. While there was some amount of bluster, it seemed to be the level of bravado that always lingered around these warrior folk. None of them seemed offended, a fact that Darrus verified by glancing to Maya and seeing her approving nod. Her mental voice whispered over his conscious thoughts.

*Go on. They seem calm enough.*

He thanked her silently and walked to the head of the room's stark metal table, standing rather than sitting. He cycled his helmet's voice modulator down to its lowest setting, lending just a little of the ominous tone to its amplifier. "You wanted to speak with me?"

The men at the other end of the table looked to their commander, saying nothing on their own. With a quick nod, that one opened both hands - a symbolic gesture of disarmament if Darrus read it correctly. Some of these mannerisms, he already knew. They were, it seemed, universal among soldiers, especially those of the Mandalorian mindset. He had seen all of this before with the clone troopers under his command. "We need to talk, sir. We have been in touch with homeworld."

Here it comes, Darrus thought to himself. He had been worried about this since he had been told the ship's communications array was online. He had hoped for a little longer before the crew managed interstellar comms but they were nothing if not efficient. Were they all here to calmly push him out an airlock now?

"I see. Go on." There was no sense in not seeing things through to the end, but just the same, he sent a quick command to his Basilisk to start up her engines. Maya did the same, sensing his concern.

"No one from homeworld sent you , sir. They had written us off as lost when we lost holonet link. No reinforcements were sent either." The tone was obvious. They had realized their mistake in assuming where he was from and since he had not corrected their error, he had obviously meant to deceive them. This was about to get unfortunate.

*It's all right, Darrus. I still sense no hostility in them.*

That surprised him. Still, if they were not upset, what did they want?

The leader of the Mandalorians stood up. Darrus knew his name to be Tymor; the man had introduced himself shortly after the end of the survival celebration. He had been instrumental in the rest of the crew so easily accepting his temporary command. "We think we understand why you let us believe you were from homeworld. We won't question you again, Silverlord."

And then he bowed, followed quickly by the other warriors in the room.

Darrus quickly looked to Maya for some kind of explanation but all he got was the psychic equivalent of static. She was just as bewildered. Covering quickly, he turned to face Tymor and rested one hand on the table. "I appreciate that. My actions should matter more than where I am from."

To his relief, his words were instantly agreed upon, the Mandalorians nodding among themselves. Tymor sat back down before answering. "Yes, sir. We are glad to feel that way. That makes the next step much easier."

"Next step?"

The Mandalorians behind Tymor all stood at attention, arranging themselves in a line formation, hands resting on the stocks of their carbines. Darrus' eyes narrowed behind his reflective visor. Perhaps things were not as disarmed as he had hoped.

"Sir, the ship needs a captain. We want you to step up and fight for the position."

Darrus almost asked what the man meant but thought better of it. This was likely some kind of tradition, some system of promotion by combat. Professing ignorance of it would only make his appearance as a fellow Mandalorian more tenuous. Quickly, he thought-asked Maya how she believed they would react to his polite refusal.

The answer was exactly as he expected. *Very poorly.*

For the moment, at least, he would need to play along. Later, when the ship was no longer bound to dry dock and getting back to Tattooine was nearly impossible, he and Maya would be able to slip away quietly. If they tried it now, they would have to steal a ship, something he was loathe to do for many reasons.

"All right. I accept. When?"

Again, it seemed like exactly the right answer. Tymor folded his hands and smiled, his mouth visible under his half-mask. "Everyone eligible has agreed to withdraw from the shin'ador, Silverlord. There will be only you and I in the circle tomorrow."

Darrus noted the term, 'shin'ador', and resolved to look it up as soon as he could. Without asking it to, he instantly sensed the mind within his Basilisk, take the word and start researching it. The droid was already sliced into the ship's computer and, before he could ask her to stop, she had cross-referenced 'shin'alor' with the vessel's language files. In that strange place where Darrus' thoughts and his droid's consciousness overlapped, the word translated to 'crown of blood'. To his great relief, he also felt that such a combat was to first flesh wound, not to the death.

"Acceptable. Summon me when it is time."

Tymor bowed again. "It will be done, Silverlord Wraith." Then, once the other Mandalorians had paid their respects and left, he added in a more personal voice, "I am looking forward to seeing you fight, my lord. It will be an honor to cross steel."

After Tymor had gone to join the others, Darrus pulled Maya down into the chair beside him and pulled off his helmet. "This just keeps getting more complicated, doesn't it?" he asked her with a long, weary sigh.

Maya reached forward and rubbed his neck as far down as she could reach. "Yes, but this way the crew still believes you are who you pretend. And with you as the ship's captain, we'll have a much easier time getting home, right?"

Darrus rested his hand on hers, offering Maya a rare smile. "Thank you. I really don't know what I'd do without you."

She leaned forward, nipped him on the lips and grinned playfully. "That's easy. You'd wallow in self-doubt and senseless guilt until you became a danger to yourself and everyone else around you. Again."

Then she collapsed into giggles because the look on Darrus' face was priceless...

Monday, March 17, 2008

Private Dancer

He was alone for the first time in weeks.

Completely alone. No monitors, no audience.

Just him and an empty metal room in the heart of a starship under repair. Most of the crew had moved to the station, still celebrating their victory over an ambush by a much larger force. They were happy to be alive.

Darrus knew he should feel the same way. Against the odds, he had survived again. This was becoming a habit, a trend of defiance that was at once hopeful and depressing. His friends were all gone, his loved ones vanished in the fires of time. All he had left was her.


She was all he really had but she was enough. Without her, he would have no connection to this future world, this time of rebellion and tyranny he had awoken into. He was going through the motions now, fighting against this Scarlet Wake and whatever greater plot was at work here...

...but in the end, he was only doing for her. He was a spent hero. The universe had gotten its pound of flesh from him two decades ago. He was weary, in spirit if not in body, and if everything ended tomorrow, Darrus was not altogether certain he would care as long as he could disappear with Maya at his side.

Except for her, he felt dead inside. The glimmer of consciousness now living in his mind both helped and hurt. He did not feel quite so alone with the strange droid staring soul-space in his head but it also made him feel just a little more inhuman. Disconnected.


He needed to feel again. He had to find a way to reach the part of himself that was once alive. He owed it to Maya. She deserved more than what he was now. He was cold, getting colder by the day. He was withdrawing into himself. He could feel it. The droid could feel it. He was certain Maya felt it too. She was an empath; his emotional state was hardly capable of being kept a secret from her.

That was why he was here. Only one thing had ever really made Darrus feel like part of the universe instead of just an observer. Some felt the Force, their connection to all life, through careful meditation. Other felt it through study and contemplation.

And then there were Jedi like Darrus - people who only really felt the weight of their own lives when they were fighting to defend it.

He took a step forward, feeling the slide of memory cords as alien cloth constricted over his muscles. This bodysuit had been a gift from the Mandaloreans, a present from a grateful band of mercenaries charged with the guardianship of this outpost - one of the last remaining worlds of a true Mandal clan. Vor'agal'terest, they called it in their native tongue, a word that translated to "living spider steel".

Darrus could feel why. With every move, the braided cords of the bodysuit followed his actions by means of kinetic sensors mimicking him down to the smallest gesture. Repositioning itself through tiny adjustments of the links between each braid, the suit remained body-tight while providing complete unrestricted mobility.

Vor'agal'terest was a rare and precious commodity, a substance whose manufacturing secrets died with its last known makers a generation after the founder of this colony's clan. Few Mandaloreans even know of the substance as its use was reserved for warchiefs and champions. This particular suit had been owned by a bodyguard of the colony's founder - Mandalore Ordo. Getting used to the feel of it move around him would take some time, some practice, but the benefits of having an undermesh for his battle armor were more than enough to justify the effort.

Besides, it gave him an excuse to be here, walking through a battle dance from years long past. His body clad in the living steel, an opaque skin of braided hematite shadows, Darrus strode around the middle of the room in a ritual practice of stepping off the perimeter of his practice area.

That done, he lifted his weapons into a ready position. In his right hand, his songsteel katana hummed a tune of quiet readiness. On his left, Darrus wore a powered gauntlet, lines of silver light moving over its striking plates and down the curves of the retractable blades worked into the plates on its back. They were out now, out and thrumming with a dark vibration of their own.

And the dance began. The first few steps were simple, graceful strides intended only to close the distance between the center of the practice area and its circular border. With each step, there was a swift exchange of blows, two blurring sweeps of the sword in a X pattern followed by a quick left jab-and-slash.

It pained him to think about it but the latter move was a legacy of his lost friend Marr-ek. Once a trusted companion and bodyguard, Marr-ek had broken that friendship bond in a terrible, brutal fashion. Though Darrus had killed the man himself, there were still vestiges of the deep connection they had forged, combat training not the the least of them. As long as Darrus lived this violent life, Marr'ek's memory could never truth be forgotten.

At the edge of the circle, he spiraled and cross-cut in a parallel line at chest height, his sword moving past enough to leave only a black line and a lilting note of aggression in the air behind itself. His rush of motion was now around the circle, running swiftly, blade out at shoulder level, held across the body, pirouetting every third step into a whirlwind of symphonic steel, a storm of slashes, all the while never missing a step forward. To anyone watching, the motion was too fast to be believed, just a blur of graceful violence.

Returning to his starting point, Darrus kicked off with his legs in a half-crouch. The Force and his new suit both boosted the strength of his jump, sending him into a somersaulting arch back to the middle of the combat circle. Landing with another flurry of slashes and cuts, he rose back up into a defensive stance and slowly turned to face 'forward' again.

The center and the edges now defined by his movements, he was ready to truly begin. This dance was not the one taught by his mentor Windu, nor the katas of his teachers on Almas. This was a combat form all his own, created from lessons given by masters of the art and tempered in a hundred battles during the Clone Wars against foes of many kinds. This was a tempest of Force and skill...

This was Mael Vaakai - The Storm That Destroys.

And from a distant window high above the floor of the chamber, a woman watched the dance with tears of admiration and concern in her eyes. He was both beautiful and frightening to behold.

She wanted to go down to him, help him find himself, but it was obvious he needed this time alone. Maya sighed as she bore witness to his exhausting ordeal, desperately fighting the urge to be with him. He needed her but she could not help him... not by anything other than being there when he inevitably collapsed.

She would be. She would carry him to bed, nurse him back to health, and stand by silently while he did it again. And again. And again.

A thousand times if that was what it took. She had faith.

She had faith that someday there would be room in his dance for two...

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Unanswered

She stared up at the ceiling, tossing a ball of surgical tubing at it again and again, catching it each time. This was no exercise or test of coordination, nor was it an act borne of boredom. This was, as it had always been, the physical sign of contemplation. This was Maya's mantra, her bodily activity while her mind raced.

She'd had him tipsy and available, able to ask him all the things she dearly wanted to know and she'd let him get away.




Why was she here? Was it her feelings for the dark eyed man? Yes, certainly that but was there more?


Would she still be following him had it not been for the Scarlet Wake and their message of hate? A message that went entirely against her beliefs?


Was she here with him, her mind now bonded to an alien device that lived in her thoughts, out of some sense of loyalty? She had taken the lost Jedi in as a patient, the first she'd tended since her disgrace on Hoth.


Was this guilt, then? Was that it?


Cursing under her breath, she clenched the ball of tubes in her hand, squeezing as tight as she could. So many questions. Things she had wanted to ask him...

...but perhaps she was hoping he could give her answers to the ones she couldn't bear to ask herself.