Discoveries

Two months.

In his scout ship, aptly named Discovery, Jeric had been searching through the fifteen systems that make up the lifeless Vgraliph sector, and it was rapidly coming to an unprofitable end.  During the Emperor's reign he had been one of the few scouts that could hold a steady flow of credits, but since the Empire split into factions, there was simply no work available.

He stared at the mottled sky outside the cockpit—his reflection stared faintly back at him.  Jeric had short black hair, brown eyes, and a scar that ran from the middle of his cheek vertically to his ear.  It wasn't a very impressive scar and did little to hinder his handsome appearance, but it was there none-the-less. With his booted feet propped up on the weapons console, he sat in the small cockpit, wondering what amount of utter stupidity brought him to this end of the Galaxy.

The answer was simple, one word that explained all his motivations—greed.

For years he’d heard rumors that Palpatine had hidden munitions dumps throughout the Mid-rim Territories, but he’d always dismissed them as hearsay.  He couldn’t fathom why the Empire would need to do such a thing.  Then Endor happened and he understood, at least a little.  Even so, he hadn’t realized how quickly the Galaxy-spanning Empire would fall apart or how difficult it would be to regain control after the Emperor’s death.

Politics had never much interested him, so he had never considered what effect Palpatine’s death would have on the Empire, all he knew for sure was that the collapse had left him out of a job, unless he wanted to become a soldier, which he didn’t.  As much as he loved the Empire and the opportunities it afforded him, he could not imagine flying the death traps they called TIE fighters, and he lacked the discipline to follow his father’s lead and become a stormtrooper.

When the rebels had begun to form their own governing body, he had briefly considered offering his services up to them for a price, but he didn’t think the uprising would last, and he didn’t want to get caught on the wrong end of galactic law.  He’d just about run out of options when people started to talk about the hidden munitions dumps again.  Such a find, if large enough, could help to tilt the galactic balance back into the Empire’s favor, and would mean wealth beyond imagination for the one who’d found it.

That last thought had started him on this wild vonton chase.

Over the past six or seven months, he’d spent countless hours in one cantina or another on about a dozen backwater worlds, listening to smuggler’s tales and trying to piece together the bits of information he’d gathered.  Then, a couple months back in Mos Eisley, he’d come across a half deleted set of coordinates and thirteen seconds of a garbled sub-space message that corroborated a tale he’d heard several sectors away on Minnoa.  His months of research had finally paid off and though he’d had to spend the last of his savings to purchase the information, he’d felt sure that it would lead him to one of the munitions dumps.

“That’ll teach me to listen to drunken smugglers who are more concerned with the next hand of Sabaac then the state of affairs in the galaxy,” he said aloud to himself.  Without the survey reports to fill out and transmit every few hours, he had begun talking to himself more and more.

“Okay,” he said, glancing over at the sensors display, “we’re coming up on the fourth planet of the sixth system . . . Krecian, if I don’t miss my guess.”  It was the eighteenth planet he’d surveyed thus far and he wondered idly where the imperial astronomers had come up with such names, when the proximity alarm went off.  He glanced at the debris floating in the foreground, and, with a snort, switched off the sensors.  The enhanced sensor package had cost him nearly four thousand credits before installation, he found it more than a little unnerving that it would so often mistake debris for other spacecraft.

Had he been paying attention to the debris and not switched off the sensors, he’d have seen the small probe droid, with electromagnetic anchors instead of graspers as it moved toward him with small thruster bursts.  Its slow rotation was a good camouflage, but only at a glance and until a ship came into range.

While Jeric prepared the ship to travel in an atmosphere, the droid closed on him, a small sensor array emerging from a compartment near its head.  The droid had been programmed to identify and destroy hostile targets, and it perceived anything that did not transmit the proper access codes as hostile.

It waited five seconds for the proper codes, then, switching to a different sensory package, locked on to it’s target, and moved.

By the time Jeric saw it, the droid was moving toward the underside of his ship.  Before he could remove his feet from the weapons console, it had attached itself to the hull and exploded.  He reached for the sensor control switch and mentally kicked himself for switching it off.  He threw the switch, looking back to a blank screen.

Blank.  His heart sank.  “Four thousand credits,” he mumbled to himself, “before installation.”

Glancing out the cockpit, he saw four thruster bursts.  His mind raced as he reached for the weapon controls.  No time to lock on, no time to think, just time to react.  Fire.  Explosion.  Fire.  Explosion.  Fire.  Fire.  Explosion.  It was almost four seconds before he realized that he had missed one.  In that time, the droid moved to the ship and anchored itself to the hull.

While he tracked it, it exploded.

Shields.  He had forgotten the shields.  Jeric flipped the appropriate switch without looking; his mind focused on the damage control and assessment screen.  It flashed red at four-second intervals.  “This is not good,” he mumbled to himself, the situation was getting very bad, very quickly, and it looked worse as he read.

Sensors out; hull breech; hyperdrive out; shields out.  Jeric did a double take.  “Shield’s out,” he said to himself, listening for the familiar hum of the shield generator over the normal shipboard functions.  The sound was missing.  Eyes wide, he glanced toward the planet, this time paying closer attention to objects in the foreground and saw eight thruster bursts.

A lesser man would have been scared, Jeric was terrified.

"What are these things doing here," he screamed to no one in particular.  Reaching for the flight yoke, he hauled back on it.  Stars shot downward at an unbelievable speed.  He punched the overdrive button and began erratic maneuvers, hoping that he could put some distance between himself and the droids.  The weapons would be useless—he wasn’t in a fighter and he wasn’t a hotshot TIE pilot, he'd never be able to take out eight of these things, let alone any others that might be out there.

Something about their design seemed familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it.

Jeric pulled hard on the yoke again, this time twisting to the right; the planet came into view.  Again, something familiar tugged at his memory, but it wasn't the planet, or the things chasing him.  He'd never encountered either before.  The memory was there, but weak, as if in a nightmare he didn't want to remember.  Something from his childhood.  He pushed forward on the flight yoke.  The stars whirled . . .

 

. . . four ships shot past the canopy.  Jeric was strapped tightly into the co-pilot's seat.  He glanced to his right; there was a man in the pilot's chair.  A man he instinctively knew to trust.  The stars danced erratically outside the cockpit.  The harness was digging deeper into his shoulders with each of the ship's irregular movements.  A bright blue blast flashed past the canopy.  Another.  Another.  The ship lurched.  Something was out there, attacking . . .

 

. . . out of the corner of his eye, Jeric, saw another thruster burst.  He wrenched the flight yoke to the left.  It buzzed the cockpit.  He got a good look at it and something in his mind clicked.

His eyes widened.  "A mine droid," he whispered, a twinge of fear in his voice.   He’d read about them in a history class at the academy; they had been orbital identification units, created by Arakyd Industries, but the Empire had purchased them and turned them into suicide machines.  If he remembered correctly, they were loaded with thermal explosives and a sensor package programmed to track hostiles, lock on, and detonate, the IMD’s (Imperial Mine Droids), as they came to be called, had, at one time, been the Empire's answer to orbital protection.  They had been out of operation for over two decades, because they were simple to destroy.  If only he could remember how to beat the blasted things.

The planet shot by again.

Getting an idea, Jeric pushed the flight yoke forward and shot toward the planet.  He may not have ever actually encountered an IMD before, but he was pretty sure they were used only in space.  The lack of hull shielding should make them vulnerable to the searing heat of atmospheric entry, at least he hoped it would.  Engineering had never been one of his strengths, but he wouldn’t be able to dodge them for long, he had to try something.

If it didn't work, well he'd be joining his father on the list of lost Scouts in the service records department.  Jeric closed his eyes as the ship plummeted into the planet's atmosphere.

 

They were aboard the ship.  He could hear the blaster fire.

Hidden in the cockpit, he couldn't see anything, but he heard it all.  A volley of blasts hit the door.  He had been left alone.  He didn't feel safe.  Another  barrage of explosions hit the door.  Jeric pushed himself deeper into the maintenance hatch.  The door opened.  Someone stumbled in.  He recognized him immediately and rushed out to him.  But the man held up his hand firmly, motioning Jeric back into his hiding place.

He was hurting.  Jeric wanted to run to him.  To feel safe in his arms, as he had many times before, but someone had followed him in.  The cockpit door exploded.  The man  turned, raised his blaster, and started firing.  He was cut down quickly.  Jeric was left alone, defenseless.

Something entered the cockpit.  Jeric held his breath.  It was tall, covered in fur, and had a long snout that extended vertically to its chest.  Reaching down with one huge furry hand, it checked the man on the floor for any sign of life.  Jeric tried to push farther into his hiding place.  Crunch.  Its head swiveled in Jeric's direction.  The monster raised its blaster and started moving toward him.  He looked into its black, pupilless eyes.  Jeric could taste the anger, the hatred he felt for this creature.  He wanted to fight.  To kill.

This thing had murdered his protector, his . . .

 

No, that couldn't be right.  Jeric remembered his father; he’d been a retired stormtrooper turned scout; he’d worked for the Empire; he was smart and successful, and he had taught Jeric all he needed to know about the galaxy.

The memory and confusion it brought was quickly buried in reality.

One.  Two.  Three.  Four.  The explosions resounded off the hull.  Jeric opened his eyes and smiled, it had worked.  The ground was approaching fast; and explosions continued to echo in the background.  He counted fourteen, maybe more, then released a deep breath that he hadn't realized he was holding, and checked the sensors again. “Still out,” he mumbled, slumping into his chair and closing his eyes.  A thumping pain began in his temples, and slowly started to work its way through the rest of his brain. 

“Four thousand credits, before installation.”

All at once the communications display came to life.  No attached voice, just a landing beacon.  Moving quickly, he crosschecked the frequency with his flight computer and breathed a sigh of relief.  “An Imperial frequency,” he whispered, wiping the beading sweat from his brow.  It could have been a lot worse, pirates (Why did that word enter his mind first?), smugglers,  bounty hunters, rebels, err, New Republic—the possibilities were limitless, and all bad.

Jeric tried to lock on to the landing beacon.  Nothing.  He glanced back at the damage screen.  Sensors out.  He wanted to scream.  Four thousand credits, before installation, gone.  Wasted.

A twinge of excitement welled in his stomach.  He’d almost forgotten what he was looking for, and unless the beacon was just a planetary marker, which was very unlikely, he had found a munitions dump.

Even with all that had gone wrong, he couldn't help a slight smile.

Without sensors, he’d have to visually scan the planet and log his findings.  It gave him a reason to talk to himself that was not quite talking to himself.  He switched on the voice log.  “Planet, err . . . Krecian, I think.  The polar areas and much of the northern region are covered by ocean.”  The signal was weak in this area, so he turned and started for the equator.  Land soon became apparent as he traveled south.  “The land masses appear gray, with powder blue and white facings along the rocks.  From this altitude I don’t see any plant-life.”  Something about the color of the land tugged at his memory, but it he quickly suppressed it.

There was something too clear, too real about those memories.

The strength of the signal grew, but standard Imperial procedure called for voice instructions and identification long before now, and a depressing thought swept over him.  “It better not be abandoned,” he said to himself, forgetting that the log was recording his every word.  It was not an uncommon practice for an abandoned base to be left with a beacon, and unless the base had been left unattended, which wasn't very likely, he had wasted a lot of time and a sensors package for nothing.

Hoping for a lazy ground crew not used to visitors, he transmitted his ship ID again on the same Imperial frequency.  No response.  Again.  No response.  He checked the damage screen again.  The on-board computer didn't register any damage to his comm. system, but there was still that possibility.

He tried several other known Imperial frequencies.  Nothing.

Feeling a wave of depression wash over him, Jeric dropped the ship into within fifty meters of the ground, periodically making adjustments to avoid mountains.  Even from this height he couldn't see any plant-life.  Thinking about it, he didn't see any sign of life, let alone of any civilization.

Dropping over the fourth set of mountains in as many minutes, he spotted something that brought a smile to his doubting features.  The figure of an AT-AT, gleaming silver in the sun loomed ahead of him.

It was a reassuring sight.

Just over the horizon he saw another.  A little further off was the base.   He looked on with relief, but still, the silence was eerie.  “Still no voice contact,” he said, this time aware that his voice was being recorded.  He slowed his approach, using only repulsors and momentum as he skimmed the surface.  Something about the AT-ATs started to bother him.  He flew by close enough so they could pick him up visually, although their sensors should have picked him up long ago.  Pushing the yoke to the right in a slow circle, he made a second pass, gawking at the metallic figure.

It was standing perfectly still.  No head movements.  No crushing steps.  Nothing.  “It looks dead.”

Again something started tugging at his memory.  Something unpleasant that he didn't want to remember.

Slapping the overdrive button, he started for the base.  Full speed.

The landing was rough.

Two thrusters were out and it took more than a little coaxing to get the landing gear to drop.  Setting the ship on the ground did more damage to the hull and it heavily sloped to the right—the left rear-landing strut had dropped less than halfway, but he was on the ground.

Before landing, he had circled the base twenty times and was surprised to find that the general layout was similar to that of a standard garrison.  Worse, it seemed to be completely deserted.  The power generator, something no commander would leave behind, looked to be undamaged, and several sections of the compound still had power.  The only detail he noticed that seemed out of place was that for twenty meters around the perimeter of the base, there was only white terrain, outside of that it was all gray, with patches of powder blue.

After transmitting his ID several more times, on every imperial frequency he knew of, he finally opened the access hatch and poked his head out.  He half expected to be staring into the barrels of about a dozen stormtrooper blasters, but the only think that greeted him was a strong breeze.  The air was warm, and surprisingly moist, but thick with an odor that resembled rotting meat.

Stepping out of his ship, he gazed around.  “And I thought Tattooine was desolate,” he said to himself, beginning a slow circle to inspect the hull.  He found that the sensor array wasn't just damaged, it was gone and, to make things worse, the cargo hold had been ruptured.  That meant that all of his equipment was lost somewhere in orbit, leaving him with only a small blaster and a vibro-shiv to protect himself.  Of course, as far as he could tell, there was nothing around to protect himself from.

Again that uneasy feeling came over him, like a memory, a bad memory, trying to come to the surface.  He listened.  All was quiet, except . . .

 

. . . whirr-click.

The guard droid whirled.  Its left arm, a blaster rifle in itself, raised and pointed toward Jeric’s head.  Tears were rushing down his young face.  It motioned toward the outer portal.  The door slid open and for the first time in weeks, he saw something other than the interior of a ship and a landscape of stars.  The sky was gray with cloud cover.  The droid pointed toward a small building some distance away, pushing him out the portal.

Whirr-click.

Whirr-click. 

After every movement, whirr-click.  Jeric couldn't see the droid behind him, but he knew it was there. 

Whirr-click, whirr-click . . .

 

. . . whirr-click. 

Jeric spun around, his blaster drawn, sweat beading on his forehead.  A cleaning droid had emerged from one of the buildings and was washing the exterior viewports. 

Whirr-click. 

Whirr-click. 

Jeric let out a short nervous laugh and holstered his blaster.  He started for the building.  The noise was stimulating memories—memories he was quick to suppress. 

Whirr-click.

Everything around him was silent but for that noise.  The harder he tried to ignore it, the louder it became.  He started to jog.  The blast door was shut.  He slapped the open button.

Ffft-snap . . .

 

. . . the door shut behind him.  He looked around.  Some blue of the sky showed through in places, with a puffy white cloud here and there, but it was still predominately gray.  The ground was black.  He had expected to see trees or grass, or anything green.  Nothing, only bleak grays and black everywhere he looked.  There was something moving off in the distance, but it was too far away for him to identify.

Whirr-click.  The droid was still behind him.  They moved past the small dilapidated building, and toward a big hole in the ground.

The hole, actually an entrance to a mine, was deep and dark, he could see that from a distance, but as  they approached it, the droid still audibly behind him, fear, almost paralyzing fear, started to take over.

He glanced down into the pit, there he saw a . . .

 

. . . creature standing in the entryway to the building.  It was tall, nearly as tall as himself, covered in black scales with powder blue fur running down its neck and covering its back.  It was incredibly thin, almost sickly so.  Iron muscles moved under thick scales.  While it was obviously a quadruped, it was standing upright on short stocky legs.  It’s front legs, for they weren't long or mobile enough to be called arms, ended in three-fingered claws.  There was a kind of madness in its brown eyes, and a pinkish saliva bubbled around the edges of its closed mouth.

Jeric had never seen anything like it.  He took a step back.

Whirr-click. 

The noise came from behind him.

He turned quickly, drawing his blaster again—something from the memory made him react without thinking.

The droid moved methodically, a cleaning solution spraying from one of its appendages, then being wiped away by a second.  No threat there, he thought to himself, turning back toward the other creature, tracking with his blaster.

The creature acted before he could finish the maneuver.  Lurching forward, it knocked Jeric to the ground.  The blaster disappeared out of his hand.  He heard it clatter to the ground some distance away.

The creature fell on top of him, its claws pinning his shoulders . . .

 

. . . "down," the electronic voice commanded.  Jeric couldn't move—his eyes were locked on the creature awaiting him inside the pit.  It easily towered over him, standing more than a meter taller; it’s slit-pupilled eyes bore into Jeric’s horror stricken mind; and it smiled a mouthful of needle-like teeth.  Sharp, black scales covered it from head to tail, giving an armored appearance to it’s torso and limbs.

It was holding a huge weapon of some type in its taloned fingers.

"Good, we need another gatherer," it hissed in broken basic.  "Take him down to level four."

Whirr-click.  The droid nudged him in the back.  Jeric didn't move.  His fear of this creature and 'level four' were much stronger than the fear of the droid.  Whirr-click.  He was pushed forward repeatedly, but he continued pushing back, struggling . . .

 

. . . under it’s weight, with no success.  Its head started to move forward, yet it’s body remained still.  There were only two teeth in its wide mouth.  Two long, sharp teeth, one on the top, one on the bottom.  It snapped at his throat; Jeric dodged his head to the side, seeing the extended neck that attached the head to its body.

The muscles were retracting; Jeric had only moments to act before it struck again.  He watched the neck closely, looking for veins or some other vital component that might be exposed, while in the same moment feeling around his waist for the vibro-shiv.  The small dagger had to be there somewhere, but where?  He started feeling around with his left hand.  There.

He drew the blade left-handed.

It was awkward, but he moved it up along the creature's body, being careful not to alert it to the deadly nature of the blade in his hand.  The neck reached its contraction point and snapped forward again.

Jeric pointed the knife upward.  The creature slashed itself on the blade with the forward motion, dripping a pinkish liquid onto Jeric's chest as it slumped forward.  He was pinned, and the creature's weight was slowly pushing the air out of his lungs; his consciousness slipping away, then . . .

 

. . . total blackness.  The cavern he was pushed into was completely dark. 

Whirr-click.

The droid was right behind him, but the noise echoed off the walls, seeming to come from everywhere at once.  He turned around wanting to strike back at his metallic captor.

The droid's eyes were glowing bright red in the darkness.

Whirr-click. 

Another push and Jeric fell to the ground.  The darkness seemed to weigh on him.  He couldn't regain enough balance to stand.  His world was spinning and silent. 

Whirr-click. 

Jeric was lifted to his feet, violently.  Again he fell.  The darkness was too much to over-come.

Whirr-click. 

The droid picked him up again.  This time it didn't put him down, it carried him, it’s cold metal fingers digging into his flesh.  The journey seemed to last forever, it squeezed tightly on his right shoulder, the pain numbing his arm.  He was being carried like an old duffel bag, hanging at an angel above an infinity of darkness.

Jeric wasn't sure, but up ahead he thought he saw . . .

 

. . . light.

Jeric's bout with unconsciousness had come to an end.  Somehow he was able to relax enough to relieve some of the creature's weight and fill his lungs with air.  He was still pinned, and the creature was still dead, but he was awake.  Shifting his body first to the right, then to the left, he estimated the weight of the creature, and realized that he would not be able to push it or rock it off.

His left hand felt moist and cool.  Maneuvering himself in that direction, he glanced up at the creature's neck.  It was sliced wide open and his arm disappeared into the creature’s body.  The vibro-shiv had not stopped cutting and was most likely sticking out the back of its throat.

Somehow he had managed to hold onto the small dagger.  Adjusting its position in his hand, he started slowly cutting downward and to his left.

The vibro-shiv cut free of the creature’s body near his left eye.  Pulling his hand free and he aimed the dagger toward the creature’s arm that held his left shoulder.  The movement was awkward, but he managed it.

Slicing through its wrist was easy, and at the same moment, he braced himself with his right leg and right arm.  He finished the cut and the creature slumped to the left.  Jeric pushed off with his braced limbs, continuing the momentum to the left until it rolled off.

He was free.

Jeric stood up, gasping for breath.  Dropping the vibro-shiv, he stumbled into the building and shut the blast door.  He wanted to stop, to lean up against the wall, to rest, but all he could do was . . .

 

. . . collapse.  The droid had set him down feet first, yet he still couldn't stand.  It might have been the blinding light unbalancing him, much like the total darkness had, or the numbness, which felt more like being constantly pricked by pins and needles, that encompassed much of his right side.  Then again, it could be the fear of it all.  Whatever the reason, he just laid there, rubbing his shoulder and quietly sobbing.

Something gently touched his shoulder.  It wasn't the cold metal of the guard droid, or the warmth of a Human hand; it was cold, scaly.  The memory of the black-scaled creature returned, more frightening than before.  Jeric snapped open his eyes and shied away from the touch.  Rolling over to get a good look at whatever it was,

The numbness in his shoulder ceased as he gaped at the creature.

It stood nearly a half-meter taller than the droid, with two round lidless eyes, nostrils with no nose, and a sharp beak.  It’s skin was green, cracked and bleeding in places, and as it bent forward to look him in the face, fear, the kind that makes you do stupid things, welled up in him, and he did the only thing he could do.  He ran.

He was up and moving before the droid could react. 

Whirr-click. 

A blue flash of light erupted overhead, but Jeric was already out the door and running.  The darkness closed in around him.  He was too scared to keep running, but too scared to stop.

Whirr-click.

The noise was feint, but he heard it and that only strengthened his resolve.  He pushed himself harder.  He stepped, but there was nothing there to support his weight. 

Whirr-click.

He fell face first to the ground, his foot caught in some type of hole. 

Whirr-click. 

The noise was getting louder.  A blue flash of light exploded just above him.  For a brief second, he caught a glimpse of a passage to his left, less than a meter away. 

Whirr-click.

The droid was getting closer.  He pulled his foot free and scrambled for the avenue of escape.

The passage was small.  He fit into it nicely.  He ran as fast as his sore ankle could carry him. 

Whirr-click.

The noise grew fainter.  He'd gotten away, the droid couldn't follow.

Everything seemed to be going well when a stabbing pain lanced through his cheek.  He smacked the wall first with an extended hand, then with his face.  Falling backwards, he reached out and grabbed for anything.  He caught himself on a protruding stone.  After righting himself and, allowing a moment of rest in order to take inventory of his body, he started moving again, this time much more slowly and cautiously.

Something was dripping off his chin.  It felt like water, trickling slowly at first, working down the side of his face in a slow stream.  He wiped his cheek.  The streaming continued, getting faster as he moved.  His cheek hurt terribly, but the pain paled next to his fear.  He kept moving, his eyes never completely adjusting to the utter blackness.

Two more turns, and a stumble and a fall.  Jeric was making his way, but at a cost.  His entire body was sore.  He was getting light-headed and dizzy, every breath was more labored than the last and he had no idea where he was going.  Suddenly, this didn't seem like such a wise course of action, but he wouldn’t stop moving. 

Whirr-click. 

The noise echoed off the walls.  It seemed to come from every where at once.

The noise renewed Jeric’s fear.  He started running again.  Two red orbs appeared before him.   He tried but couldn't stop, running full-force into the metal body of the guard droid.  It didn't give.  Jeric fell to the ground, unable to move.  In the darkness there wasn't anything to see, but there was definitely something to hear . . .

 

. . . whirr-click. 

Jeric's eyes snapped open.  He reached for his blaster, forgetting its loss, and looked around.  The droid was cleaning up the pinkish fluid that he had tracked in from outside.

He took a deep breath and stood up, feeling for non-existent blood on his cheek.  Both of his shoulders hurt.  “How long have I been out?” he said, wishing he’d stumbled into a med. lab with a bacta tank.  He considered checking outside to see if it had gotten dark yet, but there could be more of those monsters, err creatures out there.  No, not a good plan, especially unarmed.

His only other choice was to explore the base.

Fortunately, many of the garrisons were fabricated by the same companies and so varied only slightly in configuration; and then only when necessary according to terrain type.  He'd headed for this building because it was generally used as a command center.  All that time he'd spent touring Imperial operations with his father (why did that term not seem to fit any longer?) was time well spent, especially if it got him out of this.

Ten meters down the hall was another blast door.  Jeric instinctively raised his left hand in order to tap the open button, but hesitated.  There might be another of those creatures, behind the door.  The notion seemed childlike, but still he hesitated.  A bead of sweat dripped off his forehead, streamed past his nose, and dropped off his chin.

It landed on his unmoving, out-stretched hand, and slowly dropped off.

He glanced around, the sweat continuing to bead on his forehead.  There were other doors, but he hesitated to open any of them.  It was an irrational fear, he knew that, and the only way to overcome the fear was to face it.  He readied himself, sweat streaming down his face, and tapped the button.

The door opened slowly.

He poised himself for battle, but nothing happened.  No creatures.  No droids.  The corridor was empty.  Jeric stepped through the blast door and continued on, scoffing at his fear.

The next door was much easier.  He started searching the rooms along the corridor.  He found several vibro-weapons, but discarded them all in favor for a blaster rifle.  With that in his hands Jeric felt safe.  He continued his search with confidence.

If this base were like the others, the control center should be at the end of the next corridor.  Jeric strolled up to the blast door, slapped the appropriate button, and was taken back by the . . .

 

. . . utter darkness.  It was impenetrable.  Jeric didn't remember much after he collided with the droid, but when he awoke later his wounds had been bandaged and he was given food.  Then the droid pushed him back into the darkness.  He was led down a long stone corridor with others, whom he held on to for balance.

"Level four gatherers to the right, all others to the left."  Jeric recognized the broken Basic of the monster he had encountered at the mine entrance.  The thought of being blind, in the dark, with that creature hulking around re-awakened the terror he was feeling the day before.

They filed singly into the passage, but Jeric’s growing fear caused him to lose his balance.  As he fell forward, a hand grasped his shoulder and steadied his small frame.  It was the same cold, scaly hand that had grabbed at him before.  The face of the creature burned in Jeric’s mind.  He wanted to run, to hide, but there was no-where to go.  He wondered if it would eat him.

The hand had a firm, but gentle grip on his left shoulder.  Jeric looked around frantically.  He was blind and scared.  His breathing quickened, shallow pants, short breaths, gasps.  He was breathing, but too much, too quickly.  A different kind of darkness started at the corners of his eyes.  He started trembling.  His fear had completely taken over.

"Calm yourself," an odd voice whispered from behind.  The creature spoke, or rather sung, perfect basic using pitched squeaks.  I am Deloyr Tib, a prisoner like yourself.  If you do not calm yourself, you will be left behind by the guards."

"Shut-up, or they'll be no water for you today," a voice hissed in broken basic, from somewhere in the all encompassing darkness.  A loud 'crack', like an electric jolt, resounded off the walls.  Jeric noticed that the steadying hand was no longer on his shoulder.  The creature that had been whispering to him now whimpered in the same pitched squeaks.  Jeric couldn't help feeling sorry for the creature, no longer afraid that it might eat him.

There were plenty of other monsters that could do that.

They were led into a larger chamber.  Jeric could hear all manner of noises echoing off the walls.  The room was loud with footsteps, movements, and voices, almost to the point of discomfort.

"Get to work," a voice hissed in broken basic.  The echo almost knocked Jeric over, and several pebbles fell from the ceiling, clattering to the ground—the sound resounded off the walls making even more noise.

A hand, Jeric immediately recognized as Deloyr Tib's, seized his shoulder and began guiding him in an indistinguishable direction.  This time he didn't fight, he just moved along as best he could.

They passed into another corridor and followed it in silence for a while.  Jeric was happy to be out of that noisy chamber, but he wasn't sure what to expect next.  When they  finally came to a stop, Deloyr produced a small glowing ball from his pocket.  It didn't give off enough light to see by, but Jeric guessed that it could be easily spotted from a distance.

"We have to go our separate ways here," he squeaked.  "Take the sacks at your waist and fill them with any damp leaf-like things you can find.  Feel along the walls and floor when you smell it.  I'll leave the glowball here.  Don't lose sight of it."  With that he was gone, leaving the frightened boy alone in the . . .

 

. . . dark.  There was an infinity of darkness standing before him, no lights, no viewports, just darkness.  He instinctively took a step back and raised his blaster.  The memories were strong and he had to remind himself of who and where he was.  The blaster offered him some confidence, but he still didn't want to walk into that darkness, especially not alone.

He thought about looking for another way around, but the building was designed with only three entrances, and there was no way he was going back outside, at least not yet, besides the other entrances might be sealed.

He steeled himself, raised his blaster, and plunged into the darkness.  The sweat beading on his brow streamed down his face, slightly impairing his vision.  He steadied himself, brought his left hand to his face, and slowly wiped the sweat away.  Footsteps echoed in the darkness.  He swung the blaster around, firing twice into a door and once down the hall, before he realized the footsteps were his own.  He let out a nervous giggle.

That too, echoed.

Jeric knew it was only twenty meters to the next door, but he was moving so slowly that it seemed like eighty.  His eyes had somewhat adjusted to the darkness and he could see the dimly lit panel on the blast door just up ahead.  He stood erect and took a deep breath, only at that moment realizing that he was walking slumped over holding tightly to the blaster like a paranoid trooper.

He reached out with his left hand, slapping toward the open button. 

Whirr-click. 

The sound echoed off the walls.  Jeric tracked the sound; blaster bolts lit up the corridor as he shot blindly. 

Whirr-click. 

The noise was closer.  To his left, no right.  It seemed to be coming from everywhere at once.  He fired randomly around the room. 

Whirr-click. 

It was right next to him.  Jeric took two steps back, bracing for the shot.  The blast door opened.  Light streamed in, illuminating the corridor, and the small cleaning droid.

A small comm. device that had been extended from a slot in its golden dome, slowly retracted as the droid moved through the open blast door.  Jeric stared at it, his mouth wide open in disbelief.  Aside from some carbon scoring, the droid was perfectly intact  He dropped his blaster, stepped into the room, and started looking for any information that might get him off this miserable planet.  The droid continued through into an adjoining corridor, the blast door closing behind.

 

The day had been miserable.  Jeric had stumbled around in the dark for what seemed like a lifetime before finding any of that slimy leaf-like stuff, whose odor reminded him of wetworms, and then, before he could fill even one sack, Deloyr started calling for him.  Later, he found out that the stuff he was collecting was called spice.  He really didn't care what it was called or even why he was here, he just wanted to go home.

That night he learned a little about Deloyr.  He was from a planet mostly covered by ocean called Tibrin.  His species were called Ishi Tib, and they needed to be submerged in this salty water solution stuff, that somewhat resembled the ocean water on their planet, each day, otherwise they'd slowly die.  That's how those who ran the mine kept him working, if he didn't work well, they'd deny him any submersion time.  He'd almost died twice because of this, but each time they'd submerge him, just to get him back to work.

He was happy to learn about Deloyr, but he had other questions that he wanted answered.  "Deloyr," Jeric said in a moment of silence, while they laid side by side in their bunks, "why am I here?"

He could hear the Ishi Tib stirring uncomfortably.  "Probably the same reason I'm here," he quietly sung, "the same reason most of us are here.  We've been sold into slavery by the pirates who stole our ships."

"But . . . for how long?"

"I don't know."  There was a nervous whistle-like noise in Deloyr's speech.  Jeric didn't like it, it reminded him of the way some Humans stutter when they're telling a lie.  "Now let's get some rest, tomorrow will be here before you know it."

Jeric slept a little between nightmares, but when the big black scaled creature, whom he learned to call Master Brexb, came in to wake the gatherers, Jeric was up and had been up for a while.  That day began in much the same way as the last, except this time Jeric knew what to expect and wasn't nearly as scared.

He'd separated from Deloyr, not by choice but by necessity, if both had gone to the same area, neither would fill their sacks, and he was just finishing off his first sack when he heard it.  The sound was muffled in the cavern, but he recognized it.  He'd heard it once before.  The day his perfect world came to an end.  The day he lost his father.

 

The explosion snapped Jeric out of his daydream.  He didn't want to remember all these things, but he couldn't help it.  They flooded his brain, as real as if they were happening all over again.  The nightmares had always been with him, but these seemed so real, and the memories of his father . . . "No!", he screamed.  "My father was killed by rebels on a mission for the Empire!"  His voice echoed off the walls of the small room.  He was angry; at the nightmares; at the creatures; at his father for dying; at the big furry creature for killing him . . .

Again the nightmare.  It was haunting his every thought.  He could feel the darkness, taste the fear, hear the explosions.

He glanced around the room.  The explosions seemed too real to be a part of those memories, and they were definitely too loud.  He reached for the security controls and started a perimeter search with the sensors.  It wasn't long before he located its source.

His ship, or what was left of it, had exploded.

Jeric’s stomach tightened and began to cramp.  He pushed himself out of the chair, and started back down the corridor at a dead sprint, pausing only to grab his blaster rifle and to open blast doors.

He’d just finished sending an encrypted subspace message to the nearest Imperial outpost, stressing the importance of the base and the need to get to it before the Rebels (he always called them Rebels around Imperial officers, it implied that the Empire was still in control) when the blasts had begun.  He hadn't mentioned his inability to escape the system nor his lack of exploratory time—they'd find that out as soon as they got here.

A thought occurred to him again, not one that he hadn't considered before, but one he didn't want to think about.  The hyperspace route into the Vgraliph sector was tricky, and it had taken him nearly two months to find this planet, and then only by happenstance.  Sure the Imperials could track his message, but they might never find him, and the idea of remaining on the planet for any length of time, alone, with those creatures hunting him, wasn't very appealing.

His only chance off the planet might have been to repair his ship, if that chance were gone . . .

Jeric arrived at the outer door, his steps still echoing down the hall as he reached for the control pad.  A moment before he slapped the open button, he jerked his hand away.  Those creatures might be out there.  Which meant he wasn't going out there, under any circumstance.

He was torn by his fear and his desire to get off the planet.  Stepping backwards, he leaned against the wall, sliding down with his back until he was sitting with his knees pressed up against his chest.  He set the blaster down and brought his hands to his face.  Sweat dripped off his chin, and Jeric suddenly realized that he was out of breath. 

It had been a long run.

He sat for a while, breathing heavy, wondering what to do next.  Finally, he stretched his legs out, put his head back, feeling the sweat sliding down his throbbing temples, and closed his eyes.

Whirr-click.

Jeric's eyes snapped open.  He grabbed the gun, rolled, tracked the noise, and fired blindly.  The cleaning droid rolled forward, the comm. device on its head extended.

The blast door was opening.

The droid exploded.  The door.  The droid.  The door.  The explosion.  The door.  It all happened so fast, all so confusing.  He pushed himself up and stumbled for the control panel.

Jeric knew the monsters were out there—he just didn't know where.

 

He heard them coming long before he saw any lights.  Jeric had made it back to the small red glowball.  Deloyr was already there, waiting.  He felt the Ishi Tib next to him and reached his arms around his waist, squeezing tightly.  Jeric was scared, but for the first time since his father was murdered, he felt safe.

Heavy booted steps echoed through the cavern.  There were many at first, but as they got closer, Jeric could distinguish six sets. Then four.  And finally two.  Lights flickered in the distance.  The sounds of blaster fire echoed off the walls.

Deloyr put his hands on Jeric’s shoulders.  "It'll be okay," he sung.  The whistles seemed louder and more noticeable than before.

A light shined on them, blinding their overly sensitive eyes.  Deloyr started maneuvering Jeric to place himself between the newcomers and the boy.

"Stand where you are," a metallic voice commanded.  "Release the boy."

Deloyr pushed Jeric behind him.  "I'll protect this boy with my . . ."

Blaster shots rang out.  Jeric ducked.  Deylor's body tumbled backwards over his, the word "life" held like a note as he fell.

 

A moment later, Jeric was at the control panel but it was too late.

The monsters, two of them, were already at the door.  He raised his blaster.  Four shots—four complete misses.  The monsters didn't hesitate in their approach.  Jeric slapped the close button and started moving backwards, taking two more shots at the same one.  Again he missed.

It leapt, catching him full-force in the chest.  Jeric tumbled to the ground, the blaster still in his hand.  The monster leapt again; Jeric shot blindly in its direction.  One of the two shots hit it square in the chest, but it kept moving.  It was on him in a moment tearing viciously at his throat.  His chest  burned, but the rest of his body had gone numb.  He could feel his life ebbing away.

It's not the way he thought his life would end.  A tear rolled down his cheek, and dropped to the floor as he remembered . . .  

 

. . . laying there, nearly paralyzed with fear.  One of the men had a light shining upon himself.  His white armor gleamed brightly, with an almost angelic glow.  Jeric looked at Deloyr.  His eyes were open, as if he were awake, but the burns on his chest were identical to those of his father.  He knew Deloyr was dead.  Jeric reached out, grasped one of the Ishi Tib's hands, and cried.

It was something he didn't get the chance to do when his father had died.

The trooper walked over to him, extending a white and black gloved hand.  "Come with us," he said, the voice didn't sound metallic this time.  Jeric looked up into the man's face.  The helmet was gone, but there was something there, beyond the armor.  Something Jeric could trust.  "We'll protect you."  He smiled.  It was a smile that Jeric would see for many years.  "I'll take you home."

Jeric released the dead alien's hand and reached for the gloved hand.  He knew, at that moment, that there would be no more monsters, no more fear.

 

"General Kterik," the young Twi'lek officer at listening station seven, started, "I've got a weak signal coming through.  Imperial encrypt."

Kterik had been serving on the New Republic Transceiver Station since he was retired from fleet command.  The Gaedre IV outpost sat in the middle of the Mangralia Meteor Cluster, far away from battle, but like many other unofficial military installations, was still in need of a disciplined commander.  "Get me an origin point, Lieutenant," he said with enough authority to get the boy moving, but not quite enough to make him rush.  He turned to the main bridge (Kterik's pet name for the command center, he really missed space battles.) and called to the Communications officer.  "Get that slicer up here now."  He started to turn back to station seven, paused, and called out again, this time in the most authoritative voice he could muster.  "And tell him to keep that droid off my bridge."

Several of the higher ranked officers giggled, others smiled, but kept quiet.  "If I have to hear that droid fweep one more time, I'll dump it out the airlock myself," Kterik mumbled to himself.

The origin point was located, the encrypt broken, and the slicer dismissed, with his astromech droid in tow.  If Kterik was bothered by the droid, it was forgotten the moment he read the message.

"Rebels," Kterik mumbled.  "I don't believe that those stubborn Imperials will accept the New Republic until we destroy every remaining remnant of the Empire," he said to no-one in particular.  "Get me some Scouts to investigate this base and determine its authenticity," he called to the communications officer.  "I'll contact the Council and advise."

Kterik turned to the Twi'lek.  "Good work.  This is what we're out here for."

He started for his quarters, stopped, and with his back turned, addressed the whole bridge.  "And somebody better tell M'Keer to get that droid fixed, or else