Jeric had been searching through the fifteen systems that make up the lifeless Vgraliph sector in the cramped scout ship for two months, and it was rapidly coming to an unprofitable end. The Traverse had been built to be sturdy, with powerful engines and plenty of storage, though comfort had obviously not been a design priority. Despite this, during the Emperor's reign he had been one of the few scouts that could maintain a steady flow of credits by mapping out new hyperspace routes and discovering new systems full of exploitable minerals, but since the Empire split into factions after the Battle of Endor, much of that work had vanished.
Relaxing in his cockpit chair, he stared at the mottled sky outside the cockpit and his reflection stared faintly back at him. Short black hair, brown eyes, and a scar that ran from the middle of his cheek vertically to his ear; he'd always considered himself handsome, but truth pushed him closer to plain looking. In these quiet moments, he could afford to be retrospective and more honest with himself. He turned his head to look at the scar; while he often told himself that it was an impressive display of his battle prowess, it looked more like an extreme shaving incident. Sometimes these quiet moments sucked.
With his booted feet propped up on the weapons console, he muttered to himself, "What amount of utter stupidity brought me to this corner of the galaxy." The answer was simple, one word that explained most of his motivations, greed.
For years there were rumors that Palpatine was hiding munitions dumps throughout the Mid-rim Territories in anticipation of another war, but Jeric had always dismissed them as hearsay. He couldn’t fathom why the Empire would need to do such a thing, and then Endor happened. Even so, he hadn’t realized how quickly a Galaxy-spanning Empire would fall apart or how difficult it would be for the squabbling system governors to regain control of it after the Emperor’s death. Politics had never much interested him, so he had never considered what effect the Emperor'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 couldn't imagine flying the TIE death traps, 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'd 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. Desperation was beginning to descend upon him when rumors about the hidden munitions dumps began to surface again. A few such finds could help tip the galactic balance back to the Empire’s favor and would mean wealth beyond imagination for the one who’d found them.
It was that last thought had started him on this wild vonton chase.
For the past year, he’d spent countless hours in one cantina or another on a dozen backwater worlds listening to smugglers and pirates telling tall tales of their exploits, while trying to piece together bits of information that might offer an actual lead. Things looked like they might be turning around a couple of months back at a cantina in Mos Eisley where he’d come across a half-deleted set of coordinates and thirteen seconds of a garbled sub-space message that corroborated a rumor he heard on Minnoa about a secret Imperial base. It was the missing piece for which he'd been looking, prompting him to spend the last of his savings to purchase the information and fill his stores, before blasting off.
“That’ll teach me to listen to drunken gamblers who are more concerned with the next hand of Sabaac than the state of affairs of the galaxy,” he said aloud to himself. He'd been talking to himself a lot more recently. Without verbal survey reports to fill out and transmit every few hours, he had little reason to speak, which seemed to amplify the usual feelings of loneliness. Talking to himself was probably not a good indication of his current mental health, but it was better than the constant silence.
On the plus side, the flashing light on the console indicated that he was about to have an actual reason to speak.
Dropping out of hyperspace and activating the ship's recorder, he glanced over at the sensors display and said, “Travel log...um, sometime after the last log. We’re coming up on the sixth system in the sector, approaching the fourth planet...Krecian, I think.” It was the eighteenth planet he’d surveyed thus far, and he began to wonder if imperial astronomers just made up with these names or if they had some type of formula for them, when a proximity alarm went off. Glancing up at the debris floating in the foreground, he mumbled, "Well that's going to get annoying," and switched off the passive sensors. Anything large enough to cause damage would show up on his lateral display and the chances that he would be ambushed by pirates, smugglers, or even solitary militants out here was remote at best. It bothered him that enhanced sensor package that had cost him nearly four thousand credits before installation, would so often mistake general debris for other spacecraft; "When I get back, I think I'll issue a complaint."
Even with the proximity sensors off, had he been looking out the cockpit window he would have at least seen the small probe droid, equipped 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; unfortunately, at that time he was running scans on the planet's surface.
While Jeric prepared the ship to enter the atmosphere, the probe 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 precisely twenty seconds for the proper codes on its comm, then switched to a different sensory package, locked on to its target, and moved.
The full thrust of its small drive was enough to get Jeric's attention; by the time he saw it, the droid was moving toward the underside of his ship. As he reached for the flight controls, it attached itself to the hull and exploded. Slapping the passive control switch, he mentally kicked himself for switching it off and looked over to a blank screen.
He slapped the control switch again. Blank. His heart sank. “Four thousand credits,” he mumbled to himself, “before installation.”
Scanning visually out the cockpit window, he saw four more thruster bursts; this time 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 one of the shots missed; in that time, the probe droid moved to the ship and anchored itself to the hull.
It exploded while he tracked it in vain.
Shields. They weren't firing at him, so he didn't think about putting them up, though they probably wouldn't have helped. One of the weaknesses of standard shielding was that anything moving slow enough could pass through them; it was a feature that allowed torpedoes to be launched and mines to be dropped without cycling the shields off. These probe droids were probably advanced enough that shielding would be useless against them, at least that's what he told himself. Since it couldn't hurt now, Jeric flipped the shields on while focusing 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 the more 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 flat out terrified, surrendering precious seconds while he stared dumbfounded. "What are these things doing here," he screamed aloud. Reaching for the flight controls. Stars shot downward at an unbelievable speed. Punching the overdrive button, he began a series of erratic maneuvers, hoping that he could put some distance between himself and the probe droids.
Being chased he tried to calm the panic in his mind. He glanced at the weapon controls, they had only a small degree of adjustment in a forward arc; The Traverse wasn’t meant to be a combat ship and would be fairly useless in a dogfight, but it was maneuverable. He could try to get behind them, but another bout of that retrospective honesty settled in, "I couldn't even take out four of them coming right at me." There was no way he was going to be able to hunt down eight of these probe droids, let alone any others that might be out there.
One of them shot past the cockpit as it tried to adjust to his erratic flying. Something about their design seemed familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it.
Diving and rolling, the planet came into view. Again, something familiar tugged at his memory, but it wasn't this planet or the probe droids chasing him. The memory was there, but weak, as if in a nightmare he didn't want to remember. Something from his childhood. He bounced the ship off the atmosphere and started driving towards open space. The stars whirled...
...four ships shot past the canopy. Jeric was a child and strapped tightly into the co-pilot's seat. He glanced to his right; there was a man in the pilot's chair, someone 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. They were under attack...
...out of the corner of his eye, Jeric, saw another thruster burst. He wrenched the ship away and rolled back, getting a good look at the probe droid as it buzzed past the cockpit. His eyes widened. "That's a mine droid," he whispered, a twinge of fear in his voice. He’d read about them at the academy; they were orbital identification units built by Arakyd Industries. The Republic had used them to identify and route trade ships, but some Imperial commander got the idea to use them for planetary defense. If he remembered correctly, they were loaded with thermal explosives and a simple sensor package programmed to scan a specific comm frequency for codes; if it didn't receive the codes, the sensor package would lock onto specific heat signatures and turn it into a suicide machine that attached itself to the hull and detonated. The IMD’s (Imperial Mine Droids), as they came to be called, had been popular during the time of the rebellion, but they'd been out of operation for over two decades.
If only he could remember how to beat the blasted things.
The planet shot by again.
Getting an idea, Jeric adjusted course 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 might make them vulnerable to the searing heat of atmospheric entry. Engineering had never been one of his strengths, but he wouldn’t be able to dodge them for long and he had to try something.
If it didn't work, "I suppose there are worse ways to die." Jeric closed his eyes as the ship plummeted into the planet's atmosphere...
...blaster fire had erupted on the ship shortly after they were boarded. Hidden in the cockpit, under the aft control station, Jeric couldn't see anything, but he could hear the fighting and the dying. All alone, he tried to stay calm, but when a volley of blasts hit the door his breaths started to come in pants and tears welled in his eyes. He didn't feel safe and tried to push himself deeper beneath the control station. Curled up with his hands over his eyes, he realized that everything had gone suddenly quiet. When the door opened someone stumbled inside; seeing who it was, he'd begun to climb out of his hiding spot, but the man held up his hand and firmly motioned Jeric back.
The man was hurt; Jeric wanted to run to him, but someone had followed him to the cockpit, pounding on the closed door. After the pounding stopped, a deafening silence fell over the room. The man backed away from the door, he was staring at it, seeming to be waiting...then it happened, the cockpit door exploded. Raising his blaster, the man started firing, but a series of blasts cut him down where he stood.
Again, Jeric was alone.
Something entered the cockpit; it was tall, covered in fur, and had a long snout that extended vertically to its chest. After kicking the blaster away, it reached down with one huge furry hand and checked the man on the floor for signs of life. Jeric held his breath and tried to push farther into his hiding place.
Something behind him crunched.
Its head swiveled in Jeric's direction, raising its blaster and moving toward him. Staring into those black, pupil-less eyes, rage grew in the young boy. Setting his jaw, he prepared himself to fight, the hatred he felt for this creature gave him strength and courage. This thing had murdered his protector, murdered his...
...shaking away the memories, he mumbled, "No, that's not right." Jeric remembered his father; he’d been a stormtrooper. He worked for the Empire, a smart and successful man who had taught Jeric all he needed to know about the galaxy.
The memory and confusion it brought was quickly buried as reality invaded and the Traverse plunged into the atmosphere.
One. Two. Three. Four. He continued counting the exploding mine droids as the sounds resonated off the hull.
Jeric grinned, "It worked." The ground was approaching fast and explosions continued to echo in the background. He'd counted fourteen before the explosions ceased and released a breath that he hadn't realized he was holding. Turning to the sensors, he shook his head, “Still out.” Slumping into his chair he closed his eyes; a dull thumping pain formed between his eyes, and slowly began to expand.
“Four thousand credits, before installation.”
The comm display activated, startling him. There was no attached voice, just a landing beacon. Moving quickly, he crosschecked the frequency with his flight computer and breathed a sigh of relief. “An older Imperial frequency,” he whispered, wiping the beading sweat from his brow; it could have been a lot worse: pirates, smugglers, bounty hunters, rebels, the possibilities were limitless, and most of them bad.
Jeric tried to lock onto the landing beacon. Nothing. He glanced back at the damage control and assessment screen. Sensors out. "Argh!" Four thousand credits, before installation. Gone.
Leveling out the Traverse, he paused and took a deep, thoughtful, breath. "It's an Imperial beacon, likely a base where I can at least have some repairs done and maybe get some paying work; if it also turns out to be a munitions dump, this will all be worth it, but I won't know until I go look." Without sensors, looking is what he was literally going to have to do, scanning the planet visually and logging his findings vocally. On the plus side, it gave him a reason to talk to himself that wasn't as insane as just talking to himself. Switching on the travel log, he began. “Planet, err...Krecian, I think. The polar areas and much of the northern region are covered by ocean.” The beacon was weak, so he turned and started for the equator, listening as the tone strengthened steadily. “The land masses appear gray, with powder blue and white facings along the rocks," he said as he began moving over one of the continents. "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 signal beacon spat out a perimeter warning; standard Imperial procedure called for voice instructions and identification at this point, but none followed. A depressing thought swept over him. “This base better not be abandoned,” he said to himself, forgetting that the log was still recording, "that would be just perfect." It was unlikely for an abandoned base to be left with an active beacon, so unless security on the base was a joke, which was extremely unlikely, he had just blown a lot of time, fuel, and a sensors package for whole lot of 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 transmitting on several other known Imperial frequencies, with the same results.
Feeling a wave of depression wash over him, Jeric dropped the ship into within fifty meters of the ground, periodically adjusting avoid terrain. Even from this height he couldn't see any plant-life. Thinking about it, he didn't see any signs of life at all, 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 gun metal gray as it loomed ahead of him.
"Yes!" It was a reassuring sight.
Just over the horizon he saw another AT-AT, and a little further off was the base. A sense of relief washed over him, 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. His eyebrows furled as he stared out the cockpit window; beyond their silence, something about the AT-ATs bothered him. He flew close enough that they could pick him up visually, although their sensors should have picked him up long ago. Turning 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.
Releasing a long sigh as he finished the circle, Jeric started for the base.
The landing was rough. Two landing thrusters were out, and he'd had to cut the remaining ones off and back on to jar the ship a few times just to get the landing gear to drop. Setting the ship on the ground did some damage to the hull and the entire thing ended up sloping to the right as the left rear landing strut stuck at less than halfway deployed, but at least he was on the ground.
Fortunately, the general layout of the base was a standard garrison, though it seemed to be deserted. "What's going on here," he muttered to himself as he gazed out the cockpit. Just past the landing field, next to the shield array, was the power generator; no commander would leave a power generator behind. This one looked to be undamaged, and from what he could see, several sections of the compound still had power. The only detail that seemed out of place was that for twenty meters around the perimeter of the base, the terrain was clean white, like snow, and outside of that it was all gray, with small patches of powder blue.
After transmitting his ID several more times on every imperial frequency he had in his library, Jeric finally gave up, dropped the access hatch, and poked his head out. He half expected to be staring into the barrels of 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 unpleasant odor that reminded him of wet rodents.
Dropping out of his ship, he gazed around. “And I thought Tattooine was desolate,” he mumbled to himself, beginning a slow circle to inspect the hull. The sensor array wasn't just damaged, it was gone, and the cargo hold had been ruptured. Sighing, he looked up and gave a small salute to his lost gear somewhere in orbit. Checking through his pockets, all he had left was the small blaster on his right hip, the vibro-shiv on his left, and the half-eaten ration bar that was still sitting on the flight console. "Hopefully, they left more than the power generator behind," he said to himself, closing his eyes and taking some deep breaths.
Something about the odor and the silence made him uneasy again, as if something he had forgotten or didn't want to remember, was trying to come to the surface. He stood there and listened. All was quiet, except...
The guard droid whirled. Its left arm, a blaster rifle, 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. High above him the sky was gray with cloud cover; the droid pointed toward a small building some distance away and pushed him out the portal.
After every movement, it made that noise. Whirr-click. Jeric couldn't see the droid behind him, but he knew it was there.
Jeric pivoted and dropped to a knee, his blaster drawn and sweat beading on his forehead. A cleaning droid emerged from one of the nearby administration buildings and was busily washing the exterior view-ports.
A short nervous laugh fell out of his mouth as Jeric stood up and holstered his blaster. "This place is beginning to creep me out," he muttered, glancing around as he started for the building. The memories were trying to push their way back into his mind, but he didn't have time to deal with them right now, so he pushed them away and tried to concentrate on the base; if it were abandoned, why were the cleaning droids still active?
Everything around him was silent but for that noise. The harder he tried to ignore it, the louder it seemed to become. He started to jog. The exterior blast door was shut, reaching it, he slapped the control panel to open it.
...the blast door shut behind him. Terrified and alone, the boy looked around desperate to find something familiar. Up above, bits of blue showed through the streaked skylights, but the sky was still predominately gray, and the ground was dirt brown. There were no trees or grass, nothing green; it seemed that he was trapped in a place that existed as only shades of gray. Something moved off in the distance, but it was too far away for him to identify.
The droid was still behind him, still pushing him forward. They moved past the small dilapidated building, toward an ominous black spot on the ground. As they approached, he could see that it was a hole, more than that, it was a mine entrance. Even from this distance, its depths were dizzying, and as they approached with the droid still audibly behind him, a paralyzing fear began to take over.
A rail car passed him and descended into the depths, his eyes followed it and he saw...
...a creature standing in the entryway to the building, less than a meter away. It was tall, nearly as tall as himself, covered in black scales with powder blue fur running down its neck and covering its back, but incredibly thin, almost emaciated. Obviously, a quadruped, it was standing upright on short stocky legs with tight strands of muscles moving under the thick scales as it balanced itself. Its forelegs, not 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 and instinctively took a step back.
The noise came from behind. Startled, he turned and drew his blaster. It was a cleaning droid that moved methodically, a solution sprayed from one of its appendages and was wiped away by another. The noise the droid made was getting to him, drudging up memories, distracting him when he needed most to be able to concentrate. It was too late when he realized that his reaction to that sound had just caused him to turn his back on a creature he'd never seen before; he tried to pivot back around tracking with his blaster.
It lurched forward on its hind legs, knocking Jeric to the ground. His blaster clattered away as the creature fell on top of him, its claws pinning his shoulders...
..."down into the pit," the electronic voice commanded. Jeric was frozen, his eyes locked on the creature awaiting him down there. It easily towered over his youthful frame, standing more than a meter taller than he; its slit-pupil eyes bore into the boy'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 its torso and limbs. A glowing whip rested in its taloned fingers.
"Good, we need another gatherer," it hissed in broken basic. "Take the boy down to level four."
The droid nudged him in the back. Jeric didn't move. His fear of this creature was much stronger than the fear of the droid.
His feet slid across the ground as the droid forced him forward, but he continued to push back, struggling...
...under its weight, with no success. The creature's head extended forward, yet its body didn't shift positions. Only two teeth protruded from its wide mouth; two long, sharp teeth, one on the top and the other on the bottom. It snapped at his throat, but Jeric shifted his body to the left, narrowly evading the bite. From this position, he could see the extended neck that attached the head to its body.
As he watched, the neck muscles retracted. Jeric realized that the creature's obviously weakened state is what had allowed him to evade its first attack, and he had only moments before it would strike again. He watched the neck closely, looking for veins or other vital areas, while feeling around his waist for the vibro-shiv. "Come on," he grunted, patting at his hip with his left hand. His eyes opened wide as his fingers found the hilt.
Drawing the blade, he awkwardly moved it up along the creature's body, being careful not to alert it. The head stopped moving backwards and the creature adjusted its position to not give Jeric any chance to evade, and the open mouth snapped forward again.
Jeric activated the blade and thrust it upward. The head's movement tore the neck open along the blade; its wide-open mouth circled his throat like a collar as pinkish liquid poured onto Jeric's chest. It slumped forward, the mouth twitching in light spasms.
Pinned under its weight, the air was slowly pushed out of his lungs. His consciousness began to slip away, and then...
...total blackness. The cavern he was pushed into was completely dark.
The droid was right behind him, but the noise echoed off the stone walls, seeming to come from everywhere at once. Jeric's fear had sparked anger; he turned wanting to strike back at his metallic captor.
The droid's eyes glowed bright red in the darkness; its presence seemed to fill the tunnel. His anger faded back into fear.
It shoved Jeric to the ground. The darkness weighed him down, his fear made him weak; he no longer had the resolve to get up, let alone to stand.
The boy was hefted to his feet, but when it let go he fell back to the unforgiving ground, folding up into a fetal position.
The droid picked him up again, but his time didn't put him down; its cold metal fingers digging into his flesh as it carried him. It may have been minutes or hours, there was no telling how long the journey lasted, but the pain of its grip agonized his shoulder and left his arm numb.
At some point Jeric opened his eyes and instead of darkness, he saw...
Jeric's blinked the darkness out of his eyes. He was still pinned, but the creatures weight had eased enough that he could take shallow breaths. His head ached and the muscles in his left arm burned, but he knew that if he didn't get out from under it soon, he might not ever, especially if another one showed up. Shifting his body to the right and then to the left, he realized that he did not have the leverage to push or roll it off him.
His left hand felt moist and cool, but with its maw around his throat his range of movement was very limited. The vibro-shiv was most likely sticking out the back of its neck; somehow, he had managed to hold onto the small dagger through his brief blackout. Adjusting its position in his hand, he bent his elbow and started cutting downward. It cut free of the creature’s body near his left eye, and the pressure at his throat eased.
Turning up on his right hip as much as he could, he aimed the dagger at the fore paw that pinned his right shoulder. The movement was awkward, but he managed it, and sliced easily through its wrist; at the same moment, he braced himself with his left leg. When he finished the cut, the creature slumped to the left and Jeric pushed off, managing to just roll it enough to wiggle free.
Lying on the ground and gasping for breath, he thumbed off the vibro-shiv and dropped it. "Well that was terrible," he muttered, as he pushed himself to his feet, stumbled into the building, and shut the blast door. He wanted to stop, to lean up against the wall and rest, but all he could do was...
After carrying him like an old duffel bag, the droid had tried to set him down feet first, but he couldn't stand. It might have been the blinding light unbalancing him, much as the total darkness had, or the numbness 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 at his shoulder and quietly sobbing.
After an unknown amount of time, something touched his back. It was a gentle touch, different than the cold metal of the guard droid, but neither was it the warmth of a Human hand; it was cold, scaly. The memory of the black-scaled creature returned, more frightening than before.
"No!" Jeric cried, his eyes snapping open as he shied away from the touch. He rolled away and looked up, afraid of what he was going to see.
"Are you well?" it asked, is basic remarkably clear, though its tone was nasally high.
He couldn't help but gape at the creature, which stood nearly a half-meter taller than the droid, with two round lidless eyes, nostrils with no nose, and a sharp beak. Its skin was green and appeared to be cracked and bleeding in places. It bent forward nearly in half to look the boy in the face. Fear, the kind that makes you do stupid things, welled up in Jeric and he did the only thing he could do; he pushed himself up and started to run.
A blue flash of light erupted overhead, but Jeric was already out the door and out in the narrow hall, running past closed cell doors. Entering another tunnel, the darkness closed in around him. He was too scared to keep running, but too scared to stop.
Whirr-click. Whirr-click. Whirr-click.
The noise was feint, but hearing it only strengthened his resolve. He pushed himself harder, running blind through the darkness until he stepped and found nothing there to support his weight.
He fell face first onto steel grating, one leg stuck between the thick bars.
The noise was getting louder. Another blue flash of light exploded above him, giving him a glimpse of a passage to his left.
The droid was closing in on him. He struggled to pull his leg free of the grating, pain ripping through his senses, and scrambled for the passage. It was a tight fit, but not too small for his young body. The problem was that there was no light, so he hobbled as fast as he could, one hand running along the roughly hewn stone wall and the other out front to try to keep him from slamming face first into anything.
The noise grew fainter as he moved. He'd escaped, the passage was too small for the droid couldn't follow.
Something scraped across the top of his hand and a stabbing pain lanced through his cheek. His extended hand hit something solid and when he tried to dodge right, he hit it with his face. Falling backwards, he reached out, desperately grabbing for anything and caught himself on a protruding stone. 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. Staying on the ground, he started to crawl forward, taking a moment to wipe his cheek, but the streaming continued. His cheek hurt terribly, but the pain paled next to his fear. He kept moving, his eyes never adjusting to the utter blackness.
Two turns, one of them coming after he hit the stone with his forehead. Jeric was making his way, but at a cost. His entire body was sore, and as the adrenaline wore off he was getting light-headed and dizzy; every breath was more labored than the last. He'd gotten away, but he had no idea where he was going.
The noise echoed off the walls; it seemed to come from everywhere at once.
The noise renewed his fear. He struggled to his feet and started hobbling forward again. Two red orbs appeared in the air in front him a moment before he slammed into the metal body of the guard droid. Jeric crashed to the ground, unable to move. In the darkness there wasn't anything to see, but he could hear...
Jeric's eyes snapped open. He reached for his blaster, forgetting its loss, and twisted his head around. The cleaning droid was sucking up the pinkish fluid that he'd tracked in from outside.
"I hate that noise," he muttered to himself. After taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, he stood up and felt for the non-existent blood on his cheek. He'd begun losing track of where these new memories ended, and this crappy reality started, and both of his shoulders hurt.
He glanced around. "How long have I been out?" he asked aloud, not expecting an answer and wishing that he’d stumbled into a working med lab with a live bacta tank. He briefly considered checking outside to see if it had gotten dark yet, but there might be more of those monsters, err creatures out there, and he wanted to find something a lot bigger with which to defend himself. To do that, he needed to explore the base.
Fortunately, the Empire liked consistency and so garrisons were fabricated by the same companies with only slight variations in configuration; typically, only when necessitated by terrain. He'd started for this admin building because it generally served as the command center. All those boring days he'd spent touring Imperial operations with his father (why did that term not seem to fit any longer?) would have been well spent, if it got him out of this situation.
Ten meters down the hall was another blast door; Jeric instinctively raised his left hand to tap the controls, but hesitated. "What if there's another one in here?" His voice echoed in the empty corridor, and he scolded himself. The notion that there were monsters behind every door was childlike, but still he hesitated. A bead of sweat dripped off his forehead, streamed past his nose, and dropped off his chin before landing on his unmoving, out-stretched hand, and slowly dropped off to the floor.
He glanced around, sweat continuing to bead on his forehead. There were other doors in this corridor, but he was hesitant to open any of them. "This is irrational. I just need to face this." Taking a deep breath, he readied himself. The sweat was now streaming down his face. Forcing his hand forward, he tapped the button.
The blast door opened.
He readied himself for battle, but there was nothing there. No creatures. No droids. The corridor was empty. Jeric stepped through the blast door and continued, scoffing at his fear.
The next door was much easier, and he started going through the rooms along the corridor. It seemed that the base had not been evacuated so much as it had been outright abandoned. In addition to clothes, rotting food, and datapads lying around, he found a variety of weapons, but ended up discarded them all in favor of a fully charged blaster rifle. With that in his hands Jeric felt safe, and he continued his search with more confidence.
Guessing that the control center was likely at the end of the next corridor, Jeric strolled up to the blast door, tapped the door controls, and was taken back by the...
It was impenetrable. After he'd collided with the droid, it had dragged him back to the other prisoners where his wounds were tended, and he was fed. Soon after, the droid returned to push him back into the darkness. He was led down a long stone tunnel with others, upon whom he held for balance.
"Level four gatherers to the right, all others to the left." Jeric recognized the broken basic of the lizard he'd encountered at the mine entrance. The thought of being in the dark with that creature hulking around re-awakened the terror he was feeling the day before.
They were forced single file into the passage, but the growing terror and absolute darkness caused him to lose his balance. His fall was halted by a hand that grasped his shoulder, steadying his small frame. It was the same cold, scaly hand that had grabbed at him before. Picturing that frightening amphibious face in his mind, caused his heart to race and his face to flush as he struggled to take deeper breaths. He wanted to run, to hide, but there was no-where to go; all he could do was wait for it to eat him.
The hand had a firm, but gentle grip on his left shoulder. Jeric looked around frantically, blind in the darkness and terrified. His breathing turned to shallow pants, then short breaths, and finally gasps. A different kind of darkness started at the corners of his eyes. Sweat began to bead on his forehead.
"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 in the darkness to die."
"Shut-up, or they'll be no water for you today," the lizard's voice hissed from somewhere close in the darkness.
A flash of light and loud electric jolt resounded off the walls. Jeric noticed that the steadying hand was no longer on his shoulder. The whispers turned to whimpers in the same pitched squeaks. Momentarily snapped out of his fear by the commotion, he realized that the amphibious creature had been trying to help him, not eat him, and for that it was being punished. He didn't want to be responsible for anyone else suffering, and so resolved himself to try to be brave.
They were led into a larger, noisy chamber; footsteps, movements, and voices all resounded off the walls, almost to the point of discomfort.
"Get to work," the lizard's voice hissed in broken basic.
A hand that 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.
By the sound of it, they seemed to move into smaller corridor that was much quieter. While happy to be out of that noisy chamber, he wasn't sure what to expect next and when they finally stopped, Deloyr produced a small glowing ball from his pocket. It didn't give off enough light to illuminate the area, 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. They have a distinctive odor, humans say it is a sweet smell; 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 Jeric alone in the...
"This just keeps getting worse," Jeric muttered, staring ahead. An infinity of darkness stood before him; no lights, no viewports, just darkness. Between the mines, monsters, and memories, what he thought would be a lucrative discovery had gone downhill fast. He took a step back and raised his blaster; it 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.
He steeled himself, taking a deep breath, and plunged into the darkness. It was cool in the hallway but sweat began to bead on his brow. He paused, bringing his left hand up to and wipe the sweat away. Footsteps echoed in the darkness. He swung the blaster around, firing twice into a door and once down the hall. In the light of the blasts he could see that no one was there.
A nervous giggle slipped out of his mouth.
It was only twenty meters to the next door, but he was moving so slowly that it seemed like eighty. His eyes had begun to adjust to the darkness and he could see the dimly lit panel on the blast door up ahead. Hurrying ahead, he reached out with his left hand to open it.
The sound echoed in the corridor. Jeric turned, tracking the sound; blaster bolts lit up the corridor as he shot blindly.
The noise was closer. It seemed to be coming from everywhere at once. He fired randomly, the noise of the blasts drowning out the long scream flowing out of his open mouth.
It was right next to him. Jeric took two steps back, bracing for the shot. The blast door opened, illuminating the corridor and the small cleaning droid that had made the journey to this end without any carbon scoring. A small snort escaped his mouth as he stared at it.
The 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, then shook his head and dropped the blaster as he stepped into the room. "I have to get off this miserable planet," he muttered, beginning to look around...
...without any idea of what he was searching. The darkness was oppressive, and the odor of stone and mold was beginning to make his head throb. Jeric stumbled around for a long time before his hands found the slimy leaf-like stuff, and before he could fill even one sack, Deloyr began calling his name. Later, he found out that the stuff he was collecting was called spice, not that he really cared what it was called, he just wanted to go home.
That night he learned a little about Deloyr. "I'm from a planet mostly covered in ocean called Tibrin," the amphibian humanoid explained. "While you are Human, we are called Ishi Tib."
"Are you injured," the boy asked, looking at the cracked skin and bandages.
"In a way, my species must be submerged daily in a salt water solution that is similar to the oceans on my home planet, otherwise this occurs. Those who ran the mine keep me working with constant threats to deny my submersion." Deloyr paused, his bulbous eyes looking away. "I'd been near death several times, but each time they'd put me in the tub just long enough to get me back to work."
Speaking with the Ishi Tib had briefly alleviated some of the loneliness Jeric was feeling; he was happy to learn about Deloyr, but as he looked around the prison in which they stayed, his eyes dropped to the floor and tears welled in them. "Deloyr, why am I here?"
He could see the amphibian humanoid 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. To Jeric, it reminded him of the way some Humans stutter when they're lying. "Now let's get some rest, tomorrow will be here before you know it."
The boy slept a little between nightmares, but when the big black scaled creature known as Master Brexb came in for the gatherers, Jeric was already awake and had been for a while. That day began in much the same way as the last, except this time he knew a little of what to expect and wasn't nearly as frightened.
He'd separated from Deloyr, not by choice but by necessity, if both had gone in the same direction, neither would be able to fill their sacks. He'd just finished the first when the muffled sound of an...
...explosion. The sound of it snapped Jeric out of the invasive memories. He didn't want to remember all these things, but he couldn't stop them; they flooded his mind, as real as if they were happening all over again. The nightmares had always been with him, but these seemed so real; the memories of his father's death...
"No!", he screamed into the empty room. "My father was killed by rebels on a mission for the Empire!" His voice echoed off the walls. He was angry; angry at the nightmares; angry at the creatures; angry at his father for dying; angry at the big furry creature for killing him in the cockpit of their ship...
Jeric shook his head, balling his hands into fists. "My father was killed by rebels," he murmured, trying to push these haunting memories away. Each time his mind began to wonder, he could feel the darkness, taste the fear, hear the..."Explosion." He glanced around the control room. That explosion was too real to be a part of the memories. Reaching for the security controls, Jeric started a sweep of the base; 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. Activating the comm, he sent an encrypted message to the nearest Imperial outpost, stressing the importance of this base and the need to get to it before the rebels. Once that was done, he pushed himself out of the chair and started back down the corridor at a sprint, pausing only long enough to grab his blaster rifle and open each blast door.
Sure, he'd left out the information about the orbiting drones and the damage to his ship, but only because he wanted them to hurry. The hyperspace route into the Vgraliph sector was tricky; it had taken him nearly two months to find this planet, and then only by happenstance. While the Imperials could track his message, the longer it took for them to arrive, the more that could go wrong, especially with those creatures out there.
If they chose not to risk it, his only chance off the planet would be to repair his ship. "If there's anything left of it to repair."
Jeric arrived at the outer door, his steps still echoing down the hall as he reached for the control pad. Before activating the controls, he jerked his hand away. "One of those creatures might be out there now," he mused to himself. Which meant he wasn't going back out there.
He was torn between his fear and his desire to get off the planet. Stepping back, he leaned against the wall, sliding down with his back until he was sitting with his knees pressed up against his chest. Setting the blaster down, he brought his hands up to his face and tried hard to keep the damn memories away.
Sweat dripped off his chin, as he took some deep breaths. It had been a long run.
Once his breathing returned to normal, he stretched his legs out, put his head back, and wondered what to do next, feeling the sweat sliding down his throbbing temples.
Jeric's eyes snapped open. He grabbed the gun, rolled up into a firing position, and fired blindly at the noise. He wasn't even close. Out of the darkness, a cleaning droid rolled forward with the comm device on its head extended.
The blast door began to open.
Jared fired again, and the droid exploded. He turned to the open blast door and made eye contact with two of the creatures. He pushed himself up and stumbled for the control panel as they charged, the sound of their clawed feet...
...moving across tunnel floor. He heard them coming as he 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.
Heavy booted steps continued to echo through the cavern. There were many at first, but as they moved closer, Jeric could distinguish six sets, and then four, and finally just two. Lights flickered in the distance. The sounds of blaster fire echoed off the walls.
The amphibious humanoid 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 maneuvered 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 dropped to the ground as the Ishi Tib's body tumbled backwards, the word "life" held like a note as he fell. Jeric scrambled to...
...the control panel but it was too late; the monsters were already at the door.
He raised his blaster rifle and fired at them. Their speed was amazing, and the creatures didn't hesitate in the face of the blasts. Jeric slapped the door controls and started moving backwards, continuing to shoot. One of them stumbled, skidding across the surface. The other leapt, striking him in the chest and knocking him to the ground. Somehow, he held onto the blaster rifle. The monster leapt again; Jeric shot blindly. It landed on him and tore viciously at his throat.
There was a moment of pain, a sensation of weight on his chest. Jeric could feel his life ebbing away. It wasn't the way he thought he would die. A tear rolled down his cheek and dropped to the floor as he remembered...
...laying there, tugging at Deloyr's arm, trying desperately to help him up, but only tugging at dead weight. "Son," a metallic voice said from behind, "let go." Jeric turned, the man who had spoken pulled off his helmet, his white armor gleamed brightly in an unseen light. The boy looked back at Deloyr. The Ishi Tib's eyes were open, but the life had gone from them; he grasped one of his 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 me," he said. Jeric looked up into the man's face; there was something soft there, something kind that Jeric could trust. The man smiled; it was a smile that Jeric would see for many years. "I'll take you home."
Jeric took the gloved hand; 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 encryption."
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 command center. "Get that slicer up here now." He started to turn back, 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-ranking officers grinned, everyone else stared intently at their stations. "If I have to hear it fweep one more time, I'll dump it out the airlock myself," Kterik mumbled to himself.
A short time later, the origin point was located, the encryption broken, and the slicer dismissed with his astromech droid in tow. If Kterik was bothered by the noise the droid made, it was forgotten the moment he read the message.
"Rebels," Kterik mumbled. "I don't believe the remnants of those stubborn Imperials will ever accept the New Republic until we destroy every remaining one of them," he said aloud. Although he would deny it, statements like that were the reason he was retired from command. "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."