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Arms ached. Sleep did not come easily. Even in his dreams, he experienced the same pains that he suffered through while awake. He endured a ceaseless nightmare.
The narrow beam of light from the hulking lamp overhead was fixated directly upon him. He could try closing his eyes to avoid its harsh effects, but it burned against his eyelids. No tears were left. His dilated pupils stared lifelessly into the shining nothingness above him.
He had stopped struggling. Whenever he tried to escape, he was hurt. He didn’t like being hurt. He was bound at the wrists and at the ankles, keeping him in the medical examination chair at all times. Sweat raced down the back of his neck and was absorbed by the smock he was wearing. Under the restraints, the dried blood on his wrists scraped against the metal, tearing up his old wounds.
“Ah, there he is.”
An elderly Human male walked into his room, flanked by several men with weapons. The older man had flat, almost square face with a receding gray hairline. His eyes squinted at the area around the chair, and then turned to the patient. His lab coat fluttered behind him, causing a few of the tools in its pockets to clatter about.
“His vital signs appear steady.” The elderly male glanced at a terminal near the chair. “I’m surprised. Our last session was rather… harrowing.”
“We told you he would be stable once he woke up,” one of the guards stationed near the door countered.
“You almost permanently damaged our master’s critical piece!” the older man snapped. “You’re lucky he escaped with slight neurological damage.”
“Neurological damage… sir?” one of the other guards asked. “That sounds bad.”
“Nonsense. You don’t need your mind as a killer. Besides, a bit of repression never hurt anyone. He’ll be fine in the long run. He’s still reacting to all external stimuli-”
“Where did he go?” the first guard interrupted.
The patient let out a gasp. His chin plopped on his chest so he could look downward, and he realized that he couldn’t see his own body. Was he dead? Did his body disintegrate? No… he could still feel his fingers and his toes. Why were the guards so scared? The older man glanced around the room, not quite sure what just happened.
That was enough. As long as they were scared, he would not be hurt if he tried to escape. With a feral growl, the patient tore his left wrist out of the metal restraint. Something burned in his forearm, and he could hardly feel his left hand. He guaranteed he had enough strength to free his other arm. With both arms free, he pulled his ankles out of his bonds. He was free. Finally. Instinct drove him as he set his sights on his first target.
“Doctor DeLarane! Look out!”
“Tserne! Behind you!”
He grabbed the old man’s coat and pulled him to the ground. The guards were in a frenzy behind him; they didn’t know what to do. On top of the old man, the patient wrapped both his hands around his aged neck and dug his nails into his throat. His victim flailed about, swatting at him with his wizened arms trying to get him off. To both of their surprise, the patient’s arms seemed to fade in and out of view, as though they didn’t actually exist.
“What are you just standing there for?” the lead guard shouted. “Get him off Doctor DeLarane!”
Rolling around on the floor, the patient struggled with the doctor. The two hit a nearby desk, sending an assortment of medical equipment to the floor around them. Two guards raced over to the brawling pair, shouting orders and waving their blasters impotently. They tried to separate them, but it was no use. The patient bit at the first guard who tried to restrain him, taking sizable chunks from three of his fingers. The second almost shot at him with his blaster, but the patient managed to knock it out of his hands.
The old man stood up. He withdrew a scalpel and a small stun baton to restrain the wild patient. Ignoring the guard trying to hold him back, the patient squirmed free of his grip and tackled the old man. Landing on his target’s stun baton, the patient felt the electricity course through his body. He somehow managed to remain conscious in spite of the debilitating attack and wrestled the old man’s scalpel from his hand.
“Don’t do this…” the old man pleaded, using both of his hands to keep the scalpel away from his throat. “Please… I can help you… we’re almost done…”
“Doctor DeLarane! No!”
The patient plunged the surgical weapon into the old man’s throat. A gurgling cry escaped his lips as blood began to pour from the wound. Not content with a single cut, the patient ran his blade across the old man’s neck, intending to sever his head entirely.
The patient screamed. Something hit his shoulder. Looking up from his butchering, he saw the lead guard had acted against protocol a moment too late and shot at him with his blaster rifle. He had scored a clean hit, tearing right through the diaphanous smock and burning away at the bones and muscles in the patient’s arm. His entire body disappeared again. Picking up the scalpel, he rushed at the guard.
“Where did he go, Commander?”
Leaping into the air, the patient kneed the lead guard in the chest. The other guards, following their leader’s example, ignored their previous orders and opened fire at random. Instead of finishing off his downed target, the patient took advantage of his invisibility and escaped the confines of his room.
A white light flashed.
Turning the corner, he saw three individuals standing in his way. Flowing black robes and thick cowls shielded their features. They were standing at the end of a circular chamber with their backs facing a transparent viewport that revealed the stars beyond them. The tallest of the three was the first to withdraw the shimmering red blade of energy that he had hidden beneath his cloak.
“Who are you?” his mechanical voice asked. “And where are you going?”
The patient hissed. Words were not forthcoming. He couldn’t talk. Could he? Guttural sounds and wisps of air escaped his mouth. His hand dropped the scalpel; it would not help him against the red laser weapon the cloaked figure was using. He shook his head. His feet told him to run, but he could not. Instinct told him to survive, but something else told him to stay—fight.
“DeLarane! Tserne DeLarane!” the patient said at last.
“Interesting,” the individual furthest to the left muttered. “Does he not know…?”
“That was always the plan,” the last hooded being noted, this one in a mask. “He cannot remember…”
“Remember…” the patient muttered.
Tserne DeLarane blinked. His light blue eyes were dry and sore; he had been staring at nothing in particular for quite a while. Brushing a few blond locks from his face with his bony fingers, he tried to refocus himself.
Sitting in the cargo hold of the Heraklon-class transport Whirling Fire, he had found himself caught up in a daydream while the ship drifted through hyperspace. A dream of the past. The cargo hold creaked and groaned every so often, but the ship itself was sturdy; he was in no danger. This section of the ship was surprisingly empty; in most civilian models, it would have been unbearably crowded.
“Tserne? Are you in here?”
The door to the cargo hold swished open, permitting a young woman who was just barely twenty years old and the source of the voice. Her lustrous blond hair had been put in two small ponytails on the side of head, resting just below her petite ears. Her faint hazel eyes reflected just as much life as her embarrassed smile. The green combat vest she wore over her short brown robes seemed to hint at her status as a warrior, but it would be impossible to make that judgment based on her amicable appearance.
“You’re always in here,” she said. “It’s never been a surprise.”
“Arca… Dynatha,” Tserne greeted her. “You should know by now you don’t have to check up on me.”
“I don’t have to, but I want to,” Dynatha replied cheerily. “You’ve been in here a long time. The others are worried about you.”
“It’s not just you?”
Dynatha reddened slightly. “No! Raxsus was wondering where you were!”
“He’s probably just worried that if I leave his sight, I’ll become more dangerous to him.”
“That’s concern nonetheless.”
“Did you need me for something, then?” Tserne asked pointedly.
“Well, we just left hyperspace. We thought you’d want to meet with the rest of the crew. Decide on our next course of action,” Dynatha admitted.
Tserne chuckled. “That’s cute. It was entirely your idea, wasn’t it?”
Dynatha tried to stammer a response, but the blip of her comlink cut her off. “I guess Lucius needs me at the bridge,” she muttered.
“You wouldn’t want to keep him waiting.”
“Are you going to join me?” Dynatha asked.
Tserne stood up. “Let’s go.”
Nodding, Dynatha whipped around in an instant. Tserne moved forward and followed her out of the cargo bay wordlessly. Wandering through the single narrow hall separating the bridge from the rest of the ship, Tserne matched the young woman’s movements as if he was her shadow.
Two years had passed since Tserne DeLarane had met Dynatha Aris. They had been working for the GenoHaradan, a clandestine group of killers who targeted individuals dangerous to galactic stability. Or so they said. Tserne had adopted the name of the Ghoul, a Givin killer he had helped capture on Humbarine, during his tenure with the assassins. Infamous as a mass-murderer and psychopath, the Ghoul’s reputation protected Tserne during his servitude.
Tserne knew almost nothing about his actual past. Amnesia plagued him; his memories came back in powerful visions, presumably Force-inspired, that made no sense to him. The GenoHaradan leaders had ensured his continued loyalty by promising to show him all the background information they had on him. Considering he had known about as much about himself then as did when he left the Sith six years ago, he took them up on their offer.
Their promises went unfulfilled for several years. After several delays and avoiding the issue entirely, Tserne started to suspect they didn’t have any information at all. Suddenly, the GenoHaradan informed him that he would receive his information after a particularly risky mission. Working with Dynatha Aris, Tserne was tasked with killing a group of political and military dissidents. Even better, he would be relinquished of his duties if he killed Dynatha before the mission ended.
Despite his initial plans, Dynatha proved far too naïve—innocent, perhaps—for him to kill. She was courteous and eager to cooperate with him, if a bit nervous in his presence. She struggled to meet his expectations, and he was inspired by her pacifistic optimism. Dynatha saved his life, and he saved hers. The two assassins joined forces and defeated the local GenoHaradan leader and escaped the organization entirely.
Since then, Tserne traveled with her. He was effectively her bodyguard; Dynatha could defend herself, of course, but she shied away from actual combat. The rest of the crew was comprised of the same targets the two were supposed to have eliminated on their final mission. Dynatha convinced them to work together; they harbored no ill will toward Tserne, so he spared them the pain of associating with him.
Dynatha and Tserne joined the crew at the bridge of the Whirling Fire. The bridge ceiling was strangely low, causing the lighting to be ineffectual. Smelling of sweat and burnt rations, it was obvious that the bridge doubled as a lobby for the crew. This ship’s bridge had not been designed to accommodate Humans; in addition to the ceiling’s odd height, its terminals were placed in odd positions around the room, making communication difficult.
Lucius Velle sat in the captain’s seat near the forward viewport. A Human male standing two meters in height, he could hardly navigate the bridge and preferred to remain seated. His platinum blond hair had been cut short, kempt, and manageable recently, eliminating his characteristic ponytail. His square jaw gritted as his green eyes, piercing like a hawk-bat’s, scanned the datapad in his hand.
Raxsus Nuli stood nearby with his compatriot, the Wookiee Syrook. Raxsus was a dark-skinned Vultan, immediately recognizable by the mass of cartilage wrapped around his scalp. He wore a brown combat vest like the ones that Lucius and Dynatha wore, but his was older and looked more rugged. The pauldron atop his left shoulder had a running kill-count from his time as a pirate in the frontier.
Syrook was a bit taller than Lucius, and he suffered as much as the giant Human did. Too tall to stand comfortably on the bridge, the hulking Wookiee tilted his head so that it just barely missed the ceiling. His black fur was scraggly and knotted, occasionally breaking the pattern with a white stripe. The many necklaces he wore were adorned with jagged bones, dried foliage, and shattered gemstones; these symbols represented the position of honor he once held in his tribe—a shaman amongst his people. On his back, the former priest’s longbow rested patiently.
“Good to see you, Tserne,” Lucius noted.
The former assassin grunted in reply.
“No manners yet?” Raxsus muttered to himself.
“Okay, that’s enough,” Dynatha urged. “What do you think, Lucius? Can we land safely?”
Lucius glanced at the datapad again. “Herzob is an unimportant world. It’s practically uncharted, and there have been no records of Republic visitors for at least sixty years.”
“I don’t think they would have any defenses strong enough to keep us out,” Raxsus chimed in.
“If any at all,” Lucius added. “I am willing to bet it’s uninhabited.”
“So what’s the issue?” Dynatha wondered aloud.
Lucius placed the datapad on his seat’s armrest. “There have been other visitors to the system recently. Very recently.”
“We have to move quickly,” Tserne replied.
“I’ll bring us down, then.” Raxsus moved toward the navigator’s seat. “Mind the sensors for me, would you, Syrook?”
The Wookiee growled an assuring reply.
The former pirate pulled the small frigate toward the quiet world while the rest of the crew scrambled to their seats. Tserne watched the viewport, noting how quickly the thick gray billows gave way to smaller cloudy wisps. Beyond the diaphanous sheets of clouds, he received a scenic view of the planet’s green surface. Lucius was right: Herzob had no defenses to speak of, and it lacked any sort of primary settlement. Large four-winged avians and cumbersome grazing creatures thrived in the absence of sentient life.
As they got within a few kilometers of Herzob’s surface, Syrook began growling information to Raxsus and Lucius. Tserne had yet to learn the language of the Wookiees, and Dynatha proved incapable of learning any language beside Basic, leaving them unable to understand him. The sensor boards lit up, marking animal life and displaying traces of previous settlements.
“I have a few coordinates of note,” Lucius called to Raxsus. “Have Syrook scan them for life while I send you a new vector.”
Raxsus tilted the ship upward, pulling it from its slight dive and letting it cruise several kilometers above the ground. Redirecting the Whirling Fire, he piloted the ship away from the equator toward the eastern side of the planet. Heading toward an indeterminate location, Syrook scanned various points across Herzob for sentient beings. Every few minutes, he’d growl a negative response to the rest of the crew. Despite a lack of success, the ship flew aimlessly over the surface of the planet, evidently wasting time in their search. Lucius was about to signal for Raxsus to turn around and search elsewhere when Syrook noted something on the horizon. Turning the ship so they could properly view it, Raxsus was ordered to bring the frigate closer to investigate.
About forty kilometers away from the ship, a collection of derelict vessels dotted the landscape. Most of the totaled ships were fairly new, dating from after the Mandalorian War, but a few were old enough to have been part of ancient Republic merchant convoys. The only source of technology on this pristine world, they stood out rather sharply; a thorough scan from space would have detected them.
“Syrook says we have one sentient life form on our sensors,” Raxsus responded to the Wookiee’s growls. “We’ve found him.”
Lucius nodded. “Bring us down, gently. It’s time to pay ourselves a visit to the good mechanic.”
Dynatha disembarked the Whirling Fire with a smile on her face. Adjusting the breath mask on her face, she made sure that it was snugly clasped over her mouth and nose. During Syrook’s routine scans of the surface, he had discovered that airborne pollen from local vegash plants was quite plentiful. Unluckily for them, inhaling these microbes caused an allergic reaction in Humans, Wookiees, and Vultans alike.
The brisk wind ran through her hair. This world was more alive—naturally and in the Force—than the ones she had been forced to endure in the past. It reminded her so much of Alderaan. The green plains around her stretched for kilometers; every blade of grass fluttered with delight at her arrival. Radiating with a warm heat, the world’s shimmering orange star seemed to glow solely for her.
Dynatha settled down by Lucius and Syrook while Raxsus proceeded to scout ahead. Carrying two combat rifles and a few grenades, the Vultan was the most heavily armed of the crew. At Lucius’s behest, the ex-pirate hiked up to the nearest hill adjacent to their landing site and scanned the graveyard of ships in the distance with his macrobinoculars.
A masterful shipwright carved out his abode somewhere inside those ships. Working for various criminal organizations, he created powerful and unique ships in exchange for basic goods—food and clothes, mostly—to keep himself alive. He was simple, but he was skilled. His work eventually attracted the attention of many criminal organizations, including the galaxy-spanning Exchange. During his time building starfighters for the Exchange, he had come across the GenoHaradan. Tserne suspected that he would know where to find other agents or assassins that needed to be defeated. After a bit of searching, Dynatha and Lucius tracked him down to this workshop here on Herzob.
Dynatha glanced behind her. She realized that Tserne was missing again. Always sneaking around, she thought. He never left her side during these missions, as far as she could tell. Even so, she could never be quite sure where he was. Reaching into the Force to find him was useless because he was hidden from it.
It didn’t matter if she didn’t know where he was. He was always around when she needed him. Despite her own trust in him, Lucius insisted that she learn how to use the blaster she carried. Since then, she had taken regular lessons with the crew, becoming proficient in various blasters and slugthrowers. She kept her blaster at her side, but she never used it. Tserne could defend her.
Lucius finished tinkering with the datapad at his side. “All right, I’m synched. Do you all have your energy shields and extra ammo?”
“Of course,” Dynatha replied cheerfully.
“Let’s move, then,” Lucius muttered.
Syrook growled happily, ready to move out. Respite worried him more than the other crewmembers; he hated waiting around for something to happen. Dynatha understood his concern, but she valued the peace between fights far more than the fights themselves. Lucius followed Syrook after inspecting his own ammo count, leaving Dynatha and Tserne alone with the ship.
Tserne faded into view, forgoing his invisibility to speak. “Ready?”
“Yeah,” Dynatha whispered. “Let’s see what we’re up against.”
The ship graveyard started about a kilometer from where Raxsus was waiting. Most of the derelict vessels encompassed a valley between four deformed hills. Radiation from damaged hyperdrives and other ship systems had killed the vegetation around the ships, rendering the earth black and lifeless. The hulls of aged ships formed a labyrinth in the valley, reaching its lowest point where a Hammerhead-class cruiser was buried alongside a few merchant frigates.
“Do you suppose he has personal defenses?” Dynatha wondered aloud, referring to their target.
“I don’t think so,” Raxsus said, glancing about. “I haven’t seen any generators. He wouldn’t be able to keep turret placements or shields active without them.”
“He could be armed, though,” Lucius noted. “He’s a criminal, through and through.”
“It’s a good thing we have a few criminals of our own, then,” an invisible Tserne remarked.
“Anything else we should know about, Raxsus?” Dynatha asked.
“Nope. No defenses; the place looks abandoned.”
“Keep your wits about you.” Lucius ordered. “We don’t know what to expect in there.”
There was far too much ground for them to cover together. The wrecked ships extended several kilometers in every direction, but the crew hoped that the shipwright had his workshop near the center of it all. To Dynatha’s dismay, Raxsus and Lucius agreed to split up their party. Lucius would go by himself, hugging the rightmost hills while Raxsus and Syrook traveled straight down the valley. Dynatha would take her chances with Tserne and head toward the destroyed K11 Caamas-class transport to their left.
Dynatha bid farewell to her companions and headed off. She didn’t look back, stepping around the dorsal flap of a Grievance-class Sith fighter as she headed into the cluttered remains of ships. Her boots trudged through the dry earth, leading her deeper into the maze. To her surprise, the whirring of gadgetry and the light hum of active machinery became apparent; there was power in this place after all. She wanted to consult Tserne, but she didn’t know if they were being watched; his presence was her wildcard here.
Shattered hulls and broken plating began to intermingle between ships, creating chimerical prototypes out of the grounded vessels. The further she went, the harder her advance became. Gun placements became obstacles to bypass and charred generators and engines were stepping stones to higher parts of the convoluted webs of durasteel.
Crawling atop a damaged turbolaser tower, Dynatha scanned the area around her. She was disoriented, and she could not determine her position in the maze. Withdrawing her blaster instinctually, she peered around with her own sight, and then through her sidearm’s scope. She seemed to be making progress, but it was hard to tell precisely where she had started and where she was supposed to go. I hope I’m not going in circles, she mused.
Dynatha stepped down from the turbolaser, nearly falling backward several times during her descent. To her surprise, an assassin droid had been lying in waiting for her the entire time. An antique by military standards, its brown chassis was vaguely humanoid, and its yellow photoreceptors were practically slits. The droid’s core whirred loudly, giving away its location amidst a pile of broken metal cylinders, but Dynatha could not do anything until she got back to the ground. The droid shot at Dynatha with its blaster rifle as soon as she was in range, but its first few shots missed entirely, giving Dynatha time to flee behind the gun placement she had been standing on.
Extending her perception so she could easily sense the Force, Dynatha reached out her hand and manipulated time around her. The assassin droid’s white blaster bolts crept toward her at a crippled Hutt’s pace. Dynatha withdrew her own blaster pistol and fired at the droid, complimenting her own accuracy with the Force. Releasing the Force’s restraint on time, her shots soared through the air and scored two clean hits on her assailant’s chest. The droid’s targeting computers hadn’t been so accurate; its fire hit the gun placement behind her and left several dark scars.
The droid had fallen backward in the wake of Dynatha’s shots, leaving it momentarily incapacitated. Tserne had wandered behind the droid while it was distracted by Dynatha. Waiting for a perfect opportunity, he kicked the fallen droid’s blaster from its hands. The droid chirped as it struggled to recover its rifle, uttering some profanities in droidspeak. Tserne ignored it. His vibrosword traveled in a wide arc, cutting off its head in a single swipe.
Tserne’s body faded away once he was sure the droid was dealt with. Dynatha put her blaster away, assured that the danger had passed. Moving away from her cover, she let herself breathe easily again. The Force was telling her that there was still danger nearby, but she counted on Tserne to notice it before it got too close. Approaching the destroyed droid, she caught a glimpse of something moving in the distance.
“Who are you? And why are you attacking my children?”
Dynatha whirled about. The source of the voice revealed itself immediately, emerging from the wireframe of a light cruiser’s hull. Her first reaction was to identify it as a sentient, but she hesitated to do so. Whatever it was seemed to be more machine than man. Floating above the ground in a customized hoverchair, it didn’t even seem to have a lower body. The individual had a thick metal scalp where hair should have been, and a durasteel plate covered his left cheek and jaw. Cables that were inputted into his cranium trailed down his back and entered his hoverchair. His chest and neck were comprised of exposed circuitry and power couplings. Panels lit up both his shoulders, monitoring his life support and other critical systems.
Extending its only arm, the mechanical limb, complete with four clawed digits and a makeshift combat laser, looked eager to rip off Dynatha’s hand. “Greetings, sentient. Identif-f-fy yourself-f-f?”
“I’m Dynatha Aris.” Staring into the figure’s enigmatic gray eyes, she noted that they were the most organic thing about him. “Are you… a shipwright?”
“I am called a shipwright, yes. I operate under several designations.”
“Have you seen my friends, sir?”
“We came here together to ask for your help. There’s another Human, like me, a Wookiee, and a Vultan.”
“My children have seen others, like you describe. They have attacked my sons and daughters with wanton abandon.”
Dynatha looked at the assassin droid she and Tserne had destroyed. “We’re sorry for attacking your droids, sir, but-”
“Droids? Droids!” The cyborg’s eyes burned. “That term implies inf-f-feriority! We are no less than you!”
Dyantha gasped. “I didn’t mean to insult you. That’s simply what I call… I know no other name for them.”
“Your intolerance is not insulting, simply evident.”
“I’m sorry all the same. What should I call your children?”
“That term is f-f-fine. Children.”
“I can do that. May I see my friends now?”
The cyborg’s shoulders whirred. “I shall take you to the shop. You shall meet your murderous f-f-friends there.”
Whether or not his programming understood the concept of a grudge, the shipwright did not dwell on his displeasure. Adjusting the direction of his hoverchair, the cyborg started its engines and sent himself to the east. He didn’t bother to see if Dynatha was following him; he expected her to join him.
“Be careful,” Tserne spoke up, still invisible. “We don’t know how dangerous he is. This could be an elaborate trap.”
“It’s hard for me to sense him,” Dynatha admitted, “but from what I can tell, he doesn’t appear to be hostile. Callused, but he has emotions.”
“All the same-”
“Stay with me, please,” Dynatha urged.
“Dynatha! You’re alive.”
“Lucius! Raxsus! Syrook!” Dynatha smiled. “You’re all okay!”
“We almost weren’t. That fool’s droids almost killed us,” Raxsus muttered.
“As I said, your kind have a distressing notion of superiority,” the cyborg chimed in.
“We created your kind, you miserable heap of scrap,” Raxsus growled. “Don’t start this philosophical babbling again.”
“You placed all manner of artistry within those like my children. They too have purpose. They know the pleasure of success and the disappointments of f-f-failure. They reason, f-f-feel, and grow.”
“The purpose we give them,” Lucius noted. “Their feelings, knowledge, and growth are limited by our designs.”
“Your f-f-feelings are controlled by instinct, your knowledge by education, and your growth by genetics,” the cyborg countered. “All of these things are beyond your control. In a sense, we are grander than you. We know where we come f-f-from.”
“Switch off, you obnoxious droid!” Raxsus snapped. “Your rambling is not our concern!”
The shipwright floated by the armed droids watching over Dynatha’s friends. His hoverchair clasped onto a bulky apparatus in the center of the area. Closing his eyes, the cyborg ignored his guests, leaving them in a confused silence. The other droids didn’t move, so Dynatha and the rest of her companions had to remain where they were. They didn’t even realize anything was happening until his durasteel plating lit up with a luminescent glow.
“Ah, hello again.” The shipwright opened his eyes, greeting his guests anew. His voice was more inflected and natural than before. “I apologize: I must remain here. This charging station provides me with the energy I need to maintain optimal performance.”
“Why did you bring us here?” Lucius asked.
“As I said, I need to be here to ensure my systems remain stable. You said you needed to speak with me; I thought it would be fair to do so where I could speak to you coherently,” the cyborg replied.
“You didn’t have to forcibly detain us,” Raxsus spat.
“You were damaging my creations,” the shipwright noted. “It was the quickest and most logical way to keep you from causing more harm.”
“Creations?” Dynatha asked. “Didn’t you say they were your children? Who are you?”
“My apologies,” the cyborg said with a sigh. “I should have been clearer. My name is Oryan Tempaar. Feel free to address me as you like.”
“You didn’t give us your name before. Why?” Dynatha wondered aloud.
“Aside from the fact that guests tend to introduce themselves first, I was unable to do so. It is difficult for my droid brain to process concepts like ownership, personal names, and emotions. When I am separated from my charging station, various systems shut down to ensure my oxidation unit remains active.”
“So, your droid brain takes over for your organic brain, or something like that?” Lucius spoke up.
“In a manner of speaking. Suffice to say, I am not quite myself after spending too long away from my power source,” Oryan explained. “But I don’t want to bore you, and you have business. What did you wish to speak with me about?”
“We’re looking for someone,” Dynatha chimed in.
“But of course. I am sure many people are. Anyone in particular?”
“He is known as Tiron. He is an Overseer of the GenoHaradan,” Tserne said, revealing himself for the first time.
The cyborg eyed Tserne suspiciously. “You’ve been here the whole time?”
“I haven’t detected you…” Oryan looked troubled. “Tiron, you said?”
“Do you know him?” Lucius asked at Syrook’s urging.
“I have heard of him; I have yet to meet him in person, though. He has many underlings and a multitude of connections. They occasionally come to me for new ships. They pay well,” Oryan explained.
“But never in person?” Tserne repeated.
“No. Never. He always speaks through an agent.”
“A particular agent?” Raxsus asked.
“Yes. She has asked herself to be called Skullduggery,” Oryan said.
“Charming,” Lucius murmured.
“Where do most of her shipments go?” Tserne asked.
“Do you think I monitor outbound traffic?”
“I would hope so.” Lucius glanced at the monitors at the farthest terminal. “You are dealing with criminals, after all.”
Oryan paused. “If I give you the information you seek, I have one request of you.”
“Speak,” Tserne replied.
“I want to go with you to defeat Skullduggery.”
“How do you know we’re going to defeat her?” Tserne asked.
“It is evident in your tone and your request to contact her. Killers only seek other killers to kill them.”
“Why do you want to come with us?” Dynatha asked.
“She… is not a pleasant woman to deal with,” Oryan grumbled.
“You can come with us; we have transport,” Lucius offered. “However, wouldn’t it be difficult leaving your droids? Your charging station?”
“My scouts have told me of your ship. It is a recent model; I can use the ship’s reactor to power my body.”
“And your droids?” Raxsus asked.
“They will be fine on their own. I will be returning shortly,” Oryan replied.
“With any luck,” Lucius muttered. “What’s the plan?”
“I have a way to contact Skullduggery. Help me reach your ship, and I will set up a meeting.”
Lucius glanced at the rest of the crew. “I think we can accommodate you. Come with us; our ship’s not very far from here.”
The blue streaks of hyperspace collapsed on themselves, revealing the faded images of stars light years upon light years away. Raen’s Stinger reverted to realspace seconds after the rest of his companions, who were still visible through his primary viewport.
The past few days, Raen had traveled alone through the emptiness that is hyperspace. The starfighters employed by the Jedi did not have the comms to speak to each other while in hyperspace, so Raen could not speak with his companions. Akin to a spacefaring prison cell, the cramped starfighter provided no comfort for Raen, and he drearily monitored the vessel’s systems and course for hours on end.
Luckily, Raen had figured out how to pilot the ship—beyond simply changing direction and acceleration—during his time in hyperspace. Pressing a bright orange button on his dashboard, he ensured that his velocity was steadily decreasing and the effects of the hyperspace beacon had passed.
“Everyone with us?” Northeus asked across the open comm.
“Four ships on visual, plus me,” Raen chimed in, as the rearmost ship. “All accounted for.”
“Very good,” the Jedi Master replied.
“Is that M4-78?” Doreva’s curious tone was evident even over the static-filled comm. “It looks… different than I imagined it.”
“It’s not a moon-sized machine, that’s for sure,” Syme noted. “It almost looks habitable.”
“Ashen wastes and rusted cities aside, I’m sure,” Raen replied.
“Initial scans of the planet show that urban centers are plagued by concentrated amounts of radiation,” Northeus said.
“Should we avoid the cities for now?” Doreva asked.
“No, we’ll go down and greet the locals in their radiated cities,” Syme said with a sigh. “Any ideas, Northeus?”
“I’ve found an area in the wastes with close to no radiation. We’ll land there, and I’ll try to contact the Jedi on the surface.”
“Hopefully they’re still there,” Doreva groaned.
Touching down on the surface of M4-78 was more difficult than expected. Despite the Ghoul’s silence during the comm chatter, he proved eager to escape from the wing of fighters during his descent. Although verbal persuasion from Northeus and Syme kept him from fleeing from them entirely, it forced Northeus to redirect his targeting computer’s lock. Without his preplanned destination, the Jedi were forced to run a quick radiation scan and land several dozen kilometers away from the nearest city.
Northeus disembarked first, and the rest of the Jedi followed suit once they were sure the Jedi Master hadn’t died. While the Jedi prepared their gear and did a quick scan of the area on foot and through the Force, Northeus turned his attention to his own starfighter. Using its communication relay, he tried to modify it to detect other common Jedi frequencies.
“Any luck, Northeus?” Raen asked after some time.
The Jedi Master shook his head. “It will take a few hours to pick up any stray signals—if any are being broadcast. This starfighter is older than me.”
“What should we do until then?”
“Syme is scouting for life forms and Doreva is monitoring the Ghoul. Do you still have your vibroswords, Raen?”
“Your combat skills are rudimentary at best. You trained with Thon and the others on Ambria, but it was unfortunately basic,” Northeus explained. “I intend to train you whenever I can.”
“Rudimentary?” Raen withdrew his two vibroswords. “I’ll show you rudimentary!”
“Indeed? Try your best.”
“Ghoul! Ghoul! Don’t wander off!”
Doreva raced after the wandering Givin. While Syme headed eastward, intent on locating the nearest non-radiated settlement, the Bothan Jedi had been resigned to guard the Ghoul. Despite the Ghoul’s dangerous reputation, he was unarmed and still weak from his time as a prisoner. Northeus and the other Jedi were confident that Doreva could manage on his own.
The Ghoul had been shockingly calm after they landed. Minding his own business, he was content with drawing pictures in the sand with his finger and talking to himself. Doreva had nearly fallen asleep—bored with nothing to do—when the Ghoul stood up and left the ring of starfighters that doubled as the Jedi camp.
The Ghoul lacked a destination, much to Doreva’s ire. He was also crazier than the average Givin, leaving the Jedi Knight without a way of accurately communicating with him. He wanted to make a good impression on the others and keep working, but he also didn’t know how to stop the Ghoul from traveling about.
“Ghoul! Come back here!” Doreva said. “I can hardly see the ships anymore, and they’ll be expecting us to come back.”
“Sixteen, seventeen…” the Ghoul muttered.
The Givin stopped. “Twenty-two… what was twenty-two?”
Doreva caught up to the musing Ghoul after a brief sprint. “Ghoul. Why didn’t you stop after I told you to stop?”
“Thinking… thinking… what’s after twenty-one?”
The Bothan scratched his head. “What?”
“Nineteen and twenty were a mother and her child. Twenty-one was the officer that investigated the killing. So twenty-two was…?”
“Your killings?” Doreva asked. “You’ve killed more than twenty people?”
“No, no. Yes. Between forty-eight and sixty. I don’t remember anymore.”
“You’ve killed nearly sixty people?” Doreva’s eyes widened. “How-?”
“Easy. Dropping a body from high leads to shock and excessive trauma. Vibroblades are the perfect weapon for tearing flesh, muscle, bone. When weapons aren’t available, you have to be creative. Dishes and utensils make good cutting tools; chairs and hydrospanners are fine bludgeons.”
“No!” Doreva cried, shocked. “I mean, how could you kill all those people? Don’t you feel… bad?”
“No…?” The Ghoul looked at Doreva quizzically. “Why would I? They should have been stronger; they could have fought better.”
Doreva’s mouth gaped. As a Jedi learner, he had always been taught about the value of all life forms, sentient and not. As a Jedi Knight, he had sworn to defend the Galactic Republic and peace for the sake of those beings. For someone like the Ghoul to avoid—no, decry—the beauty of life so heedlessly terrified the young Jedi.
“You’re a monster.” Doreva spat. “What if someone tried to kill you like that?”
“I’d kill them before they kill me, or else I would die.”
Doreva’s first reaction was to leave the Ghoul out here in the wastes to die on his own. But before he could react to the Givin’s madness, the Force began to wash over him. A sudden onset of fatigue could mean only one thing: there was danger nearby. Wobbling at the knees, Doreva struggled to steady himself.
Glancing about, the Bothan scanned the horizon for incoming enemies. Nothing. His sight was slightly hindered by the twilight that was sweeping over the land, but there was still enough light to see. Coupled with his Force senses, Doreva should have spotted whatever the Force was warning him about, but he didn’t see anything.
A wave of Force energy sent the Ghoul flying through the air. Landing face-first in the dirt about three meters away, he didn’t respond to Doreva’s startled call. Trying to determine if the murderer was all right, Doreva was also hit by a telekinetic blast. Tumbling over himself, the Bothan leapt to his feet and activated his green lightsaber. No sooner had he drawn his weapon than the Force-user who was attacking them revealed herself.
She was a young woman—a few years younger than Raen—wearing a pair of blue Jedi robes. Her petite nose twitched when she kicked up dust during her landing; her fair skin and short red-brown hair were stained with sweat and grime from days in the field. Whipping her brown cloak away from her side, she withdrew and activated her blue lightsaber.
Doreva threatened to push her aside with a telekinetic wave, but the female Force-user bounded away from his limited range. Racing toward the Bothan Jedi, she attacked Doreva with an overhead swing that threatened his shoulder. Sidestepping from her swing, Doreva kicked at her ankles as she landed and successfully pushed her away with the Force.
Deactivating her own lightsaber during her fall, the woman rolled backward and recovered her footing. Doreva used a Force-empowered sprint to close the distance between them. By the time she was on her feet, Doreva was battering at her defending blade with his lightsaber.
Doreva’s attacks were hesitant. He didn’t want to actually kill this woman; he didn’t even know who she was. Content with weakening her defenses with heavy vertical blows and sweeping cuts, the Bothan Jedi showed off the full extent of his repertoire without actually intending to harm her. Of course, the young woman didn’t know that, and sweat raced down her cheeks with each barely successful block.
While the Bothan paused during a showy spinning attack, the woman used the opening he gave her to kick him in the chest. It was a weak strike that didn’t even make full contact, but Doreva heaved slightly as pain shot through his gut. Jumping over her stunned opponent, the woman struck at his back. Doreva recovered just in time to avoid her swing, and he threw his lightsaber at her to block.
“…Doreva?” The Jedi-looking woman got a good look at her opponent for the first time. “Is that you?”
“Who are you?” Doreva asked, stepping backward.
“Celes! I was on Dantooine with you as a Padawan!” she replied. “You knew my brother.”
“Celes Sunrider.” Doreva retracted his thrown lightsaber and deactivated the weapon. “How are you… what are- how did you get here?”
She giggled. “It’s good to see you too, Doreva.”
“You attacked me!”
“I saw your friend and assumed you were one of his thugs,” Celes admitted. “I’m very sorry.”
“It’s okay; I would have attacked you if I knew you were traveling with a wanted criminal.”
“That’s not nice!” Celes chided him.
“And that’s enough, both of you.”
The Arkanian woman who scolded them was about as old as Doreva, and she wore the same blue robes that Celes did. Her curled white hair reached her armored shoulders, and a tiara rested on her forehead. Staring at her company, her eyes lacked pupils, rendering them the same milky white color as her skin. Doreva spotted a lightsaber resting on her lower back, just beneath the clawed fingers rhythmically tapping at her belt.
“Celes, apologize for attacking a fellow Jedi,” the Arkanian growled.
The young woman snapped to attention. “I’m very sorry, Knight Doreva. Please forgive me.”
“It’s fine,” Doreva muttered. He glanced at his feet, and then shifted his gaze to the second woman. “Who are you?”
“Don’t you have manners? It’s proper for a man to introduce himself upon meeting a lady!” the older woman replied.
“Doreva!” the Bothan yelped. “My name is Doreva Thrine. I’m a Jedi Knight.”
“Khondine. Khondine Basilaron.”
“What are you doing here?” Doreva asked.
“I could very well ask you the same thing.” Khondine shook her head. “I’m part of the Jedi task force under Master Lonna Vash sent to investigate the Sith presence on this planet.”
“Lonna Vash is here? And there are Sith?” Doreva stammered. “What’s going on?”
“We were separated from the Jedi Master after we were attacked by Sith,” Celes explained. “But they were killed by the radiation.”
“That’s good, but we need to find the Jedi Master! It’s important!” Doreva said.
“I take it you have friends, Doreva?” Khondine asked.
“Yes. They’re about a kilometer and a half that way.” Doreva pointed toward the starfighters. “They’ll be pleased to see other Jedi, for sure.”
“Take us to them, then,” Khondine ordered. “And make sure that Givin is all right. We don’t have time to waste.”
Northeus and Raen rushed to meet Syme. They had been training for at least an hour when they sensed the death of a sentient in the Force. Fearing the worst, they sprinted to his location; if he had been the one they sensed, he would have been beyond their help. Luckily for Syme, his opponent had been felled, and it was his death that reached them through the Force.
“What’s going on, Syme?” Northeus asked.
Syme motioned toward the dead Twi’lek. “This dark-sider attacked me. I was forced to defend myself. Unfortunately for him, it cost him his life.”
The three Jedi immediately sensed something in the distance, but it was already too late. A Force wave washed over them, sending Syme to his knees and throwing Raen backward. Northeus ignited one of his lightsabers to intercept a young woman with a blue lightsaber who intended on striking Syme. The attacker had not anticipated being blocked and lost her footing, allowing Northeus to throw her backward with his own telekinetic burst.
Before Northeus could ensure his allies’ safety, another lightsaber-user was upon them. An Arkanian leapt into their midst and performed an elegant three-pronged swing that took the Jedi Master by surprise. He blocked the attack, but just barely.
Syme had recovered by the time their second opponent arrived, allowing him to join the battle. While Northeus repelled the fanciful attacks of his own opponent, Syme targeted the younger, dazed Force-sensitive. Leaping beside her, Syme activated his cyan blade and let it hover near her throat.
“Drop your weapons, or I’ll kill her,” Syme growled at the Arkanian.
“We don’t fear death,” the Arkanian replied. “Do your worst!”
“Everyone, stop!” Doreva sprinted toward the combatants with the Ghoul in tow. “You’re all going to kill each other!”
“What’s wrong, Doreva?” Northeus asked, keeping his blade locked with the Arkanian’s.
“We’re all Jedi. There’s no reason that we should be fighting!” Doreva explained.
Northeus deactivated his lightsaber and stepped out of the way to dodge his opponent’s blade. “Khondine?”
“It’s good to see you,” Northeus said with a hint of a smile. “I apologize for defending myself against you.”
“Forgive me, Master! I was wrong. I saw Tourath fall, and I assumed…”
“Did you know him?” Syme looked at the dead Twi’lek.
“Yes. He was a member of one of the four Master-Padawan groups to arrive with Master Vash. He and Celes knew each other well.”
“I’m sorry for attacking you all,” Celes muttered. Turning to Syme, she added with a harsh whisper: “Can you remove your lightsaber from my neck?”
Syme deactivated his weapon, and the other Jedi followed suit.
“You said that Tourath was a member of Master Vash’s expedition. What were you doing here?” Northeus asked.
“Tourath and Mara—his Master—had been responsible for ensuring that the radiation bombs were prepared for activation around the planet,” Khondine explained. “Mara perished during the investigation, and Tourath… has not been the same. I just never thought he would fall…”
“He didn’t fall. He was simply grieved,” Celes countered. “And now he’s dead!”
“He was as dark as the Sith we fought on Coruscant,” Syme replied in kind. “I acted in self-defense.”
Celes was about to shout at him, but Raen joined the group and interrupted their argument. “Radiation bombs? What were you doing with those?”
“Raen?” Khondine looked stunned. “We- we were defeating a Sith cell that had based itself on this planet. We determined radiation was the only sure way of eliminating all the Sith.”
“Nuclear warfare is rather extreme,” Northeus noted. “Who authorized this?”
“Master Vash herself, sir,” Celes piped.
“I’d like to speak with her,” the Jedi Master said. “I want to know why the order was authorized and the radiation has yet to be dealt with.”
“The clean-up process was in effect, but all attempts to access the environmental archons responsible for the planet’s atmosphere have proved useless,” Khonine replied.
Northeus frowned. “All the same-”
“Come with us. There is strength in numbers, and we last saw Master Vash in the environmental control zone of City Zee-Zee-One. The sooner we find her, the sooner we can fix this place.”
Khondine’s all-terrain vehicle rumbled across the barren landscape. Built like a tank, its elongated shape provided extensive interior storage space. Khondine insisted that the vehicle’s thick armor and various environmental controls would protect them from any lingering radiation. The transport’s twelve wheels proved to be more reliable than repulsor technology on the rugged terrain, but it also made the ride uncomfortable.
Doreva and Celes fell asleep as soon as the company had settled into the vehicle. Celes refused to speak with Syme, and he returned the favor. Syme took it upon himself to monitor the Ghoul, sitting atop an empty ammunition canister while the Ghoul crept about the cargo hold. Khondine served as the transport’s pilot, allowing Northeus and Raen to keep her company. The Jedi Master sat in the walkway between the cargo hold and the cockpit while Raen, despite Khondine’s reservations, was allowed to sit in the copilot’s seat.
The landscape was uniform no matter how far Khondine took them. Nothing seemed to change. Rocks and dry earth gave way to more rocks and earth; no vegetation grew on the planet and water was absent entirely. A light wind seemed to blow across the desert, probably carrying with it radiated particles too dangerous for sentient life.
“There it is.” Khondine pointed out a small light source in the distance. “The capital city, so to speak, of M4-78.”
“You think Master Vash is there?” Raen asked.
“Only one way to find out,” Khondine noted.
Driving a few more kilometers, Khondine and Raen could see the tallest structures in City Zee-Zee-One. A few lights glimmered from the city center, but it seemed otherwise quiet and lifeless from this distance. Khondine parked the vehicle atop a rocky hill and left the cockpit in Raen’s care, carefully slipping by Northeus on her way into the cargo hold.
Raen stared at the city, wondering how to reach it without incident and hardly realized that Khondine had left. She returned in an instant, wearing a cumbersome yellow-brown environmental suit complete with life support systems and various prosthetic aides. She had yet to put on her bulbous helmet, content with letting it dangle from the sling on her shoulder.
Northeus freed himself from his trance. “What’s the plan, Khondine?”
“Well, Master, this vehicle is equipped with two suits for extra-vehicular activity. These particular units have the capability to protect wearers from radiation for at least three standard hours. However, our lack of suits means everyone else will have to stay with the vehicle,” Khondine explained.
“You think it’s too dangerous to approach in our vehicle?” Raen asked.
“Any hostiles would have access to the city’s defensive turrets. If they wanted to, they could take out this vehicle in one shot. In case you didn’t catch on, this is a civilian transport, not a military personnel carrier.”
“I see you volunteered yourself for one of the two scouts,” Raen added.
“Celes and I are familiar with the suits and the city itself, but I didn’t want to wake her,” Khondine answered matter-of-factly. “But the suits are designed to fit most humanoid sentients. Any of your Jedi can come with me, Master.”
Northeus nodded. “Raen, go with her.”
“Me?” Raen asked.
Khondine frowned. “Master, with all due respect-”
“Raen needs some field experience. I can think of no better Jedi Knight—who happens to be familiar with the terrain—to guide him than you, Khondine. He will go with you,” Northeus ordered.
“Very well, Master,” Khondine sighed, realizing there was no changing his mind. Turning to Raen, she added: “The gear is that way, by that wall. Go suit up.”
Venturing into a radiated wasteland was not his idea of fun, but Raen never expected this mission to be a vacation either. However, that was not his biggest concern. Khondine herself ruined his prospects of enjoying this mission. As he recalled from his time fighting on Alderaan, she was stubborn and rather cold, and her attitude would very likely cause conflict between them. Nevertheless, he owed Northeus for saving him, so he said nothing and left the cockpit.
The young Alderaanian wordlessly slipped on the various pieces of the protective suit. As he suspected, the insulating fabric was thick and itchy against his skin. Luckily, this mission could only last three hours before he would forcibly have to leave this suit. The armor itself was heavy, weighing on his shoulders and chest, and it smelled like sweat. Slipping the bulky helmet over his head, he was pleased that it actually fit.
Raen almost stumbled over himself. He hated walking in these gigantic boots. He struggled over to Khondine and Northeus with an awkward gait. Khondine had finished her own preparations, but Raen couldn’t see a lightsaber on her person. Northeus signaled for Raen to switch on his suit’s comms. Raen couldn’t figure out how to do it, so Khondine stepped in, a bit awkwardly, and switched on his vital systems and helmet’s head-up display.
“You two will be taking these capsules into the city,” Northeus explained to Raen. “Khondine tells me their built-in propulsion unit will launch the two of you over the city’s perimeter.”
“Flying in that? That’s definitely safe,” Raen made sure his sarcasm was evident. “Will I even fit in there in this suit?”
“I would hope so,” Khondine muttered, flipping the last few switches on Raen’s chestpiece. “It’s been designed to accommodate them.”
Once she was done, Raen pulled himself into the one-man capsule. It was difficult at first, but he managed to fit himself inside with a bit of help from Khondine, much to both their ire. The pod was as uncomfortable as the suit itself, but at least it was controlled by an internal computer instead of manually. Khondine slipped into her own capsule, performing a quick comm check with Raen to be sure they could hear each other.
“We’ll see you both when you get back,” Northeus said. “May the Force be with you.”