[Originally written by Foln] Preface: Awakening Darkness. Complete darkness. Rainfall. Such a peaceful sound. The sound of heavy rain falling on the river would have been soothing if it weren’t for the sheer darkness of the scene. The clouds above prevented any light from any of Taris’ four moons from reaching the surface. A bolt of lightning flashes. In the split second of visibility, the word “Czerka” could be read on a weathered, rusted and worn slanted metal surface, appearing to be the front of an abandoned structure among the completely overgrown surroundings. The rain continued to batter the motionless scene. With a sudden burst, a bolt of lightning struck the complex directly. In the flash of a moment, the electricity flowed to the grounding wires that had redirected the energy from the sky to the ground for centuries. However, all but one of the ground cables were rusted out, and the last was rusted thin. As this bolt of energy started to surge through this last wire, the heat burned through the thinnest section, and cut the connection to the soil. With nowhere else to direct itself, the energy spread throughout the station, illuminating consoles and shorting out systems in the blink of an eye. Long-dormant panels arced with electricity as components blew and smoldered. In one of the chambers of this complex laid a motionless man-like figure on a flat metal table with a glass-domed cover. The console on the wall next to the table crackled and sputtered with energy, burning its surface and exploding its screen. The momentary surge came to a close as quickly as it began, and the air seal on the table’s glass dome hissed in release, opening and mixing its contained air with that of the room which remained completely dark. The shape did not move. The glass dome opened fully and rested for several minutes. The surge had come and went, and the complex was as quiet and motionless as it had been for many centuries. Suddenly, a twitch. A twitch in what seemed to be its head. Just ever so slightly that it was almost a vibration, in that it went back to its original position immediately afterward. An inattentive observer would probably have missed it, even in good lighting. Following several moments after the twitch, the form opened its eyes wide and made an immediate and violent inhalation. No other motion followed. For several moments it lay there, eyelids stretched and lungs expanded to their full capacities. The left eye was nearly invisible against the darkness, but a faint red glow seemed to emanate from the right eye in the lightless room. It seemed to lay there for an interminable time, tense and motionless. After what seemed an uncomfortably long period, its head slowly rolled to its left, eyes and lungs still stretched, and lay there for another time. Eventually it rolled its head to the right, and held there for a while as well. Abruptly, its head shot back forward while it exhaled and inhaled in rapid succession. It repeated this exhale-inhale-hold…exhale-inhale-hold pattern for several minutes. Then, bending at the waist, it sat up and looked around, with a manner that was more droid-like than anything. Robotic-like motion about its neck seemed to suggest that it was scanning the area rather than getting its bearings. The body became still after it had made a thorough examination of its surroundings, and its neck would twitch from time to time in an almost rhythmic manner. For several minutes it sat there, perfectly erect and still, except for the slightly noticeable convulsions above its shoulders. Then, it just seemed to snap. It shot to life, leaping backwards off of the table as far as it could and collided with the wall in a thudding clang. It struggled to look at itself, but nothing was visible in the darkness. It felt about itself, and without any display of emotion noticed that while some areas of its body were covered in flesh, others were obviously metallic in substance. It silently moved across the room along the walls feeling for a door. There didn’t seem to be a door out of this room, but it distinctly felt what appeared to be a blackout window. With a sharp crash, it threw the table that it had found itself on through the black glass as the sounds of rain and storm poured in through the newly created opening. The flashes of lightning illuminated the room, and its own self. It looked around the room and saw a desk with a few meaningless items sloppily thrown about its surface, and moved over to it. Of these items was a clipboard, with no papers attached, but the top featured a single word on a label. With the next flash of lightning, the label became visible, and simply read: GigaBitt With another flash of lightning, it was out the window, leaving the room as motionless as before, but now with the ambience of the falling rain. Chapter 1: Emergence It becomes increasingly difficult to judge the passage of time the longer one is unconscious. Couple that with a seemingly empty memory and unfamiliarity with local terrain on a ruined planet, and it is not hard to understand that this newly reanimated being continued to trudge in the forests of Taris’ ruins days after its emergence from the Czerka facility. It traveled at night, and rested during the day. For days it trudged onwards, through swamp and stream, pushing forwards without emotion on its destination-less path. The simple effort of enduring the journey spoke for some unseen and unknown determination, both elusive to observer and observed. Reason or not, it persisted in its course. At one point, it came upon a black nightbird sitting on a low-lying branch. The bird, about 8 inches in length, watched attentively as the individual approached. The being came within a few feet of the bird without it jumping, and watched it closely. The bird saw something that only slightly resembled a human male. And that was only from the neck down. The body of the being was naked, and various regions of its torso opened through the skin, exposing several metallic rods that reflected the dim light of the moon. One of these areas was its left pectoral region; there was a silver metallic ring around a circular, flat grey plate about 4 inches in diameter, the middle of which had a triangular recess at its center. Its right leg was entirely prosthetic, along with its right hand. The bird looked up at the being’s face, and, had it been familiar with the general shape of a gas mask, would have immediately identified the facial structure as such. The cavity of its right eye was about three inches in diameter, and held open by metal wires impacted into the skin such that it seemed more of a hole in its head than an ocular crater. The eye itself was gone, and replaced by a cybernetic equivalent that had a faint red light at its focal point. The left eye was constantly held in a state of openness, and did not blink once over the time that the two stared at each other. The mouth did not appear human; it was covered, if not replaced, by a horizontally-oriented, oval-shaped component that stretched from one side of its face to the other. In all, the bird could not recognize the being as anything it had seen before; if it was capable of curiosity, it would have been overwhelmed by the emotion. The man’s head (difficulty is found in classifying this creature as a man) tilted, ever so slightly, to the left and to the right in observation of the bird. Slowly, carefully, the head would lean from one side to the other, taking in every detail of the bird’s silent form. Every now and again, the neck and head would twitch in a manner that made it seem unstable. Eventually, the bird’s small brain came to the conclusion that this unknown thing in front of it was worthy of being considered a threat. The bird reacted in kind, and, flinching backwards, let out a screeching “ca” as it tensed its wings in preparation for flight. The moment that the bird made a noise, the man-figure reached out and grabbed the bird’s neck with a speed that rivaled that of light. If the bird hadn’t estimated the presented threat so far, it did not have much time to do so. In the instant that the bird noticed the metallic fingers around its neck, the man-figure twisted its grasp 90 degrees and snapped every fiber connecting its head to its body. Immediately, the noise stopped, and once it stopped, the being dropped the bird to the ground and continued on its way. It walked into an open clearing, where at that time of night three rakghouls were prowling across. If the being had noticed the rakghouls, or knew anything about them, it didn’t seem to care. The man trudged across the muddy field as though they didn’t exist. The rakghouls themselves did notice the man making its way across the field, but after observing him for a time, they ignored him and continued on their prowl. Just another guard watch for young Onimus. He was born on Taris, and lived in the ruins his entire life. It was his turn to hold the watch on the south side of the comfortable little settlement that he and his family inhabited. The girl he liked, lyn, had come by earlier and dropped off some cookies, and it seemed to be shaping up to be a pretty good day. That is, until he saw something approach the gate that made him doubt his perception of reality. “Who goes there?” he challenged. The figure did not respond, nor did it even move. It just stood there, at the gate, and stared into the material of the giant doors. “What do you want?” he shouted. The figure just stood there. It stood motionless. Except that it would twitch every now and again, it remained entirely still. Onimus turned to shout to some of the villagers that were out and about, so he could call for some of the settlement’s fighters, just as a precaution. As soon as he turned the other way, the naked figure leapt up and climbed the 13-ft gate, digging its metallic fingers into the gate’s material. After mantling over the gate, to the great alarm of many of the villagers, the man came to stand on the inside of the gate, as motionless as he was before making the leap. Onimus stood in sheer apprehension, as he was just a pair of eyes on the gate, and was by no means a fighter. He responded by simply sitting down in a fetal position and hoping that the problem would resolve itself. Three men approached the figure, one an old villager and the other two obviously fighters. The old man faced the naked figure. “What do you want from us?” the old man said. The patchwork man just stood there. It turned its head from the old man to the large man to its right, and then to the large man to its left, with a strange twitch thrown in among the actions. After an uncomfortably long silence, the large man to the right spoke up. “You are one ugly son of a bit…” The man’s statement was cut short by a metal hand jumping to his throat. The being’s eyes remained fixed on the old man, but now had a choking grasp of the man to its right. When the large man to the left reacted to this, and moved to attack the visitor, the thing flung the man being choked into the man on the left, pushing the two of them back and forcing them to the ground. The old man stood there, facing the visitor, and after this last motion, the visitor returned to his previous position, facing the old man. When the two fighters regained their posture and started to attack the visitor, the old man declared “NO” and waved them off without breaking his stare with the visitor. “Onimus, tend the gate. Y’eldor, go and retrieve this man some garm…” Again, the visitor interrupted the sentence. This time, it pulled a knife out of its leg cavity and thrust the blade into the old man’s abdomen. With a cough, the old man fell to the ground. It yanked the knife out of the man’s midsection, separated it into two halves, turned and tilted its head towards the two alarmed fighters, twitched, and threw the knives so that the blades buried themselves in the warriors’ upper torsos. At this latest set of actions, the villagers ran in several directions, mostly away from the visitor. It walked over to the bodies, retrieved its knives, and moved to the nearest house-like structure. After kicking open the door, the being began to rifle through the wardrobes of the inhabitants. It picked out different assortments of clothing. After finding a pair of black pants, a dark grey undershirt, and a decent pair of boots that more or less fit him, it noticed a trunk out of the corner of its natural eye. Upon opening the trunk, it found an old costume set like those used in theaters in urban areas, along with a black coat. Among the costume items, it picked up a white theatrical mask, one with a neutral, emotionless face. After donning the coat, the figure put on the mask, looked in the mirror, and twitched. Chapter 2: True and Untrue Colors Dust lifted itself into the air as the recirculator groaned and hummed into action. The air from the vent grates began to stir the small particles from their place on the tops of shelves and into the atmosphere of the small supply shop. Taris was not, by any means, a well-off planet with a booming economy, but the small supply shop would be visited off and on by Republic construction men, archaeologists, and adventure-seekers. There was enough business around to support Ecent and his family, and they had no means or reason to leave. A new shipment of hydropacks had arrived that morning, and he had already contacted the few interspersed inhabitants of the area around his shop who relied on him for clean water. He didn’t quite know why some people actually set up residence on the outskirts of civilized Taris; perhaps they were in hiding or exile, or maybe they simply sought a solitary life. Maybe they enjoyed the landscape. For whatever reason, they chose to live there, and Ecent was able to make a somewhat comfortable living because of it. The shopkeeper noticed that the dust started to collect on the floor. Wanting to keep a clean shop, he went to the back to retrieve a broom and dustpan. He remembered again that he needed to order himself a mouse droid so that he didn’t have to clean the floors anymore; if one more household moved into the ruins, he could probably afford it. Until then, though, he went to the storage room and took out his old broom. When he came back into the store, he saw a strangely structured figure wearing black and grey garments, and most noticeably a white mask with no expression. It stood about five-foot-eight, its arms were tensed and hanging away from its sides, its head was slightly tilted to the left, and it simply looked like everything was out of place about it. The storekeeper thought, ”I wonder why I didn’t hear the chime of the motion sensor…” before he looked above the simple entrance and saw that the sensor unit was missing. He looked back at the man standing in the middle of his shop, and noticed that the sensor was fixed to the man’s right arm. That’s curious, he thought. “You’ll have to give that back…” Ecent said to his mysterious customer. “Is there anything that I can help you with?” He questioned, as he reached under the counter for the blaster pistol that he kept handy. As the customer stepped forward and reached out its hand, the storekeeper reacted and drew his pistol. Unexpectedly, but in full view, the customer set a large number of credits on the table. He then proceeded to purchase a storage belt, a bandolier, five vibroknives, and a small blaster pistol, along with one of the new hydropacks that had come in. He also paid double for the motion sensor, which the storekeeper figured to be an acceptable trade. “Is there anything else I can help you with?” The storekeeper asked. “Anything at all?” The man with the mask stood there, bowed and tilted his head slightly, and replied in a tone that seemed half-human, and half-transponder. His voice, its voice, had a higher pitch than was comfortable to listen to, while still remaining in the mid-octaves. It wasn’t quite a droid’s voice, but the humanity had certainly been drained from it. A sly confidence masked its few words, as though it knew exactly how it wanted to say what it said before it said anything at all… as though its response was computed beforehand to maximize a certain effect. “This will suffice” it said. “For now.” With that, the customer turned and left. Out the door and into the ruins of Taris once more. The storekeeper counted the credits again, just to make sure. “That was quite a large purchase he made.” Thought Ecent. “I wonder what business he is in…” After spending a few minutes double-checking the count, he moved over to the lockbox that he kept the store’s transaction credits in. He unlocked and opened the box, just to find an empty space. After the initial shock wore off, Ecent ran outside, pistol drawn, hoping that the thieving “customer” was still in sight. It was to no avail, as the man in the mask was long gone by then and, unknown to the storekeeper, heading closer to the civilized centers on the planet. ______________ Cantinas tend to attract a wide variety of strange faces and characters. Nobody knew this more than did Neeto, the 3rd shift bartender at the premier entertainment establishment of the rebuilt lower city. The reason that “premier” is used to describe this place is mainly due to the fact that it was without competition; anyone who tried to open up another cantina near it ended up dead or permanently missing. Neeto wasn’t concerned with the classification of the enterprise, but more its patrons. He had seen his share of strange faces, and, if the money wasn’t as good as it was, he would have split from the business as soon as he could. Quite ironically, in the lower portions of Taris, it seemed that the uglier patrons paid higher tips. Again, Neeto did not let the sights, smells, and sounds of the cantina bother him, because in his head, he just kept telling himself, “The money is good…the money is good…” This would explain his lack of reaction when a man in dark clothing with a long, black coat walked in wearing a white mask. He tried to greet the newcomer, but his offer of service fell on deaf ears as the man in the mask ignored him and proceeded to sit in a far corner, in one of the empty booths. He ordered no drinks, but just sat there and stared a hole in the other side of the booth. Neeto watched as others came and went from the building, but that masked man simply sat there, unmoving. When his shift was over, and the cantina was closing for the night, he saw everyone filter out except the man in the mask. He started to clean and sweep up, and hint at it being close to closing time by turning off some of the lights. The masked man didn’t budge an inch. Eventually, the time to lock the doors came around and Neeto had no other choice. He approached the man in the far booth. “It’s closing time. I’m gonna have to ask you to leave, sir.” The man did not even seem to be breathing. The last thing Neeto wanted was to remove a cadaver from the cantina, he thought, so he reached out to prod the shoulder of the man in an attempt to find proof of life. As soon as Neeto’s fingers touched the shoulder of the man, its other arm whirled around and grabbed Neeto’s wrist, clenching in a way that choked out blood flow. The mask slowly turned to face Neeto’s grimacing frown. “Sir, it’s closing time! I don’t care where you go, but you can’t stay here! Please, give me my arm back!” The masked man’s hand relaxed, and surrendered Neeto’s raw wrist and pale fingers. Through the mask, Neeto heard an almost certainly sarcastic voice that he’d have sworn was artificial say, “Terribly…Sorry.” Neeto went home and tried to relax. After a night’s rest, he eventually went back to his 3rd shift at the cantina. To his surprise, he saw the masked man sitting in the same booth, in the same spot, staring the same way. For hours the man sat there. Again, he remained there until close. This time, however, when Neeto turned off the back lights, the stranger understood, and awkwardly made his way out of the building without coercion. This process repeated itself for several days, until about a week had passed, and regardless of all his efforts to reason through the man’s persistence, he could form no explanation for his behavior. Then, one day, the man didn’t come into the cantina. And never came in again. Business went on in the establishment as it always had, and the patrons were as hideous as they always were, but the question of why the masked man had gone to that cantina plagued Neeto’s thoughts for weeks and months to come, and remained without answer.
Chapter 3: Recognition For days and days they searched. The villagers of the quiet settlement of Krillos fanned out into the forested areas and the lower ruins. They convinced several neighboring villages to keep their eyes and ears peeled for a masked man in a black coat. They sent word with travelers and merchants, and contacted anyone and everyone they could, hoping to locate the attacker. Eventually word came back to them that a man in a white mask was frequenting a cantina a few miles north of their small home, and sent a dozen of their strongest and most adept fighters, under the command of Onimus’s older brother, Tanmin, to hunt him down. By no means would they allow a stranger to get away with murdering their own, and they had every intention of righting the wrongs brought upon them by this masked invader. After a half-day of travel, they arrived in the vicinity of the cantina. They fanned out and hid in the alleyways while patrons started to leave the building, as it was nearing closing time. They watched as group after group of them left, but found no sign of their masked target. They began to lose hope when the windows showed signs of lights being turned off, and the systems began to whir down to dormancy. However, when they were about to call the effort off out of futility, out came the white-masked man from the entrance. He looked right, and looked left, then set off down the street away from the 12- member posse. Tanmin gave the signal, and the entire group began to converge, as silently as they could manage, on the seemingly unsuspecting target. A few of them had blasters, but the majority were wielding disengaged vibroblades, keeping them off to maintain the element of surprise. Tanmin and his three blaster-wielding compatriots, once at a manageable distance, took up positions and fixed their sights on the figure’s back. Tanmin nodded his head in confirmation, and the four of them pulled their triggers almost simultaneously. At this instant, time seemed to slow for all the combatants. To the great surprise and dismay of the entire group, the white mask whirled around just as the trigger mechanisms began to engage. The man turned to the side and squared his shoulders, so that the thinnest portion of his body, his side, was exposed to the incoming fire. He also dropped to a kneeling position, and ducked his head as the four red bolts flew around him, without connecting. As he came up from the kneeling position, and before the villagers could take another shot, he took two of the vibroknives in his bandolier in his hands and threw them in the direction of the blaster-wielding line. One of the knives barely missed Tanmin, but went behind and landed with a sickening sound in the chest of the man behind him. The remaining two blaster-holding villagers began to fire in short intervals, trying to suppress the man with blaster fire. The remaining eight villagers, brandishing vibroblades, charged from their positions in an attempt to flank the figure. Two more knives flung from the man’s hands and the number of charging men was down to six. They continued to run forwards as the man ducked into one of the adjoining alleys, and ran further from the street. Once the target was out of sight, Tanmin and his blaster-holding companion broke from their stance and ran after their melee-focused allies. Once in the alley, they had lost sight of the masked man. The six blade-wielding villagers slowed in their advance, and crept down the narrow passage. The air was tense and silence prevailed over the several long moments where nothing occurred but frantic, apprehensive thoughts in the villagers’ minds. After a painfully long period of inactivity and suspense, a trash receptacle seemed to lift itself off the ground and travel through the air towards the six men. As it crashed to the ground amongst the dodging fighters, the mask came into full view down the way. It fired its raised blaster into the group, and half of their number took shots to the chest. Two of the remaining three (the third found himself under the trash receptacle) lunged forward in an aggressive charge toward the masked man. However, the distance between the pair and their target was about 9 yards, which provided more than enough time for the man to get off two accurate shots into the both of them. As one fell to his knees and felt the burn of gaseous plasma in this right upper chest, he glanced over and saw his fellow villager thud to the ground on his back, a black, smoldering hole through his left eye. He struggled to hold on to his consciousness, and eventually fell face-first into the hard surface of the alley’s asphalt. As the remaining vibroblade-wielding man wrestled the container off of his body, Tanmin and the other blaster-holding villager came around the corner and found the alley littered with the bodies of five of their comrades, and the masked man standing firmly at the far side. “Twelve of our men have fallen to your hand, you madman!” Tanmin declared. “Lay your weapon down and accept the punishment that you deserve!” The man, the only visible part of which was the white, emotionless mask, tilted its head to the left. It sat there for a few moments as the three remaining villagers stood there, tense, anxious, and worried, blasters and vibroblade drawn. Suddenly, the masked face twitched, twitched again, and twitched a third time, and after the third twitch, the man behind the mask whirled his blaster in front of him with phenomenal speed. It fired two shots on its first pass, then spun around with the momentum, ducked, and fired two more. Tanmin managed to get one shot off before he was struck, but was hit twice himself and fell to the ground. The other two were shot dead as well, and collapsed to the ground with respective thuds. The masked man looked down at his right boot. The tip of it was blown off, and the exposed metal foot smoldered in the hole. A little farther up and Tanmin’s shot may have damaged some components, but the shot ended up being harmless. The masked man collected what he could from the bodies from the villagers. He took the two blaster pistols and as many of the vibroblades that he had spots for in his bandolier. He moved out into the street and retrieved his own four knives from the bodies in the street, and took the other two blaster pistols from the group of corpses. As he was taking the last pistol, he heard a step behind him, and spun around aiming the blaster at the silhouette now in front of him. “Relax, my new masked friend” the shape said in a low, tactful, and sharp voice. “I have an offer for you. One that I think you would be inclined to accept.” Chapter 4: Keep This Quiet Provo Lenst sat in his office, stewing in a poor mood. It had been three days since he had approached the man in the white mask, and had received no word from him since. He began to think that his initial payment had been pilfered, and that he would never see another trace of his “employee” again. “Just my luck!” he shouted, as he slammed his fist into his desk. “Two men end up dead, and the third runs off… Just my luck!” Both his clenched fists struck the desk’s surface with this last desperate declaration. “The ring is as good as gone” he stated blatantly, with his head lying on the desk in between his outstretched arms. “I’ll never see it again; It’s probably on some market in Nar Shadaa by now…” Just as this last postulation crossed his narrow lips, he felt a chill flow through the room like a light gust of frigid air. He immediately looked up to find the masked man standing in the middle of his office, the door closed and all the windows shuttered as they were before. The man’s hands were behind his back in a relaxed position, and he was short one black coat since their last meeting. “How did you…” Mr. Lenst started to ask, but faltered and instead asked, “Were you able to track down Mr. Hovan?” The man waited just a half a moment before he revealed what was held in his right arm. Clenched in his fingers was the soiled hair of another man’s head, with the head still connected underneath. The body that the head was connected to, however, was absent, but the head was in recognizable, if not clean, condition. “You weren’t supposed to kill him!” Lenst shouted. “You were only to follow him and find who he had his dealings with… Not cut his head off!” The man in the mask set the disembodied head on the ground next to him as he reached inside his bandolier pockets while Provo continued. “That man took something from me, and he was the only connection I had to finding it! Who knows how many times it’s been sold and bartered in the past month… You were just supposed to observe his movements and report back to me! I hope you know that you won’t be getting pa…” Lenst’s voice trailed off as a large, ruby-and-diamond-studded piece of fingerwear landed squarely on his desk in front of him. Not only did he lose the words that he was trying to throw at his apparently successful associate, but he couldn’t find any others to fill the void either. So, he sat there in bewilderment for several moments before he could properly relay his disbelief. “How did… where di… but… I didn’t tell you about the ring! How in the world did you know?” He managed to thrust out of his lungs. The masked man replied, after a moment’s thought, “Sometimes questions are better left unanswered” Provo had thought since the night he saw this man in the street that the mask was a bit over the top, even for psychos. It was creepy enough to hear a man’s voice, yet not see his moving lips, but the face on the mask was even more unnerving. The lack of emotion, or any kind of expression, for that matter, seemed to provide both a sarcastically fake sense of peace and an inapproachable emptiness that made one question their own confidence in sentient interaction. The only thing that sent more of a shiver through his spine when dealing with this man was his voice, or what was left of it after implanting a communicator in his trachea (or whatever it was that he couldn’t put his finger on). The sound was simply unnatural, and reminded one of a broken extragalactic S.O.S transmission or a damaged Holosimulation more than a living being. However, these emotions were swept by the wayside from the sheer relief and joy that filled every ounce of Provo’s being upon seeing the ring back in his possession. “There’s a reason I hired you for this job… err…” Mr. Lenst failed to produce a name, and remembered that the man had not provided him with one. “What is your name, sir?” The masked man tilted his head to the left ever so slightly, almost in a pondering fashion. Then, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a narrow, crumpled label. After returning the scrap back to his pocket, he simply said, in the strange, half-electronic voice, “GigaBitt.” “Well then, Mr.… Gigabitt… Here is the reward money I had posted for the ring’s return, on top of what I promised to pay you earlier” Provo handed off a case filled with credit ingots, as he wanted to keep this matter off the records and this masked man did not seem to have a mobile transfer apparatus handy. After handing off the case, Provo bent his head down to close and lock the desk drawer that he had retrieved it from, continuing, “Is there some way that I can contact you in…” But stopped short after looking back up to find an empty room, absent one white masked man. He looked over his desk and saw the head of Mr. Hovan still sitting on the floor. Provo leaned back in his chair, looked up towards the far ceiling, and wondered for a long time as to what he would do with it. Chapter 5: An Obscure Figure “Hovan’s what?!” “He’s dead, sir. We found identification on his decapitated body. There was a metal pole impaled through his chest.” Commander Chane couldn’t believe his ears. “Who would do such a thing?” The young trooper reporting to him shrugged and said, “We found no evidence at the scene. Not only is the security camera in Hovan’s room gone, but the recordings were all deleted. We have absolutely nothing to go off of.” Chane leaned back in his chair for a moment, tapping his finger on his scarred white trooper armor in puzzlement. As he was about to say something, another trooper entered the room. “That’s not entirely true, Commander” the newly entered soldier said less than definitively upon his arrival. “We broadened our search area, and found this.” He set a long black coat on the commander’s desk before stepping back to stand next to the other enlisted trooper. “It was in a tree, of all places. A tree about 500 meters south of Hovan’s residence.” “This coat is too small to be Captain Hovan’s.” Chane stated. “Perhaps it belongs to the murderer? Did you find anything on the coat?” The trooper stepped forward, turned the coat inside out, and pointed towards a small tag on its inside. The tag read, in poorly scripted handwriting: Property of Y’eldor Fanks “Fanks… sir, is he not one of the newly arrived colonists in the settlement to the south of here?” The young trooper inquired. “I seem to remember his name… should I go check the database?” Commander Chane nodded and motioned for him to go. The trooper turned and went, leaving the commander and the newly arrived trooper in Chane’s office. Chane scoured over the coat for other clues, but could not find anything other than the coat’s fabric. After a few minutes, the young trooper returned. “I was right, sir. Y’eldor Fanks recently relocated to Taris with the large Correllian group last year. Other notable points in his dossier…”-he paused to navigate his datapad -“He apparently ran out of money on Correllia when he couldn’t find work in any of the planet’s theaters. His wife left with his children, and, as a last resort, decided to start over with the Taris colonization initiative. Signed on and has been living in settlement 7-alpha ever since.” The commander sat upright in his chair and looked at the other trooper. “Lieutenant, assemble your platoon. We’re headed to settlement 7-alpha. Full combat loadout.” ____________ Onimus’ hands were sore and blistered. The shovel that he wielded was old and decayed; splinters from its handle were constantly poking through his gloves. The villagers had gone searching for Tanmin and the other eleven of their number when the group did not return. They removed the bodies from the street in front of the Cantina and brought them back to the settlement. The suggestion was made to simply cremate them, since they had nothing more than several shovels to use for burials, but the elders decided that their courage and wherewithal was worthy of a burial field with gravestones. Therefore, Onimus worked away, deeper and deeper into Taris’ ground. He was already perspiring a great amount when the block of armor-clad republic troopers marched into the settlement. As the village watched intently, the soldiers broke away from their group to position themselves at the three gates into the settlement, while a team of four approached the residence of Y’eldor Fanks. As this team neared the structure, they found the door locked. After rapping on the door several times, one of the villagers approached them and said, “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but the man who lived here is dead. Dead and buried about two weeks now.” The four soldiers turned and looked to each other. The lieutenant asked, “Are you certain? Are you sure Y’eldor Fanks is dead? How did he die?” Onimus walked over, trying to find an excuse to stop digging, and believing himself useful in this situation. “I was there the day it happened. I was watching the gate.” The Lieutenant turned to look at Onimus through his battered trooper helmet. It had been a long time and many rough incidents since they were resupplied. “Go on”, he ordered. “This… thing… It, err, he… was like half-man, half-droid. He came up to the gate, leapt over it, and killed Y’eldor along with elder Haxun and Thid Tzen. Then it went into Y’eldor’s house and came out wearing some of Y’eldor’s clothing. Then we locked the door and haven’t touched the place since.” The lieutenant was even more puzzled now. “Why would he take Y’eldor’s clothing?” “Oh, of course.” Onimus remembered. “When he arrived here he was naked.” “Can you describe the clothes he was wearing when he left the settlement?” “Sure: He was pretty much wearing all black, except that he took a white mask to wear over his face. I hope you aren’t looking for him; his face is hideous. Oh, and he came out wearing a long black coat. That’s about all I saw. I wasn’t about to get too close, after he killed those three men.” “There are fifteen graves here, and twelve are still being dug.” The lieutenant noted. “What happened to the other twelve, and why are you burying all fifteen together?” “We think the same man killed the other twelve.” Onimus replied. “My brother, Tanmin, led eleven others to find the masked man and make him pay for his crimes against our settlement. They all ended up dead in a street near the cantina a mile north of here.” “Is that so…” The Lieutenant trailed in postulation. “Alright, thank you. Return to your work.” As Onimus turned to go back to the graves, the four troopers returned to the block and reported to the commander via the Lieutenant’s communicator. Commander Chane seemed worried at this latest revelation. “Send word to all the patrols. We must and we will find this masked murderer and put him down.”
Chapter 6: Fear All that fear requires is a simple lack of understanding. From the realm of the unknown, threats emerge and are made whole, daring to strike in unpredictable ways that cast fright into those who lack an understanding of a certain threat’s mechanisms. By knowing a threat, one can prepare for it, but an unidentified danger spreads terror and anxiety amongst those who only know its visage. Sentience is only comfortable in comprehension; intelligence’s only weakness is the indefinite. In itself, fear is a strange emotion. Unlike more clearly defined mindsets, such as happiness or sadness, fear is more of a vague instinct… one that leads those whom it affects to act in desperate, unpredictable ways, and often to hold self-preservation above any kind of honor, self-image, morals or basic needs. Fear cripples; It disorients and disarms those whom it infects. It tears down an enemy’s confidence and shakes their certainty in permanence. When a combatant truly suffers fear, his will becomes broken and he bends whichever way he can to escape it, often destroying himself in the process of fleeing that which he fears. For these reasons, fear makes a very formidable weapon. Several days after the revelation at settlement 7-alpha, the command center of Chane’s regiment was buzzing with activity. Reports had been coming in all day about increased Sith activity on the planet, and a technical issue with the communications relay in orbit caused a scare: apparently there was rumor of an inbound Imperial invasion and the Sith were jamming Taris’ transmissions. Basically, it had been a long day and Chane was finally returning to his office from the strategy room. At the entrance to his office, he removed his glove and pressed his hand against the print scanner on the wall. The light flashed green and the door hissed open. He rubbed his left eye and made his way over to his desk, stopping at the overhead light controls to illuminate the room. Once the lights were activated, he continued over to his chair, sat down, and sighed in relative comfort. That is, until he saw something out of the corner of his eye. Immediately he snapped his head to the left so he could face a corner in the T-shaped room. In that corner stood a man wearing black pants and a dark grey undershirt, sporting a prosthetic right arm and hand. He stood perfectly still, with both hands clasped in front of him at waist-level. He also wore a white mask with a few stains and scuffs, and mounted to the right side of his head was a long rectangular box, about 3in by 3in by 12 in, and grey in color. The shape seemed oddly like a security camera, only mounted facing the other way… Chane stood up and pulled the blaster pistol from his desk. In his trooper armor (nix his helmet), he stood there, shoulders squared towards the masked man, sighted in on the white facial covering. “You have a death wish, creep?” Chane said in a controlled, severe tone. The masked man revealed a small datapad that he was holding in his hand, held both arms up in a passive position, and started to move towards Chane’s desk. As he approached, he challenged, “What do you think I am, Commander?” Chane reeled inside himself as the man said this. The voice was not human. It wasn’t living. But it didn’t sound dead, either. Nor did it sound entirely electronic, but it definitely was caused by some kind of artificial manipulation. A simply eerie sound, the man’s voice did not put Chane’s heart to rest, and it only amplified the ambiguity of his words. “I think you are a murderer. I believe you’ve killed fifteen people over the past few weeks, and so far haven’t answered for a single one.” Chane replied. “My job is to make people answer to their actions.” The man stopped in front of the desk and set the datapad on its surface. “If you think me a murderer, then you are already mislead” The masked man said as he tilted his head to the right. “Also, If you believe that you must kill me, then you should be ready to accept failure, Commander.” Chane did not achieve his position in life by failing his duties. In his mind, the sole responsibility he had at that moment was to end the existence of this killer who broke into his office somehow. He was not about to fail in his responsibilities, and for that reason, he pulled the trigger of the weapon that he still had fixed on the man’s head. Only surprise followed as the man stood there, unswerving, and no blaster bolt came forth. Chane, taken aback, clicked the trigger one more time before the masked man swung his right arm and decked the commander in the left cheekbone with his metallic hand. The trooper, in all his armor, fell to the floor with a thud. “You underestimate me” said the man in the mask, standing near the commander on the floor, now holding his own blaster to the commander’s head. “You would do well to not continue to do so. You might find the experience more…rewarding.” The commander groaned in pain and looked up at the weapon aimed at his temple as the masked man began a semicircular pace about the commander. “Do you recognize this datapad?” The man in the mask asked of the commander. He reached over with his free hand, grabbed the datapad, and dropped it to the commander’s hands. “Does it seem… familiar?” The commander looked to the device’s reverse and noticed his office’s logo stamped in plain sight. “It came from my office, yes” Chane admitted. “Lots of things come from my office.” “Look at what is stored on it, commander” the masked man encouraged. “Then, I think, you should understand.” The commander engaged the datapad, revealing a wanted notice with an artist’s representation of the very man standing over him. It also noted a rather large bounty, to bring him dead or alive. “It seems that you owe me this amount, good sir.” The masked man said with an air of sarcastic accomplishment. His head twitched to the left, and he continued, “After all, I did bring this person to you, very much still alive.” “What do you want, cretin?!” yelled the commander, still on the ground. The masked man did not seem to enjoy the way he was referred to, for as the word “cretin” passed the commander’s lips, the man raised his metallic right leg and brought it down hard on Chane’s nose, breaking it. “I apologize, it seems I have not provided you a name. Is that why you use the word ‘cretin’?” The man asked as the commander writhed on the floor, blood flowing down the sides of his cheeks. “For your next poster, I suggest you use the word ‘Gigabitt’ to reference my…person. It won’t influence your results, commander, for your men have not yet posed any significant challenge, and neither have you. If the decision were up to me, I would abandon this little endeavor of yours before anyone else gets… hurt.” A sly sinister tone seemed to wrap around every syllable that crossed through the opening that was assumed to be near his mouth. “Gigabitt… now I know what to write on your tombstone!” the commander challenged defiantly, still wiping his blood from his head and staring down the barrel of a blaster pistol. “Listen to me, and listen well. You aren’t the first person who has tried to kill me. People were trying to kill me before you were even thought of!” A kind of resentful rage now seemed to motivate his words, but he quickly regained his composure: “If you enjoy life, if you enjoy protecting others, then I suggest that your next action is to grant me clearance to leave this despicable planet. That is all I want. Give me a spaceworthy shuttlecraft and allow me clearance to leave. Do that, and I will no longer be a problem to you or anyone on Taris.” The commander absorbed all that he heard of the obstructed vocal sequences. After a moment of thought, he posed the question, “And if I don’t?” “If you refuse to give me safe passage from this place…” Gigabitt stated thematically befrore his neck twitched to the right, “understand that you will regret it.” The two paused for a moment before the masked man continued, “You have two days to have a shuttle on the east launchpad.” The commander looked into the holes of the mask that must certainly have housed the eyes behind it. “I will hunt you down. I will find you. I will kill you.” Gigabitt holstered his blaster, and drew forth one of his metal knives. He held it close to the commander’s throat, and did what he could to manage a whisper, “Go ahead. Make this fun for me. I would love to see you try. But for the sake of your citizens, you should think about considering my ‘offer’. Two days.” Turning the blade around in his hand, Gigabitt struck the hilt of the knife against the commander’s forehead. The universe shrunk to black as Chane collapsed into unconsciousness. Chapter 7: Escalation A cold, sticky sensation. An adhesive, holding his hair to the floor. A groan as the fibers tear at the scalp in an effort to remove his head from the low carpeting. With a rip, his head pops up as a quick roar bursts from his lungs. The room had not quite regained its shape, but he knew he needed to stand; to make sure of his surroundings… to be certain that the thing was not still within striking distance. Chane struggled to bring his heavy trooper armor off of the ground, stumbling in his ascent and grabbing hold of his desk for support. The haze before his eyes began to yield to the clarity of semi-consciousness. Looking around, he saw nothing out of place. And he saw no white mask. He wondered in his mind how long he had laid there incapacitated. Long enough for the blood from his nose and forehead to cool and crust over, he decided. Still bracing against his desk with his right hand, he struggled to lift his left palm to the intercom linked to his secretary. “Get me a med team…” he managed to utter before his left hand slipped and he fell back to floor with a thud. The room had not quite stopped spinning yet, and he imagined that it wouldn’t any time soon, judging from the hit he took to the forehead. “Right away sir” the secretary responded, alarmed. “Are you alright?” Not wanting to exert the effort to depress the button on his desk again, Chane fought his way to a position where he could lean his shoulder against the side of his desk, facing the entrance to his office. He was too preoccupied with getting this blasted room to stop turning, anyway. Several hours later, Chane paced in front of a block of his soldiers. They were outside, in the morning light, facing into the rising sun so that the light glinted off the blackened transparisteel viewports on their helmets. Chane had his helmet on as well; he didn’t exactly fancy the way the medical staff had set his broken nose, and he didn’t see any reason to alarm his men with the new scar on his forehead. So through his amplified helmet mic he spoke, detailing the very least of his expectations for the masked man dubbed “Gigabitt.” “Whoever brings me the head of the man behind the mask gets six months’ paid leave to Alderaan.” He knew his tone and words were dark for a soldier of the Republic, but desperate times called for desperate measures, and his men needed motivation for the task. “So help me…” he fumed, the anger permeating his helmet amplifier like steam through a grate, “If he is not found by midnight tomorrow, I swear I will transfer the whole regiment to the front lines of Balmorra!” His stance turned aggressive at this last exclamation, leaning his shoulders in towards his men in a confrontational posture as the words bellowed from him. “What are you waiting for?!” the commander shouted. “Get lost!” The large block evaporated as fully suited troopers ran in different directions, and dispersed from the headquarters parade field. Gigabitt sat in the hot, spark-ridden air, his expressionless white mask fixated on his prosthetic right arm. His biological left hand was guiding a soldering iron near the elbow, readjusting the position of the motion sensor that was tied into his nervous system. Not knowing his name nor his story, Ankor continued about his business. Another day in the machine shop, except that some good fortune had come his way. Good fortune in the form of a tip from a masked man to use the shop equipment, that is. His curiosity did not outweigh his attitude toward business; as long as this creep didn’t do anything stupid and paid as well as he did, Ankor couldn’t care any less what he had mounted on the side of his head. The smoke from some of the crafting equipment rose and settled in a layer towards the top of the 6-meter ceiling, and the grinding of tool and beam on metal was unmistakably constant and characteristic of the place. Ankor cut the power to the plasidrill he was using, waiting for the energy core to completely discharge before walking off in the direction of the office. The part that his client had ordered was of a strange construction, and he figured that during this trip, he’ll just bring the whole set of plans out onto the shop floor so he wouldn’t have to walk back as often. He was reaching for the main plans when curiosity got the better of him. He picked up the palm-size holoprojector that contained the object’s blueprints, then looked out the mirrored glass window from the offices into the shop area. The masked man was finishing up the beam welds when he began to stare intently at the device he was affixing. A few moments past, where the man stood entirely still, studying the device on his arm as if he were recording every detail of its shape and form. Suddenly, the man burst into action, running across the room away from the offices and bounding over workbenches. “That’s odd…” Ankor thought before an explosion rocked the whole building. A cloud of fire and a plume of smoke burst from the left entrance door, which was usually kept locked. The metal doors ricocheted off the floor and workstations, smashing all kinds of tools and material in their destructive paths. Ankor ducked a bit as a chunk of debris flew through the unreinforced glass that was, until recently, the mirrored window. As the smoke cleared, three Republic troopers burst into the shop space as the masked man burst out of the far exit. The troopers ran towards the rear of the shop, away from Ankor and the offices, to the worker’s great relief. “Where’d he go?” Sergeant Trelas barked as they came out the rear exit of the shop. “Tri-point, form up!” As the sergeant gave her command, the three troopers formed a tight back-to-back-to-back triangle, each covering a 120-degree area of ground. The shape rolled as it moved, keeping fresh eyes on the three different lines-of-sight. Their blaster rifles at the ready and their glares focused, they scanned the scene for the white mask. The trooper to the left of Trelas felt a tug on his belt and heard a quick *beep*. “What the…” He managed to mutter before he realized what had happened. He watched the metallic hand retreat back into the dumpster, the hand that he knew had just activated one of the reverb detonators on his weapons belt. “Get away from me, NOW!” He yelled as he pushed the other two away. It was too little too late, however, as all three troopers became engulfed in the blast from the trooper’s waist. The trooper in question was blown to pieces, small chunks of flesh and armor painting themselves across the backstreet behind the machine shop. The sergeant was blown against the opposite wall, and the other trooper landed motionless several meters down the wide alleyway. The blast knocked the rifle from Sergeant Trelas’ hands and the wind from her lungs. Up from the dumpster rose a white mask, which promptly noted that the sergeant was very much still alive. Trelas reached across herself for her blaster pistol, but soon found her thinly gloved hand impaled against the wall by a thrown vibroknife. She cried out in pain, then reached for the weapon with her left hand. Before the figure could throw a second blade, she lined up a shot on his head and pulled the trigger. She cursed as the mask jolted to the right, her shot missing the face but connecting with the side-mounted video camera, exploding it. The force from the impact caused the man to whirl about in place, but he regained his balance and whipped out a pair of blaster pistols in the process. Trelas tried to line up another shot, but she fired a little too early for her to completely adjust from the last shot’s recoil, missing her target completely and allowing the masked man to pour red into her armor like a sideways hellish rain. Gigabitt held his smoking, emptied blasters in the air a moment before returning them to their holsters. He then stood up straight and stared into the bottom of the opposite wall for several moments, almost as if a droid would if it were running a self-diagnostic. After this brief pause, he reached up yanked the smoldering husk of what used to be the eyes for the back of his head, dropping the burnt metal camera frame and arcing electronics to the ground. He then surveyed the backstreet. The sergeant, seated with her back against the opposite wall and her legs extended at 30 degree angles, her helmet slumped off on her left shoulder, obviously did not pose a threat of getting back up. One of the troopers was all over the place, and the third still lay in the street, chest-down. Gigabitt made his way over to this incapacitated, if not dead, foe. Obviously not one to take chances or offer any kind of mercy, the masked man reached down and pulled the helmet off of the trooper on the ground. His left ear was to the ground, and his once-brown eyes were now an opaque, hazy grey. The man reached into his bandolier, pulled another vibroknife, twirled it in his fingers a few times for good measure, then brought it down hard in a stab to the cerebral column. Wiping the blade off on his black pants, Gigabitt returned it to its place and retrieved its sister from the sergeant’s impaled hand. Checking his motion sensor, he proceeded to walk down the street away from the more trafficked thoroughfares of the Taris colony. Chapter 8: The Test The day faded. The sun set and rose over Taris as it always had, and the masked man remained at large. Chane had until evening to find him. Gigabitt squatted and stared out the massive hole in the equally massive structure. An old Taris building, not destroyed enough to crumble, but not salvageable enough to repair, managed to remain standing these long three hundred years, and it had sheltered the white mask since the events behind the workshop. From his concealed squat, he stared out of the vine-ridden, rusted, gaping, circular area of missing wall that Malak had so generously left for him three centuries ago. Everywhere in the streets, images showed his mask under a superimposed bounty notice, one of a great amount. Even the homeless wrecks that had inhabited this structure before him tried to lay their hands on this opportunity, so it seemed that every soul on the blasted planet was alerted to his presence. “Chane…” he drawled in a menacing whisper, or at least it sounded so coming from whatever it was in his trachea. “You will have to do better than that, my friend…” He said this after observing, from his high vantage point, the seven republic snipers that he had watched position themselves over the past hour across various rooftops surrounding the shuttle area, where a shuttle had certainly landed. A crew walked about, seemingly working to ready it for another journey. The brain behind the mask must have known better than to accept this act at face-value. The man must have known that they were really disengaging vital systems onboard so that the shuttle was useless. Gigabitt stood, his mechanical right leg gleaming in the light of the sunset. The mask twitched to the right, and the figure disappeared into the black shadows of the building. Chane knew that he was taking a risk. It was an elaborate risk, but no less safe for it. With three hours before the two days were up, he would trap this ‘Gigabitt’ in his own demand. With twelve of his finest marksmen scattered around the landing pad in various locations, with several on rooftops, they would watch each other as much as they would the shuttle. He had indeed ordered the action of disabling the ship, but the workmen cleverly disguised it as a standard resupply process. The masked man would have to come, would have to seal the deal, and as his back was turned, Chane would end him once and for all. And if Chane couldn’t, one of his snipers would. Honor could go crink itself. Nobody kills under Chane’s watch and gets away with it. Forty minutes or so before the allotted time, the sniper team leader made sure all twelve were at their positions. He called out a muster over the comms, and each of his team replied in. He did this every twenty minutes to augment his vitals scanner, just to make sure. He was extremely on edge; Chane had put *his* men in danger for this risky idea, and the team leader was not happy about it. He wished that Chane had chosen somebody else to hunt his white whale. It was well after sun had set, but the area around the shuttle was well lit as it always was at night. Well, that is, until the overhead area lights suddenly went dark, leaving the entire scene in a pitch of black. The sniper team lead instantly grew worried. “Switch to night vision!” he whisper-ordered into the comm channel with his team. A string of expletives poured from his muffled lips as he checked the vitals scanner once more. None changed. He looked back down to the landing pad. The commander was nowhere to be seen. Inside the shuttle, Gigabitt stood a foot away from the commander. Chane, in his full armor, stared through his helmet into the holes in the white mask, unflinching even as an inactivated adhesive thermal detonator held firmly to the thin netting on his neck. The metal hand of his assailant rested firmly on the device’s activator, as the mask stared back into the viewport of the helmet. “I do not appreciate being double-crossed, commander.” The eerie voice traveled heavy with threat. “I don’t know what you’re talking about” Chane replied, in a confident snarl of his own. “You want to play this game, Chane?” the masked man challenged. “I’ll make you a deal. If you can start the engines on this ship, I’ll leave without blowing your head off. If you can’t, well, I suggest you do not take the deal.” “You’re sick, you know that!” Chane asserted. “The moment I…” Gigabitt interrupted him. “No, commander. You are the sick one. I asked for a simple trade.” He said this as he retrieved a small device from his bandolier. “I just wanted to leave this place. I proposed a very forward deal, and you double-crossed me.” He snapped the item into place over the activator on the thermal detonator. “You will soon regret your decision.” The commander started to make a protest before Gigabitt pushed him backward into the bulkhead of the shuttle. “You will regret your decision” The man declared decisively, his vocal patterns slightly more severe than strange. At this, the man reached around Chane and attached a pair of wrist-links to the commander’s arms. After pushing him to the floor of a corner in the shuttle, he held up a remote switch. “Order your men to stand down” He said sternly. The commander stared back into the mask. Slowly, and regretfully, he forced out the command, “Team, order Alpha-niner.” Gigabitt took out a second white mask from his small pack. After opening the ramp on the shuttle again, he held the mask out slightly away from the metal wall’s edge, as if the mask were peering out into the area. Almost immediately, a red bolt sailed through the forehead of the extra mask, causing Gigabitt to quickly pull it back to himself. “That was another test, Commander. You have failed. Again.” The man said this as he pulled out four short individual bandoliers filled with cylindrical metal canisters. “I’m sorry that it must be this way” the masked man said as the Commander simply looked on, a scowl concealed by the helmet on his head. The man let the four bandoliers fly out from the ramp of the shuttle. A great light from dozens of small burst flares filled the shuttle bay and overloaded the viewport on the commander’s helmet, causing it to go into emergency blackout mode, losing him all ability of sight. “Target down?” the sniper team lead heard over the comms after the bolt went through the mask’s temple. “Anyone got a 20 on the body?” he responded. The comm channel fell silent. A few moments passed, where the air was more tense than ever. Suddenly, his visor lit up with brilliant flare, and soon entered blackout mode. “Blast!” He yelled as he ripped off his helmet and stared directly into the star that had been born on the landing pad. His eyes burning, he scanned the area for any kind of movement. He saw a black silhouette rush into the thick underbrush on the far corner of the landing pad. With only eyes on the brush, without sight of the target or certainty that it was the target, and after having his corneas set ablaze, he jerked his rifle into position and fired off a quick, desperate shot. He put his helmet on as the flares began to die down. “Get me out of here!” He heard the commander yell over the comm channel. Grunting, he relayed to his team, “Converge on the shuttle, pattern bravo-delta. Be careful in there, boys. We don’t know if he left us any presents.” “I guess that wasn’t him, Sergeant?” he heard in reply. “Get down to the shuttle and find out, Taikov. Then you tell me.”
Chapter 9: Explosions In The Sky Later that night. “Commander, we have a gunship approaching the settlement now.” “Patch me a Holo feed as soon as it is within range.” “Aye aye, sir.” There had been no contact with one of the western settlements since two hours after the incident on the landing pad. Now reports were coming in about an explosion, and a huge plume of smoke coming from within the settlement’s walls. “Sir, Echo patrol has reached the eastern gate to the settlement. They report that the doors are jammed or locked from the inside.” “Patch through confirmation for a breach and clear. ETA on our arrival?” “About twelve minutes, sir.” “And the gunship?” “About five minutes. Echo is breaching now.” The whir of the engines on the commander’s shuttlecraft held constant the only sound for the next few moments as the communications officer aboard listened intently over the comm channels. His eyes were focused solidly on vitals sensors displayed for Echo patrol. Soon one turned from green to red. One voice amid a storm of shouts came over the Comm officer’s headset amid a tirade of blaster fire through the frequency: “Blast! Where did that come from?!” Two more vitals displays turned red. Then another. Then three more in quick succession. A more profane string of obscenities could not have poured forth from the commander’s mouth as the last four turned red simultaneously. Then all that came over the comm channel was static. “Echo patrol not responding, sir. Gunship inbound: three minutes. Our ETA: ten minutes.” A pause for about two minutes again held only the whir of the shuttle’s engines. Chane’s anger almost boiled him alive inside his trooper armor. Eventually the Comm Officer reported again. “Gunship has visual, Sir. Patching through live vidfeed.” On the display, a giant tower of thick, black smoke rose high into the air against the moonlight nightscape from the center of the settlement on the screen. The whole compound was burnt or burning. As the settlement became larger on the screen, and the angle over the walls grew, a heavy pain descended on the armor-clad commander, weighing his soul as though a brick had been hung from his heart. In the clearing of the settlement, scores of bodies could be seen strewn about the ground. Chane looked to the readout on another display that was just now detailing the file on this settlement. Population: 1,473… Garrison Detail: 8… Weapons Storage: Negative. Being one of the settlements with a port terminal, he checked through the transit logs of the day. The SKIPJACK was scheduled to deliver a month’s supply of fertilizer that night. He looked back to the live feed from the gunship. The column of black gas was pouring out from a shape not entirely unlike theSKIPJACK’s hull. “Gunship is slowing to attack speed, Commander.” “Tell them to be aware of civilians…” The commander paused and thought for a quick second before reversing himself. “Belay that. Fire at will.” The gunship’s live feed now showed that it had crested over the wall of the settlement. It scanned the area for nearly thirty seconds, only revealing the sheer number of corpses that covered roughly 90% of the ground. “Focus on the eastern entrance” Chane ordered, himself. A prompt “Aye aye sir” came back over the comm as the image panned over to the breached gateway. Ten white-clad forms lay slumped against the eastern wall of the compound and face-down in the dirt inside the entrance. “Weren’t there eleven men in the Echo detail, sir?” The Comm Officer asked the Commander. Chane nodded in acknowledgement. “Five minutes out, sir.” Another minute passed with only the sound of the shuttle’s engines permeating the silence of the interior. Four eyes were fixed on the live feed as it shifted from one image of dead bodies to another. “Commander, This is gunship. We don’t have a visual on either target or civilians. Requesting orders, sir.” Chane inhaled sharply, but silent enough that the Comm Officer could not hear. He had the most anxious feeling that he would regret any order he could think to give. However, he was still the Commander. Commanders give orders. “Set down and deploy the ground team. Shoot anything that moves, civilian or otherwise. Take no chances.” Gigabitt had but one wrist-rocket left. The metal components of his red cybernetic eye were shining visible through the melted polymer of the upper-right portion of his mask, which had deformed now into a charred, warped plate across his face. His bald head was burn scarred on the right side of his temple now, and some of the white material had melted and fused to the skin there. His clothes tattered and his back against the smoldering remains of the only remaining exterior wall of a house, he was resting his posterior on the ground with his legs outstretched and began to scan the immediate area. Nothing but bodies lay around him. He hadn’t expected a ground team to breach the east gate, and although he was able to respond before they could get a foothold in the settlement, they had caught him off guard. He was certain that they would have sent in aircraft first… a gunship or something. That’s when he noticed that, in great irony, a gunship was now indeed hovering in the middle of the settlement. He sat there, motionless. The explosion from the thermal detonator, thrown by one of the troopers, had burned the surface of the mask that he wore so that it was no longer white, and he knew it. He also knew that the sea of bodies, similarly burned from the SKIPJACK explosion, provided a perfect camouflage for his position against the house’s wall. The SKIPJACK, surprisingly, had not gone as planned either. He had meant to simply lock down the settlement, kill a few dozen villagers to prove his intentions, then commandeer a vessel from the small starport, load it with a dozen hostages, and set the ship to autopilot into the atmosphere. The catch would have been that he was not on board. He was certain that Chane would have shot the ship down, if given the chance to. It was foolproof: Chane would have believed Gigabitt to be dead, and therefore relax security on the Command HQ that night, most certainly for celebration. Just as they were enjoying their latest “success” that night, Gigabitt was to kill them all… every last one of those Republic vermin… and steal away from Taris in the Commander’s personal shuttlecraft. He simply hadn’t planned on a stray shot from his blaster pistol igniting whatever the *frag* it was inside the SKIPJACK’s cargo hold. She might as well have been carrying military-grade explosive munitions for the star that appeared on the landing pad. The blast had rained flaming substance upon every building in the compound, and leveled the buildings nearest it. Fortunately, he had just entered the settlement and was near the west entrance, far removed from the vessel, when a group of villagers had confronted him and he fired off that fateful round from his blaster pistol. Sailing past all four villagers, that bolt must have travelled at least 200 meters, straight into the 5-meter by 3-meter opening of the SKIPJACK’s cargo bay. He couldn’t have made that shot if he had tried, much less make it a second time. Regardless, the whole place was on fire and there wasn’t a single living soul around, with the exception of the crew of this gunship that was translating through the air over the ruins of the settlement. He had one wrist rocket left. The gunship turned about in the air, surely scanning the area for him. Chane wouldn’t care about survivors, especially after this. Chane would burn all of Taris if it meant the end of Gigabitt. The man behind the melted, warped and charred mask reveled in the ironic duplication of intentions that spanned over 300 years on the very same planet. He didn’t revel for very long though; he had one wrist rocket left, and a Republic gunship was hovering well near directly in front of him. It was actually rather fortunate that he had come across the wrist-mounted launcher in the first place. On his way to the settlement he found the body of a bounty hunter, obviously of Mandalorian origin, hung from a tree by his wrists with a steel cable so that his feet were just inches from the ground. Well, one foot hung just inches from the ground. The other foot, along with the leg it was attached to and a substantial portion of that side of his body, was missing, clawed from his person by some kind of beast, or so it seemed. His helmet viewport was cracked along with several portions of his brown armor, and had been hanging there for quite some time by the stench that permeated the area and had alerted the masked man to its location. A nicer blaster pistol than the one he was carrying and a functional wrist launcher were the only two functional items on the corpse, and Gigabitt was more than willing to put them back to good use. Too bad the pistol he procured shot straight enough and didn’t dissipate enough over 200 meters to not ignite a cargo hold of explosive materiel. One of the two wrist rockets had headlined Gigabitt’s response to the Republic Troopers’ breach of the eastern gate. It had planted square in the chest of one of the troopers, penetrating straight through his armor and killing him with the impact but not detonating. Gigabitt had then pulled his blasters and dispatched six of the others from range over a short firefight. As the last four were entering the compound and suppressing Gigabitt with blaster fire, the delayed wrist rocket decided to finally detonate and engulfed the remaining troopers in fiery carnage. It really was too bad that before the rocket blew, one of the last four had lobbed a thermal detonator in Gigabitt’s direction, bouncing off of a pile of rubble and detonating almost in synchronization with the wrist rocket. And in somewhat close proximity to Gigabitt’s right temple. Now that he finally was emerging of the shellshock, Gigabitt noticed that the gunship was beginning a landing sequence. He also remembered, again, that he had one wrist rocket left. He raised his metal right arm, the one he had mounted the launcher on because it could handle the load better than his fleshy left one, and aimed right at the cockpit of the craft that was facing him. “Incoming!!” Chane heard shouted over the comm. He watched on the live feed as a rocket-propelled object flew straight towards and slightly above the screen he viewed. With a crash of plastiglass and several incoherent shouts, the object broke through the forward view shield and the screen began to pan forwards and to the left. “Bogey did not detonate, repeat, did not deton…” Chane heard over the comm before the feed went dark. He turned his head in the direction of the settlement they were traveling towards, and a small burst of flame and a cloud of black smoke could just be made out in the distance above the treeline. Soon afterward, the white gunship (still a very long distance away) sailed forward and upward into the air, the cockpit leaving a smoldering trail of thin black smoke lines in the air behind it. After carrying itself a fair distance into the air, it rolled to its left and pitched downward at a very steep angle. The engines still burning, it careened back down into the treeline and ended its existence, along with all of its crew and landing party, in a flaming sphere of explosive, exhaustive climax. Chane watched in horror as the smoke from the explosion rose and dissipated into the atmosphere in the foreground of the black smoke column from the settlement behind it. After a few long, tense moments, the Comm Officer broke the silence otherwise only offended by the shuttle’s engines. “Two minutes to Target, Commander.” Chapter 10: Manna From Heaven Gigabitt let his arm down to his side after he watched the projectile smash through the viewport of the gunship. A tense moment gripped the air as he sat there, propped up against the blown-out wall, his legs stretched out in front of him. After a few seconds, the missile erupted the cockpit into a swirling fireball as debris shot in all directions around the aircraft. The gunship lurched forward in the air, and, after taking a slight list into the sky, shot up and out from the settlement’s airspace. Soon afterward, the whine of an object careening back to the ground preceded another explosion, which marked the end of the threat presented by the gunship. Gigabitt sat there for a moment longer, staring across the way at the eastern entrance to what, until an hour ago, used to be a fully functional community. He raised his right arm and turned his head down to look at the wrist-mounted launcher attached thereto. He let out a suppressed, but slightly joyful and electronic kind of giggle when he read the label. BUNKR-BUSTR Bunker busters. Those were expensive little rockets he just fired. It also explains the delay between impact and explosion for both of the rockets he fired, not to mention how one penetrated a trooper’s armor and the other a plastisteel viewport. Setting his metallic arm down to his side once more, he rested again for a moment. After a while, and cricking his neck from side to side, he made an effort to stand. As he was almost stood up, he heard the whir of engines again. He looked to the east once more, only this time to the sky above the settlement’s walls. A Republic Shuttle. Chane’s personal Republic Shuttle. “Set down in the middle of the settlement, near the wreckage.” Chane ordered to his pilot through his helmet mic. If this thing is ever to be stopped, I’m going to stop it myself.” He turned to his on-board engineer. “You, ready the engines for an emergency self-destruct. If I fall, I want you to blow this thing sky-high. The blast will take out everything within half a klick of here. Understand?” A reluctant confirmation came forth from the engineer. Chane looked about to his three-man crew. “We end this. Now.” The shuttle set down next to the smoldering pile of debris that once was the SKIPJACK. The boarding ramp hissed open as would the tongue of a snake. Chane walked down the ramp, his navigation officer by his side. Chane was in full battle dress: Heavy breastplate, heavy shoulder deflectors, heavy gauntlets, heavy thighguards and calfguards, and, of course, his helmet. All accented in Commander’s red and covered in burnmarks, impact dents and scrapes. He carried a shoulder-fired blaster rifle of a substantial size, loaded with antipersonnel ammunition. His pistol at his side and a vibrosword on his back for backups, he looked as though he was ready to blast his way into Kaas City itself. His navigation officer was in a flight suit, armed with a small pistol, only there to be ready to shout over the comm should the commander fall. The pilot and the engineer, dressed in a flight suit and a mechanic’s uniform, respectively, stood in the cockpit and stared out the viewport over the field of corpses and rubble that littered the ground in all directions. Gigabitt stood about a hundred yards away, feet squared and shoulders forward. The once-clean white mask that Chane had last seen him wearing was now a contorted, melted film that adhered to his facial structure, with all the features warped into something more like the face underneath it. Its white color was nearly entirely lost; now the brown and black hues of combustion covered its surface. Its grey shirt and black pants were both tattered and burned through themselves, such that certain metallic surfaces underneath would glow a vibrant red and orange in reflection of the flames that would occasionally burst forth from the SKIPJACK. He held a blaster pistol in each hand, both pointed down, and his head was cocked slightly to the left. Both parties stood there for a time, observing the other and adding to the suspense of the moment. Eventually, Gigabitt took a step and began to methodically close the hundred yard distance between he and Chane. Chane raised his rifle and, without a word, let off a quick shot. The bolt went sailing over Gigabitt’s right shoulder. He stopped his advance and took note of a low wall in his left peripheral vision. After Gigabitt had stopped, Chane shouted out to him through his helmet mic: “That’s far enough, murderer. I’ve given you a chance to hand yourself over. I will offer no such chance now.” Chane motioned around with his left hand to the surrounding area. “These were innocent people, and you have their blood on your hands!” Sound carries farther at night, and as still as this night was, the masked man needed not shout for the commander’s amplified sound receptors to catch. He simply stood there, and spoke as if he were only five feet from the trooper. “You should have heard their screams, Commander.” At this, the Commander let out a fearsome yell and raised his rifle again. As he sent a bolt downrange straight towards the masked man’s forehead, Gigabitt jump-rolled to the left and behind the low wall there. Chane sent another quick shot towards the figure, landing squarely in the center of the wall and nearly blasting through it. Coming out of his roll on the other side of the wall into a kneel with his pistols raised, he let out two quick shots toward the pair near the shuttle. One landed in the hull of the vessel, the other in the chest of the navigation officer, who had just drawn his pistol and his last breath before the red bolt laid him down. Chane whirled his head to look to his dead navigation officer, then spun it back quickly to stare downrange at Gigabitt. “This was between you and me, murderer!” he shouted in the figure’s direction. “Then why did you bring him along, Commander?” The electronic, artificial, inhuman voice carried all too well in the still night air, which was only perturbed by the sporadic crackles from the aftermath of combustion all around. “All I wanted was a shuttle, Chane. I said you would regret denying my request.” “Nothing…nothing will stop me from ending you.” Chane promised in a more controlled tone. “Not anymore. This time you will not walk away. I’ve seen to it personally!” With this last shout, he let out four more blaster shots in Gigabitt’s direction. The masked man leapt to his left behind a pile of bricks as the shots flew toward him. Without any semblance of armor, Gigabitt knew that he couldn’t afford to be hit even once. He was now devilishly close to the smoldering hull of the SKIPJACK. As several more blaster bolts darted over and into the brick pile; Chane must have been covering an advance with suppression fire. If Chane closed the distance to where he could avoid Gigabitt’s cover, he was done for. The masked face quickly scanned the immediate area and found something he deemed useful enough to pick up. On the ground near him lay a bent, rectangular porthole cover about five feet tall and three feet wide. Above a yellow painted handle was painted the words “EMERGENCY EXIT”. One of the few emergency doors from the SKIPJACK, no doubt, and landed here after the vessel’s explosion. Gigabitt held it up by the handle as a shield and stood from behind the short brick pile sheltering him from the scattered red bolts flying overhead. Stepping on top of and over the brick pile in the direction of the shuttle, Gigabitt began a counter-advance. Chane would have definite advantage in a medium-range engagement, but Gigabitt would aim to get in close, inside the range of that rifle. The reinforced alloy used in the SKIPJACK’s hull was able to somewhat withstand the massively overcharged rifle bolts now striking it. The shots landed with such impact that Gigabitt was forced back to the brick pile. As round after round slammed into the metal surface that Gigabitt was crouching behind and leaning into, three consecutive shots landed in the same spot -one after another- and burned a centimeter-wide hole at about the same height as Gigabitt’s head. Gigabitt peered his cybernetic right eye through this small orifice and saw that Chane had stopped his advance about thirty yards away. He seemed perfectly content to stand there and engage Gigabitt from that range. Too many more sequential hits and the structural integrity of the door would be no more. As Gigabitt looked through the small hole, a fourth round slammed into the same spot that that the hole was located. Although most of the bolt was stopped by the metal surface, a small portion of the high- energy plasma shot through and straight into the metallic components that housed Gigabitt’s right eye. Gigabitt kneeled to the ground and braced the shield against him as he tried to rebound from this wound. He found the ocular implant completely inoperable and, reduced to only his organic left eye, attempted to shoulder the impact of the blaster bolts against his impromptu shield. Gigabitt had to change tactics. He pulled a pistol with his free hand (the one he gained from the Mandalorian’s corpse and had inadvertently altered the course of the evening with the shot into the cargo bay) and held it to the right side of the door he held up. Letting loose a flurry of shots in Chane’s direction, he noticed a lull in Chane’s barrage. He quickly looked through the hole that had betrayed him his right eye and saw that Chane was maneuvering behind a bombed-out wall himself and simultaneously reloading. Picking up the shield once more, Gigabitt made a dash forward and to his left, keeping fire from his blaster on Chane’s position and trying to sight his shots as best as possible through the small aperture in his shield. Gigabitt found a warehouse that, while burned and smoldering, still stood. He decided to take the fight inside. He was getting murdered out in the open. As he threw his weight into a charred door with his back, more blaster shots rang out from Chane’s rifle and struck Gigabitt’s door shield. There were no lights on in the warehouse. Only the light from the night air permeated the darkness, as the roof of the warehouse had burned in and collapsed in debris all over the building’s floor. Burnt bodies from the night shift workers could be seen here and there about the place, unfortunate victims of collapsing, flaming roof material. Chane saw the masked man back into the warehouse across the way. He ran over to the door and activated a thermal detonator; within ten feet of the entrance, he lobbed the grenade through the opening and it rolled a short distance inside. Hard-charging toward the door, he braced for the expansion of air that would cover his entrance. A fireball engulfed the immediate entrance area, and Chane ran through the aftermath of it. Once inside, he quickly scanned the surrounding area for the masked man. His rifle poised, he made an attempt to move over to a wall so that his field of engagement was directly before him. As his targeted position got closer, a small vibroblade flew out of the dark scene from his right and lodged in his right hand (Which was guarded by a thin heat-and-blaster-retardant glove), pinning it to the synthetic pistol grip on his rifle. Grunting in pain, he reached over with his left hand and wrenched the blade from his right hand. As he did this, he dropped the knife and the rifle out of severe duress. Pulling his blaster pistol with his left hand, he searched to his right, where the blade had come from. Seeing a silhouette similar to that of the masked man’s, he fired off a pair of shots in its direction. They did not strike a target, but they did light up an area that revealed the man’s position. The two actually locked eyes, although Gigabitt could never have known it for Chane’s helmet. Perhaps he did know. Perhaps he just timed it perfectly. Perhaps fortune favored on his decisiveness. For whatever reason, Gigabitt rose from his crouched position behind an overturned workbench and fired off a volley of blaster fire from both of his pistols, emptying both cartridges worth of bolts into Chane’s heavy trooper armor, and also into his helmet. The commander didn’t even have a chance to return fire; the barrage of blaster bolts knocked the well-shielded man backward several paces and ruined the viewport on his helmet. Fortunately for the commander, the blasters did not have the stopping power necessary to penetrate his armor. It sure hurt something fierce to get hit by them though. As the last bolt slammed into Chane’s white breastplate, high and to the right on it, he spun around and ran into a column. Gigabitt pulled on limp triggers before dropping the pistols to the floor and jumping over the workbench. As he approached Chane, he pulled two vibroblades from his bandolier. Just as he had raised them for the kill, it hit him. The back of Chane’s heavy, dead-weighted right hand hit him. His viewport nearly inoperable, Chane had had just enough time to see the figure lunge at him. Swinging his right arm, he backhanded Gigabitt across the face, such to the point that the masked man stumbled towards the wall, crashed through a large window, and landed back onto the scorched earth of the greater settlement once more. He quickly got up as Chane crawled through the window, his armor badly damaged and his defective helmet discarded. The two stared at each other for a time, both injured and fatigued from the engagement. Chane raised the pistol in his left hand and tried to take aim, but Gigabit leapt forward and knocked the blaster pistol off-aim with one of his vibroswords as Chane fired off a round. Gigabitt slashed his left vibroblade at Chane’s throat, while he was in close range, and Chane countered with his right wrist gauntlet. Pushing Gigabitt away from him, he felt his hold on the pistol in his left hand loosen as the man’s vibroblade hooked it and wrenched it away from his grasp. Chane, now without rifle or pistol, reached back with his left hand and drew his vibrosword. Again the two stood apart from each other for a time. They simply stared into each other’s souls, brandishing their blades in defensive stances. Chane did not find a soul behind the eye of the masked man before him, and suddenly the masked man broke the silence. “Did you really think you could kill me, commander?” He asked simply, his voice shredded in electronics as it passed across his trachea. “Was that your expectation?” Chane stood there, unswerving. His eyes studied the face of the man before him, silently searching for any exploitable weakness. “Death is no end, Chane” Gigabitt stated lowly. After the words had begun to sink into Chane’s mind, Gigabitt sprung to life with a new ferocity. Whirling about, and with one fluid motion, he knocked the vibrosword from Chane’s hands with one vibroblade and lodged the other blade hilt-deep in the base of the commander’s skull. The commander’s face froze in an agonizing expression as his weight brought him to his knees, and ultimately face-down on the charred, body-littered ground. Just as he believed he could rest, Gigabitt turned to his left. Now peering around a corner was the pilot of the shuttle Chane had flown here. The warehouse had blocked the pilot’s view of the fight, and he had stole away from the ship to keep a vantage on the conflict. He turned the corner just in time to see the commander fall, a vibroblade protruding from his upper neck. At that sight, the pilot turned around and ran toward the shuttle. Gigabitt tried to run after him. After explosions, blaster wounds, fire, blows, glass, and general fatigue, he couldn’t even to have hoped to keep pace with the man, much less catch him. As Gigabitt rounded the corner that the pilot had run from, he took his remaining vibroblade in a throwing fashion, readying himself for a throw of about 25 yards. As he let out a breath and took in another, a red bolt came streaking through the air and scattered the pilot’s brains all over the burned ground. Gigabitt stopped mid-throw at this happening. Just as he had registered the pilot’s demise, he noticed the engineer about halfway down the ramp, so that only his legs showed from under the hull of the vessel. The engineer peered out from under the hull to catch a glimpse of the pilot. At that, another red bolt sailed across and blew out the engineer’s right knee. The man collapsed onto the ramp in a scream and a third red bolt cruised straight through his skull as had the pilot’s. Gigabitt stood there, shaking from fatigue and conflict, trying to take in all that had happened over the past two and a half seconds. Soon he realized that he was in the open and a sniper was reigning death over the area. Gigabitt shot a glance up to the settlement wall to his right, about 150 yards out, and viewed the visage of a female holding a long barreled rifle. She stood and saluted in his direction before deploying a small floating droid. As it moved in Gigabitt’s direction, the sniper turned around and disappeared behind the settlement’s wall. Gigabitt held his blade at the ready as the droid approached. Instead of confronting him, the floating metallic bulb displayed a holorecording. “This is Watcher 47” The shrouded image said. “We’ve had our eyes on you for a while now. If a shuttle is all you want, you can find one just two kilometers to the west. The Galactic Empire has an offer to present you.”