The Unseen Peril – Chapter 2

Star Wars, Episode I Redux: The Unseen Peril
Chapter 2

The scent of rotting vegetation and stagnant water wafted up to him, the smells of his home here in the swamp.

He was alone—in perfect isolation.  But where most in the galaxy thought of isolation synonymous with silence, here the call of animals and the buzzing of insects formed an orchestra of noise which a younger version of himself had found frightening.  Now they were as comforting as a warm cot or a spiced stew.  It was comforting precisely because of what he had found frightening, the radiating energy of life and the Force all around him.

He peered up through the long-hanging mist to the tangle of vines over head.  With eyes accustomed to the task, he traced their convoluted routes, their equally convoluted junctures, further and further up until they disappeared from sight.  He saw every connection, every point of weakness, and every point of strength.  A moment later he found what he was looking for—yes, that one—and focused his thoughts and energy upon the task.  In his mind’s eye he saw a ball of energy, glowing and radiating in the gloom.  With each passing second it absorbed more and more to itself, drawing on the lifeforce around him, compressing, building…

And then, he released.

With a single sheer bound, he leapt up through the humid swamp air which beat at his clothes and tousled his hair.  He saw the vine he wanted before it was visible through the mist, and grabbed hold, seemingly dangling by one arm in midair.  The unseen vine held against his weight, and with another lunge of glowing energy, he pulled himself over the tangle, hand coordinated with leg to propel him.  Up and up he climbed, higher than the layer of mist, higher than he had ever climbed before, until with a final vault, he cleared the last of the vines and bound onto the canopy roof.

With practiced grace, he settled himself among the branches and surveyed the world before him.  Though his eyes saw little more than the tops of the highest trees peaking over the clouds which covered the swamp world, his mind’s eye showed him the energy emanating from its mass, filling the void between his mind and their lifeforce.

He closed his eyes, breathing deeply, taking in the smells and slowing his beating heart.  Magnificent.

But when at last he opened his eyes, he no longer found himself among the branches.

Sweat dripped from his neck down onto his chin as he slowly realized that the world was upside down.  Sweat ran into his ears, up his nose, and into his eyes, blurring what he saw before him.  Blinking through the haze he looked around, but though his eyes refused to focus, he realized he was still in the swamps.

Yes, this too was familiar territory.  Slowly turning his head from left to right, he regarded his biceps critically as they trembled with the effort of balancing his weight upon his hands.  His legs extended high over top of him in the well-remembered exercise in discipline and concentration.  How many times had he fallen, only to try once again–more tired than before, but no less willing.  It had humbled his personal sense of strength and taught him that no matter how weak his body might feel, it would always be stronger than it seemed.

The swamp was different now, hazier, the white mist clinging heavily to the ground.  He could see little beyond the clearing where he was balanced.  An eroded shore with brackish waters lapping against it.  The trunks of massive trees, the same ones he had been climbing only moments before, some half-rotten.  Stones lay strewn about the place, amid the rubble and refuse of a primordial jungle—

He saw him sitting upon one of the stones.  Large, pensive eyes framed in a wrinkled, wizened face regarded him with what appeared to be genuine concern, the first time he could recall seeing such an expression from the diminutive figure of his master.

Much doubt I sense in you.

He recognized that voice, though there was something not quite right about it…

He did not respond, though not from a lack of trying.  He felt the urge to respond, to say something—maybe a witty remark or something more introspective—but when he tried, he could not will his lips to move.  Some trick, he wondered, or some new kind of exercise?  He wasn’t sure, realized.  His training had always been unpredictable, and his master—

He looked at the small being again.  That face, that voice…

To where have you gone?  It was his master’s voice, but the words were not spoken.  They instead emanated from within his own mind, echoing softly as if from a great distance.

He felt his weight shift slightly.  He closed his eyes again and breathed, concentrating his energy.

Recall yourself, the voice said, distant.

He tried to respond, but whereas before he had been unable to form words, now he managed to move his lips.  The effort alone sent searing pain across his face and drilling down into his head.  It caused his arms to give some way, and with a grunt he redouble his efforts to remain balanced.

Your name? the voice insisted, echoing in his thoughts.

He opened his mouth—more pain—but now he managed a sound, little more than a croak, like one of the swamp’s creatures.  He tried another time, but once more he could produce little more than sound and not word.  It was as if he had lost the ability to speak, though he felt capable of doing so.  And with each attempt, he could feel his body tremble anew, teetering him back and forth like a sapling in the wind.

He had to concentrate.  He had to stay under control.  It was the only way.  If he could not—

Recall yourself the voice repeated. You must recall your name. There was an edge of command to the words now.

His name?  Of course he knew his name.  It was…

He felt a wave of panic wash over him, and with it his arms wavered.  He fought to keep his balance, to hold his pose.  But he was tired, that much he could feel, and with the fatigue he felt a new sensation, a stabbing ache across his  body and in particular along his spine.  How long had he been like this, balanced so precariously?

His name…

Where are you? the voice came back, more insistent this time.

That he knew—didn’t he?

He opened his eyes, looking out into the mist.  Careful not to lose his balance, he moved his head—and froze in agony as lightning bolts of pain shot up and down his neck.  Sore muscles screamed in agony, and with a final spasm they relented and he lost balance.

When he awoke, he noticed that he was still upside down, his legs perched over his head against something hard.  He turned his head to look—and yelped as pain lanced up his spine, bringing stars before his eyes.

He waited—seconds, minutes, maybe hours.  He waited for his muscles to relax, working through the various techniques he had been taught, some by his master, others in the Defense Forces.  They worked, to a degree, but whatever injuries he had suffered, he could feel that they were far more serious than anything those techniques had ever been meant to address.

It took another few minutes for him to get his bearings, and in that time it slowly came back to him.  The harried jump into hyperspace, the ambush, spiraling out of control, entering the atmosphere—and then nothing.  No matter how hard he tried, he remembered nothing beyond that final glimpse of the planet’s atmosphere coming up towards them.

The operations suite of the Sirocco was a mess of twisted metal and broken electronics.  Sparks shot out from a dozen places among control panels, while alarm lights flashed their silent warnings.  In a few places gas geysered from unseen pipes, much of it super heated based on the air which rushed towards him.  Aboard a starship, much of it was undoubtedly toxic.

“Up,” he croaked to himself, the way he would have to a tired soldier.  “Up, up, up.”  With that final declaration, he pushed himself up from where he lay, setting off another round of stars before his eyes.  But this time he knew what to expect and so the pain was more manageable.  Once the muscles in his back settled, he hefted himself to his feet, leaning heavily against the chair next to him—

It was mounted to the wall, he realized.

No.  He looked at it again and then, gingerly, all him at the rest of the operations suite.  No, the chair was not mounted to the wall; rather, the ship was on its side.  Which meant they were on a planetary surface, one which had its own gravity.  In fact, he was the one standing on the wall, which in turn meant that the ship’s reactor had failed, otherwise the ship’s own internal gravity would have kept him pressed against the deck.

And if the reactor had failed, then he probably didn’t have much time before it went critical.

He peered around the room again, taking in as much of the situation as he could in a single, careful sweep.  He saw the bright red stain of blood where one of the technicians had been slammed against a bulkhead—the lower part of his body was just visible beneath a control panel that had been ripped from its mounting.  Another body, this one clad in familiar black fatigues, had not been dead when he last saw him.  His head and limbs were twisted in strange, impossible directions, looking like a hastily discarded children’s doll.  Sergeant Tellef lay where he’d been thrown, no blood and no visible signs of crushing, but he was certainly dead.

Balancing between the chair and a nearby control panel, he stepped forward—and felt something squish underfoot.  Reflexively he pulled up his foot and stifled a groan at what he saw.

Battlefields were not known for being especially clean.  The grime and gore of war could turn a beautiful countryside or cityscape into the worst kinds of horror.  But even so, only twice in his entire career had he ever stepped on a dead body.  The first time it had been a child’s hand, severed from its owner by a roadside bomb no doubt intended for him and the soldiers with him.  The skin had been charred black by the explosion which crackled like grilled meat when he touched it.

He had been young then, fresh out of the advanced leadership course and thrust into his very first mission with the Republic’s vaunted Special Reconnaissance Commandos.  He had known what to expect on the killing fields of Gerro Minor.  By the time he had landed on the small, remote moon, rebel forces had been fighting to overthrow the totalitarian regime of Orpontu Bassad for seven years.  Seven years of unrelenting civil war, and only at its end, when the rebels seemed on the verge of victory, had the Senate at last authorized the use of Republic military forces in the fight.  It had been the bloodiest of the conflicts he had ever witnessed, atrocities and genocide on an unimaginable scale committed in the name of liberty.

And now, only the second time in his career, he found himself revolted by the horror of it all.

The body of young Lieutenant Hogart had its skull caved in from a blow to the back of the head, with parts of his brain oozing out around the shattered skull.  The force of the impact had been enough to sever the skull entirely from the spine, which now stuck out the poor man’s back in a grizzly example of a compound fracture.

Poor bastard, he thought, and with an effort stepped around the body towards Tellef’s limp form.  He reached into one of the pockets of the sergeant’s fatigues and drew a small identity chip from inside.  It still looked functional, he thought, as he placed it in a small hidden pouch beneath his belt.  He looked over at the dead crewman beneath the broken panel and then back at Hogart.  Did the Fleet mandate that their personnel likewise carry identification units on them?

A few minutes of searching both bodies turned up nothing he recognized as an identity chip.  Sighing, he turned back to the room and maneuvered his way across to the rooms’ single hatchway.  From his perspective, it was turned at a right angle and was mounted halfway up the wall.  For anyone else, it would have presented a serious challenge, but for him…

Standing at the base of the wall, he looked up at the door and focused his attention on the doorway.  He envisioned what he would do, as he had so many times in his training.  He would leap up, grab the edge of the hatch, and with a quick slap at the manual release force it open.  Locking it down would be a little trickier, but even injured, as he no doubt was, he felt confident in his abilities.  After that, he would pull himself out into the corridor, at which point he would need to begin searching the ship for other survivors.

If there were other survivors.

He pushed the thought from his mind and focused on the door, on the frame around it, envisioning himself leaping up, opening the hatch, and pulling himself through.  He imagined it again and again, going through the steps methodically.  Satisfied with his plan, he took another breath.  Then slowly letting it out, he cleared his mind and stretched out—

A sharp, stabbing pain lanced through his mind, and as though taking a physical blow, he felt his knees quiver and give way.  He fell hard against the bulkhead as the electric pain continued to emanate from somewhere deep inside his head and pushing out in all directions.  He squeezed his eyes against the pain.  White spots flashed before his eyes.

And then slowly the pain receded, leaving in its place a dull static whine in his ears.

His injuries must have been more extensive than he realized.  Perhaps the effort of moving around the room had taken its toll, especially if he had injured his spine.  Hogart’s mangled corpse rose before his mind’s eye, that column of vertebrae tearing through flesh and cloth as though it were a spear.

With an effort of will, he forced the image from his mind.  Steadying himself, he rose to his feet again and peered back up at the door.  Leap, grab the frame with his right hand, manual release with his left, lock it down, up and over.

Simple.

Focusing his mind once more, he tensed against strained and aching muscles, preparing for the leap.  Clearing his mind of all thoughts, all self doubt, he stretched out—

Another psychosomatic blow all but threw him against the wall.  He let out a sharp yelp and grabbed at his head, feeling as though it were about to explode.  The pain was more intense this second time, flashing through his mind like lightning in the skies over Imperial City.  He pressed with his arms against his head, willing the pain to leave.

And like before, it receded—slowly, leaving behind that incessant ringing.

What is going on? he demanded in the echo of his mind.

As if in response, something fell down against him–something light weight.  He opened his eyes and saw dangling before him a rope.  It was fibercord, he realized belatedly, the same sort they used for rappelling and—

He looked up.

Peering down at him from the inexplicably open hatchway, he saw the brimmed, open-faced helmet of a soldier.  The lad was saying something, motioning with a black gauntleted hand.

What was he saying?

Through the ringing in his ears, the words came to as though from a great distance.  The soldier was calling to him, he realized, as he heard name called to him.

Ben!

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