Star Wars, Episode I Redux: The Unseen Peril
He lifted his hand from the boy’s forehead and brought it up to rest against his own. Coarse sand cut at his fingers and smeared in a red-brown mixture against his skin. The bitter taste of bile rose in the back of his throat and for a heartbeat he concentrated on keeping the nausea at bay. It was a relief, he realized with some annoyance, to allow himself the comfort of dealing with such minor conveniences in the midst of an unabashed disaster.
Of those who had survived the collision in their retreat to hyperspace, eight survived—nine if you counted the unconscious crewman laid out before him. The boy’s pain reverberated through the Force, his consciousness slipping further and further from his grasp. The exertion of connecting with the other’s mind brought with it the sort of psychosomatic pain he had experienced first inside the remains of the Sirocco, and although now far less acute than it had started, it nevertheless continued to ring in his head. There was a sort of distance that had not been there before, something nearing a barrier, as though he were seeing the boy’s lifeforce from beneath the waves of an ocean. Proximity to the subject of his focus helped and made the insights he could discern clearer, but there was still something lying between them. It was as though a form of electronic jamming had been placed over his being, blocking the connection he had felt all these many decades with the universe around him.
But how to explain that to the expectant looks all around him? Two—three, he corrected himself, were members of the ship’s company and five were commandos, and then he himself, the lone surviving officer. He tried to ignore the expressions for a moment and concentrated on the crewman.
“He is stable,” the officer said slowly, which was in itself true—from a certain point of view. For all intents and purposes, the boy was braindead, living but incapable of sentiency, and without the aid of life-support systems, very soon would be incapable of sustaining life. Of course, the commandos knew the truth—they were too well trained to miss the obvious—but it would not do to needlessly panic the other members of the crew over an inevitability. “But he is very badly wounded,” he went on. “We will need to find a settlement and aid.”
One of the commandos gave him a questioning look but made no comment.
They were all wounded in some way—the poor lad was merely the worst among them. Powered exoskeletons built into casts and splints would ensure they could continue to operate, if in a great deal of pain. The commandos had their own syringes of pain meds, but the number of injuries still meant they would have to ration. He would himself take no pain meds until he was sure that whatever was causing his head to throb was not a concussion.
The short-range headset he had scavenged from one of their shattered helmets clicked in his ear. “Atmospheric contrails—there’s something coming down,” Killian’s voice filled his ear with the clipped accent typical of Ord Mantell and its colonies. “Formation and burn patterns are consistent with drop pods.”
He looked down at the unconscious crewman before him. There was nothing else he could, and so he stood and turned away. Stepping from the shade of a prefab shelter they had pulled from the wreckage of the Sirocco, he entered the harsh yellow light of the planet’s sun and at once began to sweat. He was still in the black garrison fatigues the commandos were accustomed to wearing aboard ship, a high-collared affair with long sleeves and knee-high boots. As he walked, he rolled up the sleeves on the tunic and unclasped the collar, grateful for what little relief it offered.
Squinting against the glare, he looked out across the sandy plain. The ship had crashed at a shallow angle at the very edge of a desert abutting a range of distant mountains. Sheer, dagger-like peaks rose on the nearer horizon, a shock of green and violet against the browns and yellows of the desert sands all around them. Rocky outcroppings dotted the landscape in the middle distance, out among which were Killian and one of the other commandos, young Vitner. They had taken off to scout the approach to the mountains, in the expectation that the greenery might yield civilization where dunes of sand rarely did. He started in that direction at a quick trot.
Off to his left, he saw the streaks of fire falling from the sky. A look through a pair of macrobinoculars confirmed what the sergeant had already reported. There were two dozen or so, maybe fewer if, as he suspected, some of what he was seeing was debris from the engagement in orbit. They fell from the sky in less dramatic fashion than the holovids made them out to be, but he knew better than to underestimate their seemingly serene passage to ground. The Mandalorians were known to utilize drop pods to deadly effect in their invasion of planetary worlds, plummeting their own particular brand of paratrooper commandos through the atmosphere with such speed and precision as to catch defending forces unprepared. Once on the ground, Mandalorian shocktroopers would swarm forth to secure landing sites for heavier, more powerful follow-on forces and equipment, opening a beachhead on what might otherwise have been a world untouched by conflict.
But such invasion operations often required tens or even hundreds of thousands of pods and paratroopers, along with a flotilla of support craft. This was no invasion force. These were Mandalorians hunters, a phalanx sent to find their elusive quarry.
We are in no condition to fight.
As he closed the distance with Killian, he cast his eyes across the expanses of desert out towards the mountains.
They were formidable, huge, and seemingly impassable. Snow gleamed from the summit of the tallest, while the scars of rocky outcroppings and cliffs gave the mountains the appearance of a sleeping mythosaur’s back.
“Colonel,” Killian said by way of greeting when they were at last within speaking distance. “The mountains—there’s a pass there,” the veteran soldier said, seemingly reading the other’s mind. He read off the coordinates, and in response they both raised their macrobinoculars to look at the location in question. “Seems to be the only natural opening. We can make for the pass, but they will follow us.”
“Yes,” the other replied evenly, “that may be so, but our options are limited. Perhaps we will find signs of civilization there.”
He felt more than saw the apprehension in the two commandos standing in the shade of a boulder. The most powerful reaction was the one emanating from Killian. He could see the sergeant-major—older than himself by perhaps a decade—spot him and begin to cross the distance in the sun with Vitner in tow. No doubt Killian was considering carefully how he might convince the major under in his charge—for that was how the veteran soldier saw it—against the foolhardy decision of making contact with the locals. Killian was, after all, the company’s senior sergeant, a wellspring of experience and all manner of anxiety for the wellbeing of the personnel under his supervision.
Among the Republic’s limited military forces, these soldiers knew better than any other the dangers inherent in entering entirely unfamiliar territory, particularly the steep slopes of a rocky mountain range. They would instantly be at a disadvantage to anyone sited along the higher ridges, and would predictably find themselves in an equally disadvantageous valley on the mountains’ far side. Such terrain was known to be among the most difficult in which to conduct operations, to say nothing of a blind retreat. Bands of guerilla fighters would harry Republic forces during war game simulations to great effect. If the Mandalorians managed to beat them to the mountains…
He stopped when he met Killian, while Vitner scowled walked past them saying nothing as he continued back to the others. Out of earshot, Killian started, “Colonel, the mountains are supposed to be crawling with runaway Wookiee slaves. Don’t know if you’ve seen what a Wookiee can do to a man, but I can tell that it is not a pleasant sight. Sir.”
He nodded at the comment, though the addition of the courtesy spoke against its use as an honorific. “The Mandalorian will have to come to us,” he began. “We do not go to them. If were we to clear the distance in time, we may be able to take advantage of the terrain and use it against them.”
“To our advantage,” Killian abridged, though the thought had clearing occurred to him. “We gain more ground. That will work.” The roiling mass of frustrated anxiety that was Killian settled, though it did not entirely dissipate. “Very well, sir,” he said at last. Then slowly, inexorably he let his gaze pass in the direction of the survivors. “What about the kid?”
He sighed, trying to find a workable solution for their particular situation. The boy could hardly move on his own, but having others carry him around would slow them down. And any loss of time was a loss of advantage.
“Ben,” Killian said flatly, “he’s going to die.”
In silence they started back towards the others, following in Vitner’s steps. Occasionally they would pause to look out towards the pods, now disappearing behind atmospheric disturbance. They were approaching a landing.
“We’re taking him,” the Major said resolutely before they reached the others. “I realize it’s foolish. But we cannot simply leave him.”
Killian gave him what passed for a smile. “Perhaps, sir. But who’s the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?”
Bearing the unconscious crewman aboard a battered repulsorsled, the band of survivors disassembled the prefabricated shelter, abandoning its relative safety for the open expanse of the desert plain and the hope of aid in the mountains or beyond.