“They’re saying something about a hull breach on deck seven, and there’s chatter about…a dismembered protocol droid? Do you know anything about that?” Stretch had put his helmet back on and was relaying information to Cutter.
“No, are they related?”
“I don’t think so. Different decks, at any rate.”
Inquisitor Morek appeared in the door frame, seemingly out of nowhere. She rapped on the wall and declared, “I’m here for the droid.”
Cutter and Stretch turned as one, though Cutter could only say, “Droid…?”
Stretch paused to give Cutter a chance to respond, but the technician only stared pointedly in return. Anyone who knew him would recognize the look of “Hell no, I’m not going to suggest to her that it’s her fault the droid ran off. Did I mention astromechs can be supremely dangerous?”
Eventually, Stretch said, “He’s taken off somewhere. We, uh…had some problems with him.”
“Problems? Don’t be vague, trooper.”
“Well, he was resistant to having a fresh restraining bolt installed. We don’t know where he is, though I’m sure he’s on board. It’s not like he could steal a ship or anything.” Stretch looked to Cutter for confirmation, who only gave a non-committal shrug. “I can put out a call for him, though the hull breach is going to take priority over—“
“Yes, on deck seven.”
Cutter stepped over to the console and pulled up a ship schematic. A flashing red X appeared on the port side. Inquisitor Morek pushed him aside and examined the schematic more closely, taking in the nearby corridors and turbo lifts, and the things they connect to. “You have got to be kidding me,” she said.
The Inquisitor straightened up and faced the clones. “Cutter, is it? I assume you have an ion blaster around here, as well as restraining bolts. Find them. One of you call in a support squad. Both of you come with me.”
“All right, we’ll treat the blast doors like an airlock. We don’t know what’s on the other side, so be ready for anything.” Everyone on the squad nodded, checking their weapons.
“Wait!” said Cutter. “I can’t go in there. I don’t have any breathing gear.”
“Fine,” said the squad leader. “Give me your weapon.” He indicated the two clones. “You both stay here, we’ll take care of this. Are you ready, Inquisitor?”
Morek nodded. “Remember, the droid is the priority, and I need him in one piece. Ion blaster only. If we find the prisoners with him, do what you must.”
They arranged themselves so that Morek and the stormtroopers were on one side of the blast doors, with Cutter and Stretch on the other. Stretch opened a hidden panel, pulled a lever, and the doors slammed closed between them.
Stretch said, “You really think R-zero is behind this?”
“Maybe. People dismiss astromechs because they look like trash cans and talk in burps and whistles, but they’re crafty, and have more tools and gizmos inside them than you can imagine.”
“But…why? What reason would he have to try and stage a rescue?”
“Search me. I did a little digging after he zapped me, though. You know he used to belong to the Jedi?”
“He did?” Stretch looked away, considering. “You ever work with them, during the Clone Wars?”
“No. They were on board for missions every once in a while, but I never had to deal with them. They didn’t typically have much use for my services. Seems like they either had no use for droids at all, or they were inclined to tinker with them on their own. You?”
“Once, early in the war.” He looked Cutter in the eye. “You know, they say the Inquisitors are former Jedi.”
“Really?” The surprise in Cutter’s voice was palpable. ”I thought the whole order turned treason. Some of them stayed loyal?”
“That’s what they say.” Stretch pulled off his helmet, switching off the comm inside. “Listen, I meant what I said earlier about leaving the Navy. This thing we’re doing here, taking civilian prisoners on a whim, executing some at random, using others as fodder for whatever that thing is Morek is doing in the hangar? You should have seen the city on Ryndellia. We destroyed it, and for what? It’s not right. I don’t know when, but I’m getting out.”
There were too many prisoners to fit in a single turbo lift, so they had to go in multiple separate cars. Having managed to communicate which level they should go to after multiple rounds of pantomime, R0-N1 hung back with the last group, which included Althea and her new escort now that Zhanna was busy. When he exited the turbolift and joined the rest of the group, he found Zhanna engaged in a heated discussion with a small group of stormtroopers.
Hugging the wall, R0-N1 slowly scooted away from the turbo lift doors to get a better vantage point. One of the troopers was holding the burnt out husk of a MSE droid. It was still smoking slightly from the hole a blaster had cut into its shell. Zhanna had her head held high and was giving the stormtrooper her best haughty glare, hands clasped firmly behind her back. The troopers wouldn’t be able to see them, but R0-N1 noted they were trembling.
Zhanna declared, “I told you, we are escorting the prisoners to the other side of the ship.”
“To where on the other side? And on whose orders?” demanded the stormtrooper.
“That’s strictly need to know. Now will you let us go?” Zhanna made an attempt to move forward, but the trooper blocked her, pressing his blaster sideways against her chest.
“With all due respect, sir, that’s not good enough. I’m going to need to call this in.” He nodded to the dead MSE droid. “There’s been a lot of screwy things going on lately, and I’m not taking any chances.” He touched a contact on his helmet and spoke to some unseen superior. “Captain, have you heard anything about the Ryndellian prisoners being taken out of detention?”
R0-N1 decided he had seen enough. Moving to one side, he dropped the plasma cartridge he was carrying to the floor and nudged it slightly to the left. Carefully positioning himself, he magnetized his feet to the floor and extended one of his channels downward onto the cartridge, crushing a corner of it against the floor until the casing cracked with an audible pop.
As a jet of gas began to hiss out of the broken cartridge, R0-N1 let out a sharp warning whistle. Maybe half of the prisoners looked at him curiously, while the rest remained fixated on Zhanna and the stormtroopers. R0-N1 extended his shock probe into the stream and sparked it, while simultaneously releasing his grip on the cartridge. The gas turned into a jet of flame and the cartridge careened across the floor.
R0-N1 screamed, RUN! and took off in the opposite direction, mere seconds before the cartridge hit the opposite wall and exploded in a bright orange fireball. The blast spun him around like a top, and it took R0-N1 a moment for his gyros to settle back down. When they did, he circled back to the prisoners. They were similarly discombobulated, and were picking themselves up off the ground.
Zhanna was pinned under the stormtrooper who had been challenging her. As she came to, she shoved the body off her and rubbed the back of her head where it had slammed into the deck. She could already feel it starting to swell. “What the hell was that?” she muttered, louder than necessary.
The priestess nodded at R0-N1. “It was him. I don’t think he liked where your conversation was going.”
Zhanna glared at the droid. “A little warning next time?”
R0-N1 protested that he had given them as much as he could, and it wasn’t his fault no one could understand him. It was almost enough to make him wish for a protocol droid counterpart. Almost.
Either way, he must have gotten his point across a little, because Zhanna threw up her hands in mock surrender. “Fine, fine. Whatever. Just…what do we do now?”
Before anyone else could respond, Brel asked, “Guys, do you hear that?” He was staring at the hold in the wall the plasma cartridge had created.
Zhanna stuck her finger in her ear and waggled it around. “It’s probably just your ears ringing. Frankly, I’m surprised we’re not all deaf.”
“No, that’s not it. I think there’s something in there.” Brel pointed at the hole. “Don’t you hear it?”
“No, I can barely hear– wait.” Zhanna stared at the hole, then turned her head sideways to listen. Eyes widening with alarm, she backed up and waved for Brel to come with her. “Uh, maybe you better step away from there.”
By this point everyone could hear it. A high-pitched squeal was coming from beyond the wall, getting louder by the moment even as its pitch dropped. This was accompanied by the sound of several loud pinging cracks and pops, then a sudden loud “BANG” as the corridor was filled with a terrific wind. The dead MSE droid skittered across the floor and disappeared into the hole, as everyone else was knocked everyone off balance again, if not entirely to the floor.
Warning sirens went off, and they were bathed in red light, as blast doors slammed down from the ceiling all around them. The wind stopped as soon as they hit the floor.
Wurlo was among the first to recover, somewhat protected by his stolen stormtrooper armor. He stood, looked from one set of blast doors to the other, then at R0-N1. “Well, now what?” he asked.
Stretch punched in the door code outside maintenance, but nothing happened. He tried again, hitting the sequence more slowly this time. Cutter’s muffled voice called out from the other side of the door. “Hang on, hang on! I’m working on it!” Stretch took a step away from the door and waited. He was about to ping Cutter on the comms again when the door slid up halfway, juddered to a stop and then slammed back down again. “Almost got it!” Stretch took another step back.
A short while later, the door finally slid all the way up, revealing Cutter holding a tangled clump of wires in his hand. He held out a hand for Stretch to stay put as he stared into the upper recess, willing the door to stay put. Once he was satisfied it wasn’t going to slam back down, he waved Stretch inside.
“Something wrong?” asked Stretch.
“It was that damn droid,” volunteered one of a pair of bare-headed troopers sitting on the floor.
“He means R0-N1,” explained Cutter. “He hit us with some kind of stun grenades, and apparently rocketed into him. Knocked us all out and left. Must have done something to the door, too. I had to hot wire it.”
“He took out all three of you? An astromech?”
“Hey, don’t sound so surprised. I told you they were dangerous. Anyway, he didn’t get us all at once. He got two of us, then apparently him later. I don’t suppose you’ve heard anything about him wandering around the ship?”
Stretch shook his head. “Can’t say that I have. I’ve been…occupied.” He glanced at the troopers on the floor. “Why don’t you two report to sick bay, and get yourselves checked out.”
“I’m fine,” one of them groused.
The other chimed in, “Nothing that blasting that tin can wouldn’t fix.”
“I’m sure, but how about you have the med droids look you over, anyway? We wouldn’t want you blowing holes in the corridor because you can’t shoot straight, would we?”
The two troopers pulled themselves off the floor and made their way into the corridor, carrying themselves as if they had just come off a spice bender in the lower levels of Coruscant. Cutter started to follow, but Stretch held him back. Cutter protested, “Shouldn’t I go, too?”
“You’ll be fine. I’m sure they’re fine, too. They just got their bells rung. Can we close that door?”
“Ennh…maybe? Might take a while to get it open again. Why? What’s going on?”
Stretch pulled off his helmet, took a step away from the open corridor and dropped his voice barely above a whisper. “Listen, have you ever considered leaving?”
Cutter replied, speaking normally. “You mean requesting a transfer from The Conviction?”
“No, I mean leaving the Navy altogether.”
Now Cutter whispered, too. “What? Why? This is what we were made for. We were literally made for this.”
Stretch shook his head vehemently. “No. We were made to serve The Republic. Not…whatever this is. Not whatever it’s become.”
“You mean the Empire.”
Stretch acknowledged the statement with a shrug of the shoulder, as silence hung in the air between them.
Inquisitor Morek sat on the floor of her personal ship, her helmet next to her. Her eyes were closed as she adopted a meditative pose, and her breaths came deep and steady. Unbidden, her comms chimed and a holographic image of the Seventh Sister appeared in front of her. Without preamble, she snarled, “Inquisitor Nianda Morek, do you mind telling me what in the name of the Sith you are doing?”
Inquisitor Morek opened her eyes, letting an annoyed sigh escape as she reached for her helmet and put it on. She gestured at a switch on the far side of the cabin, allowing her own image to be viewed by her caller. She replied testily, “I am trying to meditate, sister.”
“Don’t get cute, Morek. You know what I mean. Why have you had a hundred thousand cubic meter…rock hauled on board, and how many prisoners? Those cannot all be Force-wielders. Have you forgotten what your mission is?”
“No, I have not forgotten my mission. As I told you—”
“I know what you told me. Don’t think that I haven’t gotten a report from the commander of The Conviction. He is not at all happy with having his hangar deck converted into a home for…whatever that thing is. He tells me you have spent the last few hours just…touching it? If I didn’t know better, I would think Lord Vader had lopped off half your brain, not your arm.”
Morek’s lips contorted into an unhappy grimace while she waited for the Seventh Sister to finish. Choosing her words carefully, she said, “If you must know, Sister, that ‘rock’ as you call it is the centerpiece of spiritual life for the people of Alqassar. It seems to act as a reservoir of Force power. I have been…experimenting with it, attempting to determine how best to use it.”
“I see. And the prisoners? How do they fit in? Are they Force-wielders?”
“To tell the truth, I don’t know. Perhaps some of them. There is a priestess, in particular. She must be Force-sensitive, though she masks it well.”
“So let me see if I understand what you’re saying. You do not know if any of these beings are Force-wielders, but this rock is strong with the Force. Is that correct? Did the presence of the stone cause you to think there would be Force-wielders present?”
Morek nodded. “It must have, yes.”
The Seventh Sister let a moment pass in silence. Just as Morek seemed about to speak again, she pounced. “Let me tell you what I think, step-sister. I think you found out about the Parantua Stone from that droid, and you thought you could use it for your own selfish ends.” Watching Morek straighten her posture, she continued, “Yes, I know exactly what that stone is. Did you think the astromech had the only records on it in the galaxy? I did my own research after we spoke last. You forget that the Empire’s records also include those of the Republic before it. I should have you executed for your subterfuge, but because the Emperor has a keen interest in such artifacts, and I am feeling generous, we’ll let it go this time. However, you are to fetch that droid and bring it to me immediately, is that understood? If you need incentive, be aware that I have alerted Emperor Palpatine to the stone’s presence on board. He will rendezvous with the ship within the day. Whether he will share my forgiving nature, I do not know.” The hologram flickered out.
Morek stared at the empty space where the hologram had been for a long beat before muttering, “Kriffing…Mother of Kwath.” She got up and hurried out the back of her ship.
R0-N1 zipped out of the hangar, calling out to the MSE droids. I need you one more time. Clear a path to the detention block. Consulting a schematic he had downloaded earlier, R0-N1 directed the droids to take up positions and do “whatever it takes” to keep the path clear. Orders sent, he then hid in the alcove just outside the hangar again, waiting for confirmation, and to give the priestess time to get to the detention block with her escort. Most of the MSE droids were already near their desired positions, so it wouldn’t take long.
Once everyone was ready, R0-N1 took off again. Trusting that the path was clear, he abandoned any pretense of moving at a normal pace. Instead, he raced down the corridors, skidding around corners and waiting impatiently for the turbolift to arrive. He didn’t slow down until he was just outside the detention block.
When R0-N1 entered the detention block control room, he did his best to act like he belonged there. There were three stormtroopers taking up guard positions, and a pair of officers in the center of the room surrounded by a large console. One was thumbing through a manual of some kind, looking bored. The other, tall and imposing, stood at the console running a status check. R0-N1 chirped a friendly greeting, brazenly making his way to the console.
Two of the stormtroopers immediately raised their blasters, while the trooper at the console challenged him. “What do you think you’re doing? Are you authorized to be here?” R0-N1 replied that of course he was authorized, but the officer looked at him blankly. “Did you just insult my mother?”
R0-N1 recoiled at the idea and started to reply, but was saved by the other officer. “Hey, I heard about this droid. Inquisitor Morek brought him in to get into Alqassar. He’s got a speech impediment or something.”
“Fine, but what is he doing here?”
The officer flicked to the next page in whatever he was reading. “I don’t know. Nobody ever tells me anything.”
R0-N1 burbled something he hoped would be considered a positive response, and slowly made his way to a data port in the base of the console. Aware that there were still multiple blasters pointed at him, he tentatively exposed his data arm.
“All right, droid. Go ahead and plug in. No funny business, though. Just tell us what you’re here for.”
Permission given, R0-N1 plugged in and transmitted a message through the console. The officer read it aloud, “The prisoners are to be released into my care.” As he continued, he slowed and ended the next sentence as if it were a question. ”You may all…return to your quarters?” The officer drew his sidearm and challenged R0-N1. “Who sent you here?”
That always worked for Zagiri, groused R0-N1. On to Plan B.
Working quickly, he shut the officers out of the console and took over control of the automatic security system. Within seconds, the room was filled with a hail of blaster fire. All three troopers and both officers collapsed to the floor with blaster wounds in their heads and chests, and the security cameras were blown to pieces as well. A few seconds later, and it was all over.
Next, R0-N1 turned to the detention cells, bypassing standard security protocols and unlocking all of them. The prisoners slowly emerged from their cells and cautiously worked their way to the control room.
The first to enter was an Aqualish male named Wurlo. He looked over the death and destruction R0-N1 had caused and turned pale. “What…what happened?” he asked.
R0-N1 whistled a reply and extended his central column so that he could be seen above the edge of the console, waggling it up and down to catch everyone’s attention.
Wurlo spotted him and asked, “Did you do this?” Slowing down, he followed up with, “Didn’t I see you on the surface?”
By now a larger group had caught up with Wurlo, and they were all investigating different parts of the room expressing disbelief at what they were seeing. The priestess was the last to arrive, her arm draped around a tall human female, who was helping her along. She seemed to be physically fine, but was moving with a lethargy that betrayed the emotional trauma she was going through.
R0-N1 chirped again and fed some text into the console. I’m here to rescue you. We have to go right away. Someone disguise themselves in the armor and uniforms of these men. I can take you to a shuttle. But we have to hurry. Message entered, he disconnected from the port and tapped at the console where the text was displayed.
Wurlo stepped forward to the console and read the message silently.
“What’s it say?” asked an older Nikto woman.
“He says…he’s here to rescue us? And that we should disguise ourselves in the armor and uniforms.” Wurlo looked at the bodies skeptically. “I don’t know, Auntie. Do you think we can trust him?”
The Nikto called Auntie screwed up her mouth as she considered the question. “I’m not sure we have a lot of choice.”
Wurlo sighed. “All right, then. I guess I can try one of the suits of armor.” He pointed at the taller officer, whose body was slumped against the console. “Zhanna, do you think you can fit in that uniform?”
“Isn’t that an officer? I don’t know…”
The priestess separated herself from the taller woman. “I’m sure it will be fine. Just act like you’re in charge.”
The group sorted themselves out, with Zhanna taking one uniform and a shorter male taking the other. The stormtrooper uniforms were divvied up among Wurlo and two other human males. The fits weren’t great, but with any luck they would be passable. Zhanna tugged on her sleeves and pant legs, encouraging them to grow just a little bit longer. They presented themselves before Auntie. “What do you think?” asked Wurlo.
Auntie frowned. “Can’t you do something about those scorch marks?” She stepped forward and tried to buff Wurlo’s armor with her sleeve, only succeeding in smudging it further. “Hm, I guess not. Well, I suppose these are soldiers, after all. Surely their armor must get dinged and damaged from time to time.”
Zhanna looked down at Wurlo’s empty hands. “Shouldn’t you be carrying a blaster?”
Wurlo lifted his helmet, perching it on top of his head. “I would really rather not.”
“Pretty sure it goes with the package.”
A small boy raised his hand enthusiastically, bouncing on the balls of his feet. “I’ll do it!” he said.
Zhanna looked down at the boy, simultaneously amused and stern. “Nice try, Brel. No, you will not. This is something Wurlo will have to do.” She picked the stray blaster up off the floor and handed it to him.
The Aqualish continued to plead his case. “Zhanna, you know I don’t like violence. And what if it should go off? I don’t have any idea how to handle it safely.”
“Just keep your finger off the trigger. It will be fine.”
Growing impatient with everyone’s dithering, R0-N1 squawked at them and made what he hoped would be interpreted as a pointed move towards the exit.
Zhanna gave R0-N1 an annoyed look, then took the blaster back from its reluctant owner. She looked it over briefly, flipped the safety on and ejected the plasma cartridge from it, which clattered to the floor. Handing it back to Wurlo, she said, “There. Now it can’t be fired. Does that work for you?”
Wurlo nodded reluctantly. “I suppose,” he said. “So, what’s the plan?”
Zhanna looked back at R0-N1. “We follow the droid and hope he’s really on our side.”
R0-N1 rolled forward and scooped up the plasma cartridge into the channel that normally held his micro-stun grenades. He was pretty sure they were going to want a functioning blaster before this was all over. He then returned to the exit and paused to be sure everyone was with him. Satisfied that they were as properly arranged as they were likely to get, they left as a group.
R0-N1 and the last MSE droids finally had the hangar deck in sight. Hanging back, R0-N1 sent them in to investigate. Find a small ship that I can get to easily. Split up to cover more ground. We’re almost done. The two MSE droids scooted away, one to the left, the other to the right as they entered the massive hangar bay.
While the MSE droids scouted, R0-N1 found a small alcove near the entrance. He stayed out of sight as best he could, pressing himself against the wall, senses tuned for anything he could learn without exposing himself. He had just settled in when one of the MSE droids shot past the entrance. R0-N1 radioed a question. What are you doing? I told you to split up.
There’s nothing that way, responded the droid. Just people and a massive rock. Ships are on the other side.
R0-N1 sent an acknowledgement. That had to be the Parantua Stone. Is the Inquisitor there?
I don’t know. I thought you wanted a ship?
Yes, that’s correct. R0-N1 also wanted to keep an eye on the Inquisitor, but the sooner he could get off The Conviction, the sooner she would no longer be a problem.
As R0-N1 waited for the MSE droids to report to him, he heard voices coming down the corridor. “…I don’t know. It’s like every Mouse droid on the ship has suddenly gone haywire. They sent my buddy TK-1104 on some wild womp rat hunt for plasteel repair kits.”
“Well, better that than this detail. Morek creeps me out.”
The pair of stormtroopers emerged around a bend in the corridor, escorting one of the citizens from Ryndellia, a boy barely past puberty. His hands were shackled in binders, and he stared at the floor as he shuffled by.
“What, because of her arm?”
“No, because of all of her. I swear the temperature drops about ten degrees when you get near her.”
“That’s your imagination. I just want to know what’s under that mask.”
As they passed R0-N1, one of the stormtroopers shook his head vehemently. “Are you crazy? That mask is the worst part of her. I heard that glowing under there is her eyes. Nuh-uh. Nope. It’s not right.”
Taking a chance, R0-N1 slid quietly out of his hiding spot and watched the trio disappear into the hangar. They turned to the right, in the direction the MSE droid had said the Parantua stone was. Just stay away from the ships, thought R0-N1, as he settled back into his cubby.
A few minutes later, one of the MSE droids transmitted, I found something you can use. It’s a Lambda-class shuttle. The transmission included a partial layout of the hangar, giving R0-N1 a path to follow.
I’m on my way.
R0-N1 left the safety of his hidey hole and headed for the ship, taking care to go at a speed that wouldn’t attract attention should someone spot him. He weaved in and out of ships, heading as directly as he could for the shuttle the MSE droid had indicated, but everything was packed in tight and a straight line was impossible.
When R0-N1 got to the shuttle, both MSE droids were waiting at the foot of the ramp.
Are we coming?
Can we come?
R0-N1 hadn’t expected this, and stopped before boarding, looking from one MSE droid to the other. How did a pair of rolling toasters manage to look so expectant? He responded, No. Where I’m going may not be safe. You should stay here. Go back to maintenance and plug back in to the charging cradles. Don’t tell anyone what we’ve done.
R0-N1 boarded the shuttle, making his way to the cockpit and plugging in to the flight systems. He started a pre-flight check, hoping to be able to take off before anyone spotted him or The Conviction went into hyperspace.
Barely into the check sequence, the shuttle’s computer shut it down with a proximity warning. R0-N1 tried to bypass the check, but the computer steadfastly refused his commands. Were he a biologic pilot, he could simply throw a manual override switch, but R0-N1 couldn’t reach it and was stuck with whatever the ship’s computer would let him do. Unplugging, R0-N1 rolled forward to look out the cockpit window. Right away, he could see that the massive overhead hangar doors were wide open, and they were still in normal space, so there was no problem there.
He extended the channel with his optical sensor higher so that he could better see in front of the ship. There were other craft nearby, but nothing that should be preventing the shuttle from departing. Further ahead, he could see the Parantua Stone, with Inquisitor Morek, the priestess, the young male, and a handful of troopers keeping watch. He couldn’t quite tell what was going on with the Inquisitor, but she was with both the Ryndellians. The priestess seemed to be held in place by stormtroopers. All of them were dwarfed by the stone, which was meters tall and big enough around that it blocked docking bays on both sides of the hangar. That explains the pile-up back here, thought R0-N1. But that shouldn’t be causing the proximity sensors to complain.
Not finding an answer to the problem from the cockpit, R0-N1 exited the shuttle to check the exterior. There it was, on the port side. The shuttle had been parked too close to a rack of TIE fighters, and there was no room for the shuttle to rise up without colliding with the fighter’s hexagonal wing panels. R0-N1 angled himself backwards to get a better look. On closer inspection, this rack wasn’t completely full. If he could just ratchet everything up one slot, there would be plenty of room.
R0-N1 moved between the wing panels towards the back wall and found the control unit for the TIE fighter rack. He was hidden from view for now, but as soon as the fighters moved up and back, he would be exposed to the better part of the hangar. R0-N1 calculated the odds of someone noticing him doing this and caring. They weren’t great, but it was his best shot. Preparing to hightail it back up the shuttle ramp, R0-N1 activated the TIE elevators. The TIE fighters each raised up in sequence. Each one took about twenty seconds to lift before it locked into place, starting with the one the highest up, followed by the next one down, and so on. The whole process took nearly two minutes.
When the lowermost TIE had cleared the floor, R0-N1 spared a glance at the front of the hangar. No one was paying him any attention, and the scene seemed to be unchanged, save for the boy now kneeling in front of Inquisitor Morek. So far, so good.
R0-N1 returned to the shuttle, and just before rolling up the ramp froze at the sound of blood-curdling screams echoing throughout the hangar deck. He backed up and looked for the source of the sound, and saw that the boy had now fully collapsed to the floor, and the priestess was straining to break the hold of her stormtrooper captors. A third trooper, Stretch, had turned and was walking away from the scene, coming towards him.
Moving out of sight, R0-N1 turned his auditory sensors to maximum. Stretch seemed to be on the comms. “…are you? We need to talk.” There was a pause for a response that R0-N1 couldn’t make out, then, “All right. I’ll be there in five. It might be time.” R0-N1 let out the astromech equivalent of a sigh of relief. He’s not coming for me.
Next, R0-N1 focused his attention on the group by the stone. Inquisitor Morek’s voice came through loud and clear. She seemed to be panting with exertion. “Get this out of here. Stop your sniveling, priestess. His blood is on your hands. Maybe if you had provided some useful information, he would have survived.”
“I told you, I don’t know—“ That was the priestess.
“Oh, shut up. Take her away. Maybe some time in the detention block with her flock will bring her to her senses.”
“Yes, Inquisitor.” There was a scuffling sound, then, “Come on, priestess. You heard her.”
The Inquisitor spoke again, louder this time. “I’ll be down in an hour. You think about how to be more useful, or I’ll keep at it until none of you are left.”
There was silence after that, except for the sounds of booted feet against the deck. R0-N1 risked taking another look forward, just in time to see the priestess being escorted away, while another pair of stormtroopers carried the lifeless body of the boy. His skin hung on him like paper, as if he were a meiloorun fruit left out in the sun and forgotten.
R0-N1 edged out a little further to get a view of Inquisitor Morek and the Parantua Stone. Morek was preparing to fit the prosthetic back on her arm. R0-N1 couldn’t be sure, but it looked as if the open sores on the stump had scabbed over, and the color of her flesh seemed healthier. At the same time, the red striations and charred flesh were visibly returning, as if she had just been wounded again. She cinched the prosthetic on tight, causing fresh drops of blood to bead up as for a moment the light behind her mask glowed fiercely red.
The stone, however, appeared to be fading. The bioluminescence was still there, but it had turned dim. R0-N1 hypothesized at first that this was because it had been removed from Ryndellia, and was dying as Baohu had feared. However, as Inquisitor Morek walked away, R0-N1 could see where a channel had been traced between two points in the lichen. It looked as if someone had channeled waves of electricity through the entire stone, focusing on two small handprints and coursing from one to the other.
R0-N1 backed out of sight and considered what he had just seen. This is no rescue mission, he thought. She’s going to kill them. R0-N1 considered his options, then took off after the priestess. I’m going to regret this.
R0-N1 was still processing data when he heard a voice call out. “Hey, TB2-4708. Sergeant wants…what the hell?” The trooper stared at the scene in front of him, Cutter sprawled on the floor and R0-N1 wedged between the legs of TB2-4708 looking like the trooper had given birth to an impossibly large, lumpy egg.
R0-N1 unplugged from the socket and spun around just in time to see the trooper drawing his blaster. With no time for strategy, he angled his body forward and fired his thrusters, hurtling headlong into the trooper. He smashed the trooper’s head against the wall, knocking him out. They both fell to the floor in a heap as R0-N1’s rockets sputtered and died, R0-N1 landing last with a thud and rolling off the trooper’s chest.
As R0-N1 struggled to right himself, his circuits whirled. First things first, he maneuvered himself to the door controls and sealed off the room, preventing any more wandering personnel from barging in. Now that he was out of stun grenades and his thrusters were well and truly dead, he didn’t have a lot of offensive options available to him. If he were found, he would be getting off easy with just a memory wipe. Given what he had done to Cutter and the other troopers, there was a non-zero chance that they might just scrap him. I have to get off this ship. R0-N1 ran through his options. He could steal an escape pod, but those were barely better than his own (dead) thrusters, and they were much too easily destroyed by the ship’s turbolasers. He needed something with maneuverability, and ideally a hyperdrive. That meant he would have to make his way to the hangar bay and steal a ship.
Were he still with Master Zagiri, he could rely on the Jedi’s stealth skills to help escort him to safety. Those weren’t exactly in R0-N1’s wheelhouse, however. He had heard of astromechs relying on biologics general disregard of droids to get around unmolested, but that relied on R0-N1 blending in with other droids, which he knew very well he did not. He would need a different approach. Maybe there’s something around here I can use, he thought.
R0-N1 examined the inventory of material available to him. The Separatist droids he considered briefly, then discarded. B-1 droids bordered on useless, and the scraps of other models weren’t enough to make use of. There was a droideka that showed some promise, and he seriously considered attempting to remove the shielding unit from it, but the power requirements were prohibitive in his current state. Further back, he found a protocol droid that seemed to be in reasonable condition. Maybe I can convince him to act as my counterpart until we get to the hangar, thought R0-N1. He found its activator and switched it on.
“Greetings, I am TC-135, att- att— attaché to General Grzzzz…” said the droid. As its voice fizzled out, it turned its head to the side and its eyes went dark. R0-N1 waited a few seconds for it to continue, then gave it a small electric jolt. The protocol droid snapped back to attention and said in a sing-song voice,
There once was a Jedi named Bizhin Who forgot to pack his provisions He pulled out his saber Seasoned for flavor Now half of his tongue has gone missin’
R0-N1 switched him back off, making a note to ignore any more protocol droids. He kept searching shelves of inventory, hoping for something more useful than a droid spouting poorly-composed limericks. Unfortunately, past TC-135 there was little more than scrap, and not much for R0-N1 to work with. That is, until he got all the way to the back, where he found an entire wall of MSE-6 droids, all stacked in their charging cradles.
Investigating further, R0-N1 connected to the control unit and ran a short diagnostic. Unlike nearly everything else around, these droids were in perfect working order. They were simply here for a standard recharge and update. Better yet, MSE droids were among the simplest of droids to program, or reprogram.
R0-N1 unsealed the maintenance room door and let the first few MSE droids out. Three took an immediate left, while two more went right. The rest stayed with R0-N1. He waited for a few minutes to be sure the coast was clear, then sent the signal. The MSE droids responded in turn.
The rest of the MSE droids swarmed out into the corridor, forming a diamond shape, with a pocket in the middle for R0-N1, who was the last to leave. Once out, R0-N1 sealed the door shut again, scrambling the door codes to keep anyone from getting in or out for as long as possible. He took his position in the center of the formation.
They headed down the corridor at a leisurely pace, with R0-N1 both listening for reports of incoming troopers and utilizing his own sensors as a backup. They had only gone about fifty meters when they ran into their first obstacle, a pair of stormtroopers on a routine patrol, approaching from around the corner.
R0-N1 called for everyone to stop, and directed one of the lead MSE droids to execute plan 6-B. The little droid zoomed ahead with an enthusiastic “Whee!”, wove down the corridor, took a tight turn around the corner and came to a dead stop in front of the troopers. He repeated the same phrase over and over again, Urgent! Return to command deck! Briefing in five! Urgent!
The stormtroopers looked back and forth from the droid to each other. “Do you know what he’s talking about? I didn’t hear anything on the comms about this.” asked one.
The other shrugged. “It’s probably got something to do with that thing we pulled off Ryndellia. I swear, any time force-wielders get involved everything goes to crap.”
The MSE droid waited for them to turn and disappear around a bend, then signalled to R0-N1, All clear.
R0-N1 sent an acknowledgement, and told the droid to stay in position. If anyone else comes from that direction, send them to the command deck as well.
The group of droids continued making their way through the ship, MSE droids peeling off here and there to head off anyone who might interfere with R0-N1’s progress. Each time they ran into someone, R0-N1 had the MSE droid send them in a different direction, to reduce the odds that any of the redirected personnel would bump into each other and realize what was going on. They had gotten to within just a hundred meters of the main hangar, when one of the MSE droids left as a sentry broadcast an alarm. A protocol droid had found him, and was insisting that he should get past. R0-N1 stopped the procession and sent a message back. Use plan 8-A.
I tried that, replied the MSE droid. He’s not buying it.
Can you delay him?
I’m trying to block his way. He keeps dancing around. He’s threatening to call in a squad.
This could be a real problem. Does he have a com link?
That was it. R0-N1 turned around and sped down the corridors as fast as he could without losing his MSE droid support, backtracking and darting down corridors. Within a minute, he found the stubborn protocol droid awkwardly hopping around the MSE droid sentry, trying to get past him. The MSE droid zipped in and out of his path, making progress as difficult as possible. R0-N1 picked up speed and lowered himself so that the channels that made up his body were completely horizontal. His back and front feet separated as far as they could, turning R0-N1 into a squat battering ram. He barreled into the protocol droid at top speed, knocking his feet out from under him. The droid fell to the floor with a clank, protesting vehemently.
The MSE units extended their grasping claws and swarmed the fallen protocol droid. They each latched onto a limb, immobilizing him. Meanwhile, R0-N1 pulled himself back up to his standard posture and searched for a way to switch him off entirely. However, there was no physical way to do this. Where is his off switch? he asked.
The MSE droids all answered at once, nearly scrambling R0-N1’s circuits.
He doesn’t have one.
He’s a special model.
Remote shutoff only.
It would take a blaster.
R0-N1 let out an audible burp of frustration, then broadcast, New plan. Take him apart. He immediately got to work, removing the set of bolts that held the protocol droid’s head in place.
“What are you doing? Stop that, you maniac! Cease!” protested the silver droid as he renewed struggling with the MSE droids.
When R0-N1 finally got the head off the droid’s torso, it wobbled on the floor, still protesting. “I will have you deactivated for this!”
Ignoring the protests, R0-N1 next got to work on the droid’s arms, removing them at the shoulder. Unlike the head, these went limp once they were removed from the body. By now, the head was reduced to simply shouting “Help! Help! He-elp!” over and over again.
R0-N1 directed one of the droids that had been holding down the protocol droid’s left arm to take the head somewhere dump it down a garbage chute. The last thing he heard of the protocol droid was it protesting, “Where are you taking me, you vermin! I hope you get eaten by a Rancor!”
The disassembly work got easier as he went along, and as each limb was removed, R0-N1 directed the MSE droids to stash them somewhere. Storage closet, footlocker, it doesn’t matter. Just make them hard to find.
By the time this job was done, R0-N1’s phalanx of MSE droids was reduced to just two. The trio raced back to where they were before the alarm had been sounded, and then slowed to something closer to normal speed, but still moving at a good clip. Without support droids to spare, R0-N1 wanted to get to the hangar as quickly as possible before anyone else found them.
Back on The Conviction, the shuttles were directed to the far end of the hangar deck. As the last one on board, R0-N1 was also one of the first to disembark, just behind Stretch. He spotted Inquisitor Morek halfway down the hangar, and began to make his way towards her. As he passed Stretch, the clone called out to him. “Hey, where do you think you’re going? Come back here.”
R0-N1 stopped and turned around. He chirped a question, Shouldn’t I be with Inquisitor Morek? Did she get what she wanted?
Stretch looked down at him, his expression unreadable behind his helmet. “Yeah, I don’t know what you just said, but you need to go back to maintenance. Cutter’s going to want to take a look at that gash the Inquisitor gave you, and I think we would all like your vocalizer functional again.” He stopped a stormtrooper going past. “You. Escort this droid to maintenance. Make sure he doesn’t wander off.”
I don’t need a babysitter, thought R0-N1, annoyed. Still, he let the trooper guide him back to maintenance. He could catch up with Inquisitor Morek afterwards, and maybe in the meantime he could plug into the data port he had spotted earlier.
When they got to maintenance, R0-N1’s escort called out, “Brought you your droid back,” then turned to leave.
Cutter looked up from the pile of parts he had been rummaging through. “Droid? Oh, Roni.” He stood up and approached the astromech. Spotting the fresh hole in R0-N1’s exterior, he shouted into the corridor. “Hey, what happened? Someone take a shot at him?”
The stormtrooper returned and stood just outside the room. “That was the Inquisitor. She removed his restraining bolt.” For emphasis, he pantomimed waving a lightsaber, making a “VWAAM” sound.
Cutter’s eyes widened, and he looked back at R0-N1 in alarm. “Why would she do that? Does she not have any idea what an astromech can do if they put their mind to it?”
“Hey, all I know is she wanted to get into Alqassar, and that seemed to do the trick.” He paused. “You want me to get her, so you can express your concerns?”
Cutter grimaced. “Very funny. I’ll just have to replace it I guess.” He turned his back on the stormtrooper and crossed to a storage cabinet, where he pulled open a series of drawers looking for a fresh restraining bolt. Waving behind him at R0-N1, he said to the trooper, “Make sure he doesn’t take off, will you?”
The stormtrooper sighed and moved into position, blocking the exit.
R0-N1 watched all this with trepidation. Having just gotten his bearings more or less back, he wasn’t keen on the idea of living in a fog again. Quickly running through several scenarios, he watched Cutter’s movements and settled on a course of action most likely to lead to him retaining his freedom of mind.
Cutter finally found what he was looking for and turned back to R0-N1, who hadn’t moved since he first arrived. He bent over to attach the restraining bolt to him, but just before the bolt made contact with his outer shell, R0-N1 opened a door in one of his columns, extended a short metal rod and blasted Cutter with a shock of several hundred volts. Cutter yelped in pain, but R0-N1 wasn’t done. Next, he tilted his body backwards, and from his central column spat out micro-stun grenades until the chamber was empty. The grenades bounced on the floor, then detonated at Cutter and the trooper’s feet. Cutter immediately went down in a heap, but the trooper managed to stay up for just a moment before toppling to the floor as well.
R0-N1 returned to his normal upright position and waited for everything to settle down. He cranked his auditory sensors up to maximum, to make sure no one outside was coming. He let a solid two minutes pass before he was satisfied that everything was clear.
Next, R0-N1 turned to make use of the maintenance room’s data socket. However, the stunned stormtrooper had fallen directly in front of it. R0-N1 first tried to press up against him and stretch his probe to the wall, but it was no good. He was several centimeters short of reaching it. Backing up, he considered what to do. The fastest thing would be to cut off the trooper’s legs at the knees, then he could easily shove them aside. However, there was non-zero chance of arterial blood spraying into the data socket and shorting it out. Plus, there might be screaming.
Opting for a less drastic approach, R0-N1 shot out a cable and grabbed one of the trooper’s boots. Retracting the cable and moving backwards, he pulled on the trooper’s legs until he was lying spread-eagle on the floor. There still wasn’t enough room for R0-N1 to maneuver around him, so he lined himself up, extended his booster rockets and gave them a pulse. He hopped over the extended leg and maneuvered himself between the trooper’s thighs.
Finally working his way to data socket, R0-N1 plugged in and scoured the network looking for information. It took a while to navigate to systems with the information he needed, but eventually he pieced everything together. Order 66, the end of the Republic, the birth of the Empire, phasing out of the clones program, everything. He dug deeper, slicing past security protocols, and learned more about Inquisitor Morek. She was also known as “The Step-sister,” and some months back had an encounter with a Darth Vader that seemed to be related to her missing arm. There was no specific record of what she was doing here, but the purpose of the Order of Inquisitors was clear. They were hunting down and exterminating the last of the Jedi.
Based on all of this, R0-N1 could only come to one conclusion. I’m in danger.
Satisfied he had some direction, R0-N1 stopped rummaging through his memory archives and looked around. The stone should be…yes, that way. He started down the path and immediately collided with a pair of white armored legs.
The stormtrooper he had barreled into took a step sideways and barked, “Watch it! Where do you think you’re going, anyway? Just stay put, will you? We’re leaving.”
R0-N1 checked his internal clock— it had taken him longer to parse through is old memories than he had anticipated. The droid looked around, realizing that while he had been doing that, a group of troopers and Ryndellians had gathered around him. There were a couple dozen of the latter, including a woman dressed in the same style of embroidered tunic that Baohu had been wearing. The rest appeared to be a random assortment of ages and genders. Stretch was there as well, holding his helmet at his side and pacing in agitation. R0-N1 queried, Why are we leaving? Did the containment here finally fail? Is this a rescue?
Stretch waved at the astromech to be quiet. Bringing a com link to his lips, he said, “We’re in position, but I don’t like being kept in the dark like this, Commander. How are we supposed to get these people to the transports safely with that atmosphere out there?”
A voice crackled in response. “Just be patient. They should be coming through, any time now…”
Stretch jammed the helmet back on his head, clearly annoyed. He took his position near the head of the group, clipping the com link back on his belt.
A short time later, the first chunks of rock began falling from the ceiling in the center of Alqassar, as a series of holes were bored into it from above. The holes were spaced a few meters away from each other, surrounding the amphitheater where the Parantua Stone lay. Troopers in dark grey armor descended through the holes on thick bundles of cable. When they hit the ground, they connected the cables from each adjoining hole together, and similarly bound another set to a central disc. Once all the individual strands were connected together, they rose up through the ceiling once more. After the troopers disappeared, the cables and disc were pulled tight against the ceiling. Stretch looked up to gauge where they had drilled the holes, and muttered, “You have got to be kidding me.”
The woman in the embroidered tunic watched all of this in horror, and tried to protest to Stretch. “What are they doing? We can’t survive if–“
Stretch held the woman at bay, and said, “Step back, priestess.” Raising his voice, he continued, “Cover your ears, everyone. I think I know what they’re going to do.”
The words had barely gotten out of his mouth when the charges began going off. One after another after another, the ring of cables seemed to explode, then disappear into the ceiling where they exploded again and again. With each explosion, dark grey clouds of dust and smoke billowed downward. Finally, after nearly two minutes of this, the explosions stopped. There was a pause, followed by a deafening crack of thunder, and the entire roof over the amphitheater sagged, held only by the hub and spokes of supporting cables. The torn roof swayed, and then slowly rose, barely visible through the thick cloud of stone dust.
The cloud was still dissipating when a pair of shuttles descended through the roof and sailed into Alqassar, settling in a plaza just a short distance from the amphitheater.
Stretch stepped forward and signalled for everyone to follow. “All right. That’s our ride. Let’s go.”
Althea was frozen in place, too stunned to move. Her mouth moved, but no sound came out. A stormtrooper jabbed her in the side with his blaster. “Come on, we don’t have all day.”
The jab knocked her out of her fugue, and she turned on the stormtrooper, furious tears streaming down her face. “Do you know what you’ve done? We have lived here for hundreds of years in peace. We’ve done nothing to you, and you—”
The stormtrooper clubbed her across the head with the butt of his rifle, cutting off any further accusations. She fell to the ground in a heap. The stormtrooper pointed at two of the other prisoners. “You and you. Carry her. We’re not going to wait.”
Moving forward now, the group headed for the waiting shuttles. As they got closer, a man ran ahead of them carrying a small child. He shouted at the troopers waiting next to the landing ramp. “Please, you have to take us with you! We can’t repair—“ One of the troopers raised his blaster and shot the man square in the chest. He fell to the ground, dead. The child, who had already been crying, began wailing even more loudly as she fell to the hard ground, skinning her knees and hands.
Stretch scooped up the child and picked up speed, marching to the trooper who had killed her father. “That man was no threat. Why did you shoot him?”
The trooper shrugged. “How was I to know he wasn’t carrying a thermal detonator?”
Stretch shouted, “He was carrying his child!” Jabbing a finger at the trooper, he said, “We will discuss this later.”
As everyone boarded the shuttle, R0-N1 took one last scan of Alqassar. The dust cloud had mostly dissipated by now, and it was drizzling into the amphitheater. Around the perimeter of the hole cut in the ceiling, thicker rivulets of moisture were also pouring in. Further away, R0-N1 could see the inhabitants of Alqassar huddled together in small groups, holding their arms across their faces to keep from breathing the toxic atmosphere. No one else tried to board the shuttles, and he hoped that someone would return for them before the city succumbed to the toxins pouring into the city.
Behind him, a boot clanked against R0-N1’s rear leg. “Come on, you bucket of bolts. In or out.”
R0-N1 chirped a question at Stretch, who gave him a shrug as he readied his weapon. “You’re on your own, R-zero. You can either wait here, or I guess try to find the Inquisitor.” He jogged into the courtyard to join the fray.
R0-N1 watched the trooper depart, then picked what seemed like a safe path and headed down it. There must be some way I can be useful, he thought.
R0-N1 searched his memory for the last time he had been on Ryndellia. Things like “how to unlock doors” were always kept handy, but recalling events beyond that took more effort. Especially when it had been…yes, hundreds of years since he was here last. What could Morek have found that would still be relevant after all that time? The beings on Ryndellia were not particularly long-lived, not like Wookiees or Hutts, at any rate. They had above-average lifespans for humanoids, but they lived decades, not centuries. It seemed unlikely that Morek was after any particular person, no matter what she had told the Seventh Sister.
Is there some resource here she is looking into? R0-N1 inventoried what he knew of the city of Alqassar itself and the surrounding planet more generally.The images of Ryndellia that first came up didn’t match his current experience at all. There was no unending acidic drizzle, nor was the atmosphere corrosive. Instead, the sky was blue and the area surrounding Alqassar was lush and green. R0-N1 began to wonder if Morek had made a mistake. He cross-checked his information, and confirmed that nothing was faulty.
Digging deeper, he found the answer. Ryndellia had previously been a planet full of life, but a mining accident in the southern hemisphere had cracked open the planet’s crust and caused a cascading series of chemical reactions, poisoning the atmosphere. That’s when R0-N1 had last been here, as part of a Republic rescue mission. His master at the time was here working with a team of Jedi and planetary officials to help coordinate a global airlift, getting citizens off-world before the effects of the disaster spread around the planet.
Except the population around Alqassar refused to leave. R0-N1 replayed a conversation between his master, the local governor, and man dressed in a simple brown embroidered tunic known as Baohu.
“There you are, Master Dalie. Maybe you can talk some sense into these people.” The governor gestured at a group of people clustered near a cave entrance, which would eventually become the airlock R0-N1 had just helped everyone get through.
Master Dalie nodded to both in silent greeting, and stared in the direction of the cave entrance for a moment before responding. “Perhaps. Am I to understand that the residents here are reluctant to leave?”
“If by ‘reluctant,’ you mean are they more stubborn than an unbroken Ronto, yes. I have explained to them repeatedly that this planet is eating itself alive, and unless they want to choose between dying of starvation and having their flesh stripped clean off their bones, they need to pack up and get on the nearest transport as soon as possible.”
The Jedi nodded calmly. “I’m sure they understand the situation, governor. What’s happening on Ryndellia is clear, and hardly a secret.” He turned to Baohu. “Perhaps you would care to explain? You do know that this planet will soon be incapable of supporting life, yes?”
“Yes, Master Jedi. We are aware. However, we believe that this location can survive the calamity if given a chance. Moreover, I believe that it is my duty to protect this space. If we could just have—“
The governor interrupted in exasperation. “Do you hear yourself? This is madness. You want to protect a hole in the ground?”
Baohu pursed his lips, but stayed calm. “You know perfectly well, governor, that what is inside that cave is sacred and life-giving. You should want to protect it as much as I do.”
“I am trying to protect you, you thick-headed fanatic. Forgive me for valuing humanoid life over some pile of rock. If you weren’t such a—“ She stopped short at a gesture from the Jedi.
“Governor, I think it would be useful if I could see for myself what is inside that cave. I sense there is more here than ‘some pile of rock,’ as you put it.”
The governor stared at Dalie dumbfounded, then threw up her hands in disgust and stormed away. “Fine, do what you want. I wash my hands of you all.”
Baohu bowed slightly to Dalie. “Thank you, Master Jedi. If you will follow me?”
R0-N1 followed the two men down a slight hill and into an enormous cave. A path wound through it, closely following the natural contours of the rock. Glow globes hovered over the path, providing just enough light to illuminate the way. In the center of the cave was a large depression, forming a natural amphitheater. A low wall had been built around it, beyond which were a series of benches arranged in concentric rows. All of this surrounded what appeared to be an enormous glowing urchin.
In a low voice, Dalie said, “Is this it?”
Baohu nodded. “Yes. This is the Parantua Stone, though the stone itself is hidden. What you see is a layer of bioluminescent lichen that grows on it.”
Dalie reached out a hand towards a small patch where the lichen was thin. He closed his eyes in concentration.
“You may touch it if you wish,” said Baohu.
The Jedi opened his eyes and looked at the Ryndellian as if to say, “are you sure?” When Baohu nodded, he stepped forward and put his palm flat on the stone. The lichen around his palm appeared to dim slightly, then pulsed even brighter than before. He closed his eyes again. “It’s remarkable. I have never felt the Force so strongly in something that is not alive.”
Baohu smiled. “Life can take many forms, Master Jedi. Now, do you understand?”
The Jedi removed his hand from the stone, and the light subsided back to normal. “Perhaps. Can you not take it with you, though? Surely, it would still be better to escape Ryndellia.”
Baohu shook his head. “We don’t think so. In years past, visitors used to come here and chisel the stone, in the hopes of being able to take some part of its healing powers with them. This never worked, and they were left with nothing but lifeless slivers of rock. Not knowing where the Parantua Stone ends and Ryndellia begins, we fear its removal would destroy it.”
Master Dalie considered this for a long moment, then looked around the cave. “You realize there is no guarantee that what is happening outside won’t eventually penetrate here, yes? I can arrange for this to be sealed off and transformed into a livable space, but you will have to maintain it yourselves. You will be trapped, and any breach…”
Baohu smiled. “Yes, we understand. We just want to be given a chance.”
“I’ll see what I can do, then.”
Inquisitor Morek swept through Alqassar, her cloak billowing behind her. She ignored the chaos developing in the underground city as stormtroopers took control of it. The few citizens who dared approach her froze when they got close, and only watched her go by, fear and uncertainty in their eyes. More than one held a loved one against them protectively as she passed.
As she entered the amphitheater surrounding the Parantua Stone, a woman called out to her. “What is going on? Why are you—“
Quickly taking in the woman’s garb, Morek cut her off. “Are you the local priestess?”
“I…I suppose so, yes. Can I help you? What’s going on?” Her eyes darted around the periphery of Morek’s helmet, uncertain where to look.
Morek commanded, “Come with me. What’s your name?” She proceeded onward, without waiting for a reply.
The priestess half jogged to keep up. “Althea. But I don’t understand…”
Within moments, the two women were facing the Parantua Stone. Morek unstrapped her prosthetic arm, letting it fall to the ground. Staring at the bioluminescence, Morek spoke to Althea without looking at her. “How does it work?” she demanded.
Althea looked from Morek to the stone, her eyes finally settling on the Inquisitor’s mangled stump. She sucked in her breath. “Is that what this is all about? You could have just—“
Morek barked, “How does it work, priestess?”
Althea’s voice caught in her throat for a split second, then she replied as if the words were being ripped from her. “You touch it. It feeds us, and it feeds from us.” She shook her head as the immediate effects of Morek’s will on her wore off. Her gaze drifting back to Morek’s arm, she said, “But it takes time. And it’s not a miracle worker…”
Althea continued, but Morek had stopped listening. She stuck her good hand between her knees, using them to remove the gauntlet she wore on it. She took a half-step forward, and planted her hand on the stone, smashing and tearing the delicate lichen, until fragments of it fell through her fingers in dry clumps. The remaining lichen around her hand glowed more intensely as she held her hand on the stone. She pressed harder against it, staring at her good hand. At first, the lichen appeared to grow again, replacing what Morek had crushed.
A grunt escaped from Morek, as she shifted her gaze to the amputated stump of her other arm. In a husky voice, she said, “Yes, that’s it. I can feel it inside me. Good…” The raw flesh on the stump of her arm began to heal. It scabbed over, and then those dry scabs fell off revealing healthy green mottled skin, butted up against the black and red coloring at the elbow. At the same time, the healthy lichen around her hand turned dark as the life ebbed from it.
And then, something changed. The Inquisitor’s arm began turning dark again. She screamed in pain as the hand on the stone began to smoke and stink of cooked flesh. She yanked it away, leaving chunks of skin behind, fused to the stone. The reddish glow of her visor shone brighter than ever. She held the stump up to her face, examining it closely even as the flesh returned to its prior state, albeit without the oozing sores. She turned on Althea, demanding, “What did you do?”
Althea blinked in surprise and confusion. “I didn’t do anything! What did you do? I’ve never seen the stone do that before.”
Morek growled, “Do not play games with me priestess. Why didn’t it work?”
“What are you talking about? It did! Just a moment ago, your arm looked like it had been gnawed on by a rancor, and now it’s…well, it’s better, isn’t it?” She gestured helplessly at Morek’s arm.
“Not better enough. Does it look like I can hold a weapon?”
“A weapon?” Althea’s eyes grew round as saucers. “You want to regrow your arm?”
Morek stood straighter, but didn’t respond to the question. She only waited for Althea to continue with her train of thought. It didn’t take long.
“But…forgive me, I don’t know what you are under all that armor. Is that something you, or your species can do?”
“There is nothing I cannot do, priestess.”
Althea pursed her lips. “Well, then I suppose the stone may be able to help, but there is only so much it can do. As I said, the stone feeds us, and it feeds from us. We give as much as it does, and the effects are small, but perhaps given enough time…?”
Silently, Morek picked up her gauntlet, stuck it under her armpit and wriggled her hand into it. She gestured at her prosthesis, which slapped into her waiting hand. As she strapped it on, she said, “I don’t have time, priestess.”
Turning away, Morek marched out of the amphitheater. She flagged a pair of troopers near the entrance, and gesturing towards Althea and the stone, she said, “Bring that stone up to the ship. The priestess, too.” Pausing to reflect for a moment, she added, “And the Ryndellians.”
“All the Ryndellians, Inquisitor?”
She looked around, taking in the size of the underground city. “No, not all of them. Enough of them.”
R0-N1 let out a pinched scream and scooted back against the wall. His outer casing now sported a fresh gash where the lightsaber had cut through not just the restraining bolt, but into him as well. Still processing his newly sorted memories, he thought Clones…lightsaber…Jedi…no, not Jedi? Knowing his history only left him with more questions, and no immediate way to answer them.
“I don’t think he likes your lightsaber,” remarked Stretch. R0-N1 now recognized both his voice and armor as belonging to a clone.
The Inquisitor ignored him, though she did lower the blade. Speaking to R0-N1, she said, “Does that make you happy, droid? Now open this hatch so we can get on with it.” She switched off the lightsaber and stashed it under her cloak. The prosthesis snagged on some loose thread, and she yanked it free with her other hand.
R0-N1 turned around and plugged back into the port. Now that he had full access to his memories, he had no problem bypassing security. He unlocked the hatch, and it whooshed partway open before grinding to a halt, leaving a gap of only a few centimeters. The motor could be heard whining as it struggled to push the hatch the rest of the way open.
Stretch signaled to a pair of troopers behind him. “All right, men. The mechanism must be corroded. Let’s see if we can’t get it open the rest of the way.” The three of them arranged themselves around the door, and after several minutes of effort, were able to get it opened wide enough for someone to step through before it got stuck again.
“I’m afraid that’s all the further we can get it, Inquisitor,” said one of the men. R0-N1 noted that his voice was definitely not a clone, although he supposed it could be a new model.
Inquisitor Morek nodded. “It will have to do. What about the inner door?”
Stretch entered the airlock, and returned after just a few moments. “There doesn’t appear to be any additional security inside, and the inner door has been protected from the atmosphere, so it should open easily enough. Only one door can be open at a time, though. They built it like an airlock. We’ll have to enter in shifts, with some of us staying with the droid to handle the outer hatch.”
The Inquisitor nodded. “Fine, let’s go.”
With everyone organized into a queue, R0-N1 coordinated with a person on the inside to open and close the outer hatch as necessary. Everyone was forced to enter single file, and for every group it took several minutes to wrestle the door both open and closed. By the time the last group had gotten inside, more than half an hour had passed.
Finally, R0-N1 and the last few troopers were able to enter the pseudo-airlock. Stretch said, “Gentlemen, welcome to Alqassar,” and punched the door release. It slid open with a whoosh, and revealed a city enveloped in chaos.