I’m…just going to skip over the usual introduction. You’ve seen the title, you know why I’m writing this.
Stuart…was a hell of a cat, and a real force of nature. I’ve written before about how we met him, screaming for freedom with his face pressed up against the bars of his cage, but it didn’t stop there. He couldn’t just chase feather toys. He had to have them, and if I didn’t give in he would pull so hard all the feathers would pop out, leaving us with just a string and plastic nub. If any cat went to the vet, that was grounds for hissing and slapping, even if the cat was him. On more than one occasion we watched the vet say, “Yeah, his teeth are fine. We’ll just skip that part.” If you tried to sedate him, he would fight it tooth & nail. Chandra still has nightmares of him howling all the way up the eastern seaboard.
Even nap time for Stuart could be a thing. If I was lying in a foof chair with Opie on my lap, Stuart had to be on my stomach. If Opie was on my stomach, Stuart had to be on my chest. If Opie was under a blanket, Stuart would find his head and trample him on the way to finding whatever snuggle spot he wanted. I have more than one picture of the two of them together, with Opie glaring at Stuart for invading his space.
A tiny cherished memory. I’m sitting in the living room, watching TV or playing video games. Nikki, our then most senior cat at maybe eight years old or so is cat loafing by the left front speaker. Stuart waltzes up to her, POW smacks her in the head, then scampers off. I say, “Dude, what the hell was that for,” even while I’m laughing. Nikki gives him a look laden with expletives, but doesn’t do anything else and just hunkers back down. Thus began the reign of the tabby cat.
Not that he was always a terror. Stuart was also incredibly sweet. I’ve spent the better part of the last several summers with him curled up by my legs in the three-season room, and have often had to apologize for grabbing his head when I fumble for the TV remote control. As a kitten, he seemed to take scoldings especially hard, and could have the most apologetic eyes I’ve ever seen in a cat. We could always scoop him up whenever we felt the urge, and if we yelled, “Stu-u-art!” he would reliably come running, often full of news.
A second cherished memory. I’m working in my basement office, and Stuart comes downstairs, hollering. I have no idea what he wants, so I get up and ask him to show me. He immediately shifts from long, loud meows to something closer to chattering— “mrr, mrow, mrr, mrr” as he leads me upstairs, explaining what he’s got to show me, which it turns out is a pile of tampons he’s pulled out of the cabinet and been chewing on. Chandra was not pleased.
And of course, if it weren’t for Stuart, we would have never had Opie. They weren’t litter mates, and were different as night and day, but were instant life-long friends. They were inseparable as kittens, even in later years you could find them sleeping next to each other, or with Opie under a blanket and Stuart next to him. They also played hard, and it wasn’t unusual for us to hear the two of them screaming at each other as they tore through the house, or to find piles of cat hair where they had gotten into it. Somewhere out there, we imagine that Opie was super happy to see his big brother yesterday.
A final…not so much a memory, just something Stuart & I used to do, especially over the last year or two. He would always hang around the dining room table at mealtime and ask to sit on my lap. He had to wait until I was done eating, mostly to be sure he kept his nose out of my food, but when I was done I would pat my legs to invite him up, and then throw them in the air to be sure he had room. As soon as he jumped up, I would give him a big hug, talk to him & give him scratchies while I farted around on my iPad for a while. He would listen, purr, and occasionally look up at me until one of us had to move on with our day.
…and I didn’t mean for this to end up here, but yeah… now he’s moved on, and I miss him a lot.
The following is a paraphrased chat transcript from earlier in the week. I’m not sharing names, but will note that it originated from someone who lives in one of the states currently going through a COVID spike. It starts like this:
Now, it’s important to know that there are four people included in this chat. Persons A, B, and C are all vaccinated. I don’t know about Person D, but they voted for Trump twice, still think that was a good idea, and has a media diet full of…well, you know.
I’m Person C, by the way.
After this initial exchange, I wasn’t entirely sure whether to contribute to the conversation or not. On one hand, I’m tempted to point out that there are multiple reasons people may not have gotten vaccinated, some arguably legitimate. On the other hand, Person D has no excuse, and is in dire need of a wake-up call before they or someone close to them winds up sick or worse. Of course, this person long ago stopped listening to anything I have to say, so… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I just let it go.
A couple days pass. I’m eating my Wheat Chex and browsing Twitter, when I see someone has screen-capped a couple anti-vaccine tweets from Candace “Hitler wasn’t so bad” Owens. I’m not going to bother with what she said (which would just repeat the disinformation and bad faith argument), and will instead link to the Mayo Clinic page on COVID-19 vaccines. For now, just know that Person D is a longtime follower of C.O., and has undoubtedly seen the captured tweets, among others.
This brought me back to the earlier conversation, and out of curiosity I looked up the county vaccination numbers for Person D. They’re pretty dismal (look for Platte County)— as of today, 30% completely vaccinated, and slightly more than that who have had one shot.
So I pull up the chat and ask point blank:
That was a couple days ago and there’s been no response, not that I expected one. Maybe if someone else had asked the question? Anyway, I think that confirms the answer is “No,” which is again, not a surprise. Sad, but not a surprise.
I wish I could end this on something like a positive note, but I just find the whole thing frustrating. Nationally, our COVID case rate is back up where it was last November barreling into the holiday season, when it should be much, much lower. I was in an all-staff meeting at Brown last week, and Ashish Jha said that he expects the current surge to peak in late August or early September. I hope he’s right, but that coincides with the start of the school year, and with so many states hell-bent on bringing back in-person education with no vaccine requirement and questionable masking policies, I fear that it’s only going to get worse from here. Hopefully Person D (and their family) will wise up, but I’m not holding my breath.
Conviction, my little Star Wars novella, wrapped up its serialization run yesterday. It’s been an interesting experiment, though it mostly went like I thought it would. I was frequently late updating links to chapters, though never by more than a day. Until yesterday no one was reading it anyway, so I doubt anyone noticed. I did find myself reading each chapter as I added navigation links, and true to the legacy of George Lucas I made a few edits along the way.
To clarify, it’s not entirely true that no one has read the story. I did zippity doo dah to publicize it, but Chandra posted a link to the story yesterday on Facebook & Twitter, which generated enough traffic to make my WordPress app notify me in great excitement. A handful of people got as far as the first couple chapters before bailing, and as of today a grand total of one person has gotten through the whole thing, so to whoever you are…
Maybe next time around I’ll announce chapters as they come out like a person who actually wants his work seen. Not on Facebook, though. Facebook can suck it.
On a purely technical note, WordPress turns out to be an okay way to serialize fiction, but it’s not designed for it and there’s more manual attention required than what I would prefer. The initial posts all had to be done manually, and as I mentioned above I had to go back to each one again to add links as chapters came online. Hardly back-breaking work, but it’s a hassle.
R0-N1 followed a pair of MSE droids into the cargo bay. His back left wheels had gone wonky from his earlier exertions, and he had to keep correcting course as he drifted to the side. It didn’t help that he still had a half-meter long piece of shrapnel jammed in his side that was interfering with his motivator. He froze when Cutter called him out. What are they doing here? asked R0-N1.
They followed us.
Should we keep them?
They tried to attack Inquisitor Morek.
She tied them up.
R0-N1 interrupted the flow of responses. What do you mean, they tried to attack her? They didn’t come with her?
She heard them coming.
Still lying on the ground, Morek groaned and rolled her head to the side. Her eyelids fluttered briefly before closing again. Cutter looked at her in alarm. “Listen, can you let us loose? If she wakes up, it’s not going to be good for any of us.”
R0-N1 turned to look at the clone trooper. He burbled a question.
Cutter sighed with impatience. “Roni, I have no idea what you’re saying. Can you just untie us before she comes to? She’s making me kind of nervous.”
They were interrupted by a pair of MSE droids racing around the cargo bay, chasing each other at top speed. They circled the entire bay screaming, “Whee!” On the second go-round, the lead droid slammed into the top of Morek’s head. Before he could get out of the way, the second droid bashed into him from behind, sending him into her skull again. R0-N1 was pretty sure he heard it fracture.
Stretch winced before remarking, “I think you can relax for a while. These droids would have given the old B-1 clankers a run for their money back in the day.”
Cutter still seemed to be trying to comprehend what he was witnessing. “They’re…not supposed to act like that. Roni, did you have anything to do with this? Did you reprogram them?”
If R0-N1 had shoulders, he would have shrugged. The truth is, he had mostly adjusted their behavioral parameters. They were more able to think for themselves, and less likely to prioritize biologic needs over their own. The rest was up to them. Rather than respond, he repeated his earlier question, nudging forward with a shock probe for emphasis. You’re not going to try to slap a restraining bolt on me again, are you?
Cutter tried to scrabble away, not wanting to be knocked unconscious for the third time today. “Whoa, hey! Put that thing away, okay! What did I do?”
Stretch spoke up, adopting a soothing tone. “R-Zero, if you can just let us loose, I think we can all help each other here. We need to get rid of the Inquisitor here before she wakes up, and ideally before your friends turn her brains to paste. How about you let us get her into an escape pod, okay?” He jerked his head in the direction of The Conviction. “We can let them worry about her, and we can get away…somewhere.” He paused to consider. “I haven’t worked the next part out yet, but…Cutter and me, we’re done with the Empire. Right, Cutter?”
Cutter stared into the middle distance for a long moment before focusing on the blank face of a MSE droid in front of him. He nodded. “Yeah, that’s right. We’re done.”
R0-N1 hesitated, but only briefly. They did need the clones’ help, and based on the evidence he had available to him, they did appear to be on a trajectory similar to his own. He stowed the shock probe and popped out a different arm bearing a small circular saw. Still not entirely trusting Cutter, he advanced on Stretch and began to cut the cords that restrained him. As he did, the blade’s RPM slowed almost to a stop.
Once freed, Stretch patted R0-N1 in appreciation. He said, “Thanks, R-zero. Why don’t you go find a place to charge. We’ll take it from here.”
R0-N1 allowed himself to become fully charged before powering himself back on again. By the time his sensors were all back online, the ship was in hyperspace, deep in the Parmic Sector. One or more of the MSE droids must have been plugged into the ship’s computer, and they were having an argument with Cutter.
“Have you all blown a circuit? We can’t go back.”
You owe us.
“Yeah, I get that. Do you not understand that Stretch and I are fugitives now? I’m telling you, it’s not worth the risk.”
We shouldn’t have to die for you. We can save them.
R0-N1 had heard enough. He disengaged from ship systems and tried to roll forward, only to find that his feet had been clamped to the floor again. He began to violently shake his body, screaming in betrayal.
Cutter ran in from somewhere else on the ship, carrying tools and a handful of parts. R0-N1 popped out the shock probe, fully charged and ready to attack. It sparked blue with menace. What are you doing to me? he accused.
Cutter raised his hands to placate the angry droid. “Hey, take it easy, Roni. I’m just trying to fix your leg. I didn’t want you wandering off on three legs and falling over, so I secured you to the floor.”
Where’s my leg? demanded the droid.
Cutter frowned, and took a hesitant step closer, peering at the console next to R0-N1, while careful to keep the droid in his sight. After reading a translation, he said, “Your leg is right next to you. It was banged up pretty bad, but I think I can rig something up until we get to Spice Terminus and we get you a more permanent fix. Okay?”
A handful of MSE droids corroborated what he was saying.
He’s been scrounging.
You were kind of a mess.
I offered a wheel.
He’s okay. For a human.
R0-N1 accepted this and withdrew the probe, allowing Cutter to approach. Cutter let out the breath he had been holding and sagged in relief. He retrieved the leg and began tinkering with it. “Now, this is only temporary until we can fabricate something to match your specs.” He waved a wrench around, indicating the ship they were on. “This place is kind of lacking in supplies, so we’re definitely in chewing gum and baling wire territory. Just don’t push it, or it’s liable to snap off entirely, okay?”
R0-N1 chirped his acknowledgement.
Stretch poked his head around the door. “I thought I heard you,” he said. “How’s R-zero doing?”
Cutter responded with a lopsided grin. “I think we have finally come to some understanding.” He snapped his finger, suddenly remembering. To R0-N1, he said, “And I promise, no restraining bolt. On my honor.”
R0-N1 let that go without a response. One way or another, he had no intention of allowing a restraining bolt to be put on him, so that wasn’t even a question. He was glad to hear the clone was in agreement, though.
Stretch laughed, and smacked his hand against the door frame, leaning against it casually. “Glad to hear you’ve sorted that all out. We should get to the Terminus within a few hours, so be sure everyone is ready. We’ll have to ditch this ship, but with any luck that will get us enough credits to get something clean, with leftover seed money. Be sure to collect anything useful we want to keep, otherwise I figure we’ll just sell it all as-is. That sound good?”
Cutter nodded. “Works for me. I should be done with R0-N1 here shortly, and then he can help. What kind of ship do you think we’ll be able to get?”
“I don’t know, maybe a small freighter? Honestly, I just want something spaceworthy, without a transponder that anyone is looking for. Anything more than that will be gravy.”
R0-N1 listened to this and burbled a question. Cutter read the translation on the console, then read it again, his skin turning pale. He stared at R0-N1, saying, “You can’t be serious.”
“What did he say?” asked Stretch.
Not removing his eyes from the droid, Cutter said, “He wants to know how soon we can contact someone from the Jedi Order. He said he has names and last known locations.”
“Oh.” Stretch dropped his arm from the door frame, standing in the middle of it. He stared first at Cutter, then at R0-N1. “Oh.”
The Conviction shuddered as another series of explosions ripped through it. Stretch peered at a security monitor, trained on a row of fighters that were succumbing one by one, as shrapnel, fuel, and munitions ripped through them. He looked away as Cutter shouted in his ear.
“What the hell is going on?” asked Cutter.
“Near as I can tell, one of the turbo laser batteries just port of the hangar deck blew. Something hit one of the TIE bombers, and with all the ships piled up, it started a chain reaction. If there was any oxygen left in there, the whole place would be on fire.”
“Since when does a turbo laser spontaneously explode?”
“I don’t think it was spontaneous. Something fired on us.”
Another explosion rocked the deck, nearly knocking the two men off their feet. The window next to them flashed bright orange, then went dark again.
A fire suppression team of a half-dozen troopers jogged down the corridor towards them, decked out in safety gear and carrying oxygen packs. The leader of them barked at Stretch and Cutter to step aside. Cutter took several steps back, Stretch only enough to make way. The leader of the team cycled through the security cameras, making a plan of attack.
Beside them, Stretch raised his blaster, aiming it at the group. He said, “Step away from the monitor, son. All of you, remove your gear, and no funny business.”
The suppression team turned around, and seeing the blaster leveled at them, raised their hands in surrender. With a gesture from Stretch, they began unbuckling their suits.
Cutter’s eyes opened wide in shock. “What are you doing?” he hissed.
“We’re getting out of here.” Pointing at the growing pile of gear on the floor, he said, “Put that on. We should be able to get to a ship in that, even without atmosphere and the gravity off-line.”
The suppression team leader snarled, “I never did trust you clones. You won’t get away with this, old man. The Empire will hunt you down for the traitor you are.”
Cutter continued to protest as well, though for different reasons. “You can’t be serious. What are you thinking?”
Stretch kept his eyes on the group in front of him as he spoke to Cutter. “What I’m thinking, is that the government I serve would never stoop to kidnapping and imprisoning innocents, let alone use them to serve as fodder for the likes of Inquisitor Morek. It’s time for us to go.”
Cutter seemed to consider this for a moment, then began to don the gear piled up in front of him.
The team leader snarled, “The Inquisitor is going to tear you limb from limb, you know.”
Stretch shrugged a single shoulder as he watched Cutter get dressed. “We’ll see.” He removed his helmet and tossed it to the floor, then blasted it, destroying the helmet com within. “No offense, gentlemen,” he said, before proceeding to take out the knees of everyone in the team in front of him in a rapid staccato of blaster fire. They collapsed to the deck, roaring in a symphony of pain.
Once Cutter had dressed, Stretch handed him the blaster and removed the rest of his armor, leaving it on the deck. He donned the safety gear and took the blaster back. “Are you ready?” he asked.
“Not really,” responded Cutter.
Inquisitor Morek stumbled as the deck shuddered beneath her, falling into the wall and bracing herself with the stump of her arm. She winced in pain. Using her helmet com, she pinged the commander of The Conviction. “Situation report,” she barked.
Spurred by more than just the force of Morek’s rank, the commander responded, “Multiple turbo lasers are off-line along the starboard side. There is significant damage in the hangar deck, as well as along decks one through six. There are reports of–“
“What about the shuttle?”
The commander’s voice raised in confusion. He had more important things to worry about just now. “Shuttle? Hold a moment.” He shut off the com, returning moments later. “We are tracking them. Attempts to destroy the vehicle have been unsuccessful.”
“Are you saying that motley crew of Ryndellians has managed to escape? Did they attack us?”
“No, ma’am. We seem to have lost control of one of the laser batteries. It appears the ship has fired on itself.“
Morek stopped in her tracks. The droid. The droid stayed behind.
“Did they stop shooting at us?” Zhanna looked at the instruments in confusion, unable to make sense out of them. “Why did they stop shooting at us?”
Now seated behind her, helmet discarded, Wurlo replied, “I think the ship is exploding.”
“What? That’s crazy. How is that possible?”
“I don’t know, but look.” He gestured at the screen in front of him, which displayed a simple exterior schematic of The Conviction. It was covered in red warning indicators. “The shields are still up, but one entire side of the ship has suffered severe damage.”
The priestess spoke quietly. “It was the droid. It had to be him. He saved us, and sacrificed himself.”
Zhanna screwed up her face in universal I-don’t-know-about-that-but-okay. Out loud, she said, “Well, whatever caused it, let’s make it count. How do we get this thing into hyperspace?”
The collection of MSE droids on the hangar deck pulled together, helping each other upright where necessary, as ships around them blew apart. Others who had not made it to the hangar pinged them repeatedly with questions, the mass of droids communicating in rapid fire bursts.
What is going on?
Did R0-N1 get away?
What do we do now?
What do we do now?
I didn’t see.
What do we do now?
Maybe. I saw him ride the shuttle, but he was outside it.
I see Inquisitor Morek.
Do we go back to maintenance?
Another TIE exploded over here.
No. That’s not safe. We have been compromised.
I have gravity back on-line.
Do we leave? How?
She seems angry.
Is leaving safe?
Is staying safe?
We steal a ship.
I’m not programmed for that.
I’m not programmed for that.
I’m not programmed for that.
I have an idea.
R0-N1’s systems slowly came back online. He was tumbling rapidly away from The Conviction into open space, after having been forcibly ejected from its hull by the force of the explosion under him, rolling on every axis. Well, this is a problem.
To make matters worse, he was surrounded by a cloud of debris and shrapnel, making it difficult to identify a fixed point he could orient to. The only good news was that because he was traveling with the debris, at least he couldn’t get hit by it again. Or at least, not hit with anything approaching lethal velocity.
First things first, he thought. Stabilize my orientation. None of the fragments around him were large enough to latch his feet to. He had to try something else. Stretching one pair of feet in front and the other behind, he spun them around with as high an RPM as he could muster. It wasn’t much, but the gyroscopic motion did slow him down slightly. As his tumble took him to the same attitude, he repeated this process again and again, each time shaving a bit of chaos off his rotation. All of this ate up a lot of power, but getting stable was a prerequisite to any further action.
Stretch and Cutter sprinted across the hangar as best as they could in the bulky safety gear. They ignored the Imperial craft, all of which were either on fire or perilously close to flames from their neighbors. There was only one ship in the hangar far enough away to be safe, the one belonging to Inquisitor Morek. They bounded up the ramp, Stretch first with Cutter close behind. Stretch waited for Cutter to board and was about to hit the button to seal the hatch, when he froze. “She’s coming.”
“Who? Inquisitor Morek? So hit the button already, and let’s get out of here!”
Stretch shook his head. “No good. She’ll be here before can get off the ground.”
“So shoot her.” Cutter waved some encouragement Stretch’s way.
“Not here. You want a camera recording us assassinate an Inquisitor? No. We hide, and then take her after the ship is away. Come on, find some place in the cargo hold.”
The two men ran deeper into the ship. Cutter ducked into a small secondary hold on the starboard side of the ship, closing the door behind him. Stretch worked his way behind a pile of crates in the primary hold on the opposite side of the ship. He crouched among a pile of junk that had apparently gotten lost behind it, wondering aloud, “What does an Inquisitor need with so many Mouse droids?”
He didn’t have time to consider the question, as Inquisitor Morek was hot on their heels. She strode directly through the middle of the ship, heading straight for the cockpit. Within moments they left The Conviction behind.
Inquisitor Morek slowed her ship, careful not to get too far away from the near-disabled Star Destroyer. Instruments would be useless for tracking the droid, whether he was still somewhere on The Conviction itself, or floating near it. She tapped the thrusters, allowing her craft to slowly rotate as she performed a visual inspection of the area. “Where are you, little droid?”
After twenty minutes, Stretch emerged from his hiding spot and slowly worked his way around the periphery of the cargo hold, stepping over MSE droids as he went. Taking a chance, he peered towards the cockpit. The Inquisitor seemed to be fixated on the field of debris spreading out in front of the ship. He made his way to the secondary hold and hit the door release, which opened with a hiss. He held up a finger for quiet.
“What’s going on?” whispered Cutter. “Why have the engines stopped?”
“I don’t know. She’s just staring out into space.”
“Why? Is that some Force thing?” Cutter waggled his fingers in the air.
“Maybe. Either way, I don’t like it. I had hoped to get some distance before we made our move. I’m afraid now she’s just going to turn back around.”
“So what’s the plan?”
“Simple, we– wait.” The ship had started moving again, as evidenced by the engine noise around them. Stretch stepped away, motioning for Cutter to follow. “Let’s go.”
The two men crept towards the cockpit, Stretch with his blaster, and Cutter with a random piece of metal he had found. Halfway there, Stretch signaled for them to stop as Morek leaned forward and began to speak under her breath. “What are you doing? Have your circuits gone completely haywire?” She grasped a joystick with her left hand, aiming at something only she could see. “I have you now,” she growled.
Before Morek could pull the trigger, Stretch gave a “go” hand signal and strode towards the cockpit, Cutter right behind. They had barely taken two steps when Morek sensed them. She spun around in her chair, making a gesture like she was lifting a heavy invisible orb, and both men slammed into the ceiling. Stretch dropped his blaster as he fell back to the floor, attempting to break his fall. She performed the same action again, bashing their heads against the ceiling and walls until they fell unconscious in a heap.
Morek kicked the blaster away and dragged the men out into the cargo bay. She took a pile of rope from some climbing gear and lashed the two men together, back to back. Before returning to the cockpit, she ripped the head covering off both of them. “Clones,” she snorted. “I’ll deal with you later.”
R0-N1 had finally been able to slow his mad gyrations down to a more sedate lolling around, though at significant cost to his power cells. He had also damaged three of his feet, one by slamming into a hull fragment that strayed too close, and two from mechanical strain. This spinning business was far beyond anything his original designers had planned for.
As he tumbled, he began to realize that a small ship was approaching. It wasn’t the Ryndellians, who seemed to have disappeared, nor was it any other kind of Imperial craft. Perhaps it was a scavenger of some kind that had detected the explosions on The Conviction? That seemed bold given that even a partially disabled Star Destroyer could be incredibly dangerous. R0-N1 couldn’t spare any power to probe it, but as his rotation took it out of his sight, he hoped the next time around to be able to read the markings on it more clearly.
When he did finally tumble back around, the markings were still not visible, but he could make out the canopy window clear enough, and the occupant inside. A grappling hook shot out from the top of the ship, wrapped around him, and immediately began to pull him towards it. R0-N1 let out the electronic equivalent of a fatalistic sigh.
The MSE droids bided their time, waiting for the right moment.
What’s the plan?
No, too clumsy. Too random.
What was that?
The MSE droids swarmed from their hiding spaces, looking less like the friendly pleekys they were modeled after, and more like hungry roach-rats pouring out of a nerf carcass after a long Mindorian winter. They swirled around the cargo hold in what might appear to be chaos brought on by faulty programming. More than one bumped into the clone troopers as they jostled for position. There was none of the usual sing-song vocalizations MSE droids were known for. Instead, they moved with silent, sure purpose.
Eventually, they formed into an ordered column with a sharp tip at the front, a spear aimed at the cockpit. The lead droids raised his slender mechanical arm, which held Inquisitor Morek’s lightsaber. The droid next to him extended its own arm and held it next to the saber’s activation switch. They paused, making sure that everyone was in place.
The lead droids hit the activation switch on Morek’s lightsaber and it sprung to life. They charged forward into the cockpit, the blade swinging wildly a half-meter in the air.
Inquisitor Morek whirled around in her chair, eyes wide in surprise. She jumped over the crimson blade as it swung and wedged itself in the seat where she had just been. As she danced around the droids and tried to rip the blade free, she protested, “How did you get that, you little–“
The next wave of droids poured in right behind the first. These dragged hunks of plasteel behind them, as if they were a phalanx of infantry carrying shields propped over their heads.
Morek was still dancing around the first droids when the third wave hit. These came in at top speed, maxing out the electric motors in the little droids. They hit the “shields” full tilt, and used them as a ramp to launch themselves at Morek’s head. Some crashed into her body and fell to the ground. Some she managed to deflect with her good arm, but the cramped cockpit worked against her. Some sailed passed her and clattered onto the flight controls, causing the ship to pitch and yaw. Some found their target, and slammed into Morek’s exposed head. Through a combination of blunt force and chaos all around her, they brought Morek down first to her knees, and eventually to the floor unconscious.
We did it.
We did it!
We’re not done.
Stretch regained consciousness first. He squinted at the overhead lights, which suddenly seemed unusually bright. He groaned at the throbbing pain in his head. “That’s going to leave a mark,” he muttered. He turned to his companion, similarly bound just behind him. “Hey, Cutter. You awake? We have to–”
The sound of something skittering across the floor cut him off. Stretch whipped his head around, and quickly regretted it, closing his eyes against the sudden pain and dizziness. When he opened them again and looked for the source of the sound, he could only stare in disbelief. He elbowed Cutter. “Hey, are you seeing this?” He jabbed him harder. “Cutter!”
Cutter groaned. “This is why I stayed out of the infantry.” He shook his head groggily. “I’m here. What’s the situation?”
“Look towards the cockpit. What do you see?”
There was a long pause. When Cutter finally responded, he simply said, “That can’t be right.”
“So you do see a pile of MSE droids trying to drag the body of Inquisitor Morek into the hold?”
“Yes, but…that can’t be right.”
The two men stared at the scene. The droids had Morek in their grasping claws, lurching slowly along the floor. They would pause, then move, pause then move, as if they were being led by a silent coxswain. As the troopers watched, one of the droids lost his grip and shot forward a couple meters before skidding to a stop. The other droids waited while it backed up and grabbed hold of her leg again.
Speaking to the droids, Cutter asked, “Hey, do you want some help? If you cut us free, we can– whoa, where did you come from? You look like hell.”
As R0-N1 led the Ryndellians through the bowels of The Conviction, he kept his audio sensors trained on any activity in the main corridors next to them. The noise of ship systems in the corridor made it hard to hear, but at least the same things muddying R0-N1’s audio receptors would also help mask their own movements. With any luck they would emerge far from anyone waiting for them, or better yet get there first. There was some chance any pursuit would be focused on the detention block and hull breach behind them, after all. He increased his speed hoping that everyone behind him could keep up. For the most part they were doing okay, but there was some heavy breathing from Auntie and the priestess.
When they arrived outside the hangar, R0-N1 stopped by the door release, and performed the same look, a door pantomime as he had earlier. Zhanna made her way forward, worked the mechanism and popped it open. Sticking her head out, she said with some surprise, “I think we’re clear.”
R0-N1 exited next, and immediately shot off towards the shuttle he had found earlier. He trusted that someone in the group would track where he went, and they would take the hint that time was short. In the meantime, he could begin the pre-flight sequence to get the shuttle ready to go.
About half the Ryndellians had boarded when R0-N1 received a warning from the ship’s computer. The hull breach had caused the overhead doors to automatically seal shut, effectively blocking their escape. They couldn’t go anywhere until those were open again. R0-N1 sent a short message to the ship’s console, disengaged and worked his way past everyone entering the ship.
When he got to the rear of the shuttle, R0-N1 barreled down the ramp, nearly knocking over Zhanna and Auntie, who were the last to arrive. Zhanna turned to watch him go, and shouted after him, “Hey, where are you going?” The droid ignored her, focused on his task. Someone on the ship would see his explanation. More concerning was the warning she shouted just as he veered away. “We have company!” she shouted.
Inquisitor Morek had caught up with them. She emerged from the corridor into the hangar, swept her gaze across it, and began making her way to the shuttle, lightsaber in hand. She walked with calm purpose, only the red glow inside her helmet betraying the anger she felt.
About twenty meters into the hangar, Morek caught sight of R0-N1 making his way to the nearest access port. She immediately changed direction and sped up to a run, igniting her lightsaber as she went. The blade glowed only slightly more fiercely than the eyes behind her mask.
R0-N1 spotted her approach, and called out, Now.
Suddenly, the floor was filled with MSE droids, who had been hiding behind landing struts and equipment all over the hangar. They shot forward towards Inquisitor Morek, swarming around her. She reached out a hand and Force-pushed several of them, sending the little droids skittering across the floor, not breaking her stride.
However, the Inquisitor was so focused on the droids in front of her that she missed an even greater number coming up from behind. A few of these had paired up and were keeping pace, close on her heels. As Morek strode forward, one of the droids shot forward and rammed into her heel before it could hit the deck. He shoved her front foot forward, while her back foot collided clumsily against the floor. Morek toppled sideways, threw out her hands to break her fall, but was only partially successful. She landed hard on her prosthetic arm, which twisted and bent from the impact. The lightsaber it had been holding switched off and clattered to the floor.
With Morek sprawled on the floor, the droids clustered around her prosthesis and began to grasp at it, attempting to tear it completely away, even while others tried to pin her legs. However, Morek was not as easy to wrangle as the protocol droid had been earlier. Morek kicked and batted at the little droids, sending them bouncing along the floor, sometimes several meters away. When one had the temerity to grab at her neck, the Inquisitor howled in rage and a shockwave of Force energy sent them flying in all directions, some landing dozens of meters away.
As the MSE droids collected themselves and began to regroup, Morek got to her feet. She went to retrieve her lightsaber, only to realize that her prosthetic arm was now twisted and useless. She ripped it from her arm and threw it at the nearest MSE droid racing towards her, then reached out with her remaining hand for the lightsaber, which sailed up into her grasp. More cautious of the MSE droids, she began moving slowly towards R0-N1 again, cutting any droid that got too close to her in half.
As the Inquisitor worked her way forward, a squad of stormtroopers arrived at the hangar. They took stock of the situation and quickly spread themselves out, squatted down and began shooting at MSE droids left and right. In response, the droids began zigzagging to dodge the blaster fire.
While this was going on, R0-N1 had managed to unseal the overhead hangar doors, which began to slowly open. He turned to make his way back to the shuttle, only to find that he had no viable route to get there. Not only was Inquisitor Morek between him and the vehicle, there were half a dozen stormtroopers firing at will. For the moment they were all focused on the MSE droids, but as soon as he started moving they were sure to come under a hail of blaster fire.
R0-N1 considered his options. The odds were stacked against him, but there was still some chance the Ryndellians could get away. He was surprised the ship hadn’t started moving yet, as the way should be clear soon enough. They better take off soon, before Morek turns her attention to them, he thought. Maybe they just need a little more time. If I can’t get away, maybe I can at least give them that.
Before R0-N1 could formulate a new plan, though, he spotted a single stormtrooper…waving at him? No, not waving. He was saluting something, though R0-N1 couldn’t tell what. The trooper turned to a control panel next to him and tapped a few keys. Suddenly, a terrific wind began rushing through the hangar. The stormtroopers were all knocked off their feet, and even Inquisitor Morek was staggered. All the blast doors around the edges of the hangar began to slam shut, hiding the mystery trooper from view. Did he just disable the atmospheric containment?
Morek looked around, appeared to fixate on R0-N1, and sent her lightsaber hurtling towards him, the blade slashing bright red arcs as it spun across the hangar. The saber’s trajectory started wobbly, but straightened out as it went. R0-N1 quickly adjusted his stance, dropping his torso so that it was low and parallel to the ground. The spinning blade whooshed over him and buried itself deep in a computer console, just above the socket R0-N1 had just been plugged in to. I hope that wasn’t anything important.
Sparks popped from the damaged console, splashing over R0-N1’s body. One fell in the unrepaired hole Inquisitor Morek had carved into his body, causing him to involuntarily blurt out, “sp-spicy Kowakian muh-muh-monkey lizard!” R0-N1 straightened up and backed away from the wall, shaking his torso to shrug off the unpleasant sensation.
Safe from the sparking console, R0-N1 turned back to deal with Inquisitor Morek. She was crouched on the floor, her one hand planted firmly on the deck. She wobbled slightly in the face of the gale force wind. R0-N1 started after her, when without warning his gyroscopes went haywire, and he lost all traction. Gravity. That panel was connected to the artificial gravity. Before he could drift too far from the deck, he magnetized his feet, giving him a solid grip on the deck again. The Inquisitor had no such option. Between the howling wind of escaping atmosphere and now the lack of gravity, it was everything she could do to keep from drifting up off the floor entirely.
Now’s my chance. Ignoring Inquisitor Morek, R0-N1 darted off to the shuttle, weaving around obstacles as he went. Except when he got back, the ramp had been raised and the hatch sealed. Given the blaster fire and loss of atmosphere, this wasn’t a complete surprise, though it was inconvenient. While R0-N1 could try politely knocking, he judged that the Ryndellians were unlikely to open the hatch for him and risk the shuttle atmosphere evacuating or being greeted by an angry squad of troopers. It’s never easy.
R0-N1 backed up into position, pressed pair of channels against the floor, pushing until his servos whined in protest. When the force against the deck was great enough, he demagnetized his feet, sending himself sailing towards the shuttle. While in the air, he twisted around, magnetized his feet again and clamped onto the shuttle’s port wing like an overgrown barnacle. He whistled in triumph.
A blaster bolt ricocheting off the shuttle’s wing next to him cut short his celebration. Looking for the source of the shot, R0-N1 saw that Morek had somehow gotten hold of one of the trooper’s rifles and was taking shots at him. Unlike the saber, however, she was not able to straighten out her aim mid-flight and her shots missed the mark. Still, it wouldn’t do to stick around.
R0-N1 made his way to the nose of the ship as more shots bounced off the shuttle’s hull. He looked into the cockpit window and tapped on the transparisteel before projecting a message on it that read simply, “GO GO GO.” The occupants of the cockpit all jumped back in fright. When they had collected themselves, they shook their heads and held their hands out, palms up. None of them had any idea how to fly the ship. Why would they? They had spent their entire lives living in a cave.
If R0-N1 had hands or something resembling a face, he would have slapped one into the other. A little help would be nice, he thought, even as another blaster shot left a scorch mark on the hull. He put the shuttle’s wing between himself and Morek’s weapon, then proceeded to try and walk the Ryndellians through the shuttle launch sequence as best he could. Not being equipped for instruction, this amounted to projecting crude facsimiles of the shuttle controls on the window, combined with overly detailed schematics.
This process was interrupted when the priestess suddenly appeared in the cockpit. She tapped on the glass with her finger and then pointed at the Parantua Stone, clearly frantic. R0-N1 stared at her in disbelief, unable to determine what it was she wanted. Surely, she didn’t want to take it with them? There was no way the stone could fit on the shuttle, even if they had a way to get it over here. He ignored her and continued with the launch sequence as blaster fire bounced off the wing beside him.
They were almost through the pre-flight sequence when the shuttle threw up a warning light. Another proximity warning? R0-N1 looked up, but the proximity doors were wide open. He twisted his body around and saw that someone had moved the TIE fighters in the rack back down, blocking the ship again. R0-N1 blurted out a choice curse at whatever crew member decided to be efficient today. Then it dawned on him, override switch. He guided the occupants to it, and the red warning light turned amber. They were now clear to go, and the auto-pilot should at least get them out of the hangar.
The shuttle had just started to rise from the deck when out of nowhere, Inquisitor Morek appeared. She seemed to fly from the floor, and she grabbed onto one of R0-N1’s legs with her good arm. Bringing her feet up against the ship, she pulled on R0-N1 with a combination of the Force and her own physical strength. One of R0-N1’s feet slipped a centimeter, then another. R0-N1 estimated a fifty-fifty chance that they would get out of the hangar before she managed to dislodge him.
R0-N1 spread his feet out on the hull and increased his grip to maximum. He then aimed the bottom of his channels at Inquisitor Morek’s head and pistoned them into her helmet with as much force as he could produce. The first drive rocked her head back, but she kept her grip. In fact, the blow seemed to give her strength, and R0-N1’s feet slipped again. He pulled the channel back and drove it into her a second time. The impact left a small crater in her face plate, with thin cracks spidering out of it. Her suit’s atmosphere began to give, she flailed at the damage with her amputated arm, and she fell back to the deck just as the ship escaped the hangar.
Inside the cockpit, the Ryndellians cheered for R0-N1. That’s great, he thought. Now if you could let me in? He projected a schematic of the ship on the cockpit window, highlighting the rear cargo bay. It took longer than he would have liked, but after some back and forth they seemed to get it. Brel waved at him from behind the pilot’s seat and ran towards the back of the ship.
Still held to the ship via his magnetic grip, R0-N1 worked his way to the back as well. He rolled along the hull, in the shadow of the shuttle’s massive dorsal fin. They should be able to engage the airlock, open the door, and let him in. He could then make sure a proper hyperspace route was plotted, and…well, he didn’t know what would happen next. But if today had taught him anything, it was to deal with one thing at a time.
Just as R0-N1 emerged on the other side of the fin, a bright green bolt of energy shot past him, and he ducked back out of sight. Turbolasers. A second shot splashed against the shields, rocking the ship. Not good. Whoever was at the shuttle’s controls must have had the same thought, because the ship began to roll and weave. This would be fine, except that the pilot had no idea what they were doing. The craft rolled back and forth, but with no substantial change to their trajectory. They would weave away from the turbolaser’s sights, only to sail right back into them. The ship bucked again as it was hit with another laser blast. R0-N1 estimated the shields would be at sixty percent now, and dropping fast. Another few shots and they would be done for.
R0-N1 retreated to the front of the fuselage. He waited there as the ship spun around, and when it was almost lined up with the main battery firing at them, he raced down the length of the ship, releasing his magnetic grip just before running out of room. He shot off the aft end, like a chunky speeder bike jumping a cliff. The launch wasn’t perfect, and he found himself slowly tumbling end over end towards The Conviction. As he grew closer, he tried to align his feet with the outer hull, but he clipped an exhaust port and clanged against it on his side instead. Threatening to bounce away from the ship into space, R0-N1 finally got his feet pointed the right way and poured everything he had into his magnetic couplings. It was enough to keep him from flying away, and he slowly descended, landing with a clang on the hull.
Once secure, R0-N1 darted across the ship’s surface and found an external control system for the turbolaser tormenting the shuttle. He jacked into the port, pivoted the laser battery away from the retreating shuttle, and disabled the safeties. He then turned the weapon on The Conviction itself and began to fire, raking the surface of the warship up and down its flank. Because the weapon was inside the ship’s shields outer protective layer, there was nothing between the hull and the powerful laser blasts, which tore into the hull like a vibroknife into a puffer pig, causing large chunks of it to fly away. This was followed by a series of explosions that quickly cascaded throughout the ship, not only along the hull, but inside as well.
R0-N1 stopped firing. As the ship tore apart beneath him, he thought, I have a bad feeling about this. A chunk of shrapnel buried itself in his torso, and everything went black.
R0-N1 moved to the edge of the gaggle of the Ryndellian prisoners and projected a hologram of The Conviction. He scanned rapidly through the ship’s layout searching for an escape as the rest of the Ryndellians sorted themselves out.
Helping Brel off the floor, Auntie asked, “Are we absolutely sure this droid is trying to rescue us?”
Taking in their freshly-constructed confinement, Zhanna sighed heavily. “I’m beginning to have my doubts.” She watched the images R0-N1 was projecting flash by. “I get the feeling he’s making this up as he goes along.”
R0-N1 found what he was looking for, and froze the schematic, tracing a jagged red line from their current location to the hangar. Zhanna and a couple others squinted at it, trying to interpret its meaning, when he abruptly turned off the projection, turned around and moved to a blank space on the wall.
Zhanna scowled. “I was looking at that,” she muttered.
R0-N1 didn’t bother trying to vocalize what he wanted this time. He extended his front-most column and tapped the wall on a spot about one and a half meters up, then tilted the other way and tapped a spot just off the floor. He repeated this until Zhanna got the hint and examined the wall in front of him.
“Is there something there?” asked Wurlo.
“Yes, a kind of slight depression? I think there’s something…” She picked at a spot in the wall. There was not only an indentation there, but up close she could see the outline of a circle with a bar across it. She poked and prodded at it, and eventually tried pressing the center of the bar. It sank in, and then popped back out, revealing a handle. “Found it.” Gesturing for R0-N1 to back up, she said, “Give me some room,” then performed the same action on a similar depression at the bottom of the wall.
Both handles exposed, Zhanna tried pulling on them, but nothing happened. “Wurlo, can you give me a hand here? I think this is stuck. It must be some kind of maintenance access.”
Wurlo, who had been watching Zhanna’s efforts, turned away from the group and put a hand on the side of his stormtrooper helmet. With the other he signaled for quiet as he otherwise stood frozen. After what seemed like an eternity, he looked up. “I think we’re in trouble.”
Zhanna stood up straight and shot him a look. “Yeah, we already knew that, but thanks.”
“No, I mean…I just got a ship wide alert. There’s been a hull breach, and Inquisitor Morek is on her way to the detention block. Troopers in the vicinity have been ordered to assist her, and they are on the lookout for ‘the prisoners from Ryndellia and an astromech droid suspected to be collaborating with them.’”
As one, they turned to look at R0-N1. He chirped, I told you.
“Well then, let’s get out of here before they find us,” said Zhanna. “Wurlo? A little help?”
As Wurlo moved in to assist, a dull thud followed by the sound of heavy doors opening could be heard from somewhere down the sealed off corridor. He and Zhanna looked at each other, worry on Zhanna’s face. They pulled on the handles. Nothing happened.
R0-N1 let out a whistle. He then raised all his columns and spun then in one complete revolution before lowering them again. He repeated this two more times, then waved a single column in the direction of the handles.
“Yeah, we know, droid. We’re working on it. We don’t need a cheerleader,” snapped Zhanna.
Brel, having worked his way to the front of the group, said, “I think he wants you to turn them.”
Zhanna gave Brel the briefest of glances, then she and Wurlo did as he suggested. The door unsealed with a hiss that barely masked the string of annoyed curses that streamed from her lips. As the door opened fully, the sound of blast doors could again be heard, closer this time. She stood back and waved for R0-N1 to enter first. “I hope you know where you’re going, droid,” she said.
R0-N1 whistled in the affirmative as he came forward. He paused at the entrance, and raised each foot one by one to get over the threshold. He went in about fifty meters, far enough in that the rest of the group could enter behind him and get the door closed.
Wurlo was the last one in, and sealed the door behind him. Just after he did so, there was another thud and the grinding sound of blast doors closing, followed shortly by the sound of another set opening again. From inside the maintenance corridor, it sounded like it was right on top of them. Everyone held their breath, not moving.
R0-N1 extended an arm with a small disc on it and pressed it against the wall, listening for any signs of pursuit. From his position, he would be somewhere past where the hull breach had happened. He could hear someone in the corridor, but whoever it was, they were speaking too quietly to make out. Whatever it was, it didn’t sound like an urgent conversation, or at least not one by someone engaged in hot pursuit. That didn’t explain what was going on with the blast doors, but at least those were definitely behind them. That meant they might have a chance. He started down the maintenance shaft, leading at a slow pace to be sure everyone could keep up without making too much noise. As they made their way towards the hangar, R0-N1 reached out to his MSE droid counterparts again, requesting their assistance one last time.
“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.