Conviction: Chapter 9

Star Wars: Conviction

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.


Moving out.


Let’s go.

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.”

“You’re probably right. Okay, droid, we’re going.”

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.

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Conviction: Chapter 8

Star Wars: Conviction

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.

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Conviction: Chapter 7

Star Wars: Conviction

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.”

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Conviction: Chapter 6

Star Wars: Conviction

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.”

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Conviction: Chapter 5

Star Wars: Conviction

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.

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Conviction: Chapter 4

Star Wars: Conviction

As soon as the restraining bolt came off, a series of sounds and images broke free and assaulted R0-N1. He was hit with an ion blast, in a starfighter, then– no, the ion blast came later. R0-N1 sorted the memories into chronological order so he could process them into something that made sense.

There were a lot of memories to work through. Helping refugees on Sullust, bringing down a crime boss, working on Coruscant. Lots of memories of Coruscant, and multiple masters, most of them Jedi. Racing across the deserts of Er’Kit in a desperate bid to rescue a group of beings who had escaped slavery and gotten stranded. None of this told him how he got to where is now, though. Focus. First figure out how you got here, then deal with the door. R0-N1 fast-forwarded to the most recent memories in his system.

He was working with a Jedi named Zagiri Braithe, having been assigned to him after R0-N1’s previous master had passed on. Zagiri himself had a padawan of his own, Raewyn Desma. Both Jedi were in standard Jedi starfighters, Zagiri in front and Raewyn behind and to the left. They were returning from an engagement with Separatists, somewhere in the Mid-Rim. Several clusters of ships surrounded them, all piloted by clones. That’s why they all look the same.

Without warning, Zagiri pushed his ship into a dive. A split second later, every sensor on the ship lit up red. R0-N1 would have thought the systems were malfunctioning, but years spent with the Jedi had taught him that they often picked up things before he did. So if the sensors showed a dozen concussion missiles appearing out of nowhere locked in on them, that was no doubt what was happening. Even as he began evasive maneuvers, Zagiri cried out, “Eject! Raewyn, eject!”

While Zagiri was still screaming at his padawan, R0-N1 located and calculated the trajectories of every missile headed their way. He determined a flight path that could get them safely away, and with luck, positioned to regain the advantage. Ideally, he would take over control of the ship. However, Zagiri had blocked his access to all flight systems. According to him, no droid could ever match what a competent biological pilot could do, let alone a Jedi.

R0-N1 knew better, but didn’t argue the point. Zagiri was his master, and even if he was wrong…well, it wasn’t his place. He couldn’t fault Zagiri’s attitude based on the evidence he had to work with. What was wrong with those Separatist droids, R0-N1 didn’t know, but he suspected whoever built them had deliberately sabotaged their circuits.

In the current moment, all R0-N1 knew was that Zagiri had chosen precisely the wrong flight path to take. Within less than ten seconds, their ship was going to be torn apart. Sparing a few cycles to examine his padawan’s situation, R0-N1 determined that she had even less time before a pair of missiles would intersect her position.

So before Zagiri got out the first syllable of Raewyn’s name, R0-N1 ejected from the starfighter into space. He had traveled only a few dozen meters when the first starfighter exploded, and the second one followed just a few seconds later. The clones flew past, either not seeing or not caring about the little droid.

R0-N1 scanned the area around him, looking for signs of the enemy, but found nothing– not even a buzz droid. Why had the clones fired on them then? Maybe someone else had a faulty sensor, and panicked. It wouldn’t be the first time.

R0-N1 turned to the more immediate problem of how to get himself back to safety. He needed to get back to a capital ship before they jumped away. He oriented himself towards The Peacemaker and poured everything he had into his thrusters.

By the time R0-N1 made it, he was running on fumes. He barreled straight into the The Peacemaker’s hangar, gave a last burst on his rockets to right himself, and thunked hard to the deck, bouncing slightly on his feet.

Before he had the chance to do anything else, a clone trooper close to him shouted, “Droid!” He whipped around his blaster and shot R0-N1 in his upper ring, knocking him on his side.

As R0-N1 worked to right himself again, another voice called out, “Hey, that’s one of the Jedi droids. How did he get here?”

“How should I know? Hit him with a pulse grenade. We don’t want him causing any trouble before we wipe his memory.”

At that, the droid heard the clink-clank sound of a small metal object bouncing his way, and was hit by a massive electrical jolt that shorted out every circuit in his system.

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Conviction: Chapter 3

Star Wars: Conviction

A group of ships hurtled through the thick clouds of Ryndellia. Troopers jostled against each other in gunships, led by Inquisitor Morek. Some ships were new models, while others dated back to the Clone Wars, their occupants of similar vintage. They soared over a ridge and settled down into a rocky valley. A steady drizzle of precipitation fell all around them.

Before disembarking, the squad leader called on everyone to double-check their air supplies and filters. “Remember, that’s no spring shower outside, that’s a highly corrosive, if diluted acid falling. The atmosphere is toxic. If you breathe it, your lungs will dissolve into a pile of organic sludge faster than you can say, ‘Your mother’s a Jedi.’” Once satisfied everyone was prepared, he hit the door release, and the panels slid open with a thud. Giving the area a quick visual scan, he signaled to the men around him and they all piled out of the ship. Half a dozen similar ships around them were doing the same.

It was roughly half a click to their destination, and the men marched quickly, not wasting any time.

“What possible reason could the Inquisitor have for coming to this dump of a planet?” asked one of the troopers.

“Cut the chatter, Ricochet,” admonished the squad leader. “It doesn’t matter what she wants, just that she wants it.”

“Sorry, Stretch,” muttered the trooper named Ricochet.

A second squad fell in beside them, this one wearing newer model armor. A few of them nodded to each other, but otherwise didn’t acknowledge each other’s presence. Despite working together now for some time, there was no love lost between the clones and these newer stormtrooper recruits.

After a ten minute march, everyone came to a halt, forming up around Inquisitor Morek, R0-N1, and a handful of officers. They clustered around a hatch of some kind. The Inquisitor wore a dark cloak against the elements, her visor’s reddish glow reflecting against the falling drops of precipitation. R0-N1 was plugged into a socket, attempting to open the door, but without much luck.

One of the stormtroopers muttered, “I don’t like this standing around. Why don’t we just blast our way in?”

Ricochet glanced sideways at him. “Look at your armor.”

The stormtrooper raised his arm. The shiny white surface was already dull, with early signs of pitting in the corners. “What the hell?” he said in surprise.

“If we blast our way in, everything will get exposed to this, and whatever the Inquisitor is after will be destroyed. You want to make her unhappy?”

“No.” The stormtrooper’s pout was audible, even through the helmet filters.

“You just better hope the droid gets that hatch unlocked before your armor dissolves into sponge stone.”

“Yeah, well…what about your armor?”

Ricochet looked at his own arm. The shine had long since worn off, but at least so far exposure to Ryndellia didn’t seem to be doing it much more harm. The last remnants of his custom paint job were quickly being worn away, though. He shrugged. “It’s been through worse.”

At the hatch, R0-N1 was struggling. He had worked for several minutes, but had been unable to make a dent in the security, and he could barely make sense of what the system was telling him. He retracted his data arm and babbled something to the Inquisitor.

“You know I can’t understand you, droid. Just keep at it.” She pointed back at the socket. Getting the attention of Stretch, she barked, “You there. I thought you told me he had been repaired.”

“As fully repaired as possible under the circumstances, Inquisitor. Cutter– ah, that is, CT-7328 tells me the internals on him were unlike anything he’s seen. I think the phrase he used was, ‘not fit for an antique dealer’s junk drawer.’ Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer a newer model?”

Inquisitor Morek replied coolly, “I know what I’m doing, soldier.”

R0-N1 chirped again, more insistent this time. I keep telling you…. He raised the column sporting the restraining bolt in the air, spun a quarter turn and tapped it on the wall, then returned to face the Inquisitor and waggled the column in the air.

Inquisitor Morek stared at the droid for a beat. “You have a one track mind, droid. This had better help.” She drew her lightsaber, switched on the blade and sliced off the restraining bolt.

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Conviction: Chapter 2

Star Wars: Conviction

R0-N1 found himself going through his startup cycle again. The columns that made up his torso cycled up and down in sequence, then spun around one complete revolution. Realizing that he was yet again in unfamiliar surroundings, he muttered aloud, Now where am I? He could feel the thrum of distant engines, confirming that he was once again on a starship, a large one. Turning to get a better look around, he spotted a pair of biologics staring at him. One was in overalls, and beneath a patch that read “CT-7328,” the word “Cutter” was scrawled in ink. The other person wore white armor with faded paint on it. Barely visible, one shoulder had “Stretch” written on it in a stylized script. The man in overalls looked familiar, and seemed to match the images of many of the other men in R0-N1’s memory, though he didn’t know why. The armor was familiar, too. Do I know you? Have we met? he asked.

“What’d he say?” asked Stretch.

Cutter just looked at R0-N1, slack-jawed. “Never heard anything like that in my life. You said you have no idea where he came from?”

“Other than Inquisitor Morek’s ship, that’s right. It’s not defective, is it?”

As they spoke, R0-N1 rotated his body back and forth, listening.

“I’ll have to run a full diagnostic, but I don’t think so.” Speaking to R0-N1, he asked, “Can you understand us?”

Of course I understand you. Listen, if you can just… He rolled forward, lurching to a stop when the power cable pulled taut. I’m getting really tired of being attached to walls, guys.

Cutter held out a hand as if to catch him. “Whoa, there. You’re not going anywhere. You know we can’t understand a word you’re saying, right?”

R0-N1 spun his channels around and bounced the one bearing the accursed restraining bolt up and down a couple times before holding it up like a jumbo death stick on offer. Will you get rid of this thing?

The man chuckled. “Nice try, but no. I’m not removing your restraining bolt. Not until I know more about you and why it was put there in the first place. I’ve been burned by you astromechs before.” Turning back to his companion, he said, “Other than his vocalization circuits maybe being fried, I don’t think he’s seriously damaged. Just send someone for him when they need him. He’ll be ready.”

R0-N1 sat bewildered. He couldn’t remember meeting these specific biologics, but they clearly matched the images he had in his jumbled up memories. He thought they were…colleagues? Maybe. Somewhere he recalled a vague sense of danger, but he was unable to piece together why.

Think. Look around, what do you see?

He rotated his body around so that his optic sensor could take everything in, reaching out for audio and electromagnetic clues as well. He was in a maintenance shop of some kind, with piles of droids, parts, and assorted tools all around. Most of the droids seemed to be standard issue, and the collection included various astromechs, utility droids, a couple protocol droids, mostly what you would expect. There were also some…battle droids? Those didn’t seem to fit in.

The battle droids sparked a partial memory. Something about…a fire fight? He couldn’t be sure, nor was he entirely clear whether he had fought with them, or against them. Maybe that’s why they wouldn’t remove his restraining bolt. Were they afraid? No, that couldn’t be right. They would have just blasted him.

I need a data port, he thought. There must be one around here somewhere. He started to roll forward.

A booted foot jammed into R0-N1’s chassis, stopping him in his tracks. “Hey, where do you think you’re going? Just stay there until we’re done with you, all right?”

R0-N1 would have liked to just push past him, but as weak as his power reserves were, he didn’t dare try. Instead, he gave a small push against the man’s foot to register his protest at the situation, then withdrew back to his starting place. You’re not the boss of me, he thought.

That idea triggered a fresh round of failed memory searches. Wait, shouldn’t I have a master? Where is my master? Who is my master? All he got was a fresh round of scrambled images, with no clear connection between any of them. He let out the electronic equivalent of a sigh.

“I hear you, Roni.” He peered into the schematics on the screen in front of him. “If it makes you feel any better, I’m not having much luck trying to make sense of what’s going on inside your rusty innards, either. It’s like someone turned a rabid gundark loose on your memory banks. Maybe when the mission is complete we can take a closer look at you, eh?”

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Conviction: Chapter 1

Star Wars: Conviction

R0-N1’s systems came back online with a vengeance. –what are you doing? No! He shot backwards at top speed, and fell over, suddenly facing the ceiling.

What is happening what is happening, he thought. Last he knew, he was on a…wait, where had he been? A ship of some kind, right? A starfighter, or maybe a capital ship? With armored soldiers? All his memories were a jumbled mess, and a good chunk of them were completely inaccessible. All the soldiers in his memory looked alike, but that couldn’t be right. He needed to run a self-diagnostic, but his power reserves were running dangerously low. Instead, he was forced to switch over to standby mode until someone helped him to a power station. The best he could do for the moment was enable some of his low-power sensors, which meant no optical data, only audio and some limited ambient information.

A voice said, “What. Was that.” R0-N1 thought it sounded female, but the voice was altered as if it were being processed in some way.

A second voice responded, this one definitely female. “I’m sure it’s fine. Its power cells are probably just drained. I mean it’s been how many years? I’ll call someone from—” She grunted, as R0-N1’s gyros indicated he was being put back on his feet.

The first voice growled, “I don’t care about its power cells. Has its memory been wiped? What was that gibberish it was saying?”

Wait, memory wiped? Why would they want to wipe my memory? R0-N1 tuned his sensors to better evaluate his surroundings. There was lots of ambient noise, people walking around, the usual chatter of biologics and droids…but no engine drone. So he wasn’t on a ship. Some terrestrial location, then.

He landed back on his feet with a thunk. The female helping him said, “I don’t know. I don’t speak droid. It all sounds like that to me.”

There was a brief pause, and the other person responded, “Fine. Just have it sent to my ship on platform five-seven—“

“Your ship? The readout clearly said this droid isn’t supposed to leave the facility until it’s been interrogated. It was—”

“I know about the droid’s situation, Lieutenant. I am countermanding those directives. What I need to do with this droid must be done off-grid, and I have no intention of squatting here with it like some filthy Jawa pawing through scrap.”

The Lieutenant’s voice began to tremble slightly. “Okay, I won’t argue, but—“

“That’s very wise.”

The Lieutenant coughed and spoke with a little more confidence. “But. I need to know on whose authority, and for what purpose. For Imperial record-keeping.”

There was a pause before the altered voice responded. She said, “Of course. Put down that Inquisitor Nianda Morek is commandeering it for investigation into possible treason against the Empire.”

The conversation between the two females ended, as one of them walked away, leaving R0-N1 with more questions than before. Empire? What Empire? And what’s an Inquisitor?

The Lieutenant let out a puff of air. “Well, I’m not sorry to see her go,” she muttered. “Okay, you weird little droid. Let’s finish these requisition forms and get you out of here.”

At that point, everything went quiet except for the ambient noise around him, so R0-N1 switched to standby mode to conserve what little power he had left.

R0-N1’s power cells must have completely drained, because when he came online again he was as thoroughly confused as he was before. He did have power, though, so that was good. He ran a preliminary check, realizing to his dismay that in addition to his power issues, someone had attached a restraining bolt, and sloppily at that. No wonder everything is jumbled, he thought. He tried to take a look around, but his feet were clamped to the deck, and when he tried to spin his torso around he could only turn half way before a power coupling stopped him. Someone had connected the cable to a backup socket in one of his channels instead of the primary connector in his support rings. Whoever plugged him in didn’t know much about droids, though he was admittedly an unusual design, with his torso composed of seven independent channels bound inside a pair of rings, no separately rotating head, and two pairs of motorized feet instead of the standard tripod setup. He tried rocking back and forth to get free of the foot restraints.

“Settle down. You’re not going anywhere.”

Who? R0-N1 spun back around to see a Rodian female sitting next to him, though her skin was darkened well beyond the more typical green hue of the species. There were red striations throughout, giving her skin the appearance of a smoldering lava field. Her bulbous eyes glowed strangely red. She was clad in black and grey leather, with bulging armor plates beneath. The shoulders bore an insignia R0-N1 didn’t recognize. She scratched idly at her left arm, or more precisely, at the stump where it met a prosthesis. Unlike the rest of her uniform, the prosthetic was ill-fitting and appeared to be temporary, with an extra strap jury-rigged to keep it in place. The skin was raw where it made contact with it, and oozed a yellowish green pus. She winced and stopped poking at the wound.

The Rodian tapped a few keys on the console in front of her. “Now, let’s see what information you have for me.” Squinting at the display, she muttered, “You really got around, didn’t you? All right, we’re just going to let that run for a while.” She got up, stretched, and started to leave.

R0-N1 chirped, Wait, where am I? And who are you? Why am I here?

The Rodian looked at him annoyed, then toggled a switch on the console, reading a text version of his questions. She snorted. “I wouldn’t worry about that. As soon as I’m done with you, you’ll have your memory flushed and you won’t even know you were here.” She walked out the door, turning out the lights as she went, leaving the droid alone in the dark.

The droid was left helpless, strapped to the floor, aware that memories were being extracted from him without his consent, but helpless to do anything about it. Worse, they were memories that he could barely access himself. He sat and stewed at the injustice of it all.

When she returned several hours later, R0-N1 greeted her with an agitated squawk. I demand to know what you–

“Oh, shut up,” she snapped as she deactivated him again.

Days later, they were en route…somewhere. The Rodian had found something in his memory banks that intrigued her enough to pursue, but R0-N1 didn’t know what it was. He had tried multiple times to get her to remove his restraining bolt so that he could learn more, but she wasn’t having it. He was about to call for her and try another tack, when there was a chime from the cockpit. The Rodian blew past him, putting a helmet on as she went.

From his vantage point, R0-N1 could see the Rodian and a hologram in profile. The caller was dressed much like the Rodian, save for the helmet, which framed her more humanoid face. The image of her pale skin and bright eyes cast the cabin in an eerie light. The Rodian said crisply, “Morek here. What can I do for–“

“You’re late, step sister. Where are you?”

The Rodian– Morek– bowed slightly. “My apologies, sister. I am pursuing a lead. You can expect a report from me in two week’s time.”

“What do you mean, ‘a lead?’ Your instructions were explicit. Did you fail to find the droid?”

“No, I found it, sister. I have it with me right now.”

“Then bring it to me. You were due back days ago. Why the delay?”

Morek spoke carefully. “I took the liberty of extracting some of the droid’s memories, in the hopes that we could plan more efficiently on my return. In the process, I found something worth exploring.”

The woman in the hologram pressed her. “Showing some initiative, are we? Be precise, Morek. What did you find? You know how important our mission is to the Empire. The delay had better be worth it.”

“It will be. I learned of a small enclave on Ryndellia. I believe it may be home to Force-wielders.”

Even in the hologram, the sister’s surprise was visible. “Ryndellia? I thought that planet was lifeless.”

“It would appear not. There is at least one underground city there, called Alqassar.”

“Hm. Hold on a moment.” The sister turned away to consult something out of sight, and then turned back to Morek. “How are you planning to get to the surface?”

“I am taking my personal vessel. Why?”

The sister sneered at her. “Do you have a death wish? Ryndellia is plagued with a toxic atmosphere and corrosive precipitation. That crate you call a ship won’t last more than five minutes.” She checked something out of sight again. “I’m signalling The Conviction. They’ll have shuttles and other landing craft you can use.”

Morek protested, “Isn’t that a star destroyer? I hardly think that’s necessary.”

The hologram snorted. “Don’t flatter yourself. It barely qualifies, and is slated for decommissioning within the year. Regardless, You have these resources available to you, use them. I’ll give you a week.” She paused briefly, then continued with a sneer. “We can schedule a sparring match on your return. How is your arm?”

Morek’s prosthetic hand clenched into a fist at her side. “It’s doing fine, sister. Thank you for your concern.” She abruptly flicked off the comm, and the image disappeared. Speaking to no one, she growled, “Spiteful harpy. I’d like to see how well you fare against the Emperor’s pet.”

Leaving the cockpit, Morek went to the console where R0-N1 was still plugged in. She sat down next to him and disengaged the power and data cables, leaving his feet clamped to the floor.

R0-N1 spun his torso around and pointed raised the channel bearing the restraining bolt to Morek’s eye level. He clamored again for her to remove it. Listen, if you will just remove this thing, I can be much more helpful. You just–

He froze as something gripped his torso, freezing it in place. At the same time, he heard the unmistakable sound of a lightsaber sparking. R0-N1 squealed in terror as he strained to backpedal away. Within seconds, his wheels slowed to a crawl, even as the droid’s howls of protest dropped in pitch and volume, and eventually came to a full stop, the sudden effort having quickly drained what little juice had been given him.

Index | Next Chapter


Scary Dating Stories

It’s mid-morning on a Sunday, and a group of friends are having brunch at a popular spot downtown. The plates and bowls on the table haven’t been cleared yet, though they are mostly empty. Conversation has briefly paused while a waiter finishes topping off everyone’s drinks. Mimosas for the ladies, and a Bloody Mary for Doug. Mark has nothing.

Once the refills are done, Kate says, “In honor of Halloween, how about we share our scariest dating stories?”

Lauren shoots eye daggers across the table at Vanessa. “Did you put her up to this?”

Vanessa grins into her mimosa. “Maybe.”

Doug scoots his chair back and announces, “I think I’m going to get some fresh air. Mark, you want to join me?”

“Dude, it’s forty degrees outside.”

Doug gives him a look that says, do you really not see where this conversation is going? He gives Mark about a second and a half to register this, then says, “I’ll be out on the patio if you want to join me,” and leaves.

Vanessa is by now grinning from ear to ear. She says, “Okay, I’ll go first. Stalker, restraining order.”

Amanda and Tracy follow next:

“Attacked a work friend. Restraining order.”

“Roofied. Restraining order.”

Mark stands up abruptly. “You know what, I think I could use some fresh air, after all.”

The women at this point are in a groove, and barely acknowledge him. Heather chimes in next. “Told me I was the love of his life on our second date, blah blah blah… Restraining order.”

Kate looks around the table, confused. “These aren’t really stories. ‘Blah blah blah’?”

Vanessa dismisses her concerns with a wave. “Shhh, it’s okay. We’re getting to the good part. Lauren, I believe you were next?”

Lauren offers a feeble protest. “You’ve all heard this story multiple, multiple times. Do I really need to tell it again?”

Everyone around the table agrees that yes, she absolutely must tell this story again. 

“And no shortcuts,” orders Tracy.

Amanda chimes in, “Because we will know.”

Lauren takes a deep drink from her mimosa and begins. “Fine. So I had been seeing this guy for a while, nothing serious. We had come back to his place after an afternoon movie and dinner. I had parked my car there earlier and was going to go home, but he invited me inside first, and I figured it was still early, so why not. He pours us both a glass of wine, and then asks if I mind if he ‘takes off this monkey suit.’ I said, ‘Sure.’ I mean, he’s the one who decided to wear a coat and tie to see some old B-movie, but whatever.”

“What was the movie?” asks Heather.

“’Invaders from Mars.’ This guy was super into science fiction.”

Tracy snickers, “Ooh, foreshadowing.”

“Can I continue? So anyway, he’s gone for like, fifteen or twenty minutes. I’m beginning to wonder if he’s forgotten I’m there, when all of a sudden the lights go out. At first I think it’s a blackout, but then I see all the little red and green LED lights are still glowing on the TV and stereo. Some kind of whirring sound starts up down the hallway, and I’m like…what the hell? Then a super-bright light starts strobing out in the hallway, and I see fog billowing out of it. A shadow appears, and then there he is, dressed in costume. He’s got a fake head on that’s bald with giant black eyes, basically your classic grey alien look. He’s got weirdly long knobby fingers, and must be wearing platforms of some kind, because his head is practically scraping the ceiling.”

“So it’s like a full body suit then?” asks Vanessa.

Lauren shoots back, “Do you want to tell this?” 

“No, no. You’re doing fine. I’m just interested.”

Lauren spares a moment to impale her friend with a few more optical daggers, then continues. “No, not a full body suit. It had the head and arms, whatever he had on his feet, but the middle part…well, there was no middle part.”

The only person hearing this for the first time, Kate gasps, “He exposed himself?”

Tracy pantomimes a hand job and cackles, “Take me to your beater!”

Ignoring this, Lauren continues, “Yeah, so he shows up like, I don’t know, Gort or an extra from the X-Files, his junk completely hanging out. Which I should say, that part took me a while to realize with the lights and everything else. Anyway, he raises one of his weird alien hands and declares in a really loud voice, ‘Be not afraid, earthling. I mean you no harm. I merely wish to learn more about your strange ways.’“

“Oh my God, what did you do?” asks Kate.

“Well, at first I just stared. All my brain could muster was, ‘wha-at the fu-uck is happening.’ But he just stood there with the lights flashing, fog pouring into the room and his hand raised like I’m supposed to take it. I don’t know how long he stood there waiting, but eventually I just figured fuck it. My calendar’s clear tomorrow, let’s do some alien autopsy.”

Vanessa adds, “Plus, long knobby fingers.” Lauren shrugs.

Kate at this point is vigorously shaking her head. “Uh uh, nope. I would have run away so fast I would have punched an outline of my body in the door, like Wil E. Coyote.”

“Okay, so we go to his bedroom, which is thankfully not strobing like the hallway, but he’s got it lit in some sickly green color. He doesn’t lay on the bed, he just stands there. With the mask on, I can’t tell what he’s even looking at. I’m trying to figure out what to do next, when he points at my chest and says in that same loud voice, ‘The females on my planet have three breasts.’ All I can say to that is, ‘Yeah, I just have the two, sorry?’ Then he says, ‘Everything on my planet is in threes.’ At this point, I look him up and down trying to figure out what he’s talking about, because all I see is one head, two arms, two legs, his chest is covered in latex so who knows what’s going on there, and then the standard bait and tackle. I say, ‘You mean your internal organs?` So then he slowly moves his hand to his junk, and lifts up his pecker to expose his nuts and says, ‘You may inspect yourself, if you like.’”

Everyone watches with glee as Kate throws her hand over her mouth and whispers in horror, “No!”

“So I grab it, or them, and sure enough, there are three of the little buggers in there. I blurt out, ‘What the hell? Are these real?’ He’s so proud, he drops out of character and says, ‘I got an implant. It’s usually on the bottom, or in the back. It’ll be just like having sex with an alien. I even have mating jelly.’”

“Wait, ‘mating jelly’?” asks Kate.

“Yeah, I never did find out what he meant by that. So anyway, at this point I’m not even thinking sexy times, but I am definitely checking out what’s going on down there. I’m squeezing it trying to figure out if it’s plastic or silicone or what, when the thing pops out of my fingers.”

“You broke it?” asks Kate. 

“Not…exactly. As best as I can figure, it squirted free and pinballed around in there, punching his real testicles like speed bags. All I know is, all of a sudden he’s screaming, he takes a step kind of sideways and kind of backwards, loses his balance, falls over and smacks his head on the nightstand, which knocks him unconscious. That’s when I pretty much Wil E. Coyoted out of there. He never called me back.”

Vanessa raises her glass in salute and says, “God, I love that story.”

Lauren took a sip of her own mimosa and asks Kate, “So, what about you?”

Stunned, Kate says, “Oh, uh…my last date told me I reminded him of his mother.”

Everyone around the table shudders in horror as Vanessa signals the waiter for refills all around.