Water, water, everywhere...
Captain Bron Tiverius rubbed his calloused fingers together. His worn hands hadn't been dry for two years - not since he had leapt from the drop ship at the head of his platoon and into the waves of Iskalon's planet-spanning ocean. He laid his hand on the cool bulkhead, feeling the durasteel drain the heat from his palm. The once polished metal had become corroded over the months; he slid his hand down the rough bulkhead.
At least the hull's holding.
Tiverius cast around the cargo hold of the massive underwater craft. What had once been a model of efficiency was now a clutter of rusted tools and shorted computer stations. Naked wires hung deadly close to the ever-present carpet of muck water. The entire ship was leaking-it had been for six months. It was a miracle that the sub-ocean transport still functioned, much less responded to his crew's commands. The old Imperial craft's hull still held against the water's immense pressure, but Iskalon's ocean was slowly winning the fight.
The Captain wrung out his black skin suit, shaking his head as he hung it from a dangling, rusted beam. His forced laugh echoed around the hold. Nothing ever dried on the Arcite...ever. The pressing ocean filled the transport's recycled air with a constant mist of briny humidity. Three of his men had died from pulmonary infection in the last two months alone.
Tiverius snapped his head up; he hadn't heard his lieutenant's approach. The Captain raised his eyebrows, awaiting the younger man's report. Haykin Lowar was clad solely in black shorts...a far cry from the uniform of a soldier. Tiverius had tried to retain some modicum of military order, but Iskalonian mold had a way of deteriorating even the most loyal soldier's resolve - certainly it had no trouble eroding an already frail, barely tangible chain of command. The Lieutenant's bare feet slapped on the wet deck grill as he drew closer.
"Captain, we confirmed the scan...a large power source in sector five."
Normally, the lieutenant would have paged the captain on the ship's comm.
The comm system had been scavenged nearly a year ago.
The Arcite had been built for ocean incursions to five thousand meters. Two years ago, fourteen hundred meters under the waves would have been a routine glide. But the ship hadn't seen routine maintenance in over a year.
Two years ago, Admiral Tower had been in control of the Imperial fleet over Iskalon. After occupying the water planet's sister worlds Gamandar and Telfrey, the zealous Admiral had subjugated the former and wiped out all life on the latter.
Tiverius looked down at the swamped deck plates. A slick green patina of slippery algae coated the floor. His distorted reflection stared back at him in the foul water.
"Fourteen hundred...how many suits mission ready?"
"Seven, Captain. I...can have another prepped within the hour."
Tiverius stared at the younger man for a moment before answering.
He had learned that two years ago Tower had fired on Iskalon from orbit, causing the destruction of not only the massive underwater Pavillion, but more than three quarters of the Imperial forces garrisoned under Iskalon's ocean. Without a second thought, the cyborg blowhard had simply destroyed his own troops. Without forethought to occupying the planet after the blast, Tower had broken one of the cardinal rules of engagement. He had cut off the Bantha's trunk to spite its face...all to get at a handful of Rebels.
No target is worth that.
Tiverius breathed out, subduing the lance of pain that zipped through his ribcage at odd intervals. The aged injury was his keepsake-a harsh reminder that Imperial troops were expendable pawns. Several hundred more men had died in the aftermath of the tidal wave from starvation, disease and predation. Their situation was compounded soon after by the native Iskalonians' ban on offworlders. Being left for dead by his Empire, Tiverius and his remaining men became a priority target for the livid water-breathing natives. Within six months of Tower's attack, all that was left of a brigade of Imperial soldiers was the injured Arcite and thirty men. Not to mention Iskalon's charming flora and fauna...carnivorous sea plants and hundred foot long fanged serpents called Chiaki.
Tiverius became acutely aware of his junior officer waiting for an answer. Lieutenant Haykin Lowar would never go so far as to interrupt the captain, but the man held firm until his query was satisfied. Tiverius looked up.
"And the signal?"
"We tracked it to the grotto. It is a pulsed frequency."
"Perhaps...Captain," Lowar replied, his excitement evident. "I recommend we send a team to investigate immediately."
Two years ago Haykin Lowar would have been disciplined for preempting his superior. Undercutting a commanding officer's authority was not tolerated in the Empire. Bron Tiverius nodded.
He wasn't even sure his rag-tag remnant was part of the Empire any longer, or that the galactic power still existed.
With the limited off-planet comm access they had managed to squeeze out of the Arcite's spare parts, Tiverius had learned of the destruction of a second Death Star, one he had not even known was in existence. Along with the battle station's demise, the majority of the Imperial fleet had apparently perished over some Outer Rim world called Endor. Duty had long shifted to a second priority. Second to survival. Tiverius looked Lowar in the face.
"Do it. Have the suits prepped within the hour... before we hear from our friends again."
The Iskalonians - being water breathers - had unlimited advantage over even the best trained and equipped Imperial troopers. Tiverius' team had been picked off slowly over the past two years; only ever a few men at a time, but on a sub-ocean craft the Arcite's size, every hand made a galaxy of difference. Also, some of the natives had apparently learned to control the serpent-like Chiaki.
Three days ago, Tiverius' team had detected an underwater power source of considerable size on the ocean floor. Since most of the Arcite's sensor suite had been cannibalized over the past months, his men had only been able to gather cursory information about Iskalon's oceans...enough to feed themselves. The power source could be nothing - a phantom reading from the Arcite's failing computers, or reflected solar energy magnified by the unpredictable ocean currents. Or it could be something much more substantial.
A way home.
If the signal was indeed coming from a machine, perhaps his team could salvage the necessary parts to get the Arcite above Iskalon's hungry waves and into the atmosphere. All he needed was an extra power source to keep the life-support system online while power was diverted to the orbital engines.
Too many maybes.
Haykin Lowar threw a loose salute, disappearing into the corridor. His wet stride echoed back to the captain's ears, then he was gone.
Tiverius turned, laying his palm on a familiar helmet.
No, duty was furthest from his mind right now. Maybe with some provident sliver of galactic justice, Admiral Tower was rotting away in some Imperial gulag somewhere, or worse yet-demoted to Corporal.
Bron Tiverius picked up his barnacle-encrusted helmet.
The once brilliant white of the aquatic stormtrooper helmet was now a blemished yellow. The eyepieces stared back dully, laden with micro-abrasions. Although the helmet's gas seals still functioned, the flexible rings that kept Iskalon's salt-water ocean at bay had begun to crack. Soon they would fail altogether, just like the Arcite's hull.
Like my sanity.
He was tired of being wet. Tired of eating Iskalonian clams. The sloppy, gooey mollusks more resembled something that would come from a Dewback's nose than a food was suited for one's stomach.
Bron Tiverius lowered the helmet over his head, pulling his damp skin suit down from the ceiling. Wrestling the clammy flexplas over his weary frame once more, he grabbed his worn armor, clamping it over the suit. Tiverius hauled his air tanks off the deck, slinging them over his shoulder as he trotted out of the cargo hold.
A single thought bounced excitedly on his brain, agitated by the lieutenant's report.
A way home.
"There it is."
The entire cockpit dropped into silence around Ari Dannar. The scout-for-hire leaned her head forward until it touched the cool transparisteel. Her cropped black hair fell over her eyes.
A dead planet hung in space in her field of view; gray clouds were ripped through with glimpses of the black and brown surface. The world stared back at her for another few moments before Ari broke the spell.
She had been drifting around the galaxy for several years, selling her services to the highest bidder. Right now, the best credits - in fact the only credits - were coming from the New Republic.
Ari Dannar breathed in - a slow, deliberate draw of stale cabin air through her nose. Another moment passed before she looked again at the planet below her. For a moment, she saw the planet as it had been once. Green, lush...beautiful.
Ari Dannar mentally chastised herself. Telfrey had ceased to be her home the minute the Empire had airburst proton bombs over the planet's major cities. The population that had not been vaporized immediately suffered for weeks from the biological agents that fell from the sky. The Imperial sweep-and-clear teams had taken care of the rest. In the end, everything and everyone on Telfrey had died. Her family had been one of the lucky ones; the center of Telfrey's capital, Shamanar, had been reduced to vapor in less than a blink. Ari leaned back, settling into her chair.
"Yes," she snapped, straightening up in her chair. Turning to the man seated on the navigation panel, she softened her face.
"That's perfectly alright. Before we land on Iskalon, I wanted to finalize a few items."
Anuit Graib shifted under his crash restraint. The shoulder harness slipped slightly; the diplomat almost jerked his valise free of his lap trying to replace the belt. His eyes flicked around the cabin nervously. Clearing his throat, he straightened his back.
"In my reports, I have repeatedly ascertained that Iskalon is still off limits to not only humans, but any non-native species. In the two and a half years since the Imperial fleet left their mark on this system, what has Alliance - excuse me - New Republic High Command done to remedy that fact?"
Ari cleared her forehead with two fingers, leaning back and folding her arms. Her chair creaked underneath her as she smiled at the diplomat, trying to formulate a response to his probe. He was testing her.
What had High Command done? She knew the hard answer.
Not a blasted thing.
But the New Republic scout also knew that the effeminate bureaucrat would not sit still for that answer. What Ari needed was a bit of a sugar coat...that, and a good, hard twist.
I need a good lie.
"Mister Graib," she breathed. "Since Endor, your esteemed President has been extending the New Republic's goodwill outward from Coruscant and into the Colonies, Mid Rim, and beyond. Most of the systems that we," she sat up, pointing to him, "are making contact with have been burned pretty badly by Palpatine and his goon squad.
"Granted that the events that turned Iskalon off to the galaxy were extreme. No one is arguing that point. All we are doing is simply following up on those initial contacts for the New Republic...the groundwork has already been laid."
"Following up? I don-"
"So we aren't the f-"
"First here? What are you...off your motivator? Do you really think NR brass would send a relatively unarmed scout vessel into hostile territory just to see if they could establish a tenuous relationship with an already outwardly hostile civilization...with one of their best negotiators on board? Do you think that any amount of credits in the galaxy would be enough for me to risk my pretty little hide on some backwater system without so much as an island to stand on?"
Graib shifted in his seat, puffing up as he pulled his valise closer to his body. Her compliment had the desired effect.
"No! Plain and simple! We are just the follow up. Several happy fellows just like yourself have already done the major legwork down there, we are just here to...tweak a few loose ends."
Anuit Graib considered her speech for a moment.
"And you are certain?"
Ari Dannar leaned forward, smiling. From what she had seen on their short trip together, Graib saw the Alliance's victory over the Empire as more of a nuisance than a victory. He had repeatedly carped about the mound of data processing that he now faced. On their short hyperspace trip together, the picayune man had grumbled about everything from new input formats to being forced to change the old Alliance logo on his data card no less then six times. Ari rested her pointed elbows on her knees.
"I'd bet this ship on it!" She leaned over, popping him in the arm with her fist.
Graib visibly relaxed as he massaged his arm. Ari leaned back, swiveling her chair back to the Palomon's viewport.
I am certain that not a word I said was true.
The comm crackled. Ari nestled her earpiece in place; after a brief exchange, she unclipped the gray plasteel and hooked it on the console.
"Gamandar's cleared us."
Whatever good that does us.
In the year that Gamandar had been free of the Empire, the agri-guild controlled planet was leaping quickly to regain their galactic status in the sector. Unfortunately, Telfrey's sister planet had a rough road ahead as they continued to lick their wounds from the Empire's short tenure there.
Ari steered the Palomon away from the dead surface of Telfrey. Within seconds, Iskalon swung into view, nearly eclipsing the entire view port. The deep blue globe hung peacefully in space. Bands of white clouds were streaked around the planet's equator and poles.
"Here we go."
Ari felt Graib tighten up behind her. Smiling, she touched the throttle forward. The deck hummed as the Palomon advanced on the water planet's atmosphere.
The corner of Ari's lip twitched. She swallowed the bitter saliva that had accumulated in her mouth.
The New Republic never would have hired her had they known her true motivation for coming to Iskalon.
Her eyes fixed on the blue globe. She didn't see the planet; all she saw was her past.
She smiled again. Not the carefree, off-hand grin that often lit up her features. This smile was flat, an expression of a singular, dark emotion.
Ari Dannar had a score to settle...and the New Republic was unknowingly footing the price of her revenge.
Haykin Lowar's broken transmission crackled in Bron Tiverius' ear as he forced another stale breath into his lungs. The hiss of Tiverius' own mechanized breathing was his only company as he kicked his flippered feet, propelling himself forward. All around, the ocean pressed on his fragile stormtrooper armor, looking for a final, deadly ingress.
As he pushed through the black blanket of seawater, Tiverius glanced at his wrist locator. Three small blips surrounded him: Lowar, Banno, and Kellan. The green-black miasma of sea water made it impossible to see his men. With the piercing lights mounted on their air packs, they could easily dispel the darkness, but those same lights would make them quick prey as well.
Nearly a half click behind Tiverius, another group of four men brought up the rear of the excursion. His team had left the Arcite's wet porch over an hour ago; already they were a quarter hour behind schedule.
How long until we are an hour behind? A day? Until I am no longer fit to command?
Blinking the dark realizations out of his brain, Tiverius sharpened his eyes on the sea floor passing beneath them. As they progressed, soft light became evident, shed into the water from the bioluminescent coral that dotted the seafloor. Swaying plants reached up at his team. Some of the multicolored vegetation waved in the ocean current, some actually reached for the men. In the two years since Tower's ultimate blunder, Tiverius' team had learned the threat level that Iskalon's flora and fauna presented in short order. Most of those lessons had come with a hard price.
"Turning to zero-one-five."
"Copy," came the second team's static reply.
Below, a deep crevasse was lit by a colony of luminescent coral that clung to its plunging walls, affording them small visibility. Tiverius' team pushed towards the canyon, navigating under the dark pressure. The bubbling burst of his escaping breath gave the Imperial Captain a focus...a rhythm. But for how long? Tapping his thick wrist chrono with a gloved finger, Tiverius clenched his jaw.
"Pick it up, team two. Watch for gill-heads."
Another tap on his wrist and the location of the power source flashed at him. The signal was strong; the dull glow on his scanner pulsed evenly.
Tiverius smiled. They were close, closer than they had been in the two years that Iskalon's endless ocean had been their prison. Tiverius' heart thumped. He willed it to settle. The Iskalonian natives had extraordinary underwater senses; they could detect the Arcite at two clicks without the aid of cumbersome scanners. Although he doubted they could hear a single human heartbeat, Tiverius slowed his breathing nevertheless.
As they cruised into the canyon, the faint glow of the walls closed up around them. Now Tiverius could easily see Lowar and the other two men ahead of him, their flippers kicking them evenly forward.
"Half-" Lowar's report was cut short.
"Report, Lieutenant." Tiverius' blood suddenly ran cold.
"Signal closing on our position. It's...huge."
Tiverius snapped his head around, nearly tearing his helmet from its waterproof mounting. His men needed a decision, and they needed it now. Iskalon had put him in a unique position, though.
Everytime I make a decision, someone dies.
No matter. Tiverius had to make the decision that would cost the least lives now. Either they jet back to the Arcite, hoping to cover a kilometer before the Chiaki tracked them, or forge ahead hoping to find shelter in the canyon.
"Keep going! Team two, head back now!"
The second team did not have to cross the Chiaki's path to get to the relative safety of the Arcite.
Tiverius could see the Chiaki's signal on his wrist scanner now. The serpent was close. Squinting, he watched the blip as he kicked forward. The pulsing dot stopped, reversed, then reversed again.
"Keep your lids on, it's feeding. Hasn't spotted us yet."
"Cap...you know what Chiaki means in fish-speak? It means to consume."
Tiverius shook his head. Banno had been a rookie when he had been assigned to Tiverius over two years ago. The edge in the boy's voice had never quite dulled. Tiverius attributed Banno's anxiety to the fact that he hailed from a desert planet.
"Keep your seals on, Corporal," Tiverius responded, not turning to look at his junior officer. Technically, there was no word in Basic that equated to the Iskalonian creature's name. Tiverius had had the definition explained to him once by the Imperial database. Even the computer's clinical explanation had left Tiverius purely unsettled.
Steadying his breathing, Tiverius kicked down, lancing through the water, further into the canyon. The walls had begun to open, creating a looming cave. The variety of glowing coral increased here, making identification of the jagged terrain much easier.
If the Chiaki had spotted them, his team would have had seconds to use their jets to escape. While their pack's emergency feature gave them the advantage of speed, it also drained their precious air in seconds, as well as creating a thick trail of visible bubbles to follow.
Not an option.
"Team two, follow the south ridge back, eyes on your scanners. If that worm smells you..."
Tiverius' unspoken order was understood. If the Chiaki began pursuit of his second team, they had been trained to lead the serpent away from the other men. No sense in eight men becoming supper for the voracious beasts when four would sate its appetite.
The canyon walls sloped down, ending at the white sand that covered the sea floor. Several schools of fish lazed around, occasionally darting away at the Imperials' intrusion. A curious school of black and yellow chutfish waved past, their white goggle eyes taking in Tiverius and his team with dull interest. Their stripes waved iridescent color, indicating their calm.
Tiverius kicked forward, following the canyon floor as he attempted to pin down the energy signature on his wrist scanner. The winding sand path seemed to snake around the signal as it led them in a wide arc. The glowing walls loomed overhead, at times eclipsing their view of the ocean above.
Five minutes later, they had wound through the maze of glowing canyon walls that had shrunk to two body widths. The signal had grown painfully close.
"Couple hundred meters now. Keep sharp."
Tiverius' adrenalin threatened to fly out of control. Clenching his fists, he willed the energy back under control. He knew what he should expect when his team discovered the source of the transmission.
Nothing. Expect nothing...everything else is a pleasant surprise.
But that did not stop his heart from pounding as his team probed further into the narrowing canyon. Turning back, Tiverius watched two of his men swim up beside him. He should have seen a third. Tiverius jerked his wrist scanner up to his helmet. He identified Kellan and Lowar next to him, drifting past in the easy current. Banno's signal had fallen behind.
"Captain, I got hung up here. My kicks are tangled in some sea nettles here. I...ahhh!" Banno's panicked signal fizzled and died.
Lowar started kicking back through the canyon. Tiverius grabbed his air pack, halting him.
"Lowar, you and Kellan press on, I'll deal with this!"
Tiverius pumped his powerful legs, lancing back through the canyon. His muscles burned as the glowing walls blurred past. Gasping breath filled his ears as he squinted into the dim light. His scanner put Banno ten meters ahead of him. Tiverius rounded an outcropping.
Banno was bent double, his flippers entangled in a patch of waving sea nettles. He struggled with the clinging plants, shredding pieces off into the water. Snapping his head up, Banno tapped the side of his helmet, then drew his hand across his throat.
Comm is out.
Tiverius gave him the thumbs up, sliding a serrated blade from his boot. As he began to cut into the nettles holding Banno, his ear crackled with static.
"Captain, this is Lowar...you are not going to believe this."
Before Tiverius could respond, he was tugged from below.
The tenacious grass had begun to grip onto his flippers now. Tiverius renewed his frantic assault on the dull green grass, slashing at the base of the meter long plants.
The current strengthened, waving more of the clinging grass onto their armor.
Banno managed to free his blade from his boot, joining the effort.
Lowar's voice crackled over the helmet comm again.
"Captain, we've found-"
Tiverius blinked, snapping his head up. The school of black and yellow striped chutfish had meandered back around, hovering in the current above them. Suddenly, their stripes flashed red, then white. Their tails flipped, and the school moved as one-a giant white curtain blinking into the inky blackness. Something had spooked the fish.
Banno ripped free of the sea nettle.
Tiverius felt a hand on his arm. He turned his head.
Banno was frantically gesturing back down the canyon, then to his wrist comm.
Blinking, Tiverius looked at his scanner.
The Chiaki's signal had stopped meandering.
It was heading straight for them.
"This could be a problem."
Ari Dannar leaned out of the Palomon's open hatchway; her eyes searched the waves below. The wind was calm; the cerulean ocean was a plain of easy waves as far as she could see. The setting sun shed an orange curtain of brilliance across the curving horizon. As peaceful as the stretching scene was a hundred meters below, Ari clenched her jaw.
The landing platform was gone.
All her combing of the New Republic databases for reports of the Imperial occupation of Gamandar and Iskalon hadn't mentioned whether the destruction of the Pavillion had been complete. The massive underwater refuge for off-worlders had been connected to several landing platforms before the Empire had destroyed it. The Alliance database's omission, whether intentional of not, had eaten at her brain for months.
"I guess I have my answer."
Ari's fingers tightened white on the hatch frame; the whine of the Palomon's engines teased her ears. Her entire mission had been contingent on her being able to land her ship. The second stage of her plan had been avoiding contact with the native Iskalonians. Ari shook her head, angrily sweeping a comma of black hair out her eyes.
Now the rest of her mission seemed to be rapidly becoming a moot point. She slammed her palm on the hatchway, cursing under the persistence of the Palomon's engines.
"Problems, Commander?" Anuit Graib yelled from inside the cabin. His voice cracked; the diplomat's growing tension was obvious.
Ari relaxed her face, letting the muscles fall before turning her head. The setting sun cast her sharp shadow on the bulkhead. Anuit Graib's hand was covering his eyes, shielding his squinting face from the descending sun.
"We are sitting in my ship above a beautiful ocean at sunset, Graib...what possible problems could there be...besides the fact that we don't have a glass of Atrivan Fizz...and no beach?"
The diplomat's already furrowed forehead wrinkled further. Ari pushed herself back out of the hatch, spinning on her heels.
"No problems, Graib. Something isn't where I thought it was...that's all."
"The platform?" Graib's tension notched up.
"We'll find it. I'll start a scan right now."
Ari stepped for the cockpit, wincing as Graib opened his mouth again.
"They don't know we are coming, do they?"
Ari stutter stepped, cursing herself for letting her body answer his question. Graib clutched his valise closer to his chest. The slender man's face flushed an angry red; he shuddered in his chair. His chest inflated; Ari winced, preparing for the coming verbal onslaught.
Apparently the single word was all Graib could push through his pulsing ire. For the first time since they had left the fleet, Anuit Graib unbuckled his crash webbing, shooting to his feet. The slight man flushed three shades of crimson, casting around the ship for a vent to his percolating anger. Winding up his foot, he kicked at his seat with a designer boot.
The seat spun. Graib lost his balance.
His ankle twisted on the deck. He followed, landing in a tangled pile at the base of the chair.
Ari held her breath, trying to not smile.
Graib looked up at her, trying to hide his obvious blunder.
The chair completed its spin, knocking the diplomat in the head with a hollow thunk.
Ari's smile cracked; she covered her mouth, reaching down her other hand.
"Is this...how you deal with all your initial contacts?"
Casting a poison look at her hand, Graib tightened his jaw.
Ari's eyebrows shot up. She could tell that the ineffectual bureaucrat was trying to conjure the multiple layers of administrative castigation that would face her when they returned to the fleet. Graib ignored Ari's outstretched hand, leaping to his feet. Swiping up his valise, he laid the case on the bulkhead bench. When he turned again, the red tension had drained from his face; the vein in his neck had become considerably less prominent.
"Ms. Dannar, you do not seem to understand the gravity of our mission. How did you get clearance for this travesty in the first place? All New Republic first contacts must be cleared through the President!"
"Graib...it was...an oversight," she lied. "I know that you know the census information that we have now is taken directly from the old Senate and Republic database. There's so many holes in that data that you could drive a Death Star through the center! The point is...we are here now, and we have the tools and the talent to do this...now."
Graib shook his head, closing his eyes imperiously.
"Unfortunately, that is not part of our mission profile." He shook his head, finishing his sentence under his breath.
Ari felt hot adrenalin bolt through her veins.
"What did you say?"
"I said," he shot back, "that is what's to be expected from a contractor."
Graib spat the last word out like it was a bad batch of N'Quib tentacles that he was trying to get off his tongue.
Ari felt her fists close of their own accord as she advanced on him.
"You listen to me, you...we're here now, and we've got a job to do. I am being paid to do a job. Let's just do it!"
"This is not in the mission profile."
Now it was Ari's eyes that widened.
Another single minded simpleton data pusher. Perfect.
"So think outside the syst-"
Their exchange was interrupted by a roaring of water from outside the open hatchway. Both turned, their eyes fixed on the bright daylight that stabbed the Palomon's hold.
"What...was that," Graib squeaked.
Ari edged over to the hatchway, gripping the cool durasteel. Pulling herself closer, she dared a look over the edge, out onto the stretching ocean.
A white ripple of waves was spreading outward in the ocean below the Palomon. Something had landed under them.
Something had to jump first.
Something big. The Palomon held stationary a hundred meters above the water, but the expanding size of the waves rippling outward from the impact was plainly visible. Graib crept up behind her, steadying himself on her arm.
"What is it?"
Ari steadied her breathing, studying the dissipating waves with wide eyes. She could hear her heartbeat over the drone of the Palomon's whining engines. She opened her mouth; her tongue hesitated. The sea became still.
Ari could hear Graib's frantic hyperventilating behind him.
She looked down.
The sea exploded.
White water raced at her.
Ari fell back into the hatch, careening into Graib. Her limbs thickened as she struggled to her feet.
Her world turned upside down as the massive serpent hit the bottom of the Palomon. Graib's body flew past her as alarms began to blare throughout the shuttle. Ari crunched into the bulkhead; storage cabinets flew open, disgorging their contents.
She pushed off the bulkhead; Graib's frantic screams competed with the Palomon's alarms. Before she could reach the cockpit, the deck was jerked out from under her feet again. Back and forth. The image of the creature's maw was still burned into her head.
It's trying to kill its prey.
The Palomon's engines whined louder as they tried in vain to keep the ship's failing altitude. The ship dropped ten meters all at once. Graib bounced towards the open hatch, screaming frantically as he scrabbled for purchase on the smooth deck.
Acrid smoke burned Ari's nose. The ship's stabilizers were being overtaxed. Another violent shake slammed her shoulder into the bulkhead bench. Pain blossomed white hot as Ari was thrown towards the open hatch. She clawed at the acceleration couch, her face a mask of terror.
Ari Dannar didn't mind dying.
Getting eaten was another story altogether.
The Palomon jerked again; the cabin lights exploded in a shower of sparks. A wash of wet, heavy air blanketed the cabin. Ari realized it was the creature's breath.
Her ship jerked into another sickening plunge, dropping everything into darkness.
A new sound assaulted her ears.
She was wet. The water was ice-needle cold.
White waves rushed into the open hatch, hungrily seeking her. Washing over her feet, the water quickly filled the sinking ship. Ari struggled to pull herself up as the freezing ocean filled the cabin. Within seconds the torrent had swallowed her.
Not like this.
Graib was nowhere to be seen.
Her muscles tensed as one, trying to fend off the freezing blanket of seawater.
Ari Dannar never thought death would come like this. All she could see was a blue blur; the rushing of bubbles assaulted her ears. The saline water entered her mouth. Ari shook her head, denying the inevitable. She had come to Iskalon for a reason, her mission...her life, was not supposed to end now, so close to the goal.
Her lungs cried for air.
The ocean answered the request.
Tiverius' frantic breath echoed inside his helmet as he shot forward through the canyon. His thick legs burned as the glowing canyon walls blurred past. Banno was only slightly ahead of him; the younger man's thin frame gave him a speed advantage. Tiverius grimaced, forcing his legs to respond.
He dared a glance at his wrist scanner. The quick flash revealed the Chiaki closing on them. Although Tiverius could not see the deadly serpent, he knew that it would kill both men unless they found shelter immediately.
Tiverius dodged the sharp edge of a reef, leading Banno around the cliffside. Above, the canyon stretched out into the ocean. A buzz of electricity arced down Tiverius' back; he felt naked without the protection of the narrow chasm.
A jagged cave came into view around the wall. Tiverius kicked towards the black interruption in the canyon. A quick glance at his wrist scanner froze his lungs; the Chiaki was within meters. Both men rocketed into the cave.
The shallow cave sunk a few meters to a grass covered floor. A few iridescent fish darted out of the cave, disturbed by the soldiers' hasty entrance.
Tiverius' air tank thunked into the roof of the cave. He spun in the water as Banno settled next to him. The Captain watched the narrow opening of the cave through his dull helmet lenses. He opened his mouth, remembering that Banno's comm had malfunctioned.
As he had expected. Either the men had discovered the power source and taken shelter from the Iskalonian natives and deadly ocean life, or they had been killed. Tiverius shook his head.
He had always been taught to expect the worst, and plan for the best, but two years under the ocean's endless pressure had whittled away at his academy training. Things were different now.
Expect death, anything else is a bonus.
Tiverius glanced at his wrist comm.
The Chiaki's signal had disappeared.
His face dropped. He tapped the scanner. Nothing. The signal had simply disappeared. The porous reef rocks normally did nothing to stop their transmissions.
Banno's helmet turned towards him; Tiverius could tell what the younger man was thinking.
Don't even try it, son.
Banno kicked his flippers, easing towards the mouth of the cave.
Tiverius grabbed Banno's armored leg, stopping the other man. He felt Banno's wiry leg muscled tighten under his grip. Digging his fingers in, Tiverius anchored himself to the craggy wall, pulling the other man closer to him. Banno kicked away, freeing his leg as he settled down next to his superior.
Banno jabbed a finger at his wrist scanner.
Besides Banno's signal, two green dots appeared on the tiny, scratched screen.
Lowar and Kellan.
The signals blinked out, flickered, then glowed strong.
They were close...within a hundred meters of the other two members of his team. Tiverius forced his adrenalin down. Two years of imprisonment might be at an end...and that end was within their grasp. Two years of watching the ocean consume his men, two years of watching their precious equipment fall victim to the ocean water.
Two years of being wet.
Don't get careless with the goal in sight, son. Focus.
Sage advice - the only words he had ever gotten from his convicted spice running father.
As he inched forward, Tiverius scanned the dull palette of green-blue ocean in front of the cave mouth. The dull glow of the coral illuminated millions of grain-sized life forms clouding the water. Focusing past the living haze, Tiverius squinted through his scratched helmet lenses. The Imperial-issue helmet had made seeing into the ocean difficult enough when it was new, let alone two years of non-maintenance in Iskalon's hostile seas.
"Wait...wait," he said to himself. In the absence of communication from the rest of his team, his own voice was a welcome intrusion. By now, the second team had most likely jetted back to the Arcite. He hoped. Whether they had made it to safety or been killed, Tiverius had one less item to distract him.
Tiverius peered into the ocean again, trying to make out any details that would give him a clue as to the presence of the Chiaki. Tiverius almost reached for his blaster. The short range weapon packed a tremendous amount of firepower at short range. He grimaced.
But like most things mechanical, the blasters had run dry over a year ago. His holster was empty. He focused back into the sea.
It was not what he was seeing - nothing - that worried him, it was what he could not detect that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.
There were no fish. No low-chain predators. There was simply nothing.
Perhaps the Chiaki had scared them away with its presence. Tiverius shook his head.
Perhaps it still was scaring them away.
A blink of motion caught his eye; Banno had already kicked up and out of reach.
Tiverius swiped at his junior officer; the boy was too quick. Banno arced out of the cave, his helmet scanning left and right.
Tiverius watched Banno hang there for another second, his face cold and wet in his helmet.
"Banno!" He glanced at his wrist comm.
When he looked up, Banno was gone. A few bubbles drifted carelessly towards the surface where he had floated seconds earlier.
"Banno!" He checked his wrist comm again. Banno's signal was still strong, and within a few meters. Tiverius clenched his fists until he felt the brittle flexplas fingers of his gloves creak together.
When the two got back to the Arcite's wet porch, words would be had.
With a shallow kick, Tiverius approached the cave mouth. He scanned the growing ocean, looking for any sign of the sea serpent. His heart was near palpitation.
He caught sight of Banno's flipper. His face relaxed; his adrenalin subsided.
Tiverius reached forward, gripping the flipper. Yanking, he expected more resistance.
His eyes widened.
He was holding Banno's leg.
Only his leg.
Tiverius released the severed limb in shock.
A dark cloud filled the water were the rest of the boy had been moments before.
Tiverius' muscles thickened with fear.
Kicking forward, he oriented himself towards Lowar and Kellan's last confirmed position. He reached for the safety plug of the bottom of his air tank. His gloved fingers closed around it. He looked up and stopped dead.
The Chiaki sat in the water three meters from him.
Tiverius' fingers started trembling.
The sea-dragon wasn't advancing. Its large, black eyes glimmered in the dull light. Tiverius could see his own struggling reflection twice in the creature's eyes. Long, fleshy crests lined the Chiaki's head, flowing from its fang-lined maw. The jaws were stuttering as if it were trying to chew something.
It was the rest of Banno. The monster's saber teeth could not get around the body and the air tanks at the same time. The Chiaki widened its jaws again, trying to manipulate its latest meal. One of the huge fangs hooked Banno's tank strap. As the serpent chomped again, its fang began to slice the tough canviplas.
Tiverius doubled his efforts on the safety plug for his own air tank. His fingers moved as if they were made of sand. Once the plug was removed, he could use the remainder of his air to jet away from the creature before it finished its first meal. Once the Chiaki separated the strap, the air tank would fall away.
And he would its second meal.
"Come on come on," he whispered shakily. His fingers were not responding. Every grip he tightened on the bolt slipped off.
The Chiaki opened its jaws again. Chomping down, it sliced the strap further.
The tank bolt gave.
The strap separated.
The Chiaki convulsed as it swallowed Banno and his equipment in one motion.
Tiverius pointed his head towards the canyon, wrenching the levers on either side of his air tank. Nothing happened.
He looked back. The Chiaki recoiled, white nictitating membranes rising over its massive eyes. It was going to strike.
The tanks blew.
Tiverius struggled to get his head forward as he shot towards the sea floor. He hit the white sand, hearing it grind into his helmet. Kicking his flippers, he reoriented himself down the canyon, slamming off the jagged walls as he rocketed forward. He angled his flippers, managing to avoid another collision as he blasted forward, leaving a trail of bubbles in his wake.
The canyon blurred past his helmet. The water pressed his head back as he lanced forward trailing a fan of thick bubbles. Tiverius twitched his flippers attempting to steer as he raced around a toothed corner. The glow from the coral began to fade, darkening the canyon.
His body jerked as the pack spewed the last of its air into the sea. Even without looking at his wrist scanner, he knew the Chiaki was still behind him. Tiverius peaked his arms over his head, letting his momentum carry his slowing body. He expected to feel the Chiaki's teeth at any second.
Tiverius began to kick as the light faded completely from the canyon. He resisted the urge to flick on his shoulder light. Pumping his legs, he pulled himself forward through the narrowing crevice. His pack lodged into an outcrop, jerking him to a stop.
Craning his head around, he peered into the dark water.
Bron Tiverius was out of air. His lungs began begging for a breath.
He tapped his shoulder, unclipping one side of his spent air tank. Tiverius had prolonged his life by using the quick escape.
Or did I just prolong my death?
He would know the answer in under sixty seconds. He reached up to his opposite shoulder, intent on freeing himself completely from the cumbersome pack. Instead, his hand nudged his shoulder light.
The bright beam speared through the dark water, alerting a few scattering fish.
Tiverius scrabbled for the power stud.
A glint passed through the solid beam twenty meters down the canyon.
And kept passing through. The glimmering skin of the closing Chiaki tightened his entire frame. Tiverius ripped the light from his shoulder, sending it tumbling down the last few meters of jagged wall to the sea floor. If the serpent went after the light, it might give him a few extra seconds.
To do what?
The light came to rest on the sandy bottom; it shot a skewed yellow beam into the upper ocean. Tiverius kicked backwards; his hands searched the narrowing canyon for anything. His only reward was sharp rock.
The light blinked out. Tiverius snapped his head up; for a moment he saw nothing. The last air in his helmet was consumed by his gasp as he realized what he was looking at.
The Chiaki was charging.
His hands shot up in front of his face.
The Chiaki hit the rock a meter from him. The current flipped him backwards into the canyon wall. His armor slammed into the sharp outcrop, cracking. Tiverius righted himself, fighting the sudden rush of current forcing him back. Knives of seawater flushed his suit, tightening every muscle in his frame. Bron Tiverius was going to die. He felt his compromised armor thunk into the canyon face; more of Iskalon's ocean replaced his stale air. He couldn't see anything.
Another violent crack jarred his brain. As he began to black out, he was surprised at the thought that grabbed for his attention.
At least I died sane.
"Dannar, get over here!"
Ari turned, flashing a smile at the younger man. She knew her smile was one of her best weapons. To be certain, not a weapon that would stop a squad of the Emperor's goons, but Jak Nythan was anything but one of the Empire's brain dead soldiers. Besides, no stormtrooper could possibly love her like Jak did.
Flipping her long hair, she sauntered across the seedy motel room. The slums of Ord Veica were not exactly the Streel sector on Telfrey, but it was cheap and anonymous.
"Watch your tone, young man," she laughed, sliding next to him on the bed. A glowlamp shed a cone of dirty light over the pair, pasting the square shadow of the portable terminal onto the desk in front of them. Ari pecked him on the cheek, rubbing his neck as he typed.
It had been three weeks since she had left Telfrey. Three weeks, and her life hadn't ended. They hadn't run out of credits; the pair weren't in some anonymous Imperial prison begging for their lives. All of her mother's predictions had so far not come to pass. Ari snuggled onto Jak's arm, breathing him in.
She had the sneaking suspicion that none of those predictions would.
Ari knew that Jak's business straddled the line of Imperial legality. Running illegal pharma from the Mid-Rim to the Colonies, the pilot could tell tales of a few close shaves with the Empire's checkpoints. But he was smart.
Ari began rubbing Jak's thick forearm, tracing the lines of his Ord Veican tattoos.
Jak Nythan was about to close a deal with the local Imperial sector command that would allow him to pass unmolested through the heavily patrolled shipping lanes. Of course, twenty percent of Jak's take was immediately deposited into a certain Rear Admiral's numbered credit account.
Ari smiled. Twenty percent was a small price to pay, considering that Jak's business was about to go into hyperspace.
And Ari Dannar was along for the ride. She had seen her opportunity, and taken control of her life.
No matter what her mother said.
Jak's fingers danced over the keyboard, filling the dank room with a staccato rhythm. His frame suddenly tightened; his fingers stopped. Ari opened her eyes. The quiet rang in her ears.
The thick man didn't say a word.
Ari raised her head, looking first at Jak then the glowing screen in front of him. The HoloNet was up; a few news items scrolled across the square display. Jak started typing again; his fingers stuttered across the keys. Ari grabbed his arm.
Ari's eyes had caught the name of her home planet in prominent Basic on the screen. Jak's fingers froze, hovering over the power button.
Ari's breath caught in her throat as she read the headline.
Genocide on Telfrey.
Her head buzzed as she read the story. Shamanar incinerated. Millions feared dead. Rebel Alliance terrorists suspected.
She blinked. Jak's finger fell on the power key; the glow of the monitor faded as the terminal clicked off.
Ari rose; she couldn't feel her legs. She stared at the peeling wall.
She felt Jak's hand on her shoulder.
She didn't turn, didn't speak. The only face she saw was her mother.
The woman had been finally, permanently right.
A harsh, cold slap on her face snapped her brain into motion.
I'm not dead. That hurt too much.
Ari's frame creaked with pain. Her eyes burned. The next thing she felt was the wrenching, piercing pain in her shoulders. She was upright; a trickle of sweat raced down her face. The air here was humid, a thick heavy blanket.
Ari yelped as the pain in her shoulders soared. Her hands were held fast to the wall. With what, she couldn't tell; she couldn't feel her wrists to her fingers. Blinking away tears, Ari willed her eyes to focus on the jumble of light and dark in front of her.
Ari struggled, discovering her feet were also fixed to the floor at the wall. A translucent glob of rubbery pink gelatin held her feet in place. She pulled until her weak legs burned, giving up as the restraint held fast.
She looked up.
An alien face filled her view.
Large, black orbs stared back at her. Dark, smooth skin twitched under the clear, round helmet that the bipedal creature wore on its head. As it leaned close to her, the water sloshed in the near-full helmet. The creature's emotionless eyes did not waver. The alien brought a single black webbed hand up to her face. Ari struggled against her bonds, tightening her face, showing teeth.
The alien hesitated.
A harsh, synthesized syllable assaulted her ears. She did not respond. The creature repeated its utterance; its black lip curled over, the expression clear even through the water-filled helmet.
"What?" she croaked.
The alien stomped one foot; wiry muscles tightened under slick black skin. Ari's flash impression of the creature almost made her laugh. Had she not been chained to the wall, she would have. The alien reminded her of a Telfreyan kelpfish. Ari had kept several as pets when she had lived in Shamanar.
The alien repeated his query, slowly.
Who am I? Someone who almost wishes she hadn't pocketed New Republic credits.
Ari briefly wondered what had happened to Graib.
"I...I am part of the New Republic, we are on a mission...of diplomacy to your people."
"No outworlders. No-" The fish-man's speech degenerated into what Ari could only assume was a string of curses and slurs in his native language. The way the alien had spat outworlders made her wince.
Take control, Ari.
She leaned as close to the alien's bubble helmet as her bonds would allow.
"Where is my diplomatic liaison?"
The black skinned alien tilted his head.
"Where is...the other man?" Ari calmed the tension in her voice as she saw the stimpike in the alien's other hand. She hadn't been slapped, she had been shocked. Her face still stung from the rude awakening. Briefly, an image of Graib squealing for his life flashed through her head. The normally humorous thought brought her no joy now.
The alien-who Ari could only assume was one of the native Iskalonians-yabbered through a string of gurgling noises, waiting for a reply. She had only heard descriptions of the natives from her father's research. When Ari gave no answer, he leaned closer.
Ari cast around the dark, circular room. The glint of dark water a meter behind her Iskalonian captor caught her attention. Ari could only assume the egress on the floor led to the rest of the Iskalonian colony, or the open sea. The ceiling, a low, moldy slab, dripped intermittently.
The point of the stimpike hovered dangerously close to her wet torso. Her clothes were still damp though not dripping. She had been pinned to this wall, out of the water for at least a couple of hours. Ari squirmed. If the pike sent a bolt of energy into her body, the moisture in her clothing would exacerbate her already deafening pain.
Her captor tilted his head, stepping back. Blinking his enormous eyes, he unclipped his helmet, letting the water inside splash to the stone floor. For the first time, Ari saw the gills on his face flare. He dove into the water. His smooth body barely left a wake as he disappeared.
She let her head drop to her chest. Ari's shaking neck could no longer hold the weight.
Ari knew that there were certain deaths that she could rule out immediately. The Iskalonians were not - at least according to the Old Republic database - cannibals, so that fate could almost certainly be ruled out. The species as a whole did not have a track record of torture. Of course, considering the pure lack of information on the planet and its inhabitants, that was not much to go on.
There was one thing that she knew, however.
The Iskalonians were responsible for her father's death.
They will pay...all of them.
After she had learned of Shamanar's fate, Ari Dannar had started using Jak Nythan's lessons to do some research. Even though Jak had vacated her life soon after her father's death, the knowledge and connections he had given her were Ari's forever. Within a few months, she had combed the Imperial databases, determining that the Imperial Admiral leading the blockade of her system had met with resistance on one planet only - Iskalon.
Ari winced again, trying unsuccessfully to ease the pain in her shoulders. Her efforts increased her suffering.
In the months leading to Telfrey's destruction, Ari had learned from her father's transmissions to her that he had been working on a problem that would solve not only Telfrey's growing poverty, but would unite her home world with Gamandar and Iskalon in peace.
Then he was incinerated.
Ari breathed out her nose, searching her brain for scraps of confidence.
The Iskalonians could have let her drown, or drown her at any time. That fact barely dulled the edge of her hate for the gill-heads.
There was still one question that only time would answer.
Why did they keep me alive?
A single, webbed palm emerged from the open floor, breaking the water without a sound. The orange, scaled skin appeared, pulling the rest of the being into the room.
The Iskalonian female also wore a re-breathing helmet. Water dripped onto the stone floor as the woman stood; the splash echoed around the confined chamber.
Ari was immediately drawn to the deep green eyes; large, pupil less orbs that regarded her with indifference behind the helmet. A marked difference existed between this female and her black skinned friend. Ari squinted, studying the green eyes.
Intelligence. She's studying me.
It was all Ari could think to say. The Iskalonian watched her for another few moments before replying. A shock of orange hair waved inside the helmet.
"You are a human female."
The response was lucid and eloquent, only dimmed by the crackle of the microphone at the rim of the helmet.
"Last time I checked. Yes...yes."
Ari had no reason to hurl sarcasm at her captor. Besides the fact that she was glued to a rock wall, they had saved her life. She needed to get free first, then she could manage her other agenda.
"Ari Dannar," she continued, wincing at the stab of pain in her shoulders.
"I know who you are. You are alive only for that reason."
Because she knows my name?
A tense second passed between the two women. Ari saw no weapons in the orange, scaled hands. Not that it mattered, she was restrained and in too much pain to defend herself if the need arose.
Take control, Ari.
"What is your name?"
The orange-skinned native considered Ari for another second. She got the distinct impression that the alien woman was weighing the threat of letting her name slip.
"Tsayn." The syllable crackled out of the helmet speaker, a synthesized hiss. It took Ari a full second to realize that the woman had given her name.
"Tsayn? Why I am being held? We were on a diplom-"
"No more lies! You lied the first time, you will lie again!"
Tsayn advanced on her menacingly, her webbed fists balling. For the first time, Ari caught the glint from a short, wide knife strapped to Tsayn's leg. Ari had seen a knife like that before; she had used one as well - to gut a chutfish. Ari opened her mouth to retort, but was cut short.
"Outworlders! You come speaking fancy tongues, fancy promises, fancy lies! You put your fingers on things that are not belonging to you!"
Ari's eyes dropped to the knife again. She knew how quickly it cut flesh. Tsayn stepped forward, her hands dropping to her waist. Ari also knew that if she had any chance of surviving, she would have to talk. Fast.
"We came in peace! The...outworlders, the airbreathers who hurt your planet are gone!"
Ari had read the docket on what Palpatine's navy had done to Iskalon. An entire world forever scarred for a handful of Alliance members and the Imperials that pursued them. The entire underwater installation of Pavillion had been annihilated by a single proton missile.
An entire race.
"We are not those humans!"
Tsayn blinked her large eyes, grabbing a handful of Ari's shirt. Ari saw no emotion in the dark green orbs, but she could feel the anger in the powerful fist as she was pushed back towards the wall. The pain in her shoulders suddenly eased. Tsayn leaned close; close enough so the cool transparisteel of her helmet touched Ari's forehead.
"You come to steal..."
Ari saw Tsayn's free hand reach for the knife on her waist.
"You come to hurt..."
In a flash, the wide blade was in Tsayn's webbed grip.
"You will hurt no more!"
The blade was pulled back. Ari watched the razor sharp tip poised to her throat. She had died once.
Once is enough.
Ari's eyes flew open at the new voice. It had come from behind her would-be killer. The tension in Tsayn's body changed. Before, the strength had been brute, raw. The new arrival had changed that strength into a shaking uncertainty. The flat blade wavered in Tsayn's cocked arm. With a desperate hesitation, her arm lowered to her side. Tsayn's grip released; Ari fell forward, her shoulders snapping taut.
She couldn't stop the pain from escaping her lips.
When the white noise cleared from her vision, Ari was looking at two pairs of webbed feet.
"Forgive us our brutality." The voice was unmistakably male. Deep and low, Ari suspected the tiny helmet comm did it no justice.
The newcomer, a blue-gray skinned Iskalonian male, blinked as he looked her over.
She could sense he had power. Not only in his voice, but his relaxed stance. This Iskalonian expected to be obeyed. Ari could see the age in the lids that folded over his deep gray eyes. A wisp of grey hair floated in the water of his clear, round helmet. The new arrival waved Tsayn back. She reluctantly retreated towards the opening in the floor, green eyes never leaving Ari's face.
Ari watched the male's hand reach for her feet. She resisted the urge to struggle. His webbed hand stretched open, resting on the gelatinous restraint on her feet. Seconds later, the bond dissolved, flowing into a puddle on the stone floor. Ari's stepped forward, catching herself before her weight did any more damage to her shoulders. Seconds later, her hands were freed.
She dropped to her knees, easing her shoulders back into motion. After a long second, Ari looked up at him.
"I am Mone."
Rubbing her shoulders, Ari struggled to her feet.
"You are the leader," she stated, looking into his large, deep eyes. Ari half expected Mone's chest to fill with pride, his chin to jut out in affirmation. She received no response save one.
She swore she saw not pride in Mone's old eyes, but a tinge of sadness.
Mone offered his hands. Ari took them, feeling the slick, clammy skin under her grip. She was pulled to her feet with a strength veiled by Mone's frail eyes.
"Are you mobile...can you swim?" The Basic words came out slow, deliberate.
Ari rolled her shoulders, stopping as she realized what Mone was asking of her. Of course she could swim. The question was how long could she hold her breath? Stopping the question from passing her lips, she let Mone lead her to the edge of the crescent of water that split the floor of the room.
Was this the one that led the resistance against the Imperials?
Ari knew she was in no condition to exact revenge. Her legs quivered under her own weight. Jak Nythan had also taught her that timing was everything. If Ari was going to exact retribution for her father's death, she would need to play the Iskalonian's game until the opportunity presented itself.
Mone motioned to Tsayn; the woman lifted her re-breather over her head, letting the water cascade over her body onto the stone. Placing the clear globe on the stone floor, she dove into the black water with barely a sound, leaving only ripples.
Ari turned to Mone; her hand was still held lightly in his. His cool, damp skin sent a shiver up her arm. Mone's deep voice crackled over the small comm in his helmet.
"Tsayn, like the entire school has lost...very much."
His words gave Ari pause as their eyes connected. For a single second, she was not standing next to an Iskalonian. Not next to a gill-head.
Ari Dannar was standing next to a man.
A man with a lifetime of pain behind his eyes.
"Hold your air."
Ari gulped a breath.
The question-was this the Iskalonian who had been responsible for the school's resistance to the Imperials? Was this the one who had killed her father before he had found transport back to Telfrey?
Mone motioned her into the water, never releasing her hand. They jumped together, feet first, disappearing under the waves.
And if so, can I kill him?
Bron Tiverius woke up vomiting water. He was on his side; strong hands were on his shoulders and back.
"C'mon, Cap, heave ho, almost there."
A solid hand slapped his back; Tiverius coughed up the last lungful of Iskalon's ocean onto the smooth stone. He recognized the voice over him.
Haykin Lowar kneeled down; his face eased into Tiverius' view.
"Kellan thought you took the final jump. I knew better," Lowar puffed, shooting an icy glare behind Tiverius. The lieutenant pulled Tiverius up by his elbow, looking into his face.
"I'm...not made of Chandrilan crystal...boy," Tiverius coughed as he struggled to his feet.
The cave was dully lit by more of the bioluminescent moss. The faint lapping of water drew Tiverius' eyes to the jagged entrance that he must have been pulled through. He looked back at his two junior officers. Both men were still clad in their swim armor, minus flipper and helmets. Tiverius reached for the tickle at his head, gripping a handful of wispy vine hanging from the jagged ceiling of the cave. The blue vines covered most of the ceiling, only thwarted by the glowing moss on the walls. Kellan stepped forward, the usual look of concern on his scarred face amplified.
Tiverius looked down at the ground, answering Kellan's question. He shook his head.
"Didn't make it. Chiaki."
Both men shifted on their heels, glancing away.
Tiverius opened his mouth to place blame for Banno's death firmly in the boy's own hands. Banno had made a stupid, impetuous mistake, and it had cost the boy his life. Tiverius could feel his ire inflame as he replayed the Banno's death in his head. If Banno was standing in front of him, Tiverius would have been fully in his right to put the boy on the deck.
But he wasn't here.
"He...if it wasn't for that kid, I wouldn't have made it," he lied. It was the best, only equivalent of the honor a KIA soldier deserved. Tiverius scanned the cave again.
"Any word from the Arcite?"
"None," said Lowar, tapping his wrist comm. "We've been getting sporadic bursts of transmission. You were out for a while, Cap...Kellin and I'd been trying to pin down a signal for an hour."
The lack of communication meant one of two things. Either the Arcite had been forced out of range by the one or more of the dangers of the Iskalonian ocean, or it had been taken by the fish-heads. Had the second team even made it back?
Tiverius pushed the question from his head. No sense in wasting energy on what-ifs. The three men were still left in the same situation.
"So where does that leave us, Lieutenant?"
"We have half a tank each," Lowar said, pointing to Kellin. "Chances are pretty good that we could at least locate her. After that..."
Tiverius kneeled at his tank. He knew the answer even before he read the display, before Kellin opened his mouth.
The blinking set of zeros on the readout confirmed Kellin's report. Where did that leave the three? It left Kellin and Lowar clinging to a faint hope.
It left Tiverius dangling on the end of a very big hook. It would only be a matter of time before the Iskalonians scouted the cave. When they found him, they would kill him. With only a boot knife at his disposal, even Imperial hand-to-hand training only went so far.
"Captain...we've got something to show you." Kellin motioned towards the far wall. The dank rock was hidden by a curtain of the dangling vines. Kellin continued.
"We found this when..." For the first time, Tiverius noticed the blood on Kellin's chin. He suspected there was a matching injury on Lowar's fist. The two men had fought before they had saved his life.
This planet is winning the battle.
Kellin walked to the stone wall, pushing an armored hand through the vines. The thin plants parted as he probed the dark hollow. Spreading his arms, Kellin revealed a human sized passage leading out of the chamber. Tiverius' eyebrows shot up.
"The power source." The pain from his injuries evaporated. They were close.
"Cap, we were exploring the cave when we heard the splash. That's when we pulled you out. We didn't get that far into the grotto."
Tiverius pushed past Kellin, lifting his leg to draw his boot knife. Clearing the miasma of vines, Tiverius stepped into a humid corridor, followed by his two junior officers. More of the glowing moss was growing here. The soft plants covered the ceiling in a uniform strip, almost as if it had been placed there.
As the trio progressed further down the corridor, an audible hum reached their ears. The slick walls smoothed out, eventually turning into polished stone. Tiverius could hear his heart beating through his chest. He touched the wall; the condensation was warm.
If this was an Iskalonian installation, the three were dead in the water. It was not that possibility that struck fear into the Imperial Captain, though. If they turned a corner and were facing a legion of Iskalonian warriors, at least the outcome would be certain. They wouldn't have to worry about eating Iskalonian clams any longer, or losing their sanity. Their fate would be definite...and final.
Tiverius tasted the condensate on his fingers.
The water was fresh, not salt.
What unsettled Tiverius was what he did not know. The hum - the insistent vibration - was increasing. What if they were walking where eyes were not supposed to see? Where even the Iskalonians dared not tread? Tiverius shook his head, dispelling his uncertainty.
He was still a leader of his men. They had dared the trip through the ocean, past the Chiaki, for one reason.
It was that drive that moved his feet forward now.
The corridor opened up onto a square room. The black obsidian walls glowed dully with moisture; the floor and ceiling were the same black, wrought stone as the corridor. Tiverius stopped short of the end of the corridor; his eyes were drawn to the center of the room.
Several transport crates were laid out next to what looked like generators. Two portable terminals were standing on their durasteel legs. Multicolored cables ran the floor from terminal to terminal and back to the generators. Several spanners and wrenches lay careless on the floor. The vibration in the ozone air forced his arm hair to stand on end.
In the center of the storm of technology stood a single black pedestal, dead center in the low-ceilinged room. Through the dim light, Tiverius could make out clearly the deep runes carved on the side of the meter tall cylinder of rock. He quickly dismissed the feature; his eyes locked on to the technology in front of him. The collection of monitoring and data stations was not simply durasteel, quadanium, and duraplas.
It was their ticket home.
Tiverius stepped into the room.
Which terminal would he diagnose first? Did the generators still hold power?
Would the necessary parts be available to get the Arcite above the waves again? More importantly, did his remaining team have the engineering savvy to put the pieces together? Tiverius kneeled at the nearest generator; his armor clicked on the stone.
Tiverius snapped his head back, freezing mid-motion. His breath froze.
The entire wall of the chamber was open. A looming, spherical cavern stretched out beyond.
An immense globe perched in the center of the cavern. Tens of meters across, it filled the space with the reflections of dull light off its roiling surface. Blue fingers of lightning played across the surface as the globe slowly spun in place, filling the chamber with an ear-tickling crackle. Tiverius sat for a handful of seconds, his eyes dazzled.
"Ever seen anything like it?"
Tiverius started. Lowar had eased up behind him.
The swirling surface of the globe coalesced, reversing directions with a swirl of brilliant color. Tiverius stepped back as the hum in the air tickled his face. He shook his head, turning towards the collection of terminals surrounding the black stone pedestal.
"Whaddya' think, Captain?"
Tiverius looked at the spinning globe again, feeling the hair on his neck stand again.
He backed up, kneeling at the closest terminal. He couldn't stop his eyes from flicking back over the globe again. The polished metal pedestal that it floated above dwarfed him by meters. The pedestal tapered to a meter at its base where it disappeared into the chasm below.
"Kellin, watch the ingress. I don't want anyone surprising us. Lowar, watch that thing."
Kellin disappeared into the corridor. Tiverius turned his full attention to the terminal standing before him. Within seconds, he had clamped the thick power cable onto the base of the unit.
Tiverius' gloved fingers hovered over the power switch. Two years of imprisonment could end right here...or turn into twenty more.
The only sound was the hum of the globe filling the chamber beyond.
Two more batteries left. With Lowar's silent help, he maneuvered the next cylinder into place behind the main terminal. Within seconds, they had their verdict.
"Third one is for the Sabacc, my friend." Tiverius grinned, hoping the courage he was forcing to the surface was enough to convince his junior officer. If the third generator did not have any power, they were as good as dead.
The pair lugged the final generator in place. It was hooked up.
Tiverius pressed the power switch.
The hum of the globe increased as if it was laughing at his feeble efforts to survive.
Tiverius looked at his feet. They were sunk.
The terminal beeped.
Tiverius was on his feet as the panel blinked to life. Within seconds, the screen had run through a self-diagnostic and was ready for his eager fingers.
Lowar pumped a fist into the air, dropping to his knees behind the terminal. He reached for the power connection.
"Stop. Don't disconnect it."
Lowar's hand froze, as did the look of incredulity on his face.
"You heard me. Stand fast."
"Captain, this thing might be all the juice we get for the Arcite."
"I know what this is, Lieutenant. My order stands. Go relieve Kellin."
Tiverius hardened his glare, following Haykin Lowar into the corridor. Now was not the hour to be faltering. If they were going to get off of Iskalon, it would be done the right way.
Tiverius looked over his shoulder at the gently oscillating sphere. If the giant globe was a power source of some sort, he had no idea how to tap its apparent potential. Tiverius knew he had to stick to what worked.
His fingers began tapping the terminal's keypad. He watched the files scroll up the screen. Most of the information was foreign to him - what looked like scientific measurements and formulas. Who ever was down here, it looked to Tiverius as if they had been trying to quantify the sphere...its purpose, its workings.
A log entry.
Tiverius opened the file. A grainy image flickered on the black and white screen. He toggled a few switches. A stuttering audio track joined the haggard face that appeared onscreen, looking out at him.
The old man had a week of white growth on his face; his tousled white hair drifted onto his eyes. Wrinkles creased the man's mouth; heavy lids framed a gaunt face. The man, who Tiverius assumed was a scientist, began to speak. The audio fizzled out.
Tiverius adjusted another set of toggles. His reward was a tinny, distorted voice.
"-of the sphere. There is more here than we initially expected. The immense amount of power we are reading from the interior of the construct defies conventional knowledge."
Tiverius listened for another thirty seconds before forwarding to the next log entry. It was recorded two days later. The man's face looked even more haggard.
"The probe seems to extend several thousand meters into the crust of the planet," he started. "We traced it until our limited sensors lost the signal. Whatever was built here was placed in a secure location intentionally. I feel we are close to discovering that purpose."
The log entry blinked out. Tiverius accessed the next in line, three days from the last.
As the man's face emerged on the screen, Tiverius narrowed his eyes. There was nothing physically different about the man, but his demeanor had changed. The old man leaned closer to the camera, occasionally blinking off to the side. When the voice came through the tiny speaker, even the terrible quality of the transmission could not hide the tone.
"This might be my last log entry. This is Hadri El Dannar. I am a researcher for the Iskalon project based out of Shamanar on Telfrey. We came here expecting to find a solution to Telfrey's power shortage in the oceans. Never could I have imagined what we found instead."
Dannar's image coughed; the transmission fuzzed, then reformed. His face nearly filled the screen as he leaned closer, lowering his voice.
"If you are the one to find my log, know this. Iskalon was not always a water planet. Several thousand years ago, perhaps during the Sith conflicts with the Old Republic, more than half of the planet was above water. According to the runes around the pedestal, Iskalon was the site of a key battle in that conflict. The planet's polar caps were melted in order to cover evidence of that battle."
Tiverius blinked, looking at the black stone pedestal as Dannar continued.
"The native species are not native to the world. I can only guess at their origin, however. It is also my postulation that the outcome of the battle was not in the Sith's favor, as the flood covered all evidence of-"
The hum of the globe began to drown out the console's tiny speaker. Tiverius glanced over his shoulder. A blink of motion caught his eye.
He dove forward.
The terminal was splintered, pieces flying everywhere. Tiverius rolled to his knees. The remainder of the terminal sputtered, spewing a final gasp of sparks before dying.
Kellin and Lowar stood over him. A naked air tank, free of its pack, dangled in Lowar's hand. Kellin held his boot knife by his hip, low and ready.
Tiverius knew the answer before he asked the question. His eyes flicked to his thigh...his knife was gone.
"What are you doing?"
Lowar stepped forward.
"Relieving you of duty...Captain."
Ari's lungs were crying for air by the time her head broke the surface again. What must have been only thirty seconds had felt like five minutes. She gasped in a stale breath, feeling the burn in her lungs subside. By the time she cleared her eyes of the salt water, Mone was already standing above her on the ledge. He reached down, offering a webbed hand. Ari was lifted out of the water, dripping as she stood next to the Iskalonian, shivering and wide-eyed.
The domed room's transparent walls displayed the ocean all around them. They had surfaced through a jagged rent in the rusted durasteel deck. The blue of the ocean was evident through the transparisteel dome that reached two meters over her head. Several shapes in the water drew her eye.
The swimming forms grew closer; Ari's eyes widened as she recognized one of the serpents that had attacked the Palomon. She looked at Mone, backing up. Had she been brought here as an offering?
"Calm your mind, your body betrays." Mone blinked, pointing towards the massive shape as it grew closer to the dome.
"Chiaki," Mone hissed.
As the Chiaki weaved through the water, Ari could make out several bipedal shapes in the nearby water. The Chiaki swerved towards the Iskalonian swimmers. Ari held her breath, sure she was about to watch them be consumed.
The serpent weaved in between the swimming shapes, eventually disappearing into the depths. Ari looked at Mone.
Mone blinked again.
"Con...trol? No, we cannot control...we have learned to ask."
Ari surveyed the dome, noting the gurgle of bubbles that broke the surface of the water beneath her. Mone's voice broke her focus.
"This was once an observation deck for air-breathing tourists to our planet. When humans struck, the ocean rushed in, claiming its due."
"Where are we?" she whispered, fearing she knew the answer already. The Iskalonian leader's back was to her, his arms crossed as he gazed into the ocean. Ari got the quick impression of an exiled King waiting for return to power. He turned, facing her.
"Why have you come?"
Her question had been ignored. By the set of Mone's alien face, Ari could only guess that the conversation would go no further until Mone had been satisfied.
"I am an envoy sent from the New Republic...we are here to establish relations with Iskalon again."
Ari rubbed her shoulder as she let her untruth echo around the chamber.
"We want to be...friends."
"I know your meaning, woman."
Ari held her breath. If she continued to insult this creature, she would never get off Iskalon alive, much less have a hope of completing her mission. Mone turned back to the dome. It was several seconds before he spoke again.
"New Republic...what is this?"
"Since your last encounter with the Empire, the Rebel Alliance has freed the galaxy. The New Republic has been reaching out again...to unite."
"Empire," Mone hissed, "Alliance...Republic...all humans. All the same."
"The Empire is the one that destroyed Pavillion, destroyed your planet and-"
"Humans...destroyed our home. Your colors and emblems, important to you alone. We were at peace before humans. Come here."
Ari hesitated, stutter stepping closer to Mone. He still had not turned towards her. When she had settled at Mone's side, the man spoke again.
Ari followed his webbed hand. The ocean outside the dome was a uniform blue-green, only interrupted by the occasional Iskalonian swimming past. Regardless of their ability to walk upright, the Iskalonian natives swam in a graceful, pulsing rhythm.
"What do you see?"
Ari squinted into the depths, unsure of the answer Mone was looking for. She opened her mouth; no words emerged.
"Nothing. Our water was filled with life, before humans."
Ari watched an orange swimmer float into view. She recognized the woman from her cell. Tsayn floated just outside the protective transparisteel. Her feet occasionally flicked to keep her steady against the current.
Ari's chest tightened. This was going nowhere.
"On behalf of the New Republic, we extend our apologies...and our hand."
Mone turned toward Ari, his wide eyes taking her in. She could see her reflection in the charcoal eyes. Mone held up a webbed hand; to Ari, close up, it more resembled a flipper than a hand. The thick fingers, scaly and clammy, were separated with a translucent web of skin.
"Our hands are too different. You should not have come."
Ari's frustration peaked; her hands shook.
"Tell me what I can do to win your trust. I will do...anything."
Mone's eyes studied her for a moment. He turned towards Tsayn, still hovering in the freezing water outside the dome, and nodded. Tsayn flipped over, kicked once, and disappeared. Without turning back, Mone's spoke again, his deep voice rumbling.
"You will do anything? You claim to speak for entire worlds, yet you have simply laid them at my feet?"
Ari regretted the words she knew would come back to her.
Seconds later, two heads broke the water below them.
Ari rushed to the edge of the water, skinning her knee as she reached down. Anuit Graib spluttered as he tried to scramble his way out of the water. Ari grabbed his arm, realizing her mistake as she pulled him up. Her injured shoulders screamed in pain; she released him. Graib fell backwards, his face pure horror as his back hit the water again.
Tsayn grabbed the diplomat and thrust him towards the deck. Wet, soaking, looking like a Corellian sewer rat, Anuit Graib rolled on his side, choking and gasping for breath. Ari kneeled, trying to sit him up.
"You said he was dead!"
Mone turned slowly.
"For you, he was."
Ari pulled Graib upright. His downcast eyes burned at her. She tried to express to him what had happened to her in the last hour, tried to tell him what not to say, tried to explain their delicate situation with a nothing more than a second-long glance.
"Where in Byss are we? Who are these...aliens? Why haven't we been apologized to? Do you know who I am?"
Ari failed. She winced.
"The New Republic is not going to sit still for this kind of reception! Look at me! These are four hundred credit pantaloons!"
"Graib, be q-"
"Another thing, after you pay my bill, you can explain why our transport got eaten by a giant worm and I almost drowned! Never in my life have-"
Ari wound up, planting her fist squarely across Graib's mouth. The slight man fell like a stone, thunking into the deck with a whimper.
"Stifle it, Graib."
Mone still had not turned from the clear dome wall. Tsayn's head bobbed in the water below, her fiery eyes flicking from Mone to Ari. Every few seconds, she would duck under, then resurface. For the first time, Ari realized how closely these creatures were tied to the ocean. They could only breathe air for a few seconds.
She looked up at Mone, who had been out of the water for almost three minutes without one of the bulky rebreather helmets.
"Mone...reestablishing a relationship with your people is the most important goal right now, we want you to know that what happened two years ago will never happen again. We want to earn back your trust."
Graib sat up, cupping his mouth. Ari leaned in, clenching her fist. Anuit Graib laid back down.
Ari stepped forward, daring a hand on Mone's arm. The smooth flesh had nearly dried. How did he not need the water to breathe?
"My planet, Telfrey, was destroyed by the same Empire two years ago. By the same humans. My father, mother...they were killed instantly when the Empire bombed my home. I share your feelings...I know what they are."
"Yes, Mone. I do." For the first time in two years, Ari Dannar felt the stab of conviction behind her words. She shifted on her heels. Mone blinked. The innocent appearance of his aged face was betrayed by his words.
"You cannot. You lead no one but yourself."
The Iskalonian leader was right. Ari felt her shoulders tighten. The clear image she had possessed of him murdering her father had now become muddled, blurry. Not only was Mone rapidly becoming more difficult to assassinate with a clear conscience, but he was successfully stonewalling her.
He's testing me.
Mone turned to Tsayn, still bobbing in the water. Her orange head ducked under.
Ari waited, watching Mone's back. She was tired, hurt, nearly dead from drowning and hunger...and he was winning. Ari looked down at Graib. The man was staring a hole in her. Ari shook her head, shooting another threatening glance at him.
What a waste of air.
Ari attempted to formulate a sentence...a word that would sway Mone to accept her offer of diplomacy. An utterance that would make him view her differently, drop his guard and allow her to avenge her father. She didn't get the chance.
The water broke again. Tsayn gripped the jagged edge of the deck with one hand. The water erupted next to her as she threw her armful onto the hard deck. The two metal units clanged on the latticed deck.
It only took Ari seconds to realize what she was staring at. The rectangular casings, covered with red barnacles and smatterings of sea plants, housed two durasteel cylinders. A flexible hose ran from the unit, ending in what looked like a mouth piece.
An air tank.
A few seconds after that, she realized what she was being asked.
Mone turned to the tanks; turned to her. No emotion flowed from the heavy gray orbs as he looked in her face.
I'm being told.
But being told what?
Seconds later, another dilapidated tank was thrown onto the deck. Through the crusted plant life, she could clearly see a worn Imperial insignia. The faded blue paint caught her eye immediately. Two face masks clattered to the deck; Tsayn's narrowed eyes tracked Ari as she kneeled by the tanks. Were Imperials still active on Iskalon?
Ari's words had come back to haunt her sooner that she had expected. She nodded defeat, resigned to her fate. Ari looked at Graib, still cradling his mouth. She hadn't hit him that hard.
"You will do anything to prove truth in your words?" Mone repeated.
Ari nodded, facing him as she rose. Mone continued.
"For many cycles, my people have lived with these oceans. Until humans came, the schools lived in peace together. The school is still in danger. Again, humans are the cause."
Ari held her breath, assuming Mone was talking about her and Graib.
"Our holy place has been desecrated by humans. Empire...as you say. It is a dark place, but nevertheless, it is the heart of Iskalon...and a place forbidden to the school. To do so means death. The humans hold no such restriction. You will remove them before they damage the temple."
Graib leapt to his feet, gingerly wiping the blood from his face.
"Why are we suddenly your messengers of hope?"
"We come here on a mission of peace, and you nearly drown us, intimidate us, and now you want us to do you a favor?"
Ari was at his side, pushing him back.
"No! Now you listen...you...you...contractor!"
Ari felt her fist clench again. It moved of its own accord, sinking into Graib's stomach. He doubled over, sucking in a wheezing breath as he hit the deck again. Ari immediately turned to Mone, setting her jaw.
"Tell me what we need to do."
Minutes later, Mone watched the humans complete their preparations for the water. With full gear, the male and the female...Ari, were nearly indistinguishable from each other.
From the Empire.
Tsayn climbed from the water behind Mone. She kneeled at the jagged edge of the rusted deck, staring at the humans.
"You trust the humans?" She spoke in their native tongue. The melody of pops, clicks and ultrasonic tones echoes around the dome.
"Trust is earned, Tsayn. It can only be that way."
Mone watched the pair of humans slip into the water, leaving a clumsy splash as they disappeared under the surface. The leader of the school stood, watching the foam dissipate.
It had been two years since he had been imprisoned on Tower's ship, two years since had almost died in orbit. He had lost so much...the entire school had.
"Do you think they will survive the trip to the cave temple?"
Tsayn had survived the loss of her mate, Kiro. Mone had survived the death of his sire, Primor. He had also survived the betrayal of the school by his mate Kendle. For her dark betrayal, she had paid with her life.
What did Mone think?
He turned to Tsayn. He could see the hatred behind her intense eyes. So raw, so intense...two years had done little to assuage her loss.
"Yes. You will guide them. Be sure they arrive."
Tsayn shifted back. Mone could see that she understood his meaning. Her hatred for humans was severe. A simple twist of a knob, the slip of her knife and the fragile humans would succumb to the ocean. Iskalon's oceans offered many deaths to the uninitiated.
Turning back to the water, Mone close his eyes. He felt Tsayn bristling at the idea of leading humans anywhere...much less the forbidden cave temple. But she would follow his order...that he knew.
But was Mone following the Current? Would his sire, Primor, have approved had he still been leading the school? Mone was sending humans into their temple...where humans and Iskalonians alike were forbidden. If the soldiers of the Empire discovered the true purpose of the cave temple, the school and the fate of the planet would be sealed.
Yet Mone had sent more humans. Would they kill each other, nullifying the threat entirely? Or had Mone just sped up the destruction of the remainder of the school...a fate that had been slowly unwinding nevertheless?
Mone had also questioned of late his ability to still lead the school. Normally, the leader of the school would elect his successor. When Primor had been killed, Mone had been the heir apparent - the only possibility to lead the school. Admittedly, he had thought about the eventuality of his stepping into power, but it had never occurred to him that the reins of leadership would be dropped in his lap so suddenly.
Where the Currents flow violent, death follows.
Mone could sense Tsayn behind him, waiting for direction...waiting for her leader.
With the pressure of losing his sire and his mate in one fell swoop, Mone had caught himself entertaining concepts that were supposed to be foreign to the school. He had never considered taking his own life until his world had collapsed. There was no precedent in the school for giving your life to the Currents. The Currents decided when - and who - to claim.
Mone blinked back to reality.
His sleep had been very dark for two years.
Mone's internal dissonance bubbled down to one burning point.
If the humans discovered the true ancestral origins of the life on Iskalon, including the school, they would move to destroy it. Try as he might, Mone could not conjure a way to avoid the inevitable.
Sire, I need you now.
Tsayn leapt into the roiling water, leaving Mone alone in the dome. The echo of the easy splash bounced off the domed walls, teasing Mone's flat ears. The Iskalonian leader stared into the water, his thoughts far away.
Now, more than ever.
"Give it up, Cap."
Tiverius slammed into the wall, clenching his elbow to his ribs. Lowar had known exactly where to hit him. The old injury flared again, staggering Tiverius.
"He doesn't know how," Kellin snarled, holding his wide bladed knife away from his body. The only obstacle between Tiverius and the men was the thick, rune laden pillar. Around its base lay the remains of one of the two data terminals.
Tiverius sucked in a breath, righting himself. The two men advanced, moving to attack him from different angles.
I taught them that.
Lowar clenched his fingers into white balled fists. Tiverius kept his gaze floating between the pillar, Lowar's fists and Kellin's blade. He bent his knees, shifting his weight to the balls of his feet. The men under his command were quick. Tiverius would have to end this as quick; his injuries had diluted his stamina.
Lowar feinted with a punch. Tiverius ignored the fake, focusing on the weaving knife.
Tiverius had already moved. His hand closed around Kellin's wrist. He spun, pulling the other man's arm over his shoulder. Tiverius wrenched the arm.
Kellin's scream followed an audible pop as his elbow folded back. Tiverius felt Kellin's strength dissolve. He released the man's arm as Kellin hit the floor. The knife clattered to the stone. Tiverius swiped it up.
The globe, still spinning easily beyond the open wall, still filled the room with a permeating hum. Tiverius got the distinct impression that this struggle was being watched. He looked down at Kellin as the boy crawled to his knees, limping for the tunnel opening.
"You'll wear that forever, boy. Let it always remind you."
Lowar's knife slid into his hand. The odds had been evened.
Both men circled around the jutting pillar, stepping over thick cables and around the remaining data station. Lowar smiled.
"I've dreamed of this."
Tiverius almost tripped. He would give the boy no reaction, though.
"Is it everything you thought it would be?"
"More, Captain. When this is over, you'll be dead. And for the hell that you led us into, it will be my pleasure to feed you to the fish."
He thinks I am responsible. After all this time, Haykin Lowar blames me.
Tiverius nodded, easing past the terminal. One of the dead battery slugs at his feet nearly caught his leg.
Tiverius could almost sympathize with the young man. Haykin Lowar had left a pregnant wife on Chandrila almost three years ago. That latent rage had been trapped when the platoon had been trapped on Iskalon. The Chiaki had been too strong, the natives too smart to exact any sort of revenge; the pressure had reached critical mass.
Haykin Lowar had found his target; found the outlet for his white hot fury.
Tiverius slowed his steps, preparing himself. He was that target.
"I suspected as much, boy. Let's see some execution!"
Lowar vaulted off the pedestal, teeth bared, knife flashing.
Tiverius watched the scene in slow motion. All their trials had led to this.
Lowar's knife descended toward his neck.
Tiverius' knife hand twitched. He sidestepped, drawing his blade across the boy's midsection.
Lowar landed hard, rolling up to his feet inches from the edge of the open chamber. The multicolored swath of the globe's roiling surface framed him beyond. Lowar opened his arms, mouth agape as he examined his torso for the injury he knew he had felt.
Tiverius smiled, holding up Kellin's knife. He flicked the blade, exposing the wide surface. Lowar's twisted expression said that he knew he had been spared. His lower lip quivered. Fear?
"Why? You had me to rights...why?"
"I...had a dream once too, son. But this wasn't it." Tiverius looked down at his hands. "This wasn't it."
He let the blade fall from his hand. It clattered on the stone between the men. He turned towards the pillar.
Tiverius knew Lowar was going to attack before the boy actually moved. The dense block of the battery was in Tiverius' grip and whirling before Lowar had completed a step.
The battery was pushed into Lowar's chest. His knife fell; instinctively, he gripped the thick battery. Tiverius pushed. Lowar cart wheeled backwards towards the globe, terror popping over his face.
Tiverius watched as the boy's form slowed in midair. Lowar's feet left the ledge; his body was pulled towards the rotating globe. His scream stretched out, elongated as he was pulled alongside the globe. Lowar's shape began to blur as the spinning globe pulled him closer. His hand touched the surface of the globe.
Piercing light escaped the breach. Tiverius covered his eyes against the brilliant assault, spinning away. Lowar's scream was drowned by the humming power of the globe. Within seconds, the light blinked out; Lowar's scream disappeared, leaving only the hum of the globe.
Tiverius collapsed to his knees, watching the globe spin powerfully, slowly in the chamber beyond. Several seconds passed before he could tear his gaze away. His eyes immediately fell upon the black pedestal. For the first time, Tiverius noticed the basin set into the top of the black stone. Inching closer, he swept the remains of the data terminal aside, easing up to the edge.
The black stone curved inwards, culminating with a depression in the center.
A hand shaped depression.
Tiverius' brow curled. The Imperial Captain knew that he was far out of his element when it came to archaeology.
Or whatever this is.
His fingers played dangerously close to the imprint. The depression would fit his hand almost perfectly. His index finger touched the sharp edge of the depression.
He yanked his hand away.
What am I doing?
Three years ago, Tiverius would have seen the pedestal, established a perimeter, and called in tech to disassemble the pedestal and ply its secrets. He could remain blissfully anonymous, having completed his mission.
His hand advanced again.
This was not three years ago, and there was no back up.
Bron Tiverius couldn't afford to remain anonymous, not if he was going to survive and get off of Iskalon.
His fingertips dragged across the dull black stone. If his hand was the key...what did that key open? He looked again at the globe floating in the yawning space beyond. Lowar's panicked face echoed through his mind. Whatever the globe was - a power source, a battery, or otherwise-it was a potent entity. If the pedestal was the key to that power, once Tiverius opened it, could he close it again?
He shook his head, pulling his hand back.
There must be another option.
Tiverius cast around the chamber. His eyes fell on the remains of the first terminal, the maze of cables lining the floor, the blocky power cells...and the remaining data terminal.
The slim unit rested on thin durasteel legs. If there was an answer, it was there.
Within a minute, Tiverius had connected the last battery to the terminal. He powered it up, watching the computer initialize.
The pervading hum of the spinning globe behind him tickled the hair in his ears.
Tiverius began tapping keys, looking through the intimidating list of files that scrolled up the green screen. He opened a few of them, quickly discarding the slew of formulas and measurements in favor of the next file.
Another log bank. Tiverius tapped the file, opening the video log. The familiar face of the old scientist popped up on the screen, followed by a loud crackle.
Tiverius struggled to recall the man's name. The haggard face began to talk; the speaker erupted with jagged sound, finally clarifying.
"Granner Hayce and Gwinolin Bas have both been killed. The globe has...assimilated them. Myself, and the remainder of the staff cannot agree on a course of action. The natives are close to discovering our presence here. Everything is falling apart."
"Hadri El Dannar," Tiverius whispered to himself.
Dannar's image continued, coughing.
"Our research team has discovered overwhelming evidence of why this planet was deluged. This process was executed very suddenly, over the course of a few years. Sith scientists here had been dabbling in genomics...the nature and focus of their studies suggested-"
Tiverius muted the audio.
Someone was in the grotto. A faint splash had echoed down the corridor, hinting into his ears. Palming his knife, he eased back against the wall, sliding towards the corridor entrance.
"Shut up, Graib...I thought I heard something."
Anuit shrugged off his pack, letting it slam the stone floor. The dull thunk reverberated around the closed grotto.
Ari clenched her jaw, quelling the urge to hit him again. In lieu of another thrashing, she shot a hard stare at the diplomat. Ari brought one finger to her lips, tilting her head towards the open corridor against the far wall. She glanced at the sloshing waterhole they had just come through, half-expecting to see Tsayn pulling herself into the grotto.
Tsayn had disappeared as soon as they had headed towards the grotto's light. Ari had caught a glimpse of her sleek orange form as she had jetted into the blackness. It had occurred to Ari halfway through their tiring swim that without a rebreather helmet, Tsayn would not be able to join them in the cave. Then Mone's words had echoed back.
It is the heart of Iskalon...and a place forbidden to the school.
Ari rose, easing along the wall to the corridor. Even if Tsayn could breathe the air, she was not coming with them. Her duties as a guide had expired. The alien woman had done well; if she had taken a longer path, both Ari and Graib faced the very real threat of freezing to death.
Ari motioned Graib closer to her. Her response was an exasperated look and a grudging acquiescence. Graib sidled up to the wall next to her, examining his ruined pants again.
Peering into the glowing corridor, Ari squinted, trying to quiet her shivering jaw. A faint hum buzzed the air. Adrenalin shot up her spine.
She parted the wispy vines covering the wall, testing her footing on the stone. Satisfied, she eased forward, her eyes never leaving the end of the corridor. Although she could see the opening several meters ahead - and it was clear - they were too late in the game to get careless.
The hum increased. Ari looked back. Anuit Graib's eyes were saucers of doubt.
As the pair neared the end of the corridor, details of the chamber beyond became evident. A squat, black stone pillar jutted from floor in the center of the room. Assorted terminals and what looked like monitoring equipment were scattered near the pillar in various states of repair.
One of the terminals still stood. Ari's eyebrows shot up - it was active; the screen was displaying a man's face.
Her heart stopped as she focused on the face...a very familiar face.
Ari stumbled forward, everything forgotten. Her revenge, Anuit Graib...her safety. It all evaporated as she dropped to her knees, staring at the transmission of her father. Her hands trembled dangerously close to the terminal. At the same time she wanted to reach out and hug the image to her, she didn't want to risk severing the fragile connection to the past with a careless move.
Ari ignored Graib's shrill summons; her fingers delicately traced the screen. Hot tears burned her eyes, streaming down her cheeks.
Graib had never called her that. Ari snapped up, seeing two things at once.
The open wall, a massive multicolored globe spinning in the space beyond.
And Imperial ocean trooper advancing on her, knife in hand.
Her tongue blossomed with metallic fear as she fell back, barely missing the console. The Imperial reached down, snatching a handful of her shirt before she could scrabble away. Struggling, she caught a glimpse of his hardened face and light hair. The knife flashed.
Ari closed her eyes as she was spun around. The Imperial's arm closed around her neck; the cold, hard armor pressed her neck, jutting into her back.
She opened her eyes; they crossed trying to focus on the knife at her face. Graib stood two meters away, both hands up defensively.
Her captor growled.
"Move and she's gutted."
Ari felt the cool metal touch the pulsing vein in her neck. Her breath accelerated into frantic fits.
Graib began stuttering.
"D-don't do anything that...we're not here to hurt you. Just p-please, give me the knife...if you want."
Ari felt the thick arm tighten. Scrabbling at the hard muscle, she struggled to suck in a breath. Graib was doing nothing...proselytizing in the face of defeat. If Ari was going to survive, she was going to have to save herself.
Lifting her knee, she dropped her boot down on an armored foot. She drove her elbow backwards, meeting more of the white armor. Her arm exploded in pain. The Imperial's grip tightened. She was pulled closer to his face; his voice hissed in her ear.
"Do that again, darling. I dare you."
Ari's tears renewed themselves. This time, the saline wetting her cheeks was hot frustration. Blinking through the blur, she noticed that the Graib had moved closer to the Imperial.
The metal shard whizzed past her face, propelled by Graib's boot. The thick arm loosened; Ari spun, dropping hard to the stone floor. She scrabbled forwards, expecting the Imperial's blade to meet her ribs at any second. Spinning, she fell against the hard stone wall.
The two men were facing each other. The Imperial's weapon was held at the ready. Ari squinted...Anuit Graib looked like a different man.
His posture had strengthened; his once-meek chin now jutted forward. But more than Graib's physical stance, Ari noticed the relaxed look on his face. It was calm, confident, supported by an intensity she had not seen before.
"Step aside, soldier." The command in Graib's voice startled Ari. Suddenly, she knew there was more to the diplomat than she had been told.
The Imperial soldier pressed the base of his palm against the side of his head, trying to staunch the thin slash that Graib's projectile had torn into his skin.
All Ari could do was watch the exchange.
Graib looked once at Ari, smiling. Not his timid, confidence-empty grin...but a wolf's smile. Ari felt the blood in her face drain.
I have been used.
She didn't need to hear Graib's words to know that she had been the pawn, not him.
"Anuit Graib...courtesy of the Empire. DESTAB, to be precise." Graib dipped, bending his knees with a deep flourish. What he said next to the armor-clad soldier chilled Ari further.
"Stand down, soldier."
Ari looked at the Imperial as his hand slowly dropped from his head. A spark of doubt had lit the square face under the blonde hair. Ari slid to her knees. If the soldier sided with Graib, the odds would shift against her drastically. Ari stood, looking into Graib's face.
"Who...in Byss are you?"
Graib smirked at the armored soldier across from him.
"This," he laughed, jabbing a finger at Ari, "is why the Alliance isn't much longer for this galaxy. Contractors. Identify yourself, soldier."
"Cap...tain Baron Tiverius, commander of the...Empire's Third Aquatic Stormtrooper Division."
Ari watched as Graib slowly morphed from an unwanted ally to a deadly enemy before her eyes. She glanced to the still-playing video of her father. His lips moved in silence. What was he saying?
"Good. Tiverius...I've come to recall you and your men. Before we go, however, there is a little matter I must attend to."
Graib slid forward, clicking the terminals audio up. Hadri El Dannar's creaking voice began to compete with the omnipresent hum.
"-the pedestal is the key to the device. At this point-"
Graib smiled, sliding closer to the pedestal.
"Thank you, Ari Dannar. That is the last piece of this little puzzle."
"-the global ramifications would be-"
"What are you going to do?"
Graib stopped, staring her in the face.
"I am going to set a wrong...right. The survey team from Gamandar was so close to activating the ...machine, so close. All it would have taken," he whispered, holding up his splayed fingers, "was this. But none of them had the gall. Scientists."
"-water levels would fall drastically, wiping out-"
Tiverius inched backwards. Doubt was painted on the Imperial's face.
"-Sith genomics experimentation here had proven to be-"
Graib moved forward, snapping the terminal's audio off. Ari's father continued speaking, mouthing silent words. Ari stepped forward.
"You want to hear the rest? I think I can take it from here. Do you know why the Empire occupied Iskalon, sending fine men like Tiverius here to their deaths in this wet, freezing hell hole? I'll bet Captain Tiverius wants to know."
Ari looked at the soldier. Confusion still stirred in the man's face. Graib continued, motioning towards the open wall and the floating globe beyond.
"Thousands of years ago, Iskalon was a major center of Sith research into genomics...until the Jedi discovered the facility. Instead of just destroying the researchers, they used this," he spat, jamming a finger at the globe.
"It is a battery of sorts, but not for something as simple as a comlink or a starship. It uses a much different sort of power. It is a generator...and it runs straight to the core of the planet. This...thing possesses the power to melt and refreeze the planet's ice caps in a matter of a few years."
Graib looked at the globe. The monstrous sphere continued to oscillate easily; its hum deepened, almost a threat.
"That is exactly what the foolish Jedi did. They melted Iskalon's ice caps...destroying a century of Sith research and covering up any evidence that the Sith had existed here. What the Jedi hid with their misguided efforts was exactly what the Iskalonians are trying to prevent from being discovered right now."
"The native Iskalonians are not native. All the life on Iskalon was created by the Sith genomics experiments. Everything from the Chiaki down to the Iskalonians themselves...the results of perfect Sith science."
Ari swallowed her fear; growing anger filled the void.
"My father wouldn't have had anything to do with that!"
"Are you so sure of that, yearling? How well do we really know our parents?"
"I knew him well enough to tell you that! He wouldn't have had anything to do with the Sith, or anything they had created!"
Graib smirked at Tiverius.
"Quick to anger...I think the truth hurts."
Tiverius did not react. Ari did, stepping towards Graib. His hands rose smoothly in front of him. Ari stopped. Anuit Graib's new body language told her that he could handle himself if she decided to strike at him again.
Graib stepped closer to the pedestal, cracking his knuckles.
"Now, I am going to finish what my ancestors started thousands of years ago. The Sith experiments will be uncovered, and their power used to bring back a dead Empire...all thanks to your father."
Graib spread his fingers, lowering his hand over the obsidian depression inside the pedestal.
Tiverius was looking right at Anuit Graib. The soldier's previous uncertainty had vanished.
"Soldier, stand down. That is an order." Graib's hand continued down, nearly touching the stone.
Ari watched Tiverius dart forward, wrapping his thick hand around Graib's wrist.
"You are not my General, whelp."
Tiverius pulled Graib's resisting arm away; both men trembled with effort.
Graib released; Tiverius flew backwards. Graib was flying over the pedestal and into the air before Ari saw him move.
The two bodies met; both men flew backwards landing dangerously close to the edge of the floor. The globe beyond pulsated, vibrating the air. The two men rolled over, struggling to their knees as they exchanged a flurry of fists, knees and elbows. Tiverius lifted Graib, dropping forward. Both men slammed into the floor as Graib twisted midair.
Ari felt her gut tightening. She had to act now, but what could she do? If the globe was the key to her father's research, the key to uncovering something that should never be, how could she stop it? Why had Hadri El Dannar been tinkering with Sith archaeology?
Tiverius slammed Graib into the stone wall once, twice. The third thrust met with air as Graib dropped, slamming a fist into Tiverius' knee. The soldier fell, clubbing Graib with an elbow before hitting the floor.
Ari stutter stepped towards the terminal, glancing from it to the globe beyond. Her father's face continued speaking...Ari felt like he was speaking directly to her.
Tell me what to do!
Graib pulled Tiverius' feet out from under him; the soldier planted an armored boot into the smaller man's chest. Both fell back, bloodied.
Ari's eyes darted from the globe to the terminal to the pedestal.
The pedestal is the key to the device.
Tiverius flipped over Graib's head, tumbling over the edge of the precipice. His fingers caught the rough stone, leaving Tiverius hanging over the drop off. Graib raised a boot.
Ari lunged, wrapping her hands around one of the square batteries. Hefting the thick block over her head, she turned towards the pedestal. The deep hand impression in the stone stared back up at her. The muscles in her chest tightened.
This was my father's work...his life.
Graib's boot slammed her gut. Ari Dannar's hesitation had cost her. The realization hit home as her hands hit the cold stone beneath her.
"How does that feel, Miss Dannar?" Graib breathed, standing over her.
Ari pulled herself to her knees. Her world went white; she flew backwards, landing hard. It was only when her vision cleared that she realized he had hit her in the face. Graib stood over her, one fist balled. Ari reached up to her cheek, testing the still numb bone.
"And that," he hissed, "is for hitting me in the mouth...payback. Does it hurt?"
Ari staggered to her knees. She dropped her hand from her face; it was streaked in blood.
"Good. And this...."
Graib held Tiverius' Imperial boot knife in his other hand. He advanced.
Mone drifted with the currents, pumping his legs weakly.
Spears of light stabbed through the ocean from above; Mone was nearer to the surface than he had been in some time. Green-blue leafy vines waved in curtains all around him. The thick ocean plants reached for the intense sunlight, competing for the right to survive.
It was here that Mone came to be alone.
Not one of the school had seen him...of that he was sure.
As he kicked down into the darkening forest of corpulent vines, Mone closed his eyes, feeling the currents trace over his muscled form. Parting the wide leaves, he kicked further.
Before long, shapes on the sea floor began to resolve themselves. Inorganic, foreign shapes.
The kelp forest thinned out as the wrist-thick vines parted.
Mone floated several meters above the sandy bottom of the ocean floor. More than twenty ships lay scattered on the ocean floor, some in pieces, most buried at least halfway in the shifting sands. All of the space-going vessels had visited Iskalon in the last two years, some for reasons that Mone would never know. Either the school had killed the pilots or the offworlders had been eaten by the Chiaki. Either way, they were now a part of Mone's planet, part of the Current.
His eyes opened wide. Mone knew the voice. What he didn't know was where it had come from. He turned quickly, scanning the ocean around him. Besides the blocky, half-buried ships, there was very little to see. Could it have been his imagination? He swore he had heard-
Mone. Mone, my son.
Now he could feel his multiple hearts racing inside his chest. The voice had belonged to his sire, Primor. But the wise Iskalonian had been part of the Current for over two years. Mone's grey eyes desperately scanned the ship graveyard, hoping to see what he knew he never would.
Calming his breathing, he let his feet touch the sand. He closed his eyes.
I am here, son.
Primor's strong form materialized before Mone. His sire was young, strong, as he had been many cycles ago. Primor's piercing green eyes penetrated the miasma of blur around him as he looked directly at his offspring. Mone's resolve began to crumble under the unyielding stare. He was failing-the school, his responsibility.
"I failed you, Sire."
Primor's hard gaze softened.
You are a fine leader.
Mone lowered his head, staring down at the sea floor. He wanted to lose himself in those endless grains of sand, to put everything behind him. Mone wanted his life back...his life, his father, and his mate.
"I am nothing, Sire. Look at the school. We are dying."
You are nothing.
The new voice echoed in his head, leaving a black aura.
I gave my life to protect the school, and this is what you have done with my gift?
Every word of his dead mate's assault stabbed him as if it had been razor coral. Mone winced, sinking to his knees on the sea floor. She was right. The school was dying, there had been no offspring for a year, beginning to seal the fate of the school. Trade had not been established with the offworlders since the ban. Their temple was being desecrated by air breathers as Mone sat...helpless.
Primor is ashamed of you. You dishonor his memory, and our school.
Mone's head was deathly still for a moment. Finally, Primor's powerful voice shook Mone.
You cannot remake the currents. Once they have moved, they are gone forever. Look to where the currents flow. It is only there that you will find the answer you seek.
The apparitions faded. Mone opened his eyes.
The current had taken him a few meters; the thick hull of an offworld ship filled his vision now. The rounded hull jutted from the sand, curving out of sight. One of the few whose hull was intact, the ship had been taken only a few months ago.
Kendle's voice stabbed at the base of his skull.
You were unfit to lead us. You know this.
His dead mate's face appeared large in his mind's eye. She had tried so hard to save the school by doing what she had thought was right.
Kendle had been wrong. She was blinded by her lack of vision for the future of the school. She had taken the responsibility of the school leader, when she did not have the full sight to do so. And she, Primor, and the school had paid for her mistake.
How much longer will we pay? How much longer will we languish until the Current takes us?
Mone turned his head, staring into the blackness beyond the derelicts. The temple was kilometers away, but the picture in his mind was clear. Right now, offworlders were contaminating the temple. And unlike Kendle and her rashness, Mone was the leader of the school.
Parting the water with his hand, he kicked, shooting towards the edge of the clearing. As he reached to part the thick roots of the climbing seaweed, Mone stopped. He turned, looking back over the graveyard of ships. Primor's words echoed in his head.
You are a fine leader.
Now he had to prove it by not repeating the mistakes of the past.
His hands fell; the curtain of seaweed closed in front of him. Mone darted towards the closest ship.
I know, Sire...and I will prove it to you.
Ari scrabbled backwards, forcing two meters of safety between her and Graib. The glimmering blade in his hand had stopped swaying; his eyes widened as he took in the new arrival.
Tsayn stood in the corridor opening, sea water dripping from her sleek skin. Her fiery orange 'hair' lay matted and angled around her face. Tsayn's green eyes burned under her brow as she looked from Ari to Graib. Tsayn stepped forward, her webbed feet slapping the black stone.
"You will leave."
Ari wasn't sure if Tsayn had been talking to her or Graib...or both. The woman's intent became clear when she drew a jagged spike from behind her back, pointing the tip at Graib.
The Imperial agent looked the alien woman from head to toe. An easy smile crossed his lips; his knife hand flicked.
"I came here to bring back a long forgotten era, gill-head. No goggle-eyed simpleton is going to stop me. You've made your position clear...let's see you enforce it."
Tsayn charged, stabbing forward. Graib turned his body, slapping a hard grip on her arm. Tsayn twisted free, leaving Graib wiping his hand.
Tsayn didn't give him the chance to finish. Slashing the coral spike in front of her, she backed him against the pedestal. Graib stopped short, leaping onto the stone well. He leapt, flashing a kick. Tsayn fell back, nearly tripping over Ari.
Graib squatted, trying to turn his wrist into the depression on the pedestal.
Tsayn roared, charging. Avoiding a quick slash, she threw Graib from the pedestal, towards the corridor. He rolled, coming up to one knee. He was smiling. Ari looked from him to Tsayn.
A line of blue blood cut across her torso.
Anuit Graib winced, mock pain painting his face.
"Oooh. That had to hurt."
Tsayn pushed off the pedestal, blade flashing. The pair clashed again, wrestling each other into the corridor, disappearing from view.
Ari knew she had to act. She also knew one of those blades would find her if she attempted to stop their confrontation. The sounds of battle increased as Graib and Tsayn pushed further down the corridor toward the grotto.
She raced towards the remaining terminal; her hands flew over the console. Seconds later, a data chip spit from the slot. Looking at the square duraplas for a long moment, she pocketed it.
Ari's father had been close to an answer. So close, he hadn't seen the magnitude of what he was about to unleash. The globe pulsed behind her, drawing her attention.
Her hands wrapped around the power slug where it had fallen. Raising it high over the pedestal, Ari paused.
The slug fell, shattering the delicate stone that made up the depression. Three more times the thick battery fell onto the pedestal. When Ari was finished, shards of black stone filled the basin and littered the floor.
A loud splash echoed from the grotto.
Ari wasn't sure who she would rather emerge the victor in the struggle between Tsayn and Graib. If the Imperial succeeded, Ari's death was assured. If Tsayn emerged the victor, nothing was assured.
She knew she had to get out of here.
Peering down the corridor, Ari was met with silence.
Ari stuttered, catching herself on the wall. She scanned the room - besides her, it was void of life. But she had heard the voice. It hadn't been her father's voice - she had removed the chip containing his log entries.
Easing forward, Ari approached the edge of the open wall, keeping her eyes on the pulsing globe spinning in the space in front of her. Besides the pedestal underneath the globe, and the cavern beyond, there was nothing. Pausing for another moment, she turned.
"Help, alright! Help me."
Ari jumped, catching herself before she teetered over the edge. She looked down, finding the source of the voice.
It was Tiverius. He looked at her imploringly. Ari could tell the man was not used to asking for help from anyone at anytime. His white fingers clutched the rock; one foot had found a perch that didn't quite measure a hand's breadth.
"Are you just going to stand there, or do I get assistance?"
Ari kneeled, reaching out her hand. A nagging voice in her head stopped her.
"In a few seconds, my fingers will give. Then your decision will be made for you."
"I...can't pull you up. You're too big!"
"I just need to grip the ledge...after that, you're off the hook."
Ari began lowering her hand again. And again, she stopped.
"What's to keep you from pulling me down?"
"By the Force, woman!"
Ari raised her eyebrows. Tiverius looked around frantically; his expression acquiesced.
"I...give you my word as a soldier and an officer."
Ari pressed her teeth together.
Make a decision.
She thrust her hand down; Tiverius closed around her arm. Had she made a mistake?
"On three, pull. One."
Ari's head buzzed. Her feet could find no purchase on the hard stone. For the first time, she saw the floor of the cavern, a hundred meters below. The jagged surface was coruscating with tendrils of blue electricity. Vertigo made her head swoon.
She glanced around for something - anything - she could use to brace herself for the impending, potentially fatal weight.
Ari found nothing.
Closing her eyes, Ari tightened her frame. Her injured shoulder screamed as Tiverius' mass came to bear on it. Ari cried out, unable to stop herself from being pulled closer to the edge.
Within seconds it was over.
Ari opened her eyes.
She wasn't falling through space towards sharp, electric death.
Instead, Ari was on her back, looking up at the blank, black stone ceiling. A blonde head of hair slid into her view.
"Come on...we've got to get out of here."
Ari was pulled to her feet and pushed into the corridor. Tiverius followed, cradling the only functioning power cell in his arms.
"Where are we going?"
"We've got to get to my ship, I can get us off planet with this!"
The pair barreled through the corridor. The air packs that Ari and Graib had been given remained where they had been laid. There was no sign of Tsayn or Graib.
"What about the Chiaki?"
"We don't have a choice," Tiverius snapped, throwing the air pack over his shoulders. "It's either take our chances waiting here to be killed, or we risk getting to the Arcite."
The entire grotto began to vibrate. A few clumps of vine fell from the ceiling, dropping to the stone.
Tiverius looked back down the corridor. Ari followed his gaze. A jagged piece of ceiling fell in front of the entrance.
"This place is coming apart!"
Ari turned around. Her breath stopped.
Mone stood in front of them, dripping. A cage of sopping hair imprisoned his grey eyes. He threw something onto the floor in between Ari and Tiverius. The square case flopped to the stone, limp.
The valise looked familiar.
In his other hand, Mone held a jagged length of black coral. Ari backed up. She could sense Tiverius readying for a fight. Mone opened his mouth, gesturing to the sopping valise with the point of his weapon.
"He was no...diplomat."
"You will not survive," he hissed, motioning to the water lapping at his feet.
"I have to get to my men...we're getting off this Bysshole!"
"Your men have already joined the Currents...all of them."
Ari wrinkled her brow, then Mone's meaning sank in. If Tiverius' men were dead, then his ship was either destroyed or in the school's hands.
Either way, they were dead.
Tiverius stepped forward, menace in his tone. It was plain that he simply did not believe the Iskalonian.
"You can either move or stand there; we're getting to my ship!"
Mone shook his head.
"You will go nowhere...unless I lead you."
Ari tilted her head. As Mone's meaning began to sink in, she realized that her death was not immediately apparent.
"You will join the Current...but not this day. Come."
Mone turned, diving into the pool.
In the room beyond, more chunks of ceiling smashed to the floor, shaking the grotto. The globe's hum began to vibrate Ari's teeth. Tiverius looked at her.
"Looks like our options just narrowed."
Ari nodded. They both sat, thrusting their feet into the cold ocean water. The electric cold zipped up her spine to the base of her skull.
She slipped her mask over her face. The mouthpiece was bitter as she wrapped her teeth around the flexplas. She took one last look over her shoulder. A thick haze of dust eclipsed the corridor as the ceiling gave completely. The grotto rumbled.
This was the last place her father had been...as close as Ari had been since her mother had deserted the man. Now it was being closed to her forever.
Time to go.
They slipped into the water.
Tiverius kicked through the canyon, his leg muscles screaming. Too much had been taken out of him in the last hours; Mone and the Dannar woman began to leave him behind as they swam quickly through the freezing ocean. A spurt of adrenalin - a realization that his imprisonment could be at an end - was the only asset that kept his spent legs kicking now.
As the canyon widened, Ari and Mone kicked ahead, stirring the kelp lining the canyon floor. The green vines swayed in the current as the trio left the temple behind.
He was leaving his men behind. He knew that now. If he were to survive, the price would be the remainder of the soldiers under his command. Only a handful of lives to be sure, but in the past two years, Tiverius' definition of the value of life had been altered dramatically.
Ari had stopped; Mone kicked ahead.
She pulled herself through the waves, growing larger in Tiverius' eyepieces.
"What are you doing?"
Tiverius shook his head, pointing to the scanner mounted on his wrist. A faint, red signal pulsed there, pulling him.
He watched her eyes shoot from his wrist to his face. Ari Dannar shook her head.
"Are you...serious?" Her voice crackled into his helmet.
It was in that instant that Bron Tiverius realized what was important to him...what was really important.
Not his life. Not his command.
He had been placed in charge of people's lives. The lives of the men under his command had been his driving force for two years. There were still a few left on the Arcite.
Now Mone had stopped pulsing through the water; his large gray orbs barely visible in the dark water as he looked back, then into the ocean.
Tiverius looked down at the sandy floor. If it had not been for his men, he would have been dead a long time ago. He needed them.
"They need me," he whispered, finding his voice. "They need me."
"Are you off your motivator?"
Her pleas echoed inside his helmet, falling on deaf ears. With a renewed strength, the Imperial Captain pumped his legs, jetting up the canyons walls. The Arcite was within a few kilometers, he could still get there, still help his men.
The weight of the power cell affixed to his air pack had evaporated.
For the first time in a long time, Tiverius had a direction.
The future was clear.
He kicked into the blackness, Ari Dannar's protests ringing in his ears.
Ari screamed into her borrowed Imperial helmet. Cursing herself a second later, she pointed in the direction that Tiverius' flippers were rapidly fading into.
He can't hear me.
Mone pulsed, jetting closer to Ari. His deep eyes were clearly visible in the water that separated Ari from him. Had he understood? The leader of the school glanced aside, tossing a quick look into the blackness into which Tiverius had disappeared. Then Mone simply turned, kicking away from her.
Ari felt the pressure in her head elevate. Not the pressure of the endless liters of water that bore upon her...but the pressure of a final decision. It had become clear that she could go one of two ways now.
Kicking her flippers, Ari floated in the easy current. Tiverius' form was already gone; his decision had been made. If she went to help him get his ship operational, chances were worse than fair that they would be even close to successful. Death would be cold, slow and full of regret.
Mone's wide feet were beginning to fade as he jetted in the opposite direction. What awaited her down that road? She knew that by this time, Mone had surmised that she was not quite what she said she was, and less than anyone had hoped. News of her 'mission' would be brought to the New Republic's attention; she would be extradited to the fleet and imprisoned. That was if the school did not kill her first. Visions of the black skinned Iskalonian rushed through her head.
Much worse than a stim pike awaited her in the hands of the natives.
Ari closed her eyes, wanting the decision to be made for her. She wanted it to be over. The path that had started with Shamanar's destruction was so near an end. Ari sensed that reality, as clear as Chandrilan crystal.
But which way?
She opened her eyes, expecting to see her father's warm face, his deep eyes in front of her. He would make it all right again.
Iskalon's ocean was the only thing that stared back.
A wrong choice is better than none, sweet thing.
Jak Nythan's oft-repeated mantra echoed in Ari's head.
She had her answer.
Ari kicked, leaving the canyon behind her.
The Arcite had been moving towards him; Tiverius arrived at the wet porch in less than half an hour.
He popped his helmet seals. It was as he stepped out of his air tank, easing the power slug to the deck, that Tiverius felt something was wrong.
The wet porch was a small chamber with a grated deck in the center that allowed access to the ocean beyond. A single thick hatch, protecting the interior of the ship from the ocean, was the only ingress or egress from the Arcite.
That hatch stood glaringly open.
Wet footprints caught his eye almost immediately. His adrenalin spiked.
The second his eyes scanned for a weapon, he knew he wouldn't find one. The interior of the massive underwater cruiser had been so expertly scavenged by his crew that there was not a spare wire to be found, much less an implement he could use to protect himself.
He peered into the corridor.
Red back-up lights stained the corridor. The hull creaked, echoing through the narrow hallway. Although his nose couldn't sense a change in the briny air, Bron Tiverius detected the smell of death.
He picked his way up the corridor, eyes flashing behind him. The hatch to the cargo bay was also open further up the corridor. Tiverius checked the corridor behind him one more time, then peered around the hatchway.
He stopped dead.
Blood streaked the walls and ceiling; a wild crimson spray that told him more than he needed to know. Underneath the rusted deck grate, the standing water was clouded red. Tiverius tasted metallic fear. He stepped into the room.
There were no bodies. Not behind the crates littering the corner, not under the blinking computer terminal. Tiverius wiped the crimson streak off of the monitor, stilling his shaking fingers as he brought up the Arcite's diagnostics.
A blue wire-frame image popped up on the flickering screen - the ship's deck plan. Punching a few more buttons, Tiverius' breath halted in his throat. His life-sign was a clear red dot on the terminal, occupying the very spot where he stood right now. Barely a centimeter from his signal, another life form glowed strong.
And faced a nightmare image.
An Iskalonian - bright orange skin, shock red hair - blocked the only exit from the cramped cargo bay. The woman's chest heaved; her eyes burned at him from under lowered brows. Tiverius squinted.
She was covered with blood. Her hair was matted to her face, the ochre mixing with the bright orange skin.
His eyes were drawn to the jagged spike held low in her hand. Drops of blood tapped the water at her feet, breaking the silence.
My men are dead.
The woman stepped into the bay, studying him. From the way her mottled green irises flicked over his frame, Tiverius could tell that she was looking for a weak spot in his armor.
"What do you want?"
The woman hissed. Tiverius couldn't tell whether the sound was a cruel laugh or a sign of disdain. She repeated the sound twice more. It was only the final utterance that formed a word in Basic.
Nevertheless, Tiverius' brow furled. The tension in the woman's frame grew as she stepped closer. Tiverius stopped himself from bumping into the terminal behind him.
"My mate. Can you bring him back? No."
Tiverius knew that the Alliance had made contact with the Iskalonians after Admiral Tower had locked down the planet. He could only assume that Kiro was either killed or taken by the Alliance. Either way, it was apparent that this alien did not want an answer...she wanted his life.
"I...am not those humans," he stalled, sidestepping. The woman followed his motion. He was going to have to fight his way out of the bay.
"Mone does not see humans for what they are...leeches. Like a leech, you drain life where you go. Like a leech, you can be squashed." Her open fist closed; the knuckles cracked.
The attack came fierce; a second before Tiverius was ready.
His hand found her weapon arm, guiding the blade past as Tiverius was forced backwards. Tripping, he landed hard over a cargo crate.
The woman's face was a mask of fury as she struck at him, trying to free her arm. Tiverius yanked her towards him, hurling his fist at her face. The two met with a dull smack; she rocked back. Tiverius drove three more hits into her supple body, feeling her weaken. His teeth were bared; the guttural scream he heard was his.
Her orange skin flashed in his view as she hit the deck. The spike flew free, skittering to a halt near the open hatch.
He stood over her inert form, feeling his adrenalin beginning to spend. If he did not act now, he would be too weak if she managed to recover.
Do it. Kill her.
Tiverius shook his head. He had work to do. All he had to do was put her back into the water; her blood would draw a Chiaki, and that would be her demise. He stutter-stepped.
The woman had landed awkwardly. The alien's powerful legs were underneath her.
Tiverius was on his back with clammy hands crushing his throat. He flailed, his hands meeting unyielding body. Black spots danced in his vision; he could feel the blood being cut off to his brain.
He snaked his arms in between hers, prying up. Her strength held; his waned.
It can't end like this.
His vision went black.
The crush of her hands relaxed.
In seconds, the rush of blood to his brain cleared the spots from Tiverius' vision.
The alien's eyes were agog, her body stiff.
A coral spike jutted several centimeters from her chest, the bloody tip almost in his face.
The woman looked down at him, surprise and hatred mixed on her alien features.
She fell backwards, flopping over the cargo crate and coming to rest askew on the deck.
Bron Tiverius looked up.
A familiar face had taken the alien's place.
Ari Dannar stood, eyes gaping, frame shaking.
Tiverius shook his head, steadying himself on the bulkhead as he wobbled to his feet. The look on Ari Dannar's face morphed from abject horror to trepidation. She stepped back.
"No," he growled, "you did not make a mistake by...saving my hide...again."
Tiverius knew that the blood rushing to his face was not entirely due to the fact that the alien's death grip had been removed. Ari crumpled to one knee, dropping her head into her hands.
"You've never killed anyone before."
She shook her head. Tiverius carefully stepped up to her, placing a wobbling hand on her shoulder. Ari started, backing away.
"I...wasn't sure if you...if-"
"If I was going to kill you, since I am an Imperial soldier."
"I," he kneeled closer, "know when my hide has been saved. As I see it, I owe you two."
Tiverius pulled her to her feet.
"What say we get my ship running, and get ourselves out of here."
Fifteen minutes later, Ari was standing over a gaping hole in the deck, passing a folded wire to Bron Tiverius. They had cannibalized both air tanks, leaving them only one option now. The repairs to the Arcite would have to get them into orbit. After that...Ari put the thought out of her head.
One step at a time.
"Good...I need five more just like that." Tiverius hunkered down under the deck, disappearing into the musty darkness. Ari turned on her knees, letting the blood flow back into her feet. She flexed her aching fingers. With no tools, removing the insulated wiring had become a task unto itself.
"Five more...easier said than done."
The first wire had taken her almost ten minutes to uncoil from the air pack's compressor. She stared into the workings of one of the open packs, wincing as she jabbed at another coil. Ari loosened the red wire, closing her eyes as she pulled one end from the base of the pack. The end snapped; she began uncoiling, wrapping it around her hand.
Within seconds, Tiverius' blonde head popped up from under the deck. Ari finished unwrapping, popping the wire free. She exhaled, looking at Tiverius' outstretched hand.
"Is this going to work? I mean...are we doing this for nothing?"
"Don't think, do." He snatched the wire, disappearing again.
Sage advice. To Ari, Tiverius was beginning to sound a lot more like Jak Nythan. Small on talk, big on action. Several times in her life, that sort of bullheaded impetuousness had led her into more than a few dark corners. But that didn't matter now. Ari trusted that Tiverius' distaste of the planet outweighed any odds that were stacked against them now.
Within minutes, he had popped up for the last time. Ari handed over the fruits of her labor.
Tiverius looked Ari in the face. He looked spent.
Ari heard the words that his mouth had said. What she heard was please, let this work.
Within seconds, the entire ship rocked. The few lights that still existed in the glowlamps above beamed down. A few exploded with the surge of power; sparks showered the deck. Ari shielded her eyes.
"That's it, that's-"
His voice ceased. Ari leaned over the edge of the access hatch.
"I don't know!" He was scrabbling at two panels simultaneously, his face a mask of panic.
The deck shuddered again, spilling stacked cargo crates to the deck. Ari sprung out of the way, narrowly avoiding the empty durasteel containers.
"What did you do?" Ari screamed.
"It's on overload! We've go to get out of here!"
Tiverius leapt from the deck hatch, bowling her over. He yanked her up by the arm. Ari yelped, her feet dragging on the deck.
"Can't you turn it off?"
"No! It's fused! The reactor couldn't handle it, it's in a feedback loop!"
The pressure in Ari's head increased.
It grew as she looked down at the ruined air packs. Neither would function without the wiring that was now fused to the Arcite's innards. Even if the precious wire were free, they did not have the time to reassemble the packs. Tiverius pulled her towards the corridor.
"We've got to move!"
"Move? Move where?"
"Anywhere!" He screamed, his forehead a mass of veins. "Anywhere but here!" He grabbed her painfully, lifting her towards the open hatchway.
"Stop!" Ari drove the ball of her foot into his thigh. She was dropped to the shaking deck.
"Where are we supposed to go? We've got no air! We've got nothing!"
Tiverius' eyes scanned the cargo bay, frantically trying to lock onto a solution. Ari's faith dwindled with each passing second. Finally, he relaxed his grip on her shoulders, letting his hands fall to his side.
Ari shook her head, not believing what she had just heard.
"We float to the surface," he repeated, his face relaxing.
The pressure in her head began to build again.
I am going to die under this ocean.
Nevertheless she decided to humor Bron Tiverius.
"So we just float up then? Right past the angry natives bent on killing us, past all the teeth of the fish that want to have us for supper, past the complete lack of air...to what? A nice bob on the surface before we are dragged under and digested?"
The deck shuddered again. The two stood, looking in each other's faces for another second. Tiverius was the one that finally interrupted the spell.
"You have a better idea?"
Ari's teeth clenched. The next to last thing she wanted to do was have her final interaction with another human being be a mass of jumbled sarcasm and hatred.
But the last thing she wanted was to die here.
"Me neither. I do know the Arcite's reactor is going critical."
Both of them should have been dead already. Ari felt her pocket; the data chip of her father's log was still there. She felt as if she was getting further from her father by the second. Tiverius grabbed her hand.
Bron Tiverius snapped the mask over his face. The ocean water in the center of the wet porch sloshed up, soaking their legs.
"Deep, quick breaths."
Ari Dannar began to hyperventilate as he slid the other mask over her face. She was strong; some of soldiers under his command hadn't possessed as much grit. The situation struck him as ironic, a sick twist of humor. Tiverius had never figured how the galaxy meted out justice to those who deserved it, and those who did not.
He looked at the sloshing water. He knew it was cold; he knew he would be wet.
But no matter what, it would be the last time.
He placed a hand on her arm.
"No matter what, don't kick for the surface. We have to float up slowly."
Ari Dannar smirked.
"Anything else you want to throw my way before we drown or get eaten?"
"No," he smiled. "No. Just remember...stay with me. Now breathe."
Bron Tiverius looked at the water sloshing onto the wet porch again. He had one more thing to say.
"Thank you, just...thank you."
Ari nodded, not meeting his gaze as she sucked in quick breaths. She grabbed his hand.
The freezing blanket encased them; the Arcite's sounds were swallowed.
Tiverius kicked down, pulling her alongside him. Although he was a much stronger swimmer than her, Tiverius felt the drain of the last twenty four hours sapping his strength as they swam away from the Arcite's drifting bulk.
They were further from the surface than he had surmised. The glow of the sunlight piercing the waves barely filtered down to his eyes. He looked over at Ari; she was looking directly at his, her eyes large through the mask.
Tiverius nodded, trying to reassure her with a nod. She had every right to be scared.
The bubbles from their egress rose past them; Tiverius flicked his feet, keeping pace with the rising air. Tiverius blinked; dark shadows swirled around them. He couldn't tell whether he was seeing phantoms or actual threats. He focused on Ari Dannar again. Better to focus on the things he could affect.
The Arcite's bulk shrank underneath them. A roil of emotion burned behind Tiverius' eyes as he looked at the rounded hull and dark portholes. The sub-ocean cruiser had been his single refuge for two years.
It had also been a prison.
Tiverius' pressed his teeth together.
The Arcite exploded.
He grabbed Ari, pulling her body close to him. He wrapped his legs and arms around her. She struggled against the new weight.
The shockwave hit.
His world exploded in a spiral of violent motion. A fist of water punched his body as they spun end over end. He choked on his air, pressing his lips together against its escape. If the natives didn't know where they were, they certainly did now. The shockwave would travel miles, alerting every life form that either wanted them dead or as a meal.
Their spiral eased. Tiverius craned his head, trying to orient them. The light from the surface was brighter now.
He looked at Ari. Her eyes were wide with panic.
She's going to breathe.
Tiverius pulled her to him, forcing her mouth open with his. Her body relaxed as he breathed a slow breath into her lungs. She blinked.
The storm of bubbles from the Arcite began to overtake them, speeding their ascent.
Tiverius' lungs burned, convulsing for air. Soon they would win, and he would take in a lung full of ocean water. Had he made a mistake saving Ari Dannar?
Don't get careless with the goal in sight.
A little late for advice, he thought. His father had always given him that guidance. Little good it had done the man, he had died in an Imperial gulag before Tiverius had joined the Academy. But as his brain struggled for air, Bron Tiverius' resolve began to falter.
Were you right father...right all this time?
Light began to blink behind his lids. His brain was shutting down as his lungs burned for air. He barely felt his limbs wrapped around Ari's body.
Tiverius hadn't imagined death would be so peaceful.
His ears exploded with a rush of noise. He opened his eyes.
They had broken the surface. Tiverius sucked in frantic air; his limbs began tingling as energy rushed back to his extremities. Ari's head popped up; she ripped the mask from her face, inhaling hard.
The waves around them were easy; a light breeze cooled the water on his face. The sun burned high overhead. They had survived.
"Okay," Ari gasped. "What now?"
Tiverius smiled at her, treading water.
"As soon as Darth Vader swoops down from the heavens in a souped-up swoop with Luke Skywalker at the helm, we've got our ride."
They traded a smile.
"That's what I thought."
The water exploded in front of them, engulfing them in salt spray.
A thick, scaled column rose from the water. Tiverius' eyes followed the armored pillar to the top.
The Chiaki's fangs dripped as it hovered several meters above them. Its black eyes glittered in the sunlight as it swayed. Tiverius swallowed dry.
"Ari...you might not want to look at this."
All their close calls had led to the end of the road. Now.
"No...I want to see it."
The water behind them erupted. Another Chiaki, this serpent much larger than the last, stretched upwards from the surface, hovering over them.
Iskalonian heads began breaking the surface. The huge, mottled eyes stared at the pair as they bobbed helplessly in the expanse of water.
Tiverius took stock of their odds. With two serpents and the number of Iskalonians surrounding them, their odd were worse than nil. One or two of the natives could easily kill both of them, let alone the force now arrayed against them.
Why were they hesitating?
Their answer came in the hum of a ship's engine. As the sound grew closer, the hum grew to a whine. Tiverius turned his head, shielding his eyes from the sun. Whoever was approaching, he hoped they were armed to the teeth. The ship blotted out the sun, settling over them.
It was a small cargo hauler; the rounded hull capped with a snub cockpit. Barnacles crusted the sides and top of the ship.
"Mone!" Ari screamed.
The alien stood braced in the wide hatchway, looking down at them.
The hauler dipped closer to the waves, coming to a hover barely a meter from their faces.
Was this a joke? After two years of killing Tiverius' men, they were being simply rescued?
A narrow ramp extended. Tiverius traded a questioning glance with Ari before pushing her up onto the durasteel plank. His muscles shook as he followed, pulling himself to his knees. Ari collapsed near Mone's feet.
The hauler rose from the waves. Tiverius watched the Chiaki's head follow the hauler's motion; finally the shuttle stopped several meters above the waves. Mone stood in the open cargo bay door, looking down at the school.
"We have grown beyond our creators. The school did not grow into what was intended for us."
No words came to Tiverius. Instead, Ari replied.
"You will not come back again. Humans have not yet learned to ask."
Tiverius looked out at the Chiaki, still waving on top of their sinuous bodies. Mone continued.
"I have been swimming against the Current. I know now where I should be."
Mone looked at Ari, then glanced at Tiverius.
"You will not come back. You will tell others not to come back."
He flexed his legs, diving off the platform.
Tiverius leaned over the deck. A small circle of ripples radiated from where Mone had hit the water. The two Chiaki sank bank into the waves; the school disappeared under the surface. Tiverius collapsed, feeling all his injuries at once. He felt Ari's hand on his arm.
"We need to go."
He struggled to his feet, bracing himself on the bulkhead. The sea air caressed his face.
"I still owe you one, Ari Dannar."
She opened her hand, revealing a data chip. Tears shook in her eyes. She let the chip fall; it flitted in the wind as it fell towards the endless ocean, disappearing into the depths.
"Some things...you can't take back. And...we're even."
Bron Tiverius pulled her into an embrace, closing his eyes. For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, his future was not a fixed point on the horizon. For the first time in two years he was struck with the realization that he could not go home. They separated, looking at each other.
The hauler pulled up and away from the water planet, leaving so much more than Iskalon behind.
Original cover by Jeremy Dearolf. HTML formatting copyright 2007 TheForce.Net LLC.