The desert suns of Tatooine felt even hotter through TK544's helmet. Beads of sweat rolled down his face, over his cheeks and into the tight collar of his white-plated uniform.
"By the stars, it's hot," said his partner, TK328. Although they were all given special designations, and were forbidden to refer to one another by any other, 328 - who preferred to be called, Algar - had taken to naming the members of their squad with more traditional monikers.
The two stood outside yet another moisture farm. Other members of their squad were inside, interrogating the old man who ran the place.
"I can't take it anymore," Algar said, his voice filtered by his helmet. He dropped his rifle to the sand at his feet - an action that would get him shot, had the Sarge been witness to it - and removed his helmet. His dark hair glistened with sweat, as he gazed skyward with pale blue eyes.
"Pick up that rifle, before the Sarge comes out," Logan said, as he looked back at the cylindrical adobe that led down into the moisture farm.
Algar quickly picked up the rifle, but kept his head exposed. The desert air provided some relief, as it gently moved over his skin, cooling him. "Much better," he said with a sigh of satisfaction. "Take your helmet off, Logan, its refreshing."
"I'm fine," he said. He never cared much for Algar's interest in naming people. Whether he was called Logan or TK544, he was just a footsoldier in the Imperial army.
One of thousands.
The whine of speeder engines grew, and the stormtroopers turned to see TK768 return from his patrol. He was piloting a three-engined FH-4100, which they "appropriated" from one of the many other farmers they had visited that day.
"What are you doing without your cover, 328?" the trooper demanded.
"Bug off, you nerf, it's too hot for the helmet and my coolant unit's battery is low," Algar said. "Besides, aren't you supposed to be patrolling the dunes, 768?"
Algar refused to give 768 a name. He wasn't much of a soldier and couldn't be trusted. This was because he once reported his former partner to the Sarge for not properly cleaning his uniform the day their unit worked security for Lord Vader.
That trooper was immediately executed.
"Got a call to come back in," 768 explained.
A moment later, TKS1524 and three other troopers exited the moisture farm. Algar quickly replaced his helmet. TKS1524 allowed his men to simply call him, Sarge.
"He know anything, Sarge?" Logan asked, motioning towards the old man, who was now standing in the doorway.
"Nothing useful," the Sarge replied. He leapt into the speeder beside 768, as the other three troopers piled into the back seat. "Clean up the place."
Logan and Algar quickly double-timed it to the entrance. Algar removed two thermal detonators from his utility belt. Logan raised his rifle and pointed it at the old man, who simply stood in the doorway and waited.
Two red bolts shot from Logan's rifle and cut into the old man, knocking him to the sandy ground. Algar then activated the explosives and tossed them inside the doorway.
Moments later, the two troopers were seated on the back of the speeder, legs dangling from the aft as the ground sped away below them. Logan watched the farm erupt in an explosion of fire and sand with a force that shook the air. The sand surrounding the entrance jumped several feet, as the blast rocked the underground complex, and the ground collapsed into the maze of habitats and caves.
"By the stars, it is truly hot," Algar said.
Logan watched the smoke disappear into the horizon, as it was overtaken by the wavy reflection of heat rising from the desert sand.
The speeder pitched violently to port, throwing Logan against the hot center engine. Black smoke spewed from the port-side engine. Algar fell from the speeder and tumbled head over heels on the ground. The vehicle sped away, out of control.
The walls of the canyon they'd been coasting through past in a blur, as 768 maneuvered around rocks that jutted from the desert floor.
"What was that?!" the Sarge screamed, his filtered voice full of anger.
"I don't know, sir," TK768 yelled back with fright, as he struggled to control the speeder.
"I think we've been shot, sir," offered TK888 from the back seat, a good soldier and one of the oldest members of the unit that Algar called, Grundle.
768 fought with the controls, as the speeder came dangerously close to the rocky canyon walls. Logan wrapped his arms around the strut holding the center engine to the speeder. The engine was hot, but his gloves protected his hands. His legs hung over the edge, and his right leg shouted with pain as it bounced off a rock.
"Shut it down!" the Sarge yelled, but 768 was panicing. He continued to try and control the craft, with little success.
The Sarge slammed a fist into 768's helmet, knocking him sideways and off the controls. He quickly hit the brakes and shut down the speeder.
The repulsors gave out instantly and the speeder fell hard into the ground. It continued on for several meters, kicking up sand and rock. Logan looked forward to see a boulder directly ahead of them. The speeder crashed, slamming forcefully into the large rock.
Logan lost hold of the engine strut and flew into the backseat, pushing the other three troopers forward. 768 slammed into the speeder controls, and his helmet cracked the windshield. The Sarge hit the dashboard, but managed to get his arms up to shield his head.
Silence fell over the canyon. Logan could see nothing, but tasted blood in his mouth. He touched his helmet and realized it had been partially twisted around on his head. He removed it, and the sudden bright light forced him to shut his eyes until they could adjust.
He stood to test his leg. Pain shot up from his calf to his hip, but he could tell nothing was broken. Ignoring the pain, he looked over the crash site. The bow of the speeder was completely smashed. Torn metal hugged the boulder, with mechanical parts exposed through the openings.
It would never hover again.
The Sarge sat back in his seat and slowly dropped his arms. A filtered groan of pain escaped through the communicator, which was garbled and full of static.
"You all right, Sarge?" Logan asked.
"Feel like I just got sat on by a Kundar," he said, after pulling off his helmet. His dark hair had begun to turn grey. He looked at Logan with cold blue eyes. "You?"
"Fine, sir," Logan replied.
Shortly afterwards, the two discovered that TK9324, the newest member of the unit, had not been so fortunate. He was partially thrown from his seat when the port engine blew and had been struck by a passing rock. His helmet was cracked and stained with blood.
His partner, another rookie designated TK8758, escaped injury. Grundle was bruised and battered, but also avoided any serious harm, as had 768.
"What happened to 328?" the Sarge inquired as they prepared to bury 9324.
"He fell off when the engine blew," Logan explained. "We'll have to go looking for him. Can't be far."
"Anyone see what shot at us?"
"No, sir," Grundle said.
"Then how do you know that we were shot at?" the Sarge asked.
Grundle removed his helmet and ran his hand through his dark hair. "I'm fairly certain I heard a gunshot prior to the explosion, about a second or two."
"Gunshot?" said 8758.
"Tuskans," Logan told him.
"I didn't hear anything," 768 said.
"Neither did I, sir, but I was sitting between the engines," Logan said.
"I know what I heard, sir," Grundle said.
High above the canyon, a loud crack shattered the air. It was instantly followed by the sound of a projectile ricocheting off the metal of the smashed speeder. In an instant, all five stormtroopers ducked for cover, rifles at the ready.
A blanket of silence fell over the canyon. The troopers scanned the rock walls, searching for any hint of movement.
"Anything?" the Sarge asked through his comlink after replacing his helmet and switching to internal receptors only. The others quickly replaced their helmets as well and set their comms for internal communications.
"No, sir," said 8758.
"Can't see anything, sir," said 768.
"Negative," Logan replied.
"Nothing, sir," said Grundle.
The five troopers scanned the canyon wall. The Sarge, Grundle, 8758 and Logan were gathered around the same collection of rocks. 768 was off to their right, positioned behind a solitary rock. Their eyes moved from ledge to ledge, seeking out any kind of movement on the wall opposite their position.
Another shot slammed into the rock centimeters from 768's head. A chunk of the boulder exploded, scattering pebbles and dust in the air.
"I see him," the Sarge yelled. He pointed his rifle and let loose a volley of blaster bolts. The others quickly followed suit. Rock and dust showered down from a ledge on the canyon wall.
The barrage continued for almost a full minute before silence again fell over the canyon.
768 looked over his boulder to see if they had succesfully eliminated the target. He ducked milliseconds before another shot nearly ended his life.
"Where'd that one come from?!" the Sarge demanded.
"About twenty meters up, sir, on the right," said Grundle.
The Sarge quickly opened fire on that position, and his troopers instantly took aim as well. Again, rock and dust fell, as the ledge was turned to slag.
"Check it out, 768," the Sarge ordered.
Slowly, 768 stepped out from behind his boulder.
He walked around the large rock, eyeing the canyon wall, blaster rifle at the ready.
"Looks like it's clear," Grundle said.
768 fell, the armor on his right leg cracked and scorched. He screamed in shock and pain, as his calls for help were silenced by yet another barrage of blaster fire. Rock and dust fell from the ledge. 768 crawled back towards the boulder, dragging his injured leg.
"Are we just missing him, or is there more than one?" 8758 yelled over the comm system, fear shaking his voice.
"Snap it up, 87," the Sarge barked into his comm. He examined the canyon wall, demanding that his eyes stop failing him and locate their attacker.
768 was almost around the boulder when another shot hit him, this time in the center of his lower back. It passed through the gaps in his white armor, slamming through his stomach. He cried out in pain. His fellow stormtroopers cut into the canyon wall once again.
"544, get him clear," the Sarge yelled.
Logan quickly stood and ran to 768. Dust kicked up around him, and rock shattered, as shots pelted after him. He grabbed hold of 768 and dragged him behind the boulder.
The Sarge, Grundle and 8758 continued to pummel the canyon wall with blaster fire. Safely behind the boulder, Logan joined them. When the dust settled once more, they were still uncertain if they had hit their targets.
This time, Grundle stuck his head out. A moment later, a shot struck the rock behind him.
A single blaster shot was fired from behind a boulder several meters away. Projectiles rained down on the boulder from above, as more blaster fire came from behind it. Slowly, the projectiles stopped falling. A moment later, Algar appeared and proudly walked over to the rest of his squadmates.
"TK328 reporting for duty, sir," Algar said. His helmet was gone, but his comlink unit had been connected to his ear. The armor on his left leg was cracked and his left arm was exposed.
"You all right?" Logan asked.
"Fine," Algar responded. "A little banged up, but fine. My helmet was cracked in the fall, and the plating on my left arm shattered, but I'm not permanently damaged."
"Good work, 328," the Sarge said with a nod.
The sound of falling rock and dust caused the squad to snap to and look upwards. About twenty meters up, one of the Tuskans struggled to stand near the edge of a ledge. Algar and Logan quickly raised their blaster rifles and fired. The Tuskan stumbled from the shots and fell over the edge. His body dropped a meter from the canyon wall.
"328 and 8758, check him out," the Sarge ordered.
The two started for the fallen Sandperson. When they were half-way there, shots cracked the air from further down the canyon. The patrol turned to see several Tuskans approaching, rifles firing wildly.
The Sarge was struck in the shoulder. Grundle grabbed hold of him and pulled him behind a boulder. Algar dove for cover, a projectile slapping the cracked armor on his leg but failed to pierce it.
The Tuskans continued to fire, moving from boulder to boulder, slowly getting closer.
Logan sought shelter low to the ground. He crawled behind the pile of rock that had fallen from the barrage of blaster fire the troopers had unleashed against the canyon wall. Beside him was the body of the fallen Tuskan. He could see the battered body was broken in many places, a black, sticky substance staining the tan rags the creature used as clothing. It's mummified head was slightly exposed.
He turned to see that 8758 had fallen about two meters away. He was not moving.
Bullets zipped by overhead. The other stormtroopers fired back from behind their cover, stalling the advance of the Tuskan Raiders.
Just below the sounds of battle, Logan could hear the Tuskan beside him gargle something. It appeared as if he were trying to speak. Logan lifted himself up slightly and fired, then quickly ate the dirt again as weapons fire passed over him. It missed his head by mere millimeters.
The Sandperson continued to garble at him.
More projectiles passed over head. One bounced off the side of Logan's helmet, leaving a small crack and a dark, black burn. In that instant, the feedback from his comlink went dead.
Logan removed his helmet and looked over at his fellow troopers. Sweat rolled into his eyes. He shut them, squeezed, then opened them again. He could see the Sarge leaning up against a boulder. His helmet was still on and was moving slightly. Logan could tell he was barking orders, but it appeared no one was listening.
Grundle stood beside him, firing over the boulder. Pieces of rock shattered and exploded around him, but he didn't even flinch. His helmet was off, and blood stained the right side of his head.
A few meters further down, Algar was kneeling behind another boulder and firing at the Tuskans. His comlink was no longer on his ear.
768 was propped up against a boulder between Algar and the Sarge's position. A hand was on his stomach and he was not moving.
Suddenly, something grabbed hold of Logan. He turned to see the Sandperson look straight at him. It was trying to communicate, holding onto Logan's right arm with amazing strength.
Logan tried to push him away. He grabbed at its face and pulled at the rags. They slipped away, and the metal grate fell from its mouth. Logan stared into the Tuskan's face and was frozen. The Sandperson stared back at him.
Once more, Logan's eyes began to sting. Not from sweat or sand, but from tears. The Tuskan stared at him, through him, into him. Logan suddenly became overwhelmed.
The sounds of battle faded away, replaced with a strange silence.
A moment later, the Tuskan garbled a final breath and never moved again.
Sand danced near 768. Bullets passed with a loud snap, as others whizzed past near his head. But his body had been broken, left useless from the Tuskan's bullet.
"768, what's your status?" the Sarge said through the comlink in his helmet.
"I'm out, sir," he said. "Can't move."
"I can't reach 328 or 544, and 87 is gone," the Sarge said. "We need to gather up or they'll take us down one by one."
"Yes, sir," 768 said.
"They're getting closer," Grundle reported, his cold blue eyes concentrated on his targets. But for every Tuskan he took down, it seemed another would instantly take its place.
"Can you see 544?"
"Yes, sir," Grundle said, firing another round of blaster shots at the Tuskans. "He's on the other side of the canyon. He hasn't moved. I think he's down, too."
"What about 328?"
The Sarge moved to see 328. Watching the boulders behind them, he saw his trooper quickly stand and fire at the Tuskans. "His comm might be out," he said.
A flash of pain passed through the Sarge's shoulder and neck as he picked up his blaster. With a groan, he took aim, and when 328 showed himself to shoot, the Sarge fired a single blaster bolt into the rock. 328 was startled, but quickly settled his eyes on the Sarge, who waved for him to move up.
Algar nodded in recognition, then knelt back down behind the boulder.
"Cover fire," the Sarge ordered. Grundle opened fire, and the Sarge leaned out and fired as well. 328 ran around the rock and approached at full speed. When he was about a meter from 768's motionless form, the armor on his right thigh shattered.
In a cloud of sand, he crashed to the ground, tumbled over and landed beside 768. His blaster flew through the air, landing about two meters away.
"Damn," the Sarge said.
Algar remained motionless, but the pain in his leg was almost unbearable. Clenching his jaw, he swallowed the urge to cry out in agony.
"328, you okay?" 768 said.
"Leg," he struggled to say. "Can't move it."
Projectiles sliced through the air above and beside them, some kicking up sand only centimeters away. A moment later, one struck Algar's shoulder, passing through the thin fabric between his armor. Algar felt the burning heat of the wound and the sting of sand.
"I guess this is how it ends," 768 said.
"It's not over," Algar argued.
"It is for me," 768 replied. "I won't move from this spot. Not alive, anyway."
Algar never liked 768, but at this moment, he couldn't remember why.
"Ranold," Algar said.
"That's your name. Ranold."
More cracks and zips sounded out above and around them as the Tuskan weapons fire increased. Algar stared up at the clear Tatooine sky.
Beneath his helmet, Ranold smiled. "Thanks, Algar," he said.
Ranold then slipped away into darkness.
* * *
Grundle could hear another sound join the cacophony of weapons fire. A collection of guttural grunts and groans. He quickly realized it was the Tuskan Raiders. They were communicating, and he could hear them, which meant they were very close.
"Sir, we have to move," Grundle said to the Sarge.
"Nowhere to go," the Sarge said.
"Well, we can't stay here, sir, or we'll be overrun."
Pressing his back against the boulder, the Sarge lifted himself up. "All right, let's make a break for it," he said.
A projectile bounced off the top of the boulder and struck Grundle in the head. His body crumpled instantly.
The Sarge looked down at the trooper. His old friend. A comrade in arms.
TKS1524 realized it was over. His squad was gone. Defeated by a band of disgusting, worthless Sandpeople. The anger grew in him. He stood and stepped out into the open, rifle held at the ready.
Before him stood more than two dozen Tuskans. Rifles at their shoulders, they all aimed their long-barreled weapons at the trooper. The Sarge took aim, ready to fire.
The Tuskans slowly circled around him.
A moment later, the Sarge opened fire. A millisecond later, so did the Tuskans.
The canyon was silent. Logan could barely hear the russle of movement, the Tuskans milling about nearby, but had no idea how many were there.
The weapons fire had ended several minutes ago. A gentle breeze started to pick up through the canyon, carrying with it a thin cloud of sand. He could feel it sticking to his sweat-covered face and hair.
After several more minutes, Logan decided to open his eyes.
The Tatooine suns hung high in the sky, shining brightly in a cloudless blue expanse. Logan brought his gaze groundward and found the Tuskans. All of them. Standing around him in a circle, staring down at him.
Logan didn't move. He simply scanned the collection of Sandpeople. Dirty, greasy, and carrying a stench that almost made him retch, the Tuskan Raiders appeared to be a collection of undesirables.
But he'd seen the truth. That fallen Raider had shown him what they try so hard to hide from the world around them.
In that moment, everything was different. The universe around him had shifted and he found that what seemed right and important to him no longer mattered. In fact, much of it felt wrong.
He didn't understand it all. And, given his present situation, realized he never would.
The Tuskans moved closer. Their shadows fell over him. He shut his eyes and saw nothing but darkness.
Moments later, Logan was still in darkness.
When he opened his eyes once again, he found that he was alone. The body of the fallen Tuskan was gone.
Logan sat up and looked up at the canyon walls, down the length of the canyon - which extended several kilometers before turning.
The first bodies he encountered were Grundle and the Sarge, lying near each other. Their blasters were gone, and both were stripped of their armor.
8758 was also stripped of his armor. A wound cut through his neck, undoubtably caused by the bullet that sliced through his armor. Logan looked at the young man for a long moment. His dark hair. His pale blue eyes staring up with an empty stare. He reached out and gently closed them.
768 had also been stripped of his armor, but was left seated against the boulder. A strange smile stretched across his face. But, to Logan's surprise, Algar was nowhere to be found. Drag marks indicated his body had been taken by the Tuskens. Whether or not he was alive, Logan would never know.
An hour later, as the sun disappeared behind the canyon wall and a chill settled in the air, Logan finished burying his former patrol mates. He then stripped the armor from his own body.
Clad in a t-shirt and shorts, he dug a hole beside the graves he'd created, and buried his armor along with his former squad.
"Mom! Mom, come quick!" Amanda yelled from outside the homestead.
Linda appeared from the domed clay house, followed by Syman, a tall, muscular, dark-skinned man. "What is it, sweetheart!?"
"Look," Amanda said, as she pointed towards what appeared to be a pile of sand in the middle of the empty wastelands.
"I don't see anything, Amanda," her mother said.
"I do, mistress," Syman said.
"It's a man, momma, I saw him fall," Amanda said.
Linda and Syman ran the distance to the man, with Amanda keeping pace behind them. As they approached, they saw he had dark hair, with torn and dirty clothes. Syman knelt down beside him and flipped him over.
The man suddenly awoke. He grabbed Syman's arm with an iron grip, surprising the large humanoid. Syman quickly wrapped his massive fingers around the man's throat.
Syman glared into the stranger's cold blue eyes. "You appear to have come a long way to die now," he said.
The man let go, and Syman released his neck.
"Well, then, let Syman here help you up and we'll get you cleaned up," said Linda.
"I am not sure that is wise," Syman protested.
"We cannot leave him out here like this," she said.
"He could be a criminal or something," Syman said, looking back at the man. "Perhaps he deserves to be out here."
"No one deserves this," Linda said. "Now please bring him inside."
Syman reached out and easily lifted the stranger to his feet. The four started back to the homestead.
"Who are you?" Linda asked. The stranger simply looked at her. "Do you know your name?"
He looked down at the sandy ground, considering what she asked as if he'd never been asked the question before. He then looked at her. "Logan. My name is Logan."
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