"The Empire wronged me," said Ish Baylik. "I'm a demolition man. I'm not trained for salvage."
Straining, Taf Safren hefted the cylinder, as long and thick as his thigh, into place on the floor, completing the heptagon that ringed the support column. He paused to daub at his forehead with a rag.
Nine stories above, a spider web of cracks in the craggy ceiling radiated away from the column. A sun shining through the mouth of the cavern cast long shadows onto the ceiling above a forest of such stanchions, all of them bearing the weight of a mountain.
The Empire hadn't expected the Rebels to bother furnishing an asteroid with an atmosphere for the sake of establishing a base. By the time the Empire discovered them, the asteroid had grown geologically unstable, and the Rebels had installed the stanchions, without which the roof of the cavern would have collapsed by now. The Rebels evacuated too soon to track them, but in their haste they left behind equipment that interested the Empire.
Ish collected the controller from the nearby dolly and extended a thick arm to point it at the Crawler. The Crawler responded by humming at a low pitch, then, slowly, it began to rise as repulsorlifts propelled it along its track. A few meters above their heads, a lighting fixture obstructed the Crawler's path. The Crawler encountered the fixture, a clear globe, and the humming increased in pitch to a whine as vibroblades sheered through the moorings. The fixture fell to the smooth rock of the floor and shattered.
This particular column featured several more prizes, including a relay box, power cable supports, and a dish antenna perched near the ceiling. The relay box and antenna might contain residues of data that could help the Empire determine the latest location of the Rebel Base.
The controller began to scream like a Banshee Bird, indicating that the other Crawler had contacted the ceiling and returned.
Taf pushed the dolly while Ish carried the controller. Taf was gaunt, weighed three quarters of what Ish weighed, and he needed the exercise, so he didn't complain about Ish's laziness. They would return later to collect the bounty. Now it was time to disassemble the other Crawler and marry it to the next column.
"Is it time to report yet?" said Ish.
"No, not for hours."
"Coward Rebels." Ish spat. "See those natural tunnels in the wall? Maybe a few Rebels are still here, too scared to flee with the rest. After this shift, I'm going hunting." He patted the service blaster slung from his hip.
"The search teams already scoured this whole rock."
"Yeah, but maybe one came back. Snuck in. You know, to spy on us or something."
"Ever shot one?"
"No. Not one. And I'm afraid. Afraid I'll die before I get the privilege."
Behind them, a clatter arose and echoed past. That would be the relay box. The power cable supports should fall soon.
Shortly thereafter, two songs like tiny bells being struck rang out as the rings bounced across the stone floor. Now the Crawler should be sensing a clear path and speeding up to within a meter of the antenna for a gradual approach.
"I mean, I've done demolitions that must have killed hundreds of Rebel sympathetics, but that's like skipping the main course at a banquet."
Taf twisted around, hoping to see the antenna falling. He did. He saw it edgewise. It was hurling straight toward them.
"Watch it." Taf shoved Ish hard and dove for the floor.
With a whistle, the antenna shot through the space they had just occupied. Taf lifted his head to watch. The dish executed a flawless touchdown, sliding to a spinning halt far ahead.
"Poodoo!" Ish got to his feet. He picked up the controller. "Controller's okay at least."
Standing up, Taf started to laugh.
"What's so blasted funny?"
"The Rebels took a shot at you."
Taf had worked with Ish long enough to know when Ish was sincerely angry, so he resolved to stay silent while they headed for the antenna. They could load it onto the dolly and deliver it to the pile of junk growing in the salvage bin. When they reached it, however, Taf broke his silence.
"What do you make of that?"
Ish shrugged. "Mynock?"
"Mynocks don't do that."
The dish lay on the floor, concave side up. A single piece of black durasteel two meters wide, it was smooth except for an area near the rim, where three gashes in the metal trailed down at an angle. Each gash was as long as Taf's hand and wide as his thumb. The focal piece was missing, broken off. Attached to the other side, the signal converter module was what interested the Empire.
"Bah. Rebels did that to scare us."
They maneuvered the dish onto the dolly. At the site of the first Crawler, they gathered the debris and tossed it into the dish, then pushed the dolly to the back wall where they had established camp. When they had emptied the dish, they picked it up and heaved it over the side of the bin. Ish took the dolly and headed back to the second site. Taf paused to look at the dish. He wondered whether the dish had acquired its wounds before or after the Rebels installed it nine stories above the floor. He joined his co-worker, and for the remainder of the shift neither man spoke of it.
They sat together on the dolly eating from trays of rations lain upon their laps. Everything was cold, even the coffeine, although Taf preferred coffeine cold. Ish had reported to headquarters, neglecting to mention the dish antenna. It was afternoon. The support columns now cast shadows on the floor.
"How do you think they did it?"
Taf bit off a piece of protein bar. "Did what? Damage the antenna?"
"No." Ish gulped coffeine. "How did the Rebels create this place? Where'd they put all the stone?"
"They didn't. It was here before them. Nobody knows who did it. I checked the Infonet: big mystery."
"Say, do you feel that?"
"A vibration. In the dolly. They should have issued us a seismograph."
"What for? They didn't leave a ship, or a way to negotiate a sheer drop of a hundred meters. They probably -"
The dolly lurched upward, and so did they. The dolly slammed back down on the floor, scattering rations from their trays. The entire cavern trembled with a deep rumble, just hard enough to coax the dolly into rolling a meter. Abruptly, the quake ended.
Ish spat. "Idiots. I enlisted to fight Rebels. Now the only thing keeping me alive are Rebel support columns." As he spoke, a chunk of stone the size of Taf's fist smashed on the floor in the distance.
"How do they expect to claim their treasure if it's buried inside a mountain?" Ish rose to his feet and trotted to the open crate that held, among other things, the long-range comlink. He closed the lids, but it wouldn't matter if a rock wrecked the comm. Their superiors would respond to a distress call, but the fleet was still two standard days away.
"Not to praise the Rebels," said Taf, "but those columns are durasteel a meter thick with titanium cores. They'll hold."
"Worthless Rebels better hope they don't, and I'm not so sure they will. There's a lot of mountain above us."
"Say, I lost my appetite. Back to work?"
"Yeah. Let's get that scanning equipment into the bin, and get the Crawler onto the next support."
Their shift ended just before they finished the task. Ish took a spool of durafilament from the supply locker. Then he pushed the dolly to the back wall where one of the natural caves was situated close to the floor. He tied one end of the filament to the handle of the dolly, then turned to look at Taf. "You coming?"
"Yeah," Taf said, drawing his service blaster. He toggled the safety to expose the red dot. He turned it over to check the power gauge: full. He holstered the blaster. "I guess so."
Ish heaved his body over the lip of the aperture and Taf followed him. The tunnel was straight, narrow, and tall enough for both men to stand with room to spare. Ish held the spool by one end, letting the filament play out behind him as he walked. In the other hand he held a comlight, its beam trained on the wall ahead where the tunnel curved to the right. The strap over his service blaster dangled unfastened.
The tunnel splayed into several branches, and they searched all of them, finding nothing. The Rebels evidently had made no use of them. It wasn't until they searched the third cave in the wall, stacking objects from the salvage bin onto the dolly to access the opening, that they finally found something.
"Careful," said Taf, drawing his blaster.
Low on the wall of the tunnel, someone had hung a metallic panel from cords tied through punctures at the corners and fastened to bolts sunk into the rock. The shiny surface of the panel featured scratches that Taf recognized as a symbol with which he was unfamiliar.
Ish crouched beside the panel. With one hand he swung the panel slowly out, holding the blaster ready with the other. He risked a peek inside.
"Nobody's home," he said.
He swung the panel up on its hinges and leaned into the opening, pausing, then going through. Taf took hold of the panel and followed him.
The chamber was a volume of space about three meters wide and two meters high. Piled against the wall by the door were shredded ration boxes and grimy trays. Next to that three neat stacks of unopened rations stood high as Taf's shoulders. On the other side of the door a blanket half covered a sheet of packing foam.
At the base of the wall opposite the door, a relay box, like the one the Crawler had earlier sheered away from a stanchion, squatted next to a block of stone equal in size, back side up. The back of the box had been peeled away and folded over to expose the innards. A scrap of fabric, torn away from the blanket, Taf judged, lay draped over the stone block. Chips of stone and dust covered the floor from one side of the chamber to the other. The place reeked of ammonia.
Ish shifted the comlight to lamp mode and set it on a stack of rations.
"He pilfered all this from the Rebels. Look at the rations," said Taf.
Ish stepped across to the relay box. Crouching, he drew aside the rag that covered the stone block. For a long moment, he just stared at the block, silent. The he waved at Taf to join him.
Ish sidled away and sat down, staring at the floor, his face a mask of consternation.
Taf knelt before the block. It was a work of art, his mind decided. Someone had carved a square cavity into the block, had hollowed it, as if to fabricate a box of stone. Inside, the four sides were smooth. The bottom, however, was intricately carved, and when he saw the detail, he revised his initial assessment. The craftsman had sculpted, with exacting precision, the myriad components of the relay box open beside the block, including a circuit board with its tiny city of miniature buildings and streets. The block itself was a protrusion in the landscape of the wall, carved to four smooth sides.
"What are we dealing with here, Taf?"
Taf stood, unable to tear his gaze away from the absurdity that lay at his feet. "I don't know, but I don't think he'll listen to reason. If he's still around, that is."
"You bet he's still around. Let's get out of here."
The cavern was trembling again. Ish spilled hot coffeine on his hand and swore, whipping out his service blaster and jumping to his feet, holding the blaster straight out and pointing it into the darkness, waving it back and forth.
"Where are you? Where are you, you Rebel runt! You slime!"
As the trembling subsided, he sat down on the cot again. Aligned beside his was Taf's cot, and now the two men sat facing each other. It was Taf's turn to sleep, but the quake had woken him. "He's out there,' said Ish, opening another cup of coffeine. Ish had contrived a way to heat the beverage: Set your service blaster for low power, remove the power cell, and fire the residual energy into the cup until the black fluid boiled - clever, for Ish. He demonstrated the procedure now for Taf.
"He might be armed. I mean, besides claws and whatever," Taf said.
"He better be." Ish inserted the power cell into the handle of the blaster and slapped it home.
"Should we include our findings in the report?"
"No, let's not. Maybe it was just one of the Rebels' pets or something. Got left behind in their panic to escape." Ish lifted the cup to his lips, sipping, and once again, something caused him to spill it onto his hand, which was still blushed from the previous misadventure. This time Ish had started at a sound, a sudden clattering somewhere far beyond the light of the five portable lamps they had arranged around the cots.
Ish lurched up from his cot, hurling the cup, slinging coffeine in an arch that drenched the coveralls across his back from shoulder to waist. He drew his service blaster again and stalked out into the semi-darkness.
"Ish. Ish, there's nothing there."
Probably another chunk of stone had plummeted and dislodged a relay box or something. That creature, Taf was sure, wasn't out there. Probably it was hiding in the caves, waiting for him and Ish to leave, fearing them more than they had cause to fear it.
Still, he didn't appreciate Ish's decision to leave him alone. He considered following, but Ish would dislike that and was angry enough as it was. He decided to wait. This assignment couldn't possibly end soon enough for him.
He took out his journal and on the screen wrote 013:27:108, the date of that day, in sloppy handwriting. In the wake of the stylus, the crooked lines wriggled and conformed to the straight lines and elegant curves of fine script. He kept it on his person at all times, in case he thought of something he wanted to record, and he logged entries into it every night, especially at times like this, when he just didn't know what to think. The entries dated back over five Standard years. It had, he was certain, kept him from losing his mind.
He penned a paragraph, at which point he had planned to stop for the night. By the time a new temblor broke his reverie, he had written over a thousand words. This time the shaking was mild, and he continued to write, oblivious. That was why, when a terrible crash somewhere in the darkness echoed through the cavern, he hadn't expected it, and had nearly jumped off the cot.
He replaced the journal in his thigh pocket and ventured away from camp to search for Ish - who had left over an hour ago - wondering what trouble Ish had found.
Prin, a bright emerald moon, which the asteroid orbited, had cleared the bottom of the wide aperture that served as the sole entrance to the cavern. It floated there in the darkness like a watchful eye, casting a greenish hue onto the floor and onto the ceiling high above. As he noted this, a mist descended like a curtain over the aperture, obscuring the moon and dimming the cavern. A bank of condensation must be descending the mountain, he decided. He switched on his comlight, swept it far to right and to left, but saw no sign of Ish.
What would have made that noise? He knew what could have, knew the only thing that could have done it, but he wouldn't allow himself to entertain that notion until he actually saw it.
He halted, unclipped the comlink from his waist. "Ish, are you reading? Did you see what happened?"
No answer. Ish had left in such a fury that he may have failed to notice the hailing. Not very professional, Ish my boy. Replacing the comlink, he resumed his search.
He found Ish, and the cause of the crash, at the same time. What he saw confirmed his fear about the crash. There on the floor, a stanchion lay in the darkness like a felled tree. Twenty meters long, it lay between the upright stanchions.
Ish wasn't in much better condition. Taf's first assumption was that Ish had scaled a stanchion in fright when the one on the floor had fallen, but he saw no means of ascent along the two meters of column between the floor and Ish's feet. The Crawler that ringed the column where it rested on the floor provided a mere step. (They had planned to service this column at the onset of their next shift.) Besides, Ish's back was to the column, his arms and legs wrapped around behind him in an extremely uncomfortable looking contortion. When Taf stepped around and trained the light on Ish's limbs, he saw that Ish's hands and feet had been bound together. On the floor, by the Crawler, lay the spool of durafilament Ish had used in the caves. The spool was completely spent, except for a single strand that trailed away from it in coils to flow up the column, binding Ish's feet and hands in nests of snarls.
"Taf." Ish coughed. His voice sounded strained, barely more than a whisper. "Taf shoot it. Shoot it. Kill it. Shoot the Crawler first. Then shoot the...the..."
A strange sound tore through the night. Ish let out a gasp.
Taf whirled around; the sound had come from behind him. He saw the creature then. He didn't recognize the species, even though the green blade of the lightsaber it was holding illuminated its short, humanoid body like a floodlight. Standing with one leg straight out and the other bent at the knee, it was covered in fur that Taf judged by the green glare to be yellow.
It shifted the lightsaber to the other side, the nose of its flat, triangular head tilting downward. The head was likewise covered in yellow fur, the tip of the nose black as if dipped in ink. From this angle, Taf could see an eye, a tiny yellow sparkle that blazed like a fire. With an inhalation, the creature hissed, released the breath in another hiss, long and low-pitched.
Behind the creature, the mist swept over the floor, flowing around the creature's feet, thick enough to obscure the black talons that arched from toes to rock. The blade switched sides again as the creature swept the tip through the mist. That modulating hum of the blade raised hairs on the back of Taf's neck. He'd heard of lightsabers, but had never seen one before.
"Taf. Do it now. Be careful." Ish coughed again. "It's a Jedi."
Jedi or not, he didn't have to tolerate this. Besides, there were no Jedi anymore. Everyone knew that. Darth Vader had seen to them all. With good cause, too. The Jedi were potent soldiers, with a command of the Force, like Vader, and were in league with the Rebels. Perhaps this one had been with the Rebels and went with them when they evacuated, returning after the Empire had departed, seeking to entertain itself with any stragglers.
Taf shifted the comlight to the other hand, then drew his service blaster and fired. With a sweep of the blade, a nonchalant gesture, the creature deflected the laser bolt, sending it lancing away into the cavern.
With his thumb, Taf slid the power tuner of his weapon closer toward maximum, then unleashed a barrage of fire, aiming at the head, the chest, the abdomen. The creature parried each of the discharges, not flinching even as some missed his head by centimeters.
He stopped firing, and the creature hissed. It stepped toward him.
"Taf shoot it. It made me put my blaster to my head without touching me. Taf, now."
Taf backed away, turned, and ran. He hadn't forgotten protocol. In extreme emergencies, having done all that was feasible to protect the Empire's interests at hand, his next priority was to report as soon as he could.
What had brought down that stanchion? Did that creature cut through it? Could a lightsaber do that? Durasteel?
He became aware of a familiar sound, echoing past him as he fled. The Crawler. It had been resting on the floor, fully assembled around the column below the place where Ish was perched. Crawlers were not smart systems. It would spring up to within a meter of Ish's feet then ascend slowly. That its first obstruction was a living human being would not enter into its programming. This could be a ploy to get him to return, or could be a real threat, but he kept running. He had done what he could. He would not breech protocol.
Still, as shrieks - too human to be the war cries he had at first attributed to the creature - rang out to compliment the echo of the humming vibroblades, Taf slowed his pace for a moment, breathing hard, but only for a moment. He was almost there. He could see the cots, could see the crate that held the long-range com.
It would make no difference to him, of course. They would never get here before the creature finished with him. Still, he would perform this final duty.
He flung the lid of the crate open, reached for the controls. He froze, hands poised over a perforation in a charred panel. He straightened, inhaled, held the breath, listening, casting about for movement.
He paused to consider the caves in the wall of the cavern. A funny feeling was gnawing at the fringes of his mind. Fatigue, probably, or the prospect of having to enter those caves again to hide from the thing that stalked -
- But he was in the caves now. He knew he was because he recognized the sheet of metal that served as the door of the creature's lair, and he recognized the stack of rations that stood next to it.
He lifted his head, and reflexively his hand, no longer wrapped around the blaster, went to the back of his skull, which throbbed with a dull ache.
He sat up and saw the creature. It sat with its back to him, working. It was hammering, the ring of the impacts like the tap of a fingernail on a drinking glass, sharp and loud in these small confines. The creature was working on its sculpture of the relay box Ish had discovered.
It might be a Jedi, which tended toward benign dispositions, as he understood it, but clear to Taf now was the fact that the creature was quite insane. How and why he couldn't begin to guess, but he had no plans to ask it. Carefully, his stomach telling him he might as well lie back down and await the inevitable, he maneuvered his feet under him.
Imperial training overriding natural instincts, he remained calm as he made for the door. Of course there was no way it wouldn't hear, or sense with its Jedi acuity, but it was mad, and it was engaged in its project. Don't ever give up, was one of the tenets the Empire had instilled in him from the first day of training.
He crept to the makeshift door, pushed it open, and slipped out. When he had progressed halfway along the passage, the mountain erupted again. He hunkered down and held his arms above his head, feeling pebbles bounce off his back as they rained down to raise a staccato song in the cave.
This time the trembling wasn't abating quickly. Strengthening, it shook him off his feet. He regained his stance and staggered forward, switching on the comlight he had earlier placed in his pocket.
The quake continued, intensifying by increments. He reached the opening and halted. He could see the main entrance to the cavern in the distance. Clear now of the misty curtain, the moon shone through it unobstructed. The cavern was dark, but enough light entered to illuminate the unthinkable.
The ceiling had tilted. The many support columns were now bowed slightly beneath it. An explosion rattled the air in the cavern even as the mountain continued to shake. One of the columns near the entrance had shattered to leave stubs protruding from above and below. Another explosion soon followed, then another.
He looked around behind him, training the beam of light into the distance. Except for roiling plumes of dust, the passage was clear.
Outside, the explosions continued. He could see the entrance to the cavern closing now, like a giant mouth filled with spiky teeth. Soon, the ceiling would cease to tilt and would drop.
He turned away from the spectacle, sat with his back against the wall. He pulled the journal from his pocket at his thigh, stuck the end of the comlight between his teeth. He wasn't planning to write his will. He had written it years ago. Instead, he began to write a story. He wouldn't finish before the mountain crushed or suffocated him, or before the creature killed him, but the Empire deserved to know what had happened, deserved a full report. If not the Empire, then maybe someone, someday would excavate this place, and uncover the story of a mad Jedi, and of an Imperial loyal to the end.
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