|This story is a work in progress.|
|Xanadu story universe|
- 1 Chapter One
- 2 Chapter two
- 3 Chapter three
- 4 Chapter four
- 5 Chapter five
- 6 Interludes
- 7 Chapter Six
- 8 Chapter Seven
- 9 Chapter eight
- 10 Chapter nine
- 11 Chapter Ten
- 12 Chapter eleven
- 13 Chapter Twelve
- 14 Chapter Thirteen
- 15 Chapter Fourteen
- 16 Chapter Fifteen
- 17 Chapter Sixteen
- 18 Chapter Seventeen
- 19 Chapter Eighteen
- 20 Chapter Nineteen
- 21 Chapter Twenty
- 22 Chapter Twentyone
- 23 Chapter Twentytwo
- 24 Chapter Twentythree
- 25 Chapter Twentyfour
"So, who are you supposed to be?" The woman handing out badges couldn’t possibly look less interested. Despite the brightly-colored staff badge and the eye-searing blue of the bunny-ear headband lying over her curly hair, she clearly had other places to be right now. She looked like late teens, early twenties. My age or younger.
"I am Revan Redeemed, former Dark Lord of the Sith." I’d been practicing a neutral voice that could be high male or low female for as long as I’d been working on the costume. The effect was helped along somewhat by my full face helmet and hood. Despite knowing that she must have seen dozens of costumes vastly superior to mine, a part of me wanted her to be impressed.
She wasn’t. "Uh huh. I didn’t see anything like that in the movie." She popped her bubblegum noisily. It stank of artificial grape. What a multitasker, I thought wryly, resigned. Chewing gum, counting the dues, and speaking. Why is she talking to me? Is it because there’s nobody waiting behind? If I had still been in my normal clothes, I would have felt cowed by her dismissive tone and ignored her comment. But wearing Revan’s robes, insufferably hot though they were, made me bold.
"That’s because Revan lived four thousand years before the rise of the Galactic Empire. Not all Star Wars games are based on the movies. Forty years after the defeat of Exar Kun-" She cut me off, sneering.
"Uh huh. Sure. Spare me the details, I’m not a fan. Okay, everything looks like it’s in order. You just barely made it into this ‘koter’ SIG." While it disturbed me that she was so ignorant of the best game in the world, it was only to be expected. Layfolk are, after all, everywhere. I might have been upset, had I not been Revan. Nothing phased my Revan. Not for long, anyway.
After a brief delay for hidden weapons checking and a bit of sighing at the too-bright pass that was slung around my neck, I was through. Xanadu. Maybe not the best choice for me. I had never been to a convention before, and I probably should have started small. Or at least come a day early so that I could take in the sights.
I’d actually planned to wait for my friend Nathaniel. We would have changed in the room rented for this purpose and gone in, in costume, together. At the time I’d thought that only his help would let me face this many people. I’m chronically shy when it comes to crowds, after all. Classic wallflower. But then I’d donned the robes for the first time since I’d finished fitting them and realized something important. The robes made me feel as if I was her. Looking at me, people would see Revan. And Revan would not hesitate. There was something incredibly liberating about being her. I imagined that my body moved on its own, without my commanding it to do so.
And here I was, trying to find my way across what was probably the largest science fiction-fantasy convention in the country, or one of them, anyway. Consulting the map proved to be confusing, and I didn’t trust the giggling fairy princess who pointed a direction. Slightly uneasy, I turned around a few times. Before long I saw, fixed in the narrow visor of my mask, a robed figure that looked familiar.
I took a chance, walking up to it and speaking as if I knew her very well.
"Juhani!" She whirled and performed a classic double-take. Unseen, I smiled.
"Ah, Revan!" While this girl’s costume was not as convincing as my own, mostly because she couldn’t cover her face and her nose was too snubbed, the red Knight Robe, the heavy black eyeliner, and the yellow contacts were recognizable as an imitation of the Cathar Juhani, a feline Jedi from the same game as Revan. Major coincidence. Her mock-Russian accent sounded hesitant.
"Are you- I mean, Did you fall to the dark side?" I grinned beneath my mask at her question, and responded boldly with a quote.
"I didn’t ‘fall’, Juhani. I had my eyes opened." Under the dusting of facepaint made to look like the stripes of short fur, "Juhani" smiled. Blinkered by the mask, I turned my head to look through the narrow horizontal slot. At this range I could only see sections of her face- the problem with Revan’s mask was that I, personally, could not compensate for restricted vision with the Force- but it looked like she also had plastic vampire teeth behind her lips.
She broke character, losing the fake accent. "You’re from the General Discussion boards, right? Lots of Revans there. I saw a bunch of photos on the costume thread. Yours looks familiar – um... huh... Are you Redsaber-5?"
Behind the mask I grinned like a fool, oddly and wholly pleased. I didn’t recognize her, unfortunately, but hopefully she’d let that pass. I made no attempt to conceal the smile in my voice. "Exactly! My real name is El-" The "Cathar" shook her head and I shut up.
"Let us leave names out of this," she said lightly, inoffensively. "Real or forum, I am Jedi Knight Juhani, and you are?"
"I am Female Revan, Prodigal Knight. Between the game and its sequel. My memories of life as Darth Revan are only beginning to return in full. Soon I will disappear to combat the True Sith, but not yet. I’ve just returned to my old robe and mask, because I’ve become enamored of them."
We touched gloved hands, mine black pleather(salvaged from a set of battered biker’s gloves) with red plating on the backs, hers a sandy-colored cloth with a marker applied. A bit of plastic at the end of each finger symbolized small claws. Like my own costume, hers was most convincing at a distance. Neither of us would be winning prizes, but we certainly looked better than the people who’d just picked up noses on strings or whatever was selling in the cheap section of the Dealer’s Room and called it a costume. I also thought we looked cooler than some of the fursuiters, the ones wearing baggy pajama-type things anyway, but I may have been biased.
"Come now, I will guide you to the room we will be staying in. I’ve been here for a few days, so I know where things are. Roughly." I accepted her help, placing my hand into the crook of her proffered elbow like a courtier. Half blinded by the mask, what else could I do?
It took a while and some ... navigational hazards. A large, orangy-colored Care Bear flirting with an admiring conventioneer whose costume was along the lines of "furry pajamas" blocked the way for a while before "she" squeaked a farewell and minced off. Somehow we managed to get pinned near a set of vendors dispensing fried edibles out of trays who were trying to sell their wares to some shockingly out-of-shape "superheroes" who should never have been allowed within five hundred feet of a Spandex costume. We barely escaped a confrontation between an armored knight in blue jeans and a seminaked nunchuck-wielding "girl" whose Adam’s apple was just a touch too prominent to be ignored. "Juhani" and I were teased by an Episode Two-style clone trooper who saw our shiny lightsaber hilts and demanded "Generals! What are your orders?" before having a hearty and distinctly un-clone-like laugh. "Robots" with the look of tinfoil creations from some low-budget Japanese live-action show grabbed at us before I, emboldened by the thought of being Revan, told them to run along and play. To my surprise, they obeyed. We had a brief run-in with some random skimpy-clothed fox-girl who, mistaking my companion for someone else, demanded to know why "Juhani" didn’t have "proper cat ears and a tail", but she gave up after a while. A unicorn-morph recognized my costume as sinister and cringed away from me while "Juhani" laughed and I folded my arms together imposingly.
At couple of those nightmare convention tales I had heard over the Internet turned out to be true. One was that people sold the most bizarre pornographic art conceivable. Another was that a few people in the crowd had not bathed since the start of the con, if then. Sweat, body odors, flat beer, reeking old cloth, and subtler, harder to define scents all combined into a miasma that in some places was drank in rather than inhaled.
There were a lot of sights I barely caught, what with the narrowness of the visor. Some good, others less so. I couldn’t help craning my neck and staring at an oriental dragon made of four people who seemed to have stolen it from the Chinese New Year, and there were some very impressive horse-type costumes. I saw hints of what looked like talent shows or perhaps simply skits on stages, and elsewhere heard snatches of filk that could be promising or terrible. Cosplayers with all levels of skill photographed each other and hugged and sparred. Xanadu was a major event for various fandoms, and today, the last day of the convention, the day Eric Winters handed out the prize money, the fans were going all out.
Eventually we got to the KotOR SIG room. It was just a door away from an unofficial gathering of more people in clone trooper armor. Half of them saluted. I supposed it wasn’t surprising that there were so many here... the infamous 501st, serious Star Wars cosplayers who made up the world’s largest Imperial costuming organization, was here openly, after all. I’d seriously considered joining - I was over eighteen, after all – but I wasn’t sure if my villain costume quite counted as "high quality", especially compared to what existing members had created.
Compared to most of the chambers here, ours, the room of the KotOR players, was on the small side. But there was only so much money we could raise in a hurry, and as expected only about twenty or thirty of us could come. It was still the first time I’d seen fellow fans in person, outside of the campus at Midtral anyway. KotOR was only a highly influential game set in the Star Wars universe; there were only so many people who could attend Kublai Con. Xanadu wasn’t the same thing as Celebration, after all. None of this was official.
There were two other Revans in robes, one of them in the white Star Forge Robes that I had stained so often that I’d gone for black instead, one Zaalbar who really looked more like a Chewbacca suit but carried a sign saying "I am Zaalbar; call me Big Z", three blue Twi’leks who might or might not be Mission Vao, someone with a repainted Maul mask as Bao Dur, a number of Bastilas, and a rather chunky battered HK-47 visible in the doorway, as well as various people in less distinctive outfits who could have been anyone from the Exile to Canderous. And there were more people that I couldn’t see due to the damn mask. Some looked hellishly halfhearted, but others...
"Maybe this was a mistake;" I muttered. But it was too late now; "Juhani" was plunging into the chaos and I felt it was my duty to at least visit. I’d paid the dues, after all...
And it was easier with the mask on. Easier to imagine that I was Revan, competent and, if not always composed, able to fake it. Not Alison Freeman, who was decidedly neither.
Even so, after less than a half hour, I was drained. Twenty-odd people in one room managed to create a lot more noise than should be humanly possible, and the long black robes that had been overwarm early on had become sweltering. The holes I’d drilled into my strapped-on mask weren’t working so well either; air didn’t pass through as well as I’d wanted it to. It seemed that all the water I drank passed straight out of my pores, hardly pausing to hit my stomach. The icepacks I’d stuffed into pockets after reading advice on Howstuffworks.com worked pretty well, but they couldn’t quite make it cool. But Revan would not have shown discomfort, and perhaps wouldn’t even have noticed, so I did my paltry best not to be affected.
As it turned out, it wasn’t as bad as I expected. I ended up doing a lot more listening than speaking, but tossed my two cents around more than a little anyway. Since we didn’t have anyone particularly well-known here, there weren’t any panels, just talk. It wasn’t too different from many of the forum discussions I’d had, except that I was here, not at a computer. I didn’t need Nathaniel here to "break the ice", not when I was Revan.
The thing about playing Revan is that he or she can be anything. You pick the face, you decide on male or female, big and strong or small and delicate. You decide if he or she is Dark or Light. You customize all kinds of statistics- intelligence, charisma, wisdom, strength, dexterity. Everyone who plays the game has a different Revan. Mine had started off as self-insertion fantasy, but over the years she'd grown out of that into someone I probably wouldn't like, but could still admire.
Despite my resolution not to feel the heat, I was working a black-gloved finger into my high vinyl collar, trying to coax air over to my sweat-drenched inner clothes, when a messenger in a frat-style toga with rubbery horns on his head ran in. He shouted what sounded like "Intercom’s down in this wing- the Awards Ceremony starts in five minutes!" and dashed off again, panting.
I moved my head in a wavy motion, looking for faces. The mask looked awesome and made me feel anonymous, but it was a damned nuisance. The Velcro straps that held it on my head were tangling and snagging my hair painfully. The inside was also starting to condense; beads of water from my slightly sour breath were trickling down to my chin and soaking me. Eventually I framed the visor slit around a girl who wasn’t already occupied.
"Revan Redeemed, in Darkside robes for old time’s sake," I told her casually. The mask muffled my voice. By her response, she heard fine.
"Nice mask. I’m a bit too lazy for anything fancy, so I’m some random Jedi from Dantooine - my character is Rhea Dorin. Took ages to make the gi and I had to borrow the boots, but I think it was worth it." She was a bit younger than me, I suspected. Not yet out of high school.
"Hmm. Do you really want to go to the awards ceremony?" I wouldn’t have minded seeing it, but I would definitely need a guide. I might stumble over just about anything, otherwise. It’s hard to look dignified and mysterious if you’re sprawled on your belly. In an hour or two, when our SIG breaks up and we all drift away, I should take the mask off and just wander around, see what people have made. I won’t be the only one.
Yes... that seemed like a good plan. With so many anime fans in attendance, there were sure to be people selling DVDs and manga and assorted action figures. Surely I could find something from a series I favored...
"No, I won’t know anyone there. Besides, no way am *I* going to win "Best Costume" or whatever they’re doing." A disappointing revelation, but I had only been curious, after all. And I wasn’t going to ask, not after seeing her obvious disinterest. Hopefully someone from Midtral was taping it and I could see a highlights reel or something later. Over the Internet, maybe.
I spoke with "Rhea" for a while. There was a minor rule about not discussing "who you really are", but we ignored it. This was actually her second convention ever - she’d been to a minor one back in September- but she still had little more idea of what exactly happened than I did.
Oddly, it grew easier to keep a conversation with each sentence. I suppose it’s true that when you forget yourself it’s easier to relax into a role, although the topic had ranged on to a real fourth-wall-breaker: why so many forum members were juvenile Darkside jerks.
In the process we walked back towards the entrance of the room. The knot of white-armored clone troopers had in fact gotten larger. Maybe they wanted our room. Some looked pretty bad, but others looked truly professional, as if they had just stepped out of the movies. There’d been a rumor on the Internet that Temura Morrison, the actor who’d played Jango Fett, was coming to Xanadu, but I personally didn’t believe it. There would have been signings – and signs advertising the signings - otherwise. In a typically Revan move, I leaned back slightly and crossed my arms to study the troopers for a moment, then swung my head back to find Rhea. She had followed me, and stood closer to my side, but I had no trouble finding her. I knew where to look.
And then the world changed.
I’ve heard a few descriptions about what it felt like. Some people - me included – felt it just before it hit. When it hit, some were dizzied or disoriented, overcome with faintness. A number of psychics, some of them Jedi, blacked out, as did most of those attending the actual Awards Ceremony, although others remained conscious. Some felt ill. Others were wracked with pain or fear or delirious joy. A few people claim that they "saw" it as it overtook them, like a wave or something. I’ve even heard that for some, it happened slowly. And of course there were one or two who, despite the changes, felt nothing of the change itself at all.
My experience was... interesting. I felt it just before it hit; hundreds, thousands of tiny pressures, of thoughts and emotions and muted voices, all around me, all of them calling out in surprise, then hushing. I was calm. Centered. Not uneasy in the least.
That calmness was overtaken by the strangest sensation. Somehow it was both agony and the most wonderful thing I had ever felt, washing over me, warm and cool and smooth and spiky all at once. Like a jolt of electricity, it ran from fingertips across my heart to my toes, brushing the crown of my head like a blessing, blossoming through my cells.
It passed through and remained inside of me, tingling and pulsing in every cell of my body; my legs buckled, and I fell, first to hands and knees, then to the ground. My vision, what there was of it through my helmet, faded to black.
I know I was only out for a few minutes, but it felt like hours before I came to. Hours of... dreams. Of purpose. Before I opened my eyes I felt it. An awareness. I knew that something had happened. Something big. Bigger even, to me, than the whole Xanadu transformation thing. I had reclaimed something so impossibly big and wonderful that beforehand I could barely conceive of its existence, as a blind man can barely grasp the concept of color. It was as if I had been blind and deaf and dumb and all of a sudden light and sound and speech were mine - at first, it was all meaningless, painful patterns, but then-
I opened my eyes, but I didn’t need the visor to see. Part of me cringed and fought, but for the rest it was as natural and easy as taking a deep, deep breath of clean air after years of shallow, fetid inhalations.
I pushed myself off the ground and swung my head back to look at the room I had been in, an instant and an eternity ago. I saw someone else in long armored robes, black and gray and red, but not like mine; burned, tattered, and damaged. He had collapsed on the floor. A red and black and gray mask was in his gloved hand. And a young woman in a tan bodysuit with a loose tunic-robe knelt at the head, palms on bloody temples, eyes closed.
Forging a bond, I knew, to keep him alive. She was Bastila, and he was Revan.
As I was.
Is that even possible?
Yes, it is. I am Revan.
No! I’m a teenager, a college student, cosplaying-
And I am also Revan.
I can’t handle this. I can’t handle this at all.
I brought my gloved hand up to my face. Such detail! Black gloves, like leather but not, as thin and supple as a second skin. It was protected by plates of muted reddish armor, the same color as my armbands, parts of my mask, and my breastplate. The black and gray robes obscured the rest of the armor, but it was there, underneath. The kind of thing I could have worked at for months and never gotten quite right.
The kind of thing I had designed with a great deal of careful thought. Mandalorians, too, wore full armor with T-visors. It was wonderfully mysterious and helped to inspire fear, as well as having practical uses. I had wanted that same effect, but I hadn’t wanted to appear too Mandalorian.
No- no! I’m not Revan! I can’t be!
More than the costume had changed. That wonderful big feeling of greatness? It bound everything. I could feel things through it. Like I was connected, linked, bound to them. With- everything. The figures before me on the floor, the floor itself, the walls, the air.... not just in the room. Everywhere. As if I was one cell in the body of the galaxy, one note in a symphony, one word in a tale, I was a part of it, related to every other part and, unlike them, aware of this. If I allowed myself, I could get lost in it.
I paced past comatose Rhea, Bastila and the fallen Dark Lord. Another Bastila, in more conventional robes, was sitting against the wall, knees curled into her chest, staring blankly at nothing at all. She felt... right. I stopped beside her, reaching for the words that she needed to hear. They came, of course. They always do.
"It’s not your fault." Her head jerked up, startled, and she stared up at me with wide, pleading eyes. Part of me melted... I firmed my resolve. There were things which needed doing. And this was not truly the woman I knew. She didn’t know me, but someone like me. And yet entirely different. Male, for one thing.
"I forgive you." I told her. What was I forgiving her for? Oh, the mindwipe. Which was probably being performed even now on the bloody figure behind me, unless the shock of becoming Revan right after the bridge was hit by turbolasers had done that. On the Star Forge, when I- when Revan! had redeemed her, she was forgiven for that, and for falling to the Dark Side.
But this was not my Bastila. I knew that. The Force told me.
I can’t handle this. This isn’t me.
The girl who looked like Bastila stammered, "I... I know. But I cannot forgive myself. I failed you. I... I don’t know what to do." I touched her chin and nudged, slightly. She stood shakily. Her eyes swept across my face, and I realized that she was looking for my eyes. Well, this could be interesting.
I knew that I didn’t look like the Revan she wanted me to be. But I could make her think that I was, if only for a moment. It was easy. Just the lightest touch on her mind, and I could see what she wanted and become it.
I sank both my hands back through the opening of my hood, as far back as my ears, and found the catch, where the front of my helmet met the back piece. Strange. I distantly remembered using Velcro and straps that tied around my head, but this was much better. With a slight tug, the mask came free. I looked into her eyes and met her pleading gaze calmly. It was clear to my senses that what she wanted from me was direction.
I gave it to her. "Use your Battle Meditation. Calm the crowds. I do not expect you to make everyone become still and peaceful, love, but every little bit helps. We don’t want riots." Love?! Admittedly it wasn’t a name I would normally have used, but if it helped... I smiled reassuringly, just a bit, and she nodded and sat in a lotus position, taking a deep, slow breath. It would work. Hopefully. I felt exposed without the mask, and so I latched it back. The visor helped me focus.
"This is so wrong." A voice said unhappily. I turned, cloak cape swinging, to see Darth Malak climbing to his feet and looking at himself with dismay. I hesitated, then approached him.
Part of me felt no surprise at his appearance, but... somehow a computer screen fails to show how tall Malak was. Wide-shouldered, bald, with striped tattoos on his pale scalp, he was a head and a half taller than me, even leaning forward with knees slightly bent. He looked somewhat different than in the game, robed properly rather than villainous and without the signature prosthetic jaw. The bold tattooed stripes on his head were unchanged, but his skin was less gray, his eyes blue rather than yellow.
I’d played the game. He had been my- no, Revan’s best friend and lieutenant. Then when we- when they had become Sith, he had turned traitor. In the Sith tradition. But I did not feel threatened. This wasn’t the man I had grown up with. He had less independence in him, for one. He was used to obeying. There was hardly any fire or ambition in him; he felt... young. Pliable. Looked it, too, actually.
I can’t handle this. Not now.
He noticed me watching him with clear unease. "Revan. I don’t want to fight you. Please. I’m not M- I’m not who you think I am. Really."
"Of course you’re not," I said as smoothly as I could. My throat was starting to hurt, making my voice raspier and more unpleasant. Not something I wanted, but it would recover in time. A thought occurred to me. "How old are you?"
"I’m... huh. Eighteen. And... fourteen. That’s not right... Revan... if you are Revan... what’s going on?" Much younger than me. Interesting. He thought I was about to attack him, yet he looks to me? I was intrigued.
"I might as well be," I allowed. I felt a twinging in my awareness. Elsewhere, I knew, people weren’t standing around talking things out. I had better do something about it. "Look, will you follow me? I could use help."
His response was so automatic that I suspected it was reflex, not a decision. "Yes."
Rapidly, I flashed a thought-probe in and out of the young man who looked like Malak. No real ill intent, no deception; confusion, though, a desire to do well, and a strange, deep welling of trust. He wanted guidance? Well, I could give it.
"Then I can trust you."
I can’t handle this. I just can’t.
"I should have stayed home..." he moaned, but as I started to walk he followed as closely as he would had I snagged his hand and pulled.
I paused at a woman who looked like Juhani, apparently the one who had brought me to this room. Black eyelids accentuating scared yellow eyes that didn’t seem to have whites made her look alien, but I ignored this. And the expression of adoration which followed when she recognized me. She wasn’t mine, I wasn’t hers. She blinked as she realized this for herself, and settled.
"Keep the calm, Juhani. There will be trouble if some of us wake up and start fighting. You know how to slow them down, let them think." Willing saliva into my mouth, I swallowed, trying to soothe my irritated throat. It didn’t really work.
"I- yes. I will keep the peace until you return. But- you are not going alone, with him?" She glanced up at the one who looked like Malak, who was rubbing his face and muttering. Beneath my mask I smiled.
"I can trust him, Juhani. May the Force be with you." The thought dawned that I would probably never see her again.
I strode forth and pulled my lone follower out of the room and into more chaos.
Clone troopers were everywhere. Some were semiconscious; others had formed a defensive square, tracking their black blaster rifles to follow every movement. They hadn’t yet fired, thankfully.
One saw me and looked past the dramatic armored robe and mask to notice a lightsaber hanging from my belt, as if it were a magnet and his gaze was a needle. "General..." he breathed. Other clones turned their heads and saw me, emitting a relief that was almost palpable. Part of me was uncomfortable about this, part... wasn’t.
Oh, that’s right... Clone troopers call all Jedi either ‘Commander’ or ‘General’, and obey them to and past the point of self-sacrifice. Up until they get the correct signal and attack these same Jedi...
I just can’t handle this!
"How do you know I’m not a Sith?" I asked, half serious, half amused. I shook my hooded head before someone could come up with an answer. "Never mind. Men..." My confidence faltered for a moment as they all looked at me the way drowners see air, nakedly desperate. My surety returned in the same instant that it had left, along with an inkling of what I had to say and how I had to say it. Loose wording, certain tone.
"Hold your positions until you have judged it prudent to move. You are authorized to use force in defense of yourselves or others, but practice strict restraint. No casualties unless absolutely necessary. Do not take orders from anyone, even another Jedi, if they conflict with mine." My voice was calm, firm, and confident enough to reassure even the most cowardly of recruits. The clones all straightened, their world having realigned itself.
I received a set of salutes and "Yes Sir"s. They were ragged, but they would do. Already the troopers looked more professional, forming up into a more solid position. Even the young man who looked like Malak, standing behind me, felt more assured, and I hadn’t even addressed him.
The Force twinged again. A death. Without another word, I strode ahead, still trailed by my follower.
For the moment, things were calm. Calm enough, at least, to ask a mildly important question as we walked. I turned my masked and hooded head to face my tall, pale companion and asked, mildly, "What do you want me to call you?"
The young man who looked like Malak blinked, uncertain both in the narrow strip of view afforded by my visor and in the Force. "Um. I was... don’t laugh, okay?"
I smiled invisibly. This ought to be good. "I won’t."
"I was... ‘Cheryl.’ I told you not to laugh," he - or she? said rather stiffly. A quick, involuntary exhalation had escaped me- not quite a laugh, no, but not far from it. I waved a gloved, armored hand at him- sorry, continue- and he did. "But I think I prefer Malak. What about you?"
"What about me?"
I can’t handle this. Really, I can’t.
"What do you want me to call you? Do you respond to Revan, or...?"
Ah. I can’t believe I forgot that. "Revan will do nicely." I hesitated as something niggled at me, then added, "I would also respond to... Elisa... but Revan works better." One more thing- "And I stayed female."
I hesitated again, then shrugged. Might as well. Other than the two of us, this hall is deserted. I don’t think anything is about to happen in the next thirty seconds. Nothing I could prevent, anyway. "This is what I look like." I stopped walking and turned towards my companion. Carefully, I slid both armored hands into the face of my deep, concealing hood, felt for the clasps, and pulled the masklike front half of my helmet down and away from my face.
My vision was restricted by the hood itself, cutting off everything on either side, but it was still astonishing how much more I could see. If not for the Force, maneuvering would have been a great trial wearing that mask. How had I managed before?
Malak peered into my face with a slight frown around his eyes, then nodded, not saying a word. I replaced the mask and we resumed walking in a rather awkward silence. What do you say to someone who looks like a younger version of your best friend since childhood, who later set a trap for you and left you for dead so that he could grab the title of Dark Lord of the Sith?
I can’t handle this.
Ahead was chaos. Perhaps deterred by the knot of clones outside, hysterical people had run away from the room I had found Malak in, but here there was nothing to stop them from doing all the things panicked people do. Running in circles. Trampling one another. Bashing themselves into walls. And screaming, of course. Lots and lots of screaming.
Most of them appeared fairly human in their physiology, though frequently sporting strange furred features like ears or snouts or tails which didn’t really match their bodies. Interestingly enough, it was mostly the ones without the odd ears-or-snouts-or-tails who had peculiar skin coloration, truly outlandish garb, or bizarre hair. Some appeared to be humanized animals. There were also a number of oddities in that crowd, things which really didn’t look humanoid. I didn’t bother looking too closely.
A panicked human with lips that curved out into a brightly-colored beak produced a shrieking cry that was so loud and so highly pitched that it seemed to bite through my eardrums and pass through my head, completely ignoring the sound-dampening features in my mask. Shuddering, I winced and resisted the urge to clap my hands over my ears.
The crowd members who were not running in circles were trying to escape the room. There were several doors leading outside, all fronted with glass and opened by means of shoving at a bar in the approximate center. Naturally, in the way of all panicked humans, these were ignoring most of the doors to press around one and only one. Clearly, Bastila’s calming Battle Meditation had not reached them. Or if it had, they were too excited to feel the effect.
"I don’t think we can do anything here!" I said to my follower, shouting over the noise of the crowd. Even if I opened another door, the small mob would continue trying to surge through the first one. Panicked people were like that. "Let’s just get out!" I winced again as the beaked human produced another painful shriek.
I can’t handle this.
"Yeah! Good idea!" Malak followed as I worked my way along the edge of the room. The crush of people here was not so tight; the wreckage of various small stands and booths disrupted them, and a hysterical mass of humans generally prefers more open spaces. The beaked human shrieked twice more before we were able to find our way into a different corridor.
There was still a great deal of noise, but the corridor was much less crowded and had less of a hysterical feel to it. The handful of people here were grim-faced or wide-eyed with fear, but they hadn’t whipped themselves into a frenzy. What appeared to be a bipedal dog was holding two cloaked figures away from each other and speaking rapidly.
I felt the Force twinge again. I was running out of time. Sweat started to form on my skin; it was instantly absorbed by the lining of my armor, but what I wore could do nothing about the way my stomach was starting to flutter. I can’t run out of time. I won’t. Running or allowing myself to draw upon the Force to move more quickly would use energy that I would need later. I settled for walking very fast, fast enough that people ahead moved to either side of the corridor to let me by.
"Revan, what do you think’s happened?" Longer legs meant that Malak had little trouble keeping up with me.
"I have no idea," I told him shortly. We were passing people that I knew I could help, but to do so I would be forced to use precious time and energy. I need both for what’s ahead. Let me be there in time. "It’s obviously something big. You can touch the Force, right?"
"Yes," he said uncertainly, as if he suspected a trick question.
"And you couldn’t this morning, could you?" I pressed. He shook his head, bewildered. "Now, what have you done between this morning and... sixteen minutes ago? Seventeen minutes ago, how were you different from this morning?"
He still did not understand. I wasn’t quite sure how to phrase it... Sighing inwardly, I sent a thought into his head, a hint. Just a quick thought-pulse, nothing major.
I can’t handle this at all.
"I’m not sure what you- oh. Costumes. You mean... they became real?"
Well, that’s as good a way to say it as any other. I inclined my head and then, realizing that it was hard to see, told him "Yes. It’s the only explanation that makes any sense. Not much, admittedly, but it’s all we have. When straws are all that is left, grasp at them."
I did not turn my head to look at him, but in the Force I could feel a bit of his confusion. "How did you do that?"
Sensing that he didn’t mean my deduction, I let a wry tone creep into my voice. I should have known he would feel my thought-pulse. "I’m the player character in an RPG. I have to be able to communicate without words at least part of the time."
I can’t handle this. It’s just too weird.
"Oh." There were doors set into the corridor. Some were closed, others were not. Malak stopped quite abruptly; something in one of them had caught his eye. "Revan-"
The tone of his voice made me stop, turn. "What is it? What’s wrong?" I didn’t feel any local disturbance in the Force. While there were plenty of unpleasant things happening around us, they could be taken care of by others. All but one. And that was mine. I was running out of time.
"That’s- I think that’s... David?" His explanation became a question, in a voice that sounded almost plaintive.
A boy in the room, teenaged by his rather nasal voice, demanded, "What?! Who are you? How do you know my name? What’s going on?" He sounded rather freaked out.
Join the club. I can’t handle this.
"Who is David?" I asked. My voice displayed a patience that I did not feel.
Malak hesitated. "He’s my... he’s my brother. Cheryl’s brother. I have to-"
In the room off the corridor, David yelped "What?!" again, his voice breaking.
I didn’t have time for this! Couldn’t he feel that urgency in the Force? Something clicked together. He couldn’t feel it because handling it was a task meant for me. Alone. Without any help whatsoever. It might well be that, in the impending incident, any companions of mine would be killed or prove untrustworthy.
Better if there was only one.
Almost I could feel responsibility settling over my shoulders like a new cloak lined with lead. Heavily, I accepted it. Very well. I will go it alone from here.
"I’ll find you later," I told my follower, unsure if I really could. He nodded, preoccupied with the puzzle of trying to explain things to David. I could only hope that he would remember my not-quite-promise later- but then again, perhaps it would be better if he did not. I was running short on time. We all were.
I can’t handle this.
Not looking back, I finally succumbed to the urgency I felt in the Force and broke into a loping run.
Hurry, hurry, hurry... I had lost any notion of conserving my energy and now ran as quickly as I could without damaging something. I used very long, loping strides with what felt like several seconds of air between each step, and I drew upon the Force that linked all things to urge more and more energy into my muscles.
Another twinge of disturbance rippled through the Force. Silently I cursed my armor and my robes; they were slowing me, but I knew that I needed them. The sweat that was emitted by my skin and either evaporated or was wicked away by padding was now not entirely produced out of anxiety; part of it was from exertion. I preferred sprints to marathons, all things taken under advisement.
But I’ve endured worse. I’m about to endure worse. If I can get there before something happens!
Fortunately there was little traffic here; everyone with sense - or without my crushing need to prevent something, anyway – had fled, either outside or simply to safer areas. It had been several long minutes since I had last seen anyone. If all went well, they would probably never hear about it.
I sensed other knots of conflict, other great potentially-apocalyptic forces, around and about me. But they were all either willing to postpone whatever damage they wanted to do or were in the process of being neutralized, either by each other or by forces that opposed them.
Apparently, I was one of those forces. The... being... I was after did have several others resisting it, but they were not doing well. More precisely, they were being killed, one after another. The distraction that they posed this... being... was all that kept it from doing something. I didn’t know what it was, but it promised to be terrible.
And unlike the terrible... being... I was after and several of the other great forces, apocalyptic or not, I was not some demigod descended from on high. I was stronger, faster, in various ways more capable than the average human, and I did have some modest psychic abilities, not to mention extensive training with the lightsaber, but I was only human, and all too easily killed.
The only thing that truly set me apart from other humans was my connection to the Force. Not the telekinesis and such that it gave me, but the warnings, the guidance, the insights it gave me into everything around me. But the Force would only do so much. It wasn’t as if it focused on me and only me, after all. Clumsiness or a lack of awareness could easily be fatal.
I can’t handle this. The half-panicked thought returned, and I suppressed it firmly. I didn’t need more distraction.
It’s getting warmer, isn’t it? It wasn’t my armor. I could see the air starting to ripple.
Something produces heat. A lot of heat. I believe that it is fairly safe to assume that it is my new enemy doing so.
The short, cheap carpet was singed in places. As I ran on, I saw more and more such singes, on the walls and ceiling as well, as if the building was slowly beginning to toast. Trash dropped by frenzied people had also suffered from the heat. I was forced to slow. I’m close. Very close.
The corridor I was moving down ended in a "T" juncture. This was it. I turned a left and found charring and evidence of soot on one of the walls, which radiated heat like that of a working starship engine or the wall of an intensely powerful oven. Here the ripples in the air intensified; in response I tongued a control set into my helmet, causing the cooling systems in my armor to start up with a barely-audible whirr. I needed them.
There was an opaque door set into that wall. It was very warm to the touch, even through my gloves. When I opened it the sensation was very much akin to dropping into a tank of uncomfortably hot water, cooling systems or no. The heat was a physical pressure on my skin, a distinct and indefinable taste in my mouth. I gathered my will and stepped in as if entering a kiln. My already-dark visor polarized to compensate for the sudden increase in light.
Ahh. A lava boss. That would explain the heat.
The ...being... was roughly humanoid, although it lacked a neck, and almost tall enough to brush the high, blackened ceiling, which released a slow rain of ash and charred flakes. This room had once held more of those booths and stalls, but many of them had been burned away. Oddly enough, I saw no visible flames.
The light fixtures overhead were inoperable, but plenty of light came off of the monstrous "lava boss". Painful, hot, ruddy light, yes, but light all the same. The heat also caused the air to ripple madly, and the floor was giving off a thick, oily smoke, but while wearing this mask I depended on the Force for sight anyway, so it made little difference.
The "lava boss" roared in a deep voice, a sound somehow reminiscent of erupting volcanoes and rocky landslides. On its glowing, relatively short legs it staggered to reach for a flying humanoid figure in yellow. The figure, wrapped in a long yellow coat and flying without any evidence of wings, thrust some kind of a nozzle at the "lava boss". White foam flew from the nozzle, hissing furiously. After a moment, I recognized it as a fire extinguisher, and the yellow coat as that of a firefighter who also wore the signature red helmet. The seething lavalike body of the "boss" darkened wherever foam touched it, forming a solid crust.
I could see several similar dark patches, but it looked like the still-hot lava around them was softening and heating them, breaking them up into smaller pieces. When the "lava boss" flexed, the crusts fissured, revealing its yellow-red molten interior.
‘Only YOU can prevent convention fires!’ I thought on a whim, and then felt slightly ashamed of myself for being frivolous.
The "lava boss" roared again as its hand was solidified by hissing foam. It swung wildly at the yellow firefighter, who was knocked aside but recovered, hovering in place again. He cried out something in ringing tones.
It wasn’t much of a surprise to see that the carpet underfoot had been reduced to a fine, powdery ash. Whatever was under it had also been burned, to the point that I had no idea what it was, yet the foundations holding the floor up seemed to be intact.
For the moment, anyway. There was no doubt in my mind that, soon or late, the foundation would break and the soil would start to burn. One way or another, the lava creature would eventually touch bedrock. Exactly what would happen then, I had no idea, but something – no, not something, the Force, and wasn’t that a strange thought – told me that it wouldn’t be pleasant. Not as disastrous as what some of the other great forces would do if allowed to run unchecked, but not good in the least. The world would not end, no. But, at the least, an active volcano would form and start erupting. Not something you expect in the middle of the Sunshine State, marring the City Beautiful.
I can’t handle this.
The flying firefighter paused to cough hackingly. It looked like he was starting to suffer from smoke inhalation.
Whether or not the "lava boss" knew this or not, it took advantage of the coughing fit to swing again. I winced in sympathy; the blow was solid and drove the flyer into one of the blackened walls. After a moment he tumbled out of the crater he had caused and caught himself in midair.
And he’s still flying. Without wings, repulsors, jets, or any other visible means. How is that?
Finally I noticed that there were people besides the "lava boss" and the wingless flyer in the room. Offering support perhaps? One spotted me and waded rapidly through the ankle-deep ash.
"You hafta get outta here, man! It’s dangerous!" I noticed then that the speaker was a girl wearing a filter-mask who seemed to have a nonhuman muzzle and short, singed fur. Past her the "lava boss" rumbled menacingly at the flying firefighter, adding a certain emphasis to the girl’s warning.
"I can see that," I told her, making the extra effort to radiate competence and non-menace. It would have been easier to simply remove my mask and use the appropriate facial expressions, but I didn’t dare. Not in conditions like these. I had no desire to be singed or inhale a lungful of this smoke - tainted air. "I’m here to help if I can. What’s the situation?"
"We’re real lucky dat Fireman showed up when he did. Otherwi-"
"You’re serious?" I asked, unable to help myself. "That’s his name? Fireman? Sorry, go on. Pretend I was silent."
I can’t handle this.
The girl gave me a scornful look but continued. "We already lost three. Dat thing... Ah dunno what it is, but none of us kin stop it. Slow it down, yeah. Fireman don’t burn, but he can’t really hurt it neither. We’re jest here to d’lay it until sommun wi’ oomph comes roun’ an’ stops it."
Behind my mask I frowned. "If.... Fireman... doesn’t burn, what are you lot doing here? Can’t he take care of stalling that thing on his own?"
Even before I had finished speaking, the girl shook her elongated head. "Nah. He gets kilt if we don’ help now ‘n agin." Above the strapped-on filter mask, her muzzle wrinkled, one hand making a flicking gesture that indicated something on her face. "Ah wish Ah coul’ talk proper wi’ this thing!"
Taking "this thing" to mean either the muzzle or the filter mask, I decided to ignore that last part. She would become accustomed to it, and then she would dislike me for bringing up the subject. "What works? I have a number of weapons, but I don’t know what good they’d do."
"What kind’a weapons?" She asked immediately.
Should have known she’d ask that... "Many. I have a number of... melee weapons-"swords, quarterstaffs, stun sticks, a few clubs, a Gammorrean axe... "- butI doubt any of them will do any good here. I have sonic, ion, and normal blasters – pistols, heavy, and repeaters. I also have lightsabers and grenades."
Ah. I looked through my inventory, scanning the images that flickered across my vision. I have too much stuff. Should have sold this a long time ago...
"Well, hackin’ bits offen that thing don’t do much good; dey jest fall’n burn. Ah dunno how ye kin ‘elp, but yer welcome t’ try." I had the impression that the girl doubted that I actually had any of this stuff on me, and I couldn’t blame her. While things could certainly be hidden under my ceremonial robes and armor, I didn’t look as if I was carting an armory about.
Wait. How am I carrying this, then? I *have* it, I know I do... After a moment I set the thought aside as not currently relevant.
I just can’t handle this.
Greeting duties done, the girl performed an about-face to stand in a tense semi-huddle with the others in the room, who also wore filter-masks. While we had been conversing, the flying figure... Fireman... had resumed the tactic of zipping around and using his fire extinguisher to cool the surface of the "lava boss".
This is what I was so worried about? I asked myself, half-amused. Yes, this thing could potentially cause a major catastrophe, but it doesn’t look like my presence or absence will change anything. This awkwardly-named Fireman may not be able to win directly, but he seems to have a certain indefatigability. He can stall that thing indefinitely.
As if to prove that I might in fact be wrong, the "lava boss" swung its arms wildly, sending droplets of runny melted rock flying. The droplets didn’t hit anyone, and didn’t appear to have been flung with a great deal of force, but that seemed to be accident rather than intent.
I guess I don’t have anything better to do, I thought, flicking through my inventory again. What would work best... ah, grenades. What kind of grenade? Not sonic or poison or ion or concussion, I’ll bet... fragmentation might be helpful, but the shrapnel would probably go into things other than my enemy. Adhesive? The package says I shouldn’t use it near open flame, and I don’t know how that would work here. Plasma is a no, and even though a thermal detonator would probably work, I won’t use it. Small and contained or not, nobody likes a thermonuclear explosion. That leaves...
Cryoban grenades. Of course.
One dropped into my open hand, smacking against my glove; automatically I caught it. It weighed maybe half a kilogram or... just over a pound, a solid weight. The grenade was inactive yet, somehow, in the incredible heat of this room it was just slightly cooler than it ought to be. I knew that I was imagining it. If the special pressurized gas in a Cryoban was leaking, I would be dead, not holding it and thinking about the temperature.
Use it now, or wait? I had more than one, but I didn’t want to waste them.
The figure that I now knew as Fireman cried out as the flailing "lava boss" knocked the fire extinguisher out of his hand, sending it spinning.
Now, I guess. Breaking into a light run, I came closer – not in a straight line, but by curving around the two as if spiraling in, kicking up ash with each step. Even so, the heat intensified unpleasantly, pressing through my armor against my skin and eyes and mouth as if it was a physical presence. The filters connecting to my mask kept me from eating the ash; for that, I was grateful.
I thumbed the grenade’s trigger, sensing the optimum place to stop as clearly as I saw the "lava boss". Approaching that point, I cocked my arm back and hurled the grenade with as much power as the Force could give my muscles, sending the solid weight in a straight-line trajectory that ended imbedded high in the "lava boss’s" back.
There was enough force in that impact for a small amount of liquid rock to plash out. I narrowed my eyes in satisfaction. I could have levitated the grenade instead of throwing it, but that would have been slower, more difficult, a less efficient use of my resources. Hopefully the grenade could stand the heat... the things had been designed to combat fires, but...
Just enough time passed for me to suspect that the heat had fried its circuitry before the grenade finally went off in a burst of light and sound. Even through my armor, I felt it as, for a moment, the heat was sucked away.
And then it was over, spent. Better than half of the "lava boss" was encased in a rough, bumpy frozen shell. Almost as soon as it had formed the ice started melting away, but the creature’s movements were sluggish; the rocky cooled crust impeded it, even though it was already warming and cracking. It batted at Fireman, but this time he dodged easily and was able to recover his weapon.
Palmed, primed, thrown; another Cryoban went off, this time at the creature’s feet. The feet and legs were rather slender when compared to the rotund bulk of the body of the "lava boss", and the grenade had more of an effect on them. Somehow the "lava boss" was able to walk on molten legs just fine, but when solidified they cracked under its weight.
I can’t handle this. It’s ridiculous.
The creature fell, sliding heavily to the charred floor. Seeing more glowing lava stretch and flow into new legs without noticeably diminishing the body it came from, I pursed my lips in annoyance. Evidently this was going to take longer than I had hoped.
It did. The colorfully-named Fireman and I ended up with a sort of rhythm. He distracted it by diving and swooping and occasionally blasting what passed for the creature’s face with his extinguisher, which never seemed to expend all of its foam. On the ground, I ran about and lobbed my grenades, which also never seemed to run out. The handful of others in the room didn’t contribute much; mostly, they fetched and carried vast quantities of water from a mysterious source, sometimes sloshing it across the scorched floor, sometimes managing to get it on the "lava boss". In either case it boiled and steamed immediately away.
Despite our best efforts, the creature did not seem particularly effected. Slowed, not stopped. We were tiring; it wasn’t.
I had no way of knowing how long it took before a man in a white coat resolved it all for us. He just wandered in and, in a clear, dazed voice, said, "I know the secret of the Universe."
Somehow that simple phrase, inane though it might be, drew the attention of everyone in the room. I turned towards the speaker, enraptured. I wasn’t the only one compelled to move closer.
For the first time, the "lava boss" spoke, its voice distorted but recognizable. "Hwhaaaaut hizzz iht?" That brought me slightly out of the compulsion. I’d had no idea that the "lava boss" was intelligent enough or at all inclined to speak. Or even capable of doing so at all. Maybe we’d been going about stopping it in the wrong way.
My attention was recaptured as the whitecoat leaned forwards, the ends of his frizzy dark hair starting to shrivel. He opened his mouth-
Huh? What? Why am I lying on the ground?
I was confounded to find that my eyes were closed. A flash of light with a peculiar accompanying high whine flicked through my dark visor to strike my eyelids. I opened them, hearing a slightly bored voice reciting words that, by the sound of them, had been repeated several times before.
"All right gentlemen, ladies. This has all been a huge misunderstanding. You remember putting on your costumes..." The voice continued, but I stopped listening.
I’ve got to get out of here. Quickly, using my other senses, I determined that there were two humanoids in the room who were up and mobile, staying close together. Radiant heat was still washing over me like hot water, but it didn’t seem as strong now. Can I get away? More importantly, can I get away without being seen?
Exactly why I wanted to get away unseen, even I didn’t know. But I had an instinctive feeling that lingering would be a very bad idea. And I hadn’t gotten as far as I had by ignoring instincts and bad feelings. In my line of work, they tended to keep my side alive longer.
Wait. What?! I don’t even have a job. That’s not right.
Ignoring the niggling confusion, I gathered my limbs under me. My cloak was draped over my body like a collapsed tent, which would help. Patience. Shrouded by my cloak, degree by degree, I turned... turned... my knees, armored as they were, touched gritty ground. I eased my arms down, armored palms holding my weight as I brought my legs from kneeling to something more like crouching. My muscles ached and complained in this unnatural position, far too close to the ground. I was far more concerned with being seen.
Don’t notice me. Don’t notice me. Don’t notice me. I’m nothing more than another heap of trash, less interesting by far than all of these oddballs sprawled on the ashy floor. Don’t notice me. Look away. I could feel the attention of the standing figures as it flicked, flicked, flicked here and there, over me and away and over me again.
My position change had apparently attracted no attention... good thing, too... but actually leaving the room on my own initiative couldn’t be disguised.
A plan came to mind, and I grinned under the mask. Why not?
Most of the others supine on the ashy floor were just too out of it. Still tranced, maybe by the universe guy, maybe by the flash of light. It would take too much effort on my part to make them react in a satisfactory way.
But there was the "lava boss", still spacy but starting to come around...
I poked him. Hard. Not with any part of my body – I was neither that close nor suicidal – but rather with a frivolous use of the Force.
The temperature rose by two or three degrees and a garbled moan escaped the creature’s throat, instantly riveting the attention of the standing pair.
Here’s my chance! Rather than stand and run, I scrambled on feet and hands away and to safety.
I can’t handle this.
"It’s okay. Calm down, alright?" I croaked at the hyperventilating orange-skinned girl wedged into the corner of the janitor closet. She nodded frantically, tears rolling down her cheeks. I would have tried harder to soothe her, but my throat was swollen into a raw mass. Breathing things not meant for human lungs does that. I knew that it would get better. Eventually.
When I had returned to the place where I had left him, the one who looked like Malak had been gone. I understood roughly why - perhaps this David had persuaded him away – but it was still irksome. Being alone without a purpose of some kind alway lead to pointless, aimless wandering, and generally a total waste of time, too. Like now! Trying to talk to hysterical idiots was not my idea of productive.
I can’t handle all this.
At the moment I could have used a bit of direction. My Force-given sense of purpose seemed to have deserted me completely after I left the scene of the lava boss - there were unpleasant things going on around me, yes, but nothing that called to me specifically. Other than the occasional faint go this way, I was on my own. I kept thinking that I was being watched. Silly, because not only where there people in all directions who might be staring at me – and even given the oddity of my mask, I wasn’t the most gawkeable creature in any given room, either, given the number of monstrous oddities and extraordinarily buxom women - why would someone just watch and not do something about me by now?
Of course, I might be going crazy. This is certainly the ideal day for it. I’m not running about like a headless fowl, but that doesn’t exactly indicate sanity. After all, I’m trying to talk to a hysteric, and I *know* that won’t work. She's obviously not going to do anything. At all.
The hysteric in question made an incoherent mewling sound, but didn’t seem inclined to violence, and I had the distinct impression that I wasn’t going to have the desired effect, so I rasped "Shhh. It’ll be fine." and turned away. The sense of where to go and what to do seemed to fade in and out annoyingly. It had led me in this direction, but-
Ah. Someone approaches. I felt this as a sort of jolt before my ears picked up the sound of rapid footsteps. Even so, it took a moment to find whomever it was through my visor.
This mask is getting annoying. Sometimes I can use it easily, at other times I’m waving my head about trying to see. It was almost enough to make me remove it here and now, but I resisted the impulse. The helmet would stay on until I found somewhere private to remove it.
There- the humanoid had stopped before me, rather close for my comfort. I locked my visor on a pair of blue, sharply-angled eyes. There was a moment of disorientation, and then-
Sudden shock, then looking up at someone else who had not been like that, the urge to fight, the urge to flee, flight won. Running away. Sense returning, trying to speak to the first calm-looking person, but being completely unable to. Mouth opens; voice comes, but only in wordless cries. Ran again, saw dark shape, came to it, not knowing why.
Huh. What’s the right response? I wondered as the sending faded, shaking the confusion from my head. Stalling for time, I examined the... man.
I panned my visor down the green tunic, noted a leather strap, tan leggings and brown leather boots, then panned back up to see a sword hilt, then the triangular face, the pleading large eyes, the elongated pointed ears pierced by blueish rings, and the long green cap. There was something familiar here- ah yes; this was that mute, androgynously pretty protagonist of the Legend of Zelda series. What was his name? Connect? No, that couldn’t be right - Link, that was it.
Hmm. I distinctly remembered holding an adolescent crush on the elf, or Hylian, whatever he was. There was a poster from "Ocarina of Time" still hanging in my dormroom, as a matter of fact. Several images of the infamously good cosplayer "Pikmin Link" were saved on my laptop, never mind that I'd known when saving the images that PL was crossdressing. Odd, that despite looking exactly the same this young man had no such effect on me.
No, it's not odd. I like a pretty face and form as much as anyone else, but training killed any carnal urges before they could develop. Thank the Living Force for that. The three things that motivate most beings to do the most hideous things are power, religion, and sex, after all. I have enough to worry about already without my mind being befuddled by a comely body.
Wha? ... I can’t handle this.
"Okay... okay, you’re fine," I got out. The words seemed to have no effect. Maybe he didn’t speak Basic. Or English. Or whatever.
I found myself wincing beneath my mask at the sore twinge in my throat. But at least I could speak, unlike him. As far as I could recall, outside of that terrible cartoon none of Link’s incarnations could talk, though they had always gotten their points across.
So. How can he communicate at all? With that thought, I found myself remembering that I too could send information without words. Would that work here?
Of course not. That’s ridiculous.
Ridiculous? How so? I may not be skilled in its use, but I have never doubted the existence of telepathy.
The stubborn, nagging thought had no response more advanced than its standard I can’t deal with this.
Well, nothing to do but try.
I focused on those angular blue eyes through the mask’s narrow visor and concentrated on the urge to calm, to stillness. The attempt made me realize that it was very warm under my robes, but I chose to ignore the observation. Why had this been so much easier when I hadn’t been thinking about it?
Ahhhh. Now I remember.
Link’s head snapped back slightly as he felt what I had told him. He blinked repeatedly and stumbled back, consciously taking deeper breaths. Good. What now?
Take him with me? Why would I do that? What would I do with a follower, anyway?
Another little anticipatory jolt shocked my nerve endings and made me turn to face in a specific direction. In the next instant, from that specific direction, came a roar that anyone who’s ever seen a monster movie would be familiar with. Godzilla’s inimitable cry has always been instantly recognizable.
It sounded close. Acting according to instinct, I ran towards it, mentally reviewing a map that I’d seen on a wall. It was the second-largest room in this section, probably possessing a skylight, and filled with little stalls. That map had indicated that there was a concentration of all things Godzilla in it, which made sense. There were plenty of people in varying degrees of panic clogging the hall, probably looking for the exits, but a dark figure charging forward with purpose made most of them fall back. I had to elbow a man in a trenchcoat aside, but he didn’t seem to notice.
I felt Link running in my wake. Well, he probably wouldn’t be of much use, but at least he wasn’t using that sword or any other weapons on passersby.
I shoved open the double doors rather melodramatically and slowed, belatedly cautious. What could I do about giant monsters with breath rays? After all, I remembered now with an odd, disjointed feeling, as a child I’d seen the movies- humans were never able to stop them. Even when equipped with tanks. Only other giant monsters, sometimes including giant robots and Spandexy heroes, can beat giant monster. I was not any of those. Still, it was rather late to back away without at least getting a look. I edged sideways around the "Who Would Win: Mothra Or Rodan" posterboard and there, framed in my visor, were Classic Godzilla and the more saurian "Zilla" from the badly-reviewed American-made movie, fanged maws half-opened.
Except that Classic Godzilla couldn’t have been more than six feet tall, and while "Zilla" was longer, it wasn’t any taller. And while there were some highly visible scorch marks on the white walls, the ambient Force energy didn’t quite suggest a rampage. Why hadn’t I tried focusing on the room before entering?
Now one of the giant lizards had swung its craggy head in my direction and was staring at me. The thought occurred to me that I certainly dressed the part of a villain, so I stepped hastily back besides Link, who gave me an annoyingly superior look that I could feel through the hood - wow, he had recovered fast - and guided me back out, closing the double doors again.
I took a deep, shuddering breath, suddenly hot and dizzy. Events were catching up to me, and questions were surfacing that should have come up earlier. How could I talk - at all - without opening my mouth? Why had I been running around like an action hero? I could remember, vaguely, explaining that to someone, but it was hazy. What the hell had I been doing running towards Godzilla? And what about all the weird people I’d just seen?
And how could I think of any of that except perhaps the weird people as particularly unusual? Why was my thinking starting to go in circles? What had happened?
Surely this isn’t normal. Kublai Con, even this year, was by no means the largest convention in the world, it had perhaps a third of the attendees of DragonCon and far, far fewer than ComicCon, but - maybe I should have started smaller. First con experiences are always supposed to be overwhelming, but this is a bit much.
The understatement almost made me laugh, except for the notion that if I started, I might never stop.
Consulting my mental map again, I took a right-angle turn in the direction of the room that Dana had rented earlier in the week. There was a hallway connecting the convention center to the hotel, but I had come in through the main entrance. That room would hopefully serve to let me some privacy.
I felt more than heard Link following, probably not having any more idea of what to do than I did, and paused long enough to turn and glare at him through the visor slit before wheeling and moving off. It was irresponsible of me, not getting any kind of help for the boy, but I wasn’t thinking very clearly. After that, events blurred for a while.
I walked for what felt like a long time, detouring frequently to try and shake any watchers, passing beings who were doing anything from being unconscious to playing cards. I passed a lot of people, from those who looked like enemies but weren’t to those who were angry at the world. I was only challenged once, but holding out a lightsaber, unignited, was enough to make the fool back down.
Room one sixteen. That was mine, I realized as I stopped before it, staring blankly at the numbers. Now, where was my card key... still in the pocket of my hakama, the wide "samurai pants". Well, something had gone right.
When I had shut the door, I let myself collapse onto the narrow mattress with my black cape puddling over like an ink spill. For a while I kept my eyes shut and just breathed, trying to keep some unnameable stew of emotions under control.
During that time, the phone shrilled loudly a total of five times. Although it was sharing space with a lamp on the pathetic square snub of a nightstand by the head of the bed, within easy reach, I did not bother to answer. I really wasn’t sure what I would have said.
After a time I shook off this lethargy to sit up. Faintly through the wall I could hear a deep male voice demanding something to do with the word "cortana", but I tuned it out. Lacking any real sense of what I wanted to do, I levered myself back to my feet and unsteadily came to the tiny cell of a bathroom.
There I closed my eyes and hesitantly removed my mask, reaching carefully within my hood back to ear level, finding the clasps, undoing them, then tugging the curved surface away from my face. The inside of it hugged the curves of my face closely, with only a minute space between it and my skin. The clasps weren't Velcro. No hot-glue overflow, either. One gloved hand set that mask on the counter besides the sink; the other pushed the hood back so that it fell to my shoulders. I savored the surplus light and air for a moment before opening my eyes and facing the mirror.
The face that met my eyes looked, at first blush, rather like the one I remembered, the one on my campus I.D., a blend of Filipino and Caucasian. But after a moment, I saw the differences - wider nose, grayish eyes instead of brown, a sharper, squarer chin and protruding cheekbones. It was... gaunter, harsher, older. More serious. Not to the point where it would get odd looks, let alone the kind of face that would scare children, but... I’ve never dared call myself beautiful, but I hadn’t hesitated to claim "sometimes pretty" or "sometimes cute." This face was neither. There was a certain elegance to it, but... this was a face that wouldn’t be smiled at easily.
And why would that matter to me? A pretty face doesn’t get taken seriously.
No, of course not. But... it was nice to have...
There were myriad tiny differences that told me that this was not my own face; it was only the same in general configuration and skin tone. Subtle changes, but they had an effect. If someone had shown me this face and claimed that it belonged to a cousin, I would have believed them. In low light no one would notice... maybe.
There was a high, stiff collar of some sort - a gorget. Protects my throat - around my neck; it had attached somehow to my mask. In back, it was connected to a sort of half-helmet that protected everything that the mask hadn't. It was that which the mask had been clasped to.
I remembered making that mask. It had stayed on because of Velcro and synthetic straps which had wrapped around the back of my head, with two from each ear and one from the top. They intersected in a way that looked like an upside-down capital T.
That doesn't work well, though. Helmets are more practical; a mask by itself has no life support for when the unthinkable happens.
I remember writing about that... Mandalorian-inspired. Yeah. Ten minutes of breathable atmosphere, an air filter, a system to heat or cool the air. But I didn't make it. I'm not that good.
I did not touch the back half of the helmet. At the sides, my hair was just barely visible. It was hard to tell, but it had to be longer. Maybe much longer; when I thought about it, I could feel a tightness in my scalp. Presumably there was more hair, pulled back and kept close to my skull.
I then bared my teeth and ran my tongue over them. They were still yellowish and very straight, and I could feel the three incisors of my lower jaw. But my four upper incisors had shortened slightly, and a flaring of my canines somehow made my mouth feel alien despite looking much as it always has.
Despite a feeling that I wouldn’t like what I was finding, I focused in on my lower lip. There was still a miniscule white scar from my childhood, but there was also a slight, notchlike depression where the skin seemed paler- an old burn? It was barely visible even this close, yet I stared as if they were feathers sprouting out of my skin. I haven’t been burned... I would have remembered getting burned there.
It’s an old wound, of course. Healed well, but there’s a bit of scar tissue left. I could have had that removed with a few hundred credits and some kolto therapy, but why? It's inconspicuous, doesn't impede me, and helps to remind me of what happens when I assume an opponent is dead.
Reaching up to touch it I saw an armored black glove in the mirror. I tried to tear both off, and ended up feeling for catches around my wrists to peel the things away, then shucking Revan’s extended armbands so I could roll up the pleated, thick sleeves.
I'd imagined Revan’s outfit to be this complicated. I'd spent a long, long time thinking about it. But I hadn't been able to reproduce it with anywhere near this level of detail. That’s what finally hit the reality home to me.
Well, that and the ugly, long lightsaber score that ran from just above the elbow to just below my wrist, fresh enough that it was red, not entirely healed. The memory of exactly how I’d gotten it hovered at the very edge of consciousness, but I pushed it and all it entailed away, suddenly desperate.
The next thing I knew I was kneeling crumpled on the linoleum with a sharp pain like chopsticks driving into my temples and a thousand thoughts racing through my head. I've got friends who came here yesterday or before that - what happened to them? Mom and Dad are going to kill me, and Kris already thinks I'm a freak. Eh. My little brother will just have to handle it. Oh God, what happened back there! I couldn't really have ... Wow, the floor is a lot cleaner than the rate suggested, I guess those renovations a few years back really made a difference. God. Why? Why now? Why me, why did I decide to go this year? My nails are still trimmed to the quick, but oh, my hands! I have calluses. There's no ink on them. Ohhh, Midtral is not going to be happy with me. Don't they have policies against tattoos and piercings? This is a lot bigger than that. It's a private college, too, and I'm not the one paying. I'm dead. So dead. This is completely impossible.
On the heels of that flood of thoughts, as the pain peaked and made all other thoughts moot, came one more, a thought that had crossed my mind several times before, but never with such ardor.
I can’t handle this.
And so... I didn’t. I fell into a sort of blank stupor. But the rest of me had no intention of doing that.
I didn’t notice that one of my hands had reached back up until it snapped Revan’s helmlike mask over my face as the other hand whipped the strap in place and flicked the catches down with practiced, casual familiarity.
As I dismissed the headache I stood again, wound my sleeves back around my forearms and replaced my armbands and gloves with their gleaming metal plates. Drawing my hood back up, I flicked my gaze across my reflection and started to pace. Despite the visor’s limits, I stepped lightly over the lintel and back into the tiny room reserved earlier. I could sense other presences through the thin walls - wood, plaster, insulation, paint - but they were not a threat. I could ignore them, for the moment.
Drawing a long breath in through my nose, I held it for several seconds before exhaling. The situation was complicated, clearly. I was not where I should be, although I could not quite place where that was. Not home; that much was clear. Neither Jedi nor Sith can afford to have a static home, not in such turbulent times. No, I should be doing - something. But what? One way or another, Daritha Malak no longer heads the Sith, and the Star Forge has been destroyed. My departure left a power void, true, that was filled. But Sith are always infighting; perhaps she will be deposed. There is still time. Admiral Dodonna survived and is competent enough for now, and I can't do much right now. Maybe not for years, not openly, anyway.
I had to go somewhere... do something. It was urgent- something only I could do. I did not know where, or what, or when, but it would be good to do it. Once and for all. It wasn’t here, it wasn’t now, it was very, very distant. I wasn’t called to go do something this instant. But it still needed doing.
First things first. Why was I here, and where was here? I have no idea what this planet is called, if it might actually be a large station instead, what star it orbits, which sector it's in... The air, clearly, was human-friendly, and although I spent several minutes tasting it I found no odors to help me identify anything. It was neutral, not thick or thin enough to make breathing more difficult, with a fairly average amount of oxygen. Gravity, as far as I could tell, was pretty close to Coruscant-standard.
And this is obviously a gathering of some sort. Very disorganized, too. I ... don't suppose I volunteered to help out?
I might have accepted that theory, but as comforting as it was, I knew it wasn’t true. I would remember something like that. And even the worst spaceport on Nar Shadda the night before a planetwide festival was as chaotic as what I had seen. Not unless you threw in a bunch of bounty hunters and perhaps some Hutt's escaped 'pets', anyway.
How did I get here? On one hand- blank. On the other- had I paid for tickets or something? Yes... I remembered coming in...
That memory seemed slow. Just for something to do, I checked my inventory. Four lightsabers that I had built and modified for my own use(One double-bladed green, one single red, two purple), three more looted off of opponents, an assortment of lightsaber crystals and the tools used on them, various vibroblades, an array of blasters, a quarterstaff, two stun batons, a huge number of scrounged grenades, all too many mines, two sonic emitters, a pressure suit made for deep sea and deep space, some powered Mandalorian armor, some light battle armor, Darth Bandon’s fiber armor, a Zabrak combat suit, some Republic Mod. Armor, a set of shiny black-and-silver Sith armor, four sets of Sand People robes, a number of sets of practical Jedi and Sith fighting robes, the Circlet of Saresh, Marko Ragnos’s Mask, various less identifiable headgear, a regenerative implant, Sith Power Gauntlets, about nine belts with varied properties, a number of energy shields, thirty security spikes, twenty-nine computer spikes, thirty-one sets of repair parts, a whole case of adrenal stimulants, medpacks, two tach glands, a datapad of Manaan tourist attractions....
At around the point where I pulled out the body of a whole viper kinrath that weighed as much as I did, I realized that I had been carrying hundreds of kilos of equipment and oddments, but hadn’t felt a gram of it. Nor was I carrying a bag of any sort. I just reached instinctively in no particular direction and found it. It was just... there. I looked at the mound of items covering the bed and spilling onto the floor, knew that I was carrying much more with me, and was suddenly bewildered.
All this time I had carried at least a ton and never thought about it?
How in the Force is that possible? I could make myself temporarily stronger, faster, more sensitive. But carrying equipment as if... as if... I don't know, as if I've got an invisible room at my fingertips... This makes no sense.
Cautiously, I moved the dead kinrath, swinging it out of my field of view by two of its hard-enameled legs. Nothing. The body swung back in front of me, dripping ichor as if I'd only just killed it. I tried this several times to no avail, becoming quite frustrated.
After a time, when I was deciding that this wasn't worth it, I quit. With a grimace of distaste I put the thing back in my Inventory -
How did I do that? I hadn't been thinking about it at all. Was that it? Sometimes, with the Force - but this was not the Force. Not quite.
Carefully, I reached behind myself and picked up a belt. Okay. How did I do that last time?
It took a fairly long time before I was confident in my ability to move items in and out of my Inventory, at which point I packed away all of the things that I had absentmindedly removed. I still had no idea where it all went, but the fact that I didn't understand how it worked had never stopped me from using anything before. Why start now?
I'm still wearing my war robes. Why am I doing that? I'm not Sith anymore. Why am I wearing them at all? They give away who I am. I can't afford that. Beneath my warmask I pursed my lips - my war robes, as signature as they are, still serve to remind me of my past. Of why I did what I did. When my mind was wiped, I lost everything. It's starting to come back now, but there's still a long period, the most essential period, that stays blank.
Then again, I can just bring them out and wear them later. Better than being recognized. I shrugged and stripped off my war robes, opting for a very neutral set of Jedi robes. Conveniently, I had quite a few just folded up in my Inventory. Perfect for roving aimlessly.
Now, perhaps, I'll find someone who can tell me just what is happening here. If not, I can certainly amuse myself.
- Narrative shift! Is it possible to write from the POV of a giant without actually describing the narrator as "big"? Apparently so.
- Another narrator shift, another sidestory.
There’s something here, something I need to do. Leaving the little room and the puzzled David, I looked one way, then another. The helmet was off, as were the long Sithlike robes, so I was unimpeded. Even so, I wasn’t sure… where… which way… there was just so much here, so much that I could do, it made it hard to focus on just where…
Someone was always attempting to rob or injure or enslave or rape or kill someone else. Always. Experience, not cynicism, told me that. No matter the circumstances, there was no shortage of things I could interrupt or prevent outright. It would be too easy to spread myself thin. But there were others about trying to do the same, and there were some things only I could do in time.
There! A thread of need that felt right to me. Numerous individuals, seeming either shell-shocked or in slow motion, looked up when they saw me approach at my very fastest run, faces and bodies blurring to me. Guided by the Living Force, I pathfound even as I ran, threading between individuals, the hair and clothing of the closest ones whipping against my body with a numbness followed by stinging pain.
Running like this attracted more attention than I would prefer, and the pace was exhausting, even while tapping the ambient Force energy to refresh myself. There just didn’t seem to be a choice. This wasn’t as strong of a call as the lava boss’s beckon, where so many lives could be at stake. But if I missed this, I would be responsible for the result. So much had been laid at my feet already. So many things I could have done.
And so I ran.
There- there! Maybe it was the clothing, but I’d moved faster than I’d thought, and was forced to make a right-angle turn at high speed, skidding for a moment and nearly bowling over someone in hooded brown robes who managed to sidestep just in time. If not for the Force fortifying my body, I might have snapped a bone, torn some ligaments, or dislocated something, but as it was, I registered pain and damage to my legs, but ran on, regaining most of my speed within a few paces. Very close now, a hundred meters or so. It looked like I might be early, for once.
<Continue at this pace, and you will hurt yourself.> “Hearing” that “voice” resounding in my skull, I stumbled, damaged legs sending me very quickly towards the carpet.
I didn’t impact, though. Two hands inserted themselves between the floor and my body. The robed someone had given chase and somehow matched my speed closely enough that the catch had been too gentle to bruise. The Force swirled around him and through him, making my own blood quicken in response. Force-Sensitive, at least as strong as me. Possibly stronger. Judging from the lack of Dark Side energy, I would have tagged him as a Jedi, and the odd relief at finding another Jedi surprised me.
If I’d had the breath, I would have said something, maybe a thanks, maybe a complaint about surprising me and causing that stumble. But my lungs were fully occupied heaving in and out, in and out, trying to pay the oxygen debt in my muscles. Inertia was exerting its hold on me.
The stranger steadied me, bringing me back upright before releasing me.
“What is so urgent?” He asked, voice soft and cultured and exactly like his mindvoice, a sign of high skill.
I still hadn’t recovered my breath, so I sent a silent statement of my own. It wasn’t as articulate as his had been, and there really weren’t any words in it, but it got the point across that I was on my way to get something done. And I would like to get back to it.
“I see.” There was the briefest of pauses, and then, “Well, go on. Do what you must.” No offer of help, naturally. I expected nothing else from another Jedi; I was competent, and if I’d felt that I needed help, I would have asked.
There was a crowd of near-humans peering cautiously into a side room who scattered rapidly, making little sounds of protest as I forced my way between them.
Inside, five men in white armor stood in attitudes of discomfort and alarm as a human woman stamped her foot in a childlike display of temper.
She was… striking. Quite, quite striking. Humanoid, just under two meters tall, her arms, from the narrow fingertips to the flaring, pointed pauldrons were armored with a reflective, ornamented metal that I couldn’t identify. Heeled boots made of the same material encased her feet, stretching halfway up her sculpted thighs. Her hair was some impossible hue glinting iridescently between violent purple and lustrous silver; it cascaded and rippled with motion, caught in a breeze that was evident nowhere else in the room. Framed by the metal over her arms, two petite triangles of reflective metal tried in vain to restrain heaving, spherical bosoms. Beneath her shapely navel was a small, skimpy lower body garment, made of some kind of animal skin so thin and supple that little was left to the imagination. Other than those, a sort of visorlike metal piece crowning her head, and an enormous, gaudy pendant around her neck, her pale, faintly sun-seared skin was bare.
“Ah… ahhh- Clones!” The voice was male, and followed by a rapid patter of retreating footsteps. Tearing my eyes away, I swiveled to see the brown-robed Jedi pushing his way out past the watchers in the doorway. Evidently he had followed me after all.
And now he was gone. Mentally I shook my head. Help me or stay out of my way. I’ve no use for people who take one look at a situation and then flee. But what was that about clones, anyway?
Well, at least he’d broken me out of that reverie. Now that I wasn’t focused on the girl’s physical appeal, I could sense the Force, or something like it, skirling and spinning around her, reaching out and withdrawing in a chaotic, tangled mess that tastefelt foreign to me. No Jedi or Sith or even untaught Sensitive was this one – I doubted she was even aware of it. The energy surrounding her seemed to be nothing more than an attractant, catching hold of onlookers - Look at me, it commanded. Aren’t I beautiful? Look at me.
And here I had just strode in and gotten myself caught up in it, just like that crowd of fools outside, unable or unwilling to look away. My Masters would be ashamed of me. I’m supposed to be better than that.
The woman – a few years away from what I considered true adulthood, even though she seemed to have developed early and quite spectacularly - recaptured my attention, though in a more mundane fashion this time, by stamping her foot again and demanding, “Yes, you were staring, you sons of bitches! Don’t you know who I am!”
She was not addressing me, but rather the white-armored individuals that I had mostly overlooked. As whatever had compelled me to run like this to get here didn’t appear to have completely flared up yet, I took a moment to examine them.
There were, as I had seen before, five of them, all extraordinarily close in height and bulk. Four of them wore identical armor, the fifth some mild variation on it. He – I sensed that all of them were male – seemed to be bearing the brunt of the dramatic woman’s wrath, for he was the one with his hands up, making an unsuccessful bid to placate her.
“Look, ma’am, I’m sorry, but-“
“Don’t you know who you’re messing with!” she half-screeched, cutting him off with a confused diatribe that seemed to describe either her parentage or her rank. Apparently she believed that she was either the daughter of an admiral and a general or she had been made “the strongest Majikal Girl in Living Memory”, possibly both. It looked like all five of her victims would have been only too happy to slink away. Each of them held some kind of ranged weapon as if seeking reassurance. Fortunately, they seemed reluctant to actually fire these weapons – if they hadn’t been, the idiot spectators would probably have been hit.
I noticed then that energy was starting to collect around her hands. It didn’t quite tastefeel like any of the variants of Force-based techniques that I’d ever encountered, but it was fairly easy to sense its destructive potential.
Time now to step in, I decided, and trusted the Living Force to guide my actions. Making use of my ability to move quietly, I approached to within five meters. The armored ones seemed to notice, but my target did not.
Clearing my throat produced a very amusing reaction; the girl literally jumped maybe twenty centimeters straight up and whirled to face me, as tense and angry as if I had struck her across the face. The face itself, although it seemed to express a rather disagreeable sentiment, was as attractively shaped as the body, but I now knew to ignore that look-at-me compulsion.
“Forgive a stranger, but don’t you think you’re overreacting?” I kept my inquiry smooth and pleasant, slightly deferential even, feeding into her subconscious expectation of how she should be addressed, and putting out my best “harmlessness” effect. It seemed to work as intended. The girl blinked, her hands lowering from their defensive position as she sorted out some internal dilemma. Some of the chaotic energy writhing around her died down, but by no means was it gone.
“These men have offered insult to my honor,” she said rather stiffly. “It- they… They were staring at me!” That last statement burst accusingly from her lips
“To be honest, fair one, you are easy to stare at,” I advised, voice dry. To my surprise, she laughed, appearing to relax a little. The smile transformed her face, making her look a good deal more likeable. I also noticed that her impossible hair’s movement seemed to have slowed.
“Truth. It’s not easy to forget what just happened, but…” Trailing off, she looked at her hands, encased fully in jointed metal. Then her elegantly-sculpted brow furrowed, and I sensed a quickening in her energy.
“Wait. You said ‘fair one’?”
Fantastic. No matter what I say now, she won’t take it well. Clearly, she’s unstable. Manic to reasonable to manic again… Still, I had to try to placate the girl.
“Of course. I do not know your name.” Sadly, my abilities in the Force do not include that kind of mind-reading. To get even something as clear as a name, I need to physically touch someone, and even then it’s more effort than just asking.
Now her personal energy was knotting and writhing again, as rapid and unpredictable as the tentacle-arms of a vaapad. She seemed to possess a momentary inability to speak.
“H-how dare you! You just... waltz in here, acting like you know me, ordering me around, and you had the gall to not know my name.” With every syllable, her voice rose in pitch and volume. The beginnings of a headache started to materialize behind my eyes.
Internally, I sighed. I like people, I really do. Can’t live without them, literally. But sometimes…
Uh oh. Perhaps, instead of being silently pained, I should have stroked her ego. The unstable girl’s eyes seemed to have rolled back in her head. The whites… glowed, softly, and her impossible hair whipped.
Whoops. Energy built again around her hands, and I felt her presence shifting in the Force, obviously a precursor to attack.
“You may regret this,” I warned, allowing one hand to grip the hilt of my lightsaber.
“I don’t care! I’ve already gone all day without-“ Not bothering to finish her sentence, the girl lunged at my face, her expression twisted into an unpleasant mask. Bipolar, perhaps? Or it could be chemically induced, perhaps. I wondered, leaning back so that her hand, fingers curved into claws, missed my face, what the problem was. Hormones or outside influence? For that matter, she might just be a spoiled brat.
Swiff. Another swipe caught at the fine, wispy hairs around my face, the ones too short to tie back. And another, close enough that the malevolent energy around her hands made my skin sting as if it had been scratched.
The girl didn’t appear to be calming down, or off-balance from her failed strikes. As I performed the minimum movements necessary to avoid being hit, I considered my next course of action.
The white-armored men who’d been the previous targets of the girl’s ire did not seem to have left yet, unfortunately, despite the "look at me" command having shut off. I didn’t quite dare physically look, which would mean taking an eye off of the wannabe psycho currently attempting to assault me, but I could feel them in the Force, too close to have snuck away.
They had very odd Force-signatures, but today that was hardly unusual. Most if not all of the beings I had encountered here were similar, in that their presence in the Force, or signature, was conflicted, strange. Normally, the signatures told me where they were, a bit about their physical and emotional states, and something about their natures. Here, the signatures they radiated were filled with confusing impressions.
The crazy girl before me was a standard example. Beneath the swirl of anger and confusion, she simultaneously felt the age she looked and several years older. Very peculiar. In the past I had encountered females who felt like males and vice versa, as well as some who felt older or younger than they really were, but never quite this ... duality.
So, what now? Turning my head to the side, I felt a thin tendril of energy lash my cheek, stinging. Her aim is improving. I may be able to block pain, but my legs are still worse for wear because of that high-speed corner back there. I can’t do this for much longer. They might collapse. If I ran, I would be leaving this situation to play out on its own. She was a complete stranger to me, so in order to pacify her mind I would actually have to physically touch her for a certain length of time, and that looked like a risky prospect just now. If I fought, I knew that I would win. But there was always the danger of collateral damage, and if I used my favorite weapon… The girl was unarmed; if I used a lightsaber she would lose something.
I wasn’t a Sith anymore. Trimming bits off of people was no longer one of my hobbies. Well, there was one thing I could do… I believed myself to be only average at unarmed combat, but the opportunity was readily available. It would hurt, but that would give me the chance to collect the white-armored bystanders and remove them from the scene.
As the girl swung at me again, conveniently taking a step and rotating her pelvis into position, I brought my knee up into that most sensitive region, and hit it squarely. Hard. Nowhere near hard enough to fracture the pubic bone – that is a terrible way to die – but more than hard enough to hurt.
As I had seen earlier, the only thing covering that region was a garment of thin animal hide, tight enough that if she had worn some form of armor there I would have seen it; although she was certainly furious, she wasn’t quite mad enough to just shrug a shot off. She should have doubled over in pain, or had some similarly appropriate reaction.
Unfortunately, the girl wasn’t following my plan.
“Hah! Idiot,” she declared, coming down out of her pique for a moment. “I think you will find that I have no testicles!” She wasn’t even hiding any pain, I could see through the Force. It was as if my counterattack had had no effect whatsoever.
“But- You…” It was my turn to be left without words. I’d been on the receiving end of a few of those groin attacks, and I knew what it felt like. “That had to hurt! There are enough nerve endings there-“
“Hmph! First you don’t know my name, next you don’t know that I’m female! Idiot!” She was heating up once more. How many mood swings will this girl go through?!
Oh, finally you move... One of the white-armored men had taken advantage of the insane girl's distraction to smack her in the back of the head with what looked very much like a blaster rifle, instantly transforming her expression from furious to utterly blank.
From what I had seen, it didn't look like a particularly hard blow. The man obviously had no more desire than I did to go about randomly breaking people, even if they were idiots. It looked like the kind of impact that would stun and hurt quite a bit, allowing me to move in and use a Force technique, but she hadn't shown any signs of following my wishes before.
And indeed, she continued that trend.
The girl toppled, falling first to her knees, then flat on her face, one arm stretched out dramatically.
Sensing that this wasn't some kind of clever trap, I knelt to find her pulse and see if she was breathing, but I found nothing that the Force had not told me. Apparently, a rap on the head was enough to make her fall soundly asleep, so soundly that it would take an earthquake or a long span of hours to wake her. Further proof, if I needed any, that her anatomy was not as human her appearance suggested.
"Thank you. I was... somewhat distracted," I said conversationally, hoping that they wouldn't decide to feel antagonized. The day was finally starting to catch up to me, and my legs ached.
"You gave me the chance," the man replied. His pleasantly-accented voice was as polite as mine, filtered though it was through a speaker in his helmet. Neither of us spoke for a long, uncertain moment.
Observation is one of a Jedi's most important skills, I reminded myself, tapping into the Force to ease fatigue. Standing a touch straighter, I looked the men over.
Gaps between pieces of the white armor they wore revealed some kind of black undersuit, which included gloves. All five of the men had blocky, solid helmets with short sagittal crests. The helmets also sported opaque black visors, each shaped like the inverted letter vev with a thick bar across the top. They looked faintly Mandalorian, and also vaguely like the faceplate of my war mask. Coincidence, surely.
I had seen them before, or soldiers wearing something very similar, hadn't I? Yes... My memory seemed a bit confused about it, but when I had been in my war armor and accompanied by the one who looked like Malak, I had seen and spoken to a larger group of these people, a group with far more variation in armor styles.
The only physical variation here was in the armor of the one who had spoken, I saw. The armor structure was the same, but parts of it, particularly on the arms and hands and on that crest, were colored a dull red. A sign of rank?
More interesting was what the five of them felt like in the Force. Each of them had no fewer than three age-impressions - a competent young adult, an eager child, and, beneath the other two, a comparatively diminished third age, which varied between the five, and in one or two was minimal enough that it would probably be gone within a day.
The one with the red trim's deepest impression felt like the youngest of them all, younger even than the second layer's eager child, but the dominant, oldest layer was somehow... not older, quite, but... more mature. There was responsibility there, compounded with the dedication I sensed from the other four. Very odd. They all shared a kind of likeness that I could tastefeel in the Force. Almost like brothers, but... different.
One of the plain-armored ones twitched his head a bit, as if he'd seen something. I sensed what I took to be comm transmissions, little bursts of inaudible sound.
The leader's posture shifted from uncertainty to something slightly more forward. The speaker in his helmet popped softly as he shifted from communing with his fellows to speaking to me.
"Ma'am, I might be wrong, but is that a lightsaber at your belt?" He sounded like he was trying to conceal hopefulness.
Should I lie? No, not this time. "It is," I allowed guardedly. "Why?"
"It's just... well… if you have a lightsaber, that probably means that you are a Jedi,” he said, almost shy.
“And what if I am?” Guarded, guarded, stay guarded…
“We need a leader, ma’am. We need directions.” It seemed that he was gaining in confidence as he spoke. I wasn’t sure I liked where this was going.
“So why not you? I don’t understand.” A safe enough thing to say when it’s true. “Why would you need a Jedi to lead you?”
As best I could tell, the man took encouragement from my questions. “I don’t suppose you know what we are? No recognition at all? Ma’am, we’re soldiers made for the Grand Army of the Republic. Since a few months after decanting, conditioning encourages us look to Jedi automatically whenever something crazy happens.” He moved his arm in a brief, all encompassing gesture. “I think this qualifies, personally. I’m an Advanced Recon Commando; that means I’m used to a certain amount of independence. But most of us are just troopers. There’s only so much that I can do.” Ohhh, there's a stew of emotion in him. Pride, hope, self-acceptance… Then again-
Made? Decanting? Conditioning? He knows about Jedi; does that mean that my Republic does this? I don’t think they would, not after the wars… And I’ve only been away for a few years, I would have heard something… “And so you ask the first woman with a lightsaber that you see if she will lead you.” My voice was a bit dryer than I’d wanted to sound.
For the first time, one of the other soldiers spoke up. “Actually, ma’am, we’ve seen a few others.” His voice was eerily similar to the first man’s. More than similar – identical, differing only in assertiveness. This one was more diffident. “I was part of Group One, and two different Jedi in red and black armor approached us and ordered pretty much the same thing." Red and black armor... me? Who else? "Since then, though… well…”
“They run from us,” their leader said. The tone of his voice suggested disgust, but I could sense hurt beneath us. “They run.” No doubt about it. That’s the same voice, and they tastefeel so similar in the Force, and there was what that brown-robed Jedi shouted before he fled… Has my Republic become so desperate that they need to grow clones to bolster the army? What has happened since I was gone?
“If they are your leaders, why would they run from you?” I drained all accusation from my voice. No sense in provoking them… I could probably take them all, but there is wisdom in subtlety.
Perfect sincerity in his voice, the leader said, “I don’t know! It doesn’t make any sense!”
Interesting. The leader spoke the truth as he knew it, but one or two of the others winced beneath their helmets. They obviously knew something, and just as obviously did not want to share it.
Well, I could handle that later. If I accepted this request. It had been a long time since I last led soldiers…
And it will be a long time before I do so again. What if I backslide and become a servant of the Dark Side again? ‘Hero, villain, savior, conqueror… all these things and nothing.’ That’s my fate, after all. I don’t want to take anyone with me. Not again. They might be able to stabilize me, but they might pull me down, too, if a situation becomes desperate.
“I don’t have any better idea than you do about what’s going on, where this is, who the enemy is,” I warned, remembering too late that soldiers don’t like their leaders to be too uncertain. I’m not sure what I want here.
“That’s fine, Ma’am.” From the way the leader’s pronunciation of 'ma'am' had changed, I could tell that group dynamics were already shifting. “You’re a Jedi. You’ll find out.” Because that’s what Jedi do, I filled in silently, keeping my face as blank as I could manage.
Another of the soldiers said, “Incidentally, we do know a name. It’s not much in the way of intelligence – just one word. Zahnnadue. Could be this place, this event, the mission’s codename, a person or a facility…”
“Yeah. Still, that’s more than we had before.” Now I was shifting the way I spoke and thought to make way for a little group. I shook my head. “Look, I can’t lead you. Not now.”
I cut off their protests before they were more than alarmed stirrings in the ambient Force, saying the first things that came to mind. “I can’t. You can find me if you need me later, but now I have to go it alone. This is a one-man operation. If you want me – “ I thought back a moment – “I think I’m in one of the sleeping chambers in that section of this place that rents them out. It’s…” The door to that chamber. In my memory, it had no numbers that I could recognize. “It’s marked by two vertical lines, each like the letter Isk, followed by a pair of circles, one over the other, like an infinity symbol turned sideways.”
As I finished speaking I winced. That was tantamount to agreeing to lead them, when I wasn’t even sure that it would be a good idea. Ah well. Can’t unsay what’s been said.
“Wait… that set of symbols…” one of the soldiers blurted after a moment, “That’s… one one eight, I think. One hundred eighteen. You’re in room 118.” And now they will be able to find me, if I go back there. I drew in a deep, resigned breath. What’s done is done. “Fine. Please, don’t call me ‘ma’am’. I feel like I’m being mocked. My name is – “Wait, wait. If they are of my Republic, they will know my name. And aren’t standing orders in place to kill or incapacitate me?
Dark Side take it. In for a landspeeder, in for a capital ship. “My name is Revan.” It was difficult to admit; my name stuck for a moment in my throat. For so long, I hadn’t known it, and for even longer after that I couldn’t bear to use it.
No signs of real recognition from the men. What an anticlimax! I suspected that they might have heard the name somewhere, but it obviously didn’t have the same connotations attached to it that I had.
It was deeply unsettling. Were they even from the same Republic? “I have to go,” I told them, turning to do so. The insane girl was still asleep, and without her influence the crowd outside had dissipated. “There’s ... something I have to do.” Indeed there was, a faint and sickly sense of wrongness that I might be able to right.
“Very well, General Revan. We will gather the others and contact you later. I am Ja- ARC N-98, or Nate. Until we meet again.” Wha- General? How many others? And what name were you about to give?
Forget that. I don’t want to waste any more time. “Until we meet again, may the Force be with you.”
And I was gone.
Hmm… I think it’s stronger over here…
The tastefeeling of wrongness hung in the Force like a mist, subtly deluding my senses. Unlike some of the previous events, I didn’t feel called to do anything or go anywhere in particular – it was just that in some directions I sensed more wrongness than in others. It didn’t feel quite like the Dark Side. Still, there was almost an aura of menace, and I was determined to track it down.
I physically sensed it as a whiff of decay, a haze in my eyes, and a sort of sibilant whisper, mostly incomprehensible but occasionally seeming to say ‘hahnass despicable’. In the Force, it just felt… diseased.
If I quit now, someone else will take care of it. This isn’t that big of a deal. Still…
It registered at last that I was in a completely deserted hallway in a place I hadn’t seen before. The lights - electric banks of tubing covered by square panels - were flickering strangely. The hall itself was now shadowed enough that it the walls seemed to have been smeared with nameless substances. My eyes tried to trick me into seeing shadows move and faces appear within them, but the Force showed me that I was unwatched.
I could not feel any lifeforms close by, but that didn't mean much. As if to underscore that thought, there was a scrabbling from the far end of the hall. The metal handle on one of the closed double doors half-turned several times, then completed its rotation with a click and cracked open.
A human girl squeezed through the opening and looked around frantically, wide eyed with fear. I noticed the oddly clouded look to those eyes, her paleness, the stickiness matting her hair and clothing, and the deep slash across her throat before she saw me and screamed hoarsely. When she did so, the gaping wound suddenly dribbled with blood and, horrified, I stared as if transfixed. By the Dark Side, how was she not dead, with a wound like that?
Force-given senses revealed that she was not really alive – part of the Force, yes, but no more so than a mossy boulder or a droid, devoid of the reassuringly complex interaction of energies found in the average living being. I shuddered convulsively. Ugh.
The girl ran past me as I automatically moved aside in revulsion, and her rapid footsteps echoed unsettlingly in the hallway. I had a sudden sensation of ill will, and felt a strong desire to copy the girl and simply leave the area.
What kind of Jedi does that? If something gives me a bad feeling, it’s probably not safe to ignore. Annoyed with myself, I strode to the doors she had slipped through. Taking a deep breath - blood, rot, offal, all those offensive scents of old death - and peered around the opened one.
A very dead human man stood a mere two meters before me, slack-jawed, with twitching maggots dribbling from every hole in his slimy flesh. He appeared to have been buried somewhere very moist and later dug up again – a practice I really don’t like. There is a reason why Jedi, and Sith for that matter, cremate our dead, and it isn’t just the symbolism of spreading our constituent molecules far and wide.
Remains everywhere, all apparently humans in various states of decay from freshly dead to skeletal, and everywhere in between. Some looked as if a noxious fungus had taken root in their flesh, and others had puffed up and begun oozing. The walls themselves were spattered.
…Why are they all standing?
The one closest to me moved.
That set off the others, I think. While my eyes told me that they were all dead and incapable of independent movement, they apparently didn't know that.
Hurriedly I pulled back from the door and tried to shove it closed. Something lurched against it, rocking me back. I repositioned myself to shove better and watched a slimy green hand – why green? What could possibly occur during decomposition to turn human flesh green?! - thrust itself, groping, out of the opening. A chorus of strange moans emerged with it.
From the Force around them and produced by them, I felt nothing. No… not quite nothing, although I knew it was not something I could influence.
"Ohgodohgdohgod-" A woman's voice yammered annoyingly in my ears. It stopped as I set my mouth in a grim line and closed my fingers around the cool cylinder of one of my lightsabers, the first one to fall into my hand, and thumbed the activation switch.
Snap – hiss! VMMMMM…
It was the red lightsaber, of course. The Sith lightsaber. Still, it would work as well as any other. I cut through the hand in a quick, easy motion. Steaming fingers fell and with satisfaction I saw the remainder of the hand pull back through the door. Ozone and sickly meat cooking joined the pong that filled my nostrils, and I opened my mouth again to breathe through it, vainly hoping to dampen the thick scent.
Keeping the 'saber activated, I braced my left shoulder against the door. The occupants of the room had evidently discovered – if such primitive ‘thoughts’ could discover - that they wanted out, and that the best way to get out and to where a snack stood was through this door.
There were several of the things pushing in concert, and I was losing ground. I set my booted feet into the coarse carpeting and wished that I was male, taller and with bigger muscles. Or that my Force abilities were strong enough to just jam the door closed. Or that I’d let Nate and his four friends come with me. Much too late to run now – the dead things would get me from behind.
"WHY do people like zombies, WHY?" That voice again! Someone was close enough to help me close the damn door! "It's not like th- arr.. ffff- frack it, woman, stop yammering help me keep them out!"
Wait a minute. I tried to say something while she was talking, and her voice… That is my voice. Higher, more panicked, but it is my voice. How can -
Her next frustrated cry tore at my throat. "Goddammit, I AM keeping them out!"
Yes, definitely my voice. Oh, Light Side succor me, that is a bad sign.
I bent my knees and lunged against the metal of the door. It gave, almost closing, until the things behind it redoubled their efforts. I realized that I was baring my teeth and breathing hard, as if I was terrified instead of merely... perturbed. My fingers were clutching the 'saber hilt with almost painful tightness, so I hit the activation stud twice and the blade retracted and I put it back on my belt.
My voice again. "Aaagh, why did it have to be zombies?!" A high-pitched electronic scream started up. "Chainsaws?! Why chainsaws?! AAAII!" Something hit the door and began to grind at it very rapidly, as the electronic scream intensified.
Enough of this. I'm done toying around.
Technically these creatures were not alive, but the Force has some hold on all matter. I visualized the silhouettes of each of them - four against the door, one of them with a screaming machine, another five pressed in behind them- and grabbed each one.
It is one of several techniques, such as Stasis Field and Lightning Storm, which affects all nearby enemies. I haven’t been able to master either of those, so by default Wave is my personal favorite. In essence, it is a telekinetic explosion that knocks foes off their collective feet and scrambles their senses briefly. It is extremely difficult to block, and to a lesser extent also works on droids and other nonliving opposition.
This time was no different. Wave by itself makes no sound, but the sudden thump-crunch that the things behind the door made was very satisfying. As always, I felt a rush of weariness and exultation at the successful attack, forcing my knees to buckle.
Unfortunately, Wave does not always finish things. It doesn’t kill, only incapacitates. Moans and rattlings started up again, if a bit weaker. I could just close the door now, but I don’t think this is the only exit. And they might know how to open it – I don’t see a lock. I reached into my inventory.
Adhesive, Fragmentation, Sonic, Ion, Cryo, or Plasma? Or a Thermal Detonator. Hmm. Small or not, nobody wants a thermonuclear explosive going off in an inhabited building. Plasma it is, then.
I pulled the red grenade out from behind my back, then yanked the door wide open, depressed the large thumb button, and hurled it in among the animated corpses. Then I slammed shut the door and backed up.
The fiery detonation was considerably larger than I had expected. And louder. My ears rang and closed off in response. Unexpected exhaustion struck then, and I stumbled a little. I'd been running about for hours and had drawn on the Force a great deal today, and doing that got... tiring.
An adrenal stim should help for a bit.
I reached - and froze as I realized that rather than groping into a bag or a pouch, I was looking at a list. Medpacks, energy shields, stimulants- a list, with a little picture and a description of each item.
Didn't I see something like that for David's Camera? Yes, yes I did. I thought it was just the camera. And… this happened back in the room, too, when I saw how much junk I was carrying. This… this is not something I can explain.
I could feel each object as I came to it. There - Adrenal Stimulant. I ignored the problem of how things got out of this list into my hands and slapped the injection into my right thigh, letting the spent case crumple and the rush of momentary energy flood my veins.
I'm probably just tired. Jedi, Sith... it doesn't matter. Exhaustion always does unpleasant things to a body.
Listening, I heard nothing closer than the background chaos. The woman's voice seemed to have ceased at last. Maybe the influence of the dead things had deluded my senses and caused me to hear things. With no tasks, no other pressing concerns, I started back for the tiny sleeping chamber where I dimly remembered coming earlier. Everything else can wait a while.
Behind me. I swiveled around to face the dimly-lit series of hallways that I had just emerged from and caught movement. Something coming down this long, narrow passageway towards me, very rapidly. I tensed and clasped the hilt of my 'saber in preparation, bu the creature leaped abreast of me and past at panicked speeds, ignoring me entirely.
I saw it more clearly then, a beast on four legs covered in grease and soot - Probably from the remains of the rotting things I faced - moving in a series of bounding leaps up the corridor ahead of me. Some kind of animal with long ears and wide blue eyes. It didn’t look threatening, but the Force shivered and rippled and swirled around it. It tastefelt very much like what an old friend had mockingly referred to as the kind of thing that made older Jedi say "Oooo, destiny!"
Whatever it was, it soon reached an intersection and turned a corner out of my sight. I licked my upper lip, tasting charred spoiled meat, and opened up cautiously to the Force. Nothing near but that frightened thing. If it's fleeing something, then whatever it is isn't close.
I started to walk again.
Closed doors were on either side of the hallway. I sensed no life behind them. Which either means that there are unpleasant not-living things or that everyone has evacuated this section. Curiosity drove me to pick a door at random and look inside.
These doors are strange, I complained to myself as I found the handle and clasped it. Static electricity naturally jumped to my hand with a loud "tix!" and I withdrew for a moment to shake it vigorously. Whoever designed them did so carelessly. Not anticipating that anyone with filled arms or unwieldy hands would ever attempt to open them. No, unlike the rest of the galaxy, this place can't make doors that open at a gesture. I tried again, hooking my glove around and turning, then shoving the door in with a foot. It was starting to look like all doors here were both manual and inwards - swinging.
Within this chamber was a huge flat-screened imager - Does no one here use holograms? - resting on the floor. Alongside it was a large black boxy object with cords connecting it to four smaller devices encrusted with colorful beady buttons. A number of gray metal chairs and rumpled sack cushions sat around these as if in homage. No bodies, animate or not, were in this room, but the furnishings seemed to have been damaged. The flatscreen looked like a hole had been... melted, I suppose, on one corner, and its surface surrounding that hole was covered in glass fracture and had also melted somewhat.
One of the peculiar little devices had been smashed into the rough beige carpeting by what appeared to be the tread of a heavy, heavy boot. Several of the sack cushions and metal chairs also seemed to have suffered more weight than they could handle.
Huh. I wonder what happened here? Sudden awareness of the begrimed state of my skin and clothing returned, so I resumed my walk at a faster rate. Back towards the tiny room where I had found myself earlier, though by a more straightforwards route.
I hate feeling tired.
Eventually I encountered other beings, who had either come back in from outside or, like me, had never left. A number of them were slumped unconscious against walls or spoke urgently in hushed tones. Some few were crying out sharply in the grips of various emotions, and although I was tempted I did not speak to any of them. Most seemed human or at least very humanoid, though not all. The panicked fever of a few hours past was apparently over, though I could hear a distant murmur. This area, my immediate vicinity, was quiet.
I consider myself to be very enlightened when it comes to other species, even varieties that I have never seen before. But in the parts of the galaxy that I come from, a tail on a sentient being is extremely odd. For that reason, I stared a bit more than I might otherwise have done.
Most people ignored me, but a harassed - looking mostly - human woman stopped me for a moment. The subdued brown scales of her tail contrasted with a dark blue outfit that said ‘uniform’ to me. There was lettering in white on it, but it was not in Aurekbesh or any of the other scripts that I knew, so I couldn’t read it.
"Go to your room if you have one and know which one it is, and if you don't, go to the front desk and one will be assigned to you, do you need any medical assistance?” Her voice held a tone that suggested she had repeated this phrase again and again until it no longer held any meaning for her.
"I do not need aid, and I know what I am doing, thank you." Damn. I sound so… formal. That happened, sometimes. With some people, I could not help but act with a kind of condescending authority. Part of my talents is responding differently to different people without knowing why.
For some reason the woman seemed to think that I was connected to her organization. Her exhaustion made her candid. "I don’t know what’s going on here. Don’t think anyone does. Law enforcement, animal control, the fire department, paramedics … Everyone within two hour’s drive has been ordered to this madhouse. The Pentagon’s supposed to have sent men, and there are SWATs everywhere, but I know hardly anything. They gave me a trank rifle as soon as they figured out who I was. I had to shoot a split-horned rhino thing with it, and now they have me here, directing traffic. I’m just part of convention security – the rest of the year I work in a mall.”
The tailed human looked away, caudal appendage waving gently. "I guess I’m the only one who wasn’t in a better costume. Head of security was in a gorilla mask this morning. Second in charge decided that his preteen daughter's favorite hero would be great here. Third- you don't wanna know what third did. In the ‘adults only’ hall, if you must know." She pursed her lips. "All insane. None of us could help going in costume – the worst that’s supposed to happen is fans getting drunk or stoned and wrecking stuff. Petty theft, things catching on fire, lost kids, that kind of thing. I’m not trained for this!"
Spilling her troubles seemed to make this minor security official feel better. This kind of thing happens to me more frequently than it should. People seem to enjoy telling me stories and things I can’t change – and to be truthful, I rather like listening.
Even so, I was tired, she was tired, and I was going to go to my rest. I could do one thing to help her …
Bringing the attitudes of a supremely confident older Master of mine, I looked down my nose at her and said, "I see. I understand that you are under a lot of stress, but be assured that we are working to control this disaster. For now, we need you to keep a steady hand and a clear head." One final use of the Force and the human, encouraged, straightened as if forgetting some of her fatigue, making a particular gesture with one hand flicking from her brow. A salute, perhaps?
I imitated the gesture as best I could before turning on my heel and striding proudly away. As soon as I had turned a corner I forgot that assumed pride to lean against the textured wall, eyes closed, weakened enough that if someone had needed me I might have collapsed on the spot.
From there, it was little trouble finding the correct door. It was down on the first floor – I could have been mistaken, but this looked like the kind of temporary accommodations that only the poor and the thrifty had to stoop to.
There I paused. Of course, the door was locked. And there wasn't a security interface or anything that I could hack on the door, just a horizontal slot above the curved metal handle, which did not move when I tried to turn it. Not only that, but I couldn't seem to remember just how I'd got in the first time. So how do I get in now?
A vague impulse lead me to reach into my Inventory and find a large, dark red bag with a shoulderstrap, a number of kilos in weight. It was the one that I had retrieved from this room earlier, the one with words I could not read scribbled on its surface. I held the heavy thing awkwardly in both hands and found a small pocket on the side.
It had a metal-like seam on one edge, with a metal-like tab afixed loosely to one corner. I stared at it in bewilderment, unsure what I was supposed to do. But before I could experiment, something else happened.
Moving on its own, one hand came up over the bag and pinched the tab between thumb and forefinger. My hand tugged the tab along the seam, and the seam opened with a "zzzzzzp!". Then the tab was released and my first two fingers inserted themselves into the pocket, coming out with a thick white plastine card held between them. It had a large black arrow printed on one side.
I said nothing. I did nothing. The Force and my own experience had no reference for this situation. But the hair on my arms and the back of my neck was standing on end.
My knee came up to support the weight of the bag, and my hand shuffled the card until it was clasped between thumb and bent forefinger, then thrust it into the slot above the handle before pulling it out with equal abruptness.
A tiny light glowed green, and that same hand reached around the handle, pulled it, and shoved the door inwards on its hinges.
My legs worked and I half-staggered into the little room, moving as if I was about sleepwalking. My hand pushed shut the door, replaced the white card back into the pocket, reclosed it with another "zzzzzzzzp!", and then the bag dropped unceremoniously onto the bed.
For some reason my body tried to do the same, but I stubbornly moved into the cramped refresher. The series of odd impulses continued, and I allowed my hands to manipulate the ridiculously simple controls until hot water streamed from a fixture in the ceramic stall. Then, working with the stranger in my body, I removed and folded my robes, dropping them uneasily into my Inventory, unbound my hair, and stepped into the water.
I’ve never been body-shy. In the Temple where I was raised, nudity was not particularly taboo. My personal preference happens to be clothed, and fully, but I have no problems with unusual states of dress. Even so, I did not look at myself any more than necessary as water coursed over me, sluicing away the sweat and grease of the day.
Reassuringly, it seemed that mine was the master control. I could override the other without difficulty, even when tired. I felt a faint resistance as I limped painfully through my stretching routines, but they did not take too long.
When I … or we … had shut everything from shower to lights off, wound a rugged white towel around my body, and watched it twist into a somewhat smoother loose gray sleeping - robe, I cleared the bed and half-fell onto it.
It seemed that my body, or that other in it, had one more thing to do. I felt myself sit up, open the bag, and rummage through it. The sleeping – robe fell open and re-formed into a coarse towel, and my throat made a tiny frustrated sound. I watched as my hands tossed it aside into a crumpled heap and reclothed me hastily in white undergarments, soft short pants, and a thin shirt. My hands then shoved back into the bulging confines of the bag and came up with a palm-sized heavy rectangle. It clamshelled open, revealing one surface with a little screen and another with buttons that sported symbols similar to the ones I had seen on doors.
My lips mouthed something as my fingers darted over the buttons and the screen lit. After a sequence had been keyed a strange, low electronic coo sounded. My hands cradled the rectangle against my ear. The coo repeated twice before clicking and a distorted voice from a speaker in the box said "Hello? Elisa?"
I waited patiently as my voice, drained but with a note of anxiety in it, had an emotionally charged conversation with the other one.
“Mom. Hey. It’s me.”
“Are you coming down with something? Your voice sounds different. Are you okay – you said you were going to that Kublai Con.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m at Xanadu.”
"We … we heard something terrible happened there! It was on the news, we tried calling but you had your cell off as usual - people... People aren't really becoming monsters, are they?"
“Yeah, Mom. It’s been a long day… I’m sorry I haven’t called. I’m just so tired.”
“Sweetie, we can be down there tomorrow, Mick can book us a flight – “
“No! No, don’t come down here. I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m okay. It’s crazy out here. I don’t want you in it, I don’t want you and Dad and Jack getting hurt or mixed up in it. I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine.”
“I’m a big girl, Mom. I’ve got a place to stay at the hotel – Dana rented a room when she was here earlier in the week, and she gave me the keycard when she went back to Midtral. I wasn’t going to stay the night, but I brought a change of clothes – ‘Than and I were going to use the room to change – he’s not here, it’s okay.“
“Are you by yourself? What if something happens? What are you going to eat? Have you eaten?”
“I’m a big girl now. It’s okay, I don’t need anyone to take care of me. I haven’t eaten anything since lunch – “
“Don’t go out and get anything now. Wait until morning.”
“I’m not an idiot, Mom. It’s okay, I can wait. I’ll be fine.”
“Okay. You know I worry, sweetie. You know I worry.”
“Yeah. Yeah. I’m really tired… it’s quiet right now. I’m gonna go to sleep.”
“Okay, Elisa. I’ll tell your father. He’s been trying to set up a flight, most of them have been grounded… We love you.”
“Love you too. Tell Dad I love him. And Jack, even if he’s a snot.”
“I’ll tell them. You take care of yourself. And call as soon as you get the chance.”
“I will. Good night Mom.”
“Good night, Elisa”
There was a click, and a tone somewhat deeper and more final than the initial coo. My hands removed the rectangle from the side of my face and held down a new button until the screen went dark. Then the other clamshelled the thing closed and shoved it back into the bag.
I laid myself back on the narrow bed, thinking rapidly. What in the nine hells of Corellia was that? What’s happening, anyway? This is not good. Why is this other here? What does this mean?
Ah. With the Force as her ally, a Jedi can make do for a time without food or rest. But not without both, not for long. It’s worrying, but not an emergency. I should just get to sleep. Things will look better later.
I allowed sleep to claim me, falling in a matter of seconds to its grasp.
"-resounding joy, in resounding joy, ii-iii-iiii-iiiin re-sooouunding, resound-ing resoun-ding joy!"
I opened my eyes and glared up at the ceiling. So much for my plans to sleep in.
Apparently someone in the room above me - those damn second-floorers have bigger rooms, I bet- had a radio or something. The song had started soft, with only one or two voices, but it built with more and more singing in harmony, getting louder and louder. I thought I could catch a hint of instrumental, too, and it was now impossible to ignore.
"Shut up!" I hissed despite knowing full well that I could not be heard. Somehow I’d gotten tangled in the sheets, as if I’d been flailing about in my sleep. I managed to escape them before too much time had passed, and swung my legs over the side of the little economy bed. I glanced around madly, spied the little coffee table in the corner, and half-staggered to it on stiff, aching legs.
The table had a little coffeemaker and a whole lot of papers sitting it, brochures and programs and whatnot. They went on the floor. I hopped up onto the disproportionaly large overstuffed armchair, picked up the tiny table by the round top, and inverted it.
Lifting my stool-shaped wooden weapon skywards, with one hand bracing the flat surface and the other wrapped around a leg, I poked the legs at the ceiling, first hesitantly, then with more vigor, not minding the flecks of plaster that drifted into my face. The voices and accompaniment continued on for a moment, then faltered, falling silent.
"Hey! It's only-" and I checked the red-glowing digital clock-"6:42 A.M.! Okay, that's not very early... But still! This is November! Don't sing Christmas carols until next month, at least!"
"Oh... Sorry!" The reply, while very muffled, was definitely at least three synchronized voices coming from the same spot. Oooo-kaaay, maybe not a radio after all.
I let out a derisive snort as I realized how ridiculous I had to look, standing up on a chair to reach the ceiling with a coffee table, and climbed down, replacing the papers and whatnot that were on it. I couldn't see anyone, but I couldn't dismiss the feeling of being watched.
Well, no way am I gonna get back to sleep now, I realized ruefully. When I get up, I tend to wake completely. On top of that, I was hungry – so hungry that I suspected my stomach of trying to grapple my spine. The granola bar and leftover pieces of Halloween candy in my carryall disappeared in about two bites; I was still hungry, but after a few cups of odd-tasting tap water, I knew that I could wait a bit.
I went through the ‘morning ritual’ – bathroom, washing my face, brushing my teeth, fishing out the spare clothes I’d brought and putting those on. Unfortunately, it looked like the underwear I’d had on yesterday had disappeared, so I had to stay in the stuff I’d slept in.
The urge to examine myself got pretty strong. I was still hungry, but decided that I might as well take a look now, before I ended up gawking in public. I wasn’t quite ready to look at myself naked or spend a lot of time with the stranger in the mirror, but there were other things to check.
It seemed that I actually didn’t need a bra anymore. The one I’d slept in was unsettlingly loose – the elastic was tight enough, but the cups kind of flopped. I’ve never exactly been buxom, nor really wanted to be, so that wasn’t a big deal. It actually rumpled the fabric of my shirt, so I removed it. I hadn’t gone without a bra for years – my mom and most of my cousins were endowed similarly, but I’d inherited a little more mass from the Caucasian side of the family.
After puberty, I’d ended up with a thick body, thick arms, thick legs, average breasts, and not too much body fat. Squarely between “skinny teenager” and “fat teenager”. Asian girls, particularly Filipinos like on my mom’s side, tend to lean towards one or the other, rarely touching the “busty” or “meaty” territories. Maybe it was my dad’s genes.
‘Beef stock’, they’d called me in middle and high school, when everyone had been hunting for targets. As opposed to ‘dairy stock’ or ‘chicken’ or ‘pig’ like the other nonathletic girls. Livestock labels attached to women showed up a lot in my hometown. “Beef” was considered good for soccer, good for lacrosse, good for swimming, but not good for much else. I’d dabbled in sports, but the girls in them were just better. Until college, until Midtral, until I’d moved from Wisconsin to Florida, I’d been something of a recluse.
There, despite the fact that it was a pretty conservative campus, my body type, even in conjunction with my ethnicity, wasn’t all that odd. It had stopped bothering me; I’d briefly come to take an odd sort of pride in it, and then it just hadn’t mattered much one way or the other.
Now it seemed that that body type had been made a bit more obvious. Just patting myself down I could tell that my waist had thickened, my hips had narrowed, and my shoulders had squared. The T-shirt I wore strained a bit across the shoulders. When I put one hand over the opposite bicep and flexed, it swelled at least as high as it usually did after a bunch of reps on the weight machines. There was even a little definition.
It was a very strange feeling. My body didn’t quite feel like it had before. The same, but … different. In more ways than the obvious. It wasn’t bad, really, but … strange. A little exciting, a little scary… it wasn’t a big thing, but I couldn’t ignore it.
I feel like I have to do something, though.
My hair had become darker, dryer, straighter, and coarser, as well as noticeably longer. The ends just barely brushed my shoulders. Yeah, that’ll do.
Spurred into action, I dug through my worn maroon pack until I found the scissors that I had brought along to make last-minute fabric alterations. Purposely thinking back to freshman year, I went into the bathroom, spread a towel over the counter by the sink, and bent over it backwards.
Fistfuls of hair were chewed through by the scissor blades, dropping every which way. The outer edge of my hand held against my scalp served as a measuring unit; everything past my thumb was cut. My hands seemed to be a bit wider than they’d been before, broader and longer, but they didn’t feel different.
This was the style I’d had yesterday morning, and pretty much ever since freshman year when my roommate had decided to cut it for me, citing that she was practiced in wig-trimming. It had turned into a disaster, so we’d had someone else neaten it out, but I’d kept the length.
My attempts were pretty messy, but I did get the hair much, much shorter. I took the edges of the towel and poured the long tangles of hair into the discreet wastebin that I’d seen under the counter.
After a bit of hunting, I found my cell phone – at some point during the night it and my duffel had been kicked off the edge of the bed. Hmm. Call home now, or wait a bit? My parents drove me crazy sometimes, but I loved them and didn't really have issues with them. A sudden cramping from my stomach decided the issue. Breakfast first, I'm starving.
There was no way that I was going to carry the duffel through the convention. Pickpockets had been the first danger that Dana had warned me about, and that was in normal circumstances. Now… well, I’d brought a pair of boy-type pants with deep pockets that had buttoned flaps. I knew that that wasn’t a guarantee of safety by any means, but I could put some stuff in them and not worry about a heavy bag, at least.
Wallet, including the room’s key card. I’d had two of them, actually. The other had been on my costume… It, like my shoes, hadn’t been seen since then, but fortunately I’d had my duffel with me. Somehow. Don’t think about that too hard.
Shoes… shoes… oh crap. I hadn’t brought extra shoes. I’d come in yesterday wearing a pair of really old sneakers, and I’d used the tape in my duffel to wrap them, going up my ankles and over the long socks in imitation of boots. They’d been the weakest part of the costume, but with the low cuffs of the wide pants I’d worn, few people could get a good look at them.
And now they were gone. I sank down onto the edge of the bed. I’m not going to go barefoot, that’s for sure. Even if my recollection of what had happened yesterday was fuzzy at best, I did vaguely remember a few things worth running from. I also remembered doing my share of sprinting, and the dull aches in my legs backed this up.
When I’d come into the room before bed, I’d been wearing boots that came as high as my calves, and very thin socks of some kind beneath them. Where had those gone? I’d taken everything off to shower, I remembered, and I’d folded the clothes… where were they?
Although I looked through the whole room, I didn’t really expect to find the boots. And indeed, I didn’t. They had vanished.
Well, towels might work… Dana, my Midtral roommate who’d handed over the keycards for the room, was one of those girls who couldn’t seem to function for a week without at least six towels. I found some, crumpled up and barely damp, in a corner beneath the bathroom counter. Apparently, although maid service had at some point distributed fresh towels, they hadn’t quite managed to pick all of them up. For all I knew, they’d become overwhelmed by the number of people attending the convention. It was a big hotel, and it had a lot of staff, but...
Wrapping a towel around each foot and tucking the excess under my toes, I used the duct tape in my bag to keep the things more or less in place.
It looked ridiculous. It wasn’t particularly supportive or protective. But it was still better than going barefoot. If barely. At any rate, towels instead of shoes was a different, rather minor kind of "odd", compared to extras from bad sci-fi movies and whatever else was out there.
Armed thus, I exited my room, locked up, and headed for one of the hotel’s smaller food courts, reasoning that it would have fewer people and less of a disturbance. I’d gone to the nearest one for an early lunch yesterday, and there were still signs with direction arrows on the walls, so I doubted that I’d get lost.
There were some weird things and people about- a very scarred white-haired man with a faint, misty halo and ethereal blue butterflies around his head who was playing with a Rubrik's Cube, a girl riding a giant yellow chicken thing, a cow-sized bronze-plated dragon with a big blue gem in the middle of its forehead – but we all just ignored each other, and it was morning, so it seemed that most people weren’t up and about.
It was quiet, peaceful. Rather surreal, really. The chaos of yesterday hadn’t completely disappeared, but it wasn't as sharp or immediate. All the really crazy creatures had been subdued by now, and for long enough that all the rest of us had gone to sleep.
This is why I like mornings.
As much as the arrows on the walls, it was the sound of several cats begging that drew me to the cafeteria.
Inside, I first saw a pixie-faced girl with insanely long blond hair sitting cross-legged atop a cafe table, dropping bits of deli meat to a swarm? horde? pack? of meowling cats. Some looked normal enough, but I thought I saw hints of forked tails, folded wings, odd-colored crescents of fur. That explained the noise. There were one or two other ... people, I suppose ... about, but they seemed as willing to ignore me as I was to ignore them. I felt very much like I was being watched, all of a sudden… still, there was nothing I could do about that except act innocent.
Nobody was there to actually sell food, not yet anyway. Whatever else had happened yesterday, someone had apparently seen to cleaning up the grill and closing down the deli. Fortunately a series of nice big vending machines sat out in the open, and I got to one while the place was still nearly empty. It was a close thing, though.
Deciding that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to go out later, I also bought a few pears to stuff into my pockets. They would keep for a bit, I hoped. Just in case.
After I’d finished with breakfast, I couldn’t stop myself from watching a pair of brown-and-white anthro horses jockey- no pun intended- for their place in the suddenly-forming line of people and creatures trailing in. The jockeying ended when one bit the other on the neck and they both ordered Corn Flakes. The black-skinned - really, actually pitch black - elfin androgyn behind them muttered uncharitably and almost got a tailswitch in the teeth for his or her troubles.
I laughed quietly at this - some things never change - shook my head, and tossed the remains of my meal into a mostly-filled plastic trash barrel, then raked my fingers through my hair habitually and froze.
It had grown. Not by much, maybe by a difference of a quarter-inch or less, but it was decidedly longer. It took just an instant more to fingercomb than it should have. That was… not right. Hadn’t I already changed? Wasn’t that enough?
I glanced at my hand, at the single strand of near-black hair clinging to my skin. The irregularities of it seemed to jump out at me. The whole hand was broader and longer; my joints were knobbier. The very tip of my smallest finger was missing- the nail was still there, but not all of the flesh beneath it was. There was a minuscule pockmark just past the knuckle on my index finger. An invisibly thin white line ran across my palm, slightly puckering the "fat part" of my thumb. And several close-trimmed nails bore little white dent marks, as if they’d suffered some kind of impact.
Then my fingers flexed, nails touching my palms, then opening and splaying as my wrist turned, and my eyes went to a little mole, a birthmark on my wrist that I’d somehow kept. It was strangely comforting to see it – a confirmation that not everything was different.
The thing was, I was not the one flexing my fingers, rotating my wrist, moving my eyes. It was as unconscious as a reflex – and yet not. I felt a something at the back of my head, heat and pressure.
A chill traveled from the back of my neck over my upper arms, giving me goosebumps. That means -
To avoid thinking about that, I said in an unintentionally loud, disgusted voice, "I just cut this. C’mon. Give me a break; there’s a reason I don’t have long hair.”
Naturally, I was utterly mortified to hear a male voice shout "At least you have hair!" and would have slunk into the background.
Except that I caught sight of the shouter and felt my lips curl upwards at the corners, hardening, and my legs betrayed me and moved me towards him as my traitor tongue sallied, "Malak!"
"I haven't seen you," my mouth said, as the big man - Damn. He's big. - grinned and waved. A smaller and rather pained-looking teen who apparently had an elephant's forehead - and ears, trunk, and a pair of widely-spaced extra eyes - looked almost comically pained at the sight of me. They were sitting across from each other at a table.
"Hey, Revan. You're staying too, huh? Some guy was giving the secretary at the front desk a hard time, so I talked to him, and she was grateful, so she gave David and I a nice little suite. Kind of a cute girl, actually..."
The elephant boy's eyes - all four of them - rolled and his trunk wended sideways as he said "Cheryl, please! This is awkward enough! You're supposed to be a girl." I thought I remembered him, vaguely... hadn't I helped him find something yesterday?
"Ah, David. I trust that your camera thing is operating smoothly?" My voice interjected, heading off what promised to be an argument. "And have you found your friend?"
"Camera's in my room and I don't know where Jim went. Flew off, probably." David looked dejected, his eyes downcast and his shoulders slumped. It was kind of hard to tell, but I pegged him as fifteen, maybe sixteen years old. Just about as old as my little brother, with that same sort of "My life is ruined!" posture. In this case, I couldn't really blame him.
"Don't worry about it. We'll find him. How many big blue birdmen live in Florida anyway?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I know." Abruptly he stood up. "I'm going to go... place." David ambled away, big head down.
My eyes fixed themselves on Malak's head as he shook it from side to side. "I feel kind of sorry for him. He isn't really taking this well. Better than some, sure, but not well."
"And you are?" My voice was dry, almost mocking.
One of the corners of his mouth quirked up marginally. "So it seems. I don't actually remember being Cheryl - it's like I inherited all her baggage. I remember the things that she said and did, the people and the stuff she surrounded herself with, but not her thoughts or her feelings. I love David - he's my brother - but I don't feel that way about her friends or her parents. At all. I'll take care of David, but I'm not going to go and pick up her life."
The quirk became a mocking smile. "She was fourteen years old, in the throes of what looked like a pointless and generally ineffective form of adolescent rebellion, and if I remember it right she spent a great deal of time and energy stealing items of minor value from stores. I'd hate that. There are only two real reasons why I haven't taken off. One, David's terrified about how his and Cheryl's parents will react so he's lying low, and two, I'm not a full Knight yet, so I'd like further instruction before I decide what I want to do, where I want to go. I have responsibilities, as a Jedi and as a brother." His expression became wry. "That was a speech, wasn't it?"
"Little bit. Don't worry about it." I grasped abruptly at an idea, and was surprised when I was able to blurt, "What do you mean by 'still here'? We can leave?"
He blinked. "Well, yeah. Nobody's stopping people like us - well, there are some who would try, but it's not too hard to look harmless and confused. It would have been easier yesterday, but you could still tell them it was a mistake and they'd probably believe you. For that matter, if you waited for the right moment you could probably just slip through while nobody was watching."
"Huh." I frowned. "I would've thought that there would be some kind of crackdown on the place." My face smoothed itself as soon as I finished speaking. I tried to frown again, but it was as if I'd been given a shot of Novocaine that stilled the muscles.
"Oh, there is. There's a cordon and guards and everything, but from what I've seen they just aren't very good at it. There's a border around the convention grounds, and chain-link fencing, but chain-link can be got around and I don't think there are enough people to man the whole perimeter." His expression held just a touch of disgust. "The best-guarded section is close to the main entrance, and I tested it myself. Just because."
My mouth asked, "You just used the Force for that, didn't you?"
"Nope. It was at about three a.m. and they were all distracted by someone else, but they didn't give me a second glance. I got out and back in without trouble, and I'm seven feet tall, completely bald, and tattooed with stripes on my head. If I'm ignored, that's kind of a bad sign. Of course, she was literally glowing blue and babbling about the end of the world." He shrugged. "Maybe they'll shape up, maybe they won't. I'm pretty sure that if I went out and started to make trouble they'd find me. But just getting out is easy - Cheryl's been to shopping malls with better security."
"I'm sure," my mouth murmured. I could feel my eyebrows furrowed in a contemplative frown, but it faded and my shoulders hitched up momentarily. "Well, let me know if there's anything I can do."
"I'll trust you to do the same." He nodded firmly, but his gaze was already out, in the direction that David had gone. "Someone with ... I guess it's magic ... offered to make his face fully human. But then he wouldn't look like David. He isn't sure if he should accept or not, and all I can do is be there and support whichever choice he makes. Aaah, that's none of it your problem. I'd better make sure he doesn't get into trouble."
Rising, Malak straightened to his full height. My eyes came about to his upper chest, and the thought came to me, Wait, isn't this character a villain in the videogames? I kept silent about that, though, and after we traded nods, he left.
For a moment I held completely still, staring at nothing and waiting. Nothing happened. When the otter-type furry my eyes had happened to fix on started to shift uneasily, I decided that nothing was going to happen and brushed myself off. Then, distracted by the unfamiliar texture my fingers encountered, I looked down.
The T-shirt and the battered cargo pants I'd been wearing were gone. In their place was a sort of kimonolike tunic, like a jacket that extended halfway down my thighs and had wrapped around my chest, confined by the loose belt or obi around my waist. There were fingerless gloves that looked a little like leather and extended up my forearms from wrist to elbow, and pads of similar material wrapped over my shoulders. Now that I thought about it, I could feel that I was wearing pants or leggings of some sort, closer to the skin than what I'd had on earlier.
Uncertain, I lifted one foot. There was, indeed, a boot on it made of the same kind of thing as the armband-gloves and the shoulder pads, and it came all the way up to my knee, wrinkling the fabric there. It was very light, and didn't seem to restrict my ankle at all. I lowered it to the ground, gingerly, finding somewhat less than an inch of heel. Everything was in muted shades of brown, and I couldn't identify the cloth.
The fingerless gloves were really more like curved shells that went over the backs of my hands, and smaller, thinner pieces on my palms, connected by little straps between my fingers. The palm-piece and the back-piece were part of the armbands, but they didn't impede motion when I made several circles with my wrists. I couldn't possibly have missed those earlier, when I'd been staring at my hands.
The only explanation - well, besides that of someone undressing and redressing me without my noticing, which I liked even less - was that the clothes themselves had changed.
...I'm pretty sure that this is not supposed to happen. Of course, this was Xanadu. I'd just been talking to a guy who quite earnestly called himself a Jedi and spoke about memories of himself as a fourteen-year-old girl, I was standing in the same room as a bunch of people and things that would normally be considered impossible, and my hair was growing fast enough to notice a difference less than three quarters of an hour after being cut. But if it was supposed to happen, why not earlier? Like when I'd first dressed myself? Why hadn't the towels turned into boots right when I wrapped them around my feet?
Yeah, that's decidedly weird. I managed to keep from shuddering. The immediate impulse I had was take them off. Now. But I was not about to strip out here in public. Even though a number of women and female furries that were pretty close to nude were within eyeshot, it wasn't going to happen.
Luckily, I didn't have much trouble getting back to the hotel room. The halls were getting more and more congested as people got up, remembered that everything had changed, and went looking for food or freaking out, depending. Some of them were running about desperately calling out names, evidently hoping to find lost friends or lovers or relatives. It was kind of sad. I saw some sort of anthro canine wearing a red leather jacket, probably a dog, locked in an teary embrace with someone who looked an awful lot like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his acting days, both of them completely oblivious to the public setting.
The other searchers didn't seem to be having as much luck, I noticed. A tall, spindly anime-looking guy complete with hair that violated the laws of gravity was either mute or had stopped calling out and was just looking desperately from face to face, as if hoping for some spark of recognition. I shook my head as he skimmed me and kept from shuddering again, feeling very sorry for whoever he was. I knew what it was like to be completely adrift, although the situations were very different.
Where are my friends? The thought caused me to bite my lip. My roommate, Dana, had gone back to Midtral. She was pretty experienced with conventions and did a lot of cosplay, but she hadn't stayed for the big day. Gwen had said repeatedly that she intended to spend the four-day break from classes that the college gave us at Kublai-Con time alternately studying and playing speedruns on videogames. 'Thaniel was supposed to have come with me, because I'd been nervous about wearing my costume in daylight, but I hadn't seen him. Everyone else had gone at one point or another, I suspected. I'd heard a lot of bragging over the last week. Midtral being a liberal arts college, most of the student body had intended to visit Xanadu. That was the reason for the college setting up a four-day break, including restricted mealplans.
Well, I can call them, I thought decisively. Or send emails. That's got to work better than looking at each and every individual out here. How many people had attended the convention, anyway? Seven thousand? Eight? Nine? More?
With that, I found my way back to the room. At that point, I realized that the leg-hugging trousers I wore didn't have pockets.
Searching frantically through my... whatever it was... eventually yielded a leather-colored beltstrap with a pouch. Instead of a zipper or some kind of visible catch, the opening had some strange clinging mechanism that I couldn't figure out, although it opened readily enough when I got my finger under the flap. My keycard, thankfully, was there.
Back in the room with the door shut and locked, I shucked the strange clothes as fast as I could. It took a bit longer than I'd expected - I had to remove the glove-armbands and the obi to get out of the kimono-wrap with the shoulderpads, and the boots had to come off before the leggings. Above the trousers and below the kimono-thing was actually a weird sort of shirt with a sort of tail that extended down the front like a loincloth, but it went in the pile too.
As soon as everything but my underwear was in a pile, it sort of blurred. Like a camera view that went out of focus. Only when it came back into focus, the pile was made up of my shirt, a battered pair of cargo pants, and two very rumpled towels with duct tape wrapped around them.
What was more, when I got up the nerve to put my stuff back on - except for the towels, which were probably ruined now thanks to the tape - it stayed a shirt and a battered pair of cargo pants. I decided, after a moment, that it really wasn't worth thinking about.
Well, what do you know. The world goes insane, and somehow the beds still get made in the morning, I thought, noticing both the smoothed, fixed bedcovers and the note lying on the coffee table, among the brochures and whatnot. It looked like it had been photocopied in a rush; I saw from the left side of the paper that whatever this had been copied from must have been hole-punched.
Curious, I looked it over. It identified me only as an "occupant of the first floor", and contained instructions to stay on convention grounds and call for various needs via the room phone. It also advised me - and, by extension, everyone else on the first floor - of how friends and family might be contacted, and it assured that we would be safe, that our needs would be met. At the bottom was a hasty-looking signature that I found to be completely illegible.
Well, I'm hardly important enough to get a personalized missive, anyways. I'm in one of the cheap rooms; the bed's twin-size and I don't think I could wedge a second one in here if I tried, I thought with some disgust. Nor did I run about wreaking grand havoc or anything. Well, I suppose they have more important things to focus on...
Putting that aside, I fished my laptop out from my red carryall. It wasn't a particularly fancy or fast model. But it worked well enough for what I used it for.
I stretched out on the bed, powered up, and checked my Hotmail account. News reports from my New York Times subscription, most of them having to do with Xanadu. I decided to check through them later. New messages from my Yahoo groups. Advertising for dog food, notification of a rebuttal to the anti-Roswell stance I had taken on some forum... personal mail. From my dad, from Dana, from 'Thaniel. I decided to open 'Than's first.
"Nathaniel of the Blue Side" had written "So sorry. There was a car crash on the interstate. Traffic was all tied up. It took hours, I didn't get to the Center until noon.
"There was a police line at the Con, did you know that? Told me a load of BS about terrorists and biohazards - no two people had the same explanation. I don't know about you, but last I checked there weren't any weapons that need Animal Control to mop stuff up. I suppose there could have been hallucinogens, though, because I could have sworn I saw a dragon... and something really weird happened.
"I'd have liked to show you my Darth Nihilius costume - spent ages on the mask. Then someone broke it. I'm really bummed about that. Yeah, I know, I'm shallow. What I'm getting at is that I really hope you're not dead or whatever. Give me a reply, okay?
"May the Blue Side flow to you. 'Thaniel out."
I twisted my badly-cut hair around my little finger. 'Than was a decent friend and all, but I was kind of glad he wasn't here, truth be told. We would probably have ended up sharing the room. And I didn't like sharing a room as small as this one with anyone as clumsy as him. Besides, what he might have turned into...
I replied to his message - heavy with "I'm fine, but it's really chaotic here"s - I felt slightly guilty. I could have just checked and responded appropriately to the rest of the mail, but I knew that wouldn't be right. I wasn't looking forwards to a longer version I'd had with my mom last night. But, it had to be done...
That's duty. I made the call.
As the girl passed through another impassioned conversation, I thought furiously.
This was not supposed to happen. Oh, I'd heard about personalities fragmenting. I knew something about the disorders, the possible causes, the managing techniques, the potential solutions. But the fact was, this should not have happened. Not to me.
If it was supposed to happen to me, the problem would have manifested long before now. In adolescence, or after Malachor, or during my time as a Sith, or at some point after the Jedi wiped my mind and rebuilt it, or when my true memories first started to trickle back. But all of those events had happened years ago. True, there was still a five-year gap in my life that was being filled only very slowly, but I was fairly sure that whatever I had done then, it wasn't enough to fragment me without any warning signs whatsoever. Personalities come apart in children and subadults and senile elderly folk.
And personality fragmentation was not supposed to result in a fragment which had long-established interpersonal connections with people that I did not know. It was more like this was an entirely different person - which was, frankly, not supposed to happen.
Of course, if the galaxy ran according to supposed to, it would be a very dull place. After all, I am here, wherever that is, without really knowing where here is - Zahnnadue, that's what the armored soldier said. Never heard of it before. He did say that he didn't know what it was, just that it had something to do with all this. A multiplanetary government? A single planet, a division therof, a city, an event? An organization? A single being? I'm going to have to find out, sooner or later.
Yesterday... early yesterday, before I met with the soldiers, the first time I saw that man who looked like Malak. I - for some reason my memory of what was going on there is fuzzy, distant. But I definitely remember telling him that this whole thing wasn't just some random occurrence. That it had something to do with costumes. Costumes. Becoming real.
The implications of that were enough to make me reel momentarily, using one hand to brace against the wall of this cell of a room. Still in the midst of verbally reasserting her independence, the girl barely paused to regain my balance. Then she was pacing again, moving uncertainly through vague loops on the floor.
And... that means... what, exactly? That this was part of some bizarre ritual, possibly religious, to wrest my mind and spirit from my body and implant me intact into a girl who bears some physical resemblance to me? Why then does she seem unaware of my presence, and why has no one spoken to me about this? And what about this Inventory? Besides, I don't think technology can do something like that - and who would have enough Force talent to pull it off? That theory does not explain everything else I've seen out there - I suppose, if I assumed anything at all, it was that this was some sort of mass diplomatic embassy or multicultural festival under a bomb threat or the like. But obviously that is not true.
Speculation has never been one of my strongest skills. They usually lie more in the fields of communication and action.
Well, whatever happened, I'm here now. This is just like being stranded on Taris - I have few resources or allies as of yet, little in the way of intelligence, and no immediate objectives. Except - I did not have the Force or knowledge of who I am, I knew where Taris was on a starmap, I knew what needed doing, and I started with one brave if paranoid pilot on my side. Even if I did get him killed later on... Hopefully, this planet won't undergo orbital bombardment when I leave.
Fine. My first objective is gathering information. I'll have to work from there. Setting a goal did help ease my uncertainty, but - Light Side succor me, what does "New Quest" mean and why did it just blink across the top of my field of view?!
The girl's conversation seemed to be winding down. I waited for several impatient minutes before she finally, finally ended it and deactivated her little communications mechanism. Then, deciding to act as though she was a personality fragment despite the evidence to the contrary, I brought my will against the other entity.
Producing a low, soft sigh, the girl curled up on the bed, affected too quickly to bother with undressing or wrapping herself in the blanket. My eyes closed, and after I was certain that she was down, I opened them. This was a purely temporary solution and I knew it.
I removed a pair of boots from my Inventory, donned them, and left the room to wander. Almost immediately I felt the pull of a disturbance. Something I could change.
Should I? Someone else will get it if I don't, probably. Ah, why not?
After all, whenever something preventable happens, people ask each other "Why didn't someone step in?" And I am someone. I grimaced a little, recognizing that as the kind of thought I had expressed before the Wars. Back when I was pure optimist. That doesn't make it any less true, but I have to remember that sometimes I can't change a damned thing.
At any rate, I felt it. Here. Who was it centered on? The densely-furred humanoid with a metal sword as large as he was tall strapped to his back? No. The bizarre tripod creature that appeared to be made entirely of packed bones and mercury? No. I wasn't sure - there.
Human male, pale, adolescent, unkempt - normal enough to the senses. His emotions were a boiling mess, but that wasn't unusual, here. But under one arm he held a black, cylindrical canister which, for some reason, I did not like. It wasn't a bomb or any kind of weapon, as far as I could tell through the Force. It was something else. I could have acted then and there and prevented him from acting, but I found myself curious.
Why not? If it isn't a weapon, what's the worst it could do in a few minutes? I tailed the man - boy, really; I'm no good at discerning ages but he seemed subadult to me - at a distance for a time, noting that he did not appear to have any set destination. Eventually, seething with anticipation, he set his back to a wall, shook the canister, removed the top, and manipulated it so as a fine spray mist was directed onto his body.
The corridor was moderately crowded, and I was at least ten meters away - and yet, impossibly, the scent from the canister carried instantly over, entirely overwhelming my nose. It was not a particularly pleasant smell, too musky and spicy for my liking. And far, far too strong. Overpowering, even.
Yet... something about it was drawing me. It was almost magnetic, a fascination not unlike that 'Look at Me' compulsion I'd experienced yesterday. I was not the only one affected, either - from the corners of my eyes I could see every other being in view first stiffen, then turn, enraptured.
A pulling of sorts manifested - not in the Force, but in my body. Noticing that it was felt all over my body but most strongly in my chest, waist, and hips, I resisted, ignoring whatever else was happening around me. I don't think so.
It pulled more strongly, and I felt it physically. No.
Stronger still, enough so that my skin prickled and I began to draw on the Force. No.
Three was apparently a special number; the smell lingered but its pull ceased, as did the artificial fascination, at least for me. Taking stock to see what had happened during my lapse in attention, I noticed that a number of the other beings nearby had not been so lucky in resisting. So that is what it does. Odd. Why would anyone design such a thing?
They seemed to have physically changed, body shapes becoming far more like those of well-toned Zeltron women - extravagantly curved, with waists no wider than their heads, broad hips, and large eyes in small, symmetrical faces. Interestingly enough, although I couldn't exactly go back and compare, all of the afflicted seemed otherwise unaltered - I saw at least one beard. In some, clothing had altered to fit - in others, it hadn't.
Everyone so afflicted wore a disturbingly blank expression which, slowly, changed to reflect a vapid, parted-lips glee. I had enough time to trade a faintly alarmed glance with one of my fellow unaffected before all of the altered began to squeal and surge towards the boy with the canister. The fact that others might be in the way did not appear to register to them; I might have been trampled if I hadn't sidestepped repeatedly. From the startled expletives uttered by the nearby unafflicted, I guessed that they were suffering similarly.
As far as I could tell, the squealing ones were pressing themselves en masse against the boy with the canister - already he was hidden from view by a mass of "women", who were now climbing over each other like starved rakghouls after human flesh.
Exhaling slowly, I realized that the boy might well be suffocated or otherwise killed. Which means I have to step in now. Ah, well... it's not like I have anything better to do. I probably should have done this before, but I was too curious about what that thing could do. Frankly, it seems impossible.
Not that's stopped anything before.
My telekinesis is not very strong - actually, to be honest, my telekinesis is mildly pathetic. My Force abilities aren't really suited to offensive uses. It's slightly embarrassing - yes, I can use Wave to knock back everything within reach, but that is so exhausting that I'm hard-pressed to use it more than once in a day. I could do that now, but I might need it more later. So this will take a bit more finesse.
Clasping my hands flat together before me, I drew them apart slowly while using the Force to part some of the 'women', opening a small gap; through it I saw the boy and the troublesome canister. I then took hold of the black cylinder and pulled.
The gap between the women closed and my vision grayed at the edges momentarily, but the canister shot through the air and slapped into my hand. It was wet - with what, I didn't know - and nearly slipped out of my gloved fingers. I slid it into my Inventory, figuring that this would at least keep it away from people who might abuse its strange power. Almost immediately the spicy-musky odor faded - it wasn't gone, but rather much weakened.
Interestingly enough, as the scent faded the 'women' currently attempting to get at the boy stopped, expressions changing again to reflect varied sentiments such as surprise, confusion, and dismay, stumbling away from the boy and each other. As I watched, they sort of shimmered and melted back into their original forms - not all at once but as sort of a ripple effect that started with those on the outer edges and spread from there.
As the last of them reverted back, I saw that only two 'women' were left, both of them apparently in the middle of attempting to mount the boy. After a few seconds, they too stopped, faces twisting into expressions of shock and sheerest revulsion - but although one still sported outrageous curved mustachios, neither changed shape or appearance in the slightest.
As the crowd of formerly afflicted sentients turned on the boy, each of them wrought with humiliation and righteous wrath, I briefly considered trying to defuse the situation.
No, I'll leave it be. I could have missed something, but although I sensed anger, the Force conveyed nothing to hint at murderous rage. The adolescent would get shouted at, shamed, and possibly struck or made to serve those he had affected with the spray, but he would still be relatively intact at the end of the day. At this point, I really don't think I'd be able to help much. Strength is knowing what you can and cannot change, and being able to go on when the latter situation comes up. I could be told where this was and so forth later. It wasn't like there was any great hurry.
Concealing a smile, I walked away to the sound of raised voices.
...huh? I found myself sitting on the edge of the narrow bed. It felt like I had dozed off for a few hours - maybe more than that, since there was an ache in my muscles. Man, why would I take a nap on a day like today? I should... I should probably see about getting back to the dorm, if nothing else... or maybe I should try and find my friends...
I stood up quickly and winced as, for a moment, the room faded almost entirely into blackness. Head spinning, I waited for it to pass, counting to five before I could see again. Low blood pressure. Got up too fast. I recalled some stuff I'd memorized for an anatomy class back in high school. To a point, it was a good sign - for me, at least, it meant that my arteries were clear and my heart was strong enough that the resting rate was easy to maintain. This had happened before, and often - athletes usually have low blood pressure, and although I wasn't an athlete I prided myself on being at least somewhat active. Particularly last year, when I'd been obsessively trying to get my mile time down.
I remembered that. Treadmills or laps and weight machines three times a week at the gym, forty-five minute workouts. The way, when I was running, my spit thickened into slime, the way a dry patch appeared in the back of my throat, the way my skin flushed and my feet hurt and I could never get enough air when I was running. The way I felt when running - a combination of physical misery and thoughtless euphoria, because I was alive in a way that I only was when running, a way I barely brushed up against when writing or on the wheel. The way, when I ran, I noticed nothing, felt nothing, thought nothing until I slowed down, and then the world hit me, bright and quick. The rest of the time, I had only felt a difference when I stood up quickly and had to wait out a moment of blindness.
But I didn't remember it ever taking more than about three seconds before clearing. This meant that either I'd recently lost blood or heart function or else Xanadu had made me into some kind of monster athlete. I knew which was preferable.
Experimentally, I made a fist with hands that were bigger than I was used to. There was hair on my knuckles, hair a bit too long and thick for my liking on my arms and the backs of my hands, I saw, to my slight displeasure. I bent my arm, bringing my fist up near my shoulder and feeling the oddly satisfying tightness of muscle against muscle.
Then I made a few exploratory jabs into the air, trying to tell if it was any easier or faster. But I hadn't exactly made a habit of doing that before, so I couldn't tell. My arms did feel lighter, even though I could clearly see that they weren't. For a moment I considered trying to punch the wall, just to see what would happen. Common sense prevailed, luckily.
So... it was costumes that changed people, right? I'd picked up on that much, at least. And I was wearing... I was wearing... Damn.
I couldn't remember. This was more than a little bit disturbing. It hadn't been something that I'd just thrown together or bought for a post-Halloween discount. It had been important to me.
It had been... it had been... It had been yet another aspect of something that had totally taken over my life. For a few months, I had been practically monomaniacal about exercise, and I had been similarly crazy about many other things before and after. But there had been one thing. One thing that had stayed strong and interesting for years and years.
But I couldn't quite remember what it was. Probably... no, not a TV show. A video game? A game for the Xbox, I recalled, a role-playing game. I had played it again and again, and I had gone on the Internet and found others who had felt the same, and I had written stories, dozens of stories...
And yet, I couldn't remember what it was. I could remember thinking about some detail I had gone into and laughing about it, fully aware that I was going overboard. I remembered the satisfaction of a good job and thoughtful comments, remembered off-topic discussions on forums, I remembered liking the stories some members wrote... but not what. It was disturbing. Jarring. Like an important part of myself had seceded.
I stole a glance at my laptop, closed next to the clock atop the little nightstand. Maybe...?
There were a pair of little gold hoop earrings next to it. With a little shock, I remembered that I'd taken them off before putting on my costume. I'd left my glasses and my class ring on, and of course they were now missing, but these, these were still here. I was pretty sure that they had been a present from when I had my ears pierced as a kid, and I'd had a habit of only taking them off when I thought they would get snagged on something.
Ever since I'd finished puberty the hoops had never been the right size to slide over my fingers like real rings, but I used to be able to put my fingertips through them. Now, the earrings sat over my blunt, rough fingertips like tiaras over bald royalty.
Can I even wear these now?
I pinched the soft, fleshy earlobe of one ear, then the other. The left ear was undifferentiated, completely intact. The right ear had a hard spot. When I pinched it gently and moved my fingers it was like holding a tiny rod.
I flicked one earring open and began the delicate operation of finding the opening and inserting it. It seemed to get stuck, so I stretched the lobe down and wriggled, pressing insistently. A mirror might have helped, but I didn't feel up to looking into one right now. It hurt, a hot little spark, but I felt it as it punched through, pushing a little earwax with it. Closing the clasp, I smiled in triumph, then sank back down onto the bed, yawning as a wave of lethargy engulfed me. There was barely time to wonder why I was suddenly sleepy before I was out.
As soon as my eyes fluttered closed, I opened them again and was on my feet, probing my ear and the foreign object impaling it with my fingers. It didn't hurt now, but I could feel its weight. What in the hells?
I paced restlessly, pulling and prodding, until I remembered the mirrored glass in the refresher. From there I could see the metal hoop transfixing my earlobe, which had gone bright red from all this handling.
Remembering the motions my fingers had gone through to get it in, I fumbled through a reversal of the process, eventually pulling the thing off.
Now I could see the tiny dot in the lobe. Force-given insight showed me what it was, not contradicting my observations. It was the remnant of a puncture that had not healed completely, leaving a tunnel of scar tissue that reached all the way through to the other side. It had constricted somewhat, filling in slightly, but the reinsertion of the jewelry had opened that up again.
I hadn't really expected anything else. There hadn't been the kind of effort and pain that would have come from puncturing a solid earlobe. If it had been, I could have focused my will on the injury and closed it. But there was pretty much nothing I could do about old scar tissue. Shrink it a little, maybe, but the other would just repeat the process and I would waste the effort.
Fractured personas did not come with old scar tissue! I didn't know what to make of this. One thing was for sure - I was not going to reveal myself to whoever or whatever the other was until I had some grasp of the situation. An accommodating hominid had patiently explained to me something about where I was, as well as what a "furry" was and one or two other useful things, but I needed more information to proceed.
And now I have been mutilated. Not only was ritually pierced flesh a barbaric, uncivilized custom - and no matter how small the hole, someone was bound to see it - but it meant one more feature that might cause me to stand out. I needed as much anonymity as I could get, damn it!
I'm getting a little too wild here. The ambient Force energy was starting to churn. Performing a calming breath exercise, I watched my reflection shed the slight signs of anger and frustration. The Force was slower to settle, but soon enough it too reflected a stable emotional state. It was important, I knew, to maintain at least a facade of composure and competence. People are easier to handle if they see me in that way - they can see that while I can't do everything, I know how much I can do, and when to stop.
It was also important because I knew where passion led. The Dark Side had claimed me at least twice before, and I knew my own nature as well as anyone could. Bogan and Ashla, Dark and Light, hero and villain. As of now, I was redeemed of the Dark and once again walking in the Light. I might fall yet again, I might not, but redemption was more than the flick of a switch. Safer to suppress emotion; backsliding was not an option.
Even though sometimes I missed the instant respect I'd had as a Dark Lord. The way, even when I disguised myself, everyone watched me, the way they listened when I spoke and told me outright what was needed. I'd liked that. More and more these days, I found myself missing it. They had never wasted words when I was Dark Lord, and everyone had done as I wished, watching me eagerly in the Force.
I'd liked that. Hatred could be disquieting, but with the proper amount of dependence and fear it could be overcome. The fear, after all, was just one aspect of respect and adoration, which I had also had. Devotion, even. It was true that there was very little loyalty among the Sith and my subordinates had always been trying to murder me and usurp my position, but that had at least made life more exciting. Of course, both times there had been a nominal underling but actual coruler who had been outstandingly trusted and faithful right up until the betrayal...
And here I am, wasting time that could be spent in so many more productive ways. All around was a dizzying panorama of the life around me and the possible ways I could affect it, a vast and abstract ever-changing tapestry of light and shadow and darkness. There was much to be done, differences to make. Not doing all I could was the same as approving of what I could have stopped. I owed the galaxy that much.
"Hold on. I'm not sure how much I understand here. You say that you are a, ah-" The term had slipped my memory.
"A vampire, yes." The way he pronounced the word was odd - the vam was said very quickly, with emphasis on the pi of the next syllable. It probably had something to do with his sharp, pronounced canine teeth. I found it interesting how, despite them, his red lower lip was completely intact instead of torn and bleeding.
"Thank you. And you need blood?"
"Warm blood, yes. Arrangements were made, for my kind - the Red Cross, it has been most accommodating." Clearly the man was dancing around the subject, hoping that I would get it before he had to spell it out. That was too bad. The Force relayed hunger need hunger restraint hunger need hunger shame hunger need hunger - he wanted something and he wished he didn't, but I wasn't sure what.
I settled for asking him to explain to me just what this "red cross" was.
"You haven't heard of it?" The man blinked, then shrugged, dismissing my ignorance. "A medical organization. Many of my kind has been able to subside on the blood they have donated - vampires don't care if it's not good enough for transfusion, you see."
"Explain to me exactly what a 'vampire' is," I said levelly.
"You don't know? We are common in the media, everyone knows." He was clearly taken aback, just as the equine humanoid earlier today had been surprised to hear of my ignorance about what a "furry" was. Frankly I found it a bit irritating - they had both seen my robes and immediately known me to be Jedi. I hate being ignorant - knowledge is power, when all the speeches are over.
Just like the equine, he was shortly over his surprise. "A vampire is a creature of the night, yes? Stronger than mortal men. We are many of us different." The man's oddly-accented voice took on a sort of sing-song quality. "Some cannot bear the touch of the sun. To most of us, holy symbols and garlic and running water are, mildly put, unpleasant. We do not appear in mirrors, and wood is the most dangerous of weapons. Sometimes silver. You are certain that this is unfamiliar?"
In answer I arched one eyebrow higher than the other, and he sighed and went on. "Some are like in a coma during the day - which was very alarming when it first happened, yes."
"It's day now," I said mildly, interrupting during one of his pauses.
"Late afternoon, early evening," he corrected. "I am not so badly off as some of them. I am confined to formalwear, which for whatever reason always includes a cravat, yes, but the later hours of the day do not trouble me, if I stay inside." The... vampire continued his explanation.
"Some - not I, but some - can become bats, or wolves, or mist. Many are un-dead, many cannot enter a home uninvited, there are many other small things which some have and others lack. All must feed on the living - blood, or life-energy, the like. It is complicated. Everyone's vampires are different," he finished somewhat hesitantly.
"And you need warm blood," I prodded. Having heard something about that from the equid, I would have liked to ask him about the "bats" and the "wolves", but I could sense in the Force that he was finally getting to the point. "You, personally."
"Not a great deal, no," he said, wincing a little. "There are some who require vast quantities, yes, and often too. But I am not among them! Yet the provided blood, it does nothing for me! Even heated, it is too cold, too sterile!"
"And so you have taken to lurking about, asking strangers?" It did not look like the wisest of plans, to make an understatement. This was a good portion of what I had been doing, all day - pointing out, sometimes subtly, sometimes physically, that someone was failing to think things through. Small gestures often had large consequences, as my teachers had said.
"Ah, w-well, you see, the thing is, um, my, my mythos-" I was interested to note that although the vampire was showing all the other signs of an embarrassed human, even dropping part of the accent, he was not blushing. His face was just as corpse-pale as when I had first seen him beckoning me into this room, off from one of the main passageways. "Um, there are some vampires who spread their, their condition to anyone they bi- to whoever they feed on, yes?"
I blinked. "Oh, like rakghouls?" Hairless, blind, colorless flesh-hungry monsters that roamed Taris's lowest levels in shambling packs, all the more grotesque because they had once been human. By far the worst part was watching an infected human in the last stages, after their hair and ears and teeth fell away but before the hunger overcame what was left of their minds, scrabbling in the dirt, weeping out of foggy eyes that were starting to seal, mewling in pain as new needle-sharp infected teeth burst through their gums.
Shuddering, I shook off the memory in time to hear the vampire saying, "What?"
"It's not relevant. You're saying that you are infectious?" Maintaining my heroic alignment only goes so far.
"No! No, not like that!" He actually waved his hands as he dissembled, and I noted a patch of hair on each of his palms. "Not me, it is some other vampires!" Again I raised my eyebrows, and watched as he coughed self-consciously and settled himself. Amazing, the way different people interpreted changes in my facial expression. Admittedly, I adjusted myself unconsciously to each person, but still...
"No, I am, I am 'old school'. It has to go both ways - you would need to consume my blood, as well. And then, it might be me who killed you, or it might be something else, you would have to die before there was much of a change, yes."
"Open your mind to mine," I commanded in a soft voice, looking squarely into his eyes.
He tried to meet my gaze challengingly, then faltered a little, blinking before I did. "W-what do you mean?"
"Just do it. It's easy, just relax. Calm down, I won't hurt you. I just want to know that you won't hurt me." My word choice implied that I could pore through the intimacies of his mind. I couldn't, of course, but if he so allowed I could tell if he planned some subtle deception.
Even closed, I could sense the conflict in his mind, hovering between hunger and the desire for privacy. Hunger won out, and he agreed.
"Now. Would I suffer any unpleasant consequences for letting you take a portion of my blood? Think about it before replying."
He did so. "I don't believe that you would. There would be no noteworthy injury to veins and arteries, or muscles, or windpipe; there never is. The bite would not even get infected - my teeth, they are very clean. There might, perhaps, be a scar, and enough would be taken that you might be momentarily weakened. But there would not be any other ill effects, I truly believe."
"You're telling the truth," I observed. Some part of him, the source of the hunger, wanted to come to the fore and just take, stalking this place and taking victims and using them up, then either leaving them to die or converting them. But he was firmly in control of that desire. The longer he went hungry, the stronger it would become.
"I hope you realize that this isn't a permanent solution," I warned. He started nodding even before I had finished the sentence.
"This is known to me, Jedi. Yes. But, before the hunger becomes too much, I must feed. I truly, truly do not know what to do when I hunger again." Still being sincere. Good.
For a few moments I considered, a part of me wishing that he would just solve his own damn problem.
I do believe that this is the strangest thing that I've done today, I mused
I was having a nightmare when it happened, and, at first, thought it was simply an intensification of the dream.
Jedi, according to a few of my old masters, don’t dream often. Maybe they’re wrong. Or perhaps it was yet another small but crucial difference between Jedi and Sith.
But then again, I suppose it wasn’t a real dream, but a chain of memories sharing only one theme in common. That theme was the deaths of Mandalorians.
The hard-eyed merc in half-armor who’d recognized my face in a seedy cantina on the Outer Rim and remembered the bounty on my head; her dying expression of shock melted into the expressionless mask of the armored bodyguard working for the Exchange as I exploited the join between two pieces of armor; and the impression in the Force of sheerest disbelief became the defenseless, defiant figure of the prisoner on the Star Forge even as I drained his latent Force energy to refresh myself; his pain and futile resistance was the same as the leader on the Unknown World of the Rakata as she fell to her knees in the instant before I harvested her head.
The weakness and betrayal of her body finally failing her was the same as the nameless one beneath Kashyyk’s lightless reaches; his dying impression was a sharp contrast to Jagi Ordo’s as Canderous’s old friend suicidally charged us so as not to compromise his honor; his last wordless cry of defiance became that of the old, old fighter in a nameless refueling station; the sizzle of his armor deflecting my lightsaber’s heat was identical to the sound made by Sherruk’s cuirass as he swore in frustration and sudden pain; Sherruk’s dying intensity was the same as that of Bendak Starkiller in the dueling ring of Taris as he coughed out the last seconds of his life at my feet while the crowd screamed my assumed name in joy and bloodlust.
The crowd’s cries melted together with hazed impressions of all the Mandalorians, in name or in truth, who had died while I was a Sith. It was a small mercy, that I could not remember that yet. I knew that I’d done far worse. But it was a brief reprieve, for as I tore Mandalore the Ultimate’s ridge-marked mask from his head I flashed backwards through the Mandalorian Wars and was there again with the first.
Badly wounded, possibly dying, lying on the dirt as a warrior only twenty-three Coruscant years old, a few years younger than me, strained to breathe through ruined lungs, as I used the Force and stretched desperately to grasp within his chest and twist them. And he fell and pulled off his helmet and bled from his mouth and fought and fought and fought to live until it was too much and he had nothing left, and I had nothing left, and there was nothing but the rain and the desperate hope that Malak would find me so he would not be forced to fight alone because it would mean his death -
It was only then that I felt it, a warning that woke me, and it took a moment to see that I was not still trapped in the memory, that what tangled my arms and legs was not mud and vines and exhaustion but simple bedclothes, that the menace came not from that far-distant jungle but from the shadows around me.
But, awake, I felt that menace coalesce. The little room was dark, even to Force-enhanced eyes – the light out in the hallway had been extinguished. My eyes saw only the barest edges of things; everything else was in shadow.
Through the Force, however, I could clearly seefeel something inimical in those shadows. It hadn’t come in through the door – somehow, it had dimmed the light and stepped – or, rather, slid – from a different shadow into this room.
The intruder, I sawfelt, was an almost shapeless immaterial thing with velvety soft tentacles. It wasn’t finished getting in, easing from there to here like a cephalopod through a tiny opening. As it finished relocating, I sawfelt a humanoid upper body on the thing, as velvety and immaterial as the rest of it, with long, spindly fingers that ended in claws.
A slight – very slight – sense of kinship conveyed by the Force told me that this thing, like me, had at least once caused and fed on another being’s more negative emotions – fear, pain, rage, the more violent aspects of lust and avarice, and of course despair. But where I had gleaned little more than perverse satisfaction and a handle into the minds of my victims, this was a creature that literally was sustained by these things. It had evolved, or perhaps been designed, to eat emotion.
My physical eyes registered slanted, glowing red eyes up near the ceiling, and I could seefeel the curling horns on either side, the long, wispy “hair” billowing behind what passed for its head, which was otherwise featureless. Not entirely a part of the physical world, it floated as if underwater, drifting slowly from side to side. Its mantle spanned most of the room, three meters by four. The velvety tentacles curled and roiled seductively, barely visible to my physical eyes.
If the Force hadn’t been telling me threat since before I’d awakened, the sibilant malevolence of the thing’s silent mindvoice might have tipped me off.
“Humanchild… human girl… alone in the dark, dreaming…” It had no vocal chords or other ways of making noise, but it really had no need of such things. The creature was telepathic as well as empathic, and strong with what felt like the Dark Side.
“Your protectors sleep… they know not the danger… foolish girl, to sleep alone… when such dreams… rich dreams.“ From the thing emanated a simple command, be still in fear. Coupled with the way it had enhanced that dream, the way it had doused the light, and the fact that the only bits of it that were remotely visible seemed to have been inspired to terrify, I suspected that it would have worked on nearly anyone.
But I wasn’t just anyone.
Admittedly, I’ve never had to deal with anything that looked quite like this creeping up to try and loom over me as I slept. But I’ve also had to deal with worse. Exactly what this ‘worse’ was, I couldn’t quite remember, but I was confident that I had conquered it.
“Such delicious dreams… such rich energies… what could you have done, foolish girl, to harbor such a feast?”
More than you, I thought to myself with irritation, but I showed no sign of being anything but petrified, keeping my eyes very wide, my limbs rigid. The time was not yet right. What was my strategy? Lightsaber, or the Force? It was difficult to choose… both would be rather satisfying, but… well… it wasn’t solid.
Very gradually, the creature started to lower itself down towards me, velvety tentacles extending. I sawfelt the little barbed hooks in those tentacles, and the beaked maw at the thing’s center, hovering closer and closer.
That’s close enough.
Reaching out with the Force, I found the thing’s mind residing in what passed for its brain – which was, interestingly, located inside of its humanoid chest, not in its head. I gripped it ruthlessly, feeltasting the structure. My hand was out, my fingers closing around air. Hand gestures weren’t technically necessary when using the Force, but why reject the added focus of a sympathetic gesture?
The creature roiled – surprisefearpain – but could not escape my grip. There was a sharp-edged point to its mind, like a bladed shell, somehow simultaneously defensive and predatory and unpleasant. It was hunger, more than anything, hunger and a sadism that woke faint echoes from my core. But that was not the entire mind, no, there was much more, coiled up and hidden…
It had been a long, long time since I had last tackled something like this. At least, without talking it through, exploring a companion’s issues by listening and offering up suggestions. That method was definitely preferable, even though it took ages. It left no scarring, no fear. It was gentle, as the other method wasn’t.
But what this method lacked in gentleness, it made up for in efficiency.
It could feel my presence in the Force as I closed around it, and it struggled to escape, lashing and writhing, trying to swell or shrink or become slippery or spiky enough to shake me. It tried to dissipate, it tried to rock me with fear and pain. But I knew what I was doing. This thing might have power, but I could seefeeltaste that it was weak to its own attack.
Like all predators, once it realized that it wasn’t in control it became as fearful as any prey, releasing a flood of desperate energy into the ambient Force. The fear swept past me in a rush, hot and cold. Old habits made me sample it, but I kept myself from drawing on that energy, from savoring it as I secretly wanted to do.
I made no pretense about what I was doing, and it fought with renewed strength as I sank into it and insinuated myself. Perceiving the core of its hunger, I grasped it like some small, vicious animal, simultaneously closing my outstretched hand into a fist. The intruder stiffened and became perfectly still.
At last it turned to begging. “No! Please… please, humanchild. You’ll kill me. Don’t. Please, no. I meant nothing. I meant nothing. Stop! Stop, please! I- you’re killing me! Stop, I’ll do anything! Mercy!” Through the Force, I knew that it was sincere.
Maybe, if I hadn’t been in the mood I was in, I would have let go. I would have blunted its edge, leaving it mostly intact. But it had influenced my dreams, and I had awakened in a mood that wasn’t exactly diplomatic. The thought crossed my mind that I should leave it be – but my next thought was to take everything and rework my would-be assailant into a follower. I’d done that before. More than once. Only later would I think to wonder why killing it outright hadn’t occurred to me.
Ignoring it, I wrenched. It screamed and struggled to no avail, weakening by the second as I pulled and twisted, rotating my wrist and pulling my fist towards me. The thin torso that housed what served as its brain distorted, part of it trying to follow my hand. At last the sharp-edged core pulled free, then dissolved into nothing in my grasp. The creature didn’t exist fully in the physical world; it bled only a little, and the ragged exit wound knit itself up as I watched.
“-Aahh!” the creature… well, it did not have vocal cords to gasp with, but the effect was the same. “You… you’ve released me.”
It looked much the same, an enormous hovering immaterial cephalopod-human amalgam, now drooping, spent. I sawfelt it close its glowing eyes and press a spindly hand against its face.
“I’m… free,” it – he – whispered, mindvoice weak but inflected like a human’s was. “I’m free of it.” Even though I wasn’t reaching into him any longer, I could feeltaste it tremble, fearful still.
“That’s right,” I said in answer, wincing a little at the sound of my voice. I might be fully awake, but my throat was rusty. Silently I hoped that my other still slept. I didn’t know if she was aware of me yet, and hoped to keep her in the dark. “It’s gone.”
“Um… thanks. Thank you,” There was still too much fear in him for this gratitude to be sincere. Resigned, I started extricating myself from the bedcoverings. Normally when I sleep, after I’ve settled I become very still. I haven’t slept like that for almost a year. The dreams make me twist and turn like a mad thing. I may not remember them every night, but they’re real.
“I’ve done you something of a favor, you know,” I told him directly, watching him shrink from my gaze. “It doesn’t seem like it, but I have. Yes, now you have to think about what you’ve done, about what you’re going to have to keep doing if you want to keep living. You can’t let predatory instincts drive you to do this. But if you kept on as you have been, then someone would have stopped you. Maybe someone who would hold a grudge.”
“I-“ He waffled, then, trying to decide whether to be thankful or honest. He chose honest. “I have no idea what to do now. Where do I go? How do I live?”
He got little sympathy from me. “Welcome to the rest of the galaxy. There’s little certainty here.
"What did you do to him?!" The tatooed young man with the shock of black hair demanded, voice rising with indignation.
"I set him free. He begged me for it. If that spirit was truly trapped within this armor by these "spells" for twenty years, as he told me, than he was a slave. Of course, his perspective may have been... different." I glanced dispassionately down at the scattered, empty armor, burned through in several places.
"_I_ bound Death's Hand to me! He was my Master's, and without me he would still be Li's! You had no right!" He was getting rather red in the face. _What is his name again? Furious Ming? He certainly lives up to it._
"I cannot stand slavery." It was bad of me to take pleasure in the levelness of my voice and my own conviction, but I did not like the man. He seemed too self-centered.
"The ability to bind spirits was gifted to me by the Water Dragon! Death's Hand was made to be loyal. If I cannot keep him, then I will replace him. Your spirit looks strong, if odd. I will bind you, instead!" _Typical darkside adventurer... possessive and with an awful temper._
"I would rather not fight you, but if you insist..." I shrugged my shoulders and took a ready stance.
Ming surprised me by crying out "Mirabelle!" and making what looked like a flare-muzzled projectile weapon- some kind of antique gun- appear in his hands. I ignited my lightsaber. _No matter what strange abilities he has, a "sword" that cuts through *anything* is out of his depth._
The muzzle came up and "spoke" with a small explosion, but I had already raised the 'saber's green blade up to incinerate the projectile. The sharp, stinging pain bellow my right shoulder surprised me.
I cast Stasis on him, and the weapon vanished from his hands. The power locked him into position, standing with back arched, head up, mouth open and hands half-raised as if fending off my attack. Deciding that Ming was incapable of continuing this pointless fight, I turned over some of the pieces of black "eastern armor" until I found some yellow strips of what could have been heavy silk. They made admirable bindings.
I looked away as the armored clone probed the gash in my upper arm.
I had blocked the lead ball when Furious Ming fired it, but it was larger than I expected, and a fragment of it had struck me. Thankfully it missed the major blood vessels and didn't cut through the muscle. I had tried several times to use Heal, but the sliver of metal remained embedded, so I admitted defeat. Rhea would make sure the report got in to the agent who would be interested. Agent D, most likely. He was the one I went to for previous scuffles.
Despite various pain-blocking Jedi abilities, I winced as the shard was worked out. It was a relief to finally seal the hole over with a kolto patch.
"General, if you'd just _take us with you_ there wouldn't be any need for this," the clone told me. Not for the first time, either.
"Sirty, how many times must I tell you? I am not a General. It's just Revan. Besides, if I take you with me most of the people I want to talk to will stay in hiding." I looked into the visor slit as firmly as I could, noting for the fiftieth time that it was Mandalorian.
"Maybe not, but according to our programming you are the highest authority who will give us orders, _any_ orders. The Commander's stumped and we don't know what else to do." I glanced away at the sense of hopeless bewilderment that I felt coming off him.
"That is hardly unexpected. Do you know how many Jedi have warned me about Order 66? You jumped a little bit. I _know_ there haven't been any recent sightings of Palpatine, and I know you changed your comm signals, but most of them have bad memories of you. _I_ am before your time, but even I am bothered." I straightened my back, jerked my chin at the door. "Out. Don't start chasing any more Jedi. My previous directive still stands; see what you can find out about the stormies that are running around. And close the door behind you."
He obeyed, of course. It's what he was conditioned to do, even if Xanadu made him aberrant by the standard set by his memories. That programming hasn't lessened because of a few quirks like "American slang" and "pop-culture" references.
Abruptly I first sat, then fell back upon the neatly-made bed and stared at the plastery ceiling. Elisa's little computer was making the soft tones that meant it had recieved another message from one of her annoying friends.
_It's time to bring her out of it, I guess._ Carefully, stretching out inside my head, I found the foreign _spark_ that was the girl. Closing my eyes, I went limp and allowed her to wake up.
_Yes, it's still working._ My body rolled itself stiffly off of the cot and opened my eyes. As with last time, she went straight for her computer. Elisa, I had found through close observation, had something of a one-track mind. As long as she was physically fulfilled and occasionally walked us around this area of "The Con", she was content with the softly-whirring machine and the books scattered about under the furniture.
_Sooner or later this irritating teenager will realize that she's spending too long asleep. It's only been two days._ Even so, that could wait until I had the metaphorical high ground. Or at least a decent steeping-stool.
The dream, which involved trying to climb a rope ladder using only my legs, dragged itself into semi-wakefullness because of a loud knocking at the door. I half-opened my eyes, confused for a moment until I remembered that I wasn't home or at the dorm, and focused on the red glow of the bedside clock. 3:49. A.M., of course.
"Nnng." I muttered muzzily. _Wanna sleep._ I groped with one hand for the bedsheet. _Damn hot Florida weather..._ Naturally, it was at that point that the air conditioner started to rattle, and I felt some kind of faint pressure at my temples. Faced with this new threat, I surrendered.
"Wha." I directed at the door. _This ought to be good._
"General Revan, it's CT-36/732. Sirty. You asked me to tell you if anything happened..."
The pressure increased. My half-finished inhalation went out in a rush, then my lungs filled again and my mouth replied "Give me a minute. And _stop calling me general._"
Abruptly, my eyes were open. I climbed off of the bed, dragged the comb through my gradually-lengthening hair, and started binding it back with an elastic. My temples twinged suddenly and didn't let up as my hands jerked, somehow managing to pull the hair back strictly and tight, and wrapping the tie so close to my skull that I could feel it in a knot.
The next thing I knew, I had wrenched the door open and stepped out into the hall, and was all but surrounded by white-and gray-armored clones.
My brow furrowed and my mouth told them, "You're not coming with me. You'll just get hurt; very few threats here should be solved with blasters. _Or_ demolitions, or vibroblades, or any other weapon you carry, any of you."
One made some kind of inarticulate protest, but "my" voice interrupted him. "I _know_ about your training, and I _know_ you're fed up with everything. But you can't help. I'd like to take a few of you- _don't move_- but you are all wired for combat and I suspect that this would bore you, too. Don't come with me. That's an order." That said, the troopers reluctantly sort of drifted back up and down the hallway, which was otherwise deserted.
I turned to Sirty. He saluted. The breath burst from my lungs in a sigh- again- and "my" voice admonished the clone. "Stop that, and tell me what happened."
"Gen- Revan, the comm specialist picked up some strange sounds on his equipment. He's been getting all kinds of things since we came... _here_, but these are different. High-intensity, but also at a very high frequency, almost too high to pick up. I- we have a bad feeling about this one."
I tried to tell him something along the lines of "What do you expect _me_ to do about it?", but instead "my" voice said "Where?". Sirty pointed a white-armored hand- "The atrium"- and "my" voice said "On it."
And I was off, trotting past the dispersing troopers-_do *all* of them sleep on this level?_- and heading for the lobby. My hand flashed out before me in some strange gesture, and I started to run in long, loping strides. Peripherally, I noticed that I was wearing a brown, vaguely kimonolike robe instead of the falling-apart-at-the-seams pajamas that I had gone to sleep in.
Despite the fact that the lobby was all the way on the other side of the hotel, and the pulsating pressure to my head, it didn't take long for me to reach it.
When I had first come to Xanadu's adjoining hotel, I had been part of a mostly costume-less crowd filling in room registrations. It had been high noon when I'd walked into the atrium, and the high glass ceiling had impressed me, along with potted palms and taseful furnishings. The part of Wisconsin where I'd been raised didn't have anything like that.
Now, in the early A.M., it should have been dark, since obviously the hotel wasn't getting any more customers and many of its staff had fled. It was still dark, but not enough. I couldn't quite place what it was, having stopped in the entryway, but after blinking a few times I realized that the low light was red. Blood red.
Clawed shadows were being cast distorted upon the walls, and a high, raving chant was barely audible, along with a sort of shivering keen that twinged painfully in my ears. Most of the furniture had apparently been dragged off, but despite the unobstructed field of view the figure in the atrium's center was somehow hard to look at.
"Demon-summoner if I've ever laid eyes on one;" a female voice murmered. I risked a glange at the source and saw a short woman- five feet, or close enough- with long, dark hair wearing some kind of leotard. She noticed my gaze and nodded briskly. "I'm Di- no, S... Sa... oh, forget it, call me Tregarde."
"R- Elisa. Elisa." It took a momentary struggle, but I managed my name. My turncoat tongue continued. "Didn't know anyone else was up at this hour."
Tregarde's hand went to the knife sheathed at her waist. "Yeah, me neither.
The emenations interrupted my novel. Tough to say who felt it first, me
or Andre. Usually I don't get anything until _after_ the Infernal Slime or Lord of the Third Hell or whatever's been called up." Her eyes flicked to a man-shaped shadow against the wall, creeping towards the raving summoner.
My forehead ridged as one eyebrow lifted. "You've done this before." It wasn't a question.
"Yeah, yeah I have- but I haven't. The past three days've been interesting- anyway, I'm pretty sure he's wrapping up. Never, ever interrupt a summoning in progress. Sometimes everything stops; sometimes it turns into a free gateway for creatures from that Realm to pass through. I'd rather not risk it." The high raving _was_ reaching fever pitch, and the jarring keen was ebbing in and out of my hearing range.
"What, exactly, is being 'summoned'?"
Tregarde pursed her lips. "Most of that cantrip he's been spouting is exalting his own prowress as a demon-caller. I didn't get here early enough to hear it all, but he's made his terms of service clear... from the name he's repeating now, I'd say either a big name that I've never heard of or one of the minor imps."
I flicked a hand out at the figure, which during this terse conversation had resolved a bit. He was standing in a pentagram within a pentagram within a pentagram, and the center one had a flaring of sullen red fire outlining it, the source of the atrium's unpleasant light. The figure, in trailing robes, was waving his arms like a demented conductor, an image that was helped slightly by the music stand holding up a heavy book before him.
"_That_ is for a minor summoning?" Tregarde twicthed in what may have been a shrug. "If you have only minor talent, or a big ego, or both. I can see half a dozen errors already, but I put a ward around the whole thing. Nothing's likely to come shooting out that Andre can't handle."
We kept silent during the last minute or so of the summoning. The caller hardly seemed to breathe, he raved so loudly and so guttrally. I could picture the inhabitants of the closest rooms hiding there and trying to pretend that they heard nothing. A good bit of the rant sounded like screams, the flames of the smallest pentagram throbbing with each quaver.
Enough like screams, actually, that when the summoner's robes caught fire it made little difference in the sound. He jumped repeatedly, flattening in the air as if the mark of his flaming pentagram was the base of a solid glass wall, before blundering into the center and suddenly stopping, hanging in the air like a burning effigy being suspended by a wire from the ceiling.
I didn't see anything else, but Tregarde muttered "Jesus Cluny Frog on a crutch!" a few heartbeats later, and someone behind me gasped(apparently other people had also gathered, unwilling to come into the lobby) "Rikti!". The woman drew her wicked- looking knife and started stabbing and waving it in the air, making faint, lingering blue sigils. My hand found a cold metal cylinder hanging from a belt at my waist, but didn't unhook it.
The shrill, continous scream of the blazing summoner blended with the pressure at my temples and the endless keen, intensifying into a deep throbbing in my ears. I finally saw something, or thought I did, flashing like a spiky afterimage on closed eyelids, flowing within the pentagrams. I thought I saw something similar flowing from Tregarde, something smoother, less jagged, but when they touched that noise stopped.
With the cessation of that awful din, all of the flames winked out like smokeless snuffed candles, the suspended conjurer dropped back to the scorched floor, and the light faded quickly, leaving everything lit only by the gibbous moon. The pressure on my temples eased to a touch. My heart beat hotly, loudly, several times in my ears before slowing and allowing me to hear again.
Tregarde was saying something, wearily. "Show's over, people. Andre and I will clean it up from here. I'll try to explain when it's not four ack emma, but we'd appreciate it if you kept quiet." The scattering of half-visible... people started to drift away. Tregarde walked into the moonlit atrium as a soft male voice with a French accent proclaimed, "I think he may still be alive, _mon cherie_..."
I shook my head wearily, but hard enough that my ponytail stung one cheek. _Well, I wasn't exactly needed there._ I waited in place for a few breaths more, but my legs showed no signs of moving themselves and I went in search of my room, getting lost in the process.
Never trust wall maps.
It was probably because of the demon-summoner, but stumbling back away from the atrium I was exhausted. For some reason the overhead lights in most of the hallways were dimmed- some, I saw, were broken, or melted, or covered with a yellowish gooey substance, but a number were simply _off_, and except for stretches of hall or enclaves where they worked properly it was quite dark.
The little islands of light seemed to have drawn the few people who were wandering around so early in the morning. A number of vampires and wolflike creatures, mostly, although they never made a move to attack me. I remembered seeing the gibbous moon from the atrium and wondered what would happen when it was full.
After a prolonged period of meandering from here to there, never quite finding a solid reference point, I gave up and looked at a wallmap. One of the ones that says "You Are Here!" and reeks of cheerful trustworthiness. I oriented myself with it, utterly unsurprised to discover that I was three floors too high.
Naturally enough, it misled me. The directions that I committed to memory- "right, right, center fork, down a floor, left past the weight room" and so on, somehow steered me deep into the Con proper.
While most beings of appropriate size had fled Xanadu grounds or taken up residence in the hotel, it simply couldn't fit everyone. A number had elected to stay in one of the various Convention Center buildings. From the scuttlebutt I'd picked up while getting food, they tended to form groups or "gangs" of similar types. For example, elves as a body slept in the same place, and it was rumored that dryads had set aside their own "safe territory" as well, in the nearby woods.
For the most part, these "gangs" of "like kinds" were mentally highly affected by the Con and felt nervous about being Out There alone. It was something of a surprise to me that the clonetroopers had ignored this unwritten rule to room on my floor, since they fit the bill perfectly.
I distracted myself with these thoughts and utterly failed to recognize the ambush. I suppose I was expecting the strange movement-impulse to watch for me.
At any rate, I had only a second of the uneasy tingle before something stepped out behind me and snapped rough hands around the back of my neck. A pressure built like metal cones digging into my temples and then all but vanished as a voice hissed "Mine now, Mr .Anderson! One more!" and my gut felt this awful loose _wrenching_.
I went limp, waiting for my body to move on its own, realizing with horror that it wasn't going to. As a watery, melting sensation started to trickle down my arms, I found and yanked out the lightsaber hanging from my belt.
My assailant tensed when the green blade leaped into existance, and I reflexively twitched it like a backscratcher. The hands around my neck dropped off, and this time I welcomed the pressure that returned to bracket my eyes and move my body with fluid efficiency. The reek of ozone hit my nostrils, and I was glad of it.
More suited men appeared around the corner behind me, out of hall doors, the green light glinting off of the rounded edges of their square dark glasses. The lightsaber moved, almost by itself, in a defiant salute, its hilt rough enough to grip my sweating palms.
The men- all identical, in a way that seemed _wrong_, different from the sameness of the clone troopers- answered the salute, rushing at me in a silent, tuxedoed tide, teeth bared. I felt my own mouth twist in an unfriendly smile as the saber met each of them.
Some were armed- a samurai sword, a billy club, a lamp- but the lightsaber burned through weapon and man with equal disdain, lopping through bodies with only the slightest drag. My right hand spun the glowing blade back, forwards, diagonally, left and right in sweeping cuts at heart-height, throat height, waist height.
At some point I decided that I was watching a movie. One of those big-budget affairs, with special effects to die for and obscenely long fight scenes. I could almost feel the tackiness of the floor beneath me, the sweating giant overpriced Sprite cup in my hands.
Especially when eight of them surrounded me, just out of range of the tip of the 'saber, and my head snapped quickly around to see them all. The ring wasn't going to come any closer, and if I targeted one part the rest of it would swarm me. _What will she do next?_
"She" reached out my hand in a gesture like casting a discus, and each identical man was knocked backwards several feet. _Force Wave, I've always wanted to see that one!_ My body propelled itself forwards, and the cool cylinder of a second saber dropped into my left hand. This one had a white-blue blade that emerged with a _snap-hiss_, and both darted forth, burning through the abdomen of one man so that intestines boiled out, snapping to either side at blurring speed.
It turned out that the last one had a machine gun, actually.
Somehow anticipating where each bullet would go _before_ it was fired, my body incinerated some and dodged others, but some still grazed me, tearing through the outside of one thigh, buzzing my cheek like an angry wasp, whipping the robe around me. _It's too damn fast!_ Unlike blaster bolts, bullets can't be reflected. The high-speed rattle of it was thunder to my ears.
And then the last man was shot in the base of the neck by someone behind me, a red flower blooming and trailing above his shoulder. As he fell, in slow motion it seemed, his features blurred, distorted, into a younger, paler face with lighter hair, expression changing from fury to... relief.
The lightsabers deactivated and my hands hooked them unsteadily back onto my belt. The pressure at my temples let up and I almost fell over for a moment before realizing that I was standing on my own, and glanced around.
There was very little blood. Unless their energy is partially drawn off, lightsabers cauterize cleanly. There was still a massacre's worth of bodies- a scattering of heavily-endowed women, something gray and rotting, two elves, a toddler-sized doll, a stormtrooper, an anthropomorphic hound, what looked like a Mountie without a horse, some satyrs, a red-and-black skeleton, numerous others that I could not see... all in pieces.
Obviously, the movie analogy fell apart.
I didn't realize that I went on hands and knees until I was there, gagging up what felt like every meal I've ever eaten. Hands- larger, and calloused, but gentle- supported my head and kept me from falling into the sick, helped me up, let me rest my weight on strong forearms.
"Nice work, General. But it's just as well that I got here when I did. You move fast." Rolling a suddenly-heavy head on a suddenly-weak neck, I stared blankly at the unhelmeted head of one of the clones.
"Thou' I tolju t' stay," I managed. The corner of his mouth quirked up a bit. He could almost have been one of my mother's Filipino friends, though his bulk and the quickly-reholstered blaster he carried disputed that.
"Yes, General, you did tell us not to follow you. But you didn't proscribe wandering.... and I've been known to bend orders from time to time. I left my armor behind, too... I probably told you to call me A-98, "Nate", but... since Cestus, it's Jangotat." He hesitated, glanced around. "I don't know why, but I want to say... General, the two sequel movies were awful."
I snorted as Jangotat slung one of my arms over his broad shoulders and started to half-carry, half-support me back towards my room. I was supposed to say something... fairly important, what was it.... ah. " Jangotat... don't call me Gen'ral."
"Of course, General. Whatever you want."
"Why me? Why couldn't I have been one of the ones who just got 'integrated'?" I leaned heavily on Jangotat and glared indifferently at a passing woman who appeared to have faintly-glowing antennae. The first person I'd seen since... My lips tried to writhe, but I pressed them together stubbornly.
Finally they wrenched free of my control. I tried to hold my breath, paralyze my tongue, clamp my teeth or whatever, but those options too were taken from me.
"Oh, believe me, it's not what I would have chosen either." The voice rolling out of my mouth was ever so slightly deeper, richer, dryer, than my own. It had an accent, just a slight one, that reminded me of English and Russian and Austrailian accents, but wasn't quite any of those. Like my own private statement, it was under my breath.
It continued. "Still, this is... interesting. I have heard of such a thing... never seen it, of course, but... Tell me, child; how old are you?"
A little bit slower, and _darker_, too. _Of course, I might be a bit
biased._ The lights, which I had assumed were burned out, flickered on again and I blinked, eyes watering.
I could move my mouth and throat again, though it took me a moment. "Kk- rrrgh." I cleared my throat. "Elisa. My name is Elisa, and I'm nineteen, dammit."
"Revan. At last count, I was twenty-eight." I gasped as several tearing pains- in my thigh, at my cheek, something at my ribs- made themselves known, then took back my mouth as a rushing filled and them emptied from my ears, taking the pain with it.
"You'll excuse me if I'm not charmed." The patient clone supporting me chose this moment to press something cold that stung into the base of my neck.
I hissed, and Jangotat said, "Sorry, General. The stimulant should help, at least." Deciding to ignore him- hard to do to someone if your arm is over his shoulders and his arm is half-supporting you, but I managed- and continued to mutter. "I don't know why you're here or where you come from, but I want you _out_. Now. This is _my_ body."
"Is it, though? I would argue there. This doesn't quite look or feel exactly like _my_ body, but it is a reasonable facsimile. Judging from your- umph- general lack of coordination- _stop stumbling on purpose_- you are not at all used to strenous activity." I deliberately dragged my feet.
"Neither are you." "Oh, no, Elisa. All of this exhaustion is your doing. I am tired, true, but I'm not trying to get poor Jangotat here to carry me. You expect to be entirely worn out, and you are nauseated, and so you _are_ entirely worn out."
"Why wouldn't I be? You killed all those people back there-" My vocals seized unpleasantly.
"Kksh...We killed. I was paralyzed when the first one came up. At any rate, I wouldn't say that they are all dead. The survivors are no doubt missing limbs and very unhappy, but I did what I could."
"Something wrong, General?"
"No, no; I'm just making a point. You didn't feel it, Elisa? There was this malevolent presence clinging to each of them, and I cut it off. Some died or will die, and I admit that I got rather melodramatic during the process, but they left me no choice."
"I- dammit, tonight wasn't the first time, was it?" _I don't really want to know this..._ We reached some stairs and started to hobble up. I caught a glimpse of some kind of dog or fox or something heading down, but it moved too quickly to be certain.
"If by the 'first time' you mean me walking through this 'Xanadu' to investigate troubles, no. You were aware this whole night?" I fell silent as I let go of the clone to navigate a stretch of stairs that had apparently been worn into a pitted, twisty surface, as if by a giant file. Or some big weapon. Thick, ropelike shreds of carpet made for tricky footing.
"Since I woke up because one of the clones was knocking on the door, yes." I got past the worn-off stretch and started to relax a bit, only to yelp as my foot slipped on some solid-looking concrete that wasn't attatched to the rest of the structure. Jangotat caught me, slung an arm under my arms, and got me to some kind of couch-thing at the top of the stairs. I let my head fall forwards.
"Hmm. Interesting. This is the third night since I... came here. I have found trouble of some kind each and every time I have looked, but tonight was by far the most... exiting. Usually I am not the first at a scene, and then I just watch or assist."
"Oh? Was I _alseep_ during all this?" _See how *you* like dryness,
I took my share of enjoyment in her hesitation. "In a... manner of speaking. I did not want any distractions."
"You needed one tonight, though." The clone breathed something that sounded like invective and leaned me back, pressed gently at the wet spots on the robe I was wearing, then apparently gave it up.
He shook his head, and my own head came up to look at him, kneeling before the couch-ottoman thing where I sat.
"Come on General. I may be an ARC, but I'm only one man, and this place isn't completely secure." _He does look anxious._ I got up smoothly, and Revan spoke.
"You _do_ know how to get back to the room, right?" Jangotat's expression did not change, but I could almost taste the relief that rolled off him. "Yes, General Revan- more or less." He tapped something at his belt.
"Very well." I ran my eyes quickly over his frame, noting that he was in some kind of black bodysuit-type thing. The only piece of his armor that he had kept on were the boots. "Lead on."
He nodded, turned, and began to walk away. I followed, and after a moment's hesitation I said, "I doubt anyone will want to bump into _you_ in a dark hallway."
The clone called Jangotat- now in his black bodysuit; his armor was too distinctive- lowered the closest thing he had to a General onto a conveniently-placed couch. Revan's head lolled forwards a little, lips moving. She'd been arguing with herself at length. He'd stimmed her up a bit, just to keep her on her feet, but the Jedi still seemed disoriented.
Not for the first time, Jangotat wondered if this was the right person to follow. But the sheer, half-panicked loathing he'd seen on the faces of the few other Jedi he'd managed to chase down had _hurt_. He'd died- or _thought_ that he had died, evidently he hadn't- on Cestus, before the Clone Wars concluded. There was no satisfactory answer to it- the people he was supposed to look to for guidance couldn't stand him.
Revan, at least, would talk to him, would give orders. She had no answers about how he had gone from lying in the Cestus Penitentiary with a shattered leg, waiting for the airstrike he'd called down to hit, to standing whole in a crowded room full of strange people that he'd never seen before on some place completely different with a screaming woman clinging to his chest, but she was _there_.
_Well, mostly there,_ he amended, watching her talk to herself. It seemed that she had won whatever argument was going on inside herself and was wrapping up.
Jangotat was about to ask her about that when he saw blood. Cursing himself for being an unobservant _di'kut_ who surely would have been recycled for his organs, the clone spot-checked Revan and decided that she had healed herself.
_Good. If she died on me, I don't know what I would do._ An image of himself clutching someone's hand surfaced, and he shook it away. Apparently catching the movement of his head, Revan looked up, gray eyes glinting.
"Come on General. I may be an ARC, but I'm only one man, and this place isn't completely secure." _*None* of this place is secure. Intell has nothing about "Xanadu", I don't even know if that's the name of a planet or a province._
She stood, apparently having regrouped. Revan's confidence made Jangotat feel better, although he was convinced that at one point he would have felt competant with or without relying on a Jedi.
"You _do_ know how to get back to the room, right?" "Yes, General Revan- more or less." With someone to direct him, he didn't feel lost. Just in case, the clone tapped his handheld comlink.
"Very well." Revan looked Jangotat up and down appraisingly. "Lead on." As he walked cautiously in the direction that probably lead back to the floor that they had come from, her voice changed a bit as she said, "I doubt anyone will want to bump into _you_ in a dark hallway."
_I'm not supposed to dream._ The thought came to me and was dismissed; I was dreaming.
_Oh, wait, I'm not; this is a memory._ If I had been awake, I would have sat up in anticipation and dread. Since my mind was wiped and reprogrammed, the memories of my entire previous life- growing up in one of the Temples, training to become a Jedi Knight, disobeying the Council, commanding a third of the Republic's fleet against the Mandalorians, falling to the Dark Side, crushing the Republic- had started returning. Very slowly, though, and usually in vivid dreams and nightmares.
Hopefully this memory would be more revealing than the last one, which had basically consisted of finding Tatooine's Star Map and constantly having sand in my robes.
It wasn't, really. While making some adjustments to a droid vocabulator on a small messenger ship, I whispered, "I hate sand." then laughed hysterically. As I came back into consciousness, my memory's eyes wandered to a red-and-black Mandalorian-looking mask.
I woke up somewhere around noon with the thin bedsheet twisted around me like a cocoon and gradually sighed. _Do I really, truly want to remember?_ Easing out of the bed, I pulled my hair back with an elastic, rubbed a palmfull of water from the 'fresher on my face, and sat heavily on the bed's edge.
Going back to the memory, I reached into my Inventory; a massive collection of items that I carried without mass or bulk. Just when or how I had picked up this ability, I didn't know, but it was easy enough to use. My fingers immediately caught something hard and unyeilding, and I pulled it back in front of my face.
It was, of course, a red-and-black helmet, narrow T-visor somehow conveying cold intensity. I stared longingly at it. This was the defining characteristic of Darth Revan. This mask, and silence, and utterly ruthless but brilliant strategies. I had worn it, several times, along with the accompanying armored robes. It didn't bring anything back.
But- things are so much _simpler_, so crystal-cut... and it _feels_ right, it _feels_ so right, so good... _No. No, anything that simple can't be right. Isn't that one path to the Dark Side, doing what feels so very righteous without reason?_
I slip my helmet back into the Inventory. _Besides, it would distract the clones._
Hmm. Where is Elisa? I "feel" for the presence of my unexpected mind-symbiote, a touch of pressure and heat. _Still asleep, then. I could keep her there... no, no, the aiwha's airborne, I won't._
Instead, I lower myself down, relax my limbs, and send a _jolt_ like static electricity to her, bringing her to wakefullness in an instant. It's satisfying.
She rolls us over, muttering incoherently, then brings my hand to the back of my head, finding my hair tied up in a 'tail. At that point she freezes, and I take advantage of the opportunity to get up.
There's a somehow diffident knock at the door of my tiny chamber, and a male voice- a bit higher than that of the clones, filters through. "Um... hey, is this- Whoah, easy, I'm not trying to-"
It tapers away, and I can dimly hear one of the clones talking to him- after a while the voice is immediately recognizable- so I change into some cream-shaded robes from my Inventory in time to hear a firmer knock and a "General Revan?".
My eyes flick to the glowing numbers of a chrono near the bed- in Arabic, they read 1:06- as I make a reply. "No Generals here, just Revan."
"Sorry ma'am, reflex. There's a 'David' here to see you, says that he has something for you... Ma'am, he's carrying a lightsaber, but he's not a Jedi."
I opened the door without further ado, startling the helmeted trooper. My mouth opened, and it was Elisa who spoke. "Were you guarding the door? Don't you have anything better to do?" _Argh. No tact, I see._ This particular trooper was not one I recognized- he felt both younger and older than Jangotat, and he wasn't Sirty either.
"Yes ma'am, and no, ma'am. We don't know where else to go or what else to do. I'm sorry that we let him get to the door, though." He saluted. I licked my upper lip. "Let me see him."
And then I sighed and rubbed the bridge of my nose with my first two fingers. "Jangotat, lower your weapon. He's not going to attack me." The clone obeyed with some reluctance.
"Sorry about that," I said to the kid. His big ears were flapping. "They're just a bit overzealous." Elisa tried to add something to the end of this, but I stopped her.
"What did you want?" The thick gray hide prevented many brow movements, and it was hard to wrinkle a trunk, but David still managed to look distasteful.
Probably his lower eyes, the human ones.
"The authorities are finally coming around and getting all the Xanadu gear."
He said sullenly. "They just got to where Cheryl and I are staying. She
told me to give you this." David shoved a lightsaber at me. It was thicker than my own, heavier.
"Cheryl? Oh, _Malak_. How did he know that I could hide it?" David's trunk coiled itself just under his chin. "I don't know, and I don't care, but I'm leaving. _She_ will need help with the paperwork." He turned and walked back along the hallway, giving a wide berth to several emerging clones. I called back at him "Don't count on that!" and he raised a hand in some gesture whose meaning I didn't catch.
I slipped my friend's lightsaber into the Inventory and turned to look at my guards. As far as I could tell, they had taken over this section of hallway. A day or two ago some had been bartering with its inhabitants, and if there were any other non-clones right here they hadn't left their rooms in some time. And right now, apparently, all of them were gathering.
"All right, boys. It won't be long before these people come here and start taking our stuff. They will want your armor and your weapons, anything that you've been carrying actually." Jangotat nodded beneath his T-visored helmet. "I expect that you want us to just hand them over, General."
"Yes, actually I do. These people aren't your enemies, the... what were they?" Elisa answered for me. "Seperatists." "Right. They aren't Seperatists; they don't really want you dead, and if you give them trouble there are a lot more of them than we'll be able to handle."
Some shifted a bit hearing this; they considered themselves the best of the best. I ignored this.
"You'll probably get your armor back eventually, but your weapons, I think, will stay with them. They'll likely mistreat both." Definitely a moment of protest.
"However. They will _not_ find what I hold unless I will it so. Give me some helmets and whatever else that you can't bear to lose, and I'll give it back later. I have a few things that will probably fool anyone looking for _your_ weapons that I'll want you to surrender when they ask." I looked up at the clones. Most were in armor. If they decided not to accept my authority...
A small sound of escaping air made me turn my head. Jangotat had broken the seal of his helmet and was pulling it off. He tucked it under one arm and told me, "I trust you, General. Now, unless I'm mistaken my own armor is the most advanced... I would rather it stayed at one-hundred percent."
I saw a few men slipping away from the group, but the others also disengaged helmet seals and began to argue about who had the most right to keep theirs.
"This is going to take a long time." Elisa stated. I let the shadow of a smirk cross my face. "Agreed." "But what if I'm blamed for what happened last night?" "I can get an alibi. Besides, who would know?"
Jangotat took the closest thing he had to a General aside, ignoring the nervous teenager who had asked for her. "You're sure that you want to go through with this?" She smiled, at once seraphic and sarcastic.
"Of course. Do as I told you, and all will be well. You'll have to wait outside, I think." He couldn't help but smile back. Revan's trust was good to feel; he hoped that he could live up to it.
_What am I thinking?_ He asked himself as she disappeared into the small office. The clone positioned himself on one side of the door, facing away from the wall, hands at the small of his back. _Of course I can live up to it! I am an Advanced Recon Commando. I don't fail._
The teenager- a wiry, slumping human who appeared to have either little wings or spiky hand-sized star shapes protruding from between his shoulderblades- made several attempts at communication before falling silent. Watching him surreptitiously was a challenge without his helmet, but Jangotat managed it.
When the messanger had appeared to request his General's presence, he had gone slack-jawed at the sight of so many people with the same face. Oh, one or two had identifying scars, but he'd clearly not been expecting it, and his reaction had been quite amusing. It was almost worth not daring to wear armor. Almost.
The office was just off of one of Xanadu's big main rooms. Many people traffikked through here to meet one another- Jangotat gathered that they had become seperated during The Event- or set up rooms or make whatever other arrangements that they needed. He'd heard that the government had set up the offices for transformee's rights there- _the Transformee Security Administration? No, it's something longer..._ He hadn't needed to worry about any of that, for which he was very grateful.
A parade of human-looking males with padded shoulders under their clearly-numbered shirts- _no, jerseys, that's what they're called_- and strangely-shaped helmets with grids over their faces passed by. One had an orange-brown tapering object under his arm, and they were making a _huthuthut_ sound.
The clone watched them go, noting the cleats on their shoes. _The... foot ballers? Are they a subspecies of human? Probably... yes, the males are extraordinarily aggressive but not bright, the females are called... cheers?..._
Despite having been at Xanadu for several days, Jangotat was endlessly fascinated by the variety of people here. While there were more than a few notable exceptions, most seemed relatively human. _Why do so many of them wear so little clothing and have animal ears?_
Although it had been explained to him in a perfunctionary manner that everyone here had been transformed into their costumes, he personally didn't think that he hadn't existed five days ago. It was too implausible.
The clone amused himself by listening to the unending stream of conversation. "Tracy... Tracy, listen!" "It is logical that a wading bird's stabbing beak would be dangerous..." "HAHAHAA, I REMEMBER MY NAME!" "Omigod, I have a huge hole in my ass!" "You have holes _everywhere!_"
Jangotat couldn't help but glance towards that; what male at his stage of development wouldn't? It seemed to be just a couple of teenaged girls- one with bright blue rabbit ears, the other with small red horns emerging from her forehead- overreacting to little flaws in their clothing. The tiny-winged teenager besides him perked up though. The clone shook his head slightly. _These people are so strange..._
"Marie... oh girlfriend, I thought you were-" "We've got to stop them before they eat the..." "the Phaaaaaaaaantom of the Op-Eh-RAaaa! Dananananaaaa-!" "So am I going to become a weremoose, then?" "So he just looked at me and then his EYES-" "Clone -CLONE!"
Jangotat flinched and blinked rapidly. _Another Jedi._ He caught a fleeting glimpse of the speaker's rapid retreat. _What have I done to deserve this enmitty?_
Even after fourteen incidents- fifteen if you counted the squirrel- it still _hurt_ to be pushed away like that. While there were a sprinkling of lightsaber-wielders who could stand his presence, they had been warned about the "fickleness of clones" and felt uneasy around them. There was one, other than Revan, who didn't seem so nervous, but frankly Malak... or Cheryl... didn't have that feeling of _command_. Besides, his brother David, with the strange head, didn't like clones. At all.
_At least this one didn't try to kill me... Perhaps someone else has had better luck._
Jangotat only just managed to keep his face blank as a pair of pale-faced little girls clutching rag toys floated up- not actually floating, but it _looked_ like they were- and inquired in dead tones as to the whereabouts of "the quest..." As the teenager stammered that Quest was busy right now and wouldn't be free for a while, the clone reflected that _this could take a while..._.
"You may wish to take a medical exam once it has been scheduled, as well. Problems have come up before, and we don't want anyone taken unaware. We'll contact you." I saw the cues that he was about to stand and we did so in unison. I took the proferred card and left, picking up my clone "escort" on the way.
"That went well;" Elisa muttered under my breath. I smiled, just a little bit, and sidestepped some kind of moving rock formation. "Actually, it did.
I did not devalue myself or give much away."
Jangotat interrupted as he avoided a syrupy slime trail. "I do not think that he trusts you, General." I kept forgetting that his hearing is pretty good, better than a "normal" human.
"Of course he does not trust me. I am not on the list of desirable characters with known, trusted ideals. For all he knows, I could turn around and decapacitate him in the first moment that I could get away with it." Elisa apparently took this seriously. "You'd better not." "Oh, I won't, don't worry. I do not need that kind of headache. All right, commando, what did you observe?"
“And where is this from?” The slightly unnerved medical aide gingerly touched a pale notch on my shoulderblade with her chilled latex glove. I had no idea how I had gotten it, and I dearly hoped that she wasn't noticing how the blood had risen in my face, but my mouth and throat moved, and my voice said “Vibrosword. I got this oh, two, three months ago from a Mandalorian on Dantooine. Right past the armor. He was strong.”
“I… see.” The aide swallowed nervously but continued the examination. “And these are…?” “Blaster rifle. I had an energy shield up to absorb most of it, but I was in civilian clothing at the time. Stupid choice, really, buying grenades instead of armor. Take my advise: Never insult the rich people unless you have the high ground.” “Oh… what about this spot?”
This, I knew, although I had to clear my throat. “Birthmark.”
“Okay, we’re done with the skin examination. Um, if you will-“
My head turned and my eyes gave her a level stare as hand made a subtle gesture to draw her attention. “I don’t need probing. I am perfectly healthy in that regard. You can file that part as such. We’re done for today.”
Her eyes went out of focus. “You don’t need a gynecologist or proctologist.
You are perfectly healthy in that regard. I’ll just file today’s results… you can go.”
I waited until she had departed, then removed the ridiculous paper gown and stuffed it into the wastebin before shrugging on my "civilian clothes". I told the air “That excuse won’t stand. No doubt soon I’ll be reprimanded for... not being compliant during examination or whatever.” I closed my eyes. _Don't force it... let the words come on their own..._
"Did you _want_ to get pieces of metal shoved around _there_? I don't like the description of this inspection process. I will not submit to intrusive examinations. It's bad enough that they want to "look into" my implant ports. It's just not dignified."
"Oh, come on! Cheryl had to be exaggerating. These people are proffessionals, they just want to make sure-"
"You were perfectly happy to let me persuade the chief medic to have a junior aide inspect you. A _female_ junior aide. Besides, it's _you_ who would have been probed. Not me, I would have only watched. _You_."
"Fine... fine. But if anybody asks, it was all your idea. And _you_ will explain it, not me." I wasn't going to admit how humiliating that the examination had been. After that first paper gown warped into something sturdier, Revan had just "dragged" me out and tried again.
"I do all the talking anyway. But if it makes you happy, fine."
Talking like this was getting easier. _ Is that a good thing?_
"Hey, something just died." My friend and sometimes-apprentice stopped pacing. Preoccupied, I glanced up at Malak.
"What? Umm... yes, I see- no, wait, it didn't. It doesn't feel dead- there, see, it's gone." I shook my head. Now I had to try and clear my thoughts again.
"What are you doing, anyway?" His face reflected nothing more than curiosity. I gave it a rest.
"You see that man over there? With the brown-black hair and the glowing blue dagger, and no shirt? The shortish one?" I pointed with a quick chin-jut.
"Yes- wait, is that a _chain_ in his arm?" I grinned, just a bit. "Yes and no. Anyway, he told me about something called 'third person perspective'. I am trying to use it."
Elisa cut in. "And I still think it's a bad idea. You can't trust people who talk to themsel-" I cut her off with a glance at Malak- or Cheryl, I hadn't asked. "I am _trying_ to make a point! Anyway, while he may be deluded-"
"-I think we're _all_ deluded, here-" "Malak, be silent. Just because he talks to his 'inner voice' and is obsessed with sand doesn't mean that _everything_ he says is nonsense." I would have continued, but the man I was waiting for emerged from the swinging double doors, a disgruntled expression on his face.
"-how many times do I have to tell them; see one of us and you've seen us all!" Jangotat looked up and saw us. "Oh, Generals. My apologies, I didn't see you." I gestured with a head-twitch and both of my companions fell into step as we walked away.
My friend-and-apprentice already knew the clone who followed me. Apparently Jangotat had not been part of the knot of troopers who had been present when I... came here. He had met Malak briefly, and for some reason he preferred to follow me. The two got along well enough, at any rate.
Especially when they had some shared grievance. "Certain 'medical professionals' should have their licenses removed," Malak griped. "Preferably by force."
"Oh, yes!" The clone sighed. "With a Verpine shatter gun at point-blank range! That officious osik'troan gave me the shebs. Wouldn't answer any of my questions, and halfway through just _stopped_ and told me 'my god, you're just like that Boba'. And _then_ he has the nerve to tell me that as a doctor, _everything's_ confidential. What a di'kutla-"
I allowed my eyes to roll in their sockets and let Elisa walk- thankfully she kept silent- as I tried for third-person again.
_Pull back, disengage from my body, keep something of myself *in* as an anchor... clear everything away... the waters in the Room of a Thousand Fountains, lie still and quiet...._
With a _jerk_ I found my point-of-view floating up above and somewhat behind my body. I could feel my feet and legs work, but in a detatched way, an odd way. _Hah! It works!_
Right then I snapped back completely into my body. I let my breath out and balled one hand into a fist. Evidently this would take practice. _Very well, I can do that. But first-_
It is always a bad idea to keep things from people that you plan to trust. As I knew from experience.
Taking control back, I turned around abrubtly. The girl tried to tug us away, but my grip was firm. My two followers stopped to regard me.
It is also a bad idea to spill your life story. Too much at once is offputting. _Where to start?_ It occured to me that perhaps I could find somewhere with fewer potential eavesdroppers. _But then again, there is one 'secret' for which that will not matter._
"I should tell the two of you this- I am not exactly alone." _Not the best possible phrasing, but it will do. I hope._ For emphasis, I tapped the side of my head with two fingers, Elisa fighting me the whole way. Malak and Jangotat looked at each other, then at me.
"That's not exactly a secret, General." I glanced up at the clone trooper as he shrugged his broad shoulders. _Why did I have to pick people who are taller than I am, anyway?_ "You talk to yourself, and answer. A lot. There's nothing wrong with my hearing."
"I can't say that I'm surprised either, Rev. These days you feel... strange. In the, in the Force." I sighted, looked down, and shook my head, pulling my lips back marginally.
"Figures. I suppose I was expecting someone to jump up and deny it." I looked back up and my smile broadened as a slightly evil idea came to mind. "Very well, apprentice, soldier. Meet my mind-mate. Her name is Elisa, and she is young, so take it easy." With that, I jerked her forwards and relinquished control, pulling my awareness back.
_Might as well practice third-person now. Shutting out distractions... hmm, that was, perhaps, cruel. But nothing builds strength like misery, after all._
I heard words drop from my mouth like nectar, my lips peeled back in some
alien-feeling expression. "Very well, apprentice, soldier. Meet my mind-mate. Her name is Elisa, and she is young, so take it easy." _What? What?! I was dozing!_ was my first indignant thought as the world snapped into clarity and the pressure at my temples faded to nothing. The _sense_ of someone standing with me, too, dropped off.
My second thought, of course, was _I'm going to kill you._ I later couldn't have said who the thought was for- Revan, me, perhaps some Bioware character designer, hell, maybe Lucas himself.
I looked up at just enough of an angle that my snub of a ponytail hit my back. _Oh, joy of joys. Both are taller than me. Is *everyone* at the Con over six feet or am I just that lucky?_
Reflex took over, then, and I decided to pretend that these were both complete strangers. I bobbed my head a little and stepped forwards, stretching out my right hand. "Uhh... Hi, I'm Elisa from Midtral*- that's the college about twenty-four miles east of here."
To their credit, they didn't prolong the awkwardness of it. My hand was engulfed by a larger, paler one. "Okay, Elisa. It doesn't matter what you call me- Malak or Cheryl, both work these days." His grip was warm, dry, and mercifully neutral, releasing mine after an acceptable intreval. I nodded and kept myself from staring at his bald tatoo-striped head. It was harder than I expected.
I then turned to the clone. It was a relief to see that he felt utterly awkward in this position. Glancing at Malak-or-Cheryl as if for guidance, he stretched his own hand out. It had calluses in entirely different places, and I was gratified to find that it was slightly damp. Clearly, he didn't know much about introductions. He had to be rescued.
"Elisa, this is Jangotat. Hmm... You know, I had better get going. David will be mad if he can't find me anywhere." With that, Malak-or-Cheryl strode off, immediately lost around a corner.
I fought the urge to giggle furiously at the expression on the soldier's face- he was completely lost-, and was glad when I overcame the impulse. _Okay, what now?_
A dull roaring that became louder and higher with each second heralded a bright red motorcycle of some sort that appeared to have no rider. It flashed past us, impossibly huge in the confined hallway, the roar of its motor deepening with the Doppler Effect. It went from _here_ to _not here_ in less than twenty seconds, leaving only a thick black tire track and the smell of exhaust behind.
"Wow, that was random;" I said into the sudden silence as Jangotat muttered "Well, now I know where all the tracks are coming from." I glanced first up at him, then down to the much-abused carpet. It was impossible to pick out the rug's original color under the various streaks, stains, ground-in-powders, and matted-down hair that now inundated it. The rubber's crisp slash was already peeling up.
"I mean- well, you know... Lots of marks on the ground, sometimes, and maybe some are from... that thing." I turned my attention back up in time to see him look away.
"It's called a motorcycle. That kind of vehicle, I mean." "Oh, so it is a vehicle? Ah, so I didn't imagine the seat or the... control bars." The clone lifted his hands up in a grasping motion, as if gripping and then revving an invisible motorbike.
I started to open my mouth again, but Jangotat evidently wasn't finished. "Obviously it runs off of some kind of petroleum... Judging from that and the rate it was going, I would estimate that it reaches two hundred, maybe two hundred fifty klicks per hour. Not good if it's not maneverable- and unless I missed seeing repulsors, that... 'motor cycle' is going to be a hazard." I blinked at him.
The clone still wasn't done. "I should report this..." He glanced at me, sighed, and said "Come on, then." With nothing better to do, I followed the soldier through a lot of halls until he found one of the desks set up by the government.
I watched Jangotat with a paper form. At first he clenched the pen awkwardly and made a very jagged mark, pressing it too tightly on the clipboard that he'd "borrowed". Then, evidentaly noticing this, he shifted the position around and filled out a startlingly detailed description of the motorcycle that we had seen.
_Well, he seems happy,_ I thought dryly as I tried to inconspiciously stare at a grown woman who was at the desk tearily pleading with a clerk about a lost child. _And who would bring their baby to the Convention, anyway?_
"Oh no." With an effort, I kept myself from jumping. Jangotat stared past me. "It's that _woman_ again. Come on, Ge- I mean, Elisa." _What?_ He clamped a hand around my upper arm and I followed to avoid getting it pulled off.
"What do you mean, 'that woman', anyway?" I asked when he let up. The clone closed his eyes as if getting a headache.
"It's just that woman again. From when I... came here. She... makes me uneasy." I thought back to her- maybe in her thirties, clothing and hair rumpled, face pinched. Not very threatening. "Why?"
"I don't know. Do you- do you know when the General will be back?"
_Hmm. Quest Log. New quests- sort by planet. Ohh, fascinating. "Jangotat". "You have picked up a new follower in the commando 'A-98', 'Jangotat'. He is transparently loyal already, and in this strange place he has been your most reliable ally. But you know very little about him, other than his heritage. It might be worth asking about." Interesting._
I drifted above my body in Third-Person. This "Start Screen" was a _very_ interesting new development.
_Other New quests... "Mystery of the Start Screen". Heh, I like that. No others? Pity. Active quests- "Project X", "Ambushed!", "Clone Troopers", "Malak", "The Investigation", "Elisa", "A Strange New Planet"... Completed Quests- "A man called Sands", "Strange Signal", "David's Camera", "Unliving Threats", "Keeping the Peace"... "Black Hole"? What could that possibly-_
"Problem..." Jangotat murmured. I heard as if from a distance, and the Start Screen vanished. "What? What problem?" Elisa asked.
"Indeed, soldier. What problem?" I questioned, coming back reluctantly into first-person perspective. It was disorienting for a moment, but I blinked the feeling off.
The clone's head came up. "General! You're back?" Elisa muttered a sarcastic "Oh, great" and I overrode her. "Of course I'm back. What's the difficulty?"
"No difficulty, now that you're here. Just that we're near quarters again, and your troops seem agitated." I sighed aloud. "They are not my troops, they just bunk nearby. You have no obligation to me."
Jangotat straightened, and I met his dark eyes. "With respect, General, we do. This territory may not be actively hostile, but it's far from secure. We have to protect you." I raised one eyebrow.
"Oh?" My reply sounded a lot more amused than I had intended. The clone blinked. "Well, that, and we don't have anything better to do." I locked down on Elisa's fidget and flashed a half-smile. "So you're just following me with morbid fascination?"
Whatever reply the soldier would have made was lost as another clone spotted us lurking near the corner. He came up and we exchanged the now-familiar "Don't call me General" routine.
"I'm not a general." "Well, you look like one and act like one." "Did it ever occur to you that-" "You don't have the Padawan braid, so you're not a Commander. You obviously have more seniority." "Fine, I was one once, but I went MIA-" "And you're here now, General."
It was like a password or something. While sometimes irritating, this kind of exchange clearly made "my boys" happier. _And allies are always important._
_They're like children or something,_ I thought with a bit of amusement as I was surrounded. _Strangely professional children._ Somehow they _felt_ young and eager-to-please even as they felt disciplined and competant. When I had "hidden" some of their armor and weapons I had also handed out tiny hold-out blasters, and I was pleased to see that they were kept concealed.
"All right, boys, give me your report. One at a time, one at a time." I shook my head at the "Sir!" and listened.
"Revan, no word yet from the Stormtrooper contact. I think he may have been put off by the message... I guess it's true what they say about Spaarti cylinders messing with our template..."
"General, we've been tracking a bipedal giant sandwich. Hey, it wasn't _my_ idea, you just told us to 'find out what you can', and we were hungry... It appears to have no more mind than is absolutely neccessary to avoid falling, and waves at everything in front of it. People, furnishings, shadows.."
"The watchers that Quest set up- sorry General, 'Sands'- are spectacularly inept. They have seen nothing that we have not allowed them to see."
"I have some bad news, General. Delta Squad, Omega Squad, and our two Nulls have... vanished." I narrowed my eyes at that. "Vanished?" "Yes, sir. They were last seen yesterday- when you assumed the position of Quartermaster, actually." The trooper stopped, seeing my raised eyebrow.
_Oh, so I'm Quartermaster now?_ "Please, continue." The report was more important. "Yes, sir. As I was saying, they vanished. We suspect that they left through the main exit, as a few scattered witnesses have reported." "Did they leave anything behind?"
"No, sir, except for this." Almost unwillingly the trooper fished out a slip of folded note paper from a satchel and handed it to me. I opened it. The message was short and to the point.
"'It's not you, ner vode, our brothers, or the jettise, the Jedi. It's us. We will hunt down this "Traviss" and see if we can find an explanation for this.'" I refolded the note and handed it back to the clone. "Interesting.
Do you know what 'this' is?"
Again unwillingly, the trooper showed me a book, soft-covered. The words "STAR WARS: REPUBLIC COMMANDO HARD CONTACT" were emblazoned there... along with the now-familiar images of armored troopers. And yes, it was authored by a "Traviss". I handed this back, too, noting the dog-eared softness of the edges.
"Right," I said. Ten men, gone in pursuit of this... person. I wished them luck. "Well, they've chosen."
Looking over my "boys", I realized that every one of them was looking to me for direction. Again. From diffident Cirty to the bolder Jangotat, they were trying to gauge my reaction. For a mercy, Elisa was silent and still.
I could have asked for the book back and looked it over. I could have meditated on recent discoveries. I could have sat down with them and tried to drag out everything they knew.
Instead, I jerked my head a little in a "follow!" gesture and told them "I don't know about you, boys, but I am starved. Let's see if we can find a place still open and con it into feeding us" before about-facing and clasping my hands at the small of my back, then grinned at the startled whoop that rose behind me.
_Like children. Marvelously useful children._
I woke up slowly, this time. I kept trying to get back to sleep, but a pressure in my bladder and a tingling in my mouth kept pulling me back out.
As soon as I was aware enough to percieve my body again, I realized that the inside of my mouth was beslimed by the vestiges of Tabasco sauce, sweet-and-sour, and... some kind of cilantro paste.
And the moment I placed names to that truly disgusting mixture of flavors was the moment when I threw aside the cheap comforter of the bed I was in and ran into the bathroom.
My electric toothbrush was not there. I ignored the First Law of my dorm's bathroom and picked up a tough-bristled blue monstrocity instead. Three minutes with it, some tap water, and a great deal of Crest managed to get that appalling taste exorcised. I then made use of the bathroom's other commodities. The towel I found was still somewhat damp, but it worked.
Fifteen minutes or a half-hour later I rubbed some of the steam off of the mirror, clutching the coarse white towel around my body. Looked with heat-bleared eyes at the half-familiar face in it, then turned away to stump back into the slightly larger hotel room.
And then froze, realizing with disgust that this was not the room I had reserved. Same floor, same abysmally tiny proportions, different arrangement of furnishings. And the door was on the opposite side.
_What happened last night anyway?_ The memory took a moment to return. Revan had gone out with our "party" of clones- and the thought _still_ sounded preposterous- and taken them to eat. Just where we had gone I wasn't sure; there seemed to have been several tables. And a lot of storytelling. And even more "I dare you to eat this".
Jangotat- at least I thought it was him; I couldn't tell- had loudly extolled the virtues of an "unusual food called paskett" and had then been humiliated to learn that it was plain old easily-obtained spaghetti. Revan had commandeered my body to take him aside and reassure him, and then stopped... some other clone... from eating a jar's worth of greenish-yellow peppers. _Eeew._
At any rate, it had become late, there was a lot of rushing around trying to find our way back to the rooms, and by the time we got there... I remembered my hand waving and then locking the door behind me, not caring if it was my original room.
_Well, nobody's here *now*,_ I decided as I scrubbed the water off of my body. Driven by curiousity, I rooted through the room, furtively listening for a returning owner.
Clothes. Lots of clothes that did not belong to me or anyone I knew. Jean skirts, blouses, pumps. A set of pockety pants in camo colors. Lingerie, some of which made me blush. Stripey bikinis, even. All in a size somewhat larger- decidedly bustier- than mine; a bit taller too if the legwear meant anything.
_Hmm. Didn't I see someone wearing this vest when I first came to my room?_
It was hard to tell; I had been rushing to change into my Revan costume.
_And speaking of Revan..._ I stopped and held stock still, _listening_, focusing on my temples. If I bent enough of my awareness on them- every time Revan had moved my body, it had been heralded by a sensation of heat, cold and/or pressure. Nothing. Or rather, nothing immediate. There was a sensation of warmth, but it was diffuse... not really close.
_Okay, I'm alone right now. That's good._ I resumed "investigating". More clothes, flip flops, sunglasses, keys of some sort, gum...
At some point I looked in a largish purse- some kind of pink crocodile skin, and _hideous_- and found a glossy much-paged magazine. SW Insider; a magazine that I had been trying to subscribe to since 2005 without success.
I leafed happily through it until it dawned on me why there were Post-It notes on the pages with images of clone armor. And what must have happened.
I then very, very carefully replaced everything that I had rooted through
and repeatedly squelched the urge to return to the bathroom and inspect everything.
_Would a clone even care? Would he even remember? Augh, eww. Can't believe I used somebody else's... I hope nobody uses _my_ toothbrush. Or towel._
Propelled by that thought, I rapidly changed into the clothes that I had worn last night and clearly slept in. They were rumpled and a bit rank, but I wasn't going to raid the... previous occupant's supplies.
_Now what?_ As if on cue there was a rap at the door. Wincing at the thought of being caught out- no matter who the fault belonged to, I was still in the wrong room- I came to the door and opened it. As I did so I remembered the peephole just a second too late; it was open anyways.
"Bonjour, bonjour!" I jumped and stared as a shortish woman in a frilly black-and-white... maid dress all but pushed her way in, ostrich-plumed duster in hand. A cleaning cart almost blocked the way out, and on some random impulse I swiveled to watch both the egress and the intruder, who gave a strong impression of desperation.
Her voice was somewhat flat and nasal, like a parody of a foreign accent. French, maybe. I have never been good with languages. "Maid service, mademoiselle. I 'ave to clean." I started to interrupt but was overriden. "I _'ave_ to clean, mademoiselle." She pulled the cart in after her and I fled, overwhelmed by her scent- some kind of dusty perfume, I think. That's what I told myself.
Once out in the hall- which seemed pretty abandoned-, I regained my bearings. I was on the right floor, and the right general area. The room I had just exited was right next to one of the elevators. Some practical joker had taped up a piece of paper at about seven feet up on the wall between elevators. I craned my neck at it, seeing an arrow and a scrawled "Clone Country". I groaned and looked back in.
The maid seemed to have calmed down considerably, as if obeying a compulsion. I remembered a girl in high school who became a nervous wreck unless she brushed her teeth every hour on the hour. Since I rather doubted that this woman was hotel staff... Perhaps the behavior was related?
Shifting from foot to foot, I considered. Talking to people has always made me feel excruciatingly awkward... but it would be much more awkward if this maid kept barging into these rooms.
Mind made up, I stood uneasily in the doorway. "Uh... ma'am, when you're done in there..." She looked up as I berated myself. _Stand firm._ "Well, those rooms over there- most of the occupants are still sleeping. You might try going left past the elevator instead, I don't think you should bother the guys on the right."
"Ci, mademoiselle, I wheel. I 'ave to come beck to clean later, zough." The maid returned to re-straightening the mussed bedsheets and I backed out again. It was as good an excuse as any, I supposed. And it might even be true.
"It probably is true," I muttered to myself, looking surreptitiously up and down the hall. None of Revan's current batch of followers were in sight. I wavered briefly, wondering if I should go to my own room for new clothes, but the thought of finding a sleeping man made my cheeks burn, so I hit the button for the elevator instead.
Waiting for it, I decided that a trip outside was in order. Maybe my friend 'Thaniel was nearby. His emails implied it, and I wanted to compare notes with someone who'd been Outside Xanadu. _So long as Revan doesn't 'wake up', I'll be fine._
After deciding to avoid the elevators, I made my way to the lobby-level and went to work finding an exit. Hopefully one that led outside, not to Xanadu Proper. The hour was fairly early and I saw few people. Apparently the maid really wasn't part of the official hotel staff.
I had just passed through a corridor lined with fungal growths(naturally, the lights were flickering) when I saw not-so-very-furtive movement ahead. Slowing my pace to a crawl- and wondering if it might be a good idea to try and rouse Revan- I peered nervously at the source.
It was some kind of oblong, tannnish yellow in color- I stifled my reaction when I saw it clearly.
The... thing... was unmistakeably the same giant walking sub sandwich that one of the clones had described. It stood tall, the top of its... loaf at least six feet above the carpet, on two short skinny legs that seemed to be emerging from the... bread... itself.
Emerging from the bread at about halfway up its length, the sandwich also had two skinny arms with big, wide, white hands that looked cartoonishly gloved. The arms were long enough to clasp together, but no longer.
The sandwich smelled strongly of turkey. Enourmous, glistening wet folded slices were visible at its sides, as well as pizza-sized tomato slices and slabs of pale green letucce, veiny and ribbed. I found it repulsive in every aspect as it toddled forwards and waved cheerfully at a lump of fungus.
More horrible still was the fact that despite a lack of a discernable head the sandwich had eyes. Great globular white eyes with brown irises and huge black pupils, emerging from the pocked breadcrust like bubbles of gas in some primidoral swamp, gleaming beneath the banks of florescent light fixtures. Below these eyes it had a great gaping scar in its crust, a chasm that resolved into a wide mouth that was about level with its arms, white teeth bared and glistening fixedly in a maniacally happy grin.
The gleaming eyes rolled over at me and I stifled the urge to back away very quickly. No telling what it might do- it toddled forwards. Twenty feet away. Fifteen. A gooey tomato seed the size of a small acorn dropped with a splat out from between the sandwich's bread slabs. Ten. It stood at the intersection of two hallways.
The fixed grin did not change, but one arm came up and the white hand waved cheerily. The sandwich turned away and started toddling at something else. I held still, just in case it noticed me again.
It's just as well that I did. A shriek rang out from one of those hallways, and as I tensed and half-hid behind a giant shelf fungus I saw something shoot out and slam into the sandwich with enough force that both went down and skidded.
The assailant was not particularly large, but very fast and white. I watched and kept in half-hiding as it shrieked again and lowered its long-eared head down to its hideous victim. Puff-tailed rump skyward, it wrenched and scrabbled with its furry white paws around the breadcrust.
A second later it had savagely torn out something red and dripping, holding it aloft in long bucked teeth. The giant tomato slice flopped like a banner, quivering violently and getting juice on its assailant's white fur before shuddering and falling still. The attacker then bounded on all fours out of sight, the _thump-a thump-a_ of its feet quickly fading on the hotel carpet.
Somewhat stunned, I kept still for a moment longer. The giant sandwich started to move again, and hastily I retraced my steps in case of the white animal's return.
After taking an extensive detour around the area where I'd seen the sandwich get attacked by the white rabbit, I finally found my way to the hotel entance and the atrium.
Whatever had happened night before last with the demon-caller had been cleaned up and/or covered up, because there wasn't more than a scorching on the carpet where he had been. In daylight the place really wasn't very impressive. The walls were spattered here and there with liquids and ash and I saw a few bullet holes, and any furniture that hadn't been carted off was in splinters.
Oddly enough, the skylight remained intact, as I saw in passing on my way to the sliding doors. They were closed and the automatic system seemed to have shut off, so I had to manually shove them open.
Being a girl from a more northerly state, Florida _always_ felt hot and humid to me. But it was detectably cooler out today then it had been when I came here. It was November, after all.
I came out into the parking lot and was surprised by the cars. While more than a few had pulled out- often with dramatic tire marks- or been towed out, enough remained that I couldn't help but be curious about their owners.
Had they just... left the vehicles? Were they incapable of driving or not
allowed to leave Xanadu grounds? Or were they incapable of recognizing their rides?
Of course, a scattering of them seemed to have been smashed, too. I passed them and continued walking.
I was stopped on my way out, but although I didn't quite match my Midtral student I.D. photo any more, I was clearly human and knew what I was doing, so the authorities let me out. They told me not to go further than a set distance, but I kind of ignored that.
Briefly I considered and then dismissed the idea of hitchhiking. From a number of marks on the highway, I assumed that others had had similar ideas.
I could walk perfectly well, after all.
Based off of the message he'd left on my laptop fairly recently, my friend 'Thaniel was staying at a motel not far from the Con. He hadn't been able to get in- late, as ever-, and after a bad experience on his first try he hadn't really wanted to. Or so I'd gathered. He seemed rather embarrassed by the whole thing.
It was a pretty cheap motel, I could see as I slowly gained on it, with the typical gigantic sign proclaiming name and rates and 'We Have Vacancies'. But it wasn't all that sleazy. Good.
The pool was empty and an old Band-Aid was floating in it as I stopped outside and pulled my cell phone out of a big pocket. Checking to see that this was indeed the right number, I asked a nasal-voiced receptionist about whether or not they had a "Nathaniel Thatcher" currently staying there.
There was, and after calling him and verifying that this was a good time he agreed to meet me at his beat-up well-used car in the parking lot in fifteen.
It didn't take long to find the car. The rust spots on its fender are as distinctive as a fingerprint. And the single fuzzy die in hot pink was equally recognizable, unlike the forgettable faded-blue color of its paint.
More difficult was waiting. Standing next to it, I devoutly and repeatedly wished that I'd brought my watch instead of leaving it in my room back at Xanadu. Left me nothing to do but think.
Where was Revan? If she really *was* Revan. She spoke and acted very much like a character with the same name in my fanfictions. But... that Revan had, near the end of my 'run', gone over to the Dark Side. Much as I disliked the feeling of having someone else in my head, from what I'd seen so far, the Revan I shared space with wasn't exactly "evil". Aloof, insular, and arrogant, yes, but not evil.
And I hadn't felt a whisper of her presense since last night. I closed my eyes and felt for her again. It was like being blinfolded and sticking your head into a barrel. You couldn't know what if anything was in there until you touched it.
After several seconds, I felt it. A... sort of bigness. A rounded, siniuos warm/cool _shape_ against the inside of my head. A texture almost like heavy silk, almost like carved marble, almost like the pungent leaves of some viny plant that I'd kept back at home.
I felt it... _flex_ and _uncurl_, there is no other way to describe it, stretching out to my temples in a faint but very present pressure. My eyes opened.
My voice, but slightly deeper, drier, and more authoritative, emerged from between my traitorous lips. "My apologies if that took a while, Elisa. I was talking to a ghost called 'Raimey'... trying to persuade it to avoid possessing people... and that wore me out. I do hope you haven't gotten in trouble."
I regained control long enough to say one phrase that I felt summed up my feelings on the matter. "You again. Hell."
And from behind me, a different voice said "Elisa? Is that- is that you?"
"Elisa? Is that- is that you?" I turned, slowly, and looked the speaker up and down. Human, male, adolescant. Young enough to be immature, old enough to pass as and consider himself adult. Brown haired, brown eyed. Scrawny and a bit pale, just a shade taller than me.
I realized that he was waiting for an answer and replied. "In a manner of speaking." I realized that he too was staring, except he seemed to recognize me.
My tongue moved against the roof of my mouth and I allowed Elisa to speak. "'Thaniel! You're- did you get a bit shorter, or did I get taller?" The boy- 'Thaniel- looked me in the eyes and said in a rush "I'm pretty sure you got taller." My arms came forward and clasped his in a friendly manner.
"Uh... so, you were at Xanadu, right?"
I raised an eyebrow sardonically. "It's that obvious? You _really_ must know me." Elisa, evidently longing for my silence, took my mouth back. "Ah... I mean, yeah, I was at Xanadu. You weren't."
The blood rose in his cheeks as 'Thaniel tried to dissemble. "Aw, y'know... traffic, Elisa. Got... stuck in traffic. Honest." He tried to distract her. "Uh, you look good. Different, but I recognized you. I- you came as someone else, right? Who was it?"
I locked my gaze with him and edged my voice, just a little bit. "Revan." Elisa took over. "As I told you I would." I supressed a smile and figuratively sat back for a moment to watch. It would be good, to see if the girl had a bit of spine.
Apparently she possessed a notochord, at least. "I know you had a term paper to fiddle with, but you were still late, 'Than." He seemed to pale slightly, and I took the opportunity to glance about.
We were in an open courtyard of sorts, on a hard black surface with three-sided boxes painted on. Primitive wheeled combustion-powered vehicles were lined up in rows. Not at any part of Xanadu that I'd seen, but not very far away.
Elisa wrapped up this topic, and after a probably-uncomfortable silence her friend got the nerve back up to ask another question. "So what happened? I- ah, I can see what happened to _you_-" I cut him off with "Not the half of it" and, discomfited, he finished with "but I don't know what happened in there. The rumors are crazy. There's this one site with Fundamentalists who have a recording..."
Somewhat grimly, Elisa stated that "Some of the rumors are true. Costumes, toys, and accessories became... real in there. A lot of people seem to have gone crazy. Not that I really blame them... I'm not too sure about myself."
'Thaniel stared in- no, _at_ my eyes. "Yeah. That's... that's wild."
_Okay,_ I decided. _I need to make sure that nothing too enourmous happens back at the hotel for a while. There is no reason for me to abandon my self-assigned duties there... yet. A hundred minor crises take place in there every hour. And I'm one of those people who helps defuse them, it seems._
"All right... Thaniel..." I began abruptly, then smoothed my tone out. "I'm needed back at Xanadu. If you feel the need to get in, call, and I think I will be able to manage." I felt Elisa's protest- what did she think she was going to do, frack us off on a wild sketto chase?- and suppressed it. She submitted.
Her friend, too, began to protest and thought better of it. I have no way of knowing what he'd expected to see in meeting Elisa out here, but clearly this was not it. He needed a while to think things over.
We- or, rather, 'Thaniel and Elisa- exchanged farewells and see-you-soons and clasped arms again before I turned and began walking towards what I assumed was the correct direction. I could feel Elisa's friend staring at my back for long minutes.
"Friend of yours?" I inquired dryly when I judged we were far enough away. I allowed Elisa to take my mouth. Her reply was heated and forceful, flickering my tongue bizarrely on my pallet.
"None of your business." Knowing that she would feel it if not see it, I arched one eyebrow significantly. "I don't know about that, Elisa. If you're going to be commandeering my body-" she fought me, there-" then it is very much my business."
Again, I allowed her some control. And again, she was vehement. "It's _my_ body." I contracted my abdominal muscles in a harsh bark of laughter. "Ha!
We've been over this, kid. I dispute that." But, knowing that it would
take much longer then I wanted to spend, I changed the subject.
"So, who was the boy? A lover? No... no, I don't sense anything suggesting that. Family? No, probably not. That leaves... friend." Elisa gritted my teeth and aquiesced at last. "Yeah, he's a friend. My first friend at Midtral. He helped me build the laptop."
"And, obviously, he was supposed to be at Xanadu but wasn't." "Yes. Yeah, he was. I was sure that he'd have come... he sent me an e-mail about where he was, so I decided to see him."
I inhaled deeply, patiently, of the plant-scented air, smelling petroleum and water. "I would appreciate it if you told me of any other excursions beforehand. You never know what could happen."
I had re-oriented- the grounds of Xanadu have a very distinctive _feel_ to them, a sort of _echo_, not really unpleasant but very strange- and had to supress an expression of triumph as Elisa used my mouth to say "All right. Fine. You win."
_deet-deet deet deeeet deeeeet, deetdeetdeet-deeeee-deeeet_
An insistant beeping suddenly invaded the dreams of ARC trooper A-98, sometimes known as "Jangotat". Automatically realizing that it was not any alarm that _he_ had ever heard, Jangotat stirred just long enough to drape one arm over his eyes, trusting that someone else would deal with it.
_deet-deet deet deeeet deeeeet, deetdeetdeet-deeeee-deeeet_ Whatever was making the noise didn't stop. It seemed pretty close, if muffled slightly. Another part of the clone recognized the pattern of beeps as "You Are My Sunshine". And it was decidedly louder this time.
Still, Jangotat decided that he would rather feign sleep for a few seconds louder. Surely the device would shut itself off if it wasn't tended to.
_deet-deet deet deeeet deeeeet, deetdeetdeet-deeeee-deeeet_ Above the ARC on the room's narrow bed, a sleep-hoarsened voice muttered "Just pick up the di'kutla cell!"
Giving up the pretense, Jangotat picked himself up off of the folded comforter on the floor and lurched to his feet, blinking.
_deet-deet deet deeeet deeeeet, deetdeetdeet-deeeee-deeeet_ It was coming from... under the bed. With a sigh, the clone went back to his knees and groped beneath it untill his fingers encountered something small and hard. He pulled it out and stared at the thing.
It was silvery and rectangular, with rounded edges and a short, thick antennae. Although there was something vaguely familiar about the object, Jangotat couldn't quite remember. Something... something to do with talking... and a woman...
_deet-deet deet deeeet deeeeet, deetdeetdeet-deeeee-deeeet_ The thing chittered its partial song again and Jangotat almost dropped it, fumbling with fingers that for a moment seemed thick and clumsy.
"Turn it over and open it like a clamshell." His 'brother' Cete told him. Jangotat followed the instruction. "Now press the 'talk' button."
Gripping the device with not-entirely-steady fingers, he did so. A half-forgotten memory made him raise the thing to his ear and ask "Hello, who is this?". It felt just the slightest bit foolish...
Jangotat was rewarded when the cell phone emitted a thin sound that resolved into a distorted voice. "Uh.... this is 'Thaniel. Hi, is this Elisa's phone?"
_Elisa? Isn't that the name of that girl who is... with Revan?_ "Yeah, she just isn't here right now..." _I'm supposed to say something else here... what is it, what *is* it..._ "Do you have a message?"
"No, I guess not. I just want her to know that I'm worried. Haven't heard anything..." Despite himself, the clone smiled. "Sir, I can assure you, we'll take good care of her." _Conversation over. I can't just set it down... ah._ He hit a button labeled "End".
"Who was that?" asked Cete as Jangotat replaced the device under the bed.
"Someone who wanted the General," Jangotat shrugged. The other clone was lying on his stomach, hands folded before him in a pose more suited to a young woman. "Huh. Could be a trap. What was his name?"
"Thaniel, or something like. Whoever makes these... cell phones really should see about tuning the speakers." "I hear you." The man on the bed stretched, yawned. Reminded, Jangotat glanced about.
"This isn't our bunk." "No kidding. A bunch of tiny individual rooms, all this civilian furniture, wall and floor coverings..." "That's true, but I mean this isn't the room we've been staying at for the past... how long's it been..."
Cete groaned and levered himself up. "You're right. Must have had too much sausage last night..."
Jangotat glanced at the reddish bag lying rumpled in a corner, blinking. "I think this is the General's room." Cete stepped to his "brother"'s side. "Why do you say that?"
"I've seen her with that bag before. Plus, her phone is here and someone was asking for her, more or less." Suddenly grinning broadly, Cete turned to face his "brother".
"I won the coin toss, so I got the bed last night. That means I have bragging rights. Forever after, I can prove my status by saying that _I_ slept in the General's bed."
Almost casually, I scanned the crowd with both my eyes and my mind. Now, in the early afternoon, there were a lot more people in the hallway. Very few made eye contact; the majority seemed to have someplace to be. There were a few would-be-pickpocketers, bright with an opportunistic greed, but with all of my small, valuable items hidden in my Inventory, I saw little risk.
It came as a bit of a surprise when my right hand came up and scratched furiously at the black particles embedded in the skin of my left hand.
I closed my eyes, pressing the lids together tightly. "I don't suppose you're willing to tell me what you are trying to do?" I sidestepped out of the way of a trotting being, keeping my profile low. Even with my eyes shut, it was quite literally child's play to navigate in a crowd. Used to do it all the time...
Elisa interrupted the memory by opening my eyes and scowling. "No." I smoothed my face patiently and lowered my arms back down to my sides.
"Well, don't do it. I don't know what was on that slime, but scratching isn't going to help. I don't want it on my other hand."
Her slightly higher, somewhat younger-sounding version of my voice was indignant. "Why aren't you doing something about the itching anymore?" _What? What brought *that* on? Unless-_
I let a hint of incredulous teasing creep into my voice. "What? That bothers you? You can't bring yourself to ignore a minor irritation?" She scowled, and this time I let her, but I didn't stop. "I wonder what would happen if I allowed myself to be injured and didn't do anything about it? If you're that sensitive, then what-"
"General!" It was one of the clones again. "Thank God," Elisa muttered under my breath just before he reached me. I reached out and touched the surface of his mind, his "signature" in the Force, using it to identify him as-
"Tooth, I'm not a general. Haven't been for some time." Tooth looked at me as if I had gone mad and intoned, as if reminding a small child, "A general is _always_ a general... General. To claim otherwise is against procedure."
My eyes twitched upwards as if to roll. I stilled them.
An odd half-memory dawned on me. "Actually, trooper, I think I prefer the title _daritha_." Elisa blinked repeatedly before I could stop her, as if surprised. Luckily, Tooth- and I wished I knew how he had come upon that particular nickname- didn't seem to notice. He seemed to share the sentiment.
"_Daritha_? Is that Old Rakatan?" I was pleased. Evidently his education had been thorough.
"Yes, indeed it is. In rakatan, _daritha_ means-" _*Daritha* means
- Emperor*. Oops. *That* is why I like it so much. And I remember what it
was contracted into... perhaps I shouldn't have suggested it._ "Ah, never mind, Tooth. It's not important. I guess "General" will do after all."
"If you insist." Elisa tried again to roll her eyes, and this time I allowed it.
The skin around Tooth's eyes twitched. "You should be coming back about now. I've already commed ahead, so we'll all be in the same place. Your ARC has news, and he didn't want to tell it twice." He half-turned and looked back over his shoulder, obviously expecting me to follow.
I did so, arching an eyebrow. "_My_ ARC? Who, Jangotat?"
The trooper sighed patiently. "Have any of the other ARCs bothered to stay around? No. Only him. All the rest _deserted._ Shiftless, unreliable, antisocial... very, _very_ unpredictable and with no respect for procedure..." Tooth shook his head, seemed to remember his topic, and gave a little half-nod as a golden-plated protocol droid minced past. "They've all got too much initiative. Anyway, there's been a lot of building recently. Most of the big stuff is off-site, but there is one thing _here_, in one of the halls..."
On the way back to the vicinity of my room, I was briefed about what Tooth and all the other troopers knew, or at least suspected. Apparently Jangotat had apparently taken it upon himself to investigate one or more of the building projects, and had found something.
"But how'd he find the time to do that? Jangotat can't be doing it himself.
He's never been too far away." Elisa asked the question that I had been
wondering, and it was several seconds before I heard Tooth's answer. That may have been because he was trying to lead us out of a small forest of walking mops first.
"I don't know. But he _is_ an ARC." Tooth's voice took on a tone, almost sing-song, as if repeating a quote that he had heard endlessly. "If you need a job done, you can send one ARC Trooper, a hundred Clone Troopers, or four Clone Commandos." He returned to his normal tone of voice. "We number less than a hundred and the commandos have all _deserted_ too, but we do have the one ARC. Depending on what he found, it should be enough."
"It looks like.. yeah," Tooth muttered under his breath. "We're just about here." He looked up and down the hallway and shook his head. "I can never get used to living in this place. It's not precedure _at all_."
Another minor memory percolated into my consciousness. "Hey, Tooth."
"Yes, _Daritha_ Revan?"
"Don't... don't call me that. Anyway. I don't know if the saying survives... But the senator from Alderaan said something that's fairly relevant to this place."
Tooth stopped dead in his tracks and twisted around to stare at me, round-eyed in evident horror. "We-we're going to declare ourselves neutral and disarm completely?! That is _definitely_ not precedure!"
"What? _What?!_ " I stared back at him in equal dismay. "How... how could _that_ have happened?"
There was a long, confused silence that stretched out awkwardly until Elisa shuffled my feet. Coming back to myself, I shook my head briskly.
"I guess it was inbreeding or something... Anyway, the statement I wanted to tell you is just 'if you're at a door, and those within have to let you in, then you are home'. Different senator. Very, _very_ different senator."
"Oh. Then it's fine." Tooth resumed walking, and just around the corner was the stretch of hallway where just about all of the clone troopers had congregated.
I was somewhat surprised by the number. Yes, there were fewer than a hundred, I felt that immediately. Perhaps half of that; it was hard to tell. For some reason the clones are slightly... _slippery_ in the Force, difficult to tally or influence. Nothing like what I'd felt with, say, Toydarians, but it would have taken almost as much time to count or estimate their presences in the Force as it would to just count visually.
Most were without their signature white armor, although a few had apparently kept theirs in reserve. Most of those without wore the black under-armor that normally showed at their joints, although variations on jumpsuits were also scattered around. Very, very few were in looser clothing, although I couldn't tell if this was preference or the "clothing curse". I kept my eyes up. Not hard to do.
Elisa kept flicking my gaze from face to very nearly identical face, automatically trying- and failing- not to stare. She knew she was doing it, and I felt her clenching my teeth somewhat, but the child didn't know the "trick". I briefly wondered if it would be worth it to "put her to sleep" again, and decided against it.
At the edge of the crowd, I nodded at Tooth. "Thanks, trooper. I'll take it from here." I'd picked up on the mindsets of these men some days back, and knew what kind of person they needed me to be. _"Confident leader". Not too hard a role._
Head up and shoulders back, I strode forwards into the parting that appeared before me. _Don't overplay it. Confidence, not arrogance._ I stretched out in the Force, locking on to the young-old sense of Jangotat, and made for him.
He had his broad back turned until I was only a few steps away, at which point he about-faced smartly. There was an enourmous wicker basket under one arm.
"Apple, General?" I blinked as he tossed a fist-sized roundish fruit with bright yellow-gold skin at me. I reached out and caught it automatically, noting its weight and smooth, waxy texture. The basket was full of similar fruits. They were, I saw, slightly smaller than this one, and for the most part they bore less metallic colors.
"Where did you get these?" I turned the fruit over in my hands. There were two indentations, one of which evidently produced the stem, the other bearing tiny dried tufts of what I took to be flower. My fingers found no breaks in the skin and no soft spots, although the gold of the skin was speckled darker here and there.
Despite my inspection, I did not miss the evasiveness in the clone's voice. "Ah... around, General. There's a lot of them... and they're edible, too."
I looked up sharply. "You didn't _steal_ these, did you?" Jangotat looked away, then back at me before making a reply. There were times when he- all of them really- seemed very young. This was one of them.
"Procurement is not stealing!" I closed my eyes tightly in exasperation for several seconds before opening them, dismissing the topic.
"All right, Jangotat, what did you want to tell me?" Leaking authority back into my voice, I lowered the golden apple and hid it in my sleeve, from there putting it in my Inventory.
I was gratified to see both Jangotat and the other clones take on a more militaristic position, standing more upright and staring straight ahead. The apple basket remained under his arm. "General Revan. As you may have been informed, I have taken your instructions to 'keep an eye out' and interpreted them..." He hesitated.
"Yes, as you were meant to. Continue."
"Right. General, almost immediately after this order was issued, I found evidence of some kind of covert construction project during a routine patrol. While many... residents... have required highly specialized living quarters, they are only rarely so extensive or secretive."
I listened, occasionally stifling a comment on Elisa's part, as Jangotat detailed his decision to investigate. He'd been recruited by "others" who were suspicious and wanted to keep an eye out without drawing attention. ARC training, evidently, included communications. Maybe even public relations.
He came to the results of this observation shortly enough. The builders had tried to be covert, but simply weren't good enough, giving liberal hints about their jobs when off duty. A lot of surveillance technology had been installed, the walls and doors had been soundproofed, and a number of advanced computers and highly unusual utilities had been set in place.
They had also been paid by a "whitecoat", a detail that made Jangotat and his spontaneous allies suspicious.
The real breakthrough had come when one of the informal coalition had actually been recruited to work in the lab. She- "insisting upon the codename 'Targetter'" apparently had perfect recall, and so brought back a series of detailed reports about banks of flatscreens relaying views from numerous parts of Xanadu, as well as areas where the workers were trying to improve on... something based on "airport security" that would detect weaponry.
I didn't have a problem with that. My Inventory let me carry and hide more equipment than I could possibly want... or need. Particularly here at Xanadu, where enemies were the sort that needed to be reasoned with, not slaughtered.
No, what really caught my attention was the fact that one of those screens had apparently been of a place not far from where I slept. And I hadn't seen the camera.
There was also the matter of that one night when I had rushed off to investigate a "demon calling" and later been ambushed by a number of identical-looking assailants. I had killed several- for that matter, _Jangotat_ had killed one of them- before realizing that they were all bound together by some _malevolence_, and relatively minor wounds served just as well to incapacitate them. It seemed that someone had been looking into this, and somehow found new evidence.
"The people who work in this... place are probably with Security," I mused out loud. "Not neccessarily Project X. I... guess it's worth looking at." I looked down at my steepled hands speculatively, and then up at Jangotat. He was hiding something, I knew it..."Do you suppse it could happen tonight?"
"Yes? Uh... I think so... let me... check with the watchers. I think we aren't the only ones who want to take a look." Handing the basket of apples off to one of his "brothers", the clone strode off. Elisa blinked.
"So tonight you want me to sneak into Kubla Con security for no clear reason. Just to see if that mess _you_ caused was recorded." Despite the mocking words, Elisa's muttered tone sounded wry and speculative. I smiled slowly.
"Essentially. Not alone, of course." The girl mouthed "Great." and subsided.
I found the trooper who had helped me before with shrapnel. "Hey, Sirty. Would you mind terribly helping me get these particle things out of my hand?"
"This is the place," Jangotat told me in a murmur, his voice flattened and sterilized by the helmet that Revan had pulled, along with the rest of his armor, out of nowhere. I looked.
This entrance into Xanadu Security was, essentially, the front of a building. An entire section of the Con- I couldn't tell if it was just a hall or not- had been walled off and bricked over. There were no windows, just an enourmous, imposing closed steel door with a visible video camera over it. The camera, a green light blinking near the lense, swiveled to follow the passage of a clay golem, whisked over to monitor a wolfman on the other side, then swiveled back to its original position. Clearly, surveillance tecnology had undergone an upgrade.
The door, of course, was featureless shiny metal, with no visible lock or handle. Just a keycard slot in the frame. It probably opened by sliding into the wall. And of course, while it probably _could_ be forced, the camera would definitely have picked that up and probably sounded an alarm.
"So... how are we supposed to get in?" I asked under my breath after a period of silence. It seemed like an obvious question.
"Weren't you listening earlier?" My lips and toungue writhed unsettlingly as I felt the faint pressure at my temples. "Looks simple enough. This is the only entrance with just one camera. And the evening shift change is in a few minutes. Targetter will briefly shut down the camera feed; you just have to wait for the red light to blink twice."
"And what about the lock? I don't remember anything about the lock."
"Be patient. That's taken care of. We _procured_ one of the keycards." I shifted from one foot to the other before being stilled.
I glanced about, wondering what other denizens of Xanadu thought of the sight of me and a pair of clonetroopers loitering just outside of camera-range. And weren't there supposed to be other people trying to get in? Or would they be at the more guarded entrances? I caught a tall, skinny pale man with a beartrap of elongated interlocking teeth staring at me with bloodshot eyes and glared at him until he looked away.
Evening was a time when most of the people who wandered about in daylight scurried back to their rooms and hiding holes, when the creepier characters started to come out of the woodwork. Mostly Haloween characters; witches and vampires and werewolves and animate scarecrows, that kind of thing. As far as I could tell, most of the horror movie characters had been rounded up and were contained. The rest were considered harmless, escaped, or had gone to ground.
The moon, I knew, was just on the gibbous side of half right about now. It had been full on Haloween and was currently waning. Eyeing what looked like a blue-skinned hillbilly with a deep black mark in his forehead, I decided that I really didn't want to be outside to find out what happened when it waxed full again. Possibly a reenactment of "An American Werewolf in London" only with more monsters.
"Let's go," Jangotat whispered, and I jumped and silently berated myself for not paying attention.
We made straight for the door, then, attempting to look as if we belonged. The camera angled down and fixed on me. I stared into its round lense as the keyslot was manipulated, seeing the distorted half-familiar woman staring back at me until Revan took my legs and walked me into the open door without looking.
"We don't have time for that," she said under my breath. I licked my lips nervously and scanned the room.
Smaller than any of the big halls, but certainly larger than my little room, it was lined with what looked like computer stations, along with the requisite bank-of-small-televisions. Another closed door lay ominously across from the entry.
The room's sole occupant, a woman with long white hair wound close to her skull, was keying in a sequence at the computer. She looked over her shoulder and I was struck by the regal professionalism of her demeanor. Somehow she portrayed the impression that she missed nothing, forgot nothing.
"That's Targeter," Jangotat murmured. "She'll keep the alarms off. We're covered."
"We already know that," the clone on his other side said, also murmuring.
I winced slightly, realizing that the identification had been soley for my benefit. _Wish I could have stayed out of this._ When Revan, impatient, took my body and walked me towards the interior door, I didn't resist.
She stopped before touching the door and closed my eyes, breathing in and out slowly for several seconds. "Empty," she announced quietly, and reached out my hand, twitched two fingers.
The door emitted a muted "click!" and I opened my eyes in time to see the door retract. "This one doesn't have an electronic lock," my mouth said in response to the unvoiced question. "If you know exactly where the tumblers are, it's really very easy."
_Yeah. Easy. I really hope she can't read my mind._ I stepped inside and saw, first off, big gated machines whose shapes reminded me of metal detectors and those X-ray thingies you see in airport security. They were plugged in, green lights blinking alertly, and each had a lit computer monitor beside it.
_These people must have a really long time between shifts, to leave this room unguarded._ I came up to one of the monitors and found what looked like the receit-printing mechanism in most stores, complete with a scrolling curl of paper with a printed readout.
The readout was full of number-letter combinations. The screen was also filled with such combinations, and besides each one was a long word that might have been an element. I blinked at the machine. _Scanning equipment that figures out what things are made of in terms of compounds. I don't see how this is immediately useful. A prototype? There might be... I don't know, something that reads elecromagnetis signals here somewhere. I wonder what it would look like?_
A hissed "General!" made my body turn around and come back into the room with the screens. Half a dozen skinny people in black- ninjas? _When did ninjas get in here?_ were at different consoles or dangling from the ceiling, but they seemed pretty engrossed in their task, so I ignored them.
Jangotat and the other trooper, whose nickname I just couldn't recall, were busy at a desk that was, apparently, a security archive. The screen revealed grainy, out-of-focus footage of a robed figure with a bright blade in one hand, posture defiant, being moved in on by eight men in suits.
The figure gestured, and the men were hurled backwards, away, out of the frame. Another one charged the figure, who abruptly had a blade in each hand, and used both to first stab and then rend the man.
My eyes pulled away from the image and looked into the narrow black T-shaped visor in Jangotat's helmet, only a few feet away. He inclined his head at me, ever so slightly, and I moved my gaze back to the screen, uneasy in the pit of my stomach.
Machine gun; repeated parrying, the gunner being shot and falling. The robed figure's weapons vanished and it fell to all fours, its face obsured. I recognized this. The perspective had been different, but I remembered it all right.
>From behind the figure, to the screen's left, a figure that was a bit more muscular then the lightsaber-fodder approached and knelt by the first one for a while before they both moved off as the screen faded to blank.
My lungs filled and emptied slowly in a soft, drawn-out sigh. I closed my eyes in time to protect them from my left hand, which moved up and rubbed my forehead and eye sockets as if pained.
"Terrific," I said out loud. "Who or what got that recorded? And how?" Granted, I was hardly the most observant of people, but when entering a room even I tend to see a wallmounted camera. I didn't see any reason for one of the suited Matrix guys to be carrying one either, and if I'd missed it, they wouldn't. Would they?
"That footage was recorded by a new agent in Xanadu Security," the white-haired woman said suddenly. I would have jumped, but my body remained still. "This agent was, like myself, recruited when it became apparent that its skills were useful."
Jangotat had evidently had my same thought. "How did he manage this?"
Targetter smiled. "'It', not 'he'. The new agent is a large proffessional video camera with no operator or tangible means of support or propulsion, but takes recordings and moves with suprising speed anyway. It has the curious property of being completely undetectable to those that it is filming."
"That's a comforting thought," I murmured. _Undetectable?_
She continued. "Before this admittedly low-quality recording surfaced, this particular case was a dead end. The victims have conflicting recollections, most pointing to incidents of being ambushed prior to this occurrence. Investigation of the scene produced very limited results, as the first person to come across it accidentally cleansed away most of the evidence. The head of security does not approve of using psychics, and all of the potential suspects who we believe were able to perform such an act have solid alibis. I do not know how many copies there are of this, nor where the original recording is kept."
She fell silent then, and I licked my lips nervously. _How much does she know? What did Jangotat tell her?_ This had the potential to turn out very bad.
My head turned as if to make eye contact, but Targetter was back on a different console, the one she had been at when we entered. _Hmm. Why is she going along with this anyway?_
"Does it look like they can make anything out of this?" Jangotat leaned close and asked softly, his voice barely audible.
My eyes closed and my toungue tapped once on the roof of my mouth. My voice emerged at a similarly low volume."Probably not. The recording is sketchy and not very distinctive. Neither of us is clearly visible... still, this is worrying. Options?"
"Well... we could go on as if nothing has changed, General. So that we don't seem to be suspecting it. But that last meeting may have been recorded, so they might figure that out on their own."
"So that's out. Next."
"We could leave the con. Go into the city. Or past it. I think some of the troopers could stay behind, but a number would have to come with you. They need someone in charge. Fragile psychs and all that."
"I don't think so. That's an admission of guilt, and we'd be tracked down pretty easily. Besides, I'd have trouble feeding you lot. What else?"
"Implicate someone else. I don't know how."
"That never works the way you plan it... Next."
"We could move to another part of Xanadu. You can't do anything about _us_, but it wouldn't be hard for you to change _your_ appearance, right? That leaves some of the other options open as well."
_Change my appearance?_ "Wait. Wha-" My throat seized up and then Revan said "Sounds possible. Anything else?"
"Not at the moment, General." He turned his helmeted head to regard the man on his other side. "You've been awfully quiet, trooper. Nothing to say?"
The trooper took a moment to respond. "I think you have it covered, sir."
"All right," Revan said through my lips. "Is there anything else we want to try and accomplish here? No? Then let's get out before Targetter's shift ends."
Image links: (Please excuse my inability to draw... in terms of fault, it's part Paint, part Joysweeper.
Both just say "I am Revan". They can give a reader a vague idea about what one(or is that two?) of my characters look like.