Walker Imperial Ranger

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This story is a work in progress.
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Xanadu story universe
Author: Joysweeper

By Joysweeper, with some help from Bryan.

Don't read this story yet :)

It'll be done when it's done. For the record, I intend to finish before Duke Nukem.

Links to some pictures of AT-ATs, for reference: [1] Close up of chin-mounted heavy laser cannons [2] Low-angle concept art [3] More concept art(Talk about uneven odds. Luke > everything.) [4] ESB screenshot [5] Another screenshot [6] High-angle(sort of) image [7] Schematics [8] Bad bluescreen, but it does convey size pretty well.

Links to some pictures of Red Guards, also for reference: [9] Red robes and a forcepike. [10] Kir Kanos, helmet off, showing the armor. He never uses a forcepike. [11] The Emperor's guards aren't just for show. [12] Kir Kanos showing the armor again. Different look at the belt.

Have to thank brains-in-a-jar for thoughts on a human brain in a very nonhuman mechanical body, and also all kinds of things about static. Also have to thank Robert T. Bakker for writing "The Dinosaur Heresies"; that bit on a lizard's wrist was extremely interesting.

And I found this quote on one of the 501st homepages. It is so perfect. "Some fans are content to collect action figures...other fans want to be action figures. Nothing professes your fandom quite like building your own detailed costume replica of a classic Star Wars villain, and there's nothing quite like the feeling that comes from bringing the characters of Star Wars into the real world and sharing the magic with others. A truly engaging Star Wars experience only occurs through a convincing appearance. To this end, the 501st constantly strives to improve the quality and accuracy of its member's costumes. Our goal is to appear as if our characters have just stepped off the big screen and into this world." I hope I can find some way to use this ironically. Probably not this story, but I'm going to have to stow it away.

Joysweeper--Hoojib.jpg

Bryan's intro

"The door, the door!" Steph called out and lunged to intercept the handle swinging in to catch Garrett's back, stopping it just in time to prevent another ding in the cardboard that might be difficult to repair now that they were at the convention itself.

Garrett let out a sigh of relief. "Thanks." He had turned sideways but thanks to the huge boxy hump over his back it didn't make him any narrower and only really served to make it harder to keep track of everything. And with the two giant cardboard constructs mounted over his arms there wasn't really much he could do anyway; his hands were busy just holding the internal braces in place.

Steph grinned and slipped lithely around to join him in the lobby once Garrett had managed to make it inside. "You'd think armor capable of repelling turbolasers could handle a door handle."

Garrett shook his head. His costume was particularly fragile, being both bulky and made primarily out of cardboard, but it had been surprisingly quick and easy to make as a result. "It'll last until judging. Spray a jot of black on any tears and call 'em battle damage, the Rebels must've got a few lucky hits in." The lobby was sparsely populated right now, with just a few folks still lined up at the front desk buying passes to glance in surprise at Garrett's outfit, but Garrett decided it was showtime. He leaned forward and fell into his quadrupedal stance, the big round footpads of his forelimbs clomping to the ground to support him and the headpiece tilting down into the correct orientation.

There were a few appreciative murmurs as the onlookers finally recognized the iconic Imperial walker he was dressed as. Steph gave a little flourish and a bow, as if taking credit for the outfit, and then stepped forward to give Garrett something to follow. They'd considered trying to rig up a periscope of some sort so that Garrett could see forward more easily but they'd run out of time for details like that; it was enough that the AT-AT's legs were able to support him as things were, they'd had to compromise on the costume's proportions a bit just to make it work.

The majority of the work had taken only a single week. Since it only really had to survive for a single day of use ease of construction had been a fair tradeoff. Garrett was like that with all of his projects; a flash of inspiration, a whirlwind of construction, and then once it was finished the itch was satisfied and he would lose interest and let it go. Steph counted it as sheer luck that this time around the inspiration had come when they might make some money off of it. He'd been tight with Garrett for a couple of years now, both of them in the same engineering degree at the nearby University of Midtral, and was the less-imaginative and more-practical of the two.

"Two please," Steph signed in. "Stephen Midder and Garrett Thompson. Just for today." He pointed to identify themselves.

"Registered for any of the contests?" The man behind the desk asked. Garrett nodded silently, the walker-head bobbing almost comically. "Right..." The man shuffled through a list, presumably checking for Garrett's name, and then looked back up once he'd checked it off. "Ten for him, thirty for you."

"Eh? Aww." Steph got out his wallet to pay for the passes. "Should've worn a costume myself." Not that I could have got a discount for any costume that cost under twenty dollars, of course. But he supposed that wasn't really the point.

The two of them had done some pretty wacky and nerdy things together. The AT-AT costume had blown away everyone at the Halloween party they'd been to on campus just a few nights previous, in fact that had been the primary impetus for building the thing in the first place. But as they proceeded down the hall toward the convention rooms where the main population of conventiongoers were congregating, Steph began wondering if they'd finally reached their level. The variety and creativity of hand-crafted costumes on display was enormous. Still, there wasn't anything quite like the AT-AT costume Garrett wore and it still drew a good share of attention.

Upon entering the first convention room - a dealer's room, from the look of the tables set up along the side walls, but nonetheless full of costume-wearers - they almost immediately encountered someone in a Stormtrooper outfit. It was a perfect replica in every detail, clearly a labor of love, and the person wearing it was dedicated enough to playing the role that he resisted the temptation to drop out of character.

"You're out of uniform, pilot," the trooper commented as he gave Steph a nod of acknowledgment in passing.

Steph was at a loss for a response but Garrett gave a most un-AT-AT-like chuckle. Garrett had been shuffling along behind Stephen on all fours, barely able to see more than the backs of Stephen's heels, and he took the opportunity after the trooper had passed to stand back up again and look around. "Lots of competition."

"Yeah." Steph sighed; the prospect of winning any of the prize money seemed more distant now that he'd seen some of what they were up against. This was just the first room and there was an amazing gargoyle with what looked like pneumatically-operated wings, a really hot fox-girl who had made a masterful blend of both plush fabric and her own natural attributes, and a lizard-man... no, Steph corrected himself, a Gorn. The Gorn's costume was nearly as good as the one from the original Star Trek episode had been. "Still, nothing like an AT-AT, eh?"

"Excuse us, please," A small woman in a jockey costume asked from behind Garrett's cardboard bulk. He shuffled to the side to let her through, leading a man in an amazing horse costume. The thing made him seven feet tall, with a long neck and perfect horse's head, and the hoof-gloves made Steph wonder if he could get down on all fours too.

"Heh. Damn." Garrett shook his head. "Well, thank goodness for categories, eh?"

Steph gave a wry grin. "Yeah. Though I'm feeling a bit under-dressed myself now."

It didn't really matter much since Garrett was the center of attention, as intended; Steph was along just to open doors and do the other things Garrett couldn't manage in that hulking outfit. But as they proceeded through the room Steph found his gaze lingering on some of the costuming wares being sold.

People would stop to stare, take photos, or ask Steph questions about the AT-AT costume. Since he was the one leading the way, with Garrett's face down and concealed under the cardboard headpiece, it was natural that they'd assume he was in charge. But when Garrett reared up to proudly answer the questions they'd immediately switch to ignoring Steph instead. It was quickly beginning to annoy him; though the idea and the design for the AT-AT costume had been Garrett's they'd worked on it together.

"Hang on, Garrett," Steph finally called. They were on their way to the exhibition hall but they were still quite early, they'd left plenty of flex in their schedule to account for difficulties with the costume. "I want to look at some of the stuff they're selling here."

"Stuff?" Garrett got up and looked around.

There weren't any Star Wars branded costume supplies at hand, and if there were they'd probably be too expensive. Twenty dollars, eh? I can spend twenty dollars. That left mainly just the cheesier costume gear.

After a few minutes of browsing Garrett got back down on all fours and spent a little while tromping back and forth. The arms of the AT-AT costume were quite heavy; in addition to the cardboard shell they had a pair of aluminum canes inside, trimmed short and affixed to the broad metal bucket lids that formed the soles of his "forefeet". Despite the crick he was sure he'd eventually develop in his back it was actually easier moving around like this.

There wasn't as much of an audience in here, though. The people who already had costumes were gravitating off somewhere else and those were the ones he was most interested in impressing with his ingenuity and attention to detail. He wasn't a big Star Wars fan himself but he'd dug up some schematics from a scan of some old Star Wars book. He'd even hung a Luke Skywalker pilot action figure on a string from his underside, mimicking the famous scene from Empire Strikes Back where the proto-Jedi had grappled up on board one after being shot down on Hoth, but he'd lost that particular accessory somewhere during the Halloween party and hadn't bothered looking for a replacement. There didn't seem to be anything like that in this area of the dealer's room...

He tromped over to Steph. "We going to move on?" He prompted.

Steph sighed. The twin goals of 'attention-grabbing' and 'cheap' weren't meshing very well. "Okay, just let me grab something." Something totally incongruous would probably be best. So... "Ah, I'll take that." A pair of fuzzy bunny ears on a headband for just ten bucks. Garrett didn't even look up and Steph grinned; he'd be startled when he did.

They continued onward.


Joysweeper's pre-TF setup

On the way they'd called it a "function" as if it'd been some kind of social event, and in a desultory fashion they'd been trying to get donations to the Leukemia Society, but it was far from formal. The Kublai Con attendees were pretty generous – TR-1407, given name “Angela Kincaid”, calling herself “Anj” while in costume - had once heard it said that furry cons generated more money than scifi cons, and Xanadu was a mixture of both.

What had made the effort fun was the “act”. Angela lost count of just how many times she’d heard friends declaring with feigned authority that the 501st Legion was here to keep the peace and maintain order. Essentially they’d just threatened anyone who looked impressive enough, and almost everyone had played along, reacting in fear or challenging the Imperials to a duel.

She’d personally “fought” an armored anthro dragon with a very realistic whipping tail, matching her forcepike with his curved fiberglass sword, and although she’d “lost” she had also had the pleasure of seeing him back down when faced with the blasters of eighteen stormtroopers. Good donation from that one, too, when they'd explained and everything.

The "TR" prefix in front of the number she had picked as her identification - she'd chosen fourteen oh seven - indicated which costume was her favorite. "TK" meant stormtrooper, "TC" was clonetrooper, "SL" was Sith Lord... there were a number of them for the various types. "TR" meant that she favored the Emperor's guards in their red helmets and flowing robes. They were called Red Guards, Royal Guards, and various other combinations of "Red", "Royal", "Imperial", and "Emperor's". Frankly, Angela preferred "Red Guard". The arguments some of her friends got into about nomenclature gave her a headache - fanwank was one thing, and you had to be a little anal to care about a screen-accurate costume, but some people went too far.

She’d heard from one of them that someone had actually caught a pickpocket in the act and had proceeded to instill the fear of the Empire into him, winning a lot of amusement from everyone else in the process, but she hadn’t seen it herself, nor had anyone who told the story. It was probably hyperbole. That didn’t stop the thought from being entertaining.

Now it was over and the group was dispersing. TR-1407 was glad to leave, frankly. The costume, with heavy cloth robes over already-stifling armor, had slowly become hot enough to, as the phrase went, fry fleek eels with, the ice packs had either thawed or hadn't been working in the first place, and no amount of water or robe-flapping could make it entirely tolerable. The bodysuit under the plating under the robes was so drenched with sweat that she'd probably have to peel it off.

Not for the first time she wished that she hadn’t bothered with the tight bodysuit and the armor that went over it. It wasn’t like it would have visibly made a difference. Some Red Guards liked to keep their robes thrown behind their shoulders like a cloak, the better to show off the detailing on their armor. Angela, on the other hand, didn’t want anyone guessing that she was female, and so kept her robes arranged about her body, hiding everything but her hands, her feet, and her helmet. It still would have been far, far too hot – the helmet was the next thing to airtight, and only the respirator that threaded down to her waist kept her from suffocating – but at least she wouldn’t feel like sparks were smoldering under her robes.

But… no. More than once during the “fight” her robes had swept about, and both before and after they hadn’t exactly hung neatly. She would never have heard the end of it if she were to come to an event “half-dressed”.

“Remember, there’s a march at three,” she told her friend and former pupil SL-1984 as they left, part of a stream. The majority of Tampa Bay Squad happened to be heading in the same direction. “We meet before two thirty in the southwest parking lot.” Little single-squadron things like the function were fun, but the real thrill was always when the entire 501st, or as much of it as was attending any particular convention, marched together. There was just something about it that felt exhilarating. Like she was part of something bigger than herself.

“I knew that,” he protested, but mildly. “Micheal Porter”, as he was usually known – although he preferred to answer strictly to his designation when in costume – was tall enough, laid-back enough, and attention-loving enough to pull off a White Vader costume. It was exactly what it sounded like – the Darth Vader rig, all in white, sometimes called “Vader Redeemed.” The images that the costume was based off of had appeared for literally two panels at the very end of a comic that wasn’t even canon. Even by 501st standards that was unusual - and the 501st Legion was infamous for being made up of fans who weren't content to simply collect action figures, they wanted to be them.

His protest was put on hold briefly as a fairly well-done white tiger furry with an articulated jaw interrupted, waving her pawhands and generally being as relentlessly upbeat as possible. She didn’t seem to want to talk, but gestured and showed off a disposable camera on a strap around her neck enthusiastically enough that it was pretty clear that she wanted pictures.

TR-1407 had never been all that comfortable with being hugged by complete strangers for photographs, but she didn’t have any serious objections to it, and she wasn’t carrying her wallet with her this time, so there was no chance of getting robbed again. Fortunately the tiger was much more interested in SL-1984, and he was perfectly willing to mug and pose as much as desired, supported by three or four stormtroopers who got beckoned into the shots and played along, rather than shaking their heads and passing by. Maybe it was just that white fur went better with white robes and armor than with red. It was probably more that the kid was naturally showy.

After the Red Guard had obligingly snapped enough pictures and handed the camera back to the furry, the white tiger left to accost someone else, and they picked up where they had left off.

“Angela, you really don't need to remind me about everything anymore. I know the schedule."

“Don’t call me Angela when I’m in uniform, please." Sweat was pooling in the tips of her gloves. Angela flexed her hands against it. The moment she let them relax, it pooled again. "It's only been what, a year since I let you walk off and you missed it because you were buying original issues of 'Spider-Girl'?"

"A year and a half. I am so much better at juggling my hobbies now," he said dryly. "Why, I even remember things that the schedule said and Pike forgot to bring up."

A trooper listening in muttered "You had to bring the Squad Leader into this. Now you're in for it."

Another trooper who'd been a few steps behind got right up besides the taller Vader. She was a snowtrooper, and probably suffering almost as much as Angela in the heat. Despite the helmet speaker and a tired note in her voice, she sounded crisp and alert. "Hey, don't complain. I'm sorry we haven't made an announcement, but we've got a lot more on our plate than you do; you just have to show up at the right time and place, and we're not here to babysit you. We've been setting things up and working out scheduling conflicts since five in the morning. It's been a long day at the end of a long week already and I'm glad John was there to take over after eleven." The snowtrooper slipped into character and finished, very dryly, "So don't complain about your superiors, my lord. Circumstances tend to be more complicated than they seem."

"Ah," SL-1984 said, briefly assuming character himself. "My apologies, Ma'am. That was merely a breach in my personal discipline. No disrespect was meant." Following along, Angela couldn't help feeling a little surge of goodwill. She loved this group. They argued a lot, and Shanda Pike admittedly could be touchy, but it never got too far. Probably in part because while Michael loved the limelight, he had very little ego or temper.

"I'll overlook it, so long as you don't let it happen again," Pike allowed very seriously. A smile crept into her voice. "You're mixing up your honorifics, by the way. I'm only "ma'am" in the Tusken Raider suit and as Mara."

"Again, my apologies. Sir," he added. Everyone pretended not to notice the slight skip in his amplified voice.

With a nod, the snowtrooper peeled away and dropped back, staying in sight but effectively bowing out of the conversation. In an aside, Angela told her friend that his voice-changer was failing.

“What? Testing, testing... You’re right.” SL-1984 thumped the speaker hidden in his chest box, then removed his helmet, careful of the trailing wires that ran from it down into the rest of the costume. “This thing always gets screwy an hour or so in.”

There was always something just a little bit disturbing about seeing someone in costume but without their helmet on. It didn’t take long to get used to seeing troopers, but with a Vader it always looked strange. Michael had opted for the ski-hood-under-the-helmet thing that Vaders usually wore. His, naturally, was white. Removing helmets while trooping tended to be frowned on, but everyone in the 501st knew that sometimes it couldn't be helped.

Angela told him, “You really ought to try a pair of Vortex Twos. I’ve never made a Vader-“

Michael left off frowning into the helmet for a moment. “You’re not nearly tall enough to pull it off. You'd have to do the three-fourths scale version. And maybe get body padding.”

“I know. Shut up.” Angela sighed. “I’ve never made a Vader, but I have a helmet, therefore I use a speaker. Vortex. Got it with my tax returns. I know that Hasbro thing is cheap and easy to get, but, well, the downside is quality. Vortex is the best.” She indicated the general location of her own voice amplification unit with a quick gesture. It made her voice audible despite the almost airtight helmet, flattening it out in the process.

“I know, but that’s a bit of an investment. I’m not exactly rolling in money right now. Had to stop working on that Tusken Raider one… I could barely afford to come here. This will hold for a bit longer. Going to have to try and fake it when it does fail. The iPod with the breathing loop's still good, at least.” Replacing the helmet and straightening it with both hands, he faced her directly. “Any plans?”

“I’m getting out of this costume before I cook.” She flapped her robes in another vain attempt to get some cool air circulating. Under her helmet, a little curl of hair had plastered itself over one eye, sticking to the lid as she blinked. Just about every time she wore a helmet she found herself wishing she'd cut her hair short. Tampa Bay Squadron's other Red Guard kept hers cropped and said it made something of a difference.

SL-1984’s speaker system relayed the sound of his mouth opening, so she cut him off. “And before you ask, no, I don’t need any help, Micheal. Seriously, if I stay in this any longer I’ll get heatstroke. Every time I get into this thing I regret it, I swear.”

"If you want me to call you Anj, don't call me Michael." SL-1984 raised his voice to be heard over the shouting match going on between two balding men in spandex. Taking up a standard Vader mannerism with ease that betrayed several movies' worth of casual study, he locked his hands around his belt. “This is why white’s a good color. I’m not sweating half as much as I did in the black sauna suit, so I think I’m good for a while yet. I'd like to see the sights. There are some really nice costumes this year. Maybe I’ll swing by those set pieces people keep talking about. I heard that they got David and his crew to do the Hutt set again this year, plus Carmen said that Makaze Squad brought in that Death Star made of like a million Legos. I have no idea how they could have got it in the doors.”

People had collected in a chattering knot around someone or something, clogging the way. It was possible to squeeze past, but that just wouldn't do. Angela raised her voice. “Move along, come on now citizens, you can collect in a spare room much more easily than out here. Move along, move along.” The voice amplifier lent her voice a little more kick and made it audible. Despite that, she saw no sign that more than a few people had heard, let alone intended to obey.

Her former pupil, his voice changer having given up entirely, repeated the order with the same intonation, doing his best with the voice. This time, people listened and obeyed, breaking up and dispersing. They’d been clustered around a yellow lab – not a furry, an actual, panting dog that barely seemed disturbed at all by the crowd – wearing one of those novelty pet costumes. It went very nicely with his owner, though Angela wasn’t sure about the meaning of the dog being Batman when the man was Robin.

What she was sure about was that the kid she’d once sponsored – hardly a kid despite her teasing, she couldn't be more than five or six years older than him - was just better at some of this than she was. Particularly when it came to giving orders to people neither of them knew. Partly it was because, although she wasn’t shy by anyone’s standards, she didn’t like to stand out overmuch. Hence why her preferred costumes were the Red Guard and obscure ones like AT-AT drivers or Imperial Army Pilots, as they were called, while his was arguably the most conspicuous costume in the 501st.

A trooper that Angela knew from the squad finally answered the question. “The Lego Death Star? It breaks apart into sections and gets reassembled. We had to get a cart for the pieces, but it's simpler than it looks. Tampa Bay had it one year, but that was before your time. Sir.”

TR-1407 decided to break it off. She really didn’t know where the closest ‘changing room’ was, but she’d been told that they were everywhere, so it probably wouldn’t take too long to find one. The longer she waited, the longer the costume stayed on. “Have fun, guys. I think I’ll get most of this off before I make more plans. Don’t hurt yourself showing off.”

“Don’t forget to put it back on by two thirty. I’ll see you by then if not before, An- Anj.” He and those troopers who hadn't already gone their own ways kept moving in the same direction, and she arbitrarily took a left.

It was pretty close to noon; compared to just an hour ago, the hallway was half empty. The people who had been rushing around trying to get to various things had reached them, apparently. This wasn’t anywhere near the dealer’s room or any of its offshoots, the SIGs were already in progress, and as far as she could remember from the big con schedule the only event going on would be that big awards ceremony.

Angela toyed with the idea of going, but the oppressive heat of her costume decided her. Anything worth seeing would surely keep; she'd been to enough conventions to know that the truly impressive costumes would probably stick around for a bit, both soaking up the praise and trying not to break anything. Getting there in time to see the whole thing wouldn’t be worth the broiling and the probability of being jostled by a crowd. She’d hate to break the forcepike that she was carrying braced against her shoulder; it was easily the most fragile part of the costume, and making it had been a trial.

The heat was like a physical thing trapped against her body. Not for the first time, she wished that she’d worn her officer uniform instead. Fewer layers, and her face, neck, and hands were exposed to the air. But officer getup was just so plain, so ordinary compared to the Red Guard robes and armor. And somehow it drew more attention, not less. In a weird way, Red Guards could be ignored pretty easily. A perk of being a member of Star Wars's version of the Secret Service, she supposed.

Up ahead it was crowded again; all fursuiters from the look of things. Enough of them were breaking the unwritten rule about staying silent in costume that the group was quite, quite loud, even with the helmet cutting off some of the sound. From the laughter, the movement, and the general tone of conversation, they were having a good time. Having nothing better to do Angela approached them, deciding that if nothing else she might as well find out what if anything was going on.

As she passed within thirty feet of the closest of them she felt something like a chill traveling down her spine, prickling against the bodysuit stuck to her skin. The Red Guard would have brushed it aside as nothing, but for one reason or another she noticed that some of the furries who had been talking or laughing or demonstrating dance moves had stopped, abruptly in some cases. A number of them carried on, oblivious, but several stopped what they were doing.

TR-1407 thought she saw a gray feline's mouth opening far wider than a baklava could allow for. She told herself that it was a trick of the light or a flaw in her visor. That was when the chill became strong, pulsing in time with her heartbeat and branching to prickle her arms, the base of her skull, her chest and lower than that, strong enough that she shuddered involuntarily. Her bones started to ache, followed by the rest of her body. There was a moment where she thought Heatstroke? and started to raise her hands to her helmet.

That was when the bottom dropped out of the world.

Lead up to Garrett and Steph's TFs

The density of Star Wars costumes steadily increased as they progressed. The population of the convention was extremely diverse but various factors - the impending themed contests, the large number of rooms providing partitioning, natural human cliquishness - were conspiring to make it clumpy.

Or maybe word's just getting around about Garrett's costume, Steph reflected. The stormtroopers seemed eerily organized for just a bunch of fans who'd happened to show up wearing the same thing.

But to Steph's relief, he wasn't feeling quite so annoyed by the attention Garrett was getting any more. The bunny ears had actually helped. Not in that they were anything particularly interesting themselves, of course; they were nothing at all in comparison to even the simplest of the animal costumes he'd seen on display. No, ironically enough it was a synergistic effect.

A big clunky AT-AT clomping around? Worth a double-take, of course. A big clunky AT-AT clomping around being led by a man in bunny ears? That apparently was worth two double-takes.

A small impromptu honor guard had formed around Garrett, a constantly-renewing cluster of Star Wars fans trailing along to examine the AT-AT's details before being left behind or moving on to other things. But though fewer, the Star Wars fans who were puzzling over Steph were puzzling longer. One of them was even a Darth Vader complete with audible breathing, though in an all-white suit for some reason.

Steph wasn't about to ask. He was already being pelted with far more intricate details of the Star Wars universe than he could possibly take in. "So," the white-armored Vader was musing. "I doubt that the Empire has begun accepting nonhumans into service since my conversion, so you cannot be a pilot. I don't think you have the height for a Gerb or Lepus Carnivorous, but I might be mistaken."

"Uh, no, don't think so," Steph shook his head. Lepus Carnivorous? Is he making this up on the spot? The only carnivorous rabbit that came to mind was from Monty Python.

"Are you a Kushiban? Be at ease, my mission no longer entails the deaths of Force-Sensitives."

That one sounded less fake, and Steph was about to accept the title if only to have something meaningful to say. But then one of the Storm Troopers turned from peering at the detailing on Garrett's head and said in his best tinny trooper-voice, "My Lord, are you forgetting the Hoojib?"

"I was just getting to that." The chuckle seemed quite out of character for a Darth Vader, and to Steph's relief he seemed to be recognizing how far out of his depth Steph was. "I apologize for my men. When you're obsessed, it's a bit hard to remember that not everyone knows or cares." That last bit seemed to be aimed at the other fans, who variously shrugged, drew back a little, and hung their helmeted heads in probably-mock shame. "Kushiban and Hoojibs are both rabbitlike creatures, not very large. Kushiban are more like cat-monkey creatures with soft rabbit ears and big squirrely tails; they're about, oh, this tall standing up -" he bent down to hold his gloved hand a foot and a half above the floor "-but usually walk on all fours. They do a lot of handweaving and tend to be Force-Sensitive; generally they're portrayed with a calm demeanor. By most standards they are considered very, ah, cute."

It was Steph's turn to chuckle. "I'll leave cute to the furries."

"Aww." Garrett rose to his hind legs, surprising Steph by having been paying attention, and took a moment to set one of the forelegs down so he could adjust his headpiece. One of the side-mounted gun turrets had hooked on someone and been pulled askew. "You'd think with all those bunny-based aliens there'd be a more crossover, like with those Caitans we saw earlier."

"Ixnay on the Artrek Stay," Steph warned with a grin. He didn't seriously expect anyone to be offended, there was far too much good-natured mixing of genres and universes going on for that, but the rivalry between those two franchises almost seemed traditional.

"I'm dressed as an AT-AT, I think I'm strong enough in the Star Wars Force for my reputation to survive being revealed as a fancier of catgirls in miniskirt uniforms."

The white Vader nodded, still chuckling. "Certainly. You have no idea how many of our aliens look like cats or bugs or yes, rabbits. Hoojib, for example. They're about this big-" too small to bend down for, he held out his gloved hands as if cupping a normal-sized bunny in them "-they're mute but telepathic, they eat energy. They look more like rabbits with huge eyes and splayed bird feet. They also have large noses, no visible mouth, and one antenna or feeler on the forehead that they use to drain energy with. A relic of the Marvel comics back in the seventies. Frankly, most of us think the writers were dropping something, but the Hoojib are not quite as implausible as some of the others."

"Weird is good," Steph answered with a nod. Hoojib, eh? The wheels were spinning quickly in Steph's head; even though he'd never seen pictures of one of those things the description was pretty distinctive. He thought back over some of the stuff he'd glimpsed on the tables they'd passed... "I can pull that off. I'll be right back, you okay Garrett?"

Garrett nodded. "Just tromping around." He had finished his adjustment and was considering whether to go back down on all fours, but as Steph headed off into the bustle he found himself welcoming the excuse to stay upright a while longer. His back wasn't hurting yet, and thanks to the angle of the headpiece he didn't have to hold his neck at a bad angle, but he knew it was only a matter of time. He turned to the white Vader instead. "So, if it's not a faux pas to ask, did you not have time to paint your outfit before the con?"

SL-1984 chuckled again. "I've got the black getup too. You don't want to know how hot that gets if you don't have real leather. This is a more recent relic of comics, actually. One where the Dark Lord has left the Empire and joined his children, and inexplicably looks exactly the same except for color. Just as absurd in its way, although I'll give it points for not having talking hedgehogs or superweapons that look like pinball machines. Dark Horse, not Marvel. Star Wars Infinities...? No?"

"No," Garrett said, shaking his head. The headpiece didn't weigh much, but still made the motion ponderous. "Believe it or not, I'm really lost with all this Extended Universe stuff. I just watched the movies and liked the toys." Despite Garrett's demurral it was actually something of an understatement; Star Wars toys were probably the main reason Garrett had become an engineer. The long hours spent playing with his older brother's stash of plastic space ships and robots had put a visceral love of fantastic machinery into Garrett's heart. But he'd never really got into the fictional side of it all, if that made any sense.

"Well, the toys are certainly a major part of the fandom too," SL-1984 agreed. "Collectors have their own subset of obscure encyclopedic knowledge. Wouldn't know what a Hoojib was, perhaps, but they could tell you exactly how rare any given run of a Luke action figure was. But I suspect that you are more inclined towards the tech manuals."

Garrett grinned, hefting the heavy walker forelimb assemblies. "What gave you that idea?"

For his part, Steph wasn't any of those things - he just liked a challenge. And within a minute he was back, another ten dollars poorer and well on the way to meeting his next challenge. He'd found himself a rubber koala nose, best match to his mental image of the description the Vader had given him, and was busily tearing apart a pair of dealie-bobbers as he walked. His only tools were a paper clip, some rubber bands, and MacGuyver innovation. "One second longer..." He finished the work on the addition to the rabbit headband and slipped them back into place, the single spring-loaded antenna bobbing up in the middle between his ears. "Eh? Eh? Hoo da jib?" He spread his arms to display his work.

SL-1984 let out a slightly muffled laugh. His hands moved slightly as if to adjust the new addition, then dropped to hook his thumbs into his belt. "Very nice. Certainly, nobody will mistake you for anything else now. No fan, at any rate."

"Well, that's silly," Garrett evaluated. Steph nodded back, making the antenna bounce but not jarring it loose; the anchor he'd rigged up was holding. Excellent.

"Speaking of silly," Steph said, grinning, "shall we carry on toward the judging room? Despite my progress I doubt my costume's going to win any awards on its own."

"Sounds good." The judging was being staggered over the course of the day to account for the many individual contests that were running - the first winners were almost due for announcement, in fact - but Garrett figured it would be a good idea to get in on his as soon as possible. When dealing with a costume made mostly of cardboard, there was a certain inexorable degradation with use. And besides that, the costume was clunky and heavy. Garrett was looking forward to being out of it for a while.

"In that case I'll bid you adieu. Troops, clear the muster zone!" The Vader slipped back into character and the remaining Storm Troopers did likewise, stepping back in unison as if to let a much larger transport pass through. Garrett obliged them, dropping back down to all fours and resuming his tromp with Steph walking ahead. Steph felt even more ridiculous than before with his extra accessories, but it was a good kind of ridiculous.

It was a strange feeling. So strange that Steph overlooked the other strange feelings at first as they started tingling at the edges of his senses.

Garrett felt it first. He had just started to get back into the gait of an AT-AT when he found himself stumbling slightly, the heavy costume becoming noticeably heavier. Garret paused for a moment, his foreleg supports setting down on the floor below him with a pair of unexpectedly solid clomps.

The cardboard forelegs actually felt tight on his arms. That was wrong; if anything there should have been too much play inside them, they wobbled around if he wasn't careful. Garrett tried to let go of the cane handles and tried standing up to pull his hands out of them.

The forelegs stayed firmly and snugly in place, and they were heavy. "Wha..." Garrett choked, his voice coming out low and grating as if by speaking he was using his throat in a way it wasn't intended. The exclamation was accompanied by the faint but noticeable whine of small motors of some sort and Garrett could feel the tension build in his hips as he held the cardboard legs up in front of him.

Cardboard no longer, it seemed - the surface finish had a distinctly metallic luster to it that the gray paint had failed to evoke previously. There was no explaining it; his costume had suddenly become a whole lot better. It was still improving before his eyes, new details resolving and the proportions subtly shifting toward more accurate dimensions.

It was getting heavier. Garrett could feel his hips beginning to fail, the boxy body and outstretched forelegs too much to bear. But Garrett resisted the weight with all his might; he had no idea what was going on and from the frantic hammering of his heart he could tell he was most likely panicking, but even so he somehow knew deep in his gut that he would be in deep trouble if he fell over. He had to stay up. He had to...

Garrett's groan came from somewhere inside his chest, the vibration thrumming through his body in new and unfamiliar ways, and after resisting for just seconds he toppled forward to land again on his forelegs for support. The two round footpads slammed solidly down onto the carpeted floor and Garrett felt the impact travel up the metal structure into his shoulders. An alien surge of relief washed through him; thank God, I'm stable. But it didn't last long against the growing panic. He tried to open his mouth to yell for help and found that he couldn't. Oh God, I can't breathe!

Garrett tried to look up toward Steph, servos in his neck whining in protest at the angle. He caught just a glimpse. Up ahead, Steph was having troubles of his own; his clothing seemed to be disintegrating, white fur bursting up underneath it. Everyone else Garrett caught in that glimpse seemed to be having some outlandish thing happening to them too, too many and too strange for him to process in that split second he had available.

Then Garret's vision cut off as his eyelids fused shut into the smooth, unbroken hull of the underside of the AT-AT's cockpit-head. A moment later vision returned in a kaleidoscopic burst of sensory input; Garrett would have screamed if he'd been able. My eyes! Where are my eyes!? He could see everywhere at once and couldn't process any of it. He could only stagger ponderously back a step, his limbs moving with unexpected strength and smoothness. Whirr-chrt! Whirr-chrt! It was the best possible replica AT-AT costume in existence now, and Garrett wanted out. But his attempts to shift even the tiniest bit inside the solid metal shell failed, every part stuck solidly and directly to his skin. Fused with it. Becoming it.

And then the hollowness came. Garrett felt a hole open up inside his gut, swelling inside his abdomen and squeezing his vitals aside. Garrett's vision was disrupted just as it had started to coalesce again, panic flaring more brightly in his mind. Oh God Oh God Oh God... He could only set his legs and try to hold as steady as possible as the bubble spread up into his chest, up his throat, into his head...

Ghoooood. The thought trailed off in a tumult of strange emotions and sensations. His guts were settling now, the final details pulling into their new configuration. He was empty inside, but what was left was solid. Strong. Steel. Or something like it, anyway... The hammering of his heart faded away, replaced with the unfamiliar, almost subliminal throb of some sort of power plant.

Vision returned again, more stable this time, but it didn't bring any clarity to the situation. Garrett stood stable on all four legs, round footpads planted firmly on the carpet right where he'd been when the change had first come upon him. But his body was an island of stability in a sea of chaos. All around him people were yelling and running around in terror, many of them no longer human. Garrett turned his head, the motion ponderous and not really necessary given his all-encompassing field of view but psychologically important for keeping his attention focused. Where's Steph? He didn't know what his friend could do about any of this, but it was a straw of hope to grasp for in the maelstrom.

Thunderous footsteps grabbed his attention. Something was coming, big and round and red-

Too fast. How could something so big move so fast? Garrett barely had time to move before the huge creature brushed past him, slamming against his side as it went. Garret's legs weren't jointed to deal very well with lateral movement and he staggered, struggling to keep his center of gravity balanced. Whirr, chrt, whirr, chrt, cHRT...

FALLING! Garrett screamed in the form of bolts of light shooting from his chin to blast scorched pockmarks up the wall and ceiling, and slammed to the floor. A table crushed to splinters under him, cushioning what would otherwise have been a tremendously damaging impact, but still jarring. He felt a vestige of pain, which faded the moment it registered, leaving him numb.

Stunned, lying on his side, alone, empty. Garrett wasn't sure if AT-ATs could faint, but he found himself doing a very good imitation of it.

Steph's post-TF segment

Steph was trembling and overwhelmed with confusion at what had happened to him, what had happened to everyone around him. But at the same time he felt strangely comforted cradled here by giant white-armored arms, even if he was getting pressed into the hard edge of a chest box, so he managed to keep the fear suppressed below blind panic. He had no idea why being held like that should have been comforting but for the moment he was willing to just go with it while he tried to straighten out what else had happened.

He hadn't noticed that Garrett wasn't keeping up with him until he'd heard that strange noise of protest. He'd turned around and there it had been, right before his eyes, the gaps between the pieces of Garrett's costume abruptly sealing up as the gray cloth underneath swelled to fill them. As Garrett himself swelled to fill them. Steph still wasn't sure which had done the changing, Garrett or his costume - was Garrett somehow trapped inside that thing? That had been his first thought, that the costume had somehow been magically replaced with a giant animatronic of fearsome quality.

But then he'd realized what was happening to him, and now he had no idea what was going on. His clothing was disintegrating, falling away into nothingness, and the skin underneath was sprouting a thick white pelt of fur. His skin, not some costume layered over top. He'd tried pulling on it and felt pain.

Steph wasn't entirely proud of what he'd done next; he'd let out a shriek that was equal parts surprise and alarm, turned away from his friend still struggling inside that developing machine's body, and had tried to run away.

'Tried' being the operative word. It wasn't just his skin that was changing, the size and shape of his entire body was warping. Steph had managed to stagger just a short distance before his shortening legs and enlarging feet tripped him up, sending him stumbling into broad white-caped back of one of the other conventiongoers. The man was huge - or rather, in hindsight, it was Steph who was shrinking - and absorbed the impact easily.

The man snapped "What?", spinning to confront Steph and reflexively reaching for his lightsabre. It was the white-armored Darth Vader Steph had been speaking with just moments earlier. The Sith Lord's mechanically augmented voice was deeper and more imperious, the armor more fully fleshed out.

Steph's eyes widened in alarm as he found himself craning his neck to look so far up at the man's masked face. "Heee," he gasped breathlessly, his own voice coming out a high-pitched squeak. "Heep!"

It felt like a lot of things were going on, but the biggest was the sense of falling. From increasingly high above SL-1984 watched him unreadably, reaching up to clamp one gloved hand on the opposite wrist, then letting go. Then Steph found himself on all fours, eyes level with a bit of detailing on the man's shiny white shin armor. No, lower than that. He let his joints lock and stood as if frozen.

Giant hands plunged from above and lifted him up out of harm's way just before the huge bulk of the Kool-Aid Man came barreling through the room.

There was a tremendous smash. "OH YEAH!"

"Fall back!" SL-1984 barked.

"Lord Vader!" Someone else nearby exclaimed. Then there was a burst of blaster fire followed by another crash.

Steph couldn't handle it all; he'd simply gone limp and allowed himself to be carried as SL-1984 and the handful of Stormtroopers that had been close at hand retreated from the chaos erupting inside the room. They'd taken up a defensive position in a short hallway just outside, apparently leading to a utility closet of some sort and devoid of any other activity.

It gave them a few minutes' respite and as the shock wore off Steph began to tremble. In the midst of everything that was going on SL-1984 had apparently forgotten that he was holding Steph, but the movement drew his attention back to his immediate surroundings again and he looked down. "So you were a Hoojib after all."

Steph felt his rabbitlike ears lay down flat against his back and the long, flexible tendril that sprouted between them curled tightly in an unfamiliar reflex. I never heard of them until just minutes ago! Steph tried to object, but he wasn't even able to produce a squeak that time; his mouth no longer seemed to be connected to his trachea and all he could do was let out a small snort.

SL-1984 seemed to get the message well enough anyway, though. "Yes, I suppose that's my fault. Well, what else would you call yourself?" He knelt down and lowered Steph back down, hands wrapped all the way around his ribcage like he was carrying a cat, to deposit him on the floor.

Steph huddled there on all fours, digging the claws on his fingers and toes into the carpet as he looked up in nervous awe at how gigantic everything was. He had a momentary overpowering desire to be picked back up again, he just didn't feel safe being so small, but he forced it down and tried to focus inward. His body was indeed quite a bit like a bunny's, just as had been described, but with longer fur and long, splayed, birdlike toes on his feet. Frustratingly, his hands were more like a rabbit's, or maybe a dog's - useless clawed, padded paws with stubby fingers he could barely wriggle independently. There were thumbs, sort of. Maybe dewclaws. They could just about manage grasping, or at least bending far enough that the finger pads met the big pad, but he couldn't stand without them. His face had a blunt, leathery Koala nose, and his tiny mouth was hidden in the fur underneath it. Probing with his surprisingly long tongue, he couldn't even feel any teeth.

He had to admit, he was exactly like he'd pictured a Hoojib looking like. His vision blurred as his enormous brown eyes started filling with tears.

"Hey, now. Hey." SL-1984 seemed very distracted, bringing one hand up against the side of his helmet and pacing a few steps away to stare intently at nothing visible.

I didn't want to be here, Steph thought miserably to himself. I just want to be home.

"Don't we all," murmured the stormtrooper crouched nearest him. It was a breach of squad discipline, of course, but everyone was too busy with their own troubles to notice. Steph himself wouldn't realize the more important fact that the stormtrooper had actually heard him until much later on.

Joysweeper--Illus1.jpg

Something lithe and feline and clad in ruffles chose that moment to slink past the dead end where the little group held their position. It paused to stare at them with unblinking green eyes, then opened its mouth and hissed furiously. The occupants locked their blaster rifles into position, but one of the troopers, raising an arm to check them, snapped, "Hold your fire! Establish intent, then act!"

The cat-thing flattened its ears back against its head, looking spooked, then continued on its way at a slightly faster pace.

It was quiet. SL-1984 was the first to move. He pulled off one white glove, exposing a prosthetic hand that gleamed like bronze. It was all but skeletal, sparse of detail with only the transparent synthetic "muscles" keeping it from looking like metal bones. He turned it over before his mask and flexed the fingers gently, then covered it again. "I thought as much," he said in a low rumble, both resigned and keeping what might have been anger under tight control. "Is that how it is? Fine."

"Sir?" The speaker was a trooper with the breather hood, oversuit, and specialized armor of a snowtrooper, the same trooper who had told the others not to shoot. He broke position to stand closer to SL-1984, keeping himself oriented towards the opening to the dead end. "Sir, aren't you - Didn't you switch sides?"

"What? Oh. You, you're Shanda Pike?"

"I - yes, my lord," Pike said, voice firming. In the far distance something bellowed like a foghorn, forcing the trooper to speak louder. "My husband John and I share duties as Squad Leader. He's not here now, sir. I'm the only member of the squad's command staff present."

"Use my designation, Pike. I did leave the Empire, but I am still part of this squad. You're a squad leader, I'm not, that means - damn." SL-1984 went quiet. The constant rhythm of his mechanically-assisted breath was quieter and not as harsh as it was for 'classic' Darth Vader, but it could still be heard, even over the background noise.

"Sir? Something wrong?"

"You're not a ma'am." SL-1984 crossed his arms just underneath his chest box. There was a smile in his artificial voice.

Pike hesitated for several breaths. "Beg pardon?"

"Exactly what it sounds like." SL-1984 chuckled and uncrossed his arms to hook his thumbs into his belt. He was definitely more amused than was appropriate for a man who'd just gone on life support and become a quarter of a century older. "You're a man. You can't keep a wallet in your codpiece anymore. I suppose it makes sense... snowtroopers are specialized stormtroopers, and we don't generally admit women into the trooper academies... Who - yes, everyone in here's a trooper. Ursala, Crystal, Sky - You're all men. No worries, Shad, Jeff, you're men too. Heh. Well, this should make things interesting. Heh. That's... that's actually kind of funny."

"Oh." The snowtrooper waited. The other three had reacted, but a muffled crash from out there had brought them back into position, watching with ready blasters. For a moment, Pike sounded unnaturally calm, as if this was a situation he'd been trained for. "You're right. I hoped you were wrong, sir, but you're right." Another moment passed as SL-1984 crossed his arms again and laughed quietly; one by one every other helmet in the alcove turned towards Pike. Even Steph, huddled pitifully on the floor with his eyes glazed, looked up.

"Fusst you. Fusst you, you - you Sithspawn. Stop laughing." He stepped forwards, getting into the Vader's faceplate. "This isn't funny, Nineteen Eightyfour. This is a big problem that goes past us, and it's only going to get bigger. And apparently I can't swear. So don't laugh." The outburst was quiet but unmistakeable. Pike kept his back straight as he added, rather sarcastically, "Sorry, sir. Momentary lapse in personal discipline."

"It won't happen again," SL-1984 agreed in a more serious tone. "Consider it corrected. You're in charge, I suppose. We're going to need a plan..." He trailed off, head coming up as if he'd heard something. "No. Oh, no. Hell no. How is that even possible?" The white-clad Vader's voice was as low as it could get.

Down on the floor, forgotten until that moment, Steph was mute. Still, he tried. What? What is it? Pike echoed the sentiment, raising his blaster.

This time, SL-1984 didn't respond to either of them. He stepped forwards, turning his head as if searching. "...I can't let that happen," he said at last, more to himself than anyone else. "I don't even want to think about that. Gravitational pull alone could - and even if it didn't, the superlaser - wrong hands, there aren't even any right ones - I won't let that happen."

Let what happen? What's going on?

SL-1984 turned the corner at a dead run and was gone. Bitterly Pike muttered, "No way we'll be able to keep up with him. We should have at least synched our comm frequencies. Okay. Let's do that now. Frequency - Aurek Corellia Delta." Almost as one, the troopers switched to the same comm channel. "We can't stay here. First priority is finding the rest of Tampa Bay; once we've done that we can worry about what in the nine hells is going on. I know where my - my husband is, or should be at the moment. We have to start from there."

The snowtrooper continued to speak aloud, nervous energy spilling into his voice. "This is not going to be a blue milk run, boys. We can't afford to waste any time; everyone move fast and don't get distracted. We must regroup, or we are lost. I'm on point; Shad, you're at the rear. Sing out if something happens to you, even if it looks like we've seen it. We can not afford to leave anyone behind! Blasters to stun; Ursala, lower the setting on your forcepike. Nothing turns a crowd into a mob faster than a death, and don't ask me how I know that. Let's move out!" Pike headed out at a rapid march, followed by the other five.

In the dead end, Steph hunkered, forgotten.

Red Guard

Everything was darkness and confusion and helpless nausea. When the world fell out from under her it took her stomach with it. Gravity meant nothing; she felt as if she was falling, spinning on the worst amusement park ride ever imagined. A timeless period later she tasted blood and realized that she'd bitten the inside of her lip.

And then the world was back, or one very much like it. Struck by the very physical sensation of falling, even though she could feel her boots firmly planted on the floor, Anj instinctively assumed a defensive crouch, opening eyes that she hadn’t remembered closing.

She could see! She could hear! Long ago Anj had gotten used to the way the Red Guard helmet cut her visibility and muffled all sound; it was inevitable, after all. She’d all but stopped noticing. Now, though – now the flattened ovoid of the visor was still there, but a little smaller, and the space around it was no longer dark.

She could see as well and as much as she could when bareheaded, and all sounds were crisp and clear, not muffled in the least. It wasn’t that the helmet was gone; even though it was cool to the touch and non intrusive she could feel it, tight against the contours of her face, pressing against her skin with only a few gaps to let air circulate. But the inside, so close that her eyelashes brushed a smooth surface every time she blinked, was full of light and color and motion. For a moment it was completely disorienting.

Training kicked in as she glanced frantically from one thing to the next. These were the screens in her helmet. They negated the disadvantage of having an enclosed faceplate. The ones on the sides gave her left and right views. This lowest monitor, the short wide one, was her peripheral display. It showed her what was in back. Her aural pickups caught sound and relayed it into her ears in such a way that she could determine the source and how distant it is. They also blunted the effects of sonic weaponry. The analysis calmed her, steadied her, and she could finally pay attention to what she saw in front of her.

It took a moment to realize that these were the same furries who'd been grouped together before. They barely bore any resemblance to any fursuits she had seen, ever – even the best of the best had always looked artificial. Wet, flickering eyes with fully mobile eyelids, subtle facial expressions, a mouth that did more than open and close, pawhands that did not look like gloves, skin that shivered, fur that sprouted from the skin, muscles and tendons moving beneath it, toes that splayed against the ground, tails and ears that moved silently and with purpose – admittedly she wasn't exactly involved with the furry scene, but in all the conventions and events she had ever attended she had never seen a fursuit that still looked real up close. Not when she compared a costume to a real animal. Some things just couldn’t be faked.

Yet the people she saw before her, gasping and touching themselves and looking wildly about… Some were more or less humanlike than others, but one or two looked like nothing less than bipedal wild animals with slightly altered forelimbs and faces. The inarticulate confused things that they said were not in the voices of men or beasts, but a combination of both. They breathed, they ran wet tongues over bestial teeth and ductile lips, they staggered on well-formed legs, their faces and body language reflected shock and disbelief and joy and horror and sudden fear. More than one turned a hybrid face towards the Red Guard.

Training once more came to the fore, and she welcomed it. No one to protect but herself, that was good. She needed to be cautious. They were disorganized and might not mean any harm, but as a whole they looked to be on the verge of blind panic. With her armor on, TR-1407 could probably survive being trampled, but she wouldn't like it. Anj took half a step backwards and stumbled – her feet, her legs seemed bigger and heavier than they should have been, and her center of gravity had shifted. Her balance had changed completely. She compensated even as the realization hit her that something was fundamentally different. The costume was tight, but beneath it-

Set off, either by her motion or by the low, coughing feline roar uttered by one of them, the furries split. Hooves and paws pounded the carpet as they ran, most of them headed away from TR-1407, but a gazelle and a zebra sprang past her, giving her a wide berth. She had half turned to stare after them in bewilderment when her spine chilled and she saw something huge and white and blue in one of her helmet screens.

Reacting almost instantly, TR-1407 jerked out of the way, her arms reflexively following through on the motion and swinging the tip of her weighty forcepike into contact with her assailant. It connected solidly, making a tiny crackling noise that was all out of proportion to the effect.

Momentum kept it going, but the enormous white tiger’s leap ended gracelessly as it lost consciousness. It hit the floor with an impact that looked painful and lay limp, flat red tongue sticking out of its fanged, slack mouth. Anj looked from it to the forcepike clasped in her gloved hands.

The stun module mounted on the vibro-edge head at the very tip gleamed dully. Fully extended, the weapon was two meters from the thin tip past the black grip to the weighted base, and it was much, much heavier than it had been before, maybe seven or eight kilograms - Seven. It was regulation-issue, so it definitely weighed seven kilos - but it felt right in her hands, sleek and balanced. Perhaps it wasn’t as elegant and deadly as a lightsaber, but here was a weapon that could kill or incapacitate, equally effective in pitched battle or nonlethal crowd control. Set to maximum it could tear through the hull of a starship or take off a man's arm at the shoulder; set to the lower setting and it could knock out a grown Wookiee. Or, apparently, a leaping tiger. That thought brought her back out of contemplation.

“…Yeah. What was that?” Anj’s eyelashes brushed her visor as she blinked. Something weird had happened to the helmet speaker. Normally it just relayed her voice; it distorted it just a little bit, making it slightly tinnier and more mechanical, but that was all. It didn’t change her voice, not really. It made it a bit less feminine, but it was still recognizable as hers.

But something had happened to that speaker. This wasn’t her voice; this was nothing like it, in fact. The speaker was making her sound like an entirely different person. Why in the Emperor's name-

Focus! Were all local threats neutralized? What about her assailant? Anj moved closer and crouched to examine the white tiger. It was huge, easily three meters from the tip of its tail to its whiskered muzzle. Why meters and not feet? Feh, that wasn't important. At first glance it looked almost exactly like the tranquilized big cats that she'd seen on documentaries, down to the rapid, heavy way its sides heaved as it breathed. The only immediate oddity was the fact that it seemed to be wearing clothes – something like a tube top and close-fitting boxers, both pale blue.

But another moment showed her that it – no, she, for there was a suggestion of breasts in that tube top – had forepaws that would do poorly for bearing weight. They were long, the fingers well formed with prominent thumbs. Her head also bore hair, short and pattered in the same way as the striped fur, but distinct. No tiger looked like that.

Around her thick neck, too, there was a strap holding a disposable camera…

TR-1407 tensed up as another cold tingle swept up her spine, glancing automatically towards a particular section of wall. Almost immediately that section bowed inwards, breaking with a wild shower of plaster and bricks as something almost spherical burst through, pudgy fists clenched, cubes ricocheting against each other and the interior as red liquid sloshed.

OH YEAHHH!

Apparently she, or the world, had gone mad. Even as the thought flashed through her mind, Anj was acting, one-handedly drawing her blaster rifle - where had that come from, she hadn't brought a blaster trooping today - from where it was holstered beneath her robes and firing.

The blaster bolt - it wasn't supposed to work! - hit a curved, transparent surface that absorbed the energy, heating and deforming slightly. On the inside, bubbles formed at the site and floated rapidly up to the top; barely a second later they had stopped and the melted region had returned to its former unblemished state.

The – whatever it was – adjusted its footing as the three frosted translucent cubes floating inside of it rattled and clinked. Below them the lacquered black indents that served as sketchy facial features - eyebrows, eyes, a nose, a wide smiling mouth, all highly stylized – moved to assume an expression that looked like furious, homicidal joy. Its short arms, placed in relation to its eyes where ears would have been on a humanoid, reached towards the Red Guard, fingers twitching as if to fix around her neck.

Anj fired twice more, with the same minimal result – small parts of the clear surface melted and re-formed, a little of the liquid boiled up without lowering the level within, and the thing displayed anger. It was walking, short legs with their rounded toeless feet looking ridiculous under its bulk, but slowly. She didn't know if it was limited to that speed or it was deliberate. Anj felt another chill on her spine and knew, in a burst of insight, that that didn't matter. It could gather itself and leap hard and fast enough to cover nearly four meters in an eyeblink, breaking through anything in its way. She was almost in range of such a leap.

Still, it couldn't jump several times in succession. If she moved now, she could leave it behind. It looked like – it looked completely impossible. Like a round-bellied pitcher, entirely hollow and complete with flared spout and glass handle, low-set arms and legs stuck on like an afterthought. It was filled, limbs included, with a translucent red liquid - she could see through it even if the other side was distorted. Somehow Anj thought she’d seen it or something like it before, but just by existing it was an affront to reality. It couldn’t possibly stand upright on those small featureless feet, and as for moving! It had no skeletal structure, no visible muscles or joints, it was an anthropomorphic pitcher of punch, how could it move?!

TR-1407 shoved her blaster back into its holster on her leg. Whatever it was, it was dangerous and she had no desire to be killed by it. Time to go. Yet something stopped her.

The tiger furry was still out cold. She was only slightly further from the pitcher than Anj was, and the Red Guard had no reason to doubt that the thing was willing to take out its frustration on whatever couldn’t get out of the way.

Even so.... Abruptly TR-1407 recalled her training on Yinchorr, where they had tried to pound stormtrooper training out to make way for something a little different. There'd been the hierarchy of service. Empire above all, Emperor, ranking staff and those she had been assigned to protect, peers and those of lower rank, Imperial citizens, everyone else. For these, she would lay down her life. There was a mantra in that somewhere, so ingrained that it was a part of her, essential enough that she was slow to register that it was completely new.

Yes, the tiger had leaped at her and she had reacted as if under attack, stunning it. And on the scale of people she needed to protect, attackers ranked somewhere below saving herself. However, she had no way to know if that leap really had been an act of aggression. What to do...

Indecision lasted for only a split second. It made no difference if she was or wasn't attacked, that thing's in danger because I put her there. So Anj would get her out. Didn't matter how ridiculous the situation is, she still had a duty. TR-1407 changed her stance, gripped her forcepike in both hands and held it before her in ready position.

If the pitcher thing had been any faster she would have been caught while thinking, but it was forced to shuffle forwards to get within range. She had the feeling that it could only run with any speed if it still had the momentum from a leap. Anj readied herself and thumbed the setting as it tensed to spring.

OH YEAHHH!

Although she’d known this was going to happen, TR-1407 was still surprised at its speed. Barely in time, she dived and rolled under it the instant before it hit. When it landed it did so on three points, splintering the floor underneath it and making everything around tremble with the impact.

Spinning to face it again, Anj swung one-handed and smashed the forcepike's tip into her opponent's body. This time a sharp crack! rang through the air; as it spun to face her she adjusted her grip and swung the heavy weapon in a high vertical stroke, then again, horizontal, hitting the curved glassy surface hard. The sound was high and sharp, both unpleasant and nearly musical.

There was the tingle again, strong and focused. Acting with it the Red Guard dodged a flailing arm and struck once more, to the left of center, then tried to get some distance between herself and the target, stepping back. Almost immediately she smacked into the wall, hard enough to thump her armor. Damn, her situational awareness had slipped! As she recovered and tried again to pull away she almost fell over her own feet, once more becoming aware that something was different. There'd been a bit of a bounce where no bounce should be, not on a woman. Fortunately her stumble went unnoticed.

The pitcher thing looked at first glance to be unaffected; if it had been made out of durasteel every impact would have left great rents, but its shape was intact and it hadn't stopped moving. On second glance TR-1407 saw the white fractures that were spiderwebbed dramatically across the surface.

She kept her visor pointed squarely at its enraged lacquered eyes, holding her forcepike up in an unvoiced threat.

The indents that appeared to be eyebrows lowered and drew together as it frowned slowly. Across its sketchy features a white fracture, which had started to gradually fill in, lengthened and widened again with a sound that reminded the Red Guard of thin ice on the surface of a pond.

The pitcher thing’s right arm began to leak, red liquid forming drops and pattering down into the carpet. The glass there, thinner than on its curved body, had all but shattered, and repaired itself only slowly. Slowly, the thing’s eyes slid from its arm to Anj’s visor.

“Press me and you’ll be dead,” she warned, not knowing if it could understand her or not, talking slowly and evenly. “I can keep this up faster than you can fix yourself.” Her grammar had gotten a little mangled. The message was obvious nonetheless.

“I can throw a grenade into you and vaporize your contents. I can sweep your legs out from under you and shatter them so you can’t stand. Once I’ve done that, I can smash you into a thousand shards, which I can then scatter.” Even as she said the words, noticing again that the voice saying these words was not hers, she was confident that this was not an empty threat. Interfere with an Imperial Red Guard in the performance of his duty and you’re coming off second-best, she knew.

TR-1407 advanced half a step and brought her forcepike into ready position. The pitcher thing’s eye indents became larger, then smaller again. A sense of rage so strong that it was palpable radiated off of it, but it had sense enough to know a hopeless fight. Still dripping, it shuffled backwards and began to turn ponderously. A moment later, and it bounded away through another wall with a shower of plaster. The Red Guard watched through the hole it left until she was satisfied that it wasn't going to come back.

Hah. Straightening, Anj looked over the comatose tiger once more. Her white-furred flanks had been decorated with a coat of dust and plaster fragments, but the furry had escaped harm.

Now what? The immediate danger was past, but TR-1407 knew better than to assume that things were safe now. The tiger was still out and would likely remain that way for an hour or so. Anj wasn’t going to stay around guarding her. Duty to comrades outweighed duty to strange nonhumans who might have attacked her and weren't even Imperial citizens. Some of her responsibility had been discharged just now, but she knew one way to make a stunned sentient recover faster.

It took a bit of searching - and a moment of staring at her own gloved hands, which appeared to be bigger than she remembered - to find the site where the stun module in her forcepike had hit; the tiger’s fur was thick enough that the little bruised patch of skin was hidden. It was on the furry’s muscular upper arm, close to the shoulder.

Anj closed the tiger’s jaws with an effort, then took a handful of her crimson robes and pressed it against the furry’s nose, plugging the nostrils with the tips of her fingers. She counted slowly to ten and jabbed the bruised patch with the armored knuckles of her free hand, hard. The angle was too awkward for it to be a punch.

Almost immediately the white tiger started to make throaty sounds of complaint, fingers and ears twitching. Anj peeled back a furred eyelid and saw the pupil of the blue eye contract.

That would probably do it. Not willing to be there when the tiger woke up, TR-1407 walked away, almost stumbling on legs that were longer than they should have been. Despite the exertion, Anj's breath had been only slightly quickened. Without that pressure to act, she felt strange. Okay. Okay. Now to find someplace private and try to make sense of all this…

Steph comes out of hiding

Steph had been passive until now - almost comatose, for that matter. Events had swept along too rapidly and too outlandishly for him to get much of a grip. But now he realized he couldn't stay that way any longer. The strangely protective presence of the huge armor-clad people was gone. He was just a Hoojib huddled on the floor, and if he didn't get a grip - didn't get moving - who knew what horrors would catch him?

First there was simply learning how to walk. He was on all fours, but he couldn't crawl - his thighs were short, his knees were far from pronounced, and he couldn't plant his palms on the floor; his wrists didn't bend like that. Instead, when he stood his weight was on those pads on his fingers and at the front of what had been his hands; his wrists were clear off the floor, his dewclaws just barely not touching it. His toes were long enough that he had to turn them outward.

He wobbled and wavered at first, unsure of his limbs like he was a kitten or a puppy or something, or like he'd been on an one of those all-night benders at the end of Finals Week. Still, as he practiced it quickly became easier. The reflexes seemed to be built in - how to stand, how to walk, coordination, the whole deal. That was a mercy, he supposed.

Keeping huddled against the wall for some modicum of concealment Steph crept back up the short hallway to peer out into the room he'd come from.

It was hard to comprehend what he was seeing at first. His senses had been distorted just as much as his body, his perspective something like half a foot off the floor. The scent of smoke in the air was almost buried under the other less identifiable smells Steph's enhanced nose was picking up. His enormous ears were catching more sounds than he knew what to do with, and there was something new and weird with tugging and heat and distant inaudible violin notes... But his vision was still quite clear and comprehensible, at least. Most of the tables had been upended in the rush as people had fled, scattering a lot of junk on the floor.

Excellent. Cover. As soon as the coast seemed relatively clear Steph bounded out across the floor, not quite running and not quite hopping, shelter under the nearest upright table. The space under the tablecloth was still cavernous at his scale, but much better than the soaring vastness of the room outside or even the hallway. He paused there to gather his wits and figure out what he was doing.

He had to get it together. He had to... he needed to find Garrett, before anything else. Easier thought than done, though - he hadn't gone far but the changes to everything had disoriented him. Where was he now? Where had he left his friend?

And would he recognize him when he found him? Steph's ears and antenna perked up, nose twitching nervously, as something large came moving through the room outside his shelter. Larger even than a normal human, heavy footfalls thudding solidly on the thin carpet... Steph would have whimpered had he been able to make any actual sounds. Oh God, please don't find me, I don't want to be eaten by a... whatever...

The footfalls came to an uncertain stop nearby. "Huh?" It rumbled, voice deeply guttural and deeply confused. "No find... what?"

This time Steph did notice the coincidence between his own thoughts and the creature's words. Can he read my mind? Wait, no... am I telepathic? I don't believe it! But that Vader guy said Hoojibs were telepathic-

"Who's there?" The big creature bellowed, and for a moment Steph found himself caught in a confusing mental tangle as he tried to stifle the volume of his thinking. His antenna curled and he had to force himself not to speculate about the appendage's psionic functions for fear of being overheard. It was an impossible task.

Fortunately there were still plenty of other distractions out there, and after only a few seconds the sound of frantic sheep bleating in the distance drew the attention of whatever it was that was standing nearby. "Hah!" it grunted, lumbering off with some new unknown purpose in mind. Steph let out a tiny sigh of relief.

Okay, so I guess I'm glad I can still communicate somehow... assuming that wasn't all just a coincidence, he thought. No one was nearby to confirm it and he gave a snort of derisive amusement. God, so much to figure out! Take this one thing at a time. So I turned into a Hoojib. If everyone else has turned into what they were dressed as too... He shook his head. It made too little sense, he couldn't get his mind around it.

Would Garrett still be inside that cardboard-turned-metal shell he was wearing? Steph hoped he'd got out of it somehow, but if he hadn't... Cautiously poking his head out from under the tablecloth and peering around to check for danger first, Steph forced himself to dart deeper into the room.

His attention immediately went to a heap of detritus, taller than he was, that had formed against a ragged mass that had been a tabletop mere minutes ago. Some of it had obviously been on the table, originally - graphic novels were strewn everywhere, many of them burnt. Pages had collected here, and other things as well, probably kicked into place in the rush. Great tufts of fur, bits and pieces of clothing, food scraps that had escaped from trash cans, tablecloths, splintery pieces of other tables - Steph shuffled closer, then thought to wonder why it had drawn his attention. This was not the only pile of trash scattered around the room - there had been several filled trash cans, even this early in the day - and none of them were all that interesting.

It was like this one was tugging at him - specifically, his antenna. He could feel it sort of warming in response. No, 'tugging' wasn't quite the word - it was almost a smell, but not quite that either. Like... he could almost swear there was a small, cheap violin playing, just one very high continuous note, but he didn't actually hear anything. Something about it was comforting.

Steph snorted. Why am I so interested in a pile of trash? It wasn't food, that was for sure. There was tons of food in the room, mostly from upended trash cans, and the smell was everywhere; spilled soda and cheap beer, a salad with dressing, corn chips, a tuna-mayonnaise sandwich that was starting to go bad, applesauce, Skittles, an entire box of donuts. And that was just in this room. None of it appealed to him - the smell was just there, like the smoke or the ink on the comic books. His mouth wasn't even watering. He wasn't even sure if he still had salivary glands.

If he was quick about it, it wouldn't hurt to check. Steph climbed gingerly atop the pile, long toes curling to grip at an abandoned canvas bag full of hard objects. The feeling was coming from here. Still uncertain - he felt so exposed - he scraped at some wet pages that had stuck together.

There! What's that? Something hard, probably plastic, and just a little smaller than his head. Steph sat on his haunches, freeing him to draw whatever it was up. He could grasp and his dewclaws were jointed more or less like thumbs, but the job of wrestling it out took longer than it should have.

Steph's ears quivered. More footsteps! Where was the best place to hide? Taking a step forward - a much more complicated action than it had been when he'd had two legs - he felt his toes flex on the thing. Maybe...

He was going to get caught out in the open if he didn't hide now. Steph hobbled on three legs into the dubious shelter of another table, this one apparently intact, though missing its covering. Edging behind a pile of plastic boxes that had probably once held statuettes, Steph ducked his head under his belly and took a look at his prize, clutched in the wiry toes of his foot. That foot distracted him - earlier, he'd paid much more attention to what had happened to his hands.

His feet were so huge that when he stood in the position that came most naturally the clawed tips of his toes were level with his elbows. They really did look something like bird's feet, covered in slightly wrinkly grayish skin rather than scales or more white fur, though not like any bird he'd seen. More importantly, they were at least somewhat better than his paws at flexing and holding things.

He'd misjudged how far away the footsteps were; that, or the one making the footsteps hadn't moved in a straight line. Now they pounded past, not as heavy as the big creature or even the stormtroopers but very quick. He could hear a girl's voice spouting a steady stream of "OW OW OW get OFF AHH OW" sprinkled with invective, and as she raced past Steph saw a pair of towering stockinged legs pumping. Something smaller and greenish clung to one of them, but they were both gone before he could get a better look.

Not everything was out to get him. Good to know.

The thing that he'd picked up turned out to be a cell phone, the kind that flipped open. It tingled pleasantly and somehow made that high violin note to Steph's antennae, a comforting feeling. He set it down and prized it open with a certain amount of difficulty, knowing that this wasn't helping him find Garrett but telling himself that he'd only be another minute.

The phone was on, and its screen glowed. Not entirely certain about just what he was doing, Steph put his face up so close that the phone's wallpaper blurred out of focus, tilted his head until what had been his chin sank into the fur on his chest, and felt his antennae uncoil, reaching out to touch the keypad, above the part of the phone that the tingling and humming was coming from.

It was a nice feeling. A very nice feeling. Steph closed his eyes and leaned into it for a long moment, sighing almost inaudibly through his nose. He could feel it moving up into his head and body. It was soothing. The violin note held for a few long seconds, then wavered. As that happened the heat lessened.

His eyes snapped open. What am I doing? Damn it. Steph peeled his head away and heard the phone chirp the low power alert before the screen went black. What was that? What was I - didn't the Vader guy say something about eating energy? Damn it, I wish I'd paid more attention.

He whipped his head around. That tugging, a little like a smell, a little like feeling heat through his antenna, maybe a little like hearing high violin notes, it was back. He could sense something interesting, several somethings, most about as big and with similar high cheap-violin notes, scattered around the room. More phones? Maybe dropped cameras?

For the third time Steph sensed something moving, and close. Still hidden under the table and behind boxes, he pressed himself against the wall. It was moving in a different direction than the other two, and it was - it was right on the other side of that wall!

He shot out from under the table, smacking one gigantic ear against a table leg, and froze against a pile of rags, out in the open. The ceiling yawned high above, he was exposed - but nothing was going to collapse on him.

This turned out to be unnecessary. Whatever it was, it kept moving. He could barely hear its footsteps, and he might not have noticed - now that he was listening, this wasn't the only set of footsteps - but he could sense it as a sort of interesting moving heat and a whole orchestra playing, getting fainter as it got farther away.

Wait. Steph's ear was stinging. How would I know anything about whatever was running except how big it is? Unless - His eyes were huge, and when he crossed them above his nose he could sort of see the blurred, doubled shape of that antenna, arcing above his head. What, can Hoojibs sense electricity too? Or what, robots? This is just weird.

Now that he thought about it - there were a lot of other interesting warm things and bowstringed instruments were playing from all sides. Warm wasn't really the word, maybe... maybe powered. Some were small, others larger. Some were moving. It was the same sense, now that he thought about it, that he'd gotten from his rescuer. Same sense as from the phone, but the big things, the moving ones, he could feel through the walls and over a distance. He only 'heard' anything when it was close enough, but the powered part of the sense could go a lot farther, apparently.

He could feel... Up ahead. Something big, something motionless. Steph wasn't at all sure what direction he'd been going even before he'd literally run into SL-1984, but it seemed like this might be the right way. Hesitantly at first, then with more and more certainty, he followed the antenna.

There. It couldn't be anything else. Even on its side, two right legs sticking out rigidly into open air with only rubble keeping it from lying flat, it loomed up above Steph, head hanging down at a thirty degree angle, resting on what looked like the buckled remains of a chair. The powered sense here was much, much stronger than anything he'd felt coming from any of the dropped electronics. There was enough power thrumming in it that even from here his antenna was warm, and the note was much deeper than the ones he'd 'heard' before, like a double bass. Or whatever they were called; it had been years since his last music class. He had to fight off the lulling feeling that came with it.

It didn't look remotely human. From Steph's perspective, it took a moment to recognize it as an AT-AT. He moved closer, tentative.

Each round footpad had four thick toe flaps. These were slowly, very slowly, swinging out and in on their hinges. The toe flap articulation was so minimal that they couldn't point straight out. The motion looked aimless.

Garrett? he tried. I still don't know if this really works or not... Garrett? Are you in there? Can you hear me?

Steph shuffled closer. What do I do now? I don't know how telepathy works. Or if you could hear it. Or if I even have it. Or if he's here. The AT-AT's boxy head was bigger than his whole body. I could probably fit into a shoebox, so that doesn't mean much. God. I probably can fit into a shoebox. The head had a dark horizontal slot running across the very front, like a very narrow visor or something. On either side of it were two bulging domes like flattened compound eyes, each housing a slender pipelike structure. Its chin had two more, slightly larger pipelike things, fixed forwards.

Closer. Steph rose shakily onto his hindquarters, almost pitching over as he overcompensated. His toes splayed against the ground strongly enough that if he kept perfectly still he could almost, almost stand up, though his ankles started to burn the moment he straightened them and his knees refused to unbend. Ignoring that, he stared into that slot, vertical since the thing was on its side. It was mostly opaque, but he could sort of see... were those chairs? A room? No, a cockpit.

His breath fogged the view and cleared slowly.

Garrett? It's me. Steph. That black slot was reflective enough that from this angle, looking right into it from as high up as he could get without finding something to stand on, he could see himself. Big, big eyes, barely on this side of being appealing rather than grotesque, huge ears, both long and wide, that flagged behind him but wouldn't stand straight up. A bulbous black nose, the mouth beneath it so small that fur around the edges made it look like a pit, and that antennae, curling like a fern. He hadn't exactly seen himself before.

Steph was distracted enough that he didn't register as the thrumming increased in tempo and the bass note picked up. He almost missed one of the pipes - the medium blasters on the temples - as it swiveled slowly to point directly at him.

Steph and Garrett

An alert came on and pinged, setting the other systems into motion.

Something huge and white loomed up against his head, almost touching his command viewport, and he reactivated. The white thing - some kind of animal, details were popping in like graphics on an overworked PC - flinched and fell back, and seemed to shrink as the rest of his vision started loading, quickly from a cold start instead of little by little. There was sound, or something like sound, and words, or something close, but he already had plenty of them, and the ones he had were louder.

There was movement from the white animal, he could see now that it was only very big, not huge, and it suddenly traveled a hundred meters away in a few shuffling steps. It seemed to be clinging to a wall that he was pressed against.

Something was wrong. His vision was still loading, everything that wasn't right in front of his head was still glossy smooth and sparse of detail, but he could see that nothing was at the right angle - oh. Oh. He'd fallen over. That explained why there was nothing under his footpads and no weight on his legs, too. Reorienting, he managed to figure out which way was "up". Vaulting high above him was a ceiling, higher up than the hold of a Star Destroyer should be, and there were walls. They seemed very far apart. Something was wrong with this.

Of course it was wrong! He'd fallen over! He was down, and anyone could climb up to get at a boarding hatch and at his crew! They must have been stunned by the impact, thrown against his bulkheads -

Alert and evacuate the crew! Why isn't that alarm on yet? Start it now!

Though he didn't have any speakers on his outside, as the prerecorded evacuation message started up internally he saw the white animal perk up, monstrous ears folding, cupping as if funneling sound to its head. If he was judging by how big it was compared to him, and he was, it was at least the size of, of - well, it was almost as big as his head, his moveable command section, part of him said, and it was fast too, already advancing, covering three meters in a stride -

It was big, it was fast, it was already coming towards him, at any second now it was going to circle past his head and get in at his crew!

NO!

He wasn't going to let that happen! With a supreme effort, the servos in his neck; his flexible armored tunnel; jerked, pointing the two Taim & Bak MS-1 fire-linked heavy laser cannons at the animal. It froze, stared at him with ridiculously big brown eyes, and there was that almost-sound again, like it was saying his name, but it was still big and fast and a danger to his crew and it still hadn't moved.

His heavy laser cannons, mounted on either side of his chin, the underside of his moveable command section, were cold. It took a moment to muster the power he needed to warm up the lasers that heated the blaster gas in his cannon energizer. Several seconds passed.

While that was happening, the animal held still. As he fired both in tandem, it twitched out of his sights, and he couldn't re-orient in time. Nothing with legs should have been able to move as fast as it did. When he fired, the beams shot into a stretch of wall, impacting with a minor explosion. Texture popped in, and he saw that he'd left two dramatic black scars with a tiny flame guttering in each. Six seconds later and his heavies had recharged, but he didn't need them again so soon.

The animal was scared off, if only for the moment, and he had some time to catch his brea- no, that wasn't right. To lie helplessly on his side and try to regroup. For the moment, there was no further threat to the crew. Above the heavy laser cannons he had two fire-linked medium repeating blasters, useful for smaller, more agile threats, since they could swivel as needed. All he could do was heat those up, check the gas reserves for them and his heavies, send off a distress signal, and wait.

The signal took barely a second to set up and broadcast. It would, of course, be hours or days or more before anything came of it; that was how that went. He was a very valuable piece of equipment, and depending on the commander and the situation he might or might not be a high priority during a crisis.

Crew was more important than the question of where he was, how he'd gotten there, and how he'd get out of this. Without his crew... He turned his attention to his interior, remembering to watch in case the large animal returned.

Neither of the boarding hatches or any of his four escape hatches, or even the hatch to the vehicle bay, had been opened. He knew that. His atmospheric exchangers and filtration unit - part of the life-support systems built into his interior - were running a steady stream of breathable air through his passenger/troop section and command cockpit. He could feel it luffing across his deck.

A notice came up, that he was stressing the mechanisms in his neck, his flexible armored tunnel. Slowly he lowered his head until it hit something and he was at that same angle he'd activated with. He could feel whatever it was, just barely. Just a sense that it was there, nothing about hardness or softness or texture. This still wasn't good for his servos, but he couldn't do anything about that yet.

There was no movement in his interior. It was as if he didn't have any crew at all. That didn't really make sense, though. How could he be active without a crew? His drive motor shouldn't even be running.

Still nothing. At last, interior cams activated and he got a look at his insides. Both levels of his passenger/troop section were empty, without so much as a cleaning droid poking around. No one was in the maintenance shaft to his motor. There were several speeder bikes racked up like throwing darts back in his rear vehicle bay, and some gear in crates, disarrayed a little by the fall, but nothing that moved on its own. It made him feel vaguely uneasy to see all that.

Only one cam was in his tunnel. More of them were in and around his command cockpit. The seats for pilot and gunner, as well as the larger and more imposing one for the commander, were fixed to his deck, though they were adjustable and currently hanging from their bearings. He saw that very clearly; cams were positioned to fix on the faces of crew in the three essential stations, making it easier for them to send real-time messages or recordings on his holoprojector.

He saw the bulky shapes of the consoles that made up his mainframe. On them, status lights blinked or shone steady, and monitors glowed steadily. These were the displays made for his crew. Who, apparently, wasn't there, not even in the cockpit. That wasn't right. Even standing down, inactive in his berth, there should be at least one technician. And there wasn't so much as a fingerprint on a console or a stretch of flattened upholstery at any of the three essential stations. Like they'd never been touched. Not so much as a speck of dust either. Was he factory-new? Couldn't be. He knew that his hull was scored and dented, cosmetic damage that meant he'd seen action.

This was not good. Bad enough to be helpless on his side waiting for his crew to evacuate and send for backup, which presumably would at some point involve either retrieving him whole or in components or blasting him so that no one else could have him. Worse to be helpless on his side with no crew.

No crew. He'd skirted that phrase, because 'no crew' meant 'empty'. That was meaningless when he was inactive and a protocol breach when he was standing down, but he was live now, systems running, and he couldn't...

[This does not actually fit anywhere. I'll delete it when I'm sure I'm not going to use anything from it. "Autonomy, actualization, psyche emulation identity and personality emulation, records, software analog of organic-brain emotional response, and many others, often very similar."

There was one subroutine housed in one particular console, one last major program in the master computer, that hadn't gone live yet. No. Untrue on both counts. Several subroutines, many or most of them linked so that one could not be active without others. Currently there was only one running at optimum, but all were functioning at one level or another. There was a great deal of overlap among the many, many subsubroutines, and many redundancies, and it was altogether more complex and puzzling than any other set of programs. The console wasn't planned or built by the same mind as the rest of him.

It was unmarked, as far as he could tell, and set apart from the others. It had the normal complement of monitors and status lights, but only a few controls. From the lights, some systems were active, most weren't. He was not entirely sure what, if anything, it did.

Should he start it up now? It couldn't be essential. This would just burn power faster. But why not? He couldn't find any crew, so without autonomy he wasn't going to be able to do anything. Besides, his life support was running with no life to support, his hologram projection pod was live with nothing to receive, and he had readied everything in his drive motor even though he was hardly using it at all, what with being motionless. No crew meant no action, the moment when he'd fired at the large animal notwithstanding. He might as well. Power was rerouted, his drive motor sped up slightly to compensate, and bank after bank of status lights on the last console glowed to life.

Garrett jerked. Beep... beep... beep... beep... Automatically he reached out to swat at the alarm clock, but there was no alarm clock, and his leg just swung forward and back, smacking against something. He felt the impact dully as it traveled up into his body. It didn't really sound like an alarm clock, it sounded like - No contact on impulse terrain sensors. Warning! No contact on impulse terrain sensors. Warning! No weight on knee joints! Warning! No weight on knee joints! Warning! Stress on flexible armored tunnel! Warning!

That meant - what that meant was that he was FALLING!

Garrett's legs churned forward and back, but hit rubble, unidentifiable heaps of trash. No. He wasn't falling, he was already down, and he'd figured that out already. He was already down, he remembered the fall and how it had started slow and then became much faster and then he'd hit the ground, and now he was on the ground, though he could barely feel what was underneath him.

The costume. That was it, that had to be it, the costume was keeping things from touching his skin. Yes. Under it, Garrett could feel things, his nerves hadn't all gone dead. As soon as he got it off, he'd be fine. That emptiness, that sickening hollow space inside, that would wear off. Yes. So would the feeling that he was somehow both stretched and compressed somehow. He just had to get the costume off.

The alarms in his cockpit were getting annoying, and nothing was happening with the evacuation alarm, so he disabled them. Indicators on monitors and bank after bank of status lights updated continuously, but they showed nothing he couldn't sense for himself except, perhaps, why the lights on the mystery console, already blinking in rapid patterns, went mad.

He wasn't breathing! He wasn't breathing! Whatever he used to breathe - diaphragm? Rib muscles? - was missing, his sides were totally rigid and immobile. It didn't hurt, but God, he couldn't breathe!

Garrett shuddered, or tried to. The seats at his three essential command stations readjusted convulsively, his flexible armored tunnel quivered, his medium blasters rocked, and his legs bent slightly where they met his drive motor and at the knee joints, toe flaps flicking up and down. Otherwise he didn't move. Just a costume, he told himself. A costume and maybe some highly illegal combination of substances which would make the University very unhappy. He hadn't knowingly taken anything, but that never made much difference with the staff. At the moment, the thought of Midtral kicking him out wasn't all that bad.

The console displays worked silently, making it much easier for crew to see just what was going on with him. One housed the housekeeping subroutines and displayed temperature and pressure readings, air supply, life support, lighting, and half a dozen other systems, both readings and controls, all for the places where crew would be. Most of that was locked to him, off limits, part of some security measure. More consoles were devoted to other things. Weaponry. Data from sensor arrays, holographic targeting systems, inside cams, impulse terrain sensors. The console for both of his KDY FW62 compact fusion drive systems, all the fiddly details that went with them and his fuel slug tank and blaster cannon energizer. Other consoles too, with purposes of their own. Most of them didn't appear to be connected, but under the deck each was linked by numerous thick cables, to each other and the rest of his body. They were, Garrett knew, what his brain had turned into.

After he took the costume off Midtral would kick him out for substance abuse, the way they also did with people who got weird piercings or large tattoos or got in the paper for suspicious reasons. It was in the college contract; people hated it, but no one had a legal leg to stand on. They would give him time to pick up his stuff and find a motel, and he and Steph could go together to that bar just off campus to complain and rage and drink. Later they could stagger back to the motel, and wake up side by side in the morning with matching hangovers, and both of them could claim to have no memory of the previous night. The first and last time he'd done it, he'd sworn never to do it again, and Steph had clutched his head and said "Never, ever again". But another all-night bender with his friend sounded a lot better now.

He laughed wildly - and silently except for a burst of static on the internal comms. On the - yes, it was the system the commander used to give orders to the troops, it might as well be an intercom, why not? The static was loudest from the hologram pod, loud enough to fill the cockpit. It was purely internal, with not one speaker on his outside. He didn't have to pause for breath. Static hissed and crackled through his intercom, rising in a snarl of terrible, meaningless sound that went on and on. Who was he kidding? Nothing was coming off, and he was so empty that the noise echoed around his internals. The static died down as he stopped, feeling sick.

Not breathing. This time the realization didn't spark panic. He felt hot and cold at once.

He couldn't get up. Oh, it was easy enough in theory, Garrett knew. Contract abdominal muscles. Prop up on one elbow. Curl knees in along the floor. Turn so that hands and knees are on the ground and body is above. Push off with hands and stand up. Such a pity that he couldn't do that.

Okay, focus, he told himself, trying desperately not to start laughing again. He was on his side, not quite flat. The pocked squares on the ceiling - it was a drop ceiling, part of him noticed - somehow looked ridiculously far distant, same with the walls, though he had no problem making out details. A few hundred meters away - no, that couldn't be right, but several times longer than his body - he saw an abandoned, tapering cylindrical plastic thing partially filled with clear liquid, somehow completely intact. "Aquafina", the label read. It looked like a water bottle. Although it was much smaller than he was and he was looking down to see it, it still seemed huge. Quite a bit larger than a man, almost the size of a speeder... or, yes, a car. But that couldn't be right.

It dawned on Garrett then that it wasn't that any of these things were too large. No, they were exactly as big as they were supposed to be. It was that he was too small. He was - he was an AT-AT. The distance from footpad to back was supposed to be at least twenty, twenty-five meters. How many feet was that? Fifty, sixty? If he remembered right, the drop ceiling was supposed to be ten feet up, maybe less. Even if he was standing now, his back would only be halfway to that ceiling, if that. That wasn't right. Maybe it explained the compressed feeling, though.

Movement. The furry white animal was back, and although it was moving very cautiously it still seemed far too quick for something without repulsorlifts. Garrett decided that it was probably the size thing - it seemed as big as a bantha, or... or an elephant. Those weren't supposed to move like this. But the animal was close to the floor and far, far from the ceiling, so it was probably small. Now, he couldn't help noticing that it looked like a combination of various animals. Long haired cat, wading bird, field rabbit, maybe some kind of bug.

It was coming around from Garrett's other side, staying away from his heavies this time. Halfheartedly, he followed it with the swiveling medium repeating blasters on either side of his viewport - or rather, he followed it with one blaster, because the other was pressed by his weight against what looked like a magnified piece of canvas. It didn't seem worth the effort to fire. What was the point? He didn't have any crew to protect. He was empty.

So empty. It was the strangest feeling. A little bit like hunger, a little like cold, slightly nauseating, something like being touch-starved, and a lot like loneliness so strong that it was crippling. Somehow it was all of those things wrapped up together, with something he had no words for. Continued breathlessness didn't help. Empty.

He tried to shudder again, with the same result as last time. The white animal froze where it stood, the weird curling thing on its head unbending partially.

Garrett?

He jerked.

Steph? he said, or tried to say. It came out as purely internal static, like the buzzing hiss of an analog TV on an empty channel. Just like when he'd had that moment of wild laughter earlier.

Garrett, it's me, Steph. Can you hear me?

I hear you, I hear you! More static. Was that really Steph? How? What had happened?

Look, don't try to shoot me again. I don't want - Are you even in there? Somewhere?

Yes. Yes, I'm here and I can hear you, he tried. Still no words. It was just static on his intercom.

Look, if you're there, say something.

I don't think I can, he tried. Static. The creature that said it was Steph had its huge ears cupped around its head again, but Garrett didn't think it was hearing him. The intercom was internal, the hatches were shut. And he was producing static.

He jerked the servos in the armored tunnel that had once been his neck, making his head bob. He had to fight gravity. It wasn't an easy motion, and although he couldn't see it himself, he knew it didn't look smooth.

Do that again.

Garrett did. Whatever was between his head and the ground, underneath the too-close canvas, made a weird sort of crunch. He could barely hear it; it seemed soft and far away.

Okay. Uh, okay. You can't talk, but you can hear me, right?

A third time, and now he was getting faint complaints. He wasn't designed for this kind of activity, not small repetitive movements. If he kept this up, he'd start damaging the blaster on that side. After a moment, he swung one leg forward and back. A foreleg.

He couldn't see most of his body, but he could see his legs, sticking out rigidly, like he was a flipped card table. There was the joint where each leg met his body. The joint could swing the entire leg forwards and back, and spread the legs a little apart, independently, but the spreading had a very limited range and apparently he couldn't do it lying on his side. His legs were just too heavy; the joints weren't built for this. He had knee joints, and four toe flaps at the end of each leg. And there was some kind of wristlike joint between knee and footpad, where the end of the leg pincered on to the footpad, but he couldn't move it. It was probably like a lizard's wrist; press the hand against something and the arm could move at all kinds of angles, but without something, the ground, a wall, to press against none of those wrist angles were really possible.

Is that a yes?

If he'd had eyes, Garrett would have rolled them. As it was, he felt the medium blaster that wasn't pinned twitch. Steph could get like this when he was excited or nervous, chattering inanely and giving off the impression that he wasn't nearly as smart as he was.

He tried talking again, asking, What do you think? Static. Of course. He swung the leg again.

Okay, yeah. So - I guess I'm telepathic now. Right? My voice is gone, but if you can hear me, what else could it be?

Garrett lay still, waiting as Steph babbled about what had happened, obviously just on this side of hysteria. He couldn't blame the little guy - Garrett could feel it pressing in on him, like any minute now he'd burst out in mad static laughter again. And maybe this time he wouldn't stop. But as long as Steph was here, he wouldn't. He wouldn't.

Was this telepathy, then? It was like hearing Steph's voice, but not quite. He didn't have any sense of where it was coming from. And... no, there wasn't really a sensation of hearing anything. It was like imagining a voice, imagining very strongly. Which raised the question of whether or not he was imagining it. But that way lay madness.

Eventually, Steph ran down. And I'm sorry, I ran away! I shouldn't have. I know. Had he? Obviously that was bad, but Garrett wasn't sure that he'd noticed. Not with all this. He wished - well, not like it mattered. Obviously he didn't need to breathe. It just felt like he should.

Look, I - I should really try and get someone to help you up. I don't want to stay here, it's too open.

Finally! Garrett staticked and swung forward and back, vigorously enough that he got a stern internal notice about not damaging his legs on obstacles. On the ground, Steph shuffled anxiously, black nose twitching.

Right. I'll, uh, I'll be right back. He took off on all fours. Garrett watched him go. Why was Steph some kind of weird alien rabbit thing? What the hell had happened? There was a way to undo it, right? He hoped there was. He really hoped there was.

He didn't want to be an AT-AT! He'd never wanted this. A month ago - less than a month ago - this costume hadn't even been a vague idea! He wasn't even a big fan or anything. He didn't want to be a walking beast-shaped tank. He could feel air blowing through his insides.

He heard faint static crackling out of the intercom, and several bewildered seconds passed before he realized that he was trying to whimper.


Anj's post-TF segment

Joysweeper--Illus2.jpg

Anj holstered his collapsed forcepike, removed his helmet, pushed his overrobe back over his shoulders like a cape, and stared at the reflection in the mirror, shying away from the eyes. The reflection stared back.

The reflection's face wouldn't turn heads. It was pretty normal, all things considered, no obvious scars or nonhuman colors. There was a certain hardness to it, yes – something in the forehead, the set of the jaw, the chin – but the mouth and the surprised expression saved him from looking too unforgiving. What made it disorienting was the way it was at once strange and familiar. There was a lurching shock like he'd dropped into a hole in the ground, registering that this wasn't some stranger's face. There was a smaller shock of recognition - this was his face. This was him.

“Uh. This is the part of the dream where my teeth fall out or I find out I can fly, right?” Anj winced and saw the reflection do the same. I don’t sound anything like me. I don’t even sound like my father.

“Doesn’t feel like a dream, but how would I know? I guess there's nothing wrong with my voice amplifier. I, uh... Well, this is weird.” It was a very expressive face – the wince hadn’t just been a twitch of the eyelid; there’d also been more than a little reaction in the lips and eyebrows. He looked away.

It made a certain amount of sense, though. After that exchange with the bizarre pitcher-thing he had barely been breathing hard. He'd known something was different, he'd sort of expected this, it wasn't just the - well, the sense that now and again something jostled that shouldn't. Though that had been part of it. “Damn. Well... only men are officially accepted into the Stormtrooper Corps. Only the best stormtroopers can be trained as Red Guards. The screening process - yeah, I don't think a woman would go unnoticed. So yeah.”

He was taller, definitely. Not really tall, maybe, he could be wrong. When he turned his head and tilted it down it seemed like his shoulders on either side extended out too far, though part of that was the pauldrons. They didn't look bad in the mirror. But - wow, yeah, he was definitely taller. Yes. And his arms were thicker, even aside from the armor. Self-consciously, he flexed his free arm and felt his bicep press into the armor of his lower arm, the vambrace.

Also he was taller. Anj moistened his lips and realized that he was nervous.

For some reason recognizing that made him plant his feet and stand straighter - and yes, taller. Hopefully that would stop surprising him soon, it wasn't like he'd hit his head on the doorjamb or anything. He was nervous - okay, afraid.

Earlier, he'd decided to find an empty bathroom to look at himself in, rather than join the crush of people trying to get out. That had taken a little longer than he'd expected. He might have been dragging his feet a bit, putting it off. He'd known something would happen - maybe he was deluding himself, but it was like there was a wave above him, ready to crash down.

He would have liked to avoid it for a little bit longer. He knew he could. But something inside, almost impossible to make out at first, then louder and clearer to the point where it startled him, said No. No. That's not how it goes. Resolve internal crises before they impact performance.

Anj closed his eyes, then opened them. He started talking, the words forming just before he said them. "I was born in - in Coronet City on Corellia. We moved to Imperial center when I was about three, and lived in a domicile in a shabby-genteel section, on a level that was patrolled enough to keep down the violence." He wanted to stop, this wasn't right - he'd been born in Flagstaff Arizona, they'd moved when he was almost four. "The sun - the sun was visible, there was natural light, but only at high noon. When it rained, and it did that a lot, the water came to us through sluices, and it was never clean." The memory hit him, as strong as any he'd ever had - walking through the marketplace with his mother, ten minutes after a storm had passed overhead, and the water had poured off the awning they ducked under, reflecting rainbows.

"No, that's not right." He made himself stop and shake away the memory of how oily the water was, its smell. His pulse was quickening. "I don't remember Arizona except as bright and red, we just have pictures of the little blue house." There had been holograms of Coronet City in the domicile, projecting on the walls. They weren't the shiny sanitized holos of famous or scenic places that got sold to tourists. His older brother had borrowed a holocam and recorded the scenes himself. "I- we lived in an apartment for a while. It snowed in the winter. First time I'd seen snow, and it made night less dark. It was wetter than I'd thought."

"Smelled a little like tin. Smelled like -" Anj rubbed his face with his gloved free hand, shifting his grip on his helmet with the other. He'd heard more than once that fresh snow smelled like tin, but he couldn't - Oh, Emperor, he remembered the landlord's kid, half a year older and always red-faced, showing up and asking if he'd mind wagering on which of the hired men would be the one to knock down the hawk-bat nest. Why not, he was a Corellian, right? "I, I made friends with a neighbor girl who never stopped telling me and Valerie that the - the show with the puppets was stupid and babyish. I wanted to impress her so I agreed, but I still watched it. Sometimes Valerie told her I was lying..."

This went on for some time, and he kept having the feeling that whatever he was fighting, he was losing. Anj paced, restless, sometimes with uncertainty and other times aggressively. Eventually he forced himself to stop and looked back at the mirror, this time looking into his reflection's eyes. His eyes were wide-open, worried, with irises dark enough that they were hard to distinguish from his pupils. Hadn't they been paler before this? Anj looked away, unsure.

"What happened?" he asked in a low voice, not quite a whisper. "I don't understand. It's like - wait, wait. Am I - am I talking to myself?" He was. "Emperor's bones," he said, the last two words coming out as a mild oath. He really wasn't in the habit of talking to himself, he knew that for sure. It was probably just to listen to his voice. He'd talked to himself at length right after rigging the voice amp the first time, feeling out how it made him sound. Her sound, at the time. No, wait, he'd done that the first time he'd put on a helmet at the Academy, too. Once he'd quoted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; the the other time he'd read the helmet's instruction manual out loud.

He looked down, saw his hand trembling, and had to clench it into a fist to make it stop. He had to finish this. He just really, really didn't want to, and he wasn't sure what 'this' was or why it scared him. Maybe he could put it off for another minute.

Briskly, Anj used some paper towels to dry the counter where the sinks were, switching off a dribbling faucet at the same time, then set his helmet there and removed his robes, folding them quickly and with mechanical precision.

“Huh.” Despite their irregular shape, he’d folded them into a perfect square, flat and unwrinkled. And why had he bothered wiping down the counter first? Anj dropped his folded robes besides his helmet, deliberately letting a corner hang over the edge of the counter. Immediately he felt the nagging urge to adjust the robes, make them line up precisely, but it wasn’t very strong. Apparently he had a thing for neatness. He hoped it was neatness, and not some kind of cleaning mania.

Looking into the mirror again, Anj glanced over his armor. Red plating, the same crimson as his helmet and robes, with a thick textured bodysuit underneath. The bodysuit - the underarmor - was black, naturally, no sign of the armor weave visible. The plating was fashioned like the contours of a very well-defined muscular body. Better defined then he actually was and a serious display of narcissism, he knew, but he hadn’t designed the armor.

This was both distressing and a sight he'd seen nearly every day. That was what he had to finish. He had to get both stories to fit together. He couldn't just pick one - well, he could, it would be easy, he could just be Anj, part of the Stormtrooper Corps since he'd volunteered at fifteen, which was younger than was officially allowed, eventually picked for Red Guard training on Yinchorr. He could pick that, let all the sketchy details fill in and flesh out, and be Anj of the 501st on a planet that was only vaguely familiar to him. The more he thought about that backstory, the more complex it would become. But he knew he shouldn't, he really, really shouldn't.

"Okay," he said quietly. "The obvious answer is that I was - I am, still, Anj - Angela, and this other stuff is new, but there's no way I can ignore it." He had to figure this out. Anj ran a gloved finger along the raised detailing on his pectorals, stopping as he realized what he was doing. He remembered making the armor with Ursala, one of the other Tampa Bay Red Guards - and he remembered getting it at the end of training, before being shipped off to a new post. Both felt real.

This would take some doing.

Anj paced a little more, then stretched out on the linoleum, resting weight only on his forearms and toes, and kept his abdomen taut, silently counting the seconds as his muscles burned. He couldn't reject it. It wasn't that simple.

Nothing was ever that simple. Still, there had to be something he could do.

Holding "plank" position was easy; even with the weight of the armor, he could stay like that for an hour, no trouble. Anj shifted position, put his palms against the floor, and started to push up and lower himself down in a steady rhythm, breathing easily.

Why one or the other? Why not both? Wouldn't that be ideal?

Could he even do that? Easy enough to think it, but...

A shredded bit of toilet paper scudded off across the linoleum tiles, blown by his breath, and Anj stopped as he realized that he'd just stretched out and started doing pushups on a bathroom floor. A women's bathroom, admittedly, and therefore not too awful, but still. He scrambled back to his feet as quickly as if he’d been ordered, and stared for the third time at his reflection.

This time he didn't look away, staring intently into the mirror, ignoring the discomfort, the awkward feeling that really he shouldn't be doing this. Every time he saw himself, it was a little easier.

And now - now, if he pushed away the visceral shock of seeing someone else and the other, smaller shock of recognition, and it did feel like he was pushing them back - now he honestly could tell himself that that face was familiar. That the nose had once been broken rather spectacularly and had for the most part healed straight. That the hair-fine scar cutting through one dark eyebrow, his dark eyebrow, was not from a training incident or an injury he'd picked up on duty, but a remainder of something incredibly stupid he’d done as a teenager. He could remember idly imagining a face like this, going with the fairly vague biography he’d made. Anj thought he'd sketched this face, or one like it, in a notebook.

In fact, to his surprise he looked just a little like his ex. Like Angela’s ex. Anj's ex. It wasn’t a major resemblance, but it was there, something about the bone structure and the texture of his close-cropped dark hair, though it wasn't curly. Oh, right - he'd been on that faces kick, filling up page after page of head studies. Since this had been when he, as Angela, had been engaged to Scott, and Scott hadn't objected to a little modeling, most of them reflected him somehow.

Anj was oddly relieved to find that there was still an echo of that old pain when he thought about Scott. Things just hadn't worked out between them. They'd left on friendly enough terms, yes, it had been almost two years and it was barely awkward anymore when they ran into each other, but there'd just been too much emotional investment for it to be painless.

It was weird, thinking of Scott when he looked like this, but almost reassuring.

Maybe he could do this after all. "I shouldn't worry about it," Anj told himself. He didn't dislike his voice. "Maybe if I just stop making a problem out of it - mind over matter, right?" There was still a blanket sense of unease, but he wasn't afraid now. He smiled tentatively, mostly to try out how it looked on his face. This didn't have to be bad. He'd - he'd try not to think of it as bad.

There would be time later to strip off every piece of armor and examine everything. For now – well, he knew, but it wouldn’t hurt just to check. Anj found the seam in his underarmor and stretched it open. There was the dance belt thing keeping everything supported, and under it another piece of padded armor, common sense really, a protection that was smaller and not nearly as obvious as the codpiece worn by stormtroopers. And under that -

He wasn't sure if it was supposed to be - the angle was new, but it looked normal - he hadn't expected - right, well, Scott had been cut, and -

“…Yeah. I definitely went in the wrong refresher. Bathroom. Whatever it's called.” Feeling a little embarrassed, Anj straightened his armor and exhaled firmly. "I don't think I'll do that again for a while." Not that he would have a choice; his bladder had to fill eventually. But it could wait.

"No more periods. Huh. I'm going to have to get new clothes. All new clothes. It's probably going to be a comprehensive shopping spree." A daunting thought. As Angela, ever since he was a little girl he'd hated shopping for new outfits, since it was never quick or simple. He'd hated it vocally enough that it had become a family joke. Somehow he doubted that had changed - and, for whatever reason, this was another oddly comforting thought. There was a little pronoun confusion and what could only be called a double set of memories, but Angela and Anj were the same person at heart. He hoped.

He still felt weird, but it was a relief to be sure that whatever else was going on, this was a convention in Florida, and he had walked in as a woman in costume. In Red Guard costume. The furries he’d seen – the same thing had happened to them. It was safe to assume it had also happened to the people he’d passed on the way here, the ones who’d been rushing for the exits or milling in confusion. Had it happened to everyone? In the world, or locally, or just here?

He’d become a real Red Guard; his forcepike had become a real forcepike, the biography had filled out extensively, and so had... other things. The furries had become actual, living animal people. The image, the dream, had become reality. Although, really, he’d never longed to have more than the image, he’d spent a lot of idle thought on it but never felt that he was supposed to be a Red Guard, really. And – well, it followed logically that the pitcher man hadn’t been more than the image before, because who could possibly want to be a pitcher? There were a lot of unanswered questions here.

… What had happened to the rest of the squad? To his friends, to SL-1984? Had this happened to them, too? Anj felt a sharp, unsettling lurch in the pit of his stomach, as all the unease he'd managed to dispell came back in a lump. Why wasn’t he with them? How could he have thought it was a good idea to leave them in this unfamiliar territory? He had no idea where they were, so why wasn’t he out looking for them?

“Why do I feel so guilty about this? I don’t know what in the Emperor’s name they’re doing, this isn’t exactly covered in training!” Anj blinked. “Not training. Well, maybe. I don’t know. Going to have to do something.” But what, that was the question. Where to start? He wasn't entirely sure where he was, let alone any of the others!

Restless again, Anj made a quick circuit of the bathroom. He’d chosen well; when he’d passed this place early in the day there had been an impressive line, but everyone’s priorities had shifted well before he got here.

All stalls were open, and the bathroom was empty – he wouldn’t have removed his helmet and started talking to himself if it hadn’t been – but it didn’t hurt to check.

He found it rather disheartening when he had trouble reading a piece of graffiti. It was scratched deeply into the side of a stall, in large, relatively neat letters that were easy to distinguish, but it still took longer than he’d have liked before the squiggles resolved into “ADRIAN WAS HERE”. Apparently he now had trouble reading English.

Otherwise, the only thing of note was a pile of clothing just inside the handicapped stall. The shirt at the top of the pile had what looked like a long elastic bandage, ragged at the tip, trailing out of the neck opening. Very gingerly, touching only with the very tips of his gloved fingers, Anj separated and folded the clothes neatly, stacking them together on the linoleum. He told himself as he did it that it was a courtesy. The other end of the bandage was wrapped around a bra left inside the shirt, for some reason that Anj couldn't fathom. Crumpled under those and sitting atop a dusty pair of sandals were short pants with panties inside - and in those was a winged Maxi pad with just a little blood on it.

Just seeing that made Anj feel incredibly uncomfortable and voyeuristic. If women had a set of bathroom rules, hiding all evidence of periods was one of the big ones. It seemed like that rule had carried over - he was embarrassed for whoever this was, and entirely unwilling to touch it. And yet Anj couldn’t help thinking that if the clothing had simply been removed, it would just be heaped together, underthings on top. This looked like more like the occupant had dematerialized – or shrunk dramatically. Yet it was completely empty, and he hadn't seen any-

-Wait. I wouldn't try and approach someone who looked like me, if this happened. And she could've got out earlier, maybe even when I opened the door. I wasn't exactly in a state to notice. Whatever this is about, it's going to stay a mystery. One that I'm glad isn't happening to me.

A light sort of twitch traveling up his spine brought Anj out of his thoughts. “Right,” he mused under his breath as he returned to the sink. “Weakly Force-Sensitive, untrained and not good for much more than intuition and a warning. Wrote that in the bio. Inexplicable spinal sensations mean something is happening, and if it's mild like this-“

He could hear it, tinny and faint, coming from his helmet on the counter. It must have tuned in on an active frequency. Without hesitation Anj took it up and settled it over his head, the insides tight against his face. The voice over the com became clear. Female, clear, commanding, and with a bit of an accent that sounded vaguely British - No. Not British. Imperial.

“-ling all Imperial units in or out of the 501st, calling all Imperial units in or out of the 501st, report for instruction, report for instruction, set to Imperial frequency Ithor Naboo Gammorr, set to Imperial frequency Ithor Naboo Gammorr. Repeat; this is ID-4102 of Makaze Squadron, this is ID-4102 of Makaze Squadron, calling all Imperial units in or out of the 501st-“

Words could not have expressed how Anj’s heart leaped on hearing the officer’s voice. He wasn’t alone! Almost as fast as he could think it, he had gone to the specified frequency.

“This is TR-1407 of Tampa Bay Squadron.” Relief loosened his tongue in spite of training. “And I am very glad to hear from you! Orders, sir?”

The voice that responded over the comlink wasn’t the same one, although if anything the Imperial accent was stronger; this was a harried-sounding older man. “You may change your mind when you see this, Royal Guard. Get to the rendezvous outside of the structure. We’re on the blacktop rectangle to the southwest.”


Garrett

Nothing was happening. He supposed that there must be commotion going around - he and Steph hadn't been the only ones, right? He'd seen something like that before falling over, right? - but he couldn't hear anything. Literally. It was silent. Now and again he felt what were sort of like faint tremors going up into his body. Maybe he'd gone deaf, at least on the outside. Inside it was different.

Experimentally, he swung a hind leg. It hit something. He swung again, harder. Yes - there was a sound, but it was so faint! Distant, like it was several rooms away.

Now he charged his heavies, waiting the long seconds until they were good and hot, and fired into the wall. The minor explosion that resulted was louder, but again - faint and far away. The sound of both heavy cannons charging and going off had been perfectly clear - it was the same oddly high laser tcheeer shriek he remembered from watching Empire Strikes Back - which he supposed made sense, since the sound could probably travel through him and to whatever worked like ears now.

He couldn't breathe. Garrett would have given a lot right now to be sure if he'd been stuck on an inhale or an exhale - he couldn't tell, it felt like both and neither. Mildly uncomfortable.

There was... something... related to the intercom, somewhere in a console in his cabin, but not as intimately a part of him as the intercom. It was picking up something. Probably had been for a while. A signal? Several signals?

"-xty-two is down!" "I'm still functional, sir. It knocked me over, that's all." "Get back over here - oh, no, it's coming back, Force preserve us-"

"-SAID HOLD YOUR FIRE! Damn you, Thirteen, it's just a bird." "Sorry! Sorry! I couldn't help myself, it just came up so fast." "No harm done. My lord-?" "The Lieutenant was ri-"

"-see, I told you, the flashing orange bit is its weak point!" "What, like a videogame? Isn't that awfully convenient?" "Don't give me lip. It keeps doing that swing-and-dodge thing, then you can see the orange bit. Cover me, I'll-"

He cycled through a handful of channels or frequencies or whatever, listening to voices, until he found ones that seemed vaguely familiar, though they were distorted enough that he couldn't quite figure out where he'd heard them before.

"-nd telling us where you went in such a hurry, sir? And how you managed to lose half an arm? I can see the sparks from here." "Pike, you would not believe me if I told you. Count yourself fortunate that I found you, I can proba- ah, more of them. How charming." "Fusst! Can you take them?" "Certainly I could, but saving you is a bigger priority than killing animals. Stay where you are.” "You're going to play at being a troop transport?! "Yes, if you want to put it that way. Do you have a better idea?"

Without warning, the voices dissolved into gibberish and white noise, a lot louder. He could sort of make out words in that mess, a panicked babbling. This might not even be the same channel. Alarmed, Garrett shut that part of himself off.

What had that been? What the hell had that been? What was going on out there?! What had happened?! Beneath the aching emptiness of his insides, along his belly, Garrett's drive motor was running hard and fast. Like he was breathing hard and his heart was racing - except, of course, that they weren't. He was a relatively thin set of rigid metal plates wrapped around air and fuel and a walking apparatus, and even that motor under his belly, the closest thing he had to guts, was riddled with spaces, gaps, hatches for mechanics to get into. All of them so empty.

There was nothing he could do about it. Nothing he could do. Gradually, his drive motor slowed, until once again it was an almost subliminal hum. He lay there, wishing he had eyes to close.

He couldn't breathe. He did have the feeling that he hardly noticed that when he was paying attention to something else. But there wasn't a lot else to even think about.

Nothing continued to happen. Garrett felt that horrible emptiness inside and tried not to laugh or start whimpering again. Something must have happened to Steph. Something had got him, maybe. He'd turned into something else. He'd gotten lost. Or maybe... maybe he'd just run off and abandoned Garrett.

Garrett pushed that last thought away. It wouldn't happen. He wouldn't have been abandoned. Not by Steph. They'd known each other since Orientation, and although they weren't roommates they shared about half of their classes. They'd - Garrett was straight, that one time when they'd both gotten very drunk at the end of Finals Week did not count, and Steph had said Garrett wasn't his type, but that didn't matter. Steph was still one of Garrett's best friends, the only one who always pitched in when he had some new idea, the one he went to whenever a wasp got into his dorm while his roommate was out. If he had anyone who wouldn't leave him, it was Steph.

Of course, the thought came back. Damn it, he was an AT-AT. He couldn't even talk. Good God. Why wouldn't Steph just walk away?

And he was so empty. Static hissed softly through his command section and the big troop cabin, falling silent only when he made the intercom stop. Laugh, cry, he wanted to do both and couldn't manage either properly. Damn it, he tried to say. Static.

It made sense, he supposed, that he couldn't speak. Maybe he could - there was that intercom - but he had no idea how to make words without a throat or vocal chords. He tried again, and managed to chop the burst up. Hiss-quiet-hiss-quiet. Not as noisy or intense as the laughter had been, louder than the whimpering.

Damn it. HISS-quiet-hiss-quiet. Now he could sense the mechanisms in the speakers. They were entirely unfamiliar. How did radios and speakers of any kind turn signals back into voices, sounds, music? He had no idea. Nothing to do but try.

Garrett was lost for some time, trying to bully his intercom into producing anything that wasn't static. He made progress, if slowly - managing a few vowel sounds, almost drowned by the hiss. Still, he didn't miss the movement outside.

First, there came the bees. When the first few appeared, zigzagging up near the ceiling, he had trouble figuring out what they were. They seemed as big as Thanksgiving turkeys and almost as weighty, dark wings moving in a blur. The first handful were high up and spaced out, moving purposefully from one side of his vision to the other. As time passed more and more bees passed through, sometimes several at a time. Garrett practiced what sounded vaguely like an "ah" and watched them, feeling his drive motor start to speed up again. He didn't like bees all that much.

Soon enough it was a whole cloud of passing bees, all headed in the same direction. The air was thick with them, along the floor as well as the ceiling, and there were enough that the droning of their collective wings was going up his legs and through his hull into the inside. He could actually hear them. It almost managed to be loud.

Many bees flying low smacked into him - he was surprised to find that he could feel them hitting, the insects were strong - and crawled up his body before taking off again. He couldn't quite see them doing that, or feel them crawling across his surface, but it was a logical assumption, and that was what the ones on his legs were doing. There were so many bees that he could have hit a few dozen just by swinging a leg, but he didn't dare. He could have fired and taken out a lot more, he really wanted to try it, but that would just make them mad, wouldn't it? They were everywhere, there were thousands of them. He knew, he knew that he couldn't be stung, but-

Garret made a very odd sound over his intercom, a combination of a high pure synthetic tone and an "ahhhkssshhksshhh" that quickly devolved into furious static. A bee had crawled onto his viewport, seemingly from nowhere, he could see the segments of its wide-spread legs and the yellow hairs coming off it, and oh God it had a pointy red tonguelike thing gleaming between two mandibles, and agggh, it licked him, and its two antennae were tapping at him... He couldn't feel it at all, but that didn't help, and even though it was many many times smaller than him it was still a GIANT BEE climbing around-

Bee claws on his hatches! He felt that. They were crawling, oh God how could that tickle and itch, and he couldn't feel their clawed legs around the hatches or on them, but at the edges, where they were sealed shut, there he felt them, and they were everywhere! He was covered in them. They were going to gouge one of the hatches open and get inside! His drive motor was picking up, throbbing a pitch that started low and built higher, he couldn't just lie still anymore but he couldn't do anything-

And then the one on his viewport took off, and there were fewer bees in the air, and he didn't feel claws on his hatches anymore. Barely a minute later and it was back to a thin stream of the things moving across the ceiling. Soon enough there were none.

The silence as his drive motor wound back down again was deafening. Garrett had to wonder if he'd just imagined that. But no - there was a little streak of residue, barely visible, on his viewport. Disgusting. God, he didn't like bees. He'd been pleased about them dying off until he'd found that that just meant more wasps, which were worse, if anything.

How was it, he had to ask himself, that he could essentially see outwards from his skin - no, not skin, more like a hull - but he hadn't been able to see any of the bees crawling on his body? He'd looked down his legs and seen them, and he'd seen the one on his viewport from beneath its six clawed feet. Why none of the others?

Vision as he had it now, interior and exterior, was - well, it wasn't a set of alternating views, nor was it overlaid, and he didn't know how this was working at all. It was working, at any rate. Everything seemed to be in full color and three dimensions.

Fuel reserves were now at ninety-eight point zero four eight one six percent. Had he been topped up when this - when this started? He didn't know. He hadn't checked it before. Right now he was on standby; powered up and burning fuel, but not going anywhere. Even if he figured out how to shut down a few systems, being active at all drained the reserves. Slowly, yes, but it was happening, and speeding up his drive motor like he'd been doing only hastened the process, as fuel moved up out of the cylindrical tank and was consumed. Garrett had the sudden thought that he would lie here immobile until he had either drained the last milliliter of fuel or he voluntarily shut himself down. He didn't know what would happen then. It was not a pleasant thought.

Help

Time passed, long enough for Garrett to get too lonely and restless to keep trying to figure out his speakers. He wasn't used to having nothing to do. Usually, if nothing else presented itself, he'd start doodling on stray paper, trying to conceptualize various things he'd heard or thought of over the course of the day. Sometimes he'd get lucky and inspiration would strike. And then of course there would be the breathlessly fast calculation of taking an idea and making it work... He wasn't used to being bored.

It wasn't like he could even hold a pencil, Garrett thought. He moved the toe flaps on one foot - hinge joints, all four of them, no other joints, limited flexibility up or down, he could move them independently, but that made little difference. These feet were made for walking, and that was all they could do. Pretty close to useless.

It didn't help that he was almost painfully aware of all his internal surfaces, and he kept coming back again and again to how utterly empty and alone he was. He couldn't even quite muster up any interest in how the hell his body worked, and it seemed like every few seconds he was reminded that he wasn't breathing, like a tic. This was miserable.

So although he didn't see Steph at the feet of the two people who came into view - wherever he was, he didn't seem to be having great luck - he was so desperate to see someone that he almost didn't mind.

They were incredibly tall, walking on thick pillarlike legs, huge and fleshy. Garrett took several seconds to realize that they were human at all. He couldn't seem to wrap his mind around that. Humans didn't get anywhere near that big, and although logically he knew that these probably weren't any larger than normal, they still looked absolutely enormous. If he had been up on all fours, they would still have been considerably taller than him, though all in all somewhat less massive.

Garrett really only assumed they were human at all by their hands. Meaty, both broad and long, with skin covered with a network of fine grooves, a little puffy. Five unique digits, each placed and sized differently with wrinkled skin on the joints, each tapering, rounded, and tipped with a sort of curved scale. They looked like alien appendages until he saw knuckles and a standing vein in the back of one, and lines in a palm; then, something sort of clicked, and he realized how they looked very much like human hands. Grossly enormous human hands, yes, as long as Steph's body, or almost. Still human.

If they had human hands, they were humans, right? They were just so out-of-scale, looming up cone-shaped, bigger at the bottom and smaller at the top, that he couldn't quite think of them as people, only pick out things like hands and gigantic sloping feet. It took some bewildered staring before he could even recognize that the fibrous stuff hanging from their bodies was clothing.

Then, he saw past the size and realized that, even if they weren't any bigger than usual, they would still have attracted stares from anyone with eyes. The two had stopped within his sight and were now talking animatedly together. He couldn't hear them at all, Garrett realized unhappily. They weren't loud enough for sound to get into his interior. Maybe if he opened a hatch... okay, how exactly did he do that? It wasn't like moving his head or legs, that was for sure.

The smaller of the two, the top of its - his? - head arrayed with a glinting mass of coarse fibers that might have been hair, Garrett could barely see it from here, had two vast flapping leathery things like wings or sails on either side of its head.

There was something wrong with that one's face, like its nose had melted into a gray wrinkled thing that moved, like a tentacle or a tail. Above that, it had four eyes. Two were set into its head with a bristling ridge above each, the other two were wide-set, gleaming, and very dark. Maybe this one wasn't human after all. It was twisting around, gesturing, generally looking unsettled.

The taller one, and now Garrett could see that it was considerably larger, was a little more normal, if he could judge. Its eyes were similar to the closer-set pair on the deformed one's face, and he supposed that the bristly ridges were eyebrows. The skin that wasn't covered by hanging folds of cloth was a very pale, almost chalky color. This one had bent its forelegs... no, arms, they had to be arms... and crossed them one over the other.

In a fit of whimsy, Garret decided to call them Mutant and Big Guy. Why not? It wasn't like they'd overhear him and take offense. He was starting to feel a growing sense of unreality. Being unable to put a couple of humans or almost-humans into perspective was just odd.

Maybe... maybe this wasn't real, after all. It just didn't make enough sense. If he was supposed to be an AT-AT, why could he fit into a room? What was up with that thing that had knocked him over, the red thing that had looked so much like the Kool-Aid Man? And why was a rabbit-bug thing telling him that it was Steph?

Garrett knew that he'd already run through part of this, at least. But the idea that he'd passed out in his cardboard shell from a nasty combination of spray paint fumes and an accidental dose of some illegal substance, and was now having a weird dream of epic proportions was - well, it was comforting. Or maybe he was awake, but hallucinating a wildly distorted version of events.

Mutant and Big Guy seemed to be wrapping up their conversation. Their Easter Island-esque heads were doing much less side-to-side swiveling and much more tilting up and down, and gestures were far less expansive. Abruptly, Garret made up his mind. What did he have to lose, if this was or wasn't a dream?

He swung a leg forwards and back.

Big Guy, moving ridiculously fast, got between Garrett and Mutant, bending its limbs like it was about to leap. Mutant moved, but stopped and backed away when Big Guy opened its mouth and did something with it. Garrett had never learned to lipread. What he could see of lips and mouth moving was weird and creepy, like he'd stumbled into the Uncanny Valley. Was that a matter of scale, or...

No one moved for a long moment, until Garrett finally jerked what used to be his head. Now he was being stared at. He moved his command section to point in their general direction and swung a leg forwards, trying to go for 'pathetic'. It wasn't exactly acting. He wished he could heave a sigh.

Big Guy did something with its mouth again, directing it at either Garrett or Mutant. Mutant crept still further away, the sails on its head flapping. Big Guy turned and followed it, twisting around weirdly to look back at Garrett. They stopped at the very edge of his vision, which apparently didn't extend all that far, to gesture and flap their mouths at each other some more. Eventually they stepped out of view entirely.

Garrett waited. Time passed, he had no idea how much. Long enough that he went back to trying to figure out his intercom. He made a heartening leap of progress when he figured out how to make and adapt the synthesized beep, though at his best he sounded about as clear as a toddler lisping into a poorly-kept drive-through speaker. He could only even do that if he focused very hard on the syllables and went slowly, true, and what wasn't a hiss came out in a robotic high-toned monotone, but progress was progress. What would he do if - when - he finally got to the point of speaking clearly and with some inflection?

He could try and recreate his voice. And... and other people's voices. Then he could - what? Reenact campy old TV shows?

It didn't get to that point, thankfully. Garrett thought about counting the seconds and decided against it, not really wanting to measure how long it took, but he only felt the I'm-not-breathing tic four times before Big Guy came back and did - well, did something.

Big Guy had sort of... folded up, Garrett guessed, legs practically folded in on themselves, somehow not falling over despite the awkwardness of the position. It was... no, not sitting, couldn't be sitting, not kneeling either... crouching? Yes, that was it. He couldn't help noticing that its legs were considerably thicker than either his legs or the armored tunnel that had used to be his neck, and it was crouching within his legspan, looming up over him. Stretching an arm over his side, and from the little vibration that Garrett vaguely felt in his hull, the probably-human was dragging a hand over-

What the hell? Had it just stroked him? Now Big Guy's mouth was moving, and damn it, Garrett wished he could just say that he couldn't hear or understand any of that, say it and actually be heard, anyway -

Why not? Just help me up. Damn the static, he could do better than that, he'd managed-

They came in from the edge of his vision, walking with startlingly quick, fluid motions, as if moving was easy despite all that bulk. Two, three - no, four of them, like flexible animated towers fidgeting and breathing and pendulumming effortlessly from one leg-column to another in a walk that seemed at every step to be a barely-averted fall. He saw the flapping sails and knew that one of them was Mutant, but he didn't recognize any of the others at all. One didn't have anything like the pillar-like body structure of the others, carrying most of its mass almost horizontally.

They went from the edge of his vision to looming up over him, and static started to hiss and crackle through Garrett's interior. Too big, too close!

Heat, moisture on his right fore footpad! Weight - slight weight, nothing near the right amount, none on the others, and yes he knew he was already down but that sensation spelled FALLING! Garrett tried to swing his legs, tried on some instinctual impulse to fire. But his legs stayed locked still, toeflaps flicking madly, only one of them hitting anything at all, and the power to all four blasters was being leached away as quickly as he could route it in.

He felt like a heavy soft blanket had been pressed over him. Him, not this half-insensate walker body, he could almost feel it wrapped over and over. Like it was between him and everything else. He felt his drive motor fight something, grinding alarmingly for a moment, and then slow, winding down as rapidly as it had sped up. Garrett saw now that Big Guy was - was gripping a footpad in one massive appendage. That was why he'd felt, was still feeling, some sensation there. It wasn't moving to wrench it off, it was just... holding it. Okay, that was weird.

Big Guy, still folded up, was mouthing at the new giants, who were no smaller than before but somehow less threatening, now. Garrett found that he could feel the vibrations of speech, faintly, through the hand on his footpad. He still couldn't understand it, annoyingly enough. Still, he knew for certain now that Big Guy was talking.

Garrett also found that he couldn't move his legs at all, just the toeflaps. Nothing was touching them, and they were working fine, he could feel it, they just couldn't move. Something invisible had a hold of him. Whatever it was, he knew, he knew that if it could slow his drive motor and persuade his legs to still, if he couldn't resist it, it could probably pop his hatches and and bare his interior and take him apart bit by bit. But it wasn't. It was holding him still. Very, very still. He found himself adjusting the seating in his command cockpit just to see if he still could.

He was calm now. Very calm, disassociated even. He had to wonder about that firing reflex. It hadn't been a conscious attempt at all, which was pretty inconvenient - he'd fired earlier to see if he could hear it, yes, but he wasn't quite sure how. Well, no sense worrying, was there? Garrett couldn't seem to muster either concern or a great deal of interest. It could be his drive motor, he supposed. It was running very slowly now. He knew that he ought to be nervous about that. If the computers in what had been his head were really serving as his brain, they needed to be powered. Not much he could do about that, though, was there?

They were talking over him. The giants. Big Guy, not moving, seemed to be trying to direct the others, who were on his other side, around his back. He couldn't see quite as well from his back-side than from his flank-sides or belly-side, but this was close enough that it didn't matter much.

Garrett watched with mild interest. They were all on two legs; one carried itself horizontally and had inexplicable projections that he guessed were a long S-curved neck and rigid tail. And most of it was coated with branching filaments that could be hair, or maybe feathers. Feathers - yes, on the tail and along the limbs they were shaped like feathers, with central shafts. The rest of it, as far as he could tell, had some kind of overlapping armor made of keratinous scales, most of them smaller than a meter across. Something about it was familiar... pictures... a movie?

Oh! He knew what it was! A feathery dinosaur! Maybe a raptor, he wasn't sure, but definitely a bird-dinosaur. Bigger than any dinosaur ought to be, of course, and from here its proportions looked terribly off, but it was recognizable. The movements of its curved neck and wedge head, small from this perspective, were even faster and more sudden than what he'd seen the others doing.

His eyes went - no, he didn't have eyes, did he? Or the sensation of having them, to roll and flick wetly from one thing to another and blink, that was gone. Weird. His attention went to the others - he was moderately sure that they were human, or rather, humanlike, just distorted by some quirk of his vision. And by the fact that part of him knew that he was over twenty meters tall, and no human could so much as see over his footpad without something to stand on. How was it that he could recognize and accept a live dinosaur that looked several times bigger than the T. Rex skeleton at the Chicago Field museum, but not humans at the same scale?

Well, Big Guy's hand - good God, each finger was a slab of meat and bone as thick as the kind of conduit that people could creep through - was still on his footpad, but there were no more vibrations going through it, and after looking around quickly Garrett had to conclude that the others had stopped too. They were very close. Okay, now they were bending, folding over, now they were touching him, he couldn't feel it but it was a safe assumption... his drive motor kept to the same slow pace, he was still wrapped up tightly, calm and motionless and a little bit distant.

How was this going to work? He wasn't built like an animal - he couldn't be tipped onto his belly, not with legs like these - were they planning to just carry him out? Surely he was too heavy for that. And even though he couldn't see any doorways, he was pretty sure that he couldn't be carried out of one.

Great huge hands, some of them clawed, got under him. He wasn't lying entirely flat, or they wouldn't have been able to do that. Big Guy took the hand that wasn't gripping his footpad and laid it on his side, big pale fingers splayed. That hardly seemed like the thing to do, if he was being lifted! For some reason that struck him as funny, but he didn't quite laugh.

His view lurched. The pocked grid of the ceiling wobbled and seemed to get bigger. Simultaneously the faint sensation along his left side, the dull feeling where his flank lay against whatever he'd fallen on, went away. Garrett didn't have any inner ears now, so a few vaguely confused seconds passed before he realized that they were related, and together meant that he was being lifted up. He really couldn't tell how hard they were working - for that matter, the four of them, including Mutant, were shoulder-to-shoulder at his back, and Big Guy's hands hadn't moved.

He was above whatever he'd been on, now, and he could see it now, though Garrett still couldn't tell what it was. It looked like maybe four or five meters, but it was probably a lot less, if he was right about not actually being larger than a man. He'd stopped moving. Now what?

Big Guy was talking yet again, and the other giants moved around - two stayed at his back, the dinosaur stood at his vehicle bay, and on his other side Mutant positioned itself so that Garrett's command section was between its arm and its body. Each of them stuck its forearms under him - somehow, he'd kept completely steady during all that, like they hadn't been bearing his weight at all. Now, surrounded on all four sides, he had the sudden bizarre thought that they were planning to use him as a conference table.

Knowing full well that he couldn't be heard, Garrett still found himself trying to ask them what they were doing. Then Big Guy took its hand off of his flank.

Immediately he dipped and rocked, the view shuddering like he was in an earthquake, and by minute unsteady increments his body crept back up and leveled, although he was still tipping legwards and trembling. Garrett felt his drive motor intensify by some tiny increment, only to slow back down. He couldn't seem to worry much. There just wasn't enough power in his system for that.

He noticed, then, that the giants who were not Big Guy were disturbed. Strained, breathing heavily, shoulders hunched, moisture beading on oily skins that were flushing or paling. He couldn't help but wonder how eyes that bulged like that didn't just pop and run down out of their sockets. This took effort, evidently. The dinosaur was a little different, head thrown back on its long neck, mouth open. It had great pointed teeth. From his other flank he saw bent knees and massive far-spread feet.

Big Guy kept one hand steady on Garrett's footpad and reached underneath him with its free hand. There was something in it, something that gleamed. Some kind of tool? Despite the feeling of being under wraps, Garrett's found himself interested. What could that-

A beam of solid light just shot out of the thing, and for one long not-quite-panicked moment Garrett didn't see that it was finite, coming to a clearly defined tip, under twelve meters long. And it stayed attached to the emitter, too, not blazing off to burn through things like a turbolaser bolt. The thing was white-cored and blue along the edges, and he had no idea what it was.

Moving uncannily fast, as usual, Big Guy kept its hand wrapped around the emitter and manipulated the beam, holding it horizontal and passing it down, through whatever Garrett had been lying on. Smoke or steam curled up and dissipated. When the glowing beam was brought back up - moving quickly, too quickly; what if Big Guy made a mistake? - and moved aside, he saw that the mystery material had been cut, and cleanly. The beam tool was like a propane torch, but big enough to make the body of a cruiseliner and without the facemask and sparks and burning.

There was a bit of new input from his air filters. An increase in... what was that, ozone?

Big Guy kept at it and chopped the stuff into long, somewhat rectangular shapes. Whatever it was Garrett had fallen over onto, part of it was a very solid slab of something weird and porous that smoked very little when cut, at least compared to the woven stuff that he thought was probably cloth.

Then the creature's fingers moved on the tool, and the blue-tinted beam sort of evaporated and was gone. Big Guy started clearing away the cut slabs, barely seeming to touch them - just sort of gesturing and causing them to whisk off. That couldn't be possible, could it?

What was that beam thing, Garrett had to ask himself. It seemed like something he ought to know, but what was the point to making a cutting rod half the size of a telephone pole?! Some kind of mining tool maybe? Although that train of thought seemed interesting, and he felt like he was missing something obvious, he had to let it go. Drive motor was a little too sluggish to keep it up.

The debris was more or less cleared, revealing... some kind of bumpy ground covering. Big Guy's free hand, minus the beam tool, came back to Garrett's flank, and by the vibrations said something. Something in his balance shifted, and the four giants straining to hold him up pulled away almost as one. Garrett didn't have to strain to see them as human to read the relief. He was very heavy.

...Which left him rather inexplicably floating in midair. He flicked his toe pads a little. He wasn't going to worry about it, but Big Guy was hardly at an angle to hold him up. Particularly alone. Although this was an odd time to notice it, Garrett saw, now, that there were no fibery hairs coming off Big Guy's domed head - instead, in the skin, there seemed to be bold faded-blue stripes running back over his skull; one really thick one over each eyebrow, a thinner one starting near each ear. Weird.

He was lifting up now, the hand gripping his footpad never faltering. Up... ten meters, thirteen, fifteen... he knew if he were to fall now, from here, at less than his full height, he would be seriously damaged, certainly more than simply falling over. No sense in worrying. Up... Big Guy was standing straight now, arms shifting position, still gripping steadily. It said something, and in response Mutant and one of the others, not the dinosaur, came closer and touched Garrett again, clutching at his hull.

"Ohhhhh..." He was surprised at how clearly the uneasy word came out, but now - now he was being turned, like a turtle flipped on its back, and it made him very uncomfortable. Maybe he didn't have inner ears - even so, he felt his insides shifting as things went from bulkhead to deck, and it was a weird feeling. It reminded him - and with all this excitement he'd almost managed to forget, too! - that he had no lungs or other organs and there was a great hollow cavity sitting in him, all but empty. Distant feeling or no distant feeling, that was unpleasant.

Still, he was being turned over, increment by increment. He was almost at the standing point now. Big Guy's hand slipped away from his footpad, and he rotated the last few degrees - slowly eased down, and his toeflaps were all sticking outwards as far as they could, and TOUCHDOWN!

He felt it as a sort of chunk as his weight came down on all four footpads, and something above the kneejoints telescoped slightly. The weird feeling of distance evaporated, and he found that he could move again. His drive motor sped up by some tiny increment. Garrett briefly forgot that he couldn't sigh, and had another weird moment where he tried to breathe but couldn't find the right equipment.

It felt so good to have his footpads on the ground! He pressed his toeflaps into it, feeling its bumpiness and its give, getting the sense that it was slightly uneven but level underneath. He was pretty sure that what looked like a landscape of weird, fibrous alien moss was really carpet. It was a good surface. Solid. Stable. Now he could move. Now he could walk.

Big Guy was talking again, and the assorted weird creatures were backing off, still moving with the kind of fluid speed that made him nervous, but moving away from him, so he didn't feel crowded. He had to appreciate that. Better to think about this unexpected consideration, and not what life was going to be like if he panicked every time people who were not Big Guy stood next to him.

During a pause Garrett endeavored to bob his head minutely, although he had no idea what was being said. Even if he'd learned to lip-read, even though the giant had his big blocky face tilted downwards, at this angle Big Guy's most prominent features were his chin and the underside of his nose. He was like a tower, the kind they topped with turrets and left to guard cities.

Big Guy said something, very short this time. Garrett head-bobbed again and was either rewarded or chastised by muscles tightening under the maybe-human's skin; he thought it could be a frown. Big Guy leaned down and in close, so that his mouth and nose and eyes filled Garrett's command viewport, and said something else, moving his mouth with slow, deliberate exaggeration. There were some tiny bubbles gleaming in that wet mouth, and a bit of discoloration on at least one of the teeth, and oh God the pores in that pale skin, and the capillaries under it, and the barely-visible clear hairs scattered about - ugh. Whoever said that beauty was skin deep had never looked too close.

Garrett did nothing, vaguely wishing he could blink, and felt his command cockpit get stared through for a second time. Whatever Big Guy was looking for, he probably didn't find it, because he breathed out in a long stream that fogged Garrett's viewport and reared back up to his full height. A big hand came up and very lightly smacked Garrett on the moveable command section - thump pause lift thump pause lift, light but enough to get his head to move - and it might have been an attack, some of his systems certainly thought so, but he kind of doubted it.

Something came through with the thumps - or had they been a pat on the head? - a general feel of well-wishing. Damn it, this was frustrating. Almost communication! What if he tried shooting into the wall, writing something that wa - no, no, bad idea, he'd burn through too much of his fuel and it probably wouldn't even look like a word. And he didn't have anything like enough articulation to scratch letters with his feet.

Big Guy turned and walked away at a speed that still looked ridiculous, a tiny tremor going up Garrett's footpads with each step. He had to have phenomenal shock absorbers in those monster boots; another AT-AT would have had half that stride and more than twice the impact, even on this fibery surface. Very quickly, surprisingly so, the maybe-human was gone, and this time he probably wasn't coming back.

"Dahhhschhhn hhit." Hey, that had practically been comprehensible! Garrett grabbed on to that tidbit of accomplishment, determined to stop moping. He was on all fours now. He could walk, he could get out. He would get out. Everything else would have to wait.

The convention center as he saw it was a labyrinthine monstrosity built for long-limbed fast-moving giants. He was very vague on exactly where he was or how to get out; by now there probably wasn't anyone to follow. Maybe if he'd been quicker-witted earlier. Ah well. He took a couple of test steps, kicking aside some of the debris he'd been lying on.

Walking was - well, it was different. Taken one way, it was much, much more deliberate. He had to consciously lift, swing, and plant each footpad in turn, which was a bit complicated since he had four of them and they were all new to him. Not damaged, at least, and he probably had to count that as a stroke of luck, since looking back at when he'd lost his balance and fallen over he wasn't sure how he'd been knocked off his footpads without wrenching them or at least losing toeflaps. Taken the other way, he could set a course, which involved picking a point within his vision and doing something that felt a little like blinking. Or maybe double-clicking. There really wasn't a good human analog. Course-setting was less deliberate and he could set multiple points to reach in turn, but to get around obstacles he had to either cancel the distant set point and make new ones or manually take control, step around things, and let whatever walked him along a course work again.

There was a problem with this. He had a major design flaw - not all of the consoles in and around his cockpit were essential, but even the ones that didn't do something like control his feet or internal temperature used up a lot of power. Particularly one of them - he didn't know what it did, but it was a significant drain. So significant that when he was walking for any serious length of time, either deliberately or along a set course, he had to keep his drive motor at its highest safe output to feed the walking apparatus, the consoles that had something to do with them, "housekeeping" - life support and lighting, which he couldn't seem to shut off - and the mystery console. He wouldn't be able to generate the power to fire his lasers, not on top of all the rest.

Well, from the little he'd seen before being knocked over, he had to conclude that this was a very dangerous place now. He should have had a durasteel hull no thinner than half a meter thick at any point, he should have been close to invincible, but for some reason he was barely larger than a big man, and his hull was perilously thin. Thin enough to let some sound travel through the air into his interior. Although somehow he hadn't been found by anything more lethal than a swarm of bees, he couldn't count on that luck holding. He had to protect himself. And what was the harm in neglecting one mystery console? It couldn't be essential. The thing was connected to the other consoles, but nothing else.

Garrett prepared to move in earnest, and felt more fuel piping into channels deep in his drive system, down in what was left of his guts under the gaping void of his interior. All of his other systems downshifted and fluctuated until they readjusted. He felt his vision fade and surge, so that for a moment the world was made of enormous smooth polygonal shapes, before details popped back in. Some status lights burned brighter, others dimmed to a faint spark or quit entirely.

Things became a lot simpler. In a vague, distant way, Garrett was relieved. All he had to do was make it out. It would be hard, without a crew, but he would do it.

He oriented to the best of his ability, satisfied himself that the ground would continue to support his weight, picked a direction and a course point, and started to walk.


The Rebel Legion

File:File:Illus4.jpg


"No, I am the one asking the questions," the man insisted. He was a bit rumpled and looked - well, he looked pretty distinct, but Steph didn't recognize him. "One more time. What are you and what is your business here?"

Damn it, apparently I'm a Hoojib! And I'm looking for a friend! Have you seen an AT-AT or not?! For his part, Steph was becoming increasingly frustrated. He'd gotten a blaster or several aimed at him when he first came close to this group, but they were pointed away now and the edge had come off of his fear, even though now he had an angry man on one side and a suspicious crowd on the other.

A lot of these people, and there were a lot of people, were armed, he could sense their weapons, and the closer ones had pale violin notes of their own, but there wasn't that building rush of soundlike sensation he'd felt before Garrett had fired that time, and he didn't think it was going to come.

"Never heard of them," the man said, evidently taking a lot of pleasure in being unhelpful. He made eye contact, but managed to look down his nose while doing so, and Steph couldn't see much of his expression. He would have backed up to try and get more in view, but he was a bit afraid that that would mean being rather far away. "How do I know this isn't a trap? Oy, Rebs! Any of you heard of a Hoojib?"

The nearest people who were being referred to as 'Rebs', the people who made up the group Steph had approached, denied knowing. From the muttering - he couldn't really pick up on any one speaker - they thought the man was rude, but were preoccupied themselves, mostly listening to some tinny voice he could barely pick up on, but seemed to be coming from a lot of sources. The group was diverse, although even from a distance he'd recognized the orange jumpsuits of a number of X-Wing pilots. That's why he'd tried to go closer. He'd thought they might be willing to help. Apparently not.

"Anyone? Anyone?" The man shook his head in an exaggerated motion. "Guess your ruse isn't working, eh? I don't think anyone but you knows what a Hoojib is. Protip: if you're going to make up a species, pick a better name."

"It's not made up," a woman's voice said, loudly enough for it to carry. People yielded for her, just far enough that she didn't have to turn sideways or push, as she passed to the edge where Steph could actually see her.

She was very tall - everyone seemed tall from Steph's level - but not as tall as a lot of the others. Something about her face was vaguely familiar, though he knew he'd never seen her. It was a sharp face with intense eyes, but pretty enough, he supposed. More striking was the sense of total composure coming off of her, a kind of unshakable confidence or dignity.

The man shook his head again, this time seriously. "This could be a trap. You shouldn't be so trusting."

"If it is, I can handle it. I'm just going to talk. I won't go on any wild chases." They locked eyes over Steph's head, and then the man looked away and sighed.

"Fine. It's your neck on the line, and I'm not getting paid enough to be a nursemaid. I'll be on the perimeter." The man shouldered his rifle, pointedly turned his back, and walked a good distance away. Facing outwards, he took what looked a lot like parade rest, shoulders squared.

Under her breath, the woman said, "Better with us than against us, yes, but I almost wish he hadn't come." She shook her head, faced Steph, and, to his surprise, went down on one knee in front of him. He actually had to keep himself from flinching - she'd just come a whole lot closer very quickly. This way, though, it was much easier to watch her face.

She looked down at him for a long moment, staring hard enough that he had to keep himself from preening nervously. Finally, she told him, "My brother and I worked closely with Spokesmind Plif and his people during the Nagai-Tof war. I know Hoojibs."

He would have protested, but staring up into her eyes, he got a sudden image of what she meant. Smaller, able to fit in her hand, and much more insectile, with bigger, paler eyes, floppier ears, high energy, an entirely different appearance and demeanor. Somehow she'd shown that to him, and he was - well, he was at a loss for words. Crap.

Uh. Sorry? He winced inwardly at how hesitant he'd sounded. If I'm not a Hoojib, what am I, then?

She took pity on him. "There is a chance that you belong to some subspecies. I don't believe that you're part of a trap, anyway. You aren't one of us. What brought you here?"

Have you seen an AT-AT anywhere? Gray, four-legged, around human-sized? He's my friend.

She pursed her lips, and even more than earlier he knew that face and couldn't place it. "I haven't, but I've been part of the committee since I called us together. A latecomer or someone on the perimeter may have seen it. Hold on." She stood up, raised her hand - it probably held something, but from down here he couldn't see - to her mouth, and said a long phrase in some foreign language. His ears caught the same phrase coming from a number of other places in the crowd, and after a moment something in her hand gave a very tinny two-syllable response. Steph realized where he'd seen her before.

Oh. Oh. She didn't have the hair buns or the white dress or the metal bikini for that matter, there were a few more lines on her face and she wasn't shouting, but he saw it now.

You're Princess Leia!

"Chief of State Leia Organa Solo," someone in the crowd corrected sharply.

"The Chief of State is Mon Mothma," she snapped back, composure slipping. "I'm not-" Leia stopped, closed her eyes, opened them again. "I'm only sort of Leia. Things are complicated. We're all having difficulties." That last sentence came out reluctantly, without the sharp edge of a lot of the things she said.

That's totally understandable, Steph told her. He was finding this pretty surreal. Ridiculous, even. Princess Leia - "sort of" or not, that was who she looked and sounded like - was talking to him, a weird-looking animal, as if this was completely normal.

"We're having some trouble staying together and not fighting," she admitted, then shook her head and looked back at him. "But our issues aren't yours, I'm sure. I know we're far from organized at the moment, but we are the Rebel Legion. Most of us are local, from Ra Kura Base. I am a member of the Royalty/Senatorial Detachment."

Okay, he said. None of that meant anything to him, of course. He had the sense that either these people had named and divided themselves very quickly, or the fan world was a lot more complicated than he'd thought. Had been. ...Whatever. I'm Steph. What were you saying earlier? When you stood up?

She smiled ruefully. "We're talking in code over the comm, since it's unsecured. It's probably unnecessary, of course, but I think the Legion is hardwired for paranoia. I gave a description of you and relayed your request. Someone should respond. I'll stay with you until then. It's not like I'm missing much."

Okay, he said again. He couldn't think of anything to say and she, despite what she'd said about not missing anything, didn't kneel down again. In fast, she seemed preoccupied, turning away and talking into her hand some more, still in code. He couldn't see her face properly, but it sounded like she was arguing with someone. Steph groomed a little, just for something to do. It was a process involving clawraking and patting down his long white fur, trying to get it arranged right, and was probably instinctual. Steph tried to think of it as the equivalent of brushing down his shirt or trying to flatten his hair, but he knew the obvious parallel was to a cat or a bird preening. They were both anxious grooming behaviors, he knew.

He supposed he was glad that he wasn't licking himself. This was just depressing. Still - still, it had to be worse for Garrett. He had to focus on finding him.

Something caught his attention and he froze in place, twisted sideways with his fingers buried in fur, trying to tell what it was. It was the energy-sense, of course. Now that he'd had some time and all, he knew the sense really wasn't like hearing violins or feeling heat. Steph had interpreted it like that at first, but it was more complicated. He couldn't help but think of how he'd visited a lab partner's blog – had it really been less than a week ago? – and it was full of reviews of things from some company called "Black Phoenix Alchemy Labs", describing one of their products as having coolness and roundness and resonance and shadows, throbbing base notes, and something feral and dangerous lurking beneath. And then she'd told him that these were all perfumes, and she had to describe them like that, since the right words just didn't exist.

He understood that a lot better now. Energy-sense didn't really map to hearing or touch or anything else, but the words didn't exist to describe it.

What he'd sensed... He hadn't gotten a handle on the energy-sense at the time, but he recognized this particular flavor, getting more distinct by the second, even accounting for the crowd, which was larger than he’d thought. Sort of bitter-salt. Steph strained, feeling his antenna uncoil slightly, until he sensed the notes. There was an entire orchestra's worth playing out there, distinct from the paler notes scattered all throughout the crowd. He knew this one.

He waited a bit longer to make sure. The person was some distance away and there were all these other people in the way, he could barely hear it, but Steph's ears were huge, and he thought he'd recognize that particular amplified breathing, and that sort of hitch between inhale and exhale, anywhere.

Hey! Over here! Steph shouted, or as close as he could to shouting without a larynx.

The woman who looked like Leia exhaled sharply, her face going absolutely blank and still. "Fantastic," she said darkly, lowering her hand away from her mouth. Several people nearby were muttering unhappily.

Steph was rather taken aback. What is it? What's wrong?

For a moment, he thought she wasn't going to respond. "I hate him," she said at last, biting the words out. "I know that's not right, it's more complicated than that, but I can't forgive him. Not that easily." Taking a deep, shuddering breath, she turned to face someone in the crowd, which seemed downright agitated.

The people, packed together though they were, had let Leia pass unimpeded. For the man who looked like Darth Vader in white, they parted. There was an entire bubble of space around him and the two storm troopers following him.

He had... he had a presence of his own, a sense of composure a little like Leia's. Different, though. Steph couldn't really put a finger on it - whatever senses or mental processes got used to detect how people carried themselves, they weren't as immediate as his energy-sense, which was... he'd been moving away from perceiving it as sound, but there was percussion here. Drums - several kinds - and cymbals, underneath the rest of it. He pushed that sense away, trying not to get distracted.

Steph wasn't terribly good at gauging distances, especially now that he was the size of a housecat, but even so, the space around the white Vader and his storm troopers seemed a little excessive. Belatedly he smelled something burning.

Last time he'd somehow managed to miss noticing the other's cape. It was massive, seeming to be in mid-billow even when he was still. On the right side, though, it was tattered pretty badly. That was when Steph sensed discordant notes and saw that most of the man's right arm was missing. Whatever had happened, fat blue sparks were falling from it at irregular intervals, sometimes dying before they hit the carpet, sometimes making it smoke until it died or someone stamped it out. That had to be the burning smell.

Without preamble, the woman who looked like Leia said, "Four beings have come to us since you arrived, and you're interested in this one. Why?" Her voice was flat, accusatory.

For his part, the white Vader spoke carefully and with a lot of deliberation, saying, "I encountered a Hoojib before taking leave of my squadron, Leia Organa Solo, and was curious to know if the one you spoke of was the same. Now I see that he is." Steph couldn't read any inflection beyond caution in his voice.

"Hoojibs don't look like that." They were talking about him, but Steph felt like he was listening in on a private conversation. He couldn't be the only one - every eye in the crowd was on the two, he couldn't hear anyone else talking in the immediate vicinity - but he was starting to feel uncomfortable.

"It doesn't matter." The Vader hesitated before telling her, "Think of it as an alternate universe issue."

"Like you, then," she said. Her arms were crossed tightly across her chest. Steph looked away, at the stormtroopers. They were big, of course, like everyone else.

"Exactly. You should return to the committee; they need another diplomat. I can take this from here." Maybe if he braced his feet and sat up on his haunches he'd be level with their knees. But he wouldn’t do that. He’d fallen off his back feet once already, stretching up to claw at a door handle.

The farther storm trooper had something dark spattered and smeared on his armor, beading like a liquid. Paint? Oil? Blood? "What are you planning to do, then?"

"I spoke before about contacting the Five-Oh-First. Now may be the best time; we might cut down two problems in one stroke."

Leia was silent for long enough that Steph stopped studying the armor to glance back up at her. Her face was still unreadable, at least to him. "Really? Now?"

"Now. If a peace is not established immediately, we will be at odds in the very near future. It will be difficult enough now, because of Tampa Bay Squadron. Organa, none of this is going away, as much as anyone might wish it. I believe I am the best hope for this."

"I've guessed as much. But I don't trust you to do anything alone. We're sending someone with you."

"Good. I trust that I do not need to tell you

[Characters continue to be stubborn but finally do what I want]


Steph looked up at the damage. Oddly enough, there was no charring on the white cloth or armor. They were torn and pitted in places, but not discolored. You know that you look terrible, right?

"I am aware of that, yes. But I've fought in worse conditions. During the second Yevetha incursion-" He stopped himself, paused, and in a slightly different tone said, "Never mind. At any rate, this is nothing. My - Organa said that you were looking for a walker."

Steph told him, trying not to get excited enough to babble, about coming back to find Garrett gone, doubling back to explain that he'd found the walker earlier and left to look for help. Then he had to confirm that by Garrett, yes, he did mean the AT-AT. And his own name was Steph. Steph Midder.

The Vader paused, then told him, "There are a great many names I could go by, but I believe I will stay with my designation. It is Ess Ell One Nine Eight Four. If you don't want to reference Orwell, call me Eightyfour," he said with just a faint trace of amusement.

Orwell? Oh, right. Nineteen Eighty Four. Designation? What did that mean? Should he ask?

"Midder. Walk with me." Not waiting any longer, he swept past Steph, away from the Rebel crowd. The two storm troopers followed a few steps behind. Taken a bit by surprise, Steph had to scramble to catch up. The man on the perimeter visibly flinched as they passed. There were people around out here, milling aimlessly through the grass, but they stayed clear.

For someone so big, SL-1984's footsteps were surprisingly quiet. Thanks no doubt to perspective he seemed to have incredibly long strides, but his pace was slow enough that Steph could keep up at a fast walk, close enough that if the other's cape hadn't been tattered on this side it would have brushed against him. High above, the broken prosthetic – specifically an exposed wire, part of the broken prosthetic - sparked, sending pleasant tingles and an intense but not unpleasant bitter-salt sense down Steph's antenna into his skull.

"We are being shadowed. Organa's doing, I am sure of it."

Steph started to twist around to see, but stopped trying as he realized that trying to see back over his shoulder when walking quickly on four legs was tricky, and he didn't want to make himself look like an idiot. Instead he focused on the energy-sense - past the complex bittersalt notes of SL-1984's entire body, past the paler, less distinct notes of the storm troopers, in the background... He had trouble focusing, but yes, there was the high steady note he'd started to associate with blasters, following at a distance. He wasn't sure how far; close enough that he sensed it as a note, probably far enough to be discreet.

But that didn't make sense, did it? I thought she was just letting you go.

SL-1984 inclined his helmet. "She was, yes. She knows that I will not charge off on my own. Well," he amended, "Not to do this. I will address any crises that I see the need to interfere in, and if I report to anyone beforehand it will be as a courtesy, nothing more. But I have agreed to her terms, and will not go to the Five-Oh-First without an escort. The one you met may not have set this watcher - there is more than one Organa."

So you've been dealing with that all day, huh?

"All day? Not quite." SL-1984 said something else about Organa and youth, but his arm sparked several times as he moved the stump, calling Steph's attention up to the notes.

They didn't really stay constant, not like the notes Steph sensed in blasters or the storm trooper armor. Instead his notes rose and fell and wove together, horns and bowed instruments sometimes competing, sometimes playing as one, sometimes silencing for different instruments, always with the percussion steady in the background, always coming back and repeating this one sequence of specific notes. Snare drums keeping a constant pace underneath it all.

Steph shook himself violently, re-coiling his antenna, in time to pay attention again. "But these are not your issues."

Notes preceded and shadowed SL-1984’s voice as he told Steph, "The Rebel Legion’s intelligence is not well established as of yet. They have among them too many strong-willed leaders used to too-high positions, and they have had little time to adjust. Even now they are working out a hierarchy, and this occupies the thoughts of nearly everyone there, and this leaves them vulnerable."

"I would prefer to avoid hostilities between the Five-Oh-First and the Rebel Legion; even if in one mode they are enemies, in the other they are knit together. What I am working up to proposing, Midder, is this. An Imperial all-terrain transport in perfect miniature, such as you have described, has been sighted, and I could provide to you the locations and times of these sightings. But enough time has passed that I doubt you will find your Garrett."

There was something hypnotic about his voice, or possibly about the complexity and strength of the notes, and Steph had to force himself again and again to pay attention.

"The Five-Oh-First has resources and is organized, Midder. Join me, and I will see to it that some degree of those resources and that organization is assigned to your cause. This will help mine as well, and we may both benefit." There was something familiar about how he said that.

You're, uh..." Steph hesitated a moment more, then had to say it. "You're not going to cut something off if I say no, are you?

"What?" The other stared for a moment, still walking at a slow and deliberate pace, then laughed. It went on for slightly too long, long enough that Steph wondered if he or the stormtroopers were supposed to join in. "No, no. I haven't been that kind of person for decades. Should you refuse, I will tell you what the Rebel Legion knows and allow you to leave. You will have a better chance working with me, though. Some time has passed and he has surely not kept still. Consider it."

SL-1984 fell silent. Steph weighed whether or not this would waste time, but this wasn't really a hard decision. He'd had enough running around underfoot, and SL-1984, though he was a little creepy, had saved his life once already. Wherever he was, Garrett could wait just a bit longer, couldn't he? Steph felt vaguely guilty about this, but... surely... argh, the sparks were distracting him. They were dying as they fell, each vanishing in a bittersalt note before it could hit him. Well, he had a moment. He could use it to focus a little on the source of the sparks.

Energy-sense was sort of more intimate than hearing, but even with the sense of almost tasting bitterness and salt, the easiest analogies were still music-related. Steph could clearly imagine the members of a massive orchestra playing with furious attention, with a conductor at their center gesturing strongly. Some of them, mostly close together but scattered through the ensemble, had broken instruments which they still tried to play, to poor effect, and there were a lot of empty seats. Maybe – he supposed it was just the opposite of that mental image; energy or music powering the mechanisms or musicians and their instruments. It just so happened that they worked very closely together and responded to one another, so that as Steph spent longer and longer considering it, it seemed more and more to have a melody.

A familiar melody, at that. Almost… surely not, but… the Imperial March?

Couldn’t be. It was slower, for one, not so martial or march like, different concentrations of instruments. If he kept with the music analogy, it was a complicated song, with layers of harmony, beats and counterbeats, even some vocals, all blending together. There were still snares in the background, though they were mostly drowned out. It was quite a different song. But that basic tune, those nine notes... Garrett had had John Williams music looping for the past week, and the Imperial March showed up a lot in different ways... it was a leitmotif, wasn't it? Steph found himself wishing he hadn't forgotten practically everything about classical music.

And it seemed to be tapering off, anyway, as if the members of the orchestra were tiring and putting their instruments down.

Steph realized that he had slowed to a creep to stay alongside SL-1984, who had begun moving stiffly with less and less surety. He had started favoring his closer leg, and even as Steph watched, he stopped walking altogether to fold in on himself like an old man, and clutch with his remaining arm at or just beneath his chest box, from this perspective it was hard to tell. The notes were fading out raggedly, and the fluttering of the snares wasn't obscured now, but even they were fading fast. Despite that, the salt-bitter was strong.

The storm troopers started towards him as the quality of his breathing changed entirely, becoming labored.

What’s wrong? Steph asked, or rather tried to ask. It seemed like just as the thought was forming he was shoved back, by a pair of invisible but unyielding hands. They pushed faster than he could back up, at least this suddenly – the world seemed to tumble as he fell entirely off his feet and slid along the carpet, against the grain of his fur. Instinctively he flailed, trying to both regain his feet and claw at the hands, but despite the very solid pressure of them he connected with nothing but air. One hard, rounded fingertip making a dent in the long fur under his collarbones traced quickly upwards, not quite brushing against first his throat and then his hastily-closed eye, and stopped at the base of his antenna.

Steph froze in place. The pressure had lessened as it climbed and was feather-light by the time it stopped, but his antenna and especially the bulge in his head at its base were extremely sensitive. Earlier in the day he’d accidentally scratched it with a dewclaw, and it had been agonizing. The pushing hands and the fingertip vanished; he stopped sliding and tentatively picked himself back up, then shook himself off.

Before him, at a far enough distance that he didn't have to crick his neck to see their helmets, the spattered storm trooper went on guard, holding his weapon ready as if expecting an attack, while the other attended to SL-1984.

"Power cells are going dead. I'm losing systems," he said, his voice fainter and pained, getting more so with almost every word. After a moment he added, "I can't hear you. My comm is dead."

The closer storm trooper, the clean one, was visibly anxious. "My lord, if either of us can do anything, if you need to swap with ours-"

"No, no. This suit was not designed with conveniently accessible power cells. They are not supposed to die one after the other like this. Give me a moment." He leaned heavily on the closer trooper as his breathing changed again, becoming strained as well as labored. "Chain reaction. There's not enough left to trigger the auxiliaries. I can... aargh. That will take too long. I'll risk it."

Bracing himself, he pulled away from the closer storm trooper to stand on his own and said, "Six twenty-five, step back. Two-eight ninety seven, fire on me."

The closer one backed away; the farther one whipped around to face him. "Sir?!"

SL-1984’s voice was raspy and horrible as, word by word, he got out, “That was an order.”

There was no further delay; the spattered trooper raised his blaster rifle, and taking hardly an eyeblink to aim it he fired it directly at SL-1984. Steph saw the man’s arm snap around to intercept the red bolt during that pause. When it hit, the discharge was momentarily blinding. He sensed a rush of discordant notes rise and squawk and sort of transmute into a burst of wild fiddling, which settled rapidly into something that felt very, very bittersalt, all of this happening fast enough that he had to take a moment to sort it out.

SL-1984 was standing tall again, though there was now some charring in the palm of his hand and along his arm, tracing down to the edge of his chest box. His notes were strong and ordered again, but even as Steph felt them the sensation of a finger just barely resting on the base of his antenna returned.

“Don’t leech off of me,” SL-1984 said, and although his amplified voice sounded much the same as it had before, both solemn and vaguely amused, now there was a hint, just a hint, of menace behind it. Already the dramatic mark from the blaster was bleaching white, leaving almost a scar where the material had burned away.

Steph blanched. I didn't know!

"Yes. I suppose that makes sense," the other rumbled after the slightest hesitation.

After another moment, he added, "I believe you. Be at ease; if I was angry, it would be at myself. I should have predicted this. You must learn control. You must. Otherwise you could very well kill me. Troopers, stand down," he barked as the stormtroopers reacted, evidently not as deaf to the conversation as they seemed. Turning to them for a moment and using a somewhat quieter voice that Steph still heard clearly, he said, "If you truly want to follow me, you must learn to trust my judgment. Now, let me handle this."

"You could kill me," SL-1984 told Steph, in an almost casual tone. "You almost just did. Most of my body is cybernetic, and the little that is left is on life support and a variable mixture of chemicals. Drain the power from that, and even with the Force I can't sustain myself."

Sorry, Steph said, wincing. Episode Three. Lava. An evil psychic samurai cyborg overlord with a bad temper.

"Technically it's my fault, not yours. If I had refrained from mentioning energy-eaters... well, done is done, and I can't let you wander around like this. No one else is here that could teach you, so it must be me. Very well."

Well... if you can help me... It sounded like a waste of time he could have spent looking for Garrett, but wasn't this the least he could do after half killing someone? He was going to owe a lot of favors by the time the day was over, wasn't he.

SL-1984 locked his arm behind his back. "I need to establish a few things. Whether you can sense without draining. Your range. This won't take long."

Escaping

Fuel reserves were at ninety-three point seven nine four five oh. He wasn't burning it at the ideal rate; one of the filters wasn't quite right, so the mixture had some fine particulates which were affecting consumption. It didn't harm his performance too much, not for one mission, but the techs were definitely going to have to take a look at it when he was back in his berth.

He kept all four blasters hot. This was a big expenditure, but without a gunner sitting in one of the pilot chairs he was quite a bit slower, and the couple seconds between registering a threat and being able to fire might make a difference here, where everything was so fast. He'd had some trouble deciding to do that. Eventually he'd just stopped walking for a few minutes, which let power reroute until he could balance the pros and cons.

How long had he been walking? No one had set a timer, he didn't know. A few kilometers. He had no plan for getting out. Random directions all the way. There'd been a thing. Swinging cliff-gate. Door. No, two doors, side by side - double doors, that was it. They'd stopped him for a while, until he'd thought of shooting out the metal thing that kept them closed. After that they had swung open for him. He couldn't recall when that had been.

He was fairly certain that he'd gone in a few circles; he was continuously plotting new courses and had lost track of the old ones. There had been some more ambulating towers, and each time he'd seen one he'd stopped in his tracks to watch them, but they'd ignored him. Good. He was more effective on targets that didn't outmass him or move that damn fast.

Now, finally, it looked like he was getting somewhere! Ahead, at the far range of his vision, more things. Doors. Different surface, clear, yes, glass doors, he couldn't see through them yet but they were glass. Ground was still good, he didn't detect any major holes or anything that would hide treacherous ground, so he shifted the pace up to maximum, the ground-eating charge that he could only keep up for so long without risking damage.

Dead end! Stop, stop! As he reached the doors he turned and pulled to the side, shedding momentum and not quite presenting his flank. Glass though they were, the doors were closed and all the nonvisual sensors tagged them as yet another unscaleable cliff. Coming to a stop, power rerouting smoothly with hardly a flicker in his vision, he thought that this place was absolutely riddled with these sheer cliffs. They didn't seem natural.

A moment later, and Garrett thought, of course they didn't seem natural. Good God. They were walls. They kept the ceiling away from the floor, the outside away from the inside. What, had he forgotten somehow? How could he forget about walls?

That was worrying. Still, he couldn't stop for that now. He had to get out. His side-views somehow couldn't see through the glass of the doors; they were just reflective, smooth planes, totally unnatural looking, and it took a few seconds to figure out that the sheets of thinner organic material were probably flyers that had been taped up at eye level - yeah, they were some distance above him, but he could read the writing on the closest one, a billboard-scaled proclamation about staying hydrated and bathing. By backing up and turning awkwardly, footpads thumping and chrt!-ing loudly in his mind's ear, he could see out of his command viewport, and the glass was properly transparent.

Outside, while the nearest bits of paving looked like the kind of job that involved getting regional politicians to cut a ribbon at the end of a dedication ceremony before the thing could be used, everything he took as signs of scale - trees, people, cars - was distant. Within sight, yes, but the distance shrank them, and the sight of humanoids his size or larger seemed like a trick of his eyes or cameras or whatever, rather than the presence of towering fast monsters. For a strange moment of disconnect he could almost believe that the convention had simply moved outside and was going on just fine, maybe a little more disorganized by the move.

Then Garrett made himself look closer, and actually see the scaled-up people, what they looked like beyond not seeming like moving towers. What was unmistakeably a gout of fire shot into the air and fizzled out as the androgynous pretty-boy producing it was interrupted by something with a pair of gigantic bat wings, spreading them incredibly wide and flapping them with what looked like a tremendous gust of wind. To the side, an angry-looking cat furry bandaged a small boy in a whirlwind of linen strips, showing long, pointed teeth as he shouted or snarled at the bat-winged thing. ... Yeah. He was pretty sure most of that didn't happen in a convention that was going on just fine. Come to think of it, he didn't see any balding middle-aged men dressed like their favorite anime girls.

A lot more leggy women dressed as popular anime girls, though.

Garrett thought he had some idea about what had happened. Not how or why, of course. But it was pretty clear that he wasn't the only one.

Maybe it was just as well.

He wasn't breathing. No, of course he wasn't breathing. It was that tic again. Better ignore it.

He checked his fuel reserves. Ninety-three point five oh oh nine two. He was burning it just by standing here. Now Garrett thought he knew what that mystery console was, the one that he had to leave underpowered every time he moved. It was his frontal lobe, or something like that. His engine didn't produce enough power. It was optimized for walking and shooting, and powering the thinking console at the same time was more than the motor could handle. He guessed so, anyway. It would certainly explain why things had gotten so much simpler, and why he'd forgotten about walls. Dismaying thought. He got stupid every time he moved; he might literally be unable to walk and think in abstract concepts at the same time. Or - well, fine, he was fairly sure he could walk and think at least somewhat, but not while keeping his blasters primed.

But he'd paused to decide to heat up his blasters. It looked like whenever he stopped walking he got that console back. Maybe there weren't any ill effects to that. Maybe it only lasted until he had enough power to reroute. Was he stupider now than he'd been when he was lying on his side?

...Okay, that was an idiotic question, Garrett admitted to himself. No way to tell. It was better to just assume that he could trade walking or the ability to shoot first for the ability to think about things that weren't directly related to walking or shooting. He just couldn't have all three at once. Oh God, it was like the crossing-the-river puzzle, he just had to put the fox and the grain in the boat and leave the chicken back on the riverbank. Or something. Hopefully it wouldn't wander off and the boat wouldn't capsize. Because if he didn't think he could get whatever passed for his brain back, he wouldn't do anything at all, would he?

Very suddenly the emptiness hit him again, hard enough that he felt like something had peeled back his plating and bared both levels of his inner structure. He saw his insides, felt that yawning cold void and the irrational fear that always came when he thought about it. Sickening. Empty. Empty, and the plating around it utterly still, as only an inanimate object could be. It had never exactly gone away, he'd just managed not to think about it. Maybe not having thoughts wasn't so bad.

Garrett not-quite-shuddered. Standing up, that meant adjusting his legs enough to make his body rock slightly. He had the tic again.

Well, he wasn't going to get anywhere just standing here. Better get out now, before something got him.

Okay. The doors towered up above him, glass in metal frames that might be aluminum. Remembering when he'd first come in, he was pretty sure that they were pull doors, at least from the outside, and didn't have the kind of latch that needed a turning doorknob or handle. The latch was some kind of one-way deal to keep it from swinging all over the place. At the top of the frame there was some kind of... armature thing connecting frame and door. He'd majored in Engineering, not Architecture, but he thought that it kept the door from swinging out.

From inside, it was a push door. He really couldn't push, though. He wasn't built for that, and he'd probably break something trying. That meant trying to shoot it open and hoping that it wasn't balanced. The armature looked easier.

It was a little too high up to reach with his heavies, not without backing up, so Garrett trained his medium repeating blasters at the metal and fired, bracing against the recoil. He'd kept them hot, so there was no moment of charging.

The sound, muted though it was, wasn't anything like earlier, when he'd fired into a wall to see if he could hear anything. When the smoke or vapor or whatever cleared - yes, a good bit of the armature was gone, and some of the doorjamb past it, and there was a blackened crater in the wall. A tiny flame guttered in the middle of it. The glass near that was in one piece, but browned.

He guessed his blasters were more powerful than he'd thought. It was a good thing he hadn't hit that thing that might have been Steph. Garrett suppressed another shudder at the thought.

The armature was gone, which left the latch. Feeling cautious, Garrett backed up stiffly and deliberately, fighting the urge to clutch his nonexistent stomach with limbs that didn't bend that way as he felt the tic. It was funny how he'd never appreciated being able to do things like back up without having to think about it. Better to just get on with it. Aim. Fire.

Okay, the latch was gone, but apparently the doors weren't weighted to swing in or out, because they weren't locked in place anymore but they also weren't opening on their own like the last set of doors. Damn!

Looking out through the glass, seeing the pale blue sky through his forward viewport, seeing the walls and ceiling and floor through all his other senses, Garrett fought a sudden wild surge of claustrophobia. This was less a building and more of a tomb, or maybe he was the tomb, or maybe - God, it didn't matter, he felt sick and hollow and everything inside with him seemed too close.

The tic again. He was beginning to hate that thing. Forget not having the necessary organs, he didn't feel like he'd had the wind knocked out of him or anything like that. He only felt like he had to breathe when the tic hit him and made him remember that he wasn't doing it. It wasn't a good feeling.

Garrett deliberately focused on his interior, trying to ignore the surge of revulsion at all that empty space inside. He had life support systems built around the void, though of course they were for his crew, not him. Some of those were devoted to atmosphere - he had some kind of air recycling unit, but since the relevant sensors reported that the external air was just fine, air was just being sucked into intake scoops and filtered. Those motors, the fans they ran that circulated air around, they were important. He couldn't control them, but they were important. They'd have to do.

It wasn't like breathing could possibly be as good as the tic kept reminding him, he told himself. No one would ever get anything done.

Driven air, filtered and cooled and dehumidified and constantly monitored by the housekeeping console, blew gently through the void. It wasn't tidal at all, but it was moving air, and he let himself imagine that he was taking a deep breath.

Right. Right. There was a kickback every time he fired, and that probably implied that blaster bolts had kinetic energy. This was not how lasers worked. That didn't matter. This would either work or it wouldn't.

I am not going to be trapped here! This time he used his heavies in linked-fire mode. Door on the right, doorframe in the lower left corner. Aim. Fire. The recoil, stronger with his heavies, made his flexible armored tunnel compress momentarily as his command center jerked back. The bulk of the door had moved a little. This was working! Fire. Aim higher. Fire. Aim higher. Fire. Repeat as necessary - stop!

The door opened enough that the wind caught and pushed at it. He wasted no time in setting a course through the opening while nervously watching the doorjam. Most of the way through, the wind must have faltered and the door must have been weighted, because it swung on him. It hit hard enough that he felt the impact through his hull, and although it was jarring and loud and he was forced to very consciously shuffle sideways to keep his balance, there was no pain. Just the feeling that pain should have been there.

But he barely noticed that. It was - God, the world was bright. He reached the point he'd set and stopped. The world was bright. He couldn't see. Gah! This didn't hurt, not quite, and it didn't exactly feel like heat, but it was very unpleasant, it was- God, too bright! Everything was hot light, he couldn't see anything, he was blind! This didn't make sense, it had been fine through the window!

Part of him remembered moving his roommate's plants outside on a sunny, nearly cloudless day, he couldn't remember why, and how the plants had suffered for that. His roommate - oh, God, he couldn't remember his name! Vernon? Jacob? MacKenzie? He was in interior design or cellular biology or something and happened to be utterly forgettable - had told him very patiently that it didn't matter that they'd been tropical plants, there had still been too much light; the dorm room with the lights on was anywhere from fifty to maybe four hundred lux, if the windows were open on a bright day. Direct sunlight on a day like that was somewhere between thirty and one hundred thirty thousand lux, and the plants had effectively been sunburned. Vernon or Jacob or whatever his name was had gone on to say that direct sunlight was incredibly, exponentially more powerful than indoor lighting, it was just that human eyes adjusted so well that people barely noticed, part of Garrett remembered.

The rest of him was locked in place, frozen, trying not to panic, trying to will the brightness to fade. He wasn't blind, not quite', he could sort of sense where the sun was, like it was actively hating him, like his vision was a sense of touch. And his underside, he could vaguely make out his legs and his shadow. But he couldn't see, even when he reluctantly switched to the too-dark internal cams, everything was brightness that felt suspiciously like pain, he couldn't stare out at any of it, he had a very strong compulsion to tear up defensively, screw his eyes shut, shade them, but he couldn't do that, he couldn't even turn away, he didn't have eyes.

Garrett's motor was working back up out of the near-subliminal hum, getting louder. Too bright! Too bright! He couldn't - God, too bright! His motor was running, he could move, but there was nothing he could do, he couldn't even go back because the door had shut, and he couldn't see... Threat! Threat!

He backed, sidled, tried to get his command section and his heavies into position, couldn't, it was too high up, aimed his medium repeating blasters, fired. Of course he didn't do any good, he was aiming at the goddamn sun, but he fired anyway, and did it again.

This was useless, he was just burning power, how was his fuel - oh God, ninety two point eight two oh five one that couldn't be good, he was running his motor like he was moving at full tilt blasters blazing and he couldn't slow it down, couldn't see, anything could be out here with him, couldn't move for risk of crashing, too bright, too hot threat threat threat - was this what going insane felt like?

He managed to make himself stop firing and finally picked up on the terrain sensors in his footpads. The surface was solid. It was stable! Too bright, yes, he couldn't see, yes, this was probably as close to pain as he was going to get, but the ground was firm, damn it!

That helped a little, long enough that he realized that the terrain sensors could substitute for sight. Sort of. It was easier to focus on them without sight getting in the way. Garrett could pick up on sort of a vague outline of the raised hardened surface he was on - sidewalk, right - and where it met the less certain surfaces around it, which was probably the grass. He was still - God, this was insane, he couldn't see, why couldn't he seem to adjust to this, it was just daylight, it was agony, he couldn't stop the static popping in bursts over his intercom and didn't know what kind of vocalization that was supposed to be - but this was something. Like echolocation. Sort of.

It only extended out in an oval maybe, oh, seventy meters long - no, only a few times his body length and he wasn't huge, so it had to be smaller than that. He had to find some shade and he couldn't turn back around, he thought there'd been awnings over the door he'd come in through - hadn't there been? Had that been a different door? - but there weren't here, he had to get moving.

Trees, there'd been trees he'd seen from inside, the kind that got planted around parking lots to shade some of the cars, those had been the closest. He'd gotten partially turned around, but he was pretty sure they were this way, along the pavement. Garrett set course points and hoped.

Terrain-sensing, it turned out, could pick up on people. Sort of. And only if they were the monumentally-scaled ones here - no, no, he had to get it straight, they were probably normal size. He felt them - well, more properly, he felt their footsteps against the ground. The footsteps were shaped vaguely like feet, so some of them were sort of beanlike and others were disks or different shapes, as they hit the ground, some walking or running, some basically holding position. He hadn't given much thought to how much something that breathed shifted its weight when it was just standing in place, and he was a little startled at how bitter the thought was.

It seemed like there were more closer than farther away, which probably just meant that Garrett could sense the heavier things from farther away, and no doubt there were some holding too still for him to sense like this. He kept setting points and walking, he was trying to be calm, but this wasn't sight. God. Even assuming he got to shade, even assuming he was able to communicate somehow, so someone didn't whisk him away and dismantle him as a curiosity, he'd probably end up living in one of those trailers for the disabled and -

Not living. This wasn't living. Existing, then, until his fuel ran out. It would. He didn't know what was in his tank but he was pretty sure it wasn't something you could get on Earth, and there'd probably be scale issues. And he needed regular maintenance, though he knew nothing was going to be able to get at his engines without taking them apart. Otherwise, he'd... well, he wouldn't last too long without maintenance, he was already having mild engine trouble and it would only get worse. What then?

Maybe it was better not to -

Whoah! Footsteps, closer, really damned fast, okay, unless they changed direction they'd just pass him by-

SCRAPING HIS HULL oh God what was it engines building to fever pitch SCRAPING THE SEAL OF HIS BOARDING HATCH prepping his heavies, heating heating hurry up he could HEAR IT nonononono STOP he fired his heavies without thinking and tried to bring a medium repeater in line but of course the thing was running now, too fast, where was it it was gone!

"KKKKSSSSHHHT! KKSSSSHHHHHHH," he staticked in alarm, only the static was much longer and had a terrified snarl in it, he was not sure if that was an attempt at cursing but damn it of course sensing footsteps wasn't the same as sight and he had no idea what the rest of the body was doing and if anything flew he wouldn't know about it at all he was blind he was deaf good Lord in Heaven there could be another one RIGHT NOW move move movemovemovemovemove.

And he was walking as fast as he could, almost running, knowing he couldn't keep this up and all discretionary power was in everything but his not-a-brain but that didn't matter keep going go go go, SET NEW COURSEPOINT - SET NEW COURSEPOINT - SET NEW COURSEPOINT - REACHED COURSEPOINT, CONTINUE TO NEXT, DODGE - SET NEW COURSEPOINT.

Later - it felt like much later - he remembered that the settings for the holocams had to be manually told to adjust to major changes in light. One of the pilots, whoever was serving as the gunner, usually hit that switch. He didn't have a gunner, and the horrible wrongness inherent in a phrase like that did not summon one up. He couldn't hit the switch, but he could turn it on, and he did.

Better. The blinding light on all sides tinted, then seemed to dial down and he could see again. Not even any bright afterimages, but then didn't you need retinas for those? He could see. Much better.

...He had a life-form analyzer as part of his sensor package, too. But he needed someone of commander rank to authorize its activation, so even if he'd remembered it back there, it wouldn't have helped.

Funny, something was different, but he couldn't get a reading on it. Maybe if he slowed down, free up more power to route to the smart console - No. No, he wouldn't. He wouldn't slow down. He did not want to slow down.

Ahead there was an obstruction in his path, hanging across just above his mobile command center, where it would disastrously scrape the upper edge of his back if he just went under it. Trivial to destroy it. He did. Two heavy shots, two medium, and he cleared the gap with meters to spare, footpads pounding on the rubble. He shouldn't maintain this pace, it was potentially damaging, but that was fine. He didn't slow down.

What had changed - he was under open skies, not one sheer cliff in view. The surface was somewhat different - he'd noticed several surface changes, but glancingly, since it hadn't been important. It was some other material, dark gray, smoother and thinner and not as good a surface since it wasn't up to his weight. But that was fine.

No hyper-fast bipedal towers. Definitely fine.

Another obstruction, the same kind, this one a little smaller and level with his command viewport. He destroyed it, too, and two heavy shots seemed like overkill.

Underfoot, civilian groundcars on wheels, unarmored, brightly colored, swerved wildly to avoid him. He considered shooting them. He considered altering his course to kick at them or - yes, they were small enough to step on, at least some of them. He didn't. One thing to do this - it was a sin, yes, but he'd take that. Another thing, a worse thing, to take them with him.

Part of him twitched. Okay, if the giant towers were humans, what was with this? Bit by bit, he was able to register that this was a big road with several lanes, those were cars, those were trees, all at a scale of much smaller than him, which felt more natural. There was yet another obstruction ahead, and this time he recognized it. Freeway overpass. Even lower than the other two.

Huh. Well, he wasn't going to slow down to think about it. He was alone, empty, it didn't matter where he went as long as he didn't stop until the end. There was a moment when he was distracted by flying atmospheric craft, some loud enough to hear, but he didn't stop. He kept going. Full tilt, getting to each new course point at his highest speed.

He'd always loved getting caught up in a new idea, the way it took over his life, practically singing under his skin, as immediate as his heartbeat. Only now the heartbeat was gone, and in place of the singing was the jarring music of engines.

There was a kind of terrible joy in this. This was what he was good at, what he was built to do; why not take pride in it? Even if it was just destruction for no purpose, no cause, not even anyone telling him either to stop or keep going. He was good at pounding forwards and shooting whatever was in his way. That was all there was to it.

Fuel reserves were at eighty-nine point oh nine one two seven and going down. That was fine. He wasn't stopping, even with no crew and no purpose. Even with so little power going to it, the strange console had some current. He had autonomy. He wasn't stopping.

Anj Outside

Outside, it was chaos, pure and simple. Anj hadn’t been in the crowd when it happened. He’d seen people and creatures of all descriptions fighting to get outside while he’d been looking for a private place. By the time he’d picked up on the broadcast and left the bathroom, most of them had already gone – the halls had hardly been deserted, but the majority had already fled. He could hear them outside, a dull roar formed by thousands of throats. Not a happy crowd, he decided. Better than a mob, though. I don't know what I'd do with one of those.

As he approached the empty frame of a double door - it had once, apparently, held glass, but that was nowhere to be seen - Anj felt the warning tingle and heard what first sounded like another shrieking alarm. In response he sidestepped out of the way, and none too soon. Some kind of very large heronlike bird with pale gold-orange feathers skidded unsteadily around a corner, then powered past him in a lurching run. The moment its wings cleared the doorframe, it launched itself into the air. As it winged upwards and away the Red Guard realized that it was making a high, panicked call that sounded vaguely like screaming.

He glanced back at where the bird had come from and stilled himself. Nothing, not even the warning tingle that was his precognition. Maybe the bird had been fleeing something, maybe it hadn't, but any trouble was slow enough that if he kept moving it wasn't going to bother him.

TR-1407 stepped outside and was struck by what he saw. People, creatures, and stranger things that defied categorization littered the landscape, rushing about, standing and sitting and reclining in a few cases. Some were alone, others in groups. There were some fighting or arguing with each other, others trying to subdue the wild ones, some hightailing it as if the Emperor’s finest were at their heels, some examining themselves frantically, some just sitting back with mouths open as if howling or screaming, though the Red Guard couldn’t pick out individual voices in the collective noise. Almost no one was close to the complex; most people that Anj saw were on the grass.

As he automatically went through a threat assessment, picking out specifics from all the bewildered bystanders, he marveled at the sheer number. He hadn’t thought the Orlando Convention Center could hold so many – yes, it had been crowded, and he hadn’t canvassed the entire place and seen for himself how big it was, but still. It was like a “Where’s Waldo” poster, writ large.

Maybe it wasn't just inside, he thought suddenly. Maybe it was everywhere, and just more obvious here. If the image had become real - well, it had to be more than just the image, or he wouldn't have gotten taller. If little unarticulated thoughts, like a forcepike weighs seven kilograms and Imperials use the metric system for measurements had also carried over, what about others? What about the cheater's assumption that I will not be caught, or the youth's that I am immortal?

Still on the instruction frequency, the officer who had told TK-1407 where to go was tersely repeating those instructions to someone else who had reported. I need to stay focused. I can speculate later. Need to find my squadron before I do anything else.

Some of the figures in the crowd looked like security forces – no, police, they're called police. Police, firefighters, paramedics, what looked like a SWAT team in black, some Animal Control officers, of all things - there were more than a few people that had probably been called in from all across the state, if not country. They clearly were supposed to try and control or at least contain this madness. Just as clearly, they were as confused and uncertain as anyone else, but trying their best to impose order in some form. Anj sympathized. This was not a job he envied.

It was weird – the outsiders looked and felt somehow a little different from all these others, and not just because they were all human. Like all of the changed, big and small, were larger-than-life in one way or another. Maybe he was imagining things.

Flickers on his peripherals made TR-1407 tilt his chin up. The sky, a lovely cloudless blue, was barely less crowded than the ground – far, far above something streaked up into the atmosphere, and hardly any closer small military-looking jet planes or fightercraft roared overhead in formation. Even closer there were news helicopters already, sharing airspace with winged things of all description and wingless humanoids who had no visible way of staying aloft.

The Red Guard saw bright costuming and at least one cape fluttering in the wind as fliers swerved around each other or hovered in place. Someone in red and blue tights streaked upwards abruptly at impossible speeds, within seconds catching up to the jets and paralleling their course, far enough away that the red cape was barely visible. Anj saw this and, incredulous, thought, Superheroes? Really?

There was no denying what they looked like, no matter how improbable the thought was. Anj realized what he was thinking and grinned involuntarily. As if I’m perfectly reasonable in comparison. This is insane. So what? The 501st needs me. And reality doesn't care whether or not you believe it.

With that reminder, he turned. Southwest blacktop? Must be that parking lot where we planned to meet. Ah… it’s midday or thereabouts, so by the sun’s position that way is west, which means south is... there. Not far. Doing his best not to attract any attention, the Red Guard started moving at a lope.

I don’t know where the closest military outpost is, Anj realized. Still, with something like this we can probably expect troopships any minute now; orbital reinforcements – No, no, no! This is Earth! Earth! Not part of the Empire! There are no orbital reinforcements. No fleets. We might get some part of the Army here, but they don’t have the technology I’m expecting. Rockets, not turbolasers. Helicopters and jets, not troopships, not snubfighters. Why did that thought make him uncomfortable?

I wouldn’t worry about him, even with a sword like that… Watch out for her, she’s dangerous… He’s fine for now, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to push him… she looks like she could do some serious damage, but somehow I don’t think she’ll be a problem… Better not go near that one. Looks like everyone else’s picked up on it too… Emperor’s bones, that thing is huge, but I don’t think it’s up to anything… There were a lot of people to assess, particularly on the run. It niggled at the Red Guard that he was only doing a cursory check of each, but seeing that his options were to ignore everyone, give only the briefest of inspections, or slow down to a crawl to inspect everyone...

There! Anj's heart jumped in his chest. Inexplicably he felt an incredible sense of relief, strong enough that he was almost lightheaded.

An outsider might be forgiven for thinking that the large knot of people standing together on the asphalt were just as confused and disorganized as anyone else. Quieter, perhaps, but still random. An outsider might believe that they had formed into a cluster at random, and that it was chance that explained why they almost all looked like Imperials, mostly troopers.

The outsider would be wrong. Anj's eyes flicked as an indicator sounded and saw that no fewer than ten Imperial frequencies were active. He didn't see anyone lined up in ranks, but training helped him to find the subtle signs that there was organization, purpose, order in the group, not just the amorphous mixing of the crowd. They were, indeed, bewildered and unsettled just like everyone in or out of the complex. An effort was being made to remedy that.

TR-1407's footsteps hastened. A stormtrooper with the battered armor and single orange pauldron that signified his rank as a sandtrooper squad leader stopped him with a gesture, then nodded. The Red Guard joined the growing mass.

It was startling to check IFF - Identify Friend/Foe - tags on a monitor and see so many designations. Some were familiar, others less so. There were several SL - Sith Lord - indicators scattered about, but Anj didn't see SL-1984, and this was worrying. Other Vaders, yes, and the Red Guard couldn't help boggling a little at the concept of more than one Lord Vader. But none in white, and none with the right designation. What would he have done, anyway?

Right. I should report in. To whom, though? The mass was trying to order itself, but it had a good ways to go yet. Almost no one with a helmet was speaking "out loud" with their voice amplification units. With the amount of noise that the rest of the crowd was putting out, that was probably just as well. Instead the comm frequencies were abuzz with orders and counterorders, the beginnings of arguments, complaints and others chewing out the complainers. One channel had been set aside for those who had been separated from squadmates. It didn't help that this part of the parking lot was nowhere near clear. Not every space was filled, but there were enough cars and the like to force the group to encircle them.

Where was his squad? Anj scanned again, and again, and didn't find any of them. No. They had to be here. Despite himself he opened the "searching" channel. "Tampa Bay? Tampa Bay Squad, come in! Tampa Bay?"

This particular frequency was filled with similar requests. "Is there anyone else from Georgia Garrison? Please, Georgia Garrison?" "Pacific Outpost, all units report in. Pacific Outpost..." "Michigan Squad, we have two missing from Michigan Squad, please report." "Anyone from Bast Alpha Squad, come in. Did everyone get out okay?" Most of them were representing a particular squad, or garrison, or outpost, and were looking for missing friends. But he heard one or two who had been separated completely, like him. Some got answers; Anj overheard the starts of several reunions, each cutting off as the speakers switched channels. Others didn't.

"Tampa Bay! Come in Tampa Bay Squad!" It didn't make sense. Anj was starting to sweat into the lining of his armor. Where could they be? He hadn't exactly been quick in getting here, he couldn't be the first from his squad! Where had they all gone? TR-1407 scanned IFF again as the last of his relief evaporated. It made no sense! The three other squadrons of Florida Garrison - Everglades, Makaze, Parjai - were there. There were forty-nine people in Tampa Bay Squadron - not all of them had come to Xanadu, and some might be a little slow in getting here, but he should have heard from someone.

"Tampa Bay Squad? Please come in. Tampa Bay? Is anyone there? Anyone? Tampa Bay!" Anj forced himself to stop before he lost all control of his voice. He could hear someone else pleading, close to tears if not already crying - "Neon City Garrison, where are you? Please! Damien, Ray, Greg - where are you?"

To his horror, Anj found his throat constricting in panic. Where were they? Where was his squad? He tried, squeezing his hands into fists and desperately telling himself that they were late, that's all, he tried to keep calm, but it had been a trying day already and he had no orders to follow and his squad was missing. That was the big thing, the worst thing. He'd lost them, he had failed his oath as a Red Guard and a soldier of the Empire. The feeling was strong enough to make his eyes water. Anj made sure to close his connection and all of his speakers so that none would hear when he lost it. The rest of the 501st had enough distractions.

Something pulled on his robe. Surprised, Anj looked down at the round-topped droid as it retracted its manipulator arm and crooned something wordless at him.

It was a moment for him to blink fiercely and swallow that lump in his throat, and he covered the delay by reactivating a speaker so that his voice could be heard. "Yeah. There is. I - I've lost my squad." The admission almost stuck on the way out. "I don't know where any of them are."

The droid, an R2-series astromech with highlights in pink, of all colors, whistled and cooed sympathetically.

"Well, no. Not a word. I have no idea where they are." It seemed like the tightness was easing off, becoming less immediate. He welcomed the distraction. "We got separated a while back, and I haven't seen or heard from any of them since. And it's not like we have our own personal frequency, either - it wasn't like we'd have had any use for it." As he realized what he'd just said, Anj smiled humorlessly into his helmet. Of course there wouldn't have been a use! It had been a game, or something close!

The R2 beeped, imperious. Its single black photoreceptor was steady. Just like that, things were in perspective. Anj might have laughed, if he hadn't still felt so uneasy.

"That's true. My squad is tough. I'm sure they're fine - it's just, they aren't here, and I don't know how my friends are. I haven't seen them since all this started, and I'm worried." This was true, and he knew that they had to have run into trouble, or he wouldn't be by himself like this. But - they were tough, and they were smart. If they needed help they would call for it, and they would make it through.

And if they didn't, well... For a moment he had trouble drawing breath. It was a terrible thought, and sickening enough that he tasted bile and felt his heart pounding in his throat. May the Force help their murderers, because nothing less will stop me, he swore, meaning every word. Terrible thought. Terrible thought.

A sharp whistle brought his attention back down to the droid, who chattered up at him. He had to make an effort to look in control and stable for it. He was sure he knew who and what it was. If it was R2-KT - well, virtually everyone in Star Wars fandom knew that story. In comparison, he had no grounds for complaint.

"I'll be fine. I'm a Red Guard - I work best alone or with only a few people, and it's not like I'm really by myself - I'm surrounded by the 501st." And they were his Legion, the closest to the Empire that he was ever likely to find. How could he despair? "Thanks."

With a final, cheery whistle, the pink R2 swiveled and trundled away. It had some kind of a logo banner, pink on white, on its back, but it slipped out of sight between two troopers and a robed man before he could read it. Less than a minute later, the single terrified member of Neon City Garrison got off the comm.

Anj felt better now. Still a little shaken, but he was functional, and that was what mattered. This still begged the question - now what? The Red Guard went after the first fresh distraction that presented itself.

There was a flurry of activity at the edges of the gathering. TR-1407 wasn't exactly short, but he wasn't tall enough to see over the helmets of the people around him. Still, he got a flash of someone else in flowing scarlet and something large, yellow, and moving. The Red Guard looked to his nearest neighbor and boosted the output to his speakers, realizing how he did it only after it was done.

"Do you know what that's about?" The woman in the form-fitting jumpsuit and the hoodless brown cape turned towards him.

She was - well, she was stunning, and Anj found himself glad that his helmet hid his gaze. She had an alertness about her, like she was aware of everything that was going on around her at all times. He couldn't tell what her position was - probably some kind of agent, by the lower-leg guards and nonstandard firearms. The woman had a striking sort of confidence, almost an aura of "I know what I'm doing and I'm proud to be doing it".

It didn't hurt that she really was pretty - her features were too sharp and strong for conventional beauty, but attractive. Red hair, intense green eyes, and under the jumpsuit she was fit and muscular with good shoulders, a far cry from the handful of sultry pin-up style women that Anj had glimpsed before. He hadn't found them particularly attractive, but -

Anj saw the lightsaber and the IFF-provided designation at roughly the same time. SL-3268, in a clear voice, answered, "There's a car, I'm guessing a Camaro, without a driver that's started moving erratically and making abortive charges at us. One of your fellow Guards is trying to dissuade it. I don't think there'll be a problem." Just as he was hoping she hadn't noticed, the Mara Jade added with a quirk of her lips, "And I'm flattered, but taken."

She's one of the Emperor's Hands. I'm lucky that she hasn't taken offense. That realization effectively took any desire, killed it, and mangled it beyond any recognition. Anj was glad of the helmet hiding his face, and vaguely wished that he could find a hole in the ground in which to crawl into and die. Even with the cooling systems in his armor, he knew he was blushing furiously, hard enough that he felt sunburned. Next time, check IFF first. He didn't bother wondering how she'd known. Force Sensitivity and all that.

Probably just as well. Anj had no idea what he'd have done. He was on duty anyway; even with nothing immediate going on it would be un-Imperial to get too distracted. Fortunately not every woman was striking in quite that way - prettier, yes, often curvier and not immediately off-limits, but markedly less impressive. Picturing someone like the Mara Jade alongside, say, Scott, was... interesting. But of course there was also the fact that less than an hour ago he had been female - how, how could that have slipped his mind? - and feeling attracted to people while male was a tangle he really didn't want to unravel just yet.

3268's auburn head came up. Anj felt the warning tingle in the instant before a commanding voice came on all frequencies. The IFF code marked the speaker as TK-0210. 'Our Beloved Founder', Albin Johnson, Anj realized. Well well. There wouldn't be a 501st without him. I'd forgotten that he showed up. His R2 is here, so of course he's here too.

"Something new has come up. Would everyone please listen to the situation." It was phrased like a question, but there was no doubt that it was an order. Within seconds all voice traffic had stopped. The rest of the crowd carried on with the panicking, but here everyone listened as the founder explained an exchange that someone had heard taking place on a frequency that was decidedly not Imperial.

Specifically, it was one of the radio frequencies used by the United States military. The Founder didn't mention exactly what frequency it was, or when anyone had started listening in on it. What had been overheard was a report on something going off Xanadu grounds and following the highway. Something very large. One of the ones reporting said it was "like something out of Star Wars". The physical description exactly matched that of an Imperial Walker, specifically an All Terrain Armored Transport. Or, as the Rebellion and most civilians in the Galaxy called it, an AT-AT.

This is a very sudden development. If he'd expected anything, TR-1407 would have thought that the Founder would have just summarized what had just happened, tendered some kind of advice or orders. He hadn't expected a fresh problem, particularly one like this.

The gathering was silent barely long enough for the Founder's report to sink in before a member stated that there had not been a Walker exhibit, followed by other testimonies that confirmed that wherever this had come from, it wasn't 501st. Exactly what had been happening before all this was muddled, but people were quite adamant that they knew nothing.

Talking into a handheld comm unit so that everyone could hear her, 3268 had another opinion. "Why would it matter whether or not this thing is one of ours? Imperial is Imperial. The question is, what do we do about it? I think it's reasonable to assume that some rogue element has taken control of an assault walker for an unknown reason." Standing fairly close to Anj as she was, he heard the odd duality of the Mara Jade's voice coming simultaneously through his audio pickups and helmet comm.

It would be unacceptable for anyone - the automatic assumption seemed to be Rebels, smugglers, or saboteurs, although nobody really expected that to be true - to get away with stealing Imperial property, particularly something as gigantic and dangerous as an assault walker, the common consensus was. The damage one could do, particularly in an urban area, was tremendous, even on a civilized planet in the Empire, where units could quickly be dispatched to take it down. Here on Earth, on a day like today...

Anj heard someone unfamiliar speak out. "There was a young man earlier, some sort of student of engineering - I overheard his name, Gary or Garth or something - who wore a walker costume. He might be driving it." Several others remarked with surprise that they remembered something of the sort.

With confidence, Anj added, "It's difficult to pilot a walker without a copilot, but possible. Normally one drives, the other shoots. The automated systems would help compensate."

"He had a friend with him. It's entirely reasonable to think that two pilots can manage without a commander." If it occurred to anyone that maybe this student hadn't become a pilot, they kept silent.

A plan didn't actually get proposed until after the Founder made another report, one possibly even more alarming than the last. Tanks and military choppers were being dispatched to intercept the rogue walker before it could reach the next city - and if the cryptic military lingo had been translated properly, somewhere near Washington a jet loaded with missiles had just taken off.

Suddenly the entire gathering was moving, setting up a course of action, proposing and vetoing various aspects to the plan. There would have to be a pursuit, it was decided almost instantly. They needed a small number of autonomous agents. Agents who could subdue anyone within the walker without damaging it, agents who could control the walker, and someone with enough diplomatic acumen to defuse the situation once it was under control. Preferably agents would have at least some proficiency in at least two of the three. Every member of the team would also need to be able to use grappling hooks and high-tension wires to get up there. It would also help to have the tools all stormtroopers carried, including shaped charges, binders, and a Proper Resonator.

The gathering was rapidly polled, and all those with the right skill set were chosen, then evaluated and kept or not. Unsurprisingly, there were no Imperial Army Pilots who could be identified as such by their armor - AT-AT pilot uniforms were far from popular. No one had worn his or hers to Xanadu. However, a number, Anj included, had made the costumes - and somehow that translated into experience in the cockpit.

Anj was questioned and admitted that he'd never earned the license, and was met with a thinly-disguised quiz in the form of a barrage of questions from two others. He passed. This, coupled with the fact that he was a Red Guard and both willing to work with others and well able to subdue someone with minimal damage, meant that he was on the team.

Some others at least as qualified as him weren't, largely because they had trouble cooperating. There had been many Emperor's Hands, some of them Mara Jades, others not, in the initial pickings, but the fact that most of them seemed to strongly resent each other meant that only three were kept. The final selection consisted of eight individuals. These were the Hands, SL-3268 among them, Anj and another two Red Guards, a clonetrooper sergeant, and a single sandtrooper who really seemed to believe that he was Davin Felth, the trooper who had the line "Look, sir, droids" in A New Hope.

At the same time the other half of the pursuit was being organized. Speederbikes were mentioned, but only two, both from a display, could actually be accounted for, and at any rate they might not have done much good. They were incredibly fast and agile, but with only two, they couldn't carry much. Average cars or trucks were considered and rejected in the same breath. It would be too hard to get an operative out of the vehicle and up into the walker, not to mention the fact that a car was a nice big target, if what's-his-name proved both unreasonable and able to use the walker's weaponry and crushing feet. This left motorcycles, a healthy selection of which were at hand. They would have to do.

More polling; TR-1407 was only peripherally aware of it, but at the end of it seven scout troopers and one Mandalorian soldier were chosen to do the driving. From the first report to the final team, only a few minutes of whirlwind activity had passed. The 501st, while not exactly up to optimal yet, was far more organized than it appeared.

The last problem was actually getting the bikes, taken from all across the lot, to work. Five or fewer of them belonged to people within the gathering - and none of them had the keys on them. Seized by a wild idea, Anj stepped up during the discussion.

"We don't need keys," he said, coming to the closest one and uncompressing his forcepike. He had no idea what kind of motorcycle this was. He'd never had anything to do with the things. Still, he could find the ignition easily. Lining it and the lethal tip of his weapon up, the Red Guard thumbed a setting and delicately maneuvered the weapon. The thin metal around the keyslot tore and twisted, and the engine coughed to life.

Just as Anj was enjoying a swell of triumph the fickle machine died miserably, exhaust pipe emitting a stream of thick, oily smoke that spread in a cloud around ankle-height. An inhuman blue-skinned officer in white covered his nose as if offended by the fumes, which weren't evident to anyone with a proper, air-filtering helmet.

No one said anything on the comm channels for a long moment. "Okay," he said lamely, again glad of the helmet that hid his face. "I guess we do need keys. Today of all days, you'd think this would work." It was a mercy that the attention of the gathering shifted off of him then. He hadn't sensed much in the way of condemnation or scorn, and even amusement had been quiet. It was still embarrassing.

The alien officer in white - a Grand Admiral, apparently - ended up getting several technically-proficient people to hotwire the motorcycles. These included one of the Vaders in the gathering, a man seething with so much barely-suppressed rage and malevolent Force energy that Anj caught his breath and adopted a rigid posture. He was fairly frightening, seemingly hanging on to rationality by the thinnest of margins. The Red Guard fervently hoped that his friend hadn't ended up like that. But whatever else could be said about SL-2128, he worked quickly and well, finishing in time to take over from an officer whose work was slower.

Something else came up; Anj picked up only a few of the details, but a squad that hadn't gotten out reported in to say that they were under attack by unfamiliar hostiles. Once again plans were formed and battered about. They had little to do with the walker interception team. It gave him a pang to think that he might be riding away from his squad, if they were in danger, but duty was duty. TR-1407 soon found himself mounted up behind a scout, roaring away on one of the motorcycles.

The locals barely noticed them go by. They had more than enough trouble as it was - nevertheless, Anj felt a slight pang of mixed contempt and sympathy. He let it pass. They could only do their best. The Five Hundred and First was here for when it wasn't enough.

The Founder sent his best wishes after them on an open frequency. His confidence audibly faltered a little. Anj thought he knew at least part of why. "Good Luck" wasn't right, and they were servants of the Empire, so "May the Force Be With You" might not be good either. Even so, "Emperor's Blessings" was just wrong - and, somehow, so was "The Empire will always strike back", the belief that any setbacks would be met with a more powerful counterattack. In the end, he settled for, "We're counting on you. You won't let us down."


Camera guy

[I fangirl over Tank Man. I really do. I love that we don't know who he was, if he's alive or dead, what he said to the driver of the lead tank - everything. How could he and the rest of the country have failed? The picture gives me chills. I'd link to it in my bank if the inspiration it gives me wasn't of the "feel small, sit still and tremble in awe and existentialness" variety. So I figured I'd bring it up, since the chance of me working it into, well, anything else are pretty small.

[Did a little research here, but I have to say that the details pertaining to the helicopter and Doug's camera are probably all wrong. I worked with news cameras in high school and already I've forgotten what piece is called what. The Internet failed me - you'd think I was the only one to wonder who shoots traffic reports, with what, and how.  :P]

In June of 1989 an American photographer named Jeff Widener crouched on the sixth-floor balcony of a hotel in Beijing. He was covering the infamous government crackdown on protesters, and only the day before, during the massacre, had been concussed and bloodied by a thrown brick. Widener worked at a range of roughly half a mile with a titanium camera featuring a 400-millimeter telephoto lens. Using borrowed film with the wrong f-stop setting, he covered a column of at least seventeen tanks headed for Tiananmen Square being blocked by one man, alone and unarmed, with a shopping bag in each hand.

Widener wasn't the only one to get pictures of this happening. But, purely by chance, his picture spread fastest. It's now one of the most famous photographs on Earth, seen everywhere except the nation where it was taken - where it happens to be banned. It is iconic in every way, and purely by chance. If Widener hadn't heard that soldiers on the ground were forcibly confiscating cameras, if he hadn't met the fellow Westerner living in that room on the sixth story, if that Westerner hadn't had compatible film available or had been unwilling to stuff that film into his underwear and pass angry Chinese soldiers to get it developed - another photographer's shot of "Tank Man", the "Unknown Rebel", would be the world-famous one. But Widener was in the right place, at the right time, in all the right circumstances.

Doug Maines was in the right place at the right time, and in his view the circumstances didn't look too bad either. Specifically, he was in a Eurocopter Ecureuil news chopper, cruising at two thousand feet and circling with nearly three-quarters of a mile between it and that thing. The camera was a modified 24 frame KCK-40, and at any moment he could start broadcasting live to the network.

Normally he and the pilot shot and delivered traffic reports and overflew accident scenes. Today, not too long after finishing the morning rush's report, they'd been ordered into the air again and told to circle around the Orlando Convention Center to cover something that had come up there. As he adjusted the focus, Doug mused that he hadn't thought much of it - last spring, for instance, a school had been evacuated due to a gas leak, and he had recorded and broadcast video of the students streaming out into the tennis courts.

But there'd been so much air traffic above the Convention Center that both Doug and his partner were wary. Every news station within range had sent someone over to cover it, whatever it was, and both of them knew what happened when helicopters collided in midair. They had spotted the thing heading away, and the chopper had changed course to follow it.

He'd studied for years at photography, cinematography, and the graphic arts, but if Doug had learned one thing it was that aiming high didn't always work out. He had become resigned to aiming his camera at reporters and traffic jams, something he'd never have settled for as an ambitious newbie daydreaming about fame and glory. He was no Widener.

Just as well - Doug didn't have the stomach for following revolutions. He felt a trace of amusement at the thought. Right place, right time, and no one's filming but me. He was recording now, but the network trusted him enough to let him decide for himself whether and when to broadcast live.

Something about it screamed tank, clearly enough to make Doug think remember the university and Widener's shot of Tank Man. It was boxy and about as long as the largest legal semitrailer truck, maybe sixty feet in all, though much wider. But it had to be five times taller than any of them, mounted on four flat, jointed legs with round feet half the size of its strange, blocky head. The long legs and the head, and the red laser-things that sometimes shot out of that head, reminded Doug of something, but he couldn't quite put his finger on what. Something about crushing Styrofoam cups in a commercial...

Three years of this job reminded him to check before and behind the tank thing. The highway was several lanes broad, which was probably all that saved oncoming cars from being crushed. Many had crashed into each other or run off the road as drivers gaped, and hardly any had actually passed it. The tank thing was fairly slow, no more than fifty miles an hour at most, and so heavy that it damaged the road, leaving a trail of massive craters and cracked, buckled asphalt in its wake, with a few crushed or burning wrecks scattered about and at least one demolished overpass. All of them had been oncoming traffic; right now nothing was going in the same direction as the walking tank.

Wait, that wasn't right. The distance made them tiny, but even without zooming in Doug saw a pack of motorcycles weaving around and breaking the speed limit, gaining quickly on the tank thing. They were going to get stepped on and ruin the shot, he was sure of it. He had to get an establishing moment before the action started, or it wouldn't look right.

Doug swallowed against his heartburn - no time to take an antacid pill now, he didn't want to miss it - and hit the button that would broadcast live. In a situation like this, he didn't have to report. He just had to film. Wide-angle shot first, to show how big the thing was, including a few wrecks to get a sense of the scale... he then zoomed in to catch little details like the rapid, ponderous motion of the legs and the toe flaps flexing against the ground. He very consciously kept his hands, and the camera, steady against the minor shuddering of the helicopter.

This was in time for the motorcycles to catch up, and he noticed that the riders weren't dressed in anything resembling normal biker gear. Heart pounding, Doug focused on them. He'd have thought publicity stunt if he'd seen people dressed like this anywhere else. All white and red.

Well, this was bound to be interesting.

[More stuff goes here.] [No, really.]

Rocket Trooper

Joysweeper--Illus3.jpg

TX-7255, "Barve" to his friends, saluted after a moment's hesitation. He'd been earnestly telling some groundpounder troops that the group was vulnerable from the air when he'd gotten the summons for an on-the-fly mission. He'd answered immediately - of course - but he hadn't expected to be briefed by the Lord Darth Vader, Supreme Commander of the Imperial Fleet.

...Sort of. Barve tended to focus on his jetpack. How to maintain it, fix it, how to fly it with increasingly intuitive controls, aerial tactics, maintaining and fixing his various weapons and practicing with them, tweaking the minor powered exoskeleton built into his armor, practice with different gravities and atmospheres, dabbling in repulsor packs. Combined with his love for comparing different models and modifying the ones he had, looking for perfection, he was never more than vaguely aware of any politicking.

Even so, he thought he'd have heard if the Supreme Commander decided to reverse his color scheme. The man was also missing most of one arm, and apparently he was a cyborg, because there were occasional blue sparks instead of bloodstains. Since the stump hadn't even been capped off, it had to have been removed recently, and probably in a fight. Barve hadn't heard anything concrete about action or details about where he'd been deployed. This fit in with everything else, really. Everyone here was so disorganized.

A good meter too far away to be at the Supreme Commander's feet was a small, furry alien with big ears and large, alert eyes. Barve split his attention between the two - helmet screens were useful for that - until he was told that he had to carry the alien through the air.

He was surprised enough to blurt, "My Hush-About was modded with elements from the Aratech Screamer." This meant a lot of things, but he knew from experience that only another rocket trooper understood or cared. Even snubfighter jockeys glazed over. "She's a powerful machine. Launch scorches anything that isn't armored, and fur is flammable. My lord." He wasn't supposed to contradict the Supreme Commander, was he? Damn. Well, it wasn't like he'd run into the protocol before.

"I see. One moment." The Dark Lord - light lord? This really didn't make any sense, why was he in white - turned to the groundpounders for a moment. Barve ignored what they were saying - he wasn't supposed to listen in, and if it was important, they'd tell him - and watched the alien glance from helmet to helmet as the curved antenna on its head quivered. He had to be careful around aliens. You never knew what they would do.

A ground trooper with the type of armor and white fabric oversuit that some of them wore to protect against cold took off his helmet, turned it upside down, and knelt. The alien climbed into the helmet and shifted about as the ground trooper tugged the white cloth on the helmet so that it stood rigid, making a sort of bucket with the alien at the bottom. The trooper stood, holding his helmet by the cloth. Only the alien's ears showed.

"We have a runaway AT-AT that was bearing [direction] before a team intercepted and stopped it. I need you to take Midder into it as quickly as - as quickly as is feasible. Get him there alive and conscious." This was the same thing he'd said before being distracted by the launch thing. "I don't know how well he tolerates flight, so you must determine your speed on your own. We will comm ahead and tell the intercept team to be ready. Do not engage hostiles. Do not get killed."

Weird mission. Still, Barve took the helmet from the trooper, locking his fingers in the stiff fabric. The little alien inside shifted its weight and stared up at him. Helmet and alien together were moderately heavy, but still lighter than his DN bolt-caster, still holstered.

A not-quite-voice said, Don't drop me. God, this is a bad idea. Please don't drop me.

The ground trooper said, "Please don't drop him. I'll want my helmet back."

"Midder, keep control of your ability. The comm channel is running on an open frequency. You are not to fire on anything without clear provocation. I cannot stress that enough."

"Acknowledged." Not like he could even draw a weapon with his hands full.

The Supreme Commander hesitated, then nodded and told him, "Clear skies."

He knew the slang for "good journey?" Well, he knew the Supreme Commander was a damned impressive snubfighter pilot - that knowledge generally fell under politicking, but one of the memories recorded and passed down from his original had been a series of truly superior pilots, Lord Vader being at the top of the list - and snubbie pilots shared a bit of lingo with rocket troopers. ...Besides, now that he thought about it, 'clear skies' was probably the most obvious piece of flyboy slang ever.

Everyone had backed far enough away that even if he had a catastrophic failure and his jetpack exploded, none of them would die. He felt a little scorn at that kind of caution. Yes, jetpacks could explode at launch, if they weren't properly cared for, but Barve had been at this for five years. That was basically all his life - the Spaarti cylinder didn't count, acclimation had taken maybe two weeks, and he'd had eight months of jetpack training to build on the basic flash memories - and he'd had plenty of time to get in the habit. Not like natural-borns, with that baggage from growing up all haphazard.

Barve set his stance and brought up flight control, rapidly checking the systems. Everything was green, not that he ever expected otherwise. Take care of your gear, and it will take care of you, the saying went, and no one took better care of a jetpack than TX-7255. He braced the helmet against his chest and as an afterthought shifted his grip so that he pinched the fabric over the alien, covering it. Hopefully it wasn't flammable.

There was enough open space around him, but still, regulations said that if he wasn't taking off in a specifically cleared space or doing a touch-and-go, he had to give a verbal warning. Some rocket troopers used the short "Dusting off!" or the even shorter "Launching!", but Barve liked the traditional phrase, said in one way or another since the first soldiers to take to the air on their own.

"Clear the blast zone!" He tensed, leaped as high as the light exoskeleton built into his armor would take him, and kicked in the rockets.

The first few seconds were always uncertain, as the jets fought gravity and flared, close enough to the ground that they licked the armor on his legs and slagged the spot where he'd been standing. The not-voice protested weakly. But he took care of his jetpack, and she held him steady at the top of the jump. He let her kick in a little harder, and she dragged his heavy flesh and armor up in a tower of sound and fire.

He modulated the thrust when he judged himself high enough and triggered the maneuvering jets on the right side, spinning in a slow, complete circle to take in the world. This looked like one of those planets which couldn't collectively decide what it wanted to specialize in, so it went for city and wild stuff and farmland all at once. Those weren't as interesting as city worlds, at least not from a jetpack, but it was exponentially better than flying over ocean. At least it had a nice sky. He had his bearings now. Buildings, crowds, ground, roads, yep, atmospheric flyers, oh yes, and this way was North and this was South, good, and so his course was - that way.

Barve swung his legs and flipped over so his back was to the sky, working with his jetpack to find his balance in that second of freefall, and gave her the gun.

Immediately he was flying proper, losing a little altitude in a shallow dive and regaining it, then leveling off and holding steady. There were some other things in his airspace, but they ignored him, and he did the same. He loved flying fast, the landscape zipping by below him, wind shrieking against his armor and trying to tug things out of his hands, even the alternating sense that he was either weightless or something massive was pressing down on him. His jetpack was loud at her highest speed - since part of her was a Screamer, this was only to be expected - but of course he wasn't going at top speed, or anything all that close to it. He kept slow, almost too slow to fly. By the groaning of the not-voice, he probably didn't dare go any faster.

Pity, really. Even after all this time, even with the conditioning and the stuff they'd done to him in the Spaarti cylinder, his jetpack was fast and strong and agile enough to make him struggle to keep conscious, without vibrating him to pieces in the process. Some people didn't like tasking their g-tolerance; none of them had his genome. He loved flying. He couldn't imagine being a groundpounder.

Sometimes, though, he wondered what it would have been like if he'd been sorted into pilot training instead. TIEs might not be as agile, but they went so much faster, they could fly faster than the human eye could track - and with inertial compensators, they could do that, make changes in their flightpaths that would kill him uncompensated. If he hadn't been sorted into the rocket trooper corps, then he'd be flying in space, too, and going after bigger targets. His original had been a snubbie pilot. The flash-memories he'd recorded and passed down included one of the joy and pride that came with piloting. Barve didn't really like thinking about that. Done was done, and the Empire wasn't going to let anyone but a really prime natural-born get retrained. Besides, a ship would mean losing his jetpack. She was his baby.

Okay. Barve scanned the ground. This was probably the right road, and there was some suspiciously regular cracking on the surface ahead, but he didn't see anything yet. He'd been told to watch for footprints in the road and wrecked cars. ...He really should have asked what a car was. Was it the same thing as a groundcar, which he'd seen a lot of here, or something more obscure? It wouldn't be the first time he got tripped up by similar-sounding unrelated words.

The not-voice had kept a lot of quiet, wordlessly unhappy not-sounds, particularly when he gained or lost altitude suddenly. He felt safe in assuming that the not-voice belonged to the alien curled up in the helmet he was carrying, and they were a good sign that it hadn't lost consciousness. Should he talk to it? Why not. It might know. Okay, he'd been told that the groundpounder helmet was on the open frequency, right? This far from all the others, there weren't a lot in the way of transmissions. Barve lowered his comm output to about ten meters so he wouldn't spam the people back there or at his destination.

"You know Basic, right?"

There was a pause, and he wondered if the wind was too loud. There were sound mufflers in his helmet, and his audio pickups filtered out most irrelevant noise, but helmets tended not to work as well when they weren't connected to armor.

Finally he not-heard it. Uh... sort of. It's been a while. I think I've forgotten most of what I picked up. Why? The not-voice seemed surprised and a little queasy.

"Oh good. I think you speak it fine," Barve said, adding, "I understand Huttese, I sort of get Bocce, and I know a little Sy Bisti, but I don't know any other languages." Understanding so few was kind of embarrassing, but only Basic and Huttese had been flash-programmed and he never really made a focused effort to study languages, so he thought he was doing pretty well. "Though I guess you were talking earlier in Basic, so it wasn't a good question."

Wait, what? ...Do we even mean the same B.A.S.I.C.? Because I thought you meant the programming language.

Barve frowned under his helmet. "I meant Basic. Official language of the Empire. This language."

Another pause, this one rather long. Maybe the alien was addled. You know, usually people call it English.

At the very least, the alien was confused. "No, the Empire calls it Basic. So did the Republic. So does the rest of the galaxy. Basic, Galactic Basic, Galactic Basic Standard... Basic."

What? You actually think - no, don't antagonize the crazy guy with the jetpack. He could drop you. Then you'll never get there. That last part wasn't nearly as clear, and Barve suspected he wasn't supposed to not-hear it. But he could handle being considered crazy, even though he'd been growing in the Spaarti cylinder for a healthy two years and there was really very little chance of the madness getting him. After all, he'd seen someone in the depths of the madness, and it was probably worth being cautious, at least at first. Other batches might not be as stable as his.

"Alien, I need to know if 'car', in this case, means little groundbound vehicle or is an acronym for something."

Maybe he does think he's - Yeah. It's the vehicle. Good, then he was headed in the right direction. There was more cracking on the road now too. The alien paused, then said, I'm Steph, by the way. Not 'alien'.

"I'm TX-7255 from batch three," he said. Wait, natural-borns who weren't troopers didn't usually like going by designations. "Call me Barve."

Barve?

"It's a nickname. A barve is a clumsy six-legged meat animal. You only get the prime names like "Firebrand" if you're important." He couldn't enjoy a military flick without getting annoyed at that.

Right. You don't have any other names?

"Not that I've heard." Did he want the name of Barve's original? No, he'd surely ask if he did. "You're feeling okay, right? Are your eyes being pushed into your head?" He'd feel like such an idiot if Steph had some kind of delayed reaction to acceleration and passed out.

A little. It was worse when we took off. Everything went sort of gray at the edges.

"Yeah? That makes sense." He felt like he couldn't leave it at that, so he added, "Humans tend to tolerate horizontal axis g-forces a lot better than vertical ones. It has to do with how our spines are aligned with the axis and how our blood gets forced around. I don't know what you are, but I'd guess it works the same for you."

Well, that's good to know. I'm a Hoojib, I guess. More indistinctly, Steph said, She said I looked all wrong, but Eighty-four told her it didn't matter.

He was not supposed to listen in; if he overheard anyway, he was supposed to pretend otherwise. "Never heard of you. We're well within standard human tolerance, and I'll keep slow for you if I can, but if something comes up and I have to go evasive, you'll have some trouble. Should that happen, try straining your muscles and remember to breathe short, hard, and often. It could help."

Thanks. I think. It had better not come to that.

In places, the road was crossed by roads that passed above it. The ones he'd seen so far had been intact, but one up ahead, getting closer by the second, had been shot out, and the pattern of cracks that passed underneath it could reasonably be called footprints. Checking behind himself - the rearwards display was small and not meant for ground details, so he did this by pulling upright, spinning as he stalled, then correcting himself and falling back into flight position, a set of maneuvers that did not please Steph in the least - Barve saw that the set of buildings that he'd taken off near was still visible, though small in the distance.

If he had no further orders, maybe they'd let him fly back at any speed he wanted. Fuel readings were a little lower than they should have been at this point, even with the extra weight, but nothing too alarming.

At this speed he'd be a few more minutes. This thing had gone pretty far. Flying slowly with absolutely nothing going on - usually, he'd be listening to the other rocket troopers, comparing notes and expectations, maybe trying to outmaneuver them. He was hazy on why he'd been deployed without the rest of his unit. They'd acclimatized together and gone through training at the same time and everything, and he'd never been far apart from them. Being alone was boring.

No, he wasn't quite alone. Small talk. How did that work again? Right. "How are you talking? Nothing's getting to my ears."

I don't have a vocal tract anymore, so I'm guessing telepathy. Better than nothing, but it's annoying.

"That's too bad," Barve said. It looked like the burden of conversation was on him. He was the worst in his unit at that, frankly, especially with people who weren't familiar with flight and the mechanics of it, but questions were usually good. "So you're one of those aliens that has a metamorphosis, huh? What were you before?"

There was another pause. Incredulous, Steph said, I - but - you - you actually haven't figured it out? What - you don't even remember what happened, do you? Do you have a real name? Do you even know what planet this is?

Barve hadn't known it was possible to stutter telepathically, but then, he reminded himself, there were a lot of things he didn't know. "No. Are you going to tell me?"

Oh Jesus Christ. Ah. He didn't think Barve was in danger of the madness, he thought Barve was stupid. Barve briefly considered, oh, accelerating a bit more, perhaps flying a bit less steadily, but dismissed the idea. He had a package or a passenger to deliver.

He wasn't angry, quite, but he had to correct the alien. "Hey. I'm not - yeah, I know everyone says I'm a bit simple. Maybe. Maybe. Most of the time." He got the sense that Steph was about to say something, and he didn't let him, raising his voice. "But I'm plenty advanced about flying, and if there's a jetpack malfunction a couple klicks above the ground, the smartest being in the Empire, the very best and brightest, is me. It's not that I wasn't paying attention, it's that I don't know. Don't make insinuations like that!"

Aaah! Oh God, don't drop me. I'm sorry, geeze. It's just really weird that you don't know.

There were a few men in his unit who could have started on something about ignorance, but he wasn't one of them - as far as lectures went, he only had this and the one about untested new equipment. After a moment, Barve became uncomfortable. He wasn't supposed to be hostile to people who weren't the enemy, even if they were rude aliens. He'd probably have a few bad sleepcycles if he didn't say something.

"Sorry. It's fine. Just... I'm not stupid, okay? Don't tell me I'm stupid."

Yeah. Sure. God, this was a bad idea.

Well, that hadn't gone well. Pity his unit wasn't here. He could have used a people person, or several.

Anyway, by now he could see the runaway walker. It had come to a stop, right in the middle of the road, and as he flew closer he saw that one of the big hatches in the side, the hatches that groundpounders rappelled out of, was open. He was probably meant to land there, on the staging platform.

"We're just about here. Hold on." It took a bit of maneuvering. A long shallow dive followed by flipping upright and shedding his momentum, then the tricky process of moving laterally while in the standing position without letting the rockets set fire to the inside of the vehicle, and getting close enough to switch them off and fall to his feet without breaking anything. Nothing he couldn't handle. He made it a point of pride that he hardly ever used his repulsor pod when landing, and he didn't use it this time either.

Barve landed hard enough that he was forced to drop to three points, which while visually impressive was just bad form. If his unit had been there, it would not have gone unnoticed, but if the groundpounder who met him had judged his landing, he declined to comment on it. The moment Barve put the helmet down, Steph half climbed, half leapt out and shuddered all over so that his fur stood on end. Then he sat on his haunches and started wiping or patting himself down with his forelegs, like he wanted to make sure everything was in one piece.

He'd have been a little bit insulted by that - hadn't he kept slow? Hadn't he maintained his jetpack well enough that there was virtually no vibration, and flown her well enough that it had been smooth? - but he had gone off on that upset lecture. And some people just didn't fly well. And even if Steph didn't like hearing it, he was an alien and might or might not tolerate the forces of acceleration that well.

The groundpounder looked from Barve to Steph and back. "You sent us an alien?" he asked over the open channel. "Is he an ambassador or something? I thought you were sending some friend."

Steph stopped grooming and looked up sharply. I am a friend. And I can hear you, you know, the speaker in the helmet's still on. He waggled an ear in a gesture that was probably sarcastic, but still looked silly.

"Oh, sorry," the groundpounder said. "And I guess you're not really an alien. It's kinda hard to keep things straight. C'mon, we need you in the cockpit." He nodded acknowledgment to Barve and turned, heading towards the fore of the walker. Steph followed, still staggering a little.

Barve picked up the helmet again and took the chance to have a look around. He'd seen the big walkers before, just not from inside. Usually during an engagement, too, so he hadn't had time to peer into the interiors before.

He'd landed on the lower of the two levels. At the fore and the aft there were rungs in recessions in the walls that led up to the other level, with sort of a landing in the middle. Entrance to the tunnel leading to the cockpit was through a locking access hatch on the landing in the fore ladder that locked and sealed behind the groundpounder carrying Steph. The aft ladder had another one that probably led to cargo space. A third hatch was set forewards in the flooring, possibly going to engines. Then there were the various external ones like what he'd dropped through. There were troop benches with backpack chargers built into the walls, and the setup for the drop lines and cable winches built around the boom racks. Recessed round lights and some dangling handholds were set in the ceiling. That made sense, he guessed. These things were personnel carriers, though they were better suited for annihilating ground targets.

Otherwise, the lower level was abandoned. Apparently the team who'd gone out here were all in the cockpit, which had to be a tight fit. Before he commed back for further orders, Barve noticed one more thing. Coming from the speakers built into the ceiling was a faint, barely audible hiss of static.

[There. I wrote you. I even put in that damn rant. Now get out of my head.]