Chasing Shadows

Okay, so I lied a bit yesterday when I said my short story wasn’t ready yet. Well, technically it wasn’t, as I only completed it this morning, but anyway. This is my first draft, but as I’m not in the habit of re-writing things, I’m going to post it up here anyway. Please tell me what you think, comments are always more than welcome!


 

Felucia

The landing craft lurched unsteadily as it touched down on the surface of Felucia, the landing gear settling uneasily into the loamy soil. Rather than head for the capital city of Kway Teow, Captain Faise had decided to land nearer the water stations of Jianzi, where the point squad should already be assembled, and where Intelligence sources had determined he ought to start his search. They had better be right, he thought moodily.

Faise disliked his current posting. The High Command no doubt had their reasons, but he felt he was significantly wasted out here in the Outer Rim, chasing pirates and smugglers when the galaxy was beginning to tear itself apart. Of course, official reports from Imperial Center would have the galactic population believe that law and order had never been stronger, but Faise had seen a significantly different picture a year ago, when terrorists had led an insurrection against the Emperor’s rule in Imperial City itself. The situation had not improved since then, with more and more reports of rebellion filtering throughout the Imperial Navy’s gossip channels.

I should be back in the thick of it, he grumbled to himself, as the landing craft gave another wobble when the hatch opened for the troops to disembark. These rebels can’t be allowed to get away with what they did…

The stormtrooper squad marched down the ramp and onto the planet’s surface, and the captain followed them into the warm, wet blanket of the planet’s atmosphere. Felucia was a jungle world like no other Faise had seen in his career. Huge fungus plants grew in all manner of shapes and colours, enormous pitchers opened up to the golden sky of the late afternoon, vast fronds of browns and silver-stemmed fern-like plants swayed in the gentle breeze, which carried the sweetly fetid scents of mould and decay. A clear path wove through this tropical forest, with steaming bogs to either side, shaded by yet more bizarre mushroom-like trees of deep purple and vivid lilac.

Faise’s current assignment was to root out a nest of pirates that had been reported throughout the Thanium Worlds and Indrexu Sector. Personally, he felt that the Tion Hegemony should shoulder some of the responsibility for policing the area, which lay along its borders, but the Emperor no doubt had his reasons for leaving the Hegemony alone.

Catching up with his troops, Faise put such thoughts away. Time to focus on the mission at hand.

***

Jianzi water station was the site of a skirmish in the final days of the Clone Wars, where the Commerce Guild, seeing the end was drawing near for the Separatist cause, sought to poison the water supply of the planet. The Empire had since brought peace to the planet, with a water treatment successfully implemented. Several outposts had been established throughout the galaxy since the end of the Wars, aimed at better governance for the galaxy at large, but the alarming number of revolts and insurrections that had been unofficially reported throughout the last few years pointed to a stronger hand needed. Full-scale planetary occupations had begun throughout the Inner and Mid Rims, but the wilder Outer Rim Territories were proving difficult to control.

Despite official denials, the increased rebel activity was causing Imperial Intelligence to jump at shadows, and the slightest report of dissent was seeing a swift response from the Navy. Captain Faise’s current posting on the Dauntless, an aging Bayonet-class light cruiser, had seen two such responses so far, with Felucia marking their third. Intelligence had gathered that a group of unidentified pirates were attacking key Imperial installations throughout the sector, but so far nothing had come to light that linked these attacks to any other insurrection. Every Imperial Governor’s nightmare – perhaps, even, that of the Emperor himself – is the thought of a unified rebellion against Imperial rule.

Captain Faise and his stormtrooper contingent arrived at the water station without incident, and met up with General Nolarin, who had been sent ahead of the captain to scout the area.

“General”, Faise saluted smartly at his old friend and colleague, “have you anything to report?”

“Nothing here, Oskar, I’m afraid”, the general said with a sigh. “If there were pirates here, they haven’t left any discernible trail for us to follow.”

“It’ll be hard to pick anything up in this mulch, anyway”, Faise glanced around at the station wearily. “Is there anyone home?”

“Scanners have been mashed by the sheer amount of life on this planet, but our initial recon hasn’t shown any signs of habitation, human or otherwise…” The General beckoned over to one of his men. “Lieutenant, have you heard back from Team Besh yet?”

“Team Besh reports all-clear to the east, sir” the lieutenant reported crisply. “It seems this entire station has been abandoned, sir.”

“Thank you, lieutenant.” Nolarin turned back to Faise. “Oskar, I think we’ve been sent on a wild bantha chase by the folks in Intelligence.”

Captain Faise exhaled noisily, planted his hands on his hips, and looked up into the golden sky. “Do you think these pirates even exist, Rufus?”

“Oh, I’m sure there have been pirate raids, Oskar, but Intel is probably outdated or just -“

An explosion cut him off.

“What the frink..?” Faise pulled out his blaster pistol and dropped into a combat crouch, eyes scanning to the east where the explosion came from. “I thought Team Besh had reported it all-clear?” he called to Nolarin.

The general growled with anger and pulled out his comlink. “Team Besh, report!” Silence. “Team Besh, do you read me?” Silence.

“General Nolarin, sir? I’m no longer receiving Team Besh’s tracking signal,” the lieutenant reported from behind a colossal pitcher fungus of pale orange. He frowned at the scanner he held. “I am picking up a group of life signals coming around from that general direction, but they weren’t there a few minutes ago.”

“Terrorists,” Nolarin spat. “They’ve killed six good troopers – we’ll get them in kind.”

***

General Nolarin used Captain Faise’s stormtroopers to augment his now-depleted force into three units. Team Cresh headed directly to the last known position of Team Besh, on the water section’s east side, while Team Dorn went around the north of the facility in the hope of catching the pirates in a crossfire. If necessary, Team Cresh was to strategically fall back, in the hope of drawing the pirates towards Team Esk, which was kept in reserve. Nolarin intended to then smash them between and Team Dorn. Simple, standard Academy tactics, but brutally effective when the numbers were in the Empire’s favour.

***

The group of four Felucians looked on in surprise when the explosion happened, the brilliant flash startling them into the shade of a giant mushroom. The leader was the first to emerge, stroking his facial tendrils thoughtfully. He assumed that the explosion was caused by the strange outlanders who had been here six moons ago, as no plant would make such a noise. Another of the group joined him, and barked a question. She, too, had made the connection between the outlanders and the explosion. We must meditate, he decided. We might learn our proper course of action as a result. The four Felucians returned to the spoor-plant grove and settled down on the soft moss to meditate, as The Teacher had taught them.

***

“I don’t understand it,” Nolarin fumed. “You said they were right there, on the station’s east side? Where could they have gone in so short a time?”

The lieutenant looked equally baffled at his scanner. “I don’t know, sir. The scanners are still having trouble penetrating the undergrowth. There’s so much life here, we can’t tell sentient life from the surrounding plants.”

“I thought our technology was a little more advanced than that,” Faise said sarcastically from across the site.

“Sorry, sir, what I mean is the plant life here reads as strongly as sentient life,” the lieutenant tried to explain. “It’s as if the jungle is just one massive organism, and anyone in there disappears.”

Nolarin puffed out his breath noisily. “Right. So we might me surrounded right now, and we wouldn’t know until the scum were on us? Or they could pick us off from the cover of these huge fungus things, and we’d not be able to do anything about it?”

“Unfortunately, yes, sir.”

Faise admired the lieutenant’s stoic assessment of the situation.

Nolarin pulled out his comlink. “Team Dorn, return to the landing site. Repeat, return to the landing site.” He sighed. “Looks like we should get under cover fast. It’ll be dark soon, and even our eyes will be no use then.”

***

Night had fallen by the time the Felucians had completed their meditation. We must inform The Teacher of this, was their unanimous decision. She is bound to the fates of these outlanders, she will know what to do.

***

“I don’t like this,” General Nolarin rumbled. “Something is going on, and I don’t like it.”

“What does the report say?” Captain Faise asked, walking over to stand next to the general.

“Intelligence has apparently given us a secondary objective,” Nolarin scanned his datapad. “’Gossam rebels are believed to be hiding on the jungle planet, and must be eliminated at once’” he read. “Gossam rebels? Hardly seems a threat enough to warrant our entire task force, but Imperial Center clearly knows best.”

Faise frowned at the orders. Gossam rebels? “I seem to remember the Gossam were big Separatists during the War. You don’t think there’s a link?”

“You were always the historian, Oskar, I wouldn’t know much about this.” He stroked his lip thoughtfully. “If there are Gossam rebels here, I’m surprised they’ve not been picked up before now. Commander Varghis keeps a tight control on the Gossam over at Kway Teow, I can’t imagine there would be any others out here…” He trailed off in thought. “Lieutenant, do you still have the sensor data from the explosion earlier?” he called down the passageway of his landing craft.

“Right here, sir” the lieutenant handed him his datapad with the data displayed. “Are you looking for anything in particular?”

“The life signs you picked up – the sentient life – do you have any further reading on that? Height, possible species? That sort of thing?”

“All the scanners were able to determine was bipedal life-forms, non-human,” the lieutenant frowned at the datapad. “Given the strength of the other lifeform readings, I’m surprised it managed to get even that much.”

“Thank you, lieutenant.” Nolarin watched him go for a second.

“He seems awfully keen,” Faise observed once the lieutenant had left.

“Lieutenant Arsen is one of the most competent field officers I’ve ever had in my command, Oskar.”

“You should definitely keep hold of him, then,” Faise moved back to the datapad with the orders they had received from Imperial Intelligence. “It doesn’t specify where these rebels are likely to be, and with our scanners useless, I’m not sure what we can accomplish here.”

Nolarin stared at nothing for a moment, again stroking his bottom lip in thought. “You’re right, of course,” he said at length. “It might not be impossible, though. We’re hunting Gossam, so what do we know about the species?”

Faise called up the databanks on the ship’s computer. “’Short, selfish and cunning’,” he read. “Hardly the most glowing of recommendations, but there we go. ‘Appearance is of great importance to Gossam society –‘”

“There we have it, then!” Nolarin grinned in triumph.

“There we have what, exactly?” Faise looked up from the computer.

“Cunning, but self-obsessed. They’re not going to be hiding out in the jungles then, that would ruin their fine clothes no doubt. They’re going to be in an urban environment. If Varghis hasn’t reported anything from the capital, where else could they be?”

Faise returned to the databank and brought up a map of the planet. “Har Gau was a Gossam settlement back in the day. No Imperial presence to speak of. Is it worth a look?”

Nolarin shrugged. “It’s the best lead we have, so why not?”

***

The Teacher had arrived on Felucia many cycles ago. She was an outlander, but she had quickly gained the trust of the native Felucians. She brought with her another outlander, slightly unruly in her behaviour, but this younger outlander was as much a pupil of the Teacher as the Felucians themselves. She had communicated with them, she had taught them many things, the greatest of which was the power of life every native of the planet could harness. She had called it The Force.

***

Har Gau was a small settlement, by any planet’s standards. Established as a resort for the Gossam who colonised Felucia thousands of years previously, it now had the slightly shabby air of a town nobody came to anymore. The fern jungle was steadily encroaching on the buildings, and as the Imperials came closer, Captain Faise could see one or two places where the plant life had utterly taken over. The perfect place for a rebel group to hide, he thought.

What was it that drove people to rebel against the Empire? The government had rooted out the corruption of the Republic, and brought peace and stability to the galaxy after the years of fighting during the Clone Wars. Now, these rebel groups were threatening that foundation with anarchy. Why couldn’t they see what they were doing to the galaxy? Faise shook his head bitterly as the first stormtroopers entered the town proper and began a defensive sweep.

“Scanners are picking up minimal life readings, sir”, Lieutenant Arsen intoned shortly. “I’m not sure, it could be sentient, but it’s too far out of range right now.”

“It?” General Nolarin repeated. “You mean there’s only one life form reading?”

“Yes sir. I can’t find any further readings within the scope of the town here. It seems Har Gau has been deserted.”

“That isn’t entirely surprising, I suppose” Captain Faise mused aloud. “During the War, the Separatists attempted to poison the water supply here. We’ve only just finished the cleaning process at the capital, so I can’t imagine anyone wanting to establish another colony this far out.”

Nolarin stroked his lip thoughtfully for a moment. “I want two teams to sweep the entire town, manual search. Team Aurek, you’re with Captain Faise; Team Besh, you’ll be with me. We’ll meet back here when we’re done. If anyone finds anything, report it immediately to either Captain Faise or myself. Understood? Then let’s move out!”

The stormtroopers moved with the precision of well-drilled men to carry out the general’s orders. Working in a clockwise pattern, Captain Faise led his team through the town, inspecting each building they encountered. If the scanners didn’t pick up anything, I’m not sure what we’re expecting to find, he thought to himself. “Stay alert, men. I don’t want any explosions happening again…”

***

The Teacher arrived at noon the following day, and conversed with the four Felucians who had witnessed the explosion at the Jianzi water station. She was alarmed to discover that Imperials had arrived once again on the planet, as she had not expected to encounter any such force outside of the capital city. The explosion also intrigued her, but when she learnt of the other outlanders who had been at the station, she agreed it was likely they had laid a trap for the Imperials, whoever they had been.

One of the Felucians told the Teacher that these outlanders had also landed at Har Gau, but she had not seen them there herself. The Teacher decided to investigate the town to see if they had left any similar surprises.

***

General Nolarin frowned at the sight before him. Well, that’s that, then. He had received a call from one of his troopers who was investigating what looked like an administration building, and rushed over to see what had been discovered. In all, there were fourteen Gossam corpses hanging from the ceiling, the purple-black hue of their skin implying death several days earlier, at least. With a sigh, he dug out his comlink and keyed for Faise’s frequency. “Captain, come on over to the large building across the square. We found them.”

***

The Teacher crouched low in the undergrowth, using the shadows cast by the spore-plant to conceal herself as she spied on the Imperials roaming around Har Gau. She closed her eyes and concentrated her mind on the activity within the town, trying to discern their purpose here. They are searching for something…someone… Me? She concentrated harder. No, another. But who? She was thought dead, she knew; she had disappeared more effectively than she had thought possible, but the presence of Imperial troops here, now, alarmed her. She needed to find out who exactly the Imperials were searching for, and whether she could help them escape from the tyranny that otherwise awaited them.

As she was about to inch herself closer to the town, a massive explosion rocked the ground.

***

General Nolarin wasn’t sure if he was alive or dead. He had moved away from the doorway to allow two stormtroopers to sweep the room for any possible traps when suddenly the world turned upside-down, and he was thrown against the mulch-like wall of a nearby building.

He tried to open his eyes and was surprised when he saw the half-demolished building in front of him. That was nothing, though, when compared with his surprise as seeing the alien crouching over him.

“You are awake, that is good” the alien said. Her voice – for it was unmistakably female – was slightly husky, and heavily inflected. It also had the slightly strange, muffled quality as if he were hearing her speak underwater. “I am trying to make the pain ease for you. Be calm.”

‘Be calm’? Nolarin thought. I’ve nearly been killed, and I have an alien doing goodness knows what to me, and I’m supposed to be calm?! But the words were not forthcoming to his lips. Vaguely, he wondered if he were dreaming.

Whatever the alien was doing, he did indeed feel like the pain in his head and chest was easing. The alien removed her hands from his body and stood up. A Togruta? Here? Nolarin didn’t quite know what to make of this. There was no mistaking the species, however, with the terracotta skin and blue-and-white striped head-tails. Maybe I am dreaming, after all.

“I have done all that I can for you,” the voice still sounded like he was hearing it through water. “You should survive, for now.” And with that, she left.

Nolarin closed his eyes for a second before trying to stand, but the effort proved too much and he slumped back against the mulch wall.

***

Faise picked himself up off the ground and groggily looked around. What just happened here?

“Are you alright, sir?” came the filtered voice of one of the stormtroopers in his squad. Faise looked around and saw the trooper standing with his blaster carbine at the ready, his armour as filthy as he presumed he must also be.

“Yes, I think so” he said wearily, dusting himself down automatically as he tried to make sense of the situation. “What just happened?”

“Another bomb, sir. Looks like whoever hit the Jianzi station has been here, also.”

“General Nolarin?” Faise was almost afraid of the answer.

“The general is fine, from what I can tell. Two stormtroopers are dead, and another four are wounded. The general has sustained some concussive shock, but he otherwise appears unharmed.”

Faise nodded, and set off towards the building – or, at least, what was left of the building – that Nolarin had been expecting. Unlike most of the structures on Felucia, the structure was partly of some local stone, which appeared to have contained the blast. The organic matter that formed the domed roof had completely gone, scattering the open area in the centre of Har Gau. Several lumps of the roofing material still smouldered.

There was an unreal stillness to the scene as Faise arrived. The surviving stormtroopers were conversing in low voices when he arrived, and Faise commiserated with them. Long hours spent training together and serving together invariably formed strong bonds in stormtrooper units, despite the itinerant nature of their work. As the captain moved on, he saw General Nolarin resting uneasily against the organic wall of a nearby building.

“Rufus, thank goodness you’re all right,” Faise rushed over to him and clasped his hand.

Nolarin looked over at him blearily, then smiled slightly. “It’ll take more than a few bombs to kill me off, Oskar, you mark my words!” He returned his gaze to the distance, and as he moved his head, Faise noticed dried blood in his ear.

“Is your hearing alright, Rufus?” he asked, concerned.

“It’s coming back, thankfully, yes,” Nolarin continued to look whistfully into the distance for a long moment. “I’ve lost too many good troops on this foresaken mudhole of a planet, it’s time we left. Captain, gather your troops and return to the Dauntless. There’s nothing more we can learn here.”

***

Captain Faise stood, once again, on the bridge of the Bayonet-class light cruiser, watching the curve of Felucia and thinking about the failure of their mission. We were supposed to find these pirates, and bring them to justice. Instead, we’ve lost eight storm troopers, and have no idea where the terrorists have holed themselves up.

The crisp sound of boots marching up the deck behind him made him turn around. General Nolarin stood to attention before joining him at the viewport. They stood in silence for a moment.

“I’ve filed my report with Intelligence, Captain, we are to stay in the sector until further orders arrive. Those pirates won’t get away with what they have done.”

Faise remained silent for a moment. “Good. We can’t have the galaxy slide into anarchy around us. We need to bring these scum to justice.”

Nolarin looked sideways at him for a moment, then said in a low voice, “I heard what happened in Imperial City. I hadn’t had a chance to give you my condolences, Oskar.”

Faise continued to stare ahead. “Thank you, general. The time for grief will come, but it is not yet.” He swallowed. “Right now, it is the time for retribution, and for justice.”

***

The Teacher looked up into the golden sky of the Felucian evening, shading her eyes against the waning glare of the star, Felix. The Imperials had gathered their wounded and left, whatever they had been searching for had been forgotten. Dimly, she wondered whether she had been right to help the Imperial in that way. But the Force gave her responsibility to all living things, regardless of sides drawn arbitrarily on a map.

Wearily, she lowered her gaze, and set off with the four Felucians back to the Ancient Abyss. What will come, will come, she thought. And I will face it when it does.

***

The Intelligence operative looked deeply uncomfortable as he brought the report to Darth Vader. To his credit, however, it was with an unwavering voice that he said, “The report on Felucia, Lord Vader, as you requested.”

Vader took the proffered data card and slid it into the console before him. “You may go,” the deep reply rumbled. With a salute, the operative turned smartly on his heel and marched away, perhaps a little too quickly.

Vader took no notice, though. The report from the Dauntless regarding the terrorist activity on Felucia would not normally have concerned the Dark Lord, however an addendum to General Nolarin’s report had caught Intelligence’s eye, and for once, Director Isard had not hindered him.

Nolarin had added the addendum detailing what he freely admitted could have been a shock-induced hallucination, whereby a Togruta appeared to have healed him sufficiently for him to survive the concussive shock from the explosion. Nolarin’s reputation was impeccable, with a grounded determination to see any job through, and so Intelligence had not dismissed his report out of hand.

But Vader had long suspected the survival of a certain Togruta female, and Nolarin’s addendum was all he needed as proof. Shaak Ti lives!

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