Hard, oil-scented air was the first thing Caleb felt as he slowly regained consciousness. Then the turbulence, rocking the entire dark room he barely saw through half-closed eyes. As he turned to look back, his head started aching like it has been trampled by a stampede of wild Banthas. Trying to stand up he realized that he had been tied up, seemingly to a pillar of some sort. He felt the area with his hand, and felt a touch of a soft-skinned hand, long fingers touching him back.
“I was wondering when you’d finally wake up.”
“Al…Alana? Alana, you dirty, rotten, double-crossing…” Wells snapped, forgetting that he’d been immobilized. He cursed in Twi’leki, and when he finally calmed down asked her:
“Where are we?”
“A ship, I guess.” She replied gruffly.
“Go figure!” Wells sighed. “How did we end up here? And why in the universe are you here, for crying out loud?”
“Whoa,” she interrupted him. “Slow down there! I have no idea. Last thing I remember was dropping you off somewhere in the slums, and then a blackout!”
“Serves you well, wench.” He grinned, not hiding his of satisfaction.
“Hey, come on,” she answered abruptly. “It’s just business. Easy money. I figured you’d make your way out of it,” she smiled. “Eventually.”
“Well, now we’re stuck together.” He finally smiled, his voice mellowed a bit. “Call it justice.” He tried to wiggle his hand out of the silicon rope they were bound with, but they were tied up too tight.
“Who uses silicon ropes nowadays, anyway?” He mumbled to himself, turned his head around and addressed Alana again. “Well, do you know who put the bounty on me?”
“No idea. The details were scarce: the drop-off point and the credits. I figured, good enough for me.”
“Great.” He swallowed hard. “Now what?”
“We get out. We’ve been out of worse, remember?”
“Any suggestions, then?” He hoped that the answer was a positive one.
“I have a few tricks up my boot,” she smiled. “Can you try and reach the left one?” She moved her tied-up, long legs a bit towards Wells.
“I’ll try.” He could barely feel the heel of the leather boot with the top of his fingers. “I…can’t.” He tried to stretch his arm further, but could still barely scratch it. “Can’t you move your leg closer to me?”
Alana tried to bend her leg further backwards, but the ropes wrapped around her calves were too tight, and prevented her from moving them any closer to Wells. “No.” She replied, with disappointment in her voice.
“Oh, come on.” He smiled, “You used to be a lot bendier, as far as I can remember.” She mumbled something in return.
“We should rest,” he said as he finally realized there is no way to break free from the ropes. “Gather the strength, and then we’ll try to escape once we land. They have to come in and untie us eventually.”
“Unless they just decide to whack us,” she shrugged. “But I agree. Although we could use this time to catch up. Wells? Wells?”
Caleb had already dozed off. His head still hurt like hell, and closing his eyes soothed the pain. Flashes of reality came into his absent mind now and then, but he managed to shake the thoughts off, and let his mind wander off for just a while. Just when he began to dream, a falling sensation woke him up. He soon realized that this was no consequence of his absent mind – he could actually feel the ship rapidly loosing altitude.
“Felt that?” Alana asked, noticing the man’s sudden movement.
“Cover your head,” Wells shouted. The temperature began to rise, and the breathable air was becoming scarce, probably due to the life-support failing. Wells and Alana both crouched, bringing their knees high up, lifting their shoulders and placing their heads onto their laps. They could feel the ship spinning out of control and tried to manage their breathing while avoiding serious damage from objects flying all over the chamber. Their heads started swelling, the blood pumping insane. As the pain grew so did the temperature – the walls seemed to be melting, boiling red from the heat of the atmosphere. The last thing they both felt was a solid impact that knocked them out of consciousness.
Wells woke up first. The flickering bulbs that were the only source of light in that compartment went dark as well. The door out of the room was bent like it was made out of cardboard. The whole ship was angled; its starboard seemed to be buried into the ground. After his vision cleared up, he looked around the compartment. The heat was still unbearable, but the air was much more abundant. He noticed a sharp piece of metal, probably broken off from some of the crates that were bashing into the walls while the ship was plummeting towards the ground. He reached out towards it with his legs, dragging it with his heels as close to his hands as he could. When he’d dragged it as close as possible, he kicked it straight beside his tied-up hands. He reached with his fingers, reached so hard that he could almost feel the bones inside them breaking apart. With the tip of his middle finger he got a hold of the metal, dragged it into his palm and quickly started sawing the rope. It took no more that five minutes before the rope loosened and Wells could break it with his bare hands. He then cut the ropes tying his calves, breaking him completely free. He stood up and stretched, before he remembered his companion. Alana was lying, face inside her lap. Her head was bleeding, her hair turned red from all the blood running all over her beautiful face. Wells stared at her, checked her pulse and started cutting the rope on her hands.
“I should just leave you here, you know. Ungrateful…” he continued mumbling into his chin, as he took the woman and threw her over his shoulder.
Alana slowly opened her eyes. Her eyelids felt like they were glued together, and the pain in her forehead instantly made her tremble. She looked around, but all she saw were moist cave walls, glittering like a million shiny stars as the light from the outside would fall upon them. She looked outside, and saw that the sky was a peculiar mixture of black, red, purple and green, mixed chaotically like in some artist’s palette. As she gazed at the impressive skyline, a silhouette suddenly appeared at the entrance. Alana instinctively started feeling the ground beside her, looking for a blaster, a knife or even a rock; but before she could find any of those, as it was getting close the silouethe became the image of a man she knew well.
“Wells…Where…Where are we?” She asked. Her voice was sore and deep, to such degree that she almost didn’t recognize it was her talking.
“I have no idea.” he replied, putting down what seemed to be round shaped, fist sized pale-yellow fruits. “We crashed here. You fainted, so I got us out of the ship and into this cave nearby.” He took one of the fruits, started sniffing it, squeezing it to check its hardness and finally took a bite. “Well, I hope this doesn’t kill us. It would be an awful way to die.”
“Wha…What is this planet?” She asked, still in shock.
“Told ya. I have no idea.” He took another bite of the fruit, aggressively like some wild animal devouring its prey. “Wow, these are pretty good.” He paused to swallow. “Anyway, I wanted to check the perimeter, wait for you to wake up, and then visit the ship; see if it could be repaired and airborne.” He took another violent bite. “Ob at least,” he mumbled with his mouth full, “end a bistbess call.”
“A distress call,” he replied.
He sat beside her, leaning his head against the cave wall, and finishing up his fruit. He stretched his hands, and took two more fruits, offering one to Alana.
“Eat. You’ll need your strength.”
“You could have left me there.” She looked him in the eye, her voice still hoarse. “Why didn’t you?”
“I need you. I mean, not you in particular,” he smiled. She frowned. “I need help. We need each other to survive this jungle.”
“Jungle?” She asked confused.
“You’ll see when we get out.” He took another bite. “Besides, it’s a dreadful way to die, tied up to a pole.” She smiled. “Come to think of that, maybe I should have left you there, you know, to teach you a lesion.” She frowned again, but did not say a word.
The jungle outside was indeed peculiar. The strange atmospheric lights cast their many colors onto the otherwise pale planet surface, and the trees looked like giant, skeletal hands extending from the ground. Pale green in color, their tops were pointed, they had no leaves whatsoever and as the wind swiped across the terrain, they seemed to be moving or trying to snatch an invisible object in front of them. Some of them were entangled by strange crawling weed, like snakes weaving their way along the dead men’s huge skeletal hands. The soil was also pale, like bone dust shattered all across the ground. The terrain was rocky – they were on a mountain slope, overseeing the foggy, ethereal plains below.
Wells felt unease as they made their way through the eerie trees. He could not describe the feeling, nor truly understand it yet – but the place felt mysterious, evil, tainted with Dark Side energy. He’d forgotten all about his master’s teaching regarding the Dark Side, sensing its taints and avoiding its strong lure. He’d repressed all the teachings that spoke about the Force and how it binds everything, is everything that surrounds him; and how a strong taint like this one could affect or twist the mind of a Force-Sensitive individual. Instead, he just waved the feeling off with a symbolic hand gesture and blamed it on the unnatural scenery instead. Alana was close behind him, amazed herself by the unnatural beauty of this place, no matter how ghastly it looked. She’d rarely, if ever, seen other worlds like this one, wild, untamed, without any cityscape or loads of ships gliding across the skyline. She enjoyed the silence – not the one you get accustomed to in a metropolis, where you just stop paying attention to loud rumbling of factories or swooshing of air-vehicles flying by your window – real silence, unbroken by anything or anyone.
“We’re almost here!” Wells interrupted her thoughts, his voice silent, and his posture slightly hunched. “Last time I’ve checked there was no one close to the ship. Maybe our captors are alive, and have set up a camp inside it. Maybe they are dead, or maybe they found a cave to hide in like we did.” His voice was becoming more and more silent as they walked towards their goal. “In any case, be careful and don’t make any sudden noises.”
“All right,” she whispered, “you’re not the only one with the recon training, you know.”
“Shhhh…” he silenced her, covering her mouth with his hand. Through the silhouettes of the pale trees they could spot the shape of the ship – half of it dug into the ground, the other sticking out of it. The trees around it were bent or have completely fallen, while the ones still standing seemed to be trying to reach out and grasp the immobilized metal construction.
Wells and Alana stood quiet under the cover of the woods for a while, making sure that no one was patrolling around the ship. When they were positive, they started slowly making their way towards the downed vehicle. The surrounding area showed no signs of life whatsoever. Finally having the chance to take a closer look at the ship, Wells saw that it was not as big as he’d expected, but rather a medium-sized shuttle, barely capable of hyperspace flight. Its outside was corroded, once dark-grey exterior coating was now laced with corroded bronze patterns that looked like a disease spread across a sick man’s skin. Its inside was dark, a few flickering lights here and there still showing the way.
“Cover the port side, I’ll go for starboard,” he pointed. “Look for anything useful: food, equipment, weapons.” She nodded, and went for the elevated port side of the ship. Wells went for the first door on his right. He started pulling the long metal lever, in hopes that the door would budge. And after exerting enough pressure onto them, using his leg as a support against the wall, the hydraulics inside the door hissed, and the door-lock was loose, suddenly releasing the door and launching Wells onto his back. He entered the room, feeling the walls to find his way around the room. There were no lights inside whatsoever, not even a smallest flicker. Judging by the layout and the bunks inside, he figured that it was a sleeping chamber, fitted with three beds. He also felt another door, positioned away from the entrance. This one, however, were easy to open as they had no locking mechanism whatsoever. This room was dimly illuminated by a back-up glowrod, used in cases of blackout like this. It was a narrow room, its walls covered by lockers and small plasteel cylinders. “Score,” Wells said as he started searching the lockers for anything that could be of use. He found several small glowrods and a cartridge of liquid cable in the first one, a couple of small blankets in the second and some canned protein meals in the plasteel cylinder, which he realized was a kind of a giant thermos. “The whole thing could be useful,” he thought, figuring a way to carry the giant container to the cave. He searched the remaining locker, but it had nothing of use, besides a few credits, which he gladly placed inside his pocket. With a glimpse, he noticed that there was something wrong, inconsistent with the bottom of the locker. Upon closer inspection he discovered a secret door, covering the false bottom of the cabinet. He forced open the secret door, and revealed a small compartment with a several medium-sized gems and a long, cylindrical metal object he recognized with a stutter. He took the device into his hands, felt its surface and with a press of a button activated a mechanism creating a long energy blade, illuminating the entire room with bright yellow light. He was astounded – he hasn’t held a lightsaber since his Academy days. The feeling was both nostalgic and new – he had forgotten how holding this weapon made one feel powerful. He moved the blade across the air, making a swooshing sound as it moved. He deactivated it, and hooked the weapon to his utility belt. He searched the room for a few more minutes, hoping to find a blaster, at least a hold-out one, but unfortunately there weren’t any. He was hoping to find some of his equipment he had when he was captured too, but it was nowhere to be found. “Darn,” he cursed, “the bastards must have sold it before departure.” He sighed. “Some of those gadgets could be useful now,” he thought to himself.
“Wells,” he heard Alana’s loud whisper coming from the first compartment he’d searched. He moved carefully, his hunch telling him that there’s something awfully wrong. Alana was crouching by the entrance.
“Wells,” she whispered, “someone’s coming. I heard blaster shots.”
“Still out of sight!” She was worried. “Did you find any weapons?”
“No,” he lied. “Come on, we have to get out before they arrive.”
The two rushed towards the exit, and just as they were on the bottom of the boarding ramp, they heard the blaster shots coming closer, and three figures appeared from the dense forest. Wells took Alana’s hand and dragged her beneath the landing ramp, hoping they wouldn’t notice them as they enter the ship. They could still see the three men, though; they were running away from the forest, at times turning back to shoot at what seemed to be thin air. But as the three men came closer so did their adversaries – silhouettes of what seemed to be other humanoids appeared out of nowhere – more than twenty of them trailing the running men. The figures moved unnaturally, appearing and reappearing randomly. There was something in those shadows that made Wells’ blood freeze. He was appalled – in all his years traveling the entire galaxy he had never seen, or ever had conceived that something like this existed. For the first time in a long while he felt fear – true, primal fear. The spirits pressed on, surrounding the fugitives, while the three men were running away in horror, firing a few bullets into the abominations, but to no avail. From time to time Wells could have sworn that the manifestations’ faces briefly appeared, before returning to shadow again. For the short moments that they were apparent, he could see the look of horror on the ghosts’ faces. Their skin was pale, their eyes white and their mouth parched black. As the three fugitives came closer, Wells noticed that they were wearing Sith uniforms – vintage Empire uniforms, their soldiers used to wear during the Great War.
“Veterans. Empire’s war veterans,” he whispered to Alana. “This is who you were gonna sell me to?”
“I had no idea,” she replied, her voice trembling. “What do we do? What are those things?”
“We run. Go around the ship, while they are distracted, and hope that neither side sees us.” Wells took her hand and when all three men were turned away, shooting at the strange figures, they made their way by the side of the ship that was away from the two other confronted parties. Just as they reached the area around the cockpit, they were abruptly brought to a stop – an invisible hand was grasping them around the throat, making them gasp for air. In front of them was a tall, eerie-looking green-skinned old Twi’lek wearing what Caleb recognized as ancient Jedi battle amour. His bony hand was stretched towards Wells and Alana, and with a razor-sharp, bitter voice he spoke: “And where,” he hissed, “do you think you’re going?”