Sunday, January 12, 2020
A uthor’s note: What if one of the pre-eminent directors of our time, Werner Herzog, had been tasked with directing The Return of the Jedi? What type of story might he choose to tell? That’s the basic idea here. You can find more about this in the supplemental materials.
Part 1 | Into the Woods
“Are we still waiting?”
This was the fifth member of the squad of stormtroopers in the cargo hold to come forward to the cockpit. Maybe it was the same one. To most Imperial officers like the shuttle captain, Stormtroopers may as well be clone troopers. They all looked the same, even with their helmets off. Sounded the same too. Always going on about their mission and the Empire.
The Imperial shuttle Arrik had been waiting for some time as the shuttle ahead of them dealt with some sort of issue.
He looked over at his co-pilot, who was doing most of the piloting at the moment. Even though they were in a holding pattern, he expected nothing less than vigilance from his second. He gave his co-pilot a deal with this I’m busy look.
After a few seconds pause, “Oh,” the co-pilot said. “Soon. We’re just holding at the moment.”
His superior had tuned out and was going through the re-entry and landing checklist.
“We’d prefer that you remain in the hold, especially during landing,” the co-pilot said, somewhat unsure. “They can be kinda rough here. We will update your lieutenant over the commlink of any important developments.”
“I am the lieutenant.” It was at this moment that the co-pilot realized he’d been so disinterested in whatever the visitor to his cockpit wanted that he’d not even noticed he was in an Imperial officer’s uniform.
In the distance, a tiny dot against a backdrop of stars, the shuttle Tydirium was flying languidly, almost casually. The co-pilot was monitoring the Tydirium’s communications with Imperial flight control. There was really no excuse for a crew not maintaining up-to-date clearance codes.
Scanners showed shuttle traffic continuing to back up behind their own shuttle, thanks to the Tydirium. Much closer behind, the lieutenant still wasn’t budging.
“We’ll be on the surface shortly.”
The co-pilot could hear in his earpiece that the admiral of the fleet himself had stepped in to handle the situation with the Tydirium. Proper security protocols were strictly adhered to in the Death Star construction zone. No exceptions because of – well – what happened the last time. As soon as the Tydirium captain touched down, he would be finished. The shuttle crew realized they would be also if he let this footsoldier keep distracting him. Even if he was a lieutenant. But he wasn’t letting up.
“Our orders were to report to the Death Star,” the stormtrooper said so matter of factly that it was almost surprising.
The shuttle and hundreds of others just like it had flown dozens of missions the past few weeks, bringing in troops from all over the galaxy to the Death Star and to the Imperial Base on the moon below. Something big was clearly happening. Really big. But this went unspoken among the pilots during their off hours gathered in the officer’s mess and rec room. Too many opportunities to be branded a spy. But everyone knew it.
“Um, well,” the copilot said trying to gather his response. He looked at his captain, who was offering him no help. “Our flight plan is to proceed to the surface where your squad are to debark. I could pull it up.”
In his earpiece he could hear the Tydirium finally get clearance to proceed through the energy shield.
The lieutenant turned to the captain.
“Would you tell me what is going on here?”
“What’s going on here,” the shuttle captain finally said without turning, is that Ensign Zythor is about to pilot this through an opening in an energy shield only a couple meters wider than the ship. Unless you want to be flaming vapors, return to the hold.”
Ahead of them the Tydirium began moving forward on its path through the shield and to the planet surface.
“But I have my orders.”
“And I have mine,” the captain said. From the copilot seat another voice said “This is the Shuttle Arrik requesting clearance to land at Endor station.”
The lieutenant stood there a few seconds before heading back to the hold.
“Wait here,” the lieutenant said to his squad of stormtroopers neatly standing at attention near the shuttle’s landing ramp.
The shuttle sat toward the edge of the vast Imperial landing platform at the Endor base. It had just touched down moments ago. The engines were still winding down when the lieutenant decided to head out to wherever he was going.
The troopers watched him briskly stride off toward the edge of the landing platform. He made it to the edge before he stopped, looked around a bit and finally motioned a ground crewman over to him. The crewman gesticulated broadly in the direction of a ladder that led several stories down from the landing platform.
Once the lieutenant was out of sight, the crewman turned to the other and the two began laughing.
“At-ease,” the leader of the stormtrooper squad said as the lieutenant disappeared over the edge.
The five Stormtroopers in the squad shifted to at-ease. Even though the day was still early, the hot Endor sun was beating down, mixing with the heat from the shuttle engines. It could be even felt through their armor. The shuttle’s hull popped and clicked as it cooled off, and occasionally a burst of gas would emit from one of the blowoff vents. The smell of the landing platform was overwhelming — acrid shuttle fuel and exhaust, but the squad leader noticed that the air was thin — as if breathing didn’t quite work well enough.
He also noticed that one of his at-ease soldiers was a little too at-ease.
“Trooper BR-682, you’re an Empire trooper. Let’s look like one.”
The squad leader also began to consider what this planet was all about. The landing pad towered so tall over a clearing that it dwarfed even the giant trees that surrounded it. These ancient behemoths stretched off into the distance, but their tops nearest the landing platform had been scorched and burned away by shuttle exhaust. But beyond, as far at the squad leader’s eyes could see, was a sea of green treetops swaying in the breeze. What was beneath was unknown. The endless vista gave up none of its secrets.
Above them in the sky was the outline of the Death Star under construction. It hung so low that it almost seemed reachable. That was where they were supposed to be, where their orders said they were going, the squad leader thought. Yet they were here. Waiting for … something.
“Where’s your leff-tenant?” a posh accent of an upperclass Imperial officer asked out of nowhere. The squad leader realized that an officer had emerged from an elevator just next to the shuttle and was advancing their way. The squad snapped to attention.
“Sir, he went down that ladder over there, sir!” the squad leader answered.
“Why didn’t he take the elevator?”
“Sir, I’m not able to answer that, sir!”
The General’s eyes traveled up and down the line of assembled troopers to the left of the squad leader. Their armor gleamed in the sunlight. Not only it was new, but the troopers had spent endless hours polishing it in training. The squad leader took great pride in maintaining his armor. But after years of service, his looked downright shabby next to them.
“A fresh squad I see.”
“Sir, yes, sir! A week out of training. They serve the Emperor with pride, sir!”
“Yes, I’m sure they will,” he said, with a slight note of disdain in his voice.
“I don’t have time to wait for junior officers,” the general said almost to no one. “Your orders have been changed. Tell your officer that these come directly from Lord Vader by order of the Emperor himself.”
Trepidation at the change of orders was replaced with a sudden bolt of excitement, not just for the squad members, but even for someone as experienced as the squad leader. They stayed rigidly at attention, but only because of its discipline did the squad not betray their excitement at the news. The Emperor! Lord Vader would himself would be tracking their progress!
The squad leader had long served the Empire, but never like this. And his troopers, most on their first mission, would be thrilled to be chosen. Granted, having such thoughts was not exactly proper. Everyone was there to serve the Empire. Even the Rebels, as they would eventually find out. Still, to be chosen for such a mission was a great honor, and he — they — certainly would not fail the Dark Lord. His troopers would be ready.
The general pulled a sheaf of papers from his breast pocket and shoved them in the direction of the first person in the line. “Give these to your leff-tenant should he ever find his way back here.”
Quite a lot of time elapsed before the lieutenant arrived back at the shuttle. Or rather, where the shuttle had been. The ship and its crew had long since departed on another run.
As soon as the lieutenant stepped from the elevator, the squad snapped to attention.
“Where’s the shuttle?”
“Sir, it flew away, sir,” the squad leader replied.
The lieutenant looked skyward. He seemed as if he wished he’d been on it.
After a pause, the lieutenant said “I’m told you have our orders.” He held out his hand.
Sir, yes, sir,” the squad leader said and extended his hand with the sheaf of papers he’d been given earlier. He stepped forward and placed them in the lieutenant’s hand. “Sir, I’m told they come from the Emperor himself, sir”
He stepped back in line.
If that news was meant to be encouraging, it didn’t last long. The lieutenant became increasingly agitated as he flipped through the dozen or so pages. Then he seemed to be thinking for several minutes. Finally, he turned to the squad.
“Squad leader, we are to proceed at bearing 157.23 for 12 kilometers and engage in a grid search pattern. We are to surveil a band of Rebels planning sabotage and terrorism of this facility and its crew. We are to track and report their position. We are to avoid contact at all costs. If we are seen by Rebels we are not to engage. Prepare your squad. We leave in one hour.”
He sounded less than enthusiastic to the squad leader. Especially about the “we are not to engage” part.” But an order had been given.
Shortly after, someone from the quartermaster’s office arrived with equipment for the mission. Among it was a long-range commlink for contacting the Imperial base. Their standard commlinks, made for intrasquad communications, had too short a range. Also included were portable trackers that could detect nearby life forms and the other troopers’ personal transponders. Knowing where the Rebels are, as well as one’s own squad, would be useful for such a stealthy mission.
Also included was camping equipment and food rations for at least two weeks. Unusually, grenades, mines or other explosives were not included. Not even small demolition charges. But the quartermaster did have a gift of sorts.
“I can only spare one for your squad,” the quartermaster said as he demoed the latest version of the portable trackers he’d just given the troopers. It was far more powerful than standard models. Kilometers of range, yet undetectable by the Rebels. The new version could scan and instantly provide a topographic map of surrounding terrain. Even better, it could provide a 3D layout of a building and everyone in it.
“Useful for cleaning out nests of Rebel scum. Just — pew pew — shoot at the red dots,” he added. That tracker would go into the lieutenant’s bag. The lieutenant made sure of that.
The quartermaster also had something for the lieutenant: a set of stormtrooper armor. The officer gave it a once over and demurred. His face was red. “Get me an officer’s field uniform.”
“My orders were to provide you with armor,” the quartermaster said flipping through papers on a clipboard. “No rank insignia visible. Yeah, those Rebels go straight for the officers these days.”
The lieutenant pulled him aside and in a low whisper said “I need an officer’s uniform. I’m an officer. I’m not going to go on patrol dressed like,” he paused, and said incredulously “… a stormtrooper.”
“Trust me, where you’re headed, you do.” He paused before adding, “sir.” He shoved the clipboard at him. “I got a lot of squads to equip today. Can you sign?”
“I want to talk to your superior.” The squad was so busy readying themselves that they didn’t even notice the two had disappeared into the elevator.
With the lieutenant gone, the squad took the opportunity to prepare for their patrol. The equipment made an impressive pile on the landing platform. Within a half hour it was carefully packed and stowed, ready for the mission that awaited.
By then, the lieutenant had returned wearing a decided scowl. The squad stood at attention, as the quartermaster, who was clearly reaching the end of his patience, helped the lieutenant on with his armor. The lieutenant’s unfamiliarity with it and his lack of cooperation dragged the process out. The boots were particularly difficult. As the lieutenant struggled, squad leader carefully studied every contour and crevice of the armor, looking for some mark or tell. He didn’t want to mistake him for one of his troopers.
When the lieutenant finally finished, the squad’s scheduled departure time had long passed. Holding his helmet under his arm and looking uncomfortable, the lieutenant gave the order, “Move out.” On the order, the troopers shouldered their packs with a heave — they were easily 20 kilograms each. In a crisp line, the squad headed to the elevator. They got just a glimpse of the bustle of activity at the Imperial base before they passed out the rear blast doors.
The troop stood proudly at attention, just outside the doors, ready to head into the woods.
“Squad leader, are your Troopers ready?” the lieutenant asked, as he fiddled with his armor.
“You heard the lieutenant. Are you ready?” the squad leader shouted.
“Sir yes, sir!”
“There’s Rebels in those woods. They want to kill us. Are you going to let that happen?”
“Sir, no, sir!”
“I can’t hear you!”
“SIR, NO, SIR!”
“We are to be the eyes and ears of the Emperor, and if fortune favors us, his swift and deadly hand. Are you ready stormtroopers!”
“SIR, YES, SIR!”
His troopers were ready, indeed. He didn’t need to see their faces to know. He never did. A good squad leader never should. He could sense it in their voices, their stances, how they moved. They were like a coiled spring, tense and ready for the mission. His job was to keep them that way – until he released it, all at once.
“Sir,” the squad leader said at last to the lieutenant, with a bit of pride in his voice. “My men are prepared, sir.”
The trip through the forest moon proved far more arduous then it had first seemed.
As promised, the scanner mapped the terrain and surroundings with uncanny accuracy. This was a big help in unfamiliar territory, the squad leader found. And this was as unfamiliar as any he’d experienced. Even with the maps, the terrain was rough, littered with fallen logs and tree limbs. Giant ferns and other plants provided obstacles at every turn. Even a boulder had to be traversed now and then.
As obstacles, none of this compared to the trees. The view from the landing platform had not done justice to their sheer scale. They were towering ancient giants, mere seedlings when the Old Republic was founded. Their tops stretched hundreds of meters overhead, blotting out the sun, offering only occasional glimpses of the sky above. The squad leader, on his many missions, had never seen anything like them.
But the squad members spent no time reveling in their grandeur. As trained troopers their minds dwelt on their tactical situation, their mission, the Emperor’s mission. Whereas mere a visitor might gape at these towering trees, the trooper, sharp and true, might see a hiding place for a Rebel scout or a sniper’s nest. Where someone might see a downed log, a trooper would see cover to set up an ambush. A fern — well, that was still a fern. But a trooper was always ready to be attacked or, more importantly, to attack.
The woods, the greenery, the forest itself was a disconcerting place for these troopers. Just another stop of what would probably be many. True, the squad leader had fought Rebels on many alien worlds — deserts, swamps, beaches. And the rest of the troopers, though inexperienced, had training to prepare them for unusual topographies and ecosystems. But none of this felt like a place they should be.
Their home was on the star destroyers and transport ships that took them from place to place. The deep thrum of engines in the background, the dim lighting, the metal floors and mechanical clank of sliding doors — those felt safe and solid, not at all like the leaves and pine needles crunching beneath their boots. The air they were used to was purified and clean, not like this mix of pine and the loamy musk of decaying foliage.
With every step this world just felt wrong.
The squad leader was reminded of his time serving on board the Super Star Destroyer Executor as they chased that ridiculous freighter, reminded of that disconcerting feeling of asteroids slamming into the hull so hard that even the giant dreadnought would shudder and groan. He was crossing an engineering shaft on a catwalk when an asteroid exploded against the hull, sending him tumbling toward an endless chasm. Despite the lack of railings, he managed to grab the edge as his two squadmates tumbled into the darkness. Even the most solid and secure places can change in a mere flash. This place – it was impossible to know.
Despite the heat and unforgiving terrain, the squad covered several kilometers in a perfect Imperial squad stealth formation, carefully overseen by the squad leader. The commlink was always crackling alive with his orders – trooper VS-552 out of position, trooper BR-682 was lagging, trooper LW-312 at point should pick up the pace. Just because the journey had gotten hard, that was no reason to drop protocol.
They paused every two hours to rest and for the lieutenant to call in their location and report no signs of rebels spotted. His reports were terse, almost perfunctory, the squad leader noticed. Sometimes they didn’t follow Imperial protocols. He’d just stick the transmitter back in the pack without waiting for acknowledgement. As time went, the lieutenant even seemed less interested in giving reports at all. The squad leader had to remind him more than once. Keeping track was distracting the squad leader from monitoring formation, so he pulled trooper FD-472 aside.
“Make sure we maintain a regular reporting schedule. You are to remind me.”
“Sir, yes, sir!” the trooper said briskly. That much was expected. A trooper, of course, would always comply with orders. But these reports were to go to the Emperor himself, the trooper thought as he made his way back to position. He was setting his chronometer when this commlink cracked.
“Trooper FD-472, you are out of position.”
“Sir, will comply, sir!”
“And clean that dirt off of your armor. Look like a trooper”
“Sir, yes sir!”
As the day lingered on, the squad’s path took them farther and farther away from the Imperial base. The landing platform towering over the trees had disappeared from view hours ago. The thump of the AT-ATs walking around had faded. After awhile, the hum of the shield generator and the roar of shuttles taking off, all signs of the Empire’s might, was lost. Only sounds of the forest, birds, insects, the wind and rustle of branches and the crunching of their footsteps could be heard.
The troopers were but tiny white dots among the vast greenery, in perfect formation, heading deeper and deeper into the woods.
The squad leader had never seen a lieutenant behave quite this way.
He seemed to just not care sometimes. The squad’s progress report to base was long overdue.
“Sir, we are to report, sir,” trooper FD-472’s voice said over the commmlink for the third time. He almost seemed agitated, worried even. The trooper was simply following the squad leader’s orders, as he should.
The squad leader had a different issue. He wondered what the reaction might be if he queried the lieutenant. Many officers he’d served with could be harsh to those who displeased them. But they’d all been terse disciplinarians. This one seemed – he paused to think for a second – bored? No, disengaged.
“Halt” the lieutenant finally signaled the rest the squad. Far ahead, trooper LW-312 on point, signaled halt to the squad and slipped behind a large fern. The squad leader, taking cover behind logs, plants and a large tree, quickly worked his way to the lieutenant’s position. Unlike the rest of the squad under cover, he was standing in the open. Despite the danger, the squad leader stood in front of him.
“Sir, permission to call in our progress report, sir.”
The lieutenant didn’t answer. Instead, his vision seemed fixed on something in the distance, up in the trees. The squad leader turned his head toward whatever the lieutenant had fixated upon. A few seconds passed before he even saw it. It was high up in the canopy in a tangle of branches, more than 200 meters distant. A shapeless, fuzzy dot. At first it looked like a nest or possibly just a tangle of sticks and needles from the tree. Then it slightly shifted its position. Or maybe it was just the breeze.
“Sir?” the squad leader asked, not really knowing what he was querying. Perhaps the lieutenant had seen a Rebel scout. the squad leader reached back to his pack to grab his electrobinoculars to get a better look. Turned out he wouldn’t need them.
In one swift move the lieutenant raised his blaster rifle and fired past the squad leader’s head at the spot in the distance. The branches exploded in a shower of sparks and smoke. He waited a second to see if anything fell. Then he fired again. The squad leader was able to regain his bearing and reacted instinctively. In a move he would later find inexplicable, he grabbed the lieutenant’s rifle and wrestled the muzzle toward the ground.
“Sir, remember your orders.” he hissed. “Don’t be seen, don’t engage.”
Before the squad leader could begin to contemplate the implications of his insubordination, he could feel the lieutenant wrestling the gun upward, perhaps to shoot him too.
“Sir,” he said keeping his grip on the blaster, even as the muzzle began to burn his hand through his gloves. “Sir!” As his words cut through the melee, he could feel the lieutenant wilt. “Please sir, the mission,” he said plaintively.
The two stood gripping the gun, seemingly at an impasse.
“Yes, the mission,” the lieutenant said derisively.
“Do whatever you want. Report, or don’t report,” the lieutenant finally said and walked off toward the head of the squad. Or where he thought they were. Upon hearing the blaster shots they had snapped into defensive positions. Several more moments passed before their white helmets could be seen popping up, waiting for an order.
“Report! Do we have a kill? Is it clear?” Trooper LW-312 queried from point.
The squad leader turned to look at the tangle of burning tree limbs in the distance. He hadn’t seen anything fall, and the smoke was obscuring the view. He wasn’t even sure it was a threat to begin with. Was a rebel spying on their position?
“Unconfirmed,” he replied to the trooper on point. He wasn’t sure whether to hold position or move on. The lieutenant was wandering forward. Asking him for orders didn’t seem like a good idea. He guessed that meant they were moving on.
He turned to look back at the burning spot, trying to read something, anything. Had it been a Rebel? If it was a Rebel, the squad were under orders not to fire. Or was it just nothing? It was impossible to know now.
Finally the squad leader said “Return to formation and proceed,” the same way he’d said hundreds of times before. Then, after a pause, he added. “But use caution.”
Caution from what, he was unsure. But he felt he needed to say it.
Darkness had fallen over the forest moon and the temperature dropped along with it. The squad had gathered in a small clearing to set up camp. Though one would hardly recognize it as a camp.
This was a stealth mission, and the squad leader made sure all protocols were strictly followed. A Rebel could look right at their camp and never see it, so carefully was it set up. The team carried a thermal unit, but its heat signature was too easily spotted on the Rebels’ electrobinoculars. The squad leader could tell his troopers were disappointed when he’d ordered it stowed. Cold food rations and uncomfortably frigid nights were going to be the norm for awhile. He also ordered the troopers to keep chatter to necessity only, and then at a mere whisper. He busied them with cleaning their armor.
This was going to be a tough mission, the squad leader could tell. He preferred a straight fight to all this sneaking around. The sleeping rough, the unfamiliar terrain, the stealth — these were all somehow much more daunting. It required a kind of discipline that his troops were trained, but not practiced, in.
And there was the lieutenant. He knew without saying that the lieutenant needed to be watched more closely. He sensed that his troopers felt that way too. But such things could not even be whispered among his troopers, even when the lieutenant was sitting on his own, out of earshot. While the squad leader knew that in a firefight that they could trust any of the others with their life, he also knew that the members’ first loyalty was to the Empire. Dissent would be reported.
As the squad leader sat in the dark, even as he thought ahead to securing the camp and planning the next day’s patrol, his mind returned again and again to the incident with the lieutenant. He knew he was trying to protect the mission and the squad. But he’d tried to grab his officer’s gun from his hand. He’d tried to stop his fire. It had been almost reflexive. Yet the job of a stormtrooper was not to mourn the dead, but to carry out the will of the Empire.
Carrying out that will took many forms. He’d learned this lesson years ago while trying to recover some missing droids. He saw an eager young squad leader order fire on a pair of homesteaders. Their petulance earned their deaths, but they also didn’t have the droids, and their deaths didn’t get the droids back. In fact, they were never recovered. The will of the Empire was not carried out. And only a delay in cleaning up the mess meant the squad leader wasn’t on the Death Star when …
And what a mess it was. There were at least a dozen witnesses to kill, farms to burn and make it look like it was Sand People. Then local authorities got involved, and they had to be killed too. All that extra trouble because of one bad decision by one Trooper. Deciding not to fire could be as important as deciding to pull the trigger, he knew. Not firing can save a mission.
The lieutenant would not see it that way. The squad leader, a true and trained stormtrooper, was ready for any consequences. He had no fear of execution or punishment. Even unfair punishment was important to build discipline. It was a reminder of the Empire’s unquestioned power over even the smallest member.
But the uncertainty gnawed at him. He’d interfered with an officer, but why did it still feel like the right decision? He ached for the lieutenant to put a point on the day’s events. He found out soon enough.
The squad leader approached the lieutenant and stood at attention.
“Sir, the camp is established, sir,” he told the lieutenant.
“Sir, do you require any food rations, sir.”
The lieutenant held up a bar that he was eating.
“Sir, troopers BR-682 and VS-552 have established a perimeter, sir.”
The lieutenant did not acknowledge or even rise from his seated position. A blanket was wrapped around his upper body. The pure white of his boots and legs was flecked with mud and bits of forest debris. He was staring upward at the Death Star, a faint glow in the sky, looking more like a moon than a space station, visible through the canopy of trees. He did not break his gaze.
By now the squad leader was feeling uneasy about the exchange.
“Sir, should we report back our base camp position to the Imperial base, sir?”
“Sir, is there anything else you require of me, sir.”
“Bring me the thermal device. It’s freezing.”
“Sir?” he said. And then he said something he hadn’t been expecting to. “Sir, I will take the first watch, sir.”
“Fine. You do that.”
“Sir, thank you, sir.”
As he walked away, he found his mind racing. It was improper for the squad leader to question an officer’s leadership, but his gut was telling him something was seriously off. Perhaps years in the field really had undone some of his stormtrooper loyalty training. But what good was loyalty with no mission? Part of him told himself that he probably should stay at the camp to keep an eye on the lieutenant. But those Rebels out there were a bigger threat right now.
If he could get a bead on the Rebels, even a hint of their location, that would put the Emperor’s mission back on track. Even the most disinterested lieutenant couldn’t fault that.
Part 2 | Here Be Monsters
At this point the squad leader felt like he might just accidentally trip over the Rebel encampment.
There was nothing out here but darkness and woods and woods and more woods. Slip silently through a grove of trees and the reward was still more trees.
The squad leader hadn’t done a night watch in years. Pretty much not since he was named a squad leader. He’d been patrolling the perimeter for hours now. Without night vision provided by his helmet the trek would have been impossible. Still he was bumping his head on low-hanging limbs, tripping over fallen branches and entangling himself in vines.
One particularly treacherous misstep set him tumbling down a slippery bank into a stream. The frigid water hurt like a blaster bolt. Squishing around in cold wet boots made him wish he had his dry socks back at the camp.
He pulled out his tracker and flipped it open. The detector came to life, and the screen lit up with an almost solid blob of red in all directions. The woods around him was filled with countless life forms, above, below and around him, pulsing and moving about. He could adjust the sensitivity down to just see “big” creatures. But the screen was now a red fog, with a few darker blobs such as himself and the rest of the squad back at camp. Such was this blasted place. Useless.
Range and bearing showed that he wasn’t lost. But then, what was lost anyway? He was right here regardless of where he was supposed to be.
Exhaustion had set in awhile ago and hung on him like a weight. Aside from a short nap on the shuttle ride in, he’d not slept in at least 20 hours. Checking his chronometer he saw he had less than an hour remaining. An hour to welcome rest. He couldn’t allow himself to think about that. He willed himself awake.
He had begun to think that trying to find the Rebels himself had been a miscalculation on his part. Hours of patrolling had revealed nothing of use. No signs of Rebels, no enemies of the Empire, no animals even. Just bugs and trees. Swarms of bugs that seemed drawn to his stormtrooper armor. Around him the sounds of night — chirping, squawking, buzzing — filled the air. He puzzled that something so empty could also be so full.
But somewhere in that emptiness – those Rebels were out there. That untrained band of scum. He knew they were fanatical in their hatred of stormtroopers. At the first sign of white armor they would open fire. He would not let that happen. The Emperor had sent his squad on this mission, so the very future of the Empire could hang on it. The thought energized him. He picked up his pace, stepping over logs and under a downed tree as his path took him in a gradual spiral back toward the base camp.
Soon the faster pace began to take its toll. With each step his legs felt leaden. He was breathing heavily in this thin air. He had to sit down, if only for a minute. The Empire never rested, but sometimes its Stormtroopers had to. He could only do so much, he decided as he sat there. He’d like to stay out and search, but he had his limits. He needed to get back, he decided. Maybe in a few minutes, though.
He was breathing heavily enough that he was surprised he even heard the sound. He was unsure at first. But then he heard it more clearly. And again. The rustle of something — feet? — on the leaves and litter of the forest floor.
The sound was almost imperceptible among the wind and rustling of trees. Years of experience told him it was there. He focused on it, causing the aural enhancers in his helmet to focus on it too. He quietly slipped under some cover, knelt, and pulled out the tracker. He twiddled its settings. Whatever was out there, if it was out there at all, was nearby and should show up. But all the interference — useless. He wrestled the tracker back into its holster. He never liked technology compared with his own instincts anyway.
He adjusted his night vision to its most sensitive setting. The world around him was lit in an unnatural hazy green glow. He turned, scanning about him, his blaster raised and ready. He scrutinized the green haze of the scene, each tree and fern for any sign of danger — any sign of anything. That tree trunk — something looks strange. He struggled to make out the shape. Is that an arm?
He was seeing things, shapes in the dark.
A shrill beep cut through his earpiece and the voice of his proximity and motion detector read out into his earpiece “right rear, bearing 15 degrees, 20 meters.” He wheeled around and dropped down into the cover of the forest floor. His blaster pointed at the exact spot his tracker had called out.
“Show yourself,” he growled to himself.
He saw nothing but an inky green darkness framed by the fronds of an oversized fern. He stared at the spot, straining his eyes to see anything.
“Night vision, zoom and enhance section G-8” he ordered.
The vision blurred for a second and then snapped into a sharp view. He strained his eyes again. He could just make out two small round shapes that seemed to be floating, less than a meter from the forest floor. What is it? Had he been seen? Was it even there at all? He considered firing, but “do not engage.” If it wasn’t a Rebel, he knew the report of his blaster shot would be heard for kilometers. His finger squeezed and then relaxed. He had to be sure.
He stared more, as the enhance mode struggled to lock onto something, anything in the nighttime shadows. He was sure he could begin to make something out. But what was it? Was it moving? The shapes disappeared for a split second. He was trying to process what he was seeing. They floated like two glowing discs in the darkness. They vanished and reappeared again.
Suddenly he realized what he was seeing. Eyes in the dark. Blinking.
The squad leader pressed forward, belly crawling toward — whatever it was. Was it a threat or just curious? Giving up his location to Rebels wasn’t worth felling some stupid animal. Not until he knew.
He kept his blaster focused on it as he shifted to a low crouch. He heard a sharp crack as wood gave way and felt himself suddenly upended and jerked skyward, tumbling and tumbling as a net scooped him up. His blaster flew from his hands and disappeared off into the dark.
One of the squad leader’s arms was forced behind him and the other was tangled in some sort of ropes or vines. He was still bouncing and spinning.
“Well, shit,” he said.
He was struggling to find his bearings, upside down, trapped and twisting in the dark – too distracted to hear the rustle of footsteps on the forest floor below as the area beneath him flooded with movement.
The squad members awoke with the first light.
Trooper FD-472 was the first to notice that something was wrong. The squad leader was supposed to awaken him for the second watch. He hadn’t. The trooper had slept right through. Worse, the squad leader was nowhere to be seen. He’d not been back. A light frost covered the leaves of the foliage in the camp, glistening in the soft golden light. It showed no signs of disturbance. Just the squad leader missing.
Trooper FD-472 immediately reported the situation to the lieutenant. Though, he had to wait for the lieutenant to finish urinating against a tree. Steam was rising from the wet smudge of bark.
“Sir,” he said after the lieutenant finished. “I must report an irregularity. Squad Leader GM-3492 has not returned from first watch, and I neglected my second watch duties. Sir, I did not awaken, sir.”
Stormtroopers are trained to always give a full assessment of the situation regardless of their role, even failures.
“Godammit,” the lieutenant muttered. “Godammit!” His voice was now rising. “I want to knock that bucket off your head and beat you senseless, but you’d probably like it.”
“Don’t you see what’s going on here? No of course you don’t. You’re just troopers. You just follow orders and find new ways to die. Dying isn’t my plan, so could you morons …” he paused “…stop including me!”
Trooper FD-472 was a bit unsure of his next move. He scanned the statement looking for an order, but the lieutenant had given him nothing to go on. He waited a few more seconds. “Sir, your orders. Should we go find him, sir?”
The lieutenant sighed loudly.
“Sir, the mission? The Rebels, sir?” the trooper asked.
“Your mission is to die. Whether that happens today or tomorrow isn’t my concern.”
The lieutenant’s words made little sense to the trooper. Dying for the Empire would be an honor!
“Sir?” FD-472 said. He was still awaiting an order he could actually follow. “I await my chance to serve. What are your orders, sir?”
“Go find him,” he said. “You too.” He gestured toward LW-312, who he seemed to be picking at random. “Find the squad leader’s last-known position.”
“Sir, do we need to report,” sir?” trooper FD-472 interjected.
“Only if someone shoots you. I don’t want to sit here all morning waiting for you to get back if you’re dead.”
The lieutenant paced near the edge of the clearing, under a group of large ferns.
By now the sun was up in the sky. It had cut through the morning chill, and already he could tell it was going to be a hot one.
Troopers FD-472 and LW-312 had long since disappeared into the underbrush. There had been a debate between the troopers as to what the squad leader’s last position had been. His signal had been erratic, especially before they lost contact entirely. And the scanner offered no insight. Either way, the lieutenant had nothing to do but wait.
Things were going really badly, he thought. First this mission, and then he loses his squad leader, probably to the Rebels. The squad leader was the only one here who had any experience or smarts, the only one with any chance of getting the lieutenant out of this mess. If the Rebels took out the squad leader, they were certain to get the two troopers he’d just sent after him. The thing he feared most had started, and was getting worse.
He sat down on a log to think about his position and how he might improve it. What was really happening was obvious.
He’d been a junior officer on the Death Star, fresh out of the training academy, when the Rebels broke their terrorist leader out right under the nose of the Dark Lord. The lieutenant, then an ensign, was sent way out to check out reports of a Rebel base on Dantooine. But he remembered talk among other officers before he shipped out. Strange orders were coming down. “These make no sense!” one officer raged. Only after, did they. He’d figured them out, pieced them together to discover a fact he dare not utter aloud: They let them go. It was the only explanation. Their escape was too easy.
The TIE Fighter squadron commander was livid at his orders, at the humiliation of losing fighters and crews to a beat-up Corrilian freighter. Imperial Stormtroopers, known for their precision, not allowed to even aim! His only respite was that he did not have to witness it.
And the foolishness led to those religious fanatics destroying the station. Troopers allowed to do their job would have stopped it. Those Rebels would have laid dead in the corridor outside the leader’s cell. And the excuses proffered by Imperial officers were absurd. “The explosion was just a reactor accident as the Death Star was preparing to fire.”
But they were just choosing to believe the lie because the truth was too terrible. They died for the lie on the Death Star, an irony dark and bitter. He vowed he’d never be sent on a mission to just “keep the Rebels busy” like those troopers. He would never die for a lie. Yet, here he was.
He picked up a stick and threw it as far as he could.
He checked his chronometer. An hour had passed with no word from the two troopers. While he wasn’t ready to call them overdue, they were certainly tardy. In situations like these, tardy troopers usually meant they were dead. Half of his squad gone on the first day. Soon those dwindling numbers would include him, if he were not more careful. He’d made a mistake to send out two, he realized. He should not have let his squad leader go out. He was running out of troopers.
Then he heard … Is that … Could it be … Is that the wail of engines and blaster shots in the distance? He stopped to listen. The sound was distant – with all these trees who knows how far – but it was definitely there. He heard an explosion. What had his troopers dragged him into now? The best case he could think of is that the Rebels were on the move. And close by. This darkened his mood.
Across the clearing Trooper VS-552 was breaking down the camp. The sun had moved higher in the sky and the rest of the clouds had burned off, leaving the sky a bright and clear blue. Off in the distance hung the Death Star, visible through the open canopy of the clearing.
Another band of Rebels was on the move this time against the Empire’s new weapon. It would be yet another repeat with a grander scale, bigger battles and higher stakes. But so much of it, including the fact that there was another Death Star, seemed in a way unimaginative. A retread.
Why are we doing this all again? Had the mighty Empire run out of ideas? Now he found himself in the same position as those other commanders. His job wasn’t to stop the Rebels, to stare them in the eye and call them scum as his troopers extinguished them in a hail of blaster fire. Track them. Don’t engage even if spotted. What kind of orders were those?
He continued to stare at the Death Star, its awkward half-completed, one-eyed visage seemed to stare back. That’s where he should be. He had to get there, somehow. As he stared he noticed something in the treetops at the edge of the clearing. It looked like the thing he’d fired at the day before. But it could not be. The squad leader they were now looking for had interfered.
Was it moving? It was just a brown spot. It was moving. It had an arm and it was making a swift downward motion. Toward him.
The lieutenant felt a presence behind him. He wheeled and found himself staring straight into two round dark lifeless eyes. Like glass. Like doll’s eyes sewn into a costume. Then the eyes blinked.
“Did you hear that?” Trooper FD-472 asked.
Trooper LW-312, who was several meters behind, in a rear guard position, stopped.
“Is that …”
“Yes. Blaster fire. And speeder bikes.”
The pair had been making their way toward the squad leader’s last position. Although the coordinates were only about 1 kilometer from the base camp, it had been slow going as they had to traverse a stream and find their way over logs and through thick underbrush.
But with their goal so close, the sounds of nearby battle left them unsure of their next course of action.
Both stood frozen. Although they were thoroughly trained fighters, their training was mainly tactical. Situations like these were too uncertain, and the lieutenant hadn’t bothered to put either of the pair in charge of the search party. They were hoping for some sort of order to arrive through their earpieces.
“It’s getting closer,” FD-472 said.
“What should we do?” LW-312 replied.
“We need to report.”
The speeder bike roar was now right on top of them. Blaster bolts flashed by just a few meters away, splitting some limbs and flashing fern leaves into sparks. They had to do something. Right now.
“Our orders said to not engage. So let’s not engage.”
“I think we should hide,” Trooper LW-312 said, trying his utmost to not contravene his training and sound as if he was giving an order.
The two dove behind a large log and from behind it saw two speeder bikes carrying stormtroopers flash by in quick succession. A speeder bike flashed by carrying two riders wearing some sort of forest camouflage, in hot pursuit. Rebels!
When the sound finally began receding in the distance, the two troopers emerged.
“Rebel scum,” LW-312 said contemptuously.
“We need to report,” FD-472 said. He paused a pick off a leaf and brush off some dirt that had been become stuck to his armor.
Their commlinks offered nothing but a squeal of feedback and static. The Rebels were jamming communications, turning the Empire’s technology against itself. Just the kind of chaos they liked to spread.
“Rebel scum,” LW-312 said.
With communications blocked, the next question was what to do next. Had their mission to find the squad leader been superseded until they report back? Should they attempt to track the Rebels?
The distant sound of the speeder bike was interrupted by the distant sound of an explosion. That further complicated matters. They really needed the squad leader, who usually sorted out this kind of thing for them. At last they decided to continue to the squad leader’s last known position but to report back when communications became possible.
“I think that’s what his orders would be,” FD-472 said, somewhat queasy at having interpreted orders rather than just following them. But the orders weren’t all that clear to begin with.
So they returned to their mission. The pair crept on through the underbrush, their destination just a few meters ahead.
“This mission,” FD-472 thought to himself as he leveled his blaster, “is not going the way I expected.”
Troopers LW-312 and FD-472 approached the squad leader’s last known position with caution. The day’s events so far were confusing enough. Protocol and training were all they had to fall back on at this point. Their approach to the position was a perfect execution of Empire trooper stealth protocols.
But as they entered the clearing, their training again eluded them. No training could have even anticipated this.
After a short pause FD-472 asked, “What do you make of that?”
“It’s a trap.” LW-312 replied.
“Some sort of Rebel scum trick!”
The pair had indeed wandered into a trap — a literal trap.
A tree limb had been stuck upright into the ground. A branch protruding from one side was stacked with slabs of meat. The trigger and the bait. The two Stormtroopers could just make out the outlines of a rope net hidden under leaves and other litter. His trainers taught him that Rebels often use unorthodox tactics. But this truly made no sense.
Were they supposed to actually fall for it? Maybe the fact that it made no sense was actually the trap.
LW-312 had a realization and motioned toward the meat.
“You don’t think …” he stammered. “I mean, is it possible that is” he paused and then motioned “the squad leader?”
Would the Rebels really do that? They were scum and savages, but were they really that savage? Either way evacuating the clearing, and quickly, seemed the best move for the two troopers. But at this point neither could fathom what the rebels had planned for them with this little display.
“Rebel scum,” LW-312 muttered to himself.
“We need to call this in,” FD-472 said as the pair slipped through the underbrush.
Safely under cover, FD-472 engaged his commlink. Still jammed. He switched to his tracker. The Rebels no doubt would be nearby, lying in wait. The scanner still showed the area was overrun with life forms. But this time it showed the squad leader’s homing signal. Very weak, but just meters away.
“We need to be on alert.” LW-312 said.
The two troopers slipped through the underbrush from log to log as they silently approached the location. Both troopers tensed, their training taking over. Nothing was making sense about anything right now. But if the Rebels were going to spring their trap — their real trap not some easily detectable snare — it would likely be here.
The homing signal was just ahead, coming from a depression in the forest floor. A thick overhang of ferns, branches and leaves gave it a domelike appearance, almost as if the cluster had been formed into a makeshift hut. Taking one last look for signs of danger, FD-472 slipped through the opening into it. LW-312, gun raised, alert to any danger, took cover to watch over the clearing.
FD-472’s helmet vision quickly adjusted to the darkness inside. He stumbled back and gasped at the scene before him. The air, foul with death, burned his nostrils. His inhalation was so sharp, the air so curdled, that he choked. LW-312, hearing this on his commlink, closed the few meters to the cluster in seconds and dove in, blaster at the ready. It wasn’t needed.
Instead of a nest of Rebels to be dispatched they’d found an abattoir.
A ghoulish tableau spread out before them. The squad leader’s armor had been stripped off and was haphazardly thrown to one side. The armor was broken in places and spattered with blood, a sign of the leader’s brutal end. A large puddle in the beaten-down earth showed that he had been bled out. The horrible evidence of his evisceration lay nearby. The Rebels had not just taken the squad leader, they’d tortured him, dismembered him.
By now FD-472 had regained his breathing. LW-312 croaked out two words that burned into his soul, but that he had never really meant until now.
What these traitors to the Empire, these scum had done to the squad leader was an outrage, a vile obscenity, a blasphemy. Simple treachery wasn’t enough, but butchery also. The two troopers felt their rage rising, not for revenge for the death or something so mundane as that, but for violation of war itself. As if a fan watching a sports match had just witnessed a player flagrantly cheating.
FD-472 hated the Rebels, but never before had he felt it burn so bright. It would be the duty of the Empire to right this outrage.
LW-312 pushed past him toward the opening.
“I’m going to find the Rebels that did this.”
FD-472 grabbed his arm as he passed by, and the trooper stopped.
“Just wait. I need to report this,” he said. “Then we can figure out things.”
LW-312 grunted, pulled his arm loose and headed out into the light.
“I’ll wait. But not long.”
Events were bombarding FD-472. He hadn’t even processed the loss of their squad leader. If he were here he’d know what to do. He thought of going after the other trooper. But he had his orders. Their mission was to report. Impetuous troopers would have to wait.
And with that he pulled out his commlink.
LW-312 was running. Running and running and running. Running to get away.
He was scrambling through the woods, over branches and downed trees. He splashed and thrashed his way through an icy stream. He was gasping for breath, yet on he ran.
That thing was out there.
The trooper was overcome by sheer terror. Something primal had set in. It had swept over him and overwhelmed his training. That monster. He had to get away.
The towering giants of this world looked down on the tiny white figure struggling his way through the underbrush, becoming tangled in bushes and vines, a thrashing panicked figure. He seemed to going nowhere. He was just heading deeper and deeper into the forest, away from whatever creature that was. He was so lost he could have been headed toward it.
But even in the face of terror, a stormtrooper has limits. At last exhaustion overtook him and he collapsed into a heap. He could go no farther.
It all had unfolded so suddenly. The trooper had been in the woods near the hut. He had been fuming with rage over what he’d just seen, not even sure where he was headed. A blow to his head knocked his helmet askew, blocking his vision. Then the creature was on him, its hands pawing at his armor and beating on it in turns, trying to wrestle him down.
Then it was dragging him – roughly and savagely over the forest floor by his leg and into the woods. His body was hitting against rocks and limbs as it dragged him onward. It was so strong. For a moment, somehow, he glimpsed brown fur and a pair of eyes. Round, black and empty staring directly into his. He could still hear the inhuman chattering. Like a child but with animalistic undertones.
And then just as suddenly it let go. It fled into the woods. And so did the trooper.
His flight had left him totally without bearings. Everything looked the same. He couldn’t even tell what direction he had come from. But he still had his commlink. He pulled it out.
“Comm LW-312.” he said between breaths. “Location unknown. There’s a monster in the woods. Did not make visual contact.” No response came.
“Comm base camp. FD-472. There’s a monster out here. I need you at my position. Set bearing and distance. Over.”
Still, no response. The commlink was on. Just nothing.
“Comm Base camp. Please acknowledge.” His voice was taking on an air of desperation.
“Please acknowledge. Please.”
Perhaps he was too overcome by exhaustion. Perhaps he was busy with the commlink. But he didn’t hear the sounds coming from the greenery around him. The sound of creatures – a slight rustle here, the crinkle of a paw stepping on a leaf there – as at least a dozen creatures closed in on him from all sides. Or maybe it just sounded like the forest to the trooper.
They were almost on top of him before he even noticed. It was just a glance in the corner of his eye.
There was a scream that vanished into the forest canopy far above. The sound of a struggle was short.
Then silence fell over the woods.
Trooper LW-312 was simply gone.
FD-472 could not find him anywhere. He couldn’t find anyone. He had tried to make his report, but got no response from base camp. No static, No jamming. Just nothing.
His attempt to report unsuccessful, he emerged from the hut to find just trees, greenery and the sounds of the forest all around him. LW-312 should be there, dammit. Never leave a position unguarded. That was basic protocol. The trooper walked all around the hut. He scanned the clearing. He checked the surrounding forest. He checked his commlink several times.
“LW-312 please report position. Over.”
Nothing. No sign.
“Goddammit,” he muttered under his breath. That damn trooper just couldn’t wait for me to finish the report. Now what was he supposed to do?
He called base camp again. He could hear the birds and the wind and rustling of leaves above. But nothing from the commlink. Not even static. He pulled out his scanner. No signals from his squad. His scanner showed no large life forms near him.
His entire squad had vanished. Except for him.
He stood in the clearing, surrounded by the towering trees, their limbs hundreds of meters above blotting out the sky. It was as if the woods had simply absorbed his squad, or the trees themselves had reached down and taken them.
But he knew what this really meant. The Rebels were on the move. The Emperor knew that before his squad was even sent on this mission. Before they’d even arrived. Thoughts came at him in a cascade. He’d let the squad leader die. He’d lost LW-312. And the camp was likely lost too.
Before he could go where those thoughts led, his commlink crackled to life. It was garbled, a tangle of static. Disjointed shouting. But he made out a phrase.
“Monster in the woods …”
The voice sounded frantic. Terrified even. He couldn’t make out which trooper it was or even if it was a member of his squad.
“Comm FD-472. Report your position. Sitrep?”
A garbled voice continued to shout. It didn’t seem to have heard FD-472’s reply.
“Comm FD-472. Report. I’m listening.”
He thought he heard a scream. But the static, the voice, everything faded.
“Comm FD-472. Report,” the trooper continued to repeat. He waited, listened, hoping that the voice would return. But he was met by minutes of silence. Whatever was happening was over by now.
Did he really say there was a monster in the woods? Maybe he said rebels?
The transmission was badly garbled. He just could not be sure. Then another thought hit the trooper. Where’s my blaster?
It was gone. He felt a wave of panic. He’d set it down when he … He’d made the commlink call … It should be right over there.
He searched the clearing. He looked in the hut. He was really panicked now. How could he just lose his blaster? It was no longer leaning against the log. He was sure he’d left it there, for just a minute or two.
He felt his gut clench. Someone had to have taken it.
The lieutenant awoke with a start.
The first thing he felt was pain. His wrists and ankles had been bound by heavy rope. His captors had inserted a pole through them and left him dangling, his full body weight hanging for hours. His wrists were searing. His hands and feet were numb. His shoulders were throbbing. His back was covered in abrasions as he had been scraped over the ground as the creatures carried him over kilometers of rough terrain. Eventually because of exhaustion or pain or some combination, he’d passed out. If anything, it had been a respite from his current situation.
Aside from being tied and hanged from a horizontal pole, he wasn’t sure what his situation was. Whoever had him, it didn’t seem like it was the Rebels. But these creatures certainly meant him no good, either on their own or if they eventually handed him over to the Rebels.
Until he had that answer, he tried to assess his tactical position. It was dark. He was in a room, a wooden and thatched hut of some sort. Light streamed through cracks in the walls and door. Mixed in with clanks and footsteps and sounds of everyday life coming through the walls was some sort of language, an indecipherable alien jibber-jabber.
It was more of those creatures. Those vile things. Their inexpressive faces, those hollow empty eyes, their awkward way of moving. He’d been sitting there at the camp and then he was suddenly swarmed by them. He’d punch and kick one off and then two more would leap on him. He could still hear the joyous laughter of their assault. They were having – fun. The other trooper at the camp had barely got a shot off before he too was swarmed. The lieutenant could only guess what happened to either of the other troopers. They were probably tied to a pole somewhere. Or dead.
If the creatures were in league with the Rebels, they certainly were not acting like it. No one had been in to question him. No typical Rebel procedures. No threats. Nothing. No, this felt like something else. Exactly what, though …
He had no idea exactly what the creatures even were. The pre-mission briefing had mentioned something of them them in passing. Troopers on patrol had seen creatures about a meter tall, covered in fur. The first reports were even laughed off as paranoid hallucinations. “You’ve been on this shithole planet too long. You’re seeing tiny Wookiees.” But a few days ago, one had wandered a bit too close the the shield generator facility. A barrage of fire by three squads of the Empire’s most elite stormtroopers failed to bring it down.
The Empire’s official assessment was that whatever the creatures were, they seemed to avoid any kind of contact. They were highly primitive and offered no signs of advanced intelligence. They were of course subject to the Empire, but not at all worth contacting, let alone conquering. The Empire was certainly correct on that count, the lieutenant thought. His contempt at being captured by such a useless foe only grew at the thought.
The lieutenant had long since stopped struggling with his bonds. The stout rope was wrapped and tied around his arms and ankles tightly. As his eyes began to better adjust to the darkness, he got a more detailed idea of the room. It was filled with storage vessels, boxes and bags. Carefully tied dried plants were stacked. His pole stretched from one stack of boxes to the other.
He had an idea. Perhaps he might be able to bounce the pole from its place and work his way off of it. He’d still have to deal with the ropes, but that’s better than his present state. With all his strength he heaved up and dropped his weight. He felt the pole bounce, but it was agony to his already painful feet and hands. Steeling himself, he did it again. And again. It moved! A little. But this could take hours. Not that he had anything else to do.
As he was preparing for another try, a shape against the wall, hanging among several large bags, caught his eye. Was he seeing things? It appeared human. But not really. He twisted his head to get a better look.
He recoiled at his realization. It wasn’t just a trick of the light. It wasn’t his exhausted mind leading him to see things. It was indeed a human. Or what was left of one. The body had been decapitated and its chest and torso were splayed open with only empty space inside. Its skin had been removed.
He made another connection. The creatures had brought him here. Did they want him to see this? He’d heard of primitive cultures displaying their dead enemies. Sick. Dominance and a clear kill are far scarier. But this didn’t look like a trophy. Not hidden away like this. Actually, it was prepared and carefully stored away, hanging upside down among the creatures’ other food stores.
He made the final connection. He now knew what happened to his squad leader. And what would happen to him. He began to bounce the pole as furiously as he could.
Trooper FD-472 had fully pieced together the gravity of his situation.
LW-312 was not coming back. Base camp was silent. He was alone. He’d lost his blaster.
And, yeah there was that.
Without it he was nothing. He’d had a blaster in his grip since he first was trained as a stormtrooper. Only after he’d taken his oath – sworn his life to the Emperor – did he receive it. The quartermaster placed it into his hands. It was almost ceremonial, a gift. He’d felt it in his hands that first time. His trainer had taught him how to wield it, clean it, how to draw an enemy into its sights. It never left his side. To lose it – no, let it be taken – was infamy. He’d rather lose an arm or a leg.
With no weapon, no squad mate, the only viable remaining part of the mission was to go back to base camp and report in person. It was almost midday when he set off. Half a day wasted – no – lost.
Even if he made it back, he’d meet a rough fate. They’d failed to recover the squad leader. And they’d found but just as quickly lost the Rebels. He had no position to report. No status report to share. His status was failure.
He looked down at his armor. He was filthy disheveled mess. The pure white surface was spattered with mud. He noticed a large black scuff across his chest plate. He panicked at this, rubbing and scraping at it vigorously. It was some kind of gummy substance, and rubbing it only made it worse.
The whole mission was a disaster, a shameful failure, a travesty. Pretty much everything pointed to him. He had failed the Empire – no – the Emperor himself. That thought made him ache. To serve the Emperor and fail. It weighed on every step as he drew closer and closer to base camp. All he could think about was his total failure.
He was so consumed in this that he hadn’t even realized that he’d entered the clearing with the base camp. What was once a textbook example of Imperial order, a perfect base camp — the squad leader had made sure of that — was a scene of chaos. Packs ripped open, equipment tossed about. The lieutenant and squad members were nowhere to be seen. Failure became utter despair at the sight.
Was it The Rebels? Or maybe there really was monster? These two seemed the most likely culprits. Rebels in the area, the trap, the dead squad leader – Rebels made a lot of sense. But the commlink message rang in his ears. A creature would be capable of all this – the missing troopers, the destroyed camp. But it didn’t really look like it. The destruction would be primal, gory. But his job wasn’t to decide. He needed to report.
But first, he needed to sort out this mess.
While he was sure to keep an eye out for more Rebels, he began looking for the long-range commlink among the tangle of equipment. Some had been tossed aside, but much of it had been smashed. All the food containers had been torn open and their contents gone. He finally found the commlink, at the edge of the camp. It appeared to have been beaten repeatedly on a rock. It was a broken tangle of wires and plastic bits.
But, in a stroke of luck, the more powerful main tracker was still safely stowed in the lieutenant’s pack. He switched it on. The lieutenant, BR-682 and VS-552 all showed up as bright green dots. The trio were alive but stationary, just meters apart. He noted range and bearing. A little under 2 kilometers away. A few hours hike.
Another dot caught his eye. It was LW-312! The trooper showed up as a steady pulsing dot heading toward the position of the other three squad members. He stared at that dot. What did it mean?
Trooper LW-312 was continuing the mission, he realized. He was tracking the Rebels! That was really the only thing that made any sense. This was indeed a stroke of luck! The rebels had been sloppy. They’d given up their position.
Even better, the troopers were being held just a few kilometers from the Imperial base, easily within range of a trooper’s short-range commlink. He could finally, at last, report back.
FD-472 decided he would head toward trooper LW-312’s position. Once he was in commlink range, he’d make contact. Together they would approach the Rebel camp by stealth. They’d monitor Rebel strength and activity and report back to the Imperial base, as ordered.
At this moment his eyes lit upon – was it! A blaster! It had been haphazardly tossed aside and was sticking up from a cluster of ferns. He grabbed it and immediately took up a defensive posture. It felt good. He liked the solidity of a blaster. The simplicity.
He was still on his feet. He had air in his lungs. He had a blaster in his hand. He was still a trooper.
He still had at least that much.
Part 3 | Observe & Repast
The lieutenant’s situation had gotten much better.
By bouncing his weight on the pole, the lieutenant had managed to scoot the pole end right up to the edge of the box it was resting on. Just a bounce or two or three and he’d be free of at least that thing. He’d deal with the ropes next. And then deal with those things that had captured him. When he was back at the Imperial base he would lead a squad himself to see that they were eliminated.
Any time he felt his will waiver, any time he doubted he’d work free, any time the pain just seemed too much, he would glance over at the body of his one-time squad leader field dressed like a side of nerf. Losing troopers under his command was normal for a lieutenant. But this? That was different. He wasn’t about to let himself end up like him. That alone got him thorough all the pain and exhaustion.
He heaved, and then heaved again. So close. He could feel the pole slipping off the box.
Suddenly the door to the store room opened and in came three of the creatures.
One appeared to be wearing some sort of a simple headdress, suggesting it was a leader. The three discussed something in their jibber jabber language, and the leader gestured again and again at the pole. Two departed, and moments later returned with several more creatures.
They picked up the pole at both ends. They carried it out of the store room and, after a short distance, placed both ends in Y-shaped upright poles. The poles stood in the midst of a cluster of small hut-like structures built on a platform in the treetops. Most worrisome, however, was that the lieutenant was hanging over what was clearly a fire pit.
Looking around he could see two other troopers from his squad in much the same situation.
This was very bad.
The Rebel hideout was not at all what trooper FD-472 expected.
For one, the Rebels themselves were nowhere to be seen. Not just in hiding, but no sign at all. Just hordes of meter-tall fuzzy creatures around, inside and swarming about a treetop village. They must be in league with the Rebels.
But it was hard to see them that way. They didn’t behave like any real creatures he’d ever seen. Or even seem threatening, for that matter. From his hidden vantage point he got a clear view of them. The way they moved was at once awkward, yet – what was it? – fake? No, unreal. The exaggerated comic way they went about even the most mundane daily tasks. The jollity. He watched as one of the creatures – who appeared to be on guard duty – suddenly broke into dance every few minutes. The rest were always bouncing and giggling.
Was anything he was seeing even real? It was almost as if they knew someone was watching them and were putting on a silly show for them. Did they know? Were they waiting? Was this just some sort of a bizarre distraction?
If they really were in league with the Rebels, they sure didn’t seem to be acting like it. He’d checked the scanner more than once to make sure he was at the right coordinates. The rest of his squad was clearly visible on the scanner, just meters apart. His plan to team up with Trooper LW-312 didn’t work out. That trooper also had been taken captive. This was odd. Typically Rebels shoot stormtroopers on sight. No doubt capturing a squad sent out by the Emperor himself was a tantalizing prize.
The trooper had brought with him only what he needed to observe the Rebel hideout. With a small pack and only his blaster, he’d covered the distance rapidly. He paused but once, when he overturned a log and found it crawling with grubs and insects. Without pause he made a quick meal, ravenously devouring them and washing them down with some rainwater collected in leaves. This was not so much to assuage physical discomfort as to keep his strength up for the mission ahead.
Night had fallen at the creatures’ treetop compound. Scattered torches and campfires lit the platforms in flickering light, casting chaotic shadows as the creatures moved about. He carefully scanned the compound with his electrobinoculars looking for any sign of Rebels. Nothing. They were well hidden. He used the scanner to create a 3D map of the complex. Indeed, it was a good place to hide. It was a large connected series of platforms and huts in the treetops. Dozens of tiny huts. His squadmates were in the center of the largest cluster. He couldn’t see what he needed. At least not from this angle. He’d have to climb one of these trees.
He did observe one fact: The complex was busy – dozens of red dots were showing up – but scarcely guarded. No one with blasters on the stairs or platforms. The guards they did have were busy bouncing around and giggling. One began doing somersaults. In fact, the scanner showed no blaster signatures at all. The Rebels really were sneaking about this time.
Risking his discovery to gain a better view, the trooper crept ever closer and closer. He established an observation post on a small rise just meters from stairs that coiled around the base of a tree and disappeared into the treetops. Ferns and bushes provided him with heavy cover. From here he could see all comings and goings. If the Rebels were on the move, he’d know. And then the Empire would know.
And the Imperial base was close by. Exactly where, he wasn’t sure. But close. He’d seen several Imperial transports fly overhead. This was the closest these Rebels would come to the base. Once he reported in, an entire battalion would descend on the Rebels. They’d make quick work of them. He pulled out his commlink. Even though it was short-range, the Imperial base would certainly pick it up.
“Endor base this is Trooper FD-472 reporting. Please respond.”
The lieutenant was greatly worried now.
The creatures had begun chopping wood and piling it beneath him and the other troopers. The creatures were singing some sort of happy-sounding song as they worked. All around him other creatures seemed to be preparing food. Containers and bowls were being laid out.
“Troopers!” he shouted at the others. “Can you get free?”
“Sir, no sir,” a trooper said, his voice sounding weary.
“Sir, my feet are sorta loose, sir,” one said.
“Can you work them loose? I order you to rescue me!” the lieutenant said. The trooper grunted, as if it were a suggestion. His troopers had gotten him into the mess, but they showed somewhat less enthusiasm at getting him out of it.
“Trooper, I order you to release me!”
“Sir, I’ll do my best, sir,” came the weary answer.
The lieutenant was feeling deeply panicked at this. If he didn’t get away soon he would certainly die. That he knew. He was determined to not end like this, as the main course for these worthless things. He didn’t know how, but he would get free.
Even as this thought crossed his mind, his commlink crackled to life.
“Endor base this is Trooper FD-472 reporting. Please respond,” a voice said.
“Trooper FD-472 this is Lt. Tavik. Do you read! Do you read!”
“Affirmative. I do read. Over,” the voice replied calmly.
The lieutenant couldn’t believe his good fortune. “Hold this channel open and fucking listen! I need you to come get me! Do you read? Come get me! Come get me now!”
FD-472 thought for a moment. He couldn’t be sure it really was the lieutenant. It could be a Rebel trick. It most likely was a Rebel trick. They never did like a fair fight.
“Who is this? What’s your operating number?” the trooper asked.
“QX-16392,” a panicked voice replied. “Shut up and listen! Use your tracker. Get a fix on my location and come get me now! Do it now!”
His training told him to obey his Imperial officers, unquestioned.
“I read and acknowledge, QX-16392. Channel is locked open. Have fix on location. Over.”
The commotion from the commlink and the lieutenant yelling orders made the creatures surrounding him stop and look in his direction. He didn’t care. At least they weren’t stacking wood under him for the moment.
“Rescue me now! I am about to be cooked alive and eaten by these — these — things,” he said in a near panic. “I order you to come rescue me! Now! Get here now!”
“Acknowledged. Am nearby and will affect rescue immediately. Over,” the voice said calmly.
The trooper clipped his commlink to his belt. He could hear the lieutenant continue to yell orders to rescue him. This was probably just a Rebel trick. They’d tortured and killed the squad leader after all. But it was an order.
He had only seconds to prepare his assault. The trooper took a quick look at the 3D scanner model and immediately saw his route. Up, left, left, right, up, right, up. He closed his eyes and visualized it. He quickly memorized it. His plan was simple: a standard Imperial fast-raid. Speed and surprise were key. Don’t allow them to even react. Kill anyone who does. He’d free the lieutenant and the other two troopers, who would cover their escape. His observations of the creatures suggested they’d offer no real resistance. But Rebels could be lurking about.
He did a quick equipment check. Blaster fully charged. He really wished he had grenades, but he’d work with what he had. A blaster would have to be enough. He also did a once-over of his armor, checking its attach points and cleaning it of flecks of mud and forest debris until it was clean and shiny white as he could make it under these conditions. Look like a stormtrooper. Now be a stormtrooper. The black smudge was still across the chest. It was too late to do anything.
He was ready. He leveled his blaster and … run.
“Trooper FD-472 approaching your location now. Be ready. Over.”
A zen-like calm came over the trooper. The confusion and chaos of the past day fell away. He didn’t even need to think. He had a purpose. His training, his conditioning, his mental discipline, his years of physical exertion took over. Like all good stormtroopers in battle, he operated almost as if on autopilot, a machine of war. He was sharp as the tip of a spear.
He burst from his observation post at a hard sprint. He flew past the first few creatures, who reacted by making exaggerated leaps backward and running away flapping their arms. He was up the tiny stairs four at a time, and arrived at the first landing. He ran across a walkway, turned left and met another of the creatures. He shoved past it without slowing and was halfway up the next set of stairs before the creature even knew what happened.
Over his commlink he could hear the lieutenant shouting, “Faster! Faster! Get here now!”
He rounded the corner to find three creatures blocking his way. He leveled his blaster and fired a half dozen shots at them. The creatures quickly dove out of the way as the wooden railings exploded into splinters. Even though the shots missed, the creatures scattered.
His path clear, he rounded the last corner and dove up the stairs. The lieutenant should be just ahead. He burst onto the platform, sending a huge group of creatures scattering at the fright.
He quickly assessed his tactical situation. It was a large flat platform ringed by tiny huts. A large communal space was in the center, dimly lit by torches. Dozens of the creatures, terrified by the sudden presence of a white-clad trooper three times their size, were shrieking and trying to make an escape. In the center was the lieutenant and the trooper’s squad mates tied to horizontal poles with stacks of wood piled under them. More Rebel torture.
He made for the closest trooper dangling over a fire pit, sending more creatures scattering in fear. Imperial doctrine said to get backup first, whenever possible.
“Here! Here! Here! Here! Here! Over here!” he heard the lieutenant shout. His voice also crackled through the trooper’s commlink. The trooper halted and turned toward the lieutenant, who was across the compound.
Next to the lieutenant, one of the creatures was standing, holding a lit torch. The commotion of the attack had caused it to freeze. The trooper looked into those blank, black eyes as he leveled his blaster. Something about them triggered a thought. It was them. It was never the Rebels. It was always them all along. It was these creatures.
Before he could think, he pulled down on it and sent a fusillade of blaster shots at the creature. They went wide, causing the creature to bounce up and down in fear and drop the torch. It landed in the tinder, which sputtered a bit and then burst into flame.
“Fire, fire, fire, fire, fire! I’m on fire!” the lieutenant began screaming.
The trooper took this as an order and began firing indiscriminately into the surging crowd of creatures. Baskets and barrels and thatching exploded on impact, but none of the shots connected with their targets. However, the sound sent the creatures scrambling.
“No, you dumbass, put out the fire! I’m on fire! Fire! Fire! Fire!” Flames were now licking at the lieutenant, who was squirming and struggling to avoid them.
The trooper paused and looked around. Water, liquid, something. He rushed around looking for a bucket or an open barrel. Nothing fell readily to hand.
“Just get me off of here!” the lieutenant yelled.
The trooper struggled to free the pole from the crossbars, but it seemed to be roped in somehow. With one swift move he unholstered his utility knife and began sawing at the ropes holding the crossbar in place.
“Not that rope. These ropes! These ropes!” the lieutenant said, wiggling his hands.”
“Sir, this is taking too long, sir.” He knew those creatures would be here any second. He panicked. There were so many of them. They needed to be away from here as quickly as possible.
“Just get me, then!” the lieutenant said as he began to cough and choke at the smoke.
The trooper could see his two squad mates trussed up and hanging over fire pits. The men were struggling against their bonds.
“Sir?” the trooper asked.
“Get me out of here!” he said.
“Sir, please, the others?” He’d never questioned an order until now. This wasn’t battle. They couldn’t just leave them like this, to die.
“I said get me out of here!”
The trooper took one last look at the other men, and reluctantly complied. Despite the sharp blade of the utility knife, the rope was thick and tough. The trooper spied a tiny axe leaning against a nearby hut. He ran over to grab it. Returning to the lieutenant, he raised his axe to chop him loose. The trooper momentarily fumbled with his blaster and it slid off his shoulder and clattered on the wooden floor.
The trooper took aim with the axe.
“Not my hands! Not my hands! Not my hands!” the lieutenant shouted.
At that moment the trooper heard a war whoop coming from behind him. He turned to see a phalanx of the creatures. After the initial start, they had regrouped.
They ran at him, and the trooper found himself engulfed in them, being beaten with whatever the creatures could find: rocks, clubs, fists, a burning log from the fire. He felt his terror rising.
Wait, there was his blaster. It was right there. He stretched to grab it only to see a creature pick it up and begin hitting him with it.
He broke loose from their grasp and he crawled and scrambled and got on his feet. The lieutenant was unreachable. He half ran and half-stumbled down some stairs, only to meet another group of creatures on the walkway ahead of him. Behind him, the other cluster surged down the stairs. From above, he could hear the lieutenant screaming for him to come back.
He looked at one group of creatures, then the other and tried to calculate a plan, some way to get back to the lieutenant. Some sort of next move against the creatures.
“Sir, I’m trapped! I need orders!” he shouted. “I need orders!” he shouted again.
He couldn’t go ahead. He couldn’t go back. Only one path was still open. He clambered over the low railing. He felt paws clawing at him. Several creatures climbed over the railing. A creature’s face was right next to his. He could feel its hot, smelly breath even through his helmet. He felt himself going. Slipping away. He was still shouting for orders as he plunged into the darkness below.
The lieutenant continued to scream for help. And for good reason.
The flames were really going now.
The trooper hit the ground with a hard thud.
He’d fallen through the air, tumbling. He’d momentarily, somehow, grabbed a railing on a platform, slowing his fall. He’d felt hits and thwaks of limbs and branches scraping past him as he plunged, before finally landing in a stormtrooper-shaped heap in the forest floor litter.
Pain exploded through his body. He blacked out momentarily.
When he came around, he rolled over onto his back. His mind was fuzz. The first thing he noticed was darkness set with dozens of twinkling lights above and around him. It wasn’t like the starkly black starfields he was used to. It was orange end yellow spots, shimmering far above him. He felt drawn to them.
Then he realized something was wrong. He panicked. He had no idea where he was. How he’d gotten there. What those twinkling lights were. In the distance, from above, he heard – was it – screaming. Yes, it was someone screaming for help. Above him he also heard a commotion – footsteps thumping on wood, chattering voices. It was getting louder. Then a thought crossed his mind. He was still alive.
He realized he was staring up into the treeptops, up into the creatures’ village, the place he’d just fallen from. The torches and fires were just dots of light in the waving branches. The creatures were on the move, somewhere above him, in the treetops. As the sound grew, it was all around him, rumbling as the footsteps grew ever louder and closer. They were coming, he realized. He had to go. Now.
He thought of his mission. If he could somehow get back up the stairs again, he could somehow complete his mission. He could hear his lieutenant, somewhere, dying. The sounds of his failure to complete his task. He had to get back. He stood, at first unsteady. As he balanced, he stepped forward, limping, wobbling. But with each step he became more sure-footed. Now that he was on his feet, he tried to formulate a plan – his path upward. He had nothing.
His fall should have ended everything. But somehow he was here to carry on. Or did he live just to survive? He felt an urge. These … these – creatures. He had to get away. No. He wasn’t afraid to die. He was trained to die in battle. Not like this. It was shouting in his head. He could hear them coming. He simply ran as fast as his damaged body would let him.
He’d barely made it a few meters with his loping, limping run when large ropey vines dropped from the darkness above him. Before he could react, a half dozen creatures slid down and landed just meters away. They brandished spears, menacingly. Before the trooper could even process the scene, one pulled back and threw. The others followed in quick succession. One spear found a crack between armor plates and caused a stab of pain, but the rest bounced harmlessly off his battered armor.
The creatures were undaunted, advancing empty handed on the trooper. At this moment, he ached for his blaster, but these spears would do. He picked up a spear in each hand and headed for the nearest creature. He was unable to skewer it, but it was startled enough at the giant creature confronting it. It fell back in fear. The trooper was able to break past the entire pack.
He didn’t get far, as the stairs leading up to the creatures’ compound was just ahead. His lieutenant was up there. But the creatures were pouring down the stairs and headed straight for him. He stopped, only to have a creature chasing him leap onto his back and pummel him. The trooper flipped the creature over his head, sending it flying, along with his own trooper helmet. The creature landed hard, but the creature immediately threw the trooper’s helmet at him. He ducked just in time.
The trooper ran off in another direction – the one with the fewest creatures. Even in his injured state, he was faster than the stubby-legged animals. Soon he could hear the creatures chattering and laughing as a mass of them tore through the underbrush after him. He had to get back to his lieutenant. His orders. But nothing remained here but death. The torchlight from their village quickly gave way to the darkness, and he found himself slipping and sliding down an embankment. His footing gave way in the greasy mud and he fell into a mire.
He could barely move at first. His feet and hands sunk in far enough that he struggled to right himself in the soupy glop. Water and muck spattered over him from above. He looked up to see an outlet pipe right over him. The smell around him was putrid decay, a combination of swampy muck and rotting food and sewage. He felt himself wretch. He had stumbled into the place they dumped their garbage, and – other stuff, he guessed. He could not go back toward them. Only onward. So he put it all out of his mind, as he splashed, crawled and tumbled forward through the vile muck.
He could hear the creatures chattering, giving orders, fanning out around him. Soon they surrounded the dump. Did they know he was in here? Were they just waiting? Had they lost him? It didn’t really matter. They’d already closed in on him from all sides, trapping him in the middle. He continued to thrash ahead through the muck and filth. He had to get back to solid ground if he was to have any chance.
It was an arduous, horrifying path. He had to stop himself from wretching several times. His splashing about was noisy enough as it was. By now the slimy gunk was up to his knees. Every step was a labor. He managed to wrench a foot loose, step forward, only to have it sink into the mingling slop. He had to pull, grab his leg and hoist his other foot from the sucking mire. Step after step. Wallowing and pulling himself forward. He felt as if each step would be the one that would drag him down and in. The one to trap him. The one with no bottom. But still he moved onward.
As the muck began to clear up, he felt a tree branch fall into his grasp, low enough to pull himself to shore. Soon he was at the base of a tree. It was either only a few years old or its proximity to the dump has stunted it. But it was mercifully small compared to the towering giants that dominated this world. Climbing up was stupid, he knew. He would be trapped for sure.
But he couldn’t head into the woods teeming with those creatures. He would hide. He would wait. Catch his breath. He leapt, and leapt and leapt and caught the branch. He swung up and looped over it with his feet. Soon he was standing on it. He climbed the next branch, and the next and the next, up and up.
His vantage point gave him glimpses of what was unfolding below and around him, but not much. He straddled a branch, wet and covered in muck. The smell was still overwhelming. He could hear splashes as some of the creatures waded into the dump. Occasional laughs punctuated darkness. Those things kept up their capering even while wallowing in filth!
From his treetop hiding place, he could occasionally glimpse the creatures moving in and out of patches of light. Furry splotches in golden patches of illumination. That was all he could see with his own eyes. His helmet and its sensors was long gone. The spectral glimpses did show one fact: The swamp was slowing their progress. Their short legs and awkward movements left them struggling to move at times.
Finally, with a chance to think, he considered his next move against the creatures. His mind went back to his training. He’d finished only days ago – and now here he was. Here he was. He had been sure he was going to die so many times during training – the trooper who bunked above him was one of several who died in a live-fire training. Those troopers weren’t unlucky. They weren’t up to it. They didn’t have it. They didn’t deserve to be stormtroopers. If he couldn’t find a way out of this alive, neither did he. He thought of his trainers. They would have nothing but contempt to see him like this, hiding, scared.
“Only Rebels scum hides! The Empire doesn’t have to!” one of his trainers had thundered.
But the trooper wasn’t finished yet. He had the high ground. Normally it’d be over. Except the creatures held the upper hand in numbers, so much that he no longer even posed a threat. Not really. He was running away. They’d already taken his squad. He was beaten and exhausted. He wished no revenge. He’d failed his mission and now he was done with them.
Yet they kept coming – in waves. Just the sound of them instilled a dread in him. They would not stop, ever, until he was dead. If they caught him, he knew what that meant. He just wanted away. Away from all of this, back to something else, to a fight he at least knew or could understand.
His lieutenant’s words made sense to him now. Your mission is to die. That fact had put him in this tree and set those creatures after him. If they’d somehow found the Rebels, it likely would have been no different. Those troopers who died weren’t unworthy. They were just dead.
His mind wandered back to his training. How alive he’d felt every day. But it wasn’t the blasters and formations and loyalty recitations that came to mind first. It was just days ago he was safely in bed, a pleasure girl in his arms. At the end of training, his leader had taken his squad there and bought out the whole place. The memory was vivid. The warmth, the soft sheets. He could feel her breathing. The smell of her hair. The excitement of her heartbeat. She’d felt so alive in his arms. So alive he only wanted to engulf her, squeeze her and pull her even closer.
No. He needed to stop dwelling on things like that.
He grabbed the rough bark of the tree harder. The wet and the cold was beginning to set in, even through the thermal insulation of his armor. The sickly smell of swamp muck still lingered in his nostrils.
He put training out of his mind. He was here now. This tree. Those creatures.
The trooper was unsure of how long the creatures searched the dump before they decided that he wasn’t there. He may have even dozed off. But they’d disappeared into the surrounding woods. He could occasionally hear them moving about, chattering and running from place to place. They weren’t giving up quite yet.
He waited until all sounds of the creatures died away. And he waited a little longer. And longer still. He still had the cover of night and had to make his move. Finally, the trooper quickly and quietly slid down the tree – quietly as his pain-wracked body allowed him. He’d gone but a few meters when he was immediately confronted by a creature. They’d been waiting too.
It pulled a rock from a bag, leveled a slingshot and the trooper felt the rock thwack against his breastplate, which thanks to accumulated damage, shattered from the hit. The force knocked him back. Another struck his head in a glancing blow. He could feel the warmth as blood streamed down his forehead.
Regaining his senses, the trooper picked up a large shard of his armor, which he brandished like a knife and charged at the creature. It dropped its slingshot and flapped its arms in fear as it ran off. The pause was just enough that the trooper could make a break for it. He set out in a dead run.
Behind him he could hear the creature chattering. And then more creatures began chattering and begin crashing through the underbrush, behind him and on both sides. They were everywhere.
The forest was sheer darkness dotted by small pools of moonlight. He strained his eyes trying to see movement – a presence, anything as he plunged forward. From his right rear he felt one of the creatures dive on him and wrap around his leg. It chattered loudly – I found him. He heard others respond from the darkness. Soon they would swarm him, engulf him like before.
The creature was trying to wrap itself around him. It was strong – really strong – but couldn’t get a good grasp. He could hear its breathing – heavy, asthmatic, animalistic – and feel its breath. Its arms tight around him. He beat and pried the creature off, finally unbuckling a piece of his armor, and it and the creature fell away. On he ran. Yet he could still hear the creatures. They were getting closer.
A few steps later, a creature leapt from the darkness. The trooper reacted instinctively, swinging at it and catching it mid-body. He swung at it several times, enough to drive it back, before he turned away and ran even harder.
Over downed trees, over rocks and past the timeless giants of this forested world he ran. The forest and its inky blackness was simply swallowing him. He’d never run so far and fast in his life. Not even in stormtrooper training. He drove past any physical limit. His brain had one thought: Get away. All else had fallen away. When the armor on his arm snagged on a tree, he simply wrenched the piece off and kept going. Even as the sound of the creatures behind him at long last died out, still he ran. They had to give up sometime. He wasn’t stopping until he was sure.
The creature was in front of him so fast it was as if it had actually appeared. It seemed as shocked by his presence as he was by it. The trooper found himself unable to stop and plowed right into it. The two tumbled together down a small hill, a wriggling bundle of stormtrooper white and the creature’s brown fur. The trooper ended up on top. The creature was beneath him, a squirming furry ball of muscle beating him with its tiny fists. The trooper pummeled it back, hitting its head and torso with multiple blows, but in his exhaustion and physical pain, was unable to fight it off.
The fear, his pain, the need to just finally get away, coalesced into rage. Why won’t they just leave me alone! He found the creature’s neck and he felt his hands close around it. He squeezed down as tightly as he could, the rage in him building. Its neck felt substantial, like a tree trunk. He could feel its tendons tense as he crushed down on its windpipe with both thumbs. Its pulse quickened – fear. It could be felt through even his heavy trooper gloves. The creature was pounding the trooper even harder, kicking desperately, squirming about under him, trying to wrestle itself free. Their eyes met. The trooper stared into them, their empty blackness. He saw nothing in them and only squeezed harder.
Minutes passed before the creature finally fell limp. One moment it was alive and the next it just felt dead in the trooper’s hands. Its strength, lost. Anything it ever was, gone. He let go and the creature dropped to the forest floor. He saw it laying at his feet. Its blank eyes stared upward. Those empty eyes. He felt immediate revulsion – rage. He kicked the corpse and screamed. He tore at the remaining bits of his armor.
He looked into the sky and screamed again. He could see a glimpse of the Death Star, lit up in the night sky, through the treetops. The sight made him drop to his knees as he felt everything in him burst out.
He thought of just giving up – but he’d done this, all this to survive. But simply surviving held no joy. The need to get away was all he had. And even then he’d find no relief in his escape. But somewhere deep in his brain, something drove him forward. He ran off into the forest, leaving the body in a golden pool of moonlight, with bits of his armor scattered about it.
He expected to hears howls of recognition behind him, as other creatures discovered the body. He expected them to redouble their efforts. He awaited their vengeance. But he heard nothing. Not the sounds of other creatures. Just the sounds of the forest at night. His own breathing. Still he ran.
Further and further into the darkness.
It had been a restless night for Gen. Guerrin
The Rebels were on the move, they knew that, and a big offensive was coming. All indications were that it was soon. Very soon. A Rebel strike force was present on the moon. His troops had been tracking them since before they even landed. And the Empire was ready. Dozens of the Empire’s most elite troops had been brought in from all over the galaxy and had been massing at the Imperial Endor base for some weeks.
The Rebel target had been easy to guess: The shield generator. It needed to be destroyed to get to the Death Star, their ultimate target. The Rebels had a weird fixation upon the Death Star, as if destroying it were the same thing as defeating the Empire, which spans hundreds of worlds and has a vast fleet of Star Destroyers. Regardless, the Empire was prepared for any contingency.
When the general arrived at his office, he’d barely settled into his chair when one of his junior aides entered.
“Sir, I have something unusual to report.”
“Is it about the Rebels,” the general replied without looking up.
“It’s about one of our squads, 2421 Armed Infantry Squad — five troopers and a lieutenant.”
“Be quick, then. Today is a big day.”
“They were sent out a couple days ago to keep the Rebels busy, per your orders. Last night our communications array picked up an unusual transmission.”
“Well, a trooper left his commlink channel locked open. We got a couple hours of radio chatter. However, what’s strange is that, based on preliminary analysis, it appears that — um — the squad was captured and — um — eaten by some sort of native wildlife creatures. The small furry ones.”
“Yes. It’s unusual enough that I thought you’d want to know. We believe that all six were captured. At least three cooked and eaten last night, despite some commotion. We were able to decipher that much of the native chatter. The Empire’s xenolinguistics division said they were not interested in the rest.”
“Neither am I. Any of it. Deal with this yourself.”
“They were supposed to keep the Rebels distracted, not feed the local wildlife.”
The aide returned to his desk. Well, he was wrong about the general wanting to know. He wasn’t sure what to do to close out his report. He considered his options for a few minutes. Finally, he signed on to his workstation and deleted the recording. Then he deleted the squad’s orders to report to the moon and their mission orders.
Then he deleted the squad members from the Empire database, one by one. He had moved on to other work when the Endor base’s main alarm klaxon began to sound.
Trooper FD-472 sat on a log.
He had wandered the woods for hours in the dark, aimless and with no real goal. His squad was gone. His blaster was gone. Most of his armor was broken or missing. Even his commlink had been left behind somewhere. But any report would just be pointless. There was nothing for him to do.
He’d stopped trying to get away from the creatures hours ago. And whatever was after him had given up long before even that. The pain from his fall had become increasingly worse as his fear had drained away. But it was bearable. He was sure he’d broken a rib at least. Probably an arm. His whole body ached. He was hungry, thirsty and exhausted.
Somehow he’d lived, somehow, escaped from those creatures only to find himself here. Wherever that is.
As he’d wandered in the dark, he could see only a few meters before him. When the sun rose, the darkness had gone from pink to golden to green. He could still only see a few meters in front of him. It was as if he had been dropped into the middle of a green endless ocean. He walked on and on, but nothing changed, not really. Just green and green and green. A destination seemed pointless. How could he go toward something that is everywhere?
As he sat on his log he realized that wherever his orders were meant to take him, they’d led him to this exact log. His log. Any step in any direction would bring him right back to here. Or some place exactly like it. The greenery seemed to close around him. He felt strangely safe and calm. More than he had in a long time.
He pulled off the last few battered bits of his armor and tossed them aside into the greenery. A searing, bright flash caused him to instinctively shade his eyes. He looked around, thinking it had been a blaster shot or explosion. He remembered his trainers saying he’d never hear the blaster shot that killed him. Finally he realized it had come from above, the sky. Wandering a few meters, he found a clearing in the treetops. A huge explosion was filling the sky where the Death Star had been.
He watched it. He felt as if he were falling into it for a moment. It was actually kind of beautiful. He never really noticed things like that. Then he returned to his log and sat down.
Author’s note You made it this far. Good on you. If you’d like to lose a few more minutes of your life that you will never get back, check out the supplemental materials.