Lifelines, Before and After: Bao-Dur
One month after the Battle of Malachor V:
I woke up in a dim, shabby room that smelled of alcohol and urine. It was empty but for another soldier lying shrouded on the bed on the other side of the room. Judging by the smell he'd been dead for at least two days.
My body weighed a thousand kilos; was sunk and anchored to the small bed and battened down by stained and grimy sheets. Sacks of liquid hung above me. Wires and tubes trailed from them, joining others from whirring, creaking machines to burrow into my flesh. They kept me tethered down, for while my body was heavy, my mind kept trying to float away.
My vision dimmed in and out, but I found the trash receptacle beside my bed. I emptied my stomach into it, heaving air and bile in a miserable, weak convulsion, and then fell back against the pillow that felt like a slab of granite. I heard myself moan as I lay there, fever and delirium pulsing in me like an oily poison and shivers wracking my body. I was burning up and freezing to death at the same time. I tried to escape but the hovering sacks drained their contents into my veins and dragged me back and down into the deep.
The second time I woke up, the dead soldier was gone and a terrible panic gripped me. I had lost something—something organic and vital—but I didn't know what it was.The General…
I strained against the sluggishness that held me and heard a plastic popping sound and a hiss, then the angry alarm of one of the machines. Pain that had been submerged began to drift to the surface, and I could feel my sanity begin to unravel under its onslaught. When dim, shadowy forms circled my bed and began trying to put right what I had undone, I grabbed one by the collar and yanked until the face of a tired young man swam into my bleary vision.
"Where is she?" My spittle flecked the man's face. His mouth worked mutely and I tightened my grip as pain—from my stomach, my head, my left shoulder—roared out of the deep. "Where is she?"
"It's okay, Gil," said a voice from somewhere to my left. "I've got him."
My fist at Gil's collar went boneless and slipped away as a needle was slid under my flesh. He hurriedly backed away, vanishing into the murk of my blurred vision. Rage that my prey had escaped became muted as that awful agony began sinking away too. Whatever tubes or wires I had pulled out had been plugged back as the shapes retreated into the quickly-descending darkness, until I was alone.
The third time I woke up it was with Malachor V howling in my mind. Bits and pieces, fragments of that last terrible hour attacked me like Mandalorian blaster fire in the dark of Dxun. I could only lie there with my eyes squeezed shut and try to put the shattered and bloody images into a modicum of order. Fruitlessly, I tried analyzing them as I would when confronting any problem. But these fractured slivers of memory were not an orderly program—they would not align placidly into some whole I could contend with. They were chaotic and they were brutal, and I was helpless to do little more than watch...
She turns her ankle on a rock and starts to fall but I catch her and we keep running. We're going to die and I curse that fate that would take me away from her sooner than I want. I wanted to be with her in a quiet time of peace. I want to hear her laugh. I want to hear her order food in a restaurant. I want to hear how she sounds when I make love to her without fear of being caught or discovered. And I am being robbed of all of it. Then, a freighter, and a shred of hope for safety. We run faster and I think we might've been granted a chance…
And then I'm hit and hit and hit…
Agony threatens to steal my consciousness, but I know I'm being lifted off the stony ground and into the dark of the transport. Hot blood washes down the side of me and I see my arm is a blasted, broken ruin. The General holds me and the last thing I remember is obeying her order because it has to be the thing that brings this madness to an end…
"It worked," I breathed now, opening my eyes to that grimy room. "It's over."
Yes, it's over, whispered Malachor. Look at what you've done. Turn your head and see!
I turned my head expecting to see the dim interior of a transport and instead I saw the dirty bandage that encircled my left upper arm. It was stained with dried blood and kolto, and was wet with alarming yellow-green swatches at the bottom. But my attention was torn from the rotting bandage to the empty space below.
It wasn't only the General I had lost after all.
There should've been more arm there—an elbow, a forearm, a wrist, a hand. There should've been flesh and bone and fingers, and a scar on the thumb where a drill had slipped soldering some shielding five years ago. But there was only that grimy bandage and then nothing. Another wave of nausea roiled in my guts as I imagined my disembodied arm lying on the surface of Malachor with the other dead bodies, the scar on my thumb pale and white against dead, gray flesh.
How am I going to work? I wondered even as my stomach emptied once again into the waste receptacle at my bedside. My arm was gone. Lying with the dead on Malachor, forgotten and rotting with those I had killed.
They're all dead and I killed them. I wiped my dripping nose with the back of my surviving hand. Good.
I looked around the room, trying to get my bearings, but the rack of drugs above me kept the sharpness I wanted away. One sack above me was filled with piss-colored liquid and it trailed a dingy tube into a vein in the elbow of my right arm. Whatever it was, it began to drain into me faster, and drew me away from the drab and disquieting shabbiness of the med room and into the yellowed counterfeit sleep of drugs. As the oblivion came, I forgot my arm and the weapon I had activated. Instead, my last thought was of the General and my desperate hope that she survived.
Without my arm, without a war to direct my hatred in to, I knew I would slowly disintegrate and fade away. The General could help keep me together and let me help her do the same.
Even though Malachor was a travesty, we won because of it. She would be honored and venerated for it. She would get a new arm for me. She would come for me. I knew she would.
The doctor smiled wanly and rubbed a hand over his stained uniform as he told me the operation was a success. I glanced down at the stump and noticed that there was even less of my upper arm than there had been before they drugged me and wheeled me down the dingy corridors of the med facility. I curled my hands into fists…or tried to. I only had the one hand now and the awful reality struck me all over again.
Over the last few weeks I'd learned that I'd been shipped to Argon VI, a no-name rock in the outer rim used primarily as an emergency medical way-station for soldiers too injured to transport over longer hauls. But as the war raged on funding had grown scarce, and Argon VI became an unintended dumping ground for soldiers who have outlived their usefulness. At least, so said another patient who happened by my room. The state of my arm confirmed it.
I had been scheduled to have an operation to remove the infected dead skin and muscle, but I had feared that if the med staff didn't hurry, I'd have no arm left. As it was, I still had most of my bicep and shoulder. It wasn't much but it was still mine. I had asked to make sure my arm stayed ready for the prosthesis I knew was coming. But now, as I come out of my drug-induced stupor, I had a vague sense that the operation was nowhere near long enough to accomplish all I had expected. The doctor's words confirmed it.
"We contained the infection," he said, "and you should have no further trouble with your arm."
"Short…" I mumbled through a haze of anesthetic and kolto. "Too short. Where…?"
"Sorry, lieutenant." The doctor rubbed a three-day growth on his chin, too tired to accomplish a genuine sympathetic expression. "We don't have the facilities here to prep you for a prosthetic. Even if we did, you can't pay for it and the Republic won't. We're letting you go."
My mouth moved but no sound came out. I wanted to scream and beg and plead, and tell him that I know that if he doesn't prep my arm quickly, the skin will heal and the nerve fibers will wilt. Future neurological-operated prosthetics will be made almost impossible to use without incredibly invasive—and dangerous—surgery. But the doctor was already out the door, the rusting nurse droid with a spindly wheel trundling after him.
I tried harder to call after him, to stop him. I found my voice but the only words that came out were, "She didn't come."
It was then I started to become angry.
An uncounted number of days passed and then I was ushered to the front desk of the facility. I signed the datacard that was my release from this hellhole and noticed a new, pertinent fact about myself. Under "Status" it read: Discharged, code 23-A7, (amputee).
And that's all.
She had made me a lieutenant, I wanted to inform them. I was a 'tech', an 'engineer', part of the 'mechanics corps.' I was a 'soldier in the Republic.'
According to the records, I was nothing more than an undesirable code.
A refugee too, as I had nowhere to go.
I unclenched my jaw long enough to ask them about her again, and again, the same answer. No one by the name of Lysia Tors has ever been a patient—or a visitor—on Argon VI.
"Bao-Dur," I said, pronouncing it as distinctly as I could. "Remember me if she comes looking."
The receptionist smiled thinly. "Of course, sir. We have your records."
I finished signing my name and slammed the stylus on the desk. It snapped in half, and the two pieces hit the floor and rolled away from each other, under the desk and out of sight.
The post-war Republic didn't need a mechanic with one arm. It was too beat up and bruised to have any charity left. True, there was lots of work to be done, repairs to make, but no one had found their hope yet. The ruins were everywhere and overwhelming. A day's work was not about rebuilding for the future, but cleaning up the dead bodies of the past. No one had the patience for me, and since Malachor was still screeching in my mind like a vulture in a cage, I didn't try very hard either.
It was only when I started to get hungry, when the pitiful stipend the Republic left me with began to run out, that I took action, the kind only desperation can breed.
After much persuading—persuading that had despicable undertone of begging to it—I managed to land a job on a junk freighter owned and operated by an ornery human named Jibbet. He was circling the Rim, gathering space salvage—bits and pieces of wrecked starships from the war—and selling off the parts. He hired me to repair what he calls "the jackpots"—engines or pieces of engines that have some potential for being made workable.
"There's credits to be had for a working navicomputer hard drive, take my word for it," he told me one day as I tried, unsuccessfully, to weld some paneling together while at the same time hold the unit still so it wouldn't slide all over the garage table. "The 'Public's hurting; no funds for nothing. But if the buying officer's got a shock stick up his ass—too proud or uppity or the like—then corps like Czerka will buy every time." Jibbet watched me struggle one-armed with the fusion torch. "Every time."
I didn't say anything. I hardly ever did. I just collected my pay—the scraps Jibbet called "your share"—and watched them add up on the credit chip…slowly. He was a stingy, cheating bastard, but it was a job. I was working. I was useful to someone again and that's all that mattered. And what Jibbet didn't know was that I was paying myself a little something extra on the side.
Jibbet was precise with his money but careless when it came to the spacejunk we hauled in. He didn't notice the pieces I stashed under my bunk, and the one time he caught me eyeing something—a durasteel band roughly the size of my upper arm— I conned him out of wanting it by pretending it was worthless to me.
Good thing too, since until then it was the best piece of material I had found that I would need make a new arm. I'm not proud of it. It was stealing, after all, but I told myself it was for a good cause, that I would be a better employee to Jibbet with two arms. But when I was being honest with myself I knew I had no intention of staying with him for any longer than necessary.
Once I had the parts, I quit.
He was angry and more than a little suspicious, but he didn't ask to search my larger-than-when-I-started bag, either. He nodded at me through narrowed eyes and dropped me off at the first hunk of rock large enough to land a ship; light-years from any useful or civilized star system. I couldn't begrudge him it. He had given me a job when no one else would. And maybe an arm. If he wouldn't haul me to a decent planet, so be it. It was a small price to pay in the long run.
The doctor was on Nar Shaddaa and he said he would do it for three thousand credits and a signed promise that neither I nor any of my immediate family would sue him or do him bodily harm if he killed me or turned me into a vegetable. Being dead or a vegetable isn't very conducive to successful vengeance and I had no immediate family. I signed. I had no choice anyway.
"I left all the instructions there," I told him again as he prepped me in the small, dim, backroom of his clinic. My voice sounded tight and high in my own ears. "Remember, you have to heat up the neuro-receptors in the prosthetic cuff before you incise. Otherwise they'll short out." Short out in my brain Gods, what am I doing?
The doctor looked far too casual and relaxed for what he was about to do to me. "No one is forcing you. Do you want to back out?"
"Yes," I said.
He raised an eyebrow.
He smiled placidly and patted me on the shoulder. "If this works, you'll wake up a new man."
And if it doesn't? I wanted to ask. But the anesthesia was already slogging through my veins like syrup. As blackness came, I cursed the General for not being here with me. I hoped that wherever she was, she was just as afraid.
Learning to use my new arm was like trying to use a limb that has fallen asleep: for the first few days I couldn't feel anything but pinpricks and maddening tingles in my shoulder. And when I could move it, it was unwieldy and hard to maneuver. To my surprise I had somehow grown used to the lightness of the nothing that had extended beyond the stump of my left arm. To now have an appendage there—especially one of heavy alloys, gears and electric current—was a trial to master. But mastery of its function was simple when compared to the side-effects.
I endured weeks of agonizing headaches that came one right after the other. The circuitry that connected my brain's synapses to the hand mechanism was crude and the possibility always remained that the whole apparatus would short circuit and I would be rendered a drooling, incontinent vegetable…if it didn't kill me first. Every new headache was a possible portent of that fate, and at first I suffered them frozen on my bed, lying very still in the hopes that nothing would jostle the delicate wiring. After one week, I was banging my head against the wall for hours at a time while begging the whole installation to blow and put me out of my misery.
The electric circuitry that made up the majority of my new arm was no picnic either. The left side of my torso was burned over and over again by blue-white bolts until I learned to hold my arm away from my body. Walking in thick crowds became a perilous undertaking. But as the days wore on, I became more and more assimilated to my new limb, and those miserable headaches subsided.
It had taken me nearly two years to craft my arm and save up the credits needed for the surgery that would wire it into my brain. And now that it was done and I had survived, I felt better than I had since Malachor. The arm might be ugly and rough, enough to shock anyone who came too near, but it was mine.
It was only three days after I had settled into my new appendage that the war re-awakened from its slumber in the corners of my mind to come after me. My immediate problem was solved, there was no project to distract me, and so my memories were free to haunt me full tilt. Not only was I able to work, but I needed to work. I needed to occupy myself with labor that kept me in a garage or lab, not on the stony soil of Malachor V.
Fortunately, the galaxy had recovered somewhat from the war and so was ready to accept this Iridonian war veteran mechanic with his homemade prosthetic arm. In the months that followed, I found steadier and steadier work and Malachor began to retreat to the recesses of my mind. I was putting myself back together piece by piece, and now the only thing missing was her.
I had never stopped making inquiries into the Republic for information on her, but my status since the war ended had plummeted. I went from tech, to soldier, to lieutenant to General Lysia Tors, to the engineer of the mass shadow generator…and that last title must have been my downfall. It was the only way I could explain why an officer of the Republic—discharged amputee or no—could have so little success in accessing databases I previously had had privileges to. It was as if that hated machine wiped me off unrestricted databanks and registers of the fleet just as it had wiped out those soldiers—Mandalorian and Republic alike—on Malachor V. The devastation of the machine overshadowed the rank of its creator.
I didn't matter, really. I didn't mind that the Republic had cut me loose; I only cared that I had lost all the connections and authority I needed to search for her. My questions to Personnel went unanswered and the databanks were closed to me. My General was vanished and there was nothing I could do to change that. I could almost live with that.
Harder to reconcile was the fact that she obviously wasn't in a big hurry to find me.
When Czerka called, I answered. I could feel in my gut I would regret it but the money was good and my growing anger and self-righteousness left no room for moral qualms. When my supervisor responded to my questions with vague responses about the exact purpose for my work, I let it go.
I was tired of caring. She had worn me out of it.
It was unmanly to miss her as much as I did, even years later. So one night I took my newfound Czerka money and found a prostitute.
The woman was blond and thick and nothing at all like my General, but I thought she would do. My anger was threatening to boil over so I figured I'd give it a release. I felt that I'd earned it.
It was a disaster.
With the General, we'd always had to be quiet for fear of getting caught. Therefore, when the prostitute began howling in an overblown performance of lust and desire no doubt meant to please her customers, I nearly quit. But my body, long denied a woman, struggled on.
"Quiet," I grunted as she gyrated extravagantly beneath me.
"But you're so good, baby," she crooned, and then flinched as I clamped my living hand over her mouth.
"I said, be quiet!"
The prostitute narrowed her eyes at me; I could see her quickly judging me, trying to see if I was a real danger or not. I saw myself in her eyes as I thrust desperately but with waning fervor. I was no danger, just another pathetic male. A grunting, rutting body trying to find some release in the warm, living receptacle of another. She quieted and raised her hips to meet mine, to help me finish, for the awful reality of it all was making me wilt. My hand clamped over her mouth loosened and she bit my index finger, hard enough to draw blood. The pain was deep and bracing, and it was enough. With a final strained thrust, I collapsed on top of her.
"The war?" the prostitute asked some time later, with a nod at my arm. She leaned against the edge of the dresser in her small room, wrapped in a bathrobe, a cigarra perched in the corner of her mouth.
"Yeah," I replied. I sat on the edge of her bed, lacing my boots. Her eyes had been on me the entire time I had put on my clothes and then powered up my prosthetic. She had said nothing but her silence and small, curled smile told me she was basking in a small victory.
"But that's not all, is there?"
"I don't know what you mean," I replied.
"Who was she?" she asked demurely, one eyebrow arched.
I said nothing. I had already given her more of me than I should have. I wasn't about to give her the General too.
I finished lacing my boots, grabbed my jacket, and headed for the door. There was a small table there and I fumbled some credits out of my pocket and set them there.
"There's not many of us who take aliens," the prostitute called from across the room. "Even less who take cripples." I spun around, shocked at the way that word struck me. She shrugged. "Just facts. You know where I am if you need me again."
My jaw was clenched so tight I thought my teeth would shatter. But she was right…on all counts. War left little room for tolerance and anti-alien sentiments were growing around the universe…even among those, apparently, whose job it is to make a male feel accepted for a few short hours and a pile of credits.
I turned and went out, and didn't slam the door behind me.
More years faded into blurs of memory. I worked long hours, ate little, and collapsed into a small, three-room apartment every night, hoping fatigue would triumph over the nightmares. Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn't.
Czerka paid well and I found a modicum of comfort in working hard and well, and being rewarded for it appropriately. Until one night I happened upon a 'merchandise' manifest sitting on a table beside an acceleration converter I was working on.. Whereas I had believed that the cargo ships I helped to maintain were for transporting Kashyyykian goods and services, the reality was they were transporting Kashyyykians themselves. The goods being traded, it appeared, were not rare spices and exotic fruit as I had thought.
The blood drained from my face. Before I could think about the years I had spent indirectly aiding and abetting Czerka, helping it profit from slaving, I slammed my artificial arm into a force shield that separated the garage from a storage shed.
I might have died then—the jolt of energy from the shield could have shorted out my prosthetic and left me a convulsing mess on the floor. I might not have cared.
Instead, the force shield faded away and I felt no more pain than a mild tingle in my upper arm. After I had controlled my temper well enough to think clearly, I set about ruining every force shield in the complex, sometimes shorting out entire blocks with one blow. The complex was on Corellia, in a somewhat shady part of a city, and not as manned as other, more bustling Czerka institutions. Alarms went off everywhere but they mostly served to alert thieves that some highly valuable, unprotected, property was now available in their vicinity.
It was a small comfort, letting the complex get robbed, and the horror of what I had discovered had, ironically, settled me.
I was finished with letting the war dictate my actions. That same night we called a truce, it and I, in a way. The war still claimed a large part of my soul in an iron-clad grip of guilt and rage and pain, but I would never again let them justify the corruption and greed that had almost claimed me.
And there was freedom in acceptance of that hated war. There was relief in never letting go of that within me that had already fallen. To stop fighting it allowed me to achieve a measure of governance over my life I hadn't had before.
It didn't matter that Malachor V was the phantom in the corner of my eye, the ever-present shadow in my peripheral vision. That was as it should be. It was the penance I paid, and paid gladly. And the General's absence, the terrible emptiness that was very much like the severing of another limb, became part of that penance as well.
It was too much to believe she would find me; too much pride on the line to keep hoping that she would. Seven years had passed since the war ended and I figured it was time I laid all my battles to rest. I didn't have the strength to keep them alive…not even for her. I relegated her to the deepest corners of my mind and heart where I could keep her alive and safe, but buried too, forever.
And that worked, for a little while.
After a time, a nagging voice whispered in my ear at night that I had only a few years like this. A few years before the phantoms haunting my soul either pushed me into a lightless well of insanity, or I found a way to kill them once and for all.
A few years, at most. That was the deal.
I took it, and the raging chaos subsided and all things—pain and clarity both—settled into place.
And so it was until Telos.
I had fallen into a comfortable routine of working on Telos and sabotaging Czerka in my spare time, when a transport fell out of the sky. I pulled the occupants out before it blew and nearly choked on the very air to see that the woman I had laid out on the grass was the General.
The Force works in mysterious ways…or so I had heard. Frack the Force, I thought, this had better be real.
It was. She woke up and looked at me, and the hope that I had buried so deep tried to break loose. So what if she trained a blaster on me? She could have pulled the trigger and I would have died with some measure of satisfaction and peace. But she only stared at me with a peculiar expression on her face, as though I was the answer to something but she couldn't remember the question.
I knew she would flinch away if I tried to hold or sob over her; it was not our way. So I drank her in instead, even as I acted aloof and made a bad joke.
Time hadn't touched her as much as it had me—she was still youthful and beautiful and hard, like an uncut gem. And though the ten years had been kind, it was obvious that something had been stolen from her. But I couldn't fathom that the damage I had sustained because of the mass shadow generator was nothing compared to what it had done to her. I didn't know about her wound then. I didn't know she had lost the Force and that was why she held a blaster in her hand instead of a lightsaber. All I knew was that she was standing in front of me, confused and lost, and the old hopes tried to resurrect themselves from where I had buried them.
And then, when it became apparent she couldn't remember me, I despaired. Malachor V, it seemed, was rife with weapons, wielding them even from beyond the grave.
But the despair was short-lived. She couldn't remember me, and while that made the situation far from optimal, it also meant that her disappearance for so long was not by choice. She hadn't looked for me because she hadn't known to. I felt something like happiness for the first time in a decade, pride be damned.
Fate or the Force continued to arrange it so that we were to stay together; after I helped her find her lost ship, the Ebon Hawk, she took me on board. As we traveled from planet to planet, I gave the General her space and didn't press her on her memory loss. But each passing day saw my fragile happiness gnawed away by frustration. After a few weeks, every time she was in the same room I had to repress the urge to grab her with my ugly, heavy, metallic hand and demand to know just who and what she had spent the last ten years on, amnesia or no. But I suppressed it, put on the mask of the mild-mannered tech, and waited.
One night in a dimly lit hallway and my wait came to an end.
She rounded a corner and crashed into me. The touch of her, even that crude, accidental contact, was enough to erase an entire decade. It was as though no time had passed; I was back on Dxun and I wanted her as badly as I had that first night. In that hallway I chose my words to help her remember—to make her remember—that night so that this fruitless want could come to an end.
And she wanted so badly to believe. She let me back her against the wall, desire shining in her eyes and making her breath shallow. As I spoke, I could smell the warmth of her skin and see the shine in her black, black hair that was almost blue. I had forgotten how small she was, how delicate she seemed. Here she was in the flesh and blood instead of an obscure, aching need in the darkest part of every night.
The blood rushed to long-dormant parts of my body when I saw her want to remember me, and again when she kissed me even though she couldn't.
But her amnesia, though an obscure and ambiguous thing to me, was a weighty and momentous thing to her. When it did not relent, she pushed me away with an angry retort and I thought the night was lost.
But hours later she found me again, telling me that Dxun had been recovered. I rejoiced, not merely for the ineffable satisfaction I had at having her body again, but because she had regained a vital part of what made us who we were. Dxun, for all its blood and death and fear, was the culmination of our partnership. The rage I had felt in that jungle had been mirrored in her beautiful face; the determination to defeat a merciless enemy had been like a blood pumping in both are hearts; the passion and lust for survival that fueled us day after day had been given its due that night in her tent. For her to regain it was a great triumph despite all that remained to be remembered. I knew then that we were going to save each other again and that all the unfinished business between her, me, and Malachor V was drawing to a close.
We were not happy. We were not at peace. But an end was in sight—an end that promised to be something more than the descent into madness I had envisioned, and right then, lying naked and content in my bunk, holding her small, powerful form tight to me, that was enough.
It was more than enough.