Here's Chapter 17 :) Enjoy!
Attack of the Steev
* * * Chet * * *
I decided I'd let the General sleep and wake up the guys first. After I managed to get them all on their feet and preparing to move out (and it took me a good fifteen minutes), I walked over to her and I gave her a gentle shake.
"Meh, ten more hours," she mumbled. "Go 'way, Master…"
I stifled a laugh and shook her again. Her eyelids flickered, and she waved a hand. I almost yelped as a light Force-shove gave me a push in the opposite direction. I walked back and shook her, this time adding something I was sure would get her up.
"Wakey wakey, Princess," I whisper-sang.
The General unwillingly opened her eyes and narrowed them at me. Still half-asleep, she growled, "I thought I told you notta call me that…"
I grinned. "Since when have I ever listened to directions?"
She yawned and blinked, waking up more. "Good point." She massaged her neck, and I felt a twinge of pity and guilt - a hard shoulder plate doesn't make the most comfortable of pillows. She rubbed her face with a sigh.
"Sparks had nothing to report," I assured her.
She nodded in satisfaction. "Good. Thanks for waking me up."
I smiled again, that warm glow spreading though my chest. "Anytime, Princess."
She slugged me in the shoulder, then winced, shaking her hand - armor's not fun to whack. "Stop calling me that, Soldier Boy!"
I laughed and hauled her to her feet.
She stretched for a few seconds, muscles flexing under her jumpsuit, then popped her back with a crackle that had Lex wincing.
"Sorry," the General apologized sheepishly. "The ground was really hard."
And my shoulder plate. I grimaced again - her neck had to be killing her. Why had I let her fall asleep on it?
Oh yeah. I'd been asleep too. Still, though, it had hurt her…
Lex nodded in acceptance of her apology, then finished neatly folding his bedroll – he was the only one who really bothered with tidiness. Flash, for instance, had his rolled into a wrinkled ball and stuffed into his pack with one corner dangling out.
The General tucked her blanket into her duffel bag and straightened up. Without looking, she reached out a hand and steadied a yawing Torch. "Alrighty, boys. Let's roll."
"You heard the lady," I said, putting on my bucket – or helmet in military lingo. "Besides, nothing gets the blood flowing better than a nice morning walk."
Darek and Flash groaned.
* * * Mera* * *
Military sarcasm for you – our hike was anything but a nice morning walk. The flat, rocky ground that seemed to stretch as far as you could see in every direction soon changed to flat, rocky ground bordered by massive, rocky gray canyon walls. Last night, we'd been able to see the canyon as a darker smudge on a black horizon, but by midday, they seemed to suddenly pop up out of the ground. According to Scout, this was the fastest way to the slave compounds (if not the safest, some of the canyon walls looked like breathing on them would topple them over).
So of course we take the dangerous route.
Before long, though, I was really wishing we hadn't. Chills raced up and down my spine, and when Cade accidentally kicked a rock, I nearly jumped out of my skin.
Something was wrong about this place. Like, really wrong.
I wasn't the only one that felt it, either.
"I don't like this," Vick mumbled, eyeing the rocks like they wanted to eat him.
Cade was staring at the walls nervously too, but of course he looked on the bright side. "Well, at least there's lots of places to sleep," he said, waving a hand at all the caves lining the walls.
Chet, walking beside me, snorted. "If whatever lives in there doesn't eat us first," he muttered, his hands hovering near his handguns.
"Optimism is a little out of touch with life," I whispered to him.
"Too unrealistic," Chet agreed with a smile.
Flash and Darek, walking in front of us and playing I Spy (Flash proclaimed it as entertainment that doubled as watching for things that wanted to eat them), looked back at us and beamed. They looked almost exactly the same – with their helmets on, you couldn't see their distinctive hair colors. The two things you could tell them apart by were the grinning Nexu head on Flash's right shoulder and the saber cat head on Darek's. Tally marks over their chests represented the number of successful missions they'd been on, but they both had the same amount.
"Congratulations," Flash said with a grin.
"You're talking in turn!" Darek told us brightly.
"Just like us!" Flash finished.
Chet rolled his eyes. "Yay."
"Hey, is that sarcasm I detect?" Flash asked.
"Do you want your helmet to be full of whipped cream again?" Darek scolded.
Chet shuddered. "Nope. I'm good."
"Then say it like you mean it!" Flash ordered.
"Yay!" Chet cheered quietly, voice full of fake joy.
"It'll do for now," Darek sighed, and they turned back to their game. "Let's see. I spy…something gray."
"A rock. My turn…I spy something…hard."
"No fair," Flash complained. "All that's on this planet to spy are rocks."
"It's not my fault! You're the one who suggested we play I Spy!"
"You didn't have any suggestions yourself! Besides, you agreed to play."
"I was bored out of my mind!" Darek retorted.
I had to cover my mouth with my hand to stop a laugh from escaping. What came out instead was a kind of strangled snort.
"If they're bugging you, I'll tell them to shut it," Chet said quietly.
I smiled at him. "Thanks, but it's okay."
Chet had his helmet on, but I could tell he was grinning back under it, with that crooked smile he had – the left side rising up a little higher than the right – and his green eyes dancing. My heart skipped a beat.
After a minute, I realized I was still smiling at him, and that he hadn't looked away from me either. Chet got it at the same time I did, and we both quickly glanced away from each other, me humming nervously and Chet coughing. Awkward silence…
And why the heck was I blushing?
Before I had a chance to think on that, Flash and Darek distracted me.
"Hey, look at that thing," Flash called, pointing to a very odd-shaped boulder pile. A big, craggy rock over three times as tall as Chet that had a small stone, about the size of a melon, perched on top of it. In fact, if you tilted your head to the side a bit, it looked like some kind of huge…beast-creature-thingie.
A beast-creature-thingie sitting in wait for unsuspecting travelers. My Jedi alarm bells started to clang.
"Chet, tell the guys to stop over your helmet links and to be silent," I told him quietly. He nodded and pressed two fingers to the side of his helmet, relaying my message. Gamma Squad froze instantly, guns brought to ready position in case of trouble.
I closed my eyes and extended my consciousness, reaching out tentatively towards the rock pile. Like stretching out a hand to touch something, but with my mind. Just because I'd never heard of rock monsters didn't mean they didn't exist.
Small sparks of light that were the tiny rock lizards and beetles scurrying around in the cliffs dotted the Force, along with the larger, brighter signatures of my squad that pulsed with worry, alertness, and determination. I reached further, and brushed up against a mind not as small and insignificant as the rock lizards', but not as complex and unique as those of my squad's.
Semi-sentient, that was the word. I dug a little deeper into its mind. Maybe it was friendly?
I shivered. The thought echoed with a gravelly undertone in the Force, not so much an actual word than a feeling of near starvation.
Food. Coming. Hungry…
Interesting, it used vibrations in the ground to sense prey. It had next to no hearing, sight or smell. It was somewhat confused now, since we'd stopped moving. It knew we were there, but it couldn't figure out why we were no longer coming. A sense of patience filled it – it would wait as long as it needed too. It knew that the only way thought the passage was past it.
I delved further into its thoughts.
The creature was driven entirely by its need for food, and we were next on the menu. Nope, definitely not friendly.
I quickly pulled back, retreating from its ravenous mind to my safe, familiar one with a relieved shudder, and opened my eyes. Chet was standing right next to me, ready to start blasting something to pieces.
"Plan?" he asked quietly.
I jerked a finger at the rock pile that was actually a man-eating monster. "That thing thinks we're food."
"The…rock pile?" Flash asked, confused.
"It's not a rock pile."
Scout scanned the cliffs. "Well, we can't climb the rock face. It's too eroded by the constant rain - too flaky. Unless you want to fall to your death, climbing's out."
"And we can't exactly go under," Flash added.
"Or over," Darek finished.
I shrugged. "Guess that means we go through it. Plan A is I'm going to try to convince it to move away or let us pass."
"And if that doesn't work?" Lex asked.
I slipped my lightsaber out of my belt, rubbing my palm against its ridged black handgrip. "Then we'll do what we have to do," I replied, proud that my voice barely quivered. I really didn't want to kill it, it was starving for food, but if we had no choice…
Chet reached out and gave my shoulder a comforting squeeze as Lex nodded. "Understood."
I closed my eyes again and stepped outside my mind, making my way to the rock monster's. Not food, I whispered through the Force.
It was confused; what was that? But food caught its attention.
Hungry. Yes food, it insisted.
I nudged its mind again, which was hard – it was totally focused on getting a meal, making its brain slippery and hard to grasp. Step outside the canyon, I tried.
No. Food coming, it repeated.
Anger was rising in it, a deep, primal instinct. Who was trying to steal its meal? It growled deep in its throat. It would defend its prey from thieves to the last breath.
I quickly stepped back, shaking myself to get rid of the thing's urge to rip, tear, kill. "Reasoning with it is not going to work," I reported. "It's just too driven, too starved."
"Calling it 'it' is getting confusing," Flash muttered.
"What do you suggest?" Chet asked, sounding exasperated. If he hadn't been wearing his helmet, he would've been pinching the bridge of his nose in frustration.
"Let's call it Steev," Flash suggested.
Darek bit back a snort. "Steev?"
Flash glared. "At least we know what we're talking about now. And 'Steev' is much less threatening-sounding than 'it' or 'rock monster'."
"Alright," I agreed. "Steev it is."
Ace hefted his rifle. "What's the plan?" he asked impatiently.
I rolled my shoulders. "Aggressive negotiations."
"What?" Chet asked, his voice alarmed. "Wait a second -"
Too late. I was sprinting for the…well, Steev, dipping into the Force to make me faster and running light enough that Steev wouldn't be able to really sense that I was coming. "Don't worry," I called over my shoulder. I leaped into the air, activating lightsaber as I did and sweeping it over my head. I landed perfectly right behind Steev's melon-head and sliced downward. "Lightsabers can cut through -"
My violet blade skated right off Steev's craggy, rock-like skin. I turned the momentum behind my attack into a twirl so I wouldn't be thrown off, and gaped at the back of Steev's neck in shock. Not even singed. "Well, almost anything," I finished weakly.
Nothing could deflect a lightsaber, except for Mandalorian iron…and, apparently, Steev-skin. Go figure.
And I wasn't the only one surprised. There was a stunned silence form my squad, then Flash broke the quiet. "Well, that was unexpected," he said faintly.
Chet was the first to through off the astonishment. "Get down," he yelled, sounding scared.
Steev wasn't too pleased, either. He lurched out of the crouching position he'd been curled into with a bone-shaking roar. Bits of shale, some as big as plates, broke off from the canyon walls and fell, smashing apart as they hit the ground. Rock piles toppled over and shattered.
Caught off guard, I tumbled off Steev's back with a startled yelp. Chet shouted something, but I couldn't hear what it was over Steev expressing his rage in the loudest way possible.
I quickly turned my free-fall into a flip, and landed on my feet instead of my head. As my squad raced up to me, I shook my hair out of my eyes and brushed off some stone shards. The rip-resistant fabric of my jumpsuit protected me from most off the shattering rocks, but I still had a good-sized slice down my left arm.
I glared up at Steev, all my sympathy gone, and pinched the fabric of my jumpsuit back together. "Now it's personal," I muttered.
Steev was so going down.
Some action for ya. More in the next chapter :) As to why Flash and Darek were playing I Spy out of all things, a) some clones had a child-like side because of their forced accelerated growth, b) it's Flash and Darek, and c) severe boredom will do strange things to people.