— THE RENEGADE —
"He's on his own side now…"
Lux awoke with a gasp for breath—his ears ringing deaf while his heart pounded wildly in his throat.
He coughed a mouthful of air and tried to get up, on impulse, and the pain shot through his entire body and struck him down in a heartbeat. For a long moment he just stayed there, lying on his back, clutching his aching side. He steadied his heavy breathing and gently propped himself on his elbows, and then, after his vision had cleared, he looked around.
He was lying on the deck of his lifeboat, which was completely and obviously wrecked from the crash-landing. The wreckage seemed to creak and rock as he slowly arose to his feet and limped towards the blastdoor. But after three steps his legs suddenly gave out from his own weight and he crumbled back to the deck. He tried to recover, but the most he could do was roll onto his back, shuddering in pain. After two attempts, he was finally up, leaning on the door, and peering out the viewport.
Outside, the first thing to catch his attention was the long, rocky slope leading down to a bleak terrain of gravel and debris, directly beneath the high, rock-strewn hill where his pod crashed. He hadn't officially landed yet.
The pod shifted to the edge, leaning closer toward the slope awaiting him, and all the shattered duraglass and loose equipment rolled towards to him, faster per second. The pod descended down the slope and he cursed under his breath.
It was a devastating fall—the pod tumbled and rolled down the merciless terrain, his body flung across the cabin bay, and when all the thrashing finally came to a stop, he was flat on his back. He tried to rise up, but the pain was too much and he slumped back to the deck, immobilized by the pain. For a long time he just lay there, starring at the overhead, unable to move.
How in stars did he get himself into this mess? Lux tried to remember. His head pounded ferociously and the pain dulled his vision, and then he blacked out…
When he was younger and naive, Lux Bonteri dreamt of exploring the galaxy, traveling to distant places and meeting new people. He remembered the day he left Onderon and moved to the bureaucratic state world of Raxus, five years ago, how fascinated he was with the unfamiliar community. The sights, the sounds, the smells… everything was just so different, so foreign. Never had he been more amazed with the one planet, only to learn it was merely dust in the wind compared to the much bigger galaxy.
That was the day he aspired to become an explorer, someday.
Lux laughed to himself, he always found irony in any situation to be hysterical, even now. He had a small lifeboat and the whole galaxy ahead of him—over a thousand planets to choose from, and he was lost.
In the last seventy-two hours since he parted ways with Ahsoka Tano, Lux had been drifting aimlessly through unfamiliar space, his new situation only getting worse over time. He had depleted the escape pod's resources down to its last ration, fuel vat and oxygen reserve, and the navigation relay and distress beacon had been damaged after passing through a debris field, leaving him completely lost. He only had ten hours of life support left, after that… well, there would be no "after that." He will die long before anyone discovered his pod.
Lux smacked his own face, hard, enough times until he felt his left cheek stung from a bruise. It was an excessive move, he'd admit later, but he was wide awake now. He needed to stay focused.
After escaping the Death Watch, he had taken an escape pod and started searching for a safe haven. Trouble was he didn't know where he would go, or anywhere safe for him. He couldn't go home to Raxus, not after Count Dooku nearly had him executed, and he wouldn't join the Republic—he just couldn't see himself on the other faction. He didn't even want anything to do with the war. Right now, more than anything, he wanted someplace to rest, somewhere safe and secluded to clear his head and try to figure out what he would do next.
But now it wouldn't matter if he found closure in the farthest corner of the universe, because he was out of options, out of time, and out of hope. He could already feel the air growing stale…
Lux buried his face in his hands. "How could I have been so foolish?" He asked, wishing someone was there to answer.
Ahsoka was his only true friend, more so than anyone in the Confederacy who had sold him out back on Mandalore. As he remembered from that day, she had risked the entire peace conference and her own life to save his, twice including the Carlac affair. She had stayed by his side and protected him, even when he was wrong, and they had escaped together, she had guaranteed his safety in the Republic. But he turned her down. And the only reason behind it was he didn't trust her.
It was only until now that he realized that was a stupid decision. Because now, Lux Bonteri sat alone in the cold, shallow confines of his stolen escape pod, drifting further and further in the middle of dead space. He should have trusted her, he should have been thinking…
Well, fretting about it will do him no good, he couldn't deny that. He needed to focus on now. Time was running. The reality was crushing down on him, hard, like a blizzard, preventing him from seeing clearly and threatening to overwhelm him. He needed an answer, and fast, but he didn't know. He was tired, desperate, and most of all, afraid, and he needed to figure something out, now.
But he didn't know! He just… he didn't know.
He was tired, too tired to concentrate or think rationally; he hadn't slept in the past several hours of his isolation. Gloom weighed down in the pit of his stomach, and his heavy eyelids slowly fell closed. He wanted to sleep, and he wanted to just give up. There was no hope, anyway.
"I believe in you, Lux…"
Lux lifted his head in that very instant and looked over his shoulder to the pod's cabin—there was no one there, only two rows of empty seats across from each other. It was strange. For a moment, he thought he'd heard a very familiar voice, her voice, speaking to him with true reassurance. Only he didn't just hear her, he felt her, as if she were right beside him there and now. Had he gone crazy?—he didn't quite know…
But he did feel something rise within him, something that willed him to take a second look at the system-layout computer. Lux didn't know what he was looking for exactly when he brought up the databoard and examined the projected text displayed before his dry, tired eyes, and then he found an answer.
According to the readout, the lifeboat's navigation charts were disabled but its gravity directional compass was still operation. That and he had just enough fuel for one last jump through hyperspace. It was all about finding the right location.
He took a slow breath to pull himself together and gently piloted the pod into an open path clear of debris, following the compass' nearest world indication. He didn't know where he was going, not that he knew where he was now. All he did know was he only had one shot at this, and if he did nothing, he would die.
After he positioned the lifeboat to the open path and set the hyperspace system, he slumped back into his seat as the timer counted down. The air quality dropped, and the past three days of sleepless toil finally caught up with him. Fateful seconds later, the pod's forward viewport became a spiraling blue tunnel of light through space and time.
He slumped back in his seat and closed his eyes to rest…
When the memory faded and his senses fully recovered, Lux carefully rolled onto his knees and stood, one hand holding the bulkhead for support, the other clutching his left arm in agony. He reached inside his weather coat to feel the hot moisture flowing down his side, and when he withdrew his hand, it was red and wet with blood. His blood.
Despite the dense humidity crowding around him, a chill ran through him, and he tried, almost desperately, to redirect his attention elsewhere. He looked around. The escape pod's cabin, or rather what was left of it, was torn apart on the inside: scattered pieces of equipment and broken shards of duraglass littered the deck, and small rays of light spilled through the splits in the cracked blastdoor.
The control board was shattered, beyond chance of repair, and then he spotted a medical kit still intact, lying under the empty seat across from him.
He opened the medkit on the deck in front of him and looked inside. To his relief, he counted four small containers of bacta serum, six packs of sterile wash pads and patches, five stimpaks, two painkillers, two syringes, and a respirator. Unusually convenient, but he was far from complaining. With his little knowledge of first aid and medicine, he treated the bleeding, cleaned the wound on his side, and sealed it with a bacta patch. Next, he steadily stuck the needle of a stimpak in his arm, holding his breath for ten seconds, and then he released it as he pressed on the plunger. His energy was back, or at least that's how it felt.
Lux waited another minute before he was on his feet again, and then he found a rucksack to store the rest of the medical supplies. He rummaged around the whole pod for anything useful—water canteen, ration bars, comlink; he searched and emptied each compartment. Then he found the weapon, a DC-17 handblaster, BlasTech model, alongside three magazine cartridges, a holster and a belt. He rested the sack on the deck beside his feet and took the weapon in his hand, examining it, feeling its weight, and then he set it aside and took the gear. He clipped on the belt, slipped two magazines into his pocket, and loaded the third in the slot of his blaster.
He slung the rucksack over his shoulder and turned to the blastdoor, blocking his only way out. He tried to push it open, to no avail, and then he began to kick it. The door barely budged from the first two, and the last kick dislodged the jammed door and the bright sunlight immediately poured into the pod. He shielded his eyes and carefully climbed out of the pod, and then his eyes adjusted to the light and he overlooked the landscape.
The planet's topography appeared barren and desolate, like everything he had heard describing a desert, except the terrain was covered in top soil and gray undergrowth rather than sand, and the range of scattered junk, debris and wreckage made up the distance. It was breathtaking, nothing like the vast townscape of Raxus or the arctic atmosphere of Carlac, and yet it fascinated him nonetheless. But it also unnerved him. Somewhere in the distance, there was a howl, loud and chilling to the bone, and his grip tightened around the blaster.
"What are you doing with a gun, anyhow? You're not a fighter…"
Lux paused as he heard her voice again, almost like before except without the reassurance. Instead, Ahsoka's voice spoke in a tone, the same stern, skeptical tone she had used days ago. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he wondered if she was right to doubt him.
He dispelled the thought and began his journey across the badlands; all that mattered now was his survival.
First he needed to figure out where he was.
The planet's barren surface was vast and hot, and the day seemed to never end. Lux was panting in heavy breaths, perspiration rolled down his face and drenched his shirt completely as he strayed further, the sun looming high above him, blazing and unmoving. He had discarded his weather coat an hour ago, it helped a little, but now his exposed skin was burning under the piercing sunlight, and there wasn't a single shelter of shade in sight. He didn't stop, despite his fatigue and waning self-esteem, and tried to find a distraction—looking at each wrecked starship that made up the valley of debris and wreckage and waste.
Eventually, he came across a shaded area of rubble, dappled underneath the remains of a fallen transport shuttle, and decided to stop. Lux moved into the coolness of the wreckage's shadow and settled on the ground beside the corroded hull, wiping the sweat from his forehead as he unwrapped a ration bar from his rucksack. The ration had a starchy flavor, almost tasteless, but he wolfed it down without caring. He was starving.
He fell silent. Somewhere in the distance there was a noise amongst the deathly stillness of his surroundings, and then Lux stood and drew his blaster, feeling his heart quickening as more droplets of sweat trickled down his face. But it wasn't because of the heat this time, it was fear. Slowly, as he made his way closer to the source, his blaster tight in both hands, the noise seemed to die down and fade into utter silence—as if whatever was there knew he was approaching. Nevertheless, he continued through the muddle of debris until he stopped in his tracks, awed.
Lux was overlooking a large clearing in the midst of the wastes, scattered with dozens of large, circular pits. From where he stood, each pit appeared three meters wide in diameter, beyond his arms' reach, and was even deeper than twice his own stature. It was clearly manmade, he eventually realized, designed to detain captives, from his observation, if he were to fall in, climbing out was out of the question. That's not the only reason he knew. Sitting there, propped up against the inner walls of the pit, was a skeleton from unknown origin, its pale bones rotting on the dirt, and its teeth as black as coal.
The sight brought a cold chill through him as he backed away from the pit—
There was sudden snap, and he froze. Looking down, he spotted the broken twig crushed underneath his boot; it was actually rather small, but the crunching sound was the loudest he had heard in the thick silence. That and his heart's hard galloping in his ears…
Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump.
"Is someone there?"
His pounding heart seemed to ease a little when he heard the voice, so steady and firm and, from what he could distinguish, human.
"Hello? Is anyone up there?!"
He hurriedly followed the call to the other side of the clearing, hope rising up in his chest, until finally he stopped, peering down into the pit's gaping depths. Lux couldn't believe his eyes.
"Just when I thought my luck had run out."
A woman stood at the bottom of the hollow, muddy and disheveled, holding herself with ragged bearing. The jet black jumpsuit she wore, padded in tarnished pieces of armor, were tattered and frayed. She watched him through a tangle of sandy hair, her pale face smeared with dirt.
"Enjoying the view?" She snapped, "Well, whenever you're finished, I would appreciate some assistance."
Lux was lost for words. He had crossed a lifeless, inhospitable wasteland covered in wreckage and debris. What were the odds of finding another living being? "Sorry," he said with a start, "I just… I haven't seen anyone for hours."
"Neither have I." He thought he saw a hint of a smile on her lips as she broke eye contact and laughed dryly to herself. "Is there a camp nearby?"
"Camps? I don't know." Lux said, "Do you know what planet this is?"
The woman fixed him a look, "I might. Why?"
"My ship went down this morning. I've been hiking for hours."
"You crash-landed? How far off?"
"A few kilometers back, I think. I don't know which direction I came from, though—"
"Were you followed?"
There was something very unsettling about the question, "Why would I be followed?"
Her posture stiffened a little as she began to pace earnestly. "Because we're not alone on this rock, and now we may not have much time."
"What do you mean?"
"Listen, I tell you whatever you want, but you need to get me out of here, right now," she said, "or we're both dead."
Lux caught the message and immediately started moving. He looked around the clearing for something useful, his heart quickening again, and spotted a nearby line of cable coiled on the ground. A stroke of convenience, he thought.
"Here, take this," he tossed the line down into the pit and took a firm grasp of the other end—he set his rucksack and the blaster down to have his hands free. After she confirmed her hold with a quick tug of the line, he started to reel. Her hand appeared, and he quickly took it and hauled her out the rest of the way.
The woman collapsed to her side, panting heavily, "Water… please…"
Lux offered his water canteen to her. "Are you alright?"
She took the canteen from his hand without hesitation and drank a large amount, panting when she stopped for breath. And then she looked at him through the tangles of her hair, sandy and unkempt, a flicker in her eyes of polished amber, "Much better now." She smiled…
…and drove her fist into his stomach, knocking all the air out of his lungs.
Lux gasped, dropping to his knees. He barely had time to understand before she grabbed him by his collar and, in a swift motion, flung him towards the pit. The next thing he knew he was on his back, unable to move, struggling for breath, in the bottom of the hole. For the third time that same day.
The girl stood there, looking down at him, his rucksack slung over her shoulder. She smiled once last time, and then she turned and vanished without a word.