ONE
Amongst the Dead


The bridge of a starship. The alert lights are on full, plunging the crowded, bustling space into a crimson twilight. Through the viewports, a vicious battle rages. For an outside observer, it might even be beautiful. Great capital ships connected by lines of red and blue and green laser fire; tiny starfighters ride needles of ion efflux; here and there, extraordinary explosions that die an instant later in the frozen vacuum.

She watches it all without passion, without pain, without fear. She is cold and ruthless in her movements, in her orders. She directs her gunners to target this battlecruiser, that frigate. She commands the ships of her fleet into this manoeuvre, that assault. At her order, thousands of sentients perish in an instant as a reactor core overloads. At her order, the lone pilot of a single starfighter is vaporised as a proton missile hits home. She has power over life and death. It is intoxicating. She is the master of this war.

She will prove her mastery of it. She will end it.

Far below the battle is a planet, a seemingly peaceful world orbiting a seemingly benign star. The name of this world is spoken as a curse: Malachor V. Soon, it will be remembered as the graveyard of the Mandalorian Neo-Crusaders.

"It's ready, general," the technician says, his voice husky.

She takes a deep breath. She reaches out, feels the lives at her fingertips. Hundreds of Mandalorian ships are trapped in Malachor V's gravity well, dozens of Republic vessels amongst them. Tens of thousands of lives.

But billions more are out their, amongst the stars, their safety, their security, their very existence dependent upon her.

She speaks the final word, gives the order that will end the word: "Fire."

The technician turns the key.

In an instant, tens of thousands are killed. In an instant, Malachor V is destroyed. The waves of pain and fear and terror wash over her, shatter her. In an instant, the war ends. And so does she.


Wake.

She felt more than heard the word whispered to her. It seeped into her sleep-clouded brain, wormed its way to the front of her mind. Her eyes snapped open. She was suspended in cool blue liquid, her limbs unresponsive and her perceptions sluggish. She remained conscious only for a few moments.

When she came to a few moments later, the liquid had drained and she was slumped against the side of the transparisteel tube she was trapped in. Her mind was still heavy and she could barely lift her arms but she managed to press a hand to the glass. It was then that she realised a breath mask was clamped over her mouth and nose. A headache washed over her and she had to shut her eyes again, wincing to overcome the pain.

She slipped into unconsciousness for a few more moments.

Then she felt cold, hard decking beneath her. This snapped her awake. She sat up, instantly hyperaware, as though coming out of a dream. A flood of sensory perceptions threatened to overwhelm her. She was in a cold, metallic chamber, circular in shape, with a large door in front of her. There was a console embedded in the wall beside the door and three transparent tubes stretching from the floor to the ceiling behind her.

One was empty. The other two were still filled with the cold blue liquid she'd been suspended in a few moments before. Kolto, she realised. A healing fluid sourced from the distant ocean world Manaan. A human male floated in one of the tanks, his face obscured behind a breath mask. She realised with a dawning horror that he was dead.

"Where the hell am I?" she muttered to herself.

She considered shouting out, only to decide against it. Something was niggling at the corner of her perceptions, ordering her not to.

Her mind was still foggy, clouded. Though she'd been aware of her surroundings originally, her senses seemed to be dulled. She'd been drugged, she realised. Desperately, she fought to remember something of what had happened before she'd been immersed in the tank.

A name floated up from the recesses of her mind. Meetra. Meetra Surik. She blinked, realising that the name belonged to her. She pushed herself off the deck, her legs wobbling beneath her as she stood. She'd been on a ship... a big ship. A powerful ship. Something had happened. She'd been injured.

She struggled over to the console. Instinctually, she input an activation command. A log in screen blinked to life, asking her to input a name and password. Giving up for a moment, she went to the door. Tapping the control in the centre, it cycled open. She was faintly aware of being nude and resolved to find some clothes as quickly as she could.

Exiting what she now realised was a sickbay, she found herself in a small room. Each of the four walls featured a door. Deciding randomly, she took the left door. Inside was a laboratory. Nothing especially well-appointed, just a workbench, deactivated computer terminals and small storage area. Inside she found a blue jumpsuit with dark orange panels amongst a small pile of plasteel cylinders and durasteel footlockers. It would be a bit loose on her but seemed comfortable enough.

Shrugging, Meetra said to herself "That'll do."

Pulling the jumpsuit on, she rooted around in the cylinders and lockers, only to find chemical compounds and deactivated datapads. Patting herself down, she found a small code cylinder in the breast pocket. Blinking, she raced back to the sickbay. Plugging the cylinder into the side of the console, the screen powered up and instantly displayed a root menu.

Several options blinked at her. The first couple were standard computer operations, shut down, log off, et cetera, but the fourth and fifth were more interesting. The first was a record of administered patient treatments. Selecting this, she read with mounting horror. All three kolto tanks had been active, though only two patients had been immersed.

One of them was registered as "unknown human female". In other words, her. The other was listed as Inij Honto. Looking over her shoulder, she examined the man's floating body. According the record, she'd suffered from several wounds, including blunt force trauma, three cracked ribs and limited organ damage. Inij Honto, however, had gotten something worse: burns to more than fifty per cent of his body and severe lacerations. Amongst the drugs pumped into the tanks, however, was enough sedative to kill a gundark.

Meetra cursed. There was no way that was accidental. Someone had tried to kill her and had succeeded in killing Honto.

Once again, she whispered to herself: "Where the hell am I?"

A long time ago, this would have been so much easier. She'd have been able to reach out and touch the Force, probing it for information or guidance. For years now, she'd had no connection to the Force. It had felt, at first, like losing her hands or one of her senses. She'd felt lesser, defeated somehow. Now she was used to it. The Force was a tool that was lost to her.

Activating the fifth option on the root menu, she came across the medical officer's logs. Meetra read the files quickly, her jaw hanging open. She learned that she was somewhere called Peragus. She didn't know if it was a planet, a moon, an asteroid or what, but she guessed that she wasn't on a ship or a space station, judging by the lack of engine vibrations or subtle rotation that would have accompanied those settings.

The officer had recorded the arrival of a small freighter. Three droids had been found aboard along with two organic passengers. One had been dead dead on arrival. The second, whom Meetra deduced had been her, was badly wounded and had been put straight into kolto. Less than a day later, a massive explosion had sent several miners to the sick bay. Two had died of their wounds but the third had been put in the tanks.

Miners, Meetra thought. A mining facility, then. Drilling or digging for something dangerous, if an explosion had caused such havoc. The last entry seemed rushed, as though the author was concerned or scared. It provided no useful information, no clue as to who might have drugged her. It did, however, mention someone called Coorta.

Sighing, Meetra deactivated the terminal.

She headed back out of the sickbay and glanced at the door to her right. Something in there seemed to call to her. She realised with a shudder that it must be the morgue. She opened the hatch and stepped inside. The room was stark white, with six slabs lining the walls. The air was chill and her breath misted in plumes before her.

Three of the slabs were occupied. Two of the bodies had been human males. They looked badly injured, burnt and gouged by something thick and powerful. No way did a mere explosion cause that much damage. They were wearing the same outfit she was. The dead miners, then.

The third body was an old woman. She wore a rough, homespun brown robe. To Meetra, she looked remarkably frail, her craggy face wearing a mask of tired worry even in death. Turning back to the miners, she began to search for another code cylinder just like the one she'd pilfered from the medlab. She needed some more answers.

Instead, she found a plasma torch clutched in one of the miners' hands. A rudimentary weapon, to be sure, but she was glad to have one.

"Find what you're looking for amongst the dead?"

Meetra nearly jumped out of her skin at the faint, gravelly voice that emerged from the other end of the morgue. She spun around to find the old woman sitting up. The cowl of her robe fell across her eyes but she seemed to be staring right at her. Bizarrely, Meetra felt guilty, like a child caught reaching for the forbidden sweets.

"I thought you were dead," she managed, getting past her shock. She blinked as she realised she'd heard that voice before. "Your voice... I heard it when I was in the kolto tank."

The woman's cracked lips briefly turned upwards. "Yes, I had hoped as much. I slept here too long and could not awaken. It may be I reached out unconsciously and your mind must have been a willing one. Or perhaps you were trained for such things?"

Even though she couldn't see the old woman's eyes, Meetra could have sworn they were drilling into her like mining lasers. She shifted uncomfortably. "Slept too long? You looked dead when I came in."

At this, the woman's smile froze. It seemed somehow more genuine. "A simple deception. Death is not difficult to master, in its own way."

Meetra almost laughed at the cryptic response. It reminded her of a teacher she'd had long ago. "Who are you?"

"I am Kreia," the old woman answered simply. "I am your rescuer, as you are mine. Tell me, do you recall what happened?"

Meetra shrugged, but the cobwebs in her mind her clearing more rapidly now. "I was on a Republic ship, the Harbinger. Do you know what happened to it?"

"Your ship was attacked and you were the only survivor," Kreia answered. "A result of your Jedi training, no doubt."

"I..." Meetra froze, brought up short. She thought about denying it but something in the woman's tone told her that any lie would be pointless. "I'm not a Jedi anymore."

Kreia surveilled her for a moment before going on. "Your stance, your walk tells me you are a Jedi. Your walk is heavy, you carry something that weighs you down."

Meetra blinked. That hit her too close to home. "The Jedi Order and I have a... checkered past."

"So it would seem," Kreia answered, as though shrugging her off. "Keep your past and let us focus on the now."

"All right then," Meetra nodded evenly, still a little unnerved. "Where are we?"

"I don't know," Kreia admitted. "I was removed from the events of the world as I slept. A survey of our surroundings may reveal more..."

"I know that we're somewhere called Peragus," Meetra interrupted, indicating the uniform she wore. "Some kind of mining facility would be my guess. I just don't know where Peragus is. Or where any of the crew are."

"The ship we arrived in must still be in this place. We should recover it and leave?"

Meetra frowned. "Why so hasty? I'll admit, this place gives me the creeps..."

"We were attacked once," Kreia answered sharply, "and I fear our attackers will not give up the hunt so easily. Without transport, weapons and information, they will find us easy prey indeed."

"All right," Meetra nodded. "Let's go, then. We're in the medical facility but I don't know where that is in relation to the hangar bay or whatever kind of control and command post they've got around here..."

Kreia waved a gnarled, liver-spotted hand. "No. I will remain here. My time amongst the dead has left me weary. You will explore alone."

Meetra scowled, her suspicions suddenly aroused. "When I was in the kolto tank, someone administered a lethal dose of sedative to the whole system. Any idea why someone would do that?"

Kreia seemed genuinely bewildered. "I do not know. Why did they spare you?"

"They didn't," Meetra answered sharply. "I got the same dose."

The old woman took a moment to consider. "Indeed. A Jedi trance would keep you safe from such poisons... perhaps the sedatives were meant to keep you unconscious for some time, killing those who were untrained in such techniques. Most curious."

"You know more than you're saying," Meetra said, acting on a hunch that had been building at the back of her mine.

"So do you," Kreia responded. "For now, we have other concerns. Chief amongst them: finding our new enemy."

Meetra wanted more information but she knew Kreia was right. They had indeed been attacked once already and someone had tried to murder her here, on Peragus. This was not a safe place. "I'll come back soon and make sure you're all right," Meetra said, though her offer was as much a test as it was out of concern.

"I leave you to the explorations of this place. Here, I will remain and attempt to centre myself," she said as she lowered herself on creaky knees to the metallic deck. Wresting the backs of her palms on her knees, she adopted a meditative pose and mien.

"Maybe when I come back," Meetra said under her breath, turning for the morgue door, "you'll answer my questions."

"I have found that answers come in their own time," she whispered as the door closed behind the other woman. "Not yours, Exile."