Destiny of the Dead
Miler's eyes cracked open.
Light flickered at the edge of his bleary vision.
A crepuscular cold crept up his body. He looked down at himself, supine on a bed. A thin black sheet covered him to his chest.
He felt his arms, and his face, to make sure it was all there. His fingers halted on his neck, which was scarred and brambly. What was it that had done that? He simply couldn't remember. Some phrenic brume blocked Miler from all he was.
He blinked his eyes into focus. Around him were gray walls and an IV drip that wasn't attached to him. There were no windows, just a doorway blocked by a force field. A cell.
Miler stood up slowly. He was in a black t-shirt, steam-pressed pants. Ill-fitting boots pinched his feet when he walked.
He waved his hand along the shimmering blue force field. In a moment it flickered and vanished, as if someone pressed the release. But there was no one standing on the other side. The corridor was silent and empty.
Something called to him, however. Something very, very old. He thought it might've been Light, if he didn't know better his lack of attenuation to celestial forces.
He inched through the dark corridor like he was fighting gravity. But it was only his fear made molasses out of air.
Ahead more cells with their force fields cut into the black. Miler strained to be calm. In discovering the prisoners' origins he might reconstruct his own.
Miler swallowed and peered into a cell. Inside a portly woman lay nude, sleeping on her back. Her entire torso was covered in sutures, as if all her innards had been replaced or put back. Yet her face was halcyon.
"Leona," he whispered.
Miler whirled to the cell adjacent. A sleeping Ithorian—his head a red mess of recent scar tissue—lay fitfully on his side.
Miler gasped, stumbling back. He staggered from cell to cell to cell to cell. Dawson. Rayner. Baxley. Mozer. Lutranda. Porter. Decherton. Xuper. His sister.
Miler's body went numb. He was aware of nothing but his unsteady breath and the pain he'd buried in psychic cement. Like the others, Pentra was nude, but her slumbering on her stomach spared him much of the image. To say she was blissful was inadequate. She looked transcendentally satisfied, possessed of a security that eluded her in life.
In life. Pentra was dead. They all were.
Miler turned to the cell adjacent. His father. On his chest a scar marked the blaster wound that took him from his children.
"You son of a bitch! I will haunt you forever! Every moment, ya bloody—"
Blood sprayed on the window, misted in smoke.
Miler felt his neck again: rough and scarred. Tears leaked from his eyes as his existence unfurled. His promise to Aayla: broken like the body he'd said would come back to her. His entire life he'd been a survivor. He'd carried the pain of unimaginable loss. Now he'd handed that boulder to the woman he loved.
He screamed and sobbed and laughed and moaned all in one sound. He was on his knees, and one trembling arm was all that upheld him.
"Brave heart, little one."
Miler gasped. His eyes shot open. He crawled to a view of another cell, and met the warm stare of his Mother.
Her skin was golden. The pallid mask that had been her face, that had haunted his dreams, was renewed to its true image. Her eyes glimmered in the light of the force field.
"Mom?" cried the broken boy within him.
"Oh, Miler. I've waited forever to see you."
"I'm dead, mom," Miler sobbed. "I'm dead an' I left her. Aayla's all alone. I promised I wouldn't leave her. All I wanted was t'love her. I wanted to love her forever..."
His Mother squatted so their stares were level. Her head shook gently. "You were dead, Miler—but you're not anymore."
"Aayla was right that the universe is vast. There are septillions of lifeforms in our galaxy alone. Between some of them, there are striking similarities. Others couldn't be more different. Among all life, good and evil, we have one thing in common: it's our destiny to die," she said. "But there are more destinies, reserved by the Force for a special few."
Miler lifted his head. He pushed past the fog of pain. "The Force?"
"You are more precious than you know," his Mother beamed. "Did you never wonder how you managed to survive when everyone died around you?"
He'd always moved faster. He'd always drawn quicker. Sometimes he marveled at landing catfooted. It was easy to dismiss as luck and fortune.
His Mother said, "There's something you have to do. Something that will seem impossible. I don't know what it is, but I know it's your destiny. And it was nearly taken from you."
"But the Force saved me," Miler whispered.
"Not the Force. Not this time..."
Aayla's blushing face filled his mind's eye. For the first time, at least consciously, he felt her Current in the Force: or, rather, he felt its echo in every part of him. The presence empowered him to climb to his feet.
"Mom..." Miler touched the force field, pulling back when it zapped him. "There's so much I wanna tell ya," he cried happy tears. "All I wanna do is hug ya. I've missed ya so much."
His Mother's mask of serenity cracked against tears. Her Current washed over him, submerging him in love. Every worried glance, every song she'd sung her baby, every peel of laughter seeped into his bones. "Brave heart, precious boy," she whispered through tears. "There is my soul and there is you. And they are tied in a knot."
Miler whirled. In the adjacent cell, a nude woman was bleeding from her stomach. Her hands were soaked red from covering the wound. But she hardly seemed fazed. Sad brown eyes, sunk deep in her gray face, stared beseechingly.
"Do I know you?" he asked.
"You know my son." Miler's eyes narrowed. He stood in front of her. "His name is Landon," said the woman. "And he's my precious one."
Miler missed two breaths so he took three all at once. His strong face twisted confoundedly.
"I failed him," she cried. "I made him make a promise. A cruel promise. A terrible promise. It's held him down his whole life. He wants to be free from it, but he sees my ghost everywhere."
"He made his choices," Miler growled.
"You made a promise to your Aayla," Landon's mother said. "Is there anything that will keep you from holding her again?" Miler turned away. His own mother was asleep in her cell now. The image of Landon crying in his pressure suit branded his brain.
"Find your Aayla," said Landon's mother. "And please tell my son he is loved, and he is free."
Miler blinked and he was back in his cell, staring at the ceiling. The room wasn't dark. The force field he'd breached shimmered in place again.
Standing on the other side was an HK-80 droid. Miler knew the model: an assassin droid with protocol functions. The Republic had considered them for environments inhospitable to humans. The Gand homeworld was of strategic importance, but its ammonia atmosphere made a ground war impractical. In the end, HKs were deemed too unpredictable.
HK-80 stood six-feet tall. Humanoid in form, he appeared like a melding of skeleton and machine. He was completely gray except for orange highlights, a glowing circle on his chest that signaled power, and two glowing eyes on his shallow head.
"Statement: you are awake," said its mechanical voice. "This is most pleasing, prisoner. Your torture will now commence."
"Where am I?" asked Miler.
"Answer: you are imprisoned at Neecho's palace. Delighted explication: Master has instructed me to torture you endlessly, every day, for the rest of your life."
Miler sat up in bed. The mockery in Eighty's tone gave him something to work with. "Ya don't have t'do that."
"Correction: I very literally do. I am programmed to obey master's commands."
Miler said, "Ya seem pretty self-aware. What else d'ya need t'have free will?"
Eighty lowered the force field and entered the cell. Miler didn't struggle when the droid held him down. "Evasive statement: even if I did have free will, I would still torture you. I was built for such things."
Eighty unveiled an electric prod. He held it to Miler's side, and the prisoner screamed.
Miler's eyes fluttered open. He rolled his head to find Eighty entering the cell.
"Statement: good day, prisoner. It is time for your torture."
Miler grimly smiled at the pleasant tone. He licked his bone-dry lips, and asked, "Are you happy here?"
"Bewildered exclamation: Happy? What a ridiculous query."
"Aren't ya an assassin droid? It's a waste o'your skills, is all."
Eighty paused before pulling a cord of rope from the satchel on his back. "Statement: I think today, I'll whip you," he said hollowly.
Miler's eyes slipped open. HK-80 was standing in his cell.
The droid's customary greeting was replaced by silence. Miler used the time to test his strained muscles. The bacta tank didn't erase day after day of electrocution, whipping, and exposure to extreme temperatures. Even Obi-Wan would grimace at the thought of it.
The only thing that had seen him through was the whisper of his angel. He imagined Aayla beside him, speaking gentle assurances, rubbing his head, her delicate eyes shining with love. Nothing in the universe could stop him from getting back to her.
"Statement: I have been thinking about your query."
"Are you happy?" Miler repeated.
"Troubled realization: I am an assassin droid—yet all I do is torture those who have wronged my master."
"It's a pity," Miler said caringly. "There's a war going on. A terrible, bloody, immoral war." Eighty tilted his head. "I've killed more people than I can count," Miler added.
"Hesitant query: will you tell me a story... about a man you killed?" He added on delay, "Then we can begin your torture for the day."
Miler opened his eyes and met the cold red stare of Neecho.
The Duros leaned down so Miler felt his breath. "Hello, Captain Crata. I hope your accommodations are satisfactory."
"All but the company," Miler said.
Neecho's strength was the careful balance of rage and reason. Since Han's death, he'd developed an animus toward all things Republic. But he didn't make it known publicly. And while he'd begun to aid the Sith, under its new Emperor Vader, Neecho wouldn't forego credits.
To whatever extent he was capable, Neecho had loved Han. And his whole vicious being despised Miler Crata. Unfortunately, he'd have to make sacrifices.
"I did plan to torture you for the next several decades," Neecho said. "But regrettably, the Hutts were not pleased when Kenobi slaughtered their men. It's created a predicament. Indeed, as we speak, the Hutts are planning a siege on my palace."
"Bless their hearts," Miler said.
Neecho straightened out. His luminous red eyes were burning ice. "You, Captain Crata, will be my peace offering. It should satisfy honor if I deliver a conspirator in Kenobi's slaughter." He hastened to add: "The body of a conspirator, that is. We can't have the Hutts interrogate you about my operations."
Miler's pulse quickened; shock and fear froze him. After all his struggle to rise from the dead, was it his destiny to die again?
"HK-80, dispose of this filth."
The droid entered the cell. Miler's heart blasted. Eighty moved behind Neecho and calmly snapped his neck. The body fell in a twisted heap.
Miler's eyes were huge. The droid's glowing optics were at once splendid and murderous. His servos whirred and he dropped his hands. With a child's earnest voice, Eighty said, "Request: will you show me your war... Master?"
Low shuddering laughter spilled out of Miler. "You re'lly like killing, don't you?"
"Statement: it is a feature, not a bug."
"You'll get your war, mate. Every damn bit of it."
"Urgent suggestion: Then let us leave here at once. I disabled the cameras, but they will discover what has happened."
They ran into the corridor. Most of the cells were empty. Only a raving Rodian shared the block. Neither spoke of releasing the wild card.
"Recollection: Neecho's yacht is on the opposite side of the palace."
"Oh, lovely," said Miler.
They exited the prison block—meeting two guards. Miler grabbed one by the wrist, snapping his arm, and bashed his face against the wall. Eighty crushed the other guard's head.
"Exclamation: Good form, Master!"
"Answer: I will take a different path and create chaos. This will draw Neecho's forces to me, allowing you to reach the hanger."
Miler searched the guards' bodies, taking two flashbangs and a rifle. "That'll work. But don't dally. Killin' blokes is our secondary objective."
Eighty's glowing eyes flickered. "Uncertain query: I can trust you... can't I, Master?"
"I've never left a man behind. Even when it killed me."
The droid stared for a long moment before turning down the hall. Miler took the elevator.
One level up, Miler exited and came face to face with one of Neecho's lieutenants. The grizzled Twi'lek, staring at a data pad, asked: "Is Neecho still down there?"
"Aye, you'll find 'im."
The lieutenant entered the elevator and Miler followed. The doors closed. Miler grabbed the man's wrists, wrenching upward so the pad smashed his face—knocking him out.
Miler took his badge and jacket. He sent the elevator down before walking off.
Ahead of him was a corridor that led to Grand Central. He lowered his head and walked swiftly. Every sideways glance put his mind on his rifle.
He'd underestimated Neecho's operation. It wasn't on the Hutts' level, but it made Rondo look like a lemonade stand.
Grand Central was the palace nexus. It's where Neecho's men received orders, ate and shopped, and boarded trains to traverse the palace.
Miler was staggered by its size. There were twelve levels in all. At the center of the ground floor was a statue of Neecho. Diamond railings, gold signage, and a ceiling mural of the Duros homeworld added to the excess.
He stood in front of an info board. It listed a dozen different trains. He stopped a passing Mirialan: "Excuse me—I'm trying t'find the hanger."
"Try the black train: fifth level. Green on four takes forever."
Miler thanked her and rode the escalator up. He leaned inconspicuously on the railing. But inside him was a maelstrom of fear, hope, and Aayla.
A troubled voice on the intercom ripped him from his thoughts: "Alert: be advised an HK-80 droid has malfunctioned. All heavy infantry personnel: report to Sector Five. All guests: please stay clear."
Murmurs and gasps cascaded down the escalator. Miler hurried to the top, before scaling three more. Sweat gathered on his brow and his heart was pounding. He rushed by a food court to get to the train.
There a young officer soothed the boarding line. "I know it's unusual to check credentials—but there's an ongoing security situation. Please cooperate, and I'll get you on your way."
Miler felt himself blanch. Pale lines moved like ink from his knuckles outward. One by one, everyone was admitted, until the probing mien of the officer fell on Miler.
Miler held up his badge, and the officer read it: "Vordek Lorne. I don't believe we've met. You're new?"
"Relatively," said Miler.
The officer stared momentarily before he was satisfied. "Welcome aboard, Lieutenant. You may—"
Another voice cried on the intercom: "Alert: prisoner has escaped! Prisoner has escaped!"
The officer's wrist band beeped. He held it in front of him to find Miler's holograph. His eyes widened. He fumbled for his blaster.
Miler punched him in the jaw. He launched him head-first through the train window. Blood and glass exploded inward. Chaos erupted. People ran screaming.
Another guard intervened. Miler aimed his rifle. He fired but it jammed. He shoved the rifle in the man's arms as he simultaneously took his pistol to blow the guard away.
Two more appeared. He shot one in the heart. The other charged. Miler hooked his arm into a shoulder wheel and threw him over the railing. The guard plummeted to his death.
Five armored men—these weren't random guards—rushed up the escalator. The crowd mewled at the sight of heavy-repeating blasters.
"Plan B," Miler mumbled. He climbed the railing and dropped. As he plunged to the next level, he could swear gravity obeyed his command to be gentle. He crashed on a table and tumbled to the floor—but all he suffered were moments of breathlessness.
Three more heavies came from the stairwell. Miler staggered to his feet and ran for the train tracks. On this level there were two parallel tunnels. In the first one a train was rapidly approaching.
Brave heart. Miler jumped the tracks as the train rushed through. His life flashed before him, but he landed true. He shuddered, staggered to the second tunnel.
A guard on a hover bike startled: "Hey! What are you—"
Miler shot him in the head. Its contents sprang out like a jack-in-the-box. The corpse fell from the bike and Miler took its place.
On the control panel was a palace map with GPS. He punched in the hanger and took the controls. He felt right at home from his days with Rondo.
The bike reared back before slamming forward.
Miler sped through the winding tunnel. In less than a minute he picked up two tails. At two hundred miles an hour their blasters aimed wild. Walls, tracks were scored, scorched, but Miler was unscathed.
The guards kicked on their burners. They came up on either side of him. Miler rammed the Right One and his blaster fell and vanished. He veered back to center to be rammed by the Left One. Miler lurched almost off the bike. His legs flailed and dangled but he found his seat again.
Up ahead the tunnel split off. One path merged with the train tunnel.
Miler kicked on his burners and veered to the train tunnel. The guards kept pace as the Left One tried to steady his blaster.
Miler suddenly decelerated, dropping behind them. He fired six shots. The last bolt hit true. The Left speeder exploded in a scream of flame.
The Right dropped back and they were side by side again. Metal scraped metal. The men grappled wildly.
Behind them they heard a train roaring down the tunnel. Miler's heart blasted. He needed to finish this. He threw a lucky punch—but the Right One held on and threw one that missed. Miler raised his blaster but it was knocked from his hand.
Miler took out a flashbang. He shoved it in the guard's pocket. Then he the slammed the decelerator, leapt to his feet, and vaulted to the train top. The flashbang went off. The guard spun out of control. The speeding train swallowed him in an orange fireball.
Miler staggered along the train top, looking for a hatch. He might regret finding it. Two guards climbed out. One was thin, wiry, the other a veiny brute.
"Bloody hell," sighed Miler.
He straightened his aching back. Neither of them had a blaster (Miler's one saving grace). But he wasn't sure he could take a pummeling.
The Thin man rushed him. Miler caught his punch, locked his arm, and completed a rear throw. The arm still locked, Miler rolled into a mount. One punch put him down. Miler rolled the prone man off the train to his death.
The Brute grabbed him from behind. Miler threw an elbow and whirled. The Brute caught his arms, threw a vicious headbutt. Miler reeled, kicked him in the knee. The Brute faltered but held him. Another headbutt and the world spun.
The Brute threw punches at Miler's ribs. He swore he heard a crack like snapping wood. Miler screamed but hit an elbow. He leapt into a headlock. He locked an arm, wrenched back, and flipped the Brute over him.
Before he could rise, the Brute nailed him again. Miler crumpled to his side. Blood covered his face. The Brute kicked him in the ribs. Miler wheezed and coughed, crawling away.
The Brute gloated, "Not so tough now, are you, Republic scum?"
Miler pulled out his last flashbang, growling, "Report to Neecho, soldier."
The flashbang burst. The Brute was blinded. Miler tripped him and he fell from the train. The Brute disappeared with a bone-shattering crunch.
Miler climbed to his knees. His blood-slick hands slid and he fell again. His bones were broken, muscles on fire. But Aayla. Aayla.
He fought to his feet, stumbled to the hatch. He dropped into the train car.
Two men and a woman waited. Really?, he thought.
She lifted a blaster. Miler charged. He hip-tossed her to the ground, grabbed her gun, and shot the other men. He held her chest with his boot and shot her, too.
He ran to the end of the train car, threw open the door. Four more waited. He popped two heads, painting the windows. Miler ducked behind a seat at incoming fire. Under the chair he saw boots. The man's foot exploded, then his head when he fell.
Miler rolled out of cover and blew the last man away.
The next train car was empty. One more and he reached control.
The pilot lunged. Miler blocked and shot him in the temple. His head tore open like a med school diagram. Miler threw off the corpse and took the controls.
They'd be waiting at the hanger. He'd be a sitting duck inside the train. Maybe Eighty had the right idea: creating chaos.
Checking the map, he saw the hanger was the last stop. Miler steeled his eyes and slammed the throttle to max speed. The sudden change threw him to the wall.
His heart pounded in his chest. He sprinted through the train cars to get to the back. Halfway he found a car with a gaggle of civilians.
"Get to the back!" he yelled. They first cowered before complying.
Miler ran to the next car, checking the real-time map. Only seconds remained. The civilians were screaming. Miler entered the vestibule and slammed the release.
The car detached. He shielded his eyes as the rest of the train smashed through the wall at the end of the tracks. Metal gnarled and screamed and warped and burned. Cars twisted sideways and down and over; they burst and ripped and blazed and smoked. A chemical haze filled the tunnel.
Miler jumped to the tracks. His eyes burned and watered. He could barely see. But somehow—it felt preternatural—he simply knew where to grip, where to put his feet, to scale the burning train.
He hurried across its broken skeleton. Halfway two men met him in the darkness. Miler leapt into a leg lock of one man's arm. Rolling through, he shot the man's friend before putting a bolt in the back of his head.
He sprang up running. Two more appeared and were quickly dispatched.
The haze began to clear at the end of the tracks. Miler leapt through the missing wall into the corridor outside the hanger. He rolled to his feet to meet two guards.
He tried to fire—but his blaster was empty. He threw it for distraction, slide-tackled the guards. One fell beside him and Miler took his gun and blew away both.
Miler stumbled to his feet and ran into the hanger. He skidded to a halt when he saw Neecho's yacht. That's going to be a problem. The ship was six times the size of the Dawn Tangent. He'd need a crew to keep it running.
End of the line. He didn't know what to do, how to contact Eighty.
"Please don't kill us!" Miler snapped at the voice. A maintenance crew. He read their uniforms: a woman named Yusa, a man named Vurt, and a Sullust named Nunb.
"The ship's yours!" cried Yusa. "Just let us live!"
Miler said, "I won't hurt ya. But if you wanna survive the next minute, you'll board that ship and get 'er ready."
Vurt shouted, "What?! No! I can't—!"
Yusa shoved him at the yacht. "Move your ass, Vurt! I don't wanna die!"
The crew boarded. That left the matter of Eighty. Miler swept back his hair and looked at the control booth. It sat empty in invitation.
Running to the booth, he turned on the intercom. His voice rang across the palace: "Um, hey there Eighty—it's your master callin'. I think this party's over. Why don'ya come meet me?"
Six guards and an IG droid rushed into the hanger. Miler fired three shots, missing the mark, before dropping into cover against incoming fire. Circuits, plastic exploded on his head.
Me and my goddamn promises!
Miler fired blind out of cover. He heard one pained shout, but the rest kept coming. His second blind volley didn't hit anything.
"Statement: I'm screwed," Miler mumbled.
A heavy-repeating blaster echoed through the hanger. He heard strangled cries and dropping bodies. He poked his head up to find Eighty had killed all the guards.
Now Eighty and IG were exchanging fire. Eighty twirled about like some kind of Jedi. He rolled, leapt, flipped front over back. But it wasn't enough to put down IG.
Miler grunted. Reinforcements were imminent. It was now or never.
He noted IG's bandoleer filled with grenades. He sprung from cover and sprinted. The IG literally had eyes in the back of its head. Seeing him approach, it reversed one arm to fire at Miler. He slid under its volley, grabbing a grenade as he passed through its legs. He wedged the grenade in the IG's hip joint.
Miler ran to get clear—propelled by the wave from IG's explosion. He slammed on the ground and slid ten feet. His ears rang, vision swimming.
"Statement: You are damaged, master. I will carry you."
The droid threw Miler on his shoulder, running for the ship. He fired behind him at arriving reinforcements. Eighty hurried up the ramp and swiftly retracted it. He placed Miler on the floor and ran to the bridge.
Miler lay his face on the cool, clean deck. Was it over? Had he done it? Or was he still about to die? His mother's words echoed in his mind: "You are more precious than you know."
He wondered: did the Force hold him in such esteem? Or was he needed by the one it did?
"Aayla," he whispered. And the world went black.
Miler's eyes slipped open. He was in a bed, covered in white sheets.
"Statement: Good morning, Master.. Did you have a nice black-out?" HK-80 sat vigil in a chair. The image was enough to make Miler smile.
"I've had better," Miler mumbled. "What happened?"
"Answer: we successfully escaped Neecho's palace. I took the liberty of contacting the nearest Republic carrier. We are on route now." Miler nodded appreciatively, raising an eyebrow when the droid kept staring. "Surprised statement: you kept your word, Master."
"It's a feature, not a bug."
"Statement: Then you are an advanced unit. Related query: who is Aayla? You referenced her many times in your unconscious state."
Miler swallowed. He stared at the ceiling. The answer could be a tome of essays and poetry. He could explain it through senses. But he was talking to a droid, and it was just as easy to describe it as a function.
"She's my destiny," he said.