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10.24.2012 , 08:14 AM |
: Sha’ra’zaed, Vector, Lokin
Spoilers for Agent story through the beginning of Hoth. Takes place shortly before
(edited to include chronology)
The outpost huddled under a high outcropping. Drifted snow concealed the entrance. Sha’ra’zaed powered down the speeder and let it coast to a stop a hundred meters from the compound. Vector halted beside her.
She ducked down behind a drift and examined the entrance with electrobinoculars. The shadows under the rocks glowed bright in reflected infrared. There were sentries, subtle ones, hidden just inside the passage. The warmth of their instruments and the body heat escaping from their cold-weather gear gave them away. Seaming showed it was standard Imperial-issue, unimproved by the Chiss forces stationed here.
“Have you considered, agent, that I might have just killed you?”
Sha’ra’zaed turned sharply to the right. There was no one. She blinked. Watcher X’s voice. An artifact, a hallucination, perhaps a latent personality matrix imbedded in the device nestled along her spine. A transitory guide; the voice of her subconscious, cataloging, collating, analyzing, then reporting to her conscious mind in Watcher X’s voice. Watcher X was dead, long dead.
On his (her own?) advice she’d replicated the serum, the serum that changed her brain chemistry, that changed her mind’s connections, that would dismantle the Castellan restraints. She imagined she could feel it working. Diffusing from the blood vessels, infiltrating her synapses, traveling through her neurons. Changing. Rearranging. Rewriting. Editing.
Sha’ra’zaed turned back to the task at hand. She’d locked her cards; she’d either win with this gambit or fail. No point considering the what-ifs or might-have-dones at this point.
Vector touched her shoulder, “Are you…well, Sha’ra’zaed?”
“I’m…” not all right. He knows this, or he would not ask, “I have to remind myself this is Hoth, not Csilla. This planet reminds me of home.”
“You speak little of your home,” Vector continued, “It must be a pleasant change to be among so many of your own species.”
“It is,”…stressful. For once she was grateful for the anonymity of her designation as Intelligence’s ‘Cipher Nine’. Might she be recognized? How much do they know of the demise of Scheh? Will that knowledge be a problem?…“interesting. I’m glad to see others of my kind integrated into Imperial forces. No doubt they facilitate the cooperation between the Expeditionary Force. Some commanders can be very reactionary in that regard.”
“We have observed this trait,” Vector said.
Task at hand. “I think our Admiral Davos is one of them,” Sha’ra’zaed handed the electrobinoculars to Vector. “Too much heat loss. His sentries and the entrance to the staging area are plainly visible. Heat is more valuable here than water on Tatooine; cold kills faster.”
Vector scanned the area then handed the binoculars back, “You expect the Admiral to be hostile to you, then, as an alien?”
“Yes,” she replied, “Or just as an outsider. Besides that, waste heat is a beacon. I do not think he has much of interest left here, or he would have taken pains to hide better. And he chose not to supply at the station, he equipped his men before arrival. That tells me his mission is sensitive, personal, or urgent. Perhaps all three.”
“Thus, you came in uniform,” Vector observed, “Your approach, Sha’ra’zaed?” Vector asked.
Sha’ra’zaed sighed, her breath filter capturing the tell-tale puff of condensation before it gave away her position, “Kothe’s briefing gave me no clue as to the Admiral’s motives, and a trace through Intelligence would only have tipped him off. I hate not having enough information to do my job.”
“We will improvise?” Vector said.
Sha’ra’zaed allowed a small smile, “As usual. Intelligence has been known to drop in on military operations from time to time. With luck, our unannounced visit will put him on the defensive.”
She and Vector marched straight up to the entrance, making no effort to hide their presence. The sentries challenged them, of course. Reported to their superiors, of course. And let them pass. Of course. Just beyond lay a basic bunker, the walls equal parts blasted rock, glacial ice, and standard durasteel reinforcement.
Sha’ra’zaed took stock. The way water had frozen on the walls showed where crates had been stacked, but since moved. Light oil and frostmelt on the floor and walls suggested there had been several ships or small atmospheric craft here, but only one remained. A CT-031, chubby little freight-lifter. Not much for speed, but it could haul a lot of weight and take a lot of abuse. She sat light on her landing gear right now and her main hatch was open. On the far side of the bunker was an open holoterminal. A single commander stood nearby with a skeleton crew of Imperial marines.
“Ah,” the shimmering blue figure in the holoterminal addressed the intruders. An older man, bald, scarred, cybernetics replacing what time or injury had taken from him, “this explains the Captain’s flare. I am Admiral Davos. You were not expected.”
Sha’ra’zaed drew close to the image, removing her insulated headgear and allowing her rank pips to show, “Cipher Nine, Imperial Intelligence.”
“Intelligence,” the Admiral mused, “Of course. You must excuse me, Agent, but these men are the last of my expedition, and it is imperative they follow me to the starship graveyard at once.”
“Then I am in time to join them,” Sha’ra’zaed said, “Keeper’s orders were quite clear, Admiral. I am to accompany you and ensure the Empire’s interests are taken into account.”
“I see. Several months ago I could have honored that request,” his body language said otherwise, regardless of notice. He continued “But now there is no time. Commander,”
“Yes sir,” acknowledged the ranking Imperial officer in the bunker.
“Torture them and find out what they know, then bring me your report at the rendezvous point. Davos out.” The holoimage dissolved amid the sound of weapons being drawn.
Vector leaped ahead at the commander; Sha’ra’zaed tossed a flash-bang to the floor behind him and blinded the remainder while activating her stealth generator. All automatic, without thinking. She slipped around behind one of the incapacitated soldiers.
“The abdominal aorta. Or inferior vena cava. Beside the third lumbar vertebra,” Watcher X’s voice again, “The second lumbar vertebra in Chiss, owing to an extension of the thoracic cavity.”
Distraction. A distraction she didn’t need. She focused on what was necessary, pushing the voice aside. She activated her vibroknife, prepared to plunge it into the specified spot.
“No analogous structure in Rattataki.”
Sha’ra’zaed blinked the voice away. Knife poised—
“Shock almost immediate, with concurrent loss of blood pressure.”
“I know,” she hissed from between clenched teeth. A quick strike. Almost no blood outside the close-fitting armor. Just a trickle, bright red against the white camoflauge. But the pulsing flow gave away its lethal nature. The soldier slumped to the floor.
“Over ninety percent fatality rate when injuries result in free intraperitoneal bleeding.”
“Shut up!” Sha’ra’zaed insisted. She turned, taking two steps to the next soldier. The vibroknife was nearly silent; the flash still blinded him and he’d not heard his companion’s demise. Another easy kill.
A transparent image of the barefooted Watcher X appeared beside Sha’ra’zaed’s intended victim. “Target: the cervical vertebrae,” he said, indicating the spot with his spectral finger, “Common to all species with a centralized nervous system. Intersection of the cephalic junction, just here, severs the body’s connection with the prime neural processor.”
“You are an illusion. I choose to ignore you,” she muttered. She shifted her grip.
“Not recommended on Houks, as the height of this species often makes these vertebrae inaccessible. Or Wookies, where in addition to height the pelt obscures the critical area.”
Sha’ra’zaed’s knife slid under the wide flare at the base of the trooper’s helmet. Only a bit of resistance. She slipped it out again as he fell in a boneless heap.
“Injury results in instantaneous paralysis. Remediable via cybernetic augmentation if treatment begins shortly, the exact time dependent on species. In Humans and Near-Humans this period is between five and seven minutes. Beyond this window, irreversible brain damage occurs due to lack of circulatory fluids and trauma to the neural column itself. Brain death follows, and eventually physical death.” Watcher X looked at the corpse, “Brava, Cipher Nine, well executed.”
“You are not real,” Sha’ra’zaed said, facing him. The sounds of combat faded into the periphery.
“I could have killed you,” he said, “the implantation procedure. So close to your spine. So close to the vital arteries.”
“You are nothing more than a projection of my subconscious mind. Watcher X is dead,” she insisted.
“I could have given you information. This situation need not have blindsided you,” he continued, “all I wanted was what every sentient being wants. Tell me you were not looking at the cells in Shadow Town, wondering which one would be yours someday.”
Sha’ra’zaed shivered. She’d had exactly that thought on leaving the speeder. Perhaps she was going about this all wrong. She recalled instruction in lucid dreaming, briefly on Csilla and more intensely at the Academy. She knew this Watcher X was false, a construct. A dream. And, now aware that he was a dream, her dream, she could control him.
“Go away,” she said, “I do not need you right now.”
“I know. Yet here I am,” he said.
“What do you want?”
“You summoned me. You should know.”
He was not quite the same as the Watcher X from Quesh, or even the earlier episode on her ship. This version was more like crystallized doubt, her normal, calculating thought processes gone awry, “I order you to go.”
“I am a part of you,” he said, “where would I go? Where is ‘away’ when I live in your mind?”
Play by the dream’s rules, then, “Don’t make me kill you again,” Sha’ra’zaed said, “go.”
“I cannot,” he replied.
Sha’ra’zaed stood before him. Her hands reached for his throat. She did not remember sheathing her vibroknife, but it was no longer in her grasp, “Last warning. Go.”
Her fingers closed. He made no move to struggle or break free. She applied pressure. Her peripheral vision grew dim. Watcher X’s face brightened into sharp clarity, everything like a holoimage with the contrast tuned too high. Color bleached, faded to grey.
Faded to black.
Vector activated the holoterminal, “Doctor Lokin?”
Lokin answered in a moment, “A fixer’s work is never done, it seems. Yes, Vector?”
“Our Agent. There is something wrong. She collapsed. She is not breathing,” he said. He glanced over at Sha’ra’zaed’s prone body. The color was fading from her skin and wide, staring eyes. Her aura screamed in disjointed colors, swirling, eddying, flowing. Like a new joiner, one who was not yet harmonized with the hive’s song. Personal memories clashing with the shared ones. That odd scent was present again, the one he’d first noticed during her leave following the affair with Darth Jadus.
He’d asked if she had a new perfume. She laughed and said no. Asked if he liked the one she wore. He should have asked more questions.
“Oh dear. You have treated her injuries?” Lokin asked.
“She has none,” Vector said. His injuries were minor, nothing that couldn’t wait. “She has a pulse, but does not breathe.”
“Odd. Are you certain? She has a medical scanner, send me the readout.”
Vector connected the scanner to the terminal, the data it recorded going direct to Lokin.
“You’re correct,” he admitted, “No injuries. No trauma. She is completely unresponsive, Vector?”
“No response, Doctor,” Vector confirmed. He returned to Sha’ra’zaed’s side. Her skin was now a shade of light slate, her eyes barely pink. He took her hand, stripped the glove. Even her fingernails were grey.
“Interesting. Heartrate elevated, brain activity extremely high, no neural damage. Strange. Profound catatonia. Maybe some kind of fugue state. Internal Chiss physiology is not terribly different from Human. The vagus nerve should take over her breathing in any time now.” Lokin stroked his beard, “These scans are very odd, even for a Chiss. Excessive activity in the parietal lobe, neocortical granular response is as high as I’ve ever seen in a being not under obvious traumatic stress. You’re certain she has no injury? Nothing that might have triggered this episode?”
“None physical, Doctor,” Vector answered, “The Admiral’s men attacked us without warning. She dispatched two of the attackers on her own, but as you can see, she suffered no injury.”
Sha’ra’zaed inhaled a shuddering breath, then another. Her eyelids dropped. The normal blue hue began to return to her skin. “Ah, there we go, Vector.” Lokin said, “The wonders of the autonomic nervous system.”
Vector let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Her aura was still confused, but the jagged, battling shapes were smoothing over and harmonizing. The cold red-and-black smoke was still there, and the off aroma, but the rest was returning to something more normal. He stroked her face, “Sha’ra’zaed?” he asked.
Her eyes fluttered open, bright, bright Chiss red, “Vector?” she asked.
“Yes, Sha’ra’zaed,” he replied.
He helped her to a seat, “What,” she observed the room, noting the corpses and their positions, “what happened?” she asked, her gaze returning to his face.
“Glad to have you back with us, Agent,” said Lokin’s holographic image.
Vector still held her ungloved hand, as though the heat from his would keep her warm, “We thought you gravely injured, Sha’ra’zaed. You were not breathing.”
Her skin was still several shades lighter than normal, “You took care of the Admiral’s men?” she asked.
“The remainder, yes,” Vector said. Her aura was settling. The familiar tones and shades of her thoughts taking over. Still, though, strange smoke in the interstices. He would have to observe her more closely. He…he did not want to lose her.
Sha’ra’zaed struggled to her feet, “We must follow them,” she said, “I don’t know what the Admiral is up to, but he’s clearly afraid Intelligence—and the Empire—will find out about it.”
“Sha’ra’zaed, perhaps Doctor Lokin could run a few tests, make certain you are well before we continue,” Vector said.
“Yes, Agent,” Lokin agreed, “I’m sure you would not like a repeat episode—“
“I’m fine,” she insisted, “the mission comes first. He needed a defector to get the
; it must be crucial to his plans and there was no way he could get it without me. He’s coming to the end of his scheme, whatever it is. There is no time to waste,” she stared into Vector’s eyes, “I’m fine,” she repeated.
“As you say, Agent,” Lokin said, “I’ll just study these fascinating readings then.” His image blinked out of the terminal.
Vector handed her her glove. She was not fine. But he could never convince her of that. “Do please be careful, Sha’ra’zaed,” he said.
The reference to “locking cards” is from sabaac, where cards shift values as part of the game, replacing discarding-redealing in terrestrial card games. A player can lock the value of a card so that it does not change, analogous to keeping the card as opposed to discarding it. I suppose an equivalent Earthly expression would be ‘already rolled the dice’ or ‘cast your lot’.
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