“Stay close,” Damian said and hefted his rifle. Eram made a signal that Marik did not understand and both men entered the building. Marik followed, stepping over a guard that was missing the better half of a head. Bile and breakfast threatened again but he clenched his teeth, ignoring both the sight and the nausea.
The building was lit by glow panels every few meters, casting the corridor into a dull yellow glow. Their footfalls were soft but a metallic shutter echoed with each step, a sound that Marik thought was loud enough to wake the whole city. They moved on, Damian keeping a glancing gaze on him as they did so. Through his comm, Marik heard the subdued voices of the other three troopers outside.
“Ghost One you are clear at entry, bodies removed.”
“No sign of alarm.”
“Moving in, four hundred meters to target,” said Eram, his voice almost inaudible to Marik’s ear, but soft and clear over the comm. Here they stopped, nearing the end of the corridor. Ahead of them were low cubicle walls as far as Marik could see. To avoid being spotted they would have to crouch low.
“Check for a signal,” Eram told him and tapped the computer on Marik’s wrist. He did so and found several, all likely links to the building. None of them would be the one they wanted however. A secure system would have a physical connection, not a wireless one. He was about to tell him so when the commando spoke again. “Let me know if any new ones show.”
Marik nodded and did as he asked, quickly telling the computer to alert him should a new wireless signal appear. His fingers shook as he padded the keys and he forced them to still themselves. Cold sweat beaded on his forehead. No one was here. They would just walk in, steal some data, and get out.
“Let’s go.” Eram’s voice shook him free of his thoughts and crouched low as they wove their way through the cubicle farm. The building was quiet, only the hum of machines breaking the silence. To Marik, it felt like one of those movies that was just waiting to turn into a horror film.
They were halfway through the office area when Aria’s voice crackled in Marik’s ear. “Contacts. At least one platoon, make your extraction quick, One.”
“Copy Four.” Eram waved them forward and began to move faster but the swift speed in a crouched position soon made Marik’s legs nearly give out. Damian had a hand on his pack and nearly dragged him along.
“We’re compromised, One. We’ll cover your exit.”
The announcement was accented by the sudden chatter of blaster fire. Damian cursed quietly and Eram gave up all pretense of sneaking. The three of them began to run through the remaining cubicles just as red lights flashed and alarm klaxons wailed. “How–?” was all Marik had time to ask before he was pulled into another corridor and pushed up against a wall.
Eram aimed behind them and let loose a barrage of blaster bolts just before Damian tossed a grenade in the same direction. Screams answered, and then return fire in its wake.
“Get down!” Damian yelled and Marik was shoved backwards so forcefully that he fell onto his backside. Pain shot up his spine and for a moment he thought he’d broken something. His vision went white and he heard what could only have been the sky splitting wide open. His head rang like a thousand bells, his sight reduced to moving shadows that seemed to freeze in place only to appear somewhere else a heartbeat later. He rolled to his knees and covered his ears, shut his eyes. I’m going to die. I’m going to die!
And then, like a cloud breaking before the sun, Damian stood over him. He reached a hand down and shook him by the shirt. “Get–” he began but an explosion shook the world and Marik screamed as he felt something slam hard into his leg. More pain erupted and felt something warm and wet spray across his face.
Marik couldn’t tell whose voice that was but when he opened his eyes again he saw that Damian was backed up across from him, a hand extended with a blaster pistol in it. He fired continuously, screaming something Marik couldn’t make out. Next to him lay his arm, severed just below the elbow. The fingers still clenched a piece of Marik’s uniform where it had torn away.
“Five is down, six is hit!” Aria’s voice said over the comm. “Someone sold us out, One!”
“Two is down,” Damian growled, his voice coming over the comm and from across the hallway. The duality of it made Marik want to cover his ears, but he couldn’t say why. He also could not stop staring at the hand that lay just a meter away, still reaching for him.
“Time to go slicer!” Eram said and suddenly he was lifted from the ground and moving. Damian still sat in the hallway, firing back with his pistol. On his last glance he saw the man pull another grenade and haul back his remaining arm.
The base became a blur of hallways, closed doors and yawning entrances. He quickly lost sense of direction and knew finding his way back would be impossible. I’m going to die in here, he thought again.
“Aria, report!” Eram’s voice brought him crashing back to reality and the man’s firm tones almost settled him. He let Marik go and held a hand to his ear. “Aria! I said report!”
They had stopped before a massive security door that appeared to be locked via terminal. Eram’s nod told him all he needed to know and set to work. Finally, he thought as he slid a computer spike into place and bypassed early security. Code scrolled over the holovid and he plucked two essential pieces out before his spike let him know to do so. He’d seen this security style a hundred times. He’d written the counter-crack to it that was now used in Intel training. My job. The thought gave him courage suddenly. They fight. I slice.
The door slid open.
“Let’s go,” Eram said and spared one last glance down the hallway. “Two?”
“Still here, One.”
“Hold the door, we’re coming back soon.”
“Take your time, I’m enjoying this dance.”
There was pain in Damian’s voice, though Marik was sure he’d used a stim or two by now. How could he not? The thought of losing an arm…of being hit…
Marik looked down and suddenly remembered the warm sensation he’d felt earlier. His pant leg was ripped to shreds and his flesh had hundreds of tiny scratches that all seeped small trickles of blood. The sight fascinated him more than it unnerved him. How could he not be in terrible pain? Is this what shock feels like?
“Marik, inside!” Eram’s command stirred him and he limped in, almost as if the knowledge of the wounds was enough to make the limp required.
The room they had entered was a data bank and he felt the cool touch of temperature control breathe on his exposed skin. This was what Aria’s intelligence had discovered. A data bank like this one would explain the power spikes she’d seen.
He didn’t waste any time and crossed to a login terminal. There was another door in the room but Eram was already checking it for security feeds. That left him the time he needed to slice the system.
“Sorry One, I went dark. Five is dead. Six and I are en route to you.” Marik felt a slight lurch in his stomach to hear Aria’s voice again. He’d thought she was dead, that they were all dead, but now two more troopers were coming to help. We’ll make it, he told himself as he slid another computer spike into the system. We will.
“You’re going to have a fun ride,” Damian growled. “It’s a blasted warzone in here. Did you find out what tipped them?”
“Make it up to me later.” A blast rang down from where Damian had been. “Take that you red sons of—”
Marik paused in the middle of typing out an extensive code crack. He felt cold all of a sudden, like he’d been dropped in ice water. Sith. The very thought made him afraid, made him want to run. The Jedi were fearsome enough but Sith murdered without regard, killed with a power he couldn’t even see.
“Aw hell,” Damian’s voice came. “Four just cut around. I’m going to say hello.”
“Stay tight, Two, Six and I–”
“Shut up Aria. Get to Eram and the kid. Sing a song about me in that pretty voice or something.”
An explosion echoed down the hall, followed by a torrent of gunfire and screams. Marik found himself shaking when he thought he heard the sound of a lightsaber. He decided to concentrate on his code, to not think about it. If he was lucky, he’d be shot dead without ever seeing it coming.
It took three spikes and two workarounds before the system yielded to him. By that time the blaster fire had increased and then lessened. The lights flickered outside the data bank but there hadn’t been so much as a dip within. Marik realized they were within a controlled room.
“Marik,” Eram said, his voice floating across the room and not through his comm. “I think we’ve been misinformed.”
Information flashed across the screen. Data schematics. Plans of purchase. Tests. Re-tests. Subjects and the deaths of those subjects. A list of names so long that Marik couldn’t take the time to scan it.
Some of those names had been familiar. He’d lived here. Cadence had been his home. And the Empire had done something horrible to it. He opened a test file that was larger than the rest and felt sick.
“Marik,” Eram said again. “Get this door open.”
“The data’s not in here,” Marik said, slumping against the terminal. “We… they…”
“I said, get this door open.”
Marik glanced over his shoulder as more blaster fire came again. This time it was closer, perhaps just at the end of the corridor. He’d heard nothing from Aria or Damian. They were probably dead. Just like his parents. This place was a graveyard.
Eram was standing there, just behind him. His grizzled face had a grim expression on it, those eyes cold as Hoth in a snowstorm. “Open the door. This needs doing.”
“They are operating on people,” Marik said, pointing at the data feed. “Implanting them with–”
“Open the door, Marik, now.”
Marik turned and with just one last computer spike, opened the last door to the data bank. Eram touched his comm. “Four, report.”
“Two is dead, One. Six is wounded. I’m holding the mouth. You have two minutes.”
Dead. He’d only known Damian for a short time, but the man had seemed invincible. The image of him sitting there, pistol in hand, defying the incoming imperials burned into his memory. Marik thought that it might never fade.
“That Sith will be on us soon, best get to this.” Eram aimed at the new entrance with his rifle and began to walk in. Marik clumsily pulled his pistol, clicked the safety off and followed him inside.
The room was dark and smelled thickly of antiseptic, blood and human waste. There was the unmistakable hum of machinery and computers as well but Marik could not discern where they were located. Eram clicked on his weapon’s light and illuminated a small area of the room. What was revealed made Marik retch.
A chair sat in the middle of a round depression, a drain just below it. Blood had caked into every lip and orifice of the plasteel floor and though he smelled the cleaning agents, the sheer volume of blood had been too much. Around the rim of the room were cells that looked more like animal cages. All were empty except for one. Marik felt like someone had skinned him raw and began to shake.
“She’s still alive,” Eram said and blasted the locking mechanism. It had been mechanical, not technological so it could not be sliced. The girl inside could not have posed a threat however. She was bloody and had sores dotting her neck and ears and there was freshly seared skin implanted just over her temple. Her eyes were large and brown and the nose just below spotted with freckles. He would have known her anywhere.
“You were dead,” Marik said.
Eram backed off the girl and motioned to her. “This is your job kid. Get her up.”
He couldn’t have moved if the Sith Emperor himself had put a lightsaber to his neck. She stared at him, unblinking. Her eyes held no mirth, no laughter like they had growing up. Kira liked to laugh.
This girl would never laugh again.
“It’s my sister,” Marik said. “I… I can’t.”
“I know, you think we picked you at random? Get her the hells up. She won’t respond to an unfamiliar voice!”
Some compunction set him in motion. Afterward, he could not recall what it had been, but he moved to her and knelt. A shaky hand smoothed back her matted hair, felt the uneven lines on her temple where the skull had been replaced. “They made her into a living data bank. A…a lockbox for information…”
“We need what’s in her head, Marik,” Eram said, his voice soft this time. “It will save more lives than hers.”
She weighed nothing in his arms. Eram told him that her conditioning would keep her from responding to anyone unfamiliar, but she came to him easily. Her thin arms went around his neck and he lifted her as easily as a datapad. She’s was so thin.
Aria’s voice came back pained and thin over the comm. “I’ve lost Six. That… Sith… I’ve given him something to think about but… I’m not coming with you, One. I’m sorry.”
Eram paused at the doorway to the corridor. He glanced in the direction Aria would be for just a moment, then nodded. “Thank you, Aria.”
“Did you… did you get her?”
Eram waved to him and they hurried down the corridor in the opposite direction, moving away from the sudden increase in blaster fire. There came an explosion and the unmistakable hum of a lightsaber. “Move!” Eram shouted and then they were running, Marik holding onto Kira as tightly as he dared. Her eyes were simply fixed on his face.
Their exit was a security door at the end of the hall. Even in the flashing lights of the alarms, Marik could see that it had sealed itself shut. Eram raised his rifle and without slowing a step, sent a timed grenade careening into the door, blowing it right off its hinges. Another moment later and they were out into the night.
Marik felt tall grass brush against the exposed skin on his leg, a stiff breeze on his face. Kira’s warmth was welcome, though her silence disturbed him. Even the blast of the grenade had not stirred her, made her cry out or even wince. He wondered in that moment if she was even alive.
They had only made it a hundred yards when a shout ripped through the night air. Marik turned to see a man leaping through the air at them, a red blade extending from a silvery hilt. The Sith. Marik felt his legs freeze up and he fell, losing Kira in the process.
Eram turned and launched a volley of bolts at the charging Sith, who deflected them as he descended, crashing to earth with an impact so violent that it tossed Marik into the air again and sent him careening into the brush.
“Go!” Eram yelled to him. “Damn it, go!”
Something metallic slid free of Eram’s bracer and he saw a blade cut the Sith across the chest. The man screamed, but the sound turned from terror into laughter. He reached out a hand and clenched a fist and Eram began to choke.
“No!” Marik had his pistol in his hand and was firing before he knew what he was doing. It caught the Sith momentarily by surprise and he was forced to drop Eram to deflect the bolts. One shot right back at Marik and blew the blaster right out of his hand. The Sith grinned and began to walk towards him. Marik began to pray to all the Gods of Balmorra.
An explosion blossomed from the Sith’s back and Eram came out of nowhere to tackle the man to the ground. “Get out of here, Marik! She’s vital! Go!”
Kira was not far. She crouched next to a tree and stared into the sky like she’d never seen it before. Marik took her hand and drew her back into his arms. “We’re going away,” he whispered with one last look toward Eram. “Far from here.”
* * *
“Where’s the rest?” the pilot asked as Marik boarded the transport with Kira. A medic was now aboard and took his sister from him almost immediately. They knew all along. They’d kept him in the dark… but why? Marik felt he would never know.
“Not coming,” Marik said and the pilot stared for a moment before lifting the transport up off the ground. Rain pelted the windshield so fiercely that it didn’t allow for further communication, even by radio. Marik left the pilot deck and went back to sit with his sister. He held her hand in his and stared out at the dark Balmorra night.
Cadence drifted away and was soon obscured by cloud cover and rain storms. Still, he caught the occasional flicker from either the lights below or fires from the data bank. “Clean break,” the pilot’s voice said over his comm. “We’re clear.”
Marik looked at Kira, saw her wide eyes still staring at him. He touched her cheek and they fluttered closed. The medic nodded to him, removing the sleep stim. He let his sister’s head rest against his shoulder and gave his childhood home one last look before bidding it goodbye. It had taken his parents and the brave men and woman who had taken him back. He never wanted to see it again.
“Home?” Kira whispered in a voice so hoarse he could barely understand.
“No,” he whispered to her. “Somewhere better.”