Saturday, January 14, 2017

Ghosts (Part 1)

Patrolling a dusty planet along the Outer Rim had become too familiar to him. Given how many tours he had done out here, that should have been a surprise to absolutely no one. Last time he had bothered to check, he was on the eighth or ninth tour, all within a span of two or three years. Three or four months out on the rim, followed by a month or two back in the Core Worlds, and then shipped back out.

After so many trips, things mostly just blended together. One dirty planet, filled with a bunch of shady aliens was just as bad as the others. He didn't bother picking up too much of the lingo of a place, considering he was going to leave a few weeks after he got it all memorized. Most of the time he didn't even bother memorizing too many names. Outside of whoever he was bunking with, as well as his COs, there wasn't much reason to try and remember each and every face, when they were going to be scattered across the galaxy in a few months. So to him, most of the outpost's residents were nothing more than a few numbers. In a few weeks time, he would leave. A few weeks after that, he would return to the Rim, to a planet with a different name, and be surrounded by different numbers.

Tonight's assignment put him on one of the guard towers. Situated at the front of the outpost, that meant he and one other lucky gent got a grand view of the pale red mountains in the distance, set against a setting yellow sun. He did have to admit that it was a pretty nice view. Someone should put it on a poster or something. Actually, someone probably had. It was probably in a gift shop in the settlement up the road, and extremely overpriced.

Across the gap between his tower and the other, he saw his counterpart leaning against the railing. It was hard to tell behind the white helmet, but he could only assume that they were just as bored as he was. Turning back to stare off in the distance, he squinted, peering at some distant hill. He could have swore something had passed in front of the setting sun, but from here he couldn't tell what. Probably some animal, running on home before it got dark. Things around here were deadly after dusk, when the predators came out of their caves.

Nothing else moved, far as he could see. In front of him, that was. Behind him he could hear the constant movement of patrols making their way around. Not that they were going to really find anything. Far as he had seen, Rebel activity out here was low. A few locals who had managed to get a collection of firearms. They were easy to put down.

A short burst of static hit his ears as his comm came to life. Tapping his helmet until it stopped buzzing, he let out a bored response, "NB-345 reporting, please repeat."

"You're off," was the simple reply, from whoever was working the switchboard tonight, "BR's replacing you. Meet at bottom of the ladder and switch duties as usual."

"Roger," he muttered, turning and slowly making his way down the ladder. Looking to his right, he saw his counterpart doing the same.

At the bottom of the ladder he slid his ID card through the appropriate scanner, and stood there, waiting. He continued waiting for what felt like ten minutes. After that long, he gave his helmet another tap, "Central, this Tower-L. Was due off ten minutes ago, replacement has not arrived."

The voice on the other end was the same he had heard earlier, implying that they weren't done with their shift, yet. Their annoyed tone implied that they were just as annoyed with that as he was, "Working on replacing. Can't find BR." There was a muffled yell in the background. Something about running down the replacement list. A few faint beeps later and he got another response, "Sending out NL-434. Give them a few minutes."

"Roger," he said once more, with even less enthusiasm.

Again, he waited. And again, no one came. He frowned, though the gesture was hidden by his helmet. Leaning forward, he looked to see if the other guard tower had been left hanging for this long. No one was standing at the bottom of it, so he could only assume that wasn't the case. Sighing, he allowed to let his rifle hang by the strap that ran over his shoulders, bringing his hand to his helmet once more.

"Central, Tower-L. No replacement, approaching half an hour unmanned."

A pause. Static. No response.

"Central," he said, turning and twisting again to stare up at the other tower. By squinting he could just make out someone at the top, leaning against the railing. "This is Tower-L. Requesting response, seeking replacement."


Frowning, he worked his way around the small metal outcroppings that jutted out from the gate, finding his way over to the other tower. Craning his neck to see up to the top, he raised his voice, "Hey!"

Nothing. Not so much as a wave. The person at the top of the tower refused to even so much as move, remaining at their prior position, slouched against the railing. Annoyed, he circled around to the front of the tower, right under them, raising his voice to shout once more. Still no response. Bringing his foot up, he let it slam against the tower's metal base. The precarious metal structure bobbed for a bit, and the person at the top of it wiggled, falling off of the railing and crumpling against the floor.

No. That couldn't have been right. These things were flimsy, but if they were paying any sort of attention no one was going to get knocked over by it getting a shake. Whoever was at the top only moved closer and closer to the edge. At this point he could only assume one of two things. They were either unconscious, or dead.

Turning from the tower, he crept closer to the base and its barracks, right hand settling on the trigger of his rifle. The other hand went up to his head, trying to make contact with the operator once more, getting the same familiar static.

On the exterior, the barracks appeared normal. Once he had crossed the threshold of the door, which opened with a familiar hiss, any sense of familiarity faded. Against one side of the short hallway that lead into the barrack's living quarters were the bodies of a few troops, and on the other clear burn marks from where their shots had missed their assailant.

His breathing was uneven as he stepped over the bodies, not checking to see if they were alive or not. Stepping out into the living quarters, he let out a short sigh. At first it appeared almost normal. A few people were seated around a table, playing pazaak. He gulped upon approaching them and finding that they were actually slumped over the table, visible wounds on their back.

Something was off. When he took a knee to examine the floor, he could see clearly how someone had dragged them from elsewhere in the room, and purposely positioned them around the table. They had even dealt cards. A chill ran down his spine. The kind that made him think someone was staring at him.

Behind him came the sound of a door opening, though a quick turn didn't reveal much to him about the source of the noise. There wasn't one open, and there wasn't anyone around to open it. Anyone that was alive, or mobile, that is.

Stepping further into the barracks revealed similar scenes. Some hallways were littered with troops, their armor dented from where it had apparently been struck. A few of the bunk rooms had corpses in them too, laid out to look as though they were just going along their normal routines. Like someone setting up a morbid diorama.

The command center wasn't much different. A few bodies scattered here and there, while others sat slouched at their desks. By the way they were laid out, he could only assume that when whoever had done this had passed through here, they had made their way around the room, before entering the barracks. The thought bothered him. It meant that they had come out, the way he had come in. Or hadn't bothered leaving.

Finding the steps that lead up to the communications center, he found a similar scene. The large window that stretched across the front of the room, allowing viewing of the towers at the front of the outpost, was splotched red in a few places, with the place's small staff spread across their terminal. Passing through the desks, he frowned at someone still tweaking the dials at their station. He could only assume it was whoever he was speaking with prior, due to the small list they had pulled up on their screen.

It was a short list. For an outpost that had maybe fifteen or twenty people at most. His brain started sorting through a tally of sorts. There had been about five or so people in the barracks, maybe five downstairs, and five up here. He could only assume that the others were either spread out across the base, wandering around like he was, or already gotten hit, like whoever had been in the tower.

The tower.

Turning, he found the tower as before, narrowing his gaze to see whether or not the body was still there. It wasn't. That wasn't to say nothing was on the tower. There was certainly something standing on the tower. A figure cloaked in white, yellow eyes set deep inside pale skin, all framed by white hair. A familiar chill crept down his spine. The figure was in fact standing there. Except it almost seemed to not actually be there. Like a hologram that was in color, it seemed to flicker or fade, and he could see through it.

Something moved along the window, and it took him a moment to realize it was a reflection. He turned again, only to find the individual from the tower standing at the rear of the room. Except this one was obviously real. She had the same white hair, the same torn white cloak, save now there was a long staff in her hand. He drew his blaster to fire on the approaching woman, but with a flick of her wrist and a small mutter, the weapon was tugged from his hands.

The strap kept it in his reach, but there had been enough time for her to close the gap. Quickly deciding the best course of option was to not engage someone apparently tried for close-quarters, he broke into a sprint around the room, not daring look back to see if she was still tailing him. Passing back into the barracks, he took a quick turn into one of the bunk rooms. He quickly dove into the first spot he could think of to hide, under one of the beds.

Surprisingly, the first thing that crossed his mind wasn't how insane this entire scenario seemed. It was that he had just crammed himself under a bed, like a child. Not that there wasn't a reason he had done so. The bed has a decent elevation, so he was still able to fit under it, helmet and all. On top of that, he managed to move a few of the footlockers to conceal himself, though he still had to hope that none of the noise he made in the process of doing so drew in his attacker.

Long after the door had slid shut behind him, he heard the noise of someone approaching. One by one the other doors in the hall slid open and shut multiple times, as he could only assume someone entered and exited them. Eventually the door closest to him hissed open, and footsteps fell upon the shiny floor. Red boots marched across the room, stopping just out of his sight at the far wall. As they passed he could vaguely see the lowest part of the white shawl. After the woman let out another short, angry mutter, he saw her pass back across the room, the door being forced open.

He waited a few more minutes. To give himself more space between her and him. Once ample time had passed, he pushed the footlockers back to their original positions, crawling back out from under the bunk. Grunting from where his rifle had been pressed into his stomach, he stretched, readying himself to be attacked. It was with extreme caution that he approached the door. It slid open with the familiar noise, and he poked his head out, peering left and right until he was sure that the coast was clear.

Just as he was about to step back out into the hallway, he felt a pressure on his throat. A thin rod was being pressed against it, and he was being pulled back. He released his grip on his rifle as he tried to twist and turn to escape his attacker, but she made a quick kick at his foot, and his leg dropped out from under him.

As his head grew light, his hands flailed up in an attempt to hit her skull, but found no mark. His helmet turned, but not enough to look at her. Vision fading, he tried to keep some focus on his surroundings. The room, the noise of his choking. Anything that wasn't letting the darkness at the edge of his vision overtake him.

Behind him, he heard a short hiss, "You earned this."

There was one quick motion from the woman, a twisting of his head. And the blackness took him.

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