Chapter 1

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A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …
 
 
 
 
 
NULL FORCE: BATTLE IN THE HALLS OF DARKNESS
A Star Wars Story

 

Five years after the start of the Clone Wars, the 257th detachment of the Grand Army of the Republic were sent to the worst fighting in the Outer Rim. Some of the Clones had uncovered information involving Chancellor Palpetine and the real motive for the war. Mysteriously, the detachment’s transport vanished.

 

Now, almost thirty years later, they were revived from cryosleep on a mysterious backwater world by an unorthodox Jedi padawan. The war, their Republic was gone, and the galaxy had changed. The time they understood was gone.

 

To survive, they formed their own mercenary guild, the Beskar Aran, which among their duties is to guard the Tapani Emperor. Unknown to the public, the Beskar Aran also works to investigate discoveries - both historical and technological - that could be used to harm the Tapani Imperium, if not the worlds of the greater galaxy. The Beskar Aran does this work through the use of a secret special operations organization called ‘Null Force’.

 

***

 

Zetauri system in Shindra’s Veil nebula, Tapani Sector

Datunda, Nelona 14th, 12731

 

Work was already underway by 0800 at the Protian Enterprises’ Advanced Physics Research Lab on the unforgiving, rocky world of Kaonov in the Zetauri system. It was the final test phase for Protian Enterprises’ new hyperdrive design before mass production could start. Systems powered on in the testing chamber by 0805, and reading were well within parameters.

At 0810, the hyperdrive detonated with the force of a proton torpedo, drowning the installation in cronau radiation.

Search and rescue teams were dispatched twenty hours later once the Bureau of Ships and Services received the automated distress call.

Ruk V’dora, in a jumpsuit and rebreather, stood on a small rise of craggy, blue-gray soil that overlooked the ancient remains of a crater lined with a thick rust-orange dirt that glimmered in the dim light from the system’s primary star.

Twenty meters away in the center of that crater stood two one story, industrial gray buildings filthy with stress cracks running through the plascrete walls. A white-gray, gossamer fog enveloped the second larger building, like a blanket, blurring it to normal vision.

He eyed twin alkali dust devils to his right, then adjusted his rebreather again. It was in place. Satisfied he wasn’t about to suck down any of the ample Kaonov dust, the clone trooper re-checked the readings on his sensor gauntlet. The results were the same. Based on his understanding of physics, specifically hyperdrive physics, this made no sense. But the sensor scans said otherwise.

At least half the lab building, the part that housed the hyperdrive prototype, had attempted the transition to hyperspace. The other half had remained untouched. However, the attempt failed, leaving a mess of cronau energy and muonic particles scattered everywhere. This accounted for the strange white mist moving around the building in a slow orbit. It reminded Ruk of water spiraling down a drain.

The core problem was that buildings just didn’t transition to hyperspace. They were attached to planets or other celestial bodies that generated too much gravimetric influence to make that happen.

“But this one tried,” he muttered. “Nearly made it, too.”

Ruk shook his head.

“Maybe I’ve got the calibration off.”

The gray-trimmed, white gauntlet that contained the Tritonic Muon Sensor had a suite of configurations. Sensor gauntlets, such as this one, were designed for simplicity. Ruk wiped aside a thin coat of orange dust, tapped the console and brought up the one for calibration. A chime sounded as the device finished the reset.

Ruk extended his right hand toward the broken physics lab and tapped ‘scan’. The TMS replied with a chirp.

Thirty seconds later, the device chirped again.

Osik!

The new readings were the same as before.

Ruk almost pulled off the glove to hurl it at the ground. In fact, he wanted to. Not that it would change the readings or what they meant. It just might ease his frustration at the universe and the improbable situation dropped in front of him. Instead, he adjusted his rebreather then rubbed the bridge of his nose.

The comlink in his ear chirped, startling him.

“Dr. V’dora, I got your message and I’m headed your way. What’s wrong?”

Pala’teska’s soft Twi'lek accent was a welcome relief from his own irritated thoughts.

Ruk glanced around but couldn’t locate her. Then he saw the ‘send’ indicator lit up on the sensor gauntlet.

“Sorry,” Ruk sighed. “It’s nothing. I must have hit the emergency signal by accident when I was retaking the muonic and cronau signature scans.”

“Understood. I’ve an ETA of one minute to your location.”

“Affirmative.”

The landspeeder came into view over the crater’s ridgeline right on schedule after Ruk closed the communication.

Gray trim, dingy chrome with blue seats and lacking any side doors, it was an older model stripped down for speed and durability. The engine compartment in the rear had the most protection from the elements. The passenger area barely had a windscreen.

Pala’teska bounced the vehicle over the small hill and raced his way. Goggles in place, twin lekku trailing out behind her head, the emerald-green Twi’lek looked more like a swoop racer than a former Rebel Alliance soldier turned scientist.

She stopped the landspeeder half a meter from Ruk’s location. With a smirk, she straightened her vest, then brushed imaginary dust from a rust-red shirt sleeve.

“And arrived in record time. So, what’s the sit-rep?”

Ruk shook his head and chuckled despite still feeling exasperated.

“I took the readings three times to be sure. The prototype tried to make the hyperspace jump despite all the fail safes that Protian Enterprises say were in place.”

“Even though it was planetside?”

Ruk gestured toward the white mist, glaring at it and the building.

“Yes. That’s where the white mist came from. Energy bleed off from the failed hyperspace transition. Science, as I understand it, says it shouldn’t happen. Can’t happen. A body at an event horizon of a transition between realspace and hyperspace either transfers or it doesn’t. Stopping halfway? No.”

After a pause, he added.

“Well, maybe with a little rewiring I can think of two theoretical ways it might could stop halfway but that’s wild theory and would cause a lot more damage. But by proven knowledge, this shouldn’t have happened.”

After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence passed, he glanced over at Pala’teska. She was leaning forward on the landspeeder controls, head tilted a fraction to the right, studying him.

“That isn’t the only thing bothering you, is it?”

Ruk grimaced and offered a mumbled grunt in reply. Expressing how he felt wasn’t entirely his strong suit. However, this was deeper and more personal than just being frustrated over an improbable puzzle sitting in front of him. Pala shook her head.

“Ruk. Give.”

A long sigh later, the clone trooper felt a knot unwind in his neck before he relented. She was his partner on this and he needed to be honest with her. His sour expression deepened.

“I shouldn’t be here.”

Pala blinked, sitting back in the driver’s seat.

“What?”

He grimaced.

“I shouldn’t be here. I’m no scientist. How am I any good to this mission at all? I’m just a clone trooper. An ARC trooper lieutenant… well, a former one now, but still! I’m just a living weapon.” Ruk gazed up at the stars beyond the thin atmosphere.

“Stop that.”

Pala’s reply wasn’t harsh, but the words held an iron that Ruk couldn’t ignore. The clone met the Twi'lek’s hard look. He caught himself before he fidgeted the toe of a boot in the gray dust-soil he was standing in. She shook her head when he replied, cutting him off.

“You’ve been listening to that kriffing nerf herder, Halron Cote, again. Don’t pay any attention to him. He’s the worst egocentric speciesist I’ve ever stumbled over.”

She shook a finger at him.

“You’re so much more than ‘just a clone’. In fact, I don’t believe there is such a thing as ‘just a clone’. Look, I know clone history, and yes, the Kaminoans created you and your clone brothers to be ‘slave soldiers’. That’s how you were born, it’s not who you are.”

“But…”

Pala shook her head, slicing the thin air with a hand.

“No. The Kaminoans didn’t make you study astrophysics. They also didn’t make you invent that amazing theory of ground-based hyperspace transition. Both of which are the very thing that got Null Force to send you here with me to deal with this problem. You’re as much a scientist as I am. It’s just that I’m the better driver.”

The wink after her last comment made Ruk chuckle despite his mood.

“What did Halron say?” she asked.

“The same nonsense about clone troopers compared to their progenitors. Explaining my ‘culture’ back to me and anyone listening. In this case, his topic was on clones trying to follow the Mandalorian way and build tribes for themselves. You know the one. Where he goes on about clones being ‘organic droids’ and droids don’t have a culture because they’re tools.”

Pala slammed a fist on the landspeeder controls.

“I would love to shove that man’s nose out the back of his head. But… that won’t help anyone figure out what happened here to Protian’s lab and their employees. It’ll just start a lot of noise that delays solving the real problem.”

She took four slow breaths, then patted the landspeeder as if getting her bearings.

“Ok. So. Just based on what everyone’s found so far, it looks like the fail-safes either weren’t in place or were shut off. Protian says otherwise.”

Ruk returned to staring at the building.

“Once a team gets inside, we’ll be able to figure that out provided the lab’s computer core is intact. Scans say it is since it's under the building.”

“Exactly. So why lie about it?”

He folded his arms over his chest and shrugged.

“They’ll already have lost some standing with the rest of the Corporate Sector Authority over this. So, to save face?”

Pala shook her head.

“That seems very weak. Who would really believe that?”

He sighed, watching a cloud escape the rebreather’s filter. It hovered near his right side before being carried away on the alkalai-heavy breeze. Thoughts, speculation, and theories drifted along as well until one idea solidified into view.

“That’s true. Setting that aside, a likely cause could be sabotage.”

“What?”

The tone in Pala’s voice caught his attention. Ruk turned around. Pala was sitting up straight in the landspeeder, alarmed.

“Do you have an idea who?” she asked. “Wait, no. There’s no way we could know who yet, we’re not even inside to check for clues. Let’s back up. What makes you think sabotage?”

He shrugged at his partner.

“I was sent out to sabotage droid factories and other research stations during the Clone Wars before my brothers and I were put in suspended animation. Think about it. How many research labs did you have to take down as a Rebel drop trooper during the wars? How many times was the public response touting fail-safes were in place, but one of them was faulty because of a low-budget contractor or some other face-saving reason?”

Ruk nodded toward the ruined lab.

“Sure, it could just be some disgruntled employee that let their revenge against the company get out of hand. However, sabotage by a competitor? That’s possible. What if another company wants to get their hyperspace drive out before Protian? Or perhaps weaken Protian Enterprises to prime it for a hostile takeover. Osik. Isn’t that just another day in the life for businesses from Corporate Sector Authority?”

Pala nodded.

“It is. Ok, the sabotage theory makes sense. But it's all theory. We’ve no evidence.”

“Not until we get in there,” Ruk added.

She leaned back in the seat and stared into the air in front of her.

“I’ve another angle of attack.”

Pala waved a hand at the building.

“What if Protian Enterprises was trying to prove your astrophysics idea?”

Ruk felt a shard of ice stab into his core.

“My… theory? About ground-based hyperspace transition? How would they even know about it?”

Pala shrugged.

“Really? How could they not? It thrilled Lord Razak when you, the first clone from his old 257th unit, was awarded a doctoral degree in astrophysics based on that theory. It set the astrophysics community on fire. Just how many presentations did you wind up making again?”

“Too many,” he groused while rubbing his eyes. “All right. But that means this is my fault.”

The scowl from Pala was as hot as blaster fire.

“No. In every presentation you warned everyone, your theory was untested. Also, it wasn’t at all ready for use as it was far too dangerous. You outlined dozens of potential safety precautions. If Protian Enterprises was rushing your theory into reality just to be the first to bring it to market, it’s on them for not taking your warnings seriously.”

Ruk pulled his datapad out of the leg pocket on his jumpsuit and logged into the device. A few taps later, he gestured with it toward the ruined lab.

“Small comfort for what? Twenty of Protian Enterprises employees?”

“Fifteen,” Pala corrected him. “Five were on personal leave.”

Ruk nodded and tapped the device off with his thumb.

“Fifteen, then.”

Pala waved for Ruk to join her in the vehicle.

“We should get back to base camp. As for that,” Pala pointed at the research lab, “the best we can do for those lost fifteen is to find out what caused this, who caused it, then make it known.”

Just then their comlinks chimed in unison. Pala activated hers first.

“V’dora. Pala’teska. This is Mira Vorwan back at base camp. Have you got the cronau and muon scans?”

Ruk nodded, then tapped his comlink.

“This is Ruk. We’ve got the scans. I’ll transmit once we’re past the ridgeline between here and base camp, so the signal is clear.”

“Perfect,” Mira replied. “Also, get back here asap. We need you both here immediately. There’s been a development. We need to get into that lab in the next hour, cronau radiation or no.”

Ruk and Pala swapped a concerned look. Pala keyed her comlink.

“Mira, what changed? What’s the situation?”

“We just got a signal. There’s someone still alive in the lab.”

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