She stared at her own body through the red lenses of the mask, her shocked brain quickly putting the pieces together.
“Vader?” she asked, the vocoder failing to convey the full extent of her incredulity. Oh yes, they had a problem indeed.
Vader simply nodded, his face a mix of gravity and lingering dazedness.
She heaved herself to her feet – a process made quite strenuous by the weight of the armor – using both hands and legs to push herself off the ground, which, unfortunately, failed to make the exercise easier. She clenched her jaws in pain as she felt a stretch in her left shoulder, as if her flesh were about to tear itself open. She leaned against the nearest shelf, allowing herself to recover a bit before she spoke again, covering the sound of her heavy, relentless breathing and of that faint something that seemed to be playing in the back of her mind.
“I think I pulled a muscle,” she stated lamely. “What happened?”
“I do not know, Aphra, though I suspect it has to do with the holocron,” he said, picking through the crystal shards that lay scattered around him.
I told you so, an old man’s voice rang out, nearly causing her heart to spring out of her chest. She felt a cold shiver crawling up her backbone, and swallowed uneasily.
“Who’s there?” she asked, her booming voice hiding the sudden panic that had her rooted on the spot. “Who said that?”
Vader arched an eyebrow, not quite certain what she was referring to.
“Who said what?” he asked. He hadn’t heard anything, but if he was ‘her’ and she was ‘him’, in a manner of speaking, then there was only one plausible explanation: Force-ghosts.
“I told you so,” she answered. Oh. Right. Then he knew exactly who it was.
“Aphra, will you please tell that patronizing, backstabbing old goat to kindly dissipate and go haunt someone else?”
Aphra tilted her head in a questioning way – not an obvious motion by any means, but then he knew the collar to restrict such movements. His reaction may have been a little… personal. That was bound to raise questions. And if there was someone who would undoubtedly ask them, it was the nosy, boisterous woman whose body he was trapped in.
And Aphra was, indeed, bearing a perplexed look, her eyebrows knit together as she wondered what the kriff he was talking about, when the mysterious voice interrupted her train of thought with out a fatherly, yet utterly joyless chuckle, one that quickly died away to let her ponder what she had just heard. She took a few seconds to contemplate the situation and came to the conclusion that things might, perhaps, be more alarming than she had initially thought. She was several meters underground, in a vault that could crumble any minute, stormbound on this backwater Rebel rock – without a single bar or tech junkyard to hang at, mind you – trapped in someone else’s body – which was definitely not the most comfortable experience she had been through so far – and now, she could hear ghosts. Ghosts. Somebody pinch her. At least the spirit seemed to have taken Vader’s not-so-subtle hint.
“I think he’s gone…” she hazarded.
“No he’s not. He’s gloating in the shadows as we speak.”
“Who is he?”
“Someone you had better not trust”, he answered cryptically, his voice laced with unconcealed contempt. Vader knew that ghost well, too well for his own taste. Of that she was certain.Before she got a chance to ask what had happened between the two, a sharp beep from Beetee caused her head to swivel, with a suddenness she immediately regretted, wincing at the sudden tension of her neck muscles.
“Masters, Beetee is picking up several lifeform readings from the gallery beneath us.”
“And they seem to be heading for this level. Primary analysis suggests kinrath.”
“You mean those big, slimy, venomous spiders?”
“Indeed, Mistress, and they are getting close. I might add that their venom has fascinating properties, though I rather doubt you wish to experiment them for yourself.”
“Uh… not really, no.” She turned to look at Vader, who was busy collecting the last pieces of the holocron. “Hey boss, this place is really cool and all but how about we get going? Like… now.”
The words had barely left her mouth that a spindly, mucous appendage shot out from behind a shelf, curling around its corner. A sharp, sibilant hiss answered another one, then two, then three, and part of her could sense a ravenous hunger, simmering, growing, focusing onto them as the clamor built up.
“Oh… I have a bad feeling about this.”
Suddenly the hissing turned to a din of shrieks, and the whole of the mob sprung out of the shadows, rushing towards their prey in a furious frenzy.
Now that sounded like a plan. Aphra took to her heels but the creatures were fast, and the weight of the armor was slowing her down. She heard and felt the swarm narrowing in on her, a compact mass of kinrath now filling the corridor mere meters behind her, some crawling up the walls to outrun the stampede.
Uh oh. This is bad.
She felt a squishy mass drop down from the ceiling and right onto her head, fully occulting her vision as it latched onto her helmet and began trying to tear it off.
“A little help here?”
Vader stopped in his tracks upon hearing her call. Aphra’s body was light and surprisingly nimble, and he hadn’t realized how much of a distance he had covered until he turned to look back. Not that he could see much – the hallways were, indeed, quite dark for the bare eye – but he could see enough to know that she was far.
“Use your lightsaber!” he shouted.
“No way, I’m gonna cut my head off!” she exclaimed as more kinraths began climbing onto her.
Yes, that would be most embarrassing. But not as likely as being turned into canned kinrath food if things went on that way.
“Would you rather be eaten alive? Just do it!” he ordered, still fumbling for his blaster. Hopefully he still knew how to use one. “The lightsaber, not the head.” Obviously. “Red button.”
“Everything is red!” she exploded, finally managing to throw the animal off her head.
“The one on the top!” he said, aiming his blaster at the mob.
“Okay. Okay. I got this.” She ignited the weapon and began thrashing around like a … like what exactly? No matter. It seemed to be working.
“Guys you know you’re allowed to help!” she exclaimed amidst the howling of the beasts, not bothering to dodge the spider legs she sent flying around.
“Oh, but this was so entertaining…” Triple-Zero grumbled as he reluctantly turned to his companion. “Alright Beetee, you heard Mistress Aphra.”
Both droids fired in concert, until Beetee grew tired of it and aimed his flamethrower in the direction of the melee. Piercing, dissonant shrieks of agony rang out, reverberating on the walls, but they were soon silenced by Aphra’s panicked blows.
“You nearly set me on fire!” she berated the droid.
Vader bristled at the thought. Once was more than enough.
“Shall we go now?”
Aphra nodded and handed him the saber. “I’m not saying you’re a bad shot but… I think we should trade.”
They hastened the pace and quickly reached the surface, setting foot on its dry, reddish sand, so thin that every step lifted a cloud of dust. The wind had subsided to a mild, gentle breeze, and the dim light indicated it was nearly nightfall. The surroundings were calm, without a sign of life… save for the jangling tone of Aphra’s comlink – well, his comlink, which never, ever missed an occasion to disturb him at the most inconvenient of times.
“Pick it up,’ he sighed jadedly.
“Ah, Lord Vader. Glad you finally deigned to answer my calls. What is going on? I’ve been trying to reach you for hours.”
Aphra wasn’t quite sure what to respond to this.
“I… um… nothing. I’m fine, I’m all fine now. How are you?”
Tagge’s only answer was an annoyed flick of his hand.
“You still haven’t confirmed your presence at tomorrow’s meeting. Shall I see you there?”
“Uh… I… yes?”
“Good. And I still await you report on the Anthan 13 incident. Make sure you bring the file along. Tagge out.”
The hologram flickered and quickly disappeared, and Aphra couldn’t help but voice the first thought that crossed her mind: