Solo missions

Manuk Gagak

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“Let me tell you about the dark side. Typical Jedi propaganda to name it so. Let me give it another name. Let’s call it the truth.”
― Asajj Ventress


Long before she was a Sith and even before she learned to truly use the Force, Manuk learned the ways of combat.

In combination, though, her mentor taught her about the cruelty and power of the Dark side of the Force.

It was now the only world he knew, and she yearned for the chance to embrace what she knew to be her destiny.

Finally, she believed, she would be entrusted with solo missions…a chance to prove herself and the value of her training.

And that time was now...
 

Manuk Gagak

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For fourteen days, the training droid put Manuk through a series of gruelling physical tests. Manuk defended herself against lightsaber-wielding droids in the training room. Blindfolded, she threw daggers at robotic targets, which threw the daggers back at her. She was blindfolded again before she climbed into a starship flight simulator wired with disciplinary electrodes. She wore a sensory-deprivation suit when she ran through a maze that was lined with razor-edged walls.

In locked chambers, she was exposed to extreme temperatures and deprived of food. For each test, she drew strength from the dark side of the Force.

When the fourteen days were over, Manuk was exhausted. Her entire body ached. Not only had she passed every test, she had destroyed every test. However, the droid always expected more from her, so she was surprised when it said, “Because you have survived these challenges, you may proceed to your first mission.”
 

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A PLANET IN WILD-SPACE

Above the frozen floor of the uneven ground, Manuk zigzagged for cover, the scuffed toes of her combat boots digging into fragile ground, black-gloved hands seeking purchase where the grade steepened. Once more the gritty soil shifted under her feet and she fell hard on her right knee. Low-energy blaster bolts fired from below struck the slope to all sides of her, flinging hot shingle into her unprotected face. A bolt caught her in the calf as she scrambled upward, and she cursed her carelessness. As it was, her utility suit was holed from previous strikes, and her body was rashed with coin-sized welts and burns.

A tall pinnacle of eroded stone provided momentary shelter. Manuk narrowed herself behind it as blaster bolts added to the abuse nature had wrought. Breathless in the thin air and favouring her right knee, she lowered herself to peer from behind the base of the pillar. Ordinary eyes wouldn’t have been able to trace the movements of her would-be captors, but eyes enhanced by the Force allowed her to outsmart the camouflage provided by their suits.
 

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In the lead hurried a human. Flanking him loped two Rodians.

Even holding her genuine powers back, for fear of it linking the Sith to the assassination she’d just performed, she had enjoyed a solid lead until a surprise move had forced her to divert from her original plan.

Splashing through the iced river, clambering into the rugged terrain of the valley’s north wall, she pressed on. Normal beings shouldn’t have been able to keep up with her. But along with mimetic suits, the Rodians were sporting respirator masks. As for the human, to Manuk’s now well-trained eye, he was built for any climate, any terrain, and clearly had decades of combat experience under his belt.
 

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Pressing her back to the pocked spire, she scanned her immediate surroundings, then lifted her gaze to the summit of the slope, limned against the cloudless blue-green sky. This part of the planet was a landscape more suited to a moon. Descending raggedly from the face of a volcano ten kilometres high, the river spilled onto a deeply fissured table, and over the eons had fashioned from the valley wall a veritable forest of mesas and towering pinnacles, cleaved by crevasses and dotted with spiny cacti whose translucent juice Manuk knew to cause hallucinations in some species.

A blaster bolt whizzed past her blond hair, and she shot to her feet. A quick follow-up glance revealed that her pursuers were attempting to surround her, covering for one another as they raced between protective outcroppings, clearly trusting in the masking properties of their high-tech outfits.

Manuk raised her blaster and drew a bead on the nearest Rodian, forefinger trembling on the trigger, as if urging her to shoot. And she would have, if not for the blowback that would follow from seeing what she shouldn’t have been able to see. Frustrated, she bared her teeth to the cold dry wind sweeping down from the glacier and muttered another curse. Only when she was compelled to remain in the profane world did her feet slip out from under her and her lungs strain to deliver sufficient oxygen to her muscles. Only in the profane world was she forced to play the inferior quarry to safeguard her strength in the Force.

Better to wait, she told herself. Better to lead the three of them to higher ground, where the air was even thinner and the mimetic suits would be hard-pressed to provide concealment. There she would turn the tables in what might at least appear to be an ordinary way.
 

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‘Imagine your trail, and the Force will open it.’

Confident in that thought, she backed out of the pinnacle’s meagre shadow, and deliberately showed herself for an instant before commencing another upward slalom. Blaster bolts dogged her churning footsteps, then caught her in the same calf — and in the right shoulder. This time she engulfed the pain and used it to fuel her mounting anger. But the human had to be wondering why her prey wasn’t slowing down or accepting defeat. So Manuk stumbled before resuming her pace. A climb of some four hundred meters brought her just short of the valley rim, where water and wind had created a maze of spires and pinnacles.

How simple it would be to soar through them, leaving scarcely an imprint of her boots. But not here, not now; not in the profane world.

She cursed the choice of her first mission as a Sith – unable to use the Force. Unable to fulfil her destiny.
 

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Well-aimed bolts caromed and ricocheted from the spires, filling the air with particulate debris. Manuk turned once to return fire, missing wildly, as she should. The shooting stopped as she threaded her way deeper into the stony labyrinth, edging through tight passages, crawling through others, leaping narrow chasms. With the rim in sight, she began to formulate a plan for catching her pursuers unaware. The human would be harder to fool than the Rodians. She was banking on the fact that the human would send the Rodians to outflank her, while he herself continued to hound Manuk from behind.

Emerging from the spires, she crouched for a moment in the whistling silence. At the head of the valley loomed a snow-capped conical mountain, lording over all it surveyed, a sole cloud wafting from its summit like a lavender banner.

Cautiously, Manuk ascended to the top of the slope, only to spy the man not 50 metres in front of her, standing with his back to a jagged rend in the broken terrain. How he had gotten past her, Manuk couldn’t guess.

But Manuk wasn’t supposed to be able to see him, so she steeled herself and advanced into the pain. His first bolt struck her in the right shoulder, spinning her partway around, but Manuk completed the turn of her own volition and began a mad dash for the edge of the snaking crevasse. With near-misses from the man’s blaster prodding her forward, she realised suddenly that her eyes had deceived her. More gaping than it had appeared from her earlier vantage, the chasm should have proved an impossible leap for a young woman — even for one capable of pulling off the assassination. The human would no doubt expect her to stop short of the edge and surrender, but instead she quickened her pace and jumped, arms and legs pumping as if to grant her greater momentum.
 

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She allowed herself to slam into the far wall, using the Force to cushion the impact and hooking her hands over an outcropping a few meters below the rim. Having found a narrower gap, her pursuers weren’t long in reaching her, gathering in their supposed invisibility on the rim to gaze down at her. Which was when they began to taunt her by kicking debris from the rim in the hope that Manuk would lose her grip and plunge to her death.

Anger consumed Manuk. How much longer would she be required to conceal her real abilities, to be made to seem mediocre when she was so much more?

Calling on the Force again, she launched herself from the chasm, somersaulting and half-twisting in mid-air, so that when her boots struck the resilient ground she was facing the backs of her hunters with her blaster in hand. By the time the three of them whirled — the man’s lined face contorted in bafflement—Manuk was already triggering bolts, as if firing at beings she couldn’t see but knew to be in front of her.

Still trusting in the suits, they scattered, shooting blindly on the run. Though not a bolt found Manuk, the Force guided her to their targets, and each pained outcry elated her.

Swept up in the grip of sadistic delight, she kept firing, the dark side writhing through her like an aggrieved serpent.

And one day she would be able to unleash bolts of electricity from her fingertips!
 

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A SPACE STATION – SOMEWHERE IN THE OUTER RIM

“I serve my Master and the glorious Sith tradition. We are no less powerful for being hidden. We grow in the darkness. We gain strength from it.”
– Darth Maul

Manuk surfaced groggily. Even before she opened her eyes, her senses told her that she was aboard a small ship.

In fact, she was reclined in an accelerator chair but she wasn’t cuffed or shackled.

“You are skilled, Manuk,” said a woman, when her yellow eyes focused on her, “but perhaps not as skilled as you believe.”

Manuk said nothing.

The woman appraised her. “Very revealing. A few moments ago I was thinking that I erred in coming so far and in risking so much to find you and your sister. And yet I sense that you are indeed strong in the Force.”

“I have no sister,”
Manuk said, impassively.

“Ah, but you do.”


Manuk remembered her teaching. Others would attempt to use and deceive her, and here the woman was doing just that.

Manuk remained silent.

The woman cocked an eyebrow. “You’ve no interest in seeing your birth world or meeting the sister you never knew existed?”

“Neither.”


The woman looked disappointed. “You are fated to meet her, Manuk, one way or the other. It has always been thus.”

Another woman slipped into the cabin. “We have been given permission to enter the station.”

The woman nodded and studied Manuk. “Can I trust you to behave while we transfer to our own vessel, or do you wish simply to awaken aboard it?”

Manuk glanced at the newcomers vibro-sword and energy bow. “For the moment, you have the upper hand. I won’t make trouble.”

“Of course you won’t.”
 

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She acquiesced. But as she disembarked, a sudden feeling of apprehension overtook her. The woman must have sensed something as well, because she turned to look at her while she was accompanying her down the drop ship’s ramp, perhaps thinking she was the cause of her concern.

“Trouble,” Manuk told her.

Without so much as a word the woman and two of her ship-mates drew their swords and enabled their energy bows. The dimly illuminated docking bay appeared to be deserted, but Manuk could perceive the presence of armed beings lurking in the dark periphery. Regardless, the woman continued to march into the open, as if without a care.

“Stay right where you are and lower your weapons,” a gruff voice barked in Basic over the cargo bay loudspeakers.

The beings Manuk had sensed began to edge from the shadows, all armed with blaster rifles. At the centre of the group stood a towering man clad head to foot in battle armour.

“I’ve heard of your kind,” he continued. “I insist you become members of my elite army.” He drew an outsized blaster from its holster and triggered a shot toward the bay’s tall ceiling.

“Our weapons are set on stun, but we’ll shoot to kill if you decide to refuse my invitation.”

The woman didn’t bother to reply. With a motion of her hands, the docking bay was suddenly filled with dozens of warriors. She instantly understood that she was being treated to a dazzling Force illusion, but the soldiers were fully taken in. Just as their leader had warned, the selector switches of a dozen blasters went from stun to full on, and a harried storm of bolts began to criss-cross the bay.

Some of the men they faced were dropped quickly before the illusion evaporated. Whoch was when the battle turned.

Manuk thought about racing back into the drop ship, but doubted that it had sufficient power to overcome the bay’s tractor beam array. Instead she made a run for a fallen warrior, leaping, whirling, and tumbling across the deck until her hands seized on an energy bow.

Retreating to the ship, she took cover behind one of the landing struts and began to return fire.

Manuk scanned the cargo bay. Having seen so many similar stations in her lessons with the droid, she knew that its cargo and passenger hubs were linked at several points by airlock corridors.

If she could make it to the passenger pod, she could commandeer a drop ship and escape.

She was preparing to make a break for the nearest hatchway when the woman called to her.

“Don’t leave us, Manuk!”
 

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Confliction paralysed her. Would the Sith expect her to show sympathy? What if this woman was one of the Sith’s agents, and thus deserving of her help? What if this was some test? Did the Dark side of the Force ever permit self-sacrifice?

Cursing through her gritted teeth, she put her right arm through the bow and hooked it over her shoulder, then ran through a hail of blaster bolts to reach the injured woman. Heaving her over her shoulder, she raced for the safety of the adjacent bay.
 

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The entrance to one of the station’s cylindrical connectors was scarcely 50 meters away, but Manuk was pinned down behind a cargo container by fire from the warlord’s reinforcements.

Blaster bolts were ricocheting from the container.

“We may not make it out alive,” the woman said.

“No one asked you to come here,” Manuk said, even though that might not have been the case.

“We came for your sake.”

“Really?”

“You fail to grasp that you belong to a bigger picture, Manuk. Your fate is not yours to decide.”

But Manuk had fallen back into silence.

In the empty space between the cargo container and the soldiers, a dozen automated load lifter droids were hauling similar containers to various designated areas on the burnished deck, unfazed by the firefight taking place in their midst. The containers were drifting into the bay on powerful tractor beams from a cargo ship too large to be berthed inside the station. The entire process was under the guidance of a computer housed in the bay’s upper tier control room.

Manuk spent a long moment observing, then said: “We’ve one chance to make it through the connector and into the passenger pod.” she fixed the woman with a penetrating gaze. “I’m going to need your energy sword.”

The woman returned the look. “You’ve no training in the use of that weapon.”

Manuk shrugged out of the bow. “Then I’ll just have to improvise.”
 

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Short sword in hand and evading bolts from various blasters, Manuk sprinted for the control room bulkhead. For a moment it appeared that she intended to run up the wall, but instead she launched herself straight up from the deck when she was a few metres short of the bulkhead. At the same time she raised the sword over her head in a two-handed grip and plunged it into the control room’s broad transparisteel window. A normal blade would simply have bounced off the transparency, but energised by the dark side of the Force the sword not only penetrated the pane the way a lightsaber would, but opened a vertical tear in the window as gravity struggled to return Manuk to the deck.

Dangling from the weapon’s hilt, she rode with it for a short distance, then swung her body up and around the sword, bringing her feet in front of her and slamming them against the pane. That the gambit worked, however, owed less to the amount of momentum Manuk was able to supply, and more to the concentrated blaster fire provided by the warriors.

Feet first, Manuk flew through the smashed window into the control room, with dozens of blaster bolts following her through and ricocheting wildly. Several devices in the room were struck, and, as circuits fried, the small space began to fill with acrid smoke. Crawling below the ruined opening, Manuk moved to the computer’s main control board and began doing input on a touch screen. She was by no means an expert slicer, but her training placed as much importance on computer skills as it did on poison production and assassination techniques. More important, slicing into the programs that oversaw the automated cargo transfer system didn’t require the skills of an expert.
 

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With bolts continuing to streak into the room, Manuk worked her way into the program that managed the tractor beam array and re-tasked it. The system kept asking her if she was absolutely certain that she wanted the changes applied, but once she had convinced it, the consequences were almost immediate.

Where moments earlier cargo containers had been floating gently into the bay, they were suddenly soaring in at rapid speed. The large vessel parked outside the station was unaffected by the increased pull of the tractor beam, but the containers themselves were arriving too quickly for the load lifters to handle. Instead, they were piling up on the deck, erecting what amounted to a towering wall between the mercenaries and the fallen woman, though without preventing the latter from being able to reach the connector leading to the facility’s passenger hub.

Grasping the eventual outcome, several of the soldiers broke from cover in an attempt to make it to the far side of the cargo bay, only to end up being crushed by incoming containers. A couple of the load lifters also wound up hemmed in, becoming part of an impromptu partition that was close to spilling out of the pressurized bay.

With enemy attention diverted to the wall, Manuk was able to leap safely from the control room to the deck and return to the woman’s side.
 

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Manuk helped the woman to her feet and wrapped her left arm around her waist.

The two of them hurried into the corridor and through the first of several hatches: Manuk using the Force to open it as they approached, the woman apparently using the Force to close it. All the way through the connector, their teamwork was repeated. Manuk wasn’t sure if her actions would ultimately be seen as inspired or ill-conceived.
 

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Sirens wailed throughout the passenger hub, and emergency lights brought a scarlet glow to some of the concourses and hangars.

In a utility room below the bay in which more of the soldiers were deployed, Manuk and the woman stood on a maintenance gantry several metres above the room’s flooded deck. The deluge owed to ruptures in the broad pipes that coursed overhead, opened by slashes from Manuk’s blade.

They were both wearing emergency respirator masks Manuk had snatched from a nearby airlock after she had both sensed the ambush awaiting them at the end of the connector. They had picked their way down into maintenance corridors that ran beneath the passenger hub’s concourse level.

The pipes did not only contain liquid and the gas soon filled the area.

Manuk waited until she heard coughing and retching sounds from above; then they made their way to the end of the gantry and ascended a ladder that accessed the upper bay.
 

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Victims of the toxic gas, the soldiers were stumbling about as if inebriated or bent over and vomiting onto the deck. Manuk waded into their midst with sword flashing. The few who hadn’t succumbed fully to the gas opened fire with their blasters, but were quickly cut down. Manuk tore into the rear guard as she fought her way to the warlord himself.

Then came a hail of fire from the his close-in defenders, forcing Manuk to hit the deck, bleeding from a bolt that had grazed her upper right arm. Clambering to her feet, she resumed the charge, but by then the warlord had beat a retreat through one of the exits.

Accepting the aim was to escape alive, as opposed to gain vengeance, Manuk did not pursue the man, but instead escorted the injured woman to a ship before leaving her.

“Goodbye,” Manuk said as she pressed the button to raise the ship’s door.

“Until next time,” said the woman.
 

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A PLANET IN WILD SPACE

“You may think I am evil. I am not. I am efficient.”
– Darth Maul


“They stole fifty starfighters and a prototype hyperdrive engine from a starship factory,”
Manuk notified the droid. “Sensors indicated they were destined for a planet in the Outer Regions. But they changed course, possibly because they intercepted my long-range scan and now hope to evade pursuit. My objective is to learn who hired them, retrieve property, and terminate them.”

The droid’s photoreceptors dimmed as he processed the data, then he asked, “Do you want to know the odds against completing your objectives?”

“Failure is not an option, so the odds are insignificant. I have informed you of the plan because you may be required to run interference.”

The droid’s photoreceptors brightened. “It is unlikely that they believe they can hide from us. If they suspect they are being followed, there is a high probability they landed on the planet to prepare a trap.”

“Naturally,” Manuk replied. She used the sensors to get a fix on the charged particles that would lead her to the unidentified starship. Gripping the controls, she piloted her ship into a rapid descent toward the planet’s surface. Without looking at the droid, Manuk stated, “I’ll delay my attack until their guard is down.”

The droid thought about this for a moment, then asked, “If they are preparing a trap, when will their guard be down?”

Manuk glared at the droid. “After I let them catch me...obviously.”
 

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The trail of charged particles led to a mountainous region. Darkness had already fallen, but the blanket of night hid little from the Sith ship’s sensors. Manuk used the tracking sensors to follow the particle trail over a high, jagged rock formation. Manuk surmised that the elusive freighter’s crew probably expected any attack to come from above.

Although she planned on surrendering to the crew, he had no intention of making it look easy. She activated the ship’s cloaking device, and the ship vanished from sight as it flew over the jagged rocks.

Manuk checked the sensors and saw that the particle trail ended at the rim of a wide canyon. High on the canyon’s east wall, a great fortress was built into the side of the cliff. Scanning the terrain, Manuk found an opportunity for an indirect approach to the canyon. She piloted the cloaked ship low over a broad mesa, and then plunged into a deep ravine. Maintaining a high speed, she steered through the narrow gap between the stark mountain walls, then levelled off ten metres above the gorge. The treacherous ravine led into the wide canyon. Manuk flew behind a towering butte that rose from the base of the canyon, well out of visual range from the high cave. She prepared for landing and deactivated the cloaking device. The ship re-materialised and she brought the ship down beside the butte.
 

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“The ship’s particle trail indicates it flew directly to that remote fortress,” Manuk told the droid. “It might be their hideout. I’ll fly my speeder to the fortress and break in. You guard the ship.”

The droid nodded, but Manuk had already left the bridge. Armed with only her lightsaber, Manuk stepped out of the ship and drew her electrobinoculars from her belt. She held them up to her lilac eyes and adjusted the night vision control, then scanned the rim of the canyon until she located the fortress.

It was at least seven stories high, as indicated by the positions of small inset windows. Three domed turrets loomed like guardian silos over a granite roof. Despite the architectural details, the structure blended so well with the surrounding natural stones that Manuk imagined it had been carved out of the mountain itself. Manuk magnified her view of the inset windows. With the exception of one small, unlit window at the lowest level, all the others were barred. The unbarred window appeared to be the best access into the fortress.

After Manuk returned the macrobinoculars to her belt, she deployed her saddle-shaped speeder from the underside cargo hatch. Unlike the ship, the speeder was not equipped with any sensors, weapons, or shields, but it was capable of astonishing speed, acceleration and manoeuvrability. On any planetary environment, it was Manuk’s preferred means of transportation.
 
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