Vars stared at Kaa, not knowing how to proceed. Vars felt a throbbing in his heart, thought terrible thoughts about the deadly tangled mass of death that seethed beneath his feet, so far down.
Vars felt a rising desperation. Why had Kaa even led them here, if he had known Demotrova had gone down to what probably constituted a gruesome death in the eternal darkness of the Jungle? But he checked himself there. Kaa had done what he'd been asked. Vars only wished he'd spoken up about where they were headed. Kaa had an irritating penchant for being enigmatic, and worse, taciturn and laconic, when the mood took him.
"So, Kaa. What's the meaning of this? Why didn't you tell me before?"
But Kaa had lapsed into a strange distant silence. When, a few abstracted seconds later, he finally replied, it was with seeming reluctance. "I lost my eye down there, you know. First and last time I ever went down. I swore I'd never go again. Then you came. Fed me your medicine. Healed me. Shown more care for me than anyone had ever done in my life." Kaa sighed. "When you said you had to find the spy, I knew my time had come." The dim illumination cast his smile in dim shadows. "I'll follow you even to death, you know. Even to the Jungle."
Vars felt a distant chord of emotion, long suppressed, rise within him. Choking with feelings felt so long ago, he hastily turned away. An almost suidical determination rose within him. Calming himself down, he turned again, slowly this time, and faced the trembling Kaa.
"So be it, then."
Vars closed his eyes and stabbed at the turbolift access.
The journey ever down was slow, and the slowness of it only grated on Var's frayed nerves. Vars paced in the limited space, Kaa gibbered abit with suppressed emotion, coughing in racking fits and fighting to draw deep breaths. Vars had almost gone mad with worry, when with sudden and dramatic finality, the turbolift lurched to a stop. Outside, Vars could hear the rusty sawing of metal and the screech of chrome.
They were in the Jungle.
Screechingly, the turbolift door creaked open, whirring. Pitch blackness stared them in the face, and a sickeningly rich organic pungence wafted up Var's nostril, sending him into a choking fit. "Quiet now," whispered Kaa, with an almost manicial nonchalance. "You never be knowin' what's lurking out there."
Here, in the Jungle, Coruscant was at last revealed in all its natural existence. Calcified walls and the remnants of durasteel merged in a strange harmony of nature and artificiality.
It was dark as they wandered out of the turbolift. Vars felt cold and blind in the depths of the inky darkness. He knew he would need a means of night-vision the moment he learned of this assignment. Rummaging in his pouch he removed two nightvision goggles and passed one to Kaa. Vars strapped his pair on - and cursed disbelievingly.
"Dark kriffing space..."
For in Var's field of vision, there were a pile of bodies. Bodies of the eyeless carnivores featured in the CWMD files he had read in preparation for the assignment, never suspecting that he would actually need the information that now swirled disturbingly in his head.
Eyeless carnivores, mutant descendants of exiled sentients, quadrupedal, intelligent, but ravenous, bloodthirsty monsters which hunted in packs, whose primary means of communication was a system of high-pitched shrieks just on the edge of the ultrasonic, who had no qualms on turning on each other in times of hardship.
And a pile of them, dead as stones, now lay in a macabrely neat heap before their eyes.
A piercing shriek on the edge of hearing brought Vars back to his senses. He looked wildly at Kaa. In the dark Kaa didn't bother keeping his emotions in check; terror danced across his squat features. "Go back, Vars said thickly through the bile rising in his throat. "We have to...get back to the elevator...go up-"
Kaa shook his head, convulsive. Sweating with fear, Vars turned to look, and the sight that beheld him almost robbed him of his sanity. The turbolift was inexplicably dead; its circuitry no longer glowed. Sparks flew from the ends of snapped cable. They would have to find another way.
From the distance, shrieks sounded again and again, in culminating notes of agony, and Vars knew he was as good as dead.
Drawing his trusty Merr-Sonn Vars ran, Kaa following closely behind. Shrieks sounded, drawing ever closer. With wild abandon Vars stumbled through an opening in an unseeable wall. Vars nearly tripped over something prone on the ground, on closer inspection it proved to be a corpse of one of the carnivores. Vars scanned the vistas and found more bodies.
Suddenly Kaa exclaimed, "Behind us!" Furious, Vars snapped back in a breathy whisper. "Quiet! These things-"
But he broke off at the sound of a shriek, frighteningly nearby. Three of the carnivores bounded into view at the opening, and yawing like dogs, hurtled towards them. In a fearful haze Vars raised his blaster and squeezed off three shots. One of the beasts toppled, screaming. Emitting fearful cries the two creatures hesitated, then bounded foward again. Vars continued firing as the two of them ran, however, and soon he had dispatched the second one. The last was catching up. It took a powerful leap at them, and would have torn them to pieces, but Var's shot caught it cleanly in the belly and it landed, dead and harmless, on Kaa's leg. Kaa fell, whimpering.
Vars heaved a vast sigh of relief, and the tension drained out of him. Calming himself down, he strode over to where Kaa was supine. Helping him hurriedly up, Vars hissed, brushing dust off his clothes, "Don't make any loud noise. These creatures act on sound. Understand?"
Kaa nodded mutely. Vars continued. "Now, I've thought of something. Something, someone, must have done this to these creatures. If we follow the trail of corpses, perhaps we'll strike something. Let's go."
So they continued. Padding quietly through the ruin of Coruscant's last jungle, following a trail of breadcrumbs that led inexorably to their goal. Cold stillness stifled them in the eternal night of the underground as they wandered along their trail, knowing that if they could possibly get to its end, revelation would come. For Vars, at least.
There was no conversation, only breathy, whispered orders or warnings. In the distance, cries would sound, cries of predators ravenous in their wretched prison. They kept as quiet as could be. Only twice more did Vars have to use his blaster. Vars knew each step taken was a step further out of this terrible stifling numbingness, of the cold and the dark.
Stumbling out of a dark outcroppping, onto virgin Coruscant soil, Vars knew that he had finally struck gold as he looked upon a vast, spherical vessel, emanating faint latent heat, half-buried in what must be Coruscant's true surface. Vars perceived that they were in a cavern of some kind, for the air around them felt expansive. How this artefact had become buried here, in the deep past of Coruscant's long history, Vars did not know. With Kaa at his side, he approached the construct.
A loud, unearthly keening filled his ears as a hairy, slavering beast pounced atop him. Nearby he could hear Kaa's faint shout and guessed, he, too, had been attacked. Growling wetly the ravening beast cuffed him savagely on the head, claws barely raking his cheek as he ducked back. He grabbed his blaster from his side and fired off two shots in the beast's belly. Immediately, it went limp, dead. Clambering up, Vars rushed to where Kaa was struggling and with a mighty blow of the blaster's butt stunned the creature; a further two shots into the soft carapace lining itsback killed it.
Vars wiped sweat from his brow, blowing out his breath, looked up and felt his jaws hang slack. Because they were surrounded now, by tens of the same creatures that had attacked them, and this time, they were quite prepared for whatever he had in store for them. They were outnumbered. Badly. Vars wondered what death was like.
But all was not lost for Vars, as he took a last look at the ancient vessel.
Vars had read many stories. Adventure novels, romance, mysteries. His datapad had hundreds of his favourite stories, and perhaps a thousand more untouched. Vars had often encountered a curious plot device that he had read about in these novels; it was called a Deus ex Machina. From his researches, Vars discovered that the etymology of this curious phrase was not known, indeed, one could hardly claim it to be Basic at all. But he did understand what it meant. It was a plot device to get the protagonist out of a desperate situation by the introduction of a hitherto unknown plot element.
Vars thanked the stars for Deus Ex Machina as he saw the vessel light up in a string of blue, and a faint yellow light glowed out of what was unmistakably an opening.
Kaa had been injured badly. Vars fed him what was left of the bactade, then tended to his wounds using some nanite reassemblers he had found in his duffel. Kaas was in pain; Vars could see that. His wounds were turning faintly orange, boils were rising. "That thing must have poisoned you," Vars said. "Lie back and try to relax. The bactade is a powerful antipoison. Let it do its work."
Setting Kaa gently down on the smooth chrome floor, he surveyed his surroundings. The design was alien, unique, but some of the pictorial signs were understandable. They were in a large chamber. The door they had come in through was at one end, a long white corridor stretched out the other way. The surroundings were the cleanest Vars had been in ever since he had left his apartment. He could still hear the faint reverberations of the creatures outside hurling themselves at the door, trying to get inside to them.
Vars looked at Kaa. His face was a greyish pallor, his lone eye was sunken. The cataract had gone completely ever since he had started taking the bactade; the eye looked a healthy white-on-blue. Kaa looked back at him, his expression pained and dull. "I think...I can get up."
"Are you sure? You look like a Quarren in a desert."
"What's a Quarren?" Kaa grimaced. "I can. Give me some time." Painfully, he heaved himself to his feet, but fell again in a calvacade of whimperings. In the end, Vars was reduced to supporting Kaa on one arm and his shoulders as the other tried walking on his own. In this awkward position they started the arduous journey down the long corridor.
Vars finally laid Kaa on the floor, sighing with barely concealed relief. Kaa got worse by the minute, muttering in a delirium, up to the point where he had collapsed on Var's shoulders and refused to budge, half-conscious. Vars had to resort to carrying Kaa on his back.
The corridor was long, but mercifully simple to navigate. A huge door, faintly glowing, towered before them now. Vars laid a tentative hand on the pad at its centre - and slowly, the massive slab of gleaming metal slid apart. Through the widening gap Vars could make out a room, vaguely spherical, dimly lit, covered everywhere with strange glyphs and computer terminals. A walkway led to a platform suspended in the centre of the massive sphere. In the dim light Vars could see a shapeless mass slumped messily in the centre of the platform. He approached to take a closer look - and gasped.
It was Demotrova, and he was dead, eyes staring in maddened horror into space.
Behind him Kaa gave a gasp, then a long, mournful moan.
Var's heart throbbed wildly in its cavity. He knew someone else had to be in here, had to have done this. But there was not a mark on Demotrova's body. How had he died?
Kaa gave another moan, but this one was shorter, more desperate. "Ah, Vars, Vars...I can feel it...it's growing inside, getting...I can't...can't..." Vars turned to look, and gave a shout in pure wild deathly terror. For Kaa was writhing wildly on the ground. His lone eye was bloodshot and wide open, his features liquid, his mouth gaping, his arms flailing. Then, before Var's terrified gaze Kaa began to melt. His face dissolved into a featureless writhing mass, his body morphed. Kaa let out a last gurgling shriek of terror, which turned into a low growl. And at last when all of Kaa had gone the body began to resume the veneer of solidity, and as Vars looked on with convulsive terror the shape resolved itself into none other - than one of the hairy creatures he had fought outside, the creatures who had injured Kaa.
The creature, once Kaa, growled. Its lone eye opened, and with the air of a majestic gladiator beast it rose on its haunches and fixed its gaze solely and supremely on Vars himself.
The creature began to lope toward Vars. But Vars did not react. He was rooted to the spot, staring fixedly, face frozen, at the hurtling mass of fur and hair crossing the distance between them. Only at the last, desperate minute did Vars raise his blaster, and with tears on his cheeks, squeezed the trigger. The bolt blasted a smoking hole in the creature's belly, killing it, and it collapsed with a last, empty sigh of exhaled air. Vars collapsed, sobbing, onto the ground.
It was like killing a friend. And the worst thing was, he didn't know why he thought that way.