What Lurks in the Darkness...

T'balan Kas

New Jedi Order
The Zhar system, aside from the moon bases of Kile and Gall it was an otherwise less-than-noteworthy stellar body. Fortunately for T’balan, the only need he had here was fuel. Having stocked up at the automated platform, he was nearly ready to continue his journey from Ryloth back to Yavin. T’balan had just finished sending his report back to the Temple from his routine mission on Ryloth. A local Hutt crimelord took it upon itself to cease supplying and trading with a local council of small villages recovering from the war. The slimy Hutt had even gone so far as to harass their trade caravans. A simple negotiation, a few heated words and promises to resolve the conflict once-and-for-all, and the problem was solved for the interim. But T’balan just knew that would come back to bite him in the posterior someday.

As he plotted his course back to Yavin on the navicomputer, something pinged his sensors. A freighter, in a decaying orbit around Zhar itself. T’balan sent standard hails on all frequencies toward the ship, but received no reply. Nor was he one to turn his back on a mystery. Tib directed his HWK-290 toward the freighter in distress, and locked it in a synchronous orbit to extend the external docking port. But before he disembarked his vessel, T’balan transmitted his location back to Yavin, along with a message saying he was stopping to investigate the freighter.

Once he reached the external door to the freighter, he discovered it was powered down. Gloved hands reached out to jam fingertips as far into the crack between the doors as possible. T’balan took a deep breath to channel his physical strength, enhance it with the Force, and pried the door open after the first real grunt. Not even the pragmatic detective could have forseen what awaited him inside the dark cargo hold. But into the breech he went, sidearm at the ready for his off-hand, lightsaber for his main. Tib landed with a quiet thud on the deck, and within a few moments his eyes adjusted to the shadowlands-like darkness inside the hold.

T’balan took a cautious few steps, taking in the scene as it all came into focus. Corpses—or what was left of them anyway, strewn about. Blood smeared on the walls. By the smell, it couldn’t have been more than a few hours old. The urge to vomit receded, and he pushed onward, though the carnage only seemed to get worse the closer he got to the natural chokepoint that was the entryway to the next section of the freighter. One body of note by the door, seemed mostly in-tact, but became noteworthy for lacking any manner of skin about the torso. Another was missing its face, and all seemed to be missing at least one article of clothing.

The urge to remove his gloves and use psychometry on, literally, anything in the room was high, but he knew all too well how much of the Dark Side he would expose himself to—the fear from the crewmen as they died in agony, the malicious intent of the killer—let alone whatever could have prompted a being to flay skin from bodies, remained suppressed. This would have to be one investigation that got solved the old fashioned way, though Tib was starting to wonder just what kind of jackpot he’d gotten himself into this time.

T'balan Kas

New Jedi Order
Past the cargo hold, and into the lounge area, where the bloodbath seemed to have spilled over. Taking a cautious look around, and halting his forward progress, T’balan focused on the slightly-less-grisly scene before him. The carnage pointed down the next corridor, toward the cockpit. As he focused on the scene, he began to realize that the air inside the ship was quite thin. And, of course, T’balan had left his rebreather aboard his own vessel.

One of the crewman seemed to be missing his clothing, but the skin had been left in-tact save for the less-than-precise stab wounds inflicted on his torso—apparently the killing blow. The picture slowly started to form in his mind, as to the motivation of the killer. An imposter was aboard, likely the only survivor from the conflict, if they were even still aboard. Whatever answers awaited him, awaited him on the bridge. The bigger problem, naturally, was to restore power and oxygen to the ship. And time, of course, was of the essence.

T'balan decided he would revisit the rest of the ship after he got oxygen working again. He pushed past the lounge area, shaking his head slightly. In his brief life, Tib had seen more than a few tragedies but this really seemed to take the cake. Such wanton destruction, so little regard for sentient life. A chill tingled up his spine, making the hairs on the back of his neck stand up straight as he approached the door to the cockpit. A warning, a premonition in the Force. There was something dangerous and unexpected beyond the door, or he was simply spooked by the situation. And T’balan Kas didn’t rattle easily in the face of danger.

He forced the door open as he had the airlock, starting to breathe heavy from the effort, and pushed himself through the threshold, blaster pistol out and up—ready to discharge its entire power cell into…. Nothing. Not even a corpse of a crewman, or carbon score on the bulkhead from blaster fire. “Kriff me,” Tib uttered to himself. “Should have called for backup…” he let the self-statement trail as his eyes searched the myriad of control panels in the dark for the lights and oxygen scrubbers. A flip of a switch and the ship hummed to life again. Logically, the logs would have pertinent information. T’balan called them up on the console, and started at the beginning…

“Captain’s Log, CSA Freighter Idiot’s Array. Departed Etti IV en route for [redacted] with a load of [redacted]. Boy I hope our superiors appreciate this run, I don’t think I’ve ever had a more dangerous payload aboard before.”

His eyes scanned the logs for more relevant information, but it was mostly filled with Corporate Sector Authority chatter among the crew, until he happened upon one of the last entries in the log.

“[Error, file corrupted, beginning auto-recovery…..] [ Recovery complete, ERROR ERROR DATA CORRUPTED] ….seem to have lost power unexpectedly in the Zhar system……1$6KLO*@ --+!010 Chief Engineer can’t ascertain wh.!#^failure occurred. 1$eG^8~=*zZxC5\{;..... escaped from the cargo hold.”

From there, the remaining logs descended into some kind of mindless gobbledygook, perhaps rooted in the corrupted data, or perhaps written in a panic. The sensor logs showed timestamps of relatively recent integers, and no real errors in the computer core. No, the logs had been sabotaged, data removed from them to cover one’s tracks.

Nefarious cargo indeed…

T'balan Kas

New Jedi Order
That surge of premonition in the Force T’balan had felt before opening the door, it wasn’t incorrect merely quite early. As the investigator turned to leave the cockpit, the lights shut down with a soft whirr. Reflexively, Tib drew his lightsaber and ignited the shining gold blade. He would have jumped were he a smaller being. “By the void,” all that escaped his lips with a shake of his head. Nothing. No one. T’balan should have listened to all the old Spacer’s tales about Ghost Ships, heeded the general advice about leaving well enough alone, but that was not the Jedi way.

The tension mounted silently, like something out of a horror-holo. The most depraved of vids. And it was apparent that T’balan let himself become rattled by things going bump in the night. He left his saber ignited, keeping his sidearm at the ready in his off-hand, just in case. The oxygen scrubbers seemed to still be functional, leading Tib to conclude that he was not, in-fact, alone aboard the Idiot’s Array. He sighed, shoulders slumping slightly.

Back to the hold, perhaps answers lay there with a second course of investigation. The freighter wasn’t that large, any remaining culprit had to still be inside. Cautiously, he pushed back through the lounge. Another doorway, and he was in the cargo hold again, the only light that of his blade. T’balan suddenly felt extremely uneasy, but pressed onward into the maze of crates thrown astray.

A metallic clank sounded behind him, as if something fell from the stacked crates to the floor. He wheeled around on a deci-cred to face something…something truly of nightmares. Bi-pedal assassin droid, wearing the flayed skin, clothes and most horrifyingly the face from the crew mates T’balan had discovered. The urge to vomit receded, and the droid opened fire with its blaster. Tib deflected the shot with ease, and surged forward to meet the droid head-on. A buckler on the droid’s arm shot to life as hi brought his blade down. It emitted a ray shield, and blocked the lightsaber. Using all the strength of its hydraulics behind the buckler, it shoved T’balan back as much as it could.

What fresh hell, indeed….