ABY 853
Outbound - The Unknown Reaches
~Three Months Later

Seroth kept his eye on the console's turning chronometer. It laid nestled between indicators for oxygen scrubbers and the centralized vessel heating, tuned to Central Core Time and the Galactic Calender. Five standard minutes remained on the counter 'till it turned the year over and reset the Core Standard Year. Atop the console-dash, wedged against the cold plaststeel viewport, laid an invaluable keep-sake. The youth could recall the hasty holo-op, with Rosa Mazhar ushering Darron, Jax, himself, and Ben whilst she fiddled with a small palm-held holo-cam. Hard light blinked sun-spots into their vision that troublesomely refused to fade. She shushed their complaints and complimented that they'd turn out into a very handsome compilation of stern faced 'old men'. An hour later, they squeezed into hard-vacuum suits and then launched out into a void screaming with scattered globes of torpedo and turbo-laser fire.

Zzzzdd~! The chronometer turned over. The Next Year was upon him, give or take an added or subtracted micro-second. Seroth hadn't much in terms of liquoured drink to afford a fizzled toast, making due with a cool canteen of red-milk. His viewscreen reflection raised a glassy arm, canteen high aloft, raised to the spirit and vigor of his distant friends. The long voidscape of inky blackness pinched with dots of far light filled his eyes up. Were they safe, sound, sitting out upon the Coruscant Temple processional? Drunk, hopefully? Laughing and putting off their usual worries for the day after? He hoped so in all sincerity. His mission placed over him a tremendous sense of disconnection from pangalactic events; which was oddly comforting. The boy took a long swig of the flavoured milk-swill and wordlessly prayed for better days.


~Five Months On

The Cosmarchan Parchment, as Seroth had taken to calling it, hadn't escaped poor storage unscathed. Its backside had been used for additional scripting, entire lengths of long paragraphs doled out in neatly scrawled pen. However, its undoubtedly incredible age, exposure to differing atmospheric pressures, moisture levels, and even gravity, had done a difficult toll fading the text in and out of legibility. The boy managed to snag a limited set of dry skin-gloves, void of calcium powders that marred over-the-counter brands and with added tactile dexterity. He never touched his bare hands to the grease-paper. Ben Watts told him once over a lunch, discussing the latest Temple Library curating efforts, that humans and many species exuded natural oils and chemicals from their skin. Which could lift very temperamental leads and inks from priceless codices, smudge the already suffered cursive.

Legibility proved to be a premature hurdle. Scrutiny under a calibrated scanner-scope exposed an author's meandering sensibilities. The cursive functioned in an older mode of what seemed like proto-basic, sentencing and wording reading on like a bare, guttural croak. The boy had little training in linguistics; with a fiber-scanner, he digitized the length of the map's underside and paced it through the Iron Snake's bare translation suite. Long hours were lost waiting upon decoding analysis, exercising below in the cool berth holds. Though since he was eleven and had adopted a daily routine of calisthenics and aerobic regiments, Master Wraith's tutelage subtly emphasized an expanded compliment of weight and strength training. Darron mentioned that, unaided, a human body in peak condition could potentially press as much as a thousand pounds. Seroth had progressed up to the cusp of three hundred-fifty, swelling his slender frame with compact musculature.

Slowly, the parchment began to yield. Despite his vessel's 'bare bones' retrogrades to increase operational range, its small computer suites managed some progression. Three sentences, a paragraph maybe, enough to facilitate a burgeoning understanding of the dead author's prose. The authorial style kept the tidbits of relevant information, coordinates and the like, buried beneath mountains of description, dramatization. Seroth grappled with attacks of doubt, wondering if the myriad of names, referenced locations and their later inferences, weren't just something created by an old, bored longshoreman or madame captain. Yet... doubt was not instinct and Jedi were so terribly acute on picking up ethereal hints of lies. There was some veiled truth to this strange set of esoteric instructions.

Hyperspace jumps were utilized sparingly and with extreme care. Long range scanners were boosted to provide sensor data well past their ordinary operative strictures, painting spacial vistas filled either with emptiness or some heretofore unseen obstruction. Seroth converted each 'obstruction' into a tallied marker, compiling their coordinates into a slow 'jump-trail'. The parchment guided him along through a swathe of locked star clusters, past a wobbling sun shivering with sonic vibrations caused by the presence of a swiftly orbiting gas giant. The boy recorded sunspots upon passing stars that could swallow in Coruscant three times over, and ghostly gas-skeins that moved so slowly upon invisible stellar winds. Each spacial body coincided with temptingly specific instances in the parchment script. Teased, tempted, the boy piloted the Iron Snake on.


~Seven Months On

The final leg was called 'Braving the Dead Veil'. The parchment's faithful author admitted they'd never braved this final piece of an exhausting course, one that had taken Seroth and his intrepid Iron Snake deep below the Galactic Disc plane. Here, as the boy glanced upwards through the reinforced plastisteel viewscreens, not a single, far away star glimmered with familiarity. Transmission was virtually cut off, as no Holonet comm., buoys had ever been deployed so distantly. Even the background hum of Force energy, the subtle ripples and tugs of invisible eddies, were wholly unfamiliar... and charged with a disturbing 'edge' of almost omnipresent malice. The author echoed his or her terrified sentiments of isolation, of surreal fear, so near the completion of what felt like a private odyssey.

Seroth saw the so-called 'Veil'. An entire planar mass of shivering distortion spanned untold light years across the axis, almost sweeping into a far overhead tent of convulsing darkness and blinkered, sickly starlight, and down below into a basin beneath. It was akin to being settled in the jaws of a sleeping giant, hemmed in with rows of teeth serrated as shattered glass. The Nameless Cartographer had been here, once; in possession of scoffed-upon knowledge of some disparate realm that shouldn't exist. It brought a curious discrepancy to light. The fore of the map was a sector-by-sector break down of an interplanetary 'tyrancy, tracts of space given moniker, individual worlds of note so named. The Cartographer had never gone beyond the veil...

So who now had fabricated this map...?

The youth settled against his pilot seat's warn leather, thumbing over his chin scruff. Console instrumentation idled, dipping odd lights as digital diodes and holo-screen overlays portrayed the vessel's averaging performance. A hand reached out, playing with the manual control yoke. ...He could turn the Iron Snake about. Retrace the long voyage and return to more known haunts and strike out from a place of fastness. Terminus, less of a cesspit than even bruised Nar Shaddaa, was laced with many routes that could take him to troubled remotes needing a Force warrior's specific intervention. But in that way laid a tract of cowardice and Seroth's stomach bunched into a cool iron ball. The Mandate said to go on and out, find realms and worlds isolated, remote, and lend assistance. Any assistance. The frontier had no use for nebbish fools frightened at their own mortality.

Seroth's hands danced. The Iron Snake put forward at full-impulse speed and began the last leg: breaching the Dead Veil. Gradually, hands knuckled upon the control yoke, they closed the distance between calmed space and the askew divergence. Beyond five hundred kilometers out, where realspace and the Veil met and wove in nauseating patterns, the vessel's sensor range milked out. ...Distractedly, Seroth quickly cycled through a forced shutdown of all long-range suites and rebooted back to max output, hoping to gauge a reading that was less tepid. A holoscreen blew up, showcased the nearest regions returning a hit and bead, but waxed into darkness at the Veil's outermost edge. There was simply no telling how deep the misbegotten energy field projected, or if it ended at all.

Was this his last folly after all...?

He pushed the Iron Snake on, closing the fast shortening gap. Three hundred fifty kilometers, one hundred seventy. An overhead canopy of instrumentation suddenly whooped an alarm klaxon. Each sensor suite from sonic to infrared blinked out and left him with only his forward visual cues through the plastisteel fore-screen. A morbidly wry thought came to him, that suddenly he was having a bad feeling. Eighty give kilometers out the control yokes in his palms fell sluggish. A moment later, cabin lights flickered and surged, as heat felt sucked out through the floor deck paneling. The boy peered through blinking shadows, catching his thumb into the manual-control switchboard. Every other panel featured pressure plating and virtual-keyboards, save for the ever-important manual override. Seroth braced his feet against the attitude pedals, readied for the hard shunt of motion, and depressed the switch.

CO[sub]2[/sub] correction nozzles flared in brief test-fires, shivering the Iron Snake from nose to bloated stern. The boy wished for Jaxton Ravos' hand at keeping the vessel on an even course and keel. Of course, he wasn't aware if the husky Grav-Ball veteran could pilot worth a damn, but no lack of practical knowledge ever limited his breezy style. Slowly, hurdling on at a turtle's gait, the vessel nosed into the Veil. Grey eyes flashed about, wary for an waiting if not inevitable shock to gun his system dry of surprise. A breathing exercise, easing the flow of chilling air through his lungs, clamped mental checks and pulled his nerves back from fraying. From behind the cockpit came shuttering judder, accompanied by a pitched auditory throb. Seroth's gaze widened.

Propulsion was cutting back o-

The Iron Snake blasted forward like a slapped shuttlecock. It's cockpit interior sang with a resumed orchestra of bleating alarm signals and blaring kaxons, lights shunting off and on, blinding Seroth with dizzying cascades of illumination and then stark shadow. The Veil's embrace clutched the vessel on by another two hundred kilometers when the youth managed to right their orientation and steer for what he assumed as a general elevation. Instrumentation was either dead outright or feeding him impossible figures. Save for one detail; the hull was absorbing and bleeding off tremendous amounts of electric shocks. But the shielding only accounted for so much. A bolt blew out the paneling for the cabin pressure. A second burst of plastic shrapnel sundered the coolant readings.

From somewhere beyond, impossibly, a rising crescendo of keening howls stole through the void's blood-aching cold. Seroth tried to pitch his consciousness into the Force's embrace, to focus and drive out the increasing screams, vision blurring with lucid hallucinations. But what met him in the ethereal was just prickling heat that wafted into psychic fire. Translucent hands, fingers too long, knuckles too slender, pounded and slapped against the plastisteel. The boy blinked, his senses utterly, vividly assaulted, watching empty skulls peering back with eyes like pin-pricked polar caps. The Iron Snake careened on. Ventral plating became scored with plasma discharges, its curled belly gusting flash-freezing clouds of ruptured tank fuel. The Dead Veil bore in from every angle and vector, encompassing lancing thunderbolts of hot-white lightning into Seroth's harrowed vessel.

Later, Seroth would tell that his vision blacked out, felled by a psychic wall of incredible vigor... His ears ringing with a sub-sonic scream, the likes of which he'd only ever describe as the death-shriek of a star... As the Iron Snake turned end over end hours on into a foreign gravity well, sucked down to a dark world...