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9

Spectre was waiting for Selu and Milya at the entrance of the hangar as the Hawk-bat swooped back through the azure blue Yanibar sky, having no doubt been informed of their approach by Yanibar Control. Master Daara, a lithe red-skinned Lethan Twi’lek female and an eminent member of the Zeison Sha, was also there, but her presence had been requested at the private hangar. He stood there quietly as the ship noisily set down, its rumbling repulsorlifts echoing through the hangar as it found its berth. As the ship powered down and the boarding ramp at the ship’s neck lowered, Spectre walked forward casually to meet his friends. Soon enough, Selu and Milya emerged, followed by a small, predatory-looking alien with steely gray skin.

“Welcome back,” Spectre greeted them.
“Thank you,” Selu said quickly, shaking Spectre’s outstretched hand while bowing slightly toward Daara. “Master Daara, thank you for coming.”
“Any time,” she said. “I take it that this is-,”
“Yes,” Selu replied. “Morgedh clan Kel’nerh, meet Master Daara. She’ll be taking care of you for the next few days or so until we can get you settled in at permanent quarters.”

The diminutive creature bowed at the waist.

“I’m honored,” he said, his voice coming out as a gravelly mewing.
“This way, Morgedh,” Daara said, leading him off toward a waiting speeder.

As the pair left, Milya walked up and gave Spectre a warm hug.

“What brings you here?” she asked, a quizzical look on her face. “We weren’t expecting a welcoming party.”
“There’s news,” Spectre replied.

Selu instantly picked up on the tone in his friend’s voice.

“What kind of news?” he asked cautiously. “Am I going to like this?”
“Probably not,” Spectre admitted. “Over my recommendations, we have now entered into a business deal with the Zann Consortium.”
“You’re kidding,” Milya said. “So, Councilor G’lopsan decided to push it to a vote while we were absent.”
“Yes,” Spectre said regretfully. “I conducted the negotiations and everything went more or less smoothly. In fact, I personally met with Tyber Zann himself.”
“And how did that go?” Selu asked.
“He didn’t try and shoot me, which I took as a good sign,” Spectre replied jovially, then he sobered. “On the other hand, I can’t believe the Council approved this idea. The Zann Consortium is a bunch of thugs and slavers.”
“I know,” Selu said.
“Not to mention that Zann is quite the ambitious little crime lord,” Milya remarked. “Word has it that he’s constructing his private battle fleet.”
“Well, now we’re supplying him handsomely with buzz droids and droidekas, courtesy of Kraechar Arms,” Spectre said.
“And Sarth went along with that?” Selu asked incredulously.
“I don’t think Sarth knows,” Spectre replied evasively. “He doesn’t oversee everything at Kraechar Arms.”
“On something like that, he should,” Selu answered sharply. “I’m going to have a word with him about this whenever he gets back.”
“Maybe even two words,” Milya added darkly.

She was just as displeased about the idea of supplying a known criminal organization with lethal weaponry such as droidekas as Selu, possibly even more so. There were reasons that the Yanibar Guard placed such stringent restrictions on exporting weapons-most of their exports were old Separatist hardware such as hand blasters and were sold to planetary militias. Not growing criminal empires with unsavory ambitions.

“I’m glad to see you agree,” Spectre said. “I’ve also taken the liberty of signing off on a couple covert operations against the Consortium in an effort to maintain a balance of power.”
“Not sure how successful that will be, but you have my approval,” Selu said. “You can even borrow some of the Elites if you need them. Just keep it quiet.”
“Understood,” Spectre replied. “We’ll make sure to keep our operations as surgical and covert as always.”
“Good,” Selu answered.
“Now,” Milya said. “How was Rhiannon? Did she behave herself while we were gone?”
“No,” Spectre said flatly. “She was the most obnoxious child I’ve ever had the displeasure of knowing. She drove my poor wife nearly to tears and me to anger. I’m not sure that I will ever allow her to spend another night with my daughter-I fear she’s a terrible influence on Jasica.”

Milya stared aghast at Spectre for a moment, then realization crept into her features. She scowled and slugged Spectre in the arm while Selu chuckled.

“You almost had me going,” she said. “Want to try that again? The truth, this time.”

Spectre smirked at her.

“If you insist,” he said. “Your daughter was well-behaved and polite, as always. She had a great time with Jasica and, aside from some disagreements about bed time, she was no problem at all. Sheeka and I loved having her over.”
“Well, that’s better,” Milya said, mollified.
“I do suggest that you take a certain trip with her, though,” Spectre advised. “She’s practically bursting with excitement over it. I think I heard about it thirty times in the past two days.”
“First thing I do when I get back will be to pack my bags,” Milya replied. “I hated delaying it.”
“And while you’re gone,” Selu said mischievously. “Spectre and I will have some fun of our own.”
“Just make sure the house is clean and pick up all the sabacc chips,” Milya replied lightly.
“We’ll be sure to,” Selu replied as he climbed into his and Milya’s speeder. “Need a lift, Spectre?”
“No, I still have business to take care of back at the command center,” Spectre said. “Just wanted to welcome you back and personally update you on some things. I dropped Rhiannon off on my way here, she’s supposed to be working on a surprise in the kitchen with Jay Seven for you.”
“We’d better get back, in that case,” Selu said with a grin.

Slowly increasing the throttle on the speeder, Selu waved to Spectre and then drove off towards his house.

Nar Shaddaa
“All clear, stand by,” the comlink earpiece crackled in Sergeant Nate Kraen’s ear.

He was flattened against a dirty, graffiti-scrawled wall in the seedy side of Nar Shaddaa-though to be fair, there weren’t any other sides to Nar Shaddaa. Unlike most individuals in the area, though, he was on a mission. The pouring rain dripped and splattered off his Kraechar Arms Battlesuit52-A combat armor and off the waterproof barrel of the S-2C blaster carbine that he cradled. Cautiously peering around the corner, Nate poked his helmeted head around to see the silhouettes of two heavily armed bouncers.

“Execute on my mark,” rumbled the comlink again, the sound coming from the Zabrak squad leader, Captain Wyslond.

Nate tensed, every muscle in his body coiled up and ready for action. He knew his squadmate behind him, the veteran slicer, Lieutenant Dex Naresco, had his back covered, and that he was about to be in combat. Adrenaline surged through his system, and he checked the energy level on his carbine for the tenth time, just to be sure. An hour of skulking and waiting in the Nar Shaddaa streets for the preliminary scouting report was about to pay off.

“EXECUTE! EXECUTE! EXECUTE!” the comlink shouted.

Nate acted on instinct, rounding the corner with the carbine already raised to shoulder level, his legs spread slightly more than shoulder-width apart to provide him a steady firing stance. The infrared mode in his helmet’s optical system highlighted the two well-armed bouncers standing at the entrance. Nate pumped the trigger on his S-2C blaster twice, sending stun bolts rippling forward to knock both of them unconscious with perfect headshots.

He could hear the sound of glass shattering above him as two more Cresh Squad members rappelled in from the roof and breached into an upper floor window. The eight-man squad had been split into teams of two, and Nate’s and Naresco’s job was to clear and secure the back door, disarming the security system.

Staying about a meter off the wall, Nate and Naresco pushed forward, blasters at the ready, each covering each other’s back, muzzles tracking as they steadily advanced. Finding the side door closed, Nate swapped his optics over to infrared again, checking it for traps or guards waiting for them. Finding none, he planted his armored boot against the door, and kicked open, bursting in. The back room was empty, so with Naresco covering his flank, Nate moved forward. His ETA-Enhanced Tactical Advisor-guided him up a pair of stairs to a security room, where this time, the door was locked. Infrared view showed that there were a pair of seemingly panicked guards there, grabbing blasters. Nate made a hand motion to Naresco as he flattened himself against the wall next to the door. Naresco nodded and passed a slim package up to Nate, who set it on the door-a breaching charge. As soon as it was set, Naresco held up three fingers, folding them down one by one as he silently counted down. Nate backed off the door and readied his blaster, tucking a stun grenade into the underslung launcher that was fixed to the bottom of his weapon’s barrel.

The door blew into fiberplast splinters and Nate burst through, giving the panicked guards inside the security room no time to react. One, a hulking Trandoshan, had been literally right on top of the door and had been thrown back, stunned by the blast of the breaching charge. Nate whipped the barrel of his carbine across the reptilian alien’s face, sending him flying back. Behind him, Naresco pumped a pair of stun blasts into the Trandoshan, felling him. Nate swiveled as a crimson blaster bolt sizzled through the air to impact squarely between his eyes-only to be stopped a centimeter away by a hazy energy field. Each Battlesuit52-A carried a personal deflector shield that had saved Nate’s life on numerous occasions, and Nate grimly added one more tally to that list even as he leveled his carbine at his assailants. Unfortunately for the other two guards in the room, they were not similarly equipped and Nate’s stun blasts dropped them one after another. As soon as the guards were down, Naresco set up his datapad on the security system, and began wreaking electronic havoc. Nate checked to make sure that the room was secure, but the three guards had been the only individuals in the back area of the cantina. Even though it was night, it was simply still too early for most of the clientele to have arrived, so the establishment’s main floor was maybe only a third full.

“Security room secure,” Nate reported into his comlink. “Three hostiles stunned.”
“Copy that,” came the reply from Captain Wyslond. “Upper rooms are secure.”
“Confirmed, Lead. This is Three. We’re ready to take the main room,” put in another voice.
“Wait until the security’s offline, Three,” Wyslond admonished. “All teams move in on the main room once we have their security offline.”
“Got it,” Naresco sounded off. “They’re ours.”
“Affirmative, move to the main room.”

Nate acknowledged the order and, with Naresco once again close behind him, headed out of the security room, down a hall that would lead them to an upper-floor balcony overlooking the main room where, not two weeks ago, his stepfather had conducted a dangerous business deal with Tyber Zann. Reaching the door that led to the balcony, Nate again stopped and scanned the area with infrared vision. There were a few people on the balcony, and while he wasn’t sure if they were a threat, it would be a terrible tactical mistake to ignore them. Holding up three fingers, he then pointed to the right, then back at Naresco, signaling to the slicer that Nate wanted him to deal with them. He got a double-forward wagging motion from Naresco’s black-gloved right hand in response-an affirmative.

“Squad, execute on my mark,” the earpiece crackled with Captain Wyslond’s command.

Nate kept himself flattened against the door, weapon at the ready, adrenaline coursing through his system as he anticipated the action to come. He waited, as ten seconds passed, then twenty. He was keenly aware of the sound of both his own breathing pounded in his ears and the bead of sweat rolling down his face. He could see the silhouettes of the three beings on the balcony highlighted in infrared. While on any other given day, he would have treated them with fellow sentients-perhaps not the most savory of characters-but still living beings with rights of their own, Nate would not do so now. As soon as his helmet came on, or he received orders to do so, in the case of incognito missions, he immediately regarded all beings as allies, targets, or possible threats. When in combat, he simply had to push everything else but the mission out of his mind-the old axiom went that a distracted soldier was a dead soldier and that was one organization whose ranks Nate had no desire to join.

“EXECUTE!” roared Wyslond.

At that point, Nate again kicked open the flimsy door with a load crash and lunged out onto the balcony, the snub-nosed tip of his carbine tracking for any possible threats. Naresco was right behind him, taking a sharp turn to the right to cover the three individuals on their level, while Nate trained his S-2C on the floor below. Other members of Cresh Squad had performed similar actions-two bursting in from the back entrance that led to the kitchens and two more from the front door.

“Nobody move!” Captain Wyslond shouted. “Everyone get down on the ground right now!”

Of course, one foolish young blood went for his blaster. He was immediately gunned down with a tight grouping of stun shots to the throat before he could get his weapon out of the holster.

“I said get down!” Wyslond bellowed at the twenty or so people on the main floor.

For the most part, they complied, but the rash act of that first idiot made several others jumpy enough to reach for their own weapons. Several blaster bolts were fired at the Yanibar Guardsmen, and were immediately countered with blazing streams of stun bolts. Knowing that the situation on the floor was getting dangerously close to becoming completely out of hand, Nate fired stun bolts as fast as he possibly could, striking the twenty individuals indiscriminately. The protocols for this mission had not particularly worried about the concept of excessive force, and as far as Nate was concerned, there were no civilians in the cantina.

There was a muffled groan to his side, and Nate suddenly realized that Naresco was down. Little did he know that the three individuals had rushed Naresco, and while the slicer had put down the first, a pasty green Rodian, his hasty shot had failed to stop the second charging attacker, a burly Whiphid. Before the veteran could switch to a stun baton or vibroblade, he’d been clubbed with a sizable metal chair brandished by the Whiphid. Nate turned just as the Whiphid struck out at him with the chair, and got his arms up just in time to partially deflect the tremendous blow, though his carbine was sent flying from his hands from the impact alone. Pain shot through his arms-had he not been wearing armor, both his arms would have no doubt been broken. He had no time to reflect on that now, though.

Thrusting his forearms through the rungs of the chair, he yanked it closer to him, pulling his assailant along with him thanks to his earlier forward momentum, only to immediately plant a sharp thrust kick into the Whiphid’s midsection, folding the furry nonhuman on his stomach. Nate quickly disentangled himself from the chair and tossed it aside, feinting a hard right at the Whiphid. The angry alien bellowed with rage and charged with surprising speed at Nate, who pivoted at the last instant to just barely transform a crushing full-body tackle into a grazing blow across his right side. The alien partially hit and slid off of Nate, and the Guardsman smashed his right elbow across the Whiphid’s muzzle, hearing the bone break. Even as the Whiphid stumbled, Nate seized him roughly about the shoulders and rammed the alien’s head into his armored knee before shoving him into the balcony’s railing, which sagged upon impact. Nate planted a spinning kick right between the Whiphid’s eyes to make sure he was unconscious, which had the undesired side effect of breaking through the railing and sending the alien plummeting the ground floor in a limp hairy bundle.

At that point, a pair of strong hands grasped his belt, seeking to grab his vibroblade, and Nate reacted instantly. Gripping the intrusive hands as hard as he could, the force of his motion combined with a single-worded command to his helmet activated the strength gauntlets, magnifying the effect of his grip and literally snapping the attacker’s wristbones. This was pure Stava, an unarmed combat form taught to all Yanibar Guardsmen which taught techniques designed to allow soldiers to quickly, efficiently disarm and incapacitate assailants. It was not pretty, nor elegant, nor at all considerate of temporary injury inflicted on the target, but it got the job done-fast. Since a second was forever in combat, Nate had a distinct appreciation for its efficiency even as he broke his attacker’s wrists.

Nate heard a piercing shriek of pain, but he wasn’t done. Whipping his attacker around his hip by jerking his ruined forearms around, Nate found himself face-to-face with an insectoid Gand screeching an unintelligible imprecation at him. The Guardsman delivered a thunderous headbutt to the alien before landing a right cross that collapsed the attacker in a crumpled heap. Even over the noise and distraction of battle, Nate saw a flicker of motion off to his right and reacted first even as the Rodian that Naresco had stunned had apparently recovered enough to reach for a blaster pistol on the floor. Nate did not let him reach it, though.

Instead, the Guardsman coolly drew his S-5XS silenced pistol and drilled the alien through the heart with a pair of tungsten-durasteel slugs, the firing of the weapon marked only by a pair of whirr-chirps. Nate felt no remorse in doing so-while he originally not intended to kill anyone, the plan had quickly gone to hell. Moreover, the Rodian had been a threat. Killing him had been a necessity and, for the moment at least, Nate was rather dispassionate about killing others. Later, he might regret his actions. If he survived. Scanning the immediate surroundings for other threats, pistol at the ready, Nate slowly backed up and scooped up his carbine. Finding no other threat, and with the battle on the main floor winding down, he scrambled over to Naresco.

“You okay?” he asked the downed sergeant, transmitting a comlink command that would activate the medical package in Naresco’s armor.

Naresco stiffened as his suit flooded his system with stimulants, antishock, analgesics, and healing compounds, then stirred.

“Yeah,” he said woozily. “Just got a little stunned. That Whiphid packed quite a punch.”
“Can you stand?” Nate asked him.
“Just give me a second,” Naresco replied, while Nate peered over the balcony.

In the time it had taken for them to deal with the three balcony attackers, Captain Wyslond and the other four members of Cresh Squad in the intrusion team had stunned every being on the main floor. Even now, they were securing the perimeter.

“Sound off!” Wyslond commanded.

One by one, the squad sounded off.

“All here, and no casualties except for Six’s bruised head. Good, that’s what I like to hear,” Wyslond said.
“I’d like to register a complaint,” Cresh Eight broke in. “Somebody nearly dropped a giant Whiphid on me.”
“Duly noted,” Captain Wyslond said dryly as the others chuckled.
“Captain,” said Cresh Two, the unit sniper, who with another person was outside checking the perimeter. “We have a problem.”
“What kind of problem?” Wyslond asked suspiciously.
“Looks like a hovertruck filled with Zannists come to investigate the party, or maybe just out for a good time. They have weapons.”
“Stang!” Wyslond swore. “All right, get out of there. Fall back to the rear and bring the truck. Five and I will deal with our guests, then swing by and pick us up. Three, take the rest of the squad and get the slaves out of here.”
“Affirmative,” Nate said in response to the order.

Following a map overlay of the cantina flashed up on his helmet display by his ETA, Nate led the other three members of the squad back to the slave quarters. About a dozen dancers, along with a cook or two, were there, huddled together in one room, shaking with fright as Nate burst in.

“Easy there,” he said, taking one hand off his weapon and stretching one hand out to them. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

There was no response from the terrified slaves, and he could see the sheer fright in their eyes.

“We’re going to get you out of here,” he said. “We’re going to free you. Follow my friends.”

At first, they simply answered him with astonished looks, then, one by one, they headed past Nate for the door. As they headed down the back hallway towards the exit, each was stopped momentarily by Naresco, who ran a special gadget that Kraechar Arms had cooked up for this type of raid by them. Its purpose was to safely disable any hidden stoprunner implants or restraint devices in the slaves, until they could be surgically removed later. Then, the slaves were ushered into a waiting hovertruck that Two and Eight had driven up to the rear entrance to exfiltrate the squad.

“Wait,” the last slave, a lanky Yarkona male dressed like a cook, said before exiting, his voice tremulous.
“What is it?” Nate asked.
“There’s two more, up in the rooms above,” the cook told him. “Can you help them?”

Those must have been the rooms his uncle had stayed in. Nate nodded grimly.

“I’m on it,” he said. “Seven, back me up.”

Following ETA’s directions once more, Nate entered the hallway, its innocuous décor belying what went on daily behind the closed doors. His blood boiled as he checked room by sordid room. Infrared told him what he would find in one room, and his mouth became a feral slash as he burst in on a human gangster in the process of taking out his glandular urges a screaming Twi’lek girl. Loathing for the scum filled Nate, and he increased his strength gauntlets to full strength as he harshly threw the gangster onto the floor. The naked man yelped in surprise and pain, a sound which was rapidly turned into a hoarse scream of agony as Nate’s armored boot vindictively descended on the source of his urges. Nate ignored the screaming man, turning his attention to the Twi’lek.

“You’re free,” he said. “No one will ever do this to you again.”

She stared at him in fright even as he picked up a discarded robe and offered it to her.

“Head down to the rear entrance,” he told her. “My friends will get you out of here, and you’ll never have to go back.”

Something in his voice must have convinced her, as she managed a nod, snatched the robe, and scampered out. Nate then turned back to his methodical search. There was one room left, and according to his infrared vision, it was occupied. He opened the door and immediately stopped.

Standing there was a shirtless man and a Togrutan dancer wearing only a few patches of fur and boots in the grasp of one of the man’s arms, his other holding a Mandalorian blaster pistol to her head. She looked both frightened and plaintive even as she was held hostage. There was a defiant, wicked smile on the man’s face even as he was astonished by Nate’s appearance.

“Back off now, or she dies,” the man growled triumphantly, the sigil tattooed on his bare arm marking him as a member of a roving Mandalorian clan.

Nate took a step back even as his finger gently brushed the trigger of his carbine, though not enough to activate the weapon. If he fired, there was no guarantee that the man would not kill the Togruta first.

“Good,” the Mando said encouragingly, sliding his open weapon to cover the Togruta’s back. “Now, drop your weapon.”
“That’s not going to happen,” Nate growled at him, though he did lower the barrel of his carbine even as he subtly changed its setting from stun to semi-auto. “Let her go, and you’ll live.”
“Who? Her?” he said sadistically, indicating to the Togruta. “She’s nothing. She’s just a piece of flesh-but if you don’t do as I say right kriffing now, she’s a dead piece of flesh.”

Nate’s mouth moved before he could stop the retort, even though the scum wasn’t worth wasting his words on.

“No,” he countered swiftly. “She’s a person, with rights just like you or me. She’s not something you can abuse at will.”
“Oh really?” the Mandalorian asked. “Watch me.”

He jerked down on one of the montrails descending from the back of the Togrutan’s head, eliciting a stifled scream. Nate’s grip around his carbine tightened as rage built inside him and he quickly slackened off, lest he break the weapon.

“This is my last offer,” Nate snarled, his voice barely under control. “Let her go, or else.”

The Mando shook his head with mock resignation and chuckled, not noticing the hate-filled look the Togruta was skewering him with.

“For whatever reason, you still think this slime is worth something. You hopeless barve. The only thing she’s good for is for a hostage and for her-,”

At that point, the man’s speech was cut off as suddenly, the Togruta screeched with rage and bit down—hard—on the arm wrapped around her neck. The man shouted and let go of her, and Nate’s carbine immediately snapped up. However, he was a nanosecond too late. Even as the blaster bolt sizzled from his weapon’s barrel, he heard the distinctive report of another blaster discharging.

The Togruta gasped and clutched at a giant hole in her midsection, the hideous wound inflicted by the blast from the oversized Mandalorian heavy blaster.

Simultaneously, Nate’s bolt flew through the air to bury itself in the man’s chest. The Mandalorian looked down, as if surprised by the smoking char on his body, then looked up to offer one last smug smile and stinging comment.

“Sorry,” he said tauntingly. “She moved.”

Nate’s hands tightened on the trigger again, but the Mando’s eyes lolled up and back as he collapsed on the floor, dead. The Guardsman immediately rushed over to the staggering Togruta, helping her over to the bed. She was trying to speak, trying to cover the wound with her hands.

“Calm down,” Nate said to her, then switched over to his comlink. “Med-,”

His call for the medic was suddenly stifled as he pried the Togrutan’s hands away from the injury.

“Kriff it,” he swore, taken aback.

He could see right through a six-centimeter diameter hole in her abdomen. She would be dead in seconds, and even as blood began to spill from her ruined midsection, he could see her chest heaving as she tried to breathe with muscles that weren’t there anymore.

The tough warrior mask he wore over his emotions momentarily slipped as he knelt beside the Togrutan, one gloved hand reaching out to stroke a tear falling from her eyes.

“It’s okay,” he lied. “He’s dead. He can’t hurt you anymore.”
“You . . . you said I was worth . . . worth something,” she wheezed.
“Yes,” Nate said, meaning it with every gram of his being. “You are.”

One slim red hand reached up to brush his helmet, and Nate realized what she wanted. Reaching up, he deactivated the seals and slipped the headgear off to reveal his face. Her eyes started in surprise and recognition.

“You . . .” she started as her dirty, bloodstained hand touched his face, even as blood starting to spill from her mouth. “You came . . . for me.”
“Ssshh,” Nate hushed her reassuringly even as he tried . “Don’t try and talk. Help is on the way.”

She shook her head, grimacing with pain and anguish.

“No,” she whispered hoarsely. “Thank . . . Seshaak . . . free at last.”

The last statement was exhaled slowly with the Togruta’s dying breath and the sight was like a dagger of pure fire being rammed into Nate’s heart.

Nate swore quietly, fists clenched tight around his weapon as she died. He knelt there motionless in stony silence, trying to sort through the emotions racing through his head. His eyes smoldered with anger as he regarded the man he had slain, and his only regret was that the kriffer hadn't died a lot slower. In considerably more pain. He swore again, this time out loud, and smacked his fist against his knee. Life in the Yanibar Guard had exposed him to the dregs of the galaxy, but here, here in this seedy cantina, Nate realized that he had finally seen the ultimate depravity. He solemnly, quietly promised to himself to do whatever was necessary to wreak vengeance-no, he reminded himself. Vengeance was wrong. Justice, then. Justice for the abused, the mistreated, the forgotten-these concepts were now implanted into his mind and spirit. No matter what happened, he would not forget what he had seen here and the guilty parties would pay-starting with the Zann Consortium.

Picking up his helmet, Nate slid it back into place, reorienting himself physically and emotionally into the role of a Yanibar Guardsman. Albeit, a very angry Yanibar Guardsman.

“Three? Come in, Three?” his comlink queried.
“I’m here,” he said, his eyes still fixed on Seshaak’s corpse.

Taking a sheet from the bed, he draped it over her body and closed her eyes one last time.

“Three, it’s time to move,” Captain Wyslond said. “We took out one group of Zannists, but more are on the way. Are there other slaves?”
“Negative,” Nate replied tersely. “I lost one.”
“Fall back, then,” the captain instructed. “Prepare for rendezvous.”
“Copy that,” Nate said, doing his best to maintain a steady, level tone.

Heading back out into the hallway, he made his way back to the speeder truck where the rest of the squad was at. As he passed by the last window before descending the staircase to the rear exit, he happened to glance down and saw a hovertruck unloading a group of men, all armed with blaster rifles. Its front bore the sigil of the Zann Consortium. Nate smiled grimly.

After swapping out the stun grenade in his underslung launcher for a fragmentation grenade, he set the carbine down to retrieve two detonators from his harness. Picking up his carbine, he smashed the window with the barrel, then armed and rolled the dets out the window right into the midst of the Zannists. Even before they fell, he pulled up his carbine, pointed the launcher at the hovertruck and unloaded the grenade, right into its engine compartment. The craft burst into flame and exploded up impact, followed a nanosecond later by two concussive waves from the dets he’d tossed. The impact was devastating and bodies were flown everywhere. One hit a wall and bounced off with a soggy thud. Nate quickly canvassed the scene, looking for survivors. An arm twitched and he blasted the body it was connected too instantly. At that point, a blaster bolt flashed by his head, sparking off his shield. A single Zannist had managed to scramble to his feet and was running away, firing blindly behind him with a blaster pistol. Only by sheer chance had he hit Nate’s shield. Nate smiled coldly and switched his carbine over to focus fire mode, a new improvement placed on the S-2Cs when Kraechar Arms had introduced the S-2CB a few years back. A single command to his helmet superimposed a scope image, highlighted in infrared. The man’s glowing body heat stood out against the rainy alley he was fleeing down. Nate took careful aim and fired, sending a lance of brilliant purple fire out to pierce the man right between the shoulder blades. He checked the area, but there were no other survivors. Keeping the same grim smile on his face, Nate regrouped with the other members of Cresh Squad, piling into a nondescript hovertruck bearing them and the freed slaves off into the dark, malevolent weather of the Nar Shaddaa night. Even as they pulled away, though, his mind was focused on two things: the sight of a dead Togruta girl, and the massive score that was owed for the beyond callous treatment of her and countless others.


10

The holoprojector buzzed faintly as it came alive, projecting a three-dimensional image into the air. Admiral Delvardus looked blearily at the device, then sighed in resignation. It was High Admiral Vey, who had decided to take his time in returning Delvardus’s request to speak with him, much to his displeasure. Easing himself up from the chair where he’d been trying to relax, he quickly smoothed his hair, which had been ruffled from his running his hands through it, and replaced his uniform. Walking over to the holoprojector, he straightened his posture to attention and pressed a button to receive the transmission.

“High Admiral,” Delvardus said.
“At ease, Admiral Delvardus,” Vey said in that dry, vaguely bemused manner that Delvardus hated. “How goes the chase for the elusive Zannists? Let me guess-not well, judging by your physical condition. You look terrible. Please, sit down.”

Delvardus sat stiffly, stinging from the insults and condescension.

“For the record, Admiral,” Delvardus said. “My ships have done their best to suppress both Rebel and Zannist activity, as well as other sorts of illicit activities. You’ll find it all in the reports I sent to you.”
“Indeed,” Vey said. “You’ve been busy. Attacking a convoy of Zannists over Ryloth. Securing Bespin after Rebel and Zannist attacks there. Bombarding a Rebel fighter base on Ord Pardron. Breaking up a slaving raid on Kashyyyk. Quite busy-and with only an eighteen percent loss ratio.”
“Yes, sir,” Delvardus said, pride beginning to fill his voice.

At his command’s inception, he had gathered all the senior officers to his flagship and exhorted them to do their utmost for the Empire, to fight their hardest against the forces of sedition and corruption that were plaguing the galaxy. He had also thrown himself into the work of planning and coordinating missions, sometimes working twenty hours a day-unless he was in combat, which meant that he didn’t sleep at all. The dark circles around his eyes were evidence of his exertion, but he still kept up his feverish pace. Delvardus had also allowed his commanders to forward him ideas for further deployments and missions against the enemies of the Empire. He also insisted that any and all gleanings of intelligence be sent to his ship for analysis. The Imperial Intelligence contingent on his personal Star Destroyer, the Death Hammer, had been quite busy with the terabytes of data that were handed to them weekly.

“You know, Delvardus, that you’re not the only person in your command I talk to,” Vey remarked enigmatically.
“Sir?” Delvardus replied, trying to keep his disdain for the older officer hidden.
“From all the reports I’ve heard, you’re quite popular with the men of your fleet-both the officers and the crew. They say that you’re a hard man to please, but that you reward and encourage success. I’ve also heard of your willingness to strike out against the Empire’s enemies aggressively, but only in situations you can win.”
“Thank you, sir,” Delvardus said, taking the remark at face value. “I’ve been doing my best to lead this fleet and serve the Empire.”
“I can see that,” Vey mused. “Now, I’ve read over your latest report, and apparently, you’re sure that Tyber Zann himself, along with a brand-new fleet he’s been building up, is going to be at Carida soon.”
“That’s correct, sir,” Delvardus said. “I’ve not been able to locate his shipyards yet, but prisoner interrogations and recovered intelligence indicate that Tyber Zann has been developing a fleet which could possibly include capital ships. As you’ll see, I recommended urgent action, sir.”

Delvardus glowered inside, wishing that the Imperial Navy was not so centralized. He had thought that possessing the rank of admiral would give him some freedom in being able to plan and carry out missions and even battles, but for large engagements such as this one, he still needed approval from his superiors. Which included Vey. Unfortunately, as the two officers detested each other.

“Two months ago, I would have dismissed that as sheer hyperbole,” Vey commented dryly. “However, you’re not the only voice sounding this alarm. Imperial Intelligence and several other sectors have reported similar behavior.”

Delvardus nodded. “I’ve tried to keep abreast of all their major activities, sir. I’m certain that Zann will be there. He’s apparently trying to sell us some sort of artifact through a deal brokered by Black Sun. I’m not sure exactly what it is, though, or why it’s so important, but this is an opportunity. I was going to take my flag group there, along with support, to engage them.” Out of the forty or so ships he had been given, Delvardus was only willing to risk his flag group, his personal command, in open battle. Most of the other ships were Clone Wars-vintage Dreadnaught-class cruisers or Acclamator-II frigates, with a sprinkling of aging bulk cruisers thrown in as well. They would not fare well in pitched space combat. However, his flag group-the Death Hammer, an Imperial Star Destroyer, accompanied by a trio of Victory-class Star Destroyers and three Tartan-class patrol cruisers for anti-starfighter duty comprised an impressive force, one capable of fighting toe-to-toe with anything the Zannists had, in Delvardus’s opinion.

“Do continue,” Vey replied.
“If Zann and other high-level leaders arrive there, even if they have support, we can turn Carida into their death knell,” Delvardus said, his eyes lighting up with the possibility. “Destroying their leadership and possibly some of their ships in one blow would severely damage them, especially if we can kill or capture Tyber Zann himself, sir.”
“Yes,” Vey said. “That sounds almost exactly like your recommendations, which I already read. However, there are a few other considerations that you might not be aware of.”
“Sir?” Delvardus asked, puzzled.

He inwardly cursed himself for, even for just a moment, thinking that Vey might agree with him and support him in this operation. He should have known that Vey would have some hidden agenda or complication to unleash on him just as he thought there was hope for the man. Even more irritatingly, Vey did not immediately expound on his last statement.

“It’s a good thing you’re so well respected by your officers and crewers,” Vey said dryly. “You can set a good example for them in this upcoming action by your conduct.”
“So, we are to engage the Zannists at Carida, sir?” Delvardus inquired warily.
“Yes, you are, Delvardus,” Vey said, but there was something overly cheery in his tone that seemed more like smugness than anything. “There’s just one thing, though.”
“What is that, sir?” Delvardus asked sharply.
“You won’t be in command.”

The news dropped like a proton bomb into Delvardus’s gut. He stood speechless for a moment, utterly astonished, his mouth moving wordlessly as he tried to process the information he had just received. After a moment of silent surprise and anger, though, he recovered his voice.

“Excuse me, sir?” he asked again.
“You heard me,” Vey said, the source of his smugness now truly shown. “This artifact you speak of is apparently quite valuable to the Empire, and you’ve already shown you’re fairly ignorant about it. Also, while you may be competent, Delvardus, you’re not a tactical genius. So, someone else will take command of your core group during the battle-but don’t worry, you’ll be there, doing the best you can to support him.”
“And just who might this new commander be?” Delvardus grated out.

Vey smiled ingratiatingly.

“You’re fortunate that he’s here right now, Delvardus.”

The holoprojection view shrank back to admit a second figure moving up. The individual wore the white uniform and gold epaulets of a Grand Admiral- a lofty rank that Delvardus only could dream of attaining, but that was not the most startling thing about him. The man was an alien. Aliens were inferior, unfit to hold military ranks for the most part, much less command ranks. And yet here stood a blue-skinned, red-eyed creature in the uniform of a Grand Admiral. Even more outrageous was the fact that Delvardus would be subordinate to this . . . creature. Whereas he had been more surprised at first, anger and indignation better characterized his rising motions, and he could feel the heat of rage creeping up his neck as his face reddened. Vey seemed to be perfectly fine with all of it, kriff him, and even seemed to be enjoying Delvardus’s obvious discomfort.

“Allow me to introduce you to Grand Admiral Thrawn.”
“A pleasure, sir,” Delvardus forced out hoarsely.
“I’m sure,” the alien Grand Admiral replied smoothly, a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

Obviously, Delvardus’s response was not unknown to him, but the alien refused to accept his inferiority. Moreover, he did not in the least bit seem to indicate any respect for Delvardus, nor any deference. Delvardus’s rage intensified. Not only was he being forced to serve under a filthy alien, but an arrogant, condescending one as well.

“I’ll be arriving at your location with my Star Destroyer, the Admonitor, in two standard hours,” Grand Admiral Thrawn told Delvardus. “When I arrive, I’ll take command of your flag group and proceed to Carida from there.”
“Yes, sir,” Delvardus intoned stiffly even as he glowered.
“Do you have any questions, Admiral?” Thrawn asked him, his red eyes almost daring him to challenge his authority.
“No, sir,” Delvardus managed.
“Good,” Thrawn said.

The alien admiral stepped back out of view, which was once again filled with Vey’s face.

“Well, Admiral,” Vey said. “You have your orders. I suggest you prepare yourself for the change of command. Either that, or get some sleep. You could use it.”

At that, Vey terminated the transmission, leaving a seething Delvardus standing alone in the briefing room on Death Hammer. How dare they take his command from him like that! He pounded his fist on the table even as the veins in his neck bulged apoplectically. He sat in stony silence, seething inwardly at the injustice of the situation. Over the past three weeks, ever since receiving his command, he had been as proactive and aggressive as he dared be, and had successfully executed multiple engagements against the enemies of the Empire. And this was how they repaid him.

Vey and whatever superiors that had dictated his new assignment had snatched his golden opportunity to prove his worth and given it off to an alien in a shiny Grand Admiral’s suit. Delvardus hadn’t even known that there were any alien Grand Admirals, and Thrawn certainly wasn’t a species he recognized. Unfortunately, nobody got to that rank without the special favor and recognition of the Emperor himself, which meant that Thrawn was no doubt some kind of golden child. And that meant that any appeal to the Emperor or even High Command would not be met favorably. All he could do was suffer through this humiliating turn of events and look for a way to regain his command-and his prestige. He swore silently again, and then stood up. There was work to be done-but Vey had been right about one thing. Having his crews and officers unified behind him was a good thing-a very useful thing. One which could possibly be turned to his advantage.

Eriadu

The cool evening breezes blowing across the spaceport were a welcome relief from the crowded heat of the cramped little passenger liner on which Milya and Rhiannon had been traveling. The passenger compartments had been tiny, and while the common area had been larger, it had been filled with the sounds and smells of five hundred other sentients. And some of them looked less than genteel, so Milya and Rhiannon had quietly endured the miserably undersized compartments, sharing the single bed. Even though Milya knew she could defend herself and Rhiannon against a casual, untrained assailant, she had no desire to cause a scene.

Thankfully, that was behind them now. As they walked through the spaceport and cleared customs without incident, Milya felt greatly relieved. She and Rhiannon were on their vacation, together at last, and would finally get a chance to spend some time together. Trying to smooth down her rumpled blue peasant dress and adjusting the scarf tied around her head, Milya looked around through the milieu of milling pedestrians for a speeder for hire. Both she and Rhiannon were dressed like their parts-Outer Rim dwellers on a trip to the sophisticated world of Eriadu. As such, their clothing and luggage were accordingly rustic, and Milya, a veteran in Intelligence work, had subtly altered her body language and speech patterns to reflect her persona. Even on vacation, she still couldn’t let all her guard down. The Empire made sure of that.

However, she was determined to enjoy herself, so she flagged down a taxi speeder. Making sure Rhiannon was still with her, she loaded their luggage onto the speeder herself-the driver, a pudgy man, made no effort to help her-and then piled into the backseat of the speeder. Milya shot a silent ungrateful glare at the driver, but he was a fairly safe driver by taxi speeder standards and Rhiannon seemed to enjoy the trip, so she kept her mouth shut. Finally arriving at the hotel, she paid the driver and gave him a small tip. Then she and Rhiannon found their way inside and were given the passcard to their room by a concierge who, once again, made no effort to help the two women with their luggage. Milya glowered under her tired exterior, but reflected that she possibly was spoiled from having people around like Sarth and Selu; the former had been given an extensive training in Commenorian gentility by his parents and the latter had learned some level of manners to go along with the natural Jedi inclination towards servitude.

When they did get into the room, Milya was glad to set down the two heavy luggage pieces. It was hard enough to keep track of an unencumbered Rhiannon with the use of both her arms, and carrying two sizable bags only exacerbated the difficulty of the task. Furthermore, the hotel room, while modest by Eriadu standards and far from the comfort that was her own home, represented a chance to clean up and make herself look presentable again. The need for this was evident by a mere glance in the mirror-she looked as bedraggled as she felt.

After she and Rhiannon took a long hot shower and slipped into some clean clothes, Milya felt vaguely human again. The two sat on their large bed while Milya took a brush to her daughter’s long, wet, brown hair. Milya hummed softly while she gently broke up the knots and combed through the tangles. It was an old song she was singing, so pretty soon Rhiannon was humming along with her. Milya smiled at her little girl’s quick ear, but was even more impressed when Rhiannon managed to hum in harmony to her own voice.

“Now Rhiannon,” Milya said as she finished up by braiding Rhiannon’s hair in a simple loop around her head. “We’re going to the symphony tomorrow, okay? I have the tickets here.”
“Yay!” the girl squealed, bouncing up and down slightly.
“I know,” Milya said, smiling warmly at her daughter’s exuberance. “But remember what I said on the ship. When we’re not in the hotel room, remember the game we’re playing.”
“Yes, Mom,” Rhiannon said. “You’re Mom, but if someone asks me your name, I’m supposed to say that you’re Milya Tayrce. And I’m Rhiannon Tayrce.”
“That’s right, darling,” Milya affirmed. “And remember, don’t go anywhere without me. We’re not on Yanibar, so we have to be careful.”
“Yes, Mom,” Rhiannon said, the tone of her voice all but asking why they were going through this.
“All right,” Milya said. “I give. Just being careful, that’s all. How does dinner sound?”

Rhiannon nodded and stood up. Milya headed for the door, reaching for her daughter’s hand. While Rhiannon had a specially marked silver-tinted cane that marker her as visually impaired, Milya had left it folded up inside the luggage for now. Instead, as soon as she felt the girl’s slim fingers fold around hers, she passed on pictures of their environment through the Force to Rhiannon’s mind’s eye. Heading for the door, she led Rhiannon out to find food. They were here, at long last-mother and daughter, spending time together-and that alone was enough to put a smile on Milya’s face.

Mandalore

Keldabe was almost like most other shabby spaceport cities scattered around the Rim. It was small and squalid, filled with rundown buildings and impoverished people. Smoke plumes from heavy industry in another part of town almost exclusively controlled by MandalMotors showed that there was evidence of some kind of economy besides hawking wares on the street. However, most small shabby spaceports didn’t exhibit such obvious affinity for warfare. Armor seemed to be the fashion of the day, ranging from a meager chestplate and maybe some boots and arm greaves, to full-bodied suits of that distinctive Mandalorian armor with its expressionless T-visor. Each wearer painted or adorned their own version of Mandalore’s distinctive garb with colors and trophies of their own, filling the streets with a wide variety of armor tones, though many tended to favor a blend of greens, tans, and browns for camouflage. Most of the inhabitants spoke Basic, but here and there, voices could be heard murmuring the rough, guttural Mando’a tongue native to the planet. And of course, to go along with the armor, there was an eclectic array of weaponry sported around in plain sight. Everything from heavy blasters to slugthrowers, wrist darts, and vibroblades was worn openly, and there was probably an equally large amount of weaponry that was carried concealed by the local populace.

The fact that they weren’t in armor and were relatively ignorant of the local customs immediately marked Sarth and Cassi as outsiders. Moreover, they garnered suspicious looks wherever they went, and few people dared to even approach them, a classic display of glare-at-the-strangers-long-enough-and-perhaps-they’ll-leave. Only with the rather unsubtle addition of a hand brushing the hilt of a vibroblade or blaster pistol grip. This last charming treatment was delivered by about a quarter of the populace they walked by.

True, Sarth admitted to himself, it could be worse. The weapons could be out and pointed at them, which thankfully weren’t. Or, to really make a faux pas, he and Cassi could be wearing Imperial armor-that would arouse the full ire of about half of the populace, he estimated. Or, they could be wearing Jedi robes, which, according to local sentiment and rumor, would earn them the ire of the entire populace. According to Jorge, admitting to being a Jedi on Mandalore was like walking around with big red crosshairs painted on one’s chest.

Furthermore, he and Cassi had yet to find anyone who could-or, more than likely-was willing to talk to them. A group of Mandalorians had driven the Imperials from their stronghold at the City of the Bone, but not all of the Imperial presence on the world was gone-in fact, quite a few of the Mandalorians openly sympathized with the Empire. Those that didn’t, such as the cantina bartenders they had conversed with, weren’t interested in getting involved. If anyone knew anything about the missing Magrody family, they had yet to spill the yot beans.

They had arrived in mid-day, but several hours of subtle inquiries had failed to yield them any information. Curt denials of any knowledge of the matter and general unhelpfulness had been all they’d received.

“No, don’t know nothin’ about the Empire,” said a gruff street hawker. “Nor ‘bout any ‘rkanians.”
“Have you seen any unusual ships land here recently?” Cassi asked, exploring a different line of inquiry.
“Yeah,” the man grunted with a chuckle. “Yers.”
“Thank you for your time,” Sarth said, forcing a smile even though he knew they would once again get nowhere with this track.
“Whatev’,” the man replied curtly, waving them away.

As they turned away, Cassi glanced towards the horizon and noticed that the sun was setting.

“Perhaps we should be getting back,” she whispered in Sarth’s ear.

He nodded.

“Agreed. I don’t think I’d want to be on these streets after dark,” he replied in the same low tone as she had used to avoid eavesdropping. “We’ll pick this up in the morning.”

The two walked back towards the spaceport, aware that their doings would be subject to scrutiny from any local passers-by. However, they were able to reach the Silent Surprise without being accosted, and the ship itself had not been damaged or harmed. Just to be safe, once they were inside, Sarth ran a thorough exterior and interior scan of the ship, looking for sabotage, explosives, or particularly tracking devices. Thankfully, it came up clear.

While Sarth was on the bridge, Cassi headed back to the galley to prepare a meal for the two of them. She settled on nautico, a Commenorian dish with fish as the main course, and as she began cooking, the pleasant smells of her efforts began wafting through the ship. Sarth’s mouth watered with anticipation, and once the scan results came back, he decided to head back to the galley and see if Cassi needed help. He was in mid-stride out of the bridge when a console beeped at him. Scowling, he turned to see it was the communications board.

He moved back to the board in question and saw that there was incoming transmission, routed through a secure channel. It was Selu. Sarth quickly double-checked to make sure there were no listening devices or signal interceptors in the vicinity, the extensive electronics and sensor suite he had installed in the Surprise once again showing its worth, though Cassi had originally balked at the cost. Satisfied that their conversation was secure, Sarth activated the transmission and a hologram of Selu appeared out of the projector.

“Hello, Selu,” Sarth said.
“Hello,” Selu replied. “Is this channel secure?”
“I wouldn’t have accepted the transmission otherwise,” Sarth said. “Yes, it’s secure.”
“Good,” Selu answered. “And you’re not busy or anything, right?”
“No,” Sarth told him, starting to get a little curious as to why Selu was asking him questions instead of trying to carry on an actual conversation. “What’s wrong?”
“We need to talk,” Selu said, and the edge in his voice told Sarth something was definitely wrong.
“What about?” Sarth asked. “Is this about Hasla?”
“No, it’s about-what about Hasla?” Selu asked, stopping himself in the midst of his sentence.
“Uh, we saw her on Bespin,” Sarth said evasively.
“And what happened there?” Selu asked, unwilling to let the point go.

Sarth’s shoulders slumped slightly, but Selu had him, so he confessed.

“She told us, and Annita and Jorge that she needed to continue with her assignment inside the Rebellion. She said that her mission wasn’t complete and the Force was telling her that she was needed there still.”
“Despite her orders to contrary,” Selu said, who had apparently pulled up her status.
“Yes, something like that,” Sarth said.
“What did you tell her?” Selu asked, although his facial expression said that he plainly already suspected the answer.
“Selu,” Sarth said. “Cassi and I couldn’t just tell her to blindly follow her orders. I know she’s in the Yanibar Guard, but she’s both responsible and fairly strong in the Force. How could I tell her to not follow the call of the Force when it’s saved both of us many times?”
“So, you countermanded her direct orders,” Selu said, obviously displeased.
“No, I’d have to have some authority to actually countermand anything,” Sarth corrected. “I asked Annita and Jorge to give her some leeway, and said that I’d talk it over with you and Milya.”
“Great,” Selu said sternness. “You realize that technically, you and Cassi can be tried for subversion for this, right?”
“Selu,” Sarth answered, shocked by his brother’s reply. “I had no intention of trying to go behind your back or disrupt the structure of the Yanibar Guard.”
“Sometimes, Sarth,” Selu answered coldly. “Good intentions aren’t enough.”
“I’m sorry,” Sarth replied. “But I think, had you been there, you would have done the same thing. She was telling the truth.”
“Even if she was, you should have tried contacting me first, Sarth,” Selu reproved him.
“We did,” Sarth answered. “But you, Milya, and Spectre were away. Somehow, I didn’t think there were too many other people with direct authority over the Elite Guardians.”
“Speaking of Spectre,” Selu said. “Let me shift the focus of the conversation over to something he told me-what I really wanted to discuss with you.”
“What is it?” Sarth asked.
“Did you know that Kraechar Arms is now supplying the Zann Consortium with combat droids, including droidekas?” Selu asked.
“No,” Sarth said, alarmed by the news.
“Well, it is,” Selu replied. “They pushed a vote through while we were absent. And you didn’t know anything about this?”
“No,” Sarth answered. “I divested myself of direct oversight of exports a year ago-it was just too much work.”
“I think you might want to reconsider that strategy,” Selu remarked darkly.

Sarth ran his hands through his hair.

“Look,” he said to Selu. “I don’t like the vote either, but if the Council approved it and it’s not illegal by law, there’s not much I can do about it.”
“Well, okay, Sarth,” Selu said sarcastically. “I’m sure that’s the exact same explanation you can give the widows and parents of any Guardsmen killed by those droids in fights against the Zannists.”
“Wait,” Sarth said. “We’ve been attacking the Zannists?”
“A few small raids,” Sarth answered. “Spectre’s been overseeing that.”
“Oh . . . ,” Sarth said dejectedly. “Once again, I’m sorry, Selu. I would have been more careful if I had known how this would all play out.”
“Then I suggest you apply some more of that foresight of yours in the future,” Selu answered frostily. “Both letting Hasla countermand her orders and this weapons deal could place this entire colony at risk. Is my point clear?”
“Yes, I think I got those points the first time you made them,” Sarth answered, growing a bit angry himself. “I realize I’ve made a couple mistakes. I’m sorry, Selu. I am, and I’ll do whatever I can to fix them.”
“And it’s not just him you should be getting mad at, Selu,” Cassi said, having walked in on the conversation. “I was the one who asked Annita to acquiesce. So, if you want to vent your anger, at least do it equally.”

Selu was silent for a moment.

“I didn’t call to assign blame,” Selu said slowly after a minute, his tone far more conversational. “I apologize also. There was no need for me to react like that. It’s just . . .”
“Just what?” Sarth asked.
“I have a really bad feeling about this,” Selu said. “It’s been growing in my mind over these past few weeks. My skill at reading the currents of the Force and seeing possible futures isn’t what Milya’s is, but for some reason, I get a bad premonition whenever the Zannists are mentioned.”
“How serious is it?” Cassi inquired. “What have you seen?”
“Death and destruction,” Selu said hesitantly. “More sensations and emotions than actual visions, but I saw loss. Pain; here, on Yanibar.”
“That can’t be good,” Sarth said.
“Like I said,” Selu replied. “It’s got me worried, and I’m not sure whether to step up activity against the Zannists or totally isolate the colony again.”
“A hard choice,” Sarth agreed. “On the one hand, we don’t need to provoke a criminal empire of that size and risk discovery. On the other, our economy is dependent on exports.”
“Exactly,” Selu said.
“We’ll be back as soon as we can,” Cassi told Selu. “I think our search is almost over?”
“Really?” Selu responded.
“We’ve tracked the missing Magrody family to Mandalore,” Sarth put in. “We haven’t been able to get any information on them yet, but we’re definitely getting closer.”
“If the Empire wanted to hide someone in a remote location, this would be a good place to do so,” Cassi put in.
“Be careful,” Selu warned. “YGI believes that the Zannists have some presence on Mandalore in addition to the usual Imperial entanglements. I’m sure you’re already familiar with its rough reputation.”
“Yes, we saw that. We’ll be careful,” Sarth promised.
“May the Force be with you,” Selu said gravely. “And try to avoid any more decisions that could threaten little things like, the entire colony.”
“I understand,” Sarth said, but the transmission had already terminated.
“Well,” Cassi said. “Selu certainly was upset.”
“I think we miscalculated,” Sarth said, turning to her. “And even if I don’t agree with him entirely, he’s not completely wrong.”
“I know,” she agreed. “I didn’t think it was that important of a matter.”
“Apparently we were wrong,” Sarth said. “And there’s one thing that’s even worse.”
“What is it?” she asked concernedly.
“That bad feeling Selu had,” Sarth said. “I’m starting to get one too.”

11

The last stirring notes of the viols resonated through the concert hall as they prolonged the crescendo of the three-part harmony. The celebrated Pan-Galactic Symphony had done it yet again-a stunning rendition of the ancient Tionese concert piece, played beautifully by 108 professional musicians-all of them human. While during the Republic, the Pan-Galactic had featured non-human musicians, principally Bith, for their current tour, which would take them through the most prominent Core Worlds, including Coruscant, their leadership had been quietly encouraged by the Empire to adopt only humans in their numbers as part of the humanocentric mantra that was all too rampant in the Empire.

However, the alterations in the composition of musicians did not seem to have any effect on their performance, Milya reflected. They sounded even more rich and vibrant than on the recordings, filling the audience with soaring classical pieces from Tion, Tepasi, Corulag, Coruscant, and Corellia, all worlds that had been chiefly populated by Humans and had been prominent during the early years of the Republic. While Alderaan was also a natural choice for inclusion in such a selection of rich classics, it had intentionally been omitted due to the political sensitivity of its recent demise. However, despite that, the program, which Milya learned had been titled “Dawn of A New Era”, was nothing short of ravishing in terms of its quality and depth.

Milya found herself drawn into the music as the symphony launched into its next piece, which started with a martial-sounding drum pattern. To her surprise, a chorus filed out in front of the orchestra pit. After several measures of an increasingly complex drum pattern, she heard a single valahorn strike up a melody that was somewhat familiar. She glanced down at the holoprogram she’d been given for the symphony performance and her lips quirked up in a smile as she recognized the piece. At the heart of the composition was the ancient epic battle poem “Dha Werda Verda” which was now being half-sung, half-chanted by the chorus while the symphony’s respective sections were being added to the synthesis of unified sound to create an increasingly epic piece. Spectre had introduced her to the piece years ago-it had been a relic from his history in the Grand Army of the Republic. He would certainly be surprised to hear it in this form, performed by a famous symphony. She looked over at Rhiannon, who was sitting quietly, as enraptured with the musical grandeur playing all around her as she had been throughout the entire performance. Rhiannon had asked that Milya not show her what the concert hall looked like during the performance, saying that she wanted to just focus on the sounds, and Milya had gladly obliged. It had apparently been a good choice, for Rhiannon was enjoying herself even more than Milya had ever seen the girl. Milya smiled and allowed herself to be drawn into the lofty and stirring waves of music emanating from the orchestra in glorious symphonic splendor.

Upon the piece’s ending, which was also the conclusion of the performance, Milya and Rhiannon joined the rest of the audience in several long minutes of thunderous applause. Milya could see the sheer exuberance shining in the unseeing eyes of her daughter, and knew that, as much as the symphony’s music had lifted her own spirits, the effect had been magnified on Rhiannon, whose life revolved much more around sound and especially music. It was several minutes before Rhiannon even contemplated moving from her seat, which was fine with Milya, since they were fairly high up in the concert hall and there were lines of people trying to depart all at once.

Though fairly sure of the answer, Milya decided to ask her daughter anyway.

“Did you enjoy the symphony?” she asked Rhiannon softly.
“I did, Mom,” Rhiannon replied, her face lit up with wonder. “It was so . . . beautiful.”
“Yes, it was,” Milya said, knowing all too well how rare it was that she had a chance to simply enjoy something so pure and exhilarating without some element of danger.
“I can’t even begin to describe it,” Rhiannon continued. “I’ve never heard anything like it.”
“Me either,” Milya said. “Not on a hundred worlds.”
“Did you save the memories?” Rhiannon asked dreamily. “I could relive this a thousand times over.”
“I don’t trust my memory that much,” Milya said. “But, perhaps we can see about buying a concert edition recording of the Pan Galactic Symphony on our way out. If it’s not too much.”

At that, Rhiannon squealed with delight and practically led Milya out of the concert hall over to the vendors. As it turned out, after ten minutes of standing in line with people who were far better dressed than her, Milya found out that such a recording would cost fifty credits, which she felt was high but probably worth it. After paying the vendor, she took Rhiannon outside the concert to enjoy the cool evening air of Eriadu. They had another twenty minutes or so before the hoverbus arrived to take them back to the hotel district, so Milya and Rhiannon, who was now using her silver cane, walked over to a garden built on the grounds of the concert hall to wait.

Finding a fairly secluded fountain, Milya took the opportunity to sit down, though Rhiannon, who was still filled with energy from the symphony’s performance, danced around blissfully.

“Mom, can we listen to the recording?” Rhiannon asked.

Milya smiled.

“Not right now, darling,” she said.
“Why not?” Rhiannon asked.
“If you did that, the concert would lose some of its wonder,” Milya explained.
“I don’t understand,” Rhiannon said, obviously confused.
“Remember what you said earlier? You said that the concert was something you’d never heard before, right?”
“Uh-huh,” Rhiannon affirmed.
“Well, if you could listen to it every time you wanted to, it wouldn’t seem as special,” Milya said. “For now, just soak in the music and let it play over in your mind. Relive it there, and later, when you want to refresh your memory, then we can get out the recording.”
“Okay, Mom,” Rhiannon said. “I understand.”
“Good girl,” Milya said encouragingly, reaching out to take her daughter’s hand affectionately. “I’m glad you loved the concert.”
“It was so . . . amazing,” Rhiannon sighed, finally sitting down next to Milya.

Leaning her head against her mother’s shoulder, the girl looked sightlessly off into the night sky, and Milya knew she was still listening to the symphony inside her mind. Milya’s hand reached up to brush the back of her daughter’s head, her smooth fingers running down the carefully brushed and curled tresses of hair. The two sat there silently, the dull murmuring of conversation and the gentle bubbling of the fountain in the background serving only to heighten the contemplative mood both mother and daughter shared.

Before Milya knew it, she was humming “Dha Werda Verda”, and before long, Rhiannon joined in. Milya was only a little surprised that Rhiannon had learned the lyrics and soprano part of the song; that piece had been especially mesmerizing and Rhiannon had always had a good ear for music. As Milya kept humming the basic melody, Rhiannon’s voice soaring beautifully as she sang through the lyrics of the ancient poem, every note on key. Milya was struck, as always, by the pure quality of her daughter’s voice despite her youth. It was something she treasured as a mother and relished hearing. Just hearing Rhiannon singing something, anything, was usually enough to brighten up a bad day for her.

Little did either of them know they were being observed by someone. Someone who was both entranced by Rhiannon’s song and having a very bad day. His name was Taelros Bac, and he was a middle-aged human with a very worried expression on his face. His curly brown hair was parted down the middle, but it hung in disordered strands trailing from the side of his head at the moment. He was dressed formally, but seemed incredibly nervous, judging by the briskness of his pacing through the gardens, almost talking to himself.

Taelros continued his frenetic pacing, red-faced and anxious, wringing his hands as his feet beat out a staccato on the garden’s narrow duracrete sidewalks. However, as he had walked along, his internal torment had been disrupted by a melodious sound wafting gently through the breeze. It was a child’s voice, a girl’s voice, singing a song, and its mellifluous tones washed over him, warming him like a deep draught of a hot drink on a chilly night. Suddenly curious, Taelros momentarily abandoned his anxiety and went to investigate. Following the perfect pitch of each note, he traced its smooth tones back to their source. From that point on, he shamelessly peered through a leafy shrub at two women dressed like fairly shabby Outer Rim dwellers, listening to Rhiannon’s rendition of “Dha Werda Verda.” He felt himself being carried along with her voice, and soon could not contain his excitement. In fact, he was so drawn to her that he literally clambered over the bushes, surprising both of them.

Milya and Rhiannon immediately rose to their feet upon seeing a strange man crash through the bushes towards them, the music stilling instantly.

“No, no, no! Don’t stop!” Taelros said excitedly, waving his hands.

Milya stared at him in surprise.

“Keep singing,” Taelros said, almost pleadingly, as if every vocal inflection, every gesture was purposefully exaggerated. “Please! It was lovely.”
“Who are you?” Milya asked, her voice filled with alarm and not a little suspicion.

Little did the oblivious Taelros know that she was inwardly preparing to either take him down or flee. Or both. She looked around in case he was a distraction, and steeled herself to gather up Rhiannon and somehow run away in her long formal dress. However, Milya was certainly glad that her dress for this evening was of a far more modest cut than ones she had worn on Obroa-skai. Her choice of clothing had certainly kept unwanted attention away-until now.

“Oh, my name’s Bac,” Taelros stammered. “Taelros Bac.”

The man reached for Milya’s hand as if to kiss the top of it, but Milya purposefully kept her own hand down by her side, out of reach, daring the awkward and nervous-looking Taelros to try something. If he did, he’d get more than he bargained for. Like a broken face.

“What do you want?” Milya asked.

Ordinarily, her tone would have been icily cool towards him, but that wouldn’t mesh with her current persona, so she injected the proper note of fear and uncertainty into her voice as she spoke to make herself sound like a Rimdweller out of her element.

“Nothing! I mean, I mean you no harm,” Taelros answered quickly, seeking to placate Milya’s fears. “I was just listening to the girl sing.”
“And?” Milya inquired.
“She was . . . lovely,” the man said. “In fact, I can see great things in her future.”
“Thank you?” Milya said, unsure of how to take the reply. “Mister . . . Bac, I think we’ll be going now.”
“No! Don’t go!” Taelros called. “There are opportunities for her! In fact, a massive opportunity has just made itself open to someone as talented as she is.”
“What do you mean?” Milya asked cautiously.
“Ah, perhaps I forgot to mention this when I introduced myself,” Taelros said. “My name is commonly attached to a famed holopera series. Perhaps you’ve heard of them? Chronicles of the Great Schism?”
“Wait,” Milya said, finally recognizing the man’s name. “You’re the holoopera director Taelros Bac?”
“That’s me,” the man said proudly. “Visionary director, award-winning producer, expert holograph signer, and uh, currently worried about his future job prospects. That’s where your girl comes in.”
“What do you mean?” Milya said, ignoring the subtle reference to collecting holographs, like some people chose to do in the event they encountered a celebrity.

Milya had never had much affection for those types of people, and though she did like the Taelros Bac holoperas that she’d seen, she found his effusive mannerisms off-putting, if not downright disturbing.

“Allow me to explain,” Taelros said ingratiatingly. “I have recently completed the seventh work in the Chronicles of the Great Schism series, a stunning masterpiece. In fact, I’ve received such acclaim that I’ve been offered the opportunity to show the premiere on Coruscant in front of the Grand Vizier of the Empire, Sate Pestage himself, at the Galaxies Opera House. I just completed negotiations with the Pan-Galactic Symphony to perform the score for the holopera. That’s why I’m here tonight.”

Up until now, Taelros had been as expressive and outgoing with his use of expansive gestures as ever. But now, a shift of some kind occurred in his speech, and his shoulders slumped.

“However, part of the holopera requires a Rim-dweller, a child, to sing about the trials that the war has caused,” Taelros continued. “I had a promising young talent lined up for the part, a lovely young girl out of Corellia, but apparently they hadn’t heard about the Galaxies Opera House or how big the production was. Upon getting that news, they tried to demand a sizable commission increase.”
“And?” Rhiannon interjected. “Don’t they deserve it?”

Taelros Bac turned to fix his gaze on Rhiannon, as if surprised that she spoke.

“Of course they deserve some additional compensation, my dear,” he said at last. “However, the increase they demanded was unreasonably high! All out of proportion for the role. My other performers would have been up in arms and demanded similar pay increases, which would bankrupt the show. I . . . eh, am not a wealthy man, you see. Most of my proceeds are invested in my projects, not all of which are as successful as Chronicles of the Great Schism. When I tried to negotiate with the young lady and her agent, they stormed out of the meeting and have not returned my comlink calls since.”
“So what does that have to do with us?” Milya asked, still unsure about this eccentric character.
“It means,” Taelros explained. “That there is a position available for a highly talented individual like this young lady here, if she’s willing to take the opportunity. And if she is, the sooner the better, because of-,”
“Taelros! That’s where you’ve been hiding,” came a loud roaring voice.
“Colonel Hagrek,” Taelros finished lamely, then straightened up as a large man in an Imperial officer’s dress uniform walked up to them. “My Imperial liaison officer, assigned to me after we were given our top-level billing on Coruscant to perform in front of hundreds of dignitaries.”
“Taelros,” the officer said. “I trust that your ‘minor performer issue’ has cleared up.”
“You could say that, Colonel Hagrek,” Taelros replied, clearing his throat nervously. “I’m afraid we had to let the original performer go due to a misunderstanding in the contract.”
“What?” Hagrek, a large authoritative man, replied sternly.
“But not to worry,” Taelros said in an appeasing tone. “You’ve found me in a middle of negotiating with a replacement performer.”
“Wait a minute,” Milya protested. “We haven’t agreed to-,”
“Of course not,” Taelros interrupted her. “The negotiations are still in progress.”
“Hmph,” Hagrek said. “I’m skeptical, Taelros. You could be pulling some kind of trick here, sidling up next to the nearest pair of Rim-scum to make me think you have a deal to replace Miss Shanine, the young starlet of Corellia that you scared off somehow. You do have a deal, right?”
“Almost,” Taelros said.
“I see,” Hagrek answered dryly. “I presume these are the other parties in your negotiations.”
“Yes, Colonel,” Taelros replied. “Allow me to introduce . . .”

Suddenly, he came to the realization that he didn’t know either of their names, and gestured at Milya and Rhiannon to reveal their names for him. The women initially gave no reply, so he looked at them beseechingly and gestured more frantically until Milya gave in.

“Milya Tayrce,” she replied. “And this is my daughter, Rhiannon Tayrce. And before Mr. Bac continues, let me assure you, Colonel, that we are just a pair of innocent bystanders somehow caught up in his fantasies.”
“Is that so?” Hagrek said, evidently amused.

However, he fixed an iron glare on the hapless Taelros, who seemed to wilt under the scrutiny.

“Are you trying to pull something, Bac?” Hagrek demanded.
“No! I promise!” Bac pleaded. “Get her to sing. She’s golden, I promise.”

Hagrek favored the director with a dubious look, but relented.

“Very well,” Hagrek said. “I might as well play along. Sing something, young lady.”

Rhiannon did not turn to address her mother-there would have been no point for her to do so, as eye contact was a moot point where she was concerned. However, she did ask for permission first.

“Should I, Mom?” she asked quietly.

Milya hesitated. She did not want Rhiannon to become involved with this Taelros Bac. Unfortunately, Hagrek saw her hesitation and reacted.

“Now now,” he said. “That was an official request from an officer of the Imperial Navy. Certainly a pair of law-abiding Imperial citizens would have no problems with complying with such a simple request. Consider it your civic duty.”

Though she allowed no trace of her own feelings to show externally, Milya scowled inside. He had to put it like that, and there was no way for her to get out of it now without making a scene.

“Go ahead, darling,” Milya said to Rhiannon.
“What should I sing?” Rhiannon asked.
“Sing what you were singing earlier,” Taelros implored.

Hagrek cleared his throat impatiently, obviously growing tired of waiting.

“Here,” Milya said to Rhiannon encouragingly. “Follow along.”

Milya began humming the melody line of the “Dha Werda Verda” piece again. Then, a bit falteringly at first, Rhiannon joined in with that haunting soprano part, hitting each high note one after another, her child’s voice filled with simplistic purity of tone and soaring beauty. Milya saw that Taelros Bac was standing enrapt again, enthralled by Rhiannon’s song, and she wondered if the odd man was close to tears. He seemed to be, judging by his expression, and Milya noted that he was the most emotionally volatile man she’d ever met. However, even the implacable Colonel Hagrek was visibly impressed by the time Rhiannon finished.

“That was good,” Hagrek said. “Damn good. Give them whatever they want within reason, Taelros. I’m sure they’ll be cooperative in negotiating the terms-it’s part of their civic duty as Imperial citizens.”
“Hold on,” Milya said, aghast. “We haven’t agreed to anything. We don’t even want this.”
“Oh?” Colonel Hagrek replied archly. “I don’t see the difficulty here. The girl fits the part and she sings wonderfully. Is something wrong with her eyesight, though?”
“I do believe she’s blind,” Taelros said, noticing for the first time. “Silver cane and all.”
“Yes, she is,” Milya said defensively, her default reaction whenever people took notice of Rhiannon’s impairment in a way that was less than Milya considered understanding.
“No offense meant,” Taelros said hastily. “In fact, that will work even better for the part.”
“Indeed,” Hagrek agreed. “We couldn’t have arranged it better than if we’d tried. What brought you to Eriadu? You’re not dressed like locals.”
“We’re on vacation,” Milya said incredulously, wondering how in the nine Corellian hells this strange turn of events had happened. “I can’t make a decision like this without consulting my husband. And even then, we have our own concerns.”
“Allow me to help with that,” Colonel Hagrek said smoothly, whipping out a comlink. “I’ll have my aide bring the landspeeder around. We’ll take you, Taelros, and your daughter, to our hotel suites at the Imperial and set up a call to your husband-he does have communications access, right?”
“Yes, he does,” Milya said, her face ashen with anxiety. “But . . . can’t you find someone else?”
“Look at the opportunity for her,” Taelros said imploringly as he indicated to Rhiannon. “She’ll be in the galactic spotlight. This could be the start of a glorious career for her. If nothing else, just once, she’ll get to sing to the Pan-Galactic Symphony. You like the symphony, right?”

This last was directed to Rhiannon, who nodded an affirmative.

“Moreover, I refuse to let a golden opportunity like this to pass us by,” Hagrek said. “Who knows how long it will take Taelros here to find another suitable candidate, and it’s already the eleventh hour in production. The Empire will thank you for your services, and will compensate you quite handsomely.”

Milya was growing increasingly and genuinely worried. Any possible avenues of escape were rapidly being cut off. At the moment, she had no alternative but to try and flee with Rhiannon, take both strangers out, or accompany them. For the moment, though, this was far too public a place for combat and there was no way she could escape if caught. Moreover, capture would arouse unwelcome suspicion, and Milya was determined not to endanger her daughter. She needed to talk with Selu-that was for sure- and she devoutly wished he was her. She also devoutly wished she was more adept at influencing minds with the Force, but Hagrek’s mind was far too resolute, far too discipline to be easily swayed. So, she had to go with them.

“Okay,” Milya said. “But only if it’s safe.”
“Of course it will be,” Hagrek assured her. “You’ll enjoy the hospitality of the Imperial Navy.”

As if that was supposed to be comforting, Milya thought sourly as she gently wrapped a protective arm around Rhiannon.

Twenty minutes later, she was at the opulent Imperial Hotel, the finest hotel in Eriadu City, holding Rhiannon closely to her. After Hagrek had ushered her and her daughter into the communications suite, Milya had hesitantly sent a transmission to Yanibar, routing it through the ghost relay transceiver that they used to mask the destination of civilian transmissions. She certainly wasn’t about to access YGI resources from an unsecure terminal, especially not with Colonel Hagrek hovering nearby. The holoprojector showed static and indeterminable symbols for a few minutes while it attempted to make a connection. Finally, it came through, and to her relief, a projection of Selu shimmered into view, wearing civilian clothes appropriate to a fairly well-to-do Outer Rim inhabitant, one who could afford to send his wife and daughter on vacation. He must have seen that Milya was calling from an unsecure terminal and dressed accordingly in order to maintain her disguise.

At any rate, the mere sight of her husband was enough to greatly relieve Milya.

"Hello, dear,” Selu said. “What’s going on?”
“Selu,” Milya said quickly. “We need to talk. Something urgent has come up. The trip is going fairly well, but there’s been an interesting development you should be aware of.”

Milya knew that Hagrek was listening, but what Hagrek didn’t know was that she had chosen certain wording combinations that had been prearranged to tip off Selu, Sarth, Cassi, or Spectre in case of a situation where she needed to call them from an unsecure terminal. As it was, Selu now knew that she wasn’t in immediate danger, but that there was possible trouble, and that while she was not under duress, she was being monitored.

“What is it?” Selu asked.

Milya quickly filled him in on the situation as best as she could manage, trying to avoid showing overmuch bias against Bac’s and Hagrek’s proposal.

“I see,” Selu said at the end of her explanation. “What options do we have?”
“At the moment, I’m not sure,” Milya admitted. “They did bring us here.”
“Then allow me to explain,” Colonel Hagrek said, stepping around the corner where he had been eavesdropping into the communications booth. “Mr. Tayrce, your daughter is being offered the opportunity of her lifetime, which will both allow her to be in the galactic spotlight and give her a chance to use that beautiful voice of hers in the service of the Galactic Empire.”
“I see,” Selu said again. “Now, Colonel Hagrek, I’m sure you understand. I’m a businessman, and I’m not sold on this idea. I sent my wife and daughter on vacation to have fun, not get dragged into show business. It’s a very risky field, you understand.”
“Let me see if I can alleviate some of your fears,” Hagrek said. “If you’re concerned about the wellbeing of your wife and daughter, let me assure you that she will be protected by the Imperial diplomatic corps. No attempts at extortion or extending her contract, I promise you. Moreover, the Empire will cover all the necessary costs of food, lodging, clothing, transportation, and any other reasonable costs they might incur. At the end of the show’s performance in three weeks, your wife and daughter will be released from service, and, if their performance meets expectations-and I see no reason why it wouldn’t-then they will be compensated well. To the tune of fifty thousand credits.”
“Hmm,” Selu said, contemplating the matter.

Truth be told, his heart rate had shot up about five million times when Milya first broke the news to him. He was tempted to take a YGI team, track down Milya and Rhiannon, and get them out of there as soon as possible. However, he also did not wish to endanger either of them, as little as he trusted the Empire with their safety. It was a difficult decision for him, so he chose to ask one more question.

“Does Rhiannon want to do it?” he asked slowly.
“Yes,” Milya admitted somewhat reluctantly. “She tried not to show it, but she’s excited by the idea.”

Selu was silent for moment, contemplating the matter.

“That settles it,” Selu answered thickly. “You have my permission, under Colonel Hagrek’s stated terms, which I have logged for my records, to proceed. Just return to me safely. Both of you.”
“We will,” Milya promised. “I love you.”
“I love you,” Selu replied solemnly before ending the transmission.

Milya stared at the empty space where the holoprojection had been, thinking silently. She drummed her fingers on the communications console, then turned back to Colonel Hagrek.

“Well, that’s that,” she said, trying to shake her apprehension. “We’ll do it.”
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