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Chapter 16

Zranik is now the least of my concerns. We need to make sure his plans are stopped.
—Evening Delwynn

The emotional strain permeated the small speeder as it was parked in the lower levels of the naval base outside of Eriadu City. Master Greystone, even as perceptible of a Jedi as he, was not in need of digging deep into the Force to discern what his former student was feeling. No, Evening Delwynn was not pleased. In fact, she was outright disgusted. She had haphazardly thrown together the raid, hoping to quickly apprehend Avar Zranik. When failure arose, it was not taken well.

Master Greystone was unable to cast blame on the agent, even though she blamed herself. The delay that occurred in the office, while not substantial, allowed the guards from some outside location to arrive and disrupt the plan. Delwynn scolded herself internally for not having simply grabbed Zranik the moment she entered the office. The Jedi felt each self-reprimand through the Force like lashings with a glass-tipped whip.

"Danstari," the agent called, turning off the engine to the speeder. "Bring the guard into the base, but don't take him to the ship. There's a room across the hall from the command center. We'll use that for interrogation."

"Yes, boss," the lieutenant replied dutifully.

After Danstari retrieved a cart from the far end of the garage, Master Greystone helped him by pushing the body of the guard off the seat and onto the a cart. As Danstari strolled away, the Jedi Master was left to consult with Delwynn over the events that transpired. Knowing her temperament and personality, he knew that sympathy was not what was needed.

"Are you going to sit in here and mope, or are you going to interrogate the guard as to where Zranik may be next?" the Jedi harshly asked.

"I'll talk to him once he wakes up," she replied softly.

"Beating yourself up for this is not going to help, Evening," he returned.

"Master," Delwynn said, finally turning around and facing her former teacher. Her face was visibly wrenched with anger. "You know me better than anyone else alive in this universe. You know full well what I'm thinking. That's why I never try to hide it from you like I do everyone else. I'm entitled to a few moments of self-correction to make certain that I'm fully on my toes the next time around. We both know that it will neither last long nor have an effect on my ability to perform in a positive way."

"Failure is always an option," the Jedi Master remarked.

"Not when lives are at stake," the agent snipped. "You know that just as well as I do."

"Then, what is your plan?" he calmly asked.

"I want to know what else Zranik is up to," she answered. "He brought up the 'two hands' analogy. Something else, probably something even more sinister, is going on."

"You think the guard knows?" Master Greystone questioned.

"No," Delwynn stated flatly, slamming her hands against the steering column. "I don't, but I'm still going to ask. If I had to put money on it, I'd bet Czerka was involved."

"You're convinced of this," he commented, stepping out of the speeder.

"Once again," she responded with a smirk. "I hardly ever shield my thoughts from you."

As Master Greystone straightened his robe with his hands, Delwynn exited the speeder. He proceeded to follow her across the garage and into the stairwell. They exchanged a few passing glares, as they ascended the crisscrossing stairwell up to the floor where the command center and landing pads were. With each piercing look, the Jedi was reminded of the deep-rooted anguish and hurt that the agent harbored. No, he did not sense it directly. The wounds were far too deep within her soul and so far covered over that they were almost indiscernible in the Force. He knew they were present because of their history. In fact, most of what he sensed was only because of their long-developed relationship. He and Delwynn were professional and personal confidants, but she was impossible to read otherwise. Other Jedi had even remarked on that in the past.

"Can you retrieve Shalli?" Delwynn asked the Jedi Master, stopping outside the command center.

"May I ask why?" Master Greystone inquired, curious as to her reasoning.

"I want to see if she is really fit for this," she stated.

He nodded and started down the corridor toward the Mally. It seemed like an honest request, the Jedi Master surmised. Even so, it seemed incredibly risky and dangerous. Shalli was not likely to be the most stable when pressed, given her current state. He felt that it would be imperative for him to be there, overseeing the situation. Fay was likely a better choice, but she was not actually a part of the team; Shalli had been assigned the Jedi liaison position.

Once he reached the Mally, Master Greystone found Shalli meditating quietly in her chambers. To interrupt gently, he softly spoke to her. He informed the Omwati that Agent Delwynn was awaiting her presence. He failed to speak of the reasoning or what was about to take place, hoping to keep the Jedi centered and to limit potential flashpoints for volatility.

Together, the two Jedi marched side-by-side off the Traverser-class vessel and into the naval base. After a couple moments of walking, they reached Delwynn, who was leaning backside to the wall and reviewing a datapad. The agent said nothing to the Jedi initially, not even acknowledging their arrival with a glance. She remained affixed to the datapad for a few moments further, as if reviewing notes. Then, she straightened her stance, brushed hair behind her ears with her hands, and stared tellingly into Shalli's eyes.

"Are you ready to help me out?" Delwynn asked without inflection.

Shalli nodded passively.

"I need you to help me with the interrogation of this man," the agent continued.

The Omwati once again nodded, clearly non-emotive.

Master Greystone was concerned. The blue-skinned Jedi was clearly acting as she previously had: her emotions were stifled and suppressed. There was no telling what she was truly thinking or feeling—if she was feeling anything at all. Delwynn, too, seemed unconvinced. She simply tipped her head to the left and held her eyes closed for a quick second. Rather than belabor the point, she pushed the door open and entered.

Inside, Danstari was standing in the far corner. The captured guard was sitting on a chair in the middle of the room. Another empty chair was the only furniture to fill out the medium-sized expanse. It was completely sterile in appearance and not well-lit. The Jedi Master knew this to be the more stereotypical backplanet interrogation room that beings saw on holodramas. It fit the trope to the stroke of a pen.

Shalli followed Agent Delwynn into the room. Master Greystone entered last, closing the door behind him. Once the agent took a seat across from the guard, the two Jedi fell in behind her. The proceedings began immediately.

"I want to know everything about EIE," Delwynn sternly instructed. "Start talking."

"I have nothing to say to you," the guard said. "Ya' came in and attacked us. I ain't owing anything to ya'."

"This is a Republic investigation," the agent returned. "You will cooperate or face the consequences."

"The Republic?" the man chuckled. "Ya' kidding, right? The Republic's got no say in this."

"Fine," Delwynn said. "I'll turn you over to the guys on Thyferra. They're good at getting what you think 'ya' ain't owing' from us."

"You mocking me lady?" the man snapped.

Delwynn simply looked over her shoulder at Master Greystone with wide eyes. She wanted to pounce, but proper etiquette dictated otherwise.

"This case is too personal for me to handle objectively," she said to the Jedi Master. "Let's let Shalli take it for a moment."

The Jedi Master wanted to speak up and say that this was a bad idea, but he instead turned at looked at the Omwati. She was completely stoic and non-emotive, and it appeared that she had not even noticed what Delwynn was intending.

"Shalli," Delwynn said, now looking at the Omwati. "Your turn. Make him talk about EIE and what connection Czerka has."

"How so?" Shalli asked.

"However you need to," the agent replied, rising from the seat and gesturing for the Jedi to sit.

"Oh, this is great," the captive man snapped. "I go from a plasma-hot Human to a blue-skinned freak. At least she's kind of hot, too."

Shalli was completely unresponsive to the chiding remarks, at least as far as the Jedi Master could sense. The Omwati seemed like an empty void, a hole in the Force. She was completely absent from anything in the nexus of the Force that filled the room other than the fact that she was sitting there. The feeling troubled the Jedi Master, and he leaned toward Delwynn, hoping to get her attention.

"Evening," Master Greystone whispered. "I sense something wrong here. Shalli's not herself, this is not good."

The agent nodded, but did not respond otherwise.

"Tell me about Czerka," the Omwati ordered meekly.

"Why should I tell ya'?" the man quipped.

"What do you know about what EIE does with Czerka?" Shalli pressed, although she was still apparently suppressed.

"I know nothin'," the man said. "I don't know nothin' about what ya' sayin'."

"Who hired you?" the Jedi asked, surprising the Jedi Master with the type of pointed questioning experienced agents were to likely pursue.

"I was just hired to guard a warehouse," the guard answered.

"But, it wasn't just a warehouse, was it?" she furthered.

"It was an office, too," the captive man responded. "But, it was still a warehouse. We did what we had ta'."

"Which was?" Shalli fished.

"I ain't got to answers to tell you, you big blue freak!" the man shouted, having suddenly snapped.

Master Greystone sensed something in the Force about the size of a seed take hold in the room. As if sensing it as well, Lieutenant Danstari walked over to the guard and pressed his blaster into the man's back.

"Actually," the lieutenant said. "You do, or it will be far worse for you."

"I ain't talkin' to you, that plasmatic lady over there, or that blue freak!" the man shouted back at the lieutenant.

Before anything else could happen, Master Greystone sensed Shalli come alive. Her presence in the Force was suddenly reverberating with life. Fearing what she might do, he prepared himself to intervene.

"A freak?" Shalli chided, holding out her right arm.

The chair, with the man upon it, started to quiver. After a moment, it started to move slowly backward and off the ground. Clearly, Shalli was controlling the chair through the Force, but the power seemed to also be making her bolder. Master Greystone once again leaned toward Agent Delwynn.

"Evening, this is a mistake," he whispered.

"Give her thirty seconds," she said, as if knowing what was about to happen. "If she fails, we remove her together."

"You Jedi?" the man asked, sounding somewhat frightened.

"Tell me what I need to know," Shalli returned.

"Jedi can't hurt me," he goaded. "It's in ya' code, 'er somethin'."

The presence of Shalli in the Force immediately evaporated. She had returned to an emotionless, almost soulless state. The truth of that man's statement, in Shalli's eyes, must have been the clinching reminder of her role. Master Greystone closed his eyes and fought through the Force, attempting to ascertain what the Omwati was thinking, feeling, or sensing. There was simply nothing—an absence of even the slightest thing. Only the silhouette of the Jedi could be sensed. She was present, but there was nothing otherwise. It was an indescribable void.

Shalli had now turned around and looked at Agent Delwynn. Her eyes were as empty as the void in the Force. The Jedi was essentially useless. She had completely collapsed to nothingness internally. There was simply nothing else to state.

Contrastingly, Agent Delwynn was enraged. With Shalli not able to interrogate, she walked straight over to the guard, who was now about two meters further back than before. Leaning in closely, she gripped his shirt with her left arm and shoved him back in the seat, tipping the chair slightly backward.

"Gettin' frisky?" he asked with a smile.

Delwynn pushed a little more and let go, causing the man to fall backward. With him on the floor, she got down on her right knee and pressed her left knee into his chest. Then, she gripped his forehead with her left hand.

"You sure you 'ain't got nothin'?" the agent hastily chided. "Because I think you do."

"You crazy!" he shouted.

"Danstari," Delwynn called. "Take this man to the ship. We'll have the guys on Thyferra do the barely legal stuff to him."

At that, the agent stood and watched the lieutenant hoist the man from the ground and force him into the corridor. She was still clearly enraged, having recused herself earlier. With celerity, Delwynn exited as well, leaving the two Jedi alone. Master Greystone sensed no need to address the agent further. She, as a grown woman and seasoned agent, clearly knew her limits and had worked within them. Shalli was the more pressing need at the moment.

"What's going on, Shalli?" Master Greystone asked.

The Omwati looked blankly at the Jedi Master. No response came. After three minutes, he decided to resume the conversation.

"What do you feel?" he pressed.

"Nothing," she simply stated. "The Force is gone. It is dead."

"It is?" Master Greystone asked, curious as to why she stated such.

"It is gone," the Omwati reinforced. "Completely."

"How does that make you feel?" he inquired.

"I don't understand," she answered.

"I believe that," the Jedi Master stated.

"Everything feels dead," Shalli added. "The Force must be dead."

Master Greystone put his arm over Shalli's shoulder and led her into the corridor. Then, he ushered her back to the Mally. The symptoms Shalli was exhibiting showed that either the Force had been stripped from her, or that she was simply blinded by the dark side of the Force, the latter of which offered an explanation as to why everything seemed 'dead.'

Once aboard the vessel, Master Greystone took Shalli back to her quarters. The Jedi sat on her bed and laid back.

"That's a good idea," the Jedi Master affirmed. "Sleep for a few hours, until we can leave."

"Then what?" she asked.

"We'll find out what to do then," he answered. "Are you interested to know now?"

"No," Shalli responded, illustrating that there was no concern regarding the situation. She was apparently resigned to her lack of connection to anything living.

The Jedi Master reached out through the Force and pulled the switch on the light, causing the room to go dark. Then, he turned around, walked out of the chamber, and closed the door behind him. After the metal door whooshed shut, he walked about three meters to the entrance to Delwynn's office. Inside, the agent was sifting through paperwork.

"You hate being behind the curve," Master Greystone said, sitting under the mantle.

"I'm going to get those Czerka documents, even if…" she stated, her voice trailing at he end.

"Illegally?" he asked.

"No," the agent answered. "You watch."

"Before you do anything," the Jedi Master interrupted. "I think we better talk about Shalli."

"Fine, go ahead," Delwynn said.

"I want to take her back to Coruscant," he said. "She needs Jedi intervention."

The agent sighed. "I can tell something's wrong, but I've never seen anything like this. I've only worked with Jedi in passing. You know that. I've never had one on my team before."

"Evening, she can't feel the Force at all," the Jedi Master complained. "Even worse, she's completely absent from the Force. I can't sense her in it at all. I need to get her back to Master Yoda. I trust him to tend to her."

"What about her former masters?" Delwynn asked.

"That would be more harmful than good," he said. "That may actually provoke her to the dark side, if she's not already encroaching on it."

"Look," she stated flatly. "I don't understand all this Jedi business, Master, and you know that. I trust you, but I need to know that she's completely ineffective before I send her to Coruscant."

"Consider her completely ineffective in every way," the Master Greystone said. "Even ineffective in living, I presume. She's utterly comatose in her soul and in the Force."

"If it is that dire, then she needs to go back," the agent responded. "I don't want you going, however, I need someone to replace her on this team."

"What about Fay?" he asked.

"I'll have her prepare a ship to take her back," Delwynn said in a perceived affirmation.

"No, Evening," the Jedi Master interjected. "Fay can stay with you. I'll go and take care of this."

"Let's get clarification from whoever is leading the Jedi Order for this one," she stated while fidgeting in her chair. "I just don't want to lose someone I trust while I'm scrabbling to find anything at all to stop what this man is doing."

"You're still upset," he prodded.

"Of course," the agent remarked, slamming her hand on the desk. "I should have grabbed him. Zranik is now the least of my concerns. We need to make sure that his plans are stopped."

"Well, then, what have you planned?" the Jedi Master asked.

"I hope you're ready to lobby the chancellor for me," she snickered. "I'm going to need all the help I can get with this one."

"He's already promised to help," he reminded.

"I know," Delwynn returned. "But, I want a carte blanche to do whatever is necessary. I'm not taking any more chances. My gut has to be good enough to supplement the evidence right now."

At that, Delwynn pressed a button on the desk and the door to the corridor closed. A lock engaged, as indicated by the metallic clicking sound that followed. Then, the agent depressed another button. Sitting in silence, Master Greystone observed as Delwynn waited for the connection to be made. After a couple of minutes, however, they were both distressed by the lack of connectivity. Finally, Delwynn depressed the button again. This time, the voice of GIN Director Pelmar Aiden was heard on the other end.

"I hope you have some good news for me," the GIN Director sneered. "It's been along day here, and I'd wager that you've not had much better."

"You guessed it," Delwynn quipped.

"Okay, Delwynn," Director Aiden sighed. "Lay it on me."

Chapter 17

First, I want to state that there is no reason to panic or grow concerned. Everyone should remain calm.
—Chancellor Anwis Eddicus

Coruscant

Director Aiden scratched his temple as Agent Delwynn recounted the details of the raid in brief, making a point to note the sudden surge of reinforcements. She also expressed her own disgust at how things had unfolded, and explained that Master Greystone taking Shalli's place was imperative for the mission to having any chance at success. The explanation was not what he had desired, in many ways, because the capture or death of Avar Zranik seemed like a nice trovium bullet to solve some of the crisis. Yet, he was well aware of Delwynn's outstanding success rate; she was definitely the best agent he had in the agency.

The GIN Director sighed when Delwynn finished speaking, loudly enough that it had apparently prevented the agent from continuing.

"What can we do to make this succeed?" he asked.

"I want to prove whether or not Czerka is involved," Delwynn answered. "I want a carte blanche clearance from you and the chancellor to get whatever information I need."

"We did promise you support to start probing them," Aiden replied.

"I don't just want support," the agent reiterated. "Asana keeps hitting the firewalls or other security… whatever-those-things-are. I want permission to hack into their systems and take whatever documents we can find before they have a chance to destroy them."

"You really believe that is a risk?" the director asked, curious as to the agent's response.

"Beyond doubt," she responded. "A Czerka biologist working on a parasite for EIE? That research tracing back to Czerka? The only other suspicious thing is how Sans Venret fits into the financial payments."

"Leave the bounty hunter to me," he interrupted.

"I figured," Delwynn quipped. "I want the chance to prove that Czerka is involved, or let's clear them and find another lead."

"Well," Aiden sighed. "If there is anyone's gut I trust, it is yours, but Czerka's a big fish. You better be right, Evening. I'm hesitant to give you this much rope."

"I haven't hung yet," she answered.

"No, but you've made a lot of nooses over the years," he straightly said. "I'm in the chancellor's suite right now, in the side room. Let me ask him about your request. I personally do not have a problem with it. I trust that you, Asana, and that pet droid of yours will probe Czerka deftly and cleanly."

"I'll wait," she replied.

Director Aiden stood from the chair in the side room and, not having placed the communication channel on hold, walked back into the chancery suite. The chancellor was deliberating with his daughter and Senators Valorum and Fraajic. He quietly walked to Chancellor Eddicus and tapped him on the shoulder.

"May I disturb you for a moment?" he asked, whispering into the chancellor's ear. "I have my agent with a request."

Chancellor Eddicus nodded and rubbed his eyes. Director Aiden turned and started back toward the side room, the chancellor in tow.

"Does she have an update?" the balding chancellor asked.

"Yes," the GIN Director stated. "More importantly, she needs to act on something, and I want to field your permission."

"Does this have to do with Czerka?" Chancellor Eddicus probed.

"Yes," the director simply stated, turning up the volume slightly on the microphone for the communication device that was connected to Agent Delwynn.

"And she's convinced?" he inquired further, obviously reluctant to permit such blanket approval.

Director Aiden nodded and waited for the chancellor to speak. He understood the reluctance, for Czerka was a multiplanetary organization; it transcended even the boarders of the Galactic Republic. It was a powerful entity with longstanding ties to various guilds and politicians. Permitting such a probing investigation without having received a warrant through the courts was politically dangerous. Then again, the chancellor had not been stalling on the issue. In fact, no one in the office had slept in the past thirty hours save Senator Alta Eddicus, who had snoozed for about two hours earlier that day.

"Tell her to do whatever she needs to do," Chancellor Eddicus said with hesitation. "She may need to look at individual devices on Denon, however, to complete her search. She has my permission to do whatever is necessary. Let's stop this event."

"Consider it done," the director said, knowing that Agent Delwynn had undoubtedly heard the chancellor speak.

"We're making a statement to the Republic in ten minutes from the press room," the chancellor added. "We need to focus on that, Pelmar, so give her permission and wrap up the conversation. We need to speak with her again in thirty minutes. Tell her to be ready, but I am recalling her."

"Once again, it is done," Director Aiden answered.

The chancellor nodded and exited the side room, leaving the GIN Director to speak with Agent Delwynn.

"I take it you heard all that, Delwynn?" he inquired.

"Yes," the agent remarked. "I'll tell Asana and Emra to get on it immediately. Before you go, however, I have something else urgent for you."

"Briefly, Delwynn," the director smarted.

"I'm always brief," the agent quipped in response. "Consider this the formal request to have Shalli removed from my team—at least on a temporary basis. Because of a few incidents that have arisen, she is essentially a hindrance to the team and neither I nor anyone else can be babysitting her all day long."

"I'll consider this," he replied. "But, you're going to have to explain this to the chancellor. He'll likely want to know exactly why the one Jedi on your team needs to be removed."

"Perhaps I should have Master Greystone consult with you on this," the she offered, a measure of disgust evident in her voice. "Would it be possible to have Master Yoda join us in that conversation. I assume he'll be at the press conference."

"I'll see what I can do, Delwynn," the director stated. "I'll speak with you in one hour."

The light flicked off, indicating that Delwynn had terminated the connection. Sighing, the GIN Director walked back out into the chancellor's office, where the chancellor and senators, all members of the Probitas pro populus faction, were walking toward the doorway.

"I trust you're joining us, Pelmar?" the chancellor inquired, as he opened the door to the main corridor of the building.

"Absolutely," Director Aiden replied, rushing toward the door.

As he followed down the hallway, the director's hair bobbed upon his shoulders. He patted down his suit, hoping to make it look tasteful in the event he needed to appear in the press conference. He subsequently grabbed his hair and pushed it back, so that it was completely behind his shoulders. It refused to cooperate, being not much longer than his shoulder-tops anyway.

The side entrance to the press room was teeming with vibrancy. Government officials, mostly senators, crowded the entrance, trying to get the chancellor's attention. Concern flushed their faces. Director Aiden noted the squad of security guards, as well, flanking the doorway and holding back the throng of politicos. They all saluted when the chancellor passed by, the three senators directly behind him, and the GIN Director bringing up the rear of the entourage.

The five waited in the backstage area of the press room, separated from the bustling quarry of reporters by a mere curtain. The chancellor gestured to gather the five together and leaned in, as if huddling his team on the nuna pitch.

"I want all four of you to be up there with me on this," he whispered. "Zallen and Servius, I want you on my right. Alta, Pelmar, I want you on my left."

The GIN Director nodded, along with the three senators.

"Pelmar, I may ask you to briefly speak, depending upon the types of questions that they're asking," the chancellor continued. "I don't want to be answering too many, and I don't want you to give away… you know what to do."

More nods of agreement affirmed the chancellor's instructions, and he quickly walked out onto the short stage area, where a podium was waiting. The four, seemingly startled by the suddenness of the moment, stumbled behind him, filling in the spots that had been requested. The chancellor put his left arm up, and the room became completely silent.

"Gracious sentients of the press corps," Chancellor Eddicus greeted. "I know that I'm two minutes earlier than expected, but this is urgent, and I have work that needs to be done.

"It is my understanding that many of you were expecting me to speak on the death of Senator Regueny, which has been one of the great tragedies of the year. There, unfortunately, is a more important story that I need to address. As some of you know, an outbreak of an unknown ailment has begun to afflict some systems in the southern portion of the galaxy. The rise of this has been swift and sudden, and its containment has become a Republic-wide issue.

"Before going any further, I want to state that there is no reason to panic or grow concerned. Everyone should remain calm. Citizens in the northern and eastern portions of the Republic should still be mindful of the ailment and monitor their actions and friends with care and love. Steps have already been taken to mitigate the spread to other systems, even beyond those that have already been reported. The Judicial Forces Naval units are on standby and the Jedi Order will be shortly beginning facilitation missions. There are a few things, however, that should be noted for every day citizens, even if the effect is not direct upon their lives.

"First, and effective immediately, some of the most important segments of hyperlanes in the southern galaxy are either closed or on express transit service only. Admiral Pruis, head of the Judicial Forces Naval units, is in charge of this, and he has been thoroughly consulted. Among these are the Enarc and Kira Runs, portions of the Hydian Way, and much of the Rimma Trade Route. Many intersecting routes are also closed. I understand that the diversions away from these routes will cause increased travel time and even congestion. Passage along the Corellian Run through the Inner Rim and Expansion Region is express only—no stopping at all."

The press room was abuzz with a flurry of whispering and frantic typing. Such a bold move seemed to startle the press corps.

"This was done to ensure safety for untouched systems," the chancellor continued. "Certain systems, including Seswenna, Alassa Major, Kabal, Darkknell, Allanteen Six, Druckenwell, and Rhommamool are completely closed to travel. I can confirm that there have been deaths on many of these planets numbering in the hundreds of thousands, with Seswenna appearing to have had the most substantial impact. Closing these hyperlanes allows us to protect Kira, Naboo, Thyferra, and other large population centers—places where the catastrophe could quickly amount to many more deaths.

"I assure the Republic citizens that this measure is not only temporary, but it will be eliminated immediately if it is ineffective in any way. Members of the Galactic Senate have been consulted and, because of the situation, feel that such actions are legally permissible and warranted. Master Yoda, interim Grand Master of the Jedi Order, has been consulted, and he will eventually have Jedi involved to help facilitate everything from medical to rescue missions. GIN Director Pelmar Aiden is facilitating the investigation into this matter, because one of his agents stumbled upon information about this ailment while investigating another case.

"I want to reiterate, actions are being done to prevent more beings from becoming sick and facing death. The fatality rate should not be confused with the anything other than the suddenness of the outbreak.

"I suppose I should field a few quick questions, but be advised that given the sensitivity of the issue, I may not answer them."

The press corp erupted with shouting, many standing with their appendages raised to be selected by the chancellor. Director Aiden marveled and how some were nearly stumbling over their seats to be chosen. Even those who had taken positions in the front row were standing.

"Gaben Dtu'um," the chancellor said, pointing at a short, stout Rodian in the second row.

"Your Excellency," the Rodian said in a highly inflected Basic. "What do we know about this outbreak? How quickly does it set in? How long can someone live with it, and what beings are effected?"

The chancellor nodded, responding, "Excellent points. It is swift-moving. Observations by Jedi and GIN agents indicate that symptoms can take hold in anywhere between fifteen and sixty minutes. Thus far, it has been fatal to our understanding, samples are being analyzed by scientists and medical examiners in the GIN Thyferra Office. They're working around-the-clock to find out how to stop this from spreading, but it does not seem to discriminate based upon species."

The flurry of activity broke out again, as the press corps sensed that the chancellor had spoken his peace on the questions.

"Qur Xaxxax," Chancellor Eddicus called, pointing to a tall, lithe humanoid in the front row.

«Your Excellency,» the being said in Perlemian, a High Galactic-based language. «Is it true that Grand Master m'Ord Vinka died from this plague?»

"As always, Qur, forgive my misinterpretation," the chancellor answered in Basic. "My Perlemian is only passable. I believe you asked about the death of the Grand Master? In that case, yes, he died in this outbreak protecting a senator."

«Senator Moonflower?» the being interjected.

"Yes," Chancellor Eddicus affirmed. "I'm not surprised that such information has already leaked out, but yes, both have died in the outbreak. I'm not sure I'd call it a plague, if that's the term you used. We're still waiting to know exactly what it is. It appears to be parasitic and not bacterial or viral."

The chancellor looked over toward Director Aiden and nodded discretely.

"We are working nonstop to figure this out," the GIN Director said, stepping forward and standing next to the chancellor. "And, we'll keep the citizens of the Republic informed whenever possible. For now, it is most important that everyone stay calm and mindful. As Chancellor Eddicus stated, it is parasitic. We're awaiting the full medical report from some of the effected planets. As soon as we have a list of symptoms, it will be disseminated to every media outlet and planetary government."

Chancellor Eddicus nodded and stepped forward again.

"Ok, that is all for the questions right now," he said to the press corps. "We have work to do, and I'll be needing to meet with senators, scientists, and others to help figure stop this. Many thanks to Director Aiden for his assistance."

The two men turned and exited the stage. Director Aiden heard the senators march behind him into the hallway. The press room was teeming with excitement as the reporters shouted and scurried about. The corridor outside the room was filled with hologrammers and other media personnel.

A young Human male was running toward the entourage, waving a datapad, and calling for Senator Fraajic. Director Aiden looked over his shoulder to see the senator at the rear of the line, talking with Senator Valorum. Their conversation appeared to be intense, as the Telosian senator was adamantly pounding his right fist into the opposite hand while speaking. Once the young man arrived at the moving party, the senator glanced at him, but continued speaking. Eventually, the man was able to interrupt. Curious, the GIN Director slowed his gait and allowed Senator Eddicus to pass him by.

Aiden was unable to hear the brief conversation, which resulted in the datapad being handed off to Senator Fraajic. After a moment of reading, he handed it to Senator Valorum and dismissed the young man. Thinking that it had to do with something political, Director Aiden opted to refrain from involvement in the corridor. Once everyone had returned to the chancellor's office about five minutes later, Senator Fraajic slopped onto one of the couches in frustration.

"Alta," the Telosian senator called, while everyone began sitting in the seats. "Cos Peradhi has just made a motion to approve the temporary nomination of Mra Tarkin to succeed Awa."

"What?" Senator Eddicus shouted with anger. "Awa's not even been buried, yet! What in Chaos is wrong with that&mdash"

"Can we block it?" Senator Valorum interrupted, holding his arm out to prevent the woman from completing that statement as she would have wanted. "Do we have the votes to block it for now?"

"I'm certain you could at least offer a motion to table any proceedings on the nomination until after we've had a funeral," Chancellor Eddicus said. "That's so reasonable and humane, it should pass."

"Should," Alta mocked. "These are the same power-mongers who boast that they never let a good crisis go to waste."

Director Aiden was confused at the conversation.

"So, who is the nominee?" he inquired.

"Mra Tarkin," Seantor Valorum answered as he stood and began slowly pacing. "She's B'Rhea's right-hand-woman on Eriadu. She is just as radical as he; religiously wedded to those beliefs of Humanocentrisim is she. Undoubtedly, Tarkin is even more corrupt than B'Rhea, because she's at least mingled with the usual suspects in the Core Power Alliance—an arrangement of convenience, of course. She's probably responsible for some of the political killings that took place a few years ago, too."

"Sounds like one evil woman," Director Aiden responded, "Don't we have a file on her, if she did those things?"

"Do we have a file on Cos Peradhi?” Senator Fraajic asked in a deliberately sarcastic tone.

"Point taken," the GIN Director acknowledged, understanding full well that prosecuting political corruption was nearly impossible in the modern Republic. Of course, there had been a file on the Corellian senator, because he was once caught. It, as suspected, had “managed” to disappear, and Peradhi was only publicly censured. If there had been a file on Tarkin, it was long buried and hidden.

"It's all really quite simple," Senator Fraajic remarked. "Think about it—her own political alliances, her relations with the Core powers, et cetera. Corruption is a way of self-preservation. Corruption breeds corruption. These people use each other willingly and leave everyone else in their wake. That's why she was picked. That's why B'Rhea and the Core wanted her."

"We have bigger problems, however," Senator Valorum said, now standing opposite the GIN Director. "I'll put forth a motion to delay until after a proper burial has been done for etiquette purposes. We need answers on this plague. When can we expect the medical report?"

"I'll get on it right now," Director Aiden replied, standing. "I'll make them get it out now."

"I want to talk to your agent, Pelmar," the chancellor said. "I want to speak with her at length and freely via some device where I can see her face when she's speaking. I'm counting on her."

"Consider it done," Aiden affirmed. "We'll be in communication with her within the hour."

Chapter 18

I think you'll like this, Delwynn. We all know how much you love a good conspiracy theory.
—Asana Lani

Mally, on Eriadu

"Do it, Emra," Asana said to the droid, who was plugged into a port inside the computer room.

Danstari looked on, waiting for instructions. Delwynn was standing immediately to his right, watching Asana and the droid work swiftly on the computers. The Twi'lek bounced around from machine to machine, typing in commands and attempting to "triangulate," as she called it. Emra, however, was really the workhorse for this task. Danstari would have never guessed, but Asana had mentioned that she was not that skilled in hacking. Her duty was to oversee and make sure Emra was not caught.

"Anything I can do in here, boss?" Danstari asked.

Delwynn turned, a confused look crossed her face. The lieutenant smarted a quick smile and prepared himself mentally to scurry out of the room with celerity.

"Asana?" Delwynn called out to the highly mobile Twi'lek.

"One moment, Delwynn," Asana returned, continuing her motion around the room.

The pattern continued for a couple of moments, Danstari eagerly watching. He tried diligently to not fix his gaze on the red-skinned Twi'lek, knowing that Delwynn would have noticed such actions. Still, he could not keep his eyes off of her. She was beaming with excitement, and it was contagious. It illuminated her already, in his opinion, beautiful face. The lieutenant found himself quite enthralled.

"Focus," Delwynn chided, smashing her left forearm into Danstari's chest.

The lieutenant took the blow right at the bottom of his rib cage, almost losing his breath. Had his 'distraction' really been that obvious? Asana had paused upon the incident, flirtatiously smirking at Danstari, who attempted to return the facial expression.

"It is unwise to date a coworker," Delwynn whispered, leaning toward Danstari. "The exception is not of your concern right now."

"Yes, boss," the lieutenant stammered, still recovering from the surprisingly hard blow. "What's the exception?"

Delwynn sneered at the lieutenant, both knowing full-well what his intent was. It obviously was not much of a secret to the agent that Asana had caught Danstari's affections. The feeling had been mutual, resulting in this now awkward moment.

"Yes! Yes!" Asana shouted from across the room. "We're in. Emra's in!"

"So, now what?" Delwynn asked, unamused.

"Now the hard part begins," the Twi'lek answered.

"Great," the agent sarcastically jabbed. "That's what I love to hear."

"I could use the help," Asana added. "An extra pair of hands to type the code would be great."

"I'll put your boyfriend on it," Delwynn chided, glaring at the lieutenant.

"I—" Danstari stuttered.

"How about, 'yes, boss,'" Delwynn interjected.

"Yes, boss," he parroted, watching Delwynn leave the room.

"No kissing," she shouted from the doorway, not having turned around.

Asana smiled at the lieutenant, her arms completely straight and joined just above her knees.

Danstari was now confused from the mixed signals that the agent was giving. Was he permitted to foster a relationship with Asana, or was he prohibited? Even though it was important to him, it really mattered not in the broader spectrum of life. The hacking into Czerka's networks was paramount. Still, the question reverberated through his mind and soul.

"I guess she knows that I like you," The Twi'lek said, turning back toward the computers. "Of course, she would have found out easily enough."

Danstari became a touch choked up at the thought. If anyone had kept their feelings a secret, it had been Asana.

"Waron, are you going to come over here and help?" she asked in her best imitation of a sultry voice.

Danstari stepped forward, asking, "What do you need me to do?"

Asana pointed at one of the computer terminals—the one labeled as 'number two.' When the lieutenant placed his hands over the keypad, a series of images and lines of code flashed onto the screen.

"I didn't do anything yet," he snipped. "What just happened?"

"Oh," Asana reacted. "I'm just trying to get something set for you to work."

After a couple of moments, the Twi'lek walked over to the lieutenant's terminal. She inched very close, pressing her right hip into his left side while typing on the keypad. Then, she gently leaned her head against his shoulder, a sensation that pleased the lieutenant.

"Okay," Asana said, interrupting the tender moment and standing tall. "Everything's set. You see that flashing cursor?"

Danstari glanced where the Twi'lek was pointing with her petite red finger. The light purple nail color caught his attention.

"To get to this point, press Command2," she instructed.

The lieutenant nodded.

"To run a search, type it in here and press Command3," Asana continued. "Sounds easy, right?"

Danstari nodded with a smirk.

"Even I can't mess this up," he quipped.

"Not true," Asana cautioned. "You are logged into the Czerka network as Torrik Samit. You simply don't have clearance for everything. Technically, this account should be closed. Czerka must not know that he's dead yet."

"Won't they be able to trace us back to the ship?" Danstari asked.

"No, they can't," she explained. "We're shielded with so many proxies that if they even try to track us, it will loop and Emra will be alerted. She'll cut the connection before they can."

"So, what am I searching for?" he asked.

"Anything that you think the doctor would," Asana stated. "Run a search for any of the chemicals on the compound list that we found; maybe those molecules mean something. Also, check for personal correspondences and anything relating to Zranik or EIE."

"Basically, play the doctor," Danstari said, chuckling.

Asana nodded and walked over to another terminal, leaving the lieutenant to work out what to search. As a bold move, he started out by typing in 'parasite,' but nothing popped up. Pressing Command2 to run another search, he instead decided to check the late doctor's messages. Once they popped up, he noticed that there were seventeen unread messages. Almost all were from his wife and the head of Czerka.

"This is going to be good," Danstari said under his breath.

— — —

Delwynn continued pacing along the side of the long table in the meeting room. The room right next door was where she hoped the agents were acquiring Czerka documents. She, along with two of the three Jedi aboard the Mally, was waiting patiently for Director Aiden to send a hailing signal so they could converse. Ten long minutes passed, and Delwynn noted how Master Greystone and Fay were meditating on opposite sides of the room.

The agent knew their story well. Master Greystone had confided in her numerous times about Fay, his daughter. Their relationship was largely professional, as they both felt that a deeper personal relationship would be scrutinized and bring unnecessary criticism. Master Greystone's relationship with Delwynn was proof that he could harbor genuine love and admiration while still not allowing it to effect his judgment.

Even though they did know each other, Fay and Delwynn had little contact over the years. The elder Jedi Master, however, had expressed on numerous occasions that he and his daughter have both desired to shun what the Order might perceive as improper and pursue a familial relationship. Both were confident, according to Master Greystone, that proper perspective could be retained. If anything, the fact that they were kept apart so often was harder than expressing his love. They never referred to each other as anything other than 'Master Greystone' and 'Fay' in public. The overwhelming majority of the Jedi Order had no conception that the two were even related.

As Delwynn recounted these thoughts in her mind, she noticed her former teacher make eye contact. His expression was telling; the one regret he had in life was that the relationship with his daughter had to be strained and secretive. Delwynn made a gentle gesture with her hands, pointing toward Fay. The Jedi Master subtly shook his head, rejecting the offer. He always had claimed that it was not worth disrupting the Jedi Order for their "selfish desire to connect as a family." Delwynn never thought such a "desire" was selfish as much as providing an outlet for love that would otherwise be repressed.

"I suppose I'll check on the progress next door so that you can wait here," the Jedi Master softly said, breaking the silence.

Delwynn nodded, and Fay opened her eyes, breaking her meditation. The young Jedi watched her father exit and looked back at Delwynn with an air of sadness. Then, in an instant, the expression was wiped from her face and the Jedi reentered the meditative state. The agent sighed and resumed pacing.

Now, fifteen minutes of pacing and other activities that could only be described as wasting time had elapsed. The hailing signal finally sounded, indicating a request to begin transmission. Delwynn depressed a small button and the lights of the room dimmed. The hologram device in the middle of the table lit up, showing Chancellor Eddicus and Director Aiden. The agent moved into the range of the receiver, so that she could be viewed on their end, on Coruscant.

"Your Excellency," Delwynn said, bowing her head for a brief moment. "Director Aiden."

"Do you have an update, Agent Delwynn?" the chancellor asked.

"Sir, I have two agents and my droid coming through Czerka servers as we speak," she commented. "Master Greystone is checking on them right now."

At that instant, the Jedi Master reentered the room.

"Please excuse me for a moment," Delwynn said, stepping toward her former teacher.

Master Greystone leaned in and relayed the information from the other room. The agent became excited with the news. Beaming, she walked back to the receiver.

"I greatly apologize for the breach of protocol," Delwynn swiftly remarked. "I have excellent news. We've had a breakthrough as far as unraveling this mystery."

"And that is?" Director Aiden impatiently asked, jutting his head forward in anticipation.

"There are direct correspondences found between the Czerka doctor and Hazar Tordana," she stated.

"Are you sure?" the chancellor quickly interrupted.

"Absolutely," the agent responded. "That's not all, too. This was a high-level effort between Czerka, EIE, a few Eriadu and Core world political action groups, and the Dark Moon syndicate. All are implicated in the correspondences."

"So this was a conspiracy?" Director Aiden asked.

"It seems so," Delwynn said, attempting to suppress a smile. "I'm going to need more time to piece all this together, but if I can have a few hours, I'll be able to present this in detail."

"Consider the time granted," Chancellor Eddicus replied. "I would like you to come to Coruscant to discuss this with me in person."

Delwynn chose not to respond, knowing that any answer would not be received well. She wanted desperately to stay on Eriadu, hoping to capture Zranik. She was trying to peg his location, and any departure would potentially cause further complications in the already difficult task.

"Delwynn?" Director Aiden asked, hoping for a response.

"Whatever you deem best, your Excellency," the agent replied.

"The sooner you can get information to us, the sooner we'll send a party to arrest the head of Czerka," the chancellor added. "I'll have Admiral Pruis send a strike-and-extract team to Eriadu to capture Avar Zranik."

Delwynn simply nodded, knowing that she craved the pleasure of capturing the man who had killed her family.

"With your return," the chancellor continued. "I am recalling Fay, so you will be responsible for transporting her back to Coruscant. That way she can join the Jedi in the peacekeeping and medical relief efforts. I was under the impression from Director Aiden that you and Master Greystone wanted to speak about the composition of your team. Is that not something for the director to handle by himself?"

"Yes, I wanted to talk about it," the agent replied. "Normally, it would be the director's decision, but this involves the Jedi Shalli. She was placed on my team by Director Aiden because of the pressure put on him by the Jedi Order when Regueny was suspected as being involved in a scheme. Of course, in light of these new revelations, he very well may have been involved. Nevertheless, the Jedi is neither effective on my team nor beneficial. In fact, she is detrimental and Master Greystone fears for her own safety. I'll let him explain."

Master Greystone stepped forward and bowed his head in respect.

"Master Greystone," the chancellor said.

"Chancellor Eddicus," the Jedi Master replied. "Shalli has, because of her training, experienced a disconnect with the Force while on this mission. She needs to be brought back to the Jedi Temple on Coruscant immediately for help. Master Yoda needs to be contacted in full regarding this."

"You are returning to Coruscant," the GIN Director interrupted. "Surely Fay could take this Jedi to Master Yoda when you arrive."

"Your Excellency," Master Greystone furthered. "You are aware that factions within the Jedi Order are still scrambling for power. This creates a potentially difficult scenario. I do not want there to be blow-back on you or Agent Delwynn for having the Jedi removed. I want you to be aware that it has nothing to do with anything political. I have recommended this for her safety and for the success of this team. I can personally fill the void for Agent Delwynn and the team, as I have over the last few days. This, of course, requires your approval, since it is a Jedi appointment in a Judicial Forces capacity."

"I see no objection to what you say, Master Jedi," Chancellor Eddicus answered. "I have no reason to doubt you, and you obviously work well with Agent Delwynn. Upon your return, bring the Jedi back to the Temple; then, resume your work with the agent."

"Yes, your Excellency," the Jedi responded, stepping back and out of the range of the receiver.

"Chancellor Eddicus," Delwynn called, stepping forward again. "What should I do about the guard we captured during the raid?"

"Has he been interrogated?" the balding man asked, while looking at the GIN Director to his left.

"I've done preliminary inquiries," she answered. "He has not responded much yet. He does not seem to have much to say, while having a lot of useless whining to say."

"Bring him into the Coruscant offices," he replied. "Do come quickly, Agent Delwynn, and make sure you have positive information for me on the connections between these groups. I want details as best as possible."

"Absolutely," the agent affirmed. "I have no access to Sans Venret, however."

"I said I'd take care of it," Director Aiden recounted, obviously irritated at the mention.

"Then, I shall be there within one standard day, everything permitting," Delwynn remarked.

"Use the emergency GIN codes to access the closed hyperspace routes," the chancellor said. "I'll see you shortly, if not sooner."

Delwynn bowed her head in respect and remained there until the transmission was cut. Then, she stammered upright and scurried out the door and into the corridor. She continued into the computer room.

"I just told the chancellor we have big connections," Delwynn remarked. "You better be right. Show me, now."

Asana and Danstari smiled, while Emra beeped hysterically.

"I think you'll like this, Delwynn," the Twi'lek commented. "We all know how much you love a good conspiracy theory."

Delwynn sighed and sat in a chair next to the doorway, saying, "Before we do this, Danstari, prepare us for departure. We're going to Coruscant."

"Coruscant?" the lieutenant asked, seemingly confused.

"Did I stutter?" the agent snipped.

"Yes, boss… I mean, no… boss," Danstari stuttered.

Delwynn snickered as he exited the room.

"I think we should be mostly cleaned up in the base," Asana said. "Do you want me to check?"

"Yes," Delwynn replied. "Take Fay with you, too, in case you need to carry things back."

Asana nodded and exited. Alone in the room with Emra, the agent dropped to her knees and scurried over to the droid, who was about two meters away. The automaton beeped almost compassionately, as it undocked from the computer port and swung around. Face-to-front, Delwynn put her left hand on the top of the droid.

"I need a little favor," Delwynn whispered. "Dig up anything you can on Shalli's former masters that cross-references with the Core Power Alliance and the other suspects on our list. I want to know how they fit into these things. Something's still not right there."

Emra made sounds of caution and angst.

"I know," the agent continued. "You're just going to have to use your friend in the Jedi Archives to help you out, if necessary. Don't do anything illegal."

The droid continued the array of sounds.

"While you're in there," Delwynn added before standing, her voice trailing at the end. "Yeah, while you're in there, pull up the meeting logs of Cos Peradhi. I want to know where he's been the last 72 hours. Can you do that for me?"

Emra backed away about an arm-length and spun in a circle, causing Delwynn to laugh. She stood, peering at the droid, the humor of the moment still resounding.

"Make sure you don't let anyone else see this," the agent stated.

With Emra immediately re-docking with the computer port, Delwynn turned to exit the computer lab. She passed by the cockpit and noticed Danstari working. Then, she proceeded around the bend in the corridor toward her office. Instead of proceeding to her hiding place, she entered into the small room where Dawn had been sleeping.

Delwynn entered the room and noted the child still resting. She was awake, however, reading something on a datapad. Even when the door had opened, Dawn failed to look up at the visitor.

"What's that?" the agent asked, sitting at the foot of the bed.

"It was my summer reading for school," the young girl answered. "I probably won't be needing this any more, but I feel like its all I have."

"What's the story?" Delwynn inquired, attempting to capture a sweetness in her voice.

"Cubing the Sphere," she answered.

"That's high level reading for someone your age," the agent remarked.

"I suppose," Dawn replied. "It's supposed to be a classic. I take it you've read it?"

"Yes," Delwynn answered. "It was one of my favorites for a while. Kellark Cogg is one of the greatest authors of the last century. I've read quite a few of his things."

"I assume we're not staying on this planet anymore?" the girl asked. "Why else would you come in here?"

"I came to check on you, first of all," Delwynn said, feeling a bit defensive. "We are leaving the planet; we're headed for Coruscant, since you asked. Even so, I also wanted to see if you wanted something to eat. I figured you were hungry."

"I am hungry," Dawn replied.

"Well, let's get something to eat," the agent stated. "I'm sure there's something you'll enjoy."

"Even though it's not very good?"

"Even though it's not very good. It's the best we have."

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