62,295 Pages

Chapter 7

The Cerulean Wolf sailed effortlessly through the sea of empty space. The blue paint of its hull stood in stark contrast with the darkness of space behind it. However, this coloring was a blessing and a curse; this particular Majesty-class freighter was a smuggler’s ship and the bright color could serve as a warning to potential targets of the Cerulean Wolf’s crew.

Unlike its smaller counterpart, the Dynamic-class light freighter, the Majesty-class was not designed to participate in heavy firefights, and this was evident in the vessel’s external damage. The burns of laser fire traced around the ship, and the scars of proton torpedoes pockmarked its azure, saucer-shaped hull. Despite this extensive damage, the Cerulean Wolf’s internal functions were mostly unscathed, allowing its crew to remain onboard and carry out their duties with ease.

A vicious ringing noise pierced the ears of the ship’s captain, a Human female named Ralina Venli, awakening her from her much-needed sleep. The captain herself had a dark tan, and her bronze ankles dangled over her admittedly short cot. She opened her blue eyes with great displeasure; she was enjoying her rest, and she found herself already angry at being disturbed. Glancing about, she nearly forgot where the noise was coming from. The captain brushed her long, unkempt ebony hair out of her face so she could see clearly before trying to reach the wall panel that controlled her room’s alarm. To her dismay, her arms were too short to reach the controls from her cot. Halfheartedly rising from her bed, the captain covered herself with a dusty old brown blanket for warmth, and hammered her fist into the wall panel, switching the alarm off with a groan of disgust.

Once the alarm had stopped, Ralina stood motionless for a moment. The lack of sound against her exhausted ears was enough to cause the captain to smile. However, it was not long before she realized just how cold she was; the ship’s heating systems were not working optimally, and her white tank top and pair of gray shorts were not keeping her warm. Even the blanket she covered herself with did not quite provide enough warmth to keep her comfortable.

Returning to her cot, Ralina graciously collapsed into the cot she had been sleeping on, closing her eyes and preparing herself for a few more hours of sleep. Just as the captain was fading into the dreary world of unconsciousness, the alarm started back up again, waking Ralina with a start and causing a fierce scowl to appear across her face.

“Do you think that’s funny, Jon? I will rip out your circuitry!” shouted the captain.

“I would appreciate it if you would not, Captain Venli,” a digitized voice replied. “It is not so much out of humor I do this–though it is very amusing–but rather because you requested it.”

I guess the AI is right, thought Ralina. Although she did not remember the details, she must have asked Jon, the ship’s automated interface and artificial intelligence, to wake her up when their next target was approaching their location. They were smugglers, after all, and they always had to be ready for their unsuspecting prey. Even so, Ralina lamented that she had to be disturbed in such a manner while sleeping. She did quite enjoy sleeping.

“You’re right,” Ralina muttered. “I guess I owe you an apology, Jon?”

“Not at all, Captain,” Jon mused. “I’m sure if I was organic, I would be quite disturbed when abruptly awakened from my rest cycle. Your circuits don’t quite recharge as quickly as ours do, I hear.”

“Something like that,” the captain replied. Rising from her bed, she scrambled into the small refresher that was conjoined with her room; she was glad that she had her own washroom, although she was not pleased that it had the same color as her room–an ugly brown–and that it had the same cold, durasteel floorboards. “How long ‘til contact?” Ralina asked while she stepped into the sonic for a quick shower.

“Fifteen minutes,” Jon answered.

Ralina acknowledged the fact that she had a tight schedule and decided to hasten her efforts to leave her room. Stepping out of the sonic two minutes earlier than she had planned, Ralina got dressed inside the refresher before returning to her room. She made her way toward a small red-and-white wardrobe at the corner of her room and pulled out a rough, heavy leather jacket with the insignia of the Republic Navy on the back. Personally, she hated wearing it–it brought up memories that were better left forgotten–but she had to admit that it kept her warm; besides, she did not have time to be picky. Reaching under her cot, Ralina pulled out a pair of light blue slippers from underneath her bed and slipped them into her chilled feet.

“Have I mentioned how beautiful you look in the morning, Captain?” Jon asked whimsically.

“Yesterday,” Ralina mentioned, although she was distracted. “You tried flirting with me the past four days, as well.”

“Ah, yes, now I recall.” The AI sounded amused, but Ralina figured that he was just trying to entertain himself. “The crew is waiting for you, you know.”

Ralina ran a brush through her long, black-colored hair with an alarming sense of urgency, tearing through the knots that had accumulated in her silken strands of hair. Although she hated the fact that she could not do a better job and make it look somewhat decent, she bitterly accepted the fact that she and her crew had far too much to do with far too little time. A pity.

The captain headed out of the room, grabbing a small blaster pistol that was conveniently located atop a shelf near the door. As she left, she turned and gave Jon her latest instructions: “I’m done. Tell the crew to prepare for my arrival.”

Ralina knew that Jon had heard her, even though the jovial AI made no response. Once she had left her room behind, the captain made her way to the bridge. Traveling across the silent, unoccupied hallways, she smiled each time her soft slippers made contact with the metallic floorboards. No clanking noise, and my feet are warm. Wonderful, she thought. It took about three minutes for the captain to reach the deck, which resided on the ship’s prow. Unlike the Dynamic-class freighter, the deck of the Cerulean Wolf was large enough to support an entire crew comfortably, instead of only housing the pilot and co-pilot.

Once the captain had arrived on the deck, she realized that the crew had not noticed her arrival, and she took a brief moment to examine them as they worked. Although they were reliable enough for Ralina and were quite skilled at their respective jobs, Ralina admittedly knew very little about the motley bunch.

Her first mate and pilot was a weighty Shistavanen who had been nicknamed Fetcher by the crew. His dark fur and lupine appearance were well-known beyond Republic space. Before he joined Ralina, he had been known as the Hound of Baskarn, and he had been responsible for several large smuggling, slavery, and extortion rings. At some point, Fetcher’s life-mate and lieutenant, a female Shistavanen who had served alongside him, was captured by rivals in the Exchange. Sometime thereafter, she was sold into slavery and killed, leading Fetcher to retire from his life of crime. Upon founding her crew, Ralina forced Fetcher out of retirement when he lost a fortune in a pazaak game against her.

Ralina’s navigator was a female Devaronian named Manda. She was once a small-time thief who survived on Nal Hutta by stealing from Hutts and Exchange agents. Prior to then, she lived as a slave, evident by her unnatural magenta fur color and heavily pierced ears. Ralina saved her life from Exchange bounty hunters while on Nal Hutta, and Manda swore a life-debt of sorts to Ralina.

Ralina herself knew very little about the backgrounds of her two Human officers. Her gunner and weapon specialist, Delvin Cortes, was a dark-skinned male with shaggy brown hair who was about thirty-one, seven years older than Ralina herself. Apparently, he was a conman and an interrogation specialist before he joined her crew, but Ralina never confirmed these rumors. Ralina’s technician and mechanic, Nikolai Halendot, was the newest member of the crew. A redheaded male about three years younger than Ralina, he presumably had the least criminally-oriented past of anyone on their crew. Because he was the newest member, Ralina and the rest of the crew referred to him by his surname instead of his first name.

Ralina ended her examination of the crew rather quickly. Who they were was not important. Only what they were going to do mattered. “Good morning, crew,” she announced.

“Hello, Captain,” each crewmember simultaneously called back.

Ralina nodded politely, acknowledging their greeting. Her feet silently carried her toward her captain’s chair at the center of the bridge. It was tall and made of metal; it was imposing to behold but quite uncomfortable to sit in. The captain slouched in her seat reluctantly. She was, and would forever be, irate at the discomfort her chair caused her. Manda giggled with delight upon seeing her captain’s face, but a quick glance from Ralina was enough to silence the laughing Devaronian. Once the crew had returned to their work, Ralina activated the ship’s readouts and radar display of the surrounding space, both located in the armrest of her seat. The holographic display of the Cerulean Wolf was awash with yellows and reds. She scowled with displeasure.

“Jon, what is the status of the Cerulean Wolf, and what’s your assessment on its remaining strength?” Ralina asked.

“Hull strength is sixty-five percent. Shields are offline. Hyperdrive is stable. Engines have taken extensive damage, but they’ll survive–at least until we get to the next spaceport. Weapons are operational. Anything else, Captain?”

“No. Thank you, Jon,” Ralina responded kindly.

“We’re doing much better than I thought we would,” Fetcher noted gruffly, never taking his eyes off the viewport. “From the outside, we could easily be mistaken for a derelict.”

“Indeed,” Ralina replied. “It’s a miracle we survived the encounter.”

“To be entirely fair,” Delvin interrupted, “they were well-armed for raiders. A little too well-armed.”

“I am willing to bet they were supported by the Sith Empire,” Nikolai chimed in.

Fetcher snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous, Halendot. The Sith would never willingly waste their time aiding a pack of wild dogs like those pirates.”

“Umm. Don’t mean to interrupt this lovely chat,” Manda interjected, “but we’ve got an incoming transmission. It’s coming from a private channel, too, so it must be important.”

“Open it up, Manda,” Ralina urged, her voice laced with excitement.

It was not very often that the Cerulean Wolf received these transmissions, and they were generally from new contacts looking to employ smuggling services. The sooner they finished this job, although none of the crew knew much about it, the sooner they could collect their credits and repair their ship. Upon confirmation from the captain, a hologram appeared in the center of the bridge. It was fairly life-like, although it possessed the characteristic blue tint of all holographic displays. The individual on the other end was a stout, cloaked male; Ralina could not identify his species due to the poor lighting on the other end of the transmission.

“You must be Ralina Venli,” the individual spoke. “I must say, you’re much less… imposing than I expected.” His voice was distinctly raspy and even Ralina could see the smile that developed on his face.

“Don’t underestimate me,” Ralina shot back. “I could probably take you down. Easily.”

The individual chortled with delight. “I bet you could. But now is not the time for this. I have yet to explain the details of your upcoming mission.”

Ralina smiled ever so slightly. “Why didn’t you say you were our employer? You have an unfortunate method of timing these things; the target you’ve sent us after is almost here. Please try to hurry.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t waste your time,” the figured assured her. “Your will be searching for a Jedi Knight named Yasan Norn. He was captured by Sith forces and taken aboard the Luminous Daybreak after leaving Alderaan several days ago. He is currently being held by Doctor Alrond Bancho, a Sith doctor and biochemist.

Ralina was visibly surprised by the mention of Jedi and Sith. It was not often that their missions involved interacting with the Force-sensitive guardians of the Republic and the Empire, respectively.

“Sith?” Manda asked. “So, that must mean you’re a Jedi.”

“Your crew is very astute, Ralina,” the Jedi replied. “I like you already.”

Ralina rolled her eyes. “Of course. So, since the Sith are involved, I guess you want us to save the Jedi, then?”

“No,” the character replied quickly, startling the captain. “I want you to kill the Jedi and Dr. Bancho. Then, you are to recover Bancho’s research notes and confiscate any datapads on his body at the time of his death. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes,” Ralina said. She was confused about her employer’s plan, though, and was intent on figuring out his motives. “Why is a Jedi not rushing to the aid of one of his own? Shouldn’t you be sending a task force to rescue him instead of us, a bunch of smugglers?”

The figure raised his hands in mock innocence. “Now, now, Ralina. No reason to pry. I don’t ask you or your crew what you plan to do with the credits I am going to send to you. You shouldn’t have to know what we’re going to use Bancho’s information for, or why we’re letting Norn die. What’s he to you, anyway?”

Ralina closed her eyes for a moment. She didn’t know what was going on here, but this figure was no Jedi. There was just no way. He didn’t even pretend to act like one. His attitude was wrong; he gave the captain the same nervous feeling all Force-sensitives gave her, but this one in particular was rubbing her the wrong way. Shaking her nervousness away, she did her best to steel herself.

“Very well,” Ralina replied at last. “Where would you like us to deposit the wares once we obtain them?”

“I’ll fill you in on delivery and payment instructions later, Ms. Venli. For now, you just need to acquire the information. Good luck,” he added brusquely before logging out.

The bridge remained silent for several minutes thereafter as each member of the crew pondered over their mysterious contact’s instructions. Ralina, in particular, was worried about the mission. If the Jedi and Sith were involved, what had appeared to be a simple seize-and-secure operation just got much more difficult.

Finally, Manda broke the silence. “I don’t trust him, Captain. He smells like a rat.”

“A rat that pays good credits, I’m sure,” Ralina reminded her. “Let’s suit up. No point in worrying about it. What he does after our job is none of our concern, and our target is probably on its way toward our position as we speak.”

The captain left her metallic seat, grateful to be standing again, and headed across the bridge, activating a console and inputting the necessary code. Once the password was entered, a door chime rang, opening an electronic door across the hall. Their armory was appropriately located in a small room parallel to the bridge itself. Unfortunately, it was a cramped room that was no good for anything except for storage, lined with durasteel crates, canisters containing weapons, and steel lockers containing their combat suits.

One at a time, starting with the captain, the crew of the Cerulean Wolf headed for the armory and began to pick out weapons and armor to use in the upcoming mission. Everyone except Fetcher was assigned a tight-fitting, dark gray combat suit, similarly colored combat boots, and a helmet with an earpiece comlink attached on the inside. Each combat suit was sleek and breathable, providing a full range of motion and comfort but virtually no protection whatsoever. To compensate, each suit was equipped with a shield unit powerful enough to protect its wearer from about half a dozen blaster shots before expiring. While the others suited up, Fetcher settled for an earpiece comlink and wristband-mounted energy shield, being too large for the combat suits.

While her crew finished slipping into their suits, Ralina scoured the cache of weapons they had assembled. To her dismay, their selections were slim. Most of the weapons either needed to be retrofitted and have significant parts replaced or discarded completely; their collection was comprised of smuggled guns from the Exar Kun War and the earlier campaigns in the Mandalorian War, so they could not be sold for credits due to their age and waning quality. Nevertheless, Ralina took what she could, arming herself with a blaster rifle to complement her pistol. Fetcher and Delvin both took a blaster rifle for themselves while Manda and Nikolai settled for a single blaster pistol.

“Holen,” Manda murmured to the technician, “these suits seem to accentuate my figure a bit too much. I don’t want the enemy ogling over me while I gun them down; it’s distracting.”

The hapless technician sighed drearily. His attention was focused on cleaning the muzzle of his blaster pistol, but he still responded to Manda’s query. “We’ve been over this. Our suits are nearly three years old. I didn’t even make them! I was still on Coruscant catering to nobles and senators when these things were made.”

“But they’re so embarrassing!” Manda stammered, running her slender fingers down her side. “After this mission, you and I should create some new suits.”

“Oh, Force above,” Fetcher grumbled. “Please don’t let her do that, Halendot. She’ll make them pink. And have silly sayings put on their back. The enemy will be laughing at us, then.”

“What’s wrong with pink?” Manda countered. “And you’d be the only one to get a silly saying, Fetchy. Perhaps ‘Puppy Love’, in purple lace!”

“Now you’ve gone too far!” Fetcher growled, indignant. He, like most of his kind, hated being referred to as a dog or–even worse–a pup. He started to yell at Manda, telling her how horrible her idea was, but Manda only burst out in laughter about how upset the otherwise somber Shistavanen had become.

“Captain, what do you think?” Halendot asked.

The captain had been ignoring the jovial banter of her crew, making sure her weapons were in working order; there was no point in dying just because her equipment was malfunctioning. When Halendot specifically addressed her, she jumped. “I… um… yes.”

“Yes?” Halendot asked. “So we can get new combat suits?”

Ralina’s eyes widened. They had no credits for new suits. She was about to decline his audacious request when she saw Manda’s face, which had lit up with excitement at the prospect. Not willing to discourage her, Ralina nodded, giving her reluctant approval. The Devaronian cackled with glee and pointed one of her slender digits at Fetcher, laughing at him as his face contorted with surprise and fear. While Fetcher chased Manda around the deck, intent on capturing her and giving her a piece of his mind, Ralina and Delvin were making sure their helmets fit properly.

“Quite the clowns, aren’t they?” Delvin muttered to Ralina.

“Indeed,” Ralina said, smiling. “But at least they can have fun at a time like this. I’d rather not interrupt them, but it seems I have to.”

“Don’t hesitate,” Delvin muttered. “When you need to take action, act. What else can you do?”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Ralina replied. Turning her attention from him, the captain gave her first set of orders. “Let’s go, you guys. Stop fooling around. Holen, Manda, you two are coming with me. We’ll be squad one. Fetcher, you and Cortes will be squad two. You’ll enter the ship ten minutes after us. Jon, lock down the Cerulean Wolf and place it on autopilot until we return. Everybody understand?”

The acknowledgment from the entire crew was loud and instantaneous.

As Ralina began a studious, last minute inspection to her equipment, Halendot tapped her on the shoulder. “Captain, do you want to see the layout of the target vessel before we begin?”

“Of course.”

Halendot scurried over to his console and procured a small datapad from its storage unit. He handed the datapad to Ralina, who placed it into the visual overhead display so everyone could see its contents. Once the holographic image activated, a cut-away view of a standard K20 transport flashed to life before the entire crew.

The technician motioned toward a small hallway in the lower section of the ship. “This is the ship’s primary engineering hallway. As far as I know, it leads from the hangar to the barracks. We can use it to make quick work of the ship’s defenses. From there, it’s two doors down to the medical ward.” The technician had Jon illuminate a small room in the starboard section of the ship. “That is where our target–and the information we need–is presumably waiting for us.”

“Sounds risky,” Fetcher thought aloud.

“It is,” Halendot returned the sentiment, somewhat worried. “Also, the door to the barracks from the service tunnel does not open without proper authorization. In other words, it would need to be opened manually from the tech room on the other side of the ship.”

“Fetcher and I can handle that,” Delvin assured the captain. “No need for all of us to go down to the tech room.”

“Are you sure that’s wise?” Manda spoke up. “The two of you are strong–stronger than the rest of us–but we don’t know how strong their defenses are. If you walk into a trap, we’re all in trouble.”

This time, it was Jon who spoke up. “Luminous Daybreak exiting hyperspace in twelve seconds … eleven seconds…”

“We’re out of time!” Ralina said. “The transport’s coming in right now. Delvin, prepare the ion guns. Disable that ship so we can get into it. Fetcher, fly us in as close as you can; with some luck, we won’t end up too far from it. Manda, Halendot, follow me! We’re going for a ride.”

As she concluded her brief speech, the Luminous Daybreak dropped out of hyperspace about eight kilometers away from the Cerulean Wolf. As the bulky, aged civilian cruiser made its way toward Telos, a planet ravaged by war, the smuggler ship sprung to life–resurrected under Fetcher’s guidance. Delvin activated the strictly illegal ion cannons on top of their vessel and fired two azure blasts at the K20 transport. The first strike hit the forward end of the ship, disabling their shields and causing some of its primary systems to fail. The second shot pummeled the starboard side of the ship and created an unexpected and unwelcome explosion, sending engine fuel and fire into the void of space. Although their attack caused more damage than Ralina hoped, at least the ship had been immobilized. Fetcher flew their ship as close as he could to the disabled vessel, allowing their respective hangars to sit in space nearly six meters apart. After a brief starfighter ride, squad one left the Cerulean Wolf and entered the Luminous Daybreak’s unprotected hangar.

After Ralina docked their fighter, the three-man squad made its way from their starfighter toward the nearest exit with haste; the hangar was empty, and there was no reason to linger here. Ralina led the way, her blaster rifle at the ready, charging toward the dully colored doors with an obvious sense of urgency. The passengers of the Luminous Dawn were no doubt aware that privateers had entered their ship; if they were smart, they would take the necessary precautions to remain safe. Ralina hoped that they would not have to take the lives of any civilians; when they killed innocent bystanders, things always got messy. Although the captain had faith in her crew, she was worried that they might not have the manpower to fight through the K20 transport’s onboard defenses.

The doors that led from the hangar bay to the rest of the ship were magnetically sealed by an automated lockdown sequence. The smugglers reached the door after a brief sprint. Once they arrived, Ralina and Manda sidled against the wall on the right side of the door while Halendot crouched against the wall opposite of them. The captain was panting lightly, her body already fatigued in their run. However, Manda was practically wheezing, already worn out, and Halendot was having trouble standing. I guess we’ll have to focus on physical fitness once we get some free time, Ralina thought with a smile on her face.

“Do you think you could open this door, Holen?” whispered Manda.

“Probably. Give me a moment,” the technician responded in between gasps.

Turning his back away from the wall, Halendot got to work slicing the door’s electronic security lock. The slicer opened up the security box on the wall with alarming speed; Ralina and Manda watched his swift fingers pry about the wiring and alter the circuitry. After a few minutes listening to Halendot muttering, a small spark erupted from inside the door’s control mechanism, and the electronic doors opened with an elongated groan.

Once Halendot was done, the three noticed two Twi’lek guards standing in the hallway beyond the door. Unlike the intruders, the two guards were lacking in arms and armor. Ralina figured they were mercenaries recruited to defend the ship. They saw Halendot as soon as he opened the door and frantically attempted to pepper him with blaster fire. Although the technician was saved by ducking back behind the wall, the blaster fire continued on its path and ended up scarring the distant walls of the hangar.

The captain waited for a moment, expecting the blaster fire to die down. When it didn’t, she knew that she had to take action. If Ralina waited for their opponents’ weapons to run out of power, then they would have to engage each other in melee combat. Their suits loaned themselves even less to close quarters combat than firefights; Ralina knew she could handle herself, but she wasn’t sure about her crew.

The captain let herself fall over, and her left arm the floorboards. While the blaster fire flew overhead, she took aim at the two Twi’leks; they had only just seen her, and she knew she had a momentarily advantage while they tried to reposition their weapons. Squeezing the trigger of her blaster rifle, several shots flew from her weapon into the chest of her targets. The first Twi’lek fell backward, and the second Twi’lek fumbled around on his feet before expiring.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Ralina placed her gun on the ground and allowed her adrenaline rush to expire. Meanwhile, Manda and Halendot had both moved out from behind the doorposts. While the Devaronian went to investigate the bodies–if they were still alive, she would remedy that–and plunder their equipment, Halendot helped Ralina to her feet.

“Good shots, Captain,” Halendot said while placing his blaster in its holster.

“Thank you,” the captain replied. “I didn’t do much. They were not well-trained, and they certainly were not prepared for our arrival.”

“Does this change the objective, Captain?”

“Not at all,” Ralina said. “Keep your guard up. Carelessness leads to fatalities, and I don’t want any of you dying on me today. Clear?”

Manda and Halendot responded with a nod.

On their way around the Twi’lek corpses, Ralina gathered a few extra power paks from the discarded weapons. If they had time, she would have gathered a few of their weapons, too. Leading her squad into the depths of the ship, Ralina found herself increasingly tugging at the mesh against her skin and wiping the sweat from beneath her helmet. The environmental controls weren’t working in this part of the ship, it seemed, and Ralina was already exhausted; they weren’t even at their goal yet.

After descending a particularly long stairway, Ralina and her crew arrived at the entrance to the maintenance hallway. Ralina opened the door by pressing the wall console, and her two allies entered first, scanning the area for enemies. When no enemies were found, they signaled for Ralina to enter, and she followed the two inside. The dark halls were drearily silent and it was difficult to see. Not wanting to remain in the area longer than necessary, the trio increased their pace.

Suddenly, the irregular clomping of footsteps broke through the silence. The three intruders froze in their tracks, but it was too late. A blaster shot nailed Ralina in the chest; her shield absorbed the attack, but she was knocked off her feet regardless.

“There they are! I see ‘em!” a rugged voice shouted.

The captain recovered her footing as quickly as she could. There was no cover to hide behind; most of the engineering supplies had been removed prior to their arrival. Slamming her back against the nearest wall, Ralina crouched low to avoid the incoming blaster fire that soared forth from the darkness before them. Manda and Halendot were lying prone, trading volleys of fire with their opponents. The streams of fire between the two parties were consistent but disorganized and hardly accurate. Ralina fired blindly into the darkness before her, hoping to score a lucky hit. When she didn’t, she replaced her blaster rifle’s power cell and held her fire.

“Permission to use a fragmentation grenade, Captain?” Halendot shouted amidst the blaster fire.

“Why the hell are you asking permission? Do it!” Ralina snapped.

The technician snatched the only frag on his belt and threw it into the darkness. The projectile bounced off the metal floor several times before rolling toward its targets. Several screams were heard when a flash of light suddenly illuminated the halls. A small explosion and bursts of flame sent several bodies flying into the air and several others to the ground. Once the smoke cleared, none of their enemies remained.

Manda was the first to move after the explosion. Recovering her footing, she made her way toward the dead bodies. Ralina put her weapon away and headed toward Halendot, who was still on the ground. She extended her own hand toward the technician, and he gratefully took it and stood up.

“Thank you, Captain,” Halendot murmured.

The captain smiled. “Don’t mention it, Halendot. Good work with that grenade.”

“Sorry for… well… the whole asking-for-permission thing.”

“Not a problem,” Ralina replied. “I can’t exactly say ’don’t let it happen again’, because that would be ridiculous.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Just… think for yourself every so often. Yeah?”

“Yeah. It’s hard breaking old habits. Sorry.”

Ralina pressed the issue no further. As she turned to beckon for Manda, who was still inspecting the corpses of their enemies, she was interrupted by a call from her helmet’s comlink.

“Captain Venli, are you there? Fetcher here.”

“I hear you, Fetcher. What is it?” she answered.

“Cortes and I are approaching your location. We've already broke into the tech room and unlocked your door. The entire ship is in a frenzied panic, Captain, so the guards won’t be much of a hassle. In fact, most of them are headed in our direction,” Fetcher explained.

“Will you still be able to get to the medical bay?”

“Yeah. We’ll just be a little late. Go ahead and continue without us for now.”

“Understood.” Ralina smiled and added teasingly: “Fetcher, don’t you dare die on me before you reach us.”

“I wouldn’t dare,” the Shistavanen replied, half-jokingly. “Fetcher out.”

Ralina turned her attention to her two present companions. “Let’s go. We should hurry.”

The three of them continued their silent trek through the dark underbelly of the civilian cruiser. From the end of the hallway, Ralina and her allies arrived in the barracks, which they were surprised to find empty. Apparently, all the guards left on the ship were chasing after Fetcher and Delvin. The captain and her allies left the barracks without a word and headed toward the medical ward, which was situated close enough to the barracks that the crewmembers of the Cerulean Wolf didn’t even have to run.

Ralina scanned the door’s console to check whether or not the medical chambers were locked. To the captain’s pleasant surprise, the medical room’s emergency lockdown sequence had been overridden. The captain was overjoyed and ordered her two crewmembers to enter the room before her; if there was danger in the room, it was their responsibility to assess and neutralize it.

Her two companions followed orders, scanning the room nervously. The room’s walls were white, although it was striped with several red lines. In one of the farther corners of the room there was a counter where the doctor would dispense prescriptions, and a petite personal computer rested nearby. In the other corner was a medical cot; the individual that was situated in the cot was covered with a white sheet. The fetid odor lingering in the room and the machinery tracking his vital signs made it clear that the individual was nearly dead, if not already. The lighting of the room was poor and it was very difficult to see, but Manda and Halendot could both clearly see a single individual, a female nurse with blond hair who was about Ralina’s age, in the center of the room. She was clothed in a white dress and an equally colorless smock, and–to the relief of the entire squad–she appeared unarmed.

“Who are you? What do you want?” the nurse cried out in horror.

“Just stay quiet and don’t move.” Ralina’s rifle was pointed directly at the nurse. She motioned for her allies to finish their job despite the fact she had entered earlier than expected. “Search the room.”

Her compatriots began to scour the room for the data they needed. Ralina cautiously approached the nurse, pointing her rifle at her new prisoner at all times. As she approached the nurse, Ralina saw something move behind the counter out of the corner of her eye.

“Halendot. Check behind that counter. Be careful,” Ralina commanded.

Halendot acknowledged his captain’s orders. Crouching low to the ground, he approached the counter. Once he reached it, he glanced over the counter. Suddenly, he found himself face-to-face with a middle-aged man dressed in a white lab coat and armed with a slug-throwing shotgun. Halendot leapt back in fear as the man screamed violently obscenities at the technician and put one leg on the counter. Manda reached for her weapon, but Halendot was quicker; dodging the man’s attempt to bludgeon him with the shotgun, Halendot fired two shots into his chest at point-blank range. His opponent collapsed in pain, muttering profane insults to his last breath.

“Good shot, Halendot,” Ralina noted.

Turning to his captain, Halendot nodded and placed his weapon back in its holster. Once Ralina reached the nurse, a man in a large cloak and drooping hood jumped out from behind the counter and found himself behind Halendot. Before Ralina or Manda could react, this figure thrust a knife into Halendot’s back. The technician gasped for air, holding out his hand to his allies as his body–stained with bright red blood from his gushing wound–collapsed.

Ralina stared at Halendot’s body. She tried to scream, but she realized immediately that no sound came from her mouth. Something within her tossed about as though she was going to vomit, cry, and pass out all at the same time. Manda was screaming behind her, but she couldn’t hear her. Ralina found her hands shaking violently. As a smuggler, she had never lost anyone on a mission before. She didn’t know what to do. Halendot’s lifeless gaze locked with hers, and she couldn’t find the strength to avert her eyes from his.

Using Ralina’s grief to her advantage, the nurse stole her blaster pistol from its holster. However, Manda moved in and ended her chance at freedom, ripping the weapon from the nurse’s grip with her clawed hands. Manda turned toward the cowled man, still standing over Halendot’s body, and positioned herself behind the nurse. Wrapping one arm around her, Manda used her as a human shield.

Seemingly ignoring Manda’s demand that he drop his knife, the hooded man scooped up the blaster pistol from Halendot’s corpse and pointed it at Ralina.

Tell your friend to stand, a voice echoed in Manda’s mind. The Devaronian assumed this was the Jedi they were looking for. Manda motioned for Ralina to stand, but Ralina was lost, completely enveloped by grief.

Manda placed the barrel of her pistol against the head of the nurse, causing the nurse to weep quietly. “Let us go,” Manda demanded. “Or I’ll kill her.”

The man cackled with delight. “Why do you think I care about her? She’s useless. You can kill her.” The captor frowned underneath his hood when Manda did not comply with his request. “No? You dare hesitate? Then I’ll do it for you.”

Tilting his weapon from Ralina, he pointed the blaster toward Manda and fired a single shot at the nurse. The blaster shot passed through the nurse’s head and flew into a wall behind Manda and Ralina, where it dissipated into nothingness. Manda cried in terror, and she almost abandoned her footing as the woman she was holding stopped crying and dropped dead in her arms–fear evident on her deceased face. The Devaronian released the corpse that she was holding and placed both of her hands on her blaster pistol, pointing it at the assassin.

“Let us go,” Ralina said. She tried to be firm, but her voice was weak, and she was still crying. Halendot was already dead. They could not join him yet.

“I don’t think so,” the assassin mused. “You see… you’ve already killed Doctor Bancho. I was supposed to protect him. Now I can never return to my employers–the Sith–or they’ll kill me for supposed incompetence. I had to watch the man who entrusted his life into my hands die. How about I end the life of your crewmate? She has entrusted her life to you. We can feel this pain together.”

Ralina recovered her sanity, begging for the assassin to stop. He wholeheartedly complied, diverting his blaster to face Ralina instead. Manda fired a few shots at the assassin, but she missed each time. The captain had known it was time to die since Halendot fell. She could not live with this failure; it was only right that she, as the leader of her crew, face the consequences for his death. A life for a life. She almost found herself spreading her arms to embrace the incoming blaster fire.

Seconds before he could shoot Ralina, a ferocious howl was heard the hallway. The assassin turned to discern the source of the noise, but it was too late; Fetcher arrived and clawed at him, sending him spiraling into the wall. As the killer collapsed near the corner of the room, unconscious, Manda ran toward Ralina and threw her arms around her captain, and they both wept uncontrollably. Manda was thanking the Force that Ralina was still alive while the captain wondered why she wasn’t dead. The two allowed their tears to intermingle near Halendot’s corpse for what seemed like hours until Ralina was able to stand.

“Can you two walk? We need to leave,” Fetcher stated.

Ralina nodded first, and Manda replied similarly.

“Despite how very touching this all is,” Delvin said, entering the room, “Halendot is dead. We have a limp assassin in the room, Jon just informed me that this ship is going to explode due to internal complications at any second, and Telos Security is coming to check out our little escapade here. Could we speed things along?”

Ralina swore under her breath. Wiping the tears from her eyes, she knew she had to be strong–or at least put up a façade of strength–for her crew. They deserved that much. “Delvin, you get Halendot’s body and bring it back with us. He’ll get a proper funeral soon; he deserves that much. Manda, are you well enough to travel?”

The Devaronian nodded quickly.

Ralina smiled a weak smile. “Okay, if you say so. You’ll gather the supplies from the doctor. Mutilate his corpse if you feel it necessary, but do it quickly. Fetcher, pull the plug on the individual in that cot–I assume it is the Jedi, since that assassin did not carry himself like a Jedi–and then grab that assassin over there.

“The assassin? Why?” Fetcher questioned.

“We’re going to use him as a bargaining chip. Most of these guns-for-hire are members of the Bounty Hunters’ Guild. We can ransom him for money,” Ralina explained, her eyes alight with a devious glow.

“Are you sure that’s wise?” Delvin said, lifting Halendot’s body. “He could kill us in our sleep.”

“We’ll turn Halendot’s room into a brig of sorts,” Ralina explained. “And besides, he needs to pay for what he’s done here. But for now, we need to get out of here. Telos Security is coming, and this ship is going to explode like a star, apparently. Finish your work, and then we’re getting out of here.”

Chapter 8

The hum of the Rocket One had sent Raen into the realm of sleep upon his departure from his homeworld. He had instructed T1-N7, the astromech droid who had accompanied him on his fateful pilgrimage, to guide the ship directly to Taris. For the first several hours of their trip, Raen had slept in the cramped engine room while Teeone steered the ship through the confines of hyperspace. After an uncomfortable–and tragically brief–rest, Raen returned to the cockpit and took over the job of piloting the ship. When Teeone expressed confusion over its new assignment, Raen allowed it to tend to the ship’s internal systems in the engine room.

During the prolonged journey through hyperspace, Raen endured the tedium of the flight. He had not showered since the night of his flight from Alderaan, and he smelled like some forsaken hound; sweat, grime, and tears caked his bronze skin and produced a peculiar odor that drove the ex-Sith near insane. His Sith robes had collected pollen and plant detritus during his last trip with G’aull, and now his skin felt scratchy and his clothes were generally uncomfortable. It was with some loathing that Raen accepted his long string of bad luck as he ensured the ship remained on-course while they were in hyperspace.

After several long days alone in the cockpit, Raen was relieved that the Rocket One had reached the Taris system. The exiled Alderaanian cautiously allowed the aged vessel to drift out of hyperspace; Raen was surprised that this vessel could even reach Taris. The ship itself was quite outdated, and Raen was convinced that the vessel’s hyperdrive dated back to the Sith War. Despite the fact that it had survived his initial flight, the ex-Sith figured it would be more profitable to sell the ship once the arrived on Taris. Once he took refuge with his relatives, they could provide him with everything he needed.

Raen directed the Rocket One toward the blue-green orb that was Taris with considerable difficulty. The vessel seemed to travel much more smoothly in hyperspace than realspace. As he approached the planet, Raen took notice of a small, Republic-owned space station drifting in Taris’s atmosphere. Raen deduced that it was recently implemented to defend Taris. Republic forces under the command of Jedi General Revan had recaptured this planet from the Mandalorians several years prior; now, the Republic military was no doubt concerned that Revan and his newfound empire might one day return to capture the Corsucant of the Outer Rim.

Raen jumped as his ship’s comlink began to blip madly. Apparently, the Republic installation was responsible for monitoring orbital traffic as well. Raen hesitated; he suddenly felt a surge of dark side energy wash over him like a violent current. He was not sure where it had originated from, although it might have been emanating from the planet’s surface. Raen felt his senses become more acute and his perception increased dramatically as the serenade of the dark side invigorated his tired body. Is this the power of the dark side? thought the exiled Sith. It took several more obnoxious bleeps from the comlink to pull Raen out of thought and back to reality.

“This is Captain Zaen Helax of the Rocket One. I am an associate of the royal family on a diplomatic mission from Alderaan. Please let me by.”

Raen’s introduction was answered by an elongated buzz of static. The exiled Sith sensed that the Republic soldiers in charge of orbital security had heard his message, but he was unsure why they were not responding. Turning around, Raen shouted at Teeone, telling him to ensure that their hull was at full strength; if they were attacked, Raen wanted to make sure that they would be strong enough to flee the Republic’s atmospheric defenses.

The static suddenly stopped. “Zaen Helax,” a monotonous male voice responded. “We don’t have you scheduled for landing today. And we cannot locate your name on the Galactic Diplomatic Database. Prepare to be boarded.”

“Negative!” Raen yelped. “I mean… that won’t be necessary, officer. I am on a very classified mission for the Galactic Republic and Alderaanian royal family. This comes from the office of the chancellor himself. If you would like to consult him, feel free. But if you end up exposing a top-secret government operative, you could be charged with…”

“That won’t be necessary,” the soldier interrupted, now with a hint of worry in his voice. “Feel free to pass, Captain Helax.”

“Thank you,” Raen said with a smirk. “You do know that you are sworn to silence, correct? If this information is ever divulged to anyone, you will be promptly executed for treason.”

“We understand, don’t worry,” the soldier replied anxiously. “Taris Orbital Control, out.”

Raen chuckled menacingly after he switched off the comlink. That was easier than expected, thought the exiled Sith. To be fair, Raen knew his alibi would not last long. Soldiers, even green ones like the one he spoke with, were loquacious; he would eventually confess his story to his senior officer, and then a Republic team would be put together to track him down. By then, the man known as Zaen Helax would no longer exist and neither would his ship.

He bypassed the Republic defense station and its auxiliary turrets quickly and without concern. Just before he entered the atmosphere proper, the ship’s engines began to malfunction; Raen tried to fix the problem by applying more power to the engines while hoping to avoid increasing his acceleration. The ship whined worriedly as its engines struggled to comply with his command. The ship’s descent into the atmosphere threatened to pull the ship apart from the stress.

“Warning: engines breached,” an automated voice warned. “Danger: fuel is flammable and asphyxiation may occur. Utmost caution is advised.”

Raen swore under his breath. He barely had time to react to the warning before he heard a sharp hiss in the engine room. Raen could see the vaporous fuel that was already lingering in the engine room slowly snake its way into the cockpit. Due to the engine rupture, Raen began to lose control of the vessel. The young ex-Sith covered his face with the cloth of his robes; if he suffocated due to the gaseous fuel, he would die before he reached the planet’s surface. The formerly solemn cockpit began to shift between varying shades of red as the emergency beacons lit up, warning passengers to evacuate the ship. Sadly, Raen did not have that option. As he struggled to regain control over the ship, Teeone emerged from the smoke of the engine room and begin to blip madly.

Raen stared at the droid, his eyes demanding that it silence itself. “What is it, Teeone? I’m kind of busy. Can’t you make yourself useful and fix that engine leak?”

As Teeone began to answer Raen’s questions, a small explosion interrupted the astromech droid. Raen eagerly urged the droid to continue, but he was interrupted yet again. This time, a deafening roar precluded a larger explosion, accompanied by thick, hungry tongues of flame and black smoke. The sheer force of the second explosion knocked Raen off of his feet and into the sensor boards, while Teeone was thrown off its feet.

Raen struggled to reestablish his footing. “Teeone, report! What just happened?”

The hapless droid struggled to regain its composure, but its four short wheeled legs lacked the ability to prop its rotund chassis upright. Raen angrily assisted the droid to its feet–he knew it was a useless hunk of metal–and straightened its rotund head. The grateful droid responded with cheerful blips and bloops. Raen scowled. This was no time for such useless thanks. The ex-Sith kicked the droid’s already-damaged body, forcing it to reply.

“You want me to what?” Raen shouted incredulously.

Teeone responded verbatim in droidspeak.

“I am not going to jump out of the Rocket One. Did that explosion fry your cognitive sensors, you idiotic tin can?” Raen shouted back. “I don’t have a jump-pack, and we’re nearly ten kilometers in the air–and descending rather quickly, if I might add. I would rather not become a permanent stain on some poor building in the Tarisian skyline, thank you anyway, Teeone.”

As though the vessel had decided to respond for Raen’s panicked droid, the Rocket One began to quiver and shake as it rapidly approached Taris’s alabaster cityscape. Raen saw bits and pieces of durasteel get ripped off the ship’s hull as it made its way through the final layer of Taris’s atmosphere. The ship’s cooling systems had failed after the second explosion, and the vessel’s internal temperature was increasing rapidly. Coupled with the blazing flames from the engine room, Raen figured that the Rocket One would not survive its descent. I hate it when I’m wrong, thought Raen. Teeone beeped madly, hoping that its master would take action before the entire ship became a metallic inferno.

“Teeone, go into the engine room! Grab a weapon or two, and recharge your battery as quickly as you can manage,” Raen ordered, coughing painfully.

The droid steered its obtuse cylindrical body around and entered the otherwise deadly flames to follow orders. Raen smiled. He had given the droid those orders to distract it, so it would not slow him down while he escaped. Once Teeone was gone, Raen ripped off the outer layer of his robes and cloak, leaving only his auburn under-tunic and black trousers on. Coughing out the smoke from his lungs, the ex-Sith wasted little time gathering his weapons and putting them in their holsters. Without any other belongings, Raen tried to regain control of the ship one last time. No luck. Slamming his fist into the sensor board, Raen left the ship to its fate and headed for the egress ramp.

Raen worriedly hammered away at the ramp’s controls, and he was visibly alarmed when the electronic door would not open. After attempting to open the door via its controls several more times, Raen gave up. The ex-Sith was hysterical and gave way to periodic coughing fits–he did not even consider using his lightsabers–while calling Teeone for help. The droid was still in the engine room, so Raen commanded him to enter the emergency override codes. When the droid did not respond or follow instructions, Raen rushed back into the engine room.

Using the Force to sustain himself for as long as he could, Raen waded through the thick smoke and burning fire that would have made travel impossible otherwise. Scouring the engine room, Raen saw T1-N7 stuck underneath several broken pipes that must have fallen during a subsequent, weaker explosion. Teeone was only centimeters away from the override controls, but its overturned body could not reach them.

“Teeone, how the hell did you get stuck?” Raen called out to the trapped droid.

The droid replied with a melancholic whine. The droid had been caught underneath the metallic weights while trying to unlock the doors for its master to escape; it never expected to survive. Raen smirked. This droid was a faithful servant, and something compelled him to save it for its loyalty.

“Don’t worry, I’m going to save you!” Raen shouted through the smoke, which was quickly cutting off his supply of oxygen.

The exiled Sith reached the helpless droid without much interference. Ignoring the searing pain from the droid’s hot chassis, Raen turned Teeone’s flattened coin-shaped head around and opened its rear compartment. Exposing the fragile and vulnerable circuitry, Raen’s thick fingers ran through the wiring of the astromech droid, searching for the droid’s core and memory matrix. Flames engulfed the pair, and smoke began to cloud Raen’s vision. Gagging uncomfortably, Raen attempted to forcibly remove the smoke from his lungs. He was getting light-headed and he could sense his body temperature rising beyond its threshold. Sweat poured from his forehead, arms, and legs, desperately trying to cool him. At last, he found Teeone’s memory unit, and he pulled it out in an instant.

“Warning. Surface contact in two th-thousand meters and closing,” an automated voice rang out from the cockpit.

Raen cursed his ill luck under his breath and stuffed Teeone’s vital systems in his bag before abandoning the astromech droid’s metallic body to burn. Making his way from the rear compartment of the ship, Raen jumped out of the blazing inferno that had consumed the engine room. Once he was in the cockpit, the exiled Sith jumped atop the sensor board, smashing buttons and switches with his charred boots. Raen used only free hand to ignite his blood red Sith lightsaber blade and shattered the transparisteel of the viewport in a single swing. The resulting depressurization sent shards of metal across the cockpit–some scarring Raen’s arms and cutting his clothes–and into the skies of Taris.

At this point, Raen could not do anything to stop his descent. The surging winds from outside the Rocket One swept him off his feet and sent him flying out of the vessel; the ex-Sith found himself several hundred meters above the Tarisian ecumenopolis, diving toward the vast city in a free fall. From his position in the sky, Raen could clearly see the glittering ocean of Taris, its beautiful veil separating the towers of the cityscape–which looked like alabaster blades of grass from his height–from the verdant island cities. In between the ivory-colored skyscrapers of Taris, Raen could see speeders and hovercraft flying about the city’s aerial roadways. If he was not struggling to keep himself from going into shock, Raen would have loved to admire the beauteous patchwork that constituted Taris’s skyline.

Raen’s eyes became blurry again; his dry eyes could not endure the lashes of the chilling north gale that were whipping him and his doomed ship about. The wind around him was temporarily silenced when the Rocket One plunged into a whitewashed tower, causing a titanic explosion of metallic waste and fuel-strengthened flames. Now it was his turn. The vast roadways of Taris’s upper city were quickly approaching, and he needed to slow down without killing himself in the process.

Here goes everything.

*** ***

“You’re being dropped into the sixth floor of the Deathly Stars apartment complex of the Upper City. You and your squad are in charge of investigating the tenants of room 670. We have reason to believe they are in charge of an illegal weapon-smuggling ring. Violence is permitted, but go easy on the trigger. Good luck, Commander. You’ll need it.”

Once the director had given him the objectives, the commander switched off the earpiece comlink underneath his helmet. A man of forty-five years of age, his dark brown hair was already graying at the edges. Most of his farmer’s tanned skin was covered by green and yellow combat armor–it was standard issue light armor given to all the members of Taris’s Central Paramilitary Unit–that was supported by a light shield. A combat helmet covered most of his rotund face and hooked nose, although his burly chin and lower facial features were not protected since the visor only protected the top of his face. In addition to his armor, the commander was equally well-armed; he had a pair of blaster pistols on his belt, and a standard police-grade combat rifle was slung across his back.

His squad–which contained four individuals–anxiously waited in the back of a hoverspeeder; their vessel was weaving its way in and out of midday Tarisian traffic. Like their commander, none of their Human features were visible underneath their full-body suits of armor. Each was armed with their own weapons, although none of them used a higher-caliber weapon than a blaster rifle. Staring at them, the commander thought they were almost like machines, in a sense. They did not return his stares or pay him any mind, and their shielded faces were almost emotionless. As agents of justice and order, they became single-minded on defeating criminal scum and terrorist cells throughout Taris’s Upper City.

“You guys ready?” their pilot asked, his voice rich and vivacious. He wore the same armor as the commander’s squad, but he was probably twenty years the commander’s junior.

“Ready as ever, B.,” the commander replied.

“Right,” B. replied, musing over the commander’s play-on-words. “Approaching Deathly Stars in 15, 14, 13…”

The commander could sense that the other three members of his squad had become increasingly nervous. Most of them were rookies compared to him; he had been on more than fifty missions with Taris Paramilitary, while they had only been sent on a few dozen. Clenching one of his pistols, he hoped that the silence would quell their fears, but it seemed to make them increasingly uneasy.

“Don’t worry,” the commander mentioned, seemingly stolid. “We’ll get through this. Keep close, stay sharp, and it will be over before you know it.”

“May the Force be with us,” one of his squadmates whispered. His dreary mood did not help the already grim atmosphere.

“… 2, 1. We have arrived lady and gents. Have a blast–perhaps literally–I’ll see you for withdrawal,” B. called out.

Once he had confirmed their arrival, the rear doors of the hoverspeeder opened up with a shrill whine, and they were greeted by a glass window located about twenty-five meters above the ground, barring their entrance. The same man who had invocated the Force was the first to rise from his seat. Utilizing his blaster rifle, he shot six bursts of energy in rapid succession, unleashing a barrage of green fire on the crystalline barricade. Once the colossal window had been completely destroyed and its remnants scattered about the floor inside the building, the squad took turns leaping from the vehicle into the apartment itself. Once the commander had leapt from the hoverspeeder, B. took off and left them behind to complete their mission. The two other men in the squad had already gone on ahead without the commander to scout while the only female of the squad waited for her commanding officer.

“You ready, Boss?” she asked softly. The commander could feel her uneasiness, despite her somber tone.

The commander smiled. He tried to exude as much serenity as he could to calm her nerves. “Of course. Let’s move, Elene.”

Withdrawing his other blaster pistol from its holster, the commander led Elene from their initial position to follow the other two members of the squad. As they went further from their entry point, the commander became increasingly worried. The apartment was too quiet and too empty; there was not a single resident wandering the olive green walled hallways, and all the doors were locked. He almost felt like knocking on a few of the doors to see if anyone was here, but he knew that was against mission parameters. Instead, he kept his mind focused on the mission and continued around the circular hall.

The commander and Elene almost missed the turn to room 670, had their other squad members not alerted them to its location. Barely making the last minute turn, the pair joined up with the remaining members of their squad in front of the old-fashioned door.

“Nice of you to join us, Elene,” the less-physically imposing of the pair spat.

“Unlike you, Ulno,” Elene shot back, “I’m willing to follow orders.”

This time the bulkiest of the four spoke up, the same man who had destroyed the window upon their arrival. “Maybe if you would stop kissing the commander’s…”

“That’s enough, you three,” the commander interrupted. “You sound like whining nobles. Do you want me to report you to the director?”

Each of them shook their head, and the commander could feel that they were disappointed in themselves. Pleased that they were not totally lost, the commander kicked the old wooden door open, and the two other men of the squad stormed inside, intent on protecting their commanding officer from harm. The commander prepared to follow them, but Elene grasped at his sleeve.

“Hold on, Boss. Wait until Ulno and Klenn give us the green light. We don’t want you going into a trap,” she urged.

The commander removed her hand from his sleeve, shaking his head. He had suddenly taken up an aura of professionalism, speaking like a true solder. “Don’t be ridiculous, Private. If a commander does not lead from the front, how can he expect his men to follow him?”

Elene was silenced immediately. She did not dare to oppose or impede her commander any longer, and the commander entered the dark room with both of his pistols in hand. Sadly, the commander found the room to be rather anticlimactic. It was a single-bedroom apartment, complete with a petite kitchen suite and an adjoining bathroom. It was almost entirely empty; there was no one inside and the peeling wallpaper suggested there had not been anyone here for some time.

“Sir,” Klenn called out, “I found an emergency door. It doesn’t lead to the bathroom or the neighboring apartment, so it must be some sort of emergency passageway. Permission to search?”

“Granted,” the commander issued. He threw his blaster rifle to the Ulno, urging him to take it for extra firepower. “Take Ulno with you. It might be dangerous. Elene, stay with me and investigate this room.”

“Yes, Boss,” Elene replied.

Klenn and Ulno snickered at a private joke between the two as they entered the emergency room and left the commander and his partner alone in room 670. While they were leaving, the commander took note of a computer terminal resting on a nearby metal desk. Taking a seat–which was rather uncomfortable–he activated the monitor and perused numerous files that were located on the console’s memory. While he was busy searching, Elene scouted the remainder of the room, rifle in hand.

“Boss,” Elene called out. “I found a fire escape that leads to the room above us. Permission to climb up there and scout?”

“Granted,” the commander repeated. “Stay safe, Elene.”

“You too, Boss. See you on the other side.”

Once she had departed, the commander turned his attention back to the console. Scanning the hundreds of folders was difficult work–especially since very few of them had anything of merit–but he knew that if he did not search each one, he could miss something important. The commander knew B. was the best hacker in Taris Paramilitary, and his skills were very desperately needed here. The commander was not cut out for trudging through month’s worth of useless data and pointless logs.

Suddenly, he found a folder that caught his eye. Weapon shipments. The title of the folder was inconspicuous enough, so the commander opened it. As he attempted to open the file, he managed to catch a glimpse of a small image render of a familiar insignia–the insignia of the Hidden Beks, a swoop gang on Taris–before a pop-up obstructed his view. The folder was password protected, and the commander could not search its contents without it. Before he could begin attempting to bypass the password through brute-force, he heard gunfire from behind the door that Klenn and Ulno had entered.

“Klenn? Ulno? Are you two all right?” the commander asked, turning his attention away from the computer. If the image he had seen was any indication, this room was controlled by the Hidden Beks, and that worried him. Very rarely did they involve themselves in smuggling rings, and it was even less common for them to be involved in weapon shipments–especially in the Upper City.

The commander abandoned the computer for the time being and grabbed his blaster pistols off the desk before following Klenn and Ulno down the hallway beyond the door. Surprisingly, these halls were much better lit than the rest of the apartment building, and the floors and walls were made of a strong durasteel that was light blue in coloration. After walking for several haunting minutes, the commander realized just how quiet it was. He had not seen Klenn or Ulno, and he got a sinking feeling in his stomach that he might be in danger.

Upon turning his fifth corner, the commander saw three soldiers in white armor. These soldiers were much more heavily armed than he was–they were equipped with military-grade carbines and heavy pistols–and their full-body armor was much stronger than Taris Paramilitary’s. The commander had seen them before. These were soldiers of the Sith Empire. At their feet lay Klenn and Ulno, dead from concentrated blaster fire.

Hundreds of thoughts ran through the commander’s head. This world was controlled by the Republic. Even if it didn’t do the greatest job patrolling and controlling it, they would not tolerate Sith here. How did these soldiers slip onto Taris? And, what was worse, were they working with the Hidden Beks?

“There’s the leader!” one of the Sith troopers called out upon spotting the commander. “Shoot him down, boys!”

The commander managed to take three quick shots at his opponents using his blaster pistols, but his shots were deflected away from the Sith troopers’ heavy armor. “Damn!” the commander muttered to himself. “Personal energy shields. Strong ones, too.”

Rolling around the corner he had emerged from, the commander managed to dodge the return fire from his opponents. Unlike his weapon, each of the Sith trooper’s blaster carbines could spray twenty to sixty shots of energy in a period of seconds. By the time the commander had ducked behind his cover, the troopers had already littered the wall he was hiding behind with residue of blaster fire. The commander traded a few shots with them, but he had almost no opportunity to peek out from behind cover and fire back.

He couldn’t retreat now; their fire would strike him in the back as he ran away. He hesitated. He saw only one way out of this situation, but he didn’t like it. He did not want to call upon his old powers again, but he found no other option. If he chose to fight as a soldier, he would die; there was no way around it.

He had to call upon the Force again.

After a few more seconds of hesitation, the commander drew upon the Force’s ethereal power and collected a vast supply of telekinetic energy around his right palm. Jumping out from behind the wall he had been using as cover, the commander barely dodged the initial rounds of blaster fire and extended his arms, allowing a telekinetic shockwave to erupt from his hand. The resulting attack sent the three Sith troopers flying into the wall nearly six meters behind them. The commander was surprised how easy that was; he had not called on his Force abilities for nearly two years, and yet he was still quite powerful.

The commander realized that as long as the Sith were here, this mission was too dangerous for them. Remembering his last squad member, the commander transferred the power of the ever-present Force from his hands to the muscles of his legs and feet. Sprinting at a superhuman speed, the commander raced through the empty metallic halls and back into the equally empty room 670. The commander dashed up the fire escape ladder that Elene had ascended, hoping he would reach her in time. But his actions proved futile. As soon as he had finished his climb, he saw Elene, bloodied and bruised, collapsed against the wall of the storage chamber he had entered. She lost her helmet in combat, and she had the vibroblade of a Sith trooper through her chest.

Her milky eyes had fixed their gaze upon the commander, and blood slowly seeped from her hauntingly pale lips as she struggled to form her last words. “… On the other side, Boss.”

The commander shouted in grief. How could he have been so stupid? He should have forced his squad to stay together. Even as he tried to reprimand himself, the Sith trooper who had killed Elene noticed his arrival and threw a fragmentation grenade toward the fire escape. The surviving Taris paramilitary officer leapt back down the ladder and avoided the blast–just barely–but he landed on his hip, sending a burning sensation through his side. As the grenade’s explosion engulfed the area above him, the commander rushed toward the console he had been investigating earlier. Tearing the computer’s old-fashioned memory pillar from the wall circuits, the commander threw the metallic box over his shoulder and made a frantic dash out of the room.

As the commander left room 670, the rest of the Sith troopers, nearly a dozen Sith troopers rushed toward him from the hallway on his right. Sprinting at a superhuman speed, the commander evaded their blaster fire and grip for the time being. Instead of escaping the way he had entered, which would require fighting a dozen Sith soldiers, the commander headed left and ran down the empty halls of the sixth floor. At this point, he did not even know where he was going.

Using his earpiece comlink, the commander attempted to contact B. “This is the commander! Requesting immediately evac; I repeat, I need immediate evacuation!” His message was graciously responded to by the ferocious buzz of static. Blast, thought the commander. Too much interference. I have to get up to the roof.

Still running, the commander was forced to avoid three more Sith troopers who had sprung out from behind the pale walls of the corridor he had been running toward. Making a sharp right turn, the commander kicked in the next door on his right and took three quick shots with his remaining blaster pistol before fleeing from the pursuing troopers. Climbing up the rattling metal stairwell that served as a fire escape, the commander was careful to keep the computer console firmly within his grip; if he lost it, his entire mission, including his squad’s sacrifices would truly have been meaningless.

The clatter of his boots against the metal stairs continued for nearly two minutes, and he passed several barred doors during his ascent. Upon reaching the last door, the commander viciously punched at the grate that was hindering his access to the roof–luckily for him, its hinges had rusted long ago–and it flew open. The commander struggled onto the flat rooftop, gasping for air and sitting down for a brief moment. He was exhausted; his Force-imbued speed sapped most of his stamina.

Clicking his earpiece, the commander tried to contact B. again. “This is the commander. The mission has been aborted. I repeat, the mission has been aborted. Requesting pick-up on the roof of the apartment.”

“Roger that, Commander,” B.’s jovial voice chirped. “I’m coming in for a landing.”


“Damn quick,” B. said.

The commander panicked as he heard the clanking noise of the Sith troopers following him up the metallic staircase toward the rooftop. Slamming the grate shut behind him, the commander turned around and noticed that B. and his hovercraft were approaching the rooftop at an alarming speed.

“Heard you needed a pickup,” B.’s voice spoke up yet again.

“Yeah, thanks a bunch, B.,” the commander replied. Things were beginning to look up.

As B. parked the vessel atop the Deathly Stars roof, the commander dashed toward the vessel. He did not want to utilize his Force abilities here because no one else in Taris Paramilitary of his Force-sensitivity. Besides, he was tired. The Sith troopers managed to reach the rooftop during his dash to escape, and they ferociously smashed the grate, causing it to fly off with a shrill groan. The six troopers assembled on the roof and began to firing at B.’s vehicle, hoping to destroy it before the commander could escape.

“Damn,” muttered the commander. Activating his comlink, he nearly shouted at the confused pilot. “B.! Fly! Get out of here! If you get taken down, we’re really screwed over!”

B. complied almost immediately, and he began to start the engines of the hoverspeeder. The commander was close to the hoverspeeder now, but he was not close enough to get inside. The red blaster fire flew by his head and arms as he threw the console into the rear passenger’s window of B.’s vehicle, shattering the clari-crystalline that had protected it. Once the computer was safely inside the vehicle, B. took off, flying away from the roof.

The commander’s foresight warned him that if he did not escape now, the Sith’s blaster fire would kill him. As the hoverspeeder flew away from the apartment roof, the Sith diverted their fire toward the straggling commander. Reaching the edge of the rooftop, the commander made a single Force-assisted bound, and his hands latched onto the windowpane of the rear passenger’s window he had destroyed. He managed to pull himself through the broken window and into the hoverspeeder before his hands–bloodied and ripped up due to the crystalline shards that remained in the windowpane–could succumb to the pain and betray him to the city streets below.

“Good save, Commander,” B. praised the worn-out officer. His voice was cheerful, but the commander’s Force senses could tell there was a degree of nervousness in his voice. “You nearly gave me a heart attack, though. I thought for sure we had some Sith rocket troopers on our hands!”

“I get that a lot, Bramhon,” the commander replied, panting for air. “The heart attack thing.”

“Yeah, well, try to avoid such heroics in the future,” Bramhon mentioned. “Speaking of, where is the rest of your squad?”

The commander winced as the grief of losing his squadmates returned to him. He had learned to cope with losing agents on these missions–in fact, he had lost a lot of teammates in the past–so the grief would pass soon. That did not remove the ache in his heart for the three agents that he would never speak to again.

“So they’re gone, eh?” Bramhon continued, knowing how to convert silence into words. “Well, don’t beat yourself up, Commander Djan. It was not your fault, I’m sure. Besides, you captured some of their data. The director will be pleased.”

“I’m sure he will,” Djan barked back, still seething with the pain of loss, “especially when he finds out he lost three good soldiers to Sith!”

Bramhon chose not to reply. There was nothing he could say. When Djan was in one of these moods, rationality was out of the question. He sighed. The commander certainly was a stubborn one. Nevertheless, Bramhon really did admire him. He was a strong soldier: reserved, collected, and responsible. He did take these losses a bit seriously, though. As he continued toward their destination, the pilot’s thoughts wandered from the sulking captain back to his original train of thought. The question would not stop nagging at his mind.

How could any Human make that kind of jump?

Chapter 9

Raen Benax awoke with a start. He felt groggy and did not know where he was. At first, he was not even sure he was alive. Once he felt the pain in his chest, though, he knew that he had not yet become one with the Force. Glancing around, the ex-Sith attempted to figure out where he was. Raen found himself lying atop a broken table with a fanciful logo on the top; he suspected it belonged to a gang of some sort. He figured he was in an apartment because he could see the poorly-painted walls and ceiling–its green-blue paint was peeling in several places and some parts were not even completely painted–and to his left he saw the Taris skyline, complete in all its splendor, through a transparent window. Reaching for his lightsaber, he suddenly realized that the weapon was not on his belt. His hands frantically scanned his belt for his lightsabers or his blaster, and he panicked when he realized that he did not have them.

“Looking for something?” a woman’s voice called out to the exiled Sith.

Raen’s glance diverted from the window toward the apartment door. On the right side of the door, a Togruta female sat against the wall, spinning one of Raen’s deactivated lightsabers in her hands. Raen noticed immediately that she was dressed like an Alderaanian peasant. She wore a white sleeveless shirt beneath a rough leather jacket, and she had a thick black utility belt over her rugged denim slacks. Raen also noticed that she was not wearing shoes, and the Togruta’s red-colored feet were clearly visible.

“Give those back… they aren’t yours,” Raen growled.

The Togruta chuckled softly, and reached into her pocket. She traded Raen’s lightsaber for a lighter and ignited a cigarra before placing it in her mouth. Blowing a few light puffs of smoke, she allowed Raen’s request to wistfully linger in the air much like the cigarra smoke before returning her attention to the dazed individual. “I don’t think so. Finder’s keepers.”

Raen was visibly irate, and the Togruta smirked when she saw Raen’s reaction. The exiled Sith jumped from his makeshift cot atop the table and onto the apartment’s rough metallic floor. The Togruta stood up straight to meet the charging Raen, but she was now visibly indifferent toward Raen’s rage. Raen met the Togruta head-on, standing before her like a fearsome specter. The Force-sensitive swung his arm, slapping the Togruta across the face and causing her to stumble over. Her horned montrals and head-tails swayed with her battered head, and Raen was content as she staggered before him in pain. His opponent’s red skin turned a darker shade of crimson. Raen figured that she would try to react violently and fight back; he would have to finish this quickly. Raen clenched her throat with his hand, holding her a few centimeters above the ground. She let out a light gasp before donning a mischievous smile. Raen returned her cheerful–and slightly mysterious–glance with a ferocious glare.

“Give me my weapons, or I will snap you in two,” Raen demanded.

“I was using that,” the Togruta responded, her hoarse voice taking an irked tone.

Raen hardly noticed that when he had slapped her, she had lost her cigarra. But by then, it was too late. The Togruta’s foot swiftly traveled upward, mercilessly nailing the exiled Sith in the groin. The young Force-sensitive’s stomach heaved violently, and he yelped aloud. Releasing the Togruta, Raen unknowingly submitted himself to the next wave of the Togruta’s attacks. Rushing forward, she kicked him below the belt two more times in vicious succession. Raen’s eyes watered, and he howled in pain with each unrelenting strike. His cracked voice begged for mercy, but the Togruta ignored him and continued her assault. She sent her lithe fist into his stomach once and then elbowed him in the chest, causing Raen to vomit inside of his mouth. To conclude her attack, the Togruta wrapped her other hand around Raen’s neck, pinching his throat and constricting his air passages. Gasping for air, Raen pleaded for clemency.

“Now then,” the Togruta stated, pleased with herself, “you behave, or I’ll keep kicking you. I’ll leave you alone if you will act like a civilized being. Deal?”

“Yes,” Raen managed to mutter.

“Good,” the Togruta replied, her former, more cheery tone returning. She released the hapless Sith exile, sending him to the floor with a crash.

Silence overtook the both of them. The pain lingered across Raen’s body, but he did not care. He was just glad he could breathe again. He limped over to the nearest chair and sat down, groaning every few seconds. The Togruta had retreated as well; she had returned to her position by the door and had lit a new cigarra.

“So why are you here, Jedi? We don’t get much of your kind here,” the Togruta mused.

Raen grinned. He had not even thought of the fact that very few civilians knew that Sith existed; if they did, they were not aware of the differences between Jedi and Sith. Although it didn’t matter to him if this woman knew or not, he figured he would lie for now, in case it proved beneficial later.

“I was exiled,” Raen managed to say. “I was rejected by the Jedi Order because of my crimes. I am on my own now.”

The Togruta did not appear to take much interest in Raen’s lie, instead focusing on the cigarra she was smoking. Standing, she walked around Raen and headed for the window. She stood motionless for several minutes; Raen figured she was admiring the view. The Tarisian skyline was certainly breathtaking. The city’s whitewashed towers and apparently organized air-traffic filled the sky, in turn painting a vibrant picture on the transparent window-canvas of the hotel room. Raen noticed that he was getting drawn into the view and quickly diverted his attention elsewhere.

Raen continued, “Why did you save me? I had planned on dying after my descent.”

“I was shocked,” the Togruta muttered, ignoring his question. “How in the galaxy did you survive that fall?”

“Telekinesis,” Raen replied curtly. “I wrapped myself in a barrier and allowed myself to levitate above the ground in successive intervals for about a minute before my crash.”

Well, if you still want to die, that can be arranged,” the Togruta said, answering his other question now. When the Sith exile shook his head to deny her request, she looked disappointed. “Very well. I saved you because I need your help, Jedi.”

“Why me?”

“Because you’re the only one here, genius!” the Togruta shot back. “I need an escort to take me down to the Lower City. It’s dangerous down there, and the path to get there is not exactly a pleasant stroll either.”

“Surely you’ve been down there before,” Raen noted. “Why do you need help now?”

The Togruta hesitated. “I have some business down there, and I’m going to need some… muscle to get it done.”

“I’m not your hired gun,” Raen spat. “And I don’t even know you. I’m not helping you with anything.”

“You’re going to help me,” the Togruta stated plainly. “I saved your life, and I hid you from Republic soldiers. Keep in mind: your ship destroyed a building and probably killed a few civilians in the process. You don’t have to come with me; I'll just turn you into the Republic instead, murderer.”

Raen considered his options. He had felt his strength return to him, so–if it was necessary–he could kill this pest and be done with the entire ordeal. She was tough for someone who was not a Force-sensitive, though, and she seemed to have some skill in combat. Raen eventually decided that she was not worth killing here. She was right. He did owe her, but he did not intend on paying her back. Once he had acquired sufficient knowledge of where he was and where his relatives were, the Togruta would be dealt with. For now, he would play along.

“Fine,” he said, reluctantly. “I’ll help you.”

“Excellent,” she said. Turning from the window, the Torguta ran toward the door, smoke trailing her, and opened it in a single, fluid motion. “Let’s go. Why are you just standing around?”

Raen sighed, visibly annoyed, but complied with her request. He was still wounded from the Togruta’s attacks, but he managed to reach the door in spite of his limping about. As he made his way through the door, he noticed the blaster pistol she had stolen from him resting on her belt. He knew he would have to be careful dealing with her with the time came. She was armed, dangerous, and she obviously knew how to fight.

“If you’re going to keep my blaster, could you at least give me my lightsabers?” Raen said flatly.

Sighing, the Togruta handed the weapons to Raen. “Can’t you Jedi survive without your weapons for five minutes?”

“No,” Raen replied, placing the weapons on his belt.

“My name’s Raen Benax, by the way.”

“Selias,” the Togruta answered sweetly, “Selias Siital.”

“Mind if I use your refresher?” Raen said, stopping before he walked out of the apartment. “I’d like to clean myself up.”

Selias’s eyes widened. “Our… uh… refresher doesn’t work. Don’t worry about it–where you’re going, it won’t matter how that you smell terrible or look out of place–and just go on. My work won’t complete itself.”

The exile and his Togruta companion left her room silently, heading toward the entrance of the apartment building. The halls and rooms were similar in coloration, although the hallways of the apartment appeared to be in a much worse shape than the rooms themselves. Unsurprisingly, Raen noticed several Human tenants as he proceeded through the otherwise-boring halls and stairwells of the apartment. However, Raen realized that each Human shot him and Selias a passing glance as they walked by them. Some of their expressions betrayed confusion, some pity, and others pure malice. Upon leaving the building–appropriately named the Upper City Bargain Apartments–the exiled Sith was annoyed when passersby continued to glare at the pair. Turning toward Selias, he noticed that this occurrence did not bother her at all.

“Selias,” Raen whispered to the Togruta, “why is everyone staring at us?”

“They’re not staring at you, darling,” Selias said, with as little emotion as she could. She tried not to look directly at the Sith exile. “They are staring at me.”

“But why?”

“I’m different. Alien. Sub-human. Freak,” Selias said, her voice emphasizing each word she uttered. “On Taris, Humans make the rules. Humans are better. Humans are superior. We’re forced to live in the slums and ghettoes of the lower levels of the city while you and your kind hoard wealth, throw lavish parties, and become prosperous in the Upper City.”

“That’s not fair,” Raen shot back. “If you can afford to live here, and you find yourself so inclined, you should be able to live wherever you please.”

“You're delightfully ignorant for a Jedi,” Selias replied. “That’s not how the galaxy works. We fear those who do not look, act, or think like we do. It’s a natural thing.”

“I disagree.”

“Don’t insult my intelligence, Raen. I know you hate me. Underneath that shallow exterior of yours, you despise my presence.”

Raen hesitated. It was true that he hated her. It had nothing to do with the fact she was an alien; she was an annoyance and an obstacle that he would rather have been without. “No, I don’t," he said after a moment.

“Nah, you hesitated. I saw it in your eyes… the same look I get from everyone else. You and all the rest throw me ogling glances or malicious leers. But that’s okay. I don’t care. I think the same of you and all your kind as you do of me!” she paused for a moment, pondering her next words. “You hit me. They hit me. I’ll hit you all back. You think we’re trash, but you’re no better than we are!”

Raen was stunned to silence. He had been around other species for so long, and yet he was no different than the irrational xenophobic Humans he had been observing during their walk. It was a horrible feeling. For the first time in a long time, Raen actually felt guilty. He could not explain why, but inside his chest, he knew that what he thought and how he was acting was wrong. Instead of confronting it, he suppressed the emotion as best as he could. Sentimentality was a weakness he could not afford to inherit.

“Listen, Selias,” Raen finally said. “I don’t know what’s going on here, so I can’t say much. But if you really want things to change, I can talk to my uncle. He’s a powerful individual on Taris–or so I’ve heard. He can help you and your kind. It’s your life, and it’s your right to live here.”

Selias continued to walking while Raen talked, forcing him to keep up, and she stayed silent for several minutes even after the exiled Sith had finished. Raen figured that she had ignored his artificial offer to help her. Since he could not gauge a reaction from the silent Togruta, he didn’t press the issue. They walked together without paying the other any mind for some time. It was not until they passed a small droid repair shop that he realized Selias was not following him. Turning around, he saw her standing some distance away. He was about to shout at her, but he noticed that her face betrayed a confused expression. Even her brown eyes, which normally reflected her cheery demeanor, were hidden behind the smoke of her cigarra.

“You’re an idiot,” Selias finally responded, walking to catch up with him. “But at least you're an idealistic idiot. Come, we should hurry. We’ve wasted too much time talking.”

Raen’s mouth was agape as he took his turn stopping. He was appalled that she had nothing to say to him except insults. As she moved on, Raen found his hand reaching for his lightsaber hilt, ready to strike her down.

“Are you coming or not?” Selias asked, irate. “If you could shut your mouth and keep those feet moving, we could get this over with much faster.”

Raen resisted the urge to kill her, strong as it was, and ran after the annoyed Togruta. Instead of opposing Selias and her attitude, Raen stayed silent, musing over his next course of action. He knew that Selias was a lower class citizen; running around the Upper City with her would not make things easy for him. At the same time, she did know much more about Taris than she did, and he had no credits nor had any directions to locate his relatives’ home. For the time being, Raen decided, Selias would live.

As they passed by a street-side medical station, a man bumped into Selias. He was dressed in fine clothes–a scarlet overcoat rested atop his ebony buttoned, sienna undershirt, and a smooth leather belt with a lavish golden buckle rested upon his waist–and appeared several years older than Raen. His eyes were an enigmatic gray color like Raen had never seen, and his light blond hair was neatly combed. Raen assumed that he was nobility; he had been in such dress before. Traveling with him were several other individuals, all men, dressed in similar attire. When they paid the Togruta no mind, she turned and scowled at the group, intent on creating a scene, but Raen urged her to continue on without causing problems. Once the pair continued on their way toward the Lower City, they failed to notice the same man who had bumped into Selias run after them. Performing a light jog to catch up with the two, the man grasped Raen’s left shoulder, causing him to turn around with a start.

“Excuse my intrusion, lad, but I noticed that you were traveling with a fine-looking Togruta. If you wouldn’t mind, my friends and I would like to borrow her. We will pay you, obviously, and she will be returned tomorrow just like new,” he said with an eerie smile on his pale, lightly powdered face.

Raen’s eyes widened almost immediately. Although his initial reaction was to shove the man’s jewel-adorned glove away from his shoulder, he quickly decided against it. This could be his way to get rid of Selias for good. Carefully removing the man’s hand from his shoulder, Raen was about to accept the noble’s offer when Selias leapt at the man with her vibroblade, threatening to tear his blond hair from his pale face. Raen spat with disgust. He barely took notice of Selias tackling the man to the ground; instead, he turned his attention to the other nobles. Upon seeing their companion begin to get mangled by the Togruta, they each drew their concealed hold-out blasters, intent on defending him. Raen felt their intent and coughed loudly–attracting their attention to him–before reaching for one of his lightsabers. They noticed his weapon, successfully dissuaded any plans of attack they had.

By the time Raen had returned his attention to Selias and the single nobleman, he was surprised to find Selias on the ground and without her weapon. The noble had bested the Togruta with a simple stun baton, and he had firmly implanted his silken boot against her chest, keeping her pinned to the ground. Her knife was in his hands now, and he was stroking her neck with the blunt end of the weapon. She attempted to bite at his hand, but the aristocrat avoided her teeth and slapped her.

“Now, now, don’t be hasty, you abominable beast. You’ll get your chance for things like that when I purchase you from your master over here.” Turning toward Raen, the man’s voice changed to its previous upbeat tone. “So, how much are you willing to sell her for? I assure you, if she is harmed, we will pay you double.”

“Help… Raen…” Selias muttered, her voice ripe with fear and agony.

Raen was about to sell her off, but upon hearing Selias’s voice, his mind was changed in an instant. He couldn’t. Something within him would not allow him to sell her to these men. “Dynatha…” whispered Raen. He remembered what De’dlay had told him about the aspiring Sith. She was killed because she had been seen with him. He could not have someone else die on his account.

The man grumbled. “Whatever are you babbling about? I asked the price for-”

Raen cut him off by punching the man in the face, sending him flying off Selias and into his crowd of friends. Wiping the man’s blood from his clenched fist, Raen glowered at the noblemen as he helped Selias to her feet.

“Let me make one thing clear,” the Sith exile spat. “If you ever treat someone I know like that again, you will be sorry. Now get lost, before I make sure you do.”

The group of rich Humans did not waste time giving any sort of response. Instead, they fled as fast as they could carry themselves, running toward the nearest Republic security office. Raen sighed as they left; he was hoping to carve up any of them stupid enough to challenge him. Turning toward Selias, he was surprised when she embraced him quickly and silently, throwing her bare, red-colored arms around his waist.

“Selias… they’re gone.” Raen stated, not knowing what else to say.

“I… they… Raen… no one has ever done that for me before,” she managed to say, her voice still a bit hoarse and at a whisper. “They were going to bring me away again. No one has ever stopped them. No one kept me from going with them. They just stood by and laughed. Some even went with them.”

“Selias… I’m sorry,” Raen whispered.

She forced a smile. It had suddenly dawned on both of them what an awkward position they were in. Raen realized that he had, in fact, helped someone, and the very thought of it sickened him. Selias, too, realized that she had embraced a Human and recoiled. Selias managed to mutter a quick ‘thank you’ before she steeled herself again. It took only a few seconds, but by then, she had become her reserved self again, as if she had become a completely different person. From there, the two traveled in utter silence, reflecting on the events that had just occurred as Selias led the way toward the Lower City.

*** ***

In the silence of space around Taris, three Sith starfighters were hovering, motionless as the stars, amidst a backdrop of darkness. The vessels’ hulls were petite, possessing a rounded cubic shape and a gray coloration. Their wings were flat in comparison to the body of the vessels and extended outward from their hulls on the port and starboard sides. Each of them lay in waiting behind Taris’s Rogue Moon, which effectively blocked their view of the planet and protected them from the wary eyes of the Republic.

Inside the lead starfighter, a Zabrak male was sitting patiently, monitoring his sensor board for incoming traffic. He was not wearing a standard flightsuit over his auburn skin, forgoing the traditional pilot garb for a suit of heavy green combat armor, complete with a personal energy shield and jetpack. The sinuous horns atop his head prevented him from wearing any sort of piloting helmet, so he sat in the confines of his cockpit without one. During his silent scan of the vessels flying in and out of Taris’s atmosphere, he noticed a small green blinking light on his flight panel, informing him that someone was trying to contact him. One of his men, no doubt.

Flicking the switch that opened the two-way comm channel, the Zabrak pilot spoke first, hoping–for the other person’s sake–he was not interrupted. “This is Gheas. What is it?”

“We’ve got an incoming transmission from the boss. Do you want it relayed?” the chirping voice of a Rodian spoke on the other end of the comlink.

“Of course, you idiot! Redirect it now,” Gheas bellowed.

The comlink was silent for several short seconds, and then there was a soft click on the other end. Suddenly, a garbled transmission came through from the other end. “Is this Gheas?” a tired, wispy voice asked.

“It is.”

“Good. My master’s forces are approaching Taris, like we suspected. While they distract the local law enforcement, you search the streets for him. Search the home of Dandek Benax first. He is rich, powerful, and knows many things about Taris. If he isn’t with him, kill him and move on.”

“We always kill our prey, Lord Preux,” Gheas hissed. “You don’t have to worry about that. The Nova Death Force always succeeds; that’s why we get paid.”

“See to it, then,” Preux responded drearily. “I have prisoners to deal with.” The comlink faded into silence once again, leaving Gheas to ponder on his upcoming mission.

Right on-schedule, two large Quartermaster-class carriers reverted from hyperspace and headed straight for the Republic orbital defense station. Knowing that his two companions would follow, Gheas grabbed the controls of his Sith fighter and directed the previously immobile craft. In a matter of moments, the three fighters linked up with the Quartermaster transports, providing them with a pseudo-escort.

“This is Taris Orbital Control on an open channel,” a taciturn, almost bored voice buzzed into the Sith pilot’s channel. “Please identify yourself and state your business.”

The Republic officer would receive no reply. Switching off his comlink entirely, Gheas diverted the trajectory of his vessel, throwing the lithe fighter away from the Quartermaster cruisers. The two other minuscule fighters followed suit, drifting toward Gheas’s starfighter. The Republic space station began to prepare their primary weapon systems as a precaution, and the three starfighters prepared for evasive maneuvers. However, it was already too late for the Republic station. One of the Quartermaster carriers accelerated to its top speed, propelling the vessel headlong into the space station itself. The suicidal vessel tore straight through the Republic station, causing a titanic explosion as the two hulking masses collided. Burning wreckage and wasted chemicals were all that was left after the eruption of flame and fuel, and the Sith forces could now enter Taris’s atmosphere unhindered. The remaining Quartermaster and the three fighters began their descent toward the planet’s surface.

Gheas was giddy with excitement. It would not be long now. Within the hour, he would be on the planet’s surface, and he and his company would track down and hunt the Sith fugitive, Raen Benax. Strictly speaking, he was told not to kill him, but he could not promise that his desire for slaughter wouldn’t get in the way. He loved his job.

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