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Chapter 13

Ralina grumbled to herself. The viewport on her ship was a useless narrow slit. She couldn’t have been the only captain to find such an addition useless; then again, the Hutts who tended to use these ships were fond of gimmicks and redundant features. As her crew ambled around her on the bridge of the Mercantile Gem, she activated her chair’s tactical readout. Displaying several hundred kilometers around the ship in a three-dimensional diagram, the hologram proved invaluable to her.

Exiting hyperspace with a loud groan and a bit of shaking, the Mercantile Gem seemed to regret leaving the safety of hyperspace. Once the tactical display adjusted to realspace, Ralina was pleased to see they had arrived in the Luire system safely. She couldn’t see Caillte yet, but it would not be long now. Her crew, generally sluggish during faster-than-light travel, received vitality and manned their individual stations with newfound gusto.

Manda had been sitting near her terminal the entire time, ready to monitor incoming transmissions or anomalies. Fetcher did not have to pilot the ship during hyperspace; Hutt engineers had installed a rather advanced auto-navigational system that could be used to maintain a steady course while the hyperdrive was active. Posh traded places during the flight, but he was currently at Fetcher’s station, piloting the ship, while the Shistavanen inspected the ship’s guns.

“Captain, we have incoming ships approaching from the starboard side,” Manda cooed, eyes focused on her terminal.

“Republic ships?” Ralina asked.

“I don’t think so, Captain. They weren’t in-system when we arrived. Based on their current vector, they intend to intercept us,” the Devaronian replied.

“They could be a Republic patrol that hasn’t received our clearance codes,” Posh chimed in.

“Broadcast them, then,” Ralina ordered. “Let them know we have permission to travel through this sector.”

“I’ve broadcast our codes several times.” Manda shook her head. “No response, Captain.”

“Pirates, then?” Posh asked no one in particular.

“They’re launching fighters. They’re coming in now,” Fetcher noted, glancing at his own navigational computer.

“Incoming!” one of the Nikto navigators shouted. “Brace for impact!”

The ship trembled as a few laser shots hit the dorsal side of the ship. The vessel’s shielding protected it, but a few less experienced crewmembers nearly jumped out of their seats. Fetcher snarled at them, sending them back to their seats without objections. Warning alarms went off prematurely, disabling standard glowpanels and replacing them with standard red-and-orange auxiliary lighting.

Ralina ordered the Nikto officers monitoring the vessel’s shields to keep her updated on its strength. Glancing at the holographic display at her side, she scanned the area around the Mercantile Gem. According to the readout, there were two squadrons of starfighters attacking the ships one after another. Two larger ships—probably corvette-class, based on their size—waited in the distance, not involving themselves in the fight.

The Mercantile Gem wasn’t maneuverable in a dogfight, depending entirely on its abnormally strong hull and its guns for defense. Its main gun was a repurposed medium turbolaser that was placed atop the ship; the turbolaser could not rotate or adjust its angle of fire, leaving the ship’s stern unprotected. A few smaller turrets were positioned on the starboard and port sides, but they had to be personally manned.

As the first wave of starfighters came in for another attack, Posh returned the controls to Fetcher without a word. Fetcher wasted no time, spinning the vessel on its vertical axis to avoid the incoming fire. Without warning, Fetcher forced the Mercantile Gem into a sudden dive that terrified the bridge crew and their opponents alike. Allowing the ship to drift for a moment, Fetcher pulled the ship around 360 degrees to navigate behind the confused starfighter squadron for a brief second.

Ralina shouted at Posh, who had activated and was in charge of the main gun, to pick a target and fire. He took a shot, but the firing computer didn’t have time to aim properly and missed his intended target. The second wave of starfighters soared behind the ship and opened fire while their companions split up and regrouped elsewhere. Veering to the right, Fetcher avoided some of the second squadron’s fire and gave the auxiliary turret operators a line of fire.

The ship’s port and starboard turrets spewed yellow laser fire at the enemy fighters; luckily for Ralina and her crew, even military starfighters lacked shielding. Their counterattack destroyed three fighters in the second squadron, vaporizing their pilots and turning the hulls into molten metal wrecks. The survivors split up and attacked the aft and bow of the Mercantile Gem to avoid the freighter’s turbolaser.

“Captain!” Manda shouted over the cries of the bridge crew. “Incoming ion shot!”

One of the corvettes that had been watching the battle from a distance fired its ion cannon. Fetcher did his best to avoid the attack, but he didn’t have enough time to react. The resulting ion burst disabled the Mercantile Gem’s internal systems, plunging the bridge into a startling darkness and silencing the alarms. A few cries were heard from startled crewmates, but no one was hurt; luckily, ion shots rarely damaged anything permanently.

“Bridge crew! What’s our status?” Ralina called out.

“Life support and other basic systems are online, thanks to our backup generator,” Manda called back, reading off the light of her datapad. “Lights, bridge terminals, and communications are down.”

“Main gun offline,” Posh replied. “Turrets are dead too.”

“Our main engine and hyperdrive are offline,” Fetcher grumbled. “Running on inertia for now.”

Ralina spat. These pirates were well equipped. “What about shielding?”

“Disabled,” a Nikto crewmember replied.

“How long until we restore power?” Ralina asked.

“Fifteen minutes, at least,” Manda noted. “A few technicians are working on getting us back online. Getting the hyperdrive working may take longer.”

“We don’t have fifteen minutes. Those pirates will destroy us by then,” Fetcher mused.

“Posh! Come with me,” Ralina ordered. “We’re going to take this fight to them.”

“Captain, you can’t be serious!” Manda shouted. “We need you here.”

“Nonsense; Fetcher, you handle the situation here. Manda, keep him posted. And someone get Jon up here—I don’t know where he is. I’ll be back,” Ralina said.

Ralina leapt from her seat and navigated off the bridge. The ship’s doors had all been thrown open by the ion shot due to a glitch in the ship’s hardware, so traveling was easy. Using a small lantern that Posh had procured from the emergency supplies, Ralina led the way through the darkened passages of the Mercantile Gem. The ship quaked when a starfighter flew overhead and took shots at the exposed hull, but the attacks were increasingly sporadic.

“Why are they stopping?” Posh asked. “They have us right where they want us.”

“They’re probably going to board us,” Ralina mused. “Or they don’t want us dead immediately. Either way, it’s no use worrying about it. Come on.”

It took about five minutes for Ralina and Posh to reach the hangar. Hardly used, it had been converted to a cargo hold. The only ships inside were two dark blue Aurek-class tactical strikefighters that had seen better days. These ships had been purchased on a previous visit to Ord Mantell as junk, but Ralina’s crew had repaired them. She had been meaning to test them, but she never had time. Better now than later.

Hopping into her ship and running through a preflight checklist in her head, Ralina realized that it had been years since she had flown a starfighter. Everything seemed to be in working order, so she closed the cockpit, slipped on her helmet, and turned on the ship. This will be quite a refresher course, she mused. The delta-shaped craft’s engines growled, prepared for action.

“Ready, Posh?” Ralina asked through the ship’s comm.

“Ready, Captain,” came the reply.

The two Aureks raced out of the Mercantile Gem. Ralina’s ship shook as it entered open space, and she worried her starfighter wouldn’t hold up on its first flight. Whispering to herself, she hoped that her death would not be the result of mechanical error.

Ralina checked her radar and found the first squadron of enemy fighters. Adjusting her flight path, she moved in to intercept them. Posh stayed at her six; he was a competent wingman, and according to his records he was a better pilot than Ralina. Approaching from the starboard side, their targets didn’t even react until Ralina hammered her trigger. Green fire flew from the ship’s wing-mounted cannon, obliterating two of her angular targets and damaging another. Before the squadron could react, she cut between the center of their unit and successfully divided them in two groups. Posh fired two proton torpedoes at the starfighters forced to avoid Ralina, destroying three more fighters. The survivors broke formation and fled at random vectors.

Pursuing her opponents, Ralina picked out a group of two starfighters and fired at them from behind. The one to the left swerved away and avoided Ralina’s laser fire, but the other took a direct hit to the engines. The entire craft exploded into metal bits and flaming residue as Ralina spun her ship around to pursue the other target. To her delight, Posh had already destroyed it with a few well-placed shots.

“How’s your ship, Posh?” Ralina asked.

“Good,” he replied via comm. “A little scratched by some stray fire, that’s all. Are you okay, Captain?”

“Yeah, I’m okay. Keep it up. I think the other members of the squadron escaped.”

Posh joined her as she performed a sharp turn to the left. The other starfighters had regrouped about a kilometer away in an offensive formation. Shaped like a spear and coming toward them head-on while firing their ventral cannons, the starfighters were set to collide with each other. Ralina scoffed at their basic tactics. No doubt the squadron leader was in the front, where he would be most exposed to laser fire. Even if he wasn’t, approaching a target directly was akin to a pilot’s suicide.

Flying toward the approaching fighters with Posh trailing her, she did her best to navigate the barrage of laser fire. Her craft shook at several near misses, and she felt a shot tear off her left wing. Emergency klaxons shrilled in her ears. This wasn’t a great idea. To her relief, Posh abandoned his current path and left her alone, flying overhead. One fighter left the formation to attack him while the rest closed in on Ralina.

Avoiding the incoming red fire for a few seconds more, Ralina was thankful for Posh’s sudden return. He had left Ralina to fly above the incoming squadron, and he descended into their midst while firing proton torpedoes. The blue trails of his projectiles snaked their way into the pirates, who were practically face-to-face with Ralina’s craft. His torpedoes wiped out the squadron’s rear guard, and Ralina finished the survivors off with a stream of laser fire—starting with the leader.

“Captain,” Fetcher’s voice came in on Ralina’s comm as she rejoined Posh. “Captain, are you there?”

“I’m here, Fetcher. Is the ship back online?”

“No, but the communications and shields are,” Fetcher explained. “We called for help, but the remaining starfighters have returned to one of the corvettes. They’re moving in to board us, Captain.”

Sure enough, the two corvette-sized vessels were swiftly approaching the stranded Mercantile Gem. The remaining squadron of fighters had docked inside the larger one that was shaped like an oblong disk while the other, an angular craft with a tri-pronged bow that resembled the starfighters they carried, moved in with its hull-cutter.

“Posh, do you have any proton torpedoes left?” Ralina asked.

“None, Captain,” he replied.

“Damn. Do you think we could take out its shields?”

“With our lasers? Probably not. They’re sure to have anti-starfighter turrets too,” Posh noted.

“Then what do we do?”

“Captain Ralina Venliiii…” a guttural, cracking voice came from her comm. “Are you unharmed?”

Ralina recognized the voice. “Rashinodies?”

“The same. Allow meeee to beeee your savior heeeere. Tell your men to stand down.”

Ralina contacted Fetcher, telling him to continue restoring power but not to actively engage the pirates. By the time she had disconnected, several diamond-shaped Hutt starfighters zoomed through space to engage the angular corvette. As Posh predicted, its anti-starfighter guns proved effective, destroying an entire squadron before two more Oorica-class heavy freighters and a single Erethos-class cruiser arrived on the scene.

Built to go toe-to-toe with Republic Hammerheads, the Erethos cruiser’s turoblaser fire burned away at the corvettes’ shields. Moving away from their intended target and turning to engage the new arrivals, the pirates attempted to fight back, but to no avail. Without shields, their critical systems were exposed to yellow turbolaser fire. The carrier was destroyed first, belching flames and melted bits of metal from its shattered hull. The corvette joined its marauding brother by the time the Mercantile Gem’s turbolaser reactivated.

Ralina scanned the area for hostiles, both in her viewport and with her radar. A few starfighters had escaped from the burning carrier, but they were destroyed in short order by the Hutt fighters. Her and Posh’s starfighters had taken some damage—hers more so—but they were repairable.

“Thanks for your help, Rashinodies,” Ralina spoke over an open comm. “We couldn’t have destroyed those pirates without your help.”

“Indeeeed…”

“How did you know we were here?”

“Your first mate, Fetarollias, contacted us for assistance,” Rashinodies explained.

“I take it Mercium sent you?” Ralina asked, with about the same enthusiasm.

“Indeeeed. Heeee expects to seeee you in the Glorious Citadel once you land.”

“Well, let’s not keep the grand one waiting,” Posh muttered to Ralina on a closed comm.

“Right. Let’s go, Posh. We’ll dock these things and meet the others on the bridge.”

*** ***

Caillte was a barren wasteland in the outlying regions of the Mid Rim. It had no particular points of interest beyond the Glorious Citadel, an old outpost that had been built by the Mandalorians during their war. There were many such buildings dotting what used to be the Mandalorian Empire, but this one in particular was an engineering marvel. Built deep within the crust of Caillte, it was undetectable by traditional scans from orbit and was safe even from bombardment by capital ships.

After docking the Mercantile Gem atop a plateau designated for them, Ralina and her crew followed Rashinodies and about one thousand men—the crews of the ships sent to aid them—to the entrance of the Glorious Citadel. Renamed by Mercium the Hutt, the only entrance that they had found was an elevator system that accommodated about fifty. It had been built into a series of caves across the planet’s barren surface, but it was obviously not the main entrance. Much to Ralina’s grief, they spent about an hour making sure their respective crews were inside the citadel before Rashinodies allowed them to enter.

The inside of the citadel had been redecorated after the Mandalorians abandoned what they had called Unity. The citadel was comprised of long passageways that broke off at various points to reach individual rooms; however, if visitors kept going, these passages were connected at large hubs, branching out in webs from there. These hubs were littered with Hutt memorabilia and items sacred to their slave species. Some of it was terribly bizarre; Ralina winced the first time she saw a Hutt sculpture, modeled after some distorted and grotesque beast she didn’t recognize.

Ralina, her immediate crew, and Rashinodies walked through several lengthy hallways on their way to Mercium the Hutt. The rest of her crew had been relieved of their positions, allowed to return to their slave quarters elsewhere in the base. Ralina knew that her additional crew was made up of Mercium’s slaves, but she had never quite grasped what that meant. Not until she saw them being beaten and left to die at the hands of various thrallmasters.

It made her sick, but she didn’t say anything. She knew that the Hutts were powerful, and it would be foolish to oppose them. After all, Mercium had captured the Hound’s Sapphire and forced Ralina and her crew into working for him. Fetcher and the rest of her crew hated the Hutt just as much as Ralina did, but they kept silent. They were all slaves here, but only some of them wore chains.

Upon reaching the central hub that housed Mercium the Hutt, Rashinodies was allowed to enter, but Ralina and her men were forced to stay behind. A pair of Vodran guardsman inspected and frisked them for weapons and other hazardous objects, and one of them seemed to enjoy the task of searching Manda too much. Fetcher snarled at the guard, forcing him to back away. After the search was done, they were allowed to enter the Hutt’s presence.

Seated in a throne that towered over the surrounding room, the Hutt was adorned with valuable jewels and shimmering metals. Despite the wealth that surrounded him, his slimy, slug-like appearance was absolutely repulsive to Ralina. She couldn’t imagine how the dozens of female slaves he kept—Twi’leks, Vultans, Bothans, Mon Calamari, and a few Cathar, among others—could stand his presence. Clothed in revealing outfits, they alternated between dancing for the Hutt’s pleasure and personally feeding him.

Despite the guards outside, Mercium was not satisfied with their protection; no, he was as concerned for his safety as any crime boss. Dozens of Gank killers lingered in the corners of the room, armed with pulse rifles and vibroblades to engage troublemakers. And if they failed their task, Rashinodies, serving as the Hutt’s lieutenant, was allowed to sit at his side as his most able protector. He had proven his loyalty many times over, and he was in charge of the Hutt’s entire host of slaves—numbering at nearly two thousand.

The Hutt’s floating translator droid positioned itself beside his hulking form. Rashinodies whispered a few words to the Hutt on his throne, and the crime boss laughed quietly. They spoke in Huttese, keeping the conversation from Ralina, at least.

“It is good to see you well, Ralina Venli,” the voice of the translator seemed to match the bombastic tone of its owner. “I take it the cargo you fetched for me is safe.”

“It is secure, but it is still inside the Mercantile Gem. I didn’t have time to remove it properly after we landed,” Ralina replied.

“Very good. I will send some of my slaves to collect the goods and bring them here.”

“Am I grounded in the meanwhile?” Ralina asked apprehensively.

“Not quite, Ralina Venli,” Mercium said. “I have another assignment for you.”

“Another? His Grandness is too kind.” Ralina performed a mocking bow. “What would you have us do?”

“First, let me say that I am withholding your payment-”

Ralina’s eyes lit up. “Wait a minute. You don’t get to do that! We performed your tasks; we deserve payment!”

A Gank killer seemed to creep toward Ralina and her crew. Cybernetic armor concealed its body from head-to-toe, and its curved helmet was altogether expressionless. He was a bit shorter than most of her crew, but no less threatening. The Trandoshan lieutenant also stirred, but Mercium waved at him to stay where he was. Despite Ralina’s interruption, the Hutt didn’t seem angry.

That was not a good sign.

“I am Mercium the Grandiose, smuggler. I do exactly how I please. And it pleases me to withhold your credits.”

“You’re already holding our ship!” Manda spoke up angrily. “That’s not fair!”

“Keeeep your crew silent, Ralina Venliiii.” Rashinodies flashed his curved teeth. “Or else I will silence them.”

“Threaten my crew again, and your hide will become a mat for His Grandness to slither on,” Ralina shot back.

“Enough!” Mercium boomed. “All of you: be silent. Mercium speaks.”

“My lord,” Rashinodies muttered in reverence.

“I withhold my payment now, and you will be paid only for this mission, which I give you now,” Mercium began. “There is a world on the frontier known as Anobis. I was… informed that it is an empty world, and it will not be settled for many years to come. However, there is a wandering Jedi that spends its time there. You are to capture it and bring it here… alive.”

Fetcher protested immediately. “Excuse me, Mercium. We are not kidnappers or slavers. We do not do this kind of work, and-”

“Did I say you could speak?” Mercium bellowed.

The Trandoshan removed his blaster pistol from his chest-holster and fired at Fetcher. Ralina and Manda screamed as the red blaster bolt hit Fetcher in the chest, eliciting a painful howl from the towering Shistavanen. Posh reached for his own blaster, but they had been stripped of their weapons before coming inside. Rashinodies pointed his blaster at Posh but did not shoot.

Ralina rushed to Fetcher’s side. Manda was screaming profanities and angered nonsense at the chortling Hutt, but the captain couldn’t hear them. Gently lifting Fetcher’s head off the floor, she used her other hand to grip his. Whispering, she begged him to stand up. To be okay. To speak. She felt the tears well up in her eyes. If only he would open his.

“I’ll kill you!” Manda shouted at the boisterous Hutt. Posh had to physically restrain her. “I’ll make sure you won’t be able to eat anything else ever again! So help me, I’ll-!”

“Do not fear, Ralina Venli. Rashinodies’s blaster was set to fire a weak burst of energy. Your pilot will survive, albeit with wounds,” Mercium assured her.

He was right. As if he had waited for the confirmation, Fetcher’s hand squeezed Ralina’s, burrowing his claws into her hand. She was numb to the pain, but she felt the warm blood trickle down the back of her hand. Ralina was crying now, and the tears blurred her vision so she could no longer see the gaping wound left by Rashinodies’s blaster.

“You bloated monster,” Ralina gasped through the tears. “You kriffing…”

“Beeee kind, Venliiii… I did spare your comrade, after all,” Rashinodies cackled.

“What makes you think I’ll help you?” Ralina steeled herself. Blinking a few times, she sniffed and wiped away the tears. “You just shot my friend—my pilot! Why should I do anything except shoot you right now?”

“You have no choice in the matter. If you do not, I will kill your crew. And once they are dead, you will become my slave, Ralina Venli.” Mercium licked his lips. “I have always wanted a Human female in my harem.”

Manda started shouting again. Ralina bit her lip, punching the floor. She couldn’t say anything—the first things would be screams and threats. What was going on? Damn it all. She hit the floor again. Weren’t you going to become stronger? she chided herself. She had already lost so many friends, loved ones, family, and crewmates while spacefaring. Even in her military days, pilots she had grown so fond of would die without warning. She vowed to never put her crew in danger for her sake; yet here they were, all in danger because of her. Because of her weakness. She refused to let them die here. She would suffer consequences later; for now, she had to see them through this.

“Fine…” Ralina mumbled. “We’ll do your work.”

Manda’s vocal anger was subdued almost immediately, replaced by a shock that Ralina knew would fashion into a confused rage in time. The look she received from the Devaronian caused Ralina to start crying again. She wouldn’t understand. Ralina couldn’t do anything to save them except give in. Posh let Manda go, taking note of her newfound calm, and approached his captain.

“Very good!” Mercium boomed. “Your old ship, Hound’s Sapphire, has been repaired and is ready for you to use. My own slaves will remain here this time.”

“I will… need another… crewmember,” Ralina managed to say. “We depended on… on Fetcher to manage our weapons and pilot the ship.”

“Very well. You may take Rashinodies with you,” Mercium said with a wide smile. “He is more than proficient in… handling weapons.”

Ralina glared at the Hutt with blurry eyes. She had let go of Fetcher, but now her own nails bored into her skin as she clenched her fists. Mercium the Grandiose was powerful, and he was well guarded. Ralina knew that any attack on him would be suicide. That didn’t concern her. With the last of her strength, he would pay for this. Damaging and seizing her ship was an insult, hurting her friend was a fatal mistake, and forcing Rashinodies into her crew was the last wound she would endure. She couldn’t do anything now because her crew would be endangered. Soon. She had one more mission to complete.

“Very well.” She tried to force a smile. “Shall we meet… Rashinodies on our ship?”

Mercium nodded. “I have a few things to discuss with him. Oh, and Ralina Venli?”

“Yes?”

“Your wounded pilot will remain here, in my care. My physicians will see to his recovery, and he will be ready to rejoin you once you complete your task. Successfully.”

Ralina heard Manda gasp. She hated it, and so did Ralina. She also knew there was nothing any of them could do. They had to appease the Hutt for now. His temper had been tried by Fetcher—the strongest of her crew—and hadn’t cooled. They had to accept this for now.

“And you promise to keep him safe?” Ralina asked.

“I give my word as the most grandiose of all Hutts.”

“Thank you. Let’s go, everyone.”

Manda and Posh halfheartedly followed Ralina out of Mercium’s chambers. Ralina could not bring herself to look back at Fetcher’s wounded body. She knew that Hutts had no honor; there was no point in trusting him or any of his minions. As long as Fetcher was with him, he was in danger.

She swore she heard Rashinodies and Mercium laughing at them as they left Fetcher behind.


Chapter 14

“There it is.” Oryan pointed out of the Whirling Fire’s forward viewport. “Chazwa.”

Raxsus scoffed. “Really? I thought it was the other planet we are currently approaching.”

Syrook chortled with delight, eliciting a few amused chuckles from Raxsus. Dynatha was sure Lucius would have laughed at the remark if he was not so absorbed in his datapad; ever since leaving Herzob, he had been updating its database entry in his digital atlas. Dynatha sighed. She realized that no one else opposed Raxsus’s sarcastic jab.

“That isn’t what I meant, and you know it,” Oryan protested.

“That’s okay, Oryan. You’re right; we do know what you mean,” Dynatha chimed in. “Where does Skullduggery hide out?”

“I don’t know,” he replied curtly.

“I thought you said you knew where she was,” Tserne spoke up, invisible.

“I knew you were lying,” Raxsus muttered.

“As I said, I know how to contact her. I don’t know where she lives. Once we land, I will set up a meeting for you via a short-range communicator.”

Syrook howled, notifying Raxsus of a safe area to land their transport.

“Well, then, I hope you’re ready. We’re heading down: ETA, five minutes.”

The icy blue orb got closer and closer, dominating more and more of the Whirling Fire’s viewports. Surrounded by inbound traffic, Chazwa looked like it was being blockaded on one side. None of the crew was eager to linger in space while the traffic cleared, so Raxsus avoided it altogether. Bringing the ship to the dark side of Chazwa, he allowed it to touch down in the uninhabited outskirts of the chilly planet.

Once the ship landed, the crew left the bridge with haste. Lucius took his datapad with him, updating information while he waited for Oryan’s call. Raxsus and Syrook hiked toward the hills in the distance, intent on scouting the surroundings. Dynatha didn’t know where Tserne was, but Oryan was still lingering in the ship.

“Oryan?”

The cyborg turned toward her rather abruptly. “Yes?”

“Are you going to make the call?”

“Yes. I can do it from here, don’t worry,” Oryan replied. “Not while you’re here though, I’m afraid.”

“Why?”

“Well, if secrecy is your intent, it’s generally a bad idea to let your target see you beforehand.”

“Oh… of course. I hadn’t thought of that,” Dynatha agreed.

“So, not for nothing, but the sooner you leave…” Oryan motioned toward the door to the bridge.

“I’ll see you later, then.”

“That would be helpful. Thank you.”

Leaving the bridge, Dynatha joined Lucius in the shadow of the ship. Her hands were cold and she had a cold sweat, as though she was developing a fever. That conversation had been stilted and awkward for her, and she didn’t know why. She was genuinely interested in their new teammate, but she couldn’t talk with him at all. What was going on? She wanted to know why he looked like a droid, why he lived alone, and how he met the GenoHaradan. No matter how she tried to come up with a proper time to bring up any of her questions, she just seemed like a pest. Lying on the grass underneath the darkened sky, Dynatha sighed and closed her eyes. Maybe after the fight they’d be able to talk.

She didn’t know how long she had been lying there, but Tserne shook her, thinking she had fallen asleep. She had just been meditating, so his actions weren’t necessary. Even so, her cheeks reddened at the thought of Tserne’s concern. Rising to her feet, Dynatha followed Tserne to the rest of the Whirling Fire’s crew. Lucius and the others were circled around his datapad, hardly paying mind to Dynatha and Tserne’s arrival. A three-dimensional display rose from the datapad’s screen, showing a multi-level building that was connected to several smaller buildings by bridges and elevators. Lucius lit up presumably important areas with simple points, but the others did nothing.

“What is this?” Dyantha asked.

“We traced Oryan’s call to Skullduggery’s location,” Raxsus replied.

“Against my permission,” Oryan snapped.

“After running a few quick searches, we found the building she was staying in,” Lucius said. “It was up for sale not too long ago, and the realtor forgot to take down the building’s floor specs.”

“Not bad,” Tsrene muttered.

Dynatha nodded. “So what’s the plan?”

“From what we can surmise, the building will be heavily guarded at these two points.” Lucius pointed toward two separate entrances located near the front of the building. “Organic guards, droids, turrets, the works.”

“However, Lucius and I think we can get an infiltration team through the back,” Raxsus said. “The area’s been repurposed to serve as a garage, and I think two or three of us could overpower the guards there.”

“From there, it’s three rooms from the garage to the security offices. It will be lightly guarded, I’m sure, but nothing new for us. Turning off the turrets, cameras, and primary outdoor lighting will let the rest of us get in without too much trouble,” Lucius continued.

“A reasonable plan,” Tserne agreed. “Are you sure about their strength, though? We don’t have any idea how prepared they are for an attack.”

“True, but we have to take that risk, or else Skullduggery gets away,” Lucius countered.

Syrook growled in agreement, and Tserne acquiesced to the idea. His fears were mollified.

“What do you think, mechanic? You’ve been awfully quiet,” Raxsus said pointedly.

Oryan looked solemn. “How can you be sure our team will make it through?”

“I already covered that. It’s a necessary risk,” Lucius repeated. “Unless you have some spare droids on hand?”

Oryan shook his head.

“Well, if that’s all, I think we can move ahead with the plan,” Dynatha spoke up.

“I think it’d be better to wait until night in the other hemisphere. We have to be careful either way, but attacking the compound in broad daylight is asking for trouble,” Raxsus noted.

Oryan floated toward the ship. “At the very least, we can move the Whirling Fire closer.”

Syrook growled softly, communicating something to Raxsus and Lucius. Dynatha didn’t understand him, much to her dismay. The Wookiee joined the floating mechanic and headed back to the ship, prompting the rest of the crew to follow. Lucius was last to join them, scooping up his datapad and performing one more scan of the area. By the time he had hopped aboard, the ship’s engines were ready to go.

*** ***

Dynatha pulled the mask off her face. Chazwa summers were balmy in comparison to other worlds she had visited, but their combat gear made this otherwise pleasant weather unbearable. Dynatha’s canteen was empty; to Tserne’s chagrin, she had wasted most of it on her hair and face. It hadn’t really help her cool down.

Raxsus had piloted the Whirling Fire about eight kilometers away from the city Skullduggery had set up her base in. From there, the crew had trekked the entire way, finding little shade and a rank midsummer’s wind to comfort them. Dynatha remembered sweating the entire time.

Once they were actually in the city, Lucius divided the crew into two groups: the main, offensive team and an infiltration team. Tserne was the obvious choice to lead the infiltrators, and Dynatha was assigned to his group. Raxsus and Syrook thought their proficiency in heavy arms would be more suited to the main group, which Lucius opted to lead. That left Oryan to join Tserne’s team.

That had been two hours ago. Since then, Dynatha and her teammates had positioned themselves atop a building near the rear exit of Skullduggery’s compound. From their perch, they could see the gardens surrounding the building and its garage, including all the guards stationed to protect them.

Tserne divided his attention between his chrono and monitoring the guards’ patrol routes. Wiping the sweat from her forearms and the back of her neck, Dynatha was bored and uncomfortable here. She was free to loiter around the rooftop, but there was nothing to do. Surveillance was easily a one-man task, after all.

“Here we go,” Tserne muttered. “Dynatha, Oryan, are you ready?”

Oryan tossed his arc wrench back into his sack of tools and nodded. Dynatha had not been paying attention—caught up in the heat and idleness of the situation—so Tserne had to call her again. Visibly flustered, Dynatha scrambled to his side, peering over the low balustrade that circled the rooftop. Tserne let out an audible sigh at Dynatha’s apparent confusion but said nothing. Removing a rather lengthy fiberchord rope from his belt, Tserne attached one end to the metal railing and threw the other end to the ground. It was a quick climb down, and the other two were relieved to find that the rope extended from the rooftop to the ground floor. Dynatha and Oryan delayed climbing down the rope for a few seconds, making sure that Tserne survived his descent.

Oryan merely had to slide down the rope, leaving Dynatha the last one to leave the roof. By the time she had reached the gardens, Tserne was already invisible and gone. Dynatha knew that he could handle a few guards; she had seen him defeat much tougher opponents. Oryan, though, hadn’t seen his handiwork and peered over the hedge they were hiding behind.

The four guards stationed in the gardens to defend the garage were armed with dark armor that covered them entirely; in fact, they looked vaguely similar to Sith troopers in lighter armor, sans the helmet. Combined with personal shields and blaster rifles, they seemed like expensive and disciplined mercenaries. Raxsus and the others would probably have a tough time fighting guards like these.

Of course, even hardened combatants were unnerved in the face of an invisible foe.

Bounding forward while hiding from their eyes, Tserne plunged one of his swords into the nearest guard’s chest. His vibrating, serrated blade tore up bits of flesh around the initial wound, sending blood and pulpy masses of fat everywhere. His companions practically jumped in fright; one of them fired a few bursts of blaster fire at nothing in particular.

Once the first guard was down, the next two had no chance. Erratic blaster fire would have worked against a lumbering foe, but someone as agile as Tserne could avoid it with ease. Dynatha found herself watching the fight progress with Oryan. Dual-wielding his swords, Tserne placed himself between the pair of guards and cut both of their heads off at once. By the time Dynatha stepped out from behind the hedge, the last guard had been bisected into a bloody mess.

Oryan joined Dynatha, and both of them stepped around the dead guards to meet with their now-visible ally. Tserne wasted no time with words, motioning for them to follow him inside. However, before he could reach the garage door, Oryan hovered between him and his destination.

“What is it, Oryan?” he grumbled.

“The door is locked. If you try to force it open, it will trigger an alarm.”

“Why didn’t Lucius know that?” Dynatha asked.

“I cannot say. Perhaps he did not account for updated security features,” Oryan reasoned.

“How do we get in, then? The other team will need our help to bypass their guards,” Tserne pressed.

“Well, I have the password to get inside.”

“Use it then!” Dynatha urged.

While Oryan moved toward the door’s terminal, Tserne asked, “Why do you have the security codes for Skullduggery’s compound?”

He paused for a moment. “How else would I get in, do you think?”

“If you entered from the front, you wouldn’t need them, would you?” Tserne countered.

“I guess not,” he said, ignoring the question. “0rTs3d. That should do it…”

As soon as he finished, the door to the garage slid open to reveal an entire squad of mercenaries. The door had opened quickly, but Tserne seemed to have been expecting trouble, fading from view as soon as he saw guards. However, none of the infiltrators had expected the cryoban grenade lobbed at them. Despite Dynatha’s best attempt to put a Force shield between herself and the explosion, she failed to stop it. The supercooled chemicals that burst from the grenade flash-froze her and Tserne, revealing his presence nearby.

Dynatha couldn’t move, but she was conscious, if only barely. Painful chills ran up and down her limbs and pangs of cold hit her back. In seconds, she was completely immobile and unable to feel the rest of her body at all. She would have screamed if she was able to move her lips, but it was a struggle just to breathe. Her vision blurred as Oryan surrendered to the mercenaries, and she passed out mere moments later.

*** ***

“… Skullduggery. I think she’s waking up.”

“Excellent. Let’s have some fun.”

Dynatha gasped softly. The buzz of an energy cage overwhelmed her ears, and she found herself suddenly disoriented. Her vision returned for a second, able to see an energy field completely circling her, but then everything was black again. After a few blinks, she managed to recover her sight.

It took her a few seconds to realize she had been stripped of her weapons and armor, leaving her in her brown robes and socks. Still not quite sure where she was or what was going on, she tried to stand up and immediately regretted it. The energy field surrounding her burned her hand when she touched it, leaving her fingers and palm bright red. Defeated, she remained on the bottom of the cage.

The room beyond her was frightening and empty. Painted a drab metallic color, the room was boring and not meant to inspire cheeriness or hope. On both sides of her cage, several empty cells were waiting for new prisoners. She saw a few panels on the wall opposite of her, and she figured they controlled the energy fields. Beyond that, the room had no decorations and no sense of livability.

And of course, there was her.

“Be careful with that energy field, dear. Its power level is meant to cause mild burns, as you have sadly discovered.”

A black haired woman at least ten years Dynatha’s senior walked in and stood in front of the cage, watching her captive with obvious interest. Dressed in a form-fitting black bodysuit that Dynatha could not see herself being able to pull off even at that age, the other woman completed her outfit with combat boots, a bandoleer of grenades, and a blaster rifle on her back. She had a smug look on her face, and Dynatha could sense traces of Force-sensitivity from her.

“Who… are you?” Dynatha asked, wiping her hands against her robe.

“Oh, my name isn’t important, dearest. But you may call me Skullduggery. Everyone who isn’t dead does,” she replied.

Dynatha’s eyes widened. Suddenly, everything about this situation made a little more sense. “You captured me… but where are my friends? Where am I?”

“You are in my base, dearie. Didn’t you know that? Wasn’t that where you were trying to go?” she asked in a fey tone. “After all, you and your… friends were trying to break into my garage.”

“But where are they?”

“Well, little dear, I’m afraid that your friends… well… they didn’t make it past my security.”

“No! That can’t be true!” Dynatha glared at the agent. “Where are they?”

Skullduggery sighed. Undoing her ponytail, she let her dark hair fall into place across her back. “Your friends are dead, my dear. I didn’t want to be so forward with you, but what’s done is done. The Vultan, the Wookiee, and the Human… they’re all dead.”

Dynatha suddenly leapt up and tried to reach through the energy field and grab Skullduggery. It didn’t work, but her hands received a few burns for the trouble. She couldn’t form any coherent thoughts, and she couldn’t speak. Before she knew it, she had crawled away from Skullduggery and hid her face.

Skullduggery must have been lying. She was a GenoHaradan agent. She must have been lying. There was no way—they couldn’t be dead. They had planned, prepared, and each of them had fought tougher battles than this. She was lying. Lucius, Syrook, Raxsus, Oryan…

Tserne.

Tserne was the Ghoul. He was invincible. He couldn’t be dead.

She couldn’t be alone.

She didn’t even realize that tears had welled up in her eyes until they actually started flowing down her cheeks. Running down her neck and onto her robes, her sobs almost drowned out the hum of the ring of energy around her. That energy keeping her from the one person she could possibly hate. The coddling insults of Skullduggery could have been vibroblades. Dynatha couldn’t hear them clearly, but her tormentor pressed on anyway.

“Don’t despair, love,” Skullduggery extended her hand, as though she could wipe the tears from Dynatha’s face. “I spoke too soon. One of them is alive.”

Who?

“Who?” Dynatha’s tears stained her face. “Who!?”

“Dynatha wants to know if Tserne is still alive,” a voice in the next room intoned. “Have you told her yet, Skullduggery?”

“Oryan?” Dynatha muttered.

Oryan hovered into the room. The last time she had seen him, he had been seconds away from becoming slag. Now, he was being flanked by the same guards that had nearly killed him. Dynatha’s mouth must have been agape the entire time because Skullduggery cackled with glee at the sight.

“That’s right. Surely you’ve put it together by now? Oryan was never helping you, my dearest. He’s been on my side the entire time, leading you and your valiant band of heroes into my trap,” she said, running her hand across Oryan’s mechanical chest.

“But… Oryan…” Dynatha could hardly force herself to ask. “Why?”

“You’re too trusting, Dynatha. I never had any intention of aiding you or your cocksure friends. Invading my workshop, destroying my creations, demanding my help—at blasterpoint, no less!” Oryan spat. “You could not honestly have expected me to help you willingly.”

“Oryan, I’m sorry I didn’t defend you against any insults. I didn’t mean to insult you or your creations, but…”

“Insult? Ha! Please, this isn’t some petty act of revenge. I have plotted your defeat alongside Skullduggery since before you knew of my existence. Did you think trying to defeat the largest assassin’s guild in the galaxy would have no consequences? Even without my betrayal, you would have failed. Skullduggery is ruthless-”

“Oryan, you flatter me,” Skullduggery purred. “Stop it, please.”

“She is the strongest assassin I have ever seen. She’s killed more politicians, more military leaders, more Force-users, than you could imagine. She’s the craftiest killer I know. Your group never had a chance, and now they’re all dead. Except… Tserne.”

Dynatha almost smiled. He was alive! She knew he would make it. As long as one of her friends survived, she had some hope. It was only as her mind started to catch up to her racing heart that she realized that this could have been a lie. She felt tension knotting in her chest. No, no, no. Please be true.

“Where is he?” she shouted. “Where are you keeping him?”

“Oh, I don’t think you want to see him, dear,” Skullduggery whispered. “He’s in a rather shameful position.”

“What she means to say is, Tserne has agreed to return to the GenoHaradan,” Oryan quipped.

“Of course, I cannot be sure that a traitor’s word is valuable, so I asked him to prove his devotion to the cause.” Skullduggery winked knowingly. “He proved his loyalty to me the only way he knew how. You know how men are, love. They see a woman, and they knew what they want immediately.”

Dynatha was mortified. “No. No. No, no, no. Don’t lie to me. Tserne wouldn’t join you! He wouldn’t help… no… don’t… lie to me!”

“I’m afraid it’s true. He hasn’t spoke in quite some time; I suppose he’s returning to his old self,” Oryan pondered aloud. “After all, once a monster, always a monster. The urges and instinct of a ghoul are so gauche.”

“You’re… you’re wrong! Tserne isn’t like that. He’s… he’s better than that. I know he is…” Dynatha whispered. “I know he is…”

“I’ll let you keep thinking that, dearest. I can only tell you what I’ve seen,” Skullduggery replied. “And I’ve seen some things from the Ghoul that you could only dream of!”

Dynatha saw the cruelty in her eyes. They were almost face-to-face; they would have been, if not for the energy field separating them. Dynatha’s entire body was trembling, and she her inner strength teetered toward nothingness. Words formed in her mind, but they wouldn’t come out. Gasping in pain, she couldn’t bring herself to confront it.

She couldn’t be alone again.

As if to mock her, Skullduggery bid Oryan follow her out of the room, sealing the door behind them. Dynatha had tried so hard to keep herself from breaking down, but she couldn’t take it. Lucius, Syrook, and Raxsus were dead. Tserne was gone, and Oryan had betrayed them all. The tears came without warning, and she turned her head to the wall.

I miss you…

*** ***

“So this is the Ghoul. I’ll be honest, he doesn’t look so terrifying to me,” Skullduggery spat.

Tserne had lost his armor and undershirt somewhere. Probably removed while he was unconscious. Struggling, he discovered that he was shackled by a bulky set of binders that were attached to pillars on his right and left. His limbs felt like they were going to tear from their sockets at any moment, and he could still feel frostbites from the grenade explosion across his back, on his shoulders, and just above his feet.

He tried to turn his head and get his blond hair out of his face, but it only proved to make him dizzy. They must have been sedating him. His wounds were not that severe, so it couldn’t have been blood loss. Couldn’t be too careful with the 'Ghoul', after all. They had to inflict as much pain as possible without killing him. It was agonizing, but this wasn’t the worst pain Tserne had experienced. He’d survive.

He recognized Oryan the moment he stepped into the room. Traitor. He would pay for what he had done as soon as Tserne freed himself. A few guards followed the floating cyborg into his room, but they weren’t that skilled; they were forced to use grenades to capture him, after all. If he escaped, they would be easy enough to defeat. The woman who led Oryan inside wasn’t familiar to him, but he guessed it was Skullduggery.

“And he’s just not as… manly as I expected him to be,” the female agent lamented. “Such a shame. I was expecting a masculine champion with brooding features and an enigmatic charm…”

“You expected someone named the Ghoul to be attractive?” Tserne shook his head. “Your mind is deteriorating from the holobooks, lady.”

“That’s okay. You don’t upset me, Ghoul. I could take everything I want from you, but there’s no point. You’re not as handsome as your friends, for sure, but you have your uses,” Skullduggery explained. “I just met with Dynatha, did you know that?”

That caught his attention. “What? Where is she?”

“She’s safe, that’s all you need to know,” Oryan countered.

“However, I must confess something to you,” Skullduggery cackled with delight. “Your other friends are not! Have a listen.”

Oryan opened the door to the left of Tserne’s room. Exposed to what must have been their torture chamber, Tserne could hear the painful groans of a Wookiee captive and a few other, weaker voices. The sound of a Wookiee suffering made his blood curdle; something that big shouldn’t be allowed to scream like that. Tserne heard Raxsus and his profanities beneath the fluctuating cries of Syrook, and he winced at the sound of it all.

“Do you hear that sound?” Oryan wondered aloud. “That is the sound of your three companions undergoing the most painful torture techniques the GenoHaradan can perform. Have you ever heard them cry before? Have you ever heard them scream? They won’t die, but they’ll wish for it before long.”

“But count yourself lucky, Ghoul. The sound of a woman’s voice is not among that pained chorus,” Skullduggery noted.

Tserne glared at her. “Don’t torture her. Take me instead.”

Skullduggery smiled. “Why, that was the idea, Ghoul! There is nothing worth preserving on you, anyway. It’s amazing how you and she think alike.”

“Dynatha had just recommended the very same thing, you see,” Oryan quickly added.

“What…?”

“Indeed. She wouldn’t talk to us at first, poor girl. She was rather terrified. But with a little… coercion, she confessed to all crimes—killing Overseer M’yoo, letting marked targets escape, botching missions,” Skullduggery explained with a smile. “I was surprised the girl used to be in the GenoHaradan; she is really quite pathetic. We told her the punishment, and she begged us to take you instead.”

Tserne struggled in his chains. “You’re lying. Dynatha would never say that.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that. You’ve probably never heard her suffer before,” Oryan retorted. “And that’s for the better. In the end, she was just too weak. We are only honest with ourselves in our darkest moments. The will is subject to the body’s pain.”

“Come now, Oryan. We’ve said an awful lot. Let’s leave the Ghoul to his thoughts,” Skullduggery muttered.

“But of course.”

As she turned to leave, Skullduggery added, “Who would condemn a lover to such agony? Unless…”

Struggling in his bonds, Tserne called out to Skullduggery, screaming at her to come back. Several minutes of silence followed, and Tserne knew she wasn’t going to honor his demands. Fatigued, Tserne slumped over. The drugs must have been getting to him. Dynatha wasn’t like that. He knew it. If his resolve failed now, he wouldn’t be able to rescue the others.

Several guards filed into the room. Unlike the others, they were lightly armored and carried what seemed to be medical equipment with them, but Tserne knew immediately that they were not innocuous. A pair of floating droids followed them in; Tserne was shocked by a burst of electricity from one of them, causing him to flinch.

“Wake up, Ghoul. We’ve come to make sure you scream nice and loud, so your friends in the next room can hear ya’,” the lead guard said. “Skullduggery said it didn’t matter if we rough you’s up a little.”

Who would condemn their lover to such agony?

The first thing he felt was a needle go into his arm, and then a precision blade sunk into his abdomen. Blood was pouring from the minute cuts, but the guards weren’t satisfied. One of them used his blaster pistol and smacked Tserne across the face, tearing open his lower lip. The guffaws that followed only meant they weren’t done. Not yet.

“Dynatha…”


Chapter 15

Ranval hated parties.

As a criminal on Taris, he had been exposed to its bustling nightlife on more than one occasion. It came with the environment; other criminals flocked to the unrestricted and unmonitored party scene. However, he never quite came around to enjoy it. After all, his vision was not stimulated by flashing lights and optical illusions like other sentients, and the rhythmic bass and pulsating dance music did not appeal to his finely tuned hearing, either.

Moving from Taris to Coruscant to train as a Jedi, he discovered that attending such social functions was a necessary part of information gathering and espionage. Sometimes, diplomatic meetings had to be conducted while in the company of several hundred guests. Nevertheless, parties on Coruscant were tame and regulated compared to the madness that occurred on Taris. For that, Ranval was grateful.

Sitting in the back of a rented hovercar with Senator Latona, he could feel his chest turn inside out. No matter how many of these galas he attended, he would never shake the uncomfortable feeling that came just prior to his arrival. Wearing black slacks and a green vest over a white button-down shirt, he was lucky to have something tasteful that didn’t resemble Jedi apparel. He intended to keep a low profile; it was Senator Latona’s event, after all, not his. He had thrown a brown rag over where his eyes would have been, and he had removed his grotesque prosthetics. Instead, he had placed one of his hands in a concealing cast and replaced the other with a simple and completely rigid plastic hand.

Eliorae sat opposite of him. She had opted to wear a light green ankle-length evening dress with appropriate jewelry. It had a lower neckline than Ranval would have liked, but otherwise, he thought she looked beautiful. Her golden hair had been put up to show off her shimmering silver earrings and to ensure her necklace, adorned with the Alderaanian royal seal, was visible.

“Master Ranval, I’m not so sure about this,” she admitted.

“About the party?” Ranval asked.

She nodded. “I don’t… well… I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this.”

“It’s really easy,” Ranval noted, although he chuckled as he lied to himself, “and it’s really no different than any other social function. Just be yourself.”

“I don’t attend very many social functions, Master Ranval.”

“Neither do I. It’ll be a learning experience for both of us.”

The senator pondered his comment for a moment. “It may… be harder for you, Master Ranval.”

“Oh?” Ranval grimaced suspiciously. “And why is that?”

“Your hand,” she clarified, giggling. “It looks like you stole it from a mannequin.”

Ranval frowned. “That’s… that’s not fair!”

“Just don’t shake anyone’s hand,” she added with a wink. “You may give yourself away.”

“Only if you don’t dance with anyone.”

She smiled. “It’s a promise.”

The hovercar pulled up to the Erestan Concert Hall. A large building in the southernmost part of Coruscant’s Zhell District, it towered over nearby restaurants and apartment buildings. The hall’s dome-shaped base blossomed into dozens of unidentifiable shapes that eventually merged into a center point. Meant to improve the acoustics and overall sound quality of the visiting orchestras, the strange structure had become one of the most famous concert halls on Coruscant.

“Master Ranval, I can’t do this! I’m going to be sick,” Senator Latona moaned.

The Miraluka’s plastic hand rested on her shoulder. “Come on. You can do this! You’re royalty; you must have attended other parties.”

“Last time I was at a party, Master Ranval, I was seated in a throne and surrounded by knights. People came to greet me, not the other way around,” she replied, surprisingly hostile. “I don’t know what to do here! I don’t know what to do!”

“Senator!” Ranval snapped. “I’ll be there every step of the way. It’s going to be okay. You can do this.”

She shook her head. “What if we get separated?”

Ranval smiled. Crossing his arms as best as he could, he extended his perception and sensed the young woman in the Force. Reaching into her mind, he found it unguarded but alert; she could feel his presence in her thoughts immediately. Looking at him in shock, she seemed to mouth something, but Ranval couldn’t read lips.

Do you hear me, Senator?

“Yes,” she said aloud.

Then you have nothing to worry about, right?

The senator reddened. Before she could respond, a valet opened the back door to permit the two of them into the concert hall. Ranval climbed out of the car—he made a rather oafish show without hands—and turned back to help the senator out of the vehicle. She hesitated for a second, but she hid whatever concerns she had behind a cheerful smile and accepted Ranval’s hand. Joining the crowd of the rich and elite clamoring into the hall, the two of them slowly navigated their way to the entrance.

The so-called gala room hardly impressed Ranval, but it was fancy enough. Shining tassels of some fancy material dangled from the hanging beams above them. Flowers of blue, yellow, and purple had been placed around the tables and balconies to provide the entire room with a pleasing aroma. At the center of the dining area was a small dance floor, where a few nobles danced and socialized. The servers here were all non-Human sentients, wandering around the room to decorate it with banners or replenish hors d’oeuvres.

“I’m going to get some food,” Senator Latona muttered.

Ranval gave her the best stern face he could. “Stay here, and stay with me. Stop trying to avoid the guests.”

“But Master Ranval-”

Ranval was about to chide the senator, but he sensed someone approaching. An older man in a black suit fought his way through the crowd to meet the two of them. He had thinning gray hair and was a tad overweight; in Ranval’s mind, a perfect Core World politician. Bidding hello to the pair, he approached with a fit of mirthful laughter.

“How good it is to see you here, Senator Latona. Senator Sonin was convinced you wouldn’t come, but I knew better,” he said, still laughing. “Who is your friend?”

“Oh… my apologies,” Senator Latona stammered. “Ranval, this is Senator Gesih Ubens of Foerost. Senator, this is Ranval Messor, my personal aide.”

“A pleasure, Senator.” Ranval motioned toward the cast on his arm. “You’ll excuse me if I don’t shake your hand.”

“Goodness me,” Senator Ubens gasped. “What happened?”

“Swoop bike accident,” Ranval explained. “My left arm’s broken and I don’t have feeling in my right hand yet.”

“You’re lucky to be alive,” the senator noted.

“So they tell me,” Ranval mused. “Thank you for concern, Senator.”

“Of course. Now, Senator Latona, there are a few people I want you to meet,” Ubens said with a smile.

“O-okay.”

“I’ll stay here and meet with a few other people,” Ranval spoke up quickly. “Don’t let me intrude, Senator Ubens.”

“Very well. Come with me, Senator Latona.”

Ranval took a few steps back, allowing the two senators to walk further from the entrance and through the crowd of chatting politicians, soldiers, and wealthy entrepreneurs. Before he lost sight of her, Senator Latona cast him a concerned glance. Ranval shook his head. I’ll be right here. Giving her a reassuring smile, he bid her to focus on Senator Ubens. He had faith in her; she just had to believe in herself.

Once he was sure that they were out of sight, Ranval moved toward a table filled with goblets of water. From here, Ranval could use the Force, both to enhance his hearing and connect with Senator Latona’s mind. Leaning against the table, he hardly drew attention to himself; a wounded Miraluka would hardly be cause for alarm, in any case.

Ubens led Senator Latona to a side table where two individuals were already comfortably seated. The closer of the two was a Human male at least two decades younger than Senator Ubens, complete with a full head of bronze hair and rugged muscles that caused the veins along his hands and around his chin to bulge noticeably. His eyes looked more feral than sentient, and he was clothed simply in comparison to everyone else here, almost looking like a Mid Rim farmer.

The other Human was a female a few years younger than Senator Ubens. Clothed in an elaborate dark blue dress with flowing sleeves and a fanciful design on the back, she had an equally decorative headdress that resembled some sort of avian. The wrinkles on her face seemed to trace across her features, transitioning from her brow to her cheeks seamlessly.

“Senator Latona, this is Senator Mer Sonin of Abhean. Senator Nina Nyvenek of Kuat I am sure you are already familiar with,” Ubens introduced the respective individuals.

“It’s a pleasure to see you both,” Senator Latona said. “How… are you enjoying the evening?”

“Please, Senator Latona. You may dispense with the pleasantries,” Senator Sonin drawled. “We’re here on business; if you want to talk gossip and fashion, you ought to turn yourself around right now.”

“I-I apologize.”

“Please, take a seat,” Ubens offered.

“Senator Latona,” Senator Nyvenek began once she was seated, “I don’t suspect you know why we called you over here.”

“No, ma’am.”

“How much do you remember about your father and his work?” Senator Sonin asked.

“Not- not very much, sir.”

“Your father, the late Senator Latona, was a staunch expansionist. He and Kuat Drive Yards had a mutually beneficial agreement,” Senator Nyvenek explained. “He encouraged military development for a stronger Republic.“

“He was an old ally, and his ideals were ever focused on the Core Worlds, as his father and his father before him had done. He believed in what the Heritage faction stood for,” Ubens said.

“I did not know that,” Senator Latona admitted.

“Alderaan has always been a prominent member of the Heritage faction. Agriworlds and underdeveloped planets in the Colonies are useless if not used to expand the Core influence. Your father knew this. He was a proud member of our cabal. For example, he agreed to siphon credits and business from Core Galaxy Systems to provide more funds to worlds like Humbarine and Axum,” Senator Sonin said.

“In fact, Humbarine and Axum almost joined our faction, before the untimely death of several key figures in their respective governments,” Ubens mused. “But that’s not important. We have seen what you’re capable of, and we think you’re going about your early career in the wrong way.”

The pieces were beginning to come together in Senator Latona’s mind. The Heritage faction was largely about increasing Core Worlds dominance at the expense of outlying systems. Humanocentric and militaristic, she had always seen them as her opponents in the Senate. She was no expansionist, and she hated the thought of increasing military expenditure while worlds were still recovering from the war against the Sith. However, she also knew Alderaan’s role in the galactic community—and the Core Worlds in particular—was quite prominent, and the Heritage faction had much to gain from allying themselves with her. Or, to be more precise, if she agreed to concede to their viewpoint and work with them.

“If you’re willing to look at the big picture—you are a senator of the Galactic Republic, not Alderaan’s Senate, after all—and drop this individualistic façade, we may be able to help you,” Senator Nyvenek said.

“Consider this: by allying yourself with us, you will receive aid from the largest political faction in the Republic, and you will suddenly have millions of credits to spend as you please. Not only that, but several of the galaxy’s largest shipwrights and corporations are suddenly yours to use as you see fit,” Senator Sonin spoke up.

“I… appreciate your offer,” Senator Latona muttered, “but this is an awful lot to hear at once. I don’t know if I can change my ideology just because of this. I… well… I respect my father. But… he may have been wrong.”

“Please, Senator. The field of politics is ever changing. If you do not stay in touch with the people, you will find yourself in trouble. Your position will be uprooted by a rising mind who is actually in touch with the game,” Senator Sonin replied.

“Sometimes your hands need to get dirty to succeed,” Senator Nyvenek assured her. “There are no set rules here. There cannot be, because we make the rules as we go. And if you’re not on the side that controls the game, you may as well count yourself out.”

“Politics is not about personal ideology, but about sectorial gain,” Ubens noted. “Do not let your beliefs compromise your chances.”

“I don’t agree with that,” Senator Latona mumbled.

“And that is why you will not get far in politics,” Senator Sonin chuckled. “Agreement or disagreement is not important. That’s not the point. It’s not a matter of being right or wrong. It’s a matter of finding profit in the end.”

“That is all politics is. Business at its finest,” Senator Nyvenek chimed in.

Latona frowned. How could they be so wrong? Despite whatever her father did to aid these people, he had always impressed upon her the idea that politicians served the citizens, not the other way around. Asking her to yield to their wishes and stop asking for funds to help the impoverished and suffering people of Alderaan was not something she could do. How would she face her people? However, she did not know quite how to word it in a way that would leave them with a good impression of her.

“I will have to consult with my aide, because I am not quite sure…” Senator Latona began.

Ubens smirked. “If your proposals—stealing from military funds, demanding reparations for those like the Cathar and the Zabrak, and building memorials to magicians—are any indication of your aides’s skills… well, let’s just say you could use some new allies.”

Senator Latona stood up from her seat. “Thank you for your time, all of you. But if you’re going to insult my aide, whose opinion I happen to value very much, I’m afraid I won’t be able to assist you. My father may have helped you, but I won’t be needing you or your faction.”

Senator Latona turned around and left, refusing to look back. Senator Ubens and Sonin protested until she had disappeared into the crowd. Senator Ubens stood up to pursue her, but Senator Nyvenek bid him to stop wasting his time. Any silence that might have lingered after the meeting was interrupted by Senator Sonin’s comlink.

“Excuse me, I have to take this,” he stammered. “We’ll talk later.”

“What now?” Senator Ubens growled as his companion left. “The girl’s awfully stubborn.”

“She was never supposed to be a senator. I hate idealists. To think, she was never supposed to be queen,” Senator Nyvenek hissed. “Sith killed our other viable options, damn them all.”

“Her father was far too lenient with her. What should our next course of action be…?”

“You don’t win if you don’t get your hands dirty, Gesih,” Senator Nyvenek mused. “Let us take action to find Alderaan a new senator.”

*** ***

“Would you like a drink, sir?”

“A Corellian brandy, please. Quickly, too.”

Rajes Thonnel waved the Twi’lek servant away to fetch his drink. Holding a few small edibles in his hand, he wandered around a circle of conversing politicians. Avoiding the larger crowds entirely, Rajes made his way toward a small table with a small fountain and lavish goblets for drinking.

A Miraluka was already standing around the table, staring at nothing in particular. Rajes stepped toward him, but he was careful not to disturb him. The Force-sensitive guest seemed to be lost in thought, and Rajes was not in the mood to start an unnecessary quarrel. He had someone to meet, after all; he couldn’t get kicked out before then. Scooping a silver goblet from the table, Rajes downed the water in a single gulp, spilling some onto his red military uniform.

“Are you okay?” The Miraluka turned to Rajes. “You seem confused.”

“A little,” Rajes admitted.

“Why?”

“I’m looking for someone; well, actually, someone should be looking for me. I just… don’t know where they are.”

“Who are you looking for?”

“His name is Oro Malthesinores,” Rajes explained. “He’s a big-shot senator; he’s supposed to be here, but I just don’t see him.”

“He’ll find you,” the Miraluka said matter-of-factly.

Rajes stared at him. It was easy to forget that these blind sentients were actually as Force-sensitive as the Jedi, making them incredibly powerful and more terrifying than most, even experienced soldiers. After all, the Jedi’s strength was so legendary several military handbooks advised soldiers to avoid fighting them in groups smaller than a platoon. He had no doubt this Miraluka was just as dangerous.

He must have looked particularly shocked at the Miraluka’s forecast because the Force-sensitive gave him a puzzled look.

“Are you okay?”

Rajes nodded quickly. “Sorry. I just realized I hadn’t introduced myself. I’m Captain Rajes Thonnel.”

“Ranval Messor. Forgive me if I don’t shake your hand.”

“That’s fine. But how can you be sure he’ll find me?”

“He’s coming this way.” The Miraluka awkwardly grabbed a goblet of water.

Rajes stared at Ranval blankly. “What?”

“Rajes Thonnel! Captain Thonnel!” a crisp voice called.

“If you’ll excuse me, Mr. Thonnel,” Ranval said, stepping away, “I too have someone to meet.”

The Miraluka was already gone by the time Oro Malthesinores made his way toward Rajes. The old senator was officially retired from active duty, but he was also obviously proud of his status as a military officer. Wearing a formal gray dress uniform as befitting a Republic Army general, he had more medals, commendations, and recognitions than Rajes had seen on his entire unit. The senator’s brown eyes cut straight into the younger soldier; it was as though he knew exactly who Rajes was and why he was meeting with him. That was bad. His broad face was shockingly free of the scars Rajes saw on so many other soldiers, wearing a few wrinkles near his salt-and-pepper moustache and around his jagged nose instead. Extending one of his muscular arms, he shook Rajes’s hand with the strength of a giant.

“Good evening, Captain Thonnel. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Senator Malthesinores grinned broadly.

“The pleasure is all mine, Senator.”

“You may call me Oro, Captain. No need for such… stuffy titles here.”

“In that case, you don’t need to refer to me by my title,” Rajes replied.

“Are you not a captain?” Oro asked.

“Well, yes-”

“Then be proud of it! Do not neglect your rank,” Oro said. “You serve the Republic every day; let people respect you for it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now, then, let’s talk.” Oro placed a hand on Rajes’s narrow shoulder. “Your father has told me very much about you.”

“All good things, I hope,” Rajes muttered.

“All of it! And if my word has any say anywhere anymore, you may not have to be a captain for much longer!”

Rajes smiled. This was going to be easier than he expected. He didn’t think his father would actually help him meet Senator Malthesinores, but here he was. Despite the fact that they were talking here, Rajes needed proof, perhaps a confession of sorts, that the senator was involved in some underhanded dealings against the Republic like Eto expected. At the very least, he needed to meet him again, after he contacted his former commanding officer.

“I would like that very much, sir.”

“Very good! You ought to meet me in my office, away from this pompous regalia and fanciful atmosphere. We can talk there without worrying about people listening. We may talk business!”

“That is a good idea, sir,” Rajes agreed with a smile.

“I’ll call you in a few days. I look forward to seeing you again, Rajes. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” Oro shook Rajes’s hand again and quickly dismissed himself.

Rajes watched the old senator head into the crowd to make small talk with other senators and politicians before escaping his view entirely. Snatching a brandy from a passing servant’s tray, Rajes drank the alcohol and sighed as it burned against his throat.

Pondering his next course of action, he realized that it would be difficult to force Senator Malthesinores to confess to any crimes. Besides, he was sure to have allies, in the Senate and the military. They were not necessarily important, but they were dangerous all the same. All of Rajes’s allies were either offworld or not reachable—he needed some help. For now, staying on Oro’s good side would keep him out of trouble.

“Your Corellian brandy, sir.” The Twi’lek servant returned with a new cup.

Rajes traded him for his empty cup. “Thank you very much.”

Might as well enjoy myself while I’m here, he figured.

*** ***

Ranval was glad to be back in the senatorial suite and away from Coruscant’s elite. Gone were the formal clothes and fake prosthetics. Equipped with his standard cybernetic hands and wearing a comfortable robe, the Miraluka wasted no time getting back to work. After all, an aide’s work was never really done.

Senator Latona had spent a few minutes talking with Ranval about the party and what she had been told by the Heritage faction senators. Ranval had listened in on the entire conversation through the Force as it happened, but he didn’t tell Senator Latona that. He figured she knew that as well, but if she did, she didn’t say anything. After talking with Ranval, she went to sleep and left him to his own devices.

The first order of business was to find out more about the politicians Senator Latona met with. After doing a few quick searches on the local government registry, Ranval had received enough information about them to get an idea of their history and background. To his surprise, these three were actually the leading members of the Heritage faction, and each of them heavily invested in famous Republic shipyards. The fact that any of them were interested in Senator Latona at all was odd; she was new, and she was proposing controversial legislation. Every generation had its upstart politicians, so that should not have been cause for alarm.

Then, suddenly, Ranval realized their most blatant intentions. Senators did not recruit members into their factions unless they felt threatened or they thought their faction could benefit from new blood. From their remarks, it seemed like they only wanted her to join their ranks to gain access to the shipyards she controlled. Alderaan’s royal shipwrights were, after all, one of the oldest and most popular in the galaxy. Further, if she was allied with them, they had all the more power to keep her quiet.

She denied their request, but that would not be the end. No, spurned senators were worse than petulant children. He needed information. He needed to learn their other goals. As long as they didn’t have their way, Senator Latona would have difficulty pushing legislation through the Senate. An entire political organization could easily stonewall any of her proposals. Alderaan was suffering; the longer they delayed much-needed aid, the worse the citizens would be.

As he skimmed through a few of these databases, his comlink blipped. “Hello, this is Ranval.”

“Hey, boss. We captured the target, like you wanted,” a female voice said. “He’s being escorted to a Republic prison world as we speak.”

“It’s late here on Coruscant, you know,” Ranval grumbled. “Couldn’t you just file a mission report? I’d get the message in the morning.”

“I could have,” the voice beyond the comlink teased, “but then I wouldn’t have been able to hear your voice again, boss.”

“Commander… please don’t be a pain,” Ranval sighed.

“Fine. But there is something else you should know.”

“And that is?”

“The Sith are moving.”

The remaining nerves in Ranval’s wrists burned. It was as if every mention of them set his entire body into a tumult. “How do you know?”

“Two separate reports. I received word that a Jedi has been attacking convoys in the Mid Rim. All the Jedi are dead, so you and I both know who it is.”

“You have my permission to move in,” Ranval replied. “Use deadly force as necessary.”

“No need. We have a team working on it.”

“Oh? Lree’s unit?”

“No, I have some friends looking into it,” the voice said flatly.

“Very well. And the other report?”

“We have reason to believe that the Sith are moving to invade Onderon. A few of our agents have reported spies within its military, and we suspect they will make a move very soon.”

“That’s not good. Onderon is already on the verge of civil war as it is,” Ranval noted. “We cannot afford to lose that system to the Sith.”

“I agree, boss.”

“See if our agents stationed planetside can pass that information to Republic officers and supporters of the crown. Maybe they can get some proof.”

“Will do, boss.”

“If there’s nothing else, good night, Commander,” Ranval said, switching off the comlink.

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