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Chapter 21

During her time imprisoned, Dynatha had found something comforting about the force field around her. After all, she was safe in this cage; she could not get out, but the guards could not hurt her while she was inside. That was far more comforting to her than the chance of escape now. The prospect of escaping at all had left her mind weeks ago, when she found out that her friends were dead.

Curled into a ball on the cold floor of her circular prison, Dynatha yawned softly and fought off her body’s urge to fall back asleep. After the first few days as a GenoHaradan captive, Dynatha’s life had become a cycle of being fed, crying, and sleeping. In this state, time seemed trivial, and hours blended together into lifetimes of monotony. She could have been in her cell for a year and it would have been no different than being imprisoned for three days.

She was alone. The gravity of this knowledge crept into her mind after the initial shock, eventually mounting itself as the foremost concern in her mind. Overcome by the loss of her friends, Dynatha spent nights crying in the silent darkness for respite from her fears. Sleep did not come easy, and her hopes had been dashed.

Her appearance began to reflect her grief. Without the benefit of showering facilities, Dynatha began to reek of sweat and tears. It was overpowering at first, almost enough to make her vomit, but it became as familiar as her cage in due time. Her blond hair became knotted and tangled, filled with the grime and dust that tended to accumulate in her cage. Forced to sleep on the floor, her muscles cramped regularly and ached for long periods of time. Being fed one stale meal a day did not help her figure, causing her stomach to collapse on itself until it looked like she hadn’t been starved during her time here.

Skullduggery and Oryan used to visit her quite regularly. The GenoHaradan agent spent most of her time insulting Dynatha and tearing down her already fragile spirits. Oryan seemed quite content with remaining in the background, saying nothing while Skullduggery enjoyed herself. Lately, however, neither of them had ventured into her quarters. The only ones left to talk to were the guards, who were instructed to say as little as possible while they provided Dynatha with food.

Dynatha was repositioning herself in her cell, careful to avoid burning herself against the energy field, when Oryan floated into her room. Her voice, weakened and parched, called out to him, but she hardly made a sound. He seemed to ignore her entirely, entirely oblivious to her presence. Then, much to her surprise, Oryan floated over to the wall-mounted controls to her cell. Pressing a few of the panels so they all flickered red, Oryan turned to face Dynatha and waited. The force field crackled and died, fading into nothingness.

“Oryan? What’s going on?” Dynatha babbled. “Why are you… helping me?”

“You may find this hard to believe, but I was always helping you,” Oryan said. “And I’m sorry you and your friends captured had to be captured because of me.”

“Captured? No. They’re dead! You told me yourself-”

“Skullduggery’s idea,” Oryan’s mechanical voice interrupted. “She said she sensed something in you and wanted you to give in to your despair. When you turned to the dark side, she would have both you and Tserne under her control.”

“Tserne? Is he okay?”

“Yes. All of your friends are alive.” Oryan’s chestpiece whirred loudly. “They’ve been kept nearby, in soundproof rooms, so that none of you could know where the others are.”

“But… but why?” Dynatha pulled herself out of the cell because her legs were too weak to support her. “If you’re helping us, you could have kept us from imprisonment.”

“No. Skullduggery knew we were coming. Ever since you defeated the overseer, she has been paranoid and irritable. She’s been spying on me at my workshop for months, figuring that I was the easiest GenoHaradan front to contact. She was prepared for an attack, no matter where or when you would have struck her compound. The best I could do was lead you into her trap, keep you all alive, and prepare for another chance.”

“How can I trust you, Oryan?” Dynatha asked, her voice trembling. “You… you were working with her. She could have killed all of us…”

“No. I convinced her you were all more valuable alive than dead. I do not have the power to oppose her, but I know her well enough to have some effect on her opinions. I don’t expect you to believe me, but at the very least, let me prove my sincerity. After all, I did let you out.”

“I don’t know if I can believe you, but… I will let you try and prove yourself.”

“That is all I ask.”

“Where is Skullduggery now?”

“She is meeting with a local businessman on Caamas. I had to wait until she left the compound before I could free you,” Oryan explained. “No point in letting her kill me before I could work.”

Dynatha massaged her temples. “If what you’re saying is true,” she said, slowly, “then where are my friends?”

“Follow me.”

Oryan floated from his position by the wall to the door opposite of the one he had entered from. Dynatha tried to summon the strength to walk, but her legs were weak and she fell to the ground. The cyborg halted, noticing her weakness. He approached her and extended his mechanized limb to help her up. She was hesitant at first, but she accepted his help. Oryan slowly led her away from the cell and through the door. Each step she took away from her prison, Dynatha felt more of her strength return. Her shoulders relaxed as her worries seemed to vanish. Her legs gained more vigor with each step, increasing her agility and her heart rate. It was not long before the Force, too, returned to her. Freedom revitalized her spirits; before long, she could walk on her own.

Oryan bypassed several dead guards on his way through the silent corridors. Smashing an identification panel against the wall, the damage forced the locked door before them to slide open. Hovering though the doorway, Oryan made sure the room was clear before letting Dynatha follow him inside.

Her heart nearly punched through her chest when she saw Tserne. Bound to pillars by wrist binders, he didn’t notice their arrival. He faced the floor and his hair was thrown over his face so it was nearly impossible to tell if he was conscious or not. Dried blood was smeared across his body, covering his face, his hands, and his chest. There were large gashes along his arms, around his sides, and near his ankles. His wounds were severe, but Dynatha was just relieved that he was alive.

“Tserne,” Oryan called. “Tserne. Wake up.”

“Huh?” Tserne groaned. “Oryan?”

“It is I. I’m going to free you, but you cannot attack me.”

Tserne stared at him. “The moment you let me out of here, you’re dead.”

“It’s quite unwise to threaten the only one who can set you free,” Oryan said, floating toward Tserne. “I do not understand your irrational desire for retribution, but I sympathize. I can only assure you that it would be better, for now, if you withheld your desire for violence.”

“Tserne, he’s helping us,” Dynatha said.

Tserne’s eyes widened, and he noticed her presence for the first time. As though a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders, Tserne relaxed and nodded slowly. Dynatha smiled in an attempt to lift his spirits. Struggling in his binders, Tserne tried to free himself on his own.

“You don’t understand, Dynatha. I know you want to trust him, but he’s dangerous,” Tserne replied. “He’s working with Skullduggery and the GenoHaradan. We can’t believe him.”

Dynatha shook her head. “Tserne, please don’t try to hurt him.”

“He betrayed us. We can’t just let him do what he wants now!” Tserne countered.

“If you insist on being difficult, I will leave you here,” Oryan noted.

Tserne bit his lip, tearing open a cut just above his chin. Summoning all of his strength, he pulled on the chain holding his binders to the pillar on his left side and broke the links. His display of superhuman strength startled Dynatha, and Oryan realized it would be best to separate himself from the captive. However, he wasn’t fast enough. Tserne managed to grab one of the cables that linked the cyborg’s cranium to his hoverchair. Unable to resist lest he damage his own machinery, Oryan allowed Tserne to pull him closer.

“Let me go, and I will free you,” Oryan said calmly, standing face-to-face with Tserne.

Tserne ripped apart the chain holding his other arm to the pillar. “As you can see, I’m quite capable of doing that myself.”

“Tserne! Let him go!” Dynatha cried.

“Why? So he can try to kill us again? So we get to sit through more torture? More bleeding? More starvation? I don’t think so.”

“He’s going to help us! Let him go!”

“She’s right, you know,” Oryan replied, not at all bothered by the danger he was in.

Holding the cyborg’s coiled wiring with both hands, Tserne made sure his captive couldn’t move at all. Tserne glanced at Oryan, then at Dynatha. This was insane. His entire being told him to strangle the traitor with his own cables and end this now, but Tserne could not bring himself to do it. At Oryan’s behest, he had been tortured for who knew how long, and now he could kill him in an instant. Where was his resolve? In the end, his devotion to Dynatha proved stronger than his desire for vengeance. She alone saved Oryan. With a disapproving growl, Tserne released his hold on the cyborg.

Dynatha mouthed thanks to Tserne, but he hadn’t heard her. Without a word, the cyborg floated over to the wall and released the bindings on Tserne’s feet. Something in his eyes told Dynatha that Tserne was grateful to Oryan for the assistance, if only a little, but he refused to acknowledge that fact. Returning to Dynatha’s side, Tserne turned invisible and hid himself from Oryan.

Dynatha smiled, more confident now that Tserne was with her. “Where are Lucius and the others?” she asked Oryan.

“Right here,” Lucius answered, walking into Tserne’s chambers with Raxsus and Syrook in tow.

“Raxsus! Syrook! Lucius! You’re all okay!” Dynatha said.

“No thanks to your mechanic friend,” Raxsus spat.

“Raxsus,” Lucius turned and scolded him. “Oryan freed us. We owe him our gratitude.”

Syrook growled disapprovingly, and Raxsus nodded in agreement.

“He also got us stuck here and tortured. Or did you forget about that?” Raxsus asked.

“I won’t deny that what I did was harmful and could have killed all of you. But I tried to the best of my ability to keep you all safe. You may not believe me, but understand that I hate Skullduggery as much as the rest of you.”

“We can’t trust you,” Tserne spoke up while invisible. “How do we know you’re not just leading us into another trap?”

“If I wanted to kill you all, why would I let you all free? Why would I tell you where Skullduggery and Tiron are now? Why would I send you on your way with all the information you need to take her down?” Oryan asked, his gyros whirring as he became more irate.

“I don’t know,” Lucius said. “You could have told us beforehand that we would be captured. It would allow us to have more faith in you…”

“Impossible. If you were not really despairing, she would have known. She is…” Oryan hesitated for a moment. “She is powerful. There is something about her that is unnatural. My sensors perform erratically around her as though I were facing Tserne or Dynatha.”

“She’s Force-sensitive?” Dynatha wondered.

“That is a very likely possibility,” Oryan replied plainly. “That is also why I had to wait until she left the planet entirely. She would have sensed something wrong with her facility. She’s done it before.”

“When we get to Caamas, will she have guards with her?” Lucius asked.

“Only the guards Tiron provides her.” Oryan floated to the door Lucius and his companions entered through. “You’ve killed all the guards inside this base, correct?”

“Yes,” Lucius replied. “We checked the primary security terminal to make sure.”

“Then we should linger here no longer. Come. The Whirling Fire remains where we left it, and I am in need of a recharging,” Oryan said with a sigh. “GenoHaradan technology reeks of death and charging just does not feel the same here.”

“We?” Raxsus chuckled. “You’re not coming with us.”

“How will you know where Skullduggery has gone?” Oryan asked, although his voice betrayed no inflection.

“You could tell us now,” Lucius noted.

“Negative. This would be insufficient,” Oryan countered. Bowing his head, he said, more pleadingly: “Let me come with you.”

“It’s too risky,” Tserne chimed in.

“Let him come with us,” Dynatha said.

“Dynatha…” Lucius cast her a disproving look. “It’s not a good idea…”

“While we bicker, Skullduggery prepares her forces,” Oryan pointed out.

“I am not following this traitorous, half-sentient piece of durasteel,” Raxsus growled. “Not again.”

“He set us free,” Dynatha said. “He’s proved that he’s not allied with the GenoHaradan. Why can’t you trust him?”

Lucius sighed. “This is pointless. Oryan’s right: we’re only wasting time.”

“If we leave now, we can reach Caamas in four days,” Tserne replied.

“Four days? Maybe if we intend to melt the ship’s hyperdrive,” Raxsus shot back. “I’ve never heard of a ship reaching the Core that quickly!”

“I can also aid you with that.” Oryan bowed. “Come, let me prove my worth to you.”

“Welcome back, Oryan,” Dynatha replied cheerily.

“This is madness,” Raxsus mumbled. “This agreement will be the death of us, Syrook, I swear it will.”

*** ***

The Lon Miroins was considered the crown jewel of Caamas dining. Although the building itself, made of glistening Alsakan marble and decorated by Coruscant’s finest interior designers, was quite impressive, it was the riverside dining experience that caught the attention of most patrons. Situated next to one of the tributaries that flowed into the Craden swamplands to the northeast, the local Caamasi had cleansed the running water of outstanding impurities. The canals were quite popular with naturalists, romantics, and artists alike, making the restaurant incredibly popular.

Many native Caamasi chose to live a life of vegetarianism, but the Lon Miroins had an extensive menu, including meats and fishes from across the galaxy. Despite the fact it received almost no local support for this, the restaurant was immensely popular among foreign dignitaries and visiting nobles, bringing in millions of credits a year. What would have been a doomed business plan on this world became a prosperous venture because only the richest offworlders could afford to dine at the Lon Miroins.

The Galactic Republic paid its politicians well. The GenoHaradan agent known as Tiron had been directed to this dining establishment to meet with a representative from the Galacitc Senate. Senators could afford to send their associates wherever they wished—the fancier, the better—and Tiron got a free meal while on business. Over the years, he had been to hundreds of such restaurants, bars, and eateries. His fanciful trips were far cry from the trials of his youth, some thirty years ago, begging for scraps and digging through trash just to get the semblance of a meal.

Adjusting his short black tie, he tried to make appear longer than it actually was. Tiron was dressed in a black business suit, forgoing the dark combat gear that he was familiar with. As always, he had to adapt. That did not mean he was totally defenseless, but at the same time he as less equipped than he liked to be. Blending in with the crowd of rich patrons and well-paid artisans that dined around him, it would be impossible for the uninitiated to tell that he was a professional assassin.

Tiron ran his hands through his combed-back brown hair. Sitting at a table for two by himself, he hoped that his guest would join him soon. If not, Tiron would begin helping himself to much more wine than he was comfortable with. The agreement was always that he would wait one hour before abandoning the meeting place. A few of the alien waiters cast him suspicious or pitying glances—they probably suspected he had been showed up by a female date. After ensuring they meant him no harm, he promptly ignored their stares.

Since its establishment as an organization of clandestine killers and black ops agents, the GenoHaradan had served Republic interests first. However, recent activities had forced the assassins and their guild to adapt. The Republic was collapsing on itself. Worlds were breaking away and declaring independence from the Senate. Trade routes were plagued by pirates. The military was in a state of disarray. It was time for the GenoHaradan to divert their allegiance. It was time for the GenoHaradan to join the Sith.

To survive, the GenoHaradan had to ally itself with those in a position of power. Without connections and access to private information, they were essentially useless. Prior to the Jedi Civil War, the GenoHaradan had depended on the Republic and secrecy for protection; in turn, the Republic was protected by their agents from the shadows. Now that the Republic could no longer defend itself, much less Tiron and his agents, it was time to ally with a greater power.

He had just taken a moment to check his chrono for the time when a portly Human male approached the table. With a ridiculously wavy black moustache and a balding head of hair, the man could only have been a Republic senator or one of their aides. Sighing to himself, Tiron rose to meet him. The agent shook hands with his guest and introduced him to his seat before returning to his own.

“It’s a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance, Agent Tiron,” the fat man said. “My master has long wished to meet with you but has never had a chance.”

“Still hasn’t.” Tiron noted dryly.

“Indeed,” the senatorial aide muttered sheepishly. Clearing his throat after a forced silence, he continued: “All your requests have been fulfilled, and we acknowledge that you and your operatives had completed any outstanding assignments.”

“I take it that means that the Republic no longer has need of our services?” Tiron asked, sipping some more wine.

“Precisely. Senator Malthesinores has determined that it would be better if you transferred all surviving agents to Khar Delba, where they will join the Sith Empire.”

Tiron nodded. “All surviving agents under my control will fall back accordingly-”

“Ah… hold on. There is one thing more.”

“What is it?”

“Senator Malthesinores has personally requested that you withhold a small team of agents to assassinate a particularly troublesome politician on Coruscant,” the aide explained. “All other agents may withdraw into Sith space.”

“Of course. I’ll organize a unit to travel to the capital.” Tiron’s eyes shot back and forth, searching for listening ears. He had to be careful. Now it was time for the crucial question. “What of the troopers?”

“Oh. Those.” The aide appeared disinterested. “The senators have suspected that they will actually be necessary in the long run, despite earlier forecasts. You said Skullduggery was talking with interested parties?”

“A few crooks allied with some Hutt crimeboss in the frontier,” Tiron drawled. “They’re finalizing the deal in the next few hours.”

“If you could stop that deal from concluding-”

“Consider the deal off. I’ll contact her now.”

“Then we’re done here,” the aide said. He picked up the glass of wine near him and raised it. “A toast to our future success?”

“Cheers,” Tiron replied with forced enthusiasm.

The aide took a quick sip of wine. His face contorted as he swallowed the alcohol—clearly not to his standards—and left the table without a goodbye. The fat assistant pushed his way through the crowd of waiters gathered around the tables and warily navigated out of the restaurant entirely.

Tiron pondered contacting Skullduggery then, like he said he would. The agent sighed. He would have time to contact Skullduggery and the others; for now, he was set on enjoying himself. The Senate itself had paid for this short meeting, and Tiron was going to get as much food and drink out of it as possible.

Some time ago, the GenoHaradan had come across a cache of Sith war materiel on a nearby world, replete with weapons, machinery, and Dark Jedi equipment. Such caches were not uncommon, but that was not the most unusual thing about it. The most unusual of all was the legion of Sith troopers, frozen in carbonite, as if to guard the trove from future invaders. Tiron’s contacts in the Senate had denied needing these valuables before, so the clandestine agency planned on selling them to the highest bidder. Now, it seemed, the Senate had some use for them. He would have to act quickly to stop Skullduggery from completing her transaction, but he assumed she would not rush it and he would have time.

The assassin had become so lost in thought he didn’t even realize that a waiter had come by and taken his empty bottle of wine. It was only after several minutes, when he tried drinking from his empty glass, that he realized the lack of alcohol.

“Would you like more wine, sir?” a Vultan waiter passing by intoned.

“Yes,” Tiron snapped. “If you’re going to snatch my source of drink, I’d appreciate you to at least provide a refill promptly.”

“I’m afraid service is… poor here,” the Vultan grumbled.

A Wookiee waiter roared at a stubborn customer in the distance. His loud cry startled most of the patrons, including Tiron. The other waiters tried to calm the angry giant while the patrons scrambled to get away from the scene. Of course, there was no sense trying to appease an angry Wookiee, and the furious waiter ended up throwing one of his companions into an empty table. Finding himself distracted by the Wookiee and the tall Human waiter who rushed in to try—quite foolishly—to wrestle him, Tiron lazily returned his attention to the Vultan waiter who was standing beside his table.

His eyes widened. The waiter had a blaster pistol in his hand, under his tray. Tiron was speechless, but his eyes spoke volumes. Three green bolts of energy ripped through the agent’s fancy suit, but the sound of fire was drowned out by the Wookiee’s increasingly angry howls. His strength left him immediately. Clenching his chest with both arms, Tiron felt his entire body convulse, and he could smell the burning flesh beneath his clothes. His vision faded in and out; when his eyesight returned, he was on the ground.

The Vultan knelt beside him, keeping his blaster in Tiron’s face. “So this is how Overseer Dessicus meets his end. The last assassin of the GenoHaradan, assassinated.”

“How… how quaint.” Tiron agreed. It had been so long since he heard his real name spoken by anyone. “Who… who are you?”

“A pirate who will become more famous and more powerful than you ever were,” the Vultan sneered.

“You… you still think I’m the leader of the GenoHaradan… don’t you?” Tiron coughed. “Fool. I’m… the Force… escapes me. Don’t you think Skulldu… her power…”

“What? Are you saying you’re not the last overseer?” The Vultan shook him. “Answer me!”

The Vultan’s violence kept him conscious for a few moments more, but he recognized the chill that ran down his spine. It was too late now. He would deny his killer to the grave. “Tsk. Stay here and d-die… with me…”

The Vultan swore and ran away from Tiron. It sounded like the other patrons realized that Tiron had been shot, and now the assailant had to escape. Even as his vision faded, the dying agent saw the tall Human waiter and the Wookiee waiter who had been arguing only a few seconds before race after him. They’ll catch him, Tiron thought.

He died seconds before Caamasi investigators arrived on the scene.

*** ***

Oryan guided the hoverspeeder through the skyline of Caamas’s capital city. As a cyborg, a few of his subroutines could prioritize directing the craft while the rest of his body—and the majority of his mechanized brain—acted independently. His cybernetics seemed like a blessing and a curse, and he seemed to have learned to live with them. Dynatha watched the skyline from the back seat of the car as they sped forward. It was easy for her to forget that Tserne was somewhere in the car, invisible and silent, but she had no idea where.

“Comlink message received: Raxsus says he and the others successf-f-fully killed Dessicus. They made their escape via the canals; will meet us at Skullduggery’s location,” Oryan reported.

“They’ll be late,” Dynatha realized. “We’re at least twenty minutes ahead of them.”

“Noted. However, they are also in a less populous area of town where it is easier to drive with less traf-f-fic.”

“Then I hope they’ll be able to help us.”

The rooftop of the Daeldon Suite was large enough to dock a small cargo freighter on top of it. Located in the vicinity of the most prominent tourists attractions—including the Lon Miroins—and the capital’s transport hub, the suite was once known for catering to the wanton lifestyle of wealthy Core elitists. Since the Mandalorian War, it had fallen on hard times; now it was used as a staging ground for the few criminals who still operated on Caamas. From her window, Dynatha could see Skullduggery standing on the northern side of the roof, flanked by a dozen GenoHaradan enforcers and battle droids. Standing opposite of her were nearly twice as many criminals operatives, local thugs who were led by a grotesque Mandallian giant. Standing three meters tall, his green muscular form dwarfed his companions, who were all heavily armed and well-armored for criminals.

Dynatha turned to Oryan. “Are you ready?”

“Ready. I will bring the craf-f-ft down in between the two groups. Is that satisfactory?”

“Of course. Please be careful

“Stay in the hovercar until I give the signal,” Oryan stated.

“Oryan?” Dynatha spoke up.

“Yes?”

“Thank you for helping us. No matter what happens, I won’t forget this.”

Oryan nodded, but otherwise did not reply.

As Oryan planned, the hovercraft floated toward the rooftop and caught the attention of both parties. Landing between the criminals led by the giant and Skullduggery’s assassins, Oryan made sure that the car was positioned in such a way that Dynatha could make a quick escape, if necessary. To their surprise, the criminals did not immediately open fire or try to flee. That was good. Opening his door, the cyborg floated out and revealed himself to Skullduggery and her comrades.

The other assassins were emotionless; in fact, they were so droidlike they probably did not even realize that Oryan’s arrival was out of the ordinary. A few of the Mandallian giant’s men growled and jeered at the interruption, expecting that it was some sort of ploy by the GenoHaradan. The giant’s pointed ears twitched angrily and he silenced them with a stomp of his foot. Of all the criminals, it was Skullduggery that reacted appropriately. Glaring at Oryan, she clenched her fist and reached for her blaster rifle with her free hand.

“What are you doing here?” she hissed.

“There’s been a problem,” Oryan’s droning voice replied. “The prisoners escaped f-f-from Chazwa.”

“What?” Skullduggery pointed her blaster at the cyborg. “You let them get away?”

“No, I did not let them get away. I know exactly where they are.”

“Then why are you here? Why are you interrupting me? This is important, Oryan! Get back in your hovercar and leave. If you do that, I promise not to shoot at you.”

“You do not understand, Skullduggery.” Oryan’s gears became progressively louder. “I know that this is important. But Dessicus is already dead; if-f-f I didn’t warn you-”

“Dessicus?” Skullduggery gasped softly. “What… happened to him?”

“Skulldigging,” the Mandallian giant barked from behind Oryan’s car. “What is this meaning? Are you intend to continue, or should I consider this deal done?”

“No! Stay! This is still happening.” She turned back to Oryan and said: “Get out of the way. We’ll talk about this later.”

Without warning, one of Skullduggery’s guards fell over. A vibroblade had been lodged in his chest, and bright red blood was gushing from the wound. Invisible strings pulled some of the Mandallian giant’s henchmen off their feet and into the hovercar, smashing their heads against the durasteel. Another assassin died from a vibroblade plunged under his arm. The other assassins instinctively moved to defend themselves, scouring the area for any unseen foes, while the giant’s thugs began running around and shooting at random.

Panic erupted around them. Oryan hovered nearby and watched Skullduggery stand, motionless and silent, in the midst of it all. She seemed immune to the violence around her. However, she was not apathetic; she knew exactly what was going on. Unlike the Mandallian giant and his men, she could sense the Force powers that were haunting them. She could faintly detect the invisible assailant destroying her droids and defeating her guards.

She sensed it all, but she could not do anything. Paralyzed by some unidentifiable fear, Skullduggery did nothing but watch as GenoHaradan agents fell around her, one by one.

The Mandallian giant roared at Skullduggery. No doubt he thought that the GenoHaradan had betrayed him. Lumbering over the bodies of his men, the giant grappled Oryan’s hovercar and tried to throw it out of the way. However, as his hulking body lifted the car, explosives went off inside the vehicle, sending the giant backward—and off the building entirely—and throwing those who stood nearby in random directions.

Once the Mandallian giant was gone, another hovercar flew toward the rooftop. There was a loud screech as its base met the duracrete rooftop, and the vehicle smashed into several criminals during its wild descent. As soon as the craft skidded to a stop, the doors to the hovercraft burst open, revealing Lucius, Raxsus, and Syrook, still dressed as waiters, armed and ready to fight. Their blaster rifles killed the rest of the Mandallian giant’s henchmen and the few remaining GenoHaradan operatives.

Once the rooftop was clear of all hostiles except for Skullduggery herself, Dynatha revealed herself, emerging from the shadows of Oryan’s ruined hovercar. Joining Oryan and the others at the center of the rooftop, they moved to block Skullduggery from reaching the stairs that led to the maintenance corridor.

“I know exactly where they are,” Oryan continued his thoughts from earlier. “They helped me kill Dessicus, you see. So, no, Skullduggery—or, should I say, Aehela Molac—we cannot talk about this later.”

Skullduggery stared at Oryan, then at the others. She had been fooled. Bested. Not only was her plan to sell off the Sith troopers she had acquired ruined, but her entire operation was compromised. Not by Jedi, not by law enforcement, but by a few ragtag bounty hunters and a cyborg who hardly counted as a sentient anymore. It was impossible; it was unheard of. In a matter of minutes, she watched a group of elite killers and the most terrifying criminals on Caamas die.

And they had left her alive.

Skullduggery was visibly trembling, evidently at a loss for words. Acting on instinct, she ripped out her blaster’s power pak and threw it at her opponents. Caught off guard by the strange maneuver, none of them expected her to reveal a concealed holdout blaster from her coat and fire it at the discarded ammunition. Her aim was near perfect. When the blaster shot met the pak, it released a burst of superheated gas and a small ball of fire, sending her foes flying back and temporarily blinding them.

Jumping over her incapacitated opponents, Skullduggery made a beeline for the stairs that led back into the building, avoiding random blaster fire from Lucius and Oryan on her way inside the building itself. She slammed the door to the maintenance corridor shut behind her and fired her blaster at the door controls, effectively ruining them.

Each footfall caused the metal stairs to echo beneath her as she sprinted toward the ground floor. Realizing that her opponents would break down the door behind her before long, she decided to escape into one of halls that were adjoining this corridor to give herself some time. If she continued her descent from here all the way to the ground floor, she would have no room to attack or maneuver. After passing several locked doors, intuition told her that the next one would be unlocked. Pressing the wall panel, Skullduggery raced into the adjoining hallway the moment the door opened.

Without the benefits of interior lighting, Skullduggery was dependent on the scarce light coming in from the windows to see. Stumbling over herself as she ran, Skullduggery kept her blaster at a ready position. She heard those mercenaries pursuing her down the maintenance stairwell. Reaching a corner, she checked beyond it twice before continuing onward. As she ran down the empty hallway, she heard something screech against the metal behind her. Spinning around, she wildly fired several red blaster shots into the darkness. Even for all of her skill, all of her sadism, and all of her power, something about Dynatha’s group scared her. That fear took over where combat training and natural combat skills should have been, crippling her utterly.

She heard footsteps around her, but she could not see anything. She swore she heard whispers, muttering unintelligible and terrifying things in the distance. Shaking away her paranoia, Skullduggery pressed on through the darkness and reached the next door. Slamming the wall panel with her fist, she waited for it to open.

But it didn’t.

“Aehela…”

Skullduggery jumped. The whispers were closer now, and she could hear them clearly. She was shaking so much she dropped her blaster pistol on accident. Without even thinking, she left it behind and ran backward, heading for the maintenance corridor. There had to be another way out of here. Sprinting back around the corner she had turned, she heard footsteps coming from behind her.

She redoubled her pace, sprinting madly for the door that led back to the stairs. As soon as she reached it, she punched the wall panel with her fist over and over again, pleading silently that it would open and get her away from whatever was still inside this abandoned building.

The door didn’t open. She was trapped.

“Aehela… am I terrifying yet?”

With a crash, the Ghoul dropped down in front of Skullduggery, eliciting a frightened scream from her. His vibroblade plunged into her chest without a sound. She vomited blood as he released his grip on the blade, causing her to fall on her back. Unlocking the door she tried to escape through, the Ghoul allowed Dynatha and the rest of her companions inside.

“Please…” Skullduggery’s voice was hoarse. “I don’t… don’t want to die. I’m scared…”

“Aehela Molac…” Lucius whispered, kneeling beside her. “You caused all this. You must now atone for your actions.”

“I… I’m just afraid… what will happen to me… now…?”

Skullduggery whimpered under her breath. Her dead eyes stared at Tserne, eerily watching him as her face blanched. The terror on her face almost made Dynatha cry. Lucius closed the GenoHaradan agent’s vacuous eyes and stood up, placing a hand on Dynatha’s shoulder.

“That was the last one,” Lucius said.

Dynatha nodded solemnly. “It’s over.”

“What now?” Raxsus asked. “If that was the last of the assassins, then our work is done.”

Syrook growled happily.

Lucius shook his head. “What about those criminals working for the giant? They were allied with the GenoHaradan.”

“They’re small-time. Not worth our time,” Raxsus said.

“There may be a few still alive,” Tserne said. “We should find out if the Mandallian was the leader of their group.”

Raxsus sighed. “We’re really going to pursue a bunch of random thugs?”

“At the very least, we should get back to the Whirling Fire soon. No point in being here when the law enforcement officers drop in,” Lucius spoke up.

“Fine. Syrook! Scour her body for anything useful,” Raxsus added.

“Here we go,” Dynatha whispered.


Chapter 22

Ranval presented his holographic identification pass to the Coruscant Security forces on duty outside of Senator Latona’s building. The two officers on duty at this late hour of the night were already familiar with him. Without a second thought, they waved him through the police barricade.

Coruscant Security had been suspicious of his comings and goings at first, especially when he came back to the senator’s suite in the darkest hours of the morning. In fact, Captain Nyre wanted to enforce a curfew on this district to ensure the senator’s full protection; both Senator D’et and Ranval opposed the idea. Now, several days and quite a few of Ranval’s missions later, the officers were beginning to finish their investigation and paid little mind to the goings-on of the house. They had no leads, but they could not admit that outright.

Walking inside, Ranval tossed his equipment bag onto the sofa nearest to the window. He kept his rags and robes in there, hiding them from the officers in case his criminal description had been circulating around Coruscant Security. He suspected they would try to pin all crimes committed against Core politicians, including Senator Latona and Senator Ubens, on a single criminal. His Arbiter persona was the perfect scapegoat for it all, and Ranval did not want to be arrested for crimes he hadn’t committed.

A crime he did commit, however, was an entirely separate matter.

Walking into the apartment’s kitchen, Ranval intended to crab some food from the refrigeration unit and to his chambers to wait for more news from Senator D’et. He had gotten more than halfway through the kitchen when he sensed someone in the room with him.

“Ranval.”

He knew that voice, but she had never called him that. Honing in on her location, his Force senses directed him to a chair by the wall. Senator Latona sat alone, covered in a thick blanket to keep herself comfortable in the cold. Her hair was frazzled, and she had an unhealthy complexion—no doubt she was not sleeping well. To Ranval’s surprise, her haggard appearance belied an inner fire within her. He had never sensed it within the rising politician and queen.

Ranval turned to face her. “Yes, Senator?”

“What were you doing out there?”

“I have been investigating the attack on your life, Senator,” he admitted.

“Captain Nyre and the rest of Coruscant Security are already doing that,” she replied quickly.

“I’m simply aiding in the investigation as I know how,” he replied calmly, reaching out a hand to console her.

“How’s that?” She smacked away his hand. “Kidnapping children and demanding bribe money? Psychological torture? Theft?”

Ranval’s face became sullen. “Who told you that?”

“Selias told me everything! What are you doing, Ranval? What’s happened to you?”

Ranval grumbled under his breath. He should have known Selias would tell Senator Latona everything she could, but he did not know his associate would tell her everything. He never intended for the senator to find out what he was doing. After all, plausible deniability was the best kind. Now he had to defend actions that even he knew looked bad beyond his own mind.

“The boy was never in any danger,” he said placatingly. “I only wanted to find out who was responsible for the attack on your life-”

“I never asked for that! What are you thinking? The child had nothing to do with his father’s schemes, and you know that,” she shot back. Senator Latona was quaking in her seat, centimeters from falling off entirely. “That child could be traumatized. He may never see people the same way again! Then what?”

“He was kept safe, and nothing bad happened to him. He understood that.”

“No, you understood that! Did you even stop to think what was going through that boy’s head?”

“I will not and do not have to justify myself to you.”

“Can you even justify your actions at all?” Senator Latona asked. “You’re a criminal…”

Ranval’s comlink blipped. Senator Latona was seething, halfway between standing up and shouting at her Miraluka aide and falling to the floor in tears. He had nothing to say to her. What else could he say? No matter his justification, she would not be able to see things his way. Turning away from her, Ranval activated his comlink.

“Who is it?” he found himself shouting.

“This is Senator D’et. I have another lead for you, Ranval.”

“Excellent,” Ranval calmed himself. “I’ll call you back in a minute so you can fill me in on the details.”

“Very good. D’et out.”

“I have to go, Senator,” Ranval said, already on his way for the door.

“Ranval!” she shouted after him.

“Yes?”

“Remember your vows as a Jedi. Please take them to heart; become the Jedi I know you are.”

Ranval shot a dark glance at her, and then stared at his cybernetic hands. “I haven’t been a Jedi since Alderaan.”

“Your hands did not make you a Jedi. Your lightsaber, your connection to the Force, your rank… those are not what made you a Jedi.”

“Oh?” Ranval found himself laughing. “Then what did?”

“Your heart. Your passion for justice. Please don’t throw that away,” Senator Latona pleaded. “Please don’t hurt any more innocents for my sake.”

Ranval tried to look at her, but he couldn’t hold her gaze. Even without eyes, he couldn’t face her. He stormed out of the kitchen in silence, leaving Senator Latona behind. Kicking over a police barricade in the main room, Ranval snatched up the bag with his disguise and scrambled past the officers guarding the apartment. They said something to him as he left, but he didn’t hear them.

He slammed his speeder’s door closed. Staring out into the distance beyond the hovercar’s ceiling, he tried to refocus himself. Driving around while he was furious would do him no good. Listening to Senator D’et’s instructions in his anger would cause him to miss something. He had to calm down. He had to be rational.

Senator Latona did not understand what he was doing because she had just been attacked, and she feared that Ranval’s methods were too extreme to be successful. Ranval could not argue with her; she had a valid complaint. However, his missions were working. Gesih Ubens admitted that only the higher-ups in the Heritage faction knew of the assassinations. To prove it, he interrogated several of the newer members; shockingly, Ubens was right.

Now, Senator D’et was helping him locate the most important senators in Heritage’s hierarchy. They owned several properties, and Ranval couldn’t waste time on each one. If his last major discussion with the senator was any indication, he had tracked down Senator Sonin. Once Abhean’s senator had been dealt with, Ranval could begin to narrow down exactly who was responsible for the attempt on Senator Latona’s life.

*** ***

“Who are you? What are you doing here?”

“My name is Rajes Thonnel. I have a few questions for you, Senator.”

When Mer Sonin’s aide had said the senator was busy, Rajes had not believed it. After all, if he was busy, he would have been at his office. Forcing his way by the aide, the soldier made his way up to the senator’s room. When he had reached Mer’s chambers, Rajes did not even bother knocking. Arming himself with his blaster pistol, he kicked open the anachronistic door. He immediately regretted it. Rajes walked in on the Human senator enjoying an intimate moment with a Twi’lek female that Rajes knew was not his wife. The blue-skinned Twi’lek screamed when she saw Rajes walk in, and Mer had nearly tumbled over the bed reaching for his own blaster.

Once he had made sure neither of them would attack him, Rajes put his weapon away. The Twi’lek’s cheeks were flushed with color, and she had pulled the diaphanous sheet over her to conceal her nakedness. Mer seemed to have no such reservations, sitting upright and revealing his muscular pectorals and abdomen while just barely keeping his lower torso covered. Rajes did his best to divert his gaze from the both of them.

“I don’t think you know how this type of thing works,” Mer responded with a sneer. “I am one key press away from contacting my security. You ought to leave before I get you arrested.”

“No, I think you’re the one who’s confused,” Rajes shot back. “One confirmation from me sends two dozen pictures of you in bed with your Twi’lek secretary to nearly four dozen galactic tabloids.”

“Oh please. She’s not my secretary—how uncouth! She’s my physical trainer.”

Rajes grumbled disparaging remarks under his breath. This was the last thing he wanted to do right now. Clearing his throat, he pressed: “Answer my questions, or your wife and children find out about what’s been going on here.”

Mer contemplated the threat. He had no way of knowing that Rajes was bluffing, and the soldier knew that Mer Sonin tried to keep up the appearance of a family man for the public—desperately trying to imitate Senator Ubens’s authenticity. Seeing no other option, Mer acquiesced to Rajes’s demands.

“Fine. What do you want to know?”

“What do you know about Senator Malthesinores?”

“What about him?” Mer drawled.

“Has he been involved in a conspiracy to overthrow the Republic?”

Mer cackled aloud at the thought. “Yeah. Oro Malthesinores, former general and big-time senator, is going to overthrow the Republic with all the credits he’s received from political benefactors. Take over the army with his fabulous looks and charisma.”

“I’m being serious.”

“So am I,” Mer snapped.

Rajes knew that this was going nowhere fast. However, before he had a chance to convince the senator to be serious with him, the window in the room shattered. The Twi’lek screamed again and jumped into Mer’s arms, practically throwing the sheet off her body and causing Rajes to swear aloud. The soldier raced back toward the door just in case he needed to escape and withdrew his blaster again. To the surprise of the others in the room, a cloaked figure floated inside through the new hole in the window. Wearing dark rags and a torn cloak over vaguely recognizable Jedi robes, the figure’s features were entirely hidden from them.

“Who the hell are you?” the senator asked.

“Mer Sonin?” the invasive figure questioned from beneath a full-face mask.

“Yeah, that’s me.”

“Who are you?” this time Rajes asked, blaster pistol pointed at the new arrival.

“I am the Arbiter. Do not fear, Captain Thonnel. I am on your side.”

Rajes’s eyes narrowed. “How do you know my name?”

“I know many names, but you are not my focus here.” The cloaked figure turned to the bed. “Senator Sonin, what do you know about Senator Latona’s assassination?”

“I know it failed,” he muttered, throwing another blanket over his Twi’lek companion.

“What else? What did you have to do with it?” the Arbiter snapped.

“It wasn’t my idea, I’ll tell you that. It was Nina’s idea. She pressures me just like you do, Captain Thonnel,” he said, turning to face the officer behind him. “She uses knowledge of my affair to keep me in line.”

“Senator Nyvenek of Kuat?” the Arbiter asked.

“That one. You do know many names.” Senator Sonin smiled darkly. “We’ve heard of you, you know. We’ve been warned of you—some sort of ex-Jedi terrorist trying to topple the Senate.”

“Of course you have,” the cloaked man replied curtly. “How did Senator Nyvenek hire her assassins?”

“Senator Malthesinores provided them, of course,” Mer responded, almost off-handedly. “He’s been funding the Heritage faction and aiding us for years.”

“Senator Malthesinores is employing assassins?” Rajes shouted. “Why didn’t you say that sooner?”

“You had not asked.”

“He could have a chance to use those assassins again,” the Arbiter reasoned. “He must be stopped.”

“You’re right,” Rajes said. “I don’t know who you are, but if you’re no friend of Senator Malthesinores, I could use your help.”

“Agreed.” The Arbiter glanced at the two sentients in the bed. “Senator Sonin, where is Senator Nyvenek now?”

Mer thought for a moment. “She’s probably boarding her shuttle. She’s heading to Daver Kuat to celebrate a local holiday—and to escape you.”

“Then I had better hurry,” the Arbiter said, turning to leave. “Captain Thonnel, I trust you can handle Senator Malthesinores?”

“Do you think I can arrest him on grounds of conspiracy and attempted assassination?” Rajes asked.

“It’s worth a try. At the very least, detain him until we can get a few of these politicians to approach Coruscant Security and testify against him.” The Arbiter jumped to the windowpane. “Hurry. We have no time to lose.”

Rajes nodded. “I’m on it. And Mer, if you warn either of them beforehand, I will send every indecent picture I have of you to every media outlet in the galaxy!”

The senator muttered something about returning to his own business, but Rajes was already gone. The captain had been in such a hurry, he forgot to close the door behind him. It was finally time. Senator Malthesinores had been betrayed by his allies. Rajes knew he only had hearsay to go on, but the pieces were finally in place. He had just enough information to seriously question and hopefully convict him. Hopefully.

*** ***

Ranval’s hovercar was racing through Coruscant’s bustling skyline. At this hour, Ranval was surprised by the sheer amount of traffic. Cutting off slower craft and taking shortcuts through oddly shaped buildings, he was pushing the old hoverspeeder to its limits. The Hilonot Hangars, located within the far eastern side of Coruscant’s Capital District, were almost twenty minutes away—if he waited in traffic.

If Mer Sonin had been telling the truth, then Senator Nyvenek would be boarding her shuttle and offworld within the hour. Once she left Coruscant, she was immune to Coruscant Security and Ranval’s attempts at justice. He had to reach her; this was his last chance to confront the mastermind behind Senator Latona’s assassination attempt.

An immense searchlight washed over his car as it sped by a massive hovering truck. If Ranval had eyes, the sudden burst of light would have blinded him and thrown his vehicle out of control. Peering overhead, he saw a Coruscant Security shuttle flying about a dozen meters above his hovercraft, and every single one of its targeting lights were pinned on him.

“Operator of the CHV-10211 series hoverspeeder, holographic identification number: Error: NaN. Please park your vehicle at the nearest refueling depot. You are being targeted for reckless driving and ignoring speed postings. Please pull over.”

Can’t do that, Ranval thought. Flooring the throttle and adjusting the velocity counter on the dashboard, he momentarily escaped the focus of the police searchlights and raced underneath a pedestrian overpass to further separate himself from them. However, law enforcement technology was some of the best in the galaxy, second only to military tech, and they quickly retraced their lock on his vehicle.

“Please power down your vehicle,” the automated voice droned on, “or we will be forced to temporarily disable it.”

Ranval ignored their warnings, continuing on his predetermined course. Weaving through different levels of Coruscant’s aerial traffic and navigating in and out of buildings, Ranval did his best to keep out of his pursuer’s view. He was going as fast as he could now, and he could see the aerospace control tower that loomed over the Hilonot Hangars in the distance.

The police shuttle overhead launched several ion bursts at him. Although Ranval managed to avoid their attacks, they were closer to hitting him with each shot. Positioning himself underneath a layer of traffic, Ranval shielded himself from additional ion shots. He figured dodging the pedestrian walkways positioned between each column of traffic was better than getting his hovercraft disabled.

Ranval was moving so fast he found himself in the Hilonot Hangars without even realizing it. Traffic disappeared entirely, exposing him to the Coruscant Security shuttle and the three smaller police craft that were flanking it. The ships navigating the spaceport, either ascending or descending, did not provide adequate cover for him, and the few hangar buildings and towers seemed sparse in comparison to the wide open landing areas.

Ion shots streamed by his cockpit as he struggled to follow the coordinates Senator D’et had sent him after leaving Senator Sonin’s building. Navigating through the countless landing areas, Ranval eventually saw Senator Nyvenek’s shuttle. To his relief, it had not yet left.

Nina Nyvenek was standing on top of the boarding ramp, giving instructions to some of her aides and a few guardsmen. Ranval could barely see her through his hovercraft’s viewscreen. However, as he approached, followed by no less than six police craft, she must have seen him in the distance. Giving a few final words to her associates, she turned and raced inside the ship. Ranval gritted his teeth as her shuttle’s engines started. She was going to get away. He was nearly two hundred meters from her ship when the police shuttle overhead scored a successful hit on his craft, disabling everything from the lighting in the cockpit to the engines.

His inertia kept him from falling straight to the ground, but there was no way he was going to reach her shuttle at this rate. He tried to pop open his cockpit and escape by hitting the emergency controls located underneath the steering throttle, but they had been disabled like everything else. With no other options, Ranval broke the transparisteel around him with a Force wave. The clear shards slashed at his clothes and pierced his skin as they fell around him. He had to force himself not to cry out in pain as he directed the doomed craft as best as he could.

The Coruscant Security shuttles seemed eager to fire again, despite the fact that his hoverspeeder was already on a collision course with the ground. Before they could take another shot, Ranval leapt out of his speeder. Guiding his descent with the Force, Ranval soared through the air and landed—almost headfirst—on the rapidly withdrawing boarding ramp to the senator’s shuttle. His hoverspeeder crashed behind him, exploding in the midst of Senator Nyvenek’s aides, preventing them from stopping him as he pulled himself inside the shuttle.

His legs ached underneath him as he entered the passageway that connected the boarding ramp to the rest of the ship. The senator’s shuttle rumbled underneath him as it took off, tossing his body around the floor. His clothes had been cut up, tattered even more so than they were meant to be, and splotches of blood covered what remained. A few bits of transparisteel were still stuck inside of him, particularly in his arm, shoulders, and lower thigh.

“Bravo, Arbiter. Bravo.”

Ranval turned to face Senator Nyvenek, who was standing in the passage to his right, flanked by three of her personal guards. Ranval stood up and tried to appear as imposing as possible while injured, but it didn’t work. He found himself clenching his left arm in an attempt to stop the blood flow there.

“How do you know me?” he groaned.

“It’s my business,” Senator Nyvenek said plainly. “Besides, did you think Senator Ubens, Sonin, and the rest of my comrades wouldn’t tell me enough about you?”

“I suppose… they’ve had their reasons to,” Ranval agreed, silently planning on killing them all for working against him. “Tell me: why did you try to kill Senator Latona?”

“Trying.”

“What?”

“I’m trying to kill Senator Latona and Senator D’et. Although, really, I’m just following orders. I’m just preparing the way for the vision of my boss.”

“Your boss?” Ranval asked, his voice hoarse and weak.

“I can’t say much more, I’m afraid.” She motioned to her guards. “Take him and throw him in the brig. Take a few samples of his blood and send it to Coruscant Security for identification. Better yet, just rip his mask off and send them a picture of his face.”

Ranval extended his hand and released the most powerful telekinetic push he could muster. To his surprise, the attack was strong enough to send the approaching guards flying off their feet, over the senator and into the metal floor several meters away. Although the senator was unharmed by the attack, she immediately realized her predicament and tried to run from Ranval and call for help. Moving quicker than the senator—and even he—expected, Ranval caught Senator Nyvenek by the arm. She tried to struggle, but he pulled her close to him and placed his hooked cybernetic hand near her throat.

“Now. Tell me everything,” Ranval demanded.

Senator Nyvenek laughed. “Fine. You are quite convincing when you have to be; I suspect that is why you Jedi are so feared. What do you want to know?”

“Who’s your boss? Why are you trying to assassinate Senator Latona? What’s your plan?”

“My boss is Senator Oro Malthesinores. He originally intended to perform a military coup to overthrow the Supreme Chancellor and rule for a time until the Sith arrived-”

Ranval tightened his grip. “The Sith? What? There are no more Sith!”

“Yes, the Sith. They exist, and they are more powerful than you could possibly imagine. However, Senator Malthesinores’s plan went awry when he contacted the Dark Lord of the Sith. Oro wanted a position in the new government the Sith would create, but based on the Dark Lord’s words, he assumed that would not be possible.

“Instead, Senator Malthesinores used his assassins to weed out dissidents in the military. He captured or killed those that were not loyal to him, ensuring that he remained influential in the military hierarchy. Soon, he was practically in control of the entirety of the military stationed in the Core Worlds. Senators eager to follow him into the arms of the Sith joined his faction and devoted their military resources to him. Those resources will, in time, be redirected toward the Sith.

“Those senators that opposed him, or were suspicious of him, like Corellia and Alderaan, would have to be silenced. He could not have outstanding opposition when the Sith arrived. And they will be silenced. Does that scare you, Jedi? He has assassins on the move right now to eliminate your precious Eliorae, and there’s nothing you can do to stop him,” Senator Nyvenek explained, her face beaming at the prospect of victory.

“I’ll kill you!” Ranval threw her into the wall. “You, and the rest of your conspirators!”

“The more time you waste here,” Senator Nyvenek noted, “the less time you have to save Senator Latona.”

Ranval knew she was right. There was no reason for her to lie, not now, and that meant he needed to go to Senator Latona. She was in danger. Leaving Nyvenek and her guards behind, Ranval raced in the opposite direction, seeking the ship’s hangar. His short-range comlink would not work now that they were so high above the surface, so his only option was escaping the ship and warning those in danger personally.

The shuttle was surprisingly empty, and Ranval was not impeded on his way to the hangar. Inspecting the various swoop bikes inside the hangar, Ranval found one that had been designed for high altitude operations. Boarding it and hacking the activation system with his cybernetic arm, Ranval opened the hangar bay doors with the Force and let every swoop in the room float into Coruscant’s atmosphere.

Ranval knew that his craft was designed for high-altitude maneuvers, but not necessarily uncontrolled reentry. At nearly a thousand kilometers in the air, he would be lucky if his swoop survived the descent. Then again, he had heard stories of less well-armored vehicles falling from space and surviving the impact. Plus, he had the Force.

“Raen survived a fall from space just fine,” Ranval muttered, recalling an event from many years ago. Checking his dashboard for any anomalies, he was pleased to see everything working optimally. He smiled. “And I’m a better pilot than he’ll ever be.”


Chapter 23

Rajes Thonnel marched into Senator Malthesinores’s office. He was unwilling to go alone, despite the fact that the senator sounded excited to meet with him when he sent him a message on his comlink. Now, accompanied by nearly forty soldiers from his company, Rajes was ready to end this. Senator Malthesinores was going to go to prison today, convicted by his allies and his own words. Colonel Eto would return to his post in the Republic Army. But more importantly, Rajes could finally leave Coruscant.

Posting a few guards at varying locations throughout Senator Malthesinores’s complex, Rajes ensured that the traitorous politician would have a difficult time escaping if he decided to run. Climbing stairs and taking several elevators, Rajes was a bit nervous about the lack of resistance. He shouldn’t have expected any; he told Senator Malthesinores he had come to discuss their previous deal, but he still felt uneasy. Their conversation had ended on an odd note, and Rajes could not shake the nervousness within him.

With only a small squad left to support him, Captain Thonnel made his way into the lobby of the senator’s office. The friendly Duros aide was shocked to see Rajes accompanied by guards. Reaching for the comm that contacted Senator Malthesinores, her action caused all of Captain Thonnel’s guards to point their blaster rifles at her.

“Press that and you’re dead,” Thonnel’s lieutenant growled.

“What… what do you want? Please don’t hurt me,” the Duros begged.

“We’re not here for you. Just unlock the doors to the senator’s office, and we’ll leave you alone,” Rajes said.

“You may want to run, though. Things could get messy,” a corporal noted.

The Duros quickly unlocked the office doors and ran out of the lobby. Thonnel’s soldiers watched her every step of the way, making sure she didn’t try to turn around and shoot them in the back with a concealed weapon. Rajes ordered all of his soldiers to wait outside while he dealt with Senator Malthesinores. Although his soldiers asked to accompany him, he denied them. This was his duty, and he would not have it be interrupted.

Rajes could feel the sweat on his palm rubbing against the grip of his blaster. He took his steps slowly; it felt like he took forever just to pass the secretary’s desk. Steeling himself for this confrontation, he hit the panel near the door, admitting him into the senator’s room. The office was just like Rajes remembered. Nothing had been changed from the last time he had been in here. The papers looked untouched, the taxidermies stared back at him, and Senator Malthesinores had his chair turned away from him, staring at the wall on the opposite side of the room.

“Senator Oro Malthesinores!” Rajes shouted, raising his blaster pistol. “You’re coming with me.”

“Hello, Rajes. I suppose I should congratulate you for finally gathering enough evidence and courage to approach me,” the senator replied.

Rajes stood his ground, but he said nothing.

“However, I am already gone,” he continued after a strange stillness. “Did you think I was a fool? The fact that you’re only figuring this out now only proves the fact you were meant for desk work and manicures… nothing more.”

“Shut up!” Rajes snapped. “What are you talking about?”

“You will be hearing about it shortly. Half of the Republic forces orbiting Coruscant—much of the vaunted First and Sixth Fleets—abandoning its post and jumping into hyperspace. Dozens of Republic Army officers not showing up for work tomorrow. Marines failing to report in from frontier worlds. I have fled Coruscant, Rajes Thonnel, and I have taken the Republic’s military with me.”

“Impossible…” Rajes gasped the word. It couldn’t be true. “Then… how did you know?”

“My GenoHaradan assassins have infiltrated your company and served under you and learned much; now, they will turn against you.” Senator Malthesinores chuckled. “You and Ducian are not nearly as clever as you think you are.”

“GenoHaradan? What the hell…? In my company? No… that can’t be true,” Rajes said, shaking.

“Did you think the most influential and hailed Republic hero since the Sith War can’t add a few additional soldiers to your company? You think the greatest military mind since General Halthafa of the Crusades could be stopped by a few upstart officers? You’re a fool. Ducian is a fool. The Republic has been fooled.”

“What are you planning?” Rajes asked. “Do you plan to lead a coup? Demand a ransom?”

There was another pause. “All in due time, Rajes. Until then, you should be leaving. The permacrete detonator I had placed in this office should be going off any minute now, and I would hardly want you to meet a terrible fate.”

Rajes heard a click, and he realized he had been speaking with a prerecorded message. Once it had ended, the chair in the senator’s office spun around. Rajes’s body froze in terror when he saw that it was not the senator who had been waiting for him in the office, but his own father, Ateton. His first thought was that Ateton had betrayed him, but he immediately realized his error. His father had been beaten and bruised. His arms and legs had been tied to the chair, and his mouth had been gagged so he couldn’t speak.

“Father?” Rajes nearly choked on his words. “What are you doing here?”

Struggling against the bonds and the gag placed over his mouth, Ateton spat out the cloth after some difficulty. “What are you just standing there for, whelp? This entire room is going to explode!”

Rajes snapped to attention. “Father! Hold on, I’m going to rescue you-”

“Don’t be stupid,” Ateton bellowed. “That detonator has less than a minute on it.”

“So I’ll be quick!”

“Rajes. Get the hell out of here.”

“I’m not leaving you!” his son said, moving toward the desk.

“I don’t care what you want, you’re leaving.” Ateton stopped struggling. “There’s nothing you can do now.”

“No. I’m going to get you out of here or die trying,” Rajes shot back.

“Are you that stupid? There’s no chance. You can’t get me out of here and face those traitors waiting for you outside.”

“We’ll see.”

“Captain Thonnel! You get your sorry behind out of here now, and you make it snappy.”

Rajes froze before he passed the desk. His father was serious. He didn’t want Rajes to come and save him; he was ready to die. Speechless, he took a few steps away from his father. Why? Was Rajes so pathetic that Ateton could not live with himself being saved by his own son? Twenty seconds left.

“Don’t look at me like that. Whatever you’re thinking, you’re wrong, Rajes. I’m proud of you, son.”

Rajes’s lip quivered. “Y-yes… thank you.”

“You make the Thonnel family proud! You find that traitorous Oro, you shoot him in the face for your old man, then you settle down and continue the family name. Do you understand?”

“Sir, yes, sir!” Rajes choked on the lump in his throat.

“Good. Now get the hell out of here.”

Rajes spun around, leaving the office behind just seconds before the permacrete detonator went off inside. The explosion shook the whole building, but the actual damage was confined to the room itself. Cursing himself for being so slow, so stupid, and only realizing now that his father had been endangered by helping him, Rajes found himself lacking the strength to get up. He had been a damn fool. He wasn’t about to break down and cry, but he hated himself for not acting sooner. If he had only been quicker, this could have been averted.

Rising to his feet with some difficulty, Rajes found himself facing only three of the guards that he had left inside the lobby. He knew what was happening, but his brain did not register them as dangerous. The situation was happening too fast for him.

“Sergeant, where are the others?” he found himself asking.

“Dead. Just like you,” the sergeant said plainly. “Sorry, Captain.”

“We’re not really sorry,” the younger corporal added.

Rajes managed to crouch behind the Duros secretary’s desk seconds before they began firing at him. Their green blaster bolts soared past him and scored marks against the wall and inside the senator’s now ruined office. Holding position, Rajes occasionally traded a few volleys of fire with them; however, he was fatigued and disoriented, so he couldn’t get a good shot in.

The two parties traded shots for some time, and nearly a minute had passed before Rajes heard them stop shooting. None of his soldiers had grenades—it was against regulation to even carry grenades in Republic cityscapes—and they had no way of killing him without confronting him first. Checking his blaster’s pak quickly, he made sure he was ready to fire again before peeking over the desk. His erstwhile sergeant remained where he was before, pointing his rifle at the desk while the other two soldiers moved to circle the desk from both directions with their vibroswords.

His mind raced with ideas. Ducking his head back down to avoid any incoming fire, Rajes wracked his mind for a good plan. He was a soldier. He had to think of something. There was no way he could retreat back into the office because the explosion had made the room unstable. There was no way out without having to confront all of the traitorous soldiers he had told to guard the way out. If he engaged his sergeant, he’d be cut down. If he engaged the swordsmen, he’d be gunned down. I have to come up with something, he thought.

All of a sudden, he heard more blasters fire. He did not know what was happening, but he figured it a good a time as any to shoot at the incoming vibrosword-wielding soldiers. Before he could, he saw that several new contacts had made it into the room. Six naval officers, wearing Republic red-and-yellows just like the killers who passed off as soldiers, entered the room and fired their blaster pistols at the imposters. They killed the two vibrosword-wielding operatives with ease, but Thonnel’s former sergeant managed to take down three of them before dying.

“Captain Thonnel? Are you okay?” one of the naval officers called after the room was clear of hostiles.

“I’m all right,” Rajes said, waving his hand from behind the desk. “Who are you?”

“Lieutenant Ceni Eresh. From the Prodigy, sir.”

Rajes stood up and sighed a heavy sigh of relief. “I’m glad to see you, Lieutenant. But what are you doing here?”

“There’s… been a situation,” the Mirialan officer admitted. “Republic Command lost contact with several units stationed on Coruscant, yours included. During an emergency session in the Senate, Senator D’et suggested investigating Senator Malthesinores’s office for information on a conspiracy.”

“So you came down here to rescue me?” Rajes asked.

“Yes, sir,” she said. “And to investigate.”

“Can you take me to the Prodigy?”

“I can. If I may, why do you need to go back, sir?”

“I can’t do anything else here. I need your commander to take me to the Teraab sector. I need you to take me to Colonel Eto.”

*** ***

Senator Latona awoke with a start. Someone had broken something—probably a window—in the main room. Ever since Ranval had left, she had been in a terrible mood. Alternating between firm rage, moody fits, and complete confusion, she had trouble getting to sleep. She had not been sleeping well since the initial attempt on her life, and her attitude hindered her even more. The senator did not realize that Coruscant Security worked so early in the morning. It was irritating. She would have to talk with Captain Nyre about his officers’ manners.

Pulling herself out of bed, she covered as much of her sheer gray nightgown with her blanket as she could. Brushing the curled blond locks from her face, she tried navigating her way out of her room in the dark. Much to her dismay, she stubbed her toe against her armoire, eliciting a pained cry.

She was blushing by the time she reached the hall connecting hers and Ranval’s rooms to the kitchen. Once she was in the hall, her heart started racing inside her chest. Something was wrong. She had no way of actually knowing, no, but her mind was prodding her with warnings. Perhaps it was the Force that alerted her. Something about the atmosphere in this place reminded her of the night on Alderaan, so long ago now, when the castle was attacked and her family was killed. Eliorae heard voices rising up from the main room that didn’t sound familiar, and she was more and more hesitant to look and see what was going on.

Creeping from the hall into the kitchen, she peered around the refrigeration unit and looked into the main room. She almost collapsed when she saw several men, clothed in black combat gear and armed with different weapons, standing in her apartment. It was hard for her to tell exactly how many there were in the dark, but she knew there were more of them than there were police officers, and she couldn’t see any Coruscant Security forces.

“What do you think?” one of the invaders asked. “Any more officers around?”

“Nope, it was just those two in front, I suppose.” This invader kicked over a table near one of the sofas. “Let’s find this senator so we can get out of here and meet Skullduggery at the rendezvous point.”

Senator Latona placed her hand over her mouth to keep herself from screaming. Backing away from the kitchen as carefully as she could, she felt herself growing faint. There were killers in her house, and no one was here to protect her. The officers were dead, her political allies were not here, and Ranval had left in a huff. Summoning what was left of her strength, she scrambled into Ranval’s room—adjacent to hers—and was searching his things for something to protect herself.

She heard a few voices getting closer while she scoured through his meager belongings. Hopping over his bed, the senator found a wicker basket that was half-open. Eliorae dug through it in the dark, careful to avoid any sharp or otherwise dangerous objects. Passing by a few datapads and a recording cube, her hands felt the outline of what she was looking for. With a relieved sigh, she withdrew Ranval’s old lightsaber from the basket.

During her time as princess of Alderaan, she and her brother had been trained in combat arts by their mentor and captain of the Alderaan Royal Guardsmen, Danc A’damat. Since she and her brother were both Force-sensitive, they were taught how to use lightsabers after finishing their basic defense courses. Her brother had always been better than her, and she solely wished that he had not died so long ago and was here to protect her. She had been out of practice and had not actually used a lightsaber since the Sith were expelled from Alderaan, but Eliorae felt comfortable enough using a lightsaber to defend herself.

Gripping the Jedi weapon as tight as she could with both her hands, she did her best to remember all the instructions she had received from Danc and Khondine, her former personal guard, about fighting with a lightsaber. Keep a light grip. Don’t drop it. Let it be an extension of your limbs. Be mindful of the Force. Her entire body tensed. She heard footsteps get closer.

“These two rooms seem to be where the senator and her aide stay,” she heard one of the criminals say.

“The Miraluka?” another one said. “He’s a Jedi, isn’t he?”

“Yeah. But he doesn’t have no arms,” said a third voice. “He’s no threat to us now.”

“Should we take him out first?”

“I think so. He could still be threatening.”

“He’s nothing to us. Don’t be getting distracted. The queen dies first.”

She heard the three of them walk by Ranval’s room and into hers. The entire time, Eliorae did not dare move from her position behind Ranval’s bed, hoping that not finding her in her room would cause them to give up. The first blaster shot caused her to jump. The next dozen or so caused her to cry. If she had not been vigilant, she could have died in her sleep.

“She’s not here!”

“Where the hell is she?”

“Kriff, maybe she heard us coming inside. Search the rooms, boys!”

Oh no. Her thumb hovered over the ignition.

“Master Ranval… where are you?”

*** ***

Propelled at speeds of nearly 150 kilometers per hour, Ranval’s swoop bike collided with the two GenoHaradan assassins guarding the front door of Eliorae’s suite. They were smashed into shapeless pulp by the collision, but it didn’t stop there, plowing through the entire wall behind them and killing two more agents stationed inside the main room. The crash destroyed the sofas, the plants, the security barricades, and everything else inside the main room. The swoop’s engine was on fire by the time it had settled in, resting about a meter from the kitchen in the center of the living room.

“What the kriff?” a GenoHaradan agent whispered. “Is that… whose is that?”

Eager to answer his question, Ranval jumped out from behind the smoking wreckage. The assassins reacted instinctively, firing blaster shots toward him. He dove out of sight as quickly as he appeared, causing them to waste fire on nothing but air. The agents asked aloud where he had gone, switching off their blaster’s lights and using infrared instead. Despite their newfound advantage, they wildly swiveling their blaster rifles back and forth in the darkness.

Using the immense heat from the chaotic fires burning around them, Ranval concealed himself from the killers hunting for him. Appearing from behind a burning plant, Ranval leapt onto one of the assassins and pinned him to the ground, strangling him with both his mechanical arms. The other GenoHaradan agents rushed to his assistance with their knives, but they were too late. When they arrived, Ranval had fled. Only the corpse of their comrade remained, his trachea crushed.

Releasing the computer probe on his right arm, Ranval allowed the metal sphere to roll into the midst of the last few assassins in the room. Disappearing behind the wreckage of his swoop, the agents didn’t even see Ranval this time. One of the operatives tried to kick away the projectile; when he did, the probe self-destructed and released an electric pulse. The bolts of energy lit up the room, crackling as the last few assassins screamed in pain. One by one, the assassins hit the floor, killed as kiloamperes of current flowed into them.

Lacking further opposition in this place, Ranval traveled straight through the ruined living area and entered the kitchen, where two GenoHaradan were raiding the refrigeration unit for something to satiate their hunger. His hooked joint detached from his left arm with a soft click, letting the bladed prosthetic drag behind him on the metal cable that connected it to his cybernetic wrist.

Walking behind the first agent, Ranval used the Force to pick up the cable and wrapped it around his target’s neck, choking him as the knot tightened. The other agent hardly realized that his partner was dead, too busy eating the remains of a steak from days ago, before he was stabbed in the face by the two hooks on Ranval’s detached hand. Severing the cable from his wrist, Ranval allowed his cybernetic hand to remain in the second agent as he rushed to Eliorae’s room.

Ranval saw the last few GenoHaradan intruders standing in between him and Eliorae’s room. They were firing their blasters into his chambers, and some of their blaster shots were being deflected back toward them. Seeing through the wall with his Force sight, he saw Eliorae, situated behind his bed, defending herself with his lightsaber. She was doing well, but there were too many opponents for an untrained Force-user to last very long, and he could sense the senator’s fatigue. He had a plan to help her, but it would be risky.

Eliorae, he spoke through the Force, hoping that she would not resist his telepathy. Senator Latona, can you hear me?

Senator Latona jumped when she heard Ranval’s voice in her head, nearly dropping the lightsaber and exposing herself to blaster fire. Y-yes… hear you… help…! Her telepathic response was stilted, but impressive for a non-Jedi.

I’m going to help you, but you have to let go of the lightsaber. Okay?

… Trust you, she replied.

Ranval waited until she had deactivated the lightsaber and ducked behind his bed before revealing his presence to the three GenoHaradan killers before him.

“You have one chance to flee,” he announced.

The three of them stopped firing at their target and spun toward him in shock. Although the other two hesitated, the lead agent fired several blaster shots at him which bounced off his personal energy shield. Each hit let off a subtle green glow, clueing his attackers in on the fact that their efforts were useless.

“Who are you?” one of them asked.

He removed the hood and cloth shielding his face with the Force. “I am a Miraluka. I am Senator Latona’s protector. I am an arbiter of justice that will stop you.”

“You’re the Jedi!” another agent gasped.

“Precisely.”

Reaching into the Force, Ranval detected his lightsaber in his room. Snatching it up from the floor by Senator Latona, Ranval pulled the weapon toward the hall, activating it as it spun through the air. Its shimmering yellow blade bisected the assassin closest to Ranval’s room before spinning toward its owner. With no hand to catch it, Ranval controlled the blade with telekinesis, allowing the blade to float in front of him and deflect incoming blaster fire. The first rebounded shot struck the agent to Ranval’s left. The next few traveled too far and missed his target, so the Miraluka threw his lightsaber in the Force, cutting off the last assassin’s head before it traveled back.

He sensed each of them die in the Force before their bodies collapsed in the hall. Ranval deactivated his lightsaber and let it hit the ground. He rushed over their corpses and into his room to greet Eliorae just as she was coming to meet him.

“Master Ranval!” Eliorae was still wiping the tears from her eyes. “You’re okay!”

“I should be saying that about you,” he said. “You could have been killed!”

“I… I was so worried, Master Ranval. There were so many of them, and I didn’t know where you were, and… and…” She started to cry again in spite of herself. “I thought I was going to die. Even when I heard you arrive, I wasn’t sure if-”

“I know. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have left.”

Eliorae rushed toward him and hugged him, wrapping her arms around Ranval as tight as she could. Resting her head against his chest, she continued to cry softly and thank him for saving her. Unable to return the embrace without hands, Ranval positioned his arms around her clumsily.

“I’m sorry about what I said earlier…” she whispered.

“No. Don’t apologize,” Ranval said. “You were right. You were right. I wasn’t thinking. Forgive me.”

“Of course…”

Coruscant Security officers rushed inside the suite, and Ranval heard them investigating the area. They were no doubt searching for hostiles and Senator Latona at the same time. Ranval could hear Senator D’et and Captain Nyre above the rest, barking orders and calling to Eliorae.

“We should go see them,” Ranval whispered. “They’re worried about you.”

“Not yet.”

Placing a hand against Ranval’s cheek, Senator Latona brought his face close to hers and kissed him. Ranval was shocked at first, but a gentle mental nudge from the senator convinced him that she was not hysterical, and he returned the kiss with similar eagerness. Enraptured by her presence and enjoying the feeling of her lips as they met his, Ranval’s Force-influenced sight lit up with vibrant colors and flooded with visual representations of their sudden passion. It was only when Eliorae pulled back that his vision returned to normal.

“Now I’m ready,” she whispered.

“Senator Latona! Oh, thank goodness!” Senator D’et’s voice came from behind them. “We thought you had been killed. What happened?”

Senator Latona left Ranval’s arms, walking toward Coruscant Security with a smile on her face. As she started to explain what had happened mere minutes earlier, Ranval found himself standing, dumbfounded, as police agents swarmed the hallway to ensure Eliorae’s protection. Then, he smiled.

He had seen this assignment as a punishment from the Jedi High Council. After all, what use was there to a Jedi who could not even fight? He was essentially a servant and babysitter. He had hated the idea of his weakness, and he had hated this job. On the other hand, perhaps there was something more to it. As an estranged Jedi, he would not have taken the job if he knew her feelings for him, and the Jedi Council likely would not have given him the task. But they were no longer guiding him, and this was his assignment. He would see it through to the end. Until she no longer needed his assistance, he would be here to protect her.

I’ll just have to make the best out of this situation, he thought with a smile.

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