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The woman in red walked purposefully down the grimy streets of Herstell City. It was late at night, and the dim lighting made it hard to see the detritus strewn across the walkway. Dingy buildings loomed around, their flickering glowpanels offering advertisements and services befitting the seedy sector. Haze and fumes from the ever-running carbonite processing plant clouded the night sky. Her mind occupied with thoughts of her mission, she didn’t initially notice the lurking eyes following her until several seconds passed. By then, it was too late. She tried to maintain a calm exterior, to not betray any of the alarm coursing through her body even as she tried to devise a plan to escape or defeat her shadows. It was unnaturally silent around her—nobody else was around and there was no obvious refuge in sight. The clack-clacking of her heels against the dirty duracrete sidewalk echoed loudly in the night, and her snug red dress, visible under the dark coat she wore, made her conspicuously easy to follow.

How had she been spotted? Somehow, they had learned of her identity and were onto her. She had had a clean arrival to Herstell V and had settled into her identity as an alluring nightclub singer in Herstell City without incident. For three months, she had worked in this position, only to recently, finally have her talent—and beauty—recognized, catching the eye of the infamously elusive leader of the Red and Black League, Janstren Brell. Brell was a notorious con artist and a criminal mastermind, and also possessed a healthy dose of paranoia that made attempts at reaching him difficult. She had been offered a gig singing in his private club—and one simply didn’t refuse offers from Janstren Brell. She had done well, earning the Brell’s fickle approval. That was supposed to have been the means to determine where he kept his private files, the ones that detailed his financial records and taps into Imperial credit lines, and then steal them, allowing Imperial Intelligence to finally shut down this little slice of crime. Instead, her life was now obviously in danger.

Everyone in the criminal underlayer that comprised much of Herstell’s populace likely knew who she was, and everyone on the entire planet knew better than to mess with the Red and Black League. So that meant that the . . . six goons she had detected were likely working with his permission and approval. Which meant she was as good as dead if she didn’t think fast. She quickly evaluated her assets—pitifully short at the moment. She couldn’t exactly carry weapons to work in Brell’s private club, and a small vibroblade disguised as a nailfile in her purse was not exactly ideal for fighting off six attackers.

A vision of the memorial wall in the headquarters of Imperial Intelligence flashed before her eyes, the one where the names of all the agents who had fallen in the line of duty were engraved. She pictured her name on that wall, and then immediately blinked it away. She wasn’t dead yet. Agent Roxana Taskien had been in worse spots before and survived. Though, her pessimistic side reminded her, she usually had had back-up in those cases. Unlike now, when she was completely on her own due to the risk involved in this mission.

As she turned a corner, the six of them pounced, closing in her as she nearly ran into the seventh man going around the corner. Two Rodians, a Zabrak, and four humans. One of the humans, a mostly-bald man with greasy hair hanging down in strings from the side of his head, leered at her, pointing a small blaster at her mid-section.

“Where you going, pretty lady?” he asked.

The others closed in around her, and she thought she saw another blaster, a club of some kind, and four vibroblades. She reached for her handbag, feeling the nail file, then realized it was hopeless.

“I’m going home,” she said, the nervous quaver in her voice completely genuine.

She didn’t need to affect fear.

“Brell’s going to be very angry if anything happens to me,” she said, mustering up some steel in her voice, just in case these were the seven criminals on Herstell V dumb enough to dare cross Janstren Brell.

The man chuckled, gesturing with his blaster.

“You think that, huh?” he replied sardonically.

Stepping forward into the flickering light of a broken glowpanel, she could see the red-and-black stripes on his dirty bantha leather jacket. His eyes narrowed at her reaction and suddenly he scowled at her.

“You think you’re cute, playing innocent?” he growled. “Won’t work. We already know the truth, you lying schutta.”

The man lashed out, striking her across the face with a blow that sent her staggering back. Strong arms caught her, holding her in an iron grip.

“Brell doesn’t take too kindly to people stealing from him, pretty lady,” the man informed her darkly. “He wants to see you.”

The man leaned in closer.

“And he said you didn’t have to be pretty no more when he did.”

Taskien’s mind spun. She hadn’t stolen anything from Brell—she hadn’t yet learned where his secure files were hidden. She had done everything to make him think she was a cool-headed nightclub singer with a penchant for easy money, and fast living. The man’s threats evoked memories of torture on a distant world and her mind recoiled against reliving that horror.

The man reached for her with a sinister, merciless expression on her face and she recovered from her momentary daze to realize it was far too late to struggle. She wondered if anyone would see her, if somehow word of her death would reach Imperial Intelligence. Taskien tried to scream, but a filthy hand was clamped over her mouth. Her eyes widened as her assailants closed in. Little did either the woman in the red dress or her accosters realize that a shadowy figure was watching the entire scene play out below him, considering his decision.

Seven hours earlier

The cigarra smoke drifted lazily upward from the slender cheroot in the hands of Janstren Brell as he lounged in the overstuffed chair, staring down a pair of unwelcome guests. He wasn’t in the least bit frightened—after all, he was in control here. As the leader of the Red and Black League, the most powerful criminal organization on Herstell V, he was untouchable in his private club, particularly when flanked by four menacing bouncers, all of whom were armed and bulging with muscle.

Both of his guests wore masks with built-in vocoders and were clothed in loose robes that obscured their shape. This wasn’t uncommon—many of his . . . business associates preferred to keep their anonymity. Such was the way of things in this trade. Furthermore, they had shown up clear on a weapons scan. And that meant the Brell was negotiating from a position of advantage.

“Finally, I meet a representative of the mysterious Jemaze Cartel,” he said. “What is this about?”

The slightly larger of the two spoke, the being’s voice buzzing and layered with mechanical overtones to disguise his voice.

“You know precisely what this is about. You stopped processing our transactions.”

“I know,” Brell answered suavely. “Consider your contract . . . terminated.”

“A terminated contract does not give you the right to keep the funds that you were supposed to be laundering,” the other countered.

“Oh, but it does,” Brell replied with a dismissive gesture. “You see, I currently control the funds, and what’s more, there happens to be a datacard in my possession. Do you know what’s on that datacard?”

The two guests were silent.

“Evidence that the accounts you’ve been using me to launder for you were once linked to Ardo Romierr.”

“Never heard of him,” the first visitor answered.

Brell smiled thinly.

“Of course you haven’t. On the other hand, Imperial Intelligence has. There’s an active bounty out for information relating to his network. Has been for years, and it’s only gone up.”

“You’re no friend of the Empire,” the second visitor said. “Why would you do this?”

“Because my only friend is the almighty cred,” Brell replied. “I’ve appropriated the remainder of the funds sent to me from your end, and when I turn you over to the Empire, I’ll be paid by them as well. I’ll win from both ends.”

“A warning, Brell,” the first visitor said. “Didn’t you ever learn to not to show people how your con works?”

Brell’s lip twisted into a scowl.

“The Empire’s bounty doesn’t say ‘uninjured’ on it,” he threatened.

“Neither does yours,” the second one replied. “Look down at your chest.”

Brell did so and gasped. A small red dot had appeared on his expensive burgundy shirt, resting unwavering over his heart.

“Make a move, and you’re dead,” the first visitor told him quietly.

“Same goes for you,” Brell answered. “I’ll see you dead for this.”

“Nobody dies right now,” the first guest said. “We know where we stand with you. That’s enough. Now we’re going to walk out of here. And if anyone tries anything, you’re going to have a very hard time explaining how someone fatally shot you in your private club.”

Brell’s fists clenched, but he knew better than to try anything.

“Get out,” he snarled.

The two guests left. As soon as they were clear, the red dot disappeared as well. Brell sent his men after them but after an hour, they reported that the two mysterious strangers had disappeared completely. The crime lord was left fuming and irritable, but as evening fell, knew he had to play a somewhat genial host. He canceled the rest of his planned extortion meetings. The encounter with the mysterious Jemaze Cartel had utterly soured his mood. He glanced over to where the new singer girl—what was her name? Roxane?—was singing a mournful tune about lost love. It had kept the rest of the club occupied, but it wasn’t helping his mood any. She was pretty enough to stare at until his meeting had taken a decidedly sour note—and he figured he’d probably bed her at some point after the two of them were sufficiently inebriated—but tonight her song was not helping his mood.

“Can’t ya sing something happier?” he growled, loud enough that she could hear him.

She stopped suddenly, a fearful expression flashing across her face, and then nodded frantically. A few seconds later, she launched into a much happier, upbeat chorus about a flirty cantina waitress, complete with a ribald chorus that left the audience laughing. Brell nodded appreciatively—she was a good singer, and she had demonstrated the appropriate amount of fear and respect in response to his demands. Something the Jemaze Cartel would learn about soon enough. He thought about the datacard in his private office, the one that would incriminate them. They hadn’t been able to force the issue earlier, even with the threat of killing him, and Brell was going to make them pay for that.

An hour later

“That was the best you could do?” the Falleen demanded, her voice pitched higher in annoyance.

Xlora had not exactly been thrilled by this mission or her partner, objections which had been voiced and overruled. She also hadn’t liked that he was in charge.

“It was,” replied Spectre as he pulled off his bulky disguise to see his partner Xlora standing there, hands on her hips.

He sighed. She did have a point, though. The negotiations had hardly been ideal. They had hoped that Brell could be reasoned with. Instead, the con man had gone beyond mere blackmail to attempted kidnapping.

“Why didn’t you let me take him down?”

“A full-fledged firefight inside Brell’s private club only ended one way: our deaths,” Spectre said. “Trust me, I’m sure of it.”

Xlora begrudgingly acceded to Spectre’s read of the tactical situation, and for good reason. The human was an ex-ARC, bred for war, trained by Jango Fett, and hardened by dozens of battles in the Republic. He was also the leader of this mission due to his familiarity with Herstell.

“What’s the plan, then?” she asked as the rest of their unit filed in.

Eight of them, to be precise. Commandos, all wearing menacing black full-body armor and heavily armed. One of them was removing crawlpads from her arms and legs that had allowed her to crawl across the ceiling invisibly thanks to an optical camouflage unit on her armor and set up the potential ambush on Brell.

“We steal the datacard and wipe his electronic memory banks. Brell is probably too paranoid to have kept anything on a system that might be sliced, but you can’t be too sure.”

Xlora’s jaw dropped.

“We’re just going to break in? Past all that security?”

“No,” Spectre replied. “You are. Cresh Squad and I will provide . . . a distraction to draw off Brell’s men.”

“How are you going to do that?” Xlora asked him.

“Simple,” Spectre said. “We’re going to raid his house.”

Xlora arched an eyebrow.

“The one place of Brell’s that’s better-protected than his club. Excellent.”

“The mission has to succeed,” Spectre answered tersely. “You know what’s at stake.”

Unfortunately, Xlora did. All too well. Janstren Brell was one of the few fringe criminals that had been trusted to handle money to ensure a vital flow of supplies to a distant, remote world . . . their world. Yanibar. Not just a smuggler’s den or a mercenary stronghold, but a refuge for those persecuted by the Empire as it tightened its grip on the galaxy. Men like Brell provided a discreet link between Yanibar and the galactic economy, ensuring anonymity for Yanibar and the secret it harbored: many of its residents were Jedi or other Force-sensitives. Yet Yanibar was not self-sufficient, not yet, and so illicit means were needed to transfer credits for supplies. The name of the insurgent leader whose funds were currently bankrolling the refuge, Ardo Romierr, was a clear link that would connect them to what Spectre was sure was still an active Imperial investigation. Stealing a large Imperial warship and causing significant havoc along with stirring up rebellion tended to cause the Empire to hold quite the grudge. As such, it was imperative that Romierr’s name not resurface again . . . ever. Even if that necessitated a risky raid on a scummy money-launderer who had decided to turn opportunist because the price of loyalty was too high.

Two hours later

The airspeeder buzzed overhead, deviating slightly from the standard airtraffic lanes, though not too far as to be completely erratic in flight. The vehicle was dirty and streaked with fumes from flying too near the carbonite processing plant. It lurched slightly as it did so, then finally straightened out and returned to the lane. During its brief aberrant flight, the side hatches of the airspeeder had opened for several seconds. A casual observer might have mistaken that for more drunken mishandling, which is exactly what the occupants of the airspeeder were hoping. Instead, the airspeeder had disgorged eight armored soldiers, hidden via optical camouflage units that concealed them from view and sensors. They plummeted down several dozen meters, their descent slowed by repulsor packs until they reached the roof of Brell’s penthouse suite. There was a pair of sentries standing guard on the rooftop along with a portable sensor unit. Quick shots from a silenced S-5X rifle took care of all three. They had the roof all to themselves.

“Comm traffic?” Spectre asked.

“Clear,” the Cresh Squad computer and comm specialist, Zoled Nysaal, told him. “No indication we’ve been made.”

“Good,” Spectre said. “You and Slayn stay up here. Nysaal, keep on their comm traffic. Slayn, you know your job.”

“Yes, sir,” Feran Slayn told him with a confident nod.

The squad’s sniper—and only female—she was a combat veteran and deadly accurate. Spectre noted it had taken her exactly two seconds to fire three shots to take down the two sentries and the sensor unit. Granted, her suit’s in-built AI had helped, but it had been Slayn who pulled the trigger.

“And Slayn? Good shooting back there.”

“Thank you, sir,” she said, taking up a position on the rooftop to watch the street below.

Spectre readied his blaster carbine, running one last check on himself and his weapons before they stormed Brell’s penthouse suite. For many of their missions, the Yanibar Guard equipped its commando armor with shield generators, but due to the necessarily covert nature of their current assignment, they were using optical camouflage instead. It was a useful tool, but . . . lacking in a straight fight. They would have to do this the old-fashioned way. Spectre temporarily tightened up his grip on his blaster, and then forced himself to relax and breathe, to put aside all of the other distractions, and there were many.

This mission had another danger that he hadn’t spoken of to Xlora. For all the danger that Brell’s betrayal posed to Yanibar, there was another even greater threat. Spectre had seen the singer in Brell’s club, and he had instantly recognized her. Her name was Roxana Taskien, and she was Imperial Intelligence. He had . . . known her during the Clone Wars, even loved her. But in a subsequent encounter, after he had joined the Yanibar founders, she had made it very clear that her loyalties were with the Empire, not with him. She had even tried to kill him. Her own past unpleasant history with Romierr meant that if she was to find out what Brell knew, she would instantly be on the trail. Spectre shuddered. She had sworn to hunt him when they had last spoken, but Spectre and his friends had faked their deaths to fool the Imperials. If all that was undone—visions of Imperial Star Destroyers over Yanibar raining down fire and death swam before his eyes. And yet, there was a part of him that still hoped for reconciliation. Not for a romantic interest—he had Sheeka in his life, and that was enough. But thoughts of him being able to call Taskien his ally, or at least his friend again were a distraction. He blinked them away. He had to focus on the here and now.

He had done this dozens of times before. He took three deep breaths to calm himself and then it was better. He was in control, falling back on instincts and training, his concentration honed in on any danger.

Then, he faced the door that led up to the rooftop and kicked it in. He sighted down the barrel of his S-2C carbine, tracking for any sign of danger. No doubt the alarm would be raised soon. They had to strike quickly. The rooftop access led down a dimly-lit hallway that was no doubt normally used by service personnel due to its lack of décor. They approached a thick durasteel door. Spectre signaled a halt and the rest of the squad stopped behind him. Retrieving a hand-held scanner, he held it up to the door. The results were not surprising. Nine mercenaries were waiting for them, judging by the infrared silhouettes, stacked up mostly on the left side of the door. Charging through the door would result in them taking catastrophic casualties against a prepared, well-armed enemy. Fortunately, Spectre had no such intention.

“Stand by to breach,” he said.

Two commandos complied, planting breaching charges on the left side of the door. There was no point in trying to blast through such heavy durasteel—but the wall next to it would provide much less resistance. Spectre and the others stood guard, blasters ready in case their opponents opened the door. However, no such action was forthcoming. Spectre smiled grimly. Their opponents were aware of the danger, and clearly understood they were under attack, but weren’t tactically savvy enough to stay far enough away from an easily-breached wall.

Spectre signaled the commandos to set off the charges, arming a pair of grenades. The permacrete wall erupted with fire and smoke as fragments and debris were explosively hurled into Brell’s men. Tossing the grenades into the newly-created hole, Spectre was rewarded a few seconds later with a pair of explosions, mixed with cries. The commandos swarmed through the door, cleaning up the few mercenaries who had survived. They quickly secured the top floor of the mansion, stationing commandos to cover the two stairways that provided access to the upper level. Guards swarmed around the lower levels, but refrained from making a full-on assault, no doubt deterred by the sudden attack and unsure of what they were up against.

“Leyt, find a way to blow up the interior without wrecking the entire building. I want Brell to have a surprise when he gets back,” Spectre ordered.

“Understood,” the Zabrak demolition specialist said, consulting his datapad.

Spectre moved into an expansive lounge with a balcony that overlooked the road leading to Brell’s apartment. Leaning over an expensive etched-glassine table, he found a luxury-model comlink and picked it up. On a whim, he scrolled through the listed entries and called who he suspected was the owner.

“This is Brell.”

“Hello, Janstren,” Spectre said evenly. “Having trouble with your suite?”

You,” Brell seethed. “What are you doing?”

“The fact you’re having to ask is proof that you’re no longer in control of the situation,” Spectre told him darkly.

“You kriffer! I’ll kill you for this,” Brell threatened angrily.

“You’ll try,” Spectre said. “But just remember. I broke into your house and killed your men while barely breaking a sweat. You’re going to have to do a lot better to get me out.”

Brell hung up and Spectre smiled.

“Do you think you agitated him enough, sir?” Leyt asked.

“I think so,” Spectre replied. “He seemed quite furious and provoked enough to do something rash.”

“I meant did we invite too great of a response,” Leyt muttered as he planted a nergon-14 charge. “I personally would prefer not to receive my medals posthumously.”

“Remember, we’re the distraction,” Spectre reminded him.

A subtle chink of metal caught his ear. The ex-ARC pivoted to see a series of grappling hooks biting into the balcony railing.

“Grapples!” Spectre called over the squad intercom, switching his carbine to full-auto fire and aiming it at the expensive transparent doors that led to the balcony. Leyt and Nysaal joined him as they took cover and prepared to defend their position.

A few seconds later, six dark silhouettes began climbing up the railing. Spectre signaled the others to wait until the attackers were nearly over the railing before opening fire. Then, just as the first blaster was pointed into the house, he squeezed the trigger on his carbine, spraying the balcony with blaster bolts. The glass doors shattered as coherent light tore through them and into the would-be breaching squad. Caught halfway in transition over the railing, they didn’t have a chance. Four of them fell instantly and the other two dropped down, forgetting they had a five-story drop below them. Spectre heard a pair of sickening crunches as they landed and the blaster fire died down and figured they were out of the picture.

“Not bad,” Spectre commended his two companions.

“Sir, we have a problem,” Slayn’s voice cut in suddenly.

“What’s that?” Spectre asked.

“I’ve got a long line of speeders headed this way and they don’t look happy. At least four. If we want to get out of here . . .”

“Comm traffic’s picking up,” Nysaal confirmed.

Spectre swore under his breath.

“Heading up to you,” he told Slayn. “Leyt, get those charges set, then get everyone up to the roof.”

Spectre hurriedly sprinted up to the roof where the sniper was lying prone, surveying the road with her rifle’s powerful scope.

“Are they close enough?”

“Probably,” she said. “I’m going to take the first shot right as they reach the intersection to create a bottleneck.”

“Good idea,” Spectre replied. “We’re going to need you to buy some time.”

“I’ll take as many down as I can,” she told him.

Spectre watched as the first heavy speeder nosed its way across the intersection, as armed men emerged, shouting and waving their weapons to deter oncoming traffic. Suddenly, a hole emerged in the first speeder’s windshield and it slid out of control. The abrupt course change sent it careening into a parked vehicle. More men emerged from it and one of them dropped, felled as if by an invisible hand. Spectre sat back and watched the sniper work. Her shots were clean, effective, and served to not only thin the number of Brell’s enforcers, but also slow down their advance. Instead of storming the building to reach the penthouse suite, they had to encroach on their objective more cautiously. Slayn put down the lead man of another squad with an impressive body shot then ducked back as hot light splattered against the rooftop where she had been lying.

“They figured out where I was,” she said. “They’re close enough to suppress.”

“Time to get out of here,” Spectre said, switching to the squad channel. “Cresh Squad, party’s over.”

The commandos hurriedly made their way up to the roof, laying down trip mines and suppressing fire behind them to clear the way.

“Enemy airspeeders incoming,” Slayn said, pointing out two incoming vehicles. “Going to try and smash into us.”

“Probably up-armored too,” Spectre agreed. “See what you can do.”

The sniper knelt down, taking deep, controlled breaths to steady her aim. She raised her rifle up to her shoulder, tracking one of the speeders. She fired once, twice, three, four times, connecting with the last two hits. The starboard repulsor pod started trailing smoke, veering off as the pilot tried to keep control of the vehicle. The next airspeeder was already bearing down on them, with blaster fire emerging from enforcers huddled in the side hatches.

The Yanibar Guardsmen found cover and returned fire. As the airspeeder swooped down, Spectre readied the underslung grenade launcher on his carbine, signaling any of the others who could get a shot to do the same. Just as the vehicle prepared to unload its dozen-odd occupants to storm the roof, Spectre triggered his launcher. Two other grenades joined his own, engulfing the airspeeder in fire as the explosives flew into the open side hatch and detonated. A fourth grenade hit the engine compartment. The vehicle teetered over on its side, then plummeted down to crash into the street in a twisted, burning wreck.

“Evac’s here,” Nysaal reported as the airspeeder flown by Nhash, their mechanic and pilot, swooped in.

“Let’s not stick around then,” Spectre replied tersely. Two by two, the commandos departed, making sure to cover their exit as they did so. The soldiers who had reached the airspeeder as well as those waiting to leave kept weapons bracketed on the rooftop access. Just as Spectre and the autorifle gunner Nak Rieves were climbing onto the speeder, the door burst open and Brell’s enforcers stormed the roof. Mine cooked off, felling the first few, but more poured out after them. The commandos laid down heavy covering fire as their speeder took off in a hurry, the autorifle particularly effective.

“Leyt, time for some redecoration,” Spectre said.

The demolitionist pressed a button and an explosion blossomed through the windows of the suite, sending smoke and fire jetting out. However, the structural integrity of the building itself seemed intact, proving that Leyt had been careful to avoid collateral damage. As their airspeeder soared off into the night, Spectre allowed himself a small smile. They had distracted, angered, and hopefully sent Brell an important—and expensive message. Hopefully that had bought time for Xlora to do her work.

One hour later

They met up at the safe house an hour later. By that point, Spectre and the rest of the commandos had shed their powered-armor, trading it for more surreptitious-looking clothing and padded armor vests worn by mercenaries or pirates. Xlora slipped in quietly, this time disguised as a human, but with a confident stride in her step that told him she’d been successful.

“You did it,” Spectre surmised as she entered and started peeling off the synthflesh mask from her face to reveal her Falleen features.

She nodded, giving him a sour look.

“You spoil all the fun of the reveal by guessing it, you know,” she complained good-naturedly.

“As long as the mission was a success,” Spectre said.

“It was,” Xlora assured him, producing a box full of datacards.

“We just wanted the one,” Spectre reminded her.

“I know,” she said. “But at the same time, there were all these other fascinating tidbits in with the one we wanted. I couldn’t just leave them there lonely like that. So I thought I’d bring them along.”

Spectre allowed himself a small smile. Xlora was a trained intelligence agent through-and-through, and she had good instincts. Taking the initiative to gather more intelligence would no doubt earn her a commendation when they made it back to Yanibar.

“Good thinking,” he said. “Did you get out clean?”

“I did,” she assured him. “Breaking in was going to leave some traces, so instead I planted some evidence that would implicate someone else instead.”

“One of Brell’s men, or a civilian?” Spectre asked.

Xlora shrugged.

“Does it matter?”

“Of course it does,” Spectre snapped. “We don’t needlessly endanger others with our actions.”

Xlora’s expression hardened.

“Every civilian in that club is knowingly supporting and allowed there by Janstren Brell. They’re not exactly innocent. Second, needlessly is the key word in your previous statement. If Brell is able to figure out that the robber got away, he’ll never stop looking for us. If he’s able to exact some punishment on a scapegoat, he’ll take it less personally. Maybe he’ll even think the theft was opportunistic rather than related to the raid.”

Spectre kneaded his forehead with his hands. Xlora’s reasoning made a certain amount of tactical sense, but he didn’t like the idea regardless.

“Or else he’ll torture whoever you set up for information they don’t have and pursue us anyway.” “By which time we’ll be long gone,” Xlora said. “I suppose the alternative would have been to just shoot him, but then his men would have likely killed me.”

“Another time, perhaps,” Spectre muttered, then another thought struck him, one that worried him. “Who did you set up to take the fall?”

“Does it matter?” Xlora asked.

“Yes,” Spectre said. “There’s a difference between making Brell think that one of his own scummy men robbed him rather than a civilian who was just there for a drink.”

“Relax,” Xlora told him. “It was one of Brell’s employees—I lifted prints and some genetic tracers like hair from the club singer when she went outside for a break. She was about the right height and build—in the darkness, Brell won’t know she didn’t slip back inside to rob him. So no, I didn’t just invite the wrath of Janstren Brell on the local charity volunteer—she works for Brell, she’s just as bad as he is.”

Spectre’s stomach twisted into a knot as he realized that Xlora, either knowingly or by happenstance, had just implicated Roxana Taskien as the thief. And while Spectre wasn’t exactly sure why he didn’t want Taskien to suffer at the hands of Brell’s men—after all, she had sworn to hunt him and his friends down, had tried to kill him, he knew that he didn’t want her to die.

The ex-ARC rose and began putting his armor back on.

“I’m going to take a look around, make sure we’re not followed.”

“In full armor?”

“I’ll use the camo,” he said. “Just a bad feeling I’m having. Get everything ready for departure.”

“It almost is,” she replied.

“So get it there.”

With that, he pulled on his helmet, grabbed his weapons, and left.

Current time

Just as the men grabbed the woman in red, the shadowy figure made his move. Drawing a pistol from its holster, he lined up the sights and fired twice each at four of the men attacking her. They fell suddenly, dropped by the silenced shots that sent tungsten-durasteel slugs into their bodies. The others, realizing that their companions had been killed, momentarily froze, looking for the source of the attack.

Spectre used that moment of confusion to his advantage. His weapon empty, he dropped down into their midst, drawing a vibroblade. His optical camouflage system deactivating due to the sudden motion, he was now revealed as a fully-armored humanoid figure. But while his enemies could see him and thus attack, they were little match. Two of the three remaining men charged him wildly. Poor odds. Spectre evaded the first man’s wild vibroblade swing by leaning back, then swept that man’s feet out from under him. The other man attempted to stab at him with his blade, but Spectre took a half-step back, pivoted, and caught the man’s wrist as he came in for the stab. Squeezing hard with strength amplified by micro-repulsors, he heard bones shatter. The man screamed, but one quick slash across the throat silenced him. The first attacker rose from the ground, took one look at Spectre, and ran off. Spectre was about to throw his knife at the man when a blaster bolt hit the runner in the back, felling him.

He turned to see Taskien standing with the blaster in her hand, having subdued the last man and wrested control of his weapon. A blaster which was now pointed at him.

“That’s not a very good way to show your gratitude,” he said, glad of his helmet’s vocoder to help disguise his voice. “I saved your life.”

“Depends on what you were planning on doing with it after you saved it,” she replied, obviously still a little shaken but clearly thinking on her feet and in control of her mental faculties.

Taskien had always been good under pressure.

“My argument isn’t with you, it’s with Janstren Brell,” he answered.

“What do you want with Brell?”

“Not your concern,” Spectre replied tersely. “Enough to know he’s made powerful enemies.”

She kept the blaster pointed at him.

“I think I’m the one asking the questions here,” she said, a cold edge to her voice.

Spectre’s response was to remotely activate a smoke grenade on his armor’s harness, clouding them in a thick cloud of dark smoke. He might have been able to use telekinesis to do so, but that required effort and time he didn’t have—despite the Force abilities he had learned, it still was not second nature to him like it was for some of his other friends.

Taskien fired instinctively, but Spectre twisted aside, leaping up for the rooftops. Her weapon tracked the motion, but she didn’t fire again. Spectre ducked behind cover and reloaded his pistol. Somehow, he had imagined her being a bit more grateful and less willing to shoot him.

“I could have killed you,” he called.

“So why didn’t you?” she asked.

“You’re not my enemy,” Spectre replied. “In time, I hope you’ll come to realize that.”

A pang of sadness welled up within him. Despite his intervention on her behalf a few minutes earlier, she had treated him with suspicion, distrust, and even aggression. Just as she had the last time they had met. Perhaps Imperial service had so hardened her that the empathy he had seen in her years earlier during the Clone Wars had been completely eroded. Perhaps she had changed. And if so, then Spectre felt a sense of loss for the good person she had once been, that he had once known and even loved at one point.

“Then who are you?” Taskien demanded.

“That’s not important,” Spectre replied.

It actually probably was, but he didn’t need to let her know that.

“What’s important is that I’m not trying to kill you. You should get out of here before more of Brell’s enforcers hunt you down. Leave Herstell if you can.”

“Not all of us are that lucky,” she retorted. “I’m stuck here.”

Spectre very much doubted that. It was more likely that she was trying to finagle some means of leverage, or else an alternate escape route by leveraging his charity. However, it was also an effective tactic.

“All you’ve done is delay Brell’s men getting to me,” she said. “And made him angrier.”

“I saved your life,” Spectre retorted from his concealment.

“For now,” she said. “You want to help me, get me a way off this planet. Otherwise, you’re not actually helping.”

Spectre was taken aback at the startling ingratitude and accusation in her voice, but she did have a point. She was playing the part differently than how he had expected, yet it fit. The cagey, defensive, brusque mannerisms bespoke someone who had spent her entire life scratching and clawing to survive—and in a way, Taskien had had to do that. He checked his chrono. He still had some time, but even he couldn’t just manufacture a means to get offworld. He would need help—if he was going to help her.

He thought back to when they had first met in the Clone Wars, how she had believed in him, helped him realize that he had been deceived, and worked with him to stop a rogue Republic general. He remembered finding her beautiful, of falling in love with her. He remembered their bittersweet parting.

Yet deep down, Spectre also knew that he had no further duty to her. Even saving her life, with Brell’s operations significantly disrupted, would likely allow her to escape. And at the end of the day, Roxana Taskien was an enemy of the Yanibar refuge. The only reason she wasn’t hunting him and all of his new companions down was because she thought he was dead. He remembered the betrayal on her face on that Imperial ship when he had battled a fellow clone trooper to death in front of her, and how she had tried to kill him, had sworn to hunt him down, had declared him dead to her. As much as he tried to forget that, he couldn’t. His earliest fond memories of her were tainted by the shadow of their last encounter.

He had done this much for her—prevented her from being immediately killed by Brell’s men. He could maybe do a little more to avert Brell’s attention from Taskien and thus prevent the Yanibar Guard from being directly responsible for her death. But that was more than she would have done for him had their positions were reversed. And Spectre knew, deep down in his heart, that his loyalty did not lie with her. Not personally—he loved Sheeka Tull, his girlfriend waiting for him on Yanibar. Not professionally—he had made that choice four years earlier.

“You’re in a better position than you were a minute ago,” Spectre informed her. “And you did try to shoot me.”

“You would have shot too if an armored fighter had just thrown up a smoke cloud that could let him attack you.”

“Pretty savvy for a club singer,” Spectre remarked, knowing that pointing out her showing incongruous tactical knowledge would irk Taskien.

The words caused her to flinch momentarily, but she didn’t miss a beat.

“We’re not all dumb down here just because we’re not trained killers,” she replied. “You grow up on the streets, you learn things. Instincts.”

The words were complete lies, a defensive reaction designed to avert further inquiry, but Spectre knew that and thus was able to use them against her.

“Then those same instincts will keep you alive through this,” he told her. “Get offworld.”

Spectre cloaked again and slipped down behind her. She turned, but before she could react, Spectre dropped cloak and wrestled the blaster from her grip, locking her against the wall as she gasped in surprise. She stared into his now-visible helmet, but there was no fear in her eyes despite being completely restrained.

“I’m not your enemy,” Spectre informed her in a low voice. “But I’m not also going to save you every time. I did you this favor, accept it and be glad.”

“Why?” she asked him.

“Brell is my enemy,” Spectre said, releasing her. “I didn’t want you to take the blame for my actions.”

He released her, then walked over to the man she had concussed. Bending down, he hauled the man up to his feet and smacked him around. The man moaned and then his eyes opened, widening in horror as he looked into Spectre’s intimidating visage.

“Your boss sent you after the wrong person,” Spectre said. “It wasn’t her that compromised Brell’s security. I did, and I set it up to lure you and your fellows into a trap when you went after her. I’ve broken into Brell’s home, I’ve stolen his treasure, I’ve killed his men, and I’ve ruined his misguided attempts at revenge. Tell Brell that if he crosses us again, I’ll be back to carve him into tiny pieces . . . slowly.”

Spectre leaned in closely so his metal helmet was nearly pressed into the man’s face.

“You’ll make sure he gets the message, won’t you?” Spectre asked.

“Yes . . . yes, of course,” the man stammered.

“Then get to it, and stop harassing this woman,” Spectre replied, tossing him onto the street. “You’d better find a new job too.”

Spectre tossed the blaster he had taken from Taskien onto the ground out of her reach, facing her one last time.

“Good luck in getting offworld,” he said. “It’ll be hard, but you can do it.”

“And if I don’t leave?” she asked.

“Your decision,” Spectre said. “But I won’t be here to save you next time.”

“And if I’d rather go with you?”

The thought was slightly tempting, but Spectre knew that Taskien was devoted to the Imperial cause. Maybe under different circumstances, if she was trying to defect, things could be different. But bringing an Imperial Intelligence agent to Yanibar was out of the question. And Spectre knew Taskien too well to know she could not be trusted to be defecting under the present circumstances. He was almost surprised she didn’t have a backup team already in place.

“Not an option,” Spectre replied, turning to go. “Our paths diverge from here.”

“Unless I find you again,” she said.

Spectre stopped and half-turned to look over his shoulder.

“You won’t,” he answered. “Good-bye.”

With that, he fired his grapnel cable into the roof of a building five meters up, triggering its line to haul him up and activating his cloak simultaneously, and leaving her behind. He stole a quick look over his shoulder to see her pick up the blaster and cautiously search for him. Taskien was too good to immediately betray her true nature as an intelligence agent and act like a trained operative when he could still be watching. She would continue to play out the part of a scared-if-street-smart club singer until she was sure he was gone. But Spectre did not wait to see that bit of tradecraft played out. Instead, he left her behind and returned to the safe house with a hollow ache in the pit of his stomach and yet also a sense of relief, of closure.

They would remain on Herstell V one more day, then slip out the way they had come. Spectre, Xlora, and Cresh Squad would return to Yanibar—and if Brell had any sense, he would never cross them again. As for Taskien, Spectre didn’t know what would happen to her. But he knew he wouldn’t be part of it, whatever her fate was.

Three days later

Spectre filed into the secure conference room after Lieutenant Beblos, followed by Xlora and Milya Tayrce—Xlora’s boss, the Director of Yanibar Guard Intelligence. Behind her came Jeerm Atsedi, the deputy director. There was a single scuffed black table and a few chairs in the room, along with a beaten-up holoprojector. Milya shut the door behind them and ran a quick security sweep as the others sat down.

“We’re secure,” Milya said, connecting a datapad to the holoprojector. “The deputy director and I have reviewed the debriefings from your mission to Herstell V.”

She paused, pursing her lips while collecting the right words.

“Good work,” she said at last. “It was more . . . explosive than perhaps we were hoping for, but we accomplished our objectives and got away clean. Covert surveillance suggests that Brell is looking for us, but doesn’t have much in the way of information.”

They went through the mission, hour-by-hour, going through the various happenings and stratagems. They talked tactics and decision points, future ideas and refinements that could incorporated into future missions. However, three hours later, they had finally gone through everything—or so Spectre thought.

“One more thing,” Milya remarked just as they were standing up to leave. “Xlora, good initiative there with your precaution at the end. Some of your precautions were unnecessary, but they were prudent, and that bit with the freighter may have rid us of potential enemy.”

“I’m sorry,” Spectre replied, confused. “What are you talking about? I don’t remember that in the report.”

“It was redacted from your copy,” Milya said, opening the door to let the others out. “If you wait a minute, I’ll explain.”

Spectre shot a sidelong glance at Xlora as she left, but the Falleen’s face betrayed no emotion. Once the door was resealed, he turned back to Milya.

“I knew something was wrong the last day of the mission, but I couldn’t place it. Now I hear you’re hiding things from me.”

“I don’t owe you an explanation,” Milya answered him coolly, then her voice softened. “But I’ll give you one because I’m your friend—if you promise not to take it out on Xlora.”

“All right,” Spectre said reluctantly.

“She had you followed that night you went out on your own. Safely, from a distance. It’s good protocol.”

“I see,” Spectre replied, his mouth drying suddenly as he guessed where this went.

“Specialist Slayn saw you intervene to save Roxana Taskien,” Milya informed him. “She also mentioned that you didn’t identify her earlier.”

Spectre sat quietly for a moment, his brain trying to process what she was saying—and what she wasn’t.

“You’re not reprimanding me, which means that the situation is already taken care of,” Spectre said. “What did you do?”

“Not me,” Milya answered. “Xlora. She found out that Taskien was going to slip offworld in one of those automated carbonite freighters. She shadowed her, found out which ship she was leaving on, and then sabotaged the engines.”

Spectre took in the news quietly.

“What’ll happen?”

“Depends on the sabotage,” Milya said. “Most likely, Taskien ends up stranded in deep space forever.”

“That’s a death sentence to someone who means us no harm,” Spectre answered quietly.

“It’s a safety measure,” Milya replied. “Think back to your training, your tactical knowledge and experience, and tell me that leaving her alive isn’t a threat to us—especially if she was investigating Brell.”

Spectre had no immediate reply to that.

“Think of it this way,” Milya told him. “What if Brell divulged information to her about Romierr? That would put her back on our tail again. She wouldn’t risk contacting Imperial Intelligence from a non-secure channel. This was the only way to stop the leak.”

Spectre shook his head. Pragmatically, Milya was right. Yanibar was his home now, and he owed nothing to Roxana Taskien. But it still felt wrong.

“I can’t say anything that’ll make it much easier,” Milya replied. “But it was the right call, and I’m glad Xlora made it.”

A chill ran down Spectre’s spine as he realized that his former sympathies toward Taskien had endangered the refuge. Xlora’s quick thinking, while cold and ruthless, was the better, safer decision for the refuge.

“I am too,” Spectre said laconically, standing up with sudden abruptness. “Because at least I wasn’t the one to have to kill her.”

“Spectre,” Milya said, “just remember: she swore to hunt you down, and as an agent of Imperial Intelligence, she was a threat.”

“I know,” Spectre replied. “I understand. The safety of the refuge is paramount.”

“Your intentions were noble,” Milya told him. “Misguided, perhaps, but noble. But sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes we can’t have things both ways.”

Spectre nodded curtly as he gathered his things to leave. He would feel responsible for Taskien’s death for the rest of his life. That was part of the burden he would have to carry—because pragmatically, Milya was right. Eliminating her as a potential threat was the right course of action to help protect the refuge’s secrecy, and—while it grieved him to admit this to himself—he also would no longer carry even a hint of a conflict of interest towards Taskien. Just the knowledge that Xlora had essentially killed her behind his back and he had been completely cut out from the decision-making process—because he wasn’t fully ready to take those same drastically essential steps against someone he had called a friend.

If he was honest with himself, he had been clinging to the shadow of old loyalties, old friendships. Taskien had once been a friend, a comrade-in-arms, but that was a long time ago, and old alliances weren’t immutable. She had promised to kill him, promised to hunt him down, and Spectre had known that she wasn’t likely to change her mind. Saving her life wouldn’t have swayed her, even if she’d known it was him. She wasn’t a friend, or even a potential ally. She was an enemy, and it was about time he understood that. He had switched sides in a galactic conflict bigger than either of them, and he shouldn’t have expected her to do the same. Hoped, possibly, but not in a way that had compromised his judgment. That slip in judgment, if not for Xlora, might have endangered Yanibar, and Spectre knew that he couldn’t afford such a mistake. Taskien’s death was necessary, because too many lives here were at stake for there to be any leaks. He hadn’t been protecting a former ally who meant them no harm—he’d saved the life of an enemy of Yanibar, and that had been incredibly dangerous. That was why Taskien had been targeted, why he couldn’t in good faith argue against the decision to do so.

He turned back to Milya as realization dawned on him.

“That’s the price of loyalty.”

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