By The Light Of The Smuggler's Moon
A Tale of the Star Wars
By The Light Of The
E. E. Nalley
Slippery Slopes Cantina, The Promenade, Nar Shaddaa
Nar Shadda, the Smuggler's Moon, it goes by many names; Little Coruscant, the Vertical City, even Little Slugland when the Hutts backs were turned. It is the largest of Nal Hutta's five moons, the disgusting, swamp covered home world of the Hutt Cartel, and couldn't be less like the world it is tidally locked to. Where Nal Hutta is swamps with ridiculous, overly ornate palaces rising out of them, Nar Shadda is one massive city. Unlike the capital of the so-called Galactic Republic, Nar Shadda is dangerous everywhere, not just the lower levels.
The Hutt Cartel ruled Nar Shadda with only a single rule, Do Not Interfere With Business.
The tops and sides of the buildings are covered in holographic signage, advertising everything from alcohol to Zwill, weapons, slaves, sex, it is all for sale on Nar Shaddaa. Life, Human, Alien or Other, was cheap and there was plenty of it to sell. The Slippery Slopes is the largest cantina on The Promenade, a floating arcology of upper-class shops, high rent housing, casinos, brothels and what passed for a government on this den of thieves, slavers and pimps. It is owned by the Supreme Mogul himself, Karagga the Hutt. Ironically, the safest place on Nar Shaddaa actually floated several hundred meters above it as no one wanted to risk the wrath of Karagga.
Well, almost no one.
The moon, as I said, is tidally locked to Nal Hutta, which means the same side of it points to the Cartel home world all the time, making its 'day' eighty-seven hours long. Having an all-night bar crawl here is something of an endurance feat. The Slippery Slopes was typical of the type of hostels on Nar Shaddaa, under lit, and then only by holo displays of gambling machines or advertisements; mostly for alcohols. It made for a somewhat surreal splash of vibrant, garish colors dappled over worn fixtures and ugly patrons all trying too hard not to be noticed.
I was there waiting on a meet with a snitch I had spent the last six months cultivating. Six months of rubbing shoulders with the absolute scum of the galaxy, hucksters, drifters, con men, hitmen, made men, and just run-of-the-mill thugs. Six months of keeping my temper on a much frayed and worn out leash, my hands itching for the feeling of my lightsabers so I can indulge myself in a little cathartic mayhem. Six months of leads going nowhere and not a single step closer to finding my father while smiling at the people taking advantage of me; lest I ruin what reputation I had and then they would all turn tail and run.
Then I'd never find father.
So I sat in what, admittedly was the best bar on the moon, drinking overpriced, watered down Alderaan Spice Wine while trying to keep my temper as the bar's talent night offering was dancing on my much abused last nerve. Whoever it was, it was letting us all know in far too exacting detail how terrible it's life was, but then, I've never been a fan of Tatooine Blues.
So I was not in a particularly good mood when my snitch slid into the chair across the table from me. “Chut chut, Gooddé bosco!”
I glared at him, and leaning forward to give my words weight, I growled, “Call me that again and the last thing you'll see is me pulling out your intestines, Odu.” I've never been fond of Nikto, like a lot of near human aliens, they give me the creeps, with his hard, scaly hide with bones or horns sticking out all over his face, he was close enough to look human, but wrong. The fact that for some reason he found me attractive was repulsive on its own level.
I guess I need to work on my threats, because, as usual he just laughed. “Uba nee choo naga! No bata tu tu!”
"You better have the information you promised me or...”
The creature waved its hands at me. “Cheespa bo coopa, Kava doompa, stoopa hagwa mwaa, Karagga!" I blinked, more than a little confused by his answer. Granted, Hutteese wasn't my best language, but the six month crash course I'd had since we arrived had certainly gotten me up to conversational.
"What does Karagga have to do with this?” I demanded. He looked around, fearful of being heard or seen, I'm not sure which. Neither was likely between the talent night offering and the kaleidoscope lighting, I was pretty sure I couldn't see him. He babbled for a few moments about a wild conspiracy, the kind of things anyone with any sense gives no credence to. Finally I'd had enough. “I don't give a damn about you, your politics, or any slimy son of a Hutt! You want to be afraid of someone? Be afraid of me! I'm five seconds from carving you up right here in front of everyone! Now give me...”
He jumped up from the table, both hands raised. “Ap-xmasi keepuna! Makeb! Makeb!" I got a thrill up my spine, right as I realized Odu had left a data chip on the table, followed by a rough voice in Huttese.
"Pasta Tonka!” Odu took to his heels and ran for the exit.
I stood, slowly, palming the chip as I turned to face a pair of Gamorrean thugs that had been squeezed into formal wear and obviously didn't like it being lead by a Weequay, another leathery skinned, bony faced alien who, if possible, was uglier than Odu had been. “You want him? Be my guest,” I invited, indicating the direction Odu had run, but the Weequay just sneered and yanked the table out of his way.
"Beeogola Nechaska, Bona nai kachu!" Someone's goons wanted to play rough, and that was fine by me! My grin was just feral enough that it gave the Weequay pause, but the Pig-Lizards were too stupid to know their tickets just got punched.
My left hand snapped out, two fingers leading, right into the Weequay's throat. The nasty hide they call skin was tough, on a human that strike would have collapsed their trachea, but he just stumbled backwards, gagging and clutching his throat. The closer Gamorrean swung at me, almost in slow motion it seemed like to me, thanks to the Force. I grabbed his wrist as I dodged the blow and spun behind him. I kicked the back of his knee to make him fall, his weight, with my strike, broke his arm. He squealed, and incredibly that scream got even louder when I kicked into his arm pit and pulled with all my might, using my weight and his both against his arm while holding him down.
His muscles and tendons forced his broken arm to dislocate and I twisted it as far as the skin would let me behind his back. I would not have believed its screams could get worse, but they did.
His friend threw himself at me, hoping to pin me down, but I was able to dodge, forcing the thumb of my free hand into his eye giving me a handhold to slam him down onto his friend. A hard stomp with my boot broke his huge nose and drove the shards into his brain. He died, twitching on his partner, while his ruined nose gurgled up blood.
The Weequay was staggering to his feet, his eyes wide with fear, one hand fumbling for something in his coat, probably a holdout blaster. I grabbed a dinner knife from the table next to me and threw it, pinning his hand to his chest. My guess about a blaster proved correct as it discharged in his jacket, destroying the clothing and most of his left arm. But, on the plus side, the cauterized wound meant he wouldn't bleed to death.
Walking over, wiping my hands clean on a napkin as I came, his eyes got more and more desperate. I took the knife, and his blaster, from him and stared into his eyes. “You tell Karagga that Bree Fens said unless he wants to end up like you, he better stay out of my way!” Then I kicked him, hard, in the dangly bits, watching him fall to his knees and his eyes go cross as he did so. “And don't call me Princess!” He fell over on his side and the tough guy whimpered.
I gave the bar my soon to be patented 'Does anybody else want a piece of me?' stare, but no one was in a hurry to become one with the Force again. So I walked out, head held high, pausing to flip the Bouncer a half century credit as I passed. “Sorry about the mess.”
He had started over when I'd opened my can of whoop ass, but I had taken care of business before he could reach the altercation. I have to admit, the little nod of respect he gave me, one professional to another was quite validating.
Being back out into the crowd gave me a bit of anonymity, so I kept my gait measured as I crossed the main foyer towards the closest taxi stand. In addition to the shops, there were little vendors with carts and stalls, making it more difficult to move through the crowd. There were conversations going on in a dozen languages, in addition to what sounded like a Twi'lek woman based on her accent in oozing, graphic tones inviting the crowd to come see all of her at Brooga's Pleasure Emporium over a loud speaker.
As sickening as that was, it was nothing compared to the four or five times life-size statue of Karagga himself. It sat in the center of the concourse, twenty meters long or so and at least half that high, with every disgusting fold of flesh artistically crafted in solid gold. I was able to get a bit of privacy by that statue, around the tip of his tail on the massive base the statue sat on, so I took out my holo and got the earpiece in my ear so at least some of the conversation would be private.
After a moment, a bust of my brother appeared in my palm. “Hey sis, how goes it? You have good news?”
"I'm not sure,” I admitted as I plugged the chip into the slot for it in my reader. “What do you see?”
He sighed. “I see a new holo in your future because you plugged what could be a spyware-laden chip into it. How many times have I told you...?”
"Not now, Kale,” I told him. “Can you read it or not?”
His image looked down, probably at a different screen, and from the way his shoulders bunched I could tell he was typing furiously. “It’s pretty heavily encrypted. I'll need the chip directly. When can you be back here?”
"I'm headed for the taxi stand now.”
"See you soon.” I clicked off the holo and pocketed it, making my way through the crowd back into the open air. Nal Hutta, the Glorious Jewel, was living up to its name, hanging in the sky like a yellow-green gem with Y'Toub, the single star of the system half set on the horizon of the planet, leaving Nar Shaddaa in its fourteen-hour twilight. The stars were starting to come out and my eyes were drawn to the heavens. I couldn't help looking for Ruuria, to look back in time for light that would have left it hundreds, perhaps thousands of years before my birth, but my mind knew that was silly. Even without the light pollution of Nar Shaddaa, or the fact Y'Toub wouldn't set for hours, Ruuria was behind the Gordian Reach nebula from here.
The thought of my ruined and raped homeworld once again lit the fire of my anger allowing me, for a time, to consider the revenge I would inflict on Zakuul. Yes, I admit those thoughts warmed me. Then, as it always did, the Force became coy and called Koth's face to my mind's eye. I couldn't say I'd made my peace with the Zakuul traitor who had joined us, or his grand notions of who and what his people should be. I wouldn't admit to being in love with him, but I was becoming...comfortable...with him being with me.
I couldn't hold onto my anger, so I let it slip away and be damned if it didn't feel like the Force was happy about that. I crossed the terrace, making way to a vaguely humanoid robot, some kind of customer service droid that bowed shallowly at my approach. “Vehicle pads are currently open for business. How may I serve you, my lady?”
"I want to go to Mezenti Spaceport,” I told it. The droid bowed again, as he took my credit, and with a gesture summoned the next speeder, that was floating beside, to the terrace.
"Enjoy your stay,” the droid wished me as it opened the door for me and closed it after I was inside. It wasn't a long flight, The Promenade was only about half a kilometer from Mezenti, and on the way, I brooded, troubled by my latest little adventure on Nar Shaddaa. What had scared Odu so badly? The thought ran a slow orbit in my mind, over and over as I tried to parse the wild story he'd spun with the fact that some of Karagga's gangsters had shown up in quite timely fashion to silence him or me or both.
They hadn't seemed in too much of a rush to go after Odu. Had he sold me out? Maybe they just were certain they'd know where to find him? Nothing made any sense, but I was coming to understand that was business as usual on Nar Shaddaa; shady deals, shadier characters everything was 'just business' and nothing was personal.
Or so it was claimed.
The taxi let me out on the main foyer landing of the spaceport, and just like everything else on this moon, there was a last chance grab at money. The spaceport was a hollowed-out stack of landing pads, most just tall enough for the ships crammed into them, you came and went under tractor beams since land was at such a premium. This foyer was halfway up the high rise, a balcony that hung out over dizzying heights above the next closest buildings, with shacks and lean-tos, with everything for sale. I waded through the press of humanity and aliens, Republic marines drunk and on leave being berated by an MP. A slaver with a half dozen women and girls chained by their necks behind him arguing with an unamused Chagrian, a near Twi'lek species with a lofty pair of horns out of their foreheads and a matching pair of tentacles that hung down from their necks. As the Chagrian was wearing the livery of one of the Hutt Clans I presumed he was doing a shake down of the slaver that was what passed for 'customs' on this cesspool.
I walked with purpose up the ramp and into the spaceport proper, letting the warning glare of my yellow Sith eyes dissuade any who had the temerity to approach me hawking wares. I may have been born well, but the gaudy, tawdry overuse of gilt and gauche finery was making me queasy. They say people who employ the word 'classy' have none, and it was certainly true of the Hutts. I grabbed a turbolift from the bank of them and rode it down to the hanger in which sat the Black Eagle.
She was a Fury-class fast courier, not much bigger than most light freighters, but with significantly better engines, shields, well, everything come to think of it. Like her sisters in the class, the Black Eagle was primarily used by diplomats and VIPs who had either time-sensitive missions and needed to get from place to place quickly, or Sith, like myself, on detached duty for long durations where it served as both transport and base of operations. The design was getting on in years, but they were still in production as the craft perfectly fit its niche; the hallmark of good design.
Physically, she had a pair of triangular wings that reached out to frame the cockpit, which sat on the centerline of the ship. I remember overhearing my mother once while she was talking to herself saying they looked like the Millennium Falcon and a TIE Interceptor had a baby, but when I asked her what she meant, she'd just smiled at me and said it wasn't important. Aft, here, there was a universal docking port with a ramp that led down to ground level tucked in between the engines that I was walking to. Kale was waiting for me at the base of the ramp, with a couple of cargo containers pushed together serving him as a table.
I have to admit, it's a little scary how much my brother looks like father. He's just coming into his own now and even I had to admit my tall, gangly older brother was starting to fill out into a very handsome man. Fortunately, I'd gotten Mom's height so he didn't loom over me, but he was still head and shoulders taller, and that short military hair cut really showed off that jawline of his. “Welcome back,” he greeted me, his hand out.
I gave him my holo and looked around. “Where's Koth?”
He took the chip from the key and put it into a little portable computer he had set up on the desk, unconnected to any of his other equipment. “Who cares?” Kale replied as he began to work his magic. I didn't know why Kale didn't like Koth, maybe it was a brother thing, but everyone knew his distaste for my...what?
Paramour? Even being a Countess, I'm not that pretentious. Lover? Didn't you need to be in love to have a lover? Boyfriend? That sounds so Secondary School! “Did he say anything to you?” I pressed him.
"He's not that stupid,” Kale muttered. He made an adjustment and information began to flow across the screen. “What is this?” he demanded. Giving up on the status of my boyfriend, I came around the table to look over his rather broad shoulders.
"I'll play your silly little game, what is this?” I told him, which brought his face from the screen to frown at me.
"Mom's back, you can stop impersonating her,” he told me, which let me know I'd gotten under his skin so I just smiled sweetly. Turning back, he began to read. “These are shipping manifests, freighters, departures, arrivals, they leave from Nar Shaddaa but the destination field is blank. I thought you said he was going to give you the location?”
"We were interrupted by some of Karagga's goons; a pair of Gamoreans and a Weequay.”
He turned to face me and he arched an eyebrow. “Are they still with us?”
"The Weequay lived,” I protested. “Come to it, I'm only sure one of the Gamoreans is dead. And I didn't use my lightsabers!”
"Way to stay low profile.” He shook his head and turned back to the screen. “Well, this would be useful if I knew where these freighters were going. They seem to all be headed to the same place, look, the time and route charges are all the same. I suppose we could try tracking down one of them and interrogating the crew.” He faced me again. “And he didn't say anything...?”
I rolled my eyes. “He spun some wild tale about an interstellar conspiracy that Karagga was wrapped up in, how the Hutts were going to take advantage of the Zakuul invasion and become a rival of the Major Powers on their own terms, blah, blah. I didn't believe a word of it.”
Getting a little frustrated, I crossed my arms over my breasts. “Yes, when Karagga's enforcers showed up he yelled 'Don't shoot! Makeb! Makeb! Which I guess was the name of the Weequay...”
His expression changed and he went over to his rig and began pressing keys. Soon, a holographic map of the galaxy appeared around us. “Makeb isn't a person, it's a planet,” he scolded me. “Here, on the Mid Rim in the Aida Sector, right on the edge of Hutt Space.”
"So what? You think that's where all these ships are going?” His fingers danced over the keyboards and a set of hyperspace routes appeared.
"Taking the most direct routes, and looking up those freighters' specs in the war book, it looks like it.” He came back over to the portable unit, through the hologram, and began to look over the manifests more closely.
"How does this help us find dad?” I demanded, keeping my temper on a short leash. It was pointless getting mad at Kale, he was as immune to my use of the Force as I was to his. Which, given our childhood was probably a good thing. Mistress Tari had thought it was because we were twins that the Force might see us as the same being, even though we weren't identical. Fortunately Kale's personality was easy going and not given to teasing for its own sake, and I had to get my emotions mastered to become a Sith. That let us grow to the point where we could be friends as well as siblings.
"Look,” he declared, pointing at a notation on one of the manifests. “A note saying extra food had to be brought on board for High Value Prisoners being taken to Toborro the Hutt. Look at the date! That was twelve hours after Dad's last comm signal!”
"You think Dad was one of these High Value Prisoners?”
"We know his trail goes cold that day, and we haven't been able to find out anything here on Nar Shaddaa. And what would you call the Duke of Ruuria if not High Value?”
I shrugged. “Alright, Master Soone,” I teased him, referencing the legendary Jedi Master and peerless detective known for his uncanny reasoning. “Let's say dad is on Makeb, prisoner to this Toborro. How do we rescue him?”
"We'll have to figure that out when we get there,” he told me, not rising to my jab. “It depends on how reasonable Toborro is.”
That struck me as particularly ridiculous and I couldn't keep in a bark of laughter. “A reasonable Hutt? That'll be the day!”
He closed the portable system and began to pack up his equipment. “Maybe, but it's the best lead we have.”
"Can't argue that,” I admitted as I started helping him.
"No, I'll get this,” he told me. “Go round up your boy toy so we can get underway. I'll file us a bogus flight plan to Aridus, that's near by.”
"Yes, Lieutenant,” I teased him.
"Thank you, my lady,” he shot back from his packing. With a smirk, I collected up my holo and removed myself to a discreet distance.
Soon, my 'boy toy's head and shoulders were hovering, slightly transparent, in the palm my hand. A smile spread across his face and, as usual, that made me feel warm. “Hey, beautiful! I was just thinking about you!”
I couldn't keep a smirk off my face, his grin is infectious. “Where did my brother banish you to, this time?” He made a little adjustment to his comm, and the view extended to him standing in the middle of a market, lean-tos and makeshift stalls hawking produce, likely grown hydroponically in a greenhouse somewhere; there wasn't a speck of dirt on Nar Shaddaa that wasn't in a pot for an ornamental plant.
"We're not fighting!” he assured me. “I thought a little fresh food would be a good change. I've got some blumfruit, shuura, mujas, even some vine ripe Meiloonruns!”
"Aren't you sweet?” I complimented him. “Much as I'd love you to grab some salad fixings, we're pulling up stakes...” He grinned and held up a salad-in-a-bag kit that was actually less processed than it sounds. “Alright, you, I know when I'm being buttered up! What's your game?”
His grin got wider. “You'll never pry it out of me!” he swore. “I'll be back at the hanger in ten minutes.”
"Hurry,” I warned him. “You know how Kale is always threatening to leave you behind.”
"As if you'd leave without your salad,” he shot back. “On my way!”
"Fresh Shuura?” asked Kale as he walked by with a crate in his arms. “I'll wait for that.”
"You two play nice!” I warned him as I headed over to the Black Eagle to start my pre-flight checks.
Aboard the Black Eagle, over Makeb, Aida Sector
Kale could go on for hours about the whys and wherefores to explain the view out the canopy as I pulled back on the hyperdrive motivator lever and the blue-white tunnel of hyperspace rushed away from me to become a starfield, while at the same time, a green dot of light rushed up and became the planet Makeb. It was a lot of boring, hard-to-follow math and strange words like Doppler distortion and other sounds that sounded even less like real words, but that was Kale. He was the scholar of the two of us.
Me? I never could understand why he didn't just stare at something that beautiful and see it without the need to explain all the beauty away. That underscores, I suppose, the differences between us as siblings. Mom was always so proud of the reports she got from our tutors of how brainy Kale was. Which is not to say she wasn't proud of my ability with the Force and how quickly I caught on with her training.
The Force had always been easy for me, even when I didn't have a name for it, I just wanted something and if I could see it, it would come to me.
Mom had been so thrilled the first time she saw me do it. I think I was three or so. Daddy had been proud too, but sad in a way. I could always feel his worry when Mom went on one of her trips and after she started teaching me that this strange gift was called the Force and how to use it, I heard Daddy start to worry about me too. But Kale? Kale was the scholastic ideal, the scholar-athlete, the guy who could beat you at debate and boxing.
Where was I? Oh, yes, Makeb.
Makeb is a normal terrestrial planet, or so the computer says. Its primary industry was tourism; vacation resorts and providing scenic vistas for estates of the well to do. It's chief oddity was its abnormally strong electromagnetic field which made it something of a piloting challenge, so much so a series of Sky Hook space elevators had been built by the extremely well-heeled powers that be on Makeb and the expense be damned. Makeb lived up to its reputation as far as the magnetic field went, the instruments started giving me fits within seconds of us being back in real space. As far as they were concerned, we were dangerously close to a star, a very, very large star.
So far, so normal, but that wouldn't last long.
I didn't even get as far as “We're here,” before the proximity alarm went off. A pair of bright red blaster bolts shot by the window and the ship's radio began to squawk. “What is it?” demanded Kale from behind me as he had started bringing the navicomputer down in anticipation of our landing.
"A pair of fighters,” Koth told him from the co-pilot's position. Just hanging a bit back from the hyper-lane exit point. “I don't recognize the configuration...”
"Sith Empire craft, this is airspace of the Hutt Cartel. Heave to and prepare to be boarded.”
Kale got his headset comfortable as I frantically tried to figure out what to do. “Unidentified fighters, the is the Imperial transport Black Eagle in free space, on a filed and approved flight plan, you have no right to...”
"Black Eagle, heave to, or be destroyed. This is your final warning.”
My hand started to move to the combat controls, to bring up our shields and make ion clouds of any who dared to challenge me, but I was stopped by Koth's hand on my wrist. “No,” he told me urgently. “Your father is too important. You two head to the escape pod. I'll pull these jokers away and be down as soon as I can.”
"But,” I started, then felt Kale's hand on my shoulder.
"No buts,” he ordered, nodding at Koth in respect for the first time. He urged me out of my seat and we rushed back to the port escape pod. The deck began to lurch as Koth's maneuvers got creative and I could almost hear the frustration of the pilots chasing us, then we were in the little pod and strapping ourselves in.
The pod lurched as it was explosively released and for a moment, out the little window, I saw the Black Eagle duck and weave through blaster fire and the sun glinting off the hulls of the two fighters chasing him. Then the window went red from the plasma of our entry into the atmosphere of Makeb. The pod lurched and shook as it was buffeted by the thickening air then with a series of violent jerks and a horrendous noise we ground to a stop.
Arriving by escape pod onto a planet shouldn't really be on anyone's bucket list; it's not fun.
The explosive bolts blew the hatch clear and we stepped out into the strangest landscape I have ever seen. It was as if the ground of most of the planet had fallen into an impossibly deep sink hole, but left behind towering pillars or mesas of shattered landscape. They rose up to dizzying heights above us as I staggered out of the pod and became aware this was not some kind of quirky, but otherwise normal thing for this planet.
There were buildings clinging to the sides of these mesas, some of them connected with energy bridges, but there was a pile of speeder traffic which definitely gave the impression we had arrived just in time for a calamity. This was reinforced by a building, precariously perched on a ledge on the mesa opposite ours giving way and sliding off to tumble down out of sight, obscured by mist and smoke below. “By the Force!” Kale swore as he got out of the pod and took a good look around. “What's happened here?”
"You're the scientist, you tell me!” I shot back, then we both got the tingle of impending danger and moved. A massive boulder fell on the pod, effortlessly flattening it as it tumbled down as well. For a long moment, we just ran, getting away from that edge and deeper onto what we desperately hoped was more stable ground. That gave us a moment, finally, to come to a halt to pant after our breath and take a look about into the nightmare we had landed.
We quickly found there was no stable ground to be had. This collection of mesas extended to the horizon and the largest of them was only a kilometer or so across.
Whatever disaster had befallen this world wasn't new as there were signs of rebuilding. There were energy bridges linking mesas, everywhere there were naked iron or dura-steel girders; shoring up things and ruinous, or partially ruinous luxurious estates with manicured lawns that were cracked and split like broken dishes, piled up at odd angles.
The sights were bad enough, but this world positively vibrated in the Force with fear, uncertainty, staggering loss, and unadulterated terror.
We had landed on one of the larger of the mesas, despite the terrifying edge we'd come to a stop on, it was perhaps a kilometer in any given direction. Though everywhere was the signs of the calamity we were evidently hard on the heels of. I turned back to Kale, stunned at what I was seeing to find him with his tablet out, trying to connect to the local information cloud. “I can't reach either the local networks or the Republic broad wave,” he swore angrily. “It must be the interference of this place as...”
He couldn't finish as a rough shout of, “You there!” drew both of our gazes. Walking towards us was a motley group of men, blaster carbines in hand, with enough matching pieces of clothing that they might be considered a uniform of sorts, but it was neither Republic, nor Imperial. With them were about a dozen others in ruined civilian clothing, all female but one, and they were all chained together. “Hands where we can see them!”
I spun around Kale to be between him and the slavers as my lightsabers appeared in my hands and the blades snapped on. “You have two seconds to surrender before I start killing you,” I snarled.
Knowing I'd need to be able to move, Kale dove behind a handy boulder and yelled, “Time's up!”
It's not really fair to use the word 'battle' to describe what happened next; slaughter would be more fitting, but usually people being slaughtered don't fight back. For all the good it did them. Between Kale's exactingly precise blaster work and my aggressive pacification, they were dead in moments. Two of the slavers threw down their weapons and fell to the their knees, begging for mercy, which bought them a reprieve at least. Once their former companions were one with the Force again, I used the tip of my sabers to order them to release their captives.
Yes, they were roughed up a bit by my newly freed acquaintances, but the slavers had it coming. Once the freed were armed and the slavers in chains, I deactivated my sabers and turned to the closest of them, a Twi'lek woman of about my mother's age who was still beautiful enough, despite her black eye, that she gave me a twinge of jealousy. “Do you speak Basic?
Her eyes locked with mine and the uninjured one widened just a bit, before she quickly down cast her eyes and curtseyed to me. “Yes, Lady, I can,” she managed quickly. “What do you command?”
I reached out with my hand and the Force to gently touch her face near the black eye. Her body reacted to my power and the swelling rapidly undid itself until she was healed. “I am not your mistress, but your liberator,” I told her as she gasped at my touch and the healing it brought. “Tell me what has happened here and how you came to be taken by these...criminals.”
"They were once our protectors,” piped up the only man among them. An elderly fellow with white hair and clothing that was once quite splendid, but now hopelessly stained and torn. “The Regulators were a contract security force, until the Hutts bought them off to enslave us!”
I turned to the two remaining 'Regulators'. “Is this true?” I demanded.
One was too terrified to speak, a growing stain on the front of his trousers and the shaking that was nearly epileptic doing his pleading for him. The other, through his tears, stammered, “I just wanted to get off Jedha! I didn't sign up for any of this!” he wailed.
The old man pushed his way to the front. “Of course it's true!” he snapped. “I told the council letting the Hutts in here would be the ruin of us, but money is the only loyalty they have!”
"Who are you?” I demanded crossly. He gathered his tattered robes around himself, clutching for dignity.
"I am Tarlam Avesta!” he declared as if I should be impressed. Seeing my lack of deferment, he continued, “I suppose you're here from the Republic, the 'help' my idiot son Shalim went begging for!”
The Twi'lek reached up and took his shoulder, gently, but firmly pushing him behind her into the arms of two other women. “Hold your tongue before you lose it!” she commanded, then bowed to me again. “Forgive him, my lady, he's an old fool and doesn't recognize greatness when he sees it.”
I smirked at her and shook my head. “I like you, but don't confuse that with thinking you can con me. You have a name?”
"Ranna, my lady,” she declared with another curtsy. “Ranna Tao'Ven.”
"Now, look here!” the old man protested. “You're not in charge, Ranna...”
The Twi'lek whirled on him, with more strength of purpose than I might otherwise have given her credit for. “Be silent, old fool! I just saved your life! Do you not know a Sith Lord when you see one?” She turned back and bowed. “Forgive us, my lady. What are your orders?”
Kale chuckled next to me. “Well, sis, I've always said you had a persuasive streak!”
"Hush, you,” I told him, rolling my eyes. “Ranna, I want the short version of what happened here, who that old fool is and why I should care, and then where I can find Toborro the Hutt.” She swallowed, thinking quickly, then turned and pointed back in the direction they had come.
"I will be as brief as I can, mistress, but you might want some refreshment.” I looked over her shoulder at the ruins of what had been a splendid estate, once upon a time. “I'm sure we can offer you something we hid from the looters.”
"Lead the way,” I invited.
The closest ruined estate was evidently the primary residence cluster of the owner and workers of the plantation we had landed on. The male workers had already been taken off to who knew where, and this little clutch of females and the former plantation owner had been rounded up and put in the charge of the thugs and wander-lusting farm boys I had killed to be taken somewhere for 'processing'. Tarlam was sat in a corner to sulk while Ranna and the other young women brought us a bottle of Alderaan Spice Wine, along with bread and some Jorgan Fruit preserves that had been the primary product of the plantation.
Ranna, obviously a life long servant if not a slave already, saw me as a step up in the 'owner' department and was working diligently to endear herself. Probably because she imagined I wouldn't sexually abuse her as likely she'd endured her entire adult life. She told me, being a senior among the plantation's staff, things she'd heard while being ignored and painted a very grim picture indeed. Someone, she wasn't sure who, had discovered some kind of mineral and after failed attempts to keep it secret the Hutt's had learned of it, and bid exorbitant rates for the mining rights.
Tarlam, like most of his generation and station, liked the little pastoral fantasy they'd been living, with 'artisan' farms that could never be profitable even at the ridiculous rates they wanted for their produce, worked by wage slaves who were chattel slaves in all but name. The Planter Class had resisted the mining for what it would do to the environment, not to mention the influx of miners and off-worlders who might take offense at their bygone era lifestyle and do something about it.
Unfortunately, their younger, greedier children had the taste of real money and power waved under their nose by the Hutts and had taken the bait, briefly becoming disgustingly rich. The smart ones had taken their ill-gotten gains and fled off-world, but the truly greedy had remained behind, thinking to sop the Hutts for all they were worth. In remarkable time, the Hutts had dug deep into the planet's crust and were liquefying and draining off whatever it was they were after so fast, the planet's mantle had become unstable. Sinkholes and massive ground quakes had become a daily terror. The planet's ocean had been used to flood some of the abandoned caverns, but that had only added to the problem and now the entire world was in danger of collapsing and breaking up.
The Hutts, meanwhile had bought off the planet's security forces, the Regulators, and stolen back the bribe money they'd paid from anyone foolish enough to stay, then begun rounding up any and everyone who was left for forced labor and probably sale off world back in Hutt space. It didn't take a genius to figure out what had been in store for Ranna and the other girls she'd been taken with.
Because Makeb had been an Independent World, the Republic was content to watch and sit on their hands.
"What is it they're mining?” I asked while holding up my glass for a refill of the lovely wine while simultaneously giving Kale a break from the aggressive pandering of Ranna's daughter, Vette, who I noted had eyes the same shade of pale green as Tarlam.
"I don't know, Lady,” Ranna started, but Vette decided I needed some buttering up as well and excitedly broke into the conversation.
"They call it Isotope Five, milady,” she declared, keeping her eyes on me and not the annoyed face of her mother. I turned to Kale but he shook his head.
"Likely some kind of marketing gibberish name,” he declared. “Fifth isotope of what? The word Isotope isn't supposed to be used to name anything like that for one and these are the Hutts we're talking about.”
I rolled my eyes. “If there's anything more evil than a Hutt, it would have to be a marketing wonk,” I agreed. Turning back to Ranna, I asked, “Alright, Ranna, what was your condition here? It's likely the Hutts were taking you to be slaves off-world, but you probably already were, here, weren't you?”
Ranna's pale blue skin darkened a bit and she looked away. “Master Avesta...” she started, but Tarlam became indignant and leapt to his feet.
"I pay them!” he shouted.
"And you just made 'Master' your employer title?” I drawled back at him. “Tell me, 'Master Avesta' just how 'personal' are the services you require of Ranna?”
"How dare you?” he demanded. I raised my hand and the Force took hold of him and pushed him, gently, but unyieldingly, back into his seat.
"I dare because I'm a Sith Lord and I can,” I told him. “Interrupt me again, and I'll not recognize and respect your years as I do now.” My eyes traveled to Ranna and the look on her face made plain who the father of her daughter was. “You disgusting pervert, how dare you take advantage of these women?”
Tarlam had the sense to keep his mouth closed as his eyes down. I held the glare for a moment, then turned back to Ranna. “I'll need a base of operations, Ranna, then when my business here is finished you and yours are welcome to accompany me. I'll be happy to drop you off on any planet along the way to my destination.”
She looked up, a bit worried. “You...you would not want us in your service, my lady?”
"Ranna, in case it hasn't been made clear, I don't keep slaves. Not in any type, form or hidden by some coy language.”
Her chin rose a bit, and a little metal entered her spine. “Then I am indebted to your sense of honor, my lady, and can certainly do worse than cast my lot in with you.”
Kale stood from the table and crossed his arms to address them all. “My sister and I are members of an Alliance sworn to wage war against the Eternal Empire. You are welcome to join us, but know what that decision entails.”
"You freed us,” Vette declared at Kale. “I would be honored to help you free others.”
Ranna met my eyes, for the first time acknowledging my leadership, but no longer the timid, fearful gaze of a slave. “How can we help you, my lady?”
"Toborro the Hutt might be holding my father prisoner,” I told her. “Tell me where I can find him.”
Vette was quick to offer her services. “He has a palace on the other side of Sunrise Hills,” she told us quickly. “I can show you.”
Estate of Toborro the Hutt, Sunrise Hills, Makeb, Aida Sector
Turns out, the workers on the Avesta Plantation were quite adept at hiding things from looters. Not only had they squirreled away the wine, bread and preserves we'd already enjoyed, they'd managed to keep the entrance to the garage out of plain sight and so Vette had a speeder to take us over the Sunrise Hills. It was exactly what you'd expect a ride through a disaster area would be like. What roads there were had been broken by the ground quakes and fractured landscape. Many of the buildings had at least partially collapsed and there was no infrastructure working beyond small, portable generators.
The local wildlife was taking advantage and creeping back into places they'd previously avoided, but the two-legged variety was still the most dangerous. Fortunately, they were both scarce and avoided us as much as we avoided them. After a ride of an hour or so that likely used to take considerably less time we were belly down on the ground, just below the crest of a rise that overlooked Toborro's palace.
Palace was the right word for it.
The compound was surrounded by a solid, poured ferrocrete wall, five meters high at least, and reinforced with guard towers at every ninety-degree bend. The size and somewhat irregular shape of the estate meant that there were plenty of bends and therefore lots of overlapping fields of view. Inside, the estate had a double dozen buildings, likely garages, barracks for servants and the small army of guards manning those towers and gates. The main gate was a pair of excessively ornate durasteel doors that were gilded with some kind of relief cast into them. They stood open, but a laser barricade made sure rushing the gate was foolhardy.
Dominating the lesser buildings and the gardens that surrounded them was Toborro's Palace itself, a massive, multi-domed structure in the Neo-Kupolë style that was popular in the Mid and Outer Rim worlds that did business with the Hutts. An oblong, central building well bejeweled with turrets and domed towers, that gleamed in the sun. Meanwhile, around it, enough 'guards' for an army drilled and practiced their trade around the other servants coming and going around them. “Well, won't this be fun?” muttered Kale as he surveyed the compound. “Heavy repeating blasters in every tower I can see on that wall, the laser fence of course, and likely enough sensors and cameras to make a spy wet himself.”
"There are fewer guards at the delivery entrance,” Vette assured us as she pointed at a little alley cove on the far side of the palace from us, only just visible. “I've been there a few times, on business for Master Avesta...”
Kale adjusted the macro-noculars and stared for a moment. “Strange lack of security from the rest of the place,” he declared after a moment. “Likely deliberate to bait a trap for anyone looking to sneak in.” He put down the macros and turned to me. “You know, we could just go and request an audience. The Hutts do have a reputation as people who will bargain...”
"If I get within eyesight of our Father's jailer, bargaining will be the last thing on my mind,” I told him. “Or Toborro's!” I wasn't bragging, but if Aunt Tari had taught me anything it was to recognize my own shortcomings. I love my father, and if Toborro had held him against his will for nearly three years, I would be hard-pressed to keep from doing something rash. “Besides, you think if we go in there publicly we'll come out again?”
"You think blasting our way in will work?” he countered, but before I could argue, of all things, my holocomm began to go off.
Frowning, as I fished it out of it's pouch on my belt, I demanded of Kale, “I thought you said the networks were down?”
"They are!" he protested.
Getting the device in my hand, I beheld a paradox, the No Service light and the Incoming Call light were both active at the same time. Sharing a puzzled glance at Kale, I clicked it on. “Who is this?” I demanded.
In my palm, a rather complicated-looking pictogram appeared, dominated by three long straight lines linked by an odd double figure of eight filigree. “Greetings, my young friends!” a deep, heavily reverberating voice, likely the by-product of some kind of voice disguising program, came from the speaker. “First, let me assure you that both requesting an audience, or trying to bluff your way past the delivery entrance are suicide.”
"Who is this?” I repeated, angrily.
"Your benefactor!” the deep voice replied. “You want to free Torm Belos and I want to help you.”
"How do you know that?” Kale demanded.
"Because Torm is a good friend of mine and you must be his son, you're practically his clone,” the Benefactor replied with a deep, basso chuckle. “Which means I can only assume you are his daughter Bree,” he went on. “You are as beautiful as he describes you.”
"That's not my name...” I started, but the Benefactor was not fooled.
"Your name is Taybri Belos-Fens, daughter of Nyeomi Fens and neither of us have time for you not to trust me. You're just fortunate that I found you before Toborro's security chief did.”
Kale crossed his arms. “How did you do that?”
"Look behind you,” the voice replied ominously. Slowly, Kale and I turned to take in one of the smallest probe droids I'd ever seen, not much past a repulsor generator, a transmitter and a camera, floating silently about twenty meters away from us by the speeder. “Daring Karagga to come after you wasn't very smart, Bree.”
"You did what?” demanded Kale, but I glared at him with the 'we'll talk about it later' glare.
"Fortunately, his untimely demise renders the point moot,” Benefactor continued as if Kale hadn't spoken.
I blinked in surprise. “Karagga is dead?”
"You want your father,” the basso voice pressed. “I want out of this gilded cage I'm stuck in. We can help each other.”
"What cage is that?” Kale asked. This time, the deep voice chose to answer.
"I am as much a prisoner as Torm is. I'll help you free Torm, if you free me as well.”
"How do we know we can trust you?” demanded Vette, for the first time working up the courage to speak.
The basso voice laughed a very unpleasant laugh. “You can't,” he admitted. “But without my help you'll never get past Toborro's security.” The pictogram was replaced by a schematic view of the estate. It rotated until we could see the far side where a sizable hole had been dug, big enough for a Harrower-Class Dreadnought to land in! Halfway down the artificial canyon was a small outcropping that was highlighted in red. “Here is your entrance. It's a mounting platform for the tractor beam emitter for the auto-landing protocol. There's a maintenance hallway from it into the service corridors below the palace. The only way to it is from above and you cannot use any kind of repulsor lift, there are sensors that will alert security. You'll have to climb.”
"You're joking!” Kale retorted. “That has to be three or four hundred meters! If we fall...”
"Don't. Fall.” the Benefactor replied. “Once you're inside I'll contact you again.” The display vanished as the call was disconnected. The probe droid rose back into the follage of the tree, out of sight. Once again, my brother and I shared a glance.
"Are we doing this?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Do you have a better plan?” After a long, angry pause he shook his head. “Alright, let's go.” I turned to the Twi'lek. “Vette you wait with the speeder...”
"But I want...” she started, but I shook my head.
"You can seduce my brother on your own time, not mine.”
"What?” demanded Kale, but Vette's blue skin just darkened to nearly purple.
Vette sulked quite a bit on the way over to the artificial canyon that Toborro had turned into his own private spaceport. Mostly because I had her drive and made Kale ride in the back seat of the speeder where she couldn't flirt with him. Honestly, I almost don't get why so many varied sentients are so obsessed with Twi'lek females. Their males aren't anything special in my book, but even I have to admit the females have an almost preternatural grace about them, like felines or Kaminoans. They don't walk, they slink with the most suggestive kind of gaits, combined with the tendency for nearly perfect symmetry make them a race whose beauty is nearly without equal. Which made them one of the most persecuted races in the galaxy, whose abuse in sexual slavery was unrivaled.
It didn't surprise me that Vette would be interested in Kale. When I take off my 'sister' glasses and look at him as a man, he's just about ideal. Tall, broad-shouldered, handsome, but also just a bit...lost kid. Oh he looked like the bad boy he was, but he could smile and, well, that smile let him get away with murder. Kale wasn't just a pretty face, though, and even without us laying out our titles, Vette had been around the well-born enough to know that Kale was. So on top of being devilishly handsome, he likely had a pretty fat wallet. That Vette, who had watched her mother put up with being used by their employer, who was likely her father as well, then having some horrific amount of time to contemplate being sold into slavery, and you could be certain it would be sexual slavery; no, I completely understood why Vette had put seducing Kale at the top of her to-do list.
That didn't mean I approved, but I did understand it.
Still, my approval wasn't required if Kale just wanted to add the Ryloth flag to his collection. However, I am his big sister, by five minutes, and that meant I did owe it to both of our parents that he wasn't taken advantage of. Hey, Koth might be my Mr. Right Now, but I knew enough to know I wasn't sure he was The One. That said, Vette better have more going for her than Twi'lek booty if she wanted a permanent ticket to ride the Kalelam gravy train.
That brought a tickle to my 'twin' sense, causing me to turn and look at Kale. The look on his face, staring at me, perfectly silently demanded, Since when is my sex life your business?
I smiled and winked at him, which caused him to roll his eyes. Jealous? No, I'm not jealous of the little whore at all.
The hole Toborro had dug out of the ground behind his palace was nearly a kilometer across and better than half that deep. At the bottom were the kinds of clusters of buildings that every spaceport has as well as perhaps two dozen pretty good-sized ships, fighters, freighters, probably more than one pleasure yacht. We took all this in from just back from the rim of this gigantic crater and marveled at the level of engineering that had been done in some stupid short amount of time.
Three years? Had all of this been put together in three years? Less even?
It beggared belief. We stood at the lip of the rim and had plenty of second thoughts about attempting what we were about to attempt. Finally, I got my courage screwed to the sticking place and turned to Kale just as he lowered the macronoculars he was using. “So, we really doing this?”
He shook his head. “Not in broad daylight,” he declared, giving a casual gesture at the tower. “I guarantee we're being watched now. Not to mention we have no way off this rock yet, so springing dad and getting into a chase with nowhere to go is not exactly smart.”
I took the macros from him and gave the spaceport a look. “There's plenty of birds down there I can fly,” I told him confidently. “How about that Delaya-class courier there?” I asked, passing him back the glass. “That will outrun anything else on that field.”
He gazed at the insectoid-looking craft, currently landed on her massive airfoils, nestled between a pair of bulk freighters on the field for a long moment. “Assuming it's fueled and ready,” he agreed. “Look, there's a UV Tarp over the canopy and she's tied down to the field. That ship hasn't flown in a while.”
"Four months,” Vette corrected him, drawing both of our gazes. “It landed four months ago, I saw it. I was here delivering a load of preserves. Toborro has a sweet tooth.”
Kale rubbed his jaw with his thumb. “Let's find out,” he declared and walked back to the speeder. From his shoulder bag, he withdrew a little disk and gave it a fling out, over the hole where it quickly sailed out of sight. He pointed at the public road that went by the spaceport and told Vette, to take us over there, then climbed into the speeder.
Within a few moments, we were moving and he had his portable computer out and was tapping away at it. The drone he'd thrown into the pit was a little relay type he'd developed for the Alliance. It had simply dropped down, so as not to trigger any kind of sensor, then stealthily made it's way to a computer terminal and patched us into Toborros network. It didn't transmit itself, that would allow it to be tracked. Instead, it embedded a signal into Toborros own communications nodes and talked to us through them. “The Kestrel,” he declared after a moment. “It's new, just ordered and delivered. Interesting. Shouldn't be too hard to make ready in a pinch.”
Over her shoulder, Vette asked, “Can you sneak in some kind of maintenance order to have it prepped before we go in?”
"We?” I asked, archly.
"Brilliant!” enthused Kale. “I surely can.”
The Twi'lek gave me a cat in the cream smile. “I'm helping,” she purred.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent by Vette working her 'A' seduction game on Kale while pretending to be instructed on how to use one of the blasters they'd lifted off the Regulators. She might have Kale snowballed, but if those really were the first shots she's put downrange, I'll kiss a Wookie. Yeah, those ten-centimeter groups were only because my brother was wrapped around her helping her with her “grip.” When I wasn't glaring at the brazen little tramp, I was fretting what was going on with Koth. The commlink was worrisomely silent.
I couldn't try to call him for fear of giving away our position. Surely he'd made short work of our ambushers and was down here looking for us. Wasn't he? Was I letting my own worry about my...significant other impinge on my judgment of Kale? I looked over and watched Vette 'accidentally' rub her rear onto my brother and sighed. No, I was right to worry about Koth, and Vette is just a tramp.
Kale, you lucky jerk.
Once the sun was down, we made our way back to Toborro's estate while I ignored the two of them and tried to focus on what we were about to do. If we got back to the canyon lip, we'd start the descent. If we got down, we'd try to access the maintenance hallway behind it without setting off an alarm. Kale had some good leads as to where Dad might be held but had been unable to access the security feed to be sure. I had communed a bit with the Force, which was hard given the amount of disaster on this world, but I was pretty sure we were doing the right thing.
You could never be certain with The Force.
Well, this wasn't the craziest thing I'd attempted in recent memory, but this was with significantly less planning than my last desperate op. To take my mind off my own misgivings, I checked the charge on my sabers for the third time this trip. They were still fully charged. Kale had killed the lights and was driving the speeder in with a pair of IR goggles he'd had on his belt. I'd been wearing a gray ship suit that was basically a body glove, that left my arms bare. Over this, I'd added my normal utility belt that held my sabers, commlink and a few other odds and ends. Ranna had a pair of boots she'd given me as our feet were about the same size, which was helpful. I'd been wearing just some comfortable ship slippers when we were ambushed and hadn't had time to change before our little escape pod joy ride. Vette had managed to find an all-black, skin-tight little sneak suit herself, though the blaster and belt were second hand, liberated from their previous captors.
I have to admit I was surprised we got back to the same over look above the tractor beam emitter without challenge. I thought for sure we'd have a reception party waiting, but only the nocturnal birds and insects were calling. Makeb had no moon, so the night was exceptionally dark, but the sky overhead was magnificently lit up with one of the brightest star fields I'd ever seen on a planet's surface.
We left the speeder in a little copse of trees and bushes that would, hopefully, shield it from detection by searchlight, and in an hour or so it should be as cold as the surrounding bush to infrared. We edged as close as we dared to the cliff face and looked down. “You are good, brother,” I complimented Kale as I looked through the macronoculars. The Kestrel had her UV hood off and her tie-downs were gone. His little maintenance request chicanery had worked.
"Was there any question?” he demanded in the tone I knew he used when feeling particularly full of himself.
"How do we get down?” Vette asked nervously, eyeing the long drop from here to the emitter.
I couldn't see, of course, but she couldn't either, still, I'd bet the grin on my face was evil. “Oh, you'll love this part.”
Against the stars, I saw her head tails whip as she turned to face me. I could only see teeth and the whites of her eyes. “Yeah...?” she asked and now there was real fear in her tone. “So...how...?”
I raised my hand and pushed with the Force. “We jump!” I declared as I leapt. Ok, so, for like a split second I thought about shoving her off the cliff, and as fun as that would have been, she would have screamed. I don't know if you know this, but Twi'lek screams are really loud. It would have given us away.
Funny? Oh, yes, but no, Dad was more important. Next time, maybe.
The wind whistled past for what felt like an eternity until my feet found the little platform the emitter was mounted on. I landed like a cat, both sabers in hand, ready to kill, but no one was there. In my ear, my commlink beeped and I heard the very tightly controlled voice of Kale. “Not. Funny. Bree.” I looked up, imagining the look on his face and grinned.
"Yes it was,” I whispered, knowing the subvocal throat mikes we were wearing would pick it up. “Go ahead.”
A pair of shadows separated from the top of the face above me and began to fall. I felt the terror well up in Vette above me before I reached up and grabbed them both with The Force. Their fall slowed until they drifted down next to me, as gently as a lift tube. Minus the lift of course. “Fifth floor, sporting goods, jailbreaks...” I eyed Vette before adding, “Toys."
I have to give her credit, I'd taken her as a slave, someone who knew both her place and her betters. I don't know if it was the adrenaline from thinking I'd push her off the cliff, or from actually jumping, but something poured durasteel into her spine. She got right into my face and snarled, “What is your problem with me?”
It was brave, I have to admit; foolish, but brave. “Who do you imagine, you're talking to, whore!” I snarled, one hand up, either to choke her with The Force, or slap some respect into her mouth, I'm honestly not sure which. Not that it mattered, because Kale had me by the wrist with one hand and the other had the harness his little trollop was wearing and snatched us both to arms length away from each other.
"That's enough!” he growled, in that tone that he'd finally managed to imitate from dad that demanded attention and obedience. “You don't like who I sleep with? Too bad, sis! I put up with that disgusting traitor you're playing with, you will give me the same courtesy!” Then he whirled on Vette. “And you, do you think I didn't notice you pressing her buttons as hard as you were pressing mine? Are you suicidal? Poke a Sith Lord again and be damned if I'll come between you and my sister, even if you're the best piece of tail in the sector! Work together, damn it! The mission is more important than this bantha fodder!”
"I'm sorry,” she whimpered in a small voice.
Kale let go of my wrist and I rubbed the blood back into it, glaring at him before I turned to Vette. “I'm sorry, too. If you take advantage of my brother, I'll kill you, but short of that is his own affair, I guess.”
"Why would I?” she asked softly. “I'm not stupid.”
His arms over his massive chest, Kale demanded, “You two going to play nice now?”
I scowled at him, but I saw from the smirk he wasn't mad. I was always the mercurial one, hot-headed and getting into things. “Come on, let's get this door open.” I moved to make room for Kale, expecting him to slice the system, but Vette oozed between him, me and the door, a set of tools in her hands. Faster than he could have gotten his computer out, there was a click, and the door slowly slid aside.
"Just because I'm a slave, doesn't mean I haven't learned anything,” she declared, raising her chin just a bit at me.
"Bravo, Vette, your stock just rose a few points,” I told her as I led the way into the darkness.
The corridor beyond went straight into the cliff for better than fifty meters then met a T junction. Both hallways were full of conduit, cabling and an insufficient number of lights set at too far of a distance apart. As we reached the junction my holographic communicator beeped again, once more with its No Service and Incoming Call lights lit. I clicked it on to see the same pictogram as before in my palm and that deep, obviously fake voice in my ear. “Well, my young friends, you are sure to do your father proud!”
"Who are you?” I demanded again.
"We can't set you free if we don't know who you are,” Kale subvocaled, his eyes moving up and down the hallway, ignoring the graphic it displayed instead of whoever was on the other end of the call. Our Benefactor found that amusing and chuckled.
"It is truly amazing seeing your father in both of you,” he chuckled. “And I see young Vette has remained in your company. I am glad to see her escape her situation.”
"Have...have we met?” Vette asked softly, staring at the pictogram.
"No,” the basso voice rumbled. “Alas, I have been forced to admire from afar. I hope you'll not think unkindly of me for it.”
I looked at her and the light of the holo, or what was said, seemed to drain some of the blue out of her skin. “We don't have time for guessing games,” I told him. “Either you level with us, or we'll take our chances on our own.”
"That would be very unwise,” the Benefactor replied quickly. “I can keep you off Toborro's security radar, but I have to have you following my directions to do it.”
"And how can you do that?” Kale demanded.
"Because I never design something I can't get out of,” the voice replied. “I am Doctor Juvard, the architect of this magnificent palace, and the systems that guard it.”
"And Toborro imprisoned you?” Vette asked.
"Loose ends, he called it,” Juvard complained, bitterly. “My reputation alone should have vouchsafed that his secrets would be safe. Even as a five time winner of the Bao-Dur Science Prize my intellect is meaningless without the patrons to finance my creations. But Torm and I were taken prisoner, first as somewhat forcible 'guests' to oversee the final installation. Then we found I had constructed our prison.”
Kale chuckled. “The first rule of assassination is 'kill the assassin.'”
"Too true!” Juvard acquiesced with some rancor. “I suppose we are fortunate to be alive.”
"What did our father want with you?” I demanded, angrily, thinking to catch him in a lie, but his response was so quick it was either the truth or a well rehearsed lie. Thus far, Juvard was nothing if not well rehearsed.
"The location of and a method to free your mother of course! Which I will gladly help with once we are free of this place.”
"You can free our mother but not yourself?” I purred, looking to shine him on, but he stayed cool.
"I am capable of many things, as a genius, however some creations require good, old fashioned muscle. Still, Toborro does not have the mind to match wits with me. Once he felt secure we were helpless, he gave me lab space to make me his private genius, toiling for his enrichment. The allure of my creations was too great for him to ignore and in short order, I began planning our escape, and planting the trail of bread crumbs you followed here.”
"You knew we'd come?” I wanted to know.
"How your father describes you, it was inevitable,” Juvard replied. “But we can discuss that at length once we are parsecs away from here. I note that you noticed the Kestrel, as I intended. Well done. That is our ride out of here.”
Vette found that incredulous. “You intended?” she demanded. “We just decided to use it this afternoon!”
The Doctor laughed his disturbing, deep laugh. “Yes, and I snuck the purchase order for it into the estates normal supply requisitions months ago, when my eyes and ears on Nar Shadda told me you were asking questions about your father, young Bree. Every escape needs a get away vehicle. You'll find I've taken care of everything. Now, listen closely.”
The graphic changed to a schematic of the tunnel system under the estate with our location highlighted, then a route was marked out in red. “Torm is being held here, in sub level seven. You'll need to use this circuitous route to reach him. I've disabled the internal sensors along the way, but this operation depends on stealth. Once you have him free, you'll come to my lab via this route. Once we are together, we'll go to the Kestrel and make good our escape.”
"That's awfully trusting of you,” Kale admitted.
Juvard only laughed again. “I did say Torm was my friend. He will insist you free me as well.”
"I find that hard to believe,” I told him. “Not that it matters. If we run into trouble, how do we reach you?”
"I'll be watching,” Juvard assured us and the pictogram vanished. Kale and I shared a look, and realized we were pretty much committed at this point. He nodded and led the way around the corner on the route he'd already committed to memory.
It was a tense, nail-biting journey, that probably went faster than it seemed to. Fortunately, Toborro's estate seemed to not care for these tunnels, as we met no one until we came to a door that was between us and the clutch of cells that dad was supposedly being held in. Doubtless, there would be at least one jailer. He would have to die, naturally, but I had to be able to do it quickly and it was best for everyone if we didn't have a weapon discharge or a prolonged fight. That meant I'd have to kill whoever it was, with the Force. I centered myself and nodded at Vette, who worked her magic on the door.
The door slid aside, revealing an anteroom with a desk and chair. Asleep in the chair, his enormous feet propped up on the desk, was the fattest, ugliest Gamorrean I'd ever seen. He was wearing a loin cloth that didn't do much for his modesty, and was snoring so loudly that I don't think anyone would have heard if we'd killed him with a bomb. I raised my hand as I recalled the long years I'd been deprived of my parents. My anger rose up, was focused on the guard and the Force responded, snatching his jowled, drool covered head to one side. The snap of his neck breaking was loud in the sudden silence and his breathing stopped instantly. His eyes didn't even open.
"You're scary, you know that, right?” Vette remarked, noticeably upset with either the casual killing, the display of power, or both.
My yellow eyes locked with her blue ones. “Only to the people on my bad side,” I warned her.
"Do Sith have good sides?” she wanted to know as she searched the desk and corpse for keys.
I chuckled as we went down the corridor to the door Juvard had indicated. “Ask my mother, if Kale takes you to meet her.” She shrugged as she fell in beside me.
"If your Alliance happens to need a morale officer, I'm game. Kicking Arcann's butt should require a full-time party planner.”
"Duly noted,” I replied as we arrived at the cell and I inserted the key card into the reader. The door slid aside, and while I was expecting squalor, it seemed that Dr Juvard had some pull with their captors. The room was fairly well-appointed, and Dad's clothing seemed recent and clean. He was looking up from a tablet, older and grayer than I remembered, but still in good health. He'd grown a goatee and it was salt and pepper at the corners to match the set at his temples, but the lines on his face gave him character. “Daddy!” I cried and ran over to the bed to embrace him.
"Bree? Kale! What...?”
"No time, Dad,” Kale told him as he took father's hand and shook it. “We're being helped by a Dr Juvard, are you friends with him?”
Shock pulled at his face and he chuckled. “Lippi? Yes, by the Force he's pulled it off! Where is he?”
"Next stop,” Kale promised him, while I very reluctantly let go of him and presented him with one of the blasters we'd taken from the Regulators. He snatched up a bag at the foot of the bed and put it over one shoulder.
"Let's go, son,” he declared, kissing me on the top of my head that made me giddy. I had both of my parents again. Now I just had to get them reunited.
'Lippi's' route to his cell/workshop was just as circuitous as the route to Dad's had been. I swear, we went over the same stretch of ground at different altitudes of the hillside six times, but true to his word, there were no alarms, nor any surprise hallway meetings. The corridors were eerily empty, dusty and silent. Kale was quietly bringing Dad up to date, which I thought was a mistake, an opinion justified when he got to my part in the rescue of mom from Arcann's Vault of the Damned. If you've ever seen anyone deeply conflicted, you likely know the expression on his face when he realized what I'd risked and the juxtaposition of pride and aghastment was actually a little comical.
He grabbed me by my shoulders and I was expecting to be read the riot act, but slowly, the pride took over the fear on his face and he just hugged me hard enough that my back popped. “Thank you, princess,” he whispered in my ear.
"It...it was a team effort,” I managed, around the dust getting my eyes all wet. No, I'm not crying. It's the dust in these tunnels. Really.
He kissed my forehead and got stern. “Of all the excellent qualities you could have copied from your mother, her recklessness is something you can do without.”
"That wasn't reckless,” I replied in my defense. “It was calculated. This, was reckless, but you are worth it!” He smirked at me, shaking his head.
"The point is conceded,” he replied, but let us be about this crazy route until we finally found the good Doctor's workshop. There was no one guarding it, which was odd, in and of itself as was the feeling that there was no one actually in the shop. Vette got the door open whereupon I got the surprise of my short life.
Waiting for us was an enormous, bloated, purple-skinned Hutt. From the top of it's grotesque head to the tip of its corpulent tail it was close to four meters long, with a face that seemed remarkably symmetrical. Of course, for a Hutt, that wasn't saying much. One of its orange eyes, the right one, was hidden behind a cybernetic ocular display and implant combination that even now was scrolling data. Like most of its species, it was otherwise nude, but I suppose that's not a thing when you have no external genitalia. Its belly was covered in blue-white geometric tattoos that somehow made the creature even more disgusting, despite the lack of dangly bits. That was why I didn't sense anyone inside, Hutts are like holes in the Force, completely blank; like a black hole in space.
I didn't think, I acted, snatching my lightsabers from my belt and snapping them on, ready to carve my father's captor in jerky. I was a microsecond from leaping into action when two things happened at once. Dad's voice, in a tone that demands obedience, sharply commanded, “Bree! Stop!”
And the Hutt threw up his hands and shouted, “I'm on your side!”
I blinked in astonishment, staring at this contradiction when dad stepped between me and the Hutt. “Bree, allow me to introduce my friend, Doctor Juvard Illip Oggurobb.”
The Hutt chuckled in the basso voice I recognized from the holo-calls. “The pleasure is entirely mine!”
I finally got my brain working again, turned off my sabers, and exclaimed, “You speak Basic!” That got another laugh from the creature.
"All Hutts speak Basic,” he informed me. “Most simply refuse to as a way of asserting dominance. As a scientist, I find any disruption in the accurate transmission of data to be appalling, so I speak in Basic when I am conversing with beings whose primary language is Basic. On a personal note, I find the language readily lends itself to innuendo and puns that amuse me as well.”
"You're a Hutt!”
"And you're a human,” he retorted with some amusement. “Now that we've classified things, let's discuss our collective escape.”
I have to admit, my personal opinion of Hutts as a species didn't include the word 'jolly', but Dr Juvard was evidently something of an iconoclast where Hutts were concerned. Marveling at this revelation, I turned to Dad. “This is the scientist you went looking for to break mom out of Arcann's Vault of the Damned?”
Doctor Juvard seemed a bit crest fallen at having his thunder stolen, but he bounced back quickly. “Oh, you discovered her location? Excellent. I can still be of use in planning her liberation...”
"She's already been liberated,” I told him, then turned back to dad. “Your friend?”
Now, I hadn't seen my father in almost three years, which doesn't seem like a lot, but they say you do a lot of growing up from eighteen to twenty one. Though, truth be told, Dad has been obsessed with finding mom for so long, I think he really hasn't seen me for years. He gave me another of his long, appraising looks as if he was updating his mental portrait of me, then he chuckled. “Yes, we've shared a mutual hardship,” he told me ruefully. “And he's a mean Dejarik player, as I've discovered.”
"How are we supposed to get him out of here?” I demanded. “He'll slow us down!”
The Hutt laughed again, I guess he found just about everything funny, as he pointed at the window behind me. “I don't think I'll have to run too far.”
I turned, seeing the boarding ramp of the Kestrel no more than fifty meters from the glass. It's hard to admit, but I have to say I was coming to admire this Hutt. “You really did think of everything, didn't you?”
Juvard shrugged, with a grin that, given his face, seemed more than a bit evil. It promised a payback to Toborro that would likely make trivial the worst a Sith Lord could contemplate. Though, with his lifetime, he could take decades, if not centuries to plan it. “Well, in my defense, I am a genius, and I've had years to plan this particular escapade. Shall we?”
Now I was sure I admired this Hutt.
Now, in the Holo-serials, this would be the part where Toborro would have slithered through a door and made some kind of speech about having anticipated Juvard's betrayal, it was all a trap, you know the stereotypes. Well, in real life, well-laid plans tend to go off, well, well. We got Juvard and Dad outside and stashed behind some crates where they wouldn't draw attention while Vette and I walked up to the Kestrel and began my pre-flight. Hutts have something of a fascination with humanoid females, don't ask me why, and so their retinues tend to be dominated by them. Guards, techs, enforcers? Those tended to be male, but if you're looking for a job with a Hutt, being female is usually a plus.
That translates to no one gave us a second glance, not that there was a lot of activity to begin with. Still, it took me almost fifteen minutes to get the checks done and we were both sweating every second of it. Finally, it was just a matter of turning over the engines so I got busy on that while Vette gave Dad, Kale and the Doctor the high sign. It probably only took them thirty seconds to get over to us, but it felt like years until at last the hatch open light went out and I heard Kale yell, “Go, Bree!”
The Kestrel lifted up quickly and even though we took some fire from the defensive emplacements of Toborro's estate, the nimble little bird let us get around them without being hit. I flew away from both Toborro's palace and the little estate where Vette's mother was waiting for us, in case we were followed or tracked. With as much static as this cursed planet was putting out, I don't think anyone could track anything, but better safe than sorry.
I took us most of the way to orbit, trying to raise Koth, but all I got was static and no trace of the Black Eagle. I wanted so desperately to worry, to go rushing off searching for him, but I couldn't risk getting this ship shot out from under me. So I leveled off, well short of leaving the atmosphere and started flying in random directions. Once I was satisfied we made a clean getaway, I turned the Kestrel back around towards Vette's mother and the other servants. It was going to be a cramped ride back there with a Hutt, but that was certainly a small price to pay for putting Makeb in our afterburner.
Besides, with any luck, we'd be docking with the Black Eagle, and better than doubling the amount of transport space. “Where are we going?” Juvard wanted to know from down in the passenger compartment.
"We have other people to rescue,” Kale told him. “At least they aren't under guard. It shouldn't take long.”
"Other people?” Torm asked.
I hadn't noticed it before, but Kale actually sounded remarkably like dad. “The mercenary group this planet was using as a security force turned on them.”
"The Interstellar Regulators,” Dad replied. “Yes, Lippi told me.”
"Well, they must have decided the Hutts, no offense, sir, weren't paying them enough.”
"None taken,” Juvard assured him. “You can't think less of my species than I do.”
Kale's voice took on that matter-of-fact tone he used when he was discussing something he disapproved of. “They turned into slavers. We came across a group that had ransacked the plantation Vette lives at. That's how we met her and her mother, by liberating them. They assisted our operation to free you and we promised them a way off Makeb.”
"Good man,” dad complimented him. “Where is Nyeomi?”
"She took command of the fleet before we left,” Kale told him. “They should be well established on Odessen by now.”
I heard the curiosity in dad's voice. “Fleet?”
"Lana has been busy,” Kale told him with a laugh. “We've got much more than the little handful we had when you left. Now, we have the beginnings to resist Arcann and the Eternal Empire. A true Alliance, Sith Empire, Republic, Jedi, everyone with the will to resist is answering Mom's call.”
The basso voice rumbled with something like pride. “Then count me in as well. I owe your mother a debt of gratitude for allowing you two to rescue us and a Hutt, well, this Hutt in any case, always makes good on his debts.”
"We can certainly use a...being...of your skills, Doctor,” Kale assured him. I kept my own misgivings to myself and concentrated on my flying.
Ranna and most of the house 'staff' joined us in our cramped space on the Kestrel, but Vette's father, Tarlam, refused, claiming he would go see about his son. The fact that he was abandoning the daughter he'd made by rape in fact, if not in name, didn't occur to him at all. Vette put on a very brave face, but I could hear the agony in her as she sat next to me and held back the tears.
I had been concentrating so much on disliking her, I hadn't once thought of her as a person; just someone who I was sure was using my brother. And while I might think she was far better off away from any kind feelings towards her mother's rapist, I could feel the ache of the utter rejection. That secret hope that, somehow, a creep and a monster would turn into some kind of decent person. I reached out, both with my hand and the Force, touching her skin and her soul with condolence. “I'm sorry,” I whispered, and I'd never meant the words more.
She looked at me, her blue eyes filled with tears, then somehow we were in a hug and she was sobbing. I knew I came from a life of privilege, born into nobility, strong with the Force, but to come across someone who had known such hardship and suffering, to not feel for them would make me less than human. True, I had lost my parents for significant portions of my life, but I also had them back. I could both feel what she was suffering, and feel a bit guilty that I could forge my happy ending, but there would always be a void in Vette's heart where a father should be. So I held my brother's lover and I whispered things would be alright, and I decided I had been petty long enough.
We held each other most of the way up into orbit, which to be fair, is a pretty lax period of time for most fights. The vast majority of it was on autopilot. Perhaps I wasn't as ready as I might have been for the jump to light speed, but honestly, I felt what I was doing was more important. They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression, but Vette and I mended a long stretch of fences on that little crying jag.
And, what happened after, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
The safe jump point from Makeb was better than double the normal distance from a planet, because of that interference. That was how the fighters got the drop on us when we arrived on the Black Eagle, and it was how they were able to sneak up on us again this time. They weren't playing nice this time, there was no challenge to heave to, the first clue I got they were after us was an explosion of a laser blast off our port bow and close enough to rock the ship. “What was that?” shouted Kale from below.
Vette and I scrambled to get ourselves back together and me to get my head into flying for my life. “We're under attack!” I shouted down to Kale as I began to jink hard to throw their aim off. “Get up here, I need you!”
Two more blasts hit close enough to rattle us as I heard him scramble up from the little passenger compartment into the smaller cockpit. “Doesn't this thing have any guns?” he demanded, as he frantically looked over the panel.
"I didn't expect us to be getting into combat!” Juvard told him sharply. “It's speed was more important than shooting our way out of trouble.”
"Navi-computer!” I growled at him. “Get us coordinates for the jump!”
There followed a few minutes of tense, interesting, flying, which probably didn't help Kale's calculations and he finally snapped, “Set on two seven one and hold it steady! I almost have it...”
"Look out!” Vette screamed, and the canopy was filled with a debris field; the destroyed remains of a star ship. It was mostly Plastiform, conduit, and chunks of durasteel, but right as I got us through most of it, a large piece was clearly visible in the light of the laser blasts.
We would have hit it if Vette hadn't shoved the yoke down hard; I was rooted in place, stunned. I heard Kale and Vette shouting at me, from what seemed like miles away, but I couldn't hear them. Nothing mattered but the horror I felt. Kale muscled me aside, as I stared out the canopy and got us on the right heading; he's the reason we're alive. It was him that kept his head, that stayed cool under fire. He made good our escape and got us into hyperspace.
Even as the stars rushed at me and we slipped into the blue-white wormhole, all I could do is see it in my mind, over and over again, drifting in space. The Fury-class interceptor was very distinctive in design and in space I saw one of the destroyed wings of the Black Eagle, drifting away from the debris field that was her wreck. My mind seized, denying what I'd seen, denying everything, shutting out the hard reality of what I had seen.
The Black Eagle had been destroyed; Koth was dead.
Commander's Apartment, Alliance Headquarters, Odessen, Wild Space
The Alliance HQ had come quite a ways from the wilderness of the fleet's arrival. The pathfinders had selected a gorge, formed by a river that had cut deeply into the bedrock of the area, surrounded by an old-growth forest for hundreds of kilometers in any direction. The exposed granite cliffs were naturally hard, practically armored and the river below provided fresh water. On the summit of the gorge a massive, durasteel domed building, low, squat and wide had been built that served as the primary base. This had been extended by burrowing deeply into the cliffside, while balconies and terraces dotted the cliffs where the tunnels emerged for air, guard points, or simply ambiance. On the far side of the gorge, a landing field had been carved out of the forest with several bridges at different levels spanning the gorge back to the base proper. Beyond the field, land had been further cleared for pasture and farming to supply the base.
I was standing on a terrace, overlooking the river below, that was off my mother's quarters. We had arrived late in the local afternoon the day prior and the reunion of my parents had been an emotional affair. They had withdrawn to her rooms and everyone knew better than to interrupt them until this morning.
I had been summoned just after breakfast to give my report, which I had just delivered, while mom and dad, or, I should say, my mistress, the Alliance Commander and her husband had their morning coffee. There was a long pause after I admitted my faults in our escape, my inaction that had nearly cost us our lives, as my mistress regarded me. I had been eleven when my mistress was taken from me. At the time, I was only just starting to see her as a person other than 'my mother,' and I realized I had very little experience in judging her moods and expressions. She sat, listening as I had accounted for myself, drinking her coffee and only once or twice interrupting me for clarification on a point.
Now I was finished, and the silence hung heavy in the air as my mind began to imagine what form her displeasure with me would take. Darth Tari looked at failure as an opportunity for learning and usually used a series of questions to lead me to understand where I had made my missteps so I could see what I could or should have done differently. But my only real memories of mom's teaching style had been on Belsavis, over a decade previous, and a treasured memory of sleeping next to her on a make-shift palate in the Imperial Command Post.
Somehow, I didn't think a nap was going to be in my future after so spectacular a failure.
Finally, she put her cup down and asked the last thing I expected her to. “You were...close...to Koth, weren't you Bree? You didn't feel a disruption in the Force with his passing?”
I blinked in surprise, more befuddled than if she had struck me, though I imagine it felt like she had, metaphorically speaking. “I...that is...no, mistress. I...I was so preoccupied with freeing Father and the strange catastrophe on Makeb that I think, looking back on it, his loss would have been drowned out by the greater calamity I was dealing with.”
I opened and closed my mouth, trying to parse her question and why she might ask it. “I...well, you don't, mistress?”
"Did you love this boy, Bree?”
Why would she ask me that? The thought shot through my brain like a laser blast, ricocheting around my skull. This time, however, I was able to keep control of my mouth so I didn't babble. “I honestly can't answer that, mistress. I cared for him, but I don't know that I would use the word 'love'.”
"Taybri Belos-Fens, do not play clever word games with me. Did you love this boy?”
I couldn't keep her gaze and looked at the floor of the terrace. Her command made me realize things I had been hiding from myself. Now, in the morning sunlight, I had to admit to them and that stung, making Koth's loss hurt even more. “Yes, mistress,” I whispered.
The china rattled slightly as she picked up her cup and took a sip. “Then, my apprentice, you should have felt the disruption in the Force at his demise. The question now, is why didn't you?”
"But, mistress, the Force was crawling with terror on that planet. It was so thick you could smell the fear like a stink on the wind. Surely that would have drowned out a single life, wouldn't it?”
"So certain are you?” she asked in a rather strange tone of voice. She looked at me sidelong and made up her mind about something so her next question was firm and commanding. “Where were you when I was frozen in carbonite?”
Once more, a question without the slightest tangent of connection to the conversation rocked me back on my heels. Still, I kept control of my mouth and answered, “With Aunt...uh...Darth Tari, on the Warspite.”
"And where was the Warspite?”
Again I felt myself blink in surprise and confusion at this line of questioning. “I...I don't remember exactly, mistress, somewhere between Ruuria and Dromund Kaas, I believe...” Was that a smile she was holding back?
"Close enough,” she allowed. “And where was I?”
"Did you feel me imprisoned?”
I shuddered, remembering that horrible sensation of utter cold. “Yes, mistress.”
"So, you felt your mother frozen across the galaxy, but you think you wouldn't feel your lovers death a few hundred kilometers away?”
Dad chuckled. “I'm no Sith, but even I know that's not how the Force works.” Mom playfully slapped him on the shoulder.
"Hush, you,” she commanded, then, her yellow eyes steely, she turned back to me. “My Apprentice, you will find that, within the Force, connection, is the overriding factor in our lives. Of course we will hear the echo of great suffering of many through the Force, but, and pay attention, our loved ones, those closest to us will always resonate stronger in the Force to us. We are Sith, we use our emotions and our connections to become stronger with the Force. So too are their echos stronger to us.”
I looked at her, struggling to fully comprehend what she was driving at. “So, I should have felt Koth die, even over that disaster with hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people disrupting the Force?”
"What are a million strangers to you against someone you love?” she wanted to know. “Of course we use our power to do the most good for the most people, that is why we gather power in the first place. But we are neither soulless nor passionless and so those closest to us will always matter more than a stranger. That is only natural.”
"But...but I didn't feel him die!” I protested. “Does that mean I didn't really love him?”
She sighed in frustration as though I had missed something she found obvious. “Yes, that could be an explanation,” she allowed. “So, were you lying to me when you said you loved him?”
"So there is a connection between you and Koth. Search your feelings, my apprentice. Open yourself to the Force and tell me if Koth is one with it once more.”
"Koth is alive?” I asked, amazed.
"You tell me,” she retorted with a smile. I felt my heart beating in my chest as I closed my eyes and tried to control my breathing. Odessen was alive with the Force and it vibrated through everything around and on it. As I opened myself to the Force, I saw my mother shining next to me, as clearly as if my eyes had been open. Beyond, then came the beacons of the Jedi and Sith who had joined us, all around us in the base became apparent to me. As I sent my awareness out, far, far away, like the end of a tunnel so long you almost couldn't see the end of it, I saw a light. The light of the man who had shared my bed, shared my body, whose breath I had tasted in the most intimate of bliss. I touched his mind and felt the vague impression of a dark cell, pain of rough treatment and then for a split second, he became aware of me.
My eyes snapped open and I was on Odessen again, standing before my parents. “Koth is alive!” I declared with utter certainty. Mother smiled and raised her coffee cup.
"Well done, my apprentice,” she congratulated. Then it hit me who Darth Tari had gotten her teaching style from and I felt more than a little embarrassed.
"Mistress, may I go and...”
"Patience,” she commanded. “For all things, Lord Taybri, there is a time. First, go and fetch your brother and this Hutt scientist you have brought me. I want to know everything about this Isotope Five.”
I bowed. “As you wish, Mistress.”
Main Briefing Room, Alliance Headquarters, Odessen, Wild Space
Mom didn't speak long with Dr. Juvard before she called for an immediate alert and the assembly of her War Council. Soon, a room that was normally dominated by the round holographic projector in the center was dominated by the Hutt scientist and self-professed genius standing next to it. The room itself was deeply carved out of the bedrock of the gorge, which started as a natural cavern or fissure in the granite that had been opened up. The floor was actually a metal box mesh in a series of platforms with little stairs to link them so the floor could be a semblance of even throughout. While portable power cells and terminals had been stuffed in where ever there was level ground to put them where they wouldn't get wet and cables and conduit festooned the walls like technical garlands snaking throughout the base.
The projector was at the high point in the back half of the room so everyone could see it, though I can't imagine that laying...standing? Honestly, I'm not sure which was correct to describe a being like a Hutt. Either way, I'm sure he wasn't any kind of comfortable on that metal mesh. On the hologram, floating next to him was one of those ball and stick models I vaguely remembered from chemistry class.
In the room was a veritable who's who of the Alliance, in addition to Mom, Dad and Dr. Juvard, there was Darth Tari and all of her present and former apprentices. Next to her was Master Vost, the senior of the Jedi who had come to help and Admiral Aygo with Commodore Barsal of the military wing of the Alliance. Of course, Uncle Silas and Aunt Fable were there as well. Intelligence wise we had Lana Beniko and Theron Shan, though on opposite sides of the table from each other. That was an old argument, of course, although there was an odd little knot of emotion between Lana and Mom, but I didn't have much time to try and puzzle it out because Dr. Juvard's basso voice commanded attention.
"Illerium,” he declared with a gesture at the model. “You gentle beings may know the substance as the primary explosive used in starfighter ejection seats and the explosive bolts of escape pods. Volatile in any oxygen atmosphere, but less energetic and more stable than detonite, which is why it is the primary explosive in these applications. It has long been theorized that Illerium is formed in Neutron stars, but becomes stable after some event that breaks up the star, such as passing too close to another supernova or similar energetic events.”
He made a gesture and the hologram changed to a different model. “This is Isotope-5, a highly radioactive, degradation of Illerium that we've managed to create in a few experimental laboratories in small amounts. This, gentle beings, has been discovered, in a stable state, on Makeb. This is Toborro's great discovery at the center of Makeb. Something truly unique in all the galaxy–and worth destroying this planet to obtain. Imagine a substance as light as shimmersilk but stronger than durasteel. It distorts gravity and electromagnetic fields so predictably that it can be refined into fuel.”
Lana raised her hand as if she was still in school. “But, it's highly radioactive, you said? Being around it would be lethal, wouldn't it?”
Dr Juvard sighed heavily. “Not any longer. The raw material can be bombarded with particles to make it safe to handle with bare hands.”
"Who came up with that?” demanded Aunt Fable.
"I did,” the Doctor replied. “I am not proud of how my intellect has been misused, but it had the efficacy of keeping myself and Torm alive.”
"There's no blame to be laid, Doctor,” Mom assured him. “Please continue.”
He nodded gravely, then turned back out the crowd. “The energy potential of such refined Isotope-5 is so great, a micro gram could power this holotable for a century. This is the source of the navigation and electromagnetic interference on Makeb. And with it, Toborro intends to build a new series of weapons and ships, powered by Isotope-5 to make the Hutt Cartel a major player on the galactic stage, perhaps even to the point to challenge Zakuul.”
Mom stepped forward. “Which is exactly why we're going to take it away from him,” she declared.
That caused more than a little stir among the assembled, but it was Admiral Aygo who gave it voice. “Commander?” the canid-like Bothan asked in his graveled tone of voice. “You mean to take an entire planet?”
"Not in so many words, Admiral,” she replied quickly. “I mean to perform a surgical strike, to cut the head off of Toborro's organization, liberate Makeb and return it to its people and make off with any Isotope-5 he's mined and make Makeb useless to him or anyone else by destroying the mines and refineries.”
Commodore Barsal rubbed his chin. “That's a tall order, your Grace. Even with all of the training we've done to decrease our reaction times for targets of opportunity like this.”
"Not as tall as you'd think,” Shan countered, taking over the holographic table and changing the image to one of Makeb. “The Hutt's co-opted the planetary defense force, the Interstellar Regulators, who were a mercenary group of some note. While they're well equipped on the ground and with small arms, their only planetary defenses are a fighter wing of about five squadrons, mostly out of date Republic models from the Republic-Sith War.”
"It'd be something close to a fair fight against our fighter wing, and about half of them are of that vintage,” Aygo murmured thoughtfully. “But with no capital ships, our fleet would certainly swing the scales in our favor. It's risky, Commander, but it is doable.”
"Especially considering the gains we'll likely make in war material,” Barsal added.
"Won't the Republic have something to say about it?” Torm asked, causing Lana to lean into him.
"No,” she told him quickly. “Makeb is a neutral world, that's why the Hutts could stage this coup and not risk a response. The PR victory will be substantial as well, I would think.” She winked at mom. “The first action of the Eternal Alliance being a mission of liberation for a neutral planet, ignored by the entire Galaxy? I can definitely work with that.”
"How will we fly through all that interference to launch a ground assault?” a gruff man, wearing the uniform of a Sith Empire Infantry Major, I didn't recognize asked.
"We won't,” Theron told him, indicating the hologram of Makeb. “The fighters are based out of this orbital elevator on the northern hemisphere. Knock out the fighters and we can take the elevator and use it for infiltration and extraction without risking a single ship.”
Mom nodded, a stern expression on her face. “Alright then, Admiral, Commodore, I'll leave you to plan our arrival, bombardment and withdrawal. Darth Murr, Master Vost, you'll both be with me, as our Force users will be spearheading the ground assault. Major Pierce, you're with us as well. We'll get back together at thirteen hundred for lunch and to compare our rough ideas. Our rebellion starts today, my friends. May the Force be with us!”
Paddock and Stables, Alliance Headquarters, Odessen, Wild Space
Once mom and the movers and shakers withdrew to start planning in earnest, I made myself scarce and let my feet take me across the main bridge to the other side of the gorge. I was a do-er, not a thinker, when the time came to go start killing people and doing, they would give me a goal and I'd go do it. In the meantime, I'd just be in the way, so I decided to go out into Nature and try to sort out what I was feeling. In the space of a few days, I'd dealt with the death of a lover, been forced to realize I did, in fact love him, then discovered him to be alive; only to be stymied in my desire to rush off and rescue him.
Now that my nose had been rubbed in my connection and feelings, my skin itched to be after him.
My belly ached in sympathy for his empty one, bruises from his mistreatment rose up like ghosts in my skin to fade when I looked at them, and the anger! Oh by the Force my anger was a furnace fit to forge the fiery heart of a star! I looked at the ships parked on the landing field and for a brief moment, I fantasized about stealing one, rushing after my man to save him. Then, the Force would be coy and make me remember where that obsession with my mother had led my father; how it had taken him from me when I had needed him most. Nor could I forget how my mother, freed from her prison, aware of the plight of the love of her life, and yet still choosing to do what was best for the Galaxy and mastering her desperate desire to rush off and find him.
I concentrated on the shame I felt for my desire to give into my rashness and passed by the field to the main paddock.
Here, my senses were soothed by earthy, familiar smells of large beasts, and their larger droppings that were currently being composted into fertilizer. Surprisingly, some of my fondest memories of my childhood were not adventures I'd had with my mother, but the stables on the estate and getting to care for my pony. The memory brought a stab of old pain as I thought of my prized possession, doubtlessly long dead on Ruuria and left behind the night we had fled for our lives.
The night I lost my mother and would begin to lose my father.
I arrived at the split rail fence of the paddock and looked out at a motley collection of animals. There was a sizable herd of Banthas which were probably being used as plow animals to a gossip of Blurrgs that were gathered around a trough, drinking. There were even a couple of Fathiers on the far side of the pen, glancing nervously at the other animals.
A pair of Banthas were being brought out into the paddock from the stable and they called to their herd mates, drawing my eyes where I was surprised to find Vette driving them. I waved and she came over, wiping her forehead as she did so. She had changed from the stealth suit we'd freed Father and Doctor Oggurobb in to a pair of sensible and slightly baggy cargo pants with boots that came up to her knee to protect them from the muck of the paddock. Over this was a simple halter top in gray that matched the skull cap she wore that covered the base of her lekku. Her blue skin was covered in a sheen of sweat that showed she'd been working for some time. “What brings you out here?” she asked as she arrived.
I gave a vague gesture at the gorge behind me. “Waiting on the quality to decide what we're doing. What about you?”
She shrugged, producing a canteen from her belt that she offered to me first, then took a sip when I declined. “Farm girl,” she declared, wiping her lips with the back of her hand. “I can help here, so here I am. What? You thought I was a house Twi'lek, used to just dancing around in skimpy outfits?”
I looked at her side long. “I did mean it when I said I was sorry,” I told her. “Would saying it again help?”
She shrugged and leaned against the fence next to me. “No, you don't have to, sorry,” she muttered, then sighed and looked out at the animals. “Kale was 'busy with command'. Not the first time I've been shown the door so I figured I'd best make myself useful.”
"My brother isn't like that,” I declared, defending him. “He is in the military and he does have superiors to report to. Just like me!”
Her eyes looked at me out of the corner, sidelong; as if she was afraid to look me in the face to see if I was lying. “Hey, I know you're tight with your brother, guess you don't have to worry about me anymore.”
"My brother is his own man,” I told her earnestly. “And if he wants to break up with you, he'll tell you to your face.”
Finally, she turned and there was a strange expression of fear, hope and shame on her face as she did so. Then it changed to a look of shock as she saw something of what I was dealing with. “Poodo, Bree! I'm sorry! I didn't even think about you losing Koth...”
I sighed. “Well, that's not as bad as I thought, at least. Koth is alive...”
"What? That's great!” she exclaimed.
I gave her a gesture to turn down her enthusiasm. “And he's being held prisoner, probably by the Hutts.” She winced, but reached out and rubbed my shoulder and that connection felt good. Anchoring me a bit in someone who looked like she was going to be a good friend. Despite my stupidest efforts. “Mom can't spare me right now to go get him, so I'm just sitting around chewing nails...” I shuddered, feeling the ghost of some blow to him. “Vette, when I get a hold of these people, it won't be pretty!”
"We'll get him free,” she promised me. “I'll help.” She rolled her eyes and made a gesture back towards the base. “Like you need my help with all these warrior types around...”
"I appreciate it,” I told her. “Really.”
That seemed to catch her off guard and she smiled one of the first genuine smiles I'd seen on her face. It was a pretty smile, too, with her guard down and being unpretentious. “Don't mention it,” she told me. “Well, otherwise, how's it going, my lord?”
"I thought we were friends?” I protested and she just grinned and wagged a finger at me.
"Got ya!” She offered me the canteen again and this time I did drink from it. “You Force users are all wound too tight. You need a friend like me to keep you from taking yourself too seriously.”
"Then it's good we met, right?” I shot back. We stood in silence for a moment, me giving her back her canteen that she drank from before returning to her belt. “How's your mother?”
Vette thought that funny and chuckled. “Oh, you should see her,” she told me with a wink in a conspiratorial tone. “She walked into the big kitchen like she owned it and started putting it to rights. I imagine she's taken over by now. Running this place isn't that different than running our farm, after all.”
The call of a familiar voice brought my eyes back to the trail by the space port, to find my previous Mistress, Darth Tari walking towards me, with Kale beside her. My former mistress was wearing the gray and black fatigues she favored when going somewhere that danger was in the offering for, both of her lightsabers hanging from her belt. It was odd that she and my mother were now about the same age physically though they were still different chronologically. She was fit, despite the four kits she had birthed, and I know worry for me had probably taken a few years off the end of her life, but she was still every bit as lethal as she had been in her day as mothers apprentice. I bowed as she swept up to us, even though we were both, technically apprentices of my mother, Darth Mur was the senior of us and a full Darth as well. “How may I serve you, my lord?”
Tari's eyes swept past me to Vette. “This is the Twi'lek, Captain?” she asked of Kale.
"Yes, my lord,” he replied, but I was just a bit shocked.
"Captain?” I demanded.
My brother's face was well suited for the smirk that hung from it. “It seems the Admiral was quite pleased with my detached service and the additions we brought to the Alliance.”
"Play stupid games, win stupid prizes,” Tari muttered as she turned to Vette. “I understand you have intimate knowledge of Makeb, Vette, is it?”
"Yes,” she replied guardedly. “Uh, yes, my lord,” was hastily added. “I've lived my whole life on Makeb.” Tari reached into a pocket on the fatigues and produced a holographic display disk she clicked on. There it displayed a long, spindle shaped building on a mesa that was taller than the hologram showed.
"Are you familiar with this building?”
Vette's head bobbled. “Yes...yes, my lord. It's Gravity Hook 7, it's an orbital elevator, about three kilometers from the plantation where I grew up. We sent most of our produce through it for export off world.”
Tari clicked off the display, her gold eyes just a bit narrow. “You've been inside it? You're familiar with the layout? How far up?”
"Yes, I've been all the way up to the platform. We had an issue with a shipment once and I had to reclaim a shipment lot of jam from a freighter.” My godmother's grin was normally feral, but now, it promised mayhem.
"Excellent.” Turning to me, she declared, “Dr. Oggurobb believes the Regulators may be holding your man Koth there.”
"They have a base just beside the mesa!” Vette volunteered.
"Even if he's not there, we should be able to access their computer network and discover where he is, while we find the location of the mines for the strike teams,” Mistress Tari finished. I bowed, wondering how much gratitude I owed my godmother for being put on the mission that had the highest chance of finding and freeing Koth. She grinned and playfully mussed my hair and declared, “You'll be doing my laundry for a month so don't over-starch my dresses.”
"No, ma'am!” I assured her.
"Vette, you know how to use a blaster?” Vette nodded somewhat cautiously. “Good, go draw one from the armory then report to that ship over there.”
"The antique?” Vette asked, with visible concern.
"Don't let her owner hear you talking that way,” Tari warned her. “The name is the Aces and Eights. You too, youngsters,” she ordered me and Kale. “Get whatever you need, collect up X4 and report for take off.”
Aboard the Glorious Jewel, over Makeb, Aida Sector
One of the advantages of having so many skilled people from both the Sith Empire and those disenchanted with the meek surrender of the Republic was that the Eternal Alliance had the pick of the litter. While we had taken off, the tech boys had gotten busy, turning the Alliance's considerable intelligence assets towards breaking the Hutt's security and finding out all of Toborro's dirty little secrets. We were two days out from Odessen, halfway across the Galaxy to Makeb when we were diverted to ambush a freighter, the Glorious Jewel, on her way to Makeb.
Thanks to the scheduling information I'd squeezed out of Odu, we knew that the hyper drive of the Glorious Jewel was temperamental, and needed to stop halfway to Makeb to cool off and recycle. We had laid a trap in the deserted little system they used to do that. She'd been running mostly empty, as Toborro's operation was getting into the end game; her job was to transport spoils from Makeb back to Nar Shadda.
Oh, the crew put up some resistance, but even crack troops have their courage falter when fighting Sith, and the rag tag crew of a (mostly) pirate freighter had no face to show at all against us. We had control of the ship within five minutes. The captain, a particularly disgusting example of a Jablogian who was nearly fat enough to pass himself off as a Hutt, actually soiled himself when I put my light saber under his nose and demanded his surrender.
The less said about that particular smell the better, but it gives a whole new meaning to being in bad odor...
The stars had returned and the Glorious Jewel was coasting towards Makeb and the orbital platform of Gravity Hook Seven. Darth Tari and I shared a wink as our arrival caused exactly zero fuss. The speakers overhead in the somewhat cramped cockpit of the freighter crackled to life and a bored-sounding voice demanded, “Glorious Jewel, I have you on the board now, transmit your clearance code.”
The Jablogian made to move to the communications station, but I had a saber in hand and ignited it under his nose again. “Remember,” I warned him with great menace, “If you betray us, what happens to us won't matter. You won't live to see it; you'll die first.”
The great jowls and folds of scarlet skin paled almost to pink as he wagged his head, his beady eyes blinking spastically. “I remember,” he whimpered. I let him reach the controls and he clicked a switch. “Gravity Hook Seven, this the Glorious Jewel, transmitting now...”
He pressed a button and for a moment the only sound in the compartment was air moving and the hum of my saber. After what felt like an eternity, the speaker crackled again. “Alright, you're cleared for port four. Welcome back.”
I nodded at the sergeant of the commando team we had brought with us and in short order, the 'captain' was back in irons and frog marched back to the improvised brig we had set up. My sabers back on my belt, Darth Mur gave the ship to the skeleton crew we'd leave in charge of it and took the lead to the air lock. As we walked, she took a holographic projector disk from her pocket and clicked it on, looking at the head and shoulders of the lead technical espionage specialists we'd brought along. “Lieutenant, you have good news for me?”
As soon as we'd left hyperspace, two of his operators and a little clutch of Droids had gone outside the ship, and as soon as we'd docked quickly made their way to the communications lines down the tether, tying in their comrades directly to the hard lines of the station. “Yes, my lord, we have complete control of their communications and alarm systems. You are clear to engage.”
"Excellent!” She clicked off the device and returned it to her pocket before removing her lightsabers from her belt. “Weapons free, lads,” she informed the commando team that was gathered by the lock. “In twenty minutes I want to be in control of this platform.”
There was a spatter of acknowledgments, then we all gripped our weapons and waited for the lock to cycle. This was the most dangerous part of the operation, of any operation, really. Being in a confined space with a single, one-man-wide exit; kill zone was the name most soldiers gave it. Everything depended on getting out of the airlock as fast as possible. The door opened and the first Regulator died before he had time to realize he was in a trap.
We surged forward, with a flurry of blaster bolts seeking targets as we did so, into a large, loading dock that was oddly full of people. Our light sabers reflected a few sporadic, reflexive attacks, but with shocking quickness we had control of the compartment and there were nearly two hundred men and women of various ages and species, on their knees in surrender.
All of them chained together.
It was not often that my former mistress gives in to her feline nature, and it was usually only in moments of intense emotion. I happened to be next to her when the quiet fell and she realized we now were in possession of a slaver's cargo. She was so infuriated she hissed. “Captain!” she shouted, her voice trembling with tightly checked anger.
"I am no longer interested in prisoners. You and your men take this station and kill every slaver you find.”
"Right away, my lord!”
One of the Jedi who had been assigned to this mission made a motion as if to object and Darth Mur wheeled on her, Tari's own blades still ignited, but in neutral positions. “Defend these slavers at your own peril, master Jedi!” she warned.
The Jedi swallowed and shook her head. “I...didn't say anything...” she managed.
"Don't,” Tari warned her, and to my immense surprise and delight, I clearly heard Vette's voice from behind us.
Darth Mur then turned to me. “Apprentice, while we are awaiting the security of the platform, get these people on board and see that they are taken care of.”
I nodded, returning my own sabers to my belt. “Yes, mistress.” I then turned and addressed the crowd. “Listen to me. You are all free now. Stand and file onto the ship in an orderly manner where we can get your restraints off and see you safely off Makeb. Those of you with medical issues will be seen first so let my soldiers know what they are.” Vette and I shared a glance and she immediately took charge and herded them into the Glorious Jewel. Darth Mur, who was noticeably calmer now joined me as we watched the line of refugees enter our captured freighter.
"You and the Twi'lek work well together,” she observed.
"Vette and I had a rocky start,” I admitted. “But we've gotten things sorted out now.”
She nodded sagely. “Good. Once you've gotten our refugees sorted, meet me with her at the central elevator.”
"Right away, mistress.”
I don't feel the need to comment on the simple butchery that followed. There is no glory to be had in putting down a rabid animal, or in the dispatch of evil men. It is just something that has to be done, and we did it.
On the bright side, we were able to capture most of the Regulators pilots and their fighters in their hanger except for a small patrol that was already out. They were handily dispatched by the fleet when they arrived; so far everything was going according to plan.
Fortunately, Gravity Hook Seven was primarily involved with cargo, rather than passenger service, so the trolleys going up and down the tether were huge, enabling us to move our entire attack force in a single trip. With a well-entrenched rearguard to hold the platform, we descended the tether, every man lost in his or her own thoughts, checking weapons, grenades and bandoleers, mentally preparing for the coming fight.
I remembered a similar situation, my first and only mission I had undertaken as my mother's apprentice and smiled at the memory before I gave it voice again. “Nobody fart,” I commanded. As it had years ago, the tension was broken and laughter washed like a wave over the carriage. Vette rolled her eyes at me, but she was grinning from ear cone to ear cone. As I got my sabers comfortable in my hands, Darth Mur began to give the morale speech that leaders do in situations like this.
"Those of you tech specialists, without combat experience, stick close to your minder. Jedi and Sith will lead the charge, but no matter what is waiting for us when these doors open, get clear of the doors. Out into hell is the only way through this. Do not hesitate, charge! Work as a team, and we will all get through this.”
"Alliance!” the troops shouted.
I worked on keeping my hands from gripping the sabers too tightly as time drew out like a blade, infinitely long and sharp. A lifetime passed in that carriage in the space of a few minutes as I worked on my breathing and beside me I heard Vette whisper, “I'm one with the Force and the Force is with me.”
Catching her eye, I joined her chant until the entire carriage was softly in chorus, “I'm one with the Force and the Force is with me.”
Then the carriage stopped and a dozen lightsabers all snapped on with a hiss of ionizing air in perfect sync. The doors snapped open and the blaster bolts began to fly; our electronic warfare wasn't quite as successful as we'd hoped. We Jedi and Sith forced our way out, blades sweeping in unison as we protected the initial rush, reflecting the bolts back from whence they'd come. We'd made sure to load the front lines with former Sith Infantry who had joined the Alliance and were all both used to and trained to work with Sith Lords. Soon there was almost as much blaster fire coming over our shoulders from behind us and into our enemies as there was coming at us.
My arms were in constant motion as I gave myself to the Force, moving where it wanted me to move, hearing only the hum of my weapons and not the screams and cries of the wounded and dying around me. Then there was a sudden silence, there were no more defenders for us to kill. “Take the doors!” I heard Darth Mur shout, so I returned a saber to my belt to free a hand and grabbed Vette by the combat harness she was wearing using that to force her to keep the pace I set as I ran after my mistress.
Behind me was only the random calls of “Forward!” or “Medic!”
Vette was breathing heavily as we caught up with Tari, her eyes wide with adrenaline and fear, but she had a good grip on her blaster and was remembering to keep its muzzle in a safe direction. “Trap sprung!” Tari announced as we arrived, a feral grin on her face. “Now, which way?”
Vette managed to pry one of her hands from the blaster to point past the Cathar. “The loading docks are that way. They're sure to have another ambush set at the main doors, but they might have overlooked the loading docks. We can flank them!”
Darth Mur seemed impressed with this, and quickly waved over a pair of officers. “Pierce,” she commanded. “I want you to take your section and feint at the main entrance. Keep them occupied and certain we mean to come through there.”
"I'm on it, milord!” he growled and departed at a trot, shouting for his soldiers. “Colonel Thul, you're with me. While Pierce has them by the nose, we're going to kick them in the tail.”
"Very good, my lord!” The great stream of Alliance soldiers began to part, like a river encountering a fork in its bed. Most followed my mistress and me towards the loading docks and I wondered if a society so used to over-looking servants would ignore what they might consider the 'servant's entrance'.
We were not slowed terribly, as this was a freight-oriented facility, the hallway was wide to accommodate forklifts and other container transport systems. Every now and then we'd come across a labor droid of some kind, confused by so many people in its area, but they were easily dealt with. I led the way out the doors, to be confronted with a small squad of soldiers, taken completely by surprise. My saber cut the nearest one's blaster in half and I held it before his face. “You have one chance to keep living,” I growled. “Where are your prisoners kept?”
The soldier's face became indignant. “I'm not going to...” was as far as he got. Lightsabers have no blade per se, they are merely a coherent beam of plasma, contained in a magnetic field, so every portion of the beam is a cutting surface and flesh offers no resistance. With a contemptuous flick of my wrist, I decapitated him; a look of shock on his face quickly going slack as it and the body felt in opposite directions. I turned to the soldier next to the body.
"You have one chance...” I started, but he quickly dropped his blaster and pointed over my left shoulder.
"The stockade is labeled,” he babbled. “Big energy fence, just over the rise, you can't miss it...!”
"I'm looking for a Zakuul pilot, captured about a cycle ago; Koth Vortena is his name. Skin darker than mine, black curly hair, amber eyes and a goatee, have you seen him?”
The soldier frantically shook his head. “I don't work the stockade, I'm sorry, please don't kill me!”
"Sergeant,” I ordered. “Bind these men.”
"My lord,” the sergeant responded, roughly taking them all into custody. I turned to Darth Mur.
"Mistress, I have the location of my objective.”
My second mother smiled at me. “Patience, my apprentice,” she scolded me. “For all things there is a time. First, we pacify the Regulators and make way for your mother and the rest of the strike team. You'll be reunited with your lover presently.”
I took a deep breath in through my nose to keep my emotions in check. “Yes, mistress. What are your orders?”
She turned to Vette. “Which way are the main doors from here?” Vette pointed off to the right and Tari nodded again. Looking back at me, she ordered, “Take half the force and flank to the left. I'll take the remainder the short way. We'll squeeze out the Regulators between us.”
"Right away,” I replied and began gesturing to my section as we took off at a trot around the Gravity Hook. At the base of it, it truly was an awe inspiring sight, seemingly an endless tower, stretching up into the heavens out of sight. This mesa was a bit proud from the remainder of the land mass we'd already had our adventures upon, I could even see the towers of Toborro's Estate from here. Fortunately, it was anchored deeply into the bedrock and you can imagine the foundation of a structure the size of this was critical.
A ten-minute jog got us around to the other side and we could see blaster bolts flying from a force hunkered down behind barricades in the driveway of the Hook, with a fairly spirited reply from Pierce's section. I have to give the big Major credit, I knew I had a quarter of the main attack force at my back and even I believed we were coming through those front doors. I caught sight of Darth Mur right as she caught sight of me and the Regulators saw us both.
There was a brief cry of alarm, and then it was nothing but the howl of blaster bolts, the explosions of grenades and every now and then a blast from a heavy mortar that we made our priority target so as to take it away from them as quickly as possible.
In short order the air stank from the ozone of blaster bolts and the smell of cooking flesh.
I have to give the Regulators recognition for their diligence. A lesser force would have broken and ran, but they knew they had the best ground they could have and stubbornly clung to it until there was only a scattered dozen or so of survivors who finally gave up and raised their weapons in surrender.
Once we had them sorted, the doors opened and Major Pierce led the way with Mom and the main attack force who had come down the Hook at his back. Darth Mur and I bowed to her, I sinking to one knee as was proper. Still, mom's smile made me feel warm all over. “Well done my apprentices,” she greeted us with a hug for us both. “Stand, Lord Taybri, you have earned your triumph. What casualties, Darth Mur?”
"Still being sorted, my mistress,” Tari replied. “But we have adequate strength to hold our rear.”
"Excellent,” Mom told her. “Hold this position at all costs.”
"It shall be done, Mistress.”
Mom's yellow eyes came to mine. “Lord Taybri, take your party and see about the rescue of our personnel and whatever information you can cull from their network.”
"It will be my pleasure, Mistress,” I assured her.
She smirked at me and I got a little embarrassed that my mother was picking up on accidental innuendo on my part. “Business first,” she ordered and gave a dismissive gesture. “On your way.”
Headquarters of the Interstellar Regulators, base of Gravity Hook 7, Makeb, Aida Sector
No army is entirely fighting men. There will always be large numbers of personnel in the rear areas of an army, wagging the logistical tail of the killer dogs. Mechanics, cooks, stockmen, medics, even camp followers and would-be servants looking to cash in on the booty of soldiers flush with cash burning a hole in their pockets. Despite this, the camp of the Regulators was deserted. We had fought the battle against them practically on the front doorstep of the base so the rear echelon types had the benefit of seeing the battle being lost in real-time.
Most had taken anything of handy value that wasn't nailed down in lieu of their final paychecks and filed their resignations effective immediately.
The camp was deserted, offering us no resistance whatsoever as we flooded in. And while the smaller, easily transportable expensive bits were gone, there was plenty of expensive hardware and war material that was too big, bulky or otherwise difficult to abscond with. The camp itself was an odd mixture of prefab buildings that could be broken down and transported, semi-permanent, large-scale tents and a couple of actual hard buildings for things that required environmental control and true waterproofing.
In addition to these, there was a motor pool with a collection of troop transport speeders, a few battered armored speeders trying to pass themselves off as tanks, and a handful of infantry fighting vehicles, all probably down for repair as they were still here. Our own logistics types got to sorting the pearls from the swine to see what was worth taking, while I got the slicers comfy in the base's network center with an adequate guard against looters or diehards pressing their luck. That done, I took Vette and headed for the stockade.
It was, as you might imagine, one of the few hard buildings, as promised in the middle of the base. The energy fence was down, but the stanchions for it were still there, letting us know where to look. The doors were all locked allowing us to presume the jailers had left with the keys and the other REMFs, but my lightsabers always work well as a master key. Still, Vette was eager to prove herself useful and opened the last doors for me herself.
She got us into the cell block and I was pacing as she dug into the computer to find out which cell Koth was in. “Ed?”
The voice that came from off to my side, in the holding cell, was as weak and raspy as its owner. I turned to find myself staring into the blank, red eyes of a Chiss female. “My God, Ed, is it you? You haven't aged a day!”
I walked over to the cell to get a better look at whoever this prisoner was. Her face was lined and had a scar running down her cheek from her left eye to her chin. Her hair was chopped short, far too short to be flattering, and was a rats nest on top of it. She had the look of someone who hadn't eaten well for an extended period, her skin was a paler blue than most of the Chiss I was familiar with and she was painfully thin. “You mistake me for someone else,” I told her. “However...”
Chiss eyes are a solid red, without pupil or iris, yet somehow I got the feeling the blank eyes rolled in disgust. “Yes, yes, I remember, it's Nyeomi now...”
"Do you know my mother?” I demanded, raising my chin a bit in warning. The Chiss stood from the bench she was sitting on and cautiously walked over like a beaten cur of a dog offered food; desperate for the offering, but wary of being struck again. Now I could see she wasn't thin, she was emaciated, with sagging, empty breasts that had likely been quite shapely before these times had befallen her.
"Mother?” she demanded, the empty eyes filling with tears. “Mother?”
"I am Taybri Bellos-Fens, Lord of the Sith, Countess of Banudan, eldest child of Her Grace Darth Nyeomi Fens, Duchess of Ruuria,” I replied. “Who are you?”
She stared at me as though she had seen some ghost or specter from her past and several times her mouth opened as if she would speak, then closed again. “It...it's not fair,” she whispered finally, and I began to question her sanity.
"I have little patience for fools,” I warned her, which snapped her out of whatever fugue she was lost in. “If you worry about your future, don't. We will release you shortly, though first I have other matters to attend to.” I turned to go back to Vette which caused her to panic.
"No, wait!” she shouted and came quickly to the bars of the holding cell. “You have no idea who I am? But you really have no idea who you are,” she said all in a rush to get the words out. “I do! I know, and I'll tell you, if you get me out of here!”
My eyes narrowed and I crossed my arms over my chest. “I know who I am. Who are you and why should I care?” That struck her as funny and she laughed a hollow, cackling rattle of a sound completely devoid of real mirth or cheer.
"Your mother never told you about her wife?” she asked in a tone I decidedly didn't like. Who my mother took to her bed was none of my business, but it most definitely was none of hers. Yet, perhaps she was suicidal because she continued, as if mistress of some deep secret, “Never told you about the woman she abandoned to go and pretend to be a Sith Lord?”
My hand clenched into a fist against my breast and The Force instantly answered, reaching out like a giant vice to pin her arms to her sides and yank her against the bars, millimeters from my face. “You should know, I have a terrible temper,” I warned her in a low and menacing voice. “And if you think I, or my mother, are pretending to be Lords of the Sith, your surprise at discovering your error will last you the rest of your life, but that won't be for very long. I promise you. Now, I grow tired of this conversation, so I will ask you a final time, who are you?”
The already unhealthy light blue of her skin paled to an almost pastel shade as she finally stopped struggling against the Force that held her helpless. “F...Fargo. I'm Lanaka Fargo.”
"Why should I care about you, Lanaka Fargo?” I drawled. “Or care about whatever gossip you think you have to hold over my mother's head?”
"Because I should be your mother!” she declared.
Well, I certainly hadn't expected that, and I would have laughed under different circumstances. As it was, I was getting annoyed. “Talk sense!” I ordered her. Her head wobbled on her shoulders as that was the only limb she had control over.
"It's true!” she swore with what almost seemed like conviction. “Your entire life is a lie! You think you know who and what your mother is? You have no idea! No clue as to who she really is, or where we both came from! Not Stew...uh, uh, Silas! Not Silas and not Darius! They've all lied to you!”
I had to admit I was a little surprised that she knew the names of my uncles, by foundling family if not blood, but I was something of a public figure. There are obsessive voyeurs on the holonet that create shrines to particularly accomplished Sith Lords or Jedi. Not to mention the slavering Gundarks that call themselves journalists. Still, even I would admit I was only just graduated from being an apprentice, and while a noblewoman, there were literally millions of noble houses throughout the galaxy. Yet this Chiss' knowledge was exact and obscure.
Exact enough that it opened up the old wound of Darius' sacrifice of himself to save me and the rest of the team. We had finally gotten the location of the Vault of the Damned, and to save my mother, I had to lose my uncle. For a moment, I was awash in the ache of trying to open the speeder door he'd slammed shut and then shot the mechanism to keep me from following him. The ache of seeing him gunned down by the Sky Troopers as the speeder sped away because Lana thought he was on board. Still, before I could decide how to continue with questioning her, Vette softly called, “My lord? I've found him.”
"Koth?” I asked my voice somewhere between the excitement of being reunited with my lover and the sadness of the memory this crazy woman had triggered as I came over. “Where?”
Before Vette could answer, the rattling laugh sounded behind me again. “No, she hasn't.”
I turned back to Vette, and with difficulty, kept my temper. “Go get him,” I ordered her as I decided to deal with Scar-Face. Vette nodded and worked the controls and the door deeper into the cellblock opened. “You're beginning to get on my nerves,” I told her. The Chiss just laughed again.
"Don't take my word for it,” she taunted me. “Tall, dark and handsome right? Amber eyes, a goatee with black hair in short dreadlocks? I can see the attraction, but I wouldn't have thought he'd be your type. No, wait, we've just met, haven't we?” The door opened again and Vette returned, her skin a bit pale. “God, I swear you look just like I remember her!”
"Bree, the cell block is empty, he's not there...!”
Fargo's red eyes narrowed. “Believe me now?”
I crossed the room in two strides, only just keeping my temper. “Tell me...!” I shouted, but she raised a hand and rocked her index finger back and forth.
"Ah, ah, ah,” she warned, obviously delighted to have something to hold over me. “I'd hate to have such valuable information knocked out of my head by a rash blow...” I clinched my fists and drew my lips into a thin line, but restrained myself. “That's better. Now, let me out of this cell, guarantee me passage off this disaster of a planet and not only will I help you find your boy toy, I'll tell you all the secrets they've kept from you.”
"Bree, do you know this...hag?” Vette asked guardedly.
"Mind your mouth, you little trollop!” she hissed, but her eyes never left me. I think. You really can't be sure with a Chiss. “Do we have a deal?”
I considered for a long moment, then made a gesture to the cabinet by my Twi'lek friend. “Vette, hand me that shock collar.”
"You're not putting that thing on me...!” she started, but a casual gesture from me and the Force reached out and pinned her arms to her sides. Vette handed me the collar and, once I'd snatched the cell door open, I locked it around her neck.
"Now,” I purred in satisfaction. “Let me tell you how this association is going to work. You're going to answer every question I have and give me every assistance in getting my man back. Once I have him, I'll give you the key to the collar and we go our separate ways. Give me trouble and...” I pressed the button on the remote I'd also taken from Vette, eliciting a squeal of pain from the Chiss as the collar shocked her. The Force released her and she staggered and fell to the floor of the cell. “Try to run, and it will blow your head off your shoulders. Understand?”
She looked up with an expression of pure hate on her face, but I could see she was cowed. “If you kill me, you'll never see your boy toy again.”
"That's not the way to endear yourself to my good graces,” I warned her, brandishing the control. Her face turned down to the floor and she nodded.
"I understand,” she growled.
"Good,” I replied as I tucked the control into a pouch on my belt. “Now, where are we going?”
"We'll need a spaceship,” she told the floor. “They said they were taking him to Nar Shadda.”
Despite my miserable time failing to free Koth, my little side quest was actually a rousing success. Piles of information were 'liberated' from the Regulators databases by my slicers, and most of the speeders along with quite a store of munitions had been salvaged from the base. I had Vette take Fargo up with the spoils of our raid while I returned to Mistress Tari and my mother. “Mistress,” I greeted, sinking to one knee and holding out the data card. “Here are the locations of the mines and a summary of the forces stationed at each.”
"Well done, Bree!” Mom told me with a smile and a fierceness in her eyes that made me feel warm. She came over and took the card from my hand. “Colonel Thul? I think you'll want this.”
"Your Grace,” the colonel replied as he took the card and quickly walked over to a computer to read it.
Mom turned back to me. “Where's Koth?”
I sighed. “I have a lead that says he was taken to Nar Shaddaa.” Her expression was all the condolence I needed, and I could feel her frustration on my behalf. She turned to her senior apprentice standing by her side.
"Darth Tari, do you have any further need of Lord Taybri?”
She smirked at me, then shook her head at mom. “No, mistress. We are of sufficient strength to hold the rear if you have need of her.”
"No, my apprentice. Have Master Keison hold the rear. You and I have an appointment with the Supreme Mogul himself and we don't want to keep him waiting.” Mom turned to me and smiled. “Go,” she declared. “Bring Koth home and I'll see you both on Odessen.”
"Yes, mistress!” I enthused but was careful to bow before I stood and took off at a dead run. I was able to catch up to Vette and Lanaka right as they were finishing up loading the elevator with former Regulator vehicles. The Chiss was still surly, but I was in far too good of a mood to allow her to get to me. Vette and I shared a grin. We were winning and it was time to make our victory complete.
Mezenti Spaceport, Nar Shaddaa
The surviving Regulators were only too happy to give up the location of the warehouse complex they controlled on Nar Shaddaa. Happy to keep their limbs in exchange for the information, at any rate. Having lost the Black Eagle, I got a punitive downgrade of a transport, an older Republic Shuttle that had been repainted in Regulator markings we'd captured with the top platform of Gravity Hook Seven.
It was cramped, but it had a class two hyperdrive so we got to Nar Shaddaa in just a couple of hours.
In those hours, I watched, with the rest of the galaxy as the Alliance Commander, along with her senior apprentice, stormed the palace of the self-styled Supreme Mogul. Evidently, Lana had attached a pair of broadcast droids to Mom and Tari so we all got to see her live and real-time. Beniko gave this amazing tongue-in-cheek commentary as the Galaxy saw what a pair of Sith Warriors are capable of. Mom and Tari practically danced through Toborro's forces until they faced the hideous Hutt himself.
Toborro was missing his left arm which was replaced by a cybernetic one, possibly another of Doctor Juvard's creations. He had one of his massive Isotope Five powered war machines on hand when Darth Fens and Darth Tari burst into his sanctuary. I wasn't surprised mom was able to give a rousing speech denouncing Toborro and his 'hostile merger' of Makeb into the Hutt Cartel on the fly. Parents get all kinds of practice making children feel ashamed for their faults and shortcomings. Between that and Lana's pointed barbs, Toborro looked like a petulant brat, being taken to task rather than a would-be player of the Great Game of Empire.
Toborro put his faith in his machine and it cost him; Mom and Godmother Tari had been battle buddies from since before I was born. They fought in silence in a dance that they made look easy and effortless as they faced the mechanical terror Toborro had constructed, reducing it to scrap to the wailing disbelief of the Supreme Mogul.
Yet again, Lana proved her skills at public relations as the image of my mother shaking hands with Director Shalim Avesta of Avesta Mining and, I supposed, Vette's half brother, while Toborro was being taken away on a force field sled was the lead story around the holonet for days. The Eternal Alliance and its Commander had been well and truly established on the Galactic Stage.
Strangely, for someone claiming to have been a lover of my mother before I was born, Fargo had nothing but caustic barbs about my mother's triumph and sneeringly dismissed her achievement as the product of luck instead of hard work and careful planning. Fortunately, for her, a simple brandishing of the collar's remote control was sufficient to encourage her to keep her comments to herself.
Vette had helped Fargo recover her personal effects while I'd been reporting in to my mother, the Alliance Commander. Now her dingy gray body suit had been augmented with a set of duraplast armor plates that really did not fit her emaciated form well and long duster whose better days had been well before I was born. It gave her a bit of bulk and hid how skeletal she looked, but it seemed I wouldn't have to worry about keeping what was left of her skin whole when we arrived back on Nar Shaddaa.
As luck would have it, Mezenti was the closest spaceport to the Regulators hideout, so I ended up back literally where I started, in the same docking bay in point of fact. Six months I had suffered through on this wretched hive of scum and villainy trying to find and free my father. A mission I had finally succeeded in which had nearly cost me...what? I really did need to decide what Koth and I were and where we were going.
A quick speeder taxi ride got us to the warehouse the Regulators controlled, or at least the building cluster it was on, far enough away that we could surveil things before going in to kill everyone who wasn't Koth. “There you are,” Fargo told me as I inspected the building through macronoculars. “Can I go now?”
"How do we know he's in there?” Vette demanded.
"See the guy with the gold cord on his armor?” She asked. “That's who came and took him.”
Sketchy at best, but I reached out lightly with the Force and yes, I could feel Koth's presence. He was in there. I returned the noculars to my belt and fished out the key and handed it to her. “A deal's a deal,” I told her. “Be gone and good riddance.”
She quickly got the shock collar off and looked at me askance. “You don't want to know my information? You like living a lie?”
I rolled my eyes. “I know my mother loves me. I don't know or care if you were involved with her or not. Though I must admit I am grateful I share nothing from you, genetically. Take your mutterings somewhere else, you mean nothing to me.”
"Have it your way,” the Chiss replied and sulked off into the night.
"Glad that's over,” Vette assured me, so I shared a smile with her and turned back to the compound, perhaps half a kilometer away. “Now, how do we spring Koth from all this?”
"I was considering just walking up and giving them the chance to surrender,” I told her.
The look on her face was priceless, then she smirked and gave me a knowing look. “Yeah, let's not do that, right? There's a bunch of skylights along that roof. Bet there's one close to Koth?”
I shared her grin. “Let's go find out.”
They say no plan survives contact with the enemy. That defeat is the cumulative failure of intelligence gathering. Those who do not know the Force sometimes ascribe to such things to Luck, or random chance. I have discovered in my admittedly short life, that all is as the Force wills it. I know, that sounds silly, and yes, I have spent my entire life from being old enough to walk training in a remarkably difficult discipline; which is, in a way, my point.
Having a destiny does not let you off the hook of doing your part.
If anything, it should be a reason to train harder. You have to be ready to meet your destiny when that time comes. If the Force needs something to happen, it will, but if you aren't capable of doing it, it will still get done. That doesn't mean you'll survive trying and failing.
So, in a very real sense, what happened was my fault. Had I been more cautious, done my diligence, evaluated the situation better, things might have happened differently. I suppose it is entirely possible this is a lesson I was painfully learning, but at the time...
As much as I try to look out for my little brother, had he been here, this probably wouldn't have happened. Kale would have pointed out that it took us six months of greasing palms, fetch quests to establish our bona fides and a fair amount of straight-up thuggery to make the contact with Odu that put us on the trail of finding dad. Yes, of the two of us, Kale is the level-headed one, he would have seen through this in a second. Alas, we must always take the bad with the good.
The ease with which we got onto the roof should have warned me as well, and looking back on it, I did have misgivings as Vette and I skulked on the roof to the skylight closest to where I sensed Koth. I just itched to have my man back and to see him safe and I ignored them. Vette got us around the lock on the skylight faster than it took for me to say it and then we dropped in on my man's jailers.
They lived just long enough to feel the terror of their impending death, but I had no sympathy to waste on them. I cut them down and then we had the cell open. “Koth!” I exclaimed as I rushed in. They had him chained to the bench, with a hood over his head and he moaned with the abuse he'd suffered from them. I rushed in and hugged him and his moans changed in pitch and urgency. “I'm here, baby, I'm here!” I reassured him as I took the hood off to find his amber eyes wide.
He hadn't been moaning, he'd been gagged.
I tried to process that as I got it off of him and it occurred to me right as he gave it voice. “Bree, it's a trap!”
The distinctive humming buzz of blasters on stun rang from outside and Vette squealed in pain. I snatched my sabers from my belt but there was, of all things, a hologram in the door, being projected by a droid I couldn't see.
It was a hologram of a lithe woman in the contrasting flowing robes and corsets that were the hallmark of Zakuul fashion. This particular set, in green and yellow, were being worn by the High Justice of the Empire of Zakuul, sister of my sworn enemy, Arcann, Princess Vaylin. “Well,” she purred in obvious delight. “Look what my honeypot has snared.” She made a gesture at someone I couldn't see and Vette was hauled to her feet, the muzzle of a blaster under her chin. “Surrender, or you all die.”
There is a part of me that, had she actually been here, would probably have drawn my sabers and lunged at her. My life for Princess Vaylin? Yes, that's a trade I'd make. But she wasn't here, and if I tried some manner of thrilling heroics, I might get out alive, but the odds were Vette and Koth would not, and that was a trade I was not willing to make. I took my sabers from my belt and tossed them towards the doorway.
"Please, allow me,” a familiar voice declared, and at another gesture from Vaylin, that damned Chiss came around the corner, the shock collar in hand. “Payback is a bitch, isn't it?” she delighted and locked it around my neck.
"You've earned your pay, Bounty Hunter,” Vaylin declared with a smile. “I look forward to your arrival on Zakuul. I'll have a warm welcome waiting.”
Fargo's thumb came down on the remote and my world was washed out in electric agony.
* Finis *