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Star Wars Episode I: The Looming Force

Chapter Text

STAR WARS

Episode I: The Looming Force

Had Abbadon burns. A mysterious CLONE ARMY, led by unknown forces, has laid siege to the planet from orbit, hoping to recover the precious resources buried beneath its crust.

If captured, the planet will be the cornerstone of the clone offensive against the GALACTIC REPUBLIC, defender of democracy and justice in the galaxy for millennia.

While the Galactic Senate debates their response to the situation, Chancellor Bail Organa has taken matters into his own hands. He has sent his most trusted general on a secret mission to stop the bombing of the planet and restore peace to the system . . . .

Chapter Text

A cinder hung in space.

Had Abbadon, formerly a mud-brown sphere whose only distinguishing characteristic was the sheer dullness of its appearance, was covered in a lattice of glowing embers. It shone orange and yellow and crimson, as if lit by a million tiny torches. From orbit, one could almost find it beautiful.

The beauty diminished once one realized what each of those million points of light represented.

Every one of those flickers was the result of a single turbolaser blast ripping through space and into the planet’s crust. Emerald masses of superheated plasma hurled themselves toward the planet’s surface every hour on the hour, boiling the air around them, destroying life down to the microbial level, and setting fires that lasted long after their source had dissipated. The intensity of those fires had begun to diminish, of course—only so much organic matter could be consumed before they burned themselves out. But it hadn’t affected the light show one bit. As soon as ember decayed to ash, the warships rained hell down anew.

Right now, though, those ships were simply hanging in the void, waiting for their signal to renew the spider’s web of flame. There were five of them, great lumbering beasts of metal swarmed by starfighter-gnats. Like the Had Abbadon of old, the only thing remarkable about them was their ugliness—each was essentially a series of layered boxes, distinguishable from its fellows only by how big it was.

The prisoner was headed toward the biggest.

After he’d been slapped in binders, he’d expected his captors would throw him in the cargo hold for the duration of their voyage, but they had instead seated him to the rear of the cockpit and let him watch through the viewport. This, he supposed, was for one of two reasons. Either they thought the sight of an entire planet wreathed in flame would overwhelm any sane being’s morale, rendering him an easy source of intel; or they knew he would be dead within the hour and thus posed no secrecy risk at all.

He stroked his beard, weighed both options, and decided that the unpleasantness of either one was enough that it didn’t really matter which was true.

The shuttle veered left, its viewport filling with the conglomeration of hard edges and right angles that was the flagship Helios . The prisoner idly tried to remember how many guns bristled from its towers, decided that wasn’t really helping matters, and gave up.

From the comm came crackling, then a voice: “ Shuttle Mithran , confirm manifest and passcode.

An identical voice replied from within the cockpit. “Manifest consists of one prisoner, intercepted in-system. Password Chloroplast.” The prisoner repressed a small shiver of distaste; he didn’t think he’d ever get used to the sensation of the same person speaking through more than one mouth.

A few moments of silence passed. The prisoner shifted back and forth, cleared his throat. “Oh dear,” he tutted in a clipped Core accent. “Perhaps they’ve changed the passcode.”

Shuttle pilot and co-pilot turned to present him with matching sneers of contempt. Literally—not only did each man’s lip twist the same way, each man had the same lip. The same thin nose; the same high cheekbones; the same near-translucent skin. The same eyes, so pale blue they were almost ice-white.

At the same time, the comm crackled again. “ Shuttle Mithran , you are clear to land. An honor guard is waiting to escort the prisoner to the bridge.

“Ah,” said the prisoner, his voice carrying a note of cheer entirely at odds with the present situation. “Damn.”

The pilot sneered again, and laid a hand on the pistol at his waist. “Shut up.”

Nodding pleasantly, the prisoner did just that. Leaning back in his seat, he considered the eyesore of a war machine growing ever larger in the viewport.

The object left much to be desired, but, thought the prisoner, one really couldn’t argue with the view.

 

* * * 

 

It had been a while since Captain Ennam had found himself feeling optimistic. When you’d spent weeks watching the biggest guns on your ship throw everything they could at a planet’s surface, only for the stubborn piece of rock to refuse to blow up properly—well, it had a way of making a man feel powerless. Especially when Admiral Valis kept sending updates letting him know how displeased the warlord was at the apparent lack of progress.

But when he’d received a message that said his ships had intercepted a spy entering the system, and then a follow-up that said the spy had been taken alive, and then a follow-up that clarified that the spy was in fact none other than Bail Organa’s pet general . . . that had lent a certain spring to his step as he marched toward the bridge.

“Time to next salvo?” he asked the clone to his immediate right, scraping a mote of dust from his uniform’s sleeve rather than looking his subordinate in the eye. He knew it was silly, but he found he could never hold a wetwork’s gaze for very long, and preferred looking indifferent (which he was) to looking weak.

“Fifteen minutes, sir,” came the reply.

“Ah, excellent! Perhaps the general will be able to witness the fireworks himself before he’s taken to a cell.”

Very good, sir, he thought, or We’ll put on a show for him, sir. But no—no acknowledgment of his jab was forthcoming. He brushed at his sleeve just a bit more savagely. Having underlings who followed your every order without question was fine in theory, but he did wish the cloners had found a way to make their crop a bit more . . . ingratiating.

Sighing, Ennam turned to the viewport to take in the planet. The gossamer network of fires was certainly pretty, even if it was serving next to no use. Exceptionally thick mineral composition, the fleet had been briefed, can withstand heavy bombardment. At the time, he’d assumed this meant the Helios would have to drain its batteries slightly lower than normal before burrowing into the caverns and their bounty. Instead, it meant . . . this.

Ah well. He consciously forced a smirk back onto his face. With the prisoner they’d just captured, he wouldn’t be surprised if the clones were granted permission by the Republic to simply waltz into the caverns on foot.

“Sir, prisoner and honor guard approaching the bridge,” said another crew member.

Ennam cast his gaze around the room—floors gleaming, durasteel walls looming, faceless man after faceless man pecking away at his console. Utilitarian. Impersonal. Sterile. All in all, an excellent conductor for the kind of mental state he was looking to induce. He let the smirk grow slightly larger. “Well, let them in,” he said, and faced the double blast doors.

With a swish of processed air, they parted. In walked the general.

So this was him, Ennam thought, nodding to the half-dozen armored troops who flanked his prize. General Kenobi. A military commander whose tactical brilliance was merely alleged because things somehow never seemed to get that far when he was involved. Those he spoke to simply laid down their arms, as if the power of his voice had convinced them that maybe it was best if everyone just . . . got along.

If there was supposed to be something overwhelming about his aura, Ennam didn’t see it. Average height, no more imposing a figure than usual; a blandly handsome face covered by a neatly cropped beard, blue-gray eyes with a hint of a twinkle to them. Then again, he reminded himself, how many people have ever seen him bound and captured?

He strode forward. “Well, well. Kenobi the Negotiator. I must say, I was almost disappointed when I heard you’d been intercepted so easily. Clearly the days of Alderaan’s military sparing no expense are behind them.”

The general simply shrugged. “Well, what can I say? Desperate times and all that.” What could have been a smirk much smaller than Ennam’s played across his face. “Lucky for you that we’ve been letting our reconnaissance craft go.”

The captain’s smile slipped just a millimeter or so. Not that he wanted the clones’ respect—they served just fine without it—but he was not in the mood to sling witticisms with a prisoner in front of his men. “Has he been searched?” he asked the foremost of the honor guard.

The helmeted head tilted upward. “Nothing was found on his person.”

“Excellent.” He moved closer, noting with a certain amount of satisfaction that he was slightly taller than Kenobi. “What was Chancellor Organa thinking, Kenobi? Sending his most prized general off on a mission he could have sent a droid to do. It seems breathtakingly foolhardy. Though,” he conceded, “not out of character.”

If this barb had penetrated the general’s uniform, he gave no indication of it. “The Chancellor’s reasons are his own. Mine is to follow orders.”

“Funny you should mention that. I happen to have some for you.” Ennam threw a glance back at the viewport and spread his arms wide to encompass the sight before them. “Had Abbadon is already a flaming ruin, one the Republic clearly has no interest in protecting. The locals are dead or driven underground. And now, I have Bail Organa’s pet general in my grasp.” He turned his back to Kenobi and strode toward the conn. “I am about to order my men to send a transmission wideband to all Republic channels. You will speak to the Republic and tell them that if the Chancellor wants his man back, he is to cede control of Had Abbadon to Confederate forces. All espionage will cease, and we will be given free reign to export the planet’s raw materials as we see fit.” He snapped his fingers at the wetwork manning comms. “If you refuse, you will be executed, the Republic will lose one of its chief military assets, and we will seize the planet regardless. Do I make myself clear?”

When the general spoke, he somehow didn’t seem to be taking any of this seriously. “What was it you called me before? The Negotiator? Very well, then. Let’s talk terms.”

Ennam whirled around. The smirk on Kenobi’s face had grown larger.

The captain resisted the urge to move toward the prisoner and slap it off. He increased the wattage of his own smile, though it was an effort. “I don’t think you’re in a position to make demands.”

Kenobi smiled back, and stared, and suddenly Ennam thought he could maybe understand the hyperbole that had grown around the man’s name. His eyes were a darker blue now, for some reason, and seemed . . . deep , like twin pools. “You will cease orbital bombardment immediately and order your troops to stand down. All Confederate forces will withdraw from the system at once without firing another shot. I will be turned over to the nearest Republic military vessel.” The words had an echo, as if the general were speaking from within some cave. “In exchange, you get to keep this ship.”

There was dizziness, and tiredness, and a feeling of inexplicable, overwhelming lightness, and for a moment it seemed to Ennam that this was the most perfectly reasonable thing in the world, that the general had arrived at the solution that was best for everyone. He opened his mouth to thank the prisoner, extended his arm to shake.

And then, out of the corner of his eye, he caught a wetwork staring at him. Not speaking, not moving, just watching his commanding officer being made a fool of with quiet dispassion. And with revulsion, and fear, and rage, Ennam snapped out of it.

“Take him to a holding cell,” he told the guards, voice shaking just a little. “For enhanced interrogation.”

The armored units turned as one, hands clutching rifles to their chests. The bridge doors slid open.

Kenobi’s hand—twitched. The faintest bit.

Without warning, the console nearest Ennam shattered.

Sparks shrieked through the air, and a sudden burst of overwhelming heat hit the left side of his body. The captain wrenched himself away, slapping at his uniform in a panic in case one of the stray sparks set a fire. The clone who’d manned the console displayed no visible emotion, but shoved himself backward a fair degree faster than was normal. Absurdly, the part of Ennam’s mind that was still functioning at a rational level reflected that it was the comms console that had just gone up in smoke.

Everyone on the bridge stared at the prisoner, boxed in by armor and dwarfed by captors yet somehow, terribly, in control.

He inclined his head. “Would you care to reconsider?”

Ennam raised a gloved, trembling hand and pointed at the rifle-bearing guards. “ Take him!

Safeties released. Priming levers clicked. Kenobi raised an eyebrow.

The bridge exploded.

Sparks and smoke flew from every electronic panel in the room, blinding everyone within range just as the guards fired. Ennam hurled himself back, and through the cloud of smoke watched six armored men topple to the deck, dead. He briefly considered the extremely horrible luck that had to be involved in multiple rifles backfiring at the same time—he’d really have to speak to the ship’s armorer about this—and barked, in a tone the same detached part of his brain noticed was about an octave too shrill, “ Where is he?

No one answered. Ennam glanced to his right and flinched; the clone on that side had a piece of shrapnel protruding from his chest, his head slumped against the remains of his console.

The captain raised his voice. “I order you to stand down—”

Hmmmmmmmm

A cool blue glow refracted through the smoke. Every few seconds, the glow shifted—almost as if its source was moving. And then, as the haze started to dissipate, the blue concentrated itself into a single cylinder.

Finally, one of the clone officers spoke. “He’s got a lightsaber—

Before he could finish, Ennam was moving, ripping the sidearm from his holster and firing in the general direction of the beam of light.

The beam swatted left, then right, and two officers screamed.

And then Kenobi began to move.

He emerged from the haze, one foot calmly in front of the other, blade held vertically across his chest. His face was just as calm as before, but where his eyes had previously held something like amusement the captain now saw nothing but the promise of swift, final justice.

Ennam growled, adjusted his aim, and fired again. Moments after he pulled the trigger, a searing pain slammed into his shoulder. He crumpled to the floor, grunting in agony, wondering why his uniform seemed to be steaming. It absently occurred to him that those rifles hadn’t backfired after all.

Approximately thirty seconds after the kill order had been given, Obi-Wan Kenobi was still on his feet. At least ten men were down. And his wrists were still bound.

With as much strength as he could muster, Ennam raised his unscathed arm, pointed at the general, and screamed: “ Attack!

Blaster bolts flurried outward from across the bridge—the clones had evidently been preparing, and Ennam found a corner of his mind annoyed that they hadn’t thought to act before receiving a direct order. Kenobi danced from foot to foot, snapping his saber back and forth with his cuffed hands, deflecting shots or sidestepping them altogether. Officers scrambled from their stations to swarm the general, armored limbs held up to counter the saber, but the fact that he was outnumbered seemed not to matter. Every time a clone got near him, the Jedi simply swept to one side and flicked his saber outward. Sparks flew, and the wetwork was in pieces on the deck.

His first three attackers dispatched, Kenobi turned and spotted an officer across the bridge, struggling to free himself from a mess of tangled wires emerging from his destroyed console. The general hurled his lightsaber across the bridge, ducking another shot simultaneously.

The saber slashed across the entangled officer’s chest, then somehow looped back toward Kenobi. As it flew over his head, the general held up his hands. Sparks flew, and the binders that had held his wrists shut clattered to the floor. He caught hold of the hilt just before it sailed out of reach, swinging it around into the leg of an attacking clone officer in one smooth motion.

Ennam struggled to push himself up on his elbows, staring in horror. Unless he was much mistaken, his entire bridge crew had just been wiped out. He himself had been wounded in action. His flagship’s bridge was little more than a smoking wreck.

And Obi-Wan Kenobi was a Jedi.

The former prisoner sighed, wiped his brow with one sleeve, and retracted his saber’s sky-blue blade. Looking down at Ennam, he managed a reassuring smile. “Now, about those negotiations.”

The captain managed a low whine.

Kenobi shook his head. “Come now, captain, be reasonable. You’ll be returned to the Confederacy after we get you patched up, good as new. There may be a demotion in your future, but, if you’ll excuse the assessment”—he extended his hand—”you seem to have made a second-rate officer.”

Ennam considered a number of things he could say, prior to spitting in the general’s face and collapsing in death like a hero. But then it occurred to him that the man before him would somehow manage to ruin things by having the last word.

Trembling slightly, he reached out to grasp the proffered hand. “I surre—”

And then the scream.

General and captain alike shot their attention to the same target—the clone officer Kenobi had cut down from afar, still tangled by his console and clearly moments from death. But he had managed to free one hand, and that hand held a blaster.

Just before the shot slammed into his forehead, Ennam had time for one last thought. Bloody wetwork.

 

* * * 

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: HAD ABBADON

The world of Had Abbadon is the fourth planet of the Had system, which lies near the outer edge of the Mid Rim. It was first settled over 400 years ago when explorers found an underground lake of fluid extremely similar to bacta. A “gold rush” to exploit the fluid fizzled out as quickly as it began when it was discovered the fluid was not nearly as effective as bacta at healing injuries. Now, the fluid is mostly used by local doctors as a cheap bacta alternative for treating minor wounds.

Though the surface of Had Abbadon is technically habitable, its harsh conditions ensure only the poorest of residents live on the many small communities dotting the landscape. The upper layer of the atmosphere is known to wreak havoc on communications, and anyone wishing to send a message offworld must pay to use one of several signal-boosting towers erected on the surface by the well-to-do communities of Had Abbadon’s cave system.

Beneath Had Abbadon’s crust, a network of caves and dried up riverbeds snake together to form a massive maze. This is where the majority of Had Abbadon’s population lives, although cost of living is much higher in the underground settlements. Over the centuries, communities have formed in certain sections of the cave network, only to later abandon their settlements and move on. These “ghost caverns” are the subject of many local legends, and there are a handful of HoloNet sites dedicated to the mythology of the creatures that supposedly lurk in the oldest tunnels.

Chapter Text

Obi-Wan Kenobi stared at the young captain’s corpse, smoke curling from the hole in his forehead that the blaster bolt had cauterized on its way through to the brain. A mix of shock and disgust played across the general’s face. Of all the outcomes he’d mapped out for this encounter when talking it over with Bail, a mutiny hadn’t exactly been on the list.

Sparks still sputtered from every exposed wire on the bridge of the Helios , including the ones tangled around the surviving clone officer. Strangely, Obi-Wan noted, the man did not appear to actually be in any pain despite being sprayed with hot sparks every few seconds—his face was pockmarked with burns, one eye swollen shut.

It occurred to the Jedi that this officer—traitor thought he was—was now the senior member of the bridge crew. The acting captain. Perhaps this mission could be salvaged after all. He took a step toward the clone. “Let me help you—”

“Don’t move!” it shrieked, its voice wavering in an unstable vibrato. Obi-Wan found himself staring down the barrel of the blaster that had been pointed at Ennam just moments ago. Perhaps this wouldn’t be as easy as just talking things out.

Obi-Wan focused, reaching out to the clone through the Force. He locked gazes with it. The remaining eye, he noted, matched those of the shuttle pilots who’d delivered him here. And yet . . . it was different somehow. Bloodshot. Twitching. Unstable. Whites gone almost sickly yellow, like pus had leaked in from behind the sockets.

When Obi-Wan touched the clone’s mind, he was forced to pull back almost immediately.

Though it should have been identical, this mind was unlike the ones he had earlier persuaded to ignore the weapon up his sleeve. It was a mess of thoughts and feelings swirling about, a maelstrom of rage and confusion that was having trouble focusing on what it was supposed to do. The Jedi caught a few abstract concepts— death , and hunger , and at one point the thought It’s crawling all over me. Planting a suggestion in this mind would be pointless. It would simply drown in the storm.

He broke the connection and exhaled deeply. “Order the bombardment ships to cease fire and I will leave this system,” Obi-Wan said, his voice flat. It was meant as a command, but came out closer to a plea.

The clone laughed, coughing up blood as he did so. Between coughs, he lowered his gun and let it go, allowing it to clatter to the floor. Well, that’s a start , thought Obi-Wan. He glanced down at the officer’s free hand—it was clawing at his lapel, as though it was causing him some discomfort. Then the lapel came free with a click —it was, Obi-Wan saw, a commlink.

The officer raised it to his lips and hit the activation switch. The general allowed himself to relax, shoulder slumping.

“He’s got a lightsaber,” the officer said.

Within a fraction of a second, Obi-Wan was in motion, unclipping his saber from his belt. But he’d lost precious moments, and clone was already issuing his final order.

“Blitz the Helios .”

The saber flew toward the clone, its owner igniting it in midair with a snap of his fingers. It didn’t make a difference; the words had been spoken. Reaching behind him to recall the saber as he moved, the general sprinted for the massive rectangular viewport. Nonononononononono .

Out in space, four starfighters had already broken off from the bombing fleet and turned toward the Helios , locked in a diamond formation. Even from this angle, Obi-Wan could see the blue-white flare emitting from their engines. The glow swelled, and swelled. The ships seemed to hang there for a second, motionless.

They vanished, and then everything broke.

 

* * *

 

The auditory simulators on the bridge evidently had nothing programmed to approximate the sound of four fighters tearing through the hull of the Helios at just below the speed of light. A brilliant white glow zig-zagged across the boxy structure, carving a lightning bolt through the hull. If Obi-Wan had been looking directly at it, he would have been flash-blinded. As it was, he felt the ship give a tortured heave as the light gutted it. Time seemed to freeze for just a moment.

Then, with a roar of explosive decompression, the front half of the ship was ripped from its mate.

Klaxons started blaring viciously. Crimson emergency lights snapped on. And just as Obi-Wan dove for the exit, the bridge’s fire suppressors kicked in.

Thick glops of flame-retardant foam rained down—the general growled and waved his hand wildly, blasting the stuff away from his head as he frantically moved toward the blast doors. He didn’t know how long it would be until the decompression reached him, but today really didn’t seem to be his day.

Just as he reached the exit, his foot fell on a particularly foam-slick patch of floor. He slid off-balance, managing to catch the release button with his hand as he went down. With a hiss of compressed air, the doors slid themselves shut.

There. Now dying of suffocation wouldn’t be his problem in the immediate future. Just getting blown up by a frigate’s missile tubes, or being boarded by troops from one of the other ships.

Striding from console to console, he prayed that something, anything, would be intact. Row after row of exposed wiring and shredded plastic greeted him. Bloody theatrical nonsense, he thought to himself, would have been just as useful to blow out the viewports. He wasn’t a good pilot at the best of times; even with intact machinery, salvaging this situation was something he’d maybe be capable of with a century of practice.

Finally, something whispered in the currents of the Force; nothing much, just a little spark toward the front of the bridge. Obi-Wan abandoned what military dignity he had left at this point and ran, throwing himself onto the hinted console with both hands. And yes, there it was: a functional piece of electronics. Not much, barely a single screen, but no wires protruded and the transparent covering, while cracked, was still largely intact.

Either the Force still had plans for him, or it was going to enjoy laughing at him a good deal in the next few minutes.

He punched at the display, calling up and discarding pages. Escape pods were no good—even if he could unseal the bridge and survive the process, it looked as though they were in the rear half of the ship, floating the opposite direction from his own. Ditto sublight engines; the hyperdrive’s main housing seemed to still be attached, but was at this point utterly useless even if Obi-Wan could find a way to reorient the ship. The main comms console had been blown out by the general’s magic tricks.

He was, in a word, screwed.

Punching faster, he called up the ship’s orbital trajectory. The propulsion system, naturally, wasn’t functioning. The computer calculated that, if left to drift on its own, the ship was due to crash on Had Abbadon in . . . sixty-three hours. Not good enough—by that point the clones would have either sent another blitz at the surviving half of the ship or blown it to pieces with concussion missiles. There was only one answer.

He was going to have to land this thing.

And in order to do that, he’d have to slow down.

Thrust, thrust, how do I generate thrust. Missile tubes? No, the weapons console had melted. Escape pods would have worked if they were on this half of the ship . . .

He blew out a frustrated breath, forcing himself to relax, reciting a snippet from the Whills. All is as the Force wills it.

What will be, will be. If the Force wants you to make it out of this, it’ll show you the way. It’ll show you the way in a place you weren’t even thinking about . . .

And it hit him.

The hangar bays. They were pressurized, full of air just waiting to be blown out in to space and slow the Helios down, lowering its orbit. And in order to prevent starfighters getting hit by the backwash of the ship’s engines, Dictat -class cruisers kept their hangar bays on their front end.

The general swiped hurriedly at the screen, winced slightly when the crack widened a millimeter, swiped again more gently. Life support, coolant . . . hangar control. Hitting what he hoped were the right commands, in the right sequence, he prepared to emergency vent every single bay on one side of the ship.

There was a slight rocking as the ship adjusted to the movement. Obi-Wan swiped back over to the trajectory readout, and saw that he had indeed dropped his estimated crash time.

By two hours.

“Think, think .” Could he open every door on the lower decks and turn the hangar openings into tiny air rockets?

As klaxons continued to screech and miniature explosions popped up and down the ship’s structure, he dug through the console’s functions. The screen’s brightness started to flicker up and down—the backlight appeared to be dying. Obi-Wan willed it to hold out and entered another subfolder, then another. Finally, he had his answer: this might be doable. Might.

He poked at the readout screen, avoiding the area split by the crack, opening various doors to vent more and more air through the hangar bays. The ship moaned, as if it were giving one long exhalation. A proximity alert sounded as mangled starfighters and pieces of debris jetted from the hangars into the ship’s backwash—half the ship was now completely exposed to the vacuum of space. But it was working.

Fifty-five hours. Forty-one. Twenty-seven. The readout streamed downward at a rate that filled Obi-Wan with a mixture of satisfaction and alarm. If he didn’t start closing doors soon, he would overshoot his target—the ship would skim off the atmosphere and push back into the void. And if he didn’t time the closing just right, he would come in too hard and break up on impact. He held his breath; waited five seconds, ten, fifteen.

Now, something whispered across his brain. He jabbed his fingers at the control panel, causing all the hangar doors to slam shut just as the crash countdown timer landed somewhere satisfactory: four minutes.

The words BRACE FOR IMPACT blinked across the display, almost politely, just before the screen died completely. “No kidding,” Obi-Wan muttered under his breath, reaching for his seat restraints. He yanked on the straps—there was a great ripping noise, and he was left with singed pieces of fabric crumpled in his hands. The general stared at the cloth for a moment and then tossed it aside. Of course. He sighed, stood, and strolled to the center of the bridge.

Debris floated across the viewport in lazy orbits, still trailing sparks of fire and gleaming hypermatter. Soon, Obi-Wan knew, the ship would hit the point where those little bits of metal would start disintegrating instantly. Already greater tongues of flame were starting to lick at the edges of the viewport, whose automatic polarization had kicked in. Like the planet the ship was plummeting toward, one could almost find it beautiful in a certain light.

He straightened his pose, clasping his hands behind his back, and briefly wished his old Jedi partner were here to crack a joke. “General Kenobi, you have the bridge,” is probably what she would’ve said. A smile crossed Obi-Wan’s face. If . . . no, when he got out of this alive, he was going to have to meet her for drinks and tell her about this one.

But first, there was the matter of actually getting out alive. The corona that feathered across the viewport was growing brighter and brighter as the Helios kissed Had Abbadon’s atmosphere. What minimal shields were still functioning—divine powers bless the boxy monstrosity and its redundant generators—would probably short out during reentry, leaving the ship completely exposed. A cruiser of this size had never been meant to reenter the atmosphere unshielded, and the heat generated by its descent would likely make it hot enough inside to cook any remaining crew members.

If he died here, Obi-Wan knew, no one would ever truly know what had happened. No transmissions had been sent to Bail; no other Republic forces had been watching over him. Obi-Wan Kenobi would be remembered by some as a promising military man whose career had been cut tragically short, by others as a Jedi who had squandered his talents by getting too involved in politics. And yet, staring into the slow death unfolding before him, Obi-Wan was at peace. To an outside observer, it would have looked like he was simply embracing death. But he knew he was embracing something else entirely.

Picking his way gingerly around a puddle of foam—he still had his dignity, after all—Obi-Wan Kenobi settled down on the floor of the Helios’ s bridge, crossed his legs, and closed his eyes. As beads of sweat began to form on his forehead, he stretched out into the Force, willing away the heat. He thought of home. The rolling hills of Alderaan. A cool breeze tussling his hair and rippling through the grass in peaceful waves. The mountains rising upward in snow-capped majesty. A gentle mist spraying onto him from the lake he grew up next to.  

The crash of a console tearing away from its fixture and slamming into a bulkhead became the roar of a ship leaving the spaceport at the edge of his hometown. Showers of sparks rushing past him became swarms of starbugs performing an evening light show in his childhood backyard.

He was one with the Force, and the Force was with him.

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: DICTAT-CLASS BATTLE CRUISER

The Dictat-class Battle Cruiser is a medium-sized capital ship used by the clone forces. Measuring just under a kilometer from stem to stern, it shares none of the aesthetic concerns displayed by its Republic equivalent, the Victory -class Star Destroyer; it is in effect a series of flying rectangles. What it lacks in beauty it makes up in firepower—it carries ten quad turbolaser batteries, fifty double turbolaser batteries, and forty proton torpedo tubes, as well as a starfighter complement.

The simple nature of the Dictat -class’s design is advantageous for the clone army, which lacks a centralized shipyard. The ships do not require any specialized dry-dock facility like the Star Destroyers of the Republic; they can simply be assembled in deep space.

The class’s inaugural ship, the Dictat , was constructed by cold-welding several shipping containers together, affixing engines to the rear of the structure, and carving out interior rooms. Though the construction process has become more refined, the aesthetics of the Dictat- class remain the same. Known as the death-box by its enemies, the Dictat -class is ugly, cheap, and effective.

Chapter Text

The Chancellor of the Republic had made a mistake.

Bail Organa paced back and forth across the Senate Defense Committee meeting room. If this were anywhere else in the Senate building, he could at least stare out a window to take his mind off the bad news—the glistening skyline of Coruscant was comforting in its own way, trails of ships listlessly floating between buildings that stretched endlessly upward.

For security reasons, the Defense Committee room was windowless, illuminated by artificial light which seemed especially harsh today. A drab, grey, rectangular table sat in the center of the room, surrounded by two dozen equally drab, grey chairs that were as uncomfortable as they were ugly. The room was devoid of any of the ornamentation found throughout the rest of the Senate building; no plants (toxins could be planted), art (bugs installed), or color (a useless expenditure). The door would have felt more at home in a bank vault than a government office—the committee was effectively locked in while they conducted their meetings. It only contributed to Bail feeling like he was trapped.

He’d arrived early for the scheduled meeting. Earliness was a habit he’d tried to cultivate—it paid for the head of state to be seen as timely—but the reason for his early arrival today was different. He needed time to collect himself, to figure out what he was going to tell the rest of the committee. Not that there were many ways of making it sound better.

Chancellor Organa had, without consulting anyone, sent a general of the Republic Defense Force on a secret mission. That mission, as far as Bail knew, had failed. Now he had to admit what he had done to the rest of the Defense Committee. It was a bit of a blunder, losing our best general to a terrorist organization after sending him in to take down a fleet singlehanded, but who amongst us has not personally sanctioned a military fiasco without prior authorization?

He sighed, and wished for a drink.

The other senators on the committee gradually filed in and sat down. Mon Mothma of Chandrila, her face more somber than usual, shot Bail a worried look as she took her place; he gave a faint grimace in return. She was the closest he had to a friend on the entire committee, which was less to say that she’d support him in his mistakes and more that she’d at least look embarrassed for him when plans backfired. The rest of the senators ranged from indifferent to outright hostile. The worst this had led to up til now had been bickering over the placement of Outer Rim defense units—days the Chancellor found himself growing nostalgic for already.

He took what he hoped was an inconspicuous glance at Senator Sapir’s head-crest; the senator from Kuat was a Fosh, whose feathers would shift in pigment depending on her mood. Their current hue, Bail noted grimly, was gray—that signified somberness at best and anger at worst.

Clearing his throat, he took a look around the rest of the room. No one else looked particularly happy; he’d been forced to call this meeting at an outrageously early hour. Which should improve morale all around. He blew out a frustrated breath, cleared his throat again, and called for order.

All eyes in the room fell on him, expressions ranging from bleary to smolderingly irritated. He cleared his throat once more, for luck, and spoke.

“A little over 36 hours ago, a solo reconnaissance flight left the RSD Coelacanth , based in the Outer Rim, and headed for the Had system on my orders. Its purpose, however, was not to gather intelligence. It was piloted by a Republic operative whose intent was to bring an end to hostilities by infiltrating the Confederacy’s flagship, disabling it, and sending out a general cease-fire order. Once this was done, the Republic fleet was to enter the system and break up the siege.”

He paused; the table’s gazes remained fixed on his face. Mon looked scared; most everyone else looked faintly appalled. “Unfortunately, I have yet to hear back from our operative in the system, and should have at least twelve hours ago. It would appear that he has been captured, or otherwise thwarted in his mission.” And then the hammer: “The operative in question is General Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

Silence hung in the air for several seconds. Perhaps, Bail thought, this was the part where he looked down and noticed he was wearing no clothes, and then woke up to a universe in which he and Obi-Wan were set to talk strategy and send a drone flight into the Had system to snap a few images and report back.

Then everyone started talking at once.

“By himself ?!” Senator Temkin from Madresa shouted. “General Kenobi is a perfectly capable fighter, but you sent him into a battle with no backup ?”

“You didn’t consult any of us,” pointed out Senator C’born of Malastare, sounding slightly hurt. “You didn’t call a meeting, you didn’t message the senior members, you didn’t even ask one of us over lunch. You cannot just make decisions like that on your own.”

“If he gives up any sensitive information, who knows what kind of damage the clones could do?” bellowed Garm Bel Iblis of Corellia, his mustache practically alive with fury.  

Bail waited for the cacophony of objections had died down before attempting to defend himself. “I understand,” Chancellor Organa began. “But I also understand that we have spent the last year bickering like schoolchildren while the outer territories are chewed into, resources plundered, inhabitants killed. This was a chance to draw a line in the sand. It was the best way to show the Confederacy—”

He immediately regretted saying those final two words. The uproar began anew.

“The Republic does not recognize the Confederacy as a legitimate government, Chancellor! I don’t have to tell you what you’ve just done,” Senator Karsk of Idombe said.

Palpatine of Naboo piped up to finish the thought. “You’ve taken us to the brink of war.”

“I know!” Bail shouted. He was conscious of losing his cool, all the frustrations of the last year pouring out. “But we were there anyway .” He took a breath and moved his gaze across the  room; several senators exchanged worried glances with each other. “When the clones succeed in capturing Had Abbadon—and at this point it is a matter of when , not if —their army will become a much bigger threat. Right now, we control the galaxy’s supply of bacta. The clones have none. Had Abbadon’s healing fluid is inferior, yes, but it’s better than nothing. If they have access to those reservoirs, they can heal their injured troops instead of tossing them aside. They can afford to engage in skirmishes that would have burned through their reinforcements before. What little caution they had will turn to boldness, and eventually they’ll have made their way to the Inner Rim after nothing was done to stop them. We are on the brink here.”

A pause; an inhalation. “I believe we can salvage this situation,” Bail continued, willing himself to lower his voice. “If we send in a small Special Forces team, they can extract Kenobi without causing any collateral damage. We can regroup and decide in a full Senate session how to address the clone threat.”

This had been meant as a reassurance. It was not taken that way.

“They can extract him ? How do you know he’s even still alive?”

“You propose to solve the problem of sending in military personnel by sending in more military personnel?”

Bail started to reply several times, but each time he began to address a concern another one arose. Mon just stared at him, looking faintly sick.

And then, one voice rose above the others. Senator Sapir of Kuat stood, banged her clenched talons on the table, and began to speak.

“Chancellor Organa, what you have committed here is a travesty of leadership. You talk of potential military crises, of inevitable future war, and completely ignore the fact that you have brought us to an actual constitutional crisis through your actions. And now, not only do you wish we simply sweep this blunder under the rug and move on, you want us to redouble our presence in the Had system on the faint hope that General Kenobi is still alive.”

Her tone softened for a moment, the grey of her feathers inching toward a deep blue melancholy. “Now, I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say that we hold General Kenobi in the highest regard, and that it is through no fault of his own that he’s in this situation. But were he here, I can’t imagine he would sanction the gross distortion of democracy that sending troops to his rescue would be.” There were various hear-hear s and fists thumped against the table. Bail’s stomach twisted.

Sapir looked Bail directly in the face. “Chancellor, your actions in this matter are disgraceful, and I see no indications that you have learned from them. And so I see no other choice.” And then, she said the worst words she possibly could: “I move for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Organa’s leadership.”

 

* * *

 

Sixty seconds passed without anyone saying a word. Senators stared at their hands, at each other, into space. Sapir’s motion was in and of itself irregular—votes of no confidence were supposed to be brought up when the whole Senate was present, not in a committee meeting with only two dozen in attendance. True, this was not explicitly written into the Constitution, but it had been respected from the formation of the Republic until now. If Bail’s breach of confidence had been less significant, or if he’d had any allies in the room, he might have challenged Sapir on the apparent hypocrisy of this extreme breach of conduct.

Yet nobody was speaking up to chastise her. Nobody had suggested she calm down, or told her she was out of line. And worst of all, Bail Organa, the Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Republic, recognized that he was in no place to do so himself.

“Senator,” he began, cautiously. “Perhaps you could withdraw your motion and bring up your concerns in next week’s full Senate session?” He spoke slowly, choosing every word as if it might be the last of his career. “Surely you of all people will understand the importance of following proper protocol.”

For a moment, a vacuum of silence filled the chamber again. Sapir said nothing, and the grey of her feathers again lightened by a hair. Bail inhaled, daring for an instant to hope this could be salvageable.

And then the silence broke.

“I second the motion.” It was Palpatine of Naboo again. Of all the people Bail might have expected to back Sapir here, this one would not have been among them; the man usually seemed to go out of his way to avoid attention. And yet, here he was. The senator’s eyes were filled with the gravest concern, but also something else, an emotion Bail couldn’t place. Or maybe he was simply grasping at straws.

He tried to swallow the lump that was forming in his throat. A sudden dizziness had overcome him. Certainly he’d expected this meeting to go badly, but not— this .

“Very well,” he said, voice catching a bit at his dry throat. Palpatine had closed his window of opportunity—now he was obligated to follow procedure. “We will now hold a vote to determine whether to schedule a session for a vote of no confidence.” The words left his mouth almost robotically—he was reciting something out of a government handbook, one he had not read in years. He wasn’t even sure how he’d remembered the text. “All in favor, please raise your hand.”

Fifteen hands went up in unison, without any hesitation. Slowly, a few more followed, cascading down the table like dominoes tumbling in reverse—a senator would raise their hand, only for their colleague seated next to them to do the same. Some looked dubious, one or two even a bit frightened, and still they followed suit.

When the dust had settled, only two people did not have their hands raised. One of them was the Chancellor.

A defeated sigh escaped Bail’s mouth. “The Constitution mandates that the vote of no confidence be held in two week’s time. A special session of Congress will be scheduled.” He scanned the room. Was that relief on some faces? “As for the original subject of this meeting,” he continued, longing for the Defense Committee meetings of old that had nearly bored him to death, “the Republic Defense Force will take no action concerning the situation in the Had system. If we are contacted by terrorists who have captured General Kenobi, we will follow protocol and not negotiate. You are dismissed.”

The massive vault door groaned as its motor spun up. Everyone stood immediately, except for Chancellor Organa, who couldn’t summon the energy. The rush to the exit was like none he had ever seen—as soon as the opening was wide enough for someone to fit through, senators began filing out the door. Palpatine, Bail noticed, took up the rear, immediately behind Sapir.

For a while, he continued to slump in the chair at the head of the drab, grey, rectangular table, listening to the faint hiss of recycled air pumping through the vents. Then he snapped upright. He couldn’t afford to spend time sulking.

Two hands hadn’t gone up during that meeting, which meant that one senator on the Defense Committee didn’t want him voted out of office. He had to speak to her.

He burst out of the conference room and began striding down the hall as fast as a Chancellor could while still maintaining his dignity. Today more than ever he appreciated the regal decor and welcoming colors of the Senate Building halls; they were a stark contrast to the monochrome interior of the Defense Committee chamber, just as he hoped this next conversation would be a stark contrast to the one he’d just escaped.

Scanning the halls, he tried to catch sight of her. Surely she hadn’t left the building, not so early in the day—

There . The juxtaposition of flame-red hair and white robe were unmistakable. “Excuse me!” he called. “Senator, excuse me.”

She froze, but didn’t turn; simply resumed walking at a slower pace. Bail closed the distance rapidly, fell into stride alongside her. She didn’t move her head to look at him, nor him at her; cameras were always watching.

“Mon Mothma,” he said in a hushed tone to the senator from Chandrila. “We need to talk.”

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: VOTE OF NO CONFIDENCE

The vote of no confidence is a procedure in the Galactic Senate used to unseat a Chancellor before the end of their term. The vote is fairly uncommon, as such open expression of distaste for the current leadership is seen as a costly expenditure of political capital.

When a senator calls for a vote of no confidence, enough senators must second the motion in order for the vote to be scheduled. As most votes of no confidence are started by fringe political parties, this is usually where the vote fails. Should a sufficient number of senators agree to hold the vote, it is scheduled for a special Senate session, where 75 percent of the Senate must agree to remove the Chancellor.

A successful vote of no confidence is almost unheard of. In recorded Republic history, it has only happened three times. If removed, the unseated Chancellor simply returns to their position as senator for their home planet, and a new Chancellor is elected a short time later. In practice, this often marks the end of the senator’s career. No ousted Chancellor has ever won another Senate election.

Chapter Text

The oranges, pinks, and purples of Alderaan’s sunset warmed Obi-Wan’s face. Colors swirled, scattering through the pillowy clouds that drifted across the sky. He felt the heat of a campfire on his skin and inhaled, smiling as the woodsy smell of the smoke brought memories flooding back to him. He could have stayed here forever.

A small voice tickled the back of his mind. It was only a whisper from the Force, but its message was clear: It’s time . Obi-Wan exhaled slowly and opened his eyes; the visions of home melted away, as if someone had poured a bucket of water on a painting.

The sunset became dancing flames licking at the edges of the bridge viewport. The campfire, it turned out, was a burning piece of ceiling tile that had fallen in front of him. The clouds were wisps of smoke that hung in the air.

And while he hadn’t thought it possible, the bridge was in even worse condition than it had been a few minutes ago.

The trusty control panel that had helped him guide the Helios to its final resting place had melted completely; globs of plastic were collected at the bottom of the panel housing like wax from a burning candle. Above his head, the lighting built into the ceiling hung haphazardly, flickering, each fixture held in place by just a few wires. One exploded, showering a dead clone with shards of glass.

The most apparent change, Obi-Wan noted, was the discoloration. Every surface on the bridge had deepened from its former light gray into a soot-black color—except, it seemed, for a perfect circle that extended around him perhaps a meter in all directions. He reached outside it, dragging his finger along the layer of soot covering the deck. A streak of the charred dust came up from the floor, and he flicked it from his fingers. Evidently he’d managed to keep the shield up even after losing awareness; he supposed this was impressive, but for the moment couldn’t process it as anything except terrifying.

Careful to avoid the sparks raining down from above, the general rose to his feet and strolled toward the forward viewport. Outside the confines of the Helios , it looked like hell.

Literally. The hull of the cruiser was still aflame. A massive gout of fire burst upward as the blaze reached a new set of forward turbolaser batteries; the viewport’s polarizer made a half-hearted attempt at filtering it out. The fire extended beyond the edge of the hull, it seemed—the ground of Had Abbadon burned along with the ship. Whether this was due to the crash or merely the result of another orbital bombardment, Obi-Wan couldn’t be certain.

Wait. The ground of Had Abbadon .

He had made it to the surface, and the Helios was wedged into it. What shields the ship had, combined with the hypermatter still trailing from its hull, had done what a month of bombardment could not. Obi-Wan had punched a hole through the rock.

If he could get to a lower deck, the general thought, he might be able to find a cave system. On Had Abbadon, that meant civilization, and civilization meant a chance to send a message offworld. He’d have to hurry—the way his day was going, there were probably bombers hovering over his location at this very moment.

Obi-Wan walked back toward the rear of the bridge, sidestepping a falling light fixture as its wires snapped. A renewed sense of hope and purpose imbued his steps. He was going to get out of this.

With some difficulty, he forced the emergency seal lever for the bridge door back into its “off” position. The bridge doors struggled to slide apart, giving up when they were only halfway open. Swallowing his pride, Obi-Wan squeezed himself through the narrow opening and out into the corridor.

 

* * *

 

It was not a pretty sight. One of the two turbolifts outside the bridge door had been ripped completely from its shaft and was now crumpled up against the opposite bulkhead. Support beams lay criss-crossed in the corridor, having fallen from the ceiling. Wiring ran down them, and it appeared to still be live—at regular intervals, sparks sputtered from a frayed bit of cable and bounced across the floor.

Probably shouldn’t touch that. Obi-Wan stretched out his arm and reached into the Force. The beams scraped against the floor, groaning as they moved. Obi-Wan watched as they swung to one side and settled against a wall, safely out of the way. He continued forward through the ruined hallway, praying that he might find a functional turbolift or a stairwell that hadn’t completely collapsed in on itself.

As he turned a corner, something brushed his ankle. He flinched back as thoughts of another live wire crossed his mind, then looked down and leapt back even farther—it was a hand, clutching at his foot.

He flailed at his belt and clasped the cold metal cylinder of his lightsaber hilt. This wasn’t right. If someone had been waiting around the corner for him he should have sensed . . .

Oh. The hand belonged to a decidedly dead clone officer, whose body was sticking halfway out a turbolift door. Well, that’s a bit embarrassing.

Obi-Wan grimaced as he tried to pry the door all the way open. It finally gave way, and the body slumped to the deck. Stepping into the lift, the general paused for a moment to consider if he wanted to share the space with a dead body on his ride down. He decided he would rather not.

He stepped back over the limp corpse, grabbed it by the wrists, and dragged it into the corridor. The body was left slumped in a somewhat crumpled position on the deck, but Obi-Wan didn’t let the rather undignified pose bother him. He had a sneaking suspicion the Confederacy didn’t go to the trouble of gathering the clones and holding proper funerals.

Re-entering the elevator, he jabbed the button for the lowest deck with his thumb, then waited.

And waited.

Nothing.

The doors weren’t even closing. Obi-Wan swore. Whatever was still powering the lights inside this blocky hulk of a ship must not have had enough juice to run the turbolifts . . .

. . . or maybe the lift’s emergency brake was on.

His old partner would have had a good laugh about that one. He’d have to leave that out of the story. Rolling his eyes, Obi-Wan sighed and reached for the lever.

Stop.

There it was again—that tiny voice at the back of his mind, watching over him.

His hand hovered mere centimeters from the e-brake lever. He lingered for a moment, then stepped away from the bright red handle. If the e-brake was precisely what held the elevator up, he could certainly disengage it. The elevator would descend; it just wouldn’t be kind to its occupant when it hit the bottom of the shaft.

Today was really not his day.

The general sat down against the back wall of the elevator and sighed. Surely this wasn’t his destiny. Dying alone on the upper deck of a crashed battle cruiser because he couldn’t find a working lift? No. He had managed to land the damn thing, he was going to find a way off it.

Staring up at the emergency brake lever, he tried to imagine what would’ve happened if he had pushed it back into its off position. The elevator would’ve been set free and careened toward the lower decks of the Helios

Stop.

The prodding of the Force was not being particularly helpful anymore. Go away, he thought. You already said that .

He briefly recalled the old urban legend he had heard passed around the schoolyard as a child: you could save yourself from dying in a falling turbolift, so the story went, by jumping just before it hit the ground floor. As far as he knew, it wasn’t true. Even with his Jedi reflexes, he felt today wasn’t the best situation to test it out. If only he had a way to—

“Stop.”

This time it wasn’t the small voice. It was his own, tinged with understanding, speaking aloud to no one in particular.

Obi-Wan leapt to his feet and strode over to the e-brake, slamming it back into the wall. The elevator groaned as metal scraped against metal, then shot downward toward the lower decks.

The Jedi was tossed upward as the elevator car sailed down at an alarming speed. Hauling himself back to his feet, he reached back for the emergency brake handle, locking it in an iron grip. He only had one chance to pull this off.

Metal screeched against metal, but it certainly didn’t feel as though the friction were doing anything to slow the lift. Its lone inhabitant closed his eyes in concentration, allowing himself to feel the structure of the ship around him. He sensed the lowest deck; it was approaching rapidly. The small voice didn’t have to say it this time. He knew what to do.

Obi-Wan threw all his weight into yanking on the e-brake handle—the horrendous scream of metal outside the elevator car soared in volume. He winced. Next mission, maybe earplugs are in order .

The scream diminished to a whine, which in turn dwindled to a moan. Obi-Wan blew out a slow breath as the elevator car ground to a halt, lining up almost perfectly with an exit on to one of the lower decks. Finally, some good luck, he thought as he hopped out of the elevator and surveyed his new surroundings.

Next order of business was a way out of the ship and into Had Abbadon’s cave system, but the Helios had never been intended to enter an atmosphere. It wasn’t likely to have a door leading to the exterior marked with a big red exit sign. Perhaps the Force would expand its vocabulary a bit and help him a final time.

Obi-Wan crossed the corridor into one of the hangar bays on the lowest deck. Judging by the state of it, it was one of the hangars he had vented to help him land the Helios . Starfighters twisted into unnatural shapes by the sheer force of the explosive decompression sat crumpled at the edge of the hangar bay like fallen giants. Electronic components were scattered across the deck, fused to the floor from the heat of reentry. What was probably once a blaster rifle had melted into the wall, now nothing more than a tube of black slag. A corpse lay nearby, its armor of a piece with the ground.

As he’d suspected, the hangar bay’s far end held no exterior doors with big red exit signs. There was simply the emergency blast door, a vast wall of dull gray metal ever so slightly misshapen by the extreme heat it had recently been exposed to. It bulged inward, and glowing hairline cracks skittered across its surface. Dripping coolant hissed against it, sending up pops of steam every few seconds.

Obi-Wan smiled. He didn’t need to find an exit door after all. That blast door was hardly the textbook definition of “structurally sound.” And he had a lightsaber.

He walked along the blast door, running his fingers across the still-cooling surface, and reached out through the plate of durasteel, trying to sense what was on the other side. The answer, when it came, was disheartening: solid rock. He might be able to carve his way out of the ship, but carving himself a new cave with a lightsaber was out of the question.

And so he resumed wandering, waiting for that tiny voice to pop back up to repeat itself. This time, stop would have made for a clear bit of direction. Alas, nothing came—the hangar seemed to be completely encased in rock.

A sigh of defeat blowing past his lips, the general allowed his hand to break contact with the blast door. He had to admit, he was losing hope. Surviving reentry had been a long shot. Landing this cruiser had been an even longer one. Maybe his string of successes was finally coming to an end. He let himself stand still for a moment, appreciating the slight breeze that wisped through his beard.

Obi-Wan fished through his pockets, pulling out the commlink the clone guards had neglected to take from him. He played back the text from the mission briefing in his mind. The upper layer of the atmosphere is known to wreak havoc on communications . As he flicked his commlink on, he hoped that—just this once—the Republic Archives were incorrect.

“This is General Obi-Wan Kenobi of the Republic Defense Force. Priority code Maridia. Please respond.” He did his best not to let the experiences of the last few hours seep into his voice over a military channel.

He waited. Far longer than he should’ve had to wait, considering the code he had just broadcast.

Nothing. Perhaps restricting himself to the military channels wasn’t enough. He tapped a couple of buttons on the commlink, switching it to broadcast on the wide band of Republic frequencies, and repeated:

“This is General Obi-Wan Kenobi of the Republic Defense Force. Priority code Maridia. Please respond.” The second time, he couldn’t keep the desperation from slipping into his voice. It didn’t matter, though. Thirty full seconds passed, and nobody answered. Either they hadn’t heard him, or he wasn’t able to pick up any replies. He considered it for a moment and decided it didn’t make a difference. He needed to proceed as if he were on his own.

He pocketed the commlink and wiped the sweat from his brow, once again feeling thankful for the slight breeze that played across his face.

Wait a minute, he thought. There shouldn’t be a breeze in here .

He ran his hand along the blast door once again. There it was. Through one of the cracks. An ever-so-slight puff of wind. It smelled damp. Like . . . a cave.

Obi-Wan took three long strides away from the blast door and drew his lightsaber. Breathed in; breathed out. One more favor, if you would, he thought.

His thumb depressed the activator, and with a hmmmmm the sky-blue blade came to life. He grinned.

The Jedi held the lightsaber straight out, so the blade’s tip faced the blast door. He took slow, measured steps toward the door, plunging the lightsaber blade into the metal when he got within reach. Weakened by heat and the stress of the crash, the blast door yielded almost immediately. The blade sank in, melting it away.

Obi-Wan began to move his lightsaber, carving himself an opening in the door. He nodded in approval as the plasma slid easily through the metal. Perhaps this was his day after all.

 

* * *

 

A rectangle of metal clattered against the cave floor, its glowing edges sizzling as it landed. Obi-Wan peered down at the piece of blast door and the dust cloud it had kicked up. He had his opening, but the fall to the cave’s floor looked a lot farther than he had expected it to be.

An obstacle, perhaps, for an ordinary individual. For him, though, a fall of this height would be no trouble. Obi-Wan retracted his lightsaber blade and clipped the hilt to his belt. He leaned out of the hole a little further, judging the height one more time, and leapt into the cave.

Air rushed through his hair as he fell; his cloak fluttered on the way down. Several seconds later he landed on two feet, crouching just enough to absorb the impact and holding his arms out to maintain balance.

The cave floor on which he stood was nondescript: a mud-brown, slightly dusty surface largely like the burning ground up above. There was a certain softness to it; it didn’t squish underfoot, but his heels didn’t click on the floor as he walked either.

The cave walls were unusually smooth—the rock seemed to move in ripples. Probably formed by a river , he thought to himself. The smell of the cave lent credence to his theory; it reminded him of the moments after a thunderstorm, the air heavy with water molecules. Of course, any major source of water down here had probably dried up long ago.

Or perhaps it hadn’t. Obi-Wan noticed he could see, which was usually quite difficult in deep caves. Light streaked out of the hole he had carved in the Helios, but that wasn’t the only source of illumination.

Something lined the walls. Some kind of lichen or a fungus, as best he could tell. It glowed a cool blue, not far from the color of his lightsaber. Bioluminescence. Tendrils of the life form snaked up the cave walls and along the ceiling, all of them glowing. It wasn’t an intense light by any means, but it was enough to make his path forward visible. Obi-Wan shrugged, and decided not to question this turn of events; lighting the way with a laser sword would not have been the proudest moment of his military career.

The lichen, he saw as he strolled over for a closer view, was made primarily of tiny green filaments that threaded their way across the cave walls. Glowing blue orbs extended from the tips, giving off light. It looked almost soft to the touch. Cautiously, he extended his fingertips, hovering his hand just shy of actual contact.

Best not to touch. This is probably the only life form in the cave for a reason

The tendrils moved, and there was a brush of lichen against skin.

 

An unfamiliar name. House. I’m sorry. Pulsing light. It isn’t. Blur. What. Don’t go. It looks like. My fault. Never again. A shadow, flickering. I’m sorry.

 

Obi-Wan came back to himself flat on his back, shivering despite the sweat that covered his body. Above him, the walls glowed innocently.

“What the hell ?”

His fingers showed no burns, rash, or other sign of being hurt; if there was poison, the Force had not seen fit to warn him of danger. The fungus wasn’t toxic, it was . . . something else.

He firmly resolved never to touch it again, then pushed himself to his feet.

Something pounded behind his eyes; the combination of whatever the lichen had just done to him and the impact of his skull hitting the floor had finally given him the headache that had been building up for the last several hours. The general winced. Well, that will teach me to be curious.

While he wasn’t thankful for whatever had just happened, the lichen’s glow was still there. High time, he decided, to follow it somewhere.

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: LIGHTSABER

The signature weapon of the Jedi Order, this “laser sword” is feared by the common soldier. In the hands of a skilled Jedi it can be used to deflect blaster bolts, and its searing-hot blade can effortlessly cut through flesh and armor alike. The number of lightsabers seems to correspond to the number of Jedi. They are not mass-produced; each one that has fallen into the hands of someone outside the Order is unique in design.

On very rare occasions, a lightsaber will show up on the black market commanding a price high enough to buy a large warship. These weapons most often end up in the hands of eccentric collectors, but there are recorded instances of assassins and bounty hunters buying black market lightsabers and attempting to use them. As one might expect, an untrained individual using a lightsaber has disastrous results.

Chapter Text

Hours passed. Surprises popped up every so often—lichen tendrils occasionally leaked onto the floor (and were given a wide berth), and at one point Obi-Wan nearly plunged his right leg into a hole that led nowhere good—but for the most part there was nothing. No landmarks, no branching paths.

Somewhere around the fifth kilometer or so of walking, the general froze—lying on the ground before him was a pile of yellowing bones that, when assembled, was probably equivalent to a piece of midsized livestock. Bending closer to examine, he saw that the bones were jumbled together with bits and pieces of rotten wood. A pack animal of some kind, then—if nothing else, the tunnel had at least seen some sort of foot traffic at one point.

Wonder what killed it, he thought. He did not intend to stick around and find out.

Shortly after this, the Jedi noted that the ceiling was starting to close in on him. By the eighth kilometer of his journey, it was only a foot or so above his head.

The fungus was starting to lose its usefulness too; the farther he followed, the less powerful the light became. Fewer and fewer formations of the strange life form clung to the walls, and Obi-Wan even noticed some bits that weren’t glowing. He didn’t know what this signified, but he doubted it was good. Toxic air . . . a life form that used the lichen for food . . .

Or a dead end.

The tunnel terminated in a massive stone slab a few inches from his face. A sinkhole of sorts had formed at the base; somehow, that didn’t seem like the best detour.

Allowing himself a quick growl of frustration, Obi-Wan lowered his arms to his sides, closed his eyes, and inhaled deeply. That carcass several kilometers back had been mixed in with crate parts—this place had to have led somewhere once. Livestock didn’t simply stumble into sealed-off tunnels.

The Force didn’t exactly function as sonar, but if it could find a cave through a blast door, surely pointing out a nearby tunnel couldn’t be out of the question. Maybe the dead end was a cave-in that had collapsed this tunnel; maybe the junction it had once led to was nearby. If the walls were thin enough, he could probably carve himself a door to the adjacent pathway with his saber—though he didn’t fancy turning that into his main method of navigation, especially if it risked collapsing a tunnel on top of him.

He let his I , his sense of self, the person who was Obi-Wan Kenobi, drain from his head like a toxin flushed from his system. Perceptions extended outward from within his own skull; it felt as though he could reach through the walls enclosing him, into what lay beyond. He probed, letting the Force guide him. Above him—solid rock, extending for at least ten feet with no empty space. Directly below him—too much space, a massive pocket of empty air whose bottom he couldn’t touch. To the left . . .

There it was, to the left and slightly beneath him—another cavern. It wasn’t any ordinary, empty cave, however. He had discovered something even better.

People .

The nearby cavern was teeming with life connected by the Force. Hundreds of individuals milled about in a massive open area. This was it. His chance to call for help, and his ticket out of here.

Obi-Wan scanned his surroundings. His eyes had somewhat adjusted to the dimmer light conditions, and he was just able to make out a pile of rocks huddled in the corner. Tiny lines of light peeked through, his Force-augmented perceptions widening the cracks enough to see. Assuming this wasn’t some bioluminescent trap, it was probably his best bet for getting down into the cavern full of people. He reached his hand out, easing the rocks outward—for a moment they ground against each other, and then the Force gently slid them from the wall. When it had finished, there was a small hole; not a comfortable fit, but he’d be able to squeeze through.

The Jedi knelt and prepared to slide in when something occurred to him. He reached for his breast pocket and ran his finger across the rank insignia stitched into the cloth.

Had Abbadon was not a member of the Republic. Republic forces had, thus far, failed to help the planet in a time of need. His rank within the Republic Defense Force would earn him no respect here. Worse yet, it could be a source of problems. And if the Confederacy somehow found out he was on the planet . . .

He gripped the edge of his rank insignia and yanked, tearing it from his uniform. Making a mental note to reattach it later, the general slipped the metal card inside the breast pocket. He pulled his cloak tighter around the uniform, hoping it would serve as a disguise.

And with that, he let himself slide through the hole into what lay beyond.

What lay beyond seemed to be a storage closet maybe six feet on either side. A stack of wooden boxes broke the Jedi’s fall, and he grunted in discomfort as he rolled to the floor. Picking himself up and shaking the dust from his cloak, he scanned the room to make sure nothing had been damaged by his landing.

He reached for the door, then realized he was about to burst out of someone’s closet. Hardly a subtle entrance. Closing his eyes, he stretched out with his mind, suggesting to everyone immediately outside the door that they would do best to just ignore the strange man in the brown cloak.

And then, holding his breath, he opened the door.

 

* * *

 

He had, of course, seen images of the populated caverns in his intelligence briefing, but they’d done nothing to prepare Obi-Wan for how big this particular one was. The ceiling was several stories high, a yawning expanse between it and the “ground.” Balconies dotted the walls, extending from the what must have been residences carved into the rock. Hundreds of lanterns hung from wires that criss-crossed from stalactite to stalactite, casting a plethora of hues into the crowd below. There were steady choruses of bellowing in the air; whether they came from livestock or machinery it was impossible to say.

As Obi-Wan gaped at this sudden onslaught of civilization, a group of mingled bipedal species ambled by, none of them paying him any mind. He gave his head a quick shake and strode several paces in the opposite direction before breaking the mental connection with the passerby and returning his attention to his surroundings. Allowing himself to melt into the crowd, he realized where he was: he had found a massive open-air market.

Dozens of stalls carved the chamber into narrow passages, some of them canted at alarming angles in places where the rock floor was particularly uneven. Steam rose from many, carrying with it scents of grease-laden food that Obi-Wan’s stomach agonizingly responded to. The shop nearest him seemed to be hawking dust-proof rugs; across the way a Whipid waved a multitool at passersby in a manner that was not entirely unthreatening. A Twi’lek was trying—a bit too hard, Obi-Wan thought—to convince an Ithorian that he absolutely needed to buy two blaster pistols instead of just one. A Wookiee squeezed past the Jedi, munching on some sort of fried delicacy.

Bemused, overwhelmed, and a bit enchanted at this sudden sensory stimulation, the general ambled from stall to stall, scanning for—well, for he-didn’t-know-what, he had to admit. He let his eyes wander over the various goods, admiring the more artistic venues, wincing at the food stalls that were of dubious taste. The narrow confines took some getting used to—he had to apologize after his shoulder smacked a woeful-looking Neimoidian in the face—but eventually the space started to open up into a sort of town square. At its center was a massive stalagmite that stretched upward to about twice Obi-Wan’s height; somewhere along the line the community had run a pipe through it and built a basin around the border, improvising a fountain. The Jedi gratefully collapsed into a sitting position on the rim, gazing at the shops across the way and wondering where to go.

Most of the remaining stalls were absolutely packed with people, but there was one exception: a shady-looking venture labeled, in bright red type, “Cheap Offworld Calls” (or, more precisely, “Cheap Ofworld Clls,” two letters having faded to the point of illegibility). A morose Sullustan dressed in a garish yellow jumpsuit sat behind the pitted metal counter, fiddling with some sort of electronic game. Half the window was covered by a ragged tarp that flapped idly with a passing breeze.

Obi-Wan raised his eyebrows—the sheer obviousness of this solution beggared belief, but it was better than nothing. Gritting his teeth, he strolled over to the booth

The proprietor did not look up from his game—until Obi-Wan cleared his throat in an attempt to be noticed. At the sound, the Sullustan’s large black eyes shot up, somehow expressing annoyance at the presence of a customer.

“What do you want?” he barked. Obi-Wan decided it was better not to chastise the being for his less-than-desirable customer service and simply gestured upward, pointing to the booth’s sign.

“Well, I’d like to make a cheap offworld call.”

The Sullustan snorted. “Yeah, you and half of Had Abbadon. Sorry, bud, it ain’t happening.”

“Why not?” Obi-Wan asked, his voice betraying a note of worry. His commlink not working was one thing—a communications business not being able to transmit offworld was another issue entirely.

“You have the, uh, ‘Confederacy’ to thank for that.” At Confederacy , he waggled his fingers in the air. “Bombed the piss out of our comm towers on the surface. They either got disconnected or blown up entirely, so . . . no calls.” With that, the Sullustan picked his electronic game back up and resumed poking at it. “Most we got’s the local networks, and what with the present situation those ain’t exactly running what you’d call smooth. You try fielding a coupla million panicked family members calling each other every time the bastards up in the sky start throwing slag at the ceiling—and with the caves bouncing the signals around more than a bat stuck in a washing machine—” He broke off. “You don’t care. Sorry. Bottom line is, I can’t promise to connect you to the next booth, much less anything offplanet.”

Obi-Wan’s stomach tightened. Trying not to sound desperate: “I don’t suppose you’d know where I might hire a ship to take me offworld, then?”

He was startled out of continuing his inquiry as the Sullustan’s handheld game clattered against the counter. The alien had dropped it, apparently in frustration.

“Gods, are you new here or something?” the proprietor snapped.

“I am,” replied Obi-Wan.

The Sullustan’s eyes shifted downward; then he hung his head. His tone softened considerably.

“Dammit. I’m sorry, it’s . . . it’s been a rough week. I gotta say, you picked a bad time to come to Had Abbadon.”

“I’ve noticed,” mumbled Obi-Wan. The Sullustan extended his hand, and Obi-Wan shook it.

“Cal Temn,” the alien said, stowing the game in a drawer behind the counter. He looked up, and must have seen Obi-Wan puzzling over how to pronounce the surname. “Just call me Cal,” he added, waving a hand dismissively. “Listen, I hate to give you more bad news, but nobody’s flying offworld anymore. The emergency doors have sealed over all the exits.”

“Surely the Confederacy’s bombs will break through into a cave eventually,” Obi-Wan said.

“Yeah, eventually ,” replied Cal. “Boy, there’s a nebulous word.” He leaned closer over the counter. “Look, in about . . .” He flung his attention toward a chronometer mounted in the back of the stall. “Fifteen minutes, odds are pretty decent you’re gonna feel this cavern start to shake, just like you’ve been feeling every few hours for at least the last month.” A brief frown. “If they’re still on schedule. Didn’t feel anything from the last one for some reason. Anyway.

“Those shakes are the result of a turbolaser blast hittin’ us directly overhead. Now, as far as anybody can tell, that hasn’t made a dent on the crust so far. So sure, eventually something might break through. If the Confederacy invents some kind of planet cracker.”

Obi-Wan got the distinct sense this conversation had happened more than once.

“You think someone’s gonna sit there with their ship running, all day every day, just waiting for that to happen?” Cal concluded. “No transport company I know of would take that on. Only people stupid enough to do that for money would be . . .” He trailed off.

“Would be who?” Obi-Wan prompted after a few seconds had passed.

Cal breathed a long sigh. “Ah, sorry. I was gonna say offworlders. The only way anyone would be desperate enough to do that sort of thing is if they wanted to leave the planet too . . . no offense.”

Suppressing a grin, Obi-Wan shook his head. “None taken. Tell me, where might I find my fellow stupid and desperate offworlders?”

Cal’s eyes lit up. “The man asks a reasonable question!” He pointed confidently across the market. “There.”

The general followed Cal’s gesture to a white, marble structure that had been gracefully inserted into the otherwise drab cave wall. It looked rather elegant, if a bit out of place; the entryway stone had clearly been quarried elsewhere and transported into the cave. Red and blue neon signage reflected off the marble, beckoning patrons inside.

“‘The Marble Lantern?’” Obi-Wan mumbled to himself. Not the sort of place I was expecting at all . He turned back towards Cal. “Looks expensive.”

“Oh, it is,” Cal said. “Most locals don’t bother going unless it’s a special occasion. But I guarantee you there’s some offworlder in there got caught here on his vacation when the entrances clammed up. And if he was crazy enough to take his ship and turn tourist in the middle of a terrorist crisis, he will gladly park it in an upper-level cave until the bombs break through. Won’t be cheap, of course.”

“I expected not. Thanks for your help.” Obi-Wan tossed the Sullustan a few credit coins and began to walk toward the bar entrance.

“No problem, offworlder. You’re still here when the clones start poking holes, drop by and pick me up before your rich pilot takes a powder.” He added, as Obi-Wan started to walk off, “I’d get the Hapes Cluster, if I were you.”

The Jedi shot the Sullustan a look of confusion; the latter rolled his eyes. “It’s a drink they serve! You know, a drink? It’s good. Promise.”

Obi-Wan nodded, smiled at Cal, and turned back toward his new destination. He needed a pilot, but he supposed that could wait just a few more minutes. Right now, he needed a drink even more.

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: JIRA GROTTO BAZAAR

One of many “open-air” markets found in the Had Abbadon tunnels, Jira Grotto is home to businesses of all sizes and descriptions. If one desires, they can spend an afternoon eating delicious food, collecting artwork for their home, and selecting just the right blaster for personal defense, and cap it all off by adopting a pet. Locals and offworlders alike visit the bazaar, though the latter are far easier to part from their money.

For a population that’s by necessity spread thin and far between, marketplaces such as Jira Grotto are profound examples of community in spite of physical obstacles. For this reason, private residences are only allowed along the perimeter; the center of the chamber is a commons, open to all. Sellers often travel on migratory routes between the bazaars, which means that there are well-established paths from market to market. Should an offworlder wish to travel Had Abbadon in the safest, most convenient way possible, it’s recommended that they follow the money.

Chapter Text

The warlord’s face is a living flame.

Livid red and jet black run up and down it in spiked patterns, completely covering the skin—flickering tongues of fire and the all-consuming shadows they cast, inscribed upon his flesh in perfect balance. The jagged lines seem too precise to have been placed there by his own hands, but it also seems unlikely he’d have had the patience to wait while a droid plunged the needle in over and over again. Some whisper that he was simply born that way, a monstrosity the moment he left the womb.

Lending credence to the latter theory are his eyes. Their irises are a piercing, rotted yellow.

When he looks at you, there’s something . . . off about those eyes. They don’t perceive , not the way others’ do. It’s impossible to picture him appreciating the beauty of a sunset, or reading the emotions behind a facial tic, or preferring one food to another. If you were to look into the amber irises, you’d see something very like a pure being. They are crystalline, hardened into a perfect conduit for one undiluted sensation: hunger.

There’s a chair set in his meditation chamber, but no one has ever seen him use it. If he sleeps, there’s no bed to indicate it. There is only the cold iron of the floor and walls, the ceiling viewport that casts starlight down from above, the shadows that cover everything like an ebony mist. The jagged obsidian formations that line the perimeter, angling upward into the room; serving an unknown purpose, perhaps none at all.  

And the warlord, pacing. The black cowl he wears bleeds into the darkness of the room; all that is easily visible are those two yellow eyes, set in the red and black like a pair of lamps.

His sense of time is sometimes suspect. He’s been known to circle this room for days, uninterrupted, until something reminds him that he is alive. How long he’s existed this way is a meaningless question. The past may as well have never been; the future is an eternal stretch away. There is only him, and the present, and the hunger.

Everything else is secondary.

 

* * *

 

The two men who stand in front of him are recent units, relatively fresh from the vats. Their irises are still blue crystals, no visible breakdown present; much like his, in a way. They stand shoulder to shoulder, staring into the space just behind the warlord’s head. They will not move until ordered. That is their programming.

The warlord speaks as he shifts from foot to foot. His teeth are a ruin—pitted and brown—but still sharp enough for use. “One man, you say. One man.” He repeats it a few times, as if he’s not used to speech and is trying out the words in his mouth. “ One man brought down an entire flagship.”

“He’d taken over the bridge, sir,” one of his guests replies, his eyes moving not one jot. “The senior officer ordered a blitz.”

He starts to move again, from one wall to the other, his eyes never shifting from their target. It produces an impression so overwhelmingly reminiscent of a caged animal that a normal being, conscious of the door sealed behind them, would start to panic; there’s a reason only clones have given him his reports for the last several months.

“And he took over the bridge . . . how?” The warlord’s footsteps resound the faintest bit against the deck—tiny ringing taps, as though he’s exerting just enough pressure for others to hear the sound. “He was bound. He was reported unarmed. He is a general, he is not a warrior.”

The other clone speaks. “It appears, sir, that the report was in error. He was armed.”

Slowly, the warlord raises gloved hands and lowers his hood. Twists of bone burst through the skin stretched across his skull—horns, like an animal’s threat display. “With. What.”

“A lightsaber, my lord.”

The footsteps stop. Yellow eyes fix on the clone who spoke these two words. For the first time since the soldiers entered the room, the warlord goes completely still. “A lightsaber.”

“It was the last information received from the Helios prior to—”

“Come closer.”

It’s gentle, the way he says it. For an instant, the sharp gems of his eyes soften, clouded by something new. It’s nearly as if there were— relief flooding in from behind them.

With minced, even steps, the clone steps forward. His brother keeps his attention focused squarely on the space just behind the warlord’s shoulder.

The red-and-black face softens a bit as the unit approaches. Its eyes, still cloudy, drift down as if lost in thought. Almost amiably, a gloved hand rises and rests itself on the clone’s shoulder.

They stand there for a moment, warlord and wetwork, each staring into a space somewhere far beyond the other.

“Thank you,” says the warlord. “For telling me.”

A beam of red plasma sprouts from the unit’s back. Then it’s gone, and he slumps gently to the ground.

The eyes swivel toward the remaining clone. “Better news, I hope.”

 

* * *

 

The one luxury present in the chamber is a holoprojecter set in the center of the floor. It emits a near-perfect image, and can bounce a signal back and forth across the galaxy within seconds. According to the ship’s official blueprints, it doesn’t exist.

The figure on the other end is inscrutable—though to the warlord most faces are. There might be some sort of fatherly affection flickering in its eyes, or undying hatred. Or maybe it’s just static. The warlord neither understands nor cares.

“I take it,” says the hologram, “you have heard the news.”

Gloved hand rising, the warlord points an accusing finger. “A Jedi. You knew.”

The hologram arches an eyebrow, glancing in the direction of the chamber’s threshold. “And did not see fit to tell you? Of course. I trust you only with the information I’m confident won’t result in your running off like a mad dog.”

He is silent at this; he knows his master well enough to know that more is coming.

“You’re an animal. Deadly, yes. Powerful, yes. Cunning, yes. But intelligent, wise, patient?” The hologram scoffs. “I can trust you to kill a Jedi, not to keep his identity secret.”

“Then let me kill him,” says the warlord. “His Republic must assume him dead by now.”

Lips curling into half a smile, the hologram inclines his head. “And you know better?”

The warlord gestures in the direction of the door. “The wetworks answer questions.” His capacity for stillness past its limit, he begins to pace again. “He crashed the ship. Kept its shields up as it came down. It was still trailing hypermatter from the blitz. Punched through.”

“Then Had Abbadon is no longer closed to us?”

“There are only cracks. They will need to be widened. Bombs. Then we go in on the ground.”

The hologram nods. “As foreseen. I leave that in your capable hands.”

“And the Jedi?”

Again that half-smile plays across the figure’s lips. “All good things to those who wait, Lord Maul.”

And with that, the transmission ceases.

Lord Maul walks past two bodies on his way to the door.

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: THE SITH

Widely regarded as nothing more than a bedtime story of “evil Jedi” meant to scare children, the tales of the Sith have been passed down around campfires for generations. They are said to wear black cloaks and carry blood-red lightsabers. Some stories even speak of them choking people with their minds. Those who have no goodwill towards the Jedi Order are quick to point out that any so-called “good Jedi” is just as capable of doing this.

Any evidence of a currently existing group meant to antagonize the Jedi Order is basically nonexistent. Archaeological finds on the planet Korriban indicate there was once a splinter faction of Jedi bent on galactic domination, but official Republic records insist that this group was wiped out thousands of years ago.

 

Chapter Text

“I’m pretty sure he saw us.”

“He didn’t see us.”

“I’m telling you, this arm just isn’t designed for proper light-touch work. I’m surprised I didn’t accidentally punch him trying to lift them off the counter.”

The woman raised a brown eyebrow. “Well then. If he saw us we’ll just have to kill him. Can’t let anyone find out about our invaluable pair of . . .” She considered the greasy coil of meat she held impaled on a piece of cardboard.

“Womp rat sausages,” the man supplied, taking a bite of his own with evident relish. “Don’t know if that’s what’s actually in ‘em, though. We aren’t missing anyone from the camp, are we?”

The woman grimaced, gnawing a hunk from the confection. “Leave Junkfort Station, he said. See the galaxy, he said.”

He smiled, the motion stretching the thin scar running down the right side of his face. “Hey, with me anywhere’s a vacation, right?”

She rolled her eyes, but he caught the flash of a smile as she turned her head.

With a grimace of his own, he flexed the boxy digits that extended where his fingers used to. Electrostatic impulses were supposed to simulate a sense of touch, but he was pretty sure the power supply was starting to run down; the fingers were going numb, to the point that he dropped tools half the time he tried to pick them up. Not that they were the most elegant creation to begin with. The joints could bend and the thumb was opposable, but that was about it.

At least he’d stopped feeling the old arm. Mostly.

“Actually,” the woman broke in, “we are missing someone. Talked to the old Bothan woman at the well this morning. Looks like her husband finally died from that infected burn. Body’s going down the nearest hole later today.”

He sighed. Not much else to do; this wasn’t the first time it’d happened in the last month, or even the last week. “I’ll go over later and see if there’s anything I can help her with.”

“Like what?” The question could have been accusatory but just sounded exhausted. Her eyes wandered off across the market. “Her campstove is working just fine. No holes in her tent. Sometimes you have to just leave people alone.”

They walked in silence for a while after that, easing around passersby with no general destination in mind. The man finished his sausage and tossed the stick aside. She was right, he supposed; she generally was. But it didn’t stop him from getting stir-crazy every time something happened and there was absolutely nothing useful to be done. And even when there was something he could actually touch with his tools, all he got these days was diminishing returns—like an arm that ran down like an old watch battery.

The woman rested a hand on his shoulder. “You can’t save everyone.” After another few seconds’ silence: “Come on, let’s talk about what we’re doing when we get off this rock and get back to taking over the galaxy.”

He clapped his flesh hand to her own. “Well, first thing is getting a proper arm installed. Maybe one of those fancy numbers from the Core Worlds with actual skin.”

She punched the metal hulk. “Which we’ll pay for by selling off the loudmouth that arm used to belong to.”

“Hey, now, we’re not doing that.”

The woman’s face slipped into a smirk. “Hey, flyboy, you’re the dreamer, I’m the financier. Next on the list.”

He mock-considered. “A bath would be nice. Though I’m not sure I need one as much as you do.”

“So we break into one of those Core Worlds apartments and borrow the shower. Freebie.”

“And a new ship. Definitely a new ship.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem. I have this husband I can sell.” She grinned, then swore as a hunk of metal whacked the back of her head. “Watch it!”

“Sorry, sorry.” He shot the arm a rueful look. “Still getting used to it.”

“I suppose I could add suing you for battery to the to-do list, that’d probably get me enough money for a new ship.”

“Good luck collecting.”

They kissed, then, and for a brief instant everything was all right.

As they pulled apart, the woman clasped his hand and started pulling him toward a corner of the market. “Come on, let’s get a drink.”

“I don’t know that we can count on this thing lifting something full of whiskey.”

“Oh, not like that, somewhere legitimate.” She pointed at the marble monstrosity that lay across from the fountain. “There.”

The man stopped walking. “ There ? We can’t afford a new arm to end my suffering and you want us to buy drinks in some tourist trap.”

“I think it’s time for another Junkfort Special,” she said casually, grabbing her hair and twisting it to look a bit more respectable. “What do you think, remember how to do the Nubian Prince? Or we’ve still got some fake rare coins left.”

“You do realize we won’t be able to come back to this market ever again once they realize what happened.” He gestured broadly at the expanse of stalls behind them. “No more womp-rat sausage and window-shopping for rugs.”

The woman finished tugging at her hair. “Screw it. The Bothan is dead, and we’re not, and we’ve been here for a month. I’d say that calls for a celebration.” She smiled and took his mechanical hand. “Or have you lost your nerve?”

The man felt a grin starting at the corner of his mouth. “Not on your life.”

Her smile widened into a grin of its own, and she pulled him toward the neon sign. “Let’s go, then.”

 

* * *

 

Obi-Wan stepped over the threshold, sizing up the place. The marble was garish, but he had to admit that tunneling this far into the rock face was impressive; none of Had Abbadon’s native stone was visible under the sheets of pristine white. Normally a place like this would have low light to preserve the ambience, but perhaps because shadows were so easy to come by on this planet, the opposite was true—the inside was lit so brightly that the Jedi had to blink a few times.

He was grateful for the uniform underneath his cloak—it helped him look a bit less out of place among the formal wear that many of the people inside were sporting. It wasn’t tasteful formal wear, though. This was still a bar in the middle of a bazaar, and as Cal had said, the clientele looked to be largely rich offworlders turned tourist.

Before he found one of them crazy enough to help pilot him out of here, he needed that drink. The general threw a short nod at the maitre’d, along with the tiniest suggestion that perhaps this customer could find his own seat without questions. Striding past the biggest of the tables, which was monopolized by sabacc players, he settled himself down at the bar, which seemed to be made of real wood.

A spindly droid with at least six different arms stood behind the expanse of polished organic matter. “Welcome, sir,” it said. “What can I get you?”

“Erm—a Hapes Cluster, please,” Obi-Wan said. There was a snort from his left—he glanced over to see a not-particularly-sober-looking man smirking at him. He supposed it wasn’t out of the question that the Sullustan had deliberately told him the worst drink in the place to order.

“An excellent choice, sir. Though I must warn you that the cyanoberries usually mixed into that particular drink are toxic to human systems in large quantities. Shall I substitute juna berries?”

He cleared his throat. “Please.”

A few sprays of liquid and a spoonful of berries later, the result was slid across the bar. Obi-Wan raised his eyebrows. The glass was full of an almost neon-pink liquid. A single, huge berry sat in the very center; the smaller berries circled around it. At first the Jedi thought this was just the aftereffects of being stirred, but as he stared at the drink the spinning persisted. Planets, he supposed, orbiting a star.

Gingerly, he picked up the glass and put it to his lips. No more deadly than anything else I’ve done today , he decided, and drank.

It was delicious.

He nodded appreciatively at the droid, slid some credits across the counter, and shrugged in the direction of his left. If I ever get back, I’ll have to see how many bars on Alderaan are run by Sullustans.

As the rest of the drink slid down his throat, he felt himself go pleasantly numb. Alcohol and the Force, he supposed, had that effect in common.

Tempted though he was to order a second, he restrained himself—his supply of cash was not infinite, and he couldn’t afford to get too loose. Setting the drained glass back down on the bar, he did his best to look as though he were simply a bored offworlder glancing idly at his surroundings. Slowly, his gaze wandered across the establishment.

No way to tell just from looking, he decided approximately three seconds later. The place was full of people, none of whom looked more like a rich being with a ship than any other. Instead, he closed his eyes, relaxed, opened himself to the Force—

And instantly shot his eyes open again.

Somewhere in the back corner. But there was no way it could possibly have been that strong . . .

Cautiously, he extended his perceptions again.

It was like being hit by a speeder.

There was a Force nexus somewhere in this place. Within feet of him. And its power was staggering.

 

* * * 

 

“It’s him.” The man’s metal index finger indicated someone who had just taken a seat at the bar.

“The guy in the cloak?” the woman asked, clearly unimpressed.

“What? No,” he scoffed. “A few seats down from him.”

She shot him a sideways glance. “The swoop biker? That is not a good idea.”

The man pointed at himself. “Come on. Have I picked a bad mark yet?” He gave a deliberately exaggerated wink.

“First time for everything. He just came in with his whole gang.” She nodded her head at the sabacc table, where a dozen or so beings covered in leather armor and bristling with various pointy implements were crowding out other newcomers. “What are you going to do if they come after us? Shake your dying robot arm at them?”

The man looked hurt. “Hey now. Sure, he came in with his whole gang, but he’s not the one in charge.” He indicated the sabacc table. “He’s the lackey. They sent him to order everyone drinks while they went off . . .”

“. . . to gamble,” she finished. “And if they’re gambling, they’ve got money to burn.”

“Exactly,” he said, a boyish grin stretching the scar across his face. “So, I’m thinking we’ve got a big old crate of valuable gems stuck in customs on Coruscant. He just needs to give us a couple thousand to bribe the customs officer, and ten percent of the crate is his once we’re off this rock.” There was no response. “You listening?”

She was not.

The woman stared intently at their mark as he bellowed obscenities at one of the bartenders—a young Twi’lek, she noted, not a droid. It sounded like the Twi’lek had messed up a drink order, and the biker was complaining that she should’ve just let the droid bartender make it. In the middle of what appeared to be a profuse apology from the girl, he let his drink slosh out of the glass and into her face.

Amber liquid soaked her skin, her hair, her clothes. Even as she mopped at it frantically, the Twi’lek continued  to apologize.

“Nah,” the woman said, in a tone intended to be casual but shaking just a bit too much for that.

The man stopped in the middle of a sentence—something about making sure to convince the biker they needed cash, not an electronic funds transfer. “What?”

“The customs scam isn’t good enough. Too cheap.”

He raised his eyebrows and leaned in closer to whisper. “Too cheap? Thirty seconds ago you didn’t even want to run one on him. Now you want to take him for even more money?”

“Yep,” she said lightly, laying her hands on the tabletop. “Let’s ruin this asshole’s day. We’re going to sell him a spice mine.”

“We’re going to what?” the man asked. He was too surprised to add any inflection to his voice; the question came out sounding like a droid had asked it.

The woman slid around to the edge of their booth and stood up. “Just follow my lead,” she instructed. “We’re celebrating. I’m going to go buy a bottle of something fancy. Manaan Reserve Thirty-Eight vintage, maybe.”

The man’s eyes widened. He reached out to grab his partner’s arm, but the mechanical appendage refused to close its fist. Damn power cell. “Hang on!” he hissed. “We can’t afford a glass of that stuff, much less the bottle.”

The woman smirked. “Relax. If this works, we can buy a whole barrel of it.”

 

* * *

 

Obi-Wan Kenobi ran his finger around the rim of his empty glass and attempted to surreptitiously look over his shoulder. He had managed to locate the Force nexus—the booth in the corner, one of the few places in this establishment not completely washed out by white light. Two occupants, he noted. A woman, off-white cape of some kind draped across her shoulders, and a man, clad in brown fabric and black leather.

His perception wasn’t precise enough to figure out which one of them was strong in the Force. Not from this distance. He’d need to get closer.

Or . . . one of them could move. That works too , he thought to himself as the woman slid from the booth. He watched as she leaned in to speak to her companion, then turned to walk toward the bar. The tattered cape fluttered behind her. Obi-Wan realized he was staring, and quickly turned back toward the remnants of his drink.

He watched out of the corner of his eye as the woman approached the bar and ordered something. It was apparent now that she was not the Force energy he had been hit with. That remained in the corner booth.

He needed to speak to the man who sat there.

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: THE HAPES CLUSTER

The sector of space known as the Hapes Cluster is a massive grouping of star systems located in the Inner Rim between Tanaab and Onderon. The star systems of the Cluster are densely packed, impeding hyperspace navigation. For centuries, the dozens of worlds contained within the Hapes Cluster remained unexplored by the Republic; no ship that entered the cluster ever made it back out.

First contact with the Hapans, the cluster’s native sentient species, occurred only 40 years ago. The Hapes Consortium, the governing body of the Cluster, still remains politically separated from the Republic. The culture of the region is extremely isolationist, and no one has ever seen a Hapan outside of the Hapes Cluster. Though it is now possible to safely travel in and out of the Cluster—provided one uses a sufficiently advanced navicomputer—it is still rarely visited by Republic citizens.

The under-explored nature of this sector of space has birthed many myths and legends about what is contained within. Beautiful women, endless riches, gorgeous landscapes, and free-flowing alcohol are all said to be abundant on the capital world of Hapes. It is considered by many to be a heavenly paradise locked away among the stars. Those who venture in to the cluster still tend not to return; whether this is by choice is unknown, but it only fuels speculation about what may lie inside the Hapes Cluster.

Chapter Text

“I’m sorry, would you please verify your order?” The request sounded as shocked as the six-armed droid bartender’s vocabulator could manage.

“Manaan Reserve, Thirty-Eight vintage.” The woman in white delivered the request as if she were ordering a cheap beer.

“And you would like the entire bottle?” The droid’s voice crackled for a moment as it asked the question; this clearly wasn’t a situation it had been programmed to handle.

The woman simply nodded. “Very well,” said the droid. It turned and scuttled toward a door behind the bar.

“Lucky night at the tables?” It was the swoop biker, looking at her with something between a leer and genuine curiosity. Hook.

“Oh, no,” she said. Her voice took on a much perkier tone as she turned to address him. “We’re celebrating!”

The biker’s leer was fully subsumed by inquisitiveness, his eyes sharpening to as intent a state as they were capable of. “Celebratin’? Don’t seem to be much to celebrate trapped down here like rats.”

The woman grinned. “My uncle left me a spice mine in his will. Loads of untapped profit just waiting to be mined up! That’s why we’re down here, see.”

Frowning, the biker leaned a bit closer. “I don’t get it. You inherited a spice mine and you decided to come down here?”

The droid bartender returned from the back room, gingerly placing the bottle the woman had ordered on the bar. The glass container was fashioned into a double-helix spiral, the green-tinted liquid almost glowing with a soft light. The woman ran her fingers up and down the bottle seductively as she continued her explanation.

“Well, problem is, the darn thing didn’t come with any mining equipment. So we needed to find some cheap gear, which is why we came here. And sure enough, we just found a guy willing to sell us everything we need!”

A stupid smile emerged on the biker’s face. “Well, that’s nice. Assumin’ you make it out alive.” He snickered.

“Well, that’s life, I suppose,” the woman said. “So that’s why we’re celebrating. Of course,” she added, a frown creeping onto her face, “there are some startup costs. Even cheap mining equipment doesn’t go for nothing.” Perking up again: “But we’ve found almost all the investors we need to get us going. Just need one more!”

“Investors?” the biker asked. He seemed confused as he said the word, as if he wasn’t sure what it meant. Line.

“Oh, you know. People pitching in money up front to help us get the equipment and jumpstart the mine. Once all this is over, we’ll fly it out of here on our ship and start digging. We’ll pay them back later, of course, with the stuff we pull out of the ground. Plus a little extra. Well, a lot extra, really.”

“And you said you need . . . one more of these investors?” said the biker. Sinker.

“Indeed we do,” the woman said sweetly. “Maybe you’d like to come back to my booth and talk about it with my business partner?”

 

* * *

 

Damn, missed my window, thought Obi-Wan. He’d ordered another Hapes Cluster for appearance’s sake, but the woman dressed in white had headed back to her booth before the drink was ready. He had been hoping to catch the man in black by himself.

The Jedi was glad to see the swirling cocktail arrive in front of him. He didn’t intend to drink the whole thing, but he needed a full glass as a prop, if nothing else. He couldn’t go chatting up the couple in the corner with an empty drink. He tossed another handful of credit coins on the bar; the bartender droid nodded as it used a free arm to scoop them up.

Rising from his seat, he made for the booth, brushing past a crowd of patrons who had been hoping a seat at the bar would free up. A Quarren muttered something at him in a language he didn’t understand. Obi-Wan just kept walking, weaving in between the glistening glass tables scattered at random around the bar. His focus was absolutely fixed on this swirling galaxy of Force energy.

Which is why he didn’t notice until the woman resumed her seat at the booth that she had brought someone back with her.

“Blast,” Obi-Wan whispered to himself. He diverted his course to an empty table near the corner booth, then tossed a mental suggestion at the approaching waitress as he sat down. Your other guests are more important .

The Jedi held the rim of his glass to his lips and directed his gaze toward the corner booth. To an outside observer, he hoped, it would look like he was simply sipping a drink while staring at the far wall. He tipped the glass back and allowed a small amount of the alcohol to slide down into his mouth—it was too enjoyable to waste the whole thing, after all.

He closed his eyes and stretched out with his senses. The cacophony of conversations around him faded into the background. The sounds of the Bith quartet playing up on stage disappeared. The clatter of glasses behind the bar became nonexistent. Soon, there was only one thing he could hear. The three humans in the corner booth, sharing a bottle of obscenely expensive alcohol and discussing some sort of business venture.

 

* * *

 

“You want how much?” the biker asked. He sounded vaguely offended.

“I know, I know, it sounds like a lot,” the man in black offered. “But think of the payoff. You don’t have to do a thing, and in six months you’ve quintupled your money!”

“Quin . . . ?”

“Quintupled!” the woman in white offered. “It means you’ll have five times more than you paid us. And you don’t have to lift a finger.” While the biker’s attention was on the woman, her partner covertly topped off their potential investor’s glass with more of the expensive alcohol.

The biker grabbed his glass, took a drink, and attempted to count on his fingers. The woman in white gently took his hand and lowered it to the table. She kept her fingers wrapped around his and held his gaze with her own. “I’ll save you the trouble. Six months, forty-five thousand credits. You just have to give us nine grand.”

The biker slowly nodded and reached for his wallet, extracting a small metal card from it.

The man in black grimaced. “There is one small problem,” he said. “We’ve worked out a cash discount with our supplier, but to get it we have to pay them by the end of the day tomorrow .”

Within a second, the card had snapped back into the wallet. Their potential business partner looked as though he would be outraged if he weren’t so bemused. “You want nine grand . . . in cash . . . right now?” the biker asked, drawing out every word to emphasize the absurdity of the request. “Who the hell has that kind of money on them? Who would give it to you?”

“I would.”

The trio turned toward the source of the new voice. It was a human man, bearded, most of his face hidden beneath a brown cloak. He continued speaking. “I’ll be your final investor.”

The man in black sized up the cloaked figure. A new mark? Or something else? “You have nine thousand on you?”

“Well . . . no. But I do have six thousand. I can give it to you now—call it a deposit—and then duck outside to the banking terminal.” The cloaked figure’s confident smile was just visible beneath the shadow of his hood.

“How are you gonna get money from the bank? The comm lines don’t work. They can’t connect to your account.” It was the biker.

First smart thing he’s said all evening , the man in black thought to himself. Guy better have a good answer .

“I know the Neimoidian who runs the bank out there,” the man in the cloak said, gesturing toward the door. “He knows my account balance. Withdrawing a few thousand won’t be a problem. Even if it is, my six thousand in cash is better than your . . . zero.” He looked back at the woman in white. “So, what’ll it be?” As he spoke, the cloaked man reached down toward his pockets.

With a thud , a bag of coins landed on the table in front of the couple.

The biker pointed at it. “There. My nine thousand. Do we have a deal?” He extended his hand toward the man in black. “Don’t think you should trust this guy, not offering it all upfront. Partners have to trust each other, after all.”

“Indeed they do,” the woman said, a very large grin forming on her face. She slid a business card across the table and extended her hand. The biker shook hers, then her partner’s, then smirked at the cloaked figure. “All in or nothing, pal.”

“Oh dear,” the thwarted man said flatly. “So it would seem.”

“Call us in a couple of weeks,” the woman told her investor, “assuming this is all over by then. We’ll let you know how things are going.” The biker nodded, slid the card into a pocket, and turned to walk back to the bar, whistling the tune the band played a half-step off the beat.

When he was clearly out of view, the woman snatched the coin purse. She and her partner both made to slide out of the booth. If there was a back entrance, they could avoid walking by the gang on their way out—

“Wait.”

 

* * *

 

Obi-Wan picked up his drink and moved toward the booth. The woman seemed leery, but the man in black looked at him with interest.

“What do you want?” the woman whispered. One leg extended from her seat, ready to stand up at a moment’s notice; her hand clenched tightly around the coin purse.

“I helped you,” Obi-Wan began. “I was hoping you two could help me.”

The woman did not move, but her partner settled back into his seat, frowning. “Look, we appreciate you applying some pressure to the guy, but you can’t just swoop in at the end and ask for a cut like this.” He shrugged, looking almost genuinely apologetic. “Not how we do business. Maybe if you needed something repaired . . .”

Obi-Wan shot the man a confused look and shook his head. I hadn’t thought to ask for a share. We’ll come back to that later. “No, that’s not why I’m here. You two own a ship? You weren’t making that bit up?”

“We do,” the woman said cautiously. Obi-Wan noticed that she was no longer halfway out of the booth.

“I’d like to hire you to fly me offworld.”

The two of them simply stared at him for the better part of ten seconds. Then the man cleared his throat. “Look, I don’t know if you’re trying to be funny or this is some elaborate sort of code, but we really have to be on our way.”

“It’s not a joke.” Obi-Wan snapped this a bit more harshly than he’d intended; he didn’t want these two sidling out of the booth again. “I am in urgent need of transport off this planet, and I am willing to pay whatever it is you’d require.”

“Courtesy of that Neimoidian banker?” the woman asked with a withering expression. “Look, we’ll buy you a drink and then we’re getting out of here.”

The man in black, however, was staring at Obi-Wan, his eyes narrowed. “Whatever we require?”

The Jedi nodded. “Price is no object.”

“Anakin. What are you doing,” the woman whispered, but the man in black simply leaned a bit closer.

“You have 6,000 in cash?”

Squirming a little, Obi-Wan hesitated. “I have 3,000 in cash.”

“So you’re a liar.”

“I’m an exaggerator. And technically you owe me 3,000 for that exaggeration. That comes to 6,000, altogether.”

“‘Technically’ is never a good word to use when you’re talking business.” This came not from the man in black—Anakin—but from the woman, who was suddenly leaning in herself. “Why are you even asking us this? Even if we could trust you—which we can’t—do you really think we’d be sitting down here in the dark if we could just fly away?”’

Obi-Wan considered his next words carefully. He had them interested, but if he was going to lose them it would be here.

At that moment, the cavern began to shake.

The bombardment must not have landed very close above them; glasses rattled and a few patrons glanced up at the ceiling before returning to their drinks and conversation. But Obi-Wan seized it.

He pointed upward. “There’s my answer.” He picked up his drink, took a sip, and continued. “I’m from Alderaan. I don’t have to tell you what that means?”

Slowly, the woman nodded. “Your home makes the same kind of lasers that are knocking on the door upstairs.”

The Jedi snapped his fingers. “Exactly. Now, with the power output of those turbolasers, and the length of time they’ve been firing—well, I’m no geologist, but by my estimate the crust will only hold a day or two longer at the weakest points. In fact, I happen to be aware of a location where it’s wearing thin right now.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out the cash he had on him, and slid it across the table toward the two of them. “3,000 in cash up front, plus whatever else you need when the job’s done. If you take me to your ship, we park it where I say, and we get out of here as soon as the rocks start coming down.”

The woman’s long, hard stare was still on him, but the emotion behind her eyes had shifted from skepticism to intense interest. “You got a name, pal?”

“Ben,” the Jedi responded, the first syllable to pop into his head.

“A last name?”

“Do you need it?”

For the first time, she smiled, though it was rueful. “Fair enough. I’m Padmé.” She gestured at her partner. “This is Anakin.”

Obi-Wan extended both his hands, one in the direction of each seatmate. “A pleasure to make your acq—”

“What about everyone else?”

It took Obi-Wan a second to register the question. He shifted his head to look squarely at Anakin, who repeated himself. “We can’t just take off on our own and not tell anyone. We’ve got to get as many people out as possible. Why haven’t you reported this to someone?”

The Jedi felt his face flush. “Well, erm . . .”

Anakin’s brows lowered; Obi-Wan could feel his emotions darkening through the Force. Padmé put a hand on his shoulder. “Anakin, maybe we should discuss things privately before questioning Ben’s motives here—”

“I’d say all your motives could use some questioning.”

The trio froze. Obi-Wan broadened his senses and promptly ran into a roiling mass of hostility.

He slowly turned his head. Saw what was standing behind him.

All of a sudden, he had a very bad feeling about this.

 

* * *

 

Standing behind Ben were approximately a dozen armored beings of various species. They looked stupid, and they looked angry, which in Padmé’s experience was the worst sort of person to encounter in a bar.

A human, the leader—or at the very least the tallest of them—pushed his way to the front. Padmé spotted at least two blaster pistols hanging from his belt, and some kind of staff slung across his back. Two long scars ran across his face, one from eye to chin and one across his forehead and the bridge of his nose. He grinned, a gesture that reminded her less of a happy person and more of a rabid dog’s snarl.

“Hear tell you done offered Pike here an investment opportunity ,” he snarled, and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. The mark was there, his face a mixture of confusion and dawning rage. “Now why would the three of you go and do a thing like that?”

Anakin spoke. “Look, if you guys want to get in on the action, that’s fine by me, but we’re gonna have to dilute some shares—”

“Now, we came here to get away for a little bit,” the leader continued, his grin widening to display browning incisors. “Which generally means stickin’ to ourselves and gettin’ drunk and not botherin’ anyone. But we’ve been stuck here longer’n a month, and I find myself gettin’ a little . . . itchy.” He let his hand drop to one of the blasters on his belt. “Know what I mean?”

Padmé gripped the bottle of whiskey tightly. The glass was slick beneath her fingers. “Can’t say that I do.”

Ben raised his hand, waving it around. Idiot. “Look,” he said in the most amiable of tones, “maybe we can buy all of you a drink—”

And then several things happened at once.

Padmé hurled the bottle at the leader’s face.

Ben ducked out of the way just in time.

And Anakin launched the table over his head.

The mechanical arm’s lack of finesse had its uses—the table smashed into several of the bikers with an audible crack , sending them tumbling into the rank behind them. Padmé dove from the booth and pelted for the door, bellowing, “Anakin, come on!” She put her foot in a puddle of whiskey left over from the bottle, almost fell, then turned it into a slide that sent her flying across the room.

She chanced a glance over her shoulder as she hit the entryway—Anakin was charging behind her, their recent uninvited companion right on their heels. Rolling her eyes, Padmé veered left, headed for an open space a few dozen yards away.

It was still there, thank the gods—their rustbucket of a swoop bike was technically parked illegally, and even though law and order wasn’t exactly the bazaar’s foremost concern a lot of things seemed to be going wrong all at once.

Padmé! ” she heard from behind, and whipped around—Anakin was just standing there several steps behind her, Ben at his side. “What about him?”

What?!

He gestured frantically at their bearded hanger-on. “The swoop won’t take three!”

Padmé just stood there for a second, unbelieving, and then glared at Anakin with what she hoped was enough force to burn. “DAMMIT!”

The biggest inanity of a grin broke out on her husband’s face. “We’ll catch up, go!”

And with that, he seized Ben by the arm and twisted into a run.

“Anakin! Earpieces!” Padmé shouted as her husband disappeared into the crowd with Ben in tow. A metal arm popped up in the midst of the sea of people, making a thumbs up. Padmé rolled her eyes as she extracted a small commlink from her pocket and inserted it into her right ear.

Swearing a white streak, she jabbed the keys into the lock mechanism and revved at the throttle. The bike coughed once, twice, three times, and then sputtered to life.

She roared forward, veering just wide enough to the right to avoid spearing a shopkeeper through the chest, and threw a glance behind her. The two men were still on the move—with ten wet, screaming bikers right behind them.

As she yanked the control bars back and forth, waving her hands frantically at the crowd, Padmé shouted into the air whipping past her face:

GODS DAMMIT, ANAKIN SKYWALKER.”

 

* * *

 

Obi-Wan did his best to address the young man hauling him by the wrist, wincing as the mechanical fingers bit harder into his skin. “Very gallant of you, but I’d just as soon have taken a beating alone.”

“Who said anything about a beating?” Anakin replied, pointing ahead. “Get ready to jump on!”

The Jedi’s eyes followed the direction of the finger. It seemed to be aimed at a cluster of swoop bikes.

He listened to the shrieks of their pursuers and was rather sure he knew who those bikes belonged to.

He was also rather sure that they seemed to be bolted to the ground with gigantic durasteel locks.

“Do you have a plan B?” he shouted.

Anakin’s only response was to keep dragging him forward.

As they barrelled toward the nearest bike, Obi-Wan saw the younger man raise his flesh hand. Something flitted across his face then—something that looked a good deal like fear—but before the Jedi could analyze this further, his companion made a fist.

The lock simply fell apart.

Anakin swung a leg over the bike. “Hope these things still hotwire the same.” Obi-Wan looked at the man’s flesh hand, then back over his shoulder—the gang members were maybe thirty feet away.

With an animal roar, the bike came alive. Anakin whooped. “Come on, what are you waiting for?”

The Jedi groaned, slung his leg across the seat, and wrapped his arms around his companion’s waist. To his consternation, he didn’t sense any nervousness pouring off the man at all. Indeed, he was worryingly close to—exhilarated? He watched as the young man popped a communications earpiece into his ear with a grin.

“This is where the fun begins.”

As Obi-Wan opened his mouth to reply, his words were swallowed in a cacophony of gunning motor and rushing air. His arms were almost torn from their sockets.

And he could swear he heard Anakin laughing.

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: REPUBLIC CREDITS

Intergalactic trade has inevitably given rise to an intergalactic currency. The Republic Standard Credit first came into use several thousand years ago on Coruscant. Before its inception, each planet with a unified government had its own currency. As needed, one world’s currency was simply exchanged for another at one of several hundred businesses in Coruscant’s financial district.

These exchange companies eventually formed a Galactic Currency Exchange, and began issuing vouchers that were valued against the currency of other worlds. As a measure of expediency, traders began swapping these vouchers instead of using actual money. Once the Republic government caught wind of this, they passed a law integrating the currency exchange into the government and forming an official Bank of the Galactic Republic. The Republic Standard Credit was born.

Most transactions are handled electronically, although credit coins are commonplace for small purchases and transactions that an individual may not want to be tracked. Many worlds outside Republic space still accept credits as payment on some level, despite having their own currencies. If an individual winds up stuck on a non-Republic world with only credits in hand, the money can often be unofficially swapped for the local currency at a shipping terminal, albeit for a very unfavorable exchange rate.

Chapter Text

Bail Organa spun absentmindedly in his office chair, twirling a stylus between his fingers.

He stared out at the vast, empty space before him. The Executive Office was too big for his liking. Unnecessarily grandiose, wasting space simply because in the Senate Building you could afford to. The deep red carpet was made from naturally occurring materials, the massive desk carved from actual stone—an extreme expense on any Core world, but especially Coruscant, where everything would’ve been imported from offworld. Synthesized furnishings could be created domestically, but that wasn’t good enough for whoever outfitted this room.

Art from Bail’s home planet of Alderaan lined the walls, gallery-style. He appreciated the reminders of home, but the paintings were far too expensive for his taste, and had probably been commissioned by a past Chancellor who wanted to flaunt their wealth to their fellow legislators. When Bail took office, an aide had found them under a tarp in a storage closet. Bail never would’ve paid for such art himself, but he had them put up anyway. In addition to staving off the homesickness, the pieces helped keep up appearances.

The one saving grace of this ridiculous office, Bail thought, was the view. Arcing behind the desk was a lovely panoramic window, two meters high and ten wide. Bail’s favorite time to soak in the view was after sunset, when the city glistened with the light of a thousand stars. He would sit, stare, and imagine the story behind the lights from each distant window. One light might be a family huddled on the couch; another might be a composer dreaming up a piece of music, or someone writing a letter to her distant lover who was stationed in another system. He could lose himself, staring at those faint points in the distance; remind himself that these were the people he truly governed, not bickering committees.

Tonight, though, he only wished he could get lost in those fantasies. Instead, a different, much gloomier thought loomed over him, a mere four words: vote of no confidence . He repeated them in his head over and over, hoping that somehow it would change the reality of the situation. So far, it wasn’t working.

Bail sighed, twirled the stylus again, and ground a knuckle into his eye. He was in his office far later than his schedule typically demanded, and all of his staff save the two door guards had gone home. Only a receptionist droid was here to keep him company, and Bail had banished it to its post outside—it was good at small talk, but he wasn’t in the mood to shoot the breeze with a droid right now. He’d thought about calling Breha, but his wife didn’t need to hear about this yet. Not until he’d figured out a way to remove himself from the corner he found himself in.

Reaching beneath his desk, he slid open a drawer reserved for special occasions and eyed the bottle of liquor hidden within. This was usually for celebrations: legislative victories or news of a colony liberated by Republic forces. Tonight there was nothing to celebrate, but it very well could be one of his last few opportunities to drink on the job. He wasn’t about to waste it.

Two years, he thought. Two years of policy advancing by inches, crises springing up left and right, gridlock at every turn. And then the clones had come, turning his peacetime office into something he’d had utterly no preparation for. Everything else off the agenda. And for what? Meeting after meeting after meeting in which nothing was done, only for his one decisive action to lead to immediate disaster.

A buzz over the intercom interrupted his haze of self-pity. The Chancellor instinctively slammed the desk drawer shut and snapped to attention. “Yes?”

“Sir, your guest has arrived,” piped the all-too-cheery receptionist droid.

Bail sighed. He was glad he kept a sentient receptionist on staff for normal office hours; the machine did not know how to read a room. Pressing a button on the glistening surface of his stonework desk: “Send her in.”

He rose from his chair as Mon Mothma entered the room and the automatic door swooshed shut behind her. The two met halfway, in the center of the ridiculously large space covered in ridiculously expensive carpet, and shook hands.

“My apologies for the lateness of the hour, Senator,” Bail said. “And it’s only just now occurred to me that if we were going to meet so late, we could have done it somewhere else.” He chuckled bitterly. “You’ll have to go on the visitor’s logs for my office now. Everyone on the Defense Committee will lump you in with the loose-cannon Chancellor.” He attempted to inject a note of amusement into his voice, but he could see it wasn’t working and dropped the facade. “Seems acting without thinking is my forte.”

“I’m already lumped in with you,” Mon Mothma replied, brushing past his self-deprecation without comment. “I didn’t second the motion in this morning’s meeting.”

The pair moved back toward the Chancellor’s desk. Bail walked around it to stand opposite Mon Mothma, cursing the desk’s size for making his trip awkwardly long. As they sat, the senator continued. “Besides, the two of us meeting offsite would just arouse suspicion. Your adversaries in the Senate would assume we were planning something. I’d rather our meetings be logged on the records. It’s safer that way. We can’t afford to make the situation worse.”

Bail couldn’t argue with that. “Thank you for agreeing to meet, Senator. I need your help with this . . .” He threw his hands up in the air. “Fiasco.”

“You want my help rescuing General Kenobi?” Mon Mothma seemed surprised, and ever so slightly amused. “Chancellor, the people of Chandrila are not known for their skill in battle. Even if I could find someone to send to the Had System, I’d really rather not risk exacerbating things. I’m sorry, but it could jeopardize my career too.” The small smile on her face faded away. “And the Defense Committee may have put you in an impossible position, but Sapir isn’t wrong. You were completely out of line. The only reason I didn’t vote against you is that your heart is in the right place, even though your head is clearly elsewhere.”

Bail felt a blush burn his cheeks. He’d been wallowing in frustration and self-pity, but now for the first time today he experienced a sudden onslaught of genuine shame. Leaning back in his chair, he shook his head. “No, not the Kenobi situation. That ship has sailed, and I don’t intend to drag you into any sort of attempt to solve things on Had Abbadon after the mess I’ve made. I need your help here .” He gestured around him, indicating the Senate building. “We’ve got two weeks before that vote, and I need to know where things stand. Who is voting which way, and why. You’re more than qualified to whip votes . . . assuming you wish for me to keep this position?”

Slowly, she nodded. “As long as the others refuse to take the Confederacy seriously . . . well, the enemy of my enemy. I do, Bail.” The Chancellor didn’t correct her on the breach of protocol; at this point, he didn’t care if she used his title. She was an ally, and she had no desire to sugarcoat his position, and that was what he needed right now.

“You’ll do it, then?” he asked, trying to suppress his increasing desperation.

“I’ll get started first thing tomorrow.” A quiet determination had entered her voice. Bail added his past misjudgment of the woman to the long list of failures he was reckoning with today.

“If you don’t mind my asking, where do you think we stand now?” he asked. “The special session is in two weeks. Could you swing anyone on the Defense Committee back to my side in that time?” Bail wasn’t fond of the adversarial phrasing, but there was really no other way to put it. “Senator Sapir is a lost cause, I’m sure.”

“Not necessarily,” interjected Mon Mothma. “If we do go to war, Kuat’s economy stands to gain something. I’m sure that will factor into her decision. And proposing the vote was no easy thing for her.”

Bail let out a breath and shook his head. “She’d be just as well served voting me out and hoping the next Chancellor starts a war with the Confederacy by getting permission from the Senate. Any war I begin is stained with illegitimacy.”

She bit her lip and nodded. “Bel Iblis won’t be swayed. He sees the Defense Force as just that—a tool for defending ourselves, nothing more. I expect he’ll want you voted out.”

The Chancellor rubbed his forehead. Any further talk about the Committee was a waste, he decided. If any of its members had wanted to keep him in office, they wouldn’t have raised their hands in the meeting. “What about the rest of Congress? I’m sure word has spread about the vote.”

“It has,” Mon Mothma said. “Nobody knows why yet, though. Once the Defense Committee meeting notes become available to everyone next week . . .”

“I’ve been kicking myself all day over that.” Some of the anger he’d been keeping below the surface bubbled up. “Meeting notes about ongoing operations are left classified. If I hadn’t effectively deactivated General Kenobi’s mission, we would be able to sweep this under the rug and win the vote without a problem.”

“Don’t beat yourself up,” Mon Mothma said gently. “There is no way the rest of the committee would have let that meeting conclude with his mission left active. Especially now that a vote of no confidence is approaching. They would have made sure those notes were distributed to the rest of the Senate.” She looked at him reprovingly. “And Chancellor, don’t make me regret this. Sweeping things under the rug is not why I am here.”

Bail sighed and waved his hand in acknowledgment. “So what do we do?” He knew he sounded desperate. At this point, he was beyond caring.

“Damage control,” was the confident reply. “We’ve got a week before that report goes out to the entire Senate. I can get out in front of it and help control the narrative. Lay the groundwork so the report isn’t as damaging when it’s released. I’ll start in the morning.”

“Wonderful.” He stood and rounded the desk. “I’m in no condition to discuss particulars tonight, so if you’re willing to leave this until the morning.”

They walked to his office door side-by-side. “Thank you for meeting me, and thank you for your help,” Bail told her. “It means . . . thank you.” He shook her hand once more. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Mon Mothma took the few remaining steps toward the door, then paused and turned back toward Bail. “One thing before I go, Chancellor. You mentioned an attempt to solve things on Had Abbadon. Is there anything I should know?”

Bail hesitated. “Not yet.”

“Chancellor Organa,” Mon Mothma said cautiously, drawing out the words. “What can you do? Military action is off the table. And I don’t need to tell you that you must tread lightly here.”

“Hire some mercenaries, perhaps. Send in a bounty hunter.” Even as he said it, he knew it was a bad idea. “Or I wait. Wait for the guardians of peace and justice to get involved.”

His colleague raised an eyebrow. “The Jedi? They’re unpredictable, Chancellor. They may not even be aware of the situation. If they are, who’s to say they’d want to throw themselves into this mess? I wouldn’t advise hanging your hopes on their coming to the rescue.” She locked her eyes onto his own. “In fact, I would advise doing nothing at all.” And with that, she turned and exited his office, her white robe fluttering behind her.

Bail made his way back to his desk and slouched in his chair. Do nothing ?

He supposed that he probably owed Mothma that much; she might very well be laying her career on the line to salvage the Chancellorship of a man she clearly didn’t approve of. But Obi-Wan was more than a resource to be used and then disposed of. He was a genius, he was a Jedi, and most important, he was Bail’s friend.

Election night, Bail remembered, he had met with the general in his chambers to discuss the future, both of them drinking the same liquor that was currently hidden away in his desk. He understood perfectly well, he’d told Obi-Wan, if serving both the Jedi Order and the leader of the Republic would prove to be too large a burden. If Obi-Wan wished to remain with Alderaan’s planetary military, or to resign his commission altogether, he would be perfectly within his rights.

Obi-Wan had simply shook his head with an amused look and raised his half-empty glass in a belated toast. Senator Organa, he’d said, the day being your friend means being a lesser Jedi is the day I leave the Order.

He had to think of something, even if it meant staying up all night. Even if it meant the unthinkable.

He reached forward to his desk, picked up his stylus, and twirled it yet again.

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: THE JEDI ORDER

The elusive Jedi operate as self-appointed “guardians of peace and justice” throughout the Galactic Republic. Little is known about the organization’s structure, if it even has one. The only two ranks the public is aware of are “Knight” and “Master.” It is assumed they are headquartered on Coruscant, though nobody has been able to prove this.

Jedi are conflict-resolvers. Some Jedi will arise during battles or negotiations the Republic is involved in, assisting in solving the problem. Other Jedi appear to be unaffiliated with the Republic, and instead solve local conflicts on smaller worlds. Depending on the individual Jedi, this conflict resolution may take the form of peaceful negotiation, or it may involve the deadly lightsaber, a signature weapon of the Order.

Just as the modus operandi of individual Jedi differ, so does public opinion on the Order as a whole. Some see the Jedi as infallible paragons of virtue and justice. Others cannot stand the idea that an organization such as the Jedi Order goes unchecked by the laws of the Republic. Outside Republic space, the Jedi are seen as little more than a myth. Any tales about them are simply regarded as exaggerations of acts performed by Republic Special Forces.

Chapter Text

If he’d been asked earlier in the day, Obi-Wan would have said that attempting to crash-land half a capital ship on the surface of a burning planet with corpses all around him was the most nerve-wracking experience of his life. It was really remarkable, he thought, as his cheek almost scraped a rock wall for the fourth or fifth time, how short a time it had taken for that experience to fall back to a distant second place.

There was nothing to hold him to the swoop bike. Nothing to protect his face from sharp stone protrusions hurtling toward it. Nothing to filter choking exhaust away from his open mouth. Just him, and the rattling metal beneath him, and the demon in the shape of a man who piloted it.

Is it just my imagination, he thought as his stomach gave another lurch, or are the tunnels getting narrower? He attempted to convey the question to his driver, who merely grinned. “That’s the idea!” he shouted back. “At least, I think it was her idea!”

That cleared that up.

It had to be the Force that was guiding this Anakin. Not that it was impossible for a normal being to wrench a swoop bike through these caverns, as evidenced by the occasional screams of the gang members from behind. But the way he moved was—there were no words for it. Almost as if he were going out of his way to get killed. Obi-Wan could swear that more than once he’d heard a shriek of metal and seen a shower of sparks trailing behind them when the bike skipped off a stalactite, had felt his hair brush the ceiling of a particularly tight space. But Anakin hadn’t seemed to register anything at all.

Suddenly, a flare of heat and the ping of a blaster bolt from behind—the Jedi whipped his head around to see that two bikers had closed, and one had his pistol propped against his handlebars. “There’s no room for evasive maneuvers in here!” he bellowed in Anakin’s ear. And I think my cloak is on fire, he added to himself.

“I’ll get us some room,” came the reply. “Dead ahead, get ready.”

“For what?”

The swoop’s pilot stayed silent in reply. Another shot soared by Obi-Wan’s ear; he swatted back with the Force, hoping the push would trip up one of their pursuers. The fire in his throat from inhaling engine fumes was starting to ease a little, at least; the air here seemed moister for some reason.

“Okay, here it is,” Anakin shouted. “Grab my collar, and HOLD ON. I’ll tell you when to pull me up.”

Oh, I see, the general thought. He really is crazy.

Ahead of them was nothing but blank rock wall.

 

* * *

 

Flash.

Anakin felt Ben’s fist tighten around his jacket collar as a shot snapped past, then tighten even harder as he saw the rock face growing rapidly larger in front of them.

Flash.

He saw—not with his eyes, but a clear picture nonetheless—the lead two bikers closing in behind them, the rest of the gang farther back but still hot on their tail.

Flash.

He heard the whine of the bike as its engine pushed to its limit, felt the wiggle of a slightly loose bolt that he really hoped wasn’t about to pop right about now.

Flash.

He clamped his mechanical fist around the right handlebar of the swoop bike and willed the arm not to move.

Flash .

He braced his knees against the bike’s steering column.

Flash.

Above all, Anakin held the image of what he was about to do firmly in his mind, unwavering, willing it to be a vision of the future and not the last dream of a doomed man.

The swoop bike he was piloting was powered by two different kinds of engine. There was the main drive, the one that shoved the bike forward through the tunnels at speeds Anakin was well aware it was never supposed to approach. Most swoop main engines were wildly inefficient, and pretty dangerous to be strapped to the top of. But there were also the repulsorlifts lining the bottom—the low-energy-signature, unintrusive, nearly indestructible antigrav clusters that allowed the swoop to hover above the ground. Those repulsorlifts didn’t have any sort of default off switch, for the simple reason that they were never meant to be turned off; the manufacturer could never have conceived of a reason for why the bike’s owner would want it not to hover.

Anakin, fortunately, was blessed with a more creative mind.

Flash . The wall was getting closer. Ben shouted something panicked.

Flash. Another packet of plasma spattered against the rear of the bike.

Flash .

The swoop’s lamp caught the edge of their salvation, lying just in front of a solid mass of stone. A hole in the ground, about two meters in diameter and leading into blackness.

Flash.

Anakin inhaled. Closed his eyes. Exhaled.

Flash.

And then he did the craziest thing he had done in years.

He swung himself off to one side of the swoop bike. He was suspended there, held in place by his mechanical arm and the iron grip of his passenger. Time seemed to slow as he plunged his flesh hand into the inner workings of the swoop bike. It wasn’t the same model of bike he owned himself, but it was made by the same manufacturer. And that meant the wire supplying power to the repulsorlifts should be right . . . here .

He gripped the wire between thumb and forefinger and waited. Waited for the right moment. Waited while his passenger shouted at him about the wall they were going to hit, as if he didn’t know.

And then he iced the repulsorlifts.

The swoop plummeted as Anakin yanked the power cord out of its housing. He felt the air slice past his face like a million tiny blades. Heard the detonation as the lead pursuers plowed their flying fuel tanks into solid rock. Saw, in his mind’s eye, the plume of flame erupting from the crash passing just over his and Ben’s heads.

Flash.

One thousandth of a second later, he jammed the cord back where it belonged. All engines on full. A furious shout of “NOW” left Anakin’s mouth, and Ben seemed to understand. He hauled the pilot up by his collar, and Anakin unlocked his right arm from its death grip on the handlebar.

The repulsorlifts caught them just in time to avoid the swoop drowning itself in the reservoir that lay about twenty feet below the hole they’d just plunged down. A great gout of moisture washed over them as Anakin gunned the engine, launching the bike forward. Ben sputtered water from his mouth. Shook his head to clear droplets from his eyes.

Anakin felt himself start to laugh. “Think that did the trick?”

 

* * *

 

It was intended rhetorically, but Obi-Wan, to his great regret, had to reply. “No,” he said, extending his perceptions—a difficult task with the adrenaline that was coursing through his system—”there are five still on us.”

If the pilot wondered to himself how his passenger could know that without looking, he didn’t raise the question. “Well, there’s a junction coming up that leads to one of the old mining tunnels, we can lose ‘em there.” A growing whine started to emerge from behind. “Here come your five.”

Obi-Wan craned his head over his shoulder. Sure enough, bikes were starting to become visible. “Fly straight for a few seconds,” he barked.

“No offense, Ben, but you hired me to be the pilot. All that’ll do is make us an easier target—”

Do it!

The other man nudged their nose upward to avoid glancing off a stalagmite and shrugged. “You’re the one they’re shooting at.”

Their flight path evened out. The pursuing gang members were catching up quickly enough that Obi-Wan could make out the two in the lead: a pair of Rodians, each of them with a blaster in his hand. Heart hammering against his chest, he unwrapped his left arm from Anakin’s waist and held his palm in the aliens’ direction. He focused, breathed out, and gave a mental tug.

The two swoops’ noses suddenly curved inward, glancing off each other. It wasn’t much, but at this speed it was enough. Rodian and Rodian went end over end in headlong tumbles that the Jedi was rather confident they would not be walking away from.

Anakin shot a glance behind him. “Niiiiice. Stalagmite in their path?”

“Something like that.” The Jedi took one last look back and frowned. “Still three to deal with.”

“Make that five,” the pilot said. “Hang on!”

He gunned the speeder’s motor, shooting his droid arm up for a split second to point down the straightaway ahead of them. Obi-Wan squinted—two bikes bracketing a third.

It appeared they’d caught up to Padmé.

 

* * *

 

Her husband’s tinkering had its uses, Padmé would readily admit. There was no way she would have been able to pull that dive off if it hadn’t been for his aftermarket repulsor jammer, no way she could have stayed ahead of her pursuers this long without his modified intake for the main engine.

But the downside was the number of extra buttons and switches meant the thing required two hands to pilot, and she really needed her trigger hand free right now.

The two gang members behind her now didn’t have blasters suitable to use while mounted on a bike—each had a rifle slung across his shoulders, for which Padmé was profoundly grateful. But each did carry an electrostave, a meter-and-a-half length of metal that discharged a poisonous purple bolt of electrical charge every time it was swung. She was, she estimated, maybe three meters ahead of them.

True, the force required for one of them to nudge her swoop with his stave would very likely knock him into a wall, giving both of them a premature end. But that thought wasn’t especially comforting right now.

From the earpiece, crackling to life as its mate got close enough for the signal: “We’re coming up on you now.

She risked a glance back and saw Anakin and the stranger rocket into view, their swoop’s lamp a pinprick of light in the distance; the biker on her left took this opportunity to jab at her face with his stave, and though he was too far away to possibly connect she flinched back to forward position anyway. Hopefully the hole-dive had stymied anyone who was heading after her husband and his new friend; she could really use a hand right now.

The biker on her left shouted something incoherent and flailed with his stave again; Padmé could hear sparks as the discharge struck the cave wall. Anakin, old buddy old pal, now would be a really great time for you to catch up.

 

* * *

 

Padmé’s swoop bike— his swoop bike—was struggling valiantly, but Anakin could see even from back here that the reach the staves gave her two pursuers was too much. They would inch within striking distance before she reached the junction to the old mining thoroughfare, and that would be that.

“I don’t suppose you have a blaster?” he asked Ben.

“Afraid not,” the other man replied. “You?”

“Left it in my other evening jacket.” He clenched his jaw; the fun had suddenly drained out of things.

“This is where you tell me to hang on, yes?”

Anakin raised his upper lip in something that resembled a grin but he was sure looked a good deal less friendly. “Wait til I tell her we’re practically finishing each other’s sentences.”

As he mechanical hand kept the throttle at full, his flesh one awkwardly reached across his face to tap the commlink wedged in his ear. “Padmé? Padmé!”

Little busy here, dear.

“Do you have the snake?”

I need bo— ” She paused to dodge another jab from an electrostave. “Dammit! I need both hands here, that’s not a good idea.

“Fresh out, bad will have to do,” he replied, and turned to Ben. “Don’t move a muscle unless I tell you to.”

He fancied he saw a longsuffering plea in the stranger’s eyes. “I don’t suppose you could warn me what you’re about to do?”

Anakin gripped the handlebars tight enough for his mechanical hand to creak. “Trust me, you’ll feel better if you don’t know.”

 

* * *

 

As soon as Padmé released her right hand’s grip, the bike began to list to the left. She threw her weight as hard as she could in the other direction, doing her best to locate the snake along her belt. This would have to be quick.

There —she’d snagged it. A little metal cylinder the width of her thumb and maybe six inches long, perfectly unassuming. Sitting in the center was a single button, to be depressed with one’s thumb.

Once that had happened, she’d have about half a second.

The bike tugged more and more insistently to the left. The sound of the swoops behind her grew with each passing moment.

She ground her teeth together and spoke through them into her earpiece. “I hate you. Really. Really. Hate.”

An electrostave blazed with violet light just within her peripheral vision.

She hit the button.

 

* * *

 

What happened next did so over the course of approximately one second.

Padmé Amidala screamed in mingled fury and effort and heaved the snake over her shoulder. Her bike, its pilot’s focus diverted from keeping it even, swung to the left, heading not up and into the mining junction but into the gaping black of a cavern branching off to the side.

As its thrower peeled off course, the metal rod soared in front of the two bikers who’d been following her. The half-second she’d calculated for ceased, and on either end of the rod a hole opened up. From each hole shot a bar of metal the width of a human index finger, maybe a meter long. The sharp points on the end of each metal rod stabbed into the cave walls, anchoring the bar in place directly in front of Padmé’s pursuers.

The bikers had no time to form a reaction to this turn of events. The extended snake took their heads off just below the chin, as clean and painlessly as any laser sword might have done. Had Anakin kept to his flight path, the overzelaously-thrown piece of metal would have done the same to him and his companion.

Fortunately for both, Anakin was already moving. He threw his weight sideways, pulling the swoop and its passenger with him—all three tilted ninety degrees on their central axis, the snake whistling over their heads.

Obi-Wan Kenobi, thanks to the Force, was able to witness all of this at such a slow speed that he understood perfectly what was happening, and very strongly wished he did not possess this ability.

And then he was upright, and Anakin was pulling the swoop hard to the left, and with a sickening lurch everything sped up again.

 

* * *

 

“Uh oh,” Anakin said.

Obi-Wan could only gasp for air for a few seconds, and then managed—”THAT wasn’t ‘Uh-oh’?!”

The pilot shook his head. “Forget it.”

What little light had been present in the straightaway they’d just left was rapidly diminishing—everything outside the swoop’s lamp was pitch-black. “Padmé?” Anakin barked into his earpiece. “What happened? You all right?” He was quiet for a few seconds and then swore. Obi-Wan could feel the bike start to ease down.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Lost the damn signal,” the pilot replied. “And if I’m not careful we’ll run right into her in this mess.” He blew out a frustrated breath. “At least we lost them—”

A resounding CRASH sounded from ahead.

“What the—” Obi-Wan started, and then froze. The swoop turned a corner, and its lamp caught a figure crumpled on the ground.

Without warning the e-brake slammed on. Obi-Wan saw what was about to happen a second before it did, and directed as much energy as he could downward.

He and Anakin pitched off the bike and slammed into the makeshift cushion of Force power. The Jedi felt something in his ribs crack, whatever sound it would have made muffled by the dying scream of the swoop as it careened on, riderless, into the tunnel beyond. He let the Force cushion go, falling the final six inches to the ground, and cried out as his ribs hit the floor.

Anakin was already up and moving. “Padmé! Padmé!

 

* * *

 

All he could see, for a few moments, was her body there on the cave floor. Arms splayed at a horrible angle, skull dashed against the rock, eyes glazed and lifeless. For those few moments, he wanted nothing more than to reach out and break the world. To rip and tear at the stone and the bikes and Ben and everything else that happened to be within reach.

And then he blinked, and she was sitting upright and swearing at him, and he realized that nothing he had just seen was real.

“What . . .” he panted, unable to get the words out. “Happened . . .” He forced himself to swallow, to breathe; it felt as though his throat were constricting.

“Your gods-damned bike clipped a wall is what happened,” she said, her eyes blazing with fury and adrenaline and terror, “and if I hadn’t thrown myself off I wouldn’t be here right now, and—”

And then they were embracing, and all he could feel was her warm, living body in his arms, and the sudden fear of himself eating at his heart.

From behind them, a cleared throat. “I’m . . . sorry to interrupt . . .”

Just like that, the rage was back in Padmé’s face. She broke away from her husband. “You ,” she spat, and whirled to face Ben.

He was hauling himself to his feet, clutching at the side of his chest, and paying her not the faintest bit of attention. Impossible weariness was etched across his face. “They’re coming,” he said matter-of-factly.

Anakin willed the blood roaring through his ears to cease, the pounding of his pulse to simmer down. In the distance, there was a faint whine. One that was growing less and less faint with each passing moment.

With a monumental effort, he attempted a joke. “Gotta give ‘em credit, they’re . . . persistent.”

Padmé pulled the blaster pistol from her belt and hit the priming lever. “How many?”

“Three,” he replied. “Assuming they all made it.”

She retreated to the opposite wall of the cavern, bracing her back against it and clutching the pistol with both hands. “This is a stupid way to die. A stupid, stupid way to die.”

Ben spoke again. “Do you have any other weapons?”

Without looking at the man, Anakin pulled a small black rod from the inner lining of his jacket with his shaking flesh hand. He flicked his wrist, and the weapon snapped out to its full length. A collapsible stun baton. Two feet long, good for nonlethal crowd control and nothing else. “For all the good it’ll do—”

“Give it to me, and get clear.”

It was not a request. Nor was it necessarily a command. It was stated simply, briefly, and with absolute certainty.

Anakin looked Ben in the eye, and thought that if any part of him weren’t already vibrating with adrenaline, he would be taken aback by what he saw there. The other man’s gaze felt like a singularity, one that compelled absolute attention. Anakin saw exhaustion, and resignation, and something like serenity. He stumbled, and shook his head, and said, “What?”

Ben sighed. Anakin started to blink.

When he opened his eyes again, the stun baton was in Ben’s hands and he was on his back next to Padmé.

He opened his mouth to speak, only for bruises to smear themselves across his eyes and the back of his head to shriek. The bruises started to fade, but the shriek just grew louder, and louder. Absently, he thought to himself: Oh. Bikers. Right.

Squinting, he watched Ben stride out into the center of the tunnel and hit the discharge button on the stun baton. It crackled with faint arcs of electricity, illuminating the cave a few feet in any direction. Padmé was shouting something: You idiot, get out of the way, you’re gonna get run over—

Three pinpoint lights appeared in the distance, and started to grow.

Anakin tried to sit up. Felt his head squeal again. Collapsed back against the wall. Ah well. Maybe it was better this way, the part of his brain that was still up to the task of pondering suggested. At least now, if the world ended up breaking, he wouldn’t have been the one to do it.

The pinpoints were bigger now, and impossibly bright, Ben a black silhouette against them.

Just before Anakin squeezed his eyes shut, he saw the silhouette whirl from one side to the other in a single smooth motion. There was a cacophony of sound, a blaze of illumination. And then everything went black.

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: SWOOP BIKE

Planetary ground transportation is available in a variety of forms. For comfort and safety, there are landspeeders. For high speed open-air travel, there are speeder bikes. For the truly death-defying adrenaline junkies, there are swoop bikes.

Derisively referred to as “an engine with a seat” by those with no fondness for the mode of transportation; swoop bikes are the cheaper, faster, and more dangerous cousin of the speeder bike. They are a favorite of tinkerers and gearheads who enjoy modifying vehicles, and the highly dangerous sport of swoop racing is common on less settled worlds. Small-time criminals will often form “swoop gangs” and travel around on their souped-up vehicles intimidating anyone who gets in their way.

Flying a swoop at full throttle requires incredible reflexes. In the interest of self-preservation, most swoop bike owners will never truly push their vehicle to its full potential. Several years ago, a piece of legislation attempted to mandate that kinetic deflector shields be installed on all new swoop bikes as a safety measure. This was largely ineffective. Most swoop bikes on the market were built before the legislation was passed, and are therefore exempt from the rule. Swoop enthusiasts insist these kinetic deflectors alter the aerodynamics of a bike and ruin the driving experience. Anyone who purchases a brand new swoop is likely to disconnect and remove the shield generator before even powering up the bike for the first time.

Chapter Text

Admiral Valis resisted the urge to hurl the datapad across the bridge of the Charybdis. The content of the report was bad enough—a single Republic agent had managed to bring down a cruiser. What truly angered her, though, was the info stamp on the report. It was several hours old, and it had not been forwarded through the proper channels.

It had come directly from the warlord.

The idea of her troops giving mission reports to the warlord before giving them to her unsettled Valis. The man was unstable on a good day. How many of her soldiers had Maul killed this time?

She gripped the datapad tighter, thanked the serviceman who had delivered it, and turned to face the viewport. The hauntingly deep black of the void stretched out well beyond the curved hull of her warship, an ocean of nothingness with no bottom in sight. The Charybdis was parked between systems, in deep space—far away from any potential Republic reconnaissance. Support ships surrounded it, and fighters buzzed between them like bees. The Charybdis was their hive.

And Valis was their queen.

At least, that’s how she told herself it should be. The true monarch was down below.

Even though he was in his chambers now, the warlord’s presence hung over the ship like a shadow. Valis hated when he visited the bridge. He would pace directly in front of the viewport, port to starboard and back again, for hours on end. Shifts would change, the night crew would arrive, and still Maul would be there. At first, she thought it was to intimidate the crew. Then she suspected he was actually trying to intimidate her.

What drove this need of his to keep her in a state of anxiety, she couldn’t say. Pure animal hierarchy, most likely—he didn’t seem capable of the professional jealousy that the other officers suffered around her. In that way, she supposed, she had a certain degree of respect for Maul. His need to establish dominance was simply part of how his mind worked; it didn’t arise from some elitist pique over the fact that a former mercenary was running the Confederacy’s navy.

At any rate, as long as the warlord restricted himself to attention-seeking on the bridge, things were fine. Valis knew just as well as he did that she was the one person on this ship he couldn’t touch. She had suspected for months that he wasn’t the one calling the shots—an animal like Maul couldn’t finance an operation like this, and he certainly couldn’t direct one. And whoever the Zabrak worked for wouldn’t want to hire and train a new commander for his warships. So let him go on with his threat displays, if he wanted to waste time on them.

This, though, crossed a line. The creature was no longer content to simply engage in a pissing contest on the bridge—he had actively interfered with the men under her command.

It was time, she decided, to exercise her immunity.

The admiral stood up straight and swiped her fingers through her ice-white hair. She spun around on one heel and strode towards the bridge exit, her heels clicking against the polished black floor as she walked. It was, she thought, a most satisfying sound. As she passed her Executive Officer, she tossed the datapad at him without particular care for where it landed. He fumbled the pad as he caught it, nearly dropping it to the deck.

“Problem, Melko?” she asked. The man simply shook his head and turned back to his console.

Inwardly, Valis rolled her eyes. Executive Officer Melko was a Republic defector, an ass, and clumsy in the bargain. He’d been one of the first to complain, loudly, when he learned the background of the woman he’d be serving under for the cause—unfortunately for him, he’d done the complaining to warlord Maul himself, under the impression that the creature cared. His admiral had stepped in to save him from being disemboweled for the annoyance; in the months since then, he’d swapped loudly complaining for not talking at all.

“Captain, you have the bridge,” she said, strolling away without a backward glance. Let him be silent, as long as he did his job.

Outside the bridge, the corridor was flanked on either side by a set of turbolifts. All of them, judging by their indicator lights, were on different decks at the moment. Valis sighed and pressed the call button for the closest one, then backed away to a safe distance.

As she waited, she took a few moments to look around the interior of the flagship. Even after months of command, her appreciation for the grandeur of the Charybdis in comparison to her former ship’s dinginess had not waned. It was cold, yet refined. The angles of the gray metal bulkheads were stark, the floor impressively polished—jet black, but reflective enough to be used as a mirror, like an inky lake you might sink into if you stood still too long. She wasn’t sure how the cleaning droids kept it looking quite so flawless.

The admiral snapped out of her floor-gazing trance as the turbolift arrived, straightening into a more dignified pose just as the doors whoosh-ed open. The two occupants of the lift car saluted in exact synchronization, and the word they spoke came out in perfect stereo. “Admiral.”

“As you were,” she replied, allowing the clones to exit the turbolift before she entered. A senior officer—not a clone, but an older human male—approached the door as Valis reached out to press the close button; he hesitated before boarding, then realized abruptly that he was forgetting something. “Take the next one,” Valis said. He snapped into a salute as the doors slid shut.

You’re doing him a favor. Bastard would probably turn his nose up at sharing a lift with you anyway .

The doors slid shut, and Valis reached into her breast pocket. She extracted a small metal cylinder no larger than her thumb and tapped it against the lift’s control panel.

As she pocketed the cylinder, the lift lights began glowing an ominous red color. Valis had not selected a destination, but the lift began moving downward anyway.

The cylinder served a single purpose: granting a crew member access to the Restricted Deck. There were only a handful of the devices on board the Charybdis, and Valis carried one at all times. Not that she was fond of using it. Everyone on board—everyone in the Confederate fleet, really—knew what the Restricted Deck of the Charybdis meant. Warlord Maul.

The turbolift door opened to reveal a single, lengthy tube of corridor. At regular intervals, lights arced around the circular bulkhead, ringing anyone who walked through the hallway in halos of illumination. At the end of the tube stood the door to the warlord’s meditation chamber. Normally two armored figures stood guard; at the moment, Valis noted, there was just one.

As she approached the door, the lone guard stepped in front of it. She stared at the solid black faceplate of the guard’s helmet. Impossible to read. Then again, that’s the point . “I need to see him,” she said flatly.

“He’s busy,” replied the guard. The voice was heavily modulated, almost robotic. If she didn’t know any better, she’d have guessed there was a droid inside the suit of armor.

“It’s important,” Valis said. I don’t have time for this.

As if responding to her thoughts, the door behind the guard slid open. The guard turned to observe the activity within the room, then stepped aside and nodded at the admiral.

The interior of the meditation chamber was, rather unusually, a flurry of action. Maul’s second guard stood opposite the warlord in the middle of the room, brandishing his electrostave. Maul ran toward the guard, crimson saber drawn, and swung the glowing blade downward. The electrostave skillfully intercepted the blow, sparks spraying out onto the polished floor.

This continued while Valis watched; a series of thrusts and parries played back and forth between warlord and guard. Lightsaber met electrostave again and again, but the plasma blade never cut through the guard’s weapon. The faceless man seemed as relaxed as one could be during a duel, though his opponent’s face and posture showed nothing but raw anger. Valis wasn’t sure if they were simply sparring, or if Maul was actually trying to kill one of his security escorts. With him, you can never tell.

As the duelists locked blades once again, Maul shot a sideways glance at the door. Valis met his sickly yellow eyes. He squinted, then stepped back from his opponent and retracted his lightsaber blade. Clipping the hilt to his belt, Maul waved a dismissive hand at the guard. The armored one nodded, rapped his electrostave on the ground, and walked toward the door of the meditation chamber. As he exited, it slid shut behind him. The sudden silence was palpable.

“I didn’t think you were going to let me in,” the admiral said as she approached Maul. She chose a spot on the floor to plant herself; while she stood still, Maul began pacing back and forth in front of her, faint beads of sweat trickling down his face.

“I sensed your irritation. What is it?”

“Why did my last mission report come from you? My officers shouldn’t be conducting their debriefings in here. They should be coming to me.”

“There was information they felt I should know.” The warlord reached the end of his stride, turned, and paced in the other direction.

“And if I wished to speak to them now? Could I ask them what that information was?”

Maul froze and turned his head to meet Valis’s eyes. He said nothing, but she had her answer.

“As I suspected. Was that really necessary, Lord Maul?” Her voice carried a note of irritation, but she was careful not to openly accuse him of wrongdoing. His silence was born not of shame but annoyance, and she didn’t want to waste time bickering if she could help it.

“We lost a cruiser. That is failure. Failure must be dealt with.” At that, he resumed his pacing.

The way he offered this explanation, as if it were perfectly obvious, made her clench her back teeth. “Those who failed were dealt with, were they not? Their ship was blown in half.”

The Zabrak gave a great shrug of his shoulders. “They’re all the same. Punishing one is punishing another.”

“So demote them!” Valis snapped, immediately cursing herself for acting as though his logic were in any way valid. “Growing new units may be cheap, but training them? That is costly, and it is time-consuming.”

Maul growled. “They are working on that—”

“And we’re no closer to a solution than we were a month ago,” Valis cut him off. “It will take six weeks before I can have those officers replaced with equally qualified units. What am I to tell the Kaminoans? ‘Why yes, I need two new staff commanders. No, they didn’t die in battle. My damned boss killed them!’”

Maul stopped his pacing, and his right hand snapped to grab the hilt of his lightsaber. “Watch yourself,” he hissed.

Valis stared at him, unfazed by the threat. “How did it happen?” she asked. “One man, a Republic general, brought down an entire Dictat-class cruiser. How?”

Maul slowly let go of his lightsaber hilt. “The report did not specify his rank, Admiral. He was likely Special Forces.”

And here they were—the real reason for her coming down. “My report did not specify his rank. The one you gave to my bridge crew did.” Valis crossed her arms. “If you’re going to try to keep something off my desk, Maul, don’t put it on the desk of the man I work next to.”

The warlord stopped pacing, lining up his eyes against her own. “What are you saying?” he said, his voice rasping.

“Don’t be childish. I’m saying you sanitized that report before it got to me.” She raised an accusing finger. “Maybe you haven’t noticed—maybe your idiot brain isn’t capable of noticing—but outside our clones, I don’t exactly have a surplus of respect around here. You”—even now, she knew that voicing her suspicions about the warlord’s employer was a bad tactic—“hired me to do a job. I don’t know how you expect me to do that job if you’re constantly undermining my command in full view of officers who already dismiss a mercenary’s qualifications out of hand.” She snorted. “ Admiral. It would be nice if I thought that title meant something.”

If Maul had any reply to this, it was not forthcoming.

Valis shook her head. Fine.“What else is missing? Who is this general?”

“He is called Kenobi—”

“Kenobi the Negotiator?” Valis interrupted, raising her voice and barking a humorless laugh. “You don’t really expect me to believe that, do you? He brought down the Helios? What did he do, convince the helmsman to crash it on purpose?”

Maul just stood and stared at Valis as she continued.

“I promoted Captain Ennam myself. He was a prig, yes, but he was competent, and his honor guard was exceptionally trained. Nobody of Kenobi’s rank could take Ennam’s bridge alone. A general sits in a command center, ordering troops around like dejarik pieces. He does not defeat an entire bridge crew by himself.” Valis noticed, to her faint alarm, that she had inched even closer to Maul’s face in the course of her last several sentences; those yellow irises were uncomfortably close. Somehow, he was remaining still.

“I suggest you drop this, Valis,” the Zabrak said, his rotted fangs bared.

“You went out of your way to hide something from me, Maul. Tell me what it is. Now.”

Maul whirled around and marched toward the seat in the center of the meditation chamber. When he reached the chair, he snatched a datapad from the armrest and hurled it at the floor in the direction of the admiral.

The datapad skittered along the deck towards Valis, coming to a stop at her feet. Maul stood in front of his chair and stared at her. “If you must have the whole picture, you’ll find it there” He gestured to the datapad.

For a few moments, she simply stood there, loath to pick up anything anyone had hurled at her feet. But she wasn’t about to engage in a staring contest with an animal. She bent down to retrieve the device, a long crack running down its screen.

In the center of the screen sat seven words. The heading at the top of the display indicated that those words were the final transmission of the CSV Helios.

 

He’s got a lightsaber.

Blitz the Helios.

 

Valis allowed the datapad to slip from her fingers and clatter to the deck. She stared at the warlord, all the outraged questions she’d been lining up a few moments ago ash on her tongue.

Maul, the news delivered, resumed his rounds across the room.

“Kenobi the Negotiator . . . is a Jedi.” Valis carefully enunciated on every word, doing everything in her power to avoid shaking in shock and sudden rage.

Was a Jedi. Nobody survived the crash,” Maul said. He spoke in the direction of the wall as he moved, no longer looking toward his admiral.

“You’re sure?” she said, despising herself for letting a waver enter her voice.

“If I believed a Jedi was alive on Had Abbadon, would I still be here?” the warlord asked. Valis didn’t have to respond; the answer was obvious.

“Now,” he said, his back still turned, “go. I must be alone.”

Valis nodded, and felt herself walking back toward the exit. She nodded vacantly to the guards who flanked the door, brushing by them without truly seeing them. Her perceptions swirled as she made her way back to the turbolift. She felt disconnected from her own body, unable to process what she had just heard.

The Jedi were involved. One was on Had Abbadon. And despite what Maul would have her believe, she thought, he was alive.

Admiral Valis maintained perfect composure as she stepped into the turbolift. When the doors closed, and she was certain she was alone, she turned to face the rear of the lift and slammed her fist into the wall.  

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: LEVIATHAN- CLASS ASSAULT CRUISER

The Charybdis, flagship of the Confederacy and presumed base of operations for a mysterious Confederate warlord, is a unique design known as the Leviathan-class. It is shorter in length than most warships, though it shares the typical “bridge tower” design found in the Star Destroyers of the Republic. Its defining characteristic is its split hull, which separates into distinct dorsal and ventral structures about halfway down the length of the vessel. There was a rumor among Republic Defense Force pilots that between the two halves of the ship’s massive maw sits an unspeakably powerful laser cannon, but this was recently debunked.

An independent shipyard in the Outer Rim was hired by the Confederacy to construct the Charybdis. When the yard had completed the job, the Charybdis turned its guns on the facility and completely destroyed it. Thus, no records exist pertaining to the Charybdis’ construction or design. All statistics about its armaments are merely estimates compiled from sightings of the ship by Republic reconnaissance teams.

Despite its relatively small size compared to most capital ships, the Charybdis is well armed and armored, capable of handing military operations on its own. It carries at least four fighter squadrons and a healthy complement of turbolaser batteries and ion cannons. Tractor beam projectors have been spotted on the hull of the vessel, though the commanding officer of the Charybdis is not known for taking prisoners alive.

Chapter Text

The first thing that made Anakin Skywalker realize he was alive was his head. It felt a bit like a tent spike had been driven straight through his temple.

He groaned, opened his eyes into slits, and attempted to ascertain just what, exactly, was going on. He was lying on his back on a most uncomfortable surface, staring up at the ceiling of a cave, that much was clear.. The sharp rock formations above him reminded him of the teeth of the feral dogs that chased him through the underbelly of Junkfort Station when he was young. The stuff of childhood nightmares. A droplet of water fell from the cave ceiling and landed on his forehead. He reached up to wipe it away.

Cold metal . Right. The mechanical arm. Its power cell was definitely close to being dead. He hadn’t felt a thing when the hand made contact with his skin. Grunting, he attempted to roll over onto his side. His eyes shot open as he realized he was rolling off of the most uncomfortable surface.

Welp, he thought in the second he hung in midair. Seems like it’s been that sorta day.

 

* * *

 

Padmé whipped her head around as her husband rolled off the makeshift stretcher and hit the ground. As he landed, he kicked up a puff of dust. “Oh, good. You’re awake.”

She’d been dragging her husband’s unconscious body behind her on one of the gang member’s swoop bikes. The main engine had been ripped from its housing, but the repulsorlifts, embedded as they were throughout the chassis, had survived the crash; with no killswitch or insane pilot to turn them off, they’d kept functioning. It’s better than carrying him, Padmé had told Ben as she looped a rope around the the swoop’s nose.

Their new companion had heartily agreed. He was in no condition to lift another man; the speeder crash had played hell with his chest. Tattered strips of cloth torn from his cloak were now tied tightly around his ribcage, somewhat ruining the clean lines of his navy-blue dress clothes.

“Where are we?” Anakin asked wearily as he pushed himself to his feet. Dirt and exhaust residue covered his face, obscuring most of it save his blue eyes.

“A cave,” Padmé offered.

Her husband glared at her, for once not amused. “These aren’t the mining tunnels,” he said, inspecting the ceiling full of sharp rocks again. “We didn’t go back the way we came?”

“Oh, we tried,” Ben broke in, rubbing a hand across his face. “It’s no good. Crash a swoop bike fast enough, it tends to explode. Explosions in a cave . . .”

“Cave things in,” Anakin finished. “And there’s no climbing back out of the big hole we fell down.”

“So here we are,” Padmé said. “Don’t worry, I salvaged most of the good stuff off our swoop. Even got a little handy and made this.” She waggled their swoop bike’s headlamp in the air, causing the light it cast to dance across the ceiling. Wires dangled from the rear, and a cluster of batteries were haphazardly taped to the lamp housing.

Ben had seemed impressed, watching her make it. The whole family good with machines, then? He’d asked, wincing as he wound cloth around his chest.

Have to be, line of work we’re in, she’d replied.

And what line is that?

She’d stripped a wire rather viciously from the lamp’s housing. Trying not to get killed.

Their guest extended a hand toward Anakin, the business hand of the collapsed stun baton clenched within. “I suppose I should give you your weapon back. Thanks for the loaner.”

“Anytime,” said Anakin, his voice weak with fatigue. He took the baton back, then slid it into the lining of his jacket. “You sure are handy with that thing. I didn’t see much, but—”

“Sheer dumb luck,” Ben quickly replied. “Wonder I wasn’t killed, I suppose.”

Padmé said nothing at all.

 

* * *

 

“Can you walk?”

Obi-Wan had meant to sound genuinely concerned as he asked Anakin the question, but he worried that the exhaustion he was feeling had leaked through into his voice. His turn to drag the swoop-stretcher was coming up, and he’d prefer if they could just leave the blasted thing behind.

“Yeah, I think so,” came Anakin’s reply. “I guess you guys are sick of lugging this thing behind you. We can ditch it.”

“We most certainly cannot.”

The two men glanced over at Padmé, whose stern look was accentuated by the shadows being cast on her face.

“You want to keep dragging an empty, half-working swoop bike behind us?” Obi-Wan asked. “We don’t need to use it to carry cargo, the three of us can easily—”

“Oh.”

The layers of emotional nuance in that single syllable—understanding, annoyance, fear—stopped Obi-Wan dead. He turned to look at the pilot, and saw realization creeping onto his face.
“It’s not for cargo, is it?” Anakin asked, his voice dropping to a low whisper.

“No,” Padmé replied, her own voice dropping. She turned to look at Obi-Wan. “How long have you been on Had Abbadon, Ben?”

Obi-Wan hesitated, trying to come up with a reasonable answer now that he’d been asked directly. Can’t exactly tell them it hasn’t even been a day.

“It doesn’t matter how long he’s been here, Padmé. He’s finding out about them now, one way or another.”

“Finding out about what ?” the general hissed just a bit too loudly. His voice echoed off the cave walls. Padmé straightened up, walked over to him, and held a finger over her lips.

“Shut. Up.”

“There are, well . . . creatures, down here,” Anakin offered gently, looking furtively around the stone tube. “They probably have an official name, but the locals just call them cave crawlers.”

Obi-Wan just stared. Next time, he thought to himself, be sure to read every part of your briefing. Even if you’re not planning on crashing to the surface of a planet. “Cave crawlers,” he managed. “That was ‘uh-oh.’”

“They’ve lived down here for gods-know-how-long,” Padmé said. “Over the generations, they’ve lost most of their eyesight. Now they hunt with their hearing. They hunt for anything that makes too much noise.” Like loud bearded men, her eyes finished for her.
At this news, Obi-Wan instantly became aware of every single sound around him. The crunch of pebbles beneath his feet as he shifted his weight. The plink of a water droplet falling off the cave ceiling and impacting the metal housing of their broken swoop bike. Even his breathing seemed too loud. He locked his lower jaw tight.

“Now, our one saving grace is that thing,” Padmé said, pointing to the broken swoop. “You may not know this, but repulsorlifts do emit sound. We just can’t hear it. Most species can’t. But the crawlers, they can. And to them, it’s the worst sound imaginable. Like fingernails on a drawing slate. They’ll stay away as long as we’re dragging this behind us.” She paused. “Or so I’m told.”

She turned to walk away, then threw a glare back at Obi-Wan. “ And as long as we don’t yell.”

Padmé made her way to the front of the swoop bike and bent down to pick up the rope tied to its nose. As she stood up, she tossed her makeshift flashlight to her husband. “Hold this. And you—” she looked back at Obi-Wan, then pointed to the swoop bike with her free hand. “You push.”

He pushed.

 

* * *

 

For once, Anakin was grateful for the lack of sensation in his mechanical arm. He’d been walking for over an hour holding the makeshift lamp out in front of him, and if he’d been using his flesh arm he undoubtedly would have tired himself out. And they definitely didn’t need that—progress was slow enough as it was thanks to their would-be crawler deterrent.. His wife was dragging the broken swoop bike by a rope, Ben pushing from the rear. The numb robot arm seemed to be the only member of their party that was currently in peak physical condition. Just as long as its sense of touch is the only thing that stops working, Anakin thought.

He slowed down, falling into step with Padmé, and glanced over at her, trying to read her face. She looked worn out and on edge—they all were—but she also seemed . . .  bored, perhaps? He couldn’t blame her. None of them had been speaking, probably out of fear they’d attract the cave crawlers.

“Hey,” he said gently, putting his flesh hand on Padmé’s shoulder. “Let’s stop and rest. You look like you need it.”

“We can’t,” she whispered. “The crawlers . . .”

“Will stay away. We’ll stick close to the bike, they won’t come near us.” He smirked. “Assuming whatever campfire story you believed is true.”

His wife punched him on the shoulder with her free hand, smiled ruefully, and let out a sigh of relief. Letting the tow-rope fall to the ground, she eased herself into a sitting position on the floor. “Well, as long as we’re all on speaking terms again . . .” She reached into her pocket and extracted a small commlink. Unlike their point-to-point earpieces, this was designed for general communication across the commlink network.

Ben must have seen what she was doing. “I wouldn’t bother,” he whispered as he collapsed against the parked housing of the broken bike. “I tried calling off-planet just this morning. It doesn’t work.”

“I’m not calling off-planet,” Padmé hissed back. “I’m calling our ship. There’s someone on board who can help us. I hope.” She clicked the call button on the commlink over and over, as if she were trying to ignite a lighter on a windy day.

“So you weren’t lying about that part,” the bearded man replied, raising his eyebrows. “No offense.” He pondered the commlink for a moment. “Can you get a signal through the cave walls?”

Padmé said nothing.  

“She doesn’t need to get a whole message sent,” Anakin explained, toying with the fingers of the mechanical hand. “Just the static bursts will do the trick. It’s our emergency signal. Had to come up with a way to call for help without taking our commlinks out of our pockets.”

“So this isn’t the first time you’ve had a job take a turn for the worse?” Ben asked. By the sound of his voice, he knew what the answer would be.

“No,” Padmé said. She was still slightly out of breath. “Though this is the worst one has ever gone. By far.”

“Well . . .” Anakin said, stretching out the word. Padmé shot him a look.

“It’s the worst, Anakin.”

Anakin grinned mischievously and sat down between Padmé and Ben. “I was sixteen or so. Back on Junkfort Station. I was trying to shut off the security to one of the docking bays so I could steal stuff out of a shipping crate. Accidentally clipped the wrong wire.” As Anakin continued, Padmé rolled her eyes. Ben leaned forward to listen. “Instead of cutting power to the cameras, I cut power to the magnetic field and vented the entire docking bay.”

Ben’s eyes widened. “Was anyone inside?”

“Yeah. I was,” Anakin said. “I held on to a cargo net for a while, but its fittings came loose. Thought I was about to get spaced.”

“What happened?”

“Clearly he’s fine,” Padmé interrupted. “Don’t leave him hanging too long, honey, and don’t embellish it. I swear to the gods, this story gets more ridiculous every time you tell it.”

“Oh, fine,” Anakin said, conjuring a look of mock dejection. “I wish I could tell you that I shot the right control panel just in time as I was flying out of the bay, but the truth is that I got lucky. Not lucky enough to escape with the score, but I did get to live. The emergency blast doors triggered automatically before I got sucked out the docking bay opening. It was close, though. Nearly got crushed by the blast door.”

“Is that how you lost the arm?” Ben asked. Padmé looked mildly offended on her husband’s behalf, but Anakin just shrugged.

“Nah. Though it is how this happened.” He ran a finger along the scar across his right cheek. “Padmé likes me better that way. Rakish good looks and whatnot.” He flexed the upper portion of his right arm, the one that still had some muscle and bone attached. “ This happened a couple of weeks ago.”

A sudden spasm seized the hand then, and he grimaced; the phantom pains had been occurring less and less frequently, but talking about things seemed to have summoned them back. “Big boulder fell from the ceiling in one of the refugee camps. I pushed someone out of the way and my arm got pinned underneath. Replaced it with this . . .” He trailed off, and flexed the robotic fist slowly.

“I’m sorry,” Ben said, and it sounded as though he meant it. “Though it would seem the same luck that saved you before saved you this time, too. Or something else.”

Anakin raised an eyebrow. “Well aren’t you mystical.” He shrugged. “Whatever it is, seems like I’m running in shorter supply as of late. First my face gets clipped. This time it’s an arm. Next time we’ll end up having to stick my head on a power loader.”

He looked back over at Padmé. “Speaking of, there should’ve been a spare power cell in the knapsack on our swoop. Don’t suppose it made it through the crash?”
Padmé nodded, and Anakin hopped to his feet. “Well, we were saving that for desperate circumstances, but I do believe this qualifies.”

He dug through the knapsack that was slung over one side of their broken swoop bike. Tool after tool was tossed to the cave floor—then a whispered “yes” escaped Anakin’s mouth as he found what he was looking for.

Returning to the makeshift circle, he brandished the power cell. “It’s the little things that make life worth living, y’know?”

 

* * *

 

Obi-Wan watched as the pilot meticulously disassembled the outer housing of his right forearm. The boxy metal structure snapped open, revealing a mess of wiring and motors. It felt a bit intrusive, the Jedi thought, to watch the procedure. Still, it was too fascinating to look away.

Anakin expertly fiddled with the interior of the arm, using tools and fingers alike to make tiny adjustments. Obi-Wan heard a whispered “gotcha”—with a POP , the old power cell shot out of the mechanical limb.

It hit the cave floor and sizzled, smoke rising from its housing. A single green light buzzed on and off haphazardly. “I wouldn’t touch that,” Anakin warned. “They build up a lot of heat in such a tight space. It’s worse than usual, too. This arm was never meant to have a power cell jammed into it.”

Anakin slotted the new cell into his arm as if he were loading a shell into a scattergun. As the battery clicked into place, he swore softly and jumped, as if the jolt of power were shocking his whole body. The fingers of the mechanical arm flexed wildly, and for a moment Obi-Wan worried that they’d have yet another failed machine on their hands. Within a few seconds, though, the tremors had subsided, and Anakin experimentally rolled his fingers back and forth.

“Back in business!” he confidently declared as he began packing tools back in the knapsack. “Now that this works, I can drag the swoop if you want.”

“You were doing such a great job holding the flashlight, though,” Padmé teased, tossing the lamp housing at Anakin. Obi-Wan watched in silence. He liked the woman, he decided, though she seemed determined not to reciprocate the feeling.

And Anakin . . . well.

The man’s incredible Force power was pulsing constantly in the back of the general’s mind, like a rad detector a room away from a reactor. And he was aware of it, Obi-Wan thought, to some degree, at least. The swoop’s lock hadn’t picked itself, and no ordinary being could have rewired a bike while piloting through a cave at the speeds they’d been traveling. Whether he was aware of what he was aware of, though . . . hard to say.

One thing was abundantly clear. The man’s power was immense. And he hadn’t even been trained yet.

“Ben!”

The Jedi glanced up—Padmé had evidently been trying to get his attention. “Sorry,” he said. “Long day.” Careful of his ribs, he hauled himself to his feet.

His companions stood too; Padmé picked up the rope at the front of the swoop, slung it over her shoulder, and began to pull the bike. Obi-Wan fell into position behind. Anakin raised the lamp. Once again, they were off.

 

* * *

 

The next few hours’ walk through the caverns was uneventful. They had come across a few caved-in passages and had to search for alternate routes, and at one point Padmé had to work with Ben to gingerly guide the swoop bike around the edge of a sinkhole, but there were no impassable obstructions—and, more importantly, nothing else living. She’d tried the comm a few more times to raise the ship, with no response. Still, things were going well enough that she could almost forget they were trying to avoid the crawlers.

Until, that is, Ben brought them up.

“So,” he said, his whisper assuming an affected casual tone. “These cave creatures. They eat humans?”

Gods, Padmé thought, and kept her head resolutely forward. The man couldn’t take a hint.

“I’d assume so,” Anakin replied. He swept the makeshift lamp across the cavern, the light sparkling off some particularly shiny rock formations. “I’ve never actually seen it happen. We just know people who have lost friends down here.”

“Do the creatures have a weakness? A way we could fight them, if it came to that?” Ben asked. He grunted as he shoved the broken swoop bike. “Besides broken-down machines.”

“Same as anything else, you’d think. A good blaster will do the trick,” said Anakin. He looked at Padmé. “We’ve got exactly one of those, though.”

“No other weapons? Thermal detonators, maybe?”

“Oh, definitely,” Padmé replied, still not looking to her rear.

“Might have come in handy against the bikers,” the stranger groused. Padmé suspected he was trying to lighten the mood.

“Yeah, well, you and my husband would have been so much bloody liquid if that had happened, so.”

When she turned around, Ben looked taken aback. “Wait, you actually have some?”

“Two, to be exact,” Anakin jumped in. “Scrounged them on a job coupla years ago, figure you never know when you’ll need ‘em. But Padmé’s right. You want to throw explosives in a cave, Ben,” Anakin advised, “be my guest. Just wait until I’m not around first.” Her husband hazarded a laugh at his own joke, saw her expression, and quickly stopped. “My stun baton will be useless against their exoskeletons, and you’re not armed, so . . . if we meet them, we’re probably screwed.”

Padmé interrupted. “We’ve established the totality of our being screwed. If you gentlemen don’t mind, I’d rather not dwell on it.”

Blessed silence for the next few minutes.

“So, Ben,” Anakin finally said lightly. “Tell me about the scrappy mismatched cloak over the dress clothes thing. That some sort of Core World trend that hasn’t made it way out here yet? I was hoping to visit Commenor with the cash we got off that biker, and I’d hate to be out of style.”

“Those aren’t dress clothes, Anakin,” Padmé said softly. She stopped pulling the swoop bike and turned around to face Ben. “It’s a Republic officer’s uniform.”

“It’s a what now?” Anakin said. If his right arm were organic, he probably would have dropped the flashlight in surprise.

“I couldn’t place it at first. There’s no rank on it. But I’m pretty sure that’s what it is.” She hadn’t recognized it in the bar—the stranger had kept his cloak wrapped carefully around the outfit, and her mind had been on other things. But when he’d had to tear the thing up for makeshift bandages, she’d got a good long look at it. They’d gotten Republic patrols on Oseon every so often when she was growing up, especially when the planet was being courted for membership. The dress blues left an impression.

Anakin slowly rotated to face Ben, scar tightening as he clenched his jaw. “Where did you get . . . did you kill an officer and take it from him?”

Ben let a short breath escape his nose, staring at the floor for a few moments. “No. It’s mine.”

“That explains the cloak,” Padmé said, glaring at the man leaning on the rear of the swoop bike. “Officer Ben was trying to hide. What are you, a deserter or something?”

“That’s . . .” Ben hesitated. “That’s not my name.”

“Shocking. You’re just full of secrets, aren’t you?” Ben winced; Padmé glared. “Well, let’s hear it.”

“It’s Obi-Wan,” he said, looking a little guilty and a little relieved. “Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

“Well, Republic Officer Obi-Wan Kenobi,” Padmé replied. “Your ticket offworld just got a little more expensive. Assuming we don’t just leave your lying ass at the camp—”

She was interrupted by a horrible sputtering noise.

The swoop bike between her and Kenobi gave a dying shriek. The repulsorlifts faded, sparked to life, and then cut out entirely, sending the bike clattering to the floor.

For a few seconds, Padmé just stared at the now-useless hulk of metal, her eyes wide. Part of her wanted to make a quip about Kenobi’s ticket getting even more expensive, but she was afraid to speak. Even though she hadn’t been able to hear the repulsors, the cavern suddenly seemed much quieter.

“Now what?” Anakin whispered intensely. Padmé pulled her commlink out of her pocket and furiously mashed the call button again. Come on, you worthless piece of crap. Again. Again.

She shook her head at her husband. Nothing.

Anakin’s flesh hand started to furiously fish around inside his jacket for his stun baton. “Don’t bother!” hissed Obi-Wan. “You said it was useless.”

“It’s better than nothing!”

Both of you,” Padmé snapped, “shut the hell up—”

Then came the chittering.

The noises echoed throughout the smooth walls of the cavern, like a hawkbat grown obscenely large. Padmé felt her skin crawl, as if the sound were a physical presence eating its way up her body.

Padmé drew her blaster and ducked behind the swoop. “Get behind me, get behind me!” she barked.

And then it entered the light.

Eight hairy legs extended from a three-meter long insectoid body, skittering along the floor in a kind of dessicated shuffle. A pair of antennae sticking out from the creature’s head flitted uselessly about. Mandibles, dripping with sticky fluid, clicked together, a pair of organic daggers. The chittering was like the screech of metal on metal.

Padmé narrowed her eyes, propped her elbows up on the useless swoop bike, and leveled her blaster at the approaching creature. “Don’t move.”

So of course Ben— no, Kenobi— stepped forward, out in front of the light cast by the lamp, and let the remnants of his cloak flutter to the floor.

“What are you doing? ” Anakin whispered urgently, scrambling backward.

“Stay behind me, both of you,” the stranger said.

He spoke freely, the sound of his voice carrying down the cavern to the auditory receptors of the cave crawler. The creature opened its mandibles and let out a horrible screech, then scurried faster toward the trio.

The silhouette of Obi-Wan Kenobi held out his right hand. In it was a metal cylinder which narrowed near the tip before flaring back out into a disc shape. Some sort of stun baton? Padmé tried to adjust her aim. “Kenobi, out of the damn way!”

Kenobi adjusted his stance and held the metal cylinder in front of him. Poised, unmoving, just as he’d been in front of the swoop gang. And then, his finger pressed a button.

With a snap-hmmmmmmmmm , the cavern was flooded in a cool blue light.

Their companion stood confidently, perfectly still in the face of the approaching creature. As the cave crawler continued to skitter toward him, he hoisted the saber above his head. The moment the creature drew close enough, Kenobi slashed the blade of plasma downward.

Time seemed to slow as the blue light met the crawler’s head with a great hiss of cauterized body fluids. It rolled across the cave floor, mandibles still clicking furiously, the legs of the creature’s headless body thrashing and spasming.

Kenobi was still moving, preserving his momentum from the downward slash. He twirled around, allowing his back to face a second approaching creature just as it came within range of the lamp. The crawler reared back to strike—and the stranger stabbed the plasma blade backwards into its mouth. The crawler’s muscles tensed, then went limp as Obi-Wan pulled the lightsaber from between its mandibles; it collapsed to the ground like a puppet that had lost its strings.

The Jedi Knight—for that was absolutely what he had to be—stared intensely at his two companions. The sound of more cave crawlers could be heard behind him in the distance. There was no time for complicated instructions. He simply spoke one word.

“Run.”

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: JUNKFORT STATION

Located in the Outer Rim at a junction between hyperspace lanes, Junkfort Station is a neighbor to, among others, the planets Oseon and Boonta. Living up to its name, it’s inhabited by scrappers, pirates, criminals, and all manner of other sentient detritus. Due to its position along hyperspace routes, it is home to a plethora of species and cultures.

The station functions as a trade and leisure hub for pilots passing through the hyperlane intersection. Freighter pilots may stop off at the station to stretch their legs, enjoy food or drink from all across the galaxy, or spend the night in one of the station’s handful of seedy hotels. Occasionally, these stops end up becoming inadvertently long-term ones. Many new pilots agree to haul cargo to the Outer Rim without setting up a job that allows them to return to the Core. This is the most common way to find oneself living on Junkfort Station.

The chief aim of those living on Junkfort is to not live on Junkfort. Escaping is not easy, however, especially if one was unlucky enough to grow up there. Scrounger and bandit collectives have reason to keep their younger operatives right where they are, their quick fingers and desperate circumstances serving nicely to help them capture greater prizes. Those who do manage to escape usually end up on the surrounding planets; a native-born Junkforter managing to make it more than a few systems away is almost unheard of.

Chapter Text

How to find a Jedi who didn’t want to be found?

Most people in the Senate building, of course, would dismiss the idea of the Order maintaining a presence there out of hand. Bail knew better. Obi-Wan would never come right out and tell his commander-in-chief that there were others working within the Senatorial halls, but he’d played coy enough that Bail was sure there had to be at least one keeping an eye on things.

So he had his certainty. What he didn’t have was the time, the resources, or the knowledge to sift through records of every single person currently active in the Senate dome and try to determine which one was a secret wizard carrying a laser sword.

The Chancellor took a slug of whiskey. So draw them out, he thought to himself. How hard could that be?

He couldn’t very well put an ad in the personals or on the hallway bulletin board. Wanted: secret members of a hidden sect for rescue mission. Meet at the Chancellor’s office at midnight. If he knew any other politicians whom he could trust and who might have contacts within the Order that might lead to something, but he wasn’t confident that the latter existed, and was damned sure that the former were about to become drastically fewer in number.

Nor could he afford to go chasing after rumors and urban legends about pockets of Jedi elsewhere on the planet. Such reports were about as likely to be accurate as records of angel sightings.

Blowing out a frustrated breath, Bail refilled his glass. At least he was fortunate enough to be on Coruscant, where much of the informed population believed the Order existed. Were he the governor of some backwater in the Outer Rim and in need of outside assistance, he’d have no guarantee that such beings even walked the galaxy.

Very well, he couldn’t go to the Jedi. Could he get them to come to him?

Bleary-eyed, he simply stared out the window for a while, watching the needle-point glow of speeder lanes drifting past. He supposed it probably wasn’t productive to think himself in circles like this, but he couldn’t afford to just go to sleep with nothing done. Every hour meant increasing peril for Obi-Wan, wherever he was now.

Problem was, short of staging a terrorist attack . . . he really wasn’t sure what he could do to draw them out. It couldn’t possibly be as simple as telling them Obi-Wan Kenobi is in trouble, send help.

Wait.

Could it?

The Chancellor directed his attention away from the window, down to the comms unit on his desk. It was completely secure, able to contact anyone anywhere on the planet or in orbit and nearly anywhere else across the stretches of the galaxy. Just to be sure, he’d had his private security team from Alderaanian Special Forces take a look at it in addition to the federal security forces. Completely clean.

He tapped a knuckle against the polished stone of the desk, and considered.

If he followed through on the plan that had just popped into his head, the consequences in the Senate would be disastrous—absolutely no question there. He was already facing dubious odds of getting through this with his reputation intact, odds that would be whittled away to almost nothing regardless of whether this ploy actually worked. And Mon Mothma would kill him—her support of him was already a potential albatross around her neck, one that this would turn into a potential millstone.

And it’s not remotely guaranteed to work. Odds are it won’t. Could he really risk throwing away everything he and Breha had suffered for over the last several years? That the coalition had worked for, grinding through month after month of gridlock?

And more importantly—could he risk the Republic itself? His speech to the Defense Committee had been an attempt to save his neck, but it hadn’t been bluster. The Confederacy had been chewing its way through the Outer Rim for months now. None of the Senators had seen war in their lifetimes—nor had their predecessors, or their predecessors. Bail wasn’t any more prepared for it than the rest of them, but at least he saw the signs that it was coming. If people like Palpatine and Bel Iblis had their way, the Republic would isolate itself into an early grave.

Obi-Wan had agreed with him. That’s why he’d gone on the mission. And preserving his Chancellorship might be the only way to honor his friend’s final known wishes.

Bail looked at the blinking red light. Moved his gaze around the room, taking in the paintings, the carpet, the furniture. Took another look out the window, distant apartment lights twinkling.

Finally, he raised his glass in a toast to the empty air. “General Kenobi,” he said, “the day being your friend means being a lesser Chancellor is the day I leave the Senate.” The whiskey went down his throat in one go.

Before he could lose his nerve, he punched a number into the comm and leaned back in his chair. A few moments later, a voice crackled on the other end.

I—Chancellor Organa?

“Cinen,” he replied. “Good evening.”

Good evening, Chancellor. Rather late, isn’t it?

“Listen,” Bail said grimly, leaning closer to the mic. “You did not hear this from me.”

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: THE HOLONET

The Hyperspace Information, Communication, and Relay Network Act established the creation of what is now called the holonet. It is a free and open communications network maintained, but not controlled, by the Galactic Republic. Republic member systems, independent worlds, and outlaw ship crews alike all make use of this method of near-instantaneous intergalactic communication.

All civilized planets and star systems contain holonet “nodes” which send packets of data into space. For deep-space operation away from settled worlds, most starships and starfighters are also outfitted with holonet nodes. When a message is ready to be sent across the holonet, a node will bounce the data to a holonet port. This port then tight-beams the data into hyperspace, where it can be received by any number of other holonet ports before being delivered to the holonet node nearest its intended recipient.

Across the galaxy, this process occurs hundreds of millions of times per second, whether for the purpose of sending a point-to-point message or looking up information stored in one of the Republic’s digital “libraries” such as this one.

The decentralized mesh network of holonet nodes and ports is nearly impossible to hack, infiltrate, or bring down. Communications disruption is still possible, and involves flooding a system’s holonet nodes with “junk” data so that actual calls and communications cannot get through. To avoid falling victim to this in a time of war, the Republic Defense Force maintains a secondary priority network of nodes and ports only accessible with special equipment.

Chapter Text

Jedi, pilot, and grifter stood huddled back-to-back in the center of the cavern.

Obi-Wan held his lightsaber at the ready, its blade bathing the trio in a soft blue glow. Padmé held her blaster pistol in both hands. Anakin gripped his improvised flashlight tightly; the Jedi silently hoped the scrapper wouldn’t find himself needing to use it as a weapon.

The general’s singular instruction, “run,” had been fairly useless. Cave crawlers, it turned out, could catch up to a group of fleeing humans with little trouble. As the group had fled, Padmé had dispatched their closest pursuer with a clean headshot—that had bought them time, but running away wasn’t going to work forever. Which is why, in unspoken agreement, they’d all skidded to a stop midway through the cavern.

“You two go on ahead,” Obi-Wan whispered. “I’ll catch up once I’ve dealt with these things.” He slowly moved his lightsaber back and forth, casting its blue light across the cave.

“If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather stay close to the guy with a laser sword,” Anakin replied, shivering as the chitters of the cave crawlers echoed in the distance.

“Fighting them is pointless,” Padmé hissed. “The noise will just keep drawing more. We have to find a place to hide.” She adjusted the knapsack that was slung over her shoulder—the one thing she had managed to grab when they fled the broken swoop bike. If they did get to safety, Obi-Wan supposed, at least they’d have some supplies with them.

“Do you see a place to hide, dear?” Anakin asked, annoyance seeping into his voice.

There were no nooks or crannies anywhere. The walls moved in smooth ripples. Stalactites hung above like stone daggers, feeling more oppressive now than they had all day. The river that ran down one side of the cavern wasn’t even ankle-deep; hiding beneath its surface was not an option.

And the next batch of cave crawlers had just rounded the corner.

Anakin aimed his flashlight at the four creatures. The lead crawler’s cluster of milky white eyes did not react to the light; the group’s antennae swayed like reeds in a breeze, chittering echoing through the cavern as their mandibles clicked together.

Obi-Wan glanced sideways at his two companions and motioned for them to back up. When they’d retreated far enough, the general flourished his lightsaber, twirling the hilt in his hand.

As the hum of the blade sweeping through the air resonated off the walls of the cave, the antennae of the crawlers straightened up. The four creatures clacked their mandibles, agitated, and began scuttling toward the source of the noise. Obi-Wan turned and nodded at Padmé.

The woman leveled her blaster pistol at the creature in front and snapped off two shots. The first went wide and grazed the leg of a different crawler, but the second landed right in the center of her target’s eyes. It collapsed on the cave floor.

As Padmé fired off another pair of blaster shots, Obi-Wan stretched his left hand outward toward the cave ceiling. Rather past the point of keeping further secrets. He made a fist, clenched it tight, and twisted.

The sound of crumbling rock resonated throughout the passage. A stalactite broke free of the cave ceiling and fell toward the nearest crawler, impaling the creature’s abdomen and pinning it to the cave floor. Padmé spun to face the writhing creature and shot it in the head.

Obi-Wan took a step forward and hurled his lightsaber at one of the crawlers. The blade impaled the insectoid’s head and stuck there, silver handle gleaming as the creature thrashed about. Even as the blade connected its owner was moving, closing the distance between him and his target. As the crawler fell, spasming, to the cave floor, Obi-Wan extracted his lightsaber, sweeping it behind him as he pulled it free.

The haphazard flail managed to connect with the antennae of the third crawler, slicing them clean off. The unfortunate creature clicked its mandibles together and flailed its head about, then skittered away from Obi-Wan and ran into a wall.

Anakin let out an amused snort as the creature wandered aimlessly, its interest in dinner suddenly lost. “What’d I tell ya? Follow the laser sword.”

“What’s the matter, can’t find us?” Padmé taunted, approaching the confused crawler. She angled her pistol down at the creature’s head and fired off a trio of shots; the crippled insect went limp as smoke rose from the hole in its exoskeleton.

Obi-Wan wiped a sleeve across his face. “You’re a little frightening, has anyone ever told you that?”

Padmé grinned humorlessly. “I’ll take that as a compliment.” The general decided to count this as progress.

“Well,” Anakin said, hefting the flashlight, “as fun as it is to stand around and watch you two fight these things, we should get moving. There are probably more coming up behind us.”

On cue, more chittering emerged from the rear—however many they’d killed, it evidently hadn’t been enough. Obi-Wan snapped his lightsaber blade off, clipped the hilt to his belt, and nodded at the pilot. “Lead the way.” Anakin nodded and swept the light back into forward position.

The compensators in his mechanical arm allowed him to keep the flashlight fairly steady. Were he holding it with his other hand, it would likely have been flailing about, making the light it cast rather useless. As it was, the beam stayed locked in place, perfectly illuminating the passage ahead that stretched downward in a gentle slope.

And providing Obi-Wan a perfect glimpse of yet another set of cave crawlers approaching from the front.

“Oh,” he said.

Anakin spoke through clenched teeth. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Behind them the distantly chittering crawlers pulled into view—at least three, all of them agitated. “We’re boxed in!” said Obi-Wan, reaching once again for his saber.

“Oh, is that your professional tactical analysis, Kenobi?” Padmé sneered. “C’mon, people, we need ideas. Anyone?”

The Jedi called on the Force, on his own intuition, on anything, but the louder the clacking of mandibles rang off the stone walls, the harder it was to think. All his mind could fix on was a future full of ripping and tearing. He angled his saber and ground a foot into the cave floor. Well, at least this time I won’t be dying alone.

“River.”

Obi-Wan whipped his head in the direction the word had come from. “What?”

“River,” Anakin muttered again, his voice almost buried by the shrieking insectoids on either side. His eyes shot upward and he said it again, loud enough to be heard over the cacophony. “River!”

Without waiting for a reaction, the pilot had bolted to his right and jumped into the small river running alongside the cave floor.

Padmé and Obi-Wan watched him slide along the slick riverbed, past the approaching crawlers and into the shadows of cave. The pair’s eyes met, united for a moment in their mingled annoyance and incredulity.

Then the nearest crawler snapped its mandibles, and the trance broke. Padmé dove into the riverbed, followed closely by Obi-Wan. Drowning, he supposed, might make a nice change from almost being incinerated

The surface of the riverbed was smooth, covered in an oily moss that made for an effective sliding surface. The Jedi felt himself start effortlessly gliding along the waterway, and had to throw up a hand to protect his eyes from the sudden spray of liquid he was kicking up. An attempt at throwing his weight to one side to “steer” himself worked better than he’d intended—his ribs shrieked in protest as he careened into the cavern wall with a thud .

This impact wasn’t enough to stop him moving. In fact, he noted in between coughing up water, he was picking up speed. The riverbed was sloping downward faster than he had expected, diverting away from the cavern they had been walking through. His two companions were nowhere in sight, though he certainly wasn’t about to raise his head for a better look.

Riding a natural waterslide. Add that to the list of today’s unexpected activities.

Somewhere in front of him, there was a startled yell, then another; the Jedi braced for whatever had elicited the noise. His stomach lurched as the riverbed dropped steeply and banked hard to the right. There was a strange light up ahead. A cool, blue glow . . .

Obi-Wan’s heart leapt into his throat as he shot out of the river and entered freefall—his waterslide had become a small waterfall. Momentum carried him through the air before he plummeted downward, splashing into a puddle just a few inches deep.

“Ow,” he managed. Clutching at his chest, which now definitely felt as if something had broken, he hauled himself up out of the water and surveyed his surroundings.

The cool blue light, it turned out, was coming from more of that glowing lichen he’d encountered on the way to the market. It snaked up the walls and across the ceiling, splitting off into smaller tendrils like the branches of a tree. The room the fungus illuminated was roughly circular, and the waterfall behind him seemed to mostly disappear into the ground. The only remnant of the river he had slid down was the puddle he now found himself in.

An inappropriately gleeful Anakin Skywalker was standing at the edge of this puddle, dripping wet and wearing an idiot grin on his face.

Padmé, who seemed to have lost her cape somewhere along the river, stood up, walked over to her husband, and punched him in the shoulder. “Nice plan.”

“Hey!” he said, flinching. “It worked, didn’t it?”

Obi-Wan unclipped his lightsaber from his belt and raised a finger, pointing it up to where they’d entered this new room. “Not exactly.”

A single cave crawler stood at the top of the waterfall, its mandibles clacking and antennae whirring. Anakin began moving slowly—not away from the crawler, but toward it, and toward a cave wall covered in the glowing lichen. Each step was deliberate, placed carefully on the cave floor in an effort to remain silent. This silence was thwarted as he reached his mechanical arm toward the luminescent life form.

“Anakin, don’t!” whispered Obi-Wan. The crawler screeched—it had evidently heard the Jedi—but it did not move from its perch at the top of the waterfall. Anakin’s robotic fist clamped around a chunk of the lichen, tore it from the wall, and compressed it into something resembling a ball. He wound up the arm and hurled the glowing bundle at the cave crawler.

The lichen brushed one of the creature’s legs, eliciting a piercing shriek—Obi-Wan dropped his lightsaber hilt, hastily raising his hands to cover his ears. The cave crawler backed away with some difficulty, its legs twitching uncontrollably; the clacking grew fainter and fainter, finally vanishing entirely beneath the rush of water.

Anakin exhaled deeply. “Well, here we are.”

Obi-Wan uncovered his ears and bent down to pick up his lightsaber. “I don’t understand. How did you do that?” he asked the scrapper, clipping his saber to his belt.

“That stuff doesn’t work through droid arms. Crawler’s bug brains, though? They really can’t handle it.”

“So it would seem.” The Jedi stared at the lichen-covered wall, picturing what kind of creatures the fungus might have been warding off in the tunnel he’d first traversed after the crash. Wincing, he turned to address Padmé. “What exactly is that—”

His question stopped short when he realized the woman was pointing her blaster at his face.

“Okay, Kenobi,” she said, leveling an icy stare at him. “We need to talk.”

 

* * *

 

Anakin, still a little shaky from recent events, took a moment to realize what exactly was going on. Obi-Wan had his dripping hands raised above his head, an Oh, what now expression in his eyes. Padmé had their blaster trained on him, gripping it steadily with both hands

“Hang on, Padmé. What are you doing?”

She kept her gun trained on Obi-Wan. “He’s done nothing but keep secrets from us. He lied about his name, then he tried to hide his job. And then . . . he pulled out a damn lightsaber.” Her eyes flicked from her husband back to the stranger. “No more secrets, Jedi.” She spat the last word out of her mouth as if it were venomous.

Obi-Wan kept his hands held high in surrender. “No more secrets. What do you want to know?”

“Not yet. Anakin, get the lightsaber.”

He considered protesting, but arguing with her probably wasn’t the best way to get her out of this mood. And so, doing his best to communicate to Kenobi with his eyes just how sorry he was about this blip in their relationship, Anakin reached down and plucked the metal cylinder from the Jedi’s belt. He turned it over in his flesh hand, seized by an irrational sort of delight; his thumb brushed the activation switch, and he resisted the overwhelming desire to activate the thing and wave it around.

“Now then,” Padmé said, her shoulders relaxing slightly. “Why are you here?”

The Jedi threw a rueful look at his property in Anakin’s hand, but responded calmly. “I’m on a mission for the Republic. The Confederacy is trying to capture Had Abbadon, and I was sent to stop them. That much I’m sure you gathered.”
Anakin inserted himself into the conversation. “Where’s the rest of your team?”

“There is no one else. I was sent alone.”

At this, Padmé let out a short laugh. “You were sent down here to repel the Confederate assault by yourself? I’m sorry, I don’t buy it.”

“Not down here, no. I was never supposed to land. I should have put a stop to it in orbit, but I failed. Crashed one of their ships. There were . . . complications that led to it breaking through the crust.”

“So the thing about Alderaan was a lie too, eh?”

He shook his head for a second, then reconsidered. “Half. I am from there, but I wouldn’t know the mathematics needed to calculate turbolaser power if they bit me.”

“So what does the Confederacy want with Had Abbadon?” Anakin asked. “I mean, the two of us didn’t exactly come here by choice.”

Obi-Wan began to pace. If he’d hoped that Padmé would allow him to walk out of the line of fire, it didn’t work—she tracked him as he stepped back and forth, keeping him in her sights. He sighed, paced anyway, and began to answer.

“The healing fluid from the underground springs, we assume. We’ve no way of confirming it, as we haven’t managed to take any of their personnel alive. The fluid’s no bacta, but it’s better than nothing. Right now if they tried an assault on a Republic world, they’d burn through troops faster than they could grow and train them. The healing fluid tips things back in their favor.”

“Wait.” Padmé lowered her gun toward the ground. “You said they grow troops?”

“The rumors are true, then.” Anakin said, his eyes widening in shock. “Clones.” It had passed around the evening campfires here, of course, but then again so had any number of other outlandish tales as to what exactly was going on up above.

Obi-Wan nodded solemnly and ceased his movement. “The same handful of people created thousands upon thousands of times over. Humans, mostly. A few aliens to fill specialized roles. We don’t know where they’re coming from. Not yet.”  

“You’re Special Forces, then?” Padmé cut in. “Can’t see why else they’d send you to handle this alone.”

The Jedi shook his head and slowly reached into a pocket on his uniform. He extracted a small rectangle of metal and held it in the air, presenting it as one might present identification to a nightclub bouncer. Anakin saw the number of squares etched into it and let out a low whistle. “That’s pretty high, I take it.”

“Well, look at you,” said Padmé. She was either genuinely impressed or mocking; Anakin thought the latter was more likely. “A general. And a Jedi.” She glanced at her husband. “What an interesting passenger we’ve dragged along with us, dear. I’d say his fare just went up again.”

Obi-Wan sighed. “Drive the price up all you like. It doesn’t change what I need to do. It is critical that the Confederacy be stopped here. Surely we can agree on that much. I must contact the Republic.”

“. . . And what’s a Jedi doing in the Republic Defense Force, anyway?” Padmé continued, ignoring Obi-Wan’s comment. “Do your fellow soldiers know? I’m no expert on the Jedi Order. I wasn’t even sure you existed before today. Still, I’ve heard it’s all very hush-hush.”

“Padmé, go easy on him,” Anakin said, throwing the general a sympathetic look. “There is no way we would have made it past those crawlers without him.”

He found himself on the receiving end of one of her You really want to argue about this? glares. “If it weren’t for him we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“Don’t blame him. I’m the one that picked the mark for the job, this is on me. Obi-Wan saved our lives. We should at least get him off the planet like we said we would.”

Padmé moved her glare from him to the Jedi, whose hands were once again in the air. Finally, she holstered her blaster. Anakin tossed the saber back to its owner, who caught it smoothly.

“We agreed to transport a stranger in a bar,” his wife said. “Not a Republic general. Certainly not a Jedi Knight.”

Her husband sighed. She had a point, as per usual.

She continued: “Besides, the Confederacy is still in orbit. We’ll just get shot out of the sky if we try to leave. This isn’t our fight, Anakin. We’ll take him back to the refugee camp. After that, he’s on his own.”

She let her knapsack fall off her shoulders and hit the cave floor. Kneeling down, she opened it and began to extract supplies. “We’re staying here tonight. It’s getting late.” She tossed a small pouch at Anakin, who snatched it out of the air with his robotic hand. The scrapper pulled a small tab on the pouch, and it expanded into a square-shaped pillow. He tossed it onto the tarp that his wife had unfolded on the cave floor.

Obi-Wan walked over to the couple and sat down on the tarp, watching as Padmé extracted another pillow and a small round can from the knapsack. She held the inflatable pillow up. “Sorry, Kenobi. We only packed two.”

The Jedi waved a dismissive hand. “I’ll be fine.”

Padmé shrugged and turned her attention to the tiny can. She placed it gingerly in the center of the tarp, then unhooked a small knife from her belt. “I’ll just bet this doesn’t work.”

She flicked the blade open and held the knife aloft, then stabbed it down into the can lid. There was a hissing sound as gas escaped the can; then a small fire crackled to life above it. Some pleasantly surprised cheer flooded into her eyes.

“Should burn like that all night,” she said aloud to no one in particular, moving away to inflate her own pillow.

Anakin looked down at Kenobi; he’d already fallen asleep on the tarp, using the tattered, wet remnants of his cloak as a makeshift pillow. Still can’t believe he bothered to pick that thing up before we ran from the crawlers, he thought to himself.

He looked back over to Padmé and saw that she, too, was looking at the exhausted, bedraggled man, her face somewhat more tender than it would be were he awake. “Damn,” she said, “he must be tired.”

“He’s had a long day,” Anakin said. “You’d be tired too, if your day started with crash-landing a ship.” Hell, he was more worn out than he’d ever been and all he’d done was nearly get himself killed on a swoop bike, which wasn’t particularly out of the ordinary.

The scrapper tossed his self-inflating pillow on the tarp next to his wife’s, then sat down next to her and removed his jacket. Shaking the dust off, he gently placed it across her body like a makeshift blanket. Lying down beside her, he draped his flesh arm over her and willed himself to relax. They were safe, at least for now.

He closed his eyes to shut out the blue glow coming from the cave walls and allowed himself to bask in the warmth of the campfire.


* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: GECKAR OUTFITTERS SURVIVALIST CAMPSITE SUPPLY KIT

The Geckar Outfitters Survivalist Campsite Supply Kit, more commonly referred to as “The GO Bag,” is a popular product among spacers, traders, and explorers. The kit is based off the Republic Defense Force’s Emergency Shelter Pack, and is intended as a compact and lightweight solution for camping and survival on a variety of habitable worlds.

The kit includes self-inflating pillows, reflective blankets, compact bedrolls, and a collapsible tent for the purpose of constructing a campsite. There are also ration bars, powdered drinks, and energy paste. The kit’s most famous component is the patented “Canned Fire,” a disc-shaped can that creates a campfire when punctured.

The kit is sold in a sealed and compressed package, intended only to be opened when all of its components are actually needed. However, on less settled worlds, it is common for merchants to open the kits and sell the items individually at a markup. Geckar Outfitters has condemned this practice, but outside of Republic space there is little they can do to enforce their wishes. Piecemeal “GO Bags” are a common sight in the Outer Rim, and it is not unusual to find a single self-inflating pillow or a lone Canned Fire rolling loosely at the bottom of a smuggler’s knapsack.

Chapter Text

Valis felt Maul before she saw him—as the bridge doors slid open, a faint prickling went down her neck, as though something had charged the air. She turned from the viewport and saw the warlord striding down the catwalk, cloak flapping behind him. Every other individual present was suddenly intent on their console.

She restrained herself from shouting at him to leave. “Lord Maul. Is there something that requires my attention?”

“When your attention is required, you will know,” he said, and started in the other direction.

The admiral ground her teeth together. Punishment, she supposed, for daring to raise her voice several hours ago.

When he next looped around in her direction, Valis cleared her throat. “Lord Maul, a word. Outside.”

His eyes flashed contempt. Wordless, he continued to pace.

She’d had enough. “Helmsman!”

Said helmsman, a young woman, responded satisfyingly quickly. “Yes, Admiral?”

“I do believe it’s been a while since we tested the emergency blast shields on the viewport. Please, commence.”

“Aye, admiral.” The helmsman pressed a few buttons, and slate-grey metal began to lower across the transparisteel. Valis fixed a smile on her face and turned back to the Zabrak.

It was a bit disconcerting to find him standing maybe six inches from her.

Ignoring the cracked amber fury of his eyes, the admiral continued to smile. “I do hope you didn’t come all the way up here for the view.”

“Outside,” Maul growled, and turned on his heel.

As soon as the blast doors had whisked shut behind them, Valis was speaking. The Zabrak would not get the first word this time. “You just had a window taken away from you. I had actionable intelligence scrubbed from my report.”

“If this is your idea of—” he began.

“Why are you still here?”

For once, she noted, the warlord looked taken aback. “What?”

“You don’t believe Kenobi is dead. And it’s not as though you have anything better to do than intimidate a ship that’s already frightened of you. So why aren’t you on your way to the the Had system?”

Maul’s brow ridges lowered. “Kenobi is dead.”

“Spare me. I may not be able to use the Force, but I can read a report. Even one that was not intended to hit my desk.”

For about ten seconds, there was no reply. Then, abruptly, the warlord turned and punched at the turbolift button; the doors parted. “Walk with me.”

Of all the places Valis had expected the confrontation to go, this was not one of them, but she could hardly afford to look surprised now.

As she entered, Maul tapped his cylinder to the lift wall. “The report tells you he’s alive. How?”

“A capital ship doesn’t just make an uncontrolled descent through the atmosphere and land without breaking up. Even one that’s trailing hypermatter. Someone piloted it. And if Kenobi was able to land half a cruiser with no engines, he was able to survive the crash. Jedi don’t die easily.”

“Depends on who’s trying to kill them.”

The lift began to descend. Valis sneered. “My point exactly. You’re the only one qualified to dispatch him speedily. So why are you here?”

Something in the Zabrak’s face caught her eye then. He looked—frustrated. But it wasn’t directed at her. And it wasn’t his usual hunger.

He doesn’t want to be here, she realized. He wants to go after Kenobi.

“Maul?”

Giving his head a small shake, the warlord seemed to dispel some of the haze of impatience that was hanging over him. “What you think is what you think. Speak to no one else about it.”

“Is that an order?”

“If you like.” The turbolift’s doors opened onto the Restricted Deck. “Leave me.”

And as suddenly as it had begun, the conversation ceased, half of it stalking back toward his quarters.

 

* * * 

 

Frustration warred with curiosity. What the hell was Maul playing at?

Whatever this was, it wasn’t cowardice. Valis had concrete evidence to the contrary—it was how she’d come to be recruited in the first place.

She remembered the meeting. A mysterious client, willing to pay her an unspecified but large amount of money in exchange for a career shift. He’d come to her ship alone—no other starcraft, no bodyguards of any kind. Had hurled two of her men against a wall when they tried to search him. Marched to the “conference room” where she waited. And, before she could raise her blaster, had dumped a clattering pile of metal tubes on the table.

What Valis saw had frozen her to the spot.

The Zabrak had tossed five lightsabers onto her table like they were so much silverware. Each was unique—one wrapped in leather, one with a long scratch running down the hilt, one designed to be held in only one hand, and so on down the line. Their bearer had said nothing.

Valis opened her mouth. “Where did you get—”

Raising a hand, he’d cut her off. “I kill Jedi. I am going to turn the Republic to ashes, and grind the Order beneath my feet. You are going to help me.” The hand he’d raised turned to reveal a miniature holoprojector—out had sprung a rotating facsimile of the Charybdis . “And this will be yours.”

It had been the only thing on his mind. When she’d named a price, he’d agreed without hesitation. When she’d demanded a hefty signing bonus, he agreed to that too.

“And my crew?”

“Do you trust them?” he’d asked.

“No.”

“Then once you leave with me, we will destroy this ship.”

As simple as that.

She’d already made up her mind, but couldn’t let that be the end of it. “Why me?”

“You’re highly skilled—”

Waving her hand dismissively: “Lots of people are highly skilled. Why a mercenary to lead a battle fleet? Surely you should be able to find military personnel who have a grudge against the Republic.”

Maul had leaned closer. “Defectors are weak. You are not. You have hate.”

Her face growing colder, she’d kept her voice calm. “And what do you know about hatred for the Republic?”

“I know about hatred of Jedi.” He’d crossed his arms. “Do we have an agreement?”

And then, she’d asked the final question. “How do I know you can do what you’ve promised?”

For several moments, nothing. And then a crimson beam of plasma had shot forth from his left hand.

Five minutes later, as Valis watched from a shuttle window, a cruiser had emerged from hyperspace and blown her old ship to hell.

 

* * * 

 

It had to be that shadowy figure whose existence she’d suspected. The hand that held Maul’s leash. Nothing else could have kept him here.

Asking the warlord himself was out of the question—it would be useless at best and taken as unacceptable insolence at worst. And Valis doubted that any of the officers on the ship knew better than she did—as far as she was aware, she was the only one who’d been recruited personally.

She turned to Melko. “Remind me, Executive Officer, who came to you about this little venture.”

Her subordinate kept on looking at his console as he answered. “I can’t say that I know, Admiral . I received an encrypted transmission with an offer of defection. I accepted.”

“Fascinating reading material, Melko?”

Flushing red, he looked up from his console. “Why do you ask,” emerged flatly from his mouth.

“Collating data, Melko, that’s all.” She pondered for a moment. “I don’t suppose there’d be a record of that sort of thing.”

“Records. On a military ship. Whatever gave you that idea.”

Valis examined the view from the window, now fully restored from the blast shield testing. “Melko, have you ever heard of the Aeonia Massacre?”

“Yes, of course. Entire Republic outpost torn apart by some sort of creature that criminals released inside. Savages.”

“When you get a moment, do consult your records and let me know who claimed responsibility.”

Melko poked at his console for a few moments. Then his fingers fell silent.

The admiral looked back down to see her executive officer staring at her with something approaching horror.

She allowed herself a smile. “You have the conn, Melko. And thanks for the help.”

 

* * * 

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: ABLATIVE ARMOR

Ablative plating is an inexpensive material used as armor against blaster fire. It consists of a microscopic latticework of energy-dissipating synthetic fibers laid against a heat-resistant plate. When struck by blaster fire, the latticework melts away, preventing whatever is armored from taking the brunt of the shot. Ablative armor is not reusable, and must be replaced or restored after it has taken too many hits.

Ablative armor was initially intended for use by Republic infantry troops as a cost-saving measure to replace personal deflector shields. However, the weight of the armor combined with the potential cost of restoring it between every military skirmish saw the project sidelined. Ablative plating instead found a new life in the starship manufacturing industry.

Ship deflector shield generators are heavy, expensive, and draw massive amounts of energy. For starships that are unlikely to see combat, ablative plating is a far more sensible defense option. It draws no power and only requires maintenance if it is actually hit by blaster fire. Most civilian vessels, and even some military shuttles, are equipped with ablative armor.

Chapter Text

Obi-Wan Kenobi woke from troubled dreams, wincing as his vision adjusted to the strange blue light in the cavern. He was unsure of how long he had slept, but judging by the noises of activity around him, his traveling companions had been up for quite some time.

“Afternoon, Kenobi,” Padmé said. She was deflating her camping pillow and packing up the campfire-in-a-can.

“Afternoon?” he asked, still groggy. He moved his toes and grimaced; water was still squelching inside his boots.

“I let you sleep in. Figured you needed it,” said Anakin. He was leaning against a lichen-free piece of cavern wall, speaking between bites of a ration bar. As he tore off another chunk with his teeth, he tossed a wrapped bar to Obi-Wan. Through a half-full mouth, he spoke. “Don’t worry, you haven’t missed much. No point trying to figure out where we are in the cave when all we’ve got is an outdated map.”

At that news, Obi-Wan sat up. “We have a map?” he asked. “Why didn’t we use it earlier?”

“We were a little busy, in case you didn’t notice,” Padmé said. “Besides, it’s on paper. It’s pretty useless in the dark.” She motioned back to Anakin, who in turn extracted a folded piece of paper stock from his jacket pocket. He flicked his wrist, and the map unfolded.

“Take a look if you want,” he offered, extending the hand containing the map toward Obi-Wan.

The Jedi stood up, scooped his improvised cloak-pillow off the camping tarp, and walked over to Anakin. He took the map out of the scrapper’s hands and held it out, examining the twists and turns of the mapped passages, pretending to understand what they represented. The paper provided a close enough view that individual passages and junctions were clear, but without a blinking “You Are Here” symbol that wasn’t much help. He’d been on Had Abbadon little more than a day, and he wasn’t even sure which of the markets on the map he had stumbled into the previous afternoon. Figuring out where he was now would be next to impossible.

Anakin tossed the final bite of his ration bar in his mouth, stuffed the wrapper into a jacket pocket, and walked around behind Obi-Wan. “Let me help you out there,” he mumbled, looking over the Jedi’s shoulder. The scrapper reached out with a metal finger and poked a large room on the map. “Jira Grotto Bazaar,” he said, speaking up a bit more. “That’s where we started this whole mess.”

Obi-Wan nodded appreciatively. He crouched down and set the map on the cavern floor, tracing the route of their speeder chase with his finger. “This here is the mining junction you meant to go down?” he asked, pointing to a forking passage on the map. Anakin nodded, and Obi-Wan’s heart sank.

The right side of the fork, it seemed, eventually connected back to another grotto containing residential units. The left side of the fork was outlined with dotted lines, and the word “UNMAPPED” was stamped over it in red type.

“Terrific,” Obi-Wan grumbled. An entire section of the map was shaded a light grey. According to the legend in the bottom corner of the paper, it was unknown territory. And they were somewhere in the middle of it.

“It’s not as bad as it seems,” Anakin said. “We can still take a guess as to where we are.” Metal finger extended, he continued to trace along the map where Obi-Wan had left off. The digit snaked along the paper, mimicking the route of their swoop bike chase. “Here’s where we crashed and started walking . . . I think.”

“You think ?” Obi-Wan asked. As he shot an incredulous look to Anakin, he unwrapped his own ration bar and took a hefty bite.

“He’d know better than you would, Kenobi,” Padmé said. She had finished packing up the campsite and was pacing back and forth behind them. “We’ve been stuck here over a month. You learn your way around pretty quick.”

Obi-Wan held up his hands in surrender and turned back toward the map. “Okay, okay. So where are we now?”

“Right here, most likely.” Anakin pointed to a room that was, to Obi-Wan’s surprise, actually on the map. It only had one entrance marked on it, though, which the Jedi was quick to point out.

Anakin shook his head and hastily refuted the objection. “I don’t think the cartographer drones expected anyone to come in through the river, Obi-Wan. This is the right room, which means our way back to the camp is out that passage.”

The pilot gestured to an opening on the far side of the cavern, barely large enough for a human to squeeze through. Obi-Wan glanced down at the map and traced the passage that led out from their glowing cavern. It twisted and turned, but contained no branching paths. One long cave terminated at a massive circular room. “That’s the refugee camp?” Obi-Wan asked.

“No, the camp is probably half a day’s walk past that room.” Padmé said. “Still, at least we’ve got a clear route back.”

“The big room could be a settlement now,” Anakin offered. “This map’s a few years old. Could also be a storage room, or a garbage dump. The big caverns get used for a lot of different things. Hopefully it’s a decent place to camp—it’ll take us most of the day to get there.”

“Better get started, then,” Obi-Wan muttered. He stood, folded up the map, and handed it back to Anakin.

“Good, something we can agree on,” Padmé said. She picked her knapsack up off the floor, swung it over her shoulders, and began walking toward the cavern exit.

Anakin and Obi-Wan followed closely behind.

 

* * *

 

As the trio ventured further down the cave, the two men lagged behind Padmé, swapping adventure stories, occasionally stopping in their tracks when said stories got interesting. Anakin shared a tale of a swoop race that nearly got him killed. Obi-Wan recounted his harrowing descent to Had Abbadon, and told of how the bridge shields barely kept him from cooking alive during reentry.

Anakin whistled. “Welp, now I’ve gotta find a cruiser of my own to crash. Can’t let that record stand unbeaten.”

Were it any other man Obi-Wan would have laughed at the joke, but it wasn’t out of the question that this one meant it. “Well, it wasn’t really piloting on my part,” he hastily added. “Falling in style.”

They rounded a corner, and Anakin switched off the makeshift flashlight that had once again become necessary a few miles back. Padmé was standing in the midst of the cave with her arms crossed, tapping her foot impatiently. This new section of cavern was bathed in the bioluminescence of the mysterious lichen.

Obi-Wan recoiled and moved away from the wall. “What’s the matter, Kenobi?” Padmé asked. It was clear by her tone that she was not actually concerned.

“I just . . . I had a bad experience with that stuff.” He gestured hesitantly toward the cavern wall. “I’d rather not go through it again.”

“Explains why you yelled at me not to touch it,” Anakin said. He flexed his mechanical arm and stared at the metal fist. Approaching the cave wall, the scrapper stood near a section of the lichen that wasn’t glowing and ran his flesh fingers across it. Obi-Wan winced, but to his surprise, nothing happened to the young man.

Something did, however, happen to the lichen. Trailing behind Anakin’s fingertips was a blue glow, as though his hand were a ship leaking hypermatter. Everywhere the man brushed his hand, the lichen glowed. “See?” Anakin said. “It’s harmless.”

“When I touched it, I passed out and woke up on my back in a cold sweat,” Obi-Wan said. “Why didn’t you?”

“You touched a glowing part, I assume?” asked Anakin.

“Well, yes.”

“What did you see?” Padmé said. Her stance remained hostile, but her voice carried genuine interest.

“I couldn’t make sense of it. Voices, flashes of light––”

“Sounds about right,” Anakin interrupted. “It’s some sort of bizarre defense mechanism. Touch a part that isn’t glowing, it glows. Touch a part that is glowing, you see crazy stuff.”

“Memories, they say,” Padmé continued. “There’s a weird local religion that makes a whole thing out of it. Venturing deep into the caves to ‘experience the thoughts of past civilizations.’ I never got the appeal. Just gives me a headache. Never ended up on the floor, though—you must’ve gotten a pretty traumatized bit of fungus.”

“The crawlers don’t like it much either, apparently,” Anakin said. “Guess what passes for their brains isn’t capable of handling sentient memories. Probably why there aren’t any around.”

“Well, I’ll take that at least,” said Obi-Wan. He wondered what it would be like to touch lichen that had picked up a crawler’s memories, and shuddered.

The conversation lulled into nothingness, and Padmé removed the knapsack from her back. Opening it, she extracted a trio of ration bars and a pair of canteens. She tossed a canteen and one of the bars to Obi-Wan. “So, Kenobi,” she said, unscrewing the lid of her own canteen. “Was there a backup plan in place in case you screwed up? Is the Republic sending reinforcements?” She took a swig of water.

Obi-Wan hesitated, trying to think of an answer. It really wouldn’t do to loop the couple in on the unsanctioned nature of his mission. Classified didn’t even begin to describe it. Two people in the entire galaxy had known about this. He’d even had to keep the Coelacanth ’s crew in the dark.

With the Defense Committee locked in a state of indecision, Chancellor Organa’s entire plan had hinged on just one man. In any other situation, Obi-Wan could have pulled it off. He just hadn’t foreseen the clones being so loyal to the cause that they’d shoot their own captain rather than allow Ennam to surrender.

No backup was coming. There was no second wave, no plan B. His Chancellor––his friend ––probably assumed he was dead, and even if he guessed otherwise would not be rushing to send in a rescue squad. And within a few days, the Confederacy would storm the tunnels of Had Abbadon and seize the planet’s supply of healing fluid. He was ashamed to answer her question the way he did, but there was only one answer.

“No.”

Padmé seemed taken aback. Her eyes widened. “Well then,” she said. She silently unwrapped her ration bar and nibbled the corner of it. “I don’t suppose you’ve got some super-secret advanced Jedi commlink to call your weird wizard friends.”

Obi-Wan grinned ruefully and took a drink from his canteen before speaking. “Sorry to disappoint, but I’ve got nothing of the sort. We’re pretty stingy when it comes to handing out the fancy toys.” He reached down and tapped the lightsaber hilt that was dangling from his belt. “I even had to build this thing myself.”

Padmé rolled her eyes, but Obi-Wan noticed a slight smirk creep across Anakin’s face.

The young man took a drink from the canteen the couple was sharing, then screwed the lid back on and stuffed it in the knapsack. Padmé reached out her hand to take Obi-Wan’s canteen.

When the bag had been packed, Padmé slung it over her shoulder and the trio continued their journey through the cavern.

 

* * *

 

There was something strange about Obi-Wan Kenobi. Anakin couldn’t put his finger on it. It was almost as if a strange energy rolled off the man wherever he went.

Growing up on Junkfort Station, he had heard the freighter pilots swap fantastical stories in the docking bays. As they loaded their ships, he would hide behind crates and eavesdrop on the tales they told. His favorites were the stories of incredible piloting feats. Exaggerations, he would later come to realize when he was older, but entertaining nonetheless. But there were other stories too.

A stroke of luck at the sabacc table. A chance encounter with a seductive alien at one of the station’s bars. A harrowing escape from law enforcement. Or a brush with greatness: the sighting of a Jedi Knight.

Anakin had never really believed those stories. Most of the kids who roamed the station didn’t, and the ones that did were seen as foolish and idealistic. If there really were beings with magic powers fighting for justice, after all, why hadn’t they come to clean up the station yet?

But if there was any part of them that Anakin had wanted to be true, it was the lightsabers. And today he had seen one in action.

Yet it wasn’t the lightsaber he found himself pondering. It was the man who carried it.

Anakin had had plenty of time to think over the previous day’s events as they walked. He was becoming increasingly confident that he had never actually handed Obi-Wan his stun baton. And a stalactite just happening to impale a cave crawler seemed too good to be true—not to mention two swoop pilots crashing into each other while his back was turned. He wanted to broach the subject, but for now pushed the thought out of his mind. It would be better done in the safety of the camp than in the middle of wandering through the caverns.

Anakin had been taking up the rear of the group for the last several minutes, so he jogged ahead to catch up to Obi-Wan. They weren’t far from the end of the passage. There was a small opening at the far wall, and Padmé––who was in the lead––ducked her head through it.

“Hey, Obi-Wan,” began Anakin. He was quickly cut off by a panicked “Shhhh!” from his wife.

Padmé’s back was pinned against the cave wall. She crouched next to the small opening at the end of the passage, eyes wide with shock. Anakin shot her a quizzical look. In response, she simply gestured to the small hole.

Anakin and Obi-Wan moved toward the wall and poked their heads through the hole.

What they saw caused both to nearly hurl themselves backward

They had arrived at the large cavern they had been heading for. It wasn’t a settlement, nor a storage room or garbage dump as Anakin had predicted.

For a solid minute, nobody could bring themselves to speak. Padmé’s hands shook as she removed her commlink from her pocket and furiously mashed the call button yet again.

“What are we going to do?” Obi-Wan asked. “That’s our only way through.”

“Kenobi, I swear to the gods,” Padmé whispered. “I will kill you if you don’t. Shut. Up.”

The trio stared through the hole once again. The Jedi was right, it was their only way through.

It was also a hive full of cave crawlers.

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: CAVE CRAWLER

Legendary monstrosities referred to by the locals as “cave crawlers” prowl the darker corners of Had Abaddon’s cave networks. Local biologists speculate that they evolved on the planet’s surface in a past age when the climate was more hospitable to organic life, fleeing to their current subterranean home when conditions above ground became intolerable.

Averaging 2 meters in height and ranging anywhere from 2-5 meters in length, the crawlers are insectile, roaming the caverns on eight limbs. Their eyes, which presumably had a function once upon a time, are now milky white and blind; they hunt via sound, the chittering made by their mandibles a form of echolocation.

When miners came to Had Abaddon in force, they drove the crawlers from most of the surface caverns. They now exist only in the lower depths—those explorers foolhardy enough to explore these areas tend not to return.

Chapter Text

Chancellor Organa. Chancellor Organa. Chancellor Organa. Chancellor Organa .”

Bail opened his eyes to a squint and immediately clamped them shut again—sunlight was streaming in through the window, painfully bright. The receptionist droid continued to natter at him from the front desk.

What?! ” he barked, and grimaced; his breath was sour.

Senator Mothma to see you, sir. She is rather insistent.

His gut tightened. “What time is it?”

Twelve standard timeparts into the day, Chancellor.

Oh no. “All right, send her in.” He forced himself into a sitting position and blew a strand of hair from his forehead. “And let me know how many appointments I’ve missed.”

Before the receptionist could reply, Mon was storming in. “Mon,” Bail said, trying to head her off, what’s—”

With a crackle of feedback, a holographic newzine landed on his desk. The Chancellor didn’t have to ask what the headline was, but he read anyway.

Rogue Chancellor Escalates Tensions in Had System; Congress Demands Action.

“Please tell me you didn’t have anything to do with this.” Her lower lip was drawn up tight, two pale spots standing out atop her cheekbones.

His silence, he supposed, was answer enough.

“You asked me to help contain this. To stick my neck out whipping votes. And all I asked in return was that you keep your head down.”

Bail raised his hand in acknowledgment. “Mon—”

“It’s going to be nearly impossible for you to come out of this still in office now. We’ll be lucky if the public aren’t calling for a second Ruusan Reformation. If you’d gotten out ahead of things, made some kind of speech coming clean, that would be one thing. But this . . .” She shook her head.

“He’s . . .” The Chancellor shook his head, frustrated at his inability to explain himself. “Mon, I owe him.”

Suddenly, he jabbed at the button on his desk comm. “Has anyone else attempted to see me?” he asked the receptionist droid.

No, sir. Senator Mothma has been the only person to stop at your door in the last twelve hours.

A long exhalation. “Well, it wasn’t enough, then.”

When he looked up, Mon Mothma was staring at him, aghast. “Bail, do you mean to tell me that this leak was an attempt to bring the Jedi in?”

“I needed a way to get their attention. On reflection, coming up with that way when I was half-drunk and sleep-deprived was probably a poor idea.”

“Chancellor, when I say this I mean it seriously: it would have been less damaging if you’d just sent the fleet in.”

Rising, his legs aching in protest, Bail began to walk up and down the carpet. “No, the fleet won’t work. The Defense Committee will never agree. Technically I can do it without them, but the optics of that at this point . . . no.”

“This is not what I meant.”

“Mercenaries are out too. Should never have brought them up last night—I’m no better than the Confederacy if I’m hiring thugs to do my dirty work for me.”

“Bail—”

“Maybe the Jedi did get their attention caught. Maybe someone is on their way. But without talking to me first, they’re walking into a death trap. I need to speak to them, tell them exactly what the enemy presence is—”

BAIL!

He stopped walking. His colleague looked incredulous.

“Are you hearing yourself?” she asked. “Bail, while we sit here and dither over one man, you are squandering the one chance you have to do this right. If you’re ousted as Chancellor, Had Abbadon falls anyway. All its inhabitants, all its resources, prey to the Confederacy. General Kenobi is a valuable asset, and he is your friend, I understand that. But you were elected to this office to think of the people , not your friends.”

Once again, he was flooded with genuine shame. But this time was different. This time he’d already taken the plunge. “Well, at any rate, I can’t afford to take half measures now,” he told Mon Mothma. “You’re right, it was an idiotic decision. But I’m in it now, and if I don’t follow through then I’ll have wasted your time and my office for nothing.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning I intend to continue to go through with this, and while I understand that you probably despise me I am asking as your Chancellor and your ally for your continued help.”

The silence that followed was thick with exasperation on one end and dread on the other. Finally, Bail’s colleague gave a resigned sigh. “Why are you so set on the Jedi being the ones to do this? Even if they have operatives in the Senate, which I doubt, why should they get involved on General Kenobi’s behalf? Wasting members in the middle of an invasion doesn’t seem like their style.”

In that moment, Bail decided that he’d already plunged off one cliff over the course of this endeavor. He might as well plunge off another. “They’re already involved.”

Her face was uncomprehending. “What do you mean?”

The Chancellor gestured at the visitor’s chair. “Sit down, Senator Mothma. There’s something you should know about General Kenobi.”

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: THE RUUSAN REFORMATION

Over one thousand years ago, the Republic teetered on the brink of war. Nearly fifty star systems had declared their desire to leave the Republic, and had made it clear that they were willing to fight for their independence. The Senate was in disarray, and in the name of being able to act quickly in an emergency, the Supreme Chancellor was granted special executive wartime powers.

Through a series of treaties, the secession conflicts were resolved without bloodshed, but the Chancellor refused to give up his powers, citing the possibility that tensions may resurface. Most saw this as harmless; he kept the executive powers in his back pocket, but never actually used them more than once. The one use, however, was seen as an egregious breach of trust and tradition: before his retirement, the Chancellor appointed his son to serve as his successor.

This triggered a new wave of planets declaring independence from the Republic. They did not wish to live under the rule of what now seemed to be a monarchy. Fortunately, one senator acted swiftly in the face of this constitutional crisis.

1152 years ago, on what is now celebrated as Reformation Day, Senator Tyria Ruusan and a coalition of her colleagues stormed into the offices of the Chancellor, held the young man at gunpoint, and demanded he resign. This entire coalition of senators served together as Acting Chancellor until an election could be held. When the whole Senate gathered together to vote for the new Chancellor, Senator Ruusan was unanimously selected. As her first act in office, she surrendered the emergency powers that had belonged to her predecessors. Today, Reformation Day is celebrated as a holiday marking a rebirth of the Republic, and the First Reformation Day is the epoch of the current era in the Galactic Standard Calendar.

Chapter Text

Padmé Amidala glared at the Jedi as he paced from cave wall to cave wall. Much to her annoyance, Kenobi, who all things considered had been quite serene up to this point was rather restless, like he was finally about to go over the edge. The man scratched the back of his head as he turned on his heel; the dirt of the cave floor crunched beneath his boots.

The trio had retreated from the entrance to the crawler hive, giving them enough distance from the creatures that they could safely speak. Not that anyone had said much. A string of rather nasty curses had been the first thing out of Padmé’s mouth when she was convinced they were at a safe distance. Kenobi had just started pacing. Anakin had sat down on the cave floor and began fiddling with his stun baton, doing gods-knew-what to its inner workings.

Kenobi stopped his pacing and broke the silence. “Anakin, let me see that map again.”

Padmé’s husband looked up from his tinkering project and met the Jedi’s eyes. “It’s our only route, Obi-Wan. What’s the point?”

“I know,” the general said. “Just let me see it.” The scrapper shrugged, set his disassembled stun baton on the cave floor, and handed the map to the Jedi.

Obi-Wan unfurled the map, scanning the page for the crawler hive. “We can do this,” he said, holding the map out and motioning for Anakin and Padmé.

“We can do what ?” asked Padmé. The reversal of who was asking the stupid questions did nothing to improve her mood. She followed Kenobi’s finger as he traced a route through the crawler hive.

“The exit isn’t even all the way across the room. We enter here, on the south wall. Our way out is on the west wall. If we stick to the outside, we can make it through.”

“So, what, you’re suggesting we just . . . run?”

Kenobi nodded at Padmé’s input, then shrugged. “More or less.”

“Maybe toss a thermal detonator at them for good measure,” added Anakin. He didn’t look up from his work on the stun baton.

“Oh, great. Just great. Now you’re suggesting we throw bombs in a cave too?” Padmé said.

“Take it or leave it,” Anakin said, looking up with a grim smile. “Thought it might be nice to get a little revenge on the buggers.”

“Not if it brings a cave down on us, dear,” said Padmé. She exhaled deeply. “All right then. Best be on our way.”

“Hang on, I’m almost done here!” Anakin said.

“What exactly are you doing?” Obi-Wan asked, folding up the map and offering it back to Anakin. The scrapper didn’t take it. Instead, he held up his stun baton and wiggled it in the air.

“Cranking up the output. Thought I might be able to make it hurt the crawlers. Of course, that’ll make the jolt lethal to humans too.” He brought the baton back down and continued to fiddle with the insides with a small tool. “So . . . try not to get hit if I swing it, and remind me to turn it back down later.” Anakin snapped the casing of the baton handle back together, jumped to his feet, and snatched the map from Obi-Wan. “Okay, let’s do this.”

 

* * *

 

Kenobi walked at the front of the group as they approached the hive entrance. Padmé stood close to Anakin, trying to push the intrusive thoughts out of her head. This may be your last few minutes together , or If you put Kenobi in harm’s way you and Anakin will probably survive.

She was halted in her tracks when Kenobi held up a hand. The Jedi motioned for the couple to be quiet, and they huddled closely to whisper.

“They’re asleep,” he said.

“They’re what?” Padmé asked.

“Asleep, dormant, something like that. I don’t sense any activity in there. They aren’t moving, and they’re relaxed.”

Padmé raised her eyebrows. “You don’t sense anything? Come on, Kenobi—”

“What are you saying?” Anakin interrupted. “New plan?” His voice was shaky, and he was nervously rolling his stun baton around in his robotic hand.

“New plan. I think we can sneak through,” said Obi-Wan.

Padmé grimaced. Stealth was not their forte. It felt like every job she and Anakin had ever done that involved sneaking around had gone awry in one way or another. And this time there was no security system she could disable to give them an edge. No guard Anakin could distract, or diversion he could plant to draw a threat away. It was the three of them against a sleeping hive of giant bugs with super-hearing.

She removed her commlink from her belt and clicked the call button on and off a handful of times. “Once more for good luck,” she said when the two men looked at her with confusion. “Maybe this time it’ll finally work.”

They stood still in the cave for a few minutes, just in case, but no response came through on the commlink.

Anakin broke the silence. “Well, we should probably get this over with.”

Padmé removed her knapsack and retrieved three small rods of plastic. She handed one to Anakin, then offered the other one to Obi-Wan. He shot her a confused look.

“Glow rods. It’s pretty dark in there, I think we want to be able to see.”

“Hey, you made me carry that lamp around for nothing?”

“They’re called a last resort, dear, now shut up.” She bent her plastic rod, green light radiating from it in a sickly chemical glow. Once Anakin and Obi-Wan had followed suit, the trio clipped their glow rods to their belts. “All set, Kenobi?”  

Obi-Wan nodded, following behind Anakin as the scrapper squeezed through the hole into the crawler hive. Padmé tightened the straps on her knapsack, approached the hole, took a deep breath, and jumped in.

When she hit the floor of the hive, Padmé suppressed a grunt. The drop had been a decent-sized one, though much to her surprise it didn’t really hurt. The floor of the hive had a strange sponginess to it. It’ll help us sneak around, anyway .

Kenobi’s “sense” had been correct, it seemed—the crawlers appeared to be asleep. Occasionally their antennae would twitch fitfully, but none of them moved, and no mandibles clicked together. Padmé reached a hand down to her holstered blaster and ran her fingers along the grip. She hoped she wouldn’t need it, but knowing she had it there somehow made her feel safer.

Progress was, out of necessity, rather slow. Moving too fast risked making noise. The green of the trio’s glow rods bathed the cavern in an eerie light, casting strange shadows across the sleeping forms of the insectoids. Padmé kept her eyes ahead, focused on the exit. Measured, manual breaths left her mouth— in, then out.

This was nearly over. The end was in sight, and by this time tomorrow things would be back to the way they should be. Nice and simple. Just her and Anakin trying to make ends meet.

A piercing beep cut through her thoughts.

Another.

Then another.

The beeps resonated off the cave walls. It took her only a few seconds to realize what it was. I’ve got a signal .

The two men in front of her froze, then whirled around to stare as Padmé frantically snatched the commlink off her belt. She thumbed a button, intending to mute the incoming call. Instead, to her horror, she pressed the button to answer it.

Padmé, where the hell have you been?” a voice crackled over the comm. Padmé smashed the mute button on the device, but it was too late. The voice reverberated throughout the vaulted cavern, echoing off the stone.

The humans stood frozen for several seconds, silently hoping that perhaps they had somehow gotten away with that. The crawlers around them remained unmoving, and it seemed like they were in the clear.

Then the cavern filled with a horrible roar.

In the center of the room, a giant section of what Padmé had assumed to be part of the floor started to move . It lifted itself from the spongy ground with a horribly viscous sound, like two wet, sticky pieces of tape slowly coming apart.

The massive, worm-like creature writhed and wriggled into an upright position. Sticky fluid dripped from the clacking mandibles at its head.

Another roar tore through the chamber. Dozens of crawlers scrambled to their feet, joining in the chorus with a screech of their own.

In an instant, Obi-Wan’s lightsaber was in his hand and ignited. Anakin’s shock baton followed not far behind. Padmé, however, went not for her blaster, but for the knapsack. Thermal detonators, I’ve got to get the thermal—

She flinched as the ignited lightsaber flew by her, slicing no less than three approaching cave crawlers into several pieces.

“Padmé! Move!” It was Anakin, frantically yelling and waving for her to make her way to the cavern exit. But she had the detonators halfway out of the bag, and the two explosive devices could be the key to all of them making it out alive.

She scooped up the two metal spheres and put on the knapsack in quick succession, then stood and tried to find a sensible target. Several feet away, Anakin and Obi-Wan stood back to back, fighting off crawlers with their weapons. Not that way, then . The giant worm thing came to mind. Queen, maybe? Doesn’t matter . Padmé spun to face it, and found herself far closer to her target than she would’ve liked to be.

A horrid, gangrenous smell of rotting meat wafted from the thing’s open mouth. Its mandibles opened and closed like beckoning hands, yellow slime pouring from them. They were descending on her far faster than she could possibly draw her blaster, splayed open and ready to feast.

Funny, a small part of her thought, here I was always thinking Anakin would be the one to get himself killed being reckless.

And then, just before she squeezed her eyes shut, the massive worm froze.

 

* * *

 

Reflexively plunging his saber into yet another insectoid body, Obi-Wan watched in horror as the giant worm moved to bite Padmé in half. Time slowed, and he briefly considered throwing the saber as a last-ditch effort to save the woman.

No, he thought. You’d just hit—

And then the worm’s jaw locked in place less than a foot away from Padmé. It wriggled in discomfort, as if someone were squeezing the life out of it.

The Jedi glanced over at Anakin.

Skywalker had dropped his stun baton and was holding both hands out toward the worm. His face was nothing but pure rage. He screamed as he moved his hands further apart.

The worm began contorting into an unnatural shape, fleshy tissue doubling over on itself, mouthparts wailing. Its head was yanked away from Padmé, who took the opportunity to run toward a frozen Obi-Wan and toss a thermal detonator over her shoulder.

A massive gout of flame rocked the cavern, almost knocking the humans off their feet. The remaining crawlers squealed and skittered toward the source of the blast— away from the trio of humans.

Obi-Wan allowed his shoulders to relax, but Anakin remained transfixed on what remained of the worm, whose pulsing lower half had spattered the stone walls. With a groan of great effort, he yanked his arms apart as if he were throwing open a set of curtains.

The worm’s body tore in half lengthwise, sending another spray of sticky fluid out across the cavern. Anakin slumped downward, looking exhausted and utterly terrified. As Padmé ran by him, she grabbed his mechanical arm and dragged him toward the cavern exit. Obi-Wan scooped up the stun baton in his free hand, tossed one last glance over his shoulder to ensure that the crawlers were still otherwise engaged, and followed.

They didn’t get far. Moments later, a heaping pile of rock fell from the cavern ceiling and blocked the exit passage.

“Oh, come ON!” Padmé screamed. “This entire cave can go straight to—”

There was a great crash. Light poured into the crawler hive, and the whine of a pair of massive engines deafened the trio. What the hell—

A ship blasted into the cavern.

Obi-Wan, half-convinced the slime from the worm possessed hallucinogenic properties, was momentarily blinded by the headlights of the vessel, and held his hands up to his eyes. He couldn’t see much of the ship’s exterior. He supposed it didn’t really matter.

The arrival of the ship seemed to snap Anakin out of his shaky trance. “That’s our ride,” he shouted over the din of the engines. “Let’s go!”

As if on cue, the boarding ramp of the ship lowered. Padmé dashed up into the hull, followed by her husband. The Jedi snapped off his lightsaber and followed the couple up the ramp into the ship that was their savior. His eyes didn’t register anything beyond the blissful, beautiful sight of floridly artificial light enclosed within a hull.

And for the first time in nearly two days, Obi-Wan Kenobi felt truly relieved.

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: SHOCK BATON

Throughout the galaxy, melee weapons have fallen out of popular use. Blasters are the go-to for self defense and combat alike. However, there are still circumstances where a close-range weapon is preferred. They can be concealed easier than a blaster, and are useful in situations where making noise would be problematic. The galaxy’s most popular melee weapon is the vibroblade; its larger cousin the vibrosword is often used by pirate gangs in the Outer Rim.

For those looking for a non-lethal melee sidearm, the shock baton is the obvious choice. Originally developed for law enforcement and riot control squads, these collapsible weapons emit electrical energy capable of wreaking havoc on the muscular systems of most sentient beings.

Shock batons are technically not available for civilian purchase, since the power cell in a shock baton can easily be modified to deliver a lethal jolt of electricity. However, tech-savvy individuals have been able to build their own shock weapons which are a close approximation of the ones carried by police. The collapsible nature of the shock baton makes it easy to conceal; these mechanics and tinkerers will often disguise the weapon as part of their toolkit.

 

 

Chapter Text

Anakin managed three steps before he slumped against the wall of the ship in utter exhaustion; Obi-Wan, he noted out of the corner of his eye, followed suit. As Padmé sprinted aft for the ladder to the second deck, Anakin squeezed his eyes shut.

He knew that, when adrenaline finished raging through his body, the full realization of what he’d done back there in the hive would hit him. When that time came, he’d deal with his fear, the gnawing black decay he could already feel nibbling at his heart. For now, he just felt sick, almost as if he were observing his body from the outside. He wiped a gob of ichor from his forehead and exhaled violently.

A few moments later, he opened his eyes again. Obi-Wan’s must have been getting used to the light; the Jedi blinked rapidly, took a look around, and said, “This is. Well. It certainly saved our lives.”

Anakin gestured at nothing in particular, then let his mechanical arm fall back to the floor with a clunk. “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” he said in between deep breaths, “welcome to the Spice Dancer.

This elicited a raised eyebrow. Anakin just mumbled something about the previous owner picking the name. Normally he’d tell the story, but . . . well.

It was a ship, in that it flew and could technically break atmosphere. And its interior was something that Anakin had gotten used to after a while. But now, trying to see it through Obi-Wan’s eyes, he had to admit . . . the Spice Dancer  was, to put it gently, a piece of crap.

Paneling along the walls hung from threads or was gone entirely, victim to all manner of vermin—Padmé had once joked that they’d probably spread invasive species to three or four different planets. Exposed wiring and piping jutted from the holes. In the hallway to the left, the lighting units flickered intermittently; there was a persistent sparking noise coming from one that Anakin dearly hoped was nothing serious.

The Jedi rose to his feet. “Mind if I take a look around?”

Legs moaning in protest, the scrapper followed suit. “Yeah. Sure. I’ll show you the place.”

Down the flickering hallway they walked, emerging into the galley. There wasn’t much in the cupboards, but Anakin decided that he’d attempt to cook something tonight, after living on nothing but protein bars for the last day. Maybe. If he was up to it.

“What are these for?” Obi-Wan asked, gesturing at the metal bars that traversed the galley walls and ceiling. None of them were of a piece—Anakin had been installing them gradually over the course of a few years—and they dotted basically the entire surface of the room.

The pilot shrugged. “Well, the artificial gravity has a tendency to . . . not work all that well sometimes.”

He could tell that the general was trying to be polite, but it was getting to be a stretch. “Is that—have you tried fixing it?”

“Sure, but grav generators aren’t the friendliest things to work on. Last thing I want is to go in there and dial it up too high, leave me stuck to the thing. So, grab-bars, for when things get weird.”

“Ah.” Easing himself into one of the dining chairs, the Jedi closed his eyes. “Well, lucky for me we’re underground, then.”

Before Anakin could reply, there was a sudden grinding noise. Obi-Wan’s eyes shot open again. “Have we hit something?”

The scrapper frowned. “No, that’s the landing gear.”

“I thought your camp was a ways off.”

“It is. Probably the coolant again.” He growled; seemed he couldn’t go a single flight without patching the damn thing. Maybe it’s at least just a warning and not a full-on breach—

A klaxon started to blare. There it is.

“I’ll be back,” Anakin told the Jedi. Turning and shuffle-sprinting, he made his way for the ladder. “LIZ, WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO MY SHIP?

 

* * *

 

Obi-Wan sighed and ran his hands over his face. Now that the Spice Dancer ’s owner was otherwise engaged, he didn’t have to hide his distaste for the thing. He was rather sure that even sitting still in the middle of the galley constituted a safety hazard—a long length of cable dangled from the ceiling, what looked like stripped wiring sprouting from its tip. And if the gravity were indeed to stop working while they were in space, he could see himself getting impaled on one of the corners of the table, which was nothing more than a metal rectangle bolted to the floor.

Still, a ship was a ship, provided the coolant Anakin had mentioned didn’t blow them all to bits. And at least the pilot was the one dealing with machines—

The klaxon ceased, and a measured clank ing started growing louder. Obi-Wan leaned his head around the edge of the doorway to see a silhouette headed down the ladder. Whatever it was, it didn’t appear to be human—it was too tall for that, and seemed to only have a left arm. And were its eyes—luminescent ? They seemed to be glowing scarlet.

Oh. It was a droid.

“—maybe if someone hadn’t stolen my arm I would have been able to blast through a cave wall while monitoring the coolant levels!” it shouted from the base of the ladder. Obi-Wan had a sudden desire to bury himself in the far corner of the galley, but it was too late—the machine looked down and spotted him.

“Who the hell is this?” it barked, striding toward the galley. As it entered the light, Obi-Wan saw that it was not really a single droid so much as an amalgamation of several different ones. The legs were blocky and stout, suited to loadlifting, but the left arm was roughly humanoid. Two mismatched bits of plate covered its chest housing; an antenna stuck out of the right side of its head, whose “eyes” seemed designed to mimic a bipedal humanoid’s but whose lower half was missing a jaw flap or mouthlike vocabulator. The utter disregard for symmetry and consistency was almost impressive.

“Don’t tell me we’re dragging in another stray when this ship barely holds the three of us, Skywalker,” it said as Anakin emerged from the ladder, a wrench held in his flesh hand.

He threw Obi-Wan an exasperated look. “Keep it up,” he told the droid, “and you’ll see just how small a corner of this ship I can make you fit into.” Fiddling with the wrench, he hit the hatch release on the far side of the room. “Obi-Wan, Liz, Liz, Obi-Wan. If you’ll excuse me, I have a leak to take care of.”

As its owner ducked out of the room, the droid turned back to Obi-Wan. Its eyes, he noted, had changed color—the harsh scarlet was now a cool, gentle blue.

“Oh, it’s lovely to make your acquaintance, Mister Obi-Wan!” The voice was technically the same, but it had altered so much in tone and timbre that it might as well have come from a separate vocabulator. It sounded genuinely pleased to see him. When was the last time that was the case?

It extended its sole arm. “Welcome to our home. I am LZ-A24.”

Cautiously, the Jedi took the droid’s hand in his own and shook. “Erm . . . Obi-Wan Kenobi. A pleasure.”

“For one of us, freeloader.” Without warning, the eyes snapped back to red, and Obi-Wan could feel metal fingers starting to dig into his hand. With an effort, he yanked away from the droid’s grasp.

Had he been any less tired, the Jedi probably would have been alarmed by all this. As it was, he simply collapsed back into his chair and wearily regarded the crimson eyes. “Liz, was it?”

“LZ-A24, thank you very damn much. Don’t you patronize me with pet names when you already took my gods-damned arm from me.” It paused for a moment, and this time Obi-Wan could see the transition happening—red faded to purple faded to blue, and the droid cocked its head. When it next spoke, the other voice emerged from its vocabulator. “Though of course he needed it more than I did. He even said to me, ‘Liz, I hate to ask you this,’ and I could tell he meant it.” It emitted a burst of static similar to a contented sigh. “Oh, Mister Anakin is such a nice man.”

To Obi-Wan’s relief, Padmé emerged from the second deck. “If she snaps back too hard on you, Kenobi, let me know and I’ll power her down.” She brushed past the droid and pulled open a cabinet. “Her moods have been getting worse since Anakin needed that arm.”

“What’s, erm . . .”

“Wrong with her?” She withdrew a protein bar from the cabinet and ripped open the wrapper. “Well, she’s cobbled together from about half a dozen different droids, and her brain is more like a set of brains. Anakin never figured out how to fix it, and we can’t exactly afford to replace her.”

“But don’t you think that my functions are at all impaired!” chirped Liz. “I get by without any problem.”

The Jedi leaned closer to Padmé. “Are there any triggers I should avoid?”

“Trust me, if it were that easy we would know.” She put a hand to her temple. “Let’s just hope she stays this way for a while.”

He nodded. After a few moments’ silence: “Are you all right?”

Waving her hand dismissively, she took another bite of protein bar. “Ask me when I’ve wiped all the crawler guts off my skin.”

“I truly am sorry for the trouble this has caused you.”

“Well,” she said. Paused to munch. “If my braindead husband decides to get you off this rock, it’ll just have to entail a lot of hazard pay.”

Maybe it was her tiredness, or the fact that she’d almost had her head devoured by a worm, or maybe he was simply grasping at nothing, but Obi-Wan was rather sure these were the first non-hostile words she’d said to him all day.

“Oh look,” said Liz, her eyes snapping back. “It’s the braindead husband.”

Sure enough, Anakin emerged a moment later, grease covering his flesh hand. “Well, think that oughta hold it for now.”

Obi-Wan looked back at Padmé. “Speaking of that . . . no offense intended, but is this thing even capable of spaceflight?”

“Hey, now,” said Anakin, defensive, “we did fly to this planet on it. It’s had a few bumps since then, but—”

“It’s academic anyway,” Padmé cut in. “Until the bombardment stops.”

“If you’d been paying attention,” Liz said, “you’d know the bombardment has ended.”

All organic eyes in the room whipped to meet hers. “Wait, what?”

Though he knew it was impossible, Obi-Wan could swear he detected something smug in the droid’s expression. “I see. Now everyone wants to know my opinion, now I’m valuable. You organics act so superior until we know something you don’t—”

“Liz,” Anakin said, “I will take your other arm right now.”

The droid’s vocabulator made a sullen noise. “According to my internal clock, there have been no tremors anywhere throughout the local cave system for the last twelve standard timeparts. They’ve been occurring every one to three for the last thirty days. Draw your own conclusions.”

Obi-Wan felt a mingling of joy and terror. If the bombardment had stopped, it meant unobstructed skies, a clear takeoff. But it also meant that the Confederacy was up to something.

“You know anything about this, Kenobi?” Padmé asked, eyebrows lowering.

“I can guess,” he replied. “Most likely they’ve realized that my ride planetside broke through the crust. The hole definitely wasn’t big enough to launch an invasion through, though.”

“So they’ll be widening the hole next,” Anakin finished for him.

The Jedi nodded. “They won’t risk orbital strikes. That could close the hole as easily as make it bigger. So they’ll be starting air-to-surface bombardment, I’d imagine.”

“When?”

He sighed. “I’ll be completely honest, I’ve lost all sense of time down here. We have a window. I don’t know how large.”

There was silence. Then Liz broke in: “Who the hell is this guy?”

“Anakin, how serious is that coolant problem?” Obi-Wan asked the pilot.

Anakin exhaled deeply. “I patched it up enough to get us back to the camp. But if we want to take off into orbit . . . I’ll need to look at it.”

“Not to mention there’s the minor problem that we haven’t agreed to take you anywhere but back to the camp yet,” said Padmé. The general raised his hands in surrender.

“Look,” said her husband. “None of us in any shape to be going anywhere right now. Let’s just get back to camp for now and . . . and rest.” He gestured at Obi-Wan with his mechanical arm. “There’s a guest cabin through here, if you want to sit on something a bit softer.”

Obi-Wan managed, with some degree of effort, to smile wearily. “If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather wait til we’re back at your camp. Just to make sure nothing else goes terribly wrong.”

The corner of the pilot’s mouth crooked upward. “Fair enough.” He looked at his wife. “You, uh, care to help me get us back home?”

She swallowed the rest of her protein bar. “Aye, captain.” Shooting Liz a look: “Don’t try to kill the new guy, Liz. He’s not exactly a pushover.”

As husband and wife left the galley, the droid’s eyes slowly slid back to blue. She looked down at Obi-Wan. “Oh, she likes you!”

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: TANTALUS SYS-P5 YACHT

Tantalus Replica Shipyards was a small corporation on the Outer Rim world of Ord Radama known for producing knockoffs of more famous vessels. Their final creation, the SYS-P5 Yacht, “pays homage” to the J-type 327 Nubian Royal Starship. Production was halted when the Theed Palace Space Vessel Engineering Corps filed a copyright strike claiming that, despite the knockoff’s smaller size and slightly different shape, it was clearly infringing on the patented designs of the J-type 327.

The shipyard claimed that they were exempt from such copyright laws, as they did business exclusively on a non-member world of the Galactic Republic. However, during the months-long court proceedings, Ord Radama joined the Republic, and this changed the direction of the case considerably. In the aftermath of the lawsuit the shipyard was forced to cease production of the SYS-P5, closing its doors only a few months later. No more than a dozen of the ships were ever completed, and fewer still exist today, as the model was notoriously unreliable.

Electrical failures, poorly attached interior paneling, a propensity for hull rusting, imbalanced landing legs, and an inconsistent artificial gravity generator are just a few of the issues known to plague the vessel. Its rarity has done nothing to drive up its price; when the few existing ships do change hands, a shockingly low sum of credits is traded as well. Whether buying one is actually a good deal is another matter entirely.

 

Chapter Text

Mon Mothma slumped back in her chair. “General Kenobi? A Jedi?”

Well, thought Bail, she doesn’t think I’m crazy. That’s something.

“If they’ve worked their way into the Defense Forces . . .” she shook her head. “They could be anywhere. Corporations. Defense contractors. Even government.”

“Obi-Wan is the only one I know of,” Bail told her. “And if they had any sinister intentions, you have my word that he would not have remained with them. I trust him with my life.”

She nodded, though it didn’t seem very certain. “How did you find out?”

“When I was first elected to the Senate, we had a meeting in my office. I didn’t know him personally then—I only knew of his reputation as the best general Alderaan had. When he walked in, he laid his lightsaber on the table, just like that. And then he said that if I were to require his resignation from his command he would understand perfectly, but that he very much hoped he’d be able to continue to serve.”

“And you agreed?”

“Well, I couldn’t very well demand the resignation of someone who’d done so much good for the planet. But I told him we had to talk further. We continued to meet, and . . . eventually I realized he was someone I’d call a friend.”

“And how much has he told you about the Jedi?”

The Chancellor shook his head. “Don’t mistake me, Obi-Wan’s loyalties are not in the least conflicted. He would never deceive me or hide something from me. But when I ask him about the Order, he responds in hints and fragments. For my own protection as much as the Jedi’s, if not more, I’m sure.” His colleague did not look convinced. “I have a pretty strong suspicion that at least one of them works in or around this building, keeping an eye on things. But that’s all it is, a suspicion.”

“And he never gave you any way to contact someone in case he should get into trouble?”

“His job was to protect me,” he said. “Not the other way around. That’s what he said, anyway.”

Mon reached across the desk to rest a hand on his own. “Bail, I don’t mean to question your friendship. But . . . from what you’ve said, General Kenobi seems to have given you very little in exchange for you keeping an extremely sensitive secret. What makes you trust him so?”

He hesitated. How to put it into words, this thing he had never told anyone—anyone except Breha, who was the furthest thing from a distant Senate colleague imaginable? “Being a Jedi is everything to Obi-Wan. He’s been with the Order since he was a boy; it’s all he knows. And at the same time, serving the Republic is everything to him. He finished his training early so he could come back to Alderaan and join up. There are two halves to him, each one absolutely vital to the person he is. And he offered them both up to me. If I wished, I could have drummed him out of the Defense Force; I could have had him executed for treason. And he still laid his life at my feet because he felt to do otherwise would be to neglect his duty.” The Chancellor shook his head. “There’s no guile in him. He’s the most honorable man I know.”

For a while, silence hung in the air. Bail cleared his throat. “There I go, making foolish impassioned speeches again,” he said, and immediately regretted the crack.

The Senator shook her head. “All right, Bail.”

He looked at her quizzically. “All right what?”

“I’m going to help you find him.”

Releasing a breath he hadn’t realized til just now he’d been holding, Bail grasped her hand. “Thank you.”

“Right. Well then,” she said, her voice turning businesslike, “you have me for fifteen minutes. And then I’ll have to get back to keeping you in this office.”

 

* * *

 

The sound of metal on tile jolted Valis awake. Wincing, she reached up to rub her stiff neck, only for the motion to cause her whole body to slowly rotate. She blinked several times to ward off the confusion of sleep, then realized what had happened—she’d fallen asleep in her cabin desk chair. The glow of a computer monitor bathed her in harsh light; she hastily reached forward to shut the screen off, then put her elbows on the desk and groggily surveyed her surroundings.

The massive piece of furniture was positioned so that whoever sat behind it faced the cabin’s entry door. Next to the door was an arrangement of chairs around a coffee table, and along the wall there was a wet bar—whoever had designed the cabin had probably intended for the ship’s commanding officer to host guests in the office space, though Valis had only ever used the wet bar for herself. The real statement of the office, though, was the window. A massive transparisteel panel ran along almost the entire outer wall of the room, offering an impressive view out into the void. Maul would have liked it.

“Ridiculous” had been the first word out of Valis’ mouth when she had seen it. The shipyard employees had brought her to the cabin while the Charybdis was still under construction. They were clearly proud of their handiwork. This is a flagship for a war fleet, not a cruise line, she had snapped at the architect. She’d asked for the window to be removed entirely, but was told it was impossible. They’d settled on a compromise: blast doors that could cover the panel during battle. She had the blast doors open now, though—she’d come to appreciate the view.

With the glow of the computer monitor extinguished, the cabin was now only lit by the faint illumination trickling through the viewport. The fleet’s other starships drifted outside Valis’ window, casting a gentle glow into the room. Her eyes took a moment to adjust to the low light. When she could see well enough, the admiral glanced down at the floor in the direction of the noise that had yanked her from her sleep.

A metal wine glass rolled in a lazy circle on the floor of the cabin. Valis squinted at the cup, momentarily unsure of how it had gotten there. On her desk sat the answer. A bottle of wine—a rather cheap one, an old favorite from her mercenary days. Three-fourths of the bottle was gone. That explains the headache, thought Valis, rubbing her temples.

“Droid!” she said aloud, her voice scratchy. “Pick that up.” She gestured lazily to the cup on the floor. A series of electronic beeps came from underneath the coffee table; then a black, disc-shaped droid with several spidery appendages skittered out across the office floor. The robot was fairly small—Valis could have picked it up in one hand—but its multitude of limbs made it adept at a number of household tasks. Sure, it was programmed to be slightly clingy, but it mostly stayed out of the way, and it didn’t talk.

Valis liked that about the droid. It was certainly capable of speech, but she had instructed it not to use the voice synthesizer unless absolutely necessary. It’s just nice to be able to talk at something that can’t talk back, she had explained to the droid when she implemented the speaking ban. It had simply beeped a happy tune in response.

Valis stood, catching herself on her desk chair as her balance wavered. I forgot how hard that stuff hits, she thought, mentally scolding herself for drinking so much in one evening. Two staredowns with the Zabrak in one day, though—she supposed she’d earned it. Picking up the bottle and shoving the cork back inside, she shuffled over to the office’s wet bar.

Her droid was already there, tossing the wine glass into the sink. “I’ve got it,” she said, waving the robot away. It whistled an affirmative and scuttled to the other side of the counter. Valis placed the mostly-empty wine bottle in a cabinet, then turned the sink on and rinsed out her wine glass.

“I just don’t get it,” she mumbled to the droid without looking up. “I spent how many hours digging through the archives?” Confident the wine glass was clean enough, Valis held it under the tap and allowed it to fill with water. When it had reached capacity, she held it to her lips and threw back its contents.

After the encounter with Melko, she’d pored over the Confederate Archives for hours, hoping to find even a shred of information about the organization’s mystery benefactor. The hand that guided Maul. But if this person was involved in the day-to-day of the Galactic Confederacy, the records didn’t show it. Every non-clone crew member she had researched had, allegedly, been hired on Kamino or via a message sent from Kamino.

Gammeth Melko, Executive Officer, was hired in a messaging blast sent to potential Republic defectors. The Confederacy had wanted a mass exodus of traitors, and they had gotten it. Lan Ennam, late captain of the Helios , meanwhile, had been interviewed personally in Tipoca City. So had the helmsman of the Charybdis . Valis had thought she was getting somewhere when she found the file of the Charybdis’ chief engineer. Alas, the only difference was that instead of being contacted by the inhabitants of Kamino, he had reached out to them.

“They just can’t expect me to believe the Kaminoans hired everyone,” she said (quietly—she was pretty confident the cabin wasn’t bugged, but it didn’t hurt to be careful). “They’re scientists, not strategists. They churn out the wetworks, they don’t make personnel decisions.” The droid beeped a trio of descending notes in reply.

Valis stepped away from the wet bar, the sink shutting itself off automatically. As she walked toward the rear of the office, her droid scuttled off the wet bar counter and followed her. It’s like a pet, Valis thought. At least it cleans up after me instead of the other way around.

The office’s back door led to her bedroom—she looked forward to finishing the night’s sleep in something more comfortable than a desk chair—but she stopped short of the door when she realized her droid was behind her, chirping a strange rhythm.

She recognized the pattern. It meant the thing had something to say. Valis narrowed her eyes and turned on a heel to face the robot. She glared down at it. “What is it?”

“Activity alert on the Restricted Deck.”

“Come again?” the admiral asked, genuinely confused.

“Forty-seven minutes ago, you requested an alert be placed on all unusual Restricted Deck activity.”

Valis furrowed her brow. It seemed like something she would do, but she had no memory of actually doing it. Clearly some of the tolerance for booze she’d built up had gone down. “And?” she asked the droid.

“There is unusual activity on the Restricted Deck.”

Rolling her eyes: “Specify.”

“The Restricted Deck hangar bay is opening its blast doors.”

She froze. “Someone is landing?”

“No, ma’am. Hangar crew is preparing the Scimitar for departure.”

Just to be sure her sense of time hadn’t been thrown off by the wine, she glanced at the chronometer on her office wall. It read just after 0200 hours ship time. Not that the time of day mattered much to Maul. He probably wasn’t planning on sleeping tonight anyway, she thought to herself. Still, Valis couldn’t shake the feeling that he was leaving now specifically so she would miss his departure.

“Where’s he going?” she asked the robot.

“Unknown. Lord Maul has not yet filed a flight plan.”

“Of course he hasn’t,” grumbled Valis. She clenched her fist; her frustration seemed to wash away the fog of the alcohol.

She strode angrily toward a shelf in her office that was set into the wall. Intended for the commanding officer’s personal decorations, it carried only one item: a vibrosword nestled on a display stand.

“Mistress Valis, what are you—”

“Quiet,” said the admiral. The droid made a whirring noise, as if a motor was spinning down.

Valis reached out toward the vibrosword and ran her fingers along the hilt’s intricate carvings. She had to admit to herself that it would feel good to threaten Maul with the weapon. But doing so would also be likely to get her killed. And it wouldn’t do to be seen stomping through the halls of the Charybdis brandishing a sword. She forced herself to step away. Another time, perhaps .

“I’ll be back, droid,” she said, not turning to address the robot. It beeped a staccato pair of notes as the captain’s cabin door whooshed shut behind her.

 

* * *

 

“Assuming there is a Jedi in this building,” Mon said, “they may very well have left for the Had system already. Your leak has obviously not gone unnoticed.”

“But,” Bail countered, “they’re not just going to fly into the system willy-nilly. That’s a good way of getting two Jedi killed. They’ll need a plan of action. That means either getting intelligence from one of the other Defense Committee members, or from me. And I can’t see anyone else in that group being friendly with Force users.”

She shook her head and took a sip of the caf the Chancellor had asked the receptionist droid to bring. “But that brings us back to square one. We can’t wait for them to contact you directly, and you have no way of making the first move.” Staring out the window at the vast expanse of buildings and traffic, she pondered. “You have to do something that’s absolutely guaranteed to get their attention, provided they have an eye on you.”

“Pity we can’t fake a terrorist attack on the Senate dome.”

He’d expected her to wave off the halfhearted quip, but a curiously thoughtful gleam entered her eyes. “That’s it.”

“What?”

“Personal danger.”

Bail raised an eyebrow. “Now, Senator Mothma, what’s gotten into you?”

“The Jedi have a vested interest in protecting the Republic’s interests,” she said. “What’s more, they have very good reason to want you to stay in power. After all, they have a direct line to the Chancellor as of right now—how often does that opportunity come along? If anything were to put you in harm’s way, they’d want you out of it as soon as possible.”

It was a little disorienting to have someone else in the office coming up with a foolish last-ditch plan. Not a bad feeling, though—it was almost like having a conspirator. Bail found himself smiling. “Not bad, Senator. But what do you recommend we do to put me in danger? I don’t really have the first idea about faking an assassination attempt.”

She frowned. “Yes, that’s true. Not to mention you’re surrounded by armed guards any time you leave this building. Even if we could hire an actor on such short notice, the threat wouldn’t be credible.” Another sip of caf. “I don’t suppose a severe crisis in vote-whipping counts as much of a personal threat.”

“Wait a minute.” He felt a slightly hysterical smile working at the corner of his mouth. “You’re going to hate me for this.”

Mon looked inquisitive for a moment, then understood. “No.”

“I get myself into actual danger.”

“Bail—”

“You’re right, the Jedi can’t afford to have me wind up dead. And beyond the political motive, they’re the self-appointed guardians of peace and justice, yes? They won’t let an innocent man get killed.”

“Ignoring the complete and utter irresponsibility of this plan,” his colleague said, “to return to my previous point—you’re constantly under guard. How do you plan to bait an assassin when that’s the case?”

“Just do what I did when I was a boy—sneak out the window and head out on my own,” he said. He stood and started to walk around—the nervousness he could feel brewing inside him was giving him energy. “Somewhere that’ll set off alarm bells inside the heads of anyone who’s watching for my safety. Somewhere there are always street gangs looking to jump the first unarmed person who looks vaguely wealthier than they are.”

“Bail. No.”

He stooped to refill his cup of caf, then raised it in a half-toast. “Lovely day for a walk in the Underworld, don’t you think?”

 

* * *

 

Sure enough, as Valis stormed into the hangar, the Scimitar was fueling up. It was of a pair with Maul’s quarters; textureless, grey, spartan, the twin nacelles jutting from its engine dome the only part of it that wasn’t negative space. It was the only ship of its kind Valis had ever seen, and that wasn’t often.

The bay was rather small; the Scimitar took up most of the space, leaving room enough for maybe another starfighter or two. Mechanic droids and a handful of clone technicians buzzed about, refueling the Scimitar and preparing it for launch. The warlord himself was nowhere to be found, though Valis had a guess as to where he was. The boarding ramp of his ship was lowered, flanked on either side by his two security escorts.

She had faced them down before, and she could do it again. She marched toward the guards, spitting as she approached, “Where is he? Maul ?”

The Zabrak strolled down the boarding ramp, his cloak fluttering as he walked. Valis stopped in her tracks. There was something. . . off about him, especially compared to his agitation the last time she’d seen him. As if he were . . . relaxed .

“What is it?” he asked. His voice was soft, his tone even and measured.

“Where are you going?” Valis demanded.

“The situation on Had Abbadon requires my attention, Admiral,” said Maul. “Surely you agree.”

“Why?” she barked, feeling like a petulant child even as she said it. Obviously the man was right—it was why he’d decided to be right that was bothering her.

“We cannot land troops while a Jedi lurks beneath the surface. Kenobi will shred every wetwork we throw at him.”

If the casual admission that he’d lied to her was supposed to be bait, she didn’t take it. The use of wetwork was slightly more concerning, coming as it did within range of a clone mechanic. The unit didn’t seem fazed by the use of the pejorative term or the blatant lack of regard for his life. Nonetheless, while the admiral as a rule took no steps to earn the respect of the clones herself––they were programmed to give it, after all––she was always careful not to piss them off.

“There’s something else, Maul,” she persisted.

A corner of his mouth raised in what might have been a smirk. “Is that a question?”

It was at this moment Valis noticed: Maul was standing still. Not in the way he occasionally froze mid-action—he hadn’t moved at all since he had descended the Scimitar’ s boarding ramp. No pacing, no eyes darting back and forth. He seemed almost normal.

Something is wrong with him, Valis thought. “Kenobi has been a thorn in this operation’s side for some time, and yet until now you’ve stayed here. What’s changed?”

“The bombers will arrive in the system soon,” said Maul. “When we open up the surface, I will descend beneath and kill him.”

“But you’re going alone. Without backup,” Valis said, silently cursing herself for letting concern slip into her voice. What the hell is this? I’m talking tactics with him. He doesn’t think in tactical terms, he’s got to be relaying someone else’s words.

Maul gestured to his two guards. “I will have backup.”

“Backup ships, Maul. We can spare a frigate or two.”

“You have said yourself we cannot,” Maul said, squinting at the admiral. “Minimal presence in the system, so as not to draw the ire of the Republic. Those were your orders to the fleet.”

Again the smirk. He knew enough to turn her own commands against her, if nothing else. “There’s nothing I can do?” she asked.

Maul locked gazes with her. “When your assistance is required, you will know.”

His point made, he spun on a heel and ascended the boarding ramp of the Scimitar. The two armored guards turned and followed him up the ramp.

Valis retreated from the ship, walking backwards, always facing the vessel. She stayed planted in place as the whine of the Scimitar’ s engines swirled the air about in the hangar. The admiral didn’t move until she had seen the vessel pass through the hangar’s magnetic field , turn, and wink out of existence into hyperspace. Then, slowly, she turned around and made her way to her cabin.

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES:  SCIMITAR

The personal starship of the Confederate warlord does not match any known makes or models in the Galactic Republic database. This one-of-a-kind vessel was produced by an unknown shipyard at an unknown date and time for an unknown sum of credits.

Republic Intelligence reports indicate the ship is crewed only by droids and the warlord himself. It appears to possess a form of stealth technology. Though it is impossible to completely cloak a ship from enemy sensors, the Scimitar is capable of “blurring” its heat signature. In theory, this would make weapons lock-on extremely difficult. Tracking the Scimitar when it is among a larger fleet—such as during a space battle—is likely almost impossible.

Attempts to discern the vessel’s origin in the hopes of reproducing it for use by Republic Special Forces have thus far been unsuccessful. Schematics for a ship of similar design were recovered by archaeologists several years ago on the planet Korriban. The ship depicted in them was similar in shape to the Scimitar, but the schematics were far too ancient to be of any use to a modern military.

Chapter Text

Obi-Wan leaned back into the booth of the Spice Dancer ’s dining table, moving carefully so as not to make one of the handful of tears in the seat’s fabric any worse. He was trying to relax, LZ-A24’s presence made it difficult; she was tinkering with something behind one of the galley’s loose wall panels, and Obi-Wan could have sworn she was giving him sideways glances.

Sitting in silence for a few minutes, he hoped that keeping quiet would be the key to preventing the droid’s personality from changing. It wasn’t working. Each glance from the robot alternated between piercing red and inviting blue. The Jedi waited until he saw the latter color before speaking up.

“So, Liz,” said Obi-Wan. “How long is the ride back to this camp of yours?”

The droid’s eyes clicked back to red. “If Skywalker wants to get us there without blowing the ship up, he’ll take it slow.” The eyes faded blue, and she continued in the softer voice. “I really should have been more careful, but I knew Anakin and Padmé were in trouble. I flew too fast. That’s why we overheated. Limping back like this might take a standard timepart.”

Oh dear, thought Obi-Wan. He was not about to spend the next sixty minutes alone with this droid. As Liz turned back to her work on the wall panel, the general slid out of the booth and headed aft. “Be careful!” he heard her cheerily call.

The base of the narrow ladder that led to the second deck, he noticed, was missing its bottom rung. Sighing, he hopped up to the next rung on the ladder and ascended, hoping that none of the others would give out on him.

Emerging into the cockpit, Obi-Wan saw that the Dancer ’s viewport was largely covered in dust; it was only due to the frontward lights blasting into the cave that anything could even be seen through the transparisteel. A curved control panel lined the lower edge of the viewport; pilot and copilot seats sat in front. Staggered behind the front row of seats was a second row, presumably for passengers; taking up the rear was a small swiveling chair facing a cracked display panel.

He settled into the passenger chair on the right, behind Padmé. Squinting through the dirtied viewport, he was able to take in his first view of the exterior of the Spice Dancer . Every single panel seemed to be coated in rust, and a few had corroded to the point that they were missing corners or pocked with holes. The oxidized brown color somewhat ruined the otherwise clean lines of the vessel’s structure.

“Oh my,” was all that Obi-Wan could manage.

“Hey, don’t judge,” Padmé said, turning to face the Jedi with a bit of a wolfish grin on her face. “It adds character.”

“What color is the ship supposed to be?” he asked.

“Grey, I think,” offered Anakin.

“Oh, you don’t even know!” Liz barked from below; judging by her voice, Obi-Wan could make a pretty good guess as to which mood she was in. “This scrap heap was covered in rust the day you bought it.”

“She’s not wrong,” the pilot admitted. “If I scrub too hard to find out what it was, though, I’d probably tear right through the hull.”

“She heard that?” Obi-Wan asked. A droid with ears that sensitive was most definitely going to be a liability.

“Not exactly,” Anakin replied. His mechanical arm reached for a switch on the Spice Dancer’ s control panel, toggling it off; then he turned back to face the cockpit ladder. “Dammit, Liz, quit eavesdropping!” He faced forward again, continuing: “Sorry about that. I fed the ship’s intercom into her auditory sensors. That switch there controls whether she can hear it. Must have left it on. Don’t worry, she won’t overhear any Republic secrets.”

“You did what? Why?”

“I was bored,” Anakin said. “Trust me, Obi-Wan, if you were stuck here for a month you’d start tinkering with your ship too.”

“Oh, I’m not sure I––”

“Do you even have a ship, Kenobi?” Padmé interrupted. “Or does the Defense Force just fly you everywhere?”

“Oh, I do, but it’s not much. Two seats, no weapons or shields––”

“Oh man,” said Anakin, “that thing must be super light. Fun to fly?”

“I really wouldn’t––”

Anakin cut him off. “After we get out of here we’re taking your ship for a spin. We’ll knock a little off your flight price.” Padmé glared at her husband.

Obi-Wan sighed. Couldn’t be any worse than riding a swoop bike with him. He gave a defeated shrug. “Sure. Military hardware, though. You break it, you go in the brig.”

The trio sat in silence for several minutes, staring out the window as the starship’s headlights illuminated the cavern in front of them. The tube of rock stretched into the distance, becoming a portal of darkness past the edge of the headlights. Obi-Wan could almost feel himself getting sucked in.

His trance was interrupted as Anakin depressed the intercom button and shouted: “Liz, get up here!”

“I’m busy, Skywalker!” came the gruff reply, not through the intercom speakers but rather shouted from the bottom of the access ladder.

“Don’t care! I need directions.”

“You could just let me fly back,” grumbled the droid as she clanked up the cockpit ladder.  

“Not happening,” said Padmé. “Not unless we want another overheat.”

Anakin gestured forward, out the window. The ship had arrived at a split in the cave. “Left or right?”

“This is why you called me up here? Just use the damn navicomputer.”

“Can’t afford the power draw. You botched the startup sequence. If I turn on the navicomputer it’ll blow a fuse.”

“It’ll what ?” Obi-Wan sputtered. Padmé mumbled something about needing to power the ship’s systems up in a very specific order. To be perfectly honest, the Jedi thought to himself, the engineering feat that was flying this ship in its current state was almost more impressive than repairing the thing properly would have been.

Liz’s eyes faded blue. “My apologies, Mister Anakin. I will try to be more careful in the future. It’s a left turn at this junction.”

“Aye aye,” said Anakin, nodding and giving a two-fingered salute. He directed the ship towards the passage on the left and eased the accelerator forward.

The Spice Dancer continued to limp through the cave, weaving around natural pillars and over piles of fallen boulders.The terrain looked rather treacherous at points, and Obi-Wan was grateful that they weren’t trying to traverse it on foot. It was lucky for them that the tunnels around here were large enough to fit a vessel this large; the Jedi didn’t fancy the idea of running into a tight squeeze in this thing and being unable to back out again.

As the ship rounded the next tight corner, Obi-Wan noticed a glow in the distance. “Is that it? Have we made it?” he asked. He looked up at Anakin and saw a smile.

“Yeah. We made it.”

 

* * *

 

The boarding ramp of the lowered to the cave floor with a great thud, as though someone had dropped it in place rather than lowering it gently. Padmé noticed the general shoot her a nervous glance, and she shrugged. “Relax, Kenobi. It does that sometimes.” The Jedi didn’t seem at all relieved to hear this, but it wasn’t her job to calm him down. Gods, I’ve never seen such a capable fighter be so damned fussy about things.

The Dancer was hardly in tip-top shape, but it was the closest thing she and Anakin had to a home these past few years. And this camp was their current neighborhood, even if the scenery left something to be desired. She strolled to the bottom of the boarding ramp, leaned against the landing gear, and took it all in.

The camp was packed with row upon row of tents, lean-tos, and other improvised shelters. A few starships dotted the perimeter of the rectangular cavern, with various chambers cut into the walls to serve as another set of dwellings. The roof formed a dome of sorts, stretching upward to the point that the centermost part of the ceiling was enveloped in black. It could make for a curious combination of claustrophobia and agoraphobia, but after a month Padmé was largely used to it. It helped that there were always people milling about—there wasn’t any sort of circadian rhythm you could really develop in an area with no daylight, so the refugees tended to keep their own sleeping schedules.

Decades prior, the camp had been a storage room for a mining company, and the wall chambers were once meant to serve as massive shelves. Now, rope ladders dangled from nearly every one, and curtains covered them to offer the families living within a modicum of privacy. The tent dwellings that everyone else had set up were by no means lightproof or soundproof, but it was better than there being no walls at all between people’s dwellings.

String lights crisscrossed the cavern, and on the wall opposite where the Dancer had landed there were several stalls arranged in a semicircle where traders had set up a marketplace. A poor substitute for Jira Grotto if you were looking for spectacle, but Padmé knew from personal experience that you were far less likely to be ripped off here. Not that anyone had much to rip off, at this stage.

Closing her eyes and taking a deep breath, she let the musty smell flood her nostrils; the damp scent of the cave packed with so many life forms was comforting, in a way. The exhalation she released felt like a final exorcism of the anxiety she’d been feeling for most of the past two days. A grin crossed her face as her husband darted down the boarding ramp, toward a crowd of refugees that had gathered near the ship.

Kenobi, she noticed, was hesitant as he walked down the ramp. He pulled his tattered cloak tighter around his body, then grimaced when it presumably brushed against one of those broken ribs.

“If you’re worried about getting recognized, don’t be,” she told him, pulling up alongside. “These people lived topside before the bombing started. They couldn’t afford to live in one of the underground cities, much less leave the planet. Nobody’s going to know what a Republic officer uniform looks like, especially without the rank plate.”

Kenobi nodded in appreciation, then glanced toward Anakin. Her husband had crouched down and was talking to some of the refugee children; the Jedi watched as he reached out and tousled the hair of one of the boys in the crowd. This prompted him to reach up and run his fingers through his own hair—his hand came away grimy with dirt and sweat.

“I don’t suppose your ship’s refresher unit has a working shower?” he asked.

“Oh, it works just fine,” she replied. “So long as you don’t mind getting doused in freezing cold water. The heater coil hasn’t worked in ages. We’ve tried patching together a fix, but at this point it looks like we’ll just have to find the right replacement part.”

“You’re never going to find parts for this thing,” Liz barked as she descended the boarding ramp. “They don’t make this piece of trash anymore.”

Padmé glared at the red-eyed droid. “Get back inside. Maybe go reboot the ship’s systems in the right order this time.” The droid’s eyes almost seemed to narrow; then without saying a word, she turned and retreated into the ship.

“What keeps her from just leaving when she gets in moods like that?” Kenobi asked. “She clearly doesn’t have much of a personal devotion to you.”

“Probably knows no one else would put up with her. And she definitely knows we can’t afford a restraining bolt.”

“Hey!” Anakin hollered back at the two of them. He stood alone; the crowd around him seemed to have dispersed. “Got some errands to run. Anyone coming with?”

Kenobi glanced at Padmé, raising an inquisitive brow. “You go with him,” she offered. “Someone’s got to stay back here with Liz, it should probably be me.” And, truth be told, she could do to be away from the two men’s company for a few minutes, much as she loved the younger one.

The Jedi nodded eagerly. “I appreciate that. Best of luck.” Padmé turned and got halfway up the boarding ramp before looking back at him.

“Oh, get yourself something new to wear,” she said, waving a mock-scolding finger. “The uniform’s a mess. You’re not gonna pass inspection looking like that, soldier.”

Kenobi smiled at this before turning around, jogging to catch up with Anakin. Padmé turned and disappeared inside the Spice Dancer , a bit disconcerted at the fact that an honest joke had just passed between them.

 

* * *

 

Padmé paused at the top of the Dancer’s boarding ramp and glanced to her left. Several straps designed for securing cargo lay tangled on the deck, unused. Sighing, she headed forward to the galley.

She came face-to-face with Liz, who stood defiantly in the center of the dining area. The droid’s weight was shifted back on one leg. Padmé glanced up at the red eyes.

“Liz, start running a background scan on the Coruscant holonet marketplaces.”

“What am I shopping for?” the droid asked.

“A swoop bike,” Padmé muttered.

Liz tilted her head to one side. “Really? Again?”

Padmé brushed past her and moved toward the food prep area. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

The droid’s eyes faded back to blue. “It’s such a shame. Seems like we just bought one,” she said.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Padmé repeated. She yanked open one of the drawers beneath the kitchen counter, revealing a hodgepodge collection of commlinks. Many were dinged and scuffed beyond repair, and a few had microphones that were only attached by a thin wire. She shuffled through the pile of devices and extracted one that looked to be in working order. Nodding in approval when the commlink powered on, she switched it back to standby mode and clipped it to her belt. Turning back toward the droid, she noticed it was staring at her with disapproving red eyes.

“Wow, you lost another commlink too?”

“You’re telling me you wouldn’t have dropped your commlink if you were about to be eaten by a giant worm?” That seemed to elicit sympathy from Liz, and the droid’s eyes turned blue. Padmé gritted her teeth and pushed the memories of the hive from her mind. “Anyway. . . anything critical besides the coolant line that needs attention?”

“Regrettably, the deflector shields are on the fritz again, ma’am. I don’t think the generator handled it well when I rammed through the cave wall. And of course, the port blaster cannon—”

“Is not my problem,” interrupted Padmé. “How about here at the camp? Anything new happen while we were gone?”

The droid’s eyes snapped red at the interruption. “I’m not your damn gossip tabloid, Amidala. Go ask someone outside.”

“I’m asking you , Liz,” Padmé said, glaring at the robot. She reached into the cabinet above the galley sink, grabbed a cup, and held it under the tap. The faucet activated automatically, and the water came out looking slightly dirty. Padmé grimaced, pulling the glass back and dumping the contents in the sink. “We’ll need to fix that,” she muttered. Then, louder: “Did they ever tap that reserve of healing fluid?”

“Oh, yes,” Liz said, eyes transitioning to blue. “The camp medic said she just couldn’t hold off any longer. There was another cave-in yesterday. Six injuries.”

“Dammit. Well, if she’s got any to spare I’ll have to see if we can buy some. I can pay her well, at least. We got quite the haul at Jira. Took a guy for nine grand.”

Liz extended a hand toward her, eyes snapping red. Padmé stared at it with confusion, then locked eyes with the droid. “Yes?”

“Where’s my cut?”

“You don’t get a cut. You weren’t there. Besides, what do you need money for?”

“I have expenses,” grumbled the droid. Padmé strolled past her and headed aft toward the ship’s engine room.

“You most certainly do not. Grab the hydrospanners and meet me back in engineering. We’ve got work to do.”

 

* * *

 

Anakin stretched his arms wide, relishing the open space. “Feels like I can breathe in here.”

“I know the feeling,” said his Jedi companion, easing his legs out one after the other. “What’s our first stop?”

“Lunch,” he replied. “Or breakfast. Or . . . whatever meal fits the whatever time it is right now best. Hope you like reconstituted protein.”

“Anything sounds good right now,” Obi-Wan said, furrowing his brow, “but couldn’t we have eaten that on the ship?”

“Oh, just trust me.”

As the two men crossed the distance from the Dancer ’s ramp to the nearest tent, Anakin kept glancing down at his flesh hand. The shakes had almost stopped—a good thing, considering he’d been the one piloting them back here—but there were still minor tremors vibrating it every so often if one looked closely. He shoved it behind his back and forced a smile as they approached the dwelling.

Inhaling, he felt a savory steam waft into his nostrils. The scent induced an almost physical ache. “Amaranth?” he called out. “I really, really hope we can come in.”

“Skywalker!” rumbled from within. “Come in, come in.”

He reached for the tent flap and pulled it back, beckoning Obi-Wan with his mechanical hand. “After you.”

Ducking under the flap to follow his companion, Anakin caught sight of the tent’s inhabitant and felt his smile grow a little less forced. The Chevin grasped a flimsifiber spoon in one massive hand, stirring the contents of an iron pot that rested atop a portable burner. The corners of his lower trunk-mouth quirked upward in greeting. “Was beginning to think you’d never come back. Then your droid piloted the ship out of here and I figured you and Amidala had to be up to something.” He shifted his gaze to Obi-Wan, still stirring. “Who’s the new arrival?”

If the Jedi was at all fazed by Amaranth’s distinctive appearance, he didn’t let on. “Ben,” he replied, reaching forth to let the Chevin’s other club-like hand envelop his own. “Anakin was kind enough to let me fall in with him when we crossed paths.”

“And where was that?”

“Jira Grotto,” Anakin said. “Long story, which we’ll gladly tell you, if we can get some of what’s in that pot.”

Amaranth flexed his trunk in the equivalent of a raised eyebrow. “Just because you escaped death doesn’t mean I can go around giving out free meals.”

Easing a coin out of his pocket, the pilot flipped it at the Chevin. “That’ll probably cover the cost of the ingredients.”

A high, thin trumpet blew through Amaranth’s snout. “Now where did you get that?”

Anakin smirked. “Stew first.”

Some few minutes later, he and Obi-Wan were both burning their tongues raw on too-large gulps of too-hot stew. “This is delicious,” the latter said, pausing to wipe his beard on the sleeve of his robe. “And Anakin tells me it’s nothing more than reconstituted protein rations? You must tell me which brand so I can requisition it once I get out of here.”

The Chevin made an appreciative sound with his trunk. “Oh, whatever is cheapest and most easily unwrapped. It’s the spices that really make it.”

Through a mouthful of stew, Anakin cut in. “Most people down here brought weapons, tools, that sort of thing when they ran for it. Amaranth brought his entire spice cabinet inside a vest pocket, I’m pretty sure.”

“I’m damn sure those spices have raised you and your friend’s spirits more than a backup wrench, Skywalker,” the cook snorted. “Speaking of which, I do believe I’m owed a story.”

Obi-Wan cleared his throat in between bites. “Anakin should probably start this one.”

The pilot considered. “Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A pilot, his wife, a drifter, and a swoop gang walk into a bar . . .”

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: SIGMA-3 ARTERIUS PERSONAL TRANSPORT SHUTTLE

The Sigma-3 Arterius is a small personal transport craft manufactured by Cygnus Spaceworks for the Republic Defense Force. The craft is unarmed and lacks a defensive deflector shield, but is lined with ablative armor plating to protect against attacks from energy weapons. It is equipped with a standard Class 2 hyperdrive. A civilian version with an inferior navicomputer and a slower hyperdrive is also available for purchase.

The ship is most commonly used for transporting Republic officers between ships or on short hyperspace hops between friendly systems. Its lack of shields and armaments make it light and nimble, but it is not intended for use in hostile territory without a starfighter escort. The standard configuration seats a pilot and one passenger—or an optional co-pilot—in the front row, and two passengers in the rear. A popular aftermarket modification sees the rear row of seats removed, usually to allow the vessel to store more cargo.

The Sigma-3’s unique gull-wing doors allow for easy access to the cabin through large openings. Upon landing, the swept wings of the vessel move into a forward position and function as boarding ramps to the port and starboard doors. Due to the lack of space within the cabin, a passenger must enter from the side of the ship they wish to sit on. When the ship takes off, the wings sweep back into their flight configuration.

Chapter Text

Night fell on the Underworld.

Well, “fell” wasn’t the most accurate word. It was always night here. The verdant canopy of kilometers-high skyscrapers choked out most sunlight that tried to filter down, and what was left vanished into the plumes of pollutants that hung over the lowest levels of the city like a shroud. Light, where it came, was always artificial and always obnoxious, piercing neon carving holes through the mingled particles and engine fumes that passed for atmosphere.

What did fall was rain. Somehow. Probably not entirely from storm clouds—most denizens didn’t like to think about what was in the stuff that constantly poured down on them from above—but present nevertheless. And a lot of it was currently pelting the head of Bail Organa.

The top half, anyway. The lower half was wrapped in a makeshift cowl that he’d put together before making his escape from the Executive Suite. He’d wrapped it around his face, telling Mon to make her exit and to inform the guards that the Chancellor had requested he not be disturbed for the remainder of the day. From there, it was a simple matter of his taking the emergency tunnel to the building’s sub-basement that had been installed in case of orbital bombardment. And now . . . here he was, half an old shirt wrapped around his face, feeling as stupid as he looked. If nothing else, he thought, it makes me an easier target. And helps to keep the fumes at bay.

Now that he was here, he realized, he didn’t have a particularly solid plan for getting into trouble. But he was sure it would find him, in a place like this.

Every so often, a tough-on-crime candidate would campaign on the promise that they would clean up the Underworld and take it back from the crime lords and petty thieves that had made it their home. If that candidate got elected, they’d invariably send police forces down into the lower depths. Those police forces would in turn vanish or return with horrible burn scars and a sudden fear of dark places. This section of the planet had formed its own ecosystem, one in which outside influences were definitely not welcome.

If nothing else, the Chancellor thought, the depths had maintained the multiculturalism that held sway in upper Coruscant as well. As he surveyed the crowd that walked past him in all directions, he couldn’t spot two individuals of the same species. Reptilians, insectoids, mammals, avians, even the odd humanoid all passed, hefting guns or hawking wares or extending scarred hands.

He shook his head, disgusted at the squalor. When an entire planet had become nothing but city, he thought, this was the only possible outcome: a bedrock filled with misery and want. The perversity of the Republic establishing its capital here rankled.

But he wasn’t about to get anywhere standing here and philosophizing politics. He raised the collar of his coat and decided he’d follow what the holodramas always had the rugged hero do in situations like this: go to the nearest bar.

And with that, he started moving, ambling left to avoid a vehicle that roared by him—it was, Bail saw, ancient enough that it ran on treads rather than simply hovering with the use of repulsorlifts. Some sort of animal seemed to have been flattened under one and gradually turned into a fine pancake that still clung to the tread. Just as well; the Chancellor was reasonably sure that the worst rumors about feral monsters had little basis in fact, but then again most people would say the same about Jedi.

As he walked, Bail surreptitiously felt for the pistol he carried under his coat. It was just a stunner—he had no desire for this bit of foolishness to end with anyone dead—but its presence was reassuring all the same. Worst came to worst, he could just pull it out, fire a few shots, and run like hell. In tight enough confines he was guaranteed to hit something .

And tight confines seemed to be the order of the day for the Plastered Bantha, as the flickering sign above the nearest dive read. As far as Bail could tell, the place had literally been built into a hole in the wall. The entrance was cut off by a massive puddle of steaming liquid, which the Chancellor stepped gingerly over to make his way inside.

There were no lights hanging from the ceiling, just a jar of some sort of bioluminescent slime mounted in the center of the bar. There seemed to be three tables in the whole place, of which only one was taken; a Quarren was slurping morosely at a muddy concoction. A monitor was mounted along the rear wall, broadcasting a podrace at what seemed to be five frames per second. Bail cleared his throat. “Is, erm, anyone here?”

“What are you, blind?”

To his consternation, he realized the reply emanated from the jar of glowing slime. “Oh. I . . . my apologies.”

The light pulsed in reply. “Order a drink or to hell with you.”

“I, ah . . . think I might be in the wrong bar.” He shot a look at the Quarren, who didn’t seem to have any problems with the management. “I’ll be going now.”

“Sure, wasn’t a waste of my time at all,” said the voice as Bail turned to leave. “Have fun getting swallowed, topsider!” it called to the Chancellor’s fleeing back.

 

* * *

 

Following this inauspicious start, he simply wandered for a while, making sure to stick to a roughly straight line so he’d be able to find his way back to where he’d come in. As he walked, he wrapped the improvised cowl more tightly around his face—the fumes were getting worse the farther he went, and his plan for “danger” hadn’t included his lungs corroding.

There was a certain beauty to the place, though, he thought, once you got used to the initial shock of the damp and dark. Illumination, wherever it occurred, permeated the murk like some sort of otherworldly glow. The pavement’s reflection formed a sort of dilapidated hall of mirrors. And you could really feel solid here—your feet were truly on the ground in a way they never were on the upper half of the planet. Not that he’d want a summer home here, but still—

This reverie was broken by a sudden wet crack issuing from his left.

His head whipped around. Two Trandoshans, he saw, had a smaller, furrier alien on the sidewalk and were punching it with relish, whether because they wanted its money or simply because it was fun it was impossible to say. “Hey!” the Chancellor shouted through the cowl, before he could stop himself.

The Trandoshans dropped their victim and stared at Bail. One hissed something in a language he couldn’t understand. This could be it, he thought—surely this was as good an opportunity to get himself into trouble as anything. These two were huge, and angry, and looked highly dangerous. If not now, when?

He hesitated. Took a step forward.

And then turned and continued on his way, wincing as he heard the beatdown resume in the distance.

It wasn’t pure cowardice, he told himself as he strode along. Putting himself in a situation where he needed rescue was one thing. Going up against two clawed reptiles in the street was another. His throat would be torn out before any Jedi would have a chance to help him . . .

“Oh, who am I trying to fool?” he muttered under his breath.

Why had he really come here? To run away from his responsibilities? To spend the afternoon playing tourist while Mon desperately tried to save his hide from a situation he’d solely engineered? Even if his assumption that the Jedi were keeping an eye on him was granted, this wasn’t a serious attempt to locate them. Even if he’d believed it was when he first concocted the scheme.

Of course he loved Obi-Wan. Of course he would do anything to save him. But he would also have done just about anything to avoid a meeting, today. Or to avert the likelihood that he’d be confronted with reporters when he tried to set foot outside his office. And that was probably all it was going to result in. Especially if he was willing to send his friend into a war zone but couldn’t do him the courtesy of getting bloodied by some Trandoshans in return.

You’re his friend. Act like it.

Gritting his teeth, the Chancellor looked back over his shoulder. The two Trandoshans and their quarry were still there. He took a deep breath. Squeezed his eyes shut. And, when he opened them, told himself: If running down here isn’t going to be useful to Obi-Wan, you’re damn well going to make it useful to some one.

Exhaling, he lifted his foot, prepared to walk back over there—

“Pardon me, sir, could you spare something?”

The sound of the voice brought him rushing out of his own head and back into the realm of the senses—rain spattering down, the stench rising from the sewers, the whine of vehicles passing—and the shock almost made him cry out. He shot his eyes down and saw an old woman tugging at his leg. She was human, he thought, but her skin was so covered in sores that it was hard to say for certain. They wept fluid down her face, mingling with the rain that had seeped through her thin hood. The hunger behind her eyes seemed insatiable.

Bail swore silently, but already he was reaching for his wallet even as he kept his eyes focused on the Trandoshans. “Of course, but I’m in a bit of a hur—”

Something small and cold and rigid pressed into his side. “Niiiiiiiiice and slow, there, darling.”

It took a few seconds for the Chancellor to fully appreciate the fact that a sizable slugthrower barrel was digging into his gut. He kept his right hand at his side and his left in his pocket, staring into the distance straight ahead. “I don’t think you want to be doing that.”

The gun pressed sharply into his side. “Oh, I really think I do. Hands in the air, now.”

“Oh, I think the gentleman’s right. Do you really want to be doing this?”

A third party had entered their transaction, Bail realized, one standing directly behind him from the sound of her voice. Please just shut up and go away before we both end up dead, he thought.

And then, from his left side: “I . . . I don’t want to be doing this.”

Wait, what ?

He risked movement and looked down to his assailant. The old woman’s eyes had lost their hunger; they looked dull, confused, as though a sudden quantity of alcohol had taken effect. She repeated, as if trying to make herself believe it: “Don’t wanna do this.”

“The day’s young,” the third voice said agreeably. “Go home and talk to your husband. Take some time off.”

“Take . . . night off.”

Turning himself fully around, Bail put a face to the newcomer. Another human woman, but far taller and far younger than the first one, her clear brown skin a sharp contrast to the old woman’s pitted, ashen white. She flicked her eyes to meet his, inclined her head in a way that seemed to say Just finishing, give me a moment, and fished a coin from her pocket. “Here,” she said, and placed it gently in the other woman’s palm. “Consider it for services rendered.”

“Sssss . . . rendered,” came the reply, as she turned and started to shuffle back down the street.

Bail felt himself gawking but couldn’t stop. His savior lowered her hood and smiled in a way that was simultaneously patronizing and reassuring. “Next time you need a Jedi,” she said, “try the personals.”

“I . . .” he began, but the connection between his brain and his tongue seemed to have gone missing. “You . . .” Finally: “Ms . . . ah . . . Jedi, I have been trying urgently to contact you—”

“And I admire your unorthodox ways of doing so,” she replied, “but really, Chancellor, striking out for the Underground on your own? Maybe you should have joined a theatre company instead of running for office.”

Under other circumstances, he would have found her lack of urgency incredibly offputting. As it was, he was simply bemused. “I apologize if this has caused you any inconvenience. But as I said, I urgently needed to contact you—”

“Because Obi-Wan has gotten himself in over his head, yes?” She chuckled. “Very like him.”

Bail blinked rainwater out of his eyes. “Wait, you know him?”

“I did, once upon a time. Haven’t been in touch in a few years, but I imagine he’s not changed much. His proclivity for trouble certainly hasn’t.”

“If you know him, then you know what’s at stake.” He leaned closer, dropping his voice to a harsh whisper. “It is vital , to the Republic and to me personally, that he be rescued.”

“Oh, I agree, and to the Order as well. How do you intend to go about it?”

After a few seconds had passed, it occurred to Bail that he was simply staring wordlessly. All the possible outcomes he’d envisioned for this wild bantha chase certainly hadn’t included a Jedi asking a politician for tactical advice.

Said Jedi seemed to arrive at an internal decision after several moments more, and extended a black-sleeved arm. “Walk with me.”

The Trandoshans were still standing over their victim; as Bail and the Jedi passed, the latter casually waved her hand. The two reptilians stiffened, then seemed to decide they had urgent business elsewhere and began briskly walking toward an alley. “Now then,” the Jedi said. “You were saying?”

Bail took a moment to watch the Trandoshans going on their way, then turned back to his companion. “I need you to contact your superiors and organize an extraction.”

“Of course, if my superiors knew I was here.” She raised an eyebrow. “How much do you know about the Jedi Order, Chancellor?”

“Not much,” he was forced to concede.

“Trust me, we don’t have time to babysit a head of state while terrorist attacks are unfolding across the galaxy. No offense.” He waved his hand in dismissal, and she continued. “There aren’t that many of us, after all. I’m here on my own recognizance. Obi-Wan needs someone looking after him, after all, and in this case that meant keeping an eye on you .” She gave an elegant shrug. “I’m meant to be our eyes and ears in the Senate, not a bodyguard. I’m breaking the parameters of my assignment as it is.”

“So you are keeping tabs on the Senate, then.”

Another amused expression. “Is that a problem? You certainly seemed to think it was already the case, to pull a stunt like this.” She chuckled. “Trust me, I’m nowhere near as threatening as that makes me sound. And it’s not really the point, either.”

A speeder rattled by, nearly running over the Chancellor’s foot; he turned and pulled the Jedi down a side alley. “Look. Your assignment parameters or not, we have to do something. This is bigger than just me or Obi-Wan. No word from him could mean the worst, and if he’s failed, Had Abaddon—”

“Is probably going to be under new management very soon, yes. But what do you expect me to do about that?” Seriousness had leaked into her expression. “Believe me, Chancellor, the Order is no friend to the Confederacy, but I can’t exactly rescue an entire planet in my cloak with a laser sword.”

Bail opened his mouth to protest that he hadn’t been thinking of that , then realized he’d sent Obi-Wan with exactly that plan in mind and decided against it. “I’m sure you’ve seen that I’m not in the best graces right now with . . . well, anyone, but particularly the Defense Committee.”

“Putting it mildly.”

“I can’t authorize a military solution right now, not with the entire Committee determined to see me ousted. And I don’t intend to hide behind your Order and let them solve things for me. Any more than I already have, that is,” he added.

The Jedi laid a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t beat yourself up too badly. We’re used to it.”

He looked her in the eye. “If worst comes to worst, I will handle the military situation. But I need Obi-Wan extracted now , one way or another. It’s beyond our friendship, and it’s beyond his membership in the Jedi. If he dies, the Republic has lost one of its best officers. If he’s captured, the Confederacy gains an overwhelming amount of intelligence.” With a long exhalation: “You’re my last lifeline.”

She considered. Once again, the half-smirk on her face faded, and Bail saw something apprehensive take its place. But then, a mere second later, her expression had resumed its position.

“Well,” she said lightly. “I can’t very well turn down an old friend and the man whose life I just saved.”

For the second time in five minutes, Bail felt a metal cylinder being shoved into him. This one, though, was not a gun. It was, he saw as he looked down, a commlink.

As he seized it, the Jedi was already starting to move away. “I’ll be at your personal residence within two hours,” she said. “Get back there and commission me a ship. You can transmit me the intelligence I’ll need using that comm.”

“Wait!” Bail half-shouted, the unreality of the proceedings increasing with every step she took away from him. “What’s your name?”

She looked back and waved. “I’d give you my card, but I’m afraid I left it in my other cloak. If you’re ever in need of a backup Jedi in the future, ask for Qui-Gon Jinn.”

Even as the woman's name fell on his ears, she’d melted into the shadows.

* * * 

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: THE CORUSCANT UNDERWORLD

Skyscrapers and towering megastructures ensure that the surface of the planet Coruscant sits untouched by natural light. Beneath each distinct district of the planet, unique cultures of perpetual nightlife have formed. The most famous of these is “the Underworld,” the surface region beneath Coruscant’s capital city. The government and police, for the most part, dare not venture into these lower levels. Territory is instead controlled by various gangs, and sections of the Underworld change hands constantly as a result of turf wars. The economy is fueled by illicit activity. Drugs can be purchased over the counter at most Underworld cantinas and bars, and it is common to find people on the street openly offering their services as an assassin.

Many residents of the upper levels question why someone would ever choose to live in the Underworld. The most common answer is that it is extremely cheap. Housing is often free, as there are thousands of abandoned apartments available at any time, and squatter’s rights are respected in the Underworld. Employment is also not hard to come by, as any given city block has over a dozen bars, all of which are constantly hiring dancers, bartenders, and bouncers.

However, this does not mean the Underworld is safe for everyone. Many upper city residents who are down on their luck will try to make it in the Underworld. Some will also venture down to the Underworld as a thrill-seeking measure when they find themselves bored of the high-class establishments most of Coruscant has to offer. This has a tendency not to end well; upper city residents who venture down to the Underworld are statistically likely to return home in a body bag.

Chapter Text

That much wine on a night like this, Valis thought to herself, had definitely not been the right choice.

Then again, the stress had been building up for months—it had only been a matter of time before she crashed. Better now than in the midst of real war.

Stumbling into her chambers as the door slid shut behind her, she rubbed at her eyes vigorously in an effort to dispel some of the fog. A hand—her own, acting almost automatically—reached up and began to unbutton her uniform jacket. When each button had been released, she allowed the jacket to slide off her arms and tossed it onto the couch in a fluid motion. As the clothing landed on the couch in a crumpled pile, she heard the skittering sound of her droid emerging from beneath the coffee table.

Pesky little thing, Valis thought to herself. “Droid, just leave it,” she ordered. The robot had a name, though she never used it. If I actually call it “Mate,” it’ll get even more attached than it already is .

Her feet dragged across the floor as she made her way behind her desk. She eased open one of the desk’s storage drawers; unlike the impeccably clean surface of the furniture, the drawer was host to a jumbled mess. Months-old mission reports stuffed out of sight, notes she had scribbled to herself, odd desk implements—she may have taken on a uniform, but her level of tidiness was firmly rooted back in her previous career. As long as the mess wasn’t visible, she could tell herself everything was fine—and at any rate, she was quite sure the state of her desk was the least of her superiors’ worries.

When she looked up from rooting inside the desk, the droid—Mate—was perched on her desk. Its spindly appendages held up a glass of water. “Thanks,” Valis managed weakly, taking the glass from the robot and raising it to her lips. Mate chirped a response, then turned to scuttle away. Abandoning her search, the admiral held up a hand. “Hang on,” she said between sips of water. “We need to talk.”

Mate perked up in response to the four words, thin silver legs lifting its obsidian disc of a body a few inches higher. Permission to speak. From inside the droid’s enclosure, a whirring sound signaled the activation of its vocabulator.  “What do you wish to discuss, ma’am?” it buzzed excitedly—Valis raised her eyebrows. Personality showing probably means it’s time for a good memory wipe.

“Connect to the Confederacy’s registry database,” she instructed.

Digital static emerged from Mate’s voicebox as it connected to the database. A two-tone chime confirmed a successful uplink. “What is your desired search string, Miss Valis?”

Valis took another gulp of water, then stared out the viewport to her right. Searching the database for personnel records hadn’t gotten her any closer to finding the identity of Maul’s mysterious overlord. She had left the Restricted Deck hangar with a new idea, but if Maul found out about what she was doing, he likely wouldn’t take it well.

To hell with it, she thought. Let him catch me. It’ll lead to some illuminating conversation.

“Search string ‘Scimitar.’”

The droid, which usually fidgeted if it was forced to stand in one place too long, froze. A status light on Mate’s body blinked rapidly; then its vocabulator let out a digitized ding . “ Scimitar. Personal craft of Warlord Maul. Registry file accessed.”

“What shipyard built it?”

Mate hesitated as it silently accessed the information. “The vessel was constructed by Seinar Advanced Project Laboratory, a division of Republic Seinar Systems.”

Admiral Valis raised an eyebrow. “So we stole it?” Valis leaned back in her desk chair, allowing the seat to rotate gently as she awaited an answer.

“Incorrect,” said the droid. “Stolen Republic vehicles are flagged as a security risk and must undergo additional screening. The Scimitar is not flagged. It is listed as a special order.”

“That’s impossible,” Valis snapped. “Seinar operates on Republic worlds. They have contracts with the Defense Force. Hell, ‘Republic’ is in the company name! They couldn’t openly sell us a ship.” She paused to finish her glass of water, then gingerly set it down on the desk. “Who placed the order?”

The droid was silent for an unusually long time. Seconds turned into a full minute, and Valis realized she had moved to the edge of her desk chair and was leaning toward the perfectly still body of Mate. The silence was broken by the gentle hiss of its legs lowering it down to the table. If Valis didn’t know any better, she’d have guessed the droid was disappointed.

“No data available.”

She swore under her breath as she leapt to her feet, knocking the desk chair over. Resuming her expedition through the open desk drawer, pulling out papers and crumpling them, she finally extracted what she was after: a pack of cigarettes and a handheld lighter.

The admiral slammed the drawer shut and stormed away from the desk. She rounded the piece of furniture, stopping in front of her cabin’s massive window. Valis flipped open her pack of cigarettes and used her teeth to wrestle one free from the package. Raising the lighter to the twist of paper that now dangled from her lips, Valis flicked it on and held the flame in place as she inhaled.

The admiral pocketed the lighter and the pack, throwing her head back in relief as she exhaled smoke. It’s been too long, she thought. The cigarette was clearly stale, but she didn’t care. The rush of the drug was badly needed right now. Let’s just hope the damn smoke detectors don’t go off. The last thing she needed was to explain to a fire crew that no, there’d been no explosion in her quarters, she was just filling her lungs with carcinogens.

As she smoked, she paced. Mate perked up, tracking the woman’s movement by swaying back and forth in time with her walk, occasionally swiping a manipulator at the smoke that drifted too close to it. Taking another drag, Valis grimaced; the staleness of the smoke was becoming more apparent. She’d tried to quit several times since becoming admiral of the Confederate fleet, but something always pushed her back. The wetworks. Melko. Maul. How old are these things?

Valis reached into her pocket and withdrew the crumpled package, then flipped it over. Sure enough, the date stamped on the back indicated that the cigarettes were technically past their prime. Valis sighed, took another drag anyway, and nonchalantly tossed the pack onto her desk.

Wait. That’s it. The date.

“Droid,” she said, spinning around to face Mate. “Is there an order date on file for the Scimitar ?”

The robot froze as it pinged the database. “Affirmative. An order was placed with Seinar APL on the 17th of Saresh, year 1141.”

Valis nearly dropped her cigarette in surprise. “1141? You’re sure?”

“Of course, ma’am.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. An entire decade before the Confederacy began? Maul was just a child, the ship couldn’t have even been for him.” Whoever was calling the shots either had a penchant for making it up as they went along, or had a terrifying amount of foresight. She couldn’t decide which was more disturbing. But if the Confederacy didn’t place the order, perhaps there is a record of whoever did.

“Do me a favor, droid. Call Seinar headquarters. Get me connected to their accounting department, but route the call through their switchboard droid so it looks like it’s coming from within the company.”

If the droid’s programming raised any red flags about this sort of deception, it gave no external signs. “Of course, ma’am,” it said, bouncing with excitement. The admiral strolled back to her desk chair, bent down to return it to an upright position, and sat down confidently. “I am ringing a junior member of the accounting department at Republic Seinar Systems. You should be connected shortly.” It paused for a moment, then resumed speaking, though its voice had lost its monotone professionalism: “I look forward to watching you work.”  

Valis leaned back in her chair, crossed her legs, and took a drag of the cigarette. “Flattery will get you nowhere.” With her free hand, she ran her fingers through her hair, then had to acknowledge: “Nicely done, droid.”

Mate’s voicebox crackled as a comm connection was established. “Accounting department, this is Calista, how may I help you?” The voice was shaky—the young woman it belonged to was clearly uncomfortable receiving random calls. Must be a newer hire. Good.

An artificial smile crossed Valis’ face. She spoke, injecting cheer into her tone. “Hey, Calista, this is Robin, the new girl over at APL. I was hoping you could do me a favor. I’ve got a rather . . . irritated client on hold who’s got a problem with a ship he says he bought from us. Problem is, the order’s an old one. Over a decade. Our records don’t go back that far, but I think accounting should still have something on file. Could you look the order up for me?”

“Sure thing, what’s your reference password?”

Dammit, thought Valis. She gritted her teeth and tried to sound casual. “New girl, remember? I don’t have one yet. Could you use yours?”

Calista said nothing for a moment. When she did speak, she did so in hushed tones. “Um, we’re really not supposed to—”

“Oh, I know,” Valis interrupted. Her eyes flicked across a holographic display that she had called up above her desk. She had tracked down an organizational chart of Seinar employees. She scanned the chart, locking her gaze on the name of the Advanced Project’s department manager. “Jarkot said it was fine, just this once.”

That seemed to reassure the young woman. “Oh! Well, okay. What’s the client’s order number?”

Valis faked a sigh. “See, that’s the thing, he doesn’t remember it. Can we look him up by order date?”

“Sure! When was the order placed?”

“17th of Saresh, 1141.” Valis shot a grin at Mate before she could decide not to encourage the thing.

“Let’s see . . . It looks like APL took several orders that day. A starfighter squadron, a pair of shuttles. . .” Calista trailed off.

“It was just one ship. Custom order,” Valis offered, hoping she was correct.

“Says here the customer provided the blueprints?”

“Sounds right!” she said, feigning excitement. “Could you go ahead and send that over?”

“Sure, what’s your internal datamail address?”

Valis bit her lip. Crap. “Oh, just send it over the comm line we’re on. My datamail isn’t up and running yet.”

There was a pause on the line, and Valis crossed her fingers. Then her droid chirped, and a light on its body flashed to indicate it had received a data packet.

“There you go!” said the Seinar employee. “Anything else I can do for you?”

“Nope, that was everything. You’re a lifesaver.”

“Catch you at the next company party, Robin?”

“Oh, of course!” Valis said, rolling her eyes. She slashed her hand across her throat, signaling Mate to cut the connection.

Her job done, the admiral removed an ashtray from her desk drawer, took a final drag from her cigarette, and snuffed it out. She leaned forward toward her droid. “Display the order form.”

The miniature holoprojector embedded in Mate’s casing cast a glow throughout the cabin. The details of the Scimitar’s order hovered above the droid. Valis’ eyes scanned the information readout, then narrowed as she read the customer name. It wasn’t what she expected, and it certainly didn’t help her discern who Maul’s mysterious leader was.

The Scimitar hadn’t been ordered by one person. It had been ordered by a local government on a Republic-controlled world.

Theed. The capital city of Naboo.

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: SIRATECH PERSONAL DOMESTIC ROBOT MODEL EIGHT

Siratech Droidworks is a company responsible for the production of several domestic assistance droids, from android butlers to self-driving vacuum cleaners. The “SPDR M-8,” or “spider mate,” was a compact domestic droid designed for use in tight environments such as efficiency apartments or starship cabins. “Spider mates” were intended to service one individual, and their personality profiles imprinted on their owners upon initial activation. The model was renowned for its extreme utility and durability.

The low-profile disc-shaped body allowed the droid to fit into tight spaces for storage or navigation, and it possessed several appendages that allowed it to climb all manner of surfaces and grasp common household objects while moving. The droid was waterproof and dustproof, and its shell was rumored to be capable of withstanding small arms fire. It was also extremely power efficient, lasting months on a single cycle of its rechargeable cell.

Siratech discontinued the SPDR M-8 in 1146 after a barrage of negative press due to a series of high-profile criminal acts committed with the droids. Tech-savvy owners had modified the insides of a SPDR M-8 with electronic interference and security countermeasure suites. The criminals then sent the droid into the ductwork of a bank and shut down the security system, allowing them to rob it to the tune of several million credits. In the aftermath, the Republic worked with Siratech to implement a buyback program of the droids. Most owners complied, but there are still some “spider mates” left in the wild, mostly in the Outer Rim. Due to the model’s personality imprinting function, a SPDR M-8 will only follow the orders of its original owner. The secondhand purchase market for these droids is practically nonexistent.

Chapter Text

“Come back any time you like, Skywalker,” Amaranth said as his pair of guests waved off a third bowl of stew.

“Oh, sure, now that I’m rich all the lowlifes are sponging off me,” the pilot said.

The Chevin gave a violent snort through his trunk. “You too, Ben No-Name. You respect your elders more than this one.”

Obi-Wan raised his free hand in a wave, holding open the tent flap for Anakin with the other. “It will be my pleasure. In happier times, I hope.”

Waving his proboscis dismissively, Amaranth moved to start dishing what was left of the stew into flimsiplast containers. “Happy, sad. People still need food, no matter which.”

“Seems to have kept his spirits up well enough, considering,” Obi-Wan said to his friend as they strode away from the tent.

“His way of coping, I think,” Anakin replied. “His wife got hit by some shrapnel when they were heading down into the tunnels.”

“Oh dear.” The Jedi sighed, and felt a bit of the exhaustion the meal had dispelled creeping back. “When did he tell you?”

“Didn’t. I saw it happen.” The pilot’s scar stretched again as he clenched his jaw. “I could have done something. If I hadn’t been so afraid.”

“I’m sure it was out of your hands,” Obi-Wan said gently. “In that situation there’s only so much anyone can do—”

“You don’t understand.”

The curtness of the reply would have been jarring if the Jedi hadn’t felt the emotions roiling under Skywalker’s skin as soon as he mentioned Amaranth’s wife. It was far less extreme than the black waves the pilot had been emitting in the cavern just before the Spice Dancer had broken through, but of the same strain. Simmering anger and bone-gnawing anguish and deep, deep fear. The latter was infectious; Obi-Wan pictured what Anakin’s raw power could do with those feelings—what it had done when Padmé’s life had been threatened—and paled. “No,” he said, “I suppose I don’t.”

With a visible effort, Anakin dispelled the cloud that had moved across his face. “Anyway. We’re not starving anymore, time to get down to the real first order of business.”

“Which is?” Obi-Wan asked, relieved to be moving on for now—he had to face this, but he also needed to wait for the right moment.

“Getting a replacement compression coil for the coolant unit. For both our sakes, I hope someone has one intact.”

The general’s brow wrinkled. “I didn’t see more than three or four other ships down here. What happens if no one has parts to spare?”

“Well, I’ve gotta tell you, Obi-Wan, after the last couple of days I’m fresh out of plan B’s. But you crash-landed a cruiser here, I’m sure stealing a passenger ship would be no trouble.” Seeing the look the Jedi shot him: “Hey, hey, we’d take them offplanet with us. Consider it supervised borrowing. If it comes to that, which I’m hoping it won’t.” He headed off in the direction of the nearest ship that wasn’t his own; looked to be a broken-down passenger shuttle of some kind, though compared to the Spice Dancer it might as well have been a cruise liner. “And we’ve got to get you some replacement clothes, assuming anyone has something in your size.”

“Well, you made do with a droid arm, I’m sure I can deal with something that’s not ideally fitted.” He hadn’t broached the subject before now, but curiosity overcame him: “How did that process go, exactly? I can’t imagine the droid was very cooperative.”

“Oh,” Anakin said with a shrug, “she was very cooperative at first. Then she got into one of her moods, so Padmé just knocked her out. Don’t think she’s forgiven us for that yet.” He idly rubbed the mechanical digits together. “This particular arm was designed for loadlifting, not fine manipulation, but sticking a left hand on my right stump wouldn’t have exactly worked, so.”

“Seems to me she might be more useful if you just broke her down for parts entirely.”

“Pssh, she’s okay once you get to know her.” The pilot shook his head. “She’s been getting worse lately, trapped down here. Don’t think any of her brains’ initial owners were supposed to be working in caves for very long. But there’s no way Padmé and I could keep the ship in shape on our own.” Something like embarrassment fluttered across his face. “That was sort of how we ended up with her. I reconstructed her as a present for Padmé, someone who could help her with the ship if I was doing jobs other places.”

Snorting, the Jedi pulled up alongside his companion. “You two seem to deserve each other.”

“You wound me.”

The shuttle was close enough now that Obi-Wan could peer through its front viewport and see inside. “You know what?” he said. “You go ahead and haggle over the coil. I’ll meet you back at the ship, I suppose.”

Anakin raised his eyebrows, surprised. “Where are you off to? Not gonna see if another pilot can undercut me, are you?”

“Tempting as that sounds, no, I’ve just got some errands of my own.”

“Fine, be mysterious.” Bringing his mechanical hand up in a wry salute, he nodded. “Relieved, general.”

As Anakin continued on his way to the shuttle, Obi-Wan started toward a cluster of tents. He needed those new clothes, but most of all he needed to think.

The man had to know, at least somewhat, the power he possessed. Unlocking the swoop gang’s bike, ripping that creature in half—those had both been conscious acts. And an extremely good pilot could pull off the repulsorlift stunt, otherwise Padmé would have been smashed, but no ordinary being could simultaneously pilot the swoop that way while meddling with its inner workings.

Skywalker knew he was special, then. The question was how far that knowledge went.

Whatever the answer to that was, living on the edges of civilized space hadn’t been good for him. Obi-Wan hadn’t been a Jedi from birth, of course, but he’d trained early enough to have an understanding of the Force for much of his life. He knew his limits, the risks, the best ways to control the power that moved through him. Anakin couldn’t have had any of that. What little he had learned he would have had to teach himself. And self-taught Force users tended to be dangerous at best.

Not that he was entirely without support. But a fellow criminal and a lunatic droid were hardly the best teachers in self-discipline.

 

* * *

 

“So what do you think of him, Liz?” Padmé asked, wiping some sweat from her brow and heaving harder on her wrench.

“Mister Kenobi?” the droid replied. Working with machines seemed to soothe her at the right times; her eyes had stayed blue for the last several minutes, the two of them silently hammering at the shield generator.

“Not too many other hes we know right now, are there?”

Raising her single arm, Liz pointed a finger and released a concentrated blast of flame from it, welding together a hairline crack in the generator’s surface. “Well, not that it’s my business, but you’ve asked me that question about Mister Anakin more than once.” A note of anxiety crept in. “Not that I mean to suggest anything is amiss between the two of—”

“I get it, Liz,” Padmé cut her off, turning her eyes away from the sparking torch. “Kenobi, yeah.”

“Well, he seems very polite, anyway. And her certainly seems to have been useful to you.”

“There is that. Too bad he’s crazy.”

A muted snap sounded in Padmé’s right ear; when she glanced over at the droid, she saw red shining. Dammit, we were doing so well. “You’re not exactly the best judge of sanity, Amidala. Any sane person would have scrapped this piece of crap years ago.”

The peaceful atmosphere shattered, Padmé turned back to her wrench, trying to undo a particularly stubborn bolt. “Yeah, well, when I decide to fly it through an entire enemy fleet you have permission to send the white coats after me.”

“There you go again, dropping secrets at me like I’m not even here.” With a violent sputter, the torch died—whether this was out of intent or a lack of fuel was hard to tell. “‘Oh, I can use the droid as a conversation partner! I’m really just talking to myself! She doesn’t understand!’ And then as soon as I start to ask questions you change your mind and I can’t be trusted.”

“Liz—”

“If I’m going to get blown up alongside you organic morons because the newbie had a bright idea about fleet-baiting, I want to know what for.”

Unbidden, Padmé felt the urge to bicker back rising within her. Not because she’d turned around on Kenobi’s idea—even if they could fix the ship, it was suicide, and all for a government that hadn’t paid Oseon much mind beyond the occasional attempt to drum up interest in membership. But whenever Liz was in one of her moods, it was practically reflex for either Padmé or her husband to fire back a retort as to why she needed to have her processor examined. “You’re not going to get blown up, Liz. You’re too stubborn to die.” She gave a particularly vicious yank, and the bolt gave.

“I’m holding you to that.”

“Whatever. Help me with the thingy.”

“I’m awed at your technical knowledge.”

Don’t snap back, don’t snap back, she told herself. The last thing she needed was to talk herself into thinking the Jedi had a point worth considering.

 

* * *

 

“Look, Skywalker, I understand that your ship is having problems, but I can’t exactly just go to the machine parts shop and pick up a new compression coil if this one breaks—”

“That one’s not even installed. That’s the whole reason I’m asking you for it.”

“Well, what if the other one breaks and I need a spare?”

Doing his best to keep civil, Anakin stared at the Ishi Tib. “Imani, if the ships up there break through and Padmé and I are grounded—”

“Bah, if the ships break through.” She shook her head, clacking her beak. “If the ships break through, you’re not going to be pulling off a daring escape, Skywalker, especially with one arm missing. Once they’ve punched a hole into this place, you’ll do what the rest of us do—cooperate and hope they’re too busy looting the planet to bother with little people.”

The guilt the pilot had been feeling about not heading to the center of the camp and alerting everyone and everything to the hole that had already been punched hadn’t evaporated, but he felt it steadily lessening as applied to Imani in particular. “If you’re planning on staying and cooperating,” he asked, “why would you need an extra compression coil?”

“Well, I’m not going to be staying forever.

“Imani.” Struggling to stay calm, Anakin began pacing a circle around the shuttle’s cargo bay. “I have spent the last two days piloting swoop bikes through holes, fighting bugs with nothing but a stun baton, sleeping on rock floors, almost drowning, and seeing my wife almost get eaten by some monstrosity. I have had a really bad week so far. And I am asking you, as a friend, if you would kindly be able to help me.”

When he looked back at the Ishi Tib, the note of alarm that had entered her eyes threw cold water over his anger. He’d started shouting, he realized, and his mechanical fist was clenching tight enough that the metal had started to squeal softly. An image of the worm ripping in half flashed through his brain, and he tore himself away from the heat that had been steadily building inside him. Before Imani could say anything, he spoke again, softly. “I get that it’s worth a lot to you. I’m ready to pay you a very, very reasonable amount of money for it.”

Her mud-green eyes considered the pilot, anxiety slowly giving ground back to calculation. “500 credits. And you buy me a new one once we’re off the planet, one way or another. I can take your swoop as collateral.”

Calm, calm, stay calm. “The swoop isn’t exactly in any shape to function as collateral.”

“750, then. Up front.”

“550.”

“700, the best I can do.”

“650, plus my promise not to tell the rest of the camp that you’re a price-gouging scumbag.”

Imani’s beak clacked once, twice. “Deal. Wait here while I get it.”

As she bustled off, Anakin put his flesh hand to his forehead and slowly exhaled. It was getting worse.

He’d done minor things with it before, parlor tricks, really. Picking locks, jumping just that extra bit higher when he needed to, deflecting something hurtling toward his head. Numbing some of the pain he’d felt when a piece of rock sheared through his arm. And even then, it had scared him. It wasn’t all bad, of course, and that scared him even more. Before he came down, before he tried to clamp down on the impulses that caused weird things to happen . . . it would always feel good . An indescribable rush, like he was part of something bigger than just himself.

And then today, what he’d done with the worm . . . on the one hand, it hadn’t felt good at all. It had left him with a pounding head, a heart that wouldn’t slow down, a tingling in the tips of his fingers (both hands, somehow), and an overwhelming urge to vomit.

And yet, at the same time, under the fear for Padmé and the physical exhaustion and the self-loathing, it had felt so . . . satisfying.

Coming down was usually over pretty quickly. He’d stuff the guilt to the back of his mind and move on, and pretty soon the smiles he faked would turn real, and he’d be back to being Anakin Skywalker again. But this time . . . this time it wasn’t wearing off.

If this was what Obi-Wan felt every time he used it, Anakin had no idea how the man hadn’t gone insane by now.

“Skywalker? Skywalker!

He apologized, and dropped the credits into Imani’s hand, and hauled the coil out of the shuttle. As he walked down the ramp, he could feel her eyes on him.

 

* * *

 

“You’re sure I can’t pay you?” Obi-Wan asked for the fifth time.

The old woman snorted. “You Core Worlds types, can’t just take a straight answer when you get it. If you’re a friend of Anakin and Padmé’s your money’s no good here. Consider it your welcoming gift.”

He ran a hand over the fabric—brown, rough, durable. “Well, you have my thanks.”

“Think nothing of it. Now go, get some rest. You look like you’re about to fall down right here.”

Turning from the booth, Obi-Wan again surveyed the camp. The homey glow had worn off somewhat, talking to the woman as she bustled about for a piece of human clothing in his general size. She’d described sicknesses blazing through certain corners of the cave, accidents from cave-ins, families desperate to somehow get in touch with loved ones on other planets. She herself had been alone as it was, but there had been a young man who would come and talk to her every few days, she said, who she hadn’t heard from since the bombardment started. Hopefully he was still alive, she’d said casually, tossing another piece of clothing in the corner.

Loss was not something the Jedi was unfamiliar with. But he’d only ever lost individual relationships—parts of him, not the whole. To have his entire livelihood stripped away from him like that , and end up in a hole in the ground dodging further calamities . . . it was unfathomable.

Relative isolation was part of the Order’s strengths, he thought, but it also led to certain blind spots. He didn’t know that the Jedi could be wiped out; he had no idea what that would entail. There really was no way for him to extrapolate something from his own experiences into a construct of what the refugees here were feeling. No way except for feeling the flashes of despair that everyone he’d encountered down here had emitted underneath smiles and banter; the bottomless emptiness that he’d felt when he reached back into the tent to touch Amaranth’s mind, when he’d probed the aura of the woman who’d given him the clothes he now wore.

If— when —he got out of here, he decided at that moment, he would tell Bail the Republic had to intervene, no matter the consequences. And if the Chancellor didn’t agree . . . well. Obi-Wan Kenobi was not someone who thought lightly about disobeying direct orders and bringing a fleet into enemy territory. But there were other avenues. There had to be.

The Force had brought him here for a reason. It had drawn him to Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala. And no matter how mysterious the energy field was, Obi-Wan couldn’t believe it would go to all this trouble only to let suffering people be enslaved.

Well, he thought. You’ve established there’s a reason. Now all you have to do is find it.

And to do that, he had to talk to Anakin.

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: COMPRESSION COIL

When flying through deep space, it’s best that no engine parts break, but chief among those parts is the compression coil. A relatively small device, it controls the output of coolant into the inner workings of a ship’s sublight and hyperdrive engines, preventing catastrophic meltdowns that would otherwise incinerate the spacecraft. It’s possible for a ship to fly at very slow speeds with a damaged or absent coil, but not for long.

Unfortunately for pilots and engineers the galaxy over, the compression coil is one of the engine parts that most easily breaks. It’s recommended that long space flights carry at least one backup in case of emergencies, and a dedicated patching kit if that’s not possible.

Chapter Text

The swirling neon glow of Vin’taron Avenue was a migraine made of photons.

Casino signs strobed, beckoning gamblers to come and waste another handful of credits on their slot machines; sleazy slogans guaranteed better payouts than any other joint in the district. Nightclub marquees promised the prettiest Twi’lek dancers on the block. One sign glowed a strange monochrome hue in a foreign script, seemingly intended for beings who saw in a different color spectrum.

Beneath it all, the street was covered in an oily sheen, mirroring the world back onto itself. Puddles beneath signs reflected pink and blue and orange, the diffusion the liquid added making the glow almost bearable. Qui-Gon Jinn sidestepped one of them in an effort to not get her boots wet, then shimmied between a pair of tentacled aliens who were arguing about whose turn it was to be designated driver. She reached the end of the block and stepped out into the street, coughing as a wheeled vehicle sputtered a cloud of grimy exhaust into her face. Her eyes narrowed as she stared into the distance, looking to see which street was the least crowded. Fewer people meant faster walking.

The Jedi had errands to run before departing the planet, but she was on a tight timetable—two hours, she had told the Chancellor, and she prided herself on never being late—and that made things tricky. For while there were many ways to descend into the Underworld, there was only one quick way to return to upper Coruscant on foot. Massive turbolifts once intended to haul cargo could be found every few blocks, usually guarded by whatever gang controlled the territory that week. The new management charged an exorbitant fee to ride back up, and were wont to turn away anyone they didn’t like the look of.

Qui-Gon reached into her coat pocket, feeling for credit coins. She had left her post in a hurry to trail the Chancellor down here, and hadn’t had time to grab much more than a gun. As she feared, she had very little money left on her. Scarcely enough to buy a soft drink at a refueling outpost. She let out a short breath, then smirked. Won’t be a problem.

The Jedi Knight confidently strolled across the avenue, her long gray coat fluttering behind her. Gloved hands gripped her hood and flipped it back in place, isolating Qui-Gon from the world around her.

Shoving her hands into her pockets and looking down at her feet, she made the two blocks’ walk to the elevator. Much to her surprise, there was no queue forming for the ride up; she was able to stroll directly up to the door. Or would have been able to, had a heavily armed and armored Shistavanen wolfman not gotten in the way. The alien bared its fangs and growled at her.

“This here’s our elevator,” he hissed. “Do you think we’re in the business of givin’ away free rides?”

“Of course not,” Qui-Gon replied, gazing up at the wolfman. She locked eyes with him. Inside her coat pocket, her fingers twitched ever so slightly. “But tonight you will.”

The Shistavanen cocked his head to the side and paused to consider the suggestion. He then nodded in satisfaction and stepped out of Qui-Gon’s way. “No charge for the lady.”

Sliding past the wolfman, she shot a glance at the human operating the elevator’s controls. A hefty blaster pistol hung from his holster, and a short vibrosword was strapped across his back. Wonder if he actually knows how to use it, the Jedi thought .

The operator stared at Qui-Gon as she stepped into the elevator. She was grateful it was an old cargo elevator with an extra set of controls on the outside; at least she could enjoy the ride back up in solitude. “This one’s full,” she offered to the operator.

“Cab’s full,” the man mumbled. “Sending it up.” He punched a button on the panel in front of him, and the turbolift doors slid shut. Qui-Gon’s stomach lurched as the lift rocketed skyward; its inertial dampener was clearly on the fritz.

Reaching inside her coat, she extracted a writing stylus and a small pad of flimsiplast. She held the stylus up to her mouth and bit the end of it, pausing to consider what she should write. Nothing too detailed, she thought. If the note fell into the wrong hands, it had to seem fairly meaningless. She pressed the notepad up against the lift wall and began to scribble.

 

Qlik,

Sorry I left without saying goodbye. I’ll catch you next time I’m in town. I owe you a drink.

QGJ

 

With a slightly mischievous smile, Qui-Gon pocketed the writing stylus and tore the note free from the flimsiplast pad. She folded it over several times until it was a rigid square that fit easily in her palm, then stuffed it into another pocket.

As the turbolift began to slow, the Jedi ran her gloved fingers along the leather bandolier that cut diagonally across her body. Unlike the bandolier of a warrior, this one wasn’t used for storing ammunition. Qui-Gon slid a thin, pointed metal rod from the bandolier and twirled it between her fingers. She watched intently as the indicator lights on the lift control panel blinked up one level, then another. Finally, a green flash from the panel indicated that she had arrived as far up as the elevator could take her.

The doors slid open, and as Qui-Gon strolled out of the turbolift car she stabbed the thin metal rod into the control panel. Sparks flew, and a digital screech accompanied by dimming lights indicated the turbolift’s demise. Assuming the gang didn’t fancy making a jaunt to the surface to inspect their property, it would probably stay dead for a long time.

Precious sunlight glistened off the towering windows of the upper city district Qui-Gon had arrived in. An artificial street stretched between the buildings, allowing for landspeeders and pedestrians alike to cross between them. It was some sort of shopping center that stretched for several blocks; holographic advertisements for everything from clothing to computing systems hovered above store entrances.

In the distance, peeking between a pair of high-rise buildings, Qui-Gon could see her eventual target: the Executive Residence wing of the Senate Building. As she strolled along the sidewalk, she ruefully reevaluated suggesting it as a meeting place. Her intention had been to meet the Chancellor away from prying eyes, and his quarters certainly fit the bill. Walking through the front door was hardly an option, though, considering the number of guards and the abundance of security cameras. Surely her own residence could have been hosted an undetected meeting. Wouldn’t have been as flashy, though.

You’re very talented, my young apprentice, she remembered her master telling her. And you know it. That is your greatest weakness.

The Jedi sighed and shook her head. I’ll figure something out.

Toward the end of the block, a narrow alley branched off. Well, sort of. The avenue between two towers had never been intended for pedestrians; there was no walkway of any kind. Not that that had ever stopped Qui-Gon.

Slowly, mincingly, the Jedi shimmied along a scaffolding that hung from the skyscraper on the left, exerting a stabilizing pull with the Force. As she reached the midpoint of the alley, she slipped the handwritten note from her coat pocket, looked around until her eyes landed on a crack in the permacrete, and wedged the bit of paper in.

The scaffolding swayed as a gust of wind hit. Don’t look down, don’t look down . Her shuffling transit resumed, inch by inch. It was no different from navigating a building only a few stories high, she told herself; the fall would do her in either way.

Three more feet. Two. One . . .

Her feet hit blessed solidity again. Stumbling in relief, she nearly ran into a protocol droid ambling across the skyway.

“Oh my, excuse me!” the silver robot said, flailing its arms to try and regain balance. “Really, miss, you should stay well away from that ledge. Safety first, you know.”

When it had stabilized, it turned to face Qui-Gon and nodded a greeting. “Welcome to Crystal Ridge, one of Coruscant’s many beautiful shopping districts. I am TLD-19, tourism and leisure directory droid. How may I assist you today?”

“I’m just browsing,” Qui-Gon replied, not attempting to hide her annoyance.

“Of course, ma’am!” the droid said. “Have a pleasant day.” The Jedi nodded, then turned and strolled away, her coat fluttering behind her.

Several blocks passed, the Jedi moving as fast as she could without looking suspicious. When she reached an intersection she paused, soaking in the sunlight and appreciating the landspeeders that roared by without clouds of exhaust trailing behind. The Underworld certainly had the upper hand when it came to local color, but sometimes it was good to have sunlight above one’s head and clean tile below one’s feet.

After a few moments of this, she turned away. Time was ticking.

Across the way, just visible from the mouth of the side street, was a modest corner store. From the outside it appeared dingy and unassuming, lacking the flashy holographic signage of its neighboring shops. Awnings pocked with holes hung above the windows, and the “open” sign in the window flickered intermittently. Low-profile, but if one knew what to look for it was almost too unassuming, as if trying to compensate for something.

As Qui-Gon approached, a figure with a respirator attached to its bulbous head emerged from within—a Gand. The Jedi met its large, grey eyes and nodded a greeting; the Gand clutched its sack of goods closer to its chest and turned its head away. She shrugged, brushed by the alien, and opened the door.

Electronic chimes dinged throughout the interior, but no one was there to observe her entry—the counter at the rear of the shop was unoccupied, the proprietor presumably in the back room. Qui-Gon turned right and ducked into one of the handful of aisles, pretending to browse the wares on display. Let’s hope they haven’t left it unstaffed, after all the trouble I went to—

On cue, a familiar presence feathered against her awareness.

A grin creeping across her face, Qui-Gon slid to the edge of the aisle and peeked around the shelving; sure enough, a Rodian stood behind the store’s checkout counter. “Neevo? Is that you?”

The Rodian’s snout twitched, his widening eyes glinting in the harsh fluorescence of the store’s lighting. “Qui-Gon Jinn?” The name buzzed excitedly from the Rodian’s mouth. “It’s been too long, friend.”

Neevo wiped his bony, green fingers on the apron draped across his chest, then extended a hand across the counter. Qui-Gon approached the Rodian, grasped his hand, and shook it with enthusiasm. “What are you doing here, Neevo? I thought you were offworld.”

“Oh, I was. Couldn’t stay gone forever, though.” The Rodian held his arms wide, gesturing about the shop. “I love this planet. It’s alive with people. No offense to your upbringing, but I couldn’t do the colony life forever.”

Qui-Gon waved a hand. “None taken. It’s not for everyone.”

“Besides,” Neevo continued. “It was either here or Nar Shaddaa.”

She winced. “Well, in that case I don’t blame you.” She paused for a moment, then changed the subject. “So, is the sludge that comes out of those still terrible?” she asked, gesturing behind the counter to a pair of aging caf machines.

“Worse than ever. Want a cup?”

Chuckling: “Hell no. Still haven’t gotten the taste out of my mouth from last time.”

“I suppose it’s too much to assume you’re just here to shop?” Neevo asked, leaning forward onto the counter.

“Here on business, unfortunately. I’ll be leaving soon,” Qui-Gon replied, lowering her voice as a pair of humans entered the store. She leaned in closer to Neevo. “A. . . friend has fallen ill. He doesn’t have much time left. I want to visit him.”

The Rodian nodded in understanding. “And you’re just making a quick stop at the store before heading out? Not going home first?”

Qui-Gon shook her head. “No time.”

Neevo dropped his voice to a whisper. “Robbing the new quartermaster of his chance to dish out equipment, are we?”

At this, Qui-Gon shot the Rodian a scolding look. “I left him a note. Hopefully he’ll understand. Besides, you already know what I like.”

“Standard field loadout, then?” Without waiting for an answer, he slid a leather pouch from beneath the counter. Qui-Gon peeked inside, nodded, and slid the pouch inside her coat.

“Here, trade you,” she said, unholstering a small blaster pistol and sliding it across the counter. Eyes widening again, Neevo snatched the weapon from the countertop and stuffed it into a cabinet. He cocked his head sideways to indicate the other shoppers in the store, then gestured as if to say What are you thinking?

Qui-Gon raised her eyebrows, then looked over her shoulder at the pair of customers. They seemed to lose interest in whatever they were shopping for, then turned and left the store. As the digital chime signaled the opening of the front door, Neevo ran a hand through his head spines.

“I would really appreciate it if you didn’t influence the minds of my customers, Jinn. Get too overzealous and they may not find their way back.”

Qui-Gon shrugged. “Couldn’t risk them coming up to check out while we were still talking. You know that.”

Neevo’s snout twitched. “I suppose. Anything else I can get you?”

Qui-Gon shook her head. “I’m all set.” She opened her coat slightly, and a silver cylinder attached to her belt glinted in the store’s artificial lighting. At the sight of the lightsaber, Neevo cocked his head.

“One of those jobs, is it?”

“You can never be too prepared. I hope I won’t have to use it where I’m going next. About to attempt the craziest break-in of my career.”

“It’s the middle of the afternoon, Qui-Gon,” Neevo said, glancing with concern at the chronometer on the wall.

“Like I said, craziest of my career.”

Neevo reached up and scratched the back of his neck with his suction-cup tipped fingers. “Stealing a ship in broad daylight, are we? Surely that’s not necessary.”

Qui-Gon shook her head. “No, I’m allowed to take the ship. I just have to get to it without being seen.”

The Rodian’s round, black eyes stared at Qui-Gon; his antennae flittered. “Am I allowed to ask where you’re trying to break in?”

“I’ll tell you once I’ve pulled it off. Over a cup of that wretched caf.” She bit her lower lip. “And if I get caught, I’m sure you’ll hear about it on the news. Maybe you can be the one to bail me out.” After a few moments’ silence hung in the air, the Jedi leaned forward against the counter. “Say, do you know who took that Nar Shaddaa job?”

Neevo let out a snort. “Don’t tell me you want it.”

“No, no. Just curious.”

“I haven’t heard. Whoever it is must be insane.”

“You never know,” Qui-Gon said. “Maybe they just wanted to walk the planet. Meet people. Get into adventures. We can’t all be shopkeepers.”

“I thought we weren’t supposed to do this for adventure,” Neevo said, his ears wiggling.

“Oh, of course we aren’t. I’m in it for the great pay and benefits.”

Neevo chucked. “Wait, you get a paycheck? And here I’ve been pilfering credit coins from the register just to make rent.”

Qui-Gon smiled warmly and tapped her knuckles on the counter. “I’ve missed you, Neevo. I should get going, though. May the—”

“Until next time,” the Rodian hastily interrupted, gesturing to indicate a new arrival at the door. Qui-Gon nodded, turned on a heel, and strolled toward the store exit.

 

* * *

 

The sprawl of Capitol Plaza stretched out beneath as she lay prone on a rooftop; long shadows cast by a late afternoon sun scattered across the park below.

The north end of the Capitol Plaza housed the giant mushroom of a Senate building, the smaller dome of the Executive Wing attached to its base like a child clutching her mother’s leg. By law, no building in the area could rise higher than the Senate dome, so the rest of the plaza was dotted with structures considered short by Coruscant standards.

Twenty-story office complexes, residential units for housing Senate staff, the distinctive glass cube that housed Republic Intelligence. . . all of it clustered around a massive park. Artificial turf surrounded reflecting pools. Synthetic trees provided shade over numerous benches. All of it, Qui-Gon noted as she inhaled the strangely sterile air, was perfectly climate-controlled.

The Jedi held her electrobinoculars up to her eyes and pointed them skyward, running her finger along a scrolling wheel on the side of the device. There it was, invisible to the naked eye, but plainly seen when viewed with the right equipment. A massive deflector shield covered the entire plaza, a deterrent against civilian traffic, dropped bombs, and everything in between. The shield, it seemed, also facilitated the plaza’s climate control. Qui-Gon took another deep breath of the sterilized atmosphere as she swept her binoculars downward to survey the situation on the ground.

As expected, guards patrolled the plaza in pairs. Most were uniformed, though the Jedi spotted a few plainclothes agents doing a poor job of concealing their roles. On the gently curving shell of the Executive Wing, Qui-Gon noted several sniper’s nests. Armed soldiers brandishing disruptor rifles vigilantly scanned the plaza through their rifle scopes. Oh, terrific, Qui-Gon thought. This is going to be easy.

The Jedi stood, pocketed the electrobinoculars, and ran a finger along the small identification badge she had affixed to her coat. It claimed she worked in one of the many embassies around the plaza. That would allow her free reign of the outdoor areas. Getting inside the Chancellor’s residence was another matter. One she would figure out when she got closer.

There is no planning, there is improvisation. That’s in the Jedi Code, right?

By her watch, she had exactly twenty minutes to get it done. Longer than that wouldn’t kill her, but, well. It wouldn’t do to be late to a meeting with a head of state.

“Obi-Wan,” she said to herself, “you’d better be in a lot of trouble.”

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: SECURITY SPIKE

In today’s security industry, entirely mechanical locks are almost unheard of. The rise of the electronic lock was the downfall of the practice of lockpicking, and for several decades an electronic lock was seen as the ultimate security measure. This changed with the invention of the security spike, a device designed to overload the circuits of an electronic locking system.

When inserted into an electronic lock, a security spike attempts to apply excessive voltage to the lock’s circuits and short it out. When the lock reboots, the spike will set a new password during a short vulnerability window in the lock’s startup phase. This allows the user access to whatever the lock was protecting. Most security spikes are single-use. In the interest of keeping them cheap and compact, they are only manufactured with enough battery power to short a lock out once.

The advent of more complex security spikes has spurred the creation of more complicated locks. These locks often contain “dummy circuits” designed to fool the security spike into shorting out electronic components that serve no function. The highest-end security spikes are not disposable, but instead contain single-use power supply charges. This allows the user to tweak the spike’s settings to fit each individual lock and simply swap in a new charge after each use.

Chapter Text

Blessed sunlight streamed through the opening hatch into the tunnel below, making Bail wince as he clambered back into his office. Looking at the time, he had only two minutes to spare—a wandering gang had blocked his path to the sub-basement entrance for nearly an hour, and taking the tunnel all the way back up here had been a much slower enterprise than going down had.

Shaking his head to clear some of the moisture that still saturated his hair, he eased the hatch shut and rearranged a woven rug atop it. Much as he’d like to take a few minutes to shower the pollutant-ridden water from his scalp, he had no time—he had to ping his guards and let them know he was expecting a guest to be admitted right away.

He gave the rug a final tug and bent down to press the comm button on his desk. “Guards.” There was nothing; he frowned, and hit the button again. “Guards? Are you there?”

Still nothing. Growling, he raised his head and turned around to head down to the entryway in person—

And then swore very loudly, stumbling back and nearly tripping over the rug.

There seemed to be a Jedi sitting on his couch.

She raised an eyebrow, a glint below it. “What, General Kenobi never let himself in?”

Bail felt a hysterical bark of laughter pass his lips. “Funnily enough, he never did.” He made sure more laughter was not forthcoming and then made for the kitchenette in the east wing of the office. He needed a drink.

“Well,” Qui-Gon said, stretching out on the couch, “I couldn’t very well just stride in through the front door. Can’t have too many Jedi showing up on the official visiting logs, not with that vote of no confidence showing up. Besides, I couldn’t resist claiming the distinction of being the first person to ever have that particularly . . . colorful bit of vocabulary applied to them by a head of state.”

“You’re not the first, trust me.”

“Ahh well, I’m sure Obi-Wan will still be amused by the story.” She rose from the couch, stretched again, and followed him to the kitchenette. “Nice place you’ve got here, I must say. Not the most competent bodyguards, but I suppose you aren’t screening them for resistance to mental suggestion.”

“That’s changing starting tomorrow,” Bail grumbled. “I have a colleague who’s convinced you people could be anywhere, and I’ve got to say, my acquaintance with you so far hasn’t done much to alter that impression.”

“My, you seem intent on making everyone angry at you, Chancellor,” the Jedi said. “I’m sure if Obi-Wan knew you were revealing our existence to coworkers he’d be very grumpy.”

“He can take it up with me once you’ve saved his skin.” He pulled a second glass from the cabinet, brandishing it at her. “Drink?”

She accepted the snifter of brandy and raised it. “To a successful rescue, then.”

“Cheers.” He drank it down, relishing the smoky tang as the liquid passed down his throat. “The ship is on its way—I was told it would be here by now, but things haven’t exactly been going my way lately.”

“Well, I suppose we’ll have each other’s company til then.” The Jedi took a sip of her own brandy, studying him over the rim. “My, isn’t this an odd couple. The holocomedies would have a field day with us. Though I suppose,” she continued, returning to the couch, “that you and Obi-Wan are the couple, and I’m the third wheel. Tell me, Chancellor, has he ever needed saving before in his time working for you?”

Bail shook his head, then chuckled at a memory. “Well, there was one time when he and I were at a diplomatic function as representatives of Alderaan—this was before I was elected to my current office, of course. The kitchen bungled his dinner and ended up serving him a dish that had little bits of xabar mushroom in it. Turns out, Obi-Wan is intensely allergic. His reaction almost caused an interplanetary incident. Fortunately the med droids were able to get to him before his throat swelled too tightly.”

Qui-Gon snorted. “Never told me that one. Had to maintain his unflappable image in front of his old partner, I suppose.”

Pouring himself a bit more brandy, the Chancellor looked at her inquisitively. “Partner?”

Someone had to watch his back when he wasn’t climbing the ranks of the military.” A smile crossed her face, different from the ones she’d made before; Bail could see nostalgic warmth there, rather than amused toleration. “I don’t know how well we worked as a team. I’m used to being the clever one, and even though he likes to think of himself as by-the-book he’s the same way—not that I have to tell you, I’m sure. But we liked each other.”

Her use of the past tense was obvious, and Bail hesitated in what he asked next. “So what’s kept you from seeing him the last few years?”

She waved a hand dismissively. “Oh, there’s been no falling out, nothing like that. I got a semipermanent assignment topside and his boss started running the galaxy. Honestly, helping out my head of state is really just an excuse to see the old bastard again.”

They were silent for a while, gazing out the window at distant buildings and traffic. This hemisphere of Coruscant was in its winter season, and the sun was just starting to lower in the sky; there were no hues of orange or purple yet, but the skyscrapers had started to cast faint shadows over the courtyards below. “It must get lonely,” Bail offered after a while.

“Oh, not so much as you’d think,” Qui-Gon replied. “That’s the nice thing about the Force—being connected to all other living things is just a fact of life, not some neat little philosophical concept. And it’s not as though we’re all hermits when we’re not in each other’s company—Obi-Wan is proof enough of that.” She finished the dregs of her brandy. “I imagine you’re the lonelier of us two, right now. Judging from the holonet reports you don’t seem to have many friends in Congress right now.”

A sourness rose from his stomach—he hadn’t even thought about what things must look like with his colleagues right now. Considering he’d canceled all his meetings for the day, his already in-shambles public image must have been falling even further among the Senate. Qui-Gon must have seen a trace of the sudden nausea on his face; her expression softened and she said, “Forgive me, Chancellor, that was cruel of me.”

He nodded appreciatively. “You’re not wrong, though. Besides Obi-Wan and Senator Mothma, the only friendly face around here is Breha’s, and she’s only on hologram.” Dammit, he thought, Breha. I should have called her by now, she’ll be worried sick. For all he knew she’d tried to call him —he’d had his comm blocking incoming signals for the better part of a day. He added it to the growing mental pile of things he’d have to focus on once the rescue was officially underway. “You’d better bring him back,” he told Qui-Gon, only half joking. “As it is I’m about to lose a third of my social circle.”

“Speaking of losses . . .” The Jedi hesitated, concern playing across her face. “Say I successfully pull him out of Had Abbadon. What then?”

“Damned if I know.” Bail ran a hand across his face. “Regardless of the Senate’s official position on the matter, the Confederacy considers itself a sovereign interplanetary government. Sending the fleet into Had Abbadon airspace and firing on the clones constitutes an act of war. If Congress doesn’t sign off, I can’t make that leap.”

“And with the vote coming up . . .”

“That motion will never get off the ground, yes.” He sighed. “Which is why Obi-Wan was there in the first place. Get them to leave the system in a way that couldn’t be traced back to us, then order the fleet in to offer disaster relief. But now . . .” A few moments’ quiet. “We can’t just stand by if the clones move on the planet. If they get access to the resources they’re after, they’ll become a far greater danger than they already are.”

“And wipe out or enslave most of the inhabitants, of course.”

“Of course.”

“Just making sure your mind’s on the right thing. Though serving as your conscience definitely isn’t part of my already-strained job description.” She rose from the couch. “How many have died already?”

The Chancellor shook his head. “It’s impossible to know for sure. All comms access to the planet was knocked out a long while ago. We know the caverns had refugees from up top pouring in, but.” There really wasn’t an elegant way to go on from there.

Before he could complete the thought, a green light on his desk started pulsing. “ Proximity alert, ” it said. “ Proximity alert. Ship approaching veranda landing pad.

“Well, here’s your ride,” Bail said. He hoped the place had come through—for the amount of money he’d transferred from his personal credit account they should have outfitted him with a small battle cruiser.

Chancellor and Jedi alike turned their attention to the window once more. Approaching from the east, growing larger and larger, was—

Qui-Gon burst out laughing, her suddenly unrestrained mirth almost a jolt. “Oh, Chancellor, a racecar ?”

The ship whose autopilot was currently lowering it onto the veranda was closer in size to an airspeeder than to a proper spacecraft. It was coated top to bottom in screaming red paint, the curves and points of its design a kind of aerodynamic that was utterly unnecessary for interstellar flight. Continuing to guffaw, the Jedi pointed at it. “ That thing is hyperspace-capable?”

You try finding an appropriate vehicle for a rescue mission with less than an hour’s notice,” he replied in a peeved tone. “I couldn’t very well go through official channels for a Jedi who’s evidently not supposed to be here. I’ve been assured it’ll make the trip.” He jabbed at the desk; a section of the window folded outward, opening a pathway to the landing pad. “After you.”

Pulling the collar of her black coat up against the wind, she strode to the pad and ran a hand along the gleaming scarlet of the ship, peering inward through its viewport. “Room enough for two but no more.”

“Well, there will only be two of you making the escape. Best -case scenario.”

“Fair enough. You’d better hope it’s the best-case scenario; I’m not sure I trust Obi-Wan to fly this thing.” She chuckled again. “Rich air-jockey friends?”

Rolling his eyes, Bail replied, “Something like that.”

Shortly after Qui-Gon turned her wrist in a tight, circular motion, the cockpit glass retracted, allowing her a way in. “Wait,” the Chancellor said, and fished the commlink she’d given him from his pocket. “Transmitted the last intelligence I have on Had Abbadon to you from this. Ship positions, charted settlements below the surface. The former could be hopelessly out of date for all we know—latest reconnaissance flight was a week ago—but it’s better than nothing.”

She nodded gratefully. “Once I get to the surface, then what?”

“Well, that’s where I was hoping your Jedi powers would do . . . whatever it is they do. There’s still no way of breaking past the cavern seals that we’re aware of—their turbolasers have barely dented the crust—but we don’t know if that’s where Obi-Wan is anyway.”

“So my choice is between finding him on a flaming hellscape or sneaking onto one of their capital ships in a sports vehicle. Got it.”

“I’m open to better ideas—”

“Oh, don’t take it personally, Chancellor, I’ll think of something. Get in, rescue Obi-Wan, find out what the clones are up to, don’t scratch the paint. Simple enough.”

“The latter two are strictly optional. I don’t need to add another Jedi to my casualty list.”

“Why, Chancellor, how gracious of you.” She gave him another one of those smirks that would feel patronizing on anyone else’s face but were somehow reassuring on hers. With a flourish, she began flipping switches; the engines, which had started cooling down, began to flare again. “Oh dear, the navicomputer seems to have a default setting of Huttese. Fingers crossed the control layout is the same as other standard models.”

Bail hastily started forward. “We can find you another ship—” Then he saw the glint in the Jedi’s eye and fell back. “Well played.”

“Our friend is in danger, a planet’s on fire, and we’re both violating about seven different rules, seems to me we might as well have some fun.” She had to raise her voice above the now-roaring drive. “Anything else?”

He reached in his pocket for a squarish piece of plastic and metal and tossed it to her. “This key will give you priority with launch control when exiting the planetary shield.”

“Thanks all the same, Chancellor,” she said, snatching the key from the air and laying it on the empty seat next to her, “but we have our ways.”

Thundering now, the streak of red began to lift from the pad, its cockpit glass starting to lower back into place. “Wish me luck!” Qui-Gon called just before it sealed, and waved.

And then, she was gone, streaking for the upper reaches of the atmosphere.

 

* * *

 

Watching the glow of the ship’s engines vanishing into the aether, Bail exhaled deeply. It was done, one way or the other. Now all he could do was wait. And get a shower. And try to save what was left of his imploding career.

The transparisteel window closed behind him with a gentle shwoop , restoring quiet to the office. He strode over to the couch and collapsed onto its cushions, wanting nothing more than to just sit there in silence for five, maybe ten minutes.

Instead, he heard footsteps. Groaning, he shifted position to crane his neck toward the entryway. “Yes?”

Mon Mothma burst through the doors, looking rather more disheveled than she had earlier that day. “I don’t know what’s wrong with your guards, Bail,” she said as she approached, “they just let me walk right in here—” She paused, taking in his face and the state of his clothes and his still-dripping hair. “Bail, you look terrible.”

“Yes, well,” he said, “let it never be said that Jedi-hunting is a relaxing sport.”

Her face became a shade paler. “You mean—”

“On her way to the planet as we speak. Saved me from a particularly disgruntled constituent as well. You’d like her.” Ignoring his protesting feet, he rose from the couch and walked to meet her. “Now, as much as I’m regretting that trip downtown, I’ve a feeling it’s about to look like a happy memory. Let’s talk politics.”

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: XT-1580 ULTRALIGHT PERFORMANCE CRAFT

The XT-1580 Ultralight Performance Craft, often referred to as simply “The XT” by enthusiasts, was one of a handful of ships manufactured for the Upper-Atmosphere Racing Championship (U-ARC) on the gas giant Oovo. The craft combines the aerodynamic design often found in speeders with a sealed cockpit and engines that are capable of spaceflight, as both are necessities for racing in high atmosphere.

Racing in the U-ARC involved navigating a massive obstacle course high above Oovo. Floating rings, hazards, and course markers were held aloft by repulsorlifts. Ships were operated by teams of two: one to fly the craft, the other to sit beside the pilot, call out instructions, and assist in spotting upcoming obstacles or turns.

The U-ARC was shut down by law enforcement after a massive crash killed the occupants of all twelve vehicles on its most dangerous course. The rest of the league’s drivers quietly sold off their vessels to ship enthusiasts. Most of these enthusiasts modified their new racing craft with hyperdrives so that they could transport them between planets without having to use a carrier ship. A handful are still raced illegally in the Outer Rim, but most owners simply fly theirs for fun.

Though the vessels are incredibly nimble, they are extremely challenging to fly. The added weight of a hyperdrive tends to throw off the carefully-tuned balance of the formerly “ultralight” racing vehicle. A pilot who has not practiced in a simulator is likely to crash an XT the first time they fly one.

Chapter Text

As Obi-Wan approached the Spice Dancer , it took him a few moments to realize that the orange spread across the bottom of the hull wasn’t just rust—it was a flickering glow. He quickened his pace, hoping there wasn’t something else wrong with the ship. A fire would be a fitting way to end the day, though.

The Jedi let out a sigh of relief as the source of the light came into view. Underneath the shadow of the ship’s hull, Padmé had constructed a campfire—a real one, it seemed, not the canned survival fire they had used the night before. She poked at the flames, then looked up and tossed a wave in his direction.

“A proper fire,” Obi-Wan mused as he approached the campsite. A trio of collapsible chairs were set up around the small fire pit. “Very homey.”

“Well, as proper as you can expect in a cave,” Padmé replied, gesturing to the pile of synthetic logs next to her chair. “Thought it might be nice to cook over a flame tonight, since you two went off to Amaranth’s without me. Galley stove is acting up anyway.” She reached into a small crate sitting next to the fire and withdrew a brown pouch, holding it aloft as she collapsed back into her chair. “How do you feel about ‘Republic Defense Force Ration Meal Seventeen?’”

Obi-Wan grinned. “I’m all too familiar with it. Though I should point out that civilians aren’t supposed to buy those.”

“I won’t tell if you won’t,” came a voice from within the Spice Dancer . Anakin descended the boarding ramp and moved to stand behind Padmé; he reached down and placed his flesh hand on her shoulder. “What took you so long, Obi-Wan?”

“Ran an extra errand,” replied the general. He held out a glass bottle full of a dark brown liquid, one he’d swapped for some credit coins with a grizzled Weequay at the edges of the camp. He’d not asked the alien where he’d gotten the materials for his still. “Not sure what time of day it is, maybe caf would’ve been more appropriate than whiskey. But I feel like we could all use a drink.”

“We’re in a cave, Kenobi.” Padmé smirked. “It’s whatever time of day you want it to be.” She turned to her husband. “Grab us a few glasses?”

Anakin nodded and strode over to the food supply crate. He removed a trio of metal cups and tossed one to Obi-Wan, who deftly caught it with his free hand.

Sinking into the nearest empty chair with relief, the general groaned. Now that the urgency of their cavern odyssey had faded, his ribs were starting to twinge loudly and with greater regularity. Hopefully this will take the edge off , he thought, pouring himself a drink and passing the bottle to Padmé. “Drinking this swill while on duty isn’t against regulations, general?” she asked, lowering the neck of the bottle to her own cup.

“Well, neither is aiding and abetting known criminals in stealing a swoop bike and rampaging through populated areas.” He took a sip from his cup, choked, and wiped his eyes. “Besides, if I drink enough of this I won’t be alive for the court-martial.”

“Dinner orders, everyone?” Anakin asked, digging through the crate with his flesh hand.

“Kenobi wanted a number seventeen,” Padmé replied.

“Oh, right, these things won’t be mystery packs anymore, we’ve got an expert now,” Faint excitement tinged his voice. Holding up a food pouch in Obi-Wan’s direction: “How’s meal twelve?”

Obi-Wan grimaced as he noticed the best-by date on the pouch. “I wouldn’t. My executive officer once spent the entire evening in the refresher unit after he tried an expired one of those.”

Anakin’s eyes widened. Treating the food pouch as if it were a live explosive, he gingerly placed it back inside the supply crate. “Well then. I’ll try my luck with another one.” He removed a different pouch and began to tear open the packaging. “If you ask me, giving these things an expiration date misses the point altogether—”

“Oh, that’s not necessary,” Obi-Wan said, holding out a hand. “They cook up just fine if you toss the whole thing in the fire.”

“Are you serious?” Anakin said, annoyance crossing his face. “I’ve been taking everything out of the package for nothing?”

Obi-Wan considered telling him he’d probably been sabotaging his meals for however long they’d had the rations, then decided he hadn’t the heart.

Padmé chuckled as she took a sip of her whiskey and tossed her own meal pouch into the campfire. “A toast, then. To the Defense Force, for recognizing that field agents can be lazy bastards too.”

 

* * *

 

The coals of a dying campfire glowed with a slow, plusing rhythm; sparks kicked upward as a synthetic log landed in the firepit and disrupted the peaceful pulsing light.

“Kenobi, pass the booze, would you?” Padmé asked. She was slumped comfortably in a chair by the campfire, her husband seated at her feet. Obi-Wan was crouched opposite the couple, having just added a log to the fire. He stood and walked toward Padmé, scooping the half-empty whiskey bottle off the ground as he moved and extending it toward her.

Padmé nodded in thanks, taking a quick nip straight from the neck of the bottle. Obi-Wan returned to his own seat, the synthetic log in the middle of the coals crackling and sparking as it finally caught fire. Anakin lazily tossed a small scrap of food into the fire and stared as it was consumed by the flame.

“You’re supposed to eat your food, not play with it, dear,” scolded his wife. “There’s a war on, or haven’t you heard?”

“I ate most of it.” Anakin held up a dull grey brick of food that had several chunks torn out of it. “This. . . mystery thing is terrible, though.”

“It’s a quick-absorption emergency nutrient bar,” Obi-Wan offered. “It’s not supposed to taste good.”

“Well then, I’m not supposed to eat it,” Anakin droned, tearing off another scrap and throwing it in the fire.

Obi-Wan chuckled. The bars were terrible; he considered himself lucky that he’d only been forced to eat one a handful of times in his career.

“Once we’re out of here, we’re going to a fancy restaurant,” Anakin continued, eyes glazing over momentarily at the thought. He looked up at his wife. “Maybe we can get your parents to take us so we don’t even have to pay for it.”

“Oh, there is no way in hell that’s happening,” she said, relaxation draining from her face in an instant..

Obi-Wan sat up a bit in his chair, taking a sip of his drink as he leaned on the armrest. “You’re not on good terms with your family?”

“We get along fine,” Padmé said, waving her hand. “It’s just—”

“She doesn’t want them to see the ship,” Anakin interrupted. “Last time we visited Oseon, she made us rent a shuttle before we went to their house.”

The Jedi grinned at the revelation. “Protective parents wouldn’t approve of what you’re flying?”

“You haven’t met my father, Kenobi. He’d try to have it repaired. He’d offer to pay for it. And then when we weren’t looking, he’d have the Dancer scrapped.”

“Doesn’t sound like a bad deal to me,” Obi-Wan said. “Maybe you could throw in the droid.”

Padmé shook her head. “It’s a piece of trash, but it’s our piece of trash. We’ll fix it on our own terms, thanks.”

“Visiting your parents is a safer bet, then?” asked Obi-Wan as he looked down at Anakin.

The pilot shrugged. “I’m sure they would’ve had a soft spot for the Dancer , but visiting them isn’t an option. They died when I was a kid.”

Obi-Wan felt the sudden twinge of regret, then the hasty attempt on the pilot’s part to shove it back down. “I’m so sorry,” he managed.

Anakin dismissively waved his mechanical hand. “No, it’s fine. You didn’t know.” Silence hung in the air, broken only by the crackling of the campfire. The pilot took the pause as an invitation to continue. “I was thirteen. Fooling around on the Station with some friends, and my parents were at home. There was a fire in the habitation wing. Fire doors sealed it in, and it burned out pretty quickly, but . . . it had sucked the oxygen out of the hab units. Everyone inside suffocated.”

Obi-Wan noticed a pained look cross Padmé’s face. She shifted in her chair, then spoke up. “On to happier things. What about your family, Kenobi?”

It took him a few seconds; talking about them was awkward, like trying on a set of old clothes that still fit but not in the same way they had when you were young. “I’m afraid they aren’t around either. My parents were in a speeder crash when I was a teenager. My older sister died when I was twenty-five. Just me now.”

“That’s rough,” Anakin muttered, throwing another scrap of nutrient bar into the fire.

“I’ve made peace with it,” Obi-Wan said. “You take on substitute families; the Order, the Republic. And it’s not as though they’re really gone. Death is part of life. They’re one with the Force now.”

Padmé raised an eyebrow. “Right, ‘the Force.’ An energy that connects everything in the galaxy. You really believe that?”

Anakin’s eyes widened, and he shot his wife a horrified look. “Padmé!”

Obi-Wan waved a hand. “No, no, it’s alright. I know, it sounds strange. Faith can be that way.” He glanced over at Padmé. “I do seem to remember hearing that Oseon’s chief religion involves a god that cut the moon in half. . .”

Padmé shot the Jedi a grin. “Hey, I didn’t say I believed in that either.”

“But you’ll still ask the gods to damn things, I’ve noticed.” Before she could retort, he continued. “Say there isn’t some energy field flowing throughout the galaxy. The broader truth remains the same. No one’s ever really gone. We all live on as memories, impressions, bits and pieces.”

Anakin reached up and scratched the back of his neck with his metal hand, groaning as he attempted to stand on worn-out legs. “Well, as fun as it sounds to stay up late and talk about deceased relatives and religion, I think we should get some sleep. There’s a long day of repairs ahead of us tomorrow.”

He did a decent enough job masking it, but Obi-Wan could sense the haste that lay beneath his voice. Silently, the Jedi cursed himself—at a campfire in front of other people had not been a good way to broach the subject, regardless of its relevance to the conversation. He wouldn’t get anywhere if he scared Anakin off before they’d even begun.

Ribs suddenly twinging again, Obi-Wan stood. “I’m looking forward to seeing how comfortable that guest cabin is,” he said, doing his best to keep his voice light.

“It’s the Spice Dancer, Kenobi,” Padmé said, scooping up the whiskey bottle as she rose to her feet. “I wouldn’t expect too much.”

 

* * *

 

“Admiral on deck!”

The bridge crew of the Charybdis snapped to attention as Valis strolled through the open doors into the center of the command chamber. She glanced at the helmsman who had announced her arrival and waved a dismissive hand. “As you were.”

The officers turned their attention back to their stations, save one. Gammeth Melko, executive officer, rose and approached Admiral Valis. “Good morning, ma’am. Sleep well?”

What does he care? Valis thought. “Fine, thank you,” was her spoken response.

“Now that we’re all here,” began Melko, raising his voice to address the whole room, “a small housekeeping item.” He walked to the front of the bridge, planting himself in the empty space opposite the helm, then turned so his back faced the viewport. “Command would like to remind all crew members that smoking is not allowed on board any Confederacy fleet vessels. In addition to concerns about your own health, the science team on Kamino is unsure of how airborne carcinogens may affect the clone troopers. If you have a smoking dependency, please see the quartermaster about requisitioning alternative smoke-free products.”

An uncomfortable silence hung in the air. After a few moments, the communications officer raised his hand. “Captain, sir. None of us smoke, sir.”

Melko smirked, then reached down and adjusted the cuffs of his uniform sleeves. “Well then, Lieutenant, the bridge crew shouldn’t have any problem following this directive, should they?”

“I—no, sir.”

“Very good. Back to work.” As Melko returned to his post, he shot a piercing glare at Admiral Valis. She returned the stare with a slight nod.

Morning dragged on, and the energy of the bridge crew waned. Being stranded in deep space—waiting for the real war to begin, most would say—left the officers little to do. Training exercises and weapons tests filled the official schedule, but as Valis made her way around the bridge she noted several junior officers chatting with their fellow crew or playing electronic sabacc on the ship network.

She decided not to scold them, not to waste her energy reprimanding them for killing time. She herself hadn’t been doing much better recently—a grand strategy against the Republic really wasn’t in the cards when the most they could manage without spreading their manpower too thin was repeated terror raids. When the war came, she would be ready, and so would the crew.

Besides, she thought, I’ve a more pressing concern to deal with. “Melko,” she barked, making her way to the bridge exit. “Walk with me.” She turned her head backward toward the redheaded woman seated at the navigation console. “Commander, you have the bridge.”

The woman stood and saluted as bridge doors shut behind captain and admiral. Valis gestured for Melko to enter an available turbolift; before the XO had a chance to realize what was happening, she’d stepped inside the turbolift, retrieved a code cylinder from her uniform pocket, and tapped it against the lift control panel. Lights turned red and doors slid shut.

Melko’s watery eyes grew wide. “Admiral, I’m not sure what this is—”

“You know exactly what this is about, Captain . That little ‘no smoking’ stunt? Absolutely ridiculous. Never try to embarrass me in front of my crew again, do you hear me?”

Melko did not speak.

Valis continued. “I get it. You don’t like me. Fine. But don’t think for a second that just because Maul has left the ship you can go back to trying to undermine my command. Hate me all you want, but in front of the rest of the crew you will keep it to yourself. Are we clear?” The admiral did not wait for an answer, instead turning to face the turbolift doors. Melko stood behind her in continued silence.

The turbolift stopped, and the doors to the Restricted Deck slid aside. Valis stepped out of the turbolift and turned back to face Melko; her eyes widened at the sight of her executive officer grasping at his uniform collar. “Melko, what the hell is wrong with you?”

The captain coughed and gasped for air. “Nothing. I’m fine. Something caught in my throat,” he said between labored breaths. “What are you doing down here? The warlord’s gone, you have no reason to be on this deck.”

“What I’m doing down here is my business, Melko. Report me to Maul when he returns, if you like. See how well that ends for you.” The admiral turned and took a few steps down the corridor, then glanced back at Melko. “Or don’t. Maybe he’ll be more upset you tried to hide this from him. Either way, I’m sure you’ll make the right choice.” She allowed herself the faintest smirk as the turbolift closed and whisked a still gasping Melko back towards the command deck.

Valis turned her attention toward the door at the end of the tubular corridor. Maul’s chamber entrance—unguarded, for once—sat at the end. Picking up her pace, she strolled toward the door. “Sorry I’m late,” she said, directing her voice at the ceiling above the doorway. “Are we in?”

A set of sour notes played from above the entry, and Valis’ droid skittered down from the ceiling. As Mate hit the floor, Maul’s door opened. It offered some resistance as it slid aside—sparks sputtered from the control mechanism—but that didn’t matter. She was in.

A wave of cold air crawled across the admiral’s skin, and her toes curled inside her boots. Valis hadn’t expected crossing the threshold of Maul’s chamber to feel any different than it had before, but somehow it did. “Droid,” she said, her voice wavering, “has the temperature dropped significantly since we entered the room?”

Mate beeped a pair of descending notes. No? Valis thought. Strange. The admiral walked the perimeter of the room, staring upward at the viewport built into its ceiling. The void of space drew her in, she could feel the pinpoints of light prickle her arms. Something was wrong.

Cold. The strangest sensation. As if a low temperature was somehow radiating off the strange rock formations lining the chamber’s perimeter. The rocks were darker than black; they seemed to suck in the light that got near them. Valis lifted her hand to point at the rock formations. It was shaking, she noticed, and no amount of willpower was helping it hold still. “Droid. Scan those.”

Mate chirped an approving tone and scuttled over to the rock formation, seemingly unaffected by its strange energy. Valis shook her head in an attempt to clear it. Maul’s chambers had always felt uncomfortable, but there was something more intense about the wrongness of it all now. She couldn’t explain why her brain had so powerfully latched onto the rocks as the source, but the connection seemed irrefutable.

Forcing herself to relax, she moved toward the center of the chamber and gingerly lowered herself into Maul’s chair. “Speak up once you’ve found something,” the admiral said to the droid. It beeped a positive tune, and Valis settled into Maul’s chair as she watched the robot scurry along the rock formations.

She felt her hair stand on end as she touched the surface of the thing—cold, hard, uncomfortable, as if it were designed to make the occupant want to get up immediately—but that was just from the associations her mind held between the chair and Maul. What she felt from the stones was . . . different. Evil seemed melodramatic. But she couldn’t think of a better adjective at that particular moment.

“Stones match the signature of structures scanned on Korriban,” Mate said after a few minutes, jumping from the peak of a jagged obsidian formation to the floor of the chamber. The sound of his voice made his owner jump.

“Korriban?” Valis asked, straightening in the chair and doing her best to salvage her dignity.

“The planet of Korriban, assumed to be located in the Outer Rim, is an unsettled world—”

She stood and approached the droid. “No, no, don’t read me a damn encyclopedia entry. I know what Korriban is. Nobody’s ever been there, the route is unmapped.”

“Incorrect,” buzzed Mate. “An archaeological expedition traveled to Korriban in 1138. The trip was one-way; the group did not return and has not been heard from since landing. The only data remaining from the expedition are a series of scans, including scans of rock formations similar to the ones found here.”

Valis sighed and slumped back in the chair. “Well, add it to the data file you’re compiling on our mystery leader.”

“Relevant correlation found.”

The admiral turned to glare at the droid. “Not funny.”

“It is not a joke. There is a relevant correlation. The archaeological expedition to Korriban was carried out by the University of Theed.”

Naboo again, Valis thought; her eyes narrowed as she leaned onto the chair’s armrest. Perhaps it’s time someone paid them a visit.

“Droid, place a call. See if the old number I have for Kelvin Wray still works.”

Mate clicked its legs against the metal decking, and a small holoprojector sprouted from the top of its body. “Connecting you now, ma’am.” Valis stood and straightened her uniform as a blue-tinted hologram of a human man crackled to life.

“Kelvin,” the admiral said with a nod.

“Sephone? I almost didn’t believe it when I saw the call come up. I’d heard you were dead.” The man was dressed in an oil-stained jumpsuit, and Valis noted the edge of a starfighter hull just barely in view of the holographic camera he was using. Kelvin slipped a hydrospanner into a tool belt and ran a greasy hand through greasy hair. “You with a new merc company? I don’t recognize the uniform.”

“You’ll recognize it soon enough,” Valis said. “I have a job for you, if you’re interested.”

The hologram flickered as Kelvin looked at the floor. “Normally I’d go for it. Anything for an old friend and all that, but. . . I’ll be honest, I’ve got quite the backlog, Seph.”

Valis suppressed a wince, grateful that none of her subordinates were in the room to hear her addressed by a nickname. “Perhaps a small down payment could convince you to move me up in the queue?” She waved a hand at Mate and gave a slight nod, and the droid’s internals whirred.

Kelvin’s eyes grew wide as the funds transfer arrived on his end. “Son of a—what merc company did you say you were working for?”

“I didn’t,” Valis said. “Nice try, though.”

The hologram wavered a bit, and Kelvin shrugged. “Can’t help myself. You’ve got quite the budget, it would seem.”

“It’s important, Kelvin.”

The man nodded. “Well, as soon as I wrap this job up, I’m all yours. What do you need?”

The admiral allowed a smile to creep across her face. “How would you feel about a trip to Naboo?”

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: KORRIBAN

The planet of Korriban, assumed to be located in the Outer Rim, is an unsettled world that has been lost to time. Though many ancient documents reference the planet by name, the hyperspace route to its system was unknown for centuries. In 1138, the University of Theed sent an expedition to the planet. A faculty member claimed to have come into possession of an ancient data packet containing travel directions to the lost planet.

This trip—the only known research expedition to Korriban in recent history—ended in disaster. The team never returned, and cryptic transmissions from their research site hint at a horrible fate. Small chunks of data were sent back to Naboo before the team met their end, but there is nowhere near enough information to paint a clear picture of the state of the planet Korriban.

TRAVEL ADVISORY: A popular holonet scam provides recipients with the supposed coordinates to Korriban, promising untold riches of lost treasure upon arrival. Do not respond to these messages, and do not under any circumstances travel to the coordinates provided. Report any instance of this scam message to NetSec officials immediately.

Chapter Text

It was a good thing traffic was so heavily restricted around the Senate complex, Qui-Gon thought to herself. The vehicle the Chancellor had provided was such a jumpy little thing that she probably would have plowed into an oncoming airspeeder had the sky been more densely populated.

As it was, she was displaying a rather flagrant disregard for the planetary piloting restrictions, which stated that all vehicles capable of flight needed to stay slaved to their autopilot barring certain emergencies. Fortunately, the craft was so fast that no police cruisers had any hope of catching her. Not that an aerial chase wouldn’t be a fun way to start off this rescue, but Qui-Gon imagined that both the Jedi and the Chancellor would be less than pleased if she ended up having to explain to the local traffic court how she’d wound up there.

Sunlight streamed into the viewport as she eased the ship east—she adjusted the transparisteel’s polarizer and continued to list. There were closer gates through the planetary shield, but the one she was headed for was going to be far more convenient.

She patted the empty seat next to her. “Just hang in there, Obi-Wan,” she said. “In a little while we’ll be flying you back to your boss and swapping tales of how much nonsense he’s put us through.”

Not that she bore the Chancellor any hard feelings. She could see what Obi-Wan was drawn to in him—anyone who would go through the harebrained scheme of traveling to the Underworld on the off chance a potentially existent Jedi would come to his rescue was something of a kindred spirit to her old partner. And while the man’s attempt to bring down the fleet around Had Abbadon had gone horribly wrong . . . at least he’d tried to do something.

Last time she was at the Temple, she’d run into Giv Davran, who’d tangled with some of the clones when they’d attacked the Outer Rim world he’d been assigned to. Old Giv wasn’t easy to shake—the aging Mon Calamari had seen his share of atrocities out on the frontier—but the eyes beneath his nictitating membranes had stared off into another place as he told her the story, clouding over as he spoke of the children he’d seen incinerated, of the buildings turned to ash by orbital strikes. After he’d come back to himself, he’d grimly told her, “The Republic aren’t prepared to deal with this. They’ve not had a war in lifetimes, and war with terrorists is far worse than war between sovereign governments. And there’s only so much any of us can do with our swords and our meditation.” He’d shaken his head. “Preemptive action is the only way out of this.”

Well, when she and Obi-Wan had made it safely back, she’d have to see if there was anything she could do to stave off ruin. Not that a vote of no confidence was anything she had experience in fighting. It certainly wasn’t an enemy you could mindtrick into laying down its weapons and walking away.

The shield station was growing larger in the distance—a hovering ring whose telltale pulses of energy signified the opening and closing of the gate. The stations along the main thoroughfares were always clogged by multiple lanes of starships eager to make the trip elsewhere, but this one’s traffic was fairly tepid; a couple of shuttlecraft were approaching from the south, but Qui-Gon, goosing her ship’s throttle and feeling it scream forward, was confident she’d beat them there.

Reaching down to the comm controls, she keyed the ship’s mic to a certain tightbeam frequency. “Code Jedha.”

After a few moments’ silence, the comm crackled. “You are cleared for the priority gate in sector A1-90, Madame Jinn.” Then, quieter: “Leaving the planet? Don’t tell me you’ve been reassigned.”

“No, no, Kit,” she replied, “need to know business. I’ll be back.”

“Copy that.” A faint series of beeps issued from the background. “You’re first in line. May the Force be with you.”

A corner of her mouth lifted upward. “And also with you.” A bit overzealously, she wrenched the ship into place in front of the incoming shuttles.

As the shield dissipated, pale blue particles fading into nothingness, Qui-Gon felt a little thrill pass through her. The first time she’d been offworld in—how long had it been?

Well, she said to the Force as she shot through the gap, I’ll choose to take that little tingling sensation as approval from you. Not too self-serving, I hope.

The rest of the atmosphere flew by quickly, the ship’s engines straining faster and faster. Zippy little thing—good for getting in and out of tight spaces at a moment’s notice. Hopefully that would come in handy.

And it had a hyperdrive—how the manufacturer had managed to fit it under the hood of this thing she had no idea, but its controls were on the board, and at 1.5 it was rated higher than usual. She’d have to talk to the Chancellor about who his guy in the travel business was when this was all over.

She punched the coordinates he’d sent to her comm into the navicomputer. There were several seconds of calculations, after which a disembodied voice informed her: “ Data indicate that the Had system is currently under a travel advisory due to the presence of ongoing terrorist activity. Civilian travel not recommended. Do you wish to proceed?

“Well, when you put it like that.” She closed her eyes, took a breath, and, in a gesture Obi-Wan probably would have scoffed at, crossed her fingers. “Let’s go.”

Stars smeared into starlines, and she was off.

 

* * *

 

Rask Petram felt uncomfortably out of place amidst the sea of wetworks. A room full of humans was easy to read. These things were not.

He had been thrust into command of this operation not by a promotion, but by default, as the wreckage of the Helios had streaked like a great meteor through the atmosphere of Had Abbadon. Now, on the bridge of the Arbiter, he stood in the center of a crew of clones that felt entirely wrong .

A human crew—a normal crew—should have been getting antsy. Bombing runs had been on hold for nearly two days. The four remaining Dictat- class cruisers had been holding position in orbit above Had Abbadon, scanning the surface and awaiting the next set of orders from the now-Commander Petram. The commander would have expected his bridge crew to make an impatient jab at the situation, or pass the time by fooling around on their station terminal. The wetworks did no such thing.

They sat dutifully, without complaint or comment, and waited. It elicited a squirming feeling in the pit of Petram’s stomach that only grew more intense as one of the clones approached him.

“The admiral is calling for you, sir.”

Petram’s eyes widened. He had hoped to avoid talking to any higher-ups until he had something good to report. The commander attempted to stand even taller than he already was; he prayed his nervousness would not be visible on a holoprojection. “Very well, then, put her through.”

“Commander Petram,”  the hologram of Admiral Valis crackled as it flickered to life. Mercenary she may have been, but the sternness of her face was enough to match any of the Republic officers Petram had served under. And unlike them, she’d grown up in a world without rules. It could have been worse, though. It could have been the Zabrak calling.

“Admiral,” Petram replied with a slight nod. “I assume you’re calling for a report.”

“I’m calling with a warning, Commander,” Valis said, holding up a hand to halt her subordinate. “Lord Maul is on his way.”

Petram tried to swallow the quickly-forming lump in his throat. “I see.”

“He has business to take care of on the surface. Put the operation on hold until he arrives.”

“I, uh. . . the operation is already on hold, Admiral,” Petram said with a shaky voice.

Valis’ eyes appeared to narrow. “Explain.”

“When the Helios was blitzed, the craft split in two. The first half crashed quickly. The second was moving slowly enough for us to capture it. We are holding it in orbit with tractor beams and have scanned Had Abbadon to locate the weakest point on the surface. When the time is right, we will drop the wreckage.”

Commander Petram motioned to a clone officer, who called up a holographic image of Had Abbadon. His voice gained an air of confidence as he explained his plan. “This is a predictive model of what de-orbiting the wreckage will do. Ideally, we should be able to create a large crack in the crust between the two crash sites. Bombing runs on this surface crack will give us access to the lower caves.”

Valis nodded in approval; her hologram stared at the planet projection for several seconds. “Well done, Commander. Proceed with your plan, then. Drop the wreckage, bomb the resulting crack, but do not send troops into the caverns until after Maul gives the go-ahead.”

“Aye aye, ma’am.”

“And Commander?”

“Yes, Admiral Valis?” Petram said, surprised that the admiral had not hung up.

“You’ve got a promising career ahead of you. Don’t get in his way. I’m sure you’re aware of what might happen if you do.”

Before Petram could respond, the hologram of Admiral Valis fizzled out of existence. Once again, he was alone in the sea of wetworks. Only now, he was infinitely more terrified. His knees weak, he turned on a heel and slowly shuffled to the exit of the bridge.

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: PLANETARY SHIELD

A large-scale version of the deflector shield technology found in starships can be used to protect a planet from orbital bombardment or unauthorized landing. These planetary shields are prohibitively expensive, and are usually found only on wealthy and populous worlds.

Though shields protect a planet from being fired on from orbit, they also prevent surface-to-space weapons from being useful; the protection offered by a shield works in both directions. To counter this, Coruscant—the most notable shielded planet—utilizes several orbiting defense stations and ships to deal with potential attacks.

Travel through a planetary shield is achieved through the use of “shield gates,” which open small gaps in the shield to allow vessels to pass through. There are hundreds of shield gates around Coruscant, each staffed by a team of both droids and sentient traffic controllers. Though the departure and arrival process is extremely efficient, this does not stop impatient travelers from occasionally trying to jump the queue and pass through a shield gate out of turn. This is highly illegal, and can result in harsh fines and ship impounding.   

Chapter Text

“Well, this is it,” Anakin said, extending his mechanical arm in an approximation of a grand sweep. “Not much, but, y’know, better than a cave floor.”

Obi-Wan nodded approvingly. There was a mattress to lie down on, and a blanket to cover himself with, and even a pillow—all that could be asked for, really. He raised an eyebrow, though, at what looked like a seatbelt resting on top of the bed. “Gravity problems?”

Nodding, Padmé grimaced. “Let me tell you, waking up with your nose banging against the ceiling isn’t something I’d recommend.” She pushed into the room and pulled open a drawer that extended from the port wall. “No pajamas for you or anything, but feel free to stow your laser sword in there.”

He nodded gratefully. “You’ll have to wake me, or have the droid do it, or something,” he said, “otherwise I’ve the terrible suspicion I’ll sleep through the planet being broken into.”

“Padmé,” Anakin asked abruptly, “could you go and take Liz to the engine room for a few minutes to check on that shield generator one more time? I want to make sure that patch is holding.”

Extreme reluctance mixed with bemusement crossed her face. “I thought you already double-checked. And if you think I’m waking her up just when she’s powered down—”

“Could you check yourself, then?” he asked. “I’ll be by in a few minutes, gotta take care of something first.”

Raising an irritated eyebrow, she exited the room. “Well, okay then.” Over her shoulder as she strode for the engine room: “You’re a terrible liar, Skywalker. Kenobi, you’ll have to fill me in later.”

The Jedi could feel apprehension pouring off the pilot, whose scar had stretched tight with his clenched jaw. Anakin gestured limply at the mattress. “You can, ah, sit down, if you like.”

Well this isn’t what I expected, thought Obi-Wan. Instead of the Force showing him the right time to start the conversation, the man was doing it himself. At least, that was the only thing he could think of that could possibly generate such anxiety for no discernible reason. Complying, he crossed the room and sat, sinking into the mattress. His ribs twinged as he sat; he rubbed at them and winced. “What’s on your mind?”

Anakin exhaled slowly and ran his flesh hand through his hair, his normally confident eyes pointed at his own boots. “So, ah . . . when did you first know?”

“Know?”

“That . . . well, you know. That it was real. The Force.”

Obi-Wan considered. “Well, it’s not quite as simple as that. I think that everyone is aware of it to some degree, conscious or not. We experience it as . . . empathy, as strange moments of precognition, little whispers in our minds.”

“But there had to be a moment. When you knew you had something special.”

Smiling slightly, he waved a hand. “Sorry. Going the indirect route is something you tend to do as the Negotiator.” Stroking his beard: “I was five or so. I don’t have many clear memories from that age, but I remember this distinctly. There was a tree in front of my family’s house, one that had been standing for a couple of decades by the time I was born. And in the upper branches of that tree, a bird had made her nest and hatched her eggs. I was obsessed with it, I’m told—always lying out on the grass and watching the mother bird fly back and forth bringing food for her babies.

“One day, as I was watching, one of the hatchlings must have been wandering around a bit too close to the edge of the nest—maybe one of its siblings bumped it, I don’t know. At any rate, it fell. It wasn’t an absolute newborn at this point, but even knowing nothing about ornithology I knew it wasn’t old enough to fly. It was going to be dashed against the ground and killed. And then—I had reached out my hand, and it was suddenly sailing back into the nest. Not of its own volition—I had taken its fall and reversed the arc.”

It could have been frightening, he thought—a child suddenly watching the laws of gravity turned on their head with no explanation. But it had felt— right , as though he’d become at that moment part of something bigger. How to put that into words?

In the end, he decided not to. “Of course, I’m sure Padmé would say I was imagining things,” he concluded instead. “Nor would she be alone in the galaxy. There are many who are sure the Jedi ourselves don’t exist, much less the Force.”

“You said,” asked Anakin, “that everything touches the Force.” He was looking the Jedi in the eye now, his own occasionally making a nervous dart back and forth. “So what makes the Jedi able to do things with it when others can’t?”

“If I knew that, I’d be a far better Jedi than I am now.” He saw frustration in the pilot’s eyes and hastened: “No, I mean it. What makes some great painters when anyone can use a brush? What makes you an incredible pilot when I can barely use a control yoke? Some things just are. The Force makes its will known to whoever it pleases. All we can do is respond to that will.”

Anakin nodded slowly. He was silent, and then said: “You’re right that Padmé would say you’re imagining things. But I don’t think she’d mean it. Not anymore.”

“And why’s that?”

“She saw what happened down there in the hive. Same as you did.”

Ah, he thought. Here we go.

“I’ve never done . . . anything like that before,” Anakin continued in a rush. “But I’ve done other things. Things I couldn’t explain at first, but then after a while I was . . .”

“Breaking locks?” Obi-Wan interjected. “Finding marks that a voice told you were just right?”

The pilot nodded. “So, the Jedi. They teach you how to control it?”

“Not just control it. How to refine your technique yes, but also how to listen to what it tells you. To follow it to the right places. To help people.” An involuntary chuckle escaped him then. “I have to say, I never expected my first pitch for the Order to take place in a cave—”

“Can they teach you how to get rid of it?”

Obi-Wan stopped cold, his mouth still open midsentence. Well, that wasn’t where I’d expected this to go.

 

* * *

 

Anakin saw surprise flash into the Jedi’s eyes, saw the split second it took his mouth to close. He moved his head back slightly, as if something had socked him in the jaw.

“If that’s, like, blasphemy or something,” the pilot hastily added, “forget it. Forget it, I’m sorry.”

“Not at all,” replied the Jedi, who seemed to be doing his best to control his startled response. “It’s just . . . that’s an unexpected question. And a large one. And . . . I’m not sure I understand.”

Sighing, Anakin shifted from one foot to the other. “You don’t, huh?”

“You have to understand, Anakin, the Force is . . . to me, to all the Jedi, it’s the most sacred thing there is. Not because of what it is, but because of what it means. Every single part of the universe is in some way connected. A moth flaps its wings on a planet light-years away, and it affects the deepest, tiniest part of an infant on the other side of the universe. A tree passes out of existence and is reborn as part of a star thousands of years later. It’s . . . I’m sorry, I’m afraid I can’t describe it.” He shook his head. “What is it that makes you so afraid?”

“Who says I’m afraid?” Anakin snapped; then, a second later, he reconsidered. “Oh. Everything is connected. You can . . . read minds and whatnot.”

“Not exactly. Nothing so precise as that.” Obi-Wan leaned forward. “And I hope you believe me when I tell you I would not abuse your trust that way. But certain powerful emotions are . . . impossible for me to avoid sensing in flashes. For that I’m sorry.”

Anakin nodded, willing himself to simmer down. “I shouldn’t have gotten mad. It’s just—” He rubbed the digits of his mechanical hand together, making a faint squeal of metal on metal as he searched for the right words. “There’s part of me that feels so good when I use it. But it’s not like what you talk about. I don’t feel some greater connection to a flower the next system over, or anything like that. It feels good in . . . in a bad way.” Articulate, Skywalker, well said. He must think you’re a damned idiot.

If he did, he was far too polite to say so. “How do you mean?”

The pilot took a few moments to form his next few sentences before he said them. “When that thing in the hive almost got Padmé—when I—when I killed it—what I wanted more than anything in the world was to do the same thing to the next one that got in my way. And the next one. And the next one. And earlier, when she crashed the swoop, and I thought something had happened to her . . . I wanted to hurt something. Anything . You, the bikers, the planet, whatever. And that’s . . . that’s terrible. But there’s this voice in the back of my head. And it likes that. Because it knows that if I wanted to, I could.”

The last few sentences had been spoken to his boots; he forced himself to look the Jedi in the eye again. “When I said I was too scared to save Amaranth’s wife, I didn’t mean I was scared I’d get hurt. I meant I could have stopped the shrapnel that hit her, but I was too afraid that once I started I wouldn’t be able to stop.”

He felt that fear now, prickling at the back of his neck, and wondered how much was his and how much belonged to the man in front of him. There was something like horror in Obi-Wan’s eyes, no matter how the Jedi tried to hide it.

The other man spoke again. “Anakin, I—I don’t pretend to be an expert. But you’ve had a very unlucky life. Don’t mistake me—Padmé is a good woman, and you are a good man, and you’ve built a life together. But you lived in poverty on a derelict space station and felt your parents die when you were still a child. And there was no one to teach you about the gift you possess. I’m not surprised that you didn’t know how to deal with it.” He leaned further forward, eyes blazing earnestly now. “But that’s what the Jedi are for, at least partly. Helping people to realize the beautiful thing the Force can be, and how they can use what they’ve been given to help so many people.”

Anakin snorted weakly. “Is this the recruitment spiel, then?”

“For me? No. I don’t know the first thing about training Jedi. But if, once we get out of this mess, I can take you back—the Order can help you. They can show you your true calling.” He clasped Anakin’s mechanical hand awkwardly in his own. “And Anakin, even though I’ve only known you a short while, it’s clear to me that the Force wants you to help others. With your potential—it would be a crime not to.”

At that moment, Anakin felt no contempt of any kind for the Jedi. It was clear that Obi-Wan was a good man, one who was speaking this way not out of any selfish desire but because he genuinely believed what he said. But he obviously didn’t and couldn’t understand. “Maybe,” Anakin said, extracting his hand from the other man’s, “I’ll help more people to stay safe by doing what I asked you about.”

Obi-Wan slowly nodded in resignation. Anakin suddenly felt a wave of regret wash over him, and knew, as if a veil had lifted, that it belonged not to him but to the Jedi. “It’s doable,” he replied. “I’m not the one to ask how, but it can be done.”

“Obi-Wan.” He inhaled, exhaled. “Promise me, if we get out of this, that you’ll try and find out how for me.”

There were a few moments’ silence. Then, the other man sighed gently and said, “I’ll do what I can, Anakin. I promise you.”

“Thank you.” He breathed those last two words in a rush, and meant them both.

Suddenly, the wall comm pinged. “ Skywalker, ” Padmé’s voice crackled. “ If you’re done with the boys’ club, it turns out that seal is a little janky after all. Get over here.

He punched the button on the wall. “Coming.” Turning back to Obi-Wan: “Well, the job’s never done. Get some sleep. We’ll wake you in, well, whatever feels the morning. Sleep well.”

Wearily, the Jedi nodded. “Thank you. Sleep well yourself.”

It should have felt good, Anakin thought as he walked away. Getting answers. Knowing , at last, what was wrong with him. And knowing that there was a cure. But instead, his brain was crawling with whispered doubts.

She would have died if you hadn’t done something, one said. How will you protect her next time, if you can’t use it?

What if blocking it doesn’t make things better? asked another. What if it just makes you need it more?

What if the problem isn’t the Force? whispered a third. What if it’s just you ?

 

* * *

 

Padmé would have liked more than anything else to just angrily dismiss the whole thing out of hand, to stroll over to the cabin and give Kenobi a piece of her mind for feeding her husband wild ideas. But she couldn’t, because Anakin was right. She’d seen what happened in that instant, the moment before the worm wrapped its mouthparts around her head and bit down. And she’d been trying to shove it into the recesses of her mind ever since.

She punched the intercom button on the wall, listening to her husband’s footsteps as they drew closer. Fiddled with her hair, ran her tongue between clenched teeth. Looked over at Liz’s inert form and almost considered turning her back on just to delay the inevitable. But then he was here, fear and self-doubt and anxiety all over his face, scar pulled so tight by his clenched jaw that it was edging white.

“How did it go?” she asked, holding his eyes with her own. Willing him not to do what she thought he was about to do.

“Oh, ah . . .” He trailed off, then shook his head and started again. “Just fine. I was just asking him something about the control system on that cruiser he was on, that’s all. You said the shield generator needs looking at?”

Crossing her arms, she gave a bark of laughter, one that was approximately as mirthless as she felt. “Shield generator is fine.”

Confusion played across Anakin’s face, which had already seemed to be gazing somewhere other than this ship. “What?”

“It’s fine. No faults. Liz and I patched it up solid.”

“Then why are you—”

“She’s not the only one who can listen in, Skywalker. Lots of things on this ship are broken, intercom isn’t one of them.”

Dawning comprehension behind his eyes quickly gave way to something like horror. “How much did you—”

“I missed the beginning of Kenobi’s bird story. Easy enough to guess what prompted it, though. Everything else?” She raised an eyebrow. “Yeah.”

His face flushed. “Padmé, I can explain—”

“Oh can you.” This was good, she thought; she wasn’t angry at all. Perfectly calm. Her voice wasn’t even wavering. “Go ahead, then.”

The hurt in his expression almost made her feel guilty, but then he spoke. “When I saw that—that thing about to take you—”

And with that, all her calm fell apart. “Oh for gods’ sakes , you think I gave a damn about that ? You think the reason I’m angry at you is that you saved my life ? Oh yes, Skywalker, how perceptive of you. How dare you keep me from getting eaten in some godsforsaken hole in the ground, the shame of it—”

“Well then what is it ?” he growled, eyebrows lowering into a glower.

For maybe the first time in all the years she’d known him, he was angry at her. It had flared up out of nowhere, and any other time it might have taken her aback. But now, a perverse part of her welcomed it. Good, let it all come out.

YOU DIDN’T TELL ME. EVER. ” Her voice shot up loud enough that she was sure Kenobi would be able to hear it across the way, but she was beyond caring about him. “You let me pick it up in dribs and drabs, little—little weird bits of inexplicable stuff happening around you, and then afterwards, you’d get spooked for days at a time and I wouldn’t be able to talk to you about it. And then, we meet a man who almost gets both of us killed, lies to us, and you tell him more than you told me in years . And then you try to lie to my face about it. Why? To protect me? You’re that stupid?”

“What was I supposed to say?” he shot back, the tone of his voice rising to meet her own. “That I thought I could move things with my mind? That I was worried I could hurt people with magic powers? You would have taken that really well, you’re right.”

“Sure, Anakin, sure, tell yourself that.”

“Look at what you did with him!” he snapped, waving his mechanical hand wildly. “Ever since we met him, any time he brings something up about it, you just roll your eyes like it’s some kind of contest.”

“He’s a stranger! You’re my HUSBAND .” She stabbed a finger into his chest. “And if you didn’t come to me because you thought I’d laugh in your face at something that was eating you up inside, clearly this relationship has bigger problems than I thought it did.”

“Okay then,” he said. “Tell me what you think.”

“What I—about what?”

“What Obi-Wan said. About me blocking myself off once we get out of here?”

She felt an overwhelming desire to sock him in the jaw. “About that ? How am I supposed to have an opinion on that?”

He threw a humorless chuckle back at her. “So I was right. You don’t believe me.”

The overwhelming desire swelled, and a second later his eyes were widening in shock and her hand was stinging from where it had collided with his jaw. “No, I don’t have an opinion because I only found out about it five minutes ago .”

Anakin rubbed his flesh hand along his jaw, anger slowly giving away to bemusement. Padmé felt something like guilt welling up within her but shoved it back down. “I can’t have this conversation with you right now,” she said. “Go to bed. I should take a look at the coolant tube to make sure nothing else is wrong before you install the new coil.”

“Padmé . . .” he began, his voice no longer sardonic but anxious.

Just— ” Forcing herself to calm down, she turned away. “Just go, Anakin.”

“What about Obi-Wan?”

She whipped around. “Are you kidding me?”

“Look, you can be mad at me all you want,” he said, face flushing with shame, “but this is bigger than us. He still needs to get out of here. And pretty soon it’s gonna be now or never.”

“You’re lucky I’m not throwing him off the ship right now. We’ll talk in the morning.”

He just stood there for several seconds—she could tell by the silence—but eventually footfalls started receding into the distance.

Something wet slid down her cheek, and gods damn it if she was to start crying right now she would lose it. She reached down to Liz’s neck and punched the activation switch.

Part of her had hoped for something else to shout at, so a surge of disappointment flooded through her when the droid’s eyes lit up blue. “Yes, Miss Padmé? What is it?”

She exhaled slowly and took a seat on the engine room floor. “Nothing, Liz. I’m just . . . tired, is all.”

“Well, it’s been a long day, for all of us. Not that I can tire myself out the same way living beings can, of course,” she clarified cheerily. The two of them simply sat in silence for a while after that, listening to the occasional whirring of active systems.

Then: “Liz?”

“Yes, Miss Padmé?”

“I’m not . . .” She trailed off. “Do I strike you as a bad person?”

“Oh no , not at all!” The droid sounded almost affronted.

“Let’s . . . let’s say I was in a situation where I had to agree to something that could save a lot of people. But if I did, Anakin and I could die. And so I said no.”

The droid pondered that for a moment. “Well, I can’t quite appreciate that. I’m a droid, after all. I have to do what’s expected to protect organic life regardless of what I might want.”

Padmé snorted. “Sometimes.”

“I’m sorry?”

Hastily, she said, “Nothing. You were saying?”

“Just that I’m sure that if you made that choice, you’d have your reasons. It must be hard, living in fear for your life, after all. I’m sure it makes a lot of difference in your choices.” The blue glow of her eyes brightened a little, and she nodded, as if pleased with her own answer.

Padmé nodded back. “I’m gonna shut you down again, if that’s okay.”

There was a sudden flare of red. “But I just woke—” The switch flipped, and the glow snapped off.

Padmé went back to staring at the engine.

Finally, three hours later, she fell asleep sitting there.

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: ALDERAANIAN AMBERWING DOVE

The amberwing dove is native to, and the national bird of, the planet Alderaan. It can be found in most temperate regions of the planet, nesting in trees along the coastline of Alderaan’s many lakes. It is named for the underside of its wings, which consist of amber-colored feathers that reflect the light of Alderaan’s picturesque sunsets.

Amberwing doves are protected by law; the Royal House forbids capturing the creatures to keep as pets, and killing a young amberwing dove carries a hefty fine. However, collecting the feathers of one—provided they were shed naturally—is perfectly legal, and the reflective underwing feathers are a popular souvenir for tourists visiting Alderaan.

Selected as the national bird hundreds of years ago to symbolize the planet’s peaceful nature, the amberwing dove has recently been adopted as a logo by the political party which wishes to see a return to the “good old days”—a time when Alderaan did not manufacture weapons and armor for the Republic.

Chapter Text

A pipeline of blue endlessly swallowed the sleek red vessel; hyperspace swirled outside the viewport, infinitely fast and yet incomprehensibly still.

Qui-Gon reached for the polarizer dial and darkened the glass of the racing ship’s cockpit. Most times she found the light show of hyperspace travel relaxing, but right now it was just an unwelcome distraction. The Jedi shifted once again in the pilot’s chair, trying to find a position that didn’t cause any discomfort, but it seemed there wasn’t one. The chair and its harness were designed for safety, not leisure, and they seemed intent on squeezing her into her place.

And of course, she reflected, glancing at the empty seat beside her, once she got Obi-Wan into the ship, things would be even tighter. Not that would it be the most cramped place they’d ever had to squeeze into.

She smiled at this, recalling an old assignment gone awry that had found her and her partner crammed into a shipping container in an old warehouse, hoping to get the drop on a crime lord. They’d pulled it off, but not without first spending several hours with barely any room to move. Qui-Gon had been stiff for days afterward, and expected a lengthy hyperspace trip in this glorified sport airspeeder would result in a similar fate. At least this time she wouldn’t have Obi-Wan’s elbow digging into her shin.

The Jedi leaned back as much as her seat would allow, then let out an extended sigh. She’d brought no reading material besides the Chancellor’s intel on Had Abbadon; if there were any holodramas on the ship’s computer, she couldn’t find them. She was, in a word, bored. Jedi often passed the time on long space journeys with meditation, but try as she might, it just wasn’t happening in these cramped confines.

For the first leg of the journey, Qui-Gon had resisted the urge to loot around in the vessel’s storage compartment. It was a loaner, after all, and at the time it hadn’t seemed right to entertain herself with someone else’s personal effects. Now past the point of caring, she reached over and popped the storage compartment open.

The bin was disappointingly barren. Owner’s manuals and insurance cards were clumped together in one corner, and a crumpled pile of maintenance records took up most of one side of the compartment. The only items of personal nature were a pair of pilot gloves much too large for Qui-Gon’s hands and a single datapad. Blowing a frustrated exhalation through her lips, she snatched the electronic device from the storage compartment and powered it on.

Password protected, of course, she thought. She briefly considered attempting to hack the datapad––it would kill some time, after all––but thought better of it and returned the device to where she found it. Enough illegal activity had been committed for one day.

Wriggling in her seat again, testing the limits of the multi-point safety harness she was strapped into, the Jedi eyed the trip chronometer, which was moving entirely too slowly. “You can do this, Jinn,” she said aloud. She closed her eyes. “Breathe. Just . . . breathe.”

She inhaled. Exhaled. And then she fell. Slipped backwards, sinking into the pilot’s seat, through the hull of the ship. It sailed beyond her into hyperspace as she plummeted downward.

 

* * *

 

She lands from her fall. On what, she can’t be certain. She rises to her feet. Fog surrounds her. In the distance, a pair of snap-hiss sounds pierce the air. Lights diffuse in the fog-draped distance. One, cyan. The other, crimson. The hum shakes her to her very core. A sensation crawls across her skin. Emotion so thick you could run your fingers through it. Anger.

She reaches to her belt, grasping for the black and chrome cylinder. The weapon of a Jedi Knight. It isn’t there. Lost? Stolen? Destroyed? It doesn’t matter. She runs anyway, not away from the clashing blades of plasma, but toward them. Her legs burn as she sprints, but the sparks of crossing lightsabers do not grow closer. No matter how hard she runs, they are always on the horizon. Blue on red. Red on blue. Fear.

Red again. Much closer. This one burns. She looks down. A beam of blood-red plasma has sprouted from her chest. She tries to turn around, to view the source of the attack. She cannot move. She cannot breathe. She can only feel. Feel the burn of the blade and the rolling waves of fury emanating from behind her. Aggression.

Anger, Fear, Aggression. The greatest of these is Fear.

The ground around her erupts into flame. The tongues of fire lick at her boots. She tries to get away, but the fire follows. WIthout warning, she falls. Not down, but upward, away from the incineration. The blaze becomes distant, yet clear. Fear.

As she falls away from the surface of fire, she can see it is a star. One of two, burning side by side in celestial brilliance. The twin stars hang in space as she sails away from them. The second burns brighter than the first, then fades into nothing.

She is falling faster now. Clouds surround her, rushing past her face and whipping her hair about. As she falls, the clouds grow thicker. She can feel them squeezing her. She continues deeper into the cloudy veil, the billowing white forms pressing in harder and harder. Crushing. Suffocating. Fear.

She lands on solid ground, rolling down a dune of scorching sand. She struggles to stand, but manages to rise to her feet. She is bathed in cool blue light. She turns her eyes skyward. A marble of swirling blue and green illuminates the space above. Until it doesn’t. Steel grey moves across the cosmos, eclipsing the marble of blue and green. Snuffing it out.

Qui-Gon Jinn is alone in darkness. Fear.

Fear.

The greatest of these is Fear.

 

* * *

 

Qui-Gon shrieked in horror as she was ripped back to her place in the cockpit, coated in sweat and shaking. She grasped desperately for something, anything, to anchor her back in the real world. Running her hands along the leather of the seat beside her, she forced herself to take measured breaths.

The Jedi reached for the polarizer dial and spun it back to the off position, taking in the comforting glow of hyperspace. She was still in transit. Good, she thought, I didn’t break anything panicking.

Next, she checked the trip chronometer. That can’t be right . Though it had felt like mere minutes, several hours had passed. Qui-Gon reached up and rubbed her eyes.

Her hands were still shaking. She had no idea what to do with the things she had seen. Visions like the one she had just experienced were known to happen during moments of Jedi meditation, but she’d never had one so— visceral before.

Even the wisest in the Order knew these things weren’t to be taken literally, and Qui-Gon tried to take comfort in that fact. It wasn’t working.

The details didn’t matter. The dark side of the Force was at work. It was about to strike in a way it had not done in a very long time.

And when it did, Qui-Gon Jinn was going to die.

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: HYPERDRIVE CLASSIFICATION

As hyperdrive technology evolved and became more advanced, a classification system to differentiate hyperdrives was deemed necessary. The hyperdrive class system rates any given hyperdrive against the theoretical ideal: a Class One. A ship equipped with a Class Three hyperdrive, for example, will take three times as long to travel a given distance as a ship equipped with a Class One might take.

When the classification system was invented, Class One was a theoretical maximum: the nonexistent “fastest possible hyperdrive” that all other hyperdrive classes became based around. Since then, Class One hyperdrives have been constructed in laboratory conditions, though they have not yet been installed on an actual starship. The fastest ships in the Republic Defense Force use Class Two hyperdrives; most civilian vessels are equipped with Class Three or Four hyperdrives.

Chapter Text

Maul stares into the void alone.

The guards he has stowed in the ship’s quarters—his own quarters, he supposes, but he doesn’t use them. If he needs to sleep when he flies, he does it in the cockpit. Too much comfort makes his head hurt. And at any rate, he prefers the others’ company only when they’re crossing blades.

The view through the cockpit’s transparisteel window is disconcerting to some—the whispered rumor that staring into hyperspace too long will drive weaker minds insane has persisted as long as the technology—but the warlord finds it peaceful. He can understand it. There is no time or space within the writhing blue tunnel—there is only the now, in constant flux, never staying still and yet never moving.

Sometimes, Maul thinks he can remember a time when past was past, when he had an awareness that time was a thing he passed through rather than a distant concept. But these thoughts are fleeting, and quickly fall back into the churn of his mind. They worry him sometimes, when they arise—generate a lurking suspicion that something has gone wrong within him, something not necessarily of his own design. But now, gazing into the fury of bent space, he is as close to “at peace” as he ever gets.

The battle against Kenobi that is to come is a complete unknown to him. The other Jedi he’s fought, the Jedi he’s killed, had been easy enough to predict; the ones who were assigned to Hutt space all had the same techniques, the same neuroses, the same blind spots. Beat one and he’d unlocked the key to beating them all. But Kenobi . . . Kenobi is a complete blank spot. A paradox. A general who prefers to avoid conflict altogether. A negotiator who nonetheless can bring down an entire capital ship. He may as well be the first Jedi Maul will ever fight.

On Charybdis , it is impossible for him to stay still when in communion with the dark side. Always moving, the Force is, always in flux, so how else is he to touch it but to move along with it? But now, with the tunnel of hypermatter swirling around him, it’s almost like being at the eye of a vast storm. The surroundings on his command ship are sterile, immobile, almost necessitating movement. But here . . . here he can be still. The novelty is almost pleasant.

He releases his grip on the ship’s controls. Stares unblinkingly into the hypermatter that pulses and ebbs outside the viewport. Settles into his chair.

Reaches out to touch the nothing.

 

* * *

 

A triple-braided cord spirals through the air, cyan and crimson and emerald, the three flickering and intertwining, pulling against each other with ever-increasing tension until there’s a great snap . Green and blue fall like wounded birds, gradually fading to nothingness, while red continues to rise.

A massive crevasse in brown earth vents fire, the glow growing brighter and brighter, a high-pitched whine increasing with it. The whine reaches a fever pitch, and the crevasse rends itself apart, spraying molten stone outward. It stretches to the horizon and beyond, tearing the ground in two.

On her knees, her back to him, a woman clothed in black. His fingers flex with no conscious command on his part; from them sprouts a beam of bloodred plasma, chewing into the woman’s spine. She and her surroundings melt away, then reform; now she’s an old man, expression serene until Maul swings his saber again, flicking the blade through flesh and bone. The old man’s cloak collapses to the floor, so limp it’s almost as if there’s no longer anyone inside.

He places a heel on the corpse to roll it over, and then without warning it’s in flames, which leap to his boot before he can flinch away. Fire flares up around him, but it doesn’t hurt; it’s cleansing, purifying, burning him into a pure instrument for the dark side’s will. And then a second flame rises to join him, and they burn fast and hard, and now his surroundings are fading away yet again.

Nothing.

Just a void of ebony, a perfect vacuum, speckled by particles of light—distant stars, or sparks, or atoms. There’s no sense of scale here; the warlord cannot tell if he’s looking at a universe or a single speck. There’s only vast darkness, and flickering candles struggling to dispel it.

Then the candles start to wink out.

It’s barely perceptible at first; one speck ceases to burn, then two, one every handful of seconds (or years—Maul can’t say). Then, it’s a matter not of individual numbers of but whole swathes. The warlord blinks, and a quarter of the lights are gone. Another blink, and it’s half.

Another, and all that’s left is a single flame guttering weakly in the black.

It is inevitable, a voice whispers in his ear. It is destiny.

Everything proceeds as was foreseen.

 

* * *

 

The sudden flare of hypermatter tears a groan of agony from the Zabrak’s lips—the absolute light cutting across the total blackness without warning is like a burning piece of metal stabbed into his brain. He squeezes his eyes shut, panting.

A few moments later, a rap of metal on metal intensifies the pounding in his head. “My lord?” a guard asks from the other side of the cockpit door. “Are you—”

Hissing between clenched teeth, Maul flings a hand over his shoulder. The sound of the guard being hurled back against a bulkhead brings no relief to the pain, but it’s not without satisfaction.

The warlord presses gloved fingers to the bridge of his nose and squeezes, hard. As the cartilage feathers toward breakage, the pain behind his eyes begins to fade. When the ache in his nose and the ache in his brain are roughly equal, he opens his fingers.

Gone is his peace, his equilibrium. Gone is the pleasure he could take from staring out into hyperspace. But they’ve been replaced with something Maul hasn’t felt in a long, long time.

Certainty.

The Jedi are going to die. All of them.

And he’s the one who will usher in the holocaust.

He rolls this knowledge over in his mind like a fine glass sphere. It’s crystalline. Solid. Absolute. Final. If this is what his master feels at all times—if his entire mind is this clear, this sure —then Maul understands how it is that the man can be so implacably, infuriatingly calm.

The knowledge has burnt itself across his brain, and it will not leave. It’s like those brief flashes of the past, but where those flicker and die, this has been permanently seared into the pathways of his mind.

Darth Maul, for the first time he can remember, can understand the future.

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: HYPERSPACE MADNESS

Myths about the side effects of hyperspace travel are as old as the technology itself. Misconceptions can be found all across the holonet— some suggest that frequent hyperspace travel can alter the rate at which a pilot ages, or cause genetic mutations in travelers. The most popular urban legend surrounding hyperspace travel is the idea of “hyperspace madness.”

It has long been believed that staring at the swirling blue corridor of hyperspace can slowly drive someone insane. Like most legends, this has a basis in reality. Observing the hyperspace tunnel can cause headaches and motion sickness, which is why most vessels have their viewports dimmed during hyperspace voyages. However, there is no evidence suggesting that staring into hyperspace will drive someone to insanity. Please note: any pills or supplements claiming to stave off the effects of “hyperspace madness” have no actual medical use, and have not been approved by the Health Services Agency of the Galactic Republic.  

Chapter Text

 

The first thing Anakin thought when the rumbling woke him was that, on top of everything else, the clones had started bombarding again. But then he shot upright from the bed, frowning. This felt much more forceful than the standard tremors caused by turbolasers driving into the crust. And the aftershocks were far more violent.

He turned to ask Padmé if she’d felt that too, only to see that the bed was empty apart from himself. Oh. Right .

Nausea flooded into his stomach, and the image of her face right after she’d hit him rose through his brain. They’d had fights before, petty squabbles and such, but this was different.

The pilot had the terrifying feeling that he’d broken something. And that this wasn’t a thing he’d just be able to patch back together, limping on until a replacement part came along.

He looked up and almost jumped out of his skin—Obi-Wan was standing in the doorway, rubbing blearily at his eyes. “I take it I wasn’t alone in feeling that?” the Jedi asked.

Anakin shook his head grimly. “Didn’t feel like a laser blast.”

“They can’t have started surface bombing, though,” the general replied, frowning. “That was far too violent.”

“Come on.” He brushed past Obi-Wan and headed for the engine room. “Let’s see if Liz is in a mood to tell us what’s going on.”

His stomach lurched yet again when he entered the room and saw Padmé lying on the floor, asleep. Obi-Wan started to say something, then closed his mouth. Anakin wondered how much of what had happened last night had been overheard.

Worry about it later, he told himself, and reached down to flip Liz’s activation switch.

“On, off, on, off, make up your damn minds!” she snapped, eyes flaring red. Anakin winced as the outburst, landing directly in Padmé’s ear, caused her to snap awake and promptly bang her head on the metal tubing running directly above her. She swore and clutched at her head. Yeah, this making-up process is starting off well.

“Stow it,” he barked at the droid. “Check your passive sensor log and tell us what the hell just happened.”

Padmé, rubbing at her head, glanced up at him and Obi-Wan; Anakin could see the memory of last night fall into place behind her eyes just like it had with him. Before he could say anything, she was on her feet. “Oh. What do you two want?”

“Can we please do this later?” he asked, then turned back to the droid. “Liz?”

“Of course I slept through the excitement. Again,” she said. But evidently something was worrying her—she followed this up with a relatively straight answer. “Seismic signature matches an anomaly that occurred approximately three days ago. Said anomaly was unique and had not been recorded by my sensors during the rest of the bombing.”

“Three days?” Obi-Wan asked.

“Another secret I haven’t been told about?” Padmé cut in, eyes flaring. “Kenobi, I swear to the gods—”

“You were told about this one, believe me,” the Jedi cut in. “Three days ago is about when I made my entrance down here.”

Comprehension dawned in Anakin’s mind. “You crashed half a ship.”

Obi-Wan nodded. “And the other half should have crashed long before now based on its trajectory. It was due to land sixty-three hours after the blitz. And the odds that it would land this close to where the other half did can’t be very high. Which means—”

“They held it in orbit. And then they crashed it. Deliberately.”

Another nod. “Most likely to soften up this area further for surface bombing.”

Anakin turned to Padmé. “We need to—”

“Get the coil installed, right. It’ll be faster if we don’t talk.” She barged between him and Obi-Wan, heading for the galley. “Just let me get something vaguely edible first.”

The pilot felt the Jedi’s eyes on him. “Anakin,” the other man began, “if I’ve caused anything to—”

“Obi-Wan,” he said, “I—it’ll be better for your sake and mine if you just go outside for a while, right?”

Nodding, the general continued to just stand there. “Is there anything I can do?”

It was a bit ironic, Anakin thought, that it had taken a titanic row with his wife for him to somewhat apprehend her position. Because he really wanted to shout at the Jedi right now. A lot.

“Not—not really,” he replied.

“Please tell Padmé that I never intended anything to go wrong,” Obi-Wan stubbornly continued. “And that I will make my best effort to set things right after we’ve gotten word to—”

Obi-Wan. ” Clenching his metal fist, Anakin closed his eyes, exhaled, and forced himself to keep his voice down. “I’m still not sure if we’re getting word to anyone. And the best way for you to help your case with Padmé at this point is probably to stay out of her hair, so.”

Finally, the Jedi took the hint. “I truly am sorry,” he said, and then left the room.

Yeah, you and me both, thought Anakin, running his flesh hand through his hair and then heading for the toolbox to find a hydrospanner.

“Why is it,” Liz said conversationally, “that I am always the first to know about anything that matters and somehow the last to understand anything you bloody organics are talking about?”

 

* * * 

 

Obi-Wan stuffed his hands into his pockets and stared at his feet as he shuffled along the cave floor beneath the Spice Dancer . Everything seemed to be unraveling at once. The situation up top. His hosts’ relationship. The Spice Dancer itself. And most of all his preconceived notions of why the Force had led him here.

This is self-pity, he told himself. Wounded pride, and nothing more. But he couldn’t shake the lingering bewilderment. If someone Anakin’s potential didn’t want to be a Jedi—worse, didn’t want to touch the Force at all—what had a Jedi been sent to him for?

As he neared the edge of the campsite, the Jedi slowly raised his head. The settlement, it seemed, was abuzz with an uneasy energy.

He felt the discomfort pulsing off the refugees as they poked their heads out of their tents. Whispered conversations of Yes, I felt it too and Yes, it was different than the last one and No, I don’t know what it was carried throughout the makeshift streets. He closed his eyes and pushed back against the tide of nervous feelings.

The Jedi had hoped the trance would bring him peace. It wasn’t working. The onslaught of negative thoughts from all around the camp beat against Obi-Wan like waves against an abandoned boat dock. Perhaps his own negative mood was enough that the Force simply wasn’t cooperating.

But then, like a lighthouse on the coast, there was a single beacon of peace amidst the sea of people. One mind that was somehow at ease. A familiar presence.

“Ben!”

The calm mind called out to him with a rumbling voice. Obi-Wan allowed his eyes to flutter open. It was Amaranth, his lumbering body leaning halfway out of his tent.

The Chevin waved a stocky, three-fingered hand at Obi-Wan, motioning for the Jedi to approach. Obi-Wan glanced behind him at the Spice Dancer, shook his head to clear it, and strolled towards Amaranth’s dwelling.

As Obi-Wan arrived at the tent entrance, the Chevin ducked inside; the Jedi followed closely behind. “Can I get you something to drink?” Amaranth asked. “You seem on edge.”

“You don’t,” said Obi-Wan, regretting the words the moment they left his mouth. He realized they had come across as rather accusatory.

If Amaranth was offended, he didn’t show it. The corners of his trunk-mouth curled into a grin. “No? And what do you know about reading Chevin body language?”

“Well, I. . .” was all Obi-Wan could manage.

Amaranth chuckled. “I jest, Ben. You’re right. I’m just fine. No sense getting bent out of shape about circumstances I can’t control.”

“You’re not worried about what the Confederacy’s doing up there?”

Amaranth’s shoulders shifted in an approximation of a shrug as he dug through his refrigeration unit. “There’s nothing I can do to change the situation. Sitting down here wringing my hands about it won’t accomplish anything.” The Chevin extracted two bottled beverages from the refrigeration unit, set them on the table, and motioned for Obi-Wan to sit down.

“That’s . . . very wise,” Obi-Wan said, taking a seat.

“What can I say, I’ve been around a long time. You learn things.” Amaranth moved toward the table, reaching out a hand as he walked. With a single bulky finger, he brushed against a potted plant sitting on a shelf. The Chevin’s eyes glazed over as he did so, and a warm smile crossed his mouth.

Obi-Wan craned his neck to see what Amaranth had done, and raised an eyebrow when he noticed the sort of plant the Chevin had touched: the glowing blue lichen of Had Abbadon’s caves. But Amaranth was not falling to the floor in horror. He looked to be experiencing a sort of bliss.

As the Chevin took a seat at the table, Obi-Wan leaned forward. “I don’t mean to pry, Amaranth, but why do you have that?”

“Oh, just something I bought. Got it from a trader who came to the camp from one of the bigger cave settlements. Silly little thing, it––”

“Stores memories,” Obi-Wan interrupted. “I encountered it in a cave when I first arrived here. When I touched it, I reacted quite differently than you did.”

“Ah, well, I don’t pretend to understand exactly how it works,” Amaranth said, settling into his chair and cracking open his drink bottle. “The trader said what I was buying was ‘empty.’ That I could add my own memories to it and experience them whenever I liked just by touching the plant.” The Chevin took a sip of his drink; Obi-Wan continued to lean closer toward him. “Times like these, it helps to keep my calm demeanor going.”

“When you touch the lichen, you relive your own memories?” the Jedi asked.

Amaranth nodded. “The trader who sold it to me said people use it for remembering to-do lists and the like. Mine stores a memory of my wife. It’s like she’s still with me, in a way.”

Something bristled at the edge of his consciousness; this was leading somewhere, but the pieces weren’t quite locking into place. He sent a brief call to the Force; Please, just help me sort through this. “Did this trader tell you anything else about it?” he asked, struggling to keep his tone casual.

“He said not to let anyone else touch it. Different minds don’t interpret the memory right, or something like that.”

Obi-Wan leaned back in his chair. “But the same mind experiences the memory just fine,” he mumbled, more to himself than to Amaranth. Silence hung in the air for a moment as both men sipped their drinks—then Obi-Wan abruptly sat up in his chair and nearly dropped his beverage. “Amaranth, I’m so sorry. I have to go.”

The Jedi dug a credit coin out of his pocket––worth far more than the price of the bottled drink––and tossed it on Amaranth’s table. He rose to his feet and bolted toward the tent flap, briefly turning back to meet Amaranth’s eyes. “Stay safe.”

Before the Chevin could respond, Obi-Wan was out of the tent and sprinting back towards the Spice Dancer . He didn’t care if Anakin and Padmé weren’t ready to see him. They had to leave the planet. Now.

He dodged around passerby, shouting a hasty apology over his shoulder when he accidentally smacked one in the face. Something in his chest complained sharply—he was doing his ribs no favors—but he pushed past it and kept going. The two of them better have stopped arguing long enough to get that coil installed.

Bolting up the ramp of the ship, footfalls clang ing against the metal floor, he headed aft, straight for the ladder leading up to the flight deck. He scurried up the ladder and planted himself in the pilot’s seat.

The general’s hands hovered awkwardly over the control panel. As much as Obi-Wan may have wanted to get going, he didn’t know the first thing about powering up the Spice Dancer .

He spun in the chair to face the ladder access and shouted down toward the lower deck: “Anakin!”

 

* * * 

 

Anakin Skywalker’s head shot upward, straight into the edge of a maintenance panel. Mingled pain and confusion swirled in his brain. He had no idea Obi-Wan was even on board, and that voice had come from the flight deck. “What the hell’s he doing?”

“Go find out,” Padmé said without looking up. “Make sure the crazy bastard isn’t trying to take out clone agents in the camp or something.”

So much for mutual labor breaking the ice. He rubbed the back of his head with his left hand and stood up, heading for the flight deck ladder.

“What are you doing here?” Anakin grumbled at the Jedi as he ascended. “I thought you had left.”

Obi-Wan’s fingers were poised over the controls, he noticed with some alarm. “Power up the ship,” the general snapped. It wasn’t a suggestion. “We need to leave. Now.”

“Not until you explain what’s going on,” a third voice said. It was Padmé. Anakin felt a lump rise in his throat; there was a tangible tension in the cockpit now that the three of them were all in it.

Padmé continued as she climbed the ladder. “I am not going anywhere just because you say so, Kenobi. And get the hell out of our chair.”

Obi-Wan nodded and took a deep breath, rising from the pilot’s chair. He began to pace about the cockpit––as much as one could on a ship the size of the Dancer . “The clones––the Confederacy––they aren’t attacking Had Abbadon for the healing fluid. It’s much worse.”

Anakin moved to sit in the vacated pilot’s chair and punched a button on the ship’s control panel. A glare from Padmé caused him to terminate the startup sequence. While he may have been ready to take Obi-Wan at his word, his wife clearly wasn’t.

“Worse how?” Padmé asked, staring daggers at the Jedi.

“It’s the memory lichen. It behaves differently when the same person uses it. If you touch it after someone else imprints a memory, you just see jumbled nonsense. If you touch it after you imprint a memory, you experience the memory all over again.”

Anakin cocked his head sideways. “I don’t get it.”

“The bulk of the Confederacy’s fighting force is made of clones. The same few people copied thousands of times,” Obi-Wan said as he continued to pace frantically.

“The same few people means the same few minds.” It was Padmé, speaking to herself in a hushed half-whisper.

“Exactly,” said Obi-Wan, pointing a finger at Padmé. “If they have the lichen, they don’t have to train troops. They have to train o ne trooper. That trooper touches the lichen, and they can run an entire assembly line of clones across it. It’d be as if they all did the training themselves.”

“They’ll be able to churn out fully trained troops as fast as they can grow them,” Anakin said, turning once again to the control panel and flipping switches with haste.

“We have to get to the upper level of the cave network,” Obi-Wan said. “We can wait there for the Confederacy to blow a hole in the surface. Then we break atmosphere and send a message to the Republic. I know you both don’t like me very much right now, but you have to understand that it’s vital ––”

Padmé shoved her way past Obi-Wan and sat in the co-pilot chair. “We get it, Kenobi.” She began assisting Anakin with the startup sequence; her fingers flew across the control panel as she punched buttons and toggled switches. “We’ll get you to orbit and get your message out, and then we’re dumping you at the closest space station. After that, you’re on your own.”

Obi-Wan nodded. Anakin glanced behind him and noticed the Jedi was retreating down the ladder to the lower decks. The pilot had hoped Obi-Wan’s exit would ease the tension in the room, but it was still quite palpable. He glanced over at his wife, and they locked eyes. Her gaze made one thing very clear: don’t talk to me. Padmé broke the eye contact, but continued to work on the startup sequence.

The pilot shook his head to clear it and returned his attention to the control panel. The engines of the Dancer whined in protest as they spun to life.

This wasn’t how he’d pictured departing Had Abbadon: in a rush, under the orders of a Republic general and Jedi, and in an effort to save the galaxy from a terrorist organization. And yet, here they were.

Several minutes later, after a rushed run down the Dancer’ s preflight checklist, Anakin pressed a metal thumb on the ship intercom key. “Strap in, Obi-Wan. I’m shutting the boarding ramp.”

Understood ,” replied the Jedi’s voice, crackling over the cockpit speakers. “ I loaded up your camping gear from outside, it’s all in the cargo hold. Strapped it down as well as I could. Apologies if there are any last-minute goodbyes you weren’t able to make.

Anakin opened his mouth to thank Obi-Wan, but Padmé reached out and grasped his hand, lifting it off the intercom button. She shook her head. Anakin sighed, gripped the control yoke, and eased it upward.

The Spice Dancer groaned and creaked as its landing legs retracted. Anakin guided the ship away from the camp and into the darkness of Had Abbadon’s caves.

 

* * * 

 

Flying through a cave felt restrictive, Anakin thought. A ship could never reach its full potential. TIght corners, low ceilings, and poor visibility combined to make for a rather boring flying experience. This clashed rather obnoxiously with the pilot’s desire to get a move on. The urgency Obi-Wan had been projecting seemed to have rubbed off. He could barely keep his flesh hand still as he held the control yoke steady.

And then there was his co-pilot. Anakin and Padmé had hardly resolved the conflict of the previous night. Jumping right into things, Anakin thought, was probably stupid. Best to break the ice first.

“So,” he began, awkwardly clearing his throat when the word came out rather scratchy. “We’re finally leaving.”

“Yep,” was all that Padmé said in reply. Her gaze remained forward, out the window of the Dancer ’s cockpit.

“Not really how I imagined us taking off.”

“Nope.”

“Why didn’t you just tell Obi-Wan to shove it?”

This was enough to get her attention. She turned her head and stared at Anakin. “I’m sorry?”

“We could have locked him out of the ship, or left him in the camp to fend for himself. We don’t have to help him.”

“You know we do.” Padmé was back to staring out the viewport. “We’ve put up with him for this long because he’s here to stop a war. And now it’s so much worse. Now that we know what will happen if we don’t help. . .” She left the thought unfinished, and traced her index finger along a row of control switches.

“We might die,” Anakin offered, wincing at the idea of it.

“You think I haven’t thought of that?” Padmé said. “Let’s just. . . let’s just get this over with. You do your job, I’ll do mine, and when he’s got his message sent we clear the system. Just like we said. Dump him at a space station. Then it’s not our problem anymore.”

Anakin paused. Considered the situation. “Okay,” he said, breathing the word more than speaking it. The pilot eased the Dancer ’s control yoke gently starboard; the ship tilted in response. As the vessel straightened from the turn, Anakin shifted his gaze toward Padmé.

“Keep her steady, would you?” he asked his co-pilot. “I need to go wake up Liz. We’ll want her seismic sensors to help us find a good parking spot.”

There was a creak of metal as Padmé spun her chair around and rose to her feet. “I’ll get her,” she said, moving to descend to the main deck.

Anakin sighed and leaned on his metal arm, gazing out the window at the hole of darkness past the ship’s headlights. He had the cockpit to himself. Worse than that, though, was the feeling that he was alone.

 

* * * 

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: MEMORY LICHEN

Found only on the world of Had Abbadon, the bioluminescent “memory lichen” thrives in the cavern networks that have been abandoned by intelligent life. Through the use of electrical impulses, the lichen is capable of absorbing and playing back the memories of sentient species that touch it. If a lichen is “storing” memory, it will glow a cool blue color. “Empty” lichens emit no light at all.

The memory transfer method is not perfect. The only person capable of understanding a memory playback completely is the one who planted it in the lichen to begin with. Attempting to view the memory of another is useless; it simply results in a wild hallucination. Bits and pieces of the original memory may be understood correctly, but for the most part the user will see nonsense. Nevertheless, a local culture has arisen around viewing and interpreting the memories of others via the lichens. For some on Had Abbadon, venturing deep into an old cave and receiving the memories of a long-dead settlement is a religious experience.

The lichen quickly perishes if removed from Had Abbadon, due to its reliance on an unknown material found within the planet’s rock and soil. The lichen’s ability to store memory for long periods of time directly correlates to how big of a “network” it is attached to. Small patches of the lichen found in Had Abbadon’s cities can only store memories for a handful of weeks before resetting back to their “empty” state. The massive tendrils of memory lichen found deep within the abandoned caverns have stored the same memories for hundreds of years.

Chapter Text

“Fourteen percent. That’s it?”

Mon Mothma nodded, rubbing at the bridge of her nose with two fingers. “Roughly, as it stands. 37 percent ready to vote in your favor, 47 percent ready to do the opposite, 16 percent undecided. If we can sway 14 percent, you keep your office. And we’ve two weeks time to whip votes in your favor.”

Sprawled back in his desk chair—he’d decided he and the Senator were at such a point that he could waive the formalities—Bail felt the tiniest bit of relief. “Well, not that things aren’t bleak, but I have to say that’s better than I was expecting. More members of our august body must fear the clones than I thought.”

“Oh, I don’t think so. But now that it’s looking like you may very well have started a cascade into armed conflict, there are certain considerations being taken into account. Chiefly that you might be a better pawn than the other options.”

“Excuse me?”

“No offense intended, Bail, but look at your opposition. Sapir is the obvious choice should a special election be held. If this crisis turns into a shooting war, Kuat stands to benefit even more than Alderaan does—starships will be in even higher demand than turbolaser batteries. Not to mention her position on trade is stricter than yours, which will alienate certain systems—”

Bail’s voice rose. “Is now really the time to be discussing my positions on free trade?”

“I’m simply stating the facts, Chancellor,” she replied, shooting him a warning look. “At any rate, you should be grateful—your comparatively lax position on free trade is what’s keeping some of these people from turning on you outright.”

“Point taken.” He waved a hand. “Who else are being considered as prominent candidates for my replacement, should it come to that?”

“Garm Bel Iblis will probably throw his name in—he’s run the last three election years, after all. But he’s an isolationist, which again works in your favor. And from what I can gather, the other name being thrown around is Palpatine of Naboo.”

The Chancellor’s eyebrows shot up. “ Palpatine ? What has he done, precisely, besides sitting on the Defense Committee? I can’t recall the man ever even putting forth a bill.”

“Because he hasn’t. But he’s cosponsored an immense amount of legislation since his tenure here started, is owed a lot of favors in the right places. And people like him. He’s principled, dedicated, and he’s made friends on so many sides of the aisle that he might as well be the paragon of centrism.”

Furrowing his forehead, Bail leaned forward. “And he’s never reached out to me . . . why?”

“He doesn’t like you, I imagine. Or felt that associating with a hothead on defense issues would lead to negative associations.” Her eyes flashed with a brief Can you blame him? before she returned to business. “At any rate, in the last several hours I’ve seen enough to guess that he’s been building a coalition and biding his time for a run at executive office for years now. You’ve just given him his chance early.”

“I’m very accommodating that way. So, I take it the prospect of him running is less fearsome to the swing voters than Sapir or Bel Iblis.”

“Less fearsome, but also less of a possibility in their minds, I’d expect. He’s very popular, but not in a prominent way—I was surprised myself when I saw his name thrown out. Sapir and Bel Iblis are the faces most of these people are thinking of when they hear ‘special election.’ Let’s just hope it stays that way.”

Nodding, Bail leaned back again, shifting slightly to stop the arm of the chair from digging into his spine. “So . . . fourteen percent. Not insignificant, but doable.”

“Within a very specific set of parameters.” Mon rose from the couch and began to pace, talking as she did so.

“One: you don’t touch Had Abbadon in the next two weeks. At all. You’ve sent the Jedi, against my advice; that has to be the end of it. You let the Defense Committee handle all next steps, whatever they may be, and you align your vote with theirs. Not publicly—that makes you look too weak—but when their hands go up, so does yours.

“Two: the latest trade bill is going to a vote in three days. When it hits your desk, you sign it. Remind the people on the fence what they’re gaining by keeping you in power.

“Three: every waking hour from here on out, you’re speaking to these fourteen percent. Asking them to dinner, promising to lean on their special interests for the upcoming legislative year, looking into starting stimulus packages for the ones that are economically depressed. Whatever it takes. If you need to make a promise and walk it back later, fine, but make the promise if you want to keep your office.

“Four: any subsequent advice I give you, you take it. I can’t afford to have you going behind my back again, Chancellor.”

He removed his feet from his desk, stretched, and rose. “Has anyone ever told you you’re a frightening woman, Senator Mothma?”

The ghost of a smile crossed her face. “Certain people bring it out in me.”

Bail rounded the desk, clasped her hand in his, and shook. “Regardless of how I come out of this, you will always have my thanks.”

“I trust that, should you keep your seat, Chandrila will have your support as well.”

“Why, Senator, was that a joke?”

The smile grew larger. “With any luck, you’ll find out in about two weeks.”

“Fair enough.” He swept his arm toward the door. “Now, go forth and save my Chancellorship.”

As they strode toward the exit, she asked, “And what will you be doing the rest of today?”

“Well, first thing I need to do is place a call to Breha—I’ve fully crossed the threshold to neglecting husband at this stage. And then I’ll get a start on scheduling all those meetings you’ve prescribed.”

“Give her my best, then,” she said as the door swept open—whatever Jinn had done to Bail’s guards must have worn off, because they were standing at attention once more. “And good luck.”

“I’ll need it.”

The door swept shut, and once again Bail was left alone.

 

* * *

 

He decided to place the call to Breha from his bedroom. It was a more personal setting for the conversation, and more important, he was tired of sitting at his damn desk. Groaning, he collapsed onto the mattress and spoke to the holoscreen on the other side of the room. “Call Breha.”

Less than a second later, her face appeared. She’s been waiting for this, thought the Chancellor, who winced inwardly.

Breha’s face was lovely as ever, but strained, pinched, and even through the scan lines of the hologram the redness of her eyes was clear. Looked as though she’d hardly slept, and Bail doubted she had. Reigning as queen was hard enough without one’s husband gallivanting into a potential war. “Hello, dear,” he managed. “Before you say anything, I’ll just let you know that two other women have already read me the riot act today. Several times.”

Well,” she said, “if you’re slipping up and mentioning your mistresses in front of me, you must really be under pressure.

For the first time in what felt like an eternity, Bail fell victim to an onslaught of genuine laughter.

When he’d finished, his wife continued, “ Of course, I already knew you had to be busy. Otherwise, a call to the leader of your planet might have been in order.

“I’m so, so sorry, truly,” Bail said, sobering up from the laughter that had hit him. “It has been . . . a very long week. Hell, I don’t even remember what time it is over there right now.”

So how’s the firefighting been going?

“Senator Mothma from Chandrila has been an absolute saint. You two should meet sometime, you’d like her.”

I’m sure I would. Fires? Fighting? ” she asked, her expression growing a sharper point.

“Right. Well, as of right now I’m down but not out. Need to sway 14 percent of the legislature to my side to salvage this. If I’m a good boy and make enough promises on certain bills, Mon thinks it’s doable. My reputation will be in tatters, but I’ll finish my term.”

About that .”

At this point, he couldn’t even be bothered to feel surprised. “What have I missed now?”

The planetary government’s response to this escapade of yours has been . . . less than pleased. Your approval rating here is still marginally higher than it is throughout the Republic, but that still leaves it—

“In the tank, yes.” He frowned. “Surely people can’t be too angry with me. Our primary export is weapons, one would think blundering into a war would be good for the manufacturers’ bottom line.”

Which is why the chief weapons houses are still vocally supporting you, but nearly everyone who cares about due process is incensed.” She sniffed. “Or pretending to be incensed because they already had quibbles with you on other issues .”

“When you say incensed , please tell me you’re being hyperbolic.” I have enough to worry about on the federal level, I can’t return to the home planet to make nice with local dignitaries.

A coalition has put forth a motion demanding I order a recall vote.

Shooting bolt upright, Bail swore. “ What?

Of course I’m holding them off, but if your reputation sinks any lower it won’t be enough.

The Chancellor was torn between a desperate wish that he’d known this before and a profound gratefulness that he’d kept his comm turned off and had existed in blissful ignorance up to this point. “Members of the royal family run unopposed.  For anyone to suggest this—”

Is a slap in the face, yes, and I’ve made that clear, but it’s not as though they haven’t ample cause.

Shaking his head, he ran his fingers through his Underworld-spoiled hair. “I should have called you. I’m so sorry.”

Don’t be sorry. Just make sure you win this.

He nodded. For a while after that, they just held each other’s gazes. He could still see, just below the surface of her face, the girl he’d fallen in love with—not that long ago, it always seemed. But he could also see the damage the last few years of stress and distance had brought to her, had undoubtedly brought to him as well. There was grey where there’d once been silky black hair, lines on what had been smooth skin prior to the election. Not that the same hadn’t happened to him, but his own decrepitude was simply a fact of life. Seeing what he’d slowly been doing to his wife, his queen, sent a pang of guilt through him.

Eventually, she spoke, her voice more tender. “ And how’s Obi-Wan?

“Alive, I hope. I’ve sent help after him.”

Mild surprise flashed in her eyes, but if she shared Mon’s disapproval she didn’t voice it. “ Oh? One of his . . . old friends from the club?

“So it would appear. Tracking her down was no mean feat—your husband had quite the adventure, if I do say so myself.”

I look forward to hearing about it in gory detail once this is over, ” she said, her lips easing into a smile. “ Do you think she’s up to the task?

“That was my impression. Again, you’d like her.”

Maybe I can have her and Mon to tea after the vote is held. Thank them for rescuing my husband and his best friend when I can’t be there to do it.

“You still put them to shame, trust me,” he said, a smile on his own face. “Miss you.”

She tapped at her breastbone with a ringed hand. “ And I you.

“And I’m so sorry this mess has happened. That I made it happen.”

Doing the right thing for the right reasons in the stupidest possible way is why I married you. You wouldn’t be you otherwise.

“Thanks. I think.”

Going back to your earlier confusion regarding the time . . . it’s currently four in the morning over here. We can talk strategy later.

“Of course.”

Goodbye, Bail. And good luck.

And with that, her image winked out.

The first thing I’m going to do, Bail thought, is get a bloody shower. And then I am going to set an appointment with Mon to talk about this. In her office this time.

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: GALACTIC SENATE—PLANETARY ELECTIONS

Though instant runoff elections are the standard way of appointing a planet's senator, not every planet selects their representative via the same process. The Constitution of the Galactic Republic has several templates by which new member planets can choose to operate, but many worlds forgo these suggestions in favor of an election method which respects their tradition.

For example, the senator from Trandosha is chosen by a tournament of hand-to-hand combat. Each election year, the incumbent senator returns to their home planet to face the winner of the tournament. The victor is appointed to the Galactic Senate. In ancient Trandoshan history, these tournaments to select a leader were deathmatches; the Corellia Conventions forbid this, and Trandosha has adjusted their combat tournaments accordingly.

On Alderaan, the senator selection process honors the planet’s history as a monarchy. A member of the royal family (other than the current monarch) runs for the planet’s Senate seat, and by tradition they do so unopposed on the ballot. This echoes Alderaan’s past, where leaders were simply appointed or born into ruling roles. The direct appointment of senators is forbidden in the Constitution, though Alderaan’s roundabout way of “appointing” a senator technically is not.

Chapter Text

“Pazaak! I think. . .”

Obi-Wan raised an eyebrow and glanced up from his hand of cards at the man across the table. He’d been playing a card game with Anakin to pass the time, though they both had to admit they didn’t really know how it was supposed to work. Found it in the cargo hold when we bought the ship, the pilot had told the Jedi. It’s old, and I’m not quite sure how to play, but we’ve got nothing better to do.

They were parked in an upper-level cave near the planet’s surface, and the crew of the Spice Dancer had long since completed the necessary repairs to whatever part was broken—Obi-Wan had lost track of what was and wasn’t wrong with the ship. Now there was nothing left to do but wait for the Confederacy’s bombers to do their work. The cave ceiling above the ship rumbled at even intervals; chunks of rock occasionally rained down on the hull of the vessel. But no holes had formed in the cave. Nothing big enough to fly a ship through, at any rate.

The Jedi glanced over at the slouched form of LZ-A24, who was leaning against a bulkhead and flexing the fingers of her single arm. “You’re sure this is the right place?” Obi-Wan asked.

“Bloody humans, never take my word for anything,” the droid muttered. “Of course I’m sure. Sensor equipment doesn’t lie.” She pointed upward. “This cavern ceiling is the thinnest in the area. It’ll be the first to break.” Liz paused, then added: “And you’re playing that card game wrong.”

Anakin rolled his eyes, tossed his remaining cards on the table, and turned to face Liz. “Well, why don’t you come over and teach us?”

The droid’s eyes faded to their blue tint. “Oh, Mister Anakin, I couldn’t. It’s against my programming to engage in games of chance or gambling.”

Anakin’s eyes narrowed. He looked at Obi-Wan. “Sometimes I swear she switches on purpose.”

“Probably for the best,” said the Jedi, throwing his cards down. “I can’t imagine that her helping you to cheat at sabacc would have endeared you to the swoop gang any more than your spice mine did.” He began absent-mindedly rubbing at his ribs with one hand. “Speaking of which, assuming we make it out of here alive, what do you plan to do?”

The pilot shrugged. “Ask me again when Padmé isn’t looking to kill me.”

“Surely there’s something.”

“A shower would be nice, I suppose.” Anakin placed his own cards on the table and considered. “We can’t manage a spice mine, but a house would be nice. On one the Core worlds, maybe. Gotta imagine there’s work for pilots that close to the center.”

Nodding, Obi-Wan leaned back in his chair. “Coruscant alone always has job openings for shuttle pilots in the thousands. I imagine you’d have to leave Liz stowed in the cargo hold, though. Her personality probably counts as inherent vice.”

“Screw you too, Kenobi,” the droid growled. “I’ve never plowed this ship into a planet.”

“Stop,” Anakin interrupted, raising his mechanical hand in the air.

A split second later, Obi-Wan felt it too. Rumbling. Close. And growing closer.

“This might be it,” the pilot said, shoving back from the table. “Padmé?”

Felt it too, ” she said over the intercom. “ Get your asses up here.

“Liz, stay down here!” Anakin barked. “Obi-Wan, with me.” The two men charged for the ladder and started clambering.

“Multiple sensor readings from up top,” Padmé said as Obi-Wan emerged into the cockpit. “Not that I’m particularly familiar, but they sure as hell look like bombers to me.”

Strapping himself down, the Jedi shot a glance at the screen. “I’d concur.”

Another rumble came. Then another. Then another. And then, without warning, a seam in the ceiling directly above the ship split . White light came pouring in through the crack, and a sudden deluge of dust and powdered rock cascaded down onto the viewport.

“This is it,” muttered Anakin. A feral grin of sorts was forming on his face. “I’ve missed this.”

From below, Liz’s voice: “ One more direct hit should completely clear the ceiling. Still time to turn around, your choice.

“Shut up!” Padmé growled. “Kenobi, this had better be worth it.”

It had better, indeed.

The general could feel the ship lifting higher into the air, Anakin easing the control yoke upward gently. His stomach began to flutter. He’d forgotten how much he hated flying. Really, really hated.

“No last calls to the Force?” Padmé asked, sounding as though she were speaking through her teeth.

“If it needs me to tell it we’re in trouble, it’s lost its touch,” Obi-Wan replied.

More rumbling was drawing near, its volume rising in concert with the engines’ whine. Boom. Boom. Boom. Straining to look over Anakin’s shoulder, the Jedi could see red dots growing larger and larger on the cracked sensor screen. Boom. Boom.

The Force whispered a warning. At the same time, Jedi and pilot said: “Now.”

The seam became a gaping opening, flame pouring in through the suddenly massive tear in the cave’s ceiling. Rocks pounded down onto the ship. Klaxons blared.

And Anakin hauled the control yoke upward.

Just as the bombers passed over, the Spice Dancer came hurtling out of the hole. And Obi-Wan, for the first time in days, blinked furiously against a rush of sunlight.

 

* * *

 

A roar of fiery aftershock lapped at the Dancer ’s heels just as she broke through. A klaxon began blaring. “ Shields! ” Obi-Wan bellowed. “ Where are the shields?

“They’re up,” Anakin replied. “The alarm just doesn’t always realize.” He could feel his grin stretching wider, even as his eyes squinted at the blinding light streaming in through the viewport.

This was how he relaxed.

“Anyone following us?” he asked, keeping the throttle at as high a push as it could safely go.

“Don’t think any of them were expecting a ship to burst through the middle of their formation,” Padmé replied, punching at the sensor unit. “They’re just hanging there.”

“If we can break the gravity well before they scramble proper starfighters, we should be in the clear.” He whipped his head over his shoulder, getting a glimpse of Obi-Wan; the Jedi’s hands clasped the arms of his seat with white-knuckle strength. “How efficient are these clones of yours, exactly?”

The Jedi simply stared out the viewport. “Fast as you can.”

As best he could, Anakin surveyed the landscape below. Fires still raged in isolated patches, but the roaring inferno no longer stretched to the horizon the way it had when he and Padmé had scrambled into the caves. Smoke and ash still clogged the air, but the flames seemed to have burned themselves out in the time since the last regular bombardments. “This smoke is gonna play hell with visual scanning,” Padmé said. “Perfect.”

A secondary klaxon started up. “More bombers ahead,” she continued. “I count six directly in our flight path.”

“Go around,” Obi-Wan said.

Instead, Anakin opened up the throttle a degree higher and said to Padmé, “Power up the cannon.”

“We’re not about to waste time taking potshots,” the Jedi snapped. “Go around, Anakin.”

“Not your ship, Obi-Wan. Padmé?”

Wordlessly, she punched the appropriate button. As the targeting computer struggled its way online, the pilot angled the Dancer ’s nose slightly to the side. “Only one of these things still works,” he told Obi-Wan, “so you gotta angle it just so.”

Six blobs of red drifted into the targeting computer’s radius, still invisible through the choking fumes forming a curtain in front of the viewport. Another pilot would have slowed down, the better to draw a bead on them without the aid of visual scanning.

Anakin maintained his speed.

Hopefully the bombers wouldn’t have very heavy shielding. The upside of only the one cannon being operational was its higher rate of fire, but each bolt fired did much lower damage. Anything less than pinpoint accuracy would be useless.

Gently, gripping the throttle with his mechanical hand and keying in the targeting computer’s focus with his flesh hand, he eased the nose right. If they stick to their present course, the outer edge of the formation should be right—there.

The red blobs drew closer. Closer. Still no sign of them out the viewport. “Anakin, for the last time—” Obi-Wan began—

A proximity alert started to blare. “ Skywalker! ” Padmé shouted.

He squeezed the trigger and swept the control yoke in a leftward arc.

Onetwothreefourfive gouts of flame erupted through the smoke, bits of twisted, molten metal spattering against the Dancer ’s nose. Good trick, Anakin thought with satisfaction. Could be better, though.

And as that thought crossed his brain, something nudged him where to go next.

He whipped the yoke starboard. The smoke thinned just in time for him to see the Dancer ’s engine backwash shove a cylindrical metal shape, hard , into the flaming wreckage that was still hanging in the air just next to it.

Six.

Wrenching the ship back to its original flight path, Anakin shot a grin at the man behind him. “See? No time wasted.”

Obi-Wan simply, wordlessly looked sick.

 

* * *

 

By the time the Dancer broke atmosphere, Obi-Wan could barely turn his head from G-force. Not that this had stopped him from trying—the consequence being that, when Anakin eased the yoke downward, the Jedi’s forehead promptly connected with the back of the seat in front of him. He swore, and bit his own tongue.

“At least the smoke’s gone!” the pilot shouted back.

This was true, but the clear view now afforded through the viewport wasn’t the most comforting one. Despite the hole Obi-Wan had punched into the formation of capital ships a couple of days ago, the metal rectangles looked impenetrable as ever hanging there in the sky. And they were now wreathed with bombers passing to and fro, leaving with their payloads or returning to get more.

Fortunately, no one from planetside had been able to report that the Dancer was coming. And by the time the fleet before them figured out what was going on, they’d be on their way out of here.

In theory, anyway.

“How long til we’ve cleared the gravity well?”

“Twenty seconds,” Padmé said tersely. “Navicomputer is already keyed in.”

“For where?”

“Does it matter?” she snapped. “Wherever these bastards aren’t.”

From the comm, Liz’s voice crackled: “ Skywalker, Amidala, we’ve got a problem.

“Not now, Liz!” Ferocious glee had yet to leave Anakin’s voice, even though one of the frigates was starting to turn its nose in a way that was unsettlingly reminiscent of a shark spotting its prey through the water. “Oh, I wish I could see the look on their faces when we dust ‘em. Or, um, their face , I guess.”

Dammit, Skywalker, listen to me—”

The navicomputer dutifully beeped—they’d exited the gravity well. “Now or never,” Obi-Wan said—if they hesitated, the clones would scramble fighters and the Dancer would be too swarmed to exit the system.

“Punch it!” Anakin crowed.

Padmé flipped a switch. Anakin thrust the stick forward—

And something exploded.

The Dancer convulsed as though it had been struck a death blow. Padmé screamed as her forehead smashed into the console. Anakin’s mechanical hand clenched the control yoke, and Obi-Wan heard something crack. His own head connected with Anakin’s chair again. Everything felt like it was in free fall. New alarms started up—many of them, none quiet.

“That wasn’t them!” the pilot said, fighting to yank the ship back under control. “We’re too far out for turbolasers to hit us.”

LIZ! ” Padmé bellowed, wiping a hand at her forehead in a furious attempt to clear the blood that was dripping into her eyes. “What’s going on?”

NEVER! You moof milkers never bloody LISTEN! I’ll tell you where you can stick that control yoke, Skywalker—

“WE’RE LISTENING NOW, GODS DAMN IT. WHAT HAPPENED?”

Well, now that I have your attention, it seems that when I smashed this piece of junk through a wall of solid rock in an effort to save your sorry asses, there was some moderate damage. The hyperdrive suffered a tear. Cripples what little lightspeed capabilities we have. But, you know, I’m sure you had better things to worry about up there.

AND YOU DIDN’T TELL US BEFORE? ” Anakin roared.

That’s you served for the arm. ” Her tone dove back down to apologetic. “ Sir.

It occurred to Obi-Wan that the feeling of free fall hadn’t ended even though Anakin had wrestled the ship back into a relatively stable flightpath. “Did the gravity just—”

“Yeskenobiwouldyoushutup,” Padmé hissed.

He attempted to tighten his harness enough that he wouldn’t notice, but to no avail—he was hovering a good few inches above his seat, as were the rest of the crew. Perfect timing.

Fighters were pouring out of the capital ships’ hangars in droves, and Obi-Wan could see pinpoint green glows starting to form on the hovering rectangles. “We need to move. Now.”

Wrenching the ship into as tight a turn as could be managed, Anakin spoke above the alarms. “We’ve gotta get back below the surface, lose them in the caves.”

“It was a nice vacation, anyway,” growled Padmé. “Listen to him, you said. People will die, you said.”

“Actually, you said—”

“Skywalker, if you don’t shut the everloving hell up—”

Both of you, be quiet,” Obi-Wan barked, his general-voice unconsciously rising to the surface. It must have been at least somewhat impressive, because for once they did as he told them. “Padmé,” he continued, “I need you to key this code into the comm unit and start broadcasting. Now , while we’re still outside the atmosphere.”

“Make it quick,” Anakin said, “because that won’t last long.” Sure enough, just as he finished the sentence, a flare of green sizzled past the bow. The first turbolaser shot.

Rattling off the string of numbers, Obi-Wan did his best to mentally compress the events of the last few days into a paragraph. He needed this to be absolutely clear.

“You’re a go, Kenobi,” Padmé said.

“Bail! BAIL! If you’re listening—”

 

* * *

 

The one good thing about the gravity going out was that blood was no longer flowing into Padmé’s eyes; rather, it was simply beading into globules and floating around the cockpit.

Everything else about the situation left a lot to be desired.

Anakin hauled the Dancer into a barrel roll to avoid a pair of turbolaser shots fired from a frigate in quick succession. “Those fighters are gonna be on us before long,” he said. “If I push us into the atmosphere at full speed I’ll burn out the engines.”

“Burn them out, then!” she said through clenched teeth, her stomach somersaulting at gravity’s refusal to behave properly. “We can’t take on starfighters with one gun.”

“Their fighters are cheaply made,” Kenobi said from behind, “if the shields are at full strength the lasers should take a long while to wear them down—”

A shower of sparks burst from the console, followed by yet another alarm.

No one spoke.

“I’m . . . guessing that was the shield generator,” hazarded the general after a few seconds.

“Okay, screw it,” Anakin said, keying the intercom. “Liz, we’re going in full burn. If you want to live through this, keep the engines cool.”

You mean you won’t deactivate me when we’ve made it back? Oh, thank you for being understanding, Mister Anakin.

Gripping the arms of her chair until it felt like her fingers would pierce through them, Padmé snapped, “Skywalker, the engines won’t maintain the speed we need to keep them from closing the distance—”

“They will if we route the power from the shields to the sublights. And like Obi-Wan said, the shields are down right now.” He shrugged. “We have lousy luck, but it’s still luck.” And with that, he started flipping toggles on his console with the flesh hand, mechanical hand locked to the control yoke.

Just in time, as fate would have it. When Padmé looked back down at the sensor screen, the lower edge was starting to crawl with red blips.

“A whole squadron. At least,” she said, the nausea of fear rising to the point that she forgot to say it angrily. Instead, she heard in her voice the dead ring of certainty.

She was going to die here. They all were.

The blaring klaxons faded away; she barely felt it the next time her husband coaxed the ship into a desperate loop. When Kenobi shouted something, it was muffled, as if she were hearing it through fluid.

It was such an idiotic way to go out. After all these years of being on the move, scraping by from run-ins with the law to narrow encounters with debt collectors to near-misses with marauding gangs, she and Anakin were going to die just minutes after breaking out from a massive hole in the ground they’d been trapped in for the last month, all because a self-proclaimed wizard had enlisted their help to stop an army of clones they had never seen. They were going to die having failed to save everyone down below, all because the gods-damned droid was malfunctioning worse and worse and they’d trusted her. They were going to die angry at each other, all because he’d failed her and she’d failed him and both of them were too stubborn to admit it.

A comet streaked by, spiraling back out into space as it brushed past them—a torpedo that her husband had somehow dodged. No one flies like Anakin Skywalker, she thought to herself. Even when you want to kill him, you can’t deny that.

She wished she could forgive him. But if she opened her mouth she would throw up, and to forgive him would be to admit that they were about to die, and if she were going to do it it wasn’t going to be in front of Kenobi.

The viewport was starting to heat. Liquid fire lapped at the edges. They were pushing back into the atmosphere. A sudden shriek ripped her back into the present.

“It’s okay!” Anakin bellowed. “It was just a piece of the heat shield!”

“This is the second time I’ve done this in the last few days,” Kenobi chimed in from the back. “I must say, I fancy I did it a bit more precisely than this.”

“Okay, Obi-Wan,” the pilot replied, summoning a ghost of his usual grin. “When we get out of this, we’re gonna find a couple of hot rods, you and me, and we’re gonna race for it. First one to crash without breaking up wins. You—” he juked left to avoid another missile—”you in?”

Raising his voice to be heard over the cacophony, the Jedi shot back, “What’s the wager?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe we cut down on the hazard pay you owe us.”

A hysterical chuckle emerged from Kenobi’s lips. “You’re on. Padmé, you’ll be the judge?” When she said nothing: “Padmé?”

Kenobi, I’m going to die. For once in your gods-damned life, shut up.

Another whoosh of flame. “Um, okay, the patch where that heat shield came off is cooking a little, but we’re okay.” Anakin eased up on the throttle a jot, as if that would help. “Padmé, are sensors showing the surface yet?”

Hauling herself out of her own mind by the scruff of the neck, she blinked, hard, and took a look. “The smoke is clogging them, but we’re close.” She squinted, rubbed at her eyes to clear them of the liquid that had been forming. “Oh. Wait. Shit.”

“What is it?”

She looked up at him, saw the scar drawn tight across his face, the strain in his eyes. “We got close to the hole we came out of. And then we blew past it. It’s already miles back behind us.”

For maybe the first time in the time she’d ridden in a ship he was piloting, every single bit of I’m-having-fun vanished from Anakin’s eyes.

“Well, can’t we turn around?” Kenobi asked.

She didn’t even have the heart to shout at him. “Not in atmosphere. We’re not aerodynamic enough, and we’re barely holding the distance as it is. We try to turn around, we present the fighters a giant target to shoot at. And there’s nowhere else on the planet we can run to.” She tried to fall back into her chair, remembered that gravity wasn’t working right, and wanted to laugh. “We’re done.”

Anakin didn’t seem to know how to process this; he just stared straight ahead, his hand holding the control yoke in its position. “Well,” he said, his voice a little above a murmur. “Some heroes we turned out to be.”

He glanced over his shoulder at Kenobi, whose face had gone ashen. “Do you think your message to the Chancellor got through?”

Slowly, dazed, the general nodded. “I think so. With any luck.”

She managed to speak then. “Thought you Jedi types didn’t believe in luck.”

His eyes showed faint surprise that she’d acknowledged him. “Well, the Force seems to be running on fumes.” He raised an eyebrow, managed a bit of the sardonic twinkle. “If it’s any consolation.”

And now Anakin had his flesh hand on her shoulder, looking at her with desperation. “Padmé, I—”

“Skywalker, you idiot,” she muttered. “You gods-damned crazy idiot.”

It was the best way she knew of ending this with dignity.

But as she held his gaze, something inside her frowned. This wasn’t right.

Anakin suddenly looked— happy ?

He worked his jaw back and forth, as if considering. And then, slowly, the old flyboy grin started to form. “Huh,” he said, tone suddenly casual. “I’ve got it.”

Padmé just stared.

“Right on all counts, Padmé,” he continued. “We definitely seem to be damned. I am definitely an idiot. And I’m definitely crazy.”

And then she got it.

“No,” she said flatly, her voice calm as could be even as the blood started to drain from her fingers. “Nope. No.”

His lips pulled back from his teeth, the grin widening back into that feral expression of joy that she’d fallen in love with all those years ago. “We’ve always wanted to try one.”

From the back of the cockpit, growing more anxious by the word: “What? What have we always wanted to try?”

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: DISRUPTION FLARE

The power pack of a blaster is unlikely to run out in the middle of a firefight. Most power packs can fire several hundred rounds before needing to be replaced. In a shootout, heat maintenance is a much higher concern. Firing a blaster too quickly will cause it to “lock up” until it can dissipate the waste heat it has generated.

The disruption flare is designed to cause enemy blasters to lock up. When activated, it sends out a pulse of energy in all directions. This radiation is harmless to sentient life forms, but is enough to overload the firing components of a blaster. This causes the gun’s safety mechanism to believe it has overheated and enter a venting phase. In this venting phase, the gun cannot be fired for several seconds.

However, disruption flares are not foolproof. They do not actually overheat a blaster, but simply trick the gun into thinking it has overheated. Thus, it is possible to make a blaster immune to disruption flares by disconnecting its safety mechanism. Doing so is dangerous; the risk of injury during the disconnection process is extremely high, and blasters with no overheat safety can quickly reach dangerous temperatures while in use.

Chapter Text

Reaching forward to grab the next of the metal bars welded to the wall, Obi-Wan found himself almost wishing they'd been blown up before they hit atmosphere.

“This doesn’t even make  sense ,” he breathed into the earpiece he’d inserted before unbuckling. “We’re above the surface, there should be gravity with or without the generator.”

It’s never gone wrong in atmosphere before, ” Anakin’s voice crackled. “ Maybe it got bored and decided acting like an antigravity generator was more fun.

“When this is over,” the Jedi muttered, ducking as his head almost floated into a collision with the ceiling, “you’re getting a new one care of the Defense Force. No charge.”

Thanks for the generosity.

Without warning, the interior lights flickered; a moment later, the ship shuddered violently. Obi-Wan smacked into a wall, swearing as his ribs made contact. “ We’re okay, ” his earpiece assured him. “ Lasers just got a little close is all.

“Oh, is that all.” He looked down—below him was the open hatch leading to the main deck. Exhaling, he hit the earpiece. “Liz, I’m coming to you.”

Why isn’t Amidala coming down here? I don’t trust you to know a wrench from a repulsorlift.

Liz, ” Padmé said, “ I know lots of ways to take metal apart, and you’ve only got one arm left.

Fine. Get down here, Kenobi.

He let himself float upward again, reaching out with his palms to buffer his impact with the ceiling. Took one, breath, two. Then shoved himself down.

The general had half-expected the  Dancer  to swerve just at the moment he dropped down, but the descent was blessedly stable—he gripped a rung midway down the ladder just as the ship angled starboard, the  whoosh  of a concussion missile rushing by. “Would you mind disabling the auditory simulators?” he asked. “Might help my concentration.”

Kenobi. We’re  in atmosphere .

“Ah. Right. Sorry.”

The nearest metal bar was several feet to his left. Inhaling deeply, Obi-Wan thought to himself,  Calm down. It’s just swimming. If there were also sharks nearby who could fire torpedoes at you.  He planted his feet on the outer edge of the ladder. Compressed his legs. Launched. Drifted gently toward the wall.

BANG

“For the love of—” he bellowed before cutting himself off. When he put a hand to his forehead, blood stuck to his fingertips—he and Padmé had that in common now, at least.

Kenobi, ” Liz said over the earpiece, “ will you stop fooling around and get over here?

Growling, the Jedi decided that, under the circumstances, he was allowed to cheat. He stretched out a hand,  pulled , and hurtled toward the engine room.

 

* * *

 

Anakin winced as yet another metallic  bang  issued through the comm. “Sorry, this is trickier than it looks.”

No kidding. ” A grunt of exertion, then the muted  thwack  of flesh on metal. “ All right, I’m almost to the engine room. Liz, if you’d be so good as to give me a hand.

Only one left to spare, unfortuna— ” Midsentence, her tone leapt an octave. “ Of course, Mister Obi-Wan! Lucky for us I have these foot magnets.

“Lucky for us I didn’t lose a leg instead,” the pilot muttered. Another streak of green flew by, this one close enough to leave a scorch mark along the viewport. “Well, that’s not gonna help with the fire.” He shot a glance at Padmé. “How many of them are still on us?”

She clenched her jaw. “Looks like we lost some in the smoke, but at least nine are still sticking there. Their sensors must be a hell of a lot better than ours.”

“Well, at least they invested in those instead of lasers.”

The cockpit was silent for a few moments after that, save for the occasional squeal of a passing burst of plasma. Then, from his right: “Skywalker, even if the two of them don’t screw this up, we’re probably going to smash right into those fighters.”

“So we drop altitude right before it happens. And hey, if we do smash into them, at least we’re spoiling their day. Better than just getting blown out of the sky.”

Sure, some of it was bravado. And sure, he was only marginally more confident than his wife in Obi-Wan’s ability to pull this off. But a fairly large portion of his brain was perversely close to excitement.

After all, he hadn’t been lying—always wanted to try one.

 

* * *

 

“Okay,” said Obi-Wan, transferring his grip from the droid’s arm to one of the many bits of metal protruding from the engine. “What do you need me to do?”

Padmé, can you— ” The ship bucked. “ Talk him through it? Little— ” For a brief moment, the floor tilted far enough to the side to become a wall. “ Busy .”

The line was silent for a few seconds. Then: “ Kenobi, I swear to the gods, if you do this wrong I will haunt you myself.

“I’ll already be dead,” he pointed out.

Shut up. You’re looking at the main engines, right?

He cast his eyes from one side of the room to the other. “I assume those are the massive cylinders currently giving off smoke?”

Damn it. Yes. ” She paused to inhale. “ Okay. Liz, open ‘em up.

The droid, eyes still a merciful blue, seized one side of a panel roughly six feet wide and three high on the starboard cylinder. “Mister Obi-Wan, I’m afraid I can’t generate enough leverage with only one hand. But regrettably, the metal is too hot for an organic being to touch barehanded—”

No time for formalities.  The Jedi simply swept a hand upward—the panel sprang from its locked position, clocking the droid in the jaw.

Her eyes snapped red.  Great.

When she turned to look at him, though, all she said was, “Well hot damn. You certainly know how to charm a lady, Kenobi.”

“I’m full of surprises,” he said, then repeated the motion on the port cylinder. “All right, Padmé, they’re open.”

Is there a wrench floating around in there?

The Jedi scanned the room, eyes finally latching onto a floating bar of metal a few meters away. “Yes.”

Give it to Liz, she can use it better.

He nudged the thing with his mind—it hurtled past his nose and into the droid’s outstretched arm. “Got it.”

Obi-Wan allowed a satisfied smile to form on his lips. “I must say, this is going better than I expected—”

HOLD ON! ” Anakin roared, and suddenly the floor had become the ceiling.

Obi-Wan’s arm felt as though something very large had grabbed it and attempted to wrench it from its socket. Without thinking, he let go, and went sailing headlong into Liz, who stood suspended by her magnetic feet. Willing himself to slow down, he managed to wrap an arm around her neck just before he hurtled into the smoking engine.

“YOU COULDN’T HAVE JUST FLOWN TO THE LEFT?!” he shouted into his earpiece.

 

* * *

 

The question, Padmé thought, was as accurate a summation of her husband’s piloting style as any.

“You okay?” she asked, her own arms clenched tightly to the copilot’s seat.

Never been better. Now, wrench?

“Right.” She squeezed her eyes shut, going over the steps again. “The endgame here is to take part of the engine housing and block the rear jet. It’ll force the intake to thrust us in reverse.” She paused as the  Dancer  dipped briefly, then struggled upward again. “Theoretically.”

Wait, aren’t the jets on the outside of the ship?

“Oh dear, you’re right, major oversight on our part.”

Sorry.

“The nacelles are on the outside, but you undo the latches holding them in place from the engine room. Can’t exactly do exterior maintenance when this thing is flying through space. So, Liz, I need you to start undoing the bolts holding the engine cowls in place.”

And what do I do? ” asked Kenobi.

“Stand there and wait to throw the cowls into place. There’s a control panel you should be able to use. You just have to make sure all two dozen of the bolts are undone first.”

Presumably to make sure this sort of thing never happens.

“Yeah. Now shut up and do the thing.”

As the faint sounds of a wrench turning filtered through the comm, Padmé thought about all the things that could catastrophically end this experiment. The droid could freak out again, and either abandon her task or simply sabotage the operation. Kenobi could smash his skull on a wall the next time Anakin flipped the ship. The engines could blow themselves up from the stress of firing in reverse. Or the enemy fighters could score a direct hit before they even pulled the maneuver off.

“You know,” she said to Anakin, before she could think to stop herself from speaking, “I always assumed that when we died in some incredibly crazy stunt of yours, it would be in public. So someone could at least carry our idiot legend on.”

When she looked over at him, he looked surprised that she’d spoken. “Well,” he said, we’ll just have to tell it ourselves, then.”

Another scorch mark seared itself across the bow. “And we were getting along so well,” her husband muttered, veering left as another bolt of plasma streaked through the air the  Dancer  had occupied a fraction of a second beforehand.

 

* * *

 

Obi-Wan said nothing—he thought it best not to let Padmé know she’d had the comm turned on for that exchange.

Eight bolts were floating through the engine room. “How many more to go?” he asked Liz, who rather than rotating the wrench was methodically turning her entire hand along its axis. He swiped at his brow with a sleeve that came away soaked in sweat—the heat the engines were emitting was intolerable.

“Two on this one, ten on the port engine,” the droid replied. “I don’t suppose that lightsaber of yours could make easier work of this?”

“That what of mine?”

“Oh, save it,” she scoffed. “You didn’t even bother trying to hide the damn thing, and I do have ears, remember? Not as though I care, you’re a pain in the processor with or without a fancy sword.”

Remind me to wipe her memory once we’re out of this, ” chimed in Anakin. “ Assuming I don’t just break her down for scrap.

“Skywalker, I will take my remaining arm and shove it so far up your—”

“At any rate,” Obi-Wan hastened to interject, “I don’t think waving around my lightsaber while I’m weightless is the best idea.”

Two more bolts went floating through the air. “Okay, now for the starboard side—”

An almighty screech issued from below. “ DAMN it, ” the pilot spat through the earpiece. “ Hurry up, you two, they just got us.

It may have been the Jedi’s imagination, but the smoke pouring from the engines suddenly seemed thicker. “Anything vital hit?”

Padmé, sounding grim: “ The starboard nacelle just shifted into yellow range. We’d better hope this doesn’t just send us into a spiral.

Hurry it up, guys, ” said Anakin. “ I’m gonna have to do this before we risk an engine failure.

Obi-Wan looked down at his belt, then up at the starboard cowl, which still had five bolts locked firmly in place. He sighed. “Liz, move.”

 

* * *

 

A sudden  snapHISSSSSSS  sizzled through the comm, followed by a buzzing swipe. “What did you do?!” Padmé shouted.

Hurried it up. All the bolts are loosened.

Anakin eased the  Dancer ’s nose downward, hoping with all his strength that the altimeter was still working correctly. “Okay, we’re gonna have to time this just right,” he said. He slowly, evenly pulled back his mechanical arm, easing down the throttle. “There’s a bigass red lever on a panel just above the port engine. See it?”

There was a muffled bang, followed by a barking curse from Obi-Wan. “ Yes.

“When you two snap the cowls into position, we go to full burn.” Anakin shot a glance at the sensor screen. “Ten seconds.” Green plasma rumbled past the viewport. “Nine.” He closed his eyes, which were useless with the smoke in any case. “Eight.”

Anakin.

His eyes shot open.

The voice had been Obi-Wan’s, but not from over the comm. He had  heard  it, as though it were in the cockpit with him.

Or, rather, he saw, as if he were in the engine room with Obi-Wan. He could see the Jedi right in front of him, one hand clinging to a metal bar a few inches below the ceiling, the other stretched out, open-palmed, facing the lever. Liz swayed in place, anchored by her foot magnets, eyes glowing crimson.

But wait, Anakin thought, this couldn’t be right, because he was still in his pilot’s chair. His hands still gripped the control yoke, his crash webbing still held him to his seat in defiance of gravity.

Seven.

“Apologies,” said Obi-Wan, “but we can’t take chances.”

“What is this?” Anakin managed.

“The Force doesn’t simply touch physical objects, it can touch minds as well. And also alter your perceptions, which is coming in handy right now.”

Six.

“You said it yourself,” the Jedi continued, “we have to time this just right. And I don’t necessarily trust your comm system not to have a lag.”

Five.

It occured to Anakin that through this entire exchange, the Jedi had not actually moved his mouth.

Four.

Obi-Wan moved his left hand along the metal bar, trying to get a better grip, and suddenly Anakin’s flesh hand didn’t feel a control yoke but the burning heat of durasteel heated a good deal higher than room temperature. His mechanical hand no longer gripped the throttle—it was open-palmed, stretched out toward the lever that was somehow only a few feet away.

“Everything is connected, Anakin. Planets. Stars. Plants. Animals. You. Me.”

Three.

“All you have to do is  reach out.

He was Anakin, but somehow Obi-Wan. Distinct, yet part of a single unit. It was almost as if he was seeing double. Even as his left hand nudged the control yoke, it gripped the bar. Even as his mechanical hand eased down on the  Dancer ’s speed, it stretched toward the bright red lever.

Two.

“Ready, Liz,” he and Obi-Wan spoke in unison. A near-miss from a concussion missile buffeted the ship, but no klaxons sounded.

They tightened their grips, closed their eyes.

One.

And reached out.

 

* * *

 

The Confederacy’s starfighter corps was made up of Givin clones. The skull-faced aliens were noted for their extraordinary number-crunching abilities; within the span of an eyeblink they could calculate trajectories at a speed roughly equivalent to a top-of-the-line navicomputer and act accordingly. Not only that, the particular individual these pilots were cloned from was noted even among his species for his abilities—he’d earned the prestigious Nxoni Prize at the precocious age of 14 and gone on to an extremely profitable career in hyperspace research. (This was, of course, before the Confederacy black-bagged him).

Despite their increased potential for mental instability compared to their template, the Givin fighter pilots on the tail of the  Spice Dancer  were absolutely fastidious in their calculations. And they knew that their target’s only options were either to turn around and expose itself to laser fire or to keep on at full burn until they ghosted it. It was a foregone conclusion; all they had to do was keep up the chase.

When the blip on the pilots’ sensor screens began to slow down, the inevitability of its demise simply increased. It would, the Givins calculated, be overtaken in precisely 13.7 seconds.

What happened next was, put quite simply, an impossibility.

The clones had been pursuing and firing on the  Spice Dancer  based on nothing more than scanner data. The smoke covering Had Abbadon, especially at this comparatively low altitude, was too thick for anyone to see through for more than several meters. But, when there were 4.2 seconds left before the clones overtook their target, a massive, blinding flare of white light tore through their viewports.

They missed what happened next; by the time their polarizers had engaged, there was nothing left to see.

Shrieking, flaming, and shedding heat shielding, the  Spice Dancer  leapt backward, passing so close below its pursuers that their engines scorched the top of its hull. Two of the starfighters were caught in its backwash and hurled upward, blazing.

It was, one of the surviving pilots would later note, as though the ship had sprouted extra engines and fired them at full burn. By the time their flash-blinded eyes were able to check their sensor screens, the  Spice Dancer  was already fading off the rear edge.

 

* * *

 

There was a sudden explosion of pain in Anakin’s chest, sending his awareness shooting back into his own skull. He blinked hard, swore, and almost smashed the ship into the ground.

The effect of the maneuver was somewhat diminished by the fact that only smoke was visible through the viewport, but the pilot still felt a profound sense of discombobulation watching the grey wisps recede from the ship rather than shoot closer to it. After a few moments, though the combined vertigo of flying backwards and not being dead started to wear off, enough that he was able to turn his head to Padmé and whoop. “How about that, huh?!”

Before she could reply, Liz’s voice crackled through the comm. “ Someone get down here. Kenobi’s hurt.

Anakin thought back to the pain that had smashed into his chest. “Obi-Wan? Obi-Wan, are you all right?”

Padmé was already unbuckling herself. “Get us to the cave, I’ll take care of him.” The jolt from the engines’ firing must have shaken the gravity generator back into shape—she stood quite steadily before dashing for the ladder.

As he guided the  Dancer  back along the path it had taken, the pilot felt his adrenaline slowly fading back to normal. In its place were mingled horror, disbelief, and something like awe. Not at pulling off the maneuver, but at what had happened in the ten seconds before it happened.

 

* * *

 

When she reached the engine room, Padmé saw Liz bent over Kenobi’s slumped form, lying on the ground. The Jedi did not move. “What happened?”

When the droid looked up, her eyes were blue. “When the gravity came back on, he fell and I couldn’t catch him. Oh, I do hope he’s all right.”

She bent over and put a hand to the inside of the Jedi’s wrist—the pulse was there, but it was thin. “Obi-Wan?” When this got no response, she shook him, hard. “ Obi-Wan!

Nothing, then a groan. “If I’d known this was what it would take to get you to warm up to me, I would have just found another pair of hustlers.”

Relief rushed through her so fast it was almost staggering. “Do all Jedi do things the hard way?”

“It’s our specialty.” He tried to roll over, swore. “Now, help me up.”

She extended a hand; gratefully, he gripped it and allowed himself to be hauled upright. The Jedi almost slipped out of her grasp—the engine was giving off so much heat that Padmé’s hand was already coated in sweat. “I don’t suppose you have an infirmary you’ve been hiding down here,” he said, wincing.

“Sorry to disappoint,” she said, a trace of her old smirk coming back.

What happened? ” Anakin chimed in through the intercom.

“The gravity came back on and I fell in exactly the wrong place,” said Obi-Wan. “Probably concussed myself, and I’m afraid I won’t be running any marathons with these ribs. Landed on them. If they weren’t broken before, they are now.” He wrapped an arm around Padmé’s shoulders, and the pair limped toward the kitchen. “At any rate . . . congratulations. You did it.”

Couldn’t have without you.

“Oh, sure,” muttered Liz. “I was just sitting on my hand the whole time.”

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: PRIMARY ENGINE THRUST VECTORING

Starships are generally steered by adjusting thrust ratios among a series of rear-facing engines. More advanced maneuvers require thrust to be directed toward the bow or sides of a starship. This is usually done with smaller, secondary thrusters mounted along a ship’s hull. “Primary engine thrust vectoring” (PETV) is the aerospace industry term for sending thrust in multiple directions at once using only a ship’s main engines.

This is not a stock feature on a majority of starships. Space superiority fighters used by military forces are one notable exception, as thrust vectoring is a necessary component of dogfighting. The ability to vector the primary engines can be added to some vessels, though the aftermarket retrofit is often prohibitively expensive. Aerospace traffic control laws prohibit performing thrust vectoring maneuvers in civilized space, such as that around and in the atmosphere of populated planets.

WARNING: It is a common misconception among pilots that PETV can be “hotwired” into any standard starship engine on the fly, causing thrust to be directed out the forward engine intake. Under no circumstances should this supposed hotwire be attempted mid flight. Likelihood of catastrophic engine failure is extremely high.

 

Chapter Text

There was something unsettling about walking the halls of the Senate building so late into the evening, Bail thought. The absence of people gave the place a certain cavernous nature—even the thoughts inside one’s head seemed to echo down the corridors. To go from literally thousands of beings chatting in the halls to utter silence was almost oppressive, as if the lack of noise had a sonic presence all its own.

As he strode purposefully across the polished slate floors, the Chancellor passed only the occasional custodial droid, or the typical first-year staffer who felt they had to work longer hours than their boss just to prove a point. Bail chuckled underneath his breath. He had been that staffer once. At the time, he had assumed that rising in the political ranks would mean he spent less time working. How wrong I was, he thought, stifling a yawn. He hoped Mon Mothma had some caf brewing in her office.

Bail slowed as he continued down the gently curving hallway, stopping at the door engraved “Chandrila.” Beneath the world’s name, a removable plate bore the name “Mon Mothma.” They may as well make the nameplate permanent, he mused. Unlike me, she isn’t going anywhere.

As the automatic door slid aside, he crossed the threshold into the office suite. Senators’ offices were, by nature, designed to be modular and customizable. Mon Mothma had chosen flooring and walls of polished white to echo the architecture of her homeworld. Each room was separated with striking, angular panels of transparisteel. Most of the panels had been dimmed to the point of opacity, but a few were still transparent, and Bail could see straight through to the senator’s office. She sat at her desk, typing diligently at a computer terminal and sipping from a steaming mug.

Mon Mothma’s eyes only briefly diverted from her work when Bail entered the office suite; she glanced up and waved the Chancellor over before returning her attention to the computer. Bail strolled through a set of double doors, nodding his head to greet her as he entered her office proper.

“You know, sometimes I miss my old office. It was cozier,” he said, taking a seat opposite his partner in crime. I suppose I should consider it alarming that I’m just throwing that phrase around.

“Careful what you wish for, Chancellor,” was her reply. “You may end up back in it if we don’t play this right.”

“About that,” Bail mumbled. It was enough to get Mon to stop typing and look up at him. “I called Breha. The people of Alderaan haven’t taken too kindly to my . . . rash behavior. There’s a coalition building that wants to hold a recall election.”  

If this news fazed her, she didn’t show it. Maybe my hijinks finally broke her. “I see.”

“To top it all off,” Bail continued, “My chief of staff just quit. He’d been offworld on personal leave, and I’d been blocking incoming messages for most of the day, but his resignation letter finally got through. ‘Morally outraged’ at my behavior, he said.” A sigh. “So, add that to the list of problems we have to deal with.”

Mon rose to her feet. “This is going to sound a bit counterintuitive, Bail. What if we didn’t deal with them?”

“How does that help us?”

“The Constitution forbids a planet recalling the Chancellor. You’d have to be demoted back to senator for the recall election to even work. If the vote of no confidence fails, this problem goes away on its own.

“As for your chief of staff. . . replace him in two weeks. Nobody is going to join what looks like a sinking ship, and all you’ll be doing before the no confidence session is holding meetings with the undecided members of congress. A droid can schedule meetings.”

Bail took a deep breath. “I suppose you’re right. Of course, if I do lose the vote of no confidence, that recall election back home will end me. I won’t have spent any time on Alderaan campaigning. My career will be—”

Priority message incoming , interrupted a voice from his commlink. He recognized it as the after-hours switchboard droid stationed in his office.

“Blasted thing. I’m so sorry, Mon, I thought I had this on mute.”

She shook her head. “You should take it. Can’t afford to be ducking calls if we want to sway votes our way.”

With a nod, Bail removed the commlink from his pocket and spoke into it. “Priority message from whom?”

The message was transmitted from an unknown civilian ship, but it is keyed with General Obi-Wan Kenobi’s code signature.”

His eyes widened, and he met Mon Mothma’s gaze. “Is it a live communication?”

No, sir. Merely a prerecorded message packet. Audio only.”

Bail hastily set the commlink on the desk between the two of them. “Very well, send it through.”

Bail! BAIL! ” Right off the bat, it didn’t sound good—Bail had heard many different emotions in Obi-Wan’s voice, but never raw panic.

If you’re listening, send ships to Had Abbadon NOW. It’s worse than we thought. They’re not after healing fluid. They found a way to imprint memories into clones. If they capture the planet, they could train troops in an instant. They’re nearly through the surface. We don’t have long. Please hurry.”

All Bail could think was an inane And here I thought it was impossible for things to get any worse.

He held back the urge to curse in front of his colleague. Joy at the news of Obi-Wan’s survival clashed intensely with horror at the thought of what the Confederacy was about to achieve. Millions of troops, raised to pull the trigger from birth. Trained to tear ships to pieces with a single lightspeed jump.

Absentmindedly, the Chancellor reached toward his commlink to replay the message.

“Bail.” The measured voice of Mon Mothma snapped him out of his trance. Looking up, he saw her face, pale and drawn but resolute. She shook her head. “Listening to it again won’t change what it says.”  

“I know,” Bail said, sighing in defeat. He slouched in his chair. “We can’t call the Defense Committee together until tomorrow. If I tried to scrape together an emergency meeting now, half of them wouldn’t show up.”

“I’ve a feeling many won’t show up even if you wait until morning,” Mon added with a frown. “It’d be an easy way for them to prevent you from getting anything done. Skip the meetings so we haven’t got a quorum.”

Bail nodded. “So I’m on my own.”

“It would seem so.”

Growling, he squeezed his hands together until his knuckles began to ache. “I can’t just sit here and do nothing. I know you said not to touch Had Abbadon, but the situation has changed.” He snatched his commlink off the desk, then paused and glanced at her. “Aren’t you going to try and stop me? Talk me out of it?”

Raising an eyebrow: “Talk you out of what, precisely?”

Bail stopped to consider. It was a fair question. He knew he needed to do something . He just didn’t know what. “I . . . don’t know. Obi-Wan said to send ships.”

“Which you can’t do without the Defense Committee,” Mon Mothma mumbled. To Bail’s surprise, it seemed almost as if she were disappointed by this fact.

Bail looked up from his intertwined fingers. “Not necessarily. Sure, one of the Star Destroyers up in orbit won’t listen to me. The Heroes of Alderaan, though. . .”

“Typhoon Division?” asked Mon Mothma. “If anyone were to break the rules to go after General Kenobi, it would be his own people.”

He found himself fighting to suppress a grin. “Don’t tell me you’re signing off on this.”

“Absolutely not.” The senator stood and rounded her desk, white robe flowing behind her. “It’s the best option, given the circumstances, but I can’t be seen supporting it. Bail, I—” she hesitated for a moment, then stared down at the pristine marble floor of her office. “I wouldn’t be able to help you any longer. I would have to vote against you in the special session. And what support you do have in the Senate will likely evaporate overnight. This will end your career.”

 “I know.” Bail gripped his commlink between thumb and forefinger, weighing the situation.

Obi-Wan, he thought to himself, the day being your friend means being a lesser Chancellor is the day I leave the Senate. It appears that day has come. He raised the commlink in a mock-toast, then pressed the call button.

“Droid, connect me to Typhoon Division. Have the commander take the call somewhere private. His office, or his quarters. Somewhere nobody else will hear him.”

Of course, sir .”

Rising to his feet: “If you want me to do this somewhere else, I understand.”

Mon Mothma nodded. “That would be best, I think.” She motioned toward her office doors and followed behind Bail as he moved toward the exit. “I wish you the best, Chancellor Organa. It’s been a pleasure working with you.”

“Thank you, Senator,” Bail said as he stepped into the corridor. “For everything.”

 

* * *

 

A quartet of fighters streaked past the viewport as Commander Cody stood and gazed—half his attention on the training exercises happening outside the window, the other half drawn to the spiraling clouds of Kashyyyk’s atmosphere.

He raised a mug of caf to his lips and inhaled, then suppressed a wince. Caf: instant, One serving, Revision-1152 was printed on the disposable, single-use mug. Miss the old formula, Cody thought. This one’s gritty. Like someone poured goddamn sand in it.

For better or for worse, Typhoon Division was often selected to test the Republic Defense Forces latest gear. Weapons, vehicles, and even food. And as much as the caf sucked, it wouldn’t do to complain in front of the officers. Cody tilted the mug back and dutifully suffered through another dredge of the grainy drink. At least it makes the morning training exercises easier .

He lowered the synthetic cup to his side, letting it dangle between thumb and forefinger, and watched as another set of four fighters soared past the bridge window—dangerously close, Cody noted to himself. On days like these, he couldn’t decide whether he missed his time as a fighter jockey. There was a certain thrill to it, but . . .

Another flight of four buzzed the bridge, interrupting his reverie. After their formation roared by, Cody turned on a heel and strolled to the rear of the bridge, approaching the officer at the communication hub.

“Chief Reyes?”

“Yes, Commander?” The young officer spun to face Cody and snapped to attention.

“Pass a message along to Sawshark Leader, would you? Three Flight’s grouping looked a little sloppy; they should tighten it up on the next pass.”

“Aye aye,” came the reply as the officer turned her focus back to the station and pecked out the message on her terminal. The commander remained behind her, waiting. “Flight Lieutenant Janzen invites you to ‘hop in a Headhunter and try to do it yourself,’” Reyes said, reading the reply as it appeared on her viewscreen. After a brief pause, she hastily added: “Sir.”

Cody let a short breath escape his nose. “Thank you, Chief. That will be all.” He turned and moved away from the communication hub, intending to return to his place at the center of the bridge.

He had only taken a step when Chief Reyes spoke up: “Um, Commander? There’s an incoming call for you.”

Cody paused and glanced back at Reyes. He raised an eyebrow, as if to ask from whom? In response, the Operations Chief simply stepped away from her terminal and gestured towards it.

Cody realized he must have allowed a reaction to cross his face when Reyes spoke up. “This is bad, isn’t it, sir?”  

“Send it to my office,” he ordered.

The commander strode confidently away from the bridge, but picked up his pace as he rounded a corner and moved out of view of his crew. Chief Reyes was probably right. Considering the time of day at the galactic capital, a call like this probably didn’t bring good news.

As the door to Commander Cody’s office slid aside, his eyes swept across the room. Nothing out of place. Good. Cody lifted his disposable caf mug to his mouth and downed the sludge that had settled at the bottom. Then, without looking, he flung the empty cup toward the trash receptacle in the corner; a gentle thump confirmed he’d been on target.

Cody moved to stand behind his desk, pressed a finger against the pulsing green button on its surface, and then snapped into a salute. A life-size hologram of Bail Organa wavered into existence in the center of the office. Cody held his salute as he spoke: “Chancellor.”

“Commander Cody,” Organa replied. “ As you were. This . . . isn’t exactly an official call.”

The commander allowed himself to relax, if only slightly. “What can I do for you, sir?”

You’re alone?”

Of course, sir.”

I find myself in an awkward position, Commander. I need your help. General Kenobi needs your help.”

Cody didn’t hesitate. “If you send the coordinates, we can be on our way in twenty minutes—”

Wait.” The Chancellor’s hologram looked about as beaten down and weary as a flickering image could. “In the interest of full disclosure . . . going after Obi-Wan would be an unauthorized action. The Defense Committee hasn’t voted on this. I don’t have approval to ask you.” After a moment of silence, Chancellor Organa continued. “ I will take full responsibility. You and your crew will not be punished. But you have a right to know before I go any further.”

“What does he need?” Cody asked.

The mission he left for earlier this week has not gone as planned. The Galactic Confederacy is less than a day away from capturing a planet that will give them a crucial advantage over the Republic. They have to be stopped. Obi-Wan said to send ships. I’m sending you. Provided you’re willing, of course.”

Cody stood still, staring at the hologram of Chancellor Organa. He took a deep breath, and nodded slowly. “Absolutely. Send us the coordinates and any relevant intel.”

“Coordinates are on the way. Unfortunately, there really isn’t any intel to speak of. Obi-Wan didn’t have time to send a breakdown of their fleet. I don’t know what you’ll be up against. I’m sorry.”

“We’ll make it work, sir. It’s what we do.”

 

* * *

 

As Cody marched back onto the bridge of the Coelacanth , a rumble of hushed conversation ceased. All eyes turned to the commanding officer.

“As some of you have no doubt heard,” Cody began, shooting a knowing look at Chief Reyes as the woman sank into her station chair, “I just received a call from Chancellor Organa. We have a new assignment.” He began taking measured steps towards the front of the bridge. As he moved, he gestured to an officer beneath him in the bridge pit. “Tactical, recall the fighters, and order the frigates to form up. Navigation, pull up the latest set of coordinates we received and plot a course.” Cody reached the front of the bridge, turning on a heel to face away from the window. “And Comms?”

Chief Reyes sat up straight in her seat. “Sir?”

“Connect me to the whole division. I’ve got a few words for everyone.”

Reyes spun in her chair, pressed a handful of buttons, then turned to look back at Cody and gave him a nod.

The commander turned to look back outside the bridge viewport. He watched as two squadrons of starfighters buzzed toward the underbelly of the Victory- class Star Destroyer. The engines of three Consular- class frigates flared up as the support vessels moved to surround the lead ship of Typhoon Division. A marble of green slid out of view as the fleet rotated away from Kashyyyk’s orbit.

“This is Commander Cody.” He paused. He was never very good at these speeches. The inspirational rallying was best left to Obi-Wan. But if the general wasn’t here to make the speech, making a speech about the general was the next best thing.

“To those of us in Typhoon Division, General Kenobi is more than just the man in charge. He’s a mentor. He’s a source of inspiration. He’s a friend. I don’t doubt for a second that if any one of us were in need of help, the general would do everything he could to help us. But today, it’s time for us to help the general.

“When he left the fleet earlier this week, nobody knew why. I can now tell you he was on a secret mission to save a planet from being captured by the Confederacy. That mission has failed, and General Kenobi has called for aid. We are that aid. We will save the general, and we will save the planet, but there are other consequences. We will likely start a war.

“I won’t lie to you: this is not an authorized mission. The Chancellor sent the request personally, and without anyone’s approval. If this makes you uncomfortable, and you would rather not participate, you’ll be free to depart the fleet before the final leg of our hyperspace jump. I will not hold it against you, and neither will Obi-Wan.

“He’s counting on us. Though they don’t know it, the Republic is counting on us. Let’s show those tank-bred bastards what the soldiers of Alderaan are capable of. Let’s save Obi-Wan Kenobi. God knows he’s saved us more than once.”

Cody paused and glanced behind him at the navigation station. “We’re all set, sir,” the officer stationed there said with a nod. Cody’s attention returned to the window.

“Typhoon Division: prepare to jump into hyperspace on my mark.”

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: REPUBLIC DEFENSE FORCE

For much of the Republic’s early history, the galaxy-spanning government kept no unified military force. The task of defense fell to individual planets and systems. This was, as the representatives of smaller worlds and colonies often pointed out, unfairly balanced in favor of larger and wealthier worlds. This changed with the passage of the Unified Defense Initiative Act. The Defense Initiative eventually became known as the Defense Force, and the modern Republic military was born.

Every Republic world contributes proportionally to a shared pool of soldiers, ships, and munitions. For example, the Star Destroyer Coelacanth, though purchased by the Alderaanian Royal Navy, is maintained and operated by the Republic Defense Force. The Senate Defense Committee directs the RDF, though most day-to-day decisions are made by high-ranking members at RDF headquarters, leaving the Defense Committee members time to do other work in the Senate. Soldiers do not enlist directly with the RDF, but rather with their home planet. RDF headquarters are located on Coruscant, and staffed by Defense Force members from all across the galaxy.

Republic member worlds are only required to provide armaments and troops to the Defense Force until a galactic quota has been met. Once the quota has been filled, further participation by any planet is entirely voluntary. However, general consensus is that this quota is not enough of a military force to truly defend the Republic in a full-scale war.

Chapter Text

A flash of white, accompanied by a terrible screech on the auditory simulator, tore Rask Petram from his state of concentration.

The commanding officer of the CSV Arbiter had followed orders. Drop the wreckage, open a hole in Had Abbadon’s surface, and wait for Warlord Maul. Everything had been going according to plan. Until, that is, that scrap heap had broken atmosphere. Half their bombers, gone in an instant. And then the ship had ducked back below the atmosphere and taken their starfighters with it. All together, a pointless excursion that had cost the Confederacy eight trained pilots.

Not that it mattered, Petram realized. By the end of the day, the problem of re-training personnel would be solved once and for all. It still stung, though, to let a ship escape his grasp—on his first day in command, no less. Especially when the rust bucket was able to dust half a bomber squadron with what appeared to be a single laser cannon.

And now there was this. Whatever the hell this was. Petram supposed he should find out. Setting down the datapad he had been reading, he cleared his throat and feigned an air of confidence.

“What’s going on?” he barked at a wetwork; the clone spun in its chair to face the commander.

“An unknown vessel has dropped out of hyperspace, sir. They nearly collided with us. Our shields took a hit from the energy wash; they should be back to full capacity in a few minutes. The vessel is drifting, it appears to have been impacted by the energy wash as well.”

Petram’s mind raced; he hoped this vessel’s arrival was a mere coincidence, not related to that attempted takeoff from earlier they had barely contained, but it was a slim possibility. Backup, maybe? “Do we have a target lock on it?”

The clone officer turned and poked at his terminal’s controls. “We do now, sir.”

“Scan the ship. And hail them,” Petram ordered.

“We’re not going to open fire?” a weaselly voice called out from the rear of the bridge. Petram resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He had requested a non-clone bridge officer be transferred over to him, and after some personnel shuffling, he’d gotten exactly the opposite of what he wanted.

His chief gripe about the wetworks was the way they took orders. They obeyed them absolutely—barring any unwanted brain mutations—but they almost always waited until receiving instructios to actually act. No initiative, no creativity. He’d heard whispers that the newer revisions the Kaminoans were cooking up didn’t have this problem, but his crew did. It was infinitely more work managing a bridge crew when you had to do all the thinking for them. He’d wanted another non-clone on the bridge to help split the workload. Instead, he’d gotten someone who questioned his methods at every turn.

“I’d like to give them a chance to explain who they are before we blow them up, Julian,” Petram said, barely resisting the urge to inject a sneer into his subordinate’s name. Turning his attention back to the clone: “What do we have, Officer?”

“Vessel is an ultralight performance vehicle broadcasting a Republic IFF and registration. Sensor data shows the engines are currently in a restart sequence. The ship will be able to move again shortly.”

“A racing ship?” Petram snorted. That meant no shields. No weapons. As long as we don’t scare them into running, this should be easy. “Share our targeting data with the Meridian . Tell them to lock on to the racecraft, but wait for my signal to fire.”

“Aye aye, sir. They’ve responded to our hail, I have them on comms.”

“Put them through,” Petram said, standing tall and clasping his hands behind his back. A nod from the wetwork signaled he was clear to transmit. “Attention, unidentified vessel. This is the Confederate Space Vessel Arbiter . You have entered into space controlled by the Galactic Confederacy. State your business.”

A gentle static hummed over the comm. Petram shifted his weight from one foot to the other, hesitating to speak again. He glanced over at the wetwork who manned the communication terminal and raised an eyebrow. “We are connected, sir,” the clone whispered.

“Unidentified vessel, if you do not vacate the Had system we will be forced to open fire.”

A chuckle played back over the communicator, followed by the voice of the racing craft’s pilot: “Bring it on.”

In that instant, the drifting ship’s engines screamed to life. The Arbiter ’s auditory simulators rumbled as fire streaked out from the rear of the sleek red vessel. It shot toward Had Abbadon like a projectile being fired from a railgun. If the fleet didn’t act quickly, Petram realized, the raceship would soon dip beneath the atmosphere.

“Open fire!” he yelled. Lances of emerald green launched from each of the four Dictat- class cruisers, but it was a useless gesture. The nimble vessel, small as it was, could easily evade fire from a turbolaser. The raceship danced and darted expertly around each beam of plasma. Petram doubted they were even getting close enough to burn the paint off.

“Cannons, goddammit! Do we have a missile lock?”

“We do, sir!” a wetwork responded. Petram turned to meet the clone’s eyes.

“What are you waiting for? Launch them!”

Blue contrails streaked behind a cluster of concussion missiles as the rockets burst forward and locked on to the raceship. Petram watched intently as the missiles moved closer and closer to the bright red sport vehicle; a grin crept up the edges of his mouth as the wetwork at the weapons console read off the ever-shrinking time to impact. Three. Two. One

The raceship snapped into a tight banking turn; the trailing pair of concussion missiles attempted to follow. Flying as they were, side-by-side, one missile careened into the other. Shrapnel sprayed through space in a brilliant explosion behind the raceship, and the sport vehicle looped back toward Had Abbadon and sank into the atmosphere—for the second time today.

“Break off pursuit,” Petram barked. “Keep an eye out, though. We’ll catch them if they try to leave.” Internally, he cursed. Today was quickly becoming the worst day of his career.

Another sound on the auditory simulator—the familiar thwump of a vessel dropping properly out of hyperspace rather than colliding with a cruiser. Petram almost screamed—if this were another hit-and-run he would very likely—

Oh.

He swept his eyes across the space outside the viewport and suppressed a shudder. The Scimitar had arrived.

As if to punctuate the ship’s arrival, a hologram of the warlord flickered into existence in the center of the bridge. Instinctively, Petram dropped to one knee, bowing before the projection.

Get up .” Hauling himself to his feet, he brushed at the now-wrinkled knees of his uniform, attempting to hide his regret over the apparently unnecessary gesture.

You are the one in charge of this operation? ” Maul’s image asked. The Zabrak crossed his arms.

“I am, sir.”

I have business planetside. I trust you’ve kept the caverns clear of your troops?

“Of course, Lord Maul. As instructed. There is a small base camp near the wreckage of the Helios you may land at. Technical staff have set up a communication tower for you to connect your ship to. Per your request, there are no troops at the camp.”

“Actually,” a voice interjected behind Petram. It was Julian, his second-in-command. Petram turned back to glare at the officer, who was stepping forward to approach the warlord’s projection. “I took the liberty of sending troops down. A few of our advanced units. I thought you might want backup before descending into the caverns, Lord Maul.”

Maul uncrossed his arms, gesturing in the air with his right hand. The Zabrak’s eyes narrowed as he spoke. “ Did you? How very generous. Your forward thinking will be noted on your service record.”

He made a fist, and behind Petram there was a sickening snap .

The commander turned around just in time to watch his newly-appointed executive officer collapse to the floor, neck twisted in an unnatural direction.

Petram’s stomach churned; he forced himself to look back at the projection of Maul.

Have your troop transports at the ready. Once I have landed, I don’t anticipate my business taking long. We’ll be in touch . . . Commander.”

As the Scimitar streaked toward Had Abbadon and Maul’s projection disappeared, Petram turned and gingerly stepped over the limp form of his XO. He glanced back at the wetworks, who were either pretending to ignore the dead officer on the floor or genuinely hadn’t noticed Maul’s display of power. “Well, you heard him,” Petram said, willing his shaking hands to be still. “Send word to the hangar crews to prep the troop transports.” He paused, then glanced at the body on the deck. “And clean this up before I get back.”

It took every ounce of willpower the man had, but Rask Petram forced himself to remain calm until he made it to a turbolift. Only once the doors closed, and he knew he was alone, did he allow himself to scream.

 

* * *

 

Before the boarding ramp hits the dirt, the warlord is halfway down it. As it connects with the surface of Had Abbadon, he takes his first step into the mix of ash and rock.

In front of Maul, the wreck of the Helios sits. Wedged into the earth, yet towering into the sky. A monument to failure. It sickens him.

In every other direction stretches infinite destruction. Fires, burning still. Embers listing through the air. Ash falling like a deep winter’s snow. Extending to the horizon, a great plain of death. It gives him life.

Maul turns his attention an approaching officer; the human stops in his tracks as the warlord’s armored guards flank him.

“We can wire your ship into the comm tower, my lord.”

Flippantly, the Zabrak gestures. If you must, he thinks to himself. He barely notices the engineers running the landline between ship and transmission tower. More apparent are the wetworks, hauling carts out of the Helios ’ corpse. Maul raises a hand, points to them.

“What are you doing?”

“Retrieving the dead clones from the wreckage, sir. The Kaminoans want them back. For . . . processing.”

“Ah, yes.” The slightest hint of yellowed teeth peeks out from between Maul’s lips. There isn’t much in life he is able to appreciate. Recyclable troops, though? He sees the value in that.

The officer points away from the wreckage, out into the burning flatland. “The opening into the caves is a bit over one kilometer that way, my lord. However, there’s something you should know before you go in.”

Maul glares down at the man. “What?”

“There has been some strange activity. One ship took off, then flew back into the hole not long after. Another ship came in from orbit and landed in the opening. Didn’t look like one of ours. There may be people in the upper cave levels.”

“That will not be a problem.”

The officer nods. “No sir, of course not.”

Maul turns back to face his guards; a dismissive hand wave sends the uniformed officer jogging back towards the wetwork cleanup crew. “Get the speeder,” the warlord orders one of them. The figures clad in sleek silver plating nod in unison, turn, and disappear inside the Scimitar.

Pacing begins. He walks toward one horizon of emptiness, turns on a heel, then moves toward the other. The clouds of smoke overhead part, allowing Had Abbadon’s sun to stream down and cast shadows across the camp. The warlord barely notices. He is lost in thought.

The back-and-forth walk continues. The camp surrounding the warlord seems to disappear. He does not notice the line he is wearing into the dust of the planet’s surface. He does not notice the rock and ash discoloring the soles of his boots. The Sith is distracted by a light beneath the ground. Harsh and unrelenting, it is the unmistakable glow of the light side of the Force. It burns bright, but Maul knows it can easily be snuffed out. Jedi .

The sensation of light crawls up his skin. Maul’s eyes widen. It is strong. Stronger than any one man, even the fabled Kenobi. More than one Jedi.

He kneels, placing a hand in the dirt, and stretches out, feeling into the caverns beneath him. Assessing threats, or perhaps sizing up prey. To him, they are one and the same. One. Two. Three of them . They are moving.

He lingers, sensing the direction in which they travel, then opens his eyes. The shell of the Helios towers before him. If it’s where the Jedi are going, then it is where he must also go.

Maul rises to his feet. His shadow has grown long; the wetworks are boarding shuttles, departing the planet. He turns back to his guards. They stand dutifully at the base of the Scimitar’ s boarding ramp. “You, with me,” he commands one. To the other: “You wait here. Keep the engine running.”

Warlord and guard march towards the smoking wreckage of the cruiser. An outstretched hand wills a fractured section of hull to part, allowing access to the wrecked vessel.

“Lord Maul!” a voice calls from across the camp. It is the officer, jogging towards the Zabrak as he speaks. “The entrance to the cavern is that way.” He points as he did before, out to the smoldering horizon.

“The wreckage connects to the cavern, does it not?” Maul asks.

“Well, yes, but it’s an abandoned section. Completely empty.”

The warlord’s yellowed eyes narrow. “For now.” Maul turns and disappears into the remains of the Helios , armored guard close behind.

 

* * *

 

REPUBLIC ARCHIVES: AUDITORY SIMULATOR

In the early days of space warfare, it was discovered that the silence of space was extremely disorienting to pilots. A ship—whether friend or foe—streaking by the cockpit without making a sound was considered incredibly frustrating, and pilots of starfighters and other small ships reported frequently losing their bearings while in flight.

To alleviate this issue, auditory simulators were integrated into the cockpits of combat vessels. These devices worked in tandem with a ship’s sensor package to create a suite of sounds that matched the events outside the ship’s viewport. Passing vessels, the firing of laser cannons, and distant explosions were now accompanied by audio feedback.

Auditory simulators are now a standard component of every starship. Simulator banks are filled with approximations of real-world sounds. Certain weapons, such as the devastating seismic charge, can temporarily disrupt auditory simulators, causing them to “blank out” for a handful of seconds before simulating the explosive shockwave of the charge. A common prank among pilots involves replacing all the sounds in a wingmate’s auditory simulator databank with humorous nonsense. This is completely harmless and easily reversed, as auditory simulator databanks can update on the fly by downloading data from other nearby ships.