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 . . . .
“For over a thousand generations the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. Before the dark times. Before the Empire.”
For so many people around the world, Star Wars is more than a series of movies. It’s a legend, a myth, a family; something special and true that inspires us to dream and be the best that we can be.
And the longer a myth stretches on, the more it grows in the telling. Details change. Characters pop up out of nowhere or fade away. Whole chunks are lost or interpolated. Meanings are distorted through translation. But the essential truth remains.
The events you’re going to read about here happened long ago and far away, in a galaxy none of us will ever see. All we’ve done here is pass a version of them on to you—a version very different from the one you’ve seen on the screen, but maybe just as real.
There is a reason we decided to write our own take on the Star Wars prequels: neither one of us likes them. But we don’t hate George Lucas, nor are we attempting to write the prequel films out of canon. We love Star Wars. As strange as it may sound, that is why we’re doing this.
The recent debacle with toxic Star Wars fans just goes to show how important it is not to fight what we hate but to treasure what we love. And that love is the place we’re writing from—a love of creation, and adventure, and the endless cool ideas generated by that galaxy far, far away.
The only Star Wars “canon” that our story takes into account is the Original Trilogy and the first two films of the Sequel Trilogy. We remain hopeful that nothing in our story ends up clashing with the events of the upcoming Star Wars Episode IX.
You’ll see elements from other parts of the Galaxy Far, Far Away thrown in—bits and pieces of the Anthology films, The Clone Wars, the old Legends continuity, etc.—but we didn’t want to be restricted in the story we were going to tell, so in large part everything besides those five (hopefully six) Saga films has been jettisoned. We hope fans of those stories will understand, and bear with us on this adventure.
May the Force be with you,
GoodHunterAnais and Slippin_Jimmy
Chapter 2: Diplomacy
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—”
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 3: Blitz
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 4: Consequences
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 5: Grounded
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.
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.
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 —
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—
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 6: Underground
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.
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 7: Warlord
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—”
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 8: Marked
“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 9: Deal
“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?”
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—
* * *
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?”
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 10: Statecraft
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 11: Pursuit
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.”
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.
* * *
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.
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.
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.
He clamped his mechanical fist around the right handlebar of the swoop bike and willed the arm not to move.
He braced his knees against the bike’s steering column.
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.
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.
Anakin inhaled. Closed his eyes. Exhaled.
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.
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 12: Restricted
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 13: Labyrinth
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—”
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.
“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.”
* * *
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.”
“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.
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.
* * *
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.
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.
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.
This is a short one, so we'll be posting a new chapter on Saturday to make sure you have your money's worth!
Chapter 15: Flow
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.
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 16: Stalled
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.
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.
“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 17: Unmapped
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.
“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.
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.
“ 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.”
“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 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.
Another short one, so we threw it in over the weekend as a bonus. New one still arrives on Monday!