The re-entry procedure went underway smoothly, the telemetry adjusting in just the right increments to make for a safe and utterly boring planetfall for the light cruiser. Which for the planet in question was unusual, because nothing was ever as it should be where Nardaa was concerned.
Urio Fressige drummed his fingers nervously against the metal armrest of the captain's chair. Nardaa's governmental problems were well known, but with the aid of the New Republic, their struggle to install democracy and order had just now come to fruition. Fressige almost chuckled at the thought of calling a well-established government new, but compared in galactic terms--and especially to the Republic of old-- it was barely out of infancy, and still hurting from its past conflicts.
The captain glanced around, and saw the same tenseness he felt reflected in his crew. No wonder, he thought privately, considering who their charter was. Fressige wasn't Force-sensitive, but he still knew how to read his instincts...and the tingling fear that crept up the back of his neck could only mean one thing.
He turned his head to find the man in question in the doorway behind him, silhouetted by the light coming from the hallway beyond. As the man came forward, Fressige could feel the chill increase, and he wondered idly if the ship's temperature had actually dropped from the other's presence.
The passenger was passably handsome, although the years had been not been kind. As a result, the lines that would have framed a smile served instead to deepen his frown. Dark brown hair was cut short and precise, and his eyes....that was what sent chills through the battle- hardened captain. Eyes as dark as space, and just as cold. Fressige managed to smile back weakly before asking why his passenger was on deck.
"No reason, really," was the man's reply. He rubbed the growth of beard on his chin, and added, "Just making sure things go smoothly."
"And why wouldn't they? Don't you trust me?"
The smile only made Fressige's stomach clench tighter. "The only person I trust is myself, Captain. I would be a fool to do otherwise."
Not wanting to argue--and lose possibly more than his fee-- Fressige turned back to his view of the planet's surface, exhaling only when he heard the door close behind him.
"Status report, Asta."
"Everything's going well--we've passed the preliminary checks, and they're checking on our cargo and passenger lists now," the woman on the comm system replied.
The forging job had paid off, it seemed. Fressige smiled as she
gave the all-clear sign, and got their landing coordinates from the
controller. He nearly scoffed at the thought that, just a few seconds
earlier, he had been nervous about the background checks. All previous
apprehensions were washed away with his relief, and thoughts of the
mysterious charter dimmed into nothingness.
An hour of moping, whining, and arguing had already passed when Leia knew she had finally had enough. Standing from her seat, she directed her irritation and anger to the most vocal and obnoxious Inner Council member: Borsk Fey'lya.
"I appreciate your opinion, Senator Fey'lya--as I do all of yours, senators--but that's all I care to do about your feelings; appreciate them. Never did I once take into consideration how you would feel if I sent aid to Nardaa, because in truth, you have no authority over me in this situation. It is in my delegated power, and to my discretion, to send in troops as needed."
She replayed recent events in her mind; the Nardaan underground's plea for help against the Imperial presence on their world, the secret meetings with other Council members on whether aid was feasible or not, and their several off-record approvals of the plan. Where had all that support gone?
"Your need isn't exactly always what the public wants, Madame," Fey'lya replied, the tone of his voice even and level as the fur on his neck stood on end. "A responsible leader takes every precaution into consideration before starting what might have become a war."
"Do you think so little of me, Fey'lya, that you would honestly believe me capable of reckless action? Can anyone here name an instance where I've done something without thought?" None of the senators would meet her gaze. "I didn't think you could. I considered the matter for a great deal of time, and discussed it with several of the members present before going ahead. This was no police action, or 'discipline procedure' as the Empire would have done. This was a simple matter of taking down a corrupt and diseased political environment, bent on keeping the citizens from voting the officials out of office. I have only helped restore democracy and freedom."
"All under the flag of the Republic, of course." Fey'lya's expression was unreadable. "There are power checks against even you, Madame Organa-Solo, but you are correct in stating that, technically, you have done nothing wrong. Morally, possibly, but not technically."
Being lectured as to morals, by Borsk Fey'lya, was enough to stir her repressed anger. However, the members took his admission of no wrong-doing as a good sign of his state of mind, and the general mood of the gathering relaxed. Already, the tide of conversation had changed.
"Have you heard back from your appointed emissaries, Madame?" A voice rose up from her right--the young man from Nardaa. His nervousness showed as he tried to shuffle his diplomatic papers in order.
"No, I haven't....and they're not appointed, as yet." She attempted a diplomatic smile, while the others discussed and accused out loud. Snatches of rebuttals and questions filled the room until Leia raised her hand for silence. Her anger stirred again at his mentioning this in front of the group, but what was done, was done. No need for recriminations.
"I'll be asking Luke and Mara Skywalker to be the official presence of the New Republic, for Nardaa's entrance ceremony into the New Republic. Considering the military climate at present, I felt it would be more symbolic to have our first emissaries be Jedi Knights."
"Why a Jedi rather than a government official? Is there a danger to the newly-established government, Madame?" A younger female senator asked.
Leia only smiled. "There's always the threat of danger, Senator. The presence of Jedi will help to make sure it stays a threat."
Fey'lya opened his mouth as if to disagree, but the rest of the audience was satisfied, and Leia adjourned the impromptu meeting before he could respond. Soon only Leia and the young representative from Nardaa were in the room. Absentmindedly, he combed back light brown hair with his fingers, and asked, "Will they actually go?"
She turned to see the young man's face tightened in anxiety. "There will be Jedi at the inaugural ceremony, Councilor Portanse. I'll make sure of it."
Leia made an arrangement to meet with Luke for lunch at a restaurant he liked, and luckily for him and her both, she hadn't had to cancel any important lunch dates. Still, having a meeting with him for lunch, and her ability to keep that appointment were two different things.
It was almost twenty minutes past when Leia finally came, stress and anxiety radiating from her both visibly and in the Force. She was just now calming down, and smiled when their eyes connected. Seeing a familiar, friendly face was exactly what she needed.
"Rough day?" He asked as she began to sit down. She could only nod. "Worse than most. I've gotten used to the everyday disasters--it's the ones you don't expect that get you."
She frowned. "Sorry, I can't tell you."
"Okay, what can you tell me?"
"That I'm a woman in serious need of food. Have you ordered yet?"
Luke took Leia's dodge in stride. "No, not yet. I got the feeling this isn't entirely a social call..."
"It isn't. Do you want to eat first, then talk, or...?"
"We can talk about it while we eat," he said, then motioned to the server.
After a few minutes of discussing Jaina's new appreciation of boys and Han's bonding with Anakin, Leia abruptly changed the subject. "There's something I have to ask you," she told him in all seriousness, changing the mood from light to dark.
"What?" He asked cautiously.
"I hate to ask you this, but I've run into a dilemma. I assume you've heard about what's been happening with Nardaa?"
"I've heard some, mostly through Wedge. One of his friends is in charge of the military detachment sent there. What of it?"
"We have a political representative here from Nardaa, someone who used to be part of the revolt and to be frank, he's a political infant. If he's going to be in the Senate, he'll be eaten alive. I hope he's either going to be trained better once he gets back to Nardaa, or replaced. No doubt he'd prefer the latter.
"For some reason, he requested a Jedi to attend the inauguration as an emissary for the New Republic. After a bit of thought, it made a lot of sense to me, and I went along with the idea. It's a win-win situation for both the New Republic and the Jedi--we get a respected, yet neutral representative, and the Jedi gain a political foothold...not to mention getting a chance to show usefulness outside of fighting."
"I agree on that. But besides the PR value, do you really want a Jedi to be in such a delicate position? Fey'lya will never let you live it down."
"I know." She sighed, and Luke felt a wave of resignation roll off of her. "To be honest, the Nardaan representative specifically asked for you. He's scared of something, but my skills aren't precise enough to detect what it is."
"There's something he's not telling us, then."
"Sounds like it."
"I'll have to talk to Mara about it, first. I want to get her opinion about this," Luke said as he sat back from the table, trying to puzzle it out. When the food arrived, the conversation switched to lighter matters. After spending several minutes warming up to the topic of conversation once their meal was almost over, Leia dropped her other piece of information on an unsuspecting Luke.
"Han and I have been discussing it, and with all the pressures going on as of late...I've decided not to run for President when my term is over."
Stunned, he said nothing for a long time. It was her choice, of course, but the idea of not having her in a position of authority over him for the first time was unsettling. Breaking the silence, he asked, "I don't need to ask why--I know you have more than enough reasons to quit. But, what will you do if you're not a part of the government? Where will you live? And Han...what will he do?"
Leia actually laughed at his last remark. "Oh, Han's got something up his sleeve. Do you know what he's been doing all these years?" Luke shook his head. "He's been buying and selling stocks. Can you believe it? I couldn't, at first....he told me after I'd told him about my plans for the future. He said that he'd started quietly, then noticed that he was doing well on them...very well, in fact. He did it under an alias and kept it very hush-hush, so no one would find out." She took a long sip from her drink, then continued, "He owns about thirty percent of Incom, and almost ten percent of Corellian Engineering."
Luke whistled low. "I always wondered how he kept the Falcon running. What else?"
"Bits and pieces, really. Mining rights, royalties, and so on." Her demeanor changed into one of humility, "Luke, he's worth more than me."
"I'm not. He doesn't even know how much he has anymore...he told me the last estimate he tried was somewhere between seventy-five and one hundred billion credits."
Luke swore, then gave a short laugh. "I don't believe it," he replied, smiling. "And here I was thinking that he'd changed..."
"Han? Never. Well, he's changed a little, but not in the ways that matter."
Luke wisely decided not to go there. "Have you told the kids? About the decision, I mean?"
"Yes, and they've been very mature about it, even though they weren't crazy about the idea at first. Even Han was afraid of being away from the main action, but it isn't forever. There are still several things he and I want to do, before the kids get older. And also after the kids are all grown and gone. Speaking of which, have you--?"
"--thought about having kids? Yes. Has Mara? Yes. Will we...?" He trailed off in thought, then continued, "That's still up in the air. It's no secret that we're not as young as we once were." He sighed. "Would we be selfish in having children this late?"
"Selfish? How? People live an average of one hundred years, Luke...and Mara could still be having children into her fifties, if she wanted to."
Luke was silent, prompting Leia to ask, "She knows you want children, and she married you knowing this, and agreed with you...so is the problem deeper than that?"
"Deeper? You could say that. She won't talk to me about starting a family at all." He sighed, then said, "I don't think I should be burdening you with this, since there isn't anything you can do. Mara and I have to resolve this ourselves."
Leia nodded quietly, withdrawing back into the cushion of the chair. "I understand." The two finished their meals quietly, speaking only now and then to cover the silence.
A quick look at the chrono, and both knew that their time together was over. Leia insisted putting the lunch on her tab, saying that it would qualify as a business lunch--and seeing that she was going to be stubborn about it, Luke acquiesced. With swift good-byes, and a swirl of white robes against a sea of greys and blues, Leia was gone.
Melancholy rising again, Luke tried to beat it back with thoughts of his wife, but forgot that just that small effort would bring her presence to him in an instance.
/Hmm? Oh, sorry. I didn't mean--/
/Don't bother. If your thoughts hadn't given it away, the tone would have./ A flicker of annoyance came through clearly, and Luke nearly sighed. /Now isn't the time to mull over this, Luke. After we get back from Nardaa, we'll discuss it./
/During the honeymoon, it was 'after' the honeymoon; when we moved in on Coruscant, it became 'after we get settled'.../
/I know, I know. But I can't deal with this right now, okay?/
/We need to talk about it. You know how I feel./
At this remark, he felt a strong wave of self-reproach come from her. /Yes, I do./
He felt his defiance wither away, and after agreeing that they definitely would discuss it after Nardaa, he settled his mind on things other than children, and the future. And something he knew he had to discuss with Mara, now. /Leia has asked for my help with the entry of Nardaa into the New Republic--specifically as goodwill ambassadors. She thinks it would be a good move for the Jedi, and I agree./
/Jedi ambassadors...now there's an idea,/ Mara commented dryly. /But I think you're right...and I certainly could use the distraction./
/Who it is this time, Jaina or Jacen?/
/Anakin, actually. He's developed a crush on one of your new students, and he keeps calling me for advice. He won't ask Leia, because he wants to be more grown-up about it./
/Anakin?/ Luke said, amazed. /But he's only nine!/
/What can I say, he's an early-bloomer. And it looks like he's into older women, too; she's twelve./
Luke sighed heavily. /Leia's still trying to get used to Jaina. I don't know how she'll handle this./
He could feel amusement trickle from his wife. /If she's smart, she won't laugh. That's the mistake I made. But, getting back to what you were saying.../
/Right./ Luke shifted both his position and his thoughts at the renewed train of thought. /We think there's something odd going on with the Nardaans. Leia told me that their representative specifically asked for me to come along, and was scared--though from what, Leia has no idea. I think that once I speak to him in person, I'll know what's going on. With luck, I'll have something to tell you./
He smiled. /I will./
There hadn't been any trouble landing at the spaceport, the former passenger had found with a slight sigh of relief. Fressige was one of the best smugglers in the galaxy, and flying in someone on NRI's undesirables list--even if they didn't actually know who he was, or what he looked like--was something only the proudest and most arrogant would try. A smart smuggler wouldn't have risked it, knowing that if he were caught granting passage to someone like him, with full knowledge of his actions, he would more than likely share his fate.
The dark-haired man blended into the crowd effortlessly, used to becoming invisible when needed. His contact was supposed to meet him at a bar near the port, then afterward he would be led to headquarters. Sizing up the military troops as he went, he noticed that they wore the emblem of the New Republic, not the logo adopted by the new government on Nardaa. He noticed with some satisfaction that the Republic's troops outnumbered Nardaa's police force by nearly ten to one. Whenever the troops withdrew, as they were sure to do, the matter of the Empire regaining Nardaa as its own wouldn't be how, but when.
He spotted the bar from across the street, and following the crowd, he made his way over and to the entrance of the tavern. A non- descript building, with non-descript patrons. Just the kind of place he liked to make a rendezvous.
The darkness of the place suited him well, and he walked easily past drunken citizens to find his contact at a booth in the back. The slim man didn't even look his way until he was only three meters from the booth, and then only to make sure no one was behind him.
"You must be Faron." The slim man nodded, still tense. "Relax. No one followed me."
"How would you know?" Faron swallowed more of his drink, grey eyes taking in the room around them with professional ease. He pushed dirty blonde hair from his eyes, and gave him a grim smile. "You never even looked behind you. I had you tailed, if you're curious. But don't worry- -my guy was the only one who cared to follow you here."
"Oh, him? The dark, squinty-eyed man wearing blue flight overalls?" Faron stared back at him in astonishment.
"I saw him when I got off the ship," the dark man continued, waving his hand as if to discard it altogether. "I was actually referring to the NRI...but that's neither here nor there. There's no way that the NRI would know about my arrival here, so the point's moot. Now, onto business..."
"Yeah. Well, first off, you know my name, but I don't know yours...?"
The dark man's eyes narrowed. "That's on a need-to-know basis, and you don't need to know."
"All right then. Just look into this scanner for a sec," Faron held up a small, retinal scan device, and the dark-haired man placed it briefly over his eyes--just long enough for the device to capture the image. He handed it back to his contact, and the man grinned in satisfaction at the results. "Yep, you're him all right...or someone who got their patterns changed by a pro. But the NRI doesn't have that level of quality--only a couple of lowlifes I know on Coruscant and Corellia could do work this good." He pocketed the scanning device, and pulled out a datapad from inside his jacket. "Here's the info you'll need for tonight, and the background on your alias, Basulra Erulane--but everyone calls you 'Baz' for short."
He gave the dark-haired man a fake ID, along with money in several different forms and a passkey to a hideout, in case they were separated, or worse. The man receiving all this attention was sure he wouldn't need any of it, however. When he was called to a situation like this, he didn't come to fail; he came to succeed. And Derro Thel always succeeded where others had failed...the Emperor himself had made sure of that.
The headquarters were exactly what Thel expected. Short and drab grey, it was a storefront operation, most likely with a doorway in back. The section of the city it inhabited was industrial, the majority of the buildings being factories and the like. The store itself sold liquor and food items, and had a pawn business on the side. Faron motioned him to go in, and he followed without hesitation.
The light inside took some time to adjust to--brighter than outside, and tinted a pale, anemic blue. He passed by racks of wine that ranged from slightly pricey, to cheap. Corellian liquors had an aisle all to their own, and he noticed that many of the selections were local. A pre-mixed version of Kick, Geron's Revenge, and Namana Extract were all present--the last being a rip off of the Bakuran fruit nectar, with a distinctive Nardaan edge to it. Many others beckoned from dusty shelves, and as he walked farther, the brands became more exotic.
Ignoring the selection, for now, he focused ahead to the back wall, searching for the door he knew was there. Sure enough, as the aisleway ended, he saw a formidable door with the words "Employees Only" written in bold script. It took Faron only a second to unlock the door and head inside--was it that easy to get into the headquarters? He didn't think so, and his thoughts were confirmed as they found a simple storeroom, with no exit besides the one behind them.
His guide then bent over a seamless floor, and depressed a series of numbers into a keypad he held. After another minute, a thin seam appeared in the floor of the room, around a two meter by two meter square, and it flipped to reveal a slowly descending metal grid.
"Get on," Faron said as he hopped onto the grid, and Thel did the same. Soon, they were below the floor, and the section of floor pivoted down and landed perfectly in place. The thin seam of light around the section dimmed into black as the camouflage technique engaged.
"Nice," Thel replied, knowing how much it set someone back financially to install something that elaborate.
"Thanks. Wasn't ours, though. Former smuggler used to hide his operation here, until we found it. It's a good thing we had this place, or NRI would've captured all of the Imperial presence on Nardaa."
"I see." The lift continued to descend through the square tunnel, until Thel noticed the light below started to increase, and in a matter of seconds, they were descending into what looked like a cavern of sorts, with ships, crew and officers at attention. Soldiers had known about the visitors, and were lined up in customary formation.
A sight to stir the blood, Thel commented silently. What little thrill he felt from the attention paled in the reality of the situation. Where once this had been a part of his life, now his only greater cause was a personal crusade--it was something he couldn't forget.
The platform landed with the slightest jarring, and as he stepped off the lift, an unknown voice cried out, "Victory is ours!" More voices joined in the cry, and soon the cavern echoed with the chant. Thel allowed himself a slight smile, and put the cry to an end with only the raise of his hand. His voice echoed clearly from the walls, as he replied, "Victory will be ours! Victory!"
Cheers of victory went up, and Thel smiled contentedly. It had begun.
* * *
After a couple of hours of trying to get in touch with the Nardaan representative, Luke finally went over to the area of offices they'd recently taken over. When he walked in, he found out why he'd had no luck in reaching the representative by holovid--half the walls were exposed, and electronic parts were still in their boxes. Apparently, they were still in the move-in phase. He'd only been in the outer lobby for a handful of seconds when the man he was looking for came out from the inner offices.
The Nardaan representative was younger than Luke would have guessed him to be--probably not quite in his thirties, with light brown hair and eyes that he could only describe as neutral. He was average height and average weight, and was somewhere between attractive and plain, with sharp angles predominating over his face. The man looked up from the papers he was holding, and stared at Luke in astonishment. "You...you're Luke Skywalker?"
"Oh, sorry, I'm Jerad Portanse. I'm sort of new to the political arena, so you'll have to bear with me," he reached out a hand to the Jedi, and Luke accepted it. "Not having a tangible enemy to fight against is taking some getting used to."
Luke smiled, glad to find someone else who didn't quite fit into the typical political role. "It's all right, Councilor Portanse. I've only just gotten used to the idea that the Empire isn't going to suddenly arise and crush us all."
"I know what you mean. The Empire didn't hold power for as long as some regimes, but it sure left its mark on all of us. I assume you're here because of my request."
"Yes. According to Leia, you asked for me personally. Why?"
Portanse sighed deeply. After several strenuous seconds of inward debate, the man continued. "The Nardaan government is jumpy, sir, and for good reason. The Imperial troops may be gone, but there are always the loyalists that you can't root out. Who knows what might set them off? Maybe someone protesting the involvement of the Republic--"
"--Or maybe the fact that Jedi are coming to oversee the ceremonies?"
Portanse shook his head. "No, that couldn't be it. We don't want the populace at large to know you're coming, until you've already arrived. That way, they can't complain." He smirked slightly, "I have to admit, though, that the idea came from a more politically trained mind than mine. Your sister, to be precise."
Luke smiled mildly, thinking that Leia would never be able to keep her hands out of politics for good. "You haven't answered my first question, Councilor. Why *me*?"
Portanse opened his mouth, then shut it, taking the extra time to think his answer through. "Why did I ask for you? Well, when you want a Jedi to attend the birth of a new planetary government, you want the best."
If he had been talking to anyone but a Jedi, he might have pulled off the lie. Luke only shook his head sadly, "You're scared, Portanse. Leia could sense it, and I can sense it from you now, too. What has you so terrified that you need a Jedi to come with you?"
"It's not my idea--"
"Don't give me that. Why me? Why not Kyp Durron, or Kam Solusar, or any of the others--"
"You have experience!" Jerad said sharply, finally relenting. "Durron and Solusar have training, but little experience in using those abilities. You've been a Jedi for almost fifteen years, whereas they have had six years, at most. I've survived this long by not being optimistic. I have to plan for the worst-case scenario, even if it never happens."
"So that's what you think will happen, the worst-case scenario?"
"No, of course not. Planning never hurts, however. I'm expecting this whole pageantry to go along smoothly, with the only hitch being either that someone gets rowdy at the celebration, or a piece of jewelry gets lost at the ball. One never knows how things will turn out."
"Truly, one never does," Luke replied, seeing the events to come in an entirely new light. "I'll keep that in mind."
"I have a few things to finish up before I head back to Nardaa. The ceremony is going to be in a couple days, and I'll make sure you have the necessary information before you head out."
Luke nodded. "My wife and I will be going to the inauguration. That isn't a problem, is it?"
"Not at all. I was hoping she would be coming, too," Portanse smiled and held out his hand. "Please give my best to your wife, and tell her that I'm looking forward to meeting her."
"I will." Luke shook the offered hand, and turned to leave.
With his mind whirling from the stress of the conversation, Portanse sat down to compose himself and finish packing. It took him several minutes before he could take his mind off of plots and conspiracies, and focus on the immediate tasks at hand. The nagging sense of deceit continued to haunt him, even hours later as he boarded the Nardaan councilor ship.
Word had spread that the New Republic was sending some sort of emissary or ambassador of good will, hoping that any problems arising from Nardaa's forthcoming entry into the New Republic would be resolved by this person's visit. The person's identity, however, was a mystery to the Imperial faction--but one they meant to solve.
Derro Thel wasn't too surprised. This was standard procedure for the Republic; send in someone to appease the masses. 'We are your friends', the representatives would say by rote, the same words coming from different mouths. It never changed.
Knowing who the emissary was would be the key for setting up his or her downfall. No politician was without some tarnish--and therefore, subject to defamation. What better way to unsettle the Nardaan hopes, than to have them realize they'd gotten in bed with a snake?
He set about to contact the insiders he knew at the Palace, on Coruscant. Someone would know something....the Rebels had always been soft on security, even at the highest level. Talking to the contacts was the difficult part of the process. All communiquˇs were monitored, and any coming from Nardaa would be circumspect. Instead of getting in contact directly, he began a routed call through a smugglers' den on Corellia, then onto the Hapan homeworld, then next through some of the most unlikely places an Imperial would have access--Mon Calamari being only one example. At last he sent the call through the homeworld of the senator of Esseles, in the guise of a confidential government call. With no delay, the call was sent through to Esseles' senator, Asid Aroque.
At once, a pale figure appeared onscreen, his skin almost grey with illness and age, and white hair barely clung to his scalp. Well over one hundred and thirty-five, he had seen the fall of the Old Republic while considered an old man, and had watched as Senator Palpatine had been transformed into Emperor Palpatine. In those days, his allegiance had been long-sealed with the Emperor, and even though the Empire was a shadow of its former glory, Asid swore to live until the Empire regained what in his mind was rightfully theirs: Coruscant.
"Good morning, Thel--or should that be evening for you?" The elderly man chuckled to himself.
Thel smiled tolerably and replied, "It's early evening now, Senator. I didn't call to discuss the time of day, however; I need information."
"Don't we all?" Asid responded, still amused. "What do you need so desperately, that you called on me?"
"The name of the emissary to Nardaa, for one."
"Hmm. Well, never anything easy, if it's from you. I'm not a part of the Inner Circle, you know. Only those who attended that would be privy to that knowledge."
"I understand perfectly, Aroque. But you and I both know who's a part of the Inner Circle, and my contacting him directly is too risky at this time."
Asid nodded. He knew exactly what Thel wanted him to do. "What's in this for me, Thel? I need something to make this worthwhile."
"I can guarantee that a partnership between the Nardaan factories and the Damorian Manufacturing Corporation would be very profitable for both parties involved."
"I see. That sounds very...inticing. I will send along your request, and respond as soon as possible through the normal protocol." Asid gave a weak salute, and signed off.
Thel sat in the darkness of the room, until a sheet of light revealed him where he sat. "So, what are we to do now, Thel?" A low, scratchy voice asked. Thel turned to see the silhouette of the Imperial faction leader--an aging man of average height. Days normally spent watching over a cowed planet had given him more bulk than needed around the waist.
The leader frowned, his scarred face pulling in odd ways as he did so. "Waiting is not on our timetable, Thel."
"It is now. You lost the battle with the rebels, Pharris, because they had something you lacked: Patience." He stood up to stretch tightening back muscles. "I have learned over the years that patience will always gain more than rash action. The Emperor understood that, as well."
"Didn't help too much in the end, did it?"
Thel scowled at the man, his eyes cold and hateful. "You shouldn't speak of things you don't understand."
The scarred man's color rose, his eyes widening in shock and indignation. "You were barely into manhood when it happened, Thel. What would you know that I don't?"
Thel didn't respond, instead looking past Pharris, as if watching something in mid-air...then his gaze flicked back to the faction leader. "What I know about the Emperor isn't important--but my skills as a terrorist are invaluable, wouldn't you say?" He grinned coldly, catching the other off-guard. "If you keep that in mind, we might actually get somewhere."
Pharris ran a hand across his bristle-cut grey hair, a nervous habit that Thel had already identified as embarrassment. "You're the expert," he allowed, realizing for the first time that although he was the leader, asking Thel to come had meant abdicating his authority--for now. "I won't interfere."
"Good." With a quick glance at his chrono, he added, "The rally is going to start tomorrow night. Are we all set up?"
"Yes. The men have spent--"
"I'll need to check on the equipment myself," Thel interrupted. "Everything needs to go as planned, or I might as well cut my losses and leave."
"You can be assured that my troops are as thorough as they come, but if you need to check on their work, be my guest."
Thel shrugged his indifference at Pharris' sarcasm. Without
another word, he left the scarred man alone in the control room, to
contemplate the decision of putting such a dangerous man into a position
of authority...one that not even he might be able to check.
The trip to Nardaa was uneventful for the two people inside the Jade's Fire. After emerging from hyperspace to join up with the rest of the convoy, they focused their attention on the planet coming into view.
A typical blue and green world, it looked peaceful as it waited patiently for its visitors to arrive. A person couldn't see the scarring of the landscape from orbit, where they had done mining and experiments on soils for industrial purposes. The cities could be mistaken for grey tendrils, thin rows of civilization stretching out to join with others of its own kind. The monolithic proportions of Coruscant were starting to begin here, with the population centers on a multi-level basis. Mountains were still the dominating force on Nardaa, however, and the inhabitants were driven to see that as much of the remaining land left was as untouched as possible.
They were directed to follow the convoy down into the largest of the cities, Tcheve Maxima. Flying high over the city, Luke and Mara could see the grey turn into various browns, tans, ochres and deep reds, the structures and colors blending together to create the illusion of natural formations. Seeing the more familiar drab grey buildings of the Imperial Age dotting the horizon--a holdover from the Empire, obviously- -had both of the Jedi uneasy.
While the colors differed slightly, the styles were the opposite extreme--flying buttresses brushed up against geometric shapes, curves against straight angles...each style perfect within itself, and yet creating a different experience when beheld against its rivals. A full spectra of architecture from the ages ruled here, and the city's acceptance of the Imperial grey was more an example of its disinterest rather than of bowing to someone else's will.
The defiance echoed in the people of Nardaa themselves, as Luke and Mara found out after touching down in the plain-looking hangar bay. The general feeling exuding from the place was one of frugality mixed with anxiety; whether influenced by the Imperials, or just a stressful environment, they couldn't say for certain. As they were greeted by those appointed as escorts for the two Jedi, they could feel the slight resentment and belligerence underlying the calm exteriors.
The first man to approach was a robed man in his late sixties. Somewhere around Vader's former height, he stood straight and proud, with a powerful grace that belied his apparent age. Short, white hair blew freely in the strong lake breeze, as piercing blue eyes gazed amiably at the husband and wife, his demeanor calm and assuring. "So nice to meet you, at last. My name is Gamaliel Thordis. I'm the advisor of the Chuathra." Luke accepted the older man's offered hand gratefully.
A second man broke in by introducing himself as Sorn Kurros, their bodyguard, and greeted the Jedi with deep respect and honor. His hair was a thick, deep black, and the blue--almost violet--eyes that stared back at Luke made the contrast even more jarring. His jaw was squared off as if permanently clenched in some sort of offense, and the firm clasp he gave Luke spoke of hard physical training.
An unnoticed woman behind Sorn echoed his sentiments warmly, and she introduced herself as Terianith Poliat, their personal assistant for the duration of their stay. "I'll be handling all the travel arrangements, the scheduling, and personal appointments--basically, the boring political side of things," she smiled easily.
Clad in something more akin to leisure activity than business, her professional attitude suffered somewhat when compared to the others' sharp attire. Deep brown hair was pulled hastily behind her in a ponytail, and her clothing hinted at several years of use. Her youth was very obvious next to the older men--she couldn't have been more than twenty-five, if that. The bodyguard looked to be close to her age, but the way he regarded her indicated that he was the older of the two. She looked at the couple with calculating hazel eyes, her attractive features holding onto the last vestiges of a smile.
Seeing the doubt surface in their eyes, she amended, "I was called in at the last minute, so please don't equate my outfit with my skills-- and I would hope that my age wouldn't be a problem for you, especially considering the life you've led, Master Skywalker."
"Touchˇ," he smiled. Sometimes, having the galaxy know your past history wasn't the greatest experience. "Nice to meet you, Ms. Poliat," Luke shook her extended hand warmly. "Do you have any title that you want us to use?"
"The only title I go by is Teria, Master Skywalker. I can't speak for the others, though--they tend to be more driven by protocol. Droids are useless when either Gamaliel or Sorn are around, you see."
At this, the men grinned slightly, having been on the other end of her barbs more than once. One could only bristle at her sense of humor for so long, before accepting it. "We are all known as the Chuathra--or in plain Basic, 'soothers'," Sorn explained. "Our assignments are to individuals who are usually visitors, as assistants, advisors, or protection."
Both Luke and Mara noticed the hint of disdain in the man's voice, at the last. "Do you think you're not good enough, Sorn?" Mara asked, wondering if he was going to be a liability if he had an inferiority complex.
"Good enough to bodyguard Jedi Knights?" He gave a short laugh. "I'd have to be crazy to think that. To be honest, I have no idea why I'm here--fighting Imps is more satisfying than dodging shadows."
"You would think that, Sorn," Teria scolded lightly. "But you shouldn't bemoan your fate in front of your charges. It's very bad form."
"I wasn't--I was stating a fact. I do enjoy 'guarding," he glanced at Luke and Mara, "but not when I'm a third wheel."
"I understand your dilemma, Sorn," Luke told him, "but you shouldn't think of us as invincible. I personally would've been dead several times over if it hadn't been for certain people watching out for me."
Mara joined in, "We don't know the area, or the people--two things that matter a lot when trying to survive in hostile territory. We've been told, though, that the incident risk for our visit here is very low, so I imagine our conversation is moot, at best. However, things can and will go wrong in the best of circumstances, and in that event, we'll be relying on your local knowledge to help us--and anyone else--out of that mess." Sorn nodded silently, agreeing with their point.
As they began to head towards the waiting transport, Teria grabbed Mara by the arm and whispered, "Thanks for giving him an excuse--I've been trying to convince him to come along ever since we found out who you were, and the only way he would come was to meet you both in person."
"I've found that men sometimes need rationalizations," Mara remarked to Teria, though her aim was more at her husband. He responded with, /You forget, Mara, that I wasn't the only one with excuses./
/But for you, it took spending a couple weeks together on a hostile planet to change that./
/And that doesn't apply to you?/
/I had no excuses, Luke...only realizations./ She reached for Luke's hand with her free arm, and he took it gently, sensing the truth to her words. However you wanted to phrase it, he was infinitely grateful they were together here, now. And as soon as these talks were over with, he mused in deep reflection, they could start discussing their future, as well.
"Did you see who the rebels sent, Lieutenant?" Pharris asked as calmly as his voice would allow. Various rumors had sprung up as to who the New Republic would send to represent themselves on Nardaa, for the ceremony taking place in a couple of days. Some said it was Organa-Solo herself; some believed that a low-ranking politician had been given the task of dealing with the new government. Thel had even surmised that a Jedi would be most likely, though Pharris couldn't understand why the government would send someone untrained in politics into such a hazardous area.
The intelligence officer tried to answer as diplomatically as possible, "At the distance in which we were viewing the area, sir, it's hard to--"
"Give me facts, not supposition. Now, who did you see--or thought you saw?"
The officer replied with little hesitance this time. "The ship has yet to be identified, sir, but I have little doubt as to the identities of the people involved--a dark blond man of average height, and a red- haired woman of average height, both matching descriptions of the Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, and his wife, Mara Jade. According to our database, she's a former smuggler-turned-trader-turned-Jedi."
Pharris sat back, stunned. So, it was a Jedi, as Thel had predicted. And not just any Jedi, but their leader, of sorts...the one that had begun their resurgence in the galaxy. The one that had been a thorn in the side of the Empire longer than many beings had been alive. Mara Jade's involvement here just made things that much worse, if she truly was a Jedi.
The spy continued, "If this is so, then I believe we will find that the ship docked in the landing bay is theirs--Intel is already running the make and model through our database, so we should have something soon."
Pharris only nodded. Skywalker...he still couldn't believe it. After all this time, the most feared man of the Empire had come to him. Logically, Pharris knew that they should stall their plans until the Jedi had left, and the bulk of the New Republic troops headed back home. However, the opportunity to kill a Jedi so hated could not be passed up. After dismissing the spy, he sent for Thel to come to his office. He had an idea in mind that he was sure Thel would enjoy.
The Palace, as it was known to the Nardaans, was more of a sprawling governmental-turned-residential building than anything else. An eclectic mix of styles from over the years, it was almost a sight too overwhelming to behold.
Spires and towers billowed upward from stocky megaliths and domes, with carvings giving way to modernized etches and facades, and curved beams overlaying and replacing angled ones. Mostly uniform in color, the light tan building was near white in the full zenith of the sun. A surrounding garden was protected by thick alabaster walls, and topped with what, to the layman, were only decorative elements. In reality, they housed the latest security systems.
Somewhere along the way, an architect had convinced the ruler of the time to create ledges for ships to dock on for the main tower, similar to the ones seen on Coruscant. One ledge in particular was the focus of the transport's flight, and after a smooth landing, the entourage was allowed to soak up the view from the ledge. To the west were the shadows of mountains, and to the east, a breath-taking scene of the lake. Luke could barely make out pontoons of some sort, bobbing slightly out on the water.
Not bothering to ask what those were--for now--Luke turned his focus onto the city itself, and began to appreciate the planning of the city even more. Roads followed along a modified grid pattern, rather than the traditional method of spoking outward from the center of the city itself. Tcheve Maxima was the capital, but from what he could see, it looked like the city had begun as an offshoot from another city. Intrigued, he turned to ask Teria about it.
"Very observant, Master Skywalker--you're right, this city did grow outward from another one. Not much is known," Teria shrugged. "Some say the original capital was destroyed, leaving a crater that later became the lake. Others say that it was taken from us, as some sort of punishment."
"What do you think?" Mara asked.
"Me? I don't know, honestly. Would it make any difference if it was either one?"
"What about the pontoons, then? Are they dredging for the remains of a lost city?" Luke inquired.
Teria smiled tolerantly, "What the boats do out there is the business of the boat captains, I'm afraid. Now if you'll just follow me, I'll give you the grand tour."
Giving in to the persistence of their impromptu guide, Mara and Luke followed Teria, Sorn Kurros, and Gamaliel Thordis into the palace itself.
Derro Thel was not pleased with the treatment he'd been receiving from Pharris, of late. First, the Imperial leader has summoned him to his office like he was a common lackey, then sent him on an assignment as if Thel was one of his own Intel officers. If the assignment hadn't matched what he had already started to prep for, the commander might have had what Thel liked to refer to as "a bad experience". As such, he only rebuked the man for assuming too much about his own tolerance for taking orders.
The fact that Skywalker and Jade, or Jade-Skywalker--or whatever the hell she was calling herself--were the reps had not come as a surprise. Asid Aroque had come through, as always, and had given him their names before they'd barely left Coruscant's system. He hadn't chosen to share the information, mainly because having Pharris know would be more of a liability than an asset.
He looked across the main plaza of Tcheve Maxima, to where the explosives had been hidden. From his vantage point, high above the plaza itself, he could see all the action going on, both civilian and military. The gathering was already beginning to form; the scheduled rally wasn't supposed to start for two more hours, but hundreds of people swarmed the flat expanse of pavement, trinkets being bought and sold in large amounts. The masses were nothing more than brainless nerfs to be cajoled, duped, and led to the slaughter.
His presence here wasn't necessary, but he felt the need to be nearby, as if chance might take all the work he'd done and turn it for naught. With the Jedi only down the street from the gathering, "safely" tucked away in the Palace, one never knew what might happen.
He turned to leave, brushing past others who had gathered at the balcony's edge, claiming their own spot for the action. They would live to see tomorrow, he reflected coldly, while he couldn't give the same assurances to the Nardaans milling around down below. No one even took heed of the clean-shaven man as he left, his eyes glinting coldly in the fading light from the sun.
Mara frowned distastefully at the gowns in the closet, as Teria looked on, trying to be helpful.
"This black one would be nice--"
"No. It's too short." Mara pushed the rack of clothing apart to reveal a deep emerald dress, admiring the cut. "The sleeves are nice, but the split up the side is a little much for a party like this one."
"Ah, so you're going for the 'frugal, yet appealing' look?" Teria grinned.
"Something like that," Mara responded distractedly, still combing through the selection. She'd only brought the one outfit for the ceremony, not expecting the Nardaans to throw a diplomatic party the night before the true event. She was already inwardly berating herself for slipping on something that, in her prime, would have been second- nature. Teria's attempts at assisting weren't helping her mood any, either.
"What about the burgundy one? It's conservative, but also eye- catching."
Mara picked it out of the group to see it in full. "Maybe. The matching jacket is nice." She put it aside with two others she had selected--a midnight blue satin sleeveless gown and a cream, almost beige, long-sleeved one.
Teria wandered away from where Mara stood, heading towards the window facing out in the general direction of the people-filled plaza. The lights illuminated the crowd as best as they could, the sun having gone down about an hour ago. "Do you need me to check on your husband?"
"Not really. He's fine, except for his chafing at wearing an uniform tonight." She had quick thoughts of bashing in his thick skull, then discarded it. She could feel his slight irritation at her remark, then focused back on the conversation. "He wanted to wear his Jedi attire, but I said no."
"I'm not sure I see the reason. Wouldn't a Jedi wear the clothing that suits him?"
Mara sighed, remembering the similar chat she'd just had with Luke. "The outfit Luke wears isn't exactly the kind of thing you wear to a function like this. People fear what they don't recognize, or comprehend--and that includes a Jedi. If Luke showed up in his black robe, the image he would send would be disastrous. Once I pointed that out to him, he saw the error of his ways."
"Now I see. Black implies power, and to dress that way--"
"--Would imply that the New Republic had sent us as overlords, not ambassadors. You'd be surprised at how many people have lost allies and contracts, just from the careless way they dress themselves." Mara could almost hear Luke's snicker in the back of her mind. /And a military uniform is different in what respect, might I ask?/
/Nardaans respect military experience, Luke. We also need to show our credentials, so to speak. The Jedi need to be shown not just as mystics, but regular, tangible people. People like the ones we'll be meeting tonight./
Luke identified her train of thought. /You mean, the people we'll be talking to tonight are military?/
/It's a strong possibility. We'll be flaunting our strength; they'll be flaunting theirs. We have to keep in mind that these people aren't phobic towards Jedi, but after having the Empire here for so long, who knows what stories they've been told?/
Luke silently agreed with her, and then his attention was diverted by another presence in the room, and Mara turned to see Teria watching her with a mix of curiosity and concern.
"What was--I mean, are you...?"
"I'm fine, Teria. I just had a little conversation with my husband, that's all." The other woman's jaw set itself defiantly at Mara's slightly exasperated tone.
"I'm sorry, Ms. Skywalker, but I'm only trying to understand...all of this. I can understand the cold, hard principles of science, but what you and Master Skywalker do--" She cut herself off, then said, "It isn't rational."
Mara stifled a laugh. Rational? About a year ago, she would have told herself that being married to Luke Skywalker and living the life of a Jedi Knight was hardly rational. "Jedi don't do rational things, Teria. I think it's a dictate passed down for many years, Master to student."
Teria initially smiled, then frowned as she started to puzzle something out. "How could one base a life on that? On the irrationality of it all?"
Mara sighed, more from frustration than before. "You'd have to feel the Force, to understand the way it molds your life as easily as Jedi mold it to theirs."
The younger woman shook her head. "I don't know if I truly believe it exists. I've heard the stories, seen the vids--but I happen to believe only what I can see with my own eyes."
That opinion fit Teria's personality pretty well, from what Mara had seen. Would the woman truly believe, though, if she saw with her own eyes? There were some former employers she remembered from many years past, who would refuse to see the facts staring them straight in the face. She would predict an attack, know things she shouldn't know, and they would try to rationalize it away in the strict rules of science. Would Teria be the same way?
If things went according to plan, she would never see Mara and Luke's abilities in action. If not...well, that was something that hadn't happened yet. Dwelling and worrying about possibilities never helped in situations such as these. Mara turned her attention back to the dresses, and asked Teria's opinion as a way to change the subject.
His attention broken by Sorn Kurros' entrance, Luke focused back onto his surroundings. A small room set aside for a variety of purposes, it seemed more like a closet than anything else...what with the clothing hanging uncovered on portable racks, boxes of various things stacked up in one corner, and the table that held books and maps of the surrounding area. Sorn glanced around the room as almost a reflex, looking for any telltale signs of sabotage. Luke could tell that something weighed heavily on the man's mind, and prompted him to speak.
Kurros grimaced, then said, "I'm not satisfied with the security measures they've taken. It looks as though winning the war has caused them to relax their guard. I don't like it," the younger man flexed the fingers of his right hand, as if expecting an ambush, or an attack.
Luke couldn't deny the tense feeling he'd gotten through the Force when he had first arrived. The edge of danger was present, but not strong enough to warrant paranoia; at least, not yet. "I agree, Sorn, but we shouldn't jump to any conclusions. The main thing to worry about is making sure we all get there on time." Luke finished buttoning the cuff of his sleeve, then turned to critique his appearance in the mirror. The Navy whites he owned had been pressed impeccably, the rank insignia his original ones--he almost didn't find it in all the boxes they still had packed up on Coruscant. Any and all other medals and ribbons he'd gotten he had left behind, thinking he wouldn't need them. Thordis had stressed having duplicates made as soon as possible, but he'd given him a firm 'no' on that idea. Duplicates of New Republic medals were heavily frowned upon, and he wouldn't violate the unspoken code just for the sake of diplomacy and one-upmanship.
The lines that had taken residence around his eyes and mouth were prominent in the bad lighting, and his reaction only caused him to make the lines furrow even deeper. He tried to brush his unruly hair back with his fingers, but only caused it to look worse. /Well, it's not the first time I've looked like I've been out in the desert too long,/ he grimaced into the mirror, sure that he would hear enough from Mara and the rest of the Chuathra anyway, without adding to the comments.
"C'mon, then," Sorn urged, already heading to the door. "Trust me- -Teria won't let you meet anyone until you pass through her inspection. Let her do her job, and you do yours. We'll all be much happier and saner that way."
Luke nodded, then followed the bodyguard out of the anteroom.
After taming Luke's hair into some semblance of logical order, Teria had pronounced them as fit to be seen by royalty, and ushered the couple out towards the large ballroom. Whispering advice as she went, she was followed by Thordis, who was to be at the fore while she and Sorn hung back and watched from a distance. "I'm glad you choose the burgundy, Mara....it suits you well."
"Mmm," Mara nodded perfunctorily, already scanning the people in the hallway for threats. "The guest list you gave me--was that complete? I'm seeing people that look like they don't belong."
"What?" Teria stared, not seeing what Mara had seen. "Who did you see?"
"That man, there," Mara pointed to a heavyset man in the distance, wearing over-extravagant robes. "What do you know about him?"
Teria squinted, then replied, "I've seen him only once, before. He's an attachˇ to Alniah Hurm, the man who runs the local manufacturing conglomerate. There were rumors that Hurm was linked to the Imperials, but no one has ever been able to prove it."
"I see." Mara puzzled over this. As she'd looked at the heavyset man, all her alarms and danger signals had gone off. Luke had felt it too, so she knew she wasn't being overly paranoid. She tried to catch his attention, but realized that he, too, was attempting to gather his own information.
"You seem to command a lot of respect from your associates. How long have you worked as a member of the Chuathra, Mr. Thordis?" Luke asked, conscious of the fact that the question was more than a little obtuse for his purposes.
"Long enough to know what you're getting at, Mr. Skywalker," Thordis replied back with a faint smile. "I've been wheedled by the best. Now, I know you're a former military man, so you'd probably prefer to speak plainly. Being a former military officer myself, I can understand that."
"May I speak plainly, then?"
"By all means. However, I reserve the right to say whatever I choose, plain or not."
Luke shrugged. He didn't have much room to argue. "Okay. What do you know about the ceremony tonight?"
Thordis gave him a curious look, but answered, "The ceremony is thought to be for show, but the officials here will be making deals under the counter, so to speak, and leveraging for their own niche in the New Republic's corporate sector."
That much Luke had expected. The officials and corporate leaders might also try to buy favors from him and his wife, to guard shipments, or endorse the company. The money offered would be tempting, but not enough for Luke to compromise the standard for the Jedi that he'd been trying to establish for so long. "What about Imperial action?"
The elderly advisor frowned. "I haven't heard much, to be honest. And that worries me.
"The normal grapevines we relied upon collapsed when we routed the Imperials from office, leaving a void where we'd typically have access. No other channels of information have opened up, so some took that to mean that the Imperial presence on the planet had been thoroughly eradicated." Thordis snorted his disapproval on that theory, then said, "The Imperials are just licking their wounds. They'll show themselves soon enough."
"At the ceremony, you think? It would make sense, creating trouble in a large crowd of people."
Gamaliel shook his head. "It's not their style. I could imagine a terrorist group trying those tactics, but the Imperials here are arrogant. They'd directly attack the Palace, rather than the populace."
"So, you're expecting an attack on the Palace?"
"I didn't say that. If they did decide to attack, it would be the Palace, or another symbol of power. But attacking tonight would be hazardous and foolhardy, since our defenses are at their strongest. When you, your wife, and the Republic troops leave later on, then they'll feel more emboldened to attempt an attack. Ah, we've arrived," Thordis interrupted himself. He turned to give Luke some last minute advice. "Make sure you greet everyone who's wearing a blue ribbon--they're members of the Resistance. Don't address anyone wearing military insignia until they address you, or I introduce you to them." Luke nodded in comprehension, then they were at the threshold, looking down a wide staircase into the ballroom itself.
As big as any room he could remember on Coruscant, it stretched out to either side, allowing a breathtaking view of the last of the sunset through a transparisteel wall. A double rail ran along the wall's width at about waist height, and Luke noticed several people leaning on it for support, either to watch the view, or keep from falling down. Obviously, the tap had been flowing for quite some time.
All the previous guests had waited for their names to be read, and Luke noticed that they had been held back to be next to last, with the President Interim behind their group. In this society, Luke guessed, the later you are, the more important you must be.
Luke's attention was drawn back to the room in front of him, when he heard his and his wife's names read aloud. The crowd's roar of conversation drop to a hush, and stunned expressions turned to gaze on the most famous of the New Republic's heroes. Even though he consciously tried to block out the crowd's reaction, he nevertheless could feel the astonishment and confusion they were feeling. Why was he here? Was he the New Republic ambassador? And did they say that woman was his wife?
Once again, Luke was glad that Mara's former identity as the Emperor's Hand was kept a secret. Only the most savvy of traders in the group knew who Mara was, and only as Karrde's previous second-in-command of the Smugglers' Coalition, at that. Here, Luke felt, Mara could begin anew, with a whole new identity and reputation. To this group, she was a Jedi Knight. Not an enemy of the New Republic; not a former assassin. Also, he had hoped that the news of his marriage seven months prior hadn't been spread to the edges of the galaxy--and from the looks on their faces, it hadn't. He still wasn't sure if announcing it here was a good idea, but the rumors would have been spreading, anyway. Might as well get it over with.
He felt the unease coming from his wife, and tightened his grip on her hand. /What is it? /
/Look in the center of the crowd, where the tables and chairs are./
His eyes searched the area, trying to find what Mara had seen. /What am I looking for?/
/There's a heavy-set, balding man wearing purple robes...I spotted him while we were in line. I can sense something odd, out of place./
Luke stretched out with the Force and found the man, a sense of danger hanging in the air around him. The man, whoever he was, meant to hurt someone in this room.
Luke felt a tug on his arm, and without thinking he followed his wife's lead down the staircase, her attention never drifting from the perceived threat. He managed to keep the man in view until his line of sight dipped below that of the crowd in the room, who then parted slightly at their arrival at the bottom of the stairs. Thordis followed closely, unannounced, while Kurros came up from behind the group, scanning the room for any threats he could see.
/We need to tell Sorn,/ Luke stated. /He should know about this./
/Agreed. I'll motion him over--if anyone asks, I'm just reviewing the floor plan with him./
/Right./ He approached the nearest blue-ribbon-wearing person, a grizzled man in his early forties, and greeted him warmly, causing all eyes to be drawn to him, instead of Mara. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Mara take Sorn by the arm and pretend to be confused. He clearly felt when Sorn had gotten the news--to the man's credit, however, it didn't show on his face.
Shortly afterward, he sensed Mara's presence coming towards him. /He didn't take it too well./
/He's not the type who likes to find out that his clients are doing his job for him. He's got his eye on him now, at least./
/Thordis will make four, if we tell him./
/I think Sorn is doing that now,/ she replied as she took his arm, and he saw the two men talking quietly, off to one side.
He shook hands with another ribboned Resistance member, and found that the crowd's attention was being drawn back to the top of the staircase. Of course, President Interim Verena hadn't entered immediately behind them, so as to make his own grand entrance. Luke and Mara turned to see the President, waiting at the threshold.
Danger screamed even louder through Mara's skull, and she knew instantly that Luke was sensing the same. Was the President the target? She tried to see over the crowd, but to no avail. In substitute for eyes, she used the Force to focus on the man's presence, a seldom-used ability for her. Why bother using the Force for that, when eyes work just as well?
The man started to move, and she sensed Luke's reaction to that, as well as Sorn's and Thordis'. The two men were moving in a pincer-like intercept movement, while security guards within and around the perimeter began to move as well, towards the President. Luke dashed towards the stairs, in a desperate attempt to stop what the man was planning.
The next few seconds were a blink of action, so fast that the people surrounding the corpulent man had no time to react. The flash of a barrel, and words were screamed--Mara caught only "live" and "Empire" before the compact blaster went off. Sparks flew as the bolt ricocheted off Luke's lightsaber blade; he had thrown it into the path of the bolt when he realized he couldn't make it in time. The laser bolt died a fiery death in the plasteel of the ballroom's ceiling, and the man, just now understanding what had happened, made a run for it.
The blaster ripped out of his hands by some unseen force, and seconds later he was tackled to the ground by a very perturbed Sorn Kurros. Seemingly unfazed, the man shouted, "For the glory of the Empire!", shoved something into his mouth faster than Sorn had time to react, and in moments was racked with spasms and convulsions.
"Someone get a doctor, or a med unit!", Sorn shouted to everyone nearby, but aside from Thordis' arrival behind him, no one moved in the slightest. Especially not the man he had pinned to the ground. Checking the man's pulse, he found to his dismay that he had none.
Mara came up then, holding on to the would-be assassin's blaster with experienced ease. She was tempted to say something about keeping a prisoner's hands away from his pockets, but thought that Sorn would have enough rebuke heading his way, without her adding to it. Silently, she handed the blaster over to Thordis and noticed how quiet the room had become. Eyes narrowing, she scanned the expressions of the nearest people and found their gaze resting partially on the dead body, but also on her. She had been the one who used the Force to grab the assassin's gun, not Luke. She smiled in amusement at those who assumed that, when the dust cleared, Luke Skywalker would be found holding the blaster.
The medical staff pushed through the crowd, and after a series of attempts at resuscitation, pronounced the man dead. In a gush, the silence was broken and people began to babble.
The security guards had already ushered out the President Interim, and were trying to do the same to Luke when he caught a glimpse of a person he recognized. Shaking away the insistent attempts, he plowed through the crowd and toward Jerad Portanse.
"Portanse!" Luke cried out, and he saw the man's gaze pivot to meet his in recognition. Dressed in full military splendor, he didn't fail to notice the blue ribbon Jerad wore. Reaching the man at last, he asked as quietly as he could, "Would you come with me, please?"
Portanse gave him a questioning look, but the expression on Luke's face brooked no argument, and he followed.
Finding a spot away from the crowd was no easy task, but a niche underneath the staircase served Luke as well as possible. "What's going on, Portanse? You knew something bad would happen, and it nearly did. What--"
The next question died in Luke's throat when he felt the danger twofold, from both his and Mara's sense. He started forward, as if to cry out an alarm, when the sound wave from the explosion outside hit the wall of the room, shaking the transparisteel violently and causing dinnerware to clatter noisily. The Plaza....
He felt the deaths clearly, more than he'd ever want to. Men, women, children...all died in that terrible instant. Making his way over to the window, he saw the smoke billowing upwards, oily and thick from the fire the explosion had caused. Mara came up next to him and stared, not sure of what she was feeling and seeing. She could only ask, "Why?"
"I guess the Imperials aren't as cowardly as Gamaliel thought." Luke and Mara turned to face Jerad. Grim-faced, the councilor continued, looking as if he were trying to shake away dark thoughts. "I didn't think it was true...I didn't want it to be true. But now...
He sighed, deeply and sadly. "Before the takeover, I heard from one of my sources that a former Imperial saboteur had been contacted by the Nardaan Imperial faction, to help root out the Resistance. However, we managed to overthrow Imperial power before he arrived. When we took over, I assumed the contract had been nullified."
"You knew about this and didn't tell us?" Mara seethed.
"You don't understand...this saboteur is considered to be more of a terrorist for hire. He prefers to work for the Empire when he can, and when he can't, he hires his abilities to the highest bidder. If the faction here fell, and with it all their resources, there's no reason for him to show up now."
Mara grimaced in disgust. "Who is this terrorist?"
"That I don't know." Jerad frowned. "My source didn't, either. His name is held in strict confidence. I don't know if the NRI even knows he exists."
"I know I didn't have a clue, until this moment," Luke replied. He watched distantly as the fire crew came to put out the fire, while the rest of the crowd looked out the window in stony silence. Some wept quietly, and others appeared to be angry enough to kill; everyone was understandably in a state of shock. Why murder innocent civilians? The assassination attempt made sense in comparison to this baseless attack. Fear also wound its way through the crowd, leaving many to wonder if there was more than one bomb, and if so, where those other bombs might be.
"Where is this source of yours? Can we speak to him or her?"
Jerad winced, "I wish I knew. I lost contact with him shortly afterward. He either left the planet, died, or sunk into the lower area of the city."
"Lower area? Where's that?" Mara asked.
"The industrial section. There aren't many people living there, since we took over." He grinned wanly, in spite of himself. "We were its main populace. The others who reside there are mostly small-time smugglers, a minor crime boss, and several vagrants and transients. 'Undesirables', in Imperial terminology."
Luke nodded, then asked, "Can you take us there?"
"Down to the lower city? Why?"
"If the Empire still has some presence on this planet, it's probably there, don't you think? Where else could they hide?"
"Lots of places, actually," Portanse sighed. "You're right, though....it's the best place to start. There's no need for you to get involved, however. Our people know the streets the best; if anyone can find their hideout, it'll be them."
Mara snorted in amusement. "We've got the Force on our side, Portanse. Can your men say the same?"
"No, but Force-skills aren't needed for something like this. Good old espionage will do just fine." Portanse straightened his shoulders. "No offense, but we won't need your help."
"If you don't want it, we can't force it on you," Luke replied diplomatically, "but if it doesn't go well, don't forget about us."
"How could I?" Portanse answered back, dryly. "You don't forget a Jedi very easily, I can tell you that from experience."
Sorn came up behind Luke and Mara, his face strained in worry and apprehension. "I think it would be best if you both got away from the window. I hear shattered transparisteel doesn't go very well with formal wear."
"Really? That's a shame," Mara said wryly, before the small party moved away from the window. Luke noticed that as Jerad continued to talk about military affairs, he became more relaxed and at ease. He spoke with more authority, and both he and Mara left knowing that the situation would be well in hand.
As Jerad left to confer with the other military men present, Sorn took the two aside. "There's a private conference being held right now; one that doesn't include us. If you don't mind, I think it would be best if we headed back to the suite."
"We're here to do our job, Sorn, and that involves talking to people other than ourselves," Luke replied back, pulling away from the bodyguard. "I know you're just doing your job, but I can't let you interfere. Do you understand?"
"I understand, but I don't agree with you. I think you're taking a foolish risk. Then again, by your own past adventures, this is pretty much standard, isn't it?" Sorn retorted sarcastically.
Mara smiled conspiratorially. "Just about, Sorn...just about. Now, are we going to stand here, or are we going to do what we came here to do?"
"Thordis is coming this way; I guess we have no choice." Luke and Mara allowed Thordis to guide them back into the disrupted party, as things tried to get back to some semblance of normalcy.
Pharris was a dead man. That much Thel was sure of, as he watched the Jedi walk away from the window.
He let the macrobinoculars hang from around his neck, having seen what had just happened in the Palace. How could Pharris be so stupid? Sending someone to assassinate the President right before the explosion went off? If they did an ID on the body, which they surely would, it would point right back to the Imperials--and that was the last thing he wanted.
He could only hope that the assassin had been smart enough to know he'd be caught, and realize that pointing the finger at the Empire would be in their worst interest. Their resources were still too limited to try a full assault, and especially with the New Republic present. Right now, though, he needed to get back to base, to see what had happened. And to see if he could still salvage this mess.
He sighed disgustedly as he packed the macros away. His view had been perfect; both of the explosion and of the celebration going inside the Palace walls. Knowing for certain that the Skywalkers were involved made things more dangerous, even risky. However, they weren't paying him for risk-assessment.
Thel threw the satchel over his shoulder as he gazed back at the
specific rectangle of light coming from one of the Palace towers, and
knew the game was far from over.
The next morning proved that drinking the local liquor was not a good idea, as Mara found to her intense remorse. The lump next to her hadn't touched it, but would still feel her hangover almost as clearly as if it was his own. She smiled sardonically at that notion; the Jedi Master himself would end up having a "virgin" hangover.
He woke up shortly after her, and swore almost instantly. "I told you not to drink that stuff."
She winced at the noise, then whispered, "Just shut up and tell me how to get rid of the headache."
" 'Get rid?' "
"You know, make it go away."
"I thought we weren't going to use the Force frivolously."
She gave him a murderous stare. " 'Frivolous' is flicking on the lights via the Force, when you have two working arms and legs. This is *important.*"
He would have argued with her, if he hadn't felt the hammers in his skull, too.
Another few seconds, and the hammers were gone. "Thanks," Mara muttered, and got up to get dressed. She was in a mood today, Luke grimaced to himself. Hangover notwithstanding, the attack on the civilians was eating away at her.
"Do you know something about the attack, Mara?" He called out to the red-haired beastess in the lavatory, and got a shocked sense from her. He realized from her reaction that he'd picked up on something she hadn't consciously thought about.
"Where did you get that idea?"
"From the way you were acting, and the mood you're in. Although, I think I picked up on it subconsciously."
"I thought the bond didn't work that way."
"Well, it hasn't worked the way we'd planned so far, so I can't imagine the rules would suddenly change."
She nodded, deep in thought. The thoughts she'd get from Luke were more like suggestions than bold statements, whenever she wasn't focusing her attention on him. She often knew where Luke was, and what he was doing--unless she didn't consciously think of him. Or maybe she still received his thoughts, and it didn't register that way? More recently, she'd noticed that sometimes they would share a dream, and wake up knowing it. It was scary, not fully understanding the mechanics of it all. She wondered idly if this connection had been for the best.
She wasn't surprised when she turned to find him leaning on the lavatory's doorframe. "So, about the attack," Luke began, ignoring her questioning thought.
"I don't know, honestly. There's something very familiar, something I remember from the past. This MO reeks of some old school Imperial involvement."
" 'Old school'? Like the one you 'attended'?"
"Something like that, yes." Her expression turned melancholy, and he took a hand of hers into his.
"Was this old school...Palpatine's?"
She grimaced, not truly knowing the answer, herself. "I don't think so. I was the only Emperor's Hand, to the best of my knowledge. Thrawn had hinted at there being more than one, but still--I don't know what to believe." She shook her head.
"What tipped you off, specifically?"
"The placement of the bomb," Mara answered, confident in that fact, at least. "It was designed to kill as many defenseless citizens as possible...a ruthless tactic for a desperate person. And the only desperate tactics allowed were from the upper levels of the Empire. If there was an uprising to destroy, they'd call on these so-called professional terrorists and have the problem eliminated."
"So, are you thinking that this terrorist is from the Empire, like Portanse said?"
She nodded thoughtfully, as he blew out a deep breath he hadn't known he'd been holding. "But, you don't have a name, do you?"
"Maybe if I saw the man, I could recognize him...but otherwise, no."
He had a sudden idea, that filled him with no small amount of dread. Mara felt it and her expression settled into grim lines. /I hope he doesn't intend on targeting us either, Luke./
/We can only hope,/ Luke agreed, staring down at their entwined fingers. He pushed his melancholy away with some difficulty, and gave her a quick kiss before leaving her to her morning routine.
When Pharris woke up in his private chambers that same morning, he found his own not-so-welcome surprise waiting for him....and in truth, would have preferred a hangover to this. Thel was leaning on the wall facing his bed, blaster drawn and ready.
"What do you think you're--?"
"Shut up, Pharris. You've screwed up one too many times, and I have a low tolerance for fools. I can't do my job if you're constantly in the way."
The Imperial faction leader pulled up his sheets in a vain defensive posture. "What are you going to do, then?"
"Don't you wish you knew that? How does it feel, not knowing what will happen next? Losing the control you hoard so preciously is a pain, isn't it?"
"Guards--" Pharris started, but Thel stopped him with an eerie laugh.
"They're not available right now, Pharris. It's just you and me. Oh, and don't bother looking for your blaster, it's right here," Thel padded the side of his holster, where Pharris' gun now rested. "The panic button was also disabled, so you can stop pressing it, too."
"Ah, ah. No name-calling. At least have some sort of decency before you die, won't you?"
Pharris snorted derisively. "What would you know about decency, Thel? You'd sell your mother to slavers, if it would benefit you somehow."
"I thought you'd just said I didn't have a mother," Thel replied, his tone anything but light.
The Imperial officer swallowed hard, thinking he might have blown any chance to reason with the man. Still, he had to try. "Look, I'll give you anything you want--"
Thel's short laugh stopped him mid-sentence. "What do you have that I could possibly want? Money?" He shook his head ruefully, as if he might actually feel sorry for the man. "Even power is worthless to me...unless as a means to an end. And your attempt at power is interfering with my plan, Pharris."
"And what plan is that?"
Thel actually grinned, more of a horrid sight than one of pleasure. "I'll do one better than that, Pharris; I'll give you a demonstration."
The sigh had barely escaped Pharris' lips when he caught the flash of red light and felt the burning of his own flesh. His last sight was that of Thel's grin fading into resolute grimness, and then a forever nothing.
"That's my plan, Pharris," he said to the corpse, wincing slightly at the smell of burnt flesh. "Chaos."
The clean-up of the plaza and identification of the victims went into the night and through into the morning. Jerad Portanse looked sorrowfully at the charred buildings and melted, blackened metals, and turned to face the small group of soldiers behind him. He'd hoped-- foolishly, in retrospect--that no more people would die, now that the rebellion was over. The grim faces of the men who watched him reflected his own expression.
"I brought you all here so that we won't lose our focus and purpose. Rooting out the last vestiges of the Empire was supposed to be an easy task, with the Republic's help, but as you can see," he waved an arm across the scene of carnage, "things have changed."
The men nodded in full understanding. Jerad didn't think he really needed to remind anyone of what had happened last night, but the reality of the scene was more potent in being there than watching it over the holonet.
The carnage stayed with Jerad as he and his group went through the old section of town, where they had once been the unwanteds. Infiltrating back into the underground was a near-impossible task, but the necessity of finding the Imperial presence outweighed the task of renewing connections. Now that they were the established government, many of their former suppliers had changed residence. Only a handful of the soldiers found their old "friends", and of that, only one would help them with information.
Jerad eased into the seat across from the Twi'lek male, sizing him up as he did so. The bar where the meeting had been arranged reeked of spilled lomin-ale, and he found that he needed to dust off battle concentration techniques just to keep from showing his distaste at the surroundings.
Lekku draped over one shoulder, the Twi'lek narrowed his red eyes in a gesture that reminded Jerad of a predator about to pounce on his prey, and the grin on his face was as fake as the Alderaanian jewelry he wore. The alien's sharpened nails clinked chillingly on his own beverage glass as he reached for it. "So, Portanse, you need information?"
"Yes, Ravel, I do."
"Does your rebellion allow you to pay the same rates for information as before?" He raised the glass and drained it of the purplish liquid it held.
"That, and then some. With the New Republic backing us, we came off better and stronger than the Empire would have wanted. I'm surprised that more people didn't take our offer."
"I'm not. And a word of advice--if you plan on continuing to ferret out information sources, do it more discreetly. I knew about your searching only a hour after you'd arrived. If I know, then the Imperial faction certainly will."
Jerad smiled grimly. "I hope so. I want them nervous."
"Wary is more like it."
The former rebellion leader sat back, and took in the surroundings. It didn't look like anyone was watching, but then again that was the whole point--if the Empire had a man here, he shouldn't be able to spot him. Thankfully, he knew he had more than his eyes scanning the crowd. "What do you know about the Empire's HQ?"
"Very little, right now. They've managed to keep a tight rein on anyone that knows, and have ways to persuade those who get too curious."
"But you can get around it."
"Of course!" Ravel replied, professional pride creeping into his voice. "There's always someone willing to tell, for the right price."
"Including yourself, I suppose?"
"Ah, Portanse, I've missed your rapier wit," Ravel sighed. "Payment in the usual way?"
"Of course," Jerad echoed back. He watched as the Twi'lek's features twisted into a smirk--not a pleasant sight, by any means. "Established governments aren't exactly creative, you know, Ravel."
"And it's a pity, too. You've been kicked upstairs, so I've heard, and you're already losing your edge."
"Isn't this where you say, 'if you'd had one to lose?' " Jerad rejoindered, and Ravel's eyeridges raised noticeably.
"Very good, Portanse. It seems some of my charm and wit has rubbed off on you after all."
"I know, and it took my cleaner three tries before the stain would come out."
Ravel froze, then started to laugh softly. "Oh, well done! Truly, one day you'll be able to attain that Twi'lek wit. Now, I've love to stay and chat--really--but if you want that information in any timely fashion, then I'd best be on my way. Oh, and to show my appreciation for that last remark, I won't let you pick up my tab." Ravel tossed his payment for the drink towards him. "As always, it's been fun."
"Truly, you are so kind."
"Aren't I? I'll contact your group in the usual way," Ravel added more seriously, and without another word, left Jerad at the table.
Not the most trustworthy of allies, he reflected, but Ravel wouldn't have any love for an Empire that had prosecuted his kind for few--if any--reasons. If the Twi'lek hadn't been willing to supply information, this rendezvous would never have happened. And his information was as reliable as they came, thankfully.
Jerad glanced at his compatriot shadowing the corner of the bar, and got no indication of Imperial involvement. The hand signal he received instead showed that no one was overly curious in their activities. He let out a breath that he hadn't realized he'd been holding, and pondered on the odd mix of relief and exhilaration. This was his true element--not backstabbing with words, and all the games that came with politics. That was a battlefield he didn't understand, and didn't want to know. He could be sneaky when he wanted to be, but to base his whole future on that...? He shook his head, trying to clear away depressing thoughts.
He finished his own drink, and paid for both he and Ravel before leaving, his gloomy future following him as assuredly as his fellow soldier.
Luke and Mara's second day on Nardaa was, for the most part, uneventful. Tours of the main sites of Tcheve Maxima were given only from the hovercar they rode in, and Sorn insisted that they stay inside the car at all times. Only Teria's colorful descriptions kept them from nodding off as they drove by building after building, and park after park.
Teria managed to triumph over Sorn's protective nature, and persuaded him to let Luke and Mara see at least one thing without a transparisteel window barring the way.
With little fanfare, they were escorted into a building that looked more architecturally daring than those around it. Bright primary colors showed off tapered columns, appearing to barely hold the massive textured grey stone above the entrance. Steps leading into the building had several occupants, from families enjoying the day to students studying on its front steps, to the local avians shading themselves from the sun. Banners hid most of the building's whitish fa¨ade, but square carvings peeked out between them, showing off their own bright hues and sharp angles. Had this been a place of business, or a shop, Mara would have called it garish...but its true purpose was easy enough to deduce.
"This is your art museum, then?"
Teria nodded. "It's the best in the city. There's a better one in Suhhlia, but I'd like to think that the collection stored here can hold its own," she said as a wry smile crossed her face.
"Can't wait to see it," Mara replied honestly.
It became clear that Luke wasn't a connoisseur of art, as they traveled deeper into the museum.
"What is this?" he asked Mara as they gazed on a towering pile of blasters and assorted weapons, craning their necks to see to the top. Regardless of their original color, they'd all been lacquered a solid black, and bonded together in such a way that sometimes only the barrel or blade of the weapon would poke out.
"It's a symbol of war."
"Sure, I guess. But why weapons? Why not just say 'war'?"
"It's not the words that matters here, Luke. It's the feeling you get when you look at it. Does it repulse you? Does it excite you? In this case, the art is not solely in the object itself, but also what the viewer gets from it."
"I see," he said, not getting it at all.
"You will. Trust me," She smiled. "I wasn't at all those parties and functions for nothing."
He grinned in spite of himself. Learning to appreciate art wasn't what he had planned when he'd come to Nardaa. Instead of working on building trust within the military and political figures, they were being escorted and ushered around like fragile glass sculptures. Mara seemed to be thriving in the political atmosphere, but he felt as if his political growth had ended when he gave up his commission and opted for the Jedi life. Living with belligerent students had toughened him in some respects, but the idiocy that he saw Leia dealing with every day made him think about Mon Mothma's earlier suggestion to him. And the fact that he'd rejected her advice would make him eternally grateful for whatever foresight the Force had given him that day.
However, that wasn't helping him now. Pushing aside morose thoughts, he said, "It looks like we're losing our hosts." He pointed in the direction of two slowly diminishing figures.
"I guess so. Should we follow?"
Luke debated it internally. /I don't know. I want to cut out of here and check out this lower section of town, see if we could find out something about this Imperial faction.../
/I agree,/ Mara's voice echoed in his mind. /But we can't get involved. Portanse said his people could handle it, and he clearly didn't want our help./
/I wasn't thinking of getting his approval, honestly. You're right, though...if I was in his position, the last thing I'd want is an unknown variable./
/I like it when you admit I'm right,/ she grinned mischievously. /You're much easier to handle that way./
/I think I was just offended at that remark./ He placed his hand at the small of her back. /But I know you'll make it up to me later./
/And from what fever dream did this come?/
/The same one I've been in ever since I married you./
She grimaced. /Point to you on that one./
/I didn't know we were keeping score./ The thoughts roiling around in that head of his were not the kind one should be having in a public place. /What do I get if I win?/
/Making come-ons to your wife, are you? Have you no shame?/
/You're answering a question with a question. C'mon, spill it. Or do I have to get...personal?/ He moved in closer, causing Mara to glance around to see if anyone was watching.
"Luke, this isn't a good idea. This is a public place, with civilians--"
"--who see a man who's deeply and desperately in love with a gorgeous red-haired woman."
"I read the dossier on the public display laws here. We could get thrown in jail for what you're thinking."
He sighed, relenting the game. "All right, you win. I'll behave."
"Good. Now, we need to find Sorn and Teria. According to their timetable, we need to get back to the palace an hour before dinner. That's a half hour from now, so we need to get moving."
/And next time, Luke...you have to be the strong one, not me./ She smiled slowly. It didn't take him long to figure out what she meant.
"I'll have to remember that...next time." He glanced up to find that Sorn and Teria didn't need to be found--they were coming straight for them.
"Ah, so there you are. We thought you'd ditched us for a second," Teria said lightheartedly, while her companion continued to scowl.
"You shouldn't have separated from us. What if--"
"What if we'd enjoyed ourselves? What if we actually had some fun?" Mara interjected, trying not to cross her arms defensively. The last thing she needed was for him to tighten the grip. "You keep forgetting, Kurros, that we've been taking care of ourselves for some time. I'm not saying you're not needed, but you've been acting like someone who thinks that we can't defend ourselves in any way. If the situation with the assassin didn't convince you, I don't know what can."
"I understand what you're saying, but you also aren't from here. You don't know how strongly the Empire had held this planet until recently. There will always be supporters for the Empire, and if any one of them saw two Jedi--representatives for the New Republic, even-- walking out in the open, I'd doubt they'd hesitate to hurt you in some way.
"On top of that, there's ysalamiri to consider. Anyone with enough money could have some here in a matter of hours--if they aren't here already."
"I hadn't considered that," Luke replied, frowning. "But, I don't see why anyone would bother."
"Unless someone really, really hates you," Sorn said darkly. "Was there any way for someone to find out you were coming here, before you arrived?"
"No. We didn't have much notice ourselves, so I can't imagine how anyone else could."
Sorn seemed to relax a little. "Good. That's just one less thing I have to worry about."
Teria smirked. "Sorn, I'm starting to wonder if you actually enjoy being worried."
His startling blue eyes connected with hers. "Never that, Teria. If I never had to worry about another person's life, for the rest of mine, I could be quite happy." He tried to smile, to take the edge off the words, but it came out looking weak and humorless.
She tried to look away, but didn't succeed. "I'm sorry, Sorn. I didn't mean it seriously. It was a joke. A bad one, at that."
She glanced at the Jedi watching her, and smiled. "I'm always doing this, you know...sticking my foot in it before I even finish a sentence. Main reason why I'm not a counselor, or a politician. And not to change the subject or anything, but I think we're attracting a little too much attention."
The crowds had started to gather around the piece Mara and Luke had been admiring, and several in the group thought that the blond man in particular was familiar...
"I think you're right, Teria. Let's go." Luke motioned them to the exit, and they left before any of the museum-goers had the nerve to ask him if he was who they thought he was.
Leaning into the office's chair, Derro Thel took a good look at Pharris' second-in-command, who was now in charge by statute. However, the new Commander of the Imperial Forces on Nardaa was not as foolhardy as his predecessor. He was also used to being a subordinate, and took this change of command for what it really was.
Thin and tall, he would have been called gangly in his youth. In his mid-thirties, his reddish-brown hair was only beginning to recede. The previous excess of the Imperial days could still be seen on his face, but Thel knew that would end soon enough. "We have an understanding, don't we, Bayard?"
Thel sighed. Maybe they didn't, after all. "First off, drop the 'sir'. I'm not the leader here, Bayard--you are. You couldn't give me command of this place. All I'm asking you for is time, resources, and isolation enough for me to complete the job that I was originally assigned to do."
Bayard frowned slightly. He wasn't a stupid man, by any means, but one thing was bothering him. "Let me get this straight. Pharris is dead, and I'm in charge. But you're still staying?"
Now he could see where the new Commander was getting off track. "Pharris wasn't the one who hired me. He was just the man I had to work under. That man is now you. If you don't get in my way, everything will be fine. Understood?"
"Perfectly," Bayard replied, leaving off the honorific. He was a fast learner, at least. "Will you need anything at this point in time?"
"If I do, I'll let you know."
He nodded in understanding, and left. Thel had his plans all on his datapad, and looked them over one last time.
Things were getting tight; word had spread that the Nardaan Republic forces were looking for the Imperial hideout, and they were pulling no punches this time. He knew that he'd have to move fast after seeing Skywalker there, along with Jade. Plus, Pharris' little side plan hadn't helped either...
He rubbed the side of his jaw, putting all the elements together. If Skywalker got involved in the search, then it was over. However, he knew that the guards kept the Jedi under constant surveillance. Their dalliance in the art museum was the test he needed, to see if his former abilities had atrophied. They apparently hadn't, since he hadn't picked up a clue as to whether they'd 'found' him.
First, he needed to neutralize the Skywalkers. After that, the situation was simple measure and counter-measure.
Activating the comlink, he heard Bayard's voice reply. "Bayard here."
"We need to move fast, Commander. This is what I have to do..."
Dinner passed somewhat quickly, yet no less dull than any other diplomatic function Luke had ever attended. President Interim Osred Verena sat at the head of the table, while the other dignitaries were placed along the sides in careful arrangement; that Luke and Mara were placed close to the head of the table was lost on no one. To the misfortune of the dinner guests, one woman had the conversational subject in a stranglehold--commenting on the fashions that had her all upset--while her husband desperately tried to change the subject. Seeing as how she was a Senator's wife, none of the Nardaans present had the temerity to tell her to shut up.
"And those hemlines they had at Herrak's show last season...it was the most scandalous display I'd ever seen!" She was saying to no one in particular. Her husband was losing his battle to start an alternate conversation.
Mara blessedly intervened. "Madame, I can appreciate your view on this subject, but I believe that there are topics that haven't even been touched on tonight. I, for one, would like to hear everyone's opinion on the change of government."
"Politics?" The woman discarded, her hair so coifed that not a hair moved when she tossed her head in disgust. "Everyone knows that you never discuss politics during dinner."
"Considering this is a diplomatic dinner, I'd think that politics would be the most logical conversation topic."
"There are more pleasant topics to discuss; For instance, the new wing of the Palatial Gardens..." And so the subject changed to horticulture, but Mara didn't see it as a loss. In fact, quite the opposite. By offering something as far off as politics, the woman instantly countered with a more sane topic...without ever realizing she'd been tricked.
The young man to her left leaned towards her, and said as quietly as he could over the woman's boisterous voice, "Has your husband ever told you what a gem you are?"
"Not recently," she replied as she lifted a glass of Codasi wine to her lips.
Luke gave her a glance, then said, "Her husband prefers to show his affection in a variety of ways." The subtle Force undertone he used demonstrated that the wine wasn't the only thing capable of making her flush.
"I can always use variety in my life," she countered, understanding that he was trying to start up the game, again. She left the question of what kind of variety unspoken.
He was still thinking of a reply when Gamaliel tapped him on the arm. Turning, he found that the man was giving him a serious look. "What is it, Gamaliel?"
"Look over there," he gestured in the President Interim's general direction, and Luke saw what had Thordis so concerned. An aide was walking up to the President, his face solemn and grim. Luke could feel agitation and nervousness building in the aide, and it wasn't from the group of officials sitting around the table. Soon everyone saw the man, and fell silent as he leaned towards the President and whispered something in the other's ear. Luke could make out the words 'movement' and 'activity', but didn't see the full picture until he felt a strong sense of alarm and worry radiate from the politician.
"If you would excuse me, I have some pressing business that needs attending to." His gaze fixed on Luke, then added, "Master Skywalker, I would appreciate it if you and your wife could join me for a second."
"Of course, your Excellency." Mara flicked a glare at him, but he shrugged it off. He knew why the man needed them, and it didn't look as if he had the time to make it innocuous.
The door closed behind them, and the President turned to face the two Jedi. A man well past middle age, he exuded a charm that Luke envied, making him seem as if you'd known him your entire lifetime. His steel grey hair was softened by large brown eyes, and his general countenance was easy-going and affable. However, at the moment his expression was serious and his face had paled.
"We have a situation," Verena said as they walked. "Apparently, the remnants of the Imperial forces have started to show signs of mobilization."
"How did you find this out? I thought their HQ hadn't been found." Luke replied.
"It still hasn't. However, we had informants watching for signs of anything unusual. One in particular heard that a man was buying items that, when combined, can be formed into an explosive device. He hadn't been seen in the lower areas until about the time both of you arrived."
"Jerad Portanse mentioned that the Imperials might have brought in a professional terrorist for its dirty work. Could that have been him?"
"It's possible. That isn't all, however. Large numbers of blasters have been passing hands, and those few that were close to the Imperials haven't been heard from since. We've stepped up the patrols of the lower sector, but I'm afraid that by the time we find the Imperials, they'll have already moved."
"Which is where we come in, I assume," Mara replied, giving the President a calculating look. "You want us to help find these hold- outs."
"I do. The military feels that your efforts aren't needed, but considering how in the dark we are with intelligence, we need anything we can get. Would either one of you be willing to head out to the lower sector in the morning?"
Silent thoughts passed between Luke and Mara, until Mara sighed and Luke responded, "We'll go."
Verena nodded. "Good. Considering you are our guests, I'm not expecting you to risk your lives. All we need is the location, nothing more. Our forces can handle it from there. With luck, we'll have this taken care of and over with by midday, before the ceremony starts.
"I'll have the person in charge contact you tonight, and set up a time for tomorrow. He'll also give you a more detailed briefing on the situation than I did. Good luck, and thank you for your cooperation. May the Force be with you."
"And with you, your Excellency," Luke replied in turn. The older man then left the couple in the hallway, his guards joining up with him to lead him back to the control center.
"Well, it seemed that we're going to check the lower section, after all," Mara said with a hint of disdain.
Luke watched her, confused. "I thought that's what we wanted."
"Yeah, but on our own terms. Two to one odds that they won't even let our feet hit the ground."
"I wouldn't worry about that," Luke shrugged. "I doubt that they'd stop us if we really wanted to leave."
"Are you suggesting something very improper? I'm impressed."
"Impressed, or smug?" he countered, fighting back a look of utter astonishment at the concept running around her head. "You think you're responsible for it, don't you?"
She only smiled.
"I did have a brain before I met you, you know."
"I know, dear, but it was very rusty. It needed to be lubricated." He remembered now that her justice was always swift and merciless.
"With what, may I ask?"
She realized what he was trying to do, and fought the urge to punch him. "You're not playing by the rules."
"The ones you made up, or mine?"
"Mine, of course. Then again, maybe I just need to up the ante," she trailed off dangerously, and started to loosen her clothing.
"Sithspawn, Mara! What'd you think you're *doing?*" She answered him with a light-hearted laugh.
"What's the matter?" She leaned in, her hands moving to ensconce themselves around his neck. "Are you afraid?"
He began to notice the effect she was having on him, and fought to stop it. After all, they were still a long way from their suite, and this hallway didn't look like the type to be abandoned for long.
"No, I mean--Yes. Yes, I am. We have an image to uphold, here..."
"You didn't seem so concerned at the museum," she kissed his chin gently, reveling in the turmoil she sensed from him. Desire, mixed with propriety. An intoxicating blend that she didn't want to slip away.
"That was different. People know who we are--" his sentence was cut off when her mouth covered his, and he forgot everything he had been trying to say. His hands moved of their own accord, as he felt his back connect with the wall behind him. Skies, he knew he needed the support, considering what Mara was contemplating right now.
He broke off the kiss, and gasped for breath. "Mara, we need to go someplace else for this." Had the woman taken complete leave of her senses? Or maybe this is what she had been wanting all along--to throw him off-balance.
"If anyone was nearby, we could sense it, Luke. You know that. You just can't take what you dish out."
"I haven't gone this far."
"I know. Exhilarating, isn't it?" Her face was practically glowing.
He had to confess, it was. But that didn't make it wise--or sane. "You continue to surprise me, Mara," he said, shaking his head in wonderment and a bit of awe.
"I'm glad. Now, let's get going before that group of guards come around the corner and sees us like this." She straightened her clothes up and grabbed Luke by the arm, nearly dragging him down the hallway.
"What, don't you want to stay?" He couldn't resist replying, and
received a scathing retort. Apparently, the game was over.
Morning came far too quickly for the both of them. The previous night, the commander of the particular group they were joining had called them up with the details of the planned search.
The plan was elegant in its simplicity; Luke and Mara would act as the point for the search team, allowing the manpower to be focused where it ought to be, rather than spread across the entire area. As soon as the HQ was located, they were expected to pull back and allow the search team to do the rest.
Mara wasn't happy with their lack of action, but Luke saw it as a diplomatic sacrifice--keeping the peace between the Jedi and the Nardaans by not acting as overlords. The people, as a rule, were headstrong and opinionated, and they didn't take kindly to alternate suggestions by anyone, even if he was a Jedi.
In a matter of minutes, they were dressed and at the hangar, debriefed about the day's search perimeters, and assigned aboard a transport. The driver smiled kindly at the Jedi as they boarded, seeming to take a measure of comfort from their presence.
Luke wished he felt that comfort, himself. The more involved they got in this plan, the more agitated and wary he became. Mara picked up on it and would've tried to reassure him if she hadn't been getting her own sense of discomfort. Not danger, for which she was grateful--but she knew very well that it was something that could easily change.
As they entered the lower section of town, the discomfort for Mara only increased. Luke started to pick up a large number of minds in one particular area, enough that even if it wasn't the Imperial forces they were looking for, it was something that the police forces should look into.
One of the more disconcerting things Luke noticed as they approached was the disturbing lack of pedestrians. Everywhere else in the city, you could find people milling about, heading to their jobs-- either by transport or on foot. Here, there was only the stained surface of permacrete buildings, so desolate and cold that not even graffiti was anywhere to be found. Long shadows cast by the rising sun made the tableau even more barren looking.
"Portanse said that the rebels' headquarters used to be around here," Luke said to the driver, "but I don't see any reason why it would. It looks deserted, which isn't what you'd want in a hideout if you're trying to blend in."
"This isn't the normal look of the place," replied the driver. "I'm surprised there aren't more people out, myself."
Luke glanced at Mara, her face frozen in concentration. "I don't like this, Luke. This might have been a mistake."
"You're sensing that large group, too," he said more than asked, already knowing the answer.
"Think they knew we were coming?"
He shrugged. "I don't know how. Unless...," his face tightened in dismay. He didn't need to finish the thought, since his wife did it for him.
"Unless this terrorist is Force-sensitive."
"You're saying this is a trap?" The driver asked nervously.
"Not necessarily. It might simply be a defensive tactic, to pool all his resources into one area," Mara answered.
"I think we'll be able to tell more about the situation when we're there. Call Portanse up so we can tell him what's going on," Luke said.
The call never went through, however--a precise laser blast to the craft's engine caused it to careen towards the ground, smashing into the permacrete with enough force to destroy the front of the craft and crack the plasteel shield. The now-useless transport slid forward then flipped over, sprawled in the road like a wounded animal, just waiting for the killing blow.
Battered, bruised, but alive, the two Jedi became fully conscious only a few seconds after the craft had settled, still strapped in and now hanging upside down. The driver's mind was quiet, but present, instilling Luke with a measure of hope. He knew Mara was all right, but he looked her over just the same.
She unfastened the straps and dropped to her feet on what was once the roof, the window now only showing the grey road beneath. Luke reached out with the Force for the source of the attack as Mara checked on the driver, both of them hoping that any injuries he had weren't serious.
"Anything?" Mara asked quietly, and Luke shook his head. Whoever had fired the shot had either fled quickly, or had been an assassin droid. But why hadn't he sensed the attack? Or for that matter, why hadn't Mara?
She shrugged, her own concern deepening. "I don't like this. You still have a personal comlink?"
"I think so, yes. You want me to call over the search team?"
"No. In fact, make sure they don't come anywhere near this place. I bet you it's rigged for ambush. This must've been their plan--use us as crippled bait, then annihilate us all in one massive blow."
"And they're going to make sure they finish us off, one way or another. We're going to have to run on foot if we're not calling for help."
Mara bit her lip, thinking furiously. "I know, plus we've got the driver to consider. He's still not conscious."
"Looks like it. Blunt trauma, most likely. We need to take out the sniper, and try to have one of the transports meet up with us."
Luke's face tightened in frustration, then he sighed. "I'll take the driver, you take out the sniper."
She looked at him in surprise. "But you'll be exposed..."
"You can't carry him for as long of a distance as I can. Plus, I've got this," he hefted his lightsaber. She nodded resolutely, accepting it despite a growing uneasiness.
Thankfully the hatch still worked, and another bonus was the fact that the hatch's door also doubled as a ramp--which now became a shield against any would-be sniper. She mentally scanned the surrounding area and found that the large group of minds had gotten closer, but that wasn't unexpected. As she stepped out, she gave a cautious look around, sizing up defenses, weaknesses, and strengths she could exploit.
A flicker of emotion appeared in the Force, just for the briefest of seconds before it was swallowed up--too quick to figure out which direction it had come from. A pale residue of determination still lingered from the brief touch. Was it the assassin? She scanned the surrounding area for life of some kind, but came up empty.
Luke came up behind her, the unconscious pilot in his arms. "I called Portanse, and let him know about the situation. He's sending a transport to pick us up, but he's holding off the rest of the group, just in case. You ready?"
"As ready as I can be, under the circumstances."
"Wish they could be different, myself, but it's what we were dealt. We can handle this."
"I don't know...there's something I don't like about this."
Luke gave her a curious look, picking up on her anxiety. "Is it the same person as before?"
Mara shrugged, following his line of thought. "I don't know for sure. I felt a flicker in the Force, an emotion--but it was gone before I could identify what it was."
He shook his head in confusion. "I don't understand how this person is able to hide from us. I don't sense an emptiness in the Force, like with the ysalamiri."
"He's probably drawing on the Dark Side, using it to block detection."
"That's true," he sighed. "Just one more thing to worry about."
"Like we needed anything else added to the pile," she smirked. It only took them a few seconds to create their plan of escape via their link, and soon they headed cautiously out from the wrecked transport, Mara in the lead with Luke and the pilot trailing behind.
Things were going well until the same flicker in the Force occurred--this time, it gave Mara warning. /Luke--!/
The blaster bolt narrowly missed Luke's head, landing and burning a hole into the permacrete. They both turned towards the source of the bolt, but there was no sign of the attacker, either by sight or by the Force.
"Keep going. I'll cover you." But even as she said this, she walked towards where the sniper had made his most recent appearance. Luke started forward as if to stop her, but realized that she was in a better position than he was, and more than capable of taking care of herself. The effort wasn't unnoticed.
/I'll be back in a few minutes, Luke--I promise./
/I know. I only wish I knew who, or what, we were dealing with./
They turned their attentions back towards their diverging paths, not thinking too hard on what would happen if this entity turned out to be more than she could handle.
A dark form in an even darker shadow knelt on the floor of the abandoned room, sunlight breaking through the horizontal shades as blades of light, cutting through the haze of unsettled dust and stale air. The bolt had missed, but it wasn't completely unintentional. Rather, it was just as he suspected.
Thel could sense Jade-Skywalker coming this way, and he knew that time was running out if he wanted to make his escape. For some reason, a small part of him didn't want to leave...preferring to stay and match skills with someone who'd undergone the same training as he. Who would be the better assassin, he wondered, as he picked up his sniper energy rifle and headed for the doorway, still unsure which path to take. That both of them had survived this far past the Emperor's death was a sign of strength and temerity. However, he had been actively using his expertise for several years, while her focus had shifted to learning to use her Force ability without the help of the Emperor. Were they evenly matched as mirror images? Perhaps, or perhaps not.
He couldn't sense her now--she must be using the same stealth technique he was using. Would she head for the roof, or wait for him below? He thought about what he would do were the situations reversed, and chose the roof.
That she was waiting for him with her lightsaber drawn was no surprise. The better surprise was the decision he'd made, without being cognizant of it.
Even with her features thrown in half-shadow by the sun, he could see why she'd been chosen. Attractive, slender and self-assured, she would've been able to bluff, cajole, or murder her way through any obstacle. He'd been picked for similar reasons, but the attractiveness worked better for her than for him. She was sizing him up, too, and he smiled bitterly at the realization.
"Are you going to attack me?"
This seemed to take her aback, but only for a second. Also good emotional control, he noted. "It depends. You haven't attacked me, so if it stays that way, it could be avoided."
"And if it doesn't?"
"Guess we'll find out then, won't we?"
"Guess so," he replied, but made no move towards her. With her lightsaber in the en guard position, any blasts from his rifle would be moot--and more likely directed back at him. However, there was one advantage he had over her, and as he glanced to the side, he knew he could now exploit it.
With no hint at all of what he was doing, he moved his rifle from her to the Jedi and pilot below--who had just come into view from the edge of the roof--and fired.
Confusion became horror and shock, as Mara fully realized what he'd done. A cry of protest made it past her lips, but more from reaction than any attempt to sway him. She used the Force to knock the gun from the man's hand, but from the sudden flaring pain in her sense, she knew the damage had been wrought.
She was tempted to shunt the pain away so she could focus more clearly on her opponent, but she had to know if Luke was all right. Allowing the pain in, she searched through the massive amount of feedback to pinpoint where the hit had been taken.
With a sigh of relief, she found it--his left shoulder had taken the hit meant for his back. He gave her reassurance that he was fine, but didn't say more than that for fear of distracting her.
Her anger kept on a short leash, she turned to face Thel, who was already making a run for the opposite edge of the roof. Mara took up chase, but knew she wouldn't be able to catch him before he reached the edge. Surely, though, he didn't mean to jump--they were at least ten stories up, and no one short of a Jedi could survive a fall like that.
Then again, it seemed that was his intent. She reached out with the Force to stop him, but her effort was thwarted by a wall created the same way. The two forces canceled each other out, and the dark-haired man slipped over the edge.
She made it to the roof's edge only seconds after, but he had already vanished from sight. His presence in the Force had also been silenced.
Torn between tracking the assassin down, and taking care of her husband, her decision was made for her when Luke's voice echoed in her mind.
/The transport has arrived. Let's get out of here./
Sighing, she agreed and turned back, not liking this one bit. The technique was too familiar, as she'd feared. Her own denial about the possibility of it being real was part of the reason this terrorist had escaped.
She turned her thoughts back to her husband's pain, weaker now that he'd suppressed it using the Force. That, too, was her fault. He could have been killed...
Mara blocked that thought out, but not before the horror of it gripped her and left her temporarily breathless. Whoever this person was, she would make sure it never happened again.
Bayard considered himself a temperate man. So when the attack on the scouting party failed from having a lack of prey, he didn't take his frustration on the lower ranking members of his staff, as some from the early days of the Empire would have done. Instead, he turned to the man who'd had Mara Jade-Skywalker in front of him and who fully admitted to not killing her right then and there.
"Can you explain to me how this happened, Thel? From what I understand, the Skywalkers are the main problem to the Empire's attempt at re-establishing control over Nardaa. Why didn't you shoot them both when you had the chance?"
"Have you ever tried fighting a Jedi, Bayard?" Thel asked, already knowing the answer. "I'm sure you've heard the stories. The thing is, they aren't just stories. Some Jedi can see into the future, some can lift really big rocks, and some can dodge blaster bolts. Guess which of those apply to the Skywalkers?"
"The last one?"
"Try all three, and then some. It doesn't help that they have an instant rapport, which makes separating them all but moot. However, it isn't all good--when I hit Luke Skywalker, his wife felt the pain strongly enough to be distracted by it. It wasn't for very long, but it was enough to let me escape with the knowledge of how to defeat them."
Bayard took note of Thel's use of 'defeat' rather than 'kill', but made no comment. "The scouting party wasn't destroyed, however."
"No, Commander, but that was secondary. The main goal was accomplished, however briefly. They broke off their attack due to the threat of ambush. They're attempting to have at it once more, but we're not going to give them that chance. Ready your men and keep them on alert for a signal from me."
The pause was clearly meant as a dismissal, but Bayard needed clarification. "What is it that my men need to be prepared for, Thel?"
Thel smiled thinly, an expression Bayard was already learning to beware. "We're going to attack first."
The medcenter was located in the lower sections of the Palace, white walls and chrome fixtures giving it the unmistakable feeling of sterility and cleanliness. The pilot was doing well, recovering nicely from a concussion while Luke occupied another bed, sitting up and frowning at the bacta patch covering his shoulder.
"You know, I'm really getting to hate the smell of this stuff," he groused, ignoring the patient look he was receiving from Mara.
"You're lucky it wasn't worse. We *both* are," she replied, with more than a little melancholy.
"No kidding," a familiar male voice interjected, and they both followed the sound to the black-haired bodyguard standing in the doorway. Sorn Kurros shook his head, "You said you could take of yourselves, and here you are, in the medcenter. You're going to ruin me, you know that?"
"There's more at stake here than your career, Sorn," Luke answered back, but not unkindly. "This terrorist isn't normal."
Luke glanced at Mara, and she nodded ever so slightly, more than words passing between them. "It appears that the terrorist has Force ability. To what extent, we're not sure. He managed to elude our Force probes, then attacked us with barely any hint of foreknowledge. If not for Mara, I might not be here talking to you right now."
Mara looked away, clearly not wanting to recall that moment. Luke continued, "It also appears that the terrorist has been trained sometime in the past." He looked at her again, and she picked up the thread of conversation.
"I think he might be a former Emperor's Hand."
"And what exactly *is* an 'Emperor's Hand', if I might ask?"
Mara wasn't happy about exposing this side of herself, but Sorn needed to know the risk, if he ever had to defend himself against the assassin. "It is--was--the status bestowed on someone, in order to carry out the Emperor's will. I...was one of those people, chosen for my Force ability and attributes...I can only assume the man in question was, as well. I was also told I was the only one, but I guess that's not true. He's probably the reason we got ambushed...he would've been able to sense us coming."
Sorn absorbed the information without comment, to his credit. "Have you told Portanse about this?"
Mara shook her head. "Not yet. He's still on the outskirts, trying to come up with a secondary scouting plan. He should be coming back soon, though, to get us."
"This terrorist, assassin, whoever--he's the same guy who blew up the plaza, isn't he?"
"I think so," Luke replied. "Portanse told us about an Imperial terrorist for hire. He must've been selling his skills to survive after the Emperor's death."
"And those skills would include forgery," Mara said, and Luke could feel a wave of memories flash through her mind, mostly those of being on the run. "Would it be possible for me to check through the records for anyone who's come to Nardaa in the past few days?"
"That would be hundreds...no, thousands of people!" Sorn replied, astonished.
"We can instantly narrow down the field by looking for humans only, matching his physical description."
Luke frowned. "Would he really come to Nardaa without a disguise?"
"Remember, no one knows who he is, or what he looks like. You've been recognizable for so long, you forget that not everyone needs to alter their looks to go unnoticed. Besides, I would have done the same thing in his place. That's where I'm starting from."
"Can you get those records, Sorn?" Luke asked.
"I can get those records, if you don't mind," an affable female voice piped up from the doorway. Sorn turned in surprise at finding Teria just behind him. "I'm not an assistant for nothing, you know."
"You have that kind of access?" Sorn looked at her in astonishment.
"Legitimately? No. But, there are a few codes I know that make my life easier. When you're in the position I'm in, you have to know how to get anyone's whim, and get it yesterday."
"All right, then. Thank you, Teria," Luke replied. "We're on a tight schedule, since we're not sure when or how this assassin might hit us next, and there's a good chance it'll be sooner rather than later, considering the ceremony's scheduled for this afternoon. We need to prepare for any eventuality."
"Portanse is the one we should talk to, then. This information coming from him is bound to get more attention than if it's just us," Sorn replied, but Luke shook his head.
"I was thinking of a different route, actually," he smiled slyly.
The apartments of Gamaliel Thordis were elegant yet spartan, a pure reflection of the man who occupied them. The military lifestyle he'd led was shown in the precise arrangement of furniture, the order of the knickknacks on his shelves, and the no-nonsense neutrals of the color scheme. Yet in the midst of this, a genteel, calm quality flowed from the rooms, a peaceful respite from the memories of battles and the hectic workdays he now enjoyed. It was in these rooms that Luke met with their owner.
"Thordis, I know you've got better things to do with your time, but we need your help. We have to make sure the President understands the danger this man presents." Luke tried to keep from shifting his shoulder, not wanting to give a weakened appearance in front of him. If the Nardaans valued strength, their military put it on as if it were armor.
"As your Chuathra advisor, I'm more than willing to help. However, what you're asking is beyond my realm of influence."
Luke didn't believe that for a second. "You told me yourself that you used to be military. I think you're underestimating your importance, Thordis."
The older man sighed, the feeling that he'd already lost this argument starting to creep up on him. Still, he had to give it a try. "Master Skywalker, I'm not the man I used to be."
The elderly advisor's remorse was enough to soften Luke's tone. "I think I understand what you're saying, but the threat we're under now isn't a mild one. The President's life--and the future of the New Republic's presence here--are in danger. As ambassadors, even Jedi ones, we don't have the respect and clout needed to have our concerns acted upon in a timely fashion. Getting to speak with the President outside of pre-arranged engagements involves time that we don't have. You can cut through the process by talking with the military leaders directly."
"What makes you think I know them?"
"A number of things, most of which aren't based on Jedi feelings," Luke added, sensing the apprehension coming from him. "The easy and familiar way you referred to the leaders back when you were introducing me to them, when my wife and I first arrived here. Your knowledge of military protocol, which would only come from someone used to applying it on a personal basis. The way you stand, and the way you speak-- they're little ways you show your past. And yes, I did feel it also from the Force, but I would rather get the confirmation from you verbally, than mentally."
Thordis rubbed his chin absently, something Luke imagined he might have once done when presented with a tactical challenge. "I've tried to forget my years in the military, Master Skywalker. You understand me better in that respect than most, I imagine." Luke nodded, knowing well how hard it was to leave those memories behind. "But, I also realize you wouldn't come to me for help unless it was dire. And I confess, the evidence you mentioned has me intrigued."
Luke didn't miss the gleam in the old man's eyes at even the hint of action. Obviously, he'd been trying to deny himself the return to the battlefield in favor of the peaceful advisor role he now had, but with the horrible memories also came the heady rush of adrenaline, and the strong impressions of a past life brighter than the one he was living now.
"You can count on my help, Master Skywalker."
The need to increase the staff was an unavoidable occurrence for the Palace. As a result of all the new help and services needing access inside, the number of guards had been increased, and the security measures tightened.
The servants' entrance was well-protected against any conceivable foe; laser turrets watched from above with limitless patience, while guards scan-checked and verified each person's identity. The recognized faces weren't checked as thoroughly, Thel noted, but he expected that. With his abilities, he didn't need to be a master of disguise.
He queued up in line behind a cleaning woman coming in for the afternoon shift. She chatted amiably with the fellow in front of her, who looked to be one of the Palace's couriers. Thel absorbed the nuances of their conversation--one never knew what might help you later on.
His turn came up, and as he handed the ID card and falsified datapad over, he slipped into the guard's mind like a knife through water.
The guard glanced at the datapad, then the ID card. "Basulra Erulane? That name sounds familiar."
Thel's eyes narrowed. "I think you were the one you checked me in last time," he commented off-handedly, making it seem curious and unimportant at the same time.
"Yeah...yeah, I think I was. Nice seeing you again," the guard responded dully, and Thel took the datapad and card back. The body scan device he stepped through registered nothing out of the ordinary, and he walked into the Palace as a part-time maintenance man who'd been called in to fix a non-existent problem.
"Here we go," Teria said at last, the effort to get into the city's traffic records a little more daunting than she'd thought; She was more of a slicer by hobby than by trade. Even so, her home computer had the power necessary to slice into the system, and the records flashed across the vidscreen while it queried to narrow down their search.
Mara, seeing that Teria knew the system better than she, asked her to pull up the records for the week before and day that they'd arrived. "Can you narrow it down to our terrorist's basic description?"
"As given by the records he gave the registrars, yes," Teria replied as she entered in the information. "That leaves...571 entries. However, that's including the influx of Republic troops. Let me eliminate that from the search field."
After a number of seconds, the vidscreen showed 89 records. "That's a bit more manageable," Mara commented, already scanning the vitals for each person. "Can you display the holo for each one?"
Teria nodded. "Do you want to start at the beginning, or the end?"
Mara narrowed her eyes. "The end. It's more likely he came recently."
"Let's hope so. I don't know how good the security is on this system--I might have triggered silent alarms when I sliced in."
"Then let's not waste any more time. Pull up the first record."
With Teria and Mara searching for the assassin's identity, and Luke and Thordis arranging an audience with the President, Sorn felt a bit like a fifth repulsor coil--superfluous and only meant for emergencies.
Admittedly, he hadn't done much to help. He mostly fretted over them like a doting mother bralcat, trying to keep them safe when they had their own set of claws to use in defense. Something needed to be done, something that hadn't been thought of...
The idea struck him quicker than expected, briefly pausing mid- step while he fully absorbed it. After that, he grabbed his comlink from his belt, and called to the dispatch.
"I need to know the whereabouts of Councilor Jerad Portanse, as fast as you can get it."
Luke and Gamaliel Thordis waited patiently outside the President's office, waiting for the Nardaan Armed Forces chief-of-command and the New Republic's field commander to arrive. They didn't have to wait long.
"What's all this about, Gamaliel? The ceremony's going to be starting in only a couple hours," an abrasive voice asked, and Luke turned to see a large, heavily-featured man enter the anteroom, his lapels and uniform sagging with medals. Following close behind him, Luke barely recognized the New Republic commander in dress whites; Oresh Paguarda, a tall, brown-haired man who was well-known for his ability to stay calm in harrowing situations. The last time he'd seen Oresh, he was helping dunk Wedge in the nearest body of water they could find, at Wedge's bachelor party. He smiled fondly at the memory, knowing a little too well how perilous it was to combine a newly-engaged man, a group of rowdy male friends, and water.
Oresh grinned briefly in recognition as he spotted Luke, but then a seriousness draped over his face once again. "I heard this was an emergency meeting. Is something wrong?"
"Not yet, but there will be," Luke replied in all earnestness.
Gamaliel nodded. "We originally meant to discuss this with you two at first, but I felt the President ought to be told as well, since his life might well be in danger. We're waiting for him right now."
No sooner had the words left him when the door opened, and the President's assistant ushered them in quietly.
The corridors of the Palace were an opulent facade for visitors, but for the common staff and workers, the Palace they saw was a catacomb of plain, austere walls and bustling people who needed to get from one end to another, as fast as they could.
Melding into this group was more than easy. Thel had read the schematics that the Imperial faction still had from their days of ruling from the Palace. The defense system codes and hardware had surely been changed, but for him, that wasn't important.
From the schematics he had, putting explosives in the actual security grid room would compromise the integrity of the building, which he didn't want. Instead, he focused on a more unlikely target, expecting that they hadn't realized how badly it could be exploited, and therefore hadn't put as much surveillance into it.
The power systems for the Palace lay beneath the ground floor, away from the usual foot traffic and yet, only the length of a hallway down from where the security grid was. Even as he looked down the hallway, he could see the guards at attention and hear the hum of high electronics.
With a nonchalant air, he opened the door to the power systems room using a passkey that attuned itself to the lock you wanted to bypass. Not cheap by any stretch, but considering the work he did, it had more than paid for itself many times over. To a typical scanning device, it looked like a standard passkey--definitely nothing out of the ordinary.
Expecting to find technicians, he was not disappointed when he heard the sound of heavy footsteps in the near distance. The sound echoed off the maze interior of large metal condensers, and reverberated in the pipes overhead, creating an odd desolation in a room filled with equipment.
He could kill the tech, but his main goal was to make the adjustments and get out. If the tech had a regular shift check-in, or if there was another person in the room...
Thel snarled in disgust. He could use the Force to find out for sure, but the idea wasn't appealing to him. Using it was like a crutch, implying that he couldn't do something on his power and skills. With the Skywalkers it was different--he had to use those abilities to maintain a level playing field. If it weren't for the fact that he was on a short timetable, he wouldn't have altered the guard's perception of him. Instead, he would've created another phony ID and entered as a New Republic officer. He could have walked into the security grid room and had everything shut down by now.
As it was, this was the best opportunity he had, and he always exploited his opportunities.
The sound came closer, and Thel tensed. He moved silently behind a condenser unit, waiting for the shadow of a person walking by. He didn't have any weapons with him, but his training had basically made him into a weapon. He could kill a man in dozens of ways, and several of them hurt--badly.
The tech stopped, and Thel could hear the sound of switches being flipped and the faint noise of a datapad being used. And then, as fast as he'd come, the tech was gone, none the wiser.
Using the echoes as a way to navigate, he followed the sounds to a terminal between two metal cylinders--dehumidifiers, according to the labels. An idea occurred to him, and he looked over the terminal's display. As he'd hoped, all the controls he needed were there. It needed a passkey code to be accessed, but that was swiftly taken care of by one swipe of the key. A schematic of the Palace interior appeared on the vid screen, and Thel smirked in satisfaction.
"Is it hot in here, or is it just me?" Teria said as she fanned herself with a sheet of flimsi she'd found on the desk. Mara wiped off the sweat on her brow, but said nothing. Her concentration was focused on the holo in front of her.
"This isn't him. Next one, please."
Teria keyed up the next, and she heard Mara's sudden intake of breath. "Is that...?"
"It's him. Basulra Erulane." Her eyes narrowed as she read the data. "According to this, he came here a couple days before Luke and I did. So, he didn't come here because of us."
"He's here to destroy all that the New Republic has done for my people," Teria added quietly, disturbed by the coldness she felt even from the man's holo image.
"Can you find out where his ID has been used? Maybe we can track his movements that way."
"I'll have to slice into the Palace's security grid for that," Teria answered grimly.
"If you have reservations--"
"It's not that. I almost got caught the last time I tried it," she smiled at Mara, a hint of mischief in her eyes. Mara smiled back, hoping that Teria was the type to learn from her mistakes.
President Interim Verena folded his hands carefully on top of his desk. "So, from what you're telling me...there's going to be an attack on the Palace?"
"Sometime soon, yes," Luke replied. "My wife is trying to find out who the terrorist is, at this moment. She knows what he looks like, so it's just a matter of time before she finds a match. Meanwhile, the faction won't wait around for us to attack any longer--the ambush failed, and they know we're wary of it, now. They'll try to go on the offensive, to hit us when we're not expecting it."
"What if that's not what he's planning to do? If we pull our men from another area, that will leave another potential target open to this terrorist."
Luke shook his head, "I don't think that will happen. What he's after is in the Palace."
The President looked to his military commander, who shrugged in true ignorance and in turn, looked to Luke and spoke. "How do you know this? So far, he's blown up the plaza, and laid an attack for my men in the lower areas of the city. What makes you think he'll come here?"
Luke faced the commander--Dugass, if he remembered correctly--and replied, "Because his main goal is here; He's trying to disrupt the ceremony, and what better way to do that than assassinating the President?"
The idea didn't surprise them. The President was the most likely target, and of course would need protection. What Dugass and the others found perturbing was Luke's certainty of it.
"How do you know this?" Dugass asked, skeptical of anyone claiming assurance. "Is it that Force of yours?"
Luke grimaced. He hadn't wanted to divulge this information so easily, but if it meant saving him the hassle of trying to convince them any other way, then it was worth it. "We believe the terrorist is actually a former assassin who was directly under the authority of the Emperor, once known under the title of Emperor's Hand. When my wife and I encountered him only a few hours ago, he displayed an ability to control the Force. What's even more concerning, is the fact that one of the skills he has apparently allows him to suppress his presence in the Force."
Verena gave him a puzzled look. "I take it that's a bad thing?"
"A very bad thing, yes. It means he could be in the Palace at this very moment, and I couldn't sense him at all. Considering the skills he'd possess as a former Emperor's Hand, that's not unlikely."
He could tell that Dugass wanted to ask how he knew about such a thing, but restrained himself from asking; Luke's stance, unknowingly, had become defensive.
/You can tell them about me, Luke,/ Mara cut in delicately.
/I'd rather not, Mara. Not if they don't need to know./
Oresh Paguarda spoke up just then, distracting Luke from the inner conversation. "The situation looks grave, indeed. I can see why you asked to speak to us directly. We're going to need to increase the security of all the checkpoints, and bring in a number of the patrols to defend the Palace."
Dugass wasn't quite so easily persuaded. "I don't see any reason to do that. If we pull in the patrols, we'll lose the advantage of catching them before they arrive." He mopped off sweat from his forehead, "It's turning rather blasted hot in there, isn't it?"
It *was* warmer, but Luke hadn't noticed--a mixture of spending most of his early years on Tatooine, the distant pain in his shoulder, and ignoring any external forces that meant to distract him. "The environment controls must be malfunctioning. You were saying...?"
The heavy-set man glanced at him in confusion, before recalling that he'd never finished his thought. "Ah, yes. I think we ought to keep the patrols out there, since they need to keep a lookout for Imperial forces."
"That doesn't address my main concern, Dugass. What if this assassin gets into the Palace?"
"That's more your area than ours, now isn't it?" the man replied.
Surprised, Luke pulled back. "I can't act as the sole protection for the President. I don't think I could, to be honest."
"As much as I trust your abilities, Master Skywalker, I wouldn't want to place this on you, either," The President rose from behind the desk, and walked around to one side. "Dugass, I want you to bring in three of the five patrols--whoever's closest. Paguarda, I'd like you to coordinate your efforts with Dugass and make sure that no one comes into the Palace, period. I don't care who it is--they'll most likely be safer on the outside than on the inside, if what Master Skywalker says is true. And as for Master Skywalker...well, I'd rather have a guard detachment posted to you and your wife, if you'd allow me."
Luke shook his head. "We don't need it, honestly. And I'm not saying that to be difficult, or proud, but just as a fact. Besides, we have to do our part to help take this terrorist down...and we can't do it with a group of armed men following us around. The Force will be our ally."
"I hope so, for all of our sakes," The President said solemnly.
Drawing her attention away from her husband and back to her surroundings, Mara watched as Teria finally accessed the Palace security grid. The mood all over the Palace was turning chaotic and frenzied, due to the heat that seemed to come from nowhere. Thankfully, her training had included the ability to disregard extremes of heat and cold.
"We're in, but not secure. I'm cross-referencing Basulra Erulane with the security details' records..."
/How's it going?/ Luke asked, concerned.
/Good. The terrorist's name, or alias, is Basulra Erulane. No listing for an address as yet, though. Teria's checking the Palace records now./
Just as she finished that thought, Teria cried out in triumph. "Got it! One entry, and it's from...today? Mara--"
She didn't need to say any more...Mara could it see it, as well. /Luke, he's here./
/Only a few minutes ago. He came in through the back gate./
/Blast it--we weren't quick enough. I'll have to get a hold of Dugass or Paguarda, and tell them the situation's changed./
Then, the feeling he was getting through the Force changed. Through the link he had with Mara, he felt the danger intensified, and then--
Nothing. Not the absence of danger, but rather the cancellation of it. It felt like it was smothered in a thick, heavy cloak and thrown down a shaft into oblivion.
The replacement Imperial faction commander had watched as the time for attacking the Palace ticked off carefully, making sure the pacing of events was just as Derro Thel had orchestrated it. Bayard knew the timing was essential for the plan to work, for without it, their troops wouldn't win this day.
Rebel forces were ahead of them, but the radius of the jamming field made sure they couldn't tell anyone until they arrived. If Thel did his job, even that small risk would become moot.
Blood pooled on the floor of the security room, the guards' attention having been dulled by the heat and in turn causing their own demise. As Thel had expected.
Normally, the secure area would be passkey entry-only, but the guards--in their misery--had opened the door to try and get some circulation into their small room. He'd known they'd get sloppy, but this was even better than he hoped.
It happened fast enough that the computers hadn't been disconnected from the security grid. From there it was a simple process of shutting down the defenses and slicing into the system, so the grid couldn't be put back into place unless he did it himself. He had no reason to think the Imperial faction would double-cross him, but a little insurance never hurt.
And speaking of which...
The distant sound of lasers firing came to him from outside the room. A quick check of the Palace's vidcams showed that the Imperial forces had arrived on cue. Bayard might not be leader material, but he could follow orders as no one else could, and timing was crucial for his plan. He expected this to work out smoothly...if he could take care of the main threat.
He gripped the pommel of what looked at first like metal tubing, but in fact was the hilt of a lightsaber. He hadn't thought he'd ever need it again, but this situation was unique. The lightsaber was a way to focus his control of the Force, and being up against two Jedi, he'd need all the help he could get.
Sorn found Portanse at the back gate, talking with the first of the patrols to come in from the city. The councilor truly looked more at ease in front of the troops than he did anywhere else. Even so, the air vibrated from repressed tension.
"Are you sure?" He heard Portanse say to the man in charge of the troop, a lanky man with cropped blonde hair and a rifle slung over one shoulder.
The other man grimaced. "Afraid so. The comms didn't start working until we got here, or else I'd have let you know sooner. We need to contact the other patrols, now."
The two men glanced at him as he approached. "What's going on?"
"The Imperial faction's troops are on the move. They're heading this way."
"What?" Sorn uttered, stunned. "How soon till they get here?"
"Not long." The lanky blonde man tried his comlink, but was greeted with the hiss of static. "Sith! Comms don't work. I think they're jamming us," the blonde man replied worriedly. Sorn wasn't as concerned.
"The security defenses are good enough to hold them off until the other patrols and posted troops can get here. All we need is a ship that can get outside of their jamming range--"
Sorn's sentence was cut off by the noise of laser fire ripping through the air, and then the feel of solid sound knocking him off his feet.
"I can't get in--it's not accepting my code!" President Verena replied loudly over the sound of laser fire and explosions outside. He wiped his brow and muttered in disgust. "Someone's gotten into the security grid and shut it down."
"That's not all that's down. I can't raise any of my troops," Oresh said tightly. He put the now-useless comlink back on his belt. "They must be jamming all the frequencies."
"That would cripple their own forces, though, wouldn't it?"
"It would, sir, unless they're using line-of-sight. Or have something else that I don't know about."
Just then, the lights dimmed. "Now what?" Dugass remarked darkly.
"I think we'd better get out of here, sir," Luke said quietly. "If this person shut down the grid, then he also had access to it, which means he knows where you are."
"I see," Verena replied softly. "I have a personal craft in one of the spire hangars. If they haven't been attacked, that is."
A shudder went through the entire building, as if a thunderclap had taken place at the very foundation of the Palace. Oresh looked to Luke and Thordis, knowing all too well what that was.
"Explosives," Dugass said out loud. "But from where?"
"We need to get out of here and in touch with the troops--if we can't restore a line of command, we're done for!" Oresh said as he headed for the door. "Luke, I hate to place this on you..."
"Go on, I'll get the President up to the spire. Thordis, I think you'd be better off coming with us."
"No offense, Master Skywalker, but I think my path lies elsewhere. If it's all right with Dugass and Paguarda, I think I know how to get around the communications problem."
Dugass shrugged, and Oresh replied, "Sounds good to me."
"Take the bodyguards with you, too," Luke added, and Dugass nearly burst at that idea. Luke continued hastily, "The bodyguards will attract too much attention, and likely bog us down. If they go with you, however, we might be able to mislead our terrorist."
"Into thinking that the President is with the bodyguards. But what about you?" Oresh asked.
"I'll have Mara join me--but we don't have the time to discuss the
details, here," Luke answered as another jolt hit the Palace. He turned
to the door, Verena following behind him. "We'll all do what we have to.
And may the Force be with us all."
The only light coming from the small room Mara and Teria shared in the latter's woman apartment was from the computer itself, which had its own power source. With the power down, the heat had turned into a stale mugginess, which was almost worse, in some ways.
"Is everything down?" Teria asked, as Mara manually pried open the door.
"As near as I can tell, yes," Mara replied, stretching her sense through the Force to encompass the entire Palace. "Light, doors, and any computers hooked up to the main power source are down. The work of our terrorist, obviously."
"I'm still in the security grid, too, but it's not answering any of my queries."
Mara snorted derisively. "He got to it at the source, then. The security guards are at least seriously injured, if not worse. Luke is trying to get the President up the spire, to his evacuation ship."
"Without power, that's not going to be easy."
"I know," Mara nodded, then walked through the open doorway. Teria trailed her to the front entrance, which Mara made short work of. Red emergency light tinted the hallway beyond, and cast Mara's figure into silhouette. "I'm going to try and join him, or at least follow to make sure no one else does. See if you can get to the security grid computers and change the code."
"I'm not *that* good, Mara!"
"Then find someone who is. We need the grid up, and I don't know if there's someone already on it. If not, you'll have to try." With that, Mara disappeared from view and Teria was left facing a blood-red corridor, the sounds of explosions vibrating the walls and causing panic to ensue from all corners of the floor on which she lived.
Taking a deep breath, she headed the opposite direction from Mara, hoping that someone else had already figured out what happened to the security grid. Because if they hadn't, she was pretty sure that her meager skills wouldn't be up to the challenge.
The loud, high-pitching buzzing reached Sorn's consciousness first, then he realized that the sound wasn't external, but internal. He opened his eyes to find himself flat on his back, and laser fire being exchanged above him.
How long was I out? he wondered, then figured the point was moot. Soldiers less fortunate than him were on the ground, no longer able to ask that question. Portanse was up and fighting, a few bloody gashes showed on his clothing, but nothing that looked serious.
The pain flooded in next. As he tried to move, a sharp agony pierced his side and he had to stop to catch his breath. He glanced down expecting to see a piece of metal or debris in his side, but was surprised to find only a small gash. Only a flesh wound--he'd had worse. He also recognized the nausea that accompanied the movement as a possible concussion, but instead he focused on Portanse and his surroundings. He'd been tossed behind an alabaster half-wall connected to the Palace, used mostly as a decorative element but still as tough as durasteel. Portanse was firing intermittently over the wall past where the back gate used to be, aiming rather than wasting his shots.
The buzzing had faded enough for him to finally understand what the other man had been shouting at him. "We need to get the grid back online!"
He wanted to laugh at the obviousness of the statement, then realized that Portanse wasn't observing; he was telling him to do something about it.
"What about the jamming?" Sorn managed to reply, holding his side as he got onto his knees.
"We'll worry about that when we have the defenses back up. Get to the control room and find out what happened."
Without another word, Sorn slowly got to his feet in a crouch, and headed back to the Palace entrance. Where he promptly found that the door wouldn't open--the console wasn't even powered up.
Due to security concerns, the back entrance wasn't able to be opened manually. He'd have to splice in a connection to the console from his comlink, and use the power source to try and open the door.
"What's going on?" Portanse yelled from his position behind the wall.
"The power's out. I'm trying to get the door open."
"You have a power source?" The other man asked.
"Yeah...unless you have a datapad on you. That would be quicker."
Portanse shook his head. "I left it inside. Didn't think I'd need it out here."
Sorn glanced out over the lawn, now scorched and smoldering in the wake of the fighting. Other soldiers who survived were on the far side, hiding behind chunks of wall and their own troop carriers. Stormtroopers were barely visible through the smoke and haze of battle. But his eyes were searching hopefully for a body, alive or dead, who had a datapad he could use.
"Hey! Does anyone have a working datapad on them?" He yelled across the distance.
For a few seconds, no one answered him. He was about to dissect his comlink when a voice came back, annoyed, "What d'you need it for?"
"The door." He didn't want to say much else, since he was sure the Imperial troops would hear that as well, and press their advantage. Luckily, the man who'd spoken glanced over at him, and saw the dilemma. Without another word, he fired off a couple of quick cover shots, grabbed the datapad he'd slung over his shoulder, and threw it in Sorn's general direction.
He had to dive to catch it, causing his head to swim and his gash to open up even further, but it was more than worth it. The soldier's datapad was quickly hooked into the console, and Sorn keyed it to open. The door mechanism's power needs drained the battery before it was fully open, and so Sorn ended up going through the door sideways. He could have tried to push the door open further, but he didn't have the time. Giving one last look at the advancing Imperial Stormtroopers, he ran as fast as he could to the basement control room.
People were being led to the nearest shelter they could find, herded into stairwells that led down to the ground level. Thel ignored the masses and shouts that he was heading the wrong way. He knew exactly where he was going.
The security grid was on a different power source than the one he had...disabled. True, it was going to take a lot of work to get the systems running again, but no one said staging a coup d'ˇtat would be easy. A datapad he'd swiped from a dead security guard was keyed directly into the grid system he now controlled. And unbeknownst to any of the Nardaans forces, it was still on, recording the movements of everyone in the Palace...and showing him where the Jedi were.
He could have used the Force to try and find them, but that would've entailed uncloaking his presence and allowing them to know where he was. And it was entirely possible that they could do the same thing, so the risk outweighed the benefit. Besides, he had the datapad, so arguing the point was an exercise in futility.
According to the cameras, Skywalker and the Nardaan president were heading for the spire tower. Skywalker's wife was heading for them as well, but along different corridors than either her husband or Thel. As it stood, she might reach them before he did.
Frowning, he tucked the pad into one of the overalls' pockets and quickened his pace, determined to make sure that didn't happen.
With the power down, Luke had no choice but the stairs. He'd thought about levitating up the elevator shaft, but without knowing whether it was blocked by an elevator--or knowing whether he could levitate both himself and another person up that far, he'd opted for the only other choice.
Unfortunately, the President Interim--although in good shape for a man his age--was not moving as fast as Luke would have liked. Verena had stopped once again, and was leaning against the rail for strength.
"Sir, we have to keep going."
"I--don't think--I can make it," the grey-haired man huffed out, his face red from exertion. They'd already gotten a few stories up, but they still had a few more to go before they even reached the first landing pad.
Seeing that Verena truly could go no further, Luke grimaced and used the Force to lift the man from the stairs. If their attacker was tracking them via the Force, this was going to act like a giant beacon light...but he didn't have a choice. If they didn't move fast, then this whole escape was for naught.
The president's eyes went wide at being levitated, but he said nothing. Luke turned and the floating man followed, keeping pace with the Jedi Master and never seeing the strain that began on the Jedi's face.
Mara turned a corner and saw the entrance to the stairwell, the door still half-open as Luke had left it. The sudden relief the sight incurred was dampened by a wave of discord. It was weak enough that she wasn't sure whether it had come from the Force or not, but she wasn't about to start second-guessing.
She scanned the area for trouble, then seeing none, headed for the door. Halfway there, a sudden smothered feeling echoed through her, and she dived for the floor even as a blaster bolt cut the air where her head had just been.
She tucked and rolled, coming up in a crouch and turning to face where the bolt had come from--a doorway with its door only slightly open. A quick dash to the same side of the hallway as the door eliminated the attacker's advantage, but Mara wasn't about to stay still. Pulling her lightsaber free, but not activating it, she crept along the wall until she reached the door, not sure whether the person would retreat further into the room, or try to hide close to the door. If it was her as the attacker, she would have stayed next to the door, hoping for the marked person to stay to one side of the doorway, so she could put an accurately placed lightsaber blade through the wall and into the person on the other side.
That realization saved her, because she dodged just in time to save herself from being skewered on a thin, fiery red blade of light. Her own lightsaber flared to life, casting a pale blue glow amid the red taint of the hallway. The cool light beat away the shadows as surely as the sight of the blade had dismissed her attacker's possible identities to only one person.
"Basulra Erulane, I presume?" Mara called out, as her feet shifted into a proper battle stance. To her surprise, she heard a soft chuckle come from the room, and her attacker emerged.
The dueling colors of light gave a violet hint to him, but it was the same man as before. The red-orange blade was set in front of him just as hers was, and Mara couldn't help feeling a sense of unease flow through her.
"My friends call me 'Baz' for short," he smirked, but she knew it was an alias. She didn't bother asking him for his real name, since if he truly was once an Emperor's Hand, he would never give it.
"You'll have to go through me to get to the President," she replied, and shifted over so that she blocked the hallway--and the stairwell--behind her.
He shook his head. "I have my primary objective right here, actually." He feinted a lunge from the left, then turned the slash into an underhand arc that would take off her legs, if it connected. He wasn't too surprised to find her blade blocking his--she'd had to take a step back, but already she was shifting her weight back, and pushing his blade off to the side. He took a step back as well.
"Not bad," he commented, bringing his blade back up to the fore. "You've remembered your training."
"Have you, I wonder?" Mara answered, hoping to catch him a little off guard. His eyes narrowed, but even that was gone as quick as it had appeared. "What did you mean about your primary objective?"
"Nothing," he replied, and a sour look crossed his face. Apparently he let something slip he should've have, and now he was paying for it. She'd gotten the main gist of it, though. With the lightsaber and his various obscure comments, it wasn't too hard to piece together.
"You're working for the Imperials, but you've got your own agenda, isn't that right?" She asked as she blocked another attack, this time from the right. "The President was the secondary objective; the ambassadors were the first."
He said nothing, but even that was confirmation enough for Mara. "The bomb in the plaza was you, the ambush was yours--but none of these had specific targets. The acts of a terrorist, not an assassin."
She pressed her attack and swung low, forcing him to block from an awkward angle. Still, he stepped out of it gracefully and parried, bringing them to a neutral position. "I do what I'm hired to do, nothing more," he replied.
"Hiring out the skills the Emperor gave you? He wouldn't be happy about that."
"The Emperor's dead," he said darkly, then lunged forward again. Mara blocked high, then low and to the left, before turning and making a thrust at his chest. He knocked it away with only a slight evidence of awkwardness and disuse of ability.
This did not escape Mara's notice. "Maybe some skills more than others, huh?"
His jaw tightened, his demeanor now deadly silent. She had the sudden feeling that she may have gone a step too far, and reached out for Luke.
He'd been keeping track of the battle as well as climbing stairs, shunting the pain from his shoulder, and levitating the interim President, but her active contact forced him to discard one of the tasks. It wasn't a hard decision to stop, and he was certainly glad to let the man down so he could focus on what Mara was saying.
/Luke, I think he isn't after Verena--not specifically, anyway./
He frowned, knowing that just because the assassin wasn't directly after the Nardaan leader, he wasn't in any less danger. /Then who is he after? Us?/
/I think so. Maybe it's only me he's after./ He sensed her thoughts focus back to her own surroundings, fighting back a slash by parrying, then continued. /I don't know how much longer I can keep him from following you./
A tendril of fear wormed its way through Luke's weary mind--he wasn't sure if it was his fear, or his wife's. /I'm coming to join you./
In an earlier time, she might have argued against it, but she knew from experience that together they were more powerful than apart. /I wouldn't mind if you came sooner than later, Luke./
/I understand. I'll be there shortly./ He pushed back another wave of fear and turned to the President. "My wife is in trouble; she's met up with the assassin and I need to go to her. She thinks he isn't after you, but I recommend that you keep heading up the stairs until you reach a landing platform."
The other man nodded. "Don't worry about me--go and help her."
Without waiting another second, Luke headed down the stairs, back to the floor he'd come from and hoping that Mara was right, after all.
"We need to get the power back," Thordis said, trying to explain his logic while the other two men had other concerns. Stopped at a point where they would either stay together or split up, it was clear that something needed to be done first--which action that was, was the problem.
"What we need is to get down to ground level and try to coordinate the defense, or else the power will be moot!" Dugass replied, his face almost purple in the reddish light of the hallway.
"If we don't get troops over here and the grid back online, the defenses will be moot!" Paguarda countered. "I suggest we split up, then. I'll head up the spire and try to get above the jamming. Dugass, send someone from your personnel to fix the grid. Thordis, you take one of the guards and head off--"
"I won't need guards where I'm going," Thordis interrupted, already moving down the hallway. "You'll know if it works."
Thordis glanced back once, to make sure that the other two men were on their way, then focused ahead of him and drew on memories from several years' past.
When he'd been a young man, freshly recruited for the military, the leader of the time had been extremely cautious...almost to the point of paranoia. Each system had a redundancy back-up for emergency situations such as this, including the power generator. As a new recruit, he wouldn't have normally known about it, or even known its location-- except for the fact that he was of those assigned to help move the massive parts down below the right wing of the Palace. When the leader had been replaced, the new leader had seen the power system as an extravagance, and had it disconnected--not disassembled, though. The leaders that came after never knew about it, since it was never an issue; the original power generator was virtually flawless and underneath the Palace itself. By the time the Empire arrived, only a handful still knew about the redundant power system, and none of them ever told the Imperials about it.
Explaining this to the others had been futile--they were concerned with their own individual plans, not seeing the bigger picture. If he could get the power back online, then everything else would fall into place.
Red emergency light was everywhere, as Sorn ran in search of the security room. Without the normal overhead light that he was used to, he had to stop and read the markers carefully before moving on to the next door. When he did reach the room, it turned out that he didn't need to read the sign. The door was already open.
And, if his hearing was all right, someone was inside, too.
He braced his back against the wall to the left of the door opening, aware that he didn't have a blaster, and hoping he wouldn't need one. Deciding to take a chance, he glanced into the darkened room for any signs of life.
Four bodies lay on the floor, with deep scorch marks burned into their uniforms. The room smelled of burnt flesh and blood, and one guard had his arm much farther away from his body than naturally possible-- something a lightsaber might have done, a professionally detached side of him noted.
The sound had stopped, but he could hear breathing echoing faintly in the small room. Hoping for a survivor rather than an assailant, he called out, "Who's in there?"
"Sorn?" a female voice responded softly. "Is that you?"
"Teria?" He walked into the room, his eyes squinting from the glare of computer screens--the only thing with power in the Palace was the grid, apparently. But why would a saboteur even bother to keep the power to the grid computers on?
Teria surfaced from behind the computer console, her face pale even in the light from the hall. "I--I thought...I was afraid that whoever did this had come back." He looked her over to make sure she was okay, and noticed how badly her hands were shaking. Then he remembered what she had been doing while the rest of them were elsewhere in the Palace, and his eyes widened from the horror of the thought.
"You--you weren't *here* when this happened, were you? Where's Mara?"
Teria shook her head, and hugged her arms around her as if to keep away a chill. "Thankfully, no. Mara and I were in my rooms when the power went out. I have a separate power supply for my computer, but it won't last for too long. I couldn't access the grid from there, anyway-- Mara sent me down here while she went to join her husband."
He came over and rested a hand on her shoulder. "Are you all right? Your hands are shaking."
She breathed in deeply, then sighed. "I'll be fine. Just need to get my wits back, that's all."
He wished that's all it was, too. Unfortunately, any delving into it would take more time than they had to work with, and so he walked over to one of the glowing screens instead. "Have you gotten anywhere with this?"
She turned as well, thankful for the change in subject. "No, I haven't. Whoever it was knew the system well enough to change the access codes. He also set up walls and flags to make sure others couldn't get in. I've been trying every trick I know, and I've gotten nowhere."
"Can you restart the computer, and hope it'll reset itself to the default mode?"
She frowned, "I thought of that, but it has an internal power supply for the memory. Even if it did default, the new access code and lockouts would still be there. And the power supply is welded to the main processor, so you can't just rip it out," Teria added, seeing that was his next idea. "If you did take out the power supply, it would erase everything, not just the codes."
"Ah. So, any chance that there's a way to separate the main computer grid from the rest of the grid?"
She turned and looked at his profile in the pale light from the screen. "What do you mean?"
"Well, the main computer controls the actions of the grid, but the defenses outside have their own system from the manufacturer, which is then made compatible with the security system. If I could slice into the individual system, and substitute my datapad for the main computer..."
"You'll have to emulate the main system ID code for it to work. Can a datapad do that?"
He shrugged. "It's our only option at this point. Unless you've got another idea...?"
She shook her head, "Fresh out, I'm afraid. Let's get started then, before the Palace ends up falling on our heads."
The back-up generator was more than a bit dusty, but the tight seal on the door had kept the room relatively clean. Thordis gave it a thorough once-over before making the necessary connections and starting it up.
Or trying to start it up, anyway. As expected, anything sitting unused for that long of time was apt to be stubborn about a change of status. Several minutes went by until Thordis spotted a cord hanging loose within the control panel, found the corresponding slot for the cord, and tried it once again. This time, the generator started with a sullen roar, and after a few seconds, the lights flickered once, twice, then stayed on.
He smiled in triumph and headed out the door, making sure to lock it after him.
Mara blinked at the sudden flare of white light into the hallway, her eyes already having adjusted to the red tint. Her adversary did the same, and attempted to use the distraction to push his attack. However, he was at the same disadvantage, so Mara deflected the attack easily.
Both were sweating profusely, the battle winding down from fierce and swift attacks into careful, prowling swipes. Mara's skill with the lightsaber had compensated for the lack of power behind her blows, but his strength had only slightly faltered, while hers had dropped. She was used to quick, decisive battles, not prolonged duels. Though the lightsaber weighted almost nothing, her defensive posture continued to lower, millimeter by millimeter.
The dark-haired man saw this as well, but didn't make a hasty move--her skill was better than his, and she might be exaggerating to try and lure him into attacking from a vulnerable position. "Waiting for your husband to finish your fight, are we?"
Her eyes narrowed, "So you're sparring verbally, now? Or were you hoping to make me angry so I'd do something foolish?"
"It's only a matter of time before you can't hold up that blade any longer."
"The Force is on my side."
"The Force is a crutch," he growled, then lunged. Mara beat it back, but just barely. "The people who use it aren't strong enough on their own. They think that it'll strengthen them, when all it does is make them weak and dependent."
On a certain level, Mara tended to agree, which irked her. But there was one thing he'd forgotten. "What about someone who can use the Force, but never does? Does that make them strong, or afraid?"
"Afraid?" He sneered. "Of what?"
"Afraid of the power and responsibility that goes with it. Afraid to handle any task that requires it because you're scared you'll be sucked into using it again, and again...until you can't control yourself any longer."
"I'm in control," he countered, then feinted and tried to swipe at her legs. She pulled back and returned the attack, almost managing to throw him off-balance. Almost.
"Mental control, not physical. You're afraid to let go."
"How would you know?"
"I know, because I was in your place, not so long ago."
He stared at her, and saw she was telling the truth. "But you aren't stronger than me."
"She's stronger in several different ways," a new voice called out, and Mara smiled faintly. The presence was cloaked from Thel, but he knew it had to be Skywalker. "She has a strength of integrity, of purpose, and of resolve. Her strength of character makes most people pale in comparison. I'd say that includes you." Skywalker emerged from a side passage, possibly having been there for a while.
With both of them together, his advantage was at an end. Seeing this, he decided to change tactics. With a sour taste in his mouth for what he was about to do, he grabbed hold of the Force and threw it into Mara like a battering ram, causing her to land in a heap several meters from where she originally stood. As expected, her husband was also affected by the blow, and Thel used the opportunity to make his escape.
The force of the blow was a pale shadow of what Mara had felt, but it still caused Luke's knees to buckle from the sudden pain. Somehow she'd managed to de-activate the lightsaber, but that small miracle went unrecognized as Luke stumbled over to his wife's side.
"Mara..." he called, hoping to penetrate the haze of her pain.
She replied through gritted teeth, "I'm...okay. He's getting away- -you have to stop him--"
He did a quick check through the Force for any internal injuries, but found none. "Will you be all right?"
"Just go," she tried to wave him on, but the pain it caused stopped her, mid-action. He brushed the hair from her face and kissed her lightly on the forehead.
/I'll be back soon/, he promised, then unhooked his lightsaber and ran after Thel, his anger only barely held in check.
Before the power came back on, Oresh Paguarda had been climbing the stairs and hoping he'd make it to the top before his legs gave out. He'd found Verena slowly making it up the stairs, alone, and the President explained the whole situation to him--he must have missed running into Luke by a matter of a couple of minutes. It was shortly after this realization that the lights flickered, then blared to life. And with that, the understanding that the lifts would now be working, as well.
Wasting no time, Oresh and Verena headed down to the nearest floor level. A lift car appeared shortly after, and soon both of them were heading to the top of the spire, grateful for the turn of events.
At the first docking platform, the President's shuttle waited patiently, the crew having prepared the craft per crisis parameters. Soon the President was away from the Palace and into relative safety.
Oresh continued on up until he reached as high on the spire as he could go. With any luck, the jamming field extended more outward than upward.
"This is Commander Oresh Paguarda of the New Republic. If any Republic or Nardaan forces can hear me, please respond."
A few seconds of static passed by, then a voice came over the comm. "This is the New Republic base, Lieutenant Tisyn here. What's going on? We've been trying to contact the Palace, but we haven't gotten a response."
"The Palace is under attack by Imperial faction members--they have the entire area jammed and the security grid is down. What forces we have are holding them off, but not for too much longer." He looked down over the battle field, seeing the positions of the enemy clearly. If only he could communicate that to Dugass, Portanse, and the others down below...
"We already have a squadron scrambled and heading your way. I'm patching you now through to the squadron leader," the Lieutenant added, "and I've got our nearest ground forces heading over, as well."
"Good." A change in static occurred, and a new voice came over the line, deeper and older than the lieutenant's.
"This is Green Leader. Commander, what does the situation look like? Are there any enemy fighters, any anti-air craft on the ground?"
He detailed the enemy tactics on the ground thoroughly, then scanned the horizon for fighters. "I don't see any--" He broke off as dark spots against the sky appeared from the direction of the lake. "Green Leader, sensor check from the area around the lake. What are those out there?"
A dark silence ensued, then the X-Wing leader replied, "Looks like they have TIEs, Commander. And they're on an intercept course, heading straight for us."
Down in the security room, they were meeting with better success. Having figured out a way to hook up the datapad to the Palace weapon defenses outside, they now only had to change the system ID of the datapad to match the main system. After that, it would be a matter of point and shoot, since Sorn would have to act as the brains of the grid. Unfortunately, that's where they were hitting a snag.
"Maybe if I erase the original ID number, it'll accept it..."
Teria shook her head tiredly, "It won't do that. You need to emulate the ID, not replace it."
"Then how?" Sorn replied, tempted to throw the stubborn datapad against the wall. "We've already tried changing file paths, and it won't allow me to change the ID number."
"Here, give me that," she held her hands out, and he reluctantly handed over the datapad. She scowled over the display, accessing different parts of the system in search of the solution.
Sorn knew when she'd found it, when she'd cried out in revelation, "That's it!"
She ignored the question. "We need to create a parallel framework within the datapad, and give it the main system's ID. We can't replace the datapad's ID, but if we access the defense systems through this additional frame, it will search out the ID number only within the frame, not the entire datapad."
"I see. How do you create a new frame?"
"Well..." she paused, then saw a flaw in her idea. "We need to have a different system as the basis of the new frame. If we made a duplicate of the datapad's system framework, it would copy the datapad ID."
"What if we just use that?" He jerked a thumb back to the main system. He smiled as her eyes light back up.
"Yes! That would be perfect. It would even copy the ID number."
"Aren't you glad I'm here to think of these things?"
She gave him a dubious glance, but it didn't fade the smile on her face. "Of course. Now, let's get to work...and hope it won't be too late."
The X-Wing squadron leader didn't like the odds--the TIEs outnumbered them three to two--but in atmosphere the TIEs were slower and less maneuverable, causing them to lose their main advantage. He could risk sending one of the X-Wings off to strafe the Imperial ground forces, but not more than that.
"Green Six, I need you to continue heading for the main target, while we engage the TIEs. One of the troop vehicles has a jamming device, so look for anything that might have an antenna, or any added equipment that the others don't have. You'll be directly patched in to Commander Paguarda, so he'll give you the status and layout of the enemy forces. Good luck, and may the Force be with you."
Green Six, a professional as all his wingmates were, only replied in the affirmative on his orders. If he didn't like his assignment, or felt boastful for being singled out, he didn't show it. The commander soon came over the comm, giving him tactical information on the layout in the street. Already he was close enough to see what Commander Paguarda was describing--the Nardaan forces, taken off-guard, were trenched in a defensive position on the two entrances to the Palace, neither groups realizing that the other was also fighting for their lives.
Explosions had caused the glowing white building to turn ashen, its surface now stained with the carbon black of smoke. The Imperial faction's forces circled the building, keeping the defense forces in-- although in truth, if the Palace defenses hadn't been crippled and the communications systems been jammed, the coup wouldn't have lasted this long. The Imperials were relying on a swift victory, but already the fighting had dragged on too long.
"Green Six, I think I've figured out which of the troop carriers is the lead one. There's also a troop carrier out beyond the range of the immediate fighting, with a medium-sized box attached to the side of it that the others don't have--I'm willing to bet that's the one we need to take out."
"Affirmative, Commander--I see it," he replied, spotting the carrier as well. "I'm setting up for my attack run...aiming proton torpedoes."
After Dugass had joined them, Jerad Portanse noticed the troop's morale increase slightly. He'd never know him to be a personable man, but he knew how to lead his men and spot weaknesses in the enemy's defenses. Unfortunately, they still couldn't reach anyone by comlink, and the Palace defenses were still silent. Even with increased morale, they couldn't stave off the Imperial forces forever. And if they got inside and managed to use those defenses for their own advantage, then the battle would become a costly war.
"I can't figure out which vehicle has the jamming device," Dugass was saying after dropping back behind cover, and stowing his macrobinoculars for the moment. "I don't think it's nearby."
"It's also too risky to have someone leave cover and try to reconnoiter--we need all our manpower at the defenses."
"We need to do *something*, or else our defenses are just delaying the inevitable."
Jerad had to agree. But there were Jedi in the Palace, as well as other staff members--Dugass himself mentioned that someone had gone to try and fix the power, and Commander Paguarda was supposed to be heading up the spire, to try and contact his forces outside the jamming device's influence. If they could just hold on--
The distant whine cut through his thoughts, the distinctive sound causing him to smile. He saw other men looking upwards, hoping to see the source of the noise. Paguarda had done it, unless the Imperials here were using X-Wings instead of TIEs.
He needn't have worried. At the sound of the X-Wing, the Imperial faction split their laser fire between the defense troops and the craft, hoping to shoot it down before it caused any damage. It was futile though, because the whistle of incoming torpedoes drowned out the sound of laser fire. A troop carrier exploded, pieces of shrapnel flying everywhere. Another whistling noise followed, and another carrier was turned to fiery slag. On a hunch, Jerad checked his comlink, and noticed others doing the same.
He smiled at the absence of static, and turned to Dugass. "Looks like we've saved, sir."
"Indeed," Dugass nodded, his face grim despite the moment. He grabbed his own comlink and started barking orders, even while the X- Wing pilot finally came within range of using his lasers. Fire and smoke covered the battle scene, while soldiers took advantage of the Imperial's confusion. They were still outnumbered, but now they could see a possibility of winning, and used it for all it was worth.
The corridors all looked the same after awhile, but for Thel, finding the passageway he'd used earlier had been easy. Skywalker was still after him, but with his presence cloaked, he wasn't having an easy time of it. All the better, since had no intention of fighting him. If it came down to Thel's power versus Skywalker's, he knew who would win.
Bitterly, he wished in hindsight that he'd brought a ysalamiri with him, but he couldn't have anticipated that the New Republic would send a Jedi ambassador. Considering how politically distant the Jedi were, it was an odd concept in of itself.
Mulling over the Skywalkers caused him to grab his datapad, and check to see where they were. It confused him at first when he was greeted with a blank screen, then an error message. He tried accessing the grid again, but no luck.
Anger threatened to take control just then--someone had managed to cut off his authority over the security systems. He ran through his options as he ran, unconsciously making his way to the Palace back corridors and heading down to ground level.
He could try climbing out a window and making a run for it, but on foot his chances of escaping were shaky, to say the least. The Jedi knew what he looked like, so he couldn't just blend into the background. He also couldn't use his fake ID to get off-planet, since they knew of that, too.
Trying to regain control of the security grid seemed a bit foolhardy, but he *had* been paid well for his skills, and to see it unravel was ruining both his chances of getting hired again, and ruining his pride. How had they bypassed his lock-out?
He took a risk and sought out the security room through the Force, to determine if the ones who'd stymied him were still there. Two humans, a male and female. Nothing he couldn't take care of, really. He felt a faint wave of frustration from them, letting him know they weren't completely successful yet. A grim smile appeared on his face, and he promised himself that even though his own personal mission had failed, the rest of the job would be done thoroughly.
"Almost there--all right! We've got a new frame," Teria announced. "Now let's just hope this works."
"Think positive, Teria."
"If it'll increase our chances of getting it to work, sure thing," she replied, trying not to let her worry show. As she continued to set up and prepare the new frame, she thought back on everything Sorn had said and done when he'd shown up at the security room's door. "You know a bit about computers?"
"Some. I wanted to be a slicer when I was young, but my father was dead set against it, of course."
"'Of course'? I'd say so, if you're talking about becoming a criminal."
Flustered at the implication, he stammered out, "No, nothing like that. A slicer for the good guys. But my father was in security--selling defense weaponry, actually--so that wasn't going to happen."
She smiled at the sliver of personal information--here was a side to the stoic bodyguard that she didn't know. She tweaked a couple of last things into place, and handed the datapad over to him. "That's how you knew about the Palace security system, right?"
"It's not my father's system, but it's a kind I'm familiar with. All set?"
"Ready as we'll ever be." She bit back another wish for the thing to work, and somehow Sorn noticed the unspoken comment. He smiled in reassurance, and keyed the datapad to query the defenses for status. Almost immediately, the datapad's screen filled with the ratio of enemy units against friendlies, pinpointed enemy locations, and distances between troop carriers. His smile turned into a grin as he started to set the defenses to auto-fire on enemy targets, and Teria allowed herself to hope a little, after all.
The Force was still held tight around him to shield his position, so he didn't dare reach out to check how far Skywalker was behind him-- or whether his wife had recovered from the blow and followed them. The voices up ahead, though, told him that the two people in the security room were still there, and from the jubilant tone, it appeared they'd been successful.
Something he was going to have to change. The voices stopped as he got closer to the room, and by the time he reached the doorway, the room was tense from the artificial silence--they'd obviously heard him coming, and stopped whatever they had been working on. He didn't think either of them were armed, but it never hurt to be cautious.
He was about to abandon the shield in favor of searching them out through the Force, but just before he did , he glanced down at his uniform...and the realization made him pause. No matter who was in that room, they wouldn't fire on one of their own maintenance men.
Thel walked into the opening of the room cautiously, but with a slight bravado that one would expect from someone who considered the lower depths of the Palace his workplace. "Anyone here?"
The man had placed himself between the woman and the door, a blaster in his hand and trained on the opening. If he'd poked his head in, he was sure that a part of it would have ended up missing. Instead, seeing the uniform caused the man's shoulders to sag with discarded worry. "Sorry about that. I thought you were someone else."
Taking a step closer, Thel entered the room and assumed a non- chalant air. The woman was still behind the young man, but she was partly obscured by the computer's table. He stepped over one of the corpses delicately, hoping the move showed respect and surprise. He spied a long line of wires leading to a port in the wall--they'd overridden the main system by substitution. From the man's own uniform and gun, he looked like a Palace soldier, or someone with security. She didn't seem too important, but he knew well that the most surprising gifts were often in plain wrapping. It was his stock in trade.
Thel grinned in a friendly manner, "Who'd you think I was?"
"The man who did this," the other said in disgust. His sharp, blue eyes looked over the bodies--possibly his own comrades--with a sadness and anger that he didn't try to hide. "If you don't mind my asking, what are you doing down here? This isn't the safest place to be."
The former assassin had make his way past enough bodies that he could see the woman, now. Their eyes met, but instead of a polite or at least neutral expression, he received one of utter horror.
"Sorn, that's him! Basulra Erulane!" She whispered urgently, though the size of the room couldn't hide her words.
"Who?" the man called Sorn asked, worriedly. Thel inched his arm towards his belt, where the lightsaber was safely tucked into an unobtrusive loop. He noticed the man's blaster raising up, but not yet in line with a target. Not yet.
"The assassin who...Sorn, look out!" Thel finished pulling out the lightsaber, but the other man managed to tackle him to the ground first, knocking both his lightsaber and the man--Sorn's--blaster free.
All it would take was a summoning of the Force...the lightsaber would be in his hand, and these two obstacles would be removed. Thel recognized the sour taste in his mouth, and the bitter knowledge that using the Force would help Skywalker pinpoint his location couldn't compete with the idea of using the Force to kill two non-sensitive people. He was better than this. He'd been an Emperor's Hand--he could kill these two without any use of the Force. It would prove to both himself and the Jedi that the Force *was* a crutch that made you weak.
He pushed the man off him, but away from where the blaster and lightsaber had ended up. Thel noted how the black-haired man glanced over to the blaster's position, then quickly back to his foe. That agility and awareness made the choice seem even more fitting--the young man was trained in hand to hand; he could see that from how he stood. Thel knew he was the other man's better, but a true fight would be more...substantial.
"Teria! Get behind the desk!" The man named Sorn yelled, and she frowned in distaste. But whatever dislike she felt at the comment faded sometime after Thel kicked the other man in the stomach, since she'd disappeared from main view by the time he glanced around. He tried to follow up with a blow at the base of the neck, but Sorn recovered faster he thought he would, and the blow never met its target. Thel regained his balance, but he soon realized that the duel with Jade-Skywalker had left him more drained than he'd thought. He was going to have to take this boy out quickly; the girl would be no problem.
Whoever this guy was, he was good...but tired. Moves that looked practiced to perfection took a bit longer to execute; not enough for someone untrained in hand to hand combat to notice, but one that Sorn couldn't help recognizing. He'd been fighting someone earlier, probably the Jedi. The kick had aggravated the cut in his side, but since it hadn't been a direct hit, the pain was tolerable, for now.
He had to prolong this anyway he could, so the assassin would get sloppy. Ignoring the pain from his stomach, Sorn threw a side kick at the older man's knee, but he just stepped to the side and over a corpse, then threw a punch at Sorn's jaw. He managed to deflect the blow and delivered a jab to the kidney. The assassin's legs buckled for an instant, but then he regained some amount of strength and pulled back, favoring that side.
To Sorn's surprise, the man wasted no time in a counter-attack, and it was then that Sorn knew the older man also understood he was weakening--as Sorn attempted to draw the conflict out, the other was trying to end it, as fast as possible.
Seeing he could use that to his advantage, he waited for the swing of the man's fist, grabbed the outstretched arm and pulled, causing the man to head straight for Sorn's upraised knee. The blow to the stomach caused a momentary delay from Sorn's opponent, so he took the opportunity and used the same leg to kick into the side of the other's right knee, then slammed his elbow into the base of the man's skull. The man toppled to the ground, moaning and trying to get back up.
Rushing to his blaster, Sorn grabbed it and set it on stun. The blue corona enveloped the assassin and he slumped to the floor, unconscious.
Sorn let out a deep breath, the adrenaline slowly draining from him and leaving his muscles and side aching. The realization that he'd defeated such a dangerous man didn't reach him until Teria stepped out from behind the desk. And he remembered the corpses of all the guards, still laying where they'd fallen.
His hands started to shake when he began to take it all in. He hardly felt Teria come up beside him, or take one of his hands in hers. "Are you all right, Sorn?"
"I should be asking you that," he replied, trying to catch his breath. With the adrenaline gone, he couldn't ignore the pain in his middle any longer. His other hand clutched around his waist, but he gave her a tense smile. "I'll be fine."
Her gaze went to his side, and her eyes widened. "You're bleeding!"
His fingers rested over the torn area of his uniform, and they came back red with fresh blood. The wound must have opened back up during the fight, Sorn thought darkly. Since his uniform was already dark-colored, she apparently hadn't seen the stain earlier. "It's from earlier today. Just a flesh wound, that's all."
Teria's lips tightened into a line, and Sorn was about to say something when another form darkened the doorway. Fearing another invader, Sorn turned and reached for his blaster, only to find that the person in the doorway was a friend, not a foe.
"What happened?" Luke Skywalker asked in concern and puzzlement, seeing both the dead bodies and the unconscious form of the assassin. He looked to Teria, then back to Sorn.
"I'll tell you in a minute. Let me just sit down here for a second..." Sorn reached out for a nearby chair, but the floor seemed to rebel against him--the edge of the chair was just beyond his grasp, and the room felt like it was sliding forwards, loose from the tethers of gravity. He felt hands grab him and set him down gently onto the solidness of the chair, and the world around him started to refocus.
"Whoa. That wasn't fun." He tried to make it sound light-hearted, but it didn't diminish the grave looks from Teria and Luke.
"Was he hurt?" Luke asked Teria, and she nodded. "He said it's just a flesh wound."
Frowning, Luke bent down to look in Sorn's eyes. Whatever he saw, it didn't encourage him. "Sorn, did you incur any head trauma?"
Head trauma? "Not that I--wait, no. I did," he amended, now recalling the nausea he'd felt after coming to from that explosion. "But it mostly went away, so I thought it wasn't too bad."
Luke turned to face Teria. "Make sure he gets to a medic, sooner rather than later. I think he aggravated more than a flesh wound." He then faced Sorn and said, "Sorn, I wouldn't have wanted this to happen to you, but you've done an excellent job, here. You stopped a former Emperor's Hand...something I can personally attest to as being a life- threatening experience."
Sorn shrugged, but even that effort fuzzed up his mind. "Uh, well, you guys softened him up, first."
"Maybe so, but you ended it. Something a Jedi wasn't able to do, earlier," Luke smiled, and rose to his full height. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," he answered back, the reply more perfunctory than anything else. After tying him up, and sending the assassin into a deeper sleep than the stun blast could provide, the Jedi Master left, leaving the two Chuathra members alone.
"C'mon, let's get you to a medic. We can't have you passing out while on guard duty."
Sorn smiled at the thought, "Yeah, that *would* be a bad thing. Someone has to take care of them, and it seems Jedi attract trouble like bitflies to blood." Teria agreed, and helped him up to a standing position. Her eyes focused on the floor, and he followed her gaze to the unconscious assassin.
"Should we just leave him here? What if he wakes up?"
"I don't think he's going anywhere for awhile. But just to make sure..." Sorn reached for his comlink, then stopped. Was the jamming still in place? Hoping against hope, he pulled the comlink free and turned it on. When the sound of voices appeared, he let out a grateful sigh, then called into the comlink, "This is Sorn Kurros, a bodyguard of the Chuathra. We have the assassin in custody. If you want him, he's out cold in the security room."
Sorn paused, then added soberly, "All four of the security guards in here are dead, by his hand. Please exercise extreme caution when handling him. If you need to talk to me, I'll be in the medcenter." He left the line open only long enough to get a confirmation he'd been heard, then switched it off.
"All right, *now* let's go."
Teria smiled and tightened her hold on Sorn. "So, do you have any plans later?"
He threw her a puzzled look. "Aside from resting and healing up, not really. Why?"
She shrugged, "Just wondering." She said nothing more than that, and he risked a glance at her. The sudden enigmatic quality she'd taken on baffled him. Why ask about something like that? The puzzlement only deepened as they headed over to the medcenter, her hold on him more secure than it really needed to be. He couldn't help reciprocating the gesture, though, and along the way he mused that she was one mystery he wouldn't mind trying to solve.
Even in the thick of battle, the outcome for the X-Wings and the TIEs was obvious. The TIEs, with their speed and maneuverability diminished in the atmosphere, couldn't rout the polished X-Wing squadron--even with almost twice the numbers. When Green Six rejoined his squadron, he was grieved to find two of his wingmates missing, although the knowledge that 90% of the TIEs were decimated helped place their deaths in perspective. They weren't Rogue Squadron by any stretch of the imagination, and to come away from a sortie against such odds, having so few casualties...well, he had to wonder at this all-powerful Force that the Jedi believed in.
With the jamming frequency gone, and Imperial Commander Bayard dead thanks to a well-placed proton torpedo, it was only a matter of time before the faction was defeated and the remaining troops surrendered to the Nardaan and New Republic forces. Jerad Portanse mused on how right it felt to be here, among the troops, and how uncomfortable and out of place he felt when acting as an ambassador. What had been meant as a promotion was a burden to him, and he contemplated his future in the short amount of time left before the ceremony broadcast would start; where most people would stop or reschedule a ceremony like this, the Nardaans were a stubborn and pragmatic group. The Plaza had not been affected by the attack, the President was safe from harm--as were all the ambassadors--and the Imperial faction was dissolved. They saw no reason to postpone it unreasonably, since to their mind, there wasn't a reason to do so.
Determined to have the kind of future he wanted, he returned to the Palace with plans to speak with the one person who could change things for better--and hopefully, not just for him.
Luke found Mara not far from where she'd fallen, upright but hugging the wall for strength. He grimaced at the sight and said, "Considering how you're feeling right now, are you sure that's a good idea?"
"Compared to some, I'm doing great," she gave him a faint grin. "I take it that Erulane--or whoever he was--is no longer a problem?"
He stepped to her side, and she leaned on him for support. "He's in custody--I just heard it over the comlink."
She nodded. "I could feel the tide of the battle turning, through the Force. The Nardaans lost a few people today, but it could have been worse."
"Much worse," Luke agreed. They hobbled over to the lift, which took them up to their suite's floor. "Are you up for being an ambassador, today? The ceremony's still planned to go on, mostly as scheduled."
"I suppose so," Mara replied. "Same time, even?"
"That's what they're shooting for, but I don't think a long delay would surprise anyone."
"As strange as it sounds, it's probably a good thing--the Nardaan people would rally behind such a show of force, and using the moment can only help create solidarity." They came up on their room faster than both had expected, and a glance around the interior showed that it wasn't a victim of enemy fire. Before she left his embrace, she noticed that the pain from his earlier wound was creeping back and helped ease it a bit with the Force.
Her husband smiled gratefully. "Thanks. I'm getting so tired, I'm losing track of what hurts."
"Better to get this over with, then. After this, we'll take a long, long rest somewhere."
"Sounds good to me. Maybe we'll get a chance to talk, as well."
The statement only puzzled her for the briefest of seconds, then she scowled with unchecked distaste. "Luke, let's not get into this right now, all right? We're both tired, and we're preoccupied. When we get past all this--"
"I just don't understand why you keep putting this off. Is there something I don't about?" The statement was ridiculous, but he couldn't explain her attitude any other way.
She sighed in a mixture of frustration and annoyance, then turned away and headed over to the terrace. He followed, not willing to give up the conversation--he feared the idea of an unresolved conflict between them more than the annoyed wrath of his wife.
She wasn't surprised when he came up behind her, and rested his hands on her shoulders. "I don't want to push you into anything, Mara, but I have to know what the problem is. It scares me that you won't tell me what's wrong."
Mara let her breath out slowly, a calming technique he was very familiar with. "Luke, there isn't anything wrong--at least, not with me. If there's a problem here, I think it's you."
"Me?" His tone was defensive. "What are you talking about?"
She turned to face him, her expression and sense through the Force showing nothing but concern. "Luke, why do you want to have children so badly?"
"Because..." he trailed off, not really having ever thought on this before. "Because I do, I guess. I can't explain why."
"Do you think it might have something to do with your father? To prove that you're not the same man...that you can be a better father than he was."
Luke was ready to deny it, but the words had struck a chord in him. Hadn't he wanted to show that he wasn't like his father, when he faced off against the Emperor all those years ago? And hadn't he been doing the same thing in little ways ever since, trying to shake the specter of his father's dark legacy by striving to be the perfect Jedi?
His shoulders sagged, the weight of the revelation taking him by surprise. "I...I hadn't even thought of that, Mara. Is that why you've been so hesitant on this?"
She nodded, and he felt her worry and sadness wash over him like salt water on an open wound. He gathered her up in his arms, ignoring the pain from his shoulder and holding her close. "Mara, I'm so sorry. If I'd realized it sooner, I wouldn't have put you through all this." He pulled away slightly, to look at her. "You *do* still want children, don't you?"
She smiled wanly, "Of course. But I don't want any child of ours to be the victim of our own self-doubts and fears. I think we ought to let things stay as they are for awhile, just to make sure we aren't having kids for misguided reasons."
He agreed, and kissed her lightly. "But not for too long, I hope. I think having that rest on a nice, tranquil planet will help us immensely."
Mara caught a flicker of undercurrent to that comment, and she quirked a smile at him, amused. "So, you're planning to seduce your wife, is that it?"
"Well, it never hurts to try."
"I thought that was 'do', not 'try'."
He gave her a sly look. "So, you *have* been paying attention."
"I've been paying attention for a long time...it's just that you're only now noticing it."
He smiled gently, looking at his wife in renewed appreciation. "I'm a very lucky man, aren't I?"
"Yes, dear. Now hurry up and get changed before the ceremony starts without us."
Giving her a mock salute, he headed back into the suite. Mara
lingered a little on the terrace, looking out beyond the battle scars to
the untouched city. The relief she had at finally voicing her fear made
her feel lighter than she'd felt for months. Maybe it was a good idea to
rest and relax in a nice quiet spot, and if things went well, they could
always try. Or do, she amended with a crooked grin.
If you hadn't already known a failed coup d'ˇtat had taken place, the appearance and demeanor of the guests of honor and officials would never have given it away. President Interim Verena had the interim removed from his title, and his speech to the public was stirring and heartfelt. Freedom had been won at great cost, and he cautioned them to not mistreat such an expensive privilege. There wasn't any need to worry, since the battle-scarred Palace was a sign of how close they'd come to losing it once again.
Gamaliel Thordis sat as the Nardaan ambassador to the New Republic, which surprised many. News quickly spread that Jerad Portanse had resigned his position as ambassador and speculation flew as to why. Was it scandal? Had he been injured? Only the innermost group knew the truth, however. Being with the troops, fighting alongside them and helping defend the Palace--that's where he needed to be, so he said. He had suggested Gamaliel as a temporary replacement, and the old man agreed, though with the understanding that he wasn't taking it as a permanent position.
After the inaugural ceremony, and all the pomp and circumstance was over with, Luke and Mara said their good-byes and quickly left to pack, eager to move on and get some well-deserved rest. Their ship left a hour later, the ending to their trip almost as quiet as when they'd arrived.
The first thing he saw was grey; the walls, ceiling and floor were variations on the same shade. His hands were unbound and he had a change of clothes on--prison garb, he noted grimly. That's where he had to be, then, considering the cramped quarters and the endless grey.
Derro Thel swung his legs over the side of the cot, and tried to clear the last of the fuzziness. The last thing he remembered was the blow to his neck, then hitting the ground--felled by his own mistake in judgement. He assumed that he could beat the younger man, but his opponent was quicker than him, and recovered faster. He should have just used the Force to call his lightsaber back to him and killed the both of them. If he had, then he wouldn't be here right now.
When he thought about it, though, he realized the other man hadn't gone for his blaster until Thel was on the floor, and then only to stun him. Even though Thel would have surely killed him and the woman, the other man had no such impulse. The Emperor would have called him a fool to leave his foe alive, but it had been years since his death, and Thel recognized a lack of honor in killing an downed opponent. It made him wonder about the purpose of order and chaos, and whether he'd been mistaken...
The sound of voices outside halted his contemplation, and he thought he recognized one of the voices. It wasn't the Jedi, nor the young man he'd fought...but the voice was male, and relatively young. He stretched out with the Force in distaste, not liking the fact he needed to use it, but only needing to know who the man was.
The door opened just after he found out, his face still reflecting surprise when the younger man looked inside. He brushed dark blonde hair from his eyes and squinted at the greyness. "Ready for a change in scenery?"
"Faron, how did you--"
"There's a reason I'm still alive, and it's not because I have a stunning personality." Faron cocked his head to the side, and his accomplice showed himself; it was the man who had followed him from the spaceport, back when he'd first arrived. "If we break you out, you help us get off-planet. Deal?"
"Deal," Thel replied, not having much of a choice. "How long until the guard comes back?"
"Not long. The distraction should have most of them on the other end of the building, and it's lucky for us that the prison isn't near the Palace--most of the troops are over there. Since this prison was built by our guys, it wasn't hard to get around the security system."
Thel grimaced, but said nothing. He grabbed the proffered uniform and slipped it over his prison grey. It was a tight fit, but at least he now matched his rescuers. He said little as they left the prison, rigged keycards allowing them passage to the outside, and a subtle Force manipulation keeping any suspicious on-lookers from watching too closely.
A speeder waited nearby, and Thel climbed into the back while Faron and his buddy took the front. As they made their way to the spaceport, he tapped the nameless man on the shoulder and asked him his name.
Thel wanted to laugh, but he could tell the man was serious. "You're aware that the Nardaans and New Republic know that was my alias?" The man nodded quietly, and he saw another reason why they'd gone to the trouble of breaking him out. They needed new identities, but without the resources of the Imperial faction behind them, they had no way to do it.
"I work alone. You both know that."
Faron held up a hand defensively. "I'm only asking a favor for a favor. We won't tag along."
"Good. Head for the south side of the port...there's a Rodian who does quick IDs. They aren't the best, but the faster it's done, the better we can get out of here without being spotted."
At their assent, he relaxed into the seat and thought about the future. With this recent debacle, his reputation was tarnished--he supposed that another person in his place would try to seek revenge on the Jedi, but he knew it was an useless exercise. The person who hired him had wanted chaos, and he'd delivered it...but next time, he wouldn't be so careless as to place himself within reach of two Jedi.