Io lifted her head at the sound of Namie's voice. They were leaving? But- but what if Pacer was still alive somewhere on the planet's surface?
She swung her legs over the side of the bed, hopped up, and ran through the ship to try to delay the liftoff. "WAIT- Namie!" She yelled as she skidded into the cockpit, "We can't leave yet! What about Pacer?" her voice was frantic.
It was then that she sensed someone behind her, and it was then she realized she was still wearing the tattered, once-beautiful dress whose hemline had risen quite significantly as a result of their last battle. She felt her face begin to burn as she slowly turned her head.
Namie sprawled crosswise in the pilot's seat of the Wallet, twirling a small hydrospanner in one hand and frowning at it idly.
Bothawui wasn't safe -- that much was painfully clear. They needed to get off the planet. They needed to...
Run. Namie shivered. Was it the Force, whispering to her? The thought made her cold despite the muggy atmosphere outside that the ship's air scrubbers couldn't quite dispel. She wanted nothing to do with the Force right now.
If they left Bothawui, where would they go? The galaxy was a big place, but the range of the ship's hyperdrive and the current state of galactic affairs limited their options badly. Somewhere out of the way...somewhere independent, but small enough not to tempt the Mandalorian war machine. Namie chewed on her lip for a minute, then pulled out her comm.
"Ronin? This is--" the Fat Wallet, she almost said before snapping her mouth shut before the words could get out. Sure, Namie, announce your presence to the whole planet, even if it is an encrypted channel. "the Nar Shaddaa intergalactic taxi service."
Their elated laughter expanded to fill the room, pushing out every hint of despair. Though Zana did not know much about engine repairs, it all seemed so natural to her at the moment. Kanner handed her a component with a smile, grease smeared on the side of his face. She chuckled. This all felt so familiar. Her hearts began to beat faster with excitement as they locked eyes.
Amidst her current joy Zana couldn’t help to feel as though things were… off… somehow. Something felt out of place. She decided to ignore it. Kanner was smirking his devilishly handsome smirk as he tossed his hydrospanner aside. “Come’re.” he said in a jestful tone as he reached out with his hand to grasp her shoulder.
The four dark durasteel walls slowly came into focus as Zana’s eyes opened. Instantly reality overtook her, tearing her mind from its subconscious state and thrusting it back into the bitter and harsh present. She understood what was off now. She understood it all too well.
The sinking feeling tugged at her chest, and the icy despair pulsated through her body as the images filled her mind… She had been too late. And it had been real.
His eyes were desperate. They were cold, colorless, clouded. His face was stiff, frozen… lifeless.
It was so painful. At first she’d tried everything she could to fight the inevitable outcome… to ward off the monstrous torrential agony. Behind closed doors she used to scream with all her might. She’d found if she screamed loud enough, she could actually drown out her own thoughts. She hated thinking. When she was conscious there was no way to escape the grim reality of which she’d found herself part. Her thoughts refused to leave her at peace. No matter which way she attempted to steer them, they would battle their way back to Kanner.
Even in her dreams there was no escape. Though for moments she might be convinced that things turned out differently than the cruel hand fate had dealt her, she would ultimately awaken to the way things were.
And she would be forced to accept his death all over again.
He was gone. And that was unconditional. It was final. There was no way around it.
She wasn’t sure how long it had been since her horrible discovery. Her quarters had been closed off from light or other indications of the passage of time. She was dry of tears. Her throat was swollen from screaming. Her lungs were exhausted of breath. There was nothing left to do now but surrender. She was dead inside. Zana rolled onto her back to face the ceiling. She just stared in silence.
Burns from her lightsaber were etched into the durasteel walls that framed her quarters. Their sane logical existence had infuriated her; for how could anything in this universe have a point… have a clearly defined purpose and plan after what had happened?
The Force didn’t look out for anything. There was no grand scheme. No master plan. No inescapable destiny. Zana was bound to nothing in her revelation.
She sat up, her glazed eyes not focused on anything in particular. Her mouth tightened.
Everything that would come to be would be a direct result of her own choosing. She would not obey the Jedi Code. It lost all authority without the enforcement of the Will of the Force.
The Force was not something that willed. It was merely a tool. A tool that Zana would wield. The Force would be bent to her every whim. It would obey her completely.
Just the thought of the power she would command sent a pulse of awareness through her; an aftershock of pleasurable tingles swept through her torso, gently caressing her limbs and massaging her fingertips before it faded.
Though she hated this universe for its absurdity, and though she hated the Force for its indifference, she realized both were essential to her; for before she would be able to ultimately disconnect herself from both, she would need to scour the universe to find whoever was responsible for Kanner’s murder, and she would need to use the Force to inflict brutal unrelenting justice upon them.
A Zabraki revenge oath. One of the most sacred Iridonian traditions. Kanner would be avenged, and her honor would be restored. Then she could finally leave this place behind. There was nothing more she wanted from it… nothing it could give to her.
Zana stood, the sheets falling from her body, her eyes weary, her face pale. Her lips parted and the crisp words dripped with bloodlust as they broke forth from her dry mouth, “Kanner Dorvin, i’shuree tai shan, sharee far a’vengtzt. En i’shuree het’onore.”
Her voice was stale…parched… resolute.
She did not have the appropriate tool on hand for the final seal, but she would find something that would do. With a determined hand she clamped onto the lock of the plasteel cylinder and pulled. It snapped off with a jagged sharp edge exposed. Perfect.
The pain was unremarkable as she carved the design into her flesh; It was dull and temporary- nothing like the sharp omnipresent pain she felt inside. As her blood trickled from the cuts she did not flinch. The tattoo would encompass both of her arms, marking her contract of vengeance. The outlines were to be filled in when her debt of revenge was fulfilled, until then the design was to be crude, unfinished, empty… depicting exactly the condition of Zana’s tortured soul.
Her hand was still marred with splatters of blood as she pushed on the keypad, sending the door to her quarters shooting upward. Dialo craned his neck around at the sound of Zana’s door opening. She hadn’t come out of her room for days. “How you doin-woah, what happened?” he questioned at the sight of her bloody arms.
Zana’s expressionless face did not falter, and she did not look to Dialo or answer his question. A second or two passed before she spoke. “Have we found them yet? Any information?”
He had somehow lost the duracrete path through the bubbling mire, but he knew he was close. The misty night closed in hard with a clammy hand, aggravating the various pains and aches in his body. They couldn't have left, it should be here...
"Hey. HEY!" He shouted, not caring if the wrong people heard him. A dark hulk appeared out of the mist.
Sai peeled off his jacket, using it to wipe the sweat off his brow before flinging it over his shoulder. He nodded to a few of his acquaintances upon entering the C dormatory, stretching his arms above his head as he walked toward his bunk.
"Oi! Zelle- you want to get in on this round of Four Colors?" Gamroff asked, waving a blue four in the air.
He considered the offer, but his aching legs pleaded louder than his friends. "In a bit- I need some rest real quick- legs are killing me." He responded.
Gamroff frowned slightly and waved toward Sai's bunk "Yeah yeah, that new vein sure is tough to deal with." Sai plopped onto his mattress as Gamroff continued, "That might change, though. You hear the rumor?"
Cata perked up, "You mean the Jedi? How's that going to change the density of the vein?"
Gamroff scoffed, "You know they have that crazy magic force stuff. We'll probably be able to move to the other side of this moon by the end of the week."
Sai smiled, "I don't know if it works like that" he chimed in before pulling the swimsuit edition of his favorite sports holomag out from under his bunk, scanning the smiling Mirilian on the cover for a few moments before beginning to read on.
The adrenaline from their uneasy flight from the political building had begun to wane. She was currently sitting, legs crossed at the ankle, looking at a crack in the wall of the dimly lit room.
She was trying to avert her eyes from Engram Deft, who hadn't blinked in the last seven minutes. Blue light danced across his still, unmoving face, as he analyzed the data they had stolen at an alarming rate.
She wondered how things were progressing on Coruscant. Many of those who were under her direct supervision in the past now held positions higher than the one she held now. She wondered how helpful this information even was- if this post was truly as degrading as it seemed or if it was at least useful to someone in the Order...
Kalyn felt bitterness begin to boil beneath her skin. No, that was not the path she would take. She inhaled through her nose, picturing her lungs as a jar and trying to fill them all the way to the top before exhaling.
"Jedi Deft." She inquired dryly, "What does the data indicate?"
"Well... this is interesting."
Ronin couldn't help but note the sardonic quality in Vina's tone as they looked at the fruit's of their day of negotiation, haggling, and gambling. Truth be told, he was happy just to have a means of transport again and that buying it hadn't completely cleaned them out. It had come close enough, though.
"It needs a little work," Vina observed.
"It needs a lot of work," Ronin responded, throwing her a sidelong glance.
"Huh," was all Tuloo said, or at least that's what it sounded like he said, as they took in the boxy crate of a ship they had had little choice but to buy.
"And we'll need the funds to do that work," Ronin continued, looking a little forlorn. "Which means we need a job. Around yesterday, really."
"What's the plan, then?" Vina asked.
"Wait for Odric to get here," Ronin explained. "I talked with him an hour or two ago. He should be here any minute."
"And then what?" Vina asked, looking to him.
Ronin paused for a moment. "I'll think of something."
"Hrmm," Tuloo chimed in.
Ronin couldn't help but note his tone as well. "Whatever it is, it'll be far away from here. Probably the other side of the Rim. We'll put as many parsecs between us and this place as possible. Get away from this damned war."
"Really?" Vina asked, turning to him with an incredulous look.
"What?" Ronin asked, turning to face her.
She shrugged. "Just surprised. I pegged you as someone who would hope to profit from all of that. Credits off of others' suffering."
Ronin faced the ship again, not rising to the bait. "With the Shadow, maybe. Or anything that has a decent chance of outrunning the Mandos. Not this, though. The last thing we need is those bucketheads catching us and "recruiting" us as loyal warriors for Mandalore. I have other plans, thanks."
"What about Zaine, Tulio, all of them?"
Ronin's face hardened, but Vina thought she could detect something else behind his neutral expression. "What about them? They made it this far. They can take care of themselves. As far as I'm concerned, we're done with them."
"Is that why you still have their commlink?" Vina asked, showing off her sharper teeth.in a wide, feral grin.
"I'm sure Odric will want to say goodbye," Ronin replied with a shrug.
"Goodbye to who?" asked a deep voice behind them, causing all three to turn together.
"Hey, Furball, welcome to our new home," Ronin greeted him. "Nice, huh?" Odric's reaction indicated his agreement with their general assessment of their new craft. "Nice hat," he added, causing Odric to quickly remove it.
"<When are we lifting off?>" Tuloo asked.
"Tomorrow night," Ronin said. "If anyone has any business left on this rock, you'd best take care of it before then."
He coughed. With the cough came pain, and with that, the sudden realization that he was alive. He blinked into the darkness, feeling something give underneath him. Cool air rushed onto his face and as his eyes adjusted to the darkness he could see a torn canopy above. His fingers dug into soft material. It took some moments for him to see he was lying full in a deep bed filled with soft loam, in a rooftop garden. The tower they were in loomed upward into the darkness nearby, too dim for him to determine which window he had been ejected out of.
A sudden realization struck him, memory and a bolt of fear. She had been left alone with that...
No. She was fine...he just...knew somehow. How, where? He searched his mind, but the little voice, without real words told him she was fine, had escaped. Where would she go, then? To the ship. He had to get back.
He lifted himself out of the smelly organic compost and began the long trek.
Io was curled up, shaking in one of the bunks in the back of The Fat Wallet. Everything seemed to have compounded around her. Most of them had been able to regroup, but Zaine was still missing, and... and Sache. She'd been pale, sitting, not moving- just... just staring out the viewport at nothing... it was macabre... it was frighting.
She never, ever, wanted to see Sache like that. Io had left, swiftly hiding herself away, letting Namie try to sort things out. It might have been a selfish thing to do, but...
She just felt so... helpless.
Her legs were cold. She was embarrassed now having realized just how short the once-lovely dress she was wearing had been cut during the chase. The first one to chase them- he'd been wearing Republic armor.
The Republic was really after them.
It was hard to take in... Only a few weeks ago she'd stormed out of the Jedi temple on Coruscant, determined to save the republic... and now she was public enemy number one.
She felt her lower lip begin to quiver. Perhaps Master Ando had been right about her... right about everything...
"He's probably gotten himself lost somewhere," Zana thought to herself, "Human directional sense really is inferior to that of the Zabrak."
She had picked up Kanner's scent some time ago, but had decided against alerting Dialo, due to their recent difference of opinion on proper protocol in the instance of apprehension… They were constantly squabbling over similar issues, but this fight had been particularly heated in light of the embarrassing loss of their prey. She decided it was better if she weren't around him for a while.
The scent had led her through a labyrinth of buildings. Occasionally she had found evidence of the chase- a scorched saber gash in a wall, a hurried footprint in the grimy muck that caked the alley floor, things of that nature. A while back she had found a considerable hunk of material she imagined was slashed from clothing. He must have been right behind them.
She prayed he had had more luck than she and Dialo. Not a single capture or casualty between them. It made her insides writhe with disgust; to her failure was completely unacceptable. Her inability to fulfill her task left a foul taste in her mouth… She felt dirty. She'd have to wash up after this. Zana didn't even want to think about what would happen on the comm with Malak later.
"It looks like they led him into the financial district," Zana thought as she pushed open a rusted door. Signs of struggle adorned the office building, leading her up several flights. It seemed as though they all had faced formidable opponents… Zana's knee still throbbed with pain as she made her way upward, floor by floor, searching. The scent was getting stronger. He'd been in this building recently.
When she finally did find him, she was going to chew him out concerning his habit of misplacing comlinks. They weren't cheap, and it felt like she was always the one to catch most of Dialo's flack after Malak yelled at him.
And then she saw.
She knew. She knew the instant her eyes drunk in Kanner's collapsed body. Her heart fell, but only for an instant. She didn't allow herself to acknowledge what his condition implied.
Denial flooded her mind. "Oh, you're fine, you big baby." She teased as she closed the gap between them. "Come on, Dorvin. You're not fooling anyone. Get up." Zana added with a small kick to his shoulder.
He did not react.
"Kanner, come on." She said, her voice less confident than it had been seconds before. She reached her foot out to kick him again, and it was then that she noticed the deep red stain spreading over her shoe.
"Kanner?" She whimpered, her voice cracking.
She dropped to her knees and grasped his shoulder in an attempt to turn him over so that she could see his face. He was cold.
"Kanner… where are you hurt?" She asked as her right hand dove for the medpacs she carried with her.
Zana expected him to groan as she rolled him over, but there was no noise. His eyes were open, but they did not focus on anything. They were clouded, colorless… fading.
"You've lost a lot of blood, Tai Shan…" Her voice was becoming more rapid and high pitched. "You're going to be fine!"
She plunged a medpac into his thigh as she repeated herself; her voice crackled through her irregular breathing, growing in volume and panic with each repetition of the phrase. Soon she was yelling, "YOU'RE GOING TO BE FINE!"
When she had exhausted her supply of medpacs she began scraping her hands along the floor, scooping up his spilled blood. She frantically searched for its source. Cuts and gashes covered most of his body; a large one on his forehead had caused blood to fill one of his still open eyes.
Her hand came across a hole in his chest, heat still emanating from his exposed innards. "Kanner!" She squeaked. "Oh no… Oh no… no, no no!" She whispered, trembling. She frantically dumped the blood she had scooped up into the wound. "You're going to be fine… you'regoingtobefineyou'regoingtobe…"
She scooped up several more handfuls, repeating the process, clinging to hope as long as she could… Her voice was quiet now… "You're… going… to…. be…"
She couldn't finish it. Not this time… The instinct she'd felt when she had rounded the corner to the horrific sight earlier had proved to be correct.
"No." It was just a simple statement at first. She reached out her index and middle finger to his neck, letting them rest on his cold flesh for several seconds. There was no pulse.
"No, no no…. Kanner…" Her quivering voice suddenly broke into a fierce scream. "KAANNNERR!!!"
She flung her body over his, grasping it with all her strength. Sobbing and screaming, she clawed at him, trying to hold his body tighter with each movement.
He was so cold… His body was stiff to her touch…
"HOW DARE YOU!" She yelled in hysteria as tears and snot trickled down her face. Her body heaved with panicked sobs, "How dare you leave me here!"
She released her grip on him, pushing his body back down to the floor. "You promised! You promised me!" She sobbed. "YOU PROMISED!!!"
"You told me… You told me I wouldn't be alone…."
She sat there, staring at him for s moment. She recalled the promise he'd made her the day they had left the order… For as long as she could remember Kanner Dorvin had been there, by her side… And now…
He was gone.
She raised her hands up to examine them, they were covered in his spilled blood. Her focus shifted from her hands to his lifeless body.
"What am I supposed to do now?" Her pathetic high pitched voice strained to ask.
"What… am… I?"
For the first time in her life, Zana Volpexx felt completely helpless.
Tavik held his gaze with Coruscant until it faded to a small dot among a mass of stars. The shuttle clamored metallically as it made the jump to hyperspace, and though he would have liked to believe it was just motion sickness, there was a pang of remorse that clenched down on his stomach.
In the end, he hadn’t been able to muster the strength or the courage to tell them of his reassignment.
He hadn’t even been able to ask Bevel to pass along the news… after all, Tavik’s contact with the Coruscant Children’s Home was to have been terminated several months after the onset of the war, yet he had continued to help them under the table without ever passing along the news that Jedi support for the program had been cut.
Tavik wondered, was the omission of details the same as dishonesty?
The sinking, grinding, churning of his stomach offered no sympathy.
And it was too late now. Too late.
Her eyes had adjusted to the dim light, only the mild glow of the city lights outside combined with the holoscreen in front of her fellow jedi illuminated the room. With the information Jedi Mantalus had provided them they had found no difficulties in entering the senator’s office. Deft’s encryption skills were currently being put to use. Kalyn could sense the task proved to be no challenge to him. It shouldn’t, she figured, given his… alterations.
“Download is currently fifty percent complete.”
His voice came from behind her. It was a human voice- his vocal chords were still his…. But it wasn’t his voice any longer. It was robotic in pacing and neutral in pitch. It was monotone and lifeless.
She said nothing in response, she merely stood, waiting, watching. She was the lookout. It was of the utmost importance that no one suspected they were here, for the information they were attempting to access was of a highly sensitive nature. Kalyn was not usually one to let a successful mission affect her pride, but she would admit to herself that this mission was going more smoothly than any she could remember.
The flashing strobes began a millisecond or two before the high pitched alarm began to clamor. Its screech tore through the once serene complex, alerting everything and everyone that something was amiss.
“How?” Kalyn gasped. “Jedi Deft- we have to-”
“Understood.” he confirmed.
Tavik wiped the sweat from his brow and looked back to the mirrored panels that lined the long hallway as he walked along with his hands in his pockets. He’d noticed a slight decline in his energy after Bevel had relayed the information of his new assignment to him several days ago, but lately, things were getting worse.
The whole situation was undesirable on so many fronts. How could he be faced with such an impossible choice?
His brows drew inward, staring at his reflection. “Who are you?” he asked in his mind toward the Togruta staring back at him from the walls. What kind of Jedi was he? What kind of Coruscanti was he? What kind of man was he?
He had less than a galactic standard week until he would find out. The shuttle for Cularin was to depart in three days. As of now, Tavik did not know if he would be on board when it left. It was a very difficult decision; for he was being forced to choose between saving a handful of lives very dear to him, or saving countless anonymous lives by helping to maintain stability in and funding to the Jedi Order.
It had sent him into an existential crisis- for if the aspect of Jedi life to which he should adhere in this decision was compassion, then he should stay on Coruscant- where his unauthorized but desperately needed assistance could save his friends. But if the aspect of Jedi life to which he should adhere in this decision was selflessness, then he should accept the mission humbly even though he felt it did not best reflect that which he was capable of doing.
A loophole. He needed some kind of easy out. Some kind of magic way to make everything work out right- If only he could wire the money… but, no… That would leave a trail- that would expose him as Red 27 and would result in his expulsion from the Jedi Order… Though he’d be helping the few residents at the Corcuscant Children’s Home, he’d lose his potential and influence to help countless others by jeopardizing his membership in the Order, which supplied him with access to resources and restricted areas.
But if he left as a trophy for a ‘philanthropic’ donor, it was only a matter of time before the Children’s Home would be shut down, and its residents forced to the streets. They’d be displaced while he sat around on some godforsaken outer rim world doing nothing of value.
Why? Why did it have to be him? Bevel had mentioned one reason was because Tavik had not yet taken on a padawan learner; his ‘freedom from such responsibilities’ had granted him the ‘favor’ of this reassignment. Perhaps he could take on a padawan now. Yes, that could work- they wouldn’t send him away if… no. He couldn’t. He wasn’t ready to train a padawan- it would be selfish and irresponsible to take one on solely to benefit his own interests.
Tavik thought back to his first time sitting in on the padawan exams. She’d been there… She’d been so determined to prove something to the Order- She’d been on a mission. Her fiery zeal and determination had only begat disaster. He had been shocked to hear the news. It was only months ago she’d been praised for those same qualities… and now…
Tavik felt his fists ball up. This was all just hypocrisy. The Order was fickle.
How could they turn their backs on so many ministries? Preaching about limited resources and then taking petty bribes. A ‘substantial donation.’
A substantial donation seemed to Tavik as though it would be enough to cover the various community outreach ministries on Coruscant that the Order had cut when the war broke out. How could they turn their backs on the ones they’d sworn to protect? ‘The Greater Good.’
How could they? How could they abandon the citizens of Coruscant? How could they abandon Kalyn? How could they abandon him!?
He’d stopped in his tracks. His breathing was heavy and irregular. He felt his body begin to heat with anger.
No. This wasn’t the way.
This wasn’t fixing anything- reacting this way. With all its faults the Order was still the Order. And without order there is chaos. There is no chaos; there is harmony.
The Order wasn’t to be blamed… It was the situation that forced the Order’s reactions. Damn those Mandalorians. Damn those rogue jedi. Damn this cursed war.
Tavik closed his eyes and shook his head slowly, his breathing slowing as he attempted to center himself. He was serving no one by working himself up. Tavik wiped his brow again before continuing toward his destination.
He had seventy two hours.
He had to pull himself together.
Zana was unsure of how long she’d been out. The dusk was quickly delving into darkness around her as neon city lights flickered and hummed to life. Every muscle in her body ached as she navigated her way through the metropolitan labyrinth to the rendezvous point. For once she was glad Dialo had been so organized… She needed to sit down…. She needed water…
Her knee throbbed with pain. Her ears were ringing. Her head was screaming.
With every step her stomach lurched. She felt nauseated. She felt exhausted. Sweat trickled down her brow as she let out coarse, irregular huffs of breath.
What had happened?
She’d been so close-No- she’d had them. She’d had them. The lazercuffs were just inches away from their wrists when that damn Omwati… Zana still had no idea what she had done. Some kind of immense force blast… and then…
“Impossible,” Zana whispered to herself as she clutched a discarded storage cube, pathetically staggering forward.
The Omwati’s file said she was in the corps… There’s no way an untrained force user could be able to produce such a powerful attack.
And then what happened afterward… Zana shuddered at the fresh memory. It was as though the blast had been ripped from her with even more force than the momentum of the initial impact. It was as though the Force had been torn out of Zana, somehow…
Perhaps this was why Commander Malak was so interested in them. Did they have some sort of terrible secret power? Was her special ops unit sent in to test their strength? When it came down to it- had they just been dejarik pawns? She wondered if the Commander had deliberately omitted information in their mission briefing.
Zana groaned, both from her physical pain as well as from her despondent conjecture. She felt sick.
She’d never been unsuccessful in brining in a target before. This was a new feeling for her- failure. It was consuming. It was rampant. It was demoralizing. How could she face Dialo- how could she admit her defeat? How could she ever look at her Tai Shan again? She wondered if he could till respect her, after this.
Her honor… She’d lost her honor. She could not in full conscious identify herself as a Zabrak Vyshtal any longer.
“Oooohhh,” she moaned at her predicament. She felt so… sick…
Zana dropped to her knees, clutching her stomach. Sweat dripped from her nose, creating dark circles on the permacrete as it hit the ground.
Emotion swirled inside of her. This was too much. This was too much. Zana bit her lip as a lump rose in her throat… Her eyebrows drew in fiercely toward her eyes, which were clenched closed tightly. She opened them slightly, and felt tears begin to pool.
No. She would not be reduced to this.
“NOOO!” Zana screamed, her Zabrak vocal chords adding a low growl to the noise as it echoed off the walls of the surrounding buildings.
Suddenly hot anger was pumped through her veins. Energy began to rise within her. She screamed again- not any word this time, just a mixture of growls and roars that bordered on horrific. She began to pound the cement with one fist, her rage building with each brawny contact.
Fierce frustration seized her joints. Her movements were stiff. She continued to scream, despite her aching head and her sore throat.
How? How could this have happened? She’d had them. She’d had them! She hadn’t done anything wrong- it was such an easy assignment. How? How? How? How could someone with her skill- How could she be defeated? How could… No… No it couldn’t have! It couldn’t have happened.
It didn’t make any sense.
She coughed hoarsely before breathing heavily, too weary to scream any more. Her fist was drenched in blood, and the pain caused from her outburst began to finally register as it radiated up her arm. Zana’s mind was quiet for a moment, listening to the sound of her raspy breath.
“It did happen.” She whispered, admitting it to herself.
The lump in her throat rose again. She didn’t fight it this time. She couldn’t. She didn’t have any strength left. She didn’t…
Wet drops began to sprinkle from the Bothan sky, native thundering echoing in the distance. Zana laid herself down on the alley floor as a solitary tear ran down her cheek, safely disguised by the rain falling around her.
The smell of foods from a hundred different worlds was overpowering, some delicious, some revolting. Namie felt her stomach rumble as they darted through the stalls. She was headed, in a roundabout zig-zag way, toward the distinctive arch that marked an entrance to the Bothawui metro system. If they made it onto the metro and left the station before the Zabrak caught them, they could be kilometers away in minutes, with over a dozen possible stops in the first minute alone.
They just had to make it from here to there.
Namie reached out and grabbed Io's free hand, not wanting to get separated in the crowded eating area. Between them and the metro station was a small open area where the stalls thinned out and people entered and left the flow of traffic irregularly. Almost. So close.
When the Zabrak stepped out of the crowd directly in front of them, no more than a meter away, Namie's fingers spasmed, gripping Io's hand tight as her mind desperately searched for a new escape plan.
Ignoring everything—her training, the man standing before her, her terror of heights—she sprinted away, breaking out of engagement with the other Jedi to skitter to a stop close to the broken window. “Zaine!” She was screaming it as loud as she could, but she still couldn’t hear over the whistling of the wind. “Zaine!”
There was no answer. Beneath her, there was only darkness, and he would have answered her, he never would have made her wait. He was gone.
The only thing that cut short the answering silence was her growing awareness of the other Jedi's harsh breathing.
“Reassigned?” Tavik asked in shock.
“Your talents are required elsewhere, Ettagar.” Bevel Rethana informed him. “The war has stretched our numbers thin, but demand for our services is still as high as it was before so many left the Order- if not higher!”
“Sir, with all due respect, I don’t feel as though overseeing security on a Bronzium mine on Cularin falls under our jurisdiction. I’m needed here, sir, on Coruscant.”
Bevel sighed and leaned over the railing near which they were standing. Lowering his voice he looked back to the Togruta. “Tavik… There’s more to this. The owner of that mine made a substantial donation recently. If our situation were less dire-”
“Wait- a donation? Bribery? Is this what the Order has become? Sending me off to foster political bonds?!” Tavik interrupted.
“Tavik, please!” Bevel hissed through clenched teeth, “I understand how you feel; I don’t like it either, but seeing how the Order has been weakened from this war, we have to accept. We must.”
Tavik rubbed his temples, letting out a slow sigh. “Yes, sir. I’m sorry. I was out of line.”
There was a slight pause as both men surveyed the bustling skyline. Tavik looked in the general direction of the Coruscant Children’s Home, knowing full well what would happen if Red 27 could no longer supply under-the-table funds to the program. “Why does it have to be me?” Tavik asked, his voice burdened with his inner apprehension.
“Quite simply,” Bevel replied, “because you’re one of the few knights without a padawan. This mission would not provide adequate training opportunities; it is more suitable for a knight without such engagements.”
Tavik sighed again as he looked out at the busy planet he’d lived on for so long. Its diverse people had captivated him, his chief desire was to serve them in whatever way he could… A pang of resentment toward the Jedi Order resonated through him- that they would willingly send a capable Knight where there was no need for the skills and compassion of a Jedi was something Tavik never would have expected from the institution to which he had devoted himself.
“The next transport doesn’t leave for nine days. I’ll keep you updated as I receive more information.” Bevel said before walking away.
Tavik fervently grasped the railing he was holding as he continued to stare vacantly across the city’s skyline. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t right.
What was he to do?
As soon as he had seen the group scatter and the lightsaber-wielding figures charging after them, Odric had made himself scarce, ducking into the nearest alley and settling against a wall. Fading into the crowd was simple enough, especially since they hadn't appeared to be looking for him. With luck, whoever they were wouldn't even be looking for his boss. Why would they, after all? They'd merely picked up the Jedi girl moments after running her down. That wasn't a crime, was it? In spite of his attempts to reassure himself, Odric suddenly regretted having persuaded Ronin to give Sache Tulio the benefit of the doubt. Hiding out on the Smuggler's Moon didn't seem so bad, even under Mandalorian occupation.
Trying to find calm that he didn't at all feel, Odric pulled out his commlink and activated it, waiting a few seconds as static sounded and the device found its receiver.
"What is it, Odric?" his boss' voice said from the small speaker.
"Problem, Boss," Odric whispered, glancing around the alley. The lane itself was abandoned except for him and piles of refuse and appliances, the crowd at the near exit passing by without a glance in his direction. "Looks like the Jedi caught up with our benefactors. Just ambushed them moments ago. I got away, though."
Odric heard Ronin throw out a short number of curses before returning to the comm. "How many were there?"
"At least three, maybe more," Odric said. After spending the time he had with them, Odric would have been surprised if there were many more than three. As resourceful as they could be, he doubted a handful of Jedi would need to put in too much effort to stop them. Then again, if the Jedi were anything like Io Zelle...
"All right," Ronin interrupted his thoughts. "I want you to make for Ireh's. We're almost done here. We can meet up and get ready to head out. We're making a clean break. I've had enough of this mopak."
It had been a while. She wasn’t quite sure how long, seeing as the situation was causing her heart to pound with a fluid mixture of exhaustion and adrenaline. She flung herself upward, scaling the antique fire escape as rapidly as she possibly could. She wouldn’t notice it then, but the threat of imminent danger had melted her inherent clumsiness away, at least for a time.
Io rolled her body unto the roof with her last store of energy. She laid there squinting upward toward the Bothan sky as her chest heaved with heavy breaths.
She was a bit at ease with the notion that she had escaped her pursuer, yet at the same time a grim anxiety at not finding Zaine and Sache pulled at her weary heart. Io prayed their absence did not foreshadow a dreary fate… No. Sache was one of the most brilliant Jedi she had ever met. She was sure that whatever came her way, Sache would find a way out. Their time together as padawans had taught her that much. Zaine was tough too- They’d both be fine… They’d both be…
She shook her head, still breathing jaggedly. Io didn’t know what to make of what had just come to pass… The ambush… It was almost surreal. It had happened so fast… out of nowhere.
A twinge of guilt rose in her throat as she thought back to it… She’d been so stupid. Zaine had warned her to be ready for something- he had known they were being watched. He was trying to protect her and she’d given away his suspicion to their stalkers by stopping and staring around as if she were onto something.
This was all her fault.
And the attack… The attack by Jedi. They must have been affiliated with the Republic… or perhaps they were bounty hunters with enough skill to kill Jedi and take their blades. Neither option was good.
Io pushed herself up to a sitting position. She felt better, but still exhausted. Her heavy breathing continued as she wiped her sweaty hands across the tarnished and dirty dress. It was ruined now. She switched one of her blades back on and trimmed up the shredded remains of the skirt… she’d need as much mobility as she could take if she ran into any more trouble. Though she would be embarrassed by the short hemline at any other time, the circumstances called for it.
Io currently did not realize it, but she was calmer now than she’d been during the battle of Nar Shaddaa. After her initial disillusionment at being exiled from the Jedi Order coupled with being blacklisted by the Galactic Republic, Io had dealt with their situation by concentrating on working. If she thought hard on the task at hand, her mind had no room to wander. She’d helped with disguising the others, fixing the ship, and making general preparations for their departure and new lives on the run. She had focused only on work until she was too tired to go on, then she had fallen into a dreamless sleep until it was time to do it all again. As a result, Io had become a little more focused over the past week or so, and her constant stream of self-doubt had found itself repressed.
Her breaths were slowing down now. She had almost recovered fully when she heard the blaster shots. Her eyes opened wide, wondering if the local authorities had become involved in the dispute. A yell in a language she thought sounded like Zabraki echoed off the walls of the buildings nearby.
“Won’t be so smug when I round this corner and lead you right into a swarm of Bothan police, will you?”
She recognized Namie’s voice immediately. Saber swings and blaster shots continued to fill the air. Io knew what she needed to do. She stood and ran toward the commotion, igniting both sabers as she launched herself over the edge of the building with a burst of assistance from the Force.
Frustrated, she punched the doorframe on her way out. “Good for nothing…” She muttered to herself as she clipped her saber back onto her belt. Three days had passed since Malak had sent them security camera footage and military ID photos of their prey and they’d found nothing. Not a damn thing.
As if their commander weren’t displeased enough with them already; He wanted this job taken care of fast- Hell, that’s why he’d sent them to do it… They’d faced dangers dripping of inexplicable peril and come back within hours with nothing more than cuts and bruises; yet tracking down a handful of renegade civilians was causing them this much trouble.
After gaining all the honor and prestige Zana had accumulated as a member of the Special Ops Division, she’d be damned before she let it slip away over a mission that was supposed to be small change. She was a Proud Zabrak Vyshtal. She was better than this.
Zana, Kanner, and Dialo had taken to questioning around certain zones of the sector that was the most probable location for the wanted party, but it had yielded no results. It was almost as bad as asking around government establishments like they had been forced to do earlier; only this time, on her own, she could be a little more… persuasive… than she could with Dorvin and Rejin around. Even if she still hadn’t found anything, results came quicker this way, and she had been able to smell honesty mixed in with the fear. She liked being certain- and threatening the party in question made sure of that.
Hot with aggravation and anger, she let out a low growl as she pushed her way through the streets. She dismissed her gut instinct at first, seeing as she thought it was just her mind playing tricks on her; after all, she was so worked up that she wanted more than anything to find them- to get this over with and keep secure her title… But the scent she noticed next enticed her to change directions… The smell of various engine oils and fuel for one of the possible makes of ship attributed to the runaways was unmistakable… perhaps they had been making repairs and had not yet fled the system… “No,” she thought to herself, “Don’t get excited, keep your head… It could be anyone.”
She followed the scent for a block or two before she caught sight of a girl about the right age for the description, following close behind a man who fit the age range… She slowly pulled out her datapad, the screen dimly glowing in the shadows of the alleyway in which she had taken cover. As the data loaded she watched them carefully, straining her ears to listen…
“So uh, Zaine… those transponder codes will, er, help us leave… undetected?” the girl asked as she shifted a box from one hand to the other, slinging it onto her right shoulder mid-step. The box let out several metallic clanks. Parts, Zana guessed.
A woman with black hair hushed her, seemingly slightly annoyed at the girl’s attempted interaction with the man. She leaned in, whispering to the teen. Zana could only make out part of it, “don’t talk ab-… use the alias…”
Zana’s eyes opened wide. She had thought she recognized the name the purple-haired teen had used to address the other, but knowing they were using pseudonyms put little doubt in her mind. She climbed up the side of the building as she studied the photos. There were some discrepancies with the group’s appearances, but knowing that the people she was stalking were attempting to hide their identities made it even more suspicious. She hopped onto the roof and walked along above them, scouting. The correct ages. The correct species. The correct number. She squinted and compared the facial characteristics of each member… the resemblance was uncanny. This was it.
Her hearts skipped. What were the odds…. She moved her comlink up to her mouth, giving the alert and the zone number to the others over their secure channel. It would only be a matter of minutes now before she could strike.
Grinning, she unlatched her saber and crouched, ready to spring the instant her comrades came into view.