Chapter Thirty

Rederick led the way through the command center's innards, the packed group of disparate figures trailing his impassioned gait. Soldiers, Sith, and Jedi alike navigated the cramped corridor in silence, only the echoes of more than a dozen boots gracing their senses. But the journey would prove short-lived as the Commander took pause in front of the Consular's impromptu home.

With a forced calm, he beckoned the Jedi to the front of the group before waving her into the empty room. "My apologies, Master Kesara, but we cannot risk having you out in the open. Stay here, if you would, whilst the Executors and I tend to the matters at hand."

There was an expediency in the Imperial's every syllable, but never did the man completely shed his knack for decorum. His head held at a slight dip as he spoke, Rederick maintained a fine balance of respect and utmost haste. The Consular, meanwhile, offered no objections. Stepping past Sith and riflemen, Kesara returned to her room with little more than a polite nod.

With an almost imperceptible wag of the Commander's finger, the pair of soldiers gracing the hallway snapped to attention. Immediately, they moved forward, flanking the entrance to the Jedi's chamber and sealing her in with the quick press of a button. There they remained, stances rigid, rifles in hand, helmed gazes perpetually forward.

Spinning on his heels, Rederick continued his trek through the base without a word, simply expecting the Executors to follow. His expectations were promptly met. The group had been reduced to a mere quartet, but quite the quartet it remained.

"So, where do we go from here?" asked Fay.

"Demik had a communicator," Rederick began, not ceasing his forward pace. "Hidden from us… as well as his apprentices, to a degree. We will locate it and see if it can tell us anything."

"The other Sith won't take kindly to us ransacking one of their tents," Fay replied.

"That they won't," said Rederick. The Commander retrieved the cylindrical communicator from his belt and brought it to his mouth. "This is a priority alert to all outpost defenders. Pull all but two sentries from the walls. Place a single IDD at the front entrance. I need everyone and everything else in the courtyard. Those guarding the command center are to remain at their posts. Rederick, out."

"Don't think they'll take kindly to a firing squad, either," Asher muttered.

"I've no intention to kill, only to maintain some semblance of order. We cannot allow anyone to interfere with our search. Time is of the essence."

"How so?" asked Graves.

"We don't know the nature of Demik's arrangement," Fay stated. "There's a chance him going silent could prompt those he communicated with to disappear."

"Precisely," said Rederick. The Commander only momentarily paused in order to open a door, spilling the group into the central hub of the command center. The terminals lining the floor and walls were dark and unpowered, the communications blackout still in effect.

"If only someone had opted for something other than a beheading," Asher muttered. "We might have been able to force Demik to talk with his mysterious contacts."

Graves' head dipped. "I didn't really have a choice..."

"Really? Couldn't have just stabbed him in the gut or something?" Asher asked. "Maybe lop off an arm? I mean, I know from experience that's not a sure-fire way to stop someone but-"

"Graves didn't use his lightsaber," Fay interrupted. "He used the Force."

The scarred man met his gaze with that of his taller fellow, his typically stoic countenance almost shifting to one of surprise. "You could tell?"

"Even if I didn't recognize the technique, the lack of cauterization was a rather big giveaway," Fay plainly stated before turning toward her other teammate. "You didn't think that odd, Asher?"

"I wasn't exactly staring at the wound itself," he mumbled, arms crossed. "And people have been known to bleed from saber cuts around major points of articulation... but this is the first I've heard about people getting sliced up with the Force."

The Executors came to an abrupt stop, whilst an unaware Rederick continued toward the command center's front entrance.

"The most basic applications of the Force are through telekinetics," Fay explained, figuratively and literally talking down to the burned Sith. "Pushes manifest in waves. Compress those waves and, with enough speed and power, you've got yourself a blade." The woman raised her hand and offered a quick flick of her index finger. "Remember?"

"Right... no offense, but Graves doesn't exactly seem the type capable of that," said Asher, not even looking at the subject of his derisions. "He's somewhat lacking in skill and finesse and... overall Force prowess."

"He's actually right," Graves replied, usual emotionless candor. The burned Sith snapped toward his stoic fellow, almost offended that he would agree with him. "Honestly, I can barely even call upon the Force."

"Then explain the headless Sith currently aboard my... our ship."

"While I can't actively use it, I've got some sort of subconscious defense system," Graves explained. "Usually it only activates after I've been beat to hell or black out. Guess it was different this time."

Before Graves could even finish his words, Asher scuttled away, practically throwing himself against one of the nearby terminals. Eyes wide, chest rising and falling with each frantic breath, the burned Sith continued to press his back against the deactivated machinery.

"What's your problem now, Asher?" asked Fay, utterly calm.

"My problem? We've got someone who can accidentally behead people!"

"Only if they happen to attack him," Fay replied. "Honestly, I see it as positive."

"Of course you would," said Asher with a harsh whisper. "First Nami, and now this. I get you've a thing for damaged goods, but whereas the girl just throws a punch or two, Graves cuts people's heads off!"

"Only sometimes," Grave plainly stated. "This is the second time it's ever happened... I think."

"You think?"

"Well, like I said, sometimes I black out and... it's not like I've ever cut off anything of yours."

"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" Asher shot back.

"That was the intention, yes," said Graves.

"Executors," Rederick called out. The trio looked to see the Commander standing in the open entrance, a dark silhouette as the Balmorran sunlight shined beyond him. "I'm afraid I must once again stress that time is of the essence."

"You heard him, let's go," said Fay, already taking her first step toward the exit.

"Whoa, wait, no," Asher stammered. "We are not dropping this!"

Fay paused her advance, looked over her shoulder, and cast a sharpened glare toward the burned Sith. "Yes. We are. The mission comes first, so suck it up."

"Just because you don't see the problem-"

"Oh, I see the problem," Fay interrupted, firm in her tone. "I just happen to also see the solution. Don't instigate."

With that, the tall woman resumed her trek to the front of the command center. Finally, Asher pushed himself off the unpowered terminal, straightening out his robes as he avoided eye contact with the scarred man nearby.

"If it makes you feel any better-" Graves began before finding a hand raised toward his face.

"Graves... you are literally incapable of saying or doing anything that would make me feel better."

Dropping his hand, Asher finally began to walk in the direction of Fay and Rederick. In a matter of moments, Graves was left standing alone in the dim lighting of the command center.

"This is why I said I don't work in groups..."

The courtyard of Imperial Outpost XT-25 basked in the orange glow of the setting sun. Though the long day slowly approached its end, there was a renewed bustle within the walls of the military base. Beyond the perimeter, all was still, all was silent. The stomping of boots and struts atop the dry grasslands was replaced by little more than the passing breeze.

Atop the duracrete wall, a single soldier stood on each side of the partition that was the outpost's entrance. The black-clad figures cast their helmed gaze out toward the empty landscape, never sneaking even the slightest glance toward the commotion behind their backs. On the ground, practically blocking the base's entrance, an Imperial Defense Droid performed its duty with as much diligence as its organic counterparts. Its three struts firmly planted in the dirt, the walking turret would repeatedly pivot upon its waist, ready to vaporize any external threat with the cannons that took the place of its hands. Meanwhile, the rest of the base's defenders were focused on threats more internal.

A gathering was underway. Imperials and Sith. Subordinates and superiors. Organics and machines. A group of blends and stark divides. Of beings dark and gray. The tents were empty, their occupants having been spilled into the courtyard. Scores of Imperial soldiers and battledroids, more than a dozen Sith, two sides staring one another down, separated by a threshold neither would cross.

On the side of duty, faceless beings blind to the Force. Not a spot of flesh showed amongst the base defenders, full suits of armor covering each Human's hide. Shoulder to shoulder, the soldiers and their mechanical accompaniment were equally calm, equally rigid. Rifles in hand, they stood at the ready, but never did they fully raise their weapons.

On the side of passion, individuals seeped in the dark side. Some Human, others Pureblood. Some robed, others armored. None wholly the same, yet none wholly unique. Pallid skin, eyes of crimson and gold, the warriors had driven themselves deep down their chosen path and reflected that fact in every fiber of their being.

And between them all, the motley quartet of Rederick and the Executors. Though with their backs toward the Commander's forces, it was clear with side they truly fell upon.

"Sith," Rederick began, speaking just loud enough to ensure his words met every ear beneath every cowl. The man remained adamant as he was bombarded by harsh glares, his hands neatly held behind his back. "A great many questions must be running through your heads. Why we have gathered. Why the one known as Demik no longer stands amongst you. The truth is that he and his apprentices were found guilty of treasonous acts, and they received punishments befitting their crime."

There was a series of hushed mummers amongst the Sith as they turned their glares toward each other rather than toward the Commander.

"However," Rederick continued, "the nature of their transgression gives us reason to believe that they were not the only Sith involved with this treasonous behavior. Given your contact with the accused, as well as your positions prior to relocation, it stand to reason that many of you are guilty of the very same crime. Fortunately for you all, we haven't sufficient proof and I have seen enough death for today. There will be no executions, no massacres, so long as no one impedes our search of Demik's quarters and belongings. Any attempt to do so will be seen not only as an act of obstruction, but as one's complicity in the aforementioned crimes. Now, if you would, please stand aside and let us proceed with our efforts."

Rederick took his first steps forward toward the line of Sith, only to find his progress impeded as the man before him refused to budge. The warrior was a thing of broken and warped flesh much as the cyborg was. But whereas Rederick's visage spoke of wounds sustained, the Sith's spoke of an internal corruption that managed to claw its way to the surface. Organics twisted by the dark side, rather than mended by cybernetics.

"I'll ask again," said Rederick, firm and direct, locking eyes with the scowling warrior. "If you would, please stand aside."

"An Imperial thinking he can preside over Sith..." the warrior growled. "You've no idea the consequences you'll face..."

"I may have earned myself a few demerits... but I'd say it's worth it to put a few traitors in their place."

"Just wait until my master hears of your actions... demerits will be the least of your worries."

Rederick remained stone-faced as the stared down the hooded warrior. "Go ahead and inform them. Of course, with there being a blackout on communications, you'll have to wait a while before you can deliver the news. Unless you also happen to have some contraband in your tent worth examining?"

Without a word, the haughty Sith stepped aside, granting the Commander a clear path toward Demik's quarters. Rederick moved forward, and the Executors followed shortly thereafter. The Imperial pushed past the tent's flap without a second thought, followed by Fay. But as the scarred and burned Sith were about to enter, Graves found a hand placed on his chest. A hand that belonged to Asher.

"Stay out here," he said.

"But I can help with the search," Graves replied.

"Maybe. But I'd prefer not to share a cramped space with someone surrounded by an uncontrollable death-bubble."

"It's not uncontrollable," said Graves before looking down. "See? You're touching me right now."

Asher quickly rescinded his hand, almost unaware it had extended in the first place. "Look, someone has to stand lookout. Might as well be you. Okay?"

"If you think so... then I will."

With that, Graves turned his back on his fellow, looking out to the scores of Imperials and Sith that stood before him. His feet planted in the dirt, the scarred man did nothing but occasionally pan his gaze from left to right and back again. Asher opened his mouth to speak, but no words came. Instead, he simply ducked into the tent.

Inside, Rederick and Fay had already begun their search. There was little resting between the walls of canvas, atop the floor of Balmorran dirt. The Imperial focused on the Sith's cots, running his mechanical hands through numerous layers of sheets. The Kineticist, meanwhile, did more heavy lifting, raising furniture with the Force before setting it back on the ground with nary a thud. From chairs to shelves, Fay searched beneath and behind the solid objects, moving with an effortless grace.

"What exactly are we looking for?" Asher asked, still standing near the cramped quarters' entrance.

"A personal communicator," said Rederick as he tossed aside a sheet. "Small enough to have been smuggled in and kept a secret. Likely possesses a cylindrical or disk shape."

The burned Sith remained motionless, merely scanning his surroundings. Eventually, he settled on the dirt flooring, running his gaze along the tent's edges until something caught his eye. The slight glint of light reflecting off a metallic surface. Asher held out his open hand, subtly clawing at the air as he focused his mind. Not a moment later, a pair of gray cylinders began rolling across the floor toward their manipulator. Two lightsabers once belonging to Demik's apprentices.

With a quick flick of his wrist, Asher sent the hilts flying toward him, only to catch one in each hand. He turned them over, examining every curve and ridge. Searching each one's length, he eventually rested his thumbs over the lightsabers' activators.

The tent was filled with the twin hums of the two weapons activating, and soon the cramped space was basked in a red glow. Not a moment later, the other occupants snapped toward the disturbance.

"Uh, Asher?" Fay spoke up.

"Had to check," he replied, promptly deactivating the weapons. "There's actually a lot of space inside the casings if you remove the crystal and power cell. Seeing if it turns on is easier than disassembling it."

"Good call," said Fay. "The best hiding place would be somewhere no Imperial would think, or dare, to search."

"Indeed," Rederick spoke up. "Though considering Demik's apprentices didn't know where he kept his communicator, it's safe to say it wasn't hidden amongst their belongings. Though Demik's lightsaber..."

"No, we heard it activate on the droid's recording," Asher replied. "Still, Sith are associated with more than just lightsabers. Let's look for something beyond a soldier's purview."

"Good thinking, Asher," a calm voice sounded off on the other side of the tent flaps.

"Thanks, Graves." The burned Sith's reply was unconsciously warm, a fact that made his eye twitch as his brain caught up with his tongue. Asher quickly snapped toward the partition, biting his lip. "Don't get distracted! You're on lookout!"

No more words came from outside. With a huff, Asher set the pair of hilts down on one of the nearby folding chairs. Meanwhile, Rederick had cleared the cots, turning his attention to one of the trunks lying beneath them. He dragged them out, one by one, until three large suitcases graced the center of the tent.

The noise and motion of the metal crates scraping against the dirt caught the attention of the Executors. Without a word, they approached the suitcases, all three investigators having a trunk unto themselves. Asher and Fay quickly went to work, undoing the latches of their respective luggage and parting their lids. Both were greeted with little more than a loose bundle of black clothes of varying shapes and sizes. Rederick, meanwhile, simply looked at his still-closed suitcase.

"Mine has a combination lock," he muttered.

"Need help?" asked Fay.

"Appreciated... but no need." With that, the Commander gripped the two halves of the lock, tightening his mechanical grip. The tent filled with the sounds of warping metal until, with a quick jerk, Rederick shattered the lock and forced open the lid of his trunk.

The trio continued their search, rifling through the belongings of Demik and his apprentices, not entirely sure to whom each trunk belonged. After a few seconds of rifling through sets of robes, Asher was the first to return with something other than backup attire. It was a metallic disc that fit in the palm of his hand, just thick enough to house a series of electronics beneath its rigid casing.

"Might have something," Asher muttered as he fiddled with the device. A moment later, an emitter in the center of the disc lit up and a hologram began to form above the disc. After a flicker, the blue light took the shape a family, a three-dimensional photo. Three Humans stood together, a mother and father resting their hands upon their son's shoulders, all smiling. The burned Sith stared at the image for only a second before promptly shutting it off, haphazardly tossing the device back into the trunk. "Never mind. False alarm."

The searched continued. The next to discover something peculiar was Rederick, whose mechanical nerves told him of something sharp hiding amongst his pile of clothes. When he retrieved his hand, he held within it a small pyramid. The black and red polygon was just small enough to be held in the Imperial's palm, home to intricate Sith designs etched into every facet of its glass-like surface.

"A holocron," he muttered, his one organic eye growing wide. The Executors immediately looked up from their trunks, staring at the device with similar interest.

"A repository of Sith secrets," Fay spoke up. "A device manufactured and utilized solely by those gifted with the Force. Definitely something Imperials would avoid messing with."

Rederick rubbed his chin with his free hand, eyes still locked on the crimson device. "Even without superstition holding them back, soldiers aren't to tamper with artifacts without ties to Reclamation Service or the Sphere of Ancient Knowledge."

"Making one the perfect place to conceal contraband," said Fay as she made her way over to the Commander.

Asher released a quick chuckle. "What better place to hide something than somewhere people would be too afraid to look. Sith holocrons have a reputation for corrupting the minds of the untrained."

Fay carefully took the pyramid from the Commander, holding it in her palm and bringing it close to her face.

"Of course," Asher continued, "its innards are typically occupied by a complicated crystalline-latticework forming a semi-organic computerized neural network capable of storing immense amounts of data and imprinting from its creator, so even if it possessed a compartment at its core, there wouldn't be much space to-"

Ignoring the burned Sith's exposition, Fay hovered her other hand over the holocron, sandwiching the device between her palms. With but a quick thought, she channeled the Force from her hands, and the pyramid shattered into thousand tiny pieces, revealing a metallic disk within.

"It was a fake," she plainly stated. "Hollow."

"Well then..." Asher muttered, arms crossed. "I guess that settles that."

Fay took the hidden device in her other hand, letting the shattered remains of the fake holocron fall to the dirt floor. A rounded disk, home to a clip on one side and a compact holoprojector on the other, its surfaces lined with a number of switched and dials.

"I'd say we found Demik's means of communication," she said.

The trio drew closer and closer to one another, until they stood in a circle around the device in the tall woman's hands.

"So, what now?" asked Asher.

"Now... we can begin in earnest."