21. Zero Point
"And back to our main breaking news story. Newly appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Ranthi Vule, has announced that trial proceedings are to be initiated against one Tamar De'Nolo – the Jedi formerly known as Xavious Revan – in regard to the alleged murder of twelve members of the Jedi Council on . . ."
Briefly, the background noise of music and raucous laughter rose up to drown out the holo-feed before dying back again a few seconds later.
"In the studio with us right now to discuss the implications of this, among other issues, is renowned legal expert, Professor Crochetan Veggs. Professor Veggs, this surely has to count as one of the more dramatic openings to a new Chief Justice's tenure in recent times. To remind our viewers, Judge Vule's predecessor, Eccol Ikaasa, was recently found dead in circumstances that have yet to be fully explained, prompting what almost everyone agrees is a surprising promotion."
"Well, Vlob, if I might first say what a pleasure it is . . ."
"Terrol hon, this is boring. Can't we change the channel?" The voice was female, with a definite undertone of whiny and rather shrill boredom – accent straight out of the depths of the lower tunnels. "We've been watching this poodoo for, like, hours. And Alderaanian Sunsets is just starting. You know that's my favourite . . ."
Somewhere in the background came a snort of barely-suppressed laughter.
"No, we can't, Charise." The response was short; abrupt. "Now keep quiet. I'm trying to listen."
The music was pitched at that perfect level. Loud enough to cover the buzz of conversation and prevent casual eavesdropping between adjacent tables. Quiet enough that that conversation still remained both possible and comfortable. The Bith band doing the playing were good – astonishingly good considering where they were, deep in the lower levels, and the general derelict squalor of the surrounding area.
And when you breathed in, you didn't break down coughing from smoke or body-odour. That in itself spoke volumes.
Even the décor was vaguely . . . nice, particularly when contrasted with the shuddering purple horrors of Davik Kang and his ilk. Someone here obviously had pretensions of class. And on top of those pretensions, there were actually glimmerings of taste showing through. Carth had definitely been in worse establishments.
In recent times, he'd barely been in better.
He glanced across at Yolanda, striding alongside him, moving as if she was wearing an entirely different person as a skin. Close at hand, the degree and depth of the transformation was quite eerie. Posture, body language, everything. This version of her slinked and slithered like a poisonous serpent; exuded subtle menace.
Let me handle this, she'd ordered earlier. We want information. We don't want to start a war trying to get it.
He'd argued of course, though in the end he hadn't quite been sure why. Rationally, she was much better at this than he was. Perhaps it was just that it felt like he was relinquishing Dustil's safety into her hands. And for all they'd been through together, he wasn't ready to do that.
A waitress, Zeltron – needless to say, highly attractive – flashed dazzling white teeth in a manufactured smile as she moved effortlessly to meet and greet them. She gravitated straight to Yolanda, her gaze passing quickly over Carth, evaluating his role as bodyguard, and dismissing him.
Since the hair-loss, he'd noticed that people, and women especially, treated him subtly differently from before. Losing your looks in your old age.
Pleasantries were exchanged. A token of some kind was passed, and briefly, the Zeltron's smile faltered. Carth thought he saw something like fear in her eyes, and felt his own unease wind tighter inside his chest.
The name Chan was mentioned, and after a moment's hesitation, the Zeltron gestured for them to follow her. All of a sudden, she wasn't the slightest bit happy, and in Zeltrons, mood carried over to everyone around them.
They wended their way towards the private rooms round the back of cantina. "Wait here," the waitress told them, before disappearing inside the nearest.
As the seconds ticked by, Carth could feel his palms itching, the urge to reach for the blasters beneath his jacket growing stronger by the moment. He tried to convince himself that this was normal. That they hadn't blown it already.
"Keep calm and in control." The words, barely audible, made him jolt. Yolanda hadn't even looked round at him. "We're being watched. Don't overreact. In fact, don't react full stop."
His teeth clicked. Fine.
Juhani's earlier question came back. It had left him stymied. Who is she?
Because, who was she? It was chastening to realise that, for all the time they'd spent together – for all they'd done together – he didn't actually know in any meaningful way. Someone I slept with. Impossible to deny that.
Someone I trust?
That bit was harder, especially concerning this.
After all that had happened, he should trust her. Despite her outward cynicism, she'd gone out of her way time and again. It seemed an unbelievable ingratitude to even question.
Juhani herself, he reminded himself, was around somewhere – possibly quite close – covering their backs and making sure an escape route remained open, should it prove necessary. It was a reassurance. Somehow, though, it just wasn't quite enough of a reassurance.
Yolanda and Juhani had not exactly become fast friends on initial meeting. Coolly cordial was about the best you could describe it.
Despite what you may have heard about my kind, I am not incapable of stealth and discretion, Juhani had answered Yolanda's look before the question had even been asked.
I assure you, I wasn't making any judgment on you being a Cathar.
No, but you were making judgments on me being a Jedi.
The waitress returned. Her violet skin looked pale.
"Mr. Chan will see you."
"Of course he will," Yolanda purred. Something about her tone of voice made Carth's flesh creep. It was, on several levels, damn scary.
They followed the waitress closely.
I won't be party to a slaughter, Carth. I know that you feel exactly the same way, and I don't need to say this.
Juhani again, earlier. He'd bitten back an angry denial as he'd realised that kind of anger was exactly what she was warning him about. But there was still a part of him that didn't know quite what he would and wouldn't do in order to find his son.
I don't need to say this, right? she'd pressed him when no immediate response was forthcoming.
Right, he'd eventually forced out.
The sound of the music, and the general background hum of conversation, faded as they stepped inside. Within the private room, the lighting was so dim that it took Carth's eyes a few seconds to properly adjust to it. In the corner, a holo-feed of a news channel was playing. He ignored it, concentrating on the room's occupants.
There were four of them, counting the utility droid in the corner. After making T3's acquaintance, Carth would never discount a utility droid again.
Seated on the mem-foam couch in the centre of the room was a man that Carth assumed must be Chan; tall, angular, dark-haired, expensively dressed, his eyes hidden behind huge black bug-eye shades that made it impossible to tell where he was actually looking. He seemed to be staring at the holo-feed, not paying their arrival any mind at all.
Next to him, body language and facial expression both strongly suggesting that they'd walked in on the middle of an argument, was a statuesque looking woman with bright pink hair and clothing that served more to adorn than actually cover anything. She shot Carth a brief, sulky look before tossing her head back and folding her arms tightly across a more than ample chest.
It was the third individual that caused Carth to break stride, though.
You didn't get to see an Iridorian berserker outside of their battle armour every day, especially not on Coruscant. But the elaborate facial tattoos, serried lines of rank scars, and scrimshawed bone braided into his hair were impossible to mistake for anything else. If Carth remembered correctly, each piece of bone was carved from the body of an honourable enemy bested in combat.
This one had obviously bested a lot of enemies. As he shifted, unblinking, in his seat, his hair rattled dryly.
"You don't have an appointment." Chan still seemed to have his attention firmly locked on the news feed. Carth blocked the background droning out. "And even if you are who you imply you are, you don't just walk into the middle of my house and interrupt me outside of business hours."
"Then I'm sure you'll be grateful if we keep this quick and simple, Mr. Chan," Yolanda drawled. "Much less of an interruption, treated that way."
If Chan even heard her, he gave no sign. Those black insect-eye lenses swivelled round, straight past Yolanda to fix on Carth. "But you're not who you imply, are you?"
"If you were who you want me to think you are, then you'd hardly have Captain Carth Onasi of the Republic Fleet here, pretending to be your bodyguard."
And double frak.
The woman sitting next to Chan suddenly appeared to become much more interested in proceedings, staring at him openly. She leant forward, fluttering her eyelashes and smiling in a manner that made him wince inwardly. Since the Star Forge, he hadn't exactly been short of offers from women seeking to 'comfort' the famous, widowed war hero. Marriage proposals had been thrown away by the sack load, and that was just for starters.
"Captain, you surely didn't think some extreme hairdressing would be enough to disguise who you were, did you?" Chan smiled, the expression not altogether pleasant.
"You used to have really nice hair," the woman commented, apropos to nothing. "I don't know why you cut it off."
There was a pronounced pause.
"What?" the woman asked as she realised everyone was staring at her. Her voice had a nail down a blackboard quality. Then she smiled at Carth again. "Not that bald is bad on you, or anything, hon. In fact, I've heard good things about bald men . . ."
Chan exhaled. "I think, Charise, that you should leave us. We wouldn't want to bore you with our discussions."
"That's okay, Rolly. I'm not the least bit bored." There was something defiant in her voice and she folded her arms again, thrusting her chin out.
Carth almost laughed at the sheer absurdity of it.
Charise shot Chan a poisonous look, standing up with an indolent flick of her head. "Come on T4. I can tell when we're not wanted. Let's leave the boys here to their . . . fun."
The droid let out a low whistling note, but trundled obediently after her anyway. As she walked past Carth, she brushed up against him, leaving behind a cloud of perfume strong enough to constitute a low-grade biological weapon's attack.
When she was finally gone, Yolanda cleared her throat. "So, Mr Chan. Why exactly do you think my . . . associate being who he is alters anything about who I am? I'm curious as to your logic."
The tension in the air was palpable. Carth couldn't help but glance briefly behind him, his back feeling hopelessly exposed.
"I hardly think the esteemed Captain here would choose to associate himself with a cabal of semi-mythical assassins." Chan smiled thinly, pressing his fingertips together and sitting back almost casually. "Easy to claim something that cannot be either proved or disproved."
Carth decided, abruptly, to ignore Yolanda's earlier advice. This obviously wasn't working. "If you know who I am, you know what kind of back-up I can bring. Me, I'd be a lot more worried in your position, knowing what I know."
The smile on Chan's lips vanished instantly. "The two of you were watched the entire way here. You have no back-up worth speaking of, so please, leave off with the threats. Since I don't particularly want to get bloodstains on my carpet if I can avoid it, I'll extend you both a one-time offer. Walk away now, and you won't be hindered."
Carth dropped any vague remaining pretence. "I'd be happy to take you up on that. Just as soon as I find out where my son is. Which you are going to tell me." Beside him, he heard Yolanda's exhale in apparent exasperation. He didn't care.
After a second or so, the corner of Chan's mouth twitched. "I assume, Captain, that you are under the impression that this son of yours is one of my clients. For the sake of politeness, I should inform you that my business is predicated on complete confidentiality. I release details of business transactions to absolutely no one. No exceptions." Chan nodded in the direction of the news feed holo that was still playing, unnoticed. "Not even for the Dark Lord Revan himself. Now, the door? Directly behind you."
Carth just kept on looking at him – those blank, glossy black shades. "I wasn't aware I phrased it as a request."
Chan sighed extravagantly, then snapped his fingers. "Dromon, I'm sure you'd like a piece of genuine Republic war hero braided in your hair."
'Dromon' said nothing; unhurriedly stood up. He was bigger than he'd appeared sitting down. A lot bigger.
Carth readied himself to go for his blasters. So this is going well.
And finally, as the silence lengthened, some of what the news feed was saying penetrated.
"Lastly, Professor Veggs, what does the timing of this announcement say to you?"
"Well, Vlob, that is – I have to say – one of things that I find most curious about all this. Just as the Revan issue was finally starting to slide down the news agenda and now . . . well, here we are. The logic of the decision does escape me slightly, and I hardly think Judge Vule would have wanted to start his tenure with such a controversial announcement as this. From the outside it can't help but look like a tacit admission that, for all the propaganda being put around about being fully in control of the situation, the relevant authorities are no closer to actually taking Revan into custody now than they were at the outset.
"Unless the hope is to provoke Revan into surfacing, I can't see much coming of it, I'm afraid. Show trials rarely have their intended effect. One thing's for certain here though, Vlob: there are political machinations taking place that we're only now beginning to see the surface of."
Morrigance stared at the Catcher's face. That smile, still familiar: it was hardly something that you were likely to forget.
She was also well aware of Rath and his pet Trandoshan's growing impatience as they waited at the bottom of the Ebon Hawk's boarding ramp. Between them, wearing stun cuffs, Dustil Onasi looked like he was trying to will himself into invisibility. They were all still within the null-Force bubble projected by Rath's ysalamari, and consequently seemed slightly unreal, like holographic projections instead of real people.
"Naemon," she greeted quietly. "How nice to see you. Sadly, your timing is particularly inopportune. I have pressing business to attend to."
Loaders clanked in the background, mingling with the constant roar of freighters landing and taking off. The Catcher's smile widened. She could sense the Force doing very peculiar things around him. Of course, he'd always been rather odd in that regard, but in the years since they'd last been in face to face contact, the strangeness seemed to have increased exponentially.
"Elleste." His voice caressed the name almost lovingly, his head tilting – slightly quizzical – to one side. "That was you, wasn't it? The Hutt's oh so promising and talented new apprentice." Suddenly he laughed, loud enough to be heard right across the landing bay over the background din. "I have to confess that I never bothered paying much attention to Auza and his court. So tediously banal, I thought. I see now that might have been an error on my part."
"Trust me, it wasn't."
He raised an eyebrow and she thought he was amused. "But regardless," he continued, "I am quite utterly delighted to find out that the reports of your demise are so clearly exaggerated."
And, she reflected, unlike virtually any other Sith voicing those particular sentiments, he was probably completely and honestly sincere in what he said.
Of course, the Catcher had never truly been Sith in anything other than the loosest of senses. Or perhaps, a stray thought obliquely added, he was one of those rare true Sith among their number, pursuing the creed of passion and individualism to its ultimate extremes rather than simply paying lip service to it.
Certainly, he had never been a proper part of the Sith machine as most understood it. That had just provided him with a convenient cloak, affording him the opportunity to pursue his particular brand of special interests without overly interfering, or asking awkward questions. In payment, he tolerated the occasional demands placed upon his time.
Darth Auza would probably have been rather surprised to find out quite how . . . casually the Catcher had viewed their working relationship.
His eyes, as she looked at them, suddenly seemed to be trying to suck her in. Once, when Revan's covert and intelligence networks had been under control, she'd theoretically been Naemon's direct superior. His Master, even, to use proper Sith nomenclature. Of course, she'd quickly found that as theories went, this one was – at best – downright dubious.
Now such an assumption would be tantamount to suicide.
She pulled her gaze away from him, feeling slightly shaky, and turned her focus back to Rath and his hostage. "I understand that you seek the boy's father. You're welcome to him. I won't try to interfere. But here, right now, Dustil Onasi is mine. Do you understand me, Naemon?"
There was a pause that seemed to go on for far too long. "I understand your words quite precisely, Lady Fel. Unlike some, you have always been most exact and lucid in your communications."
Which was entirely not the same as saying that he agreed to what she said, or would cooperate. Behind the mask, her teeth gritted together tightly. But she didn't bother to argue.
One thing she did know. You didn't argue with the Catcher.
Not successfully, at any rate. His version of sanity appeared to reference an entirely different mode of reality to the one every one else inhabited. And within that reality, nothing that anyone else had to say held more than curiosity value.
"I don't have time for any further discussions on the matter," she told him. "I'm sure Celyanda will be only too happy to keep you 'entertained' in my absence." With that, she strode past him. She didn't look back.
How Celyanda would choose to interpret 'entertain', she had no real idea, though the twins usually had an eerie knack of picking up very clearly on her underlying intent even when she wasn't fully aware of it herself.
In that case, the next few moments might very well involve the use of lightsabers and casual and brutal dismemberment as a conversational opener.
It was something to hope for, at least.
Dustil watched Morrigance's approach with a mixture of equal parts fury, resignation, and something very close to terror. What the frak have I ever done to you, bitch? Why can't you just stay the hell away from me?
If he'd thought that he'd have gotten more than half a dozen paces, he would have made a run for it. Except the combination of stun cuffs and Force blindness was enough to convince even him of that action's futility. The throbbing still emanating from his jaw also acted as a very pointed reminder.
She stopped, still about half a dozen metres in front of them. The part of Dustil still capable of being rational about anything noted that she was about the same distance from the Hawk as he had been when he'd first encountered the Defel and stepped back. Whereupon the Force had vanished.
So if he could somehow make it that far . . .
"Your pardon if I don't come any closer, Rath. In the circumstances, I'd prefer to retain all my wits about me."
Hearing her voice was enough to forge fear into furious white-hot hatred. If you've done anything to Elendri . . .
Then what, Sithboy?
The whisper in his head was taunting. He clenched his teeth, which made his jaw ache all the more.
Rath advanced to meet her half way. The Trandoshan clamped a hand down painfully on Dustil's shoulder to show that he wasn't meant to follow.
As Dustil watched, Rath nodded in the direction of the three figures still standing near one of the landing bay's freight doors. "A problem?"
"A potential complication, certainly." Morrigance's voice – the blankness of it – made Dustil shiver. "Though that is something solely for me to worry about."
Rath made a noncommittal noise.
"That said, I'd advise you to leave here as soon as our business is concluded. Simply as a precaution."
There was an obvious hesitation on Rath's part, "I'll take that under advisement."
"I'd recommend you do slightly more than that, old friend." That last word seemed to take on a peculiar resonance. "But . . . your decision entirely of course. Anyway, I trust we still go ahead as discussed?"
Rath was seemingly still looking past her as much as at her. Belatedly, Dustil saw him nod.
Morrigance held a small, slim black case in one hand. She now extended this towards Rath. "I hope that this will be sufficient to cover all of the business we have together."
Another noticeable pause followed. Finally, Rath took it from her grasp and opened it.
From his body language – the immediate change in the set of his shoulders – Dustil suspected strongly that something was amiss. The Trandoshan's grip on his shoulder tightened to the extent that it induced an involuntary gasp.
"This is not the sum we agreed upon," Rath said, voice tight.
"You have cause for complaint?"
Dustil was suddenly very aware that, as the rope being pulled both ways from the middle here, he was undoubtedly going to be the first casualty should the nerf-crap hit the fan. As thoughts went, it definitely helped to focus the mind.
"I . . ." Rath trailed off. He seemed uncertain of how to respond to her. "Let's just say that I have cause for curiosity."
Morrigance didn't physically shrug, but something about her attitude suggested it to Dustil nevertheless. "I understand that you suffered losses in the course of your work."
Rath nodded once. "Theda." His voice sounded . . . odd. "Three of the Brothers."
"I won't pretend that credits in any way cover for the deaths of your colleagues. It should, however, compensate you for the expenses you've incurred."
The tightness in Rath's shoulders was back. "I don't expect to be paid for uncompleted work."
"Funny. I thought it was standard practise for an employer to cover expenses, regardless of outcome."
"For contracted work," Rath agreed. "This was a bounty, which is an altogether different thing."
"I consider us to have had a verbal contract, which I am now releasing you from. I can be fairly certain when I say that the main bounty is no longer on the table."
To Dustil's eyes, Rath did not look at all happy about this.
He almost smiled: hah, you bastard, you're being fired. Despite failing to understand well over half of what had passed between the two of them, that much was loud and clear. It was a polite firing, perhaps, but a firing nevertheless.
"I had not heard anything to that effect." Rath's words were stilted. "And I like to think of myself as a good listener."
"Then take this as an advance tip-off. I hope I am to be regarded as a reliable source?"
Eventually Rath nodded, although it seemed rather grudging.
"We can't get the past back, Rath," she said quietly, barely loud enough to carry to Dustil's ears. "And I think both of us are very, very different people from back then. You now have Revan's ship, which I think has to qualify as a victory of a sort."
Rath grunted. "I consider it a barely adequate replacement for the Shadow Dancer, but . . . there is scope for improvement, I suppose. If that concludes everything?" Suddenly he sounded frosty. "I should warn you that as soon as the boy leaves the ysalamari's sphere of influence he may choose to become . . . troublesome."
Frak right I will . . ..
But the thought trailed off with near terminal abruptness as he realised that Morrigance was now looking directly at him. The image of her ruined face played in his mind's eye, superimposing itself over the reflective surface of her mask.
"Oh, I'm sure myself and Dustil will be able to work everything out between ourselves sensibly."
Before Dustil could put voice to any kind of denial, Rath had turned around. Shakrill gave him a hard shove in the back, sending him stumbling towards Morrigance. Then the pair of mercenaries were walking up the Ebon Hawk's ramp, leaving him alone with her.
For one crystal clear instant, there was an almost irresistible urge to turn around and beg to be taken back.
In the dim light, the sheen of sweat on Yuthura's skin looked almost phosphorescent. She rolled off the bed they shared, standing up lithely. Tamar's breath was still coming hard as he watched her – the unconscious little motions of the tips of her head tails speaking silently of her agitation.
He felt that same agitation too. Eight hours. Eight hours left.
It was sand running through his fingers, impossible to catch. Impossible to slow. Impossible to stop.
The knowledge of that inevitability loomed over them both inescapably, and it overflowed into everything else, tainting and twisting. There had been a desperation bordering on aggression about their coupling – it hadn't so much been lovemaking as a mutual act of angry denial and defiance.
He shifted onto his side, bruised and aching. His shoulder stung where the skin had been broken. This was supposed to have been a conversation; a last chance to say what needed to be said after not having the time to properly talk at all during the past few days.
Except, so far, barely a single word had been exchanged.
And that sand kept on trickling away.
He watched as she seated herself cross-legged, almost as if trying to meditate – to find some measure of calm and serenity amidst the chaos.
All of what he had to say, in essence, boiled down into three short sentences. I love you. I wish that this could work out differently.
He had at least managed the first of those.
"Why?" At the sound of her voice, the silence shattered into splintered fragments.
Why? He didn't ask her what she meant. He didn't need to.
She didn't look at him. Her headtails hung motionless down her back as she continued. "You have the recording. Why do you imagine that anyone will find it any more convincing if you present it to them in person? Are you really naïve enough to believe that you'll even be allowed to make your case?"
Tamar didn't answer right away. The way the soft light silvered her seated form made something inside ache with poignancy. After a moment just looking at her, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up. The carefully regulated airflow in the cabin – once one of Seboba's guest suites – was cool against his chest.
One hand came up briefly to rub at his eyes. "If I'm there in person, I can make myself . . . difficult to dismiss." He sighed. The words sounded hollow even to him. "Even if I can't, if I'm standing right there in front of everyone, my absence can no longer be used as a distraction or an excuse for not seeing what's going on right beneath their noses."
He heard her snort; saw a tiny little shiver pass the length of her spine. "Flawed reasoning, and you shouldn't need me to tell you that." Her voice then bordered on the cold – hard-edged and impersonal. "Your presence will be far more of a distraction than your absence ever was. Everyone on Coruscant will be far too busy working out the protocol for trying and executing you to care remotely about the existence of Morrigance, or what she may or may not be doing. You'll simply be helping her."
His lips twitched into something that wasn't quite a smile. Neither of them had any remote illusions about proving innocence here.
"Not everyone," he said quietly.
It wasn't as if this subject wasn't something they hadn't both considered. He'd been going over and over it in his head as if it was some kind of convoluted battle plan, trying to unpick every single possibility or flaw before it could occur. Futility defined. "Dodonna and a sizable faction of the military won't ignore it." He counted the points off on fingers. "There have been a number of senators asking some very pointed questions too. And the Jedi Council will not allow emotion to get in the way of reason."
A headtail flicked. Darkly cynical amusement. "So, let me get this straight. You're relying on convincing the Jedi Council that a threat exists to the Republic so severe as to demand immediate action. Have I got that right?"
The not quite smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. Put like that . . ..
But he shook his head. "This time I'm only relying on giving people cause to look in the right place. Invoking suspicion, and ensuring that proper investigation takes place. She relies on the shadows, so take the shadows away. In the end, I think that's all that needs to be done. They can't simply dismiss Jolee and Bastila out of hand, even if they can me."
There was a period of quiet, where the soft hum of the Rancorous's systems began to seem very loud. Like an audible representation of that inexorably flowing sand.
"So allow Jolee and Bastila take the hologram to Coruscant." When she spoke again, Yuthura's voice sounded unnaturally calm and controlled. He could tell that, beneath the surface, she was absolutely anything but.
For a second or so he wanted to be able to agree with her more than anything else in the entire universe. It was desperately difficult to let that go.
"I'm a fugitive." His voice sounded like it belonged to someone else. "Probably, if it isn't too arrogant for me to say so, the fugitive right now. If it even looks slightly like they've been aiding me in evading capture it would go very, very badly for them both. I think we can be sure something like that wouldn't be overlooked."
They're tainted badly enough by association as it is.
She didn't say anything. He could hear her breathing; slow and steady – almost somnolent. The posture of her lekku likewise reflected placidity. Another surface illusion.
"Are we really arguing about this?" he said finally; softly. "Do you genuinely disagree with what I'm doing here?"
There was a quiet intake of breath from her. He stood up and moved across the room to where she sat.
"I think, given the fact that there are most unlikely to be any second chances here, it is useful to make absolutely sure of our choices." Her gaze remained fixed on a point somewhere directly in front of her. "We won't have opportunity to argue about it later."
Later . . .. Tamar touched her shoulder. After a brief moment of tension, she relaxed back against him.
"My master once told me there was a vast difference between self-sacrifice and self-indulgence, though from close range the two can sometimes look very much alike." This time, finally, she did look round at him.
The expression on her face made something inside him clench. After a moment's silence, his hand came up to gently caress one of her lekku, which flexed beneath his touch, sleek and muscular. "Perhaps I'll finally get the chance to meet him when we get to Coruscant," he said.
A slightly sad smile touched her lips. "Kwex was never much at home on Coruscant. I almost hope he's not there now."
A soft murmur escaped her throat as he continued to stroke her lekku. He struggled with his thoughts. "I . . . I am as convinced as I can be that I'm not letting myself be driven to this decision out of guilt or a misplaced desire to force some kind of artificial atonement." Deep breath. The smooth warmth of her skin; the rhythm of her pulse, quickening now; the scent of her floating on the air – it was all impossibly distracting. The urge to simply let go and lose himself was fierce. "I am absolutely convinced it is the right call for me to make."
Another, louder murmur from her. "We'll just have to hope you're right then, won't we?"
His mouth felt dry. He tried to smile, but couldn't. "Now you really are scaring me."
Her lips peeled back from sharpened teeth. What he saw glinting in her eyes then was almost fury. "There's a part of me – a very big part – that wants to scream at the Republic to frak off and sort its own damn problems out. That you're mine, and I will not give you up for this."
Then, more quietly: "And yes, it does scare me."
Tamar hesitated, but decided he had to try saying it anyway. "You don't have to be caught up in it. In fact, you shouldn't be caught up in it. A way out might not exist for me, but it does for you. You should walk away."
Another snort. "Stop halfway and drop me off somewhere. Oh yes. I can definitely see our escorts being overjoyed by that."
"That isn't what scares me, and you know it, Tamar. Reverse our positions." At this proximity, her eyes looked huge. "Reverse your position with any who you call a friend for that matter."
After a moment's pause, he nodded, almost resignedly.
"Then you have your answer. Do me the respect of not bringing it up again."
The urge to argue flared briefly, then died away as he looked at her. It was less than eight hours now. Getting less all the time. In a way that seemed to resolve matters – clarify everything down into its simplest, most elemental components.
There was now. There was her.
He leant forwards. She did the same.
Second time around was barely less ferociously intense than the first.
Dustil made no move to step forward, out of the ysalamari's sphere of influence. His expression looked decidedly sullen, although perhaps some of that was down to the badly swollen lip. A crusted line of dried blood ran down from the corner of his mouth and there were livid circles beneath his eyes that at first glance resembled bruises. In fact, his entire complexion was pale and waxily unhealthy. Taken in combination with several days of stubble growth, it would have been easy to dismiss him as just another of the multitude of vagrants that collected on the Agatan's fringes.
He'd definitely deteriorated badly from the last time Morrigance had laid eyes on him.
As she looked at him, she felt a momentary surge of anger aimed in Rath's direction. She had specified in terms that left no room for ambiguity: he was not to be harmed in any way.
But . . . an exhalation, and she allowed that annoyance to seep away. Grudgingly, she had to acknowledge that, from what she'd seen of him, Dustil was unlikely to have been a model guest.
This, however, was unlikely to make an already difficult task any easier. His entire posture suggested emphatically that he was in no mood to be even remotely cooperative.
"I would suggest you follow me and not argue for the moment," she told him briskly, breaking the lengthy silence. "Right now you're in a considerable amount of danger."
"From you?" The sneer he favoured her with was pretty much the response she'd been anticipating. "If that's a threat, you need to practise. Even Shaardan was scarier than that."
"No, not from me." She kept her voice imperiously calm, refusing to be drawn into the fight he was clearly spoiling for. "You see the gentleman over my left shoulder?"
As she spoke, she found herself wondering briefly what Celyanda was doing. As far as she could tell, the three of them were still standing exactly where she'd left them, silent and motionless. It was almost as if they were . . . communing with each other somehow.
That thought left her feeling profoundly disturbed, and her eagerness to be done with all this as quickly as possible intensified markedly.
Dustil's eventual response was a grudging nod. Force sense or not, the suspicion and hostility he was giving off couldn't be missed or misinterpreted.
"He's a Sith Assassin," she explained. "Some know him as the Catcher. Perhaps you heard of him while you were on Korriban. I gather that he has . . . something of a reputation. Anyway, right now he's looking specifically for you. From a certain perspective, that could almost be viewed as an honour."
The way that Dustil's eyes narrowed betrayed that he most definitely had heard of the Catcher. And his immediate response was absolutely furious.
"What do you take me for exactly?" He spat out a mouthful of bloody saliva. "You seriously expect me to buy the fact that the Sith have remotely enough spare time and resources to waste on sending assassins to chase down random deserters?" An angry, denying headshake. "And the Catcher? Please. That really is just priceless. If it wasn't so pathetic it would be laughable."
Morrigance folded her arms across her chest. He definitely wasn't laughing, she noted. In fact, there was a kind of hunted desperation shadowing his face. "Why else to do you imagine I went to all the trouble and expense of having Rath hold you? It was hardly an act that was likely to make you any better disposed towards me, was it?"
Dustil started to open his mouth, but she didn't allow him the chance to protest further. "And I believe that the Catcher wishes to use you in order to get to your father. Such are the perils of having a famous war hero in the family."
His jaw shut quickly, and briefly, he looked very, very shaken. An attempt to hide his reaction behind a facade of scornful indifference was largely unsuccessful. Part of her was sure he was going to demand to know why she'd been talking to this so called 'Catcher' a few minutes previously, and insist that it all must be some kind of twisted and elaborate ruse designed to secure his cooperation.
But he didn't.
Instead, he changed the subject entirely.
"What the frak did you do to Elendri, bitch?" Dark eyes glittered feverishly, close to dementia. "I know she's gone. It has to be you."
For a moment, she simply stared at him, her annoyance at Rath resurfacing. That was one card she most definitely hadn't wanted him to know about until the correct moment came for her to play it.
Except . . . it could still be used to her advantage.
"I kept her safe, Dustil. Exactly like I kept you safe. Until right now, at any rate. I suggest we talk while we walk. I'm going to walk." She turned around abruptly as she spoke and proceeded to do exactly that, striding rapidly straight towards one of the landing pad's exits. "Ultimately, Dustil," she called back to him, "you can do as you please. That choice is always yours."
And after a second or so, she heard his footsteps, slightly ragged and uneven, behind her – felt the seethingly tangled and twisted knot of his Force presence as it seemingly materialised from nowhere.
If he wanted to find out about Elendri, he had to follow her. And it seemed he wanted that enough to overcome what his every other instinct was doubtless telling him.
"Breaking news just in . . . crowds of protesters streaming into the Plaza of Infinite Suns . . ."
The sound of the news feed fogged out as the back of Carth's head cracked against the floor. Vision blurring, pain stabbing through his battered ribcage, he arched his back and kicked out hard as the Iridorian advanced rapidly to finish him off.
Dromon staggered back a couple of steps as he caught him in the chest. It bought Carth just enough time to get his feet back under him.
The floor seemed to undulate alarmingly, his breath coming in sharp, grating gasps. His back felt cold and wet where Dromon's vibroblade had sliced through his jacket. Obviously, it had drawn blood as well as simply cut cloth like he'd initially thought. The flow of adrenaline still kept him from feeling more than a ghostly suggestion of the pain.
That vibroblade was now lying in the room's corner.
"Rumours are rife that . . ."
Too far to risk. Carth's gaze flicked towards where one of his own blasters had fallen, just beneath the drinks table. Closer, but still a daunting distance.
". . . Revan . . ."
He glanced upwards. The brief instant of distraction almost proved to be a fatal one. A blow that would have half taken Carth's head off had it hit him full on was halfway ducked, though it still connected solidly enough to open up a shallow, bloody gash across his forehead.
". . . been taken into Jedi custody . . ."
Carth reeled backwards, vision swimming chaotically. A vicious kick caught him in the midriff, doubling him over and blasting most of the breath from his lungs.
". . . seem convinced that the former Dark Lord is to be delivered . . ."
He gave ground desperately, vainly trying to suck in air. Dromon closed in, frighteningly fast and powerful.
". . . the Jedi Temple here on Coruscant within the next few hours . . ."
It was a bit like how Carth imagined fighting a twenty-year younger version of Canderous would be – one seemingly unfettered by any hint of self-preservation instinct. Blood ran into his eyes, his forearms absorbing further kicks, now little more than a single aching mass of bruises that he struggled to keep raised defensively.
". . . We now pass over to our roving reporter at the scene of the disturbances, Shaula . . ."
Carth never did get to hear what the roving reporter had to say. At that moment, Dromon's entire bulk slammed into him head on.
Grappling, the two of them staggered backwards – ungainly dance partners. After few stumbling steps, they collided with the drinks table. Both it and the glasses on top of it toppled over, crashing to the floor in a rain of alcohol, crushed ice and glass shards. A fraction afterwards, still locked in one another's embrace, they stumbled straight over it, ending up sprawled together in the middle of the wreckage – a tangled mass of thrashing limbs.
At close proximity, the Iridorian's strength was overpowering.
For as long as he'd been able to keep him at arms length, Carth had been able to just about hold his own. Now though, as Dromon squeezed, it became impossible to draw breath into his lungs, and he felt himself being bent slowly and inexorably backwards until the point where it felt certain his spine was going to snap. Unable to get any proper leverage into ragged, desperate blows with either fists or forearms or knees, he might as well have been trying to pound his way through a permacrete wall barehanded.
Blood rushed loudly in Carth's ears. His vision contracted down into a narrow black tunnel. In desperation, he drove his forehead into the middle of Dromon's face as it hovered inches above his own.
Dromon, teeth bloody, simply grinned down at him and returned the favour twofold.
Carth felt his nose crunch and break with the second impact, a swirling explosion of weird light patterns dancing behind his eyes. Dimly and distantly, he was aware of Dromon shifting his grip. Something sharp sliced across the back of his hand as it flopped limply.
Desperate, bloody-minded refusal to give in to reality made his hand clench and grip the glass shard. Jagged edges cut deeply into his fingers, but he barely felt it. Muscles tensed and flexed, more on instinct than from any conscious prompting. His arm swung, connecting with something solid.
Dromon reared back, the crushing pressure on Carth's spine finally letting up.
His vision cleared enough for him to see the Iridorian swaying, wild-eyed, one hand clutching at the side of his neck where a four-inch dagger of glass now sprouted. Blood flowed thickly between heavy fingers.
Almost screaming with the effort required, Carth heaved Dromon off him, gasping raggedly as he rolled over and groped around for his blaster.
Torn, bloody fingers closed around the grip. Twisting instantly, Carth pulled the trigger twice in quick succession, barely aiming.
Both shots hit Dromon in the chest. The Iridorian, lunging forward at him again despite the neck wound, toppled like a felled wroshyr tree.
Carth waited for him to move – to get up – the blaster stilled trained on Dromon's fallen form.
Seconds passed. He didn't. The air stank of charred flesh and fried ozone. With a groan, Carth finally allowed himself to relax a fraction.
With that relaxation, every single blow and knock he'd sustained seemed to come crashing down on him. The pain from his cut fingers and broken nose; the pounding his ribcage had taken, turning each intake of breath into its own miniature ordeal; each and every muscle-deep bruise, too many of those to count.
His legs almost buckled, but he gritted his teeth and forced himself to hold on. Over on the news feed some woman was twittering away over-excitedly, but he couldn't make himself concentrate hard enough to pick out any of the individual words. It was showing a sweeping panoramic shot of the Jedi temple and the main square outside it, in which there must have been getting on for several thousand people gathered already, with more of them streaming in by the moment.
He pulled his gaze away – struggled to focus back onto more immediate problems. Like the fact that Yolanda had chased Chan through that door there, what was now probably several minutes ago . . ..
He went for his comm., intending to raise Juhani, but it must have fallen out of his ear at some point during the struggle with Dromon. Amidst all the broken glass and melting ice scattered over every nearby surface, finding it again would have been next to impossible even if his vision wasn't fading in and out like a bad holo signal.
Groaning with the effort it required, he recovered his second blaster from the floor, then set of after Yolanda in a limping jog.
"Enough." Dustil was dismayed to hear how shaky his voice was. Through the lift car's transparisteel windows the Agatan's brutally industrial landscape passed by at blurring speed, scarred metal towers belching smoke into Coruscant's sky.
Morrigance looked around at him slowly. At least, that blank reflective mask swivelled his way. Around them, the lift car hummed steadily.
"You're going to tell me what you did to Elendri. Now." He couldn't help feeling that it sounded more like a small child stamping his foot and threatening a tantrum than the absolute and undeniable ultimatum it had been meant as.
As he finished though, he deliberately opened himself fully to the Force, reaching through it explicitly for the first time in nearly a year. The immediate sensation left him dizzy and light-headed – caught between soaring exultation and vertiginous fear. He was able to sense the flow of energy through the walls around them clearly, powering the lift's movement. "If you don't . . ." A stifled groan of effort forced its way between his lips, the energy flows distorting. The lift car lurched alarmingly around them. ". . . then we're both going to come to a very hard stop."
"Fascinating," he heard her murmur.
Then, to him directly: "Impressive. The fine manipulation of the inanimate is not something everyone can master. And I don't believe it ever formed part of Dreshdae's official curriculum."
He grunted, not letting his concentration slip. "I told you. I'm a speeder mechanic." There was another jolt, more violent than the first. "And I mean it. I'll kill us both if I don't receive an answer that satisfies me completely." As he spoke, he could feel sweat running in a cold stream down his back. "Now."
"I don't doubt you." Her response remained infuriatingly calm and unflappable. "As for Elendri . . .. Miss Ves is currently on Alderaan. She is, I'm given to understand, delighted by her new job, part of a highly reputable dance and performance troupe. I believe that she wants to redecorate your new apartment though, green not being her colour."
Dustil gaped at her. He felt his grip on the lift car waver and refocused on it furiously.
"At the moment," Morrigance continued, "she is under the firm impression that you've come into a significant amount of money, and have arranged all of this for her. She's expecting you to join up with her on Alderaan in a few weeks' time, once you've tied up loose ends here on Coruscant. I'll leave it to your discretion as to whether you want to disabuse her of any of these notions."
"I'm supposed to just take your word on all this, am I?" he finally bit out.
His head was spinning though. Part of him wanted to believe what he'd just been told so badly that it was hard to maintain a proper grip on his scepticism. His hold on the lift car slid away entirely.
"Now that would have been a naïve assumption on my part, wouldn't it?"
An object that looked like a holo-recording crystal sat on the palm of her hand. After a moment's hesitation, he took it from her. Sweaty fingers made him fumble briefly at the controls, but it came to life a moment later.
And there, floating directly above the palm of his hand, a twenty-centimetre high representation of Elendri appeared. Staring at her, it felt to Dustil as if his entire body clenched tight. She looked like she was dressed for travel, wearing what – for her – was a relatively plain jumpsuit, with numerous bags piled on the ground around her and another slung over her shoulder. Her face . . .
He blinked. She was grinning, but he could see that she'd been crying too. Her headtails were moving repeatedly in a manner that spoke of barely contained excitement.
"Dustil!" There was a mix of delight and confusion in her voice, made more odd by the slightly tinny sound of the recording. "Dustil, how ever did you . . .?" She stopped, brow furrowing in that slightly vexed way she had. Which cleared abruptly, transforming into a look of determination that was equally familiar. "No. They said I didn't have much time, and you can't answer me now anyway. Look, I know you have things to take care of, but please, hurry and join me on Alderaan . . .." It looked then like something had occurred to her, because the frown came back instantly. "Hey, this better not be your way of dumping me, because I swear . . ."
Hastily, he switched it off again, silencing Elendri's words mid flow. He was shaking. He didn't want to hear anymore. Or more accurately, he didn't want Morrigance to hear anymore. Which was utterly irrational. She'd doubtlessly already seen everything on the recording, and probably more than once.
So perhaps, if he were to be entirely honest, he didn't want her viewing his own reaction to it. He could feel his cheeks burning as it was.
"That proves nothing. You could have had her killed the moment after it was recorded."
"But I didn't. And I think you know that I didn't."
And . . . on some level, he did know, but he couldn't allow himself to simply accept. Because dealing with Morrigance in terms of rage and hate – a figure he could lash out at and focus all of his frustrations on – was easy.
The alternatives weren't.
She gestured towards the lift car's info terminal, then reeled off a number. He recognised it as a holoNet comm. code, off-world. He didn't recognise the system prefix, but it was in the right range for Alderaan to be a possibility.
"I don't know what time it is where she is, and I have no clue whether she'll be in or not, but please go ahead."
With a lingering look of suspicion, he reluctantly turned his back on her and entered the number at the terminal. The connecting tone seemed to go on forever and he could feel an uncomfortable itching, prickling sensation between his shoulder blades where he imagined her gaze was fixed.
His heart nearly stopped when the connecting tone stopped and someone picked up.
"Um . . . hello?" No image appeared, the other end set to privacy mode. Despite that, he couldn't mistake Elendri's voice for that of anyone else, even blurred through several layers of sleep as it sounded. "Do you have any idea what time it is?"
He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. His throat seemed to have contracted shut.
"Hello? Who is this?" The initial sleepiness was replaced by rapidly growing irritation. Dustil realised that he must be in privacy mode too, but made no move to switch it off and reveal himself. Paralysis gripped him.
Irritation became downright anger as the silence from his end lengthened. "Look frak-for-brains, I worked a double shift today. I'm tired. I'm pissed-off. I'm not in the mood for more weirdo nerfsacks making crank calls. If you're anyone I know, I'll . . . I'll hunt you down and rip your frakking balls off."
At this point nothing he had to say felt remotely like a good idea. In a way, it felt like it would be far, far kinder not to force his way back into her life – to make the cut clean and allow Elendri her new start, untainted by the baggage he carried with him.
There was a stream of venomous Twi'lek invective, only some of which he understood – though part of that did include 'the rancid vomit crustings of the diseased fleas of a mangy schutta'. Then the line went dead.
He expected Morrigance to make some kind of comment. She didn't.
He was aware of the lift car decelerating before coming to a gentle halt, the doors sliding open and letting in a gust of warm, fume-laden air. Grimacing, he steeled himself and turned to face her again. "So what do you want from me?"
"Right now I want you to follow me without arguing. We can talk more when we're somewhere safer than this."
After a long hesitation, Dustil nodded.
"Argh! You bitch! You insane frakking, schutta-spawn bitch." The words were punctuated by the sound of uneven, agonised gasping. "You shot me in the leg." There was a kind of childlike, disbelieving astonishment to the voice. "You shot me in the frakking leg!"
Carth rounded the corner of the alleyway to see Yolanda standing over Chan's supine form, a holdout blaster aimed at the fallen man's head. His own breathing grated through a combination of broken nose and damaged ribs, but he felt oddly detached from the world around him, all the undoubted pain strangely muffled and distant. The urge to stop, just for a moment, and rest was near overpowering though. Catch his breath. Get his strength back . . .
He stumbled, catching himself one-handed against the alleyway wall. The problem, Carth knew from painful experience, was that if he allowed himself to stop, his entire body was probably going to seize up.
"I'll take that as thanks for my impeccable aim," he heard Yolanda saying. "Perhaps you'd like to consider for a moment the consequences if I'd hit a few inches higher. No?"
The sound that followed suggested that Chan had tried to spit at her. By the look of things, he'd only managed to project the phlegm onto his own chest.
In wordless response, Yolanda trod on Chan's injured thigh.
The high, thin shriek that resulted pierced the clouds of lethargy gathering in around Carth. He watched numbly as Chan thrashed on the rubbish-strewn floor.
"Silly boy. Now, perhaps you could get back to my earlier question? You have another leg, you know."
Gritting his teeth, still able to taste blood in his mouth, Carth forced himself to push away from the wall and resume walking. The effort made him gasp involuntarily, breath hissing sharply between his teeth as his entire ribcage spasmed.
Yolanda finally seemed to notice him, briefly glancing his way.
Attempting to take advantage of her apparent distraction, Chan tried to kick her legs out from under her while simultaneously grabbing at the wrist of the arm holding her blaster. Yolanda evaded neatly, skipping easily over his flailing legs. As she landed, she managed to tread on his injured thigh again, planting an elbow in the middle of his face in the same movement.
As Chan groaned, clutching at his face, Yolanda smiled down at him unsympathetically. "Tsk, tsk. Not very sensible. And what's this? It looks like my friend has arrived. Unlike me, he has something of a . . . temper."
Carth almost snorted at that, but there was an unhealthy rushing sensation in his ears and it took a good deal of concentration simply to keep going forward in something approximating a straight line. His face felt like some kind of overlarge comedy mask.
"From the look of things," Yolanda continued cheerily, "your big Iridorian companion has managed to do a pretty good job of provoking him. So unless your memory improves very quickly, your day is going to get a good deal worse than it is already. "
Chan, Carth noted as he came to a halt again, had lost his shades somewhere. He looked much younger without them, the surface veneer of toughness splintered into myriad small, disarrayed fragments. Truth be told, he looked scared and vulnerable, fear having won out over anger and pride.
Carth found himself throttling back a sudden surge of something not too far removed from pity. He swallowed in an effort to lubricate his throat. "All I want from you are details of my son's new identity." It came out halfway between growl and croak, though that was more because that was the best approximation he could manage to speech right now than out of any desire to intimidate. "This didn't have to be so difficult." He paused, gathering himself as the world around him seemingly began to sway. "It doesn't need to be any more difficult."
Chan laughed hollowly.
Yolanda raised an eyebrow, pointedly shifting the aim of her blaster up towards his groin.
"You might as well pull the trigger. She already has me by the balls. Maybe it'll be liberating."
It occurred to Carth that he probably had some kind of concussion, because that went completely over his head. One thing remained absolutely transparisteel clear though: "Just tell me about my son!"
"I don't know about your frakking son." Chan let out another weary, half-despairing laugh. "Frak, I really don't get paid enough for this crap."
The urge to kick him until he started making some kind of sense was suddenly nearly overwhelmingly powerful.
"Explain," he gritted out, hands clenching. Part of him was slightly shocked about how easy it would be to just let the violence and rage spill out in one cathartic rush, and damn all consequences it might have . . .
Chan tried to sit up. Yolanda planting her foot in the centre of his chest stopped that short.
"Look." He seemed to be trying to sound reasonable. "You're both operating under the assumption that I run this particular operation, aren't you? An understandable mistake, I admit. That's the way it's supposed to look. From the outside."
Taking the look on their faces, reasonableness tipped over into wheedling desperation. By now, Chan was sweating copiously. "I'm just the . . . what's the word? The figurehead? Yeah, the figurehead. That's it. I act as a front – a face everyone knows – and draw the fire from my real employer. Usually the perks outweigh the downsides."
Although not today, obviously.
"Nice line in bantha-spit." Yolanda's foot pushed down harder on his chest, making him grimace. "But really, if you want it to sound remotely convincing, you need to get your story straight before you start spinning it."
Carth though, found himself believing Chan. In his head, he could hear the woman from downstairs speaking. Come on T4. I can tell when we're not wanted. Let's leave the boys here to their . . . fun. He could smell the industrial-grade perfume and feel the brush of her hip against his as she swept past him.
"Is it the woman or the droid?" he demanded.
Chan's gaze snapped round on him. "The droid?" There was an odd look in his eyes though, belying the initial astonishment. It suggested that, although that had never occurred to him previously, it wasn't something that he could dismiss out of hand.
But it didn't really matter, and Carth wasn't listening to any further response that might have been forthcoming.
He'd already turned away, reaching up to activate the comm. unit in his ear. Forgetting, again, that he'd lost it.
There was a questioning look on Yolanda's face as he looked back at her in mute appeal.
"Call Juhani" He could feel his cheeks burning as he spoke, his voice gruff. "Tell her . . ."
"I know what to tell her," she answered simply.
"This distresses you, doesn't it."
Bastila's response to Jolee's words was little more than a non-committal grunt. She continued to stand with her back to him, knuckles white where they gripped the metal railing in front of her. Down below, one of the Rancorous's shuttles was being prepped by maintenance droids, misty clouds of coolant vapour hanging white upon the air. It wouldn't be ready for use for several hours, and she wasn't sure what had compelled her to come here and watch.
Perhaps the simple fact that there was no peace to be found anywhere else, so she might as well stand here and watch the approaching doom.
The silence lengthened, and eventually she felt Jolee give the mental equivalent of a shrug. "Suit yourself." A short time later, she heard his footsteps, moving away from her.
At the landing bay door, the footsteps paused. "If you find you do want to talk to someone before everything bottled up inside you explodes, I'll be around." He stifled a yawn. "Possibly taking a nap or something else vitally important."
She exhaled, hands clenching tighter on the railing. "Wait."
He turned back. She opened her mouth, but closed it again as she realised she didn't know how to begin.
"Well, girl? Awfully cruel to keep an old man hanging on like this. I've only got so much time left, you know."
"Haven't we all," she muttered beneath her breath. The amount of time it took to finish prepping a shuttle, give or take. Then she added, more loudly: "What did you mean by 'this', exactly?"
"Ah, well now. What did you think I meant? Maybe that's the place to start."
She snorted, but even that didn't manage to sound convincing to her own ears.
Tamar. Tamar might be getting better at shielding the link from her, but not yet to the extent that he could entirely hide why he was blocking her out. It was somewhat like being in the room next to his, the door between them closed and locked, but the soundproofing not quite good enough to keep out all of the noises emanating from the other side.
She wasn't sure why it left her so . . . excised. Part of her thought that she should be happy for him – that he could move on and build a life for himself, even in these circumstances. But the brutal fact was, she wasn't, and couldn't even pretend to be.
In fact, there were occasions where she found herself wondering if she'd come to hate him.
Why should he get to move forward and on when I have not? Didn't he do much worse than I did? It's not fair!
Why do I have to keep all my memories of what I did when he does not?
It was insanely childish, she knew. Worse than childish. Dangerous.
But that knowledge didn't make all the thoughts just float away and vanish.
The skin of her face felt hot, and she was very glad that Jolee couldn't see it. Of course, he hadn't meant any of that. Or at least, she hoped profoundly that he hadn't. His perceptiveness sometimes verged upon the frightening.
Finally, she forced herself to speak, fearing that even silence – especially silence – gave far too much away. "If you meant, am I concerned about the prospect of having to stand before the Jedi Council, then . . ." Bastila took a deep breath. "I am. Much as it shames me to admit it."
For a long, painfully embarrassing moment, she thought he was going to accuse her of lying to him, but he didn't. Instead, he added: "In the circumstances, a certain amount of trepidation is only sensible, don't you think? One might even say it's wise."
"Wise?" Bastila almost laughed at that. "And is it wise for a Jedi to have so little faith in the ability of the Jedi Council to make the correct decision?"
The correct decision, or the decision you want?
Jolee made a noncommittal noise, and she could tell that he'd shrugged again even if she didn't see it. He moved up to stand next to her and she saw a dark, creased hand come to rest on the railing a few centimetres from her own. "A Jedi needs to acknowledge that he or she is fallible. You'd agree with that much?"
All too fallible in her case. But she nodded cautiously.
"Then surely it follows that a Jedi needs to acknowledge that all her fellow Jedi are fallible too. Even the Masters. Even the Council."
Which, despite the obvious logic of it, still managed to sound almost like heresy. "And you, old man?" She regretted the harsh edge to the words even as it passed her lips. "Do you include yourself here?"
A chuckle. "Oh, I'm more fallible than anybody. Surely you've noticed? I've just managed to grow comfortable with my fallibility over the years." He paused musingly. "In fact I'd even go so far as to say that I've come to enjoy it."
She shot him a sidelong look, halfway disbelieving.
"Imagine what it would be like, always being right." A shudder passed through him. "No fun at all in as far as I can see."
She looked away from him again, staring down at the droids moving around the shuttle. Eventually, some of the inner turmoil seemed to loosen its grip on her and slide away. "Stop trying to be perfect?"
"Stop beating yourself about not being perfect," he corrected quietly. "Jedi feel all the little things that everybody else does. That's not wrong, or something you should be ashamed of."
One of her hands came up to rub at her eyes. The fumes from the coolant were making them itch. "Any other bits of wisdom you'd care to impart while you're at it." Again it managed to come out far more harshly than she'd intended.
"Well, let's see." There was the sound of an indrawn breath, followed by a soft clucking noise. "Don't smuggle arms on Vendaxa Prime unless you have a very fast ship. Don't insult Ukatis Enforcers behind their backs." He tapped one ear. "Helmet sensors you know; amplifies the hearing. Trying to distil hard liquor from marjulla berries rarely has a positive outcome. Drinking the end product never does." She saw him shudder. "I swear I can still taste it, forty years on."
"Well thanks." Bastila didn't bother concealing the sarcasm. "I'll try to bear all that in mind."
Jolee continued as if he hadn't heard her, the tone of his voice altering just a fraction. "Stop worrying about things you can't change, and try to concentrate on those that you can."
Bastila opened her mouth to protest, but never got the chance to speak.
"Most of all, stop listening to the babblings of senile old men as if they know the secrets of the universe. They don't."
She snorted again, but this time it was followed by something approximating to a smile.
"Well, much as I enjoy hanging out in deserted shuttle bays with pretty young ladies . . ." Suddenly he was gone from her side and she heard his footsteps, walking away.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Hang on." She forced herself to relax her grip on the railing. "I'll come with you."
"Acknowledged," Juhani interrupted, cutting Yolanda off before severing the comm. link between them.
Lying on the ground around her were half a dozen unconscious bodies – human, Gran, a rather scrawny looking Trandoshan. She'd taken it upon herself to intercept them before they could rush to the defence of their employer inside. The opportunity to finally release some of the pent up frustrations of the past few days had proved to be . . . satisfying.
Perhaps too satisfying, when it came to it. As the flow of adrenaline subsided, she couldn't help but worry that she'd enjoyed it all rather too much – letting instinct get of the better of her again. And being forced to resort to violence should always be a source of regret to a Jedi.
But nevertheless . . .
Her eyes narrowed, piercing the gloom around her. Somewhere close by an electric light flickered erratically, the hum it gave off pitched at a timbre that was particularly aggravating to her sensitive hearing, setting her back teeth on edge and making the fur on her cheeks flatten.
A woman with pink hair, accompanied by a utility droid . . .
Laying aside her lingering distrust towards Carth's companion – there was no single reason for the feeling that she could pinpoint, but it persisted nevertheless – she concentrated on Yolanda's words instead, bringing her memories of the last several minutes to the surface and letting them replay in her head as if she was a remote observer watching a holo-feed.
It was a technique that Quatra had taught her, and the thought of her master made her stumble momentarily. She recovered quickly though, and a short time later, she was floating amid a sea of images, gripped by icily impassive calm, sorting everything that had passed before her eyes with clinical speed and efficiency.
There. Moving unhurriedly.
Just a glimpse: a flash of that pink hair in the periphery of her vision that hadn't drawn more than the tiniest fragment of her attention at the time. She isolated the moment and focused in on it tightly, trying to strip it of every conceivable fragment of useful information.
There wasn't much. Another of the multitude of street girls working these lower reaches had been her vague, unconsciously reached assessment.
Allowing the image to fall away, Juhani reached down to the stealth field generator. As it activated, she felt the familiar sensation of her fur bristling from the slight static charge it imparted. Then, all but invisible – quieter even than the background grumble of the filters that stirred the stale air of the underlevels in a sluggish pretence of a breeze – she started to pursue.
"There's food, drink, clean clothes. A holo-feed and a comm. link. A bed if you desire rest. I'll leave it to you what you want to take advantage off." As she spoke, Morrigance could feel the skin on the back of her neck prickling. There was a tight, urgent tension inside her chest as she turned her back on Dustil and moved to leave him to his own devices.
"We'll talk later." It was difficult to keep the edge of that tension and impatience out of her voice. The timing of this latest problem was, by any reckoning, excruciatingly bad.
"We'll talk now." His words and the expression on his face brooked no refusal.
She refused anyway. "No. We won't."
And with that, she walked out.
The door to his quarters slid shut between them. There was no lock on it – she knew that even the slightest perception that she was holding him against his will would irrevocably shatter the tentative and unspoken accord they'd for the moment come to – so he could have followed her, had he wanted.
Stubborn pride and refusal to be seen scurrying in her wake like some kind of overeager lackey. Behind her mask, her breath hissed in darkly self-mocking amusement. Right now, she would take whatever small mercies from the situation that she could.
Part of her didn't expect there to be an answer so her mental call, so she was more than a little taken aback when a calm, wordless acknowledgement answered her immediately.
Sensors turned on lights automatically as she walked, the apartment spontaneously illuminating itself as she passed through it. The thick carpet muffled the sound of her boot heels.
Why is he here? She tried to keep the thought measured and even, free of anger or rebuke. Free of unease. Except, of course, Celyanda would see through any pretence instantly, no matter how well constructed, right down to the core.
Because that is the way things are.
That response left her too stunned for any comeback. She stopped hard, staring at the door that blocked her way.
The Catcher was in the room beyond – the room she'd set up as her temporary study, office and nerve-centre. He was doing nothing to conceal his Force presence, and she could sense it clearly – a vast, blooming black flower edged in what seemed to be blazing blue flame. Mixed with the tight, turbulent knot that was Dustil, it felt as if she'd stepped into the eye of a rapidly burgeoning and ferociously intense storm. Part of her couldn't help but wonder at how her own presence would appear to an observer, caught between these two.
She almost laughed at herself.
Lightsaber, holdout blaster, defence drones. Various other . . . bits and pieces built into her flesh Inwardly, she accounted for every single little item that might be of use. One can never be too careful.
Except, according to Revan – the dead version of him, at least – one could, and indeed, being too careful was one of the worst sins you could commit. She strongly suspected that he would be hugely amused to see all this now.
Her hand came up, touching the door, and it slid open smoothly in recognition of her. How the Catcher had bypassed all of the security measures was not a question worth lingering on. As a Sith assassin, that was simply what he did.
Inside, the lights were off, and a holo-feed of some news channel was playing. What it was showing stopped her in her tracks.
"Shaula, can you shed light on where these rumours of Revan's imminent return to Coruscant are originating from."
The images showed her a setting that was instantly familiar– the Plaza of Infinite Suns on the main approach to the Jedi Temple, which loomed mutely in the background of the current footage, silently dominating the scene. The crowds of people though – those were something entirely unexpected.
"Well, Vlob, at the moment speculation points to a source inside the Jedi Temple complex itself. But right now, that's all it is: speculation. One thing I can say with confidence: every person I've spoken to within the past hour is absolutely convinced that Revan will be arriving here in Jedi custody inside the next day."
"Thank you, Shaula. Now, we've heard reports that segments of the gathering crowd are not there to protest, but are instead intent on greeting Revan as some kind of . . . prodigal hero, you might say – even as a . . . returning messiah . . ."
The words continued after that, but Morrigance had all but switched off from them.
At the very least, she'd assumed that Morna Rey would have been able to keep Revan entangled on Eres for the next few days, if not for weeks. Privately, she'd even hoped that the Admiral would manage to solve her problems once and for all by making the bastard disappear into one of the bottomless interrogation facilities the Republic liked to pretend it was far too nice and civilised to possess.
Instead, the stupid bitch was transporting him straight to Coruscant, to the Jedi Temple. Not only that, she was sending word ahead, and turning it into some kind ridiculous pantomime performance in the process . . .
How very inconvenient for you. Game pieces daring to grow minds of their own.
Even if those minds were half-witted.
Everything unravels all at once, just when you let yourself assume it's in the bag. Not Revan, but her first employer, Drevon Rae. And he'd gone on to prove the truth of his own words in the most terminally emphatic fashion possible. Revan had too, in his own way.
Already wheels were turning over rapidly, spinning and trying to find a way to twist this to her advantage . . .
A low chuckle jolted her attention back to more immediate concerns. One problem at a time.
"All your doing, I take it?" The Catcher's voice was liquid silk. "I have to say, I'm seriously impressed by what you've managed to achieve."
Morrigance didn't deign to correct him, stepping all the way inside and allowing the door to slide shut at her back. A gesture of one black gloved hand and the holo-feed cut itself off. With the glare of that gone, the one patch of remaining brightness seemed to be the light reflecting off the Catcher's grinning teeth.
"How did you manage to persuade Celyanda to let you in here?" It was a genuine question, and one she was curious to know the answer to.
The grin didn't waver in the slightest. "We each of us pretended to work for dear departed Darth Auza, did we not?"
Morrigance stared at him – made rapid calculations in her head over how fast and hard she could strike if it came to that, and whether it would be remotely enough.
Perhaps he took her silence as a prompt for elaboration: "Despite our obvious surface differences, Celyanda and I found ourselves to have much in common philosophically." His hands spread, self-deprecatingly. "I was gratified to discover that, even now, they still hold me in high esteem."
Another chuckle. "I assure you Morrigance, their loyalty remains firmly yours. I only sit before you now because I was able to convince them that I intend you no harm. And, of course, that this meeting would be beneficial to us all.
"Besides, I have no desire to share the fate of the Jedi Council."
His smile left her unaccountably chilled. The words were just so much flummery – a sleight of hand artist at play.
"I told you before Naemon, I will not allow you to have Dustil." She paused fractionally, internally editing ahead as she realised that this conversation probably had an audience. Certainly, if she was Dustil, she would be seeking to listen in by any means at her disposal – and indeed, she'd be almost disappointed with him if he wasn't. "Whatever else you might want – Revan for instance – you're more than welcome to try and take, but leave me out of it. I'm no longer of the Sith, and sometimes old acquaintance should remain that way."
The Catcher unfolded himself from her chair, moving with a fluidity that made him resemble a manifest part of the surrounding darkness. "I suppose it would be gauche of me to offer you a seat in your own office." Dazzling teeth and eyes like bottomless tar pits. "The boy is interesting, is he not? And not just as a means to an end as I had thought to use him. The way the Force twists around him . . ." He leant forwards. "I would be curious to know how he got to be that way."
"Your curiosity will, unfortunately, have to remain unsated. Now, if that is all?"
Of course it wasn't all.
He tutted. "I remember you to be more patient than this, Morrigance. More willing to seize on every possible advantage that came your way. I enjoyed working for you."
She swallowed her retort. Getting rid of him quickly and efficiently was, in the circumstances, far preferable to getting caught up in a bout of verbal sparring.
"But in honesty, you did explain your position before." He swept her an extravagant bow. "I have, therefore, decided to accept your decision on the fate of the younger Onasi with good grace."
The ease with which that was conceded startled her. She felt a tiny shiver pass along the length of her spine as she watched him pacing before her like some kind of big predatory animal – still satiated for the moment, but perhaps growing hungrier.
"So what do you want?" So like Dustil's words to her.
He didn't answer right away, continuing to pace right up until the point she was about to turn around and leave him to it.
"I do not claim to be able to see all of this web you have woven, Morrigance. I lack your particular kind of patient brilliance. But that corner of it that I can see . . ." She heard the breath whistle between his teeth, pantomimed awe.
She stared at him grimly, waiting.
He sighed then, mock sad. "But I get the sense that any attempt at flattery on my part will fall on deaf ears. So I will refrain."
The smile was warm now, different from before in a way that made her flesh crawl. Perhaps because this time, it seemed personal – and with him that was the most terrifying thing of all.
"To reach the point you wish me to get to." The smile faded away, a mirage dissipating into the air as you drew too close. His eyes seemed to glitter. "A woman who currently goes by the name of Yolanda works for you."
It was a statement rather than a question, and she treated it as such.
"She was present on Kamari Station recently," he continued, "and I will assume that she has reported to you about events there."
Her teeth were set on edge. He seemed to be waiting for some kind of response from her. "I thought you were intent on locating a point. From where I'm standing, I struggle to see it."
"She will have also have told you about one Ulvol Ellas, doctor and, formerly, a Jedi. As with many Caamasi, his particular field of expertise lay in the area of memory."
She didn't bother to deny it. She didn't bother to say anything at all.
The Catcher didn't seem particularly perturbed by her lack of outward response. "Dr Ellas is a part of me now." He let those words linger like a caress.
"This matters to me how?" Despite herself, being confronted with the truth of his nature always left her desperately uneasy.
He resumed pacing, hands folding behind his back. "Would it surprise you particularly to learn that Dr Ellas resigned from the Jedi Order after volunteering to perform a particularly vital task that ran counter to his ethics as a doctor? He felt that he needed time in order to attempt to reconcile the conflicting components of his life."
Why the frak are you telling me this, she started to demand, but caught herself as realisation hit her.
Memory . . .
Sometimes, not having a face with which to give away your reactions could be a definite advantage.
"Would it surprise you," the Catcher continued, "to learn that Dr Ellas was largely responsible for the reconstruction of Darth Revan's mind following his . . . little accident."
Suddenly Morrigance's chest was tight. Instinctive fury welled up inside her, and for a moment the urge to lash out was difficult to contain.
"The Doctor's memories of the procedure are . . . well, I find them fascinating. He had access to the shattered fragments that were left behind after Malak's assault, and he oversaw every aspect of the creation of Revan's new persona. In effect, all of that now belongs to me."
He stopped – trailed a hand across the surface of the desktop between them. And given what we both just saw on the holo-feed . . .. He didn't need to add those particular words. She could do that for herself.
"And? What exactly are you proposing here?" Morrigance thought she could guess though. It wasn't particularly difficult.
The smile was back, broader and brighter than ever. "An alliance."
Juhani moved so deeply within the Force that she was almost able to sense the woman's reaction to her – even to see herself through her eyes.
What had looked initially to be no more than one more shadow amid a multitude lengthened suddenly, filling out and becoming three-dimensional and solid. There was a flicker, and the shape assumed both colour and texture. Startled surprise traversed its way through a pounding moment of fear, before relaxing into something that felt like resigned acceptance.
Then Juhani had released her hold on the Force minutely, the disorientating impression fading until she was fully centred in herself again. Her lightsabers were ready in hand, but not yet ignited.
Hopefully they would not need to be.
The utility droid twittered and the pink-haired woman managed to force a rather weak looking smile. "You must be Jedi Juhani."
"You do not sound particularly surprised." Juhani's eyes narrowed, her senses expanding out around her, searching for any possibility of ambush she might have missed on her approach.
All she managed to detect was a comatose drunk in one of the run-off gutters about ten metres away. Now that she was aware of it, even at this distance, the smell he was giving off was distractingly unpleasant.
The woman's lips twisted. "I'm beginning to regret the day that I ever agreed to accept Dustil Onasi's money."
The utility droid beeped a couple of times.
"Then you know what I want from you." Juhani held the woman's gaze with her own. "And there is no need for any . . . unpleasantness between us."
There was another series of twittering beeps from the utility droid, and Juhani found herself wishing she'd been a bit more assiduous in learning to understand T3 rather than simply letting others translate for her. Droids were largely alien to Cathar culture, but that did not constitute an excuse.
"I'd appreciate it if you could reassure me about Terrell Chan first." The woman flipped her fringe back, out of her eyes. "He can be a very stupid boy sometimes, but I wouldn't want to see him come to any permanent harm."
Juhani's eyes narrowed, but the pink-haired woman didn't, from the available signs, seem to be stalling for time, and she could find no obvious sense of deception. There was no indication of anyone trying to sneak up on them either.
Finally, she nodded. "He was still alive a few minutes ago. I don't expect that to have altered. Whether or not he's in one piece is something I couldn't really say."
The woman's expression tightened briefly, but she nodded. "That will have to do, I suppose. They say that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, don't they."
Juhani didn't answer directly. It was all rhetorical she knew, but she wasn't sure she agreed with that any more. What didn't kill you usually had vastly more far-reaching and complex consequences than making you stronger.
Instead, she said: "This could have all been avoided very simply."
The woman shrugged. "Perhaps. But that's gone now." A breath puffed out. "Nikos Jentar is the name you're looking for. T4 will provide you with the id's serial numbers and holoprints. Personally, I'd start off by looking in and around the Agatan. But that's just me."
Juhani nodded. Part of her was surprised by how easily the information had been volunteered. Part of her was suspicious.
"Now, I hope our business is concluded?"
After a moment, Juhani nodded again
The woman looked briefly surprised, as if she hadn't expected this to go as easily either. "No offence, but I hope I never get to see either you or Captain Onasi again.
"Although . . ." She smiled. "He is rather dreamy."
They were waiting for him in the landing bay.
Tamar swallowed back the emotion that welled up inside him, blinking as his gaze moved quickly past them all to the shuttle that stood beyond them. The Rancorous would be dropping out of hyperspace in a few minutes, and given that they had no idea what they would find waiting for them, it had seemed prudent to be ready to launch immediately.
Deep breath. Force himself to look calmly from face to face.
"I can't ask any of you to . . ." he started
Canderous cut him off immediately. "Haven't we gone through all this before, Revan? Are you so damn insecure that you need us to keep telling you we're with you? Quit navel gazing and get on with it." The Mandalorian inhaled deeply on the cigar he was holding, before blowing out a ring of smoke. His metal hand continued to flex rhythmically around the shiny black sphere it held – some kind of exercise ball designed to help develop fine control in the servos, Tamar knew, but it also resembled a thermal detonator. "Besides, I've developed something of a knack for . . . negotiating with Jedi. Wouldn't miss this for the world."
Off to one side Bastila snorted.
Before Tamar could say anything in response, Mission stepped forward. Her arms were folded determinedly across her chest. "We all agree with the muscle-headed old Mandalorian geezer. We also agree that if you even try to talk us out of this we're going to tie you up and take turns kicking you."
The smile that spread across his lips felt painful. "Well then." He scratched the tip of his nose. "I guess I'd better shut up and do as I'm told."
There was a collective murmur of agreement.
Mission, Zaalbar. Bastila, Jolee. Canderous. Yuthura. The two droids.
The thought of taking HK into the Jedi Temple – of the assassin droid interacting with Jedi Masters – suddenly seemed so ludicrous that it almost drew a chuckle. Almost, but not quite.
Nearly all of them.
Juhani might even be here on Coruscant already. She would have finished dealing with the Bothans at least, he hoped. And if she'd reported to the Jedi Council afterwards . . . well maybe there might be a bit more chance of this going smoothly than he'd dared to let himself hope.
Carth . . .
He realised then that he hadn't thought about Carth at all in weeks, and felt a pang of guilt at the oversight. But it was also a fractional relief, knowing that at least one of them was no longer caught up in this mess.
Even if chasing wild geese on Berchest wasn't anyone's idea of fun.
The collective sense of determination he sensed from every one spoke just as eloquently as Canderous's and Mission's words, so in the end he simply nodded, and walked past them.
He didn't need to look round as they each fell into step behind him.
As they ascended the shuttle's entry ramp together, a subtle but perceptible shudder vibrated through the surrounding metal. No one had to ask what it meant.
The air was heavy with the acrid reek of smoke. In the near distance, above even the ever-present sound of fighting, came the steady crackle of advancing flames. An artillery shell detonating somewhere close by made everything around them shake, but the ceiling had already fallen in so there was very little danger of them being buried alive.
"Solnar!" The shout was louder this time. "Quickly! Urgent news!"
The man who was called Solnar closed his eyes and gathered himself, stifling a groan as he tried to ignore the lingeringly persistent pain in his back. Before he turned around, he reached up and slid the black steel mask – reminiscent of the skull of some kind of sleek and predatory beast – down to cover his face. It snapped into place with a brittle click.
He drew in a breath. "It is Darth Benightus now, Trajen. Remember that." The mask held a microphone, which made his voice far deeper and richer than it naturally was. "Insolent dog," he added as an afterthought.
A few days earlier, he might have made a show of Force-choking any of his troops impertinent enough to forget his title. A Sith Lord – even a facsimile of one – ignored discipline at his peril. It seemed, however, that you needed to be able to summon some kind of strong emotion – be it rage or hate, or even possibly just irritation – to be able to use the Force for violence.
Right now, the only thing inside him was an echoing void drawn in shades of dreary grey. Darth Benightus. Drowning in ashes. It was hideously apt in its way. He told himself it was simply tiredness – that all he needed was some sleep – but he didn't truly believe that.
Trajen bowed his head and made a half-hearted show of dropping to one knee.
Another artillery shell detonated somewhere nearby, but by this point the explosions were nothing more than background wallpaper. You only actually noticed anymore when you were showered by the gore of someone you'd been speaking to a few moments earlier.
Solnar made a sharp, cutting gesture with one hand. Everything done behind the mask was an act, and that was how Lord Benightus acted. Sometimes recently, it grew difficult to remember even that. "Speak."
"My . . . Lord. It is Vacla. He wishes to report." Trajen extended his hand, proffering a comm. unit.
Solnar just stared at it. Vacla. The name meant nothing.
His breath was coming too quickly behind the mask, and he could feel his face sweating. Sometimes, like now, the mask made him claustrophobic. He had to clench his hands tightly into fists to stop himself reaching up and ripping it off.
Because it surely wouldn't do for anyone to see what their 'master' looked like. Unmarred by scar or tattoo or the ravages of darkside malady; the face of a callow nineteen year old boy. The face of their dark lord, too weary to even feel fear anymore.
He laughed. The microphone removed the brittle hysteria from it and transformed it into something appropriately dark and menacing.
How had it come to this? Auza dead. Malefic gone. Drace, Drin and the Keeper, all fallen in battle. A hundred other names, flitting past. Some of those might even still be alive – someone was obviously still alive to keep fighting this frakking war. Darth Benightus . . .
Darth Benightus, impaled through the chest by a foot long shard of shrapnel. He couldn't remember any pain, and death had been unable to hold onto him. So Darth Benightus had risen and lived on, immortal give or take.
"Vacla, my Lord," Trajen persisted. "On Chimera Station."
And finally, the significance of what Trajen was saying struck him. Chimera Station. Ziost's frontline defence and early warning station. Vacla, one of Darth Benightus's – one of his – most trusted lieutenants.
There had been other reports over the preceding weeks: from Korriz, Thule, Dantalus, Kar Zaran. Invasion fleets, battle, contact being lost. He'd ignored them, despite the fact they were obviously drawing closer. What was he supposed to do, given the problems that were already here on Ziost? It had scarcely seemed remotely relevant while staying alive from one moment to the next had been his primary ambition.
He finally took the comm. unit from Trajen's hand. "Benightus here." It seemed to be the mask that spoke rather than him. "Report."
The comm. crackled and hissed erratically in his ear. "My Lord!" The voice at the end sounded near-hysterical. "A fleet . . ." Static surged wildly. "A fleet . . . hundreds of ships . . . dropped out of hyperspace . . . Star Forge . . . heading straight . . ."
Another shell impact meant the next few words were drowned out entirely.
"Vacla . . ."
"Frak, they're . . . they're opening fire on us . . ." Vacla's voice cut out in a squall of static. This time, it didn't resume again.
Benightus let the comm. unit drop.
It occurred to a part of him then that everyone here had been played for idiots, provoked into destroying each other in this mad grab for power while the real enemy stole everything from under their noses. And now . . . now it was far too late to do anything but stand by and watch as the coup de grace was administered.
He couldn't even muster a shrug. Barely aware of what he was doing, he gestured for Trajen to leave him.
And then, alone, Solnar – Darth Benightus, Lord over nothing – looked up and stared at the smoke-veiled stars overhead.
Numbly, he waited for the end to come to Ziost.
All in all, it would probably come as a relief.
Tamar stood before one of the shuttle's viewports, gazing down at the planet filling his view.
Coruscant, capital of the Republic and zero point of the galaxy; seat of the Senate and the Jedi Council. It was – viewed from orbit at least – spectacular in its beauty. The lights of the planet-spanning city glittered like myriad jewels; a bed of stars and swirling constellations. Through the Force, he was aware of the billions of lives spread out below him as a constant, whispering hum – a gently lapping tide.
Looking at it, he couldn't help but be acutely aware of the parallels with the last time he had stood before this view. It almost felt like he could reach out and touch the past from here – or even step across the gap.
Back to the beginning. Or at least, one part of the beginning.
Perhaps the main difference this time, he reflected, was that he knew for certain this time that he was walking into the middle of disaster.
A ghost of a smile touched his lips, showing faintly on his reflection in the transparisteel. Why so pessimistic, an inner voice chided gently. Haven't you already seen that luck is with you?
And in the strangest of ways, it was.
Word had obviously leaked ahead of them concerning his impending arrival. An entire flotilla of ships – news couriers, pleasure yachts and tourist skiffs; light transports, runabouts and personal vessels of every possible variety – awaited their emergence from hyperspace. Amidst this teeming, chaotic mess, planetary security forces and the Republic fleet had obviously been caught off guard, and were still vainly in the middle of trying to impose some kind of vague semblance of order on proceedings.
From the moment that the Unerring Vigilance had dropped out of hyperspace, the reaction had been all but inevitable. The vast Republic flagship had been near-instantaneously swarmed – a titanic whale caught in the middle of a shoal of flashing, constantly moving sprats.
A smaller, but still significant number of ships had gathered round Marshal Vexil's converted Mandalorian Destroyer – prompted perhaps by curiosity in the face of the recurrent nightmare from the still too-recent past. The rather shabby and battle-scarred Hutt battlecruiser, on the other hand, had been almost completely overlooked in favour of its sleeker and deadlier looking escorts.
Because it surely stood to reason that Revan would be travelling in style.
No one had challenged their shuttle thus far. No one seemed even to have noticed it.
Luck, or the Force.
Somehow, neither option was entirely reassuring. But the smile became slightly more solid despite that. At this very moment, Admiral Morna Rey was undoubtedly several entire light years beyond furious.
He sensed Yuthura as she moved quietly to stand at his side and join him in taking in the view. Again, the parallels with the last time he had stood here struck him forcefully. Together then. Together now, at the end.
There were differences of course, and profound ones. This time they didn't say anything. This time they didn't even look at one another.
Nothing remained but to do what they had agreed on. No talk could change that now. All that was left was to see it through.
The shuttle juddered slightly as it hit the outer edges of Coruscant's atmosphere. Full circle.
The countdown had reached zero.