Prologue

The dream was always the same for Bastila Shan.

She stood on board the bridge of the Harbinger, a twin-bladed lightsaber hissing and humming in her fist. Her muscles tingled and sparked with the electricity flashing through her body. Behind her, Jana and Reeno stepped forward, igniting their own lightsabers. Tik Finna limped behind them, holding one arm tightly to his stomach, where he bled ichor freely.

Before them, casually waiting, leaning across one of the consoles stood the Dark Lord. Revan. Lord of the Sith, swathed completely in black robes. Revan hid behind a respirator mask, with eyes glowing dull red behind the visor. Behind Revan, the wide view screen opened into space. There, Malak's warship, the Gladius drifted, venting drive plasma from her ion engines. A host of Republic gunships swarmed around the Gladius, spearing the huge vessel with turbolaser blasts. Even though the Gladius dwarfed the gunships, she was most certainly on her last legs.

"Your fight is lost, Revan," Bastila said, lifting her chin in confidence. "Your fleet is in disarray. To continue is pointless."

Revan released a chuckle and stood straight. "Struggle is never pointless, Bastila my dear. For you see, struggle is what defines life. It is how we know we are…alive. You feel the struggle within you, young one. I can sense it. The Jedi did not prepare you for this fight, Bastila. They did not prepare you for the truth."

"Save your lies, Revan. It's over."

"I can feel the conflict within you, Bastila," Revan continued, stepping towards Bastila. Revan lifted a gauntleted fist and clenched it before Bastila. "You are a pawn of the Council, dear Bastila. Your only value to them is the Battle Meditation with which you were born. And now, they have sent you to me. To die. But that is not your destiny. Your destiny lies with me. Not against me." The fist unclenched and stretched out towards Bastila, an open hand, reaching. "Join me, Bastila, and we shall bring order to the chaos of the galaxy!"

"Be silent!" Bastila hissed tightly, lifting her lightsaber.

"That's it, child!" Revan snarled eagerly, "let your anger flow freely. Strike me down with your hate if you can. Give in to your anger!"

"Never!" Bastila shrieked. She lashed forward in a blur, whipping her lightsaber towards Revan's face.

And then, an explosion came, ending the dream.


In the impenetrable night of space, a starship sliced through the blackness with a white prow. Far below, there rested a shining blue sphere of a planet, twinkling in the sunlight like a steel ball. The Endar Spire, a Republic warship, tore through space at full drive speed.

Running.

Closing in fast came a wave of tiny fighters, unfolding their weapons foils. The fighter craft unleashed volley after volley of laserfire upon the Endar Spire. The Spire's point defense lasers chopped mercilessly at the snubfighters, flaming them out of the sky. But for every one that burned down, two more roared forth.

Several hundred thousand kilometers behind the Spire, four Sith destroyers trailed, and hounded the Spire's every turn, every maneuver. They slid just inside missile range and each unleashed two missiles each. The Spire zoomed over the curve of the planet below, losing the first three pairs of missiles in the magnetic field. But the last pair of missiles sank right into the Endar Spire's belly and spine. Fire erupted silently into space, and the Spire slipped off course, spinning slowly and listing to port.


Bastila shot upright in her bunk, sweating and breathing heavily. She clutched desperately at her chest and tried to calm herself. She was above this…this…sentimentality; this wayward emotion. She willed her heart to cease its hammering and lowered her head back against her pillow.

And another explosion rocked the ship.

Bastila leaped from her bunk. The ship was under attack. Hurriedly, she stuffed herself into her clothes and tied her dark hair back from her face. She grabbed her lightsaber and hooked it to her belt. As she rushed to the door, the deck tilted violently, hurling her against a bulkhead.

The door hissed open and Trask stepped in. "Commander Shan!" he cried, helping her up. "The Spire's under attack! The Sith caught up to us. We've lost our sublight drive!"

Bastila nodded. "We must get to the bridge, Sergeant!"

"This way, Commander!"

Trask led them down the twisting white corridors of the ship. As they passed out of the crew deck, the ship rocked again, tossing Bastila and the sergeant against a bulkhead. Bastila helped him up this time. He nodded his thanks and the hatch beside them exploded inwards.

Bastila held up her palm and called upon the Force to deflect the smoldering debris and shreds of molten steel buzzing towards them. Black smoke rolled through the shattered hatchway and figures loomed within, clad in silver armor.

The Sith were here.

Bastila ripped her lightsaber free of her belt and ignited it. She positioned herself in front of Trask as the Sith troopers emerged from the smoke. They saw her and immediately fired their blaster rifles. Bastila planted her feet squarely, calling again on the Force. It flowed through her like a cool breeze. She caught each stream of energy upon the surface of her blade, deflecting the shots harmlessly away.

Trask gaped at her in amazement, but recovered quickly. He drew his sidearm and returned fire. Two Sith troopers fell, but the other advanced. One drew a vibrosword from his belt and charged at Bastila. He swung the humming blade at her throat, but she simply stepped to the side calmly. She chopped her lightsaber across at him. Desperately, he lifted his blade to parry, but Bastila's lightsaber melted right through it and burned through his chest. He shrieked and fell backwards.

Bastila then hurled herself into the middle of the troopers and whirled in a circle. She brought her weapon high and low, twisting it in humming, buzzing circles. When she was finished, all the troopers were dead.

Bastila closed down her lightsaber and nodded to Trask.

"That was…amazing," Trask gasped.

"We don't have much time, Sergeant."

He nodded and led them on. As the moved down the Spire's corridors, panels exploded from bulkheads, and girders erupted through the deck. Sparks showered them, and they could hear distant blaster fire ringing through the ship. And screams.

They had to take service ladders up to the command deck because all the turbolifts past section seven were offline. Bastila swung her lithe body up the service shaft and onto the deck. In a crouch, she glanced around, keeping watch while Trask pulled himself up. He tapped her on the shoulder and pointed to his wristcomm.

"Captain Onasi's been trying to reach you, ma'am!" Trask whispered sharply, sweat streaming down his temples.

Bastila glanced down at her own wristcomm and remembered she had shut it off so she could sleep. Her cheeks reddened. She flicked it back on and Carth Onasi's handsome, rugged features appeared on the tiny screen of her wristcomm.

"…jamming intraship comms," Onasi was saying, "and it probably won't be long before they catch on to the fact I'm using personal commlinks! So we don't have a lot of time, Commander Shan!"

"Er…sorry, Captain, Onasi," Bastila sputtered. "I had to shut my comm off because of…er…"

"Don't worry about it," he cut in, glancing over his shoulder. Lines of static marched down his image. "I can't get a line to any of the other Jedi on board, Commander. The Sith have boarded in several sections, and I think they've been hunting them down. That means you're in danger, more than any of us!"

Bastila's fears had been realized, then; her presence had jeopardized the mission. Obviously, there were Dark Jedi on the Sith vessels hounding the Endar Spire. They had sensed her presence, even though she had done her level best to cloak herself from detection. "What do you suggest, Captain?" Technically, even though Bastila's rank was a temporary assignment, she outranked Carth. She had been given command of the mission; demanded it actually. Carth was only on board as an advisor, primarily, because of his immense experience, working both with the Fleet and the Jedi. He was one of a handful of Republic Officers who had worked extensively with the Jedi Liaison. She had been counseled to heed his advice closely.

"Well," he told her, "the bridge has been compromised. Sith slicers have inserted a logic worm into the computer systems…I suppose they're trying to crack the Republic Deep Archive, and they could only do that from the Bridge. We're out of time. You need to get to the Escape Pods immediately. I've got some men holding Auxiliary Command, aft of section 12. I think you've got a clear path if you can get up to the Main Control Deck. But they're not gonna last long, so you've gotta hurry!"

"Understood, Captain," she replied, grateful for Carth's quick thinking. "We're halfway there already! Shan out!"

She cut the link and glanced at Trask. The sergeant turned around to get his bearings and pointed behind them. They had been headed for the Bridge, but had passed the hatch to section 12 a few meters back. "We may have to fight our way through," he muttered, checking the battery charge on his blaster. He discarded the drained battery pack and inserted a new one. He slapped the receiver plate back into place and the blaster primed the charge with a tiny whine. He nodded at Bastila, and the both of them headed back towards the hatch.

"I know your mission is classified, ma'am," Trask said as they reached the hatch. "I just…I hope it was worth it, Commander…"

"Sergeant, you have no idea," she assured him. But she didn't feel any of the certainty in her words. Her mission had depended on secrecy, on stealth. But the Sith had caught up to them so easily. Maybe they already knew about her mission. Of course, even if they didn't; even if they didn't know that she was specifically attached to the mission, they'd be after her. Of all the Jedi, Bastila Shan was unique due to her Battle Meditation.

Despair began to snake its way into her thoughts and fiercely, she pushed it aside. The Jedi knows no fear. Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering…Bastila had to remember her training. She had to remember her inner harmony; to draw upon it, allow it to shower over her, cooling her mind, her reflexes. It may have been, perhaps, a mistake for her to take this mission. But she would succeed. No matter the cost.

She nodded at Trask and he opened the door. Immediately, the sounds of blaster fire washed over them. The sharp barking of Sith blasters was unmistakable. She and Trask advanced quickly on the sound of the fighting, and they turned around a corner to see a knot of Sith troopers, facing away from them, trading fire with a handful of Republic soldiers.

"Wait for my signal before you open fire, Sergeant," Bastila ordered with a calm she wasn't certain she felt.

She hurled herself down the corridor towards the unsuspecting Sith. She moved with the Force, chewing up the distance faster than any normal sentient could have. Still blistering with speed, she thrust herself into the Sith position, igniting her lightsaber. She chopped all about her, letting her instinct guide her. The Sith troopers screamed as her energy blade boiled through their armor, disintegrating flesh and muscle and bone.

She hacked and spun; slashed and ducked and thrust. She whirled down to a crouch, whipping her lightsaber behind her. Trask hadn't even had a chance to fire; all the Sith were now corpses. Trask caught up to her, his eyes filled with that same amazement from before.

The Republic soldiers cheered her and advanced from their positions down the corridor, before the hatch to Aux Command. A battered fire team flanked her, gushing gratitude at her.

"We don't have much time, Commander Shan," a lieutenant informed her, reloading his blaster rifle.

"I'm aware of the rush, Lieutenant," Bastila replied. I'm afraid we--"

"Have nowhere left to run," hissed a new voice. They all glanced down a side corridor to see a lone figure, clad in black robes and shiny black leather. The flashing red of the emergency klaxon lights painted his bald skull in bloody hues. He held a twin-bladed lightsaber in his gloved fist. The red glow from the blade drenched him in its savage light.

The Republic soldiers around Bastila opened fire on the Sith Lord, hurling a fusillade of energy bolts at him. He effortlessly caught each with a whirl of his blade, deflecting two of the shots directly back into the soldiers' bodies. Two of them collapsed beside Bastila and a pang of fear stabbed into her chest.

"Bastila Shan," he chuckled, walking slowly towards her, his steps heavy with confidence. "Your vaunted talents have been for naught, it would seem. You cannot escape us, Jedi."

Bastila lifted her blade before her. This man was Darth Bandon. Once a Jedi; now the apprentice of the Dark Lord himself, Malak. "You will not win, Bandon," she told him, a flutter in her voice.

"I can feel the fear within you, Bastila. I remember you were always fearful, even in the Academy. You've never conquered it, have you?"

"I certainly do not fear the likes of you, Bandon!"

"Lies. You cannot match me, girl. You never could in the Academy, and you cannot now! For the Dark Side is my ally!"

"You've chosen to back a loser then, Bandon. Typical."

He threw back his head and laughed. He had changed so much from the youth she remembered. He had been two classes ahead of her in the Academy; a promising student who outpaced her at every turn. She remembered how handsome he had been. She'd even nursed a girlish crush on him as a child. Now…now he was a monster.

"Your thoughts betray you, Basi," he grinned, using her old nickname. "Rest assured, I will not kill you. I will make you my slave. You will know the passion of the Dark Side in my embrace, Basi. You will join with me. You will belong to me!"

"Never!" she screamed. She charged towards him, her thoughts filled with anger. But Trask and the lieutenant were able to grab her arms and hold her. She tried to shake free of them; could have hurled them away like rag dolls. But a strange calm entered her, defusing her rage. A familiar voice entered her thoughts, with words to comfort as they always had; Bandon's just a silly little boy, honey…

"There's no time for this!" Trask yelled into her ear. "You have to go!"

"The sergeant is right," the Lieutenant agreed. "We'll hold him. You have to go! Now!"

"But, Lieutenant," she cried, "he is a Dark Jedi! You cannot hope to match his power!"

The lieutenant chuckled bitterly and pushed her behind him. "Commander, I grew up in the Bowery on Coruscant. I fight dirty." He pulled forth a plasma grenade and armed it for a close proximity blast. That would be suicide in the close quarters of the corridor. "Now go!" he shoved Bastila towards Aux Command and howled in defiance at Darth Bandon.

"A futile gesture," Bandon chuckled.

To which, the lieutenant only replied, "Nuts!" and hurled the grenade. Bastila dashed through the hatch as it hissed open. Her last glimpse of the fight showed Bandon raising a hand up, palm outstretched towards the grenade. Then, there was a blinding flash and she heard Trask and the others screaming.

The hatch closed behind her, and a blast door slammed shut over it. The deck thundered with the blast, hurling her onto her chest. Strong hands helped her up, and she heard Carth Onasi's voice. Her eyes flashed with spots from the intensity of the grenade's blast, and she staggered in Carth's grasp.

"Damn it!" Carth hissed, staring at the blast door. "They're gonna have to find another way around!"

"They're dead," Bastila gasped, blinking her eyes furiously to clear the swirling spots from her vision. "He killed them all!"

Carth absorbed her words and nodded resolutely. "Let's go then, Commander Shan." He directed her towards a narrow side passage. On one side stood a row of control panels. Opposite each panel stood the hatch to an escape pod, recessed a foot or so into the deck.

Bastila allowed him to guide her before a hatch. He manipulated the controls and the door flashed open. "Get in!" he cried as an explosion pounded against the blast door. Bastila felt her eyes burning with tears as she crawled inside. Carth cursed softly as a red glow began to issue from the door's surface. He crawled in behind her, squeezing against her in the cramped interior of the pod. The hatch slammed shut behind him and sealed with a hiss. Massive unseen gear clanked and banged; power conduits snarled as they ripped free. With a roar, the pod leaped from its holding bay, slamming Bastila and Carth hard with inertia's hammer.

Bastila closed her eyes and prayed softly to herself, relying on the mantra of the Jedi code, pleading for someone, for something to make sense of this madness, this war in heaven.


1: Undercity Blues

Perhaps a thousand years ago, Taris still had a surface. Imagined now only in the lines of poets yearning for a fool's return to green shores, but otherwise unknown to the world's inhabitants. Once, perhaps, mountains had rolled across the flesh of the planet, hurling jagged spires like proud fists into the sky. Once, perhaps, forests had flooded the plains with sheets of green, churning with the drama of living things, hunting, hiding, hooting.

But then, roads had been carved, black pavement slicing across the skin of the world, leaving scars of progress. And cities had arisen in tiered clusters, their steel and glass towers stealing the glory from the once matchless mountains. Man had set his foot in the wilderness and left it withering in his wake. Civilization had dammed the wild, penning it up into tiny swatches that cowered in the shadow of the urban sprawl.

And then, even the pavement gave way to progress; permacrete flattened the ground and made it uniform, flattening it so the cities could expand and stretch even higher. So it came to pass that the new forest of the Sprawl took root and grew. And like an old growth forest, it lashed out across the land with thick roots, digging deep. The Arcologies came soon thereafter. Cities within cities, habitats the size of entire mountain ranges. The Sprawl matured, spreading crystalline fingers over the planet to link and clench and squeeze the green into pulp.

So, now, there lived no one who could recall a time when Taris knew anything of green. There lived no one who could recall anything beyond geometrically perfect angles and engineered lines. And the cities of Taris now stood united in a single gleaming lattice that hummed and bristled all across her globe. One city now stood, covering an entire planet.

The tragedy was not that Taris was unique. But rather that, now, it was like so many of the Old Worlds. Another piece of tooled steel hanging in orbit around a wearied star.

Lal Sideen hated Taris. She didn't exactly know why. Perhaps it was because there was a fledgling memory that remained in her, of oceans unchained, of fields of green and of brown. But that memory, like all others, eluded her grasp like a wisp of smoke. Lal knew nothing of the past beyond flashes of desperation and terror in her sleep. Nothing worth holding, perhaps. So she endeavored to dwell only in the Now. The moment. That was all that she could rely upon.

That, and whatever she could actually squeeze in her fist.

Lal stood in her office, walking past the broad black curve of her desk—her predecessor's desk, actually. She smiled bitterly at the knowledge that the desk had been moved to cover the old rust-colored stain set into the taupe carpeting. Also her predecessor's. It reminded her that nothing could be counted upon. Everything was fleeting.

As she walked out onto the balcony that overlooked the yawning, thrumming pit of the Daystar, she wondered at the close presence of violence in her life. In her business. How easily she accepted it, even though she yearned for the image of something more comforting. Foolish hopes. Leaning forward against the railing, she reminded herself that it was all illusion. And she was fitted properly for it. Tonight, she had chosen a sheath of photo-reactive Myolin; a sheer piece of glimmering, diaphanous polymer that adhered to her where she needed it to and flowed free where she wanted it to. Lal's body was a tool; she had learned this lesson directly from Davik. Her body could be used to put means to an efficient end. That meant she was a tool; certainly a well crafted and well-loved tool. But a tool nonetheless.

Dressed as she was, like a lush joygirl awaiting the pleasure of the next mark, no one could even guess that she had dipped her hands deep in blood. Sometimes, even she forgot. It was easy to forget when she could stretch and purr and pretend to be as soft as her flesh suggested.

But it was, of course, nothing more than carefully crafted pretence. She was a velvet blade. Davik's velvet blade. She was his tool.

Lal had to force herself not to reach up and tie her loosened hair away into a severe little bun to keep it from her face. To keep it efficient and out of her way. Instead, she left it to surge down the sides of her face, down her bared shoulders and naked back like a forest of satin chocolate swaying in the wind.

And below her, clubbers thronged and danced and chatted each other up, writhing in the pit of the Daystar beneath a thundering sheet of digi-synth pounding from speakers three meters tall. Pazaak tables clustered in the smoke-colored shadows at the rear of the bar, and there, lifers and professional cardies did the table dance with desperate eyes that warned this was no mere game. Life and death for some. And the house always won, of course.

Not far away, the "arena" stood packed with spectators cheering their favorite gladiators displayed on ten holo-vids with a live feed to the numerous bloodmatches held in secret dens across Lower Taris. Half naked serving girls attended to the needs of the most notable betters. Thick-necked muscleboys glowered after those without the cred to cover their losses.

At the front of the Daystar, three stages floated on repulsorlifts; at each, a girl danced in something less than actual clothing. Customers watched glassy-eyed as the girls twisted and slithered. Soon, other biz would be taking place in the Daystar's back rooms.

Lal sighed in something as close to disgust as she could manage. She was about to turn away when she noticed one of the new girls getting pawed by some heavy-handed customers. A snarl flitted across Lal's painted lips and her eyes narrowed into slashes of black steel. She crossed her office swiftly, heels clicking sharply as she threw the door open and headed downstairs.


"Get yer paws off me, chuba-face!" Mission hissed, jiggling away from the pair of Rodians clutching boldly at her blue flesh. Her oiled lekku twitched angrily across her shoulders as one of them spat something nasty after her in Huttese. The second Rodian snatched her effortlessly in his powerful, wiry arms and began chuckling to his companion.

"I don't care what you think," Mission cried, trying to twist out of his grasp, "you bastards don't have a right to—"

"Gentlemen," Lal said in her smooth whispering contralto. She glanced up at both Rodians, and gave them enough time to recognize her. Their black, glittering eyes flicked up and down her body, but they didn't pause. "I thought I made it clear to your friends last week. Vulkars aren't allowed."

The one holding Mission chattered off something about going where they wished. They wanted to play it hard.

"Be that as it may," Lal continued softly, "I'm getting tired of cleaning Vulkar blood off the floor. Leaves the most awful stink."

Both Rodians gawked at her for a moment in utter surprise. Before they could react to her insult, she flicked her hand out like a spear and jabbed into the hollow of the closest Rodian's throat. Gurgling wetly, he stumbled back into his friend, and Lal dashed forward, yanking a tiny hold-out blaster from the sheath fitted along the inside of her thigh. She primed a charge and pressed it to the second Rodian's temple.

She smiled sweetly as a bead of viscous sweat rolled down his scaled cheek. He snarled a stream of curses at her and she shrugged casually. "This is Davik's place. And this," she nodded at Mission, "is Davik's meat. You aren't invited to dinner."

Lal glanced at the other Rodian, who was fumbling for his blaster. Her finger twitched slightly upon the trigger, ready to burn holes in both of the ganger scum. But from the press of bodies, a massive furred paw crunched down on the Rodian's gun and hand, turning both into a ruin of blood and steel. The Rodian hissed in agony, as a second wooly paw surged up to grab his throat. He was then lifted off his feet by a mountain of snarling fur called a Wookie. The Rodian's bladder released as Zaalbar roared directly in his face.

Lal nodded to the massive Wookie and her lips curled into a lush grin. "Let the girl go and you get to live."

It wasn't really a choice. In seconds, both Rodians were scrambling for the door, tossing threats and promises in their wake. Lal sighed and holstered her blaster.

"And don't come back, Poo-doo-breath!" Mission squeaked after them, wagging a tiny fist defiantly. Lal glared briefly at the twi'lek and then stared incredulously at Zaalbar, who merely shrugged shoulders broad enough to support a mountain.

"Mission," Lal said quietly, "aren't you supposed to be on stage?"

Mission's defiance fled her in an instant, and suddenly, she looked very young. Her blue eyes fell to her sandaled feet, and Lal felt a distant pang of…something?

"I was just takin' a break is all, Miss Sideen…I wasn't--"

Lal stared for a moment at the slender gold collar clamped around Mission's throat; at the proprietary tattoo encircling her naked thigh. If it had been any of the other girls, Lal would have…well, she didn't know. But Mission was only a kid, really. Of course, the rational, cold part of her mind told her that even a twi'lek kid was not a kid. Like all the other girls here, Mission Vao was property.

Of course, wearing little more than Mission herself, Lal could hardly keep from feeling a bit of decidedly unprofessional empathy. Lal steeled herself to order Mission back to work, but she glanced up and saw Zaalbar's blue eyes staring expectantly down at her. Heat flashed across her cheeks and she waved her hand at the girl. "Take a break, honey."

Mission gushed in gratitude, relief beaming across her pale blue features. She dashed off to the back in a whirl of powdery blue skin and glittering lace. Lal was left with Zaalbar towering over her, staring down in approval.

"Oh, what are you looking at, Carpet?" Lal growled. "She's too damned soft for this crap. She's gonna steel-up sooner than later."

Zaalbar whuffed in disgust reflexively pawing at his own throat, where once, another collar had ridden. "I didn't do her a favor, Carpet. And I spent all my charity already. Davik's gonna have her cancelled if she keeps this up."

Thoughtfully, he growled and moaned softly at her.

Lal held up her hand abruptly to the Wookie. "We're not having this conversation. Just imagine if twi'leks do that life-debt thing too, huh? Then I've got two mouths to bloody-well feed.

Zaalbar cocked his head to the side and grunted. At the same time, he patted his furry belly.

Lal couldn't stifle a smile. "Of course, everything reminds you of food, Carpet. But you're on the clock. Same as me."

A forlorn howl shuddered out of him and he lumbered off through the crowd. She watched him clear a path through the throng of tiny bodies and chuckled. Though his breath smelled like the southern end of a north-bound bantha, the big Wookie had managed to grow on her.

Lal turned to make her way back to her office, and caught a cold shiver at the back of her neck. Gooseflesh erupted on her bare arms and she suddenly caught a pair of hard blue eyes staring at her through the crowd. He was a rugged sort, sculpted by hard hands into a bold frame. He was offworld. She could taste it on him. Natives tended to hunch their shoulders from living in the bowels of the city. He stood tall, unaccustomed to the sky being only a few inches above him and made of metal.

Her eyes drifted down to his narrow hips and she noted the weight he carried casually, the blaster holstered at his side. Soldier. Or something just as professional. Lots of professionals hunting the Lower City these days. Some she knew. Others she'd killed. She turned her back pointedly on him, allowing him a view of her curves as she strolled up the steps to her office. She wondered if she get to know him or if she'd have to kill him.

Maybe both.


As she stepped into her office, she saw Davik Kang stretched out in her chair; his booted feet crossed and perched atop her desk. He had a gammorean muscle-boy stuffed into a straining suit with him; the massive pig-face was fingering one of the frozen carbonite sculptures mounted on a shelf behind her desk. Lal cleared her throat and the gammorean's ham-shaped hands dropped the heavy sculpt onto his toe. His piggy little eyes bulged in pain, but he clamped down on a squeal.

Davik chuckled easily and shook his head. His let his eyes roam over her body and Lal endured his appreciative gaze for only a moment before she folded her arms across her chest and began tapping a foot.

"Sweetheart, I'll tell ya one thing," Davik began. "You know how t'make a package like that really work overtime."

"Dressing the part, Davik. For some reason, that's what you wanted."

"An' I gotta say, I'm impressed. Killer fashion sense. Of course, that's par for the course where you're concerned, am I right? Tell me, how did I luck out with you, babe?"

"By agreeing not to call me 'babe' more than once every three to four months."

He released a laugh that touched absolutely no part of his face. It was a mechanical sound. One he had tooled and machined to serve only a cursory function. "That sounds about right. So, I'm all used up for another few months, I reckon."

She wanted to speed this up. Even though she and Davik had a good arrangement, she felt ill at ease with the old cutthroat hanging around. Whenever he came around, it usually meant someone had to die. At least, that had been the case before he'd rewarded her with the Daystar; one of his most profitable shell businesses.

He noticed her growing impatience and sighed. He glanced at his gammorean as the creature fumbled to put the heavy sculpt back on the shelf. "Whaddaya gonna do, eh? Ya can take 'em outta the sewer, but ya can't take the sewer out of them, right? Am I right? Listen, sweetheart, fix us a drink willya?"

Lal sighed inwardly. That meant there was business to discuss. She drifted over to the liquor cabinet and poured him a Bespin Cloudwalk on the rocks. She used the three-hundred year old Flanna that he swilled like it was water. She brought it to him, noticing that his gaze lingered on her bosom a bit longer than normal. He was in a staring-mood, she guessed. Whatever. She sat on the edge of the desk, crossing her legs before him and gazing down at him.

He took a sip and nodded appreciatively. But it wasn't long before his ego drove him to stand so he could look down on her. She took the opportunity to slide back into her chair.

"Lookit, sweetness, we got trouble."

"Alright. Who. What. Where. And should it be an 'accident'?"

"That's good," he chuckled, pointing at her as he drifted over to the balcony. "But not the kinda trouble you need to deal with on those lines. I just got off the comm. With a guy I know on the Board. We're getting a visit. Political kind."

"Republic sending another envoy?" she asked. "Why is this a problem?"

"It ain't the Republic. Sith. They're comin' t'dinner. And it looks like they're plannin' on staying for dessert and a few drinks. And the Tarisian government is rollin' over to let 'em climb right inta bed."

Lal took in a deep breath and frowned in thought. "Not logical. Taris may have been a hotbed of hyperspace traffic once upon a time, but there are newer and better tradelanes. It's a smuggler's paradise exactly for that reason. But any tactical significance Taris had is long since gone."

"Taris is like a Urellian VineHusker. Gets too big and don't know it's proper time t'die." Davik took a swig of his Cloudwalker. "But who knows what the sith consider important. Religious fanatics is what they are. Never could trust a fanatic. Got no truck with 'em, Lal. Can't count on 'em to do what they're supposed t'do. Now the Republic? Buncha politicks. Grease the right palm and they love ya. You can deal with that sort."

A cold tremor shook through Lal's chest. "They're looking for something. Or someone."

"Eh? I don't really care what the hell they're on about so long as they don't screw with my operation. Skinny is that they're sending a full diplomatic compliment planetside. Likely to park a heavy battle element right above our heads. An' 'diplomatic compliment' probably means landin' a couple thousand troops. Gonna definitely put a crimp on my ops."

Lal nodded as she considered his words. "Admittedly, this stinks. But what do you want me to do about it? It's not like I can intimidate an entire empire. Besides which, Ordo and that thug Nord are better equipped for the arm-breaking. You're the one with the politicks in your pocket."

"Yeah, he mused, "most'a which, you got for me. I'm gonna need ya t'work your magic again, sweetness. The special mojo."

"Davik…"

"Don't 'Davik' me, honey. Just do what you do."

"Davik! You've got slaves for this sort of crap!"

He tossed back the rest of his drink and held the glass up, jiggling the ice expectantly. With a growl, she pushed up from her chair and snatched the glass away from him. She returned to the liquor cabinet and made him another.

He took the drink with a grateful grin. "Slaves ain't you, Lal. You could make a man forget his religion. I don't know what it is you got, but you know how to make a guy crave it."

Of course she did. Those contacts she'd purchased for him…a few still belonged to her alone. That didn't mean she enjoyed it. For a moment, she thought of poor little Mission. Of Zaalbar. Hell, Lal was every inch a slave. Her freedom was an illusion. At least Mission knew she was property.

"Damnit, Davik! These Sith are Jedi! But worse! You said it: fanatics! I'm good, but I can't seduce a religious nut. These Sith…they eat babies and all that. Blood sacrifices and crazy stuff like that. You don't seduce people like that. You simply stay out of their way and hope they don't decide to start cutting pieces of your body off while you watch."

"Yeah, well, that ain't an option. I got schedules to keep. Deliveries to make. I got three hundred thousand kees of mimetic polyalloy de-vulcanizing on the loading blocks in sector-12! I got a load of spice waiting to get a green light to Coruscant! Stuff don't keep this far out from Kessel, Sweetness. I'm a businessman. For me, time is money. And that includes your time. So you get off'a that pretty backside a'yours and get to work. I want one'a these fruitcakes in my pocket before the end of the week! Got me?"

She lowered her eyes and glanced away. "Yeah. I got it."

"Damn right you do. Damn right." He stared at her a moment longer before a smile broke across his face. "Cripes. What am I yellin' at you for? You know the drill. You're good girl, Lal. Saw how you handled those Vulkar punks. You got stones, I'll give ya that. I also saw how ya handled that twi'lek. All my girls work, you got that? That twi'lek is top of the line merchandise, no lie. But I'll burn her down in a hot second if I think she ain't gonna be worth the price I paid. Everybody's replaceable, Sweetness. Everybody."

And at that moment, Lal knew, beyond any doubt, that it was now only a matter of time before Davik got rid of her. Maybe she hadn't been as careful as she'd thought…