16: Dream of Deserts
The Ebon Hawk pitched and rolled under Carth's steady hand. The ship stood on a tail of blue fire and burned out of the atmosphere, leaving Dantooine's green bosom below. A cluster of Sith fighters swarmed wildly after the Hawk, and she dodged the spears of red fire they hurled. Before the catamaran prow of the Hawk, a line of diamonds glittered, growing steadily larger as Carth throttled up on the ion drives.
Bastila crawled into the seat beside him and strapped herself in. Lal, Juhani and Mission hovered behind the pilot and co-pilot's seats, gazing anxiously out the forward viewport.
"I think we're in trouble," Carth growled, slamming the control waldoes to send the Hawk into another roll.
"Are those ships?" Mission asked.
"I'm reading at least ten ships on long range scanners," Bastila told Carth after examining her instruments. "Blockade formation."
"We're in trouble," Mission muttered.
"Is Malak out there?" Lal wondered aloud through clenched teeth.
"I cannot sense his presence," Bastila replied. "My guess is that he's not likely to be very far behind, however."
"How in the hell did they find us?" Carth asked.
"Calo Nord tracked us somehow," Lal told him.
"That short scruffy little lunatic who was working for Davik?" Carth grunted.
"Now he's working for Malak," Lal said, "looking for Bastila and me. Except now, he'll be in need of a helping hand if he wishes to come after us again."
"I'm not even gonna ask," Carth murmured.
Bastila glanced over at Carth. "We're getting rather close to those ships, Carth…I trust you have some sort of plan?"
"I do," he nodded. "We're gonna fly real fast. Hang on!" he suddenly jerked the ship into a quarter roll and stood her on her starboard stabilizer. The entire ship trembled violently as laser fire crashed into the aft shielding. "Damn it, Canderous, keep those bastards off our tail!"
"How long until we can make the jump to hyperspace?" Juhani asked.
"Under two minutes," Bastila answered. She tossed Carth a worried look. "We'll be within their weapons range in one minute…"
"Boost aft shields and spin up forward missile tubes," Carth ordered. Bastila hastened to comply, flicking switches and pressing buttons. "Hang on…"
He suddenly reversed thrust and the flock of fighters tailing the Hawk overshot them and floundered before the ship. "Target lock," Bastila announced, jamming the launch controls with her thumb. A pair of concussion missiles streaked forth on silver streams and collided with two of the fighters. The Sith ships erupted in balls of flame. Their formation scattered as the Sith pilots scrambled to get out of the blast zone. Carth wrenched the throttle forward and tore through the swarm of tumbling fightercraft. As they roared past, Canderous blasted several more from his position in the dorsal quad cannon.
"Power to forward shields!" Carth yelled as they zoomed closer to the blockade vessels. On cue, the ships opened up with their turbolasers, hurling shafts of energy thundering past the Hawk. "They're not gonna make it easy are they? Well, neither am I…"
He pitched the ship into a barrel roll and went inverted. He goosed the thrusters to full and snapped the Hawk back towards Dantooine at full burn. The fighters struggled to keep up with his erratic maneuver.
"Um…Carth?" Bastila murmured. "You do realize we're heading back toward the planet?'
"Just keep those shields angled to the fore," he told her.
"Are we going back?" Mission whimpered softly, wringing her blue hands together nervously. "Going back is bad, isn't it?"
Carth merely shoved the ship back towards Dantooine as fast as possible. The planet's gravity well yanked hard on them, adding velocity. Carth rolled the ship again, keeping the planet above them in the viewport. A dull red glow began to smolder along the forward hull. The cabin trembled and shook as the Hawk grazed along the atmosphere of Dantooine. Several fighters tried to follow, but hit the atmosphere at too steep an angle. They burst into white streaks of flame and disintegrated.
The deck creaked loudly as the inertial dampeners tried to compensate for the sudden pressures yanking and grabbing at the ship. Lal felt her stomach leap up into her throat as Carth pulled sharply around the curve of the planet, letting gravity slingshot them around to the other side. He blazed into the night terminator, and the Hawk released a river of fire in her wake, slicing right across the upper atmosphere.
A minute later, they burned out from the other side of the planet moving faster than Lal thought any ship should be allowed to move. Bastila swallowed a dry lump in her throat and smiled at Carth. "Brilliant," she whispered.
They snapped free of the planet's gravity well traveling almost twice as fast as before. The Hawk tore past the line of blockade ships in a silvery blur, moving faster than their turbolasers could track. Carth glanced down and saw the jump coordinates flickering green on his display. He grabbed the hyperspace throttle and yanked it back.
Before them, the stars turned into a tunnel of silver streaks and the Hawk roared into the rolling blue sea of hyperspace.
Carth sighed and leaned back in his seat. He smiled at Bastila and Lal and said, "How's that for a plan, ladies?"
Lal bent down to kiss his cheek. "As my sister said," she told him, "brilliant."
Zhar's voice echoed across the courtyard, following in the wake of her footsteps, hammering against the flagstones. "Lal! Don't do this! Please don't do this! You have no idea what consequences your decision will have!"
Lal felt herself stop and turn with a sigh. "Censure, Master? Some other sort of punishment? Will my playground privileges be revoked?"
"Lal, please do not make light of this!"
"I'm not. You are. The council is. People are dying, Master. Hundreds of thousands every day in this terrible conflict. Now, the order…we could make a difference. With the abilities and power we have. But the Council chooses to sit by and ignore the problem. And they have the audacity to accuse me? You know I've never sought power for power's sake. I never wanted this. But we have the power; why not use it to save lives? There are consequences…I well know! But isn't it better that the Jedi face those risks rather than innocent civilians?"
"You think death is the only risk you face? Lal, please believe me, when you intend to kill an enemy, and when that is your goal, for whatever reason, good, bad, whatever, you'll find yourself finding ways to make certain you kill. Killing will become a program. A doctrine. And then, it becomes easy to do such a thing. Easier and easier to accept and make difficult choices. Easy to accept and make impossible choices, Lal. And that ways lies the Dark Side."
"Perhaps so. But no one who lives through war does so without seeing hell. I'm willing to pay that price to help put an end to this conflict, Master."
"Lal! You will be removed from the Jedi order! Your knighthood stripped away!"
She watched him for a moment and thought about how much she loved him, thought about his only desire being to protect her. But she was all grown up now. No longer a child. No longer a teenager learning at his side. She had to take her own steps now.
Lal sighed and undid her belt. She pulled her brown robe off, leaving only a thin white tunic beneath. She held the robe before her for a moment, remembering how happy she had been to gain it.
And she tossed it on the ground.
"I never cared for the color anyway."
"Master, I will always…always love you. Please remember that. Tell Master Vrook too," she chuckled. "I bet that will make him turn bright red. Tell Bastila…tell Basi…not to follow me."
Revan groaned softly in the dusty darkness and Malak coughed from somewhere in the gloom of the cave-in. Lal saw Revan stand unsteadily, leaning a silver gloved hand upon a wall. Malak stumbled over, coughing and hacking as dust swam into his nostrils. Malak turned and glanced at the wall of boulders behind them and shook his head.
"I don't think we'll be leaving this way…"
"You don't say?" Revan muttered bitterly, igniting a lightsaber to cast illumination throughout the chamber they had fallen into.
Malak folded his arms across his chest and glared down at his smaller friend. "This was a mistake."
"Oh, do cease your complaining. You whine like an old woman at times, Malak. I swear." Revan gestured towards a narrow passage way and moved carefully into it.
"How do you even know this leads anywhere?" Malak demanded.
"Because I'm smart. I can feel an airflow. Now would you stop your moaning and come along?"
"One of these days, Revan…"
"One of these days WHAT?" Revan snapped, lunging to stand face to face with Malak. Revan had to look up to glare into Malak's slitted eyes. "What, Malak? What are you going to do?"
Malak ground his teeth together and turned away. "Nothing."
"Nothing at all!" Revan hissed. Revan sighed and turned away. "Listen, Malak…I didn't mean…I'm sorry. I'm just on edge. I know you are too. But let's not turn a bad situation worse, hmm?"
Malak nodded. Revan chuckled and laid a hand on Malak's shoulder. "Come on…stop sulking…You know we couldn't have gotten this far if not for you."
Reluctantly, Malak nodded again, and the two of them disappeared from Lal's sight.
When she saw them again, Revan stood before a massive skull, crowned with horns twice the length of a man's body It had been stained yellow with age and cracks and fissures criss-crossed the surface of the bone like spiderwebs. It looked like some sort of massive ancient lizard. Though the jawbone was missing, it looked as if it could have swallowed a man whole. Perhaps two or three. The scattered remains of its skeleton spread out in a line behind the skull…at least fifty feet. Maybe more.
"Looks like it got caught in a collapse of some sort," Malak observed, pointing out a pile of boulders thrusting forth from the shattered ribcage. Any one of those massive ribs could have been a crossbeam in the roof of a mighty hall.
Revan glanced around the titanic cavern and sighed. "I don't know. Roof looks sturdy. Maybe it just died of old age and was picked clean by scavengers."
"I'd hate to see such a scavenger…"
"Look!" Revan cried, leaping atop the skull. "There's the console! I told you!"
The two of them moved towards the console, which reminded Lal of the one in the maker ruins on Dantooine. Revan's hands flew over the surface of the console. "Let's see…same sequence should work…"
As Revan spoke, something erupted from a pile of broken bones and rocks. Dust showered down off the rusted metallic surface of the figure. Red lights flickered beneath a sinister brow and its head swiveled with mechanical precision to regard Revan and Malak.
"Nees slos sween-sah." The droid barked in a hollow voice.
"That doesn't sound encouraging," Malak said, fingering the hilt of his lightsaber.
"Code's not working," Revan grunted.
"Sian-si loos shla nees," the droid continued. "Haal-sleay-analyzing woni-rai-diu unknown language. Liasi Naan detected. Intruders detected. Analyzing: Carbon-based organic…endoskeletal biped. Observation: you are not like the last carbon-based organic this unit eliminated. Query: What exactly are you?"
Malak glanced at Revan with a confused frown. "We're human, you idiot piece of scrap."
"Statement: that term is not found within my databanks. Please elucidate…humans."
"Human beings, you rusted piece of junk!" Malak snarled.
"Malak," Revan sighed, "I suggest not agitating the droid that likely killed this huge lizard-thing, hmm?"
"Observation:" the droid said, "so-called human beings seem to be flesh-covered bags of water and…meat. Analysis: you pose no significant threat to this unit." As it finished speaking, it lifted both arms towards them. Panels on its bulky forearms cranked open and blaster barrels slid forth and locked into place.
Revan and Malak dove for cover as the droid's weaponry opened fire like crashing lightning. It blasters spat forth a blistering sheet of energy bolts that tore through the ancient skeleton and punched through stone. The droid walked its deadly fire along the floor of the cave, right towards Lal. As it chewed up the ground, she lifted her hand before her eyes and screamed…
And she sat up screaming.
The light snapped on and Mission hopped down from her bunk above Lal. The Twi'lek knelt beside Lal and gripped her shoulders. "Lal! What is it?"
Juhani leaped down from her bunk, her bright green eyes flashing wildly. Her claws flexed from her fingers and toes and she glanced around anxiously.
Lal realized she was breathing heavily, and her heart was hammering within her chest. "I…I…a dream…"
"About Revan and Malak," Bastila said, propping herself up on her elbows on the bunk across from Lal. Lal glanced at her sister and nodded. "I saw it too, Lal. They were in a cave…"
"A cave," Lal whispered, "yes…"
Mission sat back and cocked her head at Lal. "Huh?"
"They shared a vision," Juhani said excitedly, slithering past Mission to sit beside Lal. "Visions are always of tremendous importance, but when they are shared…"
The door opened and Carth burst in, wearing little more than a pair of shorts. "What the hell happened?" he cried. "Is everyone alright?" Behind him, Zaalbar echoed his concern. "We heard screaming…"
"It was a dream, Carth," Bastila said, swinging her legs over the edge of her bunk. "I think we saw the location of the Starmap chamber on Tatooine."
"How do you know it was Tatooine, Bastila?" Lal asked.
"The skeleton we saw…it was that of a creature native to the Dune Sea. But search your feelings, Lal. Did it not feel like Tatooine?"
Lal supposed it did. "I…I'm sorry I woke everyone up…"
Zaalbar cocked his head to the side and shrugged, issuing a soft, reassuring grunt. Lal smiled up at him, heartened by his concern. "Don't worry about me, Carpet," she told him.
"You sure you're okay?" Carth asked. "Well, my watch is about to begin anyway…"
"Carth, I'll take your watch," Lal said, throwing her covers off and standing. "I'm quite sure I've slept enough tonight."
Carth's face reddened when he saw her in her underwear, and he turned his back.
Lal glanced down at Mission and they both started chuckling.
"What's so funny?" Carth asked. Even Bastila wore a smile.
"Carth," Lal sighed, "we're all standing here in our underwear, after all."
"I guess that settles that argument," Mission observed with a giggle, favoring Carth's backside with a stare.
"What argument?" Juhani asked.
"Boxers or briefs," Mission told her. Zaalbar began chuckling and shuffled off back to bed.
Carth glanced down at his boxers and sighed. "I can't believe this."
Juhani nodded and glanced at Mission and Lal. "They suit him well."
"This is like a slumber party with a bunch of teenaged girls!" Carth exclaimed, throwing his hands up. "I'm going back to bed."
As he left, all four women started laughing.
"Did you see his face?" Bastila asked. "He was redder than a Zeltron Courtesan!"
"Oh, he likes the attention," Mission said sagely. "Especially from Lal."
"Mission!" Lal exclaimed, stepping into a pair of loose white trousers.
"Those are mine, Lal!" Mission said.
"And I'm borrowing them," Lal told her.
"I haven't even had a chance to wear those yet!"
Lal bent down and kissed her forehead. "What a coincidence; neither have I. Now do go back to sleep, all of you."
Lal padded into the cockpit in bare feet and saw Canderous in the pilot's chair watching the display screens. He glanced over at his shoulder at her.
"Everything alright back there?"
"Canderous," she faked a surprised gasp, climbing into the chair beside him, "it's almost as if you care!"
"Hmmph," he grunted. "Onasi?"
"I'm taking his watch."
"I guess 'Public needs his beauty sleep, after all. You're early."
They both fell silent for several minutes, watching the spiraling tunnel of viscous blue light funnel around the ship. "I don't think I care much for Hyperspace," Lal finally said.
Canderous nodded. "It can be…disconcerting to anyone who isn't a natural-born spacer. It is another reality. Not just composed of space and time…but some say…thought…It makes dreaming more vivid. When the first Mandalorians stepped into Hyperspace, they claimed to have visions delivered to them; dreams that promised great and worthy battles and the blood of their enemies. I suppose there was something to that."
She glanced at him with a frown. "Canderous," she asked hesitantly, "do Mandalorians think of anything beyond combat and honor and so forth?"
She waited for him to elaborate, but he seemed content to merely watch the display screens and readouts before him. "Such as?" she prompted.
He turned and fixed her firmly within his pale blue eyes. "Well, what do you think about, Lal? Do you think about the future? Do you worry about things you cannot change? Do you think of your regrets and fears? Do you think about what your next meal will be? Who you will share a bed with? Do you think about how you hate spiders?"
"I don't hate spiders."
"Well, I do. I cannot suffer them to live."
She chuckled. "So the great and terrible Canderous Ordo is afraid of spiders?"
"The spiders on Mandalore are the size of a landspeeder," he told her. "And I didn't say I was afraid of them. I said I hated them. And sometimes, I think about them. Like you, I think of many things. I give voice to a few of them."
"Right…now I understand why the Republic went to war with the Mandalorians…couldn't get a bloody straight answer."
He chuckled. "I give you straight answers when it matters. And when you give me straight questions. Mandalorians do not find it necessary to speak on trivial things as much as you people do. But I do have a straight question for you: now that you have discovered that you went forth to fight the terror of the Mandalorians several years ago, that we were your enemy, now that you seem to have accepted this, why would you put a Mandalorian at your back? Why trust me?"
"You could ask the same about Carth," Lal pointed out.
"He does not trust me. He trusts you. I'm sure he feels there is a valid reason why you fraternize with a former enemy, and he trusts your judgment. Same with Bastila and the Wookiee. They tend to follow your lead in these things. Were it up to them, I'm certain I'd have been marched out the airlock at gunpoint long ago. Or they would have tried."
"When you and I first entered our alliance," Lal began slowly, "we had similar goals. We both wanted off Taris. We both wanted a freer reign in our…operations."
"We have left Taris. And you seem concerned now with the business of the Jedi rather than that of a smuggler."
"I am concerned with the business of learning who I am. If that is in line with the business of the Jedi, so be it. I told you that I could no longer hold up my end of the bargain, Canderous. You could have hopped on a transport while we were on Dantooine. You decided to stay. So perhaps the more honest question is: why trust me?"
Canderous smiled and nodded in satisfaction. "Well, I'll give you this: Lal Shan is easily as clever and cunning as Lal Sideen. You would make a good Mandalorian. Well, except for the whole…mercy thing."
"Ah. And is this because I told you I didn't kill Calo Nord?"
"I admit, I was rather surprised to hear that. You told us Calo had tracked you down. Had signaled Malak's fleet. He was singularly responsible for all the deaths that happened at the Enclave. Even a pacifist would have viewed Calo Nord's death as justice."
"I…I wanted to kill him. Maybe I should have. There was a time, obviously…when I would have killed him." She recalled killing Brejik, the leader of the Black Vulkars. Remembered making him pay for what he had done to Selli. But now, Selli and Zaerdra and Gadon were dead. Or were likely so. One man's crimes hardly seemed to matter anymore. "With so much death, is the killing of one man, however justified, so important?"
"You're asking the wrong man. I don't kill for justice or vengeance. I would have killed Calo Nord, but only to keep an enemy from my back. Or perhaps…he is too pathetic a being to live. You are familiar with Yondar Prime?"
Lal shook her head. "They make a lovely silk there…I've heard there is a slave trade. Nasty wildlife. That's all I've ever heard."
"They do have a slave trade. When the Mandalorians were still involved in slaving, we had numerous contracts there. When Davik contracted Calo Nord's services, I did some research on the man. He was a slave on Yondar Prime. Sent at a young age to the Arenas. From what I had heard, he made quite a name for himself over the years. The Arenas on Yondar Prime, mind you, trafficked in lethal combat. He was owned by a powerful statesman. Won a great deal of money for this man in the Arena. It was said that a rival Politiciar killed Calo's owner. An assassination that rapidly threw his house into chaos. Calo was essentially free to escape. Instead of seizing his freedom immediately, Calo took the opportunity to silently murder his owner's entire family. His wife, his three daughters. Killed them in cold blood. No one knows why. It was also said…in rather more hushed tones that the owner's eldest daughter had taught Calo to read when he was a child. That she had shown him great kindness. And that, regardless, he killed her, only to make a break with his old life. That is hardly logical. In fact, quite insane. And I say that to you with the perspective of a professional murderer. Heh."
"Uh…quite. So what are you trying to tell me, Canderous?"
"Only that Calo is not a man driven by sanity. That he has shown a dangerous obsession with women who possess…power over him."
"I had no power over that lunatic."
Canderous smiled slyly and chuckled. "All women have some power over men. Especially a woman like yourself, Lal, who is at once beautiful and lush, and brilliant and clever. Heh. Had Calo been a normal man, he probably would have sent you flowers and with palms sweating, would have screwed up his courage to ask you out on a date…"
"I was never really the sort to date, Canderous."
Canderous laughed. "No, I suppose not. And Calo was not the sort to ever ask. But it was obvious that he was obsessed with you. Had the fool been sane, he would have…addressed his obsession in perhaps a more sociable manner. As it was…he simply wanted to remove you from your position of power over him."
Lal sighed and massaged the bridge of her nose. "So you're saying that, even though I left him crippled, even though he was likely killed by the detonators you dropped, he'll find a way to come after me?"
"Have you looked in a mirror lately, Lal Shan? I'd find a way…"
"Ah," she nodded. "So, let's see…I believe you said, 'beautiful and lush…brilliant and clever.' Have I found a reason why you're still in my company, Canderous?"
He released a wintery chuckle and flicked hooded eyes at her. "I don't know, Lal. Have you?"
Behind them, Bastila cleared her throat loudly. Lal turned to find her sister standing at the nav-computer console behind the pilot's station. Canderous grinned wickedly and pushed himself up and out of his chair.
"Perhaps I should hit the rack," Canderous said casually, glancing at Bastila.
"Perhaps you should, Canderous," Bastila replied, her arms folded across her breasts. She stepped forward and sat down in the pilot's chair.
"Runs in the family," Canderous grinned, nodding to both women. Then he left them.
Lal and Bastila sat in silence for a few strained moments.
"What is it about you?" Bastila finally asked, when she was certain Canderous had indeed left.
"What do you mean?" Lal countered innocently.
Bastila fumbled and floundered for the right words. "That! That…whatever it was! First Carth…now that…Mandalorian…And let's not forget Juhani!"
"Juhani? Oh, Basi, I was just teasing you about Juhani. Admittedly, I found it odd to…bathe with another woman…well, perhaps not odd as such…it's happened before…Just untoward. But nothing happened. Nothing came close to happening."
"Lal!" Bastila gasped. "Do you mean to say you've actually bathed with other women in the past?"
"Well, I…Oh come on. You've never seen fit to soak in a sauna with real water with other females? Or luxuriate in a heated whirlpool?"
Bastila frowned. Her cheeks turned red and she fell silent, staring at the readouts before her. She reached out to adjust some controls on her console. "There's a point five variance on the intermix flow."
Lal nodded sagely. "You know, Basi, now that I'm using the Force again, I can say things like, 'oooh, your thoughts betray you' with a modicum of actual validity."
"Oh, alright! I…admit…I have…found occasion to soak, as you say, with other women. It's just that…I was concerned that Juhani's motives were not quite so innocent."
"Why? Is it because you don't trust her?"
"No…the Council has given her another chance, and that is sufficient reasoning for me. Besides, she was Belaya's friend and…well, I trust Juhani completely. Before she lost her temper, she was very sweet and kind. She still is. I…I like her a great deal."
"Okay. So…what is the problem?"
Bastila sighed. "I'm not trying to infer…well, I mean…it's just that Juhani is quite young. Cathar females her age tend to…"
"I believe the term you used was 'experiment.'"
Lal chuckled and shook her head. "I couldn't care less, to be honest. All I can say is Juhani never brought it up. And neither did I. Satisfied? Basi, I'm surprised at you. Does it really matter to you what Juhani's…interests are? Or mine?"
"Oh, do stop teasing me, Lal," Bastila sighed. "Regardless of their…ah…preferences, Jedi do not indulge their physical desires. It is forbidden."
"We've had this discussion…"
"And I suppose we'll have it again, Lal! Why are you so…difficult about this? It wasn't a problem before you left to go fight your war!"
"Basi, do you love me?"
Lal smiled and reached over to grasp Bastila's hand and squeeze it. "Basi, when I take your hand in mine, what do you feel?"
"I…well…I feel you squeezing my hand…"
"Now you're the one being difficult. Let me tell you what I feel. When I hold your hand like this, when I know you're close and that you would stand with me no matter what, I feel safe. I feel strong. I feel as if…for the first time that I can remember, I'm not in this galaxy alone. And do you know why? Because I love you, and because I can feel your love for me. Do you understand?"
"I felt Master Zhar's love for me. Even Master Vrook's…once I stopped being suspicious of him. I wish I hadn't been such a fool…"
They sat in silence for a moment, and sadness swept over Lal in a heavy wave. She could feel it surging through Bastila as well. Lal swallowed a dry lump in her throat and forged on. "Loving someone…it may alter one's perspective, Basi, but that's what love does. I suppose I love the Carpet. And Mission. I think that, had those two not entered my life, I'd still be the monster I was. In a way, they sort of saved me. From myself, I suppose. And you saved me. And Carth…I haven't said this…but all of you have taught me. Perhaps you most of all, honey. Half the time, of course, you're driving me quite bloody up the wall…but I'm so very glad you're here to do it."
Bastila smiled despite herself, and again, her cheeks burned bright red. "I suppose you do have a point. I do find strength in you. More, perhaps, than I could find in myself alone. Jedi are encouraged to love, Lal. Don't mistake me. Without love, we could not have compassion. But we must have compassion for all beings. Not just a sister, or a lover. It must be equal. Or we are lost."
"Well, I can certainly understand that. But at the same time, how can you know true compassion without experiencing it for yourself? In every way. Haven't you ever had it bad for some gorgeous piece of man, Basi? Come on…"
"Well…to be certain, I've never…actually…acted on it…but I have had…ahem…thoughts. Especially growing up."
Lal nodded and grinned. "What was his name?"
"Oh Lal…well, his name was Shen. Shen Matale. He was quite well…put together. He and his brother."
"Did I know him?" Lal asked.
"Oh, Shen was too young for you. At the time, you were more concerned with beating all the boys at lightsaber sparring." Bastila chuckled and shook her head. "You were all legs and arms back then. Quite the tomboy. Of course, I was even skinnier than you were."
"Well, we both filled out rather nicely, I should think," Lal grinned.
"Uh…quite. Well, you see, I had a crush on Shen. He was not a Jedi, but many of the settlers' children took some academic classes with us. So, he would be in our classes every season. Once, he and I shared a kiss."
"We did. We were only thirteen at the time…And I was punished for doing so. If things had been different, we…"
Bastila sighed and shook her head. "Things were not different. I think he was quite enamored of me, but he eventually moved on. Last I heard, he got married before the war."
Lal nodded. "So…there was just that one kiss shared between you?"
Bastila smiled again and looked down. "There may have been more…kisses, that is."
"I imagine so…Did I ever have a crush on anyone?"
"Oh, Lal…you were the worst thing that could happen to a boy's ego."
"What? How so?"
"Well, you were always the top student, Lal. You could out-do everyone in your class. Boys included. They tend not to like that sort of thing, you know."
Lal rolled her eyes and nodded. "Tell me about it…"
"But, from my understanding, as you got older, you caught the fancy of more than one youthful admirer."
"Story of my life, I suppose," Lal said with a heavy sigh.
Bastila turned to look at her. "Sadness…there is an immense sadness within you when you say that. And bitterness…"
"I suppose so, Basi."
"What is it, Lal? Tell me."
"I…I can't…I…Taris was not…kind to women, Bastila. It was a cruel and vicious place. It took women and girls and…and it chewed them up. We were an industry. A commodity. Pretty toys to be played with in nasty games. I don't know if I could ever explain it to you, Basi…please don't ask me to."
"I…alright, Lal. You know, I sometimes look at Mission and I wonder what she has been through, and the answers scare me. She's just a girl, still…"
"Like every joygirl, Mission started out dancing. It's harmless enough, but it hardly feels that way. Being put out on display. Mission was a good dancer, but she was clumsy. I don't mean physically…You see, she's actually quite graceful. But she wasn't capable of…selling the package so to speak. She was always so tentative. Too afraid. Fear appeals only to a certain type of customer. The dangerous type. Davik wanted to take her off the floor and put her to work, but I kept saying she wasn't ready…I guess, in some fashion, I was trying to protect her."
"That's what you always did best."
"Hmm. Not, I suppose anymore," Lal murmured. "Couldn't protect Belaya. Couldn't protect Master Zhar."
"But that wasn't your fault. You did your best, Lal. It is that simple. It pains me to think I'll never debate philosophy with Belaya again…but I know this: she was a Jedi. She was trained. She didn't need help from you or me or anyone. We stand on the brink, Lal. We look the dark things directly in the eye and say, 'you will not pass.' And we fall. It is part of our duty. Our choice."
"Choice. There's that word again." Lal glanced at Bastila and cocked her head to the side. "A lot of people are dead now…because the Sith came knocking at the door with a fleet. Did they have a choice?"
"It was a tragedy, Lal…Nothing I can say will change that. All we can do is honor their sacrifice, and hope that…that our actions, our choices are enough…"
"Now you bloody well sound like Carth," Lal moaned softly.
Bastila nodded and glanced out the viewscreen. "Well, Carth happens to make a good deal of sense more often than not…"
Lal glanced at Bastila in surprise. "Mm-hmm. And is that something you'd ever admit to his face?"
Bastila tried to suppress a grin. "Probably not…"
"Thought as much. You know, little sister, it wouldn't kill you to let him know you don't think he's some sort of scoundrel flyboy."
"I…I know that, Lal! I…I've tried to…Look, the simple truth is…"
"You've got a crush on him."
"Not in the slightest!" Bastila gasped, glancing sharply at Lal. "It's just that…well, he's so very good at what he does, and I feel like such an idiot around him…I have all this tactical training, and it all but pales compared to his merest instinct!"
Lal nodded. "You've got a crush on him."
"I do not. You're the one with an over-active libido, sister dear."
"Hmph. Just checking."
"Lal, you're going to completely disregard all I've tried to tell you about indulging your passions, aren't you?" Bastila sighed and shook her head.
"Not completely, Basi. It's just that I so enjoy teasing you. Takes my mind off this weight on my shoulders. And, moreover, it is the duty of every big sister to torment her little sister in some form or another."
"Incorrigible," Bastila groaned.
Lal found herself smiling. "I love you too, Basi."
A day later, the Ebon Hawk slammed out of hyperspace and punched into the vast black vault of real space. Dozens of glittering distant stars whirled into view before the ship, and Carth turned the catamaran hull towards the dusty brown sphere of Tatooine. Bastila sat beside him, monitoring sensors while Lal and Juhani stood behind them. Lal leaned over the back of Carth's chair to gaze down at the sandy wretch of a planet.
A part of her started calculating revenues based on her last transmission from Jun Ando. But that had been back on Taris, nearly a solar month past. In all that time, without a communication from her, Lal wondered if she even still had a business to go to. But she quickly caught herself. Could she even continue with the operation anymore? That path led her back to the shadows of Taris. And her feet propelled her elsewhere now. But there was a security of sorts in those old thoughts; where things rarely got more complicated than watch your back. It was reassuring to know that people feared her. Or, at one time, it had been. Kept them from doing stupid things.
Of course, that was a lie. A lie and a conceit. Fear bred anger. And anger bred hatred. Hatred bred…well, it bred bad things.
"Tatooine," Carth sighed. "Ass end of the galaxy. I tend not to trust a planet with no standing water. Only folks you're likely to find are hardcase no-lifers and cutthroats on the wrong side of the law."
Bastila glanced at him with narrowed eyes. "That's not true. Our father lives here, doing archeological studies…academic work. Important work."
Carth shrugged. "I stand corrected then…"
"Humans are a most resilient and versatile species," Juhani pointed out. "By settling Tatooine, man has proven his unparalleled ability to turn any world into a home. For a Cathar, such a place is…repellant. No trees, no grasslands…"
"It's said that Tatooine was once covered with green lands and deep oceans," Bastila pointed out.
"What," Lal frowned, "with those twin suns blazing down on the planet? I've heard those rumors. Hard to believe."
"Paleo-geometric scans have shown a shift in axis," Bastila countered. Such a thing could have been caused by a massive collision millions of years ago, which could have shifted the planet closer to the twin suns. It's also speculated that there may have once been a third sun…which now may be a microscopic black hole. It may go through periods when it puts out large amounts of radiation. Radiation that could have adversely affected the biosphere."
"Bastila," Carth cut in, "set 247."
"Oh!" Bastila chirped, glancing down at her instruments. "Of course…"
"My sister the brain," Lal sighed. "I suppose I should tell you all…In my days on Taris, I set up some…ah…business connections here. It was all done behind Davik's back so the Exchange wouldn't own another piece of my a—er…business."
Carth and Bastila shared a glance, while Juhani managed to look perfectly unconcerned.
"Does this mean more surprises?" Carth asked.
"I don't actually know," Lal said. "I've got a lot of connections on Tatooine, so it should be fairly safe…so long as we maintain a low profile."
"Low profile," Carth groaned. "Yeah, with a Wookiee, three Jedi and a Mandalorian Hunter…No problem."
Lal sighed. "A relatively low profile."
"Perhaps a disguise is in order?" Juhani suggested.
After securing landing clearance under a hacked transponder code and the name, Midnight Saker, the Ebon Hawk swooped down into the bright white sky of Tatooine. It stood on its starboard stabilizer and arrowed towards the vast, empty canvas below. The Hawk dropped low over the flat scorched land, and before its twin prow a tiny gray dot arose on the horizon. It grew in size rapidly, spreading itself out in gathered detail as the Hawk zoomed closer. Carth tugged the nose upwards and climbed sharply over the settlement, and then, he tipped the Hawk over, goosing the repulsorlifts to make a gentle, controlled fall.
"Welcome to Anchorhead," Lal murmured, spotting the docks and warehouse pods she knew so well. "Not much to look at…"
Over the comm, the tower directed them south, to one of a cluster of docking pits sunken into the hard packed ground. Carth maneuvered the Hawk over Bay-74 and triggered a burst from the landing thrusters. The Ebon Hawk snapped abruptly into a hover, several meters above the ground, and then sank slowly on her landing struts, bouncing once on the shock absorbers. Steam pulsed from the Hawk's heat sinks, kicking up whorls of sand and dust.
Wrapped in a white silk cloak, with the hood drawn over her head, Lal stepped down from the access ramp. She squinted up into the bright sky and saw one of the suns soaring high above the planet. It splashed the sky with harsh, searing bleach, and blazed like a white fire, hurling its burning glare over everything below.
Bastila followed in an identical cloak and stopped next to her sister. Bastila muttered softly to herself as Carth joined them, wearing a dark visor across his eyes.
"I really fail to see how such a conspicuous…get-up is supposed to make us actually inconspicuous," Bastila hissed. "I can't believe you talked me into wearing this, Lal!"
"The cloaks cover everything well enough, Bastila," Carth muttered, a grin on his face.
Bastila opened her cloak in a brief fit of incredulity, showing the revealing golden tunic that she wore beneath. "It's not the cloak I'm talking about! It's these…these…slave outfits! Quite indecent!"
Carth chuckled. "Oh yeah. I forgot about that. Refresh my memory again, huh?"
Bastila suddenly went red as she realized she was displaying herself for Carth, and she slammed her cloak tightly shut over the thin tunic. "Ohhh!" She stormed off towards the dock's entrance gate, and Lal fell back to stand beside Carth.
"Should I be jealous, Captain Onasi?" she grinned up at him.
"Jealous? I don't know what you mean, ma'am. I was just…trying to see the family resemblance…"
Lal punched him in the shoulder.
"Owww!" he cried, rubbing at his arm. "Slavegirls are not supposed to abuse their owners."
"Mm-hmm. Don't bury yourself in the role, flyboy." She started to follow Bastila, but paused and turned to glance back up into the Hawk's entrance. Juhani hid behind the bulkhead, poking her head out nervously.
"I was thinking, Lal," Juhani murmured, "perhaps I should stay inside along with the Wookiee-Zaalbar…"
Lal sighed. She knew Juhani was uncomfortable wearing the guise of a slave, especially since she had been one on Taris. But the Cathar's sudden case of modesty was an obstacle.
"I know how you feel, Juhani, but I need another pair of eyes. Zaalbar is too recognizable, Canderous is too…Mandalorian, and Mission is too Mission. I need you."
Juhani edged out and took a few clumsy steps down the ramp, clutching the cloak securely about her. "I suppose…"
Lal stalked up the ramp and clutched Juhani's hand. She pulled the Cathar girl close to her and headed down the ramp after Bastila and Carth. "I'll be right here beside you, okay?"
After they passed through the gate, they stepped into Customs, where Carth claimed to be an exotic commodities exporter named Halos Sava. The Czerka corporation rep at the terminal perked up and gave them a greasy smile.
"Got two beta-prime clones straight from the vats on Kamino, and a Cathar Kit of top breeding," Carth said in a gruff voice. "Had to divert from Taris on account of the recent unpleasantness.
The rep gave an appraising gander to Bastila and Lal and nodded. "Well, your transmitted itinerary checks. Not much local market for pleasure slaves here, I'm afraid. Unless you're looking to deal with the Hutts."
"Hutts, huh?" Carth muttered. "I thought Hutt business was illegal, even on the Rim."
"Officially, Czerka Corporation recognizes the Hutt operations in the Rim territories as viable in most cases. Since this is not technically a Republic world, their laws don't actually apply…"
"So does that mean Czerka's out of the…ah…exotic commodities exchange?" Carth asked.
"Not at all," the rep smiled, wringing his palms together. "The business brought in by the Hutts and the less…colorful ventures of the Galactic Exchange help to supplement local Czerka revenues significantly. I only meant that if you'd had labor slaves, they'd fetch you a larger yield. But I'm sure Motta will take them off your hands for you."
"Motta…he's one of the Hutts?"
The man nodded. "Oh, there will be a 100 credit docking charge, please."
Carth grumbled and handed over a credit-stick. The man slotted it into a data reader and diverted the funds. Then, he grinned again and handed it back. "Do have a pleasant stay, sir."
Lal snatched her cred-stick back from Carth once they were out of sight and growled darkly about the expense. "Damned greedy Czerka suits! Worse than a school of Corellian vampire-fish…"
They stepped out into the hot, dusty air and the sun immediately beat down upon them. Anchorhead was a clustered huddle of rounded hut-like buildings, crouching low to the earth to hide from the sunlight. Fashioned from white and brown plascrete, each structure looked rather more like a sand-ant hill than any sort of building or house. High walls were meant to cast long shadows whenever the sun wasn't standing right above. Many of the rounded pods had awnings; either makeshift lean-tos of ragged cloth or equally battered sheets of polymer scavenged from discarded heat shields. Communications and sensor towers stabbed into the sky like needles, swaying gently in the hot wind.
Rusted and corroded landspeeders puttered by, missing engine cowlings, kicking up dust clouds that parted the listless pedestrians, wrapped in cloaks, shrouded in hoods from the sun. The air stank of dry feces and as the ground trembled at her feet, Lal realized why. A ronto-herder prodded one of the long-necked beasts along, and the towering creature lumbered insolently, slamming feet shaped like mallets into the packed dirt.
Lal pressed the edge of her hood against her mouth and nose as the ronto thundered past. She glanced over as a scowling Dug gripped a Toydarian merchant by the throat with prehensile feet and swore loudly in Huttese. The Dug pivoted on its hands and slammed the pudgy Toydarian into a stack of pottery with a loud crash.
Several Duros in Czerka jumpsuits hustled quickly past the commotion, and nearly stumbled into Lal and Bastila. Carth reached out to grab one of the Duros by the shoulder, to keep him from walking into Lal. The alien glanced up, his great crimson eyes wide in shock, and hastily murmured an apology.
The four of them walked down a long avenue lined by kiosks set up in the sand selling everything from polished Sarlacc teeth to steaming bantha kebabs. A knot of swoops roared up the avenue towards them, and people hurried to get out of the way. The swoops whipped to a halt in front of a tavern, and a group of humans and Rodians leaped off, laughing harshly. Their crimson splattered leathers reminded Lal of the Vulkars on Taris. She noticed the painted sigs on their vests and shoulders and whispered to the others. "Local swoop-gang," she warned them. "Blood Dancers, from the look of it."
"Trouble?" Carth asked.
Lal shook her head. "Mostly teenagers with too much time on their hands. They kick up a lot of sand and run their mouths, but are rather short on courage unless you catch them in a large group."
Carth nodded, his hand dropping reflexively to the butt of one of his blasters.
"I have absolutely no clue as to how to find our parents in this…place," Bastila sighed. "I can't sense them anywhere close with so many people about."
"I thought that was a specialty of Jedi," Carth said. "Finding people."
"Unfortunately, my sense are…there is too much chaos here." Bastila frowned and glanced around. "Maybe if I could find a quiet place out of this sun and heat…"
"They might not even be in Anchorhead, Basi," Lal pointed out.
Bastila thought about that for a moment. "I suppose that's possible. Even likely. Probably out on some dig beyond the settlement."
"Have you never been to Tatooine before?" Lal asked.
Bastila shook her head. "Father was still teaching at University when I left to go the to Jedi temple. I don't remember exactly when they came here, but it was more than fifteen years ago."
"This place is an idle rock," Lal muttered, glancing around. "Czerka came here because their surveys told them they hit a jackpot. Turned out to be a bust. And they've been trying to recoup their losses."
"That company man mentioned Hutts," Juhani snarled, baring her sharp canines. "I do not like Hutts. Flesh-peddlers…"
"And worse than that," Lal agreed. "But the Syndicate set up one of their moderates in power here. Motta doesn't get too far out of line because of the treaty with the Exchange. Usually. Mostly, he handles the deathstick trade…gambling on the Swoop circuits, that sort of thing."
"Well," Carth said, "I don't mind hanging out with three half-naked Jedi, but I reckon we'd better try and track down your folks somehow. Got any ideas, Lal? This is your turf."
Lal stopped and looked down the street. She cocked her head towards an egg-shaped building bearing the Czerka logo on the door. "That's the survey and records building. If our parents got a legal permit to dig, there'd be a record of it. They keep a file on every prospector and rancher that lives outside of Anchorhead. So they know who to send a bill to in case the Tuskens get them."
"Tuskens?" Bastila frowned. "Tusken Raiders? Sand people?"
"They're a rough lot," Lal replied. "Mostly, they keep to the Dune Sea, away from the settlers, but sometimes, the tribes range inward, go on raids. People disappear. Bad business. To be honest, I never thought twice about it…I figured if a person was foolish enough to live outside Anchorhead…well…"
"This place is worse than Taris!" Bastila cried.
"Not by a long shot, honey," Lal said. "Dangerous, yes. But nothing is worse than Taris."
They stepped inside the survey office and a blonde woman glanced up and flashed a plastic smile from behind a circular desk. She rose and smoothed her skirt and walked over to Carth. "Ah. A new arrival. Always happy to welcome visitors to Tatooine. What can I do for you? Are you looking for supplies? Gear? License services?"
"Ah…actually no," Carth said. "Information, actually. See…I'm here to deliver these slaves to some folks by the name of Shan. I don't know if they live in Anchorhead or in one of the settlements."
"Ah," the woman nodded. She cast a glance at Lal and Bastila. "They don't actually look sturdy enough for desert life…" She went back to her desk and flicked on her computer. She typed in a series of commands and propped her hip on the edge of the desk, flashing Carth a smile. "The name's not familiar…but if they've been here longer than six months, I wouldn't have met them. I was just recently transferred." She glanced down at the screen and typed at the keyboard again. "Ah. Here we are. Cordalis and Helena Shan. Lists him as 'professor.' Hmm. I'm seeing a record of a moisture vaporator purchase from Helena a few months ago."
"Do you have a location on them? I'm kinda on the clock until I make delivery…"
"I understand completely," the woman grinned. She turned her attention back to the screen. "Hmm. Looks like a Helena Shan licensed a residence lease on some territory in…sector 12, around a year ago. There doesn't seem to be a mention of the professor. Her husband, I assume?"
"Odd. She's listed as the sole resident."
"That can't be," Bastila said sharply, stepping forward. The Czerka woman arched her eyebrow indignantly at Bastila. "There must be some sort of mistake."
The woman rolled her eyes and returned her gaze to Carth. "Our records are accurate, I assure you. Every two standard weeks, we send out patrols to all the settlements and ranches to check on our customers and see to their needs if necessary. Last patrol returned five days ago, so the information is quite current." She looked back at Bastila critically. "Although, I must say, I can't see a woman having much use for joygirls."
"Hey, I don't ask questions," Carth said before Bastila could reply. "I just drop 'em off."
"I understand," the woman nodded, standing and walking towards Carth. "But I imagine it's quite a lonely lifestyle."
"Perhaps after you've finished your duties, you might…join me for a drink later? Mister…?"
"Sava," Carth answered. "Halos. And you are?"
"Yulandi," she said, extending her hand. Carth took it and nodded.
"A very pretty name," Carth smiled. "I might take you up on that drink. Ah…listen, do you know where I could get some transportation?"
"Oh, of course. We rent out speeders as well. I'll need a deposit of 75 credits…well…perhaps, let's say…60?"
Carth nodded again. "Much obliged, Yulandi. Very much obliged…"
They left after Yulandi loaded the map info into the data-reader Carth provided. As they stepped into the glare of the sun, Lal punched Carth in the arm again. But no one spoke as they followed Yulandi's directions to the rental hangar on the south side of Anchorhead.
Lal could feel Bastila's worry, streaming from her in thick, sour waves. She moved up beside Bastila and slipped her arm around her sister's waist to hold her close. "I'm sure everything's just fine, Basi. Probably a mistake or something like that. Functionaries like that don't bother to double-check anything."
"I don't know Lal," Bastila said in a trembling whisper. "I…I'm worried something has happened…that Mother did something…"
"What do you mean?"
"She was always…always so…demanding…I remember they would argue when I was small. She always wanted a lifestyle beyond their modest means. It was…it was in her blood. I d-didn't mention it to you…I…I just have a bad feeling…"
Lal wondered what Bastila meant by that, but was afraid to ask. But soon, they were in the hangar, walking among rows of landspeeders. Carth led them to the Mobquet LandSpinner-8 he'd chosen, and they all climbed in.
He kicked in the thrusters and backed the arrow-shaped speeder out of its berth. Carth guided the Mobquet out of the main gate and shoved the throttle forward, hurling it out across the sea of pale sand beyond.
"You're sure that was her?"
"Positive. I was with her during the Slann Offensive. I know her face."
"And her sister as well?"
"Both of them."
"Lord Malak will be pleased…"
Lal's mind wandered as their speeder roared over the sandy wastes. Her hair whipped away from her face in jagged sheets, yanked and tugged by the wind, and grit clawed and scratched at her cheeks. Last time she had been to Tatooine, she had been a killer. An assassin trying to find a better life. Perhaps she had succeeded. Certainly, things were different; maybe even better. She had people she trusted, people who wouldn't stab her in the back at the first sign of weakness. She had a sister. She loved having a sister. And she had parents.
She wondered if she'd be able to face them. Wondered what would be the first words to tumble out of her mouth. Hi, I'm your daughter, at least that's what Bastila tells me. See, I simply don't remember. I know you sent me off to be a Jedi, but apparently, I wasn't any good at it and became a killer instead. And a whore. And that's after I went off to make war in the name of galactic peace with some very naughty associates. Luckily, I don't recall any of that…the war part, not the assassin part. So…how have you been?
Ridiculous. She had no idea what to say, what to do. And there was the worry that Bastila had felt…it was tickling Lal at the back of her skull, like a whisper of danger breathed across her flesh.
"How much further?" Lal asked Carth, shouting to be heard over the hiss of the wind.
"Map says it's another fifty klicks or so. Maybe ten minutes, give or take."
Lal turned around in her seat to look at her sister. Bastila's face was long and drawn, sketched roughly in pale strokes of chalk. Her eyes focused on some distant point, worrying.
"Basi, I…" Lal fell silent as the tickling thought in her mind sent a sudden, shivering chill through her. Her eyes flicked past Bastila's shoulder, past the curved rear cowling of the landspeeder. In the distance far behind them, Lal saw three black smudges wavering in the heat, standing forth on the horizon. "Uh-oh…"
Bastila's eyes fluttered as she noticed Lal's gaze. Both she and Juhani turned around to look. "Sith," Juhani growled, her fangs flashing in the sunlight.
"Sith?" Carth grunted. "Ah hell…"
"How far away are they?" Bastila asked, squinting. "Can you tell?"
"Maybe four, five kilometers," Lal guessed. "If they're on swoops, it won't take them long to close the distance. Carth, can this thing go any faster?"
Carth responded by redlining the engines. A burst of blue fire exploded from the rear thrusters and the speeder lurched ahead. The desert scorched past in a hot blur of white and brown. Lal pulled her lightsaber from beneath her cloak and squeezed it in a white-knuckled fist.
"They're closing," Bastila warned, pulling forth her own weapon. Juhani did the same, flexing the talons at the ends of her fingertips. "They're on swoops…"
"Damn," Carth hissed. "They can accelerate faster than we can…"
Suddenly, the ground before them erupted in showers of sand and fire as blaster bolts stabbed towards them.
"Hold on, ladies," Carth said, gritting his teeth. "Gonna turn and burn…"
Lal pressed her free hand against the dashboard to steady herself in the seat as Carth slung the speeder violently to the left. Sand sprayed behind them in a tall shower, and the blaster bolts tried to track them. Carth ripped the speeder back to the right, evading the hail of fire. Before them, a small cluster of buildings jutted forth from the horizon. Her mother's home…
"We're not gonna lose 'em in this open terrain," Carth said. "We can make a stand there."
"No!" Bastila shouted. "I will not bring the Sith to my parents' home!"
"Sith ain't giving us the choice, Bastila," Carth told her.
"No!" Bastila screamed, her lovely face twisted with anger and fear. She propped her hand on the edge of the speeder and hurled herself high into the air.
"Bastila!" Lal cried, reaching out, as if she had a hope of catching her sister. She could only watch as Bastila flipped over twenty feet in the air and spread her arms. Her cloak billowed out beneath her as she gently sank towards the ground.
Bastila landed in a low crouch, and both blades of her lightsaber flashed. She spun it around her body furiously, in golden windmills, blocking laser blasts. Carth whipped the speeder to the side and it skidded to a halt several meters from the tiny house. Lal flung herself from the speeder and shrugged her cloak to the ground. She shoved herself forward into a blistering run, dashing to help Bastila.
Juhani, followed, leaping into the air in a long, graceful arc. Her bare feet clawed into the ground when she landed, and she began running behind Lal. Carth leaped out to follow them, but the women were a distant blur already, streaking across the hot sands faster than he could hope to follow.
Bastila deflected another volley of shots as the trio of Swoops bore down on her. She spread her legs wide and lifted her lightsaber high above her head. With crisp, swift motions, she performed a series of tight, snapping forms, swinging her weapon in curt arcs to her left and right. She lifted one foot from the ground and held one hand forth to beckon them on. Then, she slammed her foot forward into a powerful ready-stance.
Three hooded figures, draped heavily in black rode the swoops down on Bastila. The lead rider stood on the pedals and unleashed a crimson bladed lightsaber. He held it out to his right, lining Bastila up for a strike. But as he closed on her, she threw herself into the air once more, her bare legs gleaming in the sun. She tucked into a ball and flipped above the Sith warrior's swoop, lashing out with her lightsaber. The golden blade seared through his control vanes and the swoop snapped around wildly.
The Sith snarled incoherently as he passed beneath Bastila, and he flung himself from the ruined bike. He rolled across the desert floor as the swoop slammed into the ground and exploded. He hurled himself towards her as she landed with her back to him. He brought his weapon down in a savage arc, but Bastila snapped her blade behind her, blindly blocking his strike. She thrust her foot out behind her into his gut, and shoved off against his belly, to throw herself forward into a roll. She spun on the ground and rose to her feet. With eyes of stone, she pointed her saber at him and waited for him.
"Die Jedi!" he roared, dashing forward to meet her. Their blades clashed in a shower of sparks.
Lal rushed forward to join her sister, but she had to whirl around as one of the other swoops soared towards her. A sheet of blaster fire rained down at her, and Lal flicked her blade before her to slap away each stinging blast. She swallowed a dry lump as the swoop screamed directly towards her. Lal threw herself to the ground beneath the bike, and slashed upwards as it blew over her. Fire burst from the rear of the bike and it nosed straight into the ground. Lal leaped to her feet to run from the blast…the swoop exploded in a cloud of flame and burning wind, hurling Lal flat on her belly.
She glanced around in shock and shook her head. As she picked herself up, she saw the Sith rider laying in a smoking heap a few meters away. Then, she heard the snap-hiss of a lightsaber igniting and saw the Sith rise slowly and turn to face her.
Juhani continued running past Lal right towards the last bike as it zoomed directly at her. Blaster bolts tore up the ground at her feet, but Juhani merely narrowed her eyes and bared her teeth in a deep, throaty roar. She pushed off from the ground and stepped up onto the front cowling of the bike, still running.
The rider jerked back in surprise as Juhani ran right up onto her bike and kicked her in the chest. The Sith flew backwards and hit the ground hard as Juhani landed a few feet away. The Sith warrior whipped her lightsaber out and ignited it, and pushed herself up to charge Juhani.
But Juhani crashed into her with her shoulder, hurling the woman backwards again. The Sith recovered quickly though and slashed across with her red blade. Juhani swung her torso downward and kicked her legs into the air. She spun along the axis of her lean frame in midair and landed in a whirl, whipping her weapon beneath the Sith's guard. Juhani's blade snarled as it bit into the Sith's chest. The woman fell backwards with a gasp and tumbled to the ground. Juhani spun her saber into a reverse grip and stabbed down into the warrior's throat. The Sith jerked and shivered violently, and then went still.
Bastila levered her blade against her opponent's weapon, but the Sith pivoted and let her weight carry her past him. He whirled around with a cross strike, but Bastila thrust forth her palm and hurled him back with a burst of will. He flew through the air and landed in a crouch, skidding backwards several feet through the sand. He smiled wickedly at her and thrust himself into a swift jog, trying to flank her. Bastila matched his movements and dashed to meet him. Their blades clashed once more in a flurry of flashes and explosions of light.
"You are no match for the power of the Dark Side, Jedi," he growled as their blades met in a squeal.
"You will not harm my parents!" Bastila howled, and kicked out low with her back foot. Her heel crashed into his ankle, and he suddenly dropped to one knee. Letting her momentum drive her forward, she hurled her knee into his face. Then she brought her lightsaber down in a diagonal slash and his weapon flew through the air followed closely by his severed arm.
As he screamed in agony, Bastila stepped forward into a deep lunge and stabbed her lightsaber through his chest. His eyes bulged at her in surprise and his mouth dropped open in a soundless shriek. Bastila stared at him for a moment and then closed down her blade. His lifeless body dropped in a smoking pile at her feet.
Lal glared at her opponent and sighed. "You sure you wish to do this?" Lal asked, one corner of her mouth curling upwards in a roguish grin.
"You don't remember me?" The Sith chuckled. She pulled back her black hood and a stream of dark curls spilled over her shoulders. Lal frowned and shook her head once. "We fought together, side by side at the battle of Slann. You, Lord Malak and myself. Just the three of us against tens times that amount of Mandalorian Battlers. I watched you disable three Basilisks that day, and pull their riders down to send them screaming to met their idiot gods in whatever hell they believe in. You were a vision of power and might! And you still are! It's not too late to join us! To come back to us! With you standing with us, nothing could oppose the Sith!"
"No. I'm afraid I'm not falling for it, love. I'm supposed to join you when Bandon already tried to kill me? I think rather not."
"I speak only the truth. Search with your feelings if you doubt me."
Lal hesitated, wondering if what the Sith said had any truth to it. For a moment, she considered…
Then, past the Sith's shoulder, she saw another black smudge on the horizon, racing towards them. Lal's eyes narrowed into molten slits. "Clever girl. Stalling."
The woman shook her head. "No. Giving you a chance. There are many of us who would gladly follow you! Who long for your return…"
"We've got more company!" Lal shouted, and split her lightsaber in half.
The Sith woman sighed and lifted her blade. "It would have been glorious!"
Their blades hissed forward and crashed together, hurling sparks from each strike. Lal lashed forward with her right blade, jabbing past the Sith's guard to strike at her face while her second blade slashed low. The Sith danced back, bashing Lal's right saber up and away. Then she dashed forward again, leading with the tip of her weapon. Lal brought both her blades before her chest in an X, turning the woman's strike aside. Then, Lal kicked forward, stabbing her toes under the Sith's ribs. She howled in pain and staggered backwards.
"Hurts?" Lal asked sweetly.
"You think this accomplishes anything? Some sort of greater good?" the Sith demanded, spitting blood past her lips. "Not in the slightest. The Jedi Order is weak and bloated. It cannot stand beneath its own supercilious weight!"
"Are you trying to convince me? Or yourself?"
The Sith chuckled and glanced back over her shoulder. "Well, I suppose in another minute or so, it won't matter." She charged forward again, bashing her lightsaber against Lal's hammering furiously and relentlessly, driving Lal backwards.
Lal gritted her teeth together, and met each stroke with calm determination. A soft fuzzy warmth flooded her muscles and veins, letting a richly blazing fire sweep through her body, and her arms pistoned and arced liked smoothly oiled machines. She could feel the woman's fury rising and boiling over, and for a moment, Lal wondered if she had ever fought as this Sith did, allowing her anger to make her clumsy.
And as she began blocking almost casually, effortlessly, Lal suddenly realized this one truth: control. Bastila nagged her constantly about it, but did she truly understand? No Jedi was immune from anger, nor from love, nor any heated emotion. But the Jedi strived to control it. But as Master Vrook had said to her, it wasn't a matter of trying, but rather doing. Do, or do not. It was a subtle difference, Lal decided. She didn't need to strive an entire lifetime trying to control her passions…
She merely did.
As the Sith pounded away in a frenzy, Lal allowed herself to back up. And back up. Until she decided not to. She fell away to the right, pivoting on her right foot, letting the Sith lunge past her. And then, Lal kicked off the ground with her left foot and whirled back inward, sweeping well within the Sith's reach. Hastily, the Sith warrior blocked, and Lal's left blade crashed against her crimson lightsaber in a flash of light. But the Sith could not stop Lal's right blade, screaming towards her throat in a reversed grip.
Lal stepped past her opponent as the woman's body slumped to its knees, as her severed head dropped to the sand. "You have to know emotion," Lal whispered, "to control it."
"Lal!" Carth called several meters behind her, waving, "fall back! Fall back to the house! We got more guests coming to the party!"
Lal glanced around to see Bastila and Juhani dispatching their opponents. She smiled and jogged over to the two of them. She laid a hand on Bastila's shoulder and said, "Basi, let's go. We can hold them off better with cover."
"No!" Bastila hissed tightly, shrugging Lal's hand off. "I fight them here! Now! I will not allow the Sith to bring their madness to my parents!"
"Bastila," Juhani murmured, "I think Lal is correct. We--"
"Go if you want! But I will stop them, and I'll make them--"
Lal snatched Bastila by the face and leaned in close. "Control your rage, little sister, or it will kill you."
Bastila's eyes bulged suddenly in surprise. Her brow creased, and she tried to shake her head, but Lal didn't let go. "I--"
"Control it," Lal warned in a cool, even voice, "or I'll control it for you. Now do as I say."
Bastila's eyes flicked to the side, back and forth, and for a moment, she seemed as if she would tear herself from Lal's grasp. But she closed her eyes and licked her lips. She nodded once and sighed.
"I'm sorry…you're right…Of course you're right, my sister…"
Lal smiled and kissed Bastila's forehead. "I'm here, now, Basi. We don't ever stand alone. Never again. But, we'd better get moving…"
The three of them ran back to join Carth, and they all jogged towards the house. As they moved, they noticed a tall figure standing beside the landspeeder. It had a powerful squat torso, gleaming like burnished copper in the sun. Long thin arms flexed at its sides, studded with bulky, swollen forearms ending in grasping talons. The legs were almost skeletal, but spoke of simple, elegant strength, like beams of durasteel. The figure swiveled a head shaped almost like a fleshless skull and regarded them with glowing red eyes.
Lal and the others came to a stop before this tall droid. Lal's eyes blinked rapidly and she gasped in shock. That droid…she had seen it before…in her dreams.
"Observation;" the droid called out in a deep, metallic voice, "you are intruding on private property, interlopers." Panels snapped open on its shoulders, on its chest, and carbon-stained barrels slid forth. It arced its forearms upwards, and panels slid away there as well, revealing blaster cannons. The metal claws it bore instead of fingers grasped and clutched reflexively, almost…eagerly. "Identify yourselves, meatbags, or prepare for…ventilation."
"What is the meaning of all this ruckus?" A woman demanded, storming down the steps from the front door of the house. Tall and elegant, she wore a sweeping dress of muted red, the color of autumn. Her dark brown hair stood atop her head in a thick bun, streaked with a few errant slashes of gray. She cradled a blaster pistol in her hands and stopped beside the massive droid. "HK, who are these…" her eyes suddenly focused on Lal, and then on Bastila, and she lowered her gun.
She stepped forward, gazing at the two of them in wonder and surprise. "Is that…are you…by the Silver Star of Serranon…I cannot believe this…my two girls…? All grown up?"
"Warning," the droid hissed, "the identity of these meatbags has not yet been confirmed, Mrs. Shan. If you would allow this unit to interrogate them properly…with a sufficient amount of bone-snapping and blood-loss…"
The woman scowled and shook her head. "Oh, do be silent…" She sighed heavily and returned a smile to Lal and Bastila. "It really is you…both of you…" She held out her arms and Lal and Bastila went to hug her.
Lal felt very stiff in the embrace, but closed her eyes and breathed in her mother's scent…like the sun-lilies growing in her garden on Dantooine…She saw Bastila's glowing beauty within her mother's features. The same eyes, mouth. The same hands. Hands which once held her as a child.
She cupped Lal's cheek and kissed her. "So beautiful…my beautiful daughters…well, you're women now! All grown and…what in the world are you two wearing?"
"Ma'am," Carth began nervously, "I really hate to be ah…rude, but we've sort of got company. Dangerous company…"
Helena Shan squinted into the distance and saw the dark speeder moving towards them. Lal cast a sidelong glance at the droid, which had cocked its sharply angled skull at her. It regarded her with its bright red eyes, almost as if it…recognized her. Then the droid swiveled its head in the direction of the speeder.
"Observation:" it stated, "seven meatbags are approaching at a significant velocity in a repulsorlift vehicle. They are all armed. Quaintly. Interrogative: is this unit to assume that these…individuals are not a threat, Mrs. Shan?"
"Bastila and Lal are my daughters!" Helena snapped at the droid. "Of course they're not a threat." She fired a disapproving stare at Carth and Juhani. "I suppose these two are their…friends…"
"Mother," Bastila said hastily, "we need to move inside. These people following us are Sith. We do not have time to waste."
"Bastila's right, ma'am," Carth nodded. "They'll be on us in a few minutes."
"Oh, bloody hell," Helena growled, allowing Bastila to hustle her inside. She turned to glance past Bastila's shoulder and called out to the droid, "HK-47, make yourself useful for once and explain to those louts the meaning of private bloody property! Alright, Bastila, I'm going, I'm going…"
"This unit hears and obeys," HK-47 muttered. "As if this unit had a choice in the matter…" it looked down at Carth and continued, "Warning: you had better stay back if you don't wish to be laden with holes."
And with that, HK-47 began walking towards the approaching speeder.
Carth glanced dubiously to Juhani, who just shrugged her bare shoulders. He looked at Lal and said, "The droid might provide them with a distraction…buy us some time. But we need to set up a defensive position inside. Let's go."
Lal nodded and moved inside. But she had the distinct impression that there was far more to the huge droid than was apparent.
Helena watched and fussed as Carth went about the front room, peeking out windows, with his guns drawn. She caught Bastila's hand and stopped her. "Bastila, that man doesn't intend to discharge those things in my house does he?"
"If need be, Mother," Bastila said with a sigh. "This is very serious. Where is Father?"
Helena's mouth fell open and her eyes blinked rapidly. "Oh…Bastila…your father…he isn't…here anymore…I…"
"What are you talking about, Mother?" Bastila cried. "Is he out excavating or something…?"
"Bastila," Helena began, her voice cracking, "oh, dear…your father is dead, my dear girl…"
"What?" Bastila hissed. "You're lying! That…I…that can't be true! We came all this way! How can he be dead? No…"
Lal stepped forward to clutch Bastila tightly. "Basi…"
"No…no!" Bastila yelled. She turned to face Lal with eyes burning with tears. "No! Lal, we came all this way, and…and, we came and…"
"Oh, my sweet girls," Helena moaned softly, cradling Bastila's face in her hands. "I'm so sorry. I had no way to contact either of you…I haven't heard a bloody thing about you in all these years…hadn't even seen a Jedi since they took you away, Bastila…"
Bastila buried her head against Lal's shoulder and began crying softly. Lal stroked her sister's hair and stared into her mother's face; saw the skin tightening around her wet eyes. Felt the questions whirling within Helena's thoughts.
"Well," Helena stammered, "I…Lal, what is going on? Why are you two here? What do these Sith people want?"
"It…it's rather a long story," Lal simply said.
Carth stepped up behind Lal and laid a hand on her shoulder. He held up one of his blaster for her. "Listen, Lal, you're pretty good with one of these…if you take up a position on that window, and I set up over here, we can set up a crossfire--"
Lal held her mother's gaze a moment longer before turning to face Carth. "No," she said, shaking her head. "Blasters won't be of much use against them."
Carth scowled and glanced away. "Well…what the hell am I supposed to do, then? Just watch?"
Lal chuckled and patted Carth's cheek. "I didn't say that, flyboy. Give them something else to worry about other than me."
"I…okay, Lal. It's your show."
She nodded once and kissed him on the cheek. "Down payment," she told him. "Juhani, you're with me, love. Basi, stay here and protect M-Mother."
"Lal!" Helena exclaimed, "You're not going out there, are you?"
Lal fished for something to say to comfort the woman…her mother…but nothing came to mind. "I…it's what I do."
Lal and Juhani stepped back outside into the sun. Lal glanced to the window and saw Carth there, with his weapons at the ready. Juhani stood beside her and lifted her chin. The tufts of white-blonde fur along her jowls bristled in the breeze and her sharp ears twitched. The two Jedi watched HK-47 stop twenty meters ahead of them and wait for the advancing speeder.
"I do not think the droid will survive," Juhani noted. "I hope he was not too expensive."
Lal remembered her dream, and the corpse of the dragon, such a massive, powerful creature, born of myth and nightmares, laying shattered and broken. Nothing more than bones stained yellow by the ages. "Just be ready, Juhani. I don't want any of them getting past us."
"I swear by the Mother of the Moon," Juhani growled, "they will not."
Lal nodded once.
Suddenly, HK-47 opened fire with its on-board weaponry. Blaster fire erupted from the droid's body with the flare of a sun. Its arms pistoned and pumped with the recoil as a storm of fire surged forth. Energy bolts streaked in swarms towards the approaching speeder, which tried to bank away from the droid's barrage. Laser blasts tracked along the desert and stitched black holes in the landspeeder's chassis. Smoke billowed forth from the vehicle and it spun in a helpless circle, belching flame.
HK continued to pound at the speeder with a hail of blasts from its arm-mounted cannons. Sand and smoke flew up from the speeder as HK continued to hammer into it with each blistering discharge. When the droid finally ceased fire, the speeder was little more than a smoldering heap of slagged metal. Plumes of oily black smoke raged into the sky and fire danced along its surface.
Juhani gaped at Lal in utter disbelief. But Lal, not taking her eyes from the speeder wreckage, ignited both lightsabers. Juhani followed her gaze and saw movement through the black smoke, and saw the sudden flare of red, of Sith lightsabers erupting to life.
Lal watched as two bloodied, ragged Sith charged from the smoke towards HK. The twin barrels mounted in the droid's shoulders jerked back, and a second later, Lal heard a thundering crack split the air. The ground before the first Sith exploded in a blossom of sand and fire. The other Sith fell to the ground, his lightsaber spinning from his grasp. But of the first Sith, no sign remained.
HK moved forward with a sudden lurch and yanked the Sith up by the throat. Effortlessly, the droid hefted the man off the ground. The Sith began squirming and struggling, but could not break the droid's grip. Then the Sith held his hand out towards his lightsaber, willing it to him. The weapon shivered in the sand and then leaped into the air.
HK snapped out a claw and snatched the lightsaber from its flight. The droid held it before the Sith's face and crushed the weapon. It dropped the pieces onto the ground and then clutched the Sith's outstretched hand. It snapped within HK's powerful grasp, tearing a scream from the Sith's throat.
"Wait!" Lal suddenly cried. She ran towards the droid, her naked legs flashing in the sun. Juhani followed behind.
"Don't kill him," Lal said.
HK halted suddenly, swiveling its head to regard Lal, and pointedly snapped the man's arm. "Command…received," HK said, with the slyness of a human. It dropped the Sith onto the ground, where the man writhed in agony. HK turned to move towards the wreckage but stopped and glanced down at the Sith once more. The droid then stomped mightily on the Sith's uninjured hand, crushing it.
Very efficient, Lal thought, but she felt her face twisting in disgust at the droid's perfect, calculated cruelty. She stared up at the droid as it moved past her to examine the burning speeder for survivors.
"Observation:" HK began, "there are no survivors. Unfortunate." It cocked its head and stared down at Lal once more.
Lal returned its glowing gaze for a moment, and then said to Juhani, "Could you be a dear and drag this poor chap into the house? We need to find out what he knows."
"I'll never talk!" the Sith spat, coughing and wheezing.
"Statement:" HK said, leaning over the Sith, "that is this unit's most fervent wish."
Juhani stared at the droid in helpless awe, but gripped the Sith by his collar and dragged him back to Helena's house.
Once she was alone with the droid, Lal narrowed her eyes and stared at HK-47 intensely, trying to force her mind to remember. "What are you, machine?" Lal hissed.
"Statement: unit designation HK-47, Hunter-Killer nomenclature. Series data…corrupted. Manufacturer data…corrupted. Production date…production date…data corrupted."
Lal frowned in confusion. "Explain the cause of data corruption."
"This unit…this unit does not possess records detailing that information."
"How did you come into my Mother's service?"
"Statement: this unit was programmed to seek out a specific genetic pattern. The organic named Helena Shan most closely matched that pattern."
Lal thought back to the computer intelligence she'd discovered on Dantooine; how it had recorded her voice, reciting a code she didn't remember. Evidence that she had been there before with Revan and Malak.
"Does my genetic pattern match the one you sought?" she asked.
The droid paused for a moment, staring up and down at Lal. "Scanning. Scanning. Pattern analysis commencing. Please stand by. Stand by." It cocked its head to the side once more, and its bright eyes flickered in intensity. "Statement: probability of genetic match 100 percent. Voice matching in progress. Reassigning user access protocols. Subject Lal Shan redesignated as primary user. Stand by. How may I serve you, Mistress?"
Lal gasped and shook her head. "No..no…" she stepped back, and felt her head spinning. She staggered back another step and dropped abruptly to her bottom. "No! But that would mean…that would mean I was with them…"
"Interrogative: With whom, Mistress?"
Carth came running out from the house, his blasters at the ready. "Get away from her, you damned monster!" he screamed, skidding to his knees at Lal's side to support her. "What did you do to her?"
HK lunged forward and yanked Carth up by the throat and held him away from Lal. Lal's eyes bulged as she realized what was happening and she fought to stand. "No! Leave him alone! He's a friend! Don't hurt him!"
HK immediately dropped Carth to the ground. "Acknowledgement. Mistress, does this meatbag possess a primary designation that I should save-to-file?"
"C-Carth," Lal said, moving to help him. Carth grasped his throat and coughed raggedly. "His name is Carth Onasi, and you will not harm him! You…I…you file away all of my companions as such, do you hear me? You don't hurt them!"
"Observation: no need to yell, Mistress…"
"Damn," Carth gasped, staring up at the droid. "What in the hell kind of droid is he supposed to be?"
"Some sort of…killer…an assault droid maybe," Lal sighed, wrapping her arms around Carth tightly. "I don't know. Its memory is…incomplete. Like…mine. Carth…I think…I think this droid belonged to me…"
"Before you lost your memories?"
Lal nodded. "I think that I…programmed it to come and protect my mother…"
"Statement;" HK said, "there is no reason to talk about me as if I am not here, Mistress."
"If I'm right…I think it might know where the Starmap data is…"