"Never," the Instructor pounded his fists on the lectern, "never trust a woman you meet planetside. Especially when that planet is an occupied world." He spun around to survey the face on the vid screen behind him. "Case in point, Yun Genda, junior officer assigned to security patrol during the occupation of Taris."
"Sir?" a brave cadet's hand shot into the air. "I thought we destroyed Taris to keep the Jedi from escaping."
"Indeed we did. It was done, however, as a last resort. Had Yun Genda been more," his lips pulled into a grim line, "astute, such drastic measures never would have been required."
"So what you're saying, sir," another cadet ventured, "is that Taris was destroyed because Yun Genda fell in love with a local."
The Instructor gripped the edges of the lectern with both hands, "It's not quite that simple," he began.
Yun Genda was sitting alone in a dark corner of the Boka Kochkoyari Cantina when he heard her laugh. Like many other human men in the room, his eyes immediately sought the source of the vivacious sound.
The owner of the laugh was beautiful in an old-fashioned way. She didn't have the sharp angular lines so prominent in the latest cheap holo-vid stars. Instead, her softer face and more genuinely feminine curves reminded him of the heroine in an old classic he'd had to watch in primary school. The woman was utterly enchanting.
She was trying to learn a dance routine from a Twi'lek and laughing at her own clumsy mistakes. "All right," she promised the alien woman, "I'm going to be serious now. Just show me the steps one more time." She carefully watched the Twi'lek's graceful execution of the dance. Her fingers tapped out the rhythm against her thigh.
"Got it," she said when the dancer finished. And for the most part, she did. She might not have been as elegant the other woman, but the swaying of her hips was certainly having the intended effect on Yun.
He shifted into a more comfortable position and watched as the smiling dark-haired woman continued to dance with the Twi'lek. After, in his opinion, far too short a time, the dance was over and a tall, broad shouldered man in a faded orange jacket gripped her arm and dragged her to the other side of the bar. Yun couldn't hear their words, but it looked like they were arguing. Finally, the woman rolled eyes and walked off toward a group of Pazaak players.
Yun pulled out a practically new deck from his jacket pocket and silently thanked the stars that he hadn't left them back in his barracks room.
"Now," the Instructor said as an image of a man sitting alone at a table appeared on the screen behind him. The greenish tinge from the security camera did nothing to improve the man's appearance. It merely made his already bulbous cheeks appear even more swollen. "This is Yun Genda. The footage is from the cantina where he met the blasted woman. Now," he surveyed the room of blank faces, "who can tell me what his first mistake was?"
A young woman timidly raised her hand. "He's drinking before duty?"
"You can't confirm what he's drinking from this image," the Instructor chastised.
No one else ventured a response.
"He's there alone!" The Instructor stabbed a finger into the lectern. "Would any of you run off alone and unarmed into a combat zone? Of course not! Remember this; an occupied world is a hostile world. Do not assume the locals won't take action against an off-duty officer. Especially on worlds with mixed-species. The humans may be intelligent enough to realize the ramifications of such an assault, but who really knows what kind of intelligence you can expect from all those aliens." He shook his head. "No, you must always be on your guard. Think about security at all times. And never, never assume the locals are sympathetic."
Yun slipped into the chair across from the woman. He held out his deck, "Interested?"
She nodded her acceptance. "I have to warn you," she confided in a low voice, "I'm not very good." From what Yun had observed, she was being a bit hard on herself. The Boka Kochkoyari Cantina attracted quite a few excellent players and her record so far was almost even.
Yun smiled at her, he couldn't help but smile at her. "I'm not very good either," he assured. He'd only recently begun playing and had never tested himself against any of the cantina regulars. Command had warned that they often cheated.
"Nali Ven," she extended a hand across the table.
He took it and felt a shiver shoot through his body. "Yun Genda," he said trying to hide the intense pleasure that even a simple handshake produced.
"Nice to meet you, Yun," she offered a genuine smile.
He definitely liked the way his name sounded on her lips.
"I'm, ah, going to need that back to deal," she looked down at her hand still locked in his.
Yun quickly released his grip and stammered out an apology.
Nali blushed and Yun noticed just how vividly blue her eyes were.
"So, Yun," she began shuffling the cards, "you a local or are you stuck here like me?"
Yun's heart sank. Things never seemed to go well after this point in any conversation. No one on Taris wanted to befriend the Sith.
"You're a local and I just insulted your homeworld, didn't I?" She dropped the cards she'd been shuffling. "Look you can't take offense by the way I phrase stuff. I've spent nearly all my life out in the lanes and nobody bothers with the niceties out there. And it's not like being stuck, er, being quarantined here is such a bad thing really." She attempted to smile, but her wide questioning eyes just made her look nervous.
"I'm not a local," Yun finally found his voice. "I'm stationed here."
Her face remained neutral. "You're with the Sith then?"
"Junior officer," he confirmed flinching slightly at the anticipated verbal assault.
"Oh," she picked back up the cards. "Is this your first assignment?"
Yun was too stunned by her nonchalant acceptance to hear the question. "You're still here," he said.
Nali laughed. "Why shouldn't I be?"
"It's just that as soon as most people find out I'm with the Sith, they either swear at me for twenty minutes or they just bolt. We're not too popular on Taris right now."
"Well, I'm not from Taris," she reminded him. "And really, this quarantine isn't so bad."
Yun pinched himself under the table. He could hardly believe what he was hearing. "You don't mind being grounded here?"
"Not really." She dealt the first card. "It's almost like a paid vacation for me. My current contract pays me by salary, not by flight time. So, it doesn't matter if I'm working or not. Of course, the boss is constantly on my back to do any odd job he can think of, but he's not so great at thinking."
Yun remembered the man she'd been arguing with, the one with the orange jacket. "So that man you were with earlier, he's just your boss." He hoped he hadn't sounded too hopeful.
"If you're talking about the one with all the charm of a granite slug, then yeah, that was my boss." She stared thoughtfully down at her cards. "And yeah," her eyes flickered back up to his, "he's just my boss."
Nali looked at the cards on the table and the cards in her hand again. "I think you win," she said.
Yun looked only at her, "Yeah, I guess so."
He relaxed into his seat. Her easy manner had allayed most of the nervousness he usually felt around women. Nali Ven was friendly, beautiful and if he was reading the signs right, interested. "Sure," he nodded, "whatever you'd like." She was too good to pass up.
"If it's too good to be true," the Instructor recited the ancient adage, "then it isn't true."
Another green-tinged security image appeared behind him. It showed Yun Genda sitting with an unidentified woman at a small Pazaak table. The cards in front of him added up to 17. The woman's total was 22, but the angle of the camera showed two of the cards in her hand: a -2 and a +/- 3. Either would give her the win.
"We have a short piece of security footage." The Instructor pressed a button, "Watch closely."
The sound was muffled and the image jumpy, but the students could make out what was happening.
The woman laid the cards in her hand face down on the table. "Well, I'm af……..ou've cleaned me out," she laughed. "You'll…...to buy me din..…...make up for it."
Yun's chest heaved in an exaggerated sigh. "If I must." A broad smile covered his face. His lips continued to move, but his voice was lost below a loud argument somewhere outside the security camera's view.
Suddenly, there was an angry scream and a Trandoshan stumbled into the frame. A heartbeat later, there was a glimpse of an angry fair-haired human and the alien's face was rammed into the camera. The image dissolved into static.
"Unfortunately this is the only footage we have of them together," the Instructor apologized.
"She...cheated," one of the cadets stammered out.
"Yes, how very observant," the Instructor's voice dripped with acid. The class had yet to impress him. "She allowed him to win. Why?"
A cadet in the front answered, "To lure him in, sir. If he's winning, he'll keep playing…and keep talking."
"Perhaps you can be taught," he nodded with reserved approval. "They will do everything possible to gain your trust and then abuse it. They are the enemy; never forget that."
"Yun," Sarna stood in nearly full armor with her hands on her hips, "payday was three days ago. How can you already be low on credits?"
"Two words," T'rie Vale answered as she pulled off her gloves. "Nali. Ven." She threw the gloves into her helmet.
"Tell me you haven't spent your entire paycheck on that girl you just met." Marcus shrugged out of his Sith armor. "She's not, you know, a very joyful joy-girl, is she?"
"No!" Yun slammed his helmet down. "I can't believe you, Marcus, of all people would even ask me that. Don't think I haven't heard that story about you and that Twi-"
"Alright," Marcus cut him off. "Nobody needs to be reminded of that again. He pulled Yun closer to him and dropped his voice, "And it's because of that stupid Academy mistake that I'm asking. Trust me, whatever you heard, the truth was uglier."
Yun turned his back on the rest of the patrol squad and peeled out of his armor in silence. For a long time, the only sounds in the squad's locker were the soft clinks of various pieces of armor hitting the floor.
"Look, Yun," Sarna began more gently, "we're just watching your back. It just doesn't look good that you're spending so much on her. Taris has a lot of…"
"She's not from Taris," Yun reminded them all in a restrained voice. "She's grounded right now, but she's still getting paid."
"How much? And When?" T'rie's voice was shrill. "If she's as great as you say, why isn't she with someone better? Girls date desperate guys because they know they'll get lots of compensation."
"If she's just after what my credits can buy, then explain to me why she's taking me out to dinner tonight," Yun challenged.
"If she's not after credits," T'rie spat back, "she's probably just after a way off-world."
Yun's hands balled into fists, but he kept them locked at his sides. Had he been a more ambitious Sith, he would have slapped her. "Nali's a smart woman," he said through clenched teeth. "Smart enough to know that junior officers like us don't have that kind of pull."
T'rie gathered up her armor and pushed past him.
"What's her problem?" he muttered after the door slammed shut.
Marcus set down his bag of neatly packed armor. "Wait, go back a sec. If she's buying, what're you begging us for credits for?"
Yun felt his face turning warm. "There's this necklace I saw," he began.
"It's a little early for jewelry," Marcus advised.
Sarna agreed, "Wait a couple weeks. Get to know her a little better."
"I know everything I need to," Yun let his bag of armor crash into the floor. "She's beautiful, smart, funny and unlike anyone else on this planet, she doesn't care about the quarantine. I know it hasn't even been 48 hours, but I just know." His voice was thick, "Haven't you ever heard people say that they knew they'd be with a person the moment they saw them? That's how it is with her. I don't need weeks or years to realize it. I know it now, already. She's the person I'll be with forever."
"Alright," Sarna soothed. "We get it." She turned to Marcus.
He took a deep breath before answering. "Yeah, we get it. Just be careful."
"And maybe we can meet her," Sarna offered. "We were thinking about having a little party tomorrow anyway."
Yun grinned. "That'll be great. Once you meet her, you'll understand everything."
Text scrolled across the vid screen. "Read," the Instructor ordered. "It is an excerpt of the interview transcript of Sarna Prost, one of Yun Genda's squad members.
Investigator Tyrinth: What reasons did you have for suspecting the woman in question, a Miss Nali Ven?
Sarna Prost: Well, sir, it all seemed a little too convenient. Yun's, well, homely and I've never known him to be very attractive to women.
IT: I see. You suspected the woman to be a threat and fail to take any precautionary actions."
SP: No, no. It wasn't like that. We thought she was just out for the credits. Yun spent nearly his entire paycheck taking her to dinner the first day he met her. He was so instantly enamored that he was blind to the possibility that she didn't feel the same way. He was already naming their grandkids after the first date.
IT: And did you or your squad undertake the responsibility of warning Yun Genda about the possible consequences of his sudden relationship?
SP: Of course. We all tried to warn him about the woman. We made it quite clear that we disapproved. But, he became agitated and refused to listen to reason. He was convinced that they were in love already and some people didn't need more than a few hours to know each other. There was just no talking him out of it. He didn't want to listen to anything we had to say.
"Again," the Instructor began after giving them time to read the excerpt, "What is the mistake?"
"Believing in love at first sight," a cadet in the back answered.
"Partially," the Instructor conceded. "Such nonsense has no place in the Sith Army. However, the true error was in his disregard for his squad's opinion." The Instructor paused and scanned the young faces in the room. "Your squad keeps you alive and out of trouble. You do the same for them. Your squad is your life." He crossed his arms across his chest. "And remember this as well, your squad's failures are your failures. And we do not look kindly upon failure."
"About time," Marcus said handing Sarna and Yun each a bottle of the local beer. "I didn't think checking that Rodian into the detention center would take so long. Problems?"
"No," Sarna answered, "just a long wait. Apparently the locals have all gone mad. We were fifth in a line of seventeen."
"She here yet," Yun craned his neck to see past Marcus.
"Not yet." The other man moved out of the doorway to let them into the apartment. "You didn't?" he asked catching sight of the two backpacks.
The muscles in Sarna's jaw worked silently as she clenched and unclenched her teeth.
"I didn't want to be late," Yun explained. "If we'd had to check in our armor, it would have taken another hour."
"Dammit," Marcus muttered. He covered his mouth with one hand as he stared at the bags. "Alright," he finally decided. "Just stow them somewhere safe…out of sight. Put them in the back of your closet and lock it. And Yun, this never happens again."
Yun nodded sharply and handing Sarna his drink, carried both bags of armor to the relative security of his room. He didn't see the problem. The entire apartment complex had been seized and assigned as barracks. All the daily checking in and out of armor did was waste time. How much easier would it be to get ready, meet up and go directly to their patrol assignment?
He pushed the bags roughly into the back of his closet. If Marcus wasn't trying to get promoted, he wouldn't have cared at all. And Yun decided not to let it bother him. What was important was that he was here to introduce Nali to the team. And he had a fluttery feeling in his stomach that tonight would be an important night for them.
"Always, always," the Instructor's voice grew louder with each repetition, "always, ALWAYS. Secure. Your. Gear." He took a deep breath and waited until he could feel his flared nostrils resume their normal state. "There is no excuse," he spoke in a more controlled tone, "for abandoning protocol. Assigned armor, rifles and explosives are to be checked and secured with the supply officer at the end of every shift. In some cases, blaster pistols and other personal small arms may be carried while off duty. You are never to be in unauthorized possession of any Sith property.
"If you are so afraid that you need armor while off duty, you have no place with us." The Instructor made eye contact with every cadet in the room. "Is that perfectly clear?"
"Sir, yes, sir," the room responded in unison.
He nodded once. "I thought so."
"Hi," Nali nervously greeted Marcus.
He stood in the doorway inspecting her. His head gently bobbed up and down in approval. "You can't be Nali Ven," he said.
"I'm impressed," Marcus grinned. "You look way too good to be with Yun."
Yun elbowed his way past the taller man. "You made it," he slipped an arm around Nali's waist.
"And I come bearing gifts," she beamed back holding up a plain canvas bag. "Tarisian Ale. Two big bottles." She shrugged, "I thought it might start me off on a good foot with your team."
"I like you more already," Marcus took the offered bag and went off to the kitchenette to round up glasses.
Yun nuzzled his face into Nali's hair. "That was really nice," he whispered into her ear before kissing her cheek.
"I just don't want to be the reason from any problems with your squad," she said seriously. "Everything has happened so fast, I can't blame them for being wary."
"It'll be fine," Yun took her hand and led her into the party. "I'm really glad you're here. I was worried I wouldn't be here to meet you."
"No, just some paperwork nonsense that took five times longer than it should have," he sighed. "I didn't even check in my armor. Knew it would take too long."
"Yun," she shook her head," you really shouldn't have done that."
"Don't worry, I already got the lecture from Marcus," he frowned.
Nali squeezed his hand. "I appreciate it, though."
"So this must be the Nali Ven we've heard so much about," Sarna handed them each a glass of the Tarisian Ale.
Yun proudly introduced Nali to Sarna and then the others as Marcus ensured everyone had a full glass of the ale.
"Where's T'rie?" Nali whispered to Yun.
Yun scowled at his ale. "Didn't want to come," he answered. As soon as she'd heard Yun was bringing Nali, she wanted nothing to do with the small party. Yun still didn't understand why. They'd been close friends ever since graduation. He thought she'd be happy for him.
"To Yun," Marcus raised his glass, "for having the good sense to fall for a girl who knows what good liquor is." The toast received the expected laughter and everyone drank.
"Wow," Sarna coughed. "This stuff has quite the kick."
"It's good though," Yun dismissed the warning and downed another glassful.
Another toast was offered, and another round of Tarisian Ale downed too quickly. No one realized just how strong the brew really was.
The beeping of Nali's comm interrupted the third round. "Sorry," she shook her head angrily. "It's the granite slug."
As Nali moved away from the group to answer her comm, Yun explained, "It's her boss. If she doesn't answer his comm, he'll just keep calling until she does."
"I'm not leaving," Yun heard her hiss. He couldn't hear her boss's reply, but he could only assume the man wasn't taking a refusal that easily. "No way," Nali answered. "Yun went through a lot of trouble to get here, didn't even check his gear in. Besides, we're well into a bottle of ale and I wouldn't be much good to you anyway." She shoved the small comm unit back into a pocket and went back to Yun's side.
"I'm sorry," she apologized again.
"No worries allowed here," Marcus refilled her glass. "This is a party. And we're all only allowed to eat, drink, and," he latched onto a pretty blonde, "be merry."
Nali offered a toast, "To the Sith, thank the stars you know how to have a good time."
The remainder of the first bottle went quickly after that. Half-way through the second, with all good sense lost, they began mixing drinks with whatever they could find in the apartment.
Through half-lidded eyes, Yun surveyed the waning party. Marcus had disappeared into his bedroom with the blonde nearly an hour ago. Sarna was nursing a glass as she lounged on the other sofa. And the few remaining partygoers were playing at being disc jockeys with Marcus's impressive music collection.
Nali was still snuggled against him. He'd been happy to have her by his side all night. It contributed to making this the first party he'd ever really enjoyed. Instead of sitting quietly alone, he'd spent the evening locked in one lively conversation after another. His kissed Nali's head. "I love you," escaped his lips. It was true, but he hadn't meant to say it.
Nali's head shot up and her bright eyes fixed on him. After a seemingly infinite heartbeat, her face broke into a warm smile. "I know," she said.
That was all the encouragement he needed. He stood up on wobbly legs and after gaining some balance, took her hand. He led her into his room and closed the door on the remnants of the party.
"Nice," Nali said. The room was small, but comfortable. And a small terrace overlooked the city. "I could use some fresh air," she prompted.
Yun grinned at her stupidly before the words registered. "Righ, fesh air," he slurred. He had some trouble opening the lock, but finally succeeded. The rush of cool air on his face was refreshing. He could feel some of the haze around his thoughts lifting.
Nali's comm beeped again. "What?" she growled.
Yun could hear the voice on the other end. "I need you to…"
"Hey, you want it done now," she cut him off, "do it yourself."
"You got it."
Yun thought it was an odd reply for her boss to make, but it was quickly forgotten as Nali's fingers worked their way through his hair and down his chest.
He locked his arms around her waist and pulled her against him. His lips had just brushed against hers when something thumped heavily behind him. He felt something sharp and hot sting his back and his vision faded. That was the last thing he could honestly remember.
There were strange sounds in the darkness. A sharp click like metal breaking. A rustling like someone searching. And vague voices.
He thought he heard a woman say, "We're way beyond even now, Carth. You owe me a whole lot of liquor."
And a man reply, "I think you've already had a whole lot of liquor."
"Not as much as these idiots. Nobody paid much attention to how often that glass was raised to my lips as long as it was never completely full or completely empty."
Beyond that, there was nothing until the splitting pain of the next morning.
"I'm sure you all are competent enough to decipher what happened after Yun Genda was incapacitated by his own stupidity…and," the Instructor's nose turned up in disgust, "there is limited evidence to suggest a possible stun bolt."
"Sir, the armor," one cadet put the pieces together, "The woman and her 'boss' stole the suits of armor that Yun and Sarna didn't check in."
"Yes," the Instructor confirmed. "Unfortunately most of Investigator Tyrinth's progress was lost with Taris. You've already seen what few scraps survived, except for this. I believe you will find it quite enlightening."
The Instructor turned to the vid screen. An image of the Jedi Bastila Shan appeared. "Bastila was believed to be in hiding in the Undercity. Naturally access was restricted to Sith personnel." The image was replaced by two troopers entering an elevator. "Yun and Sarna's armor was recorded entering the Undercity shortly before dawn on the morning after the party. It would still be another four hours before the theft would be reported."
A security image took Bastila's place. A woman and a droid were engaged with a receptionist, but the man with them was looking toward the camera. "This is the only footage recovered from the break-in of the Sith base on Taris."
"That's Carth Onasi," one cadet thrust a figure at the image.
"Yes," the Instructor nodded. "And if you can recall, Yun Genda heard the name Carth while stunned."
Another image appeared. Carth Onasi stood with his blasters drawn beside two Jedi women. One, a Cathar and the other had the same figure as the woman whose face had been so elusive to capture. In this image, though, her features were clear. A sharp gasp spread across the room. "This," the Instructor explained, "is from Korriban. And we all know what happened there."
The image cycled again. "Manaan," The Instructor identified.
"But that's," one cadet tried to speak.
"That's Sara Khaar," another completed. Sara Khaar had quickly become the bane of the Sith. She was the only person in the galaxy the Sith wanted more than Bastila Shan.
The Instructor nodded. "Yes, Sara Khaar, the woman responsible for Bastila's escape from Taris, the assassination of the Masters of the Korriban Academy, the destruction of our facilities on Manaan, the diminution of our kolto supply and the death of countless Sith. And at the root, the simple theft of a set of armor."
None of the cadets dared to speak. What had begun as a simple case of stolen gear had escalated into the unthinkable.
"Yun Genda's gullibility gave Sara Khaar the tool she needed to rescue Bastila Shan. Had she been prevented from entering the Undercity….We would have captured Bastila and this war would have been won months ago."
The Instructor gripped the edges of the lectern, "Remember this the next time a pretty face smiles at you from the other end of a bar. Remember how much carnage and destruction could have been avoided had Yun Genda not been stupid enough to fall in love with a girl on an occupied world."