by Laurence Donaghy
The severed leg hit the wall of the cantina with a noise to trouble restful sleep. Blaster fire and fluent alien swearing followed suit moments later, followed by a guttural choke of triumph, a spray of blood, and a few surgical thrummms of a vibroblade going about its business.
No-one looked up.
Giadi winced into his drink, eyes fixed to the table. He contemplated leaving, despite the sunlight streaming in from the hot morning outside. Days on Ryxx were five galactic standard days long. His fragile body hated every second of the scathing heat thrown down at will by the binary stars.
A nocturnal creature from a cool world far-flung from its native star, Giadi was not exactly in his element. Just thinking about the cold, muddy, murky depths of his homeworld's swamps made his heart ache with longing.
Desperate as he was for his client to show up so he could leave this place as soon as possible, Giadi was glumly aware that fugitives were not overly noted for obsessive punctuality. His eyes swept the bar one more time, in vain. He watched as the leg's former owner hopped over to collect his erstwhile appendage, vibroblade glowing in the dusky interior. His former business partner lay nearby…and on the wall…and a little bit of him by the door.
Giadi was an uncomplicated man. He'd lived his life quietly and illegally here and there, doing odd jobs, evading the double-cross around the corner through his developed sense of becoming prey. Always trying to keep his head below water.
He had it all planned out. He'd get rich, buy an underwater mansion on the night side of a nice geostationary world near the Rim territories. Spend the rest of his nights trying to be the first of his race to father six hundred children by six hundred wives.
He'd probably be dead by fifty.
Restraining the urge to cower under the table, the little alien squeaked an affirmative to the hulking figure towering above him. Despite the size of this fellow Giadi's sharp hearing had picked up no clues to his approach. Only the Noghri and a very few other species had that sort of natural stealth.
What he fervently hoped was his client sat down, dressed from head to toe in a simple brown robe, a cowl covering most of his face. Giadi fingered the blaster in his wrist holster for comfort. "I thought you might have forgotten about me."
"Wanted to make sure you didn't have any friends nearby."
"I work alone. You want to do this or not?"
A package hit him in the chest. He grasped at it, felt it, and ripped it open. He felt his hearts sink. "Twenty-five thousand?"
His client leaned forward. "Look, friend," he said conversationally, "I don't trust you. That's experience talking, believe me. You get the rest when I see it."
"You'll will," the little slicer replied, sliding a data wafer across the greasy table. Giadi took a deep breath. A double-cross was one thing, but pushing your luck a little was another.
It vanished. Giadi heard the whumm of a portable reader activating. "What do you want this data for?" he asked, curious despite himself.
"You think the payment should be less, perhaps?" the stranger retorted.
The little Gluyeu shrugged. "None of my business anyway."
The whumm died abruptly. A hand shot across the table and yanked Giadi out of his seat, until his eyes were staring into the black depths of the cowl. Giadi's feeble nocturnal eyes were able to see the stranger's face properly for the first time. It was a young man, raven-haired, no more than thirty.
And yet his eyes…Giadi had once worked for a Clone Wars veteran, a man who had seen some intense action. He had eyes like this young man. Eyes that seemed centuries old, burning with the weight of the worlds upon them.
"Give me the access codes. Now."
Giadi let himself go limp. He didn't want to be throttled by this madman. "Insurance works both ways. Payment was fifty thousand. I see the other twenty-five, you get the codes. You know how this goes."
The eyes narrowed.
Giadi swallowed. He'd never seen someone like this before, never encountered such an unreadable personality. What was this stranger capable of? He fairly projected menace, but there was something…
He felt it then. A pressure on his throat. Indefinable, almost gentle, but a pressure nonetheless. Like his throat was being squeezed from a spot somewhere underneath his skin.
The intensity in those terrible eyes dimmed. The pressure lifted. Giadi was placed in his seat, none too gently. He allowed oxygen to trickle into his three lungs again, slinking into the darkest corner of the booth. Only now did he realise that his tiny sidearm blaster had worked itself loose when his client had struck. It lay on the floor of the bar, out of reach.
No. It hadn't worked itself loose at all.
He was dealing with a Jedi.
"Ah," the stranger said softly, "now he understands."
Little wonder his client wanted to skip the usual protocols. "If you truly are a Jedi, look into my mind. See the truth."
"I believe you," said the stranger, after a short pause. "I have the credits with me. Give me the code to the reader's data storage and they're yours. You have my word."
What choice did he have? If this man wanted the other data wafer, he could come and get it and there was nothing Giadi could do about it, except maybe hope that the Jedi was allergic to his blood and contracted a nasty rash.
"Here," he said, and slid another, smaller data wafer across the table.
The Jedi reached inside his robe.
It was at that moment things began to go wrong.
From the door Giadi's sharp ears picked up the sound of shouting and, terrifyingly, the unmistakable report of an Imperial blaster carbine being emptied into flesh. A carcass catapulted into the wall with a sickening crack. The bar's denizens, normally unflappable at casual murder, fell silent.
Giadi, trembling, gave in to his species' nature and dove under the table. He crawled as far back as he could, to a position which gave him an unrivalled opportunity to retreat, should the need arise.
"Do I have your attention, Jedi?" an unmistakably Imperial voice penetrated the cantina interior. "You are totally surrounded. Come out peacefully and we'll give serious consideration to sparing the rest of the scum."
The announcement caused further chaos. One of the reasons Jedi were so mistrusted, Giadi reflected, were that they looked outwardly no different from ordinary people. It was precisely this difficulty the bar patrons were presented with now.
Keep quiet, he begged the robed figure, and you might get out of here alive. If anything happened to him, Giadi would be devastated. The corpse would be robbed of his credits before he could ever get there.
Giadi's client stepped boldly from the alcove, lightsaber blazing, into the general crowd, ignoring the vast array of blasters that were suddenly zeroed on his every move. "Does anyone here really think that the Empire will leave the rest of you alone?"
This was considered. A general murmur of discomfort ran through the crowd. "What choice do we have? I saw at least half a legion of stormtroopers out there before the doors closed."
"You're far from helpless," the Jedi countered, "place yourself in the Empire's position - would you want to storm a place like this? The Empire knows you're not just some faceless crowd – half of you have deep ties in the smuggling community. How will they persuade your organisations the whole Jedi thing wasn't just an excuse to wipe you all out at the same time?"
This claim was met with murmured agreement. The most responsive parts of any smuggler's psyche were always their ego and paranoia. The Jedi was drawing on both to great effect.
"If the Jedi," the Imperial officer called at that moment, "does not appear within ninety seconds then this area will be completely destroyed. You have my word on that. Produce the Jedi or die."
Giadi cowered. There was a worrying sincerity about that last statement, an easy confidence bordering on certainty. Any confusion over where this sense of invincibility came from was dispelled seconds later by the noise from above.
"TIE bombers," someone swore. "Five or six of them, directly above us."
"They'll attack no matter what," the Jedi protested desperately. "Think, all of you! Why take half a legion and announce yourself outside, when you could use five men and create an ambush?"
Logic was only going so far. One smuggler shrugged, blaster motioning to the door. "Sorry, kid," he offered, "but I've got a family to support and a Star Destroyer to steal, and being dead won't help much."
The Jedi stepped forward and walked toward the door. Giadi waited for the inevitable to arrive.
"I'm coming out. Call off the bombers," he called, lightsaber still fully extended. Its blue glow illuminated the bar and provided the many trigger fingers within with all the target they could handle.
"When you're in my custody, Jedi," the Imperial retorted.
Giadi watched, fascinated and terrified in equal measure, as the brown-robed figure of calm stopped in his advance. Uh oh…he thought, with a prey's instinct for trouble.
A movement attracted his attention. Above the Jedi's head was the skylight, fastened shut with an iron bar, a simple mechanism…and one that was trying its best to work loose.
Giadi pressed himself against the wall.
The bar fell. The skylight opened, and sunlight spilled into the bar. The whine of the bombers was incredibly loud in the sky above. One hundred and fifty eyes were attracted upward.
In that moment, with a crouch and a spring, the Jedi leapt, vanishing in an instant through the hole in the ceiling as blaster fire tracked him all the way, missing by millimetres.
"Get him!" the cry went up. Hands scrambled for the skylight, but it had slammed shut the moment the Jedi passed through, and no amount of pulling could shift it.
On the roof, the Jedi knelt, face staring upward. He heard none of the panicked commotion below.
The crowd hurled the door open. "He's gone!"
At a safe distance, the Imperial commander frowned. He shot a glance at the half-legion of stormtroopers flanking him and the building.
The first bomber descended to optimum height. Two pulsing white orbs were released from its underbelly. They fell toward the building below.
On the roof, the Jedi stood.
The Imperial commander, looking through macrobinoculars, cursed under his breath. The Jedi had left it too late-there was no way he could call of the bombing run now.
When the blue lightning shot out he knew something was wrong. Horribly wrong. Two lines of crackling energy connected the Jedi to both bombs. He expected them to explode instantly.
They didn't. Instead they seemed to float, as if on a cushion of air. He simply gaped for a few seconds. He had heard stories of what the Jedi could do. Vader could throttle you from a sector away. The Emperor's rages were the stuff of legend.
He'd never seen anything like this.
The Jedi threw his arms forward. The bombs changed direction, hurtling through the air as the Jedi screamed in pain and rage.
The commander never had time to do the same.
When the dazed and delirious masses at last were able to exit the bar, there was no sign of the Jedi. Giadi managed to scrape together enough shell-shocked witnesses to have some idea of what happened.
He shivered and clutched his credits tightly, more pleased than ever that he hadn't tried to double-cross the young man. His forehead wrinkled slightly as he thought again of the data wafer the Jedi had paid such a ridiculous price for. It had contained cartography files of deep space he'd stolen an age ago…and personal records of a woman. What was her name again?
Organa. That was it. Leia Organa. She had been part of the Rebel Alliance. A traitor. Giadi had hoped that the Alliance could have lasted longer - they made excellent customers, and paid very well, even if they did favour Bothans.
Could the Jedi have been a Rebel? It was possible, if a little unlikely. The Alliance was all but extinct. Perhaps they'd found themselves a Jedi that was willing to put his talents to some use in the same way Vader did for the Empire.
Another commotion began nearby. He began to scamper determinedly the other way. There was something wrong. The crowds around him were staring up at the evening sky and moaning in fear. He risked a quick glance skyward, and squeaked in terror.
A spherical aberration in the skyline chilled him to the spine. Its name passed the lips of the assembled.
The Death Star had come to Ryxx.