Chapter 1: Another Kind of Trouble
He hadn't had anything to eat in days, but what he really wanted was a stiff drink. Right now, even watered-down Nar Shaadaa juma juice served in a scummy glass was looking good. Mining colony holding cells aren't exactly renowned for their hospitality, but previously at least they'd remembered to feed him once in a while. Now, he suspected they had more formidable problems to deal with – even through metal doors, the sounds of blasters firing and circuitry exploding were hard to ignore. And then, worst of all: silence. He'd been in his share of scrapes, but at least in those cases, he'd anticipated a reasonably quick death. Waiting around in an energy cell to die of thirst, hunger or boredom was a relatively new and much less desirable option.
As the security door opened, he was surprised not to experience the quick jab in the back of his mind that always signaled trouble was on its way. And then she strode in, and he knew he was in trouble, just not the kind he'd anticipated. It's hard not to stare at a gorgeous woman in her underwear under normal circumstances, never mind when she's the first female you've seen in weeks and she's wielding a vibroblade with unnerving confidence. His eyes strayed over her shapely, muscular thighs, lingered on the curve of her full breasts and then rose up towards a beautiful face barely attempting to conceal its annoyance.
"Nice outfit. What, you miners change regulation uniforms? Can't say I'm complaining though…"
Her green eyes narrowed. "Just keep your eyes up and tell me who the hell you are."
"Atton. Atton Rand." The fabricated name still felt ridiculous to him. "Excuse me if I don't shake hands. The field only causes minor electrical burns."
"Charmed. So, Atton Rand…mind telling me what you're doing in a force cage?"
"Eh, security claimed I violated some trumped-up regulation or other."
"What happened here? The place has been abandoned. All that's left are the bodies and some very aggressive mining droids. It's like a battlefield out there."
"I don't know. I wasn't exactly at liberty to conduct a full investigation." At least one question he could answer honestly. "There were some explosions, some blaster fire and then, nothing. Whatever happened, it didn't sound very good."
"And believe me, it looks even worse."
This Jedi reminded him of another he had known, but not in her appearance. Where the other was light-haired, her skin browned and freckled by distant suns, this Jedi's skin was moon pale and her hair was dark. No, it was only the shadow of sadness that moved across her face when she was silent that made the two suddenly seem so similar.
"Listen, I can help you get out of here," he said. "I'm a crack pilot, I can get through any lock you put in front of me and I'm good with a blaster. Plus, in case you haven't noticed, I'm just damned nice to have around. So will you let me out of this force cage, already?"
She sighed and turned to the security terminal. Her fingers jabbed rapidly at the keys. "Why not? You may be conceited, dishonest and in need of a bath or six, but you make better company than a squadron of angry mining droids. Okay…just a moment…there."
The force cage disappeared in a cascade of golden light. He grinned and tried to saunter forward, but his legs felt like jelly. "Whoa, there! Okay, just give me a second to get my space legs."
The Jedi raised her hand to cover her mouth, but he could see she was trying to suppress her laughter. She's even lovelier when she smiles, he thought. Too bad it probably happens only once a decade.
"Well," he huffed. "I'm glad I can be such a source of amusement. I'd like to see how well you can walk after a week in a force cage. So can I find out my rescuer's name or do you like to stay the mysterious Jedi?"
Her hand dropped from her lips. "What makes you think I'm a Jedi?"
"Maybe because you answer questions with questions. Do they teach courses on that in Jedi training school?" It was always his least favourite thing about the Jedi and their infuriating way of thought. Why could they never say what they meant? Why could they never leave well enough alone?
"Sometimes a question can be an answer too."
"I guess that means you want to stay the mysterious Jedi. That's fine. I probably wouldn't trust me either."
She eyed him contemptuously, a sardonic smile spreading across her lips. "No, I don't make a habit of trusting smugglers, since we're discussing occupations. I'm guessing you also play a mean game of pazaak, skifting included?"
Those lips were as succulent as the rest of her, he thought. He wondered why the Force would waste such gifts on Jedi. They already had the intergalactic market cornered on sanctimoniousness; surely they could get along without beauty?
"I play pazaak, but believe me, sweetheart, I don't need to cheat." At least not when he was playing in his head. "And as much fun as this little getting-to-know-you session is, I'd like to find a way out of this dump, uh, say, sometime in the next millennium. When I get back to civilization, I'm planning to head straight to the nearest cantina and drink enough juma to wash any memory of this damned mining colony right out of my head."
"Well, if we do manage to get out of here, you can go right ahead," she replied. She turned and strode back towards the administration center, tossing her last words over her shoulder: "I won't stop you."
Part of him wished she would stop him. After all, he thought, there has to be a reason for all those deaths, for the indistinguishable, endless days and nights spent counting cards and the sounds of the engines, wishing I were dead or dead-drunk so I wouldn't have to remember their screams. Maybe she's my way out, he thought. He'd always attracted trouble, but in this case, trouble was starting to attract him.
She lay in the darkened dormitory, unable to sleep even though her aching body yearned to rest. They were safe now, at least as safe as they could be before reaching Telos. She should have been able to shut her eyes and fall into the kind of deep slumber she experienced only after pushing her body to its limits. Yet there was also such a temptation to mull over the past, to worry about the future, to indulge in all the habits her Jedi training had sought to rid her of. Stay in the moment , they'd said. Let the past slip passed you. Let the future fly before you. The words had come to them so easily, but she wondered how many of them had been strong enough or complacent enough to put them into practice.
It had been only one day but suddenly everything was different. She could feel the Force flowing through her bruised limbs. It was really just a trickle of water compared to the vast sea that enveloped the Masters in the serenity that she and all the other Padawans had aspired to have. No, it wasn't much more than a few drops of that ocean, but it was a relief compared to the years she'd spent wandering the galaxy, her body reverberating with its own hollowness.
The bandage she'd wrapped around her arm had come undone and begun to unravel. She sat up, tying the sheet around her naked body, and began to rewrap it, more tightly this time. It was a wound that would probably scar, caused by a stab of a Sith assassin's vibroblade piercing through her armor. It had been relatively easy to stitch back together because the sides of the skin had been cut evenly but she'd hated the work and cringed as the needle slid into her skin. She was ashamed of her weakness and glad that she'd chosen to tend her wound in the dormitory, away from Atton's jibes and Kreia's scoffing. Now, Kreia, she was as tough as a zabrak's hide – her hand was gone, cut clean by a lightsaber and yet all she had to say was that it was "a necessary sacrifice". The pain they'd shared through their force bond had been enough to stagger her, a former Jedi and soldier in the prime of her life, and yet a frail, withered old woman hadn't flinched. It impressed her. It scared her.
She looked up to see Atton standing at the entrance way. In the darkness, she could just make out his crooked smile and that lock of brown hair that invariably seemed to fall across his forehead. Whenever she stood close to him, she somehow felt compelled to brush it back into place.
She instinctively felt for the sheet around her. It was secure but not secure enough for her liking. "Hello. Shouldn't you be off piloting the ship?"
"I figured I'd let the automated trash can take a turn driving so I could enjoy a little stroll, eat a preserved tube of – what is this anyway?" He ambled into the dormitory, squinting comically at the tube in his gloved hand. "Creamed corn. Mmmmm. Delicious."
"I thought you'd save your appetite for Telos. I imagine that's where you'll be leaving us." As soon as the words escaped her lips, she regretted them. Her voice sounded as cold, hard and crystalline as that of Kreia. He listens to me and he hears another sour, pucker-faced old Jedi spinster in training, she thought.
"Or do you mean to say that's where you hope you'll get rid of me?"
"No, I – I didn't mean that. You've been extremely helpful and I've – well, I've been rude. I might be able to learn some manners if only I could find a protocol droid that wasn't out to blast me into space dust." She re-secured her arm bandage with its metal clip, feeling his eyes upon her. Why did he always have to look at her that way, as though he could peel back her clothes if he wanted, as if he could peel her secrets from her, one by one, slowly, softly as one might pluck leaves and petals from a plant? She felt her cheeks flush, her throat tighten and she tried to calm herself, to feel the soft emanations of the Force stirring around her.
"An apology? For me? What a nice surprise."
If she couldn't be calm, she only wished to appear that way. "And so now we get some more sarcasm. Unlike me, Atton, you're actually quite predictable."
"Yeah, I'm a barrel of laughs," he said, arching one thick eyebrow. "So I guess what I want to know is - are you alright? You've had a rough day even by my standards."
"I'm okay, thank you. My connection to the Force has come back just a little bit, so really, I'm better off than I've been in a long time."
He crouched down, so that his face was level with hers. His eyes were deep and dark and for a moment, seemed inexpressibly sad. "Is that why you're hiding in here with your wounds? I saw you take that vibroblade in the arm, you know."
"I'm not hiding. I'm just trying to sleep."
His gloved hand brushed over her bare shoulder. For a second, she shut her eyes, feeling his touch thrill through her body. And then it was gone and Atton was moving away.
"Well, I'll let you get to it then," he said. "I know I shouldn't have invaded… your privacy – well, what little privacy we can get in this joint. I'm just glad you're feeling better."
He beat a quick retreat to the door, but just when she thought the conversation -perhaps one of their last conversations, was over - he lingered for just a moment in the entranceway, his broad back in silhouette. "So, Jedi, do you ever plan on telling me your name?"
"My name's Shira," she said.
"Have a good sleep, Shira. Something tells me you're going to need all the rest you can get."
She lay down and wrapped the sheet closer around her body. Compared to sweltering Peragus, space was cold …and empty.
Kreia, with her deceptively sightless eyes and her unfathomable mind frightened her, but Atton - he presented another sort of danger. His touch had been more biting than the assassin's blade and it had cut more deeply. Yes, he was another kind of trouble.