New Order, Part 1: Bait and Switch
1. There is no emotion, there is peace.
Mical cast a discreet glance at the opalescent krayt dragon pearl mounted on the senator's desk. The flawless pearl was unusually large, the size of a fist, and had been polished to high sheen. The presumptive office of the senator from Coruscant appeared more like a museum, featuring objets d'art and exotic curios gathered from across the Galaxy. The idea of trying to do business under the watchful gaze of a stuffed albino tach did not appeal to Mical, but he knew that Senator Parcelus Rasmuth's friendship, or, at the very least, his patronage, would be essential in the work ahead.
"Do you like it?" the silky voice inquired from across the mahogany desk.
Mical started slightly, embarrassed that he had been caught staring. As a representative of the Order, he had wanted to appear disinterested in the senator's displays of wealth, but it was hard to draw one's eyes away from items so obviously purchased to be gawked at.
"A present from Tatooine," Rasmuth said, lounging back in his chair. "Over the years, I have received a number of surprisingly charming gifts from that wretched little sandtrap. Tusken gaffi sticks, for instance, possess a certain primitive appeal for humble collectors such as myself. Now, before we move to on more serious matters, I don't suppose you'd care for some Vistulo brandale?"
"No, thank you, Senator," Mical replied.
He wondered if Rasmuth was testing him. It wouldn't be the first time a member of the Senate had doubted his commitment to the Order and its Codes. After all, that was why he was here in the first place.
"Oh, I see. You do not partake. Very laudable for a Jedi, but regrettable nonetheless. This is a remarkably good vintage. I hope you don't mind if I indulge?"
The senator didn't wait for an answer since the question itself was only a formality. He poured the liquor into a crystal chalice and took an appreciative sip.
Rasmuth's face was as languid as ever, but under those heavy eyelids, the senator's eyes were observing his visitor as carefully as he might inspect any new addition to his collection. "Now, my friend, we have a little problem to deal with. It's going to require some damage control. You know I am very much a supporter of this Jedi restoration project of yours, but I'm afraid that my influence won't do you much good if you can't control your own people."
"I understand that," Mical answered, taking care to control his voice. He didn't plan to get flustered under the senator's scrutiny. Rasmuth would enjoy seeing him crack. "While the Exile's presence in the Council might have contributed to initial support for the cause, I believe that over time, she would have been a liability. She was originally cast out of the Order for a reason."
Senator Rasmuth took another sip of Vistulo brandale, his lips coiling into a bemused smile. "You need to get out of the Temple more often. That Exile woman is yesterday's gizka in the works. Our current concern is much closer to home."
He reached into a side drawer of his enormous desk, retrieving a black datapad. The senator's fleshy fingers prodded a few buttons and then he handed the device to Mical. "I think the face will be familiar enough."
Mical stared down at the screen and as much as he wanted to conceal his anxiety, his brow furrowed. The picture was grainy but the face was unmistakable to him, even though he knew it was a mask calculated to blend in amidst any crowd. Nothing out of the ordinary: brown hair, brown eyes, average height and build. As unexceptional as the man appeared, Mical couldn't have forgotten the face if he'd tried, and over the past months, he had made the effort many times. The heading on the intelligence entry was only thing he didn't immediately recognize, but it confirmed all of his worst suspicions: "Jaq Rand, alias 'Atton Rand'".
"I take it you're acquainted with him?" Rasmuth chuckled. "I must say this Rand fellow seems like a very unpleasant character. If you scroll down a bit, you'll notice he has quite the resume, too, between his old job offing Jedi and his numerous other 'distinctions' as smuggler, gambler and small-time spice dealer. I have trouble understanding how your Exile friend could have been foolish enough to hand him a lightsaber."
Mical scrolled down the page, his eyes devouring the names and details. Why hadn't Republic intelligence informed him when he could have intervened, when he could have stopped her from leaving on a ship with a Sith assassin?
He managed to keep his voice level. "Do you have any more information? Where is he now?"
"Are you sure you wouldn't like a drink?"
"Yes," Mical said. "I'm certain."
Rasmuth pressed his hands together, a massive blood-red ring gleaming on one sausage-like finger. "He's in your backyard, I'm afraid. He's been spending a significant amount of his time trolling some notoriously unsavory cantinas in the Underlevels. As you can imagine, the idea of a drunken ex-assassin from the criminal classes stumbling around in a Jedi robe and, yes, brandishing a lightsaber, is not particularly comforting to my constituencies."
Mical knew that was a severe understatement.
"I also doubt that it will enhance the Senate's confidence in your ability to control other potential rogues and defectors," Rasmuth continued. "I can use whatever influence I possess to ease the negotiations, but there's only so much I can do without recourse to such mind tricks as you lucky Force-users employ. Sadly, I myself am merely a servant of the public good, Master Jedi. "
Mical had become accustomed to the arrogance of the Coruscanti elites, but Rasmuth's well-oiled voice dripped an unprecedented level of condescension. He wondered if it was possible for the senator to use the term 'Master Jedi' with any more obvious irony.
"I appreciate your concern, Senator. How would you suggest that we deal with this…situation?"
"Well, my friend, there are many ways of ridding oneself of gizkas," Rasmuth answered in his most insinuating manner. "In this case, I would suggest that you choose the most decisive and efficient method available. I know that you Jedi have qualms about such things, but I think the body count in that file makes some very persuasive arguments. And lest we forget, those are only the ones we know about."
Mical frowned. "Is he alone? Is there anyone accompanying him?"
"He is alone…now. Several months ago, an agent spotted him with a woman matching the description of your Exile, in Aldera, of all places. But our spy was quite at a loss when the lady in question up and disappeared without a trace."
"That's very unlikely. No one simply disappears. Surely there must be evidence of her whereabouts?"
"Hmm," Rasmuth rubbed his chin and cultivated a pensive look. "Well, I imagine it wasn't a major concern at the moment. Besides, you know Intelligence. Good agents go to Onderon, Manaan, where the action is. Bad agents, well, they get to putter around Alderaan."
Or Dantooine, for that matter, Mical thought. He knew Republic Intelligence had never held his spying abilities in high regard. He was marked as the 'Jedi' who wasn't a Jedi, a noble but embarrassing failure. After all that training, he'd become a bureaucrat, a paper-pusher, dutifully reporting his observations but keeping his hands clean - too clean, he suspected, for his superiors' liking. And then the Ebon Hawk and Exile had come swooping into his life and everything had changed; in some ways, not for the better.
Rasmuth reached again into that mysterious desk drawer and pulled out a data chip no larger than the tip of his index finger. "I think this little chip of mine might prove especially interesting to you. It's encrypted with all the information the agent reported during his surveillance."
The senator placed the chip on the table.
Mical's hand darted forward and seized it.
The idea of reading the report made him queasy, but he knew that no amount of meditation could divert him from looking at it. It was the same torturous compulsion that had forced him to stand by and watch helplessly as she'd given up everything the Order stood for and fled into the arms of a murderer.
"Yes, I thought you'd be eager to possess it," Rasmuth smiled. "Now, if you get bored with reading as I often do, there are a few holo-images to keep you entertained. I must admit, your Exile was a fascinating specimen, although generally I prefer icy blondes and those enchanting Echani creatures. Nevertheless, it's a tragic waste, isn't it?"
Mical took in a deep breath. "Any death is a cause for sorrow, but her life was not wasted."
"Oh, I certainly didn't mean to imply that," Rasmuth replied. "I simply meant to suggest that some deaths are more unfortunate than others. The untimely removal of some sentients may be decidedly beneficial to the galaxy, I think."
With the poisonous, precious data-chip clutched in his hand, Mical rose abruptly from his chair. "Perhaps, Senator, but I doubt that either of us have the wisdom to distinguish the 'valuable' lives from the 'worthless' ones. Now if you'll excuse me, I must attend to some business at the Temple."
Rasmuth nodded his head of artfully silvered hair. "Of course, of course, I won't keep you. I only hope that you will attend to this matter with the resolution that leadership in a restored Jedi Council will require. I should be very sorry indeed to see this little incident ruin all our hard work. My administrative droid, Septimus, will show you out."
Mical didn't like the look of the protocol droid looming outside the door. Although it had ornamental gold plating and a sleek modified head, it bore a disturbing resemblance to a refurbished HK-50 model.
"I can show myself out."
The senator's head was bowed over the intelligence files. He didn't bother to look up at his departing guest. "Oh no, I must insist. It's a very long corridor, you see. I'd hate for you to get lost on your way to the exit."
Septimus took a few steps towards Mical. Although the droid's hands had the primary occupation of holding serving trays and organizing electronic files, the Jedi healer was certain they were also capable of blasting any organic within 200 paces.
"[Helpful Suggestion] In the interest of your continued comfort, it is recommended that you follow me this way, please."
Mical walked after the droid. He passed back through the narrow hallway ornamented with a selection of carefully composed holo-projections. There were cheerful images of the senator and his family, their faces frozen in smiles, and inspiring portraits of the senator at a podium, his hands raised in a gesture of paternal beneficence. There were touching pictures of the senator comforting a diverse array of Undercity orphans and shaking hands with tradespeople from The Works. Mical had surveyed them all with interest on other occasions, but now he just wanted the images out of his sight. He moved almost as quickly as the attending droid could desire, eager to get away from the apartments and back to the calming influence of the Temple.
At last, they reached the double doors leading out to the private turbolift. Septimus regarded the departing visitor.
"[Recitation:] Senator Rasmuth has appreciated your visit, sentient. He looks forward to addressing your concern in a timely matter. Senator Rasmuth is committed to helping the people of Coruscant achieve a more prosperous tomorrow within a peaceful Republic. He hopes that he can rely on your support. "
Mical knew better than to answer the canned spiel. He turned away, the data-chip buried in his hand like the seed of some loathsome plant. There was a hatred simmering inside him, rage and despair that he knew had no place in the mind of a Jedi.
She had always seemed to think that he was without emotion, that he lived in a shimmering world of ideals. She had not known that it was discipline that he lived on and a soldiery of spirit that kept his feelings tightly within ranks and made them march. And now it was too late to make her understand.
Entering the turbolift, he began the descent back to Fellowship Square.
He was pondering his options.
Atton stared down at the bottom of his empty glass. The Sith's Spit didn't have the comforting ambiance of his old Nar Shaddaa watering holes. For one thing, none of the glasses were ringed with the same thick layer of scum, specks of Force knows what hugging the cups in a filthy embrace. He'd noticed that there were also a lot more people around here who still had all their original body parts, although many of the bodies in question were rotting from the inside out with some help from death sticks and good old-fashioned hard living. When he took his nightly stroll to the cantina, the lurid faces of the junkies leered out at him from the stoops of run-down apartments with the gaunt cheeks and hollowed eyes of corpses. He was getting used to people staring at him. A guy who dresses like a Jedi, carries a lightsaber, and gets trashed every night in the local dive is bound to attract attention. In fact, he was counting on it.
In a feeble attempt at interior decor, The Sith's Spit had a long mirror installed along the back of the bar. Every time he looked up from his drink, he caught an eyeful of his own shadow-crossed face in the cracked glass in front of him. Under the blue lights of the cantina, he had the look of a drowned man washed ashore.
Still, a drink in hand and couple games of pazaak were a hell of a lot better than moping around, thinking about the woman who had abandoned him to chase ghosts and fairytales across the dark void of uncharted space. Sometimes he wished that he had walked away first, before she'd had the chance, if only so that he could imagine the end had been his choice. When he had eight or nine jumas in him, it was much easier to pretend he didn't still ache every time his arm reached across the bed in the morning and it dawned on him afresh that she was gone. At the moment, he was still a little too sober to believe his own lies.
From the corner of his eye, he glimpsed a female twi'lek sidling up to the stool next to his. Women around here seemed to like the Jedi robes. They figured he presented a challenge to their charms. But if he did, it had nothing to do with any damned Order.
"I think you need another drink," the twi'lek said, gesturing to the bartender. "This one is on me."
A purple hand decked with long, crimson fingernails slid ten credits across the counter.
He turned to inspect his benefactor in more detail. It was always a gamble in murky cantina lighting, but from this angle, she looked good, much too good for this end of town. He was sober enough to know he was ogling her and drunk enough not to care. If she offered, he wasn't going to refuse smoldering eyes, full lips and a nice pair of lekku.
"Thanks. I think I could use that drink."
As she leaned on the bar, he noticed a jagged scar running from just below her wrist to the edge of her elbow. Realizing that he'd observed it, she quickly turned the scar away. It was a rough neighborhood alright.
"So, Jedi, you have a name to go with that lightsaber?"
"Yeah, I have a few," he said. "But some of them aren't fit for polite conversation."
She gave him a coy, close-lipped smile. "Who says this is a polite conversation?"
The jumpy Bith bartender set a new glass of juma down in front of him.
He picked it up and took a gulp, enjoying the way it scorched his tongue and warmed his throat. With every drink, he could feel himself getting closer and closer to that transcendent moment of inebriation, the moment when he'd feel the little 'click' in his head that would let him go completely numb.
"Point taken," he said. "So are you always this generous with your credits?"
"When I have a reason to be," she replied. "The truth is, I've had my eye on you, Jedi, and I'd like to get to know you a little more…intimately."
He felt a sudden twinge of guilt. But it was over. He hadn't promised Shira anything and she sure as hell hadn't gone running after Revan wearing an Aratech chastity belt. He'd head back to this little twi'lek's apartment, get what he needed and clear out before the garage compression droids whirled out to clean up the night's accumulation of trash.
"Why not?" he muttered. "There are certain kinds of intimacy I like."
The twi'lek gave him a wry smile. "Just not the kinds that involve a lot of talking."
"If you want lots of talk and no action, you should go find yourself a senator."
"Why don't we get out of here?" she whispered. "My place isn't far and I'd be interested to find out what the Force can do for me."
He guzzled down the last drops of his drink, slid off the bar stool and followed her as she sashayed out of the cantina.
They walked down a back alley stacked high with compacted garbage and approached a tenement building, one of the few in the district that still had its grimy, black-barred windows intact. The windows, however, were so dirty that he couldn't imagine they would provide a view. But, hell, what in this section of town was worth looking at anyway? Underneath the graffiti and soot, it was still possible to catch glimpses of the tenement's original beige-coloured walls.
As they entered the darkened stairwell, his hands strayed over the fleshy curve of her hips, pulling her towards him. Closing his eyes, he tried to ignore the sweet, sickly scent of cheap perfume. It would have been easier to get used to if he could have made it to that eighth or ninth drink.
"Sorry," the twi'lek said. But she didn't sound apologetic. The once breathy voice was now hard and flat as the concrete floor.
His eyes shot open just in time to see her mouth curl into a sardonic smile before he took a heavy blow to the skull.