A/N: Another chapter! :O For those wondering, no, this story is not dead. It will never be dead. It just rests near the bottom of a long list of priorities. I will continue to update faithfully, if sporadically.
Chapter 3 : Courage
Darth Vader was preoccupied with something. Sidious watched his apprentice and measured his responses. It wasn't something purely military or there would be more hollering and threats. Nothing inspired efficiency and loyalty like a little terror. No, the military aspects of the new Empire were moving along according to plan so the preoccupation dogging the Dark Lord rose from a different source.
It was something personal then, since there wasn't much to Lord Vader except military and personal anymore. Sidious had sensed it too, but he hadn't said anything, waiting to see when his apprentice would pick up on the struggling Force-sensitive identity that had flickered into existence a week ago. Sidious wasn't terribly curious about the person- young, untrained, alien and distant: he didn't care. It was no threat. But he was correct to believe it would be of interest to Darth Vader. The Dark Lord saw this faraway person as a challenge to his personal dominion, and Sidious didn't wonder if perhaps Vader saw any Force-sensitive individual as a potential rival. He had by now figured out that Dooku had once been Sidious' lieutenant only to end up dead, a pawn in a struggle for ever greater power. Vader was smart enough to realize that if someone else better, stronger, more valuable showed up, he would follow in Dooku's footsteps.
Since this vague presence was doing nothing overtly spectacular or hostile, Vader could do little more than dwell on it. Sideous toyed with the idea of fabricating a mission into that portion of space to see if his apprentice could suss out the alien, but decided against it. He had become a great judge of potential and no one yet could rival Vader's fearsome command of the Force. It was best not to waste that resource for his own amusement.
What Sideous had failed to sense, or didn't care to acknowledge, was Vader's growing sense of unease. A week ago this individual had popped onto his mental radar un-announced. At first he was curious, then he was angry, then he became wary. It wasn't just someone. It was someone he knew. He could tell this much and it bothered him. Force-sensitive people who spent time together became accustomed to the particular 'signature' of their companions. It was the mental version of standing in a crowded spaceport and being able to pick out your brother, or your best friend, or your lover because of their posture, or the way they walked, or held their luggage. The person Vader was sensing was familiar enough to him that he could tell he knew them, but he couldn't pin down their exact identity.
A Jedi. That much was certain. One who had escaped the Purge, fled to the Outer Rim worlds where tolerance or apathy or ignorance afforded them protection from the ceaseless hunting of the Empire. But how could they simply… appear?
More than the existence of this person was the uncomfortable notion that they had been there all along and he hadn't noticed. Vader pondered a variety of reasons: perhaps they had been injured, in a coma even, and only now awakened. That would account for their sudden visibility. Perhaps they had been beyond his range of Force-sensitivity and recently ventured closer toward the center of the galaxy and his perception.
One theory bothered him more than the others. What if this person had been awake and nearby all along and simply managed to hide their identity until now? Who did he know capable of that level of deception? How could they do it?
And what had changed?
Ahsoka had taken to sleeping in the heating ducts. It was bad enough that Grievous had stolen her lightsabre- again - and chased her from one end of the ship to the other with it. Now he had commandeered the little craft, alternately muttering to himself in a language she didn't recognize and bellowing threats indiscriminately while holding the three humans more-or-less hostage. Isaac was somewhat less of a hostage than Wai and Suul, but he was probably more afraid of the General than the other two.
From what she had managed to gather, Grievous was mad, confused, vengeful and had no idea what to do next. She surmised that most of the muttering was Grievous talking things out with himself. If anything, he seemed more unpredictable and unhinged than he had when she encountered him previously. It was a small, significant mercy that he couldn't sense her in the Force and she was able to avoid him on the small ship while she herself figured out what to do. The other welcome and peculiar fact she discovered was that the cyborg actually slept.
So, with Grievous slumped in Isaac's work-room, Ahsoka slid soundlessly from the opening in the wall, quietly replaced the grate and tip-toed down the hall, senses on high alert, constantly monitoring the cyborg's wan Force-presence. The first time she had realized he was asleep she had immediately decided to kill him. No matter how fast he was, or how cunning, or how paranoid, she would be able to get her lightsabre and execute him before he could put up a fight. Or so she hoped.
Immediately after that thought, Ahsoka had been ashamed. She wouldn't kill a sleeping enemy, even one as devious and notoriously under-handed as the General. No Jedi would stoop to such petty behaviour. A terribly rational part of her mind that seemed to have evolved in the last three years without her consent suggested that she had no other choices. He wanted to kill her. The ship was only so big. That he hadn't managed to catch her yet was a testament to her ability to fit into very small spaces and stay quiet and nothing more. Jedi code or no, the logical solution to part of her immediate problem was to kill General Grievous any way she could manage.
Ahsoka reached the cargo bay, quickly hot-wired the door open and pressed her finger to her lips to shush the three humans as it closed behind her. Isaac was sitting on the floor busy with a screwdriver and an unidentifiable piece of machinery. Wai and Suul were both hand-cuffed and looking quite worse for wear.
"Where the hell've you been?" said Wai with frank incredulity. "I thought he killed you."
"Not yet," replied Ahsoka grimly. She crouched before them, one tendril of awareness still focused back on Grievous. "I need your help to take the ship from him. In exchange, I want you to let me go."
Suul and Wai looked at each other. Wai shrugged. "I didn't sign on for rotating hostage status," said the woman. She struck Ahsoka as a reasonable sort of person, for a greedy Imperial.
Suul rolled his shoulders, working the stiffness out of his joints. "This has gone more wrong than I could have imagined," he said and Ahsoka heard defeat in his voice. She crept forward. The fact that he was hand-cuffed didn't make her any less wary of Suul. He had tracked her and captured her. He was not someone she wanted to misjudge. "I will help you and let you go free- on one condition."
Ahsoka shifted, watching Isaac out of the corner of her eye. She wanted to trust him- he seemed inocuous- but she couldn't take the chance that Suul had convinced him to use that trust to undo her. The mechanic had stopped tinkering and was watching the exchange.
"What condition?" she asked. Suul pursed his lips.
"Leave the General alive. I have to get something out of this mess."
"How about you being alive?" said Ahsoka in astonishment. "How about going back to your job? You won't lose anything. You won't gain anything either but at least you won't be dead." Irritation put some sting in her words.
"That's my condition," said Suul stoiclly. Ahsoka struggled not to show a reaction and turned to Wai.
"Suul's my commander. What he orders, I do."
"You were expecting a promotion out of this too?"
"At the very least a raise."
"I see. Isaac?"
"I would be less use to you than a cardboard sword."
"I very much doubt that," said Ahsoka. Isaac glanced at the other two. "We can dump them somewhere after we get rid of Grievous and- and I'll take you to the Outer Rim myself. I promise."
Isaac looked back at his project. "Listen, Ahsoka," he began, "I feel for you. I'm not an uncaring man. But I am a coward. I know that if Greivous didn't need me, he probably would have killed me-"
"Wait. Why are you guys still alive?" said Ahsoka suddenly, gesturing to the two officers. They were hand-cuffed and locked in the cargo bay, but Grievous had done nothing to them besides grumble and threaten and then ignore them. In the old days, he would have murdered them. Right away. And smirked about it. What's going on? "Hold that thought," she said and let herself out of the cargo bay. She realized that she had dropped her mental connection with the cyborg and instantly tensed, holding her breath while her heart thundered and she carefully searched the ship for his presence. Good. He was still in the work room. Why does he bother sleeping?
The morally ambiguous and practical part of her mind suggested that killing Grievous was entirely justifiable. The part of her that had grown up in the Jedi Temple and was raised to believe in things like justice and fairness asserted that she would feel guilty for the rest of her life if she did. Okay, maybe not that long. Though it did depend on exactly how long she lived... which depended directly on her getting off this ship and losing herself in the galaxy. How had Suul found her? If he had, who else could? Who else knew she was alive?
Ahsoka took a deep breath to calm her thoughts, readied herself for a blast of Force power and a quick sprint if need be and triggered the door to the work room.
Grievous was standing right inside, fully awake and facing her with both blades lit.
For a moment, neither of them moved or spoke. Their gazes locked. The cyborg towered over her, only inches away. He wasn't exactly in a fighting stance but his knees were bent, fists held at hip height, glowing swords crossed and pointed at the floor. Ahsoka waited, on the verge of flinging him backwards with desperate mental strength.
The moment stretched on and then they both exploded into action. Ahsoka used the Force to shove him back into the room and herself out into the hall with a yell, scrambled for traction and almost took off running except that Grievous was furiously fast. He flipped to his feet, pounced across the room in two bounds and knocked her flat with his open hand. Ahsoka tried to roll and get up but before she could one big, clawed foot came down on her back and pinned her to the floor.
"Stop fighting," he said and his voice was devoid of the blustering rage and arrogance that she had come to recognize. It was devoid of all emotion, flat and monotonous as a droid and it was terrifying. She held perfectly still. Her world contracted to the feeling of inexorable, jointed metal pressing insistently against her ribs and waist and Ahsoka knew real fear. Jedi training ebbed and was replaced with a wash of dire panic. I'm going to die, whirled through her mind and she franticlly imagined what it would be like to be crushed, how excrutiating, how disgusting, how humiliating, going to die, going to die, going to die! She clenched her fists but they trembled. She bared her teeth but she felt tears on her cheeks.
"I don't want to die," she warbled out loud. There was a tiny whir of gears from above her.
"Then stop fighting." The voice wasn't like the Grievous she knew but it wasn't utterly mechanical either.
"I-I'm not fighting," she said and was suddenly furious with the pleading tone. The foot didn't move. "I'm not fighting!"
"I'm not going to kill you, Padawan! Stop your whimpering!" That was the Grievous Ahsoka knew and suddenly her fear was gone. She struggled to get her elbows under her and growled, throwing looks of defiance at the cyborg's indistinct looming form.
"I'm not whimpering!"
He let her up. Ahsoka stumbled quickly to her feet, hands clenched into bloodless, shaking fists, teeth sinking into her lower lip to keep it from quivering. She was aware that tears spilled from her eyes and it only made her angrier. The air was fairly crackling around her.
"Your fury is unbecoming, child," he said and Ahsoka's jaw dropped open as her rage evaporated, replaced by indignance.
"I'm not a child!"
To Ahsoka's everlasting shock, the General laughed. "Yes, you are. Anyone more than fifty years younger than me is quite certainly a child." To complete her whirlwind of emotions, he held out her deactivated lightsabre and when she didn't immediately claim it, tossed it at her.
"What're you…" she said and looked from the sword to the cyborg. His own lightsabre he still held ignited in his other hand, though it was directed away from her. "What's going on?"
"The Jedi no longer exist. Count Dooku is dead. Lord Sideous rules the galaxy. I am no one and neither are you." Ahsoka put an extra step between them just in case, but confusion and her overwhelming, very recent fear clung to her.
"I am someone," she said with less conviction then she intended, "And I am a Jedi."
"Are you?" he said and his grip on the lightsabre twitched. Ahsoka took another involuntary step back. Grievous didn't make a move. He has the opportunity to kill me right now. I don't think I could win if he tried. Why is he-?
"Is what Isaac said true?" she asked suddenly.
"That Dooku lied to me and had the Geonosians tamper with my brain? Yes, as far as I can confirm with this ship's limited technology."
Ahsoka cringed. He said it in a matter-of-fact way but his mind raged against the reality as he laid it out and he wavered on his feet, lightsabre flicking towards her and then away.
"What are you going to do?" asked Ahsoka. Beyond the turmoil she could sense, Ahsoka could tell he was exerting an astounding level of control over himself. The more she relaxed, the more he seemed to relax. She would like to settle down entirely but all she could think of was how many Jedi Grievous had killed and how many times she had faced down his army and how he taunted them and how he escaped and how she and Anakin were always trying to stay one step ahead of him or thwart-
"I don't know," he said decisively. It was a strange combination of confidence and dejection. Bizarrely, Ahsoka felt a flare of jealousy that he could accept his fate so quickly.
"Well I… just wander around from planet to planet," she said lamely, "wherever there's a Togruta population. I guess you can't do that."
"I have no intention of 'wandering' anywhere, child," he growled.
"Well I'm glad you have such a good idea of what to do then, old man," she snapped back. Once again to her shock, he laughed. It was more like a chuckle and she knew he didn't have any of the correct biological equipment to really laugh, but clearly she had amused him.
"Put your sword away. I have no love for murdering children." His tone was quiet but insistent. Ahsoka saw how he was looking at her sword hand. Just the sight of someone with a symbol of combat inspired him to violence? Her grasp of neurology was hazy but she hadn't imagined it was possible to make someone so utterly driven to savagery by scarring their brain. Ahsoka cautiously deactivated her lightsabre, hooked it on the back of her belt, out of sight, and was somewhat relieved when he did the same. "Better," he said and turned away. "I never realized how young you were…"
"You are," he rumbled with finality, "and it shames me to think that I was intent on murdering you. Pursued it. Gloried in it. Disgusting…"
Ahsoka remembered Master Fisto's Padawan, newly made a Knight in the desperation and hurry of the Clone War, who had faced down Grevious and lost. The General hadn't seemed terribly upset about taking the young man's life at the time and he had been scant years older than Ahsoka. How many other young Jedi had Grievous killed? Did he know?
"Well, we were at war-"
"Not an excuse!" he thundered, whirling on her with a threatening stomp. Then he stopped. "I will let you go at the next starbase." He turned around again and Ahsoka found herself dismissed and in confusion once more.
"Uh… thanks," she said and sidled out the door.
Well now what?
It had taken all the self-control Grievous had to keep from cutting her down where she stood. It wasn't that he actually wanted to do it- some part of his brain- traitorous flesh!- wanted her dead with an intensity he struggled to deny. There was no logical reason to kill her he repeated to himself and to that blood-thirsty clamour that insisted she had wronged him and he needed to revenge himself. She did nothing to me. Indeed, no Jedi ever had as far as he knew, unless fighting back in retaliation counted as aggression. Just the word Jedi made his grip on the lightsabre tighten. How terribly ironic: I am nearly all machine and the one organic part of myself left, I can't trust because someone has programmed it as surely as any computer.
A week of self-diagnostics and horrifying realization had tempered Grievous' attitude considerably. He didn't want to believe the timid human. He recoiled from the truth and he had stared at charts and scans for hours on end, denying and denying and denying and finally, subduing the programming through sheer repetition of fact, accepting that he had been thoroughly, humiliatingly used.
Worse, he had been discarded carelessly when his usefulness ended. And he hated it. He hated that the human had deduced his reaction too. The damage to his mind made him predictable! No military commander wanted to be so easily parsed. What good was might when strategy could be compromised by a thorough understanding of your enemy's mind? It made him even more useless.
Most of all though, Grievous hated being powerless. He had been in control most of his life, first on Kalee and then as Supreme Commander of the Seperatist forces. He was accustomed to not only having his orders carried out, but to having subordinates, period. He had nothing, not even a title now. The galaxy thought he was dead and likely they were relieved. His family on Kalee thought him long dead and he would rather they remain in that belief than know their husband, father, grandfather had beget savagery and infamy as General Grievous. His old life was long lost to him. His new life was empty.
But Grievous had known adversity and tragedy before and he had survived it. Now, he was literally built for war and if he had been programmed for vengeance, then vegeance he would have. With considerable effort, he managed to collect his thoughts and direct the insatiable desire for violence into a wall-shattering kick. It helped settle his thoughts a little.
First of all, he needed to deal with these feckless humans. Who were they to think he could be traded for favours? The insufferable arrogance of it! He wasn't going to stand for that. He wasn't going to let himself be returned to that manipulative Sith Lord for further debasement and he was going to make sure they wouldn't tell anyone else he was still around either.
Bloodlust pushed its way to the surface of his thoughts again and Grievous stormed out of the work room, cape billowing, stalking towards the cargo bay with dark purpose. It did not surprise him to find the door open and his three captives on their feet, two of them rubbing their chafed wrists and looking irate.
It did surprise him that one of them had managed to knock out the Padawan. She lay on the deck plating at Wai's feet, a little blood spattered around her mouth, her fingertips just grazing the barrel of her weapon. She twitched slightly and he saw her eyelids flutter.
"Ah crap," said Suul and then Grevious lunged. His first thrust missed and Suul ran for his life, sparing no one a backwards glance. The cargo bay door groaned shut and Grevious grunted, pivoted and saw Ahsoka groggily push herself onto all fours just as his lightsabre sliced Wai neatly through the chest.
Isaac yelped and scrambled backwards, wide-eyed as the woman's corpse toppled to the floor. Ahsoka, sitting on her knees, stared up at him, a dazed expression on her face.
"Why did you kill her?" asked the Padawan, apalled. Grevious lowered the sword with some difficulty. She was so defenseless. He wouldn't even have to try. Where's the sport in that? he countered desperately and the monster was momentarily distracted. Grevious fought one thumb over the switch and the blade retracted.
"I'll kill Suul too when I catch up to him," the General snarled, shook his head viciously and then straightened up. "What are you doing in here?"
"I wanted to find out how… he found me," she replied with the honesty of recent head trauma. To Grievous' intense curiosity- an emotion he found potently countered his mindless rage- Isaac scooted over to the Padawan and gently helped her to her feet, pulling her away from the cyborg.
"And did he tell you?" he stalked closer, even as Isaac steered her away.
"No," she said with obvious annoyance. Grievous paused. For that matter, how had Suul found him? Who had known he still existed?
"Mechanic," he growled and Isaac flinched, "what do you know about this?"
"Nothing, I swear! They just came for you. And me. And then headed off to find her. That's it. They didn't- didn't talk to me much. But I think- it wasn't Suul. It's his boss, or cohort or whatever."
"Arveth," said Ahsoka. She looked a bit more alert now. "That was who he was talking to when I caught him. Another Imperial officer."
"Then we are going to meet with this man and find out why he knows what he knows," said Grievous. "Come." Ahsoka and Isaac looked at each other. "Now," ordered the General menacingly.
"Yes sir," squeaked the technician and scarpered for the door. Ahsoka stared back at Grievous with narrowed eyes.
"You didn't need to kill her," she said stubbournly.
"I don't need to kill you either. Move it."
Ahsoka weighed her options and decided it was best to obey. She joined Isaac at the door, watching the mechanic deftly bypass the lock Suul had engaged from the other side. Grievous hovered near them, though not so near, she noted, that he was within arm's length.
"Isaac," she whispered, "is there a way to reverse the damage they did to his brain?"
Isaac shook his head. "Again, I'm not a medical expert, but I wouldn't think it to be possible. What's done is done."
"He's stuck being psycho for the rest of his life?"
"…I need to get off this ship."
"You and me both sister," Isaac murmured and hissed as a spark jumped between his thumb and a wire. The doors opened with a groan. Grievous stepped through cautiously, lightsabre up, head lowered. The sensor panels on either side of his head swivelled minutely.
"This way," he said. Ahsoka followed, hands held empty at her sides but senses on high alert. She could feel Suul's presence up ahead.
"He's on the bridge," she said.
"In contact with someone," added Grievous, "Hurry." He set off at a lope and Ahsoka had to run to keep up. They reached the door- locked- and Ahsoka was about to turn and ask Isaac to hot-wire it when Grievous reared back and attacked the thick barrier. Isaac caught up with them just as the cyborg's cuts succeeded in breaching the door. He threw himself flat on the floor as two stray blaster bolts ricocheted out the opening Grievous had created. Ahsoka instinctively dodged aside, but one of the bolts caught Grievous directly in the chest. Ahsoka felt a surge of anger from the General, a flicker of wounded pride and then the big cyborg had shouldered his way through the mess of molten metal, slivers of glowing orange snagging on his pauldrons and igniting a corner of his cape.
Ahsoka gritted her teeth and slithered through the opening behind him. Whoever Suul had been talking to, the comm was silent now. Suul held his blaster in both hands, calmly drawing a bead on Grievous from the far side of the bridge. Being that the starship was not large, the bridge was cramped enough that the General could move across it in a single leap, though the gun fixed on him was keeping him wary. The shot that struck him had done no discernible damage besides leaving a scorch-mark on his thoracic plating but Ahsoka recalled Isaac's description of Grievous 'death' at Obi-Wan's hands. Perhaps he was leery of taking another shot in the chest.
"Have you lost your mind, General?" fumed Suul.
"I do not appreciate being toyed with," Grievous replied and took a small step forward. Ahsoka had been in combat with him enough times to realize he was arranging himself for a spring.
"This situation would have been to your benefit as well as ours," Suul continued, keeping his gun and his gaze focused on the General's face. He should have been watching the cyborg's feet. Ahsoka unobtrusively took hold of her lightsabre, though she did not ignite it yet.
"I very much doubt that," Grievous replied, "but it doesn't matter. You will take me to the rendevous point with your co-conspirator and I will find out how you discovered my continued existence." And mine, Ahsoka thought. Grievous raised his chin a fraction, which kept Suul's attention on his head while the cyborg dropped his hocks and dug his toes minutely into the decking.
Grievous pounced, lightning-fast, and Ahsoka leapt across the bridge behind him, catching his elbow on the backswing as he raised his lightsabre to decapitate the Imperial. There was a brief, uncoordinated struggle: Suul, clutched in the toes of Grievous' right foot trying to get free and reach his blaster, Ahsoka, trying to hold the General back from killing him, and Grievous, fighting both to finish his strike and not to finish it. Ahsoka won. The cyborg didn't release his prey but he did deactivate the lightsabre. Ahsoka let go of him and swiftly kicked Suul's gun beyond his grasping fingers as Grievous reached down and heaved the man up by his collar.
"I don't believe it," gasped the captured Imperial, "you actually listened to the lab rat?"
"What?" said Ahsoka.
"Isaac. He had this crazy plan for you two to join forces. Unbelievable."
"You're mistaken," said Ahsoka bitterly, "And I just saved your life."
"She did," said the General darkly, "but I doubt she'll do any more for you unless you talk."
"I'll never talk," Suul said rather more bravely than Ahsoka thought he should. Grievous pulled the man in close to him and made a wordless sound full of threat and entirely lacking in compassion.
"It's okay," called Isaac from behind them, "He doesn't need to talk. Before he closed the comm channel, his contact transmitted the rendevous coordinates."
Suul sagged in the General's grasp.
It took them bare hours to reach their destination, but they were some of the most tense and least comfortable hours Ahsoka had experienced. She didn't trust Grievous not to kill Suul; she didn't trust Grievous at all. She hand-cuffed Suul and hauled him to the other side of the bridge, securing his bonds to the work station beside Isaac.
"So you're with them now, are you?" said Suul, narrowing his eyes at Isaac. The technician hunched his shoulders and peered harder at the schematic in front of him. "You think you'll get out of this alive? You're making a poor decision, Isaac. He certainly won't let you go and now that you know who this Jedi girl is, she's not going to leave you alive."
"Don't worry Isaac, I'm not going to kill you," said Ahsoka and furrowed her brow at Suul. "You need to shut up."
"Do you think you can trust Isaac after he's demonstrated once that he can change allegiences so quickly?"
"I never changed anything," said Isaac flatly. "You never asked me to join your little group. I was a bonus prize to your mission." Ahsoka flipped the technician a small smile. Suul's attempt to divide and conquer was not going well.
While the Padawan argued with the Imperial officer, Grievous occupied himself scanning the system they were entering and rapidly developing offensive and escape strategies. If he thought about logical processes, such as military manouvering from a purely technical standpoint, it dampened his aggressiveness, making it take a back seat to rational ideas and gave him a rare clarity of thought. Simply knowing that there was something wrong with him helped. He could examine the problem, work out the faults and exploit them. It became a tactical exercise, although one that never ended.
And one that he frequently failed at. Were it not for Ahsoka's intervention, Grievous was certain he would have slain Suul. He shifted, watching the officer. Why had he let the Padawan stop him? Suul had no value to him as a hostage. Everything Grievous needed to know Isaac had dug out of the computer. Suul was superfluous. In fact, he was dangerous. He knew Grievous was alive. He would know the General's last location once Grievous took his leave.
"Stand aside," he said and swept his lightsabre out in a menacing arc.
"What are you-" Ahsoka dodged aside as Grievous snapped the blade forward. It bit into the console behind her with a hiss and he spun the hilt, cleaving a wedge out of the work station. Isaac, seated on the other side of Suul, realized what was happening and froze in place.
"Isaac!" Ahsoka ignited her own blade and thrust it between Grievous' and Suul. The General turned yellow eyes on her.
"He knows you are alive," said Grievous evenly. "He went this far to find you and capture you. Don't you think if he's left alive he might go back to his superiors and encourage them to come for you this time?"
Ahsoka gripped the lightsabre, struggling to hold back the cyborg's blade but her will was faltering. He has a point. But- Ahsoka's mind whirled. She clenched her jaw, pushing against Grevious' sword with all her might. He wasn't budging. But nothing! He has a point! Leave Suul alive and next time it might be Vader himself coming after you! Ahsoka deactivated her lightsabre and stepped back in one smooth motion. She lowered her eyes to the floor, aware of the moment when Suul's presence ceased to exist within the Force and accutely aware too that she had been directly involved.
Arveth Socto was not what Grievous had been expecting. Judging from the Padawan's expression, she was just as surprised.
"You're a what?" said Ahsoka.
"I'm a biologist," said the small human man meekly, pale as a sheet since Grievous had abruptly informed him of his contact's grisly fate.
"And you work for the Empire?"
Arveth nodded. "Look, it wasn't entirely by choice, if that matters to you at all. I'm trying to make the best of a bad situation."
"By cheating for a promotion?" said Ahsoka.
"Exactly," he said, affronted. "The Empire has no use for my real training so I was stuck pushing files as a clerk on Coruscant. I came across a misdemenour case, perpetrated by a young Togruta woman named Soshi Ra. Something about it seemed… off. Before the Empire, I studied population dynamics and genetic drift in the Nexu sub-species on Cholganna. We tracked individuals and one of the techniques we used in the field for identification was the unique pattern of whisker spots and facial stripes each Nexu had. You Togruta can be identified the same way- unique body markings. I used my old software to run Soshi Ra's facial markings through a database and realized… Soshi was Ahsoka Tano."
"And the obvious choice was to turn me in?!" huffed Ahsoka. Arveth shrugged, hands shaking.
"It was Suul's idea. He was there when I discovered you. I just identified you." He paused. "I thought I might be wrong. I thought you died… a while ago." His gaze flicked to General Grievous, silent and motionless beside Ahsoka. "Thought you were dead too."
"You try making this sound like it was all a coincidence, but I overheard you," said Ahsoka vehemently. "Suul tried to back out. You pushed him to continue with the idea."
"I really needed a promotion. Do you know what's it like being forced into a job that's so far beneath you it's embarassing to hand out your business card?"
"Well," said Ahsoka, eyes narrowing, "I used to be a Jedi. Now I'm some kid. So yeah, I think I can relate. But you sold my life for a promotion! They would have killed me, when they got me! You think Vader's going to let his old apprentice go? Not a chance!"
Arveth looked anything but apologetic.
"How did you find me?" said Grievous quietly. He hadn't moved or spoken since Ahsoka had accosted the biologist.
"I didn't," replied Arveth. "Suul did."
"It was a coincidence that I happened to find Soshi's file, that I had a hunch and a way to identify her. I have no idea how Suul found out about you, General. Maybe ask your mechanic."
The General snarled and took a long step forward, but stayed his hand. "Who else was in on your scheme?"
"Suul's lieutenant… some woman. Wei or Wah or something. We figured the fewer people we involved, the bigger each cut of the glory."
Ahsoka concentrated on Arveth, sifting through layers of fear and surprise. "He's lying," she said. Grievous whipped 'round to look down at her. "I'm sure of it. Someone else besides these three."
"Isaac," said Grievous and straightened up to fix his gaze on the tech.
"I had no idea!" squeaked Isaac. Ahsoka nodded.
"Someone else. How did Suul find Grievous?" she asked, baring her teeth just slightly.
Arveth pursed his lips. "You are going to kill me, right?"
"Yes," replied Grievous unequivocally. The biologist sighed.
"It's not worth taking to the grave. All right. Suul was in Commander Cody's honour guard about a year ago."
"Cody was with Obi-Wan on Utapau!" said Ahsoka, eyes widening. Grievous made a sound like a snort and said nothing.
"Cody met with L-lord Vader about something. General Grievous came up in conversation. They both knew he wasn't… really dead. They knew where he was and Suul overheard the system but not the exact location. He got me to track down the spaceports and any docked Clone Wars-era medical ships. That's how he found you."
"They… knew?" said Ahsoka. "What context? Were they going to resurrect him?" She was aware of Grievous' frigid rage beside her and edged away.
Arveth shrugged. "Suul said it didn't sound like it. Some kind of time constraints. Plus… Lord Vader doesn't like competition. Uh, General you were… well-known during the war. Lord Vader was resistant to having to share the galaxy with anyone except his own Master. He didn't want you brought back to life."
"And Commander Cody?" said Ahsoka, swallowing a lump that suddenly appeared in her throat. She had known Cody… or thought she had.
"Thought the General's leadership would be an asset. Suul believed he had every intention of bringing the General into the Imperial military."
"That is not going to happen," muttered the General and flexed his grip on his lightsabre. "Is there anything else you would like to know from this man, Padawan?" Ahsoka, subtlly creeping away from the cyborg, was caught by his apparent politeness.
"Uh, no," she said and felt a surge of guilt. He wasn't entirely likeable, but this man was a victim of the Empire in a similar way that she was. "Wait. W-wait. I have an idea."
"Speak quickly," said Grievous.
"Jedi mind trick,"' she said, "Mental suggestion is one of the ways I've kept myself alive and safe. Most people believe what they want to believe." She looked at Arveth. "You don't actually want to die, right?"
The man shook his head. "Gods, no!"
"So if I told you that you never saw me, or the General, or Isaac, and that would save your life, will you believe me?"
"I don't know if that makes any sense," he said.
"Do it," said Ahsoka forcefully. "You don't know anything about Soshi Ra. You have no idea where Suul Reise is. You've never seen General Grievous or Isaac in person. You don't know anything about us." Arveth blinked. She took a deep breath and forced herself to concentrate entirely on her illusion. "You've never met us. You came here to meet Suul- he didn't tell you why. You don't know where Suul is."
"I don't know where Suul is," said Arveth faithfully, suddenly appearing uncertain. "I don't know who you are." His brows furrowed in consternation. "I came here to meet Suul…"
"He said he had something important to tell you."
"He had something important to tell me."
"You don't know what it was."
"I don't know what it was."
"You're annoyed and you're going back to work."
"I'm going back to my job, damn him. Doesn't tell me what's so blasted important and doesn't have the decency to show up and explain himself!" Without looking at any of them, the ex-biologist pushed himself up from the crate he had been seated on and bustled out of the cargo bay. Ahsoka tracked him across the space-port, back to his own ship, still muttering about Suul and his confounded evasiveness. His mind was devoid of anything resembling his encounter.
Ahsoka sagged against the wall, relieved. I did the right thing.
Suddenly she realized she was back in civilization, free of all manner of kid-napping and possible bodily harm, for the time being. She had her lightsabre, she had her connection to the Force and she had her confidence. Something rippled in the Force, startling her and she realized it was the tenuous connection she had forged with Grievous, tearing, as he piloted the stolen ship away from the spaceport. Well, he had promised to leave her be. It seemed he was as good as his word.
What now? she thought.
Ahsoka spent the next several hours wandering the spaceport, familiarizing herself with the layout, finding likely places of employ and the best routes from the center hub, full of shops and eateries and living quarters, to the docks. She bought a bun filled with steamed vegetables from a diner and walked while she ate. The spaceport was too small. Too few people here, too few ships coming in and out. She needed to be on a planet, one with big cities and wilderness to lose herself in, if need be.
First though, she needed a job and enough money to get off the station. The station had exactly one courier service, which, thanks to its monopoly, charged exorbient prices and employed a number of harried-looking folks. Ahsoka confidently approached the counter, feeling in the pouch at her waist for her identification card.
"Can I help you?" said the young Mirialan woman behind the counter. Ahsoka smiled.
"Yes, please. Are you hiring right now?"
The young woman rolled her eyes. "We're always hiring," she said and quickly added, "not because it's bad to work here, just because people tend to come and go on the station. Do you have a resume?"
Ahsoka fumbled in the pouch and came up empty. "Um… I did but- my identification card… oh no. I must have left it-!" The Mirialan winced.
"I hate losing my ID. Look, I'll grab the manager. She's pretty cool about that stuff. Like I said, people come and go. And hey, if you don't work out, she can always fire you, right?" Ahsoka managed a chuckle for the girl's sake and then frowned as she leaned into the office behind her, speaking with the manager. I left my damn I.D. card on the stupid ship!
"Need a job, eh?" said a new woman, human, older, auburn haired with steel-rimmed glasses sliding down a long nose. "C'mon. Interview."
Ahsoka left the shop a half hour later with a job and an array of suggestions for living quarters. She was still worried about the card. It had taken her a while to find a counter-fitter and a while longer to come up with a good backstory for Soshi Ra, never mind scrape together the money to pay for it. She had no idea where Grievous had taken the ship and could only guess what end the vehicle might have. Maybe he would get shot down and the card- and her compromised identity- would be destroyed. Maybe he would be captured and the card too. What if he sold it?
She needed to formulate a new identity and find someone capable of crafting it. Ahsoka sighed. Time to look for the seedy part of town…
It took her all of twenty minutes. A dented hallway with flickering overhead lights curved behind the environmental control complex and lead her to a dimly lit area, rife with suspicious smelling herbs and blank-eyed people lurking in loose clumps. Here and there, someone was seated with an assortment of items for sale, all of apparently innocent origins but likely fronts for something more interesting. Ahsoka adopted a slouch and a wider stance as she walked. She flicked her eyes left and right, never quite meeting the gaze of anyone else. I'm one of you, she thought. Ahsoka passed a group of people that looked less tattered and luckless and a little more dangerous, hoping she wouldn't be mistaken for some kind of rival. At the end of the alley, she found a man with a blanket spread out before him. On it were plastic post cards, the kind you could send more than once by passing it through a scanner and paying the postage. The receiver would get a printed card identical to the one you purchased. It required similar equipment to make identification cards and Ahsoka crouched in front of him.
"Hey," she said, "I'm lookin' for somethin' and bit more… personal."
The man blinked heavy eyes at her. "Yeah, I can probably find something like that. It'll cost you a bit more than these."
"Sure. I don't mind."
He nodded. "Maybe write down what you want on it. Personalize it, right?"
She took the stylus and pad from him and wrote out the information. He nodded when he looked at it.
"Pay up front," he said. "Three hundred credits." Ahsoka was thankful she had kept cash on her and that the Imperial kid-nappers hadn't been interested in it. What was a few hundred credits to the glory they thought was coming to them?
"Be about a day," he said with a grunt.
"Thanks." Ahsoka turned to go and paused to peruse a few of the other sellers. She didn't want to look like she'd had a specific goal in mind when she came down here. As she was heading out, she heard heavy footsteps behind her.
"Hey," said a deep voice and Ahsoka turned, "you lookin' for-"
They stared at each other. Emotions whirled through Ahsoka- happiness, then fear, then uncertainty and the sudden realization that she was once again, recognized.