I'd like to offer my sincere thanks and a great big virtual chocolate cake to REV__, who beta-read this story and turned up a number of problems. It's thanks to him, I dare say, that Bel-Rius is the character he is and not the two-dimensional, vaguely established character he might have been. I hope I have done his advice justice and gone some way to explaining why Bel-Rius is the way he is. My only complaint is that he tried to correct my British (i.e. correct) spelling.
Disclaimer: I own nothing in the SW universe except my own original characters.
The fumes that emanated from the cryo tubes were poisonous in sufficient doses. Even from where he was, the barely distinguishable odour reached Bel-Rius and revived his earliest memories- visions of a mask held over his face for some perceived slight; being forced to inhale breath after agonising breath of toxicity; the slavemaster watching with a kind of vague indifferent curiosity. But, looking on the two little children huddled beneath the exhaust pipes, Bel-Rius doubted they were aware of the danger. It would probably have made no difference anyway. The lower levels were bitterly cold, and the fumes provided one of the few sources of warmth in this, a world where the sun never shone.
Despite his best efforts, the Jedi couldn't keep from holding the sleeve of his robe over his nose. There was a stench in the lower quadrants that was not repulsive, but simply stifling. It made the joints stiff and the muscles achy. He wondered how the people could ever adapt to it. But then they didn't have a choice. By the time a person had gone this far into the belly of Coruscant, there was no way up again. There was only down, down, into darker, into deeper, into more abandoned.
But how much further down was there? Bel-Rius glanced up. Above, there was no longer sky- between the platforms the towering buildings boxed them in like a vast cave, seeming to lean over them, glowering in black or shades of grey in the darkness of the underlevels. Occasionally a flicker of metal overhead would suggest a passing speeder; but such was the distance that it could have been nothing.
That, so far away, was the world he was used to, the world he had come from.
He turned his attentions back to the underlevels. He stood on a platform that overlooked an entire subculture of the planet's existence- mazes of them, connected by bridges or hovering elevators, stretched up and down and away as far as the eye could see, clinging to their mother towers like some vast infestation. A semi-permeable fog hung over the entire scene, dirtying everything it touched. Little outdated lights battled with it to provide a dim twilight. Occasionally a figure or two would appear briefly, crossing the platforms without missing a step before vanishing into one of the buildings. There were doors everywhere.
With some effort, Bel-Rius turned his attention back to the children sitting under the exhaust pipes. He realised now that they had been watching him for some time. Swiftly Bel-Rius put his sleeve down, berating himself for letting discomfort get the better of him. The last thing he wanted to do was to appear as an outsider, coming into their world to scoff in disgust. He had hoped that his Jedi robes would give him an appearance of benevolence, as a sign that the world above did indeed care somewhat. But so far in his journey they seemed only to have marked him out as one of the 'surface-dwellers.' A man of success. Whether all the residents even recognised the robes of the Jedi, he was no longer sure.
Putting on his warmest tone, he strolled over to the children, brutally conscious of his appearance.
"Hello," he said. "My name is Bel-Rius Geldaman. Would you help me with something?"
The two boys looked up as he spoke to them. One was human; the effects of years of breathing fumes was already showing on him, his chest rising and falling raggedly in a constant struggle for oxygen. His long lank hair, once brown, had been blackened by the pollution, and there were cuts on his face that burned with infection. A chain, seemingly his only possession, was looped over his torso. The second, a blue-skinned Aruzantwilek, lay asleep. The first boy observed this newcomer briefly with a gaze of suspicion- as though wondering what he could possibly be interested in doing here- then looked away.
"I am looking for a man called Ractuul Wogana. Do you know where he is? If you could help I'd be very thankful."
No answer. Bel-Rius tried to meet the boy's eyes, but it was hopeless.
"What is it?" he asked softly. "Are you frightened? Angry? Let me help."
No answer. He squatted to their eye level. "Talk to me. Please. No? Just look at me then. Go on."
Nothing. No reply, no indication that he was there. Bel-Rius felt a little pang of regret as he went for his belt.
"If you'll talk to me- just for a minute- I'll give you this credit," he said, holding up a coin. The boy's head came up and he stared at it briefly, then licked his lips, hovering; with a sigh the Jedi produced another.
"I don't know where he is," the boy answered finally. He reached for the coins but Bel-Rius held them out of his reach.
"What's your name?"
"Yeah. Can I have…?"
Bel-Rius offered the coins and the boy took them quickly.
"You know anyone who would know where to find him?"
Mal hesitated, then pointed to a door just several paces away. "You could try Rael Qu'esta. He works for him, I think."
Bel-Rius nodded and forced a smile that wasn't returned. "Thank you for the help. But why don't you sit inside if you're cold?"
"They don't let you unless you order something."
"You know, those pipes are dangerous. They may be warm, but the fumes are harmful."
Again there was that blank, suspicious stare. Bel-Rius knew already that by offering money he had created a transaction. Now he had given over his half, Mal must have been wondering what the Jedi was still doing talking to him. Sighing, he forced himself to his feet and made for the door.
The club that Rael-Qu'esta had chosen to make his place of residence looked as though it had, once, many years ago, been on the forefront of the partying scene. A red that might once have been luxuriant, but had since become morose, dominated the small bar and scattered tables. Metallic pods, once used to play holographic films, sat in the corners, long since abandoned. Somewhere a bartender could be heard, or possibly a droid, cleaning cutlery. Two members of an unidentifiable race were sprawled over one table, their eyes rolled back into their sockets. Apart from Rael himself, they were the only customers.
"Rael-Qu'esta?" Bel-Rius asked, knowing by instinct that it was he as he took a seat opposite.
"I am. You a buyer? I don't recognise you."
There was something about Rael that oozed suspicion. To what extent it was his species, to what extent his life, was impossible to discern; but he had a sideways glance that was somehow unnerving, seeming to read the object of its viewing with machine-like precision. His billowing clothes made him look curiously shapeless, though for any who might have thought about attempting something, a small blaster pistol showed on his belt, as if by accident. He had an earring in his right ear, from which hung a sickle-shaped jewel that, with the slightest motion, flashed brilliantly through the light spectrum. It looked out of place on him; and by the toss of his head, it seemed that he knew that and liked it. He said:
"If you're not a buyer you'll have to get someone to introduce you. I don't deal with just anyone, you know."
Bel-Rius gritted his teeth. "I am a Jedi Knight. I have come looking for help to track down a gangster called Ractuul Wogana. If you can help me find him I will pay you; but don't offer me deathsticks again. I don't want them."
Rael nodded but his gaze didn't soften. "Fair enough. Apologies if you consider yourself insulted by the offer. But in these days a buyer can come in any shape."
"Do you know Wogana?"
"What's in this for me?"
"Make it a hundred and I promise to become suddenly more talkative."
Bel-Rius thought for a moment, then bit back his anger and agreed. "I just need to know where he is. Can you lead me to him?"
"Of course. Almost everyone knows where he is. But may I ask why you're so interested?"
"Because he is a dangerous criminal and a threat to society."
Rael roared with laughter. "My friend, I just tried you to sell you deathsticks! If you were here for criminals you would need a prison ship. What has Wogana done to deserve your wrath over some other 'danger to society'?'"
Bel-Rius had never obtained the talent of telling lies, so he didn't attempt it. "He was involved in a conflict recently in a casino in the upper levels. A suspected rival was targeted and killed by blaster fire from him and members of his gang."
"And? There's more to it than that."
"Wogana was seen to be using a lightsaber in the an attack."
"Ah!" Rael smirked. "The truth comes out. You suspect he has murdered a Jedi? I suppose it would be naïve to imagine the Temple would care unless it had a stake in proceedings. Or maybe it just has hurt pride. No others are allowed lightsabers, eh? Just you good old Jedi Knights, doing your duty wherever you are needed to make yourselves profit."
There were some slights that Bel-Rius couldn't let pass. He leaned closer as he said: "Let me assure you that the Jedi are involved anywhere their help is required. At this very moment Jedi Knights are operating to ensure peace and security in hundreds of systems. If the Jedi Order did only concern itself with its own profit, as you believe, maybe our numbers would not be so few."
Rael shrugged. "Whatever. I'm not interested in arguing with you."
At that moment the door slid open again. Bel-Rius sat back in his seat and looked over his shoulder- it was Mal. The boy walked straight up to their table, his eyes fixed on Rael; swiftly, without a single glance at the Jedi, he produced the two coins Bel-Rius had given him. Rael took them, examined them briefly, then produced a thin case from his pocket. From this he took two sealed tubes filled with red liquid. Mal took them carefully in both hands, his head down, then turned and left, as swiftly as he had come. It was so quick and so deft that Bel-Rius just sat- just sat, even as the boy had handed over the very money he had given him moments ago, right before his eyes, for deathsticks.
Rael noticed his anger and smirked. "What were you expecting?"
"You just sold him deathsticks."
"He just bought deathsticks."
"You're killing him. You're as good as his murderer."
"He wanted them, and I gave them to him."
"I gave him that money myself. Just minutes ago. But he couldn't even wait for me to leave before coming to buy. You have taken his life."
"He gave it willingly."
"You've taken his life and now you are feeding off of it. I'll bet it's the reason you can afford trips to the upper levels. Why you can afford that earring, and that blaster you're making a show of hiding. And then when the money runs out you come back."
"How do you sleep at night?"
"Warm and comfortable in an upperlevel hotel- usually."
Suddenly Rael sat up, straight and close, his elbows on the table. "Now unless you want to go on with this, I suggest you calm down. You may think you come down here with the healing hand of the Jedi- with all your righteousness, and your faith, and so forth- but the truth is you can't change a thing. So if you're not going to arrest me… let me take you to Wogana, so I can collect my one hundred diactares. And then we can both agree to never see one another again."
It was not the first time Bel-Rius had been asked to calm down. He had been serving the order now for twenty years. But he was best known for a storm of rage once, many years ago, when he had wrought havoc in a slave colony on the desert planet of Tatooine. He had been heavily scolded for that- but it didn't concern him. All the other tenets he followed, but his anger was something he had never mastered and never intended to master. Perhaps it was because he had once served as an apprentice to Mace Windu- a Jedi whose very power lay on walking the periphery between order and chaos. Regardless, the view that anger was a damaging entity was one that he simply did not understand- anger, if well justified, was the only rational reaction.
Out in the open, Rael set a fast pace, his wavy clothes blending with the fog as he walked. Bel-Rius kept up close behind him, wary by instinct. Around them, platform after similar platform faded in and out of view; occasionally a broken holoscreen would shine out its ancient message at them through the fog, but for the most part it was darkness and silence. They passed through another bar into an enclosed tunnel connecting two skyscrapers. Looking through the glass, Bel-Rius found he could make out tiny black figures below, moving around.
"Yes- we are close to street level now," said Rael, noticing his gaze. "Not that we will be heading any lower. Even Wogana doesn't set foot on the street unless he has to. There are areas down there infested by species so devolved from millennia in darkness and fumes that they have almost lost their sentiency."
They reached the door where the tunnel adjoined the base of the skyscraper. Two humans were huddled in the corner, watching them. Bel-Rius noticed them and turned to Rael.
"I thought the underlevels were overcrowded. Yet, I've seen next to nobody. Where is everyone?"
Rael responded with that same sideways glance of suspicion. "They're in the clubs and the halls. Avoiding the outside. Why do you care?"
"I was simply interested," replied Bel-Rius, shifting under that awful gaze.
"Fair enough; the underlevels certainly have a fascination for those… like you."
From his clothes Rael produced a hand thick with bones. Pressing a switch beside the door, he spoke into the intercom in a hushed tone. After a terse silence the door slid open.
Turning to the Jedi, Rael gave an ironic bow. "This is Wogana's hangout. If you insist on seeing him, keep in mind that you are on his turf. Everyone will be watching your every move. Now-" he extended a hand, "my payment."
Bel-Rius handed it over. "You realise," he added, carefully, "that you told me far prematurely that everyone knew where Wogana was. I could have found someone else and paid them a credit or less for their help."
Rael smirked, almost in triumph. "But you are a Jedi. I knew you wouldn't go against your word. And besides, I found the situation amusing."
Bel-Rius felt his anger rising but he crushed it. "Why amusing?"
"Quite simply because in paying me you have directly funded the trade in deathsticks. Funny, isn't it, how easily money falls into the wrong hands." He started to walk away, then turned and glanced back over his shoulder. "But bear in mind, Jedi: the underlevels are considered poor. But in the end… all the money in the galaxy, from the very limits of the Outer Rim, arrives- in the end- down here."
--End of Part 1
One more to go. It's already written- will put it up in two to three days. I'd love it if you could review. Tell me how believable a character Bel-Rius is. Tell me if you hate anyone in this story so far and are eagerly awaiting their grisly death. Most importantly, tell me if it sets a powerful, easy-to-follow picture.
Thanks. See you soon.