Title: The Black Door
Author: Theano
Rating: M
Summary: Yet another walkthrough story! Slightly AU, gets more so as the story goes along.
Disclaimer: The characters and situations of Star Wars and Knights of the Old Republic belong to George Lucas, Lucasfilm, Ltd., Lucas Arts, and Bioware. My only profit is fun!

I. Taris: After the Endar Spire

Fire and pain.

I've been here before.

Metal screamed as the ship - the whole galaxy - tried to tear itself apart. Lights flickered, once, twice, but didn't die.

Val stumbled through the broken passageways, dodging as many of the enemy boarders as she could. The only one else left alive - the only person she knew on the whole ship, her bunkmate Trask, was probably dead now - or as good as, anyway. If that dark Jedi hadn't already killed him. She hoped he was dead. She didn't want to think about what the Sith would do to him otherwise.

Down one companionway, up another, avoiding the heat and shearing of plasteel rubble that had been an intact bulkhead only a few minutes ago. Blaster pistol in one hand, vibroblade in the other, and both had tasted death today.

I've been here before.

Another explosion knocked her off her feet; the world went dark for a moment - an hour? a second? - and then her vision cleared, revealing a pair of black boots two inches from her nose.

It would be so easy. Surrender, and the whole awful mess would be done. Her entire existence could be measured in heartbeats - When have I been here before? - and the chudding of enemy turbolasers.

"On your feet, soldier! Where's Ensign Ulgo?"

Val shook her head clear. She'd made it to the pod bay, and someone else had, too, beyond all hope of survival. "Dead - he's dead. Dark Jedi."

"At least Bastila got off, thank the Force."

"Who - ?"

"Sith-damned incompetent. But I can't just leave you here. Come on, into the escape pod, watch your head, there you go."

Her head was still spinning, and she couldn't manage the crash webbing by herself. Shame prickled behind her eyes as the other survivor, cursing under his breath, buckled her in, then himself. He yanked a lever down, slapped a flashing red panel, and then the bottom dropped out of the universe.

Fire and pain.

It was the dream, the same dream, every night since she'd woken up in the med bay to find that she didn't even remember her name.

A fiery blade wielded by a pillar of righteous fury. Had to be a Jedi. And then betrayal. She'd expected it to come someday - but not like this, dear Force, not like this.

I trusted you!

"Valena, that's it, right? Valena Retee?"

Val nodded, scrubbing the grit out of her eyes. Three days, he'd said. Three days she'd been out of it, tumbling through the old nightmare, unable to wake, but unable to truly sleep.

Lieutenant Carth Onasi. She remembered him now. War hero. Wouldn't take the frag from anyone but what he dished out himself. She remembered seeing him once or twice aboard the Endar Spire, appreciating him out of the corner of her eye so he wouldn't see her looking. He thought he was hot stuff. Didn't help that he was right.

Onasi handed her a pile of clothes. Her clothes. "Sorry, I - well, I had to take care of you." She glared, pulling the bed sheet tighter around herself, but he wouldn't meet her eyes. Then he did, questioningly. "So where did you get…?"

Rubbing her left hand over the faded scars on her bare right arm, Val grimaced. "The healers said it was Rodian death seed." Carth pulled away, as if a few extra inches would have given him protection from such a plague. "No, they got it, but - but the fever, and then the drugs they had to use, burned out my mind. The blisters - kolto's not perfect, so the scars never healed." She had them all down her right side, as if someone had raked her with a flechette gun and then left her to die.

They told her she was from Telos, she said - an odd look crossed Carth's face at that - but after the destruction there, her records had disappeared. She didn't even know if she had a family somewhere. The healers said she'd never had children, though, and that was some relief. After that, she'd joined up with the Republic military - new name, new identity - and next thing she knew she was assigned aboard the Endar Spire.

"So you've got no memory from before you were sick?" Carth shook his head and whistled low under his breath. "Well, but you survived all that, and then survived the escape pod, so I guess you can survive damn near anything. Which is good. We need to get out of here, find Bastila, get off this rock. The Republic won't last long without her."

He turned around while Val dressed. "Who's this Bastila?" she asked.

"I guess you hit your head harder than I thought. Bastila Shan was the lead Jedi on the Spire. She's the reason why the war is going so well."

"I thought we were losing?"

"Heh. Thanks for the vote of confidence. No, not quite yet, mostly thanks to the Jedi."

She zipped her suit up to the chin and looked around. "Where are we, anyway?"

"Taris," Carth explained, turning back to face her. "Right on the edge of Republic space. Well, not exactly Republic space, not anymore, since the Sith have taken it. That's the other reason we've got to get out of here. But it won't be easy. The whole planet's under blockade. No one leaves unless they've got the proper codes."

She frowned at him. He shrugged and offered a smile. "I've been busy while you were asleep."

From their run-down squat to the Upper City cantina for a bite and a bit of innocuous conversation with the locals; then from there to the sublevels. Carth had done a deal with a Duros on the run from the Exchange: the few credits he had for a potentially incriminating set of Sith papers that could get them past the lazy guards at the lift.

They stepped out of the elevator and barely avoided a small gang war.

Val had no idea what under the stars a "vulkar" or a "bek" was, but judging by their namesake gang members throwing insults and blaster bolts at each other, they must have been large, brutish, and none-too-smart beasts. A bored Sith guard at the end of the rundown corridor leaned against the grimy wall, his helmet off, a very non-regulation cigarra glowing between his lips as he watched his afternoon entertainment.

When it was over, Carth stripped the corpses, pocketing a holdout blaster and a vibroblade. Val felt ill.

They followed a set of garishly flashing lights. "Javyar's Cantina," the neon glow read. "You start a fight, we gas the place. THIS MEANS YOU."

Val shook her head. "Huh. I'm liking this planet more and more the longer we're stuck here."

Inside, it was at least cleaner than the sublevel corridors. Either that, or the low lighting masked the dirt and grime. Carth stepped into a bounty office run by a Hutt, while Val tried to look like she was enjoying herself.

"Hey! Knock it off, bugface!"

Val's head whipped around at the shrill voice. A pair of Rodians were harassing a young, blue-skinned Twi'lek, one behind her leering suggestively over her shoulder, the other making lewd gestures.

"You wouldn't even know where to put it, Twinky," the Twi'lek spat. She elbowed the alien behind her, hard, and yelled. "Hey, Big Z - a little help here?"

A Wookiee at a corner table unfolded into a great, furry menace. One paw grabbed the Rodian behind the girl, another scooped up the one now trying to fondle and grope her. He brought his two handfuls together like misshapen green cymbals; their heads knocked together, and they slumped into a foul-smelling pile at the Twi'lek's feet.

Val waited for the THIS MEANS YOU gassing to start, but nothing happened.

The Twi'lek caught Val staring at her, and smiled. "Never hurts to have friends bigger and meaner than you, huh?"

Val couldn't help herself. She laughed and nodded, as the two Rodians picked themselves up and wordlessly stumbled away.

"I'm Mission, by the way. Mission Vao. The big furball here is Zaalbar. We're the Lower City's official welcoming committee, and you sure look like you could use a welcome!"

Mission was completely disarming. It was probably deliberate, Val thought, but it worked anyway. She joined Mission and Zaalbar at their table and started talking.

"…And then we got separated, and we haven't seen our cousin since," she lied carefully. That was the story she and Carth had agreed on before they left; a small family reunion separated by the Sith invasion, with most of the family barely getting off the planet before the blockade fell, Valena and Carth left behind to find their missing relative.

Something about the mention of family seemed to bother Mission, but she hid it behind an ingénue's smile and a sympathetic tilt of her head. "So your cousin - pretty lady, short brown hair, likes to wear Jedi robes?"

"Uh - well, that is - "

"Grab your boy-toy, sweetie. I know just the fellow to help you guys out…"

How the hell did I get myself into this? Valena wondered. The swoop bike rumbled beneath her, threatening to buck her off as soon as the counter flashed down to GO. The only reason why swoop racing was still allowed on every planet, while podracing was outlawed in most of Republic space, was that only one rider raced their heat at a time on a swoop track.

That didn't make it all that much less dangerous.

The green light flashed, Val kicked the accelerator into a scream, and hung on for dear life.

And five seconds later, wiped out.

Thanking the stars that the swoop track's safety field had caught her, she limped back to the sounds of boos and hisses. The crowd was mostly made up of Black Vulkars, Hidden Beks, and other gang members and assorted lowlifes. Gadon Thek, the blind leader of the Beks, pulled her aside.

"Don't worry, Val. I know you can do this. Everyone wipes out their first time on the track."

"Right. My time was - " she checked the boards " - five-point-three seconds. That's really encouraging."

"Actually, yes - it is. My first time on the track, I lasted a whole three-fifths of a second." The disturbing blue of his ocular implants caught and held her gaze. "It's all about balance. Think ahead of where you are. Now you've got two more heats. Use the next one to learn the track - don't worry about speed. Wait till your third to really show me what you can do."

Great, she thought. Why didn't he tell me that before I ran my first heat?

Carth nodded at her nervously. Mission gave her a grin and a big thumbs-up.

Her second time, she actually made it through to the end. A minute and a half, though - it felt more like a leisurely tour. She glanced at the score display and winced. She was bottom of the running, five other racers ahead of her, with the next longest time being twenty-eight seconds even.

Instead of booing, now the crowd was laughing.

Val leaned back against the wall, closed her eyes, and thought through the track. The safety field, which would make sure she got nothing more than a scrape or a cracked rib, also interfered with the swoop's repulsors in such a way that she couldn't really steer well at any sort of speed. She would have to make a no-field run; not quite legal, but the gang members wouldn't be calling in any regulatory committees. The track was deliberately strewn with obstacles, though - old signposts, scraps of crashed bikes, debris from who knew how many previous races. If she could manage not to smear herself all over those, there were also the booster pads; and if she could maneuver over as many of them as possible - without crashing - each would give her swoop bike an accelerating kick that would better her chance of breaking out into the lead.

She took three slow, deep breaths. Think ahead of where I am. Suddenly she saw the entire track in her mind, as if someone had implanted her with a holoplayer. She knew what to do, where to dodge, when to downshift, which booster pads to hit. She could do it. If only her hands would stop shaking.



"This is going to sound really strange. Can you take me out to the track? I think - I need to keep my eyes shut for just a little bit longer."

She could almost feel him smiling.

"No, Val, that doesn't sound strange at all. In fact, I think you're about to win this race."

She could feel the slight breeze whistling through the tunnel of the track. She could hear the ticking and idling of the swoop engine, the increasing beep of the counter, and then the scream of the accelerator at exactly the same instant the counter rang GO.

Tears leaked under her lashes and her nose ran as the wind whipped across her face. Gritting her teeth, she tightened her concentration and loosened her grip on the steering handle. A touch to the left, then the right, the brief air pressure as she skimmed by an obstacle, then the swooop of a booster pad. Downshift turned into dodge melted into another boost, and she was flying, and laughing, and crying all at once.

Then it was over. She felt like someone had skinned her alive, and replaced all her joints with jelly. She knew the bike had drifted to a stop, but she could have sworn she was moving at light speed.

The crowd erupted.

Carth's voice, his hands on hers, peeling her fingers off the steering handles. "Val? Come on, Valena, you can open your eyes now. You did it."

She breathed in and looked around. Had she - ? Yes. She had beaten the top score by nine-tenths of a second.

With her eyes closed.

Then the leader of the Black Vulkars withdrew that precious prize, the Republic woman, the only known survivor of the Republic ship now a debris field above Taris. And then the supposedly helpless woman broke out of both the neural disruptor and the steel-barred cage.

And then all hell broke loose.