Anything you recognise belongs to JK or George (or… Disney, I suppose) Anything else probably belongs to them too.
"Translation: The little meatbag wants to free his mother. He has decided to come with us."
I grinned and turned my back on the women. Despite the howls of offence, I swaggered out of the reception room with HK at my shoulder. Anakin trotted along behind, calling out over his shoulder at the Queen. They had a short, tight conversation, but Anakin was resolute. He was going to leave with us.
The Queen was not to be outdone however. By the time a guard had escorted us back to the palace hanger bay, Panaka was waiting at our ship with a squad of guards, a domed, blue and silver astromech droid and a slouched, bewildered-looking Gungan. He made another demand.
"Literal Translation: Her Highness insists that someone she trusts accompany Anakin until you return."
I glanced at the group accompanying Panaka. Obviously he didn't mean one of his guards.
"Which one?" I asked in Basic, wondering if he meant the droid or the Gungan.
Anakin's face split into a massive grin on seeing the pair. "Artoo!" he shouted and ran over to the droid.
The astromech whistled and warbled while slightly bouncing from side to side, acting like an excited metal puppy. If it had a tail, I'm sure it would have been wagging. "Hi, Jar Jar," the lad said almost in passing.
The Gungan responded with what sounded like a welcome, but I didn't understand the words. I glanced over at HK. "I didn't catch any of that. Was it Basic?"
"Observation: I believe it was a greeting, Master. The Gungan is either speaking a highly evolved local dialect of Basic, or is suffering severe intellectual retardation."
I looked the Gungan called Jar Jar up and down, evaluating him for threats. He stood slightly hunched over. His clothes were wrinkled and spotted with food, and he wringed his hands nervously. He obviously did not feel as though he belonged. "Or both?" I suggested.
"Observation: A high probability, Master."
Panaka's military discipline kept his face expressionless, but I could almost feel his smirk. I'd had a great deal of experience dealing with Fred and George trying to keep from smiling when planning a prank. He explained the situation.
Anakin gasped and blurted, "Really?"
"I understood 'gift', 'droid', 'Queen' and 'Anakin'," I said to HK. "I take it the droid is a gift for Anakin from the Queen?"
"Affirmative: Exactly, Master."
"What was the second bit?"
"Answer: The Gungan meatbag is the Queen's spy. He is almost certainly the General in command of the ground forces during the recent uprising, based on the name which the little meatbag used. Observation: I shudder to think of the incompetence of the invading forces, if this meatbag led the victory."
I looked over at Anakin and his new droid. "That droid – the one with a name like a sneeze – I suppose it is probably a spy too?"
"Calculation: Unless the Nabooan Queen is so naïve enough that she does not employ contingency plans; almost certainly, Master."
I sighed. "We're going to have to stop the commodity trading then, until we can verify that this droid isn't a spy. Even if it's not, we need to come up with something better to keep it secret. We've only done two runs and been found out by pirates and bureaucrats."
"Observation: You decided on legitimate trading in order to avoid running afoul of officialdom. As someone who appears to attract unwanted attention, smuggling would provide greater secrecy and more profit, Master."
"Don't forget greater opportunities for violence," I snorted.
I looked the Gungan up and down. Even standing still his slumped posture gave the impression of an accident just waiting to happen. Sort of like Neville in Potions. I looked at Panaka and shook my head. "The Gungan is not coming."
Without changing expression, the man said "The Queen demands it!"
I grinned, pleased that I understood him. I plastered a massive grin on my face. "Good for the Queen," I replied jovially in Basic, trusting HK's lessons would instil the required amount of sarcasm. I dropped the smile. "He still not coming."
If I had giggled maniacally as I kicked a unicorn foal into a wood chipper, I couldn't have got a more forlorn look from the Gungan. His entire face and shoulders drooped. As a species, he looked tailor made to exhibit pitiful despondency. Even Anakin gave me a disapproving expression.
I gestured over my shoulder with my thumb. "Come on, we need to get the ship ready," I said in English.
Anakin nodded, seeming to understand me perfectly. He turned to his new droid and said, "Come on Artoo."
We left the impotent guard captain and the inept Gungan on the landing pad and made our way to the cockpit. I thought about what I needed to say, translating in my head first. I pointed at the co-pilot's chair. "Anakin, take seat. Ready ship for flying. We go soon."
The lad blinked in surprise. "We are not fixing the ship?" he asked in passable English.
I grinned at him and chose to answer in Basic. "I fix ship when on flying path."
He frowned momentarily, but then glanced at my wand and his eyes widened. He nodded, looking a bit uncomfortable. Still, that didn't stop him. He clambered up into the chair and started busying himself with the controls. I nodded and turned to HK. "Have you ever been to Tatooine?" I asked in English, not wanting to misconstrue something due to my poor comprehension.
"Answer: Yes, Master, though not for several thousand years. My creator purchased me there after having his identity erased."
I raised an eyebrow. "That's an impressive logical conundrum raised by a single sentence. How did he create you if he had to buy you?"
HK actually gave a sigh, making me blink at the apparent humanity he exhibited. "Recitation: I was created by a Sith Lord named Revan to be the perfect assassin. While on a mission, my memory core was damaged. Concurrently, my creator was captured by the Jedi and had his own memory wiped before he could find and reclaim me."
I fought back a sigh of my own. Obliviators were all the same, no matter where they came from. Got a problem? Wipe the memories; works like a charm – pun intended. Right up until the real memories burst back. And that's the best case; intelligent people seldom go blabbing about it when they think they remember seeing a griffon chase someone flying a broom. It's usually stupid people who do that, and fortunately they're generally dismissed by the rest of the population. Well, the rest of the population that don't read Murdoch's trashy papers.
But giving stupid explanations to cover up modified memories was a recipe for disaster. Things like gas explosions work well right up until some investigative journalist discovers the inconveniently overlooked fact that the area in question wasn't hooked up to the gas network in the first place.
HK continued on. "He re-joined the Jedi after they supplied him with a contrived history and artificial loyalty to their order. While following clues to his past, he travelled to Tatooine, and purchased me as a protocol droid. My last owner had perished in what was considered suspicious circumstances, and I was sold along with the rest of his possessions."
"That was lucky."
"Disagreement: My creator's chosen mate once observed that such astronomical odds could only be overcome by the will of the Force. However, Revan's eye for talent was not destroyed along with his memories. It is probable that he simply recognised in me the sublime perfection he originally created."
"Obviously," I said tonelessly.
"Observation: Vocal analysis suggests a sixty-eight point two nine percent likelihood that you disagree with my judgment."
"That needs calibration," I replied, figuring that he'd pick up on the double meaning. I'd long come to terms with the fact that some people just have a talent for being in the right place at the right, or wrong, time. I personified it; whether it was unwittingly going to a wrong floo destination in time to see Malfoy in a pawn shop, or just happening to run into Snape threaten Quirrel while sneaking around Hogwarts at night, or picking a spot to hide in a forest just next to someone under an invisibility cloak who cast the Dark Mark – if my presence at a certain place and time could make things more chaotic, I was guaranteed to find myself there.
If there were some pervasive sentience directing events, then whoever it was could only be described as a right royal bastard with a perverted sense of humour. "What happened then?" I asked HK. "Actually, given your age, that might take a while. Instead, what was the last thing you remember before I repaired you?"
HK was silent for a long moment. "Analysis: My memory data are... disjointed. Conjecture: It is probable that I was captured and reprogrammed."
I sighed. "So what do you remember?"
"Answer: I was on a space station. My function was to protect my creator, but then it was to guard... the Emperor. Infiltrators boarded and confronted the station's controller. I failed to neutralise them. Recorded history suggests they succeeded in killing the Emperor and destroying the space station."
While it wasn't odd to speak to a shade who lived in the past, talking to someone about personal involvement in ancient history was a new experience. I was about to ask for more details when Anakin started talking to the local air controller.
"Observation: There appears to be some concern among the meatbags in charge of the spaceport that you are not repairing the structural damage to this ship before departing. Aspersions are being cast upon your sanity."
I shrugged. "Story of my life. It's not like I'm not running for office, I don't need approval. Are we missing anything for a trip to Tatooine? Anything that would make us more likely to blend in as traders?"
"Obvious Answer: A cargo, Master."
"Yes, yes, yes," I said, waving a hand in a circle. "What sort of cargo can we get on Naboo cheaply that would be worth transporting to Tatooine?"
I stared at my droid for a second, expecting some elaboration. "Water? That's it?"
"Explanation: Tatooine is a desert world, Master. Farmers on worlds such as Telos and Naboo produce food for consumption. On Tatooine, farmers use vaporators to extract moisture from the air. Water is exceedingly valuable on such a world."
I scratched my cheek and pondered the logistics of producing an ever-full water ewer. Without access to certain magical materials, it would need to be based on spells alone. Unfortunately, that meant it would not withstand sustained use. I opened my mouth to continue the conversation, when a sharp retort echoed through the ship, followed by an anguished, animalistic howl that started loud but descended in volume quickly. It sounded rather like someone screaming in pain while being hurled through the air away from the ship.
Anakin jerked up at the noise. "What was that?"
Damn, the kid even had the accent right. "Someone tried to sneak aboard," I said, fighting back a grin.
"Observation: The mechanical and electrical contrivances installed by the previous owner have not been activated since you took possession. Query: What countermeasures have you installed to deter unwarranted intruders?"
"It's just a couple of wards, that's all. Anyone trying to sneak aboard without my invitation will receive a shock and then get thrown back quite a ways."
"Observation: Lethal countermeasures are far more efficient in deterring determined infiltrators, Master," HK reproved.
"Oh, they're lethal all right," I replied with a happy grin. "Anyone who ignores the first warning becomes the second."
Anakin looked horrified. "That was Jar Jar!" he exclaimed. He leapt to his feet and clambered up onto the control panel to look out the window to the side of the ship. "He's hurt!"
"Is anyone with him?" I asked.
The lad frowned. "Panaka is with him. He is calling for help."
"He'll live then."
"Why did you do that?"
I waited until he was looking at me directly before responding. "No one comes on board my ship without permission." I gave a self-deprecating laugh. "I put those wards up after finding a runaway on board."
He looked a little confused, so HK translated fully for him. He had the grace to blush.
"Right, we're going to get some water to take to Tatooine," I said, slipping into the pilot's chair. "Ready?"
Anakin said, "What about," he paused, turned to HK and said a few words in Basic.
"Translation: The little meatbag suggests capturing some local aquatic specimens also. Hutts have a penchant for eating live insectoid, aquatic and amphibious meatbags."
I lit the engines up. "That is a very good idea," I said with a nod of approval.
There was some confusion at the other end of the comm, based on the way we flew off in an unexpected direction. Using maps the little trashcan droid supplied, we found a relatively pure river far from any settlement. Anakin took control and kept the ship steady over the running water.
I opened the hatch and began magically filling the ship's cargo hold with water. I'd transfigured some of the detritus in the ship into large but basic containers and filled them with water via switching spells.
Summoning fish out of the water was easier, but oddly, more dangerous. Some of the little bastards had teeth that would give a Chinese Fireball dragon self-esteem issues. I pulled out one big bugger that had venomous spines, razor-sharp fins and squirted highly acidic ink. I shivered at the thought of the sort of creatures preyed on it.
Apart from the amount of water, it was like being back in Australia. I'd had nightmares about bunyips for days after my last visit there. I'd almost caught Bellatrix too, but the bitch used one of her bloody summoning rituals. She sacrificed a pair of magical twin boys to power it.
Was that less than a month ago? Felt like a lifetime.
Once we were loaded with barely twice what an unmodified ship of similar size could carry, Anakin turned the front bit up and we shot into the upper atmosphere.
The trip to Tatooine was uneventful, but productive. Along with the continuing language lessons, I confirmed that within the ward limit that prevented magical detection, Anakin wasn't discomforted by my magic use. I spent several hours casting repairing charms on the ship.
Anakin's new droid proved extraordinarily useful. After both HK and Anakin examined it at my insistence to ensure that it was indeed now Anakin's property and not just a spy for the Nabooans, it was set to work around the ship. It had the ability to roll around the outside of the ship on magnetic treads, examining and validating the repairs, before we opened up the emergency blast doors to the damaged section of the ship.
It also proved capable of performing all the necessary maintenance on the other internal components of the ship. It tuned the engines and fixed the air filtration, which made the ride quieter and got rid of the pervasive stench.
All in all, it was a damned useful tin can. Even HK respected its efficiency. My psychotic droid even compared Artoo favourably to his creator's own astromech, a droid described as being a 'surprisingly effective combat unit when not masquerading as an efficient mechanic'.
Artoo seemed oddly pleased at that, if its beeping was anything to go by.
We also tested different magical shields against blasters to work out which would be most effective. My basilisk hide clothes were strong enough to withstand a blaster shot, but the shock and heat would be mighty uncomfortable. It would be like getting hit with a red-hot hammer.
The simple Protego charm we learned in second year worked, though it failed under a few shots; the super-hot flashes overwhelmed it quickly. It was safer to transfigure a solid barrier. Oddly however, the bubble-head charm was the most efficient. I didn't fully understand the technical details, but apparently the futuristic weapons used something called tibana gas rather than solid projectiles. A bubble-head charm was specifically designed to prevent passage of harmful gasses. So the destructive part of a blaster shot dissipated at the charm boundary, while the encapsulating magnetic field went straight through.
So if I wanted to protect my face from being shot, that was the ticket. I'd have to break out the arithmancy tables if I wanted to change the spell to cover my body. That could take anything from a week to a year.
Still, it was all good progress on the way to integrate magic into my life here in the future.
The ramp lowered, and the cool air in the ship was overwhelmed by an arid rush of hot air. It felt like standing over an open oven. I could almost feel my eyeballs dry up in my head. I coughed and blinked. Even here in the partially protected docking bay the heat was surprising. "Wow, that's warm," I noted, my tone almost as dry as the air.
"Yeah, it looks hot outside the city today," Anakin said in English as he descended the ramp onto the landing pad. He turned and looked at my heavy black clothing. He shook his head. "You are going to be too hot wearing that."
I shook my head back at him. "No I will not be," I replied in Basic, sticking to our verbal agreement to use the other's language when possible.
I nodded and grinned at his distasteful expression. With a beckoning wave I said, "We go get your mother."
His eyes lit up. "Do you have enough?"
"We could just steal her," I suggested.
A look of fear flashed over his face. "No! A runaway slave will die." He turned to HK and asked for help translating something. Whatever it was he wanted to say, his voice had an urgency that I couldn't ignore.
"Translation: Slaves are implanted with an explosive device that can be triggered remotely. Observation: That is an efficient method of coercion."
I winced, but had to agree. It was a cowardly method, but definitely efficient. I withdrew the credit box I'd taken from Milanench. It was small enough to be convenient to carry around, and the credits held within fit into neat rows. The majority of my money stayed aboard the ship under several anti-theft measures. "We'll proper buy her then. Here, there be enough?"
Anakin took one look at the box and made a face. "Republic credits? They won't work here."
I nodded, not particularly surprised. There were different currencies just in the magical world, though the Goblin standard of galleons, sickles and knuts were accepted just about anywhere. But I distinctly remembered at the Quidditch World Cup people from abroad attempted to pay with gold coins the size of hubcaps. The muggle world maintained dozens of major currencies – and that was a single planet. I couldn't imagine how many different kinds of money there would be in a whole galaxy. I turned to HK. "Sorry, I don't know this in Basic. Ask if there a currency exchange somewhere."
"Observation: A curious circumstance, Master. Galactic credits were the sole currency used for all transactions when I was last operational."
Having developed a passing acquaintance with economic theory, a single galaxy-wide currency sounded decidedly odd to me. A tanking market on one planet wouldn't be able to devalue their currency to encourage external trade. "That was thousands of years ago," I retorted.
"Contrition: An astute point, Master. Answer: The local information network is crude compared to Coruscant, but there does not appear to be a formal service for exchanging currencies."
I found that disconcerting. "There are several spaceports on this planet, and there were hundreds of ships coming and going. Are you saying that despite all that, there is not a single business that buys and sells currencies?"
"Conjecture: Tatooine is a major hub for smuggling. Official exchanges provide data trails that incompetent meatbags involved in crime prefer to avoid."
I smirked. "Just the incompetent ones? What do the competent ones use?"
"Observation: It is my experience that competent criminal meatbags utilise official financial transactions to camouflage their activities, not avoid them."
Some things really didn't change. "Fair enough. Would it be better to trade the fish and water first, then buy Anakin's mother, or trade some of them for her?"
Anakin piped up, his expression grim. "Watto has a shop that sells droids and scavenged junk, not water. We need to trade first."
The lad's face hardened. "He was my owner."
I let the unspoken go unsaid. There was obviously some bad feelings there. Not unusual for an ex-slave, I imagine. "Ok, we'll trade first then find this Watto. What was the Hutt's name again? Gar-something?"
"Gardulla," Anakin supplied. "Watto won my mother and me from him."
Any ephemeral notion I had for dealing honestly with the Hutt evaporated. "The Hutt is a slaver?"
Anakin just nodded.
"Query: What strategy shall you approach the negotiations with, Master?"
I scratched my chin. "The story we'll go with is this – I'm trying to establish an exclusive contract to supply Naboo with my wares, and want something to give them as a gift to better my chances. I heard a rumour that this Gardulla had a line on Nabooan artwork, so I'm offering my cargo at a below-market rate in return for some pieces of my choice."
Surprisingly, Anakin managed to follow that. He could almost pass for fluent in English after only a couple of weeks' exposure. "Gardulla will want to know what you want to trade with Naboo. He won't want competition for other parts of his business. And no matter what rate you offer the water at, he won't want to give you much."
I shrugged. "We made a good profit on the run from Telos, so if asked, we'll just say food. We'll let him assume I'm smuggling something else. As for the number of pieces of art, I don't strictly need any; I just really need to find out where they are located. I can steal it all later. So HK can negotiate down to one piece if that's what it takes."
"What if they don't take you to where Gardulla keeps the art? What if they bring you some pieces to choose from?"
I shrugged. "Then I use magic to mark them and find them that way."
Anakin grimaced and hunched his shoulders, but didn't reply.
The Hutt was grotesque. I'd seen one before; well, the corpse of one. I'd vanished it when cleaning out my short-lived bolt-hold in the lower levels of Coruscant. This was much larger. It exuded a sense of slime that had nothing to do with its glistening skin. It paid little attention to our group, preferring to gorge on living creatures plucked from a water bowl hovering at its side and laugh at the fierce knife fight going on in a pit.
HK spoke with Gardulla's aide at length. Anakin informed me that the being's title was 'majordomo'.
Glorified secretary, I mentally translated.
I looked around at Gardulla's entourage as the negotiations dragged on. In contrast to the populations of Telos and Naboo, humans were significantly outnumbered. Of the fifty or so individuals lounging, serving or guarding the room, most were humanoid, but fewer than ten could be described as human. Less than half of those could blend into Earth's population. Green-skinned, purple-eyed humans with facial tattoos were striking, to say the least.
There were other sights that drew my attention, however. A lithe, purple-skinned woman danced provocatively on a table on the far side of the room. Her clothing, if something that barely covered anything could be called such, shimmered in the dim light. She belonged to that species with the two tentacles sprouting out from the back of her head. Twi'ilek, Anakin informed me.
She could certainly dance; she looked born to it.
"She is a slave," Anakin supplied, noting my interest.
That fact quashed my rising libido. "I can't believe there are slaves still."
He looked at me quizzically. "There are always slaves."
I grimaced, but that was more or less true, even in my time. Trading people had long been profitable in the muggle world, though it was far more widespread among the underground magical societies. A good third of my bounties over the past five years had been for wizard slavers who would erase entire lifetimes of captured muggles and then sell the empty shell.
Having that sort of power over people unable to defend against it was one of the fastest ways to corrupt someone.
Still, at least it was conducted in secrecy, shrouded from public view, as the disgusting practices that it was. I was essentially an outsider here, yet I was permitted to witness degradation of sentient beings. A philosopher once said that slavery was the natural order of things. I hated to think that he was right.
HK returned to me with a faint, pneumatic hiss, leading an alien. "Statement: The negotiations were a success, Master."
"How many pieces can I pick?"
"Answer: One. However, you are not limited by the piece's value."
I gave a theatrical grimace and a long-suffering sigh, as though it were the bare minimum I could leave with. "All right."
The majordomo snapped his fingers to summon a couple of large guards. Each was easily twice my weight and their heads looked like green-skinned warthogs. They were given some instructions in a language that wasn't Basic. They nodded, and then gruffly gestured to me to follow.
We were led down into a warren of underground tunnels. The air down here was cool, but just as dry. Still, in terms of temperature, it was far more comfortable that outside.
The smells however, were worse.
The nose-crinkling, pungent stench of biological waste was strong in the tunnels. The reason being quite obvious; the slave pens were down here. It took quite some will not to let my revulsion show on my face.
There was no racism here, all species were ill-treated equally. Human, Twi'ilek, or any of dozens I didn't know the name of; it didn't matter. Slaves were kept together in pens, allowed to form their own hierarchy among themselves through violence and domination. Though it seemed there was some propriety – nursing mothers were kept apart in their own separate communal cell. The despair was palpable, but the women still doted on their offspring. One mother trilled a lullaby to her baby, trying to settle it.
Anakin's eyes widened as we passed that pen. I wondered if it was the flesh on display that caused his reaction, but he whispered to me, "That woman there is singing a Nabooan song."
I kept my expression carefully neutral, just nodding in recognition of his statement. It was hardly surprising that an invading force willing to strip an entire world of cultural treasures would also sell captured citizens into slavery. "Later," I replied in English, my mind already adjusting my plans.
He accepted that, but I could tell he was itching to right that wrong.
We were led to a storeroom. One of several pig-faced guards used his security credentials to open the door, positioning his body with exaggerated care to hide the procedure from me.
Once inside, I recognized several of the hundreds of pieces of art in the room from the datapad Sio Bibble gave me. I selected a sculpture that was one of the first items on his list. It was about the size of a football and sturdy. It would do. The guard nodded, accepting my choice.
We were then escorted out of the complex, and roughly searched to ensure we hadn't pilfered anything. I got the impression that the guards would have preferred to find something to give them the opportunity to beat me up a bit. Begrudgingly, they accepted that we hadn't taken anything and led us back through the settlement to the spaceport hangerbays.
The unloading of water and fish went smoothly. Scans for purity and volume were conducted, the results pleasing. Several droids accepted the barrels and tanks, clutching them securely and scurrying off, escorted by several armed beings. Water really was valuable on this planet.
HK took receipt of the payment; the sculpture and some of the local trading currency that seemed to consist of metal bars. He announced that we had been shorted several grams, but I instructed him to let it go. I had what I needed and Gardulla was pleased that he'd got the better of me. Making a scene would just make me more memorable; and make it that much more difficult to obliviate the memories of my visit.
Once the last of the Hutt's minions had departed, I instructed HK to escort Anakin and Artoo to go and buy his mother. The trio trundled off, Anakin burbling excitedly and HK as acerbic as ever.
Once alone, I prepared myself and the ship for the heist I was about to pull off. I layered myself with my customised non-detection suite of charms and clothed myself carefully.
Invisibility wasn't an issue; the third Deathly Hallow was even better than other invisibility cloaks in that it masked a larger range of the light spectrum. Where other cloaks were crafted to mask the visible spectrum of light, mine masked me far into both the infrared and ultraviolet. I had tried it with HK and Artoo in hyperspace, and neither could see me using any of their optical sensors.
Echolocation was still a problem, however. Many species used some variation to navigate, as did many common security devices. A few charms went to making me undetectable by sound. I'd customised a charm years ago so that it would allow noise 'in' but not 'out'. Walking around in a bubble of silence was risky if you wanted to be aware of things like alarms.
Another thing not masked by the cloak was scent. It took three distinct charms to mask my presence olfactorily. They neutralised my body odour, but also filtered my breath and kept my skin and hair from shedding. A bubblehead charm would keep any airborne toxins at bay. It felt disgusting holding those spells on for any long period of time, and I always needed to scrub thoroughly in the shower afterwards.
A complex set of spells on my boots kept the soles a half-centimetre above the ground. I could walk and still feel the pebbles beneath my feet, but I didn't touch the ground. It wasn't enough to throw my spatial judgement off, but it did keep me from leaving footprints or setting off pressure detectors – be they alarms or mines.
And with all that preparation complete, it was time to go to work.
It took me less than three minutes to apparate to and empty the storeroom in Gardulla's complex of entire museums' worth of art and artefacts. There was no finesse in my theft, I simply shrank and stuffed the lot into some moleskin pouches, apparating back and forth to my ship to unload a few times.
With Bibble's contract secured, I went exploring. The tracking spells I'd placed on the water and fishtanks led me to other storerooms filled with valuables, and I pilfered what I wanted from those too. It was easy enough to identify the vaults that stored the most valuable things; the more security outside the door, the more worth behind it.
That basic tenet led me to what could only be Gardulla's treasury. A room stacked high with metal bars etched with denominations could only really be one thing.
No prizes for guessing what I left there.
It did not surprise me that shrinking and packing the bars set off all sorts of nasty things. Imposing gun turrents emerged from the floor and ceiling, and a greenish gas hissed into the room.
The turrets panned back and forth, searching for a target. I just apparated back to my ship to drop off the heavy haul.
But the slave pens were my primary objective. I was a mercenary, a bounty hunter and a thief. By some standards, I was a pirate, a murderer and a kidnapper too. But as nasty a bastard as I was, I was never, ever going to let slavery stand.
Of all the valuable commodities in Gardulla's place, the slaves were the only ones under constant guard. I had to reduce the contingent before I could enact my plans.
I hadn't bothered hiding my labours, and the alarm was well and truly raised by the time I popped back to the slave pens. Panicked shouts and grizzly threats echoed throughout the complex as those tasked with guarding valuables desperately tried to determine exactly what had gone missing, how it had gone missing, and most importantly, who was to blame – so long as it wasn't them.
With all the excitement of hunting for the dastardly thieves going on, barely a handful of biped porcine-faced guards were left to watch over the slaves. It was simple enough to confound them and go about my business unhindered.
My favourite method of transporting unwilling people was to stun and transfigure them into small beads. You could simply add a piece of conjured thread and you had a worthless-looking piece of junk that you could wear on your wrist and claim had been a birthday gift from a pre-school-aged niece; a circumstance almost guaranteed to bypass even the most obstinate customs official.
Stunning children and the elderly was tricky, however. It was better to simply encourage them to sleep. They'd still need to be transfigured, however. I didn't want their explosive device to trigger.
Under the few guards' unwatchful eyes, I set about my work. I carefully cast a wide-area jinx that caused drowsiness, and one by one, ten by ten, they all dozed off. With more than a hundred slaves, it took the better part of an hour to process them. It was made more difficult by my need to wake each and inquire if they were Nabooan; I noted their name and home city if they were. Either way, I put them back to sleep and transfigured them into beads; Nabooans just got to be a different colour ceramic bead. I was interrupted several times; both by alien slaves with an innate resistance to my sleep jinx and by anxious guards who burst in with updates on the fruitless search. It got rather tedious, having to confound them and send them on their way.
Once every single slave in the pens had been collected, I retraced my steps to the main hall where Gardulla had ignored me. There was one last person I needed to see.
The Hutt was roaring in his guttural language, through a voice noticeably hoarser than earlier in the day. Armed beings rushed about, barking orders into small communication devices or at tiny blue holograms. In one corner, several slaves huddled, their bodies and faces battered and bruised. It looked like someone had taken their frustrations out on them.
The purple-skinned dancer that had so captivated me earlier was one of that group; she was comforting a younger, blue-skinned Twi'ilek.
I spotted the majordomo and determined that it was unnecessary to remove his memories of meeting me. There was a very high probability that he was dead. I still wasn't up to speed on the capabilities of different species, but I figured you still needed your head attached to qualify as living.
Time for some entertainment. I drifted unseen back out of the room and summoned some small stones for transfiguration.
A few minutes later, dozens of Padfeet burst into the room and began snapping and snarling at the occupants. I apparated over to the cowering slaves and stunned them. Amid all the commotion, no one noticed them slump, then disappear. Indeed, the Hutt had difficulty keeping his mind on anything other than the fact his entourage had abandoned him. And if he did manage to focus on anything else, it would probably be the fact his arms were being gnawed off.
I didn't bother to watch the play to the end. I waved my wand, reverting each dog to a stone; more or less vanishing them without a trace.
Just like me.
I surveyed the valuables in the ship's hold as I waited for my crew to return and daydreamed about how the locals would deal with the fantastical stories of vanishing creatures. Once I was happy with how everything was organised, I hid the entrance behind a smaller room that contained just the sculpture, some food and some water. To any observer, it looked like a sparsely populated hold.
An hour or so after my successful heist, Anakin's happy, chirping voice drew closer to the ship. I couldn't help but grin at the unadulterated joy in his tone. I made my way towards the ramp to greet them.
Anakin's mother was a prematurely aged woman who must have been a striking beauty in her youth. She clutched a cloth bag to her chest with bony hands as she approached the ship, her features showing blissful bewilderment at her unexpected change of circumstance.
Anakin could barely stop talking to take his next breath. HK strode along behind them, but I could almost feel his contempt for the happy occasion. Artoo chirped and warbled to another droid; one that was... undressed.
"Harry!" Anakin blurted. "This is my mother, Shmi." He then spoke quickly in Basic. "Mum, this is Harry," was all I caught before the rush of words overwhelmed my ability to translate.
HK obliged. "Translation: The little meatbag is praising you. Vocal analysis suggests an emotive state that ensures the tribute shall persist for some time," HK said derisively.
I gave him a shrug. "Who's the other droid?"
"Answer: That is the droid the little meatbag assembled out of scrap," he explained, though there was a distinct lack of disdain. Perhaps the ability to build a functioning artificial intelligence before puberty was a skill even HK found impressive. "It appears to have no limiters on its dialogue circuits. I explained that I would tear out its vocal processor if it did not shut up. I suggest you do the same."
I looked at the unnamed droid. It was the same sort of shape as the droid at the Jedi Temple, but it was just a mass of exposed components and wiring. It trundled forward in that familiar, shuffling gait. "I am See Three Pee Oh. It is a pleasure to meet you," it said in Basic. "If there is anything I can do to assist, please do not-"
I ignored it and turned back to HK. "Any trouble?"
"Negative: No, Master. I was not given the opportunity to kill a single meatbag."
"Not even one?" I asked neutrally, rather pleased that he hadn't managed to get us in even more trouble.
"Resignation: No. It was a thoroughly uneventful expedition."
Anakin glared at the droid. "You threatened Watto!"
HK turned to face the boy. "Observation: The Toydarian was exploiting your biological urge to protect your genetic line. My function is to protect my Master – and his interests. Overpaying for something is against my programming."
"As pleased as I am to have you do that," I interjected, "exactly how did you threaten the, what did you call him, the Toydarian?"
Anakin's expression was a study in contrasts. He was desperately trying to maintain a mask of offended indignation, but the twitching of his lips belied his amusement. "He threatened to mount Watto on the front of a pod racer and shoot him into the mouth of a Hutt."
I raised an eyebrow at HK. "Mount?"
"Clarification: The little meatbag misunderstood. Impale, was the term I used. And I specifically mentioned the waste orifice of a Hutt, not the mouth."
I nodded. "Ah. You got a good price then, I take it?"
"Affirmative: Significantly under market value, yes, Master."
"Good." I turned to Anakin's mother. "Welcome to this ship," I said in Basic.
Shmi swallowed and nodded. "Thank you. And thank you for looking after Anakin." She then said something I didn't catch, but the word 'Jedi' featured.
Anakin looked a bit sheepish. "The Jedi didn't want me," he answered.
Shmi looked shocked at that, but immediately dropped her bag, knelt down and embraced her son.
I left them to their reunion, gesturing to HK to follow me to the cockpit. "Have you heard any news about a theft?" I asked. "Professional curiosity, you understand."
That my venture was a success was obvious. According to HK, there was quite some buzz surrounding Gardulla flowing on the local holonet. Facts were thin on the ground, but rumours there were aplenty. Mostly ridiculous, but one common element was that someone had broken into the Hutt's place and somehow taken all his money. And all his slaves. People were inclined to believe that the thief had escaped, due to the fact that the spaceport had been locked down.
I shook my head in wonder at the concept of a tractor beam that locked ships down in place. That was a bit of a bugger. It would have been nice to on our way back to Naboo. Still, it wasn't as though anyone searching my ship would find anything. Or remember it if they did.
Every ship that had filed leave to depart got a visit from some heavily armed thugs demanding to search the ship. As the captains and crew of those ships tended to be on the anarchistic, belligerent side, things got out of hand quickly.
By the time the twin suns rose the next day, the news had spread beyond any recognizable limit. Employees of the Hutt were threatened with torture and death if the unidentified gang of thieves escaped off world, which did little other than encourage mass voluntary, not to mention immediate, resignations. The loss of so many minions was bad, the loss of that much wealth was worse, but the loss of face was irreparable. The other Hutts on Tatooine, while decrying the event and promising vengeful retribution on the perpetrators once found, wasted no time in muscling in on Gardulla's crippled operations.
I doubt you could retain a reputation as a trusted slave trader if all your slaves vanished one night; especially when some of them had already been paid for and were just waiting pick up or delivery.
Word was that the signal to trigger each missing slave's explosive implant was sent within an hour of the breakout. That there were no gory explosions convinced most that the slaves had already left the planet.
That particular rumour was good from my point of view.
We did all the necessary maintenance on the ship while armed gangs of desperate, nervous thugs prowled and searched the spaceport. The ships in the docking bays on either side of us were boarded and searched repeatedly. But we sat behind our Notice-Me-Not screen, only bothered by a squad led by a droid.
C-3PO tried convincing them to depart peacefully.
HK gleefully rendered them down into scrap when they would not. He did complain about his performance afterwards, however.
Having his mother in close proximity made Anakin as happy as could be imagined. Shmi still looked bewildered, and the constant wringing of her hands indicated that she had no idea what her new station in life meant. She took it upon herself to cook for us and scrub the ship clean, despite being told it was not necessary.
The poor woman had been a slave so long that serving was now part of her nature.
She didn't have Anakin's gift for languages, so our conversations in Basic were pretty... basic. I cast a couple of unobtrusive spells on her to evaluate her health. Apart from long-term minor dehydration and poor nutrition, she seemed in good health. A few big meals made from hearty Telosian fare and as much water as she could drink worked wonders.
As I watched the fist-fights and arguments around the spaceport, it occurred to me that trying to secure a trading post populated mostly by smugglers' ships was an exercise in futility. As ship after ship either evaded the lockdown or were shot down, more and more attempted to run the gauntlet.
Eventually, unable to cope with the sheer volume of sneaky bastards, the security fields collapsed. I jumped at the opportunity and fired up the engines. We joined the mass exodus and flew off into space amid scores of other ships.
Anakin made the necessary calculations and engaged the hyperdrive, sending the ship hurtling towards Naboo. "At least we didn't meet the Dark Man this time," he said with a lopsided smile.
I turned the pilot's chair to look at him. "Dark Man? What Dark Man?"
He looked up at me, his clear blue eyes guileless. "When the Jedi who freed me took me to his ship; a man in black attacked us. He had," he paused and spoke to HK, miming lines on his face and tapping his fingers at intervals around his head.
"Translation: The little meatbag describes the Dark Man as a Zabrak with red and black facial tattoos."
I stared at him for a moment, a sudden certainty in my mind. "And a red lightsaber?" I asked.
Anakin looked surprised, but nodded.
I fished around in a magically expanded pocket, before pulling out my prize. I lit one crimson blade and asked, "This one?"
The lad leaned back, his eyes wide. "Yes! Where did you get it?" He jumped up from his seat and moved for a closer look.
I shared a glance with HK before shutting off the blade. "I took it from a Zabrak with a red and black face. He tried to kill me. I didn't like that, so I killed him."
Anakin's eyes widened further. "How? Even Master Qui-Gon had trouble fighting him."
I smirked. "He couldn't fly, so I threw him off a building."
Anakin appeared to give that some thought. "That would work, I guess," he said with a nod.
I gave him a rueful grin. "He'd have turned me into paste if I stood up to him. Never fight someone on terms of their choosing. That's a very important lesson." I shook my head and laughed sadly. "Never enter an arse kicking contest with a hedgehog," I said in English, quoting a paranoid old friend.
He tilted his head to one side. "What is a hedgehog?"
I waved my wand and cast a conjuration spell. "That's a hedgehog." I pointed to a part of its anatomy. "That's its arse. Understand?"
His eyes lit up. "Yes. Don't fight someone where they are strongest."
I winked at him. "Exactly. Of course, a lot of people know that rule. The trick is to keep your strengths hidden. You're going to need to learn how to do that."
I chuckled. "Because a lot of people are probably going to be looking for me soon. I just stole everything of value from Gardulla."
He gaped at me. "Everything? Not just the art?"
I nodded. "Everything. The art for your friend the Queen. All his money. All the crates in his storerooms, we'll need to open them to see what's in them." I leaned forward with a grin on my face. "And I got all the slaves." My command of Basic was improving, but I probably still sounded like a child.
He gasped. "The slaves? But they would die if they escaped!"
I shook my head. "I changed them into something else. I will change them back once we are safe."
"Query: You used your 'transfiguration' skill to change the physical structure of the slaves, Master?"
"Yep. Their bombs can't go boom if they're not bombs."
Once in the relative safety of hyperspace, I showed HK the stack of trading bars. He was satisfactorily impressed; estimating that even at a poor exchange rate there was several million republic credits worth of value in them.
It was sublimely satisfying to confirm that lessons learned in the past translated so well to the future. Removing monetary assets from criminals still destroyed their power.
I was doing a public service, really.
We also examined the other things I stole. There were pallets of something called spice, lots of different drugs, entire crates of weapons and all sorts of chemicals. There were several packages of restraints and other tools of the slaving trade. And a lot of a liquid HK had never seen before, but was labelled 'Bacta'.
The rest of the crew knew what it was, however; a generic and potent healing substance that could repair injuries, cure disease and even assist in regrowing damaged organs. It had long replaced HK's temporal equivalent of kolto.
The thought of a miraculous healing agent that seemed as powerful as the Philosopher's Stone made me rather less nervous about sustaining injuries here in the future. My limited supply of medicinal potions would not be strained by my usual need.
Once we had passed the final waypoint and were on our last leg, I asked Artoo to contact Bibble on Naboo.
"Ah, Captain. I was not expecting to hear from you so soon."
I nodded, pleased that I could understand that without HK's help. "I found something you will want more."
The translucent blue figure's expression darkened. "I am not in the habit of changing agreements after the fact."
I didn't react. "The Hutt had thirty-six Nabooan slaves. They were taken in the invasion."
"What?" Bibble exploded. "The Trade Federation sold my citizens to that slime?"
I shrugged. "I couldn't say. I just know that they were there. I made the call to save them." I grinned and recited a phrase HK suggested. "I thought you'd prefer rescued people rather than rescued art to parade in front of the Senate."
Bibble narrowed his eyes. "I do not take kindly to cynicism. But if there really were Nabooan citizens in the clutches of that Hutt, then I owe you a great debt. I shall have a priority hanger with medical droids made ready for you."
I snorted. "Don't be stupid. If I land and unload ex-slaves, I will get identified. I will have death mark. The Hutt was not happy to lose his things."
That surprised him. "You liberated all the Nabooan citizens in the Hutt's clutches without being identified?"
I just grinned back at him.
Bibble pursed his lips. "I see. What do you suggest?"
"I want you to give me some numbers of place on Naboo where there is no one watching. I will land and leave slaves there."
"Numbers? You mean coordinates?"
I nodded, hoping that was right. "Have your people ready to help one hundred and twenty-seven freed slaves."
"One-hundred and twenty-seven? You said thirty-six!"
"Thirty-six Nabooans. They weren't the only slaves there."
He gaped at me. "You stole every slave the Hutt had? Have you any idea what that means?"
"Not a clue," I retorted. "But I want to keep unknown."
Bibble nodded. "I am not surprised. What do you propose?"
"Make a space in your security for me to go through without being spotted. I will drop off slaves and fly back out. You get slaves, then I will fly back in after. No one sees me."
Suspicion blossomed on Bibble's face. "You ask much."
I nodded to Artoo. "I'm sending the names of Nabooans I rescued."
The politician still glared at me suspiciously. "I shall examine your data. If I deem it valid, I shall send you instructions on a lapse in our security."
The information Artoo sent proved compelling enough for Panaka to contact me himself. The captain expressed some scepticism that I had managed to rescue so many slaves in my small ship, but gave me detailed instructions on how to exploit an unscheduled outage at one of the sensor stations on the far side of the planet.
Anakin and I were able to navigate the ship through the small corridor of sensor failure. The coordinates supplied by Panaka turned out to be an abandoned military supply dump. There was no equipment remaining, but the concr- duracrete paved area was flat and open, surrounded by empty bunkers. I asked Anakin to keep Shmi occupied while HK and I organised the ex-slaves.
The air was warm in the late afternoon sun. I transfigured a small mattress for each slave, and reversed the transfiguration of the beads. It took about half an hour, but by the time I was finished, each slave slumbered on the mattresses. They were a bit dehydrated but healthy enough.
My eyes lingered on the purple-skinned Twi'ilek. I carefully adjusted the thin strips of cloth that were her clothes to maintain her dignity. I left the younger blue-skinned Twi'ilek next to her.
We left Artoo and C-3PO to watch over the sleeping beings until their official rescue came. Neither droid could really be traced to me.
We took off and flew off into space. A micro jump put us outside the Nabooan planetary sensors. We drifted in the black long enough for the slaves to be rescued and that news to be disseminated.
We then flew back in and waited in line with all the other ships. We didn't need to wait long. Apparently the Queen was keen to meet with me.
Well, us. There was an honour guard waiting in the assigned hanger bay; three times the size as the last one but carrying barely half the weapons. We were definitely in the royal good books.
Shmi and Anakin held hands, but I could see the woman tremble with anxiety. HK just walked beside me, his head constantly turning from side to side, scanning for threats. We were escorted to an unfamiliar room. But the big ornate chair in the middle suggested that this was the throne room.
The Queen and her entourage rose as we were announced. Panaka and Bibble I recognised, and there were several handmaidens in identical robes that may or may not have been the same ones I met last time. Artoo and C-3PO were also in attendance.
There were also two of the slaves I rescued.
One of them gasped and nodded energetically as she recognised me. "Yes, that is him, Your Highness."
Wonderful. My anonymity was about as assured as Draco Malfoy's humility.
AN: A very big thank you to all my reviewers and readers, for your patience and reviews. I have not abandoned this fic; I've got some very clear thoughts about the plot direction.
The problem is… one of the pop-up ads on this site notified me of the fact that Star Wars: The Old Republic had gone free-to-play. Thus, the delay in this chapter. Sorry, again.