Anything you recognise is either JK's, George's or Disney's. Anything else probably belongs to them too.
Horn's anger did not dissipate on his initial verbal explosion. "You cannot be serious! You want to hire him?"
"I do not want to hire him!" Halcyon snapped. "I want to have nothing to do with him. The Jedi Council however, want answers."
"CorSec does not answer to the Jedi Council!"
There was an audible sigh. "My obligations to the Jedi do not often come into conflict with my CorSec duties. But in this case I must side with the Council. Whatever that man did to you tore the Force, and he does not appear to know or care. Remember some weeks back when every Green Jedi suddenly collapsed? That happened the instant he appeared in the Jedi Temple. Every Jedi in the galaxy felt it."
That was interesting. Whatever Bellatrix's portal did to me affected the Jedi of this galaxy to that extent? I knew that magic messed them up, but knocking out everyone across the galaxy? No wonder they were so pissed at me.
There was a long pause that gave me time to gather my thoughts. "What do you mean, appeared? Is that his 'teleport' trick?"
"We don't know. Possibly. Twenty-seven Jedi across the galaxy died in that instant because of that man's appearance, Rostek. And not only Jedi; over three thousand Kuati workers and engineers perished when a ship a Jedi was piloting crashed into the shipyard they were manning. There are civil wars underway because the Jedi mediators fell at critical moments. They were fighting, or flying, or were leaping into danger before they were unexpectedly incapacitated. That man does not know or care. Is it from ignorance or apathy? The Council want him evaluated."
"Why don't you just try asking him?" Horn snapped sarcastically.
Halcyon actually sounded abashed. "Given his treatment at Jedi hands, I suspect he would not be forthcoming."
Not exactly a Sherlock Holmes-esque level of deductive ability required there, I thought with a mental sneer.
"You mean like the way you drew your lightsaber on him?"
There was another sigh. "Yes, exactly. His abilities cause Jedi discomfort, even pain. The Force warns us of danger by... calling out to us, for want of a better description. But what he does makes it shriek in agony. As someone who allows the Force to guide me, my instincts make me react poorly. I understand some of the more... abrupt Masters also made some poor decisions when confronting him. As it is, he holds an understandable level of distrust."
I idly wondered if stating the obvious was considered a super-power in this time.
"I suppose stating my objection won't change a thing? In that case, what would you have him do? There are plenty of public bounty boards we could pick from. I'm not going to countenance him working on a case for us."
"Neither would I. And no, hiring him for a bounty would be a political nightmare if he acts in a manner consistent with an amoral nature. I will offer him something that requires nothing in the way of destructive or overtly illegal acts."
"What do you have in mind?"
"I want him to deliver a message to Agent Blue."
"Blue is undercover!"
"Exactly. I want to see how he handles a task that does not require anything in the way of conflict. Will he be subtle? What sort of problem solving skills does he have? What risks will he take? The Jedi can infer much from such data."
The pair spent a little time trying to intimidate me before laying out what they wanted me to do. I agreed readily enough, though naming my price caused them to blanch a bit. Still, with a few caveats they agreed. I was given the message Halcyon wanted me to deliver and the manner in which it was to be delivered. It was clever enough.
Horn escorted me back to the Gryphon after CorSec had gone through the motions of acting on C-3PO's report. He showed no indication of the contempt he held for me on the way, even smiling and shaking my hand when we reached the hanger. I just nodded neutrally in return. There were people watching us after all. It wouldn't do to have them get the idea that I was all chummy with the police.
I was barely half way up the Gryphon's ramp when C-3PO's irritating voice greeted me. "Welcome back, Captain Harry! I trust that-"
"Where's Anakin?" I snapped.
The droid leaned back slightly. "I believe he is in the Galley with Mistress Shmi."
"Go to the bridge," I ordered. "Stay there until I call for you." I swept past the droid, ignoring the rest of his blather.
Anakin was indeed in the galley. He and his mother greeted me as I entered.
I smiled at the joy the pair exhibited just from being in each other's presence. "Shmi, can I borrow Anakin? I've got some tasks for him."
"Of course," she replied.
Anakin trotted over to me. "What's up?"
I handed him the metallic cylinder Horn had given me. "I'm told there are authorisations on this that will allow HK and Artoo to dock my new ship next to the Gryphon. Ownership has been transferred to me."
Anakin grinned. "Another ship! What are you going to call it?"
I shrugged. "Not sure yet. Maybe you can think of a good name. Can you go to the bridge and send a message to Artoo? There should be coordinates and a flight path on that thing."
"Check it first, to make sure there isn't anything on there that will bypass our security. Call me when you're done."
"Okay!" he agreed, and took off at a jog.
Shmi smiled wistfully at his retreating form. "Thank you so much for taking care of him."
I nodded. "I need to head down to the planet soon. Do you mind if I take him with me? I have some research to do and I might need him to help."
"It won't be dangerous, will it?"
I wasn't about to lie. "Not this part of it. I've been given a task by CorSec. But I need to do some research first, that's what I'll use Anakin for. However, being around me tends to be dangerous. You have my word that I will do all in my power to return him safely."
She bit her lip. "What task?" she asked. Her eyes suddenly widened. "If I may ask, of course!"
"You're not a slave any more, Shmi. You can ask whatever you like. I may not answer, but you can always ask."
She nodded. "Thank you."
"As for the task, I'm just supposed to pass a message on to someone."
"That doesn't sound difficult or dangerous."
I gave her a cheeky grin. "No, but hey, it's me!"
Her lips twisted into a line of disapproval, but there was a suppressed smile behind them too. "Anakin can get into trouble so very easily too."
"I can't wait to see what the two of us together can attract then," I retorted with a grin.
The galley communications console lit up. "Harry? Artoo says he's on his way. They'll be here soon."
"I'll be right there."
Artoo piloted my new ship along a designated flight path with comical precision. I watched on the Gryphon's viewscreen as the ship followed a perfectly straight vector until it reached a particular point, then it stopped dead. Artoo rotated the ship, before beginning another perfectly straight leg. Just minutes after spotting it out the airlock, it docked in the bay next to us.
Customs agents and droids were waiting to swarm all over it.
Well, good luck to them in finding anything. HK and Artoo were pretty thorough in what they ejected.
"Are you going to let them on the ship without you?" Anakin asked me.
I shrugged. "That was part of the deal. CorSec gave me title to it in return for the chance to search it for what contraband they could. They'll probably get everything they can from the computer to build a case against the smugglers and pirates we captured. I'll go and meet them to make sure HK doesn't start a war."
Anakin snorted. "You'd better hurry then."
I grinned at his attitude. He was coming along nicely. He was correct though, I'd better move it. The best result of an unrestrained HK would be me spending a lot of time filling out the tedious paperwork that resulted from the deaths of public servants.
By the time I got to the exit ramp, someone else was approaching the ship. A tall, attractive human female closed to the base of the Gryphon's ramp with two droids following along next to her. "Captain Harry?" she queried.
I gave her a winning smile and a suggestive expression. "That's me."
She looked down her nose at me as though I was mud on her boot. Well, you can't impress everyone with a smile and a sexy sportscar – well, ship.
"Sasha Thrack, Industrial Automation – Sales Division. I have two droids here for you," she sneered.
I glanced at the two droids. Both looked almost exactly like Artoo, but with different colour schemes and panel sizes. "I was expecting more than two." I glanced over at my new ship and noted that the Customs agents were still waiting for the ramp to be lowered. I had a little time.
"They're coming," she snapped. "These two were the last ones we had in our warehouse from that production run. You sure you only want this model? We've got more recent ones in stock. This model run was terminated early; they tend to get a bit quirky if they don't get regular memory wipes."
"Quirky?" I asked, wondering what the word meant.
"Nothing dangerous," she clarified, presumably walking the fine line of getting a bigger commission by selling more expensive droids without getting the entire order cancelled. "CorSec use this model, and they work well. They just get a bit unpredictable – their prioritisation of standing orders gets muddled."
I shrugged. "I can tolerate quirky, so long as they're loyal and reliable."
Sasha barked a laugh. "Loyalty is hard-wired in, and reliability is not a problem. These will work in anything from zero to two-hundred-plus gees, and are hardened to withstand just about any level of space radiation. They'll work caked in sand or even underwater."
"Useful," I agreed, not understanding much of that as my attention was split. The ramp to my new ship descended and the agents swarmed aboard. Dammit. I needed to move this along.
She presented me with a datapad. "Thumbprint here. Delivery of the rest of your order will still be a while though. We have to dig them out of warehouses all over the galaxy. They'll arrive on Corellia soon, but I can't tell you exactly when."
I pressed my thumb onto the indicated spot. "Anything else I need to know?" I asked, looking past her.
She patted the red one. "R2-DH5 has a full mechanic build. It will maintain just about any system on your ship, standard or not."
The red droid whistled and rocked from side to side like an excited puppy.
She sighed, but indicated the green one. "R2-C9 had a Law Enforcement build, but that wasn't civilian grade, so we had to remove the hardware. It was slated for warranty replacements for CorSec. It will still do repairs, but right now it's customised for data processing. I can have it wiped and a different build installed if you like."
I shook my head. "That will be fine. What do I call them?"
She frowned. "I just told you."
Clearly giving droids usable names was beyond these people. "Fine. Thanks. Right you two, come on.
The red droid spun in a complete circle before racing up the ramp, toodling and hooting as it went. The green one rolled up next to me and beeped once.
Sasha sighed. "Quirky," she said in an apologetic tone, before turning and leaving.
Quirky didn't begin to cover it. The red droid had spotted something at the top of the ramp that was out of place and had stopped to fix it with a squeal of delight. After a few seconds of sparking and a coil of blue smoke, it warbled at me before racing off down a corridor, searching for another component to molest.
The green droid at my side gave a low, embarrassed-sounding whine.
I couldn't help but chuckle. "Don't worry. You stay with me; I could use your skills."
I trotted over to my new ship. There were several shouts of alarm from within and the customs agents outside the ship suddenly drew their weapons and dove for cover. A pair of agents raced out of the ship, screaming in terror.
I sighed. Anakin was right.
Fortunately, there were a set of spells that catered for just such an occasion. Several of my targets over the past few years had tried hiding in the Muggle world. That didn't bother me much; for obvious reasons I was comfortable working amongst Muggles. However, most people got desperate when the Master of Death was after them, and something piddly like the Statute of Secrecy wasn't going to stop them from acting out.
After my targets made a hash of things, causing Kingsley to stop polishing the Minister's chair with his bum and personally sort things out, he ordered the Auror Corps' Charms master to give me instruction. I was taught the suite of charms the Aurors used to encourage cooperation from Muggle law enforcement officers. Even veteran beat coppers who'd just witnessed the impossible would happily hand over their investigation to a man who could show them the right sort of identification. Even if it was just a blank piece of paper.
It helped that they believed it was identification that had exactly the right expertise needed in this situation and the official rank to go along with it.
I cast those spells, then raised my wand to my throat. One sonorous later, I shouted, "HK! Stand down!"
Every agent turned to face me, all in shock at the sheer volume of my order. They kept their guns trained on the ship though. I let my wand return to its holster and strode forward. I raised a hand to the agents and gave a small nod, giving off the vibe that I was in complete control of the situation.
HK strode down the ramp, holding a complaining protocol droid in one hand and a panicking agent in the other; both of them by the throat.
"Objection: These meatbags boarded your vessel without authorisation, Master. Preventing me from eliminating this threat will only encourage further such liberties in future."
One of the agents shouted, "Release your hostage and surrender!"
"I'll handle this. Do shut up," I told him, trusting my magic to overcome his innate objections. I faced HK, sighed and said, in English, "Unless there's anything illegal on board that you missed ejecting, there's no harm in letting them have a look. Put that fellow down. Gently, for preference."
HK dropped the agent, who fell to the ramp in a boneless heap and rolled down with the slope, gasping and wheezing. "Complaint: Eliminating the previous meatbag occupants of this ship was unsatisfying. Now you order me to let aggressive invaders alone? Master, what has gotten into you?"
I grinned at him. "They've hired me for a job. I intend to have an enormous amount of profitable fun completing it. I need you in top form though; there's very likely going to be a lot of shooting."
"Clarification: Shooting, or killing?" HK fired back. He'd clearly heard such promises before.
I tilted my head from side to side. "Knowing my luck, I suspect quite a lot of both. Especially if things go wrong. Which they undoubtedly will."
HK negligently tossed the protocol droid away, and pulled his cannon from his shoulder as the Customs fellow in charge stormed up, his weapon trained on HK. "Drop the weapon!" he shouted.
I hit him with a surreptitious confoundus charm to soften his willpower up. "Congratulations. Your drill was a success. No one was injured." I glanced down at the fellow on his knees, still coughing and massaging his throat. "Well, not too badly."
He blinked at me. "Drill? A success?"
"Indeed," I nodded agreeably. "Well done. Your performance is still being evaluated, however. The ship is secure. Take your men and sweep it thoroughly. You are being observed and graded."
He shook his head, but couldn't rid himself of my magical suggestion. "Right! The ship is secure. Sweep it from fore to stern!"
I turned to HK. "Where is Artoo?"
"Answer: Completing the tiresome docking checklist procedure and deactivating the ship's systems."
"Okay," I agreed without understanding. "Let's go back to the Gryphon. I need your help translating."
I led HK and the relatively quiet astromech to the Gryphon's bridge. The green droid's dome spun around, scanning in the room. It rolled over to one side of the room and extruded a complicated sort of thing from its body. It jammed that into a hole in the computer bank.
A screen lit up, displaying a single word. 'Orders?'
I scratched my head. "Is there a reason this kind of droid can't talk?" I asked HK.
"Answer: Astromech droids are not equipped with vocal processors."
Rather than embarrass myself by questioning why something seemingly so simple was not in fact implemented, I rubbed my chin, thinking back to my interrogation. Specifically, what I'd learned about Horn via Legilimency. "HK, I'll need you to translate this for me. Is there some sort of public market where I can purchase stakes in companies?"
"Answer: Of course, Master. Planets with indigenous, space-faring populations have their own local exchange, but there are System, Cluster, and even Galactic Exchanges for companies willing to submit to the suffocating levels of bureaucratic oversight in exchange for a greatly enlarged pool of greedy meatbags and their credits."
"Good. Get R2-C9 to find me some companies that I can buy shares in. Or even better, companies that I can buy rights to shares at the current price in the future. The companies need to be able to supply industrial levels of gardening supplies – seeds, fertiliser, equipment, the works. Billions and billions of credits worth. They can't be based on Corellia, but are capable of shipping large amounts of shit here."
HK dutifully translated before turning back to me. "Query: What is the purpose of such an asinine request?"
I grinned. "If there are companies that fit my criteria, I might just-"
I was interrupted by the green droid. It beeped and displayed a list of a few dozen names on the screen.
"Already?" I was impressed.
It repeated the beeping.
"Fine, are you able to figure out which ones would go up most in value if they received orders of half a billion credits or more?"
Seconds later, the list resorted itself. The top five flashed.
"Excellent. HK, I'm going to get a lot of the bars out of storage. I'll need you to take them and set up a trading account for me with one of the financiers on the station. If this contract CorSec have given me works out, I want to buy every option available for those companies."
I was obliged to use some runes to upgrade HK's weaponry, just to get him to shut up. There was only so many times you could listen to how the current state of affairs was unsatisfactory.
As usual, the biggest engineering problem facing the weapons was that of heat dissipation. While these guns were orders of magnitude more advanced that the gunpowder-based versions of Earth, a simple cold-based rune meant HK could increase both the rate of fire and the power.
It drew down the power cell far faster, but HK gleefully announced that carrying reloads was a tolerable drawback to increasing damage output by more than an order of magnitude.
His subsequent request for an expanded fuel cell was predictable. I told him that I'd have to think about it. Not only how to accomplish it, but whether or not it would be a good idea for a career sociopath to have unlimited destruction at his robotic fingertips.
As bad judgement went, there probably wasn't much that topped it, but the runes added to his weapon were a good test for my plans for the Gryphon's weapons, engines and shields.
Several hours later, with a couple of droids in tow, Anakin, Kalu'minari and I exited the hangerbay and made our way towards the public planetary shuttle. "I'm guessing that you are conflicted about whether to go with the Jedi or stay with your mother," I said, opening the conversation.
He nodded. "I didn't want to leave her on Tatooine. But if I wanted to become a Jedi, I had to.
I kept my thoughts on that level of idiocy private. "All right then. She's going to be safe on Coruscant with a job. Surely you're happy about that?"
He looked up at me. "Hasn't she told you? She wants to stay on the Gryphon."
I blinked. "Really?"
I made a mental note to talk to her. "Do you still want to be a Jedi?"
"I don't know," he admitted. "I don't even know if anyone other than Master Qui-Gon wants me to be a Jedi either. Why would they have put me on Telos if they didn't?"
"I can't help you there. And I can't teach you how to use the Force either. It's pretty obvious that what I do is not really compatible with it." That was an understatement, if what Halcyon said was true. Magic somehow harmed the Force, according to him.
He actually chuckled at that. "Yeah, it's icky."
"Icky?" I grinned.
He shrugged. "I really don't like it when you use magic off the Gryphon. It feels... yuck."
I laughed softly myself. "I see. Well, if you want to learn to use your gift, you need to go with the Jedi. If you do, I just want you to remember something. There are many kinds of power. Wealth is an obvious one. Fame is another. Magic, and I guess the Force, are a primary power – very visible. Intelligence," I tapped one finger on his forehead, "is a very dangerous, subtle kind of power."
"Okay, I can understand that."
"Good. Now, you're a kid. No one's going to take you seriously before you can shave. But people know that Anakin Skywalker has a lot of potential power. Anyone with power attracts others who want to use – or abuse – that power. Often, they'll try to manipulate you into doing their bidding."
"Observation: A succinct description of the phenomenon, Master. My previous Master preferred to travel with droids rather than meatbags for much of his life for that exact reason."
Anakin pondered that and looked up at me thoughtfully. "Is that what happened to you?"
His question caught me by surprise. "What makes you ask that?"
"You're powerful. Did someone manipulate you?"
I didn't answer.
After a while, Anakin continued. "You want everyone to think you're mean. But you're not. Not really."
"Don't you believe it," I retorted, uncomfortable with where the conversation was heading. "You saw how I negotiated with the Nabooans. You also saw how I took care of the pirates. And I appreciate HK's attitude more than you'd like."
"Agreement: Lack of appreciation for my skills is highly indicative of a naïve world view that vastly increases the probability of early termination. I hope."
The lad turned his head to give the droid behind us a glare, but spoke only to me. "I also saw how you helped the slaves," he said. "And you could have kicked me off your ship, or sold me back to the Hutts."
"I can't stand slavery," I growled, looking at him. In my peripheral vision, I saw Kalu's eyes fill with adoration at that.
"You were a slave, weren't you?" he asked pointedly.
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "If you stretched the definition I suppose you could say so." It wasn't like the Dursleys could sell me.
He nodded. "I thought so."
We entered the shuttlebay just as the next ship heading down to Corellia's surface arrived. "You're too damn smart for your own good, you know that?" I said as we boarded.
He laughed. "Watto used to say the same."
I smiled at his mirth. "Well then, so long as you remember that lesson, I'll be less worried about you."
He looked up at me. "You don't need to be worried about me!" he declared.
I shrugged. "Friends worry about friends," I replied easily. "I have no doubt the Jedi will try and keep you safe. But I do think there will be people who try to take advantage of you."
He took a moment to digest that. "Thanks Harry."
A grin formed on my face. It was a good grin. It was a wide grin. It was a grin that promised a lot of forthcoming mirth. "However, it occurs to me that your education will be stunted in certain key areas if you go with the Jedi. They strike me as being a group who are big on responsibilities, and tiny on fun."
"Affirmative: Few meatbags in the galaxy take themselves more seriously."
I put an arm around Anakin's shoulders. "Well then, as the Jedi will no doubt neglect this aspect of your education, it obliges me to spend what little time we have left giving you some much needed instruction in the single most important, the most noble, and the most rewarding of arts."
"What's that?" he asked, eyes alight.
I gave a nod of finality. "Pranking."
Anakin took to my gentle instruction with gusto. The idea that he should never take life too seriously struck a chord with him. I regaled him with tales of the twins and the Marauders. We discussed the philosophy behind what constituted a good prank; whether a malicious intent was ever justified, at what levels of humiliation a prank lost humour, and the like.
He seemed quite taken by the idea, and wanted to know if I was planning on pranking the Jedi. His expression was actually eager.
I didn't tell him that giving a Jedi ward some expert instruction and encouragement to partake in pranking was, in and of itself, my prank on the Jedi. I admitted that I had a big one planned for the CorSec officer Horn.
He was a bit put out that I didn't let him in on the surprise.
Some simple questions of the planet-side inhabitants directed me to the local equivalent of a public library; there not being any such facilities on the shipyard in orbit. I deployed my droids and employees on various tasks at the datastations. HK and R2-C9 searched for information on the largest casino on Corellia, and the criminal family that owned it. If I was going to turn this contract into an obscenely profitable venture, I needed to know what sort of people I was going to be dealing with.
Kalu quietly searched the latest fashion and jewellery styles for something that would be suitable for an evening as a high-roller's companion at the very same casino. Her eyes lit up at the first images of pretty dresses; further evidence that all women are the same, regardless of species. I clarified that her choice had to suit her colouring - I could change the look and colour of my outfit with little more than a thought.
Artoo and Anakin searched the most recent updates to the galactic star charts. I'd given them everything I could think of that would identify the Sol system. Nine planets, their approximate sizes and number of moons, and the magnitude and approximate relative positions of the nearest stars.
Eventually, the pair began feeding me a steady stream of systems that fit the given criteria. I examined stored images of the planets, looking for Earth.
I spent long enough to get bored with the exercise. After I'd shaken my head for what seemed like an hour or more, Anakin shrugged and sat back in his chair. "Sorry Harry, but there aren't any more systems that closely match your criteria."
I sighed and sat back. "So what now?" I asked rhetorically.
The lad decided to answer. "We could expand the tolerances."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, we could include systems with eight, or ten planets. It will increase the number of systems to check by several orders of magnitude, but we might get lucky."
I winced. "It would take a long time to go through them."
He nodded sympathetically. "Is there anything else about your system you can describe?"
I thought back. Astronomy was the only class I'd taken at Hogwarts that had any real grounding in the Muggle world. But it occurred to me that, given the amount of time that had potentially passed, it was not beyond the realms of probability that even the Solar System had changed. Stars drifted in relation to each other, but slowly. If I'd been thrown so far into the future that moons had been captured or lost, or that the closer star systems had changed, then I may well be searching for Earth for a long time.
Or what if the Earth had experienced a cataclysmic event? There had been a spike in Muggle apocalypse movies in recent years. What if the Earth had been hit with an asteroid large enough to kill everything? The human race might have escaped into the galaxy, but there would be no recognisable Earth for me to find.
"I'm not sure what else I can give you. I mean, I can't draw Earth's constellations to a degree of accuracy that would be helpful, and you know everything I can remember about the system. Besides generic facts like the universe being over thirteen billion years old, there isn't anything that I remem-"
Artoo blurted out a tone that sounded like shock. Anakin just raised his eyebrows. "Um, how long is an Earth year again? Because the planet we were looking for couldn't have a year that short."
Instead of answering, I fished out my pocket watch. It had been Dumbledore's before his death, but I'd stolen it from the witch to whom the old man had bequeathed it. I'd left a cheap, plastic replica in the display case; no sense in making her loss too obvious. "Here, this shows you how long a minute is." I briefly explained Earth's units of time, up to the length of a year.
Artoo scanned the watch and began wailing, rocking from side to side.
Anakin just swallowed. "Um, Harry? That's pretty close to a Gal-standard year. There's no way your world could have a year that long."
I blinked. "What?"
He stared at me. "Even with generous error tolerances, the universe just isn't that old."
An uncomfortable prickling ran up my neck. "What are you talking about?"
He pointed at the screen. "A planet of that mass and that distance from the system's star could not have a year so short that it would orbit the star thirteen billion times during the entire universe's existence to now. Not even close. How did you arrive at thirteen billion years?"
I scratched my head. If I'd known that my Astronomy OWL would actually be useful in the future, I'd have put more effort in. "Er, as I recall, it's calculated from the rate that all the galaxies are moving away from each other. You know, the further they are away, the faster they're moving. I was taught that it was around seventy-five kilometres per second per megaparsec." I conjured a piece of paper and a quill, to Anakin's discomfort, and sketched out what the units meant.
After a few minutes of explanation, both droid and boy insisted that their original statement was correct. The universe wasn't as old as my figures suggested.
The yawning abyss in my abdomen gave me an odd sense of anxiety tinged with relief. I hadn't been hurled into the future, as I'd initially concluded from all the futuristic technology. I'd been sent to the past; the very distant past. Not only was there not a human civilisation for me to return to, the Earth may not even be habitable yet by anything other than bacteria. I was well and truly stuck here, without any resources beyond what I was carrying.
The realisation was as sobering as Snape and Umbridge standing behind you during an exam.
One tiny speck of relief however, was that it also explained why I hadn't been able to summon anyone I knew using the Stone. It was eons before annoying, sweet-toothed old farts, or psychopathic, inbred, half-blood bastards, were going to be born.
I wondered vaguely if I could do anything to prevent that. Wouldn't that put a new spin on the sodding prophecy?
I took a bit of a break from my team to ponder the recent revelation. Unless I was prepared to find a way to put myself into some sort of magical stasis for an indeterminate amount of time, getting back to my home time would be impossible.
Essentially, I was stuck here.
That thought was surprisingly painful. I wouldn't ever get to have another pint with Ron or Neville. I'd never get to take Teddy on another mayhem-filled adventure through London. I'd never get to speak to my parents or Sirius again using the Stone.
But then again, I also wouldn't ever need to evade a lecture on morality from Hermione. Or put up with all the attention being Master of Death entailed. Or deal with the fallout from the stories Skeeter made up about me.
A three-all draw, I suppose, all things considered.
HK drew me out of my brooding.
"Statement: I have compiled a report on the casino and the family of meatbags who own it. It consists of a comprehensive list of possible entry and exit points for infiltration, detailed analysis of the security measures and capabilities, dossiers on the most dangerous quartile of the employees, three hundred and fourteen distinct methods of assassinating the specific meatbags on your list, and twenty-seven methods of destroying the entire complex – all ranked by probability of success and level of enjoyable unadulterated violence."
"How excruciatingly thorough," I replied with a sigh. "What did you find out about the meat-, I mean, the family who own the casino?" The sodding droid was rubbing off on me.
"Analysis: They attempt to present a public image at odds with their documented history."
I scanned the datapad HK passed to me. It read like a cliché; a multi-generational crime family who used their legitimate business as a cover for their underworld dealings. R2-C9 clearly still had some law-enforcement capabilities or programming. The green droid had unearthed entire lists of suspected blackmail and extortion incidents on prominent politicians and bureaucrats entities on Corellia and other core systems. Combined with immense material wealth, they wielded considerable influence to prevent CorSec investigations from concluding in convictions.
"What sort of measures are in place to make financial transactions on their accounts?"
R2-C9 whistled and burbled.
"Tedious translation: Standard modern protocols involve more levels of identification for higher-denomination transactions. A physical token is required up to certain-"
I got a sudden vision of a bushy-haired girl of eleven comically offering more information than requested. I rapped my knuckles on the green dome. "Stop! I'm not interested in small scale stuff. What do I need to do to make purchases of billions of credits in this family's name?"
A few more whistles.
"Translation: Transactions of such magnitude require a physical token, a password to ensure non-duress, visual identification at cellular level and voice-print analysis."
I nodded, thinking about how to bypass all those security protocols. One option was my potion supply. One of my remaining Polyjuice doses would take care of items three and four of that list. A couple of compulsion charms would likely take care of the rest, depending on just how small the physical token was.
I looked down at my belt and counted two vials of Polyjuice, and two empty slots next to them.
So, use an irreplaceable potion for a non-life-threatening situation, or, if I wanted to conserve them, I could just use the Imperius.
It's an odd situation where the darkest of arts make moral and economic sense.
"Right, back to the Gryphon, ladies, gents and droids. Time for some planning."
My amusingly eclectic group was waiting for the next orbital shuttle when I felt the wards around my ship chime. I sighed, and fished out the communication device Artoo had synchronised with the Gryphon. It was barely half a minute before it too chimed.
I flicked it on. A small holograph of Shmi shimmered into existence above the small device. "Yes Shmi?" I asked.
"Um, there are some Jedi trying to board the Gryphon," she said, wringing her hands and panting a little.
"I'm heading back now. Tell them to wait for me."
She winced. "I did. One tried barging aboard but he… it looked like he was thrown back somehow. I don't know why or how!"
I nodded. "I do. No one can board my ship without my permission."
She blinked. "Really?"
"Yes. I'll be there soon."
"Thank you. I…" she paused looking off to one side. Suddenly, she covered her mouth. "The Jedi are being attacked!"
That caused some murmuring among my companions. It also kicked off some envious bitching from HK about missing out.
My immediate reaction was to apparate to the Gryphon to make sure she wasn't damaged in the fight, but it occurred to me that trying to teleport a hundred kilometres or so vertically to a position that was moving at an unknown lateral velocity would be terminally idiotic. "Raise the ramp and hold tight. I'll be there soon." I flicked the device off.
"Will my mother be all right?" Anakin pleaded.
I gave him a look of exaggerated surprise, as though such a question was ludicrous. "Of course she will. So long as she stays on board the Gryphon, nothing can hurt her. But we do need to speed things up a bit here."
I rose and approached a chap who looked like he was in charge. I cast a couple of charms in his direction before catching his attention and making a request for expedited access to a shuttle. As he grinned, nodded and gestured for us to follow, I upgraded my belief that magic was the greatest thing in the world to the greatest thing in the entire universe.
Both Anakin and Kalu grew more nervous as the shuttle approached the shipyard. It didn't help that HK prepared his cannon far earlier than necessary. That glorious, yet ominous hum really set people on edge.
We left the pilot arguing with the dockmaster about his out-of-schedule arrival and made our way to the Gryphon. Anakin's walking speed increased the closer we got. I had to raise my voice to get him to slow down.
The excitement was all over by the time we arrived. A dozen or so individuals wearing CorSec uniforms idly wandered all over the docking bay. They and their accompanying droids looked to be examining bodies, gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses.
In the middle of it all, the trio of Jedi I'd seen on the Gryphon's holo-projector conversed with the CorSec Jedi Halcyon. Judging from the broad arm movements and intense facial expressions, things were a little heated between them.
The one called Qui-Gon snapped his head around to us as we entered the bay. "Anakin!" he called out, and ran over to us. The other three turned to us too. The younger pair started after Qui-Gon. One, who had a stripe of yellow paint over his nose, looked positively murderous.
Anakin looked torn between greeting the Jedi and looking for his mother. "Hi Master Qui-Gon," he said without enthusiasm.
The Jedi knelt on one knee and examined the boy closely, reaching out and gently grasping the boy's shoulders. "Thank the Force you are well. What were you thinking, leaving Telos like that?" he demanded.
I gave him a derisible snort. "Yeah, that tone will work well," I said as I strolled past him towards Halcyon. I kept my attention on the angry looking fellow, however.
He stormed up to me. "Where is Aayla?" he demanded, reaching out to grab me.
"Quinn!" the other youth snapped. He reached out and grabbed his friend, preventing him from accosting me.
"Let go, Obi-wan!" the man snapped, jerking his arm out of his friend's grasp.
"Just wait!" the Jedi called Obi-wan insisted. I noted that he alone had a long, thin braid behind his right ear. He stepped in front of his angry friend. "My pardon. My name is Obi-wan Kenobi. This is Quinlan Vos, Aayla Secura's Jedi Master. May we see her please?"
I raised an eyebrow. On closer inspection, this Jedi looked around my age. And he was only a touch taller than me. "Courtesy from a Jedi? How novel. Wait here and I will let her out of her room."
I strode past them and over to the remaining Jedi. Halcyon, alone of the four, looked in control of his emotions.
"Captain Harry," he greeted. "I rather hoped that we would not meet again so soon."
"Likewise. What happened?"
He looked around the hanger. "A group of bounty hunters bribed their way into this docking bay. They approached your ship while Master Qui-Gon and his companions were requesting access. They attacked without warning."
I glanced around and tried counting the corpses. It was made more difficult by the fact that several body parts were littered around the place. I counted eight heads, though that may or may not be a definitive answer to my question. It did not escape my notice that the various unattached bits and pieces had edges that were neatly cauterised.
"I wonder what they were after. It's almost as if some secret got out," I said without inflection.
The Jedi didn't react. "You were planet-side during the altercation," he stated.
"Yes; research." I didn't bother telling him that I was trying to locate my home system. Never give the authorities any more than they ask for.
He didn't even look mildly surprised at my answer. He undoubtedly had us under surveillance, so he'd know I was also looking at a particular casino. "I see. Protocol dictates that I question you regarding this incident. However, circumstances being what they are…"
I nodded. "I've got plans tonight, so I'll stop by tomorrow."
Aayla looked a little younger, surprisingly enough. Like an octogenarian rather than a centurion. She sat cross-legged on the floor next to her bed in what appeared to be a deep meditative trance. Was she purging herself of the magic?
I touched my wand to the age line and muttered a few words. The magic contained within the structure flashed out in a tiny cascade failure, like a line of gunpowder in an old cartoon. Her breathing changed tempo. She was getting ready to jump me.
"I would not," I warned.
Aayla's eyes opened. "Would not what?" she demanded.
"You were thinking of attacking me."
She narrowed her eyes. "Jedi do not attack," she said, making no effort to deny my statement.
I smirked at her, but did not respond. Her heated glare was enough.
"Get up. Your Jedi Master is here for you."
She did not move. "I do not sense my Master nearby."
I shrugged. "Fellow about so high," I started, holding my hand palm-down, several inches above my head. "He has dark hair and a yellow stripe on his nose. Goes by Quinn. Does that sound familiar?"
She shot to her feet. "How have you severed my connection to the Force?" she demanded.
"No idea," I dismissed. "Now, follow me."
She looked surprised. "I sense no deception from you, but this sounds like a trap." She assumed a stance that indicated she had no intention of moving.
"Either you walk with me or I knock you out and float you. It's your choice."
She shifted into a defensive position, ready for violence. "You will not find me so easily-"
"Or I could get HK to drag you out by the throat," I added flatly.
She swallowed. A flicker of fear was evident in her eyes. "Very well," she conceded.
For the entire short journey from her room to the exit ramp, she was a bundle of tension and nerves. She looked as though she expected to be ambushed from every nook and niche along the way.
Her apprehension evaporated though, when we reached the exit. Her eyes lit up when she caught sight of the yellow-striped bad mood. She figuratively flew down and into her Master's arms, embracing with relief.
Another happy ending, facilitated by Yours Truly. I really am a people person.
I nodded with satisfaction and started to turn when a cough caught my attention. It was clearly not designed to shift anything from a throat, but to draw attention.
The leonine-faced Jedi stood serenely off to one side. At my glance he said, "Permission to come aboard, Captain?"
I hesitated. "Why?"
"Anakin has gone aboard to collect his belongings. I thought we should discuss some things while he is occupied."
I rubbed my chin. I could think of several reasons why I shouldn't let the bugger on, but it would probably be to my benefit to learn what I could from a Jedi who wasn't trying to arrest or manipulate me (very much). "Very well. Come on board."
"Thank you, Captain."
He gave a gasp and blanched a bit as he crossed the threshold of the wards. He looked around as he calmed.
"Are you all right?"
He nodded. "That was unpleasant."
He looked down at me, curiosity etched on his features. "I feel… adrift from the Force. Is this how you hide your abilities?"
I shrugged. "A Sith tracked me down and tried to kill me. I figured I should take precautions."
He nodded sagely, but stayed silent.
Walking next to the man gave me flashbacks to school. He towered over me by half a foot or more. He did not have the intense, intimidating presence of Snape, but rather the serene, unflappable aura of Dumbledore.
That did not make me relax.
"This is an impressive ship," he said, a topic clearly selected to get on my good side.
"What are your plans for Anakin," I replied, completely changing the subject to what I wanted to talk about.
He raised an eyebrow, but answered me. "Anakin, yes. I would like nothing more than for him to begin his training as a Jedi."
"Does that mean it's not up to you?" I asked, trying to infer context.
"Until I can take him as my padawan, no."
"What does that mean?" I demanded.
He sighed. "Anakin is... talented."
The Jedi looked uncomfortable, trying to tell me something that clearly I wasn't supposed to know. Or perhaps something that was common knowledge. "Children who are blessed with the Force are identified as early as possible and brought to the Jedi Temple on Coruscant. There they are trained in the ways of the Force."
I waited for him to continue, but that seemed to be all I was going to get. "So what's the problem with Anakin?"
He sighed, deep and long. "He is too old."
I blinked. "What are you talking about? He's a child!"
"Most younglings are brought to the Temple before they are old enough to form memories of their families."
That sounded criminal to me. "You take infants from their families?" I blurted, not bothering to hide my revulsion.
His expression darkened. "Not unwillingly!"
I fought back asking how exactly they got informed consent from toddlers. "Fine. Anakin is too old. He is still years away from shaving, but he's clearly too old for whatever you people do. Is it because he might not accept what you teach him?"
To his credit, the Jedi did not get angry. "No. It is because he retains memories from before he joined the Jedi."
"Memories," I repeated.
Qui-Gon sighed again. I was clearly not easy to speak to. "Feelings and connections can lead to... unwanted situations as a Jedi."
I stared at the Jedi blankly. "So, Anakin is too old to train because he remembers things from before he went to be a Jedi. What happens to other children who are too old?"
He did not let any expression on his face. "They are not taken from their family."
I stopped walking. "Yet Anakin was. What's so different about him?"
"It is... complicated."
"Nerfshit," I said, trying out a new swear word. It was not particularly satisfying. "It's not complicated; you just can't justify it to me."
"True enough," he granted. "There are things that will be explained to the lad in time; when he is older."
Something clicked in my mind. My mouth went dry. I'd heard that crap before. As unlikely as it was, I was certain it was true. "There's a prophecy about him, isn't there?" I demanded.
The Jedi, who so far had shown an impressive poker face, looked shocked. "How?"
Damn it, the kid was even more like me than I thought. Poor bastard. "Tell him. Tell him now. Not when you think he's old enough. Now. Before you leave with him."
Qui-Gon's expression did not change. "He is too young..."
I lurched towards the man, grabbed his robes and shoved him hard against a bulkhead. I had my wand at his throat in an instant. "Too young, too old; he can't be both. Now, I'm going to ask you a question, and if your answer contains the words 'for the greater good', I swear I'll shove an arm down your throat and rip your heart out through your mouth. Why did you dump him on Telos?"
The Jedi regarded me passively, not the least bit intimidated. "It was certainly not for the good of anyone. Anakin least of all. I am not permitted to take him as my padawan until my current padawan becomes a full Jedi. Younglings yet to be chosen are sent to Telos to bide their time until a Master selects them as a padawan."
I lowered my wand and released his clothes from my fist. "Is the prophesy why you're being stopped from training him?"
He considered my question. "No, or at least, not directly. If not for the prophesy, it is unlikely Anakin would even be considered for training."
"So, what happens when you take him back? Will her be looked after, or left to fend for himself?"
"I promise you, Anakin will be looked after if he returns with me."
"But you can't promise that Anakin will be trained," I stated.
Qui-Gon nodded. "Unfortunately, that is correct."
I gave him a grin. "Well then, maybe I can fix that."
I left Qui-Gon in the galley with Shmi and set off to Anakin's room. On the way, I rooted around in my pockets and pulled out a thin silver chain, pre-loaded with a Protean charm. I had a few of them, ready for when I had to give a client a quick way to tell me to come to them.
His door slid open as I approached. He had a bag thrown over his shoulder, and his room was empty. "Hi Harry!"
"Hi yourself," I retorted with a grin. "I've got something for you."
His shoulders dropped. "You don't need to give me anything else," he insisted, clearly exasperated.
I nodded. "I know. This is not a gift as such. Let me just set it up properly."
I ran my wand over the silver, setting the necessary conditions.
"What are you doing?"
I handed him the thin chain. "I'm giving you a way to send me a message. Put this on. If the Jedi decide not to train you, break it off. If they do train you, remove it with the clasp."
He looked down at the silver draped over his fingers. "If the chain breaks, you get a message?"
I nodded. "Yes. If it breaks, I'll know to come and find you, and you can rejoin my crew. Feel free to let the Jedi know that. They seem annoyed that you left Telos. I imagine that if given the choice of training you or losing you, they'll pick training."
He looked up at me. "Why are you doing this for me? What are you getting out of it?"
The question struck me. Hard. Why was I doing this? There wasn't profit in it, and the lad could clearly look after himself. Prophesy or no, there was no real reason to go to these lengths for him. "You just remind me of me," I replied, a bit lamely.
He gave me a sly smile. "Really?"
"Yes, really," I retorted sarcastically. "Now, get your sodding arse off my ship. Go and have fun. Give important people headaches. Create as much havoc as you can. If I don't hear about your exploits on the galactic news, I'll know you haven't been trying hard enough!"
Anakin looked surprised. Pleased, but surprised. "You're not going to tell me to be careful?" he asked, a little sarcastically.
I couldn't help it; I burst into laughter. "I'd be the universe's biggest hypocrite if I ever uttered those words," I said through my amusement.
He smiled. "Just as well. Honestly, I don't think I could promise that."
I ruffled his hair. "I am in no way surprised. No, I won't tell you to be careful." I held up a finger in a lecturing pose. "Instead, I'll tell you this - be dangerous."
Shmi's eyes glistened as she waved to her son's retreating back. Their goodbyes had been difficult to watch. I was surprised that she had decided to stay with me on board the Gryphon. The employment offer on Coruscant was apparently not generous enough compared to what I was paying her.
"He is much happier this time," she said wistfully.
"Really?" He hadn't looked particularly happy to me. Keen, yes. Curious, undoubtedly. But happy? Not really.
She nodded. "The last time we said goodbye, he left me as a slave on Tatooine. He was very sad; very worried for me."
Artoo rolled over and gave a low woo. Shmi patted the droid on the dome.
I looked down at the droid, registering its presence. "Why didn't Artoo go with Anakin?"
"Master Qui-Gon said that he would not be permitted to keep a droid."
The Jedi did not believe in private property rights? That thought gave me chills. "I'm going to get ready. We're heading down to the surface in a few hours, and will probably be gone for half a day. Vox and Kalu'minari will be going with me."
HK was, if not happy, then at least not opposed to playing the part of protocol droid. I'd shrunk his weapons down and secreted them in various pockets. A few cosmetic charms gave his body a more uniform appearance – a larger torso and a mirrored black finish. His demonic red eyes still gave him a dangerous air.
As there was no work loading and unloading cargo at present, my employee named Vox was keen to spend some of my money gambling, and agreed to play the part of bodyguard. He looked imposing in the suit I conjured for him. I modelled it on a tuxedo, though with some necessary adjustments. He was a Houk, a species that towered over humans and looked like a slab of muscle with no neck, so white cotton frills were right out.
Kalu was, fortunately, slightly shorter than me. Almost without exception, every human I'd seen was over six feet. Having a date that matched my size helped to keep me from looking like someone trying to appear imposing.
My Twi'ilek companion looked, in a word, sublime. She had used the faintest touch of makeup to enhance her eyes and lips. I'd transfigured some gold jewellery into fine chains that entwined her head, neck and lekku. The outfit she'd chosen covered her front from throat to ankle, but left her shoulders and back exposed down to the delightful dimples just above her buttocks. The material shimmered and shifted in a way that defied the laws of nature, having been given some magical assistance. She glided like a dancer, held her chin high like a queen, and rested her arm upon mine like a demure angel.
She drew every eye we passed.
The casino was decadent beyond even the high-class establishments I'd visited in Monte Carlo and Hong Kong. From the moment we stepped out of the hovering limousine we were surrounded by wealth and luxury.
Having studied the layout earlier in the day, I led my group to the tables filled with gamblers playing against each other. With a beautiful woman on my arm, a chair was immediately made ready for us without request.
I nodded to Vox. He returned my nod and withdrew a stack of the highest-denomination trade bars I'd nicked from Gardulla. I could barely wrap my fingers around one of the gilded metal ingots, but Vox held half a dozen in one massive hand.
I took the indicated seat and leaned back. A small stack of tokens materialised in front of me, courtesy of the chap overseeing the table. It was dwarfed by the piles in front of most of the other players, but this state of affairs would not last long.
A droid placed a drink in front of me. I took a sip, cracked my knuckles, and settled down to business.
Legilimency was sodding useful when gambling.
In any game that was played against other players rather than a 'house', the ability to tell with almost certainty if someone was bluffing was peerless. When combined with the ability to give snippets of suggestions to others, much like Riddle giving me the image of the corridor in the Department of Mysteries, it made my bluffing almost perfect.
With Legilimency and a rudimentary understanding of the rules, I controlled the game. HK's tutorial meant I understood how to play, and what tactics good players used.
I deliberately lost some hands. Folding every hand you didn't win was a sure-fire way to get accused of cheating. But with my ability to call bluffs and nearly one hundred percent accuracy, it did not take long for my token stack to grow into a pile, then a hill, then a mountain.
All the while, I hummed the little tune Horn and Halcyon had taught me, while Kalu worked her distracting charm, flirting and smiling at everyone while draped over my shoulder.
Between my ability and her beauty, we attracted more and more attention, drawing a dense crowd, filling the smoky room to capacity. After half the original players at the table had been replaced (after ceding their tokens to me), the droid with the drinks placed a disc in front of me. A face flickered into holographic life above it.
The recording introduced itself as Telemann, and offered me an invitation to the restricted area of this establishment. A place where wealthier clients could be robbed with greater efficiency, as HK would no doubt say.
I smiled with satisfaction. It sounded perfect.
HK and Vox were politely, but firmly, asked to remain out of the VIP area. Given the volume of money changing hands on the whims of chance, I wasn't surprised that droids were not permitted. The level of security at the entrances also suggested that bodyguards were superfluous. I gave Vox a big stack of my tokens and told him to have fun. HK took up position outside the main doors, somehow managing to exude an air of resignation without speaking.
We were met by a casino employee who led Kalu and me deep into the restricted area. Here, the noise was lower but the tension higher. We passed tables where more money changed owners in one hand than I had in my entire, expanded roll.
A young man with a beard shaped to surgical precision stepped in front of me, looking down his nose. "Another nerf to the slaughter," he sneered, causing canned amusement from his companions on cue. The employee leading us suddenly looked terrified.
I gave the man an expression of disinterest. "Who are you?"
That seemed to surprise him. "You don't know who I am?"
I shook my head. "Are you important?"
He snarled. "My family owns this casino!" he declared, jabbing his thumb into his chest. "I will run this place soon."
"Ah, so you're not important yet."
Amid bulging eyes from his entire entourage, he stepped forward in an attempt to physically threaten. Kalu's fingers tightened around my forearm.
"Vicharus, that is no way to treat a guest."
The chap called Vicharus and his group stiffened and turned towards the cultured, urbane voice.
It belonged to a tall, slender man with a shock of improbably coiffed silver hair. He was clean-shaven except for a small goatee. Impeccably dressed – he was shadowed by two lithe, yet imposing aliens. He strode over to us, and took Kalu's hand, bowing deeply. He greeted her in a language I didn't recognise, but one Kalu happily responded in.
While Vicharus looked to be the sort who'd personally take a hammer and beat you into a bloody pulp with gusto, the newcomer appeared elegant, civilised and sophisticated. I got the distinct impression that this was the sort of man Lucius Malfoy wishes he could have been. But I had no doubt that he would befriend you for decades before happily ordering someone to slip a knife between your ribs. And then turn up at your funeral with flowers for your widow.
"Grandfather," Vicharus began.
He held up a hand. "Captain Harry and his delightful companion are here at your uncle's personal invitation," the man told his grandson. "He showed quite impressive skill at reading his opponents." He looked directly at me. "Unusual in someone so unknown to us."
"Councilor Merekeraab, I presume," I said, knowing exactly who this was. I held out my hand. "I have only been out in the galaxy for a short time."
The patriarch of the family took it, and corrected my pronunciation of his name with an easy smile. He gestured towards a particularly iridescent table. "A seat has been prepared for you. My son is always looking for skilled players to test himself against. Please, enjoy yourself."
I left my hand out for a second after he released it, giving me the chance to surreptitiously hit him with a silent Imperius. "I shall. Do not let my presence stop you from your duties," I replied, slipping an order into the phrase.
I felt him fight the curse, but it was classed as an Unforgivable for a reason. It could be used to make people slaughter their own family and mutilate their own bodies. When given an order to do something you were going to do anyway, it was practically impossible to shake off.
"I shall. I wish you a pleasant evening."
"Thank you. But please come and have a chat after the game," I finished.
"I shall," he repeated before moving off into the crowd, greeting and mingling.
"Perhaps I shall meet you after the game too," the grandson sneered.
I turned back to 'Vicky' with a smile. "I'm sorry; we got off on the wrong foot. I'm Harry," I said as I held my hand out and cast a silent curse. I was going to have fun with him.
The high-roller game progressed predictably. There were more species playing at this table than the one on the main floor, but each individual dripped with wealth. One, a Hutt, was particularly difficult to read with Legilimency, but his translator was not. The ban on droids in this area worked in my favour.
I did not destroy my opposition as I had earlier. I allowed Telemann, Vicky's uncle, to win from me more often than I won from him. It wouldn't do to offend my host.
I did not extend that courtesy to the rest of the players – my pile of tokens grew substantially over the course of several hours. My voice was becoming a little hoarse from all the tedious humming.
Fortunately, the players were kept well stocked with drinks and small plates of food that tasted divine. The casino employees were unbelievably discreet. I barely noticed the refreshments being replaced.
One young woman paused as she refilled Kalu's glass. She looked at me curiously. "Please excuse my presumption sir, but may I inquire what that melody is you are humming?"
I looked at her more closely. Agent Blue, perhaps? "It's just a ditty I was taught as a child," I explained, following the script I'd been given.
She smiled and nodded. "Ah, I see. It is familiar to me, but I cannot recall where I heard it."
Agent Blue it is. "It has lyrics, but I cannot remember them. I really should head home soon and find someone who knows." Translated – get your arse back to CorSec for up-to-date orders.
With a final nod, she said, "Thank you for indulging my curiosity, sir. I wish you good fortune."
Message from CorSec received. It was time to make my play for profit. I gave Kalu a few taps on her knee.
A few hands later, she sighed and rested her head on my shoulder. I gave her a glance and tossed my hand. "Forgive me, but my companion appears fatigued." I looked over at Telemann. "Would you set me up in a suite?"
He gave Kalu a lingering leer and me an insincere smile. He gestured to his aide. "Please prepare the special suite for my guests," he ordered magnanimously. To me he said, "Do come back once your delightful companion is settled in. I have not won enough from you yet."
I looked deep into his eyes, weighing the memories he had. With a smile, I nodded acceptance. "I am enjoying the game. I look forward to it."
Merekeraab intercepted me as we were led from the VIP area. I again shook his hand and whispered an order into his ear. He nodded, encumbered by my curse, and I passed him a little golden sculpture of a griffin, offering it as a token of my esteem.
It would not cause undue notice until the transfiguration wore off and it reverted to a datapad with further instructions regarding certain bulk purchases.
We picked up HK and Vox, and were led to a private elevator. Vox grumbled about losing so many credits on the games as we rose a good kilometre and a half into the sky.
The suite was similar to the one I'd been assigned at the Intergalactic on Coruscant, but smaller and not quite as luxuriously appointed. Still, the main room was large enough to echo; until the sound dampers were switched on. A pair of bedrooms led off either side of the main reception area.
Vox thought the rooms 'showy'. He was keen to head back downstairs and see if he could find a female Houk to join him for the night. I sent him off with another stack of casino tokens and instructions to have fun. I told him I'd cover the cost of another room for him and anyone he found to enjoy his company, and that I'd see him in the morning.
Apparently, I'm the best boss ever. Who knew?
Kalu'minari drifted through the rooms, her eyes alight with wonder. She still asked permission before having a piece of fruit or sitting. That was a habit I was going to have to break.
I opened the double doors leading to one of the bedrooms. It only took me a quick survey to locate the spots where the cameras were located.
Telemann used this room to collect blackmail material regularly. His memories of watching the output of four hidden cameras were quite vivid. His collection of amateur pornography slash blackmail material was extensive, and spanned decades.
I had a sudden urge to call Vox back and tell him to take this room with any companion he brought back, but figured that might be a bit too obvious that I knew about the cameras.
Instead, I decided to teach Telemann about the joys of frustration.
I waved my wand, conjuring wisps of pure darkness across the relevant spots on the walls and ceiling. Until I dispelled those insubstantial curtains, the cameras would show nothing but black screens. I gestured to my lovely Twi'ilek to join me.
She smiled invitingly, pressing her body against mine as she bent her head back for a passionate kiss. "Be very loud," I whispered into her conical ear as I ran my fingers along her exposed back and under the edge of her dress. "No one can see us, but I want anyone listening to be very, very jealous."
Kalu took to my instruction with gusto. Having experienced the joys of sexual liberation, she was keen to do so again. Repeatedly.
Her moans and screams were wildly erotic. Anyone listening in would have no doubt what was going on in the room. Having nothing but black screens to accompany the audio would be most disagreeable. The droid monitoring the feed would probably find its future unappealing unless it took an immediate leave of absence.
We made frenetic, raucous love for almost an hour before a chime rang, indicating someone was at the door.
As HK answered it, I debated putting on one of the shimmering silk gowns hanging invitingly next to the refresher door. As comfortable as they looked, I decided protection was preferable to comfort. I grabbed my wand and scourified the sheen of sweat from my body before pulling on my clothes. "I'll be right back," I told Kalu.
She smiled saucily at me and stretched like a contented cat. She arched her back so that her exposed breasts pointing towards the ceiling, and rubbed her silk-sheet-entwined legs together. She had certainly been given training on how to capture a man's attention. It took an effort of will to tear my eyes from the sight.
I somehow managed it. I closed the double doors and made my way to where HK was conducting an interrogation.
I recognised Agent Blue at the door. A hovering contraption trailed along behind her, piled with steaming towels and lined with bottled oils. She saw me behind HK and almost slumped with relief. "Would you care for a massage, sir? Compliments of the casino."
I stepped to one side, silently inviting her inside. She nodded and entered the room, though gave HK a cautious look.
Once I closed the door, she passed me a datapad. "A list of my services, sir," she said without preamble.
The pad did not have a menu of sensual delights. It had a single line – I need an extraction.
I stepped over to the control panel near the front door and entered the code I'd seen in Telemann's memories. "How much time do you have?"
Her eyes widened, and she flicked her eyes around the room meaningfully. "I am at your complete disposal, sir."
"No one can hear us. I just disabled all the cameras."
Blue blinked. "You what? How? No, wait, never mind. My cover will not last much longer. I need you to contact my handler and request an immediate extraction."
I frowned. "Can't you just walk out the back door after your shift ends?"
Confusion blossomed on her face, and she unconsciously rubbed at a metal band on her wrist. "Of course I can't. You know that. Unless… oh. Oh my, you're not CorSec, are you?"
I shook my head and snorted. "No."
She looked at me intently. "Your skills at gambling… Your persuasive abilities… You're Force sensitive, but not a Jedi," she said eventually. "You were invited into the high-roller area. CorSec sent you with the message for me because you could get to me."
I shrugged. "If you think so."
"Interruption: The meatbag who runs this casino has begun executing your orders," HK said in English. "Extensive purchases have been made."
I grinned. "How much is he spending?"
HK was silent for a moment. "Extrapolation: At current rates of expenditure, I estimate that once all orders are executed he will have purchased in excess of sixty-three percent of his family's estimated net worth."
I blinked. That was a bit beyond even my best case scenario; given the criminal family's assets were estimated to be in the tens of billions of credits. There was no way he had that much in ready liquid assets. He must have really borrowed heavily. "Well then, tell Artoo to place my orders."
"Affirmative: Orders placed… Finalized."
Blue looked ready to explode. "What are you talking about?" she demanded.
"Just some market trades," I replied.
She stared at me with an expression like a Cerberus shown an arithmancy calculation. "What? My cover may be blown and you're selling shares?"
"Buying. Opportunities pass quickly."
Before she could answer, HK again interrupted. "Warning: Scans indicate armed meatbags taking position at the entrance to this location."
Blue's face paled. "What?"
"How many?" I asked HK.
"Answer: Twelve. Their deployment does not suggest an imminent attack. Their distribution suggests they are waiting for their target to willingly exit this room."
Blue's shoulders slumped. "I'm sorry. You aren't equipped for this. Don't worry about the extraction, it will be a moot point by the time you contact my handler. I'll just…" She started to trudge towards the door.
I cleared my throat. "How much?"
Blue looked lost. "How much what?"
"How much to get you safely out of here?"
I really enjoyed doing that to people. Their expressions were a study in contrasting emotions.
"You cannot be serious. You can't sneak me out of here! Security is too tight. And the only weapons allowed in the casino are in the hands of thugs who'd prefer to kill you rather than spend the energy thinking up a reason not to."
"Sounds like an expensive problem. How much are you willing to pay me to solve it?"
She blinked like Hedwig. "I… er… I can authorise a payment of two thousand," she said, hope suddenly filling her voice. "If you get me safely to my handler, I'm sure he could authorise double that."
I nodded. It was a trivial amount compared to my score on Tatooine, but accepting it would confuse my evaluators. "Done."
"Statement: The meatbags in the corridor do not belong to this casino's security force," HK stated.
"How do you know that?" Blue demanded.
HK turned to me. He clearly wasn't about to answer her. I shrugged and said, "What she said."
"Analysis: The species composition. Seven of the meatbags in the corridor are of species that do not appear in the security forces employed by this establishment."
Blue bolted over to me and fiddled with the control panel. A holographic scene outside the door appeared. "Your droid is right! There aren't any Trandoshan or Gand employees here. But if they're in the hotel…" she frowned, analysing the situation.
Trandoshans again. I left her at the door and moved into the room. "They're bounty hunters," I spat. I reached into my robe pocket and withdrew HK's massive cannon. I tossed it to him, and it expanded to its usual size in mid-air.
She gasped, still staring at the screen. "They are armed! How did they get weapons through security at the casino?"
HK engaged the charge. Blue spun around at the ominous hum.
"There are ways," I snickered at her expression. "I've got fire-power enough to get you out."
Blue looked to be on the verge of panicking at the sight of HK's oversized weapon. "How did you get that in here?" she gasped.
"Statement: The existing security protocols are woefully inadequate to someone of my Master's skills."
I fought letting the surprise on getting a compliment from HK show on my face. Blue's attention wavered between me and my psychotic droid. "There are twelve armed hunters on the other side of that door. There is no way you could take down all of them!"
I grinned at her. "We're in a casino. Do you want a bet?"
She gaped like a goldfish.
"Warning: Further tactical analysis indicates another threat."
"Kalu! Get dressed and out here quickly!" I shouted. To HK I said, "Where?"
"Analysis: The meatbags are deployed at an inefficient distance from the door to take anyone exiting by surprise. There are more effective positions with adequate cover closer to this room. The quality of their equipment and discipline are at odds with that apparent oversight."
I'd laid a few ambushes of my own over the years. I looked around the room, but if there was a threat anywhere within, HK would have spotted it. "They are expecting their target to exit at an incautious speed. That could mean anything from us getting urgent news to being shot at through the window," I guessed.
"Statement: A logical surmise, Master. However, there is another, high-probability scenario. This room is about to be attacked with a low-yield explosive. The meatbags outside are simply there to clean up."
I glared at him. "Is that really likely?"
"Statement: Oh I do hope so, Master. An enemy willing to do significant collateral damage is always more fun to engage. Watching their expressions change as they realise they face a foe with even fewer moral restrictions is amusing."
I struggled not to smile at his quip. "The threat is still likely from outside. Turn off the lights," I told Blue.
She pressed a panel and the illumination in the room died. We could immediately see out into the night much better.
HK began sprouting off entry points into the room from outside, pointing out the most efficient way of entering. His ideas about using explosives were quite disturbing.
The door to the bedroom opened, and Kalu peeked out, looking frightened. I gestured to her, and she darted across the room to my arms.
Blue suddenly gasped and stared at the thin band on her wrist. A message flashed across it.
"What is it?" I asked her.
She kept looking at the band as more information ran across it. "There's a fire-fight in the casino on the main floor. Employees are being instructed to secure valuables and take cover."
I turned to HK. "A fire-fight erupts just as an ambush for us is laid? Does that sound like a distraction to you?"
"Calculation: The probability is high, though depending on the size of the bounty placed on your head, there is a non-zero chance that it is the result of competing hunter teams."
I considered that. "Really? You think professional bounty hunters would risk the ire of an established criminal family by shooting up their key place of business?"
"Statement: Master, as I am not given to underestimating the stupidity of meatbags, I do not discount the possibility."
"Fair enough," I conceded. I tapped my wand to Kalu's dress, transfiguring it into a skin-tight body-stocking. "I don't want you tripping over," I explained to her shocked expression.
"Warning: There is an armed vehicle approaching on an attack vector."
I snapped my attention to the broad window. It was not difficult to spot the vehicle HK referred to. It looked like an attack helicopter without the rotors. As I watched, a missile detached and shot towards us.
I swung my wand around and transfigured the window from thin transparisteel into a slab of diamond twelve feet thick. It was the hardest substance you could magically create. Even with the Elder wand I couldn't hold a transfiguration like that long, but it only had to be long enough.
Less than a second later, the missile hit.
Oddly, it didn't explode.
However, making up for that was an enormous, floor-shaking groan. The entire diamond block pulled away from the ceiling and partially collapsed through the floor, before ripping out the side of the building and tumbling away. Air rushed past us and my ears popped as the pressure equalised. I let the transfiguration go, letting the massive diamond revert back to a transparisteel sheet as it tumbled its way down to the ground.
"Whoops," I said to the gaping hole in the side of the building, my words lost in the rushing wind. I hadn't considered the extra weight. Clearly it was a bit beyond the building's tolerances.
I started mentally running through my magical options for protection against an armed gunship when a flash of blinding light from beside me left me blinking tears from my eyes. Through blurred vision I saw one stubby wing of the missile-launching airship explode. It spun out of control and dropped out of sight. A second, smaller explosion echoed up from far below.
"Satisfaction: The modifications you made to my weapon are wonderful, Master," HK said. He jerked on a lever on his gun, ejecting a smoking, metallic cylinder. "By disabling all the vexatious safety limitations on energy draw, I can expend an entire fuel cell in a single shot."
I swallowed at the result of my tinkering. In a voice far calmer than I felt, I said, "Well, reload please. The ambushers are still on the other side of the door."
Blue recovered her voice and began cursing inventively. "You managed to sneak a stripped-down laser cannon from a turret mounting through security?" she shrieked, incredulous at the thought. "Are you crazy?"
I ignored her question and pulled a blood-replenisher from my potions belt. I needed to make it look like she had died in the room. "That thing on your wrist; does it track your movements?"
She nodded mutely.
"It'll have to go then," I said. "HK, go and scare the hunters off, but don't follow when they run. You, Blue, come here," I ordered.
She obeyed in a daze as HK joyfully agreed and began preparing his weapon, while Kalu sensibly ducked behind one of the couches. I grabbed Blue's hand and vanished the band. Some part of it must have been subcutaneous, because a dribble of blood ran down her skin.
That was convenient; it saved me from having to cut her. I levitated a drop of her blood into the replenisher potion.
"What are you doing?" she demanded, panicking. "You can't!" She jerked her hand away as HK started towards the door.
I hit the vial with an overpowered duplication charm and lobbed it over to one side of the room. It began vomiting out blood 'duplicated' from Blue's sample, spreading about four litres over the expensive carpet. It was a trick I'd used more than once. It fooled muggles all the time. I vanished the vial as the final step.
Blue began trembling, overwhelmed by all the incomprehensible events. "What are you?" she demanded. "No Jedi can do that!"
HK kicked the door down and initiated combat with a warcry of, "Eat hot efficiency!" He loosed a spray of lethal plasma shards. The sound of the enormous weapon discharging distracted Blue nicely. She dove for the floor next to Kalu and covered her head.
Well, since Blue wasn't watching me anymore... I cast a Protego, then pulled out my Triumph Bonneville and expanded it. I pressed the button that activated the side-car and quickly checked the safety charms. They'd be used soon enough.
Less than five seconds after it began, the sounds of combat ceased. HK strode back into the room, holding his cannon up on one hip like a gunfighter out of a Western. "Statement: The surviving hunters are retreating with commendable alacrity, Master. I terminated five before they were routed, and a further three before the survivors escaped my line of fire."
"Is that all? Pfft, they gave up too easily."
"Agreement: As a group they lacked conviction."
"Well, eight out of twelve; good job," I said absently. I kicked the bike into life and opened the throttle, filling the room with a thunderous noise. Coincidentally, it also sent a cloud of blue-black smoke all over Blue and Kalu, though the fumes were rapidly evacuated out the enormous hole in the wall. I dropped the engine down to an idle, enabling conversation. "Get in," I said to Blue, indicating the side-car with a tilt of my head.
Through watering eyes, Blue coughed. "What? Where was that thing?" she demanded.
I just pointed at the side-car, my expression hard.
She still didn't move. But she did take a few tentative sniffs of the exhaust fumes. "Is it fuelled with… with hydrocarbons?" she asked, looking positively aghast at the concept.
I shrugged, not understanding the word. "No idea. If you stay there, you're dead."
HK swung his cannon around to Blue. "Query: Was that a request, Master?"
"No," I snapped, shoving the barrel away from her. I gestured to Kalu and patted the seat behind me.
Blue's head snapped between my psychotic droid and me. She was clearly past her limit. "You are insane! I'm not getting on a vehicle liable to explode!"
She clearly had a distrustful attitude towards the internal combustion engine. I helped Kalu onto the seat. She slipped her arms around my chest and held on tightly. "It's your funeral," I replied.
The massive cannon swung around again. "Hopeful Query: Was that a request, Master."
Blue whimpered and dove into the seat. She grabbed the edge of the sidecar so hard her knuckles whitened.
"HK, just shut up," I snapped. With a couple of quick flicks, I picked him up, turned him round and stuck his butt to the front of the sidecar like an over-armed mermaid figurehead on the front of a ship.
"Objection: This is undignified for a droid of my perfection, Master!" he protested.
"It's either this or I leave you in the room and summon you once we're away. Do you want to be pulled through the air like those pathetic droids at the hotel on Coruscant?"
HK charged his cannon. "Retraction: This is a satisfactory vantage point from which to unleash some unadulterated violence, Master. Turn the vehicle around and I shall clear our path of walls and other minor impediments."
I grinned and revved the engine. "Not necessary. We're going out the window."
"WHAT?" Blue shrieked.
I popped the clutch, and the back wheel skidded on the carpet for a second before we were launched out the gaping hole where the window used to be. Blue loosed a terrified wail, long and loud, as we arced gracefully out of the building. To her credit, Kalu just tightened her arms around my chest to just-short-of-rib-crushing levels and gave a whimper.
Between the noise and limpet-embrace, it triggered a wonderful memory at the end of my third year, riding Buckbeak with Hermione rupturing my eardrums and crushing my lungs.
After several seconds of butt-clenching free-fall (several seconds longer than strictly necessary), I activated the flight charms and pulled the Bonnie into a slow, descending spiral.
"It's flying!" Blue managed, after gulping in a replacement lungful of air. "We're flying! How is this thing flying? Repulsor coils can't run on hydrocarbons!" she babbled at a high volume.
"You're supposed to be dead," I yelled at her. "Stop drawing attention to yourself."
She stared at me for a moment in open-mouthed shock, before ducking and sliding down in the seat.
I looked down towards the casino complex. About half way down the side of the building, a roughly spherical set of windows had been shattered. The destruction had not been caused by the gunship however. It was very visible, spinning wildly a few hundred metres above the ground below us.
"Statement: The vehicle's movement is too erratic to ensure a direct hit at this range, Master."
"Fine. We'll get closer. Just keep an eye out for any of his friends," I shouted back.
I bled off altitude. There was a massive crowd streaming out of the casino, no doubt spooked by the firefight within. The masses did leave a significant clear area underneath the barely-controlled gunship spinning around over their heads. That was rather fortunate for what HK was planning.
My droid lined up for another shot. "Calculation: Closing by approximately fifty metres will increase the probability of a kill shot to almost one hundred percent, Master."
I leaned forward and pushed the front wheel down. We dropped the necessary distance in a few seconds. HK aimed his gun and fired. I was prepared this time for the bright flash. It hit the gunship back end, neatly punching a hole through the metal hull. Like turning off a light switch, the ship ceased spinning under power and just dropped. It crashed into the ground with a thunderous boom.
"Nice shot," I said approvingly.
"Rating: Acceptable. Calibration is still required."
Blue peeked out over the side. "Can we please leave this area?" she begged.
"I suppose so," I replied. "I would have liked Vicky to see me first."
She frowned. "Who?"
"Vicharus, his name is. I call him Vicky."
Her eyes bulged. "You want that madman to see you?"
"I was hoping so," I replied. "I was planning on setting him up."
She gaped at me, and suddenly started trembling violently.
HK turned his head. "Query: What circumstances did your plan call for, Master?"
I shook my head. "It doesn't matter now. The firefight in the casino would have triggered the compulsions I placed. He'll have caused more than enough headaches without us joining in. Blue, where do I take you?"
Blue looked up at me as though I was speaking another language.
I sighed. She'd seen too much danger and impossibilities in the past hour to process. I swung my wand around and obliviated her of certain recent memories.
As she recovered her wits, I angled the bike away from the hotel. After a few moments, she blinked and shook her head. "What the… Where are we?"
"I extracted you, remember?"
She gasped and grabbed her wrist where the band had been. "What happened?"
"To the band? I got rid of it."
She looked at me in horror. "But removing it would kill me!"
I shrugged, suddenly a bit sheepish. "Not if you got rid of it quick enough. As far as anyone knows, you and the band were blown up. Now, where are we headed?"
"Oh, er," she looked around, getting her bearings. "There's a CorSec safe-house a few clicks in that direction." She looked down at the Bonnie. "What class of speeder is this? I've never seen one before."
"It's a '59 Triumph 650 T120 Bonneville," I replied proudly with a grin.
She absorbed that, then scrunched her nose. "Why does it have wheels?" she asked, clearly unimpressed.
I sighed. Was a panty dropper; now an anachronistic curiosity. Sirius would be devastated.
AN: Thank you to all my reviewers and readers, for your patience and words both.
After my recent health issues, it became apparent that I needed to do something constructive about my lifestyle. To that end, for three months I dropped everything from my life that wasn't critical to my health, my family or my work. No writing, no games, no drinking. I even joined a 12 week challenge at a gym.
Results – I went from 35% to 25% body-fat, losing 22 cm from my waist. I'm fitter than I have been since I was a teenager. I won the competition at the gym and got 3 months membership free.
Honestly, I feel great. My wallet isn't too happy at having to buy a whole new wardrobe, but hey, it's a nice problem to have.
Thanks again for all your reviews and comments.