Chapter 2

Eastern Swamps
Chomell Sector
19 BBY

The shadows played through boughs bent and ragged to scatter over uneven moss carpets and verdant liquid murk. Nivi's eyes surveyed it in a scattered reflection of distaste. She placed the sun behind her, a distant peak to her left, and began to bushwack directly southeast.

She chose her steps with as much care as she dared to spare, moving rapidly to cover ground. Time was firmly against her, and any glance away from the moist terrain conjured a bleak monochrome image of a clock deep inside her skull, slowly ticking down to a stop. The oppressive conception shared its burdensome presence with deep, pitiless grief.

Jal Shey did not feel the Force as Jedi would, but the wreckage of the day was inescapably pervasive. The Force itself was soaked in the blood of the fallen. It pushed into her, bridging the gap between spirit and flesh to manifest as palpable nausea.

Would that she could push it all away and shelter in the calm security of the material reality until the palpitations of agony receded, but there was no escape now. Nivi relied upon the Force to navigate the unforgiving wetlands, drawing deeply on it for support. Enhanced vision pierced the clouded pools to reveal firm ground, luminous energy wrapped about muscle fibers to lengthen strides and reduce fatigue, and a reflective perception dropped from high above to unearth the swiftest path.

The sickness gripped her deep. An hour passed and Nivi could no longer override her body's suffering through will alone. She stopped abruptly and vomited wretchedly into a puddle, clouding the still water with viscous yellow bile. Insect larvae moved immediately in her heightened focus to consume it. Soot-colored moths descended down from the trees as well, fluttering to feed on this purged emotional waste.

The sight brought a small smile to her face. Life endured.

Nivi paused for two minutes, allowing this minimal amount of time for her body to recover and her mind to settle. It was not truly rest, not with the Force as it was, but it would have to serve.

One hundred kilometers could be measured in a straight line through the marshes between the facility she had so recently vacated and the nearest human transit corridor hosting regular traffic. Mere hours remained before she was labeled a fugitive by the entire GAR, subject only to overwhelmed communication channels and bureaucratic inertia. It was possible the order had already been given. Against those resources she possessed a pitiful set of assets. Her lightsaber, her armor, one advanced datapad carrying a highly illegal copy of the Bioterrorism Center's archives, and the Force completed the tally. It was little to serve as a hopeful inspiration.

She kept walking anyway, regardless of the weight of logic; holding to the swiftest pace she could sustain.

Only once did she give in to the voice of regret – after falling into a deep pool and soaking through for the first time. "Hutts take Irons! One single speeder and I'd have the whole galaxy!"

Knowing recriminations would provide neither true solace nor aid, she banished all such thoughts to the lower depths of her conscious mind, locking them away with a trick of neural control. For now she must escape Naboo, a planet that could not shelter her; nothing else mattered.

Nivi kept a corner of her attentions skyward. Captain Irons had several armed shuttles at his disposal, and the planet's GAR detachment had assault craft and starfighters. The swamp would mask most scanners, but she dared not become complacent against the possibility of spotters.

No doubt existed within her as to their inevitable coming. Nivi did not know Palpatine, but no man possessed of the brazen cunning and ambition needed to set and execute a trap to exterminate the Jedi Order would be so foolish as to let loose ends linger – certainly not on his birth-world. She held no illusions regarding her success in escaping the sustained attentions of the GAR's full might – not with all the resources freed by the ongoing Separatist collapse – only her obscure affiliation and low-priority status protected her now.

It was an oversight Nivi fully intended to make Palpatine regret, in time, but she could devote no energy to indulgent fancies yet. Survival was paramount.

Mathematics sits at the heart of all sciences, and whatever else she might be, the soul of a scientist rested at Nivi's core. As the numbers gathered against her she could not help but calculate the envelopment.

One hundred kilometers to the road – at her enhanced pace she might average five klicks an hour, twenty hours without interruption. All manageable, with the Force's assistance, but her best understanding of GAR protocols suggested holding forces would move into place in under six.

A woman on foot could not outrun airspeeders. Nor was there any possibility of finding aid. The vast marshland she occupied was deeply isolated, traversed only by Gungan herders. The Separatists had chosen the site well.

Even if she had a chance to reach them, Nivi would not risk the Gungans. Their military had been integrated with the GAR, their communications would betray them. Worse, they had no reason to stand and protect her, no one in the Republic did. She must instead find a way to break through the forming vise undetected, alone.

She only wished she had some idea how.

For the present she could only keep walking, the sun falling lower and lower in the sky behind.

Night brought changes in sensation, color, and perspective, but no true obstacles. Mirrored eyes caught light far better than humans might see in the dark, and Naboo's sky was sufficiently illuminated to leave her in the world of reds and purplish grays. Confident in this she kept to her pace, wet but filled with the warmth of exertion.

Slow and shrouded by the dimness, the air beneath the ragged trunks and webs of lichen proved to be bursting with life. Creatures large and small crawled, swam, and scurried through the mass of growth and rot. The land burst with smell and sound, a rampant sensory spectrum exploding across Nivi's enhanced intake. She took solace in the refreshing fascination of it all. After months logged inside the lab the embrace of wilderness, even that of this mild parkland Mid Rim world, was refreshing. She felt the marsh slowly flush the grief away, and soon it was possible to begin facing down the horrible truth she had witnessed.

While the details were no doubt propagating across a HoloNet beyond her reach, Nivi required no such journalism to supply her with the essentials. The Force and the clones had revealed plenty already. The Jedi Order shattered – Knights and Masters dead, Corpsmen imprisoned, turned upon by the soldiers whose lives they'd safeguarded up until the very final moment.

Order Sixty-Six, an innocuous, simple label. It was precise and clinical – fitting for the clones. Nivi herself admitted she might have used such language, but it seemed a poor fit for a Supreme Chancellor. She considered that, quite possibly, that was the point. "Detail slays the Jedi and spares the Jal Shey." It was an old saying from an earlier cycle of the Republic. Something of a miserable joke, today it had become a cruel truth. So too, she feared, was the equally aged retort. "Evil slays the diplomat; falls to the guardian."

But she was not ready to give up yet.

The finer points of military protocol governing containment cordon deployment or strategic unit placement or maximum area coverage formations were not a portion of Nivi's knowledge – nor was she trained in defeating such tactics, as a Jedi might have been. Considering this bleak picture as she light-stepped over brush mounds and fire-scarred stumps she knew she could not survive by thinking that way.

Perhaps a skilled Jedi might make the warrior's charge across the landscape and beat the clones at their own game, but that same Jedi would never have made it this far, instead dying in the laboratory, shot in the back by Span.

I am alive because I am Jal Shey, not Jedi.

The words burned across the back of her mind with the written certainty she knew derived from the Force. She followed the thought to its logical conclusion. In order that she might keep living, it could only be through living as Jal Shey, not Jedi.

Climbing a long, low, ridge topped by towering conifers she cast the overlapping skills aside from her thought process. Lightsaber techniques, unarmed combat, speed and sensory enhancement, even mental trickery, all were discarded. The remainder was much reduced, and seemingly little to do with warfare, but it was hers.

In the course of this consideration she unearthed an unexpectedly potent commonality in her understanding of bypassing defenses: the world of immunology and epidemiology. The GAR barricade was the skin, and she was a bacterium seeking a way through.

Her mind began churning, eyes wandering as they sought to put all possibilities of the landscape into the vortex of data now swirling into one of her Force-boosted deductive mental algorithms. Somewhere the key existed to solve this puzzle; to unlock the path that began with survival and ended with the unmaking of the catastrophe known as Order Sixty-Six.

That there was a way she never doubted – schemes of extravagant personal ambition were, like such ambition itself, always flawed.

The mission profile was utter simplicity – kill any lifeform weighing more than thirty kilos that crossed a digitized line before it could breach the opposite perimeter. The resulting kill zone was roughly two kilcks wide and encompassed a seventy-five klick radius circle of sunken marsh, flooded bottomland, and low-land forest. Sixer's assignment was to cover a roughly fifty-kilometer length stretch of the aforesaid belt using his Torrent.

It had started out as great fun, a chance to bank some hairpin low-altitude moves he'd never get to use in actual combat while blasting at moving wildlife for emphasis. It had quickly become something resembling the galaxy's most sadistic form of target practice. Unarmored swamp creatures turned into particularly messy cocktails of organic remains when hit by laser cannons, and the view was churning even a hardened clone's stomach.

As any competent soldier would do, Sixer had familiarized himself with the local environment upon arriving at this station, just in case he'd needed backwoods knowledge to survive following a bail-out or other accident. So now he recognized every miserable life form in the instant before he depressed the trigger. Mutts, Ganks, Numas, Bursas, and a mated pair of Swamp Banthas had all come under the guns. At some point, one he dreaded more than more with each pass, the scope would illuminate a Gungan.

It was his desperate hope that the ground teams would find the fugitive first. Sixer had never before taken the life of a non-combatant sentient. It was a streak he very much wanted to hang onto.

Six hours into the patrol matters had largely calmed, the practical consequence of most of the belt slowly burning from earlier laser strikes. For a clone grappling with the entirely unprecedented desire to not shoot more things with the control stick in hand this was a blessing.

In fact it was all rather excessive to Sixer. Eight Torrents, two Larties, and two full platoons on the ground all to catch one pseudo-Jedi. He'd have figured a squad on speeder bikes could have handled it just as well. Command, apparently, felt differently, and they were the ones paid to make those decisions, so he kept to it, no matter the gore below.

But where was the woman? How was it possible she'd evaded the searchers for so long?

Six hours later, with no life signs detected within the entirely enclosed search area, Sixer was no closer to an answer. He had to withdraw to refuel regardless. Upon returning to base, he checked the unit log of computer-tabulated kills. It made him sick to see – his streak was intact, but eight Gungans had died. Total wildlife mortality was simply approximated by tonnage.

Another six hours further command conceded their quarry had somehow escaped and redeployed all search assets.

In the chaos of burning swampland and dying mammallia, Sixer had never noticed that a Gank carcass had somehow moved from where it was shot to the far edge of the kill zone.

Sheltering beneath shadows cast off the brilliant domes of Theed, Nivi finally reached a point where the stench of smoldering Gank had sloshed free of her shimmering hair. By the time this state was achieved she'd managed to assemble a basic picture of the tsunami of events surging through the galaxy. All she had felt and sensed through the Force faced brutal confirmation, and far worse. The very foundations of galactic order had been uprooted and for now only a terrifying unknown prevailed.

Mace Windu, Kit Fisto, Yoda, Arglian Zey, Ki-Adi-Mundi, Plo Koon...the list of Jedi slain as traitors was endless. The corresponding list of surviving fugitives much, much shorter. Some of this was surely a fabrication, Nivi could not believe claims implying not a single senior master had survived, but the very confidence revealed by Palpatine's willingness to proffer such claims was a confirmation all its own.

The destruction of the Jedi Order was now the reality of the galaxy.

This news created a firestorm that rose up to burn away any announcements of smaller affairs, but a bit of diligent HoloNet searching revealed a list of 'Jedi Collaborators' now in GAR custody. There were Jal Shey names among them, more than a few. Nivi took as bitter blows each scrolling down to reveal a friend of colleague. Her own master, a renowned medical scholar, was on that list; seized aboard a MedStar.

No details revealed the fate of all the myriad Service Corps members, Matukai, Jal Shey, or any other swept up by the echoes of Order Sixty-Six. As a witness to the pursuit and bloodshed unleashed against her personally Nivi could secure little hope for her fellows. Worse, she had absolutely no way to contact or find those who might yet still be free.

Despite the abject death and destruction it bore, the news of countless Force-users being scourged was not the worst thing to blast across the HoloNet. That particular abomination occupied Nivi's attention as she nursed a cup of tea in a tiny backstreet tapcafe. She'd printed the whole text out on flimsi from a public terminal, needing the physical structure to ground something so mind-shattering.

It was a short document, a few hundred words only, with the strangely mundane title 'Declaration of a New Order.'

The Republic was dissolved, Palpatine had assumed the open role of dictator, and everything the war had been fought for was torn asunder.

Had the star above gone nova in that instant Nivi could not have been further shocked.

Every minute in the open brought great personal risk, but Nivi sat at the tapcafe for hours, reading the reports over and over while her drink went cold. Somewhere embedded in those words was the key to what she must do next.

Slowly the pieces came together – the extra-sentatorial governors, the elimination of independent Jedi oversight, the militarization of all economic sectors, the destruction of Rim-based socioeconomic power centers, it all fell out centered on one man, one would-be Emperor.

When she reached this conclusion is seemed shockingly simple, entirely too obvious, but no effort to debate it offered any purchase.

Palpatine was the key to it all.

Palpatine must die.

"The duracrete has not yet hardened," whispered beneath her breath, Nivi made the old catchphrase of Jal Shey diplomacy into a battle cry. The choice was clear – as was her path.

What remained illusive was the means. Palpatine lay ensconced on Coruscant behind the galaxy's very best security and this strange new enforcer Vader. Nivi would not be enough on her own.

To kill an Emperor would require the very best assassins. Lacking money to recruit such persons, she would perforce need to rely on other motives.

Luckily, perhaps, for her, the world of bioterrorism research had revealed more than few possibilities.

As the sun set Nivi headed for the spaceport. She had a ship to steal.