MUSTAFAR


Mustafar was a strange world. The sole inhabited planet in the system named for it, it shared an orbit with the enormous gas giant Jestefed. A young, extraordinarily volatile world, it was constantly being torn apart by the gravitic tug-of-war being waged between Jestefed and its planetary neighbour, the distant but incredibly dense Lefrani. Swathed in thick clouds of volcanic ash, its rocky, rugged surface in a state of permanent twilight and scoured continuously by rivers of molten lava, it was a miracle that anyone could survive there for long, let alone build a life and even thrive.

And yet, live there people did. Small settlements dotted the surface. The native Mustafarian species, the tall, gaunt northerners and the far stockier, hardier southerners, had carved out an industry of harvesting the lava and extracting precious metals and minerals from it. They made enough credits to survive, to trade for food and the amenities their angry, begotten world refused to provide.

Mustafar, however, was right on the ragged edge of the Outer Rim, much too far from the Galactic Core and too dangerous for a permanent mining operation. It was, mostly, a forgotten world.

The secrecy this afforded was the planet's true value.

The Nubian J-type star skiff that reverted to realspace at the very edges of Mustafar's gravity well was built for stealth and operated in secrecy. The ship had no name, no designation, no Identify Friend/Foe transponder, no serial number, no registration on any world anywhere in the galaxy. Its flying-wing shape was a matte black, the exotic metal coating its hull designed to reflect scanners and most forms of cosmic radiation, including starlight. The ship's modified Sossen-7 sublight engines used an isotope of fuel that left a dark efflux trail. The vessel was unarmed, most of its interior packed with extraordinarily illegal communications equipment and scanner countermeasures as well as a state-of-the-art, blindingly fast hyperdrive.

A powerful computer watched the galactic HoloNet and most of communications frequencies, commonly used and not so commonly. A small team of slicer droids constantly worked on decryption methods that would have been the envy of every intelligence outfit in the universe. A sophisticated, heuristic algorithm determined what the ship's sole pilot might want to hear in a galaxy filled with people who never stopped talking to each other.

It was a mobile covert listening post, meant to stay hidden and keep an ear to the wind. In that purpose, it functioned extraordinarily well.

The ship, unnoticed by any scanners on the planet's surface, was the only vessel flying in the skies above Mustafar. It was, in fact as well as in intention, a shadow. Dropping into Mustafar's turbulent upper atmosphere, it cut through the thick, roiling clouds of ash like a knife and finally descended towards the planet's tortured surface, on a course for the northern hemisphere.

The pilot paid little heed to the brilliant rivers of lava cascading across black outcroppings of stone. Instead, she focused on her destination: a tall, mushroom-shaped metal tower built into the side of a mountain. As she neared, she input and transmitted an authorisation code and the tower's automatic defensive weaponry disengaged, not that the relatively rudimentary scanners that found the guns' targets would have even registered her approach.

That same authorisation code opened a wide hatch on the upper side of the tower. A narrow landing platform slowly extended, just large enough for a ship the size of the skiff. The black-hulled ship settled gently to a landing on its thin landing struts.

The pilot stood from her chair and headed aft, wrapping a thick, dark cloak around her as she reached the landing ramp. It was already lowering, exposing her to the searing heat and ash-choked atmosphere of Mustafar.

Already, the person she'd come to meet was scurrying out onto the deck. Tall and skeletally thin, the Mustafarian wore several layers of protective garments, his Kubaz-like nasal trunk twitching as he lifted a spindly, three-fingered hand in a salute of greeting.

The pilot nodded her head in response. He stepped aside to allow her ingress into his tower.

"Welcome back to Mustafar," he said as he shut the outer hatch behind them, shaking the ash off of his person. His guest had removed her cloak and was folding it, placing it on a small shelf beside the inner door. He added her title when she turned back to him without a smile. "Master Jedi."

Laahn Ka, her elegantly curved montrals free from the dark material of the cloak, said simply "We have business to attend to, Glikos."

"You're right, of course," Glikos said, ushering the Togruta Jedi deeper into his tower. It was dark and oppressively hot inside, as befitted the Mustafarian's ancestral habitat. His species had evolved from the extremophile arthropods that had lived in Mustafar's deep mountain caverns, which were protected from the constant lava flows that blighted the surface and as a result were slightly cooler.

What would have been incapacitating for a human, however, was merely uncomfortable for a Togruta. Laahn Ka's species had evolved in the densely packed tunnels beneath the surface of the planet Shili and, as a result, had become a highly organised, social species. Laahn Ka hadn't been sociable for a long time.

Finally, they reached the centre of the tower. Glikos input a code on a small access panel. A recessed door slid open, revealing an airy, brightly lit circular chamber, packed with machinery both antiquated and lovingly maintained. Laahn Ka followed him inside. Glikos didn't live in this tower. No one did. He was simply its caretaker, maintaining the tower and the precious equipment within. The droids that monitored the countless screens didn't even look up from their work as the two interlopers entered into their sanctum.

The air in here was positively icy, kept at a constant temperature just above five degrees in order to allow the old computer banks to function without interruption. A long time ago, Mustafar had been the last redoubt of the embattled rulers of the Confederacy of Independent Systems. They had been discovered, exterminated and their equipment left to the unrelenting fury of the volcanic world. This chamber was one such example: a listening post.

Years before, when she was scouring the galaxy for such hidden centres of information in order to set up a galaxy-spanning network of contacts and spies, she'd found the records of this site in the personal files of a long-dead Nemoidian. Glikos and his family had been operating it for generations, selling information to whomever could afford it.

Laahn Ka could certainly afford it.

"What's so important that you called me halfway across the galaxy, Glikos?" Laahn Ka asked, looking around the room.

"Over here," he said, beckoning her towards a station unmanned by any of the droids. He punched in a code and called up an image. It was an overview of the galaxy, a simplified representation of the spiral formation. A few red spots glowed faintly. "One of the faces you told me to watch out for has shown up a couple of times in the last few weeks. I was going to log it all and shoot it to you in a packet at the end of the month, like normal, only the last place this guy showed up squared with one of your hot zones."

Laahn Ka's heart leapt into her throat. "Who was it?"

"This guy," Glikos answered, summoning an image of an olive-skinned man with a classically constructed face. His throat was covered, hiding the scar she'd left there upon their first meeting eight years before. Laahn Ka looked upon the face of Faran Kess and fought the hate that erupted in her heart. If Glikos noticed her inner struggle, he didn't show it. "He's shown up on a few planets in the Inner Rim and the Core. It was only when he got to the Empress Teta system that I thought I should call you."

Laahn Ka swallowed, tamping down her rage. "You did the right thing, Glikos. Thank you."

"No problem," he said. "Just make sure you add a couple of credits to the monthly bill, yeah?"

"Of course," she answered, remaining as matter-of-fact as she could. That Kess had been in Empress Teta was a concern, though it may have been a coincidence. The system, located in the Deep Core, was a commercial and cultural centre and had been for millennia. "Where else has he been located?"

"Let me check," he said, calling up some more information. "Champala, Corulag, Duros, Manaan, Obroa-skai..."

With each planet the Mustafarian named, Laahn Ka's blood grew colder. "How did you find him?" she demanded, cutting Glikos off in mid-sentence.

Somewhat unnerved by the always-cool Jedi's sudden outburst, Glikos hesitated before saying "He showed up on public security cams in a few places, got his picture snapped at the spaceport on Corulag. He showed up in the background of some Aleena family's holosnaps on Manaan. You know if it gets uploaded onto the HoloNet, my droids will find it."

"Yes," Laahn Ka said with a curt nod, embarrassed that she'd allowed her fury with Kess to get the better of her. She had more pressing concerns than propriety, however. "Run a cross-check with local police records. I assume you have access to them?"

"Sure," Glikos said, nodding. "For most of these planets, anyway. Ah, here we go."

His trunk slumped as he read. Laahn Ka looked over his hunched shoulder. Sometime after every sighting of Kess, on each of these worlds, local authorities had found a body or two in the vicinity of his presence. Oftentimes, the victims had been tortured. In the cases where the bodies had been identified, Laahn Ka recognised their names immediately. Each and every single one of them had, at one time or another, served as contacts or informants for her.

Faran Kess had found her network. Worse, the man killed on Empress Teta had helped Laahn Ka transport some cold weather living equipment to a planet in the Outer Rim, not far from the Tion Cluster. Rhen Var. She shivered, realising that Kess had the dark side at his power. Even though the man's loyalty had been beyond question, Kess would have extracted the information from him. Would have seen through his eyes, even.

Would have glimpsed Nyanna Meheron.

Laahn Ka suddenly became edgy. She needed to get off Mustafar, needed to contact Rhen Var. Needed to get Nyanna to safety. Eight years ago, Kess had killed the rest of the Meheron family. He was now close to finding the last of their number.

She focused, centring herself and ridding herself of unwanted thoughts. She had to focus on the here and now, remain mindful of the living Force.

"You've been a great help to me, Glikos," Laahn Ka said with a friendly smile. "I'll triple the fee for this month. Unfortunately, that will have to serve as severance."

The Mustafarian turned, drawing himself up to his full height. "But why? I thought the information was good!"

"It's for your own safety, my friend," she said, her expression turning solemn. "As is this."

She drew her lightsabre from her belt. The blue blade erupted into humming life with a familiar snap-hiss. Glikos' eyes widened in shock as she plunged the weapon into the listening station's console. It sparked and flashed as circuits were annihilated and its systems overloaded.

"What are you doing?" he cried in shock.

The Jedi pivoted, decapitating one of the slicer droids and then hacking it to pieces with a series of elegant, almost gentle strokes of her blade. Its fellows worked on, unabated.

"What I must do," Laahn Ka said, almost sadly. Glikos felt a sudden pressure behind his knees and he fell to them. Laahn Ka deactivated her weapon, clipped it back on her belt and stepped over to him. Putting her hands either side of his face, she reached out with the Force. He felt her presence on the edge of his consciousness, probing, seeking a way past whatever mental defences he may have built up over the years.

"Stop," he said, quietly.

"I can't," she replied. Her tone was apologetic, her sadness sincere. She sought out every trace of her in his memory, obliterating them to the last. When she was done, he had no memory of ever having met her. Shivering after the ruthless, relentless invasion of his mind, the Mustafarian looked up at her with something akin to fear. She sent one last wave of Force energy through his mind, knocking him unconscious. "I'm so, so sorry."

Such Force techniques were dangerous, often tools of the dark side. Laahn Ka was desperate, however, and desperate times called for desperate measures.

She dragged Glikos' prone form from the room and then reactivated her lightsabre. Slowly, methodically, she reduced every console, every piece of machinery, every droid, to so much wreckage. She paid special attention to the mainframes that houses the systems' enormous memory. At length, only the master systems console remained. The room was full of the stench of ozone and smoke rose from the rubble of her grim work.

Attending to the final console, she sent a power overload to the rest of the systems that constituted the core of the tower. Its heavy metal frame, designed to withstand the tectonic and geological horrors Mustafar could throw at it, could easily handle the explosions she heard echoing through it.

Finally, the echoes fell silent. Laahn Ka hefted her lightsabre and plunged it into the heart of the console. It went dark with a sickening pop. Deactivating the blade, she tucked it into her belt and returned to Glikos. He was sleeping peacefully. She felt sorrow for what she'd done to him, but her concerns for Nyanna's safety were overriding that.

Laahn Ka had failed the Meherons so spectacularly, losing Nyanna to kidnappers and failing to prevent Kess from assassinating the rest of the family on one night. Worse, she'd been unable to reach the Jedi Temple on Samea in time to prevent the slaughter that wiped the Samean Chapter of the Jedi Order from the face of the galaxy. She'd stolen a ship and fled the Metastraten sector, combing the galaxy looking for Nyanna, That Erik Meheron was evidently alive and that his image and words were occasionally broadcast throughout the Metastraten Sector did little to assuage her guilt: he was still under Hiram Cotra's control and would undoubtably come to be that worm's puppet. She'd spent so long searching that the message she'd been handed by a courier on the planet Bimmisaari had been anticlimactic.

A handwritten note, inside a message tube that could only be opened by Laahn Ka's thumbprint. She'd recognised that painfully neat script immediately as belonging to Nyanna Meheron, at that time still in hiding on an unknown world far beyond the known reaches of the Outer Rim. That message had put Laahn Ka on this course, had turned the once gregarious, sociable Togruta Jedi into the secretive spymaster she now was.

Or, at least, had been.

If Faran Kess had compromised her network, she needed to shut it down. Not for her safety but for the safety of her contacts and, most crucially, the safety of Nyanna, ensconced in hiding on the frozen world Rhen Var.

Laahn Ka reached the exit, opening the inner hatch and retrieving her cloak. Wrapping herself in it, she stepped out into the benighted Mustafar day. The thick ash clouds had broken, ever so slightly, allowing a glimpse of the planet's pale sun. Cast in black against the bright disc was distant Lefrani.

Laahn Ka realised that she could empathise with Mustafar's predicament. She was a Jedi, torn between the oaths she had taken as a member of that sacred and ancient order and the measures she needed to take in order to protect Nyanna. She, too, was torn between two great forces. Her honour and the necessities of the day. Sighing, she wasted no more time in the scorching atmosphere of the planet.

She boarded her skiff and lifted off immediately. Pointing the craft's broad but elegant nose towards the sky, she gunned her engines and was pressed back into the pilot's chair. As soon as she was out of the planet's atmosphere, she set course for the edge of the gravity well and activated the ship's HoloNet transceiver.

The first thing she did was wire three hundred thousand credits to Glikos' account from her bank on Muunilinst. It wouldn't make up for the loss of the listening post but it would make things easier for the Mustafarian's family. The next thing she did was send out pings to many of her agents across the galaxy. She needed to know who was alive and who'd been compromised. If someone detected her access, they'd trace them back to Mustafar but she'd already be long gone.

Waiting a few minutes for the computers to find an appropriate signal to piggyback off of, she keyed an introductory pulse and waited. A few moments later came a reply signal. The hologram project plate on the pilot's console came to life, revealing a bluescanned image of a hunched figure wearing a cloak not unlike Laahn Ka's own. It kept her face hidden and her voice was masked by an encryption program.

"Silence calling Deepfreeze," Laahn Ka said.

"Deepfreeze returning your call, Silence," the figure replied. "What's your status?"

"Whisper has been compromised," the Togruta said, getting straight to the point. "He's found my agents. I don't know how many have been killed, but we have to operate under the assumption that he's blown the network wide open."

Deepfreeze was silent for a time. At long last, she said "I understand. Do you think he knows our location?"

Laahn Ka shivered. "I have reason to believe that he does."

"We must leave immediately," Deepfreeze said and shook her cowled head. "We always knew it was only a matter of time..."

"I'll set course for you at once," Laahn Ka assured her.

"No," Deepfreeze answered emphatically.

"Master," Laahn Ka said, dropping the codenames for a moment. "You don't have a ship. How do you propose to get offworld?

"I'll contact Treetops," Deepfreeze answered. Laahn Ka was uneasy at that proposal, but didn't argue. Deepfreeze had known Treetops for a very, very, very long time. They trusted one another implicitly. "She'll send someone to extract us."

"They might not reach you in time," Laahn Ka insisted.

Deepfreeze shook her head. "Faran Kess is still in the pocket of Hiram Cotra. He'll need to return to his master before he makes any move against us. We're at least three days away from Metastrato Prime."

"And if your faith in Treetops is misplaced?" she pressed.

"Then we're all doomed," Deepfreeze answered honestly. "Such are the vicissitudes of fate. The will of the Force."

Laahn Ka bit back an argument. "I could be there tomorrow."

"You have more pressing concerns, Shadow," Deepfreeze answered, her tone brooking no room for argument. "You know that. If your agents have been compromised, you may have a leak. Worse, their lives and the lives of their families are in danger. It is your duty to see to them."

"It's my duty to protect Principle," Laahn Ka answered, referring to their codename for Nyanna.

"Your duty is to the Force," Deepfreeze reminded her sharply. "The Force will protect Principle, as it always has."

Again, Laahn Ka had to bite her tongue to keep from rebuking Deepfreeze. "I understand. I've sent pings to my agents. I'll make sure they're safe."

Deepfreeze nodded. "Good. After you have ascertained their safety, begin to dismantle Whisper."

Laahn Ka arched a hairless brow. "Say again, Deepfreeze."

"Your network has served its purpose, Shadow. It kept us safe her for five years. Our time of sanctuary has ended. Destiny is calling and I intend to answer it." Deepfreeze answered with a matter-of-fact tone. "Treetops will host us when we meet again in two standard weeks. Understood?"

"I understand, Deepfreeze. May the Force be with you." Laahn Ka nodded, though she wasn't happy about any of it.

"And with you, my young friend." At that, the pojector grille went dark.

A soft beep from the ship's console told Laahn Ka that she'd reached the edge of Mustafar's gravity well. She input coordinates to the navicomputer and sent the skiff into hyperspace, committed to following her new master's orders.

As the unnatural swirl of hyperspace extended before her, she closed her eyes and reached out with the Force, looking to clear her mind and seek answers in meditation. A faint darkness hovered at the edge of her perception, however, and it troubled her greatly.