"Men and their machines," Twyla complained, unconcerned with whether anyone overheard.
Nearby, recumbent on the sand, Captain Kol Lech chuckled, his huge, elongated body quaking with his merriment. This annoyed Twyla since the Hutt was wearing a bib that consisted of gold rings, hundreds, all hooked into the hide of his torso. The rings formed a mosaic of interlinking spirals that reminded her of a fractal pattern. The sparkle of sunlight on so much gold tempted her to blast the slime now rather than await the signal.
She might get away with it, too. Thirty meters away, Lech's sand barge hovered low over the desert. This far into the Roolian basin, the barge and Twyla's small fighter were all that interrupted the barren landscape. She saw no crew, not even droids, patrolling the deck. No one commandeered the laser canons mounted on the railing. Shutters covered the portals set in the brown metal of its smooth hull.
She would have to restrain her impulse to attack. Given the size of the barge, Lech could summon a hundred henchmen with a wave of his pudgy hand. Besides, Rallion probably had charged the plas-capacitor by now.
She walked in an arch around the contraption that rested on the sand. At least she was dressed for the desert. A petit human of twenty-five Galactic Standard years, she wore black, ankle-high boots. Tucked inside the boots were the legs of dark blue slacks, up the sides of which marched silver rings - windows revealing pale skin - that continued over the hips and ended at a brown service belt. The belt was divided into pouches and loops through which were thrust various accoutrements of her trade, including a blaster. Beneath the off-white tunic with its long sleeves, body armor hugged her torso.
"Yes, well," rumbled the Hutt in Basic. "As I've said, I sell only the most coveted. For this particular item, I am the only illegal vendor."
A curved blade of dark hair hung on one side of Twyla's oval face, its tip brushing her jawbone. As she sweated in the heat of Tatooine's twin suns, she jerked her head in annoyance, flinging the lock of hair. "It's the smallest missile launcher I've ever seen."
"Technically, it's a torpedo delivery system. Capable of dispatching shielded landers - including Rancor class carriers - of up to ten thousand kilograms."
"Are you sure? I could tote this thing on my back."
"That's the idea - quick, easy, stealthy deployment of tremendous firepower. The torpedoes each generate an energy field that provides both aerodynamics and a largely unknown means of piercing conventional low- to medium-power shields."
She kneeled beside the launcher, a gray cylinder that was thirty centimeters in diameter and fifteen centimeters in height. Torpedoes protruded from the top like a bed of black spikes. She wondered how one aimed them.
She glanced up at the Hutt. "Repulsor lifts?"
"Correct. A remote control raises the launcher a meter from the ground. Precision tilt and swivel allows the operator to point the surprises at anything in the sky. Standard tracking and guidance system."
"How much punch do the torps pack?"
"My dear, each delivers a compact, hypersonic bomb - quarter kiloton. They represent the smallest heavy equipment dicers in the galaxy. A marvel. Even in these times."
"And a bargain," she said, standing upright, averting her eyes from the Hutt's dazzling bib. She wore no jewelry of her own; she never understood its purpose. The scar pointing away from the corner of her eye was enough adornment.
"Naturally. In this sector, Captain Lech is the name that delivers any and all."
She resumed walking, staying close to the launcher, but keeping distance between her and Lech.
Lech smiled, his thin lips stretching across a face that spanned nearly a meter. "So," he said, his huge yellow eyes blinking, "do you wish to deal?"
At that moment, the air separating her and Lech rippled, momentarily distorting her perception of the Hutt.
A feeling of relief washed through her. Even if Lech suspected something, rather than attributing the effect to the ground radiating heat, it was too late for him.
"Yes," she said, allowing determination to show on her face. She drew her blaster and pointed it at Lech's head. She flicked her blade of hair. "A bad deal."
Lech's expression barely had time to shift from smug to horror before Twyla pulled the trigger and reduced it to a smoldering ruin.
This action elicited the reprisal she had expected. A multitude of humanoids, droids, and everything else poured out of hiding and onto the deck of the barge. Each of the shutters that marched along the hull flung upward. The ensuing barrage of blaster fire caused Twyla to hunker down and use her arms to shield her eyes.
Although Rallion's energy field protected her, even from the canons, it would allow her to shoot her enemies. She holstered her blaster. It was pointless. Besides, if Rallion was doing his job, then he was projecting a shield that sheltered her, the launcher, and her fighter.
Amid the storm of obstructed blaster fire, she scrambled to the launcher, worked her fingers beneath the edge of its base, and tilted it upward. If the plans she and Rallion had stolen spoke the truth, then there shouldn't be a problem.
As she had hoped, she saw the sunken keypad and the strike plate positioned underneath.
The storm of blaster fire from the barge intensified, and the prow of the barge began to swing to starboard, away from the energy field. Twyla pressed the sequence of keys to enter a stolen access code, then, bracing the launcher with one foot, she maneuvered onto her back. The tracking and guidance system relied on the remote control, which she lacked, but the barge had just begun to depart when she kicked the strike plate.
The launcher emitted a sound like a human gasp.
From the barge, a violet ring of light expanded and swept past Twyla and beyond the shield. At the same instant, the barge separated, from prow to stern, into equal halves that fell away. As both sections crashed into the sand, one exploded, obliterating both.
Twyla lay prone on her back, her arms pressed to her face as a cloud of sand and dust enveloped her. One less horde of miscreants, Twyla thought, kicking the launcher onto its side. And one less unscrupulous arms dealer...
Sitting at the Captain's console, Gesh Rallion pulled the throttle levers of the Onslaught far enough back to leave Tatooine in a vertical ascent. Twyla sat beside him, and once they had entered the vacuum of space, she relaxed.
"The launcher should compliment the Onslaught's arsenal beautifully," said Gesh as he hurled them into hyperspace. "Any damage?"
She knew what he meant; this wasn't the first mission that Twyla and Gesh had shared. They were friends and his projects usually allowed her to do what she liked the most - eliminate refuse from the galaxy. It was good to work with him again after several months apart. "No, I'm fine. Where is K'Tarsh, anyway?"
"Outer Rim. You'll love K'Tarsh - more gangsters than on Tatooine."
Gesh unbuckled his harness, stood, and stretched. He was human, slightly larger in build than she, with a triangular face perpetually shadowed in stubble, which she thought complimented his green eyes. Knee-high black boots gave way to dark green trousers, a service belt, and a white tunic beneath a black vest. He had tawny, straight hair cut above the ears. None of this particularly enthralled her.
They retired to the commons area where they sat facing each other across a small table that was crammed into a corner between storage compartments. Gesh re-hydrated a Corellian delicacy, and Twyla resisted the urge to complain about Gesh's ability to botch even this rudimentary cooking project.
"So," he said, cracking the shell of a small creature by slamming it against the tabletop. Steam roiled up between them. The meal smelled wonderful, at least. "Have you considered my suggestion?"
"I won't steal from my targets."
Gesh's stealing irked her, but he only stole from those like Lech. She included Gesh among scavengers, who her own work, by its nature, tended to encourage. Gesh was a mercenary by career, and she was fairly indifferent about that. As long as he didn't supply too much firepower to warmongers, he could participate in all the violence he wanted.
"But you'll kill them."
"People who are in the business of asking for it, yes."
"But if they're dead, what use have they for their valuables?"
"Their valuables aren't mine."
"Neither are their lives," he said, poking a fork at her through clouds of steam.
"But - and we've been through this - they don't own the lives of the many people they kill by peddling their weapons and substances. When you think about it, I'm really saving lives."
"Well, you're saving my life."
She looked up and smiled. "How am I doing that?"
"I have debts. I owe money to some extremely determined outlaws, including Jabba the Hutt. I figure, with the gadgets you've helped me acquire, I can either pay them or fight them."
"Pay them. Outlaws like Jabba always keep a contingent of people who owe them favors. Fighting them would only multiply your enemies."
"See? There you go again."
"Saving my life."
"It's common sense. Of course, you owe your survival more to luck."
"No, I owe my survival more to my talent for assessing people."
She sipped something that tasted like water someone had used to soak filthy socks, then left the table and removed a canister of fresh water stock from one of the compartments.
"So how am I doing?" she said, settling again at the table.
"A lot better than my last partner."
"How did he die anyway?"
"He tried to steal the Onslaught. I showed him the airlock. Of course, the Onslaught was in orbit at the time."
"Well...do I strike you as a long-term partner?"
She already knew the answer. She could tell that he liked her petit nose, high cheekbones, and blue eyes that were a tad too far apart yet attractive, and that otherwise he enjoyed her company.
"Honestly, Twyla," he said, sounding perturbed. "I think we're ready to call each other 'friends' now."
Having had enough of her friend's cooking, she sat back. "Change of subject," she said. The plas-capacitor. Where did you get it?"
"A little planet called Naboo. A race there, called the Gungans, designed and built it. Generating shields is one of their talents. I paid for it by persuading Queen Amidala to release a rogue Gungan from incarceration. The Gungans and Naboo are at odds - old story. The Naboo caught him spying. He's related to Boss Nass, the Gungan leader."
Twyla sat up again. "You know Queen Amidala?"
"Funny thing. We met in combat on Priapica. Imagine, a queen shooting at the bad guys. Right now she's dealing with the growing threat of the Trade Federation. She is on K'Tarsh currently; I'd like to pay her a visit. Join me?"
"Are you deranged? Amidala is one of my heroes. You know that."
He leaned forward then, and with a mischievous grin, he said, "I'm one of your heroes, aren't I?"
"Yeah, right." She smiled and lobbed an orange pea, which bounced off his nose.
"I'll make a deal with you," she said, flicking her head to throw the blade of hair away from her eye. "Introduce me to Queen Amidala, and I'll place you second on my priority list."
Gesh slapped the tabletop. "Deal."
Sitting back, his expression grew serious.
"Twyla, I haven't told you everything. I contacted you because I wanted help with Lech, but also to reunite us as a team. The reason I'm going to K'Tarsh is not just to pay a debt. Not many know about this, but Amidala -" He paused. "I received a coded transmission from Naboo two days ago. Zet Teevo, a gangster operating from K'Tarsh, paid someone close to Amidala to sabotage a transport scheduled to deliver her to Coruscant for a conference of senators. The sabotage forced the ship to exit hyperspace and weakened its shields. A squadron of Teevo's henchmen attacked and forced her crew to land on Umgul. The squadron landed and captured her after a battle. Teevo holds her captive now. He hasn't stated any demands - yet."
Twyla would need time to absorb this revelation so pretending not to be dumbstruck with astonishment was easy.
"When were you planning to tell me that you were on such good terms with Queen Amidala? Never mind. Let me guess, you're planning to rescue her and you want me to help?"
"No. I'm hoping that what I'm bringing to Teevo is enough to trade for Amidala as well as pay my debt. I may be able to free her without a battle, but I want you there alongside me in case there is trouble. What's more, Amidala's people are planning to raid Teevo's lair. I want to make my offer to Teevo before that happens. If I fail, we probably can still join the raid. Knowing it was Amidala, I thought you probably would do it."
"Gesh," she said, her eyes narrowing, "you lured me into this. You've never deceived me before..." Then she sighed with resignation. "Yes, I'll do it. Since it's Amidala. You must have something pretty valuable. Teevo could hold most of Naboo hostage. Amidala is a popular woman."
"Yes, I have, but to be completely honest, even though he needs me to get more of what I'm offering, I doubt Teevo will agree to the terms."
An alarm squealing interrupted him. The Onslaught had entered the K'Tarsh system.
The coordinates led them to land at a point from which they could see the Rodian's lair through the forward view-port. A sudden sandstorm rendered travel by foot too dangerous and they waited for the turbulence to pass with the Onslaught's shields raised. What was it, thought Twyla, about a dry, scorching sea of sand that appealed to so many gangsters like Zet Teevo?
When the storm cleared, the cliff stood before the ship, its face like a great wall that reached up to slice the sky. Behind them, a sun, occluded by a towering spire of rock, abruptly emerged. When it did, sunlight reflected from the cliff and flooded the cockpit. The cockpit darkened as the view-port immediately grew opaque in automatic response. A shadow lay over the base of the cliff, long and black against the white rock. When Twyla's eyes recovered from the glare, she discerned that the shadow was the mouth of a cave.
A pair of Gamorrean guards met Twyla and Gesh at the entrance. After examining the crate that Gesh was toting at his side, the guards escorted them into the wide cavern, one guard leading and the other following. Both the guards carried blaster rifles. The cavern grew darker as they plunged deeper into its maw, and as shadows enveloped them, Twyla felt a gentle current of cool air wash over her face and arms.
She studied as much as the light allowed her to see, including the leading guard, who was clad in sparse leather uniform. With the massive bulk of his green, humanoid body, the tusks protruding from his lower jaw, and his huge snout, Twyla felt that the Gamorreans actually improved the atmosphere of this place.
When she met Zet Teevo, however, she forgot all about the cavern.
Of all the Rodians Twyla had encountered, Teevo was the richest and the most eccentric. Having altered his body through procedures devised to prolong his longevity, Teevo presented the most disgusting personage Twyla had ever known.
Carved in the floor of the cavern was a pit filled with a brackish fluid to the surface of which clung a mist; looking through the mist, Twyla could see chunks of gray matter floating in the mire. The Rodian lay in the pit, the bulk of his body submerged, the vapor writhing about him. A fixture in the ceiling cast a brilliant white light onto the Rodian, the only illumination in the cavern. The Rodian's head, a shapeless form thrice the size of Twyla's head, was the only exposed portion. The Rodian's skin, which ordinarily would have been green but was faded to tawny, had festered with some affliction. Boils as large as Twyla's fist, and which oozed milky pus, covered the pate and obscured the face. Smaller boils clustered about the faceted eyes and the ears, and about the disc-shaped sensory organs that swiveled and quivered atop the head. When the Rodian spoke (with a mouth much larger than the typical small Rodian orifice) Twyla could see another oozing boil on the tip of the tongue.
"I don't believe we've met," said Twyla, stifling an urge to pinch her nose. Wafting air carried the stench of decomposing carcasses up from the pit.
Teevo ignored her. "Rallion. Katchka! For the first time, I'm glad to see you." His great black eyes blinked.
"I trust you wouldn't present your miserable carcass without sufficient cause?"
"Certainly. My long-standing debt shall stand no longer."
"Humor?" The Rodian chuckled, causing the fluid in the pit to slosh over the edge. Gesh suspected it wasn't his joke that amused the Rodian.
"And I'm told I'm hard to understand. Let's hope that what you've brought leaves me in a laughing mood."
Kneeling, Gesh set the crate on the floor and pressed his thumb to a small screen beside the handle. With a hiss, the square lid fragmented into quarters that spread apart, and a pedestal rose to present a glass sphere. Just two centimeters in diameter, the sphere contained enough cerulium gas to cancel Gesh's debt to Teevo, and more.
The Rodian grunted. "If you are not lying to me, and I doubt you are that obtuse, then I should expect to release you with your life - after I have confirmed the contents of that phial."
As the Rodian spoke, milky pus oozing from one of the boils crept down along a groove in the tawny hide and leaked into one of his eyes. He bellowed something in Rodese, sloshing more fluid out of the pit.
A humanoid figure strode into the chamber, his arm wrapped around a bucket that he held to his side. It was a Rodian as Rodians usually appeared - scrawny and green with bulging black eyes and long fingers. At his hip he wore a silver blaster that gleamed when he stepped into the circle of light streaming from overhead.
Standing at the edge of the pit, he upended the bucket, spilling a dozen fist-sized objects that slapped against Teevo's head and clung there. Lumps of green-yellow flesh crawled about, spreading over Teevo's hide. One after another, they positioned themselves onto the oozing boils.
The creatures began to swell. "Ahhh," said Teevo with a groan of satisfaction.
His wide tongue arched out and enveloped one of the creatures, pulling it away from a boil and drawing it into the maw of his mouth. "Katchka." A squeal rang out from his mouth as Teevo began to chew. Twyla was beginning to hope she would never have to return to this place.
Setting the bucket down, the Rodian crouched and whispered to Teevo.
Teevo sighed. "Finally. Show her in."
Addressing Gesh, Teevo said, "As usual, Rallion, you find new ways to abrade my nerves. Your timing couldn't be worse. I have important business with another guest. You'll wait until we're finished."
At that moment, Queen Padm? Amidala of Naboo, accompanied by two Gamorrean guards, emerged form the entrance behind Twyla and Gesh. Amidala walked with her hands before her, her wrists bound together by a pair of manacles.
Leaving the crate on the floor with its bounty displayed, Twyla and Gesh retreated from the path of the oncoming group.
Amidala and the guards halted. Amidala wore only a pure white coverall, and brown, knee-high boots, which left only her head and hands exposed. She wore minimal makeup. Twyla marveled that her pale skin and delicate features hardly required enhancement. Her dark hair was drawn into an elegant circlet that lay like a crown atop her head, and she wore no jewelry. Standing there, the queen regarded Teevo, but said nothing.
"Queen Amidala," Teevo said. "You'll weary me with some diplomatic entreaty, I presume?"
"I will not give you the information you have demanded."
She advanced a step. "We must negotiate, Teevo. Among my people, addiction to the substance you have distributed has spread like an epidemic. As you know, we can cure it, but not fast enough."
"Your peaceful, sensible citizens? You jest, I'm sure." He sighed, a ragged sound. "Whatever you're proposing, Amidala, I will not negotiate. The people of Naboo are my most lucrative customers for that particular product."
"Teevo, I don't like to operate this way, but you leave me no choice. You have gone too far now. You will give us what we need to treat our people, and you will cease to inundate Naboo with your poison, and you will release me. You now have less than one Galactic Standard day. Otherwise, under circumstances like these, my people have instructions to begin divulging your secrets to your enemies, beginning with your most formidable enemy, Kol Lech."
Force, thought Twyla. A vision suddenly formed in her mind. She watched herself explaining to Amidala that she had personally killed Lech, and had done it in a passion of heroism. Kol Lech, Queen Amidala's best leverage against the scum that was systematically despoiling Naboo.... Who would have guessed?
Teevo was laughing, the fluid sloshing over the lip of the pit. When he stopped, the cavern fell strangely silent.
"My lady," Teevo said. "I suffer the distinct misfortune of informing you that your threats are hollow."
Mister, Twyla thought, that's not the only distinction you suffer.
"It seems," continued Teevo, "that a traitor in my organization has already performed your chore, and profited exceptionally. However, I see no reason not to compensate somewhat for my loss by ransoming you back to your government. Guards, escort the queen below."
This can't be happening, Twyla told herself. She had made a career of killing scum like Teevo. Before today, she wouldn't have invested an instant to reconsider that career. She lived with the vague feeling that, at times, she might have inflicted more damage than the gain merited. If so, she had never witnessed details. Amidala's plight forced Twyla to realize the potential magnitude of her error. If she hadn't murdered Kol Lech, then Teevo might still have had something to hide from him and might have accepted Amidala's terms, which could have meant the salvation of countless Naboo. How many would now die due to Teevo's mischief? Twyla's actions had even hurt Padm? Amidala, her hero, her inspiration in a galaxy that abounded in societies dominated by males.
As the guards led Amidala from the chamber, Teevo spoke again, his voice now carrying a note of gloating pride.
"Rallion. When I have confirmed your claim, I advise you depart post haste, while my benevolent mood lasts."
A human, who had been kneeling beside the crate and waving a handheld device over the orb, stood upright and nodded at Teevo.
"Thank you," Teevo, smiling, said to Gesh.
"Teevo," Gesh said. "You know I am paying you far more than my debt. I can do a lot better than this - if I could leave with something I fancied."
"Do tell, my boy."
"The Queen. We both know my offer is reasonable."
Teevo sighed. "Yes, I suppose it is. No. I have plans for Amidala. Be gone, Rallion."
Twyla and Gesh left without another word.
In orbit above K'Tarsh, in a hold on the Naboo Royal Cruiser, Twyla and Gesh discussed the crisis with the chief of Amidala's temporary personal security. The team that Amidala ordinarily employed was on Naboo, guarding her decoy.
"This is a bad idea," Gesh said to Captain Zada. "Zet Teevo and I go way back. The moment Teevo realizes what is happening, he'll panic and execute her."
Captain Zada, a tall, heavy set human with an olive complexion, sprayed a clear fluid onto his palms and began to smear the chemical on his face. "This decision is mine to make, Captain Rallion. I accept full responsibility." He proffered the canister to Gesh. "Fire retardant?"
Standing nearby, other soldiers had been applying their own supplies of retardant, but Gesh declined, claiming he was allergic.
"I will," Twyla said, taking the canister from Zada's hand and applying the contents to all exposed skin. It wasn't a habit of hers to use retardant, but a little more safety was never unwise.
She surveyed the hold, the team of thirty special operations personnel preparing for one of the most important missions in the history of Naboo. "Does Padm? always travel with this much security?"
"No," said Captain Zada. His upper lip curled in disgust. "Only when dealing with genocidal maniacs like Zet Teevo."
"I think I know where in the compound Teevo is keeping her," said Gesh. "Three levels down, in the -"
"Her homing beacon is telling us her precise location," Zada interrupted. "She has a com link too but isn't responding to our hails. However, Captain Rallion, we would appreciate your guidance through the structure."
At that moment, a harsh tone echoed through the hold as a triangle in the center of the wide hatch glowed green. The hatch separated into halves that rotated into the hull, allowing the sunlight of K'Tarsh to pour into the hold.
The special operations team trotted through, leaping onto the sand below and scrambling toward the entrance to Zet Teevo's lair.
Twyla and Gesh disembarked together and fell beside each other among the soldiers, which had dived to the ground thirty meters from the entrance, and waited.
The team waited as a blast door dropped over the cavern entrance. The door touched the threshold, securing the fortress. A moment after, the sky above the soldiers flashed as magenta streaks of energy from Amidala's cruiser lanced overhead. The door exploded, fragments scattering like dry leaves flung in a gust of wind.
The special operations team leaped to their feet and dashed forward, plunging into the white billows of smoke.
With the firepower of the cruiser established, the team encountered no resistance as it stampeded into the cavern. Twyla saw no one except her team as they trotted into the area where Teevo's pit lay sunken in the floor. The brackish liquid was there, but it offered no Rodian.
The team stood in pairs, each pair back-to-back and slowly rotating, blaster rifles raised and ready as the soldiers scrutinized their environment. Twyla and Gesh stood together; Twyla always felt safe with Gesh guarding her backside.
She listened, but heard only silence, and that made her sweat even more with anticipation. When the first laser bolt streaked out of the shadows, a soldier fell, and then a storm of laser fire shredded the air as the team engaged a concealed enemy.
Twyla turned to see Captain Zada and two soldiers run toward an open doorway, through which two Gamorrean guards emerged, shooting as they charged. One of the two soldiers was flung backward as a lance of light burst though his backpack.
The discharges of green light from the rifles of Zada and his partner impaled the Gamorreans as if passing through air, and the Gamorreans fell in a heap.
Zada and his men ran past the guards, Zada beckoning at Gesh.
Twyla, Zada, and Gesh stopped just inside the chamber, hunkering next to the entrance. Immediately laser bolts struck the wall above their heads as a quartet of Gamorreans filed through an opposing access.
Twyla watched as Zada unsheathed a small cylinder from his belt, pressed his thumb to the top, and then heaved it at the guards. The explosion propelled the Gamorreans into the air and one of them landed on Gesh, who had been monitoring the entrance at their right. The wall behind absorbed most of the guard's momentum, but Twyla and Zada still had to wrench Gesh out from beneath the body. Through the shifting smoke, Twyla saw the other guards sprawled about in various states of disrepair, none moving.
Twyla and Gesh followed Zada through the access ahead, Zada's com light providing the only illumination. Along the way, they only had to dispatch three guards. Behind them, blaster fire and detonations rang through the passage.
On their way down, they passed a closed door, then another, and finally emerged into a vacant chamber. It was dark, but Zada's com light revealed crates, along with cabinets, large and petit, stacked against a wall. Twyla and Gesh activated their com lights and discovered more crates and cabinets, and stacks of storage drums. There didn't appear to be any other egress from the room.
"Something's wrong," Twyla said. "Captain Zada, could Teevo have found Padm?'s homing device and confiscated it?"
"No," said Zada, staring at the tiny monitor strapped to the back of his hand. "She had us implant it in her scalp. We're on the right path."
"If I could just..." said Gesh as he swept the beam of his com light over the objects that lined the walls. "...could just remember..."
He went to a large cabinet and pulled the handle. When the door didn't open, he aimed his blaster at the padlock. The laser bolt punched a hole in the cladding, and the door swung out, revealing empty shelves.
With his free hand, Gesh grasped the top shelf and pulled, and the entire assembly of shelves swung outward, exposing a narrow passage that angled downward.
A stirring from within the passage prompted Twyla to raise her weapon, and then a Gamorrean guard was trotting up along the stone steps, grunting and pointing a blaster that looked too heavy for a human to heft.
Twyla directed a blast at him, missed, and everyone hurried to get out of the path of fire. The Gamorrean emerged shooting, the laser blasts like canon fire, demolishing drums and crates. All three of the team, prone on the floor, shot at the Gamorrean through a maelstrom of smoke and flaming debris. The guard's body, skewered by lances of plasma, tottered backward through the opening.
"Stay alert," said Zada as he leaped to his feet and ran into the cabinet. Twyla ran after him, Gesh close behind.
With the end of the passage in sight, Twyla saw two more heavily armed guards enter and charge upward in a direct confrontation. To her astonishment, Zada tossed another explosive. The leading guard had time to squeal, sending a laser bolt into the ceiling as the detonation propelled both guards to the bottom of the steps, where they lay in a jumble, immobile.
Good thing Teevo depends so much on inept Gamorreans, thought Twyla as she stepped over the one her team had dispatched earlier. This place is the deathtrap we all knew it would be.
It seemed that Teevo had underestimated his need for security once again. At the bottom of the stairs, they entered a chamber with a low ceiling and damp walls, which glowed in firelight emanating from a large pot that was perched on a pedestal at the middle of the room. The chamber was vacant, with one exception.
In a corner, Queen Padm? Amidala, sitting on the floor, braced a hand on the wall, to which her ankle was shackled, and stood. Her appearance hadn't changed since Twyla had last seen her, except for scuffs on the white coverall where it covered the neck and arms.
Captain Zada spoke into his com unit. "Report."
"Resistance has ceased," came the tinny voice from the com. "Four casualties. Searching for remaining personnel."
"We've acquired our objective," said Zada into the com. "Remain in position. Stand by to evacuate."
Twyla had come prepared to deal with bindings. It had become standard operating procedure for her to carry a small plastorch. She pressed the nozzle of the handheld device to the lock that held Padm? prisoner. The lock yielded to the tongue of energy and the cuff fell open, releasing Padm?'s ankle.
Twyla stood, not sure what to say to the queen, but wishing that her first contact with the queen could be less awkward.
"Your Highness..." She paused.
Padm? must have sensed her admiration. Laying a hand on Twyla's shoulder, she said, "Thank you. They were planning to execu -"
A commotion nearby interrupted her, causing everyone to whirl around and crouch, weapons raised.
Looking through the entrance to the stairwell, Twyla saw a figure charging toward her. It wasn't a Gamorrean, but a Rodian. Shrieking words Twyla didn't understand, he began firing the silver blaster he was pointing at them. Yellow splinters of light streaked by Twyla's head.
The Rodian met a storm of return fire, lurched backward and fell, not moving.
When Twyla straightened, she saw Captain Zada lying on the ground, his chest smoldering, his eyes closed.
Gesh was instantly at Zada's side, placing fingertips to Zada's neck. He looked up at Twyla: No, she read in his eyes.
Gesh plucked the com from Zada's belt and spoke into it. "Get down here. Captain Zada has been hit."
Again in orbit above K'Tarsh, safe on the Naboo Royal Cruiser, Twyla and Gesh sat alone with Padm? in her private quarters. From a comfortable semi-circular sofa, they faced one another across a low oval table. Padm? remained scuffed but seemed alert, her eyes bright beneath her crown of dark hair. On the table stood a three-dimensional figure of light. A human crewmember, reduced to thirty centimeters in height, implored Padm? to report to the infirmary.
"We must scan everyone's brain for nano-infection," he said. His body translucent but rendered in full color, his modest stature didn't subtract from the force of his entreaty. "Zet Teevo is known for -"
"I said later," Padm? interrupted. "Padm? out."
The glowing image of the man flickered and then vanished.
Padm? then turned to address Twyla. "Twyla Pash. Twyla. I owe you much. I know how Gesh came to be involved, but please, tell me, what led you to my rescue?"
"I was helping Gesh acquire an enhancement for his ship. I was in the business of assassination. Not for personal gain. I felt it was...philanthropic." She paused. "But I was wrong."
"She was killing gun runners, gangsters and the like," said Gesh. "She was cleansing the galaxy."
"An ambitious undertaking," remarked Padm?.
Twyla swallowed. "Too ambitious. I've decided to quit."
"What will you do now?"
"I guess I'll go home and be a ship mechanic or something."
"How would you feel about joining my personal security force? Of course you'll have to begin at the bottom."
Twyla's heart was pounding. "I...I would treasure the responsibility, Your Highness."
"Please," said the queen, "in private, call me Padm?. You will begin training the moment we return to Naboo." She turned her attention to Gesh. "I trust there is no need to extend this offer to you, Gesh Rallion?" she said with a little smile.
"You know I can't settle down, Padm?," he said with a little smile of his own.
Padm? rose from the table. "I must report to the infirmary. I can see you two would like to talk. I'll tell them to expect you later, as well."
They couldn't argue, and said nothing. Once alone, Twyla sidled closer to Gesh. "You know," she said, flicking her blade of hair, "you never answered my question."
"That's right. On our way to K'Tarsh, I asked you if you thought I could be a long-term partner."
"Well, it doesn't matter now, does it? You have a new career."
"I know, but what I mean is...will you stay in contact?"
He smiled. "Do I have a choice?"
"No," she said, and leaned over to kiss his cheek. "Now let's go to the infirmary to have our heads examined."
Original cover by Darth Minus. HTML formatting copyright 2003 TheForce.Net LLC.