The Fringe. The very word conjures up images of brutal beatings, assassinations, spice, criminal syndicates greedy for more gain. To many, it is a stain on the Galaxy, one they would rather ignore or forget. But to others, it is their very life. The Fringe has tales and stories from all over, on every known planet and even a few unknown. Stories of deadly turf wars, of crooked cops seeking revenge, of criminals getting wealthy by breaking every known law, of bloody knife and gun battles. The list of tales is endless, and horrifying.
Here is one of them.
The Law and the Crucible
Lightning flashed overhead, immediately accompanied by a loud crash of thunder. The deafening noise drowned out all other sounds, then began to fade, leaving only the dull rhythmic pounding of the rain. Behind a desk that looked as old as the planet itself, Corellian Security Force Sergeant Wyn Veguh sat ignoring his work and staring out at the night. The light from his desk glowlamp barely reached beyond his window, but it was enough for Wyn to see the rain he loved so dearly. For a brief moment, he could forget about the day?s troubles, forget about the mounting workload, and just sit and relax. His mind drifted to his wife, Nistilla, with whom he had been happily married for fifteen years, and their two children Kij and Laureen, ages seven and five, respectively. They had all gone to bed several hours earlier. His work was difficult, dangerous, and had odd hours, but they were all happy together, and that was what counted.
A particularly strong gust of wind blew against the house, snapping him back to the present and, unfortunately, his work. With a sigh, he looked down at his stack of datacards, picked one from off top, inserted into his datapad and began to read. He was hard at work, minding his own business, when his window shattered into a million shards of transparisteel.
He fell backward, his chair legs snapping under his weight. Adrenaline spiked through his veins, combat reflexes reacted, and he rolled, coming up in a kneeling position. Instantly, his hand flew to his holster and brought his blaster pistol up. He had always prided himself on the speed of his draw, and the DL-44 came naturally into his palm. But even before he could get the weapon halfway to firing position, he was staring down the cold barrel of a high-powered repeater carbine.
?I?d put that pistol down, if I were you,? a harsh, electronically altered voice said.
Wyn?s hand and hard resolve wavered. He had never allowed anybody to back him down, but in this situation, the odds against him were insurmountable. He slowly lowered his pistol onto the floor and, knowing from years of experience, kicked the weapon toward the man who had suddenly burst into his life.
The man was dressed in dark forest green camos punctuated with black stripes, from his helmet to his armored boots. He held the carbine like a man who knew exactly how to use it and had done so countless times in the past. When he spoke, a highly expensive filter built into his helmet altered his voice. Wyn had only seen one once before, and a touch of fear begin to eat at his belly.
?Good, good. I always enjoy dealing with the cooperative type.?
Wyn found his voice. ?Dealing??
Wyn could almost see the cold smile behind the mask. ?Yes, Sergeant Wyn Veguh, dealing. I was paid to come here and offer you a deal.?
?CorSec does not ?deal?,? Wyn managed to growl.
A soft, sinister chuckle came from the armored figure. ?No, of course not. CorSec, and you specifically, are known for stringent adherence to the law.?
?And that?s not going to change!? Wyn said defiantly, his voice sounding more confident than he felt.
The chuckle was repeated. ?Perhaps. But I?m here to offer you a deal. As I mentioned, I prefer dealing with the cooperative type, as does my employer. My job tonight is to just let you know of the deal. There are certain activities around Coronet that would not do well with official scrutiny.?
He waved a gauntleted hand toward Wyn?s desk. ?One of the datacards in that stack involves an incident in Treasure Ship Row that should never be filed. It might take you a day or two to get to that particular card. Until then, mention this meeting to no one, or you will die.?
And he disappeared as quickly as he had come.
He did not know how long he stayed there, kneeling in the same position, as the rain continued to fall outside and, occasionally, blew inside. His mind seemed to be having a very difficult time grasping what had just happened, and eventually he stood up. His once pristine office was now a mess. His chair lay where it had fallen, its two back legs snapped cleanly off. Scattered all inside were the remains of what had once been his window. He knew that his family had not heard any of the proceedings, for the walls were soundproofed to prevent them from overhearing confidential CorSec conversations that occasionally took place there. So that meant that only he knew of the mysterious visit.
Standing by his desk, his eyes unfocused, he thought long and hard about comming CorSec and getting some backup, and advice.
But then he remembered the cold barrel of the carbine, the professional hands that held it, and the sinister laugh of the armored man.
So as the rain continued to fall, he concocted a story of a large branch that had, somehow, impossibly, managed to break through his window.
The next day he spent at CorSec Headquarters, and he managed to tell the tale of the branch convincingly enough. But every time he retold it, the same cold dread of the night before crept into his stomach. He kept it off his face only because of the years of training, of interrogating criminals and knowing that, if they knew what you felt, you were dead. To everybody else, he was the same old Sergeant Wyn Veguh, but anxiety dragged at him. Every so often he would find his mind drifting toward the armored man and the datacard he had mentioned. He was distracted, but no one noticed, and he was thankful.
His day passed slowly but uneventfully, and by the time he left he had calmed himself down. His former partner offered him a ride home in his new landspeeder, but he declined.
?Wife?s been on me about exercise,? he said with a rueful smile cleverly faked. His decision to walk home had nothing to do with exercise, but he needed an excuse.
His previous partner laughed. ?Don?t want to get Nistilla angry, now do we? You coming in tomorrow, or do you have some field jobs??
Wyn shook his head, ?Don?t know, Beau, don?t know. Depends on what the leads want.?
Beau nodded. ?Call me up sometime. It?s been awhile since we?ve had a drink in the cantina.?
?That it has, Beau. Don?t worry, there?s going to be a slight lapse in my work next week. We?ll get together then, eh??
?Sounds good, Wyn. See you tomorrow, I hope.?
He watched his old friend disappear around a corner, and then continued walking, a smile on his face. He was actually feeling optimistic when a shadow detached itself from a nearby wall and came toward him.
?Wyn Veguh, good to see you again.?
Wyn recognized the same dead voice of the night before and any good feelings he had disappeared instantly. ?What do you want?? he growled.
?Now, now, that?s no way to talk to a business partner.?
Wyn?s face contorted with rage. ?We aren?t conducting business. You are a murderer, a thief, and probably a dozen other things, and I want nothing to do with you.?
A chill seemed to settle over them, and even through the voice filter, the man?s voice was cold and vicious. ?Let me make this very clear, Wyn. I know where you live. I know where your wife and children sleep. I know their habits. If I wanted to, we could do things the hard way. My employer is not above taking hostages or murder, and neither am I. But instead, we are offering you five thousand credits to not file a report.?
The sheer brutality of the man?s voice caught Wyn off-guard, and his mind was barely catching up with the implications of the threat when the money was mentioned. ?What?!? he asked, almost yelling.
?Keep it down,? the man snarled as he handed Wyn a small datacard. ?You heard me. Five thousand credits. The Treasure Ship Row occurrence never gets filed. Or we do things the hard way.?
And like the night before, he vanished, leaving Wyn alone with his thoughts, staring blankly at the datacard in his hand.
The walk home took him three times as long, and his wife was worried. He assured her that everything was fine, that he had just had to take care of some extra business. She fussed over him for a few minutes, helping him take off his jacket and bringing him a Ruby Bliel from the conservator, and then sat down next to him on the couch. They talked for a while, as they usually did after he came home from work. His mind was not on the conversation and he answered, his mouth on autopilot, as he looked at his wife. She was beautiful, and took good care of him and the children. Smart, good-natured and humorous, she kept him alive and kicking. As he went over the details of her he knew so well, the dark golden hair, the soft blue eyes and the love in them, the perfect chin, he tried to imagine life without her there. He could not. The idea was too absurd, too painful. But then his mind drifted back to the armored man, his thinly veiled threat, and his offer?five thousand dollars.
He stood up abruptly, apologizing to Nistilla, thanking her for talking to him, but he had some work thinking to do, would she mind?
She never did, understanding how important his work was. He disappeared into his office after giving her a quick kiss, and he sat down on the new chair she had thoughtfully put in for him. He went through the stack of datacards on his desk quickly, searching for the datacard on the Treasure Ship Row ?occurrence,? as the armored man had called it. He hoped it would hold some clues, for in all his seventeen years of service, he had never once heard of anything like what he was going through, and the questions were far too numerous.
If they can threaten me, why offer me money? was the question that sprung to the top of his list. It didn?t make any sense. As the armored man had pointed out, and had rather dramatically shown, they knew where he lived. They could come in someday when he was at work, grab his wife and children, and then work on him that way.
He slid a new datacard into his datapad and stopped. At the top was written ?Coronet City, Treasure Ship Row? followed by the date and the reporting officer?s name. Wyn read through the report, a shiver running down his spine. It was a report about a murdered shop owner, and in gruesome detail. In his career, he had seen almost everything and next to nothing fazed him. But this report almost made him sick to his stomach. The violence of the murder was extremely evident. The shop owner, a Gran, had been brutally vivisected, and the officer?s report had no shortage of details. Reading them, Wyn began to feel squeamish, and then a sort of understanding began to take place on just why exactly it had been him the armored man had come to.
Part of his job at CorSec was to get these field reports from officers, file them under official records of disturbances, and assign whatever he felt was necessary to look into it. With this type of crime, an entire squadron of CorSec field investigators would be assigned, and things would very quickly become very messy for the murderer. Few things could make a criminal squirm as a bunch of determined CorSec officials, fueled on by a report of this nature.
His mind drifted to the money. CorSec?s wages were by no means great, even for a seventeen-year veteran. Nistilla had several projects planned for whenever they could save the money, and five thousand credits would go a long way.
Then he thought about Nistilla?and what life would be like without her. He got up immediately, and went out to enjoy some time and a dinner with his wife and children. Afterwards, they sat and talked some more, all of them, about the future, and what they were going to do. Then it was bedtime, and he tucked the children in.
For a long time afterwards, he stood there, looking down at them. He could not imagine life without them, either, and he came slowly, stubbornly resisting the notion, to his decision.
Disappearing into his office, he pulled out the datacard the armored man had thrust in his hands at their earlier meeting. Sliding it into his datapad, he read the com frequency number. Dialing it into his comlink, he made the call.
The same dead voice answered. ?Yes??
?Do you always wear your helmet?? Wyn demanded, exasperated at the emotionless sound of the voice filter.
A chuckle answered him. ?Good to hear from you, Wyn. Have you reached a decision??
?Do you have a name??
?Not for you to know,? the man answered.
?Well, I was just thinking that it would be nice if I could call my business partner by name.?
There was a brief pause, then an answer. ?You have decided to accept the money??
?Don?t have much of a choice, do I?? Wyn asked bitterly.
He was answered by the same chuckle, then another pause. ?You may call me Lance.?
?Okay, Lance, how do I go about earning this five thousand credits you have so graciously offered me??
?Quite simple, actually, and it?s almost a sin to be paying you five thousand for it.?
?As if you?d care about sinning,? Wyn mumbled.
If Lance had heard the comment, he ignored it. ?Do not file the Treasure Ship Row incident. I?m sure you?ve read it by now. My employer would not take kindly to investigation into that matter.?
?So your employer does vivisection for fun??
?My employer did not do it directly, and no, my employer does nothing for fun.?
?I see. So, I don?t file this report. What happens when the reporting officer starts asking questions??
Lance chuckled, this time with some actual humor behind it. ?Since when do the street shrinks ask their superiors why they aren?t getting work done?"
?You have a point,? Wyn admitted grudgingly.
?As you can see, if you don?t file the report, no one will know, and you will be five thousand credits richer.?
?And if I file the report??
Despite three thousand credits worth of voice filtering, there was no mistaking the icy menace in Lance?s tone. ?I don?t like to repeat myself, Mr. Veguh.?
Wyn swallowed. ?I understand. When can I expect the money??
?Tomorrow afternoon, after work. Walk home a different way, I?ll find you. Have the datacard with you. Do not try to have someone along, do not attempt to betray me in any way. Give me the datacard, and you?ll walk away alive, with five thousand creds.?
Wyn thought about it again. On one hand, there was his honor, and the law. He had been in the Corellian Security Force for seventeen years, and had followed both of his uncle?s examples from age ten. Honor had been burned into him by his uncle?s and his parents? examples.
But on the other hand was his wife and children. He could not bear the thought of anything happening to them. The battle between his two sides raged on, but he thought about his children sleeping, and he came to his decision.
?After work, tomorrow, I?ll be there, and so will the datacard.?
He could almost hear Lance smile. ?Excellent choice, Wyn. I?ll look forward to seeing you.?
With that, the com went dead.
For a long time afterward, Wyn sat there, looking at nothing, thinking about nothing. But his conscience pestered him, and it was not quieted until he got into bed and kissed his wife goodnight, thinking that he was doing this for them.
But the image of five thousand extra credits lingered in his thoughts and on into his dreams.
Work was agonizingly slow again, but he completed his duties by just going through the motions, and left work. Beau was busy and did not offer a ride home, which only made Wyn feel better. Now he wouldn?t have to lie to his friend again. Taking a different route, he started home, walking along the streets between Coronet?s skyscraping business buildings.
Fifteen minutes into the walk, Lance met him, materializing out of nowhere.
?You weren?t followed, either intentionally or not. Excellent. You have the card??
Wyn pulled it out of his jacket pocket and displayed it. ?Credits first.?
He could tell Lance was grinning. ?Sure thing, Wyn. Five thousand creds, as agreed.? Lance tossed him a small metallic object, which he caught. Turning it over in his hand, he knew it was a credit chit, easily holding the five-thousand-cred payment. With only a slight twinge, Wyn tossed Lance the datacard. ?Never again,? he said, but Lance had already disappeared.
He bought a few nice things for his wife and children, careful not to spend too much at once in fear of drawing attention. After three weeks he almost forgot Lance and the crime he had helped him perpetrate.
But on one rainy day, walking home from work, as was his new custom, Lance met him again.
?I have a new job for you,? the armored thug said almost before Wyn had noticed him.
?No, absolutely not!? Wyn spat, reaching for his com.
Before he even got halfway there, Lance spoke again. ?Ten thousand credits. Just as easy as the first job.?
Wyn?s hand stopped, his resolve fading once more around Lance. This time, it wasn?t the cold threat of a carbine barrel that stopped him, but the amiable offer of even more credits. His mind flashed back to what he had gotten for his family with five thousand credits, but he hesitated. ?What now??
Lance shrugged slightly. ?Another Treasure Ship Row occurrence that needs to avoid official scrutiny.?
?How much again??
Not even a mention of a threat, but still Wyn hesitated. After a minute, he sighed. ?Let me think about it.?
?The datacard should be coming to you, marked urgent, tomorrow. See that you reach a decision before then.?
Wyn had started to walk off, but he stopped abruptly. ?Whoa, whoa, just a minute here. You want me to get rid of a report marked Urgent? Are you out of your mind??
?Ten thousand credits. You know of ways to get a report filed, but to change the details. Use your cunning. I know you have it. Remember, you must arrive at your decision by tomorrow.?
Wyn cursed. Lance was far too good at getting away right when he was about to ask the hard questions. But the thought of ten thousand extra credits continued to occupy his thoughts. He had reached his decision by the time he got home.
The transition went like the one before. He got his credits, Lance got the original datacard. It had taken him almost four hours to come up with a creative revising of the original report, one close enough to the original so as to not raise suspicions, yet changed enough so that Lance?s ?employer? was safe from official scrutiny. He promised himself that he would never do anything like this again. Fifteen thousand credits was more than enough.
But, three weeks later, Lance came crashing through his office window on a stormy night. Wyn, not knowing it was Lance, reacted the same way, and they both stood staring at each other, Wyn with his blaster half raised, Lance with his carbine pointed at him.
?D?j? vu, anyone?? Lance asked, humor barely making it past the helmet?s filters.
?Dang it, Lance, these windows aren?t cheap! What are you doing here?! I told you never again!?
?Got a job for you, Wyn. Twenty thousand creds.?
?I don?t care, Lance! I got fifteen thousand from you, that?s enough. I have a life to live.?
?Sad you see it that way, Wyn. But on that note, let?s make it twenty-five thousand.?
?You can make it a million, for all I care! I?m not doing any more!?
Lance raised his carbine slightly. ?Let me put it this way. You?re doing it, one way or another. You can choose to get paid to do it, or we can force you to do it. Which do you prefer??
And in that brief, startling moment, Wyn Veguh knew that he was trapped in a never-ending cycle. Never, no matter how hard he tried, could he get away from Lance and his green-and-black camouflage. Terror gripped him, but he forced it down. Twenty-five thousand would make life much better for him and his family?so in the end, he listened, and agreed to, Lance?s plan.
Two days later he got paid. Twenty-five thousand credits for a simple re-wording of an officer?s report. One more murder overlooked by the Corellian Security Force.
And Sergeant Wyn Veguh, seventeen-year police veteran, actually looked forward to Lance?s next visit.
Lance walked swiftly toward the desk and smiled at the person sitting behind it. His helmet was off, as it always was when he dealt with his employer. ?He?s in. There?s no stopping him from doing the next one. Your idea of combining threat and greed worked perfectly.?
The figure behind the desk nodded, allowing himself a rare smile. ?Excellent, excellent indeed. So we no longer have anything to fear from Sergeant Veguh??
?That?s correct, sir,? Lance answered.
The character behind the desk nodded and picked up his datapad. ?Sergeant Veguh, completed,? he said as he entered the exact same thing on his datapad.
He scrolled down. ?Next target, Hal Horn.?
Lance tossed his employer a casual salute. ?Already on it.?
Original cover by AgronDyrce. HTML formatting copyright 2004 TheForce.Net LLC.