Life in a swoop gang is exciting. Don't let anybody tell ya different, 'cuz it just ain?t so. It's not all speed and daring do, but we get more of it than your average joe and we like it that way. People give us a kind of wary respect and that's better than a snooty look any day. When we aren't being chased by the cops in an adrenaline rush that just won't quit, or skirmishing with another gang over territory, we stage races, or fix our rides, or just sit around and drink and tell each other lies about the things we've done and the cops we've beat.
Mine is a common beginning, but true for all of that. I left school just as soon as I turned sixteen. I was no longer required by law to attend school, so I quit since there were a multitude of other things I needed to do with my time. Making money was one of them. Learning more practical skills was another.
Don't let anyone tell you that Coruscant is the 'world of opportunity', or that its buildings are faced in gold and that there's plenty for everyone. I can tell you from experience that that's a fairytale, too. My folks worked their fingers to the bone and still couldn't afford more than a three-room hovel in a building in the lower levels that should have been condemned decades ago. They certainly couldn't afford to keep feeding and clothing a teenage girl and themselves, too. All growing up, I watched their clothes get more and more ragged as they got thinner and thinner while I ate enough and dressed decently. They even wanted to send me to a university.
I wouldn't stand for it, being a dead weight on my folks, killing them by inches.
So I left.
I knew they'd argue and try and talk me out of it. I mean, they loved me, after all. But I couldn't give them the chance, long odds though it was, that they might succeed. Besides, it would only have made them worry more. So I wrote a note and left it on the table, packed what I had, and slipped out into the lower levels of Coruscant.
It's easier than one might think to join a swoop gang, and harder too. If you haven't got a ride, or a real useful skill, you gotta know someone. I had a few skills, but they weren't any great shakes. But that didn't matter. I knew Sloan, and he was kid brother to Shael, also known as War, who was the right hand man of the Horsemen. Sloan was just waiting for his birthday too, and was in nearly all of the same classes with me at school. He dropped a word in his brother's ear and I was in, simple as that.
Six months later, I was solid, having proven myself to everybody's satisfaction. I was still using learning tapes in my datapad in my spare time and furthering my education. My talents at slicing and tech skills were being rapidly honed by practical usage under the watchful eye and guidance of my fellow Horsemen. I had lots of friends, some money to spend and mom and pops were doing better than they ever had with the little bit of extra cash I was sending home and not having to feed and clothe me.
There was nothing to regret.
Come to think of it, there are very few regrets in my life and most of them deal with not having visited my folks more often before the earthquake leveled their new apartment building. I certainly don't regret that 'anonymous' message I sent the cops alerting them to the criminal usage of sub-standard materials by the construction company. I also don't regret the day I jumped on a complete stranger's swoop, even though it changed my entire life.
I'm an impetuous, rash, fool-hardy sort of person, or at least those were the words he used when there was time enough to waste so much breath. I'd just say I was desperate, in search of a way out.
It was just me and Bulldog, see? We weren't out for no joy ride, but we didn't have any escort neither. Death, our boss man, he didn't want us attracting any undue attention what with the other gangs all growling and hissing at each other. We were zipping along, doing a good fifty klicks over the limit, dodging in and out around the slower moving vehicles. We were in a hurry to get back home, but not so big a hurry that we wanted to risk the official attention that going any faster was sure to bring us. What we had was too important to the gang to chance losing it to the cops.
I'd just pulled off one of the sweetest slices of my unsanctioned career. It had required getting access to a direct terminal at Zenif Secured Shipping, an adventure in itself. The end result was a fully loaded transport, stocked to the top with both preserved and fresh goods, and it was routed through our territory. As a gang with few legitimate ways to earn credits, we do what we can to stay healthy and look after each other. I don't know about the others, but with what's happened to me and mine, I don't mind lightening the loads of a few cargo haulers. I don't mind at all.
Despite how important this run was, Bulldog and me, we were alone. There were no outriders, no escorts. We didn't even have our regular jackets on, medium gray bantha leather with a scarlet chess knight on the back. We were keeping a low profile. Things were just too tense between the other gangs right then to risk a confrontation in numbers.
The wind of our passage howled around us, muffled by our helmets to a low shooshing sound. The smooth rumble of the finely tuned engine hummed though my legs to the rest of my body, and the faint scent of leather from my jacket collar clung to the inside of my helmet. Important or not, I wasn't going to let a little pressure keep me from enjoying the trip. There?s just something about riding the back of a screaming wind, something about the feeling of sheer suicidal speed, that gets the heart beating and the blood racing. It always makes me feel alive and strong and free. Sloan taught me that, first told me about it in the last row of our history classroom. I didn?t half believe him, not until he got me a ride behind his brother one day after school. For me there was no going back to normal life and safe speeds after that.
So there I was, just loving the feel of being out and about and having a swoop between my legs. It was then that something caught my eye, an image reflected off the shiny back of Bulldog's helmet. My mind automatically adjusted for the distortion and adrenaline flooded my body at the unconscious recognition of the familiar shape.
And they were tailing us though traffic.
Immediately I fumbled for my datapad and chips, more worried about the vital data than warning my driver. I popped the chip containing the all-important data into my pad and downloaded it, then I clawed it out, shoving it down into the waistband of my tight-fitted pants. I slammed a blank into the pad and copied the data onto it, jamming that one down into Bulldog's boot.
The gang needed that information desperately. Even at the risk of making it more likely that the cops might get their grubby mitts on the information, I had to make sure that Roble did.
My heart pounded as I watched the reflection of the police speeder edge nearer and wished desperately that I had thought to make a few false chips just in case. I shoved that thought aside as a lesson for the future and kept an eye on that speeder. It edged ever closer, dodging slowly back and forth across the lanes of traffic and I decided that we could wait no longer. We had to lose them.
I used the chin switch in my helmet to turn on the built-in communit. Almost all the Horsemen had them now. It made communication while in motion vastly easier than trying to shout at each other through sound buffered helmets. A sudden intuition made me turn it back off. Better not to use it and chance the cops with their overpowered scanners overhearing us. Instead, I slipped one gloved hand from Bulldog's waist and beat a quick rhythm on his chest: tap-tap-tap, pause, tap-tap-tap.
Instantly our swoop accelerated, our speed jumping up another fifty kph in barely a second. We began weaving wildly through the traffic, trying to out distance the cops.
As we raced pell-mell through the slalom of slower vehicles, ignoring the outraged honking of the other drivers, it quickly became apparent that we were not going to lose the cops anytime soon. The newer speeders the cops were now using had enough extra power in their souped up engines to give them a solid chance to keep up with a decent swoop, as they were no doubt intended to do. With both me and Bulldog on his ride, there was no way to outdistance the cop before he called in backup to help.
A familiar sight ahead of us sparked an idea in what was posing at that instant as my brain and I pointed. Bulldog nodded, though I could tell from the tension in his shoulders that he wasn't happy with what he knew I now had in mind. I kicked him in the leg, near where I had pushed the datachip into his boot, to remind him of what was at stake.
I chinned the comm on for one brief moment to relay information that was not covered in the gang's elaborate touch code for double riding. ?Standard encryption three,? I told him. ?I'll comm you.?
That was all I said as he slowed marginally. I gathered myself, both hands and feet getting solid footing, then I leapt off the swoop into empty space.
My short, unpowered flight came to an abrupt halt when I landed on the back of another swoop. Unfortunately, I had some serious momentum when I hit. My helmet impacted against the one in front of me with a jolting thump and what had been a leisurely cruise became a frenzied scramble. I locked my legs tight around the chassis and flung my arms around the driver's waist while he fought desperately with the controls to stop our madly spinning descent.
The cop, though, was having problems of his own. Bulldog's ride no longer had my extra weight slowing it down and he began to edge ahead again, faster than the cop had been pulling up on us before. The cop had to decide very quickly whether to follow Bulldog or me. If I'd been the betting kind, I would have bet that he would ignore the passenger and go straight for the driver.
I was right. The cop bet on catching Bulldog and ignored us completely as my new driver and I plummeted from the sky.
I knew there was no way the police were going to catch Bulldog once he no longer had to worry about me, so as soon as our flight leveled out and became smooth and controlled once more, I relaxed. Now all I had to worry about was the man seated in front of me. I had no idea how he would react to having me back there behind him.
I laughed aloud wildly, within the confines of my own helmet, at the exhilaration of it all, the rush of adrenaline through my blood making me giddy. And if my laugh had an hysterical edge to it surely no one would have blamed me. I'd seen fellow Horsemen pull some extreme stunts before, but I'd never done it myself, and never with an unsuspecting driver. No one back at Armageddon would ever believe their little slicer had done such a thing.
Still chuckling to myself, I chinned through the various channels available on my comm until I hit acoustic. Pressing my helmet against the one in front of me, I spoke, my comm transmitting the message by touch and using his helmet itself as a speaker. I knew from experience that it would be muffled, but audible.
?It was good for me. Was it good for you??
My driver simply held up a gloved index finger, pointing to his head and making a circular motion. Crazy. His muscles beneath my arms were still tight with the dregs of surprise and/or fear and jerked a bit from what was most likely not a little anger, but I could also tell that he was trying not to laugh.
?You hungry?? Those muscles relaxed, and I read from the way his head had twitched as if trying to turn and look at me that curiosity was quickly replacing his anger. A noncommittal shrug and marginal nod sufficed for his response. Sure, why not. ?My place, or yours??
He stopped at a drive-through and ordered for both of us, paying with cash, exact change. The guy had to be new in town; no wolves, swoopers not affiliated with a gang, were tolerated in this sector for very long, but he already had the cheapest eateries staked out. This particular one, though outside our territory, was a Horsemen favorite. They gave you the most food for your credits and would take most any form of currency. I approved of his choice.
His voice, when he gave our order, was a mellow, rich, baritone. It was a very nice voice, but one that could become hard and commanding, I could hear that too. That was the most I learned about him until we actually reached his small apartment in the southeastern quadrant of the sector.
He landed the swoop neatly in the middle of a small balcony and shut off the engine. He keyed the electronic lockdown as I climbed off, then reached into the engine compartment and pulled out a mechanical cut-out. No matter how good someone was at hot-wiring their way around lockdowns, that swoop still wasn't going anywhere without that cut-out.
He had to be new to the life, I thought as I followed him into a modest, run-down, but clean apartment. He wasn't in a gang, he had a decent ride, (not top of the line, but not a junker either) and he was still paranoid about losing it. Now, most wolves are paranoid about their rides. They haven't got anyone else around that they can go to for help should their ride be stolen or break down. Gangs didn't bother even with simple lockdowns. Anyone that touched a gang swoop was either terminally stupid or had a death wish.
I watched my host walk across the room and set the bag of food on a plastiform table with a badly scratched top. His movements were loose, easy, he was comfortable, relaxed here in a way that he hadn't been on the swoop. Why was that? Most people joined the life because that was where their comfort zone was. If riding wasn't the foremost goal in his life, why had he bought a swoop?
My host popped his helmet off and set it on a chair, running a hand through his shoulder length brown hair. He was easily one point nine, maybe even two meters in height and built lean. His roundish face was pleasant, with a strong jaw, a straight nose, and a mouth to which smiling would come easily. One of his dark eyebrows, set above blue-gray eyes, quirked at me and I pulled off my own helmet as I walked to the table.
I've been told my face is heart-shaped, and I know that my coal black hair falls to my waist when I'm not wearing it braided, but I personally don't think I'm super-model material. My eyes are too dark a blue, almost black if you ask Sloan. My features are too delicate, my skin-tone too dusky for the current fashion. And then, I just look too dang small and young for my age. Especially since the top of my head barely cleared the bottom of my host's chest. He was easily thirty centimeters taller than me.
He extended his hand to me, a wry smile stretching his lips. ?Mason. Mason Cade.?
I let his still gloved hand engulf mine in a friendly shake and gave him an answering smile.
?Call me Crash.?
?So, is this how you usually meet people?? Mason asked casually as he began pulling our food out of the bag.
?What? Falling out of the sky?? I asked back with mock innocence. ?Doesn't everyone??
?No, not everyone.?
?Well, no, but it seemed like the right thing to do at the time,? I explained when he raised that eyebrow at me again. I had just been holding out for the smile that always seemed to accompany that eyebrow. It was a very nice smile.
?And why is that??
?You always ask this many questions??
?Mostly. Why did you jump on my swoop??
I gazed frankly at Mason, a slight smile playing at my lips. Two could play at this game and I could truthfully answer his question without telling him everything.
?Because I thought I could.? I put a forkfull of grilled nerf and steamed killa leaves in my mouth and quirked a black eyebrow right back at him, daring him to call me out. When he didn't I asked him a question.
?Why'd you buy me lunch??
?Because I thought you'd eat it.?
I couldn't help but laugh. Obviously he thought that he could play the game too. We were a strange pair.
?So, how long you had your ride??
Mason shrugged. ?Only about a month.?
?Yes. I couldn't afford new.?
?Few can,? I murmured. ?Most of us simply up-grade and tweak until we die or the swoop does.?
?Gang-bangers. Swoopers. Us. The Horsemen.? And in ascending order of importance, I thought as I explained. He was really new to all this if he didn't even know that much.
Something showed in Mason's eyes when I mentioned the gang. I saw his interest sharpen, though he hid it well and all sign of it disappeared as he chewed his next forkfull of food.
?So,? I said casually, resting an elbow on the table and scooping up more grilled nerf, ?you got a gang yet, or are you still looking??
?Is having a gang important??
He question sounded innocent, but my eyes hardened anyway, as did my voice when I replied. He needed to know how the wind blew in this sector and the sooner he knew the better off we all would be.
?Very. Around here, if you don't have a gang, you don't stay. Normally we don't mind wolves, but right now things are too touchy. You find yourself a gang, or you move on. I would advise you to do one or the other before the week is out.?
?And if I want to stay?? he asked calmly. ?Which gangs might take me??
I liked the way he didn't argue with me, didn't hedge. Most of them argue. Most of them don't like being told join or leave. Mason simply accepted what I told him, so I settled back in my chair to consider the question. The Speed Demons weren't taking anybody in. They were just too paranoid about accidentally letting in a cop, and there had been way too many attempts recently by the cops to infiltrate the gangs for anyone's peace of mind. Velocity might be willing to take him into the Angels. She wasn't afraid of the cops, though no one could figure out why. In fact, she had been the one fingering the cop infiltrators, though she wasn't telling no one how she knew. Wildcards were all family and if you weren't related in some way or another you weren't going to get in, so that was out.
?Hell Hounds and Cloud Reapers might take you. The Hounds claim most of the East Side. The Reapers own a small section in the Northeast corner,? I told him finally. ?Angels might've taken you, but if you get seen with me that's out. We took a good piece of territory from them a couple years ago, so they ain?t too happy with us right now. Wildcards and the Sithspawn are both gearing up for the war everyone figures can't be too far off.? I shrugged. ?Everyone's edgy. You picked a heck of a time to come to town.?
?And what about the Horsemen??
I looked at him carefully. There was something a little strange going on. He was very interested in what I had been saying, I could see it in the way he was forcing himself to not lean forward, to make himself ask me something innocent. I just wished I could put a finger on it.
?The Horsemen might. Death's been known to take in strays.? I tried to make myself sound flippant, casual, but I suddenly very much wanted to keep this strange man where I could watch his every move. Is he a cop? As soon as I thought it, I dismissed the very idea. He didn't act like a cop. He didn't move like a cop. He didn't sound like a cop. He had the wrong accent. There was no underlaying hostility in his actions. All cops hated, or at the very least were disgusted by, gangbangers. I could see none of that in his body language and I've been reading body language since before I could talk.
My parents and I came originally from Lorrd. Not everyone's heard of it. There hasn't been anything of note that happened there since the Jedi Knights freed the entire planet from a life of slavery, and that was almost three generations ago. My slave ancestors had been forbidden to communicate verbally with one another, meaning that there was no talking, no singing, no nothing. We became a mute race. But we compensated.
There are other ways to communicate than using one's voice.
Over the course of several generations, Lorrdians developed a complex language based entirely on facial expressions, hand movements and body position. A true 'body' language. We got to the point that we could read every nuance of stance and expression. We are still acknowledged as the galaxy's foremost mimes and mimics.
I could read my host like a book. The problem was part of it was in a foreign language. I could tell he was interested beyond the norm. I could tell that he was ever so slightly nervous. But, I could also tell that he wasn't a cop and that left me confused and interested as well.
?Death?? He half laughed until he saw all trace of smile leave my face.
?Death.? I stated it firmly. ?Don't mess with him. Don't mess with us.?
?I'm sorry. I didn't mean to joke about it. ?So, you said the cops are trying to get into the gangs??
I simply nodded and turned my attention back to the food. I had the strangest feeling that he was getting more information from me than I intended, though I wasn't sure how that could be.
?How do you know??
?Velocity points them out to us. Dunno why, though,? I said thoughtfully. ?She probably has the most to gain if one of the other gangs is taken down.?
?And why are they out to get you? I mean, what's so bad about that gangs??
I stopped, fork mid-way to my mouth, and stared at him. ?You don't have a lot of gangs where you're from, do you??
?Figures. The Horsemen stay clean. We don't deal drugs, we don't knock over stores, and we don't extort money from the businesses in our area. When we can we run errands, picking stuff up, dropping it off, riding escort on stuff that has to travel through other gangs' territories. It helps keep us fed. We ain?t saints, but we're not number one on the cops' hit list, either.? I chewed my forkfull and talked around it. ?The other gangs aren't nearly so legit. Cops want them stopped.?
?Why are you telling me this? I could be a cop.?
I snorted. Way ahead of you pal. ?You're not.? He confirmed it a moment later by not denying it.
?What if I'm working for another gang??
?You'd be asking different questions.?
?You're awfully trusting.?
?No, just a good judge of character.?
?You're awfully confident, then.?
?Got a right to be.?
He shook his head and grimaced in frustration and I just snickered around my next mouthful of killa leaves. We passed the rest of the meal in companionable silence. Mason didn't ask me any more questions and I didn't give him any more smug or useless answers.
Finally, I pushed back from the table and motioned toward the communit nestled in one corner of the front room. ?Mind if I comm someone??
Mason shrugged. ?Be my guest.?
We both rose from the table and I moved to the comm while he began clearing the dishes. Quickly punching up the frequency for the main Armageddon comm, I waited patiently for someone to respond. I didn't have to wait long. Roble, Death himself, immediately appeared on the view screen.
?Crash? What happened?? His voice was calm but commanding and I turned down the volume on the control panel before replying in low tones.
?Cops. They must just be trolling to pick up any gang-bangers they see now, 'cuz we weren't going all that fast, or pulling any stunts,? I told him. ?Is Bulldog back yet??
?No. We haven't seen him.?
I checked my chrono. ?He should be back soon. He's got a copy of everything. I've got one, too. Send someone to pick me up-? I glanced over my shoulder at Mason. He seemed to be busy at the sink, washing our few dishes, but his posture was off, wrong. Warning bells rang in my head. Was he listening to us? How could he hear us from clear over there?
?I don't think that's a good idea.? Roble's words pulled me from my thoughts. I took a good look at Death and saw the tight lines around his mouth, the tautness in the muscles along his jaw and across his shoulders. Something was definitely wrong. Death was worried.
?Trapper and War had a bit of a mixup an hour ago.?
?Shael?! Is he okay??
?Burned across his ribs, but fine,? Death assured me. ?We still don't know who paid for it, because they weren't faces we knew and they didn't have any colors. We're laying low. Except for that shopping trip tomorrow, no one's budging from where they are until I say otherwise. Got it??
I nodded reluctantly since there wasn't much else I could do.
?Where are you?? Roble asked, his almost fatherly concern flowing easily into his voice.
?I'm with a fledgling. I bailed from Bulldog's ride onto his. We're at his apartment, thirty-four or thirty-five high on Globe, a block east from Mi'lesk.?
?A fledgling? How new? He a wolf??
?I'd guess he's been riding less than eight months. Got a decent ride. So far he's a wolf, but I think he wants to hang around,? I frowned thoughtfully. ?He was making noises like he was looking to hook up with a local gang. I think he wants to know more about the situation before he decides.?
Death's voice was tense, all business now. ?Cop??
?No.? I shook my head slowly, knowing that Roble would trust Mason with no more backing than my word that he was clean. It was a frightening responsibility, but I'd shouldered it before. ?He's no pig.?
?Well, if Velocity points her lovely finger at him, he'll be bacon,? Roble shook his head. ?If you can, stay there. We'll send someone to get you as soon as it's safe. I'll see ya when I see ya.?
?See ya when I see ya,? I replied softly and the connection died. The Horsemen never said good-bye, that was bad luck. Good-bye was forever.
For a while, I simply stood, staring with unfocused eyes through the balcony doors. The panoramic sweep of sky, the ebb and flow of traffic, the sun glinting off the transparisteel windows of the building opposite, none of it registered. My mind was too busy with one single thought.
Shael was okay.
I wasn't worried about Trapper. No one worried about Trapper. The slow-moving, fast-flying, average-looking man led a charmed life, untouched and untouchable by any form of disaster. The whole planet of Coruscant could suddenly fall into the sun and I was firmly convinced that Trapper would amble out of the flames, calm as you please and with not a single hair out of place. Several of us were discussing changing his name to Juggernaut.
But Shael and me, that was another story entirely. It wasn't love at first sight, more like twentieth or thirtieth. He's the one who sponsored me into the gang and fellow member grew into friend and friendship into something stronger. I think it's his smile I like the most. It's a wonderful full-face, eye-twinkling smile, complete with a dimple in his left cheek. That smile used to flash at me in reassurance or encouragement and it would make me sigh with relief that I'd done something right. Now it makes my heart flip over in my chest and my temperature rise, but it's the exact same smile.
Funny how that happens sometimes.
I loved Shael, and someone had been shooting at him. My mouth went dry at the very thought of him hurt, and my stomach clenched and tied itself in knots. When he was out riding with the others, doing stunts and showing off, I wasn't bothered in the least. I guess what they say about familiarity and contempt is true, besides, Shael was one of the best riders in the gang and it was hard to even conceive of something going wrong with him at the controls. But the fact that someone had deliberately been aiming at him with intent to kill sent a cold, sick fear washing through me and left me shaking.
Mason's concerned tone pulled me from my mind-blank state and I turned to face him, only then realizing that I was chafing at my arms. I felt as cold as though I'd been riding the high lanes without my jacket.
?Crash? What's wrong?? he asked again when I didn't answer immediately.
?Nothing, thank the Force,? I murmured and I carefully noted the strange little jolt of surprise that rippled up his spine at my choice of phrase. Now why would that bother him? It was a common enough phrase, at least among Lorrdians, who had learned it from our Jedi saviors, and several of the other gang members had picked it up from me.
I grimaced as I paced a bit, trying to drain my sudden reserves of nervous energy. ?Well, you'll need to know anyway before you decide what gang you want to join, so I might as well tell you. There's already been a minor skirmish. We don't know who, or why yet, so Death is locking things down for a bit. He'd rather hole up and wait, than risk someone else.?
?And the other gangs, what would they do??
I snorted. ?Most of them would just pick whoever they have the biggest grudge against and strike back. We can't afford that. One, it's foolish. Two, it just makes things worse. Three, we won't sacrifice anyone. We don't work that way, never have, and never will.?
?I'm liking the Horsemen more and more.?
?Don't get attached. Death may not decide to let you in.?
?Is he that edgy about what's going on?? Mason inquired.
I nodded, stopping next to one of the windows and staring out blankly. ?Everyone is,? I elaborated, staring over my shoulder at him. ?After tomorrow we should be able to hole up for a couple of weeks. Hopefully things will blow over by then.?
Mason gave me a single slow nod. I could practically hear the thrusters firing in his mind as he sat down on the threadbare couch and relaxed into the overstuffed cushions. I wished, not for the first time, that I could read the thoughts that made him suddenly silent. I could read most every emotion in the people around me, but once in a while I would come across someone who was so tightly controlled that my ability to read every nuance of posture and expression wasn't enough. And for someone like me that was akin to suddenly being blind.
I turned back to the view out the window just in time to watch a cop cruise past and I silently wished him some sort of accident. Behind me I heard Mason take a deep breath and release it in a frustrated sounding sigh.
?I haven't the money to move on. I have got to find someone here who will take me before they throw me out of here.? I heard the creak of leather as he lifted an arm for a gesture that would normally have been wasted on a visitor's back. But I heard the elbow of his jacket brush across the back of the couch and knew from watching him what sort of gesture it was. He would have swept his hand around to indicate the sparse, threadbare nature of the apartment around us. I couldn't help but compare it to the one my parents had been living in when I left. This one was a palace in comparison.
I shrugged, not caring if he wasn't watching and missed it. ?Don't sweat it. You'll make it or you won't. There's no sense in worrying about it. Enjoy what you've got while you've got it. Whether you get into the Horsemen or not is out of your hands.?
There was a long silence and I spun away from the window to bend a penetrating stare on my host. He seemed to be pondering my words, but a tightness around his blue-grey eyes, a tension in his hand where it hung casually off the arm of the couch, made me suspicious. Why was I suddenly sure that he knew he could change Roble's mind?
?Wise words for one so young,? he finally said.
?Not so young as all that,? I shot back quickly, a little defensively. ?I doubt I'm more than three years younger than you. In fact, I'd bet on it.?
?You'd have won that bet.?
I smiled broadly at the surprise plain on his face. I've said before that I look younger than I am, but did I mention that I tend to look a good ten years younger? Nothing helps people underestimate you and your skills better than looking like you?re in your late teens when you?re really in your late twenties. ?Appearances can be deceiving.?
He had started to smile back at me, but my last sentence wiped all expression from his face. I couldn't help but frown in confusion. What was up with this guy?
?Yes, appearances can be deceiving,? he finally agreed.
A strained silence stretched out between us, neither really knowing what to say. Eventually Mason levered himself off the couch and wandered out to the balcony to fiddle with his ride. The line of his back and the motions of his hands as he removed the cowling practically shouted his wish to be left alone at his task. Contrariness threatened to smother good judgement and I fairly itched to follow him out and lean over his broad shoulders to inspect his swoop. But inertia joined the fight on the side of judgement. I was just too wiped out now that I was coming down from my adrenaline high, and bugging my host would have required entirely too much energy.
Instead, I shrugged out of my jacket and draped it over a chair next to my helmet. Then I flung myself down on the couch and was asleep before I'd even decided if the cushions were more comfortable than the floor would have been.
Jolting bolt upright, I quickly scanned my surroundings, fuzzy-minded and momentarily confused. It took a blink or three for me to remember. The sun was rising off the left side of the balcony, casting pale shadows across the faded, grayish carpet. It also brought a well-muscled back and a broad pair of shoulders to my immediate attention.
I relaxed back onto the couch and propped myself up on my elbow, head in hand, and watched the interplay of muscles as Mason lifted, used, and replaced tools in the pursuit of whatever tweaking or repairs he was making. Hmm, that's nice. Maybe I should ask Shael to work shirtless from now on, I mused.
?Mmm, now that's a nice view to wake up to,? I said appreciatively.
Mason turned to look at me and blushed fiercely. ?You know, you look good in red,? I teased.
The man grabbed up a rag to wipe his hands on and hightailed it for his bedroom and a shirt. I ducked my head a bit for a better angle out the balcony doors and pondered the windows opposite. I wonder, how many women are silently cursing me right now?
When Mason returned he had pulled a clean white shirt over his head and washed the grease from his hands. I pouted at him and giggled when he glared at me in consternation. For a swoop rider, my host was an awful prude.
?Breakfast?? I asked hopefully when Mason headed for the kitchen alcove.
?I should imagine that you are rather hungry,? he replied drily. ?Since you passed out before dinner yesterday and slept like the dead.?
?Work hard, play hard, sleep hard,? I tossed back at him flippantly.
?Sleep hard I've seen, play hard I have a good idea of from your little stunt yesterday, but I haven't seen you work,? Mason hinted, making it a question, as he began pulling a few things out of cupboards and the fridge.
?Few people have,? I told him, moving over to prop myself against a counter and watch him work. Few men that I'd met were any good at domestic skills and I was curious to see if my host was. Not that I'm any great shakes myself. I mean, I can wipe dust off my terminal monitor and I can drop an insta-meal in the heater, but that's pretty much the extent of it. The Horsemen certainly don't revere me for my cooking or cleaning skills.
?So does that mean you don't work, or just that nobody sees you??
I grinned at him when he looked up from his preparations. ?That depends entirely on who you ask. Speaking of asking,? I continued in as bored a tone as I could manage, ?what did you do, you know, before??
?This and that.? He was bent over the meal's components and I wished that he would look at me when he spoke. He had too much control over his body, but his face, especially his eyes, was much easier for me to read. ?I traveled from job to job, never staying anywhere for long, rarely doing the same thing twice.?
Mason glanced at me out of the corner of his eye, giving me a brief glimpse of his profile. ?I decided I was unhappy. I did not like what I was doing, so I decided to take a chance.?
Liar, I thought, amused. Oh, parts of your story are true enough, but others ... I'll have you figured out soon.
Mason had hinted the night before that he was worried about money for food and housing. For lunch he had paid in exact change, counting his money out down to the last deci-credit as if each one was precious, and for most of us on the streets they are. But I'd seen what he had in his fridge and cupboards. Food was not a problem, and wouldn?t be for a couple of weeks unless he ate like all three of the triplets combined. And it was only the fifth of the month. I happen to know every building in the sector that rents rooms by the week or day, and this was not one of them, so Mason wasn't in danger of being homeless for another three weeks. He'd told a partial truth. He was worried about something, but it wasn't food or living accommodations.
All I needed was something to tie all the bits and pieces together with and I'd have him figured out. I didn't figure his secret was a bad thing by any means, there were shiftier types in the gang already, but I was going to discover what it was. I've been told in the past that I'm cat-like with my sometimes insatiable curiosity, and that like the cat, I should be careful to reign it in, lest it destroy me. Unfortunately, no one ever told me that it could make life so dang-blasted complicated, interesting, but complicated.
When Mason stood to clear the breakfast dishes from the table, I made no effort whatsoever to help him. I simply leaned back in my chair to watch him at the chore. The man moved with a supple grace, with near-perfect balance, like a dancer almost. It was a pleasure to watch, so I gazed at him in open admiration and enjoyed every second of it. He knew I was staring. I wasn't making any secret of it. I'd bet he could feel my eyes taking in every detail of muscle and movement, as evidenced by the slightest of blushes that tinged his ears and cheeks and the way he faced me as little as possible. Not that I minded. The view from the back wasn't bad either.
?Have you not got anything better to do?? Mason finally asked me in exasperation.
His answer to my complacent reply was an artificially deep sigh. He was amused again, and trying not to show it. And, of course, it was at that moment that the communit decided to interrupt us with its calculatedly pleasant beeping.
I watched Mason stride across the room, wiping his hands on a towel. There was a muted beep as he accepted the call, and with a shake of his head he waved me over. ?It's for you.?
I raised my eyebrows at him, but I didn't need him to tell me who it was. The only people who knew that I was there were Horsemen.
?Death,? I greeted the face on the screen, habitually glancing around to check that the near vicinity was clear of possible eavesdroppers.
?Crash, get your fledgling to bring you home. I'm willing to risk it now and we'll have an escort for you at the border. We don't dare cross the lines right now, but I don't want you trapped out there if the bottom drops on this thing.?
I spotted two familiar tousles of dark blond hair lurking near the edges of the pickup on the other end and fought to suppress a grin. ?I hear ya, Boss. We're outta here as soon as he gets dressed.? One of the blond heads and the dimpled smile that was attached to it disappeared, while the other bobbed in laughter-like movements.
Now I did grin as Roble glanced back over his shoulder and gave the snickering Sloan a shove to send him off after his brother.
?Don't tease him, Crash.? Roble shook his head at me. ?He's jealous enough as it is.?
?Good. Keeps him from straying.?
?Like any man with a pulse and working eyes would stray from you.? The face on the screen was grinning right along with me now. ?Come home, soon. We miss you and your talents.?
?See ya when I see ya, Boss.?
?See ya when I see ya, Crash.?
And the comm screen went blank.
?Is it all clear for me to take you back?? Mason asked from the kitchen.
?Yeah. They'll be waiting for us as soon as we hit Horsemen territory.?
Mason left and I checked my chrono. The raid would happen in only a few minutes. There would be plenty of food by the time we got back to Armageddon. In fact, there would probably be a party in full swing. Just as well. I was in the mood for a party.
As soon as we crossed south of Kensing the escort Death had sent formed up around us. Each and every one of them was wearing their gang jackets. With the imposing, faceless helmets, they were even more intimidating than usual. There was no doubt in anyone's mind just who we were and most vehicles went out of their way to get out of ours. Among the jackets I saw two with names emblazoned beneath the scarlet knight and shook my head. My man, War, and Plague were both in the crowd, and I spotted Trapper's patched elbow and Bulldog's oil-stained shoulder, as well as Sloan?s lean form. Why is it men are so blasted protective at the wrong times? I was practically home now, and there was really very little that might go wrong inside our own borders.
I immediately chinned on my helmet comm. ?I hope you boys have been behaving yourselves while I was gone.?
A chorus of gruff 'yes, mommy's echoed back to me over the open channel and I grinned, bouncing lightly on the seat behind Mason. Home. I might have only been gone from it for a single night, but everyone I loved was there and it would be good to see them again.
?Can he hear us?? Yeesh, Shael sounded suspicious when he was jealous.
?Not unless I missed you slipping him a helmet comm,? I shot back sarcastically.
?He clean?? Bulldog's low growl was impossible to miss and it was seconded immediately by Sloan.
?Yeah, is he clean??
?He's no cop and he's no punk, either. I think he'd make a good Horseman, but that's not for me to decide.?
?Channel three, Crash. I want to talk to you alone.? I rolled my eyes. Shael was now going to tell me that he didn't like seeing me snuggled up so close to another man. Not that he would ever say it in so many words, but that was always the meat and potatoes of it. I chinned the switch over to the third channel.
?Glad to have me back, Love??
?Do you feel safe with him driving? You want to pause and switch rides??
?Why waste the time? We're almost there. And besides, he's actually a remarkably good rider for a fledgling. Did Bulldog tell you what happened?? War's grated, hissing yes could almost have been mistaken for a burst of static. ?Well, I landed kinda wrong and sent us into a spiraling dive. He pulled us out just fine. Enough about the new boy, how'd the grocery trip go??
Most of the tension and edginess drained right out of his tenor voice as the subject changed. ?Like clockwork, Crash. Have I ever told you what good work you do??
?Yup,? I replied breezily, ?but it certainly doesn't hurt my ego to hear you say it again.?
?Well then, Imp, you do good work.?
When the entrance to the huge underground warehouse that was Armageddon hove into view I felt muscles relax that I hadn't realized were tense. Coming home was always a good feeling and this time was no exception. Plague pulled up to take point and guided us in while Shael dropped back to bring up the rear. Plague took the winding entrance extra slow in deference to Mason, but we still arrived in a thundering roar of engines. As soon as Mason's ride touched down I was grabbed off the back of it and passed from hug to hug in a dizzying array of embraces both large and small. Someone snatched away my helmet and I could suddenly hear the words that people were mouthing at me.
?Thanks for the food, Crash.?
?Can you re-rout an entertainment truck, Crash??
?Great grub, Crash!?
?You didn't really jump rides, did you, Crash??
Inevitably the triplets all asked me to marry them, again. At that point, Shael caught up to me and fended off the rest of the well-wishers. The majority of the throng returned to the party our arrival had interrupted, while Shael guided me toward the side room that Roble used as a sort of office. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mason lurking in the background and I waved him forward with us. I knew that Roble would want a chance to size him up before the rest of the gang got their hands on him.
Shael dropped his helmet on the rack next to the office door, where someone had already placed mine, and walked in. Roble couldn't have missed the fact that we were back, so there was no point in knocking. Our fearless leader was leaning against his desk waiting for us and he greeted me with a warm, brotherly embrace. When he glanced up over my shoulder I knew that Mason had indeed followed us into the office.
?Death,? I introduced them, ?this is Mason Cade. Mason, this is Death.?
Mason nodded in greeting as he shook Roble's hand firmly.
?Thanks for watching over Crash for us, Cade,? Roble said. ?She's a very important member of our family.? I was about to roll my eyes at him, but he knew me too well and turned on me with a reproving finger. ?And don't you roll your eyes at me young lady. I only say it because it's true.?
I wrinkled my nose and stuck out my tongue at him, but Death ignored me.
?It really wasn't any bother. Crash is quite good company,? Mason responded.
?Crash?? Shael asked in surprise. ?No bother?? He raised his hand to feel my forehead and I submitted meekly, though I had a fairly good idea of where all this was leading. ?You're not sick are you?? That earned him an elbow in the ribs from me and chuckles from Roble and Mason.
?Bother or not, we are grateful. Feel free to join the party,? Roble told Mason, who took the hint and headed for the door. A jerk of Death's head sent Shael out the door after him and I hitched myself up onto the edge of the desk. Letting my legs swing, the toes of my boots clearing the floor by half a dozen centimeters, I waited for Roble to gather his thoughts and mull over his impressions of Mason.
?This man Cade, he treated you good??
I would have sighed in amusement if he hadn't sounded so serious. I mean, it's not like I'm the only female in the gang, but the guys don't hover over Ishtari, or Nash, or Reeabok. Of course, I wasn't an ex-Jedi, or a Trianii, or a Wookiee, either, so I guess the guys felt they needed to hover protectively over me even more to make up the difference.
?He fed me and he brought me home,? I answered.
Roble eyed me for a long moment before crossing from the door to sit next to me on the desk. ?And he didn?t ... try anything??
I laughed. I really couldn't help it. Between the mighty Death skirting around what he really wanted to ask me and the memory of Mason's shy, prudish reactions to my comments I could hardly be faulted for giving in and enjoying a good healthy laugh at their combined expense.
?He was a perfect gentleman,? I explained when I caught my breath. ?You should have seen his face when I caught him without a shirt on. Mason's mama raised him right,? I concluded.
?Don't let Shael hear about the shirtless bit, otherwise your Mr. Cade will be in a world of hurt, whether he deserves it or not.? Roble gazed at me for a moment, and I knew he was trying to decide if he really wanted to ask me the next question that was sitting on the tip of his tongue, just waiting to jump off.
?And if he wanted to join us?? he asked in a more sober tone.
There was no hesitation in my answer, despite all the questions I still had about Mason. ?I'd sponsor him.? Mysterious or not, quiet or not, shy or not, he wasn't there to hurt us. Don't ask me how I knew, but I just knew.
?You're that sure he's not a cop??
That got my attention. Roble was more than worried. Heck, any good leader worries about the people under his care and the things that might be waiting in the wings to attack them, but Roble had never been paranoid. ?If he's a cop, I'll eat your helmet and then marry all three of the triplets in order of birth. What else happened? You are not usually this cautious about new members, and you don?t usually question my judgement.?
?You?re not full of yourself at all, are you?? Roble chuckled quietly, but there was still a tense undertone to his voice.
?What else has happened, Death??
?Velocity.? That single word, name really, was enough to send a shiver coursing down my spine. ?She fingered Neeka Greer last night.?
Outrage was the first emotion I was able to positively identify, though I'm pretty sure that horror was in there somewhere as well. I sputtered a moment or two before I could find words to express myself. ?Neeka's no more a cop than I am! How can that, that uppity, painted,? I scraped my memory for the worst thing I could think of to say, my hand whipping circles through the air as I searched, ?pigeon expect any of us to believe-?
Death barely even smirked at the worst thing one swooprider could call another, his expression was too weighted down. ?She claimed he was an informant, that he'd turned on his own gang for money and a clean record. She even implied that he was giving them things I'd told him.? His voice was low and toneless, telling me how deeply it bothered him.
Half the Horsemen knew the story behind that. Roble and Neeka had grown up in the same housing block and they'd been like brothers. But Neeka had been five years older. He joined a gang as soon as he was able. A few years later Roble hit legal age, but the Speed Demons don't take Humans. Roble and Neeka had kept in touch over the years despite the fact that they were in different gangs, even after Roble had become Death. Now his posture, his tone, his very lack of expression shouted loud and clear that he didn't believe Velocity this time. And knowing the Speed Demons the way I did, I seriously doubted that Neeka was in any position to dispute the charge anymore.
?A witch hunt.? The words hung between us in the strained silence and both of us winced away from them and what they would mean to the gang. ?Velocity's gotta be pulled up short this time,? I told him, ?or pretty soon we'll be up to our steering columns in 'informants'.?
?You mean bodies, don't you?? Roble's laugh was tired, humorless.
?We won't be.? I took his hand and gave it a squeeze and when he turned to look at me I stared him straight in the eyes. It tore at my heart because he suddenly looked so much older than before. ?I know you, and I know the others. We won't ever work like that.?
The party was still in full swing when Roble and I came out of his office and walked across the warehouse floor. We strode past long rows of comfortable bunks, each pair of beds with a trunk and a small closet to either side. Some of the beds were made up, some not, and some were empty, waiting for friends or other visitors to claim them for a night or two. Since this sector of Coruscant was just south of the northern tropic line, there were no heating units to be seen anywhere, but there were plenty of personal cooling units for those who had fur or were otherwise uncomfortable with how high the temperature could occasionally climb.
Casting my eyes around the crowd that had gathered at the far end of the floor, I took a quick head count, mentally ticking faces off a rollcall list. It appeared that most everyone was there. That made sense, since Roble had called for a lockdown in the face of rising hostilities. I knew several of the boys would be glad of the opportunity to simply sit around all day and tinker with their rides for a week or so. Since I didn't have a ride, a long story I won't go into just now, and our computer system was crude to say the least, I knew that I was going to end up being terribly bored if I couldn't find something to keep me occupied.
When I reached the edge of the crowd it didn't part for me. Rather, Frank, standing nearest to me, lifted me right off my feet and handed me to Chaser, who handed me off to Bait, who handed me off in turn. In a manner not unlike what had happened when I arrived, I made my way toward the focus of the celebration.
?Slicer coming through!?
I rolled my eyes, and giggled and kicked uncontrollably when one of the triplets hit a tickle spot, but other than that I didn't protest the treatment. It was pretty typical. We were more like a family than anything else, and this was just one more proof of that. I was finally put back on my own feet in front of a long table visibly sagging under the weight of the foodstuffs my computer skills had helped get for us. There were sliced meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, breads, even nutri-wafers, ration bars, and food capsules for the few who preferred those. It made me flush with pride. I had made this possible for my family. I wasn't the only one who had been involved, but I'd had a significant part in it, and that felt wonderful.
?Eat up, Crash.?
I grabbed a muja fruit off the nearest plate and meandered slowly through the crowd, chatting here and there with everyone I passed, since I wasn't tall enough to see anyone I might want to seek out. Eventually I passed within hearing range of Bulldog and recognized that he was telling, or most likely re-telling, the story of what I'd done, so I pushed and wormed my way in the direction of his voice until I emerged from the crowd. Standing around Bulldog were Mason, Shael, Roble, Sloan, and one of the triplets, I'm not sure which because I could never tell them apart. Bulldog was weaving his hand back and forth, showing our reckless, frantic course through traffic.
?She triple tapped me and off we went,? he was saying. ?She'd already passed me the chip by then. Stuffed it right down in my boot. Anyway, we're dodging and weaving, but the pig's still staying with us, actually making up distance.?
?They've really souped up those pursuit units,? Sloan interjected. ?Probably ?cuz we?re always out running them.?
?Yeah,? Bulldog agreed, grudging admiration in his voice. ?Then, Crash, hiya Crash, well, she points up ahead, and what do I see, but another swoop. And it ain?t got no markings on it at all and the driver ain?t got no colors on, but I still don't like it. Crash, she kicks me in the leg, reminding me what it is I got jammed down in my boot,? Bulldog said confidingly to Mason, ?and so I move closer. Then, all of a sudden, Crash, she jumps off my ride and with the change in weight, not that you weigh a lot or anything, Crash, my swoop just leaps ahead and then there was no way that pig was going to be able to keep up with me after that.?
Mason took the story from there. ?Well, there I was, just cruising along, minding my own business,? I noticed that Mason's narrative style was remarkably similar to Bulldog's and shook my head. I supposed that in unfamiliar territory it was a survival instinct to blend in as much as possible, but you could take such things too far. I also suppose, now, that it's just as well I'm the only one who thought it strange.
?Then, all of a sudden, I get slammed in the back as something hits my ride and I'm pointed the wrong way and moving the wrong direction, down and spinning.? Shael looked like he was going to have a heart attack right then and there, his face pale, his eyes wide, and that muscle at the corner of his mouth twitching like someone had hit it with a live electrical wire. I'm going to get a reaming as soon as he can drag me away from the party, I thought. Mason's hand was demonstrating the motions of his swoop and Shael and Death were riveted, while Sloan grinned broadly at me and the triplet, maybe it was Phyl, thumped me on the shoulder. ?First, I corrected for the spin by steering into it to get control, then rolling out. After that pulling out of the dive was easy. When my heart had slowed down enough for me to hear something other than its pounding, what do I hear but the voice of my lovely passenger being broadcast through my helmet.?
?What'd she say?? Sloan asked eagerly. Shael half glared at his younger brother before turning the expression on me. I just grinned and shrugged. After all, what other options had I had at the time?
?She says,? Mason began, and suddenly I remembered exactly what I had said and tried to subtly wave my hand to get Mason's attention. It would have been much better all around if he hadn't repeated word for word what I shouldn't have said. ?'It was good for me. Was it good for you?'?
Shael's gonna kill me. Of course, he's gonna kill Mason first. And Death's restraining hand on his lieutenant's shoulder appeared to be all that was keeping my man from taking a swing at Mason right then and there.
My solution to the situation was to duck under Shael's other arm, conveniently blocking it from swinging, and wrap my arm around his waist. Beneath the thin fabric of his shirt I could feel the outline of the bacta bandage Doc had taped along his ribs to take care of the blaster burn he?d gotten in that skirmish, and I thanked the Force again that he was as whole and healthy as I was. ?Well, I got tired of not having any cool stories to tell when it comes time to shoot the bull,? I said in an off-hand manner. ?And that was the first thing I could think of. I'll practice with Ishtari. I'm sure that she can help me with my witty quips. Speaking of our fave do-gooder, where's she at? I haven't seen her so far.?
Mason had obviously caught on to the vibes and nodded to me gratefully for changing the subject. Roble gave my shoulder a squeeze for the same reason as he answered. ?Red's out on another of her private missions. I think she's actually in the same sector as the Jedi Temple this time.?
Again, Mason jolted in reaction to a Jedi-related topic. It was very subtle, and he hid it well, but I could tell that it made him marginally nervous. Or was it suspicious? Whatever it was, it was tense and that man looked like he was nearly never tense. Was he hiding from them? Burned by them in the past? Rejected by them as a child? Had a brother or sister in the Temple? I swore mentally and vowed yet again to figure that man out. I could never read quite enough to get the whole picture and it was making me crazy.
?Oh? I take it this one was an emergency? I chatted with her a bit before Bulldog and I took off to prepare the shopping list.? Beside me, Shael was beginning to relax, though his hand on my shoulder was clutching at me rather tighter than absolutely necessary.
?Yeah,? Sloan replied for Death. ?She got some sort of frantic comm message from a cousin or something and took off like a smuggler at a CorSec convention.?
I shrugged. If Trapper was indestructible, Ishtari was an irresistible force. I'd seen her take on men twice her size and come out without a scratch to show for it. Of course, being an ex-Jedi probably had a whole lot to do with that, but a goodly portion of it was attitude. I figured that Ishtari had more than her fair share of that. If any of us other than Trapper was going to survive this squabbling between the gangs, it would be Ishtari ?Red? Keylan.
?She'll be back when she's finished and not a second before. No use worrying.? At that point, I couldn't help but think that I ought to hook Mason up with Ishtari when she got back. I thought that they would make a cute couple. On that note, I turned to Shael, snaking my arms around his neck and smiling wide. ?So, did you miss me??
It was Roble's turn to roll his eyes as he took Mason's arm and steered him back toward the food table. ?C'mon, Cade. That's our cue to make ourselves scarce.? As my man smiled back at me, I barely heard Death extend an offer of a bed for the night to Mason. It was a good start toward getting him into the gang. Of course, the fact that he'd kept my stunt from turning fatal, and that he'd brought me home, safe and sound, didn't hurt in the least either.
Shael took one of my hands in his and led me away from the group. When I saw that he was headed for one of the sound-proofed rooms, I didn't even bother sighing. There was no point. Now he was going to give me a tongue-lashing, and the only good things I could see about it was that the rest of the Horsemen wouldn't be able to hear him do it and that he'd vent and then get over it. As far as I was concerned the sooner he got over it the better.
As soon as the door was closed behind us I began to wonder if this had been such a hot idea. Shael's whole posture was wrong. He was torqued up tighter than I had imagined and proved it by grabbing my shoulders and giving me a shake violent enough to rattle my teeth. ?Don't you ever do anything that stupid ever again!?
A verbal confrontation I'd been prepared for, but a physical one surprised me. Shael had never before so much as raised a hand in my direction, so it shocked me and I jerked myself out of his grip. Intellectually, I understood where his anger was coming from and why he was venting it at me, but at that moment neither of us was working off intellect. The spark of Shael's anger, coupled with his unexpected violence, had ignited my own temper.
?Don't you raise your voice to me like that,? I snapped back at him in heated tones. ?I did what I had to do for the gang. It turned out fine, but even if it hadn't, I still wouldn't change the decisions I made.?
?You are not a stunt rider, Crash. You are not one of our warriors. Kriff, you're not even one of our better drivers. How could you even think about doing something like that?? Shael tried to take hold of my arm again, but I stepped away, my smaller size giving me an advantage as I dodged around a chair to place the room's small table between us.
?How can you stand there,? I was furious, unreasonably so, and wished desperately for something heavy to throw at him, but there wasn't anything within my reach, ?and tell me not to do whatever I have to do to keep us strong??
?Crash.? Placing one hand on the table, Shael leaned over it, reaching out to me. He was half-way pleading now. ?Chenowyth, I care about you very much. I don't want anything to happen-?
?Oh, stuff it up your exhaust pipe!? I snarled before he could even finish. In typical male fashion, Shael couldn't handle the thought of a woman, specifically his woman, in any sort of danger. Unfortunately for him, there is very little that vexes me more. ?If I were Nash or Reeabok you wouldn't be coddling me like this.?
?When you can fight or fly like Nash or Reeabok, I'll stop worrying about you pulling stunts like that.? Shael's finger jabbed out in the general direction of the street.
?Well, barbarian-boy, until you're ready to accept evolution and apologize for your primitive, chest-thumping behavior, don't bother talking to me at all!? I darted out the door, mad enough to slash and burn the first vulnerable system I encountered. Behind me, before the door swung shut and cut off the sound, I heard the thump and clatter of a body lunging across the table and encountering only chairs, followed quickly by emphatic expletives. Shael had probably hurt himself trying to catch me, but just then I didn't care in the least.
Stalking across the main floor, I plotted a course straight for the sound setup sitting in the corner. I needed to expend some energy before I started a fight, be it physical, verbal, or electronic. Standing in front of the machine, I selected one of the faster play lists and jabbed at the start button. Nothing happened. Repressing a scream of rage, I flicked the sound knob, slapped the side of the monitor, and gave the base a swift kick. Something inside coughed, the speakers all around the warehouse boomed to vibrating life and I literally pounced on the nearest guy. It was Sloan.
I don?t just read body language, I speak it too, and Sloan could see what was plain on my face. ?Fight??
?Shut up and dance with me.? I jerked him out into the closest open space and danced. It wasn't graceful. It wasn't art, but it expended energy and very shortly everyone else was out there with me. The song changed and so did my partner, and I just didn't care. As long as the music throbbed and my partner didn't have a dimple keeping company with his smile, things were just dandy. Sloan?s great, like my own little brother, but though he wasn?t as tall as Shael, or as wide in the shoulders, his even, handsome features were just too similar to his brother?s, and I half decided not to dance with him again the whole time.
As the afternoon wore on into evening and the thrumming bass pounded against the walls, I glimpsed Shael draped across a chair, drink in hand, talking to Plague and one of the triplets. If anyone were to ask I'd have said that he was on his way to getting very drunk. Personally, I don't care for drinking. You can't slice your way into a super secure database while drunk, and it's pretty dang hard to fly straight, too. I learned my lesson about the same time that I earned my nickname.
I danced with nearly every Horseman in Armageddon, and several of them twice, though with the triplets I couldn't be quite sure. The only ones I hadn't danced with were the other girls, Shael, and Mason who was keeping busy chatting up everyone in sight. I decided to take a short break and wove my way through the gyrating bodies to get a drink, then edged my way around the mob to Mason's table, where I flopped down into a chair. With a silly, slightly tired, little smile on my face, I gulped at my drink and waved a hand at the crowded floor.
?What'sa matter? Don't you like to dance?? I shouted over the music.
?No, I am just ... shy about asking someone.?
I snorted in disbelief. With only four girls in the entire gang, and one of them not even home, most of the guys out on the floor didn't have actual partners. Most of them were just out dancing to dance and celebrate. ?So don't ask, just dance. It's not like we're so terribly formal around here. Half the guys don't even know how to dance, and when it's their turn, they just sort of hold on while the girls do all the work. It's not real taxing on the muscles or the brain.?
Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Shael pushing through the edges of the crowd, headed our way, and my smile became forced. I didn't want to even speak to him right then, and with the looseness I could see in his movements it wasn't hard to guess that he was working on the shady side of drunk. I wasn't going to wait for him to reach the table, so I grabbed Mason's hand and pulled him out onto the floor.
?This is a party, let's dance. Quit resting on your repulsors and jet.?
So we danced. And it wasn't standing out on the floor and moving to the music, either, because that boy knew how to really dance. Somewhere along the way, between doing 'this and that', he'd had lessons. Mason spun me in and out, whipped me through turns, and made it all feel so effortless. The tension in his hands, the angle of his body, told me exactly what to do and when to do it and when the song stopped I realized that we had a large portion of the floor to ourselves while everyone else was watching and clapping. I threw my head back and laughed. The only time I'd ever felt so carefree was my first ride on a swoop, the speed and exhilaration of it all was nearly identical. I bobbed out a mock curtsy to the applause of my friends and as the opening riffs of the next song snarled out from the speakers, Nash leapt forward to claim Mason as her next partner. Now, I don't know what he and I had looked like out on that floor, I only know what it felt like, but that man and that Trianii were a sight to behold. Mason knew how to dance and that feline could do things that a poor clumsy Human like myself could never even dream of. It was humbling and awe-inspiring to say the least. After that I grabbed Sloan for another dance and Reeabok claimed Mason, though it was him spinning and dipping that time, and not the Wookiee. And from then until the sound system gave up the ghost 'round about dawn we three females kept Mason on the dance floor.
The main box gave an electronic wheeze, then a loud clunk, and the speakers died with a sigh of relief. Reeabok growled with disappointment and Mason looked like a death row inmate who'd just received a call from the warden. The man moved slowly off the floor and collapsed on the first empty cot he came to. I didn't blame him. Wookiees are very energetic dancers and Nash had been giving him a run for his money when it came to keeping up with the tricks she could do.
When I looked around I was surprised to see that most of the others had given up long ago. The uneaten food had been long since packed back into cupboards and refrigeration units. Shael, Plague and Bulldog had all passed out on a corner table, and the men who'd made it to their bunks all had their pillows over their heads to reduce the volume of the music to a level they could sleep with. I decided that they had the right idea and tumbled onto my own, grateful to no end that it was not a top bunk. For the second night in a row I was too tired to even slip off my pants first.
Racing engines, and the simulated noon that streamed through the holes we'd cut in the roof of our subterranean home, woke me from my exhausted slumber. I rubbed stupidly at my eyes and then weighed my options. Food or shower?
My stomach had long since given up on waking me for feeding, my mouth felt cottony and my body was stale and itchy. I sat up, pushing aside the blanket someone had draped across me, and my feet flinched away from contact with the cold permacrete floor. That same courteous someone had removed my boots for me.
I heaved myself to a standing position and both my stomach and my legs immediately protested. The hollow gurgle was insistent, but the aching muscles that were barely holding me up demanded the application of lots of hot water very soon. Shower first, I decided.
I snatched up a fresh set of clothing from my closet and stepped around the privacy screen set up around the small section of bunks set aside for the females in the gang. Heading straight for the showers, I avoided anyone who looked the least bit cheerful. I'll tell you right now that hung-over Togorians have been favorably compared to my general disposition after an all-nighter. With that in mind, it's not terribly surprising that no one spoke to me, or in any other way delayed my shower.
After a good twenty minute long application of hot water, I began to feel vaguely human again. My legs were merely tired instead of rebellious and I no longer felt dusty, gritty, or sweaty. All in all, it was a vast improvement over my previous condition.
I toweled off and changed into the sweat pants and shirt that I had brought with me, then went looking for someone to help me comb out my long, dark hair. That was the one drawback of leaving it so long, it sort of required help to keep it moderately presentable.
Usually, I would just have had Shael do the honors, but I was still mad at him, mostly because he hadn't apologized yet, and that meant looking for someone else. The triplets would most likely smash their own swoops for me if I were to ask, but I wasn't in a good enough mood to put up with gratuitous fawning and ridiculous compliments. I'd once made the mistake of asking Reeabok to help me. Part way through I had vowed to just shave all my hair right off and wear it in a crewcut before asking her again. I didn't want to bother anyone who was eating (nothing is nastier than getting food in your hair right after you've washed it), and I certainly didn't want to ask any of the guys that had their rides half disassembled. That left mighty few people.
?Mason.? With years of practice under my belt, making myself heard over the various noises in the warehouse without having to scream was easy enough, but the man didn't raise his head from where he was partially bent over Bulldog's exposed fuel injector. He had his hands in his pockets, meaning that they were clean since no one in their right mind puts dirty, greasy hands in their jacket pockets, and was obviously deep in discussion of possible modifications and their various strengths and weaknesses. That didn't help me get my waist-length hair untangled, though.
?Mason!? When he still didn't respond, I moved forward once again to close the distance. Maybe he just wasn't paying any attention. ?Hey, Lord of the Dance. Mason. Coruscant to Mason Cade, please come in.?
Finally, Bulldog nudged him and pointed in my direction. Mason looked up at me and I crooked a finger at him, indicating my desire for his company. Some men are just too absorbed in the mechanics of their swoops. There are other things in life than exhaust manifolds and fuel injectors.
?Crash?? Mason asked when he got close enough for conversational tones to carry the distance.
?Would you help me comb out my hair? It's nearly impossible to do by myself and everyone else is otherwise engaged.?
Mason actually bowed to me! It was really just a dignified tilt of his head, but the effect was the same. He took the comb from my hand and steered me toward the closest unoccupied table while I tried to sort out my thoughts. Now where in the galaxy, while doing 'this and that', had this man learned to bow politely to people? The smoothness of its execution and the complete lack of hesitation told me clearly that it was an instinctive gesture and not one thought up on the spot. In fact, I doubted that he even realized he'd done it. Curiouser and curiouser. This man is going to drive me absolutely nuts before I figure him out, I wailed silently within my own mind.
The gentle glide and tug of the comb trying to pass through my hair was terribly relaxing, so I leaned back into the chair and let my eyelids succumb to gravity. Mason worked silently and there were no jarring snags or jerks. I was warm, clean, pampered, and ... hungry.
A negligently waved hand attracted the attention of the triplets. Not my first choice, but I wasn't going to complain. I pointed at the kitchens and circled a finger to indicate a plate and all three of them promptly hurried off to get me food. The only thing that could have made it more perfect was an apology from Shael, followed by the kiss and make up portion of the fight. But from the expression on his face when he wandered by only seconds after that thought, I'd say that apologizing wasn't at the top of his list of things to do.
Three well-laden plates clattered against the tabletop and pulled my attention from my petulant man. I repressed a deep, patient sigh and smiled up at three identical grins of eagerness.
?Boys, I sure hope you are eating this with me, because otherwise you've got enough here for four of me.?
?We'd be glad to help, Crash.?
?We haven't eaten for at least an hour.?
?Want me to peel a shi'rz fruit for you, Crash??
There was then a small skirmish over possession of the fruit in question and I couldn't help but chuckle. Softly, from over my shoulder, Mason joined me with a quiet, throaty laugh.
?Enthusiastic, aren't they??
?They group propose to me at least once a month and I get separate requests for marriage nearly every week.? I shrugged. ?It's pretty much a game by now, but they keep hoping. They're like the little boys next door.?
I was finally presented with a peeled, but more or less intact shi'rz at about the time Mason laid my comb down on the table.
?Thank you. I could have done it myself, but it would have taken three times as long.? I waved a hand at the three plates in front of me. ?If you haven't eaten lunch yet, please, join us. There's more than enough.?
Mason's smile wasn't Shael's but it was a decent substitute and he bobbed his head to me in thanks and dug in with the rest of us. It was very pleasant to sit there and chat and joke and tell stories while munching on good food. It's sort of what I imagine a normal family would be like.
?Cade.? I looked up to see Death advancing on our position from his office doorway. Death's expression was calm, almost genial, so I could guess what he wanted to speak to Mason about.
?Cade.? Mason made no response, so I elbowed him in the ribs and jerked my head in Death's direction. Mason stood from the table with another of those strange, polite bows of his head, and strode to meet Roble halfway. Now, while teasing the triplets can be a lot of fun, our present conversation was not precisely what I would call absorbing. So the question was: why didn't Mason respond when Roble called him? It's not like the guy's deaf or anything.
When Mason rejoined us, he had a half smile tugging at the side of his mouth and his posture and the slight bounce to his graceful step confirmed my earlier guess. Roble must have told him he was a probationary member of the Horsemen. My thoughts snagged as I considered his easy movements and I frowned. The man wasn't exactly moving like he had spent the better part of six hours dancing last night. In fact, he had a disgusting amount of energy, and that only made me grumpier.
It wasn't fair!
I didn't go to our resident healer, nicknamed Doc for some inexplicable reason, for a painkiller for my legs. Drugs of any sort, but especially medical drugs, were hideously expensive and you just can't trust the black market stuff. So I stretched a little and then didn't use them for the rest of the day.
I let the triplets be my legs.
I don't know if anyone has the full story on the triplets. I sure don't. They're so alike that they could have been stamped out of a mold. Tall, fair of skin, hair and eye, and built along the lines of construction droids, the triplets were all too nice, too eager to please to be wanted by the cops or to have been tossed out of school. Phyl, Gil, and Bil, or just 'hey, boys' for short, had sort of drifted into the gang a couple of years after I joined and nobody had bothered to question why.
Whatever their history, the triplets were impossible to dislike and they hurried back and forth all afternoon doing my bidding. I only ran into problems when I forgot who I was dealing with and tried to send them on separate errands. Those three boys can't seem to keep anything straight if they aren't together.
I first upgraded some of our computer hardware systems with bits and pieces I'd managed to scrounge recently. Then, I beefed up the security programs. When that was done, I started actively looking for something to keep me occupied. Being unwilling to use my legs any more than absolutely necessary limited my choices, though. Finally, I had the boys carry me over to the sound setup to see if I couldn't figure out what the kriff was wrong with the blasted thing.
While I sat and stared at the exposed guts of wiring and components, I thought about Mason and the mystery he represented. The man seemed to tell as much truth as he possibly could, but never all of it. He wanted into a gang, and it now certainly looked like he was going to get his wish. I was sponsoring him and Roble had okayed it. So long as he didn't do anything stupid, it would be no time at all before he got his jacket. I vaguely wondered what he was going to do with all the food back at his apartment. Mason danced, bowed, spoke well, rode well, healed quickly, was unfailingly polite. I was pretty sure that I had all the pieces to the puzzle, but for the life of me I could not see how they fit together or what picture they might form. I needed one good, solid clue that would tie the others together.
?Crash,? a familiar voice jerked me out of my thoughts and I began to poke and prod around inside the main control box much more energetically. I didn't need to turn around to see who it was, and I had no intention of facing him until I heard what I wanted to hear. ?I need to talk to you.?
?Unless you're here to apologize, don't bother.?
?Crash, will you just listen to me??
I noticed right away that he didn't answer me. Would it really have been so hard to say 'I'm sorry for being an unthinking jerk' or 'I'm sorry for thinking you couldn't pull your own weight in the gang'? Since that wasn't what he was saying, though, I ignored him and went right on poking through the innards of the sound setup.
?Crash, will you at least turn and look at me?? I also ignored the note of pleading in his voice.
?Only if you're ready to apologize. If you aren't, then we have nothing more to say.?
?Crash!? That was it. If he was going to start shouting at me, there was no point in taking the conversation any farther. I slammed the panel shut and stood, repressing a wince as my legs protested such treatment. Turning to look Shael in the eye, I fought to keep my voice level and my volume down.
?Grow up, Shael. Shouting should have stopped getting you your way years ago.? I ducked under his attempt to grab my shoulders and stalked away across the floor and headed for my bunk. The girl's bunk area was the only place off limits to the guys, with the exception of Doc, and I needed a little space right then. Sloan caught sight of me and raised a hand to catch my attention, but I ignored him and buzzed right past. He likes to think he?s the one who got us together, and he?s always the first one to try and patch up our fights, but now wasn?t the time.
It was hard holding back the tears until I'd made it around the privacy screen, but I managed. I curled up in a miserable ball around my pillow and let it muffle the sad, angry sobs that I couldn't hold in any more. Why couldn't he understand? I loved him, loved him desperately, but I needed to be more than just one of the gang. I needed to be useful. And he was trying to take that away from me in the name of protection.
I don't know when I'd cried myself out and fallen asleep, but Nash's furred hand on my shoulder woke me up for dinner. I nodded my thanks to her and tried to neaten myself up by braiding back my raven hair, but there wasn?t much that I could do about my face without crossing the floor to the 'freshers. So I composed myself and walked out to get my food, and nobody asked why I'd been crying. No one needed to, I suspect. When you live in a single building with nearly eighty other people and only a few rooms, you learn to not see what's going on around you, or at least to not comment on what someone else would not have wanted you to see or hear.
After dinner I went right back to my bunk. I decided that my legs didn't hurt nearly as much as my pride and my heart did, so I waved the triplets away and walked the distance myself. Laying down, and turning my pillow over so that I wasn't resting my head in a sodden puddle of old tears, I pulled out my data pad and began reading one of the novels I had sliced out of the planetary library's data banks a month before.
I don't know when Nash came and found me asleep with my datapad resting against my nose. But she slipped the pad out of my hand and under my pillow where I usually kept it, and pulled my blanket over me for the second night in a row.
Sleep can be a healing balm, gently washing away our cares. I read that once. I usually believe the pretty wording when the memory of it follows along on the vapor trail of other thoughts, but this time there were the crusted, salty remains of tears streaking my cheeks to remind me of the continuing fight with Shael. I could only sigh when my eyes blinked open in the morning and refused to close again in sleep.
For a short while, just laying there, staring at the bottom of Nashraak's bunk and feeling sorry for myself seemed like a better alternative than actually getting up and staring at a wall somewhere with nothing to do. We were still in lockdown and, with the exception of small, hand-picked patrols that Roble sent out to check on things, no one was going anywhere, myself included.
I got up and paced around the bunks Nash and I shared, Ishtari's, and the special double-wide, extra-long one that was Reeabok's, trying to find answers. Everything had changed two days ago. I'd actually been sent out without a dozen escort riders and I'd done the job my family needed me to do. I'd pulled a stunt no one would have thought I could or would do, unless dared. I'd met a nice guy who had me more confused than anything else in my entire life. Shael had been shot at and now we were fighting.
Oh, we'd had fights before, but not like this. Shael had never been so overprotective of me before. He'd been possessive, and jealous, and hovering, but he'd never been the chest thumping kind. Of course, my own behavior hadn't exactly been normal either. Teasing was one thing, and yelling was fairly common, but refusing to talk to him, to let him explain? I wrapped my arms around myself, then lashed out in frustration, kicking Reeabok's bunk and gaining only a stubbed toe for my efforts.
Cursing to myself, at myself, I collapsed back onto my own bed and was mad. I was mad at myself for not being able to decide what to do. I was mad at Shael for making me this way, and I was mad at Mason for ... why was I mad at Mason? I pushed the thought away with an angry shake of my head. Just one more reason to be mad.
A black-striped, dark grey tail curled down from the bunk above me and twitched about in an attention-getting manner. Nash was very courteous about not startling people. After a suitable interval, her furred expression and whiskered muzzle replaced her tail and she gazed at me through slitted yellow-green eyes. Her whiskers arched at me and she sniffed.
?Cuff your mate and then let him apologize,? she said slowly in her carefully pronounced Basic. ?The tension does no one any good and is not helpful to the forced confinement.?
A grimace found its way to my face and I sighed. It wasn't as if I didn't know that. And Nash had an advantage in dealing with men. For her race, the feline-like Trianii, women were socially and physically superior to their men, and any man who behaved badly was cuffed by either friend, family or mate and brought back to 'proper' behavior. It would prove impossible for me to explain to my fuzzy friend just why I couldn't do that. Human men didn't respond well to things like that. Nash was right, though, I had to do something about the situation before it got any worse. And after a shower to wake me up fully, I would give it a go.
Events conspired against me and Shael getting back together immediately. A Jedi would have said that it was the will of the Force. I just call it bad timing and worse luck.
As I was walking back to my bunk from the refreshers, a tall, lean red-head strode out of Death's office. Even without the long mop of fiery red hair, there was no mistaking that purposeful stride, even when it was being used for an aimless amble, or that straight spine. Ishtari was back.
I shouted and waved at her and I could see her smile light up her face. I immediately looked around for Mason. These two just had to meet each other and there was no point in putting it off. When I spotted our newest member (probationary), he was at his bunk. He stiffened suddenly, then forcibly relaxed, turned, and walked unhurriedly toward the maintenance area. When I glanced back at Red, her gaze had unerringly landed on Mason as he moved away from her. My eyes flicked back and forth between them.
All of a sudden it all clicked.
His walk, the way he moved, his unconscious grace, his mannerisms all had caught my eye and been fitted into a pattern by my subconscious. All this time I'd been mentally comparing him to Ishtari, matching them up, though I hadn't known why. Now, I knew.
Mason was a Jedi.
The next question was now that I knew, what was I to do about it? As I watched, Ishtari shrugged it off as none of her business and accepted Trapper's invitation to join the impromptu arm wrestling competition that had started up at one of the tables. I knew Red and she would ignore anything she might know about Mason until he proved to be a potential problem.
But what was I to do?
I'd given Roble my solemn word that Mason wasn't a cop, and he wasn't. He was a Jedi. I'd instantly trusted him, right from the very beginning, and now I knew the why behind that, too. I've always respected Jedi, will until the day I die. It's hard not to feel that way when Jedi are responsible for the freeing of your entire home planet and keeping you from a life of mute slavery. I was truly torn and I didn't know which way to turn. I couldn't just tell Roble that Mason was a spy. The Horsemen wouldn't kill him, but I still couldn't do it. I didn't know, honestly, if he hadn't just left the Order, like Ishtari. But the Horsemen were my family and I owed them the truth of any possible threat.
My mind and my heart raged against each other and themselves, trying to resolve the dilemma. Family, or savior? Friends, or living legend? How was I to decide? Doing nothing was, in itself, a decision of sorts. And so I twisted back and forth, my body reflecting my thoughts, until my instincts jumped into the fray and decided the matter.
I trust the Jedi. I'll ask him why he's here before I decide to tell Roble.
That thought firmly in mind, I jogged the rest of the way to my bunk and grabbed up my comb. Ishtari could help me between wrestling matches and fill me in on what she'd been doing while she was gone, and I could share the latest gang gossip with her in return.
?Yeah.? Ishtari wasn't nearly as gentle with the comb as Mason had been, but she got the job done and was even willing to braid the black mass back for me while she was at it. ?Turns out the little scamp is just brimming over with midichlorians. Anyway, the Council tested her and granted her entrance, but she'd decided she didn't want to stay with the 'mean, stuffy people'. Her parents asked me to come talk to her. I did. She decided that she wanted to learn to do all the fun things cousin Ishtari could do and stayed after all. So, tell me about the tall, handsome man over there talking to Bulldog.?
?Mason Cade,? I said. I didn't bother to try and hide my expression, or keep any shading of tone from my voice. Ishtari would just sense my emotions anyway, so there was no point, and I refused to lie in any way shape or form to a Jedi, ex or otherwise. ?I sorta switched to his ride during a police pursuit. He was looking for a gang and I had one that might let him in. Death's got him on probation, but I don't expect that to last long. Everybody likes him.?
?Can't imagine why,? Ishtari murmured in a droll tone. Knowing what I knew, I could follow her thoughts almost exactly. Jedi had ways of being persuasive, though I hadn't ever seen Mason make one of the tell-tale hand gestures that seemed necessary to 'influence' someone. ?He's cute. I wonder if he's got a girlfriend??
?Don't think so.? I glanced over my shoulder as the amazonian woman tied off my braid. ?Reeabok was ecstatic to find someone so tall to dance with, but he's not really her type. He shaves too often. Nash was impressed by his stamina and agility, but Nash isn't in the market for a boyfriend. I think he's fair game.?
?If I didn't know better, Crash, I'd say that you had your eye on him.?
?I'm his sponsor, Red. I do have my eye on him. I don't want him to screw up and ruin my perfect record,? I told her.
?I've also noticed some of the looks our dearest War has been shooting at him. Crash, Shael wouldn't just happen to be a bit jealous, would he??
I grinned slyly at her, then assumed an innocent air. ?Jealous? Whatever would he have to be jealous about?? I sobered and let her see the unhappiness on my face. ?We are having a few problems at the moment, but only because he's being a total barbarian.?
?Ahhh,? was her wise reply. ?Complete with the 'me male, me protector' routine??
?That's the one.? I nodded ruefully. ?It's not like he hasn't done stupider things than jumping onto the back of another ride with no warning to the driver. He's just all up in a snit because I did it without a proper safety net and spotter.?
?He'll get over it or find another girl,? Ishtari stated matter-of-factly.
?Thanks, Red. For the braiding and the talk.?
?No prob.? She shrugged. ?It's part of the job description.?
I smiled at her and then headed straight for Mason. It was time to get a few of my questions answered.
?I need to speak with you, Mason.? His head came up from a close examination of Bulldog's accelerator and the Jedi turned a curious expression my way.
?What can I do for you, Crash??
?Come talk to me.? Not waiting for him to protest that he was helping Bulldog, I grabbed ahold of his shirt and pulled. He was forced to rise and follow or sacrifice the shirt. ?I'll let him come out and play some more later,? I told Bulldog, as I hauled a partially worried, mildly amused Mason off to a private room.
?Just go with her, man,? Bulldog advised. ?The sponsor is always right.?
And Mason went with me meekly enough until we entered one of the sound proofed rooms. I actually watched the shield drop into place behind his pleasant expression. When Mason let himself show that he had seen my face and combative stance, his calm smile faded.
?Have I done something wrong, Crash??
It was just the opening I had been looking for. ?Yes. You lied to me about who you are.? I held up a hand to keep him silent while I continued. ?Since you never once actually told me what you are, I won't accuse you of lying to me about that, too. Especially since I?ve found out on my own. So, do you think you could start by telling me your real name??
Mason's mental and physical control were superb, which was no longer surprising. His expression was a mask of confusion, though the false emotion didn't reach those blue-grey eyes. ?Crash, I don't know-?
?Tell you what,? I interrupted his denial, ?let me introduce you to Ishtari. The red-head who arrived today? I just know she'd love to meet you.?
?You don't need to ...? Mason's hand came up slightly and started to move across his body. I spun away, shutting my eyes, knowing exactly what he was trying to do. My mind reeled and my thoughts took a radical swerve. His words thrust into my brain, carried there by the Force in all its strength and power. But I?ve never been called weak-willed, so I held fast to my knowledge of what he was and fought my thoughts until they returned to their previous pathways. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done.
?Please,? I begged, turning back around. Anger had been my first reaction, anger that he'd tried to control me like that. But he was a Jedi. I couldn't hold the anger against a lifetime of tradition and awe and reverence. Ishtari and her casual, friendly ways had chipped away at the reverence part, but the awe, and the respect, and the inherited gratitude were still there in full force. ?Please, I promised them. I swore up and down that you weren't a threat. You're only here because I told them to let you come. Please, tell me why you're here.?
?Then you really do know that I ...?
?You?re a Jedi.?
?How long have you known?? he asked quietly.
?Subconsciously, I've known all along,? I explained. ?It took Ishtari coming back for me to realize just what I was looking at, just why I trusted you right from the very start. I'm Lorrdian.?
Mason didn't suck in his breath at that revelation, but he would have if he had been anyone else. He was far too young to have participated in the liberation of my planet, but I rather doubt things of that nature are easily forgotten, by either side. I didn't see what led up to the decision, but I watched the shield disappear and all of a sudden I could read him like a book. It was time for the truth.
?Very well. My name is Qui-Gon Jinn.?
?Before I tell you any more,? continued Mason, or rather Qui-Gon. He stared me straight in the eye with a gravity and seriousness that I had never seen in him before. ?I need your word that you won't tell anyone about any of this.?
I hesitated. Again it was a choice between a Jedi or the Horsemen, and with the first such choice already made the second was not easier, but at least it was quicker. Nodding solemnly, I said nothing, only waited for him to continue.
?Very well. You have remarked on the increasing hostilities between the gangs in this sector. This has also come to the attention of many authorities. The police officers trying to infiltrate the gangs have been doing so with the intention of finding out why this escalation is taking place.? Knight Jinn seated himself on the edge of the table and waved me toward a chair. Numbly, I sat, my eyes never leaving his wide open face.
?Every officer who has tried to join a gang has been discovered. Many have been killed.?
A single word passed my lips as a horrified gasp. ?Velocity.?
?Judging by your earlier comments, that was my conclusion as well. We do not yet know how it is that she is doing this, either. It was decided that they needed someone who was not a local police officer, but could defend themselves, should the situation deteriorate.?
?And that's you?? I asked quietly.
?Too bad you wound up in the Horsemen,? I half joked. ?Ishtari and I are likely the only ones in this sector who could have figured you out.?
He surprised me with his next words. ?Actually, this may all have been for the best.?
?I am not learning what I need for this investigation because I do not know the right questions to ask, or the right people to put those questions to.? Qui-Gon leaned forward, his expression earnest, but still calm and collected. ?Your help would be invaluable.?
?My help?? I jolted up out of my chair and paced a short distance. My help. He wanted me to help him, help him stop the fighting. Stop the fighting. That meant at least visiting the other gangs, which was hideously dangerous at that point. Stop the fighting. Shael was shot at a couple of days ago. The fighting had to stop.
I looked up, meeting his steady gaze, and nodded. ?I'll do it.?
We were in there for almost two hours. Knight Jinn asked questions and I answered them, then I would ask and he would answer. I got to know a bit more about the concerns the authorities had over the building hostilities, and he got a whole lot more familiar with gang life and the nature of the relations between the various gangs.
It all came down to money, who had it, who didn't, and who wanted it.
In our little sector the corporations had plenty of it and the gangs didn't have enough of it. Both groups wanted more of it and therein lay the problem. At least that's how I saw it.
With an area as large as a planetary sector, there were lots of companies, but only a few very large ones. The rising gang violence was playing merry havoc with shipping schedules, not to mention the extra credits being paid out for added security, or being lost when shipments were delayed or outright destroyed. Until Knight Jinn spelled it out for me I'd had no clue just how wide spread and destructive the strike-n-fades some of the gangs were staging had been. In our territory and near our borders things were a lot cooler, mostly because Death wasn't big into the retaliation scene. When you fight, your enemies aren't the only ones who get hurt. Your own people will get hurt, and so will many innocent bystanders.
And these companies, the big ones anyway, had the money to spend on lawyers and lobbyists to pressure politicians, who in turn pressure their staffs, who in turn pressure the sector chief of police, and so on down the chain until everyone is feeling the pinch to stop the street violence. That, my Jedi explained, was why the cops had been trying so hard to infiltrate the gangs lately, and why he had been brought in when they had failed so miserably to find out what was going on.
I listened carefully to the recitation of dates and numbers and estimated damages. I thought of the food shipment I had been instrumental in stealing, but shook off the guilt before it got past the twinge stage. We needed that food desperately and no one but the big company supplying the food had been hurt. The guards had been stunned, the transport taken and returned before they woke up. No one had paid for the food, I'd made up a false shipping request as well as an invoice and proof of payment, so there wasn't someone else out there waiting for that shipment who was going to go hungry because we had taken it. What did I care if a big company with more credits than compassion lost a little money on a false transfer order?
?Is something bothering you, Crash??
My head came up and I realized that I'd missed what he'd been saying. ?Uh, no. I was just thinking about something else, sir.?
?Crash, please don't call me 'sir',? he requested with a soft laugh. ?It makes me feel old, and I'm not even two years older than you.?
?Sorry. Old habits die hard, and I'm not in a hurry to kill this one,? I waved a hand in an uncertain manner. ?So what do I call you, then??
?Mason worked just fine.?
Immediately, in a knee-jerk reaction, I jumped to his own defense. ?But that wouldn't be the least bit proper! You're a Jedi, a Knight! I couldn't possibly-?
?You did just fine earlier when you thought I was lying to you,? Qui-Gon said mildly.
Blushing furiously, I ducked my head. ?I have a quick temper, and I apologize. I knew you were a Jedi then, but it hadn't really sunk in. I'm not known for my tact.?
A gentle finger curled under my chin and lifted my face until our eyes met. It amazed me that his whole body as well as his expression were still so open to me. I could read his amusement and concern for my feelings as easily as an academy student could read a child's first primer. ?If I needed tact or respect I would have brought an initiate or another knight with me. What I need is street smarts, guts, and familiarity with the sector and its people. What I need is you.?
The warmth of his skin against mine and the soft, reassuring tone of his voice sent a pleasant little thrill down my spine. I knew then and there that I'd have to be extra careful of myself while around this Jedi. It would be entirely too easy to develop a crush on a man who held the stature of hero in my culture by simple virtue of his chosen career. As I gazed into those beautiful blue-grey eyes, I discarded the word crush and substituted love. Yes, this man had turned my life upside down and could, if I let him, send it spinning out of control.
?Well, you've got me,? I managed to reply with amazing calm. ?Now what??
Mason - I had to keep thinking of him as Mason or I knew I'd forget and say something stupid - nodded and let his hand fall back to his side. ?Velocity and her Angels??
?Can you get me in there to take a look around? Maybe even a meeting??
I shook my head. ?Not unless you've got a death wish. Like I told you earlier, we took some territory from the Angels a couple years back. They got lazy and we moved right in,? I explained with a shrug. ?By the time they remembered they had it, it was already gone, and there was no point in fighting for it since it wasn't all that important anyway. But you can bet they haven't forgotten. We won't be welcome there, no matter how many people you wave your hand at.?
?Very well. Is there a gang you aren't on shooting terms with where we could start??
?Yeah.? I rose to my feet. ?We're pretty tight with the Wildcards. We just gotta convince Death that it's safe to let us go visit.?
?Won't be a problem.?
?I didn't think it would be.? I grimaced as I turned toward the door. I wasn't entirely comfortable with the thought of tricking Roble, but it might be necessary. Something occurred to me as my hand touched the door handle and I glanced back over my shoulder at the tall Jedi behind me. ?One last thing, though.?
?I hope you play sabacc.?
?You want to go where?? Roble's question was understandably astonished and his expression didn?t so much say 'are you on drugs?!' to me as scream it while waving neon signs, but I ignored it and answered him in a bright and cheery voice.
?I want to go visit Bobby. He still owes me some credits from the last time I was over there.?
?Crash, we're on lockdown.?
Death ran a hand through his short hair in exasperation and shook his head. He didn't even glance at Mason who was leaning casually against the wall behind me. Things were quiet. None of our scouts had seen so much as another gang's ride in traffic. I honestly couldn't see why he was balking at letting us out. Sure, we still didn't know who had taken those shots at Shael and Trapper, but it's not like we were asking him to let us go do a drive-by on the Angels. And the ?Card?s territory bordered our own, so we wouldn?t even have to cross disputed space.
?Crash, why now? Why didn't you go visit him before the lockdown??
?I forgot. Look, Bobby and his folks are not going to hurt me. The most they'll do is meet me at the door and tell me to turn around and go home. What's the stress??
?The stress, my dear slicer, is what if someone else sees you?? Death set his elbows on the desk and steepled his fingers. ?I don't want to be the one who let you out into an unsafe situation.?
?Fine, you won't be,? I told him happily. He immediately became suspicious, as well he should have, and I continued. ?You told me quite firmly not to go out.? Nodding once in acceptance of that, I turned and stepped toward the door. I was halfway out of the office when Death rose from his chair and called after me.
?Crash, where are you going?? There was a note of warning and dawning comprehension in his voice.
?To visit Bobby Fawkes. See ya when I see ya.?
?Crash!? I kept right on walking and Mason followed me out.
I scooped up my helmet from the rack, and together Mason and I strode across the floor to his swoop. Behind us, the door to Roble's office slammed open and he shouted after us, but I kept walking and Mason followed my lead. I plopped my helmet over my head and the sounds of Armageddon were instantly muffled to an indistinct background murmur. I could no longer hear Roble's shouts that I stop. Death's next tactic would be to have one of the boys stop us, so I hopped up on the back of Mason's ride with no delays and snuggled up against his muscled back as soon as he was astride. The engine coughed once then roared to life. I waved a merry goodbye to the triplets as they rushed toward us, their arms waving in exaggerated motions. Then we eased around the rest of the swoops and gunned it through the exit.
My last view over my shoulder was the sight of Shael's angry, hurt expression.
Three blocks later it occurred to me that Mason hadn't a clue as to where we were going. With taps on his chest, I guided him across the line and into Wildcard territory. It didn't take long for us to pick up an escort. My clearly visible jacket made identification easy for them - further aided by the fact that I'm one of the few remaining swoopless Horsemen - and my cheery wave was answered in kind. One rider sped off home to let 'em know that company was coming and the rest led us right in.
Bobby Fawkes jogged into the Wildcards' garage to meet us, our engine noise racketing around the interior of the smallish permacrete structure. He stopped short as soon as Qui- Mason pulled off his helmet. It wasn't hard to see that he had been expecting someone else to be at the controls, Sloan maybe.
?Crash, who's your friend??
I set my helmet on the swoop's seat and skipped forward for a hug. ?Bobby, you cad, give me a squeeze.? He didn't have to be asked twice, but wasn't to be deterred by my lack of answer to his question. He gave me my hug, then simply turned a questioning gaze Mason's way as soon as he'd released me. My Jedi extended his hand in reply.
?Cade, Mason Cade.?
?He's the newest Horseman, Bobby,? I explained, moving back to stand by Mason's side in a silent endorsement. ?Before you ask, Shael's-?
?Madder than a shaved Wookiee,? Fawkes supplied. ?He and Death commed us just a bit ago. They mentioned something about a raving lunatic with a death wish who was coming to see me. I thought at first that it might be Ishtari. She's the only one of you that I could come up with that would rocket off during a lockdown. War set me straight on that one in short order.?
My smile vanished faster than an unwatched purse in the lower market. ?He still thumping his chest and hollering like a Lyran lurker??
?No, he's past that to smoking at the ears and muttering under his breath.? Bobby raised an eyebrow at me and glanced curiously at the tall man standing by my side, where Shael usually was.
?Mason was a convenient ride,? I explained.
?And I 'spect that he hasn't been around long enough to know better than to listen to you.?
?We had a fight, Bobby, and I don't want to talk about it. I needed to stretch my legs and I remembered that you still owe me thirty-seven credits.?
As expected, the mere mention of money -- especially the owing part-- chased any thought of delving deeper into my spat with my long time boyfriend right out of Bobby's head. A mercenary gleam lit up his eyes and his lips quirked into a sly half smile.
?Care to give me a chance to win it back??
I rolled my eyes for effect and nodded. ?Sure. Why not. I can use the cash.?
Bobby practically rubbed his hands together in anticipation and waved us through the door into the main lounge.
The short, emphatic word summed it up for almost everyone at the table. Bobby watched the pile of chips in the center of the table get pulled away from him, and frowned in consternation. I was just glad that it wasn't me he was frowning at. I'm only an indifferent sabacc player, and I'd only barely managed to break even. Mason, on the other hand, had multiplied his original stake by an unbelievable amount.
As red chips plunked into the center of the table, I sensed that all the other players were only continuing the game for the sake form and not from any real enthusiasm. I didn't blame them. They'd all lost a lot of money to a man who had been playing very badly half an hour ago. Of course, being a Jedi, he had an unreasonable advantage seeing as how he could read the emotions of the players even more accurately than I could.
I was bored with playing, but didn't want to drop out until Bobby and the others decided to call it quits. To do otherwise would have been rude. Win or lose, games of chance only interested me as a way to keep my hands busy while I chatted with friends.
?So, Bobby, how are you guys getting on with the rest of your neighbors??
?You know what it's like, Crash. Everybody's tense and quite a few of the gangs are starting to get paranoid. It wouldn't take much to push this over into a sector-wide bloodbath. We've already had a few skirmishes with the Demons and the Hounds.? Bobby shook his head and signaled for another card. ?And I've got a feeling that it's gonna get worse before long.?
?I pray to the Force it doesn't,? I said quietly and tossed in my hand as my card total jumped up over twenty-three. ?That kind of a mess none of us needs.?
Mason's mellow voice drifted over the slight sounds of shuffling cards and plinking credit chips. ?What I can?t figure out,? I could hear the slightest of hesitations in his voice as he said ?can?t? instead of ?cannot?, ?is how all this started. I mean, I know that I have not been in the area long, but why is everyone up in arms all of a sudden, and why just in this sector??
?Mostly it's about money.? The nameless cousin who made this revelation tossed down a twenty-two that no one could beat and raked in the small pot of chips. ?On the surface it's about territory and pride, but down deep it's all about the credits.?
A few surprised looks were pointed his way and the man blushed slightly. ?Pay no attention to him, Crash,? Bobby told me. ?Trev actually went to the university before the cash ran out. He was an Economics major. With him, everything is about money.?
?But if it's really all about money, Trev, who stands to gain?? I'm a slicer. I don't know economics from astral navigation, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. ?I mean, the gangs all spend money on weapons and energy packs and fixing up the resultant mess, money that could be used for more education, or more food, or better medical supplies. I just don't get it.?
?It's the territory, really. The more a gang controls, the more money it can bring in, through legitimate channels or otherwise.? Trev appeared to really enjoy his current chance to show off a bit and quickly warmed to the topic while the cards were shuffled and cut. ?And the violence the wars inspire actually stimulate the cash flow. The populace is aware of the implied threat and is more likely to cooperate in order to stave off more of it. The resulting mix of cooperation and need balances out in favor of the gang.?
?Unless the cops get involved and they manage to pull off a major bust,? Bobby grumbled as his brother-in-law dealt the cards. ?I've seen entire gangs smashed and scattered that way.?
And it was true. There had been several smaller gangs over the years who had gotten too bold in their approach to making money. The cops, when they managed to do anything, were usually terribly thorough. There had been five gangs that I could think of off the top of my head that had come up and been smashed back down by the cops just in the last ten years.
But Velocity was changing all of that. There hadn't even been a minor raid in nearly a standard year. The more I thought about it, the more I didn't like it at all. The raids and the warnings kept the gangs at least partially honest. It also kept them from amassing too much strength or developing dangerous levels of power in their territories. The Horsemen knew that they depended on the people living in their territory. Roble made sure we were on as good terms with the common folk as possible. When we had enough left over we fed the street kids who wander the lower levels in pre-gang packs. We didn't make trouble in stores, paid our bills, and generally kept a low profile. And so far it had worked like a Jedi mind-trick. No cops were trying to infiltrate our gang. None of the Horsemen had warrants against them, at least none that we knew of. And the store owners and food vendors didn't tense up or become hostile when we came around.
That too, was starting to change.
And it all came back to Velocity and what she was doing to our sector. Because of her and her spreading paranoia, the Speed Demons and the Imperium were forted up tighter than the planetary treasury. The Reapers and the Knights, easy neighbors and on good relations with each other, were now lined up along their common border with suspicion in their eyes and ready blasters. Those of us with bigger territories on the edges of the sector could always slip away if push really came to violent shove, but those in the middle couldn't escape and they knew it.
And tossed into that nasty mix were the cops, and the Force only knew what they were up to at any given time. What with the so called 'spot checks' they would spring from time to time that were only poorly disguised attempts to find an excuse to lock up a gangbanger, it was no wonder things were starting to get radically out of hand.
I pulled out of my thoughts with a shake of my head and gestured for another card. The second card I asked for gave me a perfect twenty-three. After that it was all down hill for me. What little skill at cards I had, I didn't bother with because I was too busy thinking. Qui-Gon certainly had his hands full with this one, and kriff if I knew how he was gonna solve the problem.
Game over and credits exchanged, my Jedi and I left. I'm certain that the very second the nose of our swoop passed out of the 'Card's garage, Bobby was on the comm telling Death that we were on our way. If I'd had anything to say about it we wouldn't have been, but I wasn't driving.
I didn't particularly want to go right back to Armageddon because I needed to think. A great detective I'm not, but I like to think that if you put all the dots in front of me I could figure out how to connect them given a little time. And I'd been given plenty of dots to consider during that little game of sabacc.
How Qui-Gon -- I knew that I really should try to think of him as Mason, but it was harder than I'd imagined -- had gotten the whole thing started I wasn't entirely sure, but he had a knack for bringing any conversation around to what he wanted to know. And all without seeming to really care what was said.
Money. If it all came down to the money, who was going to benefit? The Horsemen sure weren't. We had very little money, and since we didn't extort credits out of the people in our territory, there was no percentage in increasing our territory by so much as another square meter. What we had was perfect and easy enough to defend and live in. The Angels were pretty much the same, as were the Wildcards and the Hell Hounds. As far as I could see, there was no logical reason at all for hostilities to start so suddenly. There hadn't been any territory stealing in several years, except up in the northeastern area of the sector where the little gangs were constantly breaking apart and reforming. With drug running and other lucrative sidelines the other gangs were all flush credit-wise. And general relations had been very good up until about a month ago. Try as I might, I couldn't pin down a single dot long enough for me to draw a line from it to a neighbor.
I just couldn't figure it out. People were much easier to read than strange, disjointed facts. Computers were even easier than people because computers were logical. They did what they were programmed to do, just that, and nothing more. Computers had no emotions to get in the way of their logic and so could be counted on all the time to either do, discard, or crash.
Take Shael, for instance. The man was infuriating. When I think back on it, I can clearly read the jealousy in his actions, and now I can see where it might have stemmed from, but my own reactions to him were so emotional that I didn't see what should have been painfully obvious. Emotions get in the way of logical thinking. They mess with our minds and can make everything murky and unclear. I've always thought the Jedi had the right idea when they refused to let their emotions rule them.
Sometimes I wish I was a computer.
Better yet, I wish I was a Jedi.
If they couldn't hear our voices outside of the office, it wasn't from lack of trying. I was shouting at the top of my lungs and Death was giving as good as he got. The datacards and holos sitting on the desk jumped every time Roble's heavy fist impacted on the duraplast surface.
?What did you think you were doing??
?For the thirtieth time: I went for a ride to visit a friend. The patrols haven't seen anything, there's been no news of more fights from the other gangs, I figured it was plenty safe.?
?You figured? Crash, I am the one in charge here. I decide when it's safe and when it's not. You could have been killed.?
?But I wasn't killed. I half wish I was because then I wouldn't be standing here listening to you rant about my plots to drive you into an early grave.?
?I suppose I shouldn't have heart attacks every time you plan to make my life miserable, but-?
?Plan?! You know me, Roble. I don't plan anything except my next slice.?
?Yes, you go flying off without a thought of who might have to pay the consequences for your actions. If you're not going to think about how I might react to you pulling stunts like that, at least take a nanosecond to think about how Shael might feel.?
That stopped me flatter than a twenty story drop. And in the following sharp silence I couldn't help but remember the look on Shael's face when Qui- Mason and I had returned. At first it had been vast relief, backed by a solid wall of very real fear. Then his emotional safety valve had kicked in and all that had been pushed aside by his well known temper. And that temper only ever served to spark my own. If I hadn't been in that office getting reamed by Roble, I'd have been in one of the other rooms driving an even bigger wedge between Shael and myself.
The ache I felt at the very thought must have been plain on my face because Death eased down into his chair and sighed. ?He loves you, Crash. And I know you love him. The two of you make me crazy.?
?We make each other crazy,? I muttered. ?Everyone else we drive completely around the bend into lip-flipping insanity.?
I hadn't meant to be funny, but Roble laughed anyway and a bit more of the tension drained away. Roble and I were good for each other that way. Like a brother and sister, we could scream and shout horrible things at each other and then let it all go and be friends again. Shael and I just pump each other up higher and higher until one of us explodes. I prayed fervently that we'd find our balance someday and be able to laugh off things like that.
?I'm really sorry, Roble, but it just seems like every male I know is trying to protect me from living my life,? I explained as I slumped down into a chair. ?But I'm not a child and I'm not helpless and I chose the life I have. If I screw up and get myself killed, that's my choice, my life. It's not your failure.?
Roble looked at me, his expression calm, but serious, and finally nodded. ?I know that, Crash, but I couldn't worry about you more if you were my own sister. Most of the guys feel the same way. We just want to keep you safe and happy.?
I rolled my eyes. I knew all that. I've heard it dozens of times. It's their standard 'protecting you from yourself' excuse. ?If I were as tall and muscley as Ishtari you guys wouldn't do this to me,? I muttered.
?True. We don't think of Ishtari as our little sister. More than half the guys would love to date her but are scared to ask. And when you become a Jedi and can see the future, we'll stop hovering and trying to protect you, okay??
?Okay,? I ruefully agreed. Jedi. Protecting. Oops! I jolted suddenly to my feet. ?Speaking of protecting people, I need to go find Mason. Shael's just mad enough to blame him for driving me to Bobby's today.?
Roble shook his head in weariness. ?Yeah, we'd better go see together. The last thing we need now is to kill a prospective member.?
I closed my eyes and would have sobbed from frustration if I'd thought it would have done me any good at all. Mason hadn't been touched, but that was because Ishtari had both Shael's arms pinned behind his back and Sloan was standing between them, trying to talk some sense into his older brother. Mason's face expressed an understanding and forgiveness that were only serving to make my man even madder still, and a calmness that only the Jedi or the truly naive could project with any sincerity.
Shael wasn't going to come down from his screaming rage without some serious venting. Anyone could see that. Unfortunately, Roble and I weren't too keen on letting him beat the living Force out of Mason. I mean, I know Jedi are taught to defend themselves, but Shael knows rough hand-fighting as only a street survivor can. It seemed to me that the only way I could defuse the problem was to let Shael scream and shout at me for a while.
?Red, put him in room two for me. I'll be there in a minute.? Ishtari nodded and marched Shael away, Sloan beside him, talking quietly the whole distance. As Mason's sponsor I had an obligation to shepherd him and keep him safe, from himself if need be. Not that this one was really his fault at all, but he obviously hadn't figured out that he should have stayed far away from a violently enraged War.
?Mason, you okay??
?Yes, he was not all that subtle in his approach.?
?I take it Ishtari stepped in before he could actually swing at you??
?No, I ducked the first one, and then she put him in a very neat double hammer lock.?
?She likes that one, taught me how to slip it.? I sighed and tugged at the hem of my jacket. ?Look, he needs to vent a bit to calm down, and even after that I think it would be a good idea if you stayed as far away from him as circumstances allow. He's the type to hold a grudge.?
Mason acknowledged that with a nod and I strode away to face the inevitable. Might as well get it over with. I suppose I should be used to getting yelled at by now. Ishtari gave me a nod as I met her at the door. She dropped a gentle hand to my shoulder and gave it a squeeze before walking away. Sloan wrapped me in a gentle, brotherly hug.
?Go easy on him, he?s hurting.?
?I know,? I whispered back into his ear. He released me, a hopeful little smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, and walked away.
I took another deep breath. I'd vented in Roble's office, so I needed to keep a lid on my temper while in that room. It wasn't going to be easy because I'd never had any reason to keep a hold on my temper before. Letting my breath out in another weary sigh, I opened the door and stepped in.
And was immediately swept up in a fierce hug.
I was confused beyond all previous definitions of the concept. Shael just stood there and held me tight against him. There was no yelling, there was no shouting, no angry words. In fact, there were no words at all. Slowly, I wrapped my arms around him to return the hug. Through the thin shirt he wore, I could feel the tension drain out of his muscles and he sighed, with what I interpreted as relief, into my hair.
?I'm so sorry, Chenowyth, really I am.? His breath whispered in warm puffs across the top of my head. ?I know you were mad at me, but I didn't think you were that mad. I just can't stand the thought of you getting hurt and I want to ...? he trailed off and his shoulders sagged as he realized where he was heading again. Shael still hadn't released the hug, as if he was afraid that I'd slam the door in his face again. ?Please, I only get mad and yell because I'd be lost if you got hurt and it scares me to death. Please speak to me again.?
I pulled back a little and he reluctantly allowed me to ease out of his arms. I stood silently, looking up into his face, into his beautiful brown eyes, and was amazed at what I saw there. Someone had been talking to him. Several someones, in all probability. Ishtari, Roble, Sloan and Nash hit the top of my mental list. Whatever they'd said seemed to have taken hold because there was no lingering trace of anger in his expression at all, only fear and pleading and sincerity.
I couldn't help it. Tears welled up and one slipped, warm and damp, down my cheek. ?I love you, Shael, but sometimes you make me so kriffing angry.?
?I know it won't help to say that I feel the same way, but it's true.?
I pushed Shael toward a chair and he took the hint and sat on it. I settled myself in his lap and wound my arms around his neck. ?That does help, a little,? I told him. ?What would help more is not yelling so much.?
?I've told you I'm sorry, but I just can't help it.?
?You helped it just fine a few minutes ago.?
?Yeah, but that's different.? I wanted to demand why it was different, but in a rare show of discretion, I held back. Shael continued, ?Whenever I see you with that Cade guy, I just, just wanna pound his face in.?
?Shael, I'm his sponsor. Besides, no one else in this entire gang would have given me a lift to Bobby's, and you blasted well know it.? I shifted around to face him more fully. ?I'd have sat on my bunk all day, pouting and staying mad at you and Death. How is that better than this?? I asked as I wound my arms around his neck.
?You're right.? He moved in close and brushed a kiss across my lips. ?This is much better than you pouting and being mad all day.?
?Uhgn?? Not the most intelligent thing to say, but it was the best I could come up with at the time. A furry paw the size of a dinner plate had shaken me out of a very pleasant dream long before it should have. The sleep-muzzy image of Reeabok's brown and black muzzle was the first thing I saw, so I groaned loudly. Short of another Wookiee, that's really not what anyone should see before their first cup of caf. Unless of course, you were into long fur, a mouth full of sharp teeth, and carnivore morning breath. I wasn't, and am still not.
Reeabok tried to pantomime her intentions, a common occurrence since only a few of us actually understand spoken Wookiee, and gave up when I blinked blurrily at her. I usually had no problem figuring out what she wanted, but I was usually fully awake when she tried. Instead of wasting time repeating her motions, she grabbed me by the arms and lifted me bodily out of my bunk and began dragging me across the floor. I managed to snag a blanket and pull it around my waist before I was hauled, stumbling and confused, around the girl's partition.
? 'Bok, slow down. The floor's freezing,? I grumbled as she dragged me toward a whole pack of pajama clad Horsemen huddled around the holovid. Death, Mason and a few others were fully dressed and I frowned disapprovingly. No one should be awake and presentable before the sun came up, unless they were still awake from the night before. It's just not civilized. And from a glance at the chrono on the wall, the sun was only just then beginning to think about getting up and going to work.
Blinking grumpily, I shuffled my feet until I'd managed to get part of the blanket between them and the chilly floor. Then I raked a hand through my tangled mass of unruly hair in an attempt to get the coal black strands out of my face so I could actually see who was narrating the morning news on the holovid.
?... the company announced this morning that it will soon be marketing a cheaper equivalent of CoruCorp's 4T-71. This is the first significant challenge of CoruCorp's monopoly on the market, but they declined to comment on its possible impact on their year-end fiscal statement. Teletron's-? I was suddenly wide awake. ?-spokesbeing forecasts that their TR-80 should hit the market as soon as next week.? Layreen Si'chen! punched up her next data screen with a segmented chitonous digit and continued, but the important part was over and we no longer cared. Reeabok was totally forgiven for her rude wake-up call. First the successful 'shopping run', and then this. It was great news for the whole gang and if I knew Roble he'd have me hard at work in front of my computers in short order.
Everyone around me was grinning widely. Many made their way back to their bunks, hopping from foot to foot on the cold permacrete. Several headed for showers instead since they were already awake. With as many people as we had in Armageddon, you showered early, late, or did without hot water. Shael wandered over and gave me a side arm hug and a quick kiss before heading off to the showers himself.
I smiled sleepily after him and debated trying to catch a bit more sleep before Roble came looking for me. I spotted Mason picking his way through the dispersing crowd toward me and bid a fond farewell to the desire to close my eyes for just fifteen more minutes.
The Jedi's eyes flicked over me once, and though his expression didn't change in the least, I was suddenly very aware of my appearance. The collar of my over-large nightshirt hung loose off one shoulder and my blanket was slipping toward the floor. My sith-black hair probably looked like a mynock had nested in it and I'm certain my eyes were red from rubbing and the lack of a proper amount of sleep. With anybody else I wouldn't have given it a second thought.
With Mason it was different. I tugged at my shirt and pulled my blanket up around my shoulders, then tried to tell myself that it was because I didn't want to look shabby in front of a Jedi. It wasn't his wry sense of humor, or his perfect manners, or the feline grace with which he moved that had me fairly blushing in embarrassment. I told myself that very firmly. Several times. And it definitely wasn't the warmth and respect in those blue-grey eyes. It was because he was a Jedi, a hero. And out of your reach, a small voice whispered in the back of my mind.
I was suddenly angry, with myself for being embarrassed, or with him for making me embarrassed I couldn't tell you. It wasn't my fault my clothes were mostly hand-me-downs from other Horsemen, or that I'd been rudely pulled from my bed at a disgustingly early hour. And if he couldn't understand and accept that, then he had no business trying to pretend to be one of us in the first place! And he knew Shael and I were a couple. He couldn't have missed that kiss. Everyone knew that we had made up last night. Mason really shouldn't have been looking at me like that. Or was it my imagination?
In a very short space of time, the time it takes a tall man to walk six steps, I'd gone from sleepy and grumpy to pleased, embarrassed, angry, defensive, annoyed, right on to confused and when Mason spoke to me it took a few moments for me to realize it had been a question and required an answer.
Shifting back and forth on the chilly permacrete, I shook my head to try and sort the thoughts out. ?What??
?Why is everyone so excited?? My - No! - the Jedi was looking at me strangely, not surprising considering the jumble of emotions I must have been broadcasting.
?Teletron's headquarters and main manufacturing plant are in our territory,? I explained, and started shuffling toward the kitchen and a hot cup of caf. ?They actually hire us as couriers and outriders and scouts. A big new product like that will mean money for us. We can really use it, too. We're short of medical supplies and many of us need new clothes.? An involuntary grin tugged at my lips. ?And I'd love to upgrade our computer system.?
Mason picked up a mug of tea for himself and one of caf for me and carried them to the table so that I wouldn't have to unwrap from my blanket at all. ?This company pays you enough for all that??
?Oh yes. They're very nice about giving us fair wages for the work we do. No one pays attention to swoop riders, except the cops, so we make good outriders for important shipments and things.? I sat, accepted the caf from Mason, cradled the warm mug in my hands and took cautious sips from it between words, trying not to look at him. I didn?t want to embarrass him like I had myself. He probably had women crushing on him all the time. Adding me to the list wouldn?t help us any. ?It's just a little added security for their shipments and a little extra money for us. Really I think it's their idea of charity work, but they let us earn our credits, and we've never given them any reason not to trust us.?
?Sounds like a good trade-off.?
?Works for us.? I could almost feel the caf easing through my veins and waking me up, nerve by nerve. ?Roble swore we'd never have anything to do with drug running or the like. Companies like Teletron are what's made that possible. We've had some rough patches, but we've always managed to survive.?
?And this other company, CoruCorp??
I rolled my eyes. I knew he thought he needed this information for his investigation, but it really was too early in the morning for this sort of a conversation. ?Puh-leeze! Everyone's heard of CoruCorp. And you can't have missed what Lyreen Si'chen! said. You were standing right there. Teletron and CoruCorp are competitors now.?
?Whose territory is CoruCorp in?? he asked curiously.
?Well, it's not.? I frowned, then went on when he looked blankly at me. ?In anyone?s territory, I mean. They don't have anything in this sector. Their main office and factory building is clear over near the Senate district.?
?Nearly half the planet away,? Mason murmured to himself.
?Yeah.? I tipped back my mug and downed the rest of the caf in two swallows. ?Forget about it. Very little outside our sector is important to us.?
?Crash.? Death's unhurried call cut easily through the light morning background noise and I grinned at Mason. Lifting my mug in a parting salute, I stood.
?Time for me to earn my keep.?
I cracked my knuckles in a very un-ladylike manner. Not that anyone I know has ever accused me of being a lady. The command line blinked at me in readiness, and I glanced up at Roble.
?I am now taking requests.?
?First, I want you to route our usual 'available for business' message to Teletron.? Death leaned forward over my shoulder, his eyes focused past the screen on the rapidly approaching future. ?Then, I want you to hit the usual retailers for shipment estimates, and the pigpen for news on street crime. You know the ones I mean, hijackings, shipment piracy, that sort of thing.?
?Got it, Boss.? My fingers danced across the keyboard and my system jumped to fulfill my every wish. Many people are surprised that I use a command line and keyboard for my slicing, but I've always found that I have much better control over the routines that way. For slicers, control is everything.
Roble waited only until the message to Teletron whisked away over electronic byways, then he prowled off to his office, no doubt to start planning escort details. Shael moved up and took his place behind my right shoulder. Mason was seated just behind me and to my left. Now he leaned forward, eyes intent on the monitor.
I'd been in and out of the systems of most of Teletron's retailers so often that I had just sliced myself a backdoor to save time. I brought up the macros and let them run. Data flashed across my screen as they pulled up the files I wanted and just dumped them to memory for later scanning. It was routine enough to be almost boring, but slicing never bored me. Bored slicers got themselves caught.
The sector Police mainframe, on the other hand, was a job I was looking forward to. If my equipment had been a little better, I would have looked forward to it more, ?cuz then there would have been more I could have done while inside. At the gateway I paused momentarily, my fingers ceasing to clatter across the keyboard for a few fractions of a second. I shut down my other macros and called up new ones.
?I've got the timer, Crash,? Shael told me, and produced a hand chrono.
Shael was impatient with Mason's question, but I considered it progress that he didn't take another swing at the Jedi. ?Cop Central?s got tight security. We've got just two and a half minutes before they can lock onto us, trace us, and shut us down.?
?A hundred and fifty seconds? That's not very long. Crash, are you sure you can get what you need that quickly??
?She's done it before,? Shael snapped back at him, pride ringing in his voice.
Mason asked no more questions, though I know he wanted to. The line of his neck and the set of his shoulders let me know clearly that he was intrigued in spite of himself. After all, how many times did a Jedi get the opportunity to see a great slicer at work?
?Timer,? I said, fingers poised. ?Start ... now!? The countdown started with a faint beep and my fingers dashed across the keys. A very precious fifty-five seconds were spent slipping past the front line security into the main system. After that my activity became a fast and furious search and dump, my eyes flicking over the data screens, scanning for key words. Beside me Shael offered a mild oath. He's asked me in the past how I could identify the screen contents so quickly. My only answer was that it's a gift. A talent. I only know that it's something I can do. The how of it doesn't matter to me, just that I can.
?Forty-five,? Shael whispered.
I discarded two domestic disturbances and a breaking and entering before pulling down a minor piracy. Four drug busts, a DUI, another B&E ...
... a blackmail, a murder, an indecent exposure, a ...
?Pull that one,? Mason urged quietly, and my fingers tapped out the command before I'd had a chance to even identify it. Without missing a beat I moved on.
... a domestic, a missing persons ...
I snagged and dumped another hijacking and added a drive-by that caught my attention. The data streamed past my gaze and I didn't dare blink for fear of missing something.
Five more files of garbage, another dump, two more don't cares ...
?Five.? Shael's voice was tight with a tension that hadn't yet touched me. In there I was as confident and controlled as he was on his swoop. That was my world. But my time was up and I dashed for the exit, sweeping up my tracks behind me. I could practically feel the electronic hunters nipping at my heels. Then, I was out of the system, almost slamming the door in the very faces of my pursuers.
?Out!? I crowed, beaming at my monitor.
Wordlessly Shael displayed the timer. It had stopped with just over a second left on the countdown. ?You were cutting it pretty close, there, Crash.?
?I have them and their response timed down to a tenth of a second.? I placed a smug little kiss on his cheek and then leaned back in my chair and laced my fingers together behind my head. ?You may now compliment me on my skill and daring.?
Shael's response was a derisive snort and a playful tug on my hair. I swatted at his hand, but he evaded me easily. ?Too much humility was never a problem for you, was it, Crash??
?Humility is for those who don't know how truly great they are,? I told him in smug tones. ?I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a champion swoop rider. However, I am the best slicer you are ever likely to see,? I pointed out as he stood up from his chair.
Shael leaned down to steal a deep kiss. The way his eyes very carefully never turned in Mason?s direction made it quite clear that the sheer joy and pleasure of kissing me wasn?t his only reason for doing it. ?Then it's a mighty a good thing that you're on our side.? That said, he took his beautiful, jealous brown eyes and crooked smile off to confer with Death about shifting border patrols, or rotating the duty roster, or some other such leadership type thingy. I stared after him a while, and when Roble's office door closed between us, I smiled to myself. When I was in my element, Shael had nothing but pride for me, and he defended my skill and ability without the least doubt. I just had to find a way to get him to carry that over into the rest of our lives and our problems would be solved.
?So now what?? Mason's way of talking was getting more gang-like all the time. He hadn't said 'So now what do we do?' or 'What will be our next move?' The Jedi hadn't used any unnecessary words. He had pared it down to the essentials, using only what was important. I was impressed, despite my knowledge of what he was. Some people just couldn?t ever manage to get over their early training.
?Now, we get some breakfast while the machine chews on the retail estimates.? I tapped out a couple of commands and was rewarded with a cheerful beep as my computer started its task. ?And then I come back and check the estimates over as a precaution against machine error and then I read through all of the cop reports myself.?
Mason's blue eyes were focused somewhere in the distance as he thought. ?The police reports are to help plan how many members might be needed for extra security on the shipments??
?Yeah. It gives us a better idea of who's doing what and where. The types of cargoes taken, and a few other factors are important, too.? I raised one hand to push a pitch black tangle away from my face and stood, but Mason remained seated, his head cocked to one side, thinking. ?You hungry, or have you already eaten??
He waved a dismissive hand at me, his gaze still staring past the little animated swoop rider that zoomed back and forth across the bottom of the screen. ?I ate when I got up.?
?And when was that??
He shrugged. I rolled my eyes, sighed, then gathered my blanket back around me and shuffled off to find a table and some warm food. The triplets were only too happy to oblige me.
A hot meal and a shower later, I returned to my machines. They were humming away happily, their job done, the resulting files ready and waiting for me. I rolled my head a bit on my shoulders, giving my freshly combed hair a swing, before I sat down in front of the main monitor. Mason was off in the maintenance area, no doubt recruited by Bulldog or Trapper or one of the other guys to come let them brag about their rides.
I knew that the shipment projections could wait just a bit, and my curiosity about that file my Jedi had asked me to pull was starting to eat me alive. Glancing over my shoulder once more to be certain that Mason was elsewhere, I opened my stolen cop report files and began browsing through them. They were just what I had expected; reports about shipment highjackings, attempted highjackings, random drive-bys, and outright acts of piracy.
Except the one Mason had asked for.
It was junk.
I puzzled over it, and still couldn?t figure it out. It was a routine report of a disturbance call in one of the smaller business districts. The incident had been investigated, no problems had been found, end of report. There had to be a reason for him to have wanted that file. He was Jedi, but there was no way he could have identified it before he?d asked me to download it. I hadn?t even identified it by the time it cleared the screen. He must have been prompted by the Force, but why? It was a junk report generated by what was most likely a nosy or paranoid neighbor, or a prank call. There was nothing in it that I could see that might call it to the attention of a Jedi Knight, no matter what mission he might be on.
My finger hovered over the ?Delete? key. It?s a useless file, I told myself. It won?t matter at all. A little paranoia of my own tried to argue with that. Mason thought it was important. Maybe it is. He?s a Jedi after all. But even Jedi are not perfect. He could have made a mistake. Shael almost breaks into a sweat every time I slice into Cop Central and he?s seen me do it dozens of times. Why wouldn?t even a Jedi, seeing it for the first time, feel a little of the tension and react to it? He sounded awfully sure at the time, though. I shrugged mentally. Maybe his radar glitched. Yeah, right.
Habit, ingrained respect, cultural conditioning, whatever you want to call it, it kept me from actually hitting that key. Instead, I moved it to a ?miscellaneous? folder and got back to my real work. I ran through the rest of the reports, making notes about when, where, and what and began writing a report of my own for Roble. The sooner I got it and the shipment estimates to him, the sooner he could polish up those assignment rosters and start letting people know to be ready.
That prospect cheered me considerably. Even after a successful slice, I was still feeling the effects of cabin fever. Mason had taken me aside and told me that he wouldn?t drive me for another ride unless something terribly important came up. Too much was riding on his acceptance into the gang. And I knew none of the others would dare Death?s wrath. The schedules, and the lack of any hostilities, would most likely lift the lock-down. And that meant that I could get out and stretch my legs again.
?How?s it look, Crash??
I didn?t so much as glance at Mason as he walked up behind me. I was polishing up my report. Normally the Horsemen were pretty informal about things like that, but Death liked having things like the cop reports written down where he could look at them or check back on them. I don?t blame him if that?s what works best for him, but I?m a visual person myself, and I prefer to store my important facts in my head rather than on a data card any passing cop could pick up and walk away with.
?Not too bad,? I answered. ?My data shows that I sifted through eighty-seven percent of the reports for the last three month. I can make some pretty accurate assumptions from that. There hasn?t been much highjacking or pirating, all things considered.?
?What things do you consider?? Mason pulled up a chair, turned it around, and straddled it, leaning his forearms on the back. He must have picked that up from Trapper. The actions were smooth, but not as smooth or thoughtless as his bows had been.
?If you swing your leg over the chair, like you would your ride, it?ll look more natural,? I advised. Continuing before he could do more than nod in reply, I answered his question. ?First, I consider the fact that a third of the highjackings were gang related.?
?Other swoop gangs??
?Some, but not all. There are packs of homeless folks who?ll attack almost any freight hauler that is slow enough, or sits still long enough. Doesn?t happen often, but it?s certainly not unheard of.? I tapped out a command and brought up a map of the sector. ?Then I take into account where they happened.? Another couple of taps filled in the map with large blocks of lazy color indicating different gang territories and speckled it here and there with small red dots.
I indicated a point just inside our northern border. ?That?s Telecom?s main distribution point. As you can see, the area around it is pretty clear of incidents. Any retailer outside this immediate sector or the northern half of the sector south of us will get their shipments from atmospheric craft or long haulers. Anyone who can take down a long hauler would chew right through us, so we don?t guard those.?
His eyes flicked here and there over the map, no doubt committing the various territories to memory. There were no labels, I didn?t need them, and I waited for him to ask, but he didn?t. ?So you only have to worry about security for the immediate area??
?What about the area south of Horsemen territory??
I shrugged. ?Would you believe that there?s no gang activity there? At least no swoop gangs. The only reason why it?s not Horsemen territory is because we don?t want to mess around with two different sets of cops.?
?So there won?t be any problems there??
?Not likely, but we make those escorts heavier anyway, as a precaution.?
Mason nodded again, his eyes intent on the screen, and asked no more. I left the map up for him and moved my report to an auxiliary monitor and finished it there. Mason never moved. If he?d been a droid I?d have claimed I could hear him thinking, he was concentrating so hard.
I loaded my report and the raw data I?d drawn it from onto a datacard and strode to Death?s office. I walked right in, knocking only as an afterthought as I stepped through the doorway. Roble was sitting behind his desk, Shael leaned with one hip hitched up on a corner, the desk?s surface covered with lists and a sector map. Death was gesturing to the map, one calloused finger tracing the route they were currently discussing.
?This is the usual course they take for delivery to Bernard?s. We?ve never had any problems on that run,? Roble was saying.
?Yes, but that cuts right between Angel and Demon territory, then heads right into the Imperium, and with the way things are going right now ...? Shael trailed off and both men looked up at me.
?Done with that report, Crash?? Death asked.
?Yeah.? A lazy flick of my wrist and the datacard was airborne. More than half expecting that, Roble casually raised a hand and deftly snatched the card out of the air. ?Everything looks pretty good. Numbers aren?t down, but they aren?t up, either. And most of our routes seem to be pretty clear.?
?Good. If I have any questions I?ll let you know.? It was clearly a dismissal, since he turned his attention right back to the map and lists, but I ignored that for the moment.
?So, when do you expect to be done with my man??
?How soon is soon??
Roble sighed and glanced at his chrono while Shael stifled a chuckle. ?Give me another hour with him and then you can haul him off to do whatever you like with him.?
I tilted my head and leveled a steady stare at the man. ?One hour, promise??
?Hour and a half at the very most.?
I rolled my eyes with an exaggerated slump of my shoulders and relented. That means the meeting might end some time before dinner. I moved to the door and was halfway out when Roble called after me.
?Oh, and Crash, could you send Plague and Famine in here??
Forget dinner. Make that midnight.
My messenger service finished and the men in question sent on their way, I passed by the table where Sloan and a few others were playing cards. ?You gonna try and sit in on the meeting?? I asked him, jerking my head at the closed door to Death?s office.
?Nah,? he shrugged. ?Shael got all the bossy genes, I got all the lazy ones,? he replied with an impudent grin.
? ?Nuf said,? I agreed. I wasn?t big on that being in charge stuff myself and couldn?t blame him in the least for not wanting to follow in his big brother?s shoes.
Shaking my head, I ruffled his hair and began to amble slowly back toward my computers, but a hint of motion caught my eye. Mason was still sitting in front of the main monitor and was now tapping out short commands every so often. My first reaction was outrage. How dare he use my computer without asking me first! I don?t mean to say that I?m jealous of my computers and don?t want anyone but me to use them ... but I?m jealous of my computers. And I don't want anyone other than me to use them. There?s no telling what some silly, wannabe slicer might do to my babies when I?m not around to protect them. It just hadn?t occurred to me that a polite, well-trained Jedi like Mason might do more than look over my shoulder. If it had occurred to me, I still may not have turned the keylock on, but I would have been prepared for the trill of fear and worry that rippled down my spine at seeing someone else, anyone else, tapping commands into my computer.
Outrage and worry trickled away and I just stood there for a moment. Now my curiosity was piqued. I just had to know what he was doing. Much as I trusted him, I didn?t want to let him know that I was watching. He might just stop whatever it was he was doing. So instead of going right back, I turned from my original course and angled across the main floor, heading toward the maintenance bay. Conveniently enough, Shael?s ride was parked closest to the computer bank, so I plopped down on the permacrete and began slowly extracting the micro-computer that controlled the air/fuel mix. From that spot I had a near perfect vantage point from which to watch the Jedi at work. I was even at enough of an angle that I could make some pretty good guesses at what commands he was typing in.
The map was still up on the screen, still blocked off into the various colored territories, and still speckled with the red dots of the crime report locations. Mason had added several blue dots. He worked deliberately and with confidence, but slowly, like he was familiar enough with computers, but not with this particular configuration. His thick brown hair fell forward, obscuring his face as he worked, so I read the muscles of his back, the set of his shoulders, the tension in his arms, and the slight hesitations in the movements of his fingers.
I glanced away for a moment to hook up an adapter from my datapad to the mix controller. Shael really did want me to check the program for bugs, since he?d been having a few problems with it recently, so it made a very convenient excuse. When I glanced back up Mason had shifted back in his seat, as if to get a better overall view of the map. I could see the scattering of blue dots better now, but I still couldn?t figure out what they meant, or why he cared. Since he did care, I figured it was something I might want to look into a little closer.
My attention was so fully on Mason and his actions that I missed the approach of Killek. Only when he stepped up to Mason and glanced around to check for me, did I finally notice him. I swore savagely when he laid a warning hand on the Jedi?s shoulder.
?Hey man,? his voice carried to me easily, despite the other noises, ?you?d better not let Crash catch you fiddling with her toys. I know she?s your sponsor, but she?s like to take your head off before she asks any questions.? His reddish mop shook ruefully. ?It?s never a good idea to tick off your sponsor.?
?Oh?? Mason tapped out a quick sequence and the blue speckling disappeared from the screen. ?I didn?t know. Thanks, man.?
There was no point in staying where I was any longer, so I put the pad and controller into a check and repair sequence and stood, brushing off my pants while Killek eagerly followed Mason off to give the newest Horseman his ?expert? opinion on the Jedi?s swoop. I wasn?t too worried about Mason wiping the little dots off the screen. Between my keystroke capture program that I always have running on my machines and what I observed, I was fairly confident that I could recreate most of them. What had me in a foul mood was that Mason hadn?t finished normally. That would have told me much more about what he was doing. Had he wiped out his commands because he didn?t want me to see them, or just because he thought I might be upset about him using my computers and didn?t want me to worry?
I fumed there, standing beside Shael?s swoop, staring off into space as if I could find the answers I sought there. I have no idea how long I stood there before Shael?s arms around my waist startled me out of my thoughts.
?Deci-cred for your thoughts??
?They?re not worth that much.?
He shifted behind me, to look down at my datapad. ?So is there anything wrong with it??
?Dunno.? I shrugged. ?I started it running a bit ago, but I haven?t checked it yet. It won?t finish for another hour or so.? I turned in the circle of his arms and looped my own around his neck. ?So, why are you out here instead of in there with the rest of them??
?Roble gave me time off for good behavior,? he smirked, his dark eyes twinkling at me.
?Oh did he?? I replied and rose on tiptoe to bestow a small kiss on his nose. ?Does that mean you have time to take me topside for a little picnic dinner??
Shael tilted his head sideways and closed his eyes, pretending to be thinking very hard. ?Let?s see,? he drew out the syllables as if each were a deep and weighty matter, ?go back into that stuffy office with three other men who only want to talk about reports and numbers, or go topside with you and eat and cuddle until the stars come out. Hmmm, decisions, decisions ...? Of course, the only stars we would be able to see were the navigating lights of transports and shuttles, and the winking of tower warning beacons, unless he was referring to the ones we always managed to see in each other?s eyes.
I turned away and pushed against the barrier of his arms. ?Well,? my tone was playful, ?if you don?t want to ...? I was pulled up tight against his chest before my foot more than lifted to take a step.
?Mmm, it was a tough choice, but I?ll take you and the stars,? he murmured in my ear.
Our picnic was pleasant and lazy. We lay on a small blanket and fed each other finger foods and tried to ignore the sounds of traffic over our heads. The ambient light of the city, from apartments, offices, navigation beacons and the rest, produced a pervasive glowing haze across the sky that hid any hint of the stars, but we didn?t mind. Running lights from passing vehicles worked just fine for us.
Shael lay on his back, fingers laced behind his head, and I was cuddled up by his side, my head pillowed on his shoulder. The night was clear and cool, but not cold enough to be uncomfortable. Everything was perfect.
Unfortunately, now that we were laying quietly, just enjoying each other?s company, my thoughts kept turning back to Mason and those blue dots. What did they mean? Now I know he wasn?t obligated to tell me everything, he was supposed to be undercover after all, but still ... how could I be reasonably expected to help him figure all this out if he didn?t keep me clued in?
At least with Shael things are back to normal. I had only barely completed the thought and was about to sigh in contentment when my tall, handsome, insecure man shifted and spoke.
?So, how?s Cade doing??
On the surface the question was totally innocent. His voice was casual, but something in his tone and the very question itself set off all my jealousy alarms. Shael was Roble?s first lieutenant and the jealous type to boot, but he should have known exactly how Mason was doing. The Jedi didn?t ask awkward questions like the cops did, he didn?t try and worm his way into high level meetings, he was unobtrusive and everyone liked him. In short, he was perfect.
Shael jolly well knew all that and was still asking me. The reasons for asking me, and at a time like this, was a very short list. It meant that he wanted to know how I felt about Mason as a person. He wanted to know why Mason was spending so much time with me, more than usual for the sponsor of a very successful new member to spend. And I couldn?t tell him why. It added up to frustration and anger. Not the best of emotional mixes for me.
?Not bad,? I answered in as bored a tone as I could manage. My temper was starting a slow boil. I thought we already took care of this! ?Bulldog and Trapper keep him out of trouble.? I forced a chuckle I didn?t feel. ?They?re almost being better sponsors than I am.?
There was no immediate response and I began to relax again. It could have been a perfectly honest, innocent question, something to spark conversation. Maybe I was making a battle cruiser out of a skyhopper.
That brief, happy thought was shot to flaming wreckage.
?Chenowyth, if you?re trying to let me down easy, don?t. Just tell me and get it over with. Ripping my heart out slowly doesn?t make it hurt any less.?
Whatever I had been expecting, that wasn't it. Rising to my knees and sitting back on my heels, I looked down at him, my expression puzzled. ?What the kriff are you talking about?? I demanded.
Shael pushed himself up on his elbows, his dark eyes glittering in the city?s glow. ?Everyone raves about Cade. They talk like he?s the Force?s gift to swoop gangs. He?s got a decent ride, knows what he?s talking about when anyone asks him anything. He hides it nearly as well as you do, but it?s obvious he?s had a better than average education, and he doesn?t flaunt it. Everyone loves him.?
Those haunted eyes met mine, a burning certainty shining out from them. ?Do you??
My mouth dropped open in surprise. Shael wasn?t usually this direct about anything but riding. In a ruthless, lightning fast self-evaluation, I examined my feelings for Mason Cade. No, easy as it would have been, I didn?t love the Jedi. My heart had belonged solely to Shael for so long that it was impossible for another to claim it. I simply couldn?t begin to think of what my life would be like without him.
?I?ve seen the respect and admiration in your eyes, Chen, whenever you look at him.?
?I said, no!? My voice was rising along with my temper. Why doesn?t he listen to me? ?I do respect him, and I do admire him, but I don?t love him, Shael.?
?You don?t look at anyone else the way you look at him. If you don?t love him, then why??
I sighed in frustration. There wasn?t much else I could do. ?I can?t tell you that, I promised.?
?Tell me anyway,? he insisted.
?Shael! I promised.?
?Chen, have I done something to make you mad or drive you away? I already apologized for before.?
With an inarticulate noise, I lunged to my feet, rather deliberately booting him in the ribs in the process. ?Of course I?m mad, bantha-brain,? I shouted at him. ?I brought you up here for a picnic and some alone time and you want to talk about other men!?
I turned on my boot heel and stalked away to the lift before my amusement at the look on his face could affect my own expression. My anger had drained away like it had never been when I saw the astonishment, distaste, and dawning realization in his eyes, and as soon as the lift doors closed on me I collapsed against the wall in gut-busting laughter.
Hopefully it wouldn?t take him long to put it all together and figure out what I meant. After all, I wanted to be married before I turned thirty.
Sloan saw me come out of the lift alone, and his brow creased with a worried frown, but I waved at him and flashed him a thumbs up. As long as his brother had a gram of common sense, things were going to be just fine.
Nearly an hour later, Shael stepped out of the lift. I was crouched next to his swoop, checking on his fuel mixer, and turned to raise a questioning eyebrow at him. He knew I wasn?t mad anymore. I don?t fix rides for people I?m mad at or don?t like, but my mood could change quickly enough if he hadn?t learned his lesson.
He offered me a half apologetic, half smug smile, then went to put away the picnic stuff. A dark grey, fuzzy form appeared at my shoulder.
?You cuffed him?? Nash asked me.
?You told him how it is??
?Good. He appears to have learned.?
?Yup.? I smiled up at her happily and the feline?s whiskers twitched at me in amusement.
?I told you so.?
The lockdown was indeed lifted, but Roble and his merry men kept me too busy to enjoy it for the first couple of days. When I wasn?t making more illegal forays into other people?s computer systems, I was writing reports and helping my machines project route suggestions, escort strengths, necessary weapons minimums and other things that I didn?t understand nearly so well, but that Roble insisted he needed to have. I shrugged and typed in commands. My computers shrugged and did what I told them. Roble told me what to do and went away happy at the end of the day, having all the graphs, charts, maps, and recommendations my babies could spew forth.
In the brief moments of spare time I had, I opened up my key stroke file and recreated the map and the little blue dots, though I used green instead. Not the most clever deception I?ve ever come up with, but it served my purpose. When Death walked away for the day, muttering to himself about what he saw on the hard copies he was carrying, I brought the map back up and began to study it. I wasn?t worried about Mason seeing it since he was out on patrol with a group of others.
The dots didn?t seem to make a lot of sense. They were grouped along territory borders, but other than that, there was nothing about them that jumped out at me as a possible connection.
?You?ve got a good memory for the skirmishes, Crash.?
I jolted slightly at Trapper?s voice behind me. He was leaning over my shoulder slightly, his finger tracing a few of the dots. ?Skirmishes??
?I?m very impressed. You?ve even got the two that happened just after lockdown was called,? he continued.
Going into overdrive, my mind spun with the implications. These dots were the locations of the various skirmishes? That made a whole lot more sense than any theories I?d come up with over the last day and a half.
?Yeah, but I?m having trouble remembering when they happened,? I lied through my teeth to him. ?Do you remember enough of them to at least give me a good start??
He shrugged nonchalantly and dropped into a chair as if he had suddenly been de-boned. ?Sure.?
I pulled up the locations and he either told me when they happened or told me that he didn?t know. As soon as I had gone through the whole list, Trapper rose and slouched away to find something a little more interesting to do and I hunched forward to give the computers a few last commands. I erased all the previous dots and told my babies to put them all back up again, but color coded for when they happened, moving slowly through the rainbow of colors over the last few months that the gang hostilities had been escalating.
The picture showed me something I had halfway expected. There was really no pattern to it. First here, then there, with no rhyme or reason. Then I looked closer. A few of them I could see where one skirmish had happened, then several had been retaliations back and forth for the original fight. But there were others that made no sense, even the one that had wounded Shael. They looked random. Then I looked again. Mason had to have been looking for something among all this, I needed to look too.
It made perfect sense that the only territory border relatively free of dots was our own. After all, when the skirmish went down Roble declared a lockdown. We weren?t out there to be fighting with, so of course we hadn?t had any others. As I recalled, we still hadn?t decided which of the other gangs had hit us that time, either. It had sure made us mad though. If Death weren?t so worried about keeping every member of this strange family alive and kicking we?d have gone out and bloodied the nose of whoever did that.
I sat up straighter suddenly. Maybe that was it? I looked again. Sure enough, whenever the fighting in an area would die down a bit another first strike would show up and start things off again. Someone was prodding at us all, trying to keep us fighting, or make the fighting hotter and nastier. Up in the northeast corner of the sector where the little gangs were battling to the death, several warehouses, factories, commercial transports, and perfectly innocent civilian traffic had become casualties.
What if that?s the point? But who would want to hurt people? That?s just sick. There had to be some kind of purpose behind all this, even if it was beyond me to guess at what it was. That was Mason?s job. Mine was only to help as best I could.
?What?cha got there, Crash??
Mason?s voice coming from nowhere right behind me jolted me enough to rattle the keyboard. I couldn?t keep a flush of guilt from running through my system, but I just prayed that in the burst of surprise it would be lost. After a bare second I knew the futility of that and decided just to come clean. Lying to Jedi isn?t something that anyone does very well.
?Mason, I thought you were out on patrol??
?I was. We got back in about fifteen minutes ago.?
I glanced at my chrono. I?d been sitting there staring at the map for much longer than I had thought. A rueful smile tugged at my lips and I shrugged. ?Slicers are famous for losing track of time when plying their trade,? I explained.
?So I see.? He straddled a chair, looking much more natural this time. ?This looks familiar.?
?Should, it?s your work, with a bit of modification.?
?Photographic memory? I didn?t know you saw it.?
?I did. I?m paranoid about my babies.? I patted the monitor lovingly before continuing. ?I have a program that keeps track of all the keystrokes made. I used that to put all the dots back up. Trapper helped me with the rest.?
?I take it the colors have to do with ...? he trailed off and stared hard at the seemingly random nature of the color assignments. ?I give up, what?s the color about??
?Time. The color indicates when the skirmish happened. Take a look and tell me what you see,? I requested. ?I?ve got a theory, but I want a second opinion.?
His blue-grey eyes scanned the whole map and for just a moment, when all his concentration was focused on seeing everything there was to see, he stopped looking like just another gang-banger. He looked like a formidable foe and an able protector, everything a Jedi Knight should be.
?Someone is starting these fights??
?That?s what I thought,? I confirmed. ?Whenever things quiet down too much there?s another fight in disputed territory.?
?Could one of the other gangs be behind all this??
I beamed with pride at him. Right off the bat he assumed, or maybe he knew, that the Horsemen weren?t behind it. He was becoming quite the loyal member.
?Could be, but I really don?t see what they could hope to gain from it. No one gang could run the whole sector. And the competition keeps the cops busy. If they only had one gang to focus on it?d be like a swoop trying to take on an armed shuttle. Sure the swoop has more places to hide, but the shuttle?s got sensors and weapons and shields. No contest.?
Mason kept me busy the rest of the night. Since he knew about the skirmishes that had happened while we were in lockdown, I assumed he had some means of communication with his superiors that I didn?t know about and that no one else had caught him at. But they didn?t seem to be able to get him the information that I could. He had me create maps of the sector?s property values, of crime hot spots, of anything and everything we both could think of, but none of it seemed to mesh up with what we already had.
Finally he slouched back into his chair, long legs jutting out, fingers laced behind his head, looking every inch the swooprider he was rapidly becoming. ?There must be something here that we?re missing.?
I sighed in exasperation. My eyes were dry and tired from staring at screens all night. My shoulders and back ached from leaning over my keyboard, and I wanted nothing more than to collapse on my bed and sleep through the entire next day. ?Look, this is useless. We?re not getting anywhere at all. It?s like that stupid file you had me pull down, just garbage.?
?What file?? he muttered.
?That police report file. I glanced through it and it was totally unrelated to anything we?re working on here.?
Mason sat up straight and concentrated for a moment as he recalled the instance I was describing. ?What was it? Pull it up.?
?It was nothing!? I moaned, but typed in the necessary commands anyway. When it came up Mason leaned in to read it through and I leaned back, trying to ease my shoulders. The only one still up was Nash, who only slept in two or three hour blocks at a time. She was essentially always up. Me, I wanted to sleep before my eyelids dried open.
?Crash, where is this location mentioned here?? Mason?s mellow voice pulled me out of a half doze and I had to blink a minute before I found the line he was pointing to.
?Oh, uh, that?s over in the northern half of the Hounds? territory,? I told him blearily. ?Forget it, it?s nothing but a disturbance report.?
?Yes, but I feel that there?s something more here. Can you bring up a street map of the area??
?Sure, why not?? The map soon spread in its electronic blandness across my main monitor. I pointed out the building the disturbance had been called in from. ?There it is. See? Nothing. It?s not even in disputed territory or anywhere near a border. I don?t,? I stifled a yawn, ?see the connection.?
?What?s this building here, next to it??
I leaned in and glanced at the map. ?Uh, CoruCorp?s sector office.?
?Aren?t they Teletron?s leading competitor for that new comm chip??
?So?? My bed was no longer just calling to me, it was flashing neon signs and chanting, ?sleep, sleep, sleep.?
?So it appears that they had a break-in and didn?t report it.?
?Mason, I didn?t pull down B&Es, just piracy, highjackings and drive-bys. You don?t know if there was a report filed or not.?
?No, but you can check.?
?True,? I shook my head at him, ?but not tonight. I?m tired and if I slice cop central when I can?t hardly tell the keys on my board apart, I?m going to get us in deep trouble.?
?Yeah, sure, tomorrow.? Anything if you?ll let me sleep now.
He let me sleep, but it wasn?t long enough. I?d been up for nearly twenty hours and he woke me after a measly four. My eyes felt gritty and dry, my arms and shoulders still ached and my blood sugar level wasn?t nearly high enough. Grumpy is not a strong enough word to describe what I was feeling. I wanted to tie him to the back of Shael?s swoop and drag him through afternoon traffic.
?Do you need me to time you??
?No,? I snapped. ?You?re looking for a specific file. I?ve written a program that will sort through the reports for me and download anything that matches your very particular specifications while I hold off the security measures. Not that I expect it to take very long at all, though.?
?So time is no longer important??
?Well, yes, but only sleep time, or the lack thereof.? Unfortunately, strangling the Jedi wasn?t a viable option.
Mason was trying not to laugh, his blue eyes glinted merrily, and I desperately wanted to hit him. ?Not a morning person, are you??
?No,? I grumbled at him. ?Sane people don?t wake up before the sun rises, especially after being up the whole night before.?
?I?m sorry, but I can?t help feeling that we?ve got something important here.?
?Fine, fine, just sit there and don?t make any noise while I work my magic.?
Since we were only looking for one single file with fairly specific qualities, I could indeed write a program that would seek it out for me. My normal runs in and out of cop central were fast and furious because I hadn?t yet perfected a program that could pull down all of what we wanted as efficiently as I could myself. This one would be a breeze in comparison.
Mason did sit quietly while I worked, for which I blessed him. If I was going to have to be awake at that early an hour after that little sleep, I deserved a little peace and quiet in which to work. The Jedi even rose silently at one point and returned with a steaming mug of hot caf.
Once the program was done, I loaded it up and linked into the sector net. I sliced my way into cop central and set my program loose. In no time at all, the program was cleaning up all traces of its invasion, and I pulled out and took us off-line.
?Cool your jets a second,? I told him. ?There, see??
?Oh,? I tried not to sound as chagrined as I felt, ?well, you were right, there?s no file for a break-in at the CoruCorp office.?
?So they didn?t report it.? Mason steepled his fingers and thought, his face losing almost all expression.
I waited as long as I had patience for, which that morning wasn?t long at all, before breaking into his thoughts to ask a question. ?So what??
?There was a break in, or at least a suspicious disturbance at the CoruCorp office. It was significant enough that the office next door reported it. But CoruCorp themselves didn?t lodge a complaint or call the cops?? he asked.
I just shook my head. This wasn?t my area of expertise. I was much better with security systems and their weaknesses than bureaucratic thinking and its various idiocies. I couldn?t see what bearing this had on anything at all.
?Why wouldn?t a big company like that call in the cops if there?d been a break-in?? Mason asked me slowly.
A light blinked on in my skull. ?Because they didn?t want the cops in their building?? I hazarded.
?And why not??
I drew the obvious conclusion, but still couldn?t find the link back to our particular problem. ?Because there?s something there they don?t want the cops to see. But I don?t see how that helps us.?
?It may not, right now, but I?ll see what other information I can get about that break-in.?
I blinked at him and smiled hopefully. ?Does that mean I can go back to sleep now??
Mason laughed. It was an eye-twinkling, full-face, belly-holding laugh. I narrowed my eyes at him, less than amused. It wasn?t my fault he had the genetic defect that tended towards early rising. ?Yes,? he finally managed to say, ?you can go back to sleep now, if that?s what you really want.?
I rose from my seat with what dignity I could muster. ?Thank you,? I told him gravely and walked away.
I didn?t make it far.
?Crash,? Famine?s nasal tenor made me grimace and hunch my shoulders in expectation of what was to come. I reluctantly turned from my bed with a look of desperate longing and faced him. ?Death needs you to re-do that ground-freight route analysis again. We got some new numbers from CNB and that patrol yesterday.?
?Sure,? I nearly snarled, ?fine, whatever.?
I don?t know who Mason asked to check into the break-in, but he must have asked someone because he only left Armageddon when on a patrol and we got the information in less time than I would have thought possible without paying off a cop sector chief. Whoever it was managed to do some quick and serious checking, because it only took two days for us to learn that someone had indeed broken into the CoruCorp sector offices. That unnamed someone claimed that they hadn?t gotten anything worthwhile. That they?d seen a glimpse of some kind of strange pay vouchers, but nothing that they could use. I figured it must have been someone looking for technical schematics or the like who wanted to sell them to black market producers. It?s not uncommon.
Anyway, Mason decided that he wanted to check it out himself.
That left me standing in front of Roble?s desk again. Only this time I was actually asking permission to take off. Normally I wouldn?t have bothered, lockdown being lifted and all, but Mason had correctly pointed out that it wouldn?t be the best idea to walk into the building during the light of day. We wouldn?t get much more than the runaround.
Roble sighed. His face, his posture, they told me he knew he shouldn?t be saying yes, but also that he couldn?t think of a single reason why not. I kept my expression calm and confidently expectant. I didn?t try for innocent because he?d never have believed it.
?And you?re going where again?? he asked as he rubbed tiredly at the bridge of his nose.
?We?re just going for a ride,? I explained again. ?I wanted to show Mason the best way to navigate the airlanes at night, and the best places to hide, should cops or rivals take to chasing him. He?s been doing day patrols, but as soon as he learns that stuff he can start doing night patrols, or even loners. That, and I want to drill him on his tap-code. He?s been practicing, but I want to see how well he?s really learned it.?
Death tiredly held up a hand to forestall any further explanation. ?Sure, go. Just try and stay out of anyone else?s territory, Crash. Shael won?t beat me to death if something happens to you, but he?ll sure give it his best effort.?
?Thanks, now I have some advice. Get some sleep. You look like a Jawa who?s been dead a week.?
?Thanks for the candor,? he replied drily. ?Now, get out of here before I change my mind and find something for you to do to keep you out of trouble."
I beat a hasty retreat for the door, knowing that he would be only too happy to do just that. ?I don?t have to go looking for trouble, boss. You know that. It comes looking for me.?
The door swung shut on his derisive snort.
Mason was waiting, completely confident that I would win Roble over. He held both his helmet and my own. We still hadn?t found enough spare parts to cobble together a communit for his, which is why I wanted to make sure he had the tap-code down pat, so to speak.
?Let?s go,? I told him. He headed right for his ride, but I detoured to where Shael was lifting weights in the corner. ?Hey, flyboy.?
He eyed my riding leathers. ?Where you off to, and with who??
?Mason needs the night flying lessons. I figured tonight would be a good time. Things are quiet and we?re not likely to run into trouble.? I leaned against the bench and rested my hands on his chest. ?I also wanted to drill him on tap-codes.?
He reached out and grabbed hold of my dark braid, tugging me close enough for a long kiss. ?Shall I wait up for you??
I could see he was fighting down jealousy, but at least he wasn?t giving me the third degree anytime I wanted to go out with Mason any more. ?Best not,? I pouted, ?we?ll probably be most of the night. I hoped to get all the lessons I could out of the way in one go. Can?t ever tell these days when some idiot will take a shot at us again because he?s feeling lucky.?
Shael kissed me again. ?Tell Cade that if you aren?t brought back in one piece,? he planted a soft kiss on the end of my nose, ?one beautiful,? kiss, ?alive and unharmed piece,? kiss, ?that I?ll skin him alive and use what?s left for target practice.?
?Mmm, I?ll tell him,? I promised. I trailed a single finger along his jaw line in parting and strode to where Mason?s ride hovered, engine thrumming. I tucked my braid down the back of my jacket, plopped my helmet onto my head, swung aboard behind the Jedi and we were off.
We did indeed practice tap-code, and I did show Mason the best ways to ditch trails and hide from cops, at least along a rather direct route straight to the north half of the Hound?s spread. In the dwindling evening traffic, Mason did just fine navigating around the other vehicles and keeping up a reasonable speed, but I could tell that I needed to take him out during the noon crunch to teach him proper traffic techniques. He was far too courteous and patient to be a believable gangbanger.
When we crossed out of Horsemen territory I found myself suddenly very grateful that I was wearing a plain black jacket, rather than my gang jacket. The medium grey, with its bright scarlet chess knight, was unmistakable, purposefully so. But tonight I had no desire to attract any attention. My instincts now told me that the momentary peace was but the lull before the storm. There was a strange, expectant hush in the darker places, instead of the active night life I had grown up with. There might not have been any active hostilities, but the street folk were still keeping their heads down. They were the best indicators I knew of.
It might have been quiet, but it wasn?t over.
By tapping and pointing I directed Mason to our goal. We parked the swoop on a shadowed ledge and edged our way along the thin eyebrow of the building to the opening of the parking level. At the terminus of the ledge I flattened myself even closer to the wall and peered slowly and cautiously around the corner. Without moving my head, I let my eyes carefully search the nearly empty lot before me. Try as I might, I couldn?t spot the security cams that I knew had to be there.
A tap on my shoulder almost jolted me, but I kept perfectly still and eased back around the corner. As soon as I was sure the security cams couldn?t see me, I jabbed Mason in the ribs with an elbow. I jerked off my helmet and glared at him. After all, do I interrupt him when he?s doing his Jedi stuff?!
?Will you cut it out? I don?t want to be the subject of my very own police report, if you don?t mind!? I hissed at him angrily. He was immediately contrite, but my sense of professionalism was still outraged. I decided to explain to head off any further complications. ?There are always security cams in the parking garages. That?s the first mistake newbies make.?
I kept my voice low and my head turned away from the garage to minimize the risk of our conversation being picked up. ?The cams are usually triggered by sound and/or motion. I have to figure out where they are and where they are pointed before we can go any farther.?
I ran a critical eye over him. With that thick shoulder length hair and that striking face, he would be hard to mistake for anyone else, no matter how bad the resolution on the security holos might be. We needed to take what precautions we could to keep him from showing up on them at all. ?Do you know any Lorrdian hand speech??
?Enough to get by, I think,? he answered hesitantly.
I nodded. ?Fine. Keep your helmet on then. Even if the cams catch us, I want to minimize the chances for identification.? I plopped my own helmet back on and settled it with a thump to end any talk. I was turning back to the corner when Mason?s hand on my shoulder interrupted me again. I was going to give him a piece of my mind, but his hands stuttered through a short phrase of pidgin Lorrdian.
Please to me let?
I nodded in exasperation, but curious to see what he had in mind, I dropped into a tight crouch to let him step over me. He promptly hopped over my head and landed lightly with practiced grace. He eased slowly around the corner, as I had, and after a moment his whole body seemed to relax and go very still. I scuttled forward, still crouched low, to peek around his long, leather-clad legs. Out near the middle of the garage, a sheet of flimsy-plast, probably a daily news report, fluttered and whisked along the permacrete floor in a non-existent breeze. Even as I watched, no less than seven cams turned to track its progress.
Tap-stroke-tap-tap-pause-tap, I rapped out against his leg. Slow ahead. Mason slid, with painstaking slowness, around the corner of the wall and I followed him, carefully rising from my crouch. The knight?s hand stayed pointing in the flimsy?s direction as we crept our way to the garage?s entrance to the building. At the door I hooked up my datapad and engaged my standard lockbreaker program. The door whooshed open even sooner than I had expected, but I was ready and dashed through, pulling Mason with me, before the cams could turn and orient on the sudden fast movement.
Once inside I let Mason lead the way. The helmets we wore muted all sounds and we moved in eerie silence through the lower level offices. I hoped that the Jedi knew what he was looking for, because I sure didn?t.
Mason?s friend must have passed along more to him than he did to me, since the tall Jedi led the way through the building with no pauses or guess work. We headed straight for an office, and once inside, I decided that it must have belonged to the senior manager or at least his assistant. There was the inevitable computer console, as well as several filing cabinets for old-fashioned hard-copy storage.
I checked the room over, being as careful and thorough as a decade on the streets could teach me to be. There were no security cams in this office. I?d have bet all the swoops in Armageddon that if this was the assistant?s office, the boss?s office didn?t have any cams either, or at least none that functioned properly.
I sat down behind the monitor and removed my helmet. That way I could work my magic on the machine and still be able to communicate with Mason. ?What am I looking for??
He?d removed his helmet as soon as I did mine, quite willing to follow my lead in such matters. He now leaned over my shoulder, one hand braced on the desk and one on the back of the chair. ?Accounting files, or bank statements would be our best bet.?
I cruised through the system like I belonged there. The paltry security that had been put in place was mainly designed to keep the other employees from stumbling onto something they weren?t supposed to know about. It was no barrier to someone like me who not only had the skills, but was actively looking. The bank reports seemed fairly normal for a company and branch of this size. Nothing looked terribly unusual, so I brought up the accounting files for the various projects that were currently being run in this branch office.
?Project Xylenn, project Iphecles, project Tiros, project Organa, project Ho?tem,? I read from the list.
?Bring up project Tiros,? Mason instructed me.
?Why that one?? I asked, even as I made the appropriate clicks.
?All the others are named for Alderaani philosophers. Tiros was a Corellian warlord,? he explained absently, eyes intent on the information scrolling across the screen.
I muttered derisively to myself as I too scanned the information being presented to us. What did I care about philosophy or history on other worlds? It wasn?t like I was ever going to go to those places.
?See here?? Mason brought my attention to the listing of monthly expenses for the project. ?They are making large payments with cash chips. Untraceable. That means they?re paying someone who doesn?t want any real record of the transaction. Scroll down, I want to see if they made any notes.?
Sure enough, down at the bottom of the page, the assistant had diligently marked down his reservations about the outcome of this particular project. ?This person is notoriously unreliable,? I read aloud, ?and I have been threatened on several occasions when it was patently unnecessary. The effort required to sustain such an ego much be tremendous, and I fear that our instructions will be totally disregarded should pride become an issue.?
I leaned back in the chair and gazed thoughtfully up at Mason. ?Hmmm,? I said, in a mock contemplative tone. ?Who do I know who has an overblown ego, can?t be counted on farther than you can throw a bantha, would sell their soul to a Sith for a ten credit chip, and is hip deep in this gang war business??
Mason seemed amused by my blas? tone contrasted with my uncomplimentary words. ?I take it you know such a person??
?Velocity, leader of the Angels, fits the bill perfectly,? I practically snarled. ?She hasn?t hardly got the morals of a Jawa, and she?s been the one responsible for the killings of too many undercover cops. Don?t get me wrong,? I told him, ?I?m not fond of cops myself, but I don?t like the idea of killing so many. It?s a bad world and most of the cops in this sector are keeping it from getting any worse. It?s the ones helping the decay along that I?d like to see on the business end of a heavy blaster. Unfortunately, they aren?t usually the ones attracted to undercover work.?
Mason stared hard at the screen, occasionally closing his eyes for a moment. I can only guess that he was committing the information to memory. It would have been easier, I?m sure, to just load a copy of the file onto my datapad, but that would also leave evidence, something to be avoided if at all possible.
When he was done, I closed the file and erased the log note that had recorded its opening. Then I shut the system back down and scooped up my helmet. ?Let?s get out of here before someone spots your ride and gets suspicious,? I advised.
Velocity. As her name implied, she was fast, and I don?t just mean her speed in getting men into her bed. She rode a swoop like a smuggler with half of CorSec less than a half klick off her aft end. She was quick upstairs, too, though certain portions of her brain worked faster than the rest, and those parts that were fueled by her ego fastest of all. Most of her words came out hurtful, mean, nasty, spiteful, vindictive, snide, or sarcastic. If she?d ever stopped to think a moment, I?m sure they would have come out calculating, cold, rude, and malicious.
She was tall, if you like that sort of thing, and full-figured, to use a euphemism, and she had guys panting after her like she was the last female on Coruscant. Personally, if I was a guy, I wouldn?t pursue her even if she was that last female on Coruscant. After all, there were dozens of other inhabited planets within a day?s hyper travel.
And just so you know it?s not just me, Nash and Ishtari and Reeabok and Shael and the triplets didn?t like her either.
Anyway, because of all that, with my suspicion that she was the one being paid by CoruCorp to make trouble as icing on the cake, I was more than a bit surprised to learn that she was hosting a summit to negotiate an end to the hostilities.
I snorted derisively, and I didn?t care who noticed. Roble did, and he shot me a glance that told me to shut up and keep my opinions to myself. Mason noticed and rewarded me with a playful wink. Shael noticed the wink and oh-so-casually draped an arm around my shoulders. I rolled my eyes.
?So, she?s invited the leaders of each gang and two assistants to come to Heaven and talk peace,? Roble concluded.
I snorted again. ?Assistants? I take it there are restrictions??
?Yes, we were asked not to bring our lieutenants. I think she hopes to reassure us that she?s not trying to wipe out the leadership of all the rival gangs in one shot.?
Shael straightened in his seat, suddenly worried. ?Do you think that?s a good idea?? he asked.
?Actually, I think it?s a very good idea.? Death nodded. ?Between the three of you we shouldn?t have any significant lapse in leadership should anything happen at the meeting.?
?So, have you decided who you are going to take with you?? Famine inquired.
?Yes, but I?ll only ask, I won?t order. This is volunteer work only. I want that understood perfectly.? There were nods of agreement all around the assembled mob seated at the meal tables before he continued. ?I?d like Reeabok and Crash to come with me.?
The Wookiee immediately whuffed an affirmative with an aggressive nod of her shaggy head. Shael?s arm tightened around me, and he didn?t give me a chance to answer for myself. ?Why Crash??
?She?s Lorrdian, Shael. You know that, I know that, everyone knows that, but not everyone understands the significance of that,? Roble explained patiently. The easy way the words rattled off his tongue was proof enough that he had rehearsed the answer more than once. Death knew Shael better than a brother. ?She can keep me apprized of their moods, whether they are tense or relaxed. She can help me get a feel for real intentions, and she?s got the best kriffing sabacc face I?ve ever run up against. She?s got skills I?ll need.?
?I?ll go, Boss,? I told him, before Shael could open his big mouth again. ?Protecto Boy here is just jealous of you.?
There was a hearty round of laughter at Shael?s expense after that, but he stopped protesting. He didn?t look happy about it, but at least he didn?t drag me off to one of the private rooms to try and talk me out of it. Maybe I?d managed to drum that message through his thick skull after all.
Roble was right, and Shael knew it. Not only could I do all that he had just said, but I could also read lips, too. Anybody within easy viewing range who was turned toward me while talking might as well shout because the only way to keep me from knowing every word would be to speak in some language I don?t know. Needless to say, it?s a talent that comes in handy more often than you might think.
Mason?s hands lifted over his head in a casual stretch as the others began rising from their seats and spreading out to their various tasks. Then his hands moved, and I had to fight to keep a grimace off my face at his atrocious and awkward grammar.
An eye to be keeping on all things meeting while at. Attend I cannot, but will need knowledge I.
Relax. I?ve got Death?s back, I won?t be missing anything, I replied when he stood smoothly and turned enough to see the motions. And your grammar?s pathetic.
Heaven was rather nicely named. I?ve never seen so much luxury crammed into that much space. Everything was plush and cushioned and covered in white bantha leather or raw Alderaani silk. There was carpeting! The floor and walls were all a soft, bluish-grey. The tables were all actual glass with silver-chased durasteel supporting them. There were filmy sheets of white, gauzy fabric hanging from the ceiling that served to muffle noises and conversations and give a close, cloudy feel to the atmosphere. It was the weirdest place I?d ever been.
It took me a minute to figure out that all I could see was seating arrangements. There were no beds, no maintenance bay, no ?freshers, no kitchen. Finally my eyes picked out well camouflaged doors to other areas. They had enough space and money to spare to put up walls to separate the various parts of their home pad.
The rewards of successful drug traffic stared me in the face, but instead of jealousy, all I felt was disgust. The Horsemen didn?t have much, but what we did have hadn?t been earned off the misery of others and I was proud of that. I liked the closeness that we had because there were no walls to keep us apart. There were no secrets, well almost none, within our ranks.
Right then, every inch of Heaven was packed with sentient beings. The Hell Hounds had their three, a couple of Humans and a Rodian. The Wild Cards were gathered around a table with two gullible Angels who were getting taken for all they had. The Sithspawn in black and red, the Knights in deep blue, the Speed Demons in green and orange, the Imperium in purple, the Cloud Reapers in light blue and white, even a few of the gangs too small to have real territory of their own had their representatives there.
In all that crowd, only the Angels were not leashed tightly to their fellows by strings of distrust and paranoia. Death, Reeabok and I entered the room in a tight trio. The Wookiee?s eyes scanned everyone in the room. No one was supposed to have weapons, and we?d submitted to a scan when we arrived to ensure it, but weapons came in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Reeabok?s size and strength would go a long way toward keeping us safe. My unique skills and the knowledge I could gather with them could certainly qualify as another weapon. And keeping that in mind, there really wasn?t anyone in that room who was unarmed, but some of us were definitely closer to the top of the firepower pile than others.
I immediately determined the reason for the extra white and gold sprinkling the room. It was their home base, of course they were going to have more muscle around than anyone else. Not only that, but I picked out more than one concealed blaster hidden under riding leathers. Velocity was taking no chances.
Mindful of my task here, I scanned each small grouping. The Cards were casual, calm, unconcerned, their focus on the game they were playing. The Demons and the Imperium, the two gangs caught squarely in the middle of the sector, were tense and edgy. They stayed even closer together than the rest of the groups, even the tiny gangs. Everyone was curious, everyone except the Cards was impatient for things to begin now that the last of us had arrived.
Roble whispered something to Reeabok, as my eyes raked across the room again. There was something here I was missing, and I refused to keep missing it. There. It was an Angel, sitting quite casually on the corner of one couch. He was giving the whole room the same once over that I was. He was handsome in a hard, dangerous sort of way, his longish dark blond hair and green eyes shown off nicely by the white and gold of his leathers. Something about him, maybe it was the set of his shoulders, or the slightest of creases between his brows, or the calculating look in his eyes, had my nerves singing out a warning. When his gaze passed over me, I kept every muscle relaxed and smiled flirtatiously at him. His stare lingered for a moment, a minute twitching of muscles at the corner of his mouth betraying his desire to smile back, and I made a slight kissing motion at him before turning away to attend to something Death had just said to me. I kept close watch on him out of the corner of my eye, but he moved on, unconcerned. I could almost read the thoughts right out of his mind.
Wookiee- dangerous, Death- dangerous, Death?s soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend- cute, not a threat.
?I said, are you seeing anything I need to know?? Roble repeated.
?Yeah, there?s someone here who?s doing the same thing I am, just not as well,? I told him.
His eyes narrowed. ?Who??
?I?ll only tell you that it?s an Angel. Anything more might make you look at him. I don?t want to tip him off.?
Death sighed. ?Okay, fine. Anything else??
?Yeah, I need you to act jealous of me,? I told him calmly, a coy smile twisting my lips as I slipped up closer to him and rested one hand on his chest while the other ruffled at his hair. ?I?m going to flirt like it?s going out of style and I need you to growl and huff and scowl as if you were Shael.?
?What are you planning, girl?? he asked me suspiciously. Reeabok ignored us as if this was something she saw all the time and was mildly annoyed by it.
?I?ll be a lot less noticed if I?m your girlfriend, rather than your assistant,? I purred. ?And if you look carefully, you?ll see I?m not the only girlfriend here.? My finger drew idle circles on his chest and I pouted just a little. ?I?m just going to be the most obvious one.?
Roble sighed in exasperation and nodded, then snaked his arm around my waist and hauled me up securely to his side. Then we all moved farther into the room and took possession of an over-padded arm chair. Roble was the only one who actually sat on it. He lounged comfortably and I perched on the arm next to him while Reeabok stood behind us with her formidable arms folded over her broad chest and did her best to look mean and ready for trouble.
I smiled and winked at four or five of the best looking beings in the room and kept my eyes peeled for potential problems. I flirted. I batted my eyelashes and smiled and made kissy faces and winked in the most revolting manner. And Roble scowled and glared bloody murder at anyone I made eye contact with. It was the sort of scowling that I would imagine entropy would give to engineering types who dared to put the universe in some sort of order. The only thing that spoiled it was the faintest tinge of big brotherness that lurked around the edges.
When Velocity strutted in, I frowned, then pointedly turned my shoulder towards her and engaged Roble in conversation. She sneered back at me, convinced that she had no worthy competition when it came to beauty, and strolled casually over to where Mr. Dangerous was still keeping an eye on things.
It clicked into place for me as they talked briefly to each other. He must have been her newest right-hand man. She went through them fairly quickly, since she usually only put her current lover in that position, and she tended to get bored with them after a couple of months. This one, rumor had it, had lasted for over six months already, and was looking to spend at least a few more in the coveted post.
In the short time they stood there, I read the whole relationship from their postures. She liked him a whole lot, though I don?t think she could have actually loved anyone other than herself. She thought he was completely devoted to her. He could have cared less. He was only in this for the power he now had, and was planning on getting more.
The user was getting used this time. Served her right. I giggled at something Roble said and focused my eyes on their lips.
?I can?t believe he brought that-?
?She?s not a lieutenant, that?s all we stipulated.?
?She?s their slicer, Jayek!? I almost sniggered. That was my least important skill, for the moment anyway.
?We?ll just keep her away from any computers, then. Besides, she appears to be spending all her energy on looking for a new boy-toy.?
I focused my eyes on the continuing saga of sabacc and lost creds, pasting a calculating, interested expression on my face, and missed her reply, if she made one. When I glanced back, Jayek was speaking again.
?... the plan. We need to keep our focus and not get thrown by little things that aren?t really problems. This gesture is what will clinch it for us. Stick to the script and we?ll be the only ones left standing at the end.? His face, his body, he used them both to force her to believe him, and she did. I couldn?t help but be impressed. Nodding reluctantly, Velocity turned away and strode to the center of the room.
I had been right. Velocity was in this up to her penciled eyebrows. The Angels had to be behind the sudden fighting. Now, if I could only manage to figure out how she was fingering the cops ... I?d win some serious points with them if I could tell the cops how to keep their undercover agents alive around Velocity.
?Welcome to Heaven.? Velocity?s voice would have rung out through the room if it weren?t for the sound dampening effects of the carpeting, ?clouds? and a lot of people. As it was, she had to be happy with getting everyone?s attention. ?We?ve invited you all here to begin working towards a truce, a cease-fire. There have been too many deaths and too much violence in the past couple of months. The people are getting restless and worried, and the cops are starting to crack down on any gang activity. We need to work together to keep things from getting worse.?
Wolf, leader of the Hell Hounds, snarled and looked pointedly at the Speed Demon representatives. ?We were doing just fine until someone hit us hard in the southern range and tried to edge us out of the street sales there.?
I called up the rainbow map in my mind and noted the starting skirmish. Trapper had told me three known street dealers had been found blasted to rags with a fine dusting of spice in their pockets. The cops hadn?t been able to pin it on any one gang, but everyone figured it had been the Demons.
Velocity held up her hands for silence even as angry accusations, threats and counter-threats erupted all across the room. Only Death remained silent. ?Please, this solves nothing, gains us nothing.?
I stood and wound my way around the room, stopping next to Mr. Dangerous. I waited, pouting a little when it took him a while to finally turn and acknowledge me. I looked up at him from under dark eyelashes and smiled in an inviting manner. ?Could you point me toward the nearest ?fresher? I need to ... powder my nose.?
Jayek didn?t look impressed, but he didn?t brush me off either. I could read the conflict clearly in his eyes. He wanted to stay and read the room as best he could, but he also didn?t want to let me out of his sight if I was going to be out of the carefully prepared meeting room. There wasn?t a single computer terminal anywhere in the room. He was suspicious that maybe Roble had sent me on this trip specifically to try and get into their system.
I didn?t care. The cops would all probably give their first born children and a year?s salary for the drug trafficking records that were sure to be stored there, but I knew what I wanted wouldn?t be there, so I just didn?t care. What I wanted was a glance at the faces of the other Angels.
Finally he made a decision and signaled for one of the low-brows to come escort me to the refresher and back. Jayek gave him specific instructions, that he was careful to make sure I couldn?t hear, to keep me far away from the computers.
I glanced over my shoulder on the way out and caught Roble?s unhappy scowl. It was very authentic looking, probably because it was real. Big brother scowls often look a lot like jealous boyfriend scowls.
Outside the meeting room there was an actual hallway --talk about wasted space-- and the light airy theme continued right down the entire length. The low-brow thug guiding me led the way down to the third door on the right and stationed himself there, waiting. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes and batted them at him instead before pushing through the door.
This wasn?t working the way it should. There would have been a large open space where all the others lounged at their ease, or waited for their leader?s command. Instead they closed themselves off, put themselves in little boxes called rooms. I was going to have to work a little to get to see any of the others.
Leaning against one wall, I brought to mind the sparse description of the men Shael and Trapper had seen when they were attacked. Within my mind I created a vague picture and kept it at the front of my thoughts so that I could lay it over anyone I saw, to compare. Maybe I could find one of them and confirm my theories beyond any doubt.
Leaving the ?fresher, I trailed a finger across the chest of my guard. ?We don?t have to go back right away, do we?? I asked with a pouty little smile. Much as I detest women who act the way I was at that moment, I knew it was important, and I?ve witnessed enough of the nauseating behavior to mimic it perfectly. ?I thought that maybe you could introduce me to a few of your friends.?
?Umm.? It wasn?t a very intelligent response, but that?s what I?d been hoping for. He was rapidly checking over his orders and finding that my request in no way violated them, provided he kept me away from any computers. ?Sure, the guys wouldn?t mind a little company, I guess.?
I tilted my head and smiled in a pleased way, then let him lead me farther along the hallway. The door he opened at the very end of the hall lead into the wide, open room I had been looking for. It appeared to be some kind of games room, for there were old-fashioned wooden billiards tables, sabacc tables, and other things that I couldn?t easily identify. My eyes flicked from face to face as everyone turned toward me and the opening door. I kept a smile curling my lips and waved a greeting to all and sundry as I continued to check faces against the mental image I had created from Shael?s description.
A few of them scowled at the colors I was wearing, but the man beside me gestured when he thought I wasn?t paying attention, and no few of the expressions eased into curiosity. ?Boys, this is ...?
?Crash,? I supplied for him.
?Crash. She wanted to meet a few of my friends.? His tone was loaded with innuendo, and my expression and body language weren?t doing anything to discourage them from that notion. I moved among the group, winking here, pouting there, trailing fingers along arms and shoulders. When I was done, the required chatting over with, when I?d compared every face in the room with my mental picture, I excused myself.
?Death will be wondering where I?m at,? I cooed. ?I really should go back to the meeting.?
?Then, follow me, Crash.?
?I could show her back for you.?
?I?d be happy to do it.?
?It?s my job, Jayek told me to keep careful watch over her.? There was considerable grumbling over this, but everyone backed down. This was an important detail. Jayek had just as much real power with the gang at large as he did with Velocity. Maybe more.
Back at the meeting things were going just as I had guessed they would. Nowhere. Different gangs were still shouting at each other. Accusations and threats were flying faster than the swoops parked in the garage. Several beings were on their feet, trying to give their words more weight. I slipped through the crowd and posted myself back at Roble?s side. Jayek watched me move across the room, and my escort nodded to him when he raised a questioning eyebrow. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that he never once even tried to signal to Velocity.
Jayek had an agenda that Velocity wasn?t a part of, I was suddenly quite certain of that. But how did that factor in with all the rest? Did it? I desperately wished for a brief moment that Mason was there with me. My Jedi would have been able to figure it out and tell me what was going on.
Jayek?s eyes swung toward me suddenly, his gaze tight and suspicious. I forced my body into a state of light tension, to reflect the mood of the room. My face held an expression of mild worry and I reached out one hand to Roble as if seeking safety. Jayek?s gaze never wavered as he took it all in, his mind ticking over. He wasn?t buying it, but I couldn?t understand why. I was doing everything perfectly. I was expressing concern, mild fearfulness, and a desire to flirt a little more with all my body. He should have been lapping it up like a feline with a bowl of rich cream. It made me more than a little nervous.
I tried to ignore Jayek and his burning stare, but it wasn?t easy. He brushed at some imaginary dirt on his shoulder and Velocity materialized by his side. Coming to his beck and call now, are we?
?She?s up to something, ?Locity. How long have you known her? Could she be a cop??
Velocity issued a low, sneering laugh. ?Not a chance. She?s been a Horseman since it was legal for her to be out of school.?
Jayek?s expression was urgent, intense, but Velocity was never the most perceptive person I had known. ?Could she be an informant then? Or could we at least make people believe that she is??
?Jayek, no.? Velocity?s classically beautiful face screwed itself up in confusion. ?Everyone knows her. The cops are a useful tool to her, but she?d never actually work for them. No one would believe it if we accused her.?
Mr. Dangerous grabbed her shoulder and pulled the raven-haired woman away, farther from anyone who could hear, and unfortunately turned them so that his back was to me and Velocity was hidden from my gaze by his body. I wasn?t going to get anymore of that conversation, but it had answered an important question. Velocity wasn?t the one fingering the cops. Jayek was, and she was taking the credit.
Beside me Roble stirred, dragging my attention back to the rest of the room. ?I take it you were up to something, leaving the room like that??
?Yeah,? I murmured back, ?I managed to get a look at a bunch of the other Angels. Shael gave me a pretty good description of the men that took those potshots at him and Trapper. Not a one of them is even a partial match.?
?Is there a possibility that you just didn?t see them all??
?What?s the current Angel population?? I slipped off the arm of the chair and into his lap, one finger tracing the curve of his ear.
He chuckled at me, a resigned look on his face. He was embarrassed that someone he considered his little sister was acting this way around him, but he played his part and wrapped his arms around my waist. ?At last guess, we estimated that they out numbered us by about half again as many,? Roble reminded me.
?So ninety to a hundred of them?? I cooed. Roble just smiled and nodded, glancing over my shoulder to see if the meeting was going to go anywhere serious in the next few minutes. ?Then with the ones in here and the number I ran into out there, unless all five of them are hiding out and keeping strictly to themselves, the odds are pretty slim that I wouldn?t have seen at least one of them.?
?What are you saying??
?I?m not sure, but I don?t think it was the Angels that hit us that day.?
Roble jolted, but relaxed almost immediately when I gave him a warning pinch. ?The Angels are the only ones we aren?t on great terms with, Crash. They?re the only ones who would have hit us. They?re still grouchy about that three by seven block area we snatched from under them a while back.?
?I?m just telling you what I saw and didn?t see.?
?What about weapons??
I leaned forward and whispered in his ear. I hoped he had the sense to twist his lips into a pleased smile. ?Armed to the teeth, Boss. They had a table full of heavy blasters, a scattering of light ones and a half dozen carbines. I saw an open box of grenades, and the hint of two more under a tarp in the corner.?
Roble whistled low and I sat up quickly to hide his expression from anyone who might have been looking our way. ?Watch it,? I warned him.
?Sorry,? he whispered back, awkwardly reaching up a hand to caress the side of my face. ?I?m getting a very bad feeling about all this. Get ready to leave. I don?t think anything good is going to come out of this.?
Reeabok kept her eyes scanning restlessly, tirelessly across the assembled crowd. I?d taken a short moment to point out the Angels in the room who had blasters for sure and she no longer had her powerful arms folded across her chest. Her hands rested lightly on the back of the chair Roble and I sat in, ready to instantly jerk us backward out of any line of fire.
As soon as the conference in the corner ended Velocity strutted back to the center of the room and sneered until the accusations and counter accusations, threats and counter threats, and plain old obscenities finally dropped away into silence.
?There is no reason why we should be fighting. The territories are well established. These strikes and skirmishes only make the problem worse.? She tossed her hair over her shoulder with calculated casualness. ?The only thing that changes is the number of people you know that are dead.?
?The Horsemen have no dead.? Roble?s bold, flat statement silenced even Velocity for a short time. Heads turned, optic sensory organs stared, and then angry mutterings started again.
?Death is right.? Velocity stepped right into the growing agitation and used it to her advantage. ?The Horsemen have no dead because they did not fly off half cocked. They didn?t retaliate and didn?t escalate the fight. They holed up in their home pad,? somehow she managed to make it sound smart and cowardly at the same time and I ached to pound her violet eyes out the back of her empty head, ?and laid low until the stupidity was over. They were the smart ones.?
Velocity had their undivided attention. I gave her that much, she was good at manipulating people. She paced slowly back and forth, keeping all eyes on her. She was riveting. My hand, wrapped around Roble?s neck and out of sight of anyone else, spoke quickly. Stroke-tap-tap-tap. Danger. Tap-tap-pause-ta-tap. Change course.
I felt, actually felt, his gaze burning my skin. When I snuck a quick look over my shoulder Mr. Dangerous was boring holes through me with his eyes. Not Roble, not Reeabok, but me and a chill of fear slithered down my spine. This man was more than just dangerous. He was deadly.
?We are only weakening ourselves. We are making the cops stronger. We are making competitors, streeters and runners, stronger. This cannot continue.?
?And just what did you have in mind, Velocity?? Roble?s tone, his whole demeanor was beautiful. I could have kissed him. It was disdainful and mocking and bored sounding, with mildly amused curiosity peeking around the corners. It was just what was needed to throw her off stride, break the spell, if only marginally. Of course, that?s why he was Death, and not me.
Velocity managed to not sputter. She opened her mouth, paused for the merest moment, then pressed on, but not as smoothly as she had no doubt planned it. ?We need a cease-fire.?
?But that?s sorta what we got right now,? Bobby drawled insolently, drafting off Death?s lead. ?Ain?t none of us shooting at the others right now.?
?That?s not the point,? Velocity argued, rather desperately.
?That the point is exactly,? a Krikteri in green and orange countered through his translator module.
?There is nothing solid, nothing binding-?
?And you honestly think you could bind any of us?? the leader of the Imperium, Treggor I think his name was, pointed out snidely. ?We would not be constrained by writing on a page, or vows to such as you. We are too strong for that.?
That started an avalanche. Hands waved in negative gestures while everyone began denying the need to even discuss the problem of the fighting. Every ?assistant? was loudly backing up their leader. It was all I could do to keep from grinning. Velocity kept shooting lethal looks at myself and Roble, who had remained completely silent after his disruptive outburst. Whatever her plans had been, he had knocked them right out of the sky and they weren?t about to regain stable flight anytime in the near future.
?Ve are leavink,? a Reaper declared. ?Zhere is no point to zhis.?
?Wait,? Velocity demanded, but her words were ignored completely. I shot a quick glance back at Jayek and it didn?t take a Lorrdian to see that he was seething. His eyes were narrowed to slits, his nostrils were flared and his whole face had a pinched, tight look about it. And from where his gaze landed I could see who he blamed. Velocity, and me. He regained control almost instantly, his face smoothing out into his normal intense calm. But I had seen it, and I knew that this was not a man to get on the bad side of.
Death jerked his head and we stood swiftly, each circling the chair a different direction so as not to slow the other. With Reeabok watching our backs, Death and me, we walked straight for the door. Behind us feet scuffed the floor as everyone else rose to follow us. There was a snarl of frustration and a panicked command and a blaster bolt slammed into the wall, only inches from the door jamb.
I was already throwing myself to the floor, rather gracelessly I might add, when Roble slammed into me from the side and carried me the rest of the way down, using his own body to shield me from any other bolts that may have been aimed our way. I saw, when I managed to get a peek around Roble?s brawny shoulder, that Reeabok had spun and tossed the being nearest her straight at the Angel who had fired. After that there wasn?t much need for us to be concerned since everyone else in the room had drawn a weapon of some sort. Shivs, daggers, brass knuckles, black jacks, even a few slug throwers, all unpowered and thus hard to scan for, appeared and began to vigorously defend their wielders by wreaking mayhem and inflicting damage on those around them.
Most of the violence was aimed at the Angels that had suddenly sprouted blasters.
The three of us took shelter behind an overturned couch and Roble immediately reached for his boots and pulled out something that looked suspiciously like a blaster barrel. Of course, that?s exactly what it was. With swift efficiency, the three of us assembled the parts we had smuggled in. Last of all, I pulled the energy cell from my datapad to power the weapon with. Since it was a simple, non-dangerous datapad, I?d been allowed to bring it into the room with me. Ishtari had been the one to suggest that.
Red streaks of killing energy sizzled through the air over our heads, so we kept them down. The little energy cell didn?t have enough of a charge for more than a dozen shots, so Roble held his fire, waiting until he was sure of a hit, and made each shot count. After a few moments he jerked his head toward the door.
?We?ve got to get out of here before the reinforcements arrive,? he growled. ? ?Bok, grab Crash, we?re leaving.?
?Wait, I don?t need to be coddled-?
My words went unheeded as the Wookiee scooped me up effortlessly and cradled me close to her chest. She woofed her readiness, then she turned and pelted for the door while Roble, blaster in hand, covered our retreat.
We were the first ones to make it out and all the swoops sat waiting before us. As the last to arrive, our rides were the nearest to the exit of the garage and we legged it toward them. Or rather, Reeabok and Roble did. I was still being carried like a child too small to care for itself. A movement caught my eye and I shouted a warning before the first stab of red reached out toward us.
There were now angry Angels between us and our swoops.
We hit the deck behind a small cargo speeder and turned the air blue with some choice words. There was only three of them, but the odds of us getting at them before someone else came out of the meeting room behind us were getting longer and longer. Death popped up and fired off a shot, forcing them to duck back. I watched him carefully, his stance, his motions, his face and expression, then I began to creep sideways away from him. Reeabok wriggled forward on her belly, heading the opposite direction I was.
I was just praying that one of those guys out there didn?t hit upon the bright idea of sabotaging our rides. Roble and I could ?borrow? just about any of the others parked around us, but our Wookiee companion needed her extra large swoop. She just wouldn?t fit on anything else.
Scrambling from cover to cover, hoping desperately that the Angels wouldn?t spot me, I moved closer to them and farther from Roble. Every time he darted up to take a shot at them I counted. He didn?t have a whole lot of shots left before the power source fizzled out on him. Reeabok and I needed to hurry.
Finally, I was satisfied that I was far enough away to give Roble a fighting chance, so I brought my feet underneath me, knees bent, and took a few deep breaths. Shael was going to kill me for doing this. Of course, if it didn?t work he wouldn?t get the chance.
I jolted up, my hand coming up as if holding a blaster, my head tilted slightly, my eyes squinting a bit to aim properly, just as I had seen Death do. Instantly two of the three swung their weapons in my direction and fear froze my muscles. Roble shouted, rising to snap off two careful shots, but the words didn?t register. Farther away, and much closer to the Angels, Reeabok roared out a Wookiee obscenity and charged. The men had suddenly too many targets and didn?t know what to do.
Reeabok?s cry shocked me into motion and I dropped back down just in time to feel a searing bolt of red death slice through the air above me. There were fearful, agonized screams coming from the Angels and I could hear Roble?s blaster fire twice more before falling silent. The sudden lack of sound was so loud that I could hardly stand it. My nerves were tangled and twitching, imagining all sorts of horrible outcomes for our near-suicidal actions.
Just when I thought I could handle it no longer, when I thought I would break down and cry in the middle of Heaven?s garage, Roble?s voice cut through the silent roaring in my ears, and I?d never heard a more welcome sound in my life.
?Crash, you get your butt over here this instant!?
I scrambled up and stumbled through the maze of vehicles to where Death and Reeabok were starting up their rides. Roble spared a single moment to fix me with a savage stare as I approached. ?If you ever do anything like that again Shael won?t get the chance to flay you alive. I?ll do it myself!?
I nodded jerkily and snatched up my helmet, my hands shaking with the effects of adrenaline overload. I kept my eyes carefully away from the still forms that were heaped on the floor nearby, and I threw myself onto the swoop behind Roble. I struggled into my helmet, fastening it tightly as we eased through the partially open doors and out into the welcome sunlight.
As soon as we were well and truly on our way, with no pursuit in sight, and within range of Armageddon, Roble was burning up the airwaves with comm traffic. I didn?t even mind when Shael roared out his demand that I be returned to him that very instant so that he could personally verify that I had taken no damage during the fight. I was just way too glad that we had all gotten out of there safely. I only managed one whimpery ?I?m fine?, and spent all the rest of my energy clutching to Death, my helmeted face pressed close against his back, and cursing myself roundly for ever wanting a little more adventure in my life.
Adventure was for masochists!
We shot through the skies at speeds we?d normally use only when chased by the cops, dodging the other vehicles with only the thinnest of safety margins. We were all thinking about that meeting and the way it had ended. Gang relations were going to be at an all time low after this. Anybody else who managed to escape was going to go straight home and report that the Angels had laid a trap. Personally, I didn?t give them a very long life expectancy, especially if the other gangs could shelve their own issues long enough to team up against the Angels.
I made a small mental note to think long and hard about everything I had seen and heard while at that meeting. It could prove to help unravel the whole mystery. But that would wait, I couldn?t manage to hang on to an entire thought long enough to get all the way to the end of it just then.
Roble threaded the needle into Armageddon?s garage and we were surrounded before the swoop had come to a complete stop. Strong arms pulled me from the swoop and hustled me through the crowd that mobbed around Death and Reeabok clamoring for more details.
Shael sat me on his bunk and eased my helmet off while his little brother lurked in the background, hovering protectively. He pushed my jacket back off my shoulders so that he could run his hands down my arms and body to assure himself that I hadn?t really been hit by a stray shot. It was only then that I realized I hadn?t sealed up my jacket before jumping on Roble?s ride. With a sound that was half whimper and half sob, I threw myself into Shael?s arms, desperate to be held, to be comforted. We?re alright! All of us. Oh, but what if ... I couldn?t complete the thought. The possibilities were too terrible to think about.
Shael clutched me tightly to him and rocked me gently back and forth while I cried into his shoulder. I cried myself out and then just leaned against him, sniffing and reveling in the strength and safety of his arms. His hand stroked slowly over my hair and he was warm and comforting.
?You?re safe, Chen. You?re home and you?re safe,? he murmured to me over and over again. I was vaguely aware that people came and went and that Shael chased them off. Famine?s voice was the most recognizable.
?Some stunt there, Crash,? he congratulated me. I wasn?t in the mood to accept it and Shael definitely wasn?t in the mood to have people encouraging me to do stupid things.
?Beat it, Souther!? I remembered it mostly because it startled me when Shael called Famine by his real name. I didn?t think I?d heard it in several years. Judging by the look on his face as he walked away, neither had Famine.
I guess I fell asleep in Shael?s arms because the next thing I knew most of the lights were down and Shael was snoring softly. He was leaning against the headboard of his bunk and I was leaning up against him. A blanket had been pulled up over us, probably by our collective mother, Nash. The dark lumps on the floor were difficult to identify at first, but when one of them rolled over and scratched at his chest I recognized that the triplets had fallen asleep on the floor around us, in a lazy sort of guard duty.
Very, very gently, I eased out of Shael?s embrace and glided across the floor. I?d have been happily content to stay right where I had been, except that my stomach was quite certain it was being ignored and was pulling out all the stops to get my attention. Since the rumblings were becoming disturbingly loud, I crept into the kitchen and pilfered a small gundark and cheese sandwich and a glass of nerf milk.
Taking my grub, I headed for the tables, looking forward to basking in the quiet sounds of my whole family sleeping, safe and alive. Well, almost my whole family. Nash was up and around doing Force only knew what, and I nearly tripped over Mason on my way to the nearest table. He probably thought that he would be out of the way, since most everyone was asleep and he wasn?t in the path from the bunks to the ?freshers. He just happened to be right in the line of travel from the kitchen to the tables, though.
Meditating, no less.
?Sorry,? I whispered hurriedly while trying to balance my plate and cup.
Mason unfolded his long length and rose with smooth and thoughtless grace. He reached out a hand and took my plate from me, his other hand coming gently against my back to guide me to the nearest table. ?Are you feeling any better?? he asked softly.
?Yeah. What were you doing?? I questioned as he pulled out a chair for me. ?If anybody sees you meditating you?re going to start people wondering.?
?The only one awake was the Trianii, Nashraak.? He managed to even include the rumbling growl in the proper pronunciation of the feline?s name. ?And she is unlikely to mention it, as meditation is a fundamental component of her religion.?
?Is it?? I wondered, surprised. I hadn?t even known that Nash had a religion.
Mason smiled, his blue eyes dancing in the dim lighting, as he set my plate down in front of me. Even if I?d managed to keep my surprise out of my voice or off my face, he?d noticed. ?It is. Now eat, and don?t worry about me. This isn?t the first time I?ve been in a tricky situation.?
I frowned at him, but did as I was told to silence the rumblings in my stomach. As I ate I stared vaguely into space, aware that beside me the Jedi had also zoned out, probably finishing what I had interrupted. My mind began a slow replay of the events of the day as I sat and chewed. The ride into Heaven, the garage, the meeting room, my impressions of those I?d seen and of the general emotional state of all involved. That conversation between Velocity and Jayek.
?I?m certain now that Velocity?s involved, but Jayek?s the one fingering the cops. I wonder how he does it?? I murmured to myself.
?What was that?? Mason asked.
I waved what was left of my sandwich and spoke around a mouthful. ?Jayek, Velocity?s lieutenant, is the one fingering the cops. I just wish I knew how he was doing it. I mean, he was glaring at me suspiciously through the whole thing, no matter how perfect my body language was.? I frowned sternly at the memory. ?He gives me the creeps.?
Mason?s attention sharpened considerably. ?Gives you the creeps? How??
I shrugged. ?It?s not anything specific. It?s just a feeling. Before you showed up, Ishtari was the only one who could tell if I wasn?t really feeling the way I looked like I was. It was kind of a shock. Anyway, this guy gave me kinda the same feeling, like he could see through me.? I shuddered. ?It?s just creepy. I mean it?s not like he?s a Jedi or anything.?
?How can you tell?? Mason asked me pointedly.
I smiled. ?You Jedi think you?re so hard to figure out. You all move with that effortless grace, like prowling cats. Must be the combat training. And then there?s the politeness, you are all so polished and smooth. Ishtari says that?s the diplomatic training you get.?
?Sounds like Ishtari says a lot,? Mason stated in a droll tone.
I smirked at him. ?Yup. And then there?s that self-control. You guys are so closed and so hard to read.?
?Even to you??
?Even to me, on occasion,? I qualified. ?The point is, he didn?t move like a Jedi, he didn?t sound like a Jedi, he wasn?t a Jedi. In fact, he?s not even a native here. I think he?s Thyferran, or maybe Calderan.?
?What makes you think that??
?Speech patterns, mannerisms, attitudes.? I brushed a stray lock of hair out of my face and pushed that last bite of sandwich into my mouth, then spoke around it. ?Down here in the shadows we see all kinds. I?ve seen aliens I don?t even have names for, and I?ve managed to meet just about every Human variant there is and I?ve learned to spot most of them.?
?So he?s not from Coruscant and he?s not a Jedi. What else can you tell me about this Jayek person??
?He?s ruthless. He wanted to try and convince people that I was working with the cops. I think he wanted to try and get me killed.? I shrugged it off casually, but Mason?s expression changed radically to one of anxiousness.
?Can he do it?? His voice was low and intense.
?No,? I scoffed. ?Most of the others wouldn?t believe him, too many of them know my story. And the Horsemen would all just laugh in his face, then punch it in, for saying something like that about me.?
Mason nodded slowly, but he still didn?t look happy. ?What else happened at the meeting??
?Well, everyone was pretty much wary of each other, but no one was looking to start a war.?
?Death said that there was a weapons search??
?Yeah, but just for blasters. And we even managed to smuggle one of those in. There were all sorts of knives and other things that the other gangs brought. Velocity started making talk like she wanted to form a gang union or some such silly thing. Roble shot smoking holes in her pretty speech, though. Jayek didn?t like that much.? I tilted my head to one side as I thought about it. ?I think maybe he was the one that wrote it for her. Anyway, I managed to get in the back area and took a look around. I didn?t see any of the faces Shael described for me from the attack on him and Trapper. Things sort of fell apart and people started to leave and Velocity blew her top. Then there was all sorts of blaster fire and people shouting and Death and Reeabok hustled me out of there.?
?And this story I heard about you nearly killing yourself?? he asked pointedly.
?No such thing. I just drew the attention of some shooters so that Roble and Reeabok could get them out of our way.? I shivered again at the memory of the frozen fear. ?But I won?t be doing it again any time real soon.?
?Shael will be only too happy to hear that, I?m sure.?
Mason rose and walked away with my dishes before I had a chance to think about taking them back to the kitchen. I shrugged. He was a Jedi after all. Instead of thinking up a proper way to remind him that he wasn?t supposed to be acting like a Jedi while he was with the Horsemen, my thoughts returned yet again to Jayek, like a canine chewing at a favorite bone. Something about the man bothered me greatly.
I?m not sure if it was the way he?d managed to usurp control of the Angels without Velocity realizing, or if it was the way they both thought that they were the ones in charge of the relationship. Maybe it was that I could see the danger in the route he was flying. He was underestimating Velocity. She?d clawed her way up to where she was at and would fight like a cornered womprat to stay there. As soon as she realized what had happened, Jayek was going to have a real fight on his hands.
Maybe that wasn?t such a bad idea. Provoking a fight between the two would at least keep them out of our hair for a while. And whoever eventually won, we?d have that many fewer problems in the end. The trick was that I hadn?t a clue how to convince Velocity that her right-hand man wasn?t dealing from the top of the deck. I discarded the idea and rose from the table. I was going to go back to sleep and I wasn?t going to think about any of this for at least six hours.
Crawling back into Shael?s arms, I cuddled up against his chest and listened to the steady beat of his heart. He was safe. I was safe. All was well for the moment. I could only pray to the Force that we would all stay that way.
There was nothing at all from the other gangs for the next couple of days. It was a brooding, dangerous silence, like the calm before a storm, or maybe the frightened lull after a bad one fearing worse to come, or so a few of the patrol riders told me. I didn?t get a chance to find out for myself. Shael hardly let me out of arm?s reach, and was always stroking his hands down my arms and hair, as if to reassure himself all over again that I was fine. I could see that Mason wanted to discuss the meeting a little more with me, but we couldn?t get a single second alone. He needn?t have worried about the details fading over time. I don?t think I?ll ever forget even the tiniest subtlety of expression from that room, or what I saw of the fight after it, for as long as I live.
And then there was something else to take our attention away from Velocity and her Angels. It had been coming for weeks, though with all the upset in routine and all the tensions it?s no wonder people sort of forgot until it finally arrived. When it did, though, not even the complete collapse of the Republic would have stopped it from happening. We had constant patrols scheduled for all day, but Roble changed them, turned them all into short shifts so that everyone who wanted to could watch or participate.
Every six months or so we?d hold the competition. It was all in fun, or so the men all claimed, but it did allow minor grudges and bruised egos a chance to even the score.
Everyone watched or fought. Shael, Bulldog, Famine, and the triplets always fought. Trapper always lounged on the sidelines and egged everyone on in his slow, lazy drawl. Ishtari, Reeabok and Nashraak would have fought, but women weren?t allowed. As the smallest being in the gang, I didn?t mind in the least. Unfair as the other women thought this, personally I could see why the men wouldn?t want a Wookiee, a Trianii, or an ex-Jedi joining the competition. I very much doubted that their fragile egos could have handled having all three of the top slots taken by women.
Without the women, who contented themselves with jeers and catcalls at the losers, Shael, Lyman, and Bulldog usually sorted the top slots among them. But this time, though hardly anyone knew it, there was a skifter in the sabacc deck.
When I saw his name on the list I put my spare credits back in my pillow case and stayed away from the betting table Plague was running. I could see right where that would lead. So could everyone else. Mason and Shael would end up in the ring together if their competitors had to throw fights to make it happen, though I very much doubted it would come to that. Everyone wanted to see who would win that one.
I ignored the good-natured ribbing thrown my way and refused to say which I favored in the fight: my man, or the man I was sponsoring, though Sloan was quite vocal in support of his brother. I just gave them all a small, knowing smile and hid my conflicting loyalties behind a pleasant expression.
Mason or Shael? Shael or Mason? I honestly couldn?t have made even a hesitant guess as to who would win. Mason had years of training and practice, with his smooth grace and the Force on his side. But Shael had grown up on the streets. There wasn?t a dirty fighting trick he didn?t know. And while Mason had been training Shael had been fighting, often for his life. Street smarts and instincts against polish and the Force.
Force preserve me, but I hadn?t a clue which way that fight would go or who I would truly be cheering for.
People rushed about, grabbing breakfast as they could, moving swoops to make room, setting up the ring, shuffling in and out on staggered patrols, and stopping by the betting table to lay odds on the opening rounds. Doc took the triplets aside and painted bright, different colored letters on their foreheads so that everyone could tell them apart. Their first year in the fights only one of them had entered and he had been doing spectacularly. No one caught on until one of the boys on the sidelines showed up with a rapidly blackening eye. Ever since we?ve flooded the chamber before that engine could start.
As ?impartial? referees and judges, ?Bok, Ishtari, and Nash shuffled the names into pairs and the pairs into a rough order. The order was always rough because Death reserved the right to step in and fight anyone he wanted at any time. The fight wouldn?t really be a part of the competition since Roble never fought more than once, but it did shake things up a bit and the schedules had to be more flexible than would be normal at these sorts of things.
Shael came by to collect a good luck kiss, several actually, and then headed off for his first fight and I stood on the side lines and watched. There were few surprises in the first round. Shael put Bait on the mat with cheerful efficiency, then helped him to his feet and shook his hand. Phyl, Gil, and Bil battered their way to victory with more strength and determination than skill. Mason made his win with apologetic grace and disgusting ease. Lyman, Bulldog, Famine, and half of the rest of the fighters made it into the second round.
Money changed hands, the new chart was made for the second round, odds were figured and bets laid. Roble circulated through the crowd, watching and having fun with the rest, but always keeping one eye on the commboard, ready for any signal a patrol might send in.
As Lyman stepped into the ring with Tri?est and the shouting and cheering started up again, Roble stepped up next to me on the sidelines. For a while we watched Lyman put his left jab and right hook to devastating use.
?You and Shael, you got all that worked out??
He nodded and fell silent again for a moment. ?And Cade??
He?s a friend, and I?m his sponsor.?
?Shael know that??
?Cade know that??
I laughed lightly and glanced up at Death with a wide smile. ?Yes, he knows it.?
?Good. I don?t want them killing each other.?
?I?ve already talked with ?Bok and Nash. They have instructions on when to pull them apart.?
?A step ahead of me, huh Crash??
?That?s why you pay me the big credits, Boss.?
Much to my delight, and that of the other females in the gang, shirts and tunics had been stripped off long ago. If I had been a single woman, I would have been positively drooling over the impressively bare chests to be seen in Armageddon. The predictable two stood out among the rest, though for different reasons. Shael, bronzed and bulging, his muscles pumped from exertion and glistening with a sheen of sweat would have had me stalking Ishtari with mayhem in mind if I?d thought she was remotely interested in anything other than a good, long look. But she was practically licking her lips as her eyes followed Mason?s broad-shouldered, lean-muscled form. With men like that around on a daily basis it?s a wonder she left the Jedi Order. Force knew I'd have had a hard time making that decision.
As the fights went on, Shael, Mason, Lyman, and Bulldog slugged, clubbed, danced, battered, wrestled and fought their way through the rounds until they were all that was left. The gleam in Ishtari?s eye and her steady grin told anyone who cared to look that the judges were doing everything they could to make the final rounds as exciting as they could.
?Death,? Lyman shouted from the ringside as soon as Bulldog finished off Phyl, ?You haven?t fought yet. Care to take a shot at one of us??
Roble waved the question away as heads turned to catch his answer. ?A little sport and a lot of sweat I don?t mind, but I don?t have a death wish,? he shouted back over the encouraging cheers. His words were met with a roar of approval and laughter.
?Fifteen minute break before the next fight,? Ishtari announced and the crowd around the ring evaporated. Most headed toward Plague?s betting table to see if they could lay credits on who the judges would pair together for the next fight. Some headed for the kitchens for a snack.
Shael found an area clear of people over near the bunks and flopped out on the floor, letting the cold permacrete leech some of the heat from his body. I knelt next to his head and used the tip of my braid to tickle his nose. I could already see several bruises blooming under his skin. His dark eyes popped open, and with a lightning quick move, he grabbed the braid. He tugged, hand over hand, and used it to pull me closer until we were almost eye to nose, upside-down.
?So, who are you betting on?? he asked, staring rather fixedly at my lips.
?I?m not. Seemed safer that way.?
?Betting on your boyfriend is always safe.?
?For your ego maybe.? I pressed a quick kiss to his forehead. ?You forget, I?ve seen both of you fight now. I?ve half a mind to make sure Doc?s close at hand to revive what?s left of you two when the fight?s over.?
?I?m not all that jealous of him anymore.?
?Still a little, though??
He shrugged. ?A little, but no more than I would be of time you spend with anyone else when you could be spending it with me.? He pulled me down for a real kiss, which we lingered over.
?Well,? I said when I had air of my own to speak with, ?jealous or not, you?re both men and you?re both competitive. That spells danger. Just don?t say I didn?t warn you if you?re too sore tonight for cuddling.?
?So what are my odds right now??
?Against Mason?? He nodded. ?I?m giving you a fifty-fifty chance. Plague?s giving you a very generous three to two and Mason?s getting five to three.?
?But the favorite to win always gets two to one odds,? he protested in surprise.
?And notice that neither of you got that? He did give Mason slightly longer odds than you got. I don?t think anyone?s got a clue which of you to really bet on. I?ve seen several chance cubes tossed in the last hour or so.?
Shael?s face twisted into a very male, pouting frown, so I kissed him again to make him feel better. ?Hey, relax. It?s not like I'm riding on the outcome of this fight.? A flash of chagrin told me I?d hit the target. So much for not being jealous. ?I love you, you silly man. Your muscles are nice, but they?re not why I love you,? I told him.
?Oh yeah?? he challenged, a playful smile hovering about his lips. ?Then come down here and prove it.?
?Knock it off you two. Some of us have eaten recently.? Ishtari?s voice was laced liberally with mock disgust.
?Find your own man,? I told her around a kiss, waving a hand for her to go away.
?I did, but you found him first, so I?ll have to see if I can?t lure Mason my way.?
I waved again. ?Fine ... be my guest ... he?s all yours.? Shael?s lips pulled into a grin under mine at those words, and his kisses became even more enthusiastic.
Knowing Ishtari, she probably smirked at us, but I couldn?t tell you for sure. ?Just make sure he gets enough air to fight again in a few minutes,? she warned me before striding away, her boot heels clicking on the permacrete.
A few minutes, and several kisses later, Nashraak?s rumbling voice cut through the other party sounds. ?Semi-final round,? she announced carefully, ?first fight will be Lyman and Cade.?
There was a general stampede for the ringside and by the time Shael and I arrived the crowd was already four people deep at the closest point. ?I can?t see a thing,? I complained loudly. Instantly the nearest two triplets had me up on a shoulder each, sitting comfortably between their heads, Gil standing behind us with a hand on my back to prevent a possible fall. Now I could see everything. Shael only shook his head and pushed his way through the throng to the ringside.
Mason waited in one corner, Lyman opposite him, while the judges pushed overeager watchers farther back. People who got too close to the ring had been known to get slugged. Accidentally, of course. Ishtari moved to stand behind one corner, Reeabok opposite her, and Nash perched atop a third, out of the way, but perfectly ready to step in should that be necessary.
?Begin,? she purred.
Lyman jolted out of his corner and leapt at Mason, but the Jedi side stepped left and bobbed his head, easily avoiding a powerhouse right. Lyman let the momentum of the swing bring him all the way around in a small circle, keeping Mason from dodging farther left and out into the center of the ring. Shorter, but bulkier than Mason, Lyman rushed forward, trying to pin the Jedi against the ropes, but Mason was just too fast to be caught that way and he dodged aside and away with only a glancing blow to his shoulder to show for it.
?Gotta be quicker than that, Lyman,? Ishtari jeered from her corner. She was seconded by a good many of the watchers. The shorter fighter growled, not at his opponent, but at the redheaded judge. ?If you?re gonna ... shoot off your mouth Red ... at least ... give me some ... useful advice.?
Lyman continued to try and force Mason to close with him, having seen that the Jedi liked to stay well out and fight from a distance, but he couldn?t keep up. True to Jedi form, or at least what I?d seen and heard of it from Ishtari, Mason danced and dodged, letting his opponent tire himself, though he took more than a couple stiff shots for his efforts. When the shorter man could no longer keep his guard up properly, Mason began attacking, punching, tripping. Finally, Lyman hit the mat and didn?t get back up right away. Nash slunk forward, her whiskers arched, and began counting. At eight Lyman made an effort to push himself up, but it came too late and he just didn?t have the energy left to finish the move.
?Mason Cade is the winner,? Nash declared. ?Clear the ring for Bulldog and Shael.?
Reeabok stepped into the ring and lifted Lyman over her shoulder. He protested, his dignity and pride trying to win out over exhaustion. She relented and put him on his feet, but only after stepping out of the ring.
Shael and Bulldog stepped into the ring together and went to their corners. This was the one fight that had the possibility of upsetting everyone?s plans, and Bulldog was just enough of a prankster to do it just to spite everyone else.
When Nash called out the start, both men came slowly out to the center and circled each other slowly, probing defenses and reactions with a few jabs and swings. I noticed Mason standing behind Reeabok, watching closely. He was going to be facing whoever won this fight in the final match, so I guess studying styles wasn?t a bad idea. I just wasn?t going to spare him a whole lot of attention. My man was in the ring.
Shael let another probing left jab dart out, and instead of pulling back again to check the reaction, he pounded forward with a low, wicked punch to Bulldog?s ribs. Bulldog responded with a grunt and a hurried swing for Shael?s head that missed. All around the ring cheers and shouted encouragements rose in volume. I winced in sympathy as Bulldog got a solid uppercut through Shael?s defenses, but my man repaid him with a knee to the ribs and a stiff shove that ruined his balance.
Circling again, the two men faced off. Shael didn?t let the lull last long. He stutter-stepped at Bulldog, who dodged back in reaction. Just as he realized his mistake and moved forward again, Shael lunged ahead with a brutal punch that met him coming in. Bulldog didn?t have a chance. It landed at the corner of his jaw and he was unconscious before he hit the mat.
?Don?t you think that was a little harsh?? Roble called as Doc scurried under the ropes to check and make sure Shael hadn?t dislocated Bulldog?s jaw.
?Naw. He?ll understand. I just didn?t want to waste too much energy on this round.?
I smiled and shook my head. Bulldog wasn?t going to be upset. In fact, he was most likely to practice that move for the next few months, trying to get it right so he could use it the next time the Fights came around. A movement that was neither cheering nor jeering caught my attention and I watched as Mason slipped off through the crowd. I could tell he had some rethinking to do. It hadn?t occurred to him that Shael might actually know some tactics.
There was a general rush for the betting table and Ishtari announced another fifteen minute break before the final bout. Shael simply flopped in the middle of the ring, calming his breathing, clearing his mind, and smiling up at me on my perch on Phyl and Bil?s shoulders. ?Gil, get her a muja and a sandwich. I haven?t seen her eat anything all afternoon.?
The gentle pressure on my back disappeared and I heard Gil?s steps hurry off toward the kitchen area. I made a face at Shael, but he only laced his fingers behind his head and closed his eyes with a self-satisfied smirk. He knew that the boys would make sure I actually ate it.
When Mason stepped into the ring his face was calm, serene. It was that expression you would see on most any Jedi who doesn?t want you to figure out what he?s feeling. I couldn?t decide if he was wary, confident, or just, well, there. His movements were loose, easy, but not cocky.
There was an expectant hush over the crowd as Nash raised her hand. Shael glanced over and tossed a wink my way. I wasn?t sure how to interpret it. Was it cockiness, or reassurance that this wasn?t vindictive on his part?
As soon as the single word hissed from between the Trianii?s pointed teeth, worrying about the matter became entirely pointless. For better or worse the fight had started and the Force only knew how it was going to turn out.
Mason danced forward toward the center of the ring from his corner, bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet. I think he was half expecting a rush like Lyman pulled. Instead Shael leaned back against the ropes in a deceptively negligent pose and waited, a little smirk on his face. The crowd erupted in cheers and laughter. Mason went with it, waving and bowing to the gang, a broad smile pulling at his normally calm expression. I saw him wink at Shael before turning to blow me a kiss. The gang whistled and hooted in response and it finally brought Shael out of his corner, but not in a rush. He too bounced lightly on his feet and jerked his head at Mason, as if to say, ?come on, let?s give them what they want.?
Roble sidled up next to me, or at least as close as he could get with the triplets holding me up the way they were. ?It really is worked out, isn?t it?? he asked as Mason ducked a punch and spun under it, delivering an elbow to the ribs.
?I told you it was.? Shael spun the opposite way and was there waiting with a short rabbit punch to the gut when Mason turned to set himself.
?But you weren?t really sure, were you?? Mason only partially blocked it, hopping backward with the blow to lessen the impact and lashed out with a kick that landed in Shael?s ribs.
?Nope.? The kick, not properly set, had little force behind it though, and Shael shrugged it off and bulled forward with two left jabs and a short hook that missed and turned into a full spin with an elbow smash that connected to Mason?s nose.
I winced in sympathy before replying, ?That?s what you get for doubting someone as perceptive, and intelligent, and beautiful as I am.? Mason danced away, one hand gingerly touching an obviously broken nose, while Shael bounced lightly in the center of the ring and accepted the rousing cheers of the crowd.
Roble chuckled. ?Must be.?
?Don?t let him get away with that, Cade!? Ishtari encouraged from her corner. Mason shifted his stance slightly and began to move back in as Shael set himself again.
?I thought judges were supposed to be impartial,? I called across the ring. Shael did a quick foot shuffle, hoping no doubt to set Mason up the way he did Bulldog, but the Jedi didn?t take the bait.
? ?Supposed to? being the operative terms,? the red head shouted back, a wide grin wreathing her face. Shael stepped in with a left right left combination. Mason blocked all three with his front arm and lanced a punch through his opponent?s defenses and Shael staggered back. Mason flowed forward smoothly, obviously getting into his rhythm. Jab, jab, punch, duck, backfist, knee. Shael blocked, ducked, accepted, countered with a fast swing, rolled with and jumped back to avoid.
Ishtari wasn?t the only one urging Mason on. More than a few wanted to see Shael lose his usual place at the top of the pile and saw this as the perfect opportunity. By that time the crowd was almost equally divided between the two fighters. When Bil shouted out something meant to spur Mason on, I whapped him sharply on the top of his head. In the thick of it, I guess I discovered who I was really rooting for, all my loud statements of neutrality aside.
Shael rebounded from the ropes and shot toward Mason with his right arm extended. Mason ducked the clothesline and spun rapidly to deliver an elbow to Shael?s ribs as he rocketed past. My man grunted in response and stuck a foot in the middle of the Jedi?s footwork, tripping him up and throwing him off balance. Shael launched a loose backfist that finished off Mason?s vertical hold. Mason fell into a roll, trying to come up on his feet, but he was too close to the ropes and tangled a foot, messing up his timing.
Shael took the opportunity to step back and take stock. A lump was rising on his cheek and his lower lip was split. He had a couple reddish spots on his shoulders and ribs that were going to become spectacular bruises in a few hours. He still looked like he had plenty of energy, though. I watched Mason make a similar check as he regained his feet. A little blood was smeared across his cheek and lips from his broken nose and he was going to be just as black and blue as Shael. Both men were breathing a little hard, but other than that, they looked like they could keep it up for the next hour or more.
Coming back toward each other, they circled again. Shael stutter-stepped and Mason hopped back. A few jabs were tossed in both directions, but nothing that really landed. Shael stutter-stepped and Mason hopped back again. A third time, Shael stutter-stepped at Mason, and a third time the Jedi hopped back. This time, though he came back forward almost immediately. I waited for Shael?s lunge and that finishing right cross and sure enough, Shael jumped forward. Mason, half way through his own forward motion, paused for a split second, obviously expecting the punch, but it didn?t come and whatever Mason had been planning was short circuited. Instead, Shael stepped across Mason?s body in the merest opening the Jedi?s pause had revealed. Coming around in a circle, Shael cupped his left fist in his right hand and powered his elbow right into Mason?s gut. Mason seemed to realize what was happening just before the blow landed and sucked in his stomach, bending over the strike and moving with the force to lessen it. A backward roll to a standing position brought him out of the immediate danger area before Shael could take advantage of his sudden upper hand.
Shael didn?t wait to let him get set again, though, and took the Jedi in a tackle dive. Both men bumped up against the ropes in a tangle of arms and legs. They didn?t stay there long. The furious ball of sweat and muscles and testosterone rolled across the ring as leverage shifted and fists and elbows rose and fell. I shifted on my shoulder-seat trying to see over the heads of the folks who had rushed to the side of the ring to get a better look.
Ishtari and Nash shot each other a glance that I hoped was a question about the looming possibility of breaking up the fight. The triplets moved forward, but not at the same pace, and I almost lost my seat. Wrapping my arms around Phyl?s head to keep my balance drew an unhappy mutter. Shael reared up suddenly, his fist cocked, but Mason bucked hard and Shael had to throw out a hand to maintain balance. Mason slithered out from under Shael and came to his feet. Shael stayed in a low three-point crouch, his legs tucked under him, one arm free, waiting for Mason?s move. Mason?s blue eyes scanned the situation, assessing risks and advantages, then moved forward.
Suddenly the alarm hooted out, cutting through the conflicting shouts of the crowd and brought instant silence. Roble was at the comm board just as Shael vaulted the ropes, Mason close behind him. Everyone else stayed right where they were at, waiting expectantly. Roble listened to the voice issuing from the earpiece he had hurriedly snatched up. The call ended and Death turned to face the gang, his expression grim.
?The patrol?s been ambushed.?
?Who did it??
?Was anyone hurt??
?Shut your yaps! I?ll tell what I just got told.? The crowd quieted somewhat, though there were still several muttered conversations going on here and there. Roble rubbed a hand across his face and sighed wearily. ?The patrol was just north of Kensing, east of the Loring Tower, when they were hit by another group of swoopriders. Bait says that there were no markings on either the rides or the riders. The patrol scattered, as per orders. Now we?re waiting for them to start reporting in. That?s all I know, so don?t bother asking for more.?
I scanned the crowd quickly. Who?s not here? I ticked faces off on a mental list. Bait, Cougar, Chaser, Marlo, Dez ... My heart seized and I gasped as I came up with one more. Sloan. I slid off Phyl?s shoulder, not helped much by his attempts to keep me from ?falling?, and ran to Shael?s side, my arms going around him automatically. His kid brother was out on that patrol.
I could see it in his face, in the line of his body, the tension in his muscles. Shael was scared, deep down, pit of your stomach scared. His dark eyes refused to focus on anything and he turned this way and that, as if to scan the assembled crowd for his brother, to discover that his fear was silly. But Sloan wasn?t there, and Shael, who had helped make the patrol schedules, knew it as well as I did.
Roble settled a hand on Shael?s nearest shoulder, offering what comfort he could. Mason did the same on his other side. The four of us didn?t move, but just stood there, waiting, hoping for that call to come in.
After a moment, I noticed the difference in temperature between my skin and Shael?s. He was coming down off his fight high and crashing hard with this news about the patrol to help. I flagged Ishtari down and gestured to her. The red head nodded and dashed off to get shirts for the two men with me. We pushed Shael down into a chair next to the comm board, got his shirt on him, and I sat in his lap, snuggling up against him. He clutched at me as if his life depended on it, but he had eyes only for the comm board and that dark incoming indicator.
And there was nothing more that we could do. We didn?t even know where Sloan was, so it wasn?t as if Shael or anyone else could go out looking for him or the others. Sloan and his fellow patrollers would call as soon as they had time. Until then, all we could do was wait and hope.
Bait, true to orders, had remote triggered the alarm system for Armageddon when he commed in. Roble had known that it would likely be the only thing that would get immediate attention, what with the Fights taking place. Each of the other patrollers would do the same as they commed in.
I pressed myself as close to Shael as I could, alternately hugging him and stroking his face, hair and chest in what I hoped was a reassuring manner. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mason hovering nearby. I knew he wanted to ask me about something, but I just didn?t have time for him then.
Talk to Ishtari, I signed to him. She knows what you are, and she won?t tell.
After a momentary hesitation he nodded ever so slightly and strode away, much to my relief. Ishtari could answer his questions about the other gangs or alarms or whatever it was he was stirred up about. I couldn?t leave Shael.
The alarm warbled the first couple of its high pitched notes, and we all jumped in reaction before Roble hit the override. He punched the receive button and spoke toward the mic as several others drifted silently closer to listen in.
?Patrol was hit and we scattered.? Marlo?s voice crackled out of the speaker. ?I?ve taken cover at location seven and will wait for nightfall to come in.?
?Right now, yeah. I?m worried though, Boss.?
Death?s hand gripped the edge of the board and his knuckles whitened, but that was the only outward sign he gave of any apprehension. ?Why??
?I was ridin? drag, and they hit us from the side, so I had a purty good view of things when we scattered. Boss, they split into threes and followed Bait, Dez, and Sloan. Whoever they was, they didn?t look like they was choosin? at random.?
Shael?s hands gripped me tightly and I tuned out the rest of the conversation. I focused only on him, my hand forcing him to turn and look at me.
?Shh. Sloan knows the streets of our territory as good as anyone else in the gang.,? I said.
?He?s just a kid,? he broke in sharply.
?Shh.? I pressed a kiss to his lips to keep him quiet. ?He?s not. Sloan?s twenty-four and he can take care of himself,? I corrected.
?He?s my brother!? Shael gritted out.
?Shh. I know. I know.? I stroked his cheek and pressed another kiss to the corner of his mouth. ?You?ve just got to believe that he?ll be okay.?
Shael wrapped me in a fierce hug and buried his face in my hair. ?Mom and pop made me promise,? he whispered, his voice husky with emotion. ?They made me promise that I?d take care of him.?
I was an only child, so I didn?t pretend to understand brothers and sisters and the way they seem to drive each other crazy while still loving deeply. All I could do to help was be there for him and let him hold me until Sloan came back. Or didn?t.
No, don?t think like that, it won?t help anyone.
I just held on to my man until the next alarm jolted us a third time and started the fears flowing all over again. Roble hit the cutoff before more than the first note of the alarm could do more than jangle our nerves.
?Patrol was hit, Boss. We scattered. I?m about a klick out and coming in hot,? Cougar warned, no hint of his usual smile in his tone. ?Make sure the door?s open.?
?You seen Chaser, Sloan or Dez??
?Chaser?s tight off my aft end, Boss. We met up at location eleven.?
?I hear you, door?s open.?
Instead of decreasing, Shael?s tension was winding higher and higher. The rule was that you shouldn?t use the comm if you think someone might be monitoring. We didn?t want anyone else figuring out what frequencies we used, though I have to admit the rule?s a bit on the paranoid side. It?s not like everyone on the planet knew we even had the helmet comms. It was Frank who figured out how to fit them in and between him and Tri?est the channels and switches had been hammered out so that anyone could get the hang of using them. In fact, not everyone had one yet, though the few Horsemen without were the ones that didn?t ever go on patrol.
The only reason I could think of that Sloan hadn?t reported in yet was that he was still being chased by those other riders. Or he was down. Don?t think like that! Sloan was just still being chased. He?d lose them and we?d hear from him and he?d come back safe and sound.
I slipped away from Shael only once while we waited there for his brother to comm in. I grabbed Mason and explained what I wanted and he accepted it silently and left to get it done while I grabbed some food and went back to my man. As soon as Roble was done talking to Cougar and Chaser, Mason pulled them aside and took them over to Ishtari. The woman was a superb fighter, rode like a Sith out of hell, and on top of that was a surprisingly skilled artist. I?d charged Mason with making sure that everyone who came in from the patrol talked to Ishtari about what they?d seen. She would draw up any faces that could be remembered.
Maybe Shael or Trapper would recognize one of them as the men who had ambushed them those weeks ago. If they did, I wasn?t sure what it would mean, but it would be one more piece of the puzzle that Mason and I could use to try and figure out just what was happening around us.
Shael didn?t particularly want to eat, but since I was pushing food in his mouth, the easiest thing for him to do was chew and swallow. I didn?t blame him. I didn?t particularly want to eat either, but it gave me something to pass the time, other than watching the commboard and biting my nails to the quick.
Dez checked in, reporting that he?d managed to lose his tails, after a dogged and relentless chase in the heavy evening traffic as normal people, people who had no clue that a war was being waged around them, hurried home from a long day?s work.
It was surprisingly easy not to be bitter about those people with normal jobs and normal lives. Sure, their world was more secure, safer than mine, especially now, but mine was alive. I soared with the eagles and chased the wind, I risked reputation and mainframe against glory and my family with every single slice I did. Even when my heart ached, my eyes stung with tears I wouldn?t let fall, and my gut felt hollow with denied fear, I knew I was alive. As a once popular song went: ?If you?re going to feel the pleasure, boy, you?re bound to feel the sting. I?d rather have it broken, broken, than to never feel a thing.? I gladly exchanged a life of same old, same old for moments that let me feel such strong emotions.
With great gain comes the possibility of great loss, but I wouldn?t trade it for anything. Except, at that very moment, Sloan?s life.
Darkness fell, Bait and Dez rocketed in and Marlo commed to let us know that he was on his way, and still no word from Sloan. Doc ended up slapping bacta patches on a couple of blaster burns, and old riding leathers were brought out to help patch up current sets. Roble, Shael and I were rarely more than a couple of paces away from the comm board. The triplets gladly brought us dinner there, but we ate very little of it.
When it happened, instead of the alarm, the triple note of the encoding warning warbled once and went silent. The two men were only half a step behind me as I snatched up a headset, plugged in, and brought up my decoding programs. An ID program spun through its routine and spat out the information it had before triggering the next program in line. Whoever was on the comm, and I was certain it was Sloan, wasn?t using one of the seven standard encryptions I?d set up for the gang, but one of the three emergency ones.
Roble inhaled to speak, but I held up a hand to stop him. I had a feeling that it was very important for us to keep as quiet as possible and I didn?t want him to say anything that might be picked up by his headset?s mic. Sure enough, a moment later a soft whisper hissed in our ear pieces. ?Crash??
?Sloan?? I whispered back, following his example. It wasn?t likely that anyone would be able to hear us through the sound dampening on the helmet, but if he was being careful there was probably a reason for it. ?Sloan, are you okay??
?Yeah, tell Shael I?m fine, but they?ve got me.?
?Who?s got you? Angels??
?Don?t know, never seen ?em before,? he replied. ?I spent all afternoon dodging ?em and trying to shake ?em, but they must have called in reinforcements ?cuz they finally managed to box me in.?
?Turn on your tracking pulse,? I instructed, fighting to keep my voice level and calm. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to get him and I didn?t like what that could mean.
?What if they notice?? A touch of healthy fear tinged his voice.
?We?ll risk that,? Death broke in. ?Turn it on. If you think they?ve stopped moving you, you can turn it off again in a couple of minutes.?
There was a muffled click and I began flicking switches on the board. ?Okay, we?ve got you, Sloan,? I assured him. ?Now, let us know what kind of building you?re in, entrances, exits, that sort of thing-?
Shh!? he whispered sharply, cutting me off. Then, the young man who might as well have been my own kid brother launched into a creative string of ear curling curses that seemed to cut off mid caustic description of someone?s probable parentage. Shael gave a blistering oath of his own and lunged forward, as if he could reach through the comm board and pull his brother back through it. I slapped a hand across his mouth to prevent any more loud outbursts and shouldered him aside. Turning up the gain on the comm, I also kicked in some filters. Seconds later I had him back.
?You?ll never get away with this, you pigeons.? Roble winced away upon hearing this. Sloan was about to get himself killed. Everyone knew that pigeons were just slow-flying sacks of sh- well, you get the idea. If you wanted to insult a swooper, that was the easiest way to accomplish it.
To my everlasting surprise, nothing happened.
?Let me go now and the Horsemen may let you leave with your pathetic rides in one piece.?
?Quiet, kid,? someone snarled back.
?Shut him up,? someone else commanded. ?And bring that helmet. His nibs thinks there might be comm gear in it.?
There were slight, distant sounds of struggle, and closer, a scuff of a boot, a scrape of duraplast on permacrete. After a tense moment, what I had feared most happened. ?Hey, there?s a light of some sort in here.? The voice was almost enough to deafen, since it was so much closer to the helmet?s mic. ?Boss, I think he was right, and I think this kid?s been talking to his crew.?
?Let me see that,? again distant and low. A slight whistle, probably from being tossed through the air. ?Could be. Did you hear anything??
?Give me your blade.?
A sharp, high-pitched hum announced the arrival of a vibroblade near the mic, a crackling hiss, and then nothing.
Again Shael scrabbled at the board, turning filters off and on, changing the gain across the spectrum, switching frequencies, anything that might possibly bring the signal back. But it was gone. Roble and me, we let him do what he wanted. He needed to expend the energy and frustration that I could see driving the muscles in his arms and back. I wanted to help him, to hurt for him so that he wouldn?t have to, but I couldn?t. When he was done venting at the electronics we would see what else was needed. For the moment, though, there was no reasoning with him.
I stood back, my arms wrapped tightly around myself, hands chafing at my arms. In a drifting moment?s thought, my mind brought up mental pictures of the three men deliberately singled out, and looking back it wasn?t hard to draw the lines and connect those dots. Dez and Bait were both about the same size and build as Sloan. He had been their target the whole time. Fear spiked through me, but I quashed it ruthlessly. I didn?t have time for it. Shael needed me still. I could let Shael and Roble do all the worrying for me.
Soon Shael?s desperation played itself out and he leaned, defeated and weary in mind and body, against the comm board. He closed his eyes and rocked slightly back and forth. Darting close, I hugged him tightly. ?He?s okay, Shael. They wouldn?t have gone to such trouble if they just wanted to kill him.?
?I?ll hunt them to the ends of the galaxy if they so much as bruise him.? Shael?s voice was low and menacing in a way I?d never heard before, the muscles under my hands tensing and jerking.
?We?ll get him back if we have to go to war,? Death told him softly. ?He?s my little brother, too.?
?And mine,? I echoed, still holding my man tightly.
Shael?s chest still heaved with deep, ragged breaths, but I could feel his muscles relaxing just a little under my hands as he accepted our reassurances. A slower breath, a tired nod, and then he returned my fierce hug.
We were silent then, just holding each other, Roble supporting us both with his presence. The rest of the gang would know soon enough what was going on and Shael would have all the sympathy and vengeful agreement he could stand. But for now it was just us.
?Is there any chance they?ll recognize the tracking pulse?? Roble asked me after a few moments.
I shook my head. ?I don?t think so, not unless they knew exactly what they were looking for,? I responded. ?Frank or Tri?est would be able to tell you for sure.?
?Then we have an advantage. We know where Sloan is, and they don?t know that we know.? Death sighed and reset the comm board to the default stand-by mode. He was sighing a lot more than usual recently. This gang war and all that went with it was something we Horsemen could really have done without. ?They took Sloan for a reason and they?ll tell us when they?re good and ready. Get some rest, you two.?
I caught Roble?s eye and we shared a worried look. Yes, there was a reason, and I think we were sharing similar thoughts about what that reason might be. I pulled Shael away toward his bunk, and he came easily, more tired than he would ever willingly admit. I didn?t even need to give him a gentle shove to get my man to lay down. He didn?t let go of my hand though, and pulled me down beside him. Cuddling up close, he tugged the light blanket up over us, and I spent another night in his arms, though this time I was comforting him.
Too early in the morning, Roble?s hand on my shoulder woke me from an unhappy dream. As disgustingly early as it was, I almost thanked him for it. My sleep had been full of horrible images of loved ones lost, starting with my parents and continuing right on to Sloan. I rubbed tiredly at my eyes as he went on to wake Shael and then the two of us followed him to his office. Shael slumped into the first chair he came to and I slumped down right on top of him, my head on his shoulder.
Death?s face was grim as he settled into his chair on the other side of his desk. ?We just got a call,? he said with no preamble. ?It was the men who have Sloan.?
That got our attention.
Shael, a sick fear lurking in the back of his beautiful eyes, swallowed, then nodded. ?And??
?And their request wasn?t what I expected. They want us to skirmish against one of the other gangs, specifically the Wildcards.?
?But we can?t attack Bobby and his crew,? I protested. ?They haven?t done anything to us!?
Death nodded, his head moving slowly, and I took a closer look at him. There were dark rings around his eyes, and the muscles of his face and shoulders all drooped just a little. It seemed that he had passed the night even more badly than me or Shael had. ?I haven?t a clue why they would want us to do this, but they say that?s the price for Sloan?s life.?
?We can?t do that,? Shael stated flatly. ?We can?t ... ? He took a deep breath that shuddered through his chest and I stroked at his cheek, trying to comfort. ?We can?t trade Sloan?s life for those of Bobby and his family, or the Horsemen who might die as a result.? His voice was dead sounding, like the heart had been ripped out of him, and my own heart cried for him.
?Maybe we don?t have to,? Death said softly.
?What do you mean??
?They?re not swoopers, Sloan?s message got us that much information about them. That means they won?t know how we?ll react. That?s one advantage. Unless they figured out what the tracking pulse was or thought that he managed to tell us where they?d taken him, odds are long that they?d move him. That?s the next advantage. We know where he is and they don?t know that we know.?
The plan we came up with was simple. It had to be, we had little time. They wanted us to make the strike within the next three hours. And they demanded that Shael go with the raiding party. He wasn?t happy, kept insisting that we could put his jacket on someone else and they?d never know the difference. I doubted that. They?d managed to figure out somehow which of the three they had been chasing was really Sloan, so something told me they?d know if Shael wasn?t really with the raiders.
The raiding group was large. It included the triplets, Trapper, Bulldog, War, Bait, Plague, Reeabok, Lyman, Frank and his cousin Al, Chaser, Nox and a dozen others, more than a quarter of our total members. And they were all armed to the teeth. The rescue party, on the other hand, was quite small, and I had to fight tooth and nail to keep it that way. Too many people wanted to take some shots at the low-down, honorless pigeons that had Sloan. Ishtari argued against overwhelming numbers by saying something about being able to go unnoticed, but very few of the men were buying that. Death finally had to step in and put his foot down.
Mason, Ishtari, Nash and myself would try to get Sloan back while the raiding party went blasting off to do absolutely nothing more than take a nice ride. Roble and Shael both were unhappy at my inclusion, but they couldn?t reasonably counter any of my arguments. I knew more about security systems and how to get past them than any other Horseman alive, and the rescue party was probably going to need me desperately.
Sometime, in all the confusion and hurrying back and forth, Ishtari found a chance to pull me and Shael aside. Three of the faces she?d sketched with the help of the others matched up with Shael?s memory of the small party that had hit him and Trapper. He rubbed absently at the healed-and-gone blaster burn he?d gotten from them while he looked at the pictures.
?That?s them, but I couldn?t tell you what it means.?
Ishtari shot me a sharp, significant glance, but I held my tongue and shook my head at her. I?d promised not to tell and saying anything now would call for more explaining than any of us had time for.
When it was time to go, Shael held me in a crushing hug and pressed a kiss to the top of my head. ?If you don?t come back, I don?t know what I?ll do,? he whispered raggedly.
?You?ll go on and help Death pull the gang through this,? I told him, pulling back a little to look him in the eyes. ?Nash, Ishtari, and Mason won?t let anything happen to me and I won?t let anything happen to Sloan. Go, and don?t worry about us. If this is some sort of ambush you?ll have enough to worry about keeping your own neck safe.?
He kissed me swiftly, almost desperately. Behind him, Bulldog called out that they were ready and waiting. Shael opened his mouth, like he was going to say something more, ask me something, but Bulldog called again and I could see him change his mind. ?I?ll see you when I see you, Chenowyth.?
?See ya when I see ya,? I answered back, and then he strode away without looking back. The swoop engines started with a deafening roar and the whole grey and scarlet mob eased into the tunnel and blasted away into the clear morning air. I stared after them for a long while, not because I feared for him, Shael might not have had the easier part but he certainly had the safer part of that whole crazy idea, but because I hurt for him. He was worried for his brother and he was worried for me. I could see it twisting him up in every jerk of his head and every snapped order, and I hated it.
?He?ll be fine, Crash.? Ishtari?s sympathetic hand rested lightly on my shoulder and gave me a heartening squeeze. ?And we?ll take care of you.?
?I know that, and he knows that, but knowing and feeling just aren?t the same,? I murmured to her.
?That?s life,? she said philosophically, glancing back over her shoulder as Roble walked up to us, Nash and Mason in tow. ?Ready, Boss??
Unlike the raiding party, Ishtari, Mason and me weren?t dressed in our Horsemen colors for all the galaxy to see, but in sturdy, work-a-day leathers of brown or black. We didn?t want to stand out too much from any crowd. Nash, with her black-on-grey fur, was dressed only in her utility harness as usual.
?I think I should be asking you that,? Roble frowned at the ex-Jedi. ?Take the sub-exit to the emergency rides. I don?t want to risk you being seen leaving the building. I also want you to stick to the special encrypted channel we whipped up for you. Any of the others, there?s a chance that they might be listening to you over Sloan?s comm set.? We all nodded. Among ourselves we?d already decided to stick to tap code unless forced otherwise. Just plain safer that way.
?And if you find there?s too many of them, comm for help and the rest of us will be there faster than you can blink.?
That we didn?t doubt in the least. All the other Horsemen were already geared up and waiting. All the swoops had been topped off with fuel, all last minute adjustments to engines had been finished, or put aside until later. It was the first time in over a year that every single ride in the place was up and running at the same time. Nash?s, Ishtari?s, and Mason?s could have been, and would have been, but we were leaving them behind.
We were going to use the emergency rides stashed a couple of blocks away in an old underground bunker. The planning group had decided that there would most likely be a watch set on Armageddon, to make sure that the skirmishers left and no one else. We didn?t want to be seen even walking away from home, let alone riding away.
Ishtari and Nashraak grabbed their helmets and led the way through the kitchens to a dry-food storage room, heading straight toward the back corner. There, they took hold of the contents of the bottom-most shelf and pulled it out in a solid block. It was just camouflage. All the cans and boxes were empty and simply moly-bonded together. That bottom shelf was just tall enough that even the largest of us could lay down and squeeze sideways through it.
Nash went first, head closest to the wall, feet toward the door, disappearing into the darkness behind that bottom shelf with her typical silence and grace. Ishtari went next, as I gave last minute instructions to Mason.
?There?s just enough floor left after the shelf ends to roll slightly and get your feet pointed toward the ground before you hit the floor,? I told him. ?Move forward quickly, I?ll be coming through right behind you, and watch your head, the overhang?s kinda low for you tall people. Nash will have the lighting panels on, so you should be able to see just fine once you get around the corner.?
He nodded at me from the floor and shimmied sideways through the narrow opening while I made one last check of my pockets to make sure I had everything I thought I might possibly need on this trip. As soon as I heard the scuff of his boots on the permacrete floor of the shallow pit back there, I flopped down on my back and scootched through with the ease of practice. My hand felt the edge beside me, I began my twist, tucked my legs toward my chest and landed neatly. Normally I would have reached back through and pulled the camouflage into place behind me, but we were expecting to come back this way, and we didn?t have any need to cover our tracks.
Mason had moved ahead and was waiting for me on the stairs, head and shoulders hunched over to keep his head from bumping against the ceiling. I scrambled forward, and together we went around the corridor, then all four of us jogged along the narrow passageway until it met up with the Horsemen?s Highway, as we called it.
?Abandoned transportation tunnels,? Ishtari explained to Mason while leading us to the right and up the broad underground corridor. ?The previous Death discovered them and had the passage dug to gain access.? The air was cool and slightly dry, the only illumination coming from a handlight Ishtari had picked up before we left the passageway. ?They run all over this sector, maybe farther. We?ve only explored the areas in our territory so far.?
?We?ve opened up a couple of the street accesses,? I told him as we picked the pace back up. ?We use them to get in and out during lockdowns if food or other important supplies run out. I suppose that we could use them to stage surprise raids if we were the type of gang that did that.? At several of those street accesses we had three or four swoops parked and waiting for emergency use. We were headed for the nearest ones and from there to Sloan?s last known location.
?It would also make a good escape route,? Mason commented. ?In either direction.?
?Yeah, if those riders yesterday had been any farther behind Marlo, he probably would have used one of them, but we?re really careful not to remind anyone that they?re down here to be used.? I caught a glimpse of Nash?s shadowy shape in the dimness ahead of Ishtari?s handlight. ?The last thing we need is one of the other gangs knowing that there?s a back door right into our home.?
There was no more talking after that, only slightly labored breathing as we jogged along, hurrying toward danger and all the hopes and worries that went with it. When us slower Humans got to the nearest stash of swoops, Nash already had three of the five out of their storage covers and was just finishing off the readiness checks. There was a moment of silence, a long shared look of determination, and then we thumped our helmets into place and pushed the swoops through the narrow crack in a building?s foundation into the outside air.
The bright sunlight was something of a surprise, but not just because of the darkness of the tunnels. We were sneaking about on a mission of life and death. It struck me as somehow wrong to be doing it in broad daylight. Such things belonged to the deep of night, to darkness and shadows. At least, they did according to the holodramas.
I shook away my melodramatic thoughts and climbed on behind Ishtari. Three engines cranked over and then we blasted away, jamming ourselves into the traffic flow with our usual lack of manners, Nash in the lead as we had planned. The place where we were headed was in Speed Demon territory and they were less likely to bother any group led by a non-Human.
Our biggest fears at that point were that we would either run into a skirmish in progress, or get caught by a patrol. Either one had the possibility of putting a swift end to our mission. Keeping that in mind, we moved with the flow of traffic, rather than around it or in spite of it. We had one close shave, but Nash?s sharp eyes spotted the patrol in time for us to dodge around a freighter until they had passed.
All in all, getting there proved to be the easiest part. The building, while not one of the towering skyscrapers around it, was still dauntingly large. And Sloan could be almost anywhere inside. We?d parked the swoops in a public lot a couple of blocks away, and taken the pedestrian walks the rest of the way, just in case they had some sort of look out.
?Can you even take a guess from the location pulse where he is in that thing?? Ishtari asked me as we lounged against a balcony railing, trying to look uninterested.
?Nope. If it were still working I could have gotten a good reading from here, but as it is ...? I shrugged.
Then we?ll just have to use a little logic.?
?Oh?? Nash rumbled, ?like what??
?Well, I really don?t think whoever?s behind this could afford to rent space on the top ten floors, for instance.?
Mason nodded. ?And they?d want to be unnoticed coming and going, so the next dozen floors or so are out, too.?
?So, what we are looking at,? Nash said softly and carefully, ?is the bottom seven floors, to be on the safe side, and any basement levels there may be. And then there are the men, how many??
?Bait and Marlo came up with ten. I?d assume that?s pretty much the lot. If they?re not swoopers, then they must be hired and I don?t know anyone who can afford more mercs than that,? Ishtari drawled, eyeing the building with distaste. ?Personally, from here I think it looks like a dump.?
Mason spoke up, ?They?d have someone watching Armageddon, to make sure the raiders left and no one else.?
?Maybe two,? Nash added. ?And another one or two in ?Card territory to actually watch the raid. That leaves six at best, eight at worst.?
?Could be worse,? I muttered, zipping up my jacket against the rising breeze. ?It could be much worse.?
?I suggest we split up, then,? Ishtari frowned. None of us much liked the idea, but we were getting very short on time. Soon enough it would become obvious that the raiding party wasn?t really going to do anything of the kind and then the imminent danger Sloan was in would quickly develop into mortal danger.
?In that case, I suggest that Crash goes with me and Nashraak goes with you,? Mason told Ishtari.
The tall redhead shared a look with him. That arrangement would put one Jedi in each group, the best situation we could hope for. She nodded. ?Sounds like our best bet. We?ll take the bottom, you start from the top and we work toward each other. First ones to find him get the kriff out of there and beep the others. Let?s do it.?
I gave Ishtari my spare datapad, the chip with my lockbreaker codes, and some quick instructions in their use, then she and the Trianii headed downward for the ground level. Mason and I watched for a short time, then took the nearest skywalk over to our destination. Inside we took the stairs down, rather than the float tubes, to avoid being seen by more people than necessary. I?ve never trusted float tubes anyway, I?ve never liked the falling sensation they give me.
The door into the seventh level wasn?t locked and behind it we found nothing more sinister than a small home decorating firm that specialized in exotic non-Human environments. We didn?t even pretend interest and left after a quick glance around. Six and five had looked like possibles for a short time, but they turned out to simply be a semi-legal escort service. Four was empty, dead empty, not a cube wall, not a dusty desk, not even a single orphaned trash can, so I locked the door behind us and we moved on.
Part way down the stairs my helmet, swinging from the length of my arm, beeped with the soft incoming tone. I reached in and hit the chin switch then raised the helmet to my ear to hear better. There was a fuzzy sort of tap, like someone flicking the mic on the other end, and then a long pause, repeated twice more, a longer pause, two flicks, a long hiss like close breathing and a single flick. Nothing. Minus One. They were on the first sub-floor and still hadn?t found a thing. I replied in kind: flick, pause, flick, pause, flick, long pause, flick-flick, short hiss, flick-flick-flick-flick. Nothing. Four. Even if the enemy heard us, and could break the encryption, there was no way they could interpret what they had heard, if they even recognized it as a signal.
At the door to the third floor I sliced through the lock code as easily as I had the others and Mason and I slid through the opening as quietly as we could. There wasn?t anything as obvious as a guard standing just inside, but we could feel it, both of us. There was someone here who probably shouldn?t be.
The floor was laid out like an office, with permanent walls and doorways and corner offices with windows so that managers could look out through them at the menials like dictators looking down on the slaves below. I checked the ceiling and corners for security cams, but I didn?t see anything. Moving slowly, Mason and I crept forward, helmets forgotten and hanging by our sides. I kept one hand on his back, feeling the muscles beneath even through the leather jacket he wore, and kept glancing behind us. The last thing I wanted was to be surprised from behind by one of the thugs that had Sloan or by an innocent security guard simply doing his duty.
A door closed somewhere ahead of us and we slowed down even farther, my hand relaying to me all the information I needed about where we were going and how fast. Easing up around the corner of a cube, we stopped, and I peeked over Mason?s shoulder to see why. Through an office window we saw a man cross to a desk. I risked leaning out a little farther and all the blood drained from my face when I saw who was sitting behind that desk.
I didn?t realize that I had spoken out loud until Mason asked me a question. ?Crash, can you see what he?s saying??
My only reply was to repeat the words I was seeing. ?Good. We should hear back from Thalus about the raid in the next ten minutes or so. Death won?t be able to sit there so smugly next time and say that he and his have done no fighting.?
The other man had his back to the window, so I hadn?t a clue what he was saying. Jayek?s response gave me something to work with at guessing though. ?Yeah, we?ll keep him around until I can?t get anything more out of them. He should be good for a couple more raids, maybe an innocent casualty or two of my choice.?
I might not have been able to hear what the underling said after that, but I could see Jayek?s face turn a deep red and I could see the muscles in his neck strain and go taut with unchecked anger.
?You?ll be paid when the job is done. You nearly didn?t get that kid. I?m not in the habit of paying for work that isn?t getting done. Now, get out of here and go make sure your men aren?t doing anything I haven?t specifically ordered them to do.?
Mason and I slipped back and farther into the cube, listening to the door open and close. The man showed enough intelligence to wait until he was out of sight of the window before he started grumbling about finding a new job, paid or not. And his speculation about Jayek?s mom and dad and the acts they likely engaged in wasn?t terribly complimentary.
We heard the soft buzzing hum of the float tube engaging in the distance and relaxed ever so slightly. There it was. Jayek was here, Sloan was somewhere below and Ishtari and Nash were even then working their way closer to him. But what were we to do? We didn?t dare warn the other two. A comm call at the wrong time could be deadly, but we couldn?t just do nothing, either.
Jayek. Even though he was just one man, I was strangely reluctant to try and take him on, even with Mason at my side and likely to do most of the actual work. I?d seen the man when he thought he had the upper hand, and I?d seen him when he did have the upper hand, and what I?d seen didn?t make me feel good about cornering him and forcing him to fight. He was a very dangerous man and he was already blazing mad at Roble.
?We?ve got to try and take him, Crash,? Mason whispered beside me. ?We can?t let him get away with whatever it is he?s up to.?
?It?s obvious enough, now, what he?s doing. He?s got to be the one CoruCorp is paying off out here,? I whispered. ?But why??
I looked at him in surprise. ?What??
?Teletron. The news vid said it all. They?re the first major competition CoruCorp?s had. And you said yourself that Teletron?s main manufacturing plant is in this sector,? Mason explained quickly. ?CoruCorp is funding the gang war in the hopes that Teletron will be forced to spend more credits on security, maybe even in the hopes that some of the skirmishing will result in property damage for Teletron.?
?But we work for Teletron ...? I trailed off thoughtfully as the idea completed itself and Mason spoke it aloud for me.
?That?s why he?s been trying so hard to bring the Horsemen into the fight. If you?re tied up in the streets you can?t be flying escort for shipments.?
?These riders that attacked Shael and Trapper, then snatched Sloan!? I exclaimed as I suddenly remembered the sector map and all those colored dots, then clapped a hand over my mouth. When I continued it was in a much quieter tone. ?Jayek hired them and has had them running back and forth attacking gangs at random, even the Angels, to keep the fighting going.?
?That is my theory as well.?
My expression twisted with a bitter grimace that could hardly be termed a smile. ?And Velocity, bless her flinty little heart, hasn?t a clue what?s going on. If she did she?d be here, with what loyal warriors she still has left, making our job easier.?
I glanced sideways at Mason, but he didn?t look much like Mason Cade anymore, despite the worn leathers and longish hair. He?d shed the swooprider I?d been helping him build like a krayt dragon sheds its skin. Now he was completely and only a Jedi Knight. Qui-Gon Jinn, who was practically a stranger to me, had pushed aside my friend Mason like he never existed.
?Stay here, Crash,? he told me firmly, and even his voice was different. It was commanding, smooth, and calm rather than friendly or easy-going. ?I?m going to go get him.?
?Wait,? I hissed at him, but he didn?t. Knight Jinn stood smoothly, the helmet in his hand a forgotten leftover from his castaway persona. He walked with quick, clean strides to the office and opened the door with no warning. He just walked right in, calm as you please. I stared after him, fascinated in spite of myself. I knew I should have gone back the way we had come and waited near the swoops, or at least huddled back under the desk in the little cube and waited until he called me back out, but instead I watched, eyes locked on the scene unfolding in front of me.
I?d never actually seen a Jedi at work before. I?ve seen the historical holos, not just of the Jedi fighting to free my planet, but of my own people fighting beside them and dying to protect them. I?ve also worked beside Ishtari, but neither of those was quite the same thing as watching him go about his assigned business with Jedi calm and discipline.
Knight Jinn didn?t have his lightsabre with him, something like that would have been ridiculously hard to hide in such a close community as a swoop gang, but he wasn?t unarmed. He had a blaster tucked into the waistband on his pants, under the back of his open jacket, and he had the Force. Even with only the helmet in his hands, swinging so casually by his side that he would have looked strange without it, Qui-Gon was a formidable figure.
If I was looking for confusion from Jayek when Qui-Gon walked into that office, I was doomed to disappointment. There was a slight flicker of irritation, a hint of surprise, and then near instant recognition of who, or rather what, it was he faced. The door was still open, so I could hear him clearly when he spoke.
?They were very clever to keep you away from me,? Jayek stated flatly, neither giving praise, nor condemning, but as if mentioning a trick a particularly bright pet had managed to learn. ?They must have known I?d have fingered you for a cop spy before you could blink.?
?They don?t know what either of us are,? Qui-Gon replied steadily. ?Cleverness never entered into it.?
?What about that cute little slicer of Death?s? She is more than she seems.?
?She is the exception, though I doubt she has yet realized just why she was so wary of you.?
?And you know??
?Of course I do.? It was like some strange conversation between old academy friends, but these men were strangers to each other. I?d have bet the whole gang, and my computers, on that fact. They were so polite and proper, it was almost frightening. ?Crash gave me the clues I needed to figure it out.?
?You could have been a Jedi.? That shocked me to the bone. Was Jayek Force-sensitive? If true, it explained a great deal about what had happened at the meeting at Heaven.
?No, I think not.?
Qui-Gon nodded. ?You may be right. Even if you had been found young enough, I think you are too selfish to want to help anyone other than yourself.?
Jayek waved that away as unimportant, or at least a matter long past the need for discussion. ?Tell me, how does she do it??
?What, read everyone around her like a datapad? She?s Lorrdian.?
Jayek lounged back in his chair, one arm draped negligently off the side. ?You say that like it should mean something to me.?
?Lorrdians are the foremost mimes and mimics in the galaxy.? Qui-Gon sounded like a professor lecturing to a particularly stupid student and I had to suppress a snicker when Jayek realized it. ?She can read body language like a skyway sign and she?s good enough at reading lips that you might as well hand her a printed transcript.?
Jolting upright in his chair, Jayek was no longer annoyed or merely angry. He was positively enraged. ?So, she's the one who disrupted the meeting! I could have kept this little war going for years with occasional peace talks taking place. She and Death will pay for ruining that.? The venom and hatred in his voice chilled me clear through. I was suddenly very glad that there was a fully trained Knight between him and me.
?Blame no longer matters,? Qui-Gon stated. ?You are under arrest.?
?And if I don?t wish to come??
?I will take you by force if I must.?
Jayek didn?t hesitate even a second, but brought up the blaster he?d hidden by his side and stroked the trigger even as the barrel came level with Qui-Gon?s chest. But the Jedi was already moving, too. He stepped back with his right foot, pivoting on his left heel while his left hand, still holding his helmet, struck at Jayek?s weapon.
Once again fear froze me in place. My wide eyes stayed locked, against my will, on the events unfolding before me. The angry red blaster bolt seemed to pass right through Knight Jinn?s chest from side to side. I didn?t even have time for a horrified gasp before the helmet slammed against the blaster and knocked it from Jayek?s grasp.
Jayek moved like lightning and sprang over the desk to tackle Qui-Gon. Both men hit the floor and I couldn?t see what was happening. The sudden move had broken the hold of my fear. Biting my lower lip, I wavered for only a moment before scrambling out of my hiding place and running over toward the office window, hoping to catch a glimpse of what was going on inside. Only steps away, I backpedaled violently, threw myself to the floor, and flung my arms up to protect my eyes as the glass of the window exploded outward with the impact of two large bodies.
?Crash, stay back!? Qui-Gon commanded as the two men rolled apart in the glittering shards and came to their feet. It was Jayek who was closer to me, but he spared only a flashing glance in my direction, clearly not wanting to take his attention off the Jedi.
I scrambled away, heading for my discarded helmet and getting a small cut on my hand when I didn?t look where I was putting it. Keeping my eyes locked on the two circling men, I hooked up my datapad and remote keyed Ishtari?s helmet comm. I hadn?t told anyone yet that I could do that, but that was because I hadn?t ever been sure that it would work. It did.
There was nothing to hear, no footsteps, no taps, not a sound.
Tap-tap-tap, pause, tap-tap-tap. Nothing, there was no response. Again I tapped out the emergency code against my helmet?s mic, and again I got nothing in return. I chewed my lip and rocked back and forth, uncertain of what to do. I wasn?t a warrior like Ishtari and Nash, I didn?t know how I could possibly help. Mason, no Qui-Gon, had lost his jacket and his blaster while I wasn?t looking. A cut above his eye was bleeding and he wasn?t moving quite as smoothly as usual. Jayek was sneering confidently, only a slight red spot on one cheek to show for Qui-Gon?s efforts.
The Fights! For a brief moment despair washed over me. Qui-Gon hadn?t healed himself after the fights because no one would have believed that he could have done so naturally, that and we?d had so little time and so much to do since then. Now it was taking its toll. The Jedi was already sore and tired and Jayek was fresh and moving easy.
Qui-Gon ducked a high kick and lanced a punch at the Angel?s ribs, but Jayek was up to the challenge and parried the blow away. The Jedi retreated, and his opponent followed eagerly.
?What?s the matter, Jedi? Never had to fight someone better than you?? he taunted.
I noticed that Qui-Gon was beginning to breathe heavily and was favoring his left side ever so slightly. Shael had hit him in the ribs there more than once. I prayed that Jayek wouldn?t notice. As Jayek began a new offensive, I looked around desperately, my eyes touching everything, but not really seeing. There were no weapons. I couldn?t find where the blaster had gone and I hadn?t brought one of my own. More fool me.
Qui-Gon slid backwards, always retreating, forcing Jayek to come to him, never going on the attack, and I followed as close as I dared, on the verge of panic. Maybe he was hoping to tire Jayek. Maybe he was hoping that Ishtari and Nash would arrive soon. I don?t know what he was thinking, or if he was thinking at all and not just doing what needed to be done.
The lights flickered once and I glanced around, trembling suddenly with the fear that some of those other men might turn up just now and with the hope that it was Nash and Ishtari that were fiddling with the power and that the flicker might be a warning of their return.
Mas- Qui-Gon was tiring quickly, whatever reserves he was drawing on had to be almost gone, if the slight tremor in the muscles of his neck, chest, and shoulders was to be believed. I whispered fervent prayers to the Force to ward off what I dreaded, but it happened anyway. When Jayek faked my knight out of position and snuck a leg sweep through his defenses, Qui-Gon hit the floor. I gasped in horror, my hands coming up to my face, and I nearly knocked myself silly with my own helmet. Faster than thought, like an instinct that suddenly realized that it was there, I whipped back my arm and when it came forward I flung my helmet at the back of Jayek?s head.
?Leave him alone!? I screamed.
It wasn?t the brightest thing I could have done. My enraged and frightened shout warned Jayek, turning his head in time to see the projectile hurtling his way. He twisted aside enough that it only clipped him on the shoulder as it passed. My helmet thunked and rattled off furniture behind him and Jayek bent a fiery stare of murderous rage in my direction. Almost negligently he pulled something from the belt at his waist and tossed it in my direction.
It hadn?t been much in the way of counterattacks, but it had been enough. Qui-Gon was back on his feet. He held himself loosely, relaxed and I could see that he was what Ishtari had always called centered. On the balls of his feet, weight balanced to perfection, I saw an acceptance and surrender in his face that I?d not seen on any living soul in my life. But I?d seen it in countless holovids of the Lorrdian War. Knight Jinn was sunk deep into the Force.
He threw out a hand and a pressure wave of energy rolled over Jayek and me. Jayek bowed his head and hunched his shoulders and rode it out with bent knees, but I was bowled over by it, knocked thrusters over steering column. I sat up and shook my head, a little grin of anticipation on my face.
Jayek was toast. All that was left for him was the falling down part, only he didn?t know it yet. It was then that I noticed the small black sphere that the Angel had tossed my way just a moment before. It sat innocently on the floor barely more than the length of my legs away. Just as I thought to wonder what it was, it fulfilled its function and answered my question.
A flash grenade.
There was a burst of incandescent fire, then all the lights went out.
The concussion from being so close to the thing when it went off must had caused me to black out, because when I came to there were no sounds of fighting, but calm voices talked softly in the dark. I recognized one of them as Sloan?s. My head rested on a furry shoulder and a familiar earthy smell filled my nostrils.
?Nash?? I asked uncertainly, searching the black for the glinting of light from her reflective eyes. I couldn?t see them. Had night fallen while I was out of it so that there was no light from the windows?
?Hush, Crash, you?re safe.? Worry and anxiety were there in her rumbling voice, but comfort and reassurance as well.
That was a silly thing for her to say. Of course I was safe. If Jayek had won the fight I wouldn?t have woken up, I accepted that as a fact carved in durasteel. And if Qui-Gon Jinn had won the fight how could I be anything but safe? ?How?s Qui-uh, Mason??
There was an amused undertone to the feline?s voice when she answered. ?A little the worse for wear, but if I?m any judge he?ll live. Jayek?s had the beating of his life, though, and about time, too.?
A low chuckle brought the sound of Ishtari?s voice to my ears. ?Yeah, he got what?s coming to him, and he?s gonna get more. I got here just in time to watch Mason use Shael?s stutter-step on him.? The sound of glass crunching underfoot carried her away on some errand, and I frowned in confusion. How was the ex-Jedi moving around so easily in the dark?
I started to struggle upright, but Nashraak?s steady hand on my shoulder held me down easily. ?What?s the matter??
?Just lay still. Shael and the rest will be here shortly.?
?Ishtari and I called them in as soon as we finished off the goons downstairs and freed Sloan.?
?I thought I heard his voice.? I blinked a few times, but all I saw was a vague afterimage of that grenade against the darkness. Was that why I couldn?t see even a hint of running lights from passing aircars in the windows? Were they blurring together with the afterimage? ?Nash, did you and Ishtari cut the power to the building??
The Trianii answered in a near whisper, ?No, Crash.?
?Then why are the lights off?? Panic was beating at the doors of my brain, but I couldn?t figure out why. I knew something was very wrong, but I had no idea what it might be, or maybe my mind refused to acknowledge what it might be.
?The lights aren?t off, Crash. At least, not for the rest of us.?
I shook my head violently in denial as the implications of that slowly sank in. ?No,? I stated, my voice trembling slightly. The world was dark, of course the lights were out, weren?t they? ?No!?
They had to be. They had to be.
But not for anybody but me.
I screamed. I couldn?t help it. I screamed and screamed and not Sloan?s worried shouts, or Ishtari?s sharp slap, or the strange voice in the background calling for a medic could make me stop. I couldn?t see. The world was gone, not just taken away but ripped, drive and exhaust, from my life. I couldn?t read a thing about what was going on around me. Not the worry in Sloan?s dark eyes, so like his brother?s, or the little furrow that appeared on Ishtari?s forehead when she couldn?t talk or fight her way out of something, not the angle of Nash?s ears or the twitch of her tail would ever reveal anything to me again.
And so I screamed as I had never screamed before in my life, the terror mounting higher and higher and threatening to choke me until a large, gentle hand rested briefly on my shoulder and even the sound went away as unconsciousness reclaimed me.
Better to be dead. That was my first thought when the sound came back, and I wished that it hadn?t. I?d rather be dead than blind. My eyes had been covered with some sort of damp bandage, probably soaked in a large amount of our precious bacta supply. A waste of good bacta. There?s no tissue damage, the photoreceptors have been burned out. I?d read that somewhere. That was what happened to people who were too close when flash grenades went off. They were blind forever unless they could afford prosthetics. The Horsemen couldn?t.
Better to be dead.
Always better to be dead and gone than a drain on those around me. That?s why I?d left my parents so long ago. I?d been a burden to them, a dangerous drain that had been slowly killing them. I?d rather have died than ever go back to being that sort of useless baggage again. Perhaps if I wandered out into the street and bothered enough people they?d haul me away to the nearest shelter. Or maybe one of the Angels would spot me and risk taking a shot in public. Either way I wouldn?t be a problem for the Horsemen anymore.
Better to be dead.
I was back in Armageddon, I could tell by the way the sounds echoed off the walls, by the sounds themselves, by the smell of oil and exhaust and leather. I was in a bed, my bed, that was obvious from the way the mattress sagged a little, just at my hips. On the other side of the privacy screen around the girls? bunks I could hear triumphant voices, but I couldn?t care less what they were saying. We were all safe, and I did care about that, but the rest of it was, well, distant to me just then. Like it hadn?t happened to me. What had happened to me was horrible in a way I?d never even thought about.
Better to be dead.
I?d never slice again. You can?t slice if you can?t see your monitor or what?s happening on it. I?d never ride again. You don?t even have a swoop to ride, stupid. But that didn?t matter either, because it was still true. I?d never see the love shining in Shael?s eyes again, never see that dimple flash at me when he smiled or grinned.
Better to be dead.
It was all too much, too overwhelming, and so I cried. I don?t know if my eyes actually produced any tears, the moist bandage made it impossible to tell, but my chest heaved as my breath choked out of me and my terrified sobs finally alerted someone that I was awake again.
Strong arms pulled me up against a broad chest. A gentle hand tucked my head under a firm chin and stroked comfortingly at my hair. I snuggled closer to Shael. All his previous fears for me were true now. I?d have to be coddled and protected because I couldn?t do anything for myself any more. And I?d never pull another stunt like the one that had gotten me into all of this in the first place. I wanted to curse Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn for doing this to me, but I couldn?t. My ancestors had thrown themselves on shrapnel grenades and in front of tanks and blaster bolts to preserve the lives of the Jedi fighting to free them. How could I do any less? Besides, I?d gone into this with my eyes open. I?d chosen this course of action and I wouldn?t push away the responsibility for that on anyone else.
?Chenowyth, please, I know it?s hard, but please stop crying,? Shael begged me. Something wet hit my cheek and slid down to my chin. Startled and worried, I reached up a hand to his face. My fingers crept across his cheek and chin, encountering damp trails and scratchy stubble. He was crying too.
My eyes burned, though I couldn?t tell you if it was with fresh tears or fresh pain. Now I was hurting those I loved. I was no good to the gang anymore. I was a drag, a dead weight, now that I couldn?t slice or ride. It was only going to get worse from here on out.
?Better to be dead.?
?No, Chen, no! Don?t say that!?
?It?s all my fault, Shael. And now I?m no use to anyone.?
?No, Cade told us what happened. If it wasn?t for you he?d?ve lost. That creep would have won and you and him and Sloan would have been as good as dead.? Shael crushed me against his chest and rocked me slightly, as if he could force me to change my mind by sheer strength. ?And the cops showed up and found him and those pigeons of his and some papers and it?s been all over the news all morning, Chen. The war?s over and the sector chief gave us some sort of commendation or something.? The pride and excitement he used to cover the fear and pain in his voice didn?t touch me. I was numb. So no one else I cared for would die in this mess. That was good. I couldn?t muster up more feeling than that.
?Chen, say something. Please.?
?I?m sorry.? I know it came out dead and hollow and empty, but that?s how I felt and I couldn?t deny it.
?No, please, Chen, don?t say that. There?s nothing for you to be sorry for!?
?I?m sorry, Shael,? I mumbled again as I pushed against his chest and fumbled about for the blankets that had been covering me, ?but I just don?t have the energy for this right now. Please, just let me rest. I?m tired, just let me rest.?
?Chen?? his voice was raw, wounded, pleading, but I couldn?t deal with it. Not then. His pain on top of mine was a burden I couldn?t hold up under. Besides, he couldn?t see the truth and would never listen to what I knew. He?d never agree with me, no matter how much proof I had.
?Please,? I begged, ?just let me rest.?
He eased me gently back into the center of my bed and pulled the blankets up for me. There was a long pause before I heard his footsteps move away from the side of my bunk, leaving me alone in the darkness.
Better to be dead.
The next sound that actually managed to push through the fog of misery and despair that I had surrounded myself with was the faint click of claws on permacrete. That meant either Reeabok or Nashraak. I prayed as fervently as I was able that whoever it was would do whatever it was they had come for and leave, silently. I didn?t want anyone else to try and tell me that it would be okay. I was blind, wounded, crippled. It wasn?t okay, and couldn?t be made to be okay.
?Stop being lazy and get out of bed, Crash,? a feline voice rumbled irritably.
?Go away, Nash,? I muttered weakly.
?There are things to be done and you are acting like a child.?
I rolled onto my side away from her. ?Bite me.?
?I may just do that,? she responded mildly.
?Go away, Nash,? I said more forcefully.
?Roble needs someone to go over the shipment schedule Teletron has sent over for escort strengths and routes.?
?Plague and Shael can do that.?
?Not as well as you can.?
?I can?t do anything any more.?
?Defecate on that!? Nash snarled, and I pulled the appropriate picture from my memory of her triangular ears flat to her skull, her tail lashing, her neck fur standing on end, and her whiskers quivering. ?Even prey serves a purpose, if only to be eaten and strengthen its killer. A lame prey serves as a warning to its fellows if nothing else. You are not useless because you no longer have your eyes. You can keep the triplets out of our fur. You can keep Shael sane. You can tease Death and make him smile again. These are good, important, and useful things.?
?Go away, Nash.?
?Fine, curl up and die, pigeon.?
I staggered up out of my bed before I knew what I was doing. The blankets tangled around my legs as I lunged at the Trianii, mayhem on my mind, and I tripped and fell. Clawing my way free, I scrambled to my feet. I stood panting and furious, straining the darkness around me for any sound that might tell me where my false friend was.
?Say that again, you kriffing fleabag!? I hissed.
?Ah, so there is something that will get you moving still,? her mocking voice was behind and above me. She was perched up on her bunk. I spun, almost losing my balance without some visual reference to steady me.
?Wait till I get my hands on you, you-?
?What? I am faster than you and stronger than you and I can see while you cannot. What will you do??
?I?ll think of something,? I screamed back at her.
?Then think now, Crash. Think of what you can do for the gang.?
I didn?t want to listen, I wanted to keep hating her and being mad enough to kill. But my mind was already spinning, working on ways to get around her advantages, and the new thought was hardly a difficult switch. Now I was thinking of ways that I could get around my disadvantages.
So I couldn?t slice anymore? I could teach someone else to do the bits I couldn?t. Or I could focus on writing better code. Ishtari had obviously used my lockbreakers to good effect while rescuing Sloan. If I wrote things right anyone could use them. With a little practice I was sure I could get around Armageddon without a constant guide. Of course, that meant I would have to always wear shoes to keep from smashing my toes against table legs and chairs.
I stood, one hand on Nash?s bunk, my mind whirling with possibilities.
Better to be dead? I shook my head. Maybe not. Maybe I can still be useful.
?I?m hungry,? I grumbled, still unhappy with Nash for calling me a pigeon. ?Will you help me find the table??
Breakfast, maybe it was lunch, I couldn?t tell day from night, was ... interesting. Now that I was working on being useful again, I wasn?t about to let my friends help me any more than I absolutely had to. I didn?t want anyone helping me eat, so I?d asked for soup. I didn?t always get the spoon right into my mouth, but I refused to let anyone coddle me. I had to learn to do it for myself. The conversation was stilted and forced to begin with, but when I joined in between soup dribbles it picked up a bit.
?It was all over the news, Crash,? Phyl was saying. ?He was taking money from CoruCorp to make the gangs fight to keep Teletron from shipping that new thingy they?re makin?.?
I nodded absently and actually got an entire spoonful into my mouth without spilling half of it down my front or the side of my face. I was going to need a shower and a change of clothes when I was done. I sighed at the thought of how difficult that particular chore was going to be and resigned myself to asking Ishtari for a little help.
?So, where?s Mason at?? I asked casually. He was the only one who hadn?t stopped by the table to ask me how I was feeling. I was feeling like something the bantha had trampled, but I told everyone who stopped by and asked that I was fine.
?Dunno, haven?t seen him,? Bil answered before the others had a chance.
?He said he needed to go see a friend of his,? Shael explained. ?He?s been gone since yesterday night. He left right after we all got back from picking up Sloan.?
I nodded again. Looking back it was easy to see that the sector cops had probably asked for help from the Jedi Temple when they couldn?t keep any of their agents in the gangs alive for more than a week. Someone in the Temple had probably had a ?feeling? about the request, and with that Knight Jinn was on his way.
Now he was gone, home to the Temple, and it wasn?t likely he?d be back. After all, his job was done, mission over, nothing left but writing the report. Then I wondered briefly if Jedi even wrote reports. The holos claimed they all went straight to the Council to report in person, but I happened to know that there were thousands of Jedi in the galaxy and there just wouldn?t be time for that sort of nonsense. I used the absurdity of the Council notion to distract myself from the fact that he was gone. Mason was gone, forever, had been since we walked into that third-floor office the day before. And I would never see the Jedi who had taken his place ever again. Literally.
Ishtari was willing enough to help me clean myself up and get dressed. I was never so glad for the simplicity of sweat pants and tunics before. As long as I could find the tags I could figure out which way they went on. I wouldn?t be wearing anything fashionable or complicated in the near future, but that was just fine with me. Fashionable usually meant the same thing as uncomfortable.
Ishtari sat me down at a table and combed and braided my hair for me. And then I sat. The ex-Jedi had her ride to look after and her chores around the house as did everyone else. And so I sat and thought since I could no longer really sit and stare. I mentally ran through pictures of each and every single Horseman. I promised myself to review those pictures each and every day. I didn?t ever want to forget how any of them looked. And when that was done I stared, or didn?t stare, some more. I found I had wrapped my arms around myself, my hands chafing at my shoulders and upper arms, and forced myself to stop before someone came over and asked if I was cold.
It wouldn?t stop with just one question. Next there?d be can I get you anything, are you hungry, or what else can I do for you, Crash? Do you want me to get Shael, or Roble, or Doc, or whoever else it was they might think I needed to make me feel better. There was nothing that I needed now, except something to keep my mind busy and I could do that all by myself.
Yeah, by going over all the things you can?t do any more, again. That won?t help.
I tried to go over my best lockbreaker line by line, to see if there was something I could do to make it faster, tighter, but my mind kept straying.
I know he?s probably already got another mission, but it?d be nice to know he hasn?t just abandoned me.
I wasn?t in love with Qui-Gon Jinn. I wasn?t even in love with Mason Cade, but I did have feelings for him. He?d become my private Jedi, my personal white knight. And then he was gone, as suddenly as my sight, and almost as jarring to my life. He?d become a welcome addition to my family, and now he was gone, back to his own.
Warm arms sliding around me jolted me out of my thoughts with a shocking suddenness. ?Deci-cred for your thoughts?? Shael offered.
?Make noise next time. You just about gave me a heart attack,? I groused with mock testiness even as I settled back into his embrace.
He pressed a kiss to the sensitive spot behind my ear and I squirmed a bit in reaction. ?Sorry. Forgive me??
?Mmm, when you apologize like that ... okay.?
?So, what were you thinking??
?That there?s not a lot that I can do just now. I suppose that I could try teaching someone to slice for the gang, Sloan might be a good candidate, or Pors Zhanae.? I leaned my head back against his shoulder, thinking out loud. ?I think that I need something to keep me occupied or I?m going to go stark raving bonkers.?
Shael nodded, the movement transmitted to me by the touch of his cheek to mine. ?I?ll see if I can?t find something that you and the triplets can do together.?
?Shael, that?s not funny. They?d only speed the process up,? I protested.
His low, throaty laugh cheered me immensely, releasing one of the many bands of pain that were wrapped tightly around my heart. It?d had been far too long since I?d heard it. ?Then I?ll just have to see if I can?t find a way to keep you busy.? There was a long pause, like he?d been planning to say something, but wasn?t sure now if he should.
?And?? I prompted.
?Cade?s back. He brought a friend.?
?And?? I said teasingly, though I was secretly very pleased that my Jedi had come back, even if it was only to say good-bye.
?She?s a healer and she thinks she might be able to help your eyes.?
I sat up suddenly, bonking Shael?s chin with my shoulder. ?Can she really??
?We?ll have to see, she said not to get your hopes up.?
?Fine, fine, just get her over here.?
Shael must have waved or something because soon there were footsteps headed our way.
?Mason?? I asked hesitantly, when they stopped.
?I?m here, Crash.?
?Who have you brought with you?? Shael turned my chair for me so that I could face my Jedi and his friend, then he crouched by my side and held my hand.
?Orleiah is a healer. She?s dealt with flash burns in the past and she might be able to help you a little.?
?Mason told me what you have done to help him, Crash, and I decided that the least I could do was try to help you in return.? I tilted my head toward the female voice I was hearing, but I couldn?t tell a thing about her. Was she short? Tall? Thick, thin, soft, muscled, calm, or fidgety? I couldn?t tell.
?Crash?? Shael asked me.
Shrugging, I sat back in my chair. ?I don?t see what it can hurt. I can?t get any blinder, and she might really be able to help.?
Doc, who must have been lurking quietly off to one side, spoke up. ?Would you like to use my office??
?That would be appreciated,? the healer replied.
A small hand took mine and I stood and shuffled forward. Instead of just leading me by the hand, she placed my hand on her shoulder and walked slowly away. I could feel her height and general musculature now, and though she was shorter than Ishtari, but still taller than me, and not as hard of muscle, they both moved with the same flowing smoothness. Another Jedi then.
Several sets of footsteps fell in behind me as we moved, but when the change in sound told me that we had entered a smaller area, the door closed and cut off most of the footsteps. The woman leading me stopped and put my hand on a chair. I carefully felt my way into it and sat.
?You?re actually doing very well for someone so recently blinded,? Orleiah remarked.
?Blind determination and bantha-headed stubbornness can be assets on occasion,? I joked. I continued more seriously, ?I?ve been independent too long to want to change now.?
?Well, we?ll see what we can do to help you there.?
?Are you going to use the Force?? I asked curiously.
There was a momentary surprised silence. ?Qui-Gon said you were quick and observant, but I guess I wasn?t really convinced.?
?Not convinced, or certain that my lack of eye-sight might have impaired me??
?You?re better at this than he knows, aren?t you?? she asked with mock accusation.
Laughing, I replied, ?Qui-Gon?s not the first Jedi I?ve met. And I?m getting better at spotting you guys all the time.?
She must have nodded, then remembered that I couldn?t see it, ?cuz it took her a little bit to respond. ?I see. Well, let?s see what we?ve got here.?
I held still while she quickly removed the bandages from my eyes. My eyelids were lifted one at a time, though I saw not a single speck of light in the darkness that had become my world. Orleiah hummed to herself as she worked, doing whatever she was doing. I didn?t hear any instruments being used, but then I wasn?t really all that familiar with medical stuff. I was a slicer, not a healer.
?There?s good news and there?s bad news, Crash,? she said finally.
I nodded, steeling myself to hear what I?d feared, that this was the way it was going to be until the end. ?The bad news??
?This is going to hurt, probably a lot.?
?And?? Jedi were sure confusing when they wanted to be.
?And the good news is that I?ll have you seeing again in about a week.?
?Wait, what was the bad news then??
?You think pain is good news?? Orleiah asked, disbelievingly.
I snorted. ?Pain means you?re still alive.?
?Kind of a dreary outlook on life.?
She was right, it did hurt, a whole lot. I?d say it felt like someone was sticking white-hot needles in my eyes, but since I?ve never felt that I?m not certain if it?s a dire enough description of what was going on. The fingers pressed to my temples were gentle, warm, the voice that spoke reassurances to me was calm, low, soft, but the pain in my head, behind and in my eyes, was horrible.
Orleiah tried to explain to me what she was doing. She mentioned something about healing nerves endings, splicing sheaths, and realigning something or other. I didn?t understand and didn?t care. As long as she knew what she was doing it didn?t matter if I didn?t.
In the mornings I shuffled about Armageddon, bumping into things, spilling food down my front, wearing a bib at every meal, and being as unapologetic as possible when I ran into or over someone while moving about. I was also as rude and indignant as possible whenever someone suggested that I should let them lead me, or that things I wanted should come to me instead of the other way around. Afternoons I sat at my computer and Pors Zhanae read me my programs one line of code at a time. He was coming along nicely, learning as quickly as I could explain the need and reason for each section, line, or word of code. He was going to be able to take over for me in no time at all, and I was just as glad. I guess life is a lot like computers that way. Redundancy is rarely a bad thing.
That was how I spent my days, shuffling and teaching. And every evening Shael and Sloan would come and lead me to Doc?s office where Orleiah would be waiting for our next torture session. Afterward Shael would carry me back to my bunk and hold my hand while I lay gasping in the dark, praying that the lingering memory of the pain would fade quickly and that I would sleep.
Here and there I could feel eyes on me. Worried eyes, concerned eyes, and hopeless eyes as well. But the ones that I didn?t mind were the approving eyes. At least once a day I would feel those eyes staring at me, and then I would hear a low rumbling purr as Nashraak prowled by. She approved of what I was doing; trying, teaching, even though there was hope that I would see again.
When it was over and I blinkingly opened my eyes at the end of the week, the first thing I saw was a blurry, concerned expression on Shael?s face. I blinked a few more times and my eyes finally focused properly. My smile brought an immediate response in kind. I turned and scanned the room for the woman who had given me back my sight and when I laid eyes on her I saw that the only thing she had in common with Ishtari was her early training and physical fitness.
Orleiah was almost petite, dark of hair, skin, and eye, and as I watched her watching me I was pleased to see who Qui-G-Mason had picked as my healer. She was Lorrdian.
How can I thank you?
Smiling, Orleiah shook her head. ?I?m sorry to disappoint you, but I never learned the hand talk. My parents joyfully gave me up for training before my third month of life. But I do understand how great was your need to see again.?
Mason, I would always think of him as Mason from then on, stepped forward to wrap me in a strong hug. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Shael frown, but that?s all he did, so I smiled. After a moment, Mason released me and stepped back. Roble hugged me next, then it was rounds of handshakes for Orleiah and all the profuse thanks he and Shael and Sloan could pile on.
Orleiah accepted the thanks graciously, but with humility, something that would never have occurred to me to do, and then she packed up her few belongings in her small bag.
?And now I must go back home,? she said, and glanced pointedly at Mason.
He nodded. ?I, too, must go.?
All the other men shared a slightly confused look. ?Go?? Roble asked.
?Yes, I never stay anywhere for very long,? Mason explained. ?I?ve stayed here about as long as I can.?
?I thought you were looking for a gang to settle down with?? Shael was mystified.
?I was looking for a safe place to stay for a while. The Horsemen seemed like my best bet,? Mason corrected, lying through his teeth with admirable ease. We all had a good laugh at his words, though. The last couple of weeks had been anything but calm and safe.
?Well, we?d have given you your jacket in another couple of days, complete with a solemn ceremony and an all-night drinking binge.? Roble shrugged. ?You can still have it, if you like.?
Mason shook his head. ?Thanks, but no.?
Roble shrugged again and all the men looked awkward. I rolled my eyes. Men! So I stood and hugged first Orleiah, then Mason. ?They aren?t going to say it, so I will. We?ll miss you.?
?We?re men, we don?t do that sort of thing,? Sloan tossed off casually, but he stepped up and shook Mason?s hand and thumped him soundly on the back.
Roble shot a look at me before grinning at Mason. ?He?s right you know, we don?t do that sort of thing. And don't roll your eyes at me, young lady.?
When all the handshaking and thanking again was finished, we filed slowly out of Doc?s office. Roble led Orleiah across the floor to where Mason?s swoop was sitting. I stopped just outside the doorway and Shael stopped beside me, wrapping an arm around my waist. Mason paused, looking me right in the eyes. After a long moment, we both smiled. He dropped a brotherly hand on the top of my head, let it slide slowly down the side of my face to my shoulder, and then gave me a gentle squeeze.
?I?ll see you when I see you, Crash.? I could read so much more than that from the tension in his muscles, the pressure of his hand, the expression in his eyes.
?See ya when I see ya.?
And then my Jedi walked away and never looked back. The Angels survive and Velocity is still in charge, though she makes a whole lot less trouble now. The Horsemen still thrive, and I now wear Shael?s ring. And not a day goes by but I thank the Jedi, not just for my ancestors, but for myself as well.
Original cover by Jedi_Master_Cazz. HTML formatting copyright 2001 TheForce.Net LLC