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Gungan to the left

The User 1:1 - SIn (PG-13)

By : luton_plunder

Archived on: Monday, October 29, 2007

Detective Tadgh Maitland of CorSec Special Investigations (SIn) encounters an inexplicable murder. Tadgh must work with his straight-shooting partner, fashion-conscious brother and a space crazy intelligence droid to unravel the mystery before more lives are threatened.

Bortelles, Corellia

2 years pre-ANH

Detective Carthey Machwilliam stared her attacker in the eye, vibroblade clutched in one hand. Her skill with the weapon was minimal, certainly not anything up to the standard of her opponent. And in any case, the woman standing opposite her was armed with a glowing red lightsaber. Any melee combat was out of the question.

?So you?re the one,? she said slowly, matching her opponent?s advances equally with retreat. ?You were behind this all along. And nobody could see it.?

The Dark Jedi was an impressive sight set against the backdrop of darkness. The washed-out red colour that lit her features was entirely appropriate, the glow from the laser sword barely reaching the stacks of shipping containers on either side of them. A light rain fell from the sky, hissing gently against the intense heat of the blade and turning to steam. She smiled obnoxiously.

?What a fine choice of words, Detective,? she said, angling her lightsaber so that shadows danced across the ground between them. ?I am impressed that you would find time to use such wordplay when you are so close to death.?

On the edge of her consciousness, Machwilliam felt a stirring. Her hands twitched as she felt a familiar kind of power begin to flow through her. Her right hand came to rest on the butt of her CorSec issue blaster, and she flexed the hand that now held the vibroblade. Close to death? she thought to herself. Absolutely not.

?Why did you do it?? she asked, stalling for time as her feelings intensified. ?Why kill one of your own??

?One of my own?? the Dark Jedi repeated with surprise. ?An Imperial officer? Do not denigrate me in such a way, Detective ? I am no mere Imperial officer.?

?No,? Machwilliam agreed, watching the fire burn in her opponent?s eyes. ?No, you?re not. You?re a Jedi.?

With those words she had struck a nerve. The Dark Jedi?s eyes narrowed to slits and she let go a feral yell. With tremendous speed she lunged forward, lightsaber swinging on a lethal path for Machwilliam?s eye. The stirring in the detective?s mind took control of her. She wasn?t as fast as the Dark Jedi, but she was fast enough. She ducked, drawing her blaster as she did so. The lightsaber swung harmlessly over her head, slamming hard into a nearby shipping container. Amidst the shower of sparks, Machwilliam let loose a volley of blasts at the Dark Jedi?s turned back.

Her opponent was up to the task. She deflected the bolts but was not in a position to direct their path. They flew in random directions into the night sky, searing a steamy path through the falling rain. At the end of their scuffle they found themselves in the same position they had begun, this time reversed.

The Dark Jedi smiled again, apparently done venting her anger. ?I am no Jedi,? she stated firmly. ?A Jedi is bound by rules and restrictions. A Jedi stifles her power, hides it behind a fa?ade of serenity and nobility. A Jedi would choose not to use her power if it meant giving in to her emotions. And most importantly, the Jedi are extinct. I am no Jedi.?

?Clearly,? Machwilliam said, finding herself out of breath even after such a short burst of activity.

?In fact,? the non-Jedi continued, ?while we are slinging accusations, I have some of my own. How is it that a CorSec detective ? a human CorSec detective ? is able to move so quickly when under attack?? Machwilliam held her silence, vibroblade and blaster at the ready. The stirring in the back of her mind returned.

As if to accentuate the point she had just made, the Dark Jedi rushed her again. Her lightsaber swung quickly and accurately, lower this time, slicing to divide her into two even parts. Machwilliam didn?t think ? she just reacted. She spun away and threw herself to the ground, keeping the vibroblade steady to cover a quick counter attack. By reflex, her right hand snapped off another three shots into her opponent. They would have found their mark, had they not been expertly deflected.

?Indeed, tell me,? her opponent shouted back to her as though nothing had just happened, ?how it is that a woman of twenty-seven years is able to freely identify a Jedi, despite having spent her adult life in an era entirely devoid of them?? Machwilliam was still struggling to right herself, to return to full readiness and face her opponent once more. She was surprised to find that the other didn?t take advantage of her moment of vulnerability.

?What the hell do you want with me?? she shouted back, getting groggily to her feet. She was drained of energy already. ?What?? she repeated. In a moment of passion, she let loose another blaster bolt. This one, perfectly aimed as it was, was deflected just as accurately back at its origin. A sudden pain consumed her left side, radiating up from her leg. The fabric of her pants smouldered around a small blaster burn, flesh smoking beneath it.

?You know what I want, Detective,? her opponent said solemnly. ?I have already said it.?

Machwilliam tried to retreat from the approaching Dark Jedi but failed, falling to the ground in a heap of fatigue and pain. She managed to keep her blaster aimed directly at her attacker, but knew that it was useless. The vibroblade in her left hand was nothing more than a mild inconvenience to the intensity of a lightsaber. She was defeated.

?I was the target all along,? she said in whispers. She had no strength to use her voice.

?The Jedi are extinct, Detective Machwilliam.? Her attacker?s voice was eerily clear. ?Killed long ago. They are outdated, unnecessary. And what?s more, they are a threat. And just like any other, the best way to deal with the Jedi threat is to eliminate it as quickly as possible.?

Machwilliam tried to protest and found her voice for just a moment. ?I?m not?not a Jedi.?

?Yes, you are,? the other said, matching her softness. ?You feel the Force. You channel it for your own ends. You, Detective, are a User.?

?I?m no?threat??

The Dark Jedi knelt in front of her, lightsaber held out of sight. She met her eyes, black pupils clearly outlined by a ring of reflected red light. There was no mercy in her eyes. There was no compassion. There was only determination.

?Oh, Detective,? she said slowly, shaking her head.

Machwilliam felt her body lurch as the lightsaber buried itself in her chest. It was an intense pain ? far too intense to feel. Her senses immediately dulled, allowing her to reflect with futile concern on the severity of the injury. Her last breath filled her lungs, and she realised that when it left them she would be dead. A thousand thoughts vied for priority as her last.

But that thought was dictated for her by the words of her killer, standing triumphantly over her, red lightsaber igniting the usually lifeless colour of spilled blood. She smiled gently, admiring the job she had done, and finished her sinister eulogy.

?Any User is a threat.?

Machwilliam closed her eyes and waited for the sound of her killer?s retreating footsteps to fade away before expelling her last breath.

Chapter One

Eight Months Later

The stench of charred flesh draped over everyone in the room like a wet blanket. Smoke still wafted from the three clumped and flaking bodies in the centre of the room which occasionally popped or sizzled, still burning. People clambered in all directions, rushing to document everything before it was too altered from its original state. And amongst them all, hand gingerly hanging across his mouth, Tadgh Maitland stared motionless.

?Identities of the deceased confirmed,? an uninterested voice announced at his shoulder. Tadgh didn?t bother to identify the speaker, though his uniform belonged to standard CorSec. ?Michelczuck, Anders. Nethrington, Jesper. Uffers, Rayser. Cohabiters, apartment owned by Mr. Michelczuck. Employees at Correalis Outpost Nine.? Tadgh nodded, his eyes still locked on the black mess of bodies. The uniform CorSec officer went through the other pertinent and mundane details of their identity and fell quiet.

Employees of Outpost Nine ? they were Imperials.

And they had been burned alive.

?Have the techs had any luck with the door?? Tadgh asked.

?They have,? the officer answered. ?Just not good luck. There were no unauthorised entries ? or authorised ones, for that matter ? in the last eight hours.?

?What about the windows?? he asked, nodding in their direction. Morning light flooded through them, bathing the room in brightness that seemed out of place for such a grim scene.

?They don?t open. Fixed placements, for looking through only. Nobody came in or went out through them.?

?So basically,? Tadgh took his hand from his face and stuck it in his pocket, ?these are self-inflicted fatal burns.? It sounded ridiculous. Burns were rarely self-inflicted. If suicide was their objective, a blaster was generally less excruciatingly awful. ?It doesn?t fit.?

The uniform officer shrugged. ?That?s for you lot at Special Investigations to say, not me. Correalis might be one of Corellia?s more crime-heavy provinces, but that doesn?t mean three people burned to death is any more normal than anywhere else on this planet. And normal is the only currency I deal in.

?The forensics droids are still gathering information, but they?ll be done shortly. Anything else you need?? Tadgh shook his head and the officer walked back to his duties.

He approached the remains of the deceased men gingerly and crouched down. Heat still rose from them and swept in palpable waves across his skin. From his pocket he extracted a white handkerchief and stuck it over his mouth, pinching his nose shut. Breathing through it was uncomfortable but preferable to the stink. Examining crime scenes this closely wasn?t his specialty ? in fact, he preferred to leave close inspection of forensic evidence to the droids. But there were one too many oddities about this case that forced his hand.

The patch of carpet he was kneeling on was completely unmarked, its rich blue colour as bright as if it had just been cleaned. With three charred bodies lying only centimetres away, it seemed impossible that the carpet would have not been singed. In fact, in the entire room, the fire that had so effectively incinerated three people had scorched not a single piece of carpet or furniture. And since he wasn?t kneeling in a centimetres-deep puddle of water and fire retardant, it was safe to assume that the emergency extinguishing systems hadn?t kicked in either.

A small forensic collector droid buzzed at his side, busily taking scrapings of the corpse nearest him. It would take a few minutes to get any kind of preliminary lead on the cause of the fire, if there was any to be found. Judging from the way the men had been standing in such close proximity, flame must have overwhelmed them quickly. That would indicate an accelerant of some sort, perhaps ignited by remote.

?Hm,? he muttered to himself, standing up slowly. A final glance around the room, and he finally felt he had found the perfect word to describe the entire situation. He put his hands on his hips and nodded. ?Weird,? he declared as indisputable fact.

?Apt,? a voice agreed with him from behind. Tadgh recognised it immediately and smiled when he faced the newcomer to the scene. A man in his mid-twenties that was short in stature but long in hairstyle approached with his usual swagger and cheeky grin set on his features. Accompanying him was an uneven looking droid that had a noticeable tick. ?No wonder they made you detective while I?m stuck in Droids and Data.?

?Taban,? Tadgh nodded in greeting. ?Still saving for that haircut??

?This is very much the look at D&D,? Taban protested, running a hand through his black, unruly hair. It sat high on him and spread thickly in all directions, making him look as though he?d chosen to wear a litter of whisperkits as a hat.

?You?re the only human in D&D.?

?And consequently, I set the trends,? Taban said as he spread his hands. He?d rolled up the sleeves on his standard CorSec uniform and clipped his ID badge ? normally worn on the pocket ? to the thick band of his wrist chronometer.

?Trends are frivolous sentient creations that spread like viruses through vulnerable populations,? the imposing droid next to Taban observed bluntly. Tadgh rolled his eyes and faced the droid with the tick.

?Hi, Tack. Still operational, I see.?

?I shall outlive you, sir,? the droid replied in its deadpan electronic voice.

Taban chuckled beside him. ?Apparently he?s disgruntled today. I?ve had him scanning the CorSec frequencies all morning.?

?Scanning communication frequencies is a duty I would not bestow on the most stupid of calculators.? The droid?s head ticked to one side, and it turned away from the two men. Tadgh had learned a long time ago that even though the anatomical ?front? of the droid was facing away, it could still see them. A spherical visual receptor mounted atop its head granted the machine almost unlimited field of vision. ?And I am not fond of calculators.?

Tadgh raised his eyebrows and looked back to Taban. ?Still utterly insane, I see??


?Aha. Still doing that commentary thing?? Tadgh asked. This particular droid had a penchant for narrating recent events back at those they had happened to, often skewed through its particular brand of droid logic. It was annoying at best, and unsettling at its worst.

?Sometimes. I?ve decided to find it charming. I suggest you do as well.?

?Consider me charmed,? Tadgh said, turning away from Taban and back to the crime scene. The scorched bodies were now beset by forensic droids, and the uniformed CorSec officers were increasing in number. It would only be a matter of time before media speeders started gathering at the windows. ?So, I don?t want to be blunt, but if you just dropped by to see your big brother, now isn?t such a good time.?

Taban eyed his brother sceptically. ?Flattered though you must be to think I?ve got nothing better to do than come visit you, I?m afraid I?m here for a reason. Tack heard your name come up on the CorSec channels this morning, attached to this really...ahh...? Taban glanced at the smouldering bodies, searching for the right word.

?Disgusting,? Tack offered.

?Unique case,? Taban finished. ?And anyway, we took the liberty of doing some digging for you on the Common Data Network. ?Unique? is a good word for what we found there, too. This case has a cargo bay full of ?unique?.?

?The CDN,? Tadgh said, fixing his brother with a suspicious look.


?The secret droid network that D&D ? your department ? has proven does not exist. Several times over.?

?Uh-huh, that?s the one.?

?The CDN that?s highly illegal in principle and even more dangerous in application??


?The CDN that my brother assured me he wasn?t going to touch after the last SIn inquisition, during which he was nearly caught and sent to Kessel??

Taban?s shoulders dropped, and he put his hands on his hips. ?Yes. It?s also the CDN that?s hard-wired into Tack?s head, and has helped you put away...what are we up to now...eleven dangerous criminals??

Tadgh sighed heavily. Though the method was illegal, he couldn?t deny its effectiveness. The Common Data Network was a quirk of droid wireless communication systems, a side effect of data transmission and sharing that just happened to be one of the most vast information libraries in the galaxy. The basic theory behind it, so Taban had told him, was simple enough. Droids recorded a lot of information as they went about their daily business that could be readily shared over broadwave transmissions. To that end, any droid with a standard comlink could package information and share it with any other droid that carried a comlink. Anywhere that droids existed the CDN operated between them. Many of the droids themselves were unaware of its vastness, and even fewer humans had heard of it. Taban was one of the few.

Tadgh was defeated. ?Twelve dangerous criminals, actually,? he conceded.

?But who?s counting, right??

At that juncture, a forensic droid buzzed at Tadgh?s shoulder height. Not known for their protocol functions, the droid announced itself immediately and abruptly. ?Preliminary examination of bodies complete,? it said expectantly. Tadgh held up a hand to Taban, and turned his full attention back to the crime scene.

?Accelerants?? he asked the droid.

?No evidence of flammable substances discovered.?

?What about detonation devices? Remote incendiaries??

?No foreign objects discovered on bodies after personal effects were removed. Additionally ? no evidence of fire within search area besides that which killed the victims. No evidence of smoke damage in pertinent areas.? Tadgh grimaced. It didn?t make any kind of sense. No smoke damage?

?Isn?t there an old saying about smoke and fire?? Taban put in from behind him.

?It explains why the extinguishers didn?t activate. Can you tell me when this happened?? Tadgh asked the droid.

?Tissue degradation would indicate that the fire began approximately two hours and eleven minutes ago. Approximations in cases of fire are subject to an error margin of 30-50% due to severity of charring.?

?Two hours?? Tadgh asked, incredulous. ?They?re still burning now. How is that possible??

?I cannot speculate on such matters as no precedent exists. I am a forensic analysis droid,? it chided him.

?Right, right.? Tadgh nodded. One of the nearby bodies gave off a low-pitched sizzle at that moment. These men hadn?t so much burned to death as they had slowly smouldered away. ?Anything else from preliminary analysis??

?Charring patterns on the bodies would suggest that the first cells to suffer heat damage were located deep within each victim?s chest,? the droid said helpfully. To punctuate its report it projected a small holographic image of a male human body. A small speck of light glowed red inside the holograph?s chest, right about where the heart ought to be. ?The burning spread outward concentrically, resulting in the uneven smouldering of the bodies? extremities. The cause of said event is unknown, though similar cases of cruel and unusual torture were documented during the Clone Wars. None were as caustic.?

?Wow,? Taban said quietly. ?The droids are all depressed today.?

The forensic droid ignored the interruption. ?No more pertinent data is available without further analysis. Do you have any specific instructions, Investigator??

Tadgh looked beyond the droid once more, fought back the urge to cringe at the smell of perpetually burning people, and nodded. ?I need you to scan all this physical evidence and transmit holographic reproductions and full data analysis to SIn forensics as soon as you can. Take scans of everything.?

?CorSec forensic investigators are already on the scene ? your order is inefficient,? the droid pointed out.

?I know, but this one?s a Special Investigations case,? Tadgh countered. ?And since the three victims are Imperials, it won?t be long before they arrive to take control. Imps aren?t in the habit of sharing information with local security. SIn will need something to work with if we?re ever going to find the cause of this.?

?I will comply,? the droid said, and drifted away from eye level.

Taban walked a little closer to the pile of ash and drew level with his brother. They both regarded the remains for a moment ? a morbid moment ? before Taban let go a sigh. ?You know, its bad enough that three people were killed here. But the fact they were Imps from Nine is going to mean a big inquiry. And they are always a colossal pain in the -?

?Hey,? Tadgh cut him off. ?How did you know they were from Outpost Nine??

Taban didn?t answer verbally but rather raised an arm to point at Tack. Tadgh winced. The CDN could provide the user with almost limitless information about people?s public movements. As long as there were droids to witness those movements, of course. ?Tack backtracked their travel patterns. They were seen constantly entering and leaving Outpost Nine. Add those two together, you get the basis of my previous statement.?

?Fair enough. And I?m going to assume that if you were backtracking their movements, you started from the point they were last seen??

Taban smirked. ?Again with the sleuthing. Yes, we did. They were last seen in the hallway outside of the room here, of course. In a building like this maintenance droids are everywhere. They were arriving home from a meal, actually. Dinner at The Fronds Correalis.?

Tadgh whistled. ?Up market.?

?Yes, but the fish is dry,? Tack helpfully pointed out.

Tadgh rolled his eyes. ?Oh, come on. How can a droid possibly know that??

?I do not protest when you claim to know of electricity, human.? If a droid could pout, Tadgh suspected that is exactly the gesture Tack would be making. Well, either that or something considerably more rude.

?You guys will fight about anything,? Taban said. ?You?re like an old married couple.?

?I would prefer to marry a calculator,? Tack answered sharply.

Tadgh fixed his brother with a bewildered glance. With that glance he tried to communicate wordlessly a very specific message. A message that conveyed just how much he loved his brother and valued their close friendship, but that if his droid made one more sound he would be forced to shoot him dead where he stood.

?Uh-oh,? Taban said. ?You?ve got that ?I?m going to shoot you? expression on your face. And though your follow-through record is pretty poor, I?ll just go ahead and assume you really, really mean it this time. Tack-? the droid oriented itself toward Taban, ?just tell the important investigator what we came here to say.?

Bound by orders given by a CorSec officer, the droid complied. ?At once. The three men now grilling on the floor were last seen together at The Fronds Correalis restaurant. A reservation was made by Michelczuck, A at 1300 standard hours yesterday for 2100 hours that evening. The reservation was for four. If the investigator would prefer, I can revert back to a calculator?s duties and subtract three dead bodies from four live ones to point out the discrepancy.?

?Okay,? Tadgh said, ?so they had dinner with someone. Who??

?Well, that?s the thing,? Taban answered. ?I don?t know. Tack went through all the CDN data available, and we found nothing. Security and maintenance droids fitted with holocams all turned up nothing on the fourth guest. Plenty of images of these three,? he pointed to the charred pile, ?but nothing on the other one.?

Tadgh furrowed his brow. ?So? They booked for four and only three turned up. What?s so odd about that??

?I?ll show you,? Taban said, extracting a datapad from his pocket. ?Tack pulled this audio file from the service droid attending the table that night. Have a listen.?

He shoved the datapad into Tadgh?s hand where waiting on the screen was an expectant ?play? button. Tadgh pressed it and held the speaker to his ear. The quality of the audio wasn?t great, but good enough to make out the background din of a restaurant and the voice of the service droid.

?May I get you anything to drink, sirs, madam?? it said. Tadgh raised his eyebrows, looking to Taban for confirmation. ?Madam?? he mouthed silently. Taban spread his arms and shrugged.

The first voice to answer the droid was male. ?I think we?re fine,? the man began, but was cut off mid-sentence. Not by a voice, but by an extremely loud and ear-splitting noise that drowned out everything around it. Tadgh thrust the speaker away from his ear and swore. ?What in sithspawn hell was that?? he demanded. ?And what kind of brother lets me hold the speaker so close to my ear??

?That,? Taban said, his voice quite uncharacteristically serious, ?was our mystery fourth dinner guest. It?s like that on everything we pulled from the CDN. She doesn?t show up on holovid. She doesn?t register on audio.? Tadgh glanced down at the datapad again and cycled through the images Tack had found. Taban was right. In each shot, there sat the three men by themselves. And in each shot, there were four meals set at the table. ?For all intents and purposes, she?s incorporeal.?

Taban took the datapad back and slipped it into his pocket again. ?According to the maintenance droids here, four people entered the building tonight. And I?m willing to bet that the security vids only show three.?

A moment of silence hung in the air disturbed only by the business of the crime scene personnel. Tadgh took the moment to try and gather all the information he?d received and try to process it, difficult though it was. It made no sense to him. As technically inept as he may be, he knew it was impossible to fool security feeds and holocams in this way. There were options for blanket disruption, but to single out only one individual for jamming?

?How is it,? Tadgh said slowly, ?that an invisible woman can have a sit-down meal at a busy restaurant??

?It beats me,? Taban agreed. ?Don?t they usually they wait until after you?ve bought them an expensive dinner to disappear??

?Touche,? Tadgh said distractedly.

?It was nothing,? Taban said with a flourish. ?Now, I?ve just presented you with what is possibly the most intriguing spin on a case that you?ve had for a long time. What do you plan to do about it and, more to the point, can I come along??

?Do you promise to be useful??

?I?m the definition of useful. I?m a quick thinker, a sharp shooter and I dress impeccably. That?s three different kinds of use, all equally important in their own way.?

Tadgh snorted a laugh and nodded. For all his flippancy, his brother was a good officer that commanded his own department. Albeit a department full of space-crazy droids. ?All right, you and Tack are both with me. I?ll hand off control of the crime scene. The Imps will be here to take it shortly anyway, better that Patrol deals with them than me. Then we?ll head down to The Fronds.?

?Lunch?? Taban asked hopefully.

?Investigation,? Tadgh said firmly. ?This mystery woman might be invisible to camera, but our three dead Imperials could see her just fine. And so could the service droid. That means we can get a verbal description at least.?

?Sleuth-tastic,? Taban said.

Tack interrupted them.

?The kinsman CorSec officers, closely related yet vastly contrasting, combine their abilities to a cause. The cause is one of intrigue, a matter of justice ? they do not know why they serve it, yet they understand that they must. Three lost lives spur them to solve a case that is reduced to a single word: ?weird?. To track an invisible woman, they deign to use their eyes. The logic is absent, but the will is overriding.?

Tadgh and Taban both stared agape at Tack, who had chosen that moment to launch into one of his infamous commentaries. As Tadgh?s initial surprise wore off, ire began to replace it. His eyes narrowed at the droid that now stood as though expecting someone to congratulate him on his keen analysis of the situation. Slowly, they made their way to Taban ? and this time, the message his expression was conveying was more strongly worded than the last.

Taban smiled meekly. ?See? Charming.?

Chapter Two

The view of Correalis was always spectacular from above. Those that lived there had declared it a majestic place. A place where aesthetics came before functionality. A place where the sun glowed a gentle orange as though it was too timid to anger the locals with anything harsher. Tadgh?s favourite description of the place had been coined many years ago by his ever-poetic father ? if credits were ethics, Correalis would be a pillar of virtue.

?So anyway,? Taban said from the passenger seat, ?I had to arrest the two youths on the spot. Bizarre really ? I mean, I know all about substance abuse. But one of these guys was drinking battery fluid, and the other one was eating fireworks.?

?You?re kidding?? Tadgh said, brow raised. During the five minute speeder journey Taban had wasted no time recounting his latest tales of the weird and wonderful. Somehow, the combined severe crime tally that Tadgh had dealt with in his time with Special Investigations was never as interesting as Taban?s odd brand of police work from Droids and Data. Then again, his brother was much better at telling stories than he was. ?What did you do??

?What anyone would do when they come across people drinking battery fluid and eating fireworks,? Taban said with a dismissive wave. ?I had to charge one and let the other off.?

Of course, the other reason they were usually more interesting is because they were utterly ridiculous. Tadgh mock slapped his brother across the back of the head. ?So in other words, D&D has you bored??

?So bored,? Taban answered. ?There?s only so many cases of white collar electronic credit extortion I can bring down. That?s all that ever happens in D&D these days, especially in Correalis. All the e-terrorists have picked up and moved to Bortelles and Selonia. I?m in a rut. No burned bodies. No invisible women. No lunch at The Fronds.?

?This isn?t lunch,? Tadgh reasserted. ?You and I combined couldn?t afford it anyway.?

Taban shrugged and held out his CorSec badge. ?What about our uniform discount??

?That would be illegal, Taban. Amounts to bribery, in fact.?

His brother fixed him with a contemptuous stare. ?Need I remind you: bored??

?See, this is why I say our mother must have been the crazy one. You have to get it from somewhere, and it sure wasn?t Dad.? A moment of brief silence passed between them. It wasn?t an awkward silence ? more contemplative. They didn?t often discuss their father with each other.

?Yeah, well,? Taban said finally. ?Jedi weren?t known for their fashion sense and biting wit either, so I guess it must have been Mom. I?ll bet she was a Thespian. Or a model. Or the glamorous leader of a modest planet with a strong set of ideals.?

Tadgh snorted. ?That would explain the royalty complex.?

?And the grace,? Taban added helpfully. ?Don?t forget the grace.?

Their conversation died with the sound of the engines as they came to a stop outside of a large glass panelled building. It stood at least six stories high, and yet was entirely a ground-floor establishment. The durasteel support struts for the transparisteel windows were minimal and painted a deep off-red colour, which offset the orange glow of Correalis? sky perfectly. It was like every other building here. So unique that it fit in seamlessly.

?The construction of this establishment is inefficient,? Tack announced, breaking his journey-long silence. It was rare that Tadgh agreed with the droid. He watched steady stream of clientele pulled up to the front door of The Fronds and stepped out of expensive landspeeders. Each one of them was wearing more credits than he earned in a year.

?Maybe we should come back later,? Taban suggested, staring at the excessive beauty of the place. ?When we?ve rented suits or something.?

?We?re going now,? Tadgh said with a determined nod. ?Suits make me uncomfortable.?

?We?ll get looks,? Taban said, frowning.

?Use some of that sovereign grace and rise above it,? Tadgh suggested, and started toward the door. Taban followed at his side, with Tack plodding nonchalantly behind them. Unsurprisingly, they hadn?t made it far before some officious-looking men approached. Four in total, each of them wore a worried expression.

?Can I help you gentlemen? Are you lost?? the foremost of the men asked.

?Not if this is The Fronds Correalis,? Tadgh said, reaching for his CorSec SIn badge. He held it with a degree of smugness, like it was a backstage pass to an IONDrive concert. ?I?m Agent Maitland, from Special Investigations. This is Officer Maitland, assisting me with some inquiries. I?d appreciate it if you could take us to the manager?s office.?

All four men stopped quickly and looked between one another, silently nominating one within their ranks for the talking duties.

?The management team is not in Correalis, I?m afraid. They are attending a function in Coronet,? he said warily. ?I?m second in charge of security. Perhaps I can help you, Officers??

Tadgh smiled coolly at the man. ?We need to see the service units that were on duty last night.?

?That would be all of them, Officer. Sixty in total.?

?Unit number 43-GSFRONDS/,? Tack added without prompting.

?What it said,? Tadgh said, flicking his head in the direction of Tack. ?We?ll need to talk to any sentient staff that were on duty, too.?

?That would be the management team,? 2ic said flatly. ?I?m sorry, but they are-?

?Attending a function in Coronet, I remember,? Tadgh cut him off. ?We will still need to speak to the droid.?

Another moment of silent communication passed between the entourage of security staff. Second-in-charge couldn?t shake his spokesperson duties and finally twisted his face into an expression resembling resignation. ?That will be quite all right, Officers. Though may we ask of you one condition of entering the premises??

?Anything to preserve your clientele?s sensibilities, 2ic,? Tadgh acknowledged. This sort of thing wasn?t unheard of around Correalis. The Fronds was a very exclusive place, and to the owners there was often nothing more precious than the repeat business of those who had come to regard them as exclusive. If they started letting the likes of common CorSec detectives inside, that reputation would be marred.

The 2ic smiled. ?thank you, Officers. I think you will find this condition most agreeable.?

?We look a-mazing,? Taban said, pulling proudly on the collar of his complimentary black dress coat as they walked through the foyer of The Fronds. Having just made a short detour through what the 2ic had affectionately called ?the wardrobe department?, they now each looked at ease amongst the class of customer The Fronds was accustomed to. Sideways glances had been successfully averted.

Tadgh itched at his neck and scowled, not sure that what had just happened was normal. Stringent though entry standards may be he had never been offered a free coat for no other reason than to cover up his less-than-white-collar clothes. The temperature under it was rising, the collar scratched uncomfortably at the back of his neck, and he hated the way it licked at the back of his heels as he walked. It was only with his most powerful of calming breaths that he managed to keep his cool.

This was Correalis, after all. Aesthetics before functionality.

We?re inside, he thought. And following the lead. Concentrate on that.

?We look shifty,? Tadgh corrected.

Taban raised an eyebrow. ?Hello? We?re CorSec. Our mission statement is ?Keep head stationary, squint, look left, look right?. There may be something about protecting the innocent too, I guess.?

?Point taken.?

They managed to stroll casually through the restaurant doors and navigated their way through the affluence to where the 2ic was waiting for them. Though this wasn?t the main dining area it was still bigger than SIn headquarters by several hundred square metres. Loose groups of people were gathered in sporadic clumps, some sipping drinks and others reclining on comfortable repulsor chairs reading various digests. Apart from some light classical music, the air was surprisingly quiet and still.

?Officers,? the 2ic greeted them. He seemed quite more relaxed with their presence now. ?I see they found a perfect fit for each of you.?

?Uh-huh,? Tadgh said, eager to move off the topic. He noticed a stunted service droid beside the man and nodded in its direction. ?Is this the droid we?re looking for??

?It certainly is,? the 2ic answered. ?You are free to question it as you feel necessary. But I might ask to listen in, if you don?t mind?? Tadgh didn?t mind, and nodded an affirmative. There was nothing that the 2ic could glean from their conversation, and he may even be able to help them out if he overheard something that was familiar.

He wasn?t sure how to begin questioning a droid, and so bypassed any kind of greeting. ?You were on duty last night?? he said, looking the droid up and down. It appeared to be in fine working order.

?I am always on duty,? the unit responded.

?We?re looking for someone,? Tadgh continued. ?A woman. She was with three other men and dined here at approximately 2130 last night. Do you recall this woman?? It occurred to him that he hadn?t given the droid much information to go on, but it was always better to start generally.

?I am afraid that I served 103 human female patrons between the hours of 2100 and 2300 last night, Officer,? the droid answered. ?If you provide me a description I can run a visual check of each-?

?I can?t offer a description,? Tadgh cut it off. ?But our droid can provide you with a table number and a specific time stamp. Will that be enough??

?I believe so, Officer.?

At his side, Taban nudged a reluctant Tack forward. ?The party of four was dining at table number 309. You were directly serving them at 21:34:19:08, again at 21:48:09:11 and furthermore at 22:21:42:31.?

?I have located the party,? the droid answered. ?And no woman is present at the table. Three men are seated in all instances of recording. Four meal orders were taken for the table, however. And an order of Ithorian Alpha Wine was delivered with four glasses.?

?Do you have any memory notes taken down?? Taban butted in. Tadgh allowed him the floor - his brother knew much more about the processes of a droid memory than he. ?Physical traits? Anything that you recorded other than an image??

The droid went silent for a moment, and then continued. ?When the party was seated it was noted that all members were wearing Imperial Dress Uniform. They were seated specifically so that the grey uniform would best suit the surrounding decor. There is no mention of party numbers at that time.?

Tadgh exhaled slightly. All four wearing uniforms. Their invisible woman was an Imperial Officer. This case was fast getting more complicated than he had originally hoped. And seeing as the perpetrator was invisible, he had always expected it to be fairly complicated.

?What rank did the uniforms show?? Tadgh asked.

?Unknown. Their insignia were removed.?

?Pardon me for interrupting,? the 2ic said softly. ?But perhaps this is a matter best dealt with by security? We have holovid feeds covering every centimetre of this establishment. I am certain we-?

?No,? Tadgh said shortly, but for the sake of courtesy added a quick, ?thank you.?

?Can you bring up a text transposition of your entire interaction with the four?? Taban asked. Tadgh had to suppress an impressed snort ? he began to wonder how he would have handled the interrogation without Taban. Probably a lot more angrily.

?Unfortunately not, Officer ? my memory of such things is erased automatically at close of business each night after auditing. The central computer maintains a record of all orders, if that-?

?Won?t be necessary, thank you,? Tadgh cut the droid off. ?So you didn?t notice anything suspicious about this group? Nothing out of the ordinary??

?With respect, Officer ? I am a droid. All human behaviour is out of the ordinary to my photoreceptors.?

?Especially singing,? Tack added without inflection.

?And stretching,? the service unit concurred.

?I think we?re done here,? Tadgh said with finality. Taban looked over and nodded his agreement ? there were no further nuances to a droid brain he could think to exploit. ?thank you for your assistance, 2ic. And...the coats.?

?Anything to aid our civil protectors,? the 2ic said with over-the-top enthusiasm. ?If there is some other way we might help you, please don?t hesitate to return. Or perhaps it would be more convenient if you used the comlink. It would save you the trip.?

?Understood,? Tadgh said, making to slip the coat off and return it to the man.

?Wait!? the 2ic said urgently, stopping him in mid-movement. His eyes skipped nervously from left to right. ?Why don?t you keep the coats? As a gesture. They look good on you ? you ought to wear them a little longer. I have it on good authority that the orange Correalis sunlight sets a striking hue on the fabric-?

?Okay, okay.? Tadgh held up a hand. ?We?ll wear them until we?re out of sight.?

The 2ic looked the most relieved he had since their arrival. ?thank you so much, Officers.?

Back at the airspeeder Taban slipped on his sunshades and crossed his arms behind his back, making the best use he could of his newly acquired dark coat. ?So,? he said slowly. ?She?s invisible. She?s an Imperial. And she kills other Imperials.?

?We assume,? Tadgh said, nodding. ?It could be that she?s a perfectly placid invisible Imperial officer that got caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time.?

?We?re considering that option??

?No. I mainly said it because she could be here right now and we?d never know.?

?Good point,? Taban said, turning slightly side on and raising his voice as though he were speaking to a crowd. ?But you forgot to mention that if she hands herself in, we promise not to arrest her.? When their quarry didn?t promptly materialise in front of them both, he held up his hands in defeat.

?It was worth a try,? Tadgh said.

?Except that she?s only invisible to recording devices, huh??

?Except that, yes.?

?Right, so that leaves us...where?? Taban?s question faded suddenly as Tadgh?s comlink began chirping at him. He reached for it quickly and immediately recognised the caller frequency.

?One sec,? Tadgh said, activating the device. ?Maitland here. What?s up, Keys??

Jeanice Keyston was Tadgh?s closest colleague at the SIn office. If Special Investigations operated under the partnership system like regular CorSec, they?d have been made partners long ago. Taban perked up with a grin as soon as he heard Keys? name, and he caught his brother?s eye with a pleasant look. He began miming the action of waving, and mouthed vigorously ?Tell her I said hi.?

?Enjoying your lunch, Maitland?? the woman on the other end of the line asked.

Tadgh answered with the first thing that came to mind. ?Pricey. The fish was dry.?

?And I thought an off-the-books Imperial investigation was tough,? she remarked. ?But I see you have real problems. You want me to tell you about how the boss wants to see you now, or would you prefer to get a drink first??

?Off-the-books investigation? That doesn?t sound normal.?

?The Director doesn?t think so either, but he?s ordered me to call you in immediately.? Tadgh inhaled to ask his next question, but Keys pre-empted him. ?I don?t know what it?s about specifically, but you know Despot. Just jump through all the hoops he asks you to and he?ll look after you.?

?Right, sure,? Tadgh answered. ?How ?immediately? does he want me??

?How far away are you??

?Ten minutes by airspeeder.?

?Then he wants to see you in eight.?

?Great. One of those callbacks. I?m leaving now, thanks, Keys,? he assured her, motioning to turn the comlink off. Taban?s protest caught his eyes and he rolled them. ?Taban says hi,? he added quickly.

?Is he ever at work?? Keys asked, vexed.

?Only when he?s not busy bugging me,? Tadgh answered.

?Told him to get a haircut today yet??

?Only once. Want me to pass on your reminder too??

?Please. It?s annoying having only the second most pretty hair in CorSec.?

?Consider it done, Keys. See you in a few minutes.?

The comm line clicked off, and Tadgh replaced the comlink in his pocket. Taban was smiling wryly at him, his hands on his hips. ?She told me to get a haircut, didn?t she?? he said, nodding to himself. ?Jealousy is an ugly emotion.?

?She also told me that Despot is looking for me, which means-?

?Say no more,? Taban cut him off ?

?Lunchtime?s over.?

?Listen,? Tadgh said, bringing the airspeeder to an approach vector for the CorSec Droids and Data department. ?The investigators can?t know any of this. The CDN doesn?t exist as far as the Empire is concerned.?

?I know that better than you, you know,? Taban replied. ?And I?ve got no wish to be sent to Kessel for electronic terrorism, trust me. Too much dust, I?d go crazy.?

?Exactly. So if anyone asks you, we found nothing at The Fronds. The holovids show three officers having dinner. There was a reservation for four, so we believe the fourth person didn?t show up. Let?s keep this ?invisible woman? thing to ourselves for a while.?

?Agreed ? I have no wish to be committed to an asylum either. But tell me ? what are you going to say to the investigators? How did you know to go to The Fronds, if not for the CDN??

Tadgh opened his mouth to reply, but had no words to answer with. It was implausible to say that he had made inquiries to local restaurants because there were just too many of them ? and besides, he hadn?t known they spent the evening together. He likewise couldn?t claim witness accounts because nobody had been contacted as of yet. Short of telling Despot that he simply went there to have lunch, he was stumped.

?I?ll think of something,? he answered resolutely.

?Or,? Taban said, ?you could tell them I sliced into their credit account billing information, and the last charge on there was for The Fronds Correalis for all three of them.?

Tadgh furrowed his brow. ?Isn?t that illegal? Slicing their credit accounts??

?Not when the parties involved are dead,? Taban confirmed. ?Section 12 of the Electronic Crimes Law - in matters of CorSec investigation all credit accounts are released to the custody of the relevant authorities until such time as a legal will is instituted and the contents of said accounts are distributed to the relevant parties.? He took a deep breath after reciting so much information without pause.

Tadgh smiled out the side of his mouth. ?I?m so glad I can count on you whenever I need an e-crimes loophole,? he said, bringing the speeder to a stop at the side entrance to D&D. He glanced over at his brother. ?Thanks, Taban. I appreciate it.?

?Someone?s gotta keep your reputation intact,? Taban said, releasing the passenger hatch. ?And Sith knows it isn?t you. You can repay me by keeping me up to date with developments. I want to know what happens with Madame Invisible.?

?Consider it done,? he said with a nod. ?Likewise, you keep an eye on the CDN. Let me know if anything odd pops up.?

Taban raised an eyebrow. ?The CDN? Why Detective, you must not have heard ? it doesn?t exist!?

Chapter Three

The Special Investigations office was customarily quiet and very empty. The polar opposite of most CorSec institutions, Head Office had made a conscious decision to keep the SIn office simple and open. Floor space was plentiful, and the ceilings were high enough to make footsteps echo several times over. Huge transparisteel skylights flooded the building with natural light and gave the place a warmth that belied its morose purpose:

This was where the worst crimes in Correalis were dealt with.

Tadgh often thought that Head Office had tried, in its own administrative way, to diminish the impact of these crimes by providing such a serene environment. It worked well on some levels. The quietness of the place promoted a singular work ethic ? the ordained way of a SIn detective ? without confining officers to cubicles or offices. And there was a majesty to the place, too. Something about the stonework of the walls and the way the light caught the dust in the air up high...being here, one felt important.

?Maitland,? a female voice called to Tadgh as he passed the security checkpoint in his section. He snapped his head around to face the speaker and hastened toward her. The fellow officer sat with excellent posture at her desk, light brown hair falling across her face on one side. As usual, her expression was the definition of serious. ?Nice coat.?

?Keys,? he addressed her. ?I got here quick as I could. What?s going on??

?What?s going on,? she said as she stood, ?is that someone inconsiderately discovered three smoking Imperial officers in our jurisdiction. That seems to have raised some flags over at Outpost Nine.? In the past Keys had been described by many as ?blunt?. As a CorSec officer, there were none better at getting to the bottom of a crime so quickly. As a colleague, there were none better at pointing out stupid questions.

?So, the investigators are here already??

?Not investigators,? Keys shook her head and walked from behind the table. ?Not Imperial ones, anyway. They?ve sent a civilian. No official rank, but her credentials and work orders are all legitimate. She?s with Director Despotov right now.?

Tadgh narrowed his eyes a little. ?No rank? So who does she answer to??

Keys shrugged marginally. ?Nobody that we know. There?s been no official report or statements taken, she hasn?t asked to see the case records. Yet, anyway. All she?s done is speak to Despot.?

Tadgh shook his head. ?Doesn?t sound legitimate to me,? he said firmly.

Keys raised her eyebrows and produced a datapad from her pocket. On the screen there was an official document signed by the local commander of Imperial Outpost Nine. Tadgh didn?t have time to read it, but he could guess as to its nature. ?Every time we ask for confirmation, we get it,? Keys answered him. ?Outpost Nine got sick of us asking, so we went over their heads to the Inscrutable. Confirmation came back in seconds.?

Tadgh sighed. Communications with the Inscrutable ? the Imperial warship in direct command of Corellian operations ? were never that fast except in very important cases. The Imperials really wanted their cooperation on this.

?They want to see you pretty quick,? Keys said, indicating with her head the direction of Despotov?s office. ?Which is why I?m going to rush when I tell you about how I?ve been doing your case homework for you.?

Tadgh smiled at her, a lop-sided grin. One of the advantages of operating with an incredibly to-the-point officer was the way they always picked up the slack. Though in this case she seemed a little premature about it ? the case wasn?t old enough to have gathered any slack. Nonetheless, she extended her hand and passed him a datacard.

?From the Imperial Network ? hush hush. A list of any cases with similar circumstances. Not many, but enough to work with. Check it over when you have time.?

?You?re my hero, Keys.?

?Get going,? Keys said as she sat down, returning to her own work as effortlessly as she had left it. Her face remained neutral, but Tadgh had been working with her for a long time. He could spot the subtle differences that betrayed her mood at any given moment, and right now she was quite satisfied with herself. He forgave her for it ? this was fast work, even by her standards.

?Tell you all about it,? he promised, tucking the datapad into a small pocket in the long black coat he had forgotten to take off. It would have to do for now, he didn?t have time to stop and remove it. As fair a man as Director Despotov was, when he gave orders he expected them to be followed explicitly. It was a hallmark of a good Director, yet also of an annoying boss. He?d taken as much flex time as he could talking to Keys. Any longer spent in delay would mean some kind of penalty ? money, dud duties or just old-fashioned yelling.

For as long as he?d worked with Despot, Tadgh had viewed him with a dichotomous attitude that he couldn?t quite ever define. There was respect there ? a lot of respect. His record spoke for itself. Despot was old enough to have been involved in the Clone Wars and had served Corellia with great distinction. And then, as the leader of Special Investigations, he had almost single-handedly driven organised gangs out of Correalis. No small feat on a planet like Corellia.

Law and Order were Despot?s second and third most favourite words, only just beaten to the top by Justice. ?Democracy?, ?Freedom? and ?Necessary Force? were also most likely amongst the top ten.

He was a true relic of his age. A man who found non-humans to be useful, but still beneath his entire respect. Admittedly, at least that was better than the all-out racist policies that Palpatine?s New Order was indoctrinating. Often times, Despot couldn?t make the distinction between what was just and what was fair. But to his credit, that was probably what made him the good Director that he was.

Tadgh took a deep breath as he placed his thumb against Despot?s office door. The mechanism chirped with acceptance and rolled upward to allow him entry. The smaller confines of the office made him feel immediately more conspicuous.

From behind his desk, Despot?s eyes darted to the new arrival. ?You?re late, Maitland.? He looked supremely uninterested as he added his next comment, drenching it with sarcasm. ?Nice coat.?

?Sorry, Director,? Tadgh replied, his eyes straying to the figure that was seated facing away from him. Thick, short blond hair was arranged in a very dishevelled fashion. It was strange to see an Imperial officer not adorned in the standard grey hat. And in fact, stranger still, this officer didn?t seem to be wearing a uniform at all. ?I was investigating the-?

?Tell it to someone with a hand,? Despot ordered, pointing to the unoccupied chair opposite him. Tadgh winced. His director, as good at commanding as he was, had a tendency to make a lot of speech gaffes. This time, Tadgh was pretty sure he?d meant to say either ?tell it to someone who cares? or ?talk to the hand?. He was, humorously enough, entirely oblivious to this. ?This is Investigator Bastian, she?s here to find out what you know about this morning?s discovery. Investigator Bastian, this is Detective Maitland.?

Tadgh fought the urge to recoil with surprise as he caught sight of the investigator?s face. He had been expecting one of the usual hard cases that came out of Imperial Intelligence ? aged workhorses with one too many scars to be fetching. One glance at her immaculately groomed features and the delicate lines of her face proved him utterly wrong. The hair he had mistaken for dishevelled was in fact carefully designed and styled to frame her face. And her face ? the perfect mix of angles and curves, exquisitely constructed.

?Pleasure to meet you, Detective,? she said, jutting out a hand.

Tadgh wasted no time in accepting it. ?Likewise you, Investigator.?

?Please, call me Cill.?

She had thrown him off guard already, and she knew it. Her physical beauty was like a weapon that she could use to disarm her enemies in a moment. Either she was a particularly good investigator or Imperial Intelligence had finally figured out the way to make a human male spill his deepest, darkest secrets.

Despot looked on with a burning intensity. ?I?m sure that Keyston has already filled you in on the situation, Maitland,? Despot said. He was ever the perceptive man. ?Investigator Bastian is a special commission from Imperial Intelligence. She has-?

?Excuse me Director,? she interrupted, ?but I am quite capable of talking directly with the detective.? Her voice was much deeper and more authoritative than her appearance would give her credit for. Despot quieted at the sound of it, eyes narrowing just slightly. He hated being talked over ? but he hated disrespect for authority even more.

Bastian faced Tadgh more directly, one leg crossed over the other. ?I am here because Imperial Outpost Nine has commissioned me to determine the cause of death of three of their officers. Officers that were discovered burned to death in an expensive apartment in the early hours of the morning. You were the attending officer on this case, yes??

Tadgh cleared his throat. ?I am the supervising detective, yes.?

She smiled gently, absently playing with a datapad in her left hand. Self-consciously he reached inside his coat and tucked the illegal datacard a little deeper into his pocket. ?Of course you are,? she said.

?Not that there has been a case developed yet,? he added quickly. ?The men were only discovered a few hours ago.?

He had dealt with Imperial Investigators before and knew just how carefully he would have to toe around this issue. Of course he had a lot of information he could offer, but what would an Investigator make of an invisible Imperial officer dining with three dead men? And furthermore, if either she or Despot discovered that they had been accessing a network the size of the CDN he would most likely be sent packing to Kessel for breaching the privacy of every being on Corellia.

?Naturally.? She nodded. ?Though I was informed that you were already following a lead. Is this true?? Her questions were to the point but her demeanour was very relaxed. Her posture was inviting and friendly, and her smile was ever-present.

A good interrogator, he thought. He felt as though he could tell her anything and she?d not only forgive him, but invite him out for dinner. An odd power that she wielded ? and a dangerous one.

?The smallest of leads,? he answered, choosing his words. ?We discovered that the last place the officers had been seen was at a restaurant in inner Correalis. We went to speak to the staff to see what we could find out. Routine stuff unfortunately.?

??We?, Detective? Who was with you?? she asked. He cursed silently.

?A fellow officer ? Taban Maitland.?

?Oh, a relative??

?My brother.?

?But your brother does not work in this department??

?Certainly not,? Director Despotov interrupted. ?He is regular CorSec ? from Droids and Data ? and is definitely not qualified to accompany Special Investigations in their duties.? The look in his eye was deadly. The reality was that, if he couldn?t get angry with the investigator, Despot would happily take his frustrations out on Tadgh.

?He was aiding my inquiries,? Tadgh replied enigmatically.

?I see,? Bastian stated, tilting her head slightly. ?How so??

He resisted the urge to squirm. ?I needed him to access the billing information on all the officers? credit accounts. It was how we discovered where they had been last seen before they died.? Even under the intense stare of Imperial eyes, the lie held up well.

?You are aware that accessing the credit accounts of Imperial officers is an indictable offence?? she asked, her expression not venturing away from the amicable.

?Not when they are deceased,? Despot cut her off. ?My officers do not act illegally, Investigator ? I will testify to that.?

Tadgh suppressed a pang of guilt behind a stony face.

The investigator turned to Despot and snorted a quiet laugh through her nose ? a laugh that suited her, Tadgh decided. ?Director, I appreciate your want and need to be involved in this matter, but I wonder if I could ask you to give us some privacy, please??

Tadgh immediately turned his eyes to the Director, waiting to see the reaction. This was probably a manoeuvre to try and isolate him, to get her hooks further into him while the Director wasn?t present. But then again, there was a satisfaction on her face that was the portrait of a person on a power trip. Despot wouldn?t like this.

?This is my office, Investigator.?

?I would be happy to continue this conversation somewhere else.? She didn?t miss a beat, and her eyes didn?t waver. Tadgh suddenly felt he was the unwanted witness to a murder, in the company of two dangerous criminals arguing over what to do with him. Maybe he was being melodramatic.

?We have interview rooms,? Despot conceded quietly, managing to make it seem as though he was conceding nothing.

Bastian?s eyes flashed and her smile twitched wider. ?That will be perfect.?

Garrison 03 North ? Yaga Minor
Security Report
Re: Death of Troopers YM-2360 and YM-2375.

Jeanice Keyston set her cup of caf aside and read through the report again while she was waiting for the comm to ring. Since she had heard of the deaths of the officers that morning she had been digging for as much information she could find, especially given the strange circumstances surrounding their deaths. A search for suspicious deaths of Imperial personnel had returned countless entries ? a side effect of having so many enemies. Though a certain few had been of special interest.

Troopers YM-2360 and YM-2375 discovered off-base at 24:31 by civilian party. Reported to local police force and medical centres. Report (Yaga Minor Security Office #328770) attached. Contact supervising officer BIRCHAM, Gazz ? local freq. 302-4003-43. (officer deceased).

The report she was reading was dated eight months ago and was, as usual, bogged down in the usual Imperial bureaucratic rhetoric. But in the relevant places, correlations were starting to appear.

Medical Reports conclusive ? C.O.D: Suffocation.
No physical evidence of foul play.
No biological indicators of pre-existing conditions.
No internal or external trauma.
Circumstances inconclusive.

She raised her caf to her lips and blew the steam away. She couldn?t quite put her finger on it, but something was wrong with this report. She had found several like it ? Imperial officers dead with no official circumstances ever recorded. That in itself was not out of the ordinary. Working at Special Investigations, she knew that there could be hundreds of cases with no official circumstances recorded, but generally it was after extensive investigation and the exhaustion of every lead.

This report was half a page long.

No follow up, no further attempt to discover what might have happened. Witness accounts, holocam recordings, holonet communiques ? nothing. Just a half page report that, summarised without loss of potency, said, ?We don?t know what happened?.

Imperials were not usually so lax. Something wasn?t right.

Beside her the comm unit rang, and she picked up immediately. ?Keyston,? she answered. The caller identity said that this was coming from the Correalis CorSec Mortuary. This particular frequency was all too familiar to her.

?Hi, Jeanie,? was the reply. She rolled her eyes at the nickname, but smiled gently.

?Hi, Marryt.?

?Sorry I missed your call - what can I do for you, hon?? Marryt asked, his voice sing-song casual.

?Rough day today, I just need your medical opinion on a couple of deceased.?

?I love the fun calls.?

?No, you?ll hate this one ? I can?t give you much to go on.?

?When can you ever??

?There was one I distinctly remember ? inflamed joints, red eyes, fluid leaking from the nose-?

?Hon, there?s a slight difference between interpreting cause of death and diagnosing you with the flu.?

?Oh yeah,? she said, chortling. It had been phone calls like this during the course of her four years at SIn that had led to their marriage. Her guard was always lowered with him ? she felt comfortable, even when describing the morbid circumstances of murder to him. It made for a great ?how we met? story at parties. ?The point is, though: shut up and listen.

?Cause of death: suffocation. No physical evidence of foul play. No biological indicators of pre-existing conditions. No external or internal trauma. What do you make of it? Because to me, it sounds bizarrely like these guys just held their breath till they died.?

There was brief silence from the other end of the comm, the sound of a console being used dimly audible. ?Well, from what you?ve given me that seems like one possible conclusion. No internal trauma ? is that inclusive of foreign substances? Toxins? Fluid in places it shouldn?t be??

?I can only go on the report ? there?s no medical file attached.?

?Hm,? Marryt said. ?Well, in the absence of a toxicology or any kind of analysis to go on, I?m going to go ahead and assume it was one of those two things. Holding your breath until you die is more or less impossible. There are poisons that will stop you breathing. Hell, there?s brands of spice in circulation that?ll have you convinced you don?t need to breathe.?

?Yes, I suppose,? she answered weakly.

?Everything okay, hon?? he asked, concerned.

?Like I said, rough morning ? I?ve been looking at strange cases lately, it?s doing my head in. And the Imps are breathing down our necks today. Inconvenience, but I think I?ll survive.?

?If you feel as though you won't, just comm me. I can save your life in more than just medical ways.?

Keys rolled her eyes again. Marryt was what she would refer to as ?quaint?. He had a basic sense of humour that led him to believe he was being extremely clever with his words. It was charming, even if he didn?t realise it.

?Thanks,? she said, smile spreading. ?I?ll see you tonight.?

?Good luck, hon,? he said, and the comm clicked off. She held it in her hand a while and sighed, allowing her moment of escapism to linger. Just for a minute, she wasn?t in the SIn office with a console full of Imperial Reports. She was just another citizen, with average concerns. Suddenly, she found herself wishing she had asked him what was for dinner.

But dinner would have to wait, she decided as she returned to work. Her face became just as unreadable as it always was in the office, and she focused herself on the matter at hand with renewed vigour. Sometimes, just for a minute a day, it was good to be a regular person.

Chapter Four

?Comfortable?? Investigator Bastian asked, taking a seat opposite Tadgh. They had taken up seating in one of the smaller interview rooms at SIn headquarters. She had requested that the monitoring equipment in the room be turned off for reasons that he could only guess. Curiously, she had chosen to put him on the side traditionally occupied by the questioning officer.

?Fine, thanks,? Tadgh answered, trying to avoid her eyes.

?I?m sorry for this shuffling of venues,? she continued, reclining. Her attire stretched comfortably with her, sliding up at the hip to reveal a short hold-out pistol. This she pretended not to notice. ?I feel our discussion will be more productive free from the stringent protocol that is required by your Director. In here, you can say anything you want to me. It is not on record.?

As if to accentuate her point, she reached into her pocket and extracted a small cylindrical device. It looked like a standard comlink but was rigged with a device that he recognised all too well ? a mass disruptor. Any comm or holo transmissions coming in or out of this room would be so distorted that not even the best CorSec computers could decipher them.

?Well, that?s a relief ? I was going to conceal my secret plans to blow up Coruscant, but if it?s not on record...?

?You like humour, do you?? she asked, disinterested.

?My brother?s influence,? he answered, immediately wishing he hadn?t mentioned Taban again.

She must have caught his uneasiness ? she extraced her datapad and activated it. ?Ah yes, Taban Maitland,? she said slowly, perusing the screen. ?Director of Correalis CorSec Droids and Data division. Aged 25 years. CorSec officer for six years. Has a distinguished history of success in matters of electronic crime, but is constantly reprimanded for...? She paused, looking dubiously from the readout to his eyes. ?Breaking acceptable dress code??

Tadgh met her gaze and found the bravado to shake his head. ?Is there some relevance to this?? She seemed quick to ignore the fact that three Imperial officers were dead. While he didn?t like to promote himself too grandly, his years of experience in SIn led him to conclude that suspicious deaths were more important than dress code violations.

?Regarding dress codes, no,? she conceded, freezing the datapad readout on Taban?s I.D holograph. ?But you?ll notice that I have been polite enough to, so far, avoid asking you how he arrived so quickly on the crime scene without being called there.?

Tadgh was momentarily struck dumb, but he knew he had to recover quickly. He had no real answer for her, and she probably knew it ? a quick check of his comlink activity would reveal he had not made a call to Taban?s department at any time. He could try and lie his way out of it by citing hearsay and word-of-mouth, but that would get into sticky territory. All his cornered mind could conjure at that moment was to go on the offensive.

?And you?ll notice that I?ve been polite enough not to ask how Imperial Intelligence managed to get ahold of this case so quickly, particularly when there was no official communication from CorSec,? he said, crossing his arms slowly over his chest. ?We make a polite pair, you and I.?

Her smile didn?t waver and probably never would. It was plastered on. ?That we do, Detective. I note that you have also been polite enough not to ask how Imperial Intelligence could have commissioned an investigator from Coruscant to arrive here so quickly, especially given that the travel time alone would mean I left twenty hours before the three men were found. Though if you were to ask me those questions, I would answer.?

Once again, he found himself without words. He hated being one step behind. A sigh escaped his lips. ?I assumed you were attached to the Inscrutable,? he offered.

?Assumptions can make a fool of the wisest of men, Detective,? she replied. ?Though in this case, you are close to the truth. I was on assignment to the Inscrutable for an unrelated matter. I was given special dispensation to break from regular duties and investigate these deaths.?

?Okay,? Tadgh said, still struggling to find relevance to her words.

?I need to get something straight with you, Detective,? she said, voice dropping in both pitch and volume. ?I?m not here to try and bait you. I am not here to investigate your methods or practices. I am simply here to discover the extent of knowledge you have about the deaths of three officers, and to determine who else had access to that knowledge.?

Tadgh couldn?t shake his wariness. She tossed the datapad casually on the table and leaned forward, glancing from side to side as she did so.

?It?s an awkward job,? she said, her voice suddenly losing all pretence at professionalism. In fact, she had even reverted to an accent that Tadgh assumed was her native one ? some strain of Adumarian, though he thought he could make out some Alderaanian inflection here and there. ?I know that CorSec doesn?t appreciate Imperial intervention.?

?Oh, you noticed,? Tadgh commented dryly.

?But nevertheless,? she said, nodding once in acceptance of his comment, ?I have to follow orders. Try to appreciate, Detective ? three men are dead. Three of our men. They were doing nothing wrong. All they did was their duty ? just like me.? She eyed him closely, moving her head from side to side. ?Just like you.?

Tadgh lowered his eyes.

Imperial investigators were always more trouble than he felt like dealing with. If they weren?t the officious kind of egomaniacs that had recently been appointed ?CorSec liaison officers?, they were this kind of professional ? too damn caring to work for the Empire. They were a crafty bunch ? if their intimidation tactics didn?t work, they would appeal to morality to get what they wanted. It was one of the galaxy?s greater ironies that the Empire could do such a thing.

Tadgh sighed. ?I understand, of course.?

?I know you do,? she said. ?And I know that you?re only interested in getting this interview over with so that we can both get back to more important things. So here is my proposition for you: you answer my only two questions, and then you can leave. Anything else, I?ll deal with the reports you file. Acceptable??

She was definitely more blunt than any other Imperial officer he?d dealt with ? something that he appreciated in a basic way ? and her proposal suited him just fine. He nodded for her to continue, and prepared himself to recount the details of the morning. Adequately censored for Imperial ears, of course.

?Do you suspect foul play in the deaths of the three officers?? she asked, eyes boring into his. This question he could answer freely.

?It?s hard to say,? he said. ?From what I can gather, there is no way that foul play could be involved ? there were no accelerants or incendiaries of any kind on the bodies, and the apartment door hadn?t been opened since the three men entered it. That leaves very little scope for foul play.?

He scratched his chin as he spoke, feeling a day?s worth of stubble starting to peek through the skin. ?But then again, what other explanation is there? There was no smoke damage to the apartment ? no other burn damage except that on their flesh. I can?t imagine that all three men would inflict these burns on themselves, and that leaves me with very little in the way of explanation. But it?s still very early yet ? as I mentioned before.?

She nodded as he spoke, and her attention was finely tuned to him. It was like she was absorbing every word and trying to dissect it for the clues it might give her ? clues that he had missed.

?Very well,? she said slowly. If the circumstances of the case had seemed in any way odd to her, she was hiding it well. He was reminded forcefully of the detective noir holovids he had seen, where the frail-looking female forensic officer performed the most disgusting of operations with nonchalance. ?Last question ? you mentioned you were following the lead to The Fronds Correalis. Talk me through it, start to finish. Bring me around to your way of thinking.?

Carefully, he thought. He could very easily end this interview by claiming that they had found nothing of interest, but that wouldn?t help in the long run ? she could always follow up on it herself. And when she did, she would find some very odd holocam footage of three men eating at a table for four.

?Officer Maitland legally,? he stressed the word, ?lifted the billing information from their credit accounts, as I stated earlier. We discovered all three men had eaten at The Fronds Correalis together, and we went to see what we could find out from the staff. Which, it turns out, was very little.?

?And that was the extent of it?? she asked.

?Well, not quite ? we did discover something odd about the whole situation. The three officers had made a reservation for four, and according to the record logs all four of them turned up. The holocam footage was clear though ? only the three officers were there.?

Her eyes seemed to be searching his as he spoke, but he was certain she was merely struggling to come to grips with what he was talking about. Her hand jutted out and grabbed hold of the datapad she had tossed to the table, and she began punching in notes.

?You believe the records were incorrect?? she asked.

?Not as such, no,? he answered. ?The holocam footage also clearly shows four meals set at the table that they were sitting at. I can only guess what that means ? whether the fourth party had to leave extremely early or something similar. But it does raise the question of who that fourth person was and whether or not they can shed any light on the murders.?

Her left eyebrow raised independently of her right. ?Murders? I thought you weren?t willing to suspect foul play??

?Slip of the tongue ? you know what I meant.?

?Yes,? she said pensively. Her datapad fell back to the table, and she brought a grey-gloved hand to her temple. She messed the hair at her temple in her haste to massage it. ?Well, your two questions are up ? painless, wasn?t it??

Tadgh?s mouth twitched to a half-smile. ?More or less ? are you certain that?s it??

?Oh yes,? she said authoritatively, standing from the table. ?Like you have said, the case is only hours old. If you had any more information than this I?d be suspicious.? She meant it as a joke, he was sure ? and he reacted accordingly. It wouldn?t do to let her know that what she thought was an absurd observation was nothing of the sort.

?Well, I wish I knew more. If you need anything else, you know how to get in touch,? he said, finally finding the courage to stand. A great release had taken hold of him and suddenly his thinking wasn?t clouded by the fear of being caught. The wary attitude and stand-offish manner he?d had at the beginning of the interview subsided considerably.

?I certainly do, Detective Maitland,? she said, stepping forward to shake his hand. ?Maitland...? She trailed off. ?The name sounds familiar to me.?

?Oh?? Tadgh replied, accepting her hand. Even through her gloves he could tell her skin was softer than most. ?It?s not a very common name.?

She bit her bottom lip, concentrating. ?Any relation to Jericho Maitland??

Tadgh hesitated and tried to conceal his surprise ? after all, she was an intelligence operative. It was her job to know things, and that probably extended to a family history of the people she was going to interrogate. It had just been such a long time since anybody, excluding himself and Taban, had ever mentioned his father.

?I?m his son,? he answered. ?How did you know?? Adding that question to the end was a courtesy only ? it saved her the awkwardness of having to admit up front that she had thoroughly dug into his past.

?Amazing,? she said, her brown eyes drifting out of focus for a moment. ?I used to know him quite well.?

It wasn?t the answer he?d expected. ?You did? When??

?During the Clone Wars,? she said, her lip curling slightly. ?I served under him for a short time. He commanded the home defence on Drall...? she trailed off, realisation dawning. ?But of course, I don?t need to tell you. Suffice it to say he was a good man ? and I?m sorry for your loss. The demise of the Jedi was a sad day for the galaxy.?

Tadgh shrugged easily, having had many years to adapt to his father?s death. ?My father wasn?t a Jedi. He was exiled when he married my mother.?

Bastian?s eyes seemed to glow. ?He may not have held the title,? she said, releasing his hand. ?But he was a Jedi in every way that mattered.?

A moment of silence hung in the air as each tried to figure out the best thing to say next. Tadgh didn?t really want to intrude on her nostalgia ? the Clone Wars had forged strong bonds amongst those that had stood in battle. He?d met many people who had known his father, and their reaction often was similar to this. Never, though, had he seen an Imperial investigator so open about her history in the war.

?It was a pleasure to meet you, Detective,? she said finally, turning to walk out of the room. ?The galaxy could use more Maitlands. I hope to see you again.?

Feeling as though he had just dodged a salvo of proton torpedos, he sat heavily once more in the interview room and sighed. For once the galaxy had smiled on him and sent an investigator that actually liked him. Counting his blessings, he got up, left the interview room and didn?t stop walking until he found himself standing in front of Keys? desk. She looked up expectantly and he grinned.

?You will never believe what just happened.?

?At a loose end, the case of the invisible woman goes unsolved for yet another hour. Alone at his desk, the officer should be occupied with other duties and yet cannot concentrate until his lust for closure is satisfied. The ubiquitous network, usually so reliable, has not lived up to reputation ? for how does one use cameras to find what the eye cannot see? How long will persistence prevail? A battle rages between-?

?Tack,? Taban said sharply from his desk, ?your vocoder is in serious jeopardy right now.?

?Apologies, Officer,? the droid answered, ceasing immediately with the twisted commentary he had been providing at sporadic intervals. ?I merely meant to suggest that my search programs have been running for two hours now to no avail.?

Taban sighed and stood. Tack was right ? using the CDN to try and find evidence of a woman who didn?t show up on holocam was nigh on impossible. ?This is like trying to find a needle in a mountain of Kholm-Grass.?

?A needle with a cloaking device,? Tack corrected.

?That is constantly moving and has sentient intelligence,? Taban took the metaphor to the extreme. There had to be a better way to do it than simply looking and hoping. Tack had sent a general inquiry out over the CDN, which in theory was a good idea ? except that most droids were unaware that they were connected to the CDN and would never even be listening for it. And of the small percentage of droids that did receive it, a yet smaller fraction of those would be equipped to discern the difference between what their sensors picked up and what their photoreceptors recorded. He?d hit something of a wall.

?Suggestions, anyone?? he asked out loud. The only thing he got in the way of an answer was a blank stare from those droids that were close enough to hear him. Just like every other time. ?No? Fantastic. Great job gang - back to work with you.?

He liked to think that the reason that they turned back to their consoles was because of his order rather than sheer coincidence.

Chapter Five

Tadgh scratched at his ears and cursed the way the silence was weighing so heavily on them. The SIn office had been an anti-climax after the morning he?d had ? though admittedly, it was hard to top the discovery of three dead Imperial officers, possibly at the behest of an invisible woman. He had been ordered by Despot to keep his activities low key for the remainder of the day ? an order that generally meant ?don?t move from your desk?. And so, he called up the next report that Keys had found for him and began reading.

Casework could be tedious at times. He had spent as much time as he could relating the events of his interrogation to Keys, who was just as surprised as he that Bastian had been a fan of his father?s. With her typical cynicism, she had scoffed.

?Probably a ploy to get you onside. Be careful.?

He had promised that he would be.

There was a note from her scrawled on the outer cover of the next report. This one is promising, it said. She had attached it to a case file straight out of Bortelles Special Investigations, a neighbouring jurisdiction that they dealt with frequently. The file was dated eight months ago, not so long that the officers involved would have trouble recalling it. And Bortelles was close by, making a follow up investigation possible.

He scrolled through the pertinent details of the case and finally hit on a cause of death ? officially, the victim in question had starved inside of a durasteel shipping container. A container that, from all indications, had been unlocked at all times during the victim?s drawn-out death. And yet strangely, the case file mentioned evidence of a frantic struggle by the victim to escape ? broken fingernails, torn skin, scratch marks on the interior, crude lever devices fashioned from what little materials he could find.

Just like the morning?s case, it didn?t add up ? and just like that case, the victim had been an Imperial officer. This one was from Outpost Six, the local garrison for Bortelles.

The connection was flimsy, but he didn?t need much to get him out of the office. A trip to Bortelles would be a good substitute for Despot?s ?low profile? order ? as long as he was out of Correalis, he couldn?t get into any trouble. Not with the Correalis department, anyway.

Further down the report, he found the name of a senior detective in charge of investigation ? a Carthey Machwilliam. There was no direct comm frequency listed for contact, but it did provide her operating number and the address of her department. Finding her would not be a problem.

After sitting for more than an hour he stood, stretching, and ejected the datacard from his console. After throwing his new black coat onto his shoulders and securing his blaster in its holster, he moved towards Keys? desk. ?Feel like taking a trip?? he asked, flicking the datacard to her. She didn?t need to ask where they were going.

?You drive.?

As they left, she didn?t notice the comm unit at her desk blinking silently at her.

Marryt Dunns left the message on his wife?s answering service and replaced the receiver on the comm unit. She was rarely sitting at her desk, he hadn?t expected her to answer. He could call her personal comm but it wasn?t really necessary. She?d get the message in good time, and besides, his hands were tied. The Imperial investigator had arrived some time ago with orders from Despot that she be given access to the forensic data on the three dead bodies ? his wife?s confirmation was really just for his own peace of mind.

The investigator reappeared at the door to his office and knocked. ?Doctor Dunns?? she asked, a slight smile on her face. ?I must say your name makes for wonderful alliteration.?

She was annoyingly facetious for an Imperial. ?Can I help you with something else?? he asked with a neutral expression.

Investigator Bastian?s smile didn?t falter. She entered the room and sat opposite him, hands cradling a datapad. ?Actually, you can. I need to see any medical records you have for Tadgh and Taban Maitland,? she said matter-of-factly.

He couldn?t hide his confusion. ?Excuse me?? he asked, trying not to laugh. The relevance of this to the case of three dead Imperial officers escaped him. ?See what??

?Medical records,? she repeated, hitting the ?activate? button on her datapad, ?for Tadgh and Taban Maitland.? She held the screen toward him where shone the holographs of the two CorSec officers. He furrowed his brow and looked between the screen and the investigator.

She can?t honestly believe she has access to those files, he thought.

?I?m sorry, I think I am still a bit confused ? you want to-?

?See,? she pointed to her eyes, ?the medical records,? she pointed to a group of datacards on his table, ?for Tadgh and Taban Maitland,? she emphasised the datapad once more. ?Please don?t make me pantomime any further.?

He kept his tone professional while still managing to convey the extent of his incredulity. ?I?m sorry Investigator ? I think you may have been misled. Your authority does not extend to CorSec personnel files, and even if-?

?Excuse me, Doctor,? she cut him off. ?Director Iqbal Despotov has given me authority to access the medical facilities here as I see fit.? Forgetting her aversion to pantomime for a moment, she waved the authority paper under his nose. ?And I see fit to access the medical files of these two officers.?

?I respectfully disagree,? Marryt insisted, refusing to be baited. ?And, if you will let me finish, even if you did have authority to access that information I couldn?t help you. CorSec medical files are dealt with by an entirely different department. This is the post-mortem unit ? I deal in dead people.?

He was stretching the truth to meet his own ends. Certainly it was true that he wasn?t a CorSec physician, but he was lying about not being able to help her. At the push of a button he could call up any medical file on any registered citizen on Corellia. But that information was covered by strict privacy laws that not even Imperial authority could override. This investigator was out of line.

And by the look on her face, he deduced that she knew it.

Her eyebrows almost met in the middle. ?You would refuse an order from an Imperial Intelligence operative??

He remained steely. ?I believe that?s what I just did, yes. At least until I get some formal approval from the relevant authorities ? and I do mean relevant, Investigator.?

Her words were tinged with venom. ?It would be easier to allow me access right now,? she said, her voice dropping in pitch. ?It would save a lot of bureaucratic nonsense. Just give me the files.?

For a second ? a remote second ? Marryt considered agreeing and handing over the files, though he couldn?t quite put his finger on his reasoning. Perhaps her veiled threat had momentarily shaken him, or perhaps he had just thought the fight not worth winning. But in the end, his sense of duty won out. The second that laws were flouted by those who claimed to be in power was the second that society chose to crumble into lawlessness.

?I?m going to have to ask you to leave my office, Investigator,? he said flatly. ?I cannot help you with this. Until you have special dispensation from either Internal Affairs or from Head Office, your authority here is limited to that which you have already exercised.?

She stood hastily and glared blaster bolts at him. ?Your defiance has been noted, Doctor,? she announced. ?Be careful, lest you find yourself under investigation.? Without another word, she slipped from the room. She didn?t stop to look any longer at the dead bodies of the Imperial officers, proceeding instead straight to the end of the corridor and to the turbolifts.

Marryt sighed as he watched her go, confusion and excitement swimming in him. He?d never had something like that happen before. The forensics lab was generally one of the more docile places on Correalis because all the criminals there were already dead. Had the issue not been quite so serious, he might have allowed himself a smile.

But as it stood, Despot would need to hear about this ? as soon as possible.

?Excuse me, Officer,? Tack?s voice cut through the silence, jolting Taban out of a light snooze.

?I?m awake,? he said as though it wasn?t a total lie. ?What?s up??

?I thought you would interested to know that the discovery rate of instances of invisible beings on the CDN has increased from zero to one,? Tack said in an all-too-roundabout fashion. Taban sprang from his seat toward Tack and intently studied the console that he was currently connected to.

?You found her? Where? When? How??

?I believe you left out ?who? and ?what?,? Tack said helpfully.

?Where!? Taban insisted, resisting the urge to slap Tack on the side of the head. Now was not the time for quirkiness.

?A CorSec traffic camera recently took this holograph of an airspeeder in downtown Correalis that was captured travelling over the speed limit for a built-up area. The holograph of the cockpit clearly shows no sentient being in control of the craft,? Tack reported diligently, for once leaving out any kind of odd comment or twisted logic. On the console in front of Taban, the holograph in question appeared and he nearly lost balance.

That?s her, he thought anxiously. The holograph was unmistakable ? an airspeeder driving erratically without any discernible driver. The cockpit was empty, and yet the engines were clearly active. That?s our invisible woman.

?What?s the status on this image?? Taban asked quickly. ?Does CorSec Patrol have this yet??

?No,? Tack answered. ?It will be several days before this image is processed to CorSec traffic control. The droids that capture these holographs are not much smarter than your average calculator I?m afraid, and know nothing of expediency.?

Taban thought it over as quickly as he could. Patrol didn?t know about it yet and wouldn?t for some time. He had a lead on their invisible woman that he couldn?t pass up. There really was only one option to his mind.

?Tack, how well can you keep tabs on this speeder?? he asked.

?Provided that it is travelling in the vicinity of a droid, as often as I can refresh my queries to the CDN,? Tack answered obediently. ?The variables are many and complex.? Taban took a deep breath, and seized his comlink and black coat. Already strapped to his side was his CorSec issue blaster. This was one of the rare instances he would feel more safe with a firearm at the ready.

?Come on, you?re coming with me,? he said, motioning for Tack to follow him. ?I want to see what this invisible woman looks like.?

Chapter Six

Bortelles was like what Corellia was advertised as in the holovids ? rough around the edges, and rougher in the middle. Crime was a profession just as acceptable as doctor or lawyer, and CorSec took an altogether different role than in places like Correalis. Here, CorSec was a mediator of sorts. All individual crime was punishable of course ? murder, for example, was intolerable and murderers would be prosecuted. But there were underworld organisations here that were more powerful than CorSec, and their hooks were in everything.

Ahead of them were the Bortelles CorSec Offices, surrounded by marked and unmarked vehicles that seemed much more heavily armoured than his own. With all of the armour and weaponry that seemed to be bristling off of the transports around here, he suddenly felt very inadequate.

?Bortelles CorSec Primary,? Keys said, reading off the case file they had been referring to earlier. ?This is it. Our Detective Machwilliam is inside somewhere ? assuming she hasn?t got the day off, of course.? She threw Tadgh a significant look.

He shook his head. ?Don?t start again,? he warned.

?I just find it hard to believe that a Special Investigations detective didn?t think to call ahead to see if she was in today,? she said, holding up her hands. ?Call me old-fashioned, but when a trip takes more than an hour I like to know what?s waiting for me at the end of it.?

?I?ll tell you what,? Tadgh said, pulling the speeder in to land at a vacant space near the building. ?If we get inside and she?s not there, you don?t have to thank me for getting you out of that office for two and a half hours. Deal??

Keys nodded. ?Acceptable.?

The grand stone steps that led to the front door were deceptively pretty. Vacant space was not a priority in any regular CorSec office, but especially not in Bortelles. People and droids shuffled about in as many directions as they could travel within the building?s walls, and various administration desks crowded the front entrance. Noise was a physical presence that threatened to push them both back out the door.

This was what many people defined as CorSec ? a scurried, frantic operation struggling to keep on top of the waves of crime that were washing over it. Tadgh had visited Bortelles CorSec several times before, and by comparison today was something of a quiet day.

?Oh good,? Keys said with a nod. ?I was worried this would be quick and easy.?

?Come on, Keys,? Tadgh said, venturing forth through the seething crowd. ?This is what real CorSec work is like, remember? Every officer here will tell you so.? There was a traditional rivalry between CorSec Patrol and the investigations departments, each claiming that their work was the more difficult. As was usually the case, each was difficult in its own way.

And Bortelles CorSec was difficult in a noisy, crowded kind of way.

?Well, where do you suppose Detective Machwilliam does her real CorSec work?? Keys asked, forcing her way past a Rodian couple clutching a crying baby. They drew a vicious look from a group of nearby Gran as they brushed by, their CorSec I.D badges acting as a shield from abuse.

?Let?s ask,? Tadgh said, approaching one of the admin desks. The officer there was swamped behind a tide of beings who each believed their particular problem to be the most pressing. Her heavy eyes sagged further when she saw them approaching, badges outstretched. She ignored the protests of the Quarren she was serving and turned to face them expectantly.

?Detective Maitland, Correalis SIn,? Tadgh identified himself. ?This is Detective Keyston. We need to speak to one of your officers,? he tried to sound as polite as he could while shouting over the background din.

?That is great news,? she said with immaculate sarcasm. He got the hint.

?Detective Machwilliam,? he specified, showing her the datapad he was clutching. ?I understand she works here??

Her eyes narrowed. ?Machwilliam? Are you joking??

Tadgh threw a confused look at Keys. ?Not at all ? does she not work here??

The officer sighed and activated her comm unit. The message she spoke into it they couldn?t hear, but her expression was impatient. Her next words to him were spoken without eye contact, though she did hand him a small access chit. ?Through the back ? the green doors.?

Any other questions he might have had for her would have fallen on deaf ears as she went immediately back to serving the surly-looking Quarren. Tadgh shook his head and sighed, ignoring the ?told-you-so? look from Keys.

?Probably should have called ahead, huh,? she said in the most unconvincing impression of off-handed he had ever heard. He narrowed his eyes at her and mouthed, ?shut up?. Sometimes, he could have sworn that whatever dark side of the Force controlled the universe was just trying to pick on him.

The green doors they had been directed to were unmarked but secured by an impressive looking system of locks and shielding. A small scanner was positioned to the left of the doors, waiting patiently for the correct access card to be passed through it. It chirped happily when he inserted the chit he had been given, and the locks on the door disengaged.

They had entered the secure offices, where patrol officers could coordinate and base themselves and where the detectives could work in privacy. The noise of the foyer vanished as the doors behind them slammed shut automatically, making an impossibly loud clunk as they did so. They both jumped, an action that greatly amused one of the officers sitting close by.

?Try sitting here all day,? the Bothan said, spinning an old-fashioned stylus between his fingers. Polite smiles were exchanged.

?Who?d you wrongfully arrest to get this spot?? Tadgh asked, walking a few steps closer to him. The Bothan looked humourlessly pleased by the joke, at least as far as Tadgh could tell from his knowledge of Bothan emotion. He set down the stylus.

?It?s not all bad,? he responded. ?They said they might give me a tax break for a set of earmuffs.?

?Generous ? with a benefits package like that I think I?ll put in a transfer,? Tadgh answered, overtly pleasant. The Bothan stood and met them both at eye level ? involuntarily nominating himself as their guide to Bortelles CorSec in the process.

?Can I help you with something, officers...??

?Detective Maitland,? Tadgh said, offering his badge as proof. ?This is Detective Keyston.?

?Deil?mah,? the Bothan identified himself, ignoring their credentials. ?What can I do for you??

?We?re looking for someone,? Keys said, taking the floor. ?Detective Carthey Machwilliam. Are we in the right place?? she asked, throwing an arbitrary glance around her for good measure.

The Bothan made a face similar to that which the desk officer had given them. ?Excuse me?? he asked, voice defensive. ?Machwilliam??

Tadgh involuntarily narrowed his eyes. From the reaction they were getting he could have sworn they were demanding to see Darth Vader for caf and ryshcate. He cleared his throat and examined the case file on his datapad for confirmation.

?Detective Carthey Machwilliam,? he reiterated. ?Says here that she works at Bortelles Primary. Is the information outdated??

Deil?mah took the proffered datapad and examined the case file displayed on the screen. In the several moments it took for him to formulate a reply, Tadgh looked suspiciously to Keys. Something was amiss.

?In a word, Detective ? yes,? Deil?mah answered at length. ?Detective Machwilliam was killed about eight months ago.?

Surprise took control of Tadgh?s facial expression. ?Killed?? he said, reaching out to snatch the datapad back. ?How is that possible? There?s no mention of that in the files.?

?I don?t know what to tell you, Detective,? Deil?mah shrugged. ?Perhaps the files are incorrect. But that doesn?t make Machwilliam any less dead.? From any other species than a Bothan, the comment may have been insensitive. But Tadgh had dealt with enough of them to know that bluntness was a Bothan?s way of being helpful.

?Was she killed on duty?? Keys asked, calling up the case file on her own datapad. ?Or off? The CorSec database has been known to keep AWOL employees on the payroll for months after they have failed to turn up for work.?

?No, no ? she was killed while working on a case,? Deil?mah confirmed. ?That case, actually,? he said, nodding in the direction of their datapads. ?A nasty business ? extensive laser burns through the torso. The killer still hasn?t been found.?

?You?re kidding,? Tadgh said, giving the datapad a rest for a moment. ?There were no witnesses??

?None whatsoever,? Deil?mah answered. A sardonic grunt escaped his mouth. ?Detective Machwilliam fancied herself something of a clairvoyant. She would get hunches, and act on them without calling for backup. A lot of the time they turned out to be right. Other times they turned out wrong. This particular time, it turned out very wrong.?

Tadgh sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. He hadn?t meant to walk into a situation like this one. It was supposed to be an arbitrary inquiry only ? a follow up on similar circumstances to check for a link. Putting his foot squarely in his mouth by requesting a meeting with a deceased officer was not the idea.

Still, her unrecorded death bothered him. There were one too many unusual circumstances surrounding this case. Considering that the Bothan didn?t seem too distraught discussing the death of his colleague, he decided to press on.

?I?m sorry to hear it,? he began. ?Did you know her well??

?I worked closely with Detective Machwilliam on several cases,? he said without hesitation. ?One of which is the one you are inquiring after. Though I was not directly involved. I was something of a confidant for her. With a case so unusual, it helps to have somebody to talk through the facts.?

Tadgh?s face twitched into a smile. ?Absolutely,? he agreed. ?Which is what I was hoping to do myself, actually. I?m investigating the deaths of three Imperial officers in abnormal circumstances. No specific cause of death, no specific assailant ? just a whole bunch of crazy. Sound familiar??

Deil?mah scratched his chin. ?Somewhat. You think there may be a link??

?I don?t know,? Tadgh answered. ?But maybe you can help me find out.?

?I?ll do my best,? the Bothan said.

?Great,? Tadgh called up the case file again. It had been unforgivably light on details of the Imperial?s death. That was perhaps explained by the fact that Machwilliam, being the superior officer on the case, died before it was complete. ?Your Imperial officer starved to death, correct? Inside a shipping container that was unlocked from both sides??

Deil?mah nodded. ?Yes. The cause of death was conclusive.?

?But foul play was suspected?? Tadgh was reading off the case file point by point.

?Most certainly,? he answered. ?On the inside of the durasteel container we found evidence that the officer was being held against his will. Most of his fingernails were broken off from where he had tried to scratch through the access hatch with his bare hands. Several fractures were also discovered on both shoulders, presumably from the way he had been slamming his body against the same hatch. It was rather distressing to contemplate.?

Putting it lightly, Tadgh agreed silently. ?But you found the container unlocked??

?I didn?t,? he corrected. ?Machwilliam did. On one of her hunches, she found the body purely by chance. He had only been dead a matter of hours.?

Keys interjected. ?That is very convenient,? she said with trademark suspicion.

?Machwilliam was never able to provide an adequate explanation for the discovery, even despite continual questioning by the Imperial Liaison. A significant rift developed between them over this very issue.? Deil?mah was almost going overboard with his to-the-pointedness.

?So the container was unlocked from both sides,? Tadgh continued with the case facts. ?Did you consider the fact that it had been locked from the outside when the officer was put inside, and then unlocked by the killer once he was dead??

?Obviously,? Deil?mah replied. ?That would have made the case quite ordinary. Unfortunately, the shipyards that this particular container was housed at were under constant holovid surveillance. The entire time that the container was present at the shipyards, nobody approached it at all. The officer was already inside when the container came into the facility, and the very next person to open it was Machwilliam.?

Tadgh sighed. ?No remote locking mechanisms? Timers??

Deil?mah shook his head. ?Purely mechanical locking system. Latch and handle were the only moving parts. The holovids are clear - our only conclusion was that the container had to be unlocked the entire time.?

Keys stepped in once more. ?And there was no disruption to the holocams? No break in transmission at all??

?None ? there was no way past the surveillance.?

At the sound of those words, Tadgh was hit by a sudden yet subtle rush of anxiety. It started somewhere in the depths of his stomach and began spreading, a strange cold feeling that was insidiously making its way through his entire self. Keys and Deil?mah were continuing their conversation, but Tadgh couldn?t hear. He was still stuck on those words.

There was no way past the surveillance.

His ears grew warmer as realisation prepared to strike.

There was no way past the surveillance.

He had come here expecting to speak to Detective Machwilliam about a case that was as weird as his. He had dared to hope that there would be a connection between them, but it had been a slim hope. This connection, he assumed, would have been far-fetched. A vague notion to nudge him in the right direction.

Never in the galaxy could he have expected it to be so blatant.

There was no way past the surveillance.

No way at all.

Not unless the killer was invisible.

?Tadgh!? Keys protested as he sprinted toward their airspeeder. With finesse, he unlocked the vehicle and slid into the driver?s seat, ready to take off immediately. He was on to something ? something very, very weird. Hurrying seemed like the thing to do.

?Tadgh, by my oath to CorSec if you don?t tell me what?s gotten into you I will shoot you where you stand,? Keys said, slipping into the passenger seat just seconds behind him. Tadgh decided not to point out that he was in fact sitting, not standing.

?It?s complicated,? he said quickly. ?I need to speak to Taban.?

?Why? You feel a sudden and desperate need for fashion advice??

He ignored her and extracted his comlink from his pocket, preparing to comm Taban?s personal frequency. At that exact moment Keys? own comlink went off, saving him the need to explain himself any further. While she was busy answering, he put the call through to his brother and prayed that he would pick up quickly.

He did. ?Tadgh,? his voice was noticeably restrained, ?you are not going to believe what I?m about to tell you.?

?Me first, Taban,? Tadgh cut him off. He was far too occupied with his own discovery to let the moment pass him by. ?I just walked out of Bortelles Primary after having a chat with a detective named Deil?mah. He told me about a strange case from eight months ago ? Imperial officer starved to death inside a shipping container. The container was unlocked from the outside, yet there was evidence he was desperate to get out. Broken fingernails, scratch marks on steel, fractured limbs - you following so far??

Taban must have felt as though he had been thrown into the deep end, but still responded dutifully. ?I think so,? he said, his voice blending with the background hum of airspeeder engines. He must have been piloting. ?Gross, by the way.?

?The container was unlocked when the detective stumbled on the whole mess, which makes no sense considering the officer was trying to tunnel through steel to escape. Now, because the container was under constant surveillance, the only conclusion Bortelles CorSec could come up with was that the container was unlocked the entire time. Still following??


Out of the corner of his eye, Tadgh saw Keys deactivate her comlink and turn to face him. He tried to ignore her inquisitive stare and kept his focus on his train of thought. ?The explanation that makes most sense is, of course, that the container was locked while the officer tried to get out and later unlocked by whoever put him in there. But the only way that theory makes sense is if you ignore the security holovids.?

He could sense realisation dawning on his brother just as it had on him earlier. ?Sithspit, Tadgh...? he said softly, trailing off.

?The only way the killer could have pulled it off,? Tadgh said as dramatically as the circumstances warranted, ?was if he ? or she ? were invisible to holocam.?

Keys? stare shifted from being inquisitive to being incredulous. There was a heavy silence from the other end of the comlink, and Tadgh took the moment to revel in the impact of his own statement. It was guesswork, little more than a hunch ? but it made too much sense to ignore.

Taban knew this. ?Tadgh, this is disturbing indeed.?

?Don?t I know it,? he answered. ?If she?s struck before, we?re looking at a serial killer that could have done this a hundred times already.?

?No, that?s not what I meant,? Taban said shortly. ?I was referring to the fact that said well-practised invisible serial killer is about three speeders ahead of me in traffic.?

Tadgh didn?t quite know what to make of the sentence. It seemed a little too flippant to be serious, and yet all too serious to be flippant. Dichotomous, the learned part of his mind offered by way of description.

?What?? was the best response he could manage. ?What are you talking about??

?I?m following her, Tadgh,? Taban answered, quite seriously this time. ?Tack found her on the CDN. A speeder being piloted by nobody showed up on CorSec Patrol?s holo recording. I?m tracking her through Correalis city.?

?You have got to be kidding,? Tadgh answered, mind beginning to race.

?I did say you wouldn?t believe what I was going to tell you,? his brother added quickly. ?But you jumped in and made the whole announcement more ominous.?

?Sithspawn, Taban ? you?ve got to bring her in,? Tadgh ordered. ?Call in CorSec Patrol and have her charged with something, I don?t care what. She can?t be allowed to get away, understand??

?You sure about that?? Taban asked, voice wary. ?She hasn?t done anything wrong yet. We?d be holding her on an ancillary charge, she?d be out of custody in the space of a day unless you can come up with some pretty solid evidence. And plus, I?ve been tracing her with the CDN ? it could be risky.?

?It?ll have to do,? Tadgh said dismissively. ?We need her.?

?Tadgh,? Taban?s voice was plunging further into the doubtful. ?You?re seriously going to have a serial murderer charged with exceeding the speed limit? She could be dangerous ? sithspawn, she?s a killer. What if we wind up with a trail of dead CorSec Patrol officers? They?re expecting to give her a fine, not battle her across a city.?

There were times ? annoying, frustrating times ? when Taban was capable of subverting the momentum of a moment and weighing it down with the voice of reason. And though they were rare, they always seemed to crop up at the most crucial of moments. He was right, of course. Standard CorSec Patrol wasn?t equipped to arrest such a dangerous criminal, much less one that they weren?t forewarned about.

?Damn it,? Tadgh said under his breath. ?Good point.?

?I?m quite fond of it, yes,? Taban said.

?Okay, fine ? we?ll do it the sneaky way. Where are you??

?Cruising slowly through Correalis? financial district. I can?t tell where we?re headed, but she?s in no hurry to get there,? he reported. There was a beat of silence. ?When you say ?the sneaky way?...?

?I?m on my way in,? Tadgh cut him off. ?Keys and I are just leaving Bortelles Primary. That puts us one hour from you, but I?m sure I can shave it to forty minutes. All I need you to do is follow her. Acceptable??

?You mean, do I mind shadowing a dangerous criminal through Correalis city without the authority of any CorSec department? Tadgh, it?s either that or socialise with a building full of droids. Which would you pick??

?Good ? comm me if you leave the city or have a final destination. I?m leaving right now.?

?Will do. Don?t hurry on my account.?

?Stay safe, Taban ? don?t do anything stupid.?

?I?m sorry. You seem to have mistaken me for someone who is capable of doing something stupid.?

?I?ll take that as a promise,? Tadgh said, excitement rising. ?On the way.?

He clicked the comlink off and threw it on the dash of the speeder, bringing the engine online quickly. Keys? incredulous stare had remained fixed in place since the beginning of the conversation. He considered staying silent for a little longer just to see if she?d maintain it for the entire trip back to Correalis.

?Allow me to repeat my sentiments from earlier regarding me shooting you,? Keys said coldly, distance between her eyebrows and eyes narrowing. ?This time, much more sternly and with a threatening edge.? Her voice was low pitched and gravelly. She could be scary when she needed to be.

Tadgh regarded her quickly and offered a weak smile.

?Keys,? he said slowly. ?You?re going to think I?m crazy.?

He told her what he knew.

Chapter Seven

?The mission is dangerous and the outcome uncertain ? yet Officer Maitland accepts. Ahead of him lies an objective that he pursues on the strength of a promise. Beyond that objective, there is only doubt. Why do they seek to bring closure to that which is not yet fully opened??

?Tack,? Taban said through gritted teeth, ?now is not the time.?

Settled a safe distance from their target speeder, they had been following the same route for some time now. It was as though they were travelling in circles that were slightly askew and varied each time. Never had they broken the speed limit. Never had they changed traffic corridors without properly indicating. And now, they were passing Correalis Hospital for the third time. It had occurred to him that perhaps she was trying to shake off any pursuers with the power of monotony.

Still, he kept one hand on the miniature tractor controls that were standard fare inside CorSec officer airspeeders. He?d never had occasion to use them before but had been trained for it as part of his basic training. That was six years ago.

??Now? is seldom ever the time, Officer,? the droid answered in monotone.

?Then why do you persist??

?You are responsible for my programming, not I.?

They were approaching a set of traffic signals that were glowing red, bringing the line of traffic to a halt. Routine dictated that she would be making a left turn and start to head back toward the city centre once more. He absently activated his left indicator and sat patiently, listening to Tack continue to muse on the nature of the situation.

?It is a strange irony,? his vocoder persisted, ?that you both dislike and depend upon my observations. I also find it ironic that, as a non-sentient droid, I have an appreciation of irony.?

?Don?t think about that one too long,? Taban warned. ?You?ll wind up thinking paradoxically, and the last time that happened you went haywire. You?re eccentric enough for the time being.?

?I concur,? the droid said firmly. Taban chuckled ? Tack may have been crazy, but at least he knew it. That put him in a more stable state of mind than many living beings Taban knew.

The traffic signals changed and traffic began moving again, slowly coming up to the kind of speeds that made navigating a city the size of Correalis possible in a convenient amount of time. The deep blue target speeder repeated the same turn it had the three times before. He sighed and matched her direction.

?For a serial-killing ghost, she sure keeps to the speed limit,? he thought aloud, glancing longingly at the speedometer that was sitting safely within the legal range. This was one hell of a slow cloak-and-dagger shadow operation. Up ahead, their target approached a Y-junction in traffic lanes. They?d passed this very one twice already, and both times she had gone left. He activated his left indicator pre-emptively, already set in the routine.

And then, the target made a fool of him.

At the last minute, she veered right. Taban swore, changing traffic corridors to match. The manoeuvre was sharp and uncharacteristic ? a perfect reflection of the one that she had just made. If she had even a casual eye on her rear-vision screens, she?d have seen it and marked his speeder as suspicious.

?Damn it to firefek?n hell,? he said sharply, eyeing in his rear-view screen a rather angry pilot that he had cut off. Ahead of him, the target speeder kept its course evenly. He hadn?t spooked it too badly, but he couldn?t deny that he had screwed up. ?Tack, keep a close eye on her ? I think I might have given us up.?

?I am refreshing my queries to the CDN as fast as I am able, Officer,? Tack replied, his head jerking suddenly to the side with his trademark tick. The spherical photoreceptor atop his head flickered a slightly yellow colour, then faded to white.

Tack had once been a rather normal droid. Taban had acquired him almost seven years ago, just before he had been headhunted by CorSec. Back then Tack had been little more than a hand-me-down from a friend, a second-hand analysis and programming droid that had passed its prime. He stayed that way for months until Taban had found a surplus Imperial Intelligence Droid package for a reasonable price. From that day, the upgrades hadn?t stopped.

Unfortunately, with each new upgrade there seemed to be a cost. The original intelligence package had been responsible for the tick that still plagued him now. Subsequent efficiency upgrades had altered his circuitry to be resistant to memory wipes, resulting in severe personality glitches. But the real problems started after he had been wired up to access the CDN.

The CDN required a lot of hardware and intricate programming to access as freely as Tack could, and none of it was available on the open market. His droid brain was a thicket of wiring. Often, the multiple upgrades in his head would conflict with one another and result in bouts of unpredictable behaviour. The volume of information traffic that flowed through him routinely was too much for any computer to bear without consistent memory wipes. Systems were slowly degenerating inside of him. Strangely enough, it was the droid equivalent of having a terminal disease.

Taban hadn?t the heart to tell Tack about it.

?Speeder is pulling over,? Tack announced suddenly, snapping Taban back to reality. Before them their target speeder was pulling toward the ground, making for a stretch of duracrete road that was fairly busy. With his limited experience of shadowing people, he decided that he could put down safely without making things look too obvious.

?Brilliant,? he said under his breath, heart beginning to pound. With his one free hand, he fished his comlink out of his coat pocket and dialled Tadgh?s frequency. He would need to know about this.

?What?s the news, Taban?? Tadgh answered immediately.

?We?re putting down,? he answered as calmly as he could. ?We?re on...? he trailed off, cursing at not having checked the name of the road they had stopped on. Or even what district they had entered.

?Extant Thoroughfare,? Tack put in helpfully.

Taban thanked him with his eyes. ?We?re on Extant Thoroughfare. How far away are you??

?Fifteen minutes,? Tadgh answered. In the background, the sound of engines grew louder. There was a definite drowning of his voice when he next spoke. ?Maybe ten.?

?Quick as you can ? I?ll comm back if we move,? Taban said, and cancelled the comm line immediately. A little abrupt, perhaps ? but if he?d stayed on any longer, Tadgh would have launched into his detective spiel. Words like ?stay? and ?put? would have been used, and what?s more combined to create the phrase ?stay put?. And that was such a boring phrase.

His speeder slid easily between two parked vehicles about twenty metres behind their target. Like a Hawk-Bat to a Granite Slug he watched the cockpit, begging for a chance to catch sight of what holocams couldn?t see. So far, there was nothing ? no movement at all. The transparisteel panels she was sitting behind were tinted a dark blue, impossible to see through from this distance.

At closer range, however...

?Tack, stay put,? he ordered, channelling his brother. ?I need to get a better look.?

?I did not doubt that you would, Officer,? Tack said in his best imitation of obedience.

Moving too fast to have heard, Taban jumped from the driver?s seat and adjusted the collar on his coat. The part of his brain reserved for erroneous thoughts was overjoyed at the luck of having inherited a black overcoat on the same day that he got to play detective. Doing his best to look suave ? not suspicious ? he walked casually along the duracrete path toward the sleek blue speeder.

At the halfway point, he threw a nervous glance back at Tack. He was still dutifully in place, his face offering no emotion or signs of encouragement. Taban didn?t know why he expected any more from a droid, but his stress levels had risen too high to think that logically. To his surprise he didn?t break stride when he turned back to discover the driver?s side door of the target speeder hanging wide open.

A single grey-clad leg stuck out, black boot firmly on the ground. The clothes were practical, and somewhat familiar. No other part of her was visible ? though he was quite used to that already. He kept walking. Any second now, she?d exit. That one thought kept whirring around in his head like one of Tack?s errant programs. It occupied him the entire distance to the vehicle, anticipation building with each step closer. He kept his walk casual, as a passer-by on the street only. He was within reaching distance now. Soon she would exit, of that he was certain.

It came as quite a surprise to him when the repulsors and thrusters exploded simultaneously to life.

When he picked himself up off the ground, he was torn between being most offended by the minor burns to his left arm or the high-pitched ringing between his ears. With an effort that he would later recognise as rather professional, he decided not to dwell and instead ran full pelt back to his speeder. He was vaguely aware of saying the words ?so much for the sneaky way?.

?Target speeder is pulling away-? Tack started to say as he ripped the driver?s door open.

?Keep track!? Taban yelled, unaware of how loud his voice was.

He kicked the speeder into full gear and nosed up, more or less in the direction of their target. A hazy smoke wafted from his left sleeve as his coat smouldered against the red raw skin underneath. It stung wildly.

?Speeder turning left against flow of traffic,? Tack reported on their target that had now passed out of immediate sight.

?That?s good enough for me ? you call Patrol, I?ll call Tadgh.?

One hand on the controls and the other on his comlink, his attention dangerously split between flying and dialling a comm frequency, they set off after her. It didn?t take them long to pick up her trail. The string of crashed speeders and angry pilots was a dead giveaway. A grim sense of validation struck him.

At least now she?ll be arrested on serious charges.

Taban didn?t wait for Tadgh to greet him. ?Tadgh! My cover?s blown ? we?re in pursuit. I?ve called in Patrol, they can?t be far away.? He quickly corrected his course as he shaved a nearby speeder too closely. Speaking on a comlink at these speeds wasn?t ideal.

?What?? Tadgh replied predictably. ?What happened??

?No time, Tadgh ? just come find us.?

?How do you propose-?

?Follow the damn sirens!?

He cancelled the call and threw the comlink onto the back seat. He was done with it ? right now he needed to concentrate on flying. It didn?t particularly bother him that his job title didn?t qualify him to give pursuit to a suspect. Nor did it bother him that he had never, in his life, given pursuit to anything.

?Patrol on the way?? he asked Tack.

?They are already aware of the incident and have dispatched several units to capture the delinquent pilot,? he answered.

Their target had slipped out of sight again, lost amongst the sea of chaos she had created behind her. Taban pushed his speeder as fast as he could and followed in the direction she must have taken.

?Target speeder has turned due south, heading toward Correalis Centre,? Tack offered without prompting.

Taban swore ? Correalis Centre was a thriving recreational district for the local residents. If the invisible lady was headed there, he pitied her. Affluence and power frowned upon those that disturbed their caf time.

He swung the speeder around to head toward the centre. The flight path he had taken was more or less parallel to the one she must have been on, except on the right side of the traffic lane. Now that he was travelling in the same direction as the rest of the traffic, he could ease through it much more quickly. The speedometer was sitting just short of the red line. He?d never travelled this fast before.

?Continuing along the same heading ? we are nine hundred metres from the target and gaining ground,? Tack kept him up to date. It spurred him on, pushing the speed well past the red line into dangerous territory. The tractor controls seemed uncomfortably far away from the flight controls at this speed.

To their left, he noticed a traffic lane that veered left while still travelling south. He didn?t think. ?Hang on, Tack,? he ordered, slamming the controls into a hard turn that brought the speeder rocketing onto its new heading. They were travelling too fast to hear the sound of the angry citizens? horns.

?Six hundred metres ? parallel distance closing. On this heading, target speeder will be coming into view in a matter of seconds,? Tack continued. ?They are unaware that we are still in pursuit.?

?She thinks she?s shaken us,? Taban whispered, smiling.

Thank Force for the CDN ? we?re actually going to pull this off.

It was with great disdain, but not without an appreciation of the irony, that he heard a siren and noticed a flashing light in his rear-view screen at that exact second. Patrol had turned up much more quickly than he had imagined. And what?s more, they had the wrong target.

?No, no, no,? Taban said, willing the words to find the pilot of the patrol speeder. ?Sithspit, you?ll ruin it.?

Up ahead, they exploded onto the traffic lane that their target speeder was travelling through. He caught sight of the bright blue speeder immediately. Unfortunately, she also saw the bright flashing lights of the Patrol vehicles. She throttled up to maximum and pulled away.

He wanted to join the CorSec Patrol chase. He could have activated his siren and lights, kept pace with them all, and apprehended her. He had been stretching out his foot to do exactly that, in fact. But when he touched the throttle controls, he discovered that they were unresponsive. This puzzled him for about one second before he identified the cause of the hiccup.

The engine spluttered and died on the spot. A strange blue glow surrounded his speeder for a moment, surging through all of the instruments and shorting them out. Tack spontaneously shut down beside him. There was a moment of freefall.

Ion blast, he thought.

That can only be followed by one thing.

The freefall stopped so suddenly that he knocked himself unconscious on the flight controls.

Chapter Eight

It was well after 1700 hours in the evening and still Tadgh sat in Despot?s office awaiting his inevitable reprimand. Keys sat beside him, calm as ever, making him feel emotionally inferior. On the other side of her sat her husband Marryt, cradling her hands. His presence in the office was unusual ? he rarely had occasion to travel this far from his department at Correalis Post-Mortem. Despot sat forward in his seat and, as was usually the case, began the discussion abruptly.

?Your brother will be fine, I take it?? he asked.

Tadgh nodded. ?I made sure of it before I left. A concussion after his speeder was caught in the Patrol speeder?s tractor beam, a fairly mild burn to his left arm. He?ll be out of medical any minute now, actually.?

?And the speeder he was chasing??

Tadgh gritted his teeth. ?Got away.?

Despot did not acknowledge the statement with any outward gesture.

?I?ll tell you what,? Despot continued evenly. ?Given that it is past my finishing time, I?m going to be generous. I?ll ignore everything that has happened today. Everything up to this point. You will write it up for me in a nice succinct report and have it to me tomorrow morning as I walk through the front doors. There is only one criterion for this report: it must not enrage me. Clear??

Tadgh sighed and felt tension drain from his shoulders, glad to have escaped a lengthy interrogation on the topic. ?I?ll do my best, Director.?

?Okay then,? Despot said with a nod. ?Formalities: complete. I?ll let Dunns get on with telling you why we?re not yet at home.?

Tadgh smirked very slightly at Despot?s summary of the day?s events as ?formalities?. To a man who had already seen so much in a lifetime, he supposed that a speeder chase, a triple homicide and a linked unsolved paranormal murder mystery were pretty run-of-the-mill.

Marryt produced a datapad from his pocket, cleared his throat and announced with grandeur, ?I?ve got some pretty interesting news.?

?Well done, darling,? Keys said encouragingly.

He ignored her. ?Earlier today the Imperial investigator ? Bastian, right? ? made a very unusual request in regards to you, Detective,? he said, nodding toward Tadgh.

?Me?? he asked, genuinely surprised. He hadn?t expected to be the subject of this interesting news. ?What about me??

?And not just you, actually ? Taban as well,? he added. Tadgh?s mind flashed back to that morning, to the interview he?d had with her. She?d been most interested in him and his family then, too ? though he had just put it down to the fact that she had known his father. Why was she being so persistent? He squirmed. For one egotistical moment he contemplated the idea that she may be a stalker posing as an Imperial investigator.

A very egotistical moment.

?What did she want to know?? he asked for want of anything better to say.

?She asked to see your medical records,? Marryt answered. ?Yours and Taban?s. A full history ? anything and everything. She didn?t seem to be looking for anything in particular, but you know what CorSec is like. Med files are meticulous. She could just about build a second you from all the information in them.?

?Two Tadghs,? Keys voiced her disapproval. ?No.?

Tadgh frowned. ?You didn?t give them to her, did you??

?Absolutely not,? he said. ?It was well beyond her jurisdiction to ask for files like that without an explicit warrant. And given that you aren?t what she?s here to investigate, she?s not likely to get one.? He paused and looked off into space for a moment. ?Also, she was rude. So I lied and told her that not even I had access to files like that.?

?You did well,? Despot cut in. ?But you can understand what sort of alarm bells this has set off for us. This place is changing, Maitland.? His voice was weary and he was looking intently at a holograph on his desk that Tadgh couldn?t see. ?The Galaxy is changing.?

He sounded almost sad. ?This New Order that Palpatine has built himself isn?t what the Republic was. They?ve already started snooping around CorSec, and now they?ve turned their attention to SIn. If I were a cynical man?? He trailed off, considering his next words carefully. ?I?d say you were a test run for something bigger.?

It was all a bit much for Tadgh to comprehend. ?What exactly is ?something bigger??? he asked, feeling as though someone had thrown a spotlight on him and handed him a microphone.

It was clear that Despot already regretted having voiced his opinion. He shook his head and closed his eyes. ?Look, I don?t want to speculate,? he said, hurrying to dismiss the issue. ?We have to concentrate on the matter at hand. You?ve come under scrutiny from Imperial Intelligence, Maitland. And for whatever reason so has your brother. The bottom line is that you need to be very careful about how you conduct yourselves.?

?But why?? Tadgh demanded. ?Why am I under scrutiny? I didn?t incinerate those three officers. They have no reason to investigate me.?

Were he to examine himself objectively at that moment he may have spotted his defensiveness as a giveaway for his guilty conscience. A little voice was persistently whispering in the back of his mind, reminding him of the very reason why he should be under investigation. They know about the CDN. They?ve caught you and Taban in the act. You?ve broken about a half-dozen major galactic laws and they want you brought to justice.

?That may be,? Despot said. ?But nevertheless, they are doing it. You have to work to the conditions. For a start, I strongly recommend your brother cuts back on high-speed pursuits across Correalis.?

?You might also want to change your clothes,? Keys suggested, tugging on the sleeve of the black coat he had been wearing all day. ?This thing makes you look guilty of all crimes in the vicinity.?

Tadgh eyed her. ?Are you here for a reason??

?I think you look sharp, Tadgh,? Marryt reassured him.

?Me too, actually,? Despot added.

Keys scoffed. ?Men.?

?Maitland has a point though.? Despot was predictably first to return to seriousness. He fixed Keys with a glance. ?You and Dunns don?t need to be here any more ? you?re free to go. Go, eat food, get sleep, return refreshed.?

?Orders are orders,? Keys said, standing and stretching. She looked at Tadgh before she turned, trademark gravity on her face. ?Good luck, Tadgh. With everything. I?m only a comm call away.?

He nodded with silent appreciation and let her leave, Marryt opening and closing the door for her in an old-fashioned way. The tone of Key?s voice indicated to him that she had meant to encompass a lot of things in her good luck message. Of course she had been referring to the Imperial investigator, but there was more. On the speeder ride back from Bortelles he had plenty of time to fill her in on the details of the case. Where a less tactful person may have laughed or rolled their eyes, she had listened intently and even offered helpful remarks. Far from finding the story incredible, she had been convinced a link between the two cases ? his and Machwilliam?s ? was not only possible but likely.

It had been a great affirmation for him to hear her agreement on his theories. Far-fetched though they may be, he had managed to convince two other rational beings that they were plausible. Well, one rational being and Taban anyway. Her ?good luck? was enough to force a smile to his lips amongst the downbeat atmosphere.

?Not to worry, Maitland ? we?re almost done here,? Despot carried on, stacking a pile of datacards neatly to one side. ?The only issue left to resolve is my own curiosity.?

Tadgh raised an eyebrow. ?Oh?? was all he could say.

?What?s your interest in Detective Carthey Machwilliam?? he asked, bringing his hands together. His body language was strange. It was casual but almost too extremely so. His eyes stayed on the holograph on his desk.

?Machwilliam?? Tadgh repeated. ?I came across a case of hers, unfinished. I thought there may have been a link to ours. I charged away to see her at the Bortelles office, but when-?

?She?s dead, Maitland,? Despot said neutrally.

?Yes, so I discovered,? Tadgh confirmed with a nod. ?You know, had you said that about five hours ago I?d have been saved some embarrassment.? He thought about asking how Despot had known she was dead so immediately, but refrained. If the Director wanted him to know he?d say so.

?And did you find anything??


?In the case,? Despot clarified. ?A link? Common factors??

Tadgh frowned. He didn?t want to say too much until he had more evidence to work on. ?I don?t know yet, Director,? he said half-truthfully. ?I may have. But I want to make sure I?m right before I go making any reports.?

?I?m not asking for a report,? Despot said with a dismissive wave. ?I?m just asking, off the record.?

Tadgh sighed and crossed his arms. ?Like I said, it?s mostly guesswork at the moment, but I may have found a link between the perpetrators in both cases. Both murders are in similar circumstances. Both of them with the same kinds of anomalies.?

?Like the fact that they are apparently impossible to pull off??

?That?s exactly what I mean,? he confirmed. He let some silence pass between them through which he stared at Despot?s stack of datacards. Making false accusations at this point would gain him nothing. Progress was tied inexorably to tracking down the perpetrator. ?But I say again, it?s all guesswork.?

Despot nodded and leaned back in his chair. ?Well, just be careful, Maitland,? he said. ?There might be a link, there might not. But if there is, remember: Machwilliam turned up dead. And trust me, with everything else that?s going on, you?ll find life easier to deal with if you?re living.?

?No argument,? Tadgh answered.

?And that,? Despot announced, glancing at his chronometer, ?brings us to 17:43. I should be home by now ? and so should you. Consider my orders to you the same as those I issued to Keyston.

?But sleep with one eye on the ball, okay??

Confused as to whether he should sleep with one eye open or keep his eyes on the ball, Tadgh stood and offered an awkward smile. At least the sentiment was well-meaning. There was nothing that he wanted more than to slink home, get changed and enjoy a good night?s rest. But with an Imperial investigator breathing down his neck he couldn?t afford such luxuries. He needed to warn Taban about the trouble that might be headed their way. Especially given that right now there was a single piece of dangerous evidence in his brother?s possession that might be enough to convict them of accessing the CDN and consequently sent to Kessel.

Tack was potentially a big problem.

Chapter Nine

A bacta patch was draped over Taban?s left arm, concealing the mildly dangerous burn that had uglied the skin beneath. A second patch covered the left side of his forehead and was busily repairing the damage that he?d done smacking by his head against the flight controls. Various bruises covered his face, neck and other exposed skin. He looked like he?d just escaped from a hospital rather than been discharged. It had been one hell of a day, and as far as he was concerned there was only one thing to do in this situation.

Go drinking. Irresponsible perhaps ? but unequivocally better than resting.

He pulled a stool close to the bar in his favourite local drinking establishment. By Correalis standards, it was a hellhole. By galactic standards, however, it was quite respectable and very comfortable, with a quiet atmosphere that was geared toward conversation. He didn?t have anyone to talk to that night, but it didn?t much bother him. The place was close to empty anyhow. Always empty.

The droid bartender zipped quickly by him. With a hand motion, he stopped it in its tracks to order his favourite drink. ?Corellian Brandy Scorcher, no flame.? They had the annoying habit of setting their Brandy Scorchers on fire here, which generally just burned up liquid that would go to better use quenching his thirst.

?Two, thanks,? a female voice said at his shoulder. He turned lazily and looked her over but didn?t recognise her at all. Her bright blond hair was very distinctive; surely he?d remember if he?d met her before. She smiled easily at him. ?Mind if I join you??

?If you don?t, I?ll be stuck drinking two Scorchers in a row,? he said, inviting her to pull up a seat. ?Have we met?? he asked.

She brought a stool closer and set herself up on his left side. She snorted a laugh. ?No, we haven?t. But I?ll be honest ? I know who you are. You?re Taban Maitland, right?? she asked.

He tilted his head and looked at her more closely. She was a rather beautiful woman ? her skin was perfect. But he had no idea how she could possibly have known him. ?That?s right, I am. And it seems you have the advantage now, miss??? he trailed off, waiting for her to complete the sentence. The drinks arrived in front of them and she picked hers up.

?My name?s Theandra Takin,? she said. The name didn?t ring a bell. ?I know your brother Tadgh,? she clarified.

?Oh yeah? Through work??

She nodded enigmatically. ?And look, before you start to think I?m desperate, let me assure you that I absolutely am. I?m not from around here and you?re the closest thing I have to a familiar face.?

The comment took him by surprise and he laughed. ?Damn, and here I was flattering myself thinking you might just want to talk to me.?

She lowered one eyebrow and looked at him sceptically. ?Not what I meant,? she said matter-of-factly. ?I was just happy to find someone I have something in common with.?

He lifted his glass and touched it to hers. ?Cheers, Miss Takin,? he said.

?Cheers, Taban.?

They both drank quickly, the Scorcher living up to its name and burning its way down his throat. The warmth that radiated from the liquid was comforting enough to make him let go an involuntary sigh. Theandra watched him put the glass down.

?You know,? Taban said, still wincing against the drink, ?I don?t think I?ll ever get tired of saying your name and title, Miss Takin.?

She rolled her eyes. ?Wait one moment, I?ll have to check my diary. I?m not sure if that particular observation has ever been made about my name before.? It was to his amusement that she was awkwardly unsure of how far to carry the joke. From out of her pocket she pulled her datapad and pretended to consult it. ?Oh, no wait,? she said. ?Unfortunately you?re not the first.?

?Are you sure you?re not mistaken?? he asked.

?Dear Force, stop,? she said. He returned her what he knew to be his most innocent smile and she gave in to it. ?That was one pun too many.?

?It?s kind of a trademark of mine.?

?Well, my trademark at the moment is drinking,? she said. ?So tell you what, I?ll buy you another Scorcher if you?ll lend me the credits.?

His smile intensified as he pulled the service droid aside and ordered the next round of drinks. Theandra reminded him of the friends he used to have in his youth, before he moved to Correalis. Back where conversations between people didn?t begin with a statement of your annual salary. Talking to people was always something he?d been good at. And when someone was as good at talking back as she was, things tended to flow easily.

?So, this is the place to be around Correalis, I take it?? she asked, waving a hand around the near-empty room. Taban laughed with her and rolled his eyes.

?This is Correalis,? he offered by way of explanation. ?People around here don?t take well to a place as simple as this. For a start, the floor isn?t paved with credits and the tables not studded with Kubaz Xirconias. My father always used to say that if credits were ethics, Correalis would be a pillar of virtue.?

?Wow,? she said, ?that?s deep. Your father sounds like quite the philosopher.?

Taban snorted at how close to the truth she was. ?He had a way with words, that?s for sure. I would say he was almost as eloquent as me.?

?Oh really?? she said, eyebrow raised. ?Prove it. Philosophise something for me.?

?Right now??

?Right now ? you have five seconds to think about it.?

He smirked. He wouldn?t need five seconds.

?How about: ?If you find me well-spoken, witty and generally wonderful, then you are surely mistaken?.?

She thought about it for precisely one second. ?I?ll tell you what ? you get credit for coming up with it so quickly, but ultimately it doesn?t count seeing as you made another name-pun. Your trademark officially sucks.?

He nodded to himself and picked up the drink that the service droid had deposited. ?Fair enough,? he said, raising his glass. They touched them together again and drank the contents quickly. Somewhere in the back of his mind a little voice was warning him about work tomorrow and the consequences of a big night out.

The console screen lit up the otherwise dim bedroom and cast a blue halo around the extremities of Marryt?s head. In the kitchen of their ground-level unit he could hear his wife clattering away, busying herself with dinner. Some nights the fancy took her and she made it her personal mission to create a home-cooked meal from scratch. He loved it when she did, even if the end result was usually a 50/50 chance of edible. And tonight he was extra grateful that she was occupied for a while.

It gave him a chance to review the medical files on Tadgh and Taban.

He?d known them both for as long as he had known Keys. They were a close group, the four of them ? they?d seen a lot of depressing and uplifting things happen around Correalis in their time with CorSec. He would never do anything to betray them or compromise them in any way. In fact, he would go to great lengths to protect them if necessary.

It was with that rationale that he now scanned the pages of their medical files, looking for anything that might give him a clue as to what Investigator Bastian may have been looking for. If he could find it before she did, he reasoned with himself, he could make some creative edits. Change a few signatures around. See to it that the files could never be used in a court of law, at the least. But twenty minutes and several frustrated sighs later he finally came to a conclusion.

There was nothing ? absolutely nothing ? out of the ordinary with them.

As human males go, they were both in perfect health and had never had any significant medical conditions. They required no ongoing treatment for any conditions and certainly were unaffected by illegal substances that might alter their genetics. He rubbed his temples. If there was anything the Empire would be able to take away from these files, it would be that there was nothing at all to take away from these files.

?Hon?? Keys called out, startling him. He quickly flicked off the console monitor and ejected the datacard.

?Yeah, Jeanie?? he answered.

?Do you think the Jurma beans are supposed to be going all?morphy like this?? she asked, voice uncertain. He winced as he stood to go and see her. Apparently tonight was going to fall on the wrong side of the 50/50.

He left the datacards in his briefcase and pushed them from his memory. For now, he had far more serious issues to deal with. Feeling ridiculous even as he said the words, he dared to ask the question.

?Define ?morphy?.?

?So,? Taban said, ?I did what anyone would do in that situation. I had to charge one and let the other off.?

He had calculated a formula in his head. Theandra?s susceptibility to his immature brand of humour increased by 27.43% with each Brandy Scorcher that she drank ? with a margin for error of 100% seeing as he was making it all up. Though on the evidence, the fourth brandy had been enough to make her laugh heartily at that ludicrous anecdote. One more and she?d be ready for more puns.

?Force,? she said, rubbing her forehead. ?That never happened, right??

?No,? he confessed. ?But my job can be exciting. Especially lately. I got into a fight with my speeder today, and it?s way bigger than I am. I didn?t stand a chance. Hence the ?ugly and a little bit scary? look I?ve got going on tonight.?

She laughed again, hiding her hand behind her mouth. ?Come on now,? she said, looking him in the eye. ?I draw the line at you calling yourself ugly. I don?t believe it, no matter how many fights with vehicles you get into.?

?Are you seeing this?? he asked, waving his bandaged hand over his face.

?Load of sithspit,? she said dismissively. ?You?ve got one of those faces. You know, one of those faces??

He snorted, genuinely clueless as to what she was talking about. He didn?t answer her, rather just raised a sore eyebrow and offered a ?please explain? look. Her eyes widened and she pointed vigorously at him.

?See, there! One of those faces. It doesn?t matter what it looks like in the details. Like, it doesn?t matter how many bacta patches you have on it. It?s got this?this shape to it. One of those faces that even when it?s ugly, it?s handsome.?

Her words were starting to slur together, not that he could claim any differently. His head was so light it felt like his brain was doing laps inside his skull. He laughed at her attempt at explanation. ?Right. So even though I?m ugly?I?m handsome??

?No, no, no,? she said, shaking her head. ?You don?t get it. You?re not ugly, but even when you should be, you couldn?t be. Understand??

?Not in the least, but I gather it?s a compliment, so thanks.?

?Look,? she said, putting her empty glass down vigorously. She lowered the volume of her voice and met him in the eye. Her expression was suddenly extremely serious, like she had flipped a switch inside her mind. ?What I?m trying to say is that I think you?re very handsome. Attractive. I?d go so far as to say ssstriking.?

Her slurred ?s? made the sentence one thousand times more hilarious than it should have been and he wanted to laugh. It took all of his willpower not to drop his jaw and let a stupefied exclamation escape. Something along the lines of ?yewwhhaaa??

?Excuse me?? he managed to say instead, salvaging his tact and language skills.

?Come on,? she cut him off, shuffling her stool closer. ?I don?t appreciate doing all the work here. Can?t you tell when a girl is interested??

Try though he did, the effect of the brandy made certain that he couldn?t hold back his uncomfortable amusement. He buried his face in his hand and looked at her through the cracks between his fingers. Her expression was growing sour.

?I?m so sorry,? he said, realising he may have hurt her feelings. ?I don?t mean to laugh. And I?m sorry if I gave you the wrong impression, but I can?t?uh?be with you in that way.? Mild inebriation was trying to force the smirk back onto his face, but Theandra?s confused expression banished it.

?What do you mean??

?Ah, well,? he said, struggling to word it gently. Even after years of practice, it was still always an awkward moment. Especially in circumstances like these. ?I?ve never really even thought about being with a woman?if you take my meaning.?

A heavy sigh registered her understanding. ?You?re kidding me.?

He shrugged meekly. ?I?m really sorry,? he said again. ?I thought you might have already guessed.?

?Not as such,? she said, nodding to herself. ?Which for me is a surprise ? I?m usually very good at reading people.?

He snorted a laugh, sensing that the mood was returning to what it had once buoyantly been. ?I?m usually pretty easy to read, I suppose,? he said. ?And hey,? he added quickly, sitting straighter and tapping her on the shoulder, ?I?m not going to flatter myself by thinking I?ve ruined your evening. There?s plenty of suitors around Correalis. Richer than me, too.? He winked.

She laughed back at him. ?Oh no, I?m quite okay,? she said, remarkably soberly. ?It?s just that?now I?m going to have to do things the hard way. And I?m really sorry for that.?

He tilted his head, not quite sure what to make of the statement. He would have loved to respond to it, to ask her to clarify exactly what she meant. In fact, he would have loved to have said anything at all. But without explanation, the power of speech had left him. In fact, the power of all of his other motor functions had left his direct control too. His eyes filled with a sudden blackness. All that was left to him in the ensuing silence was a phrase that he couldn?t separate between memory and having heard afresh.

And I?m really sorry for that.

They had been sitting so close and she had hit him so quickly that nobody in the bar could have noticed. The sound of the CorSec officer hitting the bar made a loud crash and drew looks from other patrons. She jumped up quickly, and brushed the spilled drink off the front of her clothes. With an impressive naturalness, she launched into her role as actor.

?Whoa,? she exclaimed. ?One too many.?

She wrapped an arm around him and stood him up, receiving no help from his legs. It didn?t bother her, however ? she was plenty strong enough to carry him. She dragged him forcefully from the bar and beyond the tables of concerned onlookers.

?I?m so sorry,? she said to each patron as she passed. ?I?m really sorry for this, folks.?

Through the front doors and she dropped the act, letting his limbs flail limply as she muscled him around by the waist. She did not have far to travel as her speeder was parked just around the corner. On reflection, she decided it was a terrible shame she had to knock him out. She would love to have seen his face when he realised her speeder was the very one he had been chasing earlier that day.

She threw him in the passenger side seat and settled herself in to press the ignition. Before she did, however, she activated the comm unit. She would need to arrange the uplink as soon as possible ? it would take time for the Dark Lord to answer her call.

A short apparition of an Imperial communications officer appeared before her on the dash. ?Please state your clearance and business,? he ordered.

?Imperial Intelligence ? Operative Cill Bastian. Clearance Omega-three-three-S&D,? she announced quickly and clearly. She couldn?t delay now that the plan was underway.

?And your business, Investigator Bastian??

?I have one of the targets,? she said, throwing a cursory glance at the unconscious body next to her. ?I must speak with Lord Vader immediately. The operation has begun.?

Chapter Ten

The giant double doors to Droids and Data opened with Tadgh?s access code. He stepped through into the expansive room, still abuzz with mechanical devices, and sighed wearily. It was obvious that his brother had already gone home. None of the regular interior lights were operating and the lock on the door to his office was glowing active.

Well, he thought. He locked the place up okay. I guess he?s feeling better.

A final look around and he concluded that there was nothing worth noticing. He punched in the code to have the doors re-open. It had been a long day, and the fact that not a single solid development had been made in the case made it frustrating as well. He had whimsical connections, a speeder chase that put his brother in the hospital, and a firefek?n load of confusion. No evidence to speak of. No clue of where to turn next.

Click click click.

It was just as the doors had opened far enough for him to squeeze through that he noticed the strange noise. Amongst the din of electronic devices in D&D, a series of clicks wasn?t necessarily unusual ? but this lot was particularly audible. He snapped his head around and tried to locate the source of it. When he did, he almost turned and fled. Why, dear Force, did he have to look back in time to notice it trying to get his attention?

Behind the transparisteel windows of Taban?s office, knocking furiously on the clear wall, was Tack. Previously, Tadgh had been annoyed by the droid. Now when he looked at it, it was impossible not to see an incriminating piece of evidence.

?What?? he yelled toward the droid, knowing full well that it would not be able to hear him through the transparisteel. With a frighteningly accurate imitation of a human gesture, Tack beckoned him closer with one metallic finger. Tadgh shuddered at the thought and haughtily slipped back into D&D. The doors behind him closed once more.

?What, what, what?? Tadgh repeated, nearing the transparisteel. The droid was of course expressionless, but there was something odd about the way it seemed so?desperate. It moved closer to the glass and held up its left hand, clutched in which was a datapad.

Detective, you must open the office.

The words were typed in large lettering across the screen. Tadgh looked at it dubiously. From his pocket he pulled his own datapad and busily scrawled his own message across the display.

Taban locked you in there ? I?d say for the good of us all.

The response came much faster than a human could have written.

Bigot [big-ot] (noun) ? (1) a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; (2) one who regards or treats the members of a group with hatred and intolerance; (3) Tadgh Maitland.

He frowned as he wrote back. Subtle.

Tack refreshed the screen and replaced the message with the original, this time with more emphasis on the words he deigned most important.

Detective, you MUST OPEN THE OFFICE.

Some rolling of eyes later he resigned himself to the inevitable. Putting his weight behind his shoulder the way a child might, he punched in the access code to his brother?s office. The door chimed an acceptance tone and rolled sideways with a squeak. He was greeted immediately by the imposing frame of Tack, bombarding him with words spoken too quickly to be heard clearly.

?Tack, slow down,? he said. ?I can?t understand you.?

Taban liked to call the droid quirky, which is what Tadgh would call him but without the expletives. Information flagged as ?urgent? in Tack?s mind had a penchant for setting his head twitching uncontrollably. Like a chain reaction, that in turn set his vocoder operating at something close to twice its regular speed.

It was a miracle the droid held together at all.

?I must report an anomaly to Taban Maitland,? he announced in a more controlled manner. ?But he is incapacitated. In his absence, I am to report to you instead. It is fortuitous that you arrived.?

Tadgh spread his arms, an ?it was nothing? gesture. ?All right. What anomalies are you supposed to be reporting on??

?Earlier today, Taban Maitland set me the task of scanning the Common Data Network for instances of ?invisible woman?. The criteria for this query were that a human presence must be noted by a sentient source, but not recognised by surrounding electronic devices.?

Tadgh nodded, keeping up so far ? Taban had been running searches for their invisible murder suspect. ?Okay,? he said, confirming he understood.

Tack continued. ?I believe it was his intention for me to cease this function after we discovered the first instance earlier today. However, he did not verbalise this command and hence I have been running the search since I was brought back online.?

?And?? Tadgh asked, growing impatient. ?What, you want permission to stop??

?Please do not pre-empt me, Detective ? the chances of accurately predicting what I am about to say are orders of magnitude against you.?

Tadgh sighed and said nothing. He raised an eyebrow and waited for Tack to continue. He would need to speak to Taban about installing some efficiency modifiers in Tack?s processors. Extracting a point from this droid was often like trying to extract a sense of humour from Despot.

?Exactly thirty-seven minutes and twenty-three seconds ago I recorded a second instance of search criteria ?invisible woman?. I attempted to immediately make contact with Taban Maitland and inform him, but his comlink is located most unfortunately on the desk in this room.?

Tadgh?s heart began to race. ?Wait a second ? you?ve found her again? Where?? he demanded.

?At a local bar known as Hastings Corner. But respectfully Detective, you are again pre-empting the rest of my report.?

Tadgh waved him silent. ?Listen to me,? he said firmly. ?If you have a lead on my murder suspect, I need you to cooperate with my every order, okay? And that first order is to board my airspeeder immediately.?

Tack made to speak again, but Tadgh cut him off. ?Do you understand??

?The concept is not difficult to grasp, Detective,? he replied, running his vocoder in a manner as closely approximating indignation as he could manage.

?Good,? Tadgh said, nodding. He started to walk briskly from Taban?s office, almost forgetting to lock it on his way out.

He ran through the scenario in his head, simultaneously excited and nervous. Who would have thought that, after missing today?s lead and allowing her to escape, that they would get a second chance like this? They would have to do this one right ? one finger on the call button for Patrol at all times. His position in SIn gave him express authority to pursue suspects in such a way, so there would be no mix-ups with bureaucracy this time. Already things were in their favour.

Perhaps best of all, the invisible woman had no idea that they were on to her. The CDN may be highly illegal, but it was just too effective to leave alone. For all of the trouble it had caused him in the past, Tadgh sent a silent ?thank you? skyward to whatever divine being had thought of it. Once they picked up Taban from his home, they would be all set to track her at every turn through the entire city ? given that she was in line of sight of a droid.

Things were finally going his way.

They both boarded his airspeeder. ?Okay, we?re going to go pick up Taban. He knows your capabilities better than I do, you?ll be more of an asset that way. From there, you?ll have to-?

?Detective-? Tack began.

?Tack, don?t interrupt. Consider that order number two.?

?With respect Detective,? he said firmly, ?I must protest that order, or you will be most disappointed when you arrive at the dwelling of Taban Maitland.?

That threw him. ?What? What do you mean??

?The remainder of my report concerns the incapacitation of Taban Maitland. I keep track of his whereabouts at all times with the Common Data Network. He has been rendered unconscious at a local bar, hence my inability to report this anomaly to him. At last sighting, he was leaving the bar in the arms of a woman.?

A sinking feeling embedded itself in Tadgh?s chest. Leaving in the arms of a woman? That didn?t sound right. Rendered unconscious? Taban wasn?t the kind to drink himself into a stupor. ?Which local bar?? he asked.

?Hastings Corner,? Tack said emotionlessly.

?Sithspit,? Tadgh said quietly. ?What woman??

?I?m afraid her identity cannot be verified?? Tack answered.

Tadgh closed his eyes and swore. Tack completed his report.

??because she fails to appear on holocam.?

Tadgh?s foot hit the throttle.

From the pilot?s seat of her airspeeder, Cill Bastian noted just how vivid the skyline of Correalis was at night. Lit by the excessive whims of a million wealthy residents, it was a thing of beauty. A beacon of what the entire galaxy aspired to be. Blue and purple lights bathed the unique and expansive architecture with an ethereal glow. It made her feel like something of a ghost, slipping unnoticed between spectral towers that would not welcome her.

Or perhaps that was the attitude she held to herself anyway.

On the dash, the holocomm unit sparked to life once again. The comms officer that she had previously spoken to reappeared and addressed her. ?Lord Vader has accepted your request ? standby to receive communications.?

?Understood,? she said, not deviating from her present course. If she maintained this heading, she would arrive at her destination in just minutes. Already in the distance she could see the guard towers of Imperial Outpost Nine blinking at her. Once there, she would find out if all of this effort had been worth it.

A flicker of anxiousness entered her stomach as she waited for Lord Vader to contact her. She had spoken to him on three occasions before, but it was still hard not to be awestruck by his mystique. He was the Empire. He was the Dark Side personified. He was, in many respects, her master.

She set herself just in time for his likeness to appear in the comm unit. He spoke first.

?What have you to report, Hand?? he asked, cutting straight to the point.

?I have successfully identified the targets as potential Force users,? she said, equally pointedly. ?Pending blood tests at Outpost Nine. I have taken one of the siblings ? Taban Maitland ? hostage.?

?Very good,? Vader said. ?The Force bond between siblings is strong. If the other is indeed a User, he will seek out his brother and attempt to rescue him.?

?And when he does,? Bastian asked, ?I have permission to take lethal action??

?Those are your instructions, Hand,? Vader confirmed. ?Your efforts to eradicate Corellia of its Force users have been noted. The Emperor is pleased.?

She almost blushed. ?Thank you, my Lord.?

?Contact me when you have completed your mission.?

The comm unit clicked off and she was left alone once again with the limp body of the CorSec officer. She threw a spiteful look his way and smiled sardonically. It was tempting to say something aloud, to indulge herself in a moment of clich?d evil, but she refrained. Instead she pulled the airspeeder into the designated landing pad of Outpost Nine with quiet dignity. There would be plenty of time for foreboding or ironic remarks later.

Later, when the other Maitland was at her mercy.

Chapter Eleven

Tadgh was speeding.

He was sweating.

And worst of all, he was panicking.

?Are you sure about that?? he asked for confirmation one more time. ?I need you to be sure, Tack.?

?For the final time, Detective,? the droid answered, ?the speeder in which your brother was loaded ? the same speeder that was earlier today pursued by him ? has just made berth at Imperial Outpost Nine. The pilot side door opened and nobody stepped out, leading me to conclude that the driver of the speeder is in fact invisible.?

Tadgh swore vehemently.

Outpost Nine. The Empire was involved.

?And Taban?? he asked.

?It is hard to say,? Tack said quietly. ?Droids within Outpost Nine have recorded the body of a male being removed from the passenger side door, but they make no notes of his condition.?

?You can see inside the Outpost?? Tadgh asked.

?With limited capacity,? Tack answered. ?While the Empire is not explicitly aware of the Common Data Network, they are wary that information can be shared between droids. Any Imperial model droid is closed off to communications without express permission from a central server.?

?Okay, but you could see inside??

?Indeed I can see,? Tack clarified. ?The maintenance droids ? specifically, the ground-dwelling dust-buster droids ? are contracted locally. They are fully equipped with comlink communications, but their programming extends only to cleaning protocols. I can see through their receptors.?

?Really?? Tadgh asked. ?Anything else??

?Dust-buster droids are incredibly easy to influence,? Tack answered. ?I may be able to take control of a single unit at a time and operate it remotely. But like I have mentioned, their programming is limited to cleaning protocols. I would merely be able to vacuum the floors in whatever fashion I preferred.?

?You can do that?? Tadgh said, heart still racing. ?All right, give me a minute to figure this out.?

Outpost Nine was just minutes away at this speed, but he would need a plan for his arrival. He couldn?t call CorSec Patrol ? they were expressly forbidden from interfering in Imperial matters. The same was true for all departments of CorSec ? the Empire was a law unto itself within the confines of that outpost. The only person he could conceivably call for help was Keys ? and even with her help, two blasters against a garrison of troops were not good odds. Not even on Corellia.

He shook his head with frustration. He couldn?t call Keys. He couldn?t call anybody. His brother had been kidnapped, and the only proof he had of it was the CDN. Evidence like that would have both him and Taban sent to Kessel for the rest of his life. It was no good trading one ill fate for another.

?Okay,? he announced, still not quite sure what he was about to say. He just let thoughts flow out of his mouth. ?The front way is guarded, as are all the other entrances. No go there. There are always maintenance access points, but they are usually guarded or locked up tight. I guess?I suppose I could??

?I can provide you with information on each access point,? Tack volunteered. ?Maintenance droids are stationed at each of them and use them for ease of dumping the waste they have collected.?

?You?re kidding me,? Tadgh said incredulously. ?You have access to that information??

?I see what the dust-buster droids see,? Tack reiterated patiently. ?There are twelve maintenance access points, each just large enough for a dust-buster droid to slide through. Of these access points, seven are located in close proximity to guarded entrances. The rest are less conspicuous.?

Tadgh?s jaw was threatening to drop. ?How big is a dust-buster droid?? he asked. ?Can I fit through one of these maintenance access points??

?It would be awkward, but the height and width would accommodate a human of your size. Theoretically, I would be able to remote-operate one of the droids and open the access point from the inside, then lead you to the location of Taban Maitland.?

They didn?t come along very often, but this was one of those moments in which Tadgh felt nothing but admiration for the bizarre construct that was Tack. Taban had always persisted with the droid, insisting that he more than made up for his personality quirks with usefulness. Now, for the first time, Tadgh agreed with him.

?I,? he began, unsure of how to proceed. ?Wow. That sounds so easy.?

?As easy as forcing entry into an Imperial Outpost can be, I assure you,? Tack said.

Tadgh laughed ? an unusual sensation while the droid was around. ?All right. Fine ? if you say we can do it, then we do it. Pick out the most hidden access point, and lead me to Taban. Can you keep in comlink contact with me??

?I can,? Tack said, ?but communications are likely to be monitored. Once you are inside, it would be best to remain silent.?

Tadgh agreed with him; he knew what Imperials were like with their communications equipment. It was one thing for droids to communicate between each other, but voice communications would undoubtedly be intercepted. It would be dangerous, as one should expect when being led around an Imperial base by a remote-controlled droid. Tack would have no capacity to warn him of guard patrols. But if he had access to the photoreceptors of every droid, there was a fair chance he would be able to direct him to avoid all contact with Imperial personnel on base.

A fair chance, not a good one. But fair was more than he could have asked for.

In front of them, Outpost Nine was growing larger. Tadgh guided the airspeeder to the ground and set it down in what he decided was an inconspicuous spot. He checked his blaster ? full charge ? and switched off his comlink. It would do no good to have it accidentally go off and give away his position inside.

?All right, we?re going to do it,? he announced to Tack. ?Keep me away from patrols as best you can. And if anything goes wrong, you need to get in touch with Jeanice Keyston. You know her comm frequency??

?Indeed,? Tack confirmed. ?Dust-droids have a retractable vacuum arm that will respond to my commands. If I extend the attachment, consider the path ahead unsafe for the moment.?

?Very good idea,? Tadgh said. ?I?ll take cover until I see it retract.? He took a deep breath, and regarded the droid once more. Sometimes, he could swear he heard his brother?s mannerisms in its vocoder. ?You?re good at this subterfuge stuff. What?s Taban been teaching you??

?The daily grind of Droids and Data routinely has him in a state of boredom, by his own admission. When that happens, modifications and evolutionary programming are among his favourite pastimes.?

?Makes sense,? Tadgh said, nodding. Courage was slowly building in him. He was never one for stealth, and intrusion was not one of his special skills. He would be at the behest of Tack through this entire ordeal, for better or for worse. He didn?t think it was possible, but their conversation on the way over had inspired him with a confidence he rarely felt before going into a life-threatening situation.

Then again, he rarely had to rescue a loved one from the clutches of the Empire. Perhaps when the objective was so close to home courage was easier to come across. He looked once more at Tack.

?So which access point am I going to??

?Walk the perimeter of the fence in a clockwise direction. From this position, it is the third one you will come across. It will be open ? you won?t miss it. There are no cameras in place there, so you will be free to be as ungraceful as humans always are in entering the maintenance tunnel.?

?I?m plenty graceful,? Tadgh protested.

He popped the pilot?s door open and stepped out into the shadowy street, paranoia seeping into his bravado. He?d been a detective with SIn for a long time now and had gotten used to dealing with high-pressure situations. The difference here was that he was not the one with authority on his side. He was the law-breaker. If he was caught ? and perhaps the more correct phrase would be ?when he was caught? ? CorSec would not be able to help him.

It was all down to him. But that, far from being discouraging, inspired him.

He approached the outer fence of the Outpost, cringing as he scuffed his shoes against the pavement. The noise was impossibly loud even over the background din of city traffic and activity from inside the Outpost. From his vantage point the entire place seemed deserted. But then again, his field of vision was limited by the massive buildings beyond the perimeter. Barracks, storage rooms, garages, and a plethora of other structures crowded the inside. And yet for all the bare building surfaces not a single window was there in sight.

He passed the first maintenance point and got his first look at the kind of space he would be attempting to crawl through. It seemed doable. It would be cramped, but no more so than the crawlspaces he?d seen on starships. If mechanics and electricians ? who were by definition not the galaxy?s fittest of beings ? were able to fit through them, then surely he would be.

The second crawlspace followed quickly behind the first, also closed off. A small metallic box next to the entrance looked suspiciously like a concealed control panel. He noted it for future reference ? if anything went wrong he may need to know where to direct his blaster bolts during his escape.

During my escape, he repeated back to himself. Ahead of yourself, much?

For a split second he wondered what he would do if, by some chance, he succeeded and managed to give the Imperials the slip. What if Taban was still unconscious? His brother was short and slight of frame but still weighed an amount of kilograms that was awkward to heft around. He?d have to do his best ? drag him around as delicately as he could. Stuff him into the maintenance tunnels. Maybe tie his clothing to a dust-buster droid and have it drag him through the tunnels.

None of those options seemed particularly dignifying, but during rescue missions that was probably one of the easier things to sacrifice.

Rescue mission, he thought. I?m on a rescue mission.

It helped to think of it that way, rather than an exercise in flouting the law and trying to get himself killed.

He approached the third crawlspace, barely visible in the dim lighting. Tack had done well ? this particular entrance was shielded from every main entrance and away from any of the primary lighting structures within the outpost. There was always the chance that a passing pedestrian might catch him in the act of breaking in, but it was minimal. Besides, he couldn?t see anyone around for miles.

As Tack had promised, the crawlspace was wide open. Just inside, waiting for him, was one of the dust-buster droids that Tack had referred to. They were bigger than he expected and looked like a round disc with a set of photoreceptors and several sets of magnetic treads. He leaned close to it cautiously. Without comm access it was hard to be sure if this was the droid he was supposed to be following.

?Tack?? he said quietly. ?That you??

The dust-buster extended and contracted its vacuum arm in quick succession ? probably the closest gesture the droid could manage to nodding. Tadgh smiled and threw one final nervous glance around him. There were no witnesses. With a deep breath and he forced himself into the crawlspace. His ego prevented him from admitting that the movement had been every bit as ungraceful as Tack had predicted it would be.

The space was surprisingly big on the inside. He had expected to have to make much more effort to move but he found pushing forward with his feet to be a rather natural motion. Despite it being more spritely than he?d given it credit for, he was able to keep up with the dust-buster.

He heard the access door snap shut behind him. No going back. He immediately wished he hadn?t even thought the phrase ? it made him nervous.

The dust-buster led him around a bend and down a very long, straight corridor. They must have run underground, he mused ? he felt as though there was a slight downward slope to the tunnels. Underground, but not too deep. Probably just under the floor of the primary buildings.

Negotiating the long stretch of tunnel took some time, but he managed it. His breathing was beginning to get heavy as the effort to move increased. He made a mental note ? if he ever escaped this place, he?d get more exercise.

Finally he had made it to the end of the tunnel. Here the maintenance crawlspaces branched out into several directions, all identical to the eye. The advantages of the Common Data Network proved themselves once again as Tack guided him in the direction that would take him closest to Taban.

As it turned out, he didn?t have to go far. The dust-buster stopped directly beneath a hatch in the ceiling of the tunnel.

The vacuum arm extended quickly and Tadgh remained where he was, heart thumping a vicious tempo in his chest. The dust-buster opened the hatch with ease and used its magnetic treads to scale the vertical walls and enter the corridors. Seconds later it reappeared ? this time with vacuum arm retracted.

Coast is clear, he thought.

He hoisted himself out of the tunnels, glad to be upright again. They had emerged in what Tadgh had always assumed Imperial architecture would look like ? long, straight corridors with absolutely zero interesting features. He?d like to say they were like avenues of boredom, bar the fact that they probably contained soldiers that wanted to shoot him.

Keeping low, he followed the dust-buster as silently as he could, praying to whatever force might hear him that they wouldn?t accidentally bump into a platoon of Stormtroopers. He?d never dealt with Stormtroopers before, but he?d seen them. They were foreboding-looking soldiers and their rifles made his CorSec issue blaster look like a sling-shot.

The vacuum arm on the dust-buster extended as it rounded the first corner of the corridor, probably checking if the coast was clear beyond that point. Tadgh flattened himself against the wall to his left. There were no doors in this corridor and hence no recessed frames to stay behind. Breathing steadily, he awaited the return of the dust-buster.

Once again it took only seconds. When the droid returned the vacuum arm was still extended. His heart skipped ? trouble ahead. The dust-buster approached the bend very cautiously and Tadgh followed. He kept as low to the ground as he could without crawling on hands and knees. Another deep breath, a favourite activity inside this place, and he looked.

Two Stormtroopers were stationed in this corridor. They looked to be guarding a large door, big enough to be the entrance to some kind of hangar or garage. He swore and ducked back behind the corner. They weren?t facing his direction, but that could change in a microsecond. Blaster in hand, he took another look ? this time with only one eye. They stood at ease with rifles casually ready, body language suggesting they waiting for a threat that they expected would never come.

Tadgh swore silently again and sagged against the wall. There would be no point in shooting at them. They were trained soldiers, he was not. No matter how accurate his shots were, the Stormtroopers were most likely sharp enough to get in some lethal return fire. Likewise there was no point in trying to divert them from their posts ? those helmets came with built-in comlink connections. He?d have a squad of backup to deal with within seconds.

He?d have to try to incapacitate them somehow ? and do it very quickly, too. That would mean, at the very least, a temporary distraction while he got close enough to knock them both out. Blaster fire would do no good as the sound would set off alarms for certain. He?d have to use blunt force?

His train of thought was broken by a noise from the dust-buster droid. The vacuum arm had suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, retracted. He frowned at the droid and watched as it started to unabashedly move down the guarded corridor. Curiosity getting the better of him, he risked another look around the corner.

The troopers had gone.

Had he not been so relieved he might have found the convenience of the situation suspicious ? but as it stood, he was happy to be moving again. The dust-buster led him directly to the doors that the troopers had been guarding and waited there expectantly. Tadgh looked it over ? could this be it?

Was he about to die?

The door was unlocked ? strange that troopers would be guarding a door that wasn?t locked. He looked left and right again, down the impossibly straight and bland corridors, searching for the courage to follow his instinct and put his faith entirely in a dust-buster droid. One final confirmatory glance at the droid and his mind was made up.

This had to be it.

He pressed the access button.

Chapter Twelve

?Tadgh Maitland,? Bastian said slowly, nodding her head. ?I hate to use the old clich?, but I really was expecting you.?

Tadgh held his blaster at the ready, levelled directly at Bastian?s head. Beyond her he could see Taban?s unconscious body propped up against one of the many shipping containers in the storage bay. Finally he could see the invisible woman. Finally he knew the identity of the killer he had been searching for.

And finally things began to make sense.

?You,? he said quietly. ?It was you the whole time.?

She winked at him. ?Earning your badge there, Detective. Congratulations.?

Their voices were echoing loudly in the cavernous room. If he had to guess, this was a storage room for food, supplies and various other small goods. Containers were stacked from floor to ceiling, creating great aisles of metal that intersected each other. A grid-maze of heavy metal.

?That?s my brother,? he said, nodding toward Taban. ?Why did you bring him here??

Bastian sighed. ?I suppose it would be too much to ask for Special Investigations to figure anything out for themselves. Come on, Detective, you must have some idea,? she said. Her tone was almost bored, like she was talking to him about the weather.

Tadgh wasn?t quite sure how to answer. He kept his blaster trained on her. ?You?re the killer,? he said in near monotone. ?You?re the one who burned those men alive, after you had dinner with them. How did you do it?? The cold metal of his blaster was beginning to warm under the heat of his nervous hand.

?Why do you ask?? she asked coyly. ?Want to learn to do it yourself??

He gritted his teeth and ignored her. ?You don?t show up on holocam. You don?t show up on anything. How?? He was beginning to view her less and less as human. Everything about her now seemed alien and sinister. Her manner, her flawless looks, her smile that was too wide to be normal. Against the setting of the claustrophobic storage room and with his bound and gagged brother held hostage behind her, he found it very easy to hate her.

?Tell you what,? she said. ?I?ll answer all those questions if you?ll answer some of mine. It?ll be just like back in the interview room, remember that? You were so much nicer then.?

?Tell you what,? Tadgh said maliciously, taking a step forward. With a steady hand he fired a single shot over her left shoulder. The lethal red beam missed her by centimetres and slammed into one of the shipping containers where it smouldered out of existence. To his extreme dissatisfaction she did not flinch. ?You answer my questions, or I?ll adjust my aim.?

Alarms began to sound and various red lights began blinking around the room. He immediately regretted his outburst. Though his pulsing adrenaline was excited at the idea of fighting his way through a garrison full of troops, his logical brain was not.

?Cancel alarms,? Bastian said loudly into a comlink. ?Do not enter.?

The alarms immediately shut down and the red lights ceased casting their glow over the storage room. Everything was plunged starkly back into silence, the atmosphere somehow thicker after the shrill alarms had been so loud. He kept his gaze even, blaster aimed squarely between her eyes.

?That was very dramatic,? she said with a nod. ?But unfortunately, ineffectual. There are many ways that I can discourage you from firing that weapon again, but I believe the simplest one you have demonstrated for yourself. If you shoot me, I will not be able to call off the reinforcements. You and your brother will never be seen on Corellia again.?

He snarled. ?Are we likely to be seen on Corellia again anyway??

She waved dismissively. ?Details.?

His thoughts were flying around in circles. He wanted nothing more than to pull the trigger again. It would take only one shot, she would be down permanently, and at least he wouldn?t have to see her smug face ever again. If it had been his own life at stake he would not have hesitated. But Taban had no choice in the matter.

And besides, he still had questions that he needed answered.

?Carthey Machwilliam,? he said angrily. ?You killed her too, didn?t you??

This time her reaction was more in step with what he expected. She folded her arms with muted surprise. ?Well now,? she said, ?how did you find out about her??

?Detective, remember?? he said. ?I know all about it. You killed the officer inside the shipping container. Made it look like there was no perpetrator ? but Machwilliam knew different. And so do I. It was you.?

?Of course it was me,? she said. Her confession was chilling. Empty, like there was nothing to it. ?And of course Machwilliam knew it was me.?

?And when she caught you,? Tadgh said emphatically, ?you killed her.?

?You are half correct,? she said patiently. ?The half about killing her ? spot on. The other half, about her catching me, is not true in the slightest. Detective Machwilliam followed the design I had set down for her perfectly.?

?Who cares? You killed her, didn?t you? That makes you a CorSec killer, which in turn makes you very unpopular with local security. Imperial or not, they will come down on you with everything they have.?

Bastian laughed a kind of manic laughter that was both out of place and perfectly fitting at the same time. ?Oh they will, will they?? she asked, gasping for air. ?Detective, can you even hear what you?re saying? Local Security? CorSec Killer? You?re locked in here!? Her voice was raised, echoing strongly off the walls. ?Did you ever stop to think for a moment about why you might be here? I?ll give you a hint ? it?s got something to do with Machwilliam?s case. Think carefully, now.?

Tadgh didn?t really care to try and follow her insane logic. Things were getting out of hand. Back and forth conversations with dangerous criminals weren?t usually his cup of caf, especially when said criminals had made a hostage of his brother.

?What the hell do you want?? he said with exasperation. Everywhere he turned he was doomed. A maniacal woman. A garrison full of troops. There was no escape from this place.

?Come on, Detective! Start detecting! There was something that you and Machwilliam have in common. Something that drew you both to try and solve unsolvable cases. Something that gave you both an advantage in those cases to find the killer ? to find me.?

His heart was racing. For a moment, he jumped immediately to the conclusion that she was talking about their access to the CDN. That perhaps this had been an elaborate sting on her part ? an undercover operation to catch him in the act of using the network. If that was the case, he had no defence.

She rolled her eyes and continued. ?Something that was passed down to you by your father. Something that you share with your brother. Something that allowed you to detect that your brother was missing and track him to this place despite having no Intel on the matter. Something that allowed you to find an unguarded path to this very room with intense ease. Come on ? you must be catching on.?

He furrowed his brow. He would be willing to believe she was talking about the CDN, but it made no sense to him. What Imperial officer would kill three others to entrap him for a crime that was much less severe than murder? And the CDN was certainly not ?passed down to him by his father?. ?What in sithspitting hell are you talking about?? He was totally confused.

?You want the visual demonstration?? she asked. From a sheath on her leg she extracted a long vibroblade and tossed it to him. He only just managed to avoid twitching his trigger finger as he caught it with his free hand. He was still confused when she reached inside her jacket and put her hands on an ornate silver cylinder. ?How about this??

A crimson red beam of light emerged with a snap-hiss from the tip of the cylinder. He flinched away from the blade, immediately recognising it from his childhood. His father had carried one almost exactly like it, except it had been blue. This was the weapon of the Jedi Knights. A lightsaber.

?Do you get it yet? I should hope the detective in you has figured it out by now.?

?You?re a Jedi,? he said quietly.

She laughed at him. ?You know, Machwilliam said the same thing before I killed her. I had to correct her, however ? I am not a Jedi. The Jedi are extinct, you see. Or should be, at least.?

There was something all too ominous about that statement. Tadgh could feel a confrontation drawing closer. He wasn?t thinking his clearest, but he was starting to read a certain accusation into her words. And if she was implying what he thought she was implying, it spelled extreme danger.

?You think,? he said tentatively, ?that I?m a Jedi??

?Welcome to the revelation, Detective,? she said. ?I?m afraid there?s no other explanation. Just like Machwilliam, you found leads on those murders all too easily. Your brother tracked me down in the middle of traffic much sooner than even I expected. And then you yourself show up here, miraculously unscathed in the middle of an Imperial garrison, to rescue him? If not the Force, then what?

?You, Detective, are a User.?

Tadgh felt dread fill him. Her logic was easy to follow in hindsight. She wasn?t aware of the CDN or its capabilities. She didn?t know that he and Taban had been following her with droids, not the Force. It must have seemed obvious to her that they were Force users. The CDN, for all the amazing help it had been, had ultimately doomed them.

?You were targeting me from the beginning,? he said. ?This whole time.?

?Wow, you?re mimicking Machwilliam?s final moments now.?

He shook his head. ?You murdered Imperials just so you could step in as Investigator. Made it as impossible a murder as you could to get SIn involved...?

?Murder is not so impossible with the Dark Side of the Force,? she said sinisterly. ?You would be amazed at what you can learn with the right tutelage. I was always fond of fire as a girl. The Dark Side nurtures such hobbies. It was like burning insects with a magnifying glass, only better.?

?All of this because you think I?m a Jedi? Murder, abduction?sithspit, asking for our medical records? All to flush me out??

?Well done, Narrator,? she said with a wry smile. ?Which brings us, inexorably, to now. I?m glad you finally made it. So now that you have, I wonder if you can guess what happens in the next and final chapter of this sordid tale? Emphasis on the word ?final?.?

He gritted his teeth again, so hard that they were becoming sore. He tensed his grip around his blaster and held the vibroblade feebly between them. Their conversation had come to an end. She had said her piece. She believed he was a Force user and he doubted there was any amount of protesting he could do to change her mind.

He?d never touched the Force in his life, but he was going to be killed for it anyway.

Bastian walked forward, swinging her lightsaber gracefully. Her eyes were wild, appropriately like a predator stalking a kill. He backed away as fast as she approached and held his stance. He threw an incredulous glance at her lightsaber, back to his vibroblade, and to the lightsaber once more.

?That?s just not fair,? he said to himself.

With hope-drained eyes he took one final look at his unconscious brother. In a moment of private sentimentality, he swore it wouldn?t be the last time he looked on him. Will overriding, he prepared himself to fight.

If she wanted to kill him, she?d have to do a damn good job of it.

Chapter Thirteen

Bastian didn?t waste any time. Deep red blade held high, she charged forward at shocking speed. Tadgh had just enough time to pivot on his heel and throw himself behind a close by stack of storage crates, letting them take the full brunt of her attack. A shower of sparks lit the room orange.

He didn?t stop. He knew he had no chance of fighting her toe to toe. She wielded the Force and a lightsaber, he had a virboblade and inferior reflexes to keep him alive. He ran deep into the maze of containers, breathing heavily, leaving her behind him. His footsteps were loud in the cavernous room but he didn?t care. As long as he was moving, he would be fine.

He took as many random turns as he could, consciously trying to avoid following a certain pattern. The containers were arranged in a grid fashion that translated to long, straight aisles intersected by even more long, straight aisles. Staying hidden would be hard, but what choice did he have?

?Detective?? she called. ?Come on, now. You?re hiding? Where?s the commitment??

He couldn?t hear her footsteps very well but she was making no attempt to mask them. They were distant and approaching ? she seemed supremely unconcerned about the prospect of a surprise attack. Either she was confident that she could fight off anything he could throw at her or her Force connection was allowing her to track him through the maze. He hoped like hell that it was the former.

He kept noise to a minimum as he crept away from his current position, adamant that he would need to find a point of advantage if he was going to attack her effectively. He could try to sneak behind her but there was no guarantee he would slip past unnoticed. He could keep leading her on a merry chase through the maze but sooner or later his luck would run out.

He looked skyward. The storage containers were unscaleable, packed tightly from floor to roof. Cursing, he crept further down the aisles, looking for some way to buy time. It took him several seconds to notice that each of the containers had in its side a manual release door. It was secured only by a mechanical lock. He acted without thinking it through. He fired a single shot into the nearest container?s lock and yanked the door open.

All the way down the isle he ran, shooting locks and opening doors, leaving some open and some closed. Curiously, no alarms or lights activated this time. Bastian must have ordered them silent. By comparison he was composing a symphony of blasts and explosions as he continued down the isle as far as he dared. After some twenty shots he stopped and picked one of them to hide in. One of the containers in particular had caught his eye, stacked loosely with metal boxes that he thought he recognised. He ran inside, pulled the door almost fully shut behind him and waited.

?Oh Detective,? Bastian?s voice called out, ?are you doing what I think you?re doing?? He could barely hear her through the door of the container, but he could tell she was close. ?By the Sith, you are. You?ve set me up a human pick-a-box. You?re in luck ? I am in a great mood for games.? To punctuate her words there was a great slashing noise that was immediately followed by a metallic crashing. He guessed she had just taken a slice out of the side of the first container.

?Better luck next time, huh,? she said, following up with another vicious slash. She was systematically eliminating the cargo containers. Tadgh swore and held his position. He couldn?t run for it now ? she?d be too close. He backed away from the side of the container and pressed himself against the goods stacked inside, checking to see if his assumption about this container had been correct.

His heart skipped.

So he had been right. This was an arms container.

He was leaning against weaponry.

Another slashing noise cut through the air, getting closer. He had perhaps three more slices to figure out what to do. Working furiously, he leaned close to each of the tightly packed weapons cases and inspected their contents. There were blasters of every kind, some standard Stormtrooper issue, others more specialised and powerful. One in particular caught his interest ? a Merr-Sonn longcaster sniper rifle ? and he picked it up, stashing it under his arm. It was surprisingly light for a rifle of its size.

A second slash and crash. He was running out of time.

Atop a stack of blaster pistols he found a small box labelled ?caution is advised?. A quick inspection revealed the contents to be standard issue flash grenades. He scooped up two of them, formulating something that resembled a plan. A desperate plan, but a plan nonetheless.

He holstered his blaster and set the vibroblade aside. It was useless to him anyway. With one hand firmly on the door of the container and the other clutching the grenade tightly, he waited patiently for the next slashing noise. It didn?t take long.

?What about?? Bastian began, pausing. The lightsaber hissed as it sliced through the next container. ?This one?? she completed. Tadgh snapped the door open as quickly as he could, took very basic aim, and tossed the grenade right at her. He ducked back behind cover and covered his ears.

He felt the blast shudder through the floor. Not taking the time to think about it, he sprinted from the container, blaster back in hand, firing wildly behind him. He couldn?t hear or see Bastian through the smoke. The rifle under his arm slowed his progress somewhat, but he held on to it tightly. He was certain he would need it.

As the din of the explosion died down he heard coughing. Bastian was still recovering from the grenade attack. He kept running, putting distance between them. Distance meant time, time meant a plan.

?I didn?t see that one coming, Detective,? Bastian called out. ?Well played. It?s a shame it didn?t work, because you earned some spite there.?

Tadgh ground to a halt and crouched, laying the encased rifle on the ground. He?d seen holovids on putting these things together before but had never actually done it. He fumbled with pieces as best he could, interlocking the barrel, stock, trigger, magazine and butt in a haphazard kind of way. In just seconds it looked like a rifle.

But as with all do-it-yourself projects, he hit on the classic stumbling block.

There was one piece left over.

He swore, absolutely unsure of where it was supposed to go. It didn?t look so important, but when it came to weapons, everything was pretty important. He kept it in his pocket and shouldered the weapon, lining it up down the long straight isle he?d just run down. If he could manage to get Bastian to follow him, or to appear in the exact right isle while he waited, then she?d have no cover to go to. She?d be his, provided that the surprise of his attack was adequate to get past he lightsaber guard. Sniper rifles generally sent their projectile at a much higher velocity than standard rifles. It might just be enough.

?Detective,? Bastian?s voice rang out, still some distance away. ?I?m getting tired of this game. You injured me, you know? I?m bleeding and everything. I am not happy.?

Her attitude was grating on him. He snarled at thin air and moved, walking purposefully up a north-south isle and taking aim down each of the east-west aisles. He would come across her soon enough.

?In fact, Detective,? she called out, infuriating him further, ?I am so angry at the moment, I just feel like killing someone. You?re proving most difficult to find, so I might have to settle for someone a little less mobile.

?Unconscious, even.?

Tadgh resisted the urge to yell. She was going after Taban. His heart rate would have increased had it been able to increase any further. He didn?t know what to feel. He was scared for his brother, but sinisterly satisfied that Bastian had given away her position. Eye focused down the scope of the rifle, he kept walking up the aisles heading north toward the front entrance.

There was Taban, propped up and limp. The scope was powerful enough to bring him into sharp focus, even from the hundred-odd metres away that Tadgh must have been standing. Over him stood Bastian, lightsaber poised, waiting for her quarry to emerge from the maze of containers. She noticed Tadgh immediately, and for the first time since the beginning of their encounter, the smile faded from her face.

He lip-read her surprised words as he took quick, careful aim. ?Son of a-?

He fired. The rifle bucked savagely ? too savagely. He was thrown backward by the force of the laser blast, and he felt the gun fly from his grip. His shoulder ached and his head hurt from where he hit it on the durasteel floor. The rifle lay nearby, its barrel melted from the intensity of that single shot. The wooden butt was on fire. Pain began to spread across his palms and he noticed that they were burned red. He ignored them.

He ran as fast as he could toward Taban and the now-sprawled body of Bastian. A quick glance at his brother confirmed that he was still alive and breathing. CorSec sidearm in swollen hand, Tadgh turned his attention back to Bastian and approached slowly.

Her lightsaber was destroyed, vaporised by the blast. A massive black patch was charred into her side, turning blood and bone to ash. She was still conscious and looking up at him. Her eyes no longer burned. She seemed, for the first time, frail. Her beautiful face was somehow humbled. Her gasping breaths were vulnerable in the worst kind of way.

It was ironic that only this close to death did she finally seem human.

?Any User is a threat,? she said meekly, breaths escaping her faster than she could replace them. ?And I know?that includes me.?

Her eyes rolled into the back of her head.

She was dead.

Tadgh sighed heavily and turned back to Taban, who was still unconscious. He needed to keep worrying, to start figuring the way out of this place. He needed to be concerned about the fact that they were still holed up inside an Imperial garrison. But somehow he couldn?t. Intense relief hit him. He simply sat down next to his brother, leaned his head against his shoulder and closed his eyes. For just that one moment, they were as safe as anyone in the galaxy could be.

The dust-buster droid trundled its way through the maintenance tunnels that had been built to accommodate a droid somewhat larger than it. Its programming told it that it should have been going about its duties, cleaning the base floors and depositing the waste material outside. But for some reason, more pressing orders compelled it to head immediately to the power generators.

Its magnetic wheels allowed it to scale the walls of the tunnel and emerge in the correct corridor, a few metres away from the droid entrance to the generator room. Inside there were many different points of interest for the various military-grade droids on duty. But for this particular dust-buster, there was only one objective.

It drove forward inexorably, approaching what it had identified as the power transfer between the generator and the router that powered the entire building. It passed the red exclusion line, normally forbidden by its programming, with ease. Droids around the room took note of this. If they could have felt an emotion, it would have been jealousy. This droid, it seemed, was free-willed.

It was because of this free will, however imposed, that the droid drove itself directly into the high voltage lines. There was a powerful sizzle, several electricity arcs and finally a loud explosion. The dust-buster had destroyed itself. Main power to the building was cut off.

Its objective was complete.

The lights in the storage room cut out and Tadgh jolted back to the present. Taban was still unconscious, but they hadn?t been captured. He had expected, after killing Bastian, that guards would have flooded them by now. Apparently, they didn?t know she was dead.

The room was dimly lit by blue emergency lights that softly illuminated everything with an ethereal glow. He forced himself to stand and looked around for any evidence of an escape route, anything that might lead them out of here without being attacked by Bastian?s reinforcements.

His search was interrupted by a small dust-buster droid bumping into his feet. He looked down and saw the retractable vacuum arm extend and contract. He smiled at it, recognising Tack?s control over the machine immediately. He knew what to do. Tack had gotten him inside safely enough and that meant he could lead them back out.

He scooped up Taban and draped him over his shoulder. Hopefully, the trip out would be just as fast as the one on the way in. His hands were burning. His whole body ached. And he had no idea what he was going to tell Taban, Keys or Despot about any of this. But he didn?t really care.

All that mattered now was following Tack.

All that mattered was escape.

Chapter Fourteen

Tadgh sat beside Taban in the hospital the next morning and talked as slowly as he needed to make sure his brother understood. There were things he couldn?t explain, of course, but he did his best. Sometimes even assumptions were more comforting than conceding he simply didn?t know the answers.

He had escaped the facility just as easily as he?d entered it. Dragging Taban by the collar, he?d followed the dust-buster droid out in near darkness after a total power failure had hit the grid. His first steps back into the city he?d grown up in felt like wandering into a strange new place, Taban the only familiar thing he had to cling to ? and even then, he?d dragged him there.

After listening for as long he could, his brother?s eyes had drifted closed once more. The private room that Marryt Dunns had arranged at Correalis Hospital was small but comfortable. Against one wall was an observation mirror that allowed the doctors to watch over him without interrupting his sleep. He moved to stand on its other side, where Keys? husband was waiting for him.

?They say that he wasn?t hit very hard,? Marryt explained, ?but that he went into a deep comatose state anyway. They can?t really explain why ? they want to keep him for observation for the next few days.?

Tadgh was looking vacantly through the observation window. He nodded at Marryt and glanced through an open doorway at Keys, still talking on her comlink in the hospital corridor. He?d told her most of the story of his break-and-enter into Outpost Nine ? or at least the important bits. She hadn?t been satisfied, which meant that more questions would be coming.

?He?ll be okay though??

?Should be fine,? Marryt confirmed. ?Though there is no medication to help his pride recover from the fact that he was beaten up by a girl.?

Tack stood beside him at the observation window. He hadn?t moved from that spot since they?d arrived, his photoreceptors locked on Taban. ?I will remain here until Officer Maitland wakes from his rest. He may have orders that require my urgent attention.?

Keys trudged over to the pair of them, standing close by her husband. Years of working together was the only way Tadgh could recognise the concern in her eyes. The rest of her expression was all about confidence and cool-headedness. Circumstances were never an obstacle to Key?s work ethic.

?Despot says he?s contacted Nine,? she said. ?Spent all morning trying to get through. There?s some heavy comm traffic in there this morning. But he spoke to seven different officers and they all say the same thing - nothing suspicious to report over the last 25 hours.?

Tadgh snorted a laugh. ?They?re lying.?

?But at least they?re content to lie,? Keys said. ?It means that whoever Bastian was, she?s not the kind of person who gets reported Killed in Action because she never officially existed in the first place. Between that and the two charges of attempted murder of a CorSec officer she notched up, Despot thinks they?re happy to leave things be.?

Tadgh nodded. ?A stalemate.?

?More or less,? Keys confirmed.

Silence passed between them for a moment during which Marryt took his leave and went to check on Taban?s status. Tadgh watched him, hand over his mouth, reflecting on the surreal day that was yesterday. Keys looked on with him but couldn?t contain herself for very long.

?You should have commed me,? she said pointedly.

?I was about to break into an Imperial outpost. I figured you?d try to stop me.?

?Which is why you should have commed me. Tadgh, are you hearing yourself speak? You?re an officer of the law and you?re breaking into military installations. It?s a miracle you got in and out alive. What?s more of a miracle is that you aren?t being hunted down by every trooper in this city.?

?What?s a miracle,? Tadgh said, waving her silent, ?is that I managed to rescue my brother from the hands of an absolute madwoman. She was going to kill him, Keys. And what?s worse, she was going to kill him just so she could have the chance to kill me.?

Tadgh sighed and looked her in the eye. ?She was a Jedi, Keys. A Dark Jedi. That?s how she killed those men in the apartment. That?s how she kept herself invisible to holocam. It was the Force.?

Keys looked at him blankly. ?A Jedi? Tadgh, the Jedi are extinct.?

?So she told me,? he answered. ?She thought me and Taban were Jedi that ought to be extinct too. It?s a complicated story, believe me ? but the bottom line is that I didn?t comm you because there was nothing you could do to help.?

She glared at him. ?Really? Helpless damsel here disagrees.?

?Keys.? He held up a hand. ?Let?s not.?

He looked back through the window at Taban. ?Just?lets not. You know I don?t think you?re helpless. But I still believe that if you?d come along, she?d have killed you. No games, no complex setups like she did with me and Taban. You?d have been interfering with her fun.?

She sighed and studied her fingers. ?Consider it dropped for now. But next time you feel like breaking into an Imperial outpost, for Force sake just-?

?I?m not anxious to try it again,? Tadgh cut her off.

?Machwilliam went after the same woman alone,? she reminded him. ?And she died.?

He couldn?t answer while under her intense gaze. He wouldn?t have known what to say anyway.

?You don?t have to do everything alone,? she continued, voice softer than usual. ?I?m here to help. I hope you remember that.?

The best he could do in the way of a reply, he decided, was to smile. Into it he injected as much of the unspoken appreciation he felt for her concern as he could. It was enough, it seemed. She returned the smile.

Feeling the weight of the morning beginning to press on him, he stretched his hands and rubbed them against his ribs, trying to drain the tension from himself. His right hand brushed against something in the inside pocket of his coat. Curiously, he pulled out the object and regarded it ? the single piece of the sniper rifle that had been left over as he?d put it together.

He showed it to Keys. ?Don?t happen to know what this is, do you?? he asked.

She took it. ?I think so,? she said, flipping it over in her hand. ?I think it?s from a blaster rifle.?

Without warning, Tack broke his silence to expand her answer. ?It is an inhibitor. Type 34-SS, most commonly found in Merr-Sonn series rifles. It regulates the amount of energy that is discharged from the power pack with each shot, preventing a devastating over-surge. Without it the entire power pack would be discharged at once, destroying the weapon.?

?Where did you get it?? Keys asked.

He laughed to himself, sparing his burned hands a glance. ?It doesn?t matter.?

The hospital seemed suddenly like the wrong place to be. He?d checked up on Taban and he was going to be fine ? now there were other things to do. It would have been all too easy to take the day off, rest, dwell on the negative. But he couldn?t do that. He?d survived the ordeal, and it was time to move on.

There was every possibility that he?d upset some very high-ups in the Imperial hierarchy. Bastian may not have been an officer, but somebody had put her up to this. Who knows what kind of reports she may have made to her superiors. As far as the Empire knew, he was a Force sensitive. And even if he could successfully prove to them that he wasn?t, he doubted it would matter. He?d killed one of their agents.

He didn?t need the Force to suspect that this wasn?t over yet.

He turned and began walking from the ward, Keys falling into step beside him. ?Where are you going?? she asked.

?Work,? he answered, walking through the front doors, back into the new Correalis. ?There?s crime to be solved.?

The last thing he heard before leaving was Tack?s vocoder.

?The detective emerges victorious against the force pitted against him, finding inner strength when cornered like so many sentient animals in the galaxy. The death of a madwoman is not a heavy burden to carry. There is triumph implicit in the circumstances but not in the man. One case closes, another one opens.

?He is still cornered.?

Director Despotov replaced the comm receiver on his desk and sat back in his chair. He had only spoken to Keyston briefly but it had been sufficiently long enough to ruin his day. Maitland was in trouble ? again.

Always something with that man. Bending this or that rule. Making and keeping illegal contacts. General conduct unbecoming a CorSec officer. It was his curse and his gift ? in the founding days of Special Investigations, Despot had thought that those very qualities would be what made him perfect for a job in the unit. SIn wasn?t a regular police outfit. Trouble was expected from the officers that carried out its policies.

All the same, Despot faced a genuine dilemma this time. Maitland wasn?t on duty when he broke into the Imperial facility. He?d broken the first and only rule when it came to CorSec crossing the Imperials ? namely, don?t cross the Imperials. But then again, he put up a fairly compelling justification for himself. No official request for disciplinary action had been cited by Outpost Nine officials. In fact, nobody over there seemed willing to admit that any incident had occurred at all.

That meant that any action taken against Maitland would have to be in-house, ordered by him. There was no mandate on him apart from the coercive call of Justice. Maitland had broken the law. He?d flouted CorSec directives. No matter what his reasons, that was enough to have him marched out of SIn and into a prison cell without so much as an hour?s notice.

He sighed and rubbed his temples. Usually headaches didn?t affect him so badly. In fact, usually circumstances didn?t affect him so badly. This time was different though, and he knew why.

Wearily he picked up the only holograph on his desk and stared at it, bringing it within centimetres of his face. The woman?s face was so proud, and her immaculate uniform wouldn?t look better on anyone. He remembered the day it was taken. He had taken it at her request, in front of the stone steps of Bortelles CorSec Primary. She?d hugged him that day, and he still felt as close to her now as he did then. She?d spoken to him with tears in her eyes and called him Stepfather.

He closed his eyes and breathed deep.

If Maitland was telling the truth ? if he?d found and killed the murderer responsible her death ? then there was no way he could be angry. Fire and prosecute a man for rescuing his brother and bringing a killer to justice? It wasn?t something he could do.

He put the holograph back on the desk. His comm unit was ringing again. No doubt there was someone else from head office interested in just why Correalis had been sent into a fluster. Or maybe it was the Imperials with a courtesy comm to say they?d changed their minds, and that a legion of Stormtroopers was coming to execute the lot of them.

This day was not going to get easier. But it didn?t matter. The holograph of Carthey Machwilliam looked on, the proudest moment of her life frozen in time. Her killer had been vanquished. For the first time in a long time, he looked at the expression on her face and saw it for what it was.

She was happy.


Whether for cosmetic effect or some other more practical reason, the throne room of Emperor Palpatine was very, very dark. He sat in shadows, the most visible part of him being his exposed mouth and chin beneath a heavy hood. At his side stood two red-robed Royal Guards.

He was angry.

?The reports are authentic then, Lord Vader?? he asked.

The holographic likeness of Darth Vader bowed its head. ?Yes, my master. The Hand you have assigned to Corellia has met her end. Killed by the Force user she was attempting to eliminate.?

?Such a one exists as can kill a Hand of the Emperor?? he asked. ?It cannot be possible.?

?Nevertheless, it has happened, my master.?

?This turn of events is concerning, Lord Vader,? he said deeply. His eyes glowed slightly yellow in the dark. ?I will not have a Force user go unchecked.?

?I suggest caution, my master,? Vader said. ?Medical tests were not carried out. The targets are an unknown quantity. If possible, they should be taken alive, and in secret, if we are to learn the truth of their nature.?

?Oh, you underestimate me, Lord Vader,? the Emperor chided him. He leaned forward. ?I do not hope to see them eliminated. One without training that can defeat my Hand? They can be nothing but an asset to the Empire.?

Lord Vader?s response was measured. ?You mean to turn them.?

The Emperor let the words hang between them for a moment. ?Yes,? he hissed. ?I do.?

?Such a task would be difficult, my master,? the holograph said. ?The targets will not be easily swayed. Their connection to each other, and those around them, is clearly very strong.?

?It has been done before,? the Emperor answered bluntly. The significance was not lost on the masked Sith. ?I will ensure that it happens again.?

He pushed back into his throne once again.

?You will continue your mission to stamp out the Rebellion. I will assign another Hand ? a stronger Hand ? to the sons of Jericho Maitland.?

Vader bowed. ?As you wish, my master.?

?That will be all.?

The hologram flickered out of existence and Palpatine turned to his guards. ?Bring me Thirteen,? he said. ?This task will require her?special talents.?

The guards left him without a word and he turned to look over Imperial Centre. Even now, after so many years, he was still eliminating Jedi from the galaxy.

But his senses were faithful that it would soon draw to a close.

Beginning with Tadgh and Taban Maitland.

Next Up: The User 1:2 - Premeditated

Original cover by Luton_Plunder. HTML formatting copyright 2006 TheForce.Net LLC.

Fan Fiction Rating

Current Rating is 9.94 in 17 total ratings.

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Author: Pallas-Athena  (signed)
Date posted: 10/30/2007 3:13:59 PM
Pallas-Athena's Comments:

I was one of the reviewers that accepted this fic, and I just have to take the opportunity to finally tell you how wonderful I found it. Maybe it won't mean much to you, but this fic is one of those one of a kind gems that's so rare that, as reviewers, we don't even bother hoping for it when we open a fic for the first time. As I kept reading, even though I was understandably engaged in the story itself, the back of my mind kept humming, "I'm reviewing a perfect fic, I'm actually going to be accepting a perfect fic!" This is the first time this has happened to me as a reviewer, even though I have accepted my fair share of fics. I've never been so excited to read a submission before.

What makes it so perfect? The clever and inspired plot, the interesting characters, the flawless pacing, the fantastic but realistic use of humor. It's just wonderfully imaginative and perfectly executed. It will certainly be the first fic I point to when submitters ask what type of fics I most hope to see submitted.

Welcome to the Archive :)

Author: Gabri_Jade  (signed)
Date posted: 10/31/2007 2:29:21 AM
Gabri_Jade's Comments:

As the other reviewer for this fic, I have to echo Pallas-Athena's comments. As many great stories as we see submitted to the Archive, it's still very rare to find one of this quality. It's technically flawless, the plot is really imaginative, the characters are compelling and believable, and the pacing - ah, the pacing. That's a thing of beauty. You gave the reader exactly the right amount of detail and background information at exactly the right time, and maintained that perfection throughout. It's smartly written, never patronizing, never drags, never jumps confusingly ahead, and features not a single distracting info dump. In that aspect particularly, this story is easily of professional quality.

And this story is all the more impressive an achievement for striking that perfect balance of featuring original characters almost entirely, yet still being undeniably a Star Wars story. Just extraordinary. I'm looking forward to reading more of your work in the future.

Author: kehleyr
Date posted: 11/1/2007 4:17:09 AM
kehleyr's Comments:

It was indeed a beautiful story. I was a little turned off it in the beggining because it only featured original characters and because the time setting (inter trilogy) didn't leave much room for surprising developments.

I think it is one of the few stories here that feels like it was written by a professional. There was no mistake in pacing and in characterization, there wasn't any moment in which I as a reader felt that it should have been worded otherwise or that the development of the story should have gone differently.

It's a brilliant detective story set in Star Wars. I hope (and I am sure :) ) that we will see a sequel.

Author: luton_plunder  (signed)
Date posted: 11/9/2007 6:02:52 PM
luton_plunder's Comments:

Thankou all for your comments! I'm so glad that people are enjoying this little fic, and want to say a huge thankyou to Yodimus and Thumper for their work beta-ing this to bring it up to scratch :) And also to Pallas-Athena and Gabri_Jade for their reviewership!

Those of you wondering about a sequel, they do exist on the JC forums as works in progress.

Thanks again!

Author: Arwen Skywalker
Date posted: 11/19/2007 3:05:50 PM
Arwen Skywalker's Comments:

This is a fantastic fic! YOu are a fabulous writer, this story is engaging and wonderful. Tack is awesome.

The way they are using the CDN and not the Force is so awesome, and the Emperor thinks they are badass Jedi! LOL! Great job!

Author: outstretchedarm
Date posted: 11/30/2007 9:05:43 PM
outstretchedarm's Comments:

This is one of the best pieces of fan fiction I have ever read. It read like a Dan Brown novel.

1) I enjoyed Bastian's and the younger Maitland character -- complex and.real

2) The concept of the CDN is great and great fodder for future storytelling.

3) This story expresses the great range of storytelling available within the SW galaxy. A detective story with little reliance on jedi, swashbuckling, the force -- great!

4) Tack is one of the best SW droids ever.

Thanks for an entertaining read.

Author: Phantom Jedi
Date posted: 1/20/2008 2:21:24 PM
Phantom Jedi's Comments:

Very nice work! It is good to see that there are stories out there that do not solely rely on the Force and main characters to make life interesting. I'd love to see more of this story, if more exists.

Phantom Jedi

Author: dreamshell  (signed)
Date posted: 3/25/2008 10:06:36 PM
dreamshell's Comments:

I read this a few weeks back and was really impressed with the richness and originality you brought to the SW universe. I've very rarely seen it, especially with characters of ones's own making. And yet, they were all very interesting, intricate people (and droids) with believable traits and mannerisms (and programmaing).

Also, kudos on your great pacing abilities and smooth transitions/overlapping of genres. Amusing one moment, dramatic the next (sometimes both at the same time). And the best part--the main character defeats a Force User *without* having powers himself! Awesome.

There will be a sequel story, right? =D

Author: Jeff 42  (signed)
Date posted: 12/17/2008 10:21:01 PM
Jeff 42's Comments:

This is one of the best and most original fan-fics I've read. You did a great job creating a compelling story that has only a tangential connection to any official Star Wars work, yet could only happen in the Star Wars universe. The idea of the CDN and its use being mistaken for Force powers was quite clever. Keep up the good work!

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Archived: Monday, October 29, 2007

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