"We have exited hyperspace, and are now entering the Peragus system. As you all know, due to new security restrictions, no blasters are allowed inside the base ..."
The voice droned on, but I tuned it out. I was tired. I was usually tired, but for some reason this was worse. I could feel my pulse pounding in my temples, and my head felt as though steel bands were tightening around it. I pressed my forehead against a nearby window, hoping the coolness of the transparasteel would ease my suffering at least a little.
After a moment, I opened my eyes again, turning my head slightly to look at the Peragus system. One half of the planet had exploded years ago - turning the system into a maze of unstable asteroids - and now it left a trail of clear gold fire behind it as it raced swiftly around its star. The soft light - like the illumination from a tallow candle - spilled through the transparasteel viewport and applied its mellowing effect to the solid steel girders that formed the backbone of the transport.
I turned at a solid step behind me, my overstretched nerves vibrating with tension. The sound turned out to be nothing but one of the mercenaries that we were transporting, little more than a bulky, over-tall shadow in the shadows. He turned his head slightly to meet my gaze, his grey eyes glinting in the light from the planet, and I froze as sudden memory ... from so long ago that the power of it caught me by surprise ...
I was watching General San with respect, surprise, and a touch of jealousy. My age, and he had it all. He was deadly. He was handsome. He was brilliant. He was a Jedi. He was standing next to the loveliest girl I'd ever seen and looked like he belonged. He was General San, Jedi without peer. I was twenty-three and had only had two or three fantasies where that girl smiled at me the way she smiled at him. I don't remember very clearly what the mission was about - I've had so many - but I remember her. Vividly. She was that sort of person; I, at least, found it impossible to forget her. They were both brilliant, scintillating, on the top of their arc. The war was going well; General Winn-Kari was winning it for them almost single-handedly. We worshiped them, and envied them their power. That was the first time I heard her voice - actually, I heard her laugh first. That is the stuff that dreams are made of.
" ... impossible!" I found myself holding my breath.
He said something, it made her laugh again.
"And dense, did I mention that? No wonder no head injuries ever bother you, with such a thick skull ..."
I was the polar opposite of them, even then. Lieutenant Rand, when anyone bothered to notice me. I didn't expect to be noticed, and normally I wasn't. The colony I was stationed to protect - a border world, Terasis - was only important because it might serve as a refuge for displaced races. Why General Winn-Kari had even sent a pair of Jedi to my outpost was anyone's guess, but she was never wrong. At least, so we thought then.
I shook my head, shaking away the memories. We were about to dock, and there were a few ... preparations I needed to make.
All the people on the ship, the Swiftsure, were displaced mercenaries and half-starved refugees. This ship was all we could afford, and it showed it in exposed wiring, and rust in the form of doors which did not close, panels that did not open, and a terrible metallic smell. Even transparasteel rusted on this ship, which was something I had rarely seen before. I saw it all too clearly now as I made my solitary way back to my quarters, and not a breathing creature was found between the observations deck and where I was. There was a recently dead refugee near the engine room, but that didn't count. I made a mental note to inform the captain, wondering how I could get out of doing it myself.
I found my quarters flooded. A pipe up the hall had given way, and now an inch of standing water was stagnating under my bunk. Another reason to get off this ship as soon as possible - as if I needed another. I used my usual method of distracting myself, a habit so deeply ingrained that I sometimes wondered if I could stop, even if I wanted to.
... flip the two, add it to eighteen, and I win, again ... great. Deal. Eight, end turn ... I rarely stop playing Pazaak. Never, really. I even play it in my sleep. Am I a compulsive gambler? In all honesty, no. I am Atton Rand, a mercenary for hire and pilot. My life is nothing, and if there were a speck of justice in the galaxy I should be dead.
I'm a deserter. It's what I do. I deserted the Republic, my envy of the Jedi deepening into hatred far too easily.
Call it irony that as a Sith my rank was far higher than the mere lieutenant I had been in the Republic. I had talent at my new profession, and it was recognized. Most people would find that repugnant, but we - the assassins - rejoiced in our power. Most of us were old Republic grunts, who had served under the Jedi during the Mandalorian Wars, and perversely, we relished the chance we had to strike at them, kill them more easily than even our venerated Sith leaders could.
Revan was talented, I'll say that for her. She was the one who won the war, she was the one who invented the technique that we assassins used to sneak up on Jedi ... genius.
But I wonder if she ever stayed awake for hours each night, fearing the dreams that might come to her if she slept - dreams of the lives she'd ruined, ended.
I know I did.
The dreams that I most feared were of the blonde Jedi, the one called Symare. She shone, brilliant, blinding me with her beauty. But I came up to her ... and she could not see me, could not feel the blaster I pressed, cold, against her back. And, in my dream, I pulled the trigger.
I fingered the blaster that I had pulled from my boot, running my fingers over its cold, smooth surface. Nightmares notwithstanding, the galaxy seems a whole lot more manageable with the weight of a weapon in your hand.
Which reminded me. I bent and pushed the blaster under my blanket, where it was easily accessible in case I needed it. Blasters were strictly not allowed in the facility, due to paranoid overseers and strict Republic policies. My "preparations" complete, I wandered back into the front of the ship, watching the approaching firestorm with an appreciative eye. Really, I had no idea what was dredging up these memories ...
Never use a blaster. That was our first lesson, drilled into us over and over and over again. The target can feel it if you do something as deliberate as pull a blaster. That's why we were given such specialized hand-to-hand training. Later in my career, however, I had progressed to such a degree, mentally, that I could use any method I chose.
I don't know at what point I realized that I could, and often did, outstrip all of the other Jedi hunters. I suddenly started getting deferential treatment, approval from high up, and jobs that - although it was never said - the other hunters wouldn't be able to handle. The kind of treatment I had always dreamed of getting.
"Move it, Rand, you useless slug," Enimicus Caudec, our ever-charming captain, snarled, jerking his thumb towards the cockpit. "Your shift - see if you can get us there without blowing the whole system to bits."
I bit back the retort that sprang instinctively to my lips and said only, "Uh, yes sir."
He glared at me coldly as I shouldered my way past him and into the cockpit. I looked around with satisfaction. Ah. Home.
"My turn," I said.
The other pilot, a man whose warm brown eyes carefully avoided mine - he had seen too much of my temper - stood quickly and nodded. "Yeah. I'll just get some sleep," he said.
Sure. You do that. I watched him flee sourly, wondering for a moment what he would do if I yelled "boo!" Probably careen into the wall. Idiot. I wasn't sure if I meant myself or him.
I settled myself into the chair and glanced at the instruments. Flying into Peragus was a cinch - in fact, it was illegal to even touch the controls while in the system, because of the chance that some moronic daredevil would decide to ram an asteroid. So I put my feet up and continued daydreaming. As if I could stop. These memories weren't exactly fun - but they were really all I had. My obsession.
She wasn't a job. I was actually off-duty, but the kind of training they put us through isn't the sort you can forget over the weekend. I was on edge, nervous, and I didn't really know why, but over time I had come to learn that it didn't pay to ignore my gut instincts.
I was on a little border world, killing time, counting down the hours until I could return to my duties. I think I played some pazaak. It's the sort of thing I do in my spare time. Flirted with some arm candy, but nothing really caught my eye.
Until I entered that cantina. I can't remember the name of the world I was on, but I remember the name of the cantina - Lucky Dice - and I remember that it was dank and smoky. I had gotten used to clean floors during my time as a Sith, so I took one good sniff and turned to leave. That was when I saw her.
She was nothing more than a gleam of eyes first, a wave of honey-colored hair in what light entered through the doorway. And she was watching me. I didn't really pay much attention, since her face was completely unfamiliar. But then she stood up and came over to me, still peering intently, and said softly:
I paid attention then, you may be sure.
I glanced up at a noise from the comm, and a voice saying loudly, "Transport Swiftsure, you are cleared to dock in Bay 5768. Proceed with extreme caution."
I leaned towards the comm and said, "Thanks, Base. Will do," as I keyed for docking procedures. The ship slid smoothly into the assigned bay, and we settled gently onto the grimy floor. I sat quietly in the cockpit for another few minutes, listening absently to the clamor of mercenaries and refugees penned up too long trying to disembark all at once. The sound faded, however, leaving me cold and empty.
I was remembering.
I was too surprised at first to speak. She took advantage of my silence to talk, quickly, and as softly as before.
"My name is Tanwen. I've been looking for you. Jaq, you're in danger - you don't even know how much."
I found my voice then. Prospective danger has always had that affect on me. "What are you talking about?" I demanded.
She glanced around quickly, the glow from the door gleaming off her pale blue skin, and said, "Not so loud ... please, just trust me for a second, all right? Can I buy you a drink?"
"Who are you?" Something was setting off my warning radar. Something about the fear behind her eyes. But I was willing enough to go along, since I was sure that I could handle myself if it came to a fight, and I was curious enough ... and bored enough ... to play along for a little while. I surreptitiously eyed her for weapons as she ordered drinks for us, came up empty.
"So what's this about me being in danger?" I asked as the waitress-droid zoomed off with our orders.
She was tracing a design on the tabletop with one slender finger, and it paused for a moment before moving on.
"Revan is looking for new fodder for her army," she said.
"Sure, I know that." I shrugged. "I'm in her army, but I'm sure you already knew that."
"Not the visible army." She took a deep, shuddering breath. "The Jedi hunters ..." She took another breath, turning her dark eyes up to meet mine, a hint of firmness in her shoulders. " - are nothing more than a weeding exercise that Revan and Malak set up to find potential new Dark Jedi."
I didn't know that. "Why should I believe you?" I took refuge in anger, as I always did, but I was shaken. Dark Jedi? "What does this have to do with me?"
"They're interested in you, Atton Jaq?. Very interested. I've seen reports to your commanders that even talk about apprenticing you under Malak."
I was thrown, to amazed to even be suspicious anymore. I ... couldn't be a Jedi. No, that wasn't possible. And then I suddenly knew who this girl was. And anger was my only refuge.
I drew in a deep breath, willing the memories to leave me in peace. I looked up, glancing through the viewscreen, and sat staring at the asteroid field and the stars beyond it. As I watched, my gaze absently followed the course of one asteroid that was moving steadily across my field of vision. Wait, I thought, suddenly a little concerned, that's going to hit the base-
A moment later, my mind started working again, and I punched up both comm and scanners. "Base, are you seeing that ..." I said, then stopped, my eyes on the object which had glittered metallically as it wobbled in its path. Not an asteroid. A ship.
"We see it, Swiftsure," somebody snapped back at me. "Unidentified freighter, you are on a collision course with the Peragus Mining facility. Repeat ..."
I stared at my readouts. "Base, I'm not picking up any lifesigns on board - "
" ... no unscheduled landings are permitted under Republic law..."
"The ship is unmanned, base!" I practically yelled, staring in horror at the approaching vessel. It was going to crash, unless somebody did something. A plan began to formulate in my brain. "I have an idea," I spoke into the comm.
"What? Who are you? ... who is that?"
"Rand," I said, "Pilot. Permission to deal with threat, sir?"
"How?" His tone wasn't exactly friendly, but at least he was listening.
"In whatever way necessary, sir."
"Swiftsure, I'm going to need something a bit more concrete then that. You understand." The voice on the comm was brimming with sarcasm, but I could hear the underlying tension. Call it a byproduct of my Sith training.
I was already priming the engine. "We've made a few modifications," I replied breezily.
I didn't waste time with accusations. Even if I had been wrong - which my instincts denied - who was going to question me? I had her knocked senseless on the floor five seconds later, a bruise darkening on her cheekbone. The cantina was empty except for us five minutes after that. I searched her, finding that she wasn't weaponless as I had thought; there was a lightsaber strapped to the small of her back. I took it, weighing it in my hand.
I made sure that she was really unconscious before I reported in, my fingers shaking with delayed reaction. My superior's cold voice answered.
"What is it, Rand?" he snapped. "And aren't you supposed to be on leave?"
"I am supposed to be," I snapped right back. "But I've got a Jedi here - "
He cursed. "Those vermin are everywhere."
"Not anymore," I said, but my pride somehow rang false as I looked at her pathetic, crumpled form lying in the bar of light from the door. "Check the records for me, will you? She's uh, about five foot ... seven, with dark blonde hair, blue skin, and ... hmmm, grey or blue eyes. Her name might be Tanwen."
His breath hissed. "Hit. Tanwen Chitose. Jedi Padawan. Trained by Master Ahoshta, until he died, that is. Congrats, Rand, you've got a golden egg. We're looking big promotions." He sounded proud of his protégé, but I imagined all kinds of evils under his words.
I hesitated, once more looking at her. Why was I doing this again? I spoke harshly, abruptly. "You want her brought in?"
"Of course." There was no emotion in his voice. Nothing but dark purpose. I looked again at the slim form reclining on the grimy floor and repressed a shudder of loathing. My fingers tightened on her lightsaber, my fingers feeling the delicate engraved pattern on the weapon's outer covering. Anger began, once again, to build up in my bones, anger to push away the fear.
"I'll send a deputy from the nearest outpost to collect her," he continued. "And Rand ... you did good. You'll be rewarded. I'll make sure of it."
"Yes, sir," I said slowly, then closed my fingers over the comlink, cutting off the communication.
I shook off the memory, feeling that anger once again in my body. How could I have been so blind?
The ship was still about twenty klicks away from the station when I'd finally convinced the tech that I was serious and got the Swiftsure into space. The ship, which was a type of freighter that I was unfamiliar with, was quite a bit smaller than the Swiftsure, and running under barely auxiliary power.
I keyed the comm again, not really hopeful of a response, but even less interested in risking both our ships just because the pilot had fallen asleep at the helm. "Unidentified freighter, you are about to collide with Peragus mining facility - any chance of changing course under your own power?" After a few seconds of nothing but static, I heaved a sigh. "Vexing. Ok, Base," I said, switching to their channel, "here goes nothing."
"You are certain you can handle this, pilot?" the familiar voice said warily. I suppressed another sigh. He had gotten really annoying with that question.
"I'm the best pilot you'll find in this system," I said, watching carefully as I came near the freighter. I felt my stomach tighten as I drew closer and the side of the ship became visible in the glow from the planet. "Base, this ship has sustained heavy damage," I said, flicking on the hull cameras and opening a stream to their computers. "Firefight."
"You sure?" His voice was dubious. "Looks like he could have hit an asteroid."
"Hitting an asteroid doesn't leave those kind of scorch marks, and very few asteroids are perfectly round." I saw the Swiftsure's shadow beginning to cross over the top of the freighter and came back to myself. Whatever the story was here, it would have to wait. Right now, I had to give any survivors a chance - and I suddenly wished that I were the crack pilot that I always bragged about being.
I carried her to my ship. Her head lolled until I braced it against my shoulder. She was very light, as if she had been starving. I had a sleek little cruiser, all chrome and flowing lines, and I dumped her in the cargo hold. I would wait for the deputy ... a Dark Jedi, usually. One of the ones seemingly mass-produced from Revan's secret training ground.
I put her on the floor and sat cross-legged next to her, holding her lightsaber in both hands, and for the first time I feared what would happen when he arrived. Would he be coming for both of us, this time? Would I be taken to some underground Sith camp, brainwashed and subjected to the kind of twisting they called 'Sith training?'
She stirred. I stared at her, and I knew what her fate would be. Not that we ever talked about it. If she wouldn't join Revan, then her life would extend only long enough to give the trainees some torturing practice.
I don't believe you, I told her mentally. I'm no Jedi. Aren't Jedi supposed to be holy or something? I'm the farthest thing from ...
//Jaq ...// her mind whispered back to me, reaching out and touching my mind, and suddenly my world exploded, vanishing like so much dust in the wind, never more to be the same. This simple touch changed me, altered me in seconds, and to this day I have never recovered from this pain. It was a shock like none other. To suddenly feel the life and beauty of a clean and pure mind was exquisite torture to me. Though she tried to lift me out of my body and show me the world, the galaxy, I could not see anything but her.
My whole mind was filled with her. She was a Jedi, a Jedi as all Jedi should be. She tried to show me the people of that planet and tell me of their suffering, but all I noticed was the vast depth of her compassion. She tried to tell me of the sorrows of galaxy and the war, but all I comprehended was the breadth of her knowledge. She tried - urgently - to tell me of my future at Revan's hands, but I barely absorbed a word because all I could feel was that she - A Jedi! The enemy! My hated foe - loved me! Loved me, loved everyone ... and to know this with the blood of her brothers on my hands was agony, sweet, dreadful agony.
I thought of all the Jedi I had killed, and Tanwen saw my memories, and her grief for them became mine. All in an instant, I mourned for those I had gleefully killed - but then she saw those I had given to the Sith and icy fear gripped her.
"Jaq - no, I-I can't face them, their minds are diseased - don't give me to them," she gasped out loud, her mind receding into its proper place away from mine. I stared at her, stunned and crying, and she touched my mind again and showed me the Sith as a strange ship in hyperspace brought him ever closer.
His mind was rotted and leprous. It stank of blood and pain, and it was filled with instruments of torture. It was broken and falling in on itself - Integrity and Honor, which had once been its framework, were lying in rotten shards at the bottom; and Love and Compassion, which had filled it, were nowhere in evidence. Fear and Hatred had taken their place. His memories were filled with the corpses of those who had once been his friends, and standing lone and bleak in all of this carnage was a idol that he worshiped - Power. He would do anything for power. The lust for it held the reigns to his will, and it utterly controlled him. He was aware of us, and lashed out with one sharp-edged thought, and the both of us cringed away from contacting that mind.
//He is coming for me,// she said, and I understood. This was the deputy. I wondered what my soul looked like to her ... and suddenly, I knew that I had left myself only one choice. We could not run. She could not hide. He would find her where she was, and it was my doing.
//I won't let them have you,// I whispered to her mind. //Never, never.//
I shook off the feeling, returned to my body. Her eyes were open, and I put my hands on either side of her face. The sharing of mind is no light thing, and I felt her terror as her mind tracked the nearing darkness. "Don't be afraid," I whispered, putting my lips to her forehead. My hands slid down to her neck, and tightened until she could not breathe.
She died looking into my eyes, and her mind brushed mine like a caress before it vanished.
I had the Swiftsure in position, and I clenched my teeth, shoving away the thought of those dark eyes. I wasn't in any position to be daydreaming right now. As the freighter moved on its steady course under me, I released the clamps on the underside of the Swiftsure and eased the ship down so that the clamps were on either side of the freighter. Carefully, I played with the controls until a shuddering lurch and screech of metal-on-metal told me that I had it. I eased the rudder to the right, testing the grip, and my sensors indicated success. It was the work of barely fifteen minutes after that to maneuver both ships into a hangar. I released the freighter gently to the floor, watched the crowd already gathering.
"Thanks, Swiftsure, good work," the voice on the comm said distractedly. I pulled away from the freighter, grimacing. Not that I had expected a hero's welcome. I had just done what I had to do. That was all.
After I escaped from the Dark Jedi - it took some doing, and I finally had to kill him, as well - I lost myself for a while. I had no desire to look at myself and be racked with self-hatred, and so I lost myself in the masses of displaced people, following the flow of refugees, until, like most of them, I found myself on the dismal moon of Nar Shaddaa. I had nothing but the clothes on my back and Tanwen's lightsaber, and although I clung to it, I knew that I couldn't keep it. A lightsaber was a dangerous object for a man on the run, and one without any Jedi training, to have.
I must have come to Nar Shaddaa for another reason, one that I myself wasn't fully aware of; but when I put my foot onto the grimy landing platform I started off like a man on a mission. I put my hand in my pocket, where her lightsaber rested, and then I walked for several hours through the crowded, filthy streets. It began to rain, and I pulled my hood lower over my head in a hopeless effort to keep dry.
I felt absurdly relieved when I saw him, bent over a stall selling watery soup that steamed in the cold air. He was tall, or at least it was obvious that he had once been tall, though his frame was shrunken with age and with heavy burdens of sorrow and toil. But his eyes were still bright and his face bore the wrinkles of smiling. I walked up to him, not really knowing what I wanted, until he turned and looked at me.
He smiled. "Hello, young sir. Would you like to buy some soup?"
I hesitated, the smell filling my nostrils. But I had something to do before I could vanish forever. One last thing to take care of. "No, thank you," I said. "What's your name?"
He looked at me carefully, trying to see my face in the darkness of the hood. I was suddenly glad of the rain. "I am Hussef," he said at last.
"You seem like an honest man, Hussef," I said, gently stroking the cool metal in my pocket. "I wonder if I could leave something with you. As a trust."
His rheumy eyes widened. "I'm sorry?"
I pulled out the lightsaber and held it out between us. "I can't take this with me where I'm going ..." I said, certain as I spoke that it was the truth. "I need to give it to someone who will take care of it. It's my most ..." I willed my voice not to break, " ... precious possession. Please, take care of it for me?"
He stared at the lightsaber, then back up at me. Slowly, so slowly, he reached out and took it. "I will, young sir," he said. I watched as he put it in the pocket of his apron, then I turned and walked away into the rain.
The Swiftsure's hangar was only one slot over from the hangar I had dropped the freighter into, and as I exited the ship and strolled into the hallway, I found myself in a crowd of curious miners, all craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the mysterious ship.
"Clear the way, clear the way!" the deck officer yelled. "There's a survivor!"
Two security officers were pushing people out of the way of the approaching hovercraft as it barreled down the hall. From my angle there was not much to see - just a pair of feet making the thinsulating medical blanket wrinkle. It came closer - it was a woman, clear enough - there was a long blonde braid playing the pendulum on the left - there was blood on the hair - I could see her face.
It was her ...
My first thought was not that it was impossible. That was my second. My first was the recourse of the mind of an amazing sap, and I would rather die than release it to the world. My third thought was more of a conviction; I thought: I have obviously gone insane.
I still chased that hovercraft halfway to Medical. This would have attracted attention under every other circumstance, but for some reason, half-a-dozen others were playing catch-the-gurney too. I didn't stop to wonder why. We were stopped by a team of medics, grim-faced. They looked at the approaching crowd incredulously.
"What is this?" a red-haired medic, identifiable as the head of the clinic by the blue stripe on his sleeve. "What's going on? Officer, get these people out of here-"
"I know her," a dark-haired man standing across the gurney from me gasped out. I stared at him, taking in his war-scarred face and his miner's uniform, willing him to shut up.
"You do?" the Deck Officer snapped.
"Can this wait," the medic began, and was interrupted by the miner.
"Sh-she's a Jedi," he stammered. "I knew her a long time ago ..."
I was immediately, and ridiculously, consumed by jealousy. I also had to bite my lip to keep from shouting, "You idiot, don't you realize how precarious her position is right now? How many different groups are looking for stray Jedi, for various nefarious purposes?"
The medic turned to stare at the man, and his gaze hardened as he scanned the crowd that was gathering. The range of expressions on all those faces varied from the carefully blank to the openly greedy to the shocked and sorrowful.
"Ok, people, there's nothing to see," the red-haired medic said sternly. "Go back to your work, and let me do mine. You too," he told the veteran who had recognized her. Murmuring, the crowd began, reluctantly, to disperse from the goldmine lying unconscious in the repulsor-gurney. Woodenly, I moved off like the rest, for more of my once carefully-suppressed memories were running through my mind.
It's pathetic, to look back at myself and see how much of my actions were dictated by the thought of one, specific person. The fact that she didn't even know my name barely registered in my mind. She was half the reason I had even joined the Sith. When Revan surfaced, she wore a mask and no one knew her true identity. I didn't halfway care until I saw her pilot, Darth Ryca. I knew him. It was General San, the man I had envied in my little posting on Terasis for his skill and power ... and closeness to the golden vision. It was the work of a moment to decide Symare was the one under the mask.
Back then, they still made it a secret of who signed up to join the Sith. It took some doing, but I eventually made my way to Korriban, where the Sith Academy still wound like a disease through the underside of the mountains.
It took some doing, but I finally convinced the sneering Sith at the door to let me in. He had us wait outside without food for days that stretched into weeks... there were about twenty of us hopefuls when I arrived, but I was the only one still standing when he finally opened the door. My will to live has always been strong ... sometimes I wish it weren't so powerful. If I had died out there ... but no use dwelling on the past.
I made it to the Swiftsure somehow; I imagine I bumped into quite a few people on the way there. I sat down, shaking, on my bunk, locking my trembling hands together and trying to think about something, anything, else. I shifted, and the blaster in my boot slid a little further down. In the bustle, they had forgotten to check me for hidden weapons. Luckily. Their equipment was a bit more advanced than I had been expecting. But I was . . . heh, I was lucky.
I always thought that I was lucky - fortuna ludificáre, lucky fool. Things just seemed to happen to me; good things. At that point in my life, anyway. Later on, when all the bad came crashing down on me, my golden paradigm of luck faded ... leaving nothing except a rare skill at cards.
I was still riding high on my luck when one day, during my training in the Academy, Revan herself made a surprise visit, and we were told she was going to inspect us. We had been practicing our Echani combat earlier in the day, and I was feeling strong and a little bit brash. I stood very tall, watching like a hawk as she moved through the rows of soldiers, coming closer and closer to me.
Looking at her closely, I suddenly felt a little unsure. She seemed a little taller than I remembered - but everyone looks short next to General San, and he was nowhere in evidence; instead, she was shadowed by a bulky menace in scarlet. And that kind of cape makes everyone look tall.
Suddenly, she was right in front of me. My mouth went dry. She stopped to look directly at me, which made me extremely nervous. Had I brushed my hair after training? I suddenly couldn't remember. My hair generally looked like a rat's nest back then, but it didn't usually bother me.
I could feel her eyes looking at me through the narrow slit in her mask. She stood there for a frozen moment - looked at my commander, who was trailing in her wake, and made a curt gesture - then turned away with a swirl of long, black cloak and continued her inspection.
I hadn't thought about it (some would call it idiocy, I call it an inability to think around her) but there were plenty who would have interpreted the little exchange between Revan and my commander as some sort of death penalty, perhaps for staring; or possibly something worse. And when I was called–-actually called - to appear, personally, before Revan herself, I believe that I was actually excited. Not afraid. Not surprised.
Luck, I would have called it then. I thought that maybe she remembered me.
I groaned at myself. I was such a fool. I was such an idiot. Oh yes, it gets better.
I think I remember being very nervous as I approached the quarters of the Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Revan. And not because I was afraid she would kill me. Oh no, I was too stupid even for that. I had to rub my sweating palms on my jacket several times before I could press the door chime.
The door slid open immediately, revealing a dark hallway. I stepped forward, half-eager, half-terrified. "My Lady?" I called out hesitantly, heading for the only lighted room, which was near the end of the hall. Then I saw the black-swathed shape in the darkness at the end of the lightless tunnel.
It was right then that I experienced the first true jolt of terror. She looked menacing, so truly the Sith in her element that I almost fled, but I was afraid to turn my back. So I stayed. Partly for fear. Partly to find out the truth. Partly because I - idiot that I was - still hoped.
She spoke then. It was not the voice I was expecting. Symare's voice, which seemed so far away from this black abyss, was all silver and joy. This voice was soft, and slightly deeper. "You expected someone else?"
I had the presence of mind to shake my head, although it was a lie and a foolish one. Luckily, she found it amusing.
"No?" A low, humorless chuckle. "Then why is your head full of another woman - a Jedi, to be precise? Navya Symare?"
I was stunned. I hadn't realized that my thoughts were so easily plucked from my head.
The lights flickered on, and I blinked. How did she do that? I remember wondering. It took me a moment to realize what I had not seen in the darkness - that her mask was gone, and her head unshrouded.
"Y-you aren't General Symare," I stammered. In my stupidity, this was the only thing I could think of, and the fact that I was staring right into the face of the long-missing Skye Winn-Kari barely registered. "Where is she?"
Revan did not answer for a very long time. "Before I tell you this, may I tell you something about her?"
"If you like," I said with a shrug.
She sighed. "When I first met Navya, I did not think that she would follow me. She loved her Master so much that it was inconceivable that she would disobey him. When she did follow, she did not do it simply to rebel against the Council, or to remind the Republic of the necessity of Jedi. No, her motives were pure - unlike many of the others. I realized that her capacity for love was greater than I knew, because she did it for the billions of unnamed soldiers. She could feel their pain and despair and knew it must end. But at the end of the war ... there was a problem ..."
Suddenly, Revan turned away, the violence of her emotion showing at last. I didn't understand - was something wrong?
"Navya would not turn to the Dark Side."
I seemed to freeze.
"I was afraid I would have to kill her."
Meaning swelled the words I was trying to force into existence, and I was strangling on them.
Revan laughed bitterly. "I needn't have worried. When war was over, she returned to the Masters. To pay for her crimes."
I found my voice. "What had she done?"
"Nothing," Revan said simply. "Other Jedi might have succumbed to bloodlust and battle rage, but she was not one. But when she returned - I have the trial holovids - they accused her, wrongly, and executed her."
I made it out of there, somehow. I'm not sure. I was not in possession of my reason. I was walking blindly down the hallways when I started to cry, and that brought me to a halt.
"This is ridiculous, Atton Rand," I snarled at myself, sobbing. "You did not even know her. Get a grip."
I know enough.
I thought myself stupid. I punched at the wall savagely.
She was kind. She was happy.
"Lack wit! Stop thinking!"
She was generous. She was hardworking. She was intelligent.
She loved everyone. Even you, I guess.
"Go ahead, catalog all her good qualities!"
That would be impossible.
"Stop it, I know ... I know. Puppy love."
Then why doesn't it go away? Tell me something wrong with her.
I couldn't answer. I was crying too hard.
I'll tell you one. She was mortal.
Out-running one's thoughts are difficult, but I gave it a try.
After that day, I found my work went easier. I no longer had any trouble burying my murderous intentions beneath a haze of feeling, and I found that killing Jedi - or turning them into the Command, for Revan to deal with, which amounted to the same thing - made me positively gleeful.
But as I've mentioned, sleep became hard to deal with.
I lay back against the thin mattress, resting my head on my arm. It had been a long day, longer than most. I glanced over at the chrono on the wall and sighed. It was morning already? I couldn't remember sleeping. I must have dozed off, though.
Then I remembered the Jedi in the medical bay and I shot straight up, banging my head on the bunk above me. Biting back a curse, I massaged my head as I considered how best to get in to see her.
She had looked pretty bad. Whatever had happened to her ship, it had not been any easier for her. She wouldn't be waking up, much less walking, for a while. Days, probably. Problem. The Swiftsure wasn't staying that long. So, I'll just have to find some way to stay behind. I've never tried mining. The thought made me smile. The fact that I was even considering staying in this dump was evidence enough of my sheer insanity. And even if I did stay, and I contrived somehow to bump into her ... what then? I barely knew her name; I had no claim on her. Mentioning the war was more likely to cut off communication than anything else.
Well, that could come later ... and I did have a way to stay behind. I fished under the thin blanket on my bunk, wondering irritably where it could have gone. Then my fingers brushed cold metal and tightened. I pulled my blaster out and stuffed it into my boot. All right, now all I need to do is get arrested. Huh, shouldn't be too difficult.
I headed out of the ship, looking around for sensors, but nobody stopped me. I felt strangely calm. Although I knew that I would be in big trouble soon, I was not afraid. My stomach rumbled. Opting for whatever swill they served on the base to the meager supplies in the Swiftsure's hold, I followed the flow of the crowd until I caught a whiff of strong caff. Following it, I found myself in another one of the base's high-ceilinged, metallic rooms, this one full of miners and familiar, mass-produced cafeteria tables. I got myself a tray of some type of food that was unrecognizable, but didn't smell too bad, and began searching for a seat. Trouble was, most of the tables were crowded, and nobody was casting any friendly glances my way. I wondered how long it would take for what passed for the law around here to descend on me.
About halfway down, however, I caught a wave and looked down along a table to see a man watching me. When he saw me looking, he gestured to the seat across from him. I hesitated, a by-product of my unfriendly nature and my training making me suspicious of anyone who was too friendly, but there really wasn't anywhere else. So I made my way down the table and plunked my food across from him. I took in his cropped blond hair and cold blue eyes and seated myself, wondering if I was making a mistake.
Smiling broadly at me, he offered his hand. "Coorta. I'm a miner."
I nodded vaguely, ignoring the hand, and trying not to breathe in. Did the man never floss? "I'm, uh, Rand. Pilot."
He lowered his hand and said, "Of course. You're the pilot of the Swiftsure, the ship that came in yesterday."
I nodded again, wondering why he was telling me things I already knew.
He leaned towards me, and I strategically leaned back to avoid another encounter with his breath. "You seem like an intelligent fellow."
Yeah. Thanks for noticing. I leaned back further, but it wasn't helping.
He glanced around, deepening my gut feeling that this wasn't going to be the sort of conversation I would be likely to find enjoyable. "I've got a plan for making a bundle," he whispered, as I held my breath. "A plan that only lacks an able pilot. Did you ever hear ..." He paused, cold blue eyes narrowing. "Ever hear about how much the Exchange is offering for Jedi these days?"
I blinked. This was about the last thing I had expected. "Bounty?" I meant to sound slightly ominous; I came off sounding dazed. Possibly greedy.
"Yeah." He smiled slightly. "You interested?" His eyes measured me.
I nodded slowly, holding myself together. What if I had misunderstood? I had learned early on to be careful about how much of myself I revealed. For some reason, Sith Assassins weren't exactly popular these days. "I'm listening."
He watched me for another few seconds, hesitating. Then he leaned closer and said quietly, "It's not really that complicated. I've got friends all over this base; friends in medical who'll help us get to her without making a fuss."
I opened my mouth to ask what, exactly, "get to her" would entail, but he wasn't finished.
"And others who want out, same as me, and are willing to do whatever - whatever - it takes."
My insides were churning. I hated it when I got bad feelings like this; they were invariably right.
"So," he said, "We've got a distraction planned. Nothing too serious. You won't even be involved with that. Your part will be to man the getaway vehicle, which we've got ready. We'll get her inside, you'll take off, boom! Straight to Telos, we turn her in to that arm of the Exchange, and land ourselves a nice bundle; maybe enough to retire for good on some nice, quiet little planet somewhere."
As he was speaking, my mind had veered off into a tangent, imagining how I could twist their getaway to my own ends, ends which involved getting Symare far, far away from any branch of the Exchange and ... well, I had always been good at deception. With luck - heh, fortuna - she'd never know me as anything but her rescuer. That scenario had distinct possibilities.
Coorta was still speaking, and I looked back at him.
"I've wanted off this stupid minefield for ages, and here comes my chance. A Jedi. A real Jedi. Coming right to me." He fixed me with a glance. "Of course, a live Jedi is too difficult to transport. They're tricky to handle. You understand."
My wonderful little fantasy abruptly melted. Wait ... was the idiot actually suggesting ... and to me ... ? I found myself reaching the boiling point. I put my hands flat on the table, struggling for control. Control which eluded me, as it often did.
"Listen, you -" Words chased themselves around in my skull, each more insulting than the last, but I couldn't come up with anything foul enough for ... him. "That is the ... worst, most stupid ... I can't believe -" I was on my feet, and had no idea how it had happened. Coorta's eyes followed me, cold, calculating. "You're going to kill her in cold blood and then ... turn her for some kind of bounty?"
"Why not?" he countered, eyes darting around the room. Too late, I wondered if he had some buddies lurking about, but I found that I didn't care. I could take them. Even if it meant revealing my training. When I was through with them, they wouldn't be thinking about killing unconscious women for at least a few months.
"What's she to you?" Coorta demanded, standing as well, his chair falling to the ground with a thud. The cafeteria, I distantly noticed, was absolutely silent, except for the tread of official-sounding boots coming our way.
I wasn't about to go telling him the truth. "Killing a defenseless person is disgusting," I snarled. "And it's a habit that's likely to come back and hit you in the mouth." Which I did. With gusto.
In retrospect, not the smartest move I could have made. But it felt really good.
They eventually pried me off him - it took three security guys - and when they patted me down, found the blaster in my boot. I didn't bother with excuses. I had actually forgotten it was there.
Binders are uncomfortable. I've noticed that before.
I sat in the too-hot interrogation room as the administrator, a dark-skinned man named Ferran, yelled at me, but, when he started repeating himself, I stopped listening.
I wonder how she's been doing. How she survived this long. Where she's been. If Revan was lying - not such a surprising conclusion - and the Jedi didn't murder her, where was she all this time? How did she end up here, in the middle of nowhere, landing practically in my lap? Could I believe in luck after all?
For a while after that, I amused myself by imagining what I would do to Coorta and his friends if they so much as approached the Jedi. Ferran finally yelled himself hoarse, and then he asked in a cold voice, "May I ask, Mr. Rand, what it was that prompted you to break Coorta's nose?"
"You may," I replied, hiding most of my contempt. This was exactly the sort of official that I most despised. But perhaps he could protect her. It was worth a try. "He's planning on selling the Jedi to the Exchange," I told him.
Ferran's face went red under the dark skin. "Not on my watch," he said, clenching his teeth. "Know what their plan was?"
"He didn't go into specifics. My job was to man the escape vehicle."
He put his hands on the table, leaning over so that we were closer to eye-to-eye. "Mr. Rand, this may sound rude, but I wouldn't have pegged you as the sort who would go out of his way to protect anyone, even a Jedi. Your salary can't be very high, and the bounty on Jedi is ridiculous. Why would you attack a man who was merely talking about selling her?"
I wasn't about to tell him. "He wanted to kill her in cold blood," I said through stiff lips.
He looked at me for another moment, then turned away. "As you are under the command of your captain, Mr. Rand, he will have to decide how to deal with you. I will suggest that he hold you on the mining facility until a trial can be arranged." He nodded at the guards. "Hold him here. Captain Caudec will come for him in a while."
Don't bet on it, I thought.
"Rand?" The voice was cold, unfriendly. I steeled myself and turned to meet Captain Caudec's implacable grey gaze. He looked about as friendly as a nexu.
"Sir?" I said neutrally.
"You're in hot water, Rand," Caudec said stiffly, not meeting my eyes. "You're a fair pilot, but there have been too many incidents. I have a schedule to meet, and I can't waste time sitting around while you're being tried."
"So you're leaving me here." I tried not to sound too eager, but even in a holding cell I was closer to Symare than I would be on the Swiftsure.
Caudec blew out his breath. Clearly, he'd been expecting an outburst. Well, I could have obliged, but I didn't want him to change his mind.
Ten minutes later, I was standing in a holding cell, breathing in the familiar ionized-air smell and trying not to fall asleep. There wasn't enough room for me to curl up, and the energy that made up the walls of my cage could deliver nasty burns. I amused myself running through my memories again. Somehow, even the ones about Tanwen didn't carry the same sting, now that I knew that Symare was alive, and nearby.
I had one conversation with her, sort of. I treasured the memory. I was walking down a hallway - hoping to run into her, as it happens, but I was rarely rewarded for my efforts - when I turned a corner and there she was. I actually nearly bumped into her. I ducked out of the way, holding my breath, my brain simultaneously frozen and racing.
"Pardon me," she said, her eyes on me for a moment, then she was gone.
"Oh, that's -" I have no idea what I would have said. Something idiotic, no doubt. Probably for the best that she didn't linger to inspect the man who had nearly run right into her.
As I said, I treasured that memory. Through the bad times.
My guard changed after a few hours, and then after another few hours the new ones left and weren't replaced. I wondered, dimly, if they were still protecting Symare, but I was getting hungry and the memories weren't helping with that. What are those idiots thinking? I wondered irritably. Is it against policy to feed prisoners?
Then a dull shockwave gently rattled the room, coming from my left. What now?! Earthquake? Peragus wasn't stable, everyone knew that. Bomb? Maybe. Had the asteroids ignited? Not strong enough for that. There was another tremor, more emphatic than the last. Again - and even closer - I could hear the detonation now. It was now clearly some sort of bombing. The strongest came next, making the room shudder and knocking me against the walls of the cage - luckily with my thick jacket absorbing most the charge. My bad feeling grew, mounting for a half an hour after that, climaxing - and then crashing down for no apparent reason, leaving my nerves feeling lacerated and my heart very, very sore. And I could not have told you why, but I knew that something terrible had just happened.
No one came after that.
The time on my chrono showed that it had been almost two hours since the explosions. I had been thinking about it ... if my estimations were correct, then those explosions had come from the mining levels. Fearing sabotage - and not being able tell the difference between a fuel accident and plasma bombs, the miners and security would have sealed themselves inside their quarters, leaving the administration and medical centers unharmed and unguarded - just as Coorta had wanted. The thought made my temper flare, and with that came heat – adrenaline - and a pounding heart. I wanted to hit something, but all that presented itself was the electrical field, and even in my hazy state I wasn't that stupid.
A day had passed, and my emotions had left me completely drained. Adrenaline had dissipated, leaving weakness - and still no one came. My vision swam, and my balance was beginning to fail. I was still hungry, but all this was overshadowed by a desperate thirst. The air was dry in here, and what was more - it was sealed. I could feel it growing stale, and the growing carbon dioxide was making everything ache. My head, my muscles, my bones ...I tried not to faint. That would be a very bad idea ...
My legs were just reaching the point of threatening to buckle when I heard footsteps outside. I tensed, ignoring my screaming muscles ...
And the door opened.
Original cover by General San_3. HTML formatting copyright 2008 TheForce.Net LLC.