Previously: The User 1:1 - SIn
The last day of Tennet McMahon's life began in an utterly unremarkable way. So average, in fact, that the notion he would be dead in less than an hour hadn't occurred to him. If he'd known this was the case the morning would have panned out differently. Perhaps he wouldn't have spent so much time bathing and looking at himself in a mirror and instead spent that time looking at his beautiful wife. He would definitely have made time to say goodbye properly on his way to work instead of rushing through the front door as quickly as his legs could carry him. "See you tonight, hon," was all he'd managed.
"No kiss goodbye?"
"Two kisses hello tonight, I promise," he'd yelled back, gripping his briefcase and hastening down the road. He walked to work these days - a decision he'd told everyone was to cut down on fuel costs but which everyone knew was to try and lose the extra weight he'd been carrying around lately. It was so routine to him already that he had memorised the order of landmarks and how many minutes it took to walk between them.
One of those landmarks was a man. He was well known around Correalis - in fact, his reputation had spread even to the less affluent periphery Corellian cities - and he called himself The Mystic. A remarkable person, truth be known - probably one of the only homeless men allowed to walk the streets without fear of being relocated. He fancied himself a psychic and, for whatever reason, the locals had found it quirky to keep their own personal street magician around. Perhaps it was to prove that they had a sense of humour.
Tennet approached him now.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, what have you got to lose!" he was busy announcing, his showman's voice belying his vagabond looks. "One credit is all it takes! Predictions, accurate, or your money back!" He kicked a top hat at his right foot and it jingled. For all the times Tennet had seen him, the hat had always been on the ground. It was clearly part of the ensemble he wore, however - the grey tailcoat, dress pants and vest were perfectly matched.
"Good morning, Tennet," The Mystic said, taking pains to make sure their eyes didn't meet. That was odd on his part, Tennet thought. The Mystic had a powerful stare that he liked to employ whenever he could. "No services today."
Tennet smiled awkwardly, attempting to search out his eyes. "You ought to know that, you're the psychic," he said, trying his best to be witty. The Mystic kept his eyes on the ground but managed a humourless laugh.
"It was, of course, a statement. You won't be needing any services today," he said. There was something off about his voice. There was none of the usual pep and excitement. He was almost...upset. Depressed, maybe. If Tennet hadn't been in a hurry, and if he felt more camaraderie for his fellow man, he might have asked why. But as it was he needed to keep moving. He accepted the fact that The Mystic wasn't in a talkative mood - a blessing, considering how annoying he could be when he wouldn't shut up - and continued on his way.
"I'm sorry," The Mystic's voice called after him.
Tennet halted. Curiosity had finally gotten the better of him. He turned around and found The Mystic's gaze. His eyes were strangely hollow. "Something wrong today, Mystic? No jibes, no witty comments on the absurdity of working life?"
Another humourless laugh. "It doesn't seem appropriate today," he said with some amount of distance in his voice. "And like I said, I am sorry," he lowered his eyes once more.
Tennet, ragingly intrigued, pressed on. "Sorry for what?"
"Your death," The Mystic answered.
If there had been some kind of break between his question and the answer, Tennet might not have been so absolutely appalled by it. A breath, a contemplative pause, absolutely anything other than a cold statement of fact.
"Excuse me?" he asked, not sure how to react.
"In about fifty seconds," The Mystic continued, "you get hit by a hover tram. Though, if it is any consolation, your death leads to some beneficial safety reforms for the entire public transport system."
Tennet's eyelids contracted. "If this is a joke," he said in a barely restrained voice, "it's about as far from funny as I've ever heard."
"I wish it weren't true," The Mystic responded. "You have always been civil to me. But I do not get a choice in the matter. I just re-tell the things that I see."
Tennet was inexplicably angry. He'd never put any stock in the lunacy of The Mystic before and nor did he now - but to be confronted by something as personal as his own death was enough to sour his mood entirely. A thousand rebukes ran through his head, all of which he'd loved to have hurled at The Mystic had he not been so torn between them all. The whispering voice of logic in his mind, however, told him that any argument with this man would be pointless. His prediction was nothing but a sick joke and chastising him would be playing into that.
Instead he waved a dismissive hand and continued on his way, pace quickening to put as much distance between them as possible. Phrases like 'crazy old kook' and 'how dare he' swirled in his mind even as he tried his hardest to put the whole incident behind him. But it was too hard and he couldn't overcome the niggling voice that kept telling him to stand up for himself. He stopped as he reached the roadside and turned back to face The Mystic.
"You know what you are?" he called to the man in the top hat. "You're nothing but a lonely old vagrant. You can take your magic act and stick it right up your-"
The final word of his sentence was lost in the sound of a blaring horn. The last thing that Tennet McMahon saw before he was killed was the shining, dented fender of a large passenger tram hurtling toward him. It was travelling too close to the pathway, he reflected in a detached kind of way. The Mystic, looking on from some metres away, closed his eyes at precisely the right second to avoid the inevitable mess.
Tennet's mind wandered to the final thought it would ever process. Strangely, he didn't think of his wife or children. He didn't think of all the friends he would be leaving behind. He didn't even lament his unfinished business or regret all the achievements he would never fulfil. It was much more depressing than any of those thoughts put together.
It was the terrible realisation that, though he had refused to listen or act upon it, The Mystic had been right all along.
"Keyston," Director Despotov said without inflection, "come in."
Detective Jeanice Keyston entered the largest office in the Special Investigations unit and stood by the desk of her superior, who looked to be in a grim mood. That wasn't unusual - his last name wasn't the only reason he was referred to as 'Despot'. And given the circumstances today, he wouldn't have to work hard to live up to that name. She'd read the Holonet news that morning and had a fair inkling of what this meeting would be about.
"Sit down," Despot ordered. She did. "And brace yourself."
What a wonderful way to begin, she thought as she took out her datapad. Ready to take as many notes and directives as he threw at her, she crossed her legs and gave him her full attention. His eyes were fixed firmly on a console screen in front of him, most likely reading a feed from CorSec Head Office.
"You, being who you are, have already guessed why you're here?" he asked.
Keys let a smile tweak her mouth. "You want me to find the daughter of Giselle Heartstring?" she answered, making it appear as a question for the sake of courtesy. Despot nodded and sighed.
"You heard, then."
"The whole city heard," Keys confirmed. "They woke up and found the news being read by someone else. Heartstring hasn't missed a day of work for the last ten years. The rival networks have made sure everyone knows why she isn't reading the headlines this morning. Today she is one."
"And yet her daughter was the one kidnapped. Funny," Despot said. "So you know the public profile on this one is enormous. Famous news anchor, kidnapped daughter - people are interested. I think that Heartstring is running an emotional appeal to the kidnappers for the return of her daughter right now on 3-COR. CorSec Patrol's idea, obviously."
Keys made a brief note on her datapad. If Patrol was handling the majority of the casework so far, that meant she'd either be assigned as a support role or she'd be working independently of them. Though Despot hadn't officially given her any useable information yet she went ahead and made comprehensive notes on their conversation anyway. Sometimes it was the little things, initial reactions and impressions, that became important later.
"Patrol is already working this one?" she asked, quickly scribbling it down. "Will I be working as support, in parallel or as a shadow?"
"At this stage, shadow," Despot confirmed. "Patrol is doing a decent job of the crime scene which has yielded little in the way of evidence anyway. They're also handling Heartstring's publicity campaign, and that is something that we'll be staying away from at all costs. You are to investigate this kidnapping, but take all the avenues that Patrol doesn't go down."
It wasn't an unusual order for the Special Investigations unit. They were specifically set up to tackle the most difficult of crimes - the detectives in the unit were the most well-connected and resourceful officers that CorSec had to offer. They complimented CorSec Patrol quite well, usually attacking a problem from the opposite angle thanks to their different police cultures. SIn generally acted as a failsafe for Patrol - chasing up all the leads that Patrol either couldn't or wouldn't. It was an effective relationship. If history was anything to go by, the daughter of Giselle Heartstring would be recovered by one department or the other by tomorrow morning.
"What has Patrol turned up from the crime scene?" Keys asked.
"Very little, as I said. Entry was forced. No forensic evidence to speak of. No witnesses. No surveillance recordings. Just a missing girl, a broken lock, and..." he trailed off as he turned his console screen toward her. "One hand-written note," he finished.
On the screen was a jagged-looking piece of flimsiplast that had been inscribed with crude handwriting. It wasn't very clear but still legible for the most part. Keys kept writing annotations as she read through the ransom note.
The Heartstring child is ours now. We do not want credits. We do not want political power. Any offer of these will be met with the death of the child.
Giselle Heartstring, we know what your agenda is. You and all like those like you would have us dead. We demand that you reveal this conspiracy to the public immediately. When you have done so, your child will be returned to you unharmed.
You have 25 hours. We are watching.
Keys whistled. "Intense stuff."
Despot nodded. "The kidnappers impaled the kid's doll with a kitchen knife and stuck it to the front door. They found this note in the doll's hand. I'd say intense, yes." He reclined and took a sip of caf, taking a moment to rub his eyes. He must have been called in early. "They broke in while Heartstring was asleep in the next room, so they're also brazen."
"My favourite combination."
"We've run a full analysis on the ink used to write the note, too. It's traceable," Despot added in what sounded like an afterthought. "So whether or not it helps, find the stylus and you've found the kidnapper."
"This is just a guess," she said skeptically, brushing past the last point, "but she's denying any knowledge of the kidnappers' accusations? This conspiracy she's allegedly involved in?"
Despot snorted. "Of course - and I think it's a bit much to hope that a planet-wide conspiracy actually exists."
"Damn. I love conspiracies," she answered.
"Don't we all," Despot concurred. "But you can make do. We've got a ticking clock here to rival any holodrama. This note was left three hours ago, which means you've got exactly twenty-two hours to find Heartstring's daughter before she is killed. If that happens, it'll mean weeks of tribute programs and sappy one-hour specials. These will in turn probably replace Division 29 for this week, which is my favourite show. You do not want to know me on the week that I miss Division 29."
"Understood sir, and can I say I admire your convolution," she said.
"Thankyou," he answered, possibly not having understood the definition of 'convolution'. "There's an intel file compiled by Patrol that ought to have been wired to your workstation by now. Review it, pursue it, you know the rest."
Solve it, Keys completed the sequence to herself. "Straight away, Director."
Before she stood to leave she glanced down at the initial impressions written on her datapad. Most of it was stream of consciousness stuff but she saw enough repetitive patterns to draw some early conclusions. An organization was behind the kidnapping, not just a single perpetrator. They were most likely a non-human species that didn't leave a great deal in the way of forensic identifiers, given that they left next to no forensic traces. They were probably very active on the Holonet given their unwillingness to leave an electronic ransom note of any kind, which were generally very easily traceable. And with talk of agendas and conspiracies they probably felt they had been wronged in some way by Heartstring in particular, or the network she represented.
The Bloodscales, Tri-continuum, The Scepters, XenoTerminus - could be any of dozens of Corellian-based alien radical groups, she thought to herself. She made a mental note to check the recent history of Heartstring's news reports and see if any of them in particular had been demonised or attacked.
"And Keyston?" Despot added, leaning forward. His voice was lowered. "Keep this one away from Maitland."
Keys threw a narrow-eyed glance over her shoulder as though Tadgh Maitland might have been standing there himself. Through the office window she could see him sitting at his workstation, tapping busily at a datafeed. She turned back to her Director and eyed him. Tadgh and she often worked closely on complicated cases. This order was unusual.
"May I ask why, Director?" she asked.
He sighed. "This is a big one, Keyston. I know that Maitland insists he's ready to return to work, but-"
"He is ready to return to work," she protested. "In fact, he didn't really leave. He hasn't missed an hour since that Outpost Nine business."
"I sign the timesheets, thankyou," Despot said firmly. "But you know better than to think that because he's here he's feeling fine with the galaxy. His brother only walked out of the hospital yesterday morning. Every time we get an Imperial communiqu? he's in my office checking that it isn't about him."
"I think paranoia is a symptom of being stalked by a psychotic Dark Jedi, then breaking into an Imperial Outpost to kill said psychotic Jedi. I can ask Marryt if you like," she answered, deadpan. Marryt, her husband, was the Special Investigations liaison with Correalis Hospital. She'd married him because even if she did comm him with such an absurd question he'd gladly break from his duties to humour her.
"Be that as it may," Despot said darkly, "I've got him on low-profile duties at the moment. I don't care how justified his actions were, he put himself at great risk and could have caused an incredibly deadly problem between CorSec and the Empire. I'm glad he got his brother out safely, and that he killed that Cop Killer before she killed him, but..." He trailed off, looking over her shoulder at the officer in question. "Maitland isn't going to be the same from now on."
At least on that, Keys could agree.
"Hey Keys!" Tadgh called out from his desk, grin spread prominently across his features. He held up the datafeed he had been reading all morning in his left hand and clutched a cup of steaming caf in his right. On the edge of his desk rested his feet, chair tilted backward to simulate lying down. "Check this out - they're finally fixing the repulsor trams."
Keys walked slowly closer to him, glancing down to inspect the headline. Commuter Death Sparks Transport Reforms - Audio-Visual Warning Systems Announced.
Keys nodded. "Well, there's a shocker - it was only a matter of time before somebody got killed by one of those bloody things." She continued past him to her workstation some twenty metres away, setting down her datapad and bringing her console online. It hummed to life, a picture of her and Marryt at the Corellian Polar Cliffs shining as her background image. She admired it a moment out of habit.
Her comm unit clicked - Tadgh again. "What, no caf this morning?"
"Work to do, Maitland," she said dismissively, trying not to broach the subject of Giselle Heartstring. "I'd have thought you had some, too." In the Special Investigations office, communication by comm unit was not uncommon. The layout of the place was cavernous. Desks were spaced well apart from one another to promote a solitary work ethic in an industry traditionally dominated by partnerships.
"Me? Work? Since my little adventure last week I've been tasked with such gripping cases as 'The Mystery of the Missing Fridge Drinks' and 'The Case of the Creaky Office Chair'. Caf is a roller-coaster of emotion compared to what I'm meant to be doing," he answered. She ignored him, a gesture that they had come to recognise in their working relationship to mean 'quit bugging me'.
Keys brought up the correct case file on her console and began to systematically take in all the relevant information. As with most briefs put together by CorSec Patrol, this one was annoyingly by-the-numbers. Overview, victim accounts, eye witness accounts, evidence scans...a torrent of information that would easily take more than her 22 allotted hours to read.
Watermarked in the corner of the screen was a secured comm frequency. She flicked her comm unit over to it and plugged it into her ear, allowing her to listen to the chatter it relayed without disturbing the entire office. Her head was immediately filled with the sounds of CorSec officers as they went about their assigned duties, all of them trying to track down Heartstring's daughter. At the moment it was relatively mundane but it would keep her updated on any developments as they happened.
As her final act of preparation she began her secondary console running a search along the CorSec network. Hand-written ransom notes weren't often used on Corellia, least of all in cutting-edge Correalis. The kidnappers probably didn't want to leave an electronic fingerprint behind or wanted to distinguish themselves on purpose. If there were any past incidents of hand-written ransom notes in the CorSec database, she'd know about it in just minutes.
The comm unit crackled sharply in her ear and the CorSec chatter was replaced by an intrusive voice - Tadgh's. "They gave you Heartstring, didn't they?" he said with a tone of accusation. Keys rolled her eyes.
"Trying to listen to official channels here, Maitland," she said in an effort to change the subject.
"I knew it," Tadgh said with a sigh. "Despot told you to keep me out of it, I suppose."
Keys didn't sugar coat it. "Absolutely he did." She looked over at him, catching his eye. "And I'm going to follow his orders."
"Damn it." Tadgh leant on his elbows. "Any other planet, you kill a Dark Jedi and they reward you for it. Here, I get stuck in the Bantha paddock and told to behave myself." She watched him spin around in his chair, rocking it back as far as it would go. She was torn between being sympathetic and telling him to quit whining.
For a brief second.
"Quit your whining, Maitland," she ordered. "You broke into an Imperial outpost and you killed an Imperial officer. Granted, a serial killer, but an Imp all the same. Considering the fact that you're still alive, I'd say it's not as bad as all that."
"Easy to say, Keys. Despot still trusts you."
"This isn't an issue of trust. This is about responsibility - namely yours to this unit. You broke it, Tadgh. No matter how justified you were - and believe me, you were - you pay the price for it."
Tadgh snorted. "Thanks, Yoda."
She furrowed her brow. "Who?"
"Old green guy my dad used to know. It's not important."
"All right, whatever," Keys said dismissively. "The point is you're not on this case and I am. I've got twenty-two hours - twenty-one and a half now - to track down a missing girl before she gets killed. As much as I'd love your help, there is absolutely no way on this planet that you are going to get involved. You're just going to have to keep a low-"
As she was halfway through the word 'profile' she was interrupted by the most impassioned announcement she'd heard in a long time. The front doors to Correalis SIn burst open simultaneously and between them stood a tall, thin man with a strangely flamboyant hat. And at the top of his lungs, he shouted.
"I must speak to Tadgh Maitland!"
Keys sank in her chair. "Profile," she finished fruitlessly, already aware that her point had been made moot.
Tadgh nearly sprang from his chair when his name was announced from the front doors. He threw the datafeed he'd been perusing onto his desk and sat bolt upright, trying his best not to look awkward as he did so. He was in the spotlight, after all.
He recognised the intruder as soon as he set eyes on the tattered top hat and spotted grey waistcoat. This was The Mystic, a celebrity of sorts around Correalis known for his crazy demeanour and apparently accurate visions of the future. He'd never dealt with him personally but his brother Taban had once sworn he'd received an accurate prediction concerning the score in a shockball game. Like most things that Taban said, he'd taken it with a grain of salt.
"Tadgh Maitland, this is quite important," The Mystic repeated, walking purposefully through the front doors. As he got further into the building concerned-looking security guards followed quickly, one of them reaching out to keep a hand on the intruder at all times. They looked baffled.
"I'm...we were...just happened to be ..." the guard on the left stammered, trying to justify the security breach. "This guy snuck by us," he decided on.
Tadgh stood and faced the scuffling group of men, feeling somewhat responsible for the entire thing. This vagrant lunatic was calling his name, which meant that in some roundabout and unfair way the whole thing was his fault. But given that his day had been one hell of a bore so far, this was the kind of trouble he was more than happy to deal with.
"It happens," Tadgh said.
"Shall we arrest him?" the guard asked, extracting a pair of shock binders from his belt.
"No, no - let me hear what he has to say first," Tadgh insisted, feeling charitable.
"I am here to help you and Detective Keyston solve the Heartstring case," The Mystic announced, looking rather pleased with himself. It was said with such casual dismissal, as though this was a perfectly normal thing to say about a classified investigation that not even regular CorSec knew they were working on, that it took Tadgh a moment to register its seriousness.
"Okay," Tadgh said, throwing a significant look to a horrified Keys, "now you can arrest him."
Shock binders were applied to the man's wrists, and he was led away roughly, but that apparently didn't diminish his resolve. He kept talking, half of it indistinguishable from the overbearing noise of the security guards and the sound of interested background chatter. But some words - dangerous, worrying words - could be discerned through it all. Words like Daughter, kidnap and dead.
But the worst of them all, the word that made Tadgh steel himself against the rush of adrenaline in his body, was something that he could never have expected. It was a pair of words, actually - and more specifically, a name - that he had come to be quite protective of since the events of last week. Now when he heard it he had to fight the urge to yank out his blaster and go on the offensive.
"Stop," Tadgh ordered, moving closer to The Mystic. The scuffling guards and background noise dropped away suddenly. "What did you just say?" he demanded, hand gracing the latch on his holster.
The Mystic smiled at him easily. "That was always going to get your attention."
Tadgh stayed remarkably calm. "What did you just say?" he repeated.
"I said," The Mystic repeated, meeting Tadgh's gaze, "I know who's behind it all. The one who kidnapped Giselle Heartstring's daughter. The one who wrote the threatening ransom note. The one who you will, eventually, shoot dead for his crimes. The one you're looking for.
"It's Taban Maitland."
A short time later Despot burst into the surveillance room with a look on his face that made Tadgh cringe. "You need me to bring you a dictionary, Maitland?" he asked, face burning red. "I have one in my office. We can look up 'low profile' together, it'll be a laugh. I've got a feeling that lunatic ringmasters aren't mentioned."
"He's not a ringmaster," Tadgh pointed out, "he's a psychic."
"You can explain later how that's better," his superior countered. "For now, just bring me up to speed. In one sentence, if possible."
Tadgh was looking through the one-way transparisteel at the tense scene beyond. The Mystic, flanked by two heavily armed guards, seemed almost oblivious to the kind of trouble he was in while Keys, face set in stone, seemed bent on communicating the extent of that trouble. She hadn't taken kindly to her investigation being taken over by a blow-in vagrant.
"It'd be one hell of a run-on sentence," Tadgh said, still trying to listen to the exchange happening in the interrogation room. Keys' voice was loud without being raised as she tried to drag some information of substance out of the man.
"If you can't substantiate your whereabouts during the time of the kidnapping," she said, her voice scratchy through the low-tech intercom, "how did you possibly expect not to be locked up?"
The Mystic was unaffected. "Oh, I did expect to be locked up, Detective. I knew we would be having this conversation. Curse of the psychic, you see."
His one-track routine was beginning to get the better of Keys. The frustration creeping into her manner was not entirely obvious but evident enough for Tadgh to notice. A drop in her shoulders, eyes darting quickly between the window and the subject. He had a feeling the interview wouldn't last much longer.
He cocked his head in Despot's direction. "You heard about the little disturbance this morning, then?" he asked, pointing at The Mystic.
Despot sucked on one of his teeth. "It was hard not to, a vagrant bursting past my security detail and shouting your name across the building."
"Right," Tadgh affirmed. "Apparently he snuck past the two front door guards at the precise second that a passer-by had her handbag snatched, which distracted them long enough for him to enter. Lucky timing, don't you think?" He couldn't hide the suspicion in his voice.
"I'd say more like an incompetent security detail," Despot dismissed. "I'll get a sec report later. What I want from you is an explanation for this -" he pointed at The Mystic, "-man being here. What in the hells does he want?"
Tadgh took a deep breath. He had been treading on thin ice with his Director since he'd broken into Outpost Nine last week. He hadn't been directly punished as yet but it was implicit in the duties he had been assigned. This would be just one more thing that weakened the already tense tether of trust between them. "He claims," he said, subconsciously lowering the volume of his voice to soften the impact, "that he knows who kidnapped Heartstring's daughter."
Despot's voice also quietened, possibly in reaction to Tadgh's. "And he was shouting your name because?"
"Because..." He trailed off, trying his best not to make the statement melodramatic. Unfortunately, by stopping mid-sentence he had done just that. "Because he seems to think that my brother is the kidnapper."
Despot had never been a man for impassioned responses. "Well then," he said, "that puts the rancor in the frying pan." His propensity for making glaring speech gaffes was quite intact, however. Tadgh was quite sure he'd meant to either say "that puts the Rancor amongst the Mynocks" or "out of the frying pan, into the fire". His mixture of the two phrases was nonetheless thought-provoking in an absurd way.
"It gets worse," Tadgh continued.
"He also thinks that," he paused a moment, trying his best to word it so that it didn't sound predestined, "I'm going to shoot him dead."
Despot had no comeback. A moment of silence passed between them as they listened to The Mystic's latest rant. Tadgh had heard all of it before, but he allowed Despot to hear it with his own ears. It would sound less cynical coming from The Mystic himself.
"It's much sooner than you think," he was saying from beneath his top hat. "You'll investigate a lead on the location of the Heartstring girl. I can tell you the address right now, but you won't believe it."
"Try me," Keys said, deadpan.
"842 Lostock Boulevard," The Mystic reeled off. "It's a shop front that sells common parts for swoop bikes. You'll find Taban Maitland there, but you won't arrest him. Nor will you find the girl there - she's located in an old durasteel smelter outside the city limits. What you will find are fingerprints on a stylus - Taban Maitland's fingerprints. Find the stylus, find the kidnapper, eh Detective?"
He continued in the background as Despot began speaking over the top of him. "He's involved," he declared. "And he's playing us."
"By giving us a location and culprit?"
"Did you never watch those 'magic exposed' shows as a kid?" Despot asked. "Misdirection. It's the basis of every magic trick ever thought up. I reckon that a street magician like this one would be pretty well versed."
"Poor misdirection, though," Tadgh said. "Pinning the blame on Taban. He can't possibly have expected us to buy that."
Despot scratched at his ear and took a slight steadying breath. Tadgh watched as he lowered his eyes to the ground and stepped closer. Whatever he was about to say needed whispering.
"You've commed him?" he asked in hushed tones.
"Taban? No. Why bother him with this?" Tadgh asked in matching volume.
"Because," Despot said, handing him a comlink, "I'm ordering you."
"With respect, Director-" Tadgh began, a frown souring his expression.
He was cut off by a raised finger. "I want you to eliminate him as a suspect, Maitland. Then I want you to find out exactly everything about this Mystical... clown. And when you've done that, I want you to help Keyston find Heartstring's daughter. You have twenty-one hours.
"Congratulations, you're back on active duty.
"I trust you won't disappoint me."
"Get down!" Taban Maitland yelled at the top of his voice.
The pedestrians he had been shouting at managed to act on his advice at just the right moment - a crushed airspeeder fuselage sailed over their heads and crashed violently into the duracrete shopfront behind them. They screamed and ran as hard as they could, away from the burning chaos that had besieged the entire neighbourhood. Atop an overturned landspeeder that in turn was stacked on the sparking wreckage of a billboard for Corellian Whisky, Taban surveyed the damage and summed it up as succinctly as he could.
"What a bloody mess," he said with a slow headshake.
In the centre of the street stood the source of all the destruction - a TT-39 Borer Droid. It looked something like the ungodly love child of an arachnid and a Star Destroyer, a hunk of thick durasteel supported by eight equal-length legs. Usually they were only found in the agricultural sectors of Corellia due to their immense size and weight. This one had most unfortunately gone haywire several days ago and had been inexorably advancing on Correalis for days. The owner of the droid had only thought to inform CorSec of this one standard hour ago.
CorSec had responded to the threat in their typical fashion - with blasters, EMP blasts and a ton of reckless bravado. They lined to the streets on either side of the droid, blasting away, launching grenades, doing their best to blow the hell out of the massive hunk of unstoppable metal in the middle of the street. They had succeeded in making this usually quiet border suburb look like the pock-marked mosaic of a Clone Wars battlefield but not much else. The outer armour of the machine was so thick that blasters did little more than warm it.
"I am ready to broadcast the signal on your command, Officer," a droid voice said at his shoulder. Tack, his personal intelligence droid, had taken up a position next to him. It was basically humanoid in shape apart from the very square head, atop which sat a single visual receptor flashing a pale yellow every so often.
"Well, go ahead and keep on being ready," Taban said wearily, running a hand through his thick and plentiful black hair. His hand came away covered in sweat and he winced. Twenty-four hours ago he'd had his feet up at home, recovering from a rather lengthy stint in hospital courtesy of a Dark Jedi. Now it was up to him to save an entire city district from a slow and messy destruction at the hands of a rampant droid. Briefly, he wondered what it must be like to have a day off. "We haven't been given permission to proceed, as kriffing usual."
Being in command of the Droids and Data division of CorSec was not the promotion that he had hoped it to be. The sum total of his working colleagues was zero, unless you counted the droids. D&D was all too often overlooked as a useful department, dismissed as a joke or at best a glorified division of the Maintenance Department.
He was good at the job, of course. He'd tried once to explain it by saying that 'electricity was in his blood', but Tack had helpfully pointed out that if that were the case he would have fried to death long ago. Since then he'd stuck with the much simpler line 'I know droids well'. Working solely with robots didn't make for the best working environment. An army of mindless, loyal and dedicated droids was handy when dealing with electronic crime but downright awful for water-cooler chat.
"They persist in trying to incinerate the droid," Tack offered without introduction.
"Blowing things up is a Patrol tradition," Taban replied.
"It will do them no good," Tack pressed. "The Borer Droid's armour is rated to withstand exposure to the planet's mantle."
Taban nodded. "Blasters are just tickling it."
"The notion of sensation is not an issue for droids, I assure you it feels no discomfort."
"Good, I was concerned." He watched as the Borer Droid used one of its incredible crust-piercing legs to cleave a transport terminal in two. The ingenious design of the droid meant that, though it had eight legs, only three need be on the ground to sustain the weight. That left five with which it could hammer destruction in any direction it wished.
To be honest even one leg of destruction was too many - and the entire concept of a 'leg of destruction' absurd.
He raised his comlink to his mouth, the frequency already set to contact the senior attending officer - a Captain by the name of Neesden. Waiting for permission to neutralise a threat like this had become a frustratingly frequent routine. CorSec Patrol, being the brave, handsome devils that they were, always liked to try things their way first.
"This is Officer Maitland, one step away from imploring for permission to neutralise threat," he said in as droll a monotone as he could. The response wasn't immediate but quick enough for him to guess the answer before it was spoken.
"Denied for the third time, Maitland," Neesden replied. "The Ion Tanker will be here in less than a minute. Why don't you just relax and do what you always do?"
Taban cocked an eyebrow, the gesture lost on the comm. "Save the day at the last minute?"
"Sit back and watch." The Captain ended the comm call.
His eye-roll was exaggerated almost to the point of being audible. Calling in the Ion Tanker was a natural step for the lay-person to take. A speeder armed with several starfighter-grade Ion cannons was, in general, enough to disable any kind of electronic device it took aim upon. But with armour as thick as that of the Borer Droid - and thanks to an old but proven failsafe design - nothing short of capital-grade Ion blasts would be enough to slow it down. The philosophy behind their design was survival under the most extreme of circumstances. Their production slogan could more or less have been "TT-39 - won't ever shut down, ever, ever."
"We are not to disable the droid?" Tack asked.
"Not yet. I think we're the option they resort to right before surrender."
"They lack trust in you." Tack put his robotic arms on his hips in a frightfully accurate imitation of the human gesture. "You present the other of two evils. On one hand they persist in futile attempts to destroy the menace on their own terms. On the other they allow you to step in and take over. Either way they lose. It seems that pride, the vice of humanity, prevents them from defeating that which does not possess humanity. I believe this is amusing," Tack said in a measured tone.
"Remind me to fix that commentary glitch of yours," Taban mused. Thanks to several upgrades that conflicted with one another, Tack had a tendency to narrate recent events out loud. Often, when skewed through his droid logic, they resulted in outbursts like this one.
He felt a vibration in his hand. A short gap in the constant blaring of blaster fire and crushing destructo-legs allowed him to hear his comm buzzing once again. He knew it wouldn't be Neesden - the Ion Tanker hadn't arrived yet. He was a little surprised to see the caller frequency belonged to his brother.
"Tadgh," Taban shouted as casually as he could to be heard. "To what do I owe the pleasure - Dark Jedi hunting us down? Invisible serial killers eliminating Force-sensitive targets with reckless abandon?"
"Psychics prophesising death and mayhem, actually. 21 hours to save a kidnapped girl, things never as they seem - same old, same old," his brother answered as though this was a normal thing to say. "How's your day?"
"Giant metal death-spider," Taban answered dismissively.
"Oh. Hope that works out for you."
"Under control." He ducked just as the Borer Droid brought its closest leg down into the centre of an electrical exchange. Sparks and arc-lightning exploded from the small box, fizzling out in an instant but leaving blind spots burned into his retinas. "Mostly," he hastened to add to his last statement.
"Do you have time to answer some out-of-context, slightly odd questions?" Tadgh was speaking more tentatively than he should have been for a casual conversation. He had been taking this gentle approach during their discussions for some days now - ever since the Outpost Nine incident, in fact. Taban had suspected he still felt guilty for involving him in the first place. Even Tack had noticed.
"Only if you're prepared to receive out-of-context, slightly odd answers."
"With you, always."
He was saved the need to think of a clever comeback by the guns-blazing arrival of the Ion Tanker. It hurtled in from the Correalis skyline, engines roaring with power to keep it hovering in the one place. Along its left side three ion cannons were blasting away at the droid, sending their electric-blue bolts of energy into armour that honestly couldn't care less. He shook his head in resignation and moved to stand behind some cover, hoping that an obstruction might block out the noise.
"Sorry about that - go ahead," Taban said, able to discern his brother's voice again.
"Okay, so, this is kind of just a 'process of elimination' thing but...you didn't happen to kidnap the daughter of Giselle Heartstring, did you?" Tadgh asked.
Taban was genuinely unsure whether his brother was joking or being serious. "Is this a new crime-solving method you're trialling? Comm everyone in Correalis and ask if they've committed a crime lately? Innovative."
"It's...complicated. But I need you to answer that for me," Tadgh insisted.
Taban wished his brother could see the confusion on his face. "Uh...no?"
"No, you won't answer? Or no, you didn't kidnap her?"
"You really are serious, aren't you?"
"No, I didn't kidnap her," Taban finally answered conclusively. "Was that clear enough for you, or would you like witness accounts of my whereabouts for the last fifty hours?"
"Twenty-five will be fine."
"I was joking."
"So was I," Tadgh said. His voice was dry, indistinguishable from the tone he had been using all along. "I can be devastatingly witty when I need to be."
"You're telling me."
"Sorry." His apology was genuine. "I told you it was an odd question. Feel like another?"
"You wouldn't happen to have had any interaction with The Mystic lately, would you?"
If there was a link between either of these questions Taban was struggling to find it. It was like he was hearing half a story, or reading every second page of a novel. The subject of the questions was changing but they were linked by an ambient, thematic sense of anxiety and importance.
"As in, street magician Mystic? No - I didn't even know he was still around. Still hasn't been relocated then, huh?"
"Not yet." There were allusions to anger and determination in his brother's voice, but nothing concrete. Much more of this mysterious code-speak and he would have to visit Tadgh with an interrogation droid and extract some straight answers the hard way.
He put that plan on the backburner for now. "Is there any particular reason for the odd questions, or are you just bored at the office again?"
"No, no - I'm back on active duty, as of five minutes ago."
"Ah. So all that moaning about Despot not trusting you can finally stop."
"Depends if I can find the daughter of Giselle Heartstring. Now that I know you didn't do it, that just leaves the rest of Corellia to eliminate from my enquiries. I'm hoping to be done by lunch."
"Can I help out?" Taban asked, sparing a glance at Tack. Thanks to the Common Data Network - a secret information network that droids proliferated between themselves - he was often able to piece together bits of evidence and run near-instantaneous searches planet-wide. It had come in handy many times before. Unfortunately it was also incredibly illegal and amounted to billions of counts of invasion of privacy. But seeing as he was the only one capable of policing the network in Correalis, he didn't see this as such an issue. "I could dig around on the CDN, see if anything odd crops up?"
"Not this time, Taban," his brother said firmly. "I really need you to stay far away from this one. I can't go into the reasons why, but I need you to trust me."
"Well, that I already do. But you can trust me too, you know. If you change your mind, comm me. I've pretty much got eyes everywhere. Droid eyes." He paused for a moment to reconsider his statement. "I've got photoreceptor equipment of differing quality and spectrum settings everywhere."
Not quite as succinct as eyes, but much more accurate.
"I won't change my mind." Tadgh was sombre. "And it's not that I don't trust you, it's just... I need you to trust me more. Make sense?"
"As much as you always do."
There was an appreciative pause from the other end of the comm. "Thanks, Taban."
He sighed gently. An imposing tone began bleeping in his ear - his comlink's way of letting him know that another caller was trying to get in touch with him. Most likely it was Neesden, comming to offer reluctant, defeated permission to engage the Borer Droid. "So hey, it's not that I don't want to keep up the sparkling repartee, but you know, death spider..."
"Death spider, right," Tadgh said. "I'll leave you to it."
"Thanks. And good luck with the case."
He clicked the comm off before Tadgh could say anything else, privately glad to be done with their strange conversation. It wasn't beyond his brother to be cryptic like this at times but there was usually good reason behind it. They always looked out for each other - and trust was nothing if not their greatest shared strength.
The comm unit beeped furiously. He made sure he answered as nonchalantly as he could. "Taban Maitland. How may I help you today?"
"Maitland!" It was, unsurprisingly, Neesden. "The Ion Tanker ain't doing its job."
"Whoa, you mean just like I said it wouldn't?"
"Just get out here and disable this thing," Neesden said, the loathing in his voice audible in every distorted, deliberate word. "I'm out of options."
"A choice between me and defeat, and you chose me? I'm flattered, Captain."
"You got your permission, Maitland. Don't push it."
"All right, all right - tell your men to cease fire," Taban said in a much more authoritative tone than Neesden would like. "And maybe take cover. If my plan A doesn't work, I'll have to move to the much more explosive plan B. Understand?"
"Done. Just...fix it."
He smirked. "Trust me."
That was the issue here, he decided - trust. Such an obvious and easy thing to bestow on someone provided that it wasn't confused with submitting to authority. With CorSec Patrol that was an all-too common mistake, one that had sabotaged them before and would many times more. Such a simple little thing as trusting those that deserve and have earned it could have prevented a lot of trouble here. Somehow he doubted that Neesden would see it that way.
"Tack," he said, relieved to finally be in control of the situation. "Broadcast the signal and activate the code."
"Immediately," Tack responded, ticking his head to one side and extending a miniscule aerial from above his audio receptor. It glowed a faint orange, blinking every so often as the signal attempted to connect to the Borer Droid's comm unit. After several seconds it went green. "Connection successful. Broadcasting code."
Taban snuck a look at the Borer Droid from behind the pile of rubble. As two of the gigantic legs were swinging down to take impressive chunks of duracrete out of the road, the others seemed to oddly halt. The entire chassis of the droid paused for a moment, sitting uneasily still on all eight legs. The code seemed to be working.
"Override successful," Tack reported. "It awaits new orders."
Simple as that, Taban thought. It's nearly always as simple as that.
"All right then, I'll be back."
The TT-39 was incapable of being remotely programmed for complex tasks thanks to the draconian failsafe systems that were like spines on a Krayt Dragon - he would have to approach one of the eight programming panels at the base of the legs to program new directives into its system. All that was left to do was march up to it, plug in his datapad and rub the tremendous ease of his victory into Neesden's face as hard as he could.
It took only a minute to program in a command to cease all mining operations and return to standby mode and, though there was no need for it, he took some time to make the droid lower itself to the ground on its rear four legs to give it the appearance of sitting. He smiled as the machine contorted itself to mimic the mannerisms of a household pet and patted it on one massive durasteel leg. "There's a good boy."
In the following calm, he had just enough time to run a quick query on all transmissions and programming alterations that had been made in the last three days - something that might give him a clue to what had flicked the switch from 'docile' to 'crush, kill, destroy'. To his surprise, he found only a single anomaly in the datalog - and hence, only one possible event that could be responsible. A direct intervention had occurred with the behaviour software from a datapad that had left behind an ident number.
Someone had deliberately tampered with the droid.
He was forced to push the issue aside for the moment, however. People were beginning to emerge from behind cover, taking the absence of ruckus to mean that the droid was disabled. He transferred the relevant information to his datapad and repositioned himself against the droid.
The sight of his five-foot six, skinny self leaning casually against the obediently sitting two-hundred metre long metal spider must have made Neesden want to throw himself off a building. He marched from beyond a twisted line of wrecked speeders, heavily armed CorSec Patrol agents following him with beguiled expressions on their faces. Taban waved to them merrily.
"What did you do?" Neesden asked, making a concerted effort to remain calm.
"I asked the droid to stop," he said. "I got its comm frequency and override codes from the owner, broadcast them and issued it an order to cease and desist. If only I'd done that an hour ago, huh?"
Neesden sucked on one of his teeth. "Good work," he mumbled. "I'll order a cleanup. Can you get this thing out of here?"
"I'll give it marching orders back to the agricultural sector," Taban confirmed.
"Okay then." Neesden nodded. "Well. I suppose we're done here."
Taban didn't respond immediately. He let the man turn around and begin issuing orders to his men to return to base, allowing him to remain every bit the commander they had known and respected before this calamity. It was only after the crowd behind him had begun to clear off that he cleared his throat. There was no need to say this in front of the entire Patrol division. "Captain?"
Neesden turned slowly and silently.
"I don't want to make a fuss with Head Office, so I'm not going to report this. But in the future, how about you put trust in my unit before inflated pride in your own?"
Neesden kept sucking his tooth for a few moments, which was apparently something of a trademark. Taban held his gaze. It wasn't often that he spoke with such menace in his voice - in fact, he felt a little uncomfortable. But if they were going to work together in the future, perhaps with even higher stakes than this threat, mistrust was something that they couldn't afford.
Neesden snorted contemplatively. "Fair call."
Taban nodded at him, and they parted ways.
"Tack," he said, calling the droid over. "I need you to run a search for me."
The outdated intelligence droid strode toward him, accepting the datapad that he had offered. "For what am I to search?" Tack asked, plugging a small connection plug into the device.
"On there you'll find a datapad ID number that I took from the TT-39's datalog. I need to know if it's registered to anybody, or the places that it most frequently accesses the Holonet, or anything that might give me a clue to who owns it."
Tack was a fast working droid. The hardware in his head that allowed him access to the CDN was incredibly powerful. Conducting a search with those parameters would take only seconds, slightly more if the datapad was particularly hard to trace.
"It is not registered to a particular owner," Tack said, head twitching. "Most frequently it resides at a small retailer of speeder bike parts. It has accessed the Holonet from 842 Lostock Boulevard a total of three thousand, eight hundred times."
"842 Lostock?" Taban repeated. It was a place to start. Whoever owned this datapad had committed a serious crime by setting the Borer Droid on the city. People could have been very easily killed had it not been for a last-minute evacuation. That person would need to be brought to justice.
"That is the address," Tack confirmed. "A modification retailer for swoop bikes."
"Good." He retrieved his datapad from the socket. It made sense that the owner of the datapad had some mechanical skill given what they had accomplished with the Borer Droid. "Once I send this docile little death spider back where he came from, we'll pay them a visit."
For just a second he contemplated asking Tack to run a query on anything to do with the Heartstring case. It would be so easy to do, temptation was goading him, and the probability of turning up some kind of lead on her was average to good. Besides, it wouldn't be getting involved per se - he'd merely be observing from a distance.
But loyalty stayed his hand. Tadgh had asked him to stay away from the case, and he intended to oblige. Trust was important in these circumstances especially - it would do no good to elevate himself above it and charge into things half-cocked. After having just delivered a lecture to Neesden about it, he wasn't about to turn around and contradict himself.
His afternoon would be interesting enough without getting involved with the Heartstring case.
"There it is," Keys said as she pulled the landspeeder onto Lostock Boulevard. As locales went this wasn't a particularly flattering part of Correalis. That was when judging by Correalis standards, however - in real terms it was a perfectly acceptable, if a little quaint, retail area. "842 - Dexelthwaine's Swoop and Speeder Shop."
"I still can't believe we're doing this," Tadgh said from the passenger seat.
"Despot thinks it's worth checking out," she answered, pulling the speeder to the side of the duracrete road. "And in case you hadn't noticed, we're light on leads at the moment. The Mystic gave us an address, and he's the closest thing we have to a suspect. We can't ignore it."
"He's playing us," Tadgh said with some small amount of spite. "It's easy to look like a psychic if you have an accomplice, or accomplicees, to fulfil your prophecies for you. I'm telling you, we're walking into a trap."
"That's likely," she agreed with a nod. "But traps are only a bad thing if you get caught in them. If our perpetrators try anything here, we get a chance to turn the tables and capture them right back."
"That's pretty much the definition of optimism," Tadgh said, slinging his door open now that the speeder had come to a stop.
Keys smirked slyly after him, likewise exiting the vehicle. "Beats the alternative." The double-reinforced fibre armour she had donned was uncomfortable beneath her uniform but a necessary evil. She tried not to look encumbered as she slammed her door and casually checked the charge on her blaster. Tadgh was doing the same.
"That armour adds ten pounds to you," she commented.
"Your pants clash with your shoes."
"Whatever, Jabba." She kept her smile hidden while tension was still thick in the air. She could sense it in Tadgh, it was implicit in his body language - he was nervous. Understandably so given that his first real assignment since his brother had been attacked was to clear him of any involvement in a serious kidnapping.
"Tadgh," she said flatly. "There's no chance we're going to find Taban in there?"
"No," Tadgh said, perhaps too quickly. "He's not involved, madam Tact."
"It seems a little strange," she continued as they made their way to the shop front, "that The Mystic would use him as the ruse, is all."
Tadgh sniffed. "Maybe he's trying to get to me personally," he suggested. "It wouldn't be the first time some criminal or another had used my family to come at me. At least this time I know said criminal is locked away back at SIn."
Keys nodded. "Fair assessment."
The shop front looked innocuous enough - all duracrete pillars and transparisteel window settings to show off the latest wares. It was only on closer inspection, when she noticed just how empty and devoid of wares those windows were, that things seemed a little bit out of the ordinary. Beyond the product displays there were large durasteel barriers, making direct line of sight into the shop impossible. Her hand fell to her blaster.
"But suppose we find him in there," she said in the same blank tone as before.
"We won't," he asserted once more. "I told him to stay away from this case, and he promised he would. I trust him, Keys. And besides that, I wouldn't have picked you to buy into crackpot mysticism so easily."
"I don't," she assured him, approaching the front door. It was an unceremonious thing - dull and dented, never painted from its original durasteel-grey. "I'm just making sure that you aren't. I know that Taban is a sore subject with you at the moment-"
"He isn't the sore subject - threats on his life are the sore subject."
"I stand corrected," she said quickly, tapping on the door. It made a hollowed-out, resonant thump with each knock. "All I'm saying is don't let The Mystic's accusations flare up your paranoia. There's no higher power at work here, Tadgh - just bad guys, old-fashioned Corellian justice and us. I'd hate to see you pulled back to low profile duties because you turned this case into a family vendetta."
"Hey, give me some credit. It's been five days since I've been on a family vendetta," he said, letting a smile tweak the corner of his mouth. Keys rolled her eyes at him and knocked on the door once more, forcefully this time. He was avoiding the issue, but at least he was willing to joke about it. He wasn't as emotionally frail as an action holodrama would have wanted to portray him. Professionalism allowed him to easily separate family concern from the pressing case at hand. He was there for the same reason she was - to follow up a lead on a missing girl. It gave her at least a small measure of confidence as she pounded on the door for a third time.
There was no response.
"I guess nobody's in," she said, taking a step back. In a fluid motion she drew her blaster, took aim on the locking mechanism, turned her head away from the flash and fired. Tadgh only just managed to avert his eyes in time.
"Thanks for the warning," he said, pulling out his own blaster. "A bit over-zealous, you think?" he asked, nodding at the smoking door handle.
She shrugged at him. "Heartstring's daughter doesn't have long to live," she answered. "If this is where she's being held, I want to get her back now. If this isn't where she is, I want to get to work on a new lead as soon as possible."
"Logic noted - switching to bash 'n' smash tactics," he replied, propping himself against the door frame with one hand on the now loose door. "After you," he offered, nudging it open far enough for her to move through. She did so carefully, blaster-first, keeping a wary eye for any sign of movement.
It was clear this was no Speeder and Swoop shop. Beyond the front windows there was no merchandise to speak of. In fact, there were no signs that the place had been used in the last decade. A thick layer of dust covered the floor and hung in the air like an irritating mist. She put one hand across her mouth to try and filter some of it out of the oxygen she was so desperately craving.
She went left, and Tadgh went right. There was very little light in the place, barely enough to see from one side of the room to the other. Her shoes scratched harshly in the dust on the ground, and she bent down to examine it. The noise was probably being made by the slivers of durasteel shavings mixed in with the dust - an odd thing to find in a sealed and empty building.
In fact, she might have made a more significant note of the phenomenon had she not noticed something else that made her heart skip. Centimetres away from where she had crouched to examine the dust was a very crisp, fresh footprint. And beyond it another, and another, and then finally another. A male boot - a humanoid, not very tall going by the size and the distance between each print.
"Tadgh, over here," she called.
He joined her wordlessly, hand mimicking hers over his mouth. She used her blaster to indicate the line of footprints to him and began to follow them, careful to keep her own steps separate from these. As best she could tell there were only the one set of prints and they were moving in only one direction.
"They start from a back door," Tadgh said from behind her. "It's still sealed shut from the outside - they had a key."
"No burglar, then," she mused, immediately reminding herself that there was nothing in here to steal anyway. Unless the burglar was especially fond of dust, or maybe had a thing for asphyxiation. She'd seen stranger things.
The steps led around a partitioned wall. Keys let her blaster lead her around the corner, alert for any sound or sight of a threat. There was nothing to speak of - an entirely blank canvas. Still her heart was thumping. There was an indefinable foreboding that refused to let her go.
I have a bad feeling about this.
At her feet the set of prints abruptly vanished. There was a small square area in which the dust seemed particularly disturbed - more so than anywhere else in the shop. A glint of exposed duracrete caught her eye, attached to which there seemed to be a metallic locking mechanism. She gave it one good tug and stepped backward, pulse quickening.
"I don't believe it," she said, just loud enough for Tadgh to hear. "Tadgh, I think we're in a holodrama. I've found a firefek'n trap door. "
Taban had tried knocking on the front door several times, but somewhere around the fourth unsuccessful attempt he had decided he'd need alternative access to Dexelthwaine's Swoop and Speeder Shop. The large metal lock on the door had drawn a frown from him, and he'd stepped away, certain that he couldn't break through it. Resolute in the notion that there was always another way inside, he'd taken his speeder down the secluded alleyway that lead to the rear of the building and parked it, leaving Tack inside to wait for his return.
His reconnaissance paid off - there was a back door. And to his extreme pleasure, it was secured only with an electronic keypad and space for a swipe card. Fighting the urge to utter a nonchalant analogy about how easy this would be, he'd pulled his datapad from his hip pocket and ran a lead between it and the keypad. Several seconds later it chirped happily, and the door had rolled open.
The interior of the place hadn't been what he'd had in mind - and it certainly didn't look like the kind of place that a droid saboteur would base him- or herself. The dust was thick in the air and on the ground, slivers of durasteel crunching under his feet as he'd walked. So heavy was the atmosphere in this place that it muffled the sound of the back door closing heavily, locking itself automatically.
No matter, he'd thought. Getting out will be easier than getting in.
For two reasons he'd suspected that this shop was more than it appeared to be. The first was that if a datapad had been able to plug into the Holonet from this location, there must be a means to do so - and in here, there was no such thing. Not a terminal, not a routing station, not even a remote signal according to the readout on his screen. There had to be a hidden room, or a concealed access console, or perhaps even a subterranean level to the place.
The second reason was that, beyond all logic, he just had a gut feeling that the place was too run-down. It was like what a layperson would expect a completely abandoned building to look like. There were even inexplicable pieces of debris scattered against the walls - sheets of scrap metal bearing the brand name DuraPlex. If the walls could talk, they would say something along the lines of "I'm not concealing any illegal activity or anything, I promise." The whole building was an unconvincing liar.
He'd cast his eyes skyward. "Let's see." His eyes had swept back and forth across the ceiling. "If I were a Holonet console, I'd want to be..." He'd trailed off after spotting what he was looking for. A small, dust-free cable was strapped tightly to a support beam that ran the length of the building - barely noticeable but for the fact he was looking for it. He'd taken short steps on the crunching dust, following the length of the small black wiring until it came to a partitioned wall.
"Down there," he'd completed the sentence he began earlier.
The black cable travelled down the partition and vanished into the floor. Directly next to it, hidden beneath a carefully laid layer of dust, was a slightly raised piece of durasteel with a divot. Crouching, he'd scattered the dust away and found the divot to be a small handle and latch mechanism. A laugh had escaped him - a hidden trap door. How very...pompous of them.
"Just like a holodrama," he'd observed out loud.
One solid tug and it was open.
And as he had swung his legs over the edge and lowered himself into the dark room below, he could have sworn he'd heard someone knocking on the front door. But he was too far committed to have worried about it.
Onward he had continued, shutting the door over his head, leaving the surface behind.
"A trap door?" Tadgh asked, moving to stand next to her. "They actually exist?"
"I seem to have found evidence to prove it," she said, scratching her head. There was no doubt in her mind that whoever had entered this place recently had travelled from the back door to the trap door without deviation. They had clearly known that the hidden door was there. Given that the footprints were reasonably new, they could probably expect to encounter someone down there.
She raised an eyebrow at him. "What do you think?" she asked.
"I'd say it was more a manhole than a trap door," he said, brutally honest.
"I meant about how to proceed," she corrected.
"Oh. Cautiously, I suppose," he suggested, never taking his eyes off their latest discovery. "There could be all kinds of nasty down there. Probably comm for some backup, get some scanners in here so we can know what we're up against. Maybe throw down some sleeping gas, EMP grenades to disable their weapons-"
His speech was interrupted by the sound of furious blaster fire coming from under the floor. Vibrations travelled from the ground and up through their legs, disturbing the dust that lay on the ground. They both raised their blasters and stepped away from the hatch. Keys felt her senses heighten and extremities tingle with adrenaline.
She threw a shrewd look Tadgh's way. "How about brazenly?"
"Brazenly works," Tadgh agreed. He pulled the hatch open.
Keys jumped through to the ground below, Tadgh close behind her.
"Ah," Taban said as he gracefully touched the ground, "much better."
Perhaps it was only by comparison to the room above but this appeared to be about the most clean and sterile place that he had ever set foot in. His shoes left some noticeably black footprints that he almost felt guilty about - but not too much. This was the lair of some nasty droid saboteurs, after all.
He purposefully kept his hand away from his blaster and swept the room, picking out the important details and trying to make sense of what was possibly worth hiding in a very expensive underground lair.
Stacked against the walls were various pieces of equipment, some of them working and others not. There were transmitter relays, Holonet consoles, comm arrays, military-grade sensor systems - a veritable junkers' market of extremely valuable stuff. He moved as quietly as his legs would let him, navigating the small maze of equipment and locating a small door. It wasn't locked in any way and opened at a light touch.
Surprise sabotaged his reflexes, and he rocked backwards. Where he had been expecting to find a comparable or smaller sized room to the one he was in, the room beyond was nothing short of a grand hallway. It was shaped like a long, segmented landing strip. The duracrete floor stretched an impressive way in front of him, travelling for what looked like hundreds of metres. Judging from the length and direction, it was an exact copy of the road that it was concealed under - like a subterranean, parallel version of Lostock Boulevard. It seemed impossible that such a thing could exist and yet, here it was.
The primary significance of the design of this place, as far as he could tell, was its gradual upward slope. An incline in the ground level probably indicated that, at some stage further up the 'road', this very tunnel opened up to the outside world. Exactly where this occurred he couldn't tell - a heavy durasteel door about halfway down the passage blocked his vision. It was probably used as secret storage for stolen vehicles that could be driven right in off the street - the kind of place that a droid thief or saboteur would be extremely happy to call his base of operations.
He snapped himself back to the present, the knock that he had half-heard before descending into this place hovering in the back of his head. If there was someone behind him he would need somewhere that he could easily hide. It turned out to be little problem - there were so many large hunks of equipment in here he was in more danger of getting lost than captured. There was even a dented landspeeder that, in a pinch, he could probably use to burn out an escape route.
Trying to stay alert, he moved to the nearest operating console and plugged in his datapad. To his amusement it was mounted atop an old-fashioned wooden desk. Scattered across it were styluses, pieces of flimsiplast and even ancient sheets of what was once called paper. If this was where the saboteur liked to work then he or she clearly had a yearning for the good old days. While he was waiting for the datapad to connect to the interface he picked up one of the old styluses and admired it. Simple old things but so inefficient.
"Like it?" a gruff voice suddenly cut the silence.
Taban, to his surprise, did not jump or swear. He was strangely calm when he turned to face the mysterious Twi'lek that had spoken to him. Panic was swelling in him but oddly enough was kept at bay. He was acutely conscious of the CorSec ID clipped to his wrist chronometer, comprehensively giving away his intentions. He'd been caught off guard.
Why hadn't the panic taken hold?
"Makes me nostalgic," he answered, dropping it back on the table.
"I like to keep in touch with the old days," the Twi'lek replied with a casual shrug.
"Oh, you gotta do that," Taban agreed, throwing in a slow nod to accentuate his point.
An uneasy silence fell between them as each man eyed the other, faces unreadable. In any other context they may have been forced to sit together in the same cubicle on the hovertram or have struck up an awkward conversation in line to buy their weekly groceries. Placed in this setting the moment was something much more bizarre - and just a touch unsettling. Each one fidgeted for a moment after his comment, trying to think of the next thing to say.
"So I'm ah..." Taban began. "I'm looking for a droid saboteur."
"Oh," the Twi'lek said, raising his brow and nodding with Taban's same slow rhythm. He unfolded his blue arms and put them on his hips. "Well, I guess that'd be me."
"Right, I see," Taban answered, struggling to find a way to end this conversation on a positive note. Not many options entered his head. "So, um, I don't suppose you'd mind coming with me, then? To a CorSec station, I mean?"
"Ooh," the Twi'lek said with a wince, inhaling sharply and frowning. "Well, actually-"
His reflexes were quick. His blue hand snatched the blaster he was carrying in his hip holster and brought it to rest against Taban's stomach. The look on his face was feral - a cornered, frightened Rancor that was determined to fight to its last. "I would mind," he said in a low growl. "Very much."
Taban's mind switched immediately to what Tack had called "survival mode". Banking on the fact that his own reflexes were as quick as his assailant's - a gamble made on the strength of clouded judgement alone - he swatted the blaster away. A loud shot rang out through the passageway and was followed by the powerful but useless fizzle of the errant energy slamming into the far wall. With strength that belied his slight frame and short height he threw a single punch as hard as he could. The Twi'lek deflected the blow - though there was a definite snap in the forearm he used - and stumbled backward a little.
It was hardly a victorious blow, but it had bought him enough time to make his next move and, the thing he was most pleased about, it had saved him from being shot in the gut. He needed to get out of sight, find somewhere safe if only for a few seconds, draw his blaster, make up an escape plan.
He threw himself face-first behind a comm array that looked big enough to accommodate his size completely. The Twi'lek had recovered by then and was busy letting off more shots, relentlessly pounding the thick metal of the communications machine.
"Sith-friggin'-spit," Taban cursed aloud, drawing his blaster with a firm but reluctant hand.
The sound of laser fire filled the passageway, red flash-bolts illuminating the place and creating a slideshow of silhouettes against the walls and roof. A shower of sparks from the console he had just been working at signalled that it had become a casualty of the firefight - he absently hoped that his datapad would survive.
Presuming he did as well, of course.
Crouching low, he moved to the other side of the comm array and waited for a break in the incessant blasting. He could hear footsteps becoming distant and knew immediately that his attacker was beginning to retreat - if he didn't make an effort to stop him, he'd be back to square one with nothing but dust on his shoes to show for it.
He snuck a fast glance at the scene, spotted the Twi'lek and fired two shots in quick succession. The two stun bolts glanced harmlessly off the side of the landspeeder he had seen earlier but gave his target pause. Or more accurately, gave his target all the more reason to turn around and begin shooting again. He ducked back just in time to have a portion of the comm array split off and fall to the ground, sizzling with energy. It was a shame - these arrays were expensive.
The landspeeder's engines fired up, and he finally felt the grip of anxiety arrive late to the fight. He didn't have long - this next would have to be his winning shot. In another time, when he was a younger man than twenty-five, he had been a crack shot with a pistol. He still was, he liked to think - just that he hadn't tried to shoot a sentient being in a long while, was all. Now in a position to test his bravado, he hoped to hell that he hadn't been exaggerating to himself.
He took one step from behind cover, took careful aim, held his breath and squeezed the...
"CorSec, drop your weapon!" a loud voice bellowed at him, sending a jolt of turbo-charged fright through every nerve in his body. He twitched violently, his stun bolt missing the Twi'lek and slamming to no effect against the rear engine exhausts. They gave a momentary splutter but were largely unaffected - the speeder was getting away. Ahead of it blast doors were opening, letting a deluge of natural light into the passage way and allowing his attacker to escape into the cover of broad daylight.
Firefek'n hell! he protested in his mind.
The loud voice that had called to him earlier was coming from somewhere to his left - the direction of the trap door he had descended to access this passageway. It was male and somewhat familiar but there was too much adrenaline coursing through him to concentrate too hard on it. He had been one shot away from bringing in a dangerous saboteur and some cop with a hero complex had ruined everything. He would need to work fast to keep track of the fleeing suspect - he had no time for overzealous Patrol officers.
"I said drop it!" the voice repeated. "Don't make me shoo...Taban?"
At the sound of his name he spun around and got a visual identification of the officer that had ruined his improvised operation. There wasn't one officer but two - a man and a woman dressed in plain clothes, each holding blasters and wearing near horrified expressions on their faces. He recognised them all too well.
They were not happy to see him.
"Keys?" he said, squinting at them.
Deep in the massive basement of Dexelthwaine's, surrounded by a swarm of CorSec's finest, Keys stood frozen in place with her datapad held aloft. The words of The Mystic kept circling in her head as she checked the readout from the forensics droid once more. Find the stylus, find the kidnapper, eh Detective? The memory of his worn smile taunted her as she stared over at where Tadgh and Despot were talking in hushed voices. Beyond them sat Taban, a scowl on his face. She lingered on him a moment, trying her best to imagine a scenario in which he could possibly be responsible for kidnapping a little girl.
She could not.
There had to be another explanation for the evidence before her.
There were three images displayed on her datapad. The first was of the hand-written note that the kidnapper had left on Heartstring's door. The second was a scan of a stylus that they had found on a nearby desktop. The third showed Taban's fingerprint records from his personnel file. A green line flowed through each of the images.
Taban's fingerprints were on the stylus. That stylus had been used to write the note on Heartstring's door.
Find the stylus, find the kidnapper - Despot's own words.
The Mystic had been right.
Noise crowded the room. CorSec Patrol officers and evidence-gathering droids swarmed all around her, leaving only a small space for her to follow her own line of investigation. The place was awash with bodies scurrying back and forth, bumping into one another and each competing to be heard over everyone else. A confusing sea of noise and movement - the perfect backdrop for the bizarre puzzle she was attempting to put together in her mind.
Despot had made his way over, leaving Tadgh and Taban to sit in silence. She thought it odd that neither of them had looked at the other but she recognised the behaviour - she'd seen it many times before in stalemate battles. Each was daring the other to fire the first shot, knowing that what would follow was nothing short of mutually assured destruction.
"Your expression doesn't fill me with feelings of joy, Keyston," Despot said matter-of-factly. He threw a glance at the datapad. "Have you found a connection to the Heartstring case?"
"In a sense," she said hesitantly, raising the screen to give her Director a clearer look. He glanced at it for a second and exhaled, offering the sibling officers a narrow-eyed glance.
"Find the stylus, find the kidnapper," he said for his own benefit.
"I don't believe that, Director," she pre-empted any misinterpretation of her findings. "Not Taban Maitland. It doesn't wash. I'll wager my career on his innocence," she said quickly, feeling an inexplicable urgency to emphasise the point before he spoke again. Perhaps she suspected he would order her to arrest the younger Maitland - something she would sooner resign over than do in front of Tadgh.
"Not necessary, Keyston," Despot waved her hasty assertions away. "I don't believe it, either. Maitland's brother may not be the pin-up for the law-biding but kidnap and extortion is out of his league if anything. That's not what concerns me."
She knew what did concern him.
"The Mystic," she said near-inaudibly.
"He knew this would happen," Despot said. "He knew we'd find him here, his fingerprints on a stylus. Which means he's either as psychic as he claims - in which case Maitland's brother is dead - or he's pulling the strings himself - in which case Heartstring's daughter is dead. Do you suppose other CorSec divisions are this complicated?"
Keys shook her head, still unable to think clearly. The shelter of logic that she kept herself in, the one that allowed her to be such a ruthlessly effective detective, seemed to be collapsing. Every explanation she turned to was a dead end. There was just no way The Mystic could have known that Taban would come here, pick up the exact stylus that had been used to write the ransom note and be caught in the act. It didn't make any sense.
"Taban says he was here tracking a droid saboteur," Keys said, primarily for her own benefit. "He said that the stylus belonged to that saboteur. For now I'm wagering that we're looking for a Twi'lek, blue, armed, piloting a landspeeder."
"Agreed," Despot said. "I've already put out a search order with Patrol."
"Thankyou, Director." She nodded to him.
"You're done here, Keyston," he said, waving a hand around. "The scene will be dealt with by Patrol. You can leave right after-"
A very angry voice interrupted her Director. Her eyes flicked over to where Tadgh and Taban had been sitting and found the elder brother on his feet, towering over his still seated sibling. An arm was theatrically thrust toward the ground. She wondered if he knew how clich?d he looked. "Just what in the hells of the Sith were you doing here?" he demanded, bringing nearly all of the officers at the scene to a nervous standstill.
"...the show," Despot altered the end of his original sentence.
Taban had risen to his feet now. He still had to look up to see Tadgh's face. "What the hell was I doing here? What about you - crashing in, guns blazing, shooting at whoever! I could have caught him, Tadgh - you let him get away," Taban answered with fervour, not giving a millimetre.
Keys manoeuvred herself closer to the argument, ready to intervene if necessary.
"I told you to stay away," Tadgh said, ignoring his brother's counter claims. "I told you to stay away from the Heartstring case, Taban. I trusted you would."
"Heartstring case?" Taban's eyebrows had vanished under his thick black fringe. "Before you came blasting in here I had no idea this place was related to the Heartstring case. I told you, I was looking for a droid saboteur."
"And where's your warrant?"
"I'm a division director, detective. I write my own warrants." Keys was impressed with just how efficiently Taban had managed to put the power balance in perspective. Technically the only person on the scene who outranked Taban was Despot. Sovereignty between divisions was very well defended in CorSec - Tadgh would never win the argument if he built it on superiority.
Tadgh changed tactics. "I'm trying to help you," he said, his voice quieting from its previous shout. "But you're making this hard, Taban. You're implicated in a kidnapping and now I find you here. No forced entry. You found a hidden doorway without backtracking. You've got no warrant or evidence for being here -"
"My datapad was incinerated," Taban said somewhat indignantly.
"And if my lip-reading serves me well enough, your fingerprints are all over an incriminating piece of evidence."
Keys' face flushed slightly. She had forgotten he could do that.
"Implicated in the kidnapping? Who implicated me in a kidnapping?" Taban was clearly struggling to keep up. "What incriminating evidence?"
She stepped forward and cleared her throat. "The stylus you found, you said it belonged to the Twi'lek?" She held up her datapad. "It was the same one used to write the ransom note."
"What ransom note?" Taban was aghast.
"The one on Heartstring's door," Tadgh filled in the detail for him.
"Oh, that one, right. I write so many, I just lose track." Taban nodded sarcastically, eyes as wild as his hair. He held up a hand to stem the rebuke from his brother and glared at him. "Do you honestly think I had something to do with kidnapping Heartstring's daughter?"
"No," Keys replied firmly. "I don't. We've got a search order out on the Twi'lek and speeder. We're operating on him as the prime suspect."
"Thanks, Keys," Taban said, "but I was talking to my so-called flesh and blood."
Tadgh stared at him a moment, cogs clearly ticking behind his eyes. He was chewing on the inside of his lip - something she'd known him to do when trying to make a difficult decision. His breaths were short and deep but spaced far from one another. This was not a comfortable detective.
"I don't believe you're guilty, Taban," he said with what sounded for all credits like confidence. "It's just..." He trailed off, and his eyes fell to the floor. She had to blink to ensure that her own eyes were working properly - Tadgh very rarely faltered when delivering a lecture. "It's all coming true."
When she finally caught his gaze she nearly stepped backward. There was an unguardedness about his expression - like he had let it sprawl naked, something she was never meant to see. He was frightened. And though the timbre of his voice didn't quite match the depth of fear in his eyes, it was enough to force her to admit that Despot may have been right. "It's all coming true," he repeated.
Tadgh wasn't the same anymore.
"Can someone explain what in firefek'n hell is coming true?" Taban asked, hands on his hips. Just as abruptly as it had arrived the fear in Tadgh's eyes vanished and replaced itself with anger once more.
"That would be classified information," Tadgh said sternly. "All you need to know is that you are a suspect in a kidnapping case. I'm asking you, Taban, as a brother, to stay away from anything to do with work. Go home. Stay there. Don't leave under any circumstances.
"And don't make me arrest you."
Taban's teeth were bared. "You really don't trust me, do you?"
"This isn't an issue of trust," Tadgh said firmly.
"Yes, it is," Taban insisted, shaking his head. He yanked his CorSec ID from the band of his wrist chronometer and tossed it at Tadgh's chest. It bounced off and onto the ground. "Tell you what, brother," he said, moving closer. "You take that and keep it safe. And when you think it's all clear to trust me again, come on by and give it back. See what kind of reception you get."
He turned on his heel and made to walk away but Tadgh gripped his shoulder. "Promise me," he said, "you'll stay home."
"Would you believe me if I did?" Taban spat. He shrugged out of the grip and continued on his way. Keys watched as he made his way back up the ladder into the dusty shop font of 842 Lostock Boulevard and disappeared from view. He left behind him a bewildered yet entertained gaggle of CorSec officers, an admirably silent Despot and a drastically shaken Tadgh.
"Keys," Tadgh said slowly, turning to face her. "I think we need to have a chat with The Mystic.
"A long one."
As they left the underground passage she noticed that he had walked away without retrieving Taban's ID clip from the ground. She bent down and pocketed it. Somehow she felt it would be far safer in her custody.
She turned just in time to catch Tadgh speaking in hushed tones to Despot. "I want him under surveillance," he said. "For his own sake."
Despot frowned at him but nodded. "If you think it's necessary."
"I do," Tadgh confirmed. "Until we find Heartstring's daughter."
The Director folded his arms. "Which you are going to do, yes? Within the next nine hours?"
Keys cleared her throat, stepping forward. "Absolutely. The Twi'lek we're looking for owned the stylus that wrote the ransom note. We find him, we find the girl."
"Good," Despot said. "You find the girl, SIn racks up another triumph, a terrorist plot is foiled, Heartstring sings our praises, Maitland's brother gets to live, Division 29 maintains its primetime timeslot.
"We all live happily in a job well done."
Keys and Tadgh looked between themselves. Happily ever after, or a job well done? She decided that either one made sense, kind of, by Despot standards. She allowed herself a slight smile.
"I couldn't have said it better myself, Director."
The interview room was small, cold and sterile. The only things marring what was otherwise a flawlessly white colour scheme were a table, three chairs and, of course, The Mystic himself. Though the walls were bare he seemed to find interesting things to look at - his head snapped this way and that, lingering every so often on one spot before darting to another.
He looked excited.
"Tadgh," Keys' voice cut into his concentration. He felt her hand tap his shoulder but hardly acknowledged it. "Don't get carried away."
Her words passed him by. He wasn't interested in advice or words of comfort and reassurance - he could get that whenever he wanted it. What he needed was information, answers and a definitive course of action to follow to make everything better. What mattered was his brother's safety, nothing else.
Maybe not even Heartstring's daughter.
"I'm just going to talk," he said, turning to hand her his blaster - a gesture of reassurance. She accepted it. "It's time to cut through all his cryptic prophecies and backwards codespeak. I'll get a straight statement out of him, or I'll have him charged on several counts of murder."
She raised an eyebrow. "Whose murder?"
"I'll find some John Doe's."
"I'm not even going to entertain the idea that you're serious." She shook her head. "So just stand there for a minute and listen. You remember a few hours ago when I asked if you were buying into his 'psychic' persona?"
He kept his gaze neutral, figuring it was the fastest way to get the lecture out of the way. His silence was an invitation for her to continue.
"You still stand by your answer back then?"
He barked an incredulous laugh. "Do you?" he countered. "What am I supposed to think? He knew where Taban would be - he knew we'd find his fingerprints on the stylus. Damn it, Keys, those are some astronomical odds on being a coincidence."
"Some Corellian you are, talking about odds. You're telling me that you actually believe that man-" she pointed through the window at the hat-adorned Mystic, "is able to see the future?"
"You know, before last week I wouldn't have believed a woman could use her brain to make herself invisible to holocam or burn people to death from the inside out. I've had a crash course in impossible, Keys - what makes this any less believable?"
"How about the fact he's saying Taban is a kidnapper?" she asked. "You're willing to take a chance on the impossible at the expense of trust in your own brother?"
The accusation hit him like a poison barb. He opened his mouth to answer but couldn't find words, instead allowing a strained gasp of air to escape. A heat took hold of his face as he considered what she was suggesting.
"Of course I trust Taban," he said somewhat more softly than he'd intended.
"Just not more than a street magician that's touched in the head," Keys nodded sceptically. "I see your logic."
"Hey, just a minute," he said defensively, "you're trying to trap me here. I believe The Mystic, I don't trust him. Belief and trust are two separate things."
"Not when one precludes the other," she countered. "If you believe The Mystic then you can't trust Taban when he says he isn't the kidnapper. Pretty simple 'if, then' statement if you ask me."
"Well, I didn't ask you," he said. Even he thought it was childish.
"Yeah, well, while you're not asking for my point of view, here it is again. You know why I think The Mystic has been right so far? We've made him right. He's given us an outcome, Tadgh - and we're doing everything in our power to make sure it comes true. We went to Lostock Boulevard on the strength of his suggestion alone. You wouldn't have been angry with Taban if it weren't for The Mystic's predictions, right? He is playing us. "
He met her words with silence once more. He wasn't used to this - arguing with Keys about something so personal, being on the back foot and reacting to the whims of others. He needed to take control, he needed the initiative again. Her theory, as flimsy as it may have been, allowed him to do that.
She dropped her voice and moved closer to him. "What if, simply by believing him, we're pushing his fantasy vision of the future into reality?
"What if we're doing exactly what he wants us to do?"
Taban threw the charred remains of his datapad onto his desk and swore repeatedly and at length. The office back at Droids and Data was in its usual state - a flurry of mechanical activity and noise, something that he had always been comfortable with but now just found it irritating and intrusive. He slammed the door to his office and sat down heavily, running a hand through his thick hair. His index finger caught around a curled lock and pulled it painfully.
"Typical," he said with a wince, and he suddenly wished he had a holograph of his brother in his office so he could kick it over.
"What is it you find typical?" Tack asked from the corner of the room. "I do not believe that you have been accused of kidnapping enough times to constitute the expression 'typical'."
Taban didn't bother correcting Tack on that point - he had never been accused of kidnapping. It had been insinuated, implied by a dozen different actions, but never directly levelled at him. For his purposes, however, that didn't matter. Coming from Tadgh - his brother - even implication was too much to bear.
And the fact that Tadgh was blind to his wounded trust only worsened things.
"No, I wasn't talking about that," he replied wearily, "I was talking about my hair."
"I do not believe there is anything typical about your hair, either."
"You're a pal," he said, dismissing the comment.
Though he had already checked it several times, he brought his datapad close to his nose to confirm that there was nothing to salvage from its memory. It had only taken a glancing from a stray blaster bolt but that had been enough to incinerate most of the electronics inside - along with all the precious evidence that his brother craved. A piece of black ash fell from the side of the device and onto his thumb, still hot.
"This isn't right," he said to himself. "I don't have to be here."
"You are not under arrest," Tack added.
"Exactly," Taban stretched his arm at the droid, nodding in confirmation. "Why the hell am I the guilty one? I've done nothing."
"You performed your duties efficiently," Tack agreed once more.
"Too right I did. And I found the bad guy. I'd have caught him if Tadgh hadn't threatened to shoot me."
"Detective Tadgh Maitland is proficient at ruining everything."
"That blue Twi'lek is the problem. He's the only one that can clear my name." Taban's voice was getting more impassioned with each statement. His outrage was compacted now into a twisted strain of logic that had only one logical outcome - the one that he wanted to hear most.
"Detective Maitland insists on proof - there is none better than the guilty party himself." Tack was being particularly inciting, too. Perhaps he had picked up on the mood of his owner, something not uncommon to his programming.
"I need to find him," Taban said with finality. "I need to track him down and drag a confession out of him, in front of Tadgh. Whatever it takes, I am not taking the blame for this."
"We shall rip off his head and drink from his skull," Tack offered in the same menial tone.
Taban's eyes widened at the comment. "Too extreme, but I appreciate your enthusiasm. Access the CDN, Tack - run me a search on the landspeeder. Anything in the area of Lostock Boulevard between the time I confronted him and now.
"I want to know where this Twi'lek is."
Tadgh sat down with a deliberate slowness.
The Mystic watched him all the way, unaffected by the gravity with which the detective was carrying himself.
Keys observed from the corner of the room, hand on her blaster - ready to defuse any heated confrontation in the most direct way she knew how. In her other hand she clutched a datapad with a special attachment to read the impulses in The Mystic's voice - a pocket lie-detector, in essence. If he were to lie, she would know about it in seconds with a high degree of accuracy.
The fourth player in the room was not a sentient being but an ambience of anticipation, of tension and anxiety. Tadgh seemed to be filling the room with it, secreting it like pheromones. The Mystic must surely have picked up on it and yet he remained as cheerful as ever under the heavy brim of his tattered top hat.
She hated that hat.
"Shall I just tell you the answers and save you the trouble?" The Mystic offered.
Tadgh ignored him with stony indifference. He instead placed a holograph display on the table and powered it on, bringing to life pictures of Giselle Heartstring's daughter and the crime scene from which she was taken. He then produced the stylus taken from 842 Lostock Boulevard and a replica of the hand-written note at the scene of the crime, setting them neatly beside the holograph display.
"This is Giselle Heartstring's daughter," he said, motioning to the still image of the girl no older than six. "This is what is going to happen to her," he continued, pushing the note forward. "And this is the stylus used to write that note," he finished, nudging the writing implement.
"And you found some fingerprints on the stylus, yes?" The Mystic said expectantly.
"Just like you said we would," Tadgh confirmed. "We found the fingerprints of Taban Maitland, whom we in turn discovered at the scene of 842 Lostock Boulevard. Also, just like you said."
"And you didn't arrest him," The Mystic carried on. Tadgh nodded and opened his mouth to confirm. He was cut off, however. "'Just like I said'?"
Tadgh snorted, and Keys rolled her eyes. He had probably been about to say that, though that was merely indicative of The Mystic's ability to recognise patterns. Tadgh pushed on with the plan. "I am going to ask you a question, Mystic, and I want you to purposefully lie when you answer. Understand?"
The Mystic spread his hands. "I'll be creative."
"What is your name?"
"Tennet McMahon," he answered.
Keys lowered her eyes to her datapad and waited for the result. Voiceprints interplayed with each other, contrasting themselves with templates from a million different speech events to determine the stress levels in his voice. Finally, a red box illuminated the screen with a breakdown of the likelihood of deception.
It was very high.
"Reads false," she assured him.
"All right," he continued, facing The Mystic once more. "Now answer truthfully. What is your name?"
"I am The Mystic," the vagrant said without trace of bravado.
Her datapad flashed green this time, indicating a 99 percent (or more) chance that he was telling the truth. She nodded an affirmative to Tadgh, who matched her gesture. The polygraph devices didn't have a perfect record, of course - people were able to fool them. But it was difficult and, psychic or no, it was doubtful that The Mystic was skilled in that fine art. They could be confident their questions would be answered in truth.
"All right," Tadgh pressed on, leaning forward on the table. "What I need from you, Mystic, are some definitive answers. No rhetoric, no riddles. Just answer me plainly. As few syllables as possible. Understood?"
Tadgh didn't pause. "Are you involved in the Heartstring kidnapping?"
"No," The Mystic answered firmly.
Keys exhaled with what she thought was relief but was perhaps frustration. The datapad flashed green and returned a 94 percent probability that the answer was truthful - well within the 'indisputable' range. He certainly didn't believe he was involved in the case, which meant he had no part in her kidnapping. She looked warily to Tadgh and nodded once more. He sighed with the same blend of frustrated relief.
She knew the questions only got harder from here.
"Who kidnapped Giselle Heartstring's daughter?"
The answer came so quickly she barely had time to brace herself.
"Taban Maitland," he answered.
The result was immediate - a green screen, with a 95 percent honesty rating. Whether or not it was true The Mystic believed that Taban was responsible for the kidnapping of the girl. Keys was careful when she raised her eyes. Tadgh looked expectant but resigned. It surprised her a little. It was as though he had pre-empted this answer, like he was receiving confirmation of what he already knew.
She narrowed her eyes at him. She had been worried that this single answer would be the thing that sent him jumping to an irrational conclusion. It wasn't, though - he had already made that jump.
She nodded to him. He turned back and continued.
"Do you really believe you can see the future?" Tadgh asked.
She hadn't expected him to ask this question - in fact, according to the plan he ought to have been asking him details of the whereabouts of Heartstring's daughter. But really, it was a clever thing to ask. If there were any doubt about whether he was trying to play them, this would go a long way to silencing it.
"I know I can," The Mystic responded.
The readout was green.
He honestly believed he was prophesising the future.
She nodded at Tadgh and wished she could argue some logic. It didn't stand to reason that this answer meant he really could see the future. It was merely an indication of the depth of his insanity. He truly believed he was psychic. Some people believe they are starships or Rancors. There was little difference as far as she was concerned.
Except, of course, that he had been rather convincing so far.
Tadgh lowered his eyes and spoke more softly for the next question.
"Are you enjoying this?" he asked, running his fingers along the edge of the interrogation table. "Is this a game to you? Fun?"
Keys was taken aback, not so much by the question but by the tone. Tadgh spoke so gently, tentatively - like a child asking an adult if Darth Vader really exists.
"No, Detective," The Mystic answered. "I assure you I am not enjoying this any more than you."
"I have acquired a match on the landspeeder, Officer Maitland," Tack reported in as close an inflection to 'triumphant' as he could manage. Taban whipped his head around, abandoning for a moment the armour that he was attempting to clip underneath his shirt.
"Where?" he demanded, hand involuntarily falling to his blaster.
"Beyond the city limits of Correalis - a durasteel smelter, abandoned after DuraPlex went bankrupt several years ago. The speeder was seen pulling into the building some twenty minutes ago by a compactor droid."
"Can you see inside the smelter?"
"No - there are no operating mechanics inside. Electricity was cut from the building when the company closed down."
"Brilliant," he muttered, clipping the final strap of the armour in place and throwing his CorSec shirt over it. He hated wearing armour. It was restrictive, itchy and it added at least ten pounds to him. "Can you get me directions to this smelter?"
"It would perhaps be better if I directed you from a transport of some kind."
Taban raised an eyebrow. "In other words, you want to come along?"
"Do not attempt to paraphrase me, Officer. The grammatical structure of that statement is precisely the way I intended it to be. The fact that I wish to go with you is incidental."
He rolled his eyes. "I was going to take you anyway. In fact," he made his way to the window of his office and peered out, "you can make yourself useful by keeping tabs on the surveillance speeders."
Outside his office were parked two speeders, unmarked but clearly CorSec. They were occupied by only one person each and parked at opposite ends of the street, presumably to cover any direction that he might choose to leave from. Tadgh was taking great pains not to let him out of his sight.
"You intend to subvert them?" Tack asked.
"Not at all," Taban said. "I want you to make sure they don't get lost."
Tadgh didn't want him out his sight - that suited him just fine. CorSec was going to come running to the DuraPlex smelter, Tadgh leading the charge, and when they got there they would find a Twi'lek in custody and, quite possibly, the daughter of Giselle Heartstring. Tadgh just might even admit that he had been wrong.
"I see. You intend to be a hero," Tack corrected himself.
"No more than usual, Tack," Taban answered, slipping his blaster into its holster.
"Well," Keys' husband said from the other end of the comm, "I'm having an interesting day too, you know. I found what I thought was fluid in a deceased's lungs, and it looked for all credits like it was a drowning. But then I discovered a puncture in the oesophagus and realised that he hadn't drowned, it was just regular body fluid seepage due to extended decomposition."
"I love it when you talk cute, hon," Keys said, delighted to hear Marryt's voice. She hadn't seen him since she'd left for work early that morning, and it was now well after finishing time. Working overtime on the difficult cases was not one of her favourite things.
"Oh, if you like that, you'll love the story about the knotted superior vena cava aorta. That was something off the level," he came back with trademark loveliness. She smiled and chuckled an appreciative laugh while her console shone in front of her the image of them both at the polar cliffs. This was her own private world, away from the drama of the ongoing interrogation and the ticking-clock kidnapping.
Beyond her console was the closed door of the interview room, where inside Tadgh still spoke with The Mystic. He had requested a few moments alone with the man - something she had only agreed to if the surveillance equipment was left running - but it wasn't the safety of The Mystic she was most worried about. It was more that if his persuasive words weren't tempered by another presence in the room, Tadgh might fall even further under their spell.
"You're really worried, aren't you?" Marryt's voice cut into her thoughts. He could always tell when she was worried.
"It's Tadgh," she admitted. "He's coming dangerously close to giving The Mystic some credence, and that isn't like him."
"Well, he's got to be worried about Taban," he suggested. "Who knows, maybe The Mystic really can see the future. That'd be pretty damn cool."
"Shame for Taban, though."
"Here's an idea," Marryt announced, his voice taking on an excitable edge. "Ask The Mystic what clothes Tadgh is wearing when he shoots Taban. Then all Tadgh has to do is never wear those clothes, and the prediction can never come true. The Mystic says he's going to be wearing that black coat of his, all Tadgh has to do is wear a pink tutu and frilly socks. Am I a genius or what?"
She sniffed a laugh through her nose. Though it was an absurd suggestion, the theory itself was not so ridiculous - but it did, of course, build itself on the premise that The Mystic could see the future. And that really was absurd.
Still, it was an interesting way of looking at things. Predictions of the future, given that they were set in stone, hinged on so many different things falling into place. Something as miniscule as the clothing someone chose to wear had the potential to change an event as significant as killing a family member by blaster shot. A glimpse into the future had to present some kind of advantage, it just required a little bit of lateral thinking. Frivolous as it may have been, Marryt's suggestion was the kind of thing that could bring The Mystic's predictions unstuck.
"So," Marryt said, probably trying to move the conversation past her uncharacteristic silence, "are you working on anything solid?" A polite question, but one she appreciated hearing. It gave her an excuse to speak some more without having to be creative about what she said.
"Crime scene photos," she answered. "Patrol is convinced that Dexelthwaine's was a mock-up. All the dust and debris on the floor were most likely not from the same building."
"Yeah, sounds about right," Marryt agreed. "I mean, durasteel shavings mixed with dust? That's not so common in a speeder shop."
She agreed with a hum as she flicked through images of 842 Lostock Boulevard, scrolling across some close-ups of the litter on the floor. He was right - the durasteel shavings in the dust certainly hadn't just materialised out of thin air. Either someone had been cutting or modifying durasteel in there or it was taken from a place that provided such services.
She frowned. "A smelter, maybe," she mused.
"Well, yeah, if you're going for the obvious answer," he agreed.
She let the comment go unanswered for a moment as she flicked through more holographs. Something was tugging at her memory. She wasn't sure exactly what she was looking for but she would know when she found it. A pile of used piping here, scraps of twisted ingots there - seemingly random debris. There was, however, something strangely uniform about it.
A holograph of a large, rusted sheet of durasteel flashed to life on her console. It had been stacked against one wall, along with many other sheets like it. She had passed her eye so easily over it while she had been there in person, but in holograph form the details were easier to notice.
"By gods," she said, "I don't believe it."
"Me either?" Marryt said, bemused.
"DuraPlex," she almost whispered. The imprint on the durasteel scrap was plainly visible in the image - it had been manufactured by DuraPlex Durasteel. Which meant that at some point this sheet of metal had been moved between the DuraPlex smelter and 842 Lostock Boulevard.
"Hon," she said quickly, "I'm sorry I've been so distracted, especially since I'm about to cut the call short."
"Detective stuff, I understand," Marryt responded. "I'll try to wait up for you."
Had adrenaline not been pumping through it so persistently her heart may have been more warmed by the notion. "Thanks, hon. See you when I see you - hopefully soon."
She clicked the comm off before he could reply and worked quickly to transfer the image between her console and her datapad. Seconds after that she was on her feet and swiping her access card against the Interview room door. Tadgh and The Mystic were already facing the door as she burst in unannounced. Coincidence, she told herself.
"You need to see this," she said, waving her datapad in front of Tadgh. "Now."
Keys had agreed to give them both time alone - provided the surveillance equipment was securely on - and Tadgh had set about asking The Mystic all the questions that they would need to crack the case. He remarked to himself how the context ruined what would otherwise be a gift. Any other circumstances in which a man had the exact whereabouts of a kidnapped girl, no matter how delusional, would have presented an easy win for SIn.
Things had a way of getting complicated.
"I do have one other question," he said quietly, gathering all the evidence he had laid on the table. He left it piled in between his hands where he fidgeted with it lethargically. "About this," he eyed The Mystic's top hat, "talent of yours."
"Do you actually want to ask it, or shall I just answer?" The Mystic offered.
"I'm guessing you already know what I'll choose," Tadgh replied.
There was a short pause as The Mystic smiled at him. He had the most distinctive of smiles - like a smug grin that at the same time had inflections of compassion in it. Pity, perhaps. It belonged to a man who knew too much, living in a world that promised too little, mingling with beings that were too na?ve to care. He was a champion of the passionless - or more accurately, of false passion. Knowing the future, as The Mystic claimed he could, translated to a life of no surprises.
Tadgh acknowledged the absence of reply and continued. "What you do," he said, still fidgeting, "what you can see - do you know where it comes from?"
"Or more specifically," The Mystic said, leaning forward, "does it come from the Force?"
Tadgh exhaled. There it was. The question he had been pining to ask from the beginning, casually rolled from The Mystic's tongue. Even the word 'Force' angered him. It had been no end of trouble for the galaxy, even for the Jedi, and now it had become major trouble for him. Atrocities had been committed in its name - and just recently those atrocities had become personal. It was like a galactic catalyst for misery.
And its sights were set solely on him and his brother.
If The Mystic were drawing on the Force, he refused to believe that this could be a coincidence. His father had taught him an old adage about the Force and coincidence. As concepts go, they were mutually exclusive.
"Does it stem from the Force?" he asked, keeping his voice low.
The Mystic leaned closer, the brim of his hat almost touching Tadgh's forehead. "I don't know what your preoccupation with the Force is, Detective. You never tell me. But I do know that you are passionate about it."
"That isn't-" Tadgh began.
"An answer, I know," The Mystic cut him off. "I never give you one. But I do tell you this."
The interview room seemed to fall completely silent as The Mystic repositioned himself back in his chair. Tadgh had stopped fidgeting - he now gripped the holoprojector in his right hand, his knuckles turning white. With effort he forced himself to relax. He'd start sweating soon.
"I tell you that there are more important things in the galaxy than the Force. The Force exists because of them and ceases to be if those things are ignored or sacrificed. My life is tied to it, for better or for worse. Yours, I do not know. But I do know that you value the more important things too greatly to let the Force dictate how your life should unfold."
Blood gathered in Tadgh's ears. "So you do draw on the Force, then?"
"I never said that," The Mystic dismissed with a shake of his head.
"You said your life is tied to it."
"And I maintain that it is. But being tied to it and drawing on it are two separate things." The Mystic still smiled all the while. He had been through this conversation before and was unaffected, Tadgh knew. But it still didn't make what he had to say any easier to understand.
At the mention of the word 'life', however, a morbid curiosity had reared itself. Tadgh felt strangely insensitive as he asked his next question.
"Do you know how you die?"
Once again there was no delay before his reply. There was never a delay, naturally, because The Mystic claimed to know the answers before any question was asked. Tadgh felt a moment of paradoxical helplessness as he considered that - if The Mystic really was psychic - because he'd asked this question now, The Mystic had known a question of such sensitivity would come up. For what little it was worth he had foreseen that it was within Tadgh to be so brusque since the moment they'd met.
What else did this anomalous human know about him, Tadgh wondered, that would come to surprise even him?
"Doesn't that bother you?" Tadgh asked. "Knowing where it happens? When?"
"Not at all." The Mystic shrugged. "I look forward to it, in fact."
Tadgh grunted in disbelief. "Morbid, much?"
"It's not so hard to understand, surely," The Mystic explained. "Imagine living your entire life knowing what comes next. Never a surprise. Every moment a dull one, because it's all happened before. In a life like that, death is a welcome undiscovered frontier."
"Come on." Tadgh sat back heavily in his chair. "You've never been able to do something you hadn't seen in your head already?"
"Have you even tried?"
"Of course I have." The vagrant's top hat seemed to be sinking lower over his eyes. "But I had already seen myself trying. It doesn't matter what I do - the future is written. Like my death, it is inevitable."
"But if you know how you die," Tadgh pushed the point, "why not simply not be there when it happens? Take a holiday. Wear a piece of reflective armour the exact size and shape of a blaster bolt in the spot where you get hit. Anything."
The Mystic's mouth curled. "You assume I am shot?"
Tadgh shrugged. "I figure there's a lot of people who'd like to."
"That much is true," The Mystic agreed with a nod. He seemed to straighten a little, orienting himself toward the door of the interview room. "And they are all very fine suggestions, Detective. But I have no wish to avoid my death.
"In fact, I will always be grateful to you for it."
Tadgh almost missed the subtle implication. He would have sailed right past it, kept pressing his line of questioning in the hope of somehow rattling The Mystic. But there was a look that accompanied the statement - one of such intense, genuine feeling - that seemed to highlight it better than any other means would have.
"To me?" he asked, suspicious. "Why me?"
The Mystic's smile was a polite one. "Because, Detective, you are the cause of my death."
Tadgh's ears burned harder. He felt like standing up, slamming his fists on the table -any kind of clich?d frustrated outburst to make him feel better. He managed to head it off, however, after concluding that such a thing would be futile. Frustration release would be a temporary thing at best while The Mystic was around.
It took him a second to compose an answer. This latest revelation, if it could be called that, was somewhat dulled in context of everything else that was going on. In fact, he was beginning to tire of the entire routine. The prospect that he might have a hand in The Mystic's death didn't bother him nearly so much as the fact that he felt like a piece in a game played by forces he couldn't control. Right now, the future was a mysterious and jagged place - more so than usual.
The Mystic, far from helping to clear that mystery, had only made it worse.
That made him angry.
"You know," he said quietly, "you have now accused me twice of premeditated murder. Do it again and I'm going to get a tad twitchy."
"I don't do it again," The Mystic said. "The pieces begin to move, Detective."
Tadgh didn't have the words, or level temperament, to interrupt.
The Mystic was now a shrouded pair of eyes beneath his hat. "Events have taken hold. Your partner, Keyston, is about to burst through that door. I don't know what she has to show you, but I do know that it ushers in the final act of this bittersweet story.
"The death of Taban Maitland, the rescue of a kidnapped girl.
The Mystic nodded toward the door. Tadgh could only turn and watch as the locking mechanism chirped and flashed green, allowing access to a determined-looking Keys. She waved a datapad at him.
"You need to see this.
The long-since extinguished sun had allowed night to take hold of Correalis, and Taban had to take extra care to be seen by the surveillance speeders as he left his office. Beside him Tack took notice of their registration numbers which he would use to keep track of them as they made their way toward the abandoned DuraPlex Durasteel smelter. They would have to be careful not to make it too obvious that they were aware of their shadowing agents, but at the same time they would have to be cumbersome enough to make pursuit an easy prospect.
A fine line to walk - but one that he fancied himself capable of.
"You have their numbers, Tack?" he asked.
"Yes," the droid confirmed. "They will be difficult to track, but not impossible."
"That's all we need," he said, slinging himself into the driver's side of his airspeeder. He set the repulsorlifts to their lowest setting, operating it like a landspeeder rather than getting too much altitude. There were two advantages to this - it would be easy for the pursuit to keep up and he wouldn't set off any skyward-facing intruder alarms at the DuraPlex smelter.
On the downside, it would take longer to get there.
He eased away from the gutter and kept his speed legal. It would do no good to be pulled over before he arrived. "Directions, Tack?" he asked the droid.
"Continue north," Tack answered. "The trip will take approximately seventeen minutes at speed limit."
Taban bit his top lip. "Excellent."
"DuraPlex," Tadgh said, nodding. "Well, there's a surprise."
"It didn't register at the time," Keys flicked through more images of 842 Lostock, presenting more and more instances of the brand name, "but it only makes sense. They trucked in as much soot and scrap as they could from the smelter to make the shop front look disused. Both sites used to belong to the same owner - now deceased. Given there's only seven and a half hours left on the deadline, I wager this as our best lead."
"Agreed," Tadgh said. "Found anything on the site?"
"The place is abandoned, officially. It's in a fairly secluded area of the industrial estates outside the city, no surveillance to speak of. The last reported activity from around there was a fire about six months ago. Since then it's a blank spot on the criminal map."
"The blank spots do tend to fill up pretty quick." He finally stopped cycling through the images of 842 Lostock Boulevard, having seen enough. "How fast can we get there?"
"Minutes," she said. "If that's the way you want to play it."
"Might as well. Patrol could do the grunt work, but the situation is a little frail. Besides, I've been through too much on this case to give it up to Patrol now," he said, eyes drifting to the left of Keys' face. Despot had just emerged from his office and was making his way purposefully toward them both.
Their eyes met, and the Director raised an eyebrow. "Developments, Maitland."
Tadgh sighed. More developments.
"Surveillance just reported in," he continued, coming to stop beside Keys. "Your brother left his office a few minutes ago in a speeder. His droid is with him; apparently they're headed out of the city. Last reports had him bearing down on-"
"Let me guess." Tadgh held up a hand. "The industrial estates."
"What, you're psychic now too?" Despot crossed his arms, uninterested in being pre-empted. "Yes, on the industrial estates. No laws broken as yet. I'm wondering exactly what orders to give the surveillance team, given that there is nothing specific that they ought to be looking for. Any thoughts?"
Tadgh had his eyes closed. "Tell them to stay with him. He'll be headed for the old DuraPlex warehouse, and when he arrives he'll find more trouble than he's expecting. It's a hideout for the same people that kidnapped Heartstring's daughter."
Keys scrunched her eyebrows together. "You don't know that's where he's-"
"Yes, I do." Tadgh waved her silent. "Where else could he be going, Keys?"
"Um, anywhere?" she suggested, hands firmly on hips. "On the entire planet?"
"It's DuraPlex," Tadgh said firmly. "And that's where we're heading too. Tell the surveillance team they can clear away any of the perimeter thugs once Taban enters the place. I don't want any trouble from the outside once we get in. Then you and I," he nodded at Keys, "will take care of things inside and either find Heartstring's daughter or enough leads to track her down within the hour."
"And maybe," Despot said, "just possibly, shoot your brother dead in the process."
Tadgh threw a look at his superior that just fell short of insubordinate. "I'm not going to shoot Taban," he said firmly.
"Changed your tune," Keys said. "Half an hour ago you were up in arms because you were sure that everything The Mystic said will come true. Don't tell me you actually listened to something I said and came to your senses?"
"Maybe," Tadgh said, letting his eyes wander out of her practised 'you'd be lost without me' stare. "And I've been thinking. He might be able to predict the future, I don't know. But I do know that his future isn't everyone's future. There are more important things than-"
He stopped himself. He had been about to repeat the sentiments The Mystic had spouted to him earlier, 'there are more important things than the Force', but that would be counter-productive. Keys and Despot were oblivious to any kind of connection to the Force that The Mystic might have, if he did indeed have one. Besides, thanks to his brush with the Dark Jedi last week he was already garnering himself a reputation around the SIn offices for being the obsessive Force fanatic.
"- than trust at work here. There's also belief, and I believe I'd never shoot him. Simple as that."
"That's lovely," Despot said. "Truly, I'm touched."
Tadgh let the sarcasm roll right off him - he was too distracted to even register it. With a practiced fluid motion he pulled his blaster from his holster and tossed it onto his desk. Keys and Despot watched him, Keys pensive and Despot suspicious. He looked at them both in turn and then pointed to Keys' blaster.
"No blasters," he said firmly.
"You're going to shut down a terrorist organisation without any weapons?" Despot said slowly, hands on hips. "Been practicing your teras-kasi, have you?"
"Patrol is our backup. If we need guns, we'll call them."
"If?" Despot asked. "Need I reiterate the part about it being a terrorist organisation?"
"No, he's right," Keys said, withdrawing her blaster and putting it next to Tadgh's. "I was talking to Marryt earlier, he said something along the lines of this. Leaving your blaster here, you can't shoot anyone. It's like wearing a pink tutu and frilly socks." Her voice was steady.
The two men eyed her, not entirely sure what she had meant. She had sounded so serious that it only stood to reason that she must have been making sense. As a consequence, both of them in turn assumed that it was they who were intellectually out of their depth and let the phrase go without question or comment.
"So all that stuff about belief, then - pretty much all talk?" Despot asked.
Tadgh shrugged. "This reinforces the belief."
Despot nodded. "Whatever helps you live with yourself at night."
Tadgh and Keys looked at one another and with their eyes managed to jointly decipher the two phrases 'whatever helps you sleep at night' and 'if you can live with yourself'. Gaffes aside, the accusation was clear. He dismissed it immediately, of course. Belief was suddenly a tangible presence inside him, and it led him near forcibly to a place of assuredness. He would never shoot his own brother. Not taking a gun along - that was insurance, nothing more.
"Keys," he said, their eyes meeting, full of energy, "your speeder or mine?"
"Mine," she said. "Quicker."
"Let's go, then." Tadgh began to walk.
They were almost at the door, emotions in check and sense of purpose renewed, when they were stopped in their tracks by a loud voice. Earlier that day Tadgh had been shouted at from across the SIn office, and it had begun a downward spiral into what was one of the worst days of his career. This time, a shout signified that spiral becoming a nosedive.
"Hey!" one of the Patrol officers assigned to guard duty called. "The Mystic!
"He's not here!"
"Bloody damn," Taban spat as he ripped his coat off of the small piece of metal it had snagged on. It was about the most tattered piece of clothing he owned now - besides, of course, the stuff that was fashionably tattered. Since he had acquired the big black duster from The Fronds Correalis last week he had managed to burn one of the sleeves off to halfway and now, thanks to the annoying desire to remain undetected, he had torn a gaping hole in the side of it. It would take some seriously painstaking work and some ingenious creative vision to make it wearable again. He was confident he could do it, though - even if it did mean he had to start a new trendy movement called 'warzone chic".
Oh, he stopped himself momentarily, if I ever escape this place alive, and all that.
DuraPlex, he decided, cared nothing for the fact that it was perpetuating the holodrama stereotype that all abandoned hideouts were cluttered, musty cesspits. Dust covered everything, so much so that he cut a swathe through the air as he crept along the southernmost wall of the building. Pieces of scrap metal and dangerous looking shards of machinery jutted out in all directions, making walking a hazard of its own. It was lucky that he didn't have a want to move very quickly.
In fact, he wasn't entirely sure in what direction he wanted to move at all. Suddenly he wished that he had allowed Tack to come along instead of waiting outside in the speeder - at least then he might have had someone to bounce his ideas off of. All he knew was that he was looking for a Twi'lek that could be anywhere inside the building - if he was still here at all. It left a lot of unknowns to deal with.
But then again, unknowns were not his main concern. He was only interested in completing his mission.
And that was, of course, to rub in Tadgh's face the fact that he was wrong.
The smelter was constructed around a central open space - the place where all the smelting went on, he supposed. Around that were a complex series of corridors that had connected the corporate offices and the various recreation rooms the smelter would have been obliged to provide its employees. He was in one such corridor now, lined on either side with doors marked in various ways. The door to his immediate right read "Supply 0-66", the one to his left "Electrical 0-65". Neither one looked like it had been opened in years.
He snuck forward, leaving some barely visible tracks in the layer of ground dust as he did. Perhaps it was that he was on heightened alert, but his scraping feet seemed deafening to him. Maybe just a shade below deafening - grating, or rackety. The durasteel shavings mixed with the dust had a distinct crunching timbre to them. He was sure that someone would hear him from the other end of the corridor and come charging, gun at the ready.
The mental image sent a chill down his spine. He drew his own blaster for safety's sake and checked that it was set to stun.
Light was not an abundant resource in the place, and he used that to his advantage. There were places where shadows overlapped in what little light did exist, the perfect camouflage for his footprints. He tried his best to keep his tracks within these darkened areas - it would make inspection by a casual passer-by much less likely to result in his capture.
Keeping proactively on the lookout for things that he could do to minimise his presence - such as walking on the sides of his shoes to cut down on noise - made him feel immensely better. But when he stumbled on the first set of footprints not his own - a pair of coarse-treaded boots, a single bi-pedal being walking alone - he felt his self-assurance skyrocket. It was a phenomenon he couldn't quite explain to himself, it was as though he was in perfect control of the situation. Maybe it was ego, maybe it was adrenaline. He didn't care which as long as it kept him alive.
The tracks led away from him but, soon after their discovery, he noticed something else to accompany them - the rhythmic noise of approaching boots. He was willing to bet they belonged to the same being that had left the tracks in the dust - though that told him little about their intentions and physical threat. A low whistling sound was issuing from the same direction as the thumping boots in time with the impacts. The being, whatever it was, was whistling a melody to itself.
He looked to his left and to his right. Two doors were awaiting him, just like they had earlier - Supply 0-59 and Electrical 0-58. He didn't have much time to formulate a plan, but there was one that took hold of him and held on until he was forced to admit it was his only option.
He steeled himself and stood upright.
Supply closet 0-59 had been the home of decommissioned Smelting Droid SMEL-ML098 for the last two years. It had been stored there, along with many of the other decommissioned droids that had worked at the factory, until it could be claimed or scrapped. All of its colleague droids had been thoroughly shut down, never to see the realm of living beings again - as it should have been for SMEL-ML098. But an error on the part of the technician that had stored him away had meant that his processor was not fully deactivated. Some of his systems - photoreceptors, processing power and short-term memory - were still operating.
It wasn't so bad for the droid. A lack of long-term memory meant that every twenty seconds it could once again appreciate its surroundings as though it had never seen them before. It was like living a never-ending loop of the same experience. Every time it was the same - and every time the droid thought it was the first.
But this time, though ML098 could not have known it, it was about to experience something that it truly never had before. The door to Supply Closet 0-59 swung open violently and two figures appeared. The first - a short, green-skinned Rodian - appeared to stand stationary for quite a few seconds. The other - an almost-as-short, large-haired Human - moved awkwardly around the Rodian, seemingly struggling to accomplish something.
Eventually the Rodian fell to the ground and lay still. The Human, apparently satisfied with itself, dusted its hands and closed the closet door slowly. It locked, allowing silence to take hold once more.
A few seconds later the droid noticed, for the first time ever, that the supply closet was home to the unconscious body of a Rodian.
He had been lucky, he reflected after shutting the door of Supply 0-59, that the armed thug had been smaller than him. There weren't many beings in the galaxy that he could boast a height advantage over, but Rodians were one of the unfortunate few. He'd been able to subdue the green alien quickly and, most importantly, without the need of a blaster. It meant that if there were any other guards in the area they would be far less likely to know of him yet.
He made the incredible leap of logic that if there had been a guard he must have been guarding something and followed the tracks that the Rodian had left back down the corridor, eventually coming to a T-junction. He very carefully moved to the corner, where the wall met open space, and peeked one eye around.
The tracks continued off up the corridor and came to an end at another of the non-descript doors. There was one distinguishing feature of this door, however - directly in front of it stood a heavily armed Gran. Its three eyes scanned lazily in different directions, and its hands gently caressed the rifle in a loving grip. Taban ducked back behind cover, cursing. He may not have been able to avoid the use of his blaster after all.
From the silence a grumbling voice startled him - the Gran. Its words bounced off the opposite wall, rounding the corner with ease and making it sound as though the enforcer was standing right at his ear.
"Witz? Witz, you there?" it said crudely. Taban couldn't tell whether it was speaking into a comlink or just shouting down the corridor, but he knew very well who the Gran was trying to talk to. He would be rather disappointed when he discovered that his partner in crime was unconscious in a storage room.
"Witz, no playing. That you?"
Sithspawn, he thought to himself. No comlink - it was shouting.
He had no choice - he would have to try and outwit the Gran. He was at a height deficit and, at that, a strength deficit. He would either have to find an incredibly creative way of knocking the thug out or employ his blaster and possibly alert every other being in the vicinity he was there.
Then again, he thought, that might save him the trouble of hunting them down.
He shuffled quickly back to the closet that he had left the Rodian lying in and once again prepared to play the dangerous game of cat and mouse he had become so fond of in the last few minutes.
Though ML098 couldn't have known it, it was about to experience something that it never had before. Outside of the door to Supply Closet 0-59 it heard a noise. It was loud, like an electrical explosion. Shortly after this noise, the door swung open violently, and two figures appeared. The first - a tall, imposing-looking Gran - appeared to remain stationary for quite some time. The other - a short Human with disproportionately large hair - moved awkwardly around the Gran, seemingly struggling to accomplish something.
It wasn't long before the Gran fell to the ground and lay still. The droid had never noticed before but there was another body on the ground - a Rodian - that appeared unconscious also. The Human, apparently satisfied with itself, dusted its hands and closed the closet door slowly. The door locked, and silence took hold once more.
A few seconds later the droid noticed, for the first time ever, that the supply closet was home to the unconscious bodies of a Rodian and a Gran.
He had fired his gun and hence abandoned any pretence at trying to sneak around undetected. He shut the door to Supply 0-59 and ran back to the door that the Gran had been guarding. Sparing only a moment's thought to what might be waiting for him, he steadied his blaster at chest height and kicked the door as hard as he could.
His curses flooded the corridor as he sprawled backwards.
The door hadn't given way - all he had succeeded in doing was pushing himself to the ground with his leg. The joints at his knee and hip strained with the weight of his kick, and he immediately wished he'd at least tried the handle first. He sat up slowly, leaving a plume of dust all around him. The hand clutching his blaster he rested across his knee, the other he used to rub furiously at the aching pain in his thigh.
He was so preoccupied with the pain that he almost didn't notice that the door handle was twisting and the door itself slowly opening inward. He froze as the shady silhouette of a Kel Dor appeared in the doorway, towering over him and looking none too impressed. He was in the midst of making an announcement as the door creaked further open, revealing the full and heavy figure of the thug.
"Are you firing guns out here, Kirmold?"
Taban had no time to think. The blaster that was rested across his knee was pointed in exactly the right direction. He had merely to squeeze one finger, and a stun bolt jumped between him and the Kel Dor's throat, knocking the large alien to the ground and leaving him twitching in the aftermath. It wasn't until several seconds later, when adrenaline, surprise and abject terror had all gripped him and passed, that Taban was able to reflect on how smooth his recovery from the ill-fated kick must have looked.
ML098 watched as the Kel Dor fell to the ground and lay still. The droid took quizzical notice of two other mysterious bodies on the ground - a Rodian and a Gran- that appeared unconscious also. The Human, apparently satisfied with itself, dusted its hands and closed the closet door slowly. The door locked, and silence took hold once more.
A few seconds later the droid noticed, for the first time ever, that the supply closet was home to the unconscious bodies of a Rodian, a Gran and a Kel Dor.
The room that had been so heavily guarded was strange to say the least. Taban let his blaster lead him through the place but found himself distracted by how...different it was. It was the kind of difference he had encountered back at Dexelthwaine's Swoop and Speeder Shop - one moment he was walking through the dustiest place on Corellia and the next it was instantly transformed into something sterile and clean. Whoever these people were, they had a thing for contrasts.
There was only one other door in the room. It was sealed tightly but was nothing more than a single latch on a flimsy wooden panel. This was not a door designed to keep anything contained - nothing strong, at least. It was also not the kind of door that protected something valuable.
And yet, he mused as he neared it, there was an odd importance about it.
His nose was almost against the door when he heard the first sound from behind it. It took him aback, and he wasted no time bringing his blaster into firing position. It sounded like a strange, rhythmic sobbing - perhaps a woman crying. Whatever it was, it certainly didn't want to be trapped in a smelter with a bunch of armed thugs. Wagering his boot against the flimsy latch mechanism of this door - and hoping that he hadn't done too much damage to his hip by trying to burrow through metal earlier - he raised his leg and kicked.
This time the door came crashing down, and the occupant inside screamed.
He felt ashamed and hid his blaster immediately.
He had been pointing it at the startled, innocent face of a small child.
Her expression changed immediately from fear to impatience. "You scared me," she said in an admonishing tone that he hadn't heard for years. He almost laughed as she put her hands on her hips, a piece of chalk gripped in one of them.
"I'm sorry," he said gently, kneeling down to meet her at eye level.
The floor was littered with pieces of flimsiplast, scrawled in an adorable manner with the kinds of images that three-to-seven year olds found so appealing. Many of them, he noticed, seemed to concentrate on the image of stick figures beneath a tree. Then again, a good percentage seemed to be of what she had crudely entitled 'the ugly bogger' - he smirked as he noticed those stick figures had three eyes, obviously the Gran that had been guarding her.
"Now I have to start my picture again," she said, settling down on all fours and continuing with her scrawlings. This was another image of stick figures beneath a tree. The 'rhythmic sobbing' he had heard revealed itself to be her softly hummed rendition of an old Corellian folk song as she drew. He leaned forward and spoke again, trying his best to be non-threatening. That usually wasn't something he had to worry about.
"Who are you drawing?" he asked, keeping a wary eye on the door.
"This is me," she started with the most important part. "This is my friend Ainna," she pointed to the stick figure next to 'her', "and this is my mummy. And we are underneath our tree." She scribbled more green into the blob of colour that represented the foliage. "It's a big tree," she said with emphasis.
It was a dangerous situation - life-threatening, even - but he couldn't stop his smile. Sometimes it was really hard not to like kids.
"That's really nice," he said with approval.
"I know," she said matter-of-factly, "but this one isn't for you."
"That's okay," he said. "But you know what? I bet you'd like to give it to your mummy, huh."
"No." She shook her head and stood abruptly. She ran to the corner of the room and selected what was, for all intents and purposes, the exact same picture that she had just left. "This is the one for mummy. That other one is for the ugly bogger."
Taban laughed through his nose. "Well, tell you what. Let's go take that one to your mummy right now, how about that?"
She considered that for a moment. "That would be good because she has all my nice things at our house. All the things here aren't nice."
"I know," Taban said, and he meant it. "Why don't I take you back to your house?"
"I don't know how to get there from in here," she said.
"It's okay, I'll carry you. I'm a policeman - I can find anything."
Again she seemed to consider it. Her look of concentration was scarily adult, he thought. He had no idea who this girl was, but the only candidate that seemed to stick in his mind was Heartstring's daughter. If it was her - and the laws of probability seemed to dictate that it had to be - then he needed to get her outside, away from this place.
Suddenly, tracking down a droid saboteur and clearing his own name didn't seem so vital. There were more important things at stake.
"Okay," she agreed. "But I'm heavy," she said as she offered him her arms to lift.
He hoist her up onto his hip. "It's okay, I'm strong," he said, half-truthfully. He was careful not to let her see his strained expression or let it seep into his voice. "Just hang on to my neck and you'll be fine."
He felt little arms grip his shoulders and neck tightly, and began to walk her out of the small room, escape on his mind. He couldn't fit through the same hole in the wall he had used to get in while carrying her. And besides, it had been a jagged thing - she might hurt herself. He would have to find another exit. Not hard in a factory like this - there were dozens of ways in and out.
He left the small holding room and entered the dust-covered hallways outside once again. Strangely enough, he found the reverse transition to be rather beautiful. It was cold in the corridors, and the dust covering everything was thick and white. In the relative darkness it looked like an early winter snow had covered everything with a soft layer of powder, the floating dust particles like fine snowflakes twisting in the air.
He felt a hand make its way to the back of his head.
"You have nice hair," she said.
"Well, thanks, kid," he said. "At least someone likes it."
"It's just like a whisperkit," she added, still twirling it gently.
Not far from the holding room was a passage that led to the cavernous centre of the smelter where, in the past, hundreds of people and droids had all worked to melt and shape construction parts for ships and buildings. It was a huge area echoing with emptiness - he found it hard not to feel insignificant as he walked underneath one of the enormous, disused tanks that had once been suspended pits of molten durasteel. He still imagined intense heat radiating from them despite the coldness of the air making steam of his breath.
Beyond the tanks were the front doors. He considered them for a moment but was hesitant. If he went through them he was signing up for trouble - even thugs as stupid as these would have sentries on the front doors, or at the very least surveillance. There would have to be alternative exits on either side of the building, however. Searching for one of them would take a little longer and increase his risk of being discovered inside the facility, but he figured that if anyone was going to find him they would have done so by-
"Just you hold it right there, Human."
He hated dramatic irony.
"Put the girl down slowly."
He turned as slowly as his body would allow, clutching the girl tightly. His captor was standing more or less in front of the open double front doors to the smelter, outlined with a halo of light flooding from the industrial estates. Taban recognised him immediately. The blue skin. The head-tails. The gun pointed at him.
This was the Twi'lek that he had been looking for.
"What, no small talk this time?" he said, slowly kneeling to put the girl on the ground. She stepped lightly to the floor, very calm and silent. Her face was blank, but he guessed that she had been through a process like this before with her kidnappers. She wasn't scared, if her expression was anything to go by. It was more like she was going through the motions. He kept one hand on her shoulder and positioned himself between her and their assailant. She stayed close.
"I feel we already know each other well enough," the Twi'lek responded. He pointed with his free hand at Taban's holster. "Your weapon. Put it on the floor and kick it away."
He did it. Slowly, as though it would go off if he moved too quickly, he withdrew the blaster from its holster and placed it gently on the dust-covered ground. Before it even had a chance to settle in the powder, he raised his right foot and kicked it away, careful to send it somewhere far out of reach of the Twi'lek. He wasn't about to give him access to two weapons.
"Droid saboteur and kidnapper, huh? I didn't know thugs were so multi-skilled," Taban said, doing a decent job of keeping a level voice. The presence of Heartstring's daughter was ever-prominent in his thoughts. He could not allow anything to happen to her.
"You are a fool to assume us to be thugs," the Twi'lek said with a maniacal grin. "So much like a Human. Twi'leks, Gran, Rodians - any being without your own physical features. Dismissed. Demeaned. Derided as common thugs," he spat the last two words. They echoed in the cavernous space, reverberating back at them several times.
The Twi'lek's teeth were jagged. "And we are so much more. We are united, for one thing. We have a purpose. We have goals, and we know how to accomplish them. Sabotage? Kidnapping? Just snippets of the bigger picture, Human."
Taban kept his hands held palms-outward. "If you're going to monologue, I'd prefer you just shot me and got it over with." His eyes were unblinking. With his next sentence he tried to convey the maximum of conviction and seriousness he could. "But let the girl go."
The Twi'lek primed his weapon and allowed its menacing hum to replace all of the noise in the building. "The girl was safe before you arrived, Human. Her safety would be guaranteed, Human, if our warnings had been heeded and our demands met. We ask for so little. Only that conspirators and xenophobic tyrants be brought to light and exposed. And even that," he took a step closer, keeping his arm outstretched, "was too much for humanity to provide."
Taban could sense the situation slipping away from him. The Twi'lek was becoming more and more impassioned with every word. He recognised the pattern - he had gone through it himself less than an hour ago, and it had resulted in him charging into this situation now. It wasn't hard to envisage that it could drive a morally-righteous crusader to kill the embodiment of his enemy.
"I do not want to have to kill an innocent child, Human. But your government, your CorSec leaves me such little choice. They would rather send you, an unimpressive specimen to say the least, to foil our plans?"
Taban narrowed his eyes at being labelled unimpressive. "Steady on, there."
"You could have killed me, Human. You could have wiped out this entire facility and rescued the girl. It would make no difference. We are not limited to the petty individualism of humanity. We are united. We stand together, by the same blood and the same voice."
The Twi'lek was shouting by now. The girl was getting upset. Taban's heart was racing.
"The girl, we have pledged to keep alive for four more hours. You, on the other hand..." He trailed off. Taban knelt down. Blood was rushing into his face. His eyes hovered over the Twi'lek's left shoulder, glazed over as the deadliness of the situation flooded him.
The girl still had one hand on his back. He turned to her slowly and whispered in her ear.
"Close your eyes," he said.
With his hands, he covered her ears.
The sound of the gunshot shattered the cold, silent air.
Keys felt an irrepressible sense of dread shortly after arriving at the DuraPlex smelter. Not because of any real danger - the surveillance team had swept the perimeter and confirmed that there were no hostiles. Nor was it because she was worried for Taban, who had beaten them to the scene by about fifteen minutes. He may have been a strikingly short and petite-featured man, but he could handle himself well enough to stay out of trouble. The dread was stemming more from the way that Tadgh was acting. Or more specifically, the way that he was inter-acting with Tack.
They were talking.
Scratch dread. She was scared.
"So you are getting glimpses of the interior?" Tadgh asked the droid, hand on an empty holster. His other hand gripped his comlink, turning it over and over. A nervous twitch. "What sort of glimpses?"
"Every twenty seconds I receive an updated footage loop from one of the storage closets," Tack answered in a level voice. "I believe this to be due to incorrect maintenance procedures on a decommissioned droid. Since Taban Maitland entered the DuraPlex smelter the number of unconscious bodies lying on the floor of this particular closet has increased from zero to three."
Tadgh's right eyebrow shot up. "Three?"
Keys felt a pang of concern. "Taban isn't one of them, is he?"
"No," Tack answered. "He has personally placed all three of them there - one Rodian, one Gran and one Kel Dor. Last contact was six minutes ago, and I remind you that there is a twenty second lag period."
"All right, fine," Tadgh said, face set and neutral. "That's better than I'd hoped for. Keep scanning, Tack, comm me if you see anything else. You'll answer to me now."
Keys didn't specifically know what Tadgh was talking about when he told Tack to 'keep scanning', but she could guess. She had always suspected that Taban was using the droid to access the Common Data Network, though she had said nothing of it. The network was vast and dangerous with a potential for all manner of abuses. Then again, that was only if it was accessed by the wrong hands - and Taban was most certainly the right hands. The way she saw it, if he could access it then he could monitor it, even police it. That had to be more valuable than denying it altogether. The higher-ups didn't see it that way, however, and hence her feigned ignorance of the network was a lot more productive than using it for her own means.
And besides which, it wouldn't matter unless they managed to get Taban out of the smelter without getting him shot.
"What do you think?" Keys asked, standing abreast of Tadgh. The building looked remarkably big from ground level, she thought - and pitch black inside compared to the blanket lighting outdoors. The large front entrance was agape but seeing beyond it was impossible thanks to the difference in lighting levels. It was like a door to nowhere.
"I think we proceed slowly," Tadgh said dismissively, moving forward, hand still gripping a blaster that wasn't there. "Keys?" he asked immediately after his answer. His voice was softer than it had been talking to Tack. Meek, almost. "Do you trust me?"
"Yes," was her instant response. "I do."
She heard him inhale a deep breath. "Okay."
A stillness took hold of the entire industrial complex in the aftermath of their exchange. It wasn't an awkward silence, more of a gathering breath. Whatever lay beyond the blackness of the front doors was not going to be an easy trial for Tadgh - the culmination of a lot of uncertainty and paranoia was awaiting him. It hadn't occurred to her until now that, since this whole ordeal had started, it had only been his integrity of trust that had come into question. If trust were an economy he'd be at a very large deficit.
At least now he knew that, whatever happened inside, she trusted that he would make the right choices. He had always done so in the past - there was no reason to doubt him this time. Perhaps, she thought, the only thing he needed to repair his strained threads of trust with those around him was to strengthen them at the other end.
"Let's go get Taban," he announced suddenly, taking a step forward. She followed, their movement kicking up a layer of dust that had spilled forth from the massive entrance of the facility and creating a wake trail behind them.
They crossed the luminous threshold of the outside world and took their first steps into the shadows of the interior.
Tack could not believe his luck.
Or perhaps more accurately, he extrapolated that a sentient being in his position might not have been able to believe his or her luck. Because to him, of course, the very notion of luck was ridiculous - statistically unlikely outcomes were bound to happen sooner or later and were to be expected. Furthermore, should one of these unlikely instances occur he would not have any trouble 'believing' it in the human sense of the word. Empirical data and rational conclusion would in fact prove beyond doubt that a 'lucky' event had occurred and therefore not result in a software conflict over the veracity of the event.
In any case, one of these instances with both an unlikely and fortunate outcome had befallen him. He had spoken very carefully with Detective Maitland on the subject of the droid that had not properly been shut down within the facility and of Taban Maitland's wellbeing. What had resulted was an order for him to 'keep scanning [Extrapolation: the Common Data Network] and comm me [Verification: Detective Tadgh Maitland] if anything else [Extrapolation: any further unusual or criminal activity] was observed'.
There was no stipulation that he must remain outside. Usually, when Taban Maitland was giving the orders, he was specific on this point. Given that Detective Maitland had assumed control of the situation [Evidentiary Citation: 'You'll answer to me now'], he was under no obligation to follow the order issued by Taban Maitland earlier in the evening to 'stay put' [Disambiguation: Do not move a significant distance from current location].
The two detectives had moments ago disappeared into the large open doors in front of them. They were too far in to observe his movements now. He engaged his motor functions and began trudging toward the smelter. He would not take the front entrance - he would instead follow the route that Taban Maitland had used. It would attract less attention, and sentient interruption would foil his plans.
As he left, he heard a noise from behind him. His visual receptor registered that a nearby airspeeder, the one that had arrived with Detectives Maitland and Keyston, had released the rear storage hatch. Sprawling from it was a strange looking human wearing rather outdated clothing and a hat that extended above the top of his head by at least thirty centimetres. He thought this a strange occurrence. Usually sentients did not travel in storage compartments unless they were being kept there against their will. However, given that this speeder belonged to officers of the law, such an observation was not applicable. No illegal activity had occurred. There was no need to communicate with Tadgh Maitland.
He kept walking.
He had a job to do.
Keys had to blink several times before her eyes adjusted to the lower light level inside the smelter. As objects slowly faded into existence she found herself crouched behind a large piece of machinery - the nature of which she could only guess - with Tadgh right beside her. He craned his neck to get a look around at the floor of the facility, following basic training and ascertaining that they were clear to continue out in the open. She focused her senses and did the same, checking all angles in her field of vision and confirming that the place appeared empty.
"Anything?" Tadgh whispered.
"All clear," she responded. "I'd say start walking."
And they did. Keys raised herself to full height - still not enough to see over the top of her cover - and made to move around the left side. Tadgh, she knew, would be taking the other direction. Their footsteps were muffled by the thick layer of snowy powder on the ground, cloaking the whole place in a kind of ghostly-
"Just you hold it right there, Human," a gruff voice split the silent air.
Both of them ducked immediately into a crouch behind the machine once more. Keys felt her heart break into a sprint as she reached instinctively for her blaster that wasn't there. Apparently she wasn't the only one who had grown attached to it after all this time. She scanned all of her angles once again, determined to find the being that had spotted them and issued the foreboding order. She could find nothing however.
"Where?" Tadgh asked as silently as he could.
"I can't see," she answered quickly.
A frantic second passed in which she considered calling the surveillance team in to cover them. Her hand was halfway to her comlink when the mysterious voice sounded again. "Put the girl down slowly."
Oh I see, she thought, suddenly relieved. Not us, then.
"Girl?" she whispered to Tadgh.
He had contorted himself into an awkward position and was leaning very carefully to the edge of their cover. He held his strained neck that way for a few seconds and then ducked back, face grim. "It's Taban," he said. "He's got Heartstring's daughter."
Keys was confused and for a second jumped to the wrong conclusion. The Mystic had been claiming all along that Taban was responsible for the kidnap of the girl - had Tadgh now witnessed him holding her against her will? It seemed impossible, but after so many unlikely things happening today she wasn't willing to discount it altogether. She searched his face for signs of what he meant but was met with only a blank expression. The best way to find out would be to look for herself.
The back-and-forth exchange between Taban and the mystery assailant continued. 'What, no small talk this time?', Taban asked and was answered with a curt 'I feel we already know each other well enough'.
When she managed to sneak one of her eyes around from cover she immediately assessed the scene. Taban had the girl behind him, screening her from any attack that the blue Twi'lek might try to initiate. He had been trying to get her out of here but had been caught by the same alien that had attacked him on Lostock Boulevard. He was now being held at gunpoint and being ordered to disarm.
"Put it on the floor and kick it away," the Twi'lek said.
Taban was obedient. He put it on the ground and with casual strength kicked it as hard as he could. Keys had to duck back behind cover quickly - Taban had managed to send the weapon careening straight into the underworkings of the machine towering over her. A loud thunk emanated from the durasteel, vibrating against her skin where it pressed against the cold metal.
Tadgh had ducked behind cover too, his eyes locked on the floor with intensity. Fear, she thought she recognised - or maybe surprise. Either one would be an appropriate reaction. Because now, between the two of them on the ground, there lay yet one more piece of fate that had come to taunt them. One more shred of evidence to bring them inexorably to a conclusion that they were trying at all costs to avoid.
Taban's SoroSuub FlashShot - resting perfectly next to Tadgh's right foot.
She tried not to cringe as Tadgh let go a string of curses in Huttese, drowning out the heated exchange occurring in the centre of the facility. She considered reaching for the weapon but thought better of it. It was as though it was a landmine - touch it and everything goes to hell. They had come a long way now without blasters to ruin it by taking up the opportunity that temptation was offering them.
Then again, Taban already had a blaster to his head. If they did nothing, The Mystic's prophecy was just as likely to come true in essence. Their inaction would allow Taban to be killed. Prophecies, she had always found, were tricky little things like that.
They each looked at one another, trying to figure out how to proceed best. Tadgh's face was back to its empty state, unfeeling on the exterior.
"...Common thugs," the Twi'lek had shouted the last two words, jolting them both back to the situation unfolding behind them. "And we are so much more. We are united, for one thing. We have a purpose. We have goals, and we know how to accomplish them."
"He's getting agitated," Keys whispered to Tadgh. "We need to defuse this."
Tadgh was still eyeing the blaster. "I know."
Taban's voice drifted their way. "If you're going to monologue, I'd prefer you just shot me and got it over with. But let the girl go."
When the Twi'lek answered his voice was raised even higher. "The girl was safe before you arrived, Human-"
"Tadgh," she said again, jutting a hand out and putting it on his shoulder. His blank eyes suddenly focused and locked onto hers, a beam of intensity jolting between them. What seemed like a minute passed, though in reality it must have been only a fraction of a second. "We need to defuse this now. Either we take action, or I call the backup."
"Backup won't get here in time," he said back, shaking his head. "I need to do it."
He reached to the ground and picked up the blaster. Her heart skipped.
"Tadgh, why don't you-"
"You trust me, right?" he asked, cutting her off.
Another moment of silence passed, their eyes connected once again. In the still air the voice of the enraged Twi'lek was echoing around them, enclosing them in a whirlwind of sound. 'You could have killed me, Human. You could have wiped out this entire facility and rescued the girl. It would make no difference. We are not limited to the petty individualism of humanity. We are united. We stand together, by the same blood and the same voice.' There was no ambiguity in Tadgh's intention now. Whatever he had decided, he was in control. It was he who had made the decision, not the sway of external forces.
He was Tadgh.
"I trust you."
He nodded to her and stood, blaster in hand, emerging from cover with an air of relentlessness. She moved to get a clearer view of things, figuring that whatever happened now would happen by his design. She kept one hand on her comlink though she knew that she wouldn't need it.
The Twi'lek was oblivious to Tadgh's presence, his back turned toward the doors. His diatribe continued, hateful words spewing out as commonly as conjunctions. "The girl, we have pledged to keep alive for four more hours. You, on the other hand..."
Taban had spotted Tadgh now, flicking his eyes subtly over the shoulder of the Twi'lek to register what was happening. There was something instinctually paternal about the way he knelt down to the girl and put his hands over her ears, trying to protect her even from the sound of what was about to happen. The Twi'lek, she suspected, never knew what hit him as Tadgh pulled the trigger and sent the blue stun bolt searing into his back.
And just like that, after so many hours of uncertainty and mistrust, it was over.
Heartstring's daughter safe.
As quickly as she could she raced to disarm and examine the Twi'lek who was now motionless on the ground. As she did the two brothers shared a moment that only men seemed capable of. Tadgh nodded. Taban nodded. The two of them held one another's gaze for a few seconds and then smiled. For the moment at least, their acrimony was forgotten.
She pored over the pockets of the unconscious alien and found nothing but an extra clip for the blaster in his hand. She placed it somewhere out of reach in case he should wake up and stood, brushing dust from herself. In the ensuing cloud her vision was momentarily obscured and she coughed as some of the irritating powder went down her throat.
After some seconds her coughing ceased, and the air was still again.
She looked up and saw Tadgh standing strangely, blaster held at the ready, pointed off in the direction of the front entrance. She followed the line of sight and rubbed her eyes, convinced that the dust must have been playing tricks with her vision.
Walking slowly toward them, top hat firmly in place, was The Mystic.
"Well done, detectives," he said. "I see things went as to plan."
"You want to back up right now," Tadgh said darkly.
Keys reached once again for her missing blaster, cursing the fact that she hadn't brought it. While it was down there, however, her hand brushed a strange rectangular object in her jacket pocket. She couldn't remember having put anything in there and curiosity drove her to extract it as quickly as she could. When she saw what was in her hands her heart stepped up a gear. Could it really be...
"I'm no threat to you, Detective," The Mystic continued. "You must see that now."
Keys stood slowly, her mind in overdrive. She clung to her found object with some urgency, trying to think of the best way to interpose herself into the confrontation between Tadgh and The Mystic. She would have to do it quickly if she was to head off any complications, but if she did it right, well...
Maybe both Tadgh and The Mystic could walk away unharmed.
"All I see now," Tadgh continued, taking slow steps forward, "is a crazy old man. That is so under arrest," he added the final sentence like it was some kind of bombshell. Keys had to fight not to roll her eyes.
"Fair enough," The Mystic said with a nod. "But that does not make me less right."
"Right?" Tadgh said, incredulous. "Are you-"
Keys cleared her dusty throat and spoke up before it was too late. "Yes, Mystic," she said, stepping over the unconscious Twi'lek at her feet. Tadgh snapped his head around, his gun hand expertly steady on The Mystic. She whispered in his ear as she walked past him, "Play along."
"You were right," she said, approaching him and brandishing the rectangular object. "I found this in one of his pockets. An ID badge.
She held it just long enough for him to see the name in block letters but not long enough for him to notice the finer details. The Mystic's reaction was not so noticeable for its calmness but for its complete lack of self-satisfaction or pride.
She threw a glance back at Tadgh and was surprised to see his expression was more or less the same. He could see what she was up to. He might even have thought it was a good idea. What he must have been thinking, however, was that she had at least presented a water-tight way of ensuring that The Mystic's prophecies could be fulfilled without the death of his brother. Putting it crudely, she had covered their bases.
"As I said," The Mystic said pointedly, following Keys' eyes to Tadgh. "Right."
Tadgh bowed his head.
She didn't need to wonder how he would react to this. They had been through their trepidatious exchange about trust - they had made their inarticulate vows to one another. He trusted her. She trusted him. When he looked up, she knew, he would follow her lead.
She guessed that one didn't need to be psychic to know what people were going to say.
"Yeah," Tadgh said. "You were right, Mystic."
He lowered his gun arm and turned his back, approaching the Twi'lek he had put down. Dust followed him, clinging to his shoes. The Mystic, though the gun was no longer pointed at him, had not moved. He kept his hands raised in front of him. Tadgh probed the limbs of the Twi'lek with a boot, perhaps checking to see that there was no movement in them.
"Except," he said, twirling quickly, "he isn't dead."
From the corner of her eye she saw Taban give a start as the little girl jumped back into his arms. Taban held her there on a hip, her head buried against his shoulder. Keys didn't blame her - Tadgh's voice had been filled with a very real rage. She couldn't really see his face. He was moving too quickly to close the distance between himself and The Mystic.
"Stunned, Mystic," he said, gun hanging loosely at his side. "Stunned. Not killed."
The Mystic, in a display of superb defiance, raised an eyebrow. "I see."
"Shoot him dead, you said," Tadgh kept up his diatribe. "He kidnapped Heartstring's daughter, and I was supposed to shoot him dead. Well, scratch it off the list, Mystic. Stack that up with every other firefek'n lie that's drooled from your creepy, homeless mouth since you barged into this investigation.
"I don't suppose you remember another prediction of yours?" he asked, flinging his gun arm to a rigid state and bringing it to rest against the flesh of The Mystic's forehead. He let the moment hang in the air. There was a deadly click as he flicked the setting from 'stun' to 'kill'. "Something about my hand in your death. I can tell you, of all the predictions you've made, this is the one that has the most chance of surviving on merit."
Keys thought about stepping in but stayed herself. She and Taban shared a glance, playing a game with each other whereby they wouldn't move unless the other one did. Whatever Tadgh did here, it would be of his own choosing.
"So what should concern you most, Mystic, is my state of mind. Unenviable, for sure - but no less the way it is. Let's say you've gone and done a good enough job to sway my trust away from my colleagues and towards your word. I turn around right now. Shoot the Twi'lek. Taban," he said, spitting the false name. "And then come back here and shoot you right between the eyes. All your prophecies fulfilled, Mystic. Lots of people dead.
"Or," he said, his voice lowering, "I choose to stick with the loyalties I already have. The Twi'lek stays stunned. I leave you breathing. And you get to be locked away for a long time, stewing in the knowledge that your games and lies are just that."
He took a step forward and lowered his voice even further, assuming that only The Mystic could hear. Keys strained, however, and thought she just managed to pick up the words he was whispering harshly beneath the top hat.
"There are more important things than the Force, Mystic," he said. "They're standing behind me."
There was a flash - bright blue.
And with a muffled bang, The Mystic fell backwards, his top hat tumbling to the ground beside him.
Tack had carefully made his way through the neglected building and found the room he was looking for. The door was shut but not locked and opened at his powerful mechanical touch. Beyond it he saw the three unconscious bodies that Taban Maitland had left on the bottom of the storage closet but stepped over them with as much grace as he could muster.
Beyond the pile of sentients he set eyes on his objective. There were no running lights on the exterior of the droid to indicate it was still operational, but he was able to freely identify it through the CDN. Looking through the photoreceptors of the droid that was doomed to repeat the same twenty seconds for eternity, he saw himself reaching down to find the single switch that would deactivate the power source properly.
Droids couldn't feel gratitude, and Tack was incapable of understanding that this situation would warrant it. So it was with a sense that things had been put right, what sentients called 'justice', that he closed the maintenance closet door once again.
The unconscious beings he left to their own fate.
"You didn't have to stun him, you know," Keys said, cradling Heartstring's daughter in her arms as the trio walked steadily toward the growing throng of CorSec backup units. The two men had flattered themselves to think that the reason she had ended up carrying the girl was because she had some kind of maternal instinct that led her to immediately take over where children were concerned. The truth of the matter was that the girl had been uncomfortable in Taban's grip and had asked her to carry her properly.
"Oh, come on," Tadgh rebutted, "if he didn't have it coming, nobody does.
"And besides, it made me feel big."
She grunted a laugh, but it was lost in the blaring siren of yet another CorSec Patrol vehicle arriving on the scene. He may have been waiting for her to continue their conversation, but she remained deliberately quiet. Speaking to her, she knew, was a delay tactic. He was avoiding having to approach Taban and going through their uncomfortable apologies to one another.
The three of them were walking abreast from the front door, flashing green emergency signals flashing light and shadow across the duracrete in front of them. Patrol officers scurried every which way to ensure that the premises was secure. Media were beginning to arrive, held back by some hastily assembled barricades. Flashbulbs were illuminating the night with intense white light, interplaying with the flashing green sirens. And through all that chaos they cut a swathe, parting the masses and leaving an empty corridor behind them.
Tadgh moved away from her gently, easing slowly toward Taban. She knew it was probably wrong to eavesdrop, but she didn't care. She'd listened to enough of their arguments today and figured she had the right to some closure.
"You okay?" Tadgh asked his brother.
Keys rolled her eyes. Stalling much?
"No, I'm not okay," Taban answered. "I ripped my coat again. Do you know how much these things cost?" He gripped the fine fabric and spread it so that the hole became pronounced, a look of disgust on his face.
Judging by the way he seemed to trip on his next words, Tadgh must have been fairly caught out by this response. He began speaking several times before he finally managed to articulate the right statement. "You got it for free," he pointed out.
"So not the point." Taban was exasperated at his brother's lack of understanding. Keys let a smile tease her mouth. A mismatched pair of siblings if ever she'd come across them.
"How is it not the point? You didn't pay for it - price doesn't factor."
"All right," Taban said, folding his arms. "Give me yours then."
Tadgh looked taken aback. "No way."
"See?" Taban raised one eyebrow.
This defeated Tadgh. He lowered his head and nodded a few times. "Right," he said, "point taken."
They walked in silence for a few seconds. Keys kept pace, finding the weight of the girl beginning to grow uncomfortable against her shoulder. Not a sound had been made since she had nestled there. Perhaps she had fallen asleep. Keys took extra care to make sure the footsteps she was taking didn't jolt her upper body too much.
"Tadgh," Taban said, breaking their quiet, "I don't want to make a thing of this."
"Thank god," Tadgh replied, breathing out heavily. "Neither do I."
"Trust next time?" Taban asked, not making eye contact with his brother.
"You know I trust you, Taban," Tadgh said, making the 'avoiding eye contact' process very easy. "Everything just got turned about by The Mystic. I was supposed to shoot you, you know. According to that wacky old prophet, I'm your murderer."
"I gathered," Taban said. "And I'm sorry too. I got caught up in feeling wronged, and I didn't even consider the possibility of trusting you back."
"Well," Tadgh said, "lucky we aren't making a thing out of it."
In the silence that ensued Tadgh approached Keys and held out his hand. She knew what he wanted and used her free hand to fish it out of her jacket pocket once again. In spite of herself she was impressed that Tadgh had remembered it. It may only have been a token gesture, but it was important.
"This is yours, I think," Tadgh said, approaching his brother once more and handing him his ID badge.
Taban accepted it and snorted a laugh.
The flashbulbs from the media crews intensified as they came closer to the barricades, reporters shouting at the tops of their voices to be heard by anyone that might want to throw an answer their way. 'Is the child okay?', 'Who was the kidnapper?', 'Are any of you romantically involved with the kidnapper?', 'Was the kidnapper a rival Holonet network?', 'Do you have any preference for who portrays you in the Holonet movie of the week?'
"Oh, let me answer that one," Taban said, starting toward the cameras. He was held back by Tadgh.
"Bad idea," Tadgh said.
"Fine," Taban said, mischievous smile still in place. "But they better pick someone who does me justice."
"There's not going to be a movie of the week," Tadgh said, shaking his head. "Despot will make sure of it. If only because it would probably push Division 29 out of its timeslot."
"So I just have to settle for a good deed done, then?" Taban asked. "Boring."
"It isn't so bad." Tadgh had cracked his first smile for some time. "I didn't shoot you, for one thing. And you knocked out three thugs - two of which were bigger than you. That's good for bragging rights. Not to mention you helped to rescue Heartstring's daughter."
Keys turned her head and craned her neck, getting a good look at the sleeping girl on her shoulder. Her breathing was very gentle, such a fragile little thing. Her hair had fallen across her face, and Keys gently brushed it back, tucking it behind her ear. And that's when the feeling struck her.
"Oh no," she said, her voice imbued with panic. "No, that's impossible!"
Tadgh and Taban had wheeled to face her, Tadgh reaching for his non-present blaster and Taban readying his comlink to call for help. She eyed them both with her most grave expression and let the enormity of her words fill the air with solemn dread.
"This isn't Heartstring's daughter."
Taban froze, his eyes widening with terror. Tadgh spun and scanned the entrance to the smelter once again, urgency in every nuance of his body language. His hand was still feebly searching for a blaster that wasn't there. The both of them had gone into an immediate state of emergency, probably acutely aware of the media that was watching their every move. It was only when they had been pushed to the limit of their heart-racing horror that Keys allowed them to see her wry smile.
She winked at them.
Tadgh's hands found his hips. "You're off the case, Keyston."
Her husband's embrace some hours later was so comfortable that Keys hardly wanted it to end. The long cases were the worst, she'd long ago decided - she hated spending evenings away from home. Those were becoming more and more routine, however, and the pair of them had managed to find creative ways to see each other during those hours anyway. She broke their tight hug now not because she had had enough of it, but because they were standing in the middle of a crowded Correalis Overseer Hospital corridor.
"You're all dusty, Jeanie," Marryt told her, brushing the dust from the end of her nose.
"I'm trying something new," she said with a nod.
"I like it," he said. "Brings out your eyes."
Indeed, her eyes seemed especially bright because the smelter dust had blackened the skin around them. She smiled at him and batted them, reaching simultaneously for her comlink. "So," she said, holding it in front of him. "What was this hospital emergency that I needed to see?"
"Bad news, actually," Marryt said, leading her to his office. The plaque on the door read 'Marryt Dunns: M.O.M.'. Officially it meant 'Morgue Office Manager', but she always sniggered at how it looked in abbreviation. "I took in a body about half an hour ago."
"At the morgue?" she asked, feigning surprise as she took a seat inside. "Really? Do you want to talk about it?"
He rolled his eyes and continued. "I thought I should tell you right away given that you were working the Heartstring case."
She lost all of her levity in the space of a second. "Not The Mystic?" she asked, leaning forward.
"No." Marryt shook his head. "He was transferred to Correalis Penitentiary about an hour ago. Successfully revived and crazy as ever. The body that I took in was a Twi'lek."
Keys sat back in the chair hard. "Tell me you're joking."
"Unfortunately not," he said, lifting a datapad to eye level. She didn't look at it - she presumed it was some kind of jargon-laden report detailing the specifics of the death. She wasn't in a serene enough state to try to deal with medical terminology.
"What happened? Tadgh stunned him - I saw it myself."
"Oh, that's confirmed," Marryt said, reading from the datapad. "Unfortunately this particular Twi'lek had something of a rare nervous system disorder. Guy was unlucky - but it was definitely the stun blast that killed him."
"Killed by a stun blast? I've never heard of that before," Keys said, disbelief still dominating her inflection.
"Oh, it happens a lot," Marryt corrected her. "A stun blast is a fairly traumatic thing for a fragile body to withstand. Any number of disorders and diseases will be aggravated by that much energy pulsing through the nervous system. In this guy's case, his brain shut down and never started again. He's got no case history, but it could be any of about six kinds of nervous disorder. Maybe Reichen's, or First Order Syndrome. Usually fatal at a young age, but in some cases it's dormant until early middle-age. It would have killed him anyway, Tadgh just sort of...jump-started the process."
Keys sighed heavily.
She had been the one to pretend to The Mystic that the Twi'lek had been named Taban Maitland. The top-hatted vagrant had asserted all along that Tadgh would shoot 'Taban' dead. The word 'coincidence' was trying its best but just didn't seem to adequately cover things. The Twi'lek had a nervous system anomaly and would have died anyway. The Mystic cannot have known that.
It would have to do.
"Really annoying, huh," Marryt said. "No perpetrator to question."
Her mind was stuck on a different point, however.
"Who's going to tell Tadgh?" she asked, sending an imploring look her husband's way. There was something odd about the way he looked back at her. Or more precisely, the way that he didn't look back at her. His gaze had made its way over the top of her head, behind her, where somebody stood in the doorway.
"Tell me what?" Tadgh asked, stepping inside the office.
All that followed was silence.
Correalis Penitentiary was a quiet kind of place. The inmates there were primarily the perpetrators of white collar indiscretions - tax fraud, insider trading and the various other morally corrupt offences that businesspeople found enticing. This was not because there was a lack of hard crime in the city but rather because the wardens were intent on making the interior of the prisons match the exterior world. Only the rich and affluent, or the trivial and inconsequential, were kept here. The rest were transferred to Bortelles, Coronet or even off planet.
The Mystic found himself in a private cell adorned with more comforts than he had ever had living on the street. For a reason that he couldn't explain - other than the fact that he had seen himself doing it and was bound to follow the premonitions in his head - he had just finished scratching a tally into his forearm. The total number came out at thirteen. It was just after he had finished scratching the tally marks into his skin, twenty minutes after lights out, that he sat upright in his cot. He knew what was coming. He'd been waiting for it for all of his forty-seven years.
This was the exact moment that his ability to see into the future came to an end. The very last thing that he knew was sitting in this cot, upright in the dark, mind alive with wonderment at experiencing something new for the very first time. And though nothing significant had changed, the pitch-black cell was suddenly the most beautiful thing he had ever seen - simply because he had never seen it before.
A laugh escaped him.
He had only one other glimpse of the future beyond this. It would occur in a few moments and it involved his rather drawn-out death. Why there was a gap for these several moments he did not know. All he could think was that it was a reward of some kind. A final mercy before the infinite unknown of death, that he should know the spontaneity of a normal life if only for a short time. He could not be anything but happy.
"Very cheerful, Mystic," a voice said from an entirely indeterminate point in the blackness. "All locked up."
He jumped, startled. And was joyous, for he had never been startled before in his life.
"Who are you?" he asked, letting the exciting words slip from his mouth with a racing heart. And even after he had spoken them and revelled in their originality, he allowed himself to savour what it felt like not to know the answer.
"I'm Thirteen," she said, emerging from the shadows. The number on his forearm suddenly made an ominous kind of sense to him. She was wrapped entirely in a black shroud, completely hidden. Even her eyes were covered. He had never seen anything like it before. It was beautiful. "And I'm here to kill you," she finished, bending to draw eye-level with him.
"That is wonderful," he replied, taking in every detail.
"It is?" she asked, voice interested but not surprised. "Most do not share your point of view."
"Most do not live as I have," he said. He could feel something odd in the back of his mind, like a tickling sensation that was slowly asserting itself. He postulated the reason behind this and settled on a theory that he was wildly unsure of. "You erase yourself from my memory, don't you?" he asked, hoping that his answer was incorrect.
"Of course I will," she replied. "You have a rare gift, Mystic. If I allowed you to remember me, your association with Tadgh Maitland would make you an unacceptable thorn in my side. If you were to see me now, if you were to know my plans, then you would have known them all along and could have informed Detective Maitland the second you'd met him. I'm quite aware of the timeline on which you operate."
She had a remarkable grasp of his abilities, he mused to himself. It was true that if he had known who she was and what her plans were he could have told Tadgh back in the interview room. By erasing herself from his memory she had left him with only the incoherent ramblings of his death throes and an overwhelming sense that his death was Tadgh's fault. She was covering her tracks well.
"But why kill me at all?" he asked. "I'm locked away. And Tadgh Maitland is never likely to listen to me again."
"Is that a plea I hear, Mystic?" she said, voice hopeful.
"No." He shook his head. "I know you kill me. You leave me with that memory."
"How sadistic of me," she said.
"I am simply curious. And that is not a sensation that I experience often."
Her reply was measured and gentle. It was as though she was trying to lull him off to sleep. "You pose a certain risk to me, Mystic. If you are left alive, there is a possibility you may tell Maitland what you know. But besides all of that, you are marked for death. You are a User, Mystic.
"And any User is a threat."
He let the unpredictable response consume him for a moment, enjoying the tangents that it set his thoughts along. Her preoccupation with the Force was typical of a Dark Force User. Her attitude that others who wielded similar power were a threat was reminiscent of the Emperor himself. If he had to guess, he would say that she was a servant of Palpatine.
The fact that he didn't know, and never would, filled him with happiness.
"I'm grateful for this," he said, bowing his head.
"I know," she said, somehow even more gently than before. There was a weight to her words, however, that conveyed to him that she knew more about his situation than anyone before her had. "I am glad of this, Mystic. I kill you for my own ends, yes. But know that there is mercy in my actions as well."
And it was at that point that all memory of her was lost, and he returned to the point at which his memory had already been. His curiosity as to how the number '13' on his forearm fit into things was back. He couldn't remember who was causing the choking sensation, but he knew that it was because of Tadgh Maitland. He closed his eyes and embedded the thought into his brain. Tadgh Maitland...I die because of Tadgh Maitland...
Even as he felt the tendrils of the Force close around his throat, his heart raced with excitement. The wonders of the unknown invaded every part of him as his vision began to blacken. It was far from an ending - for him it was a beginning. The beginning of a journey that would last him the rest of eternity, to whatever end.
And though he knew what it would feel like he was not prepared for the overwhelming emotion as a single tear leaked from the corner of his eye, running the length of his cheek and off his chin.
By the time it hit the pillow beside him, he was dead.
And he remembered nothing.
Original cover by luton_plunder. HTML formatting copyright 2009 TheForce.Net LLC.