As I dangled twenty stories from a mining tower on the desolate planet of Kessel, it dawned on me that maybe my life wasn't going the way I hoped. Inside the tower, I heard the boom-boom of blasters and the hum of a single lightsaber. A hint of ozone choked my throat; I was getting a slight headache.
What made things worse was the simple irony that I was dangling twenty stories for my protection. Yeah, that's right. The legendary Jedi Master, Luke Skywalker, had planted me here, tying my right ankle to one of the tower's support cords, and telling me to keep quiet.
He was a pretty big jerk, I had decided as the blood continued rushing to my head. After all, I didn't mean for any of this to happen. It wasn't like I was trying to create a new Empire and declare myself Emperor. Only people with an aversion to sanity would want that job.
No. I wasn't trying to cause any trouble. I was a businessman, that's all. I used to be a damn good one, too, when the Rebellion surfaced decades ago. After the Battle of Yavin, the Empire began rampaging the galaxy for Rebel-this and Alliance-that, and didn't pay as much attention to smugglers and pirates and small-timers like myself.
And I was small-time; I knew it, and that was okay. I had settled into that role in the Outer Rim, making a profit in the gambling rings with podraces and my sabacc skills. I rarely had to cheat at all; I was that good.
There was a flash of green, and it snapped my attention back to the present. Skywalker was nearing the tower's ledge. His Jedi robe was missing, leaving only a solid black, Imperial-ish outfit that looked almost sinister for a Jedi. His hair had been combed back a few hours ago, but now it was tousled about like a toddler had grabbed a hold of his head and went wild. There was a streak of blood at the side of his face; he locked his eyes to something I couldn't see.
No more blaster fireit was just that hum. There was another swing of the saber, and then Skywalker was out of my line of vision. Farther away, a woman cursed, and then, something heavy whooshed through the air. I knew what it was; I had seen it in action. A tail. It was a massive, scaly thing, and its owner was no prettier than it was.
Chyleal. She might have been beautiful once, but her body had been so mutilated with modified appendages, she almost resembled three bodies sucked into one frame. Kind of gross. She released a battle-scream that pulsated my eardrums, and then there was silence.
No humming lightsaber.
No whooshing sound.
Across my ankle, the cording was losing its grip. As I tossed a glance downwards to the barren planet below, I considered again that maybejust maybemy life wasn't turning out the way I wanted after all.
On the fear of being cliché, it all started less than a standard week ago. I had been on the planet Ryloth, in the Outer Rim. In a tiny underground facility called the Tas'reen, I was handling inventory for some smuggled Ryloth spicesfor medicinal purposes only, of course. I sipped at a cup of hot cocoa on my desk, and checked my crew's budget for the last week. Even with the spices, we were short more than four hundred credits. The Hutt crimelords were beginning to ask questions about their "supplies" and my throat felt like sand from constantly spewing excuses.
It had been that way for awhile. Ever since the Empire and New Republic created their "truce" over a standard year ago, the Outer Rim was being overrun by self-righteous authority figures. Retired CorSec officers and Coruscant security. Then there were the Jedi. Yeah, the Jedi Order had been swelling into an especially irritating presence within the Outer Rim recently, which only emphasized my pointI, Arvis Tasric, am the victim here.
I mean, did I go to the Core Worlds, selling spices and running smuggling trades? No. When a civil war was about to break loose or a crazy Sith was on a rampage, then call in the Jedi. Otherwise, stay out of the way. I was just a small man trying to make a living. Unfortunately, my organization had taken a nose-dive because of all the extra New Republic presence out here, and my crew of twenty had shriveled to a crew of six.
I suppose that was why, as I sat with my cooling hot cocoa, trying to conjure up what I'd tell Fayla the Hutt about why my cargo was half the size it should have been and, 'no, I didn't have the credits to pay her back yet,' that one of my crewmembers managed to surprise me.
Or the simple fact that he tried to race through the doorway to my office as the durasteel slab was still rising, and slammed his head into its bottom edge. With a curse, he sprung a hand to his forehead, but didn't slow his feet.
My brother, Paiden.
I couldn't even remember the other crewmembers' names; they rotated out so much. But Paiden, my dear brother, had been with me for decades now. Dedicated. Caring. And kind of stupid.
My brother was the real idiot of my organization. Most of my successes were based on dealings he didn't know about, and I usually assigned him to lackluster missions I knew would be dead ends. I wish it didn't have to be that way, but the man lacked brains, charm and creativityand please don't ask me about his hygiene. He had as much appeal as a Hutt with a digestive disorder, and I was stuck with him.
An eyeblink later, Paiden slid to a stop in front of my desk, his lanky body panting, and sweat staining his pits as if he'd just jogged through the Dune Sea.
I sipped at my cocoa. "Trying for that heart attack early this morning, aren't you, Paiden?" I asked.
Slouching over my desk, my brother gasped. Sweat dribbled from his brow to the metal surface below him. I frowned. "For the love of everything sacred in this galaxy!...Paiden, straighten up!"
"Oh!" My brother jerked upwards, and then bowed his head at me like I was the friggin' Emperor.
Now, Paiden did possess one quality that put him above the restloyalty. He was the type of brother who would jump in the line of fire for me, which was good, because I really needed someone to do that on occasion.
He was also a former stormtrooperone of the original deserters from the second Death Star, in fact. Surely, that was worth something. But I think his helmet had been too small or his stormtrooper gear too hot, because he just didn't seem bright enough to let go of the past. He still referred to the New Republic as "rebel scum."
"Get over it," I would tell him, but alas, he never could.
So, as my brother lifted his head and handed over a datacard with as much excitement as he would giving me a shipful of gold, my curiosity flared. Accepting it, I inspected the diska memory driveand then shrugged. "What's this?" I asked.
"That," my brother said, pointing with purpose, "is our path to victory."
"I'm sorryit's awfully small for a path to victory. You mind telling me what in the worlds you're talking about?"
"It's blueprints to...," he gasped, "the original Death Star."
That got my attention. Straightening up, I flicked my gaze between Paiden and the datacard. "What are you talking about?" I asked. "Where did you get this thing?"
With a sighor another gasp (I couldn't tell which)my brother snatched the datacard from my care and lifted it like it was a precious thing he was showing off. "This is it, Arvis," he declared. "I found it on my assignment to Tatooine. Some Jawas were selling old droid scraps in one of the residential towns...uh, Aching-head, I think."
"Anchorhead," I corrected him.
"Oh...yeahthat makes more sense. Anyway, I got a whole lot of stuff for cheapstarted cleaning out some of the droid parts, and"
"Waitwait." I lifted a hand. "Are you telling me, that the hundred credits I gave you to reserve a storage unit for our spices on Tatooine, you used to buy old droid parts?"
Paiden's face froze. "Well, there were so many droids for sale. I mean dozens."
"Any actually work?"
"You're missing my point," Paiden replied, shaking the datacard. "I found this in the memory logs in one of the Artoo unit's heads."
"Does its head still work?"
"It has a bad motivator, but I can fix that."
I released a groan, running my hands down my face as if I was trying to rip the skin clear off. He's your brotherno shooting of family members. Mom would never forgive you. Make it look like an accident.
"Anyway," Paiden said with more emphasis. "From the memory logs I downloaded, it looks like this Artoo unit stole this data from another Artoo unit while they were being escorted on a Jawa sandcrawler. Can you guess where?"
"I don't know, Paidenin the desert?"
"Not just any desert. The farming regions. Moisture farms." Paiden grinned.
As the realization struck me, I lowered my gaze from Paiden's cocky expression to the datacard. I had heard the tale of the Battle of Yavinhow the Rebels stole the blueprints to the Death Star and, in an effort to keep them from the Empire, dropped them down to Tatooine. Luke Skywalker had found them somehow...and the rest was history.
Releasing a breath, I slumped back into my chair. Could the blueprints have been duplicated? Could my brother truly be holding the designs for the most destructive weapon in history?
A minute rolled by, and finally, I brought my attention back to my brother. "Are you sure about this?" I asked.
"Oh, yeah," Paiden replied. "It's them. The Empire's ultimate weapon...and we have the instructions for building it."
Adreline burst through my bodymy brain not able to process all the thoughts that suddenly flooded throughout its crevicesand my brother's cheeky grin wasn't helping. Slowly, Paiden extended his hand, swaying the datacard in his grasp like a bully dangling something of value to his victim. Clenching my jaw, I snatched it from him.
In my hands, the dull gray disk shimmered from the lights above, and I wondered...wondered what I could do with a find such as this one.
I wish I could say how I lingered on my decision-making process for days, tugging at the pros and cons, and tormenting myself as no clear answer would surface. Yeah, that should have happened, if I'd realized just how significant my brother's discovery had been. I didn't realize and it didn't happen.
I made my decision before I finished my cup of lukewarm cocoa, and hurried up the turbolift to the docking bay to make a call. The downside of an underground facilitybad communication signals when you're fifty stories below the surface.
Paiden followed like I was pulling him on a leash. In short, he wasn't too happy with me.
"So, that's it, then?" he questioned. "You've made up your mind?"
The old turbolift opened with a clank-shrill, and Paiden and I exited. In front of us was my ship. It might have been Corellian once, but with all the transplanted partshyperdrive, converter, modulatorshell, even the pilot seat was an office chair I bolted into the cockpit's flooringit had become a scrap heap that somehow still managed to fly. Most of the time.
In front of it, my five other crewmembers hauled out bags of spice. One of the women, a Twi'lek named...well, I couldn't recall her name, but she had some nice legsglanced at me, disinterest covering her features like bad make-up.
Reaching the ship, I boarded through the ramp, Paiden following. We entered the cockpit; brushing away the mess of droid parts, datacards, and old ration wrappers from the console, I flicked on communications and waited for the thing to warm up. On my ship, everything needed at least five standard minutes to warm up.
"You can't do this, Arvis," Paiden insisted.
As I sat at the office/pilot chair, I replied, "Actually, it's surprisingly simple. Turn on communicationsopen a channeltalk. Yeah, I think I can handle it."
Plopping into the copilot's seat, Paiden opened his hands to me. "You can't sell these blueprints," he declared. "They're too important."
"And that should make them worth a few thousand credits."
"No!" Paiden slapped his armrests. "Nonono, brother! It was our destiny to find these! With these plans, we could bring solar systems to their knees! Destroy the Rebellionre-ignite the Empire"
"Is your collar too tight?" I countered. "I hate to be the bearer of the obvious, but we aren't exactly in the position to build a new Empire."
"We have the blueprints!"
"And what should we do with those blueprints, Paiden? Build another Death Star? Do you know how much something like that would cost? The materials, the contractorshow about the crew to operate the thing? I can't even get my own ship to run right!"
I just shook my head at him. "Paiden, for the last fifteen years, all I've heard about are these goofy stories of Empire wannabes trying to take over the galaxy. There have been two Death Stars, a Sun Crusher, a Darksaber, and a couple other 'ultimate weapons' and the only thing they have in common is that they've all been taken out."
Paiden's frown didn't soften.
I sighed and continued, "Brother, we're not the right idiots for rebuilding an Empire. We're businessmen, so let's do business. We'll sell these blueprints to the first 'I declare myself the new Emperor' moron that gives us a good offer, and watch from a distance as the Jedi come in and purée him. The New Republic will destroy the blueprints, everyone will be just a little bit safer, and the galaxy will continue functioning as normal. Except that we'll be richer for the experience."
"What if you're wrong?" Paiden questioned. "What if you sell these to some crazed maniac, and they actually manage to build a new Death Star?"
I snorted. "Then, the New Republic will just blast it apart. From what I can tell, somebody sneezes down one of those thing's exhaust ports and it'll blow up. What's the big deal?"
Paiden crossed his arms like a six-year-old who wasn't given the new toy he wanted. Communications finally switched to active, and I opened a channel. On a small disk in front of me, blue static shimmered, and then the face of Fayla the Hutt filledand I mean filledthe holoscreen.
"Your Excellency," I told the Hutt, bowing my head. "I'm honored by your presence. You look lovely as usual."
She knew BasicI knew she knew Basicshe knew that I knew that she knew Basicbut just like most Hutts, she felt it was beneath her to speak Basic. So, a bucketful of Huttesse came dribbling off her tongue, and even though I wasn't the best at the language, I got the point.
"I understand you're upset," I replied. "And you have every right to be so. I know I still owe you some credits, and I'm working on that right now."
Another mouthful of Huttesse.
I understood that one without even trying. "I really don't want to shove anything up there," I replied with a grimace, "and, I think after you hear me out, you won't want that, either."
A pause, and then she waved a hand at me to continue.
With that, I displayed the datacard. I told her what it waswhere it was found, and sure enough, when I was finished talking, there was far less of the 'I'm going to kill you myself'
look in her eyes, and far more interest.
"Here's the deal," I told her. "The information I have is worth an entire galaxy on its own, but I'm willing to sell it to the highestand most honorablebuyer. You're the first person I've contacted about this because I can't think of anyone else who better fits that description. So, if you're willing, put down a bid. I'll keep you in mind when all the other bids come in. If you're the winner, then subtract my debt from your cost, and I'll deliver this datacard to you myself. If not, I will pay you back every credit I owe you, and then some. What do you say?"
Fayla the Hutt remained motionless on the holo. It was difficult enough to read a Hutt's expression in person, but on a holo...I'd have an easier time figuring out a droid's. When she finally opened her mouth, the words that emerged were exactly what I was hoping for.
"You have a deal, Arvis," she said in Basic, and then the holo dissolved.
I released the breath I had been holding.
"What other bidders?" Paiden asked as he rotated back and forth in his chair.
I grinned at him. "Everyone. Anyoneanyone we've had contact with in our business for the last twenty years. Surely someone will give us a good offer."
"I know someone," another voice called from behind.
With a jump, I spun my gaze to the back of the cockpit. Leaning on the doorway's frame, the Twi'lek, Legs, crossed her ankles.
I frowned. "How long have you been standing there?"
"Long enough to know what you're trying to sell. Not long enough to know if you're actually legit."
"Oh, we're legit," Paiden replied, clearly insulted. "I found it. On my own."
"Good for you. You've become useful for once in your life."
Paiden flinched in his seat as if a swell of profanities was ready to explode out his lips. I raised a hand for him to cool it, and then turned back to Legs. "It's real," I told her. "Who's the potential buyer?"
"Someone who will give you a better price than anyone you're contacting," she replied.
"Do I know his name?"
"No. And it'd be kept that way."
"So, I'm supposed to trust you with this?"
"You don't trust me now?" On her purple face, a sarcastic grin curved.
"Forget it," I replied. "This information is too sensitive to broadcast to just anyone."
"Except Hutt crimelords, and old smuggler buddies, and con artists?"
I bit the inside of my cheek. Paiden shrugged.
With that, I waved a hand at the woman. "Finish up with the spices," I told her. "Leave the business dealings to the businessmen. Okay?"
Legs didn't appear surprised by my statement. With the ease of a child hopping from a piece of furniture, she pushed off from the doorway, and walked out of sight.
Paiden and I watched her leave, and then, using the console, I closed the cockpit's door. No more interruptions. I had business to conduct.
I contacted the next person on my lista balding old Wookiee who also happened to be one of the best mercenaries in the Outer Rim. As his image splashed blue on my holo, I smiled at him, and said, "Gripala, my old friendyou're looking great, as usual."
I explained what I possessed, and after I gave him a chance to absorb that information, I told him, "Here's the deal, Grippy. The information I have here is worth an entire galaxy on its own. But I'm willing to sell it to the highestand most honorablebuyer. You're the first person I've contacted because I can't think of anyone else who better fits that description. So, if you're willing, put down a bid. I'll keep you in mind when all the other bids come in..."
Things were calm for another few hours. The crew finished unloading the spice; I had contacted everyone within my circle about the Death Star blueprints. It turned out to be a productive day.
As nighttime hours loomed, I sat at my desk, checking the last set of bids that had come in from the late afternoon and evening. I had over a dozen offers for the Death Star blueprints. The highest offer was ten thousand, but that was just a starting point. Still, I was a bit disappointed. Fayla the Hutt and several others hadn't bid a thing. Maybe they were waiting for the dust to settle before placing theirs. They were the big-timers, and I knew the real money would be with them.
I was almost ready to switch off my console, fetch my blankets and a pillow from a nearby closet and unfold my sofa into a bed when a message bleeped on my computer. An old Mon Calamari fighter craft was approaching the Tas'reen docking bays I was renting, and it was not requesting authorization to land.
That happened sometimesstupid off-worlders thought they owned the place. With a roll of my eyes, I sent a message to the pilot. "This is Arvis Tasric; that is my Tas'reen docking bay you're trying to bum, my friend. Turn back around, and find your own landing platform somewhere else."
No reply. I waited about five seconds to see if the ship was planning to leave or brew trouble. When it didn't alter course, I contacted my crew, and then grabbed my blaster. That was one thing I wasn't frugal about. It was a DL-44 heavy blaster pistol; Han Solo had one just like it, although I never mentioned that fact to Paiden.
I hurried to the turbolift and ascended. By that point, the Mon Calamari ship would have entered the docking bay, arguing with Legs or another crewmember about no security passes required, and therefore, they had a right to park their ship there. Of course, in the Outer Rim, hardly any docking bays chipped in that extra security as they did in the Core Worlds, so it was a common problem.
That was what I expected. When the turbolift doors parted and I stepped out, what I assumed was happening in the Tas'reen docking bay was definitely not the case. Blaster bolts flashed across the bay; the Mon Calamari vessela typical hybrid of a ship made from various parts like minewas already at work. Its turboblasters were sparking red. Most of my crewPaiden, Legs, and two otherswere underneath my ship's ramp, aimlessly blasting away with their weapons.
As I viewed the chaos before me, my heels whipped back around to the turbolift. The doors had already closed.
"There he is!" a voice shouted.
I didn't get a chance to spin back to the docking bay before blaster bolts hammered into the turbolift doors right by me. With a gasp, I dropped myself to the floor.
"Arvis!" Paiden screamed, barely above the entourage of firepower.
"Help!" I shouted, wiggling away from the turbolift.
The spice cargo was by the back wall. If I could just get behind the boxes
"Arvis Tasric!" the same voice called out againthis time I was certain it came from the Mon Calamari ship. "We're ready to blow your ship, your crew, and you into bantha fodder unless you surrender yourself to us right now!"
Me? Why me? I hadn't done anything.
"Stop crawling and order your crew to cease fire!" the man ordered.
Two of my crew instantly dropped their blasters. Hands flew up in the air.
But that wasn't Legs' reaction.
"Forget it!" she screamed back, and from her blaster rifle, a wave of red splashed across the Mon Calamari's ship. The two surrendering crewmembers were shot down. Watching her, Paiden caught on, and from his E-11 stormtrooper blaster rifle, the docking bay flashed more crimson light.
It wasn't much help, but it was enough. As Legs waved a hand for me to hurry to them, I managed to get off my belly. Like a new-born dewback, I tottered on hands and knees to the underside of my ship's open ramp, and collapsed beside Paiden.
"Are you all right?" my brother asked.
With a gasp, I nodded.
As I un-holstered my own weapon, and set it to its max setting, I asked, "What do these guys want?"
Legs spared a glance at me. "What do you think?" she said as she kept firing. She had picked up one of the fallen crewmembers riflesone for each hand now. "They want those blueprints you acquired earlier today!"
I caught my breath. "But," I replied, "I only contacted my circle of friends."
"Well, they aren't too friendly now," Legs said. "Are you gonna help or what?"
With a shake of my head, I aimed my blaster. Fired. It caught half a meter from one of the turbolasers, causing about as much damage to the hull as a pillow to a human.
As I continued firing, I studied the ship, trying to recall someoneanyoneI knew with its design. After another minute, I exclaimed, "I don't think I know these people!"
"They seem to know you!" Legs came back.
With a groan, she ducked underneath the boarding ramp, and snapped in a new power cell. She glared at me. "Do you have it on you?" she asked. She was referring to the datacard with the blueprints, of course.
Between blastinghalf-aimingand blasting again, I shrugged. "I left it in the shipin the cockpit."
Legs' mouth dropped. "Are you serious? You just left it laying in there?"
"I didn't know this would happen!"
"All rightall right!" Legs shouted, and then flicked an eye towards the enemy ship. "This is what we do," she instructed me and Paiden. "On the count of three, we jump up and start shooting like crazy people at that ship. Just enough time to get up the boarding ramp."
"Our boarding ramp or theirs?" Paiden asked.
Legs set her jaw. "How about you go up theirs and we'll go up ours?"
"No!" I grabbed Paiden's arm. "She means our ramp. Ours, Paiden!"
"Ready?" Legs called as she began firing at the ship again. "On the count of three. Onetwothree!"
We burst forth from the underside of the boarding ramp. Battle cries bellowed from our lips; our blasters heated the air as deadly red bolts erupted from the barrels. The stench of ozone invaded our nostrils. The Mon Calamari ship's turbolasers hesitated.
Up the ramp we darted. Into the ship's corridors. Barreling around a corner, I pressed the ramp's release. Halfway blasted apart by laser-fire, the ramp still managed to lift almost three-fourths up. The shields would have to do the rest.
"Come on!" I shouted to Legs and Paiden, and we bolted towards the cockpit.
The ship jittered from our enemy's blasts; the lights blackened and then started again. We reached the cockpit.
"We need to get out of here," I told them, plunging into the pilot's chair. In the copilot seat, Paiden dropped down and stashed his rifle under the chair.
"Where is it?" Legs called from behind us.
It wasn't so much her words as her tone that caught me. As red sparks splashed the cockpit's exterior, I reeled around to her.
Both blaster rifles were aimed at my face. I frowned.
"Only people you could trust, right?" Legs shook her head. "Well, Arvis, from the blasters aimed at you outside this ship and the ones inside it, you seem to be a very bad judge of character."
I looked her over and replied, "I guess so."
"Where's the datacard?" Legs asked again.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because my master wants it," she explained. "And I plan on delivering it to her."
I motioned my head towards the enemy ship. "So, you're with them, huh? I should have figured."
The woman groaned. "No, Arvis, I'm not," she snapped back. "They're probably from one of your friends, who most certainly put a bounty on your head, and someone's come to collect."
"I noticed your sarcasm when you said 'friend'"
"You don't even know what you have in your possession, do you?"
"Something that makes people want to shoot at me?"
"My master will do far worse than any bounty hunter. She's on her way as we speak, but unfortunately, a New Republic fleet and a pile of Jedi have held her up."
My eyes widened. "A fleet?"
"Yes, a fleet. That's who I'm working forsomeone who could actually do good with those blueprints, but, no...you had to broadcast your discovery to everyone in the Outer Rim! So now, I have to do this all on my own."
The ship swayed with blaster fire. Legs gestured to the ship's controls. "The datacard, Arvis. Which one is it?"
I followed her gesture. On the console rested our heap of junk, and I spotted the datacard Legs wanted. Another quake of enemy firepower; alarms sounded throughout the cockpit.
"Give me that card, Arvis, or we get to die together," Legs insisted.
Slowly, I rotated my chair back to her. "What happens after I give you the datacard?" I asked.
"I'll leave the ship," Legs replied. "I can manage escaping one enemy craft. You'll never see me again."
When she spoke, Legs' face had barely twitched. Barely. But I noticed it, and I knew what it meant. She was lying. She'd kill me and Paiden once she got what she wanted. It would be easier for her that way.
I had to stall. Skipping my gaze around the cockpit, I tried to conjure up something impressive. But as the blaster bolts outside picked apart my ship and Legs' blasters remained hooked on me like the woman was a statue, I licked my lips. "I forgot which one it is," I said.
Legs sucked in a breath as if I tried to slap her.
I lifted my hands in defense. "Look around! We're slobsis it that hard to believe?"
Legs bolted forward. She pressed both blaster barrels against my nostrils, making me look like a Gamorrean. "Give me that datacard now!" Legs screamed.
This is where my brother makes up for his lack of brainpower. As Legs became enraged by me, Paiden wasn't listening to what she was saying. He was waiting for the moment when Legs forgot he was even there, and she was close enough for him to strike.
And strike he did. With both hands, my brother grabbed her blasters' barrels, and heaved them upwards. Red lit up the cockpit's ceiling, and more sirens blared. Legs yelled profanities, but even with his skinny frame, my brother was strong. He ripped one of the blasters away from Legs with the expertise of any old stormtrooper, and then whipped it around with the barrel pointed her direction as she tried to aim the blaster she still possessed.
My brother was faster.
A blaster bolt burned into Legs' chest. She toppled.
On the floor, she remained, the stench of burnt flesh suffocating the air.
Looking at her, I gasped. "Paiden," I said. "That was...that was amazing."
"We need to leave," Paiden replied, and returned to the copilot's seat. Sweeping all the mess from the console, his fingers danced on the controls. The ship hummed as the hyperdrive and engines switched online.
Leaning over, I brushed away the jumble of electronics until I found the datacard. Paiden's datacard.
Another spatter of red, and then a symbol blazed orange on the console.
"Hyperdrive!" Paiden shouted. "It's been hit!"
Gritting my teeth, I exclaimed, "Why is it always the hyperdrive!"
"Go, brother!" Paiden told me. "I'll hold them off here."
I furrowed my brow. "What do you mean?"
"This ship might make it to space," Paiden replied. "If I can get them to follow me, you can escape into the Ryloth passageways. You don't need me for that!"
"No!" I came back. "I'm not letting you die for me!"
Paiden's gaze collided with mine. There wasn't intellect or wisdom in his eyes, but there was plenty of loyalty. And love.
With that, I lifted the datacard. "What about this?"
"Leave it," Paiden replied. "If they find you with it, they'll just kill you and take it. Without it, you can make something up. Tell them it was destroyed with me...which won't even be a lie."
Drooping in my chair, I just shook my head at my brother, not able to fully take in what he was saying to me.
Across the cockpit, another flare of scarlet beams. Another warning siren.
"Go, Arvis!" Paiden shouted. "I've got this!"
Standing, I rested a hand on Paiden's shoulder. "If you manage to survive, brother, go to our rendezvous point. You got that?"
"Go, Arvis! Go now!"
With one more look at my insanely heroic brother, I raced out of the cockpit. Down the corridor, all the way to the exit rampby the time I reached it, Paiden was blasting the crap out of the other ship. The noise of blaster bolts thundered throughout the docking bay like the walls themselves were screaming protests. I dove to my belly and then slithered down the open part of the ramp. The energy shield allowed me to pass and I tumbled into the docking bay. No blaster bolts soared my direction. My brother was keeping the other ship busy, and I rushed away, passed the boxes of spice, and then jammed my finger on the button to the turbolift. I dared one more look at my ship.
It was hovering now, as was the Mon Calamari vessel. Waiting each other out. Then, my ship blasted away from the docking bay, the enemy one pursuing. The turbolift's doors parted and I entered. I descended to my office, where I'd grab a few personals, an extra blaster, and then get out of there.
Inside the lift, the quiet was almost as bad as the noise from the battle just moments before. I reached my level and departed. The turbolift's doors hadn't even closed before I realized I wasn't alone.
Again, I had no chance to hop back into the lift. I couldn't un-holster my weapon. No, the three people in the room already had their blasters targeting me.
With a frown, I raised my hands to my head. "So," I said as one of the men approached and snatched my blaster from my belt. "You thought of everything, didn't you? The docking bay and my office. Very nice."
Sitting on my office desk, the husky Bothan male expressed a puzzled look. That's when I knew; they weren't with the others. This was an entirely new group. They had entered from somewhere else in the Ryloth passageways, and didn't even realize what had transpired in the docking bay above us.
"My name is Rowisk," the Bothan spoke. "There's a twenty thousand credit reward on your headfor you and a datacard. I was told you'd know what I'm referring to. I'm here to collect."
My mouth dropped. "Twenty thousand? I haven't even gotten a bid for more than ten!"
The Bothan shrugged a shoulder, strode from the desk to me, and then pointed his blaster at my chest. "Where's this datacard?" he asked.
"I don't have it anymore."
"That's bad news for you, my friend. Where is it now?"
"Not with me."
With that, the Bothan set his blaster to stun. "Then, you can tell that to Fayla the Hutt. In person."
There was a flash of blue. I'd never been stunned before, but believe me, that sucker stung. I fell unconscious to my office's floor before I could complain.
Okay, so before all you readers form a line and start picketing about ityes, Luke Skywalker is in this story. In fact, he plays a crucial part in it, at its most desperate moments.
But, yeah, I knowI'm not interesting enough for you to wait.
After all, I'm just a simple businessman in the Outer Rim, trying to make a living. Nevermind that I'm being hunted for having information that could change the balance of power in the galaxy. Forget the fact I was just in a horrible blaster fight, where I lost two crewmembersI'll remember their names eventually, I swear!and where another crewmember heartlessly betrayed me. Oh, and that I just witnessed my brother run a suicide mission to save my life, and now I'm in the clutches of an evil bounty hunter, on my way to one of the most ruthless crimelords in the Outer Rim.
Yeah, but we need Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master, to make his appearance, or this story is fodder. Okay, I get ityou want the blue-eyed, shaggy-haired, pretty boy. I've already told you he's not that nice in person, but whatever. I guess you'll just have to judge for yourself.
By the time I woke up from the stun blast, I was tied from my forehead to toenails to one of the back seats on the bounty hunter's ship. The rope was tight and scratchy, and I pondered with a bit of panic what would happen if I needed to pee.
Not that the trip would take that long. We were heading to Fayla the Hutt; she worked out of the planet Arami, and that wasn't too far from Ryloth. As that thought struck, my panic only intensified. Peeing in my trousers didn't seem nearly as dire as it had just a minute before.
It took less than a day to reach Arami and as Rowisk finished peeling away the rope from my body, his two crewmembers already had blasters set between my eyes.
"Don't try anything," he insisted, and we exited the ship.
Inside Fayla the Hutt's lair, I walked, observing the place. The walls were crafted from clay, miniature bronze statues of ancient Hutts protruding from the walls like metallic ghosts. Gamorrean guards were perched at the corners of every corridor, and Twi'lek and Rodian slavesmen and womenwere scattered about the place, and dressed as dancers and waiters.
We passed into Fayla the Hutt's chambers. The two-story structure was layered by more bronze statues, and far too many people, cramped together on platforms and steps. At the center of the room lay Fayla the Hutt. Compared to other Hutts, she was remarkably thin; if I had to guess, perhaps only weighing half a ton or so. That was unusual since Hutts considered heavier weights as a status symbol. I suppose she preferred the ability to drag herself around instead of showing off her wealth. As Rowisk shoved me forward, Fayla began slithering to meet us.
The room possessed bad lightingHutts had better eyes than humans and poor lighting gave them the advantage. Still, the few skylights above allowed me to see Fayla the Hutt's face. Her skin was tan and green with spots on it that resembled large moles if on a human. A beaded headdress crowned her large head. She pointed at me, and spoke something in Huttesse that I barely understood.
"He says he doesn't have it anymore," Rowisk replied. "We searched him and his office. Nothing."
Hutts weren't the most expressive species, but their powerful voices compensated for that. Immediately, a wave of profanities bellowed from the female Hutt's lips.
The Bothan gripped down on my arms, and told me, "She says to tell her where the datacard is, or die."
I shook my head. "It was destroyed."
As the words formed in my throat, an image of my brother crossed my mind. He had died for me, and now I was about to die anyway. The galaxy loved irony, it seemed.
Another spew of words surfaced from Fayla the Hutt's mouth, and Rowisk translated, "She's not happy, Tasric. She says she'll torture you herself if you don't start talking."
"I'm not lying here!" I shouted to him and Fayla. "My brother took the datacard, and then blasted off of Ryloth. The ship exploded. End of story"
"There was no explosion," Rowisk snapped back. "There would have been security crawling all over the place, trying to clean up the debris. There was no debris when we left, unless your brother was on the other side of the planet."
I held my breath. If there was no explosion, then Paiden hadn't been destroyed. He was either captured by the Mon Calamari ship, or...he managed to fix the hyperdrive and escape. Could he be at our rendezvous point?
Fayla barked some orders and waved her hand as if to say, 'follow me.'
We passed the chambers, into a smaller room adjacent to it, and as I surveyed the place, my pulse jump-started. Chains dangled from the ceiling. In the corner was a simple stone stove, pokers sticking out from its opened door. A stench of burnt flesh reeked the air, and as Rowisk tried to shove me forward, I was already trying to back away.
"Wait a second," I said as Fayla pointed to a set of chains that would fit me just perfect. "I'm not lying hereI don't have the blueprints! Torturing me isn't going to make them magically appear!"
This time, Fayla replied and her words were as clear as Basic.
"It will not make you feel better!" I screamed as my arms were raised, the wrists locked into place.
Fayla flipped on the stone stove. It began heating instantly, a bright amber illuminating from its center. I swallowed hard. "I'm a hairy guy, you know," I explained. "Almost as bad as a Wookiee. You'll have the stench of burnt flesh and burnt hair consuming this place. You really want that?"
"We'll deal with it," Rowisk replied.
Fayla played with the pokers, and then removed one from the stove. At its tip was a solid circular metallic disk, already orange from the heat.
"Okay!" I exclaimed. "I don't have the datacard anymore, but my brother still does. Just let me go and I'll contact him, and get you those blueprints myself, all free of charge."
My proclamation didn't slow the Hutt from slinking to me with the branding tool. She barked something, jabbing the air with the poker.
Rowisk translated for her, "Where is your brother now?"
"Just let me go," I replied, "and the blueprints are as good as yours."
"Where is he?" the Bothan insisted.
Sweat layered my brow and just about every other body part. They'd kill him if they found him. Then again, they were about ready to torture me. Fayla lifted the poker to my face; its heat whiffed through the air like a camp fire. It was so close, I had to cross my eyes just to see it correctly.
"Tell us, Arvis," Rowisk ordered.
I didn't want to say itit was against every survivor's instinct I possessed. But as the words shaped my lips, I couldn't stop them. "I can't tell you."
"Oh, yes you can," Rowisk replied.
There was silence; Rowisk moved beside Fayla, facing me. There was a sigh, and then he opened his hand to the Hutt; without a word, she passed him the poker.
"Hey!" I screamed as the poker was lifted to my bare forearms. "Isn't this a little extreme? I mean, it's just a Death Star. Ancient stuff! You can build better with some durasteel plates and a couple blaster canons nowadays."
"Sorry, buddy. This is gonna hurt some."
The poker inched forward, the heat consuming the air between my arm and the metal like someone slowly pressed a needle in my arm. I shut my eyes
With a shout, Rowisk jerked forward. The very tip of the poker flicked across my arm and bounced away. I shouted, snapping open my eyelids. Son of a...!
Dropping the poker, Rowisk grabbed Fayla the Hutt's hand, and they fled the torture room. I inspected my arm. There was a red dot about the size of a fingernail. And it stung something nasty, like the worst sunburn ever. Damn Bothan.
I couldn't think about that. I had to get out of my cuffs, out of that room, and out of Fayla the Hutt's palace before someone remembered me, and decided it was just easier to shoot my sorry behind rather than continue interrogations.
Really good con artists, smugglers and pirates could get out of a pair of handcuffs with the ease of removing bracelets from their wrists. Unfortunately, I didn't possess that skill. So, as another explosion boomed inside Fayla the Hutt's palace, I grabbed a hold of the chains connected to my cuffs and pulled.
Lifting my body off the ground, I rolled my legs upwards until I was an upside-down human ball. With my legs, I thrust all my body weight into the chains.
"Come on!" I shouted as the explosions ceased, and was replaced by blaster fire. And screaming. Yeah, there was definitely a lot of screaming now.
I dared a peek outside the torture room's open doorway. Random Gamorrean guards charged by, releasing horrid snorting battle cries that sounded as if they were ready to burst snot all over their enemies. Twi'leks ran past my line of vision; Rodians made a strange, almost hissing sound as they tried to flee. There were glints of white, and although they had only lasted a heartbeat each, I recognized the shine. Stormtrooper gear. Blaster bolts followed swiftly enough, and there was the sound of bodies smacking floor.
Something else bellowed through Fayla the Hutt's palace. Above the sound of dozens of blasters and the shouts of Fayla's personnel. A womana woman letting out a horrible, shrilling battle cry.
With my arms, I lifted my body upwards, bearing all my weight into the chains and pulled hard. Something rumbled above me. The clay beam holding the chains cracked slightly, mushrooming dust into the air.
With a cough, I put all my weight into it again. Again, the clay beam quaked, and then again. On the third try, the beam cracked all the way.
My back thumped the floor, my arms and legs flopping outwards like they were made of bags of water. My hand caught the tip of the poker still on the ground.
With a yelp, I wrenched my hand awaydamn!and then rolled to my knees. I jumped up from the floor, and raced to the open doorway
Gliding in front of the only exit, a figure blocked all the light from Fayla's main chambers. The torture room became as black as, well...a torture room was already pretty-dark, but this made it ten times worse. Like a cave or a moonless night; you get the point.
The creature was at least as tall as a Wookiee, but its massit wasn't lanky or furry. Although I couldn't see its face or body, I could make out its silhouette, and it wasn't like any I had seen before. Across its bulky torso, there were at least five arms, some with hands, some that ended in a spike-like bony tip.
It possessed no feet; from the knees, the legs parted into three separate limbs, each ending in spikes similar to several of its arms. Behind it, something was swinging...flicking the tiniest bit of light that still managed to seep into the room.
A tail. Like its legs, it was split near the middle into three sections. With each swing, there as a whoosh. Whooshwhoosh, through the air like the appendage was too heavy to be that fast.
And it was fast. And strong. And probably deadly.
I was in some serious trouble.
Of course, I survived this traumatic experience; otherwise, how could I be writing this now? I wanted to point that out in case you were worried.
So there I was, in Fayla the Hutt's torture room. Blaster fire was erupting across the palace like a river from a cracked dam, and in front of me stood this two meter-tall creature with more body parts than three people should possess. It didn't have any weapons, none that I saw, at least. But that didn't mean it couldn't haul me off the ground and rip me apart like an angered rancor to an Ewok.
As blasters continued blasting and people kept on screaming, the creature finally opened its mouth. "Are you Arvis Tasric?" it asked. It was a woman's voice.
I gave her a once-over, and then replied, "No."
"Then I should have no quarrels ripping you to pieces."
"In that case, I meant yes."
She stepped forward, her tail's three ends snapping into place together, creating one solid spear-like tip. I lifted my hands. "I said yes! What more do you want?"
"Where are the blueprints?" she asked, pointing her tail at me as if to strike.
I shook my head. "II don't"
The lunge was so fast, I didn't even realize the woman had me by the neck until I was clear off the floor. From half a meter in the air, I got a good look at her...and really wished I hadn't. Whatever species she had been once was no longer relevant. Her face and body were cloaked from head to...um...feet-spikes, with scales. Resembling bark, they were in no set pattern, like someone had burned them to her skin with their eyes closed. The tiniest bit of skin that was visible between the scales appeared infected and in desperate need of soap.
In her mouth, her teeth were shaved into spikes and appeared to be made from the same horrid bark-like texture. A greenish-ooze was leaking from the tips of her lips, and she seemed as interested in this fact as a four-year-old picking their nose in public. To top it off, it stank. Imagine sulfur and rotting meat stirred together in a pot. Dangling from my neck, I didn't know which issue distressed me more: the fact that I could hardly breathe or the fact that any breath I got was saturated with that.
I tried not to vomit as she shook me.
"I don't have time for games!" she screamed. "My servant told me you possessed the ancient Death Star blueprints. You shall give them to me now!"
Her servantit had to be Legs. She had said her master was a woman and the creature in front of me technically qualified. From Fayla the Hutt's chambers, blasters and screaming gave way to the sound of footfalls. And a humming noise...several hums. The blasting raged on.
The creature wrenched her tail a few centimeters from my face.
"You will give me what I desire!" she screamed.
Coughing, I replied, "I'd love to. I really would. But I'm about to lose consciousness and"
"Do you dare mock me?" Her grip tightened.
"No! I'm just getting ready to die over here, and that makes it sort of difficult to"
She lifted me higher. "I am Empress Chyleal! The future ruler of the galaxy! You will answer me, inferior one!"
Although my vision was blurring, I still managed to cock an eyebrow at her. "Say that again?"
"I am Empress Chylealleader of the Empire Forgotten, set to overthrow the New Republic and restore order to the galaxy!"
Oh, now I got it. An Emperor wannabewell, Empress. It might have been the lack of oxygen or lack of blood-flow to my brain...or perhaps Empress Chyleal's 'I just ate bantha fodder' breath, but as I dangled there, a belt of laughter somehow managed to spill from my lips.
That didn't help my circumstances. Apparently, she took the laughing as more mocking, (which was understandable now that I think about it), and then I was slammed into the ground. My back met floor, and my head bounced on the dusty clay surface like a small metal ball dropped thirty stories onto stone.
My arms flung outwards; I released another yap. That damn poker caught my left wrist again. I retracted my arm back to myself, cupping my right hand to the new burn mark.
"Pile of Hutt slime!"
"You shall answer me now," Chyleal screamed again. "Your Empress demands it!"
"Okay, okay!" I yelled back. "Just stop thrashing me!"
"Your attempts to stall me will fail. The Jedi cannot stop methe New Republic cannot stop mewhat makes you think you're capable?"
"I don't think I'm capable! Believe meI'm the least capable person in the galaxy."
"You will not hinder my quest. The New Republic will crumble, and my Empire will rise through the ashes and rule the galaxy with the iron fist it deserves!"
"Were you ever dropped as a child from a substantial height?"
The world was blackening. That probably wasn't good.
"Tell me where you put the Death Star blueprints!"
From the strangulation and concussion I was experiencing, things became disoriented. Maybe I just didn't care anymore. I couldn't hear anything except my own voice and hers, and I couldn't recall what a good lungful of oxygen felt like. Nonetheless, she had asked me, and as I gazed upon her face with my glazed-over pupils, any trepidation I had possessed flew away like a mynock from an asteroid.
"My brother has them," I declared. "He took them to save me. It seemed like a good idea at the time."
She shook me as if I was falling asleep. "Where is he now?" she asked.
"He's flying my ship to our hidden base. It's the largest mining tower in the deserted regions of Kessendra on Kessel. Thereyou happy now?"
With that, the woman-creature released me. Standing tall, she watched as I began coughing like my throat was cloaked with a gallon of mucus I was trying to hack up. From behind her, the sound of blasters and screams had been drowned out with a humming. It was a familiar hum, like something I had heard in holothrillers, but never in real life.
"You have served your Empress well," Chyleal told me.
"Glad to hear it," I coughed out.
Then, just like a typical 'I am the ruler of life and death', the creature raised her tail. The three joints merged again into one solid spear and pointed at my chest. Then, it chucked downwards
Scared for me, aren't you? It's okay to admit itit's a pretty traumatic situation. There I lay, beaten, tortured, and about ready to meet my end, when a flash of green blazed across my vision.
The humming sound I had heard in the distance was suddenly just millimeters from my face. A neon green lit up the room. Chyleal's tail flailed backwards, smoke fuming from its scales like a hot pan being dowsed with ice water. The appendage didn't break, however. Whatever it was made of, it was strong enough to withstand a lightsaber.
Then a hand snagged my upper arm. "Get up," a man's voice told me.
My feet scrambled to find footing. The man pushed me back, forcing me to stagger to the room's wall. My head thudded into clay and then the beam of green light swung forward.
Chyleal hissed at the intruder, her tail arched over her head and her five arms opened as if waiting for a strike. Her opponent, dressed in a dust-covered chocolate robe, was only half her size. His sandy blond hair was combed back, his saber held steady in his grip like a painter holding a brush.
I didn't have to see his face to know who it was; let's face facts, if you didn't recognize Luke Skywalker the instant you spotted him, then you had spent your entire life in a cave, on a desolate planet, under a gigantic rock with your eyeballs and eardrums removed.
Shock plagued my senses, paralyzing me as I witnessed the battle unfold. Chyleal's tail plummeted downwards. The saber pivoted, and ricocheted the scaly thing a good half meter. Chyleal staggered back a step, her eyes blazing hatred like the things were blasters ready to let loose a couple red beams.
It was Skywalker who attacked next. With his lightsaber, he swung forward with a speed and flow I hadn't seen except on the holonews. The saber danced across the air, striking the creature across an arm, then the torso. Chyleal hollered something awful, but she wasn't cut down. Just like her tail, the thick scales across her body seemed to be protecting her.
Nonetheless, the lightsaber continued to whirl through the torture chamber, catching dangling chains and Chyleal's scaly skin, and sending the stench of burnt ozoneand strangely, wood?into the air. Then the Jedi shouted over his shoulder to me, "Get out of here now!"
I didn't require more incentive. Rolling to my knees, I practically dove out of that room, and into Fayla the Hutt's main chambers. The place was empty now, except dead servants, guards...and Fayla the Hutt. She lay near the back wall, Rowisk beside her. On his burgundy suit, there were at least three blaster burns; to Fayla, a puncture wound pierced her forehead like something had burrowed into her skull. It was about the same size as Chyleal's spear-tail.
From behind me, there was a whoosh, and then the sound of Skywalker's saber as it hummed harmoniously in the air. Deeper into Fayla's palace, I heard people barking orders, but it was too distant to determine who they were. Friends? Enemies? I had no clue. All I knew was that they were getting closer and I would be directly in their path. Standing in the center of the chambers with corpses surrounding me, I hopped nervously in place, trying to figure out where to go, what to do. On one hand, I had a Jedi there, capable of creaming anyone that could attack me, and I certainly didn't want to confront an unfriendly face in the palace. On the other hand, those footfalls were getting louder.
"Uh, Jedi Master," I hollered towards the torture room, "you mind hurrying up in there?"
No replyjust hissing and humming, and no mind to me and my current problem.
I swallowed hard. "I'm not trying to be impatient," I yelled. "It's just that, I think someone's coming and I'm not sure if they're good guys or bad guys, or something in-between, and I think you'd be a much better judge"
I trailed off. In the torture room, all noise stopped. In case you don't know this, abrupt silence in the middle of a battle is always a bad thing. And I was right; from the doorway, a burst of energy exploded. Like a fluke two-second storm, a gust of wind caught my body, knocking me to the floor. At the same instant, Chyleal went flying. Out of the doorway, into the main chambers, she soared through the air like there was a repulsor device mounted to her back, and then crashed into a platform next to Fayla the Hutt's body. And stayed there.
Eyes rolling, I flicked a glance towards the torture room just as Skywalker was racing from its entrance.
"I thought I told you to leave!" he shouted as he charged my direction.
Lightsaber hilt latched onto his belt, Skywalker snatched my right arm and yanked me upwards like I was a two-year-old he was ready to scold. In the same instant, the footfalls I had been hearing shifted from being distant to being very damn close, and then Fayla's main chambers lit up with red sparks.
I barely got a look at the attackerssome masked stormtrooper-looking weirdoes with a strange, re-imagined Imperial symbol on their chests. Why do all these Imperial wannabes go back to the stormtrooper fashion trend? From what my brother has told me, those uniforms were about as helpful in battle as taping pieces of paper to your body and thinking that would stop blaster bolts. The plates are supposed to stop any legal firepower used, but when everyone is sporting illegal heavy blaster pistols that seared right through, then what's the point? And the helmet was a horrible, clunky thing with bad visual range and itchy interior fabric.
At such a close range, Skywalker sent each blaster bolt that soared our way back towards its owner. But there were at least a dozen of those stormtrooper wannabes stuffing the main chambers now, and as Skywalker pulled me behind him, I could hear the footfalls of others charging our way to help their comrades.
With Skywalker tugging at me, I stumbled forward until my feet found flooring, and then fled Fayla's chambers with the Jedi Master. We rushed through the central corridor, passing dead Gamorreans, Twi'leks and another dozen species that I had just seen alive minutes before. Some of the stormtroopers pursued, but Skywalker's lightsaber kept them at bay. Most seemed interested in assisting their fallen empress more than battling us.
As the number of attackers dwindled and Skywalker's grip on me remained like a durasteel wrench, I jerked my arm. "Do you mind?" I said.
He didn't release me. With a groan, I flapped my arm up and down like I was trying to get airborne. Finally, the other man pushed me away, but not before his irritated gaze flashed my direction. "If you want to live through this," he said, "you'll do exactly what I say for the next ten minutes. Do you understand?"
Running beside him, I snorted. "Okaywhatever."
"Do-you-understand-me?" he insisted again, his tone horribly serious.
"I said I did. What more do you wanta urine sample?"
The other man didn't turn back to me, which I didn't mind. I was already sick of his 'I'm a hero of the galaxy; therefore do as I say' drama, anyway. In front of us was the lead entrance to Fayla the Hutt's palace. The large door had been blown right off its hinges, leaving the thick metal slab just laying there. Daylight filled the archway like it was leading us to safety.
From behind, a battle cry bellowed; I recognized it instantly. Chyleal.
"Didn't you kill her?" I shouted at Skywalker.
"It'll take more than a Force push to kill her," he replied.
"Then go back in there!" I snapped back. "Chop her head off or something!"
"There are at least two dozen armed guards around her now. That makes it a little more difficult for me to go back and start chopping."
I released a groan. "Oh, come onI know what you can do! I've seen that holothriller they did about youuh, what's its name again?"
He sighed as if defeated. "Luke Skywalker and the Jedi's Revenge."
"Yeah, that's it. So go back in there and start 'revenging'!"
"Okay, first off, 'revenge' is not a verb. And, second, that holothriller is"
There was another battle cry.
"Forget it," Skywalker muttered, and then his left hand vised around my arm again. He banked right, forcing me along. Into a muggy corridor we darted. The light from the outside switched to that of the dim palace's clay walls, and I groaned.
"This is the wrong way!" I told him. "We need to get out of this place"
Finally, the Jedi did stop. With a slide of his boots, he spun around, and lifted his arms. From behind us, there was a rumble. I whipped around in just enough time to watch the front of the hallway collapse on itself, leaving a pile of debris between us and the central corridor.
"What was that about?" I questioned. "We had practically escaped this place!"
When I turned back to Skywalker to demand an answer, his eyes were already locked my way, his shorter stature not lessening the intensity on his expression. I took a step back.
"I know who you are," he declared. "I know what you were trying to sell. And I know you now have a very dangerous enemy who's determined to take it from you. So from this point on, you'll do what I say without question until we can figure out how to get off this planet."
My mouth dropped. "Figure out? Didn't you come here with a fleet? Dozens of Jedi, waiting for us somewhere close by?"
"The fleet's in orbit, fighting off Chyleal's battle cruisers. I had six other Jedi with me, but they're scattered across the palace, trying to save anyone they can from Chyleal's troopers. And then there's you." He gave a disapproving look, and then started running down the corridor again, just assuming I'd follow.
I told you he was a jerk. With a roll of my eyes, I did the predictable, and raced towards Skywalker as he headed further into the narrow passageway.
As I caught up with the Jedi Master, I asked him how he knew who I was, what I had in my possession (previously had in my possession), and the connection to Chyleal. He explained that a New Republic security force had been tracking the Empire Forgotten for months now.
It started off as a couple Jedi Knights were investigating some leads in the Outer Rim, and when those turned out to be valid, the security force dove into the job. Lucky for them, Chyleal was "not exactly subtle," as Skywalker put it, and her organization wasn't difficult to hunt down. I was wondering why the New Republic had taken such an interest in that region of the Outer Rim.
"About two weeks ago," Skywalker explained as we ran, "there was a lead to Chyleal's whereabouts, and Admiral Nesmah asked that I join her squadron. We were closing in, when, out of nowhere, Chyleal's entire fleet skipped out of the Roon system, and we intercepted a message sent to her from a Twi'lek about Death Star blueprints." His eyes caught mine, and annoyance was radiating from them.
"Okay, fine," I said, gasping for air. "I was slightly naïve in my business affairs this time around. I'm big enough to admit it."
"You were planning on selling the designs to the deadliest weapon in the galaxy."
"And I'm really sorry about that. It was a stupid thing to try, and if I ever get another datacard with an ultimate weapon's blueprints on it, I promise to hand them over to you in person. Just get me out of here aliveokay?"
Although the Jedi was breathing heavily, I still detected a sigh escape his lips. "Where are these blueprints now?" he asked as we whipped around a corner.
The hallway wasn't much of a hallway anymore. It had mutated into a more cave-like tunnel; the walls were moist with water, and only a few dim bulbs illuminated the place.
"My brother has them," I replied as I watched my footing. "If he survived above Ryloth, then he's heading to Kessel."
"It's our rendezvous point, in case a business dealing goes sour. I think we're soured here."
Skywalker made a face.
"What?" I asked.
"Nothing," he said. "I was just thinking that never has one of these situations required a trip to Naboo or Ithor. It's always a place like Kessel."
"I didn't really have you in mind when I arranged my emergency plans."
I waited for a retort, but there was none. Instead, Skywalker paused, slowing his pace; a shadow lingered on his features like an unpleasant realization had struck him.
I stopped running. "What is it?"
"She's not pursuing us," he muttered, his eyes unfocused. "Like she knows something."
Uh-oh. I swallowed hard.
Skywalker faced me. "Does she know? About your brother?"
That knot in my throat just didn't want to go down. I swallowed again. "I was a little disoriented," I explained. "I may have slipped out a few details."
"Oh...the planet's namethe city. The exact mining tower." I smiled uneasily.
Skywalker didn't return the grin. With a hand to my armagainhe lugged me forward. His comlink was going wild just a few seconds later as he explained to Admiral Nesmah about the rendezvous point.
"We're dead locked with her fleet," the admiral replied. "No one on either side is getting away from this fight anytime soon."
"I'll head out now," Skywalker told Admiral Nesmah. "Can you get a shuttle down here to gather up the other Jedi?"
"We'll send one as soon as we get a chance to breathe up here. It might take awhile."
"I'll take the Jade Sabre to Kessel. If I hurry, I might beat her there before she gets a chance to reach Paiden Tasric."
"We'll meet you there as soon as we can. Good luck, Master Skywalker. May the Force be with you."
"And you as well," Skywalker replied, and then shut down his comlink. Tugging me along, we turned another corner
There, in front of us was a docking bay. It might have belonged to Fayla the Hutt, but the place was cramped with bystanders who seemed surprised as we emerged. As we slipped through the last bit of tunnel, I shot a glimpse behind my shoulder. Beside the opening was a door, metallic on one side, and rock on the other as if someone had glued a boulder to a metal plate. Across one of its edges, the metal was charred. A secret passageway; the Jedi had ripped it apart like tearing a piece of bread.
"This way," Skywalker called, and I returned my attention to him.
In the center of the docking bay was a ship with a pointed front end, and not appearing like any design I had seen before. Tailor-made, perhaps?
"This your ship?" I asked.
"My wife's," Skywalker replied. "The Jedi and I used it to land here, and followed the passageway into the palace while Chyleal's troops detonated the front entrance."
We started towards the boarding ramp when my mind caught up with me. I forced my arm away from Skywalker's grip. "Hold on, " I said. "I told you what you needed to know. You don't need me anymore."
Skywalker tilted his head as if perplexed. "We're trying to save your brother."
A shiver jostled up my back. I wasn't sure what it wasworry, guilt, fearsomething unpleasant for certain. The problem was, I wasn't really sure if it was for me...or my brother. Maybe both. Either way, Skywalker was waiting for a reply and I had one ready for him.
"Let's be logical about this," I explained. "I want my brother back, safe and sound, but what can I do that you can't? You're a JediI'm a businessman. I'll tell you anything you need to know, but there's no way I'm going to be able to help you."
"You're not leaving my sight. That means you're coming with me."
"Isn't it un-Jedi of you to put an innocent man in the line of danger?"
"Innocent being the word here." The other man sighed. "I suppose I should just say it, so that way it's completely clear."
I frowned. "What's clear?"
"Arvis Tasric," the Jedi Master proclaimed, "under the laws of the New Republic, I'm placing you under arrest for the solicitation of stolen military records with the purpose of selling it for malicious acts of violence against the government."
"What?" I gaped at him. "We didn't steal anything! We found it"
"Any records pertaining to the Death Star's design are considered classified information by the New Republic, and you have violated the laws protecting them from public use."
He waited for me to say something. Do something. As I stared at the Jedi Master at the bottom of his shuttle's ramp, a wave of certainty washed over me. I was certain there was no way I could argue myself out of this one. Not with a Jedi.
With that, I stepped up the ramp, Skywalker following behind.
"I hate you," I whispered over my shoulder.
"Not as much as you'd like to think you do."
"Okay, thatthat right theremakes me hate you even more."
A moment later, the ramp closed and the ship's engines were being brought online.
We blasted off of Arami, the Jade Sabre soaring across the lower atmosphere before reaching space. As the dull orange sky darkened into blackness and starlight, it was easy to see the mayhem transpiring above the planet, even from the distance Skywalker had put between us and the battle.
Peering out the cockpit's window, I pointed at the ships as they engaged each other. "Just how many are out there?"
"Eight cruisers on our sideMon Calamari, a Dreadnaughta couple old Star Destroyers," Skywalker replied as he set his navi-computer. "And six on hers. Just as random in design and origin."
I shook my head at that. "I don't get it. She thinks she going to destroy the New Republic with six battle cruisers? That's like attacking an army with curse words."
"Having plans to build a new Death Star would certainly aid her cause."
"Can't you just let that one go?"
I grimaced. Skywalker either didn't notice or didn't care about my annoyance. A few seconds later, he pulled back on the hyperdrive controls, and the dots of stars stretched into lines of light, heading towards our destination.
Then he really got to work. On a database console, he researched Kessel, looking up the current weather patterns, oxygen levels, and the designs for the mining tower we would be going to. He studied its blueprints, asking me where my brother would be in the towerwhich I had no clueand then where I should go if things turned south.
After that, he inspected his lightsaberthe hilt, the circuitrythere was a finely cut green crystal in that thing and he examined it from top to bottom, and then plugged the hilt into an outlet in the ship's controls to charge the power cell. He retrieved a blaster from a storage compartment, inspecting it in a similar fashion.
"Here," Skywalker said after he finished. "You'll need this."
He handed it to me. Looking over the weapon, I turned back to the Jedi. "Aren't you afraid I'll turn on you and try to blast my way to safety?"
I meant it as a jokeokay, a half-jokebut Skywalker only nudged his head at the blaster. "The moment you decide to shoot at me with that is the same moment you lose your firing arm. Is that clear?"
"Like an Imperial deflector shield," I muttered, and then holstered the thing. I didn't even know if I wanted to use it now, in case there was a misunderstanding.
By the time we'd finished prepping, we had arrived in the Kessel solar system. As Skywalker had pointed out earlier, Kessel wasn't exactly a top tourist pick for the galaxy. The planet itself had an elongated center, making it slightly deformed. Its surface was no prettier. Although Kessel was habitable, the air was thin, and nothing could grow there. If it weren't for the precious spices underneath the ground, the planet would be as worthless as one-legged trousers. Kessendra was the only semi-populated city on the planet, and even it had its deserted spots.
"Buckle in," Skywalker said. "I'm about to start the landing cycle."
We passed Kessel's thin atmosphere, and descended towards Kessendra.
"I'm reading about nine random vessels on the outskirts of the city," Skywalker explained as he peered down on a small console by the pilot's chair. He pressed a button; the console flashed as if recording something, and then he said, "Take a look. Any of these yours?"
He uploaded the images to the holoproj. I inspected the shipsone was Rodian, two Corellian, but much newer than mine, and a few random craft I couldn't recognize. "None of them," I muttered. "But my brother knows this city. He knows the canyons and underground docking bays. They're farther away, but he could have used those." I sighed. "Or he could have been captured or killed, or who knows what else."
"Or he could be just fine."
My frown lifted slightly; I nodded at the holo. "What about the other ships?"
"They don't match any of Chyleal's known shuttle craft or freighters," Skywalker replied. "But we don't know all the models in her fleet. Perhaps they're just random drifterspeople finding a place to dwell for a short while. Perhaps not."
"That's not very comforting."
"I usually find it best to prepare for the worst and hope I'm wrong."
"Yeah, that's even worse."
"Hopefully, we've beaten her here," Skywalker continued. "If so, we can retrieve your brother and the blueprints, and get you two to a safe location."
"What happens if she is here?" I asked. "What happens then?"
With that, Skywalker turned to me. There was reserve in his expression, like he had dealt with these exact circumstances over and over, and was so used to them, they didn't even affect him anymore. The only exception was a glint of concern; as tiny as it was, I could tell it wasn't for himself. It was for me.
"I'll do whatever I can to protect you," Skywalker replied. "But I need your help to find your brother, and convince him to trust me. Can you do that?"
Okay, I don't want to admit this, but for a brief moment here, Skywalker actually seemed like a decent guy. He was being sincere, and for the first time in my life, someone of importance was asking me to help out. Not only that, but my brother's life could be at stake.
So as Skywalker waited for an answer, I found that I had one to give. "I'll help you," I declared, the words sounding odd even to me. "I owe youand my brotherthat much."
I expected a smile from him. Or a nodnot a regular nod, but one of those nods that's almost a head-bow of respect for another person as they've done something noble. Skywalker didn't do that. Instead, he glanced at the blaster in my holster and frowned. "Just don't try to shoot me afterwards. I wasn't kidding about the arm thing."
Well, I guess the gushy moment couldn't last forever.
I slumped back into my chair as Skywalker found a place to land on the outskirts of Kessendra. Although the planet's oxygen was almost as lousy as a busted space suit's, Kessendra was populated enough to have oxygen expellers. Most buildings possessed them, and they were scattered around like streetlights in a regular city. Even the deserted outskirts had them from years ago, when Kessendra used slaves to mine the spices. That was over now, so the mining towers were empty, but the expellers still remained.
"This way," I told Skywalker as we exited the Jade Sabre's boarding ramp.
Down the streets, there was only the venting of oxygen from the expeller pipes that stood twenty meters in the air, and that empty humming you get in your ears when there's no real noise to speak of.
Skywalker followed me. The Eastern side's mining tower was already in sight down the street; the structure was made from metal rods and lots of brown, ugly Kessel dirt. It resembled a tall lump of dung as far as I was concerned, but it had a strong foundation. Even decades old with barely any maintenance, the structure appeared solid enough to land a cruiser on it.
We started towards the mining tower when one of Skywalker's hands shot out, snagging me by the back of my collar. I jerked around, about ready to explain all the reasons why dragging me by my collar, arm, leg or whatever, was completely unnecessary. When I spotted the look in Skywalker's eyes, however, my body froze.
"What is it?" I whispered.
With his left hand, Skywalker retrieved his lightsaber from his belt. "You remember my philosophy on hoping for the best?"
"And preparing for the worst?"
"Those ships we spotted from the atmospherethey aren't drifters."
The instant Skywalker's declaration registered in my head was the same instant a wild flare of red beams rained upon us from the surrounding buildings. Shoving me to the ground, Skywalker's left hand stretched into a stream of green light. Then he went into full Jedi-mode.
I had experienced a preview of Skywalker's saber-slashing in Fayla the Hutt's chambers against Chyleal. I had been too busy trying not to get killed to really pay it much mind. But in the open with sparks of red showering down, all I could do was watch.
The Jedi deflected each shot that flew our direction. In his grasp, the lightsaber spun about like it was a living thing, dancing around Skywalker's body as it pivoted and circled through the air. It leapt from his left hand to his right, catching a blaster bolt as it passed in-between the two. Some shots were lost into the empty crevices of the streets, burning holes into the clay structures around us.
Most, however, flew back the same direction they had sprung. From inside a building, someone screamed. Another blast of red soared upwards into an open window; a body dropped from three stories up. The shooting slowed until finally, the remaining attackers seemed to get the hint.
As the blasting halted, Skywalker stood with his saber still glowing. He peered upwards at the buildings, and called out, "Drop your weapons and show yourselves. Now."
Silence was the only reply.
Gingerly, I peeled myself from the street and dusted off my pants. Standing beside Skywalker, I shouted to the attackers, "You might as well give up now. Do you know who this is? It's Luke Skywalker. You know, the Jedi?"
Just more silence.
"I didn't want to scare any of you," I continued, "but do you know what a Jedi can do? They can move things with their minds. See through walls. Fly through the air like a speeder. I'm not kiddingI've seen it myself."
Skywalker arched an eyebrow at me.
I stepped forward. "And this Jedi right herehe's just dying to charge after you and slice you to pieces. You can be delivered back to Chyleal in storage bags unless you give up."
"Okay, that's enough," Skywalker said to me, and then called to the attackers, "No one else has to die here today. Put your weapons down and come out where I can see you. I won't harm you if you surrender now."
Inside one of the buildings, something stirred. Then, from a window, a green head appeared; I released a gasp.
"Tephro?" I called to the Rodian. "What are you doing up there?"
Skywalker's face wrinkled with confusion.
"Where is it, Arvis?" Tephro shouted, ducking his hand down as if waiting for me or Skywalker to shoot at him.
As his words sunk in, I gaped upwards. "You, too?" I asked.
"I want those blueprints, Arvis," the Rodian shouted again.
From another window, there was a grumble-roar. A Wookiee popped his head out, pointing to his blaster and then me. It was Gripala; I inched closer to Skywalker.
"Who are these people?" Skywalker asked.
"Old acquaintances," I replied.
"Are they with Chyleal?"
"I don't think so."
"Then how did they know you'd be here?"
"Because he can't keep his mouth shut!" Tephro shouted back, clearly overhearing us. "We all know about this place. We've been waiting for him for the last two days!"
Skywalker shot a look at me. Warily, I smiled back.
From above us, something rumbled. Glancing up into Kessel's hazy, blackish-orange skyline, I spotted a shuttle descending from the clouds. It was heading our direction. Another old colleague? This was just getting better and better.
"We have you surrounded, Jedi, so drop your laser-weapon, and put your hands into the air!" Tephro shouted. Gripala added a bark-holler in support. A few others who hadn't showed themselves bellowed from inside the buildings. Had to be at least twenty different people in there.
The shuttle that was descending on our position plunged towards the street. Banking to the right, it soared to the mining tower, and on its rooftop, it landed. My heart sank into my intestines.
Skywalker didn't pay it any attention. Instead, he surveyed the street. His fingers curled tightly to his lightsaber hilt as if waiting for another wave of blaster fire to downpour on us again. Across my brow, sweat beaded. It was a stand-off, and the enemy had the high ground. The high ground always won.
I supposed Skywalker figured that out as well. With a push of a button, the green glow of his saber dropped back into its hilt like a frightened rodent jumping into a hole in the ground. A shiver rushed up my back.
"Say nothing," Skywalker told me, and then turned to the buildings. "All right," he called to the attackers. "There's no need for this. I'm sure we can come to a reasonable solution."
"Give us the blueprints or die," Tephro shouted.
"Give us your promise not to kill us," Skywalker replied, "and they're yours."
I flicked my gaze between Skywalker and Tephro. "What are you?"
Like an invisible hand was clasping down, my lips were forced shut. I backed off, trying to pry them apart. They wouldn't budge.
"Do we have a deal?" Skywalker asked.
There was a pause, and then Tephro asked, "Where are the blueprints?"
"Right here," Skywalker replied. From the back of his belt, he pulled an extra power supply to his lightsaber. It was clearly a power cell. Anyone with half a functioning eyeball could see it was a power cell and not a datacard. What in the worlds...
"This is the datacard you're looking for," Skywalker said, his voice containing a strange, almost rhythmic tone. It bounced in my mind like a pebble skipping across a lake.
Tephro peered out the open window. "That's the datacard I'm looking for."
"It's disguised. To protect it."
"It's disguised to protect it."
"You want the datacard, right?"
"I want the datacard."
"Come and get it." Skywalker dropped it to the ground. In the same instance, he snaked his fingers around my upper arm, and we charged down the street. A few blaster bolts flew our direction, but they were scarce. Tephro and the others weren't interested in us anymore. It was the datacard with the Death Star blueprints that Skywalker had just left, laying in the middle of the street.
As my lips regained the ability to separate, I tried to rip my arm away from Skywalker. "What are you doing?" I shouted. "How could you just leave the blueprints in the middle of the street?"
"Those were not the blueprints," Skywalker said, his voice echoing in my brain.
It was that voice...his voice. It was like listening to someone you had trusted for years telling you a truth that, for a moment, felt so obvious, you'd be a fool not to believe it.
I shook my head. As my brain cleared, a ball of rage swelled in my stomach. Damn Jedi mind tricks! "You know, that's a horrible thing to do to somebody!" I shouted.
"It's better than being shot."
A realization surfaced, and I slowed down. "Wait a secondI thought those mind tricks only worked on the weak-minded."
Skywalker just kept on running.
With that, I clenched my jaw and caught up. "Nice. Really nice."
"If it's consolation, I wasn't trying to trick you. Just them."
He nudged his head back. In the center of the street, a pack of my old colleagues were blasting at each other, trying to snatch up the useless power cell Skywalker had left behind. Gripala held it in his handshe stared at it as if his Wookiee brain couldn't figure out what it was seeing.
"How long do those mind tricks last?" I asked.
"It depends on the person," Skywalker replied. "Some of them are already snapping out of it. Others...they'll fight to the death for that power cell."
We raced down the street. From behind, some of my old 'friends' had recovered, and were charging after us. Skywalker's lightsaber was already lit, flicking away the stray blaster bolts that soared towards our backsides. His face was masked in concentration, but there was something else. Like he realized something I hadn't, and that something wasn't pleasant.
"Okay, what now?" I asked.
"She's here," Skywalker muttered, his gaze gliding its way from the bottom of the mining tower to its top, where the shuttle was now resting, its engines quiet.
I gritted my teeth. "Damn," I muttered. "Can't anything in this galaxy be easy?"
So, let's recapbad guys are shooting at us from the streets. A huge scaly woman with deadly appendages and bad breath is already lurking inside the mining tower, hunting for my brother, who we don't even know made it to Kessel. Skywalker and I are alone, facing down both parties with one lightsaber and a blaster not nearly as nice as the one I bought myself for my birthday last year...
Within a few minutes and more blaster bolts targeting our behinds, we charged into the two-meter tall wooden doors of the mining tower. I took the left one; Skywalker took the right, and together, we lugged the doors closed.
"There's no lock," I muttered, but Skywalker was already on it.
With his Force-powers, he lifted a pile of rubble people had left inside the condemned building. It hovered in the air like a friggin' freighter above a landing pad, and then he dropped it down in front of the doorwaya big pile of metal scraps and wooden beams. It wasn't pretty, but it got the job done.
There were no windows on the first levelone good thing.
"That should hold them for awhile," Skywalker said and then peered upwards.
I followed his stare. The mining tower wasn't really much to look at; from the inside, it resembled a hollowed out cone. Small windowsjust big enough for someone to point a blaster rifle out oflittered the upper levels of the stairway as the steps circled around the structure. They were look-outs; slaves had a bad tendency to flee their captors when Kessel was still using forced labor, so the mining tower was designed to keep track of Kessendra's outskirts.
The only exception to that barren structure were a few crevicessome sleeping quarters built into the stairwell and the upper levels, along with look-out spots, and then one command station on the roof. The tower wasn't much of a hiding place, now that I thought of it.
Fear jabbed my gut. "He's not here," I muttered. "Gripala or Tephro would have found him already, or he's hiding somewhere else entirely. Or..." the words stuck in my throat like slime.
From the ceiling, there were footfallsmassive footfallsand the clay structure protested like it was too weak to hold the weight. Dust burst into the air. From behind us, the front door started to go bang-bang-bang. A blaster bolt thudded into the wood, but wasn't able to break all the way through.
Skywalker didn't avert his gaze from the upper levels. "Someone's here," he whispered. "Up therewith Chyleal. Frightenedconfused. Hidden."
"Where exactly?" I asked, scanning around as if my brother would jump out to say hi. "Is she close to him? Can he get away?"
"We need to go," Skywalker insisted and grabbed my arm.
We raced up the stairs. The first twenty I aced with no problemabout thirty steps in, I was feeling the burn. Eighty steps, my legs ached with each lift of my foot. Ninety stepsa hundred. A hundred and fiftyI was ready to die. In front of me, Skywalker was jumping two steps at a time, and I realized then, that I hated this man more now than I ever had. Was he even sweating?
From below us, the doorway finally caved. Gripala, Tephro, and a few others skipped their gaze around the place as if they were trying to find us mounted on the wall. It didn't take them long to spot us.
Slowing his stride (for the first time in, like, two hundred steps), Skywalker ignited his lightsaber. In the dim tower, the bright neon almost burned my pupils and I dropped to my hands and knees to take cover.
From below, the blasts soared towards us like a herd of hungry wampas.
"Stay behind me!" Skywalker shouted.
As Skywalker remained between me and our attackers, we edged upwards with the speed of a dying womprat. I crawled on my belly, keeping as close to the floor as humanly possible. Another twenty steps inched by; another sixty. Tephro and the others were on the steps below us, closing our distances much faster than I would have liked. By step three hundred and 'I really shouldn't have eaten that extra bowl of Tatooinian bean soup Skywalker had on his ship,' two of our attackers had been shot down with deflected blaster shots, but that wasn't enough to discourage the rest of them.
Above, there was a twinge of light. I heard a shrilling, like something monstrous cursing into the sky.
"Skywalker!" I shouted. "Can you sense him? Where's my brother?"
"She's close to him," Skywalker replied. "She knows he's thereshe can smell him."
I wrinkled my nose. "Well, he's not exactly the cleanest fellow."
"It's not thatshe can smell us, too."
"Now that's gross."
"She's ready for us, so stay alert. It's going to get a little chaotic."
I flicked a glance around the tower. "Yeah, because we've just been cruising along 'til now. Mind if I take a nap since I'm already curled up in a fetal position down here?"
Skywalker managed a one-second glare my direction before he went back to the fight. Belly-to-steps, I surveyed what Skywalker considered the prelude to 'chaotic.' Below, there was an entourage of ticked-off nerf-herders with trigger-happy blaster fingers. Above us, a crazed monster-woman. The decision I came to was surprisingly simple. Especially when I considered where my brother was.
"Arvis!" Skywalker shouted, but I was already in my moment.
Snapping to my feet, I un-holstered my blaster. From my mouth, a scream rang through the tower. Not just any scream. It was one of determination and strength. It roared from the depths of my stomach to the tips of my lips, and as that battle cry echoed off the walls of the mining tower, I squeezed down on my trigger.
Red bolts splashed into the stairs below us. The brilliant crimson light illuminated the dark building as much as the lightsaber beside me, and then I was charging upwards. Two steps at a time, I rushed through the final bit of stairs as Skywalker yelled at me to halt.
I couldn't. I wouldn't.
Nothing would stop me. My brother needed help, and it was my turn to play hero.
Then, at the top of the steps, Chyleal's tail walloped me in the head.
Blaster slipping from my grasp, I was barely aware of what was happening. Skywalker shouted my name; I felt myself being dragged the rest of the way to the rooftop. A massive door between the tower's interior and the roof closed with a thump. I felt the vibration of footsteps from Chyleal's spike-like feet, and could smell the hint of rotting carcass on her breath.
"My servant," Chyleal spoke, her voice almost harmonious. "You've returned to me."
Half-conscious, I found myself dangling head-first off the mining tower's edge. Below, the barren wasteland of Kessel seared into my eyes. Holding me with her scaly tail ribboned around my right ankle, Chyleal hissed.
"Call to him," she barked. "Order him to surrender to me, or I will release you to the world below."
Rolling my eyes in my head, I focused on the rooftop. Chyleal's shuttle filled most of it; the shiny, silver craft was only big enough for one person, and appeared far too pretty for someone like her. Behind that, however, was the durasteel doorway she had barricaded. If Skywalker was behind it, he wasn't making much of an effort to get through.
It wasn't Skywalker she was referring to, however. On the other side of the platform was another doorway, just as sturdy as the one keeping Skywalker out. The tower's central command post. Already, it was dented and charred from where Chyleal had clearly tried to break it apart to get to whoever was inside.
"Call to himnow!" Chyleal shrilled. "Tell him to come out of there, or I will end you!"
Even upside down, I managed to frown at the woman-creature. "What's the point?" I asked. "You'll just kill me anyway."
"By the time I'm finished with you, you'll beg for death. I am Empress Chyleal, future ruler of the galaxy, and I demand that you obey me. Now!"
It was like a punchline to a bad joke. I mean, I had heard of these Emperor wannabes, but to see one up-close and personala little too up-close and personalI had to wonder how Skywalker and the rest of the New Republic didn't go nuts dealing with them over and over again.
My vision was getting blurry; I rolled my eyes at Chyleal. "Forget it."
"Are your earsdrums covered with scales, too? I said no."
From the door behind Chyleal, a small hint of yellow began to simmer in its center, like something was burning its way through. Skywalker and that lightsaber of his.
"I will kill you today," she proclaimed. "It will be a slow, horrid death that you can't imagine. If your brother comes out now, it will be swift."
"Seethat's my point," I replied. "Telling someone you'll kill them no matter what is a bad motivator. Offer me riches...or at least tell me you'll spare my lifeeven if you're lying."
"I will spare your life if you tell him to come out."
"Well, that won't work nowI already know you're planning to kill me."
Fury masked her face like a veil of fire. "Tell him to come out!"
In the air, there was the tiniest hint of humming; in the center of the doorway, the small twinge of yellow was brightening to orange. Chyleal was too busy torturing me to notice. Her tail tightened like a dianoga's tentacle around my ankle. My body was going numb.
The woman creature screamed, "Do as I command, servant!"
"Go kiss a Wookiee," I snapped back, and then considered. "I mean, if I had a Wookiee for you to kiss. I don't, but there's one downstairs...if he hasn't been killed already. But I guess you could kiss a dead Wookieeit still counts, right?" It dawned on me that I was losing consciousness. "What was I saying?"
From the durasteel door behind us, there was a crash. Although I could barely comprehend anything more than the fact that I really wasn't comprehending much of anything, I spotted the glow of green from Skywalker's lightsaber.
Chyleal shrilled, and she lost interest with me. Her tail loosened.
"No!" Skywalker shouted.
Everything happened within milliseconds. From Skywalker's hands, the lightsaber whirled. Chyleal screamed, her torso fuming from the saber's hot blade; her tail flicked towards Skywalker. He almost dodged it. The very tip caught his left temple. Then, the rooftop disappeared from my line of vision as I plunged downwards.
There was a snap, like someone cutting a chain with a vibroblade. Something caught my ankle; I stopped falling. A sharp pain shot through my lower leg and foot, and I peeked up at my legs. Across my right ankle, one the tower's metal support cords had wrapped around like an invisible hand had tied it.
Above me, I barely made out Skywalker as he peered over the ledge.
"You all right?" he asked, his voice muffled like the volume had been lowered to bass.
My eyes fluttered; darkness began consuming me. Then someone touched my foot.
"Stay awake," Skywalker ordered, his voice bouncing in my skull. "You need to stay awake."
"I need to stay awake," I repeated. Immediately, my head began to clear.
Skywalker was now sporting a streak of blood down the left side of his face. From behind him, Chyleal released another scream. There was the sound of Tephro shouting in the distance, along with another small group of men.
Skywalker flicked his gaze between the tower and me, and then said, "Keep quiet."
Then, he was off.
Within a half minute, blasters boomed across the mining tower's rooftop. Skywalker's saber hummed, the pitch shifting with each swing. Chyleal hissed at him; my old acquaintances cursed at him, but the humming didn't quiet.
Then Skywalker flashed into my line of sight, and twirled his lightsaber like it was a wild creature that he was attempting to tame. Just as swiftly, he was gone. I heard Tephro yelp; I heard a body fall. The blaster fire ceased and then there was that hum.
I waited. A second blinked by and then another. No one was talkingno one was doing anything. My ankle was getting sore, my head was filling with blood, and a headache throbbed my temples.
A whoosh invaded the air. Chyleal's tail went wild on the rooftop, crashing into the flooring like she was attempting to destroy the entire building. Then silence. No tail. No lightsaber.
Across my ankles, the cording was losing its hold, and I tossed a look downwards. Kessel really was an ugly planet. Skywalker was rightI should have found a base on a nicer world like Naboo.
The cording released. My body tensed; I cupped my hands to my face, and waited for the inevitable. In that instant, however, I realized I wasn't falling. Lifting my head, I dared to peep out between my fingers. Skywalker stood by the rooftop's ledge. One hand outstretched my direction, he held his gaze. There was serenity in his expressionthis bizarre Jedi calm that looked so foreign in the midst of a battle. From behind him, I spotted Chyleal. Her tail hurled downwards at the Jedi.
I screamed, but not for Skywalker. With his extended arm, the Jedi Master motioned upwards, and then, I shot into the air like a proton torpedo. Skywalker had already spun around to his opponent by the time I landed on the rooftop.
If the Jedi softened my landing, I couldn't tell. With a thump, I dropped chin-first into the clay structure, a mound of dust and debris bellowing into the air. I coughed.
"Take cover!" Skywalker shouted at me.
With a whimper, I rolled from my belly to my back, trying to figure out how to get my legs to function. My body felt as useless as a blaster missing its power cell, and as I angled my head around, I observed the scene in front of me.
By the destroyed blastdoor Skywalker had busted through, lay Tephro and one other acquaintance, their blasters by their sides. If anyone else had followed them up there, they had retreated.
Between the door and me, Skywalker and Chyleal fought it out. Crouched over, Chyleal's tail was arched above her head. Her five arms were extended; her face was warped with a fury that made her infected skin appear ten times redder.
I expected her to lash her tail at Skywalker. I expected him to deflect it. I waited for them to circle each other like it was a dance rather than a fight, until one attacked the other, and the battle would repeat again.
That didn't happen. Consumed by rage, Chyleal snapped out one of her hands. It clasped around Skywalker's lightsaber blade. The scales sizzled. Smoke whiffed into the air; the stench of burning flesh invaded my nostrils, but the woman didn't release her hold.
Skywalker tried to get his lightsaber back. The instant Chyleal grabbed the blade, he reeled around. He booted her square in the face. Her head wrenched back, but when she returned her gaze to the Jedi, there was something else on it. A smile.
Skywalker was barely able to extinguish his lightsaber before the woman jumped. It was a small jump, something you'd imagine from a bantha. But, just like a bantha, it didn't need to be high to be powerful. With all her weight, the woman crashed down on top of Skywalker.
The Jedi toppled, his head smacking the floor. A groan escaped his lips. In his right palm, he gripped to his lightsaber, but one of Chyleal's hands pinned his wrist to the floor. Her other limbsthe others snapped down at him.
Her tail speared the rooftop's clay flooring, barely missing Skywalker as he jerked his head out of the way. On the ground, he struggled, putting his entire body into the fight. One of Chyleal's arms plunged downwards, but with Skywalker refusing to be a stationary target, her aim was sloppy. She pierced into the flooring beside Skywalker's torso, and then heaved her arm upwards again.
From Chyleal's lips, a sludge of greenish-brown ooze drooled downwards. It slimed Skywalker across the chest and neck, and although the Jedi kept his focus on not getting killed, I could detect the slightest bit of disgust on his expression.
Chyleal leaned closer to him. "This is where it ends for you," she declared. "The great Jedi Master of the New Republic, brought to his demise by the galaxy's future empress."
It was only a half-second, but Skywalker managed to flick a glance my direction. In that time, I caught the expression on his features and understood what it meant. Is she serious?
Then something shifted. It's hard for me to describe the shift; it was like the air changed course, the temperature roseeven the stench of flesh and ozone in the air swayed and mixed, creating a new smell altogether.
As Skywalker stared at Chyleal, his eyes burned with intensity.
I covered my head.
Across the rooftop, everything except Skywalker and me burst into the air. The corpses, the door fragments, weapons...Chyleal's ship. And, of course, Chyleal. She went airborne like a detonator exploded underneath her stomach. Retracting his legs to his chest, Skywalker thrust them upwards; with one smooth motion, he was back into a standing position.
As Chyleal's ship crashed to Kessel's surface, Chyleal plummeted. Her arms, legs and tail flailed in mid-air. She screamed, and it sounded more like a five-year-old human with an especially whiney voice than a powerful empress.
With the exception of a few small items like a blaster or two, a chunk of the door, and a corpse, the rest of the debris dropped away from us and the rooftop. I sighed with relief as Chyleal followed it. I waited to hear the thud of her body on Kessel's unforgiving ground, but instead, there was another sound. Like skin sliding down metal.
With a frown, I shot a peek at the broken support cord beside me. It was tightened, bearing weight.
"Ah, nuts," I muttered as Skywalker shouted for me to back off.
Chyleal might have dropped a story or two, but she was fast. She was strong. And it took her no time at all to leap back to the rooftop from the metal cording she had managed to grasp onto.
Unfortunately, another thing that took no time, either...was grabbing me by the back of the neck and lifting me like a protocol droid into the air.
"Back away, Jedi," Chyleal hissed.
Skywalker already had his lightsaber ignited, but when he attempted to extinguish the weapon, Chyleal was already shaking her head.
"That won't be enough," she said. "Turn it back on."
Skywalker cocked an eyebrow. "You want it on?"
A glint of confusion masked the Jedi's face, but he did as instructed.
"Good," Chyleal replied. "Nowcut off your hands."
"What?" Skywalker exclaimed.
"Do it!" Chyleal hollered, and shook me. "Start with the right one, and move on from there."
"I'm not going to cut off my hands."
"Do it or he dies!"
She shook me again, harder this time. As insane as she sounded, the woman was serious. She wanted Skywalker to slice off his own limbs, clearly making him too injured to fight. She would kill me if he didn't do as ordered, and as I watched Skywalker with his ignited lightsaber, I spotted something on his face. He was considering it. It probably wasn't a serious thoughtafter all, the second he couldn't fight anymore was the second Chyleal would kill him and then toss my sorry butt off the mining tower. He knew this as well as I did. But, somewhere beyond the logic, his brain was roaming with the idea. He would do it, if he truly believed that would save us.
As that thought coursed my mind, I realized my life really wasn't where it needed to be. Looking beyond the whole 'I'm about to die a horrible death' issue at the moment, I was surprised how depressing the thought of my existence was to me. I hadn't done one thing of value. At least as a stormtrooper, my brother had fought for something he believed in, even if he was misguided.
"You will do as I command!" Chyleal screamed, her fingers digging into my skin. "I am your ruleryou are my servant, Jedi! You will remove your hands, and then surrender your lightsaber."
She'd only want the lightsaber for one thingto break apart the door still protecting my brother.
As I felt the psychotic monster-woman burrow her claws into my neck, I realized that I was going to die that day. My brother would as wellmaybe Skywalker, too, if he was dumb enough to keep trying to rescue us. As I dangled from Chyleal's grasp like a piece of dead meat on a hook, I made a decision. I'd rather die a hero than a coward. As she shook me again and commanded Skywalker to slice off his hands like commanding a droid to remove a bad circuit, a belt of laughter spewed from my lips.
Immediately, I got a reaction. Jerking me closer, Chyleal looked me over. "What are you laughing at?"
"I'm sorry," I coughed out. "It's just...it's just the whole thing."
She frowned. "What? What thing are you referring to?"
"Oh, come on," I exclaimed, "you know what I'm talking about."
It probably wasn't the words, but the casual tone I was using that annoyed her. Okay, maybe both, but as she spun me around to face her, her eyes blazed hatred. "You will stop speaking in riddles and answer me!"
"It's just that...it's so," I sighed, "unoriginal."
She inched me closer to her, but the anger had shifted to curiosity. "What does that mean?" she asked.
Dangling from my neck, I still opened one of my arms outwards in understanding. "Okay, I get what you're trying to do here. You've obviously put a lot into this whole act. The modifications to your bodythe scales"
"Zillo armor," she corrected me, "from a fossiled reptilian corpse on Malastare."
"Okay, fine," I replied, "but seriouslyhow many times has there been an admiral or Sith or warlord...or just some crazy personthat has decided that they're the ones that will conquer the galaxy and declare themselves ruler?"
Her perplexed look deepened.
Turned around, I didn't know where Skywalker was or if he even understood what I was doing. Nonetheless, I needed to keep it up. "Look," I explained, "Palpatine had a good run. Twenty years for an evil Empire is actually pretty impressive when everyone hates you.
"But after that, you had Ysanne Isard. And then there was Warlord Zsinj. Then Grand Admiral Thrawnabout the only one who actually posed a serious threat with those clone cylinders and that crazy Jedi Master of his.
"Then, things started to go downhill. There was the reborn Emperorwhich never even made sense to me. I meanseriouslyif the Emperor could make clones of himself and transfer his spirit into them, why would he just sit and decay in that nasty body through his first reign? Was it too expensive for the leader of the Galactic Empire? Was he just procrastinating?"
The woman made a face, but didn't thrash me to pieces.
So, not being thrashed to pieces, I continued, "And don't forget about Admiral Daala, who slept her way into being a Grand Admiral. She even had a Death Star prototype, and still got her butt kicked in. And then there was the Eye of Palpatine, the Empire RebornDarksaber! Yes, let's be all evil by naming our ultimate killing machine after a Jedi weapon, but let's replace the word 'light' with 'dark.' Oooh! I'm shaking over here."
"What's your point?" Chyleal asked.
My neck was throbbing. I couldn't hear anything except my own voice and hers anymore. Nonetheless, she had asked me, and as I gazed upon her face, I decided to just say it.
"You're a cliché," I declared. "Your motives, your goalsyour strange confidence that, despite the fact a thousand Emperor wannabes have tried the same thing you're doing, you will be the ultimate victor. It's been done already."
I couldn't really see her face anymore, but her breaths had shallowed. There was a moment of silence, either because I had lost consciousness due to the lack of oxygen or she was just being quiet.
Then her voice entered my ears, which gave me the impression I was still awake.
"I am an Empress," she declared. "Not an Emperor. Em-pur-ess."
"Oh, I beg your pardon."
A flash of red. It soared between Chyleal and me, and as another one came flying to Chyleal's wrist, her hand gave way. I dropped, my butt crashing into the rooftop dead-on like there was a magnet between it and my tailbone. With a groan, I flopped sideways onto the clay surface.
Another blaster bolt soared towards Chyleal, and then another. In front of me, Skywalker stood, Tephro's blaster rifle in his grasp. The red beams flew to their target; behind me, Chyleal screamed, her body teetering on the rooftop's ledge.
Then, a blaster bolt struck dead-center into her chest.
It would have been enough for any other humanoid. But the scales seemed to protect Chyleal's body from blaster fire as well as lightsabers, and as she gripped down on the ledge behind her, her balance began to recover.
My gaze spun back to Skywalker. The blaster in his right handhis lightsaber simmered in his left. There was no hesitation. With one swing, he pitched his saber. It whirled through the air. To Chyleal's head it struck, and the power in that one attack snapped her head back. The blade didn't penetrate the skinit couldn't. But that wasn't Skywalker's intention. The impact was enough to finish what the blaster couldn't.
Over the rooftop's edge, she toppled.
There was a clank from the support cord again.
I was about to scream at Skywalker to slice through the metal when one more blaster bolt echoed through the roof. As the red beam crashed into the thin metal cord, the metal split apart. From over the rooftop's ledge, there was a scream. Seconds later, I heard as Chyleal's body slammed into Kessel's surface. Then there was nothing.
Laying on the ground, I sucked in a breath, waiting. I didn't really know what forfor Chyleal to magically appear again and rip me and Skywalker apartfor Skywalker to vise his hand around my arm again and drag me around like a dead tauntaun as he had been doing during our entire ordeal.
None of that occurred. As I finally twisted my head around, I found Skywalker crouched down by my side. "You all right?" he asked.
I released the breath I was holding. "Is it over?" I asked. "Please say yes. Even if you're lying, just say the words. I need to hear them."
Skywalker grinned. "She's gone. Even with all that armor, she didn't survive the impact."
"Thank the Force, and whatever else you Jedi believe in."
Above us, a rumble resonated in Kessel's clouds. I might have thought it was thunder, except that Kessel was too crappy a planet to get rain. My heart pounded into my ribcage. "Oh, nonono!" I shouted, watching over two dozen shuttles and fighter craft enter the atmosphere. "I don't even know this many people!"
I threw a glance to Skywalker. Amusement shimmered in his eyes; from his belt, there was a beep. Retrieving his comlink, he said, "Admiral Nesmah. How are you doing up there?"
"Master Skywalker," the admiral replied. "I'm relieved to hear your voice. I take it you're safe?"
"The mining tower is secure," Skywalker replied. "We're on the rooftop."
"I'll instruct one of the shuttles to pick you up, and take you to your ship. I'm sorry for the delay in getting here. The Empire Forgotten put up a stronger fight than we anticipated."
"That's all right."
At that, a jab of anger speared my gut. Snapping up, I snatched Skywalker's comlink from him. "It's not all right!" I screamed into the device. "Do you have any idea what we just went through? A dozen people shooting at usa large tail! Bad breath! I almost died five times in thirty minutes! That sure as hell wouldn't be all right if it was you!"
"Who is this?"
Skywalker reclaimed his comlink. "It's Arvis Tasric," Skywalker replied. "The man who was trying to sell the Death Star blueprints."
"Ah, I see. Well, Master Skywalker, please tell Mr. Tasric that we have a room all ready for his arrival. It's called Cell Block C-1-5." The comlink fizzled out.
I set my jaw, and to Skywalker, I said, "Isn't it amazing how the reinforcements come along about ten seconds after you need them?"
Skywalker offered a smirk. "Welcome to my world," he muttered, and then stood.
I started to get my feet under me when I noticed a hand. Skywalker's hand, reaching out for me to take it. Surprised, I accepted, and the Jedi Master helped me up. Resting a hand on my tailbone, I hobbled next to Skywalker as we stepped towards the blastdoor protecting my brother.
As Skywalker placed a hand on the door, I knocked. The durasteel was heavy; I didn't know if Paiden could hear me, but I had to try. "Paiden!" I shouted. "It's Arvis. Open the doorit's safe now."
With the side of my fist, I banged on the door. Still nothing.
I sighed, and twisted to Skywalker. "Would you do the honors?" I asked, and gestured my hand to his lightsaber.
Skywalker remained motionless. Gliding his palm across the door, he shook his head. "Something isn't right."
I flicked my gaze between him and the door. "What is it? Is he okay?"
"He's fine," Skywalker muttered.
"Then, what's the problem?"
"He heard you," Skywalker replied, resting his hand on the door as it remained closed.
No more talkthe Jedi got to work. As I watched, he ignited his lightsaber, and slowly penetrated the durasteel, careful not to slice too deep into the metal and harm anyone inside. When the door's center finally gave way, Skywalker backed off, and I followed.
He lifted a hand. The door made a rumble. He motioned his hand backwards. The door complied, breaking into two pieces, and toppling over from its frame. As the dust settled, I looked onwards. A figure sat near the door's edge, underneath a computer console, and clearly scared to death.
Stepping forward, I knelt down. "Paiden?"
That's when the man darted out. In a ragged pair of pants, and a shirt that appeared halfway torn, he staggered to me, clasping both my hands. On his face was a graying beard and a mouth empty of teeth. If you haven't figured it out yet, this was not my brother.
"Please don't kill me!" the stranger shouted.
I peered onwards, into the command station of the mining tower, searching for Paiden. I threw a look to Skywalker; the Jedi Master gestured to the old man, clearly indicating that he was the only person in that room.
"I just wanted a place to sleep," the man continued. "No one was using this place. I'm sorry!"
Skywalker took it from there. Approaching the man, he explained that he wasn't in any trouble and offered to take him off-planet to a shelter that could help him out. As Admiral Nesmah's shuttle landed on the tower's roof, I gaped in the command center, trying to fathom where in the worlds my brother was. If he wasn't on Kessel...
A lump swelled in my throat.
From behind me, Skywalker placed a hand on my shoulder. "This doesn't mean he's dead," he explained. "There are several other explanations to consider."
I grimaced at that. "You don't know my brother, Master Skywalker."
"Tell me about him. Perhaps I can help."
"He's an idiot. That's all you need to know"
I caught myself. Skywalker remained silent as if he was afraid to break my train of thought. My words bounced through my skull like a blaster bolt in a room with magnetically-sealed walls.
He's an idiot...
"I think I know where he'd be," I declared, and with that, I hurried to the shuttle, Jedi Master and random drifter in tow.
On Admiral Nesmah's Mon Calamari cruiser, I was stuck in C-1-5 for almost a day before Skywalker was able to convince the admiral they needed me to figure out where to track down my brother. Some deal was struck; Skywalker assured me, "It'll keep you out of prison."
On the bridge, I sat beside Admiral Nesmaha pudgy Mon Calamari female who managed to glare at me with those big fishy eyesand I explained where to go. We spent days soaring from the Outer Rim to the Mid Rim. We reached the Corellian System, and then Coronet.
I had avoided the city for years. As I stood in front of one of the apartments near the capital's outskirts, I hesitated to knock. Skywalker didn't. As he rapped on the door, footfalls vibrated from inside.
"Arvis!" a voice pierced my eardrums the same instant a woman ripped open the door.
Her eyes didn't go to Skywalker. They didn't notice Admiral Nesmah behind him or the other security crew, including six Jedi and a dozen security officers. No, she went right to me, and then I felt a hand slap my face.
"Mom!" I screamed, holding my cheek.
"Twenty years!" she shouted. "I barely get one or two holo-calls in two decades, and you come home for this?"
I flung a look behind her. In the apartment's hallway, Paiden stood. He waved a hand at me, a smile beaming on his face. I glared at him. "He told you," I said to Mom.
"Of course he did," she snapped back. "He's a good boy. Unlike my other son."
"Ms. Tasric," Skywalker stepped forward and extended a hand, "I'm Luke Skywalker. Is it all right if we come in and speak with Paiden for a moment?"
If the woman held any interest in the fact that Luke Skywalker was at her door, she didn't show it. She glanced at his hand. "Did you just come from off-world?"
Skywalker raised his eyebrows. "Yes, Ma'am"
"Have you washed your hands since arriving on-planet?"
"Um," Skywalker retracted his hand, "no. Sorry."
Mom rolled her eyes. "Just like you off-worlders," she spoke, and started back into the apartment, "bringing your nasty, germ-ridden filth to Coronet..."
"Come on," I said to Skywalker.
I walked into the apartment, the Jedi and Admiral Nesmah following. The rest of the troops stayed outside, which I'm sure Mom's neighbors didn't find odd at all.
Reaching my brother, I embraced him. I didn't really embrace anyone, so my brother stood rigid, clearly shocked. When I released him, I said, "I'm glad you're not dead, brother."
"Me, too...I mean, I'm glad you're not deadyeah, that's what I meant."
"How did you get away from the Mon Calamari ship?"
"Oh, the hyperdrive wasn't as damaged as I thought. I went to lightspeed as soon as I made it off Ryloth."
"Why didn't you go to the rendezvous point?"
Guilt clouded Paiden's features. "Well, you see, I kind of"
"You forgot where it was."
"And so you decided Mom would be great to involve in all this?"
Paiden lifted his shoulders. "I couldn't think of any other place." He lowered his head. "Did I do that bad?"
I embraced him again. "Yes," I told him. "Yes, you did. But I love you anyway."
As I released him, Paiden smiled at me. With Skywalker and Nesmah, we followed Mom into the kitchen.
"Well," Mom said as she sat down at her kitchen table. On its surface laid the memory disk Paiden had found on Tatooine. "I guess this is what all the commotion is about."
There was no reluctance. Mom handed the datacard to me, and then reclined in her chair.
Paiden leaned over my shoulder as I handed the disk to Skywalker. "What's he going to do with it?" Paiden asked. Paiden was a moron, but even a moron would recognize Luke Skywalker.
Clearly, Paiden didn't approve, so I decided to enlighten him. "He's going to keep us out of prison, brother," I explained. "So, keep your 'rebel scum' talk to yourself. Got it?"
On the kitchen counter, Nesmah placed a thin, rectangular box. As she pressed its center, the droid flashed to life and its four table-like legs extended from its bottom.
"Emdee," Nesmah called her computer console, "I need you to analyze this datacard. Open any holoproj files it contains."
She inserted the datacard; a silver disk at the top of the box shimmered, and then a red holoproj appeared above it. It was the Death Star.
"One file only," Emdee explained. "Incomplete."
I shot a look to Paiden, then Nesmah, and then Skywalker. "What does that mean?" I asked.
Nesmah toyed with Emdee, trying to bring up any more information. Emdee had none. Finally, Nesmah asked the droid for data historyany records on the transferring process. The droid had the date of creation, which Skywalker confirmed as being accurate from the time he purchased his own Artoo droid on Tatooine.
Then, Emdee explained, "Data file was transferred illegally to malfunctioning Artoo droid 'A' from functioning Artoo droid 'B.' Artoo droid 'B' recognized the illegal transfer and halted its continuation. All file data transferred remained with Artoo droid 'A'."
Skywalker leaned down to the computer console. "And just how much of this file was transferred? Do you have the percentage?"
"In total, .000000000000000000000001 percent of the file was transferred illegally to Artoo droid 'A'."
Standing in the kitchen, not a sound exited anyone's lips. Everyone's eyes were hooked to Emdee, observing the one distant picture of the Death Star rotating around on the holoproj.
After a minute, I turned to Paiden. "You were certain you had the blueprints, huh?" I asked him.
Paiden licked his lips. "Technically, they are the Death Star blueprints. Just not quite as much of the blueprints as I first thought."
Mom burst out laughing. Pointing her finger between Paiden and me, she looked at Skywalker and Nesmah, and exclaimed, "You think saving the galaxy is hard work? Try dealing with these dummies for the rest of your life!"
With a grumble, Admiral Nesmah asked Paiden if he had made any copies of the datacard, which my brother insisted he hadn't. Shutting down Emdee, the admiral yanked the droid console from the kitchen table, told Skywalker she'd take it up to the cruiser to be analyzed, and then stormed out with the datacard still in Emdee's systems.
Skywalker, on the other hand, didn't move. Placing a hand on the table where the computer had rested, he brought his attention to me. I half-expected a lightsaber blade to my head or perhaps a Force-choke. On Skywalker's face, however, there was only a grin.
I didn't know the Jedi well, but I had figured out that look. He thought it was amusing. He found the entire ordeal funny and ironic, and as Mom offered to make Skywalker a large Corellian breakfast for, "having to deal with my idiot sons," Skywalker gladly accepted. Sitting, the Jedi looked up at me, that same cocky little smile on his face.
See? I told you he was a jerk.
Original cover by Niralle. HTML formatting copyright 2009 TheForce.Net LLC.