Part One: Casting a Shadow
"Life ain't fair, kid," the man told me, gun aimed at my head. "Too bad, eh?" I heard the shot, but I had my eyes squeezed shut, cowering and trying to make myself as small a target as I could manage in the back of that dingy corridor on Nar Shadda. No surprise that I opened my eyes a moment later realizing I wasn't dead, right? You're hearing this after all. There was another man with a blaster standing over the corpse of the guy who had been pointing his gun at me. "Yeah," he said. "Life ain't fair. Sometimes you get shot in the back." I was shaking with fear the whole time and I must have just stared at the guy, the blaster, and the corpse for a whole two minutes. This was Soren Tarsc, the man who changed my life. I was six years old.
"Business is business," He'd always say to me. "You take a job, and you gotta do it, so be smart about takin jobs." I'd always nod and say I understood, but I was stupid, even for a kid, and I had no idea what he meant, but even though he'd always say it again later, agreeing with him at the moment made the issue pass. Tarsc taught me everything I know about the business.
"People weren't made to live together," he'd say. "Different species weren't made to live together. That's why people move to remote colonies - to get away from everyone else, and that's why all the races started off on different planets. We ain't none of us meant to live together. And when two people can't agree which one should stay and which should go, they call us in."
"Fair? It's a lot more fair than the old days. In the old days and out in some far colonies still today, when people got differences they can't resolve, they gotta to fight it out between themselves. The strong ones win and the weak ones lose. Money is the ultimate equalizer. A weak person can hire one of us and still win. If they don't got the money and they're weak, they oughtta know better'n to go around makin enemies anyway, and if they don't maybe they're too dumb to live after all."
"Don't ever listen if someone complains that it ain't right to make money off blood. Everyone makes money off blood, some just don't gotta get so close to it, so they forget that somewhere down the line someone gets the axe and start thinkin they're too good for it. They're the ones with the problem. What makes them think they got the right to live anyway? That's what I wanna know. Some people aren't given the right to live and they're killed before they're born or when they're real young without ever being given a chance. But then isn't it reasonable that some who weren't ever meant to be born were born anyway? What then? They say it ain't polite to do anything about it then, but better to fix a mistake late than never, right? Let me tell ya, when you're doin a job, 'please' don't make 'die now' no sweeter, so why not compensate the ones fixin all the mistakes with a little money?"
"It's not like our lives are any better for bein on this side of the gun. Business is business kid. Every one of us understands that. So even if you're friends, you get hired out to two people who can't live with each other - and it happens - you still gotta do the job, even if you know one of you is gonna go down for it."
This was the only education I knew. This was the only family I can remember. I'm eternally grateful to Tarsc for taking in a hopeless orphan off the streets of Nar Shadda and raising him like his own daughter. Maybe that's why I decided to follow in his footsteps.
Part 2: The Players
I still use my graduation gift for most jobs. It's a weapon, and a good reliable one at that. Shrike isn't a well known brand of blaster, so it's a pain to find parts, but then it doesn't break down much either, and I've never seen it fail me at a time when I needed it. But it's just a thing after all, and not like a person. You take care of things, and they'll take care of you. They'll be there when you need them, and they won't fail you. The same isn't true for people.
Even so, Tarsc always used to talk about it like it was a person. "It don't get along well with others." He'd grin at that. "Don't ever try to change it into somethin' it ain't. You do and it'll give you a lesson in manners - it'll leave you high and dry! Them Shrike weapons are good ones, even if they don't let you customize. They're already the way they should be and they don't take kindly to people who don't know better messin with 'em."
I got my first job independent of Tarsc a month after my graduation working for Golthi Transports. If anyone asks, they run shipping. That's true enough, but it isn't as legal as it sounds, because they ship absolutely anything, more often illegal than legal. I can't blame them - not that I would even if I cared - the illegal stuff pays more after all.
Like Tarsc always told me, we exist because people can't live together. The Golthi couldn't live with the Zytis. Two rival transport companies, both shipping illegal goods, neither could go to the Imperials or any other authority for that matter, so who do they call to solve their disputes? Who else? I knew most of the people I was working with, either through having worked with them and Tarsc before, or having heard of them. I figured I was among respectable company. Like me, it didn't make any difference to any of them who got what shipping rights, as long as they got paid.
One of the people I knew on the team was Gav Sirk. Tarsc always said he liked Gav, because Gav wasn't the sort of person to hide or hold back anything. I didn't need anyone's help, but the employer said we were working in pairs, so I figured Gav was better than someone I didn't know who might turn out to be nothing more than a thrill-seeker, wannabe, psychopath, or honorable type. Thrill-seekers are stupid people who do the job because they like adrenaline and fighting. Wannabes are people who saw some holo about assassins and thought it would be cool to actually be one. While some wannabes are pirates who can actually be okay, most are just people too stupid to know better. Psychopaths like tormenting their victims up to the end. Even if a psychopath managed to become the best in the business, they'd always be slower and less efficient than a real player. Finally there's the honorable type. Whatever it is they think, I don't know that I'll ever understand it. You'd think if they were going to live by a code of honor, they'd find a better line of work for it.
It turned out that the first job we had was eliminating an enemy agent who happened to be a Coynite. As a species, the Coynites are ferocious warriors, so you'd think they'd be well suited to the business. They aren't at all precisely because they're all the honorable types. I had it all figured out before we even met the guy, once I heard he was a Coynite in fact. I left him a message challenging him. I picked the meeting place and time. Of course he accepted. That was his first mistake. Never fight an enemy on their terms on their turf or on their time. Of course I had the site prepared when he arrived, but it was a waste of time. In order to further convince him that I was as dumb (honorable?) as he was, I told Gav to wait and let me handle it because I wanted a one on one fight. The Coynite found this very amusing, but honorable. He was hooked. After sizing up my opponent, I threw away my weapon and said I wanted the fight to be fair - no weapons and no tricks. That's the fatal flaw of the honorable. They're predictable. Of course he throws his weapons away too, and that was his last mistake. It didn't matter if he was the best shot in the galaxy, or the best fist-fighter in the galaxy, because once his weapon was gone, I drew my second gun and simply shot him three times.
Gav pointed out that it was a dirty trick. I didn't have to respond to that. Gav knows as well as I do that I gave him more opportunities than he gave me. First, I told him exactly where I was going to be and when. He could have sniped me without ever having set foot into my trapped arena. Second, I didn't use my traps or my partner. Third, I was the first to throw away my weapon. At this point he could have shot me as easily as I shot him when he was stupid enough to throw his weapon away. Three chances is more than anyone deserves. Life, after all, affords us all only one chance. In the end, as Tarsc would say, he was just too stupid to live.
Part 3: Killing Time
The Golthi-Zytis conflict escalated, as conflicts have a tendency to do, and we soon saw more players brought into the game. Golthi raided Zytis' secret warehouse, Zytis assassinated the son of Golthi's owner, and Gav and I retaliated by bombing his speeder. At one point an over-zealous Sector Ranger investigator got too interested in the Golthi-Zytis affairs, and an over-zealous wannabe decided he had to disappear.
It never pays to mess with the law. If you leave people out of it who don't have anything to do with the business at hand, they let you go and kill each other off unchecked. It doesn't pay for them to meddle, and they know it. Eventually they would have reeled their man in, or let him disappear if he wouldn't let them reel him in. I guess they know when someone is too stupid to live, too.
But when you take out one of theirs before they get the chance to stop them, they come down on you. The Empire is good at bringing down the law on people. Even on Nar Shadda you aren't safe. If you go somewhere the Imps don't want to go, they'll just put a bounty on you. We offered up the guy who did it as a sacrifice, but it didn't appease them, and for a moment the Golthi-Zytis conflict came to a halt while all the assassins went to duck into the shadows.
Because my place was being watched, I returned to the lower levels of Nar Shadda to visit Tarsc, and Gav came with me because he too had nowhere safe to go. Tarsc was training someone new by then. I'll never understand why he bothered with me. He is the man, after all, who was always saying how people just can't live together. When I met the guy Tarsc was training, I figured out why he was doing it this time. The new guy was a complete wannabe. He'd seen a holo, and he had a lot of money - enough to buy reliable information on good assassins, and enough to convince Tarsc to give him a few pointers. Business is business, and Tarsc wasn't one to turn down easy money - even if it meant putting up with an annoying rich kid with nothing better to do.
It was just like old times, only with an obnoxious houseguest. Being the kind of guy he was, Gav insisted on pulling his weight to pay his dues for the safe house Tarsc was providing. I decided that applied to me as well, since I was supposed to be out making it on my own by now. Gav and I had the dangerous task of bringing in the supplies, which often involved going to the upper levels. Since we were already suspects, Gav and I couldn't bring weapons. On Nar Shadda, even most civilians carry something.
Things were going fine, until the wannabe got it into his head that he was good enough to go out and find himself his first job - with or without Tarsc. Sure enough, he got picked up right away. We wouldn't have cared, in fact, we might have had a good laugh, but Tarsc has been operating a long time, so he's pretty well known on Nar Shadda. The smart people are afraid of him. The skilled people respect him. The law would do anything to be able to pin something on him, and collaborating with an 'assassin' regardless of the fact that he wasn't a real assassin was grounds enough for sending a man like Tarsc to Kessel. Selling Tarsc out was also a good way to get yourself out of jail free.
We knew he would talk before the first stormtrooper ever arrived, so we had some time to pack up and move out. Fortunately Tarsc was too smart to not be paid ahead of time, and fortunately Tarsc owns a lot of safe houses, most of which the squealer didn't know about. Unfortunately, Tarsc prefers some distance between his properties, and also unfortunate is that the Empire is pretty good at hunting people down once they have their scent. A small patrol caught us en route to the nearest safe house. It wasn't an especially difficult fight for the three of us, but Tarsc is semi-retired for a reason.
The troopers immediately started spreading out and surrounding us, the forward two with blaster rifles laying down cover fire. It was a farily enclosed space, but there was some cover. I took the left, Gav took the center and Tarsc took the right. I was under cover behind a support when Tarsc took a wound and went down. The trooper would have finished him off, but fortunately Gav had already finished his two and had come up on the trooper from behind. Gav picked him off with a shot to the back of his head before he could finish Tarsc.
It's a shameful thing for a fighter of Tarsc's caliber to need saving. I was glad I wasn't the one who saved Tarsc, because he couldn't stand to be the one who needed saving, and it made him angry. He chose to take that anger out on Gav. Of course Gav told Tarsc what he thought of that, and was a little rougher bandaging the wound than he might have been. Gav knew Tarsc didn't mean all the things he said, so he wasn't really bothered by it, but Tarsc was silent the rest of the way to the safe house.
Gav stayed out the rest of the night, but when he came back in the morning, he reported that Tarsc's other student was dead. "You gotta pay back debts, the good ones and the bad. He was more trouble than I thought, though, especially for a wannabe. Tarsc, only you could make a fighter out of a guy like that." It was apparent Gav had forgotten the things Tarsc said earlier already, and Tarsc eventually apologized and came around as well.
Still, Tarsc remained moody the rest of the day. I didn't bother him about it, but to my surprise he brought it up that night. "It ain't fun gettin' old kid, but that's just how it goes. We're livin on borrowed time. You. Me. Everyone. I used to hold death in my hand and tell it where to go and when, but one of these days it'll turn on me." He started to laugh with a tone of bitter irony. "I can't hold a grudge for that, though. Business is business after all."
Part 4: Business
All things come to an end, eventually. The crackdown was no different. Gav had a good analogy. "The crackdown is like a dam. It's holding both sides back like the water. Once the dam breaks, it's gonna pour out stronger than ever." He was exactly right. In the week after the crackdown ended, the only people who dared go out on the streets were those involved in the fighting and those involved in the cleanup. Although I saw more violence in five days than I ever saw before or since, I didn't see one law enforcer.
Gav and I were spared from being used as cannon fodder because we were good enough to get behind enemy lines and hit the real targets. Every day we hit a new target: The Zytis flagship, the Zytis training center, a middle manager, three Zytis board members, and on the fifth day, the president of Zytis transports.
Finding out the president's location was a stroke of luck. They knew we knew, and we knew they knew, and we both knew that our time frame was limited. Golthi sent six others to help Gav and I hit the president. The game began when I knifed an enemy from behind and stole his sniping point. Then the president came out surrounded by eight men. Three of ours used a speeder and started making passes on the small group, which took cover on the grounds. I took a shot at the president, but one of his men got in the way.
The element of surprise rewarded us with two downed enemies. The remaining six had cover, though, so the real fight had just begun. One of them had seen where my shot came from and was pinning me down. It was because of that that I missed the one with the PLEX launcher.
Our other three men on the ground started trading fire with the enemy. One of them got sloppy and became intimately acquainted with a blaster bolt. The speeder made one more pass and took out another man before the one with the launcher managed to get his shot off. Two of our guys bailed before it hit, but the driver didn't make it out in time so he went down with the speeder.
I tried to peek out to get a shot at the president or the guy pinning me, but a chunk of ferrocrete exploding next to me prompted me to keep my head down a bit longer. One of the people from the speeder took a blaster bolt in the leg before he could take cover, which removed him from the fight. The other pulled a grenade and tossed it into the mix. I'm sure it got two of the enemies, and it gave me time to get a shot at the one that had been counter-sniping me. He wasn't there, but I held my aim on the position for a moment. Sure enough, he popped up and started taking aim on my position, realizing too late that I was waiting for him. He took my shot in the throat and fell back out of my view.
It was at this moment that Gav, who I'd lost sight of, made his move. Gav had come up behind the enemy position and had acquired a repeater somewhere along the way. I saw him spray bolts into targets I couldn't see. Someone returned fire on him, but their aim was off and the shot went wide. Gav signaled that the president was down, but since our ride was gone we had to head back to Golthi territory on foot.
It was a good victory for us. Only one target stood between us and the collapse of the Zytis, and that was the vice president who was safe in the Zytis corporate headquarters. We all knew what was coming next. A few people lost their nerve and cashed out then and there. The headquarters was not only the center of Zytis operations; it was also the best defended Zytis territory. People from our side had tried for that target before by various means, and all of them had ended up dead.
We had two days to rest and prepare. During those two days there was no fighting, but still not a soul dared come out into the streets. On the seventh night, the calm ended, and the storm began. The plan involved dozens of entry points: The roof, all four primary doors, the second story, the fire escapes, the speeder hangar, and even various windows. Gav and I were assigned to cut our way into an external elevator shaft near the vice president's office on the twelfth floor.
The first obstacles were probe droids. Zytis was going all out and sparing no expense. They were absolutely desperate at this point. We let the first wave do most of the grunt work fighting and came in after to mop up after the thickest of the shooting was already done. Casualties were light, and it looked like the fight was already going our way. Gav and I were given a small repulsorlift board used for washing windows and a fusion cutter to perform our job. I remember looking out over Nar Shadda and through the haze being able to see two lonely stars in the sky. It stands out in my mind because there were few occasions in my memory where I had seen stars. They always seemed so cold and far away. Gav broke the silence, and I realized he was looking at the same thing. "My mother told me that they're the souls of the deceased." I smiled thinly. Cold and distant? It made sense for stars to be people too. The silence resumed and we kept watching those two stars right up to the twelfth floor.
Cutting through the outer shaft and the elevator door was short work. There were two guards waiting on the inside, but fortunately for us they were facing the wrong way. We made our way inward and soon came upon an open lounge area. The lights were out and I spotted a simple laser sensor someone had rigged to detect people passing through the doorway. Gav scanned the room with his eyes and shook his head. "Not this way." I nodded and we turned to go, but just as we turned a shot came out of the darkness.
I dove for cover. I was pretty sure I knew where the bolt had come from. I looked for Gav to tell him. I always hated holos that romanticized fighting. The good guys were too good, and the bad guys were too bad. They were never like real life. When the hero gets hit in a holo, it's rarely fatal. When it is, the hero makes a grand speech and takes the bad guy with him. They were never like real life. Gav didn't get a speech, and he didn't take anyone else with him. He passed on quietly then and there with a blaster wound in his back.
"Yeah... Life ain't fair." A voice cut through the dark room ahead of me. "Sometimes you get shot in the back." I felt like I was choking. My body was completely numb. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you when you came to visit." The voice was unmistakable. "It's a pity. You were the best thing I ever did with my life, even though I never quite knew why." I knew where he was, but I couldn't bring myself to move. "But business is business after all. You take a job, you gotta finish it." Soren Tarsc. My teacher. The only family I ever knew. "Even if you know one of you is gonna go down for it."
I squeezed my Shrike pistol tightly. I found myself moving. I ducked the sensor and quickly took cover behind a bar. I heard him break cover then duck back. "Final lesson kid. Let's see how much you've learned. If you don't finish your job, I'm gonna kill you here." I knew before he said it, and it made me feel hollow inside to know that I shared his feelings. I began to slowly sneak around the bar to where I knew he was hiding. I saw the sensor too late, but once I knew I'd tripped it, I immediately dove for cover, and not a moment too soon because a blaster bolt lanced through the air where I was a moment earlier.
I heard Soren move, heading for a new position and caught a glimpse of his back. I raised my pistol, but stopped myself and instead started sneaking again. I spotted the next sensor before I hit it, and carefully avoided it. Finally, I reached Soren's first position. I caught sight of him holding a sniper rifle and searching the room with his starlight enhancer goggles. I took aim, but at that moment I froze. All of the memories of my childhood, from when he had saved me to all the training and advice and help he had given me, all the times he was proud of me, and the danger we had faced in the battles we had shared. Finally one message came to mind. The motto he lived by, I spoke aloud "Business is business." Although it was scarcely a whisper, he must have heard because he turned toward me just as I pulled the trigger.
Tarsc fell backward and lay still. I crept silently over to him, my blaster trained on him the whole time. The fall had knocked his starlight enhancer goggles off, and I saw his eyes open. They were filled with pride. He smiled at me and laughed. A red foam seeped from the corner of his mouth. His voice was a choked whisper as he spoke his final words. "Ya done good kid. Ya done real good. Make me proud... Cai." I felt something on my face. I put my hand up, and it came back moist. I checked again. It took me a moment to realize that it was tears streaming from my eyes. I don't know why I cried, because at that moment, I didn't feel sad. I didn't feel anything at all, yet I can't remember how long I sat there looking at Soren's still form. This was the last gift I received from my teacher. The reputation of the one who finally killed him.
It was like a bad dream. I stood up and started walking. I walked through the double doors into a main office. I moved on autopilot, crouching and firing off two shots as a bolt passed over my shoulder. The two guards in the room fell dead. A man at the other end of the room was looking out the window. He held a glass in one hand, and the other was empty. He quickly poured the rest of the contents of the glass down his throat then set it down on the desk beside him. He turned to face me, straightened his tie, then spoke. "Well? Let's get this over with."
I looked him in the eyes and stared at him for a moment. Over his shoulder I saw the two stars Gav and I had watched together less than an hour and a half ago. The souls of the dead? Maybe. It made sense for stars to be people, too. I took aim. "Sorry to keep you waiting." My voice was quiet but firm. "It's nothing personal you understand. Business is business." He nodded. I could see that he really understood. I pulled the trigger.
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