A high-pitched scream echoed down the cavernous and dark halls of the ship. The metal bulkheads seemed to capture and prolong the dying reverberations. There was silence and then a long drawn-out howl filled the vacuum.
Two men sat outside the heavy doors of the interrogation room. Only a thin blaststeel barrier separated them from the very human sounds of torment and despair.
The next scream came and Rilk flinched. He looked over at Valon who sat with his eyes closed.
“This is monstrous.”
Valon said nothing.
The screaming stopped. Rilk knew it was just a matter of seconds before the man strapped into the chair in the next room would have the strength to draw enough breath to cry out again. He braced for it as if for a blow.
When the roar of anguish finally came, Rilk got to his feet.
“It has to be stopped.”
Valon, still with his eyes closed, said, “I don’t think you should interfere.”
Rilk snorted and slammed his fist against the door.
The heavy door slid open and a short bald man stood blinking at Rilk.
“Chivings, I’d like to speak with you out here for a moment.”
The bald man smiled and turned back to the victim in the chair.
“I’ll be back in a second and this time I will have some answers!”
The door closed behind Chivings, who patted the pale flesh of his head nervously.
“How may I help you, sir?”
Rilk sighed. “It’s this damn noise, Chivings. I’m trying to plan my vacation here and… Well, do you think that screams of agony are conducive to choosing a water-view room over a mountain-view?”
Chivings, who did not have enough seniority to receive vacations, made no response.
Valon opened his gold-dusted eyes.
“Let him do his job, Rilk.”
“Keep out of this. Now, Chivings, I’m not saying you need to stop, but isn’t there a way you could do this a little more… delicately?”
Chivings fidgeted and tried to clean some of the blood off his drill with the corner of his apron.
“Delicately, sir? I’m not sure…”
“Why don’t you read the fellow the list of spa treatments you were working on, Rilk? If he doesn’t break by the osterweed wrap it means he’s died.”
Rilk glared at Valon but, before he could reprimand his partner, Chivings interrupted.
“Sir, perhaps I could gag him?”
“A gag? Won’t that get in the way of your extracting information?”
“Oh no, sir. He’s told us everything we wanted. I’m just making a point now.”
“I see. Yes, Chivings, try a gag then. Thank you.
“Glad to be of help, sir.”
Chivings saluted and returned, grinning, to the interrogation room.
Rilk sat down and studiously ignored Valon’s amused expression.
A few minutes later a droid buzzed into the room.
“Inquisitors, we shall arrive at Coruscant in one standard hour.”
Valon thanked the droid as it departed.
“I’ll never finish this vacation planning!”
“Oh, calm down. We’ll just finish the next job early and you’ll have some extra time to sort it out. Here, we’d better have a look at the file.”
Valon passed Rilk a datapad.
“Anyway, this looks like a fairly open and shut case. Pity, I was hoping for more of a challenge. Do you remember that one of Maloros-Ceta? Now that was a tough nut to crack.”
Rilk disregarded his partner and skimmed the file again.
“Do you think ‘Mankiller’ is a real name?”
The faint sound of a muffled scream reached them. Rilk threw up his hands in frustration.
* * *
Coruscant was a world in flames. Bodies lay strewn amongst the wreckage of skyscrapers. Sith Troopers rushed down deserted alleyways. The silent menace of spy droids threw shadows over the streets. This was a planet under occupation.
Feeling an explosion in the distance, the owner of the mysteriously-named dance club Korriban Nights was once again thankful that his establishment lacked windows. At least when the music starts they won’t be able to tell the difference between the bombs and the bass, he thought.
He watched as his employees applied the finishing touches to the club in anticipation of tonight’s opening, or re-opening. It had been closed for the first few days of the Sith invasion, but now it seemed as if things were evening out. You can only expect death for so long before his absence becomes a sort of snub.
Roused from his thoughts, Kryptos looked up at his haggard head-bartender.
“There’s something strange in one of the storage rooms. You’d better come take a look at it.”
Kryptos checked the time. Half an hour until opening.
“Lead the way.”
The storage room was darker than it should have been, as if, Kryptos realized, someone had disabled some of the lights. His glowtorch cast strange shadows on the wall and Jedd hung back “guarding” the door.
Kryptos made his way slowly to the back of the room, navigating through the poorly-organized boxes. The hairs on the back of his neck raised and he had the painfully acute feeling of being watched by someone or something he couldn’t see.
He lowered the light and saw a pallet and bits of packing material organized into a makeshift bed. He straightened up just as a black shape dropped from the ceiling above him.
The room flashed as a blade of pure light crackled and hummed through the air. Kryptos stepped back quickly while the lightsaber waved menacingly in his direction.
“Get back! You won’t take me!”
Squinting to see past the glow of the blade, Kryptos could just make out what he thought was the face of an adolescent boy. He raised his hands in submission.
“Look, kid, nobody here is gonna hurt you.”
Jedd turned to flee, but the stranger called out, “Stop! Or I kill this one.”
The lightsaber came to rest a few inches in front of Kryptos’s face — a strangely familiar experience.
“I’m no child!”
“Okay, you got a name?”
Kryptos cut him off. “Just a name, pal. I don’t want to know the rest and neither does Jedd. Do you, Jedd?”
“N-n-no, sir! No I don’t!”
“How about you put down the weapon and we get you something to eat, Stravil? I’m guessing it’s been a while, right?”
Stravil said nothing. In the play of light and shadow, Kryptos thought he could see tears glistening on the boy’s cheeks.
“How do I know I can trust you?”
“You don’t, but what other choice do you really have?”
The blade wavered for a moment and then disappeared. Kryptos let out a sigh of relief.
“I’m getting too old for this.”
Stravil finished the soup with speed. In the light, he looked even younger than Kryptos had imagined.
The two sat alone in the office.
“How did you get in?”
“Through the air vent.”
Kryptos nodded. He’d need to get that fixed.
“Got any plans?”
The boy said nothing.
“This is a nightclub. In a few minutes we are gonna get real busy, I hope, then, in a few hours, a crowd of rowdy drunks is gonna stagger out of this place and back to whatever rubble-pile they call home. Now, if I were in your shoes, I’d stagger out of here too. Maybe go down to the lower levels and see if I couldn’t find some of my friends. I’d use the crowds for cover. You hearing me, kid?”
“Pass me your lightsaber.”
Stravil looked as if he was going to refuse and then reluctantly handed the blade over to Kryptos. The older man looked at it with interest for a second before tossing it into a trash-disintegrator.
Stravil let out a cry of shock and anger and reached across the table at him. Kryptos slapped his hands away.
“You want to get yourself killed?! That thing isn’t gonna save your life, man, it’s a death sentence!”
“A Jedi’s blade is his life!”
“Tell that to your friends in the Temple! Those glow-rods didn’t do them much good. You want to live or end up some Sith’s fencing dummy?”
Stravil collapsed back into the chair and said nothing.
“I’ve got to go get ready to open this place. There are some extra clothes in this overnight bag… gonna be a bit big on you but that will have to do. After you’ve changed, toss those robes into the disintegrator too… along with that braid of yours.”
Kryptos got up and walked to the door. Stravil was running his fingers over his Padawan braid as if seeing it for the first time. Then he put his face in his hands and began to sob.
Outside, Kryptos gave a nod to the Gamorrean bouncer and the doors opened.
“Looks like it’s going to be a busy night, boss.”
“It better be, Wiley. Otherwise we are gonna have some real problems.”
The young woman smiled and said, “Don’t worry, things can only get better right?”
“Never say that… oh, and there’s a kid in my office. He’s new. Gonna be here maybe a few days. Have him help Jedd.”
“Sure, boss.” Wiley turned and walked away. His mind on other things, Kryptos’s eyes followed the sway of her hips.
The music began — a heavy and somber beat. The crowd poured hesitantly through the doors and formed a herd. To Kryptos they seemed directionless, as if they had come back to this place having forgotten what it was that brought them.
He approached the decks and greeted the droid behind them.
“Ninety-Nine, what’s with the music?”
DJ-99 turned its free auditory sensor toward him, the other being plugged directly into the sound system.
“Sir, I am preparing a mix to match our patrons’ mood. I intend to follow a Deep chart–”
“Ninety-Nine, these people have just had their homes bombed, their friends killed and families destroyed. These are some miserable, desperate, soulless wasters who don’t have anything else left. They don’t want to hear something that matches their mood! They want to forget! Give them the most upbeat, crazy-paced frenetic dance beat you have. I want them so busy trying to stay in-step that won’t notice if the world ends. Don’t give me this ‘Deep’ garbage. Tonight, i want Dance. Just Dance.”
* * *
And so it was that one hour later, when Shari Mankiller and her troops pushed through the doors of Korriban Nights, that they saw the shocking sight of a mass of displaced and broken people exalting in the immediate sensuality of dance and love of life.
Mankiller scanned the crowd. “I was expecting a funeral and it seems we have arrived at a celebration.”
Her aide returned after a few minutes towing an angry-looking man behind him.
Making a low bow, the Sith said, “Commander, I have brought the one you seek.”
“Thank you, Reddrake.” Mankiller wished her aide would find a way to be less dramatic, but it seemed everyone had their idiosyncrasies these days. She turned her attention to the man before her. He was middle-aged, in good shape. A faint scar ran down his chin.
“You are Kryptos?”
“If your man there says so, ” he answered, pointing to Reddrake, “it must be true.”
Reddrake snarled and stepped forward but Mankiller held out her hand and he reluctantly contained himself.
“This is a nightclub?”
“On a good day.”
“And I suppose you have the proper permits for it?”
“Yeah, I’m up to date on all my shots, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Funny. Our records show no licenses. Do they, Reddrake?”
Kryptos nodded and almost smiled.
“I’ll give it to you. You guys move fast. I thought it was bad when you were dropping bombs on us. I should have guessed you’d drop the bureaucracy on us next. How much am I going to need to shell out for this little shakedown?”
“The Sith will not be bribed, Mr. Kryptos.”
The nightclub owner was not the only one who looked a little surprised at these words.
“My people are in need of recreation. It seems your establishment is the last of its kind on Coruscant — the last functioning, at any rate. We will be enjoying your entertainment for some time to come.”
“Swell. I’ll see if my DJ has any marching tunes.”
“You are a very insolent man, Mr. Kryptos. Perhaps you don’t fully understand your situation here.”
“Well, Commander Mankiller, I am reliably informed you can only die once, so what’s there to worry about?”
“Oh, I can assure you there are worse things than dying, Mr. Kryptos.”
“Who says I haven’t tried them?”
For the first time she noticed the tiredness in his eyes.
“It’s strange. I would have expected a better welcome at a place named Korriban Nights.”
“Commander, the universe is a big place. There’s bound to be a few surprises left in her.”
“We will be supplementing your–” she looked towards the drooling Gamorrean “–security with some of our own troopers. I will personally review your staff. Please assemble them in groups.”
She dismissed him with a wave of her hand.
As he walked away, Mankiller heard Kryptos shout across the bar, “Hide the silverware, boys, the conquerors have arrived.”
At first the arrival of the Sith had seemed to put a damper on the spirit of the club, but after a quarter of an hour, the officers in their cleanly-pressed uniforms had been assimilated into the mass of people trying to lose themselves in something bigger.
It wasn’t long, Mankiller noted, before parasites of both sexes had lined up to bask in the shadow of their new masters’ authority. She turned away in disgust and began her review of the staff.
Kryptos stood at Mankiller’s side, introducing the frightened team members one by one until the final group was assembled before her.
“This is Wiley, my lead entertainer.”
The woman, not much more than a girl, thought Mankiller, smiled ingratiatingly.
“I haven’t noticed any Twi’lek dancers here,” observed the Sith. “I had heard they were the best.”
To Mankiller’s pleasure, the smile disappeared from Wiley’s face.
“Twi’leks are overdone,” Kryptos replied as he moved her down the line of staff.
“The is Jedd the head bartender.”
Jedd looked at the floor.
“This is Jorjel.” Kryptos pointed at Stavril and tried to hurry Mankiller past again.
The boy in front of her seemed to exude nervousness. He alternated from avoiding looking at her at all to shooting her guilty glances. She noticed his clothing seemed a very poor fit. She was about to say something when Kryptos slapped the boy on the shoulder.
“He’s my cousin and–” he leaned towards her to whisper “–he’s a little slow.”
Mankiller felt Kryptos’s tension and enjoyed having him at a disadvantage. While savoring the feeling, she looked at the next staff member in line, and blinked with shock.
“Is this your cousin as well?”
Kryptos followed her gaze down to the furry body and large eyes of a grinning Ewok. He sighed.
“No. That’s an Ewok. He’s my accountant.”
Before she could receive a further explanation, Reddrake bowed beside her.
“Commander, two gentlemen have arrived. I think you may wish to see them.”
“What do I care who decides to spend his time at a nightclub?”
“Commander, they are Inquisitors.” The last word came out as little more than a hiss.
* * *
Valon adjusted his glimmering robes as he sat down.
“This is a charming little place. So seedy.”
“Yes,” said Rilk. “It must remind you of home.”
“Look, don’t be such a fusspot. There’s no reason we can’t combine business with pleasure.”
“I didn’t know you made a distinction between the two. Anyway, I would have rather done this in more… neutral surroundings. This seems a little absurd, doesn’t it?”
Rilk looked up to see a tall woman approaching the table. A little weasel-faced man followed closely behind her.
“Commander Mankiller, I presume?” The two Inquisitors did not stand.
Mankiller towered over them both for a moment and then brushed her aide away.
“You seem to have the advantage over me, gentlemen.”
That’s part of the job, thought Rilk. He noticed that she had very thick dark hair and wondered if it didn’t get in the way during combat.
Valon performed the introductions and invited her to have a seat. With a look of someone being told she was about to swim with Cretosharks, she joined them.
“I was just saying to Rilk here what a quaint little place this is.” Valon smiled, his blond hair glowing like a halo around his face.
Mankiller sat awkwardly and glanced at her hands. Her nails were unpolished. Valon’s were not.
She would be more comfortable in the midst of battle than in conversation, Rilk guessed.
“Yes,” she said finally, “The owner is quite a character. You must meet him.”
“All in good time. Tell me, your father wasn’t Leonid Mankiller, was he?”
She glanced at Valon warily.
“Yes. He was my father.”
“Really! I was a great fan of his back at the Academy — well, of his techniques, I mean. I never had the pleasure of meeting him personally.”
Mankiller looked out over the crowd. “I’m not sure ‘pleasure’ is how most of those who met him would describe it.”
Valon doubled over with polite laughter. Rilk studied her face.
Was this the face of a traitor? Her features were quite sharp. There was none of the softness in her that he associated with women, but becoming a Commander in the Sith Army was bound to have that effect on people. He looked for tell-tale signs of deterioration from prolonged and uncontrolled use of Dark energies… the kind Valon tried to conceal with his makeup and glitter. He saw very little that could not be explained by stress and fatigue and that worried him. Rilk would have been happier to have seen her pale skin ravaged by the devouring taint of hatred. She seemed too… pure. Without seeing, he could feel her hand move towards her lightsaber in search of comfort and reassurance. How naive, he thought.
Having regained control of his mirth, Valon turned towards Mankiller and smiled a very dangerous smile.
“This may seem a strange question, Commander, but do you dance?”
She was taken aback and stammered, “I–I, well, yes.”
“Excellent. I feel like cutting a rug.”
Mankiller’s eyes found Rilk’s. They were, he felt, almost imploring. He turned away.
Noticing this, Valon assured her, “Oh, don’t give him a second thought. He doesn’t dance.”
The Commander made her way confusedly towards the dance floor. Valon leaned back and whispered to Rilk, “Can you imagine how much fun it’s going to be to torture her?”
The crowd broke around the strange couple: Sith Inquisitor and Warrior. DJ-99 transitioned into a new song. The two began to dance.
At first, Mankiller moved clumsily, as Rilk had expected, but after a minute she closed her eyes and seemed to lose herself in the music. Valon writhed like a golden snake around her, weaving closer and closer to her body — his breath hot against her skin. She moved as if free of him, as if free of all of them, finally… as if she was dancing alone and for herself.
Rilk found himself captivated. He almost couldn’t take his eyes off her, until he noticed another set of eyes staring at her with an equal intensity from across the club — it was a young boy in ill-fitting clothes.
* * *
It was late, only an hour or so before dawn when Korriban Nights closed. Dreams of freedom and forgetfulness faded and the grim reality of occupation began to reassert itself across the planet.
Shari Mankiller slowly removed her light armor. She felt exhausted. Her memory of the night seemed a confused jumble. Strangely she kept coming back to the face of the Inquisitor called Rilk — the one who hadn’t ever spoken. Perhaps that is what made him stand out more in her mind.
He had been gone when she and Valon had returned to the table.
She remembered his eyes and music and then dreams.
Valon sat cross-legged on his bed, meditating. The holocron lay open before him and in his mind he saw explosions of carnality and destruction. His soul became enflamed with the debauched excesses of generations long dead. He returned, in his reverie, over and over again to Mankiller’s scent. The peculiar fragrance that hung over her and mingled with her aura and warmth. He wondered how she might taste. Soon, he would find out.
Rilk closed his eyes and, as was his habit, tried to replay everything he had seen that night. He enjoyed paying attention to patterns and re-examining what he had seen from different perspectives. The child in the baggy clothes still bothered him but he had sent Chivings to investigate that… And then there was Mankiller. Shari.
He found himself enjoying the sound of her first name. She had looked different when she had danced. Transfigured. Liberated.
There was time for that later. He needed to finish planning his vacation. He imagined standing on the edge of a tree-lined lake. The stars twinkling above him. A cool breeze.
The visions in his head began to blur and he slipped into the dreams he dreaded once more.
Kryptos sat behind the desk and looked at the Ewok. It shuffled through several datafiles and then shrugged its shoulders.
“Jub chubya wa gubgub, Slaine.”
“You ever consider learning a language that people can speak?”
Stavril followed the remnants of the crowd as they made their way back to their homes and shelters. He clung to the shadows and disappeared into the undercity. He didn’t notice the quiet man who took pains to stay just out of his vision.
The words Korriban Nights written in lights on the side of a nondescript building flickered and went dark. A new day was dawning.