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.
Rilk looked over the array of shining metal implements approvingly before selecting a small hooked blade.
Valon tutted. “I wouldn’t use that one.”
“That’s because you have no breeding. This happens to be exactly the tool for the job.”
Chivings leaned closer to the table, his face a mask of profound interest.
With a flick of his wrist, Rilk slipped the edge of the hook just beneath the warm flesh and began to open a fine incision along to the surface.
“Well,” sniffed Valon, “I’m just going to order mine scrambled.”
“Aha!” exclaimed Rilk as he pulled the thick membrane off the surface of his gloriously intact Grosst egg. He waved the hooked at his partner.
“Egg hooks! They didn’t teach you about that in your year, did they?” It was always a point of pride for the Inquisitor that he had been part of a special group trained in the finer arts of diplomacy and etiquette — future leaders of the great Sith political machine. Not that it had taken him very far, he grumbled to himself.
Valon snapped his fingers in front of Chivings’ face, causing all the waiters and most of the Sith in the restaurant to turn in his direction.
“The operating theatre is closed, Chivings. Let us see the reports.”
The Agent bowed and placed a datapad in Valon’s outstretched hand. He then tucked two more pads beside Rilk’s bread plate.
“Fine, now go see about our transportation.”
“Very good, sir.”
Having finished his egg, Rilk observed his partner studiously scrutinizing the report. Before he picked up his own copy, he leaned back in his chair and surveyed the room.
One of the few buildings still untouched by fire in this part of Coruscant, the Hotel Starlight was famous as an insider’s getaway. The sort of place where the ghosts of old holovid stars might be seen wandering the atmospherically-lit halls. Like everything else on this planet, Rilk thought, it looked past its prime.
The staff had been vetted and were doing a passable job of sucking up to their new Sith “guests” – the place having become sort of an impromptu command center for the officer set. Still, he didn’t trust those painted-on grins and shoe-gazing bows. It would probably be a good idea to keep the steak knives under guard for a while yet.
Valon tapped his datapad with frustration.
“There’s nothing really useful in this. Nothing new anyway.”
Reluctantly, Rilk took up his own copy of the report and began to read. Valon was right. There was little in the way of new intelligence on Commander Shari Mankiller and although the report bragged of over fifteen forms of surveillance being focused on her, it seemed unlikely that a video feed from her sonic-refresher was going to reveal anything momentous… Then again, Rilk wondered.
“Don’t smile. You know I dislike it. You have the ugliest smile.”
Rilk smiled all the more broadly to upset Valon and then switched the first datapad for the second.
Valon munched a piece of toast thoughtfully.
“Why did you get two files?”
“Because I asked,” answered Rilk. Then, knowing this would not satisfy his partner, added, “This is about a boy I saw at the club last night.”
Valon gave him a look of mock surprise. “My, my! First Grosst eggs and then this. You do have wide tastes, my friend.”
Rilk refused to rise to the bait and tossed the datapad onto Valon’s plate, splattering his eggs. The Inquisitor lifted it out of his breakfast and whistled thoughtfully.
“So it would seem.”
“Not really our bag, is it?”
“We should pass it on though.”
“What do you mean? Something like this needs to be passed on.”
“It’s not our ‘bag.’ You said so yourself. But if it makes you happy, I’ll ask Chivings to share it with Intelligence.”
Valon was about to agree and then hesitated.
“Why are you holding it back?”
“No real reason. I think there are some things going on at that club that might be interesting to the right people. I’d like to know more before I hand it off to some Thug-in-Gloves.”
Valon thought about this for a moment.
“Do you think this might be promotion-worthy?”
“Too soon to tell.”
Valon clapped his hands like a child and reached for another piece of toast. Rilk realized that one day, if he lived long enough, his partner would become very fat.
“Tell you what, Rilk. Let’s play this one close for a while longer. See what there is to see.”
“I’m glad you agree with me.”
Rilk stood from the table, casting down his napkin like just another crushed victim of the Sith occupation.
“Where are you going?”
“To speak with Mankiller.”
“Without me?” Valon looked honestly hurt.
“You had your turn last night. If I recall you wasted it on dancing.”
“It wasn’t a waste, my friend. I could tell you so many things.”
“Keep it for your memoirs.”
As Rilk reached the door, Valon shouted after him, “Don’t break the skin before I get there!”
* * *
Kryptos sat in the darkened club and thought. He hadn’t liked the sound of the message he received that morning.
A little after the appointed meeting time, a well-muscled man let himself in. Even in the shadows, Kryptos could see the dark lines of tattoos that ran from the tips of the visitor’s fingers all the way up to his neck.
Kryptos set both his hands in plain sight on the tabletop. Macer grinned and sat down across from him.
“Been better. Planetary invasions can throw a guy’s week off, you know?”
“You don’t need to tell me. This thing has completely wrecked my networks. Which is why I’m here. Mr. Greel said that you might be able to give us a hand with that.”
“Yeah. He said this was gonna be like a ‘synergy.’ Something like that.”
Kryptos felt the smooth surface of the table beneath his fingers.
“So you’re gonna just start dealing spice in the middle of a club that has become the stomping grounds for our new Sith liberators? You don’t think they might have something to say about that?”
“Are you kidding? Military guys love this stuff. Think of it — it’s like one-stop shopping. Mr. Greel says–”
Kryptos slammed his hand down on the table.
“Mr. Greel sure has a lot to say for a silent partner!”
Macer sat back and folded his arms.
“I don’t think I need to remind you of the terms under which you do business in this town.”
“No. I’m pretty familiar with them by now.”
Macer wiped his nose.
“Look, Kryptos. You be a team player on this and Mr. Greel says that maybe you’ll be in for a percentage. Think of that! You’ll be able to pay your loan off that much faster.”
“I’ve never been much of a team player.”
“Yeah, well it’s a different game now, isn’t it?
Macer stood and walked to the door.
“See you tonight, Kryptos.”
* * *
Shari Mankiller stepped out of yet another interminable briefing. The Sith stranglehold on this planet was certainly strengthening, at least that much was clear to her.
She began to walk to clear her head when a modified personnel carrier drove carelessly over the ancient Theolassiod-marble steps in front of her. She stepped back quickly and took hold of her lightsaber.
A voice came from the vehicle.
“You won’t be needing that, Commander. Not yet.”
The side hatch of the carrier opened and she saw that one of the Inquisitors from the club was sitting in it.
“My name’s Rilk. We met last night.”
“So, you can speak after all.”
She realized with a chill that his smile looked like a wound.
“Hop in, Commander. I want to show you something.”
After a short drive through destroyed streets, the carrier stopped in front of an ugly bunker-like building. Rilk opened the door and, stretching, swung himself out onto the street.
“What is this place?”
Rilk said nothing, but walked brusquely up the steps and whispered something into the intercom. A moment later the heavy blast door opened.
“You really don’t talk much, do you?”
“I’m sorry. It’s a hazard of the job. I’m more used to listening to my… companions.”
Mankiller felt an iciness seize the pit of her stomach but she pushed it aside. She was a Sith Warrior. She would not be intimidated — especially by someone who looked like he could be knocked over by a strong breeze.
“What do you want from me?”
“To show you something.”
Two guards met them at the door and saluted deferentially.
Rilk led her farther into the building — the sound of two pairs of boots echoing down the maze-like halls. They came to a wide room. Mankiller tried to gauge its size but its edges disappeared into shadows. An old man sat in a crisp uniform beside the door.
Karl was bathed in a pale blue light from the hall. It made him look shrunken and perhaps mummified. He caught Mankiller’s eye and gave her a wink.
“You’ll have to forgive the lack of light. There’s a war on, you know.”
Rilk led her deeper into the room and then stopped.
“This should be far enough.”
She could feel his enjoyment spreading through the blackness.
“Behold, Shari… The riches of Coruscant.”
She was caught off guard, initially by his use of her first name and then by the crack and blaze of his lightsaber. Her eyes flinched at the brightness and without realizing it she fell into a combat stance — her own blade now humming by her ear.
“I suppose two blades are better than one for this.” He turned away from her and held his lightsaber up. In the red glow, Shari could just make out shapes in the darkness. She moved her own weapon closer to his… She gasped.
The light of her blade was reflected a million times in the glimmering surfaces of countless treasures: mirrors, statues, jewels, priceless metals. It was like the tales of magical caves full of endless wonders she had heard as a child.
Rilk walked closer to the hoard and she followed.
“All stolen. Every last bit of it. Soon it will be packed up and shipped back to Korriban. Stuffed in vaults. Sold. Forgotten.”
“Who owned it?”
Her eyes jumped from one masterpiece to the next. Generations of art lay piled before her like so much trash. She held her blade farther from her eyes, blaming it for their wetness.
“Here. Hold this.”
Rilk carefully passed Mankiller his own lightsaber and then knelt down to examine something on the floor. She felt the power of both weapons in her hands — the energy coursing through her arms. All she needed to do was bring them down upon him and end this once and for all.
He looked up at her, his expression thoughtful, and then, seeming to have decided something, he turned his back on her and began running his fingers over a painting.
“Bring that light a little closer, will you?”
She stood directly above him and looked down at the canvas he held.
The painting was of a lake in the country. Trees hung over the water’s edge and a lonely mountain rose in the distance.
Rilk seemed to be lost in the image and hardly seemed to breathe. Finally, Shari asked again, “What do you want from me?”
“You know why we are here.”
“I have been nothing but a loyal servant of the Empire. I have been decorated. My father was…”
“Yes, but who are you?”
The Inquisitor placed the painting down on the ground and stood.
“The net around you is tightening, Commander Mankiller. Don’t let it close.”
“Take this back.” She held out his lightsaber.
He took it from her with a sigh.
“Your father won’t matter. Nothing will protect you. You met Valon. Do you think he’ll care about your ‘decorations’? If anything, it will make it more enjoyable for him.”
“I’m not some fresh-faced cadet just out of the Academy. If Good Sith/Bad Sith is the best technique they teach you Inquisitors these days, I am a little disappointed.”
Rilk deactivated his lightsaber. She brought hers closer.
“I’m not speaking to you as an Inquisitor. I’m speaking to you as another living being. I’m asking you to turn from the path you are walking.”
Now it was her turn to laugh.
“You don’t know anything.”
“We know a great deal more than you believe. I would suggest that you rethink your position. We will destroy you.”
“Do you say that as an Inquisitor or a living being?”
“As a realist.”
He stepped closer to her.
“Have a breakdown,” he whispered. “Confess to having unnatural urges, or being a glitterstim addict. You will be disciplined, broken, but there will be mercy. After a time you will be rehabilitated. Maybe you will be able to teach at the Academy.”
“If I don’t?”
“Commander Mankiller, there are only two ways for you to leave Coruscant. In a box or in an Inquisitor’s detention cell. Were I in your position, I would choose the former.”
* * *
Kryptos watched as the crowd poured into the club. Korriban Nights had seldom been this full. Every desperate child of the planet who could still find suitable clothes was out trying to catch the eyes of the jaded Sith. Macer and his assistants sat at a large table in the corner conducting their business. The music played. People got drunk. The world went spinning along.
He turned to Wiley.
“That kid you told me to look out for didn’t show tonight.”
Kryptos nodded and went back to watching the crowd.
“You waiting for something, boss?”
“Yeah. I’m waiting for it to stop spinning.”
Wiley looked at her employer with real concern, and then, with an old street kid’s trick, she palmed his Starlac glass. A minute later, Kryptos heard her warning Jedd not to give him anything else to drink.
Kryptos smiled and Macer smiled back.
“Sometimes,” the nightclub owner told himself, “you’ve gotta stop it yourself.”
Across town, Rilk sat in his room putting off going to sleep — delaying, if only for a while, the arrival of the nightmares that came every night.
He stared at the painting on the wall. Its ornate frame looked ridiculously out of place in the spartan little room.
He hoped that Mankiller would take his advice but knew she wouldn’t. The Inquisitor tried to imagine himself as part of the lakeside scene. He began to count the trees…
The dream was always the same.
He stands on the shore of a still lake. It is night. The water is black and cool. Somewhere an owl hoots.
He slides one foot into the water and then the other. The rocks shift uneasily beneath his weight. He feels the water lap against his ankles and then he strides deeper into the lake. A chill creeps up his leg and, looking down, he sees the blackness of the lake has reached his knees.
One more step forward but his foot finds no purchase. There is nothing but emptiness. He realizes too late that he must have stepped over some sort of lake-bottom shelf — who knows how deep the drop-off is? As he falls, he twists his body towards the shore but it is too far away. He curses himself for coming here alone. Who might help him? No one.
He sinks faster now, thrashing at the water. He cannot swim or has forgotten how. His body, as if lead, drags him down into the water which closes over his face — a moment of pure panic.
His head and hands disappear beneath the reflective surface of the lake. Blackness envelops him. There is only one way to go and it is down.
The modified personnel-carrier hit a bump in the bombed-out road and jolted Rilk awake.
Valon looked up from his datapad.
“A little trouble sleeping.”
“Wasn’t the company, I hope?”
Rilk shot Valon a sharp look, not in the mood for jokes just yet.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that Chivings and I were considering bugging your bedroom for the Mankiller case. She was with you, wasn’t she?”
Fully awake now, Rilk sat up.
“No. She wasn’t in her quarters?”
Valon read from the datapad, “‘Subject did not return to domicile.'”
“Oh, don’t worry so much, Rilk. She turned up for her morning briefings and is at her station now. We would look pretty silly if we lost her, but it’s not like she can get away, is it?”
Rilk pressed a button on the wall and the intercom buzzed.
“Yes, sir?” came Chivings disembodied voice.
“Stop here. I want to walk a bit.”
The carrier came to a halt and Rilk let himself down slowly onto the pavement.
Valon peered out after him.
“Are you up to something?”
“No. I… I just want to try and clear my head.”
Valon considered this.
“You do look a bit done-in. How’s the vacation planning going?”
Rilk slammed the door on his partner and banged twice on the hull of the carrier. Chivings, receiving this signal, drove speedily away.
Abandoning the surface streets, Rilk began the laborious process of spiraling down into Coruscant’s underbelly on foot. Reverberations of explosions and the drone of heavy machinery grew louder the deeper he delved.
He had committed the directions Chivings had given in the datafile to memory but the strange ghostliness of the city slowed his progress. He would pause now and again to examine some piece of debris — some indicator of normal life as it fluttered through the dream-shell of this waking nightmare.
He avoided several droid patrols, not that they would have caused him any trouble, but mostly out of habit. The strengthening stench of burnt flesh served as a constant reminder that the planet had not yet been fully tamed.
He slid down a service ladder and into the dark tunnel entrance. A warm breeze of vent-fans blew through his hair. He began to walk forward, holding his hand out before him — seeking with the Force.
He felt the presence of the others around him. He felt their fear, anger, expectation.
“You know what I am!” he shouted. His voice carried down the tunnel in hiccuping echoes. “I wish to speak with your leader.”
He stopped and waited.
A blue-white lightsaber sprang to life about three meters in front of Rilk. Then, another, this one behind him, followed by a third to his left… until finally he was surrounded by six blades.
By the light of the weapons, the Inquisitor could see that there were more people behind the six. For a second, Rilk recognized the boy from the club standing in the shadows.
One large, bearded Jedi stepped a little closer.
“They mustn’t be testing for brains at the Sith Academy these days. Well, one less Dark Sider on this planet won’t be missed.”
Rilk smiled. It was all bluster. He could sense the sweat on his opponent’s brow, the tremor in his hand. When the Temple had fallen, these were the ones who had run.
“If I meant to harm you, I would have come here with a battalion. I have come alone. I want to speak to the one in charge.”
“Speak to me, then,” roared Beard.
Rilk looked at him for a minute — staring into his eyes. Beard turned away.
“Enough,” came a voice from the shadow. A woman’s voice, Rilk noticed.
He listened as someone shuffled closer. Finally, a frail, white-haired old matriarch made her way into the glow of the assembled lightsabers.
“What is it you wish to say, Sith?”
“I am here to ask a favor.”
Her laughter echoed down the tunnel for a long time.
Later, as he climbed blinking into the light, Rilk tried to clear his mind. He walked aimlessly through the ransacked levels, moving always higher — back to the surface world.
At one point he came across a long procession of war-droids and armored vehicles storming down one of the few intact boulevards. There wheels and treads threw up gravel as they wore down the road. The engines of war, he thought. He turned to leave but then spotted a shape near the middle of the street — a child, lying motionless. He watched in disbelief for a few seconds as machines rumbled within inches of the body. The child didn’t stir.
Dead, he thought, but found himself stepping into the path of the machines. Dead. No point in checking. He weaved through the traffic, some of the vehicles passing so close the breeze swelled his robes.
It was only a matter of time before a tread or a wheel would drive right over the body. What does it matter now? The child is dead.
He knelt down beside her; he could see it was a girl now. She looked asleep, her pale hair soft against her cheek. Tanks and destroyers passed within a few feet of him as he slid his arms under her tiny frame and lifted her. She was light and plaint.
“Come on, darling. Up we go.”
For a instant he wondered if maybe she wasn’t just asleep or unconscious, but then her head lolled towards him and he saw the side of her face that had been pressed against the concrete.
In counterpoint to her one closed eye, her other eye stood plunging out of the socket — pressed almost entirely from the skull by some massive head trauma.
“Oh, little baby…” he said.
It looked, he realized, faintly ridiculous. As if it were some kind of joke. The one crazed and exaggerated eye, inviting him to join in on the punchline — deforming the face until she looked like some stock character from a children’s animation.
Carefully, he navigated through the traffic and back to the side of the street.
Rilk lay her down in the doorway of a destroyed apartment unit.
“There, there. You’ll be okay now, princess.” Covering her face with bits of trash, he sat down for a moment.
An emotion tried to well up in his throat, but he held it in check. He felt an overwhelming sadness, but also the futility of feeling such a thing.
She was dead. He was not. Feeling one way or the other wouldn’t change things. Life, as always, went on.
He stood and walked away, leaving the dead behind him.
* * *
It was night when Rilk arrived at the club. He watched Sith and civilians line up beneath the sign: Korriban Nights.
Valon was at the usual table. Shari was with him. An empty glass sat next to her hand.
As he approached, Rilk realized they were both speaking to someone – possibly the owner of the nightclub.
“Well, Mr. Kryptos, I was just telling Commander Mankiller some interesting things my Agent turned up about you.”
Kryptos didn’t return the smile.
“Really? If you come across any good pictures, I’m starting a scrapbook.”
Valon ignored him and focused his attention on Shari.
“Did you know, for instance, Commander, that Mr. Kryptos has a sizable bounty on his head back on Ord Mantell? Or that his real name isn’t Kryptos at all?”
“Really, what is his name? Wait, let me guess. I’m going to imagine you’re a runaway prince, Mr. Kryptos, fleeing from a murderous uncle. Your name is… His Royal Highness, Prince Alexanderaious Goldenpockets. Am I right?”
Kryptos frowned, and turned to Rilk who was just sliding into his seat.
“Is this some kind of Sith comedy routine?”
Rilk shook his head.
“Sith don’t do comedy. We work in tragedy.”
Valon raised his eyebrow as Rilk stole his drink and polished it off in a few gulps.
“Rough day at the office?”
Kryptos used this as an opportunity to slip away.
Rilk looked at Shari.
“Do you know how to swim?”
Taken aback, she answered, “Yes. I was…”
The two Inquisitors waited intently. Shari realized that she could not help but finish what she had begun.
“I was a lifeguard one summer at the Academy pools.”
Valon laughed. Rilk said nothing and then stood.
“Would you care to dance?”
“But I thought… you said..” She looked to Valon for support but he just shook his well-groomed shoulders.
“Stranger things have happened,” was all the Inquisitor could think to say.
Rilk held out his hand, and after an instant of hesitation, Shari took it. He began to escort her to the dance floor.
They passed the nightclub owner again, and Shari paused to ask, “Mr. Kryptos, whatever happened to your cousin?”
“He wasn’t feeling well, I gave him the night off.”
She nodded and they began to move once more.
Just as they were about to enter the dance floor, Shari stopped again and shouted, “Mr. Kryptos, it looks like he’s feeling better.”
Kryptos followed the line of Mankiller’s grin to her arm and then to her finger, which was pointing across the club to a guilty-looking Stavril.
The song changed and they began to dance. The music was slower now, which suited Rilk. He was never much for the ecstatic flailing of limbs that seemed to prevail amongst the other patrons. In fact, as Shari soon realized, he was a bit of a traditionalist.
Their dance was closer to a waltz than the animalistic gyrations she had shared with Valon on that first night. She noticed Rilk was fairly graceful — something she had never associated with an Inquisitor.
A few couples away, she saw her aide, Reddrake, dancing with one of the entertainment girls. Wiley, she thought was the name. Reddrake was so lost in the girl’s obvious charms that he didn’t even realize his commanding officer was staring at him.
Kryptos made his way over to Stavril. He noticed the boy had changed into some new clothes. These fit better at least.
“What are you doing back here?”
“My friends… I couldn’t find them.”
“Still, there must be a million places to lie low on this planet and you wanna choose Sith central?”
As he passed her from one of his hands to the other, Rilk leaned into Shari’s side.
“I want you to listen to me,” he whispered.
She said nothing but closed her eyes.
“You know you are under surveillance. Your quarters are bugged. They will have someone on you at all times now, so that you don’t pull any more tricks like last night.”
He let the words sink in as he gently spun her on her feet.
“You’ve only got one chance. There are some Jedi hiding in one of the sub-shafts of the undercity. They’ll hide you. Help you get away somewhere.”
“Jedi?” she hissed. “Are you crazy? Why would Jedi help me?”
“I told them you wanted to defect. Don’t you?”
Their eyes met and the song changed.
Kryptos looked Stavril over.
“Look, kid, you’re gonna get yourself and the rest of us killed. Go help Jedd tonight.”
Stavril nodded and began to head for the bar but stopped.
“Mr. Kryptos, why are you helping me? I can feel… I know that you don’t want to. Sometimes I think you even hate me. I can sense the conflict in you. So, why are you helping?”
“Don’t worry, kid. It’s nothing personal.”
Kryptos walked away, leaving Stavril more confused than before.
“Why would you help me?” asked Shari.
Rilk thought about it.
“Maybe if I help you, it will help me.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“I’ve forgotten how to swim.”
A loud noise behind her caused Shari to disengage herself from Rilk. She turned to see Wiley stomping away from Reddrake, who stood with a look that mixed anger and confusion. His left cheek was rapidly reddening.
“I only asked her how much she wanted…” he muttered to no one in particular.
Suddenly she felt very self-conscious.
“I’m done dancing.”
Rilk said nothing, but stepped away.
Mankiller made her way back through the crowd.
Kryptos turned to see Macer coming his way with a big smile on his face.
“Didn’t I tell you these Sith guys would go crazy for my stuff? We’re making a mint here.”
“Great. Let’s have a drink to war-time capitalism.”
Kryptos threw back a shot. Macer noticed he wasn’t sharing.
“You know, Kryptos, you are a strange one.”
“You sound like my mother.”
Macer checked his commlink for messages.
“So, Macer, when do you think things will be back to normal enough that you and your boys will be able to get outta my club?”
“As if! Man, this place is going to be our headquarters. You’ve got a good thing going here. In fact, Mr. Greel was saying that we could all really expand here. Like what kind of cut are you getting from those dancers?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, these officer types are looking for a little companionship, right? Well, the club needs to be getting a cut of whatever deals they are making. Mr. Greel says, he has some real nice professional types that would fit right in here.”
“I’m not turning this place into a brothel as well as a drug den. Forget it.”
“Fine, stick to the ones you got, but we want a cut.”
Kryptos put down his glass.
“I don’t like you, Macer. I think you’d better go.”
Kryptos smashed the empty bottle of Tongan Gin across Macer’s face, sending the big man to the ground.
Macer rolled and drew his heavy blaster from beneath his coat. The first shot exploded against the table as Kryptos flipped it for cover. The second shot never came, as a lightsaber sliced the blaster in two.
Macer looked up at the Sith woman standing above him, and then at the long red blade.
“Is there a problem here?” asked Shari Mankiller.
“No problem, Commander,” whispered Macer.
She glanced at Kryptos. He shook his head.
“I think you had better leave.”
Macer began to get to his feet.
“Reddrake!” shouted Mankiller. In a flash her aide was at her side.
“See this man out and make sure he never returns. I also want to know the names of those on security duty tonight. Blasters should not be slipping through our pat-downs.”
Macer faced Kryptos.
“Mr. Greel is gonna hear about this.”
Kryptos refilled his slightly broken glass from a new bottle.
“Sure, Macer. Bring him on down. I’d love to blow his fat head off.”
Macer followed the Sith Trooper to the exit and disappeared outside the club.
Mankiller stared at Kryptos for a few seconds.
“You are a strange man.”
“Must be an echo in here.”
Kryptos kept his eyes focused on his glass for a long time, and when he finally looked up he noticed that Mankiller was gone. So was Stavril.
He watched the crowd for a while. Reddrake was sitting in a booth with Wiley. Evidently they had both cooled down. He watched the Sith slide something towards the girl which she quickly pocketed with a nervous smile.
Kryptos raised his glass.
“Here’s to war-time capitalism.”
Valon stared at himself in the mirror. The lines were still there — if anything, more prominent than before. They seemed to criss-cross his cheek and forehead — still faint but noticeable. Like fine scars.
He took up the sprayer-brush and began to apply the first layer of pristine white over his traitorous face. With all power came sacrifice, he told himself, and he did wield great power. A fair trade-off?
He could feel the lingering anger and frustration burn beneath the surface of his thoughts but he had mastery over that. Today he would channel all of this to good effect.
He switched the color setting and began to paint an aurora — a rainbowed flare around his eyes.
Disappointed, the Inquisitor realized that he would not enjoy what was to come. Absent would be the relish with which he usually approached his work, but the betrayal must be stopped. There was no other way.
He wondered if perhaps, deep down, he wasn’t a bad Sith. He had been trained to despise weakness and yet here he was letting these troubling thoughts disturb his equilibrium. It had always been so. He recalled his first year as an Inquisitor. He had been secretly terrified. Terrified of failure. Terrified that they would come to him one day and say, “Valon, we’re sorry, but there was a mix-up at the home office. You aren’t supposed to be the Inquisitor, you are the traitor!” And then they would all share a laugh as they took him away.
He was sure that they could see his most secret thoughts, fears, fantasies. He assumed everyone knew full well the humiliations he suffered in the Academy — suffered gladly if it meant he would be left alone for a while.
He began to paint his lips.
Rilk had been standing there when he had performed his first interrogation. Valon recalled how his partner had not commented as he had fumbled his way through the questions, and tactfully did not call attention to the darkening sweat stains of his grey tunic. Why, I was probably more afraid than the poor fellow we were re-educating, he thought.
Valon had learned two things that day: he could trust Rilk, and he should never wear grey.
Rilk had protected him in those early years but now Valon did not need protecting.
Turning to see both profile-reflections, he critically examined the finished product. No one would be able to tell what was beneath the surface, he assured himself. No one ever could.
It was time to go to work.
As the briefing droned on around her, Shari Mankiller began to daydream.
“… And so the capitol has effectively been brought to its knees.”
Her mother had been from Coruscant. Shari didn’t remember much about her. She had returned to the planet when she had escaped from her husband, the great Sith Warrior, Leonid Mankiller, leaving her only daughter as yet another victim to his meteoric rise to power. His rise, Shari thought, but more so his fiery demise.
Shari had spent her nights wandering Coruscant’s great necropolis and standing before the small compartment that marked the final resting place of her mother. Her family had been well-to-do, obviously they must have been to have afforded even that tiny plot in the Temple of Eternal Rest. Most families on this over-crowded world had to make due with incineration. For the average citizen, ossuaries were just not a realistic option.
Her mother had been taken back by her rich family. She wondered if the entire episode was written off as one failed madcap lark. She imagined her grandparents shaking their heads at their daughter with a mixture of rebuke and pride. The sort of thing you see in the comedy vids.
Was her mother the wacky but lovable ditz or the headstrong but compassionate over-achiever? A shame comedies had nothing to do with real life — certainly not life with Father, she thought bitterly.
She wondered what her mother had seen in the man. Had he been different? Was there a time before the scars and blood-rages? Before the cybernetic limbs and blind white eye? Had there been moments when his laugh was not something that froze the blood or when his movements had not caused those around him to flinch?
She thought about her father and this made her realize she would never understand her mother. Who could love a Sith?
Across town, Stavril slung his pack over his shoulder and, hanging to the shadowed alleyways, made his way out of the undercity. He skirted patrols and kept his head down, wishing all the time that he had his lightsaber. Pure light — the perfect weapon for a Jedi. It was a symbol of honor and purity. If you were going to kill someone you at least needed the courage to look them in the eyes. Hurrying along, he pushed these upsetting thoughts from his mind and tried to calm himself with an old meditation mantra.
The boy stood beneath the pipe which seemed so familiar now and scanned the darkness. No one. He crouched down and then leapt with the Force and caught hold of the cold metal. Pulling himself up, he climbed quickly along the latticework of cables and generator parts until he reached the top of the building. He made his way to the ventilation shaft and carefully pried off the grill-guard.
Making sure his pack was secure, he lowered himself into the dark shaft, sealing it behind him.
He wasn’t sure how long he sat in the dark. Somehow the claustrophobic space made him feel comfortable. Safer. He hadn’t slept in days and now began to have trouble keeping his eyes open.
“There is only peace…” he told himself.
In his dreams, the sounds of loud voices and violence reached him from somewhere within the closed nightclub, but he slept on.
Jedd arrived at the club early. The Korriban Nights sign was still dark. He let himself in and was getting ready to begin his usual inspection of the stocks when he saw Mr. Kryptos locking the door of the office. This, Jedd felt, was unusual. He couldn’t remember a time when the door had not been open.
The nightclub owner stood frozen with his back to Jedd for a few seconds and then said, “Hello, Jedd.”
“Hello, boss. I was just going to go over the inventory.”
Kryptos turned and Jedd could see that his eye was swollen and his lip was split.
“You okay, boss?”
Kryptos laughed. “Yeah, I’m fine. You should see the other guy.”
“You need any help with anything?”
“No, I’m good, Jedd. You go do your inventory.”
The bartender nodded and hurried off towards the storage room. Kryptos heard the side door open and part of a conversation. The rest of the staff was arriving. He decided he would check the storage room with Jedd. He wondered if they still had any of those big boxes lying around.
Rilk threw the datapad back at Chivings.
“On whose authority did you do this?!”
Valon looked up from his seat.
“I told him to do it this morning.”
Rilk turned to his partner with a look of growing anger.
“I thought we had agreed to simply watch and wait.”
“Yes, well, I felt the situation was getting too… delicate.”
Chivings quietly stepped backwards, happy to let his superiors fight it out.
“Where are they?”
“Outside. Waiting for interrogation.”
Rilk stormed out of the room, sending a chair flying out of his way with a gesture of his hand.
Chivings looked terrified. Valon smiled at him.
“Don’t worry, Chivings. He’ll recover. Now, be a good man and get me those surveillance master copies, will you?”
They made a ragged line, staggered a few feet apart against the wall of the command center. Their arms were bound behind their backs and their heads hung in shame and fear. There were nine.
Rilk paced in front of them.
They were filthy in their torn Jedi robes. They hadn’t cleaned themselves since the fall of the Temple. In the light of the street they looked far more pathetic than even they had in that dark tunnel where he had first met them.
Rilk grimaced when he saw the old woman — their leader. Feeling his eyes on her, she looked up — recognition was quickly replaced with silent pleading. Rilk felt a sudden jolt of terror. What would he do?
It was probably only a few seconds before one of the other Jedi recognized him — until someone spoke. Things were falling apart.
He turned his back on the prisoners and faced the troopers.
“Sith soldiers, before you stand the miserable and cowardly enemies of our Empire. Their day has ended. Let ours begin. Execute them.”
A gasp went up from the Jedi and at the same time the Sith troopers looked at Rilk dumbly.
There commanding officer bowed to him.
“Sir, I am under orders–”
Rilk reached out with the Force and hurled the officer to the ground. Then, igniting his lightsaber, he repeated, “Execute them. Now!”
Valon stepped through the door and watched as the troopers began to open fire on the prisoners, at first haphazardly and then with greater enthusiasm. It wasn’t everyday that you got to play target practice with Jedi.
Valon grabbed Rilk by the shoulder and spun him.
“What have you done?”
Rilk simply stared at his partner before slowly breaking free of Valon’s grip.
The shooting over, he walked back to the Jedi and knelt beside the body of the old woman.
“Trust me,” he whispered, “it’s better this way.”
Shari began to walk. She had no destination in mind. Sometimes walking helped her think.
Ahead, she heard the raucous laughter of soldiers. A tight band of them stood hooting and clapping in front of the steps of a bombed-out civic center.
Muscling through them, she half-expected to find some new atrocity — some final degradation being suffered by the victims of the Sith war machine. Instead, she found a clown.
The soldiers, seeing her armor and ligthsaber, respectfully allowed her room. She stood at the very front of the group, directly before the strange man in his make-up and costume.
His face was pale and red lightning bolts had been painted through his eyes. He wore old torn black robes, and his chest was protected with cracked circuit board. He stomped imperiously back and forth before the crowd as if blind to them, but surveying an empire beyond their vision. Shari realized he was a mockery of a Sith Warrior.
An imaginary figure seemed to offend the clown-Sith. He pointed angrily, his mouth issuing silent commands. Though he did not speak, Shari knew what he was saying.
“Kneel! Kneel before your new master!”
He reached beneath his cloak and drew from it an empty hand which he held above his head. Slowly, a long red ballon grew like a sword from the top of his clenched fist. The clown slashed over and over with his balloon-lightsaber until, with a bang, it popped.
To the delight of the audience he stared at the drooping remnants of the balloon in disbelief and then began to cry.
Rilk growled in frustration as the terminal responded once more to his password with the words: “Access denied.”
He shut the screen off just as the door slid open.
“Don’t you knock?”
Valon rapped gently on the wall.
“No. I would actually like to be left alone.”
Rilk watched as Valon walked over to the mini-bar and began fixing a drink.
“We can’t always get what we want.”
“You haven’t had any trouble with the computers today, have you?”
“No.” Valon handed Rilk a glass and began to sip his own drink while admiring the stolen painting on the wall.
“Do you know who the artist is?”
“No. I just liked the scene.”
“The lake is very pretty. You should find out where it is. Maybe you could go there on your vacation.”
Rilk said nothing.
“Do you remember when we first started working together? You sat in on my first interrogation.”
“I really don’t remember.”
Kryptos held the cool glass to his eye. It was working up to be a real shiner.
The club was filled to capacity already and they had only been open for half an hour. He looked at the time again.
Wiley was late. That was unusual.
A few minutes later, when she did arrive, she came through the customers’ entrance. Reddrake was holding her elbow. They scanned the crowd and spotting Kryptos, the Sith guided a somewhat reluctant-looking Wiley in his direction.
Kryptos finished his drink.
They stood for a few awkward seconds before Reddrake cleared his throat.
“Kryptos, Wiley has something to tell you. She–”
The nightclub owner cut him off.
“If she has something to say, she can say it herself, pal.”
Wiley bit her lip, and then said, “I’ve been thinking about this a while and… hey, what happened to you?!”
“Nothing. The Ewok is a mean drunk. I walked into a bulkhead. Forget it and get to the point.”
“She’s quitting,” said Reddrake. “She’s done in this place. End of story.”
Kryptos ignored him and got to his feet.
“It’s true. I’m… I’m going to be taking some time off for a bit, I guess.”
Kryptos looked her in the eye.
“You don’t have to do this.”
Wiley looked away. Reddrake opened his mouth to speak but Kryptos raised a finger towards him and he fell silent.
“I don’t know what this weasel-faced slime may have told you or promised you or whatever, but you don’t have to do this, Wiley. Not for somebody like him.”
The audience laughed. The clown had brought out an invisible bag and was busily grabbing items out of the ether and then stuffing them into it. He stared with greedy eyes, licking his lips as he grasped at the air. Suddenly looking up, he spotted the moon.
He jumped and pointed and assailed it with silent threats before slowly trying to drag it down out of the sky with his outstretched arms. Having been removed from its resting place, the weight of the imaginary moon almost toppled the clown. He reeled backwards, knees buckling as he strained to lower it to the ground.
The crowd stared at the empty air as he caressed it and rubbed his hands over its spherical surface. Then, lifting the invisible bag, the clown found that the moon was too big to fit. He became irate and gnashed his teeth — blue streamers shot like lightning from his fingertips. He rolled up his sleeves and began to press on the moon, squeezing it down into the dirt. Finally, it was compressed to the point where he could rest his foot on it and grind the make-believe satellite under his heel. Finally, all that was left fit between his thumb and his index finger. He prepared to put it in the bag, but then, thinking better of it, popped the miniature moon into his mouth and swallowed.
Shari Mankiller stared at him in horror and the Sith-clown turned to her and winked. At that moment she recognized him as Karl, the guard of the stolen art, and at the same time, she understood that he had been painted to look like her father.
Rilk was having trouble focusing on Valon’s words. Something about surveillance.
“What were you saying?” He asked. His glass fell to the floor.
“I have the master copies, so don’t worry. I’ll destroy them. That, coupled with your impromptu execution of the witnesses, should effectively end the matter.”
“Who’sh under surveillance?” Rilk noticed he was slurring his words, which seemed odd after one drink.
“You, of course! You’ve been under watch for quite a while now. Command feels you might be… I don’t want to say ‘disloyal’, but–”
Rilk stood up quickly and tottered on his feet.
“You…I’mma…” He fumbled for his lightsaber but it slipped through his fingers. When he fell, Valon caught him with the Force and lifted him carefully onto the bed.
Wiley had tears in her eyes.
“What’s it matter to you? What am I to you anyway?!”
Kryptos said nothing.
She turned and began to walk away. Reddrake shot one last look of venom over his shoulder and then followed her. She had reached the lower tier of tables when Kryptos called her name. She turned.
“Take care of yourself, kid.”
And she was gone.
Shari hurried down the streets now. She had fled from the smiling face of the Sith-clown. Fled the memories it conjured up in her heart.
She wanted to push it from her mind but couldn’t. For a moment she had seen where she had come from and where she was going. She wanted someone to tell her it would be okay. She wanted someone she could talk to and she didn’t care who is was. She wanted Rilk.
Valon looked down at his partner.
“The Mankiller case was a bit of an experiment. They wanted to see how you would play it. I think we can safely call it off now.”
Rilk fought the sense of extreme exhaustion that was rapidly robbing him of all strength. He willed himself to lift his hand. His fingers trembled and he let out a small groan.
Valon sat down on the bed beside him.
“Don’t worry. It’s going to be okay.”
What was Rilk to her, she wondered. Nothing. Did she love him? She laughed. She hardly knew him.
Who would love a Sith?
She didn’t love him or know him but she needed him. This had nothing to do with romance. It was a question of need.
Valon brushed the hair from Rilk’s forehead.
“I’m going to take care of everything. You’ll see, when this Mankiller case is done, you can have your vacation. Relax. This is all stress. Command will understand. You had a little breakdown. Overworked. You just needed a little relaxation.”
The Inquisitor closed his eyes.
“I don’t think you know how important you are to me, Rilk. I can’t let anything happen to you. You’re my only friend. I need you.”
Shari would see Rilk. She would find a way out of this mess. Maybe she would meet those Jedi. It seemed crazy but it might be her only chance. She would find Rilk and he would help her. First, though, she needed a drink.
She looked up at the flashing sign. Korriban Nights.
Valon got up to leave.
“Rest now. When you wake up, Mankiller will be gone.”
Rilk stared at his partner in horror. Behind him, the painting of the lake grew black and ominous. Thick dark water seemed to poor from the frame flooding the room. Valon didn’t seem to notice as the waves splashed higher and higher, rising to the surface of the bed.
Rilk tried to scream but his tongue wouldn’t move. The black waters lapped against his skin and then closed over his face.
Valon turned back and saw Rilk lying motionless on the bed. He switched off the light and sealed the door.
Stavril climbed out of the ventilation shaft and listened. The energy of the crowd and the music was pulsing through the club. He held his pack tightly to his chest.
“You moving in now?” asked a voice from behind him. It was Kryptos.
“What do you mean?”
The club owner pointed at Stavril’s bag.
“Oh. Yeah. Well, I’m moving from one place to another. Hiding, I guess.”
“Do you need money?”
“So what are you doing here?”
Stavril looked around. He noticed the bruises on Kryptos’s face, and the sounds he heard in his dream came back to him.
“That Macer guy… He was here. He did that to you, right?”
Kryptos narrowed his eyes.
“Don’t worry about Macer.”
“I’m not worrying, I just–”
“You’d better go help Jedd.”
Kryptos turned and walked towards his office.
Shari Mankiller ordered another drink. She didn’t see Rilk or Valon. Kryptos seemed to be missing as well. In fact, the more she looked, the less people she recognized. The girl dancer wasn’t there, either. She spotted the bartender talking to that strange kid, Kryptos’s “cousin.” They seemed to be having some kind of argument. After a minute the bartender threw up his hands and disappeared into the back.
In the street outside Korriban Nights, a modified personnel-carrier parked on the sidewalk. A unit of battle-droids marched quickly along behind it.
Valon stepped out of the vehicle and began issuing instructions.
“I want this club surrounded. No one goes in our out until you hear from me.”
The droid-captain beeped an affirmative.
“Pull ’round the back and keep the engine running.”
With that, Valon entered the club.
There was a loud knocking on the office door.
The door opened. Kryptos was wearing a pair of thick gloves and had a vibrosaw in his hand.
“You have to get out of here. Now!”
“What are you talkin’ about?”
“Just listen! Get out now! I got the rest of them to leave. You need to go NOW!”
“It’s a bomb!”
Kryptos blinked. He saw that Stavril no longer was holding the bag.
The club owner threw Stavril out of his way and sprinted towards the floor of the club. The dazed Padawan got to his feet and was about to follow him when he caught sight of the bloody mess in the office. A pile of neatly-stacked disarticulated body parts had been placed in a large storage box. Stavril recognized Macer’s head peering out at him.
Shari Mankiller put down her glass.
The club exploded.
Rilk sank deeper and deeper beneath the waves of sleep brought on by the soporific. Blackness closed in on him from all sides.
He knew that somewhere above him was the surface but he couldn’t quite remember why it was so important to be there.
Images drifted through his mind. Valon batted his gold-dusted eyes. An old woman stood surrounded by blue-white lightsabers. A child turned to face him, her eye bulging from its socket as she laughed and laughed. A halo of flame drifted over Coruscant. Ships touched down. Sith Troopers opened fire on prisoners. A woman began to dance.
Something about this last memory tugged at Rilk’s attention. There was something he needed and she was the key to it. She was dancing with him. Valon was watching from a table. Far, far above him, Rilk could see a light. Somewhere above the waves there was a beacon. He knew he had to reach it.
Rilk raised his arm and willed himself to oppose his descent into the icy depths. He began to rise. His lungs ached as if bereft of air. He strained every muscle as he pulled himself back.
The light became clear. It took on a shape. It was a sign.
Rilk broke the surface.
Lying on his bed he convulsed and drew in a ragged breath. His body was drenched in sweat and his face was contorted. The blood vessels in his eyes swelled and burst. Bruises discolored his skin. He let out a long cry that reached to his soul. The Force burst forth from him like a storm, destroying his furniture and charring the walls.
He collapsed and then rolled over on his side and was sick. His head, his body, his vision, every piece of him was wracked with pain, but he was awake.
And he was very angry.
Kryptos hauled himself upright with the assistance of an intact chair. The explosion still echoed in his ears. He looked around. Destruction. The dead lay mingled with the moaning wounded. Body parts and destroyed bits of structure lay strew across the club. Part of the dance floor was on fire. The droid, DJ-99, stood at his sound system decks, still scratching as he was immolated by the inferno that had sprung up around him.
Kryptos released the chair and teetered before taking a wobbly step. He looked down on the floor and saw a face staring back up at him. No head. No body. Just a face.
“Someone’s gonna miss that,” he babbled.
Stavril watched as the night club owner staggered uncertainly in his direction. The boy had missed the full force of the explosion, having been protected by the separating wall. He ran to Kryptos and tried to help him.
The older man rebuffed his efforts.
“Look at it!” screamed Kryptos. ” Look at what you’ve done!”
He grabbed Stavril’s head and twisted it towards the pile of the dead and dying.
Stavril began to weep.
“I didn’t want to! I didn’t want to do it!”
He had justified it to himself, just as the other Jedi had justified it to him. The Sith were an invading force. This was war. Civilian casualties were unavoidable. Most of the people there were collaborators anyway offering support to the Sith. It was war. The enemy had to be destroyed.
He fell to his knees.
“I didn’t mean it.”
Kryptos knelt beside him and cradled the young boy’s head.
“It’s okay,” he said. “You’re just a stupid kid. You couldn’t have known.”
“I didn’t mean it. Honest I didn’t!” Stavril tried to shut the moans and screams out. Kryptos felt along the ground. Moving his hand through the rubble.
“It’s gonna be okay.”
“I didn’t want to. I’m a Jedi. I’m a Jedi.”
“It’s not your fault, kid. It’s mine. I shouldn’t have tried acting out of character.”
Kryptos pulled Stavril’s head back and drove a long metal sliver from the wreckage into the boy’s throat.
The Jedi pushed Kryptos away and stood gurgling for a moment as he clawed at the blood spurting from the gash in his neck. Kryptos waited.
The boy fell.
“Sorry, kid. It was nothing personal.”
He dragged himself away from the twitching body and spreading pool of red. He needed to get to his office.
Shari Mankiller shook off the weight the kept her pinned to the ground. Just before the explosion she had felt the immediate and irresistible need to take cover. The table and most of the booth had been overturned atop her but, now free, she realized she had come through it largely unscathed. The same couldn’t be said for the rest of the club. She began to move.
She turned and, igniting her lightsaber, deflected the brunt of the lightning that arced from Valon’s fingers.
“Still alive, Commander? Not for long.”
She could see that his fine robes were torn and he was covered in dust. Blood dripped steadily from his scalp.
“An attack on a Sith officer is treason! I’m placing you under arrest,” she bluffed as she backed away from him.
“You’re no Sith,” he spat. The lightning came again.
Shari felt the fabric above her armor smoldering as she held the deadly energy at bay with her blade. She dropped to a one-handed grip and, with a wave of her hand, sent an overturned table slamming into Valon’s back.
Caught off guard, the Inquisitor toppled forward. He watched Mankiller run towards the back of the building. Reaching out with the Force he tripped her.
Shari went sprawling across the floor. Her hand landed in a puddle. She looked down and saw the twisted expression of the mysterious boy. Kryptos’s cousin. The color drained with the blood from his face. The wound on his neck was rough. Probably shrapnel, she thought. She got to her feet and began to run again. She saw a stairwell.
As Rilk had raced to the club on a commandeered patrol swoop, he had felt the explosion in his flesh and in the Force. He came to a screeching halt outside Korriban Nights. Injured revelers were climbing out of a sizable hole in the wall, but Commando droids were preventing their exit.
“What is going on here?!” Rilk demanded of the officer-droid.
“We have orders to prevent either entry to or egress from this establishment.”
A man clutching the stump of his arm to his chest tried to push past the droid sentries. Blasters bolts tore through his body.
Rilk showed his identification badge to the droid.
“I’m an Inquisitor. I order you to stand aside!”
The droid registered this and then said, “You have been placed on administrative leave, Inquisitor. I am sorry but you do not have the authority to countermand our orders.”
“Have it your way.”
The red blade of the lightsaber split the droid across the middle.
Valon crept along the hall to the stairwell. He was in great pain. Though he too had taken cover just before the explosion, he had struck his head against the wall. He felt dizzy and a wave of nausea threatened to overtake him.
“Don’t make me come up there, Commander! Be a good girl and let me kill you here.”
He groped along the darkened stairs dragging himself along the safety bar.
Reaching the top, he used the Force to blast the fire-door off its hinges. It clattered across the roof. The cool Coruscant air fanned his skin.
“Nice night for it,” he said, and stepped out.
Shari Mankiller raised her lightsaber above her head and charged.
Rilk danced through the droids’ blaster fire, deflecting shots back at them. He sprinted into the smoking darkness of the club. The machines did not follow.
As he gingerly stepped over bodies and rubbish he listened. Tuning out the sounds of pain and death, he could hear noises coming from the rear of the building.
Kryptos grabbed fistfuls of credits and data cards and dropped them into the open bag. The wall-safe was nearly clear when the club owner spun around and leveled his sawed-off laser carbine at the doorway.
Rilk said nothing.
Kryptos picked up a small stuffed Ewok from his desk. It had a bow behind each ear. He dropped it into the bag.
Valon parried Shari’s strike and brought a Force-enhanced punch into her unguarded chest. She gasped.
The Inquisitor spun, igniting the second blade of his lightsaber, and swept at her legs.
Shari jumped over the attack and twisted, landing her heel on Valon’s chin.
She lunged once more, but he deflected her attack and unleashed a torrent of electricity from his hand.
Shari screamed as pain rippled through her body. Her eyes closed as she doubled over, fighting to hold onto her weapon.
Valon ducked as the heavy metal door whistled just over his head. He turned to the stairway and gaped in disbelief.
“What are you doing here?!”
“I’m going to stop you,” Rilk told him.
Valon’s face grew dark with increasing wrath. His hair began to stand up of its own accord.
Rilk stepped onto the roof and pointed his lightsaber at his partner.
“You won’t hurt her.”
“You idiot! I’m doing this for you!”
Shari kicked-back to a standing position and brought her lightsaber level with her eyes.
“Back off. I’ve got this.”
In the alley below, a worried Chivings stared up at the roof of the building. He could hear yells and the clash of lightsabers. A red glow seemed to spark over the night sky.
The Agent turned to see a small furry creature sitting on the hood of his personnel-carrier. He realized with some shock that it was an Ewok.
“Get off that! What are you doing?!”
The Ewok ignored him and rubbed its posterior against the windshield.
“Oh! That does it.” He drew his sidearm, but before he could aim, a hand closed over his mouth from behind and a long vibroknife was plunged into his heart.
“Chub yub gaga.”
“Shut up and help me find his keys,” snapped Kryptos.
Valon used both blades to parry their attacks. Steadily, though, the fury of their blows drove him back.
Rilk suddenly ignited the second edge to his own lightsaber and brought it up in a furious strike that spilt Valon’s weapon in two.
The Inquisitor released his destroyed weapon and cried out to the Force.
Shari and Rilk were blasted backwards by the power of his attack.
Sweat and blood streaked Valon’s makeup.
“Now you’ve done it.”
Lightning charged the air around Valon, sending his opponents diving for cover.
“Are you trying to ruin our friendship, Rilk?!”
Rilk crashed into a ventilator shaft. Valon sneered as he brought down a heavy antenna on his prone partner.
Shari rushed him but the now-weaponless Sith unleashed bolt after bolt of lightening upon her.
“Women!” complained Valon, “Always have to spoil everything!”
Rilk groaned and tried to rise. He felt pain explode along his arm. It had been crushed and was now pinned by the antenna.
Valon circled around Shari. She glared at him but could not drop her guard to attack. He was too powerful and too fast.
The engine turned over with a sound like thunder and the Ewok grinned broadly behind the wheel.
Slaine tossed his bag in the back and said, “Let’s get out of here.”
A moment later, the modified personnel-carrier exploded out of the alleyway, crushing several droids beneath its treads. Their companions took up firing positions and the vehicle was peppered with small arms fire as it rumbled away.
A wall now blocked Rilk’s view of the fight.He could no longer see Shari but he could hear her screams and Valon’s laughter.
He tried to shift the mass of tangled metal that trapped his arm with the Force but found he didn’t have the strength.
His lightsaber lay abandoned in this distance. He closed his eyes and extended his hand towards it.
Valon stood over Shari and picked her lightsaber up from the ground. He deactivated the blade and sighed.
Beneath him, she blinked her eyes.
Rilk began to slash at the antenna, slowly cutting it away. He would be free in a minute at the most.
From the other side of the wall came a piercing scream and the smell of ozone and charred flesh.
Rilk gritted his teeth and lifted the humming blade once more.
Shari’s body writhed in agony before Valon. She no longer screamed — her convulsions had paralyzed her lungs. In a few seconds it would be over.
Then things would be back to normal, he thought.
Rilk drove his lightsaber into Valon’s back.
When Shari opened her eyes, she saw Rilk kneeling over the body of his friend. His lightsaber hung loosely in his hand… his one hand. She noticed with horror that his other sleeve and arm was missing just above the elbow.
Valon whispered, “Rilk, I need you. Please, don’t leave me.”
Rilk leaned over Valon.
“It’s okay. I’m here.”
“Don’t ever leave me.”
Valon moved his hand and Rilk sagged as Shari’s stolen lightsaber erupted out his back. Rilk grabbed Valon’s hand and gripped it tightly, preventing the blade from tearing through his body. Valon smiled and then went limp. Rilk switched the blade off and fell.
Rilk felt someone moving his body. He tried to open his eyes.
“Stay still. This is bad.”
He pushed her hand away.
“Get Valon’s ID badge,” he whispered.
As Shari searched the body, Rilk drew the Force to himself. He wrapped it like a protective cloak around his body. He used it to hold in the little life he had left.
“Help me up.”
She slid her arm under his good shoulder and lifted him.
“I’ve got a swoop downstairs. Keep that badge handy.”
Holding Valon’s badge like a shield before them, Shari and Rilk moved through the cordon of droids. Several of her own troopers offered their assistance which she refused, and their vehicle which she accepted.
As they sped to the shuttle port, Rilk shuddered.
“Are you okay?”
He didn’t answer for a long time.
“Shari, I need to tell you something.”
She looked at him with profound sadness.
“Rilk… I don’t love you.”
Though they received some dubious looks, port security could not find a reason to refuse a high-ranking Inquisitor’s request for a small craft.
Shari powered up the drives.
Rilk leaned forward and gasped, then switched on the radio.
“This is IQ-878z-UUV seeking clearance. I am transporting a prisoner back to Korriban. Warrant number H-99-6-RTU-8.”
He sat back and waited. His eyes became very heavy and he noticed his legs felt cold.
“Clearance granted, IQ-878z-UUV. Please use platform 9.”
“I told you there were only two ways off this planet. Dead or an Inquisitor’s prisoner.”
He leaned back and closed his eyes.
“Rilk.” Shari shook him. “Come on, Rilk. You’ve got to stay awake.”
The ship began to lift off as the navcomputer prepared the jump information.
“Rilk! You can’t go to sleep now! Hold on a little longer. Stay with me, Rilk!”
As they cleared the planetary shield, the computer announced, “Please prepare yourselves for lightspeed. All belongings should be safely secured.”
Shari grabbed Rilk’s robes in both hands.
“Rilk! Come on! You’ve got to stay awake. Don’t you want to see that lake?! Remember the lake, Rilk? The one in the painting? We can find it. Don’t go to sleep!”
Rilk smiled his ugly smile and whispered, “Wake me when we get there.”