There was a surprising air of calm hovering about the Epicanthix; at least, that was what the Aedile of House Qel-Droma perceived. Sitting rigidly in his office chair, Invictus stared listlessly back at Ronovi, who nonchalantly reclined in her own seat with a small smile dancing on her teeth. The thin light of the space played tricks with the shadows on the walls, making them somewhat washed out and gray rather than truly dark and imposing.
Funny how she carries herself like this...anyone on my team acted so cocky, I've give them a lesson in manners...
Oh, I don't know about that, lad...if you were as successful with assignments as she was, you'd be a bit headstrong as well.
But if the deduced evidence states otherwise...
He noticed that Ronovi's eyes had not wavered from his face, and realizing this, he cut off his stream of addled thoughts for the time-being.
"You see how much value Marick is placing on this man, I take it?" Ronovi asked once she had gotten his full and undivided attention.
Invictus blinked once. "Yes, I do."
"A hacker somewhat motivated by money," continued the Exarch, "but not if the highest bidder can wield a lightsaber, am I right?"
"It certainly is a convoluted way of handling finances."
"Yet this 'Walli' has made no attempt to relay the information of our presence to anyone." As she spoke, Ronovi rose from her chair, her boots audibly squealing against the alabaster-hued floor. "You'd think that at some point, someone would make a rather...convincing bid for the goods. But this self-proclaimed 'player' keeps his mouth shut while surrounding himself with his geeky friends and technology."
"Gives him power, I suppose," Invictus hypothesized.
"That," retorted Ronovi, "or it makes him feel safe. See, we can't force him to join our ranks as a prized slicer if we wanted to because he'd blackmail us with that info. But we can't coax him into joining us because he thinks he can lord his knowledge over us. He's in a rather comfortable spot, far away from any of us laying a finger on him."
There was a small period of silence that lingered like cold fingers on Invictus's sapphire skin as he looked at the still grinning Ronovi. His hand instinctively brushed the transparent metal of his desk, the follicles of his blue-black hair bristling in the still air of the office.
She's got a plan cooking in that skull of hers...
"So what do you propose, Ronovi, since you clearly came here for my assistance?" asked Invictus in as cool and calm of a tone as he could muster.
Ronovi stopped pacing and propped her hands on the chair in front of her, her organic brown eye glistening with delight. "It's about time we frayed that little safety net that 'Walli' has woven for himself, don't you think?"
"Turn the thing that's keeping him safe into something dangerous and life-threatening," she interjected. "Yes. Any hacker thrives off of power, and there's no power without life. No amount of information Walli has, ergo, is worth dying for."
"You said yourself we can't threaten him," Invictus remarked. "If we try to - "
But Ronovi clucked her tongue and stopped his stream of comments with a look. "Now, now, friend...Qel-Droma can't threaten him. But someone else can. And when that someone else makes him desperate for safety, then..."
"Then we intervene?"
The expression on Ronovi's face could have sent off sparks and fireworks in the room if she had looked any more gleeful. She beamed down at Invictus, who did not flinch.
"Contact GALBASE 2 and see if you can get them to send Talos Erinos and Cethgus Entar with a few grunts over to Ol'val," she said. "We're going to give this boy a reason to consider us the perfect 'sanctuary.'"
The suite in the hotel hovering over the Jerem Plaza garden was stuffy but cozy enough, as Walli refilled his stemmed glass and stuck an olive into it. He passed the makeshift martini off to the giggling girl beside him, while another clawed for the drink and ended up scratching his gaunt but bare chest.
"Whoa, whoa, easy now, my dear," Walli murmured with a coy grin under his long nose. "We'll get to that later."
He was sitting with three women, all reasonably made up and marvelously slutty, and a portable console lain out across his bony lap. As he brushed a strand of black hair away from his face, Walli keyed in a few codes and watched as the encrypted keys of Mal Company broke apart on the screen before him. He saw holographic faces of men who certainly looked like hired pirates, and he focused on one specifically.
"Let's see," he thought to himself. "A changed name, a reduction in capabilities, and a full commentary about how his employer has a rather small pr - "
The lanky hacker turned his head to see his rather portly friend Jerry squishing himself through the small door, his chest noticeably heaving as his face grew flushed and red from exertion. Walli was beginning to regret making him his "bodyguard."
"Come, now, Jerry," Walli sneered as he gestured at the barely clad ladies beside him; the Twi'lek of the trio twitched her Lekku in irritation. "Can't you see I'm working?"
"I know," Jerry wheezed, "but some people are here to see you. They claim they have an awesome offer for that oh-so-secret data you scrounged up."
"Ah, yes." Walli's eyebrow arched instinctively. "The 'oh-so-secret data.' How much?"
"They didn't tell me...but they said it was beyond your wildest dreams come true, man."
Walli couldn't help gritting his teeth at that. Jerry was prone to making things sound better - and simultaneously stupider - than they really were. Gently taking the glass away from the drunk Human whore, he shuffled the women out of the room one at a time as they moaned in pseudo-disappointment.
"Now, now, ladies," he comforted. "Once daddy's done with business, he'll get to the other business later, all right?"
When the last of them was gone, Walli viciously closed the door before staring up into Jerry's sheepish eyes. He was very close to slapping the man's face until his fat cheeks wobbled.
"What did I tell you about interrupting my play time?" he snarled.
"What bargain now could possibly warrant my not getting some pussy tonight?" Walli pressed on. "And I swear, if it's those damn Dark Jedi again, I'll..."
"No, no, no!" Jerry squealed, and Walli got reminded of a swine being stuck on a pike before being roasted. "It's not them. I swear it's not. It's someone else."
Walli pursed his lips. He could feel the heat dissipating from his pinkish face, returning it to its normal sallow whiteness.
"Three men," replied Jerry. "They claim the data is of utmost importance and are willing to pay anything for it. I'm serious, dude."
Walli blinked. This was not something he had heard before. He let the word moisten his tongue before pronouncing it.
"Anything," Jerry repeated.
Walli breathed deeply before stooping down and retrieving his collared shirt from the floor. As he buttoned it and snapped his belt on again, his hand gingerly caressed the slight bulge where his "prized possession" lay beneath the fabric. He turned to look at his 'bodyguard' again, simpering beneath his long, greasy fringe.
"Get me my Bryar and my holster," he ordered Jerry. "I'm not meeting three men unarmed."
"I don't understand," Marick muttered as Ronovi filled her glass again. "If you've started on the contract I gave you, why are you here in my office, drinking your damn whiskey?"
"If I didn't know any better, I'd say you didn't want me here," teased Ronovi in response.
After making the arrangements with Invictus, Ronovi had simply migrated to Marick's office within the lower level of the headquarters. She knew the man did not drink - after all, he had to maintain some sort of snobbish discipline - so she had brought a bottle with her in order to stimulate conversation. At this point, the whiskey was the best thing happening right now.
"You have a mission to undertake," said Marick, his voice never rising into a bark. "If we truly want this man to work with us..."
"Patience, Marick, patience," interrupted Ronovi. "Everything is going as planned. Talos and Cethgus have made their way to Ol'val space and the operation should be well underway now. Part of the job is biding my time."
"Perhaps you can spend your time with your typical female whimsies," Marick muttered, "and not bothering me while I'm trying to work."
Ronovi rolled her eyes. She knew that Marick used his chauvinistic ways to taunt her more than actually criticize her, but this time he certainly seemed irritated enough to piss her off. Draining her glass, Ronovi's molars clamped down as she let out a thin rivulet of air whistle from her mouth.
"Once my commlink goes off," she said, "I will depart from Ol'val where our prize will be waiting for us. This plan is pretty much seamless at this point. No way we'll lose this guy."
"Better be right, Ronnie," Marick said, "or I'll make you spend the night with an oiled up man from Besadii. And you certainly don't want that, do you?"
Ronovi refilled her glass, stared at it, and pretended to nearly throw the contents into the Hapan's face before drinking and keeping her eyes averted.
"Cheers to you being a prat as always," she gurgled with Whyren's hot on her tongue.
The clients that Jerry had bragged about were not in the lobby, nor in the restaurant beside it. As Walli stepped out into the courtyard, he felt a sudden twinge of anxiety strain his forehead muscles. He was normally not a man who worried, but his vigilance was a habit he had formed as a child and wouldn't fade away any time soon.
Gesturing for Jerry to stay beside him so he could serve as an adequate meat shield, Walli disappeared into a maze of flowers and foliage and wrinkled his nose at the smell. He knew these flowers were artificially planted for looks, and had it been another season of the year he would have had dreadful allergies and sinus infections. It was bad enough to try to be social and geeky at the same time - he didn't need a deviated septum to fit the image of a stereotype.
As Walli turned the corner, he did not expect to see people waiting for him. Nor did he expect the deep, soft voice that emanated from one of their faces.
Standing in front of him were three men of different species, all simply dressed and stoic, as they stood amongst the reds and violets of the petals and leaves surrounding them. It was the Chiss of the group that had spoken, as his companions remained uncomfortably silent, the hoods of their long gray coats pulled across their faces and only exposing their eyes. Walli could tell one was a Zabrak from the slight bulging silhouettes of his horns under his hood.
Walli's eyes flickered to Jerry for affirmation. When he got it, he chuckled and bowed like a nobleman.
"At your service, gentlemen," he teased, knowing that it flattered or amused most of his customers.
But the expression on the Chiss's face did not change. Instead, he exchanged blank looks at his small entourage before extending a hand.
"My name is Chaf'inn'inrokini, of the Fifth Ruling Family," he said, his voice still amazingly mellow and comforting. "But if that's difficult to remember, you may simply call me 'Finnin.'"
"Hi, Finnin," Jerry grunted, snorting a bit as if he thought the name was funny. Walli would have sucker punched him if he wasn't concerned that the man's gut would swallow up his fist.
"If your friend would please leave us for a time," Finnin said without hesitation, a thin smile on his lips, "then we can discuss the matter of your information delicately without interference."
Walli frowned. "But he's my..."
"Bodyguard?" the Chiss finished. "Very kind of you to entitle him with such, but we are not here to cause trouble. We are here merely to make an offer. If you don't mind..."
Remembering his Bryar, Walli turned and nodded at a glum-looking Jerry before the latter sulked off into the shrubbery. When he looked back at the trio, he suddenly shuddered under the hard gaze of the Zabrak, who still had not said a word along with his Human partner. However, Finnin's soothing voice again sifted into his psyche, as the Chiss had already begun to move away.
"Come. Let us walk."
The four of them began to saunter leisurely through the gardens, and despite his company, Walli felt very alone. It was a familiar feeling, but one he had attempted to stifle throughout the years. Somehow, he found his mind wandering to darker thoughts, voices he knew ringing in his head.
Run, son, run. And whatever you do, don't look ba -
Walli raised his head sharply, water escaping from the corners of his eyes. He shook his hair out of his face as he looked at Finnin, whose expression remained eerily calm.
"We must discuss this information you have with great care. What you have, we believe, is more essential than you may conceive it to be."
"What can I say?" Walli chuckled. "I'm one essential guy."
He felt a hand clamp down on his shoulder. The touch was strangely cold.
"I'd feel like joking more, but the matter is greater than you think," Finnin murmured. "You see, we are obviously not ordinary men. We have been on a very delicate mission, which has led us to this foreign space. We believe there are certain...enemies who must be rooted out in this dominion."
Walli blinked. "You're kidding, right? You're Republic allies?"
Finnin let out a breathy laugh, more disorienting than comforting. "Close enough, my friend. We have been assigned to deal with any oppressive forces throughout the galaxy. We have heard of your...escapades...from more than one source."
"So you've heard stories?"
"Let's just say we have good friends counting on us to keep the galaxy safe," Finnin muttered.
Walli did not like where this was going. From the look of their clothing and the manner of their behavior, these men were not ordinary agents or scouts. He debated turning around before Finnin's grip tightened on his sleeve, and whatever color was left in the hacker's face was completely sapped away like milk through a straw.
"It would not be wise for you to go just yet, Mister Walli. You have not yet heard our deal."
Walli gritted his teeth. "And what deal would that be," he said, before coyly adding, "might I ask?"
He found himself facing Finnin and standing in the shadows of the Zabrak and Human, both still so damn quiet in their movements, never pulling their hoods away from their faces. The Chiss, despite his potent words, still seemed remarkably calm and hospitable, his hands splayed forward as if in a gesture of kindness. His eyebrows were slightly creased beneath his long dark hair, his lips slightly parted.
"We are willing to offer you not only a sum of credits that would set you for life," he said, "but also complete protection under our order. No one will come to harm you again, and you can retire at a delightfully young age."
"Set for life?" Walli repeated.
"With complete protection."
Anger began to well in Walli's chest, and he looked around feverishly for an exit.
"I don't need your protection," he found himself hissing, "and I certainly want nothing to do with your order. I know what you are now, and I'm awfully sorry...but I have nothing of importance."
"Nothing?" The Chiss's tone had become somewhat dry, coarse.
"That's certainly not what we have learned."
"Yeah, well," Walli stuttered, "maybe I was bluffing."
He suddenly felt his arms being wrenched behind his back, as the Zabrak and Human both pinned him against them. Finnin sighed deeply, as if admonishing his allies.
"Now, now, my friends, you know not to harm him," he said. "Let go of him."
Walli felt his muscles pinch before his arms were released. He whimpered slightly as he nursed his wrists, just before the Human snapped the Bryar right off his belt along with the holster.
"Much better," Finnin said to his companion, gesturing for the man to hand over the weapon. He unholstered the pistol and turned it carefully around in his hands, as if admiring it.
"A bit of a blaster aficionado, I see," he said with a small smile. "Do you collect them?"
"Cut the crap," Walli snarled. "You're Jedi, aren't you?"
His words seemed to turn to dust when they hit the air, as if they were locked in a vacuum. Walli wondered why no one else was around, why no one staying or working in the hotel could see or hear them. Instead, he found himself alone staring at Chaf'inn'inrokini, the latter matching him in height but overpowering him in bulk.
"Look, Mister Walli," Finnin's voice drifted in a merciful whisper, "we know there are Dark Jedi here. Several of them, controlling the facets of this shadowport. Now, if you have information on where they are and how to find them, we will reward you accordingly. Do not take this offer lightly, if you're wise and wish to aid us for the greater good."
Walli felt his whole body tremble. Snot was beginning to swell up in both nostrils.
"And what will you do if I tell you nothing?" he demanded.
Finnin looked remorseful and reluctant as he answered. "Then it is our duty to extract the information from you at all costs."
"You don't scare me," Walli choked, his voice strained but angry. "None of you do. Where were you when the Empire slaughtered so many? Hmmm? What makes you think I trust you or any of your Republic 'friends'? I have nothing to offer you, and even if I did, you wouldn't lay a finger on me because of your oh-so-benevolent ways."
He broke away from the circle then, looking in the direction of where Jerry had gone, his heart pounding in his ears and threatening to erupt from his throat in a tangled cardiovascular web. Walli couldn't seem to walk away yet, as if waiting for some sort of violence to be enacted against him. Instead, however, he heard a gentle chuckle from Finnin, as the Chiss extended the pistol back to him.
"Suit yourself, Mister Walli," Finnin said. "We'll give you some time to reconsider our offer. Make no mistake - we will be back."
Then he turned to the Zabrak and Human and nodded to them, before the three disappeared into the brush with Walli staring down at the Bryar in his white fingers.
When Walli returned, Jerry was in the restaurant, stuffing his face with Berbersian crab and Lambro shark as per usual. Hiccuping, he waved a fat hand at him and gestured for him to sit down.
"So?" he asked as Walli folded his hands on the table. "What happened?"
"Nothing," Walli lied. "I didn't take the offer. It was a fluke."
"Oh, bummer," Jerry groaned. "Tried to scam you, I bet. What's up with that?"
"If I were you," warned Walli, "I'd stick to doing what you do best. Eat and shut up."
Jerry's eyes wept an apology as he returned to his food, but Walli had lost any and all appetite he had had. It was getting very late at night, and the episode in the courtyard had drained him of most of his energy. Staring at the table, Walli tried to take note of little things like the mahogany stain or computer codes, but he couldn't focus.
Were they really Jedi? Walli never thought he'd see the likes of such again. And the fact that they had the gall to demand such from him was outrageous. He knew there was no sanctuary with the likes of them, light side or dark side. His mind began to race again.
Go, darling, go! Take him and go! Don't let them -
He tried to shut out the screams. So real in his head...
"Walli?" Jerry asked through a mouthful of fish. "Walli, what's up, dude?"
Walli shook his head wildly, his hair splaying all over the place. He put on a standard smile and winked.
"I'm perfect, man," he said soothingly. "Why don't you head up to my suite and call up those fine ladies again while I get myself a drink?"
Jerry hiccuped again and nodded, pushing away his empty plates before waddling out of the restaurant. Walli stayed sitting for a while before moving very slowly toward the bar, the light of the chandeliers above his head scattering across his face and stabbing at his watering eyes. He nestled himself on a stool and slouched over the wood, almost as if he were going to fall asleep before the bartender got to him first.
"Martini," he said in his best secret agent voice. "Shaken, not stirred."
He heard a giggle from the Zeltron girl sitting a few stools away and looked at her. Winking and blowing a kiss, Walli thought to himself that maybe this night wouldn't be so bad after all.
Jerry was dead. He lay in a sprawled fashion across the bed, the holonet still on as his flab sported several cauterized wounds across his body. His pudgy face was already turning gray, only hours after the act had been committed, as his killers waited in drab uniform by the entryway.
The door slammed open to reveal Walli dragging the tittering and very drunk Zeltron into the room, his arms wound around her waist as his lips caressed her neck and cleavage. As he moved to unbutton her vest, he led her to the bed while the room was still dark, not realizing what he was really lying down on until he smelled cold sweat and greasy food.
"Oh, kriff," Walli murmured at first, laughing a bit, thinking Jerry had fallen asleep. But when he heard no snoring, his eyes widened. "Oh, kriff..."
He switched on the lights as the Zeltron screamed. He stared into the dead face of his former friend before hearing boots thunder across the floor and seeing gloved hands pull the girl away from him. She kicked and shrieked for only a while longer, but the two soldiers silenced her, placing a cloth over her mouth and letting her drop to the floor. Walli spun around to gawk at them, shirt unbuttoned and eyes bulging, as he leveled a finger at them.
"Who are you?" he gasped. "What are you doing here?"
"We've been sent to retrieve you," one of the soldiers replied in monotone. "Your friend attempted to assault us with a blaster. We had to eliminate him accordingly."
"A blaster?" Walli choked. "Jerry never had a blas - "
He then looked down and saw the black firearm lain across Jerry's fingers. He gurgled. He shook his head. He reached for his own weapon.
"You set him up," he nearly sobbed. "You meant to kill him!"
"Put down the weapon, sir," the second soldier ordered. "This is no time to resist. You must come with us."
"Like Hell I am!" Walli snarled, lifting the Bryar from his belt. "Eat fire, bastards!"
His aim was sloppy, and the bolt brushed past a soldier's head before hitting the wall. The steel opened up like a broken blood artery, the light of the hallway spilling into the space like an unwelcome guest. Walli let out a small girlish sound when he realized that the Bryar, for all its sleekness, wouldn't charge back up for a while. In one last ditch effort to escape, he flung the weapon at one of the soldier's heads, just before he was thrown to the ground and the same cloth used for the Zeltron was placed over his mouth, drawing him to sleep.
He was back on Corellia, blinded by the streetlamps as blurs of gray flashed by him. He could barely make out the Imperialist uniforms, the marching stormtroopers as his parents attempted to flee.
"Take him and run!" he heard his father scream. "Take him..."
The sound of crackling bone and splitting sinew silenced him. Walli could see his father's skull rupture into a spray of blood and broken tissue as the cudgel hit him. He saw the glint of blasters before a ribbon of red from a saber streamed past him, taking down his pleading mother and leaving her as a punctured corpse...
"Run," she said with her dying breath, "run..."
Run...that was all he had ever known for years. But he ran anyway. His legs became stone, pillars dragged across granite and steel. He tried to grab something to keep his balance, but he tripped and pitched forward into the open street, the wail of transport vehicles and ships overhead deafening him. His bloodied hands belonged to a youth. He was no longer the geeky yet suave hacker. No longer the notorious rebel. He was a child again, lost on Corellian streets, lost to the blaster fire and decay and death...
He told himself this as tears cascaded from his eyes and mucus dripped from his orifices...
Run while you still can...
The commlink went off in a flurry of beeps and whirs, waking Ronovi up from her light sleep. As she jolted, muttered, and shook the hair from her eyes, she saw that Marick had dozed off at his desk and had not awakened like she had. The nearly empty bottle of Whyren's Reserve had fallen to the floor, drops of what remained splattered around the Epicanthix's chair's legs.
It must have been hours after Ronovi had walked into the Quaestor's office, and with effort, she reached for the comm and turned it on. She spoke into it in a hoarse whisper.
"Patchy," came Talos's voice on the other line, "Team 'Operation: Succumb.' The target has been taken. Awaiting your departure from Ol'val to deal with the target."
Ronovi grinned slyly. She rose from her chair, straightened the collar of her coat, and cracked her knuckles.
"Affirmative," she said. "I'll be at the MJHC Last Light in an hour."
When Walli came to, he did not know where he was. The room was a shapeless mass of white, the lights harsh as if trying to scald his skin. As his head spun and his thoughts meshed together in a helpless cacophony of noise, Walli wondered if he had died and this was Hell.
He could hear footsteps outside his alleged prison, for he could not move and felt restrictions on his arms and legs. When his vision slowly began to clear, he discovered that binders held him to the wall, nearly crucifying him due to the way they were positioned. The once muted pain became noticeable, and Walli stifled the noises bursting from his mouth as he heard the door hiss open and saw a dark silhouette step inside.
"Ah," a gruff voice scraped its way into the atmosphere. "I see the great hacker has finally awakened."
Walli blinked and let the brow of the Zabrak coalesce into his eyesight, the rest of the tattooed face obscured by a black mask. He noticed the brown robes, the beige tunic, and fought back cursing as he writhed about.
"Don't," came another voice as the Human Jedi seemed to effervesce out of thin air, as the man's helmeted head appeared shortly after the sound echoed into non-existence. "You'll hurt yourself. No one wants that."
"What do you want with me?" Walli snarled. "Where have you taken me?"
"Somewhere safe and quiet," the Zabrak replied. "Far away from civilization. Don't worry...Master Chaf'inn'inrokini will be here soon."
"Finnin?" Walli forced out. "Finnin's here? He's behind all this?"
"Behind all what?" the Human Jedi asked, the visor across his face blank and uninviting. "Trying to get you to assist the Republic? Come now, Mister Walli, you are simply too much. We thought you were a good guy, after all."
"Get Finnin in here. I demand to talk with him. NOW."
All the authoritative tone that Walli attempted to muster seemed to come out as merely a squeak, just as the door hissed open again and a flurry of footsteps cascaded across the walls. When that was over, Finnin emerged without any noise at all, and by this point Walli's vision was crystal clear. He could see the creases of concern lining the Chiss's face, the glint of blaster rifles in the hands of the two soldiers who had brought him here. The walls of white, sterile and unfriendly.
"I told you, Mister Walli, that we'd be back," Finnin murmured apologetically. "And presto, here you are."
"You killed my friend," Walli sputtered. "You kidnapped me!"
"All as a last resort to bring you here," replied the Jedi. "If you had simply cooperated, we would not have had to stoop to such low levels. As for your friend, I am sincerely sorry for the amount of force my men committed. I assure you they will be reprimanded."
"If this is about the damn Dark Jedi," said Walli, "then I have nothing to say to you."
The Zabrak Jedi let out a low, throaty chuckle, casting Finnin a solemn look. "You see," he said, "the boy doesn't learn."
"Go outside with Master Harlow, Knight," Finnin responded. "Take the men with you. I will speak with the boy alone."
Slowly and almost menacingly, the Zabrak Knight and "Master Harlow" looked intensely upon Walli before they filed out of the room, the soldiers following them. As the door closed, a terrible silence hovered between the two bodies, like heat bubbling between chemicals and threatening to cause a horrid reaction. Walli's arms and legs were heavy and sore from being held in the same position for so long, so he felt a sudden wave of relief when the binders suddenly snapped open and he dropped to the ground.
"There," cooed Finnin as Walli struggled to stand. "Now we can speak as allies."
"You are not my ally."
"Quick to oppose us again," the Chiss sighed. "I'm disappointed. I thought I emphasized the importance of this mission very well."
"You kidnapped me."
"You voluntarily decided to become an enemy of the Republic," Finnin retorted. "I had to take the appropriate measures to ensure that you were no longer a threat."
"A threat?" Walli shook his head in disbelief. "A threat to what? Your little game of cat and mouse?"
"The Dark Jedi on Ol'val must be found and eliminated," said Finnin. "It is the only way to restore peace to the system. When we find them, we find the key to crushing this oppressive dominion."
"I have no idea what you're talking - "
"Enough, Mister Walli. I grow tired of your false ignorance," Finnin groaned. "You boasted of harboring such delicate information from one end of the Dajorra system to the other. You know very well what and who is holding this area hostage. It is our job to liberate those people still under Imperial influence and bring them to the attention of the Republic."
"I bet you've told the Republic already," accused Walli.
"I can tell them nothing until I know for certain where these Dark Jedi are. And you alone can help me with that."
Walli averted his eyes to the floor. Finnin had begun to pace, his hands clasped behind his back. His reflection on the durasteel was a serious one, though his left eye seemed to twitch from time and time and he would appear momentarily distracted by something. Perhaps an immense amount of stress or impatience. But Walli had not stopped fighting.
"If you're so concerned about Dark Jedi," he demanded, "why not just use your magic tricks to find them yourself?"
"That is beyond difficult. Their presence is masked. We must have real, tangible information and location data to root them out."
"That data," Walli hissed, "is crucial to my position in Ol'val. I need it for protection."
"And I told you that the Jedi Order would provide any and all protection you needed for the rest of your life," Finnin said, lifting his head and speaking suddenly as if pulling away from another conversation. "You refused."
"I don't trust you."
"Why not?" Finnin eyed Walli's gaunt figure cautiously. "Was it we who caused such death and despair in the galaxy? Was it we who killed your parents and destroyed everything you knew and loved? Or was it we who brought peace back to the people, restored systems from the ground up, and swore to aid those in need?"
Walli's voice disrupted the following silence like a harsh wind against thin glass, deceivingly soft but vicious in reality. He finally found the strength in his feet to stand upright, even though his wrists were still raw and aching and his legs were wobbling beneath him.
"How did you know about my parents?" he asked.
"I can feel your pain and loss," Finnin said. "It swells like a river in the midst of a storm, a hurricane that can be stifled but can never truly be stopped. It threatens to flood your senses and render you a wretch for the rest of your life. But you can overcome it. If you ally with us, you can finally let your parents' souls rest in peace knowing that their son helped in vanquishing evil."
"You speak of revenge."
"I speak of justice," snapped Finnin, though the volume of his voice never changed. "Justice, a fruit ripe enough to pluck off the bough and eat. Justice, a sweet nectar that we drink. It nourishes us, keeps us alive. It keeps us safe and healthy. Give me the data, Mister Walli...and we will finally bring justice upon the heads of those who ruined your life."
It was almost as if a wind had begun to blow between the two men, to tousle Walli's black hair and make it shaggier than usual. He felt water in his eyes and sweat on the bridge of his beaked nose. The memories had come back again, harsh and sinister and never leaving...
There was no help...there was no help from anyone...the Jedi did nothing to save my parents...NOTHING...
"Suck my dick."
Walli could feel his heart drop like a stone as he spat out those words. But he wasn't backing down. He saw Finnin's face turn to ice, blue and cold and hard.
"You heard me." Walli let every word descend from his lips like a fat droplet of water. "Suck. My. Dick. Suck it long. And suck it hard."
He could sense no rage from the Chiss despite his words, no violence despite his tone. The man was a marvel. Unemotional to the core. Unblinking. Unyielding.
"Master Harlow," Finnin called out, halting another impending silence. "Send the soldiers back in here at once."
"Yes, Master Chaf'inn'inrokini," the Human Jedi's voice drifted into the space, and the doors slid open once again and the sound of boots on steel signified a gruesome scene.
The hangar bay of the Last Light dangled open like a sick man's mouth as the transport settled on its gray tongue. It was a small, nonchalant vessel, easily making it through the checkpoint, as soldiers working in the bay gestured toward the appropriate place to land. As the hatch slid open, the soldiers stopped and saluted as the tall Epicanthix descended onto the slick floor.
"We were told to expect your arrival," one sergeant informed Ronovi as he led her toward the door into the nearest corridor. "Is there anything we can do for you?"
"Yes," Ronovi replied, allowing the entrance to open up for her like a portal. "Stay out of my way until the deed is done."
She was a gray silhouette in the lights of the Majestic-class Heavy Cruiser, moving silently as if she were a ghost. She had grown accustomed to ships in recent months, having to travel to and from Lyspair and enduring lengthy journeys throughout. Her duties to both the Shadow Academy and to Arcona made her feel like a business traveler, and she had begun to spend less and less time on Ol'val unless Marick, Wuntila, or Zandro called for her presence. Taigikori was understanding enough to a point; soon, however, Ronovi expected he wouldn't go so easy on her.
Turning a corner, Ronovi saw two figures in brown robes nearby as the sound of shouts and thuds enveloped her. She darted quickly out of the way, pressing her back against an adjacent wall and keeping her hand at her side. It wasn't time yet. She would receive a message regarding whether or not she could advance in retrieving Walli. For now, however, she would wait and listen to the tornado of abuse nearby.
Red spittle flew from Walli's teeth as he again careened to the floor, the butt of a rifle grinding into the left side of his head and threatening to rupture his eardrum. His bangs were matted with blood from the cuts and gashes on his brow, his face swollen with bruises that had already begun to purple in the white light. As he tried to regain his footing, he felt his ribs begin to splinter as two pairs of boots rammed into his sides and the pain felt like his innards were being split into tiny strings and knotted into balls.
"Stop!" he howled, his vision crimson and sloppy as his lifeforce seeped into his eyes. "Please, stop!"
But he heard no response. He knew that Finnin had been standing there the whole time, unmoving. Glimpses of his face signified pain and anguish to Walli - a strange mix of regret and remorse despite the fact that he was allowing his men to beat the tar out of the scrawny boy before him. And the grunts showed no mercy as they slammed their fists and weapon into Walli's face and ribs, not until a soft whistle was heard and they withdrew.
Walli felt like he would never be able to walk again. He rolled over on his side and stared upward into the Chiss's face.
"Give me the location of the Dark Jedi," Finnin murmured, "and I will tell my men to stop treating you like an enemy."
"You call yourself a Jedi?" Walli was able to gurgle, his eyes flashing despite his crumpled, agonized state. "Go choke on your own cum!"
"Pity," said the Chiss. "And I thought you would finally cooperate."
He gestured at one of the soldiers, who turned slowly to face Walli and lifted his rifle. While the hacker at first expected another swat to the face, his breath stopped momentarily as he heard the cocking of the blaster and saw the barrel aimed right at his skull.
"Give me the location of the Dark Jedi," Finnin repeated.
"If you kill me, you won't get it!" cried Walli.
"I'm sure there are many more hackers who will comply with our demands."
"None of them can help! I'm the best you've got!"
"Well, then," said Finnin. "I guess I'll have to take my chances."
He nodded to the soldier, whose finger traced the trigger. Walli shrieked.
"I thought you were bluffing!"
"Think again, Mister Walli," Finnin declared. "You may think you're superior. But if you are against the Order, we must punish you accordingly. The only person suffering from this...the only one who must say goodbye to everything he holds dear and everything he loves...is you."
"I'm going to count down from five to one," continued Finnin. "And if I get to one and you still have not talked, my men will shoot you."
Walli felt his whole body shake. He could not talk. He would not talk. Finnin began.
Perhaps death wouldn't be so bad...but then again, were there consoles and drinks and women in the afterlife?
No fame or glory. He would be nothing. Reduced to ash like the stars nearby.
He saw his parents, staring at him. Begging for him to cooperate...
I want to live....I want to live!
"Okay!" Walli screamed just before Finnin could say, "one." "Okay! I'll show you. I'll show you everything. Just please don't kill me!"
He then lapsed into rough sobs, covering his face with his hands as his shoulders shook. He felt completely humiliated, shattered, a defeated shell of the man he once was. And all the while, he hated the Jedi Order. Hated every part of it for pretending to be good while on the inside the Jedi were monsters...
Then Walli felt a hand clasp his arm and pull him up, and suddenly all his wounds seemed to heal. The bruises died down on his face, and his body felt intact again. He felt stronger, healthier, and certainly alive.
"Good," Finnin's voice drifted into his ear. "Now you understand. Men, take him to the console room. We will have that information soon enough."
Ronovi had heard the screams, the pleas, and the begging. The voice of the hacker was clear in her ears and in her mind, the trauma unfolding like opening up a crumpled wad of paper. Desperation was key to achieving alliance, and she sensed desperation coming from every part of the closed room. This was very, very good.
She kept herself pressed against the wall as the door of the chamber opened, and the two hooded men silently greeted the Chiss as he stepped outside. Two soldiers appeared, leading a compliant Walli, his face emotionless under his shaggy hair. Ronovi got a good look at him as he passed, surveying his scruffy and lanky figure and his long nose.
So this is the charming hacker I've heard about...
The Zabrak suddenly turned and looked directly at Ronovi, but he did not move or speak. Instead, he nodded slowly before heading after the others, disappearing down the corridor that led to the main console room of the Last Light.
Ronovi smirked and moved from her spot, following the team and keeping her steps very quiet. How she loved working with competent Dark Jedi.
The soldiers forced Walli into a chair in front of the main console, its blue and black screen casting the young man's face in a wretched glow. His fingers shook as he familiarized them with the keys, typing very slowly at first.
"Faster," he heard Finnin hiss into his ear; his two Jedi friends had once again stayed outside the room.
Walli swallowed hard and cursed himself. He could not believe he had fallen so low to help these horrid Jedi. They had threatened him, kidnapped him, and beaten him like a slave, all the while acting as if they were saints. Wasn't it enough that he already hated the remnants of the Empire? How were these people running the galaxy and getting away with it without getting their necks broken?
But Walli, overall, wanted to live. He wanted to go back to his computers, to his high life with drinks and hot chicks and happiness. He had worked his ass off to get to where he was now, and he wasn't going to let himself lose everything he had struggled for.
He finally accessed the Qel-Droma archives, each passkey and code challenging him as he typed. His fingers moved faster and faster, nearly scratching at the keys. Every wall before him was like paper, every defense battered down by technological javelins and spears and axes and hammers. Images flickered on the screen before him as he dug deeper and deeper past the house's fortifications. And then...
He stopped. The outline of the headquarters lay open on the screen like a sore wound, raw and bright for his captors to see. His work was like art, a mosaic of talent and power for all to behold. Of all the silly hackers out there, Walli was a god.
Then Finnin laughed almost incredulously, and Walli turned to see him admiring his work. The Chiss drank in every detail, every tidbit of information that he needed.
"My word," he murmured, his voice mellow as ever. "I knew you had talent, but this is extraordinary."
Despite his anxiety, Walli couldn't help sneering. He liked his work being complimented. But his pleasure wouldn't last, especially when he heard Finnin's next comment.
Again the click of blasters. Walli couldn't help shrieking in terror again.
"What?! But I helped you! You said -"
"I said if you helped, I'd tell my men to stop treating you like an enemy," Finnin cut him off. "That doesn't mean we can't now treat you like a liability."
"You...you bastard!" Walli screamed. "You lying bastard! I trusted you!"
"Maybe so, but I don't trust you," said Finnin. "Not enough to think you won't squeal to those Dark Jedi you assumedly betrayed."
Walli was close to crying again. He felt the cold barrel against his skull. He prayed for mercy.
"Don't worry," he heard Finnin whisper. "It'll be quick and painless."
"Funny," came a sudden unfamiliar voice from outside. "I think you're describing your death."
As Finnin raised his head in shock, the door suddenly burst open, nearly sent off its hinges, as a tall Epicanthix woman emerged from the entryway. Behind her, Walli could see two crumpled bodies - the bodies of Finnin's Jedi friends. As the soldiers leveled their rifles at the intruder, they were suddenly tossed into the air like paper dolls as the woman threw her arm across her chest.
"I should've known you'd finally come, Finnin," the woman snarled.
She then ripped a long silver hilt from her belt and ignited it, two cerulean blades bursting from both ends. Finnin responded just as quickly, removing a toothed hilt from his side and lighting a blade of a similar color to his opponent's weapon. The two clashed very briefly, circling each other like a web attempting to untangle itself, and Walli debated fleeing right until he heard a loud crack split the air.
One moment, the woman was sending the Chiss to the floor with a deft punch. The next, as Finnin was nursing his face, she was dragging Walli out of the console room.
"What are you doing?!" Walli shouted as he was whipped through the corridor over the two Jedi's corpses. As he was thrown into a cargo hold and the door slammed behind them, he was countered by a calm, skeptical voice.
"Saving your life."
The Chiss rubbed his nose carefully, wondering if Ronovi had broken it. To his relief, she had used the Force to made it look as though it were an intense strike, and he gingerly lifted himself off the floor as the soldiers did the same. As they stumbled grumbling out of the room, he watched as the two seemingly dead Jedi lifted themselves off the floor.
Nothing like a good bit of pain to get the blood going, wouldn't you agree?
"Ah, well done, Talos and Cethgus, well done," he breathed, slapping the two both on the back. "House Galeres is lucky to have such honorable members."
"Happy to be of service," Talos grinned, taking off his helmet just as Cethgus quietly removed his hooded coat and mask. "So what now?"
"Simple," replied Invictus. "Ronovi convinces Walli of the benefit of working for us. She pretends she has taken an enemy ship. I will meet her in the hangar bay for a glorious final battle. Certainly a marvelous piece of drama, I think."
All bloody foolish to me. You might want to take up a different hobby next time, eh, lad?
"So what do we do?" Cethgus grunted, peeling off his beige tunic and revealing the tattooed chest beneath. "Go back to Galeres?"
"Pretty much. I'll see to it that your work is well rewarded." Invictus then rolled his eyes. "And for Pete's sake, Cethgus, stop trying to act like a stud and strip somewhere else."
"I was warm!" Cethgus protested, but Talos shushed him as they both disappeared down the corridor. Invictus carefully picked up the garments that the Zabrak had left behind, his mind racing a bit as he waited.
Patience, my friend. They will come soon. And the final trap will be set...
Invictus smiled thinly and made his way toward the hangar bay.
Walli had trouble at first adjusting his eyes to the darkness, but once he could see, his sight was set only on his rescuer. The woman was whistling to herself, twirling her saber hilt between her fingers. She did not look at the man until he cleared his throat.
"You're not one of Finnin's cronies...are you?"
The woman stopped spinning her saber, looked at Walli, and laughed. It was a calm, convincing laugh, something Walli was not used to. "Hardly. I did punch him in the face, you know."
"Then you're a - "
" - Dark Jedi, yes," the woman interrupted. She looked at him. "Surprised?"
"Well...yeah. I mean, I thought - "
" - that we were all merciless killing machines?" she cut him off again. "Understandable, of course. But if we killed everyone around us, we wouldn't have much power, now would we?"
"But...how did you know I was here? How did you know where to find me? How did you get on this ship?"
His rescuer stared blankly at him. Walli sighed. One question at a time.
"Okay...first thing. How did you find me?"
The woman inhaled. "That Jedi who tried to get you killed...he's an extremist of the Jedi Order. Works alone most of the time but still holds Skywalker's teachings like Scripture. His two friends and he discovered the Dajorra system because of his brother, who I know."
"He has a brother?"
"A twin, in fact," said the woman. "Was once known as Mal'ari'cun. Finnin was once of the same family but departed to be a member of the Chaf family. They never spoke since. Alaric, well...he was known as Invictus when I met him, and he too is a Dark Jedi. Becoming such thoroughly disappointed his brother, who departed from the Chiss region to join the Jedi Order."
"But how did you find me?"
"I'm getting there, relax," the woman snorted. "Anyway, Finnin was able to track his brother down and find his presence in the system. All he needed was a cruiser and the location of the Dark Jedi who had housed him, to eradicate his brother and his allies once and for all. He snagged the cruiser, obviously...was just about ready to send it into hyperspace back to his haven. From what I can tell, he caught wind of your work, and my superior was about to contact you but heard from an agent that you had been captured. So he sent me out to find you."
"I don't understand," Walli stuttered. "Your superior? Agent? How do you know..."
"We know a great deal about you...'Walli.' "
The hacker recoiled, then frowned. He perused the woman's face with his eyes, his finger tracing the air between them.
"How do you know my name?"
"That same superior of mine has taken a great interest in your work," the woman replied. "In fact, I believed that he's attempted to contact you multiple times."
"Yes," said the woman. "That is my house. That's Invictus's house as well. The house that Finnin wanted to find."
"I don't believe it," stammered Walli. "No. I didn't reply for a reason. I don't trust - "
"Here we go again," the woman groaned. "You don't trust us. 'Cause we're pure evil, right? Just horrid monsters. And yet we're not the ones who just tried to extort and execute you, now are we?"
Walli opened his mouth as if to retort, only to discover that he had nothing to say to that. The Dark Jedi was right. When the seemingly good Jedi had threatened to blow him into bits, a Dark Jedi in the employ of his presumed enemy had rescued him. He could not argue against that. Still, he could question.
"I suppose you saved me so you could get me, then?" he asked coyly. "Finally push me to work for you?"
"Is that a bad thing?"
"My parents were killed by an agent of the Empire," Walli snapped. "I trust no Jedi."
"Again, you say you trust no Jedi. But we're not the Empire, Walli. And I certainly don't have any wish to trick you or kill you."
"But - "
"No buts." The woman leaned forward as if to whisper a secret into his ear. "You are now an enemy of the New Republic. The Order will hear of the deaths of its allies with your name pinned on them, and you will have your head mounted on a pike. You will be made an example of, to show people what happens when you betray 'the greater good.' Is that what you want?"
Again, Walli had nothing to say to that. He slumped against a crate, his head sagging forward and his hair covering his eyes. But the woman continued on, unfazed.
"But my allies and I aren't so treasonous. While the Jedi failed to uphold their promise of protecting you for information, we find great importance in the line of work you've undertaken. We've seen documents of how you work at a console. It's brilliant. And unlike the Jedi, we will reward you handsomely. Deceit, trickery, and fraud are all necessary ways of controlling a populace. All necessary ways of gaining power. The Jedi don't understand that. They keep to peaceful but limited ways, and it results in their getting trampled underfoot every century."
"Think, Walli!" snarled the woman. "You have no choice now. If you go back to Ol'val on your own, you'll be hunted down and killed. The Jedi have their sources and their connections. But if you come with me...and I swear upon the dark side itself...we'll grant you reward and sanctuary for your bounteous work."
Walli bit his lip and shut his eyes. For a moment, he felt like shriveling up and dying right in front of the woman. He felt as if he were betraying a deeply ingrained morality within him, and he waited for his mind to roam back to the images of his parents. Instead, he heard something, like his mother's voice whispering into his ear.
He inhaled. Had he really heard that?
You have no choice. Save yourself. Trust them. They will take care of you...the way we could not care for you ourselves...
When he opened his eyes, he saw the woman staring back at him, her brown right eye oddly coupled with the glaring blue eyepatch carved into her face. Gritting his teeth and stopping a snarl, Walli finally caved.
"Arrrrgh, all right, all right!" he growled. "I'll go with you. But only because I have nowhere else to go."
"Don't think like that," the woman coaxed. "You will be paid millions for your work. You are truly a brilliant man. One who ought to be glorified for his accomplishments."
"We have great power within Dajorra," said his rescuer. "Enough to make you a king in Ol'val and beyond."
"The Jedi offer you artificial comfort and false peace. We offer you never ending protection and strength. You will be the most notorious hacker in the system...perhaps the galaxy. That's what you wanted, isn't it?"
"Who are you?" Walli whispered, suddenly in awe of the woman's words.
She smiled and placed her closed fist against her chest. "Just an average Centurion. Ronovi Tavisaen, honored Qel-Droman, at your service, sir."
Walli smiled, this time a peaceful smile. Despite being face to face with a Dark Jedi, he felt a strange calm. At the same time, he felt desire and a yearning for power growing within him. Wasn't that what he had been fighting for, after all? A solid place in society with the ability to hide away from enemies?
Ronovi suddenly stood up and opened the door to the cargo room. Walli watched as she scanned the corridor for life, gesturing for him to follow her into the better lighted area.
"The Jedi!" Walli squeaked. "Where did they go?"
"Bastard must have found time to move the bodies," Ronovi said. "Don't worry. We'll get back to Ol'val pronto."
"You should've killed him!" cried Walli. "Now he knows where you are! He'll fly this ship out of here, tell the Order what you did, and destroy your headquarters! We have nowhere to turn!"
"Damn it, calm down!" Ronovi barked. "No one's going to destroy Qel-Droma's headquarters. I've alerted my superior of the threat and he has men waiting in the ducts of Ol'val to take down any ship Finnin may pilot. Granted, given his ironic hubris, I would bet money on the idea that he'll go in there to kill us all on his own."
"Suppose he gets back to the Order? Hardly. We've taken control of the ship."
"This cruiser is ours now, my good sir," Ronovi said. "Friends of mine from a sister house snatched it. I'll introduce you to them soon enough while they take us back toward the asteroid."
"No more buts, Walli! Sheesh, you gotta kick that habit. Now let's go."
Walli, again, had no choice. He followed the Dark Jedi with urgency, hating the fact that he was sweating like his dead fat friend Jerry.
The hangar bay was bustling with soldiers and ship workers, so it was no shock to Walli that they all froze when Ronovi entered the space. Immediately activating her lightsaber, she brandished the blades at everyone who dared to get near her.
"Listen up, everyone!" Ronovi barked. "This ship is now property of the honored Arconae! Any of you who attempt to rebel, or hide your former captain, will die painfully!"
"Is that what you always resort to?" emerged a familiar voice. "Shameless violence?"
Walli nearly wet himself as he saw Finnin emerge from behind a transport, his ignited lightsaber firmly in hand. He looked at one of the ship workers and nodded.
"Get this ship turned around. We will return to New Republic space."
"Oh, no, you don't," snarled Ronovi. "The ship is ours. Surrender now."
"You really think you'll get away with this?" Finnin sneered. "Two honored Jedi dead. Another captured. The Order will hear of this, and they will hunt you both down like dogs."
"Not if I kill you before you get the word out," Ronovi said. "Invictus would be displeased..."
Suddenly it was as if a hellhound had clawed its way out of Finnin's throat, that was how loud and harsh his roar was. He charged directly at Ronovi, brandishing his saber, screaming,
"HOW DARE YOU MENTION THAT BASTARD BROTHER OF MINE!"
Ronovi barely moved. She didn't even flinch. Instead, she let her saber fall back behind her like a javelin, right before plunging it directly into the Chiss's chest.
The workers went quiet. Walli gaped. Ronovi had not stabbed the Jedi entirely through, but as she withdrew the blade from his flesh, he choked. He wobbled. He fell. And the notorious Chaf'inn'inrokini met his sudden death.
Walli had little time to look upon the corpse. Instead, he was pulled toward a vacant transport, while ship employees scattered away like scared mice. He was thrown into the vessel, where exhaustion soon hit him and he drifted off as the transport burst from the open hangar bay into the cosmos.
What he would not see was Invictus lifting himself off the floor, casting aside the penetrated heavy alloy that had protected him from the performed attack, and nodding with satisfaction at the workers as Talos and Cethgus stepped into the fray and grinned at their success.
"Your work has left some holes to fill, Ronovi," Marick said to the Epicanthix as she sat across from him in his office. "You'll need to be wary."
"Well, for starters, how familiar Invictus looks to this 'Finnin'..."
"I lied to Walli that Finnin was his 'twin brother,'" said Ronovi. "Your Aedile certainly has a talent with voicework, I assure you."
"And the fact that 'Finnin' never alerted the 'Jedi Order' of the threat?"
"I told Walli that a missing ship and three dead Jedi were enough to arouse suspicion for the New Republic," answered Ronovi. "That they'd know the three men responsible for retrieving Walli could have been killed by Walli's allies. I told him they'll put a bounty on his head, surely, especially when I may have lied to him about how I 'relayed false information' to the Order that Walli had fled the Dajorra system and gone off elsewhere..."
Marick smirked. "We're just awful people, aren't we?"
"I figured we made that abundantly clear." Ronovi reclined back in her chair, that familiar smile on her face. "Bottom line, you have your man. Yes, we used deceit and lies to get him here, and his entire existence now is based on fabrication...but his life is entirely deceit itself, now isn't it?"
"I certainly hope you're aware of the confusion we put our grunts through."
"They've dealt with worse."
"And what of 'Walli's' new alias?" asked Marick. "I suppose he'll need a new one now, to avoid 'trouble.'"
"Oh, I told him to go with 'Mike,'" Ronovi sneered. "I think it serves him very well, don't you?"