Then: one year ago.
“I don’t see why you were so insistent on contracting him,” Brigadier General Havenstrite folded his arms and fixed Toryn in a firm gaze. “He was with the Alliance for what, a few months? A few months until he deserted? Seriously, Commander, if you were that intent on hiring a findsman, Ooryl Qrygg is certainly a better choice by far. He has been a member of Rogue Squadron for far longer and is younger—”
“With all due respect, Sir,” Toryn Farr held up her hand, “I stand by my decision. Due to his career as a bounty hunter, I feel that Zuckuss would have more experience and thus be better prepared for this assignment. Plus, with the training he received while with the SpecForce, I am more confident with contracting him. I have history with him, more so than I do with Qrygg.”
Havenstrite snorted. “I’d beware, Commander. Personal feelings have no place in this galaxy, particularly not here and not now. Don’t allow your so-called ‘history’ to cloud your judgment.” With that, he turned on his heel and left the room in quick, purposeful strides.
Toryn turned away from the door and crossed the room to peer out the large window. She was making use of an empty office in the Senate Rotunda, needing to prepare to voice her reasons for opposing the reemergence of an old act from the final days of the Old Republic. The Enhanced Privacy Invasion Bill had seen renewed interest and was thus rewritten and making its way throughout the offices of the New Republic. Since such a bill, if it passed, would require the assistance of the Special Forces, then as commander, Toryn was privy to such information. She opposed the bill, however, feeling that it hearkens back to a darker age and unfairly targets non-human citizens and immigrants. If such a bill were to pass, a being’s comm records, finances, and other personal information could be searched without their consent. Financial transactions, particularly those of non-humans and other foreign entities, would be restricted at the discretion of the Treasury. And, most troublesome to Toryn, law enforcement and Immigration would be granted leniency when it came to reasons involving the detainment and deportation of immigrants and non-humans. It seemed too similar to the Imperial regime that she worked so hard to overthrow years before.
Thus, Toryn was an outspoken opponent of the bill, which drew the ire of its supporters, particularly Brigadier General Havenstrite. Toryn’s opposition, however, earned her a spot on the committee, a high-profile position indeed. Her commanding officers, though, had concerns for her safety, as a veteran of the Battle of Hoth would be a prime target for disgruntled Imperial sympathizers, so she was advised to hire a bodyguard. After some deliberation, Toryn agreed, though for reasons known only to herself, she wanted to hire an outside contractor, someone not officially affiliated with the Republic’s military forces. Seeing as how Zuckuss still stopped by—even for a fleeting moment—to accept jobs and collect payment, and considering that Toryn had known him since Hoth, then she made the arrangements, her advisors handled the communications, and once a payment was decided upon, Zuckuss accepted the contract.
Havenstrite was not content with Toryn’s decision, citing that Zuckuss was a deserter. “Once a bounty hunter, always a bounty hunter,” he often remarked, having a dislike for the lawless profession. Zuckuss never formally left Alliance service, his records were still on file. After a mission that left his longtime partner, 4-LOM, in pieces, he started to become withdrawn, focusing solely on repairing the droid. However, when a memory wipe destroyed 4-LOM’s idealism and loyalty, Zuckuss was noticeably depressed. Soon after 4-LOM‘s departure, the Gand quietly left, relocating to the Outer Rim for a time. Toryn, however, knew that Zuckuss still felt a connection with the Alliance and later the New Republic. Every now and then, she would see him meeting with an official to accept a bounty contract. They would occasionally pass in a hallway, Toryn would smile at him and Zuckuss would bow. Beyond that, however, they each had their own lives and priorities to attend to. No moment could be spared for anything more than a formality. Another reason why Toryn was insistent on hiring Zuckuss. She wanted the chance to catch up with an old friend.
Toryn watched the traffic go by outside the window. She had been living on Coruscant for quite some time and had seen it even before then, but the whole concept of how the entire planet’s surface was so overpopulated and built up over the centuries still staggered her. Billions upon billions of people resided there, and those were just the documented residents. There were countless of immigrants who remained unaccounted for, hiding in the city’s underlevels. Squatters and refugees from war-torn worlds, sneaking in under the planetary radar and blending within the myriad of citizens from a multitude of species. Toryn had heard about the shanty towns that have formed in the ruins of abandoned buildings; colonies of homeless eking out a meager existence, overlooked or outright ignored by Public Assistance.
The public welfare system in the core of the Republic was outdated and therefore ineffective when compared to the agencies on some worlds. That was something else Toryn would like to see improved. Coruscant was to be the symbol of galactic wealth and prosperity, and yet it had the highest level of poverty and homeless populations. The cost of living in some areas was so high that poor immigrated citizens had little-to-no hope of ever getting back on their feet. So, they retreated to the labyrinthine underlevels, adding to the ever-increasing undocumented population of society’s forgotten.
Toryn turned away from the window and sat at the desk, keying up the information regarding the Enhanced Privacy Invasion Act. Reading it, she let out a sigh, hearing the door signal her to a visitor. “Enter.”
The door opened, Zuckuss stepping inside. He was still as Toryn remembered him, clad in that familiar grubby robe and cumbersome breath mask. He bowed. “You sound upset.”
“Oh...” Toryn didn’t realize that she had growled out the response, having momentarily assumed that Havenstrite was behind the door. “Oh, I’m sorry about that. It has been a long day...” She closed the information she was reviewing, such things were not meant for the public’s eye, then sat back, smiling. “So, what can I help you with?”
Zuckuss bowed again, averted his gaze, and crossed the room to peer out the window. There was something on his mind, Toryn could tell, something that he was hesitant to share. The traffic outside was silhouetted against the purple sky by the setting sun, clouds gathering on the horizon. “The WeatherNet is calling for snow tonight. Six inches by the morning.” He traced the path of a passing speeder with a gloved finger.
Toryn watched him for a moment. “What’s wrong?”
The question seemed to catch Zuckuss by surprise. He coughed, cleared his throat, and returned his gaze to the window. “Zuckuss meditated this morning,” he said quietly after a moment, referring to himself in third person, “it was not clear, but...” He trailed off, then fixed Toryn in his gaze. “He asks that you be careful, Toryn. Be vigilant.”
Toryn nodded slowly, the hairs on the back of her neck prickling. She would ask, but she knew better than to pry. Zuckuss was withholding details for a reason. What ever that reason was, however, was only known to Zuckuss and could be a multitude of things that all related to that he just wanted to protect Toryn from the details that his intuitive knowledge had revealed to him this morning. “I’ll be careful, Zuckuss. This is a tense situation, this bill and all. Emotions run high. That’s why I hired you.”
Zuckuss stepped closer and put his hand on Toryn’s shoulder. “It’s not that. Please, be careful. Tread lightly.” He released her and started for the door. “This… this may be something that is beyond Zuckuss’s control. The mists surrounding it were not clear.” He paused, turned, and again looked at Toryn. “Please, be careful.” He bowed deeply and left the room to return to his duties.
Toryn stared at the doorway for some time after Zuckuss had left. Zuckuss’s meditations granted him with information that most would not otherwise be privy to; an intuition that was oftentimes completely correct. His accuracy was almost unsettling. That was one of the reasons why Toryn was insistent on hiring him. Zuckuss was known by his peers as “the Uncanny One,” his skill and reliability had earned him respect from employers and fellow hunters alike. And for her position on this committee, Toryn wanted to make use of Zuckuss’s findsman training.
Though, there was still something that stood in Toryn’s mind. “This may be something that is beyond Zuckuss’s control.” Toryn could only hope that such a warning was benign.
The walk to the cell block was long and, for the most part, uneventful. His chains clinking together, his hands bound at the wrists, Pepan Manja was led down the halls by several guards, two of whom were flanking him, his arms gripped firmly. Another guard was carrying Pepan’s meager belongings; his journal, toiletries, and a few books. Only the sparse comments between the guards were heard, not a word was spoken to him aside from the occasional command. His eyes on the floor, he watched the feet of the officer in front of him.
Pepan had been in Bedlam for quite some time. The food was terrible and the warden would not permit him to work in the kitchens. Their loss, Pepan mused. He hoped that the warden in the other cellblock would consider granting him meal preparation for his work detail. After all, he is an accomplished chef. The other inmates would be in for quite a treat. A nice departure from all the government cheese.
One of the guards quietly conversed with another. Their voices low, Pepan could not hear entirely what they were saying, though his attention was seized by the mention of a name: Zuckuss. Pepan glowered. Zuckuss was the reason Pepan was in prison. The sheer irony of it infuriated him. To be brought down by vermin was a crime in of itself! That smelly little Gand had tracked Pepan into the labyrinthine underlevels, using some arcane cultist ritual to sense his motives. Then, he was soundly snared in a shock-stun spray. The media termed it as poetic justice and Zuckuss was supposedly paid handsomely. Pepan spat at the memory. If he ever got his hands on that wretched maggot...
“Don’t be spittin’.” One of the flanking guards reprimanded him with a sharp shove.
Pepan didn’t respond, his thoughts centered firmly on Zuckuss. The time spent in his cell only served to intensify his hatred. Pepan had ample time to stew, obsessing over just exactly what he would do if he ever had a chance to see that Gand. He had ploddingly deliberated it in his first journal, right down to the choice recipes he would use as he devoured the creature piece by piece, savoring each succulent mouthful. He liked to read those pages when he had a moment, imagining the scenario from start to finish. The feeling he got excited him. The delicious feast he had planned made the meager trays of unidentifiable slop he has been forcing into his cramping stomach almost seem worth it. His journal gave him a sense of comfort, soothing away the memory of the day’s disgusting meals with pleasant thoughts of an exquisite banquet fit for overpaid Republic senators. He enjoyed reading after the scheduled mealtimes. Until those dim-witted corrections officers confiscated it during a shakedown. “Putting out hits on an inmate,” they claimed.
What a preposterous idea! No inmate was ever mentioned, not even the Verpine that were incarcerated in the same cell block. The officers were overreacting. Ignorant creatures, the lot of them. Uncultured and lacking good taste. Nevertheless, Pepan was given a new blank book in which to record his thoughts, as dictated by the cell block’s psychiatrist. And thankfully, Pepan didn’t need his old journal to remind him of the grand feast he had planned. He had memorized those choice entries. All he needed to do now was bide his time until he could be released. Then, he would hunt Zuckuss down.
Another officer came out of the cell block and looked at Pepan for a moment. He then pulled one of the other officers aside to briefly converse with him in hushed tones. Pepan heard the other officer swear under his breath. The first officer hurried back into the cell block while the other turned toward Pepan. “Stop here. They’re doing a shakedown.”
Pepan could hear officers shout in the cell block and the sound of locks disengaging. There were some more shouts and the sound of footsteps, the inmates must be being ushered out into another corridor. Pepan looked down at his chains. After several minutes, a guard stepped out into the hallway. “Alright, bring him in.”
Almost tripping over his chains, Pepan was escorted forcefully into the now-empty cell block. He was led to a far corner where a single cell awaited him. The door was opened and the guard carrying Pepan’s belongings entered, dressing the bunk and tossing the books on a simple counter top. He turned toward Pepan. “Welcome home.”
His chains removed, Pepan entered his cell and turned around as the door was slammed shut and promptly locked. Since he was a transfer, he would be spending most of his time in his cell for at least a week until he was integrated into the general population and inducted into a gang. The overall mentality of the inmates amused Pepan, particularly the gangs. Most gangs were composed of inmates sticking with their own race. However, when an inmate was of a species that was rarely seen off-planet, let alone within the penal system, then another characteristic united the gang. For Pepan, it was the fact that he had been captured by Zuckuss. He was sure that there were other bounties in the prison and thus other gangs. His name was on an inmate-generated dossier that was circulated around the cell blocks, so someone in this new block will be aware of his transfer. Thus, gaining gang membership was not a concern for Pepan.
An alarm buzzer sounded as the cell block doors opened, the inmate population led inside. Pepan watched the prisoners file in, noting that there were a few females amid the large group. He was already accustomed to a gender mix, but there was certainly a bigger population in this mental observation unit than in his former cell block. However, the female prisoners were unimportant as all of Pepan’s focus was drawn to the door as a Gand entered. Pepan studied the inmate from behind his cell door. Could that be...? No. There is no way. Gands share too many characteristics, this one just looks similar. Pepan turned his attention to the Gand’s female Rodian companion, trying to read her lips to discern a conversation between them and perhaps figure out a name. The pair wandered over by the staircase and stood there, conversing. The Rodian was animated with her gestures, she was apparently relating an anecdotal tale. Pepan tried to read the syllables mouthed by the short green snout, but was unable to pull a name from them.
Pepan shook his head, stepping away from the cell door. There was no way that Zuckuss himself would be incarcerated, that Gand prisoner just bears a strong resemblance. Why would he be there anyway? What would that pudgy creature have done to be sentenced? It would only be too perfect if it happened, if by some bizarre will of the Force, that Zuckuss would have committed a fault and be sentenced to Bedlam.
Pepan’s attention returned to the cell block and he pressed himself against the door, cupping his hand around his ear. He could hear the voices of the prisoners now and he concentrated on the distinctly reedy Rodian voice, hoping to hear the mentions of a name. But none came. The conversation, as far as Pepan was able to tell, had moved on to something concerning the Rodian’s offspring. How mundane. Sliding to a seated position, Pepan kept his ear to the door.
A guard’s heavy footsteps clomped toward the Rodian and the Gand, and Pepan could hear his deep voice bark and order and two names. “Med time. Cami, Zuckuss, that means you two. Move it.”
Pepan jolted upright. His breath caught in his throat. His suspicion was confirmed, as much as he himself could not believe it.
Zuckuss was an inmate in Bedlam.
Oh, this was only too perfect! So, the wretched creature was indeed locked within the same duracrete walls. Pepan could hardly believe it! He immediately called up the scenario he had dreamed about. Some higher power was certainly smiling on him. Pepan’s long snout curled in excitement and satisfaction as he leaned back against the door of his cell, his legs outstretched. His gaze went to the ceiling as he thought about suffocating the grub and cooking the meat. He could almost taste the soft marinated flesh, spiced with a seafood seasoning and dipped in golden, melted bantha butter. How delicious that bounty hunter would be!
I guess what they say is true, Pepan mused, all good things do indeed come to those who wait. And wait he did, and he shall continue to do so, for the right moment. When that moment comes, the cell block’s meals will certainly see a jump in the quality of ingredients. And Pepan will have his revenge, a dish that will definitely be best cooked to perfection.