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3Edit

R’hask Sei’lar looked over his shoulder nervously, his tan and brown fur rippling, as he walked down some of the shadier parts of Munto. Behind him, his first mate, Jorge, followed him at a respectful distance, keeping an eye out for anyone tracking the Bothan. Sei’lar ducked into one of the shadowy alleys nearby, Jorge following a few minutes later. Had he done so in full daylight, he might have been noticed, but in the dusky sunset the streets weren’t as full as they were during the day.

Sei’lar mopped his brow and tried to smooth his fur. Gone were his usual jovial mood and nautical mannerisms. Jorge was also somber, alert and fingering the holdout blaster tucked into an underarm holster. Captain R’hask hoped that this deal would go as planned, but it never hurt to be on the safe side, especially on such a dangerous transaction.

After waiting for several minutes, they were joined by another human ducking into the alley, who was wearing a dark gray cloak over his clothes and a low-brimmed hat that obscured his face.

“Neeves, I’m glad you made it,” said Sei’lar.

“So am I. I’ll be even happier when I’m back at home instead of handling this business,” replied Neeves.

“I never thought it would have come to this,” Jorge said.

“At first, I didn’t either,” replied Neeves. “But we have no other choice. It has to be done, and I’m all for starting quickly, before we’re discovered.”

“You’re not the only who wants this to be over with,” assured Sei’lar. “But it’s for a good cause.”

“Indeed,” said Neeves.

“Where do we deliver the cargo?” asked Jorge.

“Not to me,” Neeves replied. “That’d be too obvious. You’ll have a rendezvous on New Holstice in three days. It’s far enough out of the way that you can take care of business without drawing too much notice, although that may change soon. That Jedi memorial is bound to attract Palpatine’s attention. You’ll meet a Gungan named Skoors. He’ll take your cargo from there.”

“All right. Three days it is.”

Neeves turned to go, but Sei’lar placed one furred hand on his shoulder.

“Will it work, Neeves?” he asked.

“I hope so. Not if we’re discovered,” said Neeves tersely. “Just deliver your cargo, and you’ll be doing more than your part to help.”

“You’re one of them—a soldier, aren’t you?” asked Jorge.

“Yes, I am,” said Neeves. “Now, I really must be going. Skoors will meet you on New Holstice. He’ll take care of everything.”

As the other human vanished off into the shadows, Sei’lar slid the datacard with the landing coordinates on New Holstice into a pocket and casually walked back out of the alley onto the streets. He and Jorge still had a lot of work to do, and they wanted to get back to the Hawk-bat to check on the preparations. Thankfully, Sarth and Micor were out of the way visiting their family, and Cassi was not as curious or observant as those two. R’hask had deliberately given her a lot of tasks to during the day, as it was her turn to remain on the ship. His excuse had been that he was testing her to see how much she could handle and as expected, she had believed him. R’hask really was testing her, just for different things. If she didn’t investigate the actual contents of the cargo, she passed.

Rather than take a speeder, the two walked back to the ship. Though it took longer, they didn’t want to hire a speeder—too easily traced by anyone who might have been following them—and the weather was pleasant, with a cool breeze blowing through the Munto Valley from a sea twenty or so kilometers away from the city. The two journeyed through avenues of terraced houses that were built into the somewhat steep sides of the valley, many of which were accented with gardens and other greenery placed around it. Sei’lar found the appearance of the city to be overwhelming and rather unnerving, as his native town on Bothawui was surrounded by dry, rolling plains. Jorge was largely indifferent, too focused on keeping his captain safe to focus on the scenery. The roguish Corellian usually would have been keeping an eye out for any attractive females to socialize with or festive cantinas, but on this occasion, his mind was elsewhere.

The captain and his first mate reached the spaceport after nightfall and were both inwardly relieved to see the Hawk-bat sitting on its pad, basking in the light from several glowpanels, the same as they had left it. As they walked up to the main personnel hatch on the ship’s neck, the hatch slid open at a wave of a securicard from Captain R’hask. The two entered to find Cassi asleep, her head resting gently on her desk in the hold and breathing with the long, rhythmic breaths typical of human sleep, weary from her duties and from being on ship’s time. A quick check of the ship revealed that everything was as it should be, although the comm console had a flashing red light indicating a recently missed transmission.

Jorge went and checked it, reporting back to his captain.

“Captain, it was Sarth.”

“What did he want?”

“He just met up with his parents, and Mrs. Kraen invited us to dinner tomorrow.”

“That’ll be nice,” R’hask replied. “I like her cooking, and her husband is an old friend of mine.”

“Good, because Sarth says she won’t take no for an answer.”

“Another excellent reason to accept then,” replied R’hask, heating up two of the many prepackaged meals from the ship’s food storage unit for him and Jorge.

After he finished eating, R’hask went to his cabin to record his log on his datapad. As he composed it, he thought long and hard about the choices he had made. Would they be the start of something new, or would they lead to his downfall? R’hask didn’t know, but he was apprehensive about the whole thing, and would be until they finished on New Holstice. He believed in the cause, or else he wouldn’t be doing it, but there were a lot of potentially lethal complications. He sighed. There were just too many things that could go wrong and he wasn’t sure he and Jorge could handle all of them.

Emberlene

Emberlene was a planet armed for war, engaged in a conflict to take over the neighboring planets. However, recently fortune had turned against her. Her armies and fleets had stalled in their conquest of the surrounding areas, and her leaders sought additional advantages to gain an edge in their localized conflict. Shadows and rumors had swept over the city, as dark plots were considered in secret places to rejuvenate their war effort. Their recent setbacks reminded them that only a major victory would allow the Mistryl to regain the momentum in the struggle.

Deep in a dark stone sanctum lit only by the flickering glare of torches, Palla D’sephone sat on a chair made of carved Fijisi wood, awaiting the report from the holorecord. Palla was one of the Eleven, the matriarchal leaders of Mistryl society, and had been for many years. No longer young, she could still shatter duraplast with a blow or break a neck faster than many of the others. Now, instead of undertaking field missions herself, as she once had done, she gave orders to others. She was tasked with assigning covert missions because of her expertise in the area: not every Mistryl could claim two dozen covert missions pulled off successfully, as they could be abominably difficult and notoriously complex.

On a holoprojector in front of Palla the image of a hooded operative, younger than she was, shimmered into existence. Palla directed her steely gaze toward the projector. Operatives had to be reminded of their place and proper respect was called for, especially from those who had yet to prove themselves.

“I am at your service, Matriarch,” intoned the Mistryl.

“Greetings, Helsi,” said Palla, her voice rasping just a bit, worn from age and the scar of a wound left there by an angry Trandoshan. “What is your report?”

“We’ve picked up the trail of the scientist by tracking his ship, a light freighter called the Hawk-bat.”

“How many crewbeings does it have?”

“We have only seen five, Mistress, including the scientist.”

“Will they be a problem?”

“Five crew trouble for six Shadow Guards? I think not,” Helsi said derisively.

“Have you boarded it yet?”

“No, Matriarch. The ship has landed on Commenor though, where we are. I chose not to board the craft as that might attract attention, which you instructed us to avoid.”

“Continue, young Helsi,” said the Matriarch. “I do not grow younger by the minute. I trust you have a plan?”

“Yes ma’am. Fortunately for us, the scientist and another crewmember have left the ship. They appear to be heading for a small dwelling outside the city where the ship is. As we speak, Sallas and Vena are heading to take them on the ground, and another two of my team are watching the ship. I and an aide are in a civilian aircraft, posing as tourists taking a night flyby over the area to provide aerial coverage.”

“Excellent. Ensure that the scientist is not unduly harmed when you bring him to us. He will need his wits about him.”

“It shall be done, Mistress,” said Helsi.

“Instruct your team to be wary. This Kraen has defeated a pair of sisters sent after him. We thought he would be easy to capture but apparently has turned out to be quite dangerous.”

“We shall take all possible caution in the capture.”

“Good. See to it that you don’t fail me, Helsi. Back when I was younger, field operatives who failed vital missions either returned successfully or they didn’t return at all.”

“Yes, Mistress.”

“And Helsi. . .”

“Mistress?”

“Team Cresh already has captured their mark. They’ll be bringing her back to Emberlene shortly. They already have a secured ship and are waiting for you at the rendezvous point.”

With an impatient wave of her hand, Palla signaled the protocol droid attending her to cut off the transmission, which it did. She sat back in her chair, staring at a holo of their target, an engineer named Sarth Kraen who was reportedly a prodigy with droid programming. The Mistryl had painstakingly collected a sizable quantity of Separatist droid hardware, currently useless and deactivated. With Kraen’s assistance—willing or not—they would be able to strike decisively for control of the sector. Emberlene would rise and conquer her neighbors, , Palla was certain of it. The planet’s population had the willpower and discipline to do so. All they needed was the right weapons at their disposal, weapons that Palla had been painstakingly collecting for years.

With a small wave of her hand, another hooded acolyte, one of several well-trained and entirely lethal aides that Palla surrounded herself with, entered silently from a hidden alcove, sidling up to Palla’s side to remove the holoprojector. Palla favored the attendant with a brief look and the smallest trace of a tight smile. The acolyte—a particularly difficult and unusually talented individual, Palla remembered—didn’t even notice, but simply picked up the holoprojector and glided back into the shadows, a sign that weeks of strenuous reconditioning had finally born fruit. Palla took pride in that accomplishment; her attendants were all finely honed implements of war, and she looked forward to using them, though not all of them had been willing at first. However, just like these elusive scientists that the Mistryl had been quietly gathering to their cause, the conditions of their service were irrelevant; the Mistryl did not concern themselves with such trivialities.

Back on Commenor, Helsi sighed. She hadn’t told Palla that Vena and Sallas had already launched their capture attempt. Apparently, it hadn’t gone according to plan. Through electrobinoculars, she and her deputy Firad had seen flashes of blaster fire from the dwelling where Kraen was known to be located. Helsi had recommended taking them while they were en route to the dwelling, but Vena hadn’t been in position yet, so they had waited. Now it appeared that that particular decision had seriously backfired. By the time she had gotten her small airspeeder towards the dwelling, the lights and sirens of local security force landspeeders were evident, and she had been forced to leave. Helsi just hoped that Vena and Sallas hadn’t done anything to tip off their connection to the Shadow Guards, or her head might be on the chopping block. Not to mention that she still had to retrieve the oddly elusive scientist.

“Firad, take the speeder back to the docking bay. We’ll call our sisters from their stalking positions and recoup.”

“What happened down there?” asked Firad, a couple years and missions Helsi’s junior.

“It appears Vena and Sallas failed to retrieve the scientist. He must have some sort of bodyguard there.”

“What do we do now?”

Helsi gave Firad a withering look.

“I told you. We’re returning to the docking bay.”

“Right. I meant about capturing the target.”

“I don’t know yet, but I do know this: We will need to be much more cunning. All of us will have to be involved directly.”

Firad was contemplative during the rest of their entire return, for which Helsi was grateful because she probably would have lost her cool had the conversation continued. Inwardly, Helsi was seething. A scientist who was barely supposed to be qualified to fire a blaster had eluded capture twice, and both times in the presence of a mysterious unknown human male. It was time to collect some more information, regroup, and plan again. The next time Sarth Kraen met up with the Mistryl would be his last.

Helsi eventually met up with all the members of her team at the docking bay, Jirnza and Talisa arriving an hour or so after she and Firad had returned. The delay was welcome; it gave Helsi time to work out her anger, which she did by sparring with Firad. Currently, the younger Mistryl was lying on a couch, groaning from the punishment which Helsi had inflicted on her during their sparring.

“So. What now, O glorious leader?” said Jirnza derisively.

She and Vena had been close, Helsi remembered. This could go badly.

“First, we need to find out about what exactly happened to Vena and Sallas. Second, we need to find out who stopped them.”

“And what else?” asked Talisa.

“Oh yes. We retrieve the scientist.”

“Is that all?” retorted Jirnza.

“Yes. Team Cresh already retrieved their mark. We should be ready to clear space in a few days. We can’t afford to give Kraen a chance to escape. Team Cresh reported that they were lucky enough to capture Zan Arbor when they did. Why do you ask?”

“Because that task is proving to be kind of difficult.”

“If it was easy, they wouldn’t have given us the job,” Helsi shot back.

“I’m sure that’s exactly why they chose us for the mission,” Jirnza said, rolling her eyes.

“Your vote of confidence is overwhelming. Do you have any real contributions to make to the team, Jirnza?” Helsi said.

Jirnza obviously needed to be reminded of who was in charge. Fortunately, she didn’t react to Helsi’s biting remark.

“Sure. I can do job number one easily,” said Jirnza. “Hacking into local law enforcement is what I do to help me sleep at night.”

“Just don’t get caught,” warned Helsi.

“Me? Never,” said Jinrza, her sarcasm returning.

“Who’s on number two?” asked Talisa.

“You and I are,” said Helsi. “If we can’t get close enough for direct observation, we’ll pose as security or lawyers.”

“Right. What do I do?” asked Firad, sitting up from the couch she had sprawled out on.

“You stay here until job number three,” said Helsi.

“And how is that going to work,” asked Jirnza. “We just lost our sniper and intrusion expert. This could be a bit tricky.”

“That’s why all four of us will be in on it,” Helsi responded.

Did she have to do all the thinking and planning around here?

“Unless you have a better plan, you have your assignments. Get to them,” she ordered.

It had been a long day, and her mood hadn’t been improved by Jirnza’s actions. Too many things had gone wrong already. With clenched fist, Helsi decided that her string of failures would end now, and no one would stand in her way. Or else.

Elsewhere on Commenor

The harsh wail of sirens cut through the Commenor night. A small stream of law enforcement speeders, accompanied by a couple equipment sleds and a boxy ambulance wove their way through the Commenor countryside to stop at the Kraen estate. Armed officers had established a cordon, keeping their weapons ready, alert for trouble. Law enforcement being what it was on Commenor, there were two divisions of the keepers of the peace: the security branch, which handled witness protection, tactical operations, and most arrests, and the investigative branch, which handled forensics, evidence collection, and crime scene investigations. Members of both groups were here now, swarming across the property. Paramedics, loaded down with medkits, moved in to assist the family.

Sarth Kraen helped his mother and father out of the house. Before the local security and paramedics arrived, he had been quick to hide the lightsaber his brother had used. There was no point in trying to disguise the damage done to the house--there was too much. Sitting down on the hood of his landspeeder as a paramedic checked him over with a medisensor, he ran his hand through his cropped, sweat-soaked hair. He had thought that the Mistryl had lost his trail, but their defeat on Coruscant had apparently made them more determined. Not only that, but now his parents were in danger and Selu was hurt. While Sarth didn’t think the injury was fatal, it did look serious.

Two paramedics lifted Selu, who they’d sedated, onto a hover stretcher and loaded him into the ambulance.

“Where are you taking him?” Sarth said, rising and walking towards the medics.

“We’re taking him back to Munto, to the medcenter there. He’s pretty banged up,” replied the medic.

“Will he be okay?” Sarth said, worried.

“He should be. I’ve seen a whole lot worse, friend,” the medic said, his bit of gallows humor rankling with Sarth.

As the medic walked back to the ambulance and it drove off, escorted by a Securer speeder, a uniformed human woman from the Investigators walked over to Sarth. She was of average height and slender, her brown hair fixed up firmly against her head and wearing a no-nonsense law enforcement expression on her face that softened somewhat when she saw Sarth.

“Sarth? Is that you?”

Sarth had been bleakly staring off into space when she called his name. Surprised, he turned and looked to see who was addressing him, recognizing the voice.

“Annita? Annita Daowot from biology?”

“You could say that,” Annita replied, the corner of her mouth twitching in a slight smile. “It’s actually Detective Daowot now, and I’ve been in the force for three years now.”

“Impressive,” Sarth said. “It’s been a long time since secondary school.”

“Yes it has,” Annita agreed affably. Then she returned to business. “What happened here, Sarth?”

Sarth sighed. It was good and bad that Annita was here. Good, because he might be able to reason with her. Bad, because she had a stubborn and persistent nature that made her look into every little detail until she was happy, presuming that she hadn’t changed too much since he had known her.

“My parents, my cousin, and I were asleep, but my cousin Micor heard something and went to investigate. He came in my room and woke me up. He said to go check on the parents.”

“Then what happened?”

“Next thing I knew, Micor was fighting with one woman and another one came in and attacked us. Micor must have defeated the first one and gone after the second one when she ran through the window and climbed the roof. I think he went after her and she fell off the roof or something.”

“Did you know either of these women?”

“No. Never seen them before.”

“I see,” said Annita. “I never knew you had a cousin, Sarth.”

“His side of the family has been estranged. I probably wouldn’t have seen him if he hadn’t been hired by the same person I work for.”

“Where did all this weaponry come from?” asked Annita, indicating the assorted guns and knives lying around.

“I dunno. Dad just had his spray stick and the little sport blaster, so I guess the attackers must have brought it with them.”

“Do you, or your parents, or your cousin have any enemies that you’re aware of?”

Sarth winced. This question was going to be a bit difficult to answer.

“Um—Dad might have some angry people from the court business. Micor and I don’t have any that I know of.”

At least, not personally, Sarth added to himself. Annita’s eyebrow shot up as she caught the slightly hesitant response.

“What aren’t you telling me?”

“Annita, I—uh, it’s nothing.”

“What have you gotten yourself into, Sarth?” Annita said, half aghast and half suspiciously.

“I can’t tell you,” Sarth answered evasively.

“Spare me,” Annita countered. “In case you’ve forgotten, this badge I’m wearing means I deserve to know. Especially since there are two dead off-worlders lying here now.”

“Annita—Detective Daowot, even—do you trust me?” said Sarth, looking square at her.

“That’s not an issue,” she said professionally, smoothing some of her hair down.

“Yes, it is,” insisted Sarth. “Do you remember when I saved your grade in that mathematics course—even after I caught you cheating?”

“Actually, I had forgotten about that,” Annita said.

“Right. How about the time you ran away from home because your dad was beating you?”

“Oh yes. That.”

“That’s right. It wasn’t your friends who helped you out, and it wasn’t your friends who had an abuse and negligence suit slapped on your father and got your custody transferred to your mother, was it?”

“No,” Annita said, her eyes dropping.

“It was the quiet work-crazy guy from class who noticed that you didn’t go home at night,” Sarth pointed out quietly.

“Yes it was,” she admitted.

“Annita—I’m not trying to take advantage of you. I promise, but there are things going on here that you have no idea about.”

“Are you sure?” she asked. “I’ve seen a lot of things in my time in the force.”

Sarth thought about his brother fighting in eye-blurring speed with a lightsaber against trained Shadow Guards.

“I’m positive,” he said. “I need you to give me a chance.”

“Just like you gave me a chance seven years ago,” she said. “All right, Sarth. You’ve made your point. I’ll supervise this case personally and, for the record, I won’t ask too many questions. Don’t push it, though.”

“Thanks Annita,” Sarth said, relieved.

“Hold on. Don’t thank me yet,” she said.

Sarth looked at her quizzically.

“I said for the record, I won’t ask too many questions. Off the record, I need more about what’s going on if I’m going to do my job.”

“Are you sure it’s off the record?”

“Don’t you trust me?” she replied pointedly.

“I should have seen that coming,” he replied, then his tone softened. “It was good to see you again, Annita.”

“I just wish it was under better circumstances,” she said. “I’ll meet you tomorrow at the Core of Cuisine Café for lunch.”

“Lunch?” Sarth asked, startled.

“Yes. It’s that meal between breakfast and dinner usually eaten around midday,” Annita said. “I expect to get the full story there. The truth, Sarth.”

Sarth considered. On the one hand, he really wanted to be elsewhere, looking after Selu or talking to Captain R’hask, but then, he didn’t really have a choice. Plus, he didn’t think that anyone would try and attack a detective, not even the Mistryl, and especially not in a crowded café. There were too many witnesses.

“Of course,” Sarth said. “I’ll see you then.”

With that, he turned and walked off, heading for where his parents were sitting, looking worn and haggard.

“How are you?” he asked.

“We’re okay,” said Samtel.

“It’s been a long night,” Lena added. “But we’ll be fine.”

“Good,” said Sarth. “How is Micor? Have you heard anything yet?”

“The preliminary diagnosis was okay. The Emdee droids said that most of the injuries were superficial and would heal quickly,” responded Lena.

Most of the injuries?”

“They said his back had some internal damage. They weren’t sure of the severity until they went into surgery.”

“I see,” Sarth said stolidly.

“Sarth, who were those people?”

Reluctantly, Sarth related his encounters with the Mistryl on Coruscant and in the research laboratory to his parents. Samtel and Lena, already shocked from the night’s events, took it in slowly.

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Samtel said.

“I thought we had lost them. I didn’t want to worry you.”

“Sarth, it isn’t safe here for you anymore,” said Lena.

“What?”

“At least the government doesn’t know Selu is here. But these Mistryl, they know you’re here now,” Lena warned him.

“Well, the government didn’t know that Selu was here,” added Samtel. “They’ll find out when they check him in at the medcenter and examine his identicard.”

“No they won’t,” Sarth assured them. “I made a complete set of false IDs for Selu months ago. He probably doesn’t even still have his originals.”

Samtel looked dubiously at Sarth.

“That’s illegal, you know.”

“Yes, I know. I thought long and hard about that when I made them. But no one’s going to take Selu away from us again.”

Samtel smiled.

“I didn’t say that you did the wrong thing, son. I never thought I’d say this about you breaking the law, but I’m proud of you. You’ve brought our whole family back together again.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

Turning, he walked off a few paces, pulling out his ship’s comlink. Activating the device, he raised the Hawk-bat.

“Captain R’hask, come in. This is Sarth Kraen. Jorge, are you there? Cassi?”

There was static from the comlink for a little bit and Sarth feared that the Mistryl had attacked the crew also. Then he heard a voice back through the speaker and he quickly spilled the story. There was no time to waste any more.

4Edit

Cassi sat up wearily from her bed, the covers slipping from her. R’hask had woken her sometime after she had fallen asleep at her console to ask her if she would prefer to go to her room to sleep. She had done so, taking the opportunity to get in a sanisteam and put on something more suited for sleeping than a grubby jumpsuit. She had been startled from sleep a few hours later. At first, she had been disoriented, but had quickly determined her bearings and the thing that had disturbed her rest. Her ship’s comlink was beeping at her. R’hask and Jorge usually left theirs in the lounge so they probably hadn’t heard the signal yet. Drowsy, she reached over and picked it up, flicking on the channel.

“This is the Hawk-bat, Cassi speaking,” she said automatically into the speaker.

“Cassi, Sarth Kraen here. Is everyone on the ship?”

“Yes. We’re all here.”

“Close and double-lock all the hatches.”

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“We’ve been attacked out here.”

“Attacked?”

“Yes. There were two of them here, but there could be more. They hurt Micor pretty badly.”

“I’ll go tell the captain.”

Cassi sailed out the door and turned hard, barging into the captain’s and Jorge’s cabin without as much as a knock.

“Can I help you?” said Captain R’hask, instantly alert and sitting up, long used to waking up in a split second from years of being on the ship. He cocked one furry eyebrow askance at Cassi’s nightgown and tousled hair, but the look on her face changed his tone.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, instantly all business.

Cassi breathlessly handed over the comlink.

“Sarth and Micor have been attacked,” she said. “Sarth says we might be in danger too.”

By now Jorge was awake too and R’hask was out of his bed, buckling on his utility belt.

“Jorge, close all the hatches.”

“Aye, Cap’n.”

“Actually, belay that. Go outside and disconnect all the fueling lines and then close the hatches.”

“Aye, Cap’n.”

R’hask, while being updated by Sarth on the comlink, turned to Cassi.

“Cassi, lass, get on the comm and tell spaceport control that we’re preparing for emergency liftoff.”

“Yessir!”

The Hawk-bat’s repulsorlifts whined as power from the ship’s reactor surged through them. Jorge raced down the ramp, a blaster buckled at his side, to disconnect the fueling lines quickly as Captain R’hask powered up the ship. As Jorge sprinted up the ramp, it closed behind him and the ship lifted off into the Commenor night sky with a dull roar. Keeping the freighter cruising on repulsorlifts, the craft still had an atmospheric speed of one thousand kilometers per hour. Gritting his teeth at the delay, R’hask kept the ship to half of that speed per Commenor’s aerospace traffic restrictions.

“Jorge, plot me a course towards Sarth’s comlink signal,” R’hask ordered from the pilot’s chair.

“On it, Captain,” said Jorge.

A few seconds later, it appeared as a glowing beacon on R’hask’s terrain-following sensors, and he vectored the Hawk-bat towards it. R’hask examined the terrain around the Kraen property and found that the cleared area around the home was large enough for him to set the freighter down.

Sarth Kraen looked up as the light freighter roared over him and his parents, as did all the assembled investigators and security personnel. There were only two Securers left, but five Investigators were in the final stages of bagging the evidence and packing up their kits, per Annita’s instructions. They all took cover and the Securers raised their blaster carbines towards the ship as it descended.

“It’s fine,” Sarth shouted to the Securers. “That’s my employer.”

The security men lowered their blasters as the Hawk-bat circled around and lowered its landing gear. The ship descended in a cloud of dust, landing on the open field next to the house, four of the ship’s landing skids sinking into the relatively soft grass and dirt, but the nose gear went into a small pool of water fed by a spring that Samtel had painstakingly constructed as an anniversary present to his wife years ago.

Samtel sighed. That was another thing that would have to be repaired. He and Lena had enough funds saved up to take care of the medical expenses and home repairs, but the strain of the past hour or so was beginning to show on him.

Captain R’hask bounded down the ramp, followed by Jorge and Cassi, who had both changed into their standard wear during the short flight. The Bothan quickly ran over to where Sarth was sitting by his parents, acknowledging the law enforcement with only a curt nod.

“Sarth, are you hurt, lad?”

“No, sir.”

“Good. And Mr. and Mrs. Kraen—nice to see you again,” R’hask said to the parents.

“Thank you Captain. Good to see you again also,” replied Lena, her voice somewhat shaken.

“I see you’ve had a rough night,” said Jorge.

“Don’t worry about that,” Captain R’hask said. “We’ll stay here for the night. Jorge and I won’t let anything happen to you.”

“Much thanks, Captain Sei’lar,” Samtel said thankfully. “I appreciate that.”

“Certainly,” the captain assured them. “How is Micor?”

“They’ve taken him to the Munto Medcenter,” said Lena. “We don’t really know his condition.”

Her last comment must have hurt her to say, as she put one hand over her face and began quietly weeping, R’hask observed. Samtel put his arm around here, trying to reassure his wife.

“There, there,” said Cassi. “Micor is tough and a survivor. He’ll be fine.”

“Of course he will,” said Captain Sei’lar.

Looking over at Jorge, he winked at him, who gave him a fractional nod in return.

“Look, Mrs. Kraen—I’ve got a cargo I need to take to a buyer on New Holstice in two days. It’s got probably the largest medcenter in all of the Mid Rim. I’ll get Micor in a medical capsule and take him to New Holstice. They’ll take good care of him there. How does that sound?”

Lena gave no response, but nodded her head, and Samtel replied for her.

“Once again, we would be indebted to you, Captain Sei’lar,” he said.

“Nonsense! A good captain looks after his crew. And please—call me R’hask or Captain R’hask. My crew and my friends do.”

“Of course, Captain R’hask,” said Samtel.

“We’ll leave in the morning so I can get Micor to New Holstice as fast as possible,” the Bothan said. “Sarth, you stay here with your parents. They’ll need you here.”

“Actually,” Sarth said. “Our attackers were after me, and they have help.”

“I see,” Captain R’hask said. “That reinforces my orders then. This is your home. You’ll have an advantage here and you can find places to hide if you need to.”

“But what about my parents? Who will be with them?” Sarth said.

“Cassi can stay with them,” said Jorge.

Captain R’hask nodded his agreement.

“I’d love to get to know you,” spoke up Cassi. “I’ve heard so much about you, Mr. and Mrs. Kraen. According to Sarth, you both are quite special.”

Sarth’s face reddened and suddenly he had a need to loosen his collar. He walked off, muttering something incoherent.

“Thank you, Cassi, and we’d be happy to have you,” said Samtel.

“It’s settled then,” Captain R’hask said. “Jorge and I will take a quick jaunt over to New Holstice with Micor. When he’s recovered, we’ll come back and pick the rest of you up.”

“Sounds good,” Sarth replied, returning to the conversation. “Thank you, Captain.”

“No problem at all,” he said.

If only they knew how much they were doing him and Jorge a service. R’hask smiled inwardly at the thought.

“It’s been a long night,” said Jorge. “I recommend we get some sleep. Now that the local security has gone back to town, you can get some rest.”

“What about all the mess?” Sarth asked.

“It can wait until morning,” answered the first mate. “It’ll be easier to deal with once everyone’s rested.”

“Right,” put in the captain. “And Jorge and I will take turns keeping watch throughout the night. We’ll start by taking a walk around the edge of the property to check for prowlers.”

“That does sound like a better plan,” admitted Samtel.

Standing, he helped his wife back into the house and tried to straighten up their bedroom so they could try to sleep. Sarth and Cassi followed them, Sarth shoving a small blaster that Jorge had handed him into his belt.

Meanwhile, Captain R’hask and Jorge began walking around the edge of the clearing that marked the Kraen’s property, blasters in hand.

“Good thinking, Jorge. Now both Cassi and Sarth will be out of the way when we get to New Holstice.”

“Thanks, Captain.”

The two continued their search around the edge of the forest, with R’hask occasionally glancing at a wrist-mounted scanner he had retrieved from the Hawk-bat.

“Wait! I found something, Captain,” called Jorge.

“What is it?”

“Looks like a sniper’s blind,” replied the first mate. “Couple equipment packs and—what the kriff?!”

R’hask scrambled over to Jorge to get a look at the source of the first mate’s consternation. Jorge was standing in a small dip in the land, well obscured by underbrush and trees. In the shallow trench were a couple camouflaged bags and a long weapon.

“What is it?”

“Verpine sniper rifle. Deadly, accurate, and totally silent. Fires little metal slugs.”

“I guess we better call the locals for this,” R’hask said.

“Or . . . we could just take this gear with us and not mention it. It’s military grade. It might come in handy,” mused the Corellian.

“That’s a good point. C’mon, let’s get it stowed away back in the ship,” said R’hask.

Picking up the camouflaged equipment bags and the expensive sniper rifle, the pair lugged them back, stowing them into secure, shielded compartments in the Hawk-bat. Returning, they finished their sweep, but found nothing aside from groundbird nests and small insects and reptiles. By then, Samtel and Lena had fallen asleep, though Cassi and Sarth were still awake, sitting outside the front door.

“Sarth, I was scared when you called me,” she said.

“I know. I’m sorry I scared you.”

“It’s just—I didn’t want you to be hurt. It’s bad enough that Micor is in the medcenter, but if you were, I-I-I don’t know.”

“I’m fine,” he said.

“You told me they were Mistryl Shadow Guards. Who are they?”

Sarth hesitated, but she would find out eventually, so there was no use evading the question. Remembering what Selu had told him about the Mistryl, he explained.

“The Mistryl are a group of expansionistic warriors from a planet called Emberlene. They’ve been trying to take over their sector.”

“So why are they after you? I’ve never heard of Emberlene, but it’s not anywhere near Commenor.” “I once—ah, never mind.”

“Why won’t you tell me? Don’t you trust me?”

Cassi sounded a bit hurt.

“You would think it was weird. Or uncouth.”

She shook her head.

“No, I wouldn’t do that. But if you don’t want to tell me, that’s okay too.”

Sarth paused for a moment and then slowly responded.

“Okay. I’ll tell you. I used to do weapons research for the Republic during the war, and I decoded the coding that the Separatists were using for one of their droids.”

“Really?” she replied, incredulous.

“Yes, really.”

“So why are you working as a freighter engineer?”

“That’s because my research was stolen and erased. All of it, and I couldn’t reconstruct all the pieces.”

“By the Mistryl?”

“That’s what I think. If they could get their hands on deactivated Separatist droids and control them with my research, they would have enough weapons to take over the sector easily.”

“So why do they want you? They have the research.”

“I have two theories on that. Logically, they could be afraid that I will reconstruct the code and turn the droids against them. Or, they might not be able to make sense of my work.”

“The second choice is far more likely,” she said.

“Why is that?” Sarth answered, caught offguard by her sudden observation.

“They want you alive. From what you told Captain R’hask, they have had two opportunities to kill you, but they captured you or tried to instead.”

Sarth looked at Cassi, taken aback.

“How did you know that?”

“Oh, I picked it up from holodramas.”

“Well, in that case, I’ll get you all the holodramas you could possibly want.”

She smiled at his statement.

“I could think of worse things.”

“Well, thank you, Cassi,” said Sarth. “I wouldn’t have thought of that.”

“You’re welcome, Sarth. You know, letting me in a bit didn’t turn out so bad. You should try that more often.”

Sarth froze upon hearing her words and turned to look directly at her.

“Do you mean that?” he said slowly.

“Of course. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have said it,” Cassi said softly.

“Just making sure. I’m surprised you haven’t walked off thinking I was a total screw-up.”

“Why would I think that? Because you’re different? That’s what I like about you, Sarth: you’re unique.”

Sarth let her words sink in. He hadn’t realized he had closed himself off while on the ship, but it had just happened. With being hunted by the Mistryl and Selu still in hiding, he had become kind of like his brother—distant and avoiding the others. Come to think of it, he had spent an awful lot of time in the engine room. Maybe the reason it had seemed like Cassi and the others hadn’t paid him much attention was because he hadn’t been paying them any attention.

“I’ll try,” he stammered a reply.

“Glad to hear it,” she said. “I think I’m going to get back to sleep now, though. I’m exhausted.”

“All right. Good night,” Sarth said.

As Cassi got up, she bent over and kissed him lightly on the cheek. Her shoulder-length blond hair, tied in a ponytail and hanging over her shoulder, brushed his face, and Sarth felt warmth spread along his face as the softness of her lips pressed against his cheek.

“You should probably get to sleep too. Being attacked is tiring, so I hear,” said Cassi lightly, smiling at him.

“Indeed,” said Sarth, both startled and strangely . . . pleased by the kiss. “I’ll need some sleep if I’m going to get you all those holodramas.”

“I look forward to that,” she said.

“Can I walk you back to your room?” he asked.

Cassi looked over to the Hawk-bat, a scant twenty meters away and back to Sarth, unsure whether he joking with her, serious, or had some other meaning. She decided to assume it was the latter, and just a half-awkward, half-chivalrous gesture on his part.

“Certainly.”

He took her hand in his and walked her back to her cabin before returning to his own room. Tonight had started out well, had a terrible middle, but had just gotten a lot better. A happy smile pasted across his face, he flopped down his bed and laid there for some time before actually falling asleep.

R’hask and Jorge, returning from their walk around the perimeter had walked up on the couple shortly before the kiss, but had hung back to observe until the two walked back to the ship. The captain and first mate exchanged knowing looks, and Jorge gave R’hask a wry smile.

“Looks like our engineer and cargomaster have hit it off quite well, Captain,” said Jorge.

“Yes, indeed,” said Captain R’hask. “That doesn’t bother you, does it?”

“Why would that bother me? It’s not like I’m jealous of Sarth.”

“Just asking, Jorge. You’ve seemed quite amicable with Cassi on several of our ports of call. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a problem.”

Jorge snorted.

“Cap’n, have you ever seen a decent-looking woman I wasn’t amicable towards?”

“Good point,” said Captain R’hask.

“C’mon, we better go check on them before they get in over their heads. Gotta keep the ship respectable, you know.”

“I’m more concerned about those Mistryl warrior women sneaking onboard the ship,” said R’hask.

“Oooh, warrior women. If they’re good-looking, can I have one?”

R’hask rolled his eyes at the Corellian’s facetious statement and entered the ship, his fur barely rippling. Walking through the ship, he stayed alert for possible intruders. Captain R’hask did not like strangers in his ship, especially without permission and especially when they were trying to kill or kidnap his crew.

“Looks like we had nothing to worry about, Jorge,” he pointed out. “It’s just Sarth and Cassi in the ship, and they’re each in their own cabins.”

“This time,” Jorge said suggestively.

“Don’t you have work to do?” said the captain as he headed for his own cabin. “Besides, they might hear you.”

“Fine,” grumbled Jorge.

R’hask knew the first mate was not really annoyed, but for some reason the Bothan had been unsettled since observing Sarth and Cassi together. He hadn’t felt this way even after hearing about the attack on Sarth—danger was almost commonplace to him after many years plying the spacelanes. Was it because he had no one special in his life? He wasn’t jealous of Sarth— he chose to only date within his species—but part of him missed having a stable family. Families held power within Bothan culture, and a lone Bothan male of his age was something of an irregularity. He had wanted to be independent of society for many years, but sometimes, he wished he could go back to Bothawui and start a family. Maybe he would, but not until this deal was finished.

Looking at his shelf, he reached over and picked up a holo of his infant niece Asyr, playing with her toys. She had just reached the crawling stage and was insufferably cute by Bothan standards,the very image of his brother’s wife. R’hask smiled and put the holo back on his channel. His brother had done well for himself, finding a female like he had. On second thought, R’hask Sei’lar resolved to leave his ship as soon as he was done with the New Holstice affair. He was getting too old for this and his former wanderlust was being replaced with a desire to settle down, even if that meant admitting to Bothan society that he had been wrong.

For many years, all he had wanted to do was fly from planet to planet, exploring and adventuring. Those years had taken their toll, and Sei’lar longed to put his feet down on native soil and interact with Bothans again. He didn’t meet too many on his journeys, and although Jorge was a close friend of his, the Corellian didn’t have the same outlook on life as a Bothan did. Sei’lar was modestly wealthy and Jorge, though not a great leader, would be a good captain. He could turn the ship over to him and return home. The thought filled R’hask with happiness and he lay down on his bed. His mind at ease, sleep came quickly to him and he dreamed of being back on Bothawui. Back at home.

5Edit

The next morning dawned without incident, but the sky was obscured by low, overhanging clouds threatening to spill rain on the Kraens and the crew of the Hawk-bat. They ate a quick breakfast inside the house and then joined NineSee in cleaning up the house from the previous night’s fracas. The Investigators had already collected the evidence they needed and had given the family their permission to clean up the dwelling. R’hask and Jorge helped patch the broken window and pick up the shattered window fragments while Lena and Cassi helped put the master bedroom back together and Sarth and his father cleaned up the entrance, particularly the blood stain on the floor where Sallas had been killed.

Scrubbing at a brown stain on the carpet, Sarth asked his father a question.

“Dad, what do you think of Cassi?”

Samtel looked up from where he was patching the wall where a flying razor had been embedded into it.

“Well, I haven’t known her for long, but she seems to be an intelligent, caring person. Good looking too. Why do you ask?”

“Just curious.”

“I see.”

“Do you think she’s a good person?”

“Sarth, as far as I can tell, she’s quite a match for you. I’m happy that you’re seeing someone like her. You have your mother and my blessing. ”

Sarth’s jaw dropped open.

“How . . . how . . . how did you know?”

“Well, if the look in your eyes wasn’t enough, there was the little matter of your first mate telling me earlier.”

“What?! How did he know?”

“For me to answer that question would be both speculative and beyond the scope of my knowledge. Any lawyer worth his creds would object to that question.”

“Fair enough, Dad,” said Sarth. “I should go ask him if I want to find out.”

With that, he returned to his scrubbing.

A few hours later, they had largely removed all the physical signs of the attack. None of the Kraen family would ever forget the horror of it, but at least it was out of sight and view. With that done, Samtel and Lena could return to their daily routines, though with trepidation for the safety of their sons, with whom they only just recently been reunited.

Just as Samtel put away the last of the toolkits, Captain R’hask and Jorge emerged from the Hawk-bat.

“I’d like to speak with everyone now all at one time, if you don’t mind,” he said to Samtel.

After everyone was gathered around, R’hask explained his reasoning.

“I just finished talking with Cassi and Jorge, and we agreed on something. Not only is Sarth in danger, but so are you, Mr. and Mrs. Kraen.”

“Why do you say that?” said Sarth. “They want me. They’ll come after me.”

“Lad,” replied the captain. “You haven’t been around as long or in as many nasty places as Jorge and me.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he said irritably.

“Sarth, if you hide, the Mistryl will come after your parents. They’ll take them hostage to get you to come out and surrender to them,” said Jorge.

“He’s right,” said Cassi. “It’s one of the oldest and most effective ploys.”

“Great,” replied Sarth, rolling his eyes.

“Don’t worry about it, Sarth,” said R’hask. “I think I might have a solution to your problem.”

“Oh? What is it?” he said.

“It should be here any time,” R’hask replied. “Like right about now.”

Elsewhere on Commenor

Spectre and Twone sat in the armory of Durashield Securities. Spectre adjusted the cuff of the new gray company shirt, emblazoned with the Durashield logo on the back and the words SECURITY on the front. Their smiling Twi’lek representative, Bwilor, had met them at the spaceport upon their landing on Commenor the previous evening and had taken them to a hotel in Munto until they could find a place to stay. Before he left, they ate dinner with Bwilor and learned more about the company, which apparently serviced all of the Commenor system, and received the location of the office from him.

The next morning, a speeder taxi was waiting for them to take them to Durashield’s office. A blocky gray building, it looked utilitarian and sturdy, which suited the ex-troopers just fine. Bwilor had met them at the front, taken the applications and forms they had received from him last night and completed, and showed them into the armory, where they each had a box of clothes and equipment waiting for them. So far, they hadn’t seen too many other employees here besides a receptionist and Bwilor, who had told them that many of them were out on other assignments.

“It’s just not the same as in the army, Spectre,” Twone mourned, picking up the light armored vest that comprised the bulk of their body armor.

“At least it has pockets,” said Spectre.

“True, but these caps are no match for our old helmets.”

Spectre picked up his own gray beret, again emblazoned with the Durashield logo.

“Ah, but they show so much more of our pretty faces,” he said sarcastically.

“All the better to see you. All the better to shoot you,” responded Twone. “Give me full armor any day.”

“Ha. The only way you’re getting that is going back into the army,” Spectre said as picked up the utility belt assigned to him.

The belt seemed reasonably well-equipped, with a holster for a blaster, a stun baton, three pairs of binders, four slots for power packs, a small pair of electrobinoculars, a powerful looking glowrod, and an ascension gun. Spectre buckled the belt on, and then slid his own KYD-21 blaster into the holster.

“Kit’s not bad for security work,” he said.

“The belts aren’t bad at all,” said Twone. “I’d just prefer that they came with a DC-17 sidearm and a couple of grenades.”

“You and me both, brother.”

The door slid open and Twilor stuck his tentacled head through.

“Are you two ready for a job?” he said.

“Don’t we need training or anything?” replied Twone, confused.

“Nah. You two are pretty well trained already. Plus, I like on-the-job training,” said Bwilor nonchalantly.

The two former troopers exchanged a glance. This was going to be interesting. Already Bwilor’s laid back attitude stood in stark contrast to the rigid structure of the GAR, and his approach to training and familiarization was decidedly . . . unorthodox.

“All right.”

“Speeder’s out front. Take these and hop in. I’ll brief you on the way,” Bwilor said, tossing them a pair of earpiece comlinks.

The ARCs caught them easily. Spectre slid the device into his ear and extended its pickup to the front of his face so that the words he spoke would be picked up by the slender receiver. Twone did likewise, and two followed Bwilor out to an impressive landspeeder with the ubiquitous Durashield logo.

The bulky craft was fully enclosed and could seat six comfortably, but could also move quite rapidly if needed to, if the size of its engines were any indication.

“Does everything around here carry that logo?” asked Twone.

Bwilor looked at him as if he had a stupid question, his lekku twitching.

“Of course, Twone. How else would they know it was us?”

Twone sighed, but Spectre concealed the motion by asking Bwilor about the job.

“So what’s the mission, Bwilor?”

“You military types and your missions. It’s not really so much a mission as it is a job, actually.”

“What’s the job then?” Spectre said, slightly annoyed.

“We’ve been hired by a family to provide security for them. Like a bodyguard. Apparently, they were attacked last night and their house was invaded.”

“Isn’t that a job for the local law enforcement?” said Twone.

“Eh, the Securers will try and keep that sort of thing from happening and they’ll stop it if it’s in progress, but they can’t be there all the time. That’s where we come in.”

“I have a question,” said Spectre. “Why are you—the head of the office in Munto—and a couple of new employees taking a job out in the country. Wouldn’t a group more experienced be better off handling the job?”

“Nice observation, Spectre,” said Bwilor. “You’ll do just fine in this job with perceptions like that. For one, the entry was violent. Two people died and another was injured. Second, the guy who called me is an old friend of mine—a Bothan freighter captain who’s helped me out before. So I’m going out there because the family is friends of his. You’re going out there because if it’s violent, you’ll be capable of handling it.”

Twone muttered something about only being as good as the equipment he was given, but Spectre silenced him with an elbow to the ribs.

“And there’s one more member coming with us,” said Bwilor. “Drelve will meet us there. He’s bringing the guy who was injured back to the home. My friend is going to take him to New Holstice medcenter.”

“Who’s Drelve?” asked Spectre.

“Drelve Tlaleo is a Tunroth employee of mine. He makes you and Twone over there look like intoxicated Sullustans with as much as he talks and Chadra-Fan infants with his size and he’s a good person to have by your side. I’ve faced down swoop gangs with just his appearance, and he can back it up too.”

“Interesting.”

“Anyway, this should be an easy job. More than likely, it’ll give me a chance to explain a lot of details about the jobs, and it’ll give you a chance to adjust to working with Durashield without a lot of difficulty.”

Spectre and Twone exchanged glances again. When they were in the army, the word “easy” usually had a different meaning from the one typically thought of when one heard that particular word in Basic. To clone troopers, it usually meant “Extremely hard, death likely, survival improbable.” Easy missions always had complications, Spectre was convinced. Later, he would recall that his hunch had been absolutely correct.

The speeder journeyed through the pleasant side of Commenor, and Bwilor turned the craft into a long driveway made of charcoal gray stone leading up towards a decently-sized house. Nearby, a light freighter was parked in a field, its ramp lowered. Several civilians were talking, mostly human, with one Bothan, to a Tunroth—Drelve, Spectre presumed—and a man in a medical capsule.


“We’re here,” Bwilor announced.

An hour earlier

Selu Kraen awoke to find himself in a hospital bed and a Tunroth and a human doctor looking down at him.

“Oh, good. You’re awake. Good morning, Micor,” said the human. “I’m Doctor Stragloe, and this is Drelve Tlaleo.”

“How am I doing, Doctor?”

“You’ll be fine. You had three damaged vertebrae in your back that we had to operate on, but we were able to slide them back into position and seal the cracked ones shut. Your other injuries were minor and responded well to bacta.”

“Any permanent damage?”

“Not as long as you have the proper treatment for the next few days,” Doctor Stragloe informed him.

“That’s good to know.”

“Micor, Drelve would like to talk to you.”

“Are you law enforcement?” Selu asked the Tunroth.

“No,” he said. “I work for Durashield Securities.”

“What do you want?”

“You will be taken back to your home by me,” answered the Tunroth.

“Your captain called Durashield and arranged for them to provide protection for your family while he took you to the medcenter on New Holstice. Drelve will take you in a medical capsule back to your ship,” elaborated Doctor Stragloe.

“Okay,” Selu said. “I don’t have a lot of choices at the moment anyway.”

An orderly brought a floating capsule bed by his hospital bed, and the Tunroth and Doctor Stragloe gently lifted Selu into the bed, being careful not to touch the still-tender area of his back that had been operated on. Doctor Stragloe slipped something into a line running into his arm and the world went black again for Selu.

He awoke about an hour later in the back of a speeder, still lying in the medical capsule. Lifting his head slightly, he saw Drelve driving the craft, but the effort hurt him and he laid his head back down, staring at the utterly featureless ceiling of the speeder.

Soon enough, they pulled into the long driveway by his parents’ house. The speeder came to a halt, and the cargo doors at the rear were opened. Captain R’hask and Drelve maneuvered the floating capsule out the doors, and Selu was quickly surrounded by his family and shipmates.

“How are you feeling, Micor?” asked his mother.

“Like I got stomped on by a rancor,” he replied, smiling weakly. “I’ll be fine though.”

They all looked concerned and wanted to know how he was feeling, and Selu was glad that he had people who cared about him. However, another speeder pulled up at the Kraen house and most of the family went over to greet them. Probably another Durashield Securities speeder, Selu figured. His brother lingered for a minute.

“Selu,” he whispered. “Where did you get the lightsaber that you used last night? You told me you left yours in the ship.”

“I did,” Selu said. “That lightsaber was Skip’s—a friend of mine. I had it in that satchel because I wanted Mom and Dad to keep it for me. Given what just happened, that might not be a good idea though.”

“Ah, I see. Don’t worry, I put your satchel back in the ship’s safe locker.”

Selu laid back, thinking of Skip. The Tynnan would have been glad to know that his lightsaber had aided Selu. Selu missed Skip and everything about him—his love of the water, his excitable demeanor, and just his presence and comradeship. Every day, Selu relived the attack on the Jedi Temple and cradling the dead bodies of his friends, murdered by Darth Vader and his clone minions. Suddenly, he heard something familiar. Perking his head up, he confirmed what he had thought he had heard, and a flash of white-hot anger came to him.

Meanwhile, the others had gone over to greet the other members of Durashield Securities.

“Bwilor!” roared Captain R’hask, running over to pump the Twi’lek’s hand. “Good to see you again.”

“Same to you, Captain R’hask,” said the Twi’lek. “It’s been far too long.”

“Who have you brought to guard my friends?” asked the Bothan.

“You’ve already met Drelve, I see,” answered Bwilor. “These two are Spectre and Twone, lately of the Grand Army.”

“Impressive,” said R’hask. “Are you two twins? Even for humans, you look exactly alike.”

“Yes, we’re brothers,” answered Twone, exchanging a sidelong glance with Spectre.

Better not to complicate issues with their true nature.

“Where are my manners?” said R’hask. “Let me introduce you to the people you’ll be guarding. This is Samtel and Lena Kraen, and their son Sarth. And this is Cassi, my cargomaster. She’ll be staying with the Kraens while Jorge and I are off on New Holstice.”

“Pleased to meet you, Bwilor,” said Samtel.

“Similarly,” said Lena.

Sarth just settled for shaking Bwilor’s hand, and the parents followed suit.

“Nice to meet you,” said Cassi as she shook his hand.

Spectre’s mind raced. Kraen? As in Selusda Kraen? There was definitely a family resemblance in the mother and father’s face, and the brother was a dead match for the Jedi Padawan he had saved on Boz Pity. He numbly shook each person’s hand that he was introduced to, as did Twone, mumbling his greetings.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” said Bwilor to Lena.

Spectre was now even more confused. How did Bwilor know about Selusda?

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“The two people who were killed tonight, along with your injured nephew. Very tragic. Were they relatives or friends of yours?”

“The two people who were killed were the attackers,” said Sarth.

“Oh. Oh, I see,” said Bwilor. “Please accept my humble apologies, Mrs. Kraen.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “Why don’t you come over here and meet my nephew, Micor?”

The security members walked over the medical capsule. Spectre’s eyes met the man lying there, and a chill ran down his spine. This man may have been Lena’s nephew, but he certainly wasn’t named Micor. This was Selusda, a Jedi and a traitor, according to the orders they had received. His hand dropped down to his side. He could see that Selu recognized him also and had noticed the movement of his hand, as had Twone, Sarth, and Bwilor.

“What’s the matter, Spectre?” said Twone.

Realizing that everyone was looking at him, he forced a slight smile.

“Nothing. He just looks like someone I once met,” said Spectre.

“Maybe it was Sarth’s Jedi brother,” said R’hask. “He fought in the wars, you know.”

“Yes, I think I did meet him,” Spectre said slowly.

He definitely had, on Boz Pity, and had thought the Jedi long dead, a victim of the purges. Yet here he was staring back at him with a knowing expression. Vulnerable.

“You resemble him,” he said to Selu.

“I’ve heard that before,” said Selu, his facial expression glacially calm, but internally burning with anger. "A pleasure to meet you both. You’ll have to excuse my appearance.”

Yes, definitely excuse my appearance, he thought. Right now, my preferred way of meeting you would be with a lightsaber in each hand carving through your treacherous cowardly guts. And that’d be faster than you deserve, you murdering scum.

Bwilor, seeking to ease the obvious tension, broke the silence.

“Why don’t we go unload our equipment? Spectre, Twone, come on,” he said.

Sarth pushed Selu’s capsule up the Hawk-bat’s cargo ramp into the hold.

“What’s wrong, Selu?” he said, once they were out of earshot.

“That man, Spectre, and his ‘brother’ Twone. They’re not brothers. They’re clones.”

“Clones?”

“Yes. Clones of Jango Fett.”

“You don’t mean—?”

“Yes. They’re clone troopers. Or at least, they were. And right now, they should be extremely glad that I’m bedridden and without a lightsaber.”

“Spectre looked like he knew you,” said Sarth, ignoring the anger in his brother’s tone.

“He did,” said Selu. “I served with him on Boz Pity. He was the ARC that found me in the wilderness.”

“Did he recognize you?”

“I’m certain he did. ARCs were trained to be very observant. He’ll probably call the nearest Imperial base to come and get me, but he’ll be quiet about it.”

“I’ll go keep an eye on him then,” said Sarth.

“Good idea. Just be careful,” said Selu.

Sarth disappeared for a minute and then returned with Selu’s lightsaber from its hiding place in the cabin. Selu accepted the weapon gratefully. Then, Sarth left the ship quickly, sliding a fresh power pack into his usually unloaded blaster. He casually walked over towards where Bwilor and the clones were unloading some crates from their speeder while the Tunroth walked the perimeter of the property.

“Sarth, right? I need to talk with you about some of the security arrangements,” said Bwilor. “You’re the one that was the target of the attack, correct?”

“Yes,” said Sarth.

“Actually, I was wondering if I could talk with Sarth first alone,” spoke up Spectre. “It’ll give me a chance to practice my new role as a security officer.”

Bwilor looked at Spectre, then shrugged.

“Fine. Take as long as you need.”

The two walked off, Sarth giving the ex-trooper a suspicious glance until he stopped near the edge of the woods and turned to face him, a good distance from the others.

“What do you want?” Sarth asked, his eyes narrowing.

“That man, Micor, is not your cousin,” said Spectre.

It was not a question.

“Sure he is,” said Sarth.

“Don’t bother lying to me. He’s your brother, Selusda Kraen,” said Spectre.

Sarth’s hand flashed towards his blaster, but Spectre was faster and caught his wrist easily.

“Not so fast,” he said.

“Are you going to kill me, too?” Sarth asked coldly. “Like you murdered the other Jedi?”

“You should be careful what you accuse me of,” said Spectre, fire flashing in his eyes, his tone controlled, but angry. “I’m not a murderer, and I have no intention of killing your brother or you. And I’m not going to tell anyone about him.”

Sarth’s face changed from angry to suspicious and shocked as the words registered.

“Why should I believe you?” he said.

“Because you need to and because I’m telling the truth. I didn’t kill any Jedi, and I wasn’t on Coruscant. As a matter of fact, I questioned the order we were given and got in a lot of trouble for burying one of the Jedi that had already been killed. That’s why I’m not in the military anymore. So you should think twice before you assume the worst.”

Sarth took a step back, shocked by the harshness of Spectre’s words, but he knew the man was telling the truth.

“I’m sorry, Spectre,” he said. “I believe you.”

“I know,” said the ex-trooper. “Now I just have to talk to your brother.”

“You can go talk to him now,” said Sarth. “He’s on the ship.”

“I know,” Spectre repeated.

“Do you want me to go with you?” asked Sarth.

“No. I usually do things alone,” said Spectre, unbuckling his belt with all his weapons on it and handing it to Sarth. “It’ll be fine.”

Spectre walked up the open boarding ramp quietly, the hair on the back of his neck standing on end. He stepped slowly towards the medical capsule, his hands in plain view.

Suddenly, a brilliant green blade flared into existence ten centimeters from his neck and he froze.

“So, you came to finish me off yourself,” said a laconic voice from the shadows.

“It certainly confirms your identity,” said Spectre dryly. “But I didn’t come to kill you.”

“Do you have buddies en route to handle that little chore?” said Selu. “I’m not exactly going anywhere.”

“You’ve got it all wrong,” said Spectre.

“Interesting. The concept of “wrong” from someone who helped murder all the Jedi in cold blood,” Selu said, his voice now icy cold.

“I didn’t kill any of the Jedi, Selu,” said Spectre.

“Do you expect me to fall for that?” said Selu.

“No, because it’s not a trick,” Spectre said calmly. “You were one of the reasons I was drummed out of the military.”

“Well, this I have to hear,” said Selu diffidently. “If it’s a ploy, I might as well get a good chuckle out of it before you spring the trap.”

“I told you—it’s not a trap. I was on Tellanroaeg when it happened. I wasn’t near any Jedi when we were told to execute them. When I returned to base, I heard about it and confronted my commander. I thought it was a trick. The orders turned out to be authentic, but that wasn’t the end of it. It seemed wrong to me. I found one of the Jedi that had been killed—an Aruzan woman—and gave her a warrior’s burial. She died in peace, no shock on her face. She didn’t kill any of her attackers, even though she could have. She was a true warrior.”

Spectre stopped as he heard a soft sob.

“Did you know her?”

“There is—was only Aruzan Jedi I ever knew of. Her name was Asano. She was a Jedi Knight, but more of a librarian,” Selu answered, tears flowing freely down his face.

“She was in my clan as a Padawan.”

“I’m sorry,” Spectre said. “I got in a lot of trouble for doing that, Selu. To make a long story short, I ruined my career in the military, and I didn’t want to be in anymore after that anyway. I left, and that’s why I’m here.”

There was no response, so he continued.

“I know clone troopers killed your friends. I’m sorry for your loss, Selu and I understand your hate. If you were to kill me now, I wouldn’t blame you for it, but I wanted to let you know the truth.”

Spectre carefully pulled something out from his belt and tossed it onto the deck floor with a metal clank.

Selu Kraen sat in the shadows, his eyes closed, listening to Spectre speak. He wasn’t in the medical capsule. Using telekinesis, he was hovering in a meditative position behind a group of crates while controlling the lightsaber. Peeking around the corner, he saw the Spectre had tossed the crude medallion that Selu had made for him years ago during the Clone Wars onto the deck. His eyes widened in surprise as he recognized it; he hadn’t expected the clone trooper to have kept it. He considered Spectre’s words again, this time giving them more weight.

Hate? Jedi didn’t hate. But as he replayed the words he had spoken to Spectre in his mind, he recognized the spite in them, the bitterness. His glance from behind the crate told him the trooper was unarmed, and here he was holding a weapon on an unarmed man.

Anger is of the dark side, Selu.

Plo Koon’s lesson on Boz Pity came back to him.

Stay in the light . . . always.

Skip’s last words rose to his mind.

Don’t be angry, Selu. It’s not worth the effort.”

Serra’s soft voice in his mind from when she lay crushed beneath a pillar was the final stroke for Selu.

The weapon already shaking from his tenuous mental control, he telekinetically deactivated the weapon, and it clattered to the floor. Once again, he had nearly let the dark side take him over.

“I’m sorry, Spectre,” he said. “Forgive me.”

The world spun and suddenly he was collapsed on the ground, barely conscious. His back and other injuries screamed in protest at the sudden movement as he was overwhelmed with grief and regret, losing all his mental control.

The ARC turned towards the source of the voice and darted around the side of the crates to find Selu lying on the ground crying freely and clearly in pain. Not surprised that the Jedi wasn’t in the medical capsule, he scooped him up like he would a little child and, noting the scars and large bacta bandage on his back, laid him gently into the medical capsule. Picking up the lightsaber, he turned to Sarth, who had come in quietly and observed the whole thing.

“Where should I put this?” Spectre asked Sarth.

“There’s a place in the cabin,” Sarth told him. “I’ll put it up.”

“Wait . . .” Selu said weakly. “Take him with you when you go put the lightsaber away.”

“Why?” Sarth asked.

“Spectre, there’s almost two suits of clone commando armor and weapons in there,” Selu said. “Sarth, let him and Twone have it.”

“Are you sure?” Sarth said.

“It doesn’t fit us well, and he’ll need it,” said Selu.

“Where did you get that kit?” said Spectre, incredulous, but part of him feared it was from his dead brothers who had made the mistake of underestimating a Jedi.

“We were attacked by some of the same people who attacked us here on Coruscant, disguised as clones,” said Selu.

“Who are they that they’d have this type of gear though?” said Spectre.

“Mistryl Shadow Guards,” said Sarth. “They’re after me.”

Spectre’s eyes widened.

“Spectre . . . I want you to protect my family. Protect them, because I can’t until I heal,” said Selu.

The ARC thought of all the stories he had heard about Mistryl lethality. Then he remembered Boz Pity and Tellanroaeg.

“They’ll be safe, Selusda. You have my word.”

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