Communications Network
Vast Empire  -  New Posts  -  Search  -  Statistics  -  Login 
 
ComNet > Dark Jedi Order > Archived ShadowNet > Mate: A Dark Jedi Knight's Journey
 
 
 
Author
Topic:  Mate: A Dark Jedi Knight's Journey
Trykon
ComNet Disciple
 
Trykon
 
[VE-DJO] Dark Jedi Templar
[VE-NAVY] Vice Commodore
 
Post Number:  2931
Total Posts:  3754
Joined:  Feb 2011
Status:  Offline
  Mate: A Dark Jedi Knight's Journey
May 20, 2013 4:45:25 PM    View the profile of Trykon 
Prologue



Location:
    The Sarn-Kobanks Dig, a privately-funded archaeological expedition
    the planet Glissex IV
    the Outer Rim Territories of the Galaxy
Time:
    The Interregnum
    9 years, 8 months, 32 days (Imperial Center Standard) after the assassination of Emperor Palpatine


The pungent aroma of charred meat pervaded the tent, and to his horror, archaeologist Dovic Sarn realized the burning flesh he smelled was his own. Above him in the dark, two eyes peered down without compassion, from beneath a heavy black hood. “W—w—what do you want?” Sarn whimpered.

“The holocron,” a gruff female voice replied. “Where is it?”

Sarn’s mind, distracted by his mounting pain, reeled in confusion. “The... We didn’t—”

With a frustrated sigh, the woman removed the tip of her lightsaber from Sarn’s side, and held up the red-white blade horizontally, mere centimeters in front of his eyes. He quieted, half-blinded by the brilliant beam of coherent plasma suddenly filling his vision. Then, in a blur of motion, the woman drew the weapon back and plunged it into his side again, slowly pushing it in even farther this time, millimeter by excruciating millimeter.

Sarn howled in agony. “The… cataloguing… tent!” he bit out, between gasps. “We take everything we find to the cataloguing tent!”

The woman glared at him. “I don’t care about fossil fragments and shards of pottery,” she snapped, “only the holocron! Did you find a crystal star, in the tomb? A perfect, stellated dodecahedron, cut from luminous red crystal?”

Suddenly, hope welled up inside Dovic Sarn: the day before, his team had retrieved an artifact that fit the woman’s description exactly! Lailah - one of his graduate students - had been working in the main reliquary chamber when she discovered it: a fist-sized starburst of red crystal, which was strikingly beautiful, faintly luminescent, and surprisingly sharp along its many edges. She’d burst into the mess tent, smiling, and she’d asked her teacher in an awed whisper if the star might be one of the nigh-mythical holocrons - the holographic chronicle devices once used by the Jedi and Sith Orders to preserve the teachings of important masters, even beyond death. Sarn had taken one look at the object and had dismissed the idea. The few holocrons mentioned in the historical record were all cubic in shape, and certainly none were stellated like the star in Lailah’s hands, with so many acute angles. He’d suggested the piece might be some sort of decorative funerary statue, and had sent his overeager grad student back to work, much abashed. As he remembered Lailah’s sad look of disappointment, Sarn couldn’t help but wonder if the sweet young woman was dead, along with the other members of his team.

Even as Sarn had the thought, his attacker pushed her blade of superheated plasma even farther into his side, forcing him back to the present moment. You made a simple mistake, his pain-addled mind reassured him. An incorrect initial categorization. The important thing is, you have what this woman wants! Give it to her, and she’ll let you go! “Yes!” he moaned. The sound came out perversely erotic. “We found something like that! Yesterday. A crystal star, yes! It’s in the cataloguing tent, just as I said.” He smiled plaintively, his pain twisting the expression into a pathetic grimace.

“And where is the cataloguing tent, exactly?” the woman growled, altering the angle of her thrust slightly. Beneath the ambient humming sound made by the legendary Jedi weapon, Sarn could hear the sizzle of broiling.

“The large, domed tent, at the edge of the excavations! You can’t miss it!” Darkness was closing in around him, but Sarn still clung to hope. He had cooperated. He’d answered all her questions. She would let him go, now.

“Good,” the woman said impassively. “Good.” And without another word, she pushed the lightsaber all the way through Sarn’s body and swept the blade up into his skull, letting him go at last.
Trykon
ComNet Disciple
 
Trykon
 
[VE-DJO] Dark Jedi Templar
[VE-NAVY] Vice Commodore
 
Post Number:  2932
Total Posts:  3754
Joined:  Feb 2011
Status:  Offline
  RE: Mate: A Dark Jedi Knight's Journey
May 20, 2013 4:46:11 PM    View the profile of Trykon 
Chapter 1




Location:
    Kuat City
    the planet Kuat
    the Core Worlds region of the Galaxy
Time:
    9 years, 10 months, 2 days after Palpatine’s death


The day dawned cold and clear on the planet Kuat, as was usual for the season. The morning broadcast of the HoloNet News Service started out with local reports, which was also typical. But Zaq Hawkes’s comfortable morning routine was shattered when the day’s Galactic News story aired. The segment covered a labor dispute which had turned violent on a little-known planet in the Outer Rim Territories called Itzor III. As it began, Zaq looked up with interest from his steaming cup of caf and turned up the volume, but before it had even finished playing, he was dressed and out his front door, a full hour earlier than was his wont. He walked briskly down the tree-lined avenues and broad boulevards of Kuat City’s financial district, hugging himself for warmth and for some modicum of comfort.

Zaq kept reviewing the news report in his head while he walked, teasing out the implications of the story, and before he knew it he’d arrived at his place of employment, the Kuat Crystal Corporation’s headquarters building and main office. The low-slung structure had once been the palatial residence of the Kanu Family head-of-household, before the New Republic conquered - the word is “liberated,” Zaq reminded himself - the planet, and it showed: the edifice was richly decorated with relief sculptures and etched platinum-leaf designs, and the wide marble staircase terminated in heavy double doors made of some exotic metal which swirled with green-and-purple patterns of ever-fluctuating oxidation.

Approaching that magnificent facade always filled Zaq with pride. Before the Republic had come, the building had been the home of Wyl Trykon, the legendary Kuati masculinist and equal rights pioneer, and the only male head-of-household in the history of the Kanu Family. And even though the man had since been disgraced and exiled, Zaq still thought of him as a role model. He felt privileged to work in Trykon’s former home, fighting his way up the corporate ladder despite the renewed misandry of the Kanu Family (which owned a majority share of Kuat Crystal Corp., and which therefore drove the company’s discriminatory culture). And after the events of the past few days, he thought to himself, perhaps I’ll finally fight my way up to the next rung: Managing Director of a Sector Office.

Zaq bounded up the stairs and shouldered open the heavy doors, revealing the building’s security foyer and main lobby.

A chorus of “Good morning, Mr. Hawkes,” greeted him, led by the omnipresent Head of Security, a muscled, severe-looking Human woman named Nanci Fram. Zaq nodded appreciatively at her and the other security personnel, and bent over the woman’s desk to sign in for the day.

“My, but you’re early this morning, Mr. Hawkes. Even by your standards,” the Security marm observed wryly, one eyebrow arched.

“Just thought I’d get a jump on the day, Nanci,” Zaq said with a half-shrug.

“Quite the jump,” she said in a tone of admiration. Perhaps she’d seen the same news story he had.

As he turned away from the desk, Zaq almost collided with the new night janitor. “Oop! Good morning, Mr. Lekin,” Zaq said awkwardly, moving aside so the old man could sign out. They often passed each other in the lobby, as one arrived for work and the other left for home. “How was your night?” Zaq asked. Mr. Lekin had only recently been hired, but Zaq had quickly discovered the old codger was quite entertainingly outspoken, when prompted.

This time, though, the older man just waved away the question. “Good morning yourself, Mr. Hawkes,” he said, in an accent colored by the rougher neighborhoods of Kuat City. “And good luck, today.”

Before Zaq could think too much about that last remark, the old man limped away into the sunshine, and it was time to go to work.

Zaq went straight to his well-appointed-but-windowless office, where he took off his gloves and overcoat, and watered his potted plant: a local fern with silver leaves he’d named “Gary.” After admiring the healthy-looking little plant, he sat down at his desk and began pulling up information from the company’s databases. He looked at crystal production figures and projections from across the Galaxy, and called up opinion polls conducted by planetary governments across several key sectors. His search covered the worlds of the friendly New Republic, the many planets of the opposition Thrawnist Confederation, and a selection of the more important neutral governments. Finally, he brought up the KuCrys social calendar, and nodded grimly. He glanced at the wall chrono: it was almost time for the office to open for the day, which meant the executives would be arriving. “Have to show them,” he muttered to himself.

Zaq’s career at KuCrys had stalled. Though he had risen to senior Manager, which in itself was quite a feat for a male employee, he’d been passed over for Managing Director of a Sector Office six times. Successfully overseeing a Sector Office was the only possible way an employee could rise to the company’s executive ranks: getting the promotion, and then being great at the job, were the only ways he would ever get to the top. “So you just have to prove to them that you’re the best person for the job!” he said, more loudly. Immediately, he snickered at his little soliloquy. Now I’m talking to myself? he thought, shaking his head. He took a deep breath, and stood up. He fidgeted a moment longer, adjusting his clothes nervously, and then left for the main conference room.

As he’d anticipated, minutes later he heard a loud commotion coming from the direction of the lobby. An angry shout of “I said, ‘no comment!’” confirmed that Kaylika of the Kanu had arrived, and from the sound of it, she’d had to fight her way through a mob of angry protestors and pushy reporters to get inside the building. Zaq heard her call for a meeting of all senior staff, to discuss “the crisis,” and moments later a protocol droid tottered by the conference room’s doorway and peeked inside.

“Ah, Mr. Hawkes,” the droid said. “Your presence is requested immediately in the conference room, for a meeting of the senior staff,” it rattled off dutifully, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Zaq was already in the conference room. The young man stifled a chuckle as the self-important automaton tottered off to relay the message to the other Managers.

After a few minutes, those other Managers - all women - began to file into the room, and most nodded to Zaq in deference of his seniority. He smiled shyly in response, hoping that his anxiousness wasn’t too obvious.

When all of them had assembled, the three highest-ranked executives in the company strode in, and everyone - including Zaq - stood up respectfully. The first into the room was the Chief Financial Officer of KuCrys, the taciturn, perpetually-grumpy-looking Veronika Smyth. Underneath her short-cropped dark brown hair, her frown seemed even deeper than usual. Next was the company’s Chief Operations Officer, Mrs. Jayne Daloway, who’d always been so kind to Zaq. Her soft features were drawn with worry too, and it looked like she had been crying. Finally, the tall, stunningly beautiful Kaylika Kanu paced in, her long red hair flowing behind her. Her expression, Zaq noted, wasn’t one of sadness or worry: KuCrys’s Chief Executive Officer just looked angry.

“Sit down,” Kaylika ordered, and the assemblage of twenty-two-women-and-Zaq collapsed into their chairs. She jabbed at a button on the tabletop, and a hologram materialized behind her, showing scenes of death and destruction on an icy planet. Security forces in riot gear bearing the distinctive KuCrys logo were being pushed back by a mob of furry aliens wielding crude clubs. Suddenly, blaster fire erupted from the edge of the image, and dozens of the mammalian creatures were hit, their wounds steaming in the frosty air. The scene went out of focus as the camera was jostled by a falling corpse, and then the hologram faded away.

Mrs. Daloway was the first to break the silence: “For those of you who are unaware,” she began in a shaky voice, “tensions seem to have boiled over last night, on Itzor III.”

“What’s the grand total?” Kaylika Kanu asked, impatiently.

Mrs. Daloway hesitated. “You mean...”

“The body count!” Kaylika barked. “How many died?”

Veronika Smyth was the one to answer, before Mrs. Daloway could regain her composure: “It looks like several hundred, ma’am. Most on our payroll.”

“This is a disaster,” Kaylika hissed. “The whole Galaxy is up in arms, and their holier-than-thou spokesbeings are trashing us in the interstellar press! It’s the Outer Rim, for the love of... it’s not like we’re the only conglomerate that uses indentured laborers!”

She managed to use the proper euphemism, Zaq noticed.

As he’d done in his apartment, Zaq forced himself not to think of the tragedy in terms of the miserable, brutish lives of suffering which were endured by KuCrys’s slaves, and he desperately avoided thinking about the incredibly violent tactics that the KuCrys Security Forces on Itzor III used to finally end the uprising. Instead, he focused on what really mattered: how the incident would affect the company.

That particular mental exercise seemed easier for some of the other people in the room. “What are Thrawn’s people saying?” Kaylika suddenly asked, her tone all business.

Mrs. Daloway chimed in: “They have been the most vocal of all in their condemnation, Mistress Kanu,” she said almost apologetically. “They’re already calling the incident the ‘Itzor Massacre,’ and they accuse us of being in bed with slavers.” Zaq saw Daloway’s eyes fall, as she pointedly avoided acknowledging the fact that the company was in bed with slavers, all across the Outer Rim. “They’ve proposed a Galaxy-wide treaty, formally abolishing slavery.”

“They’re turning on us, the very week we’re renewing their contracts!” Kaylika yelled. She looked deeply concerned, at last.

“We don’t need the Imperials,” Smyth said, as comfortingly as she could.

Zaq couldn’t maintain his silence any longer. “With respect, Mistress,” he burst out loudly, and all eyes turned to him, “we do. If the Thrawnist Imperials break away, it will be cataclysmic,” he pronounced. “They will team up with the neutral producers of the Independent Crystal Coalition, with the Hutts, or even with the Vast Empire faction, and then their production will exceed our own. We would no longer control galactic supply - neither of gemstones nor of industrial crystals - and as a consequence our cartel would collapse, and prices would free-fall.” Zaq knew his facts, and was confident in his appraisal of the situation and likely outcome, but still he had to work very hard not to fidget under the withering gaze of his superiors. His skin tingled under muscles kept rigidly still through force of will.

“We pay the Imperials well above market rates,” Mrs. Daloway said softly. “They won’t break away.” She sounded very much like someone trying to convince herself of something.

“That’s right,” Veronika Smyth agreed. “We’ve had word: officials from the Imperial Crystal Exchange Authority are coming to Kuat, in just three days.”

“Yes they are,” Zaq granted, “but I guarantee they’re coming here to end our relationship.”

Mrs. Daloway looked horrified by the prospect Zaq had raised, while Ms. Smyth seemed affronted by the gall of such an outspoken male voice in a Senior Staff meeting. But the only reaction that mattered was Kaylika Kanu’s. Zaq held his breath as he waited for the hot-tempered CEO to weigh in.

“The boy’s right,” she said at last, and Zaq sent a silent prayer of thanks to all the deities of whom he’d ever heard. “They want out. And we have three days to find a way to stop them from breaking away.”

The assembled staff recognized their dismissal in the finality of those words, and began to leave. Mrs. Daloway leaned over and whispered something in Kaylika’s ear, and the CEO began nodding vigorously. “Ah, yes,” she said. “Wait, everyone! I have one more piece of business before we adjourn.” She looked right into Zaq’s eyes, and the young Manager froze.

This is it, he silently rejoiced. She’s going to announce that I’ve been chosen to take over the Itzor III branch! He schooled his expression, projecting a calm, polite interest, and revealing none of his swelling emotions.

“Please join me in congratulating our new Managing Director,” Kaylika continued, “who I am confident will have our Itzor III operations back on track in no time...”

Zaq closed his eyes.

“…Miss Patrice Bowles.”

The other Managers broke into applause, and after a moment of stunned silence, Zaq opened his eyes and joined them. Congratulations were offered to Miss Bowles – a plain-looking talentless drone who worked on the other side of the building from Zaq doing an unimportant job without distinction – and then the meeting broke up. Zaq lingered until the others were all gone, and when he was safely alone, he shook his head, incredulous. He held out two fists on the tabletop, and they shook as he battled to keep his emotions in check. After long minutes, he exhaled, stood up, and headed out to brave the corridor and return to his office.

The familiar room seemed smaller than it had just that morning. His few personal decorations, rather than enlivening the dreary interior space, only served to accentuate the office’s resemblance to a prison cell. Even Gary seemed like little more than a weed, growing in the corner of a run-down underground station at the end of some subterranean hover-train line. The thought echoed in his brain: this is the end of the line for your career. “Oh, stop it,” he said aloud, flinging his arms to the side as if physically ejecting the thought. “Self-pity will get you precisely nowhere.”

He took a deep breath, walked to the other side of his desk, and sat down. “They did you a favor, Zaq,” he told himself with a half-smile. “Itzor III is a frozen wasteland, even when it isn’t a warzone,” he joked. “They’re just waiting to match me with the right Sector Office,” he said. His tone of voice had the quality of a prayer.

The young man nodded, as if acknowledging a truth, and then opened one of the desk’s drawers. He took out a small piece of paper, and a pen. KuCrys used electronic media for data recording and storage, of course, as did all professional enterprises throughout the Galaxy, but Zaq liked the feeling of writing on paper in ink: it reminded him of the old neighborhood, and of his grandparents’ house in particular. On the slip of paper he’d taken out was written: “Number of KuCrys Sector Offices: 1,685. Number of Male Managing Directors: ____.” Zaq braced himself against the desktop with his right hand, and with his left he filled in the blank space… with a zero.

He looked at it for a moment, and sighed quietly. After a moment, he picked up the slip of paper and tore it in half, and dropped the two ragged-edged pieces into the waste basket at the side of his desk.

Quickly, he took out another slip of paper from the same drawer, this one blank, and on it he wrote: “These are the times that try men’s mettle. Don’t give up; work harder! You will succeed!” As he dotted the final exclamation point, he smiled. He reread it briefly, and his smile widened. “Okay,” he said, and, after slipping the new note back into his desk drawer, he got back to work.

###


The day passed quickly, and eventually night fell over Kuat City. Still, Zaq Hawkes was holed up in his office, searching for a way to ensure that the Thrawnists renewed their contract with the Kuat Crystal Corporation’s cartel. Eleven hours after the Itzor III directorship was given to someone else, Zaq was still buried in production estimates from mining operations in Imperial Space, until a soft knock on his office door forced his attention back to his immediate surroundings.

His head shot up with an annoyed frown. “Who’s there?” he asked impatiently.

The door opened, and Mr. Lekin limped in, pulling a cleaning cart and mop trolley behind him. “Saw your light on, Mr. Hawkes, so I thought I’d knock,” the old janitor said, tipping his flat cap by way of greeting.

“Oh, yes. I was just finishing some work,” Zaq said, silently horrified by the time showing on his wall chrono. “By all means, come in, Mr. Lekin.”

“Thank ye,” the old man said with a jaunty bob of his head. He began wringing out his mop, as Zaq returned his attention to his monitor. “You’re always the last to leave, Mr. Hawkes,” Lekin said after a moment, “and the first to arrive in the morning. The Company must really value your dedication.” He turned to face the younger man.

Zaq avoided his gaze, and tried not to grimace. After a moment, the old man began to mop.

“What’s that old saying,” Lekin said absently a couple minutes later. “Good things come to those who wait?”

“I’ve heard it said,” Zaq said, indulgently. And I know it’s true, he thought. It has to be!

“What a load of crap,” the old man said, slapping his mop into the bucket.

The sudden profanity was jarring in the hallowed workplace, and Lekin’s vehemence seemed almost reproachful. Zaq shot a shocked look at the old man.

“Good things come to those who take,” Lekin revised, winking conspiratorially over an impish grin. For a moment, he seemed much younger, before he limped over to the trash can and laboriously dragged it back to his cart to empty it. “I mean, take the Itzorians, for example,” Lekin went on, between heavy breaths. “Do you think it would be better for them to wait for freedom and prosperity to be given to them, or do you think they’d be better off taking their fate into their own furry little hands?” He pushed the trash down, compacting it in the cart, before setting Zaq’s waste basket back in place.

“Well, that’s quite a good question,” Zaq replied, “though maybe not one for a KuCrys employee to answer, just now.” The old man rolled his eyes, and Zaq smiled. “I’ll say this: in my limited experience, things are not always as simple as they sometimes appear.”

“Wisely said, Mr. Hawkes,” Lekin said, matching the younger man’s smile. “And delicately put, to boot. Must be why you’re wearing the suit, and I’m in coveralls,” he said with another wink. He tipped his hat again. “Good night, Mr. Hawkes. I hope you finish whatever it is you’re working so hard on.” And without another word, he left.

Zaq quirked his head to one side, thinking, after the old janitor left. Suddenly, he smiled. “Things aren’t as they appear,” he whispered, nodding happily to himself. “Brilliant!”
Trykon
ComNet Disciple
 
Trykon
 
[VE-DJO] Dark Jedi Templar
[VE-NAVY] Vice Commodore
 
Post Number:  2933
Total Posts:  3754
Joined:  Feb 2011
Status:  Offline
  RE: Mate: A Dark Jedi Knight's Journey
May 20, 2013 4:46:54 PM    View the profile of Trykon 
Chapter 2




Location:
    Kuat Crystal Corporation main offices
    Kuat
    the Core Worlds region of the Galaxy
Time:
    9 years, 10 months, 3 days after Palpatine’s death


The next morning, Zaq was waiting patiently in the lobby when Mistress Kaylika and the other executives arrived. “I think I’ve figured it out,” he said, and after a brief exchange of wide-eyed glances, the trio of women led him to Kaylika’s office.

“Well?” the redhead prompted, once the door to her private sanctum was closed.

“It’s simple, really,” Zaq said. “We just extend the contract with the Imperials.”

Ms. Smyth looked confused, and Mrs. Daloway bit her lip as she turned to see how Kaylika would react. “Weren’t you the one who said the Thrawnists were coming here only to cancel their contract?” Kaylika asked acidly, as she sat down behind her massive desk.

Zaq nodded and shook his head at the same time. “We allow the Imperials to publically distance themselves from Kuat Crystal – let them make a stink in the interstellar press, let them decry the hypocrisy of the New Republic, a collection of usurping terrorists benefiting from slave labor just like the legitimate ruler they assassinated and defame, etcetera – but secretly we extend their contract, and promise to keep it a strictly private matter. Nobody needs to know.” He shrugged eloquently.

“They could continue to wholesale crystals at a magnificent price,” Smyth said, nodding.

“But still get the propaganda victory they need,” Mrs. Daloway added, clapping her hands together in her excitement.

“Not bad, Hawkes,” Kaylika said after a moment. “Not bad.” She twirled one lock of burnished-copper hair with her index finger, deep in thought. For a moment the fearsome boss-lady seemed… vulnerable. Human. “Have you told anyone else about this scheme of yours?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Good. Be sure you keep it that way,” she said savagely. The moment had passed. “Now, all of you, leave me alone.”

###


On his way back to his office, Zaq passed a group of Muuns and Humans in the distinctive banker’s-shawl-and-pendant that marked them as representatives of the InterGalactic Banking Guild. As he passed the gaggle of bank agents, he recognized one of the two Humans in the group from his school days at the Kuat City Academy. “Danqa Tierce?” he asked, hardly recognizing the tall, confident-looking woman, since she’d apparently shaved off all her hair: she was as bald as the Muuns.

“Zaq Hawkes!” she squeaked. “It’s so good to see you.” Her smile was still infectious, even if she was missing the lustrous blonde hair Zaq remembered from their school days. “Gentlebeings,” Danqa said to her colleagues, “this is Zaq Hawkes. One of the smartest people I know; we were at the Academy together. Of course, I haven’t seen him for years… I had a crush on him, you see, but he wouldn’t give me the time of day.” The rest of her party smiled politely at the characterization.

“Aw, Danqa. I was just testing your resolve. If you’d only asked me out one more time, I’m sure I would’ve said yes,” Zaq lied politely. The bankers moved on down the corridor, some nodding approvingly and some smiling knowingly. Danqa Tierce hung back for a moment. “The Banking Guild, eh?” Zaq prompted.

“That’s right,” Danqa said, brushing at her eyebrow as if she suddenly remembered the dramatic change in hairstyle she’d adopted since the last time she saw Zaq. “We were just here going over your books – Kuat Crystal’s accounts, that is. You guys have a lot of crystal in that vault downstairs, Zaq. It’s all very impressive, but it makes the Muuns nervous to have so much… material wealth, shall we say, concentrated anywhere other than one of their banks.” She smiled. “But, now I know you’re here, I’m reassured that all those crystals are quite safe.” She winked. “Well, look, I should be going. But if you’re ever considering a career change,” she added, digging a flimsiplast business card out of her pocket, “look me up. Rising to the dizzy heights of power and prestige in the corporate world is possible in the IGBG too, you know.” She flashed one last smile, and jogged away to catch up with her coworkers.

Zaq pocketed the business card, and smiled. Nice to be appreciated, he thought to himself. And then he went back to work.
Trykon
ComNet Disciple
 
Trykon
 
[VE-DJO] Dark Jedi Templar
[VE-NAVY] Vice Commodore
 
Post Number:  2934
Total Posts:  3754
Joined:  Feb 2011
Status:  Offline
  RE: Mate: A Dark Jedi Knight's Journey
May 20, 2013 4:47:44 PM    View the profile of Trykon 
Chapter 3




Location:
    Kuat City
    Kuat
    the Core Worlds region of the Galaxy
Time:
    9 years, 10 months, 4 days after Palpatine’s death


The next morning, Zaq opened his desk drawer to revise his inspirational note to himself, and he was astonished to find that someone had beaten him to it. Written along the bottom of the note, under Zaq’s neatly-lettered “You will succeed!” was a derisive scribble: “No you won’t.” He didn’t recognize the handwriting, but next to the scrap of paper was a ticket to a local holotheater. The show time was in less than an hour. “What in the world?” Zaq murmured.

He made a snap decision, grabbed his coat and gloves, and headed out.

By the time he made it into the theater, the holodrama had already started. It was an old adventure movie, about a heist gone bad, starring Garik Loran and Javul Charn. In the darkened theater, Zaq couldn’t see any of the audience members, and he suddenly felt very foolish. Just as he turned to leave, though, a voice whispered from behind him: “Ah, Mr. Hawkes, you made it.” Zaq turned around to see the old janitor, Mr. Lekin, with two bags of bang-corn from the concessions stand in his hands. “There are two seats over this way,” the old man whispered, waving him over to the side of the theater.

Oh dear, Zaq thought, the old man wants to go on a date! “Oh. Erm. This is very flattering, Mr. Lekin,” the young Manager sputtered, “but I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to…”

“There’s no need to panic, Mr. Hawkes,” Lekin whispered with a twinkle in his eye. “I’m a married man. No impure intentions.” His smile reflected the flickering light of the holo in the darkness. “I wouldn’t have the courage to approach a handsome young man like you, otherwise. No, I have a different sort of proposal to put to you. It’s a bit of a laugh, really. Come on, sit down. I’ll only take five minutes of your time.”

Reluctantly, Zaq followed the old man to the side of the theater, and sat down.

Lekin took a long time getting into his seat. “Ack,” he gasped once he was sitting, rubbing at his knee. “A little souvenir from the Battle for Kuat,” he muttered, indicating his bad leg with a little nod. “The invasion gave me my limp, and took from me my husband.”

“I thought you said you were married,” Zaq whispered.

“Always will be,” the old man agreed, “to his memory.”

An involuntary little humming sound – a half-swallowed sigh of sympathy – sounded in the back of Zaq’s throat, but then he shook his head and frowned. He wanted to hear about life before the New Republic, and about two men sharing a life together in those halcyon days when equal rights waxed full across Kuat, to be sure. But while Lekin’s past was no doubt a touching, fascinating story, the situation in the present was just too strange to ignore. “Are you in the habit of reading private notes?” Zaq demanded, taking the slip of paper from his desk drawer out of his pocket, and flashing it at the old man.

“I guess they just don’t seem very private, when every other day you throw one of them into your waste basket,” the old man retorted, and he revealed a stack of notecards, each one taped back together after being ripped in half. On top was the note that read: “Number of KuCrys Sector Offices: 1,685. Number of Male Managing Directors: 0.”

“What the hell do you want?” Zaq asked, his mind spinning.

“This is a silly movie,” the old man said quietly. “Stealing jewels from a bank vault in broad daylight.” He was grinning at the screen, where Loran and Charn were sharing an intimate look as they planned their heist.

“Mr. Lekin, I could have your job for this,” Zaq said sternly, hoping to recapture the strange old man’s attention.

It worked. “Oh yeah?” Lekin asked, his tone bemused. He turned abruptly to make eye contact, and little green flecks of color sparkled in his grey irises, catching the dim light from the holoprojection. “Well, that may be the only job they’d actually let you have. You’ve been passed over for promotion six times in the past three years, and each time the position’s gone to someone less qualified than you. Have my job, indeed.”

Zaq scowled, and began to stand up.

“My point is, they’re going to fire you,” Lekin said hurriedly. “Over your ingenious proposal to deal with the Thrawnist delegation.”

“What?!” Zaq said shrilly. From across the theater, another audience member hissed at them to be quiet.

“Please, sit down, Mr. Hawkes,” Lekin said quietly, “I’m trying to help you. Please. Look, people say a lot of things around their cleaners, and their droids. It’s like they forget we exist.”

Zaq eyed the old man warily. “What kinds of things?” he asked, slowly sitting back down.

“Well,” Lekin said, “the Imperials won’t accept your plan unless it’s kept secret among senior staff, and only senior staff. And the women don’t seem to think you count in that group anymore.”

A knot had formed in Zaq’s stomach. It can’t be true, he thought. “I don’t believe you,” he whispered.

Lekin just nodded, sympathetically. “Well, maybe I misheard them. I’m not a business person, after all; I could’ve misunderstood. You’ll do what you need to do, I’m sure.” He popped a kernel of bang-corn into his mouth, and flashed a shy grin at the younger man, before settled into his seat for the rest of the holo.

Leaving Zaq to mull his own thoughts.

###


The holotheater was all Zaq could think about, for the rest of the day. He kept walking the halls at KuCrys, trying to get Mr. Lekin’s words out of his head, but he couldn’t. When he saw Kaylika leave the building to take her lunch, a desperate plan sprang to mind, half-formed, and before he could lose his nerve, he walked into the CEO’s office.

Her CZ-series communications/business droid was waiting in the outer office. “Good afternoon,” the droid said in its flat metallic monotone.

“Is Mistress Kanu in?” Zaq asked, knowing full well that she was not.

“I’m sorry, but no,” the secretary droid said. So polite, but so devoid of emotion.

“That’s strange,” Zaq said with an exaggerated frown. “You see there are two engineers in the lobby, from the Technician’s office up at KDY, and they say they have an appointment with Kaylika.”

The droid made several clicking noises, and twitched its head. “There is no such appointment in the master schedule. Something is wrong. Excuse me, please.” Abruptly, the droid tottered out of the room to investigate the violation of its well-regulated routine.

The moment the droid had gone, Zaq walked to the desk at the rear of the outer office, and opened up the personnel files on the droid’s computer terminal. He scanned down until he found his own file, and after a split second of hesitation, he opened it.

The dossier listed his many accomplishments and successes on behalf of the firm, but a second file attached to it was titled: “To be terminated at the earliest opportunity.” Zaq read that sentence three times before his brain acknowledged the receipt of the information from his eyes. He opened the second file, which went on to specify that the droid should be “gentle” when writing the notice of termination, but that it should make certain to include a reminder of the non-disclosure agreement Zaq had signed upon first being hired by Kuat Crystal Corporation, as well.

Shame, fear, anger - Zaq’s emotions bubbled and frothed like a sea left boiling after an orbital bombardment. He held his breath, as if to prevent steam from hissing out, and he carefully returned the computer to the state he’d found it in. His worst suspicions confirmed, Zaq retreated from the office before the droid could get back.

###


Back in his office, Zaq fumed, pacing back and forth across the small room with his jaw clamped shut to stifle his overwhelming desire to scream. He resisted the urge to destroy the furniture in his office, but just barely. And as he seethed with rage, he caught sight of Danqa Tierce’s business card, on his desk.

With an effort, he calmed himself enough to make a call.

As he made the connection, and prepared to look into the holocamera with all the charm he could muster, Zaq noticed that Gary had died: the small potted fern’s leaves – usually a sparkly silver, with veins of verdant, healthy-looking green – were withered and brown, and parts of them looked as though they’d been burned around the edges. “When did that happen,” he whined. “Damn it all – oh, Danqa!,” he transitioned awkwardly, as his former schoolmate’s bald visage materialized. “Hello! I was just wondering…”

###


The Klaymor Club was one of Kuat City’s most exclusive restaurants. Amid the finery and elegance of the main dining room, the gussied-up glitterati of Kuat’s High Society gabbed and gossiped, gorging themselves on juicy local delicacies and exotic trifles from across the Galaxy.

Zaq had always felt out of place in such a crowd, and that night was no exception. But with Mr. Lekin’s weird warning proven true, Zaq had no choice: he would play the game with Danqa Tierce if it meant he could salvage a career of importance for himself. The chance to achieve success - to be respected and wield power - was all that truly mattered. His personal inclinations could be satisfied later. He took one last steadying breath, and stepped around the corner that separated the restaurant’s entry area from the main dining room. At the last moment, he remembered to smile.

The only bald woman in the room looked up from her aperitif as he strode in, and grinned back at him from her table across the room. Squaring his shoulders, Zaq forced himself to make his way to her with as much grace as he could remember, from his nearly-forgotten comportment lessons.

Danqa rose and hugged him, when he got to the table. “Don’t look now,” she whispered, “but everyone in the restaurant is staring at you, cutie. It’s nice to be envied.”

Privately, Zaq suspected the stares were for Danqa’s bald pate, not his own boyish good looks, but he kept his thoughts to himself, and returned her warm smile. “You’re too kind,” he said in the proper tone, mixing modesty and flirtatiousness.

As they sat, Danqa stopped him: “No, don’t say that until you’ve heard what I have to say.”

“That sounds ominous,” Zaq said, trying to keep his tone light, and not wholly succeeding.

“It’s bad news, Zaq,” she said quietly. “The Guild can’t offer you a job.”

“Why not?”

“Well, it’s a conflict of interests,” she said sadly. “KuCrys is one of our biggest clients – the Banking Guild financed the original formation of the Corporation back when the New Republic liberated Kuat and the holdings of the old Kanu Family were nationalized, you know.”

“Yes, but this sort of thing is done all the time,” Zaq protested. “You just ask KuCrys for their permission to speak to me, you say I know nothing about it… ‘unsolicited interview,’ you say.”

“I’ve done all that,” Danqa said, shaking her head.

“And?”

“And… Okay, look,” she said, glancing around as if she were afraid of being overheard, “we’re old friends, so I’ll tell you this, but you didn’t hear it from me: they say you’re grossly incompetent. They claim you messed up a deal with the Imperials, and soured the relationship.”

Zaq’s stomach clenched into a knot, and he felt sick. “That… that’s ridiculous,” he managed to say.

“I’m sorry,” Danqa said sympathetically. “Word came down from the highest authorities in the Guild: you’re not to be touched by us. Or, in all likelihood, by anybody else who does business with Kuat Crystal.”

“But that’s basically every major company in the Galaxy!” Zaq said, wide-eyed.

The silence hung in the air, thick and uncomfortable. Shock, frustration, anger, sadness, fear – a riot of emotions raged inside Zaq Hawkes, as his mind tried to catalogue how completely his career had been ended.

The waiter came, and filled their glasses with a fluorescent, effervescent fruit juice. Danqa sipped nervously, to avoid making eye contact. “Mmmm,” she hummed, mid-sip, as if remembering something, “you said when you called that you had something else you wanted to talk about too, no?”

Zaq had never wanted to cry so much in his life. But instead of weeping, he made himself grin in the shy schoolboy way he knew was most effective, and ignored the hollow feeling in his heart. “It feels stupid to say it, now,” he said, “but I was just thinking we might finally go out on that date.”

Danqa smiled, sadly. “That would be… really lovely,” she said, “but it would be a pretty uneventful date, I’m afraid. I’m married, you see. He lives on Muunilinst, along with our son, Rayph.” She glanced up at Zaq, and quickly added: “You would love Rayph: you should come for a visit just as soon as we can arrange it!”

Zaq nodded absently, and emptied his glass in one gulp, desperately wishing the saccharine, syrupy concoction contained alcohol. As Danqa Tierce kept jabbering, apparently preferring meaningless drivel to painful silence, Zaq Hawkes mourned his loss. They’re going to fire me, he thought, and prevent anyone else from hiring me. I’ve tried every gambit I know - I’m on a date with a bald, married woman - and I still lose. Abruptly, his sadness and despair morphed into anger and rage. Fine, Zaq thought. It’s time to play a new game. His resolution made, Zaq passed the remainder of the evening in brooding quiet, eager to leave the uncomfortable restaurant, and impatient to see Mr. Lekin at work the next morning.
Trykon
ComNet Disciple
 
Trykon
 
[VE-DJO] Dark Jedi Templar
[VE-NAVY] Vice Commodore
 
Post Number:  2935
Total Posts:  3754
Joined:  Feb 2011
Status:  Offline
  RE: Mate: A Dark Jedi Knight's Journey
May 20, 2013 4:48:15 PM    View the profile of Trykon 
Chapter 4




Location:
    outside the Kuat Crystal Corporation main offices, and then Kalat Kanu
    Kuat
    the Core Worlds region of the Galaxy
Time:
    9 years, 10 months, 5 days after Palpatine’s death


The next morning, Zaq caught Mr. Lekin leaving the office, just as he himself arrived. “You were right,” he said at the bottom of the marble staircase, his breath condensing into mist in the cold air. “You were right.”

The old janitor merely stared back in response.

“Why do you want to steal from the company?” Zaq asked, directly.

Lekin’s right eyebrow shot up in surprise, and his eyes flitted left, as if he were about to turn around. The moment of panic was brief though; he didn’t turn. “Well now, who says that I want to do that?” he asked gruffly.

“Hypothetically,” Zaq said, his eyes narrowing.

Lekin kept staring, and then his lip turned up into a grin. He began to limp away, and Zaq followed a pace behind. Before the young man could speak again, Lekin answered: “Theft and war, Mr. Hawkes,” he said, between wheezy breaths. “The two most reliable sources of income in the Galaxy are theft and war.”

Zaq harrumphed, hugging himself in the cold as they walked along. “Oh? Are we at war?”

The old man spun around, and jabbed a finger into Zaq’s chest. “Yeah. Or do you think it’s right, the way those women treat you? You’re all friends, eh? Allies?” The eyebrow arced up again. “Besides which, in two years I retire, and the pension that KuCrys will pay out is very small indeed.” He turned to keep walking. “I want to fix that.”

“A gender warrior and a mercenary, eh?” Zaq asked. To his surprise, he found himself smiling at the old janitor: Lekin was a rogue, but charmingly earnest.

“That’s right,” the old man said, nodding. He sounded tired, and completely serious.

It was all ridiculous, and they were slowly getting farther and farther away from the office. Zaq stopped in his tracks. “How do you know I won’t turn you in?” the younger man asked.

Lekin turned to face him. “We’re still speaking hypothetically, right?” the old man retorted.

Zaq looked at the pavement, suddenly sheepish. “How do you even know you could pull off such a thing?” he asked.

“Because, Mr. Hawkes, I have a plan. My apartment is just around the corner, here. If you’re really interested, follow me.”

Mr. Lekin limped away, and after a minute of shuffling his feet in indecision, Zaq followed.

###


Mr. Lekin’s flat was on the eighth floor of a shabby-looking pre-fab residential building that was near the KuCrys Main Office, but in a noticeably rougher neighborhood separated from the main financial district by a broad, busy thoroughfare down which speeders and hover-trains whizzed. The lift was not working, and the stairway reeked of mildew.

“Home, sweet home,” Lekin quipped, as he unlocked his door with an electromagnetic key card and pass-code.

He removed his coat and flung it on a low table in the apartment’s vestibule, then turned to take Zaq’s, which he handled with surprising care and hung gingerly in the hall closet. “Come in, Mr. Hawkes,” he urged, before sitting at a rickety-looking wooden table situated under the living room’s only window.

Zaq sat across from him in the dingy little apartment, and crossed his arms. “So what’s this genius plan, Mr. Lekin?”

“It’s simplicity itself, Mr. Hawkes,” the old man said, slowly stretching out his leg under the table. “At midnight each night, Security locks the front doors, which means that for six hours, no one can go in or out of the building,” he explained, picking up a battered-looking datapad and sliding it across the table to Zaq. There were floorplans of the KuCrys office on the small screen, with attached notes and technical drawings. “The next morning, when the day-shift security folks arrive and we night cleaners are ready to go home, they open back up, an hour before the office officially opens. You know that, of course: you’re often there early enough to see it,” he said with a raised eyebrow. “Now, overnight, they increase their security coverage considerably by activating several dozen night-shift guard droids on the ground floor, but on the subterranean floor down here by the vault,” he said, “they just keep these two guards, near the lift.” Lekin pointed to two specific points on the digital blueprint, and stared into Zaq’s eyes. “And the lift is the only point of entry to the lower floor.”

Zaq’s brow furrowed. “You can’t be thinking of hitting the vault,” he scoffed.

Mr. Lekin quirked his head to one side. “That’s where they keep the crystals, Mr. Hawkes.”

“Is this a joke,” Zaq asked incredulously, “or are you insane?”

The old janitor pretended not to hear him. “My routine is the same every night. I spend the first few hours collecting rubbish and doing general cleaning and light maintenance on the offices on the upper floors, like yours, working my way down. Then I’m escorted to the sub-basement, where I prep the mop bucket and floor buffer before moving on to the lower floor of the building. The whole time I’m down there, I work basically unattended. Maybe once every other hour, someone will pop down in the lift to check up on me. But for about two hours every night, I methodically clean a sterile marble corridor, which leads to a large circular metal door, on the other side of which is one of the biggest collections of riches in the Galaxy.”

Zaq shook his head. “Yes, but you can’t open that door, not without the access code! The code is nineteen digits long, it’s changed weekly, and it’s only entrusted to two people.”

Lekin nodded, his eyes gleaming. “Ms. VanBurm, a lifelong and unwaveringly-loyal company servant who runs the day-to-day crystal appraisal operations at the main office. And, of course, Mistress Kaylika of the Kanu, Chief Executive Officer of the Kuat Crystal Corporation and self-appointed queen of the interstellar trade in gemstones and industrial crystals.” His tone was witheringly sarcastic.

“Okay, you’ve done your homework,” Zaq allowed, trying not to smile at the old man’s characterization of the self-important redheaded CEO, “but you haven’t answered the proverbial sixty-four-thousand-credit question: how do you intend to get the vault’s access code?”

“Well, that’s where you come in, Mr. Hawkes,” Lekin said. Zaq frowned in confusion, and leaned forward unconsciously as Lekin continued: “Originally, I’d planned on this being a solo mission, but that’s no longer possible.” He shook his head, annoyed. “The first night I started here, three weeks ago when the janitor’s union transferred me to this building, I discovered – quite by accident – that Mistress Kaylika kept the week’s code on a slip of paper in her desk drawer. Not an unpopular place to store notes-to-self, I’ve found,” he added wryly. “At first I thought the long string of numbers and letters was just nonsense, but then I realized: it was the exact same length as the display on the vault.” He was nodding, slowly but repeatedly, and his smile was calmly confident. “It was the vault code. And at the start of every work week, it was a new set of numbers, on a new slip of paper, until just this past week. I’ve looked and looked since then, but there’s no slip of paper anymore.” He frowned.

“If you had the code, why didn’t you use it?” Zaq asked suspiciously.

“I know! I’ve asked myself the same thing, a million times. I was complacent, I guess? And cowardly. Cowardly complacency. But, look, my hesitation is your opportunity, Mr. Hawkes – that’s my point!”

“My opportunity,” Zaq echoed sourly, leaning back in his chair. “And what exactly do you want from me, before I get to cash in on this ‘opportunity?’” He regarded the old man carefully.

“Nothing much,” Lekin said with another surprisingly youthful-looking smile. “Let’s call it… proof of your conviction. This evening, the company is hosting a party at New Kalat Kanu, for the delegation from the Imperial Crystal Exchange Authority. You’re attending, aren’t you?”

“I was invited, yes,” Zaq said, his mind churning. “But you can’t really think Kaylika keeps the code at home, unsecured?”

“When you get to the party, find her private study. Look in the top right drawer of the desk – the same place you keep your own private notes.”

“This is absurd,” the young Manager said, shaking his head and pushing himself up out of his chair. “Even if she does keep a slip of paper with the code on it - which seems unlikely, given how stupid such a habit would be - and even if I somehow manage to sneak away from the party and get hold of that slip of paper - which seems more easily said than done - and even if you could then somehow manage to slip into the vault without being seen - no small feat, given the guards and holocameras and all - how in the Galaxy were you planning on getting the crystals out of the building?!”

Mr. Lekin held up his hands in a gesture of supplication, and slowly pushed himself to standing. He limped over to the table over which he’d thrown his coat, and removed a metal thermos from one of the deep pockets. He unscrewed the cap, and handed it to Zaq. The smell of potato-leek soup wafted out.

Zaq hefted the inconspicuous container, deep in thought. “How much would this hold?” he wondered aloud.

“How much do you want it to hold?” Mr. Lekin asked pointedly. “How much is your revenge worth? Would a million credits suit you?”

Zaq’s eyes widened, as he imagined that much wealth, hidden in such a small, humble container. “Each?” he whispered.

“I shouldn’t think that’d be too hard to do. Tiny things, cut crystals.”

“They probably wouldn’t even notice this many had gone missing,” Zaq said bitterly, letting his outstretched hands sag a bit with the weight of the metal thermos.

“Or at least, by the time they do notice,” Mr. Lekin amended, “I’ll be retired and you’ll be fired.” He snatched the thermos back from Zaq’s hands suddenly, and met the younger man’s surprised eyes with a stare of his own. Again, Lekin seemed momentarily to be a much younger, much livelier man.

“Why should I trust you?” Zaq asked.

“We have the same objective, Mr. Hawkes,” Lekin replied evenly. “We have no choice but to trust each other, if we want to achieve our goal.”

“Your confidence is infectious,” Zaq said, turning to retrieve his coat from the closet.

“Is that a ‘yes?’” Lekin asked.

“No,” Zaq said, putting on his coat, “it isn’t.”

“I see,” Lekin said solemnly, and he limped over to the door to let Zaq out. “Well, be sure to wear something nice,” he said as Zaq crossed the threshold. The younger man turned around on the staircase landing and shot Lekin a confused expression. “At the party tonight,” the old man clarified with a wink, and then he shut the door and locked it.

###


The Kuati word Kalat translated into Galactic Basic as “castle,” or “palace,” and the ten Great Families of Kuat – the aristocratic dynasties which dominated the planet’s rigid caste system – each maintained at least one of the huge estates. The Kanu Family was no exception. But the Kanu were no longer based out of their traditional Kalat, the building that had become the Kuat Crystal Corporation’s main office. Instead, their home address was a glitzy, newly-constructed mansion perched on a hill overlooking Kuat City. And as he approached this showy new Kalat of the Kanu, which was all aglow for the party, Zaq Hawkes reflected on the history of the Family, and the circumstances which had inspired its leadership to construct the new building.

When the Empire was driven off-world after the so-called Fourth Battle of Kuat, the New Republic exiled all of the heads-of-household of the Families with close ties to the Palpatine regime, including Wyl Trykon of the Kanu. The Family’s matriarchs had been quick to reclaim the Kanu holdings after Trykon’s banishment, but they had been quicker still to decide that the old Kalat had been tainted by the residency of Trykon “The Pretender.” Kaylika was elected the new head-of-household just a few months into the New Republic occupation, and she immediately decreed that a new Kalat should be built, to reflect the rebirth of the House of Kanu, as a Family bound to serve the reborn Republic.

As head-of-household of the Kanu, Kaylika controlled the Family’s wealth, and since that wealth was primarily invested in the Kuat Crystal Corporation, the company which she headed as CEO, she often threw gala entertainments at her new Kalat for the benefit of important KuCrys clients, potential business partners, or government regulators of the crystal trade. The reception festivities for the delegates from the Imperial Crystal Exchange Authority were no exception. Since Zaq was a senior Manager, he was frequently invited to these soirees, especially when Kaylika was entertaining guests from more patriarchal planets or companies, and so he’d walked through the front doors – garish portals carved from thick sheets of synthetic red crystal, sand-blasted to display the Kanu coat of arms and the KuCrys logo – many times before.

But each time he did, he shuddered involuntarily. It was a small thing – a sudden feeling of being cold when he crossed the threshold – and every time before, Zaq had shrugged it off and promptly forgotten it.

But in that moment, on that night, as he took that step through the doorway and mentally prepared himself to charm the Imperial representatives, suddenly Zaq was awash in a chilling wave of bitingly detailed memories. He felt the discomfort of entering, as usual, but it was magnified by the remembrance of all the times which had come before. He shivered violently. And with this clear-as-ice déjà vu, understanding came too, as if a great truth were being transmitted directly into Zaq’s brain from some external source of objective wisdom: as impressive as the new Kalat was, and as cheery and welcoming as the party decorations seemed, the place was a symbol of everything Zaq hated about New Republic rule. The former rebels claimed to fight (and kill) for freedom and equality, but Zaq’s career prospects had not exactly been improved by the New Republic’s coming: for him, equality of opportunity and freedom to work for a fair wage seemed to be little more than hollow slogans. And for every atrocity the Republic’s propagandists accused the old Empire of perpetrating, it seemed the corporations and militaries of this new galactic government were determined to commit crimes against sentience which were just as heinous. Or were the deaths of hundreds of Itzorian slaves worth nothing, when compared with the thought of ever-more profits?

As he neared the foyer’s door, where the reception line ended and the ballroom began, the ambitious, disillusioned young man nodded grimly, a frown of determination darkening his handsome features. Tonight, he would make them pay, these hypocrites and liars, these cheaters and these murderers. After years of playing by the rules and dutifully moving their team forward at great personal cost, tonight he would reject the rigged game and start playing one with rules of his own devising. And he would win, eventually. With this resolution reiterated, Zaq smiled.

“Mistress Kaylika, the Kalat has never looked so lovely,” Zaq flattered, as he reached the head of the reception line, where the CEO stood fidgeting with her mild-mannered telbun at her side. “You have outdone yourself!”

“Indeed, Mr. Hawkes,” the redheaded woman said dubiously. She sounded bored. “You are most welcome to the home of the Kanu,” she said formally. Beside her, her companion slave sniffed snootily, and gave a stiff, abbreviated bow.

Ignoring the male slave, Zaq bowed to his employer, and moved past the pair and into the main ballroom.

As always, the room took Zaq’s breath away. Kaylika had spared no expense in building her new Kalat, and the ballroom was unquestionably the mansion’s crown jewel. The long rectangular room had double doors at each end, all sand-blasted red synth crystal like the building’s front portals, and alternating panels of windows and mirrors stretched down its full length. Three truly gigantic crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, casting cheery, prismatic, rainbow lights down on the proceedings. Most arresting of all, though, was the ballroom’s floor: the twinkling lights from the chandeliers shone down on a thousand thousand gemstones, sparkling back up from under thick plates of transparisteel in a kaleidoscopic riot of color, each individual stone seeming to vie for attention. It was a wantonly ostentatious display, and even though Zaq knew that the crystals and jewels were all fakes - even Kaylika’s wealth had limits - he had to admit that he couldn’t really tell by looking at them, through the thick protective barrier and in the imperfect light. He couldn’t help but gasp.

“Never fails to make an impression, eh?” asked a soft voice from behind him.

Zaq turned to find Mrs. Daloway smiling shyly up at him from over the rim of her nearly-empty cocktail glass.

“By design, Mrs. Daloway,” Zaq said with a nod and a thin-lipped smile. “By design.”

“She once told me that there’s one for every populated planet in the Galaxy,” the old woman said conspiratorially, gesturing with her glass to indicate the gem-strewn floor.

“And she walks across them all every time she goes from her front door to her hall bathroom,” Zaq said.

“By design, Mr. Hawkes,” Mrs. Daloway echoed, tapping her glass with a finger thoughtfully. “By design.” She drained the drink with one gulp, and then began to shake her head. “Mmm, that’s a rare sight,” she said, staring across the room at a slender, middle-aged man who was embracing Kaylika while her telbun looked on uncomfortably.

Zaq didn’t recognize the man, who wore an expensive-looking suit cut in the Kuati fashion.

“Mr. Lysander Dromos, in the flesh,” Mrs. Daloway went on, anticipating Zaq’s unasked question.

“Ah,” Zaq said, recalling the name, “the chief guarantor of Kuat Crystal.”

“Our very own insurance kingpin,” the old Chief Operations Officer agreed, her tone surprisingly harsh. “I wonder what brings him out tonight?”

Zaq recoiled at the venom in Daloway’s voice, and wondered if it was just more sexism coming to the surface. “Perhaps he’s just worried about all the crystals we’re hoarding in the company vault,” Zaq said lightly, thinking of Danqa Tierce and her group of concerned-looking Muun bankers, all so nervous about the ‘material wealth’ stockpiled in the KuCrys basement. He shrugged. “Couldn’t sleep.”

“I doubt it,” Daloway continued sharply. “Dromos isn’t the sort to lose sleep. It really is distasteful, having a person with his history here. And to think, he’s Kuat Crystal’s last line of defense in case of disaster. Disturbing.” She shook her head, and made to take another sip of her drink. She seemed surprised to find her glass empty.

Zaq just stared dumbly.

“What, you don’t know?” Daloway asked when she noticed his vacant look.

He shrugged again, sheepishly.

“Lysander Dromos was a telbun, before the Liberation,” Mrs. Daloway said, drawing out the syllables of the man’s name and almost spitting out the word for companion-slave. “And not just any telbun: he was a common guttersnipe, until he caught the eye of The Pretender.”

“Dromos was Wyl Trykon’s telbun?!” Zaq couldn’t hide his astonishment. He knew all about Trykon’s public life - or rather he knew as much as the heavily-revised historical record would allow - but he knew precious little about his hero’s personal life.

“Can you imagine?” Mrs. Daloway asked, her voice dripping with contempt. “His family isn’t even of sufficient rank for him to test as a proper telbun; by all accounts Trykon simply liked the look of him and bought him off the street, thereby throwing away centuries of tradition. Not to mention the scandal of having not just one man running the Kanu Family, but two of them.” She sucked in a breath, and forced it out through her nose, loudly. “Of course, Trykon got what he deserved with all of it. The former pauper there cut some kind of deal with the New Republic; his master was exiled, while he came out of the transition with a significant personal fortune.” She sighed. “Which he’s subsequently used to set himself up as an insurer. Our insurer, in point of fact. As I said: distasteful and disturbing.” She frowned.

Zaq was frowning too, but not for the same reasons. He no longer cared if Kuat Crystal’s insurance was being provided by an unreliable source, and he wasn’t scandalized at all by the thought of a caste-defying telbun. No, he was scowling at Lysander Dromos because, if Daloway’s judgmental biography was accurate, then the middle-aged man in the flattering suit had betrayed Zaq’s role model. Wyl Trykon had lifted Dromos out of the lowest tiers of the caste system and had made him his own mate, gender roles and sexuality politics be damned, and Dromos had repaid Trykon’s kindness by turning on him and siding with the invaders: it was a monstrous story of selfishness and ingratitude, almost unbelievable. But as he looked at Dromos’s smug, insinuating smile and too-familiar mannerisms with Kaylika, Zaq knew it was all true. And he agreed with Mrs. Daloway: he found Lysander Dromos distasteful and disturbing, too.

Before Zaq could think of something appropriate to say in response, though, Mrs. Daloway suddenly stiffened, and declined her head in a slight bow. Zaq followed her line of sight and saw Kaylika of the Kanu striding toward them, her telbun in tow. And behind the redheaded CEO and her companion-slave, he saw several Human males in Imperial uniforms: the Thrawnist delegation had apparently arrived.

“It is my great pleasure to introduce Moff Doxos Prag, acting Chief Administrator of the Imperial Crystal Exchange Authority,” Kaylika cooed, nodding deferentially toward the tallest of the Imperial men. “Chief Administrator Prag, this is Mrs. Daloway, my second-in-command,” she continued, “and Mr. Zaq Hawkes, one of our senior Managers.” Kaylika didn’t skip a beat: “If you would excuse us, please, Mr. Hawkes,” she said with a fake-looking smile.

“Of course, Mistress,” Zaq said, bowing formally. “It’s an honor to have met you, Moff Prag,” he said in parting.

Well, that’s it, he thought to himself as he melted back into the crowd. Kaylika will make the pitch to the Imperials, now, and she doesn’t want me around. He glanced back at the tableau - two aging KuCrys matriarchs in evening gowns skulking in a corner with three uniformed old men and a disempowered slave - and he scowled. Fine then. If they’re so intent on keeping me out of the loop, he mentally whinged, I might as well go check out Kaylika’s study, since they’re too busy putting my plan into action to even notice my absence.

As Zaq strode out of the ballroom, he found himself surprised by his own anger. It felt righteous and justified and electrifying and right… but also frighteningly intense, as if at any moment it could erupt, beyond his control. Don’t get angry, he admonished himself lightly. Get even.

Kaylika’s study was at the end of a long hallway. With the hum of conversation and soft music nearly inaudible behind him, Zaq squared his shoulders and tried the door.

It opened, unlocked. No alarms sounded. The room was empty, and Zaq saw neither droids nor security cameras. Still, as he stepped into the austere home office he felt acutely aware that he was trespassing in one of Kaylika’s private rooms: the bare, functional decor was clearly not meant to be seen by the same guests who were invited to dance on a showy faux-crystal floor. His stomach clenched as he realized that if someone happened upon him poking around, he had no plausible excuse prepared to explain his presence.

“Let’s get this over with,” he muttered to himself. Kaylika’s desk was over by the far wall, and Zaq crossed quickly to check the drawers, as Mr. Lekin had suggested. He took out a handkerchief, and made sure to keep the fabric between his fingers and the shiny desk, wary of leaving fingerprints. With slightly trembling hands, he gingerly pulled open the top right drawer of the desk…

…and gasped out loud.

In the drawer was a single sheet of paper, and scrawled along the top was a 19-digit number.

Zaq had to enter the long sequence of numbers into his personal datapad three times before his shaking hands managed to get it right. With his heart pounding in his ears, he closed the drawer, pocketed his datapad, and retreated from the room. Back in the ballroom, he made weak excuses to a couple of his coworkers, complaining that he wasn’t used to drinking alcohol anymore, and then he fled the Kalat altogether.
Trykon
ComNet Disciple
 
Trykon
 
[VE-DJO] Dark Jedi Templar
[VE-NAVY] Vice Commodore
 
Post Number:  2936
Total Posts:  3754
Joined:  Feb 2011
Status:  Offline
  RE: Mate: A Dark Jedi Knight's Journey
May 20, 2013 4:48:55 PM    View the profile of Trykon 
Chapter 5




Location:
    outside the Kuat Crystal Corporation main offices
    Kuat
    the Core Worlds region of the Galaxy
Time:
    9 years, 10 months, 6 days after Palpatine’s death


The next morning, Zaq again arrived early to catch Mr. Lekin as he left the office. “Proof of conviction,” he said solemnly, holding up his datapad as the old man reached the bottom of the stairs. “But if we’re really doing this, I need to know exactly what you’re planning.”

“Fair enough,” Mr. Lekin murmured, his expression unreadable. “Walk with me.”

The sun was barely up, and the streets of Kuat City were cold and lonely in that early hour. They traveled side-by-side in the morning quiet, the young manager’s footsteps setting a steady rhythm, which was syncopated by the old janitor’s uneven gait.

When they had put some distance between themselves and the KuCrys offices, Zaq spoke again. “So? How exactly are you planning on getting around security?”

Mr. Lekin regarded him for a moment, in silence. “You really did it?” he finally asked. “You found the week’s vault code, and copied it?”

Zaq glanced up and down the street, warily. At the next intersection, a man and woman were crossing, but they were far off and looking away. No one else was around. “Right here,” he said, handing Lekin the datapad.

The old man’s eyes scanned the string of numbers greedily, and then darted to meet Zaq’s gaze. “Security won’t be a problem,” he said with a grin.

“How can you say that?” Zaq demanded. “I saw the floorplans on your datapad yesterday, read your notes. I’ve been going over it all in my head since last night. There are holorecameras recording the lower levels of the building, and simultaneously transmitting live images to the security command center on the ground floor. In that command center are dozens of guards, watching that feed all night, including both sentient beings and military-style battle droids. And there are two more armed men down at the base of the lift shaft, ready to respond to anything suspicious!”

“So what are you worried about?” Mr. Lekin asked, grinning.

“Mr. Lekin…”

“Mr. Hawkes,” the old man interrupted, waving away Zaq’s concerns, “as with many things about Kuat Crystal, the company’s security arrangements are not quite as impressive as they first appear. Yes, the hallways in the basement are all covered by security holorecorders, but there aren’t any cameras in the vault itself,” he said, smiling. “I guess they don’t want low-wage security guards staring at a room filled-to-bursting with treasure for hours at a time.”

Zaq stopped walking, exasperated. “Yeah, fine, that’s great, but what about the cameras outside the vault?”

“Their overconfidence is their weakness,” the old man said, his smile broadening. “There are only ten monitors in the command center - I mop the floor in there every night, and I’ve counted them - but there are a total of twenty holorecorders scattered around the building. So only half of the images being recorded can be seen, live in the command room, at any one time. I’ve watched the screens while I mop: they cycle once every standard minute. I simply have to wait until the precise minute when the camera covering the vault hallway isn’t onscreen in the command room, and key in the code then. I’ll have a full minute to open the door and slip inside. And since there’s no camera inside, I can take my time filling up the thermos.”

Zaq saw the flaw in the plan immediately. “But when they review the recorded footage, they’ll see right away that you entered the vault!” he cried, shaking his head emphatically.

Mr. Lekin pursed his lips, a twinkle in his eyes. “You’re a bright young lad, and no mistake,” he said approvingly. “But you haven’t seen what I’ve seen: in the command center, the controls for the recording system are on a separate panel from the viewing monitors, and they’re on the opposite wall. They leave the system set to record everything, all the time, so they basically ignore that bank of controls. I’ll slip in to do the mopping, and while they’re all staring at the monitors, I’ll simply key in the command to stop recording. And I’ll have my thick workman’s gloves on, so there won’t be any fingerprints,” he added with a wink.

Zaq’s thoughts raced. If the old man could get the recording system out of commission, and if he was right about the disparity between the number of cameras and the number of monitors, then it might actually be possible for him to enter the vault undetected. Nanci Fram was a competent Head of Security, and Zaq was sure she would notice that the recording system had been turned off… But she won’t notice right away, he thought. Even if she discovers the power-down at some point tonight, and immediately orders an audit of the vault’s contents, a detailed inventory can’t be taken until tomorrow! And by that time Mr. Lekin would be long gone with the crystal-filled thermos, and there would be no evidence linking him to the missing gems.

Doubts festered. Fear waned and waxed, in waves. And the whole time, Mr. Lekin merely waited patiently, silently watching Zaq come to his decision. A serene calm seemed to radiate from the old man’s bent frame; it was comforting. “Okay,” Zaq said at last, “it’s clear you’ve thought this through. I should be getting back to the office, now. Good luck with your shift tonight, Mr. Lekin,” he finished gravely.

“Good luck to us both,” the old man said, still smiling. And then he turned, and limped away.
Trykon
ComNet Disciple
 
Trykon
 
[VE-DJO] Dark Jedi Templar
[VE-NAVY] Vice Commodore
 
Post Number:  2937
Total Posts:  3754
Joined:  Feb 2011
Status:  Offline
  RE: Mate: A Dark Jedi Knight's Journey
May 20, 2013 4:49:17 PM    View the profile of Trykon 
Chapter 6




Location:
    Kuat City
    Kuat
    the Core Worlds region of the Galaxy
Time:
    9 years, 10 months, 7 days after Palpatine’s death


It was another chilly winter morning on Kuat, but for once, Zaq Hawkes didn’t feel cold as he walked to work.

For once, he felt… good. The sun was shining cheerfully, and if all had gone according to plan, Mr. Lekin was just about to leave KuCrys with a thermos full of cut and polished crystals, an untraceable stash worth a couple million credits. For the first time in a long while, Zaq felt optimistic about his future prospects. For once, he felt like he was in control of his own destiny.

Zaq walked through the office’s double doors, their green-and-purple coloration still undulating as their never-ending oxidization process continued, and when the security guards greeted him warmly, he responded in kind. Nanci and the others seemed calm; no alarms were going off. Zaq couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. The old man pulled it off! he rejoiced, just as Mr. Lekin appeared, limping across the security foyer to sign out.

“Good morning, Mr. Hawkes,” the old man said as he typed in his ID code and clocked out.

“Morning, Mr. Lekin,” Zaq said quietly. The old janitor gave no outward sign that anything was amiss as he walked out the door, thermos in his hand. Zaq took a deep breath, let it out, finished clocking in at Nanci Fram’s desk, and then went to his office to start his work day.

Instinctively, he went to water Gary, but the plant’s leaves were still charred and blackened. Zaq felt a twinge of sorrow, and regret. How did that even happen? he wondered sadly. With some reluctance, the young manager picked up the dead potted planet, and dumped it in the waste basket.

Minutes later, Zaq heard running footsteps outside his office door, followed by raised voices. The words were indistinct but the tone was unmistakably agitated. “What the hell?” he wondered aloud. Curious - and with a mounting sense of foreboding - he stepped into the hall.

The appraisers - the fifty low-level employees who spent their days sorting through rough crystals, determining which could be cut, and how - were walking past his door toward the exit, and beyond the steady stream of people, Zaq could see that several women were gathered in the lobby, including a couple of the company’s executives. He followed the crowd, his confusion growing.

In the lobby, Mrs. Daloway was standing off to the side, her face white as a Star Destroyer, while the workers shuffled out the front door. When they had all gone, Ms. Smyth crossed to the security desk. “Is Kaylika in yet?” she demanded. “Is she in yet?!”

Nanci Fram backed away a few centimeters, startled. “No, ma’am. I’m sorry, ma’am.”

KuCrys’s CFO whirled around and left in a huff.

The only people left were Zaq, Mrs. Daloway, and the front desk’s security guards. Zaq took one look at the COO’s dazed expression, and decided to give her some space. He stepped up to the security desk, and asked Nanci Fram: “What’s going on?”

The broad-faced woman shrugged, and shook her head, obviously troubled.

“Come with me, Mr. Hawkes,” Mrs. Daloway said from behind Zaq. He turned to face her. “I’ll show you.”

The woman walked slowly away, and Zaq followed. His heartbeat raced faster and faster, as she led him into the lift, and then down to the lower level: the vault floor. When the doors slid open, she began to speak. “I remind you that you have signed a confidentiality agreement, Mr. Hawkes,” she said weakly. Zaq just nodded dumbly. “Under no circumstances will you discuss… what you are about to see. Not with anyone below executive management! Is that understood?” Her voice had built in intensity, until she was almost yelling.

“Yes, ma’am,” Zaq managed, as they rounded a corner and came to the vault corridor. But as alarming as Mrs. Daloway’s strangeness was, what he saw next was truly astonishing: the large metal door at the end of the long marble hallway was standing ajar. Inside the vault, beyond the big open ring, he could make out the outlines of long tables… but nothing else.

Unconsciously, he picked up his pace, until he was almost jogging. After what seemed like an eternity, he stepped into the vault…

…and saw that it was empty.

Horrifed, Zaq spun in a circle, his eyes sweeping the small, metal-walled room for the tell-tale sparkle of crystal. But it was fruitless: the entire vault had been picked clean. Dozens of metal trays lay scattered across the tables and floor. Normally, Zaq knew, the trays were neatly arranged on the tables, and each one held a sizable mound of rough, uncut crystals, ready for appraisal. Not anymore. Gone, too, were the cut and polished crystals: the far wall was lined in velvet, and was very well-lit, but the mountings which protruded from it at regular intervals were all empty. The bulk of Kuat Crystal’s industrial-grade stock, and all of its priceless showpiece gems, had vanished.

After a time, Zaq realized that his jaw had fallen open. He swallowed, and licked his lips, before finally breaking the profound silence of the tomb-like room. “Two tons of crystals,” he whispered. “There were two tons down here.”

Footsteps echoed from the corridor. Nanci Fram, visibly shaken, stepped into the vault. “Mistress Kaylika has arrived. You’re both wanted in the conference room, right away.”

Mrs. Daloway hurried out, and after one final, incredulous look at the vacant mountings and empty metal trays, Zaq followed.

###


The meeting was very different than the one which had been called on the morning of the Itzor Massacre, the week before. It was much more intimate, and even more emotionally tense.

Zaq walked into the conference room and found he was the only Manager present. Kaylika and Ms. Smyth were standing on the far side of the table, and Mrs. Daloway, who’d come in just ahead of Zaq, joined them. On the near side of the table, Zaq saw Nanci Fram and two of her security guards, standing attentively. And to the side, escorted by Kaylika’s secretary droid, stood Lysander Dromos and a Human male Zaq didn’t recognize.

Without preamble, Kaylika sat, and everyone else followed suit. Zaq studied the face of the unfamiliar man, as Kuat Crystal’s CEO began to speak. “In case any of you don’t already know, this is Lysander Dromos, from the Kuati Insurance Syndicate, our underwriters. We’ve discussed the… incident, and he was good enough to come here himself. We’re agreed that our most important priority must be to maintain the appearance of normalcy: if we report a theft, there will be a police investigation, and we’ll lose everything… The news media will pick up the story, and regardless of the outcome of the investigation, public confidence in the company - and by extension in the crystal trade itself - will vanish. And so, we are going to handle this with discretion.” She looked at the two visitors. “Mr. Dromos,” she said, gesturing for him to take the floor.

“Kuati Insurance has been behind Kuat Crystal since its founding five years ago, after the liberation,” the former telbun said, “and today is no different.” He turned to the man beside him, the one Zaq didn’t recognize. “That said, it’s my pleasure to introduce Mr. Daryl Jans, the Syndicate’s top Insurance Investigator.”

“Thank you, Mr. Dromos,” Jans said in a delicate, coolly controlled voice, “and good morning to you all.” The investigator made eye contact with every person in the room as he continued, his words coming slowly but clearly: “There is no need to panic, everyone; we will find the crystals.”

Veronika Smyth scoffed. “No need to panic?!” she screeched. “A sector’s-worth of crystals has disappeared into the ether, including the prize pieces of our collection, and you’re telling us not to panic?”

Mr. Jans’s nose twitched, but he didn’t dignify Smyth’s outburst with a response. “We should begin,” he said mildly. “If we could please call the night staff back in, and I’d like to see the vault.”

Kaylika herself led the insurance man out, and Dromos and the security women followed.

“We’d better hope that investigator knows his business,” Mrs. Daloway murmured. “Dromos will fight tooth and nail to avoid paying the claim. He’s the Syndicate’s majority shareholder: if they’re forced to pay out he’d fall back into the gutter, where he began.” Ms. Smyth, for her part, just sat down at the conference table dejectedly.

“What should I do?” Zaq asked Mrs. Daloway.

“Coordinate with the droid,” she replied gruffly. “Call the janitorial staff and get them back!”

Zaq nodded, and gestured at the droid for it to follow him. As he walked the short distance to Kaylika Kanu’s outer office, where they could place the calls, Zaq wondered if Mr. Lekin would even answer. He was a proven liar and a thief of apparently supernatural ability: would he have disappeared along with the two tons of crystal? With a worrisome frown, Zaq did what came naturally: he went to work.

###


To Zaq’s considerable surprise, Mr. Lekin answered the call almost immediately. After a brief pause while the connection was established, the old man’s face materialized from the desk’s holoemitter. Lekin was grinning, which only made Zaq frown more intensely.

“Sorry to bother you at home, Mr. Lekin,” Zaq said carefully, acutely aware that the protocol droid was in the room, watching the exchange, “but there’s been an… unforeseen development, here at the office.”

“A what?” Lekin’s holo asked, feigning ignorance well enough, except for the smile etched into his face.

Zaq’s eyes flashed with anger, but he kept it in check. “I said there’s been an unforeseen development,” he said with exaggerated patience and clarity. “A bit of an emergency, really. I’m sure it will all work out fine, but upper management would like you to come back in, to help sort it out. As soon as possible.”

“Well, I can never resist a good mystery,” Lekin said with a wink, the hologram stuttering a bit as the connection lapsed momentarily. “I’ll be back right away.”

“Thank you, Mr. Lekin,” Zaq said. A glint of light drew his attention to the side of the room, where Kaylika’s silver-plated secretary droid had begun to walk toward the door. It wasn’t clear why the droid was leaving, but Zaq decided to take the opportunity to speak more openly with Lekin. The moment the droid had gone, he turned back to the transmitter. “How?” he demanded, careful to avoid saying anything too obviously incriminating. “Why?!”

“Careful, Mr. Hawkes,” Lekin warned, his grin turning into a grimace. No doubt he too was worried about the call being recorded and reviewed at a later time. “Like you said, everything will work out fine.” The grin returned.

For half a second, Zaq could almost believe it. He wanted everything to work out fine, certainly. But then reality came crashing back: he was an accessory to the theft of two tons of crystals, and he knew that such an audacious crime would result in serious consequences for someone.

“Fine?!” he asked shrilly, so constricted with worry that he was unable to choke out more than one syllable.

“Fine,” Lekin confirmed solemnly. “You need to calm down, Mr. Hawkes. I’m sure whatever the problem is, it’s not that bad. I’ll leave now. I’m sure I’ll see you ‘round the office.” And without another word, Mr. Lekin cut the transmission.

Just as he did, the droid came back in. “Your presence is requested in the conference room, Mr. Hawkes. Urgently,” the droid added.

What now? Zaq asked himself as he moved toward the door.

“I suppose I will finish the calls to the night staff by myself,” the droid said as Zaq left.

“You do that,” Zaq snapped back, as he headed down the hall to see what more could go wrong.

###


This time, there were even fewer people in the conference room, and the mood was even more intense. Zaq walked in to find Kaylika, Ms. Smyth, and Mrs. Daloway on the far side of the table, and a short Bothan male in formal dress standing on the near side, talking.

“If you choose to purchase the inventory, you must alert me of your intention,” the Bothan purred in its feline voice. Zaq stood still and focused, intent on piecing together what was going on, even though he was arriving midway through a conversation. “I will then relay my client’s instructions regarding method of payment, and after receiving confirmation that payment has been processed, my client will relay the location where you may take possession of the inventory. It is important to note that I am to be kept ignorant of all details regarding any arrangement between my client and yourselves.” He produced a piece of flimsiplast, folded in quarters, and handed it to Kaylika. “This note, which I have not read, in accordance with my client’s instructions, specifies the inventory and my client’s terms of purchase.” His memorized speech complete, the Bothan took a deep breath and let it out, waiting patiently for a response.

“Mr. Bek’tu,” Veronika Smyth said quietly, “do you really expect us to believe that you don’t know who your client is?”

The Bothan seemed genuinely confused by the question. “I do not know the identity of my client,” he reiterated with an awkward shrug, a gesture Zaq knew was not native to his species. “Nor do I know what the inventory is. My client was very clear that I was to be kept ignorant of all details, as I said.”

Kaylika unfolded the flimsiplast note. Her jaw muscles worked furiously as she read it, and her off hand balled into a fist. “We will be in touch, Mr. Bek’tu,” she said curtly, and the Bothan’s hair bristled at her tone. He drew himself up to his full height, bowed with a wounded air, and walked out.

“What does it say?” Mrs. Daloway asked, wringing her hands.

Kaylika read the note again, this time aloud: “Now available for purchase: a selection of rough crystals, and several cut and polished crystals, net weight approximately two metric tons. Price: 1.2 billion Imperial Credits, or 1.4 billion New Republic Credits.”

“Emperor’s bones,” Ms. Smyth cursed under her breath.

“That’s all it says?” Mrs. Daloway asked weakly.

“This deal won’t last,” Kaylika continued to read, shaking her head in disbelief, “so act now while you still can. Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Sale ends tomorrow.”

“Oh my,” the COO whimpered. “It’s a ransom note.”

“Do you want me to stop that ratty little alien lawyer before he slips away?” the CFO asked savagely.

Kaylika shook her head violently. “The Bothan doesn’t know anything!” she yelled. “Can’t you see we’re dealing with professionals? Just go tell Mr. Jans what’s happened, and somebody get me Lysander Dromos on the holo!” She stormed out of the room, and Smyth followed right behind her to carry out her order.

Everything was happening so fast. Zaq could barely keep up. Somehow, Mr. Lekin had stolen every crystal in the vault, which was an undeniably impressive feat but also incredibly stupid, since it only served to draw attention to the theft. And now, he was apparently sending lawyers with cryptic notes, in a bizarre effort to extort billions of credits? It didn’t make any sense. Zaq knew he needed more information, and just before Mrs. Daloway left, he thought of a way to get some.

“Excuse me, Mrs. Daloway?” he called, stopping the ashen-faced woman at the door.

“What is it, Mr. Hawkes? You heard: I have to call our shady insurer back in.”

“Yes, ma’am. Sorry. I just wanted permission to liaise with Mr. Jans on the investigation. Serve as a sort of representative of the company, if you will.” And make sure he doesn’t discover that I stole the vault code and gave it to the thief, he pointedly avoided adding.

“Why?” she asked distractedly, still wringing her hands.

Zaq hesitated, inventing a reasonable concern on the spot: “If we really have to give these madmen an answer by the end of the day, well then we all need to be communicating with each other as efficiently as possible, don’t we? And I can help with that.” It sounded pretty thin, but then he had another idea. “And besides, Mr. Jans was hired by the shady insurer, wasn’t he? We don’t want Dromos’s man wandering around unsupervised.”

Mrs. Daloway just sagged, as if she couldn’t even find the energy to shrug properly. “Fine, Mr. Hawkes. It can’t hurt. I’ll tell Jans right after I call Dromos.”

“Excellent,” Zaq said. “I’ll go find him then, and get to work.”

###


Zaq found Daryl Jans in the vault corridor, surrounded by a dozen droids of various makes and models, all busily moving about: small ones were surveying and recording the crime scene, while big industrial ones were hard at work drilling holes in the walls and digging up the floor. A fine white dust clogged the hallway, and Zaq coughed as he stepped off the lift. “What’s… what’s going on down here?” he asked, hacking.

“Mr. Hawkes, is it?” the insurance investigator asked through the haze. The man wore a breathing mask over his mouth and nose, which muffled his voice and lent it a nasal quality.

“Yes,” Zaq said, slowly getting control of his breathing. “Mrs. Daloway was going to speak to you… I’m to help you with your investigation.” He cleared his throat, loudly. “I’ve been placed at your disposal.”

The investigator seemed to study him for a moment. “Yes,” Jans said, squinting, “very good, Mr. Hawkes. Ms. Smyth was just down, and she told me about the ransom.” He handed Zaq one of the breathing masks. “If you’ll slip this on, I’ll walk you through our findings so far. It seems we’re on a deadline, now.”

Zaq slipped the mask over his nose and mouth, and adjusted the straps to fit. Soon he could breathe normally, which only made him more acutely aware of the fact that his eyes were itchy and watering.

“Better?” Jans asked.

“Better,” Zaq said gratefully.

“Good,” the investigator said. “The dust is a mixture of marble and permacrete and durasteel shavings, kicked up from the drills and digging machines you see all around.”

Zaq nodded. “Have they found anything?” he asked, over-enunciating to compensate for the mask.

Mr. Jans shook his head. “Not yet, but they will. The lift is the only way in or out, but the crystals were not removed by using the lift. We know this because every activation of the lift is recorded, and leaves an electronic time stamp in the security command center’s computer core. Last night, the lift was activated four times, as usual. Once to bring the two basement guards down, once to bring the night janitor down, once to bring the night janitor up, and once to bring the guards up. And in every instance, the lift returned immediately to standby mode on the main level.”

Zaq nodded again, working through the information in his head. “So the lift was never standing still long enough to load two tons of crystals.”

“Exactly,” Jans said. “The only remaining possibility is that the thieves tunneled in. And eventually, the droids will find that tunnel.”

Zaq inspected one of the giant gashes in the wall. Under the thin layer of marble there was a slab of thick durasteel plating, and then a deep band of permacrete before the raw soil began. How could Lekin have tunneled through all of that, Zaq wondered. “If they tunneled through all of this,” he asked aloud, “how could they do it unseen? There are cameras all around down here.” He looked down the hallway toward one of the holocameras, which was observing the demolition impassively, and then back at the inspector.

Mr. Jans seemed to sneer under his mask. “Somehow, they managed to turn off the recording system last night. And while there is a closed-circuit system, transmitting images from the cameras directly up to the command center, that system has a flaw: only half of the cameras can be shown on the monitors at once. With recording off, every camera was effectively blind for a full minute, every other minute.”

Zaq feigned surprise and horror, and made a show of taking a moment to consider the ‘new’ information. “But still,” he said finally, “one minute isn’t a lot of time.”

“It would appear to be enough time to slip in undetected,” Jans said bitterly. “Now, if you’ll notice the vault itself, the interior is intact and the door was not forced. They tunneled into the basement, Mr. Hawkes, timed their arrival to coincide with a minute during which the relevant cameras were blind, and then they simply opened the vault and walked in.”

“You think they cracked the vault code?” Zaq asked, his voice rising in pitch.

Again, Jans just paused, staring intently at Zaq as if taking his measure. “I’m ready to present my initial report to the executives, Mr. Hawkes. I’ve had a message from Mr. Dromos, and he is apparently coming back for the meeting. If you’ll follow me, I’ll tell you all what it is that I think.”

Zaq swallowed heavily, and nodded in acquiescence. Nervously, he followed the tall insurance investigator out of the dusty corridor and into the elevator. And as the lift climbed back up to the main level, Zaq tried desperately not to fidget, as nightmare scenarios ran through his head and he silently rehearsed an impassioned plea for mercy and forgiveness.

###


When Zaq and inspector Jans walked into the conference room, they found the executives and Lysander Dromos had already started the meeting.

“This should tide you over until the crystals can be recovered,” Dromos was saying, as he slid a few large credit chips across the table toward Kaylika.

The redheaded CEO stared at him with contempt. “Ten million Republic credits,” she observed dryly. “That’s what you’re giving us?”

“Oh, come on, Kaylika,” Dromos said, adjusting his fitted suit coat prissily. “You oversee every major trading center across the Galaxy: the second the thieves try to fence even one of those crystals, you’ll have the rest of them within a few hours. Try to relax.”

The woman’s eyes narrowed, and the muscles around her right nostril twitched. “You listen to me, Dromos,” she said slowly, her voice dangerously soft. “Kuat Crystal is the chief supplier of industrial- and gem-grade stones to the New Republic, the Imperial Remnant, and the Hutts. This office supplies a dozen sectors directly. The mere suggestion that we can no longer supply would be ruinous. A few credits are useless. We need the crystals back!”

Lysander Dromos leaned back in his chair, a sour expression spoiling his boyish good looks. “These lowlifes are playing you. There’s no way of knowing that they’ll give you back the crystals, even if you do give in to their demands. And either way, if we give them billions of credits, it will only make it more difficult to catch them.”

Before Kaylika could object, Dromos noticed Jans and Zaq standing awkwardly just inside the room, and waved them in. “Let’s hear what Mr. Jans has to say. Perhaps it will change our perspective, eh?”

The tall insurance inspector stepped up to the table, laid a datapad down as reference, and began to declaim. “It is quite obvious that the theft was perpetrated by one or more employees of Kuat Crystal Corporation.”

Zaq’s stomach contracted, but he gave no outward sign of distress as Jans continued his report.

“I believe the guilty party disabled the recording system for the building’s security holocameras last night, either manually or by remote, and that they also obtained the 19-digit code to the vault some time before they acted. Given the circumstances, I suspect they stole the code from Kalat Kanu, during the recent gala. Teams have been dispatched to lift fingerprints from the Kalat, the vault, and the security command center.”

Zaq had to focus very hard, just to keep breathing normally.

Lysander Dromos had steepled his fingers across his chest. “And what were you saying, Mr. Jans, about the most likely motive?”

“I believe the robbery was politically motivated, sir,” the investigator replied immediately.

What? Zaq wondered, his head spinning.

“And what makes you say that, Mr. Jans?” Dromos continued, still looking smug.

“If they were simply looking to make a profit,” Jans reasoned, “then a few handfuls of crystals would have been quite enough to satisfy that goal, and would have been much easier to get away with.”

Dromos nodded. “And which political factions are the most likely suspects, Mr. Jans,” he said with exaggerated patience.

The insurance investigator titled his head to the side for a moment, then replied. “The Thrawnist Imperials, the Bothan isolationalists, and the Abolitionist anti-slavery activists. The Imperials may be trying to take over the galactic crystal trade, the Bothans may wish to destabilize the New Republic’s economy in order to more easily break away as an independent polity, and the abolitionists may be responding to the so-called Itzorian Massacre.”

Lysander Dromos smiled thinly. “And are any KuCrys employees affiliated with any of these three political groups?”

Jans looked at his datapad again. “Seventeen droids working in the building were built during the Imperial occupation of Kuat, one ex-Stormtrooper works as a security guard, and no fewer than five employees have expressed sympathetic views towards the abolitionist movement, including…” he hesitated, glancing at the three executives on the opposite side of the table, “including the company’s Chief Operations Officer, Mrs. Jayne Daloway.”

Mrs. Daloway started, as if she’d been physically struck. “What?” she asked. “Me?”

“What are you implying?” demanded Veronika Smyth. She put a hand on Mrs. Daloway’s shoulder, in an unmistakable gesture of reassurance and solidarity.

“This is ridiculous,” Mrs. Daloway said weakly. “Just because I don’t like every single thing this company has ever done, it doesn’t mean I’m some sort of fringe activist. And it doesn’t mean I’m a thief!”

“Enough of this!” Kaylika bellowed. She pointed a finger at Dromos. “You’re screwing us? Screwing me?!”

The handsome former telbun shrugged, as if to say, ‘it’s nothing personal.’ “We have to allow Mr. Jans to complete his interviews of the staff,” he said, his apologetic tone eerily mismatched with his mirthful eyes. “Until we can rule out any kind of fraud, conclusively and completely, the Kuati Insurance Syndicate won’t even consider full settlement of your claim.”

“You… worm!” Kaylika said, rising out of her chair. “You know the claim’s legitimate! Your own investigator has told you that much! This is baldfaced greed, Dromos. As the Syndicate’s main underwriter, you stand to lose your ill-gotten fortune, or isn’t that true?”

“True that I’m a worm? Pah!” Dromos shot back as he too stood. “You’re something else, Kaylika. You dare call into question my business practices, when you’re the woman behind the most extensive slave trading network outside Hutt Space? I’m the greedy one? Pah!”

“We’ve paid you huge sums of money, every month, for five years, Dromos!” Kaylika ranted. “And we did it so that we would be safe, even if the unthinkable should happen. Well, the unthinkable has happened, Dromos. What has our investment gotten us?”

Dromos pushed away from the table, and began to put on his overcoat.

“Nothing,” Kaylika said, stunned. “Your response is nothing.” As he began to leave, she started shouting: “I’ll devote the rest of my life to ruining you, Dromos. I have powerful friends; you’ll regret this. Do you hear me! I’ll ruin you!”

But Lysander Dromos had gone, and Kaylika of the Kanu was screaming at no one in particular. Embarrassed, Zaq and the other executives slipped out of the conference room, leaving her alone to vent her rage.

###


Zaq left the conference room shaken. Kaylika of the Kanu, reduced to a jibbering wreck. The Galaxy had turned upside-down.

He wandered the halls of the KuCrys building, processing his lingering confusion and working through his shock. Why’d you do it, Lekin? he silently asked, over and over as he paced the corridors. And how?!

Maybe Jans was right. About everything. The man had already worked out that the robbery had to have been an inside job. He knew the vault code had been stolen during the party at Kaylika’s Kalat. He knew the recording system had been switched off, and the crime timed to coincide with the resulting camera blackout. Could he be right about Lekin’s motivations, too? Was the old janitor some sort of idealist, or patriot, or spy?

Without making a conscious choice about his destination, Zaq found his pacing had brought him back to the CEO’s outer office. Kaylika’s silver secretarial droid was inside, interfacing with the computer terminal fussily. Abruptly, Zaq made a decision, and stepped into the office. “Are the night staff still here?” he asked the automaton.

The droid looked up at him, its static expression somehow managing to convey surprise. “Mr. Hawkes?”

“The night staff!” Zaq repeated. “The janitors and the security guards from last night… are they still in the building?”

The droid’s photoreceptors darkened, then came back on, in a sort of blink of understanding. “Mr. Jans and his team completed the initial interviews almost one hour ago. The members of the night staff were sent home, pending further investigation.”

Zaq nodded, thinking.

“Was there something you needed, Mr. Hawkes?” the droid asked dutifully in its metallic voice.

“No. Thank you,” he said, withdrawing from the office and leaving the machine to its business. That was all I needed to know, he thought, as he went to his office, slipped on his overcoat, and left the KuCrys building.

###


Zaq jogged all the way to Mr. Lekin’s apartment, and he was out of breath when he got to the run-down building. Panting, he found the call box and pressed the appropriate button. Idly, he wondered if the battered-looking intercom even worked.

Just that moment, though, the door opened, revealing Mr. Lekin, still grinning.

“Oh!” Zaq said, taken aback. “I wasn’t… I just rang for you… I wanted… Look, we need to talk.”

The old man nodded, chuckling softly. “Why don’t you come on up?”

They made the slow ascent in silence, the old man pulling himself up the stairs using the handrail, and the young man brooding behind.

But as soon as Mr. Lekin closed his apartment door, Zaq began asking questions. He’d built a dam to contain his emotions, fearful of letting the investigator or his coworkers see his mounting panic; now, away from prying eyes in Mr. Lekin’s shabby apartment, that dam broke.

“We’re doomed!” he yelled piteously. “They’ve already figured out so much; soon they’ll know everything! That inspector, Jans, he knows the recording system was turned off, and he knows the code was stolen from Kaylika’s study during the party. He’s even worked out that you must have dug a tunnel down to the basement, to get the crystals out of the building.”

Mr. Lekin scoffed. “Smart man,” he said almost contemptuously, as he lowered himself into a chair.

“Yes, he is a smart man,” Zaq warned, “and he’s going to figure out the rest! What did you tell him, about last night?”

“I told him I went to work as usual. Waxed the floors, emptied the waste baskets, ate my sandwich. A typical night,” he said. “I lied.”

“You’re quite good at lying, Mr. Lekin,” Zaq snapped. “You told me you were only going to take a handful of crystals! Fill up your damned thermos!”

The old man nodded, and gave a little shrug. “I did,” he acknowledged.

“You did!” Zaq yelled. “Don’t you realize that by taking all of them, you’ve rendered the stones worthless? KuCrys is the only buyer in the Galaxy, and they’ve put the trading centers on alert… the crystals can’t be sold, now. Not one of them! If you try, they’ll arrest you.”

“Indeed, Mr. Hawkes,” Lekin said. “Which is why I have asked for a ransom.”

“They won’t pay it!” Zaq screamed, all his tension erupting as rage. “They can’t! There’s no money! Wake up, damn you: we’re both going to go to jail for the rest of our lives, if we don’t do something, and I mean right now!”

Lekin just looked up at Zaq, his lips pursed in an expression of bemusement. “And what do you want to do?”

“We have to come clean, tell them what we did. I’ll go to Kaylika, or maybe Mrs. Daloway: tell them we’ll give them back the crystals in exchange for our freedom and our silence. They’ll accept that deal. They’re so terrified of the theft being made public, they’ll agree to anything to keep it all a secret. I can get us out of this, Mr. Lekin, I can. You just have to tell me where the crystals are.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Hawkes,” Lekin said, shaking his head sadly. “I want to help you, but I don’t plan on negotiating with those people.”

Zaq’s breathing was ragged; he felt close to tears. “What is this all about, Mr. Lekin?” he asked. “Who’s behind it all?”

“It’s just me,” the old man said quietly. “Only me.”

“Fine,” Zaq said, changing tack, “you have political convictions - a cause - I can understand that. But the Insurance Syndicate is trying everything they can think of not to pay the claim. Your deadline is only a few hours away, and I’m sure they can delay at least that long. What do you think happens then, when your deadline passes and KuCrys has no funds to pay your ransom?”

“I require the money in full, Mr. Hawkes, and Kuat Crystal can, in fact, pay it. That is why they were so well-insured, after all.”

“This is madness! You’ll get nothing but a lifetime in jail, damn you. Is this cause of yours worth that?”

“Oh yes, Mr. Hawkes,” Lekin murmured, his eyes unblinking. “It’s worth everything, to me.”

Zaq shook his head, incredulous. “You leave me no choice, then. I have to turn myself in.”

The old janitor laughed, loudly and without warning. “Oh yeah? You’re just going to walk up to them and confess, without knowing where the booty is? Without any kind of bargaining chip? You’ve spent your whole life clawing your way up the social ladder, sublimating your desires and forgoing personal opportunities to serve this company, doing their dirty work for them and never complaining, all in the hopes that one day, it would pay off. You’re really going to throw all that away, now, just to spite me?”

Zaq reeled, swaying on his feet as the words hit home. But I have to do something! he said to himself. “Okay, Mr. Lekin. You’re right: I would need a bargaining chip. And since you won’t tell me where the crystals are, I’ll just have to find them myself.”

The old man smiled again. “Oh you will?”

“Yes,” Zaq promised, “I will. I will find the crystals. I’ll save the company, and save my job. Count on it.” He turned and stormed out, slamming the door behind him.

But all the way down the stairs, Zaq could hear Lekin’s supercilious laughter booming behind him.

###


Zaq went straight back to KuCrys, signed in quickly at the front desk, and rushed to his office. Purposefully ignoring the empty shelf where Gary used to live, he crossed to his desk and logged into his computer terminal, pulling up all of the investigation files Daryl Jans’s team had compiled. Blueprints of the building’s basement scrolled across the screen, along with dossiers of the company’s workers, including the night janitor, Lionel Lekin. I’ll beat you, Zaq said to the old man’s portrait, which stared back at him dispassionately from the monitor. You’ll see: I will win!

A soft knock at his door made Zaq start. “Come in!” he called.

It was Daryl Jans. “Is this a bad time, Mr. Hawkes?” the investigator asked politely.

“Not at all, Mr. Jans. Please,” Zaq responded, standing up to wave the slightly older man in. He pulled at the sleeves of his coat nervously. “Have a seat.”

“Thank you,” Jans said, slipping into the visitors’ chair Zaq had indicated. “I’ve been working my way through personnel, as you know, but it occurred to me that I haven’t yet talked to you.” He settled his piercing gaze on Zaq’s face, and the young Manager’s heart skipped a beat. “But when I came here, about an hour ago, I couldn’t find you. I checked with Security, and Fram said you’d just left the building, so I told her to page me the moment you got back.”

“I’m at your disposal,” Zaq said, as breezily as he could manage.

“Very good,” Jans said. “Out of curiosity, where did you go, after Dromos walked out of the meeting?”

“I needed some air,” Zaq said stupidly, his mind desperately searching for a plausible alibi. “It was upsetting, you see, seeing Mistress Kaylika so… upset.” He cursed himself silently.

“Uh huh,” Jans said. He sounded unconvinced. “Shall we begin our interview?” he finally asked.

“Sure,” Zaq said, wishing he could get a glass of water without looking conspicuous.

Jans took out a datapad. “You were born… here in Kuat City, were you not? To… working-class parents?” He looked up from the pad to hear - and watch - Zaq’s response.

“Yes,” Zaq said, grimacing apologetically. The caste system was fairly rigid on Kuat, and his humble origin was a constant source of embarrassment and shame, especially in the realm of interplanetary business. “My mother was a domestic servant, and my father a shipping clerk.”

“I see,” Jans said quietly. He checked the datapad again. “And after just five years with Kuat Crystal, you’ve worked your way up to senior Manager?”

Zaq’s chest swelled a bit. “Yes sir, that’s correct.”

“You’ve done well for yourself,” Jans said, fixing his shrewd eyes on Zaq’s.

“I like to think so,” Zaq said evenly, matching the man’s stare. “I certainly have no complaints,” he lied.

Jans smiled thinly. “Good. Well, if you don’t mind, I’m afraid I have to ask you if I may record your fingerprints. It’s only a formality, of course. We just want to rule you out as a suspect,” he said, his wan smile never fading, “conclusively.”

Did I leave a fingerprint somewhere in Kaylika’s private study? Zaq asked himself, the voice of his internal monologue shrill and panicked. Or worse, did I lose a hair in the drawer of her desk? Or is this guy just grasping at straws? “Yes of course,” was all he said aloud, though. He couldn’t believe it when he’d stopped speaking and his voice hadn’t cracked.

Jans slid the datapad across the desk. “Please place each finger on the screen, in the indicated box, as the program prompts you,” he said.

Zaq did so, placing each of his digits on the pad in a predetermined order, one after the other. As the machine whirred quietly through its preprogrammed sequence, Zaq wrestled control over his emotions. You have nothing to be afraid of, he admonished himself. If Jans knew you were involved he would act. Show a little courage and ask him some questions. Pick his brain, piece together the clues, and solve this mystery! “You can’t really suspect kindly Mrs. Daloway of stealing two tons of crystals, can you?” he asked, keeping his tone calm, earnest, and almost friendly.

Jans seemed surprised by the sudden question. “Of all the people at the gala, she was the only one Kaylika truly trusted,” the investigator said, “and she knew the Kalat’s layout intimately. She could easily have gotten in and out of her boss’s study without being seen.” Again, his eyes seemed to study Zaq’s. “The question is, was she brave enough to do it. Does she have the necessary drive? The ambition...”

“I can’t imagine a person who could commit such an audacious crime,” Zaq said, surprised by how much truth was in that statement. What did he really know about Lionel Lekin, anyway? The old man was a mystery, his motives unimaginable.

“No, you understand ambition, Mr. Hawkes,” the inspector said, matter-of-factly. “And I find it hard to believe your imagination is quite so limited as you purport.” Just at that moment, the datapad beeped three times, announcing the completion of the fingerprinting program. He smiled again. “All done, now. Thank you for your cooperation.”

“My pleasure, Inspector,” Zaq said, pulling his hand back as Jans retrieved his datapad.

Jans looked over the scans thoughtfully, tapping buttons and scrolling through images Zaq couldn’t see from his vantage point. At length, the inspector sighed heavily. “Well, go on, Mr. Hawkes,” he said. “Tell me how you did it. How did you get more than a billion credits of crystals - two tons of stones - past a sealed door, durasteel-lined hallways, a holocamera surveillance system, a lift that can’t be overridden, and dozens of security guards, both mechanical and biological? I still haven’t found any tunnels downstairs, so why don’t you just tell me: how did you do it?”

Fear coursed through Zaq’s veins, chilling him to the core, but somehow he maintained his composure. “I’m really not that smart,” Zaq said evenly. “I wish I were: if I could figure out how it was done I might save my job.”

Mr. Jans let out a single chuckle. “Your job,” he echoed. “Maybe you made a pact with the Imperials? You get to run their new cartel after Kuat Crystal implodes?”

“I’m not the villain in some cheap holodrama, Inspector. I know what you’re doing. You’re testing me: evaluating my responses to stressful stimuli and trying to uncover some hidden guilt. But it won’t work, Mr. Jans, because I’m not guilty of any crime. The truth is that I haven’t done anything wrong, and that’s why you haven’t arrested me.”

“Maybe,” Jans said with a shrug, squinting at Zaq. He paused, as if considering his next words very carefully, and then threw up his hands. “We found a partial print at the Kalat,” he said, “but it was inconclusive. There’s no trail left to follow. No suspects to interrogate. No tunnels to explore. The building is about to close for the night, and in about an hour the deadline for the ransom passes. And there’s nothing I can do.”

Zaq swallowed. He nodded. “I’m sorry, Mr. Jans,” he said. And he meant it.

“Go home, Mr. Hawkes,” the inspector said with a sigh. “We’re both exhausted… and there’s nothing more for us to do here.” And without another word, the defeated inspector stood up, and walked out of Zaq’s office.

Zaq waited until he was sure the man had gone, and then let out a huge sigh of relief. “That was too fucking close,” he muttered to himself. “Fuck.”

He sat in his chair a while, waiting for his hands to stop shaking long enough to pull his overcoat on. While he waited, he couldn’t help but replay the tense conversation in his head.

No tunnels to explore, Jans had said. How did Lekin manage to get the crystals out, without a tunnel? Zaq wondered.

About an hour until the deadline, the inspector had said. Time’s running out, Zaq worried. I have to solve this soon or I’ll be joining the janitor in a prison cell.

We’re both exhausted, Jans had said. I really am feeling drained, Zaq realized.

But as the thoughts replayed themselves in his head, the words started to echo, and Zaq suddenly bolted up in his seat. Tunnels. Janitor. Drained. He grabbed his coat, his hands suddenly rock-steady. Tunnels. Janitor. Drained. With a determined look on his face, he walked out to the lobby. Tunnels. Janitor. Drained. He signed out, took the external stairs two at a time, and jogged away from Kuat Crystal, in the general direction of Mr. Lekin’s apartment.

After three blocks, he found the place he was looking for: a nondescript stretch of pavement that he’d noticed the day before. It was almost midnight, and the street light overhead had burned out, but Zaq knew he was in the right spot. He dropped to his knees and groped around in the darkness until he found it: a bent-back sewer grate that left an opening just large enough for a Human adult to squeeze through. Tunnels, Janitor, Drained! his brain exulted. “Yeah, yeah,” he whispered to himself, as he peered into the absolute blackness. He took a deep breath to try to buck up his courage, and he almost started to cough, the maintenance shaft stank so badly. “I have a bad feeling about this,” he murmured, before lowering himself into the sewer and being swallowed up by the dark.
Trykon
ComNet Disciple
 
Trykon
 
[VE-DJO] Dark Jedi Templar
[VE-NAVY] Vice Commodore
 
Post Number:  2938
Total Posts:  3754
Joined:  Feb 2011
Status:  Offline
  RE: Mate: A Dark Jedi Knight's Journey
May 20, 2013 4:49:57 PM    View the profile of Trykon 
Chapter 7





Location:
    the sewers of Kuat City, near the Kuat Crystal Corporation’s main office
    Kuat
    the Core Worlds region of the Galaxy
Time:
    9 years, 10 months, 8 days after Palpatine’s death


Zaq descended into a nightmare. The Kuat City sewer system had been designed and built thousands of years before, and while it was efficient and low-maintenance, it was also decidedly rudimentary. There were no lights installed in the tunnels, and as Zaq waded through knee-deep lukewarm liquid, every sloshing step kicked up a miasma of sickening odors. Occasionally, his foot would strike some submerged, solid… something, and he’d instinctively flail his arms out to the walls to steady himself. Each time, his fingers came back slick and oily to the touch. “A flashlight would have been a useful item to bring,” he muttered. He didn’t really want to open his mouth very widely, and his muffled voice echoed back at him in the close, damp space.

He stumbled forward another few dozen meters, and his eyes began to adjust. Ahead of him, the tunnel seemed to meet another in a T-junction, and the passage to the right had a dim light spilling out from it. He waded forward toward the light eagerly, turned the corner, and stopped dead in his tracks.

Just around the corner, two battery-powered lamps had been set up to either side of a large drain pipe. And beneath the pipe was a huge pile of sparkling crystals.

“You’re quite impressive, Zaq,” a voice rang from behind him.

Zaq spun around, startled, splashing viscous slop all over his clothes. But even as he turned, he recognized the voice.

“Feculent and unkempt, just now,” Mr. Lekin qualified, as he moved a flashlight up and down to get a better look, “but still quite impressive.” He wore hip-high rubber fishing boots, and in the dim light reflected from the shiny surface of the sewage, Zaq could see the old janitor was smiling.

“I told you I’d find the crystals, didn’t I?” Zaq said, trying unsuccessfully to find a stance which didn’t make him look pathetic. “Now I’m going back, and I’m going to lead them straight here.”

“No,” Lekin said, shaking his head, “I don’t think you are.” In a flurry of motion, he reached into his coat, pulled out a small blaster pistol, and aimed it directly at Zaq’s chest.

Zaq stopped mid-stride and threw up his hands.

“I’m sorry, Zaq, but I can’t let you leave just yet,” Lekin continued. He began to walk slowly through the muck toward Zaq, blaster never wavering. “The ransom deadline is in less than an hour, and I need this filthy little repository of riches to stay secret until then.”

“They’ll never pay your ransom,” Zaq whined. “Kaylika can’t, and Dromos won’t.”

“They will pay, actually,” Lekin said cheerfully. “I’m certain of it.” He lowered the flashlight a bit, letting Zaq see his face more clearly. His grey-green eyes were friendly. “How did you figure it out?” he asked suddenly.

The question took Zaq by surprise. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “It was just luck, really. I saw the bent sewer grate the other day, on the way to your apartment, and it stuck out in my mind. Then, when I was trying to imagine how you got the crystals out, I kept thinking about tunnels, and your job as a janitor, and how I was feeling drained, and everything just combined in my head to suggest…” he trailed off, and gestured with his hands to indicate the sewer all around them, and the pile of crystals beneath the pipe.

Lekin was staring at him, a look of approval on his face. And the hand holding the blaster had sagged a bit.

Zaq decidedly to gamble: he took a cautious step toward the man, and adopted his most complimentary manner. “Ingenious, really,” he said, still inching forward. “You didn’t have to override the lift controls, or dig a tunnel… you had hours down in the basement, all to yourself, so you used them.” With every clause he spoke, Zaq took another step toward Lekin. He was careful not to look at the blaster, so he wouldn’t draw the old man’s attention to it. “You slipped into the vault, filled up your mop bucket with as many crystals as it could hold, wheeled it to the janitor’s closet, and emptied it into the slop sink. Then you just washed the crystals down the drain.” He was standing in front of the crystal pile, almost within arm’s reach of the blaster. “You did it again and again, one load at a time, until the vault was empty, and the sewer, full.” He took one last step, and smiled admiringly at Lekin, close enough to reach out and hug him.

The old man smiled back. In a suggestive tone, he asked: “Have you had a chance to think about what you want to do with your life, Zaq, once this is all o-”

But before Lekin had even finished his question, Zaq lashed out. He lunged forward, slapped the blaster out of the old man’s hand, and started to run away, back down the dark tunnel toward the grate, and escape.

With his back to the lamps and the flashlight, darkness closed in around Zaq again, and his world shrank to include only the splashing, slurping noises of his own retreat.

Behind him, the old man laughed. “Impressive, just like I said,” Lekin called, his voice echoing through the tunnel. “Do you think they’ll make you Employee of the Month?”

Zaq’s foot was tripped up by another unseen solid mass stuck to the bottom of the tunnel, and he nearly fell. The fear of dashing his skull to pieces at the bottom of a sewage channel was suddenly competing with the fear of being shot in the back, and so his pace slowed. But not by much.

It was enough of a change, though, for him to notice that he couldn’t hear Lekin anymore. After a few more awkward strides, he turned around, and to his surprise he saw only the blackness of the empty tunnel. All was quiet, besides the ripples swirling around his own feet. The old man had disappeared. But, inexplicably, the fact that his pursuer was gone didn’t make Zaq feel any better. If anything, he had an acute sense of foreboding.

And then the flashlight clicked on again: this time, unexpectedly, from immediately behind him. Zaq jumped with fright, lost his balance, and toppled over into the sewage. He flopped around spasmodically, desperately trying to keep his head above the surface, and finally managed to claw his way back up to standing.

As Zaq gasped for breath and spat compulsively, Mr. Lekin, who was calmly watching with his flashlight and blaster, begin to talk. “I haven’t told you this, Zaq, but you actually remind me a bit of my ex-husband, when he was your age. He was feisty, intelligent, and handsome. Just like you. He was incredibly charming. But he was also sad, and more lonely than I realized at the time. The world was not kind to him, you see, and I suppose I missed chances to be kinder to him myself.” Lekins eyes were sad, and his voice heavy with regret. “Anyway, whenever misfortune struck, my husband had the terrible habit of running away from the people closest to him, the very people who might do him the most good. He wasn’t a very good judge of character, and it was like he mistrusted the promise of love. I think that putting his trust in happiness just felt alien to him. Foolish, like. Dangerous.”

As the old man spoke, Zaq’s initial panic and the overwhelming sensation of being unclean slowly gave way to curiosity. He began to listen more closely.

“At any rate, when push came to shove, the man who became my husband tended to reject his friends and likely allies as an ultimately uncertain prospect, and when he then found himself desperately alone, he would often turn to their enemies as potential saviors. Time and time again, he pushed away those who loved him, and then sought help from the people who cared least about him. When the New Republic came for Kuat, it was no different. My husband panicked, and his fragile belief in our shared future shattered. He betrayed me and sided with the invaders, in the hope that they could offer him, if not a perfect life, then at least the sure promise of continued existence. He chose certainty over love. Survival over loyalty.”

Zaq had heard the story before, during the party at Kalat Kanu. But it can’t be, he thought. Can it? “Your husband” Zaq whispered, incredulous, “is Lysander Dromos?”

“Another impressive bit of deduction, Mr. Hawkes,” the old man said with another smile. “Yes: Lysander Dromos is the man I called my husband.” He leaned against the tunnel wall, and let the flashlight sag. The blaster stayed trained on Zaq. “Originally, I bought Lysander as a business decision. Having a telbun at my side would lend me legitimacy as a head-of-household, I thought. Help me look the part. Lysander wasn’t as well-born as most telbuns, it’s true, but he was just as attractive and clever as a companion slave ought to be. I thought...” he trailed off, lost in a memory. “It doesn’t matter what I thought; my scheme didn’t work. The aristocrats still thought of me as a peasant, and the Kanu matriarchs were even more disgusted by the idea of two men together than they had been at the idea of a male head-of-household. But then something happened that I hadn’t anticipated. In the face of their hatred, Lysander and I… bonded. We stood together against this entire world, making plans, celebrating victories, and comforting each other after every setback. Maybe he felt grateful to me for lifting him out of poverty, or maybe he empathized with my fight against misandry… or maybe he acted purely out of cold calculation,” he said with a shrug, “but whatever his initial motivations, Lysander became my closest friend. I freed him, and we became lovers. He ruled the Kanu Family with me, as an equal partner.”

Zaq still couldn’t quite believe what was happening. He’d often daydreamed about meeting Trykon the Pretender, but he never really expected to, and he’d definitely never thought it would happen in a Kuat City sewer. “It’s really true?” he asked quietly. “You’re really Wyl Trykon?”

The blaster bobbed slightly as he nodded. “When the New Republic came, I flew a starfighter with the loyalist militia,” Trykon said after a moment. “When it became clear we were going to lose, I called Zander. I’d left a personal transport at home, and I told him to get on it and take off.” He paused, remembering. “He told me he was staying, and I knew immediately what that meant. I knew him, you understand?” Zaq nodded, but Trykon seemed not to see. He was caught up, staring blankly into the sewage. “But I didn’t have time to talk him back from his mistake. My pilots were dying all around me: there was no time to argue over a comm channel. I retreated with the rest of the militia, and left him behind.”

Zaq was surprised by how much he sympathized with Trykon. The man was still holding the blaster, but he didn’t seem monstrous or even dangerous in that moment. He just seemed sad.

The muscles in Trykon’s jaw worked for a while, and then he sighed. “It took a while, but eventually I learned what he’d bought with his defection. He lost any claim of leadership over the Kanu, and all of the Family’s material wealth and ancestral lands reverted to the matriarchs, as you know, but in exchange for his cooperation, the Republic granted him control over all of my bank accounts. All the money I’d earned for the Kanu during my stewardship of the Family became his,” Trykon said bitterly. “And while I wandered the Galaxy in exile, he stayed here, and used that money to establish himself-”

“-as the largest single insurance underwriter for the newly-formed Kuat Crystal Corporation,” Zaq chimed in, finishing the thought. Distasteful and disturbing, Zaq thought, remembering Mrs. Daloway’s words at the party.

“Indeed,” Trykon said darkly. “And that’s where the story gets truly poetic. Because the thing is, individual participants in the Kuati Insurance Syndicate are liable to the full extent of their private wealth.” His eyes sparkled in the dark. “If a claim needs to be paid, it gets paid, even if they have to bankrupt their members to do it. Collectively, the syndicate-members have staked their reputation on that reliability, and their livelihoods depend on maintaining that reputation.”

Zaq exhaled heavily. After a long silence, he finally asked the question he’d been thinking since he’d guessed who “Lekin” really was: “You waited five years, assumed a fake identity, pulled off a jewel heist… all that, just to get revenge on your ex-boyfriend?

“Some say patience is a virtue,” Trykon quipped, his eyes twinkling. He chuckled, and shook his head. “No, I didn’t come here to hurt Lysander,” he said. “That’s a nice bonus, but it’s not why I’m here.”

“Why, then?”

Trykon’s lips quirked into a smile. He set his flashlight on the edge of the sewage channel, positioning it so the light filled the tunnel, and then transferred the blaster to his left hand. “I came for this,” he replied, and with a flourish, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a large cut crystal, which seemed almost to glow in the dark, it sparkled so brightly.

Zaq recognized the stone as one of the lesser pieces from the KuCrys collection: an Adegan crystal of 73 carats, cut into a unique shape of 58 facets. “The Tetan III,” he said, naming the stone.

“You know your trade, Mr. Hawkes,” Trykon said appreciatively. “Yes, to most of the Galaxy this crystal is known as the Tetan III, a fairly common type of gemstone remarkable only because it is cut so masterfully. It’s a unique pattern, that’s never been successfully duplicated.” He moved the stone around in his hand, twisting it and rolling it to catch the light. “A valuable piece, to be sure,” he continued, “but it’s not exactly famous, and that’s as it should be. But there are some people - a secretive, powerful few - who call this stone ‘Aleema’s Heart.’ And for them, this is one of the most coveted crystals in the Galaxy.” Trykon’s eyes flicked from the crystal to Zaq. “Worth everything I have done to get it, and much, much more besides.”

“Aleema’s Heart?” Zaq repeated, the unfamiliar name echoing in the close, damp space.

“Aleema Keto was a woman who lived a long time ago,” Trykon said, his voice reverent. He almost sounded… scared. “She was a kind of prophetess. A sorceress,” he whispered. “This crystal belonged to her. That’s what makes it so special.”

Zaq had had enough. He was covered in grime, his body had been flooded over and over with adrenaline, and now his childhood hero was speaking in riddles. It was all too much. “Okay, fine,” he snapped. “You’ve got your special rock and your revenge. What more do you want?”

“I want to offer you the choice I was never given,” Trykon said solemnly.

“What?”

“Everything you desire is yours for the taking, Zaq. Power. Prestige. Wealth. You can live a life without regrets,” Trykon said, his voice crescendoing. “I’ve seen your promise: you could be… unlimited!” He was holding the Tetan III - the Aleema’s Heart - up in the air, triumphantly, but the blaster pistol was still aimed at Zaq.

“Please, Mr. Lek… er, Mr. Trykon,” Zaq caught his mistake, “you’re scaring me. Put the blaster down. Please.”

“Scaring you?” Trykon asked, his voice still creepily manic. He glanced at the blaster, and then at Zaq. With a wild look in his eyes, he aimed right at Zaq’s face and pulled the trigger.

But nothing happened.

Zaq recovered from flinching, and just stared at Trykon, jaw agape.

“I never loaded a power pack,” Trykon said by way of explanation. As he spoke, something started beeping in his pocket. He flashed a grin that would have been disarming under other circumstances, slipped the unloaded blaster back into its holster, and took out a datapad. “Ah, right on schedule,” he said, keying in a command to stop the rhythmic beeping.

“What’s that?” Zaq asked weakly.

“That was an automated message from my bank. Kuat Crystal has paid the ransom, in full,” Trykon said, his satisfaction plain. “I told you so, Mr. Hawkes.” He winked, and pocketed the sorceress’s crystal. Then he leaned down and switched off the flashlight, plunging the sewer into darkness. “Now, your choice,” his voice boomed in the dark. There was a crashing, hissing noise, and a flash of light, and suddenly Trykon was illuminated by a bright green light, coming from a meter-long glowing rod he held in his hands.

A second later, Zaq’s brain caught up with the stimuli his eyes and ears were providing. “What the hell?” he gasped, falling back a pace involuntarily. “Is that a… a…”

“Lightsaber,” Trykon confirmed with a little nod. All levity was gone: his voice and expression were deadly serious. The weapon hummed with power in his hands.

“You… you’re a Jedi?”

“Of a sort,” Trykon said, nodding again. “I use the Force, Zaq, and you can, too.”

Dimly, Zaq was aware that he’d started shaking his head, over and over. “That’s just a lot of mumbo jumbo and superstition. It’s not real,” he said quietly. “Not real.”

Trykon cocked his head to one side, regarding Zaq dispassionately for a moment. Then a sneer twisted his features, and with his free hand he clawed at the air, as if drawing some unseen power into his hand. To Zaq’s amazement, a fireball appeared in the hand, the flames licking at Trykon’s fingers. The sewer went from being lit by a pale green ghost light to being scorched by an intense brightness, and Zaq felt sweat break out on his forehead as the heat built. And built. And built.

And then Trykon’s features smoothed, he waved his hand as if shooing away a naughty pet, and the flame went out as quickly as it had appeared. The sewer was cold and dark again, and the only light came from Trykon’s blade of green plasma.

It took a long time for Zaq to slow his breathing. His disbelief had been burned away by the sorcerous fireball, but plenty of fear remained. His mind churned, reviewing the new information he’d learned, over and over. Lekin was Trykon. Trykon was a Jedi. The Force was real. And Trykon had said that Zaq… “You said ‘I can, too.’” Zaq whispered, finally finding his voice again. “What did you mean?”

“The Force is with you, Zaq Hawkes,” Trykon pronounced. “You use it every day, without even being aware of it. That’s how the fern in your office died: your rage burned so hot in the Force that the plant withered and burned.” Trykon’s eyes were empathetic; he seemed in that moment to know Zaq’s pain and guilt intimately, as one who’d felt the same before. “And because you have this power in you, I want to give you a choice. Option one: you stay here. That Bothan lawyer should be delivering my response to the ransom payment now, and soon Nanci Fram and the other stalwart heavies of the KuCrys Security detail will arrive down here in force, to secure the crystals. If you stay, you can explain that you had a hunch and followed it down here, but that you discovered the crystals too late to stop the ransom from going through. Maybe, someday, Kaylika and the other women will actually promote you.” Trykon shrugged. “That’s option one. Option two: you come with me, and I teach you how to control your gifts. Learn to use the Force, Zaq, and you will have the power to forge your own future. Freedom – true freedom – is possible, but only if you learn from Lysander’s mistakes. Don’t spend your life serving people who hate you, only to die miserable and alone. Join me, and we can teach each other how to live our lives without regret.” Trykon’s voice swelled with emotion: his words were half offer, half plea. “Your potential is unlimited, Zaq,” he said almost lovingly, “but only if you choose to embrace your destiny.”

Zaq took a deep breath, and let it out. He was covered in sewage and sweat, on behalf of women who were planning on firing him. He had sided with those women against Wyl Trykon, despite their proven misandry and their frequent homophobic comments. He had lived a life of quiet desperation, denying his every desire and forcing himself to flirt with those women, just to fit in. He hung his head, and let the tears fall freely into the foul wetness in which he stood. Trembling, he took a single, deliberate step toward Trykon. “Please,” he croaked, his voice a hoarse whisper, “teach me.”

Trykon deactivated the lightsaber, and walked up to Zaq in the utter darkness. He laid a hand reassuringly on the younger man’s shoulder, and leaned in close. Zaq could feel the breath on his ear as Trykon whispered: “Very impressive indeed.”
Trykon
ComNet Disciple
 
Trykon
 
[VE-DJO] Dark Jedi Templar
[VE-NAVY] Vice Commodore
 
Post Number:  2939
Total Posts:  3754
Joined:  Feb 2011
Status:  Offline
  RE: Mate: A Dark Jedi Knight's Journey
May 20, 2013 4:50:34 PM    View the profile of Trykon 
Chapter 8




Location:
  The Citadel, headquarters of the Imperial Jedi Order
  The planet Lopen
  somewhere in the Unknown Regions of the Galaxy
Time:
  9 years, 9 months, 15 days after Palpatine’s death


Wyl Trykon leaned against the heavy door to the Citadel library until it closed softly behind him, and then he froze for a moment with his hand poised above the lightsaber clipped to his belt, listening. He could hear his own heartbeat pounding in his ears, loud and fast, but nothing else: the dark corridor was deserted. He let out the breath he’d been holding and allowed his hand to fall to his side, empty. “Everything will look better in the morning,” he muttered under his breath, in a tone that was equal parts sarcasm, bitterness, and stubborn hope, and then he padded away as quietly as he could.

Throughout Wyl’s childhood, on the planet Kuat, his mother had repeated that mantra, in a misguided – and largely vain – effort to cheer up her perpetually melancholy son. In light of his current situation, and after the course his life had taken, the whispered refrain seemed to Wyl to be criminally misleading. But still he found he couldn’t truly blame his mother. After all, he thought ruefully, the words are comforting, even now, despite the fact that these days I should really know better.

With an effort, Wyl pushed away thoughts of his past, and focused on the dangers of his present. He hurried through labyrinthine hallways and down out-of the way staircases, carefully avoiding the well-traveled routes frequented by the other members of the Imperial Jedi Order as he made his way inexorably (if circuitously) through the Citadel – the ancient, monumental, spired edifice which served as the Order’s training school and headquarters – toward the relative safety of his small sleeping chamber. At one point, he came upon a half-open door, and as he tiptoed past, he heard the faint sounds of someone crying. Everything will look better in the morning, he silently repeated to himself, and, fists clenched, he picked up his pace until the sobs - and the feelings of compassion they stirred within him - had faded behind him.

Life in the Citadel had always been dangerous and cruel, what with the rivalries between masters and the general competition between apprentices, but over the course of just four weeks, matters had become much, much worse. Compassion - always a liability - was now closer to a fatal flaw. Now, you can feel the malevolence, all around, Wyl thought grimly as he paused at another intersection to listen for sounds of pursuit. The air is pulsating with malice. He could hear nothing, so he continued. Which makes sense, I guess, given everything that’s been happening.

“Everything” had started some four weeks previously, when the Order had mobilized for war against the so-called Reborn Jedi Order – a rival faction of darksiders – and had fought a pitched battle on the planet Copperline. During that single battle, the two most powerful masters of the Imperial Order went missing, and many other members were slain by the perverse, unnaturally-empowered conscripts the Reborn employed en masse: sentient beings who’d been... imbued, somehow, with the raw, destructive energy of the Dark Side of the Force. Wyl himself had fought one of these Reborn abominations, in a desperate, horrifically violent duel. During that contest, he’d at last opened himself fully to the Dark Side, and with that terrible power coursing through him, Wyl had managed to murder his foe. But the struggle left him grievously wounded, and psychologically broken... his next memory was of waking up in the Citadel’s medical suite, a week later.

He’d woken up only to find his world turned upside-down. The two masters who had mysteriously disappeared during the Copperline debacle had been the highest-ranked, most-powerful Dark Jedi in the Order, and it was only their combined might and outwardly-maintained unity of purpose which kept the diverse factions of the shadowy organization together. With both of them presumed dead, the power vacuum was too tempting for the ambitious cult leaders to pass up: the Lord of the Sith and the Lady of the Krath had gathered their disciples together to push their individual agendas, and the Order that Wyl woke up to was riven along sectarian lines.

And to top it all off, sometime during Wyl’s recovery his Mistress, Fai Simsin – expert on the ancient Krath and self-proclaimed Dark Jedi Master – had left Lopen on some mysterious errand of her own. At first, Wyl had celebrated the news, seeing Simsin’s departure as a welcome break from the grueling crucible of mental and physical abuse that she called his “training,” but he soon realized that the mere presence of a powerful master was a kind of deterrent, on Lopen: masters, whether out of sympathy or (as in Simsin’s case) out of a twisted sense of possessiveness, tended to discourage others from killing their apprentices. Without Simsin, Wyl was left without her implicit protection, and in the savage, seemingly zero-sum environment of the Citadel, that made him terrifyingly vulnerable. Adepts of the Imperial Order were keen on proving themselves by defeating others, even more so after Copperline, and with Simsin gone, Wyl’s peers could focus all of their attacks on him, free of the fear of a master’s reprisals. Almost immediately after he was released from the medical suite, the bullying began, and it didn’t take long before the verbal abuse evolved into physical assaults.

At first Wyl had held his own, giving as good as he got, despite being small and slightly built, and relatively old compared to his peers… but that was before the ever-mounting tensions between the high Knights and Lords of the two opposing cults had inspired most members of the Order – even the lowly adepts – to wear a lightsaber at all times. Wyl had never excelled at saber work, and though most of his peers had access only to non-lethal training weapons, a few carried true, fully-powered lightsabers… “giving as good as he got” was no longer sufficient to ensure his survival.

And so, as he slunk ignobly through the maze-like interior of the Citadel, Wyl tried to remember that his cautiousness was a manifestation of prudence, rather than cowardice. But despite the unprecedented events of the preceding weeks, and the palpable tension in the air, the Kuati apprentice had difficulty convincing himself that the distinction mattered.

Prudent or cowardly, he thought to himself, frowning, having to sneak around means the same thing: I’m weak.

There was nothing Wyl Trykon hated more than the feeling of powerlessness, but, as distasteful as it was to admit, his conclusion was inescapable: he was weak. For weeks, he’d followed the same routine: wake up, sneak some food from the kitchens, sneak into the library and study in a half-hidden alcove far from the entrance until after dark, and then sneak back into his bed. He slept in his clothes for days at a time; Simsin’s old lightsaber was clipped to his belt, always. Every time he heard voices from around a corner, his heart would leap into his throat. Every time he passed someone heading the other way, whether or not their robes of rank were the same white as his own, he broke into a cold sweat. Weak, weak, weak, a mocking voice echoed in his memory. You’re weak, slave.

But as he turned a corner and linked up with the hallway that led to his room, he set aside his self-loathing long enough to marvel: As crushing as it may have been for my self-esteem, this avoidance strategy has worked! It was a small victory, but under the circumstances it would do: he was still alive. Wyl’s lips twitched up into a half-grin at the thought.

And then he finally reached his room, and the smile – along with any sense of accomplishment – vanished. His door was standing ajar, with its locking mechanism charred and slightly askew. A fresh surge of terror and frustration heightened his senses, and he reached out with the Force to probe the darkened little bedroom. Beyond the half-open portal, he could sense three familiar minds, waiting impatiently in the dark…

They were familiar, but decidedly not friendly.

Wyl swallowed in a suddenly-dry throat. He took a deep breath, unclipped Simsin’s old lightsaber from his belt, and drew himself up to his full height, before addressing the leader of the trio of interlopers through the open door: “Something I can help you with, Garek?”

Slowly, the door swung inward, and as the dim light from the hallway spilled into the bedroom, it illuminated three young Humans – boys, really – wearing matching white robes, just like Wyl’s. The biggest and tallest of the three, with the angry eyes and pouting lips, was the one to answer: “There is, actually, old man,” Garek said quietly, sizing Wyl up with a glance, his gaze lingering on the lightsaber hilt the older adept held ready in his right hand.

Idly, the thirty-year-old Kuati tried to imagine what the hate-filled teenager saw, looking at him. No doubt he can see my weaknesses, Wyl intuited, though perhaps he overestimates his advantage. I’m more than just a skinny, sleep-deprived, effeminate former plutocrat, past his prime. The thought tugged at the corners of Wyl’s mouth again, but this time he resisted the urge to grin.

Wyl’s musings were cut short as Garek continued: “My master thinks I need more dueling experience, before I can become a Knight.” The youth’s eyes burned with fury at the memory. “And so I was hoping that you could help me. Let’s fight.” He paused, and no one moved for a long moment. Then one of his flunkies shot him an uncertain glace, and Garek frowned, tilting his head to one side. “What’s the matter, old man,” he taunted, “are you afraid?” To either side, the other boys chortled dutifully.

Wyl sighed. He was afraid, but not in the way Garek was intimating with his sophomoric insults. The younger adept was fit, and the Force was with him, but Wyl had defeated a Reborn soldier on Copperline, and for months he had endured the tortuous “lessons” and painful “chastisements” of his Mistress, one of the most powerful and volatile Dark Jedi on the planet (and therefore in the Galaxy); Wyl was confident that he could withstand whatever pain awaited him on the other side of a duel with a teen bully. Indeed, after months spent delving into the darker depths of his psyche, learning to harness his fear, anger, and hatred to access the seductively empowering Dark Side, and after the terrifying-yet-exhilarating breakthrough on Copperline, when he’d finally surrendered to that seduction, Wyl was much more concerned with losing his own humanity than he was with the threat of physical pain. Suddenly, realization dawned: for weeks, Wyl had been hiding, not to avoid getting hurt, but rather to avoid situations wherein he might have to hurt others.

I will not be a murderer, he promised himself. I am not a monster. But even as he had the thought, he could feel a rush of adrenaline wash over him, eroding his defenses against the rising tide of the Dark Side. His fear increased along with his sense of raw power.

“Fear is my friend,” Wyl said softly, repeating the phrase with the same unnerving, childlike sing-song tone that Fai Simsin had used when she first taught it to him, “and anger is my ally.” On the final syllable, he pressed the activation button on Simsin’s old lightsaber – the weapon she had built years before, during her time as a member of the old Jedi Order – and the bright green blade arced into being with a terrific crashing hiss. A split-second later, his foes followed suit, and the dull red glow from their three training blades filled the small dark room on the other side of the door. “I thought you wanted a duel,” Wyl muttered, his grey-green eyes darting from side to side to indicate the other two blades Garek had brought to the fight.

“Changed my mind,” Garek said with a shrug.

Many of the doorways throughout the Citadel were narrow, pointed, ogival arches, including the portal to Wyl’s bedroom. This meant there wasn’t much space for Garek to attack from either side, but there was plenty of vertical clearance for saber movements. It was unsurprising, then, when the teenaged apprentice's first attack was a simple, downward-arcing cut, designed to neatly bisect Wyl’s head along its axis of symmetry. Such a straightforward move was easily blocked, and Wyl obligingly raised his saber to parry, but he was unprepared – as indeed he had often been in training – for just how much power was behind the blow. His own blade gave way much more than he’d intended as he absorbed the brutal impact, and as he pushed back against it to withdraw, he smelled the unmistakable odor of burnt hair. Not an encouraging start, he thought.

Before he could think beyond that, though, Garek’s friends stepped through the doorway, sabers raised in defense. Then, together, they tried a probing attack of their own. Wyl exhaled in a wordless guttural moan as he batted away one attacker’s swing and side-stepped out of the path of the other.

Garek watched from inside the room, his sulky mouth twisted into a sick, satisfied smile, made more unnerving by the red light which bathed his face but left the rest of his hulking form in shadow. “This is going to be fun,” he announced, even as the kid on the right stabbed again at Wyl, and the older adept staggered back another pace. Garek snickered, and stepped through the archway.

The sight of the three teens huddled together, filling the not-narrow-enough hallway with sabers en garde, was enough to give Wyl pause.

He spared a glance behind him: his room was at the end of a twenty-meter-long hallway, too far away from the nearest intersection to easily escape. Another swipe – this time from the flunky on the left – brought Wyl’s eyes back to his front. Damn, he thought.

His fear brought him focus and energy, but Wyl knew that connecting with his anger was the best way to tap into the Dark Side of the Force, and thus the surest path to victory. Giving in to anger, though, had its own dangers: after his experiences on Copperline, Wyl wasn’t sure he could control the Dark Side, once he let it in.

But as Wyl’s three opponents advanced together, red blades swinging in at him from all angles, his brain didn’t have time to debate such high-level strategy. Wyl’s body responded automatically to his enemies’ moves with appropriate counter-tactics, on muscle memory alone.

Three blades to one were long odds, though, even for experienced swordsmen. And Wyl was decidedly not one of those. Despite all his practice, he knew he was nowhere near competent enough to hold at bay multiple opponents… not for any appreciable length of time

Sure enough, Garek and his friends pushed steadily forward, scorching long gashes down the length of the hallway as they pressed their attack. Their low-powered training blades were still burning the stone walls; Wyl could well imagine what they would do to his skin. Motivated by such imaginings, Wyl managed to deflect or avoid every swing and thrust, but only by constantly giving ground. In what felt like no time at all, he could sense space opening up on either side of him, and he realized with dismay that he’d reached the T-junction: hallways stretched out on both sides, offering much more space for his foes to maneuver. And once they could spread out and surround him, Wyl knew he was finished.

“Have I taught you nothing?” a contemptuous voice asked, startling him. He looked left and right, but the halls were empty. He brought his eyes forward and saw the trio still pacing toward him, blades held out threateningly, but it didn’t look as if they’d heard the sudden question. “Yours is a Lucid Body, my apprentice,” Fai Simsin’s voice said again, seeming to come from everywhere at once. “Force the Force to do your bidding; take from it the abilities you require.”

Wyl knew what his Mistress meant, but he feared to do as she instructed.

The Lucid Body was his Mistress’s term for the set of talents that came naturally to them both: they could sense the Force within themselves much more completely than could most other Jedi of the Order. For Simsin and Trykon, their bodies were like clear-walled vessels in their minds’ eyes: they could “see” the flow of the Force within themselves, in great detail.

As supernatural abilities went, having a so-called Lucid Body wasn’t a particularly useful one. Other Jedi could shoot lightning from their fingertips, move things with their minds, or utterly dominate other beings with telepathy. Faced with the humiliating, worrying disparity between her own meager ability and those far-more-impressive talents of the various Jedi around her, Simsin had spent her life developing a new and different way of using the Force, which she called the Lucid Body Technique. And it was the Technique that her disembodied voice was urging Wyl to use against Garek and his friends.

Over the course of her lifetime, Simsin had built on her ability to sense the flow of the Force within herself, and she had learned how to alter those currents of energy, forcing her very essence to realign itself into different configurations, each designed to allow her to access a different aspect of the Force, and she had taught this Lucid Body Technique to Wyl. By pushing their natural talent in an unorthodox way, Fai and Wyl could “unlock” any Force-based talent imaginable. Telekinesis, mind tricks, electrical manipulation… there were no limits, if you were willing to continually twist and shape your very soul into whatever state was necessary at any given moment.

But as exhilarating as it was, taking hold of the raw Force and redirecting it through his body according to his own designs, Wyl also found the process to be almost existentially painful. It required him to hollow out of his sense of self, and attain a state of near-emptiness Simsin called “neutrality.” With his own personality and habitual energy patterns gone, the sliver of his consciousness that remained would then restart the flow of the Force in his body, wrestling the energy into predefined patterns, each of which facilitated a specific set of supernatural “powers,” like telekinesis or telepathy.

The effect was powerful, but it felt… wrong, somehow, as if Wyl were violating some divine law. Wrong, and dangerous. It was like diving too deeply into an impersonation of someone else, each time, and Wyl often feared that he was near to losing his own identity permanently.

So, yes, Wyl knew what Simsin’s voice was suggesting. He could use the Lucid Body Technique, and thereby blast his foes into a wall, or shock them with lightning, or turn them against each other. But Wyl’s every instinct screamed that doing so might someday prove irreversible, leaving his internal flow of energy – his very identity within the Force – irreparably altered.

But despite Wyl’s worries, when the three teenagers attacked again, their three-pronged assault decided the issue. As one blade sliced down at Wyl from above, and a second chopped at his left side, and a third thrust at him from the right, the older adept’s self-preservation instinct kicked in, and without conscious choice he dropped his consciousness into his Lucid Body, and started Simsin’s Technique. It was, after all, the way he’d been taught to respond to danger.

Time seemed to slow as his attention focused in on the flow of the Force within himself. Faintly, as if muffled by a great distance, he could hear Simsin’s familiar, cruel laugh. He ignored her, and concentrated on the energy swirling within him. Two primary currents pulsed through him: one flowing downward, and one upward. These dual rivers of light gathered in seven whirlpools – seven vortexes arranged in a line from the top of his head to the base of his spine. Each of the pools swirled at a different pace; each was a different color in his mind’s eye. The lowest, located at the bottom of his spine, clenched spasmodically, growling and spitting. Wyl knew from Fai’s theories and his own experience that this vortex of red, primal energy was the home of fear in the human body. He had also learned that it was the defining vortex of his own identity: the Force, in Wyl Trykon, manifested primarily through fear.

But the higher-level Force-based abilities – the Dark Side talents used for attack – required more than simple fear. Anger, for example, had been quite useful, in Wyl’s experience. And when anger and fear were combined, hatred was produced.

And hatred, when sufficiently cultivated, nurtured, and let free, was almost indistinguishable from the Dark Side itself. With hate flowing, a Force-user was capable of literally anything.

With Garek and his lackeys mid-charge, Wyl planted his feet in a wide stance, and directed the flow of the Force to change within him. He pushed the energy down though his spine, and it washed away the spastic spiral of fear, bringing his very being into a state of absolute stillness and emptiness: what Simsin termed neutrality. The process took only a moment, but it was unspeakably violent: the Force screamed through him as if it resented being so crudely thrown around and manhandled, and it scoured away the internal landscape of Wyl’s identity. The currents and courses of energy which had taken a lifetime to establish themselves were flushed out, leaving a still, cool reservoir of pure potential. Wyl felt the familiar agony as his selfhood drained away, and it took all his concentration to hold on to a tiny thread of self-awareness. But hold on he did, and he was left with a truly lucid body: clear of all defining characteristics, he was poised to adopt any pattern of energy-movement that he chose.

And so he chose the pattern that produced hatred.

From his placid, neutral state, Wyl focused on the centermost vortex – the one surrounding his heart – and fed Dark Side energy into it. Again, he was rocked by a supernaturally intense pain, but the Force responded: at once, Wyl awoke to full consciousness. He could feel the power coursing through him, and see with exaggerated clarity the three lightsabers continuing their mathematically-perfect arcs toward him. But with the Technique complete, and his hatred set free, three training sabers wielded by children were no longer any threat.

Wyl reached out with his left hand and stepped forward a pace, toward the attacker on that side. His foes hesitated at the sudden, unexpectedly-aggressive move, and Wyl took the split second opportunity to swipe his nails across the leftmost kid’s face. The boy screamed and spun away, bleeding, and his saber hilt fell to the floor. But Wyl was still in motion, twirling his own blade to meet Garek’s, which he deflected down and into the attacker on the right, so it sliced into the teen where his shoulder met his neck, burning into the artery. Horrified, Garek deactivated his blade, but it was too late: the other boy went down without a sound, the deep burrow of burnt flesh carved into his neck still smoking.

Seconds passed in quiet, while the burned boy’s brain slowly died, utterly deprived of blood and oxygen.

Garek was silent, hunched over one dying friend while the other whimpered a few paces behind, trying without much success to hold together the wet, ragged pieces of his own sliced-open face. Wyl stood above them, saber raised, with fury in his eyes and an almost orgasmic sense of accomplishment stirring in his veins.

“Good,” Fai’s voice cooed in his ears. “Good.” Her tone of approval was creepily incongruous as it overlapped with the incoherent mewling of the maimed teenager at Wyl’s feet.

As if in response to that dissonance, Wyl’s own personality suddenly reasserted itself, reversing the effects of the Technique with a wrenching speed. His habitual, fearful patterns switched on, and after an excruciated few seconds – during which the energies inside him crashed up against each other until they came to a new balance – Wyl felt once again like himself. The drug-like euphoria of hate faded, and he awoke into a nightmare, yet again. Confronted with the gruesome sight of what he had done, Wyl felt hot tears burn their way down his cheeks.

“You’re ready, my apprentice,” Fai’s voice continued.

Garek still did not hear her. The young man cradled the head of his dead friend in his lap, unmoving.

Wyl disengaged Fai’s old lightsaber, and the bright green blade retracted with a hiss.

“Come to my chambers,” Fai’s voice ordered.

Still crying, Wyl backed away from the wailing child he’d blinded and the silent, macabre pietá, and moved to obey his Mistress.

###


Outside the Citadel, superheated air currents blew spirals of dust miles into the sky as the planet Lopen cooked under the midday sun, but deep within the spired structure, the hallway leading to Fai Simsin’s chambers was dim, and preternaturally cold, and seemed possessed of the kind of absolute stillness only found in certain striking predators moments before they made a pouncing kill. But despite the sense of dread which seemed to deepen with his every step, Wyl Trykon did not turn away from his course, nor did he slow his advance until he came to the door at the end of the hall.

He knew his Mistress was expecting him, and through the Force, he could feel Simsin’s presence on the other side of the heavy metal door. But Simsin’s mind– always somewhat unpredictable – was at that moment a jumble of frantic, agitated thoughts, almost unrecognizable. And her anticipation was roiling at a feverish pitch, overshadowing everything else. She was anxious. Scared, even.

What now? Wyl wondered fatalistically. He sighed, and swiped at his eyes nervously, making sure no trace of his tears remained. But as his fingertips pressed against his eyelids, suddenly Wyl could see Garek again, holding one friend in a tangled heap of white-robed misery while the other keened piteously… the memory flashed quickly – a de-saturated holograph, bled of all color and life – and then faded, leaving only the hallway and the door to Simsin’s chambers. Wyl took a deep breath, and let it out. He noticed dried blood under his fingernails.

I am here, Mistress, Wyl thought, sending the silent announcement through the door. He was careful to infuse the message with a sense of subservience to mask his trauma and his mounting fear.

He felt the room beyond flash quickly with a sense of surprise, and a cold brightness he identified as a sharp stab of guilt, and then the confusion and fear he’d detected abruptly vanished. So you are, Simsin thought back at him, managing to convey disinterested sarcasm even via telepathy. Enter.

Wyl pushed open the metal door, and found his Mistress and her chambers to be just the way he remembered them. In a dark room that was all angles and corners, beneath a vaulted ceiling which stretched into shadow, a petite humanoid shape stood watching him. Fai Simsin’s familiar dark eyes stared out hungrily from her sharp-featured pale face, fixed on Wyl’s eyes.

But something about her seemed… off. Wyl hadn’t seen her in weeks, but he didn’t remember her grey-streaked hair ever looking quite so unkempt, and her black robes had never before been so ratty-looking and shapeless. What have you been up to? Wyl wondered.

But even as Wyl observed the discrepancies, Simsin seemed to grow in magnificence before his very eyes, until she was nothing less than the personification of pure power. She was suddenly… majestic.

Wyl knew on some level that it was all a trick – posture changes, mixed with mental manipulation and illusion tricks accomplished via the Technique – but he couldn’t help but be impressed by the display.

He dropped to his knees, and bowed his head. “You summoned me, Mistress,” he said, carefully maintaining the formal mode of speaking that she preferred.

“I did?” she asked quietly, her tone confused. “Why would I… I did?”

It wasn’t the response Wyl was expecting, and, despite the risk that she was playing some sort of wicked conversational game with him, he risked raising his head to look at her. Simsin had screwed her face up into a befuddled frown, and she was kneading her hands together anxiously. The commanding presence was gone; Simsin looked like a lost child. “Well… yes, Mistress. You did,” Wyl confirmed, still cautious.

Again, a sudden change came over Simsin. She leaned toward him at the hip, her legs slightly spread. “Of course,” she said, lasciviously licking her lips.

Revulsion and bewilderment competed for supremacy in Wyl’s mind. Why was she acting so strangely? She knew he liked boys.

As if she could read his thoughts, the behavior changed again. The confident, aristocratic air returned, and Simsin once again stared into his eyes. “Of course,” she repeated more matter-of-factly. “You have done well in my absence, youngling,” she said, the backhanded compliment comfortingly familiar. Simsin was back. “It is time for you to journey offworld, and face a trial, my apprentice. It is time to trade your white robes for brown, perhaps, or else to meet your destiny.”

Wyl’s heart skipped a beat. He had known from very early on during his captivity on Lopen that the only way he would regain his freedom would be to work his way through the Order’s ranks until they recognized him as a full Dark Jedi Knight. But in the hell that was the Citadel, hope was almost as poisonous as compassion, and so Wyl had put thoughts of the journey out of his mind. But if Fai Simsin were to be believed, the time for trial – and possibly for freedom – was at hand.

He chose his words with care. “I am honored, Mistress,” he said. “What must I do?”

Fai clenched her hands into fists, and sweat broke out on her brow, but her voice betrayed none of the struggle her body was showing when she answered: “There is a crystal, somewhere in the Galaxy, called Aleema’s Heart. It was lost long ago, and I…” she paused, as if editing herself as she spoke, “…I want it. Bring me Aleema’s Heart, and you will prove yourself a Knight.”

Hundreds of questions fought to be asked. The one that won was, “And I will be free to leave Lopen, and live my life as I see fit?”

Simsin’s jaw muscles worked as she ground her teeth. “Anything you desire!” she snapped. “Just get me the crystal!”

The outburst was only one in a series of strange behaviors, but Wyl’s curiosity was piqued. “Why is this Aleema’s Heart so important?” he asked.

“It is an heirloom of Aleema Keto,” Simsin said with a thin-lipped smile. “I want it for my collection. You used to be a collector, Wyl,” she said, using his name for the first time that he could recall. “You understand.”

Everything was so weird! Unconsciously, Wyl shook his head. “Why send me?” he asked. “Why not get the crystal yourself?”

Simsin’s balled-up fists began trembling. Wyl took a half-step back, and Fai seemed to notice his fear: she slowly relaxed her hands. “Aleema’s Heart has been lost for a very long time,” she said with exaggerated patience. “Finding it will be a challenge, and I thought it would make for a good test of your abilities, my apprentice.” Her forced smile was mildly nauseating.

“Alright,” Wyl said dubiously. “Where exactly should I start looking for this… Aleema’s Heart?”

“That is up to you,” Simsin said quickly, the words coming in a staccato patter. “You used to collect crystals, didn’t you? Find your old contacts, your dealers, your auction-rivals. I don’t care; just find me that crystal!” She was almost screeching by the end of her little motivational speech.

Wyl carefully schooled his expression. “Yes, Mistress,” he said. “I will find the Aleema’s Heart and bring it back. I will trade the white robes of an adept for the brown robes of a knight. I will no longer be an apprentice. I will be free.” The last statement was almost a question.

“Yes,” Simsin said tiredly, her manner once again slipping into that of a small, helpless child. “Yes, anything you want. Just get me the crystal.”

Wyl bowed one final time, and then left the room. With the metal door closed behind him, he paused.

What in hell was wrong with Fai Simsin? And how in hell was he going to find one particular crystal, lost thousands of years before in a Galaxy that encompassed hundreds of billions of star systems?
Trykon
ComNet Disciple
 
Trykon
 
[VE-DJO] Dark Jedi Templar
[VE-NAVY] Vice Commodore
 
Post Number:  2940
Total Posts:  3754
Joined:  Feb 2011
Status:  Offline
  RE: Mate: A Dark Jedi Knight's Journey
May 20, 2013 4:51:15 PM    View the profile of Trykon 
Chapter 9




Location:
    Wayfarer-class Medium Transport Wanderer
    somewhere in the Unknown Regions of the Galaxy
Time:
    9 years, 10 months, 11 days after Palpatine’s death


Wyl Trykon sat alone in the Wanderer’s small control room, gazing absently at the unfamiliar starscape just beyond the transparisteel of the bridge’s main viewport. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept. It was before the heist at Kuat Crystal, anyway. But, strangely, he didn’t feel tired.

If anything, Wyl felt… exhilarated. A month before, he had been creeping through darkness in the Imperial Order’s Citadel, a terrified apprentice whose abusive and unstable master wasn’t even present on-planet. And now look at me, he thought cheekily. He looked at the dim reflection of himself in the transparisteel, through which stars shined. His translucent double looked calm and relaxed – almost dashing – as he reclined in a pilot’s chair, his fashionable civilian clothing accentuating the wiry muscles of his arms in ways that his janitorial disguise and his adept’s white robes never had.

I’ve managed to do the impossible, he said to himself with a smug smile.

The journey had seemed hopeless, at the outset. He’d been told to travel the Galaxy, and find the Aleema’s Heart crystal – a needle in an unending stack of needles. But with the promise of freedom motivating him, Wyl had taken up that challenge, and had placed his faith in the Force.

His instincts had led him first to Lotaith, where he’d picked up the Wanderer out of long-term storage, and then to Humbarine, where he had met with an old friend: Vints Peeters, a member of the loyalist militia unit Wyl had commanded on Kuat before the New Republic conquest, and a fellow ex-collector of gemstones.

Peeters, like Wyl himself, had been forced to start his life over after Kuat fell. But unlike Wyl, who had eventually settled in the Vast Empire and joined the faction’s military, Vints Peeters had chosen to stay closer to home, as a civilian trader on Humbarine, and as such he still knew a lot about the economy around the Kuat Sector. After the two had spent some time awkwardly catching up as only old comrades who have grown apart can, Peeters had directed Wyl to the Kuat Crystal Corporation…

…and after that single tip, events had played out faster and faster, seemingly with a will of their own. In short, the Force had been with Wyl from the beginning, and with it he had made the impossible happen.

He looked at his reflection again. Gone was the scared, uncertain apprentice. A self-assured man with the Force flowing through him stared back at Wyl, eager to complete his journey and assume the mantle of Dark Jedi Knight.

“You look happy,” a bemused voice said from behind Wyl, startling him. He spun around in his chair, and saw Zaq Hawkes leaning against the door frame, arms crossed. The younger man wore a sleeveless shirt, and his shoulders glistened with a sheen of sweat. “Are you congratulating yourself again on your successful seduction of an impressionable young man?” the youthful former business man joked suggestively.

“It is pretty impressive,” Wyl shot back, “for a man of my age.” He shrugged.

“Oh hush, old man,” Zaq said playfully. “You’re barely thirty years old, standard!”

Wyl nodded. “What’s that saying, though? You’re only as old as you feel?”

Zaq flashed a smile. “Oh, right. Which makes you closer to eight hundred and seventy-five.” He winked.

“Bullseye,” Wyl said warmly. “Was there something you needed?”

Zaq’s turn to nod. “Yes sir. I finished those books you gave me, and I’ve been working out, using the exercises. I just came up to tell you: I can already feel a difference!”

“That’s good, Zaq,” Wyl said. “But please, don’t ‘sir’ me. If this relationship is going to work the way we both want it to, it can’t be modeled on the master-apprentice template. I’m not your commanding officer, and you’re not my employee. We’re equals,” Wyl reiterated solemnly, before grinning and adding, “kid.”

“Fine, old man,” Zaq retorted with a laugh, “have it your own way. We’re equals. But if that’s so, it means you’re way overdue to take a shift off and get some shut-eye. Go back to your cabin and sleep: I can watch the autopilot do its thing as well as you can.” When Wyl hesitated, Zaq continued: “I know you want our destination to stay a secret. I promise I won’t peek,” he said, flashing his most charming smile. “Come on, trust me.”

The Wanderer was traveling at sublight speeds through a largely empty star system on the edge of the known Galaxy. After they traversed the system’s second belt of asteroids, the autopilot would make the next jump to hyperspace, bringing them one step closer to Lopen. The circuitous, zig-zagging route was designed to protect the secret of the planet’s location. And as well as Wyl and Zaq had been getting along in the two days since their confrontation in the Kuat City sewers, trusting the kid with a secret that important was a huge step.

Wyl took a breath, and let it out. “I do,” he said simply, surprised by how much truth was in those two words. “Just accept the autopilot program’s recommendations, and it’ll take us through the rest of the sequence; it’s all preprogrammed. I think we have another twenty jumps, or so, with sub-light hops in between.”

“That long?” Zaq whined, still playing up the age difference. “Well, fine. I guess you’ll have plenty of time to sleep, then.”

“Thanks,” Wyl said. “I’ll be in my room.”

He moved to the back of the cockpit and slid past Zaq, passing close enough that he could feel the younger man’s breath on his skin and smell his sweat. It wasn’t unpleasant; if anything, the intimacy was arousing. Reluctantly, Wyl ignored his feelings and kept walking away.

“Sweet dreams,” Zaq called after him, before the door hissed shut.

###


The captain’s berth was in much the same state as the rest of the Wanderer: it was dingy, and sort of faded-looking. Still, the small quarters were an improvement over the apartment Wyl had rented as “Lionel Lekin,” and much, much better than his little cell on Lopen. Especially since he didn’t have to kill anyone just to get inside.

He frowned at the thought, and the traumatic memory replayed itself in his mind once again. Garek, the blinded boy, the dead boy. Wyl shook his head. “No,” he said out loud. “That’s all over. I never have to do that again. I got the fucking crystal for her; she’ll let me go. I’ll never use the Lucid Body Technique again.”

But the vow sounded hollow even in his own ears. The words seemed brittle. Because Wyl knew that even if he escaped from his apprenticeship to Fai Simsin by achieving knighthood – a feat which was by no means guaranteed – the temptation to use the Technique would still be with him for the rest of his life. The Technique was what he’d been taught: he literally did not know any other way to use the Force for any meaningful purpose.

Wyl tried to regain the sense of accomplishment and optimism that he’d felt in the Wanderer’s cockpit, but it was gone. Doubt and self-loathing had returned. And once again he could think of a thousand things to fear.

Frustrated, he strode over to the large desk situated by the far wall of the bedroom, and sat down. What if I never find another way in? he thought, his stomach clenching. What if the Technique is the only way I can ever wield the Force like the others do? I can’t give up the Force entirely. His fears begat other fears, and soon he was questioning everything which just ten minutes previously had seemed so certain. What if Fai takes back her promise? What if she won’t release me even after I prove myself worthy of knighthood? The next thought was even more worrying: “What if I can’t prove myself worthy of knighthood?” he whispered to himself, wringing his hands.

Finding Aleema’s Heart was the specific challenge Fai had given him, but the Order’s traditions were clear: to be named a Dark Jedi Knight, adepts of the Imperial Order were required to construct a lightsaber of their own. To build a personal weapon required great skill and facility with the Force: it was a fitting culmination of the lowest stages of development for a user of the Dark Side. Proving oneself worthy of knighthood meant making a lightsaber, plain and simple.

And Wyl had yet to start the project.

Well, that wasn’t quite fair. Wyl had known he would have to build a lightsaber from the beginning of his journey, so he had been gathering parts, at least. Between the pit stop at the trading depot on Humbarine, the treasure trove of crystals he had “liberated” from the KuCrys vault, and the components that made up Fai’s old lightsaber, Wyl had everything he needed to build a blade of his own.

Everything, that is, except the self-confidence to sit down and actually do it.

He sighed heavily, and pushed himself up to standing again. He began to pace the small room, hands clasped behind his back. Contradictory impulses flashed in his mind: he wanted to sleep; he wanted to start the construction process; he wanted to go kiss Zaq Hawkes; he wanted time to slow down and forget him, leaving him alone forever.

Abruptly, Wyl realized that his thoughts were becoming more and more disjointed. “I’m getting as bad as Simsin,” he muttered aloud, but he found he couldn’t even chuckle at his own little joke. Because once again, his words seemed to ring with a truth he hadn’t even known when he decided to speak them. A sobering truth.

From their first meeting, it seemed to Wyl that Fai Simsin was a bit… unstable. But for months, Wyl had watched as his Mistress slowly became more and more mentally unbalanced. On the day she had sent him out on his journey, her characteristic mood swings had come so quickly and frequently that she had seemed almost schizophrenic. It was as if she had been gradually losing her sense of self…

Wyl stopped, frozen in mid-stride, as realization struck. Fai’s descent into madness, the feeling of identity-loss that accompanied every use of the Technique, his own insomnia and growing difficulties with concentration: these phenomena were all connected. It wasn’t a coincidence that he was becoming more and more like Fai; it was the inevitable consequence of continually using her so-called Lucid Body Technique to access the Force.

Wyl frowned, thinking back over the preceding months again. Fai had gone from a master of illusions and manipulation to an incoherent wreck, barely able to carry on a conversation. And, as he replayed the scenes in his head, he also realized that as her confusion waxed full over that time span, so too did her fear. Something was scaring Fai Simsin, and Wyl’s gut told him it was important for him to understand what that something was.

He let himself move again, and once again he walked over to the desk and sat down. Absently, he picked up the Aleema’s Heart crystal which lay on the desktop, and began to pass it from hand to hand. The stone slapped into his palm with a dull thunk, every exchange, the rhythm helping to settle his thoughts.

“Okay,” he said to himself. “What are you afraid of, Fai?” Thunk, thunk, thunk, the crystal went, cool in his hands.

Was Simsin aware of her decline? It seemed likely. Her self-consciousness right before he’d left Lopen had been unmistakable.

But Wyl couldn’t help but think that if she knew that she was losing her grip on reality, Simsin would likely feel a range of emotions, instead of just fear. But when he remembered their various interactions, the overwhelming emotion he had empathically sensed coming from her was just that she was scared. Thunk, thunk, thunk. Not frustrated, or angry, or regretful. Just scared.

And the more he thought about it, the more Wyl began to realize that Simsin’s fear had been divided into two distinct types: there was an existential terror, not unlike the feeling he himself felt whenever he achieved “neutrality” when performing the Technique, and then there was a lower sort of fear, simultaneously more immediate and yet more vague, like the fear given off by someone who is hiding and does not wish to be seen. And over the months with Fai, the first type of fear had become more intense, while the second type had become more frequent. Thunk, thunk, thunk.

But Simsin wasn’t hiding. She wasn’t afraid that Wyl would see her. It didn’t make any sense… unless it wasn’t Simsin who was giving off that fear of discovery. Unless some other consciousness had taken up residence in Fai’s mind and body, slowly taking over as her repeated use of the Technique left her less and less able to fight back. Maybe it was that second consciousness that exuded the fear of being found out.

The crystal in Wyl’s hands had been warming up, little by little, from the friction of being passed back and forth, but suddenly it became too hot to touch. It burned Wyl’s hands, and he drew in a sharp breath and dropped it to the floor. “Ow!” he yelled, looking with disbelief at the faceted marks burned neatly into his palms and fingers.

The benign-looking cut-and-polished crystal sat unmoving on the cabin’s metal floor. Every point and edge of the stone looked razor sharp, and the dim light of the room seemed to gather in its center, shining more brightly than logic insisted it could, given the conditions. “Aleema’s Heart,” Wyl murmured, and he gasped as the crystal seemed to shine even brighter as he spoke its name. “Aleema Keto,” he said, and the stone luminesced still brighter.

Wyl backed his chair away from the desk and stood up, his eyes never leaving the crystal. A chill ran down his spine, as the thing seemed to stare back.

Wyl decided to voice his suspicion aloud, just to test how insane it all sounded. “Fai Simsin is fighting for her life,” he said quietly, “against the ghost of Aleema Keto, Sith sorceress and founder of the Krath, who’s been dead for four millennia.” He paused, still staring at the Tetan III crystal lying on the deck. “Yeah, that sounds about as crazy as I thought it would,” he said. “Problem is, I think it’s also true.”

For many minutes, Wyl stood there staring, thinking about his revelation and debating his options.

A part of him wanted to forget everything that had happened since he got to his quarters. He could return to Lopen, give Fai/Aleema the crystal as planned, and then leave forever with Zaq at his side, a free man. Why meddle with supernatural forces beyond his comprehension?

But another part of him argued that returning Aleema’s Heart to Lopen was itself a kind of meddling. After all, if his suspicions were correct, and Aleema Keto’s consciousness was really trying to take over a living Dark Jedi Master’s body, did Wyl really want to take sides in that fight? And giving Aleema what she needed – for there could be no doubt that Aleema, and not Fai, had been behind Wyl’s mission – was definitely taking her side. Did he want to support one of the most notorious darksiders in history, and help her pull off a plan he didn’t even understand, but which involved cheating death itself?

“Well, fuck,” Wyl said to the empty room, still eyeing Aleema’s Heart warily.

With a determined look on his face, Wyl unclipped Fai’s lightsaber from his belt, squared his shoulders, and walked out from behind the desk toward the crystal. “Let’s finish this,” he said.
Trykon
ComNet Disciple
 
Trykon
 
[VE-DJO] Dark Jedi Templar
[VE-NAVY] Vice Commodore
 
Post Number:  2941
Total Posts:  3754
Joined:  Feb 2011
Status:  Offline
  RE: Mate: A Dark Jedi Knight's Journey
May 20, 2013 4:51:46 PM    View the profile of Trykon 
Chapter 10




Location:
    Wayfarer-class Medium Transport Wanderer
    somewhere in the Unknown Regions of the Galaxy
Time:
    9 years, 10 months, 12 days after Palpatine’s death


Putting together the lightsaber had taken just slightly longer than one full standard day.

By the time the process was complete, Wyl was exhausted. He sprawled out on the floor of his quarters, the finished weapon in his hand, and just… let himself breathe. He closed his eyes. The muffled chugging sound of the Wanderer’s engines – little more than a faint vibration in the deck plating, really – was soothing beneath his skull.

He could feel a hard lump under his right calf, and he realized it was the small hydrospanner he’d used to open up Fai’s old lightsaber and remove the various bits. Those inner workings were scattered all around him, he knew: the Clone Wars-era power cell which had powered the weapon, several strands of wiring, and the three emerald-tinged gems which had given the original blade its bright green coloration.

Idly, Wyl wondered what color the new blade would be.

He thought about the three crystals he’d chosen to put in his refurbished saber, and tried to imagine what part of the visible spectrum would show when energy was sent through them and focused into a beam. The diamond probably wouldn’t affect the color at all, he reasoned, and the durindfire gem would make for a silvery, metallic hue, he had read somewhere. But the third crystal was a real mystery: it was a pure, clear Adegan gemstone, cut into a unique shape of 58 facets. What color blade would the one-of-a-kind Tetan III produce?

A troubling thought came next: choosing to put Aleema’s Heart in his lightsaber meant that more than just the blade’s color would be unpredictable. If the crystal was self-aware, as Wyl feared it was, then could it… refuse to channel the energy from the power cell? Could it sabotage the simple circuit of the lightsaber, and thereby prevent the weapon from working?

“Only one way to find out,” Wyl muttered. He opened his eyes, sat up, and pushed himself to standing. How many days had it been since last he slept? He tried not to think about it, and focused on the task at hand: testing his new lightsaber.

The hilt was cool and balanced in his hands – more balanced than it had ever felt before. He wondered at that for a moment. The parts he’d swapped out were almost identical to the originals, in terms of size and weight, and the hilt itself was unchanged, save for some polishing to remove the patina of age. Why, then, did the lightsaber feel so different? So much better?

Wyl remembered a passage from one of the books in the Citadel’s library: “A Jedi, carefully manipulating the Force, binds the components together – linking them on something more than a mechanical or material level, so that they work with unimagined efficiency. He bathes the lightsaber with the Force, and as he does, subtle transformations take place in the weapon. Elemental bonds shift, allowing more and more energy to flow throughout the weapon. The changes are as much the will of the Force as the will of the weapon-maker, and at the same time as they are being made in the lightsaber, they are being made in the maker too. A lightsaber, then, is attuned to its maker, and the Jedi in turn is attuned to his weapon.” For the first time, Wyl knew those words to be true. He had done what the book instructed, and he could feel the results.

But still, he hesitated before thumbing the activation button. Beyond his fear of Aleema Keto and whatever sliver of her consciousness she had managed to entrap within her crystal Heart before her death, Wyl knew there was plenty of danger in the simple act of igniting a new lightsaber. Again, the library text came to mind: “If the Jedi skips this careful seasoning and conditioning of the lightsaber through the Force, the blade will be flawed and will fail him. And if he does it wrong, the weapon may well blow up on its first activation.” The possibility of sentient crystals aside, the historical warnings were clear: the slightest misalignment of any of the components could have disastrous consequences. And with the energies involved, failure was likely to result in a deadly explosion.

Wyl ground his teeth in indecision for one last moment, and then sighed. “Here goes,” he said, and he pressed the button.

The familiar snap-hiss sound of a lightsaber igniting filled the small room, and a slender beam of silvery green energy arced into being from the hilt in Wyl’s hands. It was beautiful: a never-steady range of colors from viridian to platinum to jade to emerald, burning and melting and fusing together, rippling up and down the length of the blade. The saber hummed loudly, as if it was… excited. It sounded eager.

Wyl tried a few exploratory cuts through the air. The thing sang as it sliced. It was effortless. Even the gyroscopic effect endemic of all such weapons seemed somehow to be more manageable.

He held up his off hand until it was mere centimeters from the silvery green edge of the blade, but he could feel no heat. The arc-wave was working; none of the immense power was radiating beyond the strictly-defined area that made up the blade itself. He nodded approvingly, and realized there was just one more thing to test.

He took a breath, and then spun around and brought the lightsaber down and through the metal desk. It cut through easily, without any noticeable resistance, and the two halves collapsed onto the deck with a terrific crash. Wyl waited for the racket to subside, until it left only the cheerful, fervent humming of the saber.

Smiling, Wyl thumbed the activation button again, and the glorious blade retracted with a spitting, hissing noise that sounded like some beast struggling against being caged. And then there was silence.

Wyl stood in the middle of the small room for a minute, filled with an unfamiliar feeling: joy.

He felt Zaq coming before he heard the knock at the door. “Come in,” the Dark Jedi Knight called out to his apprentice.

Zaq opened the door, and reacted almost immediately to the state of the room: “Rise and shine, old… what the hell happened in here?!”

Wyl could only imagine what the scene looked like from Zaq’s perspective. But for some reason it only made him smile more. “I built a new lightsaber,” Wyl explained, as dead-pan as he could.

He could see Zaq trying to process that information. “Okay… well, I just wanted to tell you–”

“That we’re about to come out of hyperspace on our last leg,” Wyl interrupted, nodding appreciatively. “Thank you. But I already know… this journey is complete.”

Zaq looked at him funnily, the young man’s confusion evident. But he couldn’t disagree with what Wyl had said.

The journey was over. They had reached Lopen, and their destinies awaited them on the surface.
Trykon
ComNet Disciple
 
Trykon
 
[VE-DJO] Dark Jedi Templar
[VE-NAVY] Vice Commodore
 
Post Number:  2943
Total Posts:  3754
Joined:  Feb 2011
Status:  Offline
  RE: Mate: A Dark Jedi Knight's Journey
May 20, 2013 5:04:56 PM    View the profile of Trykon 
Chapter 11





Location:
    The Citadel, headquarters of the Imperial Jedi Order
    The planet Lopen
    somewhere in the Unknown Regions of the Galaxy
Time:
    9 years, 10 months, 12 days after Palpatine’s death


Aleema Keeto gripped the little balcony’s intricate stone balustrade, and looked out on the desert plain that stretched out in all directions, far below.  She stood, alive – fully in control of the body she had occupied – and it was glorious.

The impossibly smooth texture of the black stone beneath the fingers she had commandeered… the too-bright rays of sunlight beating down on her stolen skin and baking the barren landscape below… her hijacked nose noting the subtle whiffs of a coming storm, borne by the delicate whisper of a breeze… for one who had been dead so long, every sensory experience – however small – was a delight.

The joy that came with using the five physical senses was all the more appreciated, too, since Aleema knew she might lose control over the body which housed those senses at any moment.  Fai Simsin’s consciousness still lingered, stubbornly fighting an increasingly-hopeless guerilla resistance against Aleema’s invasive presence.  But as time went on, Simsin won fewer and fewer victories in the somatic war, and Aleema was able to claim more and more moments of precious, unchallenged control.

“Moments like this one,” she said aloud, making a point to test her new body’s vocal chords.  Simsin’s natural voice was higher in pitch than the low, seductive timbre Aleema remembered – or thought she remembered – from her first lifetime.  But despite the unfamiliar sound of the voice that had been Simsin’s, Aleema found herself laughing with glee to hear it say words of her choosing.  “This is my voice, now!” she yelled.  “I can speak.”  Her laughter continued, building on itself.  “No mind tricks from beyond the pale, and no illusions.  I can simply open my mouth, and speak!”

A sonic boom sounded, far off, and Aleema turned toward the air-splitting roar and smiled.  A Wayfarer-class transport was descending from orbit, making its way toward the Citadel.  “Welcome home,” the four thousand year old body-snatcher whispered, “my inherited apprentice.”

***


Zaq Hawkes couldn’t believe what he’d just heard.  “What the hell do you mean, ‘stay here?!’” he asked incredulously.  He circled around Wyl, blocking the older man’s way down the Wanderer’s boarding ramp, and crossed his arms over his chest.  He stared into Wyl’s grey-green eyes, and made sure to temper his challenging posture with a little flirtatious flexing of his shoulder muscles.  “You said you’d start training me for real, once we got to our mystery destination,” he said, his tone half playful and half accusatory.  He pointed one finger down the ramp, where intense sunlight was reflected on desert sands.  “Well, it seems to me we’ve arrived, so you’ve got some explaining to do.”

Wyl’s lips quirked into a little smile.  “Actually, I think my exact words were, ‘Your training will begin in earnest when we reach the end of our journey,’” the older man said, over-enunciating the very specific sentence.

Zaq didn’t bother to hide his confusion.  “That’s what I said.”

“No it’s not.  Not exactly,” Wyl muttered.  Zaq made a face at him, and Wyl held up his hands in a gesture of surrender.  “Okay, okay,” he said.  “You want an explanation?  Here it is…”  He took a deep breath, and Zaq unconsciously leaned forward, eager to hear.  “I misled you.  I want to train you myself, and there’s a good chance I’ll be able to, at some point.  But not yet.”

Zaq felt like he’d been punched in the gut.  “Not yet,” he echoed weakly.

Wyl nodded sadly.  “All new arrivals on Lopen – that’s where you are, by the way: the planet Lopen, on the far edge of the Galaxy – they all must be turned over to the Headmaster of our Order for an initial evaluation.  If you pass his test, your training will begin.”  He shrugged.

“If I pass…” the young man repeated warily.  “And what if I fail?”

Trykon avoided Zaq’s eyes, and took a breath before he answered.  “Don’t fail.”  He made eye contact briefly, flashed Zaq a wan smile, and tried to walk by.

Zaq quickly moved in front of him, again blocking his path to the planet surface.  But this time there was nothing playful about his body language or expression.  “You said we were going to learn to live our lives without regret, Wyl,” Zaq said.  “The two of us, together.  You said we were equals.  That we were going to teach each other!”  As his emotions surged, he grabbed Wyl’s collar and shook him.

For a smaller, older man, Trykon moved with impossible speed and surprising strength.  He beat away Zaq’s arms with his own, and then punched him square in the jaw.  Stars exploded, and suddenly the cross-hatched metal floor rushed up to meet Zaq’s face.

The sudden violence was shocking.  Zaq took a moment to take stock of the situation, still lying prone.  The left side of his face ached, and something warm and wet was trickling down his neck, though he wasn’t sure if it was blood or tears.  Wyl hit me, he thought in disbelief.  Mute, he struggled back to standing, but all his defiance was gone.  He leaned heavily on a support strut to one side of the ramp, leaving a clear path for Trykon to pass.

“There now,” the older man said softly, “you see?  We’ve started teaching each other.  That was your first lesson.  It was… educational for me too.”  He paced away and out into the blinding sunlight, before turning back.  “I’m sorry,” he said, before falling silent again.  He seemed to wrestle with himself for a moment, looking miserable, as if he wanted to say something more.  Eventually he frowned, and said only: “If you survive the first stages of training, you’ll understand.  I have to go.”

And with that, he left.

***


Wyl forced himself to walk with a determined grace, as he crossed the distance between the Wanderer and the Citadel’s main entrance.  If anyone was watching him – Zaq from behind or any member of the Order from above – he had to look powerful and resolved.  But when he crossed the threshold and found himself alone in the cool, dark foyer, he slumped, choking back sobs, and had to reach out with one hand to steady himself against the wall.  “I’m sorry,” he whimpered, thinking of the look of betrayal on Zaq’s face moments before.  “I’m so sorry.”

Wyl let himself just breathe for a minute, meditating on everything that he had done, and on everything that he still had to do.

His thoughts began with the handsome, talented young man back on the Wanderer.  There was no question that the Force was strong with Zaq: on Kuat the youth had been brimming with potential, and in just the few days since their departure, he had already made great progress using telekinesis and increasing his physical stamina and speed.  And anyone who was that powerful was bound to be drawn into the shadow war being fought between the various Force-using factions, sooner or later.  I had no choice, Wyl said to himself, not for the first time, trying the argument out again.  If I didn’t recruit him, he might have fallen in with the New Republic, or worse, he could’ve come to the attention of the Reborn.

The problem with that argument – other than the use of the euphemism “recruit” instead of terms like “seduce,” or “corrupt,” or “lie to” – was that Wyl was under no obligation to bring the kid to Lopen personally.  In fact, it would have been much quicker to complete his assignment and then simply report Zaq’s location to the Headmaster upon his return to Lopen.

So, why didn’t you just do that? the voice in his head asked.  He would have ended up here anyway, if you’d just told Raziel of his existence.  Why befriend him?  Why involve him in your mission?  Why bring him here?

Wyl leaned his forehead against the cold black stone of the ancient building and closed his eyes.  “I was lonely,” he murmured aloud, shaking his head slowly.  “Is that such a crime?”

No, the response came back from some dark recess in his mind, it wasn’t a crime to be lonely, and it makes sense that you’d find that particular boy attractive, in that particular environment.  But those aren’t the reasons you feel guilty.  You feel guilty because you manipulated that boy.  You misled him.  You lied to him about who and what you were.  You upended every belief he ever had and forced him to confront ugly, uncomfortable truths about his life and about the way the Galaxy works.  You took him away from everything and everyone he’s ever known, only to subject him to the torture that is this horrible place.  With that thought, Wyl’s eyes shot open, and he pushed himself away from the wall hastily.  Suddenly, he was acutely aware of his surroundings.  He was back at the source of all his trauma, back in danger.  And you did all of that to Zaq just so you could have him a few times, the voice of self-judgment finished with unconcealed distaste.

“No,” Wyl said, shaking his head again, more insistently.  “I want to be with him for more than a couple of days on a run-down freighter.  And I do want to teach him.  We will be together, as equals, just like I said.  He’ll survive the training, I know he will.  And me… I will be knighted.”  He swallowed, and nodded to himself, before repeating his vow.  “I will be knighted, and he will survive, and I will take him as my apprentice.  We’re going to be together.”

Wyl exhaled, and squared his shoulders.  His future – and Zaq’s – depended on him achieving knighthood.  And knighthood was only possible if he defeated Aleema Keto’s plans and freed himself from Fai Simsin, once and for all.

He looked around the foyer one last time, and then began to probe deeper into the Citadel with the Force.  The building was relatively quiet, with most of the Order’s members clustered in the training halls and library, far from the habitation areas.  It was easy to find a clear route to Simsin’s quarters, and once he’d determined the most direct path, he set out to meet his destiny.

***


Aleema watched very carefully as Wyl Trykon came in.  He was almost unrecognizable.  Tight-fitting civilian clothes hugged lean muscles that propelled his body forward with a purpose that had been wholly missing in the gait of the pathetic white-robed creature she had sent out into the stars.  Trykon’s emotions raged within him, giving off an aura of discontent that was unmistakable… but his feelings were competently masked.  She frowned when she realized she couldn’t read his thoughts at all.

Trykon came to a stop in the center of the room, crossed his arms, and stared at her.  For long moments, neither of them moved, nor spoke.

Aleema grew more nervous with every passing second.  The old Trykon, she knew how to control.  This new Trykon seemed… dangerous.  “Welcome back, my apprentice,” she said finally, modulating her new voice to sound warm and friendly.  “I take it your return means you found Aleema’s Heart?”  She smiled.

He didn’t smile back.  “I found it,” he said.

Aleema felt her pulse quicken.  “And you brought it back?  Where is it?”

Trykon squinted.  “Why do you want the crystal so badly?”

Asked the question directly, Aleema’s thoughts turned to her goal, automatically: Because four thousand years ago, knowing that Exar Kun wanted me dead, I decided to carve my soul into pieces and hide those shards of myself in a crystal and a holocron, so that I could survive even after the destruction of my body, and when the two are reunited, the spell will be broken and the pieces will be released, and I will be made whole again, granting me all the powers I enjoyed in life, and making my conquest of this new body permanent.  She knew she couldn’t tell Trykon all that, though, so she quickly began thinking of other reasons someone might want the Aleema’s Heart crystal.  Someone like Fai Simsin.  “I told you,” she said with exaggerated patience, “I don’t really care overmuch about the crystal itself.  It just seemed like a good test of your abilities, to have you track it down and bring it back here.”

Wyl looked even more hostile than before.  “Uh huh.  Well, I found it.  And I’ve brought it here.  Have I passed your test?”

Aleema felt a stab of panic.  Could he read her thoughts?  “You’ve done well, my apprentice,” she said slowly.  “Just give me the crystal, and our transaction will be done.  You can go, free, a Knight of the Imperial Jedi Order.  Just leave Aleema’s Heart with me.”

Wyl’s lips were drawn in a tight frown.  He unclipped the lightsaber from his belt, and turned it over in his hands a few times, before looking back up at Aleema.

She recognized Fai’s old weapon.  “It’s okay, Wyl,” she said, her voice high-pitched.  “You can keep the saber.  I don’t need it, and I’m ready to name you a Knight right now, if you’ll just give me the crystal.  You don’t need to make a lightsaber of your own!”

Wyl scoffed at her, and thumbed the activation button.  To Aleema’s surprise, the blade that arced into being was a pale, silvery green color – almost like Trykon’s eyes – rather than the bright green of Simsin’s original lightsaber.

“Even better,” she said, trying to cover her surprise with praise.  “You’ve already made one!  Well done indeed.  Now, if you’ll just give me the crystal, you can go put on a brown robe.”  She smiled at him, one last time.

But the smile curdled when he shook his head, his expression deadly.  “I used the crystal in this,” he said, his eyes travelling the length of the silver-green blade, “and you’ll have to kill me to get your hands on it, Aleema Keto,” he said defiantly.

Aleema felt an unexpected calm come over her, as she heard his words and their meaning sank in.  It was actually a relief, she realized, being able to drop the pretense.  She giggled, and then laughed louder when she noticed Trykon flinch at the sound.  She took out Simsin’s lightsaber, and turned it on.  “As you wish,” she said.

***


Zaq stood frozen in place for a long time after Wyl left, just breathing slowly with one hand hovering a centimeter away from the inflamed skin and muscles of his jaw while a million thoughts raced through his head.

The most commonly repeated of those thoughts was simply: What do I do now?

Zaq considered just marching back up to the Wanderer’s cockpit and taking off.  I could steal this crappy ship of yours, he thought, pretending to talk directly to Wyl, and leave you on this godforsaken brown rock with the other maniacs of your “Order.”  How would you like that?

But even as the idea occurred to him, he knew it was a hopeless fantasy: Wyl had programmed access codes into the Wanderer’s main control panels which Zaq didn’t know, and the astrogation computer was heavily encrypted to prevent travel to or from this secret planet.  Lopen, he remembered Wyl calling it.

And besides the impracticality of the steal-the-ship-and-run plan, Zaq was having difficulty staying angry at Wyl, for some reason.  It was a strange sensation, being punched without cause and then finding himself unable to get mad about it.  “Is this some mind trick?” he asked out loud, turning instinctively toward the bottom of the ramp: the last place he’d seen Wyl before the older man had disappeared to complete some mysterious, apparently urgent business.

Suddenly, it all clicked.  “You wanted me to get mad at you,” Zaq said, nodding to himself as he thought through the events of the preceding few days in his head.  He’d seen how much Wyl cared about him; he’d felt their connection in the Force.  “You wanted me to sulk, so I wouldn’t follow you!”

Zaq barely noticed the twinge of pain in his jaw as he smiled.  He ran back to Wyl’s quarters and grabbed the small holdout blaster from their confrontation in the Kuat City sewer.  But this time, he very deliberately loaded a power pack into the weapon, and made sure to flick the safety off.  Thus armed, he strode down the boarding ramp and into the dazzling sunlight.

A huge, spired structure of black stone rose up from the desert a few paces away from where Wyl had set the Wanderer down.  It was an imposing sight, to say the least.  Zaq swallowed, and checked the blaster one last time.

“I don’t know exactly what you’re up to, Wyl Trykon,” he muttered, as he began to stretch out with his feelings in search of his lover’s now-familiar mental signature in the Force, “but you’re not going to get rid of me that easily.”

***


Dueling Aleema was proving much easier than Wyl had expected it would be.  As he attacked her, again and again, driving her across the room with relentless blows from his silver-green lightsaber, he found himself so dominant that he actually had time to think, instead of merely reacting to her moves, as he might once have done.  I really have grown in these past few months, he thought proudly.  Maybe I really am worthy of the title Dark Jedi Knight, even without the Lucid Body Technique.

But just as he had the thought, Aleema executed a counter that broke through his defenses and burned through the sleeve of his jacket, just barely missing the flesh of his arm.  Okay, he thought, returning his focus to his opponent’s glowing red blade, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself a little.

They continued the cycle of attack and riposte for many minutes, but even though Aleema was able to occasionally get in a near miss, Wyl was unquestionably the better duelist.  Aleema had lived four thousand years before, had never been known for her prowess with a lightsaber, and was using a body that was both old and unfamiliar to her.  It was only a matter of time before he managed to draw first blood.

And then it happened.  After a furious exchange that left Aleema visibly tired, Wyl slapped her red blade aside and flicked the tip of his own across her face, slicing an ugly, instantly-cauterized gash from just in front of Fai’s left ear to the base of her nose.  Aleema screamed and stumbled backwards, and Wyl’s heart skipped a beat as he realized that unless something changed, he was about to win…

…and that’s when Zaq ran into the room.

***


One thing Aleema Keto had not missed during the millennia she had spent in the void between death and life was the sensation of pain.  When Trykon’s lightsaber – built using her own Heart crystal! – burned its way across her new body’s face, Aleema screeched in agony, and cowered.  Dimly, she realized that the somatic response to that pain had left her massively vulnerable to a follow-up strike.  Some corner of her mind realized that unless something changed, she was about to die…

…which was when the door to Simsin’s rooms swung open, and a young Human boy ran in, his consternation almost palpable in the Force.

Aleema acted immediately.  She had never really fought with a lightsaber before, but she had always had a facility for exploiting mental weaknesses.  Trykon was closed to her; his disciplined mind had erected barriers she could not penetrate before he was on top of her with his damned lightsaber.  But this new boy was positively seething with emotions, all completely unguarded.

She slipped into his mind, worming her way into his subconscious, and fed dark side energies in directly.  She deftly manipulated his prejudices and fears, weaving a quick and dirty illusion to turn his arrival to her own advantage.

“Zaq, what are you doing here?” Trykon asked, but it was too late.  Aleema’s work was done, and the illusion was complete: to this boy – whose name was Zaq, apparently – Trykon would look like Fai Simsin, and Aleema herself would look like Trykon.

The effect was immediate.  The boy Zaq raised a small blaster and started shooting at Wyl, who had to turn away from Aleema to deflect the incoming bolts of energy.  That gave her enough time to clamber back to her feet.  “You’re just in time, Zaq!” she called, trusting her spell to transform her voice into Wyl’s.  “Help me finish her!”

“What?” Wyl exclaimed, desperately trying to avoid the steady hail of fire his friend – or was the boy his lover? – was sending his way.  “Zaq, no, don’t listen to her.  It’s a trick!”

But the boy couldn’t hear him, and kept shooting.

“Come on, Zaq,” Aleema urged, “we’ll take her together!  Rush her!”  And, obediently, the young man began to advance on Trykon, firing all the way.  Aleema watched happily as Trykon had to work extra hard to overcome his instinct, which was to deflect the blaster bolts back at the person firing them.  He didn’t want to hurt the boy, and that would be his undoing.  “Just like old times,” Aleema whispered to herself with a smile.

And then, more to sell the illusion than anything else, she joined in the assault.  She swung her lightsaber at Wyl, again and again.  And this time, he was so distracted by Zaq’s attacks that he couldn’t do much more than fall back.

Over long, tense moments, Zaq closed the distance until he was right in front of Trykon, and then suddenly his blaster ran out of ammunition.  The boy threw the pistol aside and charged, grappling with Wyl for control of the lightsaber.  It was one of the bravest, most selfless, most idiotic acts Aleema Keto had ever seen.

She started laughing, triumphant: “Ha!  Haha—”

But then, to her horror, Fai Simsin’s consciousness unexpectedly wrested control of her body’s lungs and mouth again, and the laughter stopped abruptly.

“I’m still here!” Simsin declared defiantly, forcing Aleema to listen.  “You aren’t strong enough to destroy me!” Simsin howled, as if purposefully trying to sabotage her vocal chords before she once again lost possession of them.  “Not as long as your holocron stays locked!”

Aleema felt the sensation of shock viscerally, but she could not gasp aloud while the other retained control of the physiological organs involved in gasping.

“That’s right, you fucking parasite,” Simsin yelled, relentless, “I know your weaknesses, now!  I know your thoughts, Aleema Keto.  I may not have the strength to kick you out of my body, but unless you can regain the pieces of your soul that you locked in the holocron and its crystal key, you will never have the power to fully destroy me, either.  I will hold out in here, indefinitely, so you can never let down your guard.  And I would rather kill us both than let you live my life in my body!”

And, so saying, Fai launched one last offensive against the occupying force that was Aleema’s consciousness.  In the struggle, Aleema lost control of her arms, and the lightsaber fell from her hand.  Worse, she had to drop the illusion she had been maintaining for Zaq, so that she could focus all of her attention on this new internal threat.

Which, of course, changed everything yet again.

***


Zaq was just steps away from the ugly witch when the blaster’s power pack ran out of juice.  But he could see she was about to strike Wyl down with her blood-red blade, and he knew he couldn’t let that happen.  You tried to protect me, Wyl, Zaq thought, and now I’m going to save you!  He threw himself at the dark woman, trying desperately to wrestle the lightsaber out of her hand.

Even as he fought, Zaq heard Wyl start yelling behind him.  He couldn’t make out the words, and he couldn’t afford to look back to see what was going on.  He was locked in a death struggle with Simsin, grunting and growling with her, eye to eye.

But then, without warning, Simsin’s sinister features melted away, morphing into Wyl’s familiar face.  Wyl’s grey-green eyes stared back at Zaq, so scared and sad.  “Zaq, stop!” he pleaded, his voice hoarse.

Startled, Zaq complied.  But he stopped fighting so abruptly that Wyl couldn’t relax his own muscles in time.  With all opposing resistance suddenly gone, Wyl’s muscles easily completed the assignments his brain had sent down through his nervous system, and his lightsaber sliced into Zaq where his neck met his torso.

Zaq could see Wyl’s eyes go wide as he realized what was happening, far too late to stop it.  Then there was a brief moment of searing, white-hot pain, and Zaq’s world went dark forever.

***


“No, Zaq!  No!” Wyl screamed, as his lightsaber burrowed into the young man’s neck.  He turned it off as quickly as he could, but the damage had already been done.  Zaq slumped in his arms, dead.

The wound was hideously familiar; it was the same part of the body into which he had deflected Garek’s blade, in the teenager he’d murdered months previously, outside his bedroom.  Only this time, with a fully-powered weapon instead of a training saber, the damage was much more extensive: Zaq died almost instantly, his torso nearly split in two.  The sight of it – and the smell – pushed Wyl Trykon beyond the limits of his control.

Rage exploded within him, and without conscious choice, he gave into it.  It was so much easier to let the Dark Side of the Force subsume him, and have his thoughts turn away from the guilt and the grief, toward retribution.  Zaq’s body dropped to the floor, forgotten, as Wyl spun around and looked at the twitching body still being fought over by Fai Simsin and Aleema Keto.  He bellowed an incomprehensible cry of anguish, and lunged at the object of his hatred with impossible speed, his lightsaber crashing back to life even as he charged.

He cut the old woman’s body in half, slicing from head to groin with one fluid movement.  The halves collapsed on top of each other with a dull, wet sound that Wyl could hardly hear, over the thrumming of his lightsaber.

He fell to his knees in front of the charred slabs of meat, so close that he was kneeling on Simsin’s black robe, rather than the floor itself.  He thumbed his blade off.  And, overwhelmed by all that had happened, he screamed.

He must have screamed for a long time in that room.  He had no awareness of the passage of time during the experience, but the next thing he knew, the room was dark and someone was speaking in a low voice, somewhere behind Wyl.  He tried to respond to the quiet question, but his voice was shot: a raw, strangled wheeze was the only sound that would come out.

With a great effort, he turned around, still slumped on the floor between his two – or was it properly three? – victims.  The Headmaster stood at the door, his brow furrowed.

Again, Raziel asked: “What happened here?”

Wyl sent his reply telepathically, unable to make his burning throat speak: The spirit of Aleema Keto – yes, the same Aleema Keto who founded the Krath – possessed my Mistress, Master Fai Simsin, he said silently, indicating the pieces of corpse just behind him with a jerky nod.  I was off-world when I realized the truth, but I came back to confront her.  I had to stop her plans.

Raziel seemed to consider those words for a moment.  “And the other body?” he asked shrewdly.

Wyl grimaced.  His name is – was – Zaq Hawkes.  He was Force-sensitive.  I brought him here to be trained.  He… he intervened.

The Headmaster nodded, his features strangely devoid of visible emotion.  “Seems you’ve gone on quite the journey,” he observed.  “You should clean yourself up, and change your clothes.  I’ve had a brown robe sent out to your ship,” he said more gently, “though you only really need to wear it when you’re here.”

The implication was obvious: Wyl had been promoted to Knight, and had earned freedom of movement.  Somehow, it didn’t seem to matter, with Zaq lying dead just a few feet away.

The Headmaster withdrew, offering nothing more.

And Wyl Trykon, Dark Jedi Knight, was alone again.
CNW/VCOM Wyl "Trick" Trykon/ISD Adjudicator/TF:A/2Flt/FC/VEN/VE

[SoA][SoV][BWC][NSM][E][NAR][HNS][DSM][SWC][1NS][VC:B][LoM][VC:S][NC][GWC][VC:G][CoB][CC:4][2NS][LSM][VC:E][MSM][CNQST][IGC]
(=*AE*=)(=*SAE*=)(=*TG*=)(=*SCFE*=)(=*FOCE*=)

CM/DJT Trykon/DJO/VEDJ
ComNet > Dark Jedi Order > Archived ShadowNet > Mate: A Dark Jedi Knight's Journey  |  New Posts    
 

All times are CST. The time now is 1:07:41 PM
Comnet Jump:

Current Online Members - 0  |  Guests - 302  |  Bots - 2
 
< Contact Us - The Vast Empire >
 
Powered by ComNet Version 7.2
Copyright © 1998-2017 The Imperial Network
 
This page was generated in 0.152 seconds.